DANANG, Vietnam, October 30, 2017 – To be honest I didn’t know what to expect when I embarked on my most recent travel adventure of cruising the South China Sea to six Asian countries while battling the consequences of ALS.
For one thing, crowds and stairs are terrifying when the least little stumble could bring you crashing to the earth in mere seconds. Cruise ships are notoriously congested, and the ancient world was not designed with ramps.
Another factor to consider was eating in an elegant dining room where I resembled a three hundred pound beagle attempting to lap food from my plate or spraying everyone in the room with bits of half-eaten food during an unexpected coughing spasm.
A South China Sea Cruise ads six new countries toward my “Century” club membership
I have visited Thailand and professionally produced videos in Japan, but much of the rest of Asia is unfamiliar to me. I was determined to see Vietnam and Hong Kong as part of my “100 countries” traveling resume. When you acquire 100 countries that you have visited you become a member of the unofficial “Century Club” of travelers.
I am not letting ALS stop my quest.
Celebrity Cruises, formerly Chandris Line, offered the ideal package with an itinerary that included six countries and six days at sea, allowing the opportunity to rest between ports. Beginning in Shanghai and ending in Hong Kong also seemed to me to be the preferred logistical route.
After a minor snafu in Shanghai, the Celebrity Millennium, named because its maiden voyage was at the turn of the century, departed three hours late bound for South Korea.
In the process, one of those magical life-altering experiences occurred to make this journey by far the most memorable cruise I have ever had or ever will have.
It was one of those unplanned serendipitous experiences that make the world of travel so exciting and rewarding.
I am not what you would call a “veteran” or a “professional cruiser.” I don’t know every ship in a company’s fleet or what their reputation is for food, entertainment, service and all the other amenities cruising offers.
The onboard entertainment, while diversionary, has not been the primary reason to choose one cruise or another. The reason I choose to travel via cruise ship is that I know where I want to go, and that I will get there safely, with a friendly staff and good food to eat.
I have always thought of shipboard shows as worthwhile entertainment, but more on a second tier level. Celebrity changed my mind in more ways than one.
During the course of the 12 days, we sailed across the South China Sea, we made our way to the Celebrity Theater each night, which, in the end, turned out to be every bit as good or better than Broadway on the high seas.
Ballroom dancing on the waves
With Tina LaRussa, a former school teacher who is now a veteran of nearly two decades at sea, playing piano and leading a truly amazing five-piece band, the shows began with a bang and ended in a collage of pure entertainment magic.
So intriguing was the first show, I went to a ballroom dancing lesson the following day where Michelle Rinaldi and Terry Ryan were teaching Meringue.
The class was filled with senior citizens from all over the world and the Celebrity crew conducted their lessons as though each person was a personal friend.
At that point the writer in me felt compelled to send a message to those hard-working entertainers who had dedicated their lives to the art of singing and dancing not only for their own love of music but to share that joy with others.
The great Swiss artist Hans Erni once told me about the importance of dreams. Said Erni, who was 86 at the time,
“A man must live within his dreams, because if he does not, he is, in a sense, already dead.”
As a former professional athlete, the words resounded within me, and my purpose was to express those thoughts to the incredible singers and dancers on the Celebrity Millennium.
Saying thanks for Song and Dance on a South China Sea Cruise
Not quite knowing how to reach the staff, I addressed a letter of appreciation to Michelle and her colleagues, dropped it off at guest relations.
I had no expectations of a response. I simply wanted this group of talented people to know how much they were appreciated by one among the endless sea of new people they encounter every ten days or so.
It was what followed that blew me away.
After the performance of a show called “iBroadway” I went to have my picture taken with some of the cast members. It is something I almost never do because I do not enjoy having my picture taken and, in my present state I am self-conscious that I appear more feeble than ever before.
As I stepped between Michelle and another male dancer to my right, she looked at me and said, “Is your name Bob?”
“It is,” I answered. Suddenly, without warning, a group of talented, enthusiastic young dancers was thanking me for the letter I wrote.
In a sense, it felt a bit like being the prettiest girl in school not going to the prom because everyone else thought she had a date. The Celebrity singers and dancers receive nightly applause and standing ovations. But the accolades came from behind a veil of stage lighting; the cheering coming from the silhouettes of passengers ready to move on to the next activity on the ship’s agenda.
In a small personal way, my message lifted that veil of anonymity hanging between the passengers and the entertainers.
Suddenly the cast was able to know how much they were appreciated, not from applause, but because one silhouette suddenly has a name.
Thinking that was the end of it, I was passing in front of Guest Relations the next day when someone called out “Bob, wait. I have something for you.”
It was Michelle who was standing on the steps above me preparing to deliver a letter of thanks and a small gift to the same desk where I had dropped off my original note.
Cookies and conversation
In an instance of sheer coincidence, our paths crossed and Michelle was personally able to deliver a box of cookies and a personal note as a token of thanks.
We chatted briefly and during the conversation, I explained that somehow I had deleted my pictures with the cast and asked if it would be possible to take one or two again after their late performance in the Cosmos Lounge later that night.
I also asked if there was a way I could contact them so I could send links to stories would be writing. Michelle agreed and we parted with a picture session planned for later that night.
Before going to dinner, I attended the final performance of the cruise which involved a Russian husband and wife team of gymnasts who combined ballet, dance, and gymnastics in a stunningly elegant and dynamic exhibition of strength and skill. It was truly like watching Cirque du Soleil on steroids.
While waiting for the show to begin, a gentleman came to where I was sitting and introduced himself.
“I just wanted to thank you for the letter you sent to the cast,” he said. “My daughter is one of the dancers and they really appreciated it.”
How he knew me or picked me out in that huge auditorium I will never know, but there was Beth Mitchell’s dad thanking me for recognizing his daughter,
I arrived at the Cosmos Lounge late, with the seats on one side of the room already taken. Making my way across the dance floor, I recognized some of the dancers and singers waiting for the show to begin.
The faces were familiar though the names were not; yet each person greeted me as though I was one of them.
A singer named Rhona Hay began talking with me and said, “We don’t usually come for the shows. Tonight we came up for you.”
When the performance concluded we shot a new round of photos which included the entire cast. Afterward, they presented me with a list of their names and e-mail addresses so I can share with them the stories when they are published.
The giving of oneself
I have always believed the greatest gift a creative person can give to someone else is a piece of their craft; a picture by a photographer, a painting by an artist, a poem by a writer.
For singers and dancers, it is the joy of music and the love of rhythm.
I often wondered how people afflicted with medical trials such as ALS could say they are blessed despite their afflictions. Now I know.
It all happened on the waters of the South China Sea with a gift from a talented group of youthful, exuberant performers who are seeing the world and sharing their love of dancing and singing.
Hans Erni was right. Never, never, never stop dreaming.
About the Author: Bob Taylor is a veteran writer who has traveled throughout the world. Taylor was an award winning television producer/reporter/anchor before focusing on writing about international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (http://www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
Editors Note: Support Bob’s GoFundMe to give him a hand up