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Wednesday, September 23, 2015

My 12 days on a Cruise Ship

Cruising has been a trendy pastime for the rich and famous until as recently as the turn of this century. In the Western world as people became more affluent the tourism industry took off and cruising became affordable for many thousands of minions like myself. We took a Mediterranean Cruise to escape the everyday life and see more of Europe. The ship was like a floating town with carpeted streets, shops, restaurants and hotel accommodation with its own laws, do’s and don’ts.  There were 2000 passengers served by 900 crew. Serve they did flashing the broadest of smiles.

We flew into Venice to join the ship. You would imagine the embarkation process of a couple of thousand people, some of them quite elderly and some in wheel chairs, to be a nightmare but it happened like greased lightning. They captured a mug-shot of each one of us, took away our passports and got us to sign a blank receipt of our credit cards. Just for a brief moment it felt like the beginning of a ‘holiday’ in prison for the felony of booking a Cruise. The security personnel gave us terse instructions and showed us the way into our cabins. Thankfully, from there on things got a lot better. The registration for entry to Medical College flashed across my mind.

The air conditioned cabin was 250 sq. ft. of space with a lovely private balcony. It was small but comfortable.  The ship had 14 decks or floors. 13 Restaurants, a couple of pools and several bars. I felt there was a need for a Sat Nav to find my way around. The whole process of taking a flight from Heathrow, transfers and embarkation was all too much for a septuagenarian. All I could manage was to find my way to the closest bar for some liquid refreshments and sustenance. That indeed took the edge off a grueling day.

Of the 2000 passengers the majority were from the US and Canada. It was a cosmopolitan crowd with many British and Europeans. The crew were mostly  from the Philippines and there were Indians and Indonesians too. They were smartly dressed in their creased uniforms ever willing to help the passengers who struggled to find their way on-board.

I have never encountered such a concentration of obesity and wondered how they managed to get to that state with all the medical advice and help so freely available in the west. I could only imagine the pressure it put on the heart and the joints, even at rest. The ship provided a walk-around promenade but I never saw any of them doing their bit to get rid of the excess. Many just preferred the bars, sun-lounges and restaurants.

Two of the restaurants provided formal dinners with waiter service. There was no need to wear a tuxedo but shorts and jeans were not allowed. The food was plentiful with a good choice. I don’t mean to be rude about other’s eating habits. For the purpose of this Blog we being all medics  I could say that what I saw was sheer gluttony. It was the obese individuals who ate the most taking several servings of the food that really should be avoided if they ever wanted to lose weight. My apologies for allowing my medical training to override people’s choice to lead the lives they want. At the restaurants and buffets there is colossal waste of food that seemed a crime when so many millions starved on our planet.

Right from medical school days I have enjoyed a drink and still do. Due to the passage of years there has been a need to cut down on the amber nectar.  I just cannot bear the hangovers that are now harsher and more frequent. In the ship the bars were open 24 hours and the ambience was perfect for a drink and a chat. There were several groups of people who had taken permanent residence in the dimly lit bars. They enjoyed the live music and the conversation.  I too drifted in on a few occasions and loved its jolly atmosphere that lit up the ship.

The cruise offers you an extraordinary variety of activities and entertainment. Their 800 seat auditorium is superb with fine acoustics.  There were 2 shows of  entertainment every night. Music, dances, magic shows, current films and musicals filled our evenings with joy. The performances were brilliant and very professional. We were in the auditorium most nights. The live music in the bars that went on until midnight catered for the mature passengers. From the Beatles to Bon Jovi they played it all injecting new life into our tired souls. Some were adequately energized to take to the dance floor and jive the night away.  

In the top deck there is an observation lounge with beautiful panoramic views of the sea and the shore. It is also a quiet place to read a book , meditate or even levitate. Many go there for their siesta. The lounge was my refuge from the hustle and bustle of the bars and the ever crowded walkways. Such scenic views of the sea often brings back old stories of  ships like the Moby Dick, Beagle and the tragic Titanic.  One cannot but admire the bravery of seafarers like Captain Cook, Magellan and Charles Darwin who sailed the treacherous seas in much smaller ships. Their lives depended entirely on a fair wind and a calm sea. It amazes me how much sea travel has changed since. Perhaps something haven’t changed as there are the likes of Long John Silver still operating on the seas around Somalia.

The atrium lobby on the 7th and 8th floor is the soul of the ship, a meeting place and a social centre. The atrium is also the management hub dealing with accounts, queries and complaints. This is also a place to sit back and observe the amusing and also the maddening onboard interactions. There are 2 bars adjacent to the atrium frequented by the younger folk for the pulsating rhythms of lively jazz and pop music.

The ship has a well stocked library with internet facilities and also rooms for card games, chess or table tennis. Some played bridge and rummy all day. For those who like a workout, there is a gym. The Casino is popular amongst the Chinese and the occasional straggler like myself who will place a bet to lose. The poolside bars and sun lounges help to top up the tan while sipping a beer. There was a Spa and a sauna to those who wanted those luxuries at a price.

The crew keeps the cabins spotless, wait at the restaurants and serve at the bars. There are chefs, stewards who make the beds and engine room boys who keep the ship running.  Speaking with the crew provides a glimpse into the secret world of the ‘underclass’. Being from the Far-East they are eager to communicate with us easterners and share their ups and downs and the humorous tales. They all live on the lowest deck and have their own hierarchy, status and privileges. Seemingly the crew have good shared cabins and get good food but work long hours (12-16 hours per day and 7 days a week). I asked what they do when they are off duty and many said they just sleep.  All of them support their families. Some are married with families at home. When they complete their 8 month contract they get 2 months paid leave. To me it is a damn hard job which breaks down the body and mind. Many renew their contracts as they need the money. Some speak to their children on Skype when they are free to disembark and get free WiFi. Sadly many miss out on the childrens’ milestones. They can only dream of a true family life as we know it . The Wi-Fi on board the ship is prohibitively expensive and miserably slow.

Every passenger has to contribute US$13/day as tips for the crew. In addition to this there are generous passengers who give extra. I just wonder how much of it reaches the lower decks.  I was told cruise lines operate in accordance with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) recommendations for minimum wage and working hours!! The wage depends on the nationality. Need I say more about justice and fair-play.

Much has been written about life of the crew, their hard work, poor pay and bad treatment on board the ship. Reading this brings out the socialist in me, just like in my teenage years. We have lived 5000 years on this planet and still have not found a way to distribute wealth equally and have true equality. On board the ship we have the passengers living in ultimate luxury and the crew slaving away to serve passengers their every need working for a pittance. These are the unacceptable inequities of life.

It was wonderful to get to know so many people from all around the globe in such a short time. The Americans as usual are very friendly and will always strike up a conversation.  There were many Spanish speaking passengers from Spain, Central and South America and the US. They drank and danced to the rhythmic Cuban music and had a jolly good time. There were many Chinese from the Mainland, Taiwan and the US. They formed their own groups and remained aloof.

One of the great advantages of cruising is the ability to visit a different city everyday and spend a full day seeing the sights. We saw some of the most beautiful iconic sights in Europe and were able to appreciate the history, awe-inspiring scenery, and the compelling local cultures in Venice, Athens, Rome, Naples, Istanbul and several other cities including Barcelona

On the 11th day I felt I was ready to return home to the UK. This was my second cruise and will be my last. Not because I didn’t have a good time. It was wonderful visiting several countries and meeting so many interesting and friendly people. It was luxurious living on board the ship. I do not like the restrictions on board and the claustrophobia of the cabin. The plight of the crew will continue to haunt me.

Cruising is not without its perils.  The Cruise Ship Costa Concordia ran aground with the loss of 45 lives. Influenza and gastroenteritis can spread like wild fire in that enclosed space and this has happened on many occasions on many cruise ships. Actual fires on board the ship and engine failures have caused great hardship to passengers. Thankfully we survived to return home safely.

I have deliberately avoided giving descriptions of the places I visited.  The article is far too long as it is. The internet is a living minefield and one has to tread carefully.  Hence the name of the ship will remain a mystery.

Dr Nihal D Amerasekera FRCP(UK) FRCR(Lond)


  1. Having no experience of cruises at all, this was an extremely interesting read. Many of my close friends are cruise fans and describe their experiences in glowing terms but you are the first one to talk about, "the other side", i.e., the lot of the unfortunate crew. Like you, I feel like a helpless observer of the unfairness and inequity that exists in this world. If God or karma or "The Force" or whatever it is that is operating, it seems to me that whole system needs to be reviewed and a New more just system installed. We want happiness in this Word, not in the hereafter!

    Life is about occupying time between birth and death in the most satisfying way respecting and caring for others in this planet, including animals and the occasional cruise seems an useful way to fill this gap. I am always intrigued by observing people and your descriptions of the variety of fellow "cruisers" fascinated me. You are not alone in casting a medical eye on your surroundings. I recall walking down a street in Brighton with my Engineer brother some years ago and while I was observing the gaits and tics of passers by, he was commenting on the building structures. We have this illusion that we all see the see the same world but in reality, we "know" only from how our senses interpret the stimuli they receive. Each one of us in a way , live in our own unique world!

    Thanks again for that personal insight into the unique world of cruising and cruisers, which at times resembled "escape from reality" in Freddy Mercury lingo.

  2. Mahen
    Thank you for the comment. Glad you too see the "other side" or the underclass that is a blot on society. It is such a great pity that socialism which in theory is fantastic but cannot be implemented properly due to the human failings of those who administer it.

  3. It has now become almost routine for me to post ND's articles and read them afterwards - much like Speedy's inputs in the Creative Spot category. When a well read man writes something, I can smell it a mile away.

    I agree with what Speedy wrote in his comment, especially his reference to unfairness and inequity that exists in this world. We who have lived for so long in a country like Sri Lanka are not unfamiliar with it.

    My only experience with a "holiday" in prison was far less expensive and necessarily shorter in duration. Fortunately for us, it was mitigated somewhat as we were in good company. Our small Sri Lankan team comprised of friends including three batchmates - JC, Sura and Sriani. Adding glamour to it was former Miss Ceylon Sushila Perera whose sister Kanthi is Mangala's classmate from Visakha. So, we were not that keen to return home midway through the cruise.

    I must mention in passing that I have a young nephew who joined Carnival Cruises some time ago. Having traversed the Pacific to his heart's content and seen LA and a bit of the US West Coast, he is now based in Miami, FL.
    The young man who is still a bachelor, now wants to return to Sri Lanka and join OZO Hotel (overlooking the Kandy Lake) as his parents live in Kandy.

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  5. Thanks Lucky. We are not going to solve the problems of the world in this lifetime but it is worth recording our displeasure of the treatment of the social underclass. I felt the same about our own servants although they were treated with kindness and compassion. They were oncall 24hours and no day off in the old days. No one can change the past!! But let the future be better for them.

  6. Dear Nihal, I have not read the other comments and am hastening to say, that this is a masterpiece, as usual in your inimitable style with perfect word choice, simply a pleasure to read and it has the digital equivalent of a 'page turner of a book'. You give a wide view point covering all aspects of a cruise including history and a note on the humanitarian aspects and the unfairness of the treatment of those working below deck, it being no differnt to that seen in the world after 5000 years of progressive civilisation. Thanks a million, I really enjoyed reading it!

    1. Zita
      Thank you as always for the encouragement you give to all of us who contribute to this Blog

  7. ND,
    Great to read about your cruise in the MED.
    I have been on large ocean going liners in harbour when my uncles came to the UK for Post-grad qualifications!! We used to spend a whole day on board but never experienced the confines of claustrophobic cabins!! t Only thing that was lacking for us was the "Amber Nectar" The reason that we had the 'free run' on board was because the Sole Agents in the then Ceylon for the Shipping Line was the Company that my Dad worked as an Excecutive . Again when my parents went to India too we spent hours on board before they departed for a months stay in India As peace offerings they brought a load of gifts.!!!!


  8. Razaque
    Thank you for the comment. Glad I was able to jog your memory of events of long ago. How time flies!!