Thursday, December 20, 2007

Sailing, Sailing over the bounding Main...

We’ve recently come back from a cruise – we almost didn’t come back because we very quickly became accustomed to the life of sheer “looxury” we experienced aboard the Caribbean Princess. But we had to come back to reality eventually, so we reluctantly followed the captain’s orders and slunk off the ship after 7 days and 7 nights of absolute bliss.
OK – let’s begin at the beginning:
The Caribbean Princess is currently the largest cruise ship operated by Princess Lines out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It is a beauty, built in Italy only a few years ago and weighing in at 116,000 tons, with capacity for 3,100 passengers and 1,200 crew.
And we were fortunate enough to be invited to join the other 3,098 seafarers in a dream cruise around the Caribbean at the beginning of October.
The fact that it was the start of hurricane season didn’t deter us one bit, as we boarded the ship at Fort Lauderdale’s Port Everglades at the start of our dream holiday.
The boarding procedures were incredibly efficient: we had been assigned our cabin on “Emerald” level, so when we eventually got to the head of the long line snaking out of the customs house, we knew exactly which well-marked counter to go to. That’s where we were given our shipboard credit card “...there’s no cash on board...just use your card...”, our luggage was whisked away by invisible porters (it appeared again in the passage - er, sorry, companionway, outside our cabin an hour later); and then we boarded the vessel, negotiating a bevy of photographers “Have your picture taken at the start of your holiday...” and the incredibly tight security arrangements.
But these security checks were far more more efficient and pleasant than anything you’d experience at an airport. I suppose it’s because the people in charge of security are from the ship’s company and actually treat you as paying CUSTOMERS, instead of just one more obstreperous traveler.
It’s at the entrance to the ship where you could imagine a huge container, emblazoned with a sign: “Drop your brain here – collect it after your cruise...” Because for the next 7 days and 7 nights, all you had to think about was where and what to eat, when to eat, when to go back to eat some more, and how long until you could eat again. It's no wonder they wanted to take your picture BEFORE the cruise – it’s so you can compare it to your picture AFTER the cruise. They say you enter a cruise ship as a passenger and leave it as cargo.
Just do the math – if the ship takes 3,100 passengers, each of whom put on at least 5 kg over the week, then you’d have the ship’s displacement being increased by ... oh who cares? But she was definitely riding somewhat lower in the water when we reentered Port Everglades a week later.
OK – on with the cruise. Our route took us from Fort Lauderdale to the Bahamas, then to Jamaica, the Cayman Islands, the coast of Mexico and back to Florida. We would bypass Cuba – which we could actually see off the starboard bow. Most of the traveling, except for two days, was at night. We would dock (or drop anchor at those destinations where the harbor wasn’t deep enough) early in the morning, and have the entire day to go ashore, tour, walk around quaint Caribbean port towns and shop, shop, shop. Or you could just stay on board and eat, eat, eat!
The first morning, after being ferried to shore aboard one of the ship's tenders, we stepped onto the sparkling sands of Princess Cay - actually a private Bahamian beach owned by the Princess Lines, exclusively for their guests. The beach was nice, lined with little blue canvas cabanas to protect you from the Caribbean sun, with crystal clear water and muggy weather. After an hour or so of swimming and mucking about in the gentle surf, we agreed that a beach was nothing really new and different for us (we lived in a coastal resort for years, so there was no real novelty in that): right - back to the ship - let's go see what they've got for lunch! Not that after our amazing breakfast we were remotely hungry, mind you - just curious. And you can't really investigate something without experiencing it, so...curiosity fattened the cat.
Dinner that night (am I talking about food again?), was in one of the ship's exquisite restaurants and was the first formal evening of the cruise. When I say "formal" I mean REALLY FORMAL. Dinner jackets and long flowing dresses, suits and ties if you don't have a tux; and some Scottish brethren even wore their formal kilts and sporrans. This was the captain's official welcoming party to all his guests. Champagne was flowing in the atrium, where most of the passengers gathered to hear the captain's welcoming speech; It was all like being spirited back to a gentler, more leisurely and far more decorous age - and thoroughly enjoyable. A quick word about teh food - it must eb quick because I could devote an entire chapter to the food alone: just unbeleivable - five star, haute cuisine, every day, every night...amazing.
There were two formal evenings during our cruise. On other evenings you were allowed to dress "smart casual". The description of "smart casual" in the ship's guide was "wear whatever you would to a reasonably smart restaurant in your home town..." Well, for an Israeli, that means jeans, t-shirt and sandals: but my better half gently persuaded me that I would not be accompanying her to dinner dressed like that, and so I had to follow a far more sober dress code.
After a full day at sea, early morning on day 4, found us docking in the Jamaican port of Ocho Rios! Yah mon! Here we were, unbelievably, in the heart of Rasta land, ready to move to the beat, hum along with Bob Marley wannabe's and commune with the common folk. Well...while dreams are often far removed from reality, we weren't that disappointed. The little town of Ocho Rios reminded us somewhat of any small town in Southern Africa - they even drive on the same side of the road (being formerly British, you understand); and the townsfolk were pretty similar to those of any small town we were accustomed to.
The group of schoolgirls gathered outside a supermarket in the main street could have been standing outside any supermarket in any main street in any Southern African country town. The market in Ocho Rios was fun: craftsmen carving gorgeous parrots out of wood, arrays of "Bob Marley" masks, steel drums, women offering to convert your hair into dreadlocks, and ice cold Red Stripe Jamaican beer.
The arts and crafts are quaint, ethnic and appealing and after much bargaining and Middle East-style haggling, we eventually purchased a new addition to our meagre collection of original art. It's a beautiful little painting of a typically Jamaican scene; a ramshackle bus, careering down a dusty road, a young boy on racing by on his bicycle; passengers hanging from the sides, the roof stacked with bags and sacks...all in bright primary colors. It's gorgeous and it now occupies pride of place in our salon. When we eventually took it to be framed, we were asked, "Ah, Drom Afrika?" So the similarity wasn't just in our imaginations.
Day 5: Grand Cayman - formerly known as Tortuga (anybody who has seen Pirates of the Caribbean, will recognize the name!). Quite different from Jamaica - more pristine, more orderly, very nicely laid out town with all the major financial houses lined up along the sea-front promenade. Of course,m there are dozens of shops: some just offering the usual tourist fare - trinkets, t-shirts, caps, key rings, but some of a more, shall we say, up-market nature. A store selling Harley Davidson motorcycles, another offering exquisite Lladro porcelain, designer stores, and lots and lots of jewelry.
We settled for a common old liquor store, bought a few bottles of rum and the yo-ho-hoed back to the ship.
Day 6, was to be the most exciting day of the entire cruise: We were now off the coast of Mexico, the Yucatan Peninsula to be exact. We took a ferry onto the mainland and then took a long bus ride to the ancient Mayan city of Coba, believed to be one of the largest Mayan cities and once home to more than 50,000 inhabitants, set deep in the Yucatan jungle. This set of ruins, originally discovered in the 1920's has only recently been opened to the public. The site covers nearly four square miles and is surrounded by beautiful lakes. It features a ball court where the deadly game of “Poc ta Poc” was played. Legend has it that the captain of the winning team was put to death - sent to the spirits as his reward. other stories claim it was the losers who were put to death: either way, it was not a game for sissies. The central attraction is Nohoch Mul, a pyramid with 139 steps. It doesn't sound much, but each step is double the height of a normal step, so if you have stamina, and a head for heights, you can climb it. I got half-way up, decided that the air was a bit too rare for me at that height and inched my way down again.
The husband-half of our travelling companions and hosts, Larry and Blair Belkin, is an archaeological architect who was instrumental in restoring such ancient Israeli sites as Bet Shean and Tzipori, couldn't resist the challenge of climbing to the top of the highest pyramid in the Yucatan. For him, the site offered a very different set of stones and ancient monuments from what he was used to in Israel and a totally enthralling experience.
After a full day exploring these fascinating ruins, it was back to the Caribbean Princess for our sixth night on board and a day of sailing ahead of of us.
Our final day at sea gave us a good opportunity to really get to know the ship. It is a magnificent example of modern naval architecture. It has 19 floors - that's right, with the Skywalkers night club perched on the 19th level, literally hanging out over the stern of the ship, with nothing but the ocean below you. It is a floating city: shops, a casino, an incredible 1000-seat theater, lounges, libraries, reading rooms, art galleries, bars, cafes, restaurants, more restaurants and still more restaurants. The ship's company, both the "sailors" and the "hotel staff": as they are know is made of people from the four corners of the earth. The gym is run by two South Africans; one of the dancers in the chorus line was from Harare, waiters from the Philippines, India, Greece, Italian and French chefs, stewards from Thailand; receptionists from New Zealand, Australia, the US; entertainment managers from the UK, and even a number of Israelis.
We were fortunate enough to be invited on a tour of the bridge and to get a real feel of how this amazing vessel operates.
And so, like all very good things, it had to end: one week and an inundation of experiences later, we docked again in Port Everglades, the cruise port of Fort Lauderdale and reluctantly dragged ourselves ashore, leaving our temporary floating home for others to enjoy. Ahead of us, four days in and around Miami ...but that's another story.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

At the Spiritual Center of Afrikanerdom

Last night I ventured into the heart of Afrikanerdom to observe a long-standing tribal ceremony with all its attendant ritual, symbols and zeal.

The “temple” I visited was the Loftus Versveld stadium in Pretoria – the spiritual home of Afrikaner Rugby and the place where foreign teams come to the slaughter.

And what a slaughtering it was last night; as the Blue Bulls (the team formerly known as Northern Transvaal) led 15 bewildered Australians to the alter and in 80 minutes, literally massacred them, 92-3...a score almost unheard of in the annals of South African rugby.

The faithful started gathering in the environs of Loftus in the late afternoon, bringing out their symbols of faith in the power of the Bulls – braaivleis (Bar-B-Q), boerewors (fat sausages) biltong (dried meat – delicious for the initiated); boere musiek (Afrikaner music) blaring forth from massive speakers...and everybody, like ancient Druids, slathered in blue woad – faces, hair, beards, stomachs (some rather larger than the national average) to affirm their allegiance to their team: the Blue Bulls. Many wore helmets adorned with bull horns, some had bull horns fixed to the front fenders and hoods of their “bakkies” – powerful utility vehicles used for farming, building and deliveries.

By the time we arrived, the pre-sacrifice fervor was well underway. Thousands of the faithful were streaming into the stadium; those that weren’t moving into the stadium were still partying in anticipation of the blood-letting to come (I’m not sure how many of them actually made it to the game...). Vendors were doing a roaring trade in blue t-shirts, blue hats, blue flags and handing out posters which read: “Ons Bloed is Blou!” – “Our blood is blue!”

I was fortunate to have been invited to sit in a reserved box, with a grand view of the floodlit gladiatorial arena, and a constant flow of beer and biltong; the fuel that keeps the fervor going.

By the time the game was ready to start, the stadium was filled to capacity – around 50,000 of the faithful, a veritable sea of blue from end to end. Flags waving, music blaring over the massive sound system, giant screens flashing advertising videos, the electronic scoreboard lit up and raring to go.

The unfortunate Aussies didn’t have a chance even before they set booted foot on the manicured field. They were defeated even before the whistle went – the sheer overpowering support of the locals was enough to demoralize even the toughest of opponents.

First blood actually went to the Australian team – known as the Queensland Reds – when they scored a penalty kick in the first three minutes: but this was to be the last time they were ever to see the goal posts. Perhaps the Blue Bulls felt it was fitting to give them a modicum of dignity in their demise.

One of the most enduring rituals at Loftus Versveld is that whenever the Bulls score a try (now worth 5 points by the way, not the traditional 3), the opening bars of the hugely popular Afrikaans song “Liefling” (My Love), something of an anthem, is pumped out over the powerful sound system, as the crowd sings along in unison.

Liefling” was to be played 13 times that night. As a local radio DJ quipped later in the evening: “If I hear Liefling once more, I’ll blow my brains out!”

And so the devoted masses celebrated time and again as their gladiators, huge men with shoulders as wide as ox yokes and thighs the circumference of oak trees, pounded their way to victory and literally “donnered” (mauled) the visiting Aussies into the bright green Loftus turf.

But what was really happening here? In an incongruous yet even appealing way, this was a clear demonstration of the more successful aspects of the new South Africa. Wait, you may ask, wasn’t this pure tribalism, the mass psyche of superiority which characterized to the worst excesses of apartheid?

The Blue Bulls (“Die Blou Bulle”), which was always the nickname of the Northern Transvaal team in the old days, is now a totally racially integrated team. There are four blacks on the team and they are cheered and adored by the crowds as much as any Afrikaans boy might be. The team has a squad of eight gorgeous cheerleaders, The Bulls Babes, who parade around the perimeter of the field, dancing, doing flick-flacks and generally exhorting the crowd to even greater cheers. Three of these girls are black.

After the game, the crowds gathered in a parking lot where a beer tent and braaivleis area was set up together with a gi-normous sound systems blasting out the latest popular rock song to get the Afrikaners swinging: a number by a leading black artist from Soweto – the township south-west of Johannesburg.

So here we have what was perceived in the bad old days of apartheid, as the hard core of racialism, embracing other South Africans unreservedly and enthusiastically in a spirit of good natured openness and acceptance which has come to epitomize the new South Africa.

At the same time, we have a specific community group, Afrikaners to their very marrow, asserting the best of their heritage loud and clear: “We are Afrikaners, we are proud to be Afrikaners – and we are proud to be NEW South Africans.”

What an amazing demonstration of the way this country has adapted and accepted the momentous changes which were wrought without bloodshed just over a decade ago.

Now, all they have to deal with is crime, graft, corruption, cronyism, public servant inefficiency....

But who cares about that when rugby still rules, ja!