Saturday, May 24, 2008

My 20,000-Mile Voyage Is Over--Impressions

I came home from my long cruise around Africa last night, and, thank goodness, it was on Lufthansa Airlines, which still believes in customer service. On the flights from Seville to Lisbon, then on to Munich and finally nonstop to Los Angeles, they actually served food in coach, plenty of it, and drinks of water and other beverages often enough to escape dehydration. The stewardesses and other staff were uniformly pleasant. All three airports were quite efficient. No London-Heathrow yesterday. Even with oil at $135 a barrel, some airlines are still doing the job they are supposed to do. Lufthansa even had big racks of the most prominent newspapers of both Europe and America in the Munich Airport, free for coach and first class passengers alike. It was an encouraging reminder that newspapers remain important.

The trip on the Holland-America liner Prinsendam was worth the more than $40,000 I paid for it. It was a way to see a continent I had scarcely visited, only have been before in Morocco, Kenya and Ethiopia. On this long voyage of more than 20,000 miles, my favorite places were South Africa, Egypt and Malta, where I celebrated 100 countries visited, a lifelong goal.

Don't get me wrong, a cruise ship is no place to learn a great deal about the countries visited. The ship was usually in and out of ports in only one day, often just a few hours of a single day, and the tours offered from the ship were both costly and once-over-lightly.

But in my physical condition, at age 70, the ship offers enticements. You don't have to pack and repack. There are relaxing days at sea for reading and listening to lectures, watching movies and getting to know fellow passengers and the crew, many of whom on the Prinsendam were wonderful people, eager to please.

And you do form some impressions. I cannot forget the poverty we saw in many places, but particularly The Gambia and Togo. Cairo was more splendid in parts and diversified than I had been expecting, and Egyptians were friendlier than I imagined they would be, perhaps because many realize that tourism is one of the economic salvations of modern Egypt. Still, I wondered how the Egyptian motorist feels, kept waiting for long periods, so that an armed convoy of tourists can run through intersections at high speed.

Security everywhere on the trip was tight, but particularly in Egypt, Kenya and along the coast of Somalia, where we had numerous police escorts and the ships are closed off in the ports from any outsiders. All port gates are strongly protected, and as we passed by Somalia, for four days we had an escort from a heavily armed Dutch Navy frigate.

In South Africa and Namibia, from what we saw, the minority white population remains prosperous, often holds the best jobs, and seems comfortable and secure. The teeming black slums are something else, however. We had not long left South Africa when riots broke out in these slums and more than 40 "illegal immigrants" from Zimbabwe and Mozambique were murdered.

The resort islands we visited in the Indian Ocean -- Reunion, Mauritius and the Seychelles Islands -- were not quite as fancy as I had pictured. You are better off going to Hawaii.

The intellectual curiousity of many of the mostly elderly passengers on the Prinsendam was limited. With a few exceptions, they did not seem terribly interested either in the politics or the living conditions of the countries visited. I was quite impressed with myself, reaching my goal of 100 countries. But I found many passengers who had been on so many cruises that they no longer kept track how many countries they had stopped in. In any event, it was far more than 100, and there was one lady on the Prinsendam who had been on the ship as a passenger for a year.

I got along famously with my table mates each night at dinner. In the assigned seating, I found myself with an elegant lady from Georgia and Florida, a couple from Portland, Ore. and two ladies from Tacoma, Wash. We all became quite friendly.

My room steward, a young Indonesian, was great, and the food on the ship was rich, but bland. If you were willing to eat steak every night, which is not good for you, it was more than adequate. But if you craved spicy food or authentic ethnic food, forget it. They served a taco salad one night that would have got the chefs arrested in Mexico, and their "Arab dinner" featured only one Arab dish. The coffee bar on the ship, though, was excellent.

Many people on these ships seem to drink their way through the voyage. But I don't drink any longer, and while I spent $1,250 on the ship using the Internet, partly to write this blog, I never ordered a single alcoholic beverage. That saved quite a bit of money, since drinks often went at $5.95 or above, and wine, of course, was more than that.

I found, at the end of the voyage, that there were some limits to Holland America hospitality. The ship's doctors seemed only anxious to get rid of me when my defibrillator started going off -- 17 times despite tests by the ship's doctors and a doctor in Malaga, Spain, which showed the problem was not in my heart, but in the defibrillator. When this happened in the port of Cadiz, Spain, just two days from the end of the voyage, they packed me off in an ambulance to a hospital and then later were unable to tell my children what hospital it was. My son found out only after calling numerous hospitals throughout the city to inquire whether I was there. I was never so glad as to hear my son's voice on the line after hours of inattention from the Spanish-speaking personnel. From that moment, with my son, who speaks fluent Spanish, interceding for me, their treatment of me radically improved, and, after turning off the defibrillator as broken, they released me the next day.

I left virtually everything on board the ship to be shipped home. Let's hope it gets here.

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