Wednesday, March 31, 2021

6 Hand Sani, 1 temp check, 1 nasal swab, 1 bracelet, & family GPS tracker before leaving EIS

So we have landed on Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.  This is the largest of the 60 island chain that makes up this British commonwealth territory.  Only a few of the islands are populated and to put the population into perspective it is about 3/4 the size of El Dorado Hills just west of our home in California at just under 30,000.  Their are two economic pillars which support the BVIs. Financial services make up 60%.  Basically this is wealthy persons and/or companies who park their offshore accounts here to minimize taxes as the G20 considers it a tax haven.  The other 40% is tourism.  Now with that other 40% you would think they would be clamoring to re-open, but yes and no.  They have for the last year walked the delicate balance of their livelihoods or their lives.  And the later has clearly won out with the islands being shut down to cruise ships and even tourists until in the last few months.  And even now the steps required for anyone entering the country are nearly full-proof in keeping COVID out.

So remember our family has tested 5 days before our departure from the US.  Mind you 3 out of 4 of us have our first vaccine AND 3 out of 4 of us had COVID in early February.  None of this matters as we disembark the plane and walk in our family cohort across the tarmac to what appears to be a newly constructed building.  Before entering we all sanitize our hands (#1) and immediately line up in front of a facial temperature scanner.  Once the computerized voice says "Temperature Normal" we are pointed to single file, 4 feet apart, comfortable leather armchairs.  Large glass windows allow us to sit and wait out our time with a spectacular view.  One by one families or cohorts are called to a plexiglass window where two ladies sit behind a computer and double check all of our information.  Once complete we "head through the double doors" where there are little cubicles with a metal office chair and people in full PPE running around.  Andy, Allyson, and I receive a nasal swab after verifying our info on the vial is correct.  And Alec at 6'1", but only 14 receives a mouth swab.  Children here do not get nasal swabs and the workers shudder when we mention the fact it is given in the US. 

Done, we exit, sanitize our hands (#3) and return to our chairs.  Here we wait until they amass groups of ~10 and then we are escorted to immigration where we sanitize again (#4) before entering the building.  Standing on our spacing floor markers in our cohorts we complete our paperwork and go through immigration again verifying our quarantine accommodations.  We pick-up our bags and head to customs where we answer the standard questions about fruit, food, etc..  After paying a $10 per person environmental fee we exit the doors.  There is a woman in a booth behind plexiglass with a sanitization station to her left (yes, #4).  Here's where we misread things...  We read we would be transported from the airport to our quarantine accommodations in government approved vehicles.  Well, you still have to pay for these.  Our cab fare was $85 for about a 45 minute ride to the other end of the island.  A fair price for the distance, family, of 4, and luggage.

The taxi booker guides us outside to another woman behind plexiglass who dons gloves before maneuvering from behind the glass where she squirts sanitizer on our hands (#5)  before placing bright green wristbands on each of us.  Making them quite tight, so they won't be easy to slip off.  You have read about the University of Georgia woman jailed for 4 months in the Cayman Islands for slipping off her bracelet to go watch a boyfriend in a competition while visiting.  This is serious business people.  We also were given a black box in a water proof bag with a lanyard.  This is our GPS monitor which must stay charged and in our vicinity at all times.

Next we are led to our driver, Max, and his beat-up van.  Maybe 1980's...but it did have a shiny new piece of plexiglass installed between the passengers and himself in the front.  After loading our bags we went to open the door...and got a firm "Wait, Wait"...yep hand sani #6.  Inside we would place our names on a clipboard so they know who rode with who and can contact trace if needed.

We all settle into the leather seats for the curvy, bouncy 40 minute ride to our quarantine home.  We message our host we are on the way and of course on this small island our driver and our host know each other, so no GPS or directions needed.  We wind our way along the islands coastline ever so often shooting in and up into the hills.  Last time we were here was before Hurricane Irma in 2016 where we visited friends residing on St Johns which we can see off in the distance on our drive.  This Cat 5 hit the islands in 2017 and it's toll is still obvious today.  Many boats are still scattered about, half sunk in marinas to on the land itself.

Just outside Fort Recovery we turn left onto a gravel drive and we pass a couple of bright colored bungalows which is our host, Bonnie Dougal's office.  Then a little round drive approached a wooden gate and in the middle of the drive lay all our pre-ordered toys (SUPs, Kayaks, etc.).  Also is a auburn-haired woman, Bonnie, who greets us with a smile keeping her distance.  She informs us everything is inside, including pages of instructions, our food delivery...AND welcome beverages of a couple beers, bottle of Prosecco, and bottle of sparkling cider.

We haul our bags through the gate into the bougainvillea and palm courtyard and into the house where large glass windows and our view and site right on the ocean will be the perfect backdrop as we settle in for our 4 day quarantine and one more PCR test.

Tuesday, March 30, 2021

Flight Cancellations + Pandemic = Stress X 2

Absolutely packed red eye flight to Miami.  We have flown a lot during the pandemic and every time people ask about others' masking and did we have any trouble.  At least in our experience it seems like all the anti-maskers and/or drama related to protocols are the exceptions, not the rule.  Other passengers we have flown with have always followed protocols without issue.  In fact I daresay everyone seems a bit more patient and a bit more kind.  The only thing we did note this time was the announcements included a very matter of fact you keep your mask on or we have the right to remove you from the plane and cancel your booking.  This in part is due to the new administration and the fact the FAA is a federal entity and will be as firm as other federal entities.

In Miami we noted travel has really picked up...or maybe it was spring break and Miami...have you seen the news?  The airport was packed and without club access we found ourselves four chairs against a wall a bit away from our gate to grab a bit to eat.  Weird that Miami was not asking for travel clearances or COVID tests before boarding the plane because even though a territory we would find out Puerto Rico our next destination requires the "within the last 3 days negative COVID test."  But it felt a bit more like "their problem not ours" to be honest.  I am generally one who is grounded very firmly in the fact that news is often only a sliver of the whole story, but will admit the airport's atmosphere seemed to match what we've been seeing on the news.  A friend of mine said it feels like a football team celebrating a touchdown while still on the 1 yard line.

Into Puerto Rico with a couple hour layover we again found a wall in the less crowded area across from our gate.  We grabbed another snack including local sodas and salted plantains.  Here, to our pleasure, the COVID protocols tightened again.  A new change in our travels was found in the  bathrooms...all hand-drying options gone.  Air dryers were disabled...which we have seen elsewhere due to the circulation of air particles and hence COVID, but this paper towels either.  Drip dry it is...

We were to be traveling on the American Airlines partner, Seaborne.  A small company that has a large fleet of Saab airplanes that run circles around the Caribbean all day.  Ours was coming in from St. Croix.  Again different from the US the British Virgin Islands only have one airport open, its largest, EIS on Tortola.  You can only enter and exit the commonwealth country here.  Where the US Virgin Islands had numerous entry and exit points.  Unfortunately with no flexibility this also meant when our plane broke down we were stuck in Puerto Rico for the night.

Seaborne was rather impressive.  Before they even announced it they had new boarding passes printed for our re-bookings.  Andy was 2nd in line after we heard a young woman who works in the BVIs mention the cancellation and she and her co-workers scrambled for a private charter to get there for work.  3 people $1500 for the 30 minute flight is what they would get.  Nice!  We took our rebooking for the next morning and hotel and taxi vouchers and headed down to carousel 6 to pick-up our bags.

Our bags were taking forever so Andy took the opportunity to get the lay of the land when it came to COVID as the baggage claim was crawling with military and people in full PPE.  I was frantically reading travel restrictions and noted our tests for the BVIs were 5 days in advance (due to extra time needed to process all our extra documentation...remember the insurance and proof of our quarantine lodgings)...Puerto Rico was only 3 days.  Would they accept our COVID tests?

Bags secured we approached one of the military personnel and explained our situation and he pointed to a QR code on the wall for us to scan to start our travel clearance to leave the airport.  After a few minutes of struggles without my reading glasses and shaky fingers he pointed us to the area with about 20 workers in full PPE to help us complete the documents on-line.

We were split into groups of 2 and placed next to each other, but 6ft apart, at tables with one person behind a laptop in full PPE and a barrier to keep us from getting too close and they started by asking for our clearances, passports, boarding passes, and more.  We would explain our situation and present them with our BVI clearances as well as our negative test results from CVS.  The test administered 5 days prior..not 3 as they required.  Chatter commenced in Spanish between the two workers and 4 years in high school quickly made out they were discussing the 5 vs 3.  They would ask us about the vaccine as well, which we presented our cards for our single dose.  This seemed to satisfy them and we get the "You're Done.  Welcome to Puerto Rico."

Next, as always is the case with vouchers, the begging of a cab driver to accept it as it is not cash in hand and requires work on their end took a few extra minutes.  But the promise of a tip got him moving and 5 minutes later we would arrive at Verdanza a high rise on Isla de Verde 2 blocks off the ocean.

After facial temperature scans in the lobby and guests bracelets were applied exhausted we piled into the small two double bed room.  This is our first hotel stay since the pandemic and true to the stories it had been stripped down.  No colorful comforters.  No hotel or local literature to be touched by the room's numerous occupants.  Pillow cases, a sheets, blanket, and towels - that's it.

Our hotel had a restaurant.  This is the first time the kids have eaten out since the pandemic and Andy and I only twice outside so we opted for outside here.  Another difference from the menus.  A QR code on a stand was scanned and the menu popped up on our phone.  We enjoyed pasta, pizza, and Andy tried the local beers.  Situated higher with a view of the street we watched everyone walking from the beaches at sunset and a small amount of nightlife spring up.  Mostly loud thumping bass coming from cruising cars and a lit up party bus.  All the while police patrolled keeping people from gathering and flow moving along.

A fairly restful night.  Andy up early walked to the beach and grabbed us coffee and muffins, then we  were back at the airport 2 hours before our flight to go again...and that we did.  A little prop plane would take us the 30 minutes over beautiful blue water to EIS, the airport at the most eastern tip of Tortola where we would step off to a beautiful blue sky, 80+ degrees, with kite surfers and sailboats visible from the tarmac.  Now begins our next set of steps to be able to leave the airport and enter the BVIs.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Going Again in a Pandemic

It's hard to believe it has been almost 18months since we traveled internationally.  Our last trip was November 2019 to New Zealand.  Little did we know very shortly COVID19 would bring travel and the world to a halt.

In March and April of 2020 when the world locked down we chatted with Andy's Dad, the kids' beloved Papa, who we had no idea at the time was battling terminal cancer about taking another family trip.  We were weighing Hawaii where he had never been or the British Virgin Islands, a beloved destination from his younger years.  Andy had grown up jealous of his parents who would take off for Tortola and leave he and his brother in Indiana for a friend's sailboat watched over by a local, named Bubba, who also had a bar on Jost Van Dyke.  We were researching houses and plans for both.  As COVID infections and deaths climbed we were leaning towards Tortola where the protocols were extremely strict, but it would keep us and a possible fragile PJ as well as the islands' people safe.

Fast forward to September when Paul would pass from this earth and it pretty much sealed the deal...we would go to Tortola in memory of him and for us to rejuvenate after a rough 6 months flying back and forth to the Midwest to care for him and what we didn't see ...a rough 6 months ahead including a serious concussion for Ally, 3 out of 4 of us contracting COVID in early February after months of extreme caution, and still recovering from its effects weeks later.

With only 154 cases since January 2020 and only 1 death their protocols were strict, but effective.  Our host of our rental home would help guide us through the process which would involve the following steps even before our arrival:

  • Negative PCR test 5 days before we traveled with our results uploaded into their Gateway App at least 2 days before we traveled to receive our "QR Codes" or travel clearance
  • Travel Insurance that covers COVID.  This is important because if you contract COVID in-transit or while there and have to quarantine they want you financially sound to afford the costs of an extended stay (just read all the stories of people headed to laxer Mexico right now and not allowed back to the US per their plans because they've picked up COVID while there).  And under the worst case scenario you contract it and require hospitalization or evacuation you as well would be covered.
  • Proof you are staying in a COVID quarantine approved location, house, resort, or boat.  These places have strict guidelines about where you can go on-site and who you can interact with.  At our home we had to have everything delivered in advance, including groceries 2 days in advance so everything can be wiped down as well as water toys, like SUPs and Kayaks.
    • One of the best places in the world to sail you can quarantine on a chartered just have to fly a "In Quarantine" flag and stay at least 30ft away from other boats...and return to your quarantine assigned mooring each night by 6PM

Just like another favorite Caribbean destination, Jamaica, we quickly realized everything operates on island time which means there are no set times for anything and pace is leisurely.  Everything uploaded 2 days before we let panic set in when the day before we were to leave their entry app went down and the Department of Health and Tourism Board could not access our info and approve.

Panicky WhatsApp messages (the only way to communicate via phone and text effectively in the islands) flew back and forth between us, our host, and the "app" people.

We loaded the car and headed to SFO (San Francisco) on a Friday night.  Still no travel clearance.  Our host said we would be OK, until we reached our final leg, Puerto Rico to Tortola, so we breathed a little easier.  When we stopped to gas up our one way rental to SFO (much cheaper than 2 weeks of parking) we see our travel clearance had arrived in our email inbox.

Thankfully so...because when we arrived in SFO they required we show it before we even were allowed to board our first leg, SFO to Miami.  Close call, but we were on our way....