"Robin-afloat.blogspot.com" - the complete works!

It must have been rather confusing, as I discovered when I read my own blog. Each day's blog was out of order with those before and after. For reasons of economy - the satellite internet connection on board was very expensive - I chose to write up a few days and then send a bundle of bloggy bits in one hit. Hence the dis-order.

So I decided to reconfigure the whole thing so that you can read it in the right order.

photo of Balmoral

Monday, 2 January 2012 - Folkestone

After a false start trying to begin a blog. Well, let's try again! I thought I was good with technology, but maybe not.

Still putting the finishing touches to the worship I'll be conducting with Kristiane, so that we don't have to spend too much time slaving over hot computers on board. After all, this is a holiday, even if a working holiday!

Yesterday was gloomy-wet, today is blue-sky-bright. It will be nice to find somewhere where the sky is nearly always blue and sunny. In about ten days time, perhaps!

Tuesday, 3 January - still Folkestone!

3rd January already. Time is slipping by! Two days of typing, checking, printing and scanning - all in a good cause, I suppose. But it will be nice to set off and get on with the cruise. Wet & windy doesn't lift the spirits any!

Thursday 5 Jan at 0700 - en route for Southampton

SA-Day! (Sail-away, when the ship leaves port.) So it's 0630 in Folkestone and I can't sleep any more. So there's coffee, breakfast, coffee, load the car, coffee and off to Southampton to arrive about 1100, board as crew (sort of fast track), settle in, then WE'RE OFF! at 1630. Such a lot of preparation, and now there's no time for any more.
W I P I W I G - "What I've packed is what I've got" and if something's missing, tough!

Later that day. . . I thought fast-track would be fast, but no! The crew office at Southampton was closed (no-one seemed to know why) so we had to travel the passenger route with a long queue, while the luggage went off on its own journey. Our allocated cabin had been changed, just to add to the confusion and delay. We have to move cabins again in ten days when we get to Montego Bay, end of the first leg, and some passengers leave and others arrive.

We left Southampton a little late, with the ship rolling enough to make walking just a bit wobbly. As I'm writing, we've arrived in the Bay of Biscay, and the height of the waves has begun to lessen and the wind decrease. But it's still chilly outside and only the hardy ones march around the deck (4 circuits = 1 mile). Some of them look as if they do this every day, with that fixed gaze that goes with determination. "Move aside, I'm not stopping!"


I've met quite a few folk I've met on previous cruises. It's good to meet up again and catch up on people's lives. So far, no-one I'd have preferred to avoid. Already I've had several conversations with folk curious about what a chaplain is and does. I always try to say that services may be not quite what they're used to, in that some of the liturgy may be unfamiliar to British people. This often gets a "tell me more" response, which can then lead to a conversation about church services in general, and about what people expect from them.

Many of these conversations leave me wondering why these folk go to church in the first place, since Sunday worship doesn't seem to set them up for the week ahead or give them something to feed both the heart and the head I guess some folk have got so used to the habit of going to church that their expectations wither over the years. Some churches have had to focus so much on staying alive that they've not been able to practise community. What do we mean by a sense of community? In the early church, judging by the account in the book of Acts, there was a real sense of being united and looking after each other's wellbeing.

But I remember an occasion in Dudley in the eighties when we experimented with reducing early-morning lighting to the choir area only for the early Sunday communion, hoping that those who attended would sit together. Strangely, the number of worshippers seemed to drop suddenly. When the invitation to come forward for communion was given, all the regulars emerged from the gloom where they had been sitting (and where they'd always sat!). Who needs lights when you know the service by heart? But community? Nothing like one.

Sunday, 8 January - at sea

Sunday, the first of our worship services. Well over 150 people were present in the Neptune Lounge, the main lounge, for a Communion service based, as always, on liturgies from various sources, largely from the United Church of Canada. Kris played piano prelude music before the service, which happily avoided having the sound crew use CDs of their choice. (At the end of the service, they played the Hallelujah Chorus, which didn't entirely fit the moment!) We've brought some more appropriate CDs with us for use later. Several folk have already stopped us to say they enjoyed the worship, including the fact that it was "different"! It's more difficult to get them to specify how exactly it was different, and what exactly they did enjoy!

The weather is gradually getting less cold (not quite the same as saying it's getting warmer - there's still a stiff breeze on most decks). The sky is brighter with more blue than before. The empty sea and the blue sky always bring to me the realisation that we humans are but a grain of sand in the vastness of space and time, yet still precious and beloved of the Creator (whatever people envisage in that term, or indeed, in the word "God").

So, we touch land tomorrow in Tenerife, arriving about noon and leaving again around 22.30. We keep hearing suggestions from well-travelled folk - "You must see this", "You ought to see that", so we may be hard pushed to make a choice. But so long as it involves eating and drinking, we're not too bothered.

Then a long haul - a whole week - across the Atlantic, arriving in St Maarten next Monday.

Saturday 14 January

Well, actually it's now Saturday and we've had an internet blackout for two days. So the blog update is now a bit out of date. But there's not a lot to report because sea days tend to be the same old same old - same daily programme of activities, lectures, evening shows and so on. Lots of time to do nothing, which can be rather boring.

By the way, we're dependent on a satellite link for our internet access at sea, so I probably won't blog more than once a week.

And nothing but sea surrounds us. Blue skies now dominate the days and hundreds of sun-worshippers now occupy the top deck - some browning evenly, others clearly getting over-cooked. The Ship Shop sells sun lotion of factor 50 which might just cope with the midday sun for a brief time. There will be some sore skin over the next few days.

Me? I tend to stay of the hottest sun, preferring the shadier parts of the main deck when I'm in sitting down mode. Surprising how many people walk almost continually around the main deck (the only deck with complete all-round walkway). Do they do this back home, or is it just an attempt to work off too much eating? So far in my life of cruising (usually just the Christmas and Easter fortnights) I've managed not to put on any extra weight and even if I don't join the deck-marchers, there's an awful lot of walking to do just getting from one part of the ship to another. And with six lifts, the temptation is to avoid staircases, and I'm not very good at resisting that temptation. Anyway, one piece of wisdom picked up during my theological college days, is this: "always yield to temptation, it may never come again!"

We now have a fairly consistent group of about eighteen folk who join us for morning prayers on sea days (which currently has been every day except last Monday). Out of the 89 nights of the cruise, 47 are sea days so there's lots of brief morning worship to come. Someone has requested a mid-week communion service, so I'll have to test the waters to see if others feel the same way. Being the sole chaplain on board has its benefit and its drawback. The benefit is that I can legitimately work ecumenically, as indeed the Fred Olsen brochure states. I have had countless comments about the freshness of the worship, and this is because I have always drawn from ecumenical sources and not felt restricted to liturgies that people hear every Sunday back home. The drawback is simply that I can never please everyone, and those who complain (and some always do) are usually traditionalists of one denomination or another. However, positive comments far outweigh negative ones, so I guess I'm doing something right! We'll have to wait to see what effect the sun has on the number who will come to the church service next Sunday morning. We could pray for rain but that's a bit unfair!

And a couple of hours later, it's raining! The clouds gathered and the sky grew a little darker, and we could see the squall ahead. Suddenly the decks were deserted, though it may have been the tea-time bell! Apparently, as I'm now writing on Saturday, the Caribbean islands are about 400 miles away. We're en route for St Maarten, and then the various port visits will get more frequent. Thank goodness! Not a cloud in the sky, not a ship on the horizon. We haven't seen a ship since we left Tenerife on Monday afternoon. We are alone….

Sunday 15th January - at sea

photo of me The second Sunday, and this time Kris took the communion service while I played piano. Again, a large congregation of maybe 150, and a very warm atmosphere. Kris is a natural communicator, so there were several very favourable comments afterwards around the ship.

I was relieved that the second Sunday produced a congregation of about the same numbers as week 1. There's always a curiosity factor about events on the ship which means you can't count on repeated popularity.

We had two "stations" for sharing the bread and wine, which eased the traffic flow somewhat. The service actually took about 55 minutes, with no sense of rush and perhaps more silence than often is the case. There was a moment of silence as we prepared for worship after various announcements and explanations, another after a confession prayer, and another one later during the intercessions. Not so long that people felt uncomfortable, but long enough for a few ideas to filter into the consciousness. Why is it that worship services in our various traditions give so little time to listening, to silence, to reflection? Is it, perhaps, that we have seldom been taught or enabled to understand the value of quietness - quietness from noise (be it words or music) or quietness of soul, moments when we are able to switch off extraneous and interruptive thoughts and focus on an image or a thought or an idea, and just let that "whatever" flow around our minds. I read once that books about prayer are mostly written by introverts for introverts (whether or not that's correct doesn't matter, there's more than a grain of truth there), so how do extroverts like me, who get their stimulus from the external, get satisfaction from prayer? Perhaps extroverts like me don't pray!

Remember the book Honest to God? A very challenging read by the Anglican bishop of Woolwich, John Robinson, back in the 60s. Some months later, after the furore had almost died down, the sequel was published - The Honest to God Debate. I well remember being relieved that I was not the only one to have had a similar thought to one contribution, by a Methodist minister who wrote, "Some years ago I stopped saying my prayers, and I haven't stopped praying since." Such a relief it was to read that, and to know that my own experience was shared by others.

I have a strong aversion to wafers in the communion service. A schooldays memory of a communion service led by the chaplain (who was later put away for abusing choirboys in his church!), and receiving a wafer direct on to my tongue, whereupon I took it out and threw it away, not knowing what it was. Such practices were not acceptable in my home parish of Edgware! But this morning we tried using bread, kindly provided and prepared by the chef in the Palms restaurant. I had a slight anxiety that they would disintegrate when dipped in wine, but everything went perfectly, and saying the words "the bread of life" actually meant something! So the 1500 top quality wafers that I brought with me can stay with the ship when we leave, minus the few that I'll use with the crew.

Yes, I can be a catholic priest as well. Is there no end to my versatility? I always try to "say mass" for the crew, who mostly are Filipino and Roman Catholic. We usually get about 30-40 at a mass, but the variety of shift-change times make it difficult to find a time suitable for all. Providing I use a liturgy that is recognizably from the Anglican tradition, the good Filipinos are more than happy. However, today was a disaster because no-one turned up. An email had been sent round, but probably too early in the week, so next week I'll remind the Ents* office to remind the crew.

*Ents = Entertainment. As chaplain, where else would I be slotted in! I'm included with the dance hosts, bridge tutors, comedians, magicians, singers and anyone else whose function is to amuse the punters. It's quite fun to read the rules, which forbid the discussion of politics, company policy and .. religion! On a slightly more serious note, it's very hard to persuade the Ents people that those punters who come to church services actually know what they're expecting. To read through the various prepared services for use when there's no priest or minister on board is to despair: trite, banal, simplistic, badly-produced, and so on. I tried some years ago to provide a series of short services, with coordinated hymns, readings and prayers, for all four ships in the Olsen fleet, nicely produced on CDs and sent each year with annual revisions to cater for the different years of the lectionary. I don't think any of the ships made use of it, and there are still these trite (etc) service lovingly preserved in boxes in the Ents office. Ah well..!

Right, that's enough for one day. Now I'm off to listen to Neil Roxburgh, who teaches music in the King's School, Canterbury on one day a week, give a piano recital (classical, of course!). Yes, there is culture with Fred Olsen!

Monday 16th January - St Maarten

Land at last! It feels so good to have land under one's feet after eleven days at sea (barring a short day in Tenerife). So yesterday we set out to see something of the town which is adjacent to the cruise terminal in Philipsburg, St Maarten. In the blazing sun we wandered along the sea-front which is a sandy bay for about a mile, glorious sand and good walking. Lots of bars, reggae blasting out almost everywhere, and that wonderful lack of hurry. Everyone just ambling along, whether locals or tourists.

A bit of shopping - beach towels for me (I'd left mine on a beach in Tortola four years ago!) and sun-dresses for Kris. All the shops in the town seem to be selling either jewels and precious stones, clothing or beer. Where do people buy washing up liquid and similar essentials? I didn't see a single shop that sold "domestic consumables" apart from one chemist's shop where I bought the beach towels!

After lunching on barbecued ribs in a beach-side photo of merestaurant, we carried on wandering and shopping, eventually meeting up with Eric, the bass player in the ship's band. Interesting guy: he wants to become the impresario he feels he could be, and smokes large cigars and is amazingly generous. Several of the ship's entertainers passed by, and every one was greeted by Eric with "Wanna drink?", so over several hours our one beer became several beers. But apparently I was looking wistfully at a segway, so Kris' advance birthday present to me was a half-hour ride on one of these coolest-of-the-cool machines. I want one! It's so easy to drive and so much fun!

Tuesday 17th January - Tortola

Today was Tortola, with the famous Pussers Outlet. It's a pub with a history; the word Pussers derives from Purser, the officer who would reward sailors with a tot of rum after a battle won, and it's a rum outlet plus tourist clothing and gift shop!

After all the walking of yesterday we decided to take an island tour with a local taxi. I've done something very similar on previous visits, but, of course, then I was a tour escort for the company. Tortola is one of the largest islands in the group, and our purchased two-hour trip eventually took four hours to complete, with a visit to a bar near the end. The bar was on the beach in Cain Garden Bay, and we had the joy of watching a group of fifteen or so pelicans feeding only yards from the breaking waves. A fascinating sight, as they skimmed the wave-tops then soared into the air only to plunge direct into the sea to catch a fish.

Tortola is a pretty island, with beautiful beaches and lots of opportunities for "Kodak moments". But there's also another less beautiful feature, and that's discarded cars. Almost everywhere along the many concrete roads across the island you'll see cars that have been left in a field, next to a house, tipped down a hillside. Some of them have been there so long the grass has grown round them. So the question is, what do you do with a clapped-out car? I didn't see anywhere a garage workshop for car repairs, and lots of the cars running around would not pass an MOT. But what do you do with a car when it's no longer needed? There's an obvious link to the question of poverty on the islands, since the main industry is tourism; there's no manufacturing industry and everything has to be imported. But I wonder also about the "don't worry, be happy" culture which at first seems so attractive to our western stressed-out lives. Island politicians are keen to promote tourism, but maybe this attitude doesn't suggest the image of tropical paradise that they seek. Can I be non-judgmental about this? Our industrialised society does no better.

We got back to the ship at about 4pm, having sampled lunch and some pina coladas at Pussers bar. Now it's a relaxing evening doing not much, which for most people is just what a cruise should be about!

Thursday 19th January - Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos Islands


A day at sea yesterday after leaving Tortola and now we're just leaving Grand Turk, the island capital of the Turk & Caicos Islands. It's very small, just 7 miles long and one mile wide, almost flat and surrounded by the most glorious beaches you ever saw. The beach nearest the ship's berth was 200 yards away as the fish fly and about five minutes walk, so we spent a couple of hours in the clear water. Kris swims and I just wallow! The sea is almost flat calm, very different from the sea of only a few nights ago. I was happily standing in neck-high water when I was nudged in the side by a fish, about 6-7 inches long. Then a shoal appeared and I was clearly precisely where they wished to be. So for three or four minutes I was gently prodded in various parts of my anatomy until they gave up and moved away. Quite a fascinating experience.

We'd been "downtown" already, and discovered the very few shops that line the road. If there's another town centre, we didn't find it. There's a picture of what we found. But there is a most interesting museum on the way into town, focused on the earliest recorded wreck of a sailing ship (around the 1560s) in the region.

Grand Turk, so named after the red head of the indigenous cactus, is a British Protectorate, with a Governor who lives in a large (by Grand Turk standards) mansion alongside Governor's Beach (so named for obvious reasons).

But we heard from our taxi driver that the UK Government has reduced the amount of money paid into the island's treasury, a consequence of the current financial stringency in the UK. Grand Turk and the other islands in the group have some of the finest beaches in the world, but I think they need an entrepreneur to capitalize on this amazing natural resource. The hotels we saw are wooden structures with little style (from the outside), but I would fear for the islands if developers were given free rein. I've seen too many islands where the income generated from tourism is lodged elsewhere - see previous blogs for my ranting on this topic!

The large pools still visible used to be salt ponds, when the market for salt was still viable. The salt industry in Grand Turk ended in the late 1960s and the ponds are now preserved for migrating birds. Another example of how markets come and go in today's world, with little concern for those communities whose livelihood depends on basic industries.

Now we're off to the southern USA, berthing at Key West on Saturday morning. Previously I've flown into Miami and touched other ports in the US, but never before have I had to apply for a non-immigrant visa. That was something of an adventure in itself. An on-line form with digital photo and an interview necessitating an early visit to London. All in all, it cost me over £130. Ah well, c'est la vie!

Saturday 21st January - Key West, USA

photos Friday was at sea, nothing much to report. But Saturday saw us arrive in Key West and have to wait five hours to get off the ship. The Department of Homeland Security had to check everyone's papers face-to-face, and started the job at 0700 with those on tours. Then came Deck 10 Starboard, and a half hour wait until Deck 10 Port, and another half-hour until - you get the picture. We from Deck 3 got off at 1215. What rather annoyed me (classic BU - British understatement!) was that the very pleasant US official looked at my visa and asked me what I do on board, since I was obviously crew. "I'm the chaplain," said I, to be met with a slightly bemused expression. "You didn't need a C1/D visa," quoth he, "you need a R1, but I'll let you in anyway." R1 is apparently something to do with religion. So it seems that I didn't need to go through all that kerfuffle after all. Ah well, c'est encore la vie!

Key West is a tourist haven. Lots (I mean LOTS) of $5 shops selling clothing, bars selling local food, and tourist "trains". It's well-organised and very attractive, but actually I didn't find much else to do. It's a place to be seen, so there was a steady stream of guys on Harleys with the long hair, the mustache, the bandanna, the tattooed arms - all the uniform of the all-American boy. I saw the local fire engine cruising by, with a painted slogan, photos"Protecting the people who defend America". Interesting! And I could have had my photo taken with a pirate captain who tried hard to look fierce, just a bit too young.

We had to be back on board by 1630 so that the ship could leave at 1700 to comply with "Sunset regulations". These are imposed on visiting ships so that sight of the sunset (which, to be fair, is spectacular) is not impeded by the huge bulk of a cruise ship.

Sunday 22 January - at sea

The third Sunday service, and I used the Methodist Covenant Service as the basis. It's an annual event in Methodist churches, and is a way of re-committing oneself to the faith. It seems to have gone down well and no-one has yet complained that there was no Communion. As I explained at the beginning, not every denominations has the tradition of a weekly Communion, and the ecumenical nature of the chaplaincy means that I try to reflect something of these different traditions in the worship. Again, there were around 150 people in the lounge. This afternoon I shall try to hold a Mass for the crew - "try" because last Sunday the word had not got around that there would be one, and no-one turned up.

Later: being assured that notice has been given around the crew areas, I duly set up for a Mass for the crew. This time two turned up, and we had a short communion together. I had a conversation with Ricky, the Deputy Cruise Director, about the preferred timing for a crew Mass, and he assured me that this was the best time for the greatest number of crew. So maybe this crew has other things on its mind.

Monday 23rd January - New Orleans, USA

New Orleans (pronounced Norleens) in the drizzle is not very inviting. We woke up to find a cloudy and drizzly day, so I dressed accordingly. Long trousers, shirt, socks and shoes. By mid-morning the sun had come out, the rain had stopped and I was rather over-dressed for what turned out to be a really warm and sunny day.

photos We took the tram to the French quarter (Vieux Carré) along Bourbon Street and then wandered along picturesque streets, full of old houses with balconies often festooned with plants. Quite a charming area of the town, while the rest is probably like any other major city. The French Quarter is clearly the tourist region, with sounds of jazz from every angle and several groups making music in blocked-off streets.

Eventually, after coffee breaks and lunch break we returned to the ship, me feeling rather footsore and weary after walking for much longer than I'm used to. I had twenty minutes in the Jacuzzi which helped straighten out sore knees, then decided not to go out again. Kris, however, had loads of energy left and she and Keith (bassist in the Blue Diamond band) went off to find live music. I decided to update the blog, which is what I'm doing now….

Tuesday 24th January - at sea

At sea from New Orleans, Louisiana, to Galveston, Texas. Days at sea can be remarkably boring, with the same amusements (sorry, activities) as the previous sea day, which were the same as…. There might be different lectures and maybe a recital, but mostly it's the same old same old. photos The route took us through the Gulf of Mexico, near to the area of that disastrous oil leakage of a year ago. There was at least one oil platform visible all along our route and I got to thinking how lonely a life that must be for oil platform workers. I can complain about "the same old same old" here on board, but I imagine there is a monotony about living for weeks on a platform that would be much more difficult to cope with.

For the first time we had an abbreviated communion service after morning worship, and all but two of the twenty-plus people joined the circle. One man who obviously was engaged with the service but didn't receive communion explained that as a Methodist, he is not used to so frequent celebrations. Fair enough. Apart from the trickle of folk coming into the lounge ready for the port talk that followed, which is a little distracting, those five minutes were well appreciated. Indeed, we've each had folk saying how much they appreciate the services so far, which is very gratifying to hear.

It's always fascinating to me how many people attend worship on a cruise ship and tell me that this was the first time in years that they've been to church. It's also sad that often it was the church that put them off - so easily unwelcoming and unfriendly. How good it is to be able to affirm people, to listen to their story without judging and maybe enabling some reconciliation and healing.

Wednesday 25th January - Galveston, USA

photosGalveston, a sprawling city without any hills. The industry, according to a taxi driver, is tourism, the commercial port, a large hospital and the headquarters of one the US's biggest insurance companies. Bus-loads of cruisers went off to Houston and the Space Centre, but it's too far away to be considered an employment opportunity for Galveston folk. The picture "Earlyish…" is a bit unfair to Galveston, but the port area is half-an-hour's drive from Wallmart, about 40 blocks! It really is a very sprawling city and this picture probably doesn't do it justice - although I did hear comments such as "There's not much there, is there?"

I'd been whingeing about getting a bath robe. It's ever so slightly embarrassing to go to the jacuzzi on the top deck and then coming back in the lift to the cabin on deck 3 wrapped in the ship's yellow bath towel. I don't possess a really nice one, so I took this opportunity to go to Wallmart (who took over ASDA some years ago) hoping to find one. No luck there, but the taxi driver on the way back was eloquent about the likelihood of finding one at such-and-such a store (forgotten the name), and I did. So Happy Bunny once more.

Storms come with rapidity here, and very shortly after getting back on board the heavens opened. I'm sitting here typing with thunder and lightning around me, and a sky that's dark and threatening. I'd been out and got back just as the rain began but Kris had some business to attend to and a letter to post, so went out during a brief lull. She came back like the proverbial drowned rat!

photos This morning we were late docking because the port had been closed overnight due to fog. Apparently there's little wind at this season, and so mist forms and becomes fog, to the point at which no pilot is willing to take any ship anywhere. So we were about a hour later than scheduled, which was nice because it means that we arrived in daylight rather than early dawn, and we could see the land on either side. There are several oil rig platforms "resting" on the waterside, and several oil and chemical berths. There are huge concrete warehouses that once were used for cotton storage, several grain silos and lots of cranes, so this port is clearly significant for all kinds of shipping. The cruise terminal is large inside but only a small building along the waterfront.

Next stop Montego Bay, and a new batch of passengers. And a warmer climate!

Thursday 26th January - at sea

At sea. Nothing to see but sea, and a rather cloudy and slightly chilly day. We're still quite a way north of our previous hot spots, so it will be a day or two yet before the weather warms up.

This evening, from about 6pm until now - I'm writing at midnight - there's been a magnificent display of sheet and forked lightning, lighting up the sky from horizon to horizon. The lightning is behind the clouds, so all the clouds are silhouetted against the light - colours from dark grey to brilliant gold, with flashes that dart about up and down. "The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims God's handiwork" - Psalm 19.

Around 500 (or maybe 700) passengers are leaving at Montego Bay on Sunday with a similar number joining, so Kris and I are planning what to do about services over the weekend. One possibility is a Saturday evening "service of re-entry" (Kris's phrase) and if possible, an evening service on Sunday. But if 500 or 700 people are joining on Sunday afternoon, it's going to be difficult to fit in a service then. There's the question of the lifeboat drill - everyone has to go to their muster station with life-jackets to be told what to do in case of a disaster. This is a legal requirement under SOLAS - Safety Of Life At Sea - and has to be done on the first available occasion. So we wait to see the programme for Sunday.

One nice story to relate. A lady was tearful during the short communion a few days ago, and explained to Kris that as a traditional Anglican she had been quite vehemently against the ordination of women until she witnessed Kris robed and conducting the service. That apparently completely changed her view, which was a moment of profound emotion for her. I often think that much of the ongoing and distracting saga in the C of E about women bishops and women priests has now become more an argument about caring for those who cannot accept these changes than about the changes themselves.

Saturday 28th January - at sea

It's getting warmer day by day. Spent some time this morning sitting in the sun (well, shade actually) on the top deck reading a novel. Nothing demanding, pure brain candy.

Services have been sorted out. We held a communion service this evening with about fifty people, and there's another one tomorrow morning for anyone who's not on a tour and is still on the ship.

Lots of people bidding farewell to recently made friends. I wonder how many such friendships will continue, although the number of reunions and "repeat business" is staggering. Fred Olsen has a very loyal following and I think probably well deserved. It is in a different market from the larger companies - P&O, Carnival, Holland America and the like - but has a good reputation. I frequently meet refugees from the bigger ships, but that's probably a reciprocal flow. Not everyone is enamoured of a family business.

Sunday 29th January - Montego Bay, Jamaica

photos"Turn-around day", ie the end of the first leg. The morning service attracted about thirty people, but most were simply waiting around for their time to disembark. So the top deck was almost empty and we spent some time sunbathing and jacuzzing. Then into Montego Bay. The taxi driver took a group of us to Hip Strip, the place where (according to all taxi drivers) tourists want to go. Don't bother. It's rather seedy and run-down and not the place to be after dark. But we did find a nice bar, and the scenery across the bay, with its clear, green water, is stunning. The beer is good, too!

Then the inevitable sail-away party in the evening, which you may have heard from the UK. Why must music be so ear-splittingly, ferociously loud? We took refuge below in the relative quiet of the cabin.

Tuesday 31st January - Colon, Panama.

photos We're in Colon, Panama. We were warned that it's not a safe place to wander alone outside the port area, ands to walk in pairs or groups. So lots of folk went on organised tours and others stayed on board. I got quite soaked on an "eco-cruise" across part of the Gaton Lake, a flooded region between the two lock-systems several miles long and wide, which provides the vast quantities of water used to operate the locks. It's rainforest and it rained. The boat was open-sided with a flat roof, and the spray from the bow was just as effective as the rain from the side. But a visit to the canal visitor centre was very good, a bird's-eye view of the process. Driving through Colon was interesting: there are no traffic lights and a maze of grid-style roads. It's a matter of making your intention clear by simply driving where you want to go. Simple! Quite modern cars and surprisingly few bearing scars of battle.

Wednesday 8 February - Manta, Ecuador

I was confined to my cabin for 48 hours with the "usual" gastric problem, about which the medical centre goes into hyperdrive. So I missed Puntarenas, Costa Rica, which according to several folk later was not too much of a loss. Similarly I missed Corinto, Nicaragua, which (ditto). They let me out on Sunday morning for Acajutla, El Salvador. Ironically, a lot of people had food poisoning after eating and drinking in San Salvador.

Those who went on tours in each of these three had good and interesting days. Those who stayed behind on the ship and who might have wandered ashore had been warned that there was not much to see, and this proved very true. There was a mini-market on the quayside at Acajutla selling gifts and trinkets, some of it really good quality. But outside the port area there was nothing at all except a sense of real poverty. I heard some tales of people's experience which make you want to weep. We are used to being harassed by traders and taxi-drivers, but it's a very different matter to be harassed by prostitutes and young boys offering their sisters. If it takes that sort of thing just to make a buck, it's serious poverty. And yet the tour guides will tell their visitors nothing about that side of life, choosing (or perhaps being told) to concentrate on the wonderful developments that are taking place in the country, and how pleased they are to show off the merits of their life-style and culture.

photosSo now it's Wednesday and we've just spent the day in Manta. What a contrast! Manta (which I had never heard of) is a bustling city with a huge fishing industry. When we arrived, there must have been five or six fishing boats just returning from their 3- or 4-month expedition and unloading their catch into large lorries which, we were told, take the fish to processing plants to be processed and canned. John West is a name that is well-known here. I watched net-full after net-full being unloaded, smaller fish first, about 12-15 inches, then larger fish up to (say) three feet in length which I was told were yellowtail tuna and the pride of the region.

I escorted a tour which amongst other things visited a factory where buttons were being made from Tagua (pronounced tah-wah), the nut of a certain wild palm tree that grows in the tropical rain forests of Ecuador. The nut is extremely hard, and is cut into machineable sizes for trimming and drilling, producing a variety of shapes and sizes for the world-wide market. However, the machinery that is running in the factory would give any half-trained Health & Safety official a field day - no guards on running belts, switches that don't cover live contacts and much more. The process, despite the hazards, is quite fascinating, and the machines run automatically and some are computer-controlled. Tagua is also fashioned into mantelpiece-sized birds and animals

photosWe also visited the memorial to Eloy Alfaro Delgado, the revolutionary leader of a century ago who led Ecuador to a new era of progress and liberal ideas. His face is everywhere, accompanied often by the sort of murals in public places that might be associated with Eastern Europe before 1989. The clenched fist, the strong arms, the rugged, powerful heads on statues are so reminiscent of the GDR, However, Eloy Alfaro did much to unite the highlands and the lowlands by building roads and railroads across the country, and the centenary of that achievement was in 2008. I gather that the present president continues the same sort of programme. The memorial itself was built in 2007 to be the place where the country's new Constitution would be (and was) written.

photosDelgado has a memorial above the nearby town of Montecristi, but the town may be better known as the centre of the Panama Hat industry, and industry it certainly is! The local market is obviously focused on selling Panama Hats and little else.

Now two more days of sailing before Callao (for Lima, Peru). Kris left this afternoon for her four-day tour of the interior, culminating in the world-famous train ride to the Andes peaks.

Friday 10th February - at sea

Two interesting comments following morning prayers, at which I'd dared to raise the possibility that God might speak just as clearly to Moslems and Buddhists as to Christians. I can't believe that Christianity is God's only or final word to the world. So afterwards, one lady came up and said, "Thank you so much for saying that. I've been waiting for a priest to say that for years!" Then a conversation with a man who quite aggressively challenged my integrity as a Christian minister and questioned my right to be a priest if I believe such things. Whoa! His wife, when asked how she felt about this, replied (rather more quietly) that it sounded as if I believe that every road leads to God, but this was said in such a way as assumed that if I did, I'd be wrong. Anyway, the final word from himself was "I won't be coming to any more of your services, and there's no point in discussing this", the true mark of a fundamentalist. Ho hum!

Saturday 11th February - Callao, Peru

photos Two days at sea, nothing special happened! Today we've reached Callao (pron. Calyow) which is the nearest port to Lima. Callao is not a safe place to wander, and a Dutch couple were mugged just 300 yards outside the port gate. As often seems the case, it's best to book a tour rather than go off on your own. Taxis were charging 20-30 US dollars each way for the 10Km journey to Lima city centre.

However, I escorted a tour to a privately owned museum. A Mr Larco founded the museum to house his collection of 45,000 pieces of pottery, pottery that had been placed in graves to accompany the dead to their next habitation. Normally I am not a museum person, but this collection is simply stunning. It's housed in the Larco residence, itself a beautiful house set in gardens of the most wonderful displays of flowers. As well as pottery that were fabrics and a myriad gold and silver ornaments for wearing about the person. photosMore significantly, there was also a display of erotic pottery, some extremely graphic. The significance is that these items display the sexual encounter between the living and the departed, the practice which keeps the dead alive as a continuing part of the cycle of life. So there are graphic illustrations of masturbation, anal sex and the rest, the aim of these being to return semen to the earth whence it and all life came.

Then we went to an Indian Market in Miraflores, which is a few miles from Lima city on the coast. There were possible a hundred stalls, selling either fabrics or trinkets. One Dutch lady commented that she used to work in a third world charity shop in Holland, and the products were the same. An hour's visit that some of us managed in ten minutes.

Sunday 12th February - Callao

Being in Callao for three days means that the service is this afternoon, so no alarm clock this morning. Lazy morning doing nothing much.

Kris returned at lunchtime with a suitcase that weighed considerably more than when she left. Lots of gifts and mementos including three table cloths. She's thinking of sending stuff back to Canada by post!

The service, surprisingly, was attended by about 70 folk. We're getting to know the regulars very well.

Monday 13th February - Callao

photosWe went shopping on the quayside. There was quite a marketplace along the quay and across the road, and prices were amazingly low. An alpaca zip-up cardigan and a beautiful tablecloth each $20US is amazingly cheap. A local band played "our" music with the traditional pan pipes, and I wished they'd play their music. But there are many CDs with traditional music on sale.

We left this busy port at teatime, with a huge flock of birds on the water being disturbed by the triple blast of the ship's horn. Then past a large number of cargo ships at anchor waiting their turn to enter the port, and out into the bay towards Arica, Chile.

Wednesday 15th February - Arica, Chile

photosArica is a town with a fairly busy fishing and cargo port. We went walking through the town along roads that, we were told, were only built within the last very few years. The main street was like any other anywhere: shops both sides, side streets with the odd restaurant, and plenty of people going about their daily lives. We spotted three Bata shoe shops within two hundred yards, but that the only trading name that I recognised. When the sun was not behind high scattered clouds it was fiercely hot, and I was almost tempted to buy a hat. I don't do hats! Lunch was a Pisco Sour (enjoyable and thirst-quenching drink), photosa Corona beer complete with lime slice for me, a drink I'd never heard of and can't remember for Kris, and a plate of mixed deep-fried fish and chicken between us. We waited to see if what we thought was our other dish would actually turn up, but it didn't so we paid and left. Note to self: buy a Spanish phrase-book!

Today, Thursday 16th, at sea bound for Coquimbo, Chile on Saturday, and Valparaiso, Chile on Sunday which is turn-around day, end of the second leg.

Saturday 18 February - Coquimbo, Chile

Today a tour escort to a distillery in the Elqui Valley. Kris and I were escort on the same tour but in different coaches. On the way we called briefly at the town of Vicuña but afterwards wondered why. Apparently there had been a town party of some sort the night before, so we guessed everyone was still sleeping. In any event, there was little to see.

photosSo on to the pisco distillery. Pisco is the national drink of Chile and is made by distilling different varieties of grape. Pisco sour is the usual drink, and is extremely tasty.

But for me, better than the drink was the setting of the distillery. The views from the coach in the hour-long drive were stunning - the hills along the coast with wisps of mist and cloud, and the hills were covered in cacti. The distillery seems to be set in a basin, surrounded by hills and slopes. I could easily have just sat and looked for hours. The air here is supposed to be some of the cleanest and clearest in the world, providing you're away from the coaches whose drivers keep engines running so that the air-conditioning doesn't stop.

The problem always with tours is trying to fit too much into a short visit. So after the distillery we called in at a restaurant for a half-hour snack break. There was hardly time to eat and drink because three coaches arrived at the same time and the restaurant couldn't cope with the rush. Then on the way back to the ship we were to spend some time in a handicraft market. However, traffic on a Saturday being what it was, we ended up with just fifteen minutes to browse the market. As it happened, that was enough to see everything on display. As I'm writing this, there's a phone call from Sarah (the Tours Manager) asking my version of the timing because one passenger complained that there wasn't enough time for lunch (misunderstanding; it wasn't lunch). So Sarah now has my version and can write a response. My escort duty was invaluable!

Sunday will be a change-over day, so our Sunday service was this afternoon, with fewer folk than usual.

Sunday 19 February - Valparaiso, Chile

photosChange-over day, with 500 people joining, 500 leaving and for the house-keeping department, lots of cabins to strip and prepare. Because those arriving will arrive before those leaving have left, the ship will be heaving with people. So there's no worship service today, and again Kris and I were escorts on the same tour in different coaches. Yet another winery! This time Chilean wine and again in perfect surroundings. After driving through dry and brown countryside for fifty minutes, we suddenly broke through into a fertile plain, with extensive vineyards on both sides. The Casa del Bosque winery is set in the middle of several hundred hectares of vineyard, and the best part of the visit was probably the tasting after the tour of the winery. The young man in charge of the tasting was a Sunday relief, and handed out glasses of white and red to anyone with an empty glass! Wunnerful! I bought four bottles, and Kris had smuggled some cheese and biscuits into the cabin, so one evening soon we'll have a cheese and wine party for two!

Now two days at sea before we arrive in Castro.

Wednesday 22 February - Puerto Montt, Chile

Another birthday and I don't feel any older. So enough said about that. Kris bought me a pair of cufflinks, a beautiful stone from the river-beds of the Andes.

Change of plans for the cruise. Instead of Castro today, it's Castro tomorrow because of a strike in Puerto Chacabuco where we should have been on Thursday. So today we're in Puerto Montt at very short notice. That's a real headache for the tours staff, who have to cancel or rearrange tours already booked, arrange new tours in Puerto Montt, and deal with a predictable number of guests (they're not called passengers anymore, they're guests!) who make quite unreasonable demands and get cross. The staff really do smile sweetly and take the flak without telling offensive passengers to go away. Can you teach patience in adversity?

The weather forecast was depressing: cool with showers. But actually it turned out to be a beautiful day, warm with blue skies. Obviously the art of weather forecasting is as imprecise as at home!

photos Puerto Montt is a charming town with a thriving fishing industry and an equally thriving handicrafts market (as all these coastal towns seem to have). Once again Kris and I had escort duty on the same tour in different coaches, and ours visited first a neighbouring town, Puerto Varas, with a brilliant view of the Osorno volcano across the lake. Amazingly and contrary to our expectations, given the morning weather forecast of clouds and showers, it turned out to be blue skies and warm. Then we moved on to Frutillar on the banks of Lake Llanquihue, a town created by German settlers towards the end of the 1800s. Lots of German names and an extensive living museum of the history of the town.

photos Arriving back at the pier at the end of the tour, four of us went to find a local restaurant. We ended up at a wooden two-storey building on a waters-edge with a menu in Spanish and only a hazy idea of what we'd ordered. What arrived was a plate of mixed fish, a selection of locally caught shellfish and others, including salmon which is an important industry on the Chilean coast, recovering from a virus epidemic which wiped out most of the stocks some years ago. Chilean white wine disappeared almost as quickly as the fish, so we quickly re-ordered and contributed magnificently to the local economy. That was my birthday lunch, and most enjoyable with good company.

Thursday 23 February - Castro, Chile

Weather - see yesterday! Today Castro, another town slightly shabbier than Puerto Montt but basically the same. A town built on the fishing industry with an extensive handicrafts market. This time Kris and I did serious shopping and came away with llama-wool zip-up coats, each for only $20US. It seems a very low price to us, but here the dollar or the peso goes further. Much of the "handicrafts" is in fact clothing, with jewellery and wooden articles as well. How so many stall-holders can each make a living is beyond me.

photos Towns along the inland coastline are known for their houses built on stilts. Some quite extensive groups of buildings seems precariously perched on very flimsy (to our eyes) poles, but they've been there for years.

I am rapidly falling in love with the Chilean coastline and culture. We left Castro to return to open sea towards Punta Arenas, following the coastline through the straits between a myriad islands, with snow-peaked hills beyond the cliffs. Towards the end of the afternoon mist appears and settles in the valleys between coast and mountains, forming enough of a white line to make the mountains appear detached and floating in space. This is a country I'd love to revisit, but I'd need a Spanish phrasebook at the very least.

Saturday 25 February - cruising the fjords

photos Today we woke to see hills and snow-capped peaks. We've sailed down the fjord with the Skua glacier at the end, and the scenery is (as always here!) breath-taking. Anthony (Cruise Director) came on the air at 0700, telling us where we were and what we might see, so by 0705 there were people everywhere, cameras at the ready.

Yesterday at sea was a fairly miserable day, raining and quite cold - not too surprising this far south. But today we have had another blue sky day, albeit considerably colder than before. Even so, hundreds of passengers lined the rails at almost every place where there was a rail to line. Lots of pocket-sized cameras, and not a few with very long lenses. We have a number of birders (they don't like to be called twitchers!) on board, with all the equipment (cameras, tripods, binoculars, coffee flasks etc) that goes with what they'd call a hobby and others might more rudely call an obsession!

The fjord itself might only have been a mile or so off the main seaway. It's very hard to tell what is fjord and what is not, since our route has taken us between a myriad islands big and small, twisting and turning as we sail gradually towards the south. It's quite impressive to stand on the top deck aft and look forward as we turn, just realizing how bulky a large vessel like this really is. Full marks to the pilot for knowing the channels.

We've just passed the wreck of an American freighter which sank in the 1960s having taken a wrong turn. Its cargo of high-priced cars of that era is still on board.

Sunday 26 February - Punta Arenas, Chile

photos The most southerly town in South America, and a former major commercial port for anything going into this region. Then came the Panama Canal, and its importance waned. At first glance from the ship it seemed rather shabby, but the town itself is surprisingly interesting and buoyant. From here you can see Terra del Fuego, which is the most southerly landmass. It was named by explorers who from the mainland could see the lighted fires that the native Indians used and thought it was the island itself on fire.

There were about sixty people at worship in the evening, and again the number might have been reduced by the late return of some of the tours. Nevertheless, it was a good service.

photos One tour included the local cemetery, perhaps a strange inclusion but one which in the end revealed a most interesting story. An unknown Indian was found dead in 1929 on a nearby island and brought to the Punta Arenas cemetery. Legends grew up that he had miraculous powers, and a bronze statue was erected in the late 1960s in front of his tomb. Now the walls of this statue are covered with plaques of thanksgiving for his miraculous help.

Monday 27 February - cruising Cape Horn

This morning Kris led a Taizé service, which was much appreciated by the faithful few who attend. It's a quiet reflective time, with no sermon and no communion. It is very hard to find solitude on board ship, with the incessant chatter all around and every moment taken up by some activity or other. So even a small time and space for silence was a gift.

The rest of the day was spent watching the coastline go by. It's an amazing coastline, totally uninhabited with almost no vegetation barring ground cover - no trees or bushes that I could see. The hills were snow-capped for most of the day's journey, and only at the official clearing of the vessel to leave Chilean waters did we see a small town, so remote that we wondered how people survive and what they do for work. Probably fishing since the waters abound with life.

photos Towards evening we passed Cape Horn, with a series of announcements by the captain about where we were and what was to see. We'd sailed through various channels (look at a map of Chile to see the abundance of small islands in the south) and eventually entered open waters to pass the Cape. Cape Horn is in fact an island, behind the quite triangular Cathedral Rocks. The sea was calm, about force 4 which is a gentle swell, but we could see the barrenness of the land and the rocks which protruded above the sea surface and would have been impossible to see at night without instruments. One could guess at the courage of ancient mariners and the hazards they faced in trying to find a passage around the Cape. If a ship were to founder, and even if the sailors reached the safety of land, the land was barren and would furnish little by way of sustenance.

So we've left Chile, a most intriguing country that covers almost all the west coast of South America. As we passed Cape Horn the ship's siren blasted out to signify our passing from the Pacific to the Atlantic, and the gradual return north to warmer climes. We've had amazingly good fortune with weather. Dull and cloudy mornings have given way to sunny skies and warm air, and even our guides have been surprised.

Wednesday 29 February - Port Stanley, Falkland Islands

photos "Welcome to the Falkland Islands", a large sign as we entered the harbour at Port Stanley via tender from the ship. Having sailed round Cape Horn, we struck off towards the Falklands, a visit much anticipated by many British folk on board. I detected a great interest from many in seeing the battlefields "where our lads served" and where so many from both countries died. Others were more keen just to visit the island to get a feel for life in such a southerly and remote outpost of Britain.

I heard that the islands have to be self-financing, and the only grants received from the UK are to maintain a military presence. Currently the Falklands economy, with a total population of a little over 3,000, is significantly in the black. We heard that the main industries are fishing, farming, mining (including oil) and tourism. There are four flights a week to and from the UK. This week's local paper, Penguin News, carries several articles and letters about the current Argentinean rhetoric regarding their claim to own the islands - clearly a cause for concern.

photos The island does have a real British flavour in many ways. English language (obviously!), sterling currency, drive on the left, real English pubs, fish & chips, and a supermarket selling Waitrose and John Lewis products. Fortunately the weather once again was warm and sunny, so having no tour to escort, we wandered through the streets looking at houses and getting a feel for life there. I learned that most houses are wooden and arrive as flat-packs, though there was one Victorian building (Jubilee Villas, 1887) in traditional brick, imposing but rather out-of-place amidst so many wooden houses.

In the evening the ship had a good old-fashioned pub sing-along with everyone (well, nearly everyone) waving union jacks and wearing hints of red, white and blue. We saw more Falkland island flags on houses than you'd ever see the union jack in the UK!

photos We stopped in Christ Church Cathedral. The Bishop of the Falkland Islands is Steven Venner, previously Bishop of Dover, but he wasn't there! We also found the Catholic Church, the Jehovah's Witnesses and a small church building which appears to be shared by The Tabernacle United Free Church and St Mary's, but no other information was visible.

All in all, it was interesting to see something of the island and the way of life. It all seemed comfortably familiar, and it was very nice to be able to read signs and posters and to buy fish and chips for lunch (even though the chips were imported frozen!)

There is a distinct possibility at this stage that Argentina may refuse permission for Balmoral to enter their waters (ie enter Buenos Aires). It seems that this has happened to other ships that have recently called at the Falklands, so we wait to see what may develop.

Thursday 1 March - at sea

St David's Day, so some good old Welsh hymn tunes for worship this morning!

Saturday 3 March - Montevideo, Uruguay

photos We were supposed to be berthed by 0700, but strong currents slowed us down. But then we were impeded more by a fishing ship on fire in the harbour, so we arrived eventually at 1130. Chaos for all those booked on morning tours and some rapid renegotiation by the tours staff. But the chaos continued with a very lengthy process of official clearance of the ship before anyone could go ashore, so no-one left the ship until nearly 1300.

photos As expected, we were not able to visit Buenos Aires because we have just come from the Falkland Islands, so the plan was for ship to stay overnight in Montevideo, leaving the following evening.

Well, that was the plan. We were then told that the ship had to leave the berth by 0400 the next day because of the continuing danger from the burning ship. So we're on to Plan C. Incidentally, to the right of this picture is the mouth of the River Plate, scene of the scuttling of the Graf Spey in 1939.

Sunday 4 March

We were now in Punta del Este, apparently one of the key resorts on the coast. But the ship was at anchor quite a distance from the shore, with a 20-minute tender ride from ship to shore. We decided not to bother going ashore and to take advantage of an almost empty ship. The top deck was almost deserted so Kris spent some time hopping from pool to sunbed - hopping is right, because the temperature was at least 29C and the wooden deck and stone poolside were blisteringly hot on bare feet.

Two other cruise ships were anchored nearby. One was the Costa Fortuna, which after the recent incidents with Costa ships might be an apt name!

We didn't expect many to be at worship in the afternoon, but were surprised when at least fifty came (in from the heat, I wondered).

We are now (Monday) at sea for two days before getting to Santos, Brazil, on Wednesday. We're nearly at the end of the third leg of the cruise. Time is flying by.

Wednesday 7 March

photos Santos. We arrived at about 1000 and the immigration officials began the long-winded process of examining and stamping every passport, and checking our yellow fever jab records. So it will be midday before we're off, and we sail away at 2330. We're in a very commercial port, with containers and commercial ships all around us. So as yet we haven't had a glimpse of the town, which apparently is a 20-minute coach ride away.

Some people are getting a bit tetchy and there have been a few spats and arguments. Probably there are a few reasons for this. There's the usual "____ Bug" (insert any ship's name) which has been around for ever and is very resistant to remedies. Air inside the ship is re-cycled and the air conditioning doesn't always keep an appropriate temperature. And there have been some colder days in the south Atlantic which meant that whereas passengers would normally be outside, even dressed for cool weather, most have been inside. There is a limit to the number of places available to fit 1300 people into a steel box! So there was one scuffle between two men in the deck 3 launderette, fists were used, and now there are 1298 people on board. photos The Captain exercised his right to evict unruly passengers. Way to go! (as they say in north America).

It was 1530 when we eventually were cleared to be here, but by that time we had lost interest in doing anything in Santos, which is just about visible in the far distance in this picture. I went to the Passenger Terminal to see if (a) I could get some local currency and (b) to see if there was a free Wi-Fi connection there. I could and did and there wasn't.

Thursday 8 March - Ilhabela

photos Ilhabela, an island off the mainland of Brazil and an extremely pretty one. We arrived early and anchored, and the tenders were ready and waiting in time for the tours. Kris and I both escorted tours today (same tour, different coach).

The tours were unfortunately rather badly arranged and some passengers felt that the itinerary had raised expectations that were not met. Tours are set up by local tour companies and then sold as packages to cruise lines,photos and perhaps not enough scrutiny is paid by the cruise line to see if description matches reality. So reports by escorts are valued and read by the ship's tour staff.

We stayed on the island after the tour, met up with Karla and Terry who are part of the Blue Diamond Band, had lunch together and then took a taxi along the coast. It is one of those islands which cannot be anything less than exotic and welcoming, with friendly people and lots of beaches each with several bars.

Friday 9 March - Rio de Janeiro.

photos Bustling, vibrant, colourful, exciting, wealthy. Rio is an extensive city created around a bay and surrounded by hills, on the top of one of which Christ the Redeemer watches over the city. This iconic statue was built in 1930 to face the city of Rio, but development since then has extended Rio as far behind as in front of the statue. This provided the image for worship one morning, where I explored the idea of "God in the midst".

Rio is hosting the next Olympics and every street in the city is being resurfaced. Not surprisingly, unemployment here is very low. But alongside the wealthy are the very poor, and often really means next door. photosThere are re-housing schemes to do away with the favellas, linked inevitably to the coming Olympics. It's sad that it sometimes takes such an event to provoke authorities to action.

Our tour took in much of the city and included the two well-known beaches of Ipanema and Copacabana. Such beaches! Quite empty on a Friday but come the weekend the whole city descends on this seafront. Fabulous!

Tuesday 13 March - Salvador

photos Salvador, much smaller and compact than Rio, but with its own ancient centre with churches and what was the first Jesuit seminary in the continent. The modern Salvador is noisy and busy, and rather scruffy in a not unpleasant way. There is the inevitable market selling everything a tourist may ever want, and some of it very good quality. We both bought artworks and could have spent much more on clothing and accessories.

The old town square, built on top of the hill above the port, is dominated by the cathedral, a large and imposing edifice. Inside are various anterooms with ornate decorations in wood and gold leaf, and the main nave quite bright. Interesting that the outside façade is showing signs of serious deterioration, while the interior is being redecorated.

Thursday 15 March - Recife

Recife is another large city but our tour took us first to Olinda, a small and pretty town a few miles out of Recife. This was a pleasant UNESCO World Historical Monument town, with a small centre of narrow streets and the Sé Cathedral, and several superb viewpoints.photos The city of Recife is like most others, busy and noisy and not very memorable. The Golden Chapel was worth a look, extremely OTT, but is now a museum and no longer a centre for worship. We looked for lunch after the tour, and crossed the bridge into the older part of town. But all we found was a huge flea market taking up several streets, selling almost everything but food! We ended up in a small sandwich bar, hardly the most interesting venue even for a sandwich.

Saturday 17 March - Fortaleza

Yet another escort duty. This one ended in the most interesting cathedral so far, in that it was almost undecorated. A huge interior, all painted white, with small windows, it was by contrast refreshingly simple.

photos The city is large and sprawling, with Saturday street markets in full flow. Like so many of these port towns, the beach area is dominated by high-rise apartment blocks and hotels; but since the beaches are quite stunning this is hardly a surprise. The skyline from a distance is simply dominated by skyscrapers.

photos One thing quickly passed in the coach was a walled campus where street children can receive shelter, education and medical treatment. It was a pity we could not have stopped to learn more about the problem of street children. I googled later and discovered something of the extent of Brazil's problem. The common situation is for children in the poorer interior of Brazil to be subjected to crime and abuse, understandable where grinding poverty is the norm, who escape and head for the cities where already there is a population of street children foraging and surviving. There are many agencies and charities, mostly church-based and many foreign, seeking to meet the need of the children, but the problem persists country-wide.

Wednesday 21 March - the Amazon

photos Two days steaming down the Amazon, an astonishing experience. The sheer size of the river, and the brown colour from all the silt and debris that is continuously washed out to sea, amazing. I think I expected something on the lines of mud huts, but Santarem is a sizeable town of about 100,000 people and not unlike any other town in Brazil.

We arrived to a downpour which filled everyone with gloom because it was almost the first rain we'd had since the first day of the cruise. We had also been somewhat unclear about the risk of malaria, so some people were popping Malaron tablets and others were doing nothing. In the event, we learned that mosquitoes are not much seen during the day and the risk to us was very slight indeed. But lots of folk (me included) had donned long-sleeved shirts and long trousers, and sprayed ourselves with anti-insect spray (Jungle strength!) just in case.

photos The rain stopped, and the rest of the day was blue-sky and hot.

The Tapajos river on which Santarem sits is blue, as rivers usually are. But when the Amazon joins the Tapajos, brown meets blue, and the "Wedding of the Waters" where the two continue side by side is truly amazing. Further up-river, we were told, this side by side separation continues for 13Km!

Tuesday 27 March - Mindelo, Cape Verde Islands

photos Five days at sea and we arrived in Mindelo, in the Cape Verde Islands. It was a short day because we arrived late and left at 1530. We escorted tours as usual, and walked through some of the town. The bus took us across the island to Catfish Bay, a quite attractive bay which hosts "an international music festival" but we couldn't quite see why! The island outside the town is almost barren rock, doubtless fascinating to a geologist but hard to see how people managed to survive in the more remote settlements along our route.

photos Our next stop on Thursday is Funchal, Madeira, a town I have been to several times. We've excused ourselves from escort duty so that we can wander into Funchal and find a nice restaurant for our last meal on foreign soil.

So this will be the last entry on the blog. I have created a new page on my website, with more pictures of the whole cruise. But if this has helped keep you roughly up to date with our three-month excursion, it's worth the odd hours writing it.