Last week I got back from a cruise in the Caribbean and I think I just about got away with it. Even before I went, there were reports of passengers being denied entry to ships, of ships being denied access to ports, of ships locked down in quarantine. And by the time my week at sea had ended, the problems surrounding Covid-19 seemed to have escalated dramatically. Within a few days of my return to land, Carnival (the cruise line I went with) announced a suspension in all their cruises for a month. I honestly think the week I went was the last possible week I could have gone.
So I feel very lucky. In fact I feel lucky for so many reasons.
I’d been waiting for this particular cruise for a long time. The idea came about in the summer of 2018, when visiting my friends in Houston. I was asking them about a cruise they had recently taken with their family to Mexico. After she finished telling me all the stories of their adventures, Anne-Marie blurted out “We should do a cruise sometime.”
And in that moment, the idea of this trip became fixed in my mind as a kind of unstoppable destiny. My friends know that I latch onto even the vaguest suggestion of a potential adventure and obsessively try to will it into existence. They’re understandably cautious about getting my hopes up, because they know that as soon as they speak an idea aloud, it’s concrete as far as my mind is concerned. It’s not dissimilar to the psychology of guys who get smiled at once by a pretty girl and immediately begin planning the rest of their lives together. Not that I’d know anything about that of course.
But my friends were serious and we spent that summer discussing and researching our dream. I loved that the seed for my next visit was planted before I left. Although I’m not as insecure as I used to be back in the pre-medication era of my life, I still get anxious about being separated from my friends and not knowing when I will see them next. I just feel like circumstances can change in the blink of an eye, so I have a tendency to see every opportunity as the only opportunity I’ll ever get, and the protests of the logical part of my brain fall upon deaf ears. I feared that once we were separated by the Atlantic Ocean again, talk of the cruise would vanish as real life got in the way.
And that’s pretty much what happened. The fact that we all wanted to go was not enough to ensure it would happen. There are all sorts of things that come up that you can’t plan for in life- car trouble, medical bills, laptops suddenly going kaput, et cetera. It’s worse for Americans, who get so little time off work, and have to contend with a student debt system that looks like it was designed by Joffrey Baratheon. A vacation is a luxury, not a necessity after all.
So I knew that if this thing were to happen at all, I should count myself lucky. I took no holiday in 2019 just in case, and I spent my time quietly saving money. My friends are extremely busy and highly ambitious, but informed me last summer that they were in a position to start talking about the cruise again. Naturally I was overjoyed, but I still knew that this was far from a guarantee of reuniting with Aaron and Anne-Marie. We spent the rest of the year planning the cruise and trying to find something that suited our work schedules, budget, and travel interests. The biggest hurdle was money, as we didn’t want to bankrupt ourselves in the short term. We finally booked it in December, well before news of the Coronavirus had reached us in the West.
I still couldn’t quite relax however. Even though the cruise was booked, it didn’t feel airtight. There seemed to be too much that could go wrong. Anne-Marie didn’t have a passport, and even though this ultimately wasn’t an issue, I was paranoid that it would be due to conflicting information I saw online. In the two weeks leading up to my flight from London to Houston, the UK was wracked with storms, some of the most disruptive in years. The weekend before I flew out, Heathrow was hit with IT problems which led to many flight cancellations. And then there was the fact that the last time I flew to George Bush Intercontinental Airport, I got detained for seemingly no reason by the damned TSA. If I knew why exactly I had been held for several hours in a windowless room where cell phones were disallowed and you needed an armed guard to escort you to the pisser, then I’d have been less nervous this time around as I could have prepared for it.
And lastly there was the whole virus thing. At that point it was still mostly localized in China, but cruise ships in particular were starting to become a focus for concern. I mean, it makes sense; the things are like goddam Petri dishes with engines. You have all these people crammed together in a confined space, and all of them have traveled from different places- many of them via airports.
So in my mind, there was every chance my little trip could go tits-up. I was fortunate to have an employer that let me take all my accrued holiday at once and enjoy 3 weeks off, which I can imagine not many bosses being happy with. Everyone at the pub wished me a safe journey and my boss even stopped his car in the middle of the road to lean out the window and give me his best as I was walking home. I felt very lucky- I had found good people, which is never a guarantee in a workplace. I hate to sound sappy- or worse, inspirational– but I think the overall theme of this post is that nothing good in life is guaranteed. Not exactly the most deep or original sentiment, I know, but it’s the one that most comes to mind when I look back on my trip.
At Heathrow there were already extra health and safety precautions underway. I was asked several times if I’d been to mainland China, and everywhere I looked folks were wearing surgical masks and flinching whenever someone coughed. There was fear in the air, but it was more or less business as usual. The fear then was nothing like the fear now, just three weeks later.
The flight to Houston was 10 and a half hours, and I had a headache throughout the whole fucking thing because of caffeine withdrawals. I had this idea that it would be best to avoid coffee so my bowels would be less irritable during a long day of travel, but upon reflection I’d much rather be shitting my guts out than sat there feeling like my cranium is trying to rip itself apart. I took 2 aspirins, 2 paracetamols, and 2 ibuprofens but it was too late. So I was miserable on top of being generally anxious.
An old man asked if I could move my seat forward so he could get out and use the bathroom. I happily obliged and told him he had no reason to apologize. I wasn’t sleeping after all. But I guess he was one of those people that figured if you so much as looked at him you wanted to commit to hearing his life story, so he stood there chatting my ear off while I nodded along with a pained smile on my face. He thanked me again and then went into this speech about how everything was “so much more civilized” on a British flight with British passengers.
“On American flights they’re always arguing…no common courtesy, you see,” he said.
At this point I decided I didn’t like him. I hated his rich, low, authoritative voice that Anglophiles think is cute but which I personally can’t separate from a Victorian, Rees-Mogg-esque smugness. And I hated the way he assumed I was interested in his opinions. Probably a goddam Brexiteer, I thought with a shiver of nausea. I hope his old ass falls in the toilet.
But, my headache and snowballing disdain for my homeland aside, things were actually going very smoothly. I got through customs in just a few short minutes and felt reassured that my detainment in 2017 was just some freak occurrence. I passed through the airport unmolested and found East Texas much as I remembered it- green and swampy and packed with billboards for adult video stores. The only difference this time around was that the heat wasn’t there. This was my first visit to Texas that didn’t take place in the summer, and boy could I feel it. I knew it wouldn’t be as hot of course, but I still expected it to be relatively hot. But those first few days saw me wearing sweaters outside for the first time in the Lone Star State.
By the time Aaron picked me up, my headache had subsided. So too had much of my anxiety. I knew for certain now that whatever happened with the cruise, I would definitely be spending three weeks with my best friends. There was still a week and a half before we set sail, and during that time I more or less forgot about the virus completely.
Within hours of being on American soil I was drunk on frozen margs at my friends’ local taqueria. Life was good. I wanted everything to slow down. Aaron and Anne-Marie seemed as healthy and happy as ever. Adelaide, almost five years old, jumped for joy when I walked through the door to the apartment. After dinner, Anne-Marie kept bringing me glasses of champagne and I watched her play Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker on the Nintendo Switch, enjoying her excitable commentary.
As the date of our cruise drew nearer, the reports surrounding Covid-19 became more and more alarming. Around the world ships were being cancelled as more passengers tested positive for the virus. There were even cases at our port in Galveston, and so we mentally prepared for other ways to enjoy our week off if the cruise fell through last minute. Whatever happened, we were going to try and have fun. We discussed the possibility of driving somewhere- Austin or San Antonio perhaps.
The night before, we were joined by our fellow party members- Aaron’s parents from Wisconsin. We took Addie to her doggy hotel first thing in the morning and the five of us drove down to Galveston, which is a long island off the coast of Texas. The process of getting on a cruise ship is like a watered down (no pun intended) version of airport security. I had to assure a hesitant woman several times that I hadn’t been to Italy recently, which at that point was starting to become the epicenter of the virus worldwide. The woman seemed troubled by my foreign passport and said in an uncertain voice that she’d have to check with her superior to see if I could be allowed onboard. When she came back she said I was cleared to go, but that she had to make the extra checks as 7 European passengers had been denied entry for their booked cruises the day before. Yikes. I can only imagine how awful that must have been.
In my mind there was a legitimate chance of being denied at three checkpoints for my journey: Heathrow, George Bush, and Galveston. But I’d made it through all three and for the first time I felt like I could truly relax.
When I planned this blog series I envisioned it being pretty straightforward travel-writing, with details about the ship, the ports, the people, and the food for the most part. Nice, easygoing stuff. But when I sat down at my laptop I realized that I couldn’t write about the cruise and not write about the Coronavirus. Our experience would have been completely different without it- as I will discuss in the next few episodes. And it contributed largely to this feeling of being lucky that I have now, when I think about how different things could have easily been.