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The Cruise – The Living Dead, Holy Rollers, Exploding Diners and Other Tales

November 10, 2011

The last time I went on a cruise was almost exactly ten years ago. We had sold a business a couple of weeks before an event that would have scuppered the deal had we encountered any delay in completion: 9/11.

Given all the complications of air travel in the aftermath, but wanting to celebrate the end six months of nerve-wracking activity, Paula and I looked around for an alternative break. We finally fixed on an eight-day cruise from Southampton to the Canary Islands. November was not a great time for sun-kissed cruises starting from the UK, but the Canaries are pretty close.

So we booked a cruise on a Cunard liner called the Caronia. Compared with the monsters that ply their trade today, it was an aging dowager. Rather like Cunard. And definitely like most of the passengers.

I called it the Cruise of the Living Dead. We were not young, but the average age of our fellow cruisers was at least thirty years older. Days at sea consisted of the usual gorging routine – breakfast lunch and dinner, sandwiches and cakes for tea and late night snacks for anyone who survived the scheduled mealtimes and was still unsated.

Cunard provided middle-aged men to dance with the dowagers. There were dominos, card schools and lectures on various earnest subjects from resident experts. A number of the guests were surely on their last legs. Several brought nurses along to help keep them alive and administer the oxygen

As the air became warmer and the skies gradually transformed from the slate-grey gloom of Southampton in November, passengers started to appear on the deck, decanted from their wheelchairs on to loungers. Paula and I got into a routine of vigorous walks round the main deck. As we passed by the lounger area, I would glance at the reclining elderly. Some would be reading their Joanna Trollope and Jilly Cooper paperbacks. Others would be asleep, mouths open in a rictus yawn, expressions that would not alter from one deck circuit to the next. So static that I would ask myself if they were actually still alive.

But, thank goodness, they would shuffle into the next eating session and duly replenish themselves. This being Cunard, the whole mealtime routine was somewhat stuffy. Black tie for dinner, and the same guests at the same tables throughout the cruise. I enjoy the challenge of finding common ground with people, and the elderly – if their memories are intact – often have far more interesting stories to tell than my one-track, money-obsessed fellow baby-boomers. Our companions on the table were good company, which was a relief, because nothing would have been worse than being stuck with a bunch of gin-soaked droners three times a day for eight days. But who knows – maybe they felt that way about us!

The shore trips were fun, the food was good, there was plenty of reading time and we made it back to Southampton in good spirits. But memories of eight days with the living dead put us off the cruising experience for the next decade.

Since then, the cruise industry seems to have lightened up a little. You can go just about anywhere on a cruise ship these days. The former Iron Curtain countries in the Baltic have become major destinations. You can go to Alaska or Antarctica if you don’t fancy two weeks in the sun. And the traditional cruise ports in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean have seen ever increasing numbers of people of all ages decanted into Jamaica, Antigua, Barcelona and various Greek islands.

Here in the Middle East, you can get your “Arabian experience” from stop-offs in Dubai, Oman and – until the Arab Spring took hold – Bahrain. And trips to Egypt, Israel and Turkey have always been popular.

As I mentioned in my recent post, it was the decision of one cruise company to cancel its Egyptian stop-offs that led to some very attractive deals on a rescheduled cruise to Israel, Greece and Turkey that finally persuaded us back to the ocean waves. Why Caribbean Cruises might consider Israel to be safer than Egypt right now is beyond me, but there it was.

So Paula and I duly gathered together in Istanbul with some old friends for a cruise to Haifa, Ashdod, Athens, Kusidasi and finally back to Istanbul.

The ship was about twice the size of the Cunard boat that took us to the Canaries ten years ago. The Vision of the Seas, operated by Royal Caribbean Cruises, is one of those massive floating hotels  – so tall that it looks as if it would keel over in a gentle breeze. Every port we visited had rival ships docked alongside us. In Haifa I counted seven. Cruising is big business, which explains why the UK newspapers have several pages of cruise adverts in their travel sections most days of the year.

The passenger complement was relatively dowager-free. I would estimate the average age as 55-60, which put our party fairly close to the median. But there were plenty of younger people, a few school age kids escaping with their parents and yes, large numbers of the elderly.

The majority of the two thousand-odd passengers were from the US, closely followed by sizeable numbers of Brits, other Northern Europeans, Italians, Spaniards and South Koreans. The crew was truly multinational – 67 nationalities we were told, led by the debonair captain, Srecko Ban – a man whose looks and charisma would have made him a natural cast member alongside his fellow Croatian heartthrob Goran Visnjic in the cast of ER.

As we boarded the ship on a gloomy Istanbul morning, the first thing we noticed was a number of portable hand sanitising stations – put your hand under the dispenser and you get a shot of alcohol -based gel. This, it turned out was one of the measures put into place to deal with the plague of all cruise ships – the dreaded Norovirus. It turned out that on the cruise just ended there were thirty unfortunates struck down with this nasty bug that causes diarrhoea and vomiting. All were confined to their cabins until they were no longer infectious.

Fearful that the same would happen on this cruise, the crew placed sanitizers at the entrance to every restaurant, and wiped down all the surfaces that people might touch – such as handrails and banisters – every two hours. The crew were forbidden to shake hands with passengers, and we were advised not to do so with each other. Clearly this had the desired effect, since only six people came down with the bug on our cruise. But it did create something of plague mentality. I half expected to pass by cabins daubed with red crosses, which would have been very appropriate since we were on our way to the Holy Land. By the time we finally left the ship I felt myself instinctively reaching for the sanitizer like Howard Hughes in his obsessive-compulsive pomp.

The on-board experience was extremely jolly – though likely to have produced tremors on the Margaret Rutherford-style triple chins of the Caronia dowagers. Our “cruise director” was a hyperactive Welshman called Simeon. He and his rather mournful sidekick, referred to as Urkey from Turkey, would pop up regularly on the ship’s TV channel urging us to take part in the adult karaoke, assault the rock-climbing wall and blow our dollars in the casino. There was live music everywhere – on deck, in the central area and every night in the ship’s theatre. There was a card room full – my bridge-playing friends told me – of cursing Spaniards playing for high stakes.

And of course the ritual breakfast, lunch and dinner, from the cafeteria on the upper deck or the posh dining room below. The food was excellent and the service just as good. The Australian head chef took a bow at the end of the cruise, and informed us that we had consumed over forty-five tons of food. God knows what they did with the downstream result of all the eating – hopefully not dumped in the Med.

Those of you who have not been on a cruise, beware. Although the price of cruises these days are quite reasonable, operators tend to take advantage of your captivity by making huge margins on the extras. $30 per hour for a very slow internet service. At least $36 per bottle for wine and about $10 per glass. Their shore excursions are also not cheap. We took a day trip from Haifa that cost $180 each. Even the ice cream and coffee outlets came at a price. So if you are an average holidaymaker who wants to get out and about on shore, and likes the occasional glass of wine at dinner and an aperitif on deck, you could easily end up spending as much again as you did for the basic cruise. Should you think about sneaking a bottle or three into the cabin from the duty free outlets in the ports, you risk having your bottles confiscated and returned at the end of the cruise.

For most of our fellow passengers the main reason for the trip was pretty obviously the chance to visit the holy places in Galilee, Bethlehem and Jerusalem. The faithful were everywhere, as evidenced by the Sunday service held on board before we arrived in Haifa, which, from what we could hear, had a distinctly holy roller flavour. We were also treated to a lecture on the State of Israel by a female rabbi from New York. To my sceptical ears the message was predictable. The history of Zionism, the achievements of Israel, a host of impressive statistics and a selective statement of the political reality, in which she characterised the Palestinians as “a problem”.

I would imagine that the cruise operator knew its audience, and calculated that the good rabbi’s message would go down well with the American evangelicals rooting for the end of days. Which indeed it did. It left me a bit queasy though.

Of course, not all the passengers were from the scary American religious right constituency. For many, a visit to Israel was an opportunity to see the sites they had read about in the Bible throughout their lives. And I suspect that, like me, their interest was strictly historical and sociological. As for faith, I think of myself as an observer rather than a participant. My religious views are nobody else’s business. Though I find communal worship fascinating, it’s not for me.

As a dedicated people watcher, I spent many hours sitting on deck and watching the inmates go by. The older I become, the more fascinated I become with the faces of the elderly whose ranks I will soon join. I compare them with rocks by the sea. Some faces are like the pebbles smoothed out by millennia of interaction with grains of sand on the beach. Others are like boulders at the bottom of cliffs, deep cracks gouged out by the constant battering of the waves. It’s strange how many negative emotions seem to be etched into those faces – fear, disappointment, envy, irritation and spoilt expectation. Are those the emotions we have to look forward to in our advanced years? Hopefully not. Perhaps it’s just that faces at rest default into apparently unhappy compositions whether we experience the emotions or not. It’s certainly no accident that great artists such as Leonardo Da Vinci found so much  satisfaction in portraying elderly subjects.

I was particularly interested in watching the elderly Koreans. Short compared to the Westerners, many of them walking uneasily, bent-backed and bow-legged. These were people who grew up before and during the Korean War in the early Fifties. What sort of lives had they lived? Was it malnourishment and hard physical labour that twisted their frames? And what is it about their society that causes them to be the only ethnic group to walk around with name badges around their necks. A need to belong? And why do a sizeable majority of Korean women –even the young ones – sport unnaturally curled hair styles, even the young ones, when the rest of the world distains the elaborate perms beloved of the older generation? Note to myself: I must visit South Korea sometime soon.

But the more you look and fail to engage, the more you generalise. I struck up plenty of conversations with charming and lively people on the cruise – both staff and passengers. The Nicaraguan waitress whose husband works in maintenance. They have a one-year-old child who lives with his grandparents. “We are doing this for him, she says”. The Egyptian Copt who lives in London and fears for his fellow Christians back at home as attacks on them intensify. The young musician who gave up his successful rock band to teach music in a church school in California.

It’s surprising how many people regard cruising as their preferred vacation. We met one retired woman who was on her forty-ninth cruise. She would think nothing of ending one cruise and going straight onto another. How she has avoided the fate of the exploding diner in Monty Python’s Meaning of Life (avoid this clip if you’re squeamish) is beyond me.

Will we wait another decade before sailing out again? Probably not. But for me there has to be a compelling reason beyond life on board. Places to visit, people to meet, things to do. I doubt if I would cruise the Caribbean, for example – not enough history to keep me happy. I probably would have enjoyed the late-lamented Swan Hellenic programmes, packed with experts taking about this or that destination laden with history – archaeologists, retired professors and that ilk. And maybe a literary cruise with a couple of novelists on board. Fighting my way through an army of obese tourists in shorts at some Caribbean outlet mall is definitely not idea of a good time.

But that’s just snobby me. Millions of people sail around the world providing a much-needed economic boost to economies sorely in need of their business. And good for them.

Next up, Israel.

One Comment
  1. Nice post. Glad to see you’re having a good time on your cruises, even though they are far apart. I’ve been on 3 cruises. I enjoy chatting with my fellow American travellers and even foreigners who like to eat 4x/day and soak up a little sun! I would love to go on another cruise right now if I could!
    Enjoy. And thanks for sharing!

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