Out in the world again . . .

Once again, each day dawns with new reports about Coronavirus mutations, infections and restrictions. Just a few weeks ago it seemed as if all that was in our past. Today, once again, COVID-19 is big news, at the top of the list of concerns for those of us who delight in travel and for others with holiday travel plans. COVID has had a personal impact for me and my family this year as well. Our holiday travel plans were altered because a member of our family tested positive. We experienced some anxious moments about his health and, although his symptoms were relatively mild, quarantine was the order of the day — or, more precisely, quarantine for 10 days, tests for members of his immediate family and, of course, no guests for the holidays.

Flexibility is today’s reality, for sure!

Still, it’s time to think about past and future destinations, and the differences we can expect.

In late September, we had the opportunity to “dip our toes in the water,” literally and figuratively, on a four-night cruise out of Galveston. We were more than eager to experience new travel protocols, and this seemed the perfect opportunity, with a single port call at popular Cozumel on the Mexican coast. Passengers were free to disembark and to explore freely. Shops and restaurants were open and taxis were abundant, but masks were required of all citizens and visitors.

Our Royal Caribbean ship, Independence of the Seas, sailed at less than 30% capacity: 1,260 passengers, with probably close to the same number of crew. It was quiet, but it was a wonderful experience. It whet our appetites for more and longer itineraries, held so long in check by the pandemic.

So, in mid-November, we flew to Fort Lauderdale to embark on three distinctive bookings on two different cruise lines. First, we visited the Caribbean ports of San Juan, Puerto Rico, Phillipsburg, Sint Maarten, and the beautiful island of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. We sailed on the impressive Celebrity Edge, a modern ship designed to carry 2,908 passengers, but during our seven days on board, there were not quite 1,300 passengers. Then, after a few days in Florida, we set sail again on Emerald Princess, bound for the cruise line’s private beach resort on the island of Eleuthera. We sailed with fewer than 900 passengers. It was quiet and restful. That three-day excursion ended once again in Fort Lauderdale where, following a negative result to yet another COVID test administered by the ship’s medical team, we were authorized to remain aboard for another 10 days.

Our itinerary included passage through the Aqua Clara Locks of the Panama Canal, and our ship, designed for 3,080 passengers and more than 1,200 crew members, sailed with 1,374 passengers. Following an initial stop in Nassau where three other ships were in port, our captain set a course for Cartagena, Columbia, on the way to the Canal. Following our day spent traversing the locks and once again being awed by the marvel of the century-old engineering feat that changed the face of global commerce, our final port calls were in Costa Rica, and Jamaica, prior to returning to Fort Lauderdale to disembark.

It was quite an experience! We had previously visited five years ago, entering Gatun Lake through the old two-chamber locks which still operate perfectly, as they have since 1914. The new locks can accommodate much larger ships, of course, more than doubling the ability of the canal to facilitate shipping. It’s fascinating and impressive. Panama has changed during the intervening years, but despite the economic boost from the new locks, Panama and other Central American countries have suffered during the pandemic.

We agreed with other passengers that, as much as we have missed traveling, our disappointments do not compare with the hardships of crew members, some of whom were literally stranded at sea for up to four months prior to being transported back to their home countries. Nor did our “stay at home” time compare to the economic hardships faced by residents of these port cities that depend on tourism for their livelihoods.

Sharing pandemic experiences and future dreams with the staff and crew, and with residents of the countries we visited, became the most important takeaway from these trips. Each ship sailed at far less than full capacity, making it easy to get to know bartenders, cabin stewards and dining room servers. To a person, we found all crew members, including senior officers and maintenance personnel, more than accommmodating, and eager to interact with passengers. To be sure, everyone we met was happy to be back at sea. And those we met on shore during our excursions were delighted to once again welcome us to their countries.

If you’re planning a trip — sooner or later — we would urge you to go. But be smart about it: Get your vaccinations, submit willingly to the tests, abide by the rules (and know that the rules can change quickly), talk to the people you encounter, and enjoy every moment.

The world is different, but it’s still welcoming, and there are good reasons to get out and experience it!

We found that talk about our collective pandemic experiences, our fears and our heartaches, brought us together. Ask people about their families, about how the pandemic affected them and about their hopes for the future. Connect on a personal level. We have always found that to be the best part about traveling. It’s especially true now.  

At the same time, however, I cannot help but be disturbed by the news that European countries are again closing borders and that more stringent rules are in effect for travelers arriving in the U.S. from foreign cities. I am appalled — and worried — by the rising numbers of positive tests throughout our country and around the world, and by daily reports of rising numbers of positive tests on cruise ships, and of cruise ships and passengers being turned away from world ports.

If you have recently been on a cruise or taken a trip abroad, I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts, not only about your experiences, but about any future plans you may be considering.

We felt perfectly safe as vaccinated travelers; we fell naturally into the routine of masks in public places, limited passengers in an elevator, social distancing and constant handwashing and sanitizing, although we sometimes did it all with wry smiles and perfunctory observance. We also appreciated (and took advantage of) every opportunity to shed our masks, even if only for a few breaths of fresh outdoor air, or when nursing a cool drink in the company of others.

One final thought: I have to hope that none of us will easily abandon our travel plans. Travel is the single most valuable step we can take to learn about this world we all inhabit, the best way to forge understanding of different cultures and ideas, and the only way to become truly educated citizens of the world we all share. Travel enriches us all.

Let’s don’t give up on that idea. If you’re thinking of a cruise, a guided tour, a flight to an exotic destination, even a cozy stay at a B&B across the state line, go for it. Plan it, do it, enjoy every moment and return home safe, refreshed and full of the wonder of it all.

I do not know what the future holds. Perhaps, as 2022 dawns, what we must all hold onto is hope. May the new year be better for all.

To echo the words of Rick Steves: “Keep on travelin’.”

Bucket lists and traveling plans

Do you have a bucket list?

I have to confess that, until now, I never did. But I have been making one of late.

I have also been thinking about the next trip. A lot. And part of the thinking involves talking to friends and family about sharing it, a sort of old-friends-and-distant-relatives-reunion that would have our gang of crones and curmudgeons laughing it up and proving to younger people how the old folks can still “party on.”

The idea has been brewing for a while now. I’ve been poring over itineraries, and researching cruise lines, thinking about possible dates and ports, and wondering whether a summer or winter getaway would be better for most of the people I could hope to have join us.

And then it dawned on me. It’s not necessarily a one-time opportunity.

So, in case you’re wondering exactly where this is leading —

For me,  it’s leading to the Panama Canal — a journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific. I hope that a core group of compatible travelers joins in. It takes more time and energy than I seem to have to add “trip organizer” to my resume at this point, but I have put out the word.

The Map on the Wall

There was a time, several decades ago, when a group of young friends thought it fun to throw a dart at a wall map, and take off for a long weekend of sightseeing. Our group tasted several European capitals in that manner, motored through beautiful countryside along back roads, spent as little as possible because we had little, and savored every minute of every experience.

Later my husband and I traveled with other couples and other groups, on planned vacations, for spur-of-the-moment getaways, and sometimes just because we had free time and the urge to be gone.

I recently looked at another wall map and realized that, even though I have visited a fair number of cities, states and countries during my time on the home planet, there are still a huge number of places to explore.

Travel has become more complicated and much more expensive. As the world shrinks, its differences become less obvious — or more exaggerated, depending on your point of view. Personal devices allow popular music and movies to be delivered anywhere at any time, and travelers do not find it necessary to interact with one another or with strangers.

It’s a shame. So, I’m embarking on a modern crusade of sorts.

I don’t remember a time when I wasn’t eager to go somewhere new, taste new foods, meet new people and view life from a different perspective. Time, responsibility, finances and “respectability” may have gotten in the way along the way. I think it’s now time to rectify all that. The Panama Canal trip is not the result of throwing a dart and finding a way to get there.

It is more of a response to a fascination with the still-unfolding history of the canal. I’m really looking forward to seeing it with my own eyes. I’m sure I’ll be writing more about “the big ditch.”

But I’m not giving up dart-throwing either.

Flickr photos of Panama Canal by LyunGateley (2004) and Meghan Jones (2010 – evening shot)