Saturday, May 12, 2007

Culture Shock: Cruising Southeast Asia

I have to say, living in Singapore considerably dampened our culture shock in the ports of Penang and Phuket. But what we didn’t expect was a bit of culture shock when we boarded the ship!

Our intrepid compatriots have already racked up weeks of independent travel to such exotic destinations as Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, and Vietnam (like these two, just back from Hanoi). Being somewhat more timid, we decided a cruise would be an easier first foray into regional travel. We’ve taken two cruises off the eastern U.S. and enjoyed them (two narrow escapes from hurricanes nonwithstanding). So we figured, probably more of the same, with some new and interesting ports thrown in.

But once we looked into it, we couldn’t resist booking a cruise not on a Western cruise line but on a local Asian cruise line. We knew right off the bat that there would be some differences, at least in the food. The specialty restaurant on our last cruise was Johnny Rocket’s (burgers and milkshakes), but one on this ship was an Indian restaurant, certified halal for Muslim diners. (“The first Indian restaurant afloat!” they said, as if the others had sunk.) And once we boarded, we started to see differences even at breakfast: an Indian vegetarian dish, a stack of waffles, a vat of scrambled eggs, and a steamer of Chinese pork dumplings, all in a row on the buffet line.

Of course, the differences went beyond the food. Western ships, for one thing, don’t have “fabulous karaoke rooms” - or if they do, they don’t publicize them. And they’re not likely to have anything like the big highlight of our ship’s lobby: a two-story high statue of three horses covered in gold leaf - flanked, inexplicably, by a couple of Greco-Roman-style statues. It was far too gaudy to our Western eyes, but apparently it was an “auspicious” symbol to many Asians, who thought it a perfect photo op.

And whereas on Western ships, we’d just showed up at the scheduled time, on this cruise we had to make good use of our Singaporean training in early queueing (yes, we are now kiasu with the best of them - see if you are, too). Reserving space for the gala dinner at 3 p.m.? Best to queue by 2 p.m. Queues for the tender to shore open at noon, with first departures at 12:30? Better show up by 11, to queue for the queue! It’s not that there aren’t enough spaces for everyone. It’s just that everyone’s in the habit of showing up early - so you should, too.

The other main difference, and a bonus in our view, was the mix of people: noisily happy Indian families, fashionable Chinese Singaporeans, friendly Australian retirees out to see Asia for the first time. Even sitting in the audience during the evening shows, we noticed the variety; at a comedy magic show, for example, the different groups of people laughed at very different things. And I guess we did our part to contribute to the diversity. At dinner one night, they read out the numbers of passengers from each region, by passport. India: 500-something. China: 200-something. Singapore: 200-something. Australia: 100-something. Europe: 100-something. USA: 2.

1 comment:

Cheryl said...

this had me laughing out loud! love the ending: USA - 2. I guess things haven't changed that much since our Asia trip 13 yrs ago, when we met fewer than a dozen Americans in over a year! Pity, imagine the gold-leaf statues they're missing! My favorite line here is: "like the others had sunk." Man that made me howl. Keep up the great writing. You're so prolific! I've got tons to catch up on. Cheers!