When the pandemic hit, I was 15,000-miles away in Antarctica. My journey home lasted a week — sailing first to the Falkland Islands, then flying 21 hours via São Paulo. Self-isolating in rural Virginia was not a hardship, but a year of canceled work trips was upsetting. I accepted that my business travel would be stalled for the long-haul, but after seven months without crossing my own county line, I landed a gig in South Korea.
As a “high risk” American nonresident, entering South Korea involved a mandatory, 14-day quarantine locked alone in a room at a government isolation facility. My check-in at New York’s nearly-empty JFK included signing legal documents acknowledging that I was voluntarily placing myself in government custody and that I would have to pay for it — a fixed cost of 1.68 million KRW (equivalent to $1,459.99).
Ushered into my seat by flight crew dressed in full PPE, I felt the drastic cultural difference between the mask-optional attitudes of my home state versus the meticulously-enforced measures of the Koreans. Even with my sanitizing wipes, masks, sealed eye goggles, and bottles of hand sanitizer, I felt self-conscious as the dirty foreigner on the plane. When my bare finger grazed a glass of water on a serving tray, the gloved attendant removed the contaminated glass and dropped it in a plastic bag.
Arriving at Seoul Incheon felt like stepping into a space-age Ellis Island, with me in the role of overwhelmed peasant from a more-infected and less-developed nation. In a daze, I followed the cues of so many impersonal figures wrapped head to toe in disposable coveralls with hoods and face shields. A pair of blue rubber gloves lifted my phone out of my hands and downloaded a Korean government app. I was now being tracked and traced. Masked guards led me through a series of checkpoints where I filled out so many documents that I quickly memorized my nine-digit passport number. At least four times I lowered my mask for photo identification and pressed my fingerprints onto a glass plate for scanning. Before leaving the airport, my temperature was taken seven times.
My fellow travelers were seated one row apart and ferried in a locked, police-escorted bus with red-and-blue flashing lights. We knew quarantine awaited, but none of us knew what or where that would be. Muffled by masks, we sighed collectively when our bus pulled up to the Marina Bay Seoul, a 4-star hotel near the Gimpo Bridge over the Han River.
But checking into quarantine is not the same as checking into a hotel. First the tracing app was removed from my phone and a new quarantine app installed so that I could submit twice-a-day health checks from my room. I was issued towels and bed linen that would be incinerated when I left, then a policeman escorted me on my one-way elevator ride to my quarantine room on the 15th floor.
The click of the lock behind me sounded heavy — almost permanent. Despite all the promises I had made to the South Korean government never to leave my room (not even to stroll the hallway), there was no honor code. After being tested in my room for COVID (both nasal and throat swabs), a masked handyman entered with a power drill and attached a new lock and alarm to my door. Now my room could only be unlocked remotely for visiting medical staff and to retrieve meals. When I accidentally cracked open my door before a scheduled unlocking, I set off a loud wailing siren that sent staff running hurriedly toward my room. I apologized sheepishly.
In addition to a full-size bed, a cushioned bench, a desk and chair, and a plug-in tea kettle, my room came with a half-liter of hand sanitizer, a pack of face masks, a stack of disposable paper cups, and a dozen bright orange plastic biohazard bags with instructions on how to double-bag all my trash. The detailed instructions contained a stark warning: should I get bored of sitting in my room and walk away, I would face a criminal penalty of 1-year imprisonment and/or a fine of 10 million KRW ($8,905.00) and deportation. I would also be liable for civil damages for any harm I caused the Republic of Korea. The notice included real-life examples of recent quarantine-breakers who were arrested, charged, fined, and deported with a 5-year prohibition of re-entry.
My hotel room was small but roomy by Asian standards — about 195 square feet (including the bathroom with its rain shower and fancy bidet-style toilet). I unpacked my clothes and set out a few books to read, but I wanted my time in quarantine to be a cultural experience in its own right. To that end, I taped a map of Korea to one wall and the Korean hangul alphabet on another.
I studied Korean for 30-minutes a day, using an app and watching Korean-language videos online. Within a week I could read aloud from the food labels in my delivered meals. I received three fixed meals per day served in sealed bento-style plastic trays. When registering, I had marked “no dietary restrictions” and picked “Korean” over the alternative “Western” menu. The surprise of mealtime became a daily highlight, even if I passed on a few items. I had a tough time with the greyish boiled quail eggs in soy sauce, but shocked myself by falling in love with myulchi bokkeum — wire-thin anchovies, dried and stir-fried with shishito peppers and tossed with rice wine sesame oil. My new favorite side dish stared back at me with a hundred little eyes, but I joyfully lifted my chopsticks for every nutty, sweet, spicy, salty, crunchy bite.
Two weeks of controlled portions of lean protein and veggies helped me drop some of the pandemic weight I had gained during a summer of sourdough stress-baking. I exercised the best I could in my limited space, doing a daily routine of pushups, sit-ups and planks, as well as a 30-minute yoga flow that unkinked my limbs and lifted my spirits. I also meditated a little each day, which helped me feel less confined.
I felt passing bouts of loneliness on Day 5 and Day 10 and reached out to friends and family online. I watched people outside, as if they were acting out some long silent play on the waterfront. I began to recognize the quarantine guards that arrived each morning. I witnessed a sailing lesson in the marina, when the beginner flipped his craft and was left bobbing with his lifejacket until the instructor fished him out and righted the boat. I saw father and daughter launch their pink-and-yellow kite into the sky, unspooling the long string until the dancing kite greeted me at eye level on the 15th floor.
I was grateful for the floor-to-ceiling window with its view of the city marina, the outlet mall beyond it, and a mountain that loomed like a painting. Even at this urban edge of Seoul — a city of 10 million people — I could see whole forests between the high-rises. In the span of two weeks, the hillside in front of me faded from dark green to golden yellow to burnt-orange.
Sometimes I was surprised by dense fog or sudden rain, followed by blazing sunbursts. Black cormorants whizzed by me in flocks, then dropped and plunged into the green water, bobbing back to the surface clutching fish in their beaks. My eyes followed the jumbo jets that took off from Incheon at dusk, when the whole sky bled pink — and at night, I pressed my face against the cold window and watched the highway flood with the flowing colored lights of evening traffic.
I never felt bored and rarely watched television. The freelance rap competitions were amusing, and I got into the intense Korean volleyball games, but I was most enamored by pansori (traditional musical chant accompanied by a single drummer). I began searching for performances on YouTube and was not disappointed. With lots of time and infinite bandwidth, I tested my hypothesis that Korean culture is conquering the Internet by casting myself adrift in the algorithmic snowball that came after changing my location to Seoul. I clicked past the overabundance of K-pop and dug deep into Korea’s experimental digital music scene (favorite new artist: COR3A).
Day after day I grew more excited about exploring the country outside my window. Yet day to night and dawn to noon, I got so lost in the long slow rhythm of quarantine that I jumped in my desk chair when my room phone rang.
“Who will pick you up tomorrow?” a guard wanted to know.
“Tomorrow?” I asked, relieved that someone else had been counting the days for me. I arranged my pickup but felt a little wistful that my odd stoic adventure was almost over. I worried that maybe I enjoyed quarantine a little too much — when else in my life would I have so little stress and so much calm for this many days in a row?
My last meal came with a celebratory yakgwa, or honey cookie, and I nibbled it slowly while contemplating the emotional weirdness the pandemic had introduced to our lives. After a career spent hopscotching the globe, I wondered if this kind of strict quarantine was the new normal — at least for a time.
I slept awkwardly that last night, anxious for what the morning represented — a green light to travel freely in a relatively low-risk destination. Fourteen days was the price of that privilege, but my two weeks spent in quarantine represent a unique experience that added weight and meaning to the rest of my journey. On the morning of the 14th day, when the hotel doors slid open, I felt the sudden breeze and heard the outside rush of 10 million people. Then I heard my own feet step out onto the sidewalk.