New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

Sailing to the New World on the Queen Mary 2

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

I suppose you could say that sailing to America ‘felt’ right; we didn’t realise that I would be taking the Queen Mary 2 from England to America when my friends gave me the gift of a little golden ship charm on a chain the year before I left. I had a dream last summer – again, before we decided to book the sea voyage to New York – that I was sailing along the Ligurian coast in a tiny one-person sailboat. In the dream I felt a pang of loneliness for a moment, but then when I glanced over my shoulder I saw that I was part of a huge fleet that included all of my family and friends; we started laughing and calling out to each other as we sped through the turquoise water past cliffs where brightly coloured houses and lemon trees clung to the rock face. I’ve been wearing the golden ship necklace almost every day for the past year as we prepared to leave England, and so yes – sailing to America felt right.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

Lots of people have asked us why we decided to sail to the States rather than fly. The answer is that it cost roughly the same amount as flights would have done (we bought our tickets in a summer sale), and we thought it would be fun. There’s the fact that you basically get a week-long all-expenses paid holiday for the price of a flight, there’s the romance and intrigue of a sea voyage that passes right by the site where the Titanic sank, and then there’s the bonus that you can take as much luggage as you can fit in your cabin, instead of worrying about baggage allowances and weight restrictions.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA, cabin, state room

It’s also a much nicer way to travel when you have a kid – instead of being stuck in a small, crowded space with a cranky toddler for eight hours or so, she can explore the ship, get settled into a routine and adjust her body clock to the time change an hour a day, and spend time playing in the ship’s crèche while you relax with a hot chocolate, reading and staring out at the waves and the endless horizon. In the seven days we spent at sea, I only saw a handful of other vessels on the water. It’s strange – exciting, a little lonely – going without a glimpse of land for so long.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

The Queen Mary 2 is essentially a huge floating hotel. When we arrived on the boat I had planned to do an hour’s work every day using the ship’s internet service, but after discovering that it cost an extortionate $47 an hour, I decided to take the first proper break from work that I’ve taken in around a year and a half. This, combined with the fact that from every window all you can see is vast expanses of water stretching away as far as the eye can see, was just about the most extreme form of disconnecting I can imagine. Why is it so hard to tear your eyes away from those constantly evolving waves? Ocean waves and fire are two of the most soothing things I can think of to watch.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

My husband teased me before we left about how eager I was to see dolphins on the voyage, and then – sod’s law – he saw a whole pod of them playing around the bow of the ship on the very first morning we were at sea, while I was having a shower. I spent every possible moment on our seven-day voyage staring out of the nearest window at the water, but didn’t see any living thing other than a few sea birds. At night halfway through our voyage I dreamed of polar bears and penguins on beautiful floating icebergs tinged pink and purple with an extraordinarily vivid sunset, as the ship rocked me in my sleep.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

We had the cheapest cabin available, without a window, but it was perfectly comfortable with a decent en suite shower, a bottle of champagne to welcome us on board, and a cleaning twice a day – with chocolates and the day’s news left on the bed every evening while we were at dinner. I got glimpses of beautiful spacious suites with sea views and white orchids as we walked through the corridors, but even in one of the smallest rooms available we felt like we were living in the lap of luxury, being served a delicious breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner every day. (All the food on the voyage for these four meals was included in the ticket price, not including alcohol.)

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

The lunch and dinner menus were different every day, and we were always spoilt for choice. It was fun to have to dress up for dinner occasionally, too, and made us enjoy our meals all the more.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

There was a free gym, as well as a spa (unfortunately ridiculously expensive, with most treatments upwards of $129), a free cinema (we went to see two films on our trip), a theatre and planetarium, daily mass, various musicians playing during tea and dinner, as well as several bars and a library.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

Ever since we booked the trip, the part I had most been looking forward to was arriving into New York City. We sailed in slowly at 5am, the city all aglow with lights, and even though we didn’t have a magnificent sunrise that day, we had a great view of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty as we docked.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

We usually travel to get ourselves from one place to another as quickly as possible; I’m glad we took the time, while we had some to spare, to savour this particular journey. It ended up being a much-needed family holiday, as well as getting us where we needed to go.

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

New York City skyline, Queen Mary II, sailing from Southampton to New York USA

Reflections on Rio

Rio, Brazil, Santa Teresa district, travel

Last summer I had the opportunity to visit Rio de Janeiro to participate in a conference on environmental ethics and theology in conjunction with Pope Francis’ visit for World Youth Day 2013. I recently found a disposable camera that I thought I had lost and got some grainy, dark snaps developed that brought it all back.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, botanic gardens, Christo Redemptor, Christ the Redeemer statue

Rio had fascinated me for a long time before I travelled there, and the week I spent there last July only deepened that fascination; I hope I can go back some day to explore some more. I love the way it is nestled between the luscious rainforest and the turquoise ocean, watched over by the giant Cristo Redentor statue who towers above the city with his outstretched arms. I love the hectic tangle of streets, the sudden, steep hills and broken cobbles, the open air cafes where you can sit beneath the trees sipping iced fruit juice with wild orchids and monkeys quarrelling in the branches overhead. I love the way that even in the most built up areas of town there are giant cracks in the concrete and steep rock faces covered in creeping green foliage behind the fancy hotels and apartment blocks. It’s as if the rainforest cannot be subdued and is waiting for the chance to take back the city.

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil

There is something about Rio that doesn’t quite make sense, like a surreal sequence in a Baz Luhrmann film. Its heart is wild and untamed, and I felt like I was about to tip off the edge of the world, like I couldn’t quite trust gravity to behave normally. I have a suspicion that I don’t think I could feel like I had ‘understood’ Rio even if I lived there for a very long time.

Rio de Janeiro, favela, Brazil

And then there’s the fact that the extremes of wealth and poverty are such close neighbours. It’s a city where the wealthiest people regularly travel to work by helicopter, while the poorest live just around the corner from their mansions and helipads in slums. While I was there, the group I was with visited one of the favelas that had been recently ‘cleaned up’ (meaning that the drug gangs were supposedly rooted out and a strong police presence had been established). The favelas aren’t just on the outskirts of the city; they sprang up to fill Rio’s empty pockets, spreading their sprawl of ramshackle pavements and buildings wherever and however they could, up the mountainsides without any particular regard for safety or comfort. You know when you’re in a favela because they are sectioned off from the normal streets of Rio with walls and gates, and you feel as if you’ve suddenly entered a makeshift cardboard box world designed by children, not for real living.

Rio de Janeiro, favela, Brazil

The narrow, winding streets were filthy, and great knotted masses of electrical wires hung down so low overhead that you had to occasionally stoop to avoid them. Every now and again we would pass a pile of rubble, and our guide told us that they were houses that had collapsed in a landslide, or just because they hadn’t been built with proper foundations. We stopped in a smallish concrete alcove that our guide told us was a marketplace, and he pointed to the multiple small holes and dents in the walls around us and said that this was the spot of a big drug raid when the police had taken over the area – the holes were bullet marks.

Rio de Janeiro, favela, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro, favela, Brazil

Rio de Janeiro, favela, Brazil

Despite the very obvious poverty and signs of struggle all around, we passed many homes that had flat screen TVs playing in the background. I realised then that my understanding of extreme poverty was very limited, and that things were a lot more complex than I had thought. Our guide talked about how many of the people in the favelas are getting by okay, working in the city. The favelas are unauthorised, and therefore outside of the city council’s remit, so they don’t pay tax. They may not have clean water, safe housing, safe electrical wiring, or a particularly pleasant living environment because the council doesn’t look after those things for them, or come to take away the rubbish and clean the streets, but in some senses they are free to build whatever life they can out of scraps there on the mountainside. Things that I think of as ‘luxuries’, like televisions, for example, are actually considered a staple of life. After all, technology doesn’t cost so much anymore.

This article, This is what happened when I drove my Mercedes to pick up food stamps, reminded me of what saw in the favela, and my own reactions to it. I realised that poverty doesn’t always look the way we think it will. I also find myself returning again and again to George Monbiot’s essay, The Gift of Death, thinking about the surplus and cheapness of stuff. Our world is in the strange situation where the cost of material goods has plummeted, but meanwhile ‘the cost of many services crucial to escaping poverty — including education, health care and child care — has soared’, as this article from the New York Times explains. This, apparently, is what some economists call ‘the Walmart effect’, resulting in ‘falling prices for a huge array of manufactured goods.’

‘Since the 1980s, for instance, the real price of a midrange color television has plummeted about tenfold, and televisions today are crisper, bigger, lighter and often Internet-connected. Similarly, the effective price of clothing, bicycles, small appliances, processed foods — virtually anything produced in a factory — has followed a downward trajectory.’

Now, every time I am tempted to judge someone begging on the street because they have a debit card or a smartphone I need to remember Rio. I need to remember that poverty is complicated, and that you can never know all about someone’s story and their struggles by just looking at them.

Be kind for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle, inspirational quotes

I love Kenco’s new ‘Coffee vs Gangs‘ project – they are trying to help young people break out of the cycle of drug gangs and poverty by giving them jobs on coffee farms. Although it’s in Honduras, it made me think of the favelas in Rio.