IF YOU HAVE sailed on luxury liners and seen, say, the Caribbean and Europe as I have, chances are you feel the way I did. I wanted to see more - travel for months, not weeks.I wanted to sail around the world.
But how? The price of a single ticket (always more expensive) on a big cruise ship would be a minimum of $12,000 (two can travel in a cabin for about $16,000). Then it occurred to me - at age 66, a retired schoolteacher, I didn't consider myself the fearless, impetuous sort . . . I wondered if I should attempt what I was thinking. Finally, I decided . . . I would take a freighter.
I sailed from New York on the Traviata, a Norwegian vessel carrying just 12 passengers, crossing the Atlantic, Mediterranean, the Red Sea, Indian Ocean, South China Sea, and back across the Pacific. Stops included Port Said, Jeddah, Singapore, Port Kelang (Kuala Lumpur), Manila, Hong Kong, Keelung (Taipei), three ports in Japan, and the Panama Canal.
Two lesser-known places I had never imagined visiting - the Indonesian island of Bangka and the Malaysian island of Labuan - were to prove worth the price of the trip. That, by the way, was only $3,340 for three months.
Three months is a long time to be at sea on a less-than-satisfactory ship, so a wise choice makes all the difference.
Before making any arrangements, I inquired among other travelers about reputable lines, and learned more about them from travel books and brochures. Then I booked through the Air & Marine Travel Service in New York.
The 12,500-ton Traviata, freshly painted orange, its deck sparkling white and immaculately kept, was big enough to afford privacy, yet still a size that afforded every opportunity for companionship. While there was no swimming pool, there were plenty of games, a well-stocked library, and wide decks for total comfort. The cabins were clean and neat: bed, sofa, dresser, easy chair, and large bath.
Service - at least on this freighter - equaled that on any cruise ship. Three huge meals a day were served, always with a flourish. There was tea in the afternoon, a buffet of assorted fruit at bedtime.
I fitted perfectly into the age group of the passengers - 61 to 79. One was an author of children's books, the others were retired, among them two other schoolteachers, a banker, an architect, and a social worker. They came from as far as Toronto and Mexico.
The captain, quiet but sociable, established an informal atmosphere.On the second evening he invited everyone to a get-acquainted cocktail hour. And at every dinner he sat in his uniform at the head of the table, with the uniformed chief engineer at the opposite end. The two always adjourned with the passengers to the lounge for coffee.
I spent my time reading and sunning. Two days past the Azores we came to Gibraltar.From a deck chair I viewed a stunning panorama: the juncture of the Atlantic, Mediterranean, and two continents. As we crossed the Mediterranean, ships became a common sight as tankers, freighters and banana boats passed regularly.
The Traviata kept close to its schedule. However, when one travels by freighter, he must maintain a bit of flexibility. The sailing date can be delayed by cargo loading - we were held up once, but by just one day - and time in ports can vary depending on the amount of cargo and conditions at the port.Our longest stop was Singapore, five days. I spent one day in Port Said, but stayed on board and watched the unloading at Jeddah, where it was 100 degrees with a haze caused by sand blowing from the desert, covering the city.
On the 23d day out, it rained for the first time, an afternoon squall that quickly passed. The next day, we watched some unusual drama as one of the crew from a Japanese freighter just a few hundard yards from us jumped-overboard (intent on escape, we later learned from information our officers got on the bridge.) He swam toward a Swedish ship, which threw him a raft. As the man drew close, a heavy rain hit, washing down the Swedish ship's ladder. Foiled, he was picked up by his own ship.
In Singapore, we saw everything a tourist could hope to in a brief time, then moved on to Kelang, Malaysia, where a group of us hired a limousine for a short drive into Kuala Lumpur; then across the Straits of Malacca, a crowded trade route between Malaysia and Sumatra, to Belawan, Sumatra. At the bottom of the strait, just below the equator, we reached the Indonesian island of Bangka, population 200,000, one of the chief tin-producing areas in the world.
As we approached, several crewmen spun stories about unexpected events in the life of a seaman. They smacked of fiction, including their warning about pirates in the area, but this they insisted was the truth. Nearing the port of Muntok, at the north end of the narrow Bangka Strait, almost all hands were on deck (looking for pirates, they said).
The captain planned a trip to the beach for the passengers, and 10 of us boarded a large lifeboat. The temperature was 100 degrees. About a dozen of the crew came along. We motored into a small, crowded harbor where Indonesian men wearing brightly colored sarongs and kerchiefs came running across the decks of their little sailboats to glimpse us.
Our men maneuvered the boat with inches to spare, then started around the island. We could see a village with small cottages, fishermen with nets and boats. At an almost deserted portion of the beach, the motor was cut and we drifted in. We waded the last few yards and soon met three teenage girls on the beach who spoke English. I asked if it would be safe to swim and one immediately plunged in, fully clothed. I was wearing an Indian shirt, white slacks, a large sun hat, and sunglasses. But, I figured, how many times am I going to get to Bangka? Three or four crew members happened by in bathing trunks and joined in. The chief steward jumped in his white uniform.
We climbed back in the lifeboat dripping wet. The water was so warm there was no chance of catching cold. The men unfurled the sail. Before we had gone far, though, a shark swam alongside the boat not 200 yards from where we had swum.
From there, we traveled up the South China Sea to a much smaller island, Labuan, population about 15,000, part of Sabah, Malaysia. Oil was discovered a few years ago off the Sabah coast and our cargo included heavy metal equipment and pipes for drilling operations. The talk aboard ship had been that was little to see around the port.
Once there, a friend and I approached a small white bus parked by the main square. A "No. 10" was painted on the side. I thought it to be Victoria's No. 10 bus stopped at the end of the line. The driver spoke some English and agreed, for the equivalent of $2, to show us around. A woman and four children who were passengers turned out to be the driver's family. As we drove toward the outskirts of town, one of the young girls made deliveries to several homes.
The family got out at the driver's house, and then he picked up and delivered some school children. Finally he took my friend and me out to a beach, where we saw two monuments to World War II victims. Water buffalo roamed nearby. We drove some more, and were dropped off back in town. Hearing the story over lunch aboard ship, five others decided to join us for more of the same that afternoon - this time on bus "No. 11."
The next morning three of us went looking for the "No. 12," so happy had we been with Nos. 10 and 11. On the way we stopped at a small travel agency for some suggestions and told the young woman there about our previous day's experiences. She asked how we had gotten around and I told her by the public buses.
"There aren't any public buses," she said, laughing. What we had taken were two privately owned buses, she explained, and the numbers painted on their sides indicated the numbers of passengers the buses were allowed to carry.
With that, we took a taxi, the highlight of which was a visit to the driver's home. He asked me if I'd like to try a coconut, and cut one down from a tree in his yard with a hook attached to a long pole. With a huge cleaver, he lopped off the top and poured out the milk which we drank. Then we scooped our pieces of coconut to eat. Seeing that we enjoyed it, he cut down three more coconuts and, with a few deft strokes, carved out a handle on the top of each so we could carry them back to the ship.
We enjoyed them as we crossed the South China Sea for one-day visits to Manila, Hong Kong, and Taipei. In Japan, we visited Nagoya and Tokyo, and sailed from Yokohama across the Pacific, a 19-day, 8,000-mile journey to the Panama Canal. These were days of utter leisure.
In the end, I discovered, three months passed too quickly.