THE SHIP: Getting on board the MSC Musica is a marvelous experience. The ship lives up to the promise of the travel brochures. It is B E A U T I F U L! It is a monument of thoughtful design and ergonomics, and by some standards even good (though some may find it garish) taste. The state rooms are spacious, well appointed and comfortable. Passengers may wander freely, from the fifth floor reception to the 16th floor tennis court – and there are plenty of elevators to get people to their destinations reasonably fast. Though filled to capacity, despite the ravages of ocean air, the ship appears to be clean, and maintains its fresh air of newness – kudos to the army of minions who surely toil around the clock scrubbing and painting to accomplish this in such a vast and luxurious space. The only disappointment in the ship’s design was the gym. It is minuscule, open for short hours (from 8 AM to 8 PM). Six treadmills for 3000+ passengers just doesn’t ad-up. There are a few other machines (e.g. two elliptical and two bicycles) of dubious quality and resistance. The gym manager is not particularly knowledgeable, nor helpful – but you could count on him to be late for work in the morning.
THE FOOD: After a surprisingly bland and unimaginative buffet service, we were later introduced to the ship’s cuisine at dinner time. This was the first indication that there is a chasm between the ship’s maintenance crew, and its tour operators. The latter showed themselves not only to be sophomorically incompetent, but puny and cheap. Meats, poultry and sea food though sometimes reasonably seasoned, are usually overcooked – possibly an attempt to fight an epidemic of diarrhea on board due to expired validity dates. The pasta and the pizza are competent, thus the cruise is safe for anyone on a high carbohydrate diet. A tasty spaghetti al vongole one evening featured four beautiful clamshells, alas only one clam had actually found its way to my serving. I wondered all night if some lucky passenger received four shells and seven clams … The examples of abuse are too many to enumerate. Some however are so outrageous as illustrations of the pettiness of the profit driven experts running this operation, that they deserve special recognition: • Though the quality of the fresh fruit is passable – the salads come from the bottom of the barrel – the leftovers from wholesale produce markets – normally destined to the soup kitchens for the homeless. Except for the tasteless, styrofoam-like tomatoes, the greens often exuded a perfume of chemicals, either of the toxic pesticides used in their production, or of the preservatives used to disguise their expired validity as betrayed by their lackluster appearance. • Prior to the cruise we were offered a package of seven bottles of wine “chosen by our sommelier” and an equal number of mineral water bottles for the reasonable price of US$99. The mineral water was indeed of good quality – the wines unfortunately weren’t even suitable to be used as vinegar in salad dressings. After the third night we gave up and didn’t even bother ordering wines from the sommelier’s choice any more. This is surprising considering the excellent wines we drank in Argentine restaurants during our stopover in Buenos Aires, at prices similar to our sommelier’s choices. • The coffee and milk served freely at breakfast tasted neither like coffee nor milk – adding insult to injury, for an additional charge a decent espresso or cappuccino is served throughout the ship at its many coffee shops and bars. • The little honey containers of European origin ran out after the first day. They were truly remarkable illustrations of European prowess in industrial design – these little plastic receptacles with an aluminum foil top which easily pealed back to allow customers access to the honey inside. The batch of the Brazilian brand served thereafter clearly had not passed quality control – the aluminum foil top was firmly attached to the plastic receptacle, and would not let go. Careful surgery with a dull knife was required to access the honey inside – invariably resulting in a gooey mess worthy of inner city emergency rooms and trauma units. • The menus, with few exceptions were unimaginative, often using fancy words to describe pathetic options. On New Year’s eve I was driven to take pictures. One from the fancy desert advertised as a Saint Silvester cup – a panaché of fruit on lemon gelatin - which alas cannot be posted here.
The other illustration of is of the “olive bread”
Three types of bread are served at dinner time – one of each. As service is often excruciatingly slow, you may ask for more bread. Your waiter will gladly oblige … eventually. Extra bread must be ordered from the central kitchen in the ship’s bowels – it usually arrived little before desert was served. • If you like ice cream you may purchase the mediocre stuff sold by the pool, for an extra fee – of course. The melting goo in the restaurant menu is neither ice, nor cream.
ENTERTAINMENT: Like the rest of the ship, the installations are impressive, world class, state of the art, and comfortable. Alas, some of the good artists, though clearly past their prime, deserved a kinder setting before being put out to pasture permanently. Many of the costumes worn by dancers and acrobats revealed undergarments unfit for the stage. The awkward choreography was often well, embarrassing to put it mildly. The cruise director, an aspiring young polyglot with a failing hair transplant sounded much like a circus ringleader from an old Disney animation (Pinocchio – I think it was). The Crystal Room was supposed to have more romantic music for old folks like me. Alas the nasal lead singer had a painfully strident voice which one might even have gotten used to were it not for random missed notes, just enough to jar your nerves. Moving on to the Tucano Lounge we theoretically had Brazilian music. It was largely rock'n roll – but Brazilian. WiFi: As befits a state of the art cruise ship, such as the MSC Musica, the latest technology is offered in the internet cafe where for US$30 an hour you can surf the Web at roughly half a dial-up connection speed. There is a minimum US$10 fee - but that's OK because it took me almost 15 minutes just to log into my gmail account. Lip service: I have already mentioned the impressive tidiness through most of the trip. As was to be expected the latest in prophylactic technology was also spread haphazardly throughout the passenger area in the form of alcohol dispensers to slow the spread of contagion. There are plenty of signs admonishing passengers and crew to be mindful of healthy hygiene. Alas most of the time the dispensers were either broken or empty. Philanthropy: The sharp business executives at MSC found a novel way of exercising the social responsibility required by modern management dogmas. A letter was left in our stateroom one evening informing us that unless we filled in a form and delivered it to the reception area, a charitable donation to a UNICEF organization would be tacked on to our invoice. I’m as much of a philanthropist as the next guy, but I like to choose on my own how to practice it – having MSC do it on my behalf without my express permission, seemed somewhat underhanded. Shore leave: When returning to the ship from our sojourn in Punta del Este we needed to wait for the ship’s life boats to ferry us back. It’s a pretty smooth operation. Unless it rains. Which it just happen to do when were there. This was, after all, the season of the Summer rains. MSC set up a large tent where you can wait for your raft – a good distance from the loading dock. From the tent to the dock there was no cover, there were no umbrellas, and there was a lot of waiting in line. Saddest of all was an elderly couple, huddling, him leaning heavily on a cane, struggling down a steep ramp (the poor guy apparently couldn’t handle steps) on their own, unassisted by an oblivious and overwhelmed hapless crew. Green: The New Year was celebrated with the distribution of a helium filled balloon to each passenger. We were told to write our wish on a piece of paper and tie it to the string of the balloon to be released into the atmosphere at the stroke of midnight. Future passengers on an Antarctic cruise may be scratching their heads as to where all these balloons littering our oceans came from.
An unforgettable farewell: On the day of arrival, we were asked to be out of our staterooms by 7 AM, to have breakfast, and then not return – but to wait in our assigned areas for the call to disembark. Nearly 3000 passengers huddled in cramped quarters awaiting their turn. Our group was one of the middle ones in the queue to get off the ship. We were called at 11 AM. The one thousand + stateroom toilets usually available to this bunch of not-so-happy travelers were no longer available. The result was predictably unforgettable.
CHECKING IN: The inadequacy of the cruise passenger facilities at the port in Santos deserves a review of its own. Anyone who loves cruising should avoid it at all costs either by flying to a previous or subsequent port of call for embarking on a cruise. For anyone my age or younger, who did not actually live through the real horrors of World War II, arriving at the passenger terminal at the port in Santos is reminiscent of movie scenes depicting getting off a freight train at Auschwitz. The enormous, snail paced line we were assigned to was not even to check-in. It was merely a to get a senha (number) which entitled its lucky bearer to eventually get in another line where the actual check-in formalities were to be processed in a system not unlike that of a Brazilian pharmacy - where no one has any authority – a series of smiling clueless people, with no idea of the purpose of their minute role in this saga, and who must refer E V E R Y T H I N G to some invisible all-powerful entity for confirmation and approval. Not wanting to break away from our group I had turned down several hints of taking the shorter snail paced line for senior citizens. After a couple of hours I decided to investigate. It turned out that my wife and I, being seniors, would also be entitled to a preferential senha, meaning we could get to the second snail paced line sooner - but still all members of our party would be entitled to get off the Dantesque queue we had been wallowing in for so long. We took advantage of this heaven-sent opportunity which surely cut our overall wait by at least another couple of hours. The “real” check-in was “interesting”. The staff takes it for granted that they have the authority to take away your documents (passport, identity cards, etc.) – with a cheerful promise that they will be “returned later”. To the exasperation of the various smiling clueless faces mishandling this circus, I adamantly refused to part company with our passports several times – as my ‘misbehavior’ wound its way up MSC’s hierarchy. At one point a smartly pressed young man in a company (not an official) shirt and a heavy Porteño accent reassured me he was an ‘Immigration Officer’ and I could rest assured my passport would be properly handled. I politely congratulated him on his high rank and suggested then that either he properly handle our passports in my presence - or that I would have file a complaint with the Federal Police that MSC had absconded with my passport without my permission. As it turned out, our passports were promptly returned without an explanation – the Gods of MSC must have been otherwise appeased. All in all, from leaving our home in São Paulo, to entering our stateroom on board (including a 90 minute bus ride to the Santos passenger terminal) took approximately seven hours – thanks to our privileged senior citizen status, which allowed us cut the line.