Cruising For Insight

Just back from the latest cruise lecture series, this time on the Holland America Line’s ms Noordam.   We joined the ship in Honolulu, Hawaii and left it in Sydney, Australia. On the way the stops were at Lahaina in Maui, Hilo on the Big Island, Pago Pago in American Samoa, Suva and Dravuni Island in Fiji, Port Vila in Vanuatu then Lifou Island and Noumea in New Caledonia.

For everyone else it was a twenty day cruise, for me it was a nine lecture one. I am billed as a “location” speaker so that means I talk on destination-related subjects. This time it was a regional Pacific approach that dealt with adventurers, travellers, explorers, writers, artists and covered history, international relations, anthropology, culture, tradition and change.


It was great fun and because it was a big ship, some of the crowds were standing room only, about 700 or so. No pressure, then. But the people were great as always, lots of interest and questions and follow up. There were Americans, Dutch, Australians, Brits, others from Europe, and New Zealanders among others. So there was lots of good banter about yet another All Black victory over the Wallabies, my Dodgers falling to the Cubs in the National League, plenty of incredulous discussion about the American elections and the state of world politics. This was a good crowd.

And some of these terrific people became friends, as always on these cruises. (Plenty of emails about the baseball and about travel respectively from people like Lyn Griffiths and Marily and Clint Sampson met on earlier cruises). Among these new people: Sandy Aloisi to whom you can listen from 5.30 am onwards on ABC Radio News in Australia; her husband and politics guru Mark Spurway who heads Transmission Network Services at the ABC and so makes it all possible; the legendary Iain Macintosh who was a long time foreign correspondent for the ABC before joining CNN where he became a senior vice-president, and Ian’s wife Denise who has so many wonderful stories about the expat life. Many, many great stories told and heard about the Australian and international media over drinks before and during dinner!

For me there was also the chance to read a bit on the way to, during and coming back from the assignment.

It started with crime fiction, of course. M.J. Lee’s Death in Shanghai is the first in a series that features Inspector Danilov, a Russian working in the international force in Shanghai in the 1920s.    It gets the place and the period very well. Slaughter Park is the final book in Barry Maitland’s Belltree Trilogy set in New South Wales but with some of its characters escaping to places like Vanuatu and elsewhere.   Maitland writes as well as anyone but for me, the conclusion to the series strained belief a touch. Charles Cumming’s A Foreign Country is a rightly acclaimed international spy thriller.   Maurice Gee’s Crime Story is an older New Zealand work that I never got around to reading.   Gee is one of New Zealand’s great writers and this one is good but possibly not the best in genre even if he catches Wellington wonderfully and some of the major Kiwi social concerns. Then there was Graeme Macrae Burnet’s Man Booker shortlisted His Bloody Project, a curious and compelling historical crime work set in remote rural Scotland.

The non-fiction included David Lodge’s Quite a Good Time to be Born, a first memoir.   Lodge remains among my most favourite campus novel writers, along with his great friend Malcolm Bradbury. This memoir reads well and has some deep moments as well as outlining some of his major breakthroughs and setbacks. It is perhaps a little rushed, though, and I look forward to the next instalment that will cover his later academic period.

John B. Thompson’s Merchants of Culture: the Publishing Business has been one of my best recent reads.    It is the definitive account of changes to the publishing industry: the concentration of power in a few hands, the importance of the rise of the literary agent, and the rise of the web, and all the interrelated significant matters. For a writer it is fascinating and, I suggest, a must read because it explains why so many now are trying and why so few succeed.

But as always, the travel also gave me the chance to observe and learn, and think. There is something odd about fifteen hundred or so passengers getting onto an island like Dravuni that has a total population of about one hundred and fifty. And there is always the closeness of global impact when the woman there who gave Sandi a massage has a son working as a chef at the Hermitage Hotel at Aoraki/Mount Cook in New Zealand’s Southern Alps.

There is the chance to see some great natural wonders. We left Hilo on the Big Island in the early evening and at about nine that night the captain had us holding no more than seven hundred yards away from the lava flow of the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. That was truly spectacular, and memorable.


In Honolulu, a bike tour along the North Shore with its famous surf beaches was a highlight, thanks to guide Kelly. Sunset, Waimea, Pipeline were all flat ahead of the huge winter surf, but the turtles were at Turtle Beach. Lunch at Giovanni’s Shrimp Truck was a highlight.

Coming into Sydney through the heads at dawn was also memorable, especially having just delivered a lecture that began with Australia’s convict past. It was easy to imagine the First Fleet sailing in back then in 1788, though the convicts were unlikely to have been crowding the decks like the passengers on the Noordam.


Simple moments like a terrific lunch overlooking the Pacific in Lahaina were there as well, and in Port Vila and Noumea. One spectacular result of history came in Suva, at a south Indian food outlet up on the fourth floor food court of a new mall. It had the best south Indian food I have had outside of south India itself, despite a visiting Englishman suggesting that back in his country they had “real” curries.

Those simple moments included people. Like the fireman who came to talk with us as we sheltered from the rain at his station in Pago Pago. He has relatives in New Zealand, Australia and the USA. And like Albert in Pago Pago who invited us into his simple fish shop to have a look at the local catch that is getting depleted, as it is elsewhere in the Pacific. (I gave a lecture on the fishing industry and, of course, there were at least two professionals in the audience. Luckily they gave me a god mark along with some tips on changes in places like Tasmania and Western Australia.

That was just another aspect of being able to observe the impact of history because the Pacific, of course, has been in the eye of international ambition and annexation for centuries. It is amazing to think that a place like American Samoa has the highest representation into the military proportionate to population of any American state or territory.    That is one result of a long term American presence in the Pacific since the nineteenth century. The French centres in Vanuatu and New Caledonia simply reflect the results of a long term French interest in the region, too, one that reached its low point with the nuclear tests at Mururoa Atoll and the later bombing of the Rainbow Warrior by French agents in Auckland Harbour.. Then there is the high Indian presence in Fiji that dates from the indentured labour schemes that began back in the 1870s and in recent years have sparked much international controversy and tension.

Now it is back to reality and the writing projects, but I remain hugely grateful for the privilege of doing these cruises, seeing these fascinating places and meeting so many marvellous people.

2 thoughts on “Cruising For Insight

  1. Great summation of your trip and sounds like it was enriching. We are cruising home from Sydney to Vancouver in April with HA and I think the same stops, in reverse of course! We arrived in Prague yesterday and are here for two weeks. Our apt is delightful and in the center of old town. Could not be more pleased with it. Ideal for two with one bedroom with king size bed. Full bath including bidet and washer/dryer. Full kitchen and lounge room plus outside patio. Breakfast included at a nearby restaurant and all for US$1100. Can’t stay home for that!! Finished A Straits Settlement and loved it, especially LF’s predicament at the end. M and I MUST get to Penang!! Can you help us make it happen??

    So looking forward to spending some quality time together in QT with you two…

    Sent from my iPad



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