Somewhere beyond the sea

I still have the dreams. I suppose they’re my equivalent of school anxiety dreams. I’m wandering a vast, fantastical cruise ship, pacing its open decks in the bright afternoon sunlight, getting lost in the under-deck warren of narrow corridors, or gazing up at neon-lit vaulted glass ceilings by night. I’m wearing my uniform in some, in others yet to don it; in some I’ve found my cabin and in others I have no clue where it is. One thing remains the same throughout: I don’t know when my shifts are, or whether or not I’ve missed some. I’m seized by panic at this, and I find myself wondering why I’ve signed up for another six months of diplomacy on the high seas.

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It’s been 10 years since I finished the second of two contracts working front desk on a cruise ship out of Miami. Fresh out of college, I wanted to see something different to the inside of a London pub for my gap year, so I signed up for a job in a slightly warmer climate: the Caribbean. Applying for a waitering job, I was offered a position as a purser on the basis of my Capetonian Southern-Suburbs accent. Thrown into a guest-services role alongside largely hotel-school graduates, I learned formidable skills of negotiation and diplomacy while tending to the concerns of a greasy slice of the middle-American tourism market.

It was a hell of an adventure. We cruised to the Bahamas, Cayman Islands, Belize, Honduras, Mexico, Virgin Islands and Netherlands Antilles, and my daily diet of admin, finance and service issues was supplemented with zip lining through jungles, exploring subterranean rivers, swimming with dolphins, sailing on catamarans and being massaged by a stingray (really).

It was also damn stressful work, as those dreams surely attest. So when I finally got the opportunity to experience a cruise from the other side of the desk – on a three-night round trip from Durban to Portuguese Island, just off the coast of Mozambique – I grabbed it faster than you can say, ‘No nudity on the lido deck please, sir’.

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Food for thought

Pacing the corridors of the MSC Sinfonia felt like stepping back into one of my dreams, except this time round I was searching for my bright, airy balcony cabin with a double bed instead of the poky room with a bunk bed and no natural lighting.

Instead of worrying about shifts, I was wondering if I had time for a slice of pizza and a hamburger and a beer and an ice cream before the safety drill. And maybe a little salad from the buffet.

You see, one of the trademarks of cruising is that there’s rather a lot of food to be had on board, almost all of which is free. On the Sinfonia there are the main dining rooms, Il Covo and Il Galeone, which serve breakfast, lunch and dinner. There’s Caffè del Mare, which includes the Cafeteria, Hamburger Paradise and Pizza & Pasta. There’s the Gelateria Italiana, which you have to pay for, but is properly worth it. There’s the La Terrazza Buffet, which is open an astounding 20 hours a day for culinary cravings at all hours, and serves a dessert buffet. You can also order room service 24 hours a day. So you can eat pretty much constantly, which suits a glutton like me just fine.

Much ado about cruising

Steaming out of the busiest port in Africa, I felt a sense of melancholy familiarity. Guests would be down at the front desk now checking if their luggage had arrived. They’d be activating their on-board spending cards (cruise ships are cashless systems). Ten years ago, I would’ve been fielding questions about upgrades and dining-room assignments and shore excursions and the opening times of the casino and which of the kids’ facilities was suitable for a pair of troublesome teens … but I was standing at the aft of the ship on deck 11, with the wind in my hair, hypnotised by the wake of a 244-metre, 58 625-tonne behemoth cutting its way out into the Indian Ocean.

Instead of stress, I felt possibility, a tingle of guilty excitement, like I’d escaped my toils and was masquerading among the guests, blending in, chameleon-like. What did one do on a ship when not working? Turns out you do a bit of everything.

We played putt-putt. We flung water balloons at hapless entertainment staff in the lido-deck pool. We tanned on the lido deck, closing the foldable deck-chair visors over our heads and pretending to be toasted sandwiches. We dashed into the kiddies’ splash park with some enthusiastic parents, and watched in giddy anticipation as a giant bucket of water slowly filled up before tipping over and dumping a waterfall over our heads. We dressed up for dinner and whipped our napkins around our heads when the wait staff did theirs.

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Cruising is one of those things where the more you lean in, the more you get out. I remembered one of the great things about US tourists being their general enthusiasm for getting involved, coupled with a lack of shyness, and it softened my memories of dealing with unrealistic expectations or flaring tempers.

I looked around at the surprisingly diverse smorgasbord of people and I saw parallels with our seafaring brethren across the Atlantic – couples sipping brightly coloured cocktails, parents holding babies aloft, preteens running along the deck trying not to spill their ice creams, teenagers sitting self-consciously on the edge of the swimming pool. I saw crowds get involved at the evening in the Teatro San Carlo, singing along to the guest artists who performed after the curtains had fallen on the gloriously over-the-top cabaret shows.

And I thought, ‘Yoh, you know, us South Africans, we’re kind of good at this cruising thing.’

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No man is an island

Of course, cruising was originally invented as a mode of transport, and so we were transported from Durban roughly 500km up the coast to Portuguese Island, which, rather than being anywhere near Portugal, lies just inside Maputo Bay, about 30km from Maputo. The ship doesn’t dock at the island; rather, it anchors a couple of kilometres offshore and you get there by hitching a ride on a tender, the surf occasionally catching your face as the boat skips along the ocean.

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Portuguese Island is actually a desert(ed) island, devoid of structures aside from those erected by MSC to serve as shade, bar, restaurant and ablution facilities. Cruises typically organise shore excursions with preapproved tour operators – such as those offering snorkelling, jet-skiing, kayaking and the like – though you can also just go it alone if you like.

We ditched the crowds to wander along the shore through stunningly clear and warm water, tiny fish swimming around our feet and memories of hazy days in the Caribbean swimming in my head. It was blazingly hot and humid, so we flung our bags down on the baking white sand and submerged ourselves in the strait between the island and Inhaca Island just beyond.

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Deep blue sea

Of course, being at sea means, well, being at sea. The Sinfonia may weigh 58 625 tonnes, but it’s still a speck in the ocean, gently riding the swells of the winds and currents. There’s nothing quite like a hangover in rough seas – you’re far more aware of your insides than ever – but most of the time it was gentle.

As my partner turned the occasional shade of green around the gills, I recounted, by way of comparison, tales of Caribbean seas so rough the drawers at the front desk would slide out and bump me in the legs as I stood there dispensing Dramamine with a cheery grin to staggering landlubbers. These tales did not help. So we checked into the spa and lay sprawled on heated, tiled loungers staring out over the vastness of the ocean, feeling at one with the rise and the fall of the horizon, hypnotised into reverie by the motion.

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On our final evening, we watched a squall blow across the sea towards our ship, sheets of rain falling diagonally against a backdrop of clouds stained with crimson and purple and magenta. I thought back to my final night steaming into Miami all those years before, when we stood aboard the crew deck on the ship’s bow, watching a spectacular thunderstorm play out along the horizon as we crept closer to land and dawn, and marvelled at the parallels that play out in life, across time, circumstance and sea.

I still have the dreams. But maybe one day I’ll have one where I’m not in uniform, and those vast, imagined spaces are mine to explore at will.

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This article originally appeared in khuluma magazine. 
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