May 4, 2020
Landing at your local airport usually means you are in the homestretch of your journey. But for T+L photographer and Thailand passport-holder Charles Dharapak, touching down in Bangkok after an assignment in Jakarta was really only the beginning of his adventure.
It wasn’t until four hours after Dharapak’s flight landed in Bangkok that passengers were informed that, instead of heading home where they had been planning to self-isolate for 14 days, they’d all be driven an hour outside of the capital to a military facility for a two-week quarantine.
Dharapak is an award-winning photojournalist who has found himself in plenty of knotty situations around the world as a White House photographer. We caught up with him to find out what this peculiar experience was like—and how a man can go two weeks with a stranger, an abundance of tempeh, but only one pair of underpants.
If you had known you were going to be quarantined before leaving Jakarta, would you have done anything differently to prepare?
I would have been better prepared! I was relieved when I landed at Suvarnabhumi Airport because of the hoops I had to jump through before boarding the plane. Many flights had been canceled and foreign visitors were prohibited due to regional travel restrictions from COVID-19. While Thai citizens were allowed to return, I had to get a “fit to fly” certificate (dated 72 hours before the flight) from a doctor and submit it to the Thai Embassy in Jakarta, along with my passport page and air ticket.
My condominium manager was texting me after I landed, telling me that they would be enforcing 14-day isolation in my apartment upon my arrival home. This was news to me. If you lived in a detached house you had to police yourself, but for living in a condo that responsibility was given to building management. As I was planning to head straight to the Tesco Lotus to stock up on groceries and supplies, I realized that was unnecessary because the government later told us they were quarantining my entire flight in a state facility.
I was traveling extremely light because I often visit Indonesia. It’s a three or so hour flight and it’s five hours door to door for me. I had the clothes on my back and no toiletries. I had one camera, one lens, and a clarinet (I’m a saxophonist). I also had two kilograms of Indonesian tempeh, which I desperately needed to put in the freezer.
So if I had a heads up about government quarantine before flying, I would have packed more clothes, some reading material, grabbed a bottle of duty-free liquor, and some comfort snacks.
From a photo equipment standpoint, I found myself in an interesting situation and I wanted to be able to tell the story. I wish I had a tripod, microphone, and longer lens!
What was your average day like while being quarantined?
The quarantine routine came quickly. My day was planned around the great “to-go” Thai meals that we were served. After breakfast, I’d hand wash my laundry in the bathroom. Lunch always came with a box of cakes that I would save for a snack later in the day. The garbage collection was around 5 p.m. And dinner would arrive at 6 p.m.
The quarantine room had high-speed internet (I’m guilty of too much online shopping during this period) and a flat-screen TV where we had access to local news and foreign films—mostly Marvel movies—so I got to watch The Avengers, Iron Man, and Spider-man dubbed in Thai.
As a saxophonist who’s been meaning to get my clarinet “chops” back in shape, I also found time to practice without disturbing my quarantine neighbors.
How much time did you get outdoors?
While there were no set-times of when we could be outside, we were encouraged to stay in our rooms out of an abundance of caution since they were regarding us as infectious. Before food delivery, temperature checks, and garbage collection, it was announced over the loudspeakers for us to stay in our rooms. Occasionally I would hear polite reminders from our government minders telling people who were eating their meals outside of their rooms to go back inside.
Every day before lunch I would come out to the parking lot to hang my laundry in the hot sun and collect it at dusk.
There was a sheet metal fence that surrounded the compound and we couldn’t see beyond it. I would walk around the six barracks-style buildings in the late afternoon for some fresh air.
You said people traveling solo had to select a roommate to share two-room suites with. We can’t imagine having to live with a stranger for 14 days.
By chance, he also happened to be a photographer and video creator. We had something in common to talk about, in addition to telling each other our life stories. At first I was uneasy about the lack of social distancing, but I accepted the fact that if I were to get sick, I would be taken care of by Thai health officials.
The first night we slept in the same bedroom. He kept the air conditioning a bit too cold for me, so I slept on the military cot that was in the kitchen/living room area on the second night. On the third day, I brought my bed into the living room and spent the rest of the quarantine there. We ended up keeping different hours—he would play Football Manager 2020 until the early hours—and I would have to wake him up for morning temperature taking!
We felt that we were “in this together” and I left quarantine feeling like I made a new friend.
What was the worst part of this whole experience?
To be honest, there wasn’t a “worst part” at all. Even the small things (there wasn’t any coffee) were taken care of by our hosts (with Nescafe 3-in-1 coffee mix provided).
As a photojournalist who has covered many stories around the world, I’m a naturally curious person and I don’t mind being outside of my comfort zone. When I found out I was going to be quarantined in an air-force facility, I wanted to see what it would be like. I saw government quarantine as a “finite experience” of 14 days. I can get through this.
I had high-speed WiFi so I could keep in touch with my family and friends. I was able to do a work conference call on my laptop. I was taken care of by the Thai government. And I was definitely well-fed. It’s a small sacrifice to make and I was glad that the government was being proactive in their efforts to slow the spread of the coronavirus.
Did the experience cause you to have any life revelations?
This pandemic is causing suffering and hardship for many all over the world. While being in 14 days of government-imposed quarantine away from the comforts of home was unexpected, I was grateful for the experience. I felt lucky. So far I’m not sick. My younger sister is a frontline doctor at a Manhattan hospital and she’s in the thick of this crisis. People who are independent business owners and musicians are really struggling financially. Because of travel restrictions, many people—myself included—are separated from loved ones. My two kids live in Singapore and I don’t know when I’ll be able to see them next. Two friends—one in Jakarta and one in New York—have died from COVID-19. I’m thankful to have had the opportunity to slow down, be mindful, and appreciate what I have and what good I can do as the new normal takes shape.
BONUS question: You didn’t actually go 14 days without a change of underpants, right??
Haha. Part of the quarantine kit that was waiting for us on our beds were two sets of very comfortable hospital pajamas, which were similar to what you would wear at a Thai spa. The loose-fitting drawstring pants were—shall I say—liberating. I washed my boxer briefs on the first day and hung it in the closet for the rest of the time I was there.
Charles Dharapak is an award-winning photojournalist, videographer, and editor with broad international storytelling experience in public figures, The White House, and global news. His most recent contribution for T+L was on Jakarta’s burgeoning food scene.