In 1831 a young naturalist, by the name of Charles Darwin, boarded the HMS Beagle to explore some of the remotest regions of South America. His five-year exploration would result in a compulsive collection of plants, animals, fossils and notes that would form the basis of On the Origin of Species. Pity – had he lived in present day – he could have booked a three-day cruise on the MSC Opera (for much less money and effort) and collected copious notes and living samples of Homo sapiens in various states of evolution. Or so I discovered on my recent trip to Portuguese Island, on board the MSC Opera.
You don’t have to be a modern-day naturalist to see that three nights on the ocean blue with a cross section of more than 2 000 South Africans and 700 international crew members crammed between 13 decks of steel makes for an entertaining study on human behaviour. On any given deck or hour, the colourful passengers compete with the wealth of entertainment provided by the ship’s able team of international entertainers.
It only takes a few hours to work out the clan dynamics. The divide falls between two decks – the upper pool deck (Deck 11), where scantily clad youngsters drink, dance and tan their way through life like it was a retro Peter Stuyvesant advert, and the lower deck (Deck 6), where the bingo slash theatre revellers take a turn on the dance floor before turning in early to study the following day’s itinerary, which gets slipped under their cabin doors every night. I observed that the two clans naturally compete for prime location at the buffet and theatres shows, and occasionally for deck chairs by the pool, but never for shade or the spotlight on the late night dance floor. In this way their needs live quite symbiotically.
In the sunshine hours, the upper pool deck offers a petri dish view of the South African gene pool. Like most watering holes, it is a place where the clans and species coexist uneasily for a few hours and only while they share a common purpose: tanning, swimming, drinking or dancing. The sun sets on this arrangement, when the DJ starts spinning his Ibiza inspired tunes and the lower deck dwellers naturally retreat to prepare themselves for the first dinner sitting at 7pm.
Deck 11 dwellers are easy to spot. They wear more make-up than clothes and usually travel in packs, unless they are found wandering in the early hours of the morning, blurry eyed with a cigarette dangling between their lips. This louder grouping can be heard boasting how few hours they slept and how many drinks they consumed and are want to turn anything into a drinking game or dare. Presumably their parents’ credit cards are picking up the drinks tab, which, incidentally, is not included in the cruise package for South African audiences. It seems the MSC group have also learnt a few things about Saffer behaviour and their ability to bring the ideas of bottomless and legless together in a matter of hours.
Bottom deck dwellers naturally wear sensible outfits and gravitate towards the shade, unless found perching over their young at one of the two pools. This group does not travel light and are mostly accompanied by kids, grandkids or mothers-in-law. With fewer responsibilities, they start worrying whether their children are eating too much junk food but secretly love the fact that they don’t have to cook or entertain them. They are often heard discussing the spectacular costumes and praising the “world-class” choreography from the previous’ night.
For all its spectator value, you would be hard pressed to find a holiday environment where an all but complete cross section of South African society comes together and enjoys themselves collectively, albeit for different reasons. This is half the appeal of the modern day cruise – there is something in it for everyone.
The hard-working mom grinning over the fact that her children are being fed and entertained until they collapse from exhaustion. No one needs to think about the next meal or fear the dreaded phrase “I’m bored”. The adults are now equally free to relax and be entertained at their own tanning leisure or poker pleasure. There is something about being out at sea, bobbing between two countries and states of consciousness while defying a few laws of nature, that frees people of their restrictive identities.
Strict mothers, anxious singles, polite children. Even rugby-devout fathers who would never be caught dead at the theatre can be heard applauding men in wigs hitting the high notes. Noone knows or cares about your land identity here. And even if those brief moments of wild abandon fade along with your superficial deck tans, those memories will always be yours to escape too when life won’t let you.
It’s no mystery why the MSC cruise liners leave South African harbours at 80% capacity every week. The food is plentiful, varied and readily available. The cabins are comfortable and tiered to suit just about every budget. The entertainment is world-class. All the extras like alcohol, special coffees and beverages are reasonably priced, even with the dollar-rand conversion rate. But, most importantly for all rand-strapped families, children under 18 stay free. Just as long as you budget for those nagging extras – shore excursions, professional family photos, duty free items (these last two go on sale on the last day) and the occasional gambling spree your post-cruise regrets should be limited to your performance in the audience talent show.
As I lie in the shade, taking notes on the pool deck, I start thinking that Darwin would have enjoyed a cruise on the MSC Opera. He might not have talked to his fellow passengers over the buffet or got up early to be the first in the whirlpool but I know he would have filled notebooks with detailed scientific observations and comical drawings to support his theories. He might have even come to a few different conclusions about the species that we call human and evolved. I know I did.