The Natural World has to do with this post only in as much as it was human interaction with bats that started the novel coronavirus that sees me – and many others – in self-isolation for the next couple of weeks. This post is to serve two functions: first, a mental health check for me, and second, to let others know the challenges they’ll face should they be so stuck.
Day 0: Australia to Self-Isolation
Started out, still drunk, at 4 a.m. for a ride to Melbourne airport, a short flight to Sydney, the inevitable hanging around, and 9 hours home to Hong Kong (wearing a surgical mask). There were no air traffic delays (!) and the airport was nearly deserted, but a couple of flights must have landed at the same time as mine. Hong Kong, being part of the hi-tech Greater Bay Area (Silicon Valley done by geriatric technomorons), gave me two forms to fill out by hand. To maintain social distancing, we were given densely packed tables to stand at. It turned out that, in this day and age, one of the forms was to be filled out in duplicate. I was tagged with a wristband, asked to download an app – “Stay Home Safe” – and told to expect an SMS “soon” to activate the app as I may be fined if I can’t be tracked with the app.
Got home. Wife still at the office to finish off some stuff as she’s banned from work until my own self-isolation is over. On the basis that coronavirus does not like it hot, I had a blistering shower, and threw all dirty clothes into the machine for an equally scorching wash. Phoned the Stay Home Safe hotline and asked for the activation SMS. The lady said to get in touch if it hadn’t arrived by tomorrow. Wife came home, we had dinner, I read a book, crashed on the study floor to minimise the chances of infecting her.
Day 1: Catching Up
Established while sleeping that our floor is hard. Really hard. Even with an exercise matt and another matt beneath that. Breakfast was toast with a tomato, and tea. It had rained overnight so the clothes I’d hung out to dry needed to be rehung. I took a long, sad look outside (our flat looks out over playing fields and hills), and decided not to endanger others and cheat by sneaking out.
The SMS for my tracking app hadn’t arrived. Phoned the hotline and left a message, only it hung up before I could finish. This was the first of half a dozen unanswered calls – it turns out that I’m far from the only one in the same situation. Meanwhile, although the HK Government (HKG) can’t get its act together to make a basic tracking app work, it can devote expensive resources to arrest a lawmaker – at 1:30 a.m. – for sedition. (Yes, in 2020, sedition is still on Hong Kong’s books as a crime.)
It turned out to be a useful day to catch up on all the stuff I hadn’t been able to keep on top of while I was on holiday. I help out with two organisations – the HK Writers’ Circle and Freemasonry – and I’d fallen behind. Wife cooked lunch – kimchee and leek soup with dumplings – very tasty. The afternoon’s assignment was to sharpen the kitchen knives, presumably to make sure that, when I go stir-crazy, she has something to defend herself with.
I’m editing one of my novels, and was able to give it the attention it deserved: good.
Dinner was spinach, udon (a thick Japanese noodle) in soup, and soup with tofu and seaweed. I read for an hour or two, but am still on Eastern Australia time so hit the hard floor feeling vaguely satisfied that I’d got through the day without whimpering about not being able to go out. Fit people are less likely to need emergency treatment: I wondered why HKG can’t let us out for half an hour a day in the local park to let us keep physically and mentally fit. The most likely answer is that they haven’t thought of that; the second most likely is they don’t want us that way.
Sometime during the day, I realised that what matter is not how many days I’ve done, but how many I have to go. So the day numbering is a negative count-up from now on.
The floor is still hard. Breakfast was toast and a tomato, with a dash of olive oil and sea salt.
Today’s Big Task was to rehabilitate two razor handles. I purchased these in Indonesia a few years ago, along with about as many packets of razors as I could carry. Although the packets looked like five-packs from the outside, they turned out to contain two and only two razors per pack, so my hopes of a lifelong supply of the things were dashed. However, when I was there in early April, I sourced another few packets, so the razor handles had life in them yet. Half an hour in Dettol to clean them, and another hour in WD40, and their rehabilitation was complete.
The trouble with catching up on admin is that, once you’ve caught up, you’ve caught up. There were a couple of tail-end tasks, but nothing momentous, so I decided it was my turn to cook lunch: cherry tomato and Red Leicester salad: cut the tomatoes in half, sprinkle over salt, olive oil, balsamic (if it were me, I’d be happy with the cheap stuff – I’ve never understood the fetish for balsamic), and cheese. Didn’t quite work – needed mozzarella, or something else with more kick.
Main course: mother-in-law’s magic tomato gloop augmented with fresh tomatoes, sliced (but not chopped) onion, a local gourd not unlike a courgette, and lots of garlic. Stirred in spaghetti and parmesan: altogether pretty good.
Worked more on the novel. Remembered I’m supposed to be learning Bahasa Indonesian, so revised Chapter 1. Tried to read a book, but the internet at home browned out and I was delegated to phone the provider. I was all set to put it off as Tomorrow’s Big Task, but Wife gave me a look that made me wonder if she’d had me sharpen the knives for a specific reason. The hard part was finding the customer support phone number: by the time I’d done that, the internet was working again.
Wife cooked up a storm for dinner: a beetroot-like root that has no name in English, and a mushroom and tofu mixture. I realised I was so terrified of running out of material that I was rationing myself to a chapter here and a chapter there (I normally have four or five books on the go at any one time, but that’s ALL the books I have).
Day Minus Eleven
It sounds better if I spell it out. There’s an abstract aspect to digits.
The floor had not diminished in hardness this morning, but perhaps I had. It only took me an hour to stretch the stiffness out of my bones. I still haven’t adjusted to local time, so it was six-ish when I awoke, though eight-ish by the time I was up and about.
Breakfast. Same. Toast with tomatoes, enlivened – kind of – with olive oil and salt. There was almost no email – the norm for Saturdays – but what there was needed enough attention to fill an hour. The Big Task today was to clean the water filter, which I did. I wrote the post above, and decided it made more sense to write before bed, which I now am.
I had a decent run at the novel I’m working on, broke for lunch: vegetarian katsu (breaded pork chop) with scrambled egg on a bed of rice, with Japanese curry made from yesterday’s leftover vegetables. To my surprise, it all came together.
Today’s Big-To-Do-List item was to wash the windows – the better I can see that which I am denied – but it started raining, so it was back to the book, then to Indonesian. Wife made noodles and aubergine with fake pork and chili – excellent! – for dinner. Though in the almost complete absence of physical exercise, we’re both struggling to finish the food we cook for ourselves.
After dinner – brilliant! – I remembered a book I was supposed to review, so started on that.
I have noticed how much more time I spend on WhatsApp. I have even started following some of the links and watching some of the videos, both of which I normally skim or delete unseen. Part distraction, part desperation, but mostly the want of human contact. I don’t think I’m the only one – I heard from a friend in Oman who I last was in touch with about seven years ago – he was scraping his Rolodex, but it was good of him to think of me.
To sleep, perchance to dream.
Day Minus Ten
Either the floor is getting softer or my back is getting harder.
Breakfast: the usual. It was clean-the-house day, so I practised the skill I learnt in my first job and made myself useful by mopping the floor. Started on the book. At some point, I found myself bent forwards as an involuntary whine escaped me.
Our usual habit on Sunday mornings is to go to a local greasy spoon for breakfast. Wife cooked up something that was as good for lunch. I managed about another hour in front of the computer, then found myself pacing. I ended up circling the flat continuously for almost an hour, high-stepping and for a few circuits using books as weights for lifting. It wasn’t the same as a walk – didn’t come close – but pointed the way forwards for the next nine days.
Finished editing and read another stage of the book I’ve been given to review – the first Americans let into China, in 1971, since the revolution. It’s well-written and fun. I flicked through the final pages and saw photos of the China I remember from 1985. Wow.
Today’s to-do list was to re-arrange my books by category and alphabetically. I got the Tibetan section sorted. Philosophy or Greek tomorrow, depending on how things work out.
Wife cooked a lovely dinner. Read. Wasted time with Whatsapp – I’m not the only one struggling. Wrote this.
Looking down, I notice I found a set of guitar strings. Another thing on the to-do list! Whoopee!
Day Minus Nine
Whoopee! Into single digits.
Cold this morning. After squirming for a while trying to get back to sleep knowing it was too cold to do so, I found a fleece hanging on the door which did the trick. Breakfast was toast and tomato with tea. There was an email to answer, which was a pleasant surprise. I started drafting my thoughts on self-isolation, which morphed into an opinion piece for HK Free Press. They are taking a break upgrading their website, so rejected it. I cut it down to a letter for the opposition SCMP and, at last, it was down to editing the book.
Somehow the day was almost normal. I made lunch – kidney bean and cherry tomato salad with cheese on toast – and did more editing. Wife went out to buy some groceries, which gave me time to pace around the flat. Wife has some dumbbells – they’re not very heavy, but enough to burn some energy with various made-up movements as I paced.
I’d asked her to get some HK-style café builder’s tea while she was out. She added HK-style French toast, which was a pleasant treat. The next thing I knew, it was time to hit the to-do list: I sorted out the Philosophy section of my bookshelves. Dinner was pasta with pesto sauce and red peppers – yummy – then I cleared off WhatsApp – I’ve had it up to here with coronavirus jokes, so it didn’t take long. Read some books and wrote this. Getting there…