I was on a bus. In Singapore. Finally.
After a 20-hour journey for a trip that normally takes eight hours, I was home, back on safe (and predictable) soil.
But I didn’t know where I was going.
It was May 6 and I was one of 9 passengers that returned on a flight from Sri Lanka. It was the middle of the day, in the middle of the circuit breaker and I was groggy and disoriented, having not slept since I was whisked away from my hometown in Trincomalee.
I was still experiencing a mix of disbelief and relief at being able to get a flight back to Singapore after having waited for weeks.
I had hoped to be told about what lay ahead — the flight crew kept to themselves — at immigration or after clearing it, but was simply waved out of the arrival hall to a parking bay and into one of the waiting buses.
There was no exchange of pleasantries, just a passport check, health declaration and temperature taking. I asked the driver if I could go back into the airport to withdraw some cash from an ATM machine.
“Do it at the hotel,” he said without elaborating.
After waiting for a few more passengers (just 4 in a 40-seater), the bus exited the terminal and entered the beautifully landscaped ECP. I couldn’t resist asking the person sitting in front with the driver as to where we were going.
He grunted out a single word.
I was going to Sentosa.
Life in Shangri-La
Even after having lived in Singapore for the past 20 years, I have not visited Sentosa much other than to take visitors to the laser show, S.E A Aquarium and Universal Studios Singapore. I didn’t realise Sentosa was more than just these attractions, until the bus reached Shangri-La’s Rasa Sentosa Resort and Spa.
My only concern was having to survive 14 days in a closed air-conditioned environment after the open air and sunshine of Sri Lanka, especially as I have sinusitis and have an aversion to cold and tight living conditions.
However, I was reluctant to ask anything as I was uncomfortable with the luxury and opulence of a swanky five-star hotel.
We were welcomed at the counter with a box of pretzels and a request for our credit cards, for a deposit that would be refunded on checkout. As we were led to our rooms, I carried my luggage. It was my first indication of what was to come. We were coming from the lands of the infected, after all, to be excluded and observed.
The greatest relief I had upon entering Room 723 was seeing the balcony, not for its beautiful view of the sea, but for realising that I could breathe fresh air.
My fears about coming down with allergic rhinitis prompting a Covid misdiagnosis evaporated when I opened the balcony doors to invite the warmth and sea breeze into the room.
After a shower, a snack and a nap, I was awoken by the doorbell. I drew my curtains to see the sun setting, then opened the door to see a package left on a stool. Peering out into the empty corridor, I saw that each room had a stool outside on which food packs and drink cans were placed.
It is then that I realised we weren’t allowed to meet anyone — we had to pick up food left at the door, clean up after ourselves then leave our garbage to be disposed of.
I had become an untouchable.
Life in a room that I was not allowed to step out of
I had all my meals at the balcony under the sun and the moon, feeling the sea breeze, (and the rain!). My greatest discovery was that when the balcony doors were open, air-conditioning switched off. For 14 nights, I slept with the balcony doors ajar.
I was concerned about food, not over its quality but its quantity. There was too much of it!
For example, for my first meal on arrival, I received a vegetarian bento dinner packed to the brim with pasta, salad, dessert and juice.
For a small eater like me who hates wasting food, it took me till midnight to finish it. I couldn’t waste any of the five-star efforts from the hotel’s kitchen staff!
The next morning, I opened the door to a 6am breakfast (the doorbell woke me up). Jet-lagged and sleep-deprived, I left it there and went back to bed.
Yes, breakfast had been left outside the door before 7am for someone who usually has coffee only about 9am and a slice of bread after 11am.
When I finally got to the breakfast, cold after being left out for a few hours, I realised that it included noodles, juice and fruit — enough for lunch, which was going to be served soon!
In my desperation to avoid wasting food, I called the reception, and was directed to room service.
“Sorry, sir, you want what again? Less food? And no, I’m sorry, we can’t give you a kids’ meal because we don’t have a vegetarian option.”
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The one who took my call must have found my request strange. In the end, I asked for the Indian vegetarian option, hoping for a smaller portion.
Later, I called room service again to ask them to send only fruits for dinner as I was still eating lunch — I wasn’t going to have it thrown away! The bizarre requests from Room 723 must have reached someone important because I received a call from a chef the next day.
While explaining my concerns about food wastage and asking for smaller portions for all my meals, I realised that the chef was a fellow Indian, a Tamil-speaker. It made it easier for me to convey my food concerns and ask for something light for breakfast and dinner.
After that first odd conversation, the chef and I built an affinity. I spoke with Pradeep almost daily, and he took care of my meals. He even let me know of his days off, so that I was prepared for the extra food (which I kept in the mini-fridge). I even learnt to warm the food for later, by improvising steam from the kettle!
As the days went by, I replaced the breakfast juice with a packet of milk and used it for my coffee and tea — no powdered creamer for me! It was a process of learning and making small discoveries each day, to keep myself engaged.
I know it sounds a little picky and I am certainly not complaining about my treatment.
It’s just to illustrate that being left alone without physical human interaction for 14 days can take a toll on anyone (my only contact came from random spot-checks by SHN officers), and it became important to be able to control what I could — large or small — within my environment.
My other concern was cleaning.
Everything that came into our rooms was disposable.
We were given new towels twice a week and bed linen weekly, with free laundry service of up to four items per day. I started wondering what the hotel would do with the linen!
When it became clear that no one was going to clean our rooms, I asked for cleaning equipment. It seemed like I was being an oddity again as not many guests had done that — housekeeping sent me rags (made from towels) to wipe the floors instead of brooms or mops!
It was a problem since dust was starting to accumulate thanks to my open balcony door. Thankfully, after several requests, I secured a small broom and dustpan. It was a triumphant moment. Between that, and being able to wash both the bathroom and balcony, I was good.
Washing the balcony was crucial, since I often shared meals there with feathered friends, who would inadvertently leave some “gifts” behind. Nonetheless, it was a treat to have them come and perch fearlessly on the balcony rails during my mealtimes.
Within a day of returning, I started my own WFH (work-from-hotel) routine. With the help of good wifi, I took my colleagues on a virtual tour of the room! That was when I realised that they would swap places with me in a heartbeat! They even teased me for “promoting the hotel” with all the photos I was sending them.
That was when I started appreciating the circumstances of my SHN.
Sentosa sounds like santhosam in Tamil, which means happiness. And I learnt that my guess wasn’t far off, since Sentosa translates as “peace and tranquility” in Malay, which is in turn derived from the Sanskrit term santosha.
I learnt that piece of trivia during the weekly quizzes hosted by comedian Hossan Leong and organised by the guest relations team. We had daily virtual yoga and zumba sessions too.
Between working during the day and catching up with TV and phone calls at night, I stopped feeling so trapped.
Despite being on the seventh floor, I felt close to nature, with the sun and moon shining directly on the balcony and the wind and rain being welcome companions.
I began to appreciate tracking the full moon as it moved across the sky, playing hide-and-seek from behind the clouds. On rainy days, it was a pleasure watching the sun follow the same pattern too.
I became more attuned to the sounds of nature, realised that the screeches in the mornings came from the family of peacocks roaming the garden below and not calls from monkeys in nearby trees.
The rooms started filling up as more Singaporeans came home. I started to see more people making use of their balconies, to work, exercise or simply take in the sights. We would wave at each other and exchange pleasantries.
On the 13th day of my Stay Home Notice, a letter arrived with checkout details. I was “graduating” from my Stay Home Notice (I actually received a certificate from Shangri-La!) at the Rasa Sentosa.
Everything had been meticulously taken care of, including the collection of unused, non-perishable food (which I had plenty of) for donation to a food bank.
At checkout, I signed, smiled and thanked the staff for taking care of me. Pradeep wasn’t there but I had already thanked him over the phone.
I was impressed by how the staff and management had handled us. We were not willing guests, and we were uncertain and fearful. They went the extra mile to assuage our concerns and show care for our physical and mental wellbeing.
Despite being alone for two weeks, I was in no mood to chat with the driver taking me away from Sentosa, as I was lost in thoughts of my short stay.
Those two weeks taught me to appreciate a different world view — that there can be simplicity in luxury. And kindness in every moment.
Appreciating those who serve
It has been over seven months since my stay at the Rasa Sentosa, and since then, there have been many other stories of Singaporeans sharing their stay-hotel-notices — both good and bad.
The hotel itself has re-opened to visitors. Nowadays, its rooms are filled with Singaporeans rediscovering the joys of staycations and luxe hotel living.
Despite Covid-19 raging still in many parts of the world, we have remained relatively safe within Singapore. We should commend those tireless frontline heroes, including hospitality staff, for sacrificing their time and efforts to make our lives better.
Even as we deal with the challenges of the new normal, we in Singapore should be thankful for our privileges. And to view these in the right perspective.