Searching for butterflies

‘How can I help you?’

Midnight at Changi Airport and a disembodied face comes to us through the screen. We had pushed ‘i’ and Ritvhik materialised. I guess he can see us too.

‘We’re looking for the butterfly enclosure.’

‘Walk to your left through to Transfer B and you will see signs. But,’ he adds, ‘the butterflies are sleeping.’

We have nearly three hours to kill in Singapore and our mission, guided in its last phase by Ritvhik, continues. My son Hugo and I have been walking for what must be kilometres eschewing the travellators to get the blood flowing again. We pull our carry-ons along sleek tiles to Terminal 3 where he has Googled the location of the butterflies. 

We must be close now, I keep thinking, as we stride through yet another grand sweep of polished tiles, rows of seats and gleaming shopfronts displaying pyramids of duty free whiskey and macadamias. Counters lined with perfume and anti-aging cellular renewal wink at us. We’ve been this way before, haven’t we? I feel frissons of anxiety when we realise we need to take the SkyTrain, taking us further from Gate G27, our portal home, but we push on. 

Why do we travel? The search for an ephemeral experience, it is transitory–contrived–by definition. We are on the hunt for something beautiful. We had just spent a week in Thailand, on the island of Phuket, my south-east Asian roots calling. Our Covid chrysalis saw us emerge blinking, now two out of three children at university with competing schedules and priorities. This might be the last time our family would holiday together and after being cooped up for three years, I craved different vistas, different languages and cultures. Australia’s whiteness, the uniformity of accent from Hobart to Sydney to Cairns to Adelaide and Perth left me wanting difference. I wanted immersion in other; I wanted to dip my toe into new waters.

A ten hour flight later, airport shuffling, boarding calls and stress  at each end and I wondered. I turn to Hugo. ‘The butterflies are sleeping.’ But he’s not dissuaded and, as we have time and will be seated again soon for eight more hours, we follow Ritvhik’s directions, back the way we’ve just come. A long way back. Sometimes travel is about sunk costs.  We are determined.  We had followed the signs from Transfer B and now stand, bewildered, before realising that we have passed it.

We have found the enclosure but it shimmers, mirage-like, its glass walls reflecting the airport lounge and our own flushed faces. ‘It’s a wall of nothingness,’ sighs Hugo. ‘You can’t see anything.’

Is travel the pursuit of the unattainable, an attempt to recreate home comforts, or mythical places as we hurtle through space and time in a steel capsule? I feel my lumbering gracelessness—too large, too white, too wealthy. Reconciling my desire to travel with the colonising of another ecosystem to service my needs feels wrong. 

But the doors are open. Still trundling our bags, we push them ajar and slip through a curtain of weighted beads to the foliage within. Hugo bounds down the stairs to explore but I am content.  

Travel is the pursuit of an experience not found in our everyday. I had missed heat, as I missed crowds, density, tall buildings, the scrabble of trees growing out of cracked pavements and walls. I missed city dirt, and the steady hum of traffic. Now enveloped by steamy air and the steady drone of aircraft noise from the tarmac, I welcome these sensations.

As Hugo and I stand amongst the sleeping butterflies in their recreated forest, this shared moment, this reminder of why I travel is enough for me, for now. 


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