the hinata diaries

Tuesday, September 19, 2006


Finally getting around to post on last month's cargo ship holiday. By way of a refresher, Philippe and I spent 10 days on board the Marseille-registered CMA CGM LILAC as Phase 2 of our summer break - Phase 1 was 10 days in Sri Lanka, our boarding point; Phase 2 the ship trip across the Indian Ocean and up the Suez Canal; Phase 3.5 a couple of days in Cairo and Phase 4 three days in Istanbul before flying home.

Anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. Back to the ship. We'd opted to travel by container ship in order to experience the joys of cruising without the commercialization - the whole cabaret-casinos-buffet dinner shtick that comes with passenger cruising. Instead, we would have the ship to ourselves as the only fare paying passengers, and the opportunity to catch up on our reading and with each other in peace. We were also excited by the route, the opportunity to sail through the Indian Ocean and up the Suez Canal like sailor merchants of yore.

And so, on a dark and humid Sunday evening, we boarded the LILAC at Colombo Port, and arrived on the deck of our new home for the next 10 days.

Not being much of a technical person, I really can't tell you too much about the dimensions of the ship, except that we were told it can carry up to 3,000 containers, which is small by modern standards but considered large up to a few years ago.

All the accommodation on the ship was in the column-like area, i.e. the broad "chimney" space you'd find in a child's line drawing. In our case, this area housed 5 floors, each floor marked by a poster of a different region featuring the graphic profile of a CMA CGM ship against some exotic setting in a stylized French cafe poster style. Starting from the bottom:
- Accessible only from the outside, my favourite-named Poop Deck ("you said poop, hurhurhur...")
- Amerique du Sud (South America) - the Main Deck with crew quarters and the storeroom (aka booze and cigarette paradise)
- Baltic - the "ground floor" with the kitchen, officers' and crew's dining and mess rooms, and the admin office
- Tour du Monde (Around the World) - additional crew quarters
- Liban (Lebanon) - a couple of officers' cabins and, most importantly, our room - the owners' cabin
- Caraibes (the Caribbean) - the bridge, from which all the charting and navigation is done

Our room was very comfortable, with a twin bed, sofa area, writing desk with shelving, closet and attached bathroom. It wasn't particularly fancy, but was clean, well appointed and had the air of a homely ski cabin. Indeed, throughout the trip we were treated more like guests in a family inn than as commercial passengers getting in the way of day-to-day operations. The 24 Filipino crew and Croatian officers were always friendly, and ready with offers of a guided tour around the ship, funny anecdotes from past sailings, or just a generous smile even as we tripped over their tools and pressed buttons we weren't supposed to.

One reason for their perpetual good humour must have been the food. Meals were served promptly three times a day (breakfast from 7-8am, lunch from 12.30-1.30pm, and dinner from 7-8pm), and all were whopping affairs, with lunch and dinner particularly following a standard formula:

- On the table: fresh garden salad, assorted cold cuts and cheeses, a bottle of Greek wine
- Soup of the day: vegetable soup, or chicken noodle and the like
- Appetizer: typically something very light, like, oh, pizza, or lasagne!
- Main course: seriously heavy stuff, e.g. steak with mashed potatoes and mixed vegetables
- Dessert: cheesecake, or banana pie, or chocolate mousse, in portions that would make Hard Rock Cafe proud
- Fruit basket: plums, oranges, apples, bananas, help yourself!

Likewise, breakfast consisted of fruit juice, cereals, yoghurt, bacon and eggs, cheese and cold cuts, coffee or tea... you can imagine we never went hungry.

We soon settled into a daily routine organized around meals.

Post breakfast would be a trip up to the bridge for a morning discussion on the day's route with the captain. Having pored through the charts and examined the various instruments as if they were actually intelligible to us, we would then descend for reading on the deck with our brand spanking new "carry them wherever you feel like plonking down" Lafuma deck chairs, with nothing but colourful Lego block rows of containers and the wide open sea around us.

After lunch would be a couple of hours of brainless DVD watching on our laptop, making full use of the ship's 300-strong DVD library. Another trip up to the bridge to check on our progress, then down to the poop deck to explore the ship, look out for whales and dolphins (both of which we did see!) and watch the setting sun in reflective silence.

Dinner would conclude with a chat with Captain Malasic and his wife, then it's back to our room for more reading and a DVD movie nightcap.

Repeat for 10 days.

The one exception during the trip was Barbecue Night. Once each sailing (i.e. from China to Istanbul or vice versa), the crew organizes a barbecue on the open deck, featuring an open roast. The crew was kind enough to time barbecue night during our stay, and we had the honour of having an entire goat roasted. (Due to logistical reasons, we eventually departed the ship prematurely, without time to take the requisite final tours and photos, so I never got to visit the kitchen's cold store, but I'm sure it must be a weird and wonderful place if there are whole goats lying around.) Add to that an endless supply of duty free alcohol and tobacco, and the incessant roar of the waves created by our passage, and the scene was as lively as any pub at the end of a working day.

All in, it was a wonderful trip. We got to see the daily workings of a full-fledged container ship, we travelled down the exotic and historically significant sea route, and passed such rarely visited destinations as Somalia and Ethiopia, we were well fed and well rested, and we got to meet incredibly warm and wonderful people.

The port of Jeddah, Saudi Arabia

Should the crew or officers of the CMA CGM LILAC ever come across this humble post: thank you for the wonderful trip and memories!

A prelude to my next post on Egypt...

For every port of call, the ship had to hoist the local flag... There's even an entire cupboard on the bridge full of flags for every country.

Sailing down the Suez Canal, which was even narrower than I imagined... one way, one lane only!

View from the ship - Coke branded outposts and just enough sand to say welcome to the land of pyramids.

The port pilot - his job is to take over the steering from the captain once we're near the port, and to ensure the ship docks safely. In other words, valet parking for ships!

Egypt post akan datang!


  • wow.. thats some experience. I agree with you on the whole commercial cruise thing - casino, banquet halls, screaming kids - not my cup of tea.

    By Blogger shaz, At 12:18 PM  

  • hi i stumbled upon your blog. lovely food pics u have here :) im a foodie myself too and its great to know likeminded ppl. take care!

    By Anonymous evan, At 5:22 PM  

  • I had the privilege of sailing aboard a container ship too, as part of a training programme. How did you manage to get on board? Hubby is an employee of CMA-CGM?

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 1:57 PM  

  • Shaz - definitely! I wonder how many people have thrown themselves off commercial cruise ships to escape the buffet lines... :)

    Evan - just got to know your blog through your profile link, it's really wonderful! Look forward to keeping up with your eating adventures :)

    Anon - we managed to find out about it just on the net - CMA CGM has a good website with the contact details to arrange the sailing. How was your experience?

    By Blogger hinata, At 9:42 AM  

  • It was great! The crew took really great care of us and we understood more about the business of the company. We even had a chance to star gaze. Nice!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, At 5:46 PM  

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