The Longest Layover

It seems like every year I compete with myself to find new ways of missing flights or being delayed while traveling. The worst part is the severity of my travel woes seem to be escalating, despite the fact that I should know more about travel every year. There was that time a pilot left my suitcase on the runway in Belize without telling me because the tiny airplane’s weight would have been “imbalanced”. I showed up in Atlanta during a once in a decade snowstorm in sandals and a T-shirt, where my sister came to the rescue to take me shopping. That might have saved my life: my next destination was Minneapolis. Another time I forgot to check into an oversold flight, got bumped, missed my connection and spent two days in Mexico City en route to Cabo. I learned my lesson. And then the previous champion, an American Airlines flight that traveled 4 hours towards Tokyo on New Years day, returning to Dallas without an explanation before making the same 12 hour flight the next day. On a side note, I like how these companies always offer their miles as compensation like they are doing me a favor when using their airline again is the last thing in the world I want to do. American, United and Spirit are on my “avoid if humanly possible” list. Granted, I travel a lot and frequency leads to severity but even taking that into consideration, the frequency and severity of my travel woes are somewhat exceptional.

But there is a new record holder. The GOAT of travel delays if you will. First, a little background. In early December I visited Belize to run a Pickleball Trip. The trip was running smoothly and things were going great until I woke up one morning to the Japanese government’s announcement that it would not be accepting any new reservations for the month of December. Since I typically travel on one way tickets, I hadn’t booked anything yet and resigned myself to exile for a couple of weeks. Thailand, Hawaii and Mexico were all on my list of possible destinations to wait out the storm and in retrospect, I should have gone. 24 hours later, the government received so much push back from its initial decision that it reversed course, reinstating the original policy of letting residents and citizens return. I was back in business and decided to fly on December 20th after visiting my family in Arizona.

The other unfortunate coincidence is that Japan adds US States with increasing Covid cases to their mandatory hotel quarantine list. Passengers traveling from these states are required to do a 3-day hotel stay at a designated facility and Arizona was just added to this list on December 17th, 3 days before my departure. Little did I know it would have huge consequences.

I breezed through Arizona, LAX and arrived in Tokyo. My PCR test at Narita airport came back negative and I was in the clear, or so I thought. I entered my 3 days of quarantine, no problem – I knew it was coming and I had done it before. After all, it was only 3 days. The tiniest bit of doubt entered my head when I developed a light cough. My mom and brother mentioned they caught a cold though so in my mind, I still had good odds. Then I received a message saying I was a close contact of someone on the airplane who tested positive for covid. Yikes. I held out hope though, begging for a cold, a false negative, even the flu. Alas, on day 3 I tested positive and was transferred to a different facility for my extended quarantine. Unfortunately for me, Japan takes a cautious approach to covid. My crime? Sitting next to the wrong person on the plane. My Sentence? 11 days of solitary confinement. I could have escaped sooner for good behavior or with a negative result but alas, neither one was meant to be.

I talk about this place in prison terms because even though I don’t want to make light of how horrible prison must be, in some ways it was similar. At least, what I think I know about prison. First of course is the fact that the food was terrible, I was figuring out creative ways to pass the time and I was not free to leave. This is going to sound first world problemy but coming from the multi-course dinners and cooking classes at the Conrad in Mexico, a cold lunchbox three times a day was brutal. Unlike prison, my door was open and I suppose I could have left but I’m not sure what they would have done. My guess is that if you are Japanese, they can’t enforce a quarantine. Being a foreign national though, deportation is never out of the question so I didn’t press my luck. Second, I ordered beer and razors from Amazon and they wouldn’t release them, saying I couldn’t have any alcohol or sharp objects. I’m not sure if this feels more like a protective school, a prison or a mental institution but rummaging through my packages and confiscating contraband – that is crazy. If they are worried about my mental health, why do they do things that affect mental health so negatively? For me at least, the quarantine was much worse than the covid. Thankfully I had one razor I took from the previous quarantine facility (yes, that hotel had razors, tell me how that makes sense) so I was able to shave halfway through. Finally, and the stupidest rule of all – they would only do one person’s laundry per day because they had to disinfect the washers and dryers thoroughly after each use. This is a hotel with hundreds of people! They did give me some detergent to hand wash my clothes but seriously? No laundry for 14 days? Again, not to make light of real human rights abuses around the world but it did make me think, “at what point does government oversight cross the line into abuse of power?” I’m not sure.

There were, however, a few redeeming factors I could keep focusing on and reminding myself of to stay positive (mentally, not with covid). First, Nagano Prefecture has given me a lot of writing work for its English blog GoNagano so I was able to buckle down and write several articles. Both for work and for the hours killed, I was thankful for this distraction. Second, my AirBnb property near the Snow Monkeys is almost fully rented out at peak season prices, exceeding my expectations since there is no international tourism to Japan right now. I couldn’t have stayed there anyway and the government paid for quarantine so at least financially, I came out ahead. Third, because everyone on the plane was considered a close contact of the Omicron variant, they were all required to spend at least 5 extra days in a quarantine facility even if they tested negative. I feel a little bad for celebrating other peoples’ misery, but it makes me feel better to think that even if I had tested negative, I still would have have spent some time in quarantine. And finally, I do feel bad about this one. The day I moved from the 3 day quarantine to the extended quarantine facility, I met a girl on the bus. We exchanged numbers to compare experiences and commiserate. She has the Omicron variant and they are requiring her to test negative to leave the facility. They haven’t told me but apparently I have the Delta variant because I can leave after 14 days, regardless of my PCR test results. I feel terrible for her and would be depressed in her situation but there is nothing I can do.

All that to say, I’ve learned a few lessons from quarantining. First, I never want to do this again. Throughout the pandemic, I have returned to the US to visit family and for work but if it involves another hotel quarantine, I’m not going. Staying locked up in a room for two weeks affects a person’s mental and physical health. This experience goes in my “been there done that” box. Next, I contrasted Japan’s response to the pandemic with America’s and believe it reveals a lot about each country. Americans are almost never willingly sacrifice individual liberties for the benefit of society as a whole. Japan on the other hand, is willing to stomp on some people’s freedom if it furthers the public good. In Japan, the people giving up those freedoms largely do it willingly because they don’t want to be a burden to society or go against the grain. Unfortunately for me, I was (unwillingly) the person giving up my individual freedoms. However, Japan’s freedom from lockdowns and lack of huge waves of cases is because people follow the rules when asked. America can’t contain the virus because no one follows the rules. America’s definition of freedom is freedom to do whatever they want. The government isn’t going to tell them what to do. Japan’s definition is freedom from things like covid, poverty, crime etc. even if it means trampling on some individual liberties. I’m not saying either system is better, but these values are reflected in how each society functions. Finally, I have refrained from criticizing any country’s response to covid because I didn’t have enough information. My thoughts now are that at some point enough is enough. Especially with the Omicron variant looking less severe than other strains it’s time to start opening up. Every country in the world has covid and closing borders is slowing down but not stopping anything. Let people build natural immunity and let’s move on with our lives. If you’re an anti-vaccer and willing to play Russian roulette with your own life, go for it. I’m not an expert but I don’t see how else we move forward and end this.

3 thoughts on “The Longest Layover

  1. Well done Daniel. Another unbelievable travel story and a lesson well learned. I remember the time you spent Christmas Day at DFW too.
    You did better than I would have done and only God knows how He will use this in your life someday. It might be to stay humble and have mercy on others less fortunate but He knows best so we will leave it at that.
    Happy New Year
    Love you, Mamie.
    T

  2. A buddy of mine had a similar situation. He lives in the States, his wife in Osaka, and came to spend three weeks with her. He did his 3 day quarantine in a hotel, got out to visit the wife for two days, then had to go back for another 10 days because someone on his flight tested positive. (The wife who logically would have been equally contaminated could of course stay home, go to work, etc. (Rolls eyes.)) He said similar things to what you wrote, that he felt pretty beat up after the ordeal.

    Apparently they’ve changed the rules. It is now if you are within two rows of someone who tests positive, not the entire flight. I perceive the change as being based on economics, not science.

    My own wife was planning to come in from early February, but who knows. If she can’t, I thought I’d go to Singapore for a month or so instead, but am not sure if it’s worth it.

  3. Another point you mentioned was cultural. My wife returned to Singapore after many months away. As she was vaccinated she could go home without quarantine. At the airport, the government issues residents at-home PCR tests, whose results are submitted online every day for a week. On days 3 and 7 she has to test at a proper facility. After day 7, free and clear.

    While that country may not be perfect, this is how a forward-thinking system functions.

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