If I’m in the photo or the photo is really really professional, then the photography credit goes to Paul Woo.
We had expected that similar to our last time with them in Sardinia it would involve a frenzy of check-ins, security deposits, last minute provisional shopping, except this time without the 2 flash thunderstorms. Instead, we woke up this morning to something even crazier: finding out that 90% of the yacht staff would test positive for COVID-19 this morning after a trip they had sailed on the week before.
Therefore, in the best interests of everyone’s safety, a decision was made to cancel the itinerary entirely. We sadly would miss out saying hi to our friend and intended our skipper Umbi (who we were so lucky to have in Sardinia). Although he continues to test negative for COVID-19, he also did not want to take a chance to eventually test positive while sailing with us. Such professionalism. I respect that. WE STILL MISS YOU UMBI.
Especially after having our fill of Fort-de-France, we decided to reframe this unfortunate series of events with the irony of a Yacht Week trip now truly turning into a monsoon proper, where we would have no idea what the next step would be but pressing on anyway. Therefore continuing onwards without expectations, we asked our concierge at Simon Hotel to arrange a driver to take us to the marina at Marina du Marin from Fort-de-France.
And as luck will reorient itself for us, they luckily got us a wonderful driver and guide named Daniel, who after taking us to Sacré-Coeur de Balata also pulled off to the side of the road for a spontaneous jump behind the bar to serve us their local aged and white rum, complete with syrup and muddled lime.
Every travel serendipity now tastes 10 times sweeter of a victory.
Once we arrived at the marina an hour later, we were informed by the yacht staff that they actually may have found us a replacement skipper from Croatia, who just so happens to be vacationing on a nearby island and therefore did not partake in last week’s trip that got 90% of the staff positive for COVID-19. If he tests negative upon his arrival tomorrow, we may be able to salvage whatever bit of our trip that remains viable.
Umbi even left me a gift at the marina office!
After our check-in and all the logistics, we waited for our yacht to be prepared.
By 6:30pm the yacht was ready and we got pick our cabins onboard our newly christened yacht, Free Willy.
After settling in, we had dinner at L’Annexe for first night celebrations for getting this far despite the circumstances.
- At time of posting in Marina du Marin, it was 27 °C -
Humidity: 74% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
After 2 days relaxing in the off-the-beaten-path island of Lampedusa, the gang took a direct evening flight out to Palermo, capital of Sicily, afterwards.
Founded by Phoenicians under the name of “Ziz” and later renamed by Greeks “Panormos”, which means “all port,” Palermo’s golden age was during Arab rule from 9th to 11th centuries AD when it became one of the most prosperous cities in the Mediterranean and Europe.
It was referred to as the “city of delights” for its gardens, mosques and palaces.
After the Normans conquered Palermo, they destroyed most of the palaces and mosques, but replaced it with a unique architectural mix of Arabesque, Romanesque, and Byzantine influences known as the “Arab-Norman Style of Sicily.”
Modern history, however, would make Sicily infamous for cosa nostra, aka the Mafia that now predominate the popular culture consciousness whenever Sicily is referred.
Starting from the west side of Palermo, we tried to visit the unique Catacombe dei Cappuccini filled with 8000 dressed up corpses and skeletons, but it was closed at the time of posting. So we walked by the 9th century neo-classical era Norman Palace instead, where the ancient chapel Cappella Palatina is also located; you can find elaborate Byzantine mosaics and paintings inside.
While here you might as well also peek inside the red-domed medieval church San Giovanni degli Eremiti:
Then working your way beginning east towards the harbor, pass through the symbolic and landmark Porto Nuovo, built in 1570.
Weave around Teatro Marmoreo and through Villa Bonanno park
As you walk east towards the water, stop by 12th century Cattedrale di Palermo:
If you pay the 12-15 euro ticket to access the rest of the cathedral, there’s the gorgeous roof:
…and the underground tombs:
Take a detour at the open-air Market Ballaro:
Head into the winding alleyways further east to find the baroque Chiesa del Gesù, built in the 1630s:
There’s also Church of San Cataldo, built in 1154 and featuring landmark Byzantine mosiacs, including Santa Maria dell’Ammiraglio which lies next door.
…and equally beautiful Chiesa di Santa Caterina d’Alessandria:
Inside there’s a monastery you can stroll through for a few euros:
Then swing around Genius of Palermo Statue:
…past Fontana del Garraffo:
…past Fontana del Cavallo Marino:
…and as you approach Porta Felice, you know you’ve reached the sea:
There’s also an abandoned UNESCO World Heritage Site Ponte dell’Ammiraglio (“Admiral’s Bridge”) to the south, although there’s nothing much else to do around here:
Donna and I are taking it easy from here on out, because from here it’s a long way home. Brian knows it:
Palermo to Rome to Brussels …to Paris
The original plan was fly from Palermo to Rome to Brussels to NYC. So after Donna and I parted ways at the Palermo airport, I did just that. Once arriving into Brussels, however, it felt like …something was pulling me to Paris. I don’t know why since “I have come to the conclusion that my guts have shit for brains” …but I trust my gut.
MXMS and Carla Bruni play on and on in my head.
Passing by the very same piano that caused us to miss our flight to Lampedusa 3 days prior
While arriving into Brussels, I got on the chat with United and asked if I could change my economy Brussels to NYC flight to a free business class upgrade at no extra cost. The answer: Sure, but you’ll have to get from Brussels to Paris and take a flight from there instead. Furthermore…
- Evie also left her ONLY charger back in Palermo, and she was going to be in Paris that night.
- Gina and Priscilla decided on a whim yesterday to extend their layover in Paris an extra day.
- Priscilla had something personal of mine. And her foot, which had been injured during Yacht Week and became taken under my medical attention, appeared to need extra care.
- Gina was still probably annoyed Evie, Sabrina, Sampson, Donna and I all barged to crash in her room 5 days ago in Olbia. It was a bad goodbye; I owed her a drink.
- We would all be in Paris after a united last minute extension of all our trips. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.
These were enough signs. And so I booked the next Brussels to Paris Thalys 9388 train at 9:16pm, arriving into Paris at 10:38pm where I would crash with one of them before all our morning flights back to the USA at 10am. It would be perfect.
But as we all know with travel, “perfect” may always involve a snag where the universe tests your will: Soon after booking my train ticket, I would get emails from Thalys every 15 minutes informing me of significant track delays up to 2 hours long. Every email indicated a longer and longer delay, to the point I was worried they were going to cancel the train entirely.
And yet when there’s a will there’s a way: although I had considered giving up on the idea of Paris as the logistics seemed too prohibitive, the prior Thalys 9376 train that had been due to arrive at 7:13pm in Brussels Midi Station instead pulled into the platform in front of me at 8:50pm. It was also running nearly 2 hours late, but oddly did not show up on the departure board as a possibility.
I immediately asked if I could board this one instead, but the agent at the station informed me that my ticket I had bought for the 9:16pm 9388 train would not apply and I would not be allowed onboard 9376. Once she left, I stowed away onboard the 9376 anyway, staying in between cars looking for a place to put my bags, pretending to wait for the bathroom, and hanging out at the café until the bullet train was well already in France.
Eventually my ruse would be noticed (I’m the worst spy ever), but after a discussion with the onboard police, playing stupid showing them I had already purchased a ticket but for a different train, a copy of a negative test for COVID-19 (with a BivaxNOW self-test kit which I had done with Donna the day before…thanks Donna!), that I was fully vaccinated, and a USA passport to accompany my vaccine card, they had no legitimate reason to throw me off the train when we were already 10 minutes away from Paris Gare du Nord station. Checkmate.
And to even make it more opportune, Evie’s hotel — where I could drop off my stuff — was located immediately outside the train station. Does that sound familiar to the beginning of this trip when I had arrived into Florence train station to briefly meet Patricia? WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.
Evie would have travel issues of her own: her flight from Valencia almost would be cancelled by a tornado there. Nevertheless it was a false alarm as she arrived, although 45 minutes late. Then from her hotel room we both set out to meet Priscilla and Gina, surprising them both (well, really just Priscilla; Gina had said she always knew I’d had it in me to make it work) that we’d make it in time right before they went to bed. And so our goodbye 5 days ago in Olbia was extended in none other than a midnight in Paris.
Having stayed up for our third sunrise, we felt the third time is always the charm.
Then at 8am Priscilla, Gina and I then coordinated a cab together back to CDG where we would be all leaving at similar times back for our onward connecting flights home. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.
And of all the business class flights to be upgraded to for free, United would choose SWISS Airlines, with the exact same layover in the exact same city of Zurich . . . WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.
. . . and in the exact same 7A seat I had flown to begin this trip 16 days ago. WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN…
The magic of the universe has and shall continue. Whether in circles or forward, probably the next step for us would be time travel.
- At time of posting in Palermo, Sicily, it was 30 °C -
Humidity: 61% | Wind Speed: 23km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
Definitely didn’t look nearly like this 24 hours prior to taking this photo…
After a week rampaging throughout Sardinia’s coastline including a pitstop in Corsica — with a final night belonging in a 90s teen prom movie (I really can’t describe it in any other way … it was that … perfectly bittersweet) — we tried to take it easy the next morning with a spa day relaxing in Olbia.
Some of us having pulled a second all nighter for our final sunrise, we returned to the yachts, quickly took the trash out, made one final camp check, gave our goodbye hugs to Mihaela, Ann, and Jeanette from the marina, and walked over to the hotel Priscilla, Gina, Alex, etc. were staying in.
All I can remember it was a dreary struggle of a morning, especially after coming down from a high of the night before. Once I saw a bed, my body fell hard without even realizing until later how the marina arrivals — Sabrina, Donna, Sampson and I — were likely pissing everyone else who booked the hotel as they graciously still let us use their rooms to crash in for an hour (I’M SO SORRY).
After Priscilla, Donna, Sampson, Sabrina and I got a quick hour’s sleep in thanks to a late check out, we tried to look for a quick brunch before the next round of goodbyes with Priscilla, Gina, Sampson, and Raubern. I then felt like I was living through the entire ending scene of the movie “The Half Of It.”
I don’t know how we eventually made it so underslept but Donna, Sabrina, Evie, and I then managed to take a cab over to Jazz Hotel by the airport where we then both ran into and said goodbye to Song at the Jazz Hotel, and then had an early dinner with Daisy, Ihita and Radhika before taking advantage of the hotel sauna afterwards.
The next morning Donna, Evie, and I said our goodbyes to Sabrina after breakfast and set off on a morning flight back to Rome, where we would transfer to a quick flight to Lampedusa.
However, while walking over at the gates in Rome airport I had mistakenly assumed “Palermo” was Lampedusa (we’re actually heading to Palermo the day after) and therefore was misled to the wrong gate. And the whole time we just sat, chatted and watched Evie perform on a piano nearby without realizing we had all the time in the world to go to our actual gate.
By the time we began to board at 1:06pm, it was already too late: the agents told us we had the wrong tickets, I then realized Palermo was not Lampedusa, and that the 1:10pm Lampedusa flight had already taken off. I took a deep breath, consoled myself it was only fair after a week of successes in flying 34 people into and around Sardinia, and walked over to the last flight out to Lampedusa in another part of the airport. Then leaving my bags with Evie and Donna at our new gate with only 2 hours to spare until that backup flight would take off, I ran out of the airport with their 3 passports and vaccine cards in hand looking all over for the ticket offices.
This particular Wizz Air flight out to Lampedusa from Rome was not showing up on my searches online, and the Wizz Air website did not allow me to buy a ticket on the same day. I therefore had no other choice but wait 30 minutes physically in line, sweating out everything I had drank and ate the past week wondering what my alternatives would be if I couldn’t buy this flight. After another 20 minutes at the counter figuring it out and finally getting our new flights, I was directed back to the check-in desk (thankfully having been allowed to cut in front), where I had the awkward task of explaining to them how I wanted check in 2 passengers who were already past security at the gate itself. By the time I had returned back through security to rendezvous with Donna and Evie, they had already began to board.
Crisis barely averted.
And the whole time I could recall how this near exact scenario had played out 4 years ago when I was trying to get to Slovenia, where Rome airport was also involved and I barely made it work (Mihaela was part of that experience, and it would be the same trip where we would meet Ashley Jia, who had just joined us for Yacht Week! …you never know…).
Yet what I find even more remarkable about this particular incident afterwards, was that everyone else in our Yacht Week group were also going through missed connections of their own AT THE SAME TIME: Priscilla and Gina were also led to the wrong platform for their train from Rome to Florence, and ended up instead on a wrong train to Bologna. Ashley missed her flight home in Rome. Sabrina would find out last minute her flight out of Sardinia would be canceled and would have to spend an extra night there.
I began to wonder whether these comedies of errors was emblematic of something bigger; that no matter how frustrating or random these inconveniences would seem at the time, they serve to remind us they’re just detours — or even required pit stops — that eventually get us back onto the paths we’re supposed to be on. They seem like mistakes at the time, but they might be anything but. Either way we all felt some sense of farflung interconnected camaraderie despite being separated by hundreds of miles of land and ocean knowing we were all going through the same thing…and instead of feeling frustrated at our present predicaments, we actually got a laugh together out of them. That’s a special kind of kinship.
Furthermore I wondered had we picked the right gate to Lampedusa, we wouldn’t have be sitting next that piano for Evie to play on, which could have inspired a random onlooking passenger, that mom dancing with her baby behind Evie, or even our social media, to look at life in a new light as if we became part of a greater ripple effect…
…and yet these are also thoughts I consider when I pull 2 all nighters in a row. One can dare to dream.
Back to our regularly scheduled programming:
Located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea as the southernmost island of Italy, Lampedusa is the major island of the Pelagie Islands and considered to be part of Sicily. We arrived around 2 hours later than planned at 4:30pm.
This island has been inhabited by the Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, and Arabs until it became part of the Kingdom of Italy in 1860. You can tell it has Arabic influences to moment you arrive into town.
After a week in the very Wester European influenced old towns of Sardinia and Corsica, I felt immediately at home here.
With population of 5800 people, the island is 12km long and 3km wide, boasting a Middle Eastern-influenced capital “town” full of charms and vibes.
Fun fact is that we’re not really in Europe; this island geologically belongs to Africa.
For the average visitor who must go somewhere “unique” to the island, they should head straight to L’isolotto dei Conigli (the Island of the Rabbits), regarded as the “world’s best beach” on an official TripAdvisor poll.
We took the hourly 1 euro per person bus from the center of Lampedusa’s central town which gets to the beach on the west side of the island within 15 minutes.
What we did not know was that you need to make reservations ahead of time via your accommodations to visit the beach, otherwise expected to be placed on a waitlist (aka sit on an uncomfortable rock wall) where you could wait up to 2 hours to get in.
Thanks to a kind Italian nuclear engineer named Claudia (and her parents!) from Naples living in London, her watermelon themed umbrella kept us sane for our 2 hours underneath the sun.
Once our 2 hour wait was up and after the folks with reservations having been let in first, we finally got to see what the fuss was all about. I also needed to stretch my legs after that.
For sustainability purposes, they only allow a maximum of 550 people at a time on a beach, with a maximum of 2 hour shifts at a time before you’re expected to leave to make room for another group to arrive. The beach opens late morning and closes at 7:30pm.
Once you’re in you have to hike down a rock path 15-20 minutes to finally reach your destination.
And once you do, it’s baptism by paradise.
Wait this long to get in and you just want to flip your hair:
Lampedusa was also a location for many film shoots, so movies fans may also recognize some locations and film stars here. We recognized one:
After our time here was up, we headed back into town for a cab pickup at our lodgings for our onward 6:40pm DAT direct flight to Palermo.
- At time of posting in Lampedusa, it was 30 °C -
Humidity: 63% | Wind Speed: 8km/hr | Cloud Cover: clear
The Cassandra Complex – the phenomenon from Ancient Greek mythology when one’s valid warnings or concerns are disbelieved by others.
We’re now literally living it.
Despite having endured a crisis so visceral in NYC (or Italy, Wuhan, etc.) 4-5 months ago, and being grateful to have received enough international attention that we even felt hopeful that what we went through wouldn’t be repeated elsewhere, we‘d still end up feeling unheard and ignored.
Because if what truly matters with our early experience and warnings was to save as many lives as possible, but to see instead so many would still get sick, permanently injured, or die unnecessarily around the country right now, we can’t help but now feel frustrated that our efforts couldn’t have a larger impact. That so many more lives may have been saved.
“Canaries in coal mines,” “sacrificial lambs” — they at least serve the purpose that may lead to actions that could save a greater community. If we couldn’t even do that much for ours as the “canary” or “lamb”, could you imagine our devastating sense of helplessness?
My moral injury lies in the agony over the alternative scenario — where if the rest of the country had listened to us and been more prepared, leading to no other surges or death — people would’ve instead blamed NYC for “overreacting,” “shutting down everything unnecessarily,” or that we “did everything wrong and let so many die.”
So which scenario would you rather have?
- Fewer people die and no more COVID surges thanks to your warnings BUT that means you would then get thrown under the bus afterwards, get blamed for your higher death numbers, or that you “overreacted,” etc. then they use that as an excuse to take away funding for healthcare/public health afterwards.
- More people die and many COVID surges because nobody listened to your warnings but “at least you’ll be proven right.”
Now you have an idea of only one of the countless ethical and moral injuries that we wrestle with everyday.
Please don’t forget us when this is all over.
Phase 2 of our reopening has begun, and with our infection rates continuing to decline here in NYC, the irony is not lost on me that profound changes happened to us even when we were trapped in stasis.
During the past 3 months since March 20th — the country’s longest — I didn’t lament just the loss of discrete “things” such as work, hangouts or trips, I also mourned the promise of “missed connections,” “lost opportunities,” “the ones that got away,” and “what could have been.” That’s why quarantines, as necessary as they may be to save lives in the interest of public health, is harder than we give ourselves credit for.
I have thus reframed my own lockdown and pandemic experience as not only an odyssey of trauma and uncertainty with no end in sight, but also a pilgrimage I have embarked on with countless others of my generation — a different type of journey where in lieu of visiting other countries, we instead steered inwards and towards a different kind of foreign territory of self-growth. And thus I have been recovering from my grief through reclaiming a personal agency as I have had for any loss: I must come out of this stronger.
Therefore privileged to have been spared from death during this pandemic so far, I have instead uncovered unexpected opportunities to become even more resilient — Can we garner more freedom from fear, no longer postpone life and experiences long overdue, be a little less fragile over a simple piece of facecloth, nurture greater empathy for what others have been enduring, and discover avenues to work together for a better society amidst perennial pandemics of disease, iniquity, and injustice?
If we can reexamine challenges that come with a lockdown instead as part of a meditative transformative experience to become better individuals, then we no longer have to mourn “what could have been” —
We would instead have become “what could have been.”
- At time of posting in NYC, it was 29 °C -
Humidity: 36% | Wind Speed: 19km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy
PSA: It’s time to play offense on COVID-19
About 9 weeks ago I had written how in the middle of the tsunami of the first wave, the safest assumption (with the relative little information we had) at the time was that one should come to the ER only if they had a life and limb threatening emergency and to minimize any unnecessary exposure to, or spread of, COVID-19 for the sake of saving as many lives as possible. The goal was to keep everyone who was otherwise healthy or could improve on their own, out of what was the equivalent of being drowned unnecessarily in flooded buildings filled with sick patients.
Now that the floods have subsided and patient volumes continue to decrease across ERs in NYC (thanks to you and our communities working together!), I have time now to ruminate over what exactly just happened in the past 2 months: the overwhelming number of patients, rampant cross-contamination, fear for personal safety, afflicted friends, hyper-coagulation, cytokine storms, sudden deaths, and burying my grandfather.
They are now giving one of my nightmares a name: Silent Hypoxia. To this day I can still see it all too clearly — Patients that appear well one minute, suddenly collapsing into respiratory failure and cardiac arrest in the next. Simply put: patients who seemed to get better but then died. Patients like my grandfather.
Therefore during our temporary ceasefire we should not only prepare ourselves for a possible next surge, let alone an even more challenging flu season under the shadow of COVID-19, but also switch gears in making sure we don’t present too late to the ER: Instead of acquiescing to a new harbinger of inevitable sudden death, how do we now prevent it?
When circumstances begin to change, so must our dance: Sometimes we need to freestyle, sometimes we need to tango.
If You Are to Ever Contract or Are High Risk for COVID-19:
If you or anyone you know will ever be diagnosed with COVID-19 but still feel well enough to stay home (as to not spread the virus to others), I suggest to become more aggressive with the following:
1) Engage in safe physical activity (such walking around the house, proning yourself on your stomach) to help prevent possible clot formation and help you breathe better.
2) Coordinate closely with a primary care doctor via TeleHealth/Skype/Zoom/FaceTime (messaging another doctor via casual social media like myself DOES NOT COUNT).
3) Monitor symptoms with a verified pulse oximeter (“pulse ox”) device, whether mailed over by an online purchase, the primary doctor, a local healthcare facility, and even some ERs (For the record, smart phone apps are not as good as they measure only one waveform, not multiple, and thus may add another unnecessary risk).
You can then check your oxygen levels by placing the pulse ox preferably on the middle or index finger of your dominant hand. If you have COVID-19 and your fingers do not have any known circulation problems, are not cold, not sporting nail polish, and the device shows a legit SpO2% value less than 88-92% (the exact threshold depends on your history and the doctor you chose to coordinate with) consistently for more than 5 minutes, call your doctor. You may have to go to the ER immediately for supplemental oxygen to prevent silent hypoxia from manifesting.
Therefore, in tackling BOTH the challenges in avoiding the virus’ contagiousness and yet also preventing the newly observed phenomenon of silent hypoxia, our tango demands that we neither act too early nor too late.
If You Don’t Have COVID-19: When Can We Go Out/Travel Again?
IF YOU ARE WELL / STILL DO NOT have COVID-19 or symptoms: I suggest that you not worry about silent hypoxia just yet. Instead, it may be more productive to fortify your baseline mental health and take control of your life again.
Watch the numbers in your area when things start opening up — if they stay consistently low after 2-3 weeks (the average incubation time it takes from exposure to symptoms), then that could be your cue to take the next step towards restarting your life depending on your risk tolerance and personal circumstances. And if you do decide to take a step outside, continue to proceed with caution: Maintain elevated hygiene standards (wash your hands with soap & water, cover your mouth, etc.), be aware of touching others, keep clear of crowds, and avoid small tightly packed interiors with minimal air flow. In other words: always look out for the safety of yourself and others.
But if numbers spike up after 2-3 weeks, then you know we’re not yet in the clear, that the virus does not care about the weather, and you had a 2-3 week head start with staying inside and safe from exposure.
If You Never Ever Had Symptoms or COVID-19: The Antibodies Test
If you are NOT a frontline health care worker and NEVER ever had symptoms, risking going outside during a pandemic for an antibodies test to determine if you ever were exposed to the virus may be less useful for you personally than it would be for local public health efforts to track and control the spread of COVID-19 in your area.
I leave such a decision up to you, your ethics, and your risk tolerance.
(To clarify: the PCR nasal swab is for presently active infections only, while the blood draw for antibodies are ideally done 2-3 weeks after a highly suspected or known infection occurs and/or resolves)
This all might seem like a lot of moving parts, but remember (especially with new disease processes) medicine is more of an art than science. Our knowledge of this virus is ever evolving, and everyone’s specific care may differ depending on genetics, access, resources, housing, and risk tolerance. And yet whatever your circumstances are, cherish the autonomy you still have to choose what the best care is for you: The people who survive the apocalypse are not the smartest or the strongest, but the most adaptable. And therefore we must all adapt both individually and collectively to the perennially changing circumstances expected from a worldwide pandemic.
If we do this right we can ensure our ERs still can care for the right patients, encourage people who do need the ER won’t be too scared to come, soften the impact of the next surge, decrease the chances for a next wave, and be better able to handle the next flu season.
Good luck. Keep your head up. You are not alone.
Photo credit: Kareem Black
Thank you Diana Klatt (of Global Caveat), Dr. Sharon Li, Mel Jeng, and Dr. Linus Sun for feedback, suggestions, and addressing some blind spots to make this PSA possible.
For further immediate, live updates on the ground, follow the stories posted on my Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/monsoondiaries/
For more information on silent hypoxia and the simple things we can do to prevent it: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/10/opinion/coronavirus-elderly-pulse-oximeter.html
- At time of posting in NYC, it was 11 °C -
Humidity: 33% | Wind Speed: 5km/hr | Cloud Cover: partly cloudy