A Los Angeles couple is recovering at home with vivid memories of a South American voyage that was interrupted by the coronavirus, leaving their cruise ship with nowhere to dock for days following the death of four passengers.
What started as a dream vacation for Min-Lee Cheng and his wife, Shou-Yinn Cheng — sailing from Buenos Aires on March 8 and making picture-perfect stops in Argentina and Chile — took a chilling turn after they heard news of passengers showing symptoms of COVID-19.
By March 22, they had been ordered to isolate in their cabins. They were not allowed to emerge until their ship, the Zaandam, docked at Florida’s Port Everglades last Thursday.
The Zaandam had been traveling in tandem with its sister ship, the Rotterdam, where officials had transferred healthier passengers. Because Min-Lee Cheng had a fever, resulting from what he believes is gastritis, he and his wife never changed vessels, watching wistfully from their room window while many friends in the group of 12 they traveled with boarded what some passengers called “safer space.”
Disembarking came only after a painful 12-day stretch at sea, when the vessel, carrying tourists experiencing flu-like symptoms, was denied entry to countries including Ecuador, Panama and Peru.
The Chengs and hundreds of other passengers were required to go through health screenings before taking chartered flights from Fort Lauderdale.
Yet the couple again faced delays when they missed their connecting flight in San Francisco on Friday, finally landing on Saturday in Los Angeles, where they carpooled with fellow travelers to a medical office to get tested for COVID-19. Now, they’re awaiting results.
“We were told that South America was the safest place to visit when we departed,” said Min-Lee Cheng, 72. “The world was not like the way it is now with mass quarantining. We had no clue this would happen.”
Cheng, a retired public health official and expert on diseases transmitted via mosquitoes, said he remembers the endless hours captive on the ship and how “it became difficult to keep positive thoughts.”
“The information about sicknesses on board was very sketchy and medical staff were stretched to the limit. The crew worked hard, but as time wore on, their capacity and supplies wore down.”
“Help was slow, even when trying to get a refill of Tylenol for fever control,” he recalled as he and his wife traded messages via the app WeChat with friends on the Zaandam and Rotterdam for mutual support.
Back in Southern California, both of his sons were frantically contacting local, county, state and federal officials.
“Terrible thoughts crossed my mind, but I didn’t want to entertain them,” the couple’s older son Jih-Feh Cheng, a Scripps College professor, said.
Erik Elvejord, spokesman for Holland America Line, the cruise company, said crew members did not disembark from either ship. The Zaandam has now sailed from Port Everglades and will complete extensive sanitation measures and undergo a 14-day quarantine, he said. Officials are working on final details for where the ship will lay up until operations resume.
The ordeal has united the Cheng family, who remain worried for the safety of the “caring crew.”
Shou-Yinn Cheng, 73, said prayers from her loved ones kept her strong.
“Our sons kept us going by informing us what they were working on to support our return home,” she said. “They had the perfect response to counter my negative thoughts. They reminded me how strong I could be.”