Song of Flowers

By Barbara Kingstone

Soft adventure is the new buzzword for travel. And if ever there was an epitome of this timely phrase, it was on a cruise on the Song of Flowers. I was travelling with a close friend and I do not know which of us was more surprised when we arrived at the ship in Phuket. We both reacted in the same manner when we saw the roomy staterooms as they are called. So as not to seem to unsophisticated, which I declare firmly is far from the truth, this being her first cruise and my third, we squealed quietly with delight –hand over mouth-anticipating our next 12 days and the ports of call. The first were the Maldives, 1190 islands, dots in the Indian Ocean who received their independence in 1965 and became members of the United Nations, the same year. Male, on Male Atoll with a population of 58,000, is the capital and if I may gently include, no big deal. Luckily we didn’t have a lot of time to linger and the hour planned walking tour was enough to give us the cultural flavor of the city. Standing grandly in this Islamic country is The Grand Mosque with its fine calligraphy and. Also the former Sultan’s Palace is a visual treat set in an oasis of green space. However, for me the highlight was the large fish market. Naturally, the odor was overwhelming but then also was the assortment of colorful, huge fish to me, foreign sounding fish being bought by local restaurateurs, homemakers and hoteliers. Totally dissimilar was the next day stop. Kurdea,well known to snorkels and considered The last Paradise, can also boast of fine white sandy beaches, crystal clear water where the fashionably colored tropical fish can be seen without goggles, This overdeveloped small islet begins to feel like an open stove by midday. After a lunch of local goodies of Massuni, Mas Bathafoli, Baijiya Bokiba and Keemia, Lily and I opted for the air-conditioned haven of the Song of Flowers. The shuttle at dockside was waiting before we both turned into human crisps. With a cache of books in our luggage, we had every intention of reading on our day at sea. However, the daily lectures, some serious others truly clever comedy, filled our days at sea. Illusionist Bob and his wife and assistant Sarah so impressed up that we invited them to dine with us one evening hoping to learn some of their secrets. Wrong, Not one hint was even given us. Another truly great performance was by English comedian, Mike Goddard who not only is one of the funniest people I’ve ever seen but also one of the authorities on Oscar Wilde. His mastery of humour was one evening he appeared as Tu-NA, a chambermaid who, like our caption Dag, loved read poetry and of course spoke with a heavy Norwegian accent. It was also a take-off on the dancers who had come to entertain us after a day in Cochin Indian, which was our next stop. But more about that soon, It’s about here, I must inject that cruising seems to be a’ couple thing’ and two women on their own is considered the best combination if you’re interested in meeting other sailing companions. So although I love the fact that we only unpacked once, ate well, laughed a lot, there should be some concern for singles travelling on cruises, especially small ships as is the Song of Flowers which had about 115 passengers. We felt like the piranhas of cruising. Ah, Cochin, not enough time but what a historical, cultured city where the spice trade was once huge and the synagogue dates back to the 16th century. When I was last there, there were 21 Jews, now in Jewtown, there are only 14 Jewish people left. Their history dates well before.

Mangalore, a throbbing small city, is the preface to real India. The heat, the small three wheeled taxis, the haggling and the exotic fragrance set the stage for our next stop, Bombay. The highlight of Mangalore was the Temple with a large bronze of Buddha, which dates back 950 years. George, one of the Mexicans and an historic buff, was dismayed that it was in a dimly lit area, guarded by a gate, leaving us to neck crank to see it. He suggested to an agreeing guide, this major artifact should be placed in a more obvious surrounding and I nodded in agreement. With only a short time on our own, some of the other Mexican travellers and the Rolande, a chic Parisian decided to do some sari sourcing. In deed, we found just the shop, but with this gaggle of girls, it was a After sourcing out a great sari shop where prices were so inexpensive, it came down to elbow shoving and Lily and I lost. With all those stunning fabrics, it was heartbreak to be whisked away by our guide before we could be served to meet a gracious family. The Peres, who had opened their century old home, for us to see happened to be related to one of this cruise’s lecturers, Alan Nazarath, a former Indian Ambassador. We refreshed with straight –out- of- the coconut juice. Bombay, our last port of call in India, is always filled with surprises. It either repels or delights but one thing is certain, you can’t remain indifferent. Unfortunately, the ship’s scheduling was off. Instead of spending all the time romping on the beaches of the Maldives, it would have been a better choice to give the passengers more time in this controversial city. Since we had only one day, there was an extremely difficult choice to be made. Either spend the day in Bombay or fly (two hours each way) to Agra, the site of the Taj Mahal. I opted for the former since I had been to the latter and the arranged 15 hour day for a few hours at the ‘Taj” just seemed a waste of 12 hours. I happily remained in Mumbai where the morning was filled with sights and site seeing. A colorful Jain Temple was certainly a must see. From my vantagepoint on the second floor, I looked down to see the happy contingents that were strumming instruments with their prayers. The hanging garden, the juxtaposition of huge mansions and shanty huts, the architectural magic of many buildings especially Victoria Station and the Dobbighat, an out door laundry which serves thousands of residence was worth the stay. And suddenly, coming down one of the main streets, was a funeral, an open cart carrying a flower-surrounded corpse, trailed by the mourners. Anything is possible in this impossibly complex city. The next few days gave us the sea legs often needed on a cruise. We spent the next three days on the Arabian Sea with not a moment to spare, if that was your choice. The weather the entire trip was exemplary and Lily and I, plus a large group had our first two meals of the day on the deck. Each buffet was a treat with a variety of food for every taste. Evenings were usually in the Galaxy room, a smart dining area where dressing up was jacket and tie but two nights were formal attire. After the casual days, we felt it was a treat to dress. The alternate choice was Angelo’s, a small eatery for about 30, where Giovanni, the maitre d’, handed out Italian food and song cards. Volare, and other familiar songs were listed and guests were expected to chime in with Giovanni and his waiters. It was a hoot.

One of my favorite pastimes was at the slot machines. A slight diversion was a Black Jack lesson. I think I learned something, although I’ll never know since I didn’t partake after I learnt that a smug American wouldn’t sit at the table if there were any novices. I’ll never know if I could have made my fortune. But I certainly learned that on board slots don’t pay. By the time I was both furious and frustrated, we had reached Muscat, Oman. Actually, since the port side engine gave out after departing Mumbai, we limped into this coastal Arabian city. It is Camelot. Huge white mansions are set against black volcanic mountains while the blue skies meet the azure waters. There’s no income tax, education and health fees are paid and the streets look vacuumed. This cleanliness also extends to cars that must be shined or if not, a ticket is issued. Perhaps because of the great oil wealth or the often-oppressive heat, no body walks hence the streets are devoid of people. The only places I saw the citizens were at the very mediocre souk and the extremely modern shopping complexes. The golden coin had two sides. We had looked forward to staying at the famous Al Bustan Hotel, an edifice known as the best in the Middle East. However, our accommodations weren’t honored since a Jordan delegation had taken over in anticipation of the King of Jordan’s arrival. Needless to say, I wasn’t overjoyed that my stay in this far off destination was at the Hyatt Oman which looked like a Disney Theme Park. Even the country’s symbol, the ibex, studded on the outside and throughout the interior décor, reminded me of Santa’s helpers. Actually, once over my snit, the hotel’s décor was very much in grand Moorish style and the staff was helpful, given that over 100 guests descended on them without much notice. But then nothing could dim the grand cruise of the song of Flower. Without a doubt, cruising on this class of ship is one of the grand luxuries of life.