We’re hungry, with no food in sight; jet-lagged, in a room without a key. Yet strangely, I’m at peace. After a 27-hour journey from the other side of the planet, we’re safe in a place where all we have to do is live through the next 14 days and we’ll be set free in paradise.
We’re at the Quarantine Hotel, Sydney – but it’s not Lonely Street. In fact, I’m stuck in a room with my two teenagers, which is possibly as far away from alone as you can get. Hopefully we all survive with sanity intact.
The decision to travel from the U.S., where we live, to Australia, where my family lives, wasn’t made lightly. An Australian, I’ve lived in America for 20 years, most of them in Tacoma, Washington, with my kids and husband. But I miss home, and when my dad’s cancer started spreading rapidly to his spine, ribs, pelvis and liver, I knew I had to come back for a while.
Despite the pandemic.
Covid-19 has streaked its way through most of the world, leaving death and disarray in its wake. The U.S. has been hit the hardest, a fatal combination of a fend-for-yourself health care system, a tendency to politicize everything (including public health) and vociferous liberty-or-death attitudes. Over 500,000 deaths later, the virus continues. But Australia benefited from both island isolation and a willingness to follow rules – so the Covid case rate here in Sydney is currently zero.
But part of that success story is a strict two-week quarantine of all overseas visitors – like us.
So my kids (who are Australian citizens) and I got ourselves tested, jumped through all the immigration hoops, enjoyed a plane flight with ten rows all to ourselves and spent hours walking through Border Force and customs to be granted – luxury!!! – a “family” room.
“I’m sorry, it doesn’t have views of the Harbor Bridge,” said the army official apologetically.
We didn’t care. It had a balcony for fresh air (my worst fears allayed), separate living and bedroom and a full kitchen (with a toaster!) and laundry. There was even an oven, should we care to bake.
Compared to the horror stories I’d read of desperate people ironing toast and washing underwear in the sink, it was heaven.
But we’re still pretty hungry. After the camo-dressed soldiers had taken down our details, wheeled in our luggage and departed with the key, we realize that we have no food, and no idea when lunch (the first of our caterer-delivered meals) is supposed to arrive.
“I have some chocolate,” I offer.
My kids stare at me like I’m crazy.
“We don’t want chocolate,” they say, with the edgy patience of people who haven’t eaten since 3 a.m. “We’re HUNGRY.”
To pass the time, they both take showers, and I realize there are only two towels. Also, one set of sheets for two beds. My U.S. phone doesn’t work, and I don’t want to rack up bills with the landline.
I suddenly feel the reality of our imprisonment.
Then comes a quiet knock on the door. Aha! I open it to find a shopping bag just outside, full of salads and fruit and pastries. Smiles all around. I manage to message my sister, who’s standing by with a pre-planned suitcase full of books, games, Tim Tams and Vegemite – life’s essentials. Hastily adding some items to the list (milk, instant ramen, Shiraz) I fish out the phone chargers and we settle happily down for the night, only popping outside to wave down to my niece in a surreal moment after she delivers the suitcase of goodies to reception.
As the kids turn out the lights and slump under the comforters, I pause at the balcony door, breathing in the humid, polluted Sydney air. Across the street a giant Moreton Bay fig, taller than our hotel, rustles in the salty breeze. Home. Just out of reach, but only for 14 days.
I exhale, and shut the door.