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March 21, 2020
And Now, the Rest of the Story…

Gail writes…

It started quietly. Slowly. Barely a blip. We were heads down with plans and family events, and didn’t really pay too much attention. Much like all of those around us we saw the news, but it was far away and small.

It wouldn’t affect us. Would it? Nah. Go about our lives and all will be fine. Maybe a few folks would get sick but that would be all. It is a new flu, right?

So, we had a party and said goodbye. We boarded our ship for a trip two-plus years in the planning. Leaving from our home port of San Francisco and returning to the same 131 days later. We were full of excitement and wonder as we explored our new home, the RSS Mariner. She was to take us to worlds we had never seen, and we were to do things we never imagined.

Komodo dragons and Buddhist monks. Valley of the Kings and Petra. The Holy Land. Pompei. Bali. We would experience Southeast Asia and the Middle East. A Renaissance dinner event in Florence. A garden dinner event in Singapore. We would travel through the Suez and Panama Canals, and we would go to the Azores. A Lord of the Rings gala dinner.

The variety was exciting. The events and tours offered were amazing. The world would be ours, and we would bring back the best memories along with probably thousands of photos.

For a while, things progressed as planned. Hawaii to French Polynesia without a hitch. Until American Samoa refused us entry due to a recent measles outbreak. Just a glitch and not this virus, so it was all good. This brought us to two ports in Fiji instead of just one. Both of which were amazing. We took it in stride and moved onward to Auckland.

We hadn’t really been following the news too closely, as we dined, danced and enjoyed conversations with our fellow sojourners. We had great new entertainers every few days. Our days were busy and relaxing at the same time. New Zealand was beautiful. We had a great time at Hobbiton and visiting with old friends we met 20 years earlier.

The rumbling was still distant. Storm clouds on the horizon. But nothing to really worry about.

Then reality started to seep in. Our good ship would not take us north from Sydney to Singapore. To see the Komodo Dragons, to that Singapore garden event. To Bali. Regent decided to change course and avoid the hot spot Asia seemed to be. The ports remained open, but the cruise line thought it was best we avoid it. The menace was moving more quickly, growing. People were reacting in ways no one expected. Our news was limited. Some decided to disembark in Sydney, as their final destination had been Singapore.

Prior to arriving in our first Australian port of Sydney, we were asked to go to the med clinic if we had any kind of cold or flu type symptoms. About 15 of us, including me, went down. We all walked out carrying antibiotics and instructions to stay in our cabin until further notice. The ship doctor had to submit our paperwork to the medical authorities to get us cleared before anyone was allowed to disembark. We had to prove no one had this thing. Thankfully, less than 24 hours later we were cleared by the authorities and disembarking was allowed.

Far fewer people than expected boarded, and when we left Sydney it felt a bit like a ghost of our former selves. The ship holds 700. We were never full, but now we were down to about half that.

Now, dining rooms were never full. Lectures where never full. Some shows fared better than others, but still there were empty seats.

Our ship could not take us north, so we would head south and west around Australia toward Perth. Then we would head north through the Indian Ocean to Italy, then to India and be back on schedule. As we visited small town after small town, we learned that Italy was going to be unattainable. They would have to lengthen the already long seven days at sea to nine, and head directly to India. They were able to replace Italy with Greece and Turkey. Well, that seemed like a good substitution. People were trying to make the best of it. Then we heard India closed. Then Dubai was rumored. Then Israel was a rumble. It was becoming increasingly clear that the northern route was not possible.

Passengers started gathering to discuss. Some thought we should just turn around right there and head back to Hawaii, then home to San Francisco. Cut our losses and run. Some said, “Hey, the Queen Mary is going to Africa. Why can’t we follow along?” Many full-circuit world cruisers said they would just get off in Perth instead of continuing, no matter where it went.

And still we dined, we danced, we gathered. New guest entertainers arrived. A whole new crew entertainment team arrived. New sanitation rules were set up. We could no longer even have a breadbasket on the table at dinner. Public hand washing and hand sanitizing were supervised in the dining areas. Not touching serving utensils or even the coffee machines. A crew member was stationed at every post. Even the crew entertainers were called into action to be sure we lathered up for the whole of “Happy Birthday” (the 20-second rule).

Deep cleaning was clearly evident. The stewards were out in force in the stairwells and hallways. The smell of cleaning, including of rubbing alcohol, was strong. Spray bottles were in use as stewards sprayed door handles and handrails all day long.

No one was sick. We ate, we gathered, we talked, we discussed. And we hoped a solution would be found. Surely if no one was sick we could continue and find a port to take us, places to go.

Guitarist Tom Ward

Lecturer Chet van Duser

Foosball with pianist Carl Doy

But the world was careening headlong into a new reality that looked out of control and frightening. Ships were being turned away or passengers refused entry. Could we move forward? Would anyone take us in? Would we float for months without a place to land? Would we be able to resupply food and fuel?

Then it happened. We got a letter that we were going to head to Africa! Then on to the east coast of South America. This looked really good. We would end up in the Caribbean at about the same time as our original itinerary. We would drop off the Miami-to-Miami group who embarked in early January, and then head through the Panama Canal to home. A town hall meeting was called to explain how this would all work.

But there was a rumble. What were all these “*” next to port names? What does it mean, “not confirmed”? Wait, half the remaining days would be at sea with long stretches of nine or more days? As the captain spoke, it became clear we had to make a choice to stay with the ship or leave. We had 24 hours to decide.

It became the only question people asked each other. Some had to leave, as they were Europeans and were not sure they could get back into their home countries if they waited until Miami. Borders were closing daily all over the world. Some passengers scheduled to leave before Perth. Many made the choice to leave in Perth and got their air tickets that day. They were certain of their choice. Many others were torn. We never wanted a flight. We took this cruise because no planes were involved. Some passengers were in frail health, like the 91-year-old traveling with his daughter, and would have trouble flying. Some liked the idea/challenge of the new itinerary and wanted to finish this trip out. This didn’t seem bad. Even if it turned into a water bus without many stops.

The next day, we arrived at Esperance where we would have to take a tender boat ashore. The waves and wind were more than the captain felt comfortable with, so he made an announcement that he would let Miami know and perhaps in a few hours we could go ashore. About an hour later he again made a public announcement throughout the ship including the cabins. We would not be going ashore here. We would skip the remaining ports and head directly to Perth. He said we would be traveling fast to get there by the next morning.

We were also told that all passengers would be disembarked in Perth. The ship would go no further. It seems the Australian authorities were going to close all ports to international ships the next day.

Would we get there before the deadline? Were we even “international”? We had been in Australia for 15 days at this point. Would that cover our quarantine? Would we be allowed to disembark? Would we have to stay on the ship for a possible 30-day hold? Would the Australian nationals be allowed off, but the rest of us held? If we were removed from the ship, where would we go? What would we do? How would we make flight reservations? Could we get home? No one seemed to know. Rumors flew.

Text messages came in fast and furious from family and friends. “Best to stay” was the general advice. “It’s crazy here. Stay there.”

In less than 24 hours we had to figure out our flights home. Texts to friends who are travel agents got us tickets for the 26th. This seemed like the soonest I would be able to travel. We booked business class on Air Emirates, as we were told Regent’s standard is business class and they would reimburse the cost. Well, that seemed good.

We also had less than 24 hours to pack our bags and be ready to leave. We had purchased a few things thinking we were walking off the ship. Now we had to figure out how to get everything home. At the start of the cruise many of us had taken advantage of Luggage Forward, and we were informed that our cases would be sent home from Perth. Thankfully they were giving us a large allowance – four pieces each instead of the two we had from home. So we could send eight total pieces home.

We had to decide what was going to be expendable for possibly a month until it showed up again at home. Our room looked like our things had exploded. We were tripping over cases and each other.

Since we were staying, we had to have clothes for about two weeks just in case. We debated about staying even longer – to maybe April 11. All the extra toiletries we packed had to go. Keep just the bare minimum and hope you choose correctly. Everything else, shove into cases and hope it gets home in one piece.

I managed to scrounge a few cardboard boxes from housekeeping and borrowed tape from the front desk and other passengers. We packaged up our large world map. We had planned to buy a new large suitcase in Albany, but that port was cancelled. And since we had to disembark and give up our cases before actually getting into Perth, there was no way to buy one. We ended up with seven pieces: five suitcases and two boxes.

That evening, the mood aboard ship was subdued. People who had decided to leave were already in that frame of mind. Those of us who had decided to stay – or as is our case were still kind of negotiating – were reeling. There was one last show to go to. One last meal to share. Exchanging of contact info and promises to stay in touch. One last gathering of the friends we had made.

The next morning, we waited in our cabin for our disembarkation number to be called. Others waited in the common areas. When we finally made our way to the gangway we were greeted by Tammie, Sienna and Nunzio, the social hosting team.

World Cruise Social Hosts Nunzio and Sienna

As we started down the gangway Russell said, “Get your camera.” I had not looked up and when I did, I saw the entire crew lined up to say goodbye. I turned on my video and walked down capturing the heartfelt greetings and good-byes of these wonderful hardworking young people. Knowing many of them cannot go home was heart wrenching. Those from Italy are the worst hit.

We were to be taken by bus to the Crown Casino Hotel, but as we boarded we were told we were going to the Westin downtown. We were told it was an upgrade. What we found out was that the Crown had ultimately refused to take us. We all ended up at three hotels scattered around Perth.

So that brings me to the last few days. Russell covered that in his letter.

This morning my phone blew up with family and friends texting and messaging: “Come home NOW.” So instead of staying longer, we are sitting in a hotel in Sydney hoping that our flight is not cancelled before we leave tomorrow. We found out this morning that our Air Emirates flight was cancelled. But the funny thing is, I never got a confirmation that we ever had the flight in the first place.

We are heading home. Maybe we would have been safer staying in Western Australia. The people there seem to have learned from the mistakes of others. The US seems to be in total chaos. Maybe it isn’t as bad as the news seems. Over the past week many of you have sent emails and texts, and it sounds bad. But no matter. I need to be with my family. I wish my whole family was located closer to each other. I will worry.

Our plan is to self-isolate at Highland House in the mountains of California’s Gold Country… if we can get there. We have very little food there, but we hope to buy some things to get us through.

We thank each of you for your wonderful comments, as we blogged over these few weeks. We had a blast sharing street art, sharks, kangaroos, sunsets and amazing scenery.

The last time we tried a world trip, 9/11 hit. If ever the world turns sideways again, just know it is the Lees out there traveling the world. Or maybe we should follow the advice of one of you and stop.

Peace and stay well.

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