I moved to Singapore alone during the pandemic and spent 14 days quarantining in a tiny hotel room — here's what it was like

Lina Batarags / InsiderA water bottle a day keeps the madness away (or at least gives you a way to track how many days have passed).
  • I arrived in Singapore on January 8 and spent 14 days quarantined alone in a hotel room.
  • The key to maintaining my sanity was a mindset I referred to as “low power mode.”
  • My daily steps topped out at 150, and the meals got repetitive, but you can order food (and wine).
  • Visit Insider’s homepage for more stories.

On January 6, nearly a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, I boarded the longest flight in the world.

It was the dead of winter when I left New York City’s JFK airport. For ten months, as borders opened and closed and COVID cases around the world surged, two coworkers and I had been delaying a move overseas to launch a new bureau for Insider. Now, a mere 19 hours on the world’s longest flight stood between me and my destination: Singapore.

I booked a seat in premium economy on a Singapore Airlines flight and got a complimentary upgrade to the first row of the section, which meant I could stretch my feet out completely straight in front of me. After a meal and drink, the lights were dimmed and I fell asleep. When I woke up, I found that I’d slept for 10 hours straight.

It was January 8 when we touched down in Singapore’s Changi airport, early morning and pouring rain.

Singapore airlines arrivalLina Batarags / InsiderDon’t let the sunny light streaming through the windows fool you — I arrived in Singapore during monsoon season, and it was pouring.

What it’s like to arrive in Singapore during COVID

Singapore’s airport is world famous for, among other things, its enormous waterfall and movie theatre. My fellow passengers and I, however, saw very little of it. From the minute we got off the plane, we were ushered through its (very empty) halls in an efficient and highly directed manner — no chance for straggling or exploring.

That’s because Singapore has strict COVID-related restrictions in place for anyone entering the country. I had to get a PCR test 72 hours before departure, the (negative) results of which had to be presented at check-in at JFK and again upon arrival at Singapore customs.

Pre-departure logistics aside, though, the daunting part is what comes after arrival: Anyone entering the country has to self-isolate in a hotel room for 14 days. This period of time is called Stay-Home Notice (SHN), and it’s strictly monitored by the government.

Once I cleared customs, I hauled my two oversized suitcases to a set of sliding doors where I was told to board a bus that would take me to my SHN hotel. I was one of maybe 20 people on the bus; most of them appeared to — like me — be travelling alone.

The thing about SHN is that no one knows which hotel the bus is bound for, and it’s completely luck of the draw. There’s an entire 17,000-member Facebook group dedicated to sharing SHN experiences; one woman filmed her entire quarantine in the 5-star Shangri-La and posted it on YouTube, but others complained of hotel rooms filled with cockroaches and without windows.

As the bus pulled out of the airport, I stared out the window and felt like I had somehow reverted back to my childhood: I neither knew where I was going nor could exert any kind of control over my surroundings. The American couple behind me kept drawing their breaths in when we drove past fancy hotels and then letting them out with increasing despondency as the bus wove on through the city streets.

Some 40 minutes later, we pulled up in front of a hotel in the upscale neighbourhood of Newton. Couples were escorted off the bus first, then women, and men last. At the front desk, the terms of my SHN were reiterated to me: I’d get a hotel room and would not be allowed to leave it for 14 days. The only exception would be on the 10th day, on which I’d get another PCR test either in the lobby or at a designated testing centre. If and when that test came back negative, I would be allowed to leave the hotel on and start my life in Singapore.

Oh, and one more thing, the front desk attendant said: There were three food options. Which did I want? She pointed to three laminated pieces of paper, which read, “Asian,” “Asian vegetarian,” and “Western.” I chose “Asian.”

With that, I was directed to take an elevator to the 13th of 14 floors. I pushed my way into my room with both my suitcases, heard the door click behind me, and took a look at my new home.

Initial impressions: Lots of windows, but no couch

The room was small: A narrow entry hallway opened up to a bathroom (replete with rain shower) on my left and fed right into the bedroom, which is pictured below.

The immediate pros of the room: One entire wall was windowed and looked out over the city, and the space was clean. I could control the AC. I had curtains and blackout curtains alike.

The immediate cons of the room: There was no couch, no balcony, and the windows didn’t open.

Singapore SHN hotelLina Batarags / InsiderHome sweet SHN.

I also quickly found a mini-fridge in the dresser. This would come in handy when I started ordering groceries and meals from local eateries to my room.

It only took a day to establish an approximate understanding of how my next two weeks would go. The doorbell would ring three times a day (8:30 a.m., noon, 5:30 p.m.), at which point I’d open the door and find, draped over the doorknob, a plastic baggie with my meal. Each meal came in a plastic tray with three divisions to it, and each lunch came with a water bottle.

The meals were … how should I say this? Inconsistent.

Initially, I found myself eating rice twice a day, often mixed with raisins. There was also a lot of bok choy, which I loved, and a lot of fish, which I loved a lot less. Here’s a sampling of my cuisine when I had the Asian menu:

Meals in SHN Singapore quarantineLina Batarags / InsiderA sampling of meals in SHN – breakfast on the left, lunch on the right.

On the seventh day of quarantine, I called the front desk and asked if my food could be switched to the “Western” cuisine. At that point, my days started to look much carb-heavier. My second week of quarantine involved many croissants and many, many potatoes:

SHN meals singapore quarantine western cuisineLina Batarags / InsiderI did not eat the Bologna.

After the meal, I’d put the garbage back outside in the hallway and someone would collect it. Very rarely did I come face to face with any hotel employees.

Three times a day, I would take my temperature and record it in a location-tracking app called Homer.

But before all of this became part of my new routine, I have to admit — the compactness of the room freaked me out. How could I work out in this space? Where would I read? How would I differentiate between sleeping time and reading time if I only had a bed?

Once I stopped being dramatic, I laid out a plan for my days — and I started operating on a little something I came to think of as “low power mode.”

Like when your iPhone is on low power mode … but for humans

When your phone is on low power mode, you can still do things like text, browse the web, and make phone calls, but certain core functions are disabled, and the display brightness is reduced.

That’s more or less how I felt for 14 days. I was still texting and making phone calls (lots of them) across the 13-hour time difference to my friends, parents, and brothers in the US, and I was on the internet pretty much all the time (looking at you, Property Guru). I read four and a half books, did a lot of research on my new home country, started and abandoned a bunch of Netflix shows, spent a lot of time on FaceTime calls and … that’s about it.

All of that is to say I basically turned the pace of my core functions, if you will, down. In my New York City life, I was often working late, making myself go on long runs, and generally trying to make use of my days — even during the 2020 quarantine — to the max. By contrast, I now intentionally kept my energy, my emotions, my excitement over having finally arrived in Singapore, and, importantly, my expectations of myself over the coming days, simmering on low.

SHN view SingaporeLina Batarags / InsiderI got very familiar with the view from my hotel room. The rooftop tennis court was being painted during my SHN and provided a nice alternative to watching Netflix.

Quarantine tips: A little bit of exercise counts for a lot, as does getting out of your PJs

Even so, I won’t say time flew by.

The two-week period feels a bit like a black hole in my memory. But in addition to little luxuries like the acai bowls I ordered on local food-delivery app Food Panda, there were two specific habits that helped segment the time and make each day seem somewhat purposeful and thereby more bearable.

1. Establishing a routine. On weekdays, I’d get up at 8:30 for breakfast, make the bed (even if only to get back onto it 15 minutes later), organise my stuff, and clean the bathroom. I’d read until lunch came. The afternoons, admittedly, disappeared in a haze of internet searches — like figuring out which local bank to open an account in and researching every expat-favoured neighbourhood in Singapore.

SHN workoutsLina Batarags / InsiderWelcome to my workout hallway.

2. Staying as active as my space allowed. The first day was rough, and not just because of the time difference. It was also made all the longer by the fact that after sitting in a plane for 19 hours, I proceeded to sit/lie down for another 24 hours in my room. While I literally didn’t walk more than 150 steps on any given day, I did turn the hallway into a workout hallway and hold myself accountable for doing 30-60 minutes of YouTube workouts a day.

Parting thoughts

In a slight timeline variation from my expectation, I got my PCR test on the 12th day of SHN.

That morning rolled in with some monsoon season thunder. At 10 a.m. sharp, I heard a knock on my door; it was a hotel employee in head-to-toe PPE, beckoning me downstairs for my PCR test. I pulled on my sneakers and power-walked — and I mean power-walked — down the hallway behind her.

As we waited for the elevator, she turned to me.

“How are you doing,” she asked. “How has it been for you?”

I thought about it for a moment.

“It’s been alright,” I finally responded. “Some ups, some downs. But really, it’s not been so bad.”

In the lobby, I passed through a line of hotel employees who asked for my name and various identifying details before I was seated in a plastic chair opposite a koi pond. My pleasure at finally being outside and feeling the breeze was somewhat offset by the sensation of having an enormous Q-tip stuffed up both nostrils. The whole process took less than 10 minutes, after which I was directed back upstairs to my room.

Later, after dinner, I opened my door to another knock and found a thin plastic bag hanging off the handle. Inside was an envelope and some colourful chocolates.

“Well done,” the letter inside read. “You have completed your 14-day quarantine period.”

SHN chocolates Singapore quarantineLina Batarags / Insider

I’m now three weeks out of quarantine. I — and every single person I’ve seen on the streets — wear a mask everywhere I go. That includes masking up in restaurants, bars, and cafes until the first drink is served and immediately after the last plate is cleared. Just today I went out for a work lunch, and we had a meal together in the restaurant. I felt not only normal but also safe doing so.

In retrospect, it was a luxury to spend the time in SHN alone. The space would have been difficult to live in with someone else for 14 days, since I only had a bed and no couch. But the real takeaway for me — and one that my colleague Julie has written about too — is that 14 days in a hotel room is a small price to pay in exchange for the relative normalcy that can currently be found in Singapore, which is mostly COVID-free.

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