Heaven Knows Where We’re Going

Sure, my wife Erin and I had some challenges on our recent month-long cruise through Asia on the Holland America ship Westerdam.

We were caught at sea in the eye of a storm — COVID-19, coronavirus, which can produce a deadly form of pneumonia.

Despite assurances from Holland America that all passengers were healthy — 1,455 guests and 747 crew— many countries on the itinerary refused to let us land, including the Philippines and Japan. Taiwan allowed us to dock in Kaohsiung for one night but then sent us packing. Shanghai and South Korea were apparently scratched by Holland America before we began leg two of our journey.

News media called us the “Pariah Ship.”

Even the American territory of Guam turned us away.

The timing of our cruise was bad. On Feb. 1, after a great two weeks in Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam, our ship stopped in Hong Kong, as planned, to let off about one third of the passengers and board new ones for the second leg of the cruise. Because Wuhan, China, was Ground Zero for the virus, Hong Kong was also apparently viewed by some countries as a possible vector for the virus.

By Feb. 4, the much larger cruise ship, Diamond Princess, was forced to quarantine in Yokohama, Japan, as hundreds of its 3,711 passengers tested positive for the virus. Sadly, two of the ship’s passengers have since died.

Since then, virus hot spots have sprung up in South Korea and Northern Italy. 

To date, 67 countries have reported COVID-19 cases. 

China reports nearly 80,000 cases and 35 deaths from the virus.

Although President Trump announced last weekend that the US has only 20 cases, public health officials say the total is closer to 70. 

Washington State has reported the first American death from COVID-19. 

In Northern California, two “community” cases of “unknown” origin have been identified.

Despite it all, Erin and I had a blast on our trip.

After boarding in Singapore Jan. 16, we snorkeled in Koh Samui, Thailand; bowed to the golden Buddhas of Bangkok’s Royal Palace; watched the sun rise over the haunting temples of Angkor Wat, and toured the “Hanoi Hilton,” the infamous prison where Senator John McCain spent five nightmare years and the French colonial government held countless Vietnamese political prisoners from 1886 to 1954.

We were traveling with close friends — Holley, a retired nurse, like Erin, and her partner Liz — whom we don’t get to see often. We danced to live music in the ship’s B.B. King Lounge; dined on great food while the crew treated us like royalty; attended shipboard parties like the Academy Awards pajama breakfast on the Main Stage; took classes on the history and culture of Asian countries we could not visit, taught by an engaging retired dentist and Tai Chi master from Tucson, Dr. Ping Wing Kam.

If we tired of cable news in our stateroom or couldn’t stomach another minute of the Senate impeachment hearings or the election caucuses, we could walk laps around the promenade deck or read on our balcony, seas churning below.

So what if the ship’s kitchen ran out of Nutella for crepes and fresh fruit for our stateroom? We took such deprivations in stride, especially after the ship’s captain announced that Holland America would be refunding our fares, giving us discounts on future trips and paying for our flights home. If we could get flights home.

Half laughing, half crying, Holley taught us the lyrics to an African song that captured our situation as we zig zagged through the South China Sea seeking a port in the coronavirus storm.

We are going,

Heaven knows where we are going…

And we'll get there.

Heaven knows how we will get there.

But we know we will.

We practiced a lesson Buddha taught: Stay present, in the moment, and breathe.

Sometimes the cruise got weird, like when a Thai military cruiser with a cannon on its foredeck circled the ship. Soon after, the captain announced that Thailand would not allow us to land but that Cambodia had approved our disembarkation, provided everyone on the ship was healthy.

On Feb 13, after nine days of roaming, the Westerdam landed in the port of Sihanoukville, Cambodia. With much fanfare, Cambodian Prime Minister Hu Den helicoptered down alongside the ship’s birth, and with TV cameras rolling, welcomed us, having presented all passengers with Cambodian silk scarves, then offering bouquets of flowers to the first passengers to disembark. Most of us stayed on board while we awaited instructions from the captain and crew. It could take days, the captain said, for Holland America to book flights home for all of us. Cambodia is not a big international flight hub.

On Feb. 14, I enjoyed a cappuccino on the observation deck and talked to a couple of passengers about their experience on the ship. Jan Kennedy of Yorkshire, England, loved the first leg but wished Westerdam had never landed in Hong Kong.

“When Holland America decided that we were going to go to Hong Kong,” Kennedy said, “we were all quite alarmed because by that time we already knew that there was a [COVID-19] problem brewing there, so we were quite shocked that they were going to take us to Hong Kong and let a lot of people on potentially bringing on the virus with them.

“And then after that there was very poor communication. The ship itself is wonderful, the crew have been fantastic and looked after us, but we’ve been very disappointed with Holland America for the communications or lack of communication. I know they’re trying to rectify that but of course it will have spoiled the cruise for most people, I think.”

Raunaq Shaik, who lives in Toronto but was born in Pakistan, enjoyed the cruise despite the surprises.

“They are taking care of us so nicely,” Shaik said. “Everybody’s been so patient, and everybody is so nice. The service is excellent. They keep us entertained. So many classes, so many things of our own interest so we can just select and go.

“I am not disappointed at all. We couldn’t go places because of the virus, but it’s nobody’s fault. Of course, I wanted to visit so many ports that we didn’t go, but what can you do? What they say is, ‘This is life and it’s up to you to enjoy it.’ We have already booked another Holland America cruise, to Alaska.”

When I returned to our cabin after speaking to Jan and Raunaq, Erin was agitated.

“Where have you been? We’re leaving for the airport in an hour and flying to Kuala Lumpur. Hurry up and finish packing!”

“Where is Kuala Lumpur?”

“Malaysia, I think.”

“What about San Francisco?”

“Hurry!” she cried. “We’ll figure that out later.”

Sitting close behind us on the bus to the airport was a man in his eighties with a wracking cough and his fragile-looking wife. They were also on the flight to Kuala Lumpur.

As we landed in Malaysia, airline agents dashed down the aisle, rushing away with the coughing man and his wife and spraying the rest of us with insecticide. Erin covered her head with a blanket.

Instead of going right to our hotel, guards who did not speak English herded us into a cold transit lounge without explanation. Some of us missed our flights. Others were inexplicably allowed to go to theirs. No one said why they were holding us.

Miraculously, out of nowhere, a retired nurse and passenger took charge of the weird situation, calling Holland America as well as the American consulate as she sorted things out with airport personnel. After each of her phone calls, she would report to us over the P.A. system. 

“Someone from the consulate will be coming soon to help us,” she announced.

Suddenly, blankets and pillows and airline dinners materialized.

More forlornly, the nurse announced: “We won’t be getting our luggage tonight or tomorrow because it has gone to customs and immigration, and we are not going there. We are in transit, and we will only be able to get our luggage when we reach our final destination.” 

I kept thinking of that Bill Murray movie, “Lost in Translation,” where he gets trapped in an airport.

“We don’t have a final destination,” Erin told the nurse. “Our ticket stops in Singapore.”

“I’ve got a similar situation,” she said. “My ticket stops in San Diego, but I live in Denver. I’ll talk to them.”

“What about our hotel?” Erin asked.

More delays and phone calls.

“No one will be staying at a hotel tonight,” she announced over the P.A. system. “But the airport is trying to find us a more comfortable place to spend the night."

After several hours, bedraggled and clutching pillows and blankets, the sixty or so passengers remaining traipsed through the airport and took a short train ride, guards eyeing us all the while, and arrived at last in the promised land, a cavernous room called the Golden Lounge. It was warm, had free Wi-Fi, a free 24-hour buffet, beverages, bathrooms and showers. Tucked away in a small alcove, Erin stumbled across a woman’s “napping lounge” and nabbed two couches for us. We showered and set our alarms for 5 a.m., when a Malaysian airline representative would escort us to the transit ticket desk.

Someone from American Consulate in Kuala Lumpur did show up the next morning.

“I don’t usually help with airline tickets,” said the nice woman from the consulate. “But this is an unusual situation.”

“Why did they hold us here?” we asked.

“I’m trying to sort it all out,” she said vaguely.

When our turn came in the ticket line, we were thrilled to find we were flying not to Singapore but to Tokyo, and from there to SFO. Life was good.

In Tokyo, no one seemed to know or care that we had been on the pariah ship, we dashed across the airport with barely enough time to call Holley, now in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where Holland America had flown several hundred passengers on charter planes to await flights home. They’d been booked into a luxury hotel; about 200 other guests were still on the Westerdam with the crew.

Erin and I were a wreck when we arrived in San Francisco airport the next day. We took BART to El Cerrito, where we planned to spend the night with a friend, also a registered nurse, before driving home to Mendocino County.

On Wi-Fi at last, we freaked out on BART. We’d both received texts saying that the elderly woman rushed off the airplane had tested positive for the coronavirus; she and her husband, who was negative, were now in a Kuala Lumpur hospital.

Erin texted our hostess. “We may have been exposed to the coronavirus.”

At our El Cerrito BART stop, Erin and I and our friend stood awkwardly on the curb trying to figure out what to do. 

Our friend decided she would rather we not stay with her.

“We understand,” said Erin. “But we can’t drive home. We’re too tired.”

“What about a motel?”

“No problem,” I swallowed. Our brains were mush.

“Let’s treat ourselves to a nice place,” Erin said.

It was Saturday of Valentine’s Day weekend. Every decent hotel or motel in the Bay Area seemed to be booked, 

In Novato, we found the free last room in the Bay Area. I was freezing. My down jacket was in my suitcase. My suitcase was in Tokyo.

Erin called UCSF Emergency Department from the motel, hoping we could quickly settle the question of whether we were positive for coronavirus.

“Is there a test we can take if we’ve been exposed?” she asked the ER.

“Do you have symptoms? Fever? Cough? Difficulty breathing?”

“We both feel fine,” she said. 

“No need to come in. We won’t test you.”

She called Marin General ER. Same thing. If we didn’t have symptoms, they didn’t need to see us or test us.

I was now staring at a new text on my phone.

“What is it?” Erin said. 

“That woman from the cruise I was talking to in the Sihanoukville airport? She just texted that her brother is in Phnom Penh at that hotel where Holley is and says the woman’s positive test in Kuala Lumpur is suspect. Malaysia refused to allow the CDC and the World Health Organization to retest her. It could be a false positive.”

Erin called Phnom Penh and reached Holley, who said the 83-year-old woman’s positive test had freaked out the airlines and other countries, and their new tickets home had to be cancelled until every passenger and the crew could be tested for the virus, which would take several days. No one could fly home until everyone, including the crew and passengers still on the ship were found virus-free. If not, everyone might be quarantined for two weeks. As it was, they were allowed to leave the hotel but stay close by.

I had a very restless night wondering if I had the virus.

“How do you feel?” I asked Erin as we drove north to Mendocino County the next day.

“Feel fine,” Erin said. “We don’t have the coronavirus. I’m sure of it. That woman’s test was bogus. That’s why even her husband who was much sicker than she was tested negative. It was a false positive. We’re good.” 

 Erin is better at staying in the moment than I am.

The dogs yelped with glee when we walked in the door. The air in Mendocino was delicious and pure.

On Monday, Mendocino County Health and Human Services called us. A public health nurse said that as far as she could tell, the CDC guidelines said we were at “low-risk” for the disease and did not need to be quarantined. 

“Can you test us?” we asked.

“Only if you have symptoms."

She called back later; she’d talked with her boss and we were actually considered at “medium risk.” The county would like us to self-quarantine at home for 14 days. That sounded good to us after five weeks of being on the road. 

“Do you need anything?” the nurse asked. “I don’t live far away. Can I bring you groceries?”

“We’re fine,” we said. “But thank you.”

Neighbors brought us our mail and fresh veggies.

The county nurse called every day to check on our temperatures and symptoms. We had nothing to report. We felt great.

On Sunday, Feb. 23, we received an e-mail from Holland America’s President Orlando Ashford. He apologized for any inconvenience we’d been caused and closed his letter with very good news.

“Based on information provided for the reported single confirmed case of COVID-19,” Ashford wrote, “the U.S. CDC does not recommend isolation or quarantine for guests returning home from Westerdam. If for some reason you have been asked to self-quarantine by your national, state or local health authority, please let us know.”

We e-mailed the letter to the county. Our coronavirus storm was over.

The world’s, it seems, was just beginning.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe ordered his nation’s schools closed until late March to help control the spread of the virus.

Stock markets in the U.S. and around the world have plunged.

International supply chains have drawn to a halt. 

Airlines, including British Airways, Delta, American Airlines, United and Air France, have suspended flights to mainland China; dozens of flights to Asia’s biggest cities have been cancelled. 

Meanwhile, here in Northern California, two “community” virus cases of have been reported in people who have *not* traveled to COVID-19 hotspots or been in contact with anyone who has.

President Trump suggested that the coronavirus was a “hoax” drummed up by Democrats to smear him. His son told reporters Democrats hoped “millions” of Americans would die from the virus so his dad wouldn’t be reelected.

Trump has placed Vice President Mike Pence in charge of the US coronavirus response team, a dubious choice in light of Pence’s handling of a spike in HIV crisis in Indiana in 2015 when he was governor. Asked about a needle exchange program to slow the infection rate, he told reporters, "I'm going to go home and pray on it.” 

Last week, the California Nurses Association criticized the state’s medical facilities when a Solano County patient tested positive for coronavirus. Many staff had already come in contact with the patient. As a consequence, U.C. Davis hospital asked 36 nurses and 88 medical staff to self-quarantine as a precaution.

“A total shit show” is how a registered nurse friend of ours in the Bay Area described the scene at her hospital as word came that the hospital would soon be admitting patients with COVID-19. She said nurses and floor staff had not been adequately trained on handling COVID-19 patients or been provided with enough protective gear.

The CDC reported last week that many of its testing kits are producing flawed results; those that work are in very short supply.

The Westerdam, has cancelled its next four cruises.

Meanwhile, Americans are told that to prevent the spread of disease, we must wash our hands frequently and for 30 seconds (the equivalent of two rounds of “Happy Birthday to You”); avoid touching our faces and mouths with our hands; cover our mouths or wear masks if we cough, and stay at home if we are sick.

Is that enough to combat the coronavirus storm?

We wash our hands maniacally and are trying to practice the Buddha’s great lesson: Stay in the present, and breathe deeply.

Just for today, it’s working. We are great. I pray you are, too.

But what a long strange trip it’s been! 

PS. Cambodia, the only Southeast Asia country that would allow Holland America’s ship Westerdam to land, rolled out the red carpet, then got worried when a passenger appeared to get coronavirus after landing in Kuala Lumpur. Jane Futcher, who was aboard the ship and the flight to Kuala Lumpur, tells the story. 

A Thai naval vessel pulled up alongside Holland America’s Westerdam Feb. 12 as passengers on the cruise ship thought they were headed to a port near Bangkok to disembark. Turned out the Thais, scared of coronavirus, didn’t want the ship, which finally landed in Cambodia. All passengers were virus-free when they disembarked.

(Jane Futcher lives seven miles south of Laytonville.)

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