I could be without Internet, TV and a view of the construction site next door. I could be somewhere without a restaurant downstairs that sends food up just for the dialing. And, let’s face it, I could be in a place with gun-toting guards ordering pushups every morning.
Thankfully, none of that is happening. And yet I am in prison, nonetheless, surrounded by four impenetrable walls. They will define my world for the next 10 days, or until powerful people wearing spacesuits deem me fit to rejoin society. Welcome to international travel in the age of COVID. More specifically, to the regimen facing foreigners entering the Philippines.
Despite all evidence to the contrary however, I’m really not complaining. For I brought this on myself by insisting on returning. And now am succored because, well, I finally got my wish. Please allow a small digression to tell you how it happened.
Anyone who reads this column regularly knows that Southern California recently ensnared me. What began as a three-month sojourn stretched into nearly a year. And so I’ve been going with the flow, completing tasks that needed completing while enjoying the proximity of long-lost relatives and friends. But recently, it became apparent that my prolonged absence could jeopardize the permanent-resident status I enjoy in the Philippines. And so I made plans to return despite the necessity, at least for now, of leaving the family behind. The reason: to allow 10-year-old Isaac the benefits of actual in-class learning after more than a year of what passed for learning in front of a screen.
But saying goodbye to my beautiful wife and children proved harder than I’d imagined. Driving away after bidding the kids farewell, both my wife and I cried. And parting from her at the airport rendered a repeat of that ungainly spectacle.
Ah, but anxiety soon replaced grief. Had I remembered to bring the long list of required documents? If I forgot something, would it delay my trip? It wasn’t confidence-inspiring to hear that a family of friends attempting the same journey a few days earlier had been denied boarding passes because they couldn’t produce the birth certificate of their Filipino/American son. Nor was I buoyed to read that President Duterte was once again considering a border shutdown.
So I focused on doing what I had to. Five days prior to departure, I registered on a government website to be issued the requisite barcode. I also downloaded the indicated tracing app to my phone, filled out several questionnaires, and carefully prepared a folder full of documents. Finally, I booked ten nights at a government-certified hotel in Cebu for the critical and very-strict quarantine.
The flight was as uneventful as it was long. About two hours before deplaning, the crew presented each passenger with yet another stack of papers to complete. And then we were in the terminal at Mactan-Cebu International Airport waiting in long lines for briefings, document and temperature checks, swab testing of our noses and throats, baggage retrieval and, finally, rides to our respective hotels.
So here I am, confined behind these four walls. The room isn’t bad; it’s got a bed, closet, minibar, soaking-wet bathroom and the aforementioned window looking out on that building site. A nice young woman delivers breakfast every morning at my door; the rest I have to order by phone. There’s a TV, though the volume’s too low and my favorite channels are missing. And, while I’m tempted to loll the time away in pajamas, I try daily to put on some clothes.
On the seventh day, I’m told, one of those spacesuit-clad strangers will reemerge for another swabbing. Then, barring any unfortunate surprises, I will be free to go home. To quarantine again for another four days. This time, thank God, in my house. Which, last time I checked, had more than four walls.
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David Haldane’s latest book is a short-story collection called “Jenny on the Street.” A former Los Angeles Times staff writer, he is an award-winning journalist, author, and broadcaster dividing his time between homes in Joshua Tree, California, and Northern Mindanao, Philippines, where this column appears weekly in the Mindanao Gold Star Daily.