We have just returned home after a quite brilliant 25 night cruise on Azamara Quest. It has been, as the title suggests, a cruise of extremes.
Extreme one: Normal cruises are action packed, a port a day, a head-long hurtling adventure which is over in a flash. This cruise was a long lazy repositioning cruise with so many sea days stretching before us and only a few, spasmodic interruptions when determined action was required. On top of that, life on Azamara ships is not demanding and the pace is one of almost complete relaxation with the most gruelling task being that of lifting the "Pursuits", the misnamed daily activities sheet, to mark one's probable rendezvous throughout the day. There are virtually no annoying announcements calling you to Bingo or the Art Auction and even the Captain's midday resume of position and weather barely breaks the surface of such halcyon calmness. Yes, you can follow my example of power walking nearly 4 kilometres with a smoothie for breakfast or you can indulge yourself with freshly squeezed orange juice, smorgasbord and all the typical breakfastian feasts imaginable and follow this with some strenuous page turning of an unputdownable paperback whilst bathing in gorgeous winter sunshine. The options are there and the choice is yours.
Extreme two: Leaving Europe via the newest addition to the docking complex of Piraeus we found ourselves entering the chaotic and challenging port of Alexandria. Strangely though this time was far more peaceful than I have ever seen it as it was a national holiday and very quiet and traffic free compared to the normal hurley burley of downtown Alexandria. I will admit that newcomers to the city still found it hectic and the fact that the traffic, when it bothers to pick a side of the road to move on, is on the right and that can be very disconcerting to many of us whose normal side is the correct left-hand side. (for those antagonised by this remark it was intended as a little British humour) Many of the ship's passengers decided to torture themselves a little further by being driven at breakneck speed with seemingly suicidal steering techniques to the capital, Cairo, and to the iconic Pyramids. We preferred to do a pre-arranged sightseeing tour of Alexandria, a city which never fails to intrigue me even though I have done this and similar trips several times now. Lunch was in a super fish restaurant where, if you people watched, you could see the indecision of what to eat and drink gradually falling away and enjoyment taking over. Last time we were the only Europeans in the cafe and then, as this time, no one in the party suffered any discomfort or repercussions. By this time the streets were full of people and children. The festival was for the children and they really took it upon themselves to make the most of everything that was on offer and the excitement was infectious. We talked and laughed and joked with groups of them time after time until we were almost as elated as they were. The "Cairo" gangs returned to the ship later than we did and more stretched than we were, proclaiming to have enjoyed the historic remains but it was a long day for many and they needed to recuperate. We love all that the Nile has to offer from Abu Simbel down but it has taken us some time to see it with any hope of remembering a smidgeon of that which is offered.
Extreme three: I will admit that it has been some time since I went down the Suez Canal and in that time the growth of buildings and agriculture has been outstanding and "Extreme three" is really one for me as I did not expect to see the development that now exists, yes it is ribbon development but quite a wide piece of ribbon if I tell the truth.
Extreme four: Seldom are we aware that someone is taken seriously ill on ships as there is generally no need to alert passengers with the fact but on this occasion it was announced that we would be standing by a port in Oman whilst a passenger was taken ashore and to the hospital. There are some top rate hospitals here but unfortunately on this occasion they were unable to save the lady concerned and the vast majority were extremely sorry to hear that she hadn't made it. There were, unfortunately, grumbles from a very very small section that they had been delayed more than they should have. They received short shrift from the vast majority.
Extreme five: Normally the only "pirates" that we come across on cruises are certain taxi drivers, vendors and scroungers on dry land. It therefore brings one down to earth with a bump when passengers are given the rules for behaviour and practice when travelling though certain areas which are considered to be actively searched by extremely dangerous pirates. I won't go through all the R & R but the paper which was issued to all passengers was serious in its content. It also reminded of the days in Britain during "The War" when blackout was rigorously maintained with ARP wardens looking for any small give-away chink of light spilling from any house. This period was a quite sobering time on board and everyone was grateful when it was declared that a party would be held to celebrate the fact that we had "Beaten the Pirates". The truth was that we were probably as much indebted to the rough seas and the weather which made sorties by any marauding band impracticable than was attributable to our diligence.
Extreme six: Dubai, in my opinion, is tottering on the brink of bankruptcy. A bold statement I know but throughout our two day stay here I felt, as did many others, that it was sucking energy from us far more than it ever returned. The whole place, described by someone as "Disneyland for the Rich" is somehow hollow and fake. How on earth they ever expect to find enough rich people to fill all the empty houses and offices beats me and how they will survive the extra amount of cars, should that ever happen, will be a miracle. Even with the amount of vehicles currently polluting the air and stagnating at intersections the traffic systems are close to melt-down. I will be the first to admit that I was over-ambitious with my plans for this city and the logistics failure was frustrating in the extreme. We were late into port because of the unavoidable previous event and I assumed that I could zip around doing what I wanted. The fact is that those who saw most were the ones who planned small distinct episodes, they achieved everything they planned whereas the over adventurous were defeated by the enormity of the task and the slowness of the traffic. The one gladdening thing, particularly for us Brits and for the world's Cunard lovers was that we were parked right next to QE2 and they haven't, as rumour has had it, turned off the engines. We were also told that she would be on her way in the future to Cape Town although given the restrictive aura that hangs over this city I still have my doubts about that.
Extreme seven: I would imagine that those seeking refuge from persecution have an easier time entering most countries than tourists do trying to get their visas stamped by the Indian Immigration Authorities. Yes, I know we Brits gave them the rudimentary ideas of how administration works but they have developed that idea into an art form with the emphasis being on "form" and rubber stamp. It took three officials all day to grant permission to fewer than seven hundred passengers and that included the effort they made reading Ida's passport and stamping my visa so there was no real co-ordination between hand and eye at all. At least none of us were asked for a bribe euphemistically called "Tea money" as happens to the large majority of taxi drivers in this country. Am I being unfair? I will leave that to you to decide.
Extreme eight: Mumbai is a city of extremes, it houses some really wealthy people whilst at the same time taking in over 300 new people every day who gather under it's extremely dirty and damaged yet semi protective wing. You wonder how such extremes can co-exist and yet they do and they do it in a symbiotic way. What is waste to one person is valuable to another, what is sold to one rebounds down the chain until it eventually reaches the lowest level, albeit with a vastly reduced worth. All this mish-mash of society has huge problems with personal survival yet here they were smiling with their friends and colleagues and with such an air of confidence. I found this extremely hard to comprehend and yet comforting that they had to feel all is not lost and that life has a positive side. Some passengers did not feel as I did and were disturbed by the situation, I can only hope that their thoughts and feelings were wrong. We visited the workhouse side of the city where nothing is too menial if it brings reward and we also visited the creative and profound side with a boat ride to Elephanta Island. The trip of about an hour out to the island from the marvellously designed Gateway of India Arch is a pleasant experience which in our case was enhanced by some very exuberant singing by a group of twenty somethings. They were playing a game which involved singing a song and when they stopped the next person had to continue with the last word of their song but in a different song, they sometimes just collapsed into honest laughter which was quite infectious. There is a small train which carries people from the boat staging on the island to a point at the bottom of a lengthy hill. This train and carriages would have caused heart failure to any self-respecting Health and Safety official in this country but was considered perfect where it was in use. The hill with its quite large steps is edged by traders selling touristy items and I am sure that they all sold things but I can't recall anyone doing so during my ascent and descent. The reason for not noticing sales may have been because I was trying to get a photo of Her Imperial Majesty, the Queen Ida, being transported on a chair with four young, fit pole bearers and waving regally to all beneath her. After that the caves and the ornate carvings, although superbly executed and intricate made, sort of faded in comparison (another joke it was marvellous really).
Extreme nine: Cochin, the next time I go to this fascinating but really hot and humid place I will make the effort to go all the way down to the backwaters. The town is filled with tourists doing the touristy things and visiting all the touristy places like the Chinese Fishing Nets, The Dutch Church, and the Mattancherry Palace etc. etc. etc. But I love bird watching and not once in Cochin did I see and Indian Roller or a Bee Eater or and eagle of any description so we will go back and leave the hustle and the bustle to enjoy a boat-ride through the Indian "Everglades" and experience nature, calmness and rural harmony as opposed to the frenetic, cacophony of careless taxis, stuffed buses, puffing lorries and scooters with up to five passengers and a driver all vying for a bit of road with the littlest amount of potholes and puddles.
Extreme ten: Penang, where one is greeted by a flood of trishaws, each with a seat that will easily accommodate two Asian bottoms but seldom two from the Western World and a large parasol carefully placed with the pedaller in mind, not the passengers. The trikes are backed up firstly with the gang bosses of the taxi contingent who cajole everyone who escapes the clutches of the cycling brigade with assurances of the trip of a lifetime at a ridiculously low price, according to them, and if you manage to circumvent them you are now confronted with the noisiest and loudest individuals with larger vehicles. They have become so used to shouting, I assume, because when firmly seated in their 6,7,or 8 seaters the engine noise and the road surface noise combine to compete against the spoken word. I had always wanted to see the Tropical Spice Gardens in the north of the island and after a slow traffic packed ride to the gardens I found myself being totally underwhelmed by them. Every horticultural spot I had previously visited in Penang had been more that I had hoped for but not this one and I would not be able to recommend a visit there. I would, however, recommend and praise our final stop, a place that I visit on every trip to Penang. The Eastern and Oriental Hotel is a five star colonial masterpiece, there are very few similarly styled places left in the world now so make the most of them whilst they are around to enjoy. It is on a par with the Cataract Hotel in Aswan, Raffles in Singapore, The Galle Face in Colombo and the Mount Nelson in Cape Town. Make sure, as you enter, to clap your hands once and listen to the equivalent of a sonic Mexican wave as the sound of one clap reverberates around the dome in the ceiling then when you laugh at the result listen to that laugh repeat continuously for another circuit. Gin and Tonics by the swimming pool alongside the ocean are the only civilised way to complete your visit and as a contrast to two / three of previous ports you do not even think once about the ice added to your drink, the service is just as assuring.
Extreme eleven: Normally when you arrive in a port you have a choice of places to go and see, close by and more distance options are the rule but Port Kalang is an exception to this rule. Here you have the option of going to Kuala Lumpur, the Malaysian capital, or a Mall twenty minutes away. So it's really KL or bust. It seems there is nothing of interest anywhere around this port and coastal area that sticks its head above the grass and says, "Look at me". We have been to KL several times and as this was to be our last day on board we decided to lounge and be lazy and in the afternoon do the thing that all of us really dislike....the packing.
Extreme twelve: Docked beside Sentosa Island, we said our farewells to so many people because this was one of the most convivial cruises I have ever made. Normally I hate "Goodbyes" and avoid them obsequiously but this time was different as saying "Goodbye" seemed like an extension of the cruise not to be missed and totally acceptable and the confirmation of this was completely verified when our departure was acknowledged by Ken Yap, the Food and Beverage Manager, Anton Winkler, The Hotel Director, Sue Denning, the Cruise Director and Captain Leif Karlsson . Never before have I experienced such a parade and all of them had been and still were very much a part of a great cruise. Singapore is a terrific place with loads to do but with luggage it is not that easy which is why we booked, prior to the cruise, a day room at the Pan Pacific Hotel. This turned out to be one of our better ideas and it allowed us to go where we wanted in Singapore and then come back to relax by the pool have a snack and then a rest and a shower before we changed and went to the airport for an 11-20pm flight. We also treated ourselves to a couple of places at the Skyview Lounge at the airport. There are very few seating areas at Changi Airport and in the evening we found this to be a great way to relax in comfort before the 14 hours of night-time flying.
Extreme thirteen: A highly appropriate name and number. Singapore is in the equatorial tropics with a humid atmosphere and a daytime temperature above 90'F., it's not much different throughout the night. We arrived in London at 5-30 am with an outside temperature of -6'C. and a gantry and walkway which had jammed with ice. The 90 mile drive home was not brilliant as the further south we went the worse the conditions became. Finally close to the end of this slow advance we were informed that freezing rain had caused two major pile-ups and we were advised by the sweet little girl that talks to me via the Sat Nav (Amer trans: GPS) that I should change my route. Oh! She's a blessing, that one, and it was the best advice I had that day.