Seventeen Days Before The Mast:
Some Reflections On The Water

Charles Berkoff

© Copyright 2003 by Charles Berkoff

I enjoy the challenge of trying to write something humorous on a subject that I haven't written on before. One's first cruise ought to provide a few opportunities, I thought, but … you be the judge.

"But I haven't a thing to wear!" The dreaded phrase that no husband likes to hear. We'd finally decided on our first cruise: Spain, North Africa, Gibraltar, and Portugal. 17 days on the Renaissance R6. ( Oceana Cruises recently purchased several R-Class vessels from Renaissance Cruises.) Stateroom with private balcony.

D-Day. Time to invade Europe. The Renaissance travel package offered air transportation. Their
route to Barcelona, our port of departure for the cruise, was obviously very …. creative:
Sarasota --> Tampa --> Atlanta --> New York --> Paris --> Madrid --> Barcelona. We could probably
do it in under a week. Not bad.  And only $1199 per person! The many horror stories we later heard
from people who used Renaissance's Omni Charter flights must have gotten around. Even illegal immigrants from poverty-stricken countries were rejecting Omni in favor of the back of an
unventilated truck.

Ten minutes on the Internet and voila! Iberia Airlines, non-stop Miami to Madrid. $550 per. And starting out in Miami had an unexpected benefit. Instead of having to wait until we arrived in Spain to practice our Spanish, we could, and indeed had to use it in our own home state.

An early and ugly experience with a rip-off Madrid taxi driver catalyzed our discovery of the efficient and cheap Metro and bus systems the city offered. But we also walked and walked, renewing our European romance with café con leche in Plaza De Anywhere. Thus passed our first three days of pre-cruise fun and fandango.

On to Barcelona. By train. We splurged and went first class. Cheaper by plane, perhaps, but the ride through the mountains, through sleepy Zaragoza, Tarragona, and along the scenic Costa Dorada before coasting into Barcelona, was memorable. No romantic dining car, perhaps, but café - con or conless - sandwiches, and even in-train movies were available. Eight hours later we were in the center of town.

Three more halcyon days passed, as we enjoyed walking, exploring, eating and drinking our way throughout sophisticated Barcelona. As panophiles (?), we were thrilled to discover just how great Spanish bread could be. And for about $2 a bottle, how good Spanish wine could be. While we consciously passed on most of the local churches, castles, etc. (as ex-Europeans, it was easy to be somewhat jaundiced), we did discover Antoni Gaudi, arquitecto extraordinario. His fascinating, almost mesmeric Cathedral, begun in 1884 and still actively in the throes of completion, was a must see.

And so to the docks and the R6. Home - with 696 other passengers and 373 crew - for the next 17 days. Our onboard experience would prove to be a most happy one: a very well appointed ship, a stateroom that could pass for an upscale hotel suite, excellent personal service, and fine food. And the private balcony really was worth the extra investment.

Deliberately arranging to eat with different couples proved to be a great way to meet some fascinating people. And some decidedly odd ones, too. Strangely enough, our odd dinner companions said the same thing.

Over the next four or five days we followed the Spanish coastline, stopping at Valencia, Alicante, Almeria, and Cadiz. Exciting places to visit, but my, how they blur in retrospect. We'd typically dock at dawn and set sail at dusk, declining to do what Renaissance obviously wanted us to do in between: sign up for their very pricey bus tours. Taking most of them could easily add up to be more costly than the cruise itself.

Some passengers arranged their own tours, negotiating terms with one of the many taxi-vultures circling the docks. Double the pleasure at half the cost. Split the cab with another couple and you halve it again. We preferred to explore each new city using a little public transportation and a lot of leg; we liked the exercise, and used it to deflect unwanted weight gain. Unfortunately, if you wanted to find your own way around town, you really had to find your own way around: Renaissance rarely offered useful maps to the non-tour-taker. Disappointing. Next time we'll be sure to roll, and take, our own.

Nonetheless, we walked and we walked. One spot we always enjoyed, in every town we visited, was the local mercado - generally a large, very comprehensive, indoor market for all things edible. Wonderful places to taste Spanish life! Often tired, but with caloric-space to spare, we'd be back on board for late afternoon coffee, pastries and a few hands of bridge. Back, in fact, to Homer - from Oklahoma. He was really into bridge: every morning; every afternoon. He didn't leave the ship once in 17 days. The poor man was even confused when a tour of THE bridge was offered. And 'the deck' meant something quite different to him. "And Mrs. Homer?" I once asked. "Where is she?" "In the stateroom. Resting," he said, with a twinkle in his eye. But we never did see her. We could only speculate on what kind of evil scheme was afoot.

And then there was Josie, a gentle Virgin ian who, by her own confession, racked up 28 pages of bar bills by the end of the cruise. It might have explained some of her unusual bidding at the bridge table. Then again, perhaps her bar bills weren't all for the hard stuff: a tiny bottle of water was $2.50 …. actually, $2.50 + 18% gratuity, and actually (again) with an additional gratuity on the subtotal, …. $2.88. So they're right: when abroad, don't drink the (bottled) water! Tea & coffee were free.

We eventually left the Spanish mainland, and cruised serenely for a day and a half, 'at sea,' as the itinerary says, to the Canary Islands: Santa Cruz, Tenerife, and Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. They may enjoy beautiful settings, but as towns to visit, we were frankly unimpressed. For us, the Canaries were, well ….. for the birds!

But finally we were headed for romantic Casablanca in Morocco, one of our more anticipated ports of call. A drink at Rick's Café Americain with Bogey and Bergman? Peter Lorre and Sidney Greenstreet hatching evil nearby?? In your dreams! That was Hollywood (and the movie, we learned, wasn't even shot in Casablanca!). This was the real, dirty, and largely very poor world of modern Morocco. Renaissance's (undue?) emphasis of the dangers of Casablanca persuaded us to take our one (and only) tour. But a combined $120 for our 3-hour local bus ride?? Half of that would have more than covered the cost of a cab. And I mean the cost of BUYING a cab! Tour highlight: the Mosque. Open to the non-Muslim public, it was an imposing complex built by over 30,000 craftsmen. Truly a modern day wonder. The visit also provided a fascinating insight into at least some of the religious practices of the Muslim religion. The Casablanca Mosque holds 20,000 people inside and another 80,000 outside. But I still wondered how a special service might compete, head to head, with a local soccer match. Casablanca lowlight: the aggressive persistence of street sellers, hawking everything from 'Rolex watches,' 'official tours' and 'nice ladies.' I thought that learning a few words in Arabic might stand us in good stead: please, thank you, how much? where is? But I needed only one word: Lah! (No!). Said repeatedly and with conviction. So much for Lah, Lah Land.

Tangier was more of the same: i.e. drabber and poorer, but again with relentless peddlers, and 'official' taxi drivers and personal guides. This time, the nearby beach hustlers offered an extra: ride-a-camel picture opportunities. "A camel for your wife, monsieur?" a local asked. "A fair trade," I thought, but fortunately didn't voice the comment. I needed to share her bed that night. And anyway, I wasn't sure our deed restrictions at home would allow it.

More casual cruising through the Atlantic as we backtracked to Gibraltar. Despite choppy water and whitecaps all around, the R6's stabilizers really …… stabilized. No rocking. No rolling. I wouldn't go anywhere on the high seas - or even the low ones - without them.

We especially enjoyed 'The Rock' - after Morocco, a welcome slice of civilized living. Gibraltar proved to be an almost bizarre but totally enjoyable hybrid of English and Spanish lifestyles. Like lively tea taken in bright sunshine. Or, as we also witnessed, a very austere-looking, London-style Bobby excitedly handling a traffic problem, in fluent Spanish! A friendly Gibraltarian, perhaps sympathizing with my advancing years, proudly told me "14% of the living population of Gibraltar are over 65." "What a coincidence," I said. "14% of the living population of my home state, Florida, are dead!" Looking rather puzzled, he asked me if I would repeat that in Spanish.

Another delightful surprise was the on-tap availability of Scrumpy Jack! Ah, Scrumpy: that unusually strong cider, 6-8% alcohol by volume, that I thought was available only in the West Country of England. The Brits drink it by the pint (and that's their 20oz pint!). Sadly, America has yet to discover it.

With two height problems: personal lack of, and emotional discomfort with any place higher than I can reach, my biggest Gib surprise was my (Scrumpy-induced?) willingness to journey to the top of the Rock via a very anemic-looking and clearly overloaded cable car. 1397 feet! The views were admittedly breathtaking: less oxygen, I suppose.

And lastly to Lisbon - the San Francisco of Europe. Complete with street cable cars to handle the tough climbs. Friendly people, relaxed living, and three days of walking its steep hills followed, with frequent samplings of the other port of Lisbon - the potable variety. In this regard, a visit to the Port Wine Institute certainly merited another highlight rating. The comfortable armchairs of its club-like setting, clearly designed for the portly Portuguese, made it the place both to try and to buy from their stellar cellar.

Another Lisbon thrill was our discovery of fado: soulful and uniquely Portuguese music set to guitars and played mostly in restaurants. The fadista appears and starts to sing; a hush quickly descends. The lights are dimmed; no food is served. It's time to sip the wine and feel the moment. Fado CD's, many of which are only available in Portugal, proved to be perfect souvenirs.

And so, a little more than three weeks later, we were back in Miami. The Passport Control Officer's "Welcome Home" was, as always, particularly good to hear …… even if he did actually say "Bienvenido." Ah well. So much for globalization.

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