Glutton Onboard: Sea Days

Sunset in Namibia

We are on the last leg of our cruise, and I have yet to talk about what life on the boat is like. So what is it like? It’s a bit like the TV series “Fleishman is in Trouble” where all of the mothers of a certain set in Manhattan use social signifiers that are extremely specific to their very particular mini-society. The boat is no different, but the signifiers are.

There is a definite pecking order on this ship, and it goes like this: World Cruisers are top of the heap, and the people who only come on for a certain leg — even if it’s for several legs — are considered lower down on the pecking order, invited to fewer dinners with the Captain, coddled less by the social hosts, and definitely less-socialized-with by the other World Cruisers. It’s no fault of theirs of course, besides the fact that they cannot spare a whopping 144 days to spend on a boat; it’s just that the World Cruisers have been through more. Stranded for two days in the Peru port! Watching those two crew members get booted from the ship in Bora Bora! Listening to Bob from Dallas shout for his wife Rachel every time we’re in the immigration line! Too many memories, reader. Too difficult to fill new cruisers in.

Among the World Cruisers, of course, there is also a hierarchy. The more World Cruises one goes on, the more their ass is to be kissed. People make sure you know by putting commemorative magnets on their doors; some rooms boast as many as 12 such magnets, while yours truly has … one. You would expect the perpetual World Cruisers to be of an advanced age, but that’s not necessarily the case. But of course, no one ever, ever just asks, “How can you be 50 and go on so many cruises?” No one ever talks about their job, unless they offer it up themselves. All the same, there are some passengers whose occupations have managed to filter through the grapevine: doctors are duly noted and their names kept in the back of one’s head, in case (free) medical attention is needed; there is a young reporter on board, as well as a much older one; people know I’ve written a cookbook. A few people even know I am writing about this cruise: “Will you be writing about this in your blog?” Dr. Harvey asked me at a wine tasting in South Africa. I told him yes, but sadly remember little else from that day other than going back to my cabin with 9 (!) bottles of wine.

In any case, here, people are mostly whittled down to their basic identities, for better or worse. We are “the Thai family”. There is also a “crazy guy” (not to be confused with “the guy with anger management issues”). There is a “sour-faced lady who yells at waitstaff”. There is “guy with glasses who smokes a lot”. There is “really old guy who is on a perpetual cruise”. People are generally nice, for the most part. After four months on board, it’s easy to figure out who to avoid. Now, it’s simply time for us to count down the days to when we don’t have to say “hi” to everyone we see in the hallways anymore (my husband can’t wait for this part).

One extra bonus for World Cruisers is that they get to attend events periodically throughout the cruise. Typically, a cruise will have around 200-300 World Cruisers; on this particular cruise, because of Covid, there are 500, which puts a lot of pressure on the team to make the evening special. The first event, in Bali, would have been beautiful if not for the torrential downpour on the open-air dining area; Singapore’s event was held in the Mediterranean section of the Gardens by the Bay, which was beautiful but unfortunately also appeared to spread Covid among some of the guests.

The last event, though, was set among the sand dunes in Namibia, and it was spectacular, even if I had to shamelessly loiter around the buffet so that I could be there when it opened. Outside, narrow ditches hosted lit fires for warmth as fire dancers performed with burning ropes and sticks in front of tables set with flutes of champagne and cheese and crackers. Herero tribeswomen in beautiful outfits mingled among the guests as the sun set. When the wind shifted and the smoke got too thick, we had dinner in the tent at tables set with bottles of wine and handmade pots of local lip balm, in case the desert cold seeped into the gathering. By the time we had left, the sky was pitch black and the stars clear to the naked eye. The ride back was a lot shorter than the ride there.

Herero women

But I guess what people really love about being on a boat is, well, just being on the boat. While guests have the option of not disembarking at destination ports, we really don’t allow ourselves that choice since this is our first world cruise and we haven’t been to a lot of these places. Instead, we wait for “sea days”, which is when the ship is in transit to its next destination and isn’t docking anywhere. Those days are treated like weekends or holidays (“I can wake up late since tomorrow’s a sea day”) and, although I once loathed them, I now enjoy them because the food and drink is better on those days, there are more lectures on the schedule, and there are even dance classes.

On my next sea day (in three days’ time), I will be ordering this drink created by one of the ship’s bartenders, William Villianueva, who made me this martini after I told him that 1. I don’t like martinis, and 2. I love dill pickles. He very graciously gave me the recipe, so here it is. It is surprisingly good. I enjoy drinking it while playing Clue in the bar like a big old nerd. It’s one of the things I’ll miss when I’m back home.

William’s Filthy Dill Pickle Martini (makes 1)

Muddle 4-5 slices of dill pickle in 3 oz vodka (William uses Absolut Elyx, but anything will work).

Add 1 oz pickle juice and shake with ice for 12 seconds.

Decant and garnish with more pickle slices, if desired.

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Glutton Onboard: Finding home in Mozambique

A giant lobster “tom yum”

More than halfway through my “around the world” trip, I figured out I was seriously homesick for Thai food after caving in and ordering a “Thai red curry” from the ship’s main dining room for lunch and … genuinely enjoying it. What was happening to me? With this curry that lived somewhere in limbo between a gang phet and a gang kua? When I discovered that we were due to visit a Thai restaurant owned by an actual Thai person in Maputo, Mozambique, I was not only jazzed, but relieved — at least I would stop fixating on Thai food.

Now, I am embarrassed to say this, but I knew nothing about Mozambique, not even that it was a Portuguese colony, not even that it is famous for its fresh seafood. Both were welcome discoveries: everything sounds so much friendlier in Portuguese, even haggling over woven baskets in the market, even international labor day “celebrations” that looked at first like protests as people walked the streets downtown, waving flags.

Unfortunately for the workers at Spicy Thai in downtown Maputo, they, unlike their celebrating compatriots, did not have the day off. However, it was lucky for us. Khun Ton, our new best friend, had planned a seafood-heavy lunch procession that would quickly turn into a composite breakfast-lunch-dinner for us, so enormous were the portions and generous was the kitchen. Starving and assuming I was set for a typical Thai meal abroad, I was ready for the plates of gratong tong (deep-fried “golden bags” stuffed with shrimp and served with a sweet chili sauce), as well as the fried egg rolls (of course) and grilled chicken wrapped in banana leaves. I assumed that next we would get some pork larb, a green curry, a stir-fried noodle dish or two, and some greens and call it a day.

But K. Ton, alarmed at our eating style (which I’ve heard described as “peak-era-shark-feeding-frenzy”), asked us to at least hold up for the next dish, goong cha nam pla (raw shrimp marinated in fish sauce), a personal favorite of mine and something you almost never found outside of Thailand. It arrived arranged as a giant rosette, crowned with a bowl of nam jim seafood (Thai seafood sauce ) and peppered with slivered red chilies and sliced fresh garlic.

The raw shrimp — rosy and glistening on the plate — was improbably sweet, and K. Ton told us that even the Japanese imported tons of the stuff from Mozambique, supplementing their stores of amaebi (sweet shrimp). I believed it, because the shrimp were as delicious and fresh as anything I’d had in Japan, but better because it had Thai flavors.

Everything else then started arriving at a brisk clip, expected stuff interspersed with dishes that were less so: stir-fried Chinese kale with large slabs of pork belly; individual bowls of tom yum each sporting their own “baby lobsters” like a sunburned man in a jacuzzi; a gang kua of well-stewed beef shank; enormous platters of crabmeat doused in a yellow curry sauce.

Stir-fried crabmeat in curry

Another large bowl, enough to feed a family of 6 in Thailand, brought us a lobster “khao soi” crowned with an improbably big lobster head, its meat shredded in a khao soi broth and accompanied by pickled mustard greens and fresh lime wedges in a nod to the dish’s origins.

A tom yum of “baby” lobster, full of eggs

And just when everyone was ready to stick a fork in themselves (because they were done), a laughably enormous steamed grouper was ushered to the table, cooked in a soy sauce dressing and nestled in a bed of melt-in-the-mouth steamed cabbage, ludicrously delicious.

Pi├Ęce de resistance

So, of course, everyone found a little more space in their bellies.

For dessert (yes, there was room for dessert), I was surprised to discover that dishes I assumed would be universally loved, like mango sticky rice, were unpopular in Mozambique, where the idea of fruit with rice was thought of as ridiculous. Same with gluay buat chee (bananas stewed in coconut milk), even though the ingredients were all readily available. Instead, they served a “guava” steamed pudding, English-style, with a side of coconut ice cream, the photo of which I will spare you, because it was a grisly scene.

You would think we would be all “Thai’d” out by then, but sadly, you would be wrong. On our one evening out in Cape Town, we still managed to find ourselves in one of those Nobu wannabe restaurants that spout up in somewhat fashionable dining areas — you know, with the club music and the dry ice. There, we ended up with the usual suspects: oysters drowned in ikura and yuzu, sushi rolls with names like “rainbow reloaded”, crispy rock shrimp coated in chili mayonnaise, Korean fried chicken, Peking duck.

Later tonight, we will have the Thai seafood dipping sauce that we smuggled onto the boat from Maputo as crew members were engrossed in examining another passenger’s wooden artifacts (which must be sprayed in case bugs get on board). We will ask the ship’s kitchen to grill some lobster tails, shrimp and scallops, and steam the freshest seabass they can find. Our new friend Jean-Claude will bring along a Riesling that he brought in his suitcase from his hometown of Strasbourg. And we will attack everything we see on the table with our beautiful nam jim, a perishable reminder of the flavors we are missing.

And then we will be back on the lookout for more of those flavors.

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Glutton Onboard: Cruising the Indian Ocean

Roughly 110 days of 144 days into the cruise, I drink too much. I know, that is shocking, because it would seem like I always drink too much. But this time, I drink so much that I am unable to go on my planned tour excursion, Day 1 at La Digue in the Seychelles. And of course I would end up regretting it. The Seychelles are stunning — as beautiful as the Maldives or French Polynesia, but less crowded than either. The water isn’t as clear, but the fish come right up to you on the beach. Also, the food is arguably better.

What people come to La Digue for

Having missed my first day in the Seychelles, I make sure to be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for the next day at Port Victoria, the islands’ capital. Although this part of the Seychelles was arguably British, everyone still speaks French and eats food that is a mix of French, Asian and African, aka “Creole”. There are chilies galore, and plenty of fruit and vegetables, and anything (and I mean ANYTHING) can be curried, including octopus, parrotfish, and fruit bat.

At the market

So when out snorkeling excursion ends, we tidy up as quickly as we can and set out into a sweltering heat on a walk to lunch at Marie Antoinette. Google Maps tells us it’s a mere 30 minutes from the pier, which is totally doable, right? Especially since, on our way there, we encounter the German-speaking Belgian group, who have been out and about for a whole two hours. “We’re missing our excursion,” says Johan, glowing in a peachy sheen of sweat. “But it probably wouldn’t have been fun anyway.”

But after 15 minutes, I cannot believe I am still outside walking. After 20, while walking up a hill, I realize that if I were to trip and fall, I would simply lay down and die. Finally, we reach the restaurant, which is actually on the outskirts of town, halfway up a fairly steep incline. At the restaurant, we encounter more people from the ship. “We took a taxi,” they said, glancing at our clothes, which look like we’ve been thrown into a swimming pool. The staff kindly direct us to the coolest spot in the open-air dining room. Behind us, next to the restrooms, a crowd of tortoises is having their own lunch, a mass of carrots, eggplants, cabbage and tree leaves.

To cool ourselves down, we order the local beer, which aptly features a turtle logo.

Yes, it’s true that Marie Antoinette serves fruit bat curry, but we did not have the guts to order it. We got the set menu instead, intended for 2 people but ultimately enough for 3. Included was a hefty serving of parrotfish and eggplant fritters, served with a kind of sweet Thai-like chili dip; improbably tender marinated tuna steaks; baked Creole-style red snapper with garlic; and what they called a “Creole” sauce, which tasted like a mix between tomato salsa and ketchup and was meant to be eaten with the fish.

Best of all, however, was the rice and chicken curry, paired with a spicy mango salsa, pickled chilies and pickled, shredded cabbage and carrots.

On the way home, we ordered a taxi.

In Madagascar, we have fewer moments for food spotting, simply because the lemurs take up all of our time. And when we are not turning around to see a bright-eyed lemur staring straight at us from a nearby branch, we are in a rickety old bus that is clearly on the verge of dying, just like I would be if I was forced to walk instead of ride.

In fact, two other buses break down during our day out in Madagascar, which, when forced to fend for itself on the “non-lemur” side of the road, produces sights like the “Ghost House”, where an Indian man once lived and committed the grave sin of … not having any children. In retaliation, a ghost took over, forcing the European family that purchased the house later to flee. Today, the children from the school next door look in through the window, having told each other of a time when some children exploring the house were pushed from the walls by the ghost, never to climb again.

But later, at a “comfort” stop where both men and women queued 20-something deep for two bathroom stalls, only to queue again for soft drinks with which to refill their bladders, we wandered to the second floor where we could look out over the beach. Here was the beating heart of the town, where young people jogged, danced, flirted and even exercised in earnest as fishermen strolled past with their catches and the occasional tourist splashed in the water. Also, there were doughnuts.

All very nice and good, but the next stop, French Comoros, is actually a bona fide district of France. And although our tour of the island ended up being a half-hearted stroll past some government buildings, our lunch afterwards at the pier was worth the 10 kg of water weight that we had lost in the humidity.

The Chef at La Croisette with the menu of the day

We ended up ordering the ubiquitous “poulet au coco”, less curry-like than its counterpart on the Seychelles, as well as the cote de boeuf, saignant, with the chef’s signature chili-laced mayonnaise sauce. Even better (I’m afraid to say) was the accompanying hot sauce, a specialty of the island and a mainstay at the markets.

My favorite of the day was the blanquette de poisson, made from swordfish that had only just been sent to the kitchen. This was fortuitous, since we foolishly ordered two of the blanquettes (and three steaks, plus all of the side dishes on the menu). It was a lot of food.

It was a nice lunchtime foray into our brief moment in France, but I must admit I am looking forward to our next stop, Mozambique, where I am told I am going to eat at … a Thai restaurant. Yes. I should be ashamed, but it’s been a while. Latest tally: 113 days down, 31 to go.

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