Did I have Covid-19?

That’s the uneasy question I’ve several times asked myself when I seemed to have coronavirus symptoms since the pandemic hit us all in March. But each of those suspicious physical anomalies soon abated and relieved my anxiety. Subsided so quickly, in fact, that I never contacted my physician to report what happened. However, when I suddenly developed a fever last weekend, I couldn’t dismiss the possibility that I might really have the virus and thus needed to let my doc know. Waiting to see him and subsequently waiting for test results was a fretful, fearful period.

I take good health and high energy for granted, a common conceit, I am told.  The old saying about not appreciating your health until you lose it came back to me on Saturday when I suddenly felt an unfamiliar throbbing pain under my chin and in my throat (but not a sore throat).  It hurt to breathe deeply, too.  Worry engulfed me, wondering if these were the first signs of CV-19.  I’ve read about strange symptoms as the virus takes hold in organs and begins to wreak systemic bodily damage.  Was this what was happening?

I took solace in not having a fever, reminding myself that we’re all on a hair trigger when some mild infection that we would have largely ignored pre-Covid abruptly manifests.  That thinking calmed me, but I could not shake the feeling that this bore close watching.  I seemed to have swollen salivary glands, and that had never happened to me before and just seemed bizarre.  I didn’t even know salivary glands could get infected.

I spent the weekend in an unsettled, irritated mood. I’m not a patient person to begin with and can be hard to live with, so I tried to avoid interactions with my wife and kids and other people.  No need to reconfirm my curmudgeonly nature, I thought.

Then came the fever onset Sunday afternoon.  Out of nowhere my face was prickly hot.  At once, I took my temp, and it was over 102 degrees.  To be sure, I borrowed a no-contact forehead thermometer, identical to the ones in use worldwide now.  Same reading as the old-fashioned device under the tongue. The high temperature rocketed my concern to a higher plain.

When my doctor of nearly three decades moved his UNC Med practice to a concierge clinic, I reluctantly ponied up the annual premium so I wouldn’t lose him.  Being a concierge member has its advantages, one being I can reach my physician 24/7/365 on his cell phone.  I called the number Sunday afternoon and reached him at once, explaining the background and current realities of physical pain and elevated temp.  He scheduled an exam and Covid test for the follow day (Monday) at 9:30 AM.

The fever had me knackered, and I withdrew to bed at the unheard-of (for me) early time of 8:30 Sunday night.  After taking an aspirin, I fell asleep in a feverish daze with most of my clothes on.

I awakened just before midnight and felt physically exhausted.  But I was hungry (I had skipped dinner) and thirsty.  Only a very slight fever, but my body felt tired from the experience of fighting it off.  I had a big glass of water and some roasted potatoes.  Uh oh, I thought.  Could I taste the food?  Yes, the potatoes were delicious and tasted like, well, good old spuds.  Relief.  Maybe I didn’t have Covid.  But the fever, and my state of fatigue.  And my throat still ached around the salivary glands.  After having a bite and the water, I fell asleep again almost immediately, once more taking an aspirin.

To my surprise, I awoke shortly past seven Monday morning feeling more like a human being than when I went to bed.  No fever, either.  None. Not even slight.  Good sign, I thought. 

I had been instructed not to enter the clinic building but to drive underneath into the parking garage and not get out of my car.  I was to phone that I’d arrived, which I did.  Pretty soon my doc and a nurse arrived in full hazmat medical gear head to toe to examine and test me.  Also, a medical cart full of stuff. 

As they prepared the test, I warned that I could not tolerate the brain stem swab probe if that was called for on account of a lifelong history of nosebleeds.  No problem, they said, since the newest tech involved only a special fuzzy swab that took samples from both nostrils.  Sure enough, the swab was not terribly invasive and merely tickled.  Other probes of temperature, lungs, heart, oxygen level, and blood pressure were all normal and good. 

Again, a big relief.

However, the virus is complicated and stealthy, I was advised, and no absolute conclusions could be drawn until the test results were back despite the otherwise normal signs.  And that might take a couple of days.

So I waited timorously through Monday and Tuesday this week, not knowing what to expect.  My energy level was fine again, so I carried on with my schedule, careful not to go out on normal errands like to the grocery store.  I cocooned carefully at home and Zoomed several meetings, and I waited.

Monday and Tuesday dragged by. What if I was positive? I’ve read of asymptomatic cases and mild cases.  What would mine be like?  Would my lungs become so infected that I was put on a ventilator? At times I could feel my heart racing and tried to calm myself. My mind constructed a plan for contact tracing the few people I’d been in close contact with and wondered what other steps I’d have to take to cordon myself off from the world.  Time crept by at a tectonic pace Monday and yesterday.

At 3:50 PM Tuesday afternoon my physician called.  Negative!  I was negative.  Are you certain?  That is, don’t you have cases of false negatives?  No.  I was well. 

Relief overwhelmed me after we hung up.  I’ve never been so happy to fail a test.

Room with a view—no takers

When we had to scratch our big summer international trip due to the pandemic, I got busy and reserved a spectacular oceanfront beach house instead. We anticipated having to turn friends away. Turns out, not so much.

North Carolina has over 300 miles of barrier island coastline, and I’ve seen almost all of it.  My love of sea, surf, and sand developed early in life and remains strong as ever today. I can’t get enough of the beach, which is a good thing during this weird shut-in period because Raleigh is only 2-3 hours from the ocean, and many beachfront properties are available for rent.

When the plague shattered travel plans to celebrate our 25th anniversary in Morocco this summer and suddenly imprisoned us and our two kids—one in high school, the other in college—at home together, we rapidly pivoted to plan two weeklong family vacations at the beach, directly on the ocean, on Topsail Island just north of Wilmington. 

We opted to rent two different cottages, as big oceanfront houses are quaintly called in North Carolina, and we decided to plan trips in two different weeks, one in July, the second over Labor Day. Both houses (“cottages”) are directly on the beach, but for the latter week, we splurged and leased a gigantic 5-bedroom, 5-bath mansion that sleeps 14.  Three of the bedrooms face the beach and ocean, boasting lots of glass to soak in the gorgeous view, and two have private balconies.  What a place!

Why room for fourteen when it’s just the four of us?  Our thinking was, if we can’t get to Morocco this year, then we will deliver plenty of extra rooms for the kids’ friends and for our friends to come stay a few nights and enjoy the ocean with us. I mean, just look at the monster, huge and beautiful and directly on the surf! 

Excited and looking forward to seeing everyone, we invited friends from New York and from New Orleans, friends from Wisconsin and tidewater Virginia, friends from Raleigh and Winston-Salem, even friends from California and the state of Washington.  They were thrilled to receive our invitation, too, and promised to think it over after checking their calendars. 

One by one, though, friends from near and far got back to us with glum news: We can’t come.  We want to, but we can’t because…well, for a lot of sound and varied reasons, but at base, always the specter of Covid-19 was the culprit.

Some friends are long in the tooth and felt the risk catching the virus flying or driving outweighed the fun they’d have browning in the sun and catching the salt spray in their hair.  The uncertainty of all the people they’d inevitably have to be close to at airports and on planes if coming by air, or at gas stations and in hotels and restaurants if traveling on wheels, was scary.  Prudence won out in light of indeterminate medical facts regarding how one might get sick.

Others live in states like New York that enforce strict 14-day quarantines for visitors and returning residents alike.  Understandably, they felt the joy of a North Carolina holiday would be dashed when they couldn’t leave their home for two weeks.

Even those from NC who didn’t have to travel far or suffer a quarantine once back home sheepishly admitted that one of the great joys of such a gathering, the socializing among friends sharing each other’s company, also presented one of the greatest hazard of becoming infected.  And if we couldn’t laugh together, then what’s the bloody point?

The caution extends to our kids’ friends’ parents.  They are naturally wary of letting their children, who are just as naturally eager to get out of their houses to be with friends at the beach, expose themselves to the possibility of picking up the easily transmissible sickness.  Since the contagion danger can’t be accurately quantified and measured, parental judgment is to deny the threat by keeping their kinder segregated from associates.

All reasonable and logical decisions, of course.  Hence the irony that we have never booked a bigger or swankier place with so many oceanfront bedrooms with such lovely views of the water, and yet…no takers.  Harsh proof that you don’t have to come down with the coronavirus to experience its mean impact on the American quality of life.

Desultory musings

It’s a big letdown to be imprisoned at home again in Raleigh after a glorious week on the ocean at Topsail Island.  Still no air travel!

On the plus side, we were not on the coast for the arrival of Hurricane Isaias, which thankfully moved through North Carolina like a rocket, leaving minimal wind and water damage in its speedy wake.  This caricature says it all (misspelling aside):

Mask fashion flair

I am a dutiful mask wearer, both to protect myself and others.  But, you know, it’s not that much fun. At all. 

If we have to wear the damn things, then why not have a bunch of interesting masks and rotate through them? Like these babies (among ten or so I use routinely).

I list these in functional order, meaning in order of which masks stay on my face best:

Scottish plaid, made in Hanoi.

Tasteful Scottish plaid, an ironic design since it was made and purchased in Hanoi by me some years ago.  Plaid designs are popular there; such masks are everyday items on the streets to combat air pollution and to ward off sickness due to constant intermingling of human density in that fascinating city.  This mask is simple and easy to keep clean, and yet its subtly contoured design hugs the parts that bulge out on my face better than any other mask.  Bravo to the Vietnamese; they knew what they’re doing.  I think I paid the equivalent of two or three dollars for it (and probably overpaid at that). Yet it’s the best.

South African flag, made in China

Loving the Kruger National Park as I do, I had to have one that boasts the South African flag.  It’s made in China and was shipped to me from there (took five weeks).  Like the Vietnamese model, very well-made and benefits from China’s long tradition of mask-wearing to fight SARS and traffic fumes (not in that order) by having been sewn well and being form-fitting over the facial contours of chin, mouth, cheeks and nose.  Also came with three robust washable filters.  Pretty good for $20, delivered.

With thanks to Norwegian Expressionist artist Edvard Munch

“The Scream” mask from Redbubble.com – Clever and trendy, created by independent artists and originated in Melbourne, now with offices in San Francisco and Berlin, featuring products of 700,000 artists. You can pass an entire afternoon browsing their stuff.  Not cheap at about $18.

Science doesn’t care what you believe

Science is real! Another great Redbubble design, and one guaranteed to trip someone’s trigger wherever it’s worn. Be prepared to fight, run, or argue.  I love the designs, but the Redbubble masks are not contoured to fit the jutting angles on my face.  Works, but less well than the Vietnamese and Chinese masks—the Asian-made masks are the optimal designs to fit properly and stay on. Again, about $18.

Can I help you with your groceries?

Plain green, which seems to be standard grocery store employee issue.  Sturdy and has at least some contour-sensitive features to make it stay on my face. Free.

I’m so sorry for your loss

Conservative plain black with classy discreet U.S. flag to show it was made in America for Joe Brancatelli’s joesentme “wall of business travelers”!  Great for funerals and to sport at presidential candidate rallies of either party. I loved it from day one, but is much like the Redbubble designs in wanting to slip off my nose. About $10.

Artisan-made in Raleigh

Kind of paisley plaid made locally in Raleigh; comfortable and sewn with contours, but missed the mark a bit.  The mask tends to slip off my nose over time.  $22 is steep, but I bit to buy local and support art.

A whole lot of not much

Washington Post hosted a live broadcast called “The Path Forward: The Airline Industry with Delta Air Lines CEO Ed Bastian” that was free to anyone who signed up.  I get the WaPo through Amazon for cheap since Bezos owns both companies, and was thus alerted to this one hour discussion.

Bastian was, as always, nattily attired and coifed to look like a million dollars, which he certainly is and more (net worth over $60 million as of late last year, which, even pandemic-shrunken, is vastly more than I have).  He nearly sparkled.  Though I give him credit for not looking like a sleaze and without the whiff of a mafia boss, as do some other airline execs.

The face of Delta pronounced firm, no-compromise stances on masks (wear them or get added to the no-fly list) which I liked. He predicted 2024 or later for a return to pre-Covid levels of business flying. 

Mr. Ed repeated the Delta empty middle-seat mantra (well, at least through September, though he hinted that might get extended, depending…), and he talked about upcoming pilot furloughs that look likely.

Most interesting to me was a glimpse into Delta’s acceleration of long-term fleet plans: lots of Airbus A220s, the A320NEO aircraft, and the 737 family.  However, he failed to mention the retirement of the 777 fleet and the new dependence upon the A350 models for international routes, including the A350-900ULR to be deployed ATL/JNB/CPT/ATL. Neither did he say what was to become of the ubiquitous 757 and 767 airplanes.

Mr. Bastian was strictly replying to questions from the WaPo host, but I was still disappointed that no mention was made regarding the future of customer loyalty.  I wanted to ask how Delta plans to differentiate service to very frequent flyers and multi-million milers like me (5.4 million) as we return to the road now and in the post-pandemic flying environment.

Or maybe now “how” but “if” Delta is planning any customer differentiation to survive the plague.

Video highlights here.

Even a little road trip can be exciting

A friend sent me a picture yesterday of his midday chow at Nashville’s Loveless Café, a mainstay since 1951, saying “it never disappoints” and including a note describing his meal:

  • Fried Chicken
  • Mashed taters
  • Fried okra
  • Biscuits
  • 3 flavors homemade jams
  • Sweet ice tea
  • And of course
  • Coconut cream pie saved for pre-departure

And he ended with this critique:

  • The menu was quite reduced yesterday
  • Breakfast menu was typical
  • But Supper menu was seriously reduced
  • Supper starts at 11:00 AM
  • Tables very reduced
  • But the food and service were excellent
  • Worth a trip if you’re into southern food

Having been born and raised in Eastern North Carolina (Kinston), I’m a big fan of southern comfort food. Never learned to like collards or Brunswick stew, but most else is okay, especially finely chopped southern-style slaw, mashed potatoes, fried okra (not the frozen stuff), southern biscuits, cornbread, hush puppies, chopped pork BBQ, fried chicken, BBQ chicken, fried chicken livers, fried flounder, fried oysters, fried shrimp, fried scallops, crab cakes, deviled crabs, and soft shell crabs.

And pass the biscuits back again, please, along with the butter and blackstrap molasses.

I like that supper at the Loveless starts at 11:00 AM.

Not the road to Morocco

To celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, my wife and I had a grand trip scheduled for two weeks exploring all over Morocco in mid-July.  The novel coronavirus, naturally, quashed those plans.

After Delta refunded our business class tickets, we decided to direct those not-insubstantial sums to rent oceanfront houses at Topsail Island, NC twice (two different weeks) and to make each week a family vacation.

We are halfway through the first week (the second will be over Labor Day), and I’m so glad we came.  It’s only 2 hours, 15 minutes from Raleigh, but it seems, well, so exotic.  Not Morocco-exotic or Rarotonga-exotic, but compared to being imprisoned in Raleigh for nearly five months, this beach is sheer paradise.  If I squint in the ninety-plus degree heat, it could almost be The Maldives.

Okay, no palm trees or Frangipani, but the whitest white sand and a glorious surf tame enough to swim in without drowning, and with tropical-warm water.

Literally tropical, because the Atlantic Ocean washing up on the beach in front of our house is warmed by the Gulf Stream, which meanders very, very close to the North Carolina shore in summer. 

To add to the fun, the car trip down from Raleigh was an unexpected adventure.  It was 97° F. all the way, then dropped to 91 on the barrier island. But it felt like 110. Late in the day it cooled off to the low 80s, a welcome contrast.  Nights have been high 70s to low 80s.

On the drive along I-40 from Raleigh, I’ve never seen such speeding. The NC Interstate limit is 70 mph, and I set the cruise on 75…and then passed not a single vehicle. That made me the slowest car on the road. Scores and scores of beach-bound cars, roughly half with out-of-state plates, flew past me. Many had to be going 100 or more. Yet I didn’t see a single one pulled over.

Friends in high places say many state highway patrol agencies have been told to take it easy on speeders during the pandemic. I’m no prude and have a heavy foot myself; however, routinely driving such very high speeds is dangerous. I-40 to the beach has always been a racetrack, but I’ve never seen speeding like we encountered on Sunday. Both the sheer numbers of offenders as well as the average rate.

I had read about speeders during the total shutdown back in early spring, but assumed that was a quirk and about over.

Maybe not.

We arrived on Sunday afternoon during what might be called “shift change.”  Saturdays and Sundays along the NC coast are characterized by heavy outbound and inbound traffic as weekly rentals typically end those days. 

Because Topsail Island still had a 60 year old drawbridge over the busy Intracoastal Waterway, weekend traffic on and off would get snarled up every time the bridge opened, a nightmare. To fix that problem, NCDOT built a new high bridge to replace the old swing bridge.

Seemed like the right solution, but the traffic engineers designed the bridge ends with two utterly dysfunctional roundabouts, the worst I’ve ever seen. Rather than keeping cars moving, the two circles back up traffic in all directions.

Having lived and worked in the U.K. and on the Continent, and in cities like Hong Kong, and therefore having navigated hundreds of roundabouts, I’m a huge advocate. But the ones here must have been designed by idiots. On the positive side, finally reaching our own oceanfront house was made that much sweeter.

This beach house, in downtown (such as it is) Topsail Beach, is not fancy, but comfortable. With blasting air-conditioning, supplemented by lots of spinning overhead fans, and with a decent kitchen, this will do nicely for a week. Very relaxing.

Mostly free of politics as well.  One Trump 2020 flag flutters across the street, and a lone Black Lives Matter sign sits by the street a block away.

Most local places of business have signs advising customers to wear masks, but our observations indicate about half ignore the admonition.  However, the two big grocery stores hereabouts, Food Lion and Publix, routinely enforce the mask rule, as does even the little IGA Supermarket.

We are not much bothered by maskless folks because we mostly stay in our house on the ocean, enjoying the sand and surf and cooking our own meals during this Covid-time.

Speaking of food prep, after settling in, we spent a frenetic two days of cooking:

  • 7 lbs boiled shrimp
  • 2 signature shrimp dipping sauces
  • Fried flounder
  • Fried red snapper
  • Thai yellow curry fish
  • Jasmine rice
  • 2 blueberry pies (my own recipe with lime zest, lime juice, and cinnamon)
  • Whipped heavy cream (with vanilla and sugar, of course)
  • Clam chowder (old family recipe)
  • 2 kinds of pasta
  • Croissants w/ cured ham and Swiss cheese
  • Not to mention mundane breakfast dishes and numerous cocktails
  • Also salads and fresh fruit (grapes, blueberries, cantaloupe) and vegetables (local tomatoes, etc.)
  • 15 soft shell crabs await frying, perhaps tomorrow afternoon, accompanied by green beans, other veggies. 
  • Oh, and my wife made a killer gazpacho, too.
  • And more food I’ve lost track of…but it’s all in the fridge. Yum!

Now, with the heavy cooking done and stockpiled, I have time to swim in the surf and to read until Sunday.  Punctuated, of course, by the odd G&T in the afternoon.

Over Labor Day week we’re coming back to Topsail to stay in a much bigger place in Surf City, again right on the beach. It’s a splurge to rent for 2 weeks, but the kids wanted this, too, after being cooped up in the house for months.

With apologies to Crosby & Hope, we had to skip the road to Morocco this year. Instead, I did my best Burt Lancaster impression to my wife’s Deborah Kerr as we kissed in the surf like they did in From Here To Eternity to celebrate 25 happy years together.

Surviving 50′ waves at sea

My life has been a series of great travel adventures, not all of them by air. The scariest experience I ever had was working on a ship at sea, and it is a bona fide business travel story. We hit a rogue wave at least fifty feet high, and I was scared out of my mind, as was every other occupant on the boat, including our Norwegian master, whom I will call Captain Berg.

Later, we hit another wave that big.

It was April, 1974, and I was employed as an Ordinary Seaman aboard Duke University’s Research Vessel (R/V) Eastward.  We were returning to the Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort, NC after three months of scientific cruises that took us all over the Caribbean and off the coast of South America, including into Lake Maracaibo, Venezuela (which is actually a bay, not a lake).

If my memory serves, R/V Eastward was 132’6” in length and real beamy.  She was designed after a tuna boat with a deep draft (16 feet, I think) bolstered by keel-set seawater ballast tanks to keep her stable in rough weather. The bridge was about 32’ above the water line.

Cruises generally ranged from 7 to 21 days at sea.  They had been booked and funded by NSF (National Science Foundation) for marine scientists from all over the USA, the most famous of whom was geologist Dr. Bruce Heezen, who was first to map the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. 

About two-thirds of the scientific cruises were geologic, which utilized piston corers with 1,200 lb head weights.  The long hollow cylindrical pipes were allowed to freefall on heavy cables to collect ocean bottom sediment samples when the core spear buried itself by gravity.

We also often dragged a type of sonar or hydrophone array from the stern-mounted hydro-winch at a considerable distance that allowed scientists like Professor Heezen to map the ocean floor by echo patterns collected by electronic equipment. Those instruments were typically run by the inevitable gaggle of grad students scientists brought with them, always twice as many as they needed, since roughly half of any group would become so seasick that they’d never leave their cabins.

The remaining one-third of cruises were biologic, usually involving collecting water samples at depth using Niskin bottles and Nansen bottles attached to hydro-winch cables.  We also did occasional small mesh net trawls. Bio results were analyzed in the well-equipped wet lab just below the bridge. 

Geology analysis tended to be handled from the more compact, but adequate, dry lab, where slices of piston corer samples were carefully cataloged, examined, recorded, and stored.  Some slivers went through a spectrometer for identification of silt materials.

Our final long cruise was due north out of San Juan into the heart of the Sargasso Sea and what is called the Bermuda Triangle.  We had beautiful weather and smooth sailing all the way north and had completed several missions not far from Bermuda (705 miles offshore Beaufort, NC). 

We were preparing to return to Beaufort when we got a USCG radio signal asking us to stand by the QE2 which had stalled close to Bermuda.  I can’t remember how that was resolved, but we were eventually “released” from standby duty and told by the Coast Guard that we could resume our homebound course. 

But that rescue standby delayed us 12-24 hours.  Again, I don’t remember how long, but that was April 3, and we would have been many nautical miles closer to Beaufort had we left when we were scheduled to.

Meanwhile, unbeknownst to us, a terrific “super outbreak” of nasty spring weather was sweeping eastward across the US on April 3, 1974.  It was the storm system’s tornadoes that destroyed Xenia, Ohio (see here and also here).

By the time we were 100 miles or so west of Bermuda that system was sweeping offshore and blowing up the most enormous swells I’d seen in the nearly four months I had by then been aboard the Eastward.  Wave heights, already an impressive twenty feet, increased to thirty feet and then stayed at thirty feet. 

Thirty foot swells are gigantic and very scary.  The laconic and humorless Captain Berg, a chain smoker, sat on the bridge inhaling fag after fag and staring out into the raging mountains of water, occasionally ordering slight course deviations to make sure the boat was angling into the waters rather than encountering them bow-on.  This caused us, naturally, to take a zig-zag course, which would lengthen our homebound journey.

Berg was always loath to any course deviations, as he had been hammered on for years by Duke to keep the operating costs of the Eastward’s cruises to a minimum.  Lesson learned, he hated using too much fuel. 

For the same reason, Captain Berg NEVER ordered the ballast tanks filled, no matter how bad the seas.  Because of that, the Eastward tended to bob like a cork.  It was famous for its wild pitches and rolls, one reason so many grad students stayed seasick.  The crew called it “feeding the fish” as the students vomited over the side pretty much nonstop for days on every cruise, even in relatively “good” weather (the sea is rarely calm).

Normally, I wouldn’t question the master’s judgment, but I was sorely tempted to plead that we flood the ballast tanks to keep us stable.  The clinometer on the bridge was showing 50 degree rolls when we’d encounter a particularly confused set of swells that put us partly side-to to the wave frequency.  Being a tuna boat design with deep draft, we were used to seeing 40+ degree rolls and knew the ship would roll to, but not 50 degrees. 

It was so unnerving that the First and Second Mates asked Berg about the ballast tanks.  Didn’t we want to fill them to stabilize the ship? 

No, he said, sourly and scowling, and went back to chain-smoking and staring. It was at times raining so furiously that the marine rain spinners couldn’t keep a clear view—and this was during the day, although the heavy overcast made it appear to be dusk.  

Berg was already agitated because the zig-zagging was costing us time and money.  He was not then a young man and had spent his entire career in Norwegian sea service around the world on all but the Southern Ocean.  To a man with an unlimited tonnage Master’s License and four decades of life on the water, the 30’ seas were a mere nuisance.

To the rest of us, though, the swells looked and felt like sheer terror.  The scientists and grad students had been ordered to stay in their cabins, and the crew ordered to stay below decks.  Peanut butter and jelly sandwiches had been pre-packaged and left in a galley fridge—very unusual as the galley crew were expert cooks and had never missed preparing a meal. 

I talked to the permanent crew (I’d been hired only for the annual winter Caribbean cruise), and they were worried.  Not even the boatswain’s mate, a man with 10 years of experience on the Eastward, had ever experienced seas this rough.

So we pitched and rolled like a toy boat in a hurricane westward into those howling winds and rain and high seas all day long. 

Late afternoon I had just come on duty as the lookout on the bridge when we hit the first 50’ wave.  Nobody saw it coming due to the blowing rain and dim visibility.  Keeping the helm at the proper course up a 30’ swell and down the other side was not easy, and no one was looking for the wave behind. 

I sure didn’t see it coming, as my attention was elsewhere.  We were shipping water routinely over the bow with every wave as we pitched into the troughs, and I was worried that the heavy (1,200 lb) piston corers, which the boatswain’s mate and I had double-lashed to the port and starboard foredeck as the storm worsened, were going to come loose. 

I could see the huge head weights moving a few inches with every pitch and roll.  I knew from experience that any piece of equipment on board the ship that moved even a little was eventually going to be a problem.  I had become well-liked by the permanent crew because I exercised extreme care in securing items, and I was thinking how we could get out there on deck in the storm to reinforce the lashings. 

The Eastward was under command that afternoon of the Second Mate, a cheerful fellow from Harker’s Island (North Carolina).  He was young, but he had long since earned my trust in ship-handling. Harker’s Islanders are all natural-born seaman, having descended from Cornish pirates. 

I remember being alarmed when he suddenly exclaimed, “Oh, shit!”  The man wasn’t given to profane outbursts on duty.  I looked up from my study of the fore-deck to see a literal wall of water looming up immediately before us.  I remember thinking in a flash that we were all going to die, that the ship was going to sink, this was it. I have never been so frightened, before or since. 

I recall Captain Berg getting up from his perch on a secured stool and hunching over to grab some railings.  His eyes were wide—an unusual show of excitement for someone so ordinarily devoid of emotion—and his jaw grimly set.  He had let his cigarette fall to the deck—he was never without one burning—and it was rolling around, trailing a little smoke plume.  An odd observation, I remember thinking, for someone (me) about to die.

The next moments were terrifying.  The ship struggled as it pitched out of the trough—sluggishly lurched, really. The bow followed the steep swell upwards until the screws couldn’t keep up, and we stopped. The wave then smacked the ship like the hand of God. I remember the ship shuddered and shook as we were all thrown around on the deck of the bridge.  It’s a miracle that no one suffered a concussion or broken bones or at least a bloody gash or two.

Floods of water washed over the bow, the deck, and then up to and over the bridge.  I realized afterwards that we had made enough progress up the side of the wave that only the top half or so of it engulfed the ship.  If we had hit the wave while still in the trough of the previous swell, I am certain it would have ripped through the bridge and drowned us all.

The Eastward then plunged down the back side of the monster wave—we had never heard the term “rogue wave” in 1974—and we pounded hard into the next 30’ swell—almost as hard as the big one.  By the second swell after the fifty-footer, the ship seem to settle back into its previous routine—slowly but steadily going west.

I’d like to say we let out a cheer or at least a sigh of relief.  But we were all traumatized by what we had just seen and been through.  I recall the cold look of fear in everyone’s eyes, as I am sure we were all thinking the same thing:  Was that just the first of more giant waves to come?  I know that’s what I was thinking, my heart pounding like an anvil in my chest.

Several things then happened at once to distract our minds.  We had had no time to warn anyone else aboard of what was happening—the thing just came out of nowhere, with no warning—so now the comms and phones started buzzing.  The Second Mate took the engine room call first, explaining what we had witnessed and warning them to make doubly sure that everything below decks was well secured because, well, because it might happen again. He reported the engine crew was mighty upset.  I understood; it was like hell down there, and with no visibility while on duty.  It was so cramped, loud, and depressing that I hated going there even on bluebird days.

Then he let the rest of the crew, including the scientific party, know what happened and warned them all to stay below and never to go out on deck, not even the bridge deck usually high above the water.

Suddenly we simultaneously noticed an acrid odor coming through the air circulation vents.  It was unmistakably formalin. 

Many five-gallon containers of formalin were stored in the wet lab to preserve biological specimens, and unlike the rest of the ship, we depended upon the scientists and their grad students to secure supplies. So we never checked to see if that lab stuff was put away properly except in port between cruises.

It was obvious that, due to the extreme forces on the ship’s superstructure by the big wave, one or more of those containers had been dislodged.  We now had five or more gallons on formaldehyde sloshing around the wet lab deck, the fumes from which were already threatening to choke us.  Our eyes were burning and lungs hurting. 

The storm was raging, but we cracked open the wing hatches on the bridge to get some fresh air before we were overcome.  The boatswain’s mate and I were dispatched below to clean it up and ordered to enter through the main deck secured hatch in order to avoid being killed by the poisonous fumes. That meant we’d be exposed out in the storm.

I remember grabbing some sort of outdated and practically useless breathing apparatus and tying ropes around the mate and me before venturing out on deck.  There we were immediately drenched by the heavy rain and seawater pouring over the side.  Ocean water sloshed around up to our waists with each pitch and roll before draining out the scuppers. 

The mate and I had to slowly tie ourselves off a few feet at the time along the lower deck to reach the portside hatch to the wet lab.  More than once I was totally immersed momentarily by water as the ship pushed through another 30’ wave.

On finally reaching the hatch, we tied other ropes to the hatch door handle and carefully released the heavy dogs before moving out of the way to let the hatch swing wide when we rolled to port.  If it had hit us in the violent pitching and rolling, it could easily have smashed our skulls.  As the hatch flew open, we quickly snatched in the slack on the ropes we’d tied to the handle in order to hold it open and keep us safe from its dangerous swinging. 

He and I then alternated again the slow and tedious (and dangerous) process of tying each other off to move into the lab to survey the damage and get it cleaned up.  Like all ship’s hatches, it was built with a high lip to keep seawater out.  Though the ship continued to move wildly in every direction as it navigated the stormy seas, the lip was enough to keep a lot of the water out.  

We stepped over the lip and into the lab with our crummy breathing masks on and were relieved to find the screaming winds had acted to draft out the worst of the fumes.  The mate and I found the loose and mostly empty five-gallon plastic container of formalin; it had a big rupture in the side.  We tossed it out onto the deck.  We then somehow got the formalin on the lab floor mopped up (mostly) and tossed the mops onto the deck as well.  Later we threw the container and the mops into the ocean.

The fumes were still pretty bad, so we tied off the starboard side hatch, too, and left them both open—one of us on each side—long enough to clear the air.  The Eastward’s air circulation system had naturally blown the fumes into every nook and cranny of the vessel, and opening both hatches, though risky due to the potential of flooding, was the only recourse.  The next day he and I were hailed as heroes by the entire crew and scientific party.  They all thought they might perish from the poisonous fumes, but were wary of opening a hatch.

After carefully re-securing both wet lab hatches, we made our way back to the bridge.  That whole lab process took an hour or two.  By then what little light we had in the overcast storm clouds was fading.  It was late afternoon.  I had the presence of mind to look again at the two heavy-as-hell piston corers on the foredeck, and one of them was now swinging back and forth a good foot with every pitch and roll.  I alerted the boatswain’s mate again, and we found more rope and chains and went back to the main deck. 

Once more we had to slowly and methodically tie ourselves off along the deck to keep from being washed overboard in the storm, but eventually made it to foredeck positions we had discussed would let us coordinate safely (well, more or less safely) getting ropes and chains around the piston corer. 

Thinking back on our operation the next day, I realized that one or both of us could and would have been killed if the twelve hundred pound cylindrical weight on the head of the piston corer had come free as it was working to do.  As it was, we had to work in near-dark conditions, in pouring cold rain, and with torrents of seawater drenching us while we tried not to slip on the deck. 

We also had to move in rhythm with the ship’s attack of and recovery from each 30’ swell, and thirty feet of ocean wave looks even bigger at near water level.  My adrenaline kept me going; I remember being excited and highly focused on not getting killed.  I wasn’t scared; I didn’t have time to be.  The job needed to be done urgently, and that’s what we did.

We were a good team of two.  The boatswain’s mate and I used up a lot of chain and rope to get the corer firmly back against the port foredeck transom.  Once done, we moved to the starboard side to add more chain and rope to those corers, too.  We were assuming the first fifty footer wouldn’t be the last and later joked that we had wanted the boat to go down with everything shipshape and secured.

It was pitch dark by the time we finished.  Might have taken an hour, maybe two.  I lost track of time, and I was soaked through, numb from the cold rain, the cold seawater (we had not yet reached the eastern edge of the Gulf Stream), and the incessant gale-force wind.  The rigging was not just singing, but howling, which I was told only happened when the wind exceeded 45 MPH.  My legs were like rubber from the constant need to keep my balance on the violently rolling deck.  But the danger and excitement kept me going, and we were just as slow and careful roping ourselves back along the starboard main-deck as we had been going out.

I remember shivering uncontrollably when we reached the bridge.  The Second Mate had towels ready for us, and everybody was by then giddy because we were still alive.  We all knew that one big wave wasn’t likely the only one out there, but we had rescued everyone from asphyxiation and from dangerous heavy objects that might have caused a lot of damage.  The work had been so dangerous and exciting that it took the edge off the sheer terror I had felt when we hit the rogue wave. 

I devoured a sandwich or two, and my relief came to the bridge.  I went below because I had no choice once off duty.  I was exhausted, mind and body, anyway.  As the lowliest seaman aboard, my tiny little bunk was in the forecastle adjacent to the anchor locker, so I usually couldn’t sleep in rough weather due to the constant pounding of the anchor against the hull.  But I fell into a deep sleep that night.

About 12:30 AM I was startled to consciousness as I was thrown from my bunk over the bed board onto the steel deck as the ship was pounded by a second rogue wave.  Once again the ship shuddered and vibrated like it was going to come apart. 

My heart racing again, I remember listening to see if we would recover and tried to sense whether the Eastward was righting itself.  It did, slowly, and kept going, just like before.  I crawled back into my bunk in a cold sweat as the terror returned.  I was pretty sure it was only a matter of time before the ship went down. 

I’d been out on the deck working and knew I could not survive the cold water even wearing a life vest.  I didn’t sleep until 4:00 AM when my shift began (we worked 4 hours on, 8 hours off, 7 days a week and periodically rotated shifts). 

Things still looked bad at four, but by eight that morning, the seas were noticeably abating—by then down to about 20’ swells—with the cloud cover thinning.  It was only when I went off shift at 8:00 AM that I thought we probably would not die and slept a solid seven hours even though it was daytime.  But I was nervous all the way into Beaufort.

That episode has stayed with me.  I’ve never felt so alive as when I stepped onto the dock at Piver’s Island, home of Duke University Marine Lab.  It was the last act in a nearly four month adventure of a lifetime that included a lot of other adventures.

Like breaking into the captain’s cabin to commandeer penicillin to treat a shipmate’s gonorrhea that he contracted in San Juan. (No, it wasn’t me; that old colleague is now a grandfather.)

Flying from San Juan to St. Thomas with a beautiful woman on an Antilles Air Boat Grumman “Goose”.

Getting so drunk on Singapore Slings in some port I don’t even remember that I passed out on the bar stool and fell backwards onto the floor.  My shipmates carried me back to the gangplank where I was supposed to be standing watch and did, after retching a time or two.  

Seeing the most astonishing bio-luminescence over the entire ocean on a moonless night in the Sargasso Sea. 

Riding a motorbike around Nassau to pristine Bahamian beaches that I am sure have long since vanished into resort hands.  

Chipping rust and then red-leading every square inch of steel on that damn boat, the R/V Eastward.

Walking the boat deck at dawn every morning that we were in the tropics to collect buckets of big fat flying fish that had collided with the hull and giving them to the cook to fry for breakfast.

Exploring the mangrove marshes of the Caroni Swamp in Trinidad to witness thousands upon thousand of Scarlet Ibises, a sight one never forgets.

It was all glorious, made more so because I survived two fifty foot walls of water.  I grew up going out on the ocean fishing and hunting and crabbing, and even some shrimping.  I’ve seen weather change from sunny to stormy in 15 minutes, almost before I could react and get my boat to safety.  But seeing what the ocean is capable of pushing up to kill you makes me glad I didn’t make my living going offshore.  Once was enough.

It was, however, good preparation for what was to come in my life: many millions of miles in the air.  After surviving rogue waves I’ve never been a nervous flyer.  Even in the worst turbulence, I can sleep like a baby on airplanes. 

Travel seals my marriage

Today, 15 July 2020, is my 25th wedding anniversary. 

A quarter of a century ago this morning my bride and I overslept because of a faulty alarm clock setting and almost missed the first of two flights that would take us to Seattle to get married at Hurricane Ridge in the Olympic National Park near Port Angeles.  By then (1995) she and I had tightly bonded over two years while traveling over the world. Twenty-seven years after meeting, travel remains the hallmark of our friendship. 

Being obsessive-compulsive about arriving early to airports, I was nearly apoplectic  by the time we got to the gate at RDU Airport on our wedding day. We lucked out with a short queue at security (it was a pre-9/11 Saturday). Naturally, I’d booked us in First Class on Delta all the way. The airline had been alerted that we were en route to marriage, so gave us a special welcome aboard. The Delta flight attendants on the Atlanta-Seattle leg even slipped us a bottle of champagne to celebrate, a generosity not uncommon in 1995.

After a glorious alfresco ceremony in the national park—a deer tried to nibble my wife’s wildflower bouquet as we said our vows—we took the ferry from Port Angeles to Victoria, B.C. for a honeymoon at the exquisite Empress Hotel and strolled the gorgeous Butchart Gardens.  Then the rushed return flights to RDU, where I repacked and shot off on other flights to my consulting client at the time.

I didn’t get another break from consulting until December, 1995, at which time we winged down to Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, and Paraguay, making some rich memories in the process. Who can forget drinking mate de coca in the plazas of La Paz to combat altitude sickness? Or the interminable takeoff roll, due to thin air at the airport, which is among the highest on earth at 13,200 feet?

We had met two years earlier in 1993 and quickly discovered our mutual love of travel.  A few weeks after our first date she and I flew First Class on United Airlines frequent flyer awards to Brazil, Chile, Argentina, and Uruguay, San Francisco, and New Zealand.  I was between consulting gigs and had the time. Lord knows I had the frequent flyer miles then, too, as I was routinely flying for business several times weekly.  She burned a couple of years of vacation time.  

We had a grand time everywhere, making lifetime memories in those few weeks.  I still yearn to return to the South Island of N.Z., though my battered knees certainly couldn’t propel me up part of the Milford Track the way they did then.  Good traveling companions are rare as hen’s teeth, and we found we were highly compatible, which led to marriage, which led to two wonderful kids. 

Since then we have enjoyed each other’s company around the country and the world.  We never tire of the American West, especially our wondrous national parks, monuments, and wilderness areas, such as Olympia, Yosemite, Sequoia, Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Canyon de Shelly, Monument Valley, Saguaro, Chaco Culture, Zion, Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Absaroka-Beartooth, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, and Glacier.

My wife and I love snorkeling, a hobby which has taken us to many tropical islands, such as The Maldives, St. John (U.S. Virgin Islands), Mo’orea (Tahiti), Rarotonga (Cook Islands), Boracay (Philippines), Koh Chang and Koh Lipe (Thailand), and Ha Long Bay (Vietnam). Along the way we have enjoyed the oceanside grandeur of port cities like Cape Town, Rio, Hong Kong, Vancouver, San Francisco, Singapore, Sydney, New Orleans, Venice, Istanbul, L.A., Aukland, and New York.

We have camped among lions, hyenas, and elephants in the open wilderness of Botswana, roamed both sides of Victoria Falls in Zimbabwe and Zambia, and many times savored the wildlife and natural splendor of the Kruger National Park in South Africa.  We have explored China’s Yunnan and Guangxi Provinces together, and toured Sri Lanka, Myanmar (Burma), England, France, Netherlands, Italy, Germany, Austria, and Slovakia hand in hand. She and I have been entranced by the exotic nightlife in George Town, Penang Island, technically part of Malaysia, but which feels like long-ago India.

And more, and on and on.  She and I never became jaded about traveling, instead have savored every glorious moment together.  We have not yet been everywhere. We still aim to go to Morocco together, and one day to the Kingdom of Bhutan.  I’d like to take her to see Namibia with me, something I did only once before in 1991 before we met.

Truth be told, she’s fun anywhere (except when she hasn’t eaten), but her passion, like mine, is to travel.  She’s my best friend as well. It’s been a sweet three-decade ride.  I am the luckiest man in the world that she chose me to share the world’s wonder with, and I can’t wait for the next twenty-five years together!

Coping with ambivalent wariness

July 6, 2020

Thanks to the novel coronavirus, I’m a prisoner in my own house. Fur-lined and luxurious to be sure, but prison, nonetheless.  Like all of us, learning to make do with uncertainty:  How long before we have a vaccine? How does it spread, really?  How effective are social distancing and masks?  How paranoid and careful should I be, really? Not knowing is as bad as hiding in my cave.

Is it safe to have one or two friends over to sit six or more feet away on the screen porch for drinks?  Should I turn on the overhead fans on the porch to mitigate the heat, or does that spread the virus? 

Do my risks rise significantly when I go to the grocery store or to a gas station?  Why does medical and scientific awareness about Covid-19 seem squishy and indeterminate?

It’s not all doom and gloom.  As I explained in early April, one silver lining is that my wife stopped complaining that our house is too big.

However, the biggest unanswered question remains, What degree of disciplined care is proper to live by now?  I honestly don’t know where the guardrails lie. 

Sure, I always wear a mask in public, and I carry and routinely use hand sanitizer.  I keep extra masks in our cars in case a family member forgets one. I keep my distance from folks.  But are those sufficient measures to keep risk low?

I’ve discovered that my friends fall into two camps: either super-cautious and never leave home or vigilant but willing to carefully make forays into normal routines, save perhaps not going to the office.  I seem to fall into the second group.

I understand other Covidtime-camps exist, such as virus-deniers who go to places like Ace Speedway, brazenly flaunting North Carolina rules prohibiting such mass, maskless gatherings.

And of course the throw-caution-to-the-wind youth who collect cheek-by-jowl in bars to drink and howl at the moon.  But I personally don’t know anyone in those genetic-pruning camps, and if I did, I wouldn’t let them cross the threshold.  No sense inflating my risk by letting someone fool enough to have exposed him- or herself to the virus inside our door.

As it is, just like everybody else I can’t go anywhere any more without fretting over it.

Or can I?  The uncertainty is maddening.

Though I strive to stay busy, the days tend to lack variety and merge into one another, like a series of disconnected, unending, but meaningless dreams. 

I get excited by little things, like my wife saying we need something from the grocery store.  Anything for a change of pace.

I volunteer to drive to the hardware store for a bag of potting soil, or even to fill up a car.  I enjoy taking the dog for walks like never before.  I fight to take out the garbage.

I’m not alone in going stir-crazy, either.  When I alerted friends to the fact that I had planned another trip to the Kruger National Park in South Africa for February of next year in order to keep my sanity, 23 people expressed interest in going with me, some of whom had been with me before. 

It was heartening to grasp the collective excitement.  However, that large number got whittled down pretty fast as wariness over the future trumped their zeal.  I’m currently down to six still seriously contemplating the trip. All are coping with the inability to plan our future with certitude, even a half year out. 

Ambivalence be damned, I have bought my plane tickets and paid for my Kruger accommodations. It’s spiritually uplifting to have made the commitment.

Capricious COVID-19 trip costs

June 24, 2020.

Three months into safe, but dreary pandemic confinement, preserving my sanity requires that I have a travel adventure to look forward to. I’ve decided to head back to the Kruger National Park in late January and early February, 2021. 

Planning the trip is nearly as exciting for me as making the journey, and I’m a master at making the arrangements.  Given the devaluation of the South African Rand against the U.S. dollar and the long shutdown of all leisure and business travel to South Africa—including to the Kruger—I expected travel costs to have declined.  To my surprise, however, almost no prices have changed.

Well, except for one big one: Delta’s business class fare to Johannesburg has dropped precipitously from Raleigh/Durham, as I will explain.

The COVID-19 lockdown began just a few days after I returned March 13 from my umpteenth visit to South Africa’s Kruger National Park. The Kruger became one of my favorite places on the planet after my first trip there in 1991. I always miss it the moment I leave and usually return every 18-24 months for one or two weeks.  But this time I am going back just 11 months after my last trip because quarantine has taken its toll on me.

(I’ve lost count of how many trips I’ve made to the Kruger and have written extensively about many of those trips at my Allen on Africa blog.  See here for pictures and narrative of my March, 2020 trip, including the spectacular variety of wildlife.)

AIRFARE RALEIGH TO JOHANNESBURG

Since air is usually the most expensive component, I start by checking fares, being agnostic about dates until I ascertain the best deals.

On Delta I was able to get $2,900 round trip RDU/JNB in their decent Premium Economy cabin going on the DL nonstop ATL/JNB and, astonishingly, returning in business class on Air France from Jo’burg to Paris CDG and then connecting to Delta’s nonstop CDG/RDU. 

That’s really cheap for premium cabins.  I think I paid $2,300 and change for Premium Economy in both directions for my March, 2020 flights on Delta. And Delta’s business class fares for the same late winter period were over $6,200.  So the same fare (PE going and biz class returning) was around $4,850 on Delta last year.  That’s nearly a two grand price drop.

Another option was to route myself on Delta to Amsterdam and then SkyTeam partner KLM to Johannesburg.  That was $4,100 in business class both ways, but the $1,200 difference gave me pause.

When I pointed out the Delta/KLM joint fare, Delta offered to match it using the direct ATL/JNB flight—in other words, to discount their inviolable Business fare on the nonstop for the first time ever, to my knowledge.

In coach, RDU/JNB was as little as $887 round trip on AA connecting to Qatar, and about $990 on Delta.  Roughly the same on other airline partnerships.

I opted to go with the Premium Economy out, Business Class return fare and had it held while I checked other trip costs.  I was pretty heady about the great Delta fare and hoped to find more bargains.

OVERNIGHT HOTEL COSTS IN JOHANNESBURG

Delta’s nonstop from Atlanta gets to Johannesburg in late afternoon, too late to connect to Skukuza.  Being stuck until the next morning requires a one-night layover in Jo’burg. A lot of hotel options are offered around the JNB Airport, but I prefer the convenience of just walking 8-10 minutes to the City Lodge OR Tambo International Airport since it sits on top of the airport car park garage. 

When I checked for late January, 2021, rates at the City Lodge were the same as always before COVID-19: $110/night.  No discount on account of the pandemic or exchange rate, but it does include an enormous breakfast.

Okay, a huge breakfast, but no bargain overall. 

AIRFARE JOHANNESBURG TO SKUKUZA

Delta only gets me to Johannesburg, so I must book a separate air ticket from JNB to Skukuza (SZK) Airport, the gateway to the Kruger Park. I found that SA Airlink, which has a monopoly flying ER-135 airplanes on the JNB/SZK route, is exactly as last year at $267 cheapest, up to around $330 (both round trip). 

Unlike South Africa National Parks, which quotes accommodation prices in South African Rand, SA Airlink shows fares in the currency of the country booking the itinerary, in my case, of course, dollars.  Since the Rand is so low against the dollar right now, I wondered if domestic SA Airlink fares shown in Rand are lower.  But I couldn’t test my thesis quickly, so accepted the $267 fare.

Again, though, no bargain compared to before the pandemic.

RENTAL CAR RATES IN THE KRUGER NATIONAL PARK

Then I needed to reserve a rental car for driving in the Kruger, and Avis has a monopoly there.  Rates at SZK airport were quite reasonable for January, 2021. I chose $170/week all-in for a small SUV/van (a Toyota Avanza, which I always try to rent), the low cost due to the depressed R17.32 = $1.00 exchange rate. 

That’s about $25/week cheaper than I paid in March for the same car, so no great savings there, either.

KRUGER ACCOMMODATION COSTS

Kruger accommodation rates were about the same as last year at the equivalent of $110/night for a deluxe perimeter (by the fence) or riverside-river view single bungalow. That means SANP (South African National Parks) has raised rates to account for inflation and currency devaluation.

Well, again, no savings.

BOTTOM LINE

The upshot is that I’ll pay about the same overall cost for my Jan-Feb, 2021 Kruger trip as I did for my Mar, 2020 visit.  The only difference is that my ride back home next year will be more comfortable in Business Class than Premium Economy was this past March (and it wasn’t bad).

A CLOSER LOOK AT DELTA’S BUSINESS CLASS FARES TO JOHANNESBURG

After Delta offered to match the Delta/KLM $4,100 fare round trip in Business on their connecting nonstop ATL/JNB, I decided to dig deeper to understand Delta’s sudden discounted Business Class pricing strategy to Johannesburg.  For as long as Delta has flown to Jo’berg, fares for Business have been sky-high in money or award travel costs, such as last year’s 960,000 SkyMiles for a round trip RDU/JNB in Business. (I didn’t bite.)

It sure looks like RDU catches a break with $4,100 round trip.  The lowest biz class from Atlanta round trip on the same nonstop flight to Johannesburg is over $6,200.

I checked Business Class to JNB from Orlando and from New Orleans and found they are also $4,100—the same price as from RDU.

Looking even harder at the discounted fare from Raleigh, I discovered that, officially, the DL biz class fare round trip is just $2,100, but Delta adds a $1,829 “luxury surcharge” plus 12 different taxes to get it to $4,100.

Made me wonder why Delta doesn’t just increase the fare rather than add a bogus luxury surcharge.

I’m guessing it’s because if a big company’s corporate travel department negotiates a discount on the Delta biz fares, then Delta probably claims the discount is only on the base $2,100 fare and will not discount the “luxury surcharge”, resulting in a smaller discount on the total for large corporate customers.

Naturally, I’m glad I found a good deal for this particular trip, though that doesn’t happen often.  I don’t know how anyone these days can navigate such volatile airline fare structures.  It’s a maddeningly unpredictable and illogical landscape. 

When can I fly safely?

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If I squint real hard, I like to imagine that’s me standing at the very top of the stairs above.  I am ready to go again!

But when?

That is, when will it be safe to fly? As I wrote last week, my first four CV19-era flights left me fretting that it’s still not all that safe to fly.  Many unknowns persistent, and medically-proven facts are in short supply to delineate flying risks. An objective decision about flying is, as yet, impossible.

Meanwhile, our daughter, a rising high school senior, needs to schedule college tours this summer and fall to several universities that require flying.

She is also hoping to travel with her classmates in Latin language studies to Italy at the end of the 2020-21 school year. That’s next summer, but will it happen?

Our son, a rising college senior, needs to schedule his flights back to school in Iowa, and our family is anxious to reschedule our own flights to attend his senior piano recital.

My wife and I had a glorious trip planned to Morocco to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary, flying via Paris on Air France, which we look forward to rescheduling in 2021, but when?

Friends in New Orleans and in Tampa await my visits after April flights to see them were canceled.

I am behind on a journey planned to Olympia, Washington via Seattle.

An open invitation to catch up with an old colleague in Sonoma also awaits, but when?

It’s nearly impossible right now to put together another two weeks in South Africa to take friends to the Kruger National Park, and that was planned for February, 2021.

The biggest annual transit and land use conference, Rail-Volution, which I’ve attended for six consecutive years, canceled its September event in Miami this year.  I was going, and now I wonder if I’ll be able to fly to the conference in 2021.

It’s the uncertainty of it all that has me flummoxed.  Disregarding the White House fantasy that the pandemic is behind us, it’s widely and reliably reported that novel coronavirus cases and deaths are still on the upswing in the USA.  South Africa’s largest health insurance provider, Discovery, which also operates in the UK, is forecasting the pandemic’s direct effects potentially lasting into 2022.

Point being, no one knows yet when it will be safe to fly again.

I hope those people pictured on the air-stairs brought lunch.

I’m staying home for now

June 10, 2020.

What I witnessed along the way during my recent four-day, 2,200-mile road trip Raleigh to Iowa and back, and what I observed at three airports and on four long flights Raleigh to and from Billings, Montana, left me conflicted about traveling again so soon in this vaccine-less period of the novel coronavirus.  It’s nobody’s fault but my own that I went; I shoulder personal risk responsibility for deciding to make the trips, risks I thought were balanced by the need and want to go.

Now that the journeys are behind me, and admittedly based entirely on my personal experiences, I’m not so sure the risk-reward ratio was favorable. I am frankly surprised at my own angst reflecting on my choice to go.

Who knows what is the right choice?  The coronavirus threat, due to the nature of its stealthy asymptomatic spread, makes my risk perception existential and hard to process.  Is my desire to return to pre-CV19 normalcy so strong that I, perhaps like many Americans, am interpreting the risks subjectively, and thus inaccurately?  If I and many fellow citizens are operating in a fantasy of denial, then it’s going to be very, very ugly for me and for all of us if we travel and mingle too soon.  That’s my worry. 

Heightened risk was concerning even on the road trip.  Every time I grabbed a gas pump handle, pushed my credit card into a reader, shoved a gas station door handle, or entered a rest stop toilet, I wondered who had touched what before me.  I tried to use disposable gloves and wipes and such, but it’s literally impossible not to come in contact with multiple surfaces.  Even using the squeegees to clean my windshield made me uneasy.

The same apprehension accompanied overnight hotel stays. I hoped the housekeeping staff had not been sick and had thoroughly cleaned rooms between guests. But I had no firm proof of either.

Experts on CV19 advise avoiding the “three C’s” – closed spaces, crowded places, and close-contact situations like up-close conversations.  Yet that’s the very definition of air travel, and all four of my planes were full to the last seat.  Too, all three airports (RDU, DFW, and BIL) were crowded—not necessarily everywhere, but we were definitely packed in as usual at the gates being used for the few flights being operated. And all of us routinely, unavoidably brushing up against strangers frontwards, backwards, and side-to-side when boarding and deplaning.

It felt unsafe to be packed into full flights as if nothing was wrong, wearing only a flimsy mask.  Though masks are a proven deterrent to spreading the virus (Spain has already made mask-wearing mandatory pending a vaccine), sitting in such close proximity to one another on flights with only a mask is unlikely to protect me absolutely from the virus.

In hindsight, I think using the airplane lavatories greatly heightened the risk of contracting the disease.  The mask wasn’t much protection in that tiny and cramped space. No amount of hand washing and careful use of paper towels to touch door latches and other surfaces voided the risk of coronavirus spread via shared airplane toilet use.

Don’t get me wrong.  I am not averring that airports and flights are back to normal.  Statistics indicate air traffic in April of 2020 was 96% below April, 2019.  Even now (June, 2020) I realize that airlines are running half or less of their pre-coronavirus schedules, with average load factors of around 40-50%.  Delta, Alaska, and JetBlue have pledged to keep some seats empty to promote on-board social distancing as well.

But it’s the full flights on other airlines, including American and United, that give me pause. 

And not even Delta, Alaska, and JetBlue have a risk-reduction strategy for common lavatory use. Nor do data exist to support the degree of safety of keeping center seats empty.

When 511 epidemiologists were asked by the New York Times when they expect to fly again, only one in five felt confident about traveling by air this summer (expressed in percentages):

THIS SUMMER3 TO 12 MOS.1 YR.+NEVER AGAIN
Travel by airplane204437<1

A separate NYT article, in attempting to answer the question, Is it safe to fly again?, reported uncertain conclusions, such as “none of [what airlines are doing to reduce risk] is consistent. And it’s unclear whether the measures are enough.”  Former American Airlines CEO tough guy Bob Crandall didn’t mince words.  He called the suggestion that onboard infection is unlikely “nonsense, since atmospheric inhalation is the primary means of transmission.”

 Not reassuring, any of it. 

Except for a week on the ocean in a private beach house that’s an easy two-hour drive from Raleigh, I do not have any further travel plans by air or road on my calendar.  Period. That’s a lifetime first for me.  I’m always on the go.

But cases are rising in the USA.  Given the uncertainties and the eye-opening experiences on my recent two trips, the risk of becoming infected with the novel coronavirus while traveling feels too high.

There it is: the unknown, the existential monster in the closet fighting with my will to do what I want to do.  I suspect that many of my fellow Americans are fighting the same internal battle to either accept the harsh facts in the scientific data or to throw caution to the wind and pretend everything is like it used to be. 

As Shakespeare said in Julius Caesar (Act I, Scene III, L. 140-141): ”The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”  Survival is a personal choice, and I’ve made mine: I’m staying home for now.