Well, Dear Reader, a very Happy Christmas and a Bonnie Hogmanay and 2016 to you.
We have been a little remiss in not posting much in the last few days due to two simple and conjoined facts: one, Mr and Mrs Wellthisiswhatithink are officially on holiday, (on a swanky cruise ship, no less), and two, the internet is so cripplingly expensive that we decided to hold off a few days before plunging headlong into our usual travel-ese. That this has kept us off the all-consuming Facebook has been a relaxing coincidence.
We are, in fact, swooshing up from Sydney to Vanuatu and New Caledonia for a brief and – trust us – well-deserved break, and so as we write we are somewhere south of Lougainville and north of Port Vila in international waters off Vanuatu. It’s easy to work out that we’re in international waters, because the casino is open.
There, a bunch of dour Chinese and one cheery Brit will take your money with remarkable rapidity if you absolutely can’t think of anything else to do at all, and you have to be somewhat desperate as there are at least three trivia competitions running concurrently 24 hours a day, and the brain training they offer is free – and we simply luuuurve trivia competitions – so you’d have to be dead keen on the masochism of cards, craps and roulette to spend too much time buried there in the bowels of the vessel.
Then again, we did notice some other people actually winning, which is somewhat of an alien concept to us, so maybe we just haven’t got the knack of it yet. After thirty years playing Blackjack, and almost invariably losing, we are close to assuming the knack will never arrive. Or that there is, in fact, no knack to be got. But we are not quite at that point yet.
And then again, again, there do seem to be a large percentage of young couples in there, with her gazing adoringly up into his eyes, as he rashly slams down another $20 to buy a card on twelve, and ends up duly eviscerated with 22. It’s as if, time after time, the young lad is saying to his belle, “there be no dragons around for me to slay on your behalf, sweet Princess, so have a look at how painlessly I can lose a week’s wages while you watch”. Maybe it’s not masochism but rather machismo that’s on display. Indeed, it deserves it’s own word. Masochismo works.
As first time cruisers, we have been simultaneously entranced, horrified, and sometimes simply bemused by the experience.
It’s hard, for example, not to simply sigh with pleasure when this greets you as you sit down to write.
Cruising is gaining rapidly in popularity around the world as the new “go to” middle class vacation. We say “middle class” because the upper classes only cruise in uber-luxury mini-liners with 20 guests and 437 crew, either on a bateaux of their own or at a pinch a ship owned by a friend or even a discrete tour company called something like BlueOcean Wanderer – the name chosen to imply “unhurried, un-shackled, off the beaten track, and above all, daahling, no middle class people”. (We apologise in advance to the owners of BlueOcean Wanderer, which no doubt exists somewhere.)
The poor can’t afford anything more than a quick trip up and down their local capital city waterway on a Sunday. Even if they plumped for an interior cabin and no drinks package* – of those, more later – they couldn’t chuff up the vast sums cruise companies charge for all-you-can-eat corned beef hash** – more on that later, too – and hot and cold running 70s music trivia.
Which leaves us ensconced with our fellow middle-class pretend-riche, some of whom are very nice, and some of whom are utterly horrid. A bit like life in general, really, but with waves.
We have discovered that we can ascertain someone’s status back on dry land pretty accurately by the grade of orange in their fake tan – the more orange, the more entre nous – and their level of bling.
Bling is in inverse proportion to social status. A discrete golden chain married to a demure and only half-awful pair of what used to be called Bermuda shorts suggests an accountant in training, or a teacher. Especially with a tired looking wife and squalling toddler in tow.
When blinded by what looks like half of Australia’s national debt coiled round and round a neck the size of a small bull matched with a disturbingly tight pair of bathers revealing, as it were, a substantial package, you can pretty much assume “delivery driver who earns twice what you do, but who missed out on Mrs Dalyrymple’s finishing school”. And that’s just the girls.
Most of the passengers are white. Most of the staff aren’t. Many of the staff are from the world’s low-income countries – Indonesia, Philippines, India, Bangladesh, China, South Africa, Mexico – and they work very long hours and extremely hard. It’s also easy to assume that they get paid the best part of bugger all, as the cruise line charges a quick and easy 18% “gratuity” charge on everything you spend on board – although one has no way of knowing whether that gratuity charge actually gets to the workers, or if it does, whether that simply makes up a substantial portion of their wages, thus reducing the wage bill of the employer.
One is also encouraged to tip exceptional service directly, which means that 95% of the staff are obsequiously gracious, ineffably cheery and obsessively intrusive the entire time.
This is due to a number of factors – including their quite and innate genuine niceness – but also very clearly their desire to get tipped.
To an egalitarian Aussie eye it appears forced, and demeaning, for both staff and customer. It is, of course, the “American way”, a country where a campaign to establish a national wage of just $15 an hour has been met with furious opposition from employers happier to pay $6-10 an hour. To put that in perspective, Miss Wellthisiswhatithink gets A$25 an hour for babysitting/nannying, and wouldn’t accept less, nor would it be offered.
Cocktails. Or as the young and restless with a drinks package call them, “Breakfast”.
The other outcome of this low wage environment is that all staff – and we mean all staff – seem utterly preoccupied with selling drinks packages*, whereby one (outrageously expensive) daily charge covers all your drinks, except top shelf stuff, but where that tariff is set so high that you basically have to set out determinedly to drink your weight in rum and coke from about 10am every morning to get your money’s worth. Selling a package equals kudos, and job security.
For the delivery van drivers this temporarily-arranged alcoholism isn’t a problem, so long as there’s going to be a decent break between them getting off the ship and getting back behind the wheel, and they are all cheerfully smashed pretty much 24-seven. For those who don’t wish to be unsteady on our feet by lunchtime, or who want to avoid falling overboard, it’s an egregious waste of money.
But every time one orders a drink or a bottle of wine – which are triple or quadruple what one would pay in Australia for very average drops – one is incredulously asked “You don’t have a package, Sir?” and the sales spiel starts again while you feel obliged to dream up new excuses for your parsimony. It is, in a word, bloody annoying. Two words.
The English language skills of the staff also often leave much to be desired, but the effect is also frequently very funny.
Watching a diminutive high-pitched Chinese waiter go up to a table full of six giant buffed Aussie blokes and start with a squeaky “Hello, Ladies, my name is Kwan and I am your waiter tonight … now, ladies, I just need to tell you about our wine special for this evening” has it’s own wonderful schadenfreude.
Needless to say, the Aussie blokes are both too polite and too anal to correct him, so night after night the cabaret repeats.
The world that is today intrudes on our idyll every time anyone wants to get on and off. Security is as fierce as at any airport, with sniffer dogs checking for bombs, and machines that go ping scanning us all on at initial embarkation and on and off whenever there is a shore excursion. I am not sure what they think we’ll be bringing back on board – nerve-gas-infused coconuts? – but it seems churlish to object and no one does. This is the one place that all the smiles disappear to be replaced with rapt attention and scowls. We are not aware that the South Pacific is a key target for terrorists of any ilk, but “you can’t be too careful nowadays”. The security officer busting a quick dance move to SuperTrooper by Abba which was blasting out to keep us amused was a welcome and timely diversion from pondering just how depressing much of the world has become. Before we left from Sydney we happened across two Border Force (customs) personnel taking snap after snap of the Sydney Opera House on their iPhones from an upper deck of the ship. “Refuse to believe that’s security focused” we opined. “Nope,” said one, “We just don’t get up here much.”
Somehow their extra-curricular casualness made us feel safer, rather than worried. But somewhere, as we write these words, we know this very scene will be stolen by a hack writer in Hollywood and coming soon to a screen near you will be pictures of the soul-less terrorist or brutal bank robber unknowingly snapped by a bludging Border Force officer, which happy chance is the vital clue that leads to their discovery and arrest. You heard it here first.
All hail the Hash
Which leads us, tortuously but inevitably, to the corned beef hash**. Which delightful concoction, as we haven’t traveled all that much in the USA, was a very pleasant and new experience for us, and which we have been devouring assiduously since Day 1. Corned beef, (yes, like the stuff that comes in tins), onions, and potatoes. Hashed. And fried. From the French, hacher. (Never let it be said our writing is not educational.) Or as the civilised world would call it, mashed.
Despite being a cholesterol bomb it is, quite simply, delicious, and goes perfectly with eggs and bacon and baked beans and tomatoes and fried bread and anything else one can squeeze onto one’s all-you-can-eat breakfast plate. Or plates. And it is matched very well with scaldingly hot American coffee, too, which actually isn’t anything like as bad as everyone else likes to pretend. Provided one adds lashings of milk. When drunk black it is indeed unpotable bitter mud and would be better used as tar on the bottom of passing leaky native canoes.
What is really interesting about the corned beef hash – beyond its Satanic moreishness – is that it appears to be comprised of at least 50% salt.
As was the buerre blanc on the escargots, the bifteck minute which was cut so thin that anything over thirty seconds would turn it into leather, and the beouf bourgingon which had no discernible red wine in it (not even the cheap crap; it hadn’t even had an open bottle of cheap crap waved anywhere near it) but plenty – plenty – of salt.
We are most grateful that our arteries are only temporarily being loaned to America. God knows how anyone there over the age of 50 ever survives their middle age – their blood pressure must be at least 200 over 120. In all seriousity, the difference between the two cuisines is stark. The food quality is genuinely pretty good, especially considering the number of people being fed, (nigh-on constantly), but the salt content of many dishes would put the Dead Sea to shame. We reckon someone, somewhere, as we speak, is injecting honeydew melons with salt water.
The cheese is, needless to say, inedible.
Anyhow, tonight is New Year’s Eve, meaning we are now going off to be dragooned into a mass party (all dressed in formal clothes, no less), by our talented and relentlessly cheerful MC/Factotum/Trivia Quizmaster/Tour Director, who will cram us into a small and sweaty space to shout “Ten, nine, eight, seven …” before what seems like ten thousand yellow balloons are dropped on our heads, and everyone starts kissing each other frantically.
As the outbreaks of Norovirus on cruise ships has led them to placing hand sanitisers everywhere – Heaven forfend that you would try and get into a restaurant without the cheery chappy from Indonesia squirting germ killer onto your hands – “Time for Washy-Washy! Time for Washy-Washy!” – there’d be a bells going off and a near riot if you tried to sneak past un-washy-washied – one would imagine that thousands of extremely drunk and hot strangers kissing each other repeatedly might not be the wisest activity. But hey, when in Rome.
More tomorrow. After the trivia, natch.