Travel in the time of Coronavirus

Here we are in December of 2020 – are you longing to travel? Me too! We’ve been in the tiny island nation of Grenada for six months. That’s the longest we’ve been in any one country (including the US) since 2017. Hurricane season is over and Caribbean nations are starting to cautiously relax their coronavirus restrictions and to reopen for tourism. Hooray! But that sure doesn’t mean that it’s easy or cheap to travel yet. Follow along with me on the thrilling adventure of sailing twelve miles and overcoming infinite bureaucratic red tape to get from Grenada 🇬🇩 to St Vincent and the Grenadines 🇻🇨

First of all, the protocols for entering each country have been changing weekly – it’s hard to keep track! St Vincent has actually done a pretty good job of updating a web page with their requirements. In a nutshell, we have to pass a Covid test in Grenada, then travel to SVG and take a second test, quarantining while we wait for the results. If both tests are negative, we are free to clear in and explore the country. Sounds easy, right? 😜 Obviously, you are not familiar with the concept of island time. (Skip to the end if you just want to know how much it cost)

We’ve spent the past three weeks on the island of Carriacou, a pleasant day sail north of the big island of Grenada, and still part of the country of Grenada. From our anchorage, we could look northwest and see Clifton Harbor Union Island – the southernmost island in St Vincent, less than 12 miles away. But …. until last week, the only open port of entry for SVG was on the main island of St Vincent, over 50 miles further north. AND the only clinic in Carriacou that does Covid tests only performs the tests on Mondays and Wednesdays at 1:00pm. Then they put the tests on a ferry and ship them back to Grenada for processing. Talk about adding time and complexity to the process! We waited until Union Island reopened to visitors (giving them a week to work out the kinks) and then Cheryl on SV LeefNu put together a spreadsheet of all of the steps in the process and we went to work!

Step 1: Request permission to travel to St Vincent

On Wednesday December 2, I sent an email to SVGARRIVALS requesting permission to travel from Carriacou to Union Island over a week later, on 10 December. I attached a “Request to quarantine aboard” form with lots of details about our boat, crew, travel history and health status.  I didn’t receive any sort of response until late Friday afternoon when I wrote back and asked politely whether I should cancel my PCR test appointment on Monday. That did it. I received an email stating we were approved!

Step 2: Pre-travel Covid PCR test

I can’t believe I made it all the way to December 2020 without a q-tip up the nose! Well, no longer. We dinghied ashore and joined a small parade of other sailors walking toward the L’esterre Health Clinic. The nurse looked a bit taken aback to see us all lined up at the front door. She muttered, “I hope I have enough swabs” and directed us one at a time to the office to pay. Then another long wait in the hot airless clinic until being called into the nurse’s office to get poked. She had exactly enough tests for the 16 people who showed up that day. The nurse was surprisingly gentle, and we were free again one hour and 820ecd ($300) later. Yikes! Now the clock is ticking. We need to make sure we can get to SVG within the 72 hours that this test is valid. I’d cry if we missed our chance and had to get a second test and shell out ANOTHER $300 bucks.

Step 3: Wait for test results. Stress out. Jump each time you get an email notification

There’s a long list of paperwork we need to submit to St Vincent 24-hours before we arrive. But the very first item on the list is our negative test results. So we hold our breath, cross our fingers, and hope the tests made it onto Monday night’s ferry to Grenada and hope that the General Hospital isn’t too overwhelmed to process our tests quickly. Did I mention that St Vincent only performs tests on Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday? So if we miss our scheduled arrival on Thursday, we’ll have to go on Friday, wait on a quarantine mooring ball until Monday to get tested, and THEN stay in quarantine until we get the results. Or, they might not let us in at all because our Grenada test results would be older than 72 hours. Oh, the stress!

Step 4: Lots more paperwork – finalize permission to travel to SVG

On Wednesday morning at 8:30, our friends on SV Holiday and SV LeefNu received their negative test results via email. But nothing for Sanitas. I sent an email. I made a call. Nothing. We waited…and waited…and grew more and more nervous. Finally, around 11:00 we hopped in the dinghy and traveled back to the clinic. Apparently they spelled our name wrong when they wrote down our email addresses. That’s an easy fix! With the correct address, they sent the results and we were good to go. Negative, as expected, of course- there’s only one active Covid case in all of Grenada, and it was imported on a flight from the US 😞

I rushed to a picnic table outside the grocery store where I could get free wifi and started filling out the rest of the required paperwork. My goal was to get everything submitted before noon (island bureaucrats take long lunch breaks) and to meet the “submit 24 hours in advance” requirement. I barely made it!

Step 5: More waiting…for final approval from St Vincent

Now we needed to wait for St Vincent to reply to my paperwork with a “Stamped Approval Form.” If we show up without this approval, St Vincent can use their coast guard to turn us away from entering the country. However, we still need to clear out of Grenada, and the customs and immigration office is only open until 3:45pm. So more nervous waiting. Finally, I emailed St Vincent customs. They replied that they were waiting for my negative Covid test results. Aargh! That’s what I spent an hour at a supermarket picnic table working on! So…I sent all that paperwork in again. Finally, I received approval.

Step 6: Clear out of Grenada

Captain Mike took our passports and boat paperwork to customs and immigration, paid to catch up on our cruising permit fees, and successfully acquired our exit papers. Phew! We celebrated with burgers and gin & tonics at Big Citi grill 🍔🍸😎

Step 7: Travel to Union Island. ANOTHER Covid test

We woke at first light, as excited as if it were Christmas morning. It feels great to be moving again! Anchors up at first light, and we had a lovely sail to Clifton Harbor on Union Island. Upon arrival, a gentleman in a dinghy marked with a yellow flag met us and escorted us to a mooring ball in the quarantine area. More waiting. Eventually, we were paged via VHF radio “Sanitas, you are cleared to come ashore.” We donned clean clothes, masks, and actually remembered shoes. We dinghied to the Bougainvillea dock, also marked with a yellow flag. Only one boat was allowed ashore at a time and once there, we handed over our boat paperwork and passports (Gulp. I hate to give up our passports. But they are successfully ensuring we won’t skip out on quarantine). We got our second PCR test in less than a week, and boy this nurse really went after it! She didn’t just tickle my brain with the swab, she really twisted and turned it and ground it around – ouch! Back to our mooring ball to wait. Again…. Did I mention the test swabs in SVG also have to take a ferry ride north to St Vincent to be processed? 🙄

Our quarantine view…

Step 8: Another quarantine

We kept ourselves busy through yet another quarantine by cooking, studying French, doing our Christmas shopping, and doing boat projects. But after a few days with no update on our test results, we stayed to get antsy.

Haircut time!

Final Step: Clear into SVG. And hand over a bunch of cash.

Finally, around 4:30 on Monday afternoon, a dinghy with a yellow flag approached. “Do you have good news for us?” Capt. Mike asked. “Unfortunately, I have bad news,” he said “You failed your test and have to take another.” What?!? How is that possible? The man in the dinghy let out a big laugh. “I’m just messing with you!” he said, and handed back our passports and paperwork, as well as a bill for the tests and processing fees. I don’t think that’s very funny, do you?

How much did all this cost?

  • Covid test in Grenada (2 people) = 820ecd or $305US
  • Covid test in SVG (2 people) = 324ecd or $120US
  • Clearing agent fees = 205ecd or $76US
  • Quarantine mooring fees (4 nights) = 245ecd or $92US
  • Cruising permit (1 month)= 70ecd = $27US
  • Total in US dollars = $619
  • Stress and worry about missing a deadline, and all those swabs up the nose = priceless 🤣

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not really complaining about the cost or the process. I understand that we’re very lucky to be able to visit these beautiful countries. And, of course, I respect the desire to protect islanders from Covid-19. The hospitals here really couldn’t handle an outbreak. I’m not even upset about the cost – these islands have had their economy tank with the lack of tourism. But now that we’ve got a 6-month visa in SVG, I don’t anticipate moving around much this season!

Celebratory drinks at Happy Island 🏝️

Everybody’s favorite topic – medical care for nomads!

It’s been two years since Capt. Mike and I have had medical insurance in the USA. Part of our travel plan for 2020 was to fit in a little medical tourism trip to Cancun to get dental work, blood work, and recommended cancer screenings done. But…. it’s 2020….all plans are off! Instead, we spent 6 months in Grenada so we tried our best to find healthcare providers to take care of our needs here.

Although there’s a massive medical school on the island, training America’s future doctors, there’s not really a robust healthcare system or a modern public hospital. There is a small private clinic, St Augustine’s Medical Center, or SAMS, that’s a good option for emergencies. Our friend Cheryl on SV LeefNu had a good experience there treating broken ribs. But I don’t think I’d want to undergo a major surgery here if I had the option to go elsewhere. Many residents, who can afford it, also travel off island for significant medical care.

We started out with the easy stuff – a dental cleaning. Well, I THOUGHT it would be easy! Of the 5 or 6 dentists recommended in my local cruisers FaceBook group, most were taking appointments 4 months out! So I went with the only one I could see within two weeks. I found that the quality of the dental care was….ok. COVID precautions were in place (masks, hand sanitizer, chairs blocked off in the waiting room). A very pleasant young woman dentist, working out of a faded old fashioned office, gave us a thorough exam and a good cleaning. However, no X-rays, and no measurements for gum disease. She pretty much just poked at our typical American teeth and said “everything looks good.” There’s no lab to fabricate crowns on the island, so dentists must order such devices from the US and that takes another three months turnaround. I guess “Replace slowly failing crown” will stay on my to-do list for another year.

Cost for routine dental exam and cleaning = 165 ecd or $61US

Look at those pearly whites!

Up next, annual skin cancer screening. We are two very pale people, living outdoors in the Caribbean, so we make it a priority to get every spot checked out every year. There’s exactly one dermatologist in Grenada, Dr Jenny Issacs. The directions to find her office are “go to the downtown vegetable market, walk up the hill, look for the hand-written sign on the wall next to the used book store.” Again, covid precautions made us feel safe. We even had to bring our certificate from the health ministry stating that we’d passed a covid test and completed quarantine. Dr Issacs has been practicing in Grenada for over 30 years, and she’s licensed as a GP as well as a dermatologist. She’s very kind and thorough, and she listened to all of our concerns and requests for prescriptions to top up the boat first aid kit, writing us prescriptions for antibiotics and my thyroid pills. She examined Mike’s bald head and told him “you have so little melanin in your skin, you should be cruising in Scandinavia”, lol. She wrote him a prescription for Efudix, a cream used to treat pre-cancerous spots. We carefully followed the directions for a two-week treatment, and it seemed to work great! No more rough, red spots! She found one tiny irregular dark spot on my cheek and recommended a biopsy “Out of an abundance of caution”

  • Cost per person for dermatologist appointment = 150ecd or $55US
  • Cost for large tube of Efudix = 460ecd or $170US

Prescriptions are kind of expensive here… But so is everything imported, I suppose! It seems strange to me that prescription meds are priced by the pill, rather than by the month or by the dose. I take a very common generic thyroid medicine, but in the entire time I’ve been in Grenada, I could not find the dose I need in a single pill. Is there a conspiracy in all of Grenada’s pharmacies to make twice the money by selling twice the pills?

Cost of generic thyroid meds = about 55ecd or $20US per month

So that dermatologist appointment led to a biopsy appointment. Sheesh. The spot was so small, I had to point it out to the nurse. The surgeon was very nice – also a sailor who plans to retire and move into a boat in a few years (although he said his wife wouldn’t want to live in one as small as ours). I was nervous about the procedure (after all, it was on my face) but Capt. Mike was there to take care of me, and it really wasn’t bad at all. Three days later and I had the stitches out. Two weeks later, I got the biopsy results – negative – and I could pretend the whole thing never happened. Don’t forget your hat and sunscreen!

Cost for biopsy: including surgeon fees, lab fees, facility fees, initial consultation, and suture removal = 780ecd or $289US.

In addition to these doctors appointments in Grenada, I saw a doctor in Antigua to follow up on my shingles case, and to get routine bloodwork and a cervical cancer screening. So all in all, I got quite a bit of medical care outside the USA this year! If you are used to $20 co-pays and $10 generic prescriptions, these out-of-pocket expenses might sound like a lot. But, when you consider that the premiums alone on my high-deductable ACA plan were over $900 per month, and compare that to the emergency-only international plan that we currently have for about $2600 per year, we can pay for a lot of doctor’s appointments and prescriptions and still come out ahead! Maybe I’ll finally get around to that crown in 2021?

On On! Grenada Hash House Harriers

Every Saturday afternoon, a group of self-proclaimed “drinkers with a running problem” gather in a remote corner of Grenada to hike or run through the bush with a couple hundred of their closest friends. After the run, there’s always a fun party, with food, beer, and maybe even a DJ. Capt. Mike and I joined in as often as possible during our stay in Grenada, to see different parts of the island, meet locals, and get a bit of exercise. If you’re curious about the history and rituals of the Hash House Harriers around the globe, check out this Wikipedia link. Grenada supposedly has the largest HHH organization in the world!

Our first Hash was the first held since COVID-19 restrictions. It was a BLAST as everybody was able to finally get together again in the great outdoors. COVID protocols were definitely in place – masks required when you’re not eating, drinking, or running; social distancing with separation between groups; allowing extra time to register by spreading people out. But it didn’t dampen the fun one bit.

We finished our first Hash
Lots of masks!

The thing that came closest to dampening the fun was in fact the bus ride to this first Hash. It was so popular that local taxi driver Shademan ran two whole busses from the cruiser-popular areas in the south bays of Grenada to the event. Now, the “bus” is really just a van with 4 rows of bench seats. Our bus to the hash crammed in 22 people (and one dog) for a ride that took over an hour and a half in the late summer heat. We had to alternate who could sit back in the seats, versus who had to sit on the very edge to fit so many full sized adults and kids.

Luxury Transportation

But we made it! If you have any picture in your mind of trail running on flowing single track through an aspen grove in the mountains of Colorado…. that’s NOT what a Hash in Grenada is like 🤣 They call it a run through the bush, but to me, it’s a jungle! You push through greenery and vines grab at your ankles. You wade through mud, and sometimes streams. You pass avocado and mango trees, sometimes trampling rotting mangos underfoot, cacao bushes with their bright red pods, the trail (when there actually is a trail) is frequently crossed by lizards and spiders.

This is where chocolate comes from…

There are no switchbacks. The ups and downs are steep and slick, and your best bet is to grab the trees and vines to control the rate of your fall. This may or may not sound like fun to you, but I’ve gotta say, once you get over the fear of getting dirty, it’s a heck of a lot of challenging good time. On a later, even muddier Hash, I fell on my butt three separate times on the same long downhill stretch. Good thing there was a water tap for hosing down at the finish line of that one!

A Hash is more of a game or a puzzle than simply a run. Each week, a different member acts as the “Hare” and sets out the trail ahead of time. The rest of us are the hounds, essentially chasing down the hare. The trail is marked using small piles of shredded paper. When you see one of these paper markers, there’s a sense of relief – phew, we’re still on the trail. Except…when you’re not. A couple of times during each Hash, I’d be streaming along quite happily, huffing and puffing, following the trail, until suddenly, the dreaded X. When you come across an X made of paper, you’ve arrived at a dead end in the trail. At some point prior, maybe at an “O” of paper suggesting you’ve arrived at a crossroads, you’ve taken a wrong turn. Possibly even still following innocent looking paper trail markers. Until you realize the Hare outsmarted you again, and it’s time to turn around and start hunting the one real true trail. If you suspect you might very well be lost, you can shout out “Are you?!?” to ask whether other hashers within the sound of your voice are on the right trail. If so, hopefully someone will shout back, “On-On!” Or, if they’ve already found the dreaded X, they might respond “On back!” to let you know you should go no further; the pack is backtracking. Usually, this whole thing is part of the fun. But once, I took a wrong turn and got separated from the pack. I’d covered at least four miles, and was longing for the finish line and a cold beverage, but I couldn’t even hear the music blaring from the finish party yet. At that point, I’d had enough of tricks and false trails, thank you very much!

One of the best parts of hashing in Grenada is that it gets us outside the cruiser bubble and gives us the chance to meet real local Grenadians. One Saturday, Mike and I took the local bus to get to the Hash at the Westerhall Rum Distillery. Wearing our bright blue hash t-shirts, everybody knew exactly where we were going. Usually, the bus drivers ignore us, but this time the driver and conductor joked and chatted. At the Spice Island Mall stop, a young woman got on and said, “Hey, I didn’t know the Hashes were happening again!” Fun to get even the smallest chance to feel like a local!

Where there’s no Amazon Prime 2-day Delivery

Hurricane season is our down time on Sanitas. We hunker down someplace safe, and we work on the endless list of repair and maintenance projects that have piled up during the Caribbean Cruising season. And…we shop. A lot. We shop for boat parts, we reprovision canned goods and paper products, and we replace the many, many household items that have rusted, ripped, broken, or otherwise wore out through daily use in a hot and humid and salty environment. But this year, for the first time, we couldn’t return home to the US, aka the Land of Plenty. No Walmart, Home Depot, or West Marine. Not even a short trip home, leaving with empty suitcases and coming back with them filled with oil filters, new hatches, and anchor chain. So once we’d made peace with the idea of spending the entire hurricane season in Grenada, we decided to bring the mall to us.

When you wear the same two pairs of shoes every day for over a year, they definitely get worn out! So happy to receive replacements!

I’m not gonna lie, it can be expensive and intimidating to order goods to be shipped to Grenada. Back in July, we shipped the supplies for our custom canvas project via air freight (essentially FedEx) which charges by weight and volume and that adds up quickly. Also, imported goods are subjected to both import duties and VAT – the sum of these taxes is 35% to 45% of the value of the item 😳 But, I learned there are two tricks to making this somewhat affordable:

1) We found a shipping company that uses sea freight. Yep – putting a cardboard barrel or box on a ship and sending it the slow way across the Caribbean sea from Miami to Grenada. For sea freight, we paid one price of 600 xcd (about $200) for shipping and handling based on the volume of the container, not on the weight. So it was in my best interest to order enough goodies to fill that box to the very top with the heaviest items possible, don’t you think? The guys at West Tech were great – they even sent us a photo of our box as it filled in Miami.

Almost full! It’s time to put this baby on the boat!
(Don’t blame me for the blurriness)

2. I worked through the red tape and paperwork to certify that the items we bought were all “transiting ships stores.” In other words, none of the boat parts, electronics, or clothing would stay in Grenada, but would be leaving with us when we continue to cruise north after hurricane season. Getting a C-14 form to certify this took a massive spreadsheet, lots of invoice tracking, half a ream of printer paper, and a lot of time at the Customs office. But it’s worth it – it reduced our overall duty from 45% down to 2.5%

You know how you order 6 things from Amazon and they ship them in 5 different boxes? We’ll imagine that frustration over a dozen Amazon orders. In fact, we ordered so much within a 48-hour period, after ordering nothing since last November, that Amazon locked our account and canceled an order because we triggered a fraud alert. TWICE. And that’s another reason for my massive spreadsheet. I tried to track when each package had arrived at the warehouse in Miami, so I knew when to tell the shipping company to go ahead and close up our box and put it on a boat. I now know the formats of UPS, USPS, and Fed Ex tracking numbers by heart!

You know how you hear stories about slow downs at the US Postal Service? Well we finally got bit by that chaos. Our final package was an envelope of documents that had to travel from Jacksonville, FL to Miami, FL. And it took three weeks. And apparently it only ever made it to the Miami post office and not actually to the address of the warehouse. Which means it never made it into our great big box. Good grief!

All the effort was worth it because last Friday Capt. Mike and I took a day off from the boatyard to celebrate Christmas in September. Our E-size shipping container was delivered right to our apartment where it was entirely too big and heavy to fit up the stairs, lol. So we spend the rest of the day shuttling shopping bags of boat parts to the boat and kitchen items to the kitchen and perform a fashion show of my new Skirt Sports wardrobe, and try out the new Soda Stream and really do feel just like kids on Christmas morning.

It’s a BIG box!

Was it worth it? Hard to say. When you add up the cost of shipping items within the US, and then across an ocean, and then pay import duty on top of the US sales tax, it’s sure no Amazon Prime free 2-day Delivery. But it allowed us to acquire a bunch of specialized spares and maintenance equipment for Sanitas. And it allowed me to replace the pair of sandals I’ve worn every day for two years until they are falling apart at the seams. And if all else fails, and I need a dry place to live, I’m pretty sure I could sleep comfortably in my size-E shipping container cardboard box!

How do we vote from our Sailboat?

This is the first year since we sold everything in 2017 and moved onto our sailboat, Sanitas, that we won’t be visiting friends and family in the USA in the fall. You know – COVID. 🤬 So how do we vote when we’re “stuck” in the tiny island country of Grenada 🇬🇩 with no access to the good old USPS? Well, it took a lot of research, a bit of trial and error, and about $15 but I think I’ve figured it out!

When we sold our house in Colorado, we established residency in Green Cove Springs, FL. (Yep. You can go ahead and call Capt. Mike “Florida Man.”) Florida is a no excuse vote-by-mail state. That means any registered voter can request a vote-by-mail ballot, without needing to prove a hardship or disability or that you’ll be out of town on Election Day. And, regardless of what the Pres says in his tweets, there’s no difference between an absentee ballot and vote by mail in Florida. in fact, in 2016, Florida removed the words “absentee ballot” completely from all government websites, ballots, and documents. When we registered to vote in Clay County, we ticked the box requesting to vote-by-mail and each time we return a ballot, we tick the box again stating we want to continue voting in this manner. That’s all well and good when we’re in the US, and we can get our mail forwarded to us, but what do we do when we’re overseas?

There’s an excellent government website called the Federal Voter Assistance Program or www.fvap.gov that provides tools and links to help US citizens vote from overseas. Being the government, it’s all acronym alphabet soup. First, we filled out the Federal Post Card Application (FPCA) to certify that we’ll be living outside the US on Election Day and requesting our ballots by email, rather than USPS mail. It required filling out and printing a form, then signing it, scanning, and e-mailing it back. In just a couple days, I received an e-mail confirming that Clay County received the form, and we were good to go on e-mail ballots. Step 1 successfully complete!

FVAP also does a great job of providing the election timeline for each county, including deadlines to register, request vote-by-mail, to return your ballot, and more. It even provides contact info for each county board of elections. This might just be the most useful government website ever! And now I’m slightly embarrassed about how much I’m gushing over a government website.

On September 18, we received our ballots and voting instructions in an e-mail – right on schedule! I hopped on a local minivan bus and traveled to the only shopping mall on the island, where I found a business center and printed our ballots and instructions for 10.50 ECD ($4USD) Back home, I used resources at Ballotpedia.org and the League of Women Voters lwvfl.org to research candidates and constitutional amendments on the ballot. When we were ready, Capt. Mike and I marked our ballots, signed them, and filled out a fax transmission sheet.

Florida doesn’t allow you to return a ballot via email (some states do!) so we also signed a waiver acknowledging that our faxed ballots wouldn’t be private. And then I set off in search of a fax machine – remember those? I spent about a day and a half walking back and forth between the boatyard and the Budget Marine chandlery with a folder full of paperwork trying to make it there during business hours (Island time is no joke!) and trying to find one with a fax machine that would function correctly and stay connected for 5 whole pages. I phoned Clay County directly a couple of times and spoke to a lovely, polite southern woman who checked that the fax machine was indeed turned on, and even gave be a backup fax number when the first one didn’t work. You gotta love that southern politeness! Finally, and after paying 2ec per faxed page, success! My mantra is, “Well it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than FedEx!” I have fax transmission sheet to prove my ballot went through. Now, fingers crossed that my signature from 2020 matches the one I gave them when I registered back in 2017 and I should be confident that Capt. Mike and I did our part to make our votes count and our voices heard. Even from the islands, mon.