I put down my bags in front of Room 903 and froze as I looked at the single-use key in my hand. Fourteen days. Locked in this room. I clutched the key and started walking briskly away. Up and down and round the long silent corridors of the 9th floor. My last chance to take a walk, I told myself. But it was really to process the feeling of incarceration. I didn’t realize what a gift freedom was. Until now when I was about to lose it.
I finally mustered enough courage to open the door, pulled the bags into the room while using my foot as a door stopper, then slipped the key card into its slot on the wall. The lights came on, I shut the door, and turned around. I was in a short, narrow corridor. Bold avant-garde designs on the carpet and on the walls met my eyes. Stunned momentarily by the illogical metamorphosis from the corridor’s functional décor and my perception of severe incarceration, I quickly embraced the lusciousness of the accommodations as I pulled my suitcase behind me and turned right towards the bedroom. Atingle with anticipation.
When I decided a week earlier to come to Singapore to attend to long-delayed personal matters, I knew I’d have to serve a mandatory 14-day quarantine in a venue designated by the government authorities as many Asian countries were doing to keep the coronavirus in check. It sounded draconian — what do you do for 14 days in solitary confinement which is not at your home?
I had concerns about it when I booked my flight. Fourteen days is a significant length of time for a person in her twilight years. How do I get through them with levity and sense of purpose? How do I fill them with more productivity than slippage?
My biggest concern was the accommodation. What if the quarantine hotel was horrid? Lingering musty odor, proof of molds in the aging carpet, and spores suspended in humid air. The bane of uncared-for hotels in the tropics. I suffered from atopy, and it could be the death of me to spend two weeks in there. I wouldn’t get to choose where to stay. It was luck of the draw — arriving passengers got onto the waiting coach which took them to the next hotel on the organizer’s list. I had read social media postings about superb hotels like the all-suite Kempinski but there were also older, rundown hotels with cockroaches that made bold appearances in broad daylight. The anxiety kept me awake the nights before departure.
What if I got bored? I’d been putting off revising several essays and there were a couple of story ideas I wanted to develop. Now’s the time to do that, I thought. Pack laptop with Singapore adaptor. There was also a stack of books I had accumulated this past year but never found time to read. I pulled five paperbacks of different genres from the pile and put them in my open suitcase on the couch. A cinephile, I’d also have movies to fall back on to fill the hours with romance, suspense, and drama, if need be.
I worried the hotel’s high-carb meals, coupled with my inactivity, would send my diabetic blood sugar levels sky-high. Pack Extra Strong Old Croc cheese and nuts for low-carb snacking. How do I stay active within the four walls to keep my blood sugar levels tight and my insulin pump happy? In Boston, I walked three to nine miles every day in the Alewife conservation area and by Spy Pond, depending on errands and appointments I had that day. In quarantine, my calendar would be open so I resolved to do longer distances each day. I decided on a nice round number. Walk 100 miles in 14 days. A modest seven miles a day. To do that in a limited space, I’d follow Leslie Sansone’s Walk at Home videos on YouTube which offered sessions with her in three, two, and one-mile routines.
By virtue of its definition, I expected human contact to be suspended during quarantine. Hopefully, these plans would keep me occupied intellectually, physically active, and sane for the duration.
I didn’t realize how airtight the process would be. I landed at Changi Airport just after midnight on Wednesday, November 18, 2020. After clearing immigration, I was met by a friendly CISCO officer who checked off my name on his list. He accompanied me and 11 other passengers to the designated hotel by coach. We only found out that it was the JW Marriott on arrival. I felt like I had just won the lottery. We were briefed, while seated six feet apart, on the details of the 14-day Stay-Home Notice (SHN) as Singapore called the mandatory isolation for those who came from high-risk countries. I then checked in at reception and made my way to Room 903.
Once inside the room, I could not leave it. Or I would contravene the Stay Orders with serious consequences and could be prosecuted under the Infectious Diseases Act and fined up to $10,000, and/or imprisoned up to six months. The elevator was locked and would operate only on Day 11 at 10:30 am for me to go to the 18th level rooftop to take the scheduled COVID test, and on Day 14 at 12:30 pm, my slot for discharge. Hotel security surveilled the corridors 24/7. An immigration officer would check in on me every couple of days via WhatsApp or showed up in person at my room door to verify my identity.
The stringent measures were necessary to keep the coronavirus under control. With a population of 5.8 million — the same as Colorado, Singapore has had 60,000 COVID cases and 29 deaths to date. Meanwhile, Colorado had 442,000 cases and 6,000 deaths. Border control, together with the bedrock principles of wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding private gatherings have worked to contain the spread of the virus. There was not a single local transmission during the 14 days I was there. Import cases that surfaced through surveillance at entry points were immediately isolated in a Ministry of Health facility.
As I turned right down the corridor in the room, there were floor-to-ceiling windows on two sides and in the bathroom. They let in sunlight during the day. The air felt natural and fresh with good ventilation and no cloying air freshener. My biggest fear unfounded. Thank you, Lord. I kept the curtains and blinds open so I could see the vehicles and people on the street nine floors below, connecting me with the outside world.
I began to feel like I was in a bubble. There was the world and there was me, and we were now separate.
Coming from a country where the virus was raging out of control, I was a threat to Singapore. Through the SHN, Singapore was protecting its population from me. Yet it was I who felt safe from the virus rampant in America. The four walls protected me rather than hemmed me in.
I was grateful for the interregnum, a respite from the onslaught of U.S. COVID news where there were over a hundred thousand new cases and two thousand deaths every day, and my exposure to the risk. Both new infections and deaths rose more than 30 percent in the 14 days I was away.
Being in a bubble didn’t just protect me from the virus, it also protected me from the political scene back home. I left the U.S. on November 16, two weeks after the elections. I was exhausted from the outcome. It was ugly to watch and painful to hear Trump’s lies and conspiracy theories. Enough already. “How long more, O Lord?” I echoed the psalmist’s cry amid dark and uncertain days. I stopped watching the news and reading feeds that came up on my phone. My heart can’t take it, I told my family. Coming into this bubble, I was free from the cataclysm back home. For a while at least. There was no noise. Literally and metaphorically.
I had entered an orb where life was suspended and I did not have to disquiet myself with the disorders of the world. I was not going anywhere nor meeting anyone so whatever decisions that needed to be made could wait till I was out of quarantine. I self-isolated emotionally from people who annoyed or hurt me with their words and actions, wallowing in the balm of ignorance. I couldn’t recall when I felt such freedom in my life.
There was no measure of time and space. I just was. Free to do whatever made me happy in the moment. Little things such as slipping into a nap whenever nature made the suggestion. Like mid-morning when I’d finished a chapter of a book and had a cup of robust English Breakfast tea with a cream-less Bourbon biscuit. I didn’t feel trapped by the confines of the space nor even realized that I hadn’t availed of fresh air until a friend sent a WhatsApp message: “Do you have a balcony? Can you open the window?” No, there was no balcony and the glass walls were sealed. “So you have no fresh air!!! (emoji of shock and aghast)” flew back to my phone immediately. I had been too exhilarated by the freedom from the world to notice the inconsequential detail. At the same time, I felt annoyance at her response for invading my Shangri-la. I vowed to disengage until we met in the real world again.
My days in Room 903 were anything but boring. I had no appetite for movies, preferring the solitude, and only watched Aquaman and Episode 5 of Undoing after seeing the captivating trailer. Then totally missed Episode 6 because I forgot when it was being screened. The first couple of days, I read a lot while recovering from jetlag and made the occasional notes about the SHN experience in the cahier by my bed.
Every day I walked six to 12 miles with Leslie Sansone on YouTube within a scaled-down radius of two strides. I enjoyed the workout because the pace and routines were varied and moderately vigorous, engineered to cover a particular number of miles. I knew that I couldn’t miss a day of walking if I wanted to achieve my goal of 100 miles by the end of the fortnight. Missing a day would have meant doing 14 miles to catch up the following day and I didn’t want that pressure. I loved the sense of well-being and emotional highs of the endorphins charging through my body, unadulterated by the issues of daily life. Better blood sugar control became a secondary reason.
I was so motivated to walk that my reading and writing projects lagged. By day 6, which was also my birthday, I cleared the halfway point at 53 miles. A gift to myself. Still, there was no letting up. I wanted to put in as many miles as soon as possible in case I fell ill later and was unable to complete the challenge within the 14 days. I passed 100 miles on Day 12 and made 117 miles on the final day, but only completed two of the five books I’d brought and wrote a short op-ed the entire time instead of revising the essays I had in mind.
Meals, prepared in-house by the chef, were the highlight of my day. They were delivered in a disposable bento box to a chair placed outside my room. Chicken, not my favorite protein, appeared six times on the weekly menu — understandably so because it is allowed in more people’s diets than pork, seafood, or beef. Being in Singapore, the menu had many Asian dishes with starchy brown sauce — also not a fan. I looked forward to Tuesday when we got lentil curry (made exactly the same way as my South Indian mother-in-law’s) and delicious pseudo-Indian crispy battered-vegetable sticks for lunch, and a dinner of grilled salmon and ratatouille. The salmon skin reminded me of Ella, my four-year-old granddaughter, who also thinks it’s the best part of the fish. “Ahmah, I like mine soft and floppy,” she tells me.
The best part of the meal was dessert. That came only with dinner. Thankfully, the portions were small and therefore fewer carbs — a 2x2x1 inches cake or a half-filled 8oz cup of pudding — but the quality was top-notch. I’d save half of the sweeter ones for lunch the next day. My favorite dessert was green tea panna cotta on Saturdays. Full-bodied with traces of matcha powder on the base and, best of all, it didn’t raise my blood sugar as it was made of cream, not flour, and barely sweet. A close second was mango pomelo pudding on Thursdays. On those evenings, I’d eat dessert first. At around 8 pm, I‘d call down and sheepishly ask if they had any dessert leftover. The chef, who by now knew my food preferences, would send up one more portion, sometimes two, which I kept for lunch the following day.
There was an “At Your Service” hotline to call if I needed more coffee or tea bags, milk, towels, fresh sheets, etc. The staff and I became friends and we knew each other by name though we would never meet. We’d ask each other how our day was going. They soon got to know my habit of ordering hot milk for Milo before bedtime and a bucket of ice for gin-and-tonic before dinner on Fridays, Sundays, and Tuesdays.
I always tried to get to the door quickly when there was a delivery from housekeeping or F&B so that I could say “Thank you” to the person dropping off requested items on the chair. Often the person would have already turned the corner as my room was in an alcove. Some would call back “You are welcome,” others would not. However, Steve, the Food and Beverage manager, or his staff, Maryanne, knowing my habit of showing up at the door, would linger at a safe distance till I appeared. They would say “Enjoy your meal” before they left. Sometimes they would stop to chat briefly, unlike the others. I wondered if they too were missing pre-pandemic human connections as they walked the silent corridors delivering meals to a chair. If they too were seeking connections in isolation.
I wasn’t feeling well one day and was asleep when dinner was delivered. The persistent knocking continued even after I called out “Thank you!” from the bed. So I got up and ran to the door and found Maryanne standing at a safe distance. Her concerned eyes broke into a smile behind her mask when she saw me. She said, “Enjoy your dinner” before turning to go. One morning, still suffering from jetlag, I slept through the breakfast doorbell and knocks. I heard the landline ring and I felt slightly miffed as I had to get up to answer it at the desk. It was reception: “Your breakfast is outside your door, Ma’am.” The next morning, I opened the door promptly and there was Steve at the corner. “I was very sad you didn’t come to the door yesterday morning,” he said and told me that he got worried and asked reception to call me. I was very touched that it mattered to him that I was ok and that he missed our brief social interaction. But I knew not every kitchen staff at the hotel cared the way Steve and Maryanne did. Sometimes, I’d not hear the knock either because it was very soft or it was drowned out by the YouTube video I was working out on, and later found my bento box on the chair. I knew then that it wasn’t Steve or Maryanne who came by earlier.
On Day 6, my birthday, I was surprised when the doorbell rang mid-morning. There was a floral arrangement on the chair. It played a “Happy Birthday” tune when I turned the knob on the side of the arrangement. The little card said it was a personal gift from Effa celebrating me on my special day. Effa was one of the staff manning the hotline who helped resolve the initial problems with my meal selection. She also helped me set up house in 903: “Do you need bath salts?” “Loofah?” “Bathrobe?” One day I asked her what she was doing on her day off. She told me she was preparing for her wedding in two weeks’ time. We became phone friends.
Mid-afternoon, there was another unscheduled delivery. It was Maryanne. She wished me “Happy birthday!” from a distance. On the chair was a black-and-white rectangular box in the shape of the hotel’s grand ballroom and a card with greetings from the staff. Inside the artsy box was a rectangular vanilla cream cake elegantly placed in the middle of a gold-colored cake board. Taped discreetly to the side of the box were a candle and a mini box of matches. I placed the candle in the middle of the cake and lit it to complete the experience and sent the video to my family with the ‘Happy Birthday’ tune playing from the floral arrangement.
I had a very busy day and a lot of love from people I barely knew. Front Office staff had access to every guest’s birthday and the computer probably flagged it at check-in when it fell during the stay. What I got was JW Marriott’s standard birthday package but it was phenomenal by any measure, and especially appreciated in isolation.
I expected my solitary confinement to be devoid of social interactions except for the officials verifying my presence. I forgot about hotel staff serving my basic needs. The ones I met in my designated hotel were exceptional. Their unabashed earnestness to engage, quite un-Singaporean, was endearing and welcomed. I believe they enjoyed our brief encounters on the phone or in-person as much as I did. They kept life as normal as possible, celebrating and creating special days, and did it with class. It was delightful to get a box of cut fruit in the middle of the afternoon with a card beautifully decorated by Effa and a note of encouragement: “ten more days to go. You can do it! We are here to help.” A small gesture with a big impact. Human contact and lovely thoughts that peppered my days were welcomed and essential to my well-being in isolation. It satisfied not only a craving for human company during quarantine but in my life. I interacted with more people each day in the 14 days than I ever did back home in Boston where I live alone. Another reason why I sometimes wanted the SHN to last forever.
You must be bored stiff, friends texted when they checked in on my last days. I wasn’t. Except for the chicken. The bubble I inhabited was marvelous. I felt my burdens dissipate. Like I’d left them outside when I entered the room. In its place was complete freedom within the confines of the physical space, without the need to feel busy or structure time. In our dark and depressing world of COVID and Trump of which there was no end in sight yet, I took my miracles where I found them.
Tuesday. Day 13. My very last evening. I was in no hurry to leave the alternate universe, reveling in the changing hues I espied in the narrow spaces between buildings of the concrete jungle before me. Savoring my final glass of gin-and-tonic, I waited for the knock that announced “Dinner is served.” Ah, salmon with soft, floppy skin, and ratatouille. Dessert would be tiramisu. But no matter, it would be splendid: delicate layers of mascarpone and lightly sweetened Italian custard, contrasted with robust espresso and cocoa powder. A double knock interrupted my reverie. “Thank you,” I called out as I hurried to the door, drink in hand. No one was there. On the chair was my bento box. And two portions of green tea panna cotta. •