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DEATH BY AZAMARA

‘You don’t have a pa-a-a-assport, honey?’

Doris gasped with incredulity and fished about in her handbag.

This was the first I’d heard of a passport. You get it stamped every time you ‘do’ an Azamara Activity. I’d been on the Azamara Quest five days – which gives you an idea of how many activities I’d felt inclined to ‘do’, thus far.

‘You don’t have one of these?’

She produced a small blue booklet and riffled through the pages.

Well, gosh, this lady had been everywhere. She’d been to Speed Sudoku, Team Scrabble, the Family & Friends Trivia Quiz, Musical Trivia with Jim Badger, Name That Movie Tune Quiz and Easter Bingo – and that was just today.

Somehow she’d managed to fit in Easter Cha-Cha Time with Mary Amanda as well, a Malaysian cookery class and now, propped up by the pool-side bar, Doris occupied prime position at the Daiquiri tasting demonstration.

‘I like to keep active,’ she said proudly.

Pursed lips sucked heavily at a straw. It was if two pink slugs were mating. Her blue Daiquiri looked like that stuff you run through the toilet flush to keep it clean. It may well have been the toilet stuff – by this point my jovial companion wouldn’t have known.

‘You should gedda pa-a-ashport, honey,’ she whispered thickly, ‘then I could take you on a trip…’

Doris was a great gal, nearly three hundred years old, held together with surgical steel and botox. The skin from her face was pulled back and tied in a bun behind her head in a vague approximation of a woman in her sixties. Those lips were strangely inflated as if some animal had burrowed in and made a home, her mouth stretched back to her ears, granite eyes showed no emotion but startled surprise – everything about her was Carol Channing.

Doris demolished her Daiquiri of Death.

‘That was terrible,’ she slurred, ‘tasted like shampoo. Gimme another one.’

She was coiffed and elegant, pickled and past her prime with a gold ring on each finger as big as a rock. I’m amazed she could lift her hands. She hovered on the bar stool, gently rocking to the movement of the waves. Alas, the ship was completely steady at the time. She leant against my shoulder.

‘If you gedda pa-a-ashport, honey, you gedda pri-i-i-ize,’ she said, running her finger down my chest.

I felt an urgent activity coming on. I scanned my daily programme.

Ah, yes, there it is:

Run a Mile.

*

You can indeed ‘Run a Mile’ on the Azamara Quest. Each morning a pack of passionate souls assembled under the enthusiastic care of Mr. Dennis Fitness. He was twenty-four, blond and British, hearty as a fresh-cut steak and terribly, terribly keen. He should be in the S.A.S., instead he was giving colonic irrigation to elderly matrons on a cruise ship. Something had already gone terribly wrong.

Dennis already knew this old Dog was a hopeless case. He’d caught me in the gym, anxiously eyeing one of their leaflets.

You are what you eat

You are what you don’t excrete

DETOXIFICATION

How toxic are you?

Have you cleaned your body internally?

There was a very nasty picture of what looked like pooh hanging from a stick and the explanation;

This is what you might have inside your colon due to not cleaning internally.

Ask your fitness instructor Dennis for more information and book an appointment to achieve MAXIMUM RESULTS, guaranteed!

‘Are you Dennis?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ he hummed, already knowing that he was perfect and I was not.

‘I am very toxic.’

He didn’t look in the least surprised. I think we were all a little bit toxic to Dennis.

‘Do you think there is any hope?’

He looked me up and down.

‘Perhaps it’s too late,’ he said, unsmiling.

*

Running A Mile’ on the Azamara Quest involved hurtling round a running track on the top deck. I have no intention of ever running anywhere again, let alone a mile around Azamara Quest at 7.00 a.m. Having dizzied themselves charging in a circle these loons would settle in for a morning stretch at 7.15 a.m., Aerobics at 7.30, Pilates at 8.15 and Yoga at 9.00 a.m. The Dennis people hung around the gym, striding to nowhere on conveyor belts, shuffle-boarding, stepping up and stepping down at their afternoon Step Class, locked in an iPod world of their own.  I resolved to stay right away from them – they were far too busy being fit and busy so they’d be busy and fit being busy. I get scared.

Mr. Fitness glowed with more youth and health than the entire compliment of passengers; he was a flaxen spa-Nazi, a living endorsement for clean-thinking, God-fearing behavior. Dennis was everything Dogster was not. I had chiseled out every line on my corrugated face with years of bad behavior; smoked and drank and snorted and whored my way to a complexion of the finest leather. At this point in life I had a choice: fight or flee. I chose another option. Embrace.

After exercise the ladies would retire for a refreshing beverage, a final perve at his nice tight shorts then gracefully submit to an expensive round of pounding, creaming, smoothing, waxing, aromatherapy and detoxification in a feeble effort to turn back time. The Sirens of the Sargasso Spa lolled about in their white robes like scarecrows on crack, abandoned to sensation. Their minds were perfectly, deliciously blank.

*

The ne plus ultra of shipboard competition was the Azamara Quest World Championship Ping-Pong Tournament, battled out with alarming intensity twice each day. Undisputed champion was a hyper-active gentleman with thinning grey hair who won every heat in a startling display of desperation. He was seventy-nine with a sun-bed tan, his skin just a day away from crumbling into dust. He kept it intact with Klein’s embalming moisturizer, a macro-biotic diet of three lettuce leaves a day and relentless dedication. I called him the Energizer Bunny.

E.B. behaved like a twenty-five year old, complete with trophy wife and, I rather assumed, an endless supply of Viagra. It was only on closer inspection I realized that she was just as old as he was. I think she may have been a body-builder in her youth – Mrs. Bunny still rippled with strength in a most un-ladylike manner. Alas, the rest of her flesh had decided to retire leaving only muscle flopping helplessly in jelly – rocks in a sock held together with tendons of scrawn.

My Ping-Pong Popeye smoked a pipe. He loved to unroll his pouch, play out the ritual of the cleaning and stuffing and patting and smoking, loved to stare out to sea in the classic pose, smoke curling from lips that had seen a lot of romance. I don’t know what other drugs he was on; steroids, too many power drinks, I couldn’t tell – but he was certainly on something. This guy was quite the most energetic man I had ever seen. Remember that movie ‘Cocoon’? He was exactly like that. I kept waiting for him to die mid-tournament.

The Energizer Bunny was a perfectly nice man having a great time; social, gregarious, fun and friendly with no apparent psychological damage. He was just hyperactive – rather as if someone wound him up each morning and let him loose.  He needed sedation, not Ping-Pong. I’ll bet he ran a bloody mile every day, too.

*

Within a day tribal culture established itself, through accident, necessity or design. Tribes formed first on the basis of language. A pod of tiny Japanese scuttled around at the instruction of their personal ship-board guide and translator, a dour collection of people from unknown Eastern European countries stuffed themselves with food and grunted. A very animated six-pack of Spaniards sat playing a mysterious game for days on end, cackling gaily, scoffing secret Duty-Free liquor from a coffee flask. Scowling Germans growled along the corridors, po-faced and grim. Even Dogster’s brightest smile couldn’t dislodge the Teutonic doom. There were Mexicans and Koreans, South Africans, Australians and Canadians. They all behaved exactly the way cliché suggested they would.

We mixed at meal-times in a hideous ritual called ‘Would You Like To Share a Table, Sir?’

‘No.’

Well, that solved that problem.

Do I sound curmudgeonly? Yes? Well, then I probably am. I can’t be bothered with small talk. Really, I’d sooner sit on my own. This is not in the spirit of cruising, I know, but nothing about Dogster is in the spirit of cruising. He is in the wrong place – or else he has gone mad. This boat is odder than India.

There was another tribe; the Americans.

You could always tell an American. They were the only ones using the hand-cleaning dispenser on the way into the restaurant. Azamara Quest Americans probably don’t represent the vast majority of their countrymen; I certainly hope not. All the Americans I’d ever met on my travels had been great company – generous, talkative and fun – maybe I’d just got lucky. This was a whole other breed.

Like everybody from everywhere, these cruising Americans were a mixed bunch – from wizened prunes from Noo Yoik to good-hearted folks from Arkansas, all huddling together lest someone mention Novovirus. Sadly they didn’t have the numbers to achieve critical mass so glowered in disapproving clumps at dinner, rather as if the other fifty-nine nationalities on board had crashed their party. The only thing that set this particular group of Americans aside was their passionate refusal to interact with the world on anything other than their own terms.

*

Every morning I’d open ‘Pursuits’; my programme de jour. From 6.00 a.m. till the early hours the day was marked out with Azamara Activities dotted like boils across the boat. There was scarcely a room without a pack of jolly campers whooping it up.

What to do today? The running, stretching, aerobics, Pilates and yoga had all occurred while I was sensibly fast asleep; Ping-Pong with Popeye was far too intense to even watch, let alone play – what to do? I could maintain my sporting prowess with Wii tennis and Wii bowling; this seems to involve sitting on a chair, watching television and waving my arms. I could indulge my hitherto invisible passion for Bridge; start with a Beginner Bridge Class with Mr. Dollinger, progress to an Intermediate Bridge Class with Mr. Dollinger and eventually even Play Bridge with Mr. Dollinger.  I never met Mr. Dollinger.

I could just head for the casino. Every day there’s a Blackjack tournament, each afternoon a Texas hold ’em tournament. I didn’t even know what Texas hold’ em was.  It’s a form of Poker – not, as I thought, mud wrestling. I could pull slots till I die; walls of temptation beep and flash to lure me – but I don’t gamble, not with my money anyway. Origami isn’t my thing. I didn’t want to paint watercolors either; the Knot Class didn’t appeal.

I’ll just say that again.

The Knot Class.

Now, that’s an unusual thing to want to learn. I hadn’t imagined I’d be given that rare opportunity, certainly not in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Knots. I’m just trying to think of situations in my life when I need much more than a clove hitch and a double Windsor. Short of tying someone to my bed in Sado-Masochistic frenzy, I can’t think of any. These days it’d be to stop them escaping.

Only two things appealed to the demon in me: the Humming Competition and the Country Line Dancing. I didn’t want to ‘do’ either but thought I could look at people ‘doing’. I had to make an effort.

I can report that some people take their Line Dancing very seriously – boot-scooting ain’t for sissies. Some even bring their outfits on the cruise with them. It hadn’t occurred to me that anyone would do such a thing. A horde of elderly cowgirls poured out of the elevator. The fringing on their jackets looked like a sea of dead worms. You know that ‘Thriller’ video where all the vampires dance in a line? Well, if you played it at quarter speed and dressed them in cowboy suits…

I fled upstairs to the Humming Competition.  An elderly gentleman with a pleasing baritone gingerly grasped the microphone. He was humming the theme song from ‘Titanic’ to a group of little old ladies from Dallas. They had no idea what the tune was but sat, entranced or asleep, I couldn’t quite tell which. One leant her head back on her chair, eyes closed, mouth wide open. She gurgled sweetly and snored in perfect pitch, only to gulp back into consciousness with the applause.

*

On Easter Sunday, somewhere south of Sri Lanka, a large pink rabbit bounced along the pool deck. Someone shrieked happiness into a microphone while the Azamara Trio belted out appropriate songs in a language I later found out was English. There were a number of pink bunnies distributing Easter eggs to a row of pregnant women with gay, and I mean gay, abandon.

A Russian lady with large breasts hurtled around the swimming pool holding her bosom with one arm and an egg in a spoon in the other. It seemed to be the job of the gay bunnies to upset her. She shrieked in Russian, they shrieked back in gay Bunn-ese and wiggled their ears. She made it through and won a prize. Cheering from the passengers. Someone else ran past pursued by rabbits. Eggs akimbo. The Activities director gibbered like a flagellant on Good Friday and all the gay bunnies did a humorous dance routine. Inexplicably Humpty Dumpty made a grand appearance.

Cri-ime E-e-vree Mowtai-i-i-i…’

The Azamara Trio murdered The Sound of Music in more ways than one. Pink rabbits danced gaily round the pool.

‘Ti-i-i-iwwww yo-o-o-ou fi-i-i-i-ine yo-o-o-ore…

There was an eruption of silver foil as the Activities staff hurled chocolate eggs at the passengers. Wild applause from the crowd. If I was the bunnies I’d be expecting a hail of rotting fruit back but everybody was having a wonderful time.

*

When they rolled away that rock from the tomb, I bet no one thought that a tribe of pink rabbits would hop out. Quite what Humpty Dumpty had to do with Easter was a mystery, too. I thought it was about Jesus.

Mostly Our Lord lived in the Library and popped out at 5.00 p.m. for daily prayers but Easter Sunday was his special day. He was getting his own ecumenical resurrection in the Cabaret.

I hope the Azamara Trio won’t play ‘Cri-ime E-e-vree Mowtai-i-i-i…’ again.

Everything will be so damn ecumenical and politically correct that none of us will be quite sure what we are praying about anyway. I particularly hope events will be kept out of the hands of the entertainment unit. Last Friday’s little crucifixion tableau was in very bad taste.

The rest of the time Jesus shared the Library with the Jews. There were services, it seemed, every hour of every day. Azamara stove for political correctness; there were sixty nationalities aboard. I believe they kept a Buddhist monk, a Mullah and a Russian Orthodox priest in a cupboard downstairs in case anybody else needed a quick blessing.

They all lived ecumenically in the Library with an occasional Rotary meeting, a singles get-together, the Friends of Bill W; a quaint euphemism for Alcoholics Anonymous, and twice weekly, the Friends of Dorothy; a quainter euphemism for Judy Garland fans. I don’t think these meetings were held at the same time.

Quite why Judy Garland fans should get special privileges was beyond me. They never played any of her films. Where was the meeting for Charlton Heston fans? I guess that would have been too crowded.

So the Library held the overflow, the last vestiges of political correctness. It was all things to all people; if someone looked depressed there was a support group in the Library; staff was trained to lead confused old ladies to the Library for therapy; if I saw a blind person I’d just point them straight up there. I knew a guide dog would leap out of the bookcase.

*

It was odd traveling with quite so many pregnant women. I put my glasses back on.

Ah-h-h–h.

I took them back off. The row of pregnant bellies belonged to elderly cruisers lolling flat on their backs on deckchairs. I didn’t know the human body could expand in quite so many places. They sagged and bloated, stretched and drooped, thrusting their bulbous navels to the sun. If I was the sun I’d burn their navels quick and nasty to teach them to keep their clothes on in public. Each stomach glistened with 100+ sun-lotion; each gleamed white and fat into infinity – pleasure domes on the Great Floating Temple of Lard.

I could bounce from here to dinner with my feet never touching the deck.

*

Everything was Trivia. We were floating in a bucket of Trivia. Trivia was the most popular activity on board. Trivia gangs formed, rivalries broke out, tribal boundaries clearly established. Trivia friendships were made, Trivia dinner companions and cocktail pals acquired. Trivia was the social networking tool of the boat. You couldn’t miss a beat. It was all for the team.

The lounge was packed for Trivia; shrieks of joy, the gentle buzz of groups conferring, the soft repetition of the question for the elderly and infirm; it was just like school. These people were not stupid. They chose to set their mind to Planet Mongo, chose to find a use for the vast collection of useless information they had stored in their brain.

That only trivia remained while important information had vanished was not a source of irritation to them. It was a preferable state of affairs.

A life spent on the Trivia Channel is a life of endless joy. Every day a million facts hurtle through the air and into my life. Just like bouncing to dinner on those fat bellies, I can leap from triv to triv and stay constantly, enthusiastically alive. Everybody loves Trivia. It is the building block of our lives.

Occasionally a wise man comes along, puts a whole lot of trivial facts together and makes a science. More often a venal man comes along, turns trivia into television and makes money. Well, now somebody smart had come along and made a cruise line out of it. I think they did a very good job.

*

‘Are you enjoying your cruise?’ Shirley said brightly.

‘Not very much.’

‘Oh.’

Shirley and Harold ran the corner shop in a tiny rural village in Lancashire. It was the only shop. They were pillars of their community. She was kind and so was her husband, just retired and off seeing the world. To them this cruise was a wonder from start to finish, the adventure of a lifetime. Bless ‘em. I certainly wasn’t going to say anything to spoil their holiday. They were British and polite as the British often are; life was a Neverland of ‘pardon me’, ‘sorry’, ‘yes, yes, of course’, ‘if you think that’s alright’, ‘excuse me’, ‘sorry, sorry, sorry…’

‘I’m just finding it socially… difficult.’

They both nodded solemnly. She had fine grey hair and a neat practical dress. They loved each other, cigarettes and the ghost of Margaret Thatcher. England was going down the drain.

‘Well, it’s up to you, isn’t it?’ Harold said bluntly. He was a man of few words, all one syllable.

‘I’ve just come from two months in India,’ I said, ‘this seems a little bit… silly.’

I was having trouble changing channels from festivals in Gujarat to Easter Cha-Cha Time with Mary Amanda. They all looked strangely the same. It was all tribes; all dancing, all the gift of life.

Anthropology.

‘Maybe you’ve lost civilization,’ she smiled gently, ‘and you can’t find your way home.’

*

Of course, she was right. Cruising is the pinnacle of civilization. The end product of human endeavor would be a perfect Azamara world sailing blithely through the universe, with eight courses and wine pairing for dinner, a world without news, children, animals, plants or poverty, a sex-less world where bland was king, where we could all live in an entirely filtered, ecumenical, politically-correct environment; everything sanitized and super-clean, even the conversation.

I couldn’t breathe. My head was spinning. I was having an Azamara attack. I felt drugged, surrounded by white noise, lost in soft carpet, trapped with Elton and Celine playing endlessly on a loop; the tinkle of ice in highball glasses, the distant call of Easter Bingo:

‘Legs eleven… l-l-legs e-e-el-l-leven…’

Trivia, endless charm and grovel, the sweet, soporific swirl of small-talk – nothing. I’m drowning in pink bunnies and old ladies, lolling mindless in the Sargasso Spa. Once you’re in, Dogster, you’ll never get out; you’ll be trapped in the swamp of dead dreams forever! I need colonic irrigation. The beat of my own drum is growing faint. Maybe they put Valium in the food.

‘Would you like a drink, sir?’ ‘How are you tonight?’ ‘Your usual tragic table for one?’

Hang on, Dogster.

Days went by, all exactly the same. Eat, sleep, eat, sleep, drink, gossip, drink, eat and sleep – all in this surreal cocoon of security. Reality is banished; all is smooth, safe and serene. The air has been detoxified, the ship’s internal organs flushed of everything that might cause offence. Dennis is everywhere. There would be no contagious outbreaks of thought on this boat.

Hang on, Dogster. Paddle fast.

The tribes don’t aspire to greatness here on the Azamara Quest – they aspire to the passive embrace of nothing whatsoever at all. Sensation is the enemy. The dream is to be dead ON the water. They should just sail the ship straight to Heaven and save everybody a lot of time.

Swim, Dogster, swim!

Maybe it was all like this? Perhaps I’d been dreaming in India? Maybe this was reality and I’d just woken up. The experience was so all-pervasive, my companions so completely enthusiastic about this barrage of banality that after a while I started to feel like the only sane man left alive.

Mr. Dogster didn’t want to Run a Mile, stretch, aerobe, Pilate, step up, down or detoxify – he didn’t want to Ping or Pong, play Scrabble or Sudoku, Musical Trivia or Easter Bingo; he didn’t want to knot, hum, Cha-Cha, waltz or Hold ’em down in Texas, didn’t want to boot-scoot or ever drink Daiquiri with Doris again.

What was wrong with him?

Dennis was right. Dogster was toxic. It was too late.

*

If you buy a ticket to World Championship Wrestling you shouldn’t complain if it isn’t the ballet. So I’m not. I report in wonder at another world. Cruising is a business created to fill a specific need. There are millions of folk who love cruising. Azamara Quest was perfect for them. Really, they do it very well.

Ninety-nine crisp U.S. dollars a day – an incredible last minute rate. Azamara Quest: top deck, single, balcony stateroom, twenty-four days; repositioning cruise, Singapore to Athens via India – just ninety-nine dollars a day. What is wrong with this deal?

As it turns out, absolutely nothing.  There was nothing wrong with the Azamara Quest; nothing wrong with the cabin, the food, the service – I think there must be something wrong with me.

‘It’s for people who don’t want to think…’ one of the staff said in an unguarded moment.

I saw them as a strange, alien tribe. They had renounced the world; detached, detoxified, devoid of thoughtthey were cruising to perfection. It’s a ninety-nine dollar nirvana: sweet death by Azamara. Sadhus and wise men spend years in silent contemplation to reach such a state. Of course, I was the alien.

*

I was on the dock by ten a.m. Fifteen minutes later I was outside Gate D gasping in the sweet smell of India. A dozen Mumbai hustlers hit me in a pack. They blocked, I weaved and parried. Eventually I found an honest man in a cab. Colaba is barely twenty rupees away.

Colaba is prime territory for the fool and first-timer. Unlike the big old pile of bricks for Britain on Apollo Bunder, it’s the real Gateway to India. All the innocents abroad pass through Colaba – some are literally fresh off the boat. Colaba leaps out at you, runs up and grabs at you, pulls at your sleeve; drags you into danger, dishes the dirt and flings it in your face. I love it.

By ten-thirty I was in my barber’s.

My barber’s shop is famous. It’s fifty yards from Leopold’s, just a block from the empty Taj. The terrorists ran right by after attacking the Colaba cafe. You’ve seen pictures of the blood on the pavement outside my barber’s shop. One man died in the doorway.

‘One shave,’ I said, ‘and a smile.’

‘We don’t smile, anymore,’ said the owner, ‘not these days.’

He was brutal, quick and cost twenty rupees. I felt very sorry for his wife.

Freshly shaved, I walked a block to destiny – the Apollo Hotel.

‘Do you have a room for a few nights?’

That nod of his head put me on the spot.

‘When do you want it?’

Well, here I was, at the crossroads. Jump ship – or stay onboard for the next eighteen days. Choose now.

I look at Mumbai – I see life. I’d seen more energy, joy, pain and pure pulsing humanity in an hour in down-town Mumbai than I had in a week on the ship. I look at the Azamara Quest – I see cruising.

No contest.

‘Tonight. I’ll take that room tonight.’

*

© NIGEL TRIFFITT  2010

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