In a Pandemic, Chasing Home and Hope | Nat Geo Traveller India

In a Pandemic, Chasing Home and Hope

A writer relocates from Bombay to Singapore, and the second wave hits home.  
In a Pandemic, Chasing Home and Hope
It isn’t difficult to carve out moments of solitude at Singapore’s Marina Barrage. Photo By: Nuttawut Uttamaharad/Shutterstock

The window in which writing about a 14-day quarantine spent in a hotel room in Singapore wouldn’t feel out of place has long passed. 

It was February, and #goadiaries was unabashedly trending on Instagram. When I decided to emerge from my gopher town where I’d kept myself and my elderly parents hidden (and safe) for 11 months, it was to move countries to be with my partner whom I hadn’t met in 1.5 years.   

For two weeks, a locked-up room in Singapore replaced a locked-up home in Bombay. Three times a day, a doorbell announced the meal kept on a table at the door. Outside, the suburb of Tiong Bahru, where a famous 1946 stall of Hainanese Curry Rice runs out long before 1 p.m., where curvy buildings with nautical elements look like they could walk on water, spread out beyond my window (“To allow you to open the window, we’d need a GP to authorise that you really need…” “…a window?” I asked the receptionist over the phone one evening. “…an open window, yes,” she said, like she truly felt bad for me.) I’d never been so caged—and so weightless without the worry I felt in Bombay. The loneliness of drinking coffee with bland creamer, or badly made breakfast left untouched made no dent in my mood. In the evening, opening the door and quietly watching hotel staff on distant floors gliding their carts, dropping packed dinners at the doors of other quarantined guests felt like I was looking at an Edward Hopper painting.        

But this isn’t a lament about being unable to write about some hotel stay when the country is experiencing the worst of the virus. This is more about the unease of an escape, of realising (not for the first time) that in a lengthening pandemic, responsibility fatigue has no place. That travel—an aspirational, restorative act—which we passionately endorse as a bridge across people and cultures, is at the wrong time, also a great divider. 

 

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In a Pandemic, Chasing Home and Hope 3

A day before Singapore imposed tighter COVID-19 restrictions, the writer revisits Library@Esplanade and the Singapore River. Photos By: Kareena Gianani

 

At the start of May, a new COVID-19 cluster in Singapore was detected at a local hospital. Locally transmitted cases began hovering around 10, a matter of deep concern in a community that went days, sometimes weeks, without community transmission over the past few months. It made my partner uneasy, my routine of heading to a café in a nearby mall for a breakfast of kaya toast, kopi, and eggs. The mall adjoins an MRT station—and a hospital. “You could choose a different place,” he offered. I have chosen to be in a different place, I’d think, but not aloud. 

Every morning I walk at Kent Ridge Park, first circling the pond teeming with turtle and fish, and then walking past the gazebos and runners, climb uphill to the canopy walk. I recognise kites and drongos by name here, and keep an eye out for the many species of dragonflies—things I rarely did on trips to national parks back home in India. Some say Kent Ridge Park is haunted but to me that is less interesting than the fact that one of the last battles for Singapore during WWII was fought here. The smallest of details in a place with no personal history make me happy.

On most days, after about 50 minutes into my walk, my phone would ring. My mother would call from the home she has rarely left since March 2020. Until two months ago, her voice was hopeful; she’d tell me about meeting the sister she hadn’t seen in a year, or a new combination offered by a local pizzeria. But her latest calls would be listless roll calls of people she knows who are battling the second wave. I wouldn’t always have the heart to tell her about mundane joys even when she’d ask about my days: a growing addiction to teh peng (iced milk tea) and cheese foam bubble tea; the discovery of frogs who ‘bark’ beside the koi pond under my building; an independent university café which runs free barista workshops for youth in need, and how I skulk around outside after hours to watch teens master latte art. They feel like double lives, the comfort of one of little use in another.

 

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In a Pandemic, Chasing Home and Hope 1

Singapore’s month-long restrictions ban outdoor dining at its iconic hawker centres (left), but locals can still gather in small numbers (right). Photos By: Kareena Gianani

 

Four days ago, Singapore closed schools and tightened COVID-19 restrictions due to rising cases. I was in the supermarket when I read the new rules, eyeing strangers’ carts and piling my own—curry leaves from Malaysia, rice from Vietnam, oranges from Florida, vials of Yakult (a probiotic drink I greedily hide from my partner) from Japan. In a place where much comes from the outside, a people who diligently wore masks and largely maintained distance in public spaces were caught unawares by virus variants that too entered via the limited flights operating at Changi airport, forming a large cluster. 

A wedding ceremony here, which involved a total of two guests (we needed witnesses), may have held limited allure for us. But our hope to spend a week in Hong Kong this July was heartfelt. The day before the restrictions come into effect, the Hong Kong-Singapore air bubble also gets suspended. Over what will be our last lunch out for a month, we drown our sorrow by going to Ghim Moh. 

When Singaporeans in their 50s remember pre-gentrified days, it is places like Ghim Moh they retreat to. Family-run bakeries selling fluffy pandan cakes, old dress makers’ shops, seniors scratching away at lottery tickets in booths, a domestic worker on her day off shaking a mango tree to perhaps share the fruit on a picnic that evening. Our conversations flit from good to grim: the excellent cured plum I bagged from an old Chinese candy store; the variant from India, a recent racist attack on a Singaporean Indian woman here. Should we worry? Do all Chinese stores have such pucker-worthy plum? We don’t know. But for now, for us people who will soon have nowhere much to go, Ghim Moh is an alright place to be.

 

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  • Kareena Gianani loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes. She is the former Commissioning Editor of Nat Geo Traveller India.

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