It’s seven PM here, but my body is telling me it’s late morning and it hasn’t slept since Sunday. The perils of travel: disorientation, fractured routines, a sense of the unknown. Except this trip is to Singapore, a place i’ve visited many times these last few years and an island of familiarity in a sea of strange experience. I remember the first time i landed here, three years ago, the sudden humidity hitting me with a force and an aroma that was strange and yet now comforting. The first taxi ride, seeing palm trees and iconic buildings for the first time. Now familiar: comforting as a homecoming instead of mysterious.
I have friends here now, some through work, some through music, some through our community online around the Social Age. Many friends. This place feels safe, feels secure. Though bounded by unfamiliarity, i find myself in an oasis of calm.
When i wrote the Singapore Diary, a short book around ‘learning, knowledge and meaning‘, it was an exploration of the ‘sense making’ processes we use when we first encounter the unfamiliar. I can’t relate to it now: my schemas, whilst not complete, are far more developed. I know landmarks, skylines, icons and pathways. When visiting friends a couple of months ago, i found that i, the tourist, knew things they didn’t. My explorations have paid dividends.
With familiarity comes complacency, but also security. This is a safe place for me, a comforting environment. I have favourite cafes and bars, favourite places to write and favourite museums to visit. Whilst my writing was raw the first time, documenting and narrating my curiosity and confusion, today it’s easier, but maybe less compelling.
There are lessons here: we react differently at different times, in different spaces. When we first encounter a new place, we are alert, making sense of it, finding the pathways and painting the skyline. As we become familiar, our urge to explore recedes: the desire lines are carved in the grass and our heads, hence why i, the tourist, have seen more of the island than some of my resident friends. Even back home in the UK last month i turned down a street just five minutes walk from my house that i’d never been down before. Why? Because my mental map of my space is complete: i don’t need to join dots, so i stop exploring.
But should we stop? Should familiarity breed contempt or, at the very least, complacency?
We create spaces for learning, but should not be blind to the challenges of engagement. Are these safe spaces or challenging ones? Are they mapped, or are we charting them as we go along? Is familiarity always a good thing?