I did it – I travelled during the pandemic. Not only that, I survived two weeks of mandatory quarantine in a government centre. And I lived to tell the tale...
I returned to Hong Kong from South Africa, where I had been visiting family for what turned out to be an extremely extended stay owing to restrictions on international travel. By the time I was able to book a flight, the Hong Kong government had announced that returnees from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Nepal and South Africa would not be allowed to quarantine at home but would instead have to quarantine at government camps; these countries are considered “high risk” owing to their lower testing rates. This was a daunting concept – two weeks in a strange place, locked away from the rest of the world, with not even the comforts of home to get me by. How was I going to get through it?
Long story short, I did get through it. It was actually relatively pleasant. I had a clean, bright room with enough space to do yoga and plenty of natural light. The staff were very friendly, as were my neighbours, who I was able to speak to at a safe distance while masked up (we now have a WhatsApp group and recently had our first real- world reunion). I did, however, have two complaints. One being the Wi-Fi (hello, HK$800 China Mobile bill from hot-spotting my phone) and the other being the food.
Now, to be fair, feeding all those hungry quarantiners is surely no easy task, and my food was always on time and served with a smile... I think (it was hard to tell under the hazmat suits). It is not my intention to criticise the incredible efforts of the Hong Kong medical community in containing COVID-19 nor the quarantine centres that have been set up in a very short space of time. Please simply take this “review” as a light-hearted anecdote for the countless friends, family members and acquaintances who have showed immense curiosity about the food served there. There was something very post-apocalyptic about having carefully packaged meals dropped off three times a day by medical staff in PPE.
As a hardcore foodie, two weeks of what I would describe as less nutritious, exceptionally bland, hospital-esque meals certainly affected my mood. Physically, I had a decent amount of energy and managed to exercise every single day, so I guess the food was doing something right. However, we can probably attribute that energy to the entire box of sugary cookies from Cookie DPT that was generously sent over by my wonderful colleague.
Chocolate chip cookie from Cookie DPT, my beautiful reminder that things can still taste good
The return journey to Hong Kong
Travelling during a pandemic is not something I would recommend unless absolutely necessary – i.e., to get home. It is an exhausting, stressful and all-round surreal experience. I flew with KLM via Amsterdam in a journey that took 41 hours in total – and that was much less stressful than the build-up to the flight. To travel during this time, you need far more documentation than usual, and flights are being cancelled left, right and centre. With fewer flights, the price of a single ticket is exorbitant.
The first leg of my journey involved a stopover in Réunion to change crew and refuel. During this time, we stayed on the plane for about an hour and a half, and this took our flight time to a total of 19 hours. The plane was full – no social distancing whatsoever – but they strictly enforced wearing masks. There was limited service on board (some airlines offer none whatsoever), a single hot meal was provided (pasta), a snack pack containing the saddest quarter of a tuna sandwich I have ever eaten was placed on each seat and, most importantly, no alcohol was served – this seems to be the standard rule across all airlines at the moment. The hot food on KLM is decent as far as plane food goes, and I probably would have appreciated it even more if I had known the full extent of what was coming next.
Next came a 12-hour layover at Schipol airport. I had coffee with my new French friend at one of the only restaurants open at the airport. We had got extremely close (literally) as we sat snugly next to each other on our 19-hour journey, but, alas, she went off to Paris, while I settled into the lounge for the next 10 hours. In the lounge, I was able to shower, eat and have a few glasses of sparkling wine. However, it turned out that lunch was the same as the breakfast option (salad and a sandwich) as the lounge was only running a limited service.
I made my way to the only other restaurant open at the airport – McDonald’s. I wept quietly at the equivalent of a HK$150 set containing only a McChicken burger, fries and McFlurry (peanut M&M – genius), but I enjoyed the junk food nonetheless. Duty-free shops were open, which meant I was able to impulse-buy some discounted boxes of stroopwafels. The layover went by surprisingly quickly, and before I knew it, it was time for my final 12-hour flight to Hong Kong.
Breakfast (and lunch) at the KLM non-Schengen Crown Lounge
Sparkling wine set against the backdrop of John James Audubon’s “American Flamingo” in the lounge
The second flight was nice and empty, with each of us getting our own row. Strangely, we were not given a pillow, so I fashioned one out of four blankets. I may have also taken the opportunity to grab a couple (dozen) stroopwaffels from the aeroplane galley.
The day you arrive in Hong Kong counts as your first day of quarantine. If you need to go to a quarantine centre, you and any other fellow quarantine campers will be privately escorted in an air-conditioned-free vehicle to AsiaWorld-Expo to get tested. The last time I was at AWE was for a Britney Spears concert, and the vibe was a little different this time around. If you need to quarantine at home or at a hotel, you may have to wait a few hours at the Britney-free AWE or spend the night at Regal Kowloon Hotel. A perk of going to quarantine camp is that you’ll get taken straight there after you’ve done the test. Three other South Africans and I arrived at Lei Yue Mun Park and Holiday Village in the late afternoon and got settled in.
Lei Yue Mun Park and Holiday Village resembles a sort of caravan park with its identical mobile homes
The room comes equipped with one kettle, a jug, some crackers, a plastic cup, one cup noodles and two sachets of Ovaltine (score). No fridge, no microwave, no condiments. Bottled water is delivered if you ask nicely, and it stayed nice and cool provided I kept it on top of my wardrobe, directly under the air conditioner set at 18 degrees. People are allowed to drop things off for you, but they may not drop off alcohol, fresh food, perishable food, knives or scissors. Packaged food (like the aforementioned stroopwaffels) is best. My best friend dropped off some pretty sweet instant noodles and packets of dried seaweed so that I could pretend I was eating ramen. The quarantine centre staff expressed great concern over some maple walnut fudge, but my bestie assured them that there was enough syrup in there to outlive us all.
Some of the other items (food related) I brought with me or got delivered that I found useful included:
- Dishwashing liquid
- My own cutlery (they have set the zero-waste movement back about 100 years with the amount of plastic used), including a sharp knife and scissors
- Instant noodles
- Protein bars
- Teabags and instant coffee
- A citrus juicer (they give you oranges every single day, sometimes twice a day – see below for reference)
- My favourite crisps from back home
- Dried fruit
- Instant oats
- Powdered sauce that can be mixed with hot water
- Garlic and chilli salt
This freakishly large orange accounted for at least three out of my five a day
When you arrive, you are given a menu and a choice of meal options. You can choose from halal, halal vegetarian, vegetarian, Chinese and Western. I have it on good authority that the halal options are the most flavourful, however, these are comprised of curry and fried rice every single day. I chose to mix and match, finding that no option was really better than the other.
As you are in quarantine for two weeks, you select three meals a day for one week, and they repeat these choices the next week. That way, you have the added dread of knowing that your least favourite meal will inevitably return. Above you’ll note some breakfast choices for Wednesday, including everyone’s favourite combo of cereal with milk and sweetcorn.
As many of the dishes are very similar, I’ll spare you the time it would take to read a review of two weeks’ worth of meals. Instead, I’ll review the ones I remembered to take pictures of and separate the food into breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Breakfast is my favourite meal of the day, and I still found this to be true in quarantine. Please do not mistake this statement to mean that breakfast was good (you’ve been warned!).
Some prefer their oatmeal thicker, while some prefer it to have a bit more moisture. I am confident when I say, however, that nobody enjoys drinking what can only be described as oat water. To be fair, I had oats a few times in the centre, and they were much better than this gloopy mess. I added dried fruit for some sweetness.
Here we have our cover star: turnip cake and fried noodles. By “fried”, I think they mean completely dehydrated. The turnip cake was starchy but not bad, just your standard, microwaved lo bak go.
More completely inedible “fried” noodles of the cardboard variety along with microwaved siu mai (or, as my friend Kelly calls them, meat marshmallows) and a meatball, I think? As Kelly mused, it’s a sad day when the best part of your meal is a meat marshmallow.
Remember that sad tuna sandwich I mentioned earlier? Would you believe that this was actually far superior? While they were clearly scraping the tuna tin to scrounge up this sandwich filling, it was not bad. I feared that my taste buds were deteriorating by the day.
Ah, yes, the iconic Hong Kong Spam and egg sandwich – the breakfast of champions. I’m not sure how they managed to make the egg as rubbery as they did, but I was suitably impressed. The Spam was lightly fried, which was a nice touch. This was obviously my favourite breakfast during my stay.
I decided to be adventurous and opt for the Portuguese fried rice as my Tuesday lunch option. What makes it Portuguese? We may never know. It was a standard Yangzhou fried rice with the addition of tomato sauce. Was it kind of gross? Yes. Did I enjoy it? Also, yes.
I really thought this was going to be a good one. Tofu with black bean sauce – pretty simple, right? Sadly, there was a terrible aftertaste that made me swap out this dish for a box of instant noods. Also, rule of thumb, when the quarantine menu says “assorted vegetables”, they mean boiled cabbage and whatever was in the middle.
If you know me at all, you know that I cannot stomach sweetcorn. I attribute this aversion to an odd flatmate I had for a brief period who insisted on topping absolutely everything with tinned sweetcorn; it’s all I could smell in the flat for a month before I moved out. As I opened this meal box – which, by the way, made no mention of sweetcorn on the menu – the smell once again engulfed me, and I simply couldn’t do it. Pretend ramen it was.
Now, I know the traditional way to cook pasta is al dente, but there really is something to be said for pasta that is so overcooked and clumped together that it allows your fork to stand up all on its own. I had so much spaghetti during my stay; it was all pretty much edible, but it reminded me of school camps where you would be served spaghetti from a tin. Not bad enough to put me off pasta altogether, but I’ll definitely be sticking to penne for some time. Anyway, the shrimp and tinned mushrooms were welcome additions.
What did I tell you about the boiled cabbage? And, hey, more sweetcorn! This enticing dish was listed as “minced pork with basil and dried turnip with garlic pork ribs, rice and assorted vegetables”. The ribs were mostly bone, but I enjoyed sucking off the fried garlic. The mince was unpleasant and soupy at best.
Here we have some more spaghetti with a ketchup-like sauce and some pink chicken. I started to play fun games like “Is this chicken cooked enough to eat?” and “Are these symptoms of salmonella?” (don’t try these at home). I’m 90% sure this chicken was fine though.
What’s the first thing you’ll eat when you get out? That’s the question my fellow quarantine pals and I would constantly ask each other. Many of us craved fresh, nutritious veggies – the boiled cabbage was just not cutting it. We dreamed of cheesy pizza, steak cooked to perfection and a cappuccino that did not come out of a Nestlé packet.
For a few days after being released, I wondered if food had always tasted so good. I marvelled at the texture of my chewy Shanxi noodles and the aroma of fresh chilli sauce. I praised a vegetable soup from Pret for its commitment to salt and flavour. I contemplated if I could eat an entire round of baked Camembert by myself. The answer was yes, probably, but I practised restraint.
We so often take food for granted, not realising how truly vital it is to our survival and well-being. I am now back to my “normal” eating habits, but I am still so very grateful for every delicious experience.
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