It’s March 10. Karwar, on the northwest coast of India is 100 miles to starboard of our ship. The seas are calm. We’re out of sight of land. I’m reminded of a poem from English class, “Alone, alone, all all alone; alone on a wide, wide sea.” But unlike the Ancient Mariner, I’m with about 700 guests and 400 crew on a smaller cruise ship.
My wife and I left home Feb. 12 when the coronavirus was a China issue. During our pre-cruise South African safari we had little concern about the still-minor story buried by the political news. After taking the requisite photos of lions, elephants and hippos, we boarded our ship in Cape Town on Feb. 20.
Life on board fell into a routine as we rounded the Cape of Good Hope and hopped along the eastern coast of South Africa. The coronavirus was not even mentioned as we visited Port Elizabeth, Durban and Richards Bay. We had rounded the Cape with 3 meter swells giving a few passengers mal de mer. The captain announced that since fewer than 10 people had showed some gastrointestinal distress, the ship would start “enhanced sanitation protocols.” This was no issue with coronavirus, just Montezuma’s Revenge.
The crew constantly washed handrails, door knobs, switches and anything else likely to be touched. Stair rails were swabbed with disinfectant. Food service was done by glove-wearing crew members. The 500-foot walk from the bow to the stern could hardly be done without multiple squirts of Purell. The captain’s daily noon updates invariably reminded us to wash our hands. We were among the cleanest, most sanitized and healthy people on the planet.
We left South Africa bound for the lemurs of Madagascar. Then the rude awakening. The captain told us that Madagascar had closed its ports to all cruise ships. That was crazy. No one was sick. We were squeaky clean. It was certainly disappointing, but life on board offered great food, good wines, personal service and plenty of things to do. In our naivete, we shrugged it off as an aberration.
On Feb. 29 we docked at Reunion Island, a lovely bit of France in the Indian Ocean. We were warmly welcomed and thought things were back to normal. On March 1 and 2 we docked at the verdant, volcanic island of Mauritius. Things were back on track. Our next port, Sri Lanka was several sea days away. We settled down to lectures, team trivia, playing bridge, walking the track, eating and reading by the pool.
Then the hammer of reality fell.
First, we were told that the ship that followed us into Mauritius was assaulted by a crowd of rock-throwing locals. Police broke up the crowd with tear gas, but the port was closed to cruise ships. The response was irrational, but the citizens were nervous, isolated in the middle of the Indian Ocean. It was regrettable, but understandable. At lunch, our normally cheery captain announced that Sri Lanka had closed to us as well. You could hear the concern and frustration in his voice. We were no risk, but, the authorities there were adamant. Our ship could tie up and take on fuel and provisions, but no passengers or crew would be allowed off the ship.
We were assured that India was still wide open. After all, going to India was the highlight of the entire voyage. The captain and the home office in Miami had been in touch with all the right people. India was a go! We all exhaled.
We arrived in Sri Lanka and spent the day on board, the city glimmering through the haze so near and yet so far, and left with full provisions and in a festive mood as we anticipated the ship’s White Night — a pool-deck party under the tropical night sky. But, the festivities were tinged by uncertainty and a bit of “eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we die.”
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On our way to Cochin, India unexpectedly closed all ports to cruise ships. The mood on board went from festive to resigned. The rumor mill began to run among the guests. The captain was as transparent as he could be, but the situation on shore was constantly changing. The ship’s full team and the home office team in Miami were doing all they could. But, we were at the mercy of decisions made by country officials who were not only cautious, but panicked.
It’s March 10. We are were cruising the Indian Ocean, awaiting news. The last we’ve heard is that we would be going to Muscat, Oman, then to Abu Dhabi, before disembarking in Dubai. Oddly, our TV screens show no shore excursions until Dubai. Maybe we’ll be going there directly. As I chat with passengers, it was clear that people are done cruising. The big concern is to get back home as soon as possible. Passengers want to tie up at Dubai, and get out. We know we are healthy. But, will we be able to fly out? My own flights are scheduled through Amman, Jordan, and that feels a bit sketchy. Will connecting flights still be available? Will we face a quarantine? We’re waiting, but Dubai is still six days away, and, a lot can change in six days.
Oh! The Captain just made an announcement.
Dubai (still six days away) closed its port to cruise ships. The only port in the area open to us is Muscat, and we are heading there at high speed to get the available berth by late March 12. Oman authorities say all passengers must be off the ship by 10 p.m. on March 14. Land travel from Muscat to Dubai is not recommended since crossing the border into the United Arab Emirates will probably be denied. There has been a scramble for flights out of Muscat. Where in the world is Muscat, and who flies there?
Before the captain finished his announcement, my wife sprints to a ship’s phone and calls American Airlines, which handled our now-unreachable flights from Dubai. She books British Airways from Muscat to Heathrow and direct to MIA. The book of Proverbs says an excellent wife “considers a field and buys it.” My excellent wife dug up a great flight and snagged it.
March 11, we are about 400 miles south of Karachi, Pakistan and still about 600 miles from Muscat:
To complicate matters, Oman has not granted the captain’s request to provide blanket visas to the passengers for the jaunt from ship to airport. Online e-visas are necessary, but that requires digital copies of passports and passport photos, and the ability to print out the e-mailed visa. The ship is digitizing passports and photos, walking us through the byzantine process despite the ship’s overtaxed bandwidth.
Still, trivia contests, bridge games, exercise classes, parties and banquets are going on as normal. A Pirate’s Party with tropical foods and broiled lobster is planned up on the pool deck this evening.
We have been in the equivalent to quarantine since we left Mauritius on March 2. There is no COVID-19 on board. We will go from this group of 400 healthy passengers with careful sanitation routines and walk into a changed world. Most of us will be boarding long flights, breathing air with people we know nothing about. What we face at home is anyone’s guess. Such is life in a time of COVID-19.
In South Africa, Mauritius, Sri Lanka and Muscat the local authorities are prepared. Our temperatures are taken. We are asked probing questions. It is cumbersome, but we feel safe. Sunday, when our 747 arrives at Miami International Airport, we deplane in groups of 30, and are then dumped in a crowded immigration line. No one takes my temperature. Although we completed health questionnaires, no one reads them. The only question I am asked is, “Do you feel OK?”
Home, sweet home, is not ready for COVID-19.
George Lawrence is a retired educator who fell in love with Miami when he was headmaster at Westminster Christian School from 2004-2010.
This story was originally published March 16, 2020 6:56 PM.