IN EVERY direction, out across the Mediterranean, there was only flat, blue ocean oblivion and the opening bars of a show tune plucked from the electrified strings of a Fender guitar.
Out the back of the Celebrity Silhouette, a cruise ship catering for some 3000 bodies, a woman in a floral dress and a margarita in hand swayed on her feet. She hauled herself off the bannister of the Sunset Bar and hollered out to the guitarist: "Can you play Edelweiss?"
The guitarist was named Simon and, I would learn later, had played the cruise ship circuit for more than a decade. He could also play pretty much everything that had ever been hollered at him. He looked up from his instrument and smiled. "Sure," he said. "I can play that."
The woman leaned back and began to softly sing along. Then, half way into the first verse, she righted herself and stood alongside him. Simon's eyebrows rose along with the woman's decibel level. High pitched words emanated from her mouth like the din of a long-forgotten EP scratched out from a record player's rusted needle.
Simon's grin weakened. He shrugged and, whether out of pity or respect, heading into the final chorus, he handed her the microphone.
"Oh, but I don't know the words," she said.
But still she took the mike and closed her eyes. Then her body began to bob and swoop with each emphasised syllable - "Eidel WEISS, Eidel WEISS". Then, within 30 seconds, the song was finished.
"Give her a big hand," Simon said.
The woman was almost startled. She opened her eyes and emerged from her trance. She curtsied to the sound of two people clapping and swayed back across the ship's decking, margarita in hand.
THE SILHOUETTE is a bubble - a floating five-star, hermetically sealed bubble where the outside world ceases to exist and social conventions dissolve. It is where there is so little to complain about - free food, cheap booze, swimming, tanning, icecreams and tango lessons - that people need to work hard to grumble. So they tend to complain about waiting in line for hamburgers or about not getting enough raffle tickets or about the air-conditioning being too high or the air-conditioning being too low.
In the bubble you can even summon the semi-intoxicated courage to sing a song from the Sound of Music, receive less than rapturous applause and still saunter off proud of your efforts.
In late September, when I arrived on the ship, the bubble appeared like some sort of lavish and wonderfully decorated rest home. It had an art collection, 12 restaurants, real grass on the uppermost deck, unlimited soft serve icecream, two swimming pools, a twice daily game of poker and a seemingly perpetual game of bridge taking place on deck 7.
The cabins were generously sized with a bed so intoxicatingly comfortable that you barely noticed when your breakfast - complete with fresh coffee, fresh orange juice and French toast - arrived at 9am. It was, most certainly, a type of bliss. And one that was easy to buy into. Everywhere and always, in nooks and padded crannies, you could find delirious and disoriented bodies lounging with their mouths agape.
In the days to come those bodies would ebb and flow with the itinerary of the day. Sometimes the ship would port in exotic locales and the loungers around the pool would seem sparse. The ship would almost be peaceful. Almost lonely. Other times, however, we were entirely at sea - nothing but the horizon, ebooks, paper umbrellas and rum-based cocktails. There were wine tastings, quiz sessions and history lectures.
There were whiskey tastings, game shows and musical performances. Whatever your conception of holiday was, you could not argue with the simplicity of life aboard a 300-metre ship that fed, entertained and cleaned up after you. Whatever activity the passengers decided to undertake, they were paying scant attention to the days and hours that melted and blended into each other with the ticking regularity of a dawdling metronome.
"On the June cruise it was a different vibe," said a waitress from Arkansas who had been on the ship for several months. "It was a lot more of a party. There were a lot more Brits."
"Most people come on this tour because they want to see God," she said.
Indeed, these 12 nights were tagged as a trip to the "Holy Land", where the main stop, Israel, was sandwiched by Alexandria, Cairo and the Greek island of Santorini.
The majority of the clientele seemed to be Americans who had come to the port of embarkation in the Italian city of Civitavecchia from all manner of towns, cities and metropolises across the greater United States. They were almost all there to see Jerusalem - the city of holy conflagration. Some had seen it several times.
But then there were also those from the north of England, people whose brown leathered bodies, brash accents and penchant for pints of bitters at 10am seemed to have walked directly off the set of a Guy Ritchie film. They tended to stay on the ship when it was in port. When they ventured off, it was to buy trinkets, shawls and miniature pyramids from the vendors that often lined the port terminals.
But simple caricatures and depictions of life aboard the bubble do not do the sociological wonder of a cruise ship justice.
One evening, I arrived at Harry's Bar, a sports bar with framed flat-screen televisions playing American football on loop, to find my girlfriend speaking to a man with white hair and a youthful face.
"I have more money than time," said Eric the radiology oncologist from Arizona. He wasn't bragging, it seemed, merely explaining why he had purchased a drinks package that, to be economically viable, meant he had to consume approximately six cappuccinos and six beers a day.
Until quite recently, Eric shared on our second night in the bar, he was meant to be taking this cruise with his wife of 11 years. The marriage had recently ended but instead of calling off the trip, he had invited some of his very best friends and their families instead. There were about 10 of them. So now he had to share his cabin with a teenager suffering attention deficit disorder who lashed out in his sleep and an elderly man who snored heavily through the night. The radiologist was there to relax and forget his troubles. He too, among other things, had come to see Jerusalem.
He would become a regular occurrence on the strange social interactions prompted by the bubble. In some ways it felt almost like a university hall for ageing misfits. Being social was easy because the complications that usually hinder such activity in one's normal life were stripped away and tossed overboard. My girlfriend and I often went to that bar in the evenings just to see if our radiologist was there. After all, he had a drinks package to use up. When he wasn't we sighed. Over several nights he became our temporary friend.
For our dinners, at which we were expected promptly at 6.15pm, we were initially seated by ourselves. Twice we had to dress up for "formal nights" where professional photographers stalked the gangways looking for photo opportunities. There were always wonderful chances to see couples engaging in the type of modelling that would put a prom queen to shame - hand in hand, eyes deeply locked, all against the backdrop of a night lit cruise ship. We tried it a couple of times too.
After several nights we asked to move to a shared table. We weren't bored with each other; we simply realised the huge potential for conversational gems lurking in the Republican base that was no doubt peppering the dining room.
We spoke with wonderful people who thought Mitt Romney should be president because his family looked "so nice". With people who did not necessarily want to see God but certainly believed there was something lurking out there in the Palestinian desert. The conversation would move from charter schools to immigration to Mormonism. In the wrong hands it would have devolved into a Fox News pundit's wet dream. Here, to my surprise, (and mild disappointment) it was convivial. It was lively and even relatively informed.
I asked Steve, who had been on several cruises with his wife, why he kept coming back. He had been an engineer working on Apollo 11, helping to put a man on the moon. He did not, however, have the foresight to bring a jacket for formal nights. No matter, the waitstaff had a collection on hand.
Steve had only recently been allowed out of hospital but his doctor would be damned if he wasn't going. The pair packed lightly, bringing only a small selection of the sorts of clothing you would expect from a cruising couple. His answer echoed the many others I asked. "It's just so easy. There is nothing to worry about."
Our Indonesian waiter cleared the table, sliding some leftovers to the side of a plate before dashing back to the kitchen.
It was hard not to worry about the tremendous wastage of it all. A billion-dollar ship with an entire floor lurking somewhere below sea level entirely devoted to chilling food. The amount of that which is cooked and then partially consumed and then discarded. The fuel required to keep the 120,000 gross tonne behemoth running its engines and air-conditioning and elaborate fountains and lighting systems. It was the ultimate sin - worrying on a cruise. Then I did what most others undoubtedly do when such a thought occurs to them. I put the straw of a pina colada to my lips and took a sip.
SEVERAL DAYS later, after we had visited Jerusalem, we found Eric back in Harry's Lounge. He hadn't struck me as a particularly enrapture-able type. I had read about people who were so overwhelmed by the place they started believing that they were in fact the Messiah. Jerusalem Syndrome was a real thing. Quietly, I had hoped to have seen a couple. But here was a medical professional. A man of apparent reason.
Eric took a sip of his beer and spoke about his time in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre - the place where Jesus is said to have been crucified.
"I knelt down and just started crying," he said. "I couldn't help it. I couldn't stop."
The cruise was a place to forget reality. Jerusalem, it seemed, had the effect of forcing people to embrace it. On returning to land, the real life and the burst bubble, Eric said he would concentrate on making sure his daughters were all right. He would be fine, he added. He was moving on.
When my girlfriend and I arrived back to our reality, a friend suggested that, when it came the time, it might be cheaper to be a perpetual cruiser, shifting indefinitely from ship to ship, rather than move into a retirement home. It could certainly be a fine way to live out your days - in the bubble, surrounded by blue oblivion where the days dawdle on, margarita in hand.
Charles Anderson travelled courtesy of Celebrity Cruises and Cathay Pacific, as the winner of the 2012 Cathay Pacific Travel Writer of the Year competition.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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