Janet Silver Ghent and Allen Podell disembark at Montevideo for a city tour and tango performance.
Janet Silver Ghent and Allen Podell disembark at Montevideo for a city tour and tango performance.

When CDC said ‘Don’t cruise,’ our sails were already up

“What, are you crazy?”

“Boy, are you brave!”

We were neither crazy nor brave — just itching to hit the high seas because we love sailing. After our congregation Covid-canceled our March 2020 trip to Greece and Israel, we languished landlocked for two years. Our last major trip was a November 2019 Portuguese Viking River cruise.

In March 2021, we thought Covid was ebbing. Aware that our use-by dates were narrowing as we aged, we signed up for a Viking Ocean cruise: “South America & the Chilean Fjords.” On this touted “journey to the end of the world,” we hoped to hike in the Andes; strut among five species of penguins in the Falkland Islands; tour Ushuaia, Argentina, the southernmost city in the world; and fill our buckets with wonderment at Iguazú Falls, an extra on the trip.

Then along came omicron, and our buckets slowly sprang leaks.

Even before Dec. 19, when we left the Bay Area for Santiago, Chile, the Falklands canceled our ship’s visit because of Covid concerns. Then our pre-trip jitters went into overdrive. The Chilean government now required us to undergo a PCR test for Covid within 72 hours of our departure and, hopefully, receive the results before we boarded our flights. Adding to the stress, my husband underwent an emergency tooth extraction two days before we left home.

Then, as if our negative PCR tests and proof of three vaccination doses were not enough, Chile demanded more documentation. Two days before we left, while Allen was getting his tooth pulled, Viking sent us a notice that Chile required a cryptic C19 entry certificate showing proof of traveler’s insurance and our “quarantine address.”

Allen Podell and Janet Silver Ghent aboard Viking Jupiter as it approached Chile’s Amalia Glacier.
Allen Podell and Janet Silver Ghent aboard Viking Jupiter as it approached Chile’s Amalia Glacier.

When we landed at the airport in Santiago, officials perused our paperwork and sent us to an on-site lab for yet another Covid PCR test. Fortunately, we made the grade, but we never again saw the casual Southern Californians who stood in front of us in line at the airport and told us they had ignored the to-do-list emails from Viking. Presumably, they were among half a dozen potential cruisegoers sent back to the U.S. for failure to fill out Chile’s paperwork properly. 

After we arrived at our Santiago hotel, we couldn’t leave until our test results came back negative. Then the next day, Viking Cruises sent a crew to our hotel for another PCR test. The result is we spent the better part of two days marooned in the hotel and had only one short private bus tour of Santiago with our fellow cruisegoers, all fully vaxxed and thrice negative. Meanwhile, Chile required us to file reports of our Covid status for 10 days.

There’s more. After we boarded the Viking Jupiter on Dec. 22 at Valparaiso, our stateroom attendant smiled and handed us two test tubes for us to spit into so our saliva could be tested in the ship’s onboard laboratory, a process we repeated every day. Our temperature also was checked daily, usually on our way into breakfast. Hand-sanitizing devices were mounted throughout the ship, and everyone was required to wear masks except while eating, drinking or in one’s own stateroom. We also wore tracking devices around our necks that not only revealed our location on or off the ship, but if we had been in close proximity with someone whose tests came back positive.

Early in the cruise, undersubscribed with only 314 passengers on a ship that can hold 930, 14 passengers were taken off the ship, eight on Dec. 25 at Puerta Montt, Chile, and another six on Dec. 28 at Punta Arenas, where actor Liev Schreiber posted a video of himself dancing in his hotel room. As a result, Chile refused to let the rest of us disembark at Punta Arenas, where we hoped to hike in the Andes. Argentina followed suit when we docked at Ushuaia, where we planned to explore Tierra del Fuego. I sighed as I stood on deck, taking in the glaciers and mountain peaks but unable to disembark. Argentina also canceled our stop at Puerto Madryn, where we looked forward to a proper tea in a settlement founded by Welsh immigrants and a trek amid the penguins at Punta Tombo.

On Dec. 30, the CDC advised Americans, regardless of vaccination status, to not take cruises. That advice came a bit late for us, but, to tell you the truth, our onboard cocoon was far safer than our home port, where both our housesitter and my brother, each fully vaccinated, contracted Covid. Our housesitter, who flew to the Bay Area from New York to escape the cold, thinks he contracted Covid in flight or in an airport.

During our eight straight days at sea, we sailed past fjords and the breathtaking Amalia Glacier and rounded rocky Cape Horn, sailing from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic. We circled Hornos Island, but we neither hiked in the Andes nor spotted a single penguin.

With Argentina out of the question, the captain sailed to the friendlier Uruguayan resort city of Punta del Este, which had not been on the itinerary. On Jan. 3, when my husband got off the tour bus at a site commemorating the 1939 British victory of the HMS Ajax over the German ship Graf Spee, he lay down on the ground, grateful to be on land after eight straight days at sea.

On Jan. 6, we enjoyed a fun trip to Montevideo’s Baar Fun Fun, a historic bar and tango hotspot, where superb dancers pulled my husband onto the dance floor. Later that afternoon, I was sitting in the ship’s theater for a port talk about the following day’s excursions to Buenos Aires and our own flight to Iguazú Falls, the largest, most spectacular waterfall system in the world. I was more than ready for adventure.

Just as shore excursion manager Christopher McPherson was unveiling the possibilities for the following day — from visiting Evita Peron’s final resting place to evening tango performances — the voice of Captain Erik Egede Saabye boomed over the loudspeaker. McPherson’s face fell. No Buenos Aires, no Iguazú Falls, no Argentina. Period. 

The bottom line: We spent two extra days on board, docked in Montevideo, enjoying a splendid visit to a winery in the Uruguayan countryside where we sampled a luscious port, among other wines. Meanwhile, Viking rearranged our transportation back home, arranging a charter to fly most of the passengers from Montevideo to Miami.

On Jan. 10, we awoke a half hour before our 3:30 a.m. bus ride to Montevideo’s small airport, where our flight took off at 10:20 a.m. When we arrived in Miami after 6 p.m., most of the passengers located their luggage. We did not. We scrambled, luggageless, to catch an 8:30 p.m. flight to SFO and missed it. A Viking representative personally shepherded us to the airport Sheraton, where he delivered our luggage after midnight. We awoke at 5:30 a.m. to bolt down a quick breakfast and catch our rescheduled flight to SFO on Jan. 11. As a result, we probably clocked six hours of sleep in two nights.

Allen Podell and Janet Silver Ghent having an afternoon spot of tea as a cello-piano duo performs light classics on the cruise, Jan. 9, 2022.
Allen Podell and Janet Silver Ghent having an afternoon spot of tea as a cello-piano duo performs light classics on the cruise, Jan. 9, 2022.

Friends are asking us about our adventure, but other than the final trip home, we enjoyed nearly three weeks of peace, quiet and fabulous meals. With more than 400 Covid-free crewmembers to wait on 300 passengers, the experience became sybaritic. I never made it to the gym, but my husband and I took advantage of the extra sea days to book two massages each.

Although we spent 11 days at sea on what turned out to be a 19-day cruise, “I welcomed the time to unwind,” my husband said.

Arlene Verona of Boca Raton said she “gained a serenity” over our time at sea, adding that a fellow passenger noticed that cruisegoers seemed to have “lost the bags under their eyes.” So did I.

With topflight entertainment, informative lectures, filet mignon topped with foie gras, blinis with caviar and orgiastic pastries, what could have been a nightmare quickly turned into a dreamy vacation — one in which I learned to roll with the tide. One of the highlights was afternoon tea in the ship’s Wintergarden, where Ildi, a cellist from Hungary, and her husband, pianist Adrian from Spain, played soothing, classical music. In the ship’s theater, Ukraine-born Canadian musician Dennis Daye, dazzled audiences playing piano with his left hand and trumpet with his right — as well as accordion and ocarina— all without music. When he couldn’t disembark at Punta Arenas to board another ship as scheduled, he used the time to create a couple of additional performances, some with other shipboard entertainers.

At three short, self-led Shabbat services every Friday night, we met other Jewish passengers and shared our traditions, which varied immensely. One woman from Texas asked whether our Los Altos Hills congregation, Beth Am, was one of those synagogues with a female rabbi and a guitar-playing cantor. We smiled, said yes to both, and changed the subject.

Most of the passengers were frequent cruisers whose previous trips had been canceled by Covid, and many were already planning their next trips. As for us, we’re happy to be home — for now.

Janet Silver Ghent
Janet Silver Ghent

Janet Silver Ghent, a retired senior editor at J., is the author of the forthcoming book “Love Atop a Keyboard: A Memoir of Late-life Love” (Mascot Press). She lives in Palo Alto and can be reached at [email protected].