After being turned away by the Philippines and Taiwan governments, we headed toward Japan. We still had five ports in Japan and one in South Korea for the cruise. At this point we felt it was unlikely Japan would let us in, and sure enough the next day the captain announced we had been denied entry by both countries. Holland America had no choice but to terminate the cruise early.
The captain said the ship would open up the ship to shore phone lines and internet would be provided free to all passengers. Bill immediately began the chore of contacting our airline to cancel our flight out of Tokyo. With everyone trying to do the same thing, it took hours to get a free phone line. Another complication was the twelve hour time difference 3 P.M. on the ship and 3 A.M. in the US.
The captain said the home office in Seattle was working 24/7 to get this resolved and everyone safely home. The ship, which had been steaming toward Japan hours earlier, came to a stop in the South China Sea, waiting for instructions. Passengers were very disappointed but more concerned about the next steps.
Meanwhile the wonderful hardworking staff and crew continued to work hard to make our final days on the ship as comfortable and fun as possible. An open bar Happy Hour with appetizers was provided one day, a “Chocolate Surprise” Happy Hour another day.
Speaking of the crew, 70% of the crew are Filipino. They keep our cabins clean, serve our meals, cook our food and do maintenance on the ship. They work an eight month contract. During that time they are away from their families. They were all so excited at the prospect of visiting with family the one day we were due in Manila. When the port was canceled, so was this opportunity. Some had newborn daughters and sons they were planning to see for the first time. Yes, we were disappointed to miss Manila. But can you imagine their disappointment. Our hearts broke for them. In spite of all this they put on a planned show for us one evening.
Another evening the Indonesian crew put on a wonderful show. Our favorite dining room waiter, Zacky, is seen performing here, second from the right, wearing a vest.
A few days went by and we were given the encouraging news there were two promising ports where we could disembark and fly home. We were told the US government and US Navy were working to get us home. A low point for us was when we learned Guam had denied us entry. Guam, a US territory refused to help us. Wow. But we still had those two promising ports according to the captain. This picture taken of our in-room tv shows we were close to the south end of Vietnam and the captain had not revealed what two possible countries would let us disembark.
Another day went by and the captain announced that we would be docking in Thailand. We would be taken by bus to Bangkok for our flights home. The captain said for everyone to immediately begin making flight arrangements as we would be in Thailand in two days. Bill had to wait a couple hours for a phone line for this, our third flight change, all with different airlines. Earlier when he had changed the flight from Shanghai to Tokyo, some airlines quoted a price four times what we had paid to fly from Shanghai. He managed to get a flight for two and a half times as much and we were grateful. Now we had to book a flight from Bangkok at last minute pricing. He was able to get a flight for about the same price as the Tokyo flight. The new Bangkok flight had a 24 hour free cancellation. Hopefully we wouldn’t need it.
The next day we were relaxing in our cabin when the captain announced that a Thailand warship was “escorting” us to a naval base and there was nothing to be alarmed about. It was right outside our balcony and sure looked ominous. Rumor among the passengers was we were being escorted to the base to only receive humanitarian aid of food, water and fuel. At this point we had a couple hours left on our free airplane ticket cancellation. I think you know where this is going.
We went to dinner and an hour after our free cancellation time frame ended, we heard the dreaded chimes. The captain announced Thailand refused us entry. All plans are off. We later learned that Thailand did not offer humanitarian aid. According to Thailand, our ship had never received permission to enter the Bay of Thailand. This was our second low point. It must have been incredibly frustrating for the captain and Holland America. Permission granted one minute can be swiftly snatched away the next. We had been following news reports on the TV and internet and had heard the Westerdam being referred to as a ghost ship or a pariah. Great, just great.
At this point the captain said they were still waiting on the second promising port AND Holland America would make and pay for everyone’s flight home. That was a huge relief because the credit card charges for flights made and canceled were piling up, not to mention the stress of trying to get a phone line. But first Bill still had to cancel the Thailand flight.
Days passed with no news. It was a good thing the carpets in the elevators told us the day because one day blended into another.
We passed the time on the ship with ship lectures and entertainment. A favorite of ours was a young lady and man who played dueling pianos and sang. One night they sang John Denver’s “Leaving On A Jet Plane” and everyone cheered. One day they played “What a Wonderful World” and when they “sang of trees of green, red roses too” I felt choked up. We all wanted to go home.
The Westerdam crew continued to work hard with cheerful smiling faces. Each evening at dinner the last week we were greeted with complimentary wine or champagne.
Now you are probably wondering what happened with all those airline charges and if we ran out of food on the ship. Out of the three airlines, two gave us a full refund. The other airline, Delta, would only give us a voucher for future travel. Bill has asked them to reconsider and is waiting to hear back. One airline charged us a change fee which Holland America will reimburse us. We actually came out ahead because Holland America paid for our flight home. But for awhile there we had a pretty scary credit card balance!
We did not run out of food. Well actually they ran out of ketchup, soy sauce, lemonade and honey. We could live with that.
After wandering at sea for ten days, good news finally arrived in the form of Cambodia. They would allow us entry. We would arrive at the port of Laem Chabang outside of Sihanoukville where we would be taken by bus to the local airport for a charter flight. We had all guessed the mystery port was in Vietnam. We were wrong.
The captain announced we would be arriving late the next day with the first passengers disembarking the following day. That evening all the staff and crew crowded the main stage to say farewell. All the passengers gave them a standing ovation and plenty of cheers that went on and on. There was no doubt how everyone felt about all of them.
The next evening we arrived in the port of Laem Chabang, and land never looked more beautiful. After dinner we were walking the deck and saw a white van pull up next to the ship. After a conversation with ship security, four young men hopped out of the van and unloaded 400 cases of Angkor, a Cambodian beer, a gift to the ship. Yes, 400 cases! Some other people brought bags of Cambodian scarves, another gift to the passengers. Later that evening two scarves were delivered to our room by our cabin steward. We don’t know what happened to the 400 cases of beer but we are hoping all the staff and crew enjoyed them after all the passengers departed the ship.
We were so anxious to find out our travel details. We had been warned it could take two or three days for the Seattle home office to make flight arrangements for over a thousand passengers who were flying home to destinations around the world. Complicating matters was the remoteness of Sihanoukville, Cambodia. We went to bed wondering, is tomorrow the day we are finally going home??
At 5:45 A.M. the next morning we heard the all too familiar dreaded DING DONG chimes.
To be continued….