We travel to know our world, to know each other, and to know ourselves. That’s how I opened my trip journal, writing 36,000 feet above the Arctic Ocean in the first of three planes across the globe. After thirty-six hours of cramped seats and crying children, I touched down 85 miles north of the equator, in the sweltering city-state of Singapore.
The closest I’ve experienced to Singapore’s climate is Florida in April, and Singapore heat is Florida heat on steroids. Given the sweltering humidity of this island nation, I was surprised to find that so many dishes and drinks here are served hot. Sure, you can grab an iced mocha at your standard multinational corporate coffee shop, but kopi – Singapore’s coffee of choice – comes steaming.
I’d spent the day exploring Chinatown with some of the other NUS exchange students. We were riding an escalator down to the MRT (their Subway) when we were waylaid by a troop of uniformed grade schoolers.
“Excuse me! Can you help us?”
“What do you need us to do?”
“Can we buy you coffee?”
They were on a scavenger hunt, and one of their tasks was to get a foreigner to order something foreigners usually mispronounce. Kopi (rhymes with “go pee”) was the something they’d picked out for us.
They led us around the corner and down another two escalators to an underground kopitiam, or coffee shop. Normally, I’d be skeptical about strangers coaxing me into the bowels of the earth, but it’s hard to say no to ten-year-olds. Especially when they’re wearing identical purple shirts.
While one boy waited eagerly with a camera, a girl (who seemed to be their leader) asked, “Is it okay if we only get three cups? I’m sorry, but it’s kind of expensive for so many.”
They just apologized for buying us three cups of coffee. Singaporeans are astoundingly generous.
“Of course it’s okay! It’s great!”
“There are three different kinds,” she said, “so we will get you one of each.”
“What do I order?” I asked.
“Kopi, kopi-O, and kopi-C.”
“Okay,” I said, walking up to the counter. “Can I get one kopi-O, one kopi-C, and one kopi regular?”
The round-cheeked, smiling owner listened to my order, then burst out laughing. “Kopi regular?” he chuckled, “What is kopi regular? Just kopi!”
Kopi-O is black with caramel sugar, kopi-C comes with both condensed and evaporated milk, and kopi – not kopi regular – is served with condensed milk. Scalding hot, super sweet, and charged with caffeinating aroma – all three kinds of kopi put the americanos I’ve had to shame.
We thanked the kids, and the kids thanked us. They continued on their scavenger hunt and left us laughing, three cups of kopi and one story richer.