Wednesday, February 24, 1999; The Solomon Sea
Rather than a long, wordsmithed account of the last almost two weeks, which is my wont (and of which a somewhat tortured version already pines away on another diskette), here are a few highlights of what has happened so far:
The flight to Australia was very good - it was like someone trading me one calendar day for an extra six hours sleep. No problem there. Sydney is quite beautiful, the first city that has shaken my devotion to San Francisco longer than a decent doubt. The harbor has many inlets with charming parks and quiet little beaches, and the ocean beaches are bold and full strength, as well as full function. The harbor also provides a very enjoyable, everyday sort of rock oyster. What is missing, or perhaps only appreciated after more time, is a soul or a center of some kind. Couldn't get a grip on it. We had a small tour group - 5 guests, a wonderful local guide, and, as always, a Crystal Cruises Representative, just in case.
Australia is far larger than most people think. The flight to Ayers Rock is three and a half hours, and that's only about half of the width of the continent. The "outback" is anything not near the coast. Ayers Rock is a very powerful monolith, has an inescapable presence. The Olgas nearby are more accessible, emotionally. One night, we had a candlelight dinner of kangaroo and other local foolishness, then blew out all the lights for a good study of the night sky - one of the most deeply spiritual experiences I've had in quite some time. For once I knew my exact spot in the universe. The Southern Cross, which had escaped me twice before, was a delight - much smaller than I expected but unmistakable.
Alice Springs is a pretty sleepy place, mainly existing because there really needs to be a place there. There is not really even a "springs" there, but more a seepage which can become quite large from time to time. There is a huge aquifer under most of central Australia, probably what makes it semi-arid rather than desert (which actually has to do with the evaporation rate; ask someone else). I could go on quite a bit about Australia, and recommend it highly. It's fascinating.
Cairns is a small town with big ambitions, backed up with tall hotels and increasing tourist attractions. A seaplane trip for snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef was unfortunately on a cloudy day, and there had been a cyclone through a few days earlier, so I'll just have to keep it up with the videos or come back another time. The Crystal Symphony was a few hours late arriving in Cairns because the anchor got stuck in Cid Harbor, Whitsunday Islands, when leaving there the evening before. We were late leaving Cairns, because the previously mentioned cyclone left sediment in what passes for the harbor in Cairns, making us wait for a high tide before we could pass through. Adventure already!
But what a great pleasure to be back aboard the Crystal Symphony! And a World Cruise does appear to be different - a little more special if that is possible here, more polished, much more spoiled. For example, in the case of the lifeboat drill, the captain took the ship off course into perfect following winds and adjusted our speed to that of the wind, just so it wouldn't be too breezy on deck. As usual, everything you want is their delight to provide. There is some sense of all the passengers having "arrived" - way before they got here. The ladies yank out all kinds of very smart things for only semi-formal evenings, so you can imagine how splendid everyone is on a formal one. And there are no walkers and just a couple canes and wheelchairs - a much younger crowd than I expected. This may be due to the fact that for this 15-day segment to Hong Kong, there are only about 500 passengers, much less than the ship's capacity of 960. With 550 staff and crew, it is luxury to the max; that warm, crisp "good afternoon, sir" with the tip of the hat is right out of the brochure. Most passengers will be on for only one segment or two segments. Maybe 10% are on for the full World Cruise, 100 days from Los Angeles to Lisbon. We will be back up to full from Hong Kong to Singapore which will change things considerably.
The heat is surely my only complaint - we begin the day at about 85F and work our way up. This started in Sydney, so don't fall for that "when it's winter there, it's summer here, so come!" Bull. Go in September and October, their Spring. Summer anywhere near or in the tropics is mostly too hot for anyone in their right mind. I must have stepped out of what is left of mine, though, for a wonderful swim in the lap pool this afternoon (95F and only 120 laps to the mile!).
So, we've had 2 days at sea and yesterday on Guadalcanal. That island has completely absorbed all the anguish of WWII. There is nothing left but peacefulness and a disarming innocence and friendliness in the people. No real replacement supplies of Pepsi out here - Coke has the market in this area - though I did find some "Kiwi" Pepsi in the main town of Honiara. This took some effort, during which I cheerfully happened upon some souvenirs. This morning at breakfast we passed Bouganville Island to starboard as we thread our way through the Solomon Sea to Rabaul, New Britain, tomorrow. Then it will be two days at sea to Guam, three more to Manila, and one more day at sea to Hong Kong.
March 5, 1999, The South China Sea
After having it at the back of my mind for so long, I did find DIET PEPSI in most primitive Rabaul, New Britain, produced and canned in Papua New Guinea. Here there is still hope for Pepsi in signs, posters, etc.
On GUAM, had the astonishing surprise and great delight to find that a dear old friend just "happened" to be on Guam, his home, during my visit. Unfortunately, his presence there was under the worst circumstances (his father passing away), but we were able to process it as well as his rekindled closeness with his family in our usual, "uncanny how okay it is, and meant to be this way" sort of way. We had lunch on the ship, saw his old schools and favorite places, and talked and listened on and on as we always do so well. This special treasure, the synchronicity of it, will surely be one of the big highlights of my trip. This is an impossible thing that happened.
Then three cozy days AT SEA, cozy meaning wintery looking outside (even if it is 88F), so let's stay inside. Tropical downpours at any old time, closing visibility so the sea just disappears away into the mist. No matter, plenty to do without the out of doors. Following seas of 8-12 feet are perfect for stabilizers - less jarring than going into the wind.
MANILA was a jubilant day for many in the crew, to be reunited with their families, show off the ship and have lunch (along with some other special formalities). For visitors I think it was mostly enjoyable, but also disappointing. We so often hear that the economy is good and improvements are being made, but Manila proper remains a third world country with terrible traffic, air pollution and vast shanty-town areas. Excursions out of town reveal simple, poor villages.
Superb ENRICHMENT and ENTERTAINMENT back on the ship. The enthusiasm and knowledge of all these fine professionals and artists doing what they love most is a wonder and a tonic. We have excellent history and science lessons to prepare us for each port. I'm getting back into the luxurious art of a fine dinner and a good show every evening, many people saying the shows have never been so good (and I agree).
The DINING experience seems to get better and better, if that's possible, not a "miss" on any menu, but beginning to see some similarities in ingredients and preparations. The best food is in Jade Garden and Prego, the alternative dining restaurants. Here they love to be given a little notice and a free hand, and come up with some of the most amazing dishes. Hard to believe that the ship ran out of fresh ripe mangos just before Manila, and couldn't acquire any there, so we must do without for a bit, and hope China will come through. Glad I picked up a can of Australian mango juice in Honiara. Love the stuff.
Best REST ever, soft and thick and deep; I could eat it with a knife and fork. Having fascinating DREAMS in which, among other interesting things, I am remembering and encountering friends I haven't thought of in years. Somehow, their appearance seems a blessing, a confirmation that I'm right where I'm supposed to be - how else would they find me? And I've done things like move into a new apartment so I could have more space. I'm waking up from these very deep states and feeling relaxed, kind of blank, and happy. Also, have had several deja vu's - always so unexpected, that unmistakable sense that you remember something happening before.
The French Toast is very dangerous. I have tried the pancakes for the first time (and second and so on) - they are deadly, and can be enjoyed delivered (along with about anything else) with lovely French butter. I've heard the waffles are fatal. Don't know how long I can hold out.
I've only used 9 rolls of film so far. Just 71 to go.
Hong Kong is tomorrow. During the three days there I've only scheduled two half-day tours, and will meet a friend, which leaves lots of time for shopping. Our shopping lecturer, the concierge from The Regent who came on in Guam, has been providing a lot of information for finding anything one might have in mind. I'm glad I don't have anything in mind, and pray nothing occurs to me.
The approximately 1100 souls on board have sent over 20,000 e-mail messages, making a handy revenue for Crystal Cruises of US$60,000.
March 9, 1999, The South China Sea
First, an interesting side item: About a third of the way across the South China Sea en route Hong Kong, and after taking into consideration the total lack of participation, the Cruise Director announced that shuffleboard, deck quoits, ping pong and even Bingo were being cancelled for the remainder of (that segment of) the cruise. He was almost speechless when explaining this is the first time it's ever happened on this ship. However, the paddle tennis court and the golf driving nets and lessons are very popular.
At sunrise on Saturday, March 6, the Crystal Symphony pulled into Hong Kong Harbour and to her dock at Ocean Terminal. The buildings for miles all around are generally in the 50 to 70-floor height range, packed together very closely. Everyone's in a hurry, so everyone else is in the way. There are no benches along any streets, shopping malls, etc. I don't know whether if there were any seats people would line up for them or laugh at them.
Hong Kong is the most fascinating place, rich with juxtaposition of old and new, light and dark, round and square, and pristine with utter filth. It can resemble some city of the future, with flying walkways between buildings, each seeming to have its' own mall full of luxury stores; I cannot begin to count how many Chanel, Ferragamo, Prada, Vuitton, Cartier, etc. boutiques I have passed all over the city, while only a few blocks away the unlicensed knock-offs are easily available. And there is tremendous poverty as well, tenement towers encircling Hong Kong for miles. The city is so busy with all the aspects of money, they may never get to closing the sewer system.
Lots of expensive European cars on the streets, even though gas is about US$5 per gallon. This probably says more about the state of the economy in this Chinese Special Administrative Region than many other indicators. It certainly speaks of the increasing differences between the classes of society.
They'll tear down good buildings after a few years just because they are not tall enough any more. And the used materials just make more landfill, to create more desperately needed (and expensive) "land." Hong Kong Harbour gets smaller every day. The air is so hazy with humidity (even when cool) and pollution (there are no controls at all), that often you can't see across the harbour and it's less than 1000 yards away.
The downtown architecture is bold, creative, entertaining and beautiful, with winding flow and masterful feng shui. The grander hotels are full of all kinds of works of art, both old and new. One of them has a slim interior atrium with a 20-stories-tall mural depicting all of China, top to bottom, and glass elevators from which to enjoy it. Perhaps some of the rooftop restaurants and bars are the best places for getting a perspective on the dense forest of towers that compose the city. Unfortunately, most of the artwork was lost in the Revolution. But fine arts can be found, at a price.
About shopping: What a place to shop! Anyone could use several days here just to get an idea of what is happening, what's available and where it can be had at the best price. The dreaded (to me) bargaining is usually the transaction mode of the day. Good, proper shopping here takes time, energy, stamina, ego, and comfortable shoes. Sometimes one must go back and forth between a couple areas to do the best bargain hunting on large ticket items. Then there are more and more things along the way in which you become interested; you'll always wish you had just one more day and another few hundred dollars. Bring all the money you can. It won't be enough, but you'll have done your best. I even wrote a little poem (please forgive) about the frantic state I was in one afternoon:
I know I'm looking for something,
St. Thomas is kids' stuff - this is where the pros come for a little exercise.
It was quite wonderful to NOT get off the ship at the end of that last segment (14 nights). It felt funny at first, like it was time to go home or something, but I regained all sensibilities, continued to shop and mentally got into the great grand continuation really fast. Like 0 seconds flat.
In a cool, light drizzle last evening we cast off for Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
Coming in 2 days is a place dreadfully burdened with uncomfortable feelings, tragedy, even for some, a kind of permanent angst. We are told that after more than two decades, the old Sai Gon has regained a prosperous air of thriving activity and a hopeful future. Our expert lecturer at least opened a discussion of Vietnam this morning, raised issues that are from long in the past, and began a time for processing the difficulties. It is said that confronting one's devils is much better than dragging them along everywhere. I say let's give it a try.
After touring for a day and night there, I will fly to Chiang Mai, Thailand, for a four night overland immersion into the culture of Thailand. This concludes with a day and night in Bangkok before rejoining the ship docked a few hours southeast in Laem Chabang.
There is a great balance here, between days at sea and days on land - a very good proportion of World as well as Cruise. I'm glad I'm taking advantage of all the overland tours offered, because time spent on the ground is absolutely essential, usually the more the better, as long as I can return to "civilization" in the evening or in a couple days.
Tim Josephson is a long time San Francisco-based Mariner, passionate about blue water cruising, and frequent contributor to the SeaLetter. He can be reached for questions or comment at: email@example.com.
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