I'm a fool for spa treatments, the more bizarre the better. The water looked clean, and 20 minutes in the tank cost only about $20. I took off my shoes and dangled my feet over the ledge, emitting a little shriek as a swarm of fish engulfed my legs, pecking and sucking. It was profoundly weird, but I got to like it and sat there giggling while feeding the fish. When my feet finally came out, they were baby smooth. The calluses on my heels had disappeared, and clean, pink skin surrounded my toenails instead of dry, ragged cuticles. I may come down with an exotic disease, but for the moment I could have been a foot model.
The hotel was just up an escalator from the spa, and when I arrived the man behind the counter said, "Hello, Miss Spano." I imagine he guessed who I was because few people reserve in advance at the Ambassador Transit Hotel. It's more a refuge for tortured souls between hellish long-haul flights. It cost about $50 for six hours, which worked out to be less than an overnight at the Crowne Plaza, and my room was nice, in a utilitarian, cookie-cutter way. Also spacious, with twin beds, a tub in the bathroom, a hot pot for making coffee and tea, satellite TV and a big picture window overlooking the construction that was proceeding in blessed silence. There was no room service, but with the Terminal 1 mall right outside the door, who needed it?
First, I checked CNN for the latest news, then crossed the hotel lobby to the pool and alfresco bar on a ledge of the terminal perched over the runways. I couldn't think of any place I'd rather be, sipping fresh pineapple juice at water's edge while working on my tan in the hot, bright Singapore sun, and when I got hungry, I headed down the concourse for lunch.
The front-desk clerk had advised me to try the Peach Garden Noodle House, a new branch of a popular Singapore franchise. The stylish, sit-down restaurant on the terminal's third floor serves Cantonese delicacies such as double-boiled shark's bone cartilage soup. I ordered a less exotic but excellent $20 lunch consisting of hot and sour soup, braised bean curd, noodles with prawn dumplings and chilled jelly royal for dessert.
As it turns out, I could have taken a free, two-hour city tour with expedited passage through customs and immigration organized by the Singapore tourist authority. But the brochure showed people shopping, which I could do right there in Changi. Terminal 1 has all the usual suspects — Cartier, Coach, Harrods — along with well-stocked book and electronics stores. My favorites were Top Orchids, Shanghai Tang and Bee Cheng Hiang, part of a barbecue meat chain established in a Singapore street stall in 1933.
Besides the shops, there are features you don't find in ordinary airports: a pay-to-use lounge decorated like a tropical rain forest, recycling points, a rooftop cactus garden alongside a branch of Harry's Bar, kids' play areas with never-ending DVD cartoons and signs everywhere that tell travelers exactly how many minutes it takes to walk from point A to point B. I wondered how many people miss their flights while gazing at a case of Omega watches or trying on blue jeans in the Prada dressing room.
That night I went out on the town by taking the Skytrain to Terminal 2. I had my palm read in the Culture at Changi booth, e-mailed a picture of myself to family and friends at the Samsung Photo Me display, walked through a fern garden and tucked into a dish of vegetable biryani at an Indian restaurant in the food court.
I never felt cooped up, though I recalled that the airport was built on the site of a prison camp for Allied POWs during the Japanese occupation of Singapore in World War II. I had everything I needed right here, with the possible exception of a Laundromat and yoga studio.
Maybe, just maybe, I would have tired of Changi if I'd really been stuck here like the characters in the Sondheim play who can hardly remember the sky. But I'll never forget the time I spent in the steel- and glass-enclosed utopia of Changi. I'll never forget Dr. Fish and "Hello, Miss Spano" at the Ambassador Transit Hotel.
Life is strange, and even stranger for the traveler with disparate needs — sometimes for succor, sometimes for adventure. Let's all put our feet in and see what it feels like.