A four-mile tramp on the Indian Ocean – or how to cope with a cruise



6pm and a sand dusted sun of deep orange is preparing to set over the Arabian Sea in the North Western corner of the Indian Ocean. Our boat – somewhere south of the Arabian Peninsula, and in the preferred zone of operation for Somalian pirates (in readiness for whose possible appearance we have already done a drill involving a return to cabin, drawing of curtains and sitting as far from portholes as possible) – is cruising along at twenty miles an hour on course for Mumbai and its ultimate destination Sydney.

I have finished my writing for the day, but am not yet ready for my evening meal taken in the self-service, free-seating restaurant on Deck Fourteen where a mountain of food awaits me whether I have earned it physically or not. My cabin is on Deck Eight and is just one floor up from the Promenade Deck (Deck Seven) where a well-scrubbed boardwalk encircles the ship from port to starboard and fo’csle to stern. Three laps of this are the equivalent of one mile and my aim this evening is to do twelve – laps, not miles.

It has been 35C during the day and overfed (male) stomachs and underused  (female) thighs – all stretching too-tanned and prematurely aged Caucasian Aussie skin to its leathery limits – have been much in evidence on the Lido Deck (Deck Twelve). I do not inhabit this zombie-like zone of inertia and excess where royal blue sun loungers, azure blue pools and overheated Jacuzzis vie with free ice cream, burgers, hotdogs and French fries for the attention of the atrophying muscles, jaded palates and over-exercised intestines of cruising Australia. Ninety-nine percent of fellow passengers hail from that country, but I have not yet met one indigenous person – not even a neighbouring Polynesian or Maori. Still, no point in taxing my social conscience: the boat, whether I like it or not, is a living, breathing metaphor for the injustices, inequalities and economic imbalances of the world. White European and Australian passengers serviced by Indians and Thais (in the restaurants), Filipinos (in the cabins), Indonesians (in the engine room) and, only at officer level, a handful of Brits and Italians on permanent contracts with paid holidays. I am, after all, one of the privileged first world passengers too, and unless I am prepared to start, stoke and lead a mutiny – for which there would be little support, given the importance of the hire and fire wages to the lower crew echelons – I must accept the status quo.

With this salve applied to the militant tendency in my mind, a mental complement, perhaps, to the factor fifty lotion on my skin, I exit the over cooled Atrium – where the early-to-bed, early-to-rise wizens of Oz are gathering like bats at dusk to drink beer, sip coffee and listen to the world’s worst pianist croon standards no one has heard of – hit the evening heat (now 28C) and, dressed in my beige shorts and brown v-necked leisure shirt, set off for my walk on water.

The first mile: Laps One, Two and three

A florid-faced man slumped on a lounger (there are loungers here too, though they seem less decadent than those on the burger-fuelled Lido Deck) greets me with a ‘How you doing, mate?’ and, as an afterthought, after I am well past him and picking up speed, a yell of ‘Going for gold?’ I wave in acknowledgement of this immobile support for the mobile, but block further bonhomie by fixing an expression of ‘deck walker at work, do not disturb’ on my face. My scrubbed plank path is clear because I have timed my tramp to coincide with the first sitting of dinner in the formal dining rooms, where fixed seating and waiter service appeals to those who like to sit in the same place with the same people every night. Most white Australians, in line with their white British working class heritage, eat the evening meal (‘tea’) early and thus clear the decks for walkers like me who prefer a later ‘dinner’.

Lap one passes without incident. I clock the usual landmarks of a white wash stretching out at the stern of the ship – marine equivalent of a jet’s vapour – bleary-eyed casino staff taking a break by a staff-only door, and defiant smokers on a wagon train encampment of loungers at the forward end of the starboard side. These puffers and coughers, like pioneers of the Old West exploring the frontier of death, clap and mock the self-righteous walkers with aggressive expulsions of smoke and acerbic anecdotes of non-smoking joggers dropping dead mid-jog. Smoking is not allowed inside the ship and at only two designated points outside. The Oz smokers, unlike the Oz over-weights and the Oz over-eighties, see themselves as a persecuted minority and cling together like cowboys on whom the sun is setting fast.

At the start of lap three, having navigated the forward tunnel that separates anchor and mooring gear from maintenance storerooms, a figure shoots past – the first to have done so since I started. One of that rare species aged between twenty and thirty and seen as neither lower nor upper class in the ship’s hierarchy. In this case one of the six female dancers who, together with four males, offer song and dance shows once a week. Schmaltzy extravaganzas in which the ‘girls’ show off their bodies for the titillation of male seniors and their (mostly female) other halves, reminding the former of limitations in the late prostate era and the latter of how lithe and beautiful they once were, or weren’t. Also in this young-blood group are: Spa staff who massage bodies well past sell-by dates into a semblance of freshness; Reception staff with the patience of saints and the memories of sieves; and Cruise staff whose job it is to corral loose-enders (a majority) into collective capers and afternoon bingo. These middle-rank staff are allowed to eat in the anytime, any amount restaurant (perhaps why the pert buttocks passed me at such speed), but unlike passengers they have to clear away their dishes.

The second mile: Laps Four, Five and Six.

I count my laps by shifting my cruise card (a credit card clone that gets you into your cabin and into trouble in the Casino) from left hand pocket (odd numbered laps) to right hand pocket (even numbered laps). Now, as it slips into my right hand pocket and I use the opportunity to adjust my genitalia to a more comfortable position, I notice the swell has swollen. Swell, of noticeable size, occurs in oceans not in enclosed seas like the Med or the Black or the Baltic. It may have been caused by a storm miles away or (in its benign form) be no more than the sloshing that a large amount of water, left to its own devices on a ball revolving at speed around another ball, would make in any context. For landlubbers swell can be disconcerting, discombobulating calves, thighs and feet and requiring readjustments disapproved of by osteopaths and trainers. Imagine the landscape tilting up and down like a seesaw and then from side to side like a – well, like a ship in swell. When side on to swell, a ship rolls; when head on, it pitches. Diagonal swell can produce a mixture of the two movements as the boat’s hull (made of riveted segments) adjusts and resettles. Like turbulence in a plane, but without fasten-your-seat-belt signs and with a duration of twenty-four hours plus rather than ten minutes. In swell there is no choice but to soldier on as if nothing’s afoot – apart, that is, from the undulations beneath your feet. This flexing sensation is when some people throw up, but today the swell though present is not disruptive to a seasoned sea traveller. That said it takes most of the second mile, and the odd near miss with fellow walkers on the narrow sections, to adjust to the fact that the earth is, once again, moving for me.

The third mile: Laps Seven, Eight and Nine.

Nothing of note occurs during my third mile. The swell stabilizes to an acceptable pattern; the deck fills with strollers summoning appetites for the second sitting and getting in my way; the sun disappears and darkness descends with the rapidity of a sub-tropical clime. The smokers have enlarged their wagon train and need to be given a wider berth if passive smoking is to be avoided; my greeter on his lounger outside the Atrium has fallen asleep so will fail to see whether I go for gold or not; the dancer has disappeared, her dancing toes perhaps too discombobulated by the swell. Now the black sea is at one with the black sky and only the deck lights distinguish us from the void. A feeling of a fair at night, or a promenade in a 1950s seaside resort with nothing but the heat to remind me of where I am. That is the role of a cruise ship: wherever you are in the world, you are still in its safe, demarcated interior world – still able to define your existence in terms of its familiar smells and angular points of view. Some find this limiting, or boring, but, for a writer, its consistency allows the mind to roam.

The fourth mile: Laps Ten, Eleven and Twelve.

I am tempted to head indoors at the end of lap nine – my eat-anytime appetite is growing, my sweat pouring and the boardwalk turning into an unattended obstacle course. But then, as with the dancer, I am overtaken by someone who has come up, without warning, behind me. I watch as the figure, speed walking not jogging, powers past and draws ahead inch-by-inch and then foot-by-foot. No twenty-something this time, but an elderly woman with a slightly dislocated hip whose age I would put at 70. She is, to coin a phrase, motoring, and whether it is because of my competitive male instinct, or because of a sense of guilt at only having done nine laps, I start to motor too. A second wind becomes a second turbo charge. And, yes, it is a competitive instinct kicking in, or perhaps more of a ‘if a seventy-year old woman can do it, I can too!’ challenge. I up my speed, dodging strollers more boldly and threatening those who sabotage my dodges with a collision. ‘Where’s the fire, mate?’ someone says, and I want to reply ‘Up ahead, that woman in the red shirt and white trousers doing ninety miles an hour!’ But I don’t, I just follow in my new pacesetter’s wake – she is a more determined and effective clearer of obstacles than me – and bit-by-bit I narrow the gap.

By the middle of lap two I am within striking distance, when, despite the apparent fragility of her hip, and an age that I now put closer to seventy-five, the speed queen ups her tempo and, in the process, almost knocks a smoker lighting up into the sea. ‘You should watch where you’re going, mate’ the smoker (male) exhales at me, preferring not to chase the real cause of his near demise. ‘There could be an accident’, he adds, as if his flaming lighter weren’t danger enough. I smile, the Englishman’s defence, and push on.

Speed Queen swerves round the left hand bend at the top of the starboard side and into the forward tunnel. When I take the turn, she is not there and I fear she has cheated and broken into a trot. But no, after the second bend at the end of the tunnel, I see her striding down the port side, her faulty hip falling and rising like the well-oiled piston of a steam engine. This is my last lap and I decide that I have to catch and overtake her before it ends – otherwise, she will think I have just given up and thrown in the towel.

If that is, she has given me a second thought.

We thunder down the port side, scattering strollers and forcing a wheelchair to take a pit stop in the jigsaw room. Hard left into the stern section, the wake now bubbling in the glare of neon deck lamps, and hard left out of it. The last starboard leg and I’m gaining. The second sitting strollers have fled to the second sitting, the smokers have smoked their last cigarette and the deck is almost empty. The tunnel looms, but I will not be able to pass her there – too narrow. Then we are out of the tunnel and suddenly she turns and smiles at me. She has been aware of my presence. I make a supreme effort and catch up as the Atrium door and the end of my twelfth lap approach. ‘Thank you!’ I gasp, ‘you’ve been a marvellous pacesetter.’ ‘You stop now?’ she says with a faint French accent. I nod and slow. ‘Quel dommage!’ she adds, motoring off at full speed. ‘Ten more for me tonight! Au revoir!’