Centenary World Cruise Day 53-57: Long Time No Sea!

Day 53:

Today was the day we had our Crossing the Line Ceremony. It had been hyped up in the noon announcements the Captain always makes, so we knew there’d be a crowd to witness it. We’d been told it would be messy, so not to wear anything we were “too precious about.” Like anyone brought their gardening clothes with them. I wore my bathing suit and shower sandals, and most of the others in the group of about 50 wore something similar.

There were two main groups: the group of people who were only kissing the fish, and the group of people doing the whole ceremony. The fish-kissers went first, and the rest of us waited in a stairwell, so we couldn’t see what was going on. All we could hear was the announcer talking about how this is an old ceremony, where people who have never crossed the equator, nicknamed Pollywogs, must ask permission from King Neptune to cross the equator. King Neptune sets them an ordeal, and once it’s done, they go from Pollywogs to Shellbacks.

Once the fish-kissers were done, it was our turn. The Pirate and I were in the first group of ten to go out, and there was a crowd of several hundred people around the pool and arranged on all the decks above, cheering us on. We came out to see tables holding huge vats of kitchen refuse, colored blue and green and pink. The reassuring colors were nice, until the smell hit. This was actual leftover food from the last day, mixed into huge tubs. We sat down in chairs with our backs to the tables of slops, a person dressed as a judge asked the crowd whether we were innocent or guilty (although I have no idea what of), and when the crowd yelled “guilty!” the crew at the tables behind us took huge handfuls of the various colors of goo and rubbed it into our hair, backs, shoulders, necks. It was disconcertingly warm, smelled awful, but (and this might be the worst part) felt kind of soothing.

Once we were all slopped up, another crew member came along with what I think was a fair-sized trout. He held it out to each of us, and we had to kiss it on its nonexistent lips. Luckily, the trout was fresh and didn’t smell – it would have been much worse if it had been as old as the food covering my upper body. Even the fish kissing wasn’t as bad as I’d anticipated – I’d been envisioning something with huge rubbery lips, and a crew member sticking a finger through the gills and out the mouth as I kissed it.

After the fish-kissing, we were allowed to jump into the pool to rinse all the slop off. I could see chunks floating away from me as I surfaced, and realized how lucky I was to be in the first group. There were three more groups of ten after us, then the crew, and lastly the officers, who were laid down on a table and covered head to toe with all the rest of the slops in the buckets. By the time they jumped into the pool, it wasn’t clear whether they were getting any cleaner in that disgusting water.

The Pirate and I are now considering designs for the tattoos we’re going to get to commemorate our becoming Shellbacks.

Day 54:

Another day of not much going on, mostly because I’m working like crazy to get NonBinary Review out the door on time. When I first proposed leaving for four months, my biggest worry was getting the March issue out on time.

There have been two main issues: internet, and staff engagement.

Before I left, I had looked into the internet situation and thought that I could purchase the standard internet package and be able to do all my online stuff. The way it was described, standard internet would work fine for email and regular web browsing, but if you wanted to stream video, you’d need the premium package. The reality is a little more nuanced.

In reality, there are lots of days when the internet doesn’t work – when we’re in port, when the weather is bad, when everyone on the ship is online at the same time. Even when the internet works, it never works well. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been working on something, only to not have my work save, or to get unexpected results because the lag means I was clicking things I hadn’t intended. And, just to make life extra exciting, the internet here kicks you off after two hours. I’m normally so heads-down in work that I don’t even realize it’s gone until I get a message saying “You’re no longer online – keep working?”

Despite it all, I’ve managed to get this issue out by sheer force of will and willingness to give up sleep, social engagements (okay, not a huge loss) and activities in favor of work. For all the English folks, I’m perpetuating the stereotype of Americans as people who are always working.

Day 55:

We were supposed to be in Bali today, but we’re not. Bali’s port isn’t deep enough for this ship, so we have to anchor out in the harbor and take tenders (little boats) into the port. Sadly, the sea is too rough to make boarding tenders safe, and the captain made the decision to keep everyone on the ship.

Of course, we heard this news while sitting in the main restaurant, where we had gathered in anticipation of boarding the tenders for our planned shore excursions. We were supposed to see Tenganan and the Water Palace and had gotten up early and covered ourselves in sunscreen in anticipation. So now we weren’t just disappointed, but sleepy and sticky as well. I was extra disappointed because the woman who cut my hair had talked nonstop about how great Bali is – culturally vibrant, scenic, friendly. I was really excited to see it all. I guess we’ll have to go back later.

So…back to the room where we spent a lot of the day laying around, napping, playing stupid games, napping, watching movies, napping, eating, and napping.

Day 56:

I was sitting in the pub working and having lunch, and a woman leaned over and said “I like your tattoo. What does it mean?” She meant the tattoo on the side of my head of a giant squid. It covers all of the right side of my head, and its hunting tentacles peek out at my hair line when my hair is longer.

I never know what to say when people ask what my tattoos “mean.” What does your shirt mean? What do your shoes mean? While some of my tattoos commemorate events in my life, others are purely decorative, and it’s only people who have no tattoos of their own who ask what they mean.

I need to come up with a response that isn’t dismissive, sarcastic, or angry. Maybe I should just admit that I don’t understand the question, because not everything in life has to have meaning to be beautiful.

Addendum: a couple of days later, another woman stopped me and asked me about the tattoo on my head in a way that made much more sense. She pointed to it and said “tell me the story behind this.” Now that is the right question!

Day 57:

We’ve been avoiding our regular dining room, because I’m not fond of spending two hours a night on dinner, but we went tonight because the Pirate asked me if I’d like to join him for dinner. So, we ended up on kind of a date. It’s kind of nice, dressing up to go out with the intention of spending time together and having a nice time. And we did.

Centenary World Cruise Day 52: Singapore Again

We’re back in Singapore. Originally, we were going to go ashore and do some shopping, but we were still not over our bout of sickness and didn’t feel like making the trek, coming back and getting ready for the party tonight, then going out again. Then, mid-afternoon, the Pirate succumbed to a migraine and the party itself was off.

I am one of those people whose greatest delight is cancelled plans. It’s like a surprise gift of time. Not that I don’t enjoy being with people and chatting, it’s just that it’s exhausting – more so when some of those people have hard-to-understand accents, doubly so when those people with hard-to-understand accents have had a couple of drinks. I would have been sad had we not already seen the venue – the lovely botanical gardens we’d toured the first time. We knew exactly what we were missing, and weren’t sad about it.

Our decision was vindicated by the fact that Singapore customs had a computer malfunction that meant they couldn’t let anyone off the ship when everyone was due to depart at 5:00pm. Nor at 6:00pm. Finally, at a little after 7pm, people were starting to leave.

By that time, we’d already had dinner and had seen all the folks in the lobby – dressed up, hungry, fuming. I think it explains some of the poor behavior we heard about later – one woman walking by a table, suddenly vomiting right next to the table, then walking off. According to one of the people at the table, it was fast and efficient. And gross. And a lot of people just acting like jackasses. This is why I hate parties.

Centenary World Cruise Day 51: I Can Sea You!

Day 51:

Another at sea day. My favorite thing on at-sea days is to order breakfast in and hang out in my pajamas until I feel moved to go do something else. Today, that something else was to sign up for the Crossing the Line Ceremony that will happen day after tomorrow. Apparently, the first time a sailor crosses the equator, it’s customary to ask King Neptune for permission, and this involves…well, I am not sure what it involves other than for some reason being covered in some kind of muck that will be supplied by the galley, and then having to kiss a real, actual, in no way pretend dead fish. But then I will be able to claim being a Shellback instead of a Pollywog, so that’s cool.  

We also discovered that all the Asian folks who got on the last time we were in Singapore hang out in the bar downstairs to have their lunch. I’d never been at the bar during lunchtime, so I didn’t realize that they put on some very nice-looking fish and chips. The only downside is that the fish is a fillet the size of my forearm, and the chips look to comprise at least 4 potatoes per serving.

Centenary World Cruise Day 50: Phu My

The port we landed in in Vietnam is called Phu My, and is about an hour outside Ho Chi Minh City. Our guide told very much the same story that our Thai guide had told us – that, as a professional tour guide, he’s been in serious financial straits since COVID, and it’s only now that tourism is coming back that he’s been able to earn any money. I suspect that in some places, this is part of the reason for opening the country back up, even if infection rates aren’t under control.

Howdy from Colonel Sanders Ho Chi Minh

Ho Chi Minh City is…unimpressive. Part of the problem is that many buildings of cultural significance were bombed out of existence. Like a lot of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, a lot of Ho Chi Minh City didn’t exist 10 years ago. The few buildings that are still there from before the war were either restored, like the opera house; rebuilt, like the Presidential Palace; or look derelict, like the hotel that had a helicopter pad on the roof that was the last place where Vietnamese people tried to get on the last outbound helicopters to leave the country before it fell.

The opera house looked very much like it did when was originally built during Vietnam’s occupation by the French. It had sustained damage during the war, and when the Americans helped rebuild it, they rebuilt it in the ugliest possible early-70s brutalist style. Afterward, the Vietnamese rebuilt it closer to its original ornate style.

The Presidential Palace is also a dose of early-70s brutalist architecture, and looks less like a presidential palace and more like the math building at a second-rate university. Apparently, you can pay a couple of bucks to tour the inside, which is no longer used as a government building.

The only interesting thing we saw was a demonstration being held outside a high-rise apartment building. About twenty-five people stood in front of the building holding enormous banners. We stopped for a second to look, but were chased off by a cop who yelled at us to keep moving (but, you know, in Vietnamese). Our tour guide told us that the people were protesting because the government had awarded the contract to build the apartments to a private firm who then turned around and handpicked the people who would be allowed to rent there, rather than letting anyone apply. Honestly, it sounded no different than skillions of similar incidents in the US, but apparently the Vietnamese government doesn’t want people to know that sort of thing goes on there.

I would have fallen asleep on the bus ride back to the ship if it weren’t for the fact that there are no actual traffic laws in Vietnam. About half the traffic is motorcycles and scooters, and they act like bicyclists in the US – obeying the traffic signals, etc., when it suited them, and driving on the sidewalk or down the wrong side of the street, or turning left on a red light when it suited them. It meant that our bus driver employed his horn often and vigorously. In Vietnam, a car horn can mean “hey motorbike – get out of the way.” It can also mean “let me pass,” “don’t slow down because I’m behind you and I’m not slowing down,” or “you’d better let me into the lane because the lane I’m in ends in thirty feet.”

Centenary World Cruise Day 48-49: Please Sea Me After Class

Day 48:

I woke up sore from being in bed too long, although I didn’t feel a lot better. I went downstairs for some toast and fruit, and when we came into the lounge where we usually have breakfast, there were people sitting at our table. Now, I say “our” table, but it’s no such thing. It’s just the table we happen to sit at every morning because it’s near the bar and we don’t have to shout or wait forever to get the waiter’s attention for tea. No problem, there was plenty of room, but it started the day with a weird sense of wrong.

Later, we went up to the World Lounge and took the big table in the corner near the only well-placed outlet. There’s an older lady who normally sits at that table and holds court. She doles out advice to the other old ladies about how to get online, and which are the nice crew members, and which lounges have the best food.

She came in just before lunch and looked absolutely put out that, in a room where every single table was occupied, someone was at her table. She asked us whether there had been a power cord left there, and we said there hadn’t, although I could perfectly see her power cord in her bag. She sat at the table next to ours, giving us the evil eye every few minutes as though she was having an epic internal battle about whether or not she should demand we get the hell off her table. When we left for lunch, we hadn’t even stepped away from the table before she was moving to take our place, much to the consternation of the folks she was talking to.

Day 49:

Never looked up from my desk, because I was working.

Centenary World Cruise Day 46-47: Laem Chabang

Day 46:

We’re in port in Thailand. It’s hard to tell how we’re supposed to refer to it. The name of the actual port is Laem Chabang, but the nearest town is Pattaya, and our tickets say Bangkok. Bangkok is a two-hour drive from the port, so we’re here for two days so that people who actually want to go into the city can do so and then spend the night. Weird, because Valley of the Kings was an even greater distance from our port (3 ½ hours by bus), but we didn’t stay overnight.

Our tour took us into Pattaya to a place called “Sanctuary of Truth.” I have learned to modulate my expectations on this trip, because so many things don’t live up to their hype. Luckily, I had never heard of the Sanctuary of Truth.

It’s a sort of Buddhist shrine right on the beach in Pattaya. It’s large for a wooden structure – about 4 storeys tall, although it’s all one big room. Although it sounds like something created in antiquity, it’s only about 40 years old, and still not complete. The first part of the walk takes you through the woodcarving shop where we got to see the carvers at work turning bits of wood into art. And of course, they made it look easy.

The Truth sanctified in this sanctuary isn’t mystical, revolutionary, or hard to understand – it’s the same Buddhist truths people have been living by for ages – all humans are fundamentally equal, treat everyone with respect, revere your family, care for the old and the young. I loved thinking that someone was moved enough to design and begin building this lovely place just to get everyone to remember what it takes to be a good person.

After the Sanctuary of Truth, we went to the beach. There couldn’t have been more of a contrast. According to our guide, Pattaya used to be the place that Thai families went to for a weekend getaway – it was cheap, lovely, and had a nice beach. Now, he said, white tourists have taken it over. The beach is dominated by people with stalls where, for about 100 baht (about $3), you can rent a beach umbrella and a couple of plastic beach chairs for the day. Across the street there’s a line of the kind of tourist bars you see in Mexico – an open patio packed with tables and chairs, and hostesses that shout “Welcome! Come on in!” to every passer-by. Interspersed with these are the occasional American fast-food place, and a couple of convenience stores where, next to the cashier where one would normally expect candy or gum, condoms and lube.

We had been dropped at an absolutely huge mall, where we bought a tank top (for me), and some much needed groceries – saltines, fruit, tonic water, sinus medication, cough drops.

Day 47:

And no – I wasn’t better yet. We went ashore for a hot second to load up on a few last-minute Thai souvenirs, but apart from that, stayed on the ship. My chest is still full of goo and I’m still coughing and dizzy. I tried toughing it out, but gave it up and ended up going to bed at 3:30 in the afternoon, and sleeping until about 7 the next morning. Rather than the restless sleep of illness, this was the solid sleep of getting better. The poor Pirate had dressed and gone to dinner, but forgot his card key. He apparently knocked at the door, but to no avail. Luckily, he was able to snag a steward to let him back into our room. Apparently I told him he looked nice, rolled over, and went back to sleep.

Centenary World Cruise Day 44-45: I Can Sea for Miles

Day 44:

Today is a day at sea – one of two between Singapore and Thailand. And I’m sick. Like, snotty, hacking, coughing up phlegm sick. I started the day with room service breakfast – oatmeal and lots of orange juice. I made a pot of tea in the new teapot and drank it, then made another. I had to carefully consider how much tea I was going to drink, because the water from the taps here is nasty, and the drinking water comes in 1-liter bottles, of which we get 2 a day when they make up our room. Except that they haven’t had a chance to make up our room since yesterday morning, because I’ve been ill.

It made me think about the kind of packing I used to do for my 10-day residencies at grad school. I’d take plastic wine glasses and a corkscrew, dishes, sharp knives and scissors, a tiny cutting board, a fruit bowl, laundry detergent and fabric softener, all kinds of over the counter meds (Excedrin, Sudafed, Mucinex, antacids), a power strip, a sewing kit, a small electric kettle, a teapot, tea, first aid supplies. This all went into a big plastic box, because I drove to residency and had the room for it. We also took all this stuff on trips for piping competitions, which were normally only two or three days. And these trips were in cities, where I’d be near grocery stores, etc.

All that stuff, packed for less than two weeks, and yet, I didn’t pack most of those things for a four-month trip where I would have very limited access to stores! Here are some things I regret not bringing:

  • Command hooks (there are just never enough hooks, and they’re not where you want them)
  • Normal scissors (I brought hair scissors, but you can’t use those on anything else)
  • Sudafed and Mucinex (why did I think we wouldn’t get sick on a four-month trip?)
  • Powdered hummus (they never have enough vegan protein options, and hummus is always a nice snack)

Having not brought that stuff, here are some things I learned from shopping abroad:

  • Other countries have unexpected restrictions on pharmaceuticals (for instance, in the UK, you can’t get more than 32 pills of the over-the-counter painkiller paracetamol – in the US, you can get Tylenol in Kentucky Fried Chicken-sized buckets)
  • Speaking of pharmaceuticals, other countries don’t call stuff the same thing we do, or use different drugs for the same effect, so you have to do some decoding (we couldn’t find guaifenesin, an expectorant, but we could find this other stuff that works even better and doesn’t taste like burnt hair)
  • In Asian countries, people are expected to be smaller than they are here (if a piece of clothing says “one size,” it’s a good bet it’s at most an American size medium)
  • Hummus is mysteriously elusive – we haven’t been able to find it in Dubai, Malaysia or Singapore, and I feel like we’re just not looking in the right place – either it’s sold in a can or jar, or it’s sold as a powdered mix. However they sell it (if they, indeed, sell it), we haven’t been able to find it.

Hopefully, I’ll be over this creeping crud in time for Thailand. 

Day 45:

All the days at sea are eerily the same. But I got a lot of work done today.

Centenary World Cruise Day 42-43: Singapore

We started out at Gardens By the Bay, an enormous botanical garden close to the marina. While the gardens take up several acres of ground, we stuck to the flower dome and the cloud forest dome.

In the flower dome, there are several dry-weather biomes re-created. To celebrate Chinese New Year, they had a display of dahlias that I could have sat and stared at all day.

The exhibits are arranged by biome, including South Africa, succulents, Mediterranean, olive grove, and California.

In the California area, there were lots of citrus trees, and what could have been our own garden – rosemary and lavender and blackberries. I was charmed and enchanted until we got to an area with a little thyme plant. Thyme is one of my favorite cooking herbs, and we had (have?) two large plants from which we took what we needed to spice up our cooking. One whiff and I was in tears, homesickness hitting me square between the eyes.

The cloud forest dome was beautiful, but they have turned a lot of it into an Avatar exhibit, with fiberglass Pandora animals and plants in among the real ones. While I’m sure it was a big draw for the kids, I wished they could have kept it to one area, because I was far more interested in the plants and art. In both the flower conservatory and the cloud forest, there were driftwood sculptures of animals. I love driftwood sculptures because they sort of look like things with the skin off so you can see the musculature underneath. There was also a really cool sculpture that looked like a stump had been dug up with the roots intact and the tree end made into an eagle’s head.

From there we went to Singapore’s famous Orchard Road, the high-end shopping district. Because we’re high rollers, we had an expensive lunch and then did some luxury shopping. We bought new toothbrushes, cough drops, and painkillers. Yeah, I know. You’re jealous.

On our second day in Singapore, we decided we’d go on our own to the amazing hotel with the observation deck shaped like a ship. I booked the tickets online yesterday, and we were going to walk there from the ship, because Googlina says it’s only a 20-minute walk.

Except, now I’m sick again. I’ve been low-key sick on and off for about a week, but now it’s really coming on. But here’s a thing: we already paid for the tickets, and I’ll be damned if I’m going to flush that money down the toilet. Small change of plans: the ship has a shuttle bus that drops people off right across the street from that hotel. Instead of walking, we’ll take the shuttle bus. It’s a little fiddly, because we want to leave as close to our ticket time (1:00pm) as possible, but we can’t leave the ship after noon because of some immigration rules. Yesterday, the process of getting through immigration just to go into town (which, in most other countries involves showing the immigration officials our cruise ID card, and, in some cases, our passports, which are given a cursory glance and then we skate in) took about 45 minutes. We decide to leave at 11:00am.

There’s nobody in the cruise terminal. We sailed through in about 5 minutes and managed to get on the bus just as it was leaving. This meant that, instead of getting there at noon-ish, we got there about 11:10. The bus dropped us off at the convention center which, like a lot of this part of Singapore, is attached to a gigantic, high-end mall (seriously- Orchard Road is one giant high-end mall after another). We walked through the mall where I bought a teapot and some more tea, and then had a pricey lunch at a lovely Indian place. From there, onto the hotel. Getting there was a little weird – a lot of major streets in Singapore can only be crossed either by tunnels underneath or bridges overhead. We couldn’t figure out how to get to the bridge that would take us to the hotel, and a guy who looked like he was picking up someone’s food order directed us to the correct elevator – so many people here are really, really nice!

The observation deck was everything it promised to be – great views of the entire city, and we got some really good pictures. Far in the distance in the center of this photo, you can see the Queen Mary 2.

I was thinking as we came back on the bus about how proud everyone in Singapore seems to be of their city. The cab drivers we had all bragged about how clean and safe it is, and exhorted us to go all sorts of places. Guides talked about its great infrastructure and innovative environmental programs. Yes, you hear about the stiff penalties for chewing gum and littering, but if I could have completely safe streets, a good social safety net, and tidy streets, I’m okay with not chewing gum.

Centenary World Cruise Day 26: Salalah

We’re in Salalah, Oman. We didn’t book any port excursions because the only one that looked interesting was full by the time we got around to booking. Salalah, whose current claim to fame is that it’s the main container shipping port for this part of the world, doesn’t have a cruise port terminal, and there’s nothing interesting one might walk to. Most of the view from our ship is of the container loading dock. It’s like staying in Long Beach near the Queen Mary.

On one of my favorite podcasts, one of the hosts occasionally talks about “when I lived in Scotland.” They are referring to having spent 3 months in Scotland doing the Fringe Festival, which is hardly “living in Scotland.” Three months isn’t even the limit of a tourist visa. But if that person can claim residency for three months, it means that I will be able to say that, once upon a time, I lived on the last ocean liner in the world.

Centenary World Cruise Day 21: Egypt (Part 1)

Today, we traveled by bus from Safaga to the Valley of Kings. Because we were up at dark o’clock, I had hoped to catch some sleep on the 3 ½ hour bus ride, but that wasn’t going to happen. Our guide wanted to give us a very full picture of Egyptian history, culture, and politics, and since she would not be able to enter the tombs at the Valley of Kings with us, she wanted to talk about what we’d see inside the tombs.

We went through Qena and Luxor, and I was surprised by the lack of infrastructure. There are canals that channel the Nile out to water the small-scale agriculture that looked like about half of it was commercial, and the other half the household gardens of the people who lived there.

Other than the main road we were on, there were very few paved roads. While there were a few private cars, most people were on motorcycles, donkey carts, or bicycles. In fact, donkey carts were about half the traffic.

About two-thirds of the houses were concrete blocks or bricks, but a third were mud bricks with porches shaded with what looked like chaff from sugar cane, which is the largest commercial crop in the area. A lot of the houses looked as though they had been built as one-story structures, then later they added a second story while still living on the first floor, and then later added another floor. In the picture below, you can see rebar sticking up from the roof where they will add another floor. About half the concrete structures were like that.

The banks of the canal were full of garbage in a way that made it clear that it was the main method of waste disposal. I was surprised that I didn’t see a single large shop of any kind on the way there. I saw the kind of tiny stalls that sold a little of everything, but no large shops offering clothing, pharmaceuticals, hardware, or anything else one might expect to see in such a large population center. Mosques are the tallest buildings in the landscape. The minarets of these mosques can be seen from anywhere in the town, and all had loudspeakers on them.

On the way back, the town looked entirely different. It was dark by the time we drove back through Qena, although it was only about 6pm. Now the road seemed to be lined with small shops and restaurants. There were lots of people in the streets shopping, talking, walking home or waiting or a bus. The neighborhoods we’d seen during the day that had no paved roads also seemed to be largely without electricity, with one notable exception: the tall tower on every mosque bore several rings of bright-green neon. In neighborhoods with many mosques, it looked almost like Las Vegas.

I’ll post about Valley of Kings and Karnak Temple separately.