A strange thing happened to Hood County residents Bob and Carol Cook on their way to the Panama Canal.
About a month ago they boarded a cruise ship, anticipating a fun vacation adventure — as they had several times in years past.
They were unaware that the coronavirus pandemic was looming as a major threat, and their journey abruptly came to a disappointing end.
The Cooks’ first such trip on a large cruise ship was special, when they journeyed through the Caribbean for their honeymoon 30 years ago. Their second, 15 years later out of Galveston, wasn’t such a nice experience. Carol said that one "turned into a horrible joke and nightmare with us vowing to never step foot on a cruise ship ever."
Carol, responding in an interview done with the E-T by email, stated, "That changed when we found Windstar Sailing Cruises, (and) took our first and second cruises in the northern and southern routes of the Caribbean."
She added, "They were fabulous experiences to the point it was difficult to leave the ship and return to the real world."
In the middle of their cruise to Panama, the Cooks got a taste of what it might be like if they weren’t allowed to leave the ship.
They were more fortunate than some other travelers who recently found themselves prisoners on cruise ships. A stunning March 27 article published online by The Guardian reported that there are "at least 10 ships around the world — carrying nearly 10,000 passengers — still stuck at sea after having been turned away from their destination ports in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic."
The Cooks have a home that overlooks Lake Granbury, but have ties with Somervell County and Erath County. For several years they have been volunteers and supporters of North Central Texas Academy at Happy Hill Farms, a private school just north of Glen Rose.
Bob is retired as owner of a Dallas-based architectural rendering company. He has been a watercolor artist for 50 years, and is nationally known — having won multiple awards.
In addition to earning first-place art awards from the Los Angeles Audubon Society and the Audubon Society of Architectural Perspectivists, he won first place four years in a row at Tarleton State University’s Rio Brazos Art Exhibit. Bob was the 2017 featured artist of the year in Tarleton State University’s Langdon Review Book.
Carol is an author who has published five short books of humorous short stories, with a sixth one due this June.
NEW WORLD DISORDER
"We were gone for three or four days before we heard anything serious," Carol said of the virus pandemic.
The Cooks took a plane to San Jose, Costa Rica on March 6, then boarded their Windstar sailing ship the next day. After stopping off March 8 for "fabulous adventures" in Quepos, Costa Rica, they had another stop March 9 in Puerto Jimenez, Costa Rica.
"That evening, we sailed into Panamanian waters and were denied entry into the country," Carol stated. "That was when we learned the seriousness of the hold the virus had across the world.
"So, we set out to sea for two days learning we may not be able to go through the Panama Canal. By then we had access to BBC, CNN and Fox News learning how bad things had gotten while we were enjoying ourselves, unaware of the extent of the crisis. We were finally allowed to enter the canal."
GUNS, FLASHING LIGHTS
Carol indicated that the next couple of days were not so carefree for the 112 guests and the 96 crew members on the ship.
After the ship’s captain reached an agreement with the government officials there, a medical team boarded the ship along with two police officers and tested everyone for "fever, cold or cough," Carol stated.
"Two and a half hours later we could go into the town of Panama but on a limited time basis," Carol said. "All excursions were canceled to tour the area.
"We chose to go to the historical area, taking a taxi through part of the city, seeing a lot of poverty in and outside the historical part of the city. However, the marina was full of (million-dollar-plus) motor and sailing yachts, quite a contrast to the extreme poverty we had witnessed."
Bob told the E-T by phone in a later interview that at one point the president of Panama "said he was shutting down the airports. Luckily, at the last minute we got approval to dock."
Carol continued, stating that on the morning of March 14, "we were held on the boat for several hours until the government officials arrived with their designated buses to take us to the airport. We were escorted by four policia motorcycles, all with flashing lights (and) each had two police members, one visibly holding a machine gun as we traveled the hour and (a) half ride to the airport."
At the airport, officials directed the group to stay in one area, where they waited to be checked in before boarding their plane. Carol said that although the experience was "trying and a bit annoying," some of the passengers made jokes and had a few laughs.
"We were never frightened of the situation, (but were) concerned for a few hours of being held in a country we didn’t think of as friendly to the situation," she wrote. "The Panama Police escort situation with visible guns displayed and being escorted was a little unsettling but we never were afraid."
Carol added later that some people on the cruise were "confused or scared by not being able to get home."
ET, HEADING HOME
The passengers couldn’t help but show how pleased they were when the plane lifted off, for the return home.
"Once on the plane, in the air the passengers applauded our lift off as we headed for U.S. soil in Houston, Texas," Carol said. "Once in Houston we encountered delays, rescheduled, canceled planes and confused, grouchy passengers all wanting to go home. Just like ET."
It didn’t take long to absorb the full impact the virus had made by that time.
"We were not concerned about the virus as we didn’t believe we had been exposed, did not realize the seriousness of it until we were in the Houston airport listening to the news," Carol said. "Once we were in our home to follow the situation on Fox News (we learned) the world had changed and our small snag to a vacation was insignificant/nothing compared to what was happening worldwide."
When Carol was contacted Sunday afternoon once again by phone for a final update, she said she and Bob both felt good physically. Because of that — and in light of the shortage of testing capability that has been reported — they are not planning on having a coronavirus test done.
"We are fine. We are just a little concerned," Carol said. "The cruise line has not notified us of anybody from the cruise being ill."
She added, "They would have been in touch."