‘I was guilty of dismissing cruise holidays until I took one with my family’ | Condé Nast Traveller India | InternationalJune 8, 2021
Until we went on our first cruise, my family was used to people treating my differently-abled father, who has multiple sclerosis, with disdain whenever we were out. If we were at the cinema, supermarket or a restaurant, or if we were struggling to lift his wheelchair up a few steps because there was no ramp, people would watch curiously. In many cases, they’d mutter within earshot, “Why can’t they just stay at home?”
But then, in September 2016, we left Civitavecchia, Italy on MSC Preziosa, carrying over 3,500 guests with a crew of almost 1,400, and 1,600 cabins including 45 for guests with disability or reduced mobility, for a week on the Mediterranean Sea. Until then, I have to confess, I was guilty of dismissing cruise holidays as boring, soulless, environmentally damaging establishments for septuagenarians. But after my first actual experience, I became positively evangelical about them. It was a week of great food, better weather, perfect hospitality, and being treated like we were a “normal” family on vacation—a feeling that is truly anything but normal for us.
We are a family who has had very limited access to travel for almost 20 years, since my father’s diagnosis. Infrastructure and facilities for the differently-abled are lacking in India, but even if we could overcome those physical challenges, the attitudes and mindsets towards them are harder to deal with. But on our cruises, it felt like a world of opportunity suddenly exploded for us. We actually got to see the world together, sailing on open oceans, whirlwind tours of 500-year-old neighbourhoods and 2,000-year-old cities—and suddenly, we went down paths we never imagined we’d be able to take together. Cafes we never thought we’d sit at. Buying entrance tickets to museums I’d visited alone in the past, wishing I could bring my history- loving family along. And now I had.
A cruise ship, or at least the ones we were on, provides a level of comfort and accessibility we had never previously experienced. Firstly, there was the ease of actual movement from one country to another without a hitch (passport control takes place just once, when you’re boarding; your room key card acts as your passport at each port consequently); the tours are organised by the cruise company (they’re an added expense but well worth it when you have limited time in a new country); the multiple levels of engagement and entertainment on board (casino, Cirque Du Soleil-style acts every evening, free cooking demos and craft workshops, multiple swimming pools and decks, bars and nightclubs); the food (lavish breakfast and lunch buffets, multi-course gourmet dinners plus a variety of fine-dining restaurants and a la carte options); the views (glass-barred balconies open to the elements—heart-poundingly beautiful on full moon nights). Most importantly, it serves up new countries like appetisers, enough to give you an idea, but more to whet your appetite to return in the future. Don’t ask how many travel plans we drew up while we were on our first cruise in 2016.
In 2018, as we lazily drifted off the concrete harbour of Southampton, we realised we were living out one of those plans we had excitedly drawn up two years ago. The next day we would dock at Le Havre, in France, a few miles off the coast of Normandy, a thrilling enough port for a Bengali family with a keen interest in WWII history. The day though, was cold, rainy, windy and fairly miserable. We missed the walk about the tiny town because many of the streets were cobbled—a firm no for wheelchairs. However, a visit to an apple cider distillery ended up in us being in high spirits, richer by a few jars of jam and cider.
In Europe, we discovered that a differently-abled person is treated with privilege, not pity. In Zeebrugge, Belgium, an entire busload of tourists waited patiently for 20 minutes for a chairlift to hoist up my father, so that he wouldn’t have to get out and painstakingly climb the two steps to get to a seat. Later that day, we even managed to board a local train and travel to Brussels, to the Grand Palace square. Beer, fries, waffles, ice cream, and lace-shopping later, we took a taxi back to the station, and befriended the driver, a retired dentist, who had taken to driving tourists around in a bid to meet new people.
My father’s condition has affected his short- term memory to the point where it is almost entirely gone, but his long-term memory is intact. As a result, interactions with new people are something that fade easily. Today, my father often forgets which remote turns the TV on, but he still remembers Martin, the dentist, who gave us a mini-tour of the canals in Brussels, who loves his retired life as a taxi driver— something that happened two-and-a-half years ago. For some strange reason, this interaction has remained embedded in my father’s less-than-perfect memory. Good travel results in beautiful insights, but the best kind of travel results in miracles.
The next day, we were in Amsterdam, for almost 48 hours, a place that excited all of us so much that my normally walk-hating sister logged almost 20,000 steps on the first day. Tickets had been booked in advance for a tour of Anne Frank’s annexe. Anne Frank was a legacy in my house—her epistolary novel was the first ever book I “bought” when I was 10 years old. My mother, the storyteller who made me fall in love with words, had told me her story so many times, and yet the book is today well-thumbed. However, I stayed back with my father on the ship (the house is not entirely accessible), and my mother and sister (who were even bigger fans than me) went for the tour and came back transfixed. Three years later, they are still talking about it. My mother keeps saying how she never expected it—visiting so many countries, dropping into local markets, walking on the streets that she had only read about as a child.
That evening, my sister and I ransacked Amsterdam’s Nine Streets, picking up notebooks (still unused), calendars, and Gouda cheese. We are each other’s favourite travel companions—we can bully each other to do what the other wants, and although we have different interests, we are still curious about similar things.
The next day, the four of us had breakfast at a street café across the Van Gogh museum (tickets were sold out), gorging on Dutch pancakes and hot chocolate. We walked past a Banksy exhibition, as a gust of wind showered us with autumn leaves. This was not the Amsterdam I had expected, but I still left with a heavy heart, as the ship slipped on a wide canal, past storybook houses complete with a small figure jogging past on his everyday run.
The last stop was Hamburg, Germany, where we kept comparing its 117-acre-large Platen un Blomen Park to Kolkata’s Botanical Gardens (there’s no logic here, except that we are Bengali and it’s sacrilegious not to compare). Hamburg is one of Europe’s greenest metropolises, and we finally concluded that the city’s offering was truly spectacular, and Kolkata’s 250-year-old banyan tree was comparable to the beauty of Hamburg’s Japanese Garden (it’s not).
The ships travel between countries at night, leaving ports around sundown, while we gamble, watch acrobats dance on air, and stuff our faces with steak and wine. And we talk. We find new things to talk about every day, all of us scrambling to be heard, share our perspectives on all we have witnessed together, as a family.
We open our eyes in new countries every morning, and we realise how blessed we are to have the day open up in front of us, for all of us, for this period in time when we are all together, sharing the same experiences, drawing on our collective memories, and knowing we are creating new ones that we will cherish forever. Our cruises gave us more than just access to multiple countries and cultures. As travellers, we found delight in movies, books, and music that might seem alien to us on the surface, but are often as comforting to us as our mother tongue. Language is varied, but the lived human experience is unnervingly unifying.
Much like everyone who has managed to survive 2020, I never take travel for granted. Boarding a plane, no matter how often I do it, has always given me goosebumps. But the cruises we took as a family? It took that feeling and amplified it—making what once seemed a fantasy a regular routine.
There is something meditative about looking at a vast vista of water. Doing it from a balcony of a floating building, with water of uncertain depth surrounding you, is anything but. Initially. As you get your sea legs, you start to enjoy sunsets with your sister on otherworldly horizons, tease your mother about the very thing that gave you shaky knees (the preternatural massiveness of the sea), tuck into escargot, and mix beer and ice cream with your father while playing Bingo and losing—all byte-sized memories of what might well have been the last cruise we will take together as a family.