Hubby and I never thought of ourselves as ‘cruise’ people. We met when he was in the Navy and I was crewing on a private yacht. Needless to say, our view of the ocean waves was through a prism of hard work, narrowly averted disasters, and exhaustion. But a South American cruise, thirty years after our professional seafaring days ended, would allow us to check off many bucket list locations quickly before moving to Europe. Jet lag wouldn’t be an issue from the US as we’d be heading south. It all seemed so simple. So relaxing. So normal. So … a different world ago.
In February, back when coronavirus was still (in the minds of some ‘leaders’ in the US anyway) a flu bug, weaponised to impact elections and all that bologna, we headed to Santiago, Chile, to meet the Viking Jupiter. Now, if you’ve ever seen the living quarters on a submarine or jammed yourself into a tiny crew bunk on a small motor yacht, you may understand how Hubby and I reacted on seeing the Viking Jupiter. Talk about all your bells and whistles: A large balcony as opposed to my tiny porthole – and Hubby’s no porthole at all. No nuclear weapon codes to worry about. No being responsible for cleaning up the vomit from that guest who decided to have three Bloody Marys before heading out fishing in choppy waters. Oh, and did I mention the bars of Toblerone replenished daily in each cabin? Maybe we’re cruise people after all.
With no frame of reference for cruises, we figure maybe they always take everyone’s temperatures as they embark. It doesn’t faze us. The days tick by in splendid isolation from the world. The occasion message comes through about increases in coronavirus cases and maybe it’s not just in China and Italy after all, and maybe some things were going to have to change. But I’m busy eating the Toblerone and Hubby’s busy looking through the binoculars at whales and we’re floating above the clouds at Osorno Volcano and gazing at the emerald waters of Petrohué Falls and marvelling at Amalia Glacier and strolling through the stunning Tierra del Fuego National Park and learning how to drink the local Pisco Sour and falling in love with quirky Ushuaia, the southernmost city in the world. February ticks into March and all is right with the universe.
Except it isn’t. As we round Cape Horn in the smoothest water some of the crew had ever experienced, things are getting distinctly choppy in the real world. Washington State is struggling. Seattle’s shut down. Our financial portfolio is making strange throat-clearing noises. The UK is still avoiding following Europe’s lead of restricting travel and shutting down schools. There are mutterings from older retirees in the ship’s stairwells and restaurants. Increased vigilance at the handwashing stations. A crew member on permanent duty, wiping down handrails. Hubby and I look sideways at each other over Pisco Sours, the hairs on the backs of our necks rippling with the first brushes of alarm.
We arrive in the Falkland Islands after a couple of isolated days at sea. Tours continue as usual and I check off other bucket list items – hanging out with the King penguins at Volunteer Point and paying my respects to those lost on both sides during the war of 1982. Another two days at sea, then a cancelled port of call in Puerto Madryn, Argentina, as high winds preclude docking the ship. Or do they? Rumours are rife. Are we being denied entry into Argentina? No. Can’t be. And I do believe we got accurate information from the Norwegian company. Just high winds.
It’s information coming out of the US we’re struggling with. Erratic. Contradictory. Inflammatory. Unhelpful. We start looking at info coming out of Germany, Scandinavia, Canada, out of step with initial UK info about herd immunity and how to obtain it. The whole world out of step. It’s impossible to form cohesive plans, to know what’s really going on.
The awesome Viking crew keeps smiling and the food keeps coming and I keep eating the Toblerone, though I’m chewing slower and it may not be tasting as good as it did back in February. We check on the crew, asking questions about what happens to them if the ship can’t dock. The crew doesn’t know. The Cruise Director and Captain (or Designated Driver as he calls himself over the Tannoy) tell us information is being collected and analysed. We find ourselves trusting these non-sensationalized, apolitical messages, reporting exactly what they know and don’t know. No one pretends to be a stable genius. No one points fingers or rants or covers up. It’s refreshing. We need that reassurance.
It’s March 10th now and we head into another two days at sea, wondering what happens once we get to Montevideo, Uruguay. We needn’t worry. A wonderful welcome awaits us and we revel in the colours and culture of this great city.
Breaking news! Our US house isn’t supposed to go on the market until March 22nd, a week after we return from our cruise. But we get an email from our realtor. Subject line: Hold onto your britches! She has two interested parties offering ‘sight unseen’ bids above listing price. Are we interested? As a matter of fact, we are! We can move to England sooner than we thought! We high five the bartender and I plan on three desserts for dinner. We accept a bid, electronically signing the contracts as the Viking Jupiter slices smoothly through the South Atlantic waters, heading towards Buenos Aires. The man on the couch next to us offers to take a photo as we send off the contract. Woo hoo! Job done! We’re practically in England already with all our furniture and a gorgeous summer on Exmoor ahead of us!
But wait. Our retirement accounts give us the international signal for choking, both hands around their necks, whites of eye showing. Rumblings about our Buenos Aires port-of-call. Then comes the announcement, piped into every cabin, which is unusual: ‘Viking Cruises is suspending services as of today for six weeks.’ I put my Toblerone back in the fridge and plonk down on the couch. Dinner is a quiet affair. No drinks. No dessert. No clue how to react to this new world order.
Cities are shutting down. Cruise ships are the new leper colonies, unwelcome everywhere. We open our eyes first thing in the morning on March 14th hoping we’re docked in Buenos Aires and not spinning circles somewhere out in the ocean. Like the refugee vessels we’ve broken our hearts over so many times. I work with refugees. Am I one, now?
The world has changed. Argentina announces it’s shutting its airports exactly one hour after our flight is due to take off on March 15th. That’s too tight. We run to the Help Desk. Administrative crew are helping other passengers change flights. The ship was supposed to go on to Benidorm, Spain, and many passengers were due to stay onboard for another twenty-one days. We understand they need to get flights out first but we worry about ourselves too, of course. Tense messages are coming in from friends and family. Where are we? We should try to get across the US border soon. Very soon. We’ve seen this movie a million times. But never starred in it.
The Viking crew members are awesome. They assure us they’ll do their best to find a flight out for us but in the meantime we should take advantage of the final tour of Buenos Aires, about to leave the dock. In a daze, we go, not really knowing what else to do. There are no coronavirus cases on the ship or in Argentina at the time. Surely, a tour is better than twitching with nerves in our cabin? And it is. It’s an amazing city. The only problem is we’d dressed to bike around the city in sunshine but that tour’s cancelled so we set off to walk. I’m wearing white shorts. I read somewhere, a long time ago, you shouldn’t wear white underwear under white shorts. You should wear nude-coloured underwear. Then nothing shows through. Typically, that’s been good advice. But not in a rainstorm. The skies open, we’re drenched in seconds. White shorts become translucent and I look completely naked. It’s too soon to laugh about it, okay.
But we tour on. Stiff upper lip, right? I cringe as I say this to Hubby. What we’re going through is hardly heroic, and, looking back, may have been foolhardy. A luxury cruise. Safer environment than back home. Emergency assets for a hotel if we need to hunker down in Buenos Aires. We shouldn’t be sweating anything. But we are. We have kids in harm’s way on two continents, a dog in a kennel, vulnerable neighbours, friends, family, already struggling with health issues. A house sold, no new home in sight. We need to get back to the US. And I need to change out of these darn shorts before I’m arrested!
The tour guide informs us we are indeed the last tour. He’s been told his job is finished, all other cruise ships cancelled for the foreseeable future. He has a new baby at home. We’re ashamed of our worries. The hospitality industry will be decimated. Our daughter works in that industry. Every member of the crew, people we’ve come to care about, are at risk. Interestingly, we see shops, restaurants and tourist spots still open in Buenos Aires: except for La Ricoleta Cemetery, where Eva Peron is buried. That’s closed due to the coronavirus. Let that sink in for a minute. We stare through the sealed gates. If it’s bad enough that the dead should be protected, we need a new plan.
We bolt back to the ship. Viking Cruises has found us a flight to Miami. We have twenty minutes to pack up our cabin and get a taxi. As I fling stuff into suitcases and panic-eat the last of the Toblerone, I’m so grateful I thought to thank and tip our cabin crew the day before. No time to say goodbye to anyone else. The taxi’s travelling way too fast for comfort and rap music has never soothed my soul. It doesn’t today either. But our driver likes it. He’s all that stands between us and a very long stay in Buenos Aires right now so we don’t complain.
My new suitcase and favourite travel handbag break on the dash through the airport. A pandemic ago, this would have been worthy of complaint. Today, I simply pick up the case and keep moving. We secure boarding passes and a wave of relief washes over us. Few people are wearing masks at the airport, though as we watch the New York Stock Exchange ticker tape scrolling across the TV screen, our retirement hopes scream for ventilators we know aren’t coming.
We arrive in Miami to warnings of extra health screenings. It’s one question: Are you feeling ill? We pass the test and spend the time between flights watching footage of the chaos in Chicago: four-hour waits for temperature checks. We’re heading to Chicago. We’ve been awake around twenty-seven hours by the time we land, to no extra health screenings. Our phones ping like demented xylophones, family checking on our progress. House sale documents rattle in, requiring our immediate attention.
We’ve no idea if selling now is a good idea. Can we get to England to find a new house? Unlikely. Even if travel isn’t officially restricted, it’s unacceptable to try to get there until we know we’re not a risk to those around us. But if we don’t sell now, who knows when we’ll be able to again? We decide to sell. Hubby and I drive from the airport in silence.
As I write this, our fourteen-day quarantine is behind us. No symptoms. But we’re under ‘safer at home’ advisories in Wisconsin, restricting travel and human contact for another month at least. In the UK, moving companies aren’t moving furniture, home showings have been suspended, mortgage applications aren’t being processed. Visa offices are closed so Hubby’s application can’t be processed. We can’t find information on when we’ll be able to ship our dog. Our US house sale closes on May 22nd and we’ve nowhere to live after that. Our son and daughter-in-law in the UK have been furloughed, our daughter in the US laid off.
We’ve waited thirty years to move back home to England. And thirty years to take a cruise. Our timing is impeccable. The notion of a world cruise takes on new meaning: we left port in one world and docked in another. But we’ll carry memories of the splendours of Chile, Argentina, Uruguay and the Falklands into our isolation. Who knows when a trip like that will be possible again?
Though this adventure wasn’t exactly as we imagined it would be, we’re willing to try again. One day. Some day. We have nothing but praise for Viking Cruises. As I now say, it was the best of cruises, it was the worst of cruises. We’re also seeing the world’s people at their best and at their worst too. And I will get home to England at some unknown future time. I’m lucky. My family and I have our health and that’s all that matters right now. Everything else must wait.
I wish you all safely through this extraordinary time. Sending hugs from a socially acceptable distance.
Author’s own images: Looking down on cloud cover from Osorno Volcano, rainbow over the Chilean fjords, penguins at Volunteer Point, author (before the shorts turned translucent!) in Buenos Aires. (Permission required for sharing.)