In late June I flew from the tropical, U.S. military-laden, coronavirus-free island of Okinawa to Seoul, capital and largest city of South Korea. You know, the place where all the planes fly in. I spent the next two weeks in a non-optional, government-designated quarantine facility, as did everyone who arrived in South Korea on a tourist visa since April 1st, 2020. (according to kr.usembassy.gov.) On the Asiana airline, masks were of course mandatory, and every middle seats was empty. Turbulence hit during the flight, which has nothing to do with anything but adds color to the story. Oh, and it was a bright and sunny day.
Upon landing at Incheon airport, past all the restrooms and moving sidewalks, there was a booth for handing in the health documents you filled out on the plane before moving on to the rest of customs and quarantine. Right before that booth were signs, each in a different language, about a self health check app that you had to download. So I connected to the airport wifi and used the Chinese messaging app, WeChat, to scan the QR code, because as a technology-phobic ancient great-grandmother of 29 years, I don’t know how else to scan something with my phone.
A lady in an official vest was hovering around; her sole job was to remind people to download the app and fill in the little card forms on the table to the left. Which had already been handed out on the plane, so I’m good, thanks. As I stood there trying to get my phone to download the app (poor thing’s never been quite the same since floating in a purse in the sea back on Okinawa), she kept coming over and inviting/directing me towards the upcoming booth, because the line was empty now.
(Yes, I know, lady, obviously the place is empty at the moment, trying to download the mandatory app here, and oh look – that booth is directly ahead in this corridor, where else would I possible go, back? I am aware that one continues to walk straight through checkpoints when one is in an airport instead of leaving to permanently camp in the restroom.) She just would not give it up. On the inside I was semi-shouting “I SEE, will you SCREW OFF now?”
When I did finish the download and go up to hand in the forms, I decided to err on the side of honesty and checked the symptoms I had displayed earlier in the week, vomiting and headache. In hindsight, both were probably caused by not eating enough food and feeling anxious about leaving. Even though Okinawa seen no new cases for almost two months before I left, lying about symptoms in the midst of an epidemic is not the way to go. Also, and this was about 50% of the reason for my decision, I had just spent a day in close proximity to a new friend, and the thought of even a slight chance of passing something on to him made me want to get tested, as impossible as it would’ve been for me to have been exposed at any point.
The person behind the desk handed me a lanyard with a green paper card inside with a marker-scrawled “symptomatic” and told me to follow some guy in a white protective suit. Not wanting to cause mass panic and hysteria, I tucked the front of the lanyard under my arm while walking. Big sneak. From that point it was a not-unpleasant-if-you-knew-roughly-what-to-expect trek through the airport and a game of musical chairs from one makeshift waiting area to another. People in full white protective gear sat behind folding tables and filled out their own paperwork based on my answers to their questions. I was handed a sturdy, uncomfortable mask to wear instead of mine.
The whole process moved smoothly and even quickly, relatively speaking. The tests were given in orange mobile pods in the asphalt behind the building. They were lined up like portapotties or shipping containers and there were maybe five or so that I could see. Inside was a window that opened into another trailer-type room with medical supplies and presumably the medical personnel giving the tests. It wasn’t a room at all, but a corridor to allow the test-givers to walk along to every pod, sticking the swabs through the holes in each window, rain or shine. Oh man, that test. Yikes. Once he snaked the swab back, it was only a 5-count, but I was squirming like crazy and not taking it very well. Afterwards I kept waving my hands and cursing and touching my nose. The throat swab did not hurt but I gagged the second I opened my mouth. Ever since having respiratory and throat issues in China, my gag reflex has been on a hair trigger, and it’s just ridiculous.
Then back to the elevator, still swearing, into the building. Using my legs as a writing surface, I filled out the final paperwork for the mandatory 14 day quarantine in a government designated facility. This was non-negotiable for all tourists and anyone else without a Korean residence. We hit a snag, as a Korean phone number was required, so they got somebody to walk me down the hall to a table with a vendor of Korean SIM cards.As usual it took a while to get the cover off this rarely-seen-in-the-wild Motorola contraption. Finishing the paperwork was straightforward after that, and I quickly googled hotels to find an intended address to list. Not the first time I’ve done that; it’s basically my standard operating procedure. Haha. I don’t plan and you can’t make me.
Just like that, it was over and the other foreign passport holders (all Pakistani men, judging from appearances and a few passports) and I were led to customs, out the door, onto the bus, and into the hotel. Inside the lobby were those annoying pointless flimsy floor coverings taped down in a path from the revolving door through the lobby to the elevator. Check-in ended in receiving a room card and then a packaged meal from the man standing beside the elevator, with the instructions “You never leave your room.” (The elevator buttons were under a clear plastic covering, because that makes SUCH a difference with germ spread) I took a last long look up and down the hallway.
The room was nice and big, with a full bed and a recently-enough renovated/redecorated feel to be acceptable. However, upon further inspection, there were NO CURTAINS. Perhaps they wanted to save on laundry, given the extreme hygiene precautions? It was already after dark and other wings of the building outside were quite visible with their own lit-up windows not far away. What really compounded the privacy issue was that every light, even bedside lamps, was bizarrely on a single on-off switch for the whole room. “Best” Western, my eye. The bathroom light was also on that switch, meaning that every time I came out of the shower into the brightly-lit room, anyone on floors 4-9 or so in the buildings adjacent and opposite could be flashed. Real life nudity. And I almost didn’t care at that point. The real problem was that even with a wall adaptor, none of my charging cords would work for my computer or my phone.
Lo and behold, the next morning I got a call on the hotel phone, saying that my test results were negative and that I should bring my luggage to the lobby at 7:45. We foreign passport holders were taken back to the airport, where a new bus came to take us to a different hotel to start the real quarantine period along all the other people on tourist visas (who hadn’t reported symptoms like we did). That first hotel was just for those waiting for test results – and those whose tests came back positive. No one explained that to me beforehand.
After a long drive we waited in the bus for some time until a nice man in a full white protective suit stepped on and spoke to us in excellent English. He apologized for the inconvenience and said that we had to wait until the previous bus of people had finished checking in. One guy to my right started playing “the Final Countdown” on his phone. Boy did I seriously consider chucking my little flight packet of earphones at his face. Not cool, dude.
Once inside there was a new health tracking app to download. Miraculously for my dead phone, all manner of charging cords were provided! Cue the slow download process again. One of the hovering white suits said, “Okay, I think your phone has some problems, so – ” and folks, I came right back with, “Yes, I KNOW my phone has problems.” (The ole fuse was running out of room so fast at that point, it was probably on a pirate ship leading to a power keg in a sword fight). Checked in, paid, dragged me and my suitcases to my new room, which was also on the seventh floor, but smaller, this time with both a twin bed and full bed. Linens were only provided for the twin bed. And there were curtains!
A big plastic bag was just inside, containing bath towels, soap, shower sandals (do people use them for the room sometimes? I’m using them for the room too. But only sometimes.), 6 ramens in cups, 3 one-liter water bottles, a couple Pepsis, chopsticks for the ramen, two sleeves of small paper cups, and – hallelujah! – a box of instant coffee packets. Saved! This was clearly meant to be the snack supply. There was a paper with instruction about putting your meal trash in a plastic bag, spraying it with sanitizer (a spray bottle was provided in said big bag), tying it up in the big orange hazardous materials bag provided outside your door, and leaving it outside every morning after breakfast.
And thus the 14 days began. All of us residents were to take our temperatures twice a day, at 9:00am and 5:00 pm, and record it on the tracking app. It wasn’t creepy until about a week in, when they suddenly started making an announcement about it over a speaker system into the room – twice a day. At first I thought it was coming from the television just like in 1984! My room was missing a thermometer, so I just entered normal temperature on the app and never said anything about it. Couldn’t – the front desk wasn’t reachable by phone. Workers came by and dropped packaged meals in plastic bags outside the door at roughly 7:30 am, 11:30 am, and 5:30 pm. The knock on the door was heart-stopping amid so much silence and solitude. I was used to spending every day in my own company after three months alone in Okinawa, so I viewed it as a final test, an achievement – the crown jewel of isolation.
I did learn to enjoy kimchi despite my intolerance of spicy food, but occasionally lost my appetite for the repetitive meat-and-rice convenience store dinners. The National Geographic channel was in English, along with three or four movie channels, sometimes. I saw a bad movie about a giant shark attack and Jason Statham, an even worse abomination called CSI: New York, and a cute movie with Jack Black and Cate Blanchett about a brave boy raised by those two wizards. The Hobbit movies came on, which was nice.
The room was too cramped to even pace easily, but I did do some push-ups, squats, etc. Mostly I just sat on the big bed during the day and switched to the other one at night. I watched some of Sir Patrick Stewart’s daily readings of Shakespeare’s sonnets, which I had never read before. The videos were heartwarming. Every evening I showered, wanting to keep body odor out of the clothes I was re-wearing due to lack of a washing machine. And every evening, I bundled the day’s accumulation of plastic food packaging waste into one of the plastic bags and set it near the door.
Here is an excerpt from my journal.
“It’s been three days or so, so far, and I can charge my phone directly into the USB-style port in the wall, thank God, but the computer is still a no-go. My adult ADD-having brain just lies on the bed and thinks all day, in between writing, scrolling social media again and again, and playing Candy Crush. Outside my window, I can see the world going by, aka traffic flowing consistently, smoothly repetitively, not too fast and not too slow, on the raised highway. It’s not noisy at all, even with the window open, and very peaceful to watch. The last two days have been gray and rainy, which looks misty up here from – guess where- the 7th floor again. This time with curtains, though.”