By Jane Futcher
March 5, 2020
A small but dangerous adversary hijacked a once-in-a-lifetime Asian cruise my wife Erin and I booked on the Holland America ship Westerdam.
For two weeks during February, five countries refused to let our ship dock despite the cruise company’s repeated assurances that none of us — 1,455 guests and 747 crew— had COVID-19 — the novel coronavirus.
Some media outlets dubbed the Westerdam “Pariah Ship” as the governments of the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, Guam, and Thailand turned us away.
When we finally debarked, the challenges continued when an 83-year-old Westerdam passenger tested positive for the virus. She is recovering in Kuala Lumpur, but her case threw in to turmoil travel home for the ship’s 1644 passengers.
The first two weeks of our cruise were a blast. Boarding in Singapore Jan. 16, we snorkeled in Koh Samui, Thailand; took selfies with the golden Buddhas of Bangkok’s Royal Palace; watched the sun rise over the haunting temples of Angkor Wat and visited the so-called Hanoi Hilton, the infamous French-built prison where Sen. John McCain spent five nightmare years and countless Vietnamese political prisoners were held by the French Colonial government from 1886 to 1954.
Our ship’s tangle with the novel virus began soon after we left Hong Kong, where nearly half of the ship’s guests disembarked Feb. 1, as scheduled, and about the same number of new passengers came aboard for the second leg of the trip to Manila, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. Shanghai, the intended final port of call, had already been scratched from our itinerary because of the coronavirus outbreak there. The revised plan was to debark in Yokohama and fly home from nearby Tokyo.
We soon found the welcome mat pulled up as the virus outbreak on the Diamond Princess forced that ship to quarantine in Yokohama Feb. 4. (To date, 542 out of 3,711 Diamond Princess passengers have tested positive for the virus, making the ship the site of the most infections outside of China.)
Our itinerary got weird. Our two-night stay in Kaohsiung, Taiwan, was cut short without explanation Feb. 5. South Korea was scratched without explanation and the ship headed north toward Japan when the ship Captain Vincent Smit announced we could not stop anywhere in Japan and were heading east toward Guam. Many of us joked that with luck we’d end up on a beach in Hawaii.
A day later, the captain announced that we were heading westward again. Gwam was a no-go. An electronic map of the ship’s course and positions showed a bright yellow line zig zagging through the South China Sea.
Half laughing, half crying, our friend and shipmate Holley taught us the words to an African song Art Garfunkel made famous:
“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 were disappointed to miss so many ports, but not worried. The captain had assured us there were no coronavirus cases aboard. The food was great, and we had many diversions, including daily Asian history lectures, dancing to live soul music in the B.B. King Lounge, an Oscar party on the Main Stage, and nonstop TV coverage in our staterooms of the impeachment vote, the Iowa and New Hampshire caucuses. If none of those appealed, we could gamble in the casino or read on our balconies as the ship steamed off to nowhere under sunny skies.
To much applause, the captain announced Feb. 12 that Thailand had agreed to let us land near Bangkok. Passengers nearly crashed the ship’s Wifi trying to book flights home and contact families. Adding to our cheer was the news that Holland America would refund our fares and give us 50 percent off another cruise if we booked in the next twelve months.
Up in the Crow’s Nest Observation Deck one morning after a capuccino, I spoke with Jan Kennedy of Yorkshire, England, who loved the first leg of the trip but was not happy with Holland America’s handling of the crisis after 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.”
As we drew closer to Thailand, an ominous lookingThai naval ship with a cannon on its bow began to follow us. No worries, the captain announced. The ship was escorting us to port. A couple of hours later, Captain Smit announced we were not landing in Thailand after all but heading east to Sihanoukville, Cambodia, where we would disembark. Holland America would book our flights home and pay for them. All of this, he said, might take a few days since passengers hailed from many countries. Most of us were from the USA and Canada and Holland.
On Feb. 12, in waters off Sihanoukville, several dozen Cambodian officials boarded the ship to sort through our passports and health records, confirming that there were no coronavirus cases aboard and double checking to be sure that no one aboard had traveled to mainland China before boarding. We had the “all clear!”
At 6 a.m. the next day, the captain woke us up asking passengers us to go immediately to the port side of the ship, donning the scarves left on our beds the night before. The scarves, he said, were a gift from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who was landing soon by helicopter to welcome ashore the ship’s first passengers. We waved, as directed, to the prime minister; media outlets from around the world documented the disembarkation.
On Valentine’s Day, when I returned from my cappuccino in the Crow’s Nest, Erin was beside herself.
“Where have you been?” she cried. “Holland America has booked us on a charter flight to Kuala Lumpur. Finish packing!” We would stay there in a hotel, she said, and fly to Singapore in the morning.
“But our final destination is San Francisco not Singapore,” I said. The staff said not to worry. Malaysian Airlines in Kuala Lumpur would book us through to SFO.
On our bus to the airport and our flight to Kuala Lumpur were a man with a wretched cough and his 83-year-old wife.
On landing in Kuala Lumpur, masked flight attendants pulled off the elderly woman and her husband while the rest of us waited on the plane, for what we didn’t know. Someone walked down the aisle spraying us with an unnamed aerosol disinfectant. Erin kept her head under her blanket.
Then our trip got really weird. Instead of preceding to our flights, officials in the airport held us in a freezing transit lounge (It was in 80 degrees outside!) for more than three hours. Shivering, with police and unsmiling airport personnel watching us, we waited. Some people missed their next flight. Others were allowed to go to theirs. Finally, someone appeared with blankets and pillows and airline dinners.
Miraculously, a can-do retired nurse named Linda from Denver took control of the situation, calling Holland America’s Seattle headquarters and the American consulate in Kuala Lumpur to find out why were being held. She relayed news from Holland America, the consulate and Malaysian officials back to the rest of us over the P.A. system.
“Someone from the consulate will be coming soon to help us,” she announced.
Then later — “No one will be getting their luggage tonight because your luggage has gone to customs and immigration; we cannot go there, since we are in transit, and we are not going through immigration. You will pick up your luggage when you reach your final destination.”
Erin and I were alarmed. “We don’t have a final destination,” we told the nurse “Our ticket stops in Singapore.
“I’ll ask about,” she promised.
“What about the hotel?” we said. “Those of us leaving in the morning were told we’d have a room.”
“No one is staying at a hotel,” Linda said over the P.A. system. “That isn’t happening. But the airport is trying to find a more comfortable place for you to spend the night.”
No suitcases. No hotel?
At long last, officials escorted us through much of the airport and aboard an airport train to the Golden Lounge, where we would spend the night.
The Golden Lounge was great — a cavernous room for first-class tourists with a free 24-hour buffe, beverages, chairs, bathrooms and showers. Tucked away in a small alcove, Erin found a woman’s “napping lounge” and nabbed two couches for us. We took showers set our alarm clocks for 5 a.m., when, the nurse said, a Malaysian airline representative would escort early departures like us to the transit ticket desk. We were booked to fly to Singapore at 8 a.m.
As we waited for our boarding passes the next morning, a woman showed up from the American Consulate in Kuala Lumpur.
“I don’t usually work on airline tickets,” she told me, “But this is an unusual situation.”
“What happened?” I asked. “Why have we been held here?”
“I’m trying to sort it all out,” was the gist of what she said. We felt better knowing that someone from our government was on the case.
Amazingly, when we got to the head of the line, the Malaysian ticket agent gave us a boarding passes for Tokyo, a five-hour trip, and from Tokyo to SFO, a 12-hour trip. All was not lost.
In Tokyo, we dashed to our flight, with just enough time to text our friends Holley and Liz from the ship. They said the 83-year-old corona virus case had thrown travel plans for the rest of the passengers into chaos. Holland America had flown them and about 300 others on a charter plane to Phnom Penh, where they were staying in a luxury hotel awaiting full coronavirus testing. A number of airlines and countries would not take them without full health clearances. The prime minister of Cambodia was now in trouble for letting the Westerdam land. It would take several days for everyone in Phnom Penh to be tested. Meanwhile, back on the Westerdam, she said that Holland America was testing more than 200 guests still there as well as the entire staff.
We made it to SFO at about 8 a.m. the next morning, and took BART to El Cerrito, where we planned to spend the night before driving home.
Nearly simultaneously on BART, Erin and opened e-mails and texts we had not seen while traveling. The 83 year old on our flight, the media reported, had tested positive for the virus although her husband was negative.
“Oh, shit.” Erin texted our friend. “We may have been exposed to the virus.”
The three of us stood awkwardly at the BART station.
“I don’t think you should stay with me,” our friend said. “I am so sorry.”
By this time we had been in transit for 48 hours.
“We can’t go home,” Erin said. “We’re too tired to drive and besides my daughter is there with two friends taking care of the dogs.”
“Can you stay in a motel?” our friend asked.
“Of course,” I said uncertainly.
“I’m too tired to look,” Erin said.
We ate Thai lunch at a restaurant in El Cerrito as I searched online for a motel.
“Let’s treat ourselves to a nice place,” Erin said.
It was Saturday of Valentine’s Day weekend. Every hotel or motel we could think of was booked.
“Let’s drive to Novato,” I said. “We’ll find a motel there.”
In Novato we found what must have been the last room in the Bay Area.
We were freezing and exhausted. My down jacket was in my suitcase. But where was my suitcase? Not with us.
From the motel, Erin called UCSF Emergency Department hoping we could resolve this matter of our possible exposure to coronavirus once and for all, with a test.
“Do you test for coronavirus?” she asked.
“Only if you have symptoms,” replied someone from the Emergency Department. “Do you have fever? Cough? Difficulty breathing?”
“I’m fine,” she said.
“We won’t test you. Don’t come in.”
She called Marin General. Same thing. They didn’t test unless someone was symptomatic.
“Guess what?” I said, staring at a text. “The woman I was talking to from our flight to Kuala Lumpur texted me that her brother, who is still in Phnom Penh, says the positive test in Kuala Lumpur is believed to be suspect. Malaysia has refused to allow the CDC and the World Health Organization retest her.”
“That explains it,” Erin said. “How else could her husband and every other passenger be negative.Let’s go to a movie,” Erin said. “It’s 6 p.m. Too early to go to bed.”
We bought a giant popcorn and saw a movie, thinly plotted but riveting, which kept us awake until 10 p.m.
“How do you feel?” I said as we drove north to Mendocino Sunday.
“Fine,” Erin said.
“Do you feel short of breath, feverish?”
“You know I don’t,” she said. “That woman was a false positive. I know it.”
“Should we quarantine ourselves?” I said.
“We need groceries ito self-quarantine.”
We decided only one of us would go briefly into Trader Joe’s and only after we’d cleaned our hands with Purel.
Erin called her daughter. She and her friends were leaving. They would not take the chance of being exposed to us.
“I understand,” Erin said. “But just so you know, we’re not sick.”
We passed her daughter and her friends on our road, blowing kisses to them.
We were thrilled to be home.
We called the Mendocino public health, part of County Health and Human Services. The message machine was full.
A couple hours later, some called and read us the protocol stating that if you have no symptoms, you did not need to be stay in quarantine.
“Fine,” Erin said, explaining that we thought the 83 year old’s positive test was bogus.
Soon we got a call back from the county. They changed their mind and would like us to stay in quarantine at home.
“Sure,” Erin said, explaining that some thought the woman’s test was a false positive.
“That does seem odd,” she said. “Do you need anything? I live nearby. I can bring you groceries.”
“We’re fine,” Erin said. “But thank you.”
Friends brought our mail and more groceries. The nurse called every day that week to check on our temperature and symptoms. We had nothing to report. Everything was normal.
On Sunday, Feb. 23, seven days after our plane ride with the alleged corona virus case, we received an email from Holland America’s president, Orlando Ashford. He said that the woman who tested positive was now clear of the virus and that Cambodian Prime Minister Hun doubted
the accuracy of the initial test.
“Based on information provided for the reported single confirmed case of COVID-19,” he 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 sent the letter to the county. The nurse agreed that we were probably fine and said she would not call every day, unless we wanted her to. She reminded us that our quarantine was voluntary.
We went shopping on Monday and had dinner with a friend.
The world is on alert. China is on virtual lockdown. The U.S. stock market is plummeting.
Meanwhile, all of us are supposed to wash our hands well and often; never touch our faces and mouths with our fingers; cover our mouths when we cough and wear a mask if we are sick.
We are grappling with COVID-19.
Erin and I are healthy. More than fourteen days have passed since we traveled in an airplane with a woman who was suspected of having coronavirus but does not have it.
What a long strange trip it’s been.