Withstanding the slings and sparrows of luxury cruises


As I try to write this, I’m aboard the cruise ship Asuka, sitting in my spacious starboard cabin on the ninth deck. Through the big square window to my right I can see a calm sea, bluer than any words of mine could describe.

I’ve just been up to the bridge to find out where we are, because the way we’re heading varies considerably from the printed chart issued to passengers. The captain has taken us on a scenic route, along the south coast of Flores Island, through the Sumba Strait and into the Sawu Sea, then along the north coast of Timor, through the Ombai Strait. Once we pass the tip of Timor we’ll head southward through the Timor Sea to Darwin, the capital of Australia’s Northern Territory.

An hour ago we passed real close by a smoking, sulphurous volcano on Iya Point, near the little community of Ende. We could see people waving from their houses by the steep cultivated slopes, mountains behind with white cloud shawls around their shoulders, valleys lush and green. Earlier in the day we saw a couple of sperm whales.

We left Yokohama on Jan. 21, and will return there toward the end of February. In almost 40 days at sea or in various ports, my only official duties are to give two lectures and take part in a talk show and a concert. (Yes, I’m Welsh, so of course I sing!)

The real reason for being aboard is that I get a big chunk of time in which I can write. As of today I’ve totally rewritten one novel and am working to finish another. When I get into writing a novel I become a zombie, for the world of the novel is more real than the physical world around me, which is just right for being on a cruise ship. I get up, walk around the deck for an hour, take a steam bath, do 500 situps, write, have lunch, write, practice karate kata on the upper deck, take a sauna, read what I wrote, have dinner, then make up my mind as to which of the three ship’s bars I’m going to. Tough life, eh?

However, what the hell am I going to write for the Nature Page? I didn’t go ashore wherever it was in China, nor in Thailand, although I did in Vietnam, in Ho Chi Min City, which I always remember as Saigon. It was perfectly horrible. The river smelled worse than any other river I’ve ever smelled in my life, and crossing a road even in daylight was a task requiring suicidal courage, with hordes of kamikaze 50cc motorbikes rushing at you from every direction. Never have I seen so much garbage and mess in the streets, and hey, I’m from Britain.

We went ashore, three men and one woman, to have dinner in town. It was New Year’s Eve in Vietnam, called Tet, so there was plenty of decorations, last-minute shopping and gaiety. The food was excellent, so was the local shochu. I was grudgingly beginning to like the place. Then, on the short walk back through well-lit and crowded streets, my friend had his camera stolen by a couple of kids who came up to him, one showing him a picture of a girl, the other quickly snitching his camera out of his waist pouch.

Five minutes later we were about to cross a smaller side street when I saw two motor bikes, little noisy farting 50cc jobs, two young guys on each. I noticed that the lights were out, but it didn’t put me on guard. They obviously saw us and stopped. I thought what nice young men, letting older foreigners pass. I stepped into the road and from behind me I heard a yell. When a warning is shouted at me from behind, I automatically step forward. At this, one bike suddenly revved up and darted ahead of me, while the other immediately whipped behind. The passenger on this one snatched at the woman’s bag, but she, being the widow of a former naval officer, is of stern stuff, so she hung onto the bag and got dragged around, eventually falling on her face in the road. The two bikes and their punk riders zoomed off, leaving the woman bleeding and injured in the road, and us three men feeling momentarily gormless.

So, what’s for the Nature Page?

Well, the sparrows in Ho Chi Min City were not only skinny, but scruffy too. I hate the place.

The next port of call was Singapore, which was totally different, being modern, clean and orderly. Still, the garrulous Chinese taxi driver cheated me horrendously on the fare. I couldn’t see the meter because of direct sunlight and foolishly handed him a S$100 note. He gave me S$30 change. Later, returning to the ship, I found that the fare should have been S$7, not S$70. It’s not the country’s fault, but Singapore is not on my list of favorite places either.

So why did I go ashore? Like I said, I’m a writer, and there’s a hotel called Raffles, with a long bar that has been visited by so very many famous writers. The guidebook said that the Singapore Sling originated here. I just had to go to the bar and try one, which to my horror was a bright-pink, revoltingly sweet concoction. I’m amazed that men such as Conrad and Kipling ever imbibed.

The beer, though, was excellent, and so were the peanuts, which were plentiful and free. So it was at the Long Bar at Raffles that I at last found something to write about for the Nature Page. It was the first indoor bar I’ve drunk at where the sparrows came to share, and in my alcoholic haze, I noted that Singapore’s sparrows are glossy, plump, lively and rather fun to have peanuts with. The friend whose camera was stolen drew this picture of me.

And the shaven head? I was so angry with myself for not having predicted what those Vietnamese punks were after, that I just had to do something to cool my frustrated rage.

I have to send this off in Darwin, before going to visit a fellow who does research on saltwater crocodiles; otherwise I’ll miss my deadline.

So what’s this doing on the Nature Page? I wrote about sparrows, didn’t I? Anyway, since leaving Japan I haven’t seen a single bloody seagull.

— Feb. 13, 2003