AP Reporter Quarantined in China After Cancun Stop

By: AP
By: AP

LINGANG, China -- There are four of them waiting for us, tottering about the hotel parking lot in yellow biohazard suits.

"One question," says the translator, before he lets us out of a government van that's locked from the outside. "Would you like separate rooms or a room together?"

"We're married," we say.

"Yes," he replies, sweating under his plastic safety goggles. "Separate rooms or together?"

Uh-oh.

My wife and I are in perfect health, but after flying to China for my college friend's wedding we're being quarantined in a remote hotel for seven days. The reason: Our flight from our home in Havana included a layover in Cancun, and China is taking no chances with swine flu.

Never mind that we were in Cancun for only two hours, that we didn't leave the airport and that Mexican doctors with electronic thermometers checked us for fever on arrival and departure. Never mind that when our Continental Airlines flight from Newark touched down in Shanghai, we and everyone else on board were not allowed to leave our seats until health workers clamored aboard and pointed a blue beam at our foreheads to take our temperatures.

The Mexican stamps in our passports - my wife is Chilean, I'm American - are enough for authorities to pull us out of line at immigration and send us to a medical room where attendants in white lab coats take our temperature yet again and give us surgical masks.

I produce the wedding invitation with the groom's cell phone number, hoping the doctor will let us call. The doctor - one of the few people at the airport who speaks English - mistakenly thinks we came to China to get married.

"Sorry you have to spend your honeymoon like this," he says.

After 3 1/2 hours, a man in uniform - speaking by phone with a communist official everyone calls "the leader" - announces we will be confined to a hotel room for seven days.

We say we'll simply fly back home. He tells us that isn't possible.

That draws a protest from my wife, Chilean journalist Monica Medel, who notes that while the United States has more swine flu cases than Mexico, I'm the only one of the 200-plus Americans on our plane going into quarantine.

"Why aren't Americans being quarantined?" she asks.

"Right," says the doctor. "That's the same question all of us have been asking."

And so we are placed in a van and driven to a hotel in Lingang Harbor City, a new industrial zone south of Shanghai. We wonder if it's just a bad dream induced by jet lag, but the hotel workers in hazmat getups leave little doubt this is real.

The hotel is closed except for people in quarantine, and the first day we are the only foreigners. Because government attendants still think we're on our honeymoon, we get the nicest room: a suite with a king-size bed, a couch and a large balcony with a view of the ocean, vast open spaces and farmland in the distance.

It's sort of like a lengthy hospital stay, except that we're not sick. And we're stuck here until Wednesday.

The TV gets 25 Chinese channels, plus CNN International and one Chinese government station in English. A public service announcement about not stealing cable signals in Japan runs again and again.

We watch a lot of badminton, "Sister Act" dubbed into Mandarin and music videos from a Chinese act resembling the Backstreet Boys. We quickly tire of Larry King reruns, and switch to the other English-language channel, which constantly repeats a round-table discussion about trash collection in Beijing.

The English is iffy. A news anchor discussing a "cross-Straits forum" between Chinese and Taiwanese leaders pronounces it like "cross-dress forum," sending us into fits of laughter. You get your laughs where you can around here: We get more bored and stir crazy with each passing hour.

Pleasant women in biohazard suits and old-fashioned, underarm thermometers take our temperature every day at 7 a.m. and noon. They giggle when we try to speak with them in Mandarin. We think they are different women each time, but it's hard to tell behind the suits and masks.

"Temp-reach, temp-reach," they say. Then, after the thermometer has done its thing: "OK. Normal."

Every morning, a man with a tank on his back fumigates the hallway carpets. Workers come into our room to scrub the floor and furniture with disinfectant. They give us disinfectant pills for the toilet: You throw in 10 before using it and 10 afterward. The garbage can has a mustard-yellow bag inside, marked "Warning! Infectious Medical Waste."

There's bottled water and green tea and three meals a day, featuring more pork, beef, fish, rice, soup, yogurt and fruit than we can possibly eat, though I'm afraid that not cleaning my plate may make someone think I'm sick. Everything is good at first, but so greasy that my wife starts claiming she's a vegetarian.

We get to choose between Chinese and Western menus, though we still haven't figured out the difference.

Hotel workers set the food in the hallway and move back so we can pick it up. Apparently, they're scared we'll give them the flu.

We put on the hotel's cotton slippers and spend most of the day in bed - sleeping, reading, watching TV - or on the bed, eating or playing cards.

There's no one guarding the door, but there are enough people around that we get the sense they'd know if we tried to leave. We put on our surgical masks and drift out into the hall to see who our neighbors are.

Most are Chinese who came into contact with a traveler from Mexico or another country China considers a swine flu risk. Eventually we meet Ivan Rojas, an auto parts engineer from Mexico who has lived in China for four years. He came back from three weeks' vacation in his native country, prepared for the quarantine.

"I knew I'd be working from a hotel room for a week," he says.

He gives us his cell phone number and invites us for a drink once we're all out.

"I wouldn't want you to be left with a bad impression of Shanghai," he says.

We have already missed the wedding on Saturday, in which I was to be one of the best men. A couple of days before the ceremony, the groom took a taxi out to our hotel - "an hour from the middle of nowhere," he says - and brought us a laptop, some wedding magazines his bride had lying around and a six-pack of beer we can't refrigerate.

We weren't allowed to go down and see him, but we waved from our balcony, six stories up.

About the time of the wedding, a woman padded in to our room, her biohazard suit making swishing noises as she moved. She took our temperature and declared us normal.

"OK. OK," she said.

I think I'll celebrate by popping a warm beer.

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