Today, we spent time in Réunion. It’s an island very close to Mauritius, and is about the same size. But the resemblance ends there. Mauritius has some gentle hills, but Réunion has actual mountains, including the most active volcano in the world. The infrastructure was very different than Mauritius as well – almost all roads are paved, and instead of a single large city and many small villages (as on Mauritius), there are several small cities and lots of smaller villages. We realized it was because Réunion is a department of France, and it still receives money from France, which allows it to invest in infrastructure.
We saw another vanilla plantation, but since we’d already heard about the entire vanilla life cycle, it was less cool. We did learn that there are fewer small vanilla growers than there used to be, because the labor-intensive nature of vanilla, combined with its long production cycle, make the barrier to entry very high. The few vanilla growers still on the island are family groups with multiple generations working the plantation (although, honestly, “plantation” makes it sound really grand – it couldn’t have been more than a few acres).
After the plantation, we drove up into the interior mountains to an area full of waterfalls – 20 or 30 of them in a mile or so.
The mountains are very tall and steep, so the water has a long way to come down to get to the river below, and it makes the falls extra spectacular. Houses in this area dot the landscape, tucked away just off the roads. The whole thing reminded us so much of the place where we live, where there are houses tucked in every fold and crevice of the mountain, and waterfalls all along the road into town.
One of my favorite parts of the trip was the huge amount of great murals and graffiti. Some of it was just tagging, but a lot of it was beautiful and creative. I would love to come back to Réunion and spend some quality time.
We spent today in Mauritius touring a tea plantation, a vanilla plantation, and a museum – all owned by the same family.
The island itself was astonishing – the most fertile-looking soil I’ve ever seen. The only surfaces not covered with growing things were the paved roads and the buildings. Every verge, garden, or bit of open ground was covered with grasses, shrubs, and trees, and even those trees and shrubs were covered with more creepers. I was so proud of myself the first time I was able to keep a plant alive for more than two months, but here, a person could poke a stick into the ground and grow an entire tree in no time.
The vanilla plantation was interesting. We got to see the production cycle of vanilla, and it’s a much longer and more manual process than I realized. From initial planting to finished product takes 5 years (four of them are spent just waiting for the plant to have its first flowers). The flowers, which are both male and female have to be pollinated by hand by women (apparently it’s always done by women) who are called “wedding planners.” They can do 1500-2000 flowers in a morning (because it can only be done in the morning). And then the actual preparation of the ripe vanilla pods is mostly manual and involves blanching, drying in the sun, drying in the shade, sticking in a box for months, then sorting by size. All this is to say that I now appreciate vanilla much more than I did.
The tea plantation was…disappointing. From the moment we got off the bus and saw the tea leaves coming down a chute overhead onto the ground, where a group of men was picking up the leaves and shoving them into burlap bags, I knew this was going to just make me sad. Before we left the ship, I had visions of discovering a delicious tea I’d never had and bringing pounds of it home, but the smell in the air wasn’t lovely tea. It was alfalfa. As in horse food.
We watched the tea being processed in huge machines, and seeing the end result – tiny, cremated-looking fragments of tea leave shoved into paper teabags – didn’t do anything to give me hope.
Later, we went to a lovely restaurant where we had lunch, after which we had a tea tasting. We tried six of the eight varieties of tea they made at that factory, and every single one of them had the same flavor – as though it had been brewed inside a horse and decanted out the backside. Really, really awful.
The island itself was interesting. There was an area near the port that had a lot of high-end shops and houses, but as you got away from the city, the infrastructure diminished sharply. There’s a real dichotomy between rich and poor here. Some parts of the country looked like parts of Egypt – dirt roads, tiny shops, a lot of ad hoc building. It made sense, considering that the island’s main source of income is tourism. As we got off the boat this morning, there was a giant poster exhorting us to consider retiring to Mauritius. I don’t think that’s going to happen.
The first day with a new group of people on the ship is always hilarious, because it gives me a view of what we looked like when we first came on board: standing around near the elevators, looking at the directory to see where different things are; walking around making confident pronouncements about where things are or how they work that are completely wrong; complaining about the food, the entertainment, or the lack of interesting activities.
Most of the new people are only on for a couple of weeks, and I think if I was only on for that long, I’d be a little sadder. Being here for four months makes me less demanding – not every day can (or should) be a non-stop cavalcade of fun, gourmet meals, and Broadway shows.
For the very first time since being on the ship, I had lunch in our regular dining room. The dining room is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, but it’s such a pain in the neck to go down there and spend an hour on a meal that I’m normally only willing to consider it for dinner. But today, the lunch menu included a TUNA MELT! It’s the closest I’m going to come to a grilled cheese sandwich on this ship.
Tonight was the Red and Gold gala (the third since we’ve been on board). I wore a suit that’s largely metallic gold – a huge departure from my normal black and white wardrobe. We stopped at the lounge for a pre-dinner cocktail, and not long after we showed up, a woman on her way to dinner stopped by our table to gush about how beautiful she thought I was. This has happened to me a few times, and I never know what to do about it. It’s just…weird. I understand that people who do this have nothing but good intentions, and on one level, it feels very good – it affirms my wardrobe, makeup, and hairstyle choices. On another level, I still have a hard time believing that anyone would ever think I’m attractive on any level. I still feel schlubby. I may never get over that. But I’ll keep dressing well anyway.
Ever since Freemantle, there has been a lady that gets to the gym about the same time I do. The first time I saw her on the stationary bikes, she was laughing and joking with everyone, even though she was brand new and couldn’t have known anyone – she was just fun and gregarious. Just as I was leaving, she asked me if I could get her a cup of water, since I would be walking past the water cooler. I gave her the cup of water, and she laughingly asked me what the charge would be. I told her “the first one’s always free,” and she laughed hard.
I’ve seen her most days at the gym now, and every time, she’s happy to chat. Normally, people like that just make me crazy, but there’s just something about this woman’s lack of agenda; willingness to judge the food, the décor, the terrible internet, but not the people; desire to share things she’s discovered and thought without expectation of agreement – I just love her.
Maybe it’s because of this woman, and maybe it’s just a change of passengers, but for the longest time, I was the only woman using the stationary bikes. Normally I’d be surrounded by guys all acting like they had something to prove (something shared by a lot of men at the gym on this ship), but now it’s all women. We chat, we laugh, and none of it feels uncomfortable or unnecessarily adversarial. I’ll be sad when she gets off in South Africa.
Today, I kind of never woke up. I blame it on turning the clock forward so many times. So I lay around in bed for too long, then got dressed and went out to the pool and lay on a deck chair reading (which here is a euphemism for napping), then went back to the room and sat on the chairs on the balcony and snoozed, then went back to the pool and slept before coming back to the room and having a bit of a lie down.
The whole time, I was berating myself for being lazy – I have chapters to write, readings to do, there’s always Zoetic work to be done. It wasn’t until around dinner time that I reminded myself that this is supposed to be a vacation. It’s okay if I have a day when I’m not productive, for crying out loud.
Yesterday’s Extend-O-Nap meant that I was awake and working at 5am. That’s okay – I’ll take it. I’m working to finish a novel I’ve been working on for a while, and as of today, I am four and a half chapters from the end. The real motivation has been that I’ve been reading it to the Pirate before bed every night, and I have to finish it or he’s going to be left hanging.
Tonight was another gala night, and I wore my black dress, while the Pirate wore his kilt. Again, people around us made a fuss over us. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to it. The nice thing is that the people making a fuss over us are people whose style I also admire. That’s a nice feeling.
As of today, we have 34 days left in this trip. I was in a shop this morning chatting with one of the salespeople who has decided that the Pirate and I are fashion icons. We were talking about the fact that as of yesterday, there was no cream left on the ship. That’s not strictly true. They’ll still give you cream, it’s just that once you’ve poured it into your coffee or tea, it just floats to the top in chunks. He told me that in the crew mess, they’re out of eggs. They’ve got eggs that come in a box, but he says that they’re disgusting. Frankly, I suspect those are the ones they use for the scrambled eggs, since they look as though they’ve already been digested. The hot tip is not to eat anything containing cream or milk for the next two days until we get to our next port.
Then I mentioned how nice it will be not to have to wait in line for the washing machines (which, to be fair, I never do because the Pirate has taken on laundry duties because he’s the nicest), and a couple of women passing by stopped and laughed over that, and we started talking about how long we’ve been on board (they just got on) and how much longer we’ll be. They asked me how I liked the trip so far, and I told them that it just doesn’t even feel like a vacation anymore. My attitude has become “I live here now.” I realized that in 34 days when I have to take all my possessions off the ship and cart them home, it’ll feel like moving out.
Every country has their own requirements for entry. Most of the ones we’ve visited are content to come on the ship and check over the passports without having to clap their actual eyes on us, but a few require each person to present their passport in person to an official who looks at it for a tiny fraction of a second, smiles and says “good morning,” and lets that person by.
This means that there is a constant hokey-pokey of handing in our passports, getting them back, handing them in, getting them back. For some countries, we have to go online and fill in extra paperwork as well. Today, we got our passports back for entry into Réunion. We looked them over, and we were both surprised at how many new stamps we’ve gotten since we boarded. I have no idea why we were surprised – we’ve been to a whole bunch of countries, and all of them stamped our passports. Wouldn’t it be cool if I filled up my passport with visa stamps before it expires in 2026? What would be even cooler is if you win some kind of prize for filling up your passport. Like…expedited processing of your next passport.
Today is our last stop in Australia. Freemantle is a suburb of Perth, and what we could see of the town from the ship was lovely – a lot of older-looking buildings, a lot of trees and grassy areas. We’d booked a walking tour, and as it started, it was already hot out. Our guide told us about something called the “Freemantle doctor,” which happens when the ground heats up quickly, the hot air rises, and the rising air sucks in a cooling breeze from the ocean to the west. It was probably over 90 when we set out, but by about 11:30, it had cooled down at least 10 degrees and the breeze was refreshingly cool.
Freemantle has a lot of pretty buildings that were built during their gold rush, and a lot of them are fairly well preserved. What’s really well preserved, though, is the prison. Apparently, when the rest of Australia decided they were sick of being sent convicts, Freemantle needed a lot of free labor, so the government began shipping the convicts there. The very first thing the convicts had to do was to build their own prison, and the only thing they had to build it out of was blocks of locally-mined limestone.
The prison was completed in 1855, which was not a terribly enlightened time for the criminal justice system. Shockingly, the prison continued to operate until 1991.
After our tour wound up, the Pirate and I peeled off from the group and walked around the district near the university. It was a cool blend of coffee places, used clothing and book stores, youth hostels, fun-looking bars, and a few touristy-looking shops.
I realize that, while I like Europe and the Middle East for the history and the museums, Australia just generally feels more relaxing. There’s no more history here than there is in California, and the Australians aren’t hung up on it. The difference between Australia and Britain feels a lot like the difference between New England and California. In California, we know that people love us for our nice weather and good beaches and plentiful vegetables, whereas in New England, they want you to know how historic they are and look down their noses at anyone who isn’t well versed in their history.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that after setting our clocks forward every few days so that our days were only 23 hours long, I was looking forward to the return trip where our days would be 25 hours long and we could sleep in every day. Even then, I knew that something would suck, I just wasn’t seeing it yet. Once we left Sydney, we started traveling westward and so getting those hours back, and I’ve figured out what sucks. I’m wide awake at 5:30am and nothing’s open – I can’t get a cup of tea or go for a swim or anything. And by 5:30pm, I’m starving for dinner which won’t be served for another hour. Then I’m ready for bed at 7:00pm.
We spent today in Busselton, Western Australia. We saw a lighthouse (which just reminded us of home, where if we go down the street there’s a lighthouse, and if we go up the coast road to the Mums’ there’s another lighthouse), and a giant limestone cave. It was fine, but I noticed something interesting: lots of houses had fencing that looked like the corrugated sides of shipping containers. We saw the same on the train ride from the port to Adelaide. It seems possible that it actually is recycled shipping containers. In Abu Dhabi and Dubai, there were whole blocks of shops and small restaurants made of recycled shipping containers, so it’s clear that they have a limited life as shipping containers, and then get new life as building material.
In Busselton, we also saw a weird number of fences made of thatch – you know, the stuff that people make roofs out of. Bundles of either thick grasses or thin twigs (in Australia, it’s thin twigs), tied together. I was surprised at how sturdy the fences were.
I’m realizing that while the system of government in Australia is more similar to the one in the UK, and a lot of the language originated in the UK, the landscape is much more like home. Normally, as we go on various tours, we get the history of the town. In Western Australia, there’s no history before the 1830s. To the British, that’s last week, but in America, that’s on par with a lot of our own history.
To be honest, the best thing about Busselton was the fact that there was a grocery store three blocks from the pier. You know how you should never go shopping when you’re hungry? Well that goes double if you’re hungry and have an hour-long ride on a tiny boat with ninety other people. We carried three shopping bags of groceries back to the ship and looked forward to having fruit that’s not bananas, apples, or pears; vegan cold cuts and cheeses; vegan yogurt (or “yoghurt,” which somehow encourages them to pronounce it “YAW gurt” which is just weird); hummus and good bread; and licorice allsorts. That should get us to Mauritius, which, after tomorrow’s stop in Freemantle, is our next stop after an entire week at sea.
I spent a lot of today on updating the slides for the lecture I’ll be giving at Antioch in June. I agreed to lecture there on the condition that I could re-visit an earlier lecture because I would have neither the time nor the bandwidth to write a whole new lecture. The problem is that when I dug out my old slides, the only set I could find didn’t have all my notes at the bottom. One of the pieces of advice I got early in my presentation-making career was that you shouldn’t just read off your slides, so I normally have a lot of info in the notes that I don’t have on the slide itself. And all that was gone.
Two and a half years isn’t so long that I don’t remember anything about this lecture, and a lot of the stuff was self-explanatory. I was going along at a nice clip, writing in all the notes that needed to be there, adding a few slides that I should have had the first time. But then…the math kicked in. Part of this lecture is showing how little writers make, and that just seeing the number of copies a book has sold doesn’t give a good indication of how much money they author made from it. I had put together some numbers, and created a chart that showed over the lifetime of each author’s books, how much they would make year by year. Because the only information I had was a number of books sold, I knew that I had made some assumptions, but I had no idea what they were.
Math is not my native language. I know that getting the correct answer to a math problem often involves first knowing the correct question, and I’m terrible at figuring out how to structure the information I have to get the result I need.
After a couple of hours of plugging in numbers and making my phone go all hot with repeated calculations, I finally figured out what my initial assumptions were. Then I realized that when I had initially done the slides, I had miscopied a bunch of the numbers – transposing numbers, incorrectly interpreting the table I had created, etc., and realized that nobody had ever questioned them. One of two things is true: either everyone who heard that lecture was just as bad at math as I am, or I sound so convincing that no one questions me. Okay, maybe they’re just being nice.
Today was Sunday, and as we’ve done every Sunday that we’ve been at sea, the Pirate and I went to church. There is a Catholic service at 8:30 (but as I’ve said, I’m just not up to facing God or anyone else that early in the morning), but there’s also the Traditional Maritime Service at 10.
Religion aside, church on this ship serves a really good purpose – it helps keep us anchored in time. On a trip where every few days we gain or lose an hour, and there is no other difference to the daily schedule of activities, having a thing that we only do on Sunday means that at least once a week, we know what day it is.
Today we hit Adelaide. We didn’t have a shore excursion planned, so we just took the train into town, then walked to the botanical garden a little over a kilometer away.
This one is a little more formally laid out than Melbourne’s, but it had the most amazing thing: the Museum of Economic Botany. Remember that fake “genetic library” at the Museum of the Future in Dubai? Well THIS was the real deal. Plants collected over about 150 years by explorers going all over the world.
The plants were grouped in the cases by family, and there were some surprising groupings. For instance, I didn’t know that tobacco and petunias are part of the nightshade family. There were so many plants, many with labels in faded, spidery writing or beautiful copperplate cursive. I could have stayed all day, but we needed lunch.
We went looking for a particular vegan restaurant, and as we walked along a street lined with restaurants, I was shocked at how many were not yet open at noon on a Friday. They didn’t have the shuttered look that the ones in Darwin had – these looked like if we waited around another couple of hours, they’d be open.
The place we were looking for was hidden behind a normal, residential-looking door that led to a steep staircase the width of the door. At the top of the staircase was an adorable, tiny little tea shop that took the place of the vegan restaurant we were looking for. No matter! They served vegan food and delicious tea. They also had a cute little mailbox with paper and envelopes next to it with a sign that said “Write a letter. Take a letter.” The mailbox had the customary slot, but also a door in the front that you could open and take a letter out. And friends, you KNOW that I left a letter there.
From there we went to the Art Gallery of South Australia. This place was a little larger than the museum we’d gone to in Sydney, and we took in every exhibit. I love a museum!
At that point, we were adventured out. We made our way back to the train station and got on the train for the harbor.
It’s a 40-minute train ride, but the great thing is that the downtown train station and the harbor station are at opposite ends of a single line, so it’s not like we had to be paying attention to which stop we needed.
We felt great about having had a better adventure by ourselves than we would have had with a tour group.
Today, we were at Kangaroo Island, 13 km off the coast of southern Australia. Our tour first took us to Dudley Winery.
I’ve been to my share of wine tastings, and what I generally expect is that perhaps one of the 2-6 wines being offered for tasting is something I like. At this place, I liked every wine we tasted. Apparently, the grapes are dry grown, and have roots that go deep into the soil so they never get watered. The breezes coming from Antarctica are cool and the soil is sandy. The wines are all both flavorful and mild, and we would have bought a bottle or two, except that wine hasn’t been agreeing with me lately. Just know that if you ever buy a bottle of Australian wine from Dudley Winery, it’s likely to be decent.
While we were at the winery, a guy who looks like Wilford Brimley asked us why we chose to go on this cruise, on the Queen Mary 2. He said we weren’t exactly the “demographic.” The conversation moved on before I could ask what demographic we aren’t. Ancient? British? Posh? I’m now completely curious about what he might have meant. Maybe the next time I see him around the ship, I’ll ask him.
We checked out a lighthouse and a beach camping spot, and they were both lovely, even if the drive there was ten miles over corrugated iron. My kidneys may never recover.
The real star attraction, though, was the tender ride to and from the quay. This is a tiny port without its own tender services, so we used the ship’s lifeboats. They’re pontoon boats, so they’re made of fiberglass and the bottom part is filled with air, so it’s not like they’re going to flip over, but it was like a roller coaster. If we were going parallel to the waves, we bobbled side to side so that the people nearest the windows were looking either into the sky, or down into the water. When we went perpendicular to the waves, we’d crest one wave and hit the trough hard, making every old person on the boat give out a sharp “Oooooooh!” It was like being in a crowd during a fireworks show.
We’ve been on this ship for two and a half months, and it feels like we’ve only just established a routine. On at sea days, I order breakfast in, while the Pirate takes himself downstairs to the coffee bar for breakfast so he can have decent coffee and sometimes, chia pudding. I make myself a pot of tea and eat my toast and fruit in bed, writing postcards or blog posts or maybe just playing a time-wasting game. After a very leisurely breakfast, I get dressed and head for the gym. After the gym, I take my computer down to the pub and get some work done, which can take until mid-afternoon.
It’s only been a couple of days since Sydney, so all the new folks haven’t figured out where everything is yet. While I’m at the gym, there are usually four or five people who wander in, look around, then leave again. I suspect that most of them will never be back. They just saw an open door and ventured in. Then there are the people who are doing laps. The walking track is on Deck 7, same as the gym, and the new people don’t necessarily know what’s on the other side of the windows they’re walking past. So what do they do? They cup their hands around their eyes and stare in. It’s the creepiest thing imaginable to be in the middle of a workout and look up to see some old guy with his nose pressed up against the window, staring in.
The next time we’ll get a new group of folks won’t be until South Africa, which will be in three and a half weeks. It’s hard to believe that in just a little over six weeks, we’ll be home.
I feel sorry for people who lived without the internet (including my younger self). Because we have the internet, we were able to find a place to do our shipping, a post office, and something fun to do in Melbourne while we ate lunch yesterday.
Step One: take two big bags of stuff in a taxi to the shipping place. The guy packed our stuff up in a box, gave us a form to fill in, took our money, and we were on our way.
Step Two: relieved of our burden, we walked the half mile to the post office. International stamps are expensive. On the ship, they’re $3.50, but that’s US dollars. At the Australian post office, they’re still $3.50, but that’s Australian dollars, so significantly less.
Step Three: stop across the street at the grocery store and pick up some pre-packed salad, a tiny sourdough loaf, a couple of bottles of juice, and some hummus.
Step Four: walk the mile to the botanical gardens.
The walk between the shipping place and the botanical garden is nowhere near any touristy areas of town. There were shops that sold bathroom fixtures, mechanics, small apartment buildings – all the everyday stuff you see in a residential neighborhood. It felt comfortingly normal, and I realized how much I missed a day of running errands and walking around town.
Before the botanical gardens, there’s a huge park planted with enormous trees, most of which had memorial markers in front of them.
The notion of honoring someone’s death by nourishing a life is wonderful, and made the enormous park feel that much more wonderful. Once through the war memorial part of the park, we found the entrance to the botanical gardens. There’s a big sign at the gate that says: “Australia’s #1 Tourist Destination.” The subtext is “IN YOUR FACE, SYDNEY OPERA HOUSE!”
The day was sunny and mild, the botanical gardens were beautiful and refreshing, and after walking around and appreciating the beauty of the trees, shrubs, and ferns, we sat in a large gazebo and ate lunch.
We were amused to see that a tour group from our ship had also come to the botanical gardens, and wondered if we’d be able to hitch a ride back to the ship on their bus. As it turned out, we didn’t see them again once we’d left the area of the gates.
Once we’d made our way back to the ship, we were tuckered out. Today was the remedy to some of the homesickness I’ve been feeling. It’s nice to think that, while we still have adventures ahead, we’ll be traveling toward home from here on.