Before Our Trip and the Beginning of the Outbreak
We had been planning this trip for nearly a year — our 10th wedding anniversary trip to Southeast Asia. Everything was in place — first a cruise on the Sapphire Princess for 11 days departing from Singapore, followed by three days in Siem Reap, Cambodia, three days in Hoi An, Vietnam and then two days back in Singapore before our departure back home. Three weeks of complete disconnection from work and responsibility. Three weeks to connect with one another. Three weeks to explore different cultures, eat different food and sneak in as many cheap massages as we could.
My husband went to great lengths planning every detail of this trip, ensuring all the relevant visas were in order, choosing incredible hotels at each of our destinations and using our credit card points effectively to maximize the perks while not breaking the bank. We even managed to get lying down seats for our 15-hour flight at a significantly discounted rate. We were excited and mentally ready to shut everything down so that we could completely absorb the experience.
We agreed to the terms. “No WiFi except to check in on the kids.”
Our date of departure was January 29th, 2020 — which turned out be just a few short weeks after the announcement of the Coronavirus outbreak in China.
The chorus of concerned family members and friends began…
“Are you sure you still want to go?”
“Do you think it’s a good idea?”
“Make sure to bring a mask with you.”
“Use hand sanitizer every time you touch ANYTHING!”
As we forged ahead and packed our suitcases, my husband and I looked at each other and wondered if we were insane. Was it a good idea to knowingly enter a region that was killing people off with an uncontained virus? What were we thinking? Was this trip really worth the risk? As parents, were we being irresponsible? Even our family doctor, who is not just a doctor but a family member, was worried about us.
Our Departure at the Start of the Outbreak
One day before our departure, I had an appointment for a manicure and a pedicure. The entire Vietnamese nail parlour community discussed my trip — in Vietnamese. They talked about how even they would not go back home to visit their family at this time.
The owner shared how he asked one of his workers to stay home for two weeks after returning from a trip to Jacksonville, Florida. Was I not understanding the severity of this issue? Was I being naïve — like the time I thought that Lamaze lessons were not going to help me deliver my first child? Was I putting my head in the sand hoping for a good outcome?
The real issue was that there were no direct flights to Singapore. We had a stopover in Hong Kong. HONG KONG, CHINA??? Even I knew that we should stay away from China! What the heck were we doing?
On the day of our departure, there was a bit of a cloud hanging over us. The eager excitement we once felt was replaced with cautious trepidation. We noticed our fear and quietly questioned why this was all happening now. What was this strange timing really about? Why did this have to play a part in our story?
We saw several people wearing masks at the airport in Toronto, but still things operated fairly normally. After a four-hour delay, we got onto our Air Canada flight and tucked into our pods for the duration. It was glorious. Hot cloths, warm nuts, a three-course meal, cheese and fruit, dessert, wine, port, liquor… the pampering was endless.
At one point, on my way back from the bathroom mid-flight, I noticed a gathering of people in the aisle. I joined the conversation. They were talking about the Coronavirus and how it’s transmitted from person to person and how easy it is to become infected. Why, I wondered, do we NEED to discuss this? I left the party and went back to my seat.
Arrival in Hong Kong During the Outbreak
When we finally arrived in Hong Kong — the mood was actually sombre. Other than the fact that the airport was fairly empty, EVERYONE was wearing a mask and walking around in a hushed silence. I felt like I was in a sci-fi movie. The only thing missing was the HAZMAT suits.
We kept our distance from others. We didn’t talk to anyone and we didn’t touch anything. No eating. No breathing. I wondered if I was being negligent by not wearing a mask.
We were conscious about spreading our own germs as well. We decided not to cough. No coughing. NO COUGHING!
But it’s funny how it happens. The minute you decide not to cough is the minute you NEED to cough. Just a little.
A Princess Cruise Amidst the Outbreak
We were relieved to get onto the second leg of our travel journey and then finally land in Singapore. Things were starting to feel a little lighter — a little more like a vacation and a little less like running away from the Coronavirus. However, a few days later when we arrived at the cruise port for the embarkation process onto the Sapphire Princess, they pulled us aside when they found out we had a two hour stopover in Hong Kong. They put us in a special line to see the ship’s nurse, take our temperature and ensure that we weren’t getting onto the ship with a fever. This was not going to be an ordinary trip.
At every port, measures were put into place by both the ship and the port to take each passenger’s temperature and make sure that we were entering the country in a healthy state. Before every temperature reading, my husband would place his hand on my forehead to check for himself whether or not I was in good condition to be let out. We checked in on the kids. They were concerned. “Why aren’t you wearing a mask?” they asked.
The only time we were instructed to wear a face-mask was when we were entering a Pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City. Our tour guide was not equipped for this requirement. Luckily, a woman who was running a fruit stand on the side of the road happened to have a couple of packages of face-masks and donated them to our cause. Strange.
At every meal, there were at least two Princess staff members standing near the sinks policing the hand-washing station. No wash, no food. It seemed we were not only OK with the regulation — we were happy to comply.
It was not long after our first port when we heard about the Diamond Princess and the quarantine situation they were dealing with. Being on a sister ship, in the middle of Southeast Asia, it was hard not to imagine being in their shoes. The thought of being trapped in our cabin for such a long period of time was daunting. So much for no devices — we turned on our phones every time we were anywhere near WiFi. We needed to hear the news.
On our final sea day — the day before we were to disembark — I was surprised by an event my husband had planned for us. He had made arrangements for us to renew our wedding vows with the Captain of the Ship as a 10th anniversary present to me. Since we were on a Princess ship, I imagined having Captain Stubing himself standing in front of us to commemorate the occasion.
For some unstated reason, Captain Slate, the Head Captain of the ship, could not make it and sent in a substitute, his second-in-command, to replace him. Coming from Serbia with a substantial accent, we had a fun few moments when our stand-in Captain had trouble reading our wedding vows, which we were meant to repeat. It was a lovely 10-minute ceremony, followed by a photo session in which we were invited to take advantage of having photos taken anywhere on the ship.
About two minutes into taking a few pictures on the steps of the Promenade deck, an announcement came over the loudspeaker. It was Captain Slate! He apologized for having to barge into everyone’s staterooms but he had an important message to share. He wanted to let everyone know that due to the threat of the Coronavirus, the ship would be docking in Singapore and that the rest of the cruise would be canceled early. Passengers who had intended to stay for a further 10 days on the ship would have to disembark and make arrangements to either go home or travel elsewhere.
While this announcement did not affect our plans personally, the cloud that appeared when we began our trip came back and settled in. The ship was buzzing. The line-up at the customer service desk wrapped around the deck. People were frantically trying to figure out what to do and where to go from there. Even the Princess Staff was at a loss — the news came to them at the same time as it came to us. They did not know if they would be staying on the ship or disembarking with the rest of us. Would they be on sterilization duty or would they be sent home until further notice?
On our end, we did not know what to make of this announcement. Did it mean that conditions in the outside world were more serious than we knew? Was it safe to continue our travels to Cambodia and Vietnam? Was this a signal that we should count our blessings and call it a day? Was it time to go home?
We decided to speak to Francesca, the woman who assisted us in arranging our wedding vow ceremony. She seemed high enough on the totem pole to provide some insight.
“Absolutely, continue with your travels. As long as you stay out of China, you are fine.”
With some discomfort and worry, we chose to follow her advice and forge ahead with the rest of our trip. Truth be told, there were several instances when we found ourselves in situations and amongst people that caused us to flinch. For example, not everyone follows the “sneeze in your sleeve” rule and prefers to use their hands instead. It also appears that public nose-picking is not nearly as offensive in other parts of the world as it is in North America.
For me, the toilets were at times a challenge — particularly when there was only a hole in the ground and/or no toilet paper was available. I learned early on to always travel with my own supply of toilet paper.
Next Stops: Siem Reap, Cambodia; Hoi An, Vietnam and Singapore
Our experience in Siem Reap, Cambodia was incredible. The staff at our hotel, Golden Temple Residence, treated us like guests in their own home, demonstrating at every opportunity what it means to go the extra mile. We loved the city, we loved the people and we loved the graciousness that we were exposed to.
Hoi An, Vietnam, was also a very rich experience. The lanterns covering the city were stunning and the food we got to try was new and exciting. We asked our tour guide to help us find some designer face-masks to bring home for our family and friends as a gag. She helped us negotiate — 20 face-masks for $7.80. Were we being funny? Or was this a bit of sick humour?
We met a couple from Wales who were permanent residents of Thailand on vacation in Vietnam. We got to talking about the Coronavirus. They had an interesting perspective. They felt like the whole thing was overblown. They mentioned that 2000 people died in Thailand in the month of January alone from road accidents but nobody was talking about that. Perhaps they were right — their view of things definitely helped to ease the Coronavirus fear and tension that kept popping into our trip.
The End of Our Trip: Surviving the Outbreak
Our final days in Singapore were not nearly as rich. Something I ate, somewhere along the way, got to me and I ended up needing to stay very close to our hotel room on the last day of our trip. Still, we got to experience the wealthy side of the city — at the Conrad Hotel, where an order of toast, orange juice and two bowls of steamed rice costs $50!
After three weeks of travel, we were ready to come back to the comfort, familiarity and safety of our home and the warmth of our family. While over the duration of the trip we barely spoke about work, we both felt that it was time to get back to it and focus on reaching our goals. With a sense of renewed energy and purpose, it was time to get back to Frame of Mind Coaching™, upcoming speaking engagements, marketing plans and the launch of our new initiative, JournalEngine™ — The Journal That Talks Back!
As I write this, I am on an Air Canada flight heading home from Singapore (via Hong Kong of course). Finally! I can breathe a sigh of relief. It’s nice to be in familiar surroundings where people speak English with an accent I can easily decipher and where the other official language is French. On some level, I appreciate the plain food I am offered at my seat. I am looking forward to walking into my home and being in my own bed. I am looking forward to being in a mask-free environment. I am almost home — almost olly olly oxen free.
There’s a man sitting behind me.
He looks Canadian.
He’s coughing — a lot.
And he’s not wearing a mask.
Coronavirus Medical Resources
All information in this article is reflective of a personal travel story and do not reflect any empirically evidenced medical sources. For more information regarding Coronavirus, visit the links below.
World Health Organization: https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus
Centre for Disease Control: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/index.html
Infection Prevention and Control Canada: https://ipac-canada.org/coronavirus-resources.php