On August 8, 2020, I landed in Canada's Pearson Airport uncertain of my next destination. It seemed strange that I simply could not hail a taxi and go to my husband's apartment in the eastern part of Toronto. Nothing is normal anymore, as we used to know before 2020.
In fact, the whole journey from Dhaka to Toronto had been very different compared to other times. The uncertainty and pop-up rules added manifold stress to the already wearisome journey across the oceans. The flight cancellations during the lockdown, desperation for rebooking, getting news and updates about restrictions and conditions attached to travelling by air, the coronavirus test 72 hours before the flight nearly drove me to the point of a breakdown.
The first leg of the journey went surprisingly well as I triumphantly reached the Shahjalal International Airport with my negative coronavirus test report.
But that was just the beginning of the paperwork and long queues. Passengers had to wear masks and maintain social distancing inside the airport. They were required to wear gloves during boarding and getting off the plane.
Inside the aircraft, I realised there is really no way to maintain these preventive measures. Only the middle seats in each of the three columns of the airplane were kept empty on the Emirates flight. Family members were allowed to sit side by side. But then there were people sitting without any gap in seats in each column, thus nullifying the 2-metre distance protocol. People also have to take off their mask for drinking and eating, unless they want to fast all through the flight. All that is needed is just one person in the entire aircraft to be a carrier and rest of the 200 plus people in the aircraft become susceptible to the virus. I felt it would be a miracle if all travelers reach their destinations healthy. And if they reach healthy and sound, then either coronavirus is overrated or most people have developed some sort of immunity. Something that researchers should look into.
At Dubai airport, except for mask and gloves and the usual social distancing, there wasn't any paperwork. But Dubai's expansive seating arrangements for transit passengers have been reduced. Almost half the chairs and reclined seats were marked with stickers to prevent people from sitting on them. Unsurprisingly, South Asians, especially my countrymen (and I mean men not women) had to ignore all such written and pictorial rules.
But it was at Pearson, where I had the most disappointing experience of the whole trip. Before flying, I had communicated with the Public Health Agency of Canada over email and phone thrice, explaining my situation. Quarantine is not possible in my husband's one-bedroom apartment without putting him at risk, I explained to them. The healthcare body assured me in writing that the Canadian government provides free quarantine facility to travelers, who do not have a suitable place to follow the necessary preventive protocols.
But the health worker, assigned to me, completely ignored the email and stated that I have to rent a hotel or an Airbnb on my own or live in a government facility with people who have Covid-19 symptoms. The last option made no sense for someone with no symptoms and who tested Covid-19 negative only 72 hours before the flight. Why would a healthy individual volunteer to go stay with people who might be carriers?
Luckily, a friend came to my rescue. With her help I was able to find a student's empty apartment at York University Campus. The student, who is spending the summer in British Columbia, generously offered me a stay at her duplex flat for free. Informing the health worker about my location, I took a taxi to what would become my abode for the two weeks of quarantine.
I have never actually lived alone in my life. I did stay at hotels by myself during vacations, work or training but never for more than a week. Then there was always room-service and ready-made food. This time, I had a whole apartment to myself with a kitchen, living room, bedroom, balcony and toilet. It was up to me to keep my living space clean and tidy. As for food, I had to cook that. Not that I never attempted the task before, but this time around there was no one to judge, criticise, like or dislike, or even praise my dishes.
In rhe fourteen days I spent at Celia's apartment, I never once ordered food online. Hours of browsing through UberEats did not result in the discovery of anything cheap and healthy. There were times when my husband brought me fast food. This is how I saved tipping money because in Canada it is the norm with food delivery. Besides, cooking was actually a good way to spend time, which I had aplenty at hand.
But spending time was never a drag during quarantine. I rather had the freedom of doing what I wanted, when and how I wanted, without giving anyone any reason for it. I discovered that was the best part of living alone. I was stuck in a duplex with nowhere to go, no hurries, no meetings, no obligations to do anything for anyone, or to be anywhere. I was pleasantly relaxed. Something I did experience in the last five months of the pandemic, when I was living with four other human beings in a 2,600 square feet apartment in Dhaka. There was hardly any privacy or 'me time'. In quarantine, in just one fourth of the space, I had all 24 hours of a day to myself.
There were the occasional visits by my beloved husband to deliver food and other necessities, but that little human interaction did not feel overwhelming. In fact, I looked forward to his visits as a woman would for a gentleman suitor. Though separated by distance and hidden behind masks, I loved dressing up for those short visits, carefully putting on lipsticks and even wearing perfume.
Though I liked being alone, my most favourite way of spending quarantine was actually people-watching from the third-storey balcony of the apartment. It overlooked a little park with low-rise apartments on three sides and the street in the front. All day long, students would walk by the park to the street, some carrying groceries, some just strolling, others would come to walk their dogs, and in the evenings, groups or families would appear with barbeque gear for a picnic. Some of the students would stay in the park late into the night chattering, laughing, singing. Life looked normal and absent from the fear of a deadly virus.
The environment felt unlike that of Dhaka, where my view was restricted to the squared sky visible through my younger sister's window or the checkered backyard of our neighbour from my father's grilled verandah. My room in Dhaka had a balcony too, but that overlooked a private school's office room and a make-shift playground in the garage of an apartment complex. The sun never got a chance to enter my Dhaka room. In Celia's apartment the sun was my everyday companion. Yes, I was locked up in a small place, but I could breathe the fresh air, feel the sun on my skin, look at a big clear blue sky. Even on cloudy and rainy days, the elements of nature were not hidden away by concrete structures.
Much of my time was actually spent looking at the clouds and colours of the sky and the trees. Netflix fans might find it hard to believe but I never tried this source of entertainment even once though I had access to the internet and a friend offered her password. I did not watch a single movie, but binged on an old Bangla TV show, that too about a child ghost. There was no excitement, nail-biting moments attached to it, no urge to finish watching an episode. Rather, I felt a sense of liberty watching that TV serial – I was in control of it, not the other way round. When I felt bored, I could get up, walk away and find something else to do. Like playing with colours. How I loved sitting in the balcony and pretending to be some great master trying to draw a willow tree dancing in the afternoon breeze as the sunlight played hide and seek along its long hanging leaves! The drawings and the paintings never amounted to anything. But the feel of colours on my fingers brought a calm I had not felt for a long time.
The other thing I went back to was writing. Though just Facebook posts, it helped me connect to a side of mine I have been ignoring for a long time --the joy of giving voice to my thoughts. Because I was not writing to please any particular audience or for a mainstream media, I had the freedom to express my opinion as I see fit, without censorship. My sentences were free from grammatical rules, syntax, second looks (at least initially) and other editing barriers that previously often invited procrastination during a writing task.
Despite the faults, my daily quarantine accounts started to attract readers among my Facebook friends. Inspired by their comments, I began to edit my writing for grammatical errors and such. I finally remembered why I had joined The Daily Star as a staff writer. I loved writing and when readers responded to my passion, it led me to embrace a career, of which I had no prior knowledge of. Ten years later, I still cannot give up on it, being well aware of its bleak future. Thus, while many of my journalist colleagues are being laid off, newspapers shutting down, subscriptions falling in Bangladesh, radio channels dissolving in Canada, I am preparing myself for journalism school. Love, no doubt, is totally blind.
During the 14-days, friends and family would often call or write to inquire about life in the 'quarantine jail'. If I were to call it a jail, or compare it to one, then it had to be one of those high security Norwegian prisons. I, too, had access to knives and the freedom to go out if I wanted, breaking the rules. There were no Canadian Mounties guarding the door. In fact, in all the 14-days no one from the Public Health Agency of Canada or any other government body called to check if I was actually following the quarantine protocols. I really do not know what sort of contact tracing is being done here or whether it is effective.
My observation is that people here are much more relaxed about the virus than many I know in Dhaka. The elaborate routines of disinfecting everything from food to clothing, as many Dhakaites did, including me, is absent here. I also have not noticed the excessive use of hand sanitizers or gloves. The only thing people use in indoor public spaces is masks. Maintaining social distancing protocols are also easy in this sparsely populated country. Toronto's streets always look like that of Dhaka's during hartals or Eid holidays, except much cleaner and people wearing less colourful clothes.
Overall, I think, there is a sense of security among Canadians with regards to their health, something we lack in Bangladesh. Unlike us, they are not afraid of being denied any medical treatment, turned away from hospitals, of dying at healthcare facilities due to lack of oxygen or an ICU bed. They know they will get help if and when needed.
Quarantine for one thing, made me realize that at times it is good to be away from our stressful lives even if that means being locked up in a place for two weeks. Taking the time off and away from work, family, responsibility and all the daily nags of life. Having the time to discover oneself, connect to one's own thoughts and feelings and being happy with a limited number of personal stuffs, material things that we tend to attach too much importance to. While enjoying the relaxed days of quarantine, I hoped that some of my family members and ex-colleagues could experience it too. Who knows, perhaps doctors someday would start recommending it to people, suffering from constant stress!
Looking back on those two weeks, I can never think of a moment I felt sad or depressed. There were times when I missed sharing meals, the sunlight, the view of the Toronto's sky with loved ones, but those too were fleeting moments. On August 22, when I came back to my husband's apartment, into the real world, I realized quarantine for me was more like a therapy than a jail time. It was an experience like none other.