Quick post during lunch using iPhone app. Funchal is beautiful. Maybe I’ll just stay.
Month: April 2016
Apologies for the lack of posts: the wifi on the ship is terrible; plus WordPress takes up valuable wifi time uploading photos only to end with an “https” error. So for now I’ll go with a few photos that I’ve managed to upload successfully.
In the meantime, the Transatlantic passenger contingent turns out to be a friendly, cruise-addicted bunch. There are quite a few solo travelers on board, and the ship has set up a daily get-together at 6pm where we can meet and make arrangements for dinner. It’s also possible to request a shared table in the dining room and meet others: this option wasn’t available on my last Jade cruise in the Adriatic.
My inside cabin
Not much in the way of wildlife in along the mid-Atlantic ridge. There were some Northern Gannets in the Carribean, and we’ve got a hitchiker hanging out on the flying bridge since yesterday or possibly longer. This brown booby probably found itself too far from land and is joining us for awhile until we get closer to land: I hope it’s not too cold in the Azores or on Madeira for it. Someone with a balcony qot a quick glimpse of some large dolphins or small whales. Whitecaps have made cetacean siting difficult.
Now that I’ve recovered from my Peace Corps service in Moldova, it’s time to pursue another important, long-term retirement goal: traveling. I’ve begun a long period of travel that involves a short stay with my sister in South Florida, a Transatlantic cruise, and seven weeks to explore Andalucia (Spain), Morocco and Lisbon.
The Beginning of a Two-Month Trip
I started drafting this post in the air on the way to Florida to embark on a Transatlantic crossing to Barcelona. This was first time I’ve flown out of Seatac going southeast: the Cascades look totally different than they do over Oregon. It looked like there was a light dusting of snow on the trees, so that below the timberline everything was a dusty green-gray, while there were still solid fields of snow above the timberline.
Many people aren’t aware that you can cross the Atlantic on a cruise ship. Many cruise ships have seasonal cruising grounds. During the winter they’re in the Caribbean, but in the summer they go over to Europe to cruise the Mediterranean or the North Sea/Baltic area. To make these repositioning cruises profitable, the cruise lines offer good rates to passengers. So I’ll be sailing on the Norwegian Cruise Line’s ship Jade from Miami to Barcelona. It’s a 13-day passage with only two port calls: the U.S. Virgin Islands and the Atlantic island of Funchal.
Cruising for Real Travelers
Although cruising is regarded by many as Not Really Travelling, I enjoy it immensely, even though my friends know that I can legitmately claim to be a “real traveler.” Usually I have an “excuse” to go on a cruise. I’ve been on a few with friends and family: my first cruise was with Lloyd and Alice (my father and stepmother) from New York City to Montreal. The summer of 2014 I was on the NCL Jade cruising the Adriatic: Venice, Dubrovnik, Split, Athens, and Ephesus. The reason that a cruise was perfect for me that summer was that I had been so busy teaching English in the Peace Corps that I hadn’t had time or energy to plan travel: where to stay, how to get there, etc. At any rate, every cruise has given me a day in many ports that I may never have visited otherwise (for example: Halifax, Nainamo, Zihuatanejo.)
I’ve always wanted to cross whole oceans in ships. I’m a fervent and repetitive reader of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin series—a 21-book series of historical novels about a British sea captain and his naval surgeon friend, set during the Napoleonic wars. The books are an erudite treasure trove of facts and history about sailing, nautical technology, natural history, astronomy, geography, early 19th century medicine and surgery, British life, shipboard communities, survival, languages and of course the strategy, tactics and action of naval battles. There are many, many descriptions of what it’s like to be at sea and I be there in the middle of the ocean for several days myself.
I love setting up house in a cruise ship “stateroom” (for which I pay almost double as a solo traveller, although fwiw, Norwegian and other lines have outfitted some of their newer ships with single cabins, so there is a slow recognition that solo cruisers have market potential.) On cruises I usually spend most of my time on deck, watching the sky and sea and/or reading: I don’t really go in much for the onboard entertainment and activities available on ships. I’m hoping that in the mid-Atlantic there will be plenty of pelagic seabirds (the real ocean-going ones), whales and dolphins to spot. Ports and harbors are also immensely interesting, especially if the ship passes the multi-modal working part of a harbor.
On this cruise, we’ll be sailing through the Strait of Gibraltar, which connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Mediterranean Sea. It’s the only entrance to the Mediterranean from any ocean. Both the European and African shores are visible from the strait. It’s one of the world’s major shipping lanes. I will definitely be on deck for this one, regardless of what time we go through.
In the meantime, I’ve packed several rather weighty books, mostly biographies of famous travelers, to enjoy during those ten full days at sea. I’m also hoping to get to know some other passengers. On normal cruises people stick pretty much to themselves in their couples and families, but perhaps the dynamics will be different on a repositioning cruise. I might be able to get some of the waiters to seat me with other travelers who are willing to share a table (not one of the normal options on NCL, although they set up times at one of the lounges where solo travellers can meet one another, and that can lead to sharing a table at dinner.)
Cruise ships are a transport system that participate in the complexity of modern maritime systems. They are, as well, competitive, for-profit hospitality entities. Although I’m a mere passenger, I love observing and deducing how all these systems work. On the Jade behind a curtain at the front of a big forward lounge, there’s a window onto the bridge and computer displays that mirror the main navigation screens. (Alas, I have no photos of these screens.) So if there’s not a band playing onstage I can go back there and see our current course with its headings, waypoints, estimated times and nearby ships on radar. I watch harbor pilots come up to the ship in their tiny boats so they can climb a ladder and enter a hatch halfway up the hull, which gives them access to the bridge so that they can drive the ship into port. (Our pilot on the St. Lawrence river also kept an eye out for beluga whales and announced sightings to the passengers.) On a ship tour of the Jade in 2014 I got to visit the bridge myself and meet the second officer, who was a graduate of a Romanian maritime academy.
Cruise crews work incredibly hard, and ships are not subject to national labor laws, so people from third world countries have to be highly motivated to spend months away from home, in uncomfortable quarters, doing exhausting work so that they send their well-earned money home to provide a better life for their families or a better future for themselves. Customer-facing crew are generally well-educated because they need English in order to qualify for their jobs. I enjoy finding out as much about the crew as I can if they have time to talk with me. Crew comes from all over the world. Post-Soviet Eastern Europe and the Philippines seems to provide lots of deck and hospitality crew for Norwegian now; but on my first cruise I met people from Jamaica and Puerto Rico. Passengers don’t usually see the members of the crew who live and work in the lowest decks: the kitchen workers, laundry workers and maintenance people. I don’t know much about their living and working conditions: apparently their cabins have four or more bunks, they eat in huge cafeterias, and they work long, long hours for three and six-month tours of duty.