The weather on our Rhine cruise has been mostly sunny and pleasant with only a couple days of overcast skies and rain. But there is a cloud that has hovered over our boat during the passage from Basel to Amsterdam and threatened to block the sun even when it has been shining—COVID-19.
To cruise in Europe this spring, especially through the viral gauntlet that is currently Germany, is an exercise of “being present,” of focusing on the magic of the moment while holding at bay the palpable possibility and lingering dread of being marked “Unclean!” and cast off the boat at any second. Thankfully, the company we are sailing with is doing the best job they can of making sure everyone is enjoying themselves while maintaining strict safety protocols to decrease the chances of an unplanned “COVID extraction.”
Masks at all locations and during all activities on the boat outside of our cabins and except while eating and drinking are mandatory, and myriad hand sanitizing stations stand at attention like sentries near all stairwells and common doors with enough aerosolized alcohol particles penetrating the air to catch a small buzz, even if one hasn’t purchased the “all you can drink” booze package in the lounge.
But the cornerstone of “Operation Stay Aboard” has been daily PCR-testing via “salivaomics,” aka “spitting into a test tube.” Our cabin attendants furnish one vial per passenger each evening and leave them on our bathroom counter wrapped in a pristine, white washcloth, folded with the same care and aesthetic detail as a fine linen napkin in a 3-star Michelin restaurant.
They are long and slender plastic tubes with blue caps that screw down tight and hold 15 milliliters (ml) of fluid. We are only required to provide 3 ml per sample for adequate analysis, and aside from the numbered indices, there is also a helpful arrow labeled “Fill to Here.” If you want to go “above and beyond” just in case, you are free to fire at will.
We provided our first sample on embarkment, and everyone was required to test negative before departure. My wife and I decided to have some friendly fun and turn our first test into a competition. Being a guy, I was confident, cocky even, that I could outspit her. Not for the first time in our marriage, I was wrong.
I struggled to form a tight enough lip lock around the small opening, and at first, I was wasting more down the sides of the tube than I was managing to get into it (pro tip: perform this test over a towel because otherwise you’re going to need one anyway). Plus, I was dehydrated. I filled the bottom quickly enough since the tip is narrow, and the first 1 ml came easy.
But then the well ran dry. The spit level seem to barely budge, especially between milliliter 2 and 3. “Man, this is harder than I thought,” I called out. “How are you coming over there?”
I looked over there, and she was tightening her cap and starting to place it in the bar-coded, personalized envelope, a small stream of saliva still dribbling down her chin.
“How did you do that?” I asked, stunned and defeated.
“It was easy,” she replied, beaming triumphantly. “I just thought about that bitter cacao bean I sucked on in Guatemala, and it just started pouring out.”
I am not as smell sensitive as she is, nor am I as much of a foodie, so meditating on past tastes or favorite dishes was not going to work for me. Instead, I chose to focus on cruel, dangerous dictators, the wannabe ones with small, smooth hands who sing their praises, and annoying, billionaire tech bros whom I will never trust. From then on out, I started frothing at the mouth, and the three millimeters flooded forth fast and furious, like water from a failed dam.
Each morning, we hand our envelopes to the front desk person with the habitual nonchalance of someone mailing a letter at the local post office. The crew then hand them off to couriers who transport them to contracted, local labs along the route. River boats have no room for a lab, but the ocean vessel we will hopefully transfer to tomorrow has its own.
Most days, the staff has required us to hand in our samples by 8 am. No sample, no cruising; and, you get a terse phone call from the front desk, or else, they track you down (they have their ways).
Because of a lighter schedule or later departure, the deadline was extended to 9 am on a couple of days, resulting in a lifting of the common mood among us passengers. We exulted in our unexpected and expanded freedom and became like elementary students who peer out the window in the morning and are greeted with a surprise six inches of snow.
This much we know: We started this phase of the cruise with 165 passengers and we currently have 158, not too bad, from what we understand, compared to other boats currently sailing this river and others in Europe. We also know our cruise company is putting up people testing positive in nice hotels along the route, taking good care of them, and supporting them until they have tested negative and can safely travel home.
What we do not know: Where exactly the seven others went and how they got there. Obviously, there is the potential for a “walk of shame” scenario (not the case, of course, but still something everyone fears) if passengers who test positive were marched through the main doors.
We have not seen a single person spirited away, but we have seen an empty—and stripped—room receiving “extra cleaning” just down the hall from ours. About three nights ago, we saw a flurry of activity just beyond the gangplank where we were docked, along with EMS workers and flashing lights. Today, I witnessed what appeared to be a Dutch police or military boat traveling at a clipped pace in the opposite direction as ours. Onboard there was a group of what appeared to be masked civilians with bags and luggage sitting nearby. A young woman, likely a Dutch officer judging from her stripes and insignia, had her arm wrapped around a civilian woman’s shoulder and seemed to be consoling her.
We heard a rumor that one passenger on our boat had spied someone in a white, hooded biohazard suit. Maybe, maybe not, but it’s not the type of image you want to linger on too long or that a company would want included on their website or in their brochures.
Once, I witnessed a mostly empty river boat from our company pull alongside us. I saw several crew members but only one person who appeared to be a passenger, walking by herself in circles in the lounge, sipping on what was likely a stiff drink.
Obviously, there are well-practiced and compassionate protocols conducted in side passageways and through discrete doors that are reserved for “unscheduled passenger departures,” but none of us are anxious to receive a guided tour.
Oh, but we are anxious. We just try to suppress it as best we can.
That’s hard to do when you realize too late that a couple you dined with two days ago who were just fine then are now sitting across from you looking a little pallid and coughing today. I pressed back so hard trying to gain my six feet (as if that matters) that I thought the large, plate-glass window might give way, plunging me into the icy-cold river below. Despite our legally shedding our masks at dinner, coronaviruses do not call a time out and stop at the dining room door.
And, we are easily conditioned. Late last night, I noticed that we did not have our usual carefully wrapped and presented test tubes on our bathroom counter. I walked down to the front desk to tell the staff they were missing. They reassured me that there was no need to test again on this vessel since we would be transferring to an ocean vessel in two days, whereupon we would be tested again before departure.
Weird, I thought, nobody told us that. Early this morning, I found out no one else had heard either.
Perched at my usual spot sipping on an Americano brewed in seconds by the “magic coffee machine,” I listened as about a half dozen of our fellow passengers, some with panic in their voices, told the desk attendant they had not received their test tubes either.
“I don’t understand,” one man pleaded with the front desk clerk, “We thought everyone was going to be tested every day. We want our test tubes!”
What cruel irony, I thought. The very thing we had found annoying and strange at first, the fine art of the gentle swoosh followed by lightly expectorating into a tiny tube that we had spent the whole week practicing and perfecting, had become our succor and crutch.
Has this been worth the trouble and risk? Prior to starting out, we had counted the costs and concluded it would be, and regardless of what happens from here on out, we would feel the same—with perhaps just a few moments of mourning before moving on to wherever those “other people” have gone.
When we consider the rich experiences and memories we have gained thus far, a few jitters and three millimeters of spit a day is a small price to pay.