I didn’t intend to write any more about our cruise, but I didn’t feel like I had told all of the story without adding in the ending – the trials and tribulations of flying home during a crisis.
Finally, mid way through the last day of our cruise, fresh food was brought on board. I never thought I would be so thrilled to eat a salad! Final directions for disembarkation were delivered to our cabin mid-morning. We were assigned to group 29 which would be leaving the ship at 9:30 am the next morning. Our packed suitcases were to be left in the hallway outside our cabin by midnight. This is standard practice on a cruise. Normally, we carry our own bags off the ship, but in this circumstance, we had to participate in the bag collection. We were also given health forms to fill out and bring along with us to the immigration building in the morning. We would have our temperature taken, turn in the form, and go through the immigration process before collecting our suitcases and boarding our assigned bus that would take us directly to the airport. Do not pass go, do not collect $200! Our flight didn’t leave until 6:50 pm; if all went smoothly, we would be at the airport by 10 am.
The next morning, everything did go smoothly. Most people were up bright and early because the buses started loading around 7 am. There were just a handful of people that would not be disembarking before 10 am. These were the people that had not been able to secure a flight. Slight digression – we learned that the Canadian, British, and Australian Embassies had all been involved with assisting the passengers from their respective countries. We even saw letters from the Canadian government on the doors of the Canadian guests, letting them know that they were covered and if they needed anything, to let the embassy know. When we disembarked the ship and got processed, each embassy had representatives asking their citizens if they were all right and if they needed any assistance. The US embassy was not there. We did receive an email from them telling us to get out of the country ASAP and to secure our own commercial flight. None too helpful. If, after a few days, a US citizen was still stuck in South Africa, the embassy might be able to assist. Very disappointing.
The ride to the airport was relatively quick. There was a guide along that told us a little about the sights in Cape Town that we wouldn’t be able to visit. Table Mountain was visible from the ship (it towers over the city). There were some light clouds that looked like they were draped over the top of the mountain which is why the locals call the clouds the tablecloth. We drove past one of the former black neighborhoods. It was horrible – reminded us of the slums of Mumbai. People are being moved to newer homes as the old ones get torn down. Slightly nicer was the colored part of town. Seeing these neighborhoods and imagining the lives of those stuck in those awful living conditions puts a very real face on the concept of apartheid. So very sad.
We were dropped off at the airport; our luggage was brought a few minutes later by truck. Come to find out, we could not check in for about 5 hours. The airport was a bit of a madhouse. So many people were trying to get out of the country. We had lunch while we waited. An interesting side note is that in order to eat at Wimpy’s, we had to register by filling out a form. They wanted name, national ID number, address, phone number, and next of kin. I must say, I have never had to list a next of kin to get a meal!!! It did not engender confidence in the cooking.
After eating, we found seats and waited. And waited. And waited. While we waited, we chatted with some of our fellow cruise passengers that were waiting as well. I also was able to access high speed internet for the first time in well over a month. So exciting! To be able to read email, surf the internet, and read Facebook posts without 5-10 minutes of waiting for things to load. One of the things I read was a post on Cruise Critic. Apparently those people that had not purchased plane tickets and were planning on being on board for two more days had been given a rude awakening. After we left the ship, they were given until noon to pack and were being shipped off to the airport for a charter flight bound for London Gatwick airport. I am not sure about the financial arrangements behind this. I would be seriously upset if they got transported to London for free, when the rest of us had to pay huge bucks to book last minute flights.
The check in counter was supposed to open at 3:15, so we went to line up about an hour ahead of time. There were others that beat us there and had already queued for checkin. As more people started to arrive, new lines started to form – not a great situation because those of us that had been waiting the longest were no longer first in line to be served. One enterprising young man we had been chatting with went and got the posts to set up a “rat maze” so that we would be more organized. Gotta love someone with that kind of moxie! The Qatar Airways staff were mightily surprised when they showed up for work and found that we were already lined up. But, not lined up the way they wanted us. So, by the time they reorganized us, many that had arrived way past when we did had pushed their way forward.
Anyhow, while we waited, we talked to our fellow passengers. Apparently, Emirates had cancelled some flights out (and there weren’t many to start with) and so some of those in line with us didn’t have tickets. Qatar Airways had also cancelled one of their two flights to Doha. Some in line with us were hoping to get seats on our flight.
The checkin process was really lengthy; I am not sure why. Some people had to remove things from their carryons and put them in their suitcases. Others had to remove items from their suitcases and put them in their luggage. We waited about 15 minutes without the line moving because one poor guy’s flight was cancelled and he didn’t know it until he tried to check in and another couple had to put some perfume from their backpack into their suitcase. The woman’s suitcase was so full that she could not get it closed. She sat on it and tried to zip it; no joy. This went on for at least 15 minutes. It was incredible. Someone needed to take her aside and suggest that she move some non-liquid items into her backpack so that she could close the darned suitcase and get the line moving again. She broke down in tears because she couldn’t get it done. There was so much tension in the air because so many had their travel plans changed at the last minute. Everyone needed to get out of the country ASAP before more flights were cancelled.
Finally, it was our turn. All went smoothly, though very, very slowly. Before we could get our boarding passes, we had to get our credit card verified. We had received an email that morning stating that we would have to produce the credit card upon checkin. No big deal, right? Wrong! We were escorted all the way across the airport to another long line. Fortunately, a gate agent took us there and was able to take us to the front of the line. This particular line was for people needing to make payments for excess baggage, or some such thing. There was one person working the counter and the gate agent had no idea what to do with us. She pulled out a form but didn’t know how to fill it out. She thought for some reason that only one of us was traveling and so filled it out wrong. She couldn’t figure out what the name of our bank was (Chase); I showed her where it was on the card but she still didn’t comprehend or believe me. She took our passports and credit card and continued to do something with the form; don’t ask me what. Finally, another employee returned from her smoke break and tried to help her. While that was going on, we talked with a German couple behind us that were desperately trying to get home. When the form eventually got filled out, she told us that she would make a copy of it for us that we could take back to the original checkin area so we could get our boarding passes. Now, I don’t know about you, but it doesn’t take me very long to make a photocopy. Ten minutes later, it still had not been done. I honestly thought that she was hand copying a second copy!
The couple behind us stepped up to the counter while we waited. They had been booked on an Emirates flight that got cancelled and needed to rebook. Now, understand that they were at a counter labeled “Emirates”. They explained what they needed and the woman behind the counter said she couldn’t help them because there is NO Emirates ticket counter at the airport; it was located downtown. Her job was to take credit cards payments for overweight luggage. The couple explained that the office downtown was closed which was why they came to the airport. The clerk told them they would then have to wait until tomorrow and go to the downtown office. By now, the poor woman was nearly in tears and the husband was getting frustrated, though he did not say anything to the clerk. The clerk got nasty at that point and demanded to know why the man was giving her attitude. Huh? The only attitude being displayed was the clerk’s! The poor guy was speechless, and the clerk kept going on and on about how rudely she was being treated. At that point, our copies were finally made and we could return to fetch our tickets. I think the couple left to try to get a hotel for the night. There was a massive line of people that were also trying to get rebooked flights; all were quite tense as you can well imagine.
Security was relatively quick and painless, as was immigration. From start to finish, it took an hour and half to check in. And no, I am not counting the hour in line first. It was awesomely awful how poorly everything worked. I did chat with the agent that took us over to verify our credit card (the one that couldn’t fill out the form); she said it was an unusually busy day. I filled her in on why. She said she had rumors about a cruise ship that hadn’t been able to dock in weeks, but no one she knew believed them. I reassured her that they were true, and that all of those passengers had to fly out that day which was why things were a madhouse. Of course, there were others trying to leave the country as well since so many borders are being closed and flights are getting harder and harder to find.
We are fortunate enough to have lounge access as a benefit of one of our credit cards, so were able to relax and grab a snack before boarding. Honestly, when we finally got to the lounge, I was on the verge of tears, feeling very emotional. It was such a relief to be one of the blessed ones that had a seat on a flight that hadn’t been cancelled and to be so close to heading home. I have so appreciated the responses on my blog, messages from friends and family on Facebook and email. The situations we have been in are unprecedented and could not have been predicted when we started our voyage. We are fortunate in that coronavirus did not affect anyone on board. There was an Aida ship docked next to us in Cape Town that was, and none of the passengers can disembark. They are in limbo. There are still numerous ships around the world that cannot find a place to dock and let their passengers disembark. I know that some back home think that people were stupid to cruise during the coronavirus outbreak, but please keep in mind that there WAS NO OUTBREAK when many of them boarded. When we left Rome on February 14th, I believe there was only a handful of cases in northern Italy. There were no cases in Israel when we were there, and only one in Dubai. All of those places have major outbreaks now.
We go home to a city, like most in the US and around the world where life as we know it has changed. Who knows when things will return to normal? As I am writing this, I am on the first part of our flight home, heading to Doha, Qatar. The man next to me has been coughing for much of the flight, as has a woman across the aisle. No social distancing possible on an airplane. We will change planes in Doha and fly to Boston. After a 4-hour layover in Boston, we finally head to Seattle; total flight time close to 40 hours. I hope I don’t find anything else to write; that will mean everything went smoothly.