Cruise passenger returns to world transformed by pandemic

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Barcelona (AFP)

In early January Carlos Paya set out on a dream cruise around the world.

Over 100 days later, he set foot on land for the first time on Monday when he disembarked in his native Spain and encountered a world transformed by the coronavirus pandemic.

"We followed the situation on television, on the news, but the impact on arrival is tremendous," the 58-year-old sports journalist told AFP by telephone.

"Going out with a face mask and gloves...You can't get used to it, it's a shock and I think it will take us a few days to get used to it."

He and his wife were one of several hundred passengers who got off an Italian cruise ship, the Costa Deliziosa, in Barcelona after five weeks in limbo due to coronavirus restrictions imposed by nations around the world.

Paya then took a train to his hometown of Valencia, some 350 (220 miles) down the coast from Barcelona.

"My heart sank when I stepped outside in Valencia, the empty streets, without people...in a way it was beautiful, but seeing it like that makes your heart sink," he said.

Paya said the cruise, which left Venice on January 5, was a "big dream" of his.

The couple had discussed taking a round-the-world cruise for years and they finally decided to do it after Paya was diagnosed with a degenerative disease which in a few years could make such a trip impossible for him.

The passengers began to realise the huge impact the pandemic was having on the world shortly after the 12-deck Costa Deliziosa left Bora Bora in French Polynesia, Paya said.

"We were in a paradise and we saw that the world was turning into a hell," he added.

- 'Noah's Ark' -

The 300-metre ship's planned stopovers in Asia were cancelled and instead it set sail for Australia which also closed its borders in a bid to stem the spread of the pandemic, so the Costa Deliziosa began to make its way back to Europe.

"The first two thirds of the cruise were marvellous and the last third was so bizarre and historical that I don't think I will experience something like that in my life ever again," said Paya, who repeatedly praised the dedication of the ship's crew.

While the pandemic spread around the world and country after country imposed lockdowns, life went on normally on the luxury ship as none of its roughly 1,800 passengers and 900 crew were infected.

"We can't complain. We were in a place where we could socialise, eat together, go to the theatre, things that in many place you can't do," said Paya, who celebrated his upcoming 59th birthday at sea.

"We were on a Noah's Ark, a world apart," he added.

But he said the passengers were not immune to the unfolding tragedy, especially since many of them were from Italy, one of the world's hardest-hit nations.

While some wanted to remain on board as there was little risk of infection and restrictions on daily life were less severe, Paya said he and his wife were happy to return home to be with their 21-year-old son at this "difficult moment".