Cruising back to my roots

After working as a hostess on a cruise ship for a season when I was in my twenties, my only cruising experiences were the ‘cruise your business’ workshops I recently organized on repositioning cruises. Entrepreneurs, nomads, young people: workshops, masterminds, parties; a fun way to cross the ocean. But now I was going on an ‘ordinary’ cruise with my dad. From Singapore we would sail to the Indonesian islands to find out where my grandfather had been born.

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Golden oldies…

Holland America Line welcomed us on the ‘Volendam’ with a special reception for Dutch passengers. The (Dutch) captain and his officers stood in line to welcome us, but refused to shake our hands. “We are concerned about the flu, so we advise you to use the hand sanitizers you can find all over the ship and not to touch other people.” They did offer all Dutch passengers the traditional snacks ‘kroketten’ and ‘kaassoufles’ and a free glass of wine. Were they hoping we’d forget this cold reception? Actually, they might be playing the ‘memory loss’ card, because the average age on this cruise turned out to be about 70… Most passengers had grey hair and there were many hearing aids and wheelchairs. Even though I know a lot of energetic 70-year-olds, those on board seemed to have a sub-zero energy level. The activities on the ship perfectly matched their passengers: no entertainment team, boring elevator music playing in all bars and public areas. The daily activities consisted of napkin folding, flower arranging and Christmas present wrapping (no kidding!). By 9.30PM the ship was deserted. My energy level quickly plummeted to match the general level: I had to take frequent naps, especially to survive the long sea days…

The only activity I did like was the dance class offered on sea days. I had never done any line dancing, but one class was taught by a six- time world champion. This guy could DANCE! We asked him for a spontaneous demonstration and he wowed everybody with his prize-winning dance. I am a fan.

Holland America Line did make an effort for Christmas and Channukah. There were decorations, bible meetings, Santa visited the ship with presents for the few kids on the cruise, and they even invited a Rabbi on board for this trip who held Channukah service every evening, with home made ‘latkes’ with cream and apple sauce… 🙂

Quality time

It was very nice to spend so much time with my dad, exploring Indonesia on the excursion days and just hanging out on bored board on the other days.

The food in the ships restaurant and even the buffet was surprisingly good, so our meal times soon became the highlights of our days. Eggs Florentine (poached with spinach and hollandaise sauce) became our favorite breakfast, sometimes followed by a second breakfast of congee (rice porridge) with miso soup, tofu, sea weed, scallions and other Asian goodies.

Esther-on-the-boat

At night we would eat in the restaurant, and my dad and I joked about who we would meet at the table. Most passengers were very international, so a simple question like ‘where are you from?’ could take a while to answer… Many had been on various other cruises and were very eager to talk about those experiences, whether you were interested or not. Still, the world views of these ‘world travelers’ often differed significantly from ours. One American lady expertly explained why “dictators are actually a blessing”… Her idea was that “they unite people, so different groups in a country stop fighting each other”. She mentioned Tito in Yugoslavia as an example: “after he died, the Yugoslavians started fighting among themselves and the entire country was split up…” My remark that maybe this was an example of people with opposing views working together against a common enemy (the dictator), was ignored and quickly put aside with the conclusion “So dictators are actually unifiers.”

Another dinner guest hijacked the entire table conversation with the statement that he always goes off the beaten track; “yes, that’s me!” he emphasized. He went on to explain that on every cruise excursion he always stays 30 mins extra after other passengers go back to the boat to “really get to know the country”…

Luckily my dad and I also met some very nice and intelligent passengers (for example the family in the picture) and spent many happy hours making new friends.

Good memories

It was really special to spend this quality time with my dad. He has been having problems with his short-term memory lately, which will probably be diagnosed as Alzheimer. He used to travel a lot, but we both realized that he could not do it anymore, with his short-term memory becoming so unreliable. So I acted as his full time personal tour guide and he was really sweet and easy going. Each day I wrote our plans down for him, but sometimes he forgot to look at his notes… 🙂

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But most of all, my dad was just my dad, with his silly jokes and his typical character. On new years eve, after a delicious dinner, we received our chocolate desserts, beautifully decorated with a chocolate clock and ‘2017’. We took pictures of the desserts, and my father wanted a silly picture where he ate ‘2017’.  After we were finished eating, only part of the chocolate clock remained on our plates. “Time to go watch the new years show!” I said. As I got up, my father looked at the menu and said “but we haven’t had dessert yet!” I pointed at his chocolate smeared plate and it took a while to register. As soon as he realized that this was one of his ‘short term memory loss moments’ he turned it into a joke: he smiled at me and asked “and what was your name again???” …

One of our most special moments was when we meditated together, holding hands, to see if we could ‘connect’ with my granddad, his father. We just wanted to let him know that we were in Indonesia, on a trip to his (and our) roots and that we were talking and thinking about our ‘Oop’ often. We both got a feeling that he was there with us. My father even saw an image of Oop giving us a ‘thumbs up’…

The Indonesia Discovery

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JAKARTA (Java)

Our first stop is our most important one: Java, where my grandfather was born. We knew he lived in Batavia, the old colonial part of Jakarta, but we didn’t have any street names or other information. The pictures we have only show the inside of houses, no landmarks or other signs. So we decide to just walk through the old town and enjoy the old world charm.

Our guide is amazing. Suryo normally doesn’t do city trips, but prefers trekking to remote tribes. I don’t know why, but he has agreed to show us Jakarta. We start at a local market. Streets get narrower and narrower and the things we see on display get weirder. Tables full of fresh and pickled sea cucumbers. Live frogs and fresh frog legs. Fish, chicken, fruits and veggies in all shapes and sizes.

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Everybody is so friendly! We visit a temple were some homeless families live. They talk and signal to us. I expect them to ask for money, but they want us to take their picture! Everybody is smiling and so nice! I am feeling a bit emotional: it is so long ago that I felt people really, instantly connected from the heart, without a hidden agenda.

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Then we go to the old harbor to admire the old wooden schooners. Fortunately the Cruise ship tour bus has just left. Surya charters a small boat of some men working in the port. They all seem to know him. We glide through the water to admire the boats from close up and talk to the men working on them.

On the other side of the water is a slum and kids run alongside, waving to us and laughing. We climb the wall to walk through the slum, but find out it’s flooded. And people still live there!

Somebody guides us to a dry spot and we enter the slum. Again narrow streets, full of life. Little shops, houses, lots of garbage recycling and workshops. Again I am amazed and touched by how friendly everybody is. Kids follow us through the alleys, women in burkas smile their most dazzling smiles at us. Old ladies want to chat and babies hide away behind their moms, but still gaze curiously at us. These people have nothing, but they seem so at peace.

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After that it is almost a disappointment to arrive in old Batavia, with so many tourists and where locals keep offering us taxi rides, tours and souvenirs. Most buildings were recently restored, Surya tells us, so the central square looks really nice. It’s a school holiday, so the place is packed with school tours: young girls wearing headscarves and giggling boys. Big Dutch bikes in bright fluorescent colors are for rent and the boys and girls proudly cycle up and down the square on these too big bikes. A beautiful sight.

It’s freaking hot, so we take refuge in Café Batavia, a true oasis. A beautifully restored colonial building with a view over the square. This is how Batavia must have been while my grandfather lived here. My dad and I feel like we did come a bit closer to him.

SEMARANG (Java)

The next stop is Semarang, from where I have booked a taxi to the Borobudur. It’s a 2,5 hour drive and traffic is CRAZY! Tour busses, cars, vans, thousands of scooters (carrying up to 5 people), stray dogs and pedestrians all try to find their way on the two lanes, at dazzling speeds. Overtaking seems to be a matter of gambling, prayer, guts and a lot of luck.

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We arrive ahead of the tour buses and explore the temple complex with a guide. Since it’s a holiday, there are many local people. Especially the veiled Muslim girls are very interested in us: they all want to take a picture together with us. They shyly practice their English and their smiles are dazzling. There are so many of them and they get bolder and bolder: it feels like we are turning into the main attraction…

5 hours of driving for 2 hours of visiting Borobudur, and it’s still worth it.

SURABAYA (Java)

The next day we decide to take it easy. We take a taxi to Hotel Majapahit: an old colonial oasis in the middle of the city. We enjoy the gardens, the old world architecture, the cool lobby, the friendly service and a lavish dim sum lunch. I tried to get some internet stuff done, but wifi is extremely slow, so it is more frustrating than getting things done.

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KOMODO

After a day at sea, needed to recover from our first three excursion days, we get to my highlight of the trip: remote Komodo island. I had been to the other islands when I backpacked through Indonesia 20 years ago, but Komodo had been too remote, too expensive etc. Unfortunately we only have half a day in this paradise, from 7AM to 1PM, and because we are anchored, you also have to wait until a small tender boat can take a group of passengers to the pier. And of course the ridiculously expensive boat tours get priority. When I find out that they won’t let you off the boat without a confirmed excursion, I freak out. I had tried to book a dive trip, but did not get a confirmation and had not been able to get an internet connection in the past few days. One thing I know for sure: I HAVE to get us on land and I want to go diving or snorkeling with manta rays at the remote manta point. I edit and print some emails from the dive school to make them look like a confirmation. Luckily it works and we’re allowed to go ashore; with the first tender boat! Unfortunately the dive school did not show up. Time for plan B. I talk to some local guides and fishermen and arrange a fishing boat to take us to manta point, on the other side of the island. Everybody says it’s too far and might be risky since we have to be back so soon, but I really wanted to try.

komondo-panorama

While we wait for the boat to arrive from the village, we do a quick ‘dragon’ tour. Our guide walks us straight to were the famous Komodo dragons are hanging out. And since we were the first people on land, he takes some amazing pictures. Other tourists, who paid for the 1,5 hour tour, were taken into the hot jungle, where there were no dragons, only to end up at the point were we were, 5 mins from the jetty, where the komodo dragons were.

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The boat ride was great. We soon left the hustle and bustle of the bay with tourists behind us. The islands are wild and green. The water is extremely clear: we could see the bottom 20-40 meters below us!. Just before we got to Manta point, where we could see some dive boats, the captain saw some manta rays below us. I quickly put on my snorkel and jumped overboard with one of the boat guys.

As soon as I hit the water, I felt peace come over me. The manta ray first sped up to get away from the commotion, but then slowed down again. I followed him and felt completely one with this majestic animal and with the sea. Another manta ray (also about 3-4 meters) showed up and calmly ‘danced’ through the water. I didn’t think about the boat, about where I was, about time, I was completely in the moment, completely at peace, connecting my heart to these beautiful animals. For a while I swam about two meters above one of them, our movements synchronized and I felt so happy. Later I found the boat again and we made our way back to the main bay.

esther-in-komodo

We wanted to stop at the famous Pink Beach, but the cruise tour groups just got there and it was really crowded, so instead we decided to go to the village. The captain and his crew showed us around and even showed us their houses. It was incredibly hot, like walking around in a sauna. I couldn’t believe people actually lived there. It is a very poor village, with no facilities. What struck us was the garbage around the houses, the ‘road’ and in the sea. There is no garbage collection and people don’t even try to put it in one place. After you use something, you throw it away. Nobody seems to mind that it ends up in the sea they use to swim and fish, that animals eat the plastic and that kids play around in the garbage… We were absolutely shocked that nobody seemed to care and that a beautiful, natural place like Komodo was thus polluted on a daily basis…

LOMBOK

Lombok was the only place I was 100% sure I had booked a tour: I had paid and received a confirmation. However, when we got off the ship, nobody was waiting for us. When I logged into internet, I found an email from the day before, where the agent cancelled our trip… However, we found a taxi and local guide which were even cheaper than the tour I had booked. We visited a traditional Sasak weaving village, where women weave beautiful cloths on their porch. Their ability to weave and their family patterns determine if a guy wants to marry a girl. They start learning at the age of 10. It takes one month to weave a sarong. We passed by a temple and then relaxed at a seaside resort in Sunset resort in Senggigi.

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We were looking forward to a nice swim in the sea, but were appalled to see the waves and beach covered in garbage. “It’s the rainy season” was the only explanation we got. Apparently local people think not the garbage is the problem, but the current that brings it to the beach! We had a nice lunch and then just hung out by the pool. The sound of the waves crashing on the beach was nice, as long as you did not look at the garbage…

BALI

We spent two days on my favorite island, meaning one evening we did not have to hurry back to the ship. The first day we visited ‘nearby’ Canggu beach, which took 1,5 hours driving in busy traffic. I was delighted to find out Uber is active in Bali: low rates, friendly drivers and no negotiations. In Dojo coworking space I finally connected to the internet and got some work done. It was really weird to have my dad there, but he said he enjoyed seeing me in ‘my world’. My digital nomad friend Steven came to visit and took us for a walk. What a difference with Java and Lombok: we saw only foreigners, mostly surfers, with their own scene. Had a great dinner at a trendy restaurant and saw the movie ‘Cast Away’ in the open air before we took an Uber back to the ship.

esther-in-bali

The next morning we wanted to leave early for Ubud, one of my favorite places. We got up at 7, but unfortunately had to wait until 9 until we could leave the ship with one of the tender boats. Then it took a while to get a taxi and then traffic was horrendous. We arrived in Ubud at 12 and had to leave again at 2.30 to make sure we were back in time. We walked through the neighborhood where I lived for a month two years ago. I showed my dad the B&B, Sandat Bali Ubud, where I always stay, my favorite restaurants and the designer shop where I had bought some very special dresses. To my surprise the designer was there and he had a beautiful new collection. At only €55 per dress his unique designs are a bargain. My dad bought me one as a gift…

Just before we got back in the Uber, with only 1% battery left in my phone, we met up with Marcia, who I know through Facebook. She brought her charger, ensuring I had just enough battery for the trip back to the boat…

PROBOLINGO (Java)

In our last port Probolingo we could have gone to the Bromo volcano, but we were so tired of all the taxi rides, traffic and excursions that we decided to take it easy. A good decision, because it was a cloudy day. We just went ashore to find an internet café; but internet was so slow that we might as well not have done it. When we got back to the boat a heave storm and rain started.

Our last two days sailing coincided with new year. We were afraid it would be boring with all these old people, but the ship had really made an effort. Hats and decorations were available for all, there were good bands playing and it was a real party, including ‘oliebollen’ and ‘appelflappen’; typical (greasy) Dutch treats that go well with loads of cheap champagne… HAPPY 2017!

Cruise evaluation

The great thing about a cruise is that you can sleep in the same room every night, while you are actually travelling. Your room is cleaned two times a day and everything you need is provided, with great service. Our cabin stewards knew our names from the first day and always greeted us warmly. Our towels were shaped into different animals every night and there was always a chocolate on our pillows.

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Sad to know that the cabin stewards work very hard, 7 days a week and get paid very little. However, this is a way for them to make and save some money to enable them and their families to live a better life.

Even though it looks like a cruise is all about service, it is actually all about making more money. Everything on the boat is commercial. Internet on board is available, but it is very expensive, slow and unreliable. They just use it to make money instead of providing service to their passengers. The gym is not about keeping passengers fit, but about selling their ‘health’ products. Their seminars and products are constantly ‘advertised’ and presented as ‘activities’ in the daily schedule. Same for the shops on board: there was even a ‘captains recommendation’ for a different piece of jewelry in the daily schedule…

Even though all the food is free, the waiters try to sell you paid espresso at the end of your meal and of course wine with your dinner. There is also a paid ‘premium’ restaurant on board.

The ships excursions are heavily pushed, sometimes presented as the only option to go ashore. The cruise director mentioned several times that ‘traffic is heavy, and the boat will wait for the ships excursion to return, but not for individual passengers on independent trips’.

They also advised us ‘to stay safe and use common sense ashore: do NOT leave the tourist areas and be alert. When you are approached by a local, especially if they speak good English, steer away…’ What planet do these people live on???

But having said all this, the cruise allowed us to visit an island that is normally very hard to access: Komodo. Unfortunately we only stayed there half a day…

The other stops were in very busy ports and the time was always limited, meaning we’d have to spend hours and hours in cabs, in horrendous traffic, to hurriedly visit a site and be back in time for the boat to leave. I calculated we spent up to 30 hours in traffic in the 8 ports we visited… No wonder we were so tired! I prefer to visit a country and get to know it at my own pace and stay longer in one place, so this was frustrating sometimes and very tiring.

What was also frustrating was the fact that passengers who booked the (extremely overpriced) boat excursions always got priority to leave the ship, meaning we had even less time to explore. It was very easy to arrange our own excursions, sometimes at 1/10 of the price. Just google a bit before you go on your cruise to explore the options. Even in the ports you can arrange a day trip: there are always eager taxi drivers and tour guides waiting when a cruise ship arrives. You’ll pay more than the regular price, but still only 1/3 of the ships excursion; and you’ll avoid the big tour busses, waiting for other passengers etc.

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Whatever the criticism and circumstances, for my dad and me this was the trip of a lifetime!

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