The Red Sea revisited

The Costa Fortuna stopped in Oman a few days after leaving Suez. Oman is an Arab state that is much less in the news than their neighbors on the Arabian Peninsula. We visited the capital city of Muscat in 2016, this time we came to Salalah on the southwestern coast.

This is a wide and flat desert town without the vulgar face of shining luxury that spits you in the eye when you arrive to places like Dubai or Abu Dhabi. Oman is low key and looks more sympathetic. The two sights the tour company had chosen to show us were some sea water geysers a few kilometers to the west of the cruise terminal, and the tomb of the Prophet Job on the hills overlooking the town to the east.

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Oman was the only stop during the ten days it took us to travel from Crete, thru the Suez Canal and down to Mumbai, India. For us, this was the best stretch of the whole journey. We have done a one-week Mediterranean cruise earlier, but this was not our thing. Sailing at night and running around in excursions with fellow passengers every single day was not our way of doing a cruise. We do these trips mainly for the experience of the ship and the sea, and then you need more time and less stops. Sitting on our balcony, or at the poolside bar, or on a top floor deck chair or wherever else the wide waters open up in front of our eyes, that is what makes the trip worth taking. This is the closest we come to the illusion of seeing the world, as it curves away from us somewhere under a horizon that we can sense more than we actually can see.

The very best place for this kind of sight seeing is of course the navigation bridge, but that is a no-go-zone for passengers on most cruise ships. Costa learned their lesson in 2012 when the captain on the Costa Concordia apparently tried to impress a lady friend by going close to the rocks and ended up wrecking the vessel and killing 32 passengers. On the Corte Real, the container ship that took us from Hong Kong to Hamburg in 2013, the bridge was where we spent large parts of our days. We sat on the high stools by the door to the wing reading a book or making diary notes, but mostly just being consumed by our imagination as the blue unknown stretched out before our eyes.

Never take a cruise if you cannot get a balcony!
Never take a cruise if you cannot get a balcony!

Therefor it was a pleasant surprise that Costa had relaxed their policies a little bit and actually allowed small groups of passengers on the bridge of the Costa Fortuna to see the Red See sunset. The sunset was nice of course, but we were more interested in sniffing out the routines and the views and the atmosphere of what is the nerve center of the 270-meter creature that we were travelling on. The low voices, the low light from the instruments, the humming of the engines and the oceans, the theatre of dreams that we plowed thru as the light of the evening faded away! We were only allowed some 50 minutes, but it was the best excursion of the whole voyage as far as we are concerned!

And by all means, we had some memorable experiences on our way to Singapore! In Mumbai ES was able to meet up with an old friend she had not seen for 20 years. In Sri Lanka our experience was a bit more mixed, while visiting a Buddhist temple in Colombo DHH had his shoes stolen and had to make it back to the ship walking the rainy streets in his socks. You have to leave your shoes by the door at such places, but we do expect to get them back! The temple was not only a place of worship it turned out, but also a museum of donations from devoted believers. These donations including a Mercedes and a Rolls Royce and various shelves filled with cameras, typewriters, knives and even handguns! Not really the kind of items that the priests we know from Europe normally keep in their churches!

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Near Phuket in Malaysia we visited an orangutan sanctuary, a mix of a zoo and a hospital where big apes from Malaysian Borneo were being nursed and fed before they were taken back and reintroduced into the wild. For DHH this was an emotional visit, he has been to Borneo some years back to see these gentle relatives of ours in their proper environment. Orangutans are friendly and very trusting to humans, and they are extremely vulnerable to human destruction of their forest habitats. Loggers often kill mothers with babies in order to sell the young ones as pets, leaving them to a miserable existence in small cages in somebody’s back yard. Orangutan rescuers often buy these abused pets from their owners, taking them to rehabilitation centers like the one we came to visit.

Are there any downsides then, to a cruise holyday? Yeah sure, the biggest one being that you can actually fall overboard and drown. One evening just south of Sri Lanka the alarm came on, telling us we had a Man Overboard-situation. On the starboard side, right underneath our balcony, somebody threw out a buoy with a flare marking a spot in the ocean where somebody apparently had gone over the railing. The ship made a U-turn and very slowly started gliding back west, parallel to the course we had been on just a few minutes earlier. There was nothing to be seen however, apart from the burning flare and the white foam marking the curve we had done. All passengers were ordered back to their cabins, both passengers and crew had to be counted and double-checked and accounted for. Outside our balcony the day faded into night, and the searchlights that danced across the black ocean surface came up with nothing.

After three hours we were told that nobody was missing. Maybe somebody bluffed about seeing a person fall, or maybe somebody had seen a jacket or a pair of trousers fly off a balcony. Or – maybe the captain decided not to tell us about an accident that actually had happened. The latter would not be unheard off. The one thing Costa Cruises does not do very well is information when something happens that deviate us from our daily routine. Having worked with information and journalism and PR throughout our professional careers, this is a shortcoming that we notice almost daily.

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The United colors of India! Waiting for a train at the Chhatrapati Shivaji Railway Station in Mumbai.

The Man Overboard we are happy to say is not a daily routine. We spoke to crew members afterwards that had never been involved in one before, in spite of many years in the job. Therefore, as a passenger, there is a bigger chance that you will at some stage of a long cruise be annoyed by life in a constant crowd. As soon as we set foot outside our own cabin door we are fighting 2798 other people for space at the restaurants, space at the bars and space in the corridors. The crowds cover the dance floors, the elevators, the gym and the pools. You will have to fight for your sunbed up on deck and for your table at the lunch buffet, and then you have to fight for your place in line to get to the food counter. If you need to move from somewhere to somewhere else in anything resembling a hurry, there is always some slow old person staggering like a penguin from side to side, using the whole width of the narrow space, making it impossible to pass.

The moral is that you have to be a good bit flexible and tolerant to enjoy a cruise trip. If you are somebody who gets pissed by people who wriggle past you in the food line, or someone who starts a fight when you get beat by half and inch to the one free table by the window that you thought you had seen first, then do not go on a cruise. However, if you can tolerate some minor inconveniences, including the fact that you are not the only one on board, then do the trip and enjoy the upsides. Tell yourself that in a few years you will be the slow old geezer blocking the dining room passageway between the wall and the first row of tables. Tell yourself that most other people on board are nice, even if they should happen to sit at the very table you wanted for yourself. The ship is full of fellow travelers that probably share your love for the world and the sea and the art of traveling (and even knitting!) – if you just bother to say hello and get to know them. There are always one or two straight forward nasty bastards around of course, but those you can also bump into if you chose to take a holiday on dry land.

The Gangaramaya Buddhist temple and museum in Colombo, Sri Lanka
The Gangaramaya Buddhist temple and museum in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

The crew is another matter – very polite, always working and always smiling, soft spoken and often bordering on timid. The officers and the management are mainly Italian. Most of the rank-and-file are from the Philippines, but with large contingents from India and Indonesia. They work fast and they work long hours. Our waiter at our dinner table, in his elegant, but heavy, dark red jacket, smiles and sweats and runs non-stop for the hour and a half our meal takes. Then, as soon as we are out of the door, he does the same for a new set of people at the same tables for the second dinner setting. His job is 12 hours per day, 7 days a week for 9 months running. To be able to sit back in a chair and let him and his colleges cook for us and clean for us and open the doors for us day and night for weeks on end, is a privilege we hope everybody on board is able to appreciate.

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