Diary from the Diamond Princess
A U of M alumni couple share their day-by-day notes after a cruise during the early days of COVID-19 left them in quarantine for nearly a month.
Editor’s note: On January 18,
Ron Hildeen (B.A., ’71) and Amy
Liljegren Ellefson (B.A., ’69) flew
from Minneapolis to Tokyo to take a
15-day Asian cruise on the Diamond
Princess. They were traveling with
Amy’s cousin, Arnie Hopland, and his
wife, Jeanie, and enjoyed ports of call
not just in Japan but also Hong Kong,
Vietnam, and Taiwan.
At the tail end of the voyage, the
crew announced that a new sort
of disease, then called the novel
coronavirus, had just been detected
in several of the countries the cruise
ship had visited. Passengers had their
temperatures taken and then enjoyed
a normal day on board, eating, and
mingling with their fellow travelers.
On the last night of the cruise,
Hildeen and Ellefson packed their suitcases and put them outside their cabin
to be picked up for disembarkation.
Later that evening, there was a knock
on the door. They were told they
wouldn’t be getting off the boat in
Japan and that they needed to bring
the suitcases back inside. A day later,
they were confined to their rooms.
Hildeen used Facebook to communicate with friends about what
happened from that point forward.
Sometimes funny, sometimes
sobering in hindsight, his posts
create a compelling chronicle of the
early days of a pandemic that was
still not widely understood by the
overwhelming majority of Americans.
The couple would spend 12 days in
their room on the ship. After they
were allowed to return to the U.S.,
the couple spent a further 14 days in
mandatory quarantine at Travis Air
Force Base in California.
“As members of a generation that have weathered many memorable events, we never thought this 15-day Asian cruise would turn out to be one of international importance,” Hildeen says today. “As the cruise date neared, I joked about my visiting Vietnam 50 years after almost being sent there while I was in the Army. I joked about Gilligan’s Island and the resulting long-term nature of the short cruise. Both pale in comparison to what lay ahead of us.”
Hildeen gave Minnesota Alumni permission to reprint excerpts of his posts. We’ve edited these lightly for space, but otherwise, the posts appear as Hildeen shared them. They help provide a glimpse of how what is now known as COVID-19 evolved from an unknown entity into the pandemic it has become today.
First time on internet for a while.
Except for the
inability to post my adventures in Asia with friends and family, I
can’t say I have missed it much.
End of the trip should be simple, right? NOPE.
Have you seen news of the virus in Asia? Well some guy on the
cruise got it and Japanese health folks are taking no chances. So
here we sit, quarantined, at least until all passengers and crew
have their temperatures taken. Waiting our turn. Good news is
that we don’t seem to have it. Missed our tours of Okinawa and
Tokyo, bummer. Glad we have a later flight back home.
Greetings from the Diamond Princess (aka HMS
As they keep transferring people to off-ship medical facilities, we remain cloistered in our 20 x 25 cabin. Not all hardship: We do have internet, TV, movies, hot water, and three meals per day. They are letting select groups of cabins out on the open decks for fresh air. This all reminds me of a mashup and updating of ’30s prison movies and World War II Japanese POW movies. Haven’t started making shivs or planning an escape yet, but we are only three days into our sentence. There are some folks here with multiple small kids, one family of two 80+-year-old grandparents with 20+-year-old grandsons in an inner (no window) cabin. Could be much worse.
News from the front, day four of the quarantine.
We got to leave our rooms and go outside to walk. Must be masked
and rubber gloved. Met up with Arnie and Jeanie to liberate their
game of Scrabble. Yet another game to lose. All going well.
News from the front—day five. Nine days left for
quarantine. Not much happening today. Still cloistered in our rooms
hoping the flu bug doesn’t get us. They took a few more off ship
today for unrelated medical issues. The captain says mental health
counselors are available should there be repercussions about
being confined. My thoughts go to those with young children in
Every couple of days the ship goes back out to sea to perform
necessary deep-water chores, then back to dock. I am thinking
reloading desalination tanks and other obscure things. I would
like to volunteer our window for a good cleaning, taking pictures
through it gives the impression of looking through waxed paper.
We are able to see Mt. Fuji on the return trip.
Good food, lots and lots of rice. Still have to pay for beer though.
FaceTiming with the kids, playing games, and watching movies
occupy our time.
Good news, no snow and blue skies.
News from the front, day seven—halfway there.
So what’s new here on the Diamond Princess?
Yesterday we got snazzy new masks. These masks replace the
Dollar Store ones. Plastic gloves gone, replaced by a glop of hand
sanitizer—nasty stuff. The piano bar guy said that it would be ironic
if the hand sanitizer was the stuff spreading the virus.
The inmates are getting restless, some suggesting a desolate
island setting for quarantine—perhaps Hawaii.
They are feeding us well. Food coma a possibility.
Internet is up and down, maybe the resident computer guy got
sick or something.
Seven days done, seven to go. This life certainly takes some of
the glow off the tiny house craze. Although it’s sorta like having a
cabin in the Tokyo bay.
Good food, lots of movies, and comfy bed.
More to come, stay tuned.
News from the front—day eight, six to go (I hope).
Being on the other side of the world has its disadvantages. Trying to
figure date and time back home is one. Now for instance, 8:51 p.m.
here is 5:51 a.m. there [in Minnesota] with day confusion on top of it.
That explains the post about watching Sunday
night Academy Awards on Monday morning
here. Very confusing.
We took a cruise out to sea again to do some
technical stuff that requires the ship to leave
port, cruise around a bit, and return. This time
we were docked with our room facing shore.
And on shore were a bunch of ambulances
waiting to pick up more sick folk, not us—we
We keep getting fed well. Lots of meat, veggies, and tons of rice. During the cruise there
was a whole buffet to choose from. During
quarantine, not so much. During the cruise
there is a great burger, hot dog,
and pizza counter. After eight days
I would really like a good burger or
hot dog and/or a nice slice or two of
pizza—no rice please.
One thing the food service folk
don’t seem to grasp is the American
NEED for coffee. Call room service,
they say. The line is always busy. I
started calling the front desk—oddly not too
busy these days. End result was about one hour
later someone showed up with a couple cups
full. I think the repeated calls from the wild-eyed
Americans finally got to them since this evening
a cart with a bunch of coffee cups and two air
pots showed up after dinner. Always works to
look just a little crazy.
Watched a bunch of movies, played some
card games, and had a nice nap. A nice day here
in our all-inclusive free tiny house floating in
[Editor’s Note: Hildeen and Ellefson’s travel companion, Jeanie Hopland, tests positive for the virus. She is hospitalized in Japan and then returns to the U.S. on March 1. Her husband, Arnie, is placed in quarantine in Japan and returns to the U.S. a week after his wife arrived back home. Hopland says she felt like she had a cold—no shortness of breath or high fever.]
On that same day, after a 12-day quarantine, Hildeen and Ellefson
were notified that all American passengers could choose to take a
bus from the ship and a chartered airplane at the airport for transport to either Travis Air Force Base in California or a base in San
Antonio, Texas. Their other option was to wait out the quarantine
on the Diamond Princess and be transported later. They chose to
leave the Diamond Princess to fly back to the U.S., where they had
to undergo a second 14-day quarantine.
We are back in the USA. More when I wake up.
News from the Western Front. Day two of 14.
Having made a daring late-night escape from the mysterious East,
we are now in an encampment in Travis AFB in California.
Traveling to this wonderful place we used bus and air transport.
Five-hour trip to the airport from the Diamond Princess, usually a
20-minute trip. A salute to Japanese precision, we couldn’t leave
until all nine buses were filled and the military escort assembled.
Then another 2 1/2-hour wait at the airport so passports could
be matched with people. Hard on the nerves and bladder. The
plane was a 747 converted to a cargo plane. The conversion turns
an elegant air liner into a flying barn. A pallet containing possibly
300 seats, in case you wonder where plane seats go when jets are
refurbished. Mounted with about 6 inches of leg room. Two pallets
containing porta potties, four in all, of which two were duct-taped
shut. The two working toilets brought to mind the worst of any
outhouse ever experienced. Ten hours in this thing.
We landed and were “processed” at the Air Force base,
assigned quarters and literally fell over, sound asleep. The processing was well-run and very efficient; the overall move, not so
much. Note to those needing case studies: This would be a great
study on how not to do this.
Travis AFB is a nice military post. We were assigned a suite with
chairs, couch, kitchenette, etc. However, there were no dishes, no
silverware, a one-cup coffee thingy. (With no coffee.)
The first thing we saw the next day was a guy setting up a chain
link fence around the place. Not your parents’ motel.
Food is good, weather sunny and mild. “Guards” are very nice
and helpful. We are able to go outside for walks and have a picnic
table for Scrabble or cards.
I think we made the right decision to make a break from the
ship. They are finding more sick passengers and crew daily. Rumor
has it that additional quarantine time may be forthcoming for
those who stayed.
Live from the front, day seven of 14—halfway there.
A couple of people turned up positive for
the virus, immediately sent off to hospital
Another incentive to stay healthy: a conference call informed us that our insurance will be a
factor in any hospital stay. Co-pays, deductibles,
etc., will most likely be on our dime. Great!
Still testing bug-free. No fever.
In the morning at 7 a.m., over loudspeakers,
there is Reveille. I had forgotten that from 50
years ago when I was stationed at Ft. Knox.
The weather here is great: 70s and sunny.
Still the chain link fence and guards at the four
corners. Asked one of the guards if there have
been any breakout attempts. Not yet. Took a
picture of the sign saying no photos allowed.
Not a good pic—had visions of the guard getting
twitchy about my efforts. But by being a child of
the ’60s, when you confront something saying
prohibited, you have to try it.
They opened a “free store” with coffee (yay),
They had a conference call yesterday. People
asked questions about our getting out of
here. One asked if coffee mugs were available.
Another wanted to know about commemorative
T-shirts. Still another wondered if some diversity
of food was possible.
Right now, I would kill for a good cheeseburger.
Upon completion of quarantine, we will get a
paper saying we are bug-free and free to travel
again. I found out that our passports have been
flagged that we are one of those who have been quarantined. The official on the other side of the call
said that would be removed when we get our official
News from the western front.
Day eight. We were told that either Sunday
(yesterday) or today folks would come to take us
away, ha ha. That is, those who had tested positive
to the nose and throat swabs. Instant paranoia. No
one wants to go to the hospital, and no one wants
to be Typhoid Mary, either.
Someone tripped a fire alarm on the other side
of the fence. Heads popped out of their doors. Is it
Today the results came. A guy in full hazmat
regalia showed up at our door with two envelopes.
He asked how we were. I replied—“you tell us.”
He did. Me—negative on all tests, Amy—negative
on all tests. Woo hoo, like a great weight removed
from our shoulders!
If we remain free from fever, we are outta here
during the first week of March.
Fingers remain crossed.
Watch this space for more as things develop.
I can almost smell that cheeseburger.
Report from the other side of the lines.
We survived the 15-day Asia cruise, which, unlike
the doomed boat of Gilligan’s Island, ended after 45
days. While being away from Minnesota for half of
January and all of February is usually a good thing,
this version left a little to be desired.
We were bused to the airport, given our “get out
of jail papers” and were free to go on our merry way.
Arrival at the Minneapolis St. Paul Airport was
interesting, with reporters and cameras from the
local TV stations waiting for us. As they interviewed
us, I watched onlookers wondering who we were
and what all the commotion was. Between that and
a couple of onboard FaceTime interviews, we have
pretty much used up our 15 minutes of fame.
Back to home, facing normal routines and the
like. Being an old school kinda guy I am slowly going
through 45 days of newspapers (18 inches deep).
Closing comments. An interesting way of spending a month and a half. Would we go again? Yup. Will we take another cruise? Yup, again. Where to? Anyplace warm.