In which my "vacation" is extended, on the government's dime.
These are the stories you’ll tell your children. These are the things you’ll remember. These are the times that elevate “travel” to “adventure.” The unexpected, unplanned events of life are the gilt accents on a historic Beijing building: life is already fascinating but has just been upgraded to spectacular.
Day one of quarantine in Beijing. Here is the story so far:
After a week home to visit my family and (successfully!) interview for several teaching positions in the Northeast, I boarded a jet back to Beijing. The 777 was full: I met a group of high school girls and their chaperones headed to volunteer at an orphanage north of the city, a 17-year-old girl staying in the city for two months to model, and an older gentleman on his way to meet a prospective wife. After enduring the 14-hour ride, including a nauseating hour of heavy turbulence, we landed in the north capitol. A quarantine and inspection officer boarded the plane and used an infrared body head gun to take the temperature of each passenger before giving the all-clear signal. We deplaned, filed through inspection, customs and immigration, and luggage claim before being released into the stuffy Beijing air.
I went into work early this morning, eager to catch up on my duties and plan lessons for the week. Already having missed five days of class, I was ready to get things back on track and make some progress. At about 10:30 am, my phone rang:
(In Chinese): “Is this Katie?” “Yes,” I answered. “Do you speak Chinese?” the voice inquired. “A little; do you speak English?” “No, can you get someone who speaks Chinese?” I found our poor secretary, Nancy, who I am sure is yoked with these sorts of tasks continually. I handed her the phone. She listened, and relayed questions to me. “Where you on this flight?” she asked, writing down “CO89.” “Yes…” “Someone has…” she paused, and then wrote down “H1N1.” “Oh,” I sighed, “The swine flu.” “Someone will come get you soon. Pack for maybe seven days. They will take you to the hospital.” I mumbled back, “Soon? Seven…days?”
After deplaning and going our separate ways, it was found that one passenger on lucky flight number 89 had been hospitalized with a confirmed case of H1N1. China, still wary about public epidemics (and for good reason!) is perpetually safe rather than sorry to the fullest extent of its ability (and, let me tell you, that ability does extend rather far!). I returned to my room, packed a bag and every shred of portable entertainment I could get my hands on, and waited.
Then the Tyvek ladies arrived. Clad in white from hood to bootie, gloved and masked, they entered my room with their questionnaire and the very patient school head of foreign affairs in tow. I listed everyone I’d had contact with that morning (go ahead, make your own list and marvel at it’s length!!), the extent of my contact, my route over the previous week, my trajectory from the U.S. to the Beijing airport and back to school and my habits over the previous 24 hours. Then the swab man arrived, and, after figuring out how to translate “Ahhh!” into English, shoved some q-tips down my gullet. Once I was masked and gloved, our team proceeded outside. After waiting the exact length of time required for my entire cohort of colleagues to parade past and inquire about the impending epidemic, an ambulance arrived and whisked me away, siren blaring. I highly recommend ambulance as a quick alternative for travel into the city. In just a half hour, we had reached our destination: the Yanxiang Hotel on Dongzhimen Wai.
Upon arrival, we were greeted by a bevy of lab coat-clad medical professionals, the women in pink and the men in white. Forms were filled, my temperature was taken (normal), and the paparazzi recorded my every move from the back of the ambulance into the hotel. The hotel had been converted into a quarantine center. Bellhops had been replaced by lab-coated men. Receptionists had been replaced by lab-coated women. And clusters of lab-coated people stood around just in case the situation called for a cluster of lab-coated people.
(An aside: I think China looks at every misfortune as an opportunity for employment.)
Despite the lab coats, masks, gloves and scrub caps, the hotel employees acted as if I had just arrived at my vacation destination. I registered at the front desk, was wished a pleasant stay, and was taken upstairs to my accommodation. I inquired about the current number of patrons and was informed that I was the first. (Creepy horror movie premise!) One of the four bellhops presented me with a bouquet of roses and lilies and other gave me a plate of bananas, oranges and lychees. I selected my lunch from the menu (shrimp in black bean sauce with peppers, and fried rice) and was given a number to call in case I needed anything. And then I was left…alone.
And here I remain. In perhaps the most solitudinous solitude in the busy city of Beijing, in my little slice of isolation for the next seven days. My amenities include internet, TV with HBO and the National Geographic Channel, a mini-fridge with water and iced tea, books and DVDs graciously donated by my colleagues, a bathtub, three meals daily (the shrimp did not portend to greatness), a comfy bed and a kettle to boil water.