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  1. Day 52 – Santiago, Chile Chile is a country enraged – a land of protests and objections. We arrive in San Antonio and, before dawn, begin the bus ride across the winelands of this beautiful country, aiming for the capital. As we travel, stepping right into the foothills of the Andes, the temperature shifts from a chill breeze along the coast to a glowing warmth, which only increases during the day. The bus leaves us in the central square, where graffiti marks and paint from weeks of protest remains in evidence. Then it’s a walk through the city streets, under boiling heat, past more graffiti and armed trucks daubed in vandals’ paint, the carabinieri of Chile’s military police arresting people on street corners. This is the wrong impression of what could otherwise be a wonderful place to live. Climbing on to one of the city’s small hills that are home to its parks, everything seems ordered and serene. Once past the anti-capitalist scrawl that covers the city’s world-famous art museum, you could be in a chamber of one of Paris’ art museums. And yet, back among the crowds, queuing in chaotic shopping centres for money exchange to avoid Chile’s collapsing currency, or walking past government offices that seem to be a world apart from the streetlife, you are reminded of inequality everywhere. The people seem happy enough as they watch buskers or shop for the start of the school year, but it feels like a masquerade. Day 55 – Arica, Chile I miss out the port of Coquimbo given the unrest, and instead get my best taste of what Chile has to offer at its very edge. Arica is on the border with Peru, on the cusp of the vast nothing of the Atacama, the site of one of the great battles that decided the Pacific War overlooking the town atop a great lump of rock, a hilly boulder that seems to have been dropped from the heavens. But while Chile seems to struggle, here in Arica there is no sign of disquiet. Known as the city of eternal spring – a place that never gets a drop of rain or even a deviation from its long, 25-degree days – the people feel among the happiest in the world. They are proud of their city, content in their lives, and do not mind their houses have no roofs (why do they need them?). As I have learned elsewhere in the world, it is often those with nothing who will give everything. Today’s excursion is across a cliff edge, down where the Atacama tumbles into the Pacific, through grottos covered in guano where Chinese workers died mining bird poo, then along a scree slope that tumbles even as we step along its narrow path. A breathtaking, stunning walk, rounded by climbing atop that great boulder to see the site of a battle that forged three nations. It is a highlight of our 2000-mile crawl to the north. Days 57-58, Lima, Peru Lima is not a single city, but 43 mayoralties, that stretch across the plains of Peru to a coast where surf breaks in great, sweeping waves that tumble surfers onto the beach in fits of giggles. We take a bus through this chaotic bustle, a mess of taxi drivers with fingers out of their cabs, each gesturing how many spaces they have for locals to hop in and ride wherever they can in the endless chew of traffic. The first destination is a manor house, a former home converted into a treasure trove of priceless native art. The Incan empire lasted less than a hundred years, and swept other cultures from the Peruvian plateau, so entering this world of gold headdresses, sacrificial knives and intricate knots and twine(each string used in place of written records) is an astonishing testament to the peoples that inhabited this land. It pales, however, to the next destination – the ancient city that Lima has subsumed, filled with Meso-American temples each dedicated to deities. Most of the city has been taken by the desert, covered in a thin layer of sand, but the straight streets and large complexes that have been excavated reveal a city that would have rivalled anything in the medieval world. Here, beautiful children would have been taken as human offerings (not sacrifice – they apparently wanted to go) to the temple, guaranteed to have their hearts ripped out if a disaster occurred and the Gods needed appeasement. The temples, coated lightly in gold leaf, tricked the Conquistadors to search for a non-existent El Dorado. And, as we head to the final tour site, a dancing show of Peru’s paso horses, one’s thoughts can only turn to the past. The sun plays tricks here, rising with a snap of the fingers to make gold pool on the ocean’s surface and vanishing with the turn of a switch, plunging the world beyond the Queen Victoria’s wake into velvet hush. We are in an ancient land. And yet it is the same for us as it has been for all before us. The Day 63 – The Panama Canal We are back in the northern hemisphere, after a brief stop in Manta, Ecuador, to give virtually everyone on board a panama hat, and an even briefer tender excursion to Panama City. Today is a highlight, however – a crossing through a 20th century miracle. As dawn breaks, Queen Victoria begins to slip through the Miraflores Locks of the Panama Canal. Since 1914, this has continually saved thousands of vessels millions of hours by making an easy passage through the slithering central American isthmus. And yet until you cross the canal, you cannot appreciate how astonishing it is that a 97,000 ton vessel such as Queen Victoria can rise through three lock systems, cut across a smooth, serene lake where both the Pacific and Caribbean can be glimpsed, and slice through an entire country in little over eight hours. As we pass, we see other large vessels – another cruise ship, several container craft. But most of our attention is on the narrow gap between the Queen Victoria and the lock system itself: at times, one could step off the ship and onto the lock and have no fear of slipping. It’s a narrow gap, controlled by mules ashore, tight ropes, and the Captain comes on the tannoy at noon to reassure everyone he hasn’t lost his no claims bonus. It’s the final entry to this diary. Our trip to Columbia has been cancelled because of coronavirus; indeed, in Ecuador and Panama we were scanned and screened by teams in respirators armed with laser thermometers (and one tour group was briefly abducted for a full body medical). And although we shall venture to Aruba and Curacao, it feels like there is too much concern in the world to keep the memories as pure as their white beaches and perfect waters. We have circumnavigated South America. And, no matter what the future holds, the beauty of its landscapes and charms of its people will stay with me forever. === Thanks for reading, everyone. We're now back in Southampton. Stay safe.
  2. Day 42 – The End of the World At noon our navigational update has a twist; the Captain and Deputy Captain come to the grand lobby, lay out charts and talk about our passage. It is, by coincidence, 500 years since Ferdinand Magellan and his mutinous ships passed in these waters, and as we talk about the Horn we keep this in mind. We are approaching two days early, from a Force 9 gale that pummels the Queen Victoria and smashes windows and radar, to find a gap in the weather. Albatross swoop around us, gliding over the waves amid spray, and the Deputy Captain, a poetic soul, recalls the Rime of the Ancient Mariner as he remarks each bird is the soul of a lost seaman. Look at the charts, he says, and you’ll know why there are a lot of albatross here. We will make our approach just before sunset, then orbit the Horn – not a point but a jagged island of snarling black rock – anticlockwise. The deck begins to crowd at the appointed hour. Mist descends, a chill bite in the air. We see shadows and shapes of the islands that trickle toward the Horn, desolate things with no living creature upon them. In thick coats and warm sweaters, we talk and mingle as we edge closer. Then, direct in front of us, a small boat comes into view. Fear not, the Deputy Captain reports – it is not the Flying Dutchman, harbinger of doom, but the Chilean Navy’s coastal patrol. Instead, he points us to the lighthouse of the Horn, a lonely structure next to a monument built to withstand winds of 200km/hr and dedicated to those who died braving this terrible sea. As the Victoria stops a few hundred metres ashore and uses its thrusters to rotate 360 degrees, he reads poetry over the tannoy and extracts from the diary of William Bligh, who tried and failed for a month to pass these waters. He also relays the inhabitants of the island – the keeper and his wife have three children there, one of which, a two-month year old baby, was born on the island. We are at the extreme, the farthest reach of mankind’s grasp, and even here life emerges and thrives. We sit in quiet contemplation as we circumnavigate the Horn, then blast our whistle at the southernmost point, a rising black claw of 400m cliff that descends into jagged snaggles of fatal submerged rock. The only thing beyond us is Antarctica, the only humans those on isolated, temporary research bases. It is the furthest I will go in my life. I reach out, extend my fingers, and touch. Day 45 – The Straits of Magellan We sail through a world of rich wildlife; of orca and dolphin, of seabirds, of penguins in the sea. We stop at Ushuaia, the self-proclaimed capital of Las Malvinas, its quaint streets under the shadow of swooping mountains with brilliant white snow in their lee; we sail back to the Atlantic down the Beagle channel, straddling Chile and Argentina, along a path taken by Charles Darwin as he unlocked the mysteries of biology; and, rounding the Cape of 11,000 Virgins, we pass through the narrowest passage of the Straits of Magellan and into Punta Arenas, the southernmost city in the world. It is a shell of a town, ruined by graffiti from anti-capitalist riots, its shops burned and gutted or closed for Sunday prayers. The tenders are recalled at 3.30pm, and the Queen Victoria begins again, eventually sailing beyond the gleaming white cross that marks the southernmost tip of the American continental landmass. We are in noble, immortal company. Exactly 500 years ago to the year, Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition coursed this route with its deadly flows and barren landscapes; indeed, here his largest ship, the San Antonio, mutinied and sailed for home. Yet, like us, Magellan pressed on, eventually crossing a wide, calm sea that still bears the name he gave it: the Pacific. Magellan turned west for the spice islands and home; we turn north for glaciers and the bounty of the Andes. Days 47 and 48 – The Glaciers We cruise through the fjords of Patagonia, their peaks shrouded in mist, the passages haunted by the silhouettes of sea birds and the occasional, fleeting sight of a whale. Our destination are two of the most spectacular glaciers on Earth – the Amalia and Pio XI. The first comes at dusk, but even the mist of the evening cannot detract from its impressive, deep, resonant blue that extends back some 35km. A snowflake, our expert informs us, would take 100 years to make its passage to the sea through this slow avalanche, and it is astonishing to watch as the ship pirouettes in the clearest waters on Earth. The Pio XI comes in the early morning, the captain giving all passengers a wake-up call to tell them of the wonder that will accompany their breakfast. I decide to do something different, and undertake a 5k run around the deck. I cannot think of a more majestic backdrop. Day 50 – Off Puerto Montt We suffer our first cancelled port. Bermuda was delayed by a day, but the swell around the bay of Puerto Montt is too great for the tenders, which bob and bounce as the wind sweeps the town. Hopes of volcano expeditions are dashed, although I had no plans, and so don’t really consider myself to have lost anything. Rumours pass around the scuttlebutt; conspiracy theories that we’ve been denied because of coronavirus ashore. It’s junk; even as we depart and leave the misty Patagonian fjords behind us, the wind picks up further. While cruisers in Europe can always be stranded ashore and bused to the next stop, it’s not so simple in the wilderness of a country that stretches some 2000 miles. The wildest leg of our journey is over. Soon, we return to civilization – and the political turmoil of Chile.
  3. I’m a science journalist but I’ve never tried travel writing before.
  4. Days 36 and 37 – Buenos Aires, Argentina I fall in love in Buenos Aires. Headlong, giddy, dizzy love. The kind of love that makes your heart pound and your desires burn, the air suck out of your lungs, your feet feel wild and free. One of those rare moments in life that, in all its kaleidoscopic glory, synchronises and makes you believe not that you can fly, but you already are among the clouds. It starts slow. Buenos Aires is a beautiful city, filled with fine colonial trappings or historic buildings such as the pink walls of the Casa Rosada, where shirtless crowds screamed for Eva Peron to grace them with a smile. It is, however, just a city. Nothing more, nothing less. But I stop looking and start to feel. And realise, in sensuous delight, that I am surrounded by the most beautiful people on Earth. Gorgeous men and women, gods and goddesses of Italian and Spanish heritage, who wear their hair tight or flowing but nowhere in between, who ride horses and dedicate their lives to making art. Who are so overburdened with passion they had to invent the tango, the world’s sexiest dance, just to control their radiating heat. And, in a half-step on a crowded street, I know that I will forever long, ache, to walk these streets, talk to beautiful women, pet their friendly dogs, and pour my being onto bright canvases or beaded strings too. The highlight of the trip is a magnificent party held for us: gauchos galloping with imperious ease at thin threads, hooking it down in a show of equestrian talent; tango dancers and singers; artists daubing temporary tattoos that curl and flower on guests; and tapas to satisfy tastebuds. But a party, even one as incredible as this, lasts only a night, lingering in the quiet of your memory to bring a smile. Buenos Aires is something more. It is heady wine, virulent fever, a cinema screen that projects into your soul. I know, once this incredible journey is over, I will live there. Day 40 – Puerto Madryn, Argentina Patagonia is scorched earth, brutal and wild, a barren beast that urges you to tame it. Here be Welsh dragons. Puerto Madryn is a town founded by a mad Welshman determined to preserve his way of life, and the gateway to a green and fertile valley which retains its Welsh heritage, from fluency in the language (the locals, my Welsh companion Sue inform me, have heavy north Welsh accents) to buildings that could have been snatched from the valleys and placed in this land of giants. My destination lies further to the south, out through dust and flatness, across a plain where dry winds have whisked and worked since the Andes formed a million years ago. Lonely homesteads are occasionally seen, where herd of guanacos, a cross between deer and llama, living on brackish water among the pale wisps of grass. Otherwise the road stretches in wondrous isolation, the occasional truck passing by as we race south to our destination. We seek the penguin. After two and a half hours of empty road, we reach our destination. Ponto Tombo, the Point of Tombs, was surrendered to nature long ago. Now, its dunes and scrub bushes are the summer home to Magdellenic penguins, who descend each year to form the largest colony in the continental world. Having long learned humans are no threat, these curious creatures let us walk among them, tourists in a city, as their young shed their down and prepare to follow the adults some 3000 miles into the ocean. They gawk and gabble, strutting out of burrows and across our path, clustering in shade or along the shoreline where the Falkland current cools their hides. It is an astonishing thing to find yourself among creatures so indifferent to mankind, even as we gobble up their hopes and habitats. Returning to the ship, we find sea lions have taken up residence on the bow, sunning their fat hides as they wait for the Victoria to depart. We soon do. South, ever south, into summer and to the very edge of the world. We shall brave Cape Horn.
  5. Day 31 and 32 – Rio Rio greets its visitors with one of wonders of the natural world: a perfect habour, hewn from the Earth by the passing waves, guarded by a sentinel of mountains from nature’s wrath. To sail into Rio feels like passing into the maw of a giant whose teeth are clothed in lush green jungle, decorated with skyscrapers and favelas, and home to a culture for whom the beat never dies. On arrival, we are greeted by the two legendary features of this inlet: Sugarloaf Mountain, rising up in an arc to split the harbour proper from the golden beaches of Copacabana, and above it all the serene, majestic presence of Christ the Redeemer, the art deco statue visible from across a metropolis of some six million people. My first trip ashore, on a day of clear blue skies and temperatures soaring to 37 degrees (100F), to Ipanema Beach. There the locals walk past, shirtless bronzed gods and goddesses, strolling along the shorefront or relaxing on a pure shore of golden sand. My travels then take me racing through the city by Uber, around the lagoon and its deep blue, to the bottom of Sugarloaf, where the cable cars race up and swing across. Sadly, my hesitance to bring a card ashore costs me: cash will not be accepted here. And so I return to the ship, delighting in a long walk along the seafront, marvelling at frescos of some of the greatest street artists in the world. For the second day, almost everyone has the same mission aboard: Christ the Redeemer. I race across the city again – an Uber a mere £3 for a half-hour’s ride – and get to the tram station, where the ascent begins. Cash is accepted, but there is no visibility, the locals warn; cloud has descended on Rio and the Redeemer is shrouded by the heavens. Figuring that was pretty appropriate for a carving of Jesus, I take the tram up anyway, riding up through deep green jungle leaves, occasionally honking at locals who have scrambled on the route to sell water. Then we vanish in a white haze, penetrating the fog, before bursting out at the top of ‘the hunchback’ mountain. From here, it’s a stiff climb in sweaty surrounds (the temperature has not abated, and the humidity is at its peak) to see the statue. It is worth it. Standing below the outstretched arms, you can only marvel at the ingenuity and ambition that led to its creation so high above the city. Far from ruining the view, the 75% cloud cover creates a magical atmosphere, a sensation that we are joining him above in a secret world. As I descend, exhausted, I hold Rio close to my heart. While I could not live in its chaos entirely, it is good to know life exists with such vibrancy on Earth. Day 35 – Montevideo, Uruguay Two days at sea brings us to three days on land. Montevideo is somewhere I have no preconceptions or notions of, only knowing about Uruguay from films about the Graf Spee and the Battle of the River Plate, Luis Suarez’s habit of biting other players, and a brief mention in the talk from the celebrity speaker for this leg, Falklands veteran Simon Weston. I am immediately charmed. Montevideo is the definition of pleasant. Its streets are clean and tidy; its buildings well kept in fine colonial style; its people friendly and welcoming. The old city is compact and easily accessible, and I walk through pedestrianised streets, stopping in squares with historic figures nestled among palm trees, looking at architectural delights. There is a moment of drama when I drop my ship ID card in a shop, but it’s over two minutes later when, returning, the shopkeeper hands it to me with a sense of relief. I spend an hour in a beautiful, old-style bookstore/café with stained glass windows and beaux-arts columns, before leaving my companions to hunt down an accordion shop (!) and returning to the ship. Montevideo holds half the population of Uruguay, but never feels intrusive. And while it may be more low-key than its national neighbours, I would not begrudge anyone who chooses to live the rest of their life in this relaxed, comfortable country.
  6. Day 26 – Crossing the line We have crossed into the Southern Hemisphere, and it is time for one of the oldest nautical traditions. At 3pm, King Neptune, trident in hand, arrives with his beautiful bride, calling forth all 'polliwogs' (those yet to cross the equator at sea) to come forth and be judged. Onlookers flock to the pavilion as the ship turns a little Royal Caribbean, a live band and DJ on hand as the trial is prepared. The atmosphere is jovial and light, everyone dancing and laughing in the sun as the festivities commence and the polliwogs are led out to the pool. I am among them. Led by a pirate with magnificent abs, I join a procession as we parade ourselves in front of the onlookers and stoop down in turn to kiss a waiting fish, puckered lips planting on scales. Then we pass the surgeons, finding ourselves smeared in slime. It is just the prelude. In turn, we are ordered to approach the pool, and take a seat to hear our crimes: stealing extra chocolates and hogging sunloungers. Guilty! Scream the crowds, and the surgeons deploy their remedy. To the beats of Queen, we find ourselves showered in spaghetti, cold Bolognese sauce, gunk and goo, the mix splatooned or shampooed upon our heads. Suitably daubed in our corrective warpaint, we all jump into the pool, emerging fresh and clean as ‘shellbacks’ of Neptune. Handed a towel to dry, it is now our turn to join in the festivities, dancing with the crowd as we watch the polliwogs among the crew suffer even worse fates, playing party games and receiving the full dregs of the surgeons’ goop. I reek of Bolognese sauce for two days. Day 29 – Salvador, Brazil Salvador, or Bahia, is one of the oldest towns in Brazil, a mysterious expanse stretching along the coast and split in twain by a vertiginous cliff. We are advised this is a cityport of traps, renowned for dangers and its murders as well as its magnificent architecture. The first is obvious as soon as we step off: baroque palaces and houses of God dot the lower and upper towns, their fronts a maze of carvings and affirmations. Rustic ruins and urban decay give the town an air of romantic mystery, even as we queue with a dizzying stream of traffic to take the single road that climbs to the upper town. Here, we enjoy the true beats of Brazil: samba bands, bright and vibrant colours and capoeira martial artists are here to entertain amid oil paintings, street art frescos and the rich smells of cafes in the sun. As the temperature climbs, I make my way with two companions down a street supposedly toward a famed convent. Instead, almost immediately, three old men leap up in panic from their game of chequers and begin waving at us furiously. PERIGOSO! PERIGOSO! PERIGOSO! – dangerous. We have stumbled into the wrong street, and our lives are in peril. Stopping in our tracks, we turn back and head a single block, where once again the carnival joys of Salvador are available. We have just witnessed both sides of Brazil, the dancing in the sun and the danger in the shade. It is a reminder this country is like dating a redhead: beautiful and fun, but always with a spit of poison at the ready. But being confined to a tourist area is little hardship in a city of such beauty. They say Salvador has 365 churches, and I can believe it, each filled with ornate carvings and effigies touched with gold. This is city of real treasure, sparked to life by Portuguese explorers and given life by the people who call it home. My trio departs the upper town via a 1930s escalator – a ridiculous flipped L sticking out from the cliffside – and walks back through a lower town filled with markets of beads, tapestries and cashew nuts. It has been a day that will live long in the memory.
  7. Day 21 – The Amazon The steamy surrounds continue, but land is visible on each side – thick and verdant jungle, trees creating a jagged edge on the horizon. We are in the Amazon river basin, cruising low through muddy waters rich in beige tones. Every so often vegetation pokes itself free from the water, accompanied by the tell-tale bubbles of aquatic animals in the shallows. The ship has reached the Equator, the very rim of the Earth, a land with no spring or autumn. We move along at a steady, easy pace. I am reminded of Heart of Darkness, Aguirre: Wrath of God and Apocalypse Now or, perhaps more kindly and fairly, The African Queen and Fitzcarraldo. Some claim monkeys have been spotted dancing in the treetops, though my eyes aren’t keen enough to pick out anything beyond the foliage. The deck is too sweltering and clammy for my tastes, so I make only brief forays to see if I can spot the wildlife. I also slip into the pool and do a few lengths; the chill is a refreshing tonic, and now I can claim (with only a minor stretching of the truth) that I’ve swum in the Amazon. Yesterday the customs officials boarded with local pilots, and I chose to join a lecture on musical comedy and laugh along to clips of Tom Lehrer, Victoria Wood and the infamous Andre Previn sketch. This morning, I woke early under the promise from a friend that, pre-dawn, the deck would be littered with insects, butterflies and jungle creatures curious about this exceptionally large white log flowing the wrong way. Trusting them implicitly, I rose at 5.30, donned my shoes, doused myself in DEET and crept up to deck 10, anticipating a wonder of nature… It turns out they were misremembering the Jennifer Lopez movie Anaconda – not a bug or flying timorous wee beastie was in sight. I chose to reward my sense of adventure (or gullibility) with breakfast in bed and a lie-in. The Amazon is not going anywhere – we have 800 miles to traverse as we push along this artery of the jungle. Later, on deck, I saw just how much this landscape can change. We find ourselves in a confluence, the Amazon stretching beyond the horizon, thick channels of surging light brown water separated by thin slivers of low-lying land. River traffic continues, tankers turning to two-man motorised canoes, and every so often a small stilt-raised shack or fisherman’s pier juts out of the wetland. We could be in an estuary, were we not 500 miles inland. Then, suddenly, we turn and find the passage narrowing once more. We let all of this go by is as if watching an endless movie reel, the astonishing waters and banks exploding into colour as we pass small settlements, trade stations with tall antenna or mining jetties, and old ferryboats converted into floating houses safe from jaguar attack. It astonishes me that people can play shuffleboard with all of this natural wonder around them. At midday we find our passage narrowing to a mere (mere!) half-mile or so across, the narrowest stretch of the river. We pass a small town, its church gleaming white amid the colours of beached boats and little houses along a cliff-face, apparently settled in the 17th century by Portuguese missionaries and today heart of the world’s bauxite mines – the industry that feeds our demand for aluminium. Further along the river, ruddy-brown wisps billow in the sky, tails that lead to the latest logging camps and deforestation. In this land we plunder the Earth for our own comfort. Tomorrow we arrive in Manaus, once a boom town for rubber and now a remote outpost in the heart of Amazonas. It is as far as we go, while the river continues onward, deep into Peru. The wildlife has at last appeared, though; large, buzzing wasp-like creatures a full two inches in length, along with technicolour butterflies and, on the banks, herds of cows so lean I mistook them at first for goats. A message from home this morning that an earthquake and tsunami have struck the Caribbean. It’s very sad news, and I consider myself fortunate to have missed the event by a few days. I hope the damage is slight, and will endeavour to do what I am able when we return back via the Panama Canal in 45 days. A little blue, I venture downstairs and find myself in a karaoke night. I’m virtually atonal, but at least I can say I’ve belted out Is This The Way to Amarillo? in the middle of the jungle with a bemused, shock-and-awed Claire Balding in the front row. Day 22 – Manaus, Brazil At dawn the Captain announces we are passing the Meeting of the Waters – where the clear black Rio Negro and clouded beige Amazon meet but, as if separated like oil and water, refuse to mingle. For several miles the two rivers race together, the edges gradually losing their sharpness until, like milk in coffee, they blend and swirl. The phenomenon starts subtly as we approach Manaus, before becoming a clear division, as if someone had drawn a line, as the two diverge. It is an amazing sight, made even more incredible as a school of three pink dolphins decide to say hello, leaping out of the water and scooting down the port side. To starboard, the welcome is just as warm, as the riverboats sail out to shoot their fire hoses in celebration of the Queen Victoria’s arrival. Stepping ashore to greetings from a samba band, we make our way out of the terminal and into a world alive with colours, music, market smells, flowing fabrics and the taste of orange zest. A bustling square awaits, and beyond an open park in front of a church, where young women strut for sailors seeking companionship and old men, skin like burned mahogany, offer “Água! Água! Água!” Away and into five blocks of market stalls and hawkers camped on cloth rugs, of cheap plastic toys next to knock-off fashions or native beads. Then beyond, further into this jungle metropolis, to the pink fondant fancy of the opera house, its beautiful colonial trappings playing host to concert-goers in the evening. The heat is sapping, and clothes quickly become drenched in sweat. I return to the ship parched and perspiring but energised by the bustle of this isolated metropolis. The afternoon is spent in true explorer style, flying down the Rio Negro in a speedboat, passing beyond modern Manaus, under its bridge and into the past. First to a rain-soaked plantation, where slave labour hacked at the trees while a rubber baron rested on the veranda, playing with toys gained from the backs of others. Or at least this is how it appeared; it soon emerged this was actually a movie set that had been donated to the local government as a museum! Then deeper and further, arriving at a small wooden jetty with a white flag fluttering a peaceful welcome. Here we stepped ashore and into a tribal longhouse, where the indigenous people greeted us in headdress, face paint, beads and nuts in bracelets on their ankles, and as few clothes as they could get away with. (Apparently the local government has told them not to perform naked and banned them from bringing monkeys and sloth to pose with). Seeing another culture is always a privilege, and finding myself dancing with a rather attractive semi-naked Brazilian woman isn’t a chore. Afterward we have ants to eat if we dare, and share laughs and photos with people who choose a way of life that has not changed in millennia; the tribes do live here, and adults share their little while younger members rush off to put on ‘normal’ clothes and play with their pet dogs. We live half the world apart, do not speak the same language and have no common culture except football. But people are the same everywhere, and laughter is the shortest distance between us all. Day 24 – Santarem, Brazil The final leg of our Amazon expedition is the sleepy town of Santarem, its buildings largely closed on Sunday, its cathedral more like an Anglican church – devoid of the usual golden altars and gutted candles of Latin mass. Locals feed dolphins at the fisherman’s wharf (although I do not see any), and others tempt tourists with blow darts and rows of stuffed piranhas and eels. Accompanied by some fellow Cruise Critic members, I hike up the optimistically titled ‘mountain’, in truth barely a hill, and looked out across the waters. I will miss this strange adventure up the river. Tomorrow we pass Macapa again, the end of the Amazon, and round the bulging coast of Brazil to Salvador, a town with supposedly a church for every day of the year… and a sky-high murder rate. We are advised a shuttle bus might be a good idea when heading ashore.
  8. I’m in my mid-30s. I don’t think it’s unfair to say I am at least 30 years younger than the vast majority of passengers. We’re in Manaus; I just visited an Indian village. Will be writing a full report probably in Santarém (two days).
  9. A few photographs while I have 4G. The ship is in the Amazon off Macapa; the water a muddy beige, the banks teeming with flora. Occasionally small motorised canoes pass us, taking photos. The ship is the curio in this channel. photos: two of old town San Juan, St Eustatius, and the centre of Bridgetown, Barbados.
  10. Hi, I posted this on the Queen Victoria forum as I’m keeping a little diary of the 78-night cruise around South America and was asked to share it here. I hadn’t intended to make this public (it’s really just my own record), so please excuse any typos. I’ve been taking loads of photos, but the internet time is really expensive so I’m not going to post them here as I can’t afford to wait for the upload to finish. Day 1 – Southampton “And so, following the light of the sun, we left the Old World.” Christopher Columbus’ words echo in my thoughts as I watch the fireworks illuminate Southampton, crackles of red and gold as the sailaway begins and we gather for the voyage of a lifetime. There are regular travellers and first-timers such as myself, though only few of my own age. I have no idea what to expect, but I feel pensive as we sail east around the Isle of Wight and the glow of Portsmouth fades before we turn west – a heading we shall continue for a week. I am reminded that this voyage would be familiar to all who braved the New World until the advent of air travel: that the great and good, the wicked and ill, the artist and the scientist, the rich aristocrat and the indentured servant all made this trip hoping for a better life. I am fortunate to make my own crossing in comfort they would never have been afforded, safe in the luxury of a spacious cabin with a floating palace of entertainment at my call. Tonight’s dinner is in opulent surrounds with excellent company; we are at the beginning of a great adventure. Day 5 – Mid-Atlantic We have turned south to the Azores in a desperate attempt to outrun the January storms of the Atlantic. Sadly, we have failed to tame Poseidon; gales have battered the Queen Victoria since we left the English Channel, sending the ship rocking in violent distemper around the clock. For the first three days I was sick, often retreating to my cabin in a hope that my cheeks would lose their pallor and my stomach would settle. During the first black tie dinner of the cruise, the Captain asked how I was faring on my first sea voyage. I admitted I was having ups and downs, and was assured my sea legs would arrive. Fortunately, they have: today the waves crash as high as the Golden Lion Pub’s window on deck 2, full 6–8 metre rolling waves capped with hissing white spume, and yet finally I can eat and sleep, oblivious to the storm’s aggression. The entertainment so far has been a delight; the Royal Court Theatre – a full proscenium arch at sea – has played host to its own company and their musical medleys; a comedian with quick one-liners and a style suited to the ages of the cruise; an operatic duo; a jazz trumpeter; and a finalist from The Voice. Elsewhere the entertainment hosts keep us busy, each with their own character, a perfect mix that complement each other neatly. Even so, we all wish for land. Day 8 – Off Bermuda The weather has worsened still, forcing us to twist in loops south of Bermuda, the swell too great to risk putting into harbour. Last night there were violent crashes and rumours among the ship’s passengers we struck a reef; regardless of whether it’s true, today a window is smashed in the Lido restaurant. I woke with a start at 3am, twisted a full 90 degrees inside my king-sized bed. Then a moment of drama in the afternoon, as the ship began to list and passengers were instructed to remain seated until the ship was turned (or ballast corrected?). Tomorrow we are promised land if the wind dies. Few are confident, as we have been repeatedly promised calmer weather only to see gales turn to storms. The Atlantic has been relentless, a vista of cruel blue tones, but I do not regret my choice of travel: it is important to understand the true size of our world, and it is not possible to appreciate the majesty of an ocean with a tape measure and globe, or staring out of a plane’s aluminium can at 40,000 feet. I am convinced you can only understand the ocean by ship, staring out at the golden haloes on water as the clouds break and the Sun warms this lonely world. Day 9 – Bermuda Imagine a model village, built on a thin snake of land in the middle of the ocean. Add to it a very British character – a forgotten flash of imperialism that only remains today in remote reaches, such as the Falklands or Gibraltar – and paint the rooftops a brilliant, dazzling white. You have Bermuda, a strange gated community with no gates, guarded instead by waters of the most astonishing azure. Bermuda proclaims itself an island paradise since 1609, famed for its long shorts and unique location a few hundred miles off the coast of the Southern US. In truth, this thin strip may have wonderful pink sand beaches, but it has become almost too pristine. To walk down the street is to be reminded of the Stepford Wives: there is no sign of litter even in the early morning, and not one building has a paint fleck out of place. Prices are exorbitant – to be expected given the location – but local greetings are warm. Despite this friendliness, Hamilton feels like a façade, as white-washed as the lime roofs used to gather clean water for the islanders. The seas are the most brilliant aquamarine I have ever seen, but the perfection of the place has pushed it into an uncanny valley, an imitation of life, for my tastes. Time to move on. I still didn’t feel entirely at ease aboard, despite the wonderful companionship of all I have met, crew and passenger alike, until tonight. And then, as you find in moments such as this, fate intervened. Walking the deck, lost and a little uncertain of myself, I found a friendly face and good company, who told me to stop worrying about the tie I wear and relax. And so I do; tonight’s entertainment is a vocal doo-wop group called the Four D’s. Falling into their company, we sit in the bar and share some laughs, talking football for hours. I am refreshed after the seemingly endless Atlantic waves. Day 11 – Canaveral You see the Kennedy Space Center before anything else – the launchpad’s giant scaffold coming into focus on the horizon as Queen Victoria cuts toward land. It is a fitting to arrive in the Americas at the heart of our attempts to voyage out to the stars. Queen Victoria is late to arrive, having blown one of its engines in the night. Then come the joys of US customs, forcing all passengers off the ship for processing whether or not they intend to depart, keeping some in the hall for more than two hours while the ship’s crew are exercised by the Coast Guard. I avoid the crowds and catch a lift from a friend, who takes me to a nearby bar for shrimp coated in tempura; then on to Cocoa Beach, a curious strip of Americana where the local shopkeepers have a pet alligator roaming to the delight of tourists. My time ashore is short; during the storms in Bermuda my laptop’s power cable broke from the violent shaking of the cabin, and I was on a mission to buy a replacement cable. Now back with power, I can continue this record of my travels. Day 15 – San Juan, Puerto Rico San Juan’s old town swelters in glorious tropical sun, its rich Spanish colonial history an open treasure chest to explore. Set on stiff hills, the old town’s streets are full of slopes and staircases, the houses a kaleidoscope of pastel shades, no dwelling painted the same colour as any other. Last night protesters brought a guillotine to the city hall, and the walls of shops and churches are daubed in political slogans. The locals do not care: they shrug, pull up their sleeves, and paint their bright colours over the graffiti. Life continues with its easy, relaxed beat. This is our final stop in US territory; two days ago we ventured to Port Everglades to pick up passengers from Fort Lauderdale (generously described as a beach, a shopping mall and a retirement community). Today we see that, on the fringes of Pax Americana, the influence dwindles. While the magnificent forts that once guarded San Juan are run by the US National Park Service, most locals don’t speak English (or, at least, pretend they don’t) and the culture feels more Latinx than anywhere I have encountered in the continental US. A three-hour trip ashore brings me first through the old town, then the forts – an open space in front of the largest, once the site of a battle between the Dutch and Spanish, now littered with debris from kite flying – and finally along a cliff face where I can see the mountains of Puerto Rico roll off like wrinkled fingers into the distance. I’m more interested in the local art, of benches painted like crabs or of superheroes hiding behind local symbols. This is a land that loves life, and treats the world with a sense of humour. It is a lesson I could do well to remember. Day 17 – Barbados Yesterday I woke to find the ship anchored off St Eustatius to refuel; the attempt failed, but even so we had an unexpected, easy cruise through the lesser Antilles. Our day’s passage took us within swimming distance of St Kitts and Nevis; the volcanic Montserrat, fires still burning from within the caldera; Guadeloupe; Dominica; Martinique, and, as midnight approached, St Lucia. Though I have seen these islands on maps, I had never appreciated how close the windward isles were to each other, nor the beauty of their volcanic slopes. These are the pirate waters of yore, where merchants were prayed on by the likes of Bart Roberts, whose flag even showed him standing on the dead skulls of local islanders. Those days are long gone; and today, these paradise islands ask what their places are in the world. For Barbados, this future is uncertain. It is stranger than the other islands. Its Caribbean west side promises easy days fishing in pristine waters or watching time drift on white beaches; its rugged Atlantic side breath-taking cliffs and astonishing wildlife; and between old sugar plantations that gave the world the tot of rum. And yet the true Barbados is not found on beaches or in the mansions built on slave labour and now owned by the likes of Rihanna and Simon Cowell. A walk into Bridgetown on a Sunday found a world of broken, shut shops and run-down shacks, of the lost and impoverished on the streets while the rest of the island went to church for two-hour services filled with laughter and joy. In these poorer quarters, mad prophets scream for all to hear over the screech of brakes as traffic hurtles around corners. This is a world desperate to deny it there are haves and have-nots, and unsure how to address the truth of its economic disparity. An easy Caribbean life is a marketeer myth; life here is hard. Yet it is a testament to the people here that they take joy even in life’s quieter moments, and the Barbadian rhythms still chime a love of life. Now we turn south. The Atlantic, the Florida coast; the Caribbean islands. All have been a prelude. Tomorrow, we head into South America and the adventure begins in earnest. Day 19 – Off French Guyana We have entered stranger tides. A thick, steamy fog has engulfed our passage, creating ghosts in the darkness as sea and air reach similar temperatures, blending one into the other in serene silence. The waters have turned from their perfect blue to a dark green. Today we passed Devil’s Island, the prison made infamous by Papillon. Still we press toward the equator, into a land barely charted yet rich in culture and the vibrant sparks of life. For the past four days, we have seen birds – frigates and guillemots – coast alongside us, swooping down to snatch a fish from the crystal waters. Now they are gone. Yesterday a rainstorm hit us without warning, the deck bursting with droplets as if some deity had turned on a shower, before vanishing in the snap of a finger. Ship’s life has fallen into a rhythm of fun quizzes and scavenger hunts, afternoons with puzzles and books, and evening conversation with pleasant dining companions (food: outstanding fine dining, with the option for relaxed buffets or pub grub to dodge the stuffier evenings). My dining table has formed itself into ‘The Gang’ (Eileen, Sue, Isobel, Ann and Bernie, with friends from other tables too) and adopted me as a mascot. We all get on and share our lives’ experiences, laughing and joking; the other gentlemen on the table, Richard and Dirk, are content to live the quieter life. The shows continue, accounting for a variety of tastes, with an emphasis on instrumentalists. Since Bermuda we have had a juggler; duelling violinists; pianists; a flutist; a comedy pianist; an immensely impressive acrobatic duo; and a guitar foursome. A few songs have attracted laughs as singers repeat the same tunes heard a few nights earlier – tonight is a west end star’s tribute to Les Misérables, and bets are going around if we’ll receive yet another take on Javert’s ‘Stars’. Overall the service has been outstanding, with the sole exception of the unpleasant crewmember running the ship’s IT room: she knows little, shares even less, and treats everyone as if they have just murdered her puppy. So many passengers are now avoiding her that I’ve taken to giving IT lessons to anyone who needs a hand, turning on and off airplane mode, composing and sending texts, and demonstrating how to use the iPhone’s camera to its full extent. Tomorrow we make our turn into the Amazon. I have no idea what to expect.
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