On the Road Again!

“On the road again. Just can’t wait to get on the road again.” Good old Willie Nelson’s lyrics keep running through my mind! In less than two weeks, we will be heading back to Chiang Mai, Thailand. This time around, we will be staying for a little over 6 months! Last year, we had intended to stay for two months, but immigration had other ideas…If you are interested in the gory details, please click here

So, this time around, we decided to bite the bullet and pay for visas. We went for the non-O retirement visa which will allow us to stay for 90 days and then get a 12-month extension.  If you want to read about the process, click here. We plan on staying for 6 months this time around and will be once again staying at the Smith Suites. We love the location, and the apartments are quite nice. 

We actually had intended to leave for Thailand earlier this Fall, but life got in the way. Last year during our trip, my hip started to hurt. I visited the doctor upon our return to the US and learned that I have arthritis (both hips) and would need to have my hip replaced (only one hip at this time).  I was anxious to get it taken care of, but unfortunately, due to Covid, elective surgeries had been postponed and so there was a huge backlog to get through before my surgeon could fit me in. He estimated a 6-month wait and that turned out to be pretty accurate. I had the surgery in mid-September and was shocked at how quickly I recovered. I am now back to normal and ready to go! 

Our plans this time around are to stay in Chiang Mai for most of the time. We are planning to take the train from Chiang Mai to Bangkok at some point in the trip; we do enjoy train travel and figure it is a wonderful way to see some of the countryside. Most people that take that particular journey take the night train, but we will go during the day so we can see the scenery. Once in Bangkok, we are interested in going to Kanchanaburi to visit the death railway historical sites. We had tried to do this on a previous trip, but I got sick and so we had to cancel. We may or may not also head to southern Thailand. Southern Thailand is known for its beautiful beaches, but also for lots of partying and sex tourism. Shockingly, we are into neither of those, so not totally sold on visiting down south.  

If we do venture away from Chiang Mai, I will definitely post pictures. I probably won’t post much (if any) while we are in Chiang Mai, given that I have posted about the city extensively on previous trips there. Just can’t wait to get on the road again! 

Thai Akha Kitchen Cooking School

Since we have been to Chiang Mai several times, we have visited the major tourist attractions already. We have seen many, many beautiful temples, and yet each block we wander down seems to hold another! We have heard European tours called “ABC” tours – another beautiful cathedral. I guess you could call Chiang Mai “ABW” – another beautiful wat!

Even though we are not visiting as tourists this time, I decided to take another Thai cooking class. Despite having taken two on previous visits, I have definitely not mastered the art of Thai cooking! I love to cook, and I love to eat Thai food, so I have been practicing at home and have improved. I selected Thai Akha Cooking School this time based on its many 5-star reviews as well as the added bonus of learning to cook several Akha dishes. Akha is one of the hill tribes in northern Thailand; we visited an Akha village the last time we were here and so I was intrigued by the possibility about learning more about their culture and food. The website for the cooking school (https://www.thaiakhakitchen.com/) promised that we would cook (and eat) eleven dishes. Count me in!

Traditionally, Thai cooking classes give you options within several categories – appetizer, soup, stir-fry, curry, and dessert. The day starts with a visit to a local fruit and vegetable market, followed by a half-day of cooking. I was picked up in a modified tuk-tuk by Nikon (pronounced nee-con; spelled like the camera but pronounced differently!). He had already picked up Remy, a classmate from France. We drove to the Chiang Mai fruit and vegetable market which coincidentally is where I shop for fruit every couple of days (it is only blocks from our apartment). He dropped us off by a lovely, white wat and told us that the others from the class would be joining us shortly. I chatted with Remy and took a few pictures while we waited.

Four more classmates joined us. All looked to be in their twenties (I was the senior citizen in the group). There was a couple from England, a young woman from Poland (who lives in England), and a young man from Estonia. Being terrible with names, I don’t remember any of them! Another couple would be joining us at the kitchen; they were from the United States.

Nikon did a wonderful job of showing us the unique fruits and vegetables for sale at the market. He also had us taste-test a yummy coconut cream treat. They were baked in what looked like an aebleskiver pan and had chives cooked into them. I will be returning to the market to buy some. If I were walking through the market and saw them, I would not give them a second look. But, thanks to Nikon, I now have a new delicacy to enjoy while we are here.

I really enjoyed Nikon’s explanations. This is the third market tour I have done, but the most entertaining and educational.

After the tour, we climbed into the back of a songthaew and headed to the kitchen. I loved the colors and décor; the setting was incredibly beautiful. We were given a few minutes to relax and have coffee, tea, or water before the fun began.

Nikon created some of the dishes; we created the majority. We started with papaya salad and deep-fried spring rolls. Nikon made the filling for the spring rolls; we each attempted to roll the filling in a wrapper. Fortunately, we were given tongs to hold them together while they fried, or most would have come apart in the oil! We took turns frying, counting, “one elephant, two, elephant,…,five elephant before flipping the egg roll and counting to five again. Then, we were told to let the egg rolls swim until they were cooked to our satisfaction. We drained them, cut them in half, and plated them with our salad. Then, it was time to eat!

Nikon cooked the next dish, pumpkin in coconut milk. It was a dessert dish, but in Thailand, they don’t save dessert for the end of the meal; it is consumed during and after. Smart people, those Thai.

He also showed us how to steam sticky rice for the mango sticky rice that we would have at the end of the meal. He made the three Akha dishes – Akha soup (Fuk Kiow…just like you would think it would be pronounced), Akha salad (cucumber and tomato), and Akha chili dipping sauce (Sapi Thong).

Each person had pre-selected a curry paste to make. I chose green curry; most chose red, and a couple did massaman. Nikon provided the ingredients for the curry; we used lots of elbow grease to pulverize the spices using a mortar and pestle. When we were at the market, Nikon introduced us to a woman that sold pre-made curry paste. I believe that I would much prefer to buy from her than to make my own! The advantage of creating your own paste is being able to control the heat. As most people know, Thai food is famous for its heat. I like a bit of kick to my food, but nowhere near five-star chili level! We each tasted our pastes to determine if they were the right level of heat. Then we created the curry. Just a couple more dishes to cook!

Our soup choices were Tom Kha Gai (chicken in coconut milk; my fav), Hot and Sour Prawn Soup, and Clear Soup with Egg Tofu. The Hot and Sour Prawn sounded intriguing, but I cannot resist Tom Kha Gai.

The final course was the stir fry. At home, I have been working on perfecting my pad thai, so chose that as my dish. I have learned that although technique is important, it’s really all about having the right ingredients. In the US, I use tamarind paste; here they use tamarind juice. Palm sugar is a key ingredient; it’s hard to find at home. Nikon said that in Akha cooking, they use soy sauce rather than fish sauce, but I used half and half because I think using pure soy would really change the flavor of the dish. The pad thai turned out good, but I think I prefer the recipe I use at home. The other choices for stir fry were cashew chicken (my husband’s favorite), sweet and sour chicken (not the Chinese restaurant variety), or chicken with holy basil. Since we were given a recipe book with all of the recipes, I felt like I could easily make any of the stir-fry dishes at home.

At the market, Nikon had purchased a “century egg”, which is an egg that has been preserved in tea for at least a month. The eggshells are dyed pink so that people purchasing them know that they are century eggs rather than regular eggs. He sliced the egg into slivers and showed us how to wrap the sliver in a small piece of cabbage, add some vegetable slices, then add Sapi Thong (Akha chili sauce) to it. I was a bit hesitant to eat it, but it was actually pretty good!

We sat down to complete our final course. Nikon talked to us about the Akha people and how they differ from Thai. When Thais greet each other, they wai (bow), with their hands placed on different levels to denote the level of respect they are showing the other person. Akha shake hands. Akha is an entirely different language (and culture) than Thai. Nikon told us he spoke Akha, Thai, Lanna, and “Tinglish”, though we assured him that his English was excellent.

What made this cooking class so special compared to the others I have taken? Mainly, it was due to the personality of the teacher, Nikon. He was knowledgeable, polite, funny, and made us all feel at ease. Another positive was my fellow classmates. Though we were of completely different generations, they were all friendly and made me feel like one of the group. I enjoyed every minute of the day and was dropped off at my apartment happy and full.

Thai Akha Cooking School definitely earned a 5-star review from me!

We Made It!

But not without a few hiccups along the way, from testing issues, to documentation “misunderstandings”. But, we are here! And we will be here for a couple of months, possibly longer if the Thai immigration officials will let us. While our friends back home are enduring cold and rain, we are enjoying beautiful sunshine, tropical fruit, and friendly local people that are thrilled to have tourists return to their country.

Will We or Won’t We?

It’s been quite a while since I have had anything travel-related to post! I don’t know about you, but when the pandemic hit, I never thought that its after-effects would drag on this long. Last winter was a long, depressing one. Where we live, in the state of Washington, winter can be a dreary affair. It is rainy, cold, and dark for months which is why we always travel during that time. We knew travel would be out of the question, so hunkered down for the season. Where we live, we had quite a few covid-related restrictions, so normal social activities were curtailed or eliminated completely. But, when the vaccines were approved, there seemed to be light at the end of the tunnel.

We both got our jabs as soon as we were eligible and had high hopes that things would be returning to normal. So, what did we do? Booked a trip, of course! Our plan was to go to Chiang Mai for a couple of months before heading to South Africa. If you regularly read my blog, you know that we were on a cruise to South Africa when Covid shut down the world in March of 2020. We were given an enormous amount of Future Cruise Credits that needed to be used, so booked a 14-day round trip cruise from Cape Town as well as a 14-day land trip around South Africa. We booked our flights and made hotel accommodations. I started to set up independent tours for the cruise portion of the trip. We were quite excited to be “on the road” again! There was such a sense of hope initially.

Unfortunately, the vaccines turned into a political hot potato and there was much resistance to vaccination in the United States. I must say, I was shocked. I really thought that everyone would jump at the opportunity for protection from Covid and the return to normalcy in our everyday lives. That didn’t (and still hasn’t) happened. Then, the Delta variant took over and it seemed that the vaccine wouldn’t provide the protection that we had hoped it would. On the positive side, Covid restrictions eased and so life returned to more normal. We are still not fully back to normal, but more so than that long, dreary winter of 2020/2021!

By the end of last summer, it became clear to us that South Africa would not be a safe place for us to go. The vaccination rates were abysmally low and Covid was rampant. There was a chance that things would straighten out before our trip, but we were not willing to risk it. The last thing we wanted was to end up on another cruise like the last one! Additionally, Thailand was making it really difficult to enter the country. Even as a fully vaccinated person, they were insisting on either 14 days of quarantine in Bangkok or spending a couple of weeks at one of their islands in what they referred to as the “sandbox” scheme. Neither alternative was that interesting to us; we simply wanted to return to Chiang Mai for a couple of months. So, we made the decision to cancel all our plans.

Fast forward to November. Thailand announced a “Test and Go” scheme for vaccinated tourists that would only require one night of quarantine until a clean RT-PCR test came back. After a negative test result, one would be free to travel anywhere in the country. In order to enter the country, a person would need to apply for a Thailand Pass which involved uploading proof of vaccination, proof of booking (and paying for) an approved Test and Go Hotel, flight details, proof of a minimum of $50,000 insurance that would cover Covid treatment, and passport information. In Thailand, if you test positive, you are quarantined in a hospital for 2 weeks, so we opted for Thai insurance to make sure that was covered. There have been instances of tourists testing positive and their home or travel insurance policies not covering their hospital stays because they were asymptomatic, and their stay was not medically necessary.

So, we decided to book a two-month trip to Chiang Mai for December and January. We plan on spending a few days in Bangkok so booked a lovely suite overlooking the Chao Praya River at the Chatrium Riverside Hotel for both the initial test and go night, as well as for several days following. From there, we will fly to Chiang Mai and stay in an apartment just outside the old city walls for the remainder of our trip. We can enter Thailand on a 30-day visa free entry and then extend our stay another 30 days at the local immigration office. If we choose to stay longer, we can apply for a visa.

In typical Thai fashion, there were all sorts of problems with the new system initially. We fully expected this, so applied a week after the system opened for business. We figured that if there were any issues, we would have plenty of time to sort them out. Many people had their applications approved immediately. But one of the requirements was that your vaccination certificate have a QR code. In the US, we do not have a national system for vaccination proof and our state certificate had no code. In other words, our application would have to be hand-processed which could take up to a week. Exactly a week after applying, we were approved!

We had everything lined up for the trip. Given that, it was time to start all our pre-travel arrangements – notifying banks and credit card companies that we would be out of the country, securing travel medications, contacting a travel nurse to make sure that we had all necessary vaccinations, etc., etc., etc. We found that our typhoid vaccination had expired. No big deal, except that due to Covid, people have not been traveling and so the companies that make the oral typhoid pills (good for 5 years and fairly economical) were not producing them. The only option was to get a typhoid shot, good for only two years and quite pricy! But better safe than sorry so we went ahead and got the shot.

We are 100% set to go. So, what could go wrong? Why, another Covid variant! Omicron was just identified a few days ago. And, I must say, we are certainly glad that we canceled our South Africa trip! I do feel bad for the people I know that had planned on taking the cruise. I somehow doubt that any port in Africa will be allowing a ship to dock. The cruise prior to the one we had booked was supposed to go from Dubai to Cape Town. They have reworked the itinerary to focus on Middle Eastern ports and will go to India rather than Africa. And the cruise will return to Dubai rather than going to Cape Town. I only know this because a cruising buddy has a friend on the ship right now; the cruise line has not published the new itinerary yet. But they are allowing people to cancel and get a 100% refund. Who knows how long it will take for people to get their money back on the cruise, not to mention all the other travel arrangements that will need to be canceled? I have no idea what will happen to the cruise that was supposed to start and end in Cape Town…

None of this should affect us, but it still may. I read this morning that Japan is closing its borders which will most likely prevent transiting through the airports there on the way to Thailand. Our flight goes through Seoul, South Korea so my fingers are crossed that South Korea does not do the same thing.

So, will we, or won’t we? Only time will tell. We are flexible which is a necessary attribute these days when it comes to travel. If we can’t, it will be fine. This winter is not as restrictive as last in terms of Covid. We are quite cautious, but I do go to the gym daily, go to church weekly, and participate in a hiking group weekly. We live in a beautiful part of the world and at least we can get out and enjoy it!

Life during Covid

I think that this is the longest stretch of time that we have been home in several years, thanks to COVID. For the foreseeable future, we will continue to be at home since most of the world is not too interested in having any American visitors! With nothing but time on my hands, I thought I would update my blog from my last posting in March.

We were extremely fortunate to get seats on a flight from Cape Town to Qatar. The flight was completely booked. Clayton and I were not able to sit together on this leg of our return flights home. I was seated on the aisle (my favorite location) next to a very friendly Finnish couple. The husband was very polite towards his wife for the entire flight – rather than cough on her, he turned towards me to cough. Repeatedly. For ten hours straight. After being protected from COVID for nearly 3 weeks due to being stuck on the ship, I wasn’t too thrilled to be seated next to a guy with one of the primary symptoms that continued to “share” his germs with me. But there were no other options since the flight was completely packed full. Despite the coughing Finn, the flight was pleasant. Qatar Airways has an incredibly positive reputation and lived up to it. We were well fed and taken care of.

We landed in Doha, Qatar and rapidly passed through immigration and on to our boarding gate. The airport was beautiful. There were plenty of upscale shops for those inclined towards spending money whilst waiting for their flight, but we just wanted to get to our next gate. It was hard to keep track of time zones, but we had left South Africa in the evening and flown for ten hours, so it was probably (very) early in the morning. Our carry-on items were screened one more time before being allowed into the seating area. We had a short wait before boarding and were pleased to find that the flight to Boston was only about half full. Clayton and I had an empty seat between us (the good news) but were seated right by the restroom (the bad news). The flight was smooth and the service and food once again top notch. We arrived in Boston late in the afternoon.

We had hoped to be able to visit the Global Entry office when we deplaned. Both of our renewals for Global Entry had been conditionally approved but required a face-to-face interview. Global Entry allows walk-in interviews for those arriving on International flights. Unfortunately for us, the office was closed. It has been months now, but I still remember how eerie the airport was because it was almost completely empty of people. There were a couple of take-out places open, but sit-down restaurants were closed. The lounge was open but only as a place to sit, no food or refreshments. We ended up getting sandwiches for the flight to Seattle because we knew that food was not included on a domestic flight. We had a few hours to kill so walked around the deserted concourse, looking at all the cancelled flights on the arrival/departure boards. Boarding our flight was a breeze given that there were only about 8 other passengers! The flight attendants tried to separate Clayton and I – they were putting a couple of rows between each passenger. We explained that we were married and so were allowed to sit together, though they moved us back a few rows since we were supposed to be seated at the front of the cabin. The flight attendants were using that area to sit and didn’t want any passengers to be seated anywhere near them.

We were given a small botte of water and a granola bar immediately after take-off. That was the one and only interaction with the flight attendants for the entire 6-hour flight! I slept most of the flight; we had been flying for well over a day by now and I was quite exhausted. I don’t remember much about our arrival in Seattle; there were a few more people than in Boston but the airport was nonetheless pretty empty. We took a cab home and collapsed!

We came home to an entirely different world than when we left. Though we were not under a strict quarantine, our entire state was under a “stay at home” order. We could leave home for groceries and emergency medical care; that was it. We had to restock our pantry after having been gone for months, so our first few days were spent shopping. At that point, masks were recommended but not required. We didn’t have masks, so were careful to stay at least 6 feet away from others. It felt very odd to have to keep distance from people! And, it felt scary. Our area was the epicenter of the outbreak in the US so every interaction with others felt risky. We are both in our 60’s and I have underlying medical conditions that make me a “high-risk” person. We didn’t dare visit family or friends; we took the stay at home order very seriously.

I remember being especially exhausted those first couple of weeks but attributed it to jet lag. Unfortunately, I was wrong. Two weeks after returning home, I woke up in the middle of the night extremely nauseated and with chills. I was sick enough that Clayton took me to the emergency room. We were given masks upon admission and due to my heart problems, taken in immediately. It’s a heck of a reason to go to the front of the line, but that’s the way it is! After hearing about our recent travels, the doctor was quite sure I had COVID. I was given a COVID test as well as a battery of other tests, including a chest x-ray. I had IV fluids pumped into me and kept drifting off to sleep whilst waiting for the test results. It turns out that I had pneumonia. I thought that was exceedingly odd since I did not have a cough, nor had I had a cough recently. Of course, I had been exposed to a cough. After 6 hours, I was finally released with a bag full of medication and instructions to quarantine for two weeks and for Clayton to sleep in a separate room and use a separate bathroom. My COVID test would take a day or two to be processed, but they were quite sure I had it. If I had any trouble breathing, I was to return to the hospital immediately.

The next couple of weeks were a blur. What I remember most is the complete and total lack of energy I had. I had no desire to eat, though made myself take in a little food every day. It felt as if something heavy had been placed on my chest. It didn’t really hurt to breathe, but it was a huge effort. My heart rate was extremely high, perhaps due to the extra energy it seemed to take to inhale. Fortunately, my COVID test was negative. I had bacterial pneumonia rather than viral. Eventually, I started to feel like my old self again. By now, masks were required, so I got out my sewing machine and sewed a few for us. Unlike other parts of the country (and other parts of our state), virtually everyone where we live wear masks. I greatly appreciate this. I was sick enough with pneumonia; I have no desire to risk getting COVID.

So now, life is back to normal. At least as normal as it will be for quite some time. I love the senior shopping hours and hope they continue for the duration. I miss my children terribly. My daughter had a baby in December, right before we left for our trip. I was supposed to visit my new grandson in April, but that trip had to be cancelled (she lives all the way across the country). I miss attending church in person, and especially miss singing in the choir. Singing is a super-spreader event, so even when worship services return, we will not be singing. And, of course, I miss travel. Normally, between trips, I spend my days researching and planning future trips. Who knows when we will be able to travel again? I definitely have too much time on my hands.

We had purchased a 2-month Eurail pass for a trip around Europe in August and September. That obviously is cancelled. We were able to get a partial refund on the pass and were able to cancel all our hotel reservations at no cost to us. Just this past week, our flights got cancelled by the airline and so we were able to get a full refund. There were a few places we opted to fly between due to distance, and flights within Europe are still running, so we won’t be able to recoup any of those costs. Travel insurance doesn’t really help during a pandemic unless you have cancel for any reason insurance (we don’t). But, the cost of those flights is small in the grand scheme of things!

We had an amazing conglomeration of travel planned for the winter. At this point, it is unclear how much (if any) of the trip will happen. The plan was to fly to Kuala Lumpur for a couple of weeks in early November. From there, we would head to Thailand for a month. Then, on to India for a 2-week planes/trains/automobiles/camels trip before boarding a cruise from Mumbai to Yangon, Myanmar. After arriving in Myanmar, we were going to take a boat trip from Mandalay to Bhamo and then fly back to Thailand. From Thailand, we would fly to Australia for a 2-week cruise to New Zealand followed by a train trip around southern/eastern Australia. Finally, we would return to Thailand after stopping in Bali on the way.

What definitely will not happen: anything in India (no land trip, no cruise) and no cruise to New Zealand. After our last cruising experience, we are not too excited about taking another cruise. Realistically, even if we were, I doubt Australia and/or New Zealand will be allowing Americans into their country any time soon. We would love to return to Thailand as well as do the 5-day boat trip from Mandalay to Bhamo in Myanmar, but that will depend on whether either of those countries will allow us in. It all will depend on what happens with coronavirus between now and then.

Until life returns to normal (not holding my breath that will be anytime soon), we will not be traveling. So, no updates to the blog for quite some time! I hope that wherever in the world you are, that you are healthy and that COVID has not affected you. Drop me a note and let me know what’s going on in your part of the world!


On the way home, finally

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.

And you thought our story had ended!

Today is our last day on the ship. We are docked at Cape Town and have a beautiful view of the city from the ship. No fresh food has been brought on board; I guess they figure we can suck it up for another day!

At breakfast today I talked to a woman that was unable to get a flight home. She is being allowed to stay on the ship until it leaves Cape Town on the 24th but doesn’t know what will happen to her after that. She isn’t able to be in South Africa, the ship is leaving, and she has no way to get home. She is contacting the US Embassy for help.

When we got back to our cabin, I received a message from a friend that Thailand had just changed their entry requirements. Starting March 22nd (we would arrive on the 23rd), all those arriving in Thailand (foreigners and citizens) would be required to present a medical certificate issued within the past 72 hours that verified they were COVID free. There is no way possible for us to obtain said certificate, so we would not be able to board our flight.

We did some research online, hoping to change our itinerary to CPT to DOH (our original first flight leg) and then DOH to Seattle. We found a few flights, but the prices had quadrupled from a couple of days ago. But, at least a flight existed! If we could leave on the 23rd, the cost was half as much, and on the 24th, 1/4 as much.

The best possible scenario would be that we could change the date and second leg of our flight with the airline, but that would require the cruise line being willing to keep us on board until the 24th. We had high hopes since we knew there were others on board until the 24th, but Guest Services said it was too late; they could not change arrangements for us.

So, after spending a lengthy amount of time on hold, I was able to talk to an agent with Qatar Airways, who we were scheduled to fly with. He had a thick accent, so the conversation was challenging. Bottom line was that he could not change the flight. We would have to book a new one. Just at the point where we were ready to book, the call got dropped. Dang!

Back to the internet…we found a flight that would work for us. It will take us nearly two days to reach home, but at least we can GET home. Unlike most airlines, we can’t get a refund from Qatar Airways for the first flight; we will be receiving a voucher for future travel. Doubtful we will be able to use it, but you never know.

I really hope that there is no need for me to continue this story; I hope that we will be home in a few days. We shall see!

Three more days!

Today is the 19th of March; the day our ship will arrive in Cape Town. Amazingly, NCL has still not informed anyone on board that we will arrive 3 days ahead of schedule! But, finally we have some information about what will happen to us.

No announcement was made regarding our situation yesterday. I must admit, I was expecting the captain to tell us either that we would be arriving early but would not be able to disembark, or that we were going to be turned away but would be refueling and restocking (desperately needed at this point). But no, not a single word…

When we left our cabin to go to breakfast this morning, we found a note outside our door that we were required to fly out of the country on March 22nd, and that our flight details must be submitted between 6 am and 10 am. Say what??? Our flight was scheduled for April 1st, but we were informed by the airline yesterday that the flight had been cancelled, so we knew we would not be staying on until that date. However, we did expect to have more than 4 hours to make new arrangements (along with the 2,000 other people in the same boat…so to speak!).

Fortunately, I am married to a man that always plans ahead for every eventuality. I am a planner by nature, but he puts me to shame in that regard. We had already looked into flights home (there weren’t any decent options) so had decided to head back to Chiang Mai, Thailand to cool our heels until we could get home. To be perfectly honest, Seattle might not be the best place to be during the coronavirus pandemic and Chiang Mai doesn’t have a single case. We had already looked up flights and found that Qatar Airways would get us there. The only downside is that overnight, the price of the flight had jumped significantly. I believe this is due to the fact that very few airlines are flying out of Cape Town right now, so many on board are routing through Doha, Qatar, meaning the number of seats dropped precipitously and the price increased dramatically. But, at least we have a way out of the country and now know when we will be leaving!

So, we will be aboard the ship until the 22nd and will fly out that night. In the grand scheme of things, we may have been better off on the ship than at home, given the spread of the virus and restrictions there. Thank you for following along with our saga. My prayers are with all whose lives are being impacted by the pandemic.


Heather was

Living in limbo

Do you remember a couple of days ago when I posted that I would (hopefully) not need to post again about our cruise. I spoke too soon.

Though NCL has not said anything to us yet, I read that the president of South Africa is now banning many foreigners from the country, including those of us from the US as of March 18th. Even if we could reach a port in South Africa in two days, I highly doubt that we would be allow to disembark. And, if that unlikely event did happen, NCL would have to find a way to get us out of the country immediately.

So, once again, things are completely up in the air for us. Though we certainly are not going hungry, there are shortages of many types of food. Want a salad? Hope you like cabbage! Veggies? Carrots and asparagus only. Yesterday, I only saw asparagus. We have been out of juice for a couple of weeks. The cooks are having to get creative about the dishes they are preparing, with very mixed results.

As more information becomes available, I will update my blog.



And, maybe it will be ending?

Hopefully, this will be the last time there is a need to update you regarding our cruise!

We woke up this morning and found out that Norwegian Cruise Line would be cancelling all cruises through April 11th. As for those of us already on a cruise? “Guests on voyages that are underway will conclude and guests will be disembarked as soon as possible and assisted with travel arrangements.” The big question is: when and where would it be possible for us to disembark?

Naturally, no announcement was made by the captain or anyone else, though most passengers were aware of the issue. The captain did state (around 9 am) that we would be stopping off of the coast of Reunion Island (where we were scheduled to dock tomorrow) in order to do a medical evacuation. We had heard a “code alpha” called at 9:30 last night (medical emergency), so the person needed to be given more intensive medical treatment than was available on board. We would then continue with our sea day, arriving back at Reunion Island tomorrow morning at 7 am. So, I guess we will be floating aimlessly for a day!

In the absence of information, we tried to figure out what might happen next. Would they dock at Reunion Island or Mauritius and try to make arrangements for all of us to get to a major airport from there? The logistics for that seem daunting given that there are 3,000 on board (passengers + crew). Besides, I don’t think either island would want us! So, South Africa would be another option. Again, would they allow us to dock? If not, we would be truly screwed. If we were allowed to dock, would they drop us at the closest port (Richard’s Bay) and transport us to the nearest airport, or what? Another ship in our situation ended up in New Zealand, but New Zealand just announced that they will not allow cruise ships to dock.

I contacted the guesthouse we are staying at in Cape Town to let them know we might be arriving early. I also reached out to Egyptair to see if our flights home could be easily changed. The guesthouse reservation agents don’t work on the weekends, and Egyptair said that since we booked through United, we would have to contact United. I have heard on the news that people are spending hours on hold with United to try to make changes in flights from Europe; I did not hold out any hope that we would have better luck. So, I contacted them on Facebook and am still awaiting an answer.

Finally, at about 11:45 am, the captain made an announcement. We will be docking at Reunion Island tomorrow (not holding my breath on that), but then will be at sea for 6 more days, arriving in Cape Town on March 22nd, as was originally scheduled.

So, the good news is that we will be docking. The bad news is the 6 more sea days. And, though theoretically we are docking tomorrow, realistically, I am resigning myself to being on board. If you have read my previous posts, you will know that Reunion Island residents were throwing rocks at cruise passengers a week or two ago. Hey, it could be an exciting day! If we actually are able to get off the ship, I may be able to write an entry regarding the exciting things we saw while on shore. Wait and see!