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A Fairly Slow Boat to Belize

I once had fond dreams of taking a longish cruise from somewhere-to-anywhere (as long as the weather was good) writing the great Zimbabwean novel (or breaking the back of it).

Forget it! There’s just too much happening on today’s mammoth cruise liners to encourage literary efforts.

Even reading becomes a strain. A 500-page airport newsstand-type best seller by one of my favourite novelists which in Zimbabwe I’d “eat” in a weekend, is still at page 334, having been opened Christmas Day, despite spending almost 24 hours in air terminals, on planes and seven days at sea.

Despite his wife Vicky’s enthusiasm for the concept, my good Harare pal Richard New pooh-poohs cruising, saying it’s like a floating Butlins Holiday Camp.

As I don’t think he has ever sailed and I’m sure he’s never entered a Butlins, I’ll ask him to justify that claim when they return from a three-month “sanity break” in the Cape. There can be, however, some merit in his statement.

 As you read this, I should be unpacking in Ha-ha-ha-rare (Africa’s fun capital) from my own five-week sanity break with family in the UK.

Despite obvious attractions of more than a month there, bracketing Christmas/New Year, 35 days in northern Europe at this time of year is wearing weather-wise, although I usually miss the snow (it fell heavily this year when I was in the Caribbean) and have still been unable to make my delightful grand-daughter a ‘snowman’.

Last year I punctuated long-leave with a snorkelling break on the Red Sea at Sharm-el-Sheikh on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and seeing Petra, the once-lost city in the Jordan Desert.

This year the need to escape was more pressing: my son and his wife weren’t in Scotland — the world’s best place for Hogmanay— they went to a wedding in Mumbai, India.

This truly is a global village, but sometimes when travelling I feel like the drooling global village Idiot, shielded by life in Zimbabwe from computerised realities of life in the 21st century!

I left arrangements to my son, asking him to find a fly-cruise from the UK “somewhere warm” from January 3 at the earliest, for up to 10 or 12 days maximum, giving a strict budgetary limit which, of course, he ignored!

Had I known he’d make a reservation on the world’s co-largest cruise-liner, I would have screamed “N-OOOOOO!” before credit card number was quoted.

But it was an experience I wouldn’t have missed.

Independence of the Seas is one of those floating towns: a waterborne gin-palace, looking precariously top-heavy but comfortingly Scandinavian-owned, designed, built and largely crewed by modern day descendants of the world’s greatest navigators, the Vikings.

Costing 400m pounds, it took two years to build in Finland where even now, despite credit crunch and recession, work on ships for owners, Royal Caribbean International, to dwarf the Independence, continues. (She’s 15 decks high, plus 200-foot rock-climbing wall!)

On our cruise from Florida’s Port Everglades, Fort Lauderdale to Belize City, a minuscule harbour for the now independent former colony of British Honduras and two modern Mexican resort harbours, she carried 4 700 passengers and 1 360 crew.

Although cruise literature boasts “most” crew are Norwegian, this statement sounded hollow when dining room waiting staff entertained passengers during an Italian-theme dinner and a Very Head Waiter (a capo-de-capo, from Rome) announced that diners in the first sitting at a huge circular restaurant covering three decks inter-connected by graceful sweeping chandelier-lit staircases were served by 341 station head waiters, waiters and waitresses (hate the PC “waitrons”) from 53 different nations.

Our section headwaiter was, of course, a charming, urbane Italian; dedicated table waiter Croatian; shared assistant waitress from St Kitts; a comical elderly wine steward called Jamaica home.

In the Olive or Twist (pun: geddit?) cocktail bar (one of 20 possible drinking spots open 11am-3am!) the chatty blonde head barkeep was Rumanian (engaged to a Costa Rican), her sidekick claimed to be Belgian, but was called Diego (Spanish or Portuguese for “James”); he had kin in Jo’burg.

One waitress hailed from St Vincent and the Grenadines (a philatelist, I was glad these places actually exist!); waiters were Mexican and Paraguayan respectively; but easily the most popular — and quietly efficient — waitress was Maake Mapula, (38) from Randburg.

She trained in RSA with Protea Hotels, landing the sea-going job on-line three years ago. She said she’d lost count of countries visited since, but they included the whole of Scandinavia, most, if not all, northern and western European nations with coastlines, North Africa’s Mediterranean states, Canada and the USA on countless occasions, all of the Caribbean, most of Central America and some South American countries.

The female on-board head of training and development, ship’s chief MO and the guy in charge of deck entertainment were all South African.  I believe I was the only passenger from Africa, but the line didn’t know that, as I booked from Scotland.

After flying Heathrow-Miami by American Airlines and free overnight room at the acceptable local Sheraton, we were collected by shuttle bus at noon, on board by 1pm, but one piece of luggage didn’t arrive at my “stateroom” (cabin) until after 5pm; main suitcase was worryingly AWOL until after 9pm.

A light (because I wasn’t too hungry) lunch on the 11th deck buffet restaurant was followed by my own familiarisation tour of most of the ship, then a zizz on a comfortable lounger under a kind sun in a busy port until lifeboat drill (Yanks call it “muster”) at 4pm, setting sail slightly after a scheduled 5pm Sunday cast-off, “relaxing at sea” until docking in Belize 7am on Tuesday. The ship is capable of 21,6 knots, but rarely topped half that speed.

Read on in Sunday’s issue of The Standard. (www.thezimbabwestandard.co.zw)


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