The storm before the calm
On a wet Tuesday morning in March, a man was seen causing a disturbance on the streets of Shanghai. The man was limping and grimacing, smeared with grime, and passers-by scurried aside as he approached. The man was me.
But let’s back up a little.
The trip had started pleasantly enough. I was in Shanghai to board the Queen Mary 2, for a weeklong cruise that included a night in the Portman Ritz-Carlton, a high-rise overlooking the Sino-Soviet Friendship Building and the bustle of Nanjing Road. On the morning of the cruise, with a few hours to spare, I’d taken a cab to the Bund, the famously picturesque walkway alongside the Huangpu River.
It was drizzling when I got there, and the skyscrapers on the opposite bank were shrouded in a tangerine haze. It all felt very atmospheric, a row of Beaux-Arts buildings on one side, the smudged sci-fi skyline on the other, and I spent a little longer than I should have soaking it up, munching a portion of boiled fish balls I’d bought at a nearby store. The balls had cost me my last bit of hard currency, but I’m a sucker for novelty cuisine.
After a while, the drizzle turned to rain, and then the rain turned into a deluge. I checked my watch—time to go. But first I needed an ATM to pay for the taxi back to the hotel. This is where things started to go bizarrely, horribly wrong.
But let’s back up a little more.
When is a cruise not a cruise?
About 15 years ago, my father took a cruise, a holiday that has since developed into a habit. I’m forever getting emails from Dubai or the Aegean Islands, describing the nice couple from Duluth he met in the Neptune Lounge. And that’s what I picture when I think of cruises: my dad and the couple from Duluth, loading up on the all-inclusives before Nat Starr and His Dazzling Dancers take the stage. Until recently, if someone had asked me to choose between that or two weeks in a dentist’s waiting room, I’d have had to think about it.
The Queen Mary 2, though, was tempting. For one thing, it’s not a cruise ship; it’s an ocean liner, meaning it is built for actual voyages, rather than port-hopping. The QM2 is a classic of the type, sturdy and stately, with lines that call to mind handkerchiefs flapping on the top deck, or Kate Winslet repeatedly shouting “Jack!” Built in 2003, it is the last of the great liners, and the only ship still making regular trans-Atlantic crossings between England and New York.
Last year, the vessel was given a $132 million refit that restored it to its former glory—or, rather, to a glory from long before it was built. The idea was to modernize, but also capture the look and feel of the original Queen Mary, which had launched 80-plus years before. The QM2’s interior reflects the aesthetic of the age: geometric patterns and sweeping staircases, the jazzy bronze relief in the Grand Lobby, the Tiffany-style glass ceiling in the Britannia Restaurant, the starburst backsplash in the Carinthia Lounge. “Jack!”
In keeping with the Golden Age ambience, the QM2 had a stringent dress code: Informal (jacket required) for dinnertime, and Formal (tuxedo or dinner jacket) for functions. Alas, there were few occasions that called for my collection of ironic T-shirts. Luckily, I live close to a gentleman’s outfitters, Yardsmen, just behind London’s Waterloo Station. Here, the most dapper man I have ever seen fitted me with a tux that, if nothing else, introduced me to the slimming effects of the cummerbund (I’m wearing one now).
Along with its looks, the QM2 has another bragging point: size. It is the largest ocean liner ever built, 1,132 feet long and 236 feet high, with 14 passenger decks, 1,360 cabins, a crew of 1,292 and a capacity for 2,691 guests. The massive scale of the ship, though, does present challenges—for those who are not in possession of Daniel Boone-like tracking abilities, the phrase “lost at sea” takes on a whole new meaning.
Along with its Atlantic crossings, the QM2 embarks on an annual world cruise—this year’s ran to 118 nights and 38 ports of call, with shorter trips available for those who lacked the money, time or inclination to go whole hog. I’d booked for seven days, calling at Busan and Seoul in South Korea, and Nagasaki in Japan, along with the aforementioned stop in Shanghai.
I boarded the ship in the aftermath of that and headed straight to my cabin for a scrub and a quiet shudder. The room wasn’t what you’d call huge, but it had a balcony overlooking the water (as opposed to the Swiss Alps). I stood out on that balcony, stared into the bottomless depths and asked myself the age-old seafarer’s question: Now what?
Oh, the things you can do
I can’t say what it’s like keeping yourself occupied at sea for 118 days, but for a weeklong trip the QM2 had a ridiculous amount of stuff to do. For the sake of clarity, I divided my daily activities into two categories: those that improved me, in mind and body, and those that had the opposite effect. The latter included eating, drinking and gambling, with sub-categories for additional eating, even more eating and oh-my-God-I’m-eating-again.
There is a variety of dining options, according to which level of accommodation you’ve booked. Mine allowed access to the Britannia, but I often went for the less-glamorous eateries, particularly for those in-between-meals meals. Indeed, I became a familiar face at the stations of the Kings Court buffet, and also at the Golden Lion, an English-style pub whose menu included a steak-and-kidney pudding of such proportions that, during one pre-dinner binge, a passing man stopped at my table, pointed at my plate and laughed.
On the self-improvement side, the ship had various seminars (Whale Strandings & Rescues), along with astronomy shows in the planetarium and art classes overseen by an endearingly bossy English woman. I broadened my mind further by doing pub quizzes and borrowing psychological thrillers from the library. I also had a Shirodhara treatment in the spa, which mainly involved a man named Domini dripping fragrant oil onto my forehead until my emotions became more balanced.
There were many workout options on board, ranging from speed-walking around the promenade to swimming in the pools to trying to find your cabin after a night in the casino. I was told there was a gym, too, but I didn’t see it. Surprisingly taxing was the fencing lesson, which involved lots of parrying, thrusting and running around a dancefloor shouting, “Ow! Stop!!” Otherwise, my aerobic activities mainly consisted of things like tapping my foot during a karaoke rendition of “The Girl from Ipanema” and racing from my art class to the pub in time for bingo.
A cruise line’s roster of activities forms one of the four pillars of the industry—along with the amenities, the ports of call and the food—and Cunard, the QM2’s owner, clearly takes this aspect seriously. Each morning we received a glossy program itemizing the choices on offer: musical productions, comedy shows, dance lessons, shuffleboard tournaments, Scrabble competitions, iPad workshops, movie screenings, mixology classes, DJ nights and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, along with the vigorous spend-a-thons in the Mayfair Shops. And that’s not half of it. I could go on all day—which, of course, is precisely the point.
Historically, life at sea has been a pretty monotonous affair—the routine broken only by the occasional outbreak of scurvy—so it was good that we had Silly Bowling to brighten things up. If anything, you can become over-stimulated on these cruises. There were times, trying to pick apart the 50,000 permutations of fun, when things got a little fraught. On the flip side of this was the fact that, even with all this choice, we were still having our days plotted out to a degree that I hadn’t experienced since I was a toddler. It was with this thought in mind that I decided to make a run for it when we went ashore.
Chasing the flag
Actually, we were allowed to go off on our own at ports of call, but most people chose not to. This was because most of us were middle-aged and up, a demographic for whom the term “spontaneous adventure” is synonymous with “getting mugged.” Instead, we moved as one off the boat and onto waiting buses, where the guides took over, delivering factoids as we drove inland, then inviting us to follow a tiny flag on a stick when we arrived.
On our first onshore trip, to the South Korean port city of Busan, our guide was a local woman called Sunny, and she lived up to the name. Itineraries were outlined with a giggle. Landmarks were pointed out with a guffaw. At one point, describing a 16th-century invasion by the Japanese, Sunny laughed so hard I half expected her to add that the invaders had been foiled by the placement of 30,000 banana peels.
I don’t mean to be harsh here—Sunny was lovely. But I was glad to shake her for a bit at our first stop, the Haedong Yonggungsa Temple, set on Busan’s rocky north coast. There are 108 steps down to the temple—said to symbolize the 108 anguishes in a Buddhist’s life—but I chose to browse the clutter of market stalls at the top, pausing to munch on a snack-sized portion of silkworm larvae. It wasn’t until later, dragging myself up those steps with the rest of the group, that I truly grasped their symbolic power.
We had similarly effusive guides for our other onshore excursions, which have since devolved into a blur of museums, parks, temples, palaces, gift shops, fish stalls and sculpture parks, and those little flags bobbing away in the distance. There were some standout experiences: a lunch in Seoul, for instance, which included a kimchi soup that was so spicy a female passenger screamed. In Nagasaki, we took a cable car to the top of Mount Inasa, where we ate soy sauce-flavored Kit Kats while admiring the view.
Yet my happiest moments came when I managed to slip away, strolling a squiggle of pathways in a run-down hillside neighborhood, or sitting beside chain-smoking locals in a thunderously loud pachinko parlor—those times when I was given a glimpse into everyday life. At a bus stop in Busan, an old man smiled and raised his coffee cup in salute. I did the same with mine, and we sipped together in silence. I enjoyed that.
One thing about cruising is that it changes the way you interact with strangers. You find yourself not only chatting with people, but also making casual observations. “That’s a thick rope,” you’ll say, or, “These sausages are better than yesterday’s,” which seems an oddly intimate way to behave with someone you don’t know. After a while, you start saying hi to people you recognize, and after that you start sitting down with them. It reminded me of my dad and that couple from Duluth. It felt OK.
As time passes, you become more comfortable with the routine, to the point where you actually enjoy the challenges involved in trying to fit a classical concert and a line dance lesson into your schedule. I also got used to the disorienting effect of going to bed in one part of the world and waking up in another. I even learned how to get to the ping pong table without asking for directions. It’s like a time-lapse version of moving to a new town. You assimilate. You get settled. And then, just like that, it’s time to get off.
Back at home, people kept asking me about the trip, what we did and where we went. I always led with that morning in Shanghai, how my debit card wasn’t working, or my phone. I told them about slipping on a slick sidewalk and landing heavily on my back. How I was lost and hurt and covered in filth, with no money and hardly any time until we were due to set sail. I must have been a terrible sight that day, lurching through the rain, hollering my madman’s plea: “The Ritz! I’m looking for the Ritz!”
But the disaster has a happy ending—at the very moment I’d resigned myself to missing the boat, I happened across Nanjing Road, and was able to make it to the hotel with minutes to spare. People enjoy that story, and so do I. That’s the funny thing about memories: The best of them crop up in the unlikeliest places.