Talk around the dinner table these days will often include the subject of quarantine.

Yes, those 21 days locked away in isolation in a 450 square foot hotel room – a privilege afforded only returning Macau residents or HKID holders.  No doubt a sensible precaution during these Covid-crazy times.

Those of us who have not had the quarantine experience ourselves are curious.  Many questions: Which hotel did you choose and why? What were the costs, the process of arrival in Macau and check in procedures?  What was your view like? Were you allowed to open the windows?  Did you get fresh bedding and towels during the 3-weeks?

Conversation invariably turns to food; let’s face it, mealtimes must become the highlights of the day when being cooped up 24/7.  Comments vary from “absolutely disgusting” to “quite reasonable”, though the common thread is that most often the food arrives luke-warm at best and stone-cold at worst.  And if you’re a carbohydrate addict I gather you’re in for a treat!  To be fair, the hotels do try – in some cases quarantine meal times involves getting trays delivered to many hundreds of rooms at one time.  Slip ups can happen.  How’s this for a balanced meal experience: sweet and sour pork, sweet and sour prawns, rice and soup – and all cold.

Things have come a long way since the first batch of quaratin-ers back in July last year.  Meals can now be ordered a la carte in some hotels (though this is expensive), and better still, takeaway food, for dinner only, can be ordered from outside.  I’ve witnessed queues of delivery motorbikes, their helmeted drivers making their way to the hotel’s food delivery stations loaded with various plastic bags containing food and drink orders.  I even saw one delivering about 20 boxes of Lord Stow egg tarts.

Some hotels go the extra mile: every so often giving their inmates little gifts and handwritten poems, so charming and thoughtful.

How to combat the boredom?  We’ve heard the stories; joining an on-line dance or kung fu class, dyeing ones hair, experimenting with growing a beard, scheduling time to hand-wash clothes and once dry, carefully ironing every crease in them.  Anything to kill the time.   Among the 100 or so returnees from Europe on the specially arranged flight earlier this year, I gather that for some the days were made bearable by setting up a WhatsApp group and running little daily quiz and photo competitions.

And for those of us ‘outsiders’, we do our best to give encouragement and support to friends and family ‘inside’.  A microwave, perhaps an electric cooking pot to help get the food hot.  Cozy blankets from home.  A bunch of fresh flowers to mark successfully reaching the 14th day milestone.  Little pleasures like a bottle of their favourite whisky, family photographs, some festive room decorations to mark a holiday.  Carboys of water for those who object to using the multitude of little water bottles that are provided by the case to each room.

Once their 21 days are done the survivors seem to emerge relatively unscathed, thrilled to be at last able to breathe fresh air …. so many complain of having felt foggy-minded, sluggish and slightly confused during the three weeks, this no doubt being due to a lack of oxygen in the room.  Yes, of course the hotel airconditioning systems are supposed to bring in new fresh air, but at what quantity to the amount of circulated air?  New fresh air intake costs money to chill … need I say more.

Survivors wear the experience like a Badge of Honor, respected for their fortitude by us outsiders.  Some brush it off casually.  Others are a bit more circumspect about the impact on their mental well-being saying that even after 3 weeks the outside feels so different, even alien.  Just 21 days in made them really think about the price for freedom.  Quarantine, they tell me, gave them a peep into the truly frightening horrors of what it must be like in jail, in solitary confinement, for years at an end.  Imagine, when released, being faced with the trauma of life outside, not knowing how to process one’s independence, how to apply for a job, to open a bank account, how to drive a car, to pay bills.

Yes, the freedom we take so for granted is indeed a blessing.

Written by Suzanne Watkinson. managing director of Ambiente Properties, for her regular “In Residence” section in the Macau Closer magazine