India (almost!!) Khasab (exactly!!) and beyond

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Middle East » United Arab Emirates » Dubai
March 13th 2020
Published: June 26th 2020
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We were up early, excited for our arrival in to India. We had an organised city tour arranged for our visit to Mumbai but no plans for New Mangalore or Goa. We had arranged to meet, once more, with Beryl and Brian to share a cab in these ports. We were due in to New Mangalore at 8am. However, we could see nothing but sea. Something was happening. Guest services had gone AWOL and those officers milling around seemed in too much of a hurry to acknowledge you with their usual cheerful smiles. We ate breakfast outside the buffet on the open deck. Two tables across, we noticed an MSC officer in what seemed to be a heated discussion with the two officials from the Indian Immigration Authority. They looked like they meant business because they were all holding clip boards!! Now what was that all about, we wondered. There had been rumours circulating during the past two sea days as more became known about this pandemic that is aggressively sweeping the world. We dismissed the rumours as speculation and conjecture arising from too much social media although things didn’t look promising. From this point, we accepted that the world was slowly starting to change. At 08:15, the captain came on the public address system. Straight away, we knew this wasn’t good: ‘…With the ongoing situation around the world of the rapid spread of Covid-19, New Mangalore has closed the port to all cruise traffic as from 05:00 this morning. I’m terribly sorry to have to bring you this bad news but we will be sailing on directly for our next port Goa…’

The coast line of Mangalore gradually came in to view then the ship’s engines were cut. So near yet so far. New Mangalore was no further than a few miles off the port bow. We were now stationary and remained so for the next five hours. We sat motionless as the ship stared at the coast line which seemed enticingly and tantalisingly to stare back.

At about 2pm, an Ocean Breeze swept alongside the Lirica. This was not a welcome break in the weather pattern but the name of a tug boat. Several moments later, the two immigration officials we saw arguing this morning were helped aboard. Both now had grins as wide as a Cheshire Cats. The tug then broke away, turned and headed for
Indian Immigrtion officials on their way homeIndian Immigrtion officials on their way homeIndian Immigrtion officials on their way home

I think one must be called Larry because he was 'As happy as...'
the port of New Mangalore. So that is what the conflab was about. With New Mangalore closing its port, the two officials would have had to stay on board until we docked in Goa, then make their way home. They must have carried some clout to persuade MSC to liaise with the Port Authority and direct a vessel to come to their aid.

Later that evening, having resigned ourselves that this saga is far from over, we had dinner as usual with Beryl and Brian. Just as desert was being brought out, the relaxed ambience of the restaurant was interrupted by a bing bong: ‘This is your Captain speaking. I apologise for interrupting everyone’s dinner but I have a further update on our itinerary…’

A ray of hope??

‘… It is my unfortunate displeasure…

That ray of hope was suddenly extinguished in those five words.

‘… to announce that I have Just been informed India have closed all their borders….’

We just saw what little optimism remained, rapidly fade away. Brian utter an ‘oh! no!’ and seemed to go white and actually looked ill.

The Captain continued: ‘…we have been in constant
Progressive trivia winnersProgressive trivia winnersProgressive trivia winners

L-R: Chris, Roisin, Anne, Janice, Keith. Front: Two of the Animation team who were quite forgettable!!!
contact with Head Office in London who have tried, as an alternative, to call in to Sri Lanka and then the Maldives but they’ve both told us to piss off as well!!’. (Please note I may have interpreted that last bit from the Captains actual announcement for comic effect!!)

The following day we were advised that we were heading back to the UAE but would make an unscheduled stop back in to Abu Dhabi. It wasn’t long before the rumour mill swept in to action again. The word on the street (or in this case, the deck!!) was that the United Arab Emirates had closed their ports and were not letting any cruise ships dock. This started as rumour and a few hours later became fact. A passenger’s relative who Beryl had befriended was currently sailing on a Celebrity ship which had just been refused entry in to Abu Dhabi.

Our fate was now sealed. Were we to become the cruising world’s equivalent of the Flying Dutchman?? – The legendary ghost ship that could never make port and was doomed to sail the oceans forever!!

News was starting to filter through about Italy’s predicament. The Nation was now in total lockdown and they were exercising something called social distancing. Newsreel showed empty streets and city centres. Rome deserted, Milan seemingly abandoned. The scenes were like something from a Hollywood disaster movie. Residents were only allowed out for essential shopping and exercise once a day. Pictures showed huge queues outside supermarkets with each person standing at least two metres away from the next. There was even talk of panic buying and a shortage of toilet paper and pasta. I’ve never seen scenes like it….oh! wait! Yes, I have. In 1980s communist Poland!! This is dreadful. My heart went out to the poor inhabitants of Italy. It must be awful. Thank God we live in the UK!!!!!!

We both remained philosophical about the situation, Afterall, we still had a cruise long trivia to win!! In the afternoon, we remained on course for victory, despite dropping a point we never should have. The question was: ‘How many stars on the Australian flag?’. Despite having an Aussie on our team, she hesitated and couldn’t make her mind up between five or six. I thought there was five as I remember thinking they have one more than New Zealand who definitely have four. Now, whether I influenced Anne or it was just the sheer pressure but she confirmed: ‘Five’. The answer was six. We scored eight out of ten with our nearest rival only scoring seven so no real damage done. (Only to my reputation!!)

This was now our fifth continuous day at sea and a further announcement from the master of the vessel: ‘I have managed to secure a call at the port of Khasab and we will also be making a further unscheduled stop at Abu Dhabi before arriving back in the port of Dubai. You will receive a revised itinerary schedule in your stateroom later on today’ I could hear hundreds of fingers opening their smart phone browsers to check Google!! Khasab was a little-known port on the tip of the Musendam peninsula, in the Strait of Hormuz. Khasab is an Omani enclave surrounded by the UAE miles from anywhere with a mountain range and a dessert blocking the way to the nearest city and were the only port in a thousand miles willing to receive a cruise ship. Perhaps news of the Diamond Princess hadn’t yet filtered to this remote outpost and maybe its inhabitants were still oblivious to the rapid development of this world crisis that was definitely deepening every day.

Back to the cruise long trivia and on the final day a championship winning question worth two points: How many strings does a violin have and what are the notes of the open strings? Most teams put four strings for the first part of this questions but the second part was either a know it or don’t know it question. I’ve fiddled about in my time but never played the violin!! I have played the double bass and bass guitar, though, so as both have four strings, I was hoping the notes were the same…and they were!!! E, A, D, G

With the exception of a what could have been disastrous first round (4/10), we scored consistently - 8/10. So did our nearest rivals, Argentina although their consistent score was 7/10!! A hard-fought victory and a nice backpack as a prize which we had to go on to the theatre stage to receive to the sound of stilted applause!! As there were only 4 rounds of 10 questions there was not much room for error. Thankfully we got most of our errors
The nice little beach of KhasabThe nice little beach of KhasabThe nice little beach of Khasab

I'm surprised the estate agent author didn't use words like 'quaint' or 'cosy'!!
out in the first round!

We left Dubai on the 29th February. It was now 10th March, the day we were due to arrive in Khasab. There were no trivia sessions today. In the morning Roisin and I attended the disembarkation talk. This was held in the main theatre and provided essential information on what to do on the evening before and the day of disembarkation. Ten minutes in and the Captain once more interrupted providing yet a further update to our itinerary. ‘Due to 35 knot winds last night ship has been delayed and we are now not reaching Khasab until 2pm as opposed to an original arrival time of 12 noon. As we cannot afford the time to delay our departure this will affect some of the excursions…’ I don’t think anyone cared anymore. The whispers we were hearing is that people just wanted to go home now. We heard that one family were disembarking at Khasab as they’d had enough. Not sure what nationality they were. I’m was happy to stay on as long as we had to as we had free sky sports!! (Live sport hadn’t been suspended at this point) That’s more than I have at home!!

Me thinks the port guide for Khasab was written by an Estate Agent with a sense of humour. The opening sentence claimed that the setting of the port is spectacular, a fjord as one imagines to see on the moon. No vegetation at all. Firstly, I don’t recall there being many fjords on the moon and I doubt that the soil up there is fertile enough to grow vegetables anyway!! What the author actually meant is that one sees nothing but a barren landscape. Further on the author wrote: …There is a nice little beach next to the dock only five minutes away. Sharks are present but they do not like human flesh!! That maybe the case but I’m certainly not going to put this theory to the test!!! The article was finished of with this jolly sentence: …Do not forget to go to one of your higher deck at sunset and watch all the speedboats with Iranian smugglers being loaded with merchandise destined for Iran. A real photo opportunity…The author forgot to add, and be shot at in the process. If you’re lucky and the smuggler misses, you can dig the bullet out of the
Welcome to DubaiWelcome to DubaiWelcome to Dubai

The MSC Lirica managed to park outside the front door!!
ship’s hull and you have a nifty little souvenir to take home with you that will always remind you of Khasab!!!

The town was five kilometres from the ship. We were in no hurry to go ashore. We finally took to land at 15:45 but as Roisin had an appointment with the hairdresser at 17:00 (which had been booked several days before) We were back on board by 16:00. We walked to the nice little beach we had heard about. We had to scramble over some rock to get to it. This bit wasn’t mentioned in the write-up!! I think the author had given this beach one adjective too many!!! (but it was little!!) We watched a few dhows sail past taking tourists to explore this moon-like fjord close up!!

During the cruise, Beryl told us that they had been receiving a plate of either chocolate covered strawberries or petite fours in their cabin almost every day. We had only received one plate of the strawberries at the beginning of the voyage and nothing since (not that we were expecting any.) However, it was strange that every afternoon we would see one of the stewards on our deck with a trolley full of tasty treats but he never once knocked at our cabin. This afternoon I stopped to chat to the waiter. He said that he only receives a list of cabin numbers to which he makes the deliveries. Then he laughed and said pointing to a door a few metres away: ‘In fact, I have just delivered a plate to an empty cabin!!’ Blimey! Even empty cabins seem to be getting more than us!!

With everyone one back on board, the crew making their last minute safety checks and the stevedores standing shoreside waiting for the signal to release the lines, the Captain made an announcement that just confirmed one of the many rumours: ‘Due to the Corona virus outbreak, the UAE have now closed all ports so Abu Dhabi won’t be possible but we have been given special dispensation to dock at Dubai…’More plans evaporated. We would not be going back to the Emirates Palace for afternoon tea after all. The last four nights of our holiday would now be spent in Dubai.

‘Look on the bright side’, I said to Roisin. ‘I could think of a lot of worse places to be than Dubai. In the sunshine with free food and the use of facilities. Think of it as an all-inclusive beach holiday, but without the beach. (Unless you count the Arabian Desert!!)’

Arriving back in to Dubai, everyone had to collect their passports (which had been held by MSC for the duration) from the dining room. The collection was staggered to avoid unnecessary queues. We had been given a time slot of 8am. We then had to take our passports down to the Dubai Immigration Hall whether we were getting off the ship or not. However, this was delayed for two hours as we receive a message that Immigration were busy with another ship. On deck we could see an Aida ship along with an Oceanic ship. We also spotted the MSC Splendida, an NCL ship in the distance and another unidentified cruise ship in between. Oh, and the Costa Diadema was on its way in. Somehow, the dispensation didn't seem that special anymore!! Anyway, if all these ships had special dispensation isn’t that the same as keeping the port open??!! All five ships were tied up back to back.

Surprisingly, our passports now contained a New Mangalore stamp but in large font, was the word CANCELLED running through it; a permanent reminder of what wasn’t meant to be. We decided to stay onboard for the first day and plan our intentions for the last few days of our holiday.

From our previous experience of Al Rashid Port of Dubai we knew that one was not allowed to walk off the dock estate. Last time we tried this we got caught by the ship’s agent who offered us a lift to the nearest metro station. Since that day in 2011, things seem to have changed a lot. A new terminal building had been erected as well as what appeared to be a new road layout complete with pedestrian walk ways. We could see the main road of Dubai about a mile or so away so we decided to go for a stroll. All was going well for the first fifteen minutes then, with no warning the sidewalk ended marked by a ‘no pedestrians’ sign. We were on the home straight to the exit of the port. We could see the port exit less than four hundred metres. I felt like Patrick McGoohan in the 1960’s TV series, The Prisoner. Was there no escape from the port? Like in most other ports around the world where passengers are not allowed to roam freely, why was there no free shuttle? The only free shuttles were to shopping malls, miles from where you want to be!! The only options in to the city was either pay for a taxi with an exuberant surcharge or take a hop-on/hop-off bus, the fares ranging from between £20-53 per person per day.

The spice souk in Deira, adjacent the Gold souk (that place should carry a health warning!!) is one of the most amazing experiences that costs nothing to visit (unless you’re into purchasing spices) The array of bright colours and smell is enough to overload your senses. This, along with Festival City, a complex of shops, restaurants and entertainment were two of the places we planned to visit during our last days here. However, we would just be going there for the sake of it. Our heart wasn’t really in it. That, along with a cold I seemed to be developing, we decided to scrap any further plans and enjoy what remained of our time onboard. I did manage to convince some people that I did not have a dry cough or a raised temperature. Although when I joked with someone that I only had Covid-18, they did not see the funny side!!

During one of our walks along the quay we noticed an ambulance at the bottom of the costa ship’s gangway. As we walked past the port terminal to take a closer look, a security guard blocked our way. We showed him our MSC cruise card but he told us we couldn’t pass this point.

These last four days passed relatively quickly despite not venturing outside of the port area. The ship became emptier with each day that passed. In these, unprecedented times and highly unusual circumstances, airlines had agreed to change flights without the passenger incurring a penalty. Many guests of the Lirica (and I’m sure other cruise ships) had taken up the offer, cut their losses and headed for home. On the final evening there seemed to be more waiters than guests, many just standing around as unsure as anyone as to where their future lay. After the meal we spent time speaking with our Indonesian waiter. He advised us that many of the waiters and other crew would be leaving the ship in a day or two with a skeleton crew remaining. The waiter from the next table then joined in the conversation. It turned out that he would have to stay on the ship while all his colleagues get to go home. The reason? He only had one name!! Yes, that’s right. We never understood the reason why this was an issue but for the UAE Immigration this was a massive issue. I wonder if Bono, Sting, Slash or Bjork ever had this problem??!

We took one last walk along the quay after dinner. The MSC Splendida was preparing to cast off. It was sailing back to Europe. We heard a clippity-clop and instinctively turned our heads to see a lady running to catch the ship. A porter wheeling her luggage and two others; a UAE immigration official and possibly an agent closely followed behind. The main gangway had already been removed but there was a small gangway level with the quay leading on to deck 4. The lady stepped on to the ship and pushed past the startled deck hands. Moments later she reappeared with an officer and was in a heated discussion
The Dubai skyline. The Dubai skyline. The Dubai skyline.

The haze is due to the sand being blown through the atmosphere
whilst her entourage looked on. This was not so much of a discussion, more of a rant!! However, she was shouting in Italian so no clue as to the problem. She tried to push past the officer back on to the ship whilst she was still spewing a verbal tirade at him. Security then appeared who forcibly removed her back on to the quay. She remained shoreside while the small gangway was drawn into the ship, the door closed tight and the ship started to move away from the dock. She was still arguing with the man in the suit as they walked toward us and the port building. She was now speaking English but still out of earshot. We overheard: ‘…been waiting two hours…’ One of the men who had been accompanying her took out his phone, took a photo of the man in the suit and said that he will be reporting him. We could only speculate that she had been delayed causing her to miss check in or else with her being Italian and in light of the present situation back home, were refusing passage to any Italians for fear of spreading this virus.

Our day of departure. Disembarkation went without a hitch. On the departures board at Dubai International, a few cancellations were showing. However, these only seemed to be to other Middle Eastern destinations such as Riyadh, Doha and Bahrain. Our flight departed on time. During the flight, Roisin engaged one of the cabin crew in conversation. She mentioned that they had just received news from Head Office that the majority of Emirate flights have now been grounded and Dubai have temporarily closed the airport. We were one of the last flights to depart!!

So, that was the holiday that never was. We didn’t seem to do much over the two and a half weeks yet on reflection, it was very eventful. Due to the different culture and interesting and new experiences we had hoped to encounter, I had planned to record the events in this blog. As soon as ports started to tumble one by one, I decided not to bother but by the end of the 15 nights we had had our interesting and new experiences but not of the kind anyone could have had expected 15 nights ago. We may not have gotten to where we wanted to go but we had a few laughs getting there!!

Additional photos below
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