Friday, February 7, 2020

The MS Westerdam


“At some point you just have to let go of what you thought should happen and live in what is happening.”- Heather Hepler

You've surely been watching the news, as I have, about the novel coronavirus outbreak. Every day, it seems statistics grow considerably and more and more travel bans and quarantines are put in place in an effort to stop the spread of the epidemic. It's truly unbelievable and, as I mentioned in my previous blog post, many of us are being carefully vigilant while we watch this unfold—our thoughts and hearts with those in the midst of it.

Surely you've also seen the news about some of the cruise ships that have been affected: one moored in Japan with thousands quarantined on board, with confirmed cases of the virus therein recently tripling overnight; another one quarantined in Hong Kong with passenger symptoms being reported, likely to be stuck there for quite a while; and then there’s that third one that's sailing the South China Sea with nowhere to dock, turned away from every port in the area despite there being no reported cases of the virus on board. My parents are currently passengers on that third ship: Holland America Line’s MS Westerdam.

In their 70s and retired after many long, gritty, hardworking years, my parents are now very lucky to be able to go on cruises from time to time. This current one—a 30-night exploration of Singapore, Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam, China, the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea—was too good of an opportunity to pass up. Neither of them had been to that part of the world before, and both were truly looking forward to the privilege.

The first week or two of the MS Westerdam's scheduled itinerary went very smoothly. They departed Singapore on January 15th and enjoyed ports in Thailand, Cambodia, and Vietnam. But, as news of the novel coronavirus outbreak got worse and worse and more cities and countries were limiting travel and authorizing quarantines, the itinerary began to change.

At first, scheduled ports in China were cancelled, and previous plans to disembark in Shanghai on February 15th had to be changed to Tokyo, including all of the passengers' hotels and flights. Holland America Line took care of all of that for its passengers who booked through their services and gave onboard credits as some consolation, even though the itinerary changes were out of their control.

Hong Kong was the midpoint of the scheduled itinerary. The original plan was to spend two days there to explore the city while the passengers just doing the first 15-night leg disembarked and the passengers only doing the second 15-night leg came aboard. As the time neared, plans changed as officials felt it was no longer wise to spend a long time in Hong Kong. They still needed to stop, but would limit it to just one day with restrictions on what could be done in the nearly-shut-down city. My parents made the best of it and enjoyed their limited time there, though of course didn't get to do the shopping they had hoped for; my dad was really looking forward to finding some sweet Chinese silk!

From Hong Kong, they were headed to the Philippines. But, the Philippines wouldn't let them in, so they turned around and spent an extra day at sea. Then, they headed to Taiwan, but were only allowed into one of their scheduled ports there. And now, after leaving Taiwan, they are stuck at sea—denied entry anywhere else they had hoped to go. The rest of the cruise has officially been cancelled, with the captain announcing the news to the passengers this morning … with deep regret.

My parents' emails and messages lead me to believe that Holland America Line has been nothing but gracious, apologetic, cooperative, and transparent about all of the unexpected itinerary changes and eventual cruise cancellation. The cruise line has gone out of its way to help passengers adapt plans, flights, hotels, and given onboard credit, free phone access, free Wi-Fi, and even future cruise credit to try to make up for the major hiccups on this voyage. All of those on board are monitored daily with temperatures taken and screenings performed to ensure that the ship remains free of the novel coronavirus. They have plenty of food, water, and fuel to sail until they're able to determine a final destination.

And the passengers? Well, it seems that many of them are taking it in stride. After all, there's nothing they can do. The situation is what it is, so why freak out about it? Soon enough they’re sure to find a friendly port, disembark, probably be poked, prodded, and screened up the wazoo by whatever local authorities they encounter, and then eventually fly back to their respective homes, likely to face further quarantine once on their home soil. It's not ideal, but it sure is an adventure!

There are some passengers, however, without such an attitude. Some are causing a stir, going to the media, lodging complaints, and creating as much extra strife as they can—making the stress of the situation for their fellow passengers, the ship’s crew, the cruise line officials (and surely customer service reps), and everyone’s worried families back home much worse.

And I get it. People are stressed and some may be scared. This situation is indeed very serious and measures are being taken like we’ve never seen before in a global health crisis. For some people, the unknown isn’t an easy thing to accept. Unexpected changes in plans aren't easy. Staying away longer than anticipated isn't easy. Being flexible isn't easy. But the uneasiness aside, to go out of your way to create drama in an unprecedented situation like this where staying calm is so imperative is something that I just don't understand.

Just this morning, I shared Holland's latest blog update on Facebook. Somehow, some loony person who I don't know got through to my private, personal Facebook timeline and wrote a long, ranting comment on that share. I deleted it right away, but the part I read was awful—full of negativity and blame-slinging. I have a feeling that person was just trolling around, looking for whomever showed up as sharing that blog post link, and then probably linked in from there to their private timelines just to rant, create drama, and cause a ruckus. It's so sad.

The older I get, the more it becomes clear to me how much someone's attitude can shape their life. There are people who dwell on negativity, and as a result become toxic, cause problems, and make situations worse. And then there are people who accept the things they can't change and look for silver linings. That latter personality, I'm proud to say, is found in both of my parents; I'm so very proud of the incredible humans that I’m lucky enough to call my own.

What happens next is yet to be determined. We'll keep hoping that the virus doesn't show up on the MS Westerdam and they'll soon be able to find a country who will let them dock, disembark, and return home. But, if the virus does show up on board and they have to go into quarantine, they'll comply with whatever the authorities deem is necessary.

Whatever happens, I know my parents are level-headed, strong, faithful, savvy people who know that the powers that be are doing everything they can to make this situation as palatable as possible. They have perspective, knowing very well that there are millions of people in affected areas that are in much more serious situations than having to miss a few ports on a luxury cruise vacation, or spend a few extra days at sea. They’ll get home eventually … and they'll have quite the story to tell when they do!

...

Marty Johnson is an entrepreneur, writer, and business coach. He serves as ex officio Director of Communication and Advisor to the Board for the non-profit Association of Mail & Business Centers (AMBC) and is Editor of MBC Today, AMBC's industry-leading publication. Marty owns and operates Uncle Marty's Shipping Office in Ithaca, NY, where he's also Co-Founder of the Collegetown Small Business Alliance. Please visit him at askunclemarty.com. #AskUncleMarty








UPDATE:

Mom and Dad got home safely after a five-week adventure. Here’s a quick recap of their trip’s final couple weeks:

Thailand eventually offered a safe haven for the MS Westerdam to dock and for its guests to disembark, so the ship sailed toward Bangkok. Upon their approach, Thailand changes its mind and, while the ship was allowed into the harbor to refuel, it was quickly then escorted out of Thai waters by a Thai navy vessel; my mom sent a picture of it outside their balcony, guns appearing to be pointed at the Westerdam (though they didn’t feel in any real threat).

Next, Cambodia stepped up and offered a place to dock. The MS Westerdam safely came to port in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, on February 13th. It took a few days for Cambodian health officials to screen and clear all the passengers, and most were eventually permitted to disembark in mid-February, greeted by the Cambodian Prime Minister who flew in on a helicopter and handed out flowers and scarves to guests as they left the ship. (The scarf my parents got was eventually brought back to me as a very cool souvenir.)

From Sihanoukville, Holland American Line chartered planes to get guests to Phnom Penh. Upon arrival there, news hit that one of the former MS Westerdam passengers tested positive upon entering Malaysia, so everyone was stopped in their tracks and put under quarantine until they could be tested again.

My parents were quarantined in a beautiful suite in a five-star Phnom Penh hotel, so life wasn’t very rough. After a few days and a plethora of more tests, they were given yet another all-clear, virus-free certification and allowed to roam freely about Phnom Penh, the Cambodian people treating them as honored guests.

Armed with certificates from the Cambodian Ministry of Health, endorsed by the CDC and WHO, that they were not carriers of the novel coronavirus (now known as COVID-19), Holland American Line chartered another flight—this one through Turkish Airlines—to get a good portion of the guests in Phnom Penh to Istanbul, from there hoping to be able to fly commercially to their home countries.
Up until this point, the MS Westerdam guests had been treated exceptionally well. The CEO of Holland America, Orlando Ashford, even flew to Phnom Penh and met with the guests to encourage them; his communication and example during the crisis was exceptional—a true model of what a business leader should be. However, the Turkish Airline staff was obviously not thrilled that they had to work a flight that carried hundreds of former cruise ship passengers, because they were fully in gear—masks, gloves, etc.—and offered no service during what ended up being a 22-hour flight; guests had to help themselves to drinks and food.

And why was it a 22-hour flight? Well, after takeoff and headed toward Istanbul, it seems that Turkey changed its mind as well about allowing the passengers in. So, the flight had to make a change of course, making an abrupt turn while over Iranian air space. For those of us watching the flight on satellite and not knowing what was going on, seeing this chartered flight do a 180 over Iranian airspace was … well … you can imagine what we were imagining.

The flight was able to land in Kirachi, Pakistan, where they sat on the ground for four hours, not allowed to get up out of their seats … even to use the bathroom. Then, up and away again, finally landing in Amsterdam 22 hours after takeoff from Phnom Penh. It was quite a flight to remember!
From Amsterdam, my parents were allowed to fly commercial to Frankfurt, then from there to Philadelphia. But, their adventure wasn’t over yet, as one flight was met on the ground by flashing lights—ambulances, police cars, etc.—while they were screened once more before being permitted to enter the crowded airport.

When we knew they’d be home soon, my cousins who live near my parents went over to get their house ready, leave some groceries, and warm their home up so they wouldn’t walk into a five-week neglected space. My parents’ neighbor, not recognizing my cousins, called the police when they saw my cousins entering the house. The officer who responded got a good chuckle when he realized what the situation was; rarely do the police see robbers who enter a home with a key, carrying a toddler, then proceed to turn on all the lights, fill the fridge, and heat up a pot of spaghetti sauce on the stove.
So, my parents are home safe. They came to visit a couple of weeks ago, but now that COVID-19 has turned into a global pandemic, they’re choosing to remain safely in their home to ride it out.

And, after all of that, that one passenger who had tested positive upon entering Malaysia—causing all the rest of the passengers to be halted and plans disrupted—turned out to be negative for COVID-19 after all. Whether it was an honest mistake or a political play is unknown, but it sure did cause considerable headache—and many millions of dollars in expenses—for those affected.

The last few months have been nothing short of topsy-turvy. And the next few are sure to be just as wild.

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