We may have been in a cage, but it was a gilded cage.
After eight fantastic days exploring Vietnam and Cambodia on the Mekong River, my wife and I, and 10 other passengers on our small river cruise ship, were being told we could not disembark. We had apparently shared a hotel in Ho Chi Minh City with tourists from another cruise line, Viking, who tested positive for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
On the day before our flights were to leave Phnom Penh, Cambodian health officials boarded our ship at 10:00 p.m. to test the passengers and crew. The capable scientists at the Pasteur Institute of Cambodia turned around the test results in only one day, and we got the good news that all the passengers were negative.
The bad news was that, inexplicably, the health officials hadn’t tested all of the crew. There would be a second visit and another day to wait for those test results, which, thankfully, were also all negative. These delays meant we all missed our flights, but we assumed we could re-book given that everyone on the ship was negative. We were wrong.
When my wife and I left Colorado on March 2, there were 53 cases of COVID-19 in the U.S., and it was unclear whether the virus would ever achieve the community spread that was prevalent in China and becoming an issue in Spain and Italy. There were no State Department warnings about Americans traveling overseas, Cambodia and Vietnam had only a handful of cases, and the World Health Organization was still nine days from declaring COVID-19 a pandemic. Never did we expect the speed at which the world would unravel.
In an (over)abundance of caution, the Cambodian government declined our request to leave the ship and imposed a 14-day quarantine on the ship, beginning from the time we crossed the border from Vietnam. The scenery from our anchorage in the Mekong River would become very familiar, and Avalon Waterways, our cruise company, pulled out all the stops to make our confinement as pleasant as possible.
The fabulous crew — who were also kept from returning to their families—continued to serve us with smiles. The Thai masseuse offered morning tai chi sessions on the deck. The cruise director ran trivia and bingo sessions during happy hour. And some passengers organized evening entertainment in the form of short plays and humorous readings to lighten the mood. And we continued to eat the best food my wife and I had ever had. There were also plenty of gin tonics and glasses of wine.
Comfortable as our confinement was, it was becoming clear that our significantly delayed departure might have serious consequences. On March 11, the U.S. announced its ban on travelers from the E.U. countries. By mid-March, flights through common Asian transit airports such as Singapore and Hong Kong were down 35 and 80 percent, respectively. Delta grounded half its fleet and reduced capacity by 70 percent.
And with the uncertainty about exactly when we’d be able to leave the ship (due to unknowns about potential additional testing), it was impossible to book return flights, even in the unlikely event that you could reach an airline through their overloaded web sites and call centers. For many passengers, the stress level was ramping up to unhealthy levels, and it was affecting the crew as well, although they did their best to hide it.
Early on in our isolation, I contacted the U.S. Embassy in Cambodia to inform them of our dilemma. They had been monitoring the situation with the Viking ship, but they had been unaware there were four Americans on our ship. The other passengers, fast becoming good friends, were from Kansas City, Qatar (but French citizens), Canada, Great Britain, and Australia.
Our embassy liaison kept close contact and did her best to reassure us that they were working with the Cambodians to achieve a resolution. However, diplomatic speak such as “the Cambodians are exercising their sovereignty” made clear that they were taking no orders from the U.S.
With each day the pandemic worsened, and global travel spiraled into chaos. Countries were restricting travel, closing their borders, and flights were becoming scarce. The mood on the ship for some passengers was approaching panic as options for leaving Cambodia disappeared.
Eventually, the health authorities did not require a second test, just a health assessment of all passengers and crew by doctors who again boarded our ship. Approval was granted for docking in Phnom Penh, and in a final act of generosity, the cruise line took responsibility for getting everyone back to their home countries.
We touched down in the U.S. at a deserted JFK airport, one of the approved international re-entry ports. Disconcertingly, there was no health screening at immigration, just a perfunctory few questions about where we’d been. Nothing about whether we had been sick or tested.
Our previous flight from Doha had been packed with Americans presumably coming from destinations around the world, and yet the U.S. wasn’t even taking the simple precaution of temperature testing that even developing nations had instituted.
Our 29 hours of flying and 46 hours of total travel were grueling, but it was good to get home to Colorado—albeit a home that was much different from the one we left three weeks earlier. There had been a thousand-fold increase in U.S. cases of COVID-19, to roughly 50,000, and daily life had been transformed by closed schools and businesses and practices of physical distancing.
Indochina is a beautiful region of the world, but it remains poor. Subsistence living is the norm for most of its people. Our experience, however, has driven home the precarious nature of civilization in even the world’s most-developed countries. The lives of the rural Cambodian children we met are unlikely to be altered much, if at all, by this pandemic, but the strong links of family and community that bind their lives to one another are values we should emulate.
Mike Dougherty lives in Roxborough.