It’s early January, in a large Guangzhou banquet hall for a nonprofit’s annual fundraiser. I’m onstage with the MC, grinning ear to ear.
I’d won a two-night stay at an all-inclusive, five-star resort in tropical Sanya! I just had to use it before June. No problem... then the coronavirus came.
For weeks, my travel partner and I searched for news. Could we fly there? Would we be quarantined? Shenzhen was now “low-risk,” but the district with the airport was briefly medium-risk - would we need a Covid-19 test just to board the plane? Would the fancy resort even open in time?
To our relief, the fancy resort did reopen, and we could fly in without quarantine. But travel in a time of the coronavirus is not so simple.
Masks in the plane is fine: it’s 90 minutes and we’ve worn them for longer in taxis. Billowing white plumes of disinfecting mist are disconcerting, but no more than that. Abbreviated cabin service annoys, but it was late so we slept.
Then we arrived.
First we complete a form with our ID info, symptoms, travel history and destination. That got us to the luggage carousel. Then hand our passports to an airport cop, who add us to her chart.
Our passports then visit a young guy in dark blue uniform reading “SWAT,” who barks sleepily to get our luggage. Eventually we follow our passports and another SWAT dude on a short journey out of the building, to a large room with three desks, with, you guessed right - more forms! Two at the first desk, plus the input for an app-based health code. (I don’t have it, but my travel partner adds me as family.)
Then a passport chase to the furthest desk, to repeat the same destination info. Then the final desk and final approval. No words, just passport back in hand. We’re free to go.
Late night check in at the airport hotel goes fine. Almost at the elevator, we stop when the desk clerk hurries over. “Sorry, sir, there’s one more form...”
We somehow don’t curse him out right there. Just add the least possible info and walk away, to sleep, to dream of that fancy resort just hours away.
The thought carries us past the sad little breakfast: bitter coffee, stale cereal, and all the congee we could want... which is exactly zero congee.
The cab ride reveals a Sanya flush with palm trees and bright bougainvillea. There are sparse and desultory shops near the airport, everywhere concrete and the same propaganda slogan: “Don’t forget the original mindset!” This is from Mao, I’m told, talking about the Long March.
Arriving at the fancy resort is to reach an oasis – it’s manicured and polished, with staff eager to receive us. They explain everything and guide us along.
There is, of course, a form. The pandemic pokes its nose here as well. We add our info and temperature, show them our green Hainan-specific health codes, and we’re released to the general population in this village of food, drink, and amusement.
It’s paradise with Chinese characteristics.
The grounds betray those little corner-cutting habits we notice everywhere in China: the floor sags near the ballroom, the red carpet invites tropical mold, tiles don’t quite meet, and the bench of the dark-wood sauna hides a solitary nail just waiting to tear into my vulnerable behind. And outside the perimeter, the same old China lurks: to one side of the beach, an earthmover idles in the saltwater; on the other lay a massive concrete cove where aunties pick for clams and heavy machinery rusts on the sands.
Three weeks re-opened and it’s still partly empty - more lifeguards than swimmers - but that leaves more for us. We swim unencumbered laps, work out alone, swing on the flying trapeze with nearly no line, and usually find a good table. We can people-watch this cross-section of China’s upwardly mobile, braving the coronavirus for kids and carnival.
There’s the shirtless young dad with infant in arms floaties, both in bathing caps but only daughter wearing frills on her bathing suit. Mom hides under umbrella, concealed in shades and head-to-waist neon yellow. I hear her mothering from across the pool.
As the international staff leads the crowd in karaoke, dancing, or no-stakes gambling with all the enthusiasm of camp counselors, it’s a soft and safe weekend. There’s the barest of risk as we kayak too close to a speeding ferry for their comfort. But beside a roaring Saturday hangover – don’t mix your house-pour cocktails! - it was all a pampered pleasure. Which my travel partner usually hates.
But in this timorous time, we hesitate to plunge headlong into the mountains and hostels and all that proximity. We’re looking forward to the day when we can bum around again without scribbling forms in quintuplicate. Till then, we’ll keep the mask, show the code, and stick to the safe route.