Letter to Amir

On board the M/S Berlin
December 15, 1985

Dearest Amir,

Here we are, at the northern tip of the Straits of Melaka, on the fringe of the Indian Ocean, cruising along in a beautiful white ship. As I write this in cabin number 205 which I share with Aida, the radio is playing music from Edvard Grieg’s “Song of Norway”. Dad and Aris are next door in 203. Your Aunty Samsiah and little Aidi, who turned three this year, are in 410.

Aida took great delight in counting all the decks and naming them for us – Promenade, Main or Haupt, Sun, Sky, Sports, Asia, and Bali. The last two meant for the crew are Crew and Dolphin.

Aris is with me, his nose buried in the Sunday paper comic strips. Aida’s exploring the ship with her class-mate Tunku Karen who’s traveling with her mother and brother, and Dad’s wandering around, Minolta in hand, happily clicking away.

We left home this morning and arrived at Port Klang at 10am, checked in and boarded the ship with about 330 other passengers. The Berlin, operated by Peter Deilmann Cruises, a German company, is a fairly small ship compared to others which can take in 800 or more passengers. Probably because of that, although it offers the comforts of a five-star cruise ship, its onboard atmosphere, though refined, is casual and friendly. Its staff who look after us during our meals give us attentive personal service. There’s Berthold, an Economics student at a University in West Berlin, a tall, blond German with twinkly blue eyes, who speaks English and French (Dad’s been practicing his French with Berthold!) Sabine’s a pretty, soft-spoken German girl. Harold is not as tall as Berthold but just as blond.

I interrupted this letter to join the others for lunch at table number 2 in the dining room. Thankfully, Samsiah, who was very sea-sick when the ship left the calm Melaka Straits for the choppy open sea on our way to Phuket in Southern Thailand, and spent the morning lying limply in her cabin bed, had overcome her nausea and was able to enjoy the lunch fare – carrot soup, Szechuan chicken and rice, and lemon ice-cream. She did full justice to the desert!

After lunch, there was some excitement. We were herded to the lounge for an emergency drill, given bright yellow life jackets, broke up into groups of 30, and headed for our life-raft station. Tension mounted during the briefing as we expected to board the life-boats and be lowered into the sea. The kids looked forward excitedly to that but were disappointed as no such adventure was planned for us. I was filled with relief as I pulled off my life jacket. While waiting for tea to be served we checked out the ship’s shops which sell interesting souvenirs and French and Italian clothes and accessories.

After tea we joined in a game of Bingo. Dad bought a card for US$10 and ended up winning almost US$200! He gave a wide smile when Samsiah snapped a photo of him receiving his prize!

We then headed for the Sun Deck, installed ourselves in the deck chairs and took pleasure in watching the great expanse of sea before us change color, from a clear blue to a vibrant green to a dull slate grey when it started to rain. And then the sun re-appeared turning the sea a shimmering emerald green. We felt relaxed and contented and stayed on until the sun dipped below the horizon.

After dinner of chicken soup, mildly spiced fish with rice, and sherbet, we tried our luck again at Bingo. But regrettably, no winnings. Didn’t someone say, good things don’t happen twice in a row?

We turned our clocks back one hour last night so we gained an extra hour today. By noon we were in Phuket but the sea was too choppy and no one was allowed to disembark. Some people had booked the James Bond tour and they were clearly disappointed. Poor Samsiah was about to be sick again.

The sea was still slightly choppy at 2.30 pm when we boarded our life-boat. After chugging along for 15 minutes, during which time Samsiah and I, our stomachs churning wildly, slumped down in our seats, we landed at Phuket. Ah! What a relief!

We battled with a swarm of toot-toot bus drivers, boarded one of the brightly colored buses and sped along the narrow, winding streets to the Pearl Hotel, right in the middle of Phuket town. The toot-toot probably got its name from the particular hooting of its horn. As we race along in it, we forget it’s powered by only a small scooter engine.

We used up the seven hours we had in Phuket by wandering around the town. The narrow streets were crowded with tourists, and shops selling all manner of goods to attract them. We browsed in a couple of places and ended up purchasing lovely lacquered boxes, silk money purses and tee-shirts. Aida didn’t fancy anything. Hard to please, that kid sister of yours!

Then it was back to the Pearl Hotel. A racy ride to the jetty and into our life-boat we clambered. We were quite taken in by the sight of the gleaming white Berlin as we approached it. It loomed steadily larger and more graceful and majestic.

Once on board we felt our energy level rising, probably as a result of our Phuket jaunt. We had a good work-out in the Fitness Centre, showered and got ready for dinner.

I suspect we all over-extended ourselves at dinner. The delectable roast beef on a bed of vegetables for our entre, was followed by chicken soup, and a choice of roasted leg of lamb, or shrimp with rice. Samsiah predictably enjoyed the desert best of all, chocolate cream puff plus ice cream!

On our last day Dad took us on a tour of the bridge where we were amazed to see how the ship cruises along by itself without a skipper, aided only by a computer. Then little Aidi was given the thrill of a lifetime. He was allowed to “steer” the ship. He held the wheel tightly with his tiny hands and didn’t want to let go!

The ship’s library had huge, well-stuffed chairs. We spent the rest of the morning there, and then it was time to say goodbye – to Berthold, Sabine, and Harold. To the few other passengers we’d befriended. And to the good ship Berlin.

Well, Amir, I hope you’re enjoying your IT studies at Boston University. It’s been six long months since you left home. Did I ever tell you that my friend, Dr Bernard Rubin, of the BU Communications Department, says Boston is the centre of the universe? Boston must be a great city.

We miss you very much and can’t wait to have you home next summer. Do stay in touch.

Love from all of us,





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