Saturday, November 28, 2020

Traveling in the Age of Covid

Where we were leaving.

When I first started this piece I intended to only talk about our efforts to get to the States but conditions changed so quickly the details quickly became irrelevant so I broadened it to include our whole two-month trip to the States. Over the two months that we traveled, we were on 8 airplanes, had 5 rental cars, spent 64 nights on the road in 14 different hotels, 6 cabs and ate most of our meals out or from takeout at a time when many people were reluctant to venture out at all. We did not do this lightly and developed a good protocol throughout the trip that apparently kept us safe throughout.

Dolphin Bay, one of our favorite anchorages

For the last several weeks before we left we worked half-heartedly to get the boat ready so we could be gone for about 2 months that at some point we hoped would arrive. As events evolved we finally established a firm plan to leave by making flight reservations with Copa Airlines, Panama's international airline that had been granted permission to operate taking people out of the country and so we knew that we would finally be going after several false starts. The big question remained if we could get back. So our work began with purpose after months of just passing time.
Cleaning and marking the chain.
Our major systems had to be flushed with fresh water. In the past when we were in the Rio it wasn't needed because the river was fresh water. Engine flushing for our main engine and generator was in addition to the regular services needed. The sails and lines were removed, cleaned and stored to avoid sun exposure. Everything was thoroughly cleaned and made ready for us to leave.
Heading out in the water taxi.

So after months of anticipation the date to leave finally arrived. As we boarded the boat it was hard to realize that we were actually leaving on our rides because for 6 months we were confined to a very small space and had planned several attempts to leave. Leaving aroused lots of anxiety, anticipation and speculation about what would happen during our travel. Throughout the pandemic we had been isolated and sheltered from what was happening beyond the water of Almirante Bay. 
Crossing through the center of Panama.

One of the major challenges we faced over the months was if we left, as many of our friends did, we might find it difficult to return. Many of our other friends also hadn't left because they were facing the same challenge. Over the previous several weeks Panama had issued guidance for returning and announced the full reopening of the International Airport would occur on 12 October and that domestic air travel would resume on 28 September. Beginning the 14th of September internal land travel restrictions would be relieved allowing for free movement around Panama for the first time since March so it seemed likely we would be able to return as planned.

Crossing over the canal.

To travel internally, as we did going to the airport, the government required special permission known as a Salvoconducto, or Safe Passage. People traveling to hospitals required one from medical personnel but for us to go to the airport we needed one from the US Embassy. After September 14th they would no longer needed. Roadblocks were setup along the highways to stop travel. Even though we were stopped the police never asked to see our papers. Our driver seemed to know them all and stopped to chat with them so they never bothered us.

The view outside our hotel room. at the airport Riande

The first leg of our trip began with a water taxi ride from the marina to the water taxi that would take us to the mainland. Our ride arrived late but got us to the dock in time for the departure to the mainland. Our next ride was a 40 minute boat ride to the town of Almirante on the mainland. When we left Bocas it appeared that a squall might blow in but fortunately we made it to Almirante without any rain. 
On our way on Copa.
Our land taxi met us at the dock. We had partnered with another passenger and the 3 of us rode in a 4x4 truck to Panama. The road to Panama in many spots was gravel with washed out ruts and potholes as it crossed the massive mountains of the Panamanian mainland. Subsequently during the passage of Hurricane Eta the road was washed out preventing supplies to the entire western Caribbean coast. After getting to the Pacific side we got onto Highway CA1 (Central America) which is part of the Pan-American Highway that runs from the tip of South America to Alaska.
View from the Miami Admirals Club.
We stopped frequently for breaks but other than gas stations and grocery stores there were few places open. That probably changed in the future although many businesses have permanently closed.
Our first meal back.
After about 9 hours we made it to our hotel in Panama. We had reservations at the Riande Aeropuerto, that was open with very limited services. Many of the hotels in Panama City were closed and the City was subject to the same draconian curfews that we had been under for many months so the opportunity of getting a room and meals in the City was a challenge. The hotel restaurant was open with 1 or 2 people working in it and a very limited menu. Breakfast was just toast, fruit, juice and coffee. The hotel closed about 2100 and only a security guard was around to manage the facility.
Our first meal out at Clyde's of Reston. A place we used to frequent often.
The hotel offered a shuttle to the airport running on a 30 minute schedule. So in the morning we used the shuttle for the nearly 10 minute ride to the terminal. We quickly got to the airport terminal and there seemed to be lots of traffic considering how few flights were operating.

 A trip to one of our favorite places Annapolis on a Sunday afternoon. Life resumes.
At first the airport seemed to have lots of people in it for what few flights there were. Many of the airport entrance doors were closed and upon entering an attendant took our temperatures before allowing us to enter. We had done a web check-in so we were able to go right to a counter to check our bags and then through immigration. At the check-in counter we were asked some health and security questions. Going through immigration there was no question about our 4 week overstay as the government waived requirements because nobody could leave. We went through security that was pretty typical. From hotel through security took about 20 minutes. We walked to our gate through a concourse of closed shops and restaurants where we had to undergo another security screening at the gate. This security check was just like the first one except I was randomly selected for additional screening that took longer. They were picking out many people for random checking. Once inside the gate we couldn't leave without coming back through security. Everyone in the terminal wore masks.
Two fawns on one of our walks. 
Our first flight was on Copa Airlines, Panama's international airline, from Panama to Miami and the plane was almost completely full. The airline provided a prepacked lunch consisting of a ham sandwich and a brownie. They also provided a prepacked water bottle with a prepacked safety kit of wipes, masks and gloves. The crew was friendly and courteous. On the Copa flight they only boarded 3 rows at a time starting from the back of the plane. They exited one row at a time from the front.
Dinner with grandson Alex at College Station, TX 
At the Miami airport we quickly passed through check-in with our Global Entry and got our bags to go recheck for our domestic American flights. Most of the areas were shutdown and the ones that were open weren't very busy. The American check-in area was pretty deserted. There was no wait to go through security. I was surprised on the inside with the number of shops and restaurants open. Food was all for takeaway. Everyone wore masks.
A band performing on the dock at Annapolis.  
Our two US flights on American were full or almost full. They offered no snack or beverage service but they were relatively short flights. Boarding and exit on our flight to Charlotte was normal. Exiting on our flight to Dulles was exited by rows. As we were exiting the plane at Charlotte crews were already on the plane cleaning and disinfecting it.
Getting our mail at St Brendan's Isle.
However, at the Charlotte Airport you wouldn't know anything was going on. Most of the shops and restaurants were open and the airport was as crowded almost as normal. Even many of the bars had patrons sitting on stools at the bars. Most people were wearing masks but some weren't.
Visiting family in friends with constraints by the virus. Here having an outside dinner with my youngest son.  
At Dulles airport it was getting late so whatever was open was closed and there weren't many people there. I've often trekked through there late at night through deserted concourses. Outside the terminal life seemed normal with most of the normal shuttles running and with lots of people looking for them.
Visiting with my oldest son and sister
Arriving at our hotel in Virginia we weren't sure what to expect. Many of the welcoming amenities we normally expect to receive when arriving at a hotel were absent. Everything functioned but everything was at a distance and things that could potentially serve as a host for a virus were removed from reach.
Linda and her son Seth hiking in Illinois 
Normally we fly from Miami to Reagan Airport and then Uber to our hotel but since we had the chance to rethink our travel we flew to Dulles and had the hotel shuttle meet us at the airport and we got our rental car at the hotel minimizing social contact. Friday, the next morning, after getting our car we moved over to our suite hotel where we stayed for several weeks as we went about our business of medical appointments and buying stuff to take back. Before unpacking in the hotel we wiped down everything with disinfectant wipes even though the hotel claimed it was already done. A practice we did each place we stayed.
Store shelves stocked with ample supplies.
Arriving back in the US we experienced an interesting transition from the isolation and solitude that we endured for the past 6 months. For those 6 months we saw mostly the same 30-40 people all the time. There were more people on each of our flights than that. The airports had businesses that were open with life that we hadn't seen in months.. Now that we're back we're eating in restaurants, albeit outside, visiting friends and family at a distance. Traveling to the States we weren't sure what to expect, how to react, what we could do or what was safe. For those past six months access to people or services beyond our immediate circle was restricted and then suddenly we were free to pursue life openly.

Walking on the familiar W&OD trail. Different than the jungle but still beautiful.

During our stay we were able to visit all of our children and siblings and almost all our grandchildren except one who already had to leave for grad school. Visited many but not all of our old friends as we tried to reduce exposure for everyone. We visited Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Missouri, Texas, the Carolinas, Georgia and Florida. We flew thousands of miles, drove thousands of miles, visited stores and restaurants almost daily taking precautions at each stop.
Birthday dinner with my daughter Kirsten and her family in Sanford.
We planned to end our trip and fly back from Miami. We could get our mail, visit our storage, visit my daughter and arrange our travel back. The last week we drove to Punta Gorda to visit my classmate and his wife to celebrate our big 70th birthdays as a final stop before our trip back. Just like everything in 2020 our return trip was impacted by tropical weather. We had originally planned to drive to Fort Lauderdale Sunday to stage for our return to Panama but the Florida east coast was being pummeled by Hurricane Eta so we stayed in Punta Gorda one more night. We did not want to get stuck in the hotel with no air-conditioning or anyplace to go. The next day when we drove to Fort Lauderdale we found lots of street flooding including in our hotel. As we were checking in we talked to people that hadn't eaten in two days because there was no food in the hotel and they were unable to go out so we clearly made the right decision to stay in Punta Gorda.

A neighbors yard for Halloween in Sanford

Our last task before returning was to get a Covid test within 48 hours before arriving in Panama. We planned to go to one of the outdoor public drive up sites for testing but they were all closed because of the storm.  We tried some local drug store sites but they were all booked. We were able to find a place in North Miami Beach where we could get a rapid test so we drove down there, got tested and got our negative results that paved our return.
Some friendly birds on a walk in Florida. 2 of several Sandhill Cranes.
 After completing that task we returned to pack our 300 pounds of "stuff" that we would be returning with including boat parts, nutritional supplements and dried food for the next year. It's always amazing how much fits into our bags as we try to limit them to 50 pounds. We also inventory each bag so we can be sure nothing is lost in transit and it makes it easier to transfer to our boat inventory.
The flooded parking lot of our hotel in Fort Lauderdale
This time there was more activity in all the airports and had a more normal feeling. Each of the 10 airports we passed through got progressively closer to normal but all of the flights we were on were nearly full.  We were asked for our Covid test results in Miami at the ticket counter, at the gate and then before we passed through immigration at Panama City airport. 
One of our favorite places in FL, TooJay's NY Style Deli
But, we weren't back to Bocas yet. Because of the connection times we had to spend a night in Panama City before our flight back to Bocas the next morning.  We stayed at a very nice Marriott AC hotel which is a European brand with beautiful views of the cityscape. Like most of the hotels we stayed in on our trip staffing and services we limited but sufficient. During our trip we learned that the hotels were operating a greatly reduced occupancy as they thoroughly ventilated rooms allowing them to sit empty for several days and then cleaning an sanitizing to prevent the spread of disease.

 Cityscapes of Panama City from the AC Hotel
Next morning we took a cab to the airport. Because Air Panama has small planes and passenger baggage allowance we checked our bags as air freight for about the cost of one extra bag. We boarded our flight and got back to Bocas on time. We were also able to get our credit certificate for our unused Air Panama tickets that we we can use in the future.
Our final flight
Once on the ground in Bocas we took the marina shuttle back to our boat and we were home. We had to go back to the airport as our checked bags came in on a later flight and then with the help of taxis we got them all back to the boat.

The Big Bird back in Bocas

Our trip was completed and it was great to be home. Now the hard work of putting things away and getting the boat back in sailing shape for plans we have yet to determine.
Where we returned to.


Sunday, August 23, 2020

Life under the son of Q

Celebrating our first night out of the marina with a Rose Cava and seaweed salad for appetizer that we had planned to have to celebrate getting to the San Blas.

Life under quarantine here in Panama has been like the movie Groundhog Day. Everyone, everywhere has a story to tell of how they are/were passing through these unusual times. Our previous blog explained what life was like here under the strict quarantine rules in Panama. Then after about 3 months of rigidity like Damocles unchained, green shoots of new life emerged as the Panamanian government began to ease the horrific restrictions they imposed. But our gains were short-lived.

Red Frog Marina in the rearview mirror after 3 months.

Even before the lockdown ended cases began growing. Here in Bocas del Toro islands there were no cases until just a few days before the 2 hour per day 3 days per week restrictions were eased. During the lockdowns many of the locals failed to follow the rules and clandestine parties were held, boats moved around at night and congregate communities continued to exist fanning the spread. Most cruisers sat isolated with only occasional trips into town and taking precautions. To my knowledge no cruiser in our area has been diagnosed with Covid.

A stormy sunset from Starfish Beach anchorage

With the easing of restrictions boats were allowed to move around within the archipelago but transit elsewhere was still restricted. The airports remained closed and only limited commerce resumed. Most notably was the allowance of the sales of alcohol. Allegedly alcohol sales were banned to discourage parties but other concerns including domestic violence and wandering drunken mobs used to justify the prohibition. Whatever the reason it didn't work well in reducing the spread of Covid but the commerce ministers were successful in ending the ban by pointing out the losses in the beverage industry would cripple if not eliminate many domestic enterprises making many more long-term unemployed. So like the end of prohibition spirits once again became available.

A trip to Swan Cay for snorkeling and bird watching. A beautiful little set of rocks complete with a swim through cave.

We left Red Frog Marina on the island of Bastimentos where we spent the 3 months of the Q hoping to enjoy cruising around the archipelago. Our plan at that point was to cruise for a month and then go back to Bocas Marina where we would leave the boat and fly back to the States. Well, we did take off and cruise but by the time we went back to Bocas Marina the government had already announced the airport would not reopen as planned and now there was a new prohibition against travel.

An indigenous settlement on the mainland as we return to anchor after our visit to Swan Cay.

During our month out we visited several anchorages occasionally meeting up with friends - at a distance - and conducting limited socializing. When we meet other cruisers we are reluctant to be as free as we might be normally but still we sort of assume most of us living in a degree of isolation are Covid free. Most cruisers we know when going to town wear masks and clean their hands and minimize their close contact with locals.  It helps that there are relatively few cases on the islands and all are being closely monitored that we have some degree of confidence that most people we encounter are negative for the virus. As we started going back to town we saw the stores enforcing mask requirements, spraying hand sanitizer and taking temperatures.

In snorkeling around our anchorage we found a second six-pointed star.

The beginning of July we entered Bocas Marina as we had planned. But knowing we couldn't fly back we decided we would do a few boat chores and then head back out. As they say no plan survives contact intact. The Bocas archipelago has some very scenic and protected anchorages where it is easy to pass a few days snorkeling or viewing other wildlife.

El Clandestino Restaurant where we met several friends for lunch. Outstanding food, reasonable prices and very relaxed atmosphere. This was the only place we could go out to eat. It's all open air.

The government issued decree prohibiting the movement of private boats throughout Panama put somewhat of a damper on our movement. Seems that lots of charters and excursion boats in Panama City and Colon started running their usual entertainment routes allowing parties and large social gatherings. Here in Bocas a large group of cruisers had dinner at a place we had just been to the day before and a local competitor did a video of the dinner and turned it into the police. As a result the government issued the movement decree.

Our Quarantine Cove where we spent many days. With complete protection from squalls, no boat traffic and a few indigenous cayucos. Great isolation.

With the continued restrictions life for those of us still here life has taken on a surreal feeling. Most of us live on our boats so if we leave we have no place to go and who knows when we can return. The government of Panama is unpredictable in its policies and autocratic. To some extent they have granted some dispensation to regions like ours that really don't have many cases but without the ability to move or freely exercise we are pretty much stuck on our boats. We get up everyday and do boat chores and now work to ready the boat for long-term layup. But, just waiting is demoralizing.

One of our favorite meals. Linda's homemade pizza with her vegetable ragout as topping with fresh basil and fresh mozzarella cheese accompanied by a nice bottle of Spanish wine that we brought back from Spain.

It's also lobster season. Locals are selling fish to try to make money since many are hungry from the lockdowns so I was happy to buy 3 fresh lobsters from them. The remains I gave to a marina worker who makes soup with them.

People living in the US or other places where the term lockdown is used gratuitously really can't imagine what life is really like living in true quarantine.  During the lockdowns in the US as I understand it people could pretty much move freely, stores had most things in reasonable quantity, it was possible to go to parks, do recreational activities, go out to eat and lots of people can work

Sunset at anchor in Dolphin Bay.

remotely. Here, movement is totally restricted, no recreational activities, most businesses have closed, most supplies while available were intermittent and there are few outlets for outside meals or entertainment. So for those of us on boats we stay on our boats, if on anchor we can swim around our boat or in a marina we can walk around the marina. It's like being under house arrest and if you go there's really not much to do anyway other than get groceries and maybe some hardware.

One of our lunches with friends at El Clandestino. Louis and Elena on s/v Cirque and Jackie and Dan (not in this pic) from IP 40 Pleasant Living.

The broader impact is that most people here have no income other than a small government subsidy. Bocas is a large tourist area and with no tourists there is no income. Many people with homes elsewhere in the country have gone there. With no business and no incomes people have turned to begging on the street and possibly soon to crime although there will be nowhere to sell their ill-gotten proceeds.

Looking out at Dolphin Bay from Green Acres Cacao Farm.

For us, it's one day after another of doing the daily chores we need to do, work on the boat as needed and find some outlet for exercise. For now, the local police don't seem to be enforcing the movement restrictions on cruisers so we can discretely move from one isolated anchorage to another without issue.

A green poisonous dart frog at Green Acres. We have now seen red frogs and green frogs here in Bocas.

We finally bought some clippers and Linda cut my 3 months of hair growth so that I can feel human again. The day after coming back into Bocas Marina I was busy doing many chores and late in the day I washed the cockpit and slipped on a soapy seat falling into the companionway step. I hit the step with my lower ribs. Unable to breathe I managed to pull myself up, restarted breathing and recovered. But after 6 weeks I still feel the pain from the bruised rib although I have pretty much regained full mobility.

Gary Mitchell, one of the owners of the Green Acres Cacao Farm explaining about one of the ginger plants.

Since recovering we have been back out cruising spending time at anchor and back to town for necessities. Visiting quietly with friends and continuing daily chores.

When raising our anchor for the last time the windlass motor died with the anchor at the bow roller. When I pulled off the assembly I found the gearbox full of water. I have a spare motor but need new seals. Clean it up and rebuild, reattach and back in business. Just an example of daily boat chores. Spares count when it absolutely positively can't be there overnight. 

Panama has finally started easing back more of the restrictions but it does not look like we will actually be able to fly back to the US in September on a regularly scheduled flight to do all the necessary stuff we need while we leave the boat here in the water. We may be able to get on a flight out but getting back still may be problematic. Before we leave we have lots to do repairing our AC and windlass, taking down and cleaning the sails, removing our running rigging and replacing it with sacrificial lines and deep cleaning as we set it up for our absence. Decommissioning the boat gives us a sense of purpose and direction that we lacked for most of the past 6 months. Many people we know have flown back on humanitarian flights arranged by the US Embassy. Our home is here.

Typical return after shopping day. Linda cleans and disinfects all the produce and since we eat mostly a plant-based diet that's a lot of work she does. Much more expensive here than in Rio Dulce

So, with some luck we will be back in the US in a few short weeks and when we return we should be able to resume cruising to some degree. Now, busy times getting the boat ready for our departure. Oh, and did I mention it's the rainy season making it even gloomier. Some days we just go back to bed to wait for the rain to stop. Hopefully, better times ahead.

A beautiful sunset in our quarantine cove.