SEVEN DAYS BEFORE THE MAST
or: I Survived a "Fun" Cruise

Call me Ishmael… or just call me a weenie, but I am afraid of flying. Real, white-knuckled, dry-mouthed scared. Is this unreasonable? Perhaps. At any rate, if I have to fly to get there, I'd rather have you go and tell me how much fun it was. My wife Marsha and I were faced with having to plan a vacation, and we struggled to come up with a plan that would allow us both to enjoy ourselves for a week--without me whimpering and cringing in an aisle seat. (For the record, she enjoys air travel. She puts up with me…) Friends suggested a Caribbean cruise, which sounded like a great idea. I do like the ocean, and cruises are supposed to be romantic, right? I'd saved plenty of money by quitting smoking, and why not spend it on an indulgence? Accommodations, meals, entertainment and transportation are all provided, plus, every couple of days you go ashore and explore a new and exotic port. This sounded like a relaxing, enjoyable way to spend a week. What did we know?

We spent a day and a half driving from Washington, D.C. to Miami, Florida along Interstate 95, surely the dullest route in all of Christendom. I'll spare you the details, except to mention that this trip confirmed my notion that hell is full and the damned are roaming the earth--without using their turn signals. Our destination was the Port of Miami. This is an enormous maritime complex which was designed solely to frustrate attempts to enter it from the adjacent highway. Upon arrival we spent forty minutes trying to park any place where we could gain access to the ship. We found a spot a few thousand yards away, and dragged all 37 suitcases and steamer trunks to the loading zone.

Marsha likes to pack for every possible contingency, and all our trips resemble the Romanovs departing for the Winter Palace. Porters relieved us of most of the luggage, leaving us with a mere 11 carry-on bags. They assured us the luggage would be sent to our room (or "cabin"; we became fairly well-versed in nautical terminology as the week went on) in no time.

As we entered the boarding area and inched our way forward, we were issued official documents identifying us as cruise line passengers. This was probably to distinguish us from mere colorfully dressed riffraff. Why do we wear things on vacation we would not wear to mow the lawn at home?

After a snappy hour and a half of shuffling along and being loaded down with official paperwork, we could see the actual ship up ahead. With what seemed like our final ounces of strength, we approached the gangplank, only to be set upon by maniacally cheerful photographers who demanded that we pose for photos. Arm-weary, cranky, and by now quite bedraggled, we mustered up feeble grins and submitted to this, and were allowed to board.

The photos, it turned out, were available for a small fortune, and were posted the next day in one of the salons aboard ship. In them, we resembled political prisoners who have just been brutally interrogated, hosed off, and told to smile as proof to the International Red Cross that we have been humanely treated. I don't know why anyone would actually want a souvenir of their excruciating wait in line with a metric ton of carry-on luggage, but maybe that's just my response to the situation…

 

We were now on the ship! It was the newest addition to this company's line. You've seen their ads with the perky spokeswoman who capers about the decks, singing about all the fun one can have. "Yeah? Show me", I thought, as we dragged ourselves aboard. The ship was ...simply the most enormous, floating spectacle I've ever seen.

It seemed to hold everything you could possibly want - providing that means huge quantities of bad food, expensive liquor, gaudy entertainment and the chance to squander the kids' college fund on non-stop gambling. Gluttony! Revelry! Spectacle! Financial ruin! Let the games begin!

A lengthy hike brought us to our cabin, where we awaited the arrival of our luggage. "No time", measured on the nautical chronometer means "Three and a half hours". We decided that exploring the ship would be preferable to remaining in our "fun" cabin, so we set off in search of whatever adventure offered itself. On the Lido Deck, a band was playing calypso tunes and people were sipping colorful drinks containing fruit and paper umbrellas. A steward offered us some, asked us to sign something, and disappeared. I looked at the slip of paper, and realized that these drinks were not complimentary - they had just set me back thirteen dollars! But we got to keep the glasses and the paper umbrellas. I ate the fruit, dimly recalling some warning about keeping up vitamin C levels when in the tropical sunlight. The paper umbrella looked pretty stylish in Marsha's hair. I had to coax her repeatedly to leave it there. "This isn't fun, it's sticky", she complained. I wore mine for the rest of the day, determined to get my money's worth.


Average drink price= A second mortgage on your home.

Fortified with high-priced adult beverages, we set out to see the sights -- and were nearly blinded by them. We climbed staircases and descended elevators, roamed corridors and peered from balconies, taking in the stylistic overkill of this environment. How to describe the decor…? Ever been to Elvis's home in Memphis--Graceland? Imagine it a few hundred times larger, filled with neon tubing that revolves and changes color every few minutes. Back it all with mirrors, surround it with wallpaper, carpeting and furniture that'd make Elvis's digs look like a retirement community's dayroom, turn on the schmaltzy tropical Muzak and set it all afloat.

It was as if some brain-damaged interior decorator had received a multi-million dollar federal grant and been told to indulge his every fevered dream of lurid exorbitance. Color and texture combinations out of Dante's Inferno by way of an acid flashback in a Vegas lounge. This was a visual barrage; a nonstop poke in the eye; a triumph of conspicuous consumption over good taste-or simple common sense. A constant, unstoppable, fucking hallucination.

We roamed and wandered for a couple of hours, past the disco, the casino, several bars, the sauna, the gym, the weight room, the skeet shooting range, the hot tubs, several more bars, the concierge's desk, the snorkel rental counter, the shuffleboard courts and a few more bars. It seems that in order to get the maximum amount of fun out of one of these cruises you have to be a "fun" person at heart. This pretty much consists of drinking thrice your body weight daily and behaving like a complete loon at every opportunity.

There are approximately 9 employees per passenger, six of whom are responsible for seeing that you have a drink in your hand at every waking moment. The other three sneak up on you with video cameras to record your reactions to the nonstop, almost mandatory "fun" going on all around you. They also ply you with fliers advertising the locations and times of that day's scheduled "fun" events. One could choose from shore excursions, sing-alongs, bingo, group games, talent contests and pillow fights. The videotapes are (surprise!) for sale, like the photos. The nominal cost is equivalent to that of a competently made dental bridge, or an imported compact car. Your only alternative to this relentless activity is to lock yourself in your cabin and order "fun" room service…

After having staggered past the 36th bar, we realized we were lost. Rising to the occasion, I strode about in an attempt to simulate testosterone-drenched, bold leadership qualities and a God-given natural sense of direction. I succeeded in getting us as far as what may have been either steerage or the boiler room, before admitting defeat. I found a phone, asked to have the call traced, and requested some sandwiches be sent at once. ("At once" translates to "45 minutes" in nautical time…) A uniformed man bearing a tray appeared, and I tipped him five dollars to lead us to our room. He pointed to a door about seven paces down the hallway, outside of which loomed our mountain of luggage… I sagged with relief against the wall (or "bulkhead" as they call it; this term is also appropriately used to describe some of the stewards aboard the ship...).

No sooner had we started to unpack, than the intercom announced a Lifeboat Drill! We were ordered to don jackets and report to our muster stations. I chose a blazer that I thought looked quite stylish, until Marsha said she was pretty sure they meant life jackets. We found these bizarre garments and tried to put them on. They were large, orange affairs; several unflattering lumps connected by straps and clasps. A child of five could've figured them out--provided he had an advanced degree in Physics from CalTech. Too bad this kid wasn't sharing our cabin. Marsha's fit rather snugly around her buttocks, while mine was perched at a jaunty, seafaring angle atop my head, with a compass poking me in the eye. Ignoring the horrified stares of several crew members, we groped and hobbled our way out onto the deck.

Here we were greeted by an oddly uniformed man, who vainly tried to get us to form ranks. This proved terribly difficult, since those of us with our jackets lodged at hip level kept bouncing off one another like bumper cars and giggling. The contingent who wore them on their heads couldn't see properly and kept colliding with deck chairs, bulkheads and each other. For the next hour the crowd of sweaty, chafing fun-seekers practiced milling about while the officer called out seemingly random (and endless) numbers and letters. This drill would help, somehow, in the event we had to abandon ship.

We never quite understood it; eventually we either finished or the officer simply dismissed us in disgust. We immediately turned on the passengers who had managed to don their life jackets properly, and pushed them into the swimming pool, poking at them with shuffleboard paddles. Whenever they tried to climb out, we herded them into the deep end and made them apologize for being so damnably clever. This was actually kind of fun, but the novelty wore off quickly. The exertion soon proved tiring, and we called it quits.

I'd had the foresight to drop bits of our sandwiches behind us as we left our cabin, and hoped to use them to retrace our steps. However, the morsels blended perfectly with the hideous pattern of the carpeting and I was soon out another fiver to a smiling steward who guided us back to our cabin. I figured it was the lesser of two evils. Crawling about the corridors and randomly tasting the carpet would have appeared a bit odd, even amidst the frenzied abandon that passes for normalcy among cruise passengers. It was time for dinner, and after changing, we followed the crowd along to the dining room.


Squint! Squint for your life or risk going blind in here!

I should have known that dinnertime was also fun time. Our busboy was constantly doing loud and annoying "magic" tricks. "VOILA!" he'd blurt, and brandish a dinner roll he'd produced from a napkin-covered basket. "HOOP-LA!" he'd shriek, and place a pat of butter on your bread plate. "PRESTO!" he'd yelp, as he put a spoon on the table. "Oh, for God's sake…" I'd mutter, trying not to make eye contact with him.

Our waiter was a small, nervous man with a thin, sibilant voice. It blended perfectly with the conversation from the other 200 tables in the room; the result was that we could never hear him clearly, nor did we understand a word he said all week long. Not ....one..... word…
A typical mealtime exchange:
ME: "What's the special tonight?"
WAITER: "Zzzz, nnn, rrr, bzzz nnnrrr."
ME: "Pardon me? What was that?"
WAITER: "NNNZ! HSSS, BZZZ RRR SSSS!"
ME: "Uh, fine; I'll have that, please."…. and so on.
After a few attempts to decipher his speech, we gave up and switched to simple declarative sentences. Thus, every meal became an adventure. This was the "fun" element, as it turned out. We eventually nicknamed him "Buzz".


As I raised my fork to my lips for the first time, the lights went out, and I stabbed myself in the chin. A second later they came up to triple brilliance, slamming my pupils shut and causing me to poke myself in the cheek. The sound system blared into life with a squeal of feedback, and I flinched, spasmodically hurling a chunk of prime rib across the room. Glasses and silverware clattered to the floor all over the dining room and my first thought was "They've booked METALLICA to play the dinner show!" No: This was the signal for the nightly parade. Out trooped the "singing" waiters (many of whom lacked truly polished English skills, and were lip-synching). Up went my stress level, and away went my appetite, as they plowed their way through about 17 choruses of "HOT, HOT, HOT!" while carrying flaming dishes of Baked Alaska and Cherries Jubilee. They snaked their way through the room, circling the tables. I was waiting to see which passenger was going to get splattered with fiery liquor as people jockeyed for position to videotape the demented conga line, but the evening passed without further incident. Each night this was the main feature of dinner. One could never be sure exactly when it would start, so each night I poked myself in a different spot as the first blackout took place. Jittery, tender of face and covered in food stains, it became increasingly difficult to relax and enjoy a meal…

After dinner we would attempt to stroll about the ship and work off the trauma of the nightly parade and the attempts at communication with Buzz. This was not the relaxing jaunt it might have been, as I had seen "CAPTAINS COURAGEOUS" one too many times, and had dreadful images of falling overboard and winding up on a fishing trawler with Spencer Tracy, playing a concertina and gutting mackerel. Adding to my apprehension was the presence of several stewards who trailed us wherever we went, eager to offer directions to our cabin. They'd come to know us as easy marks, and we were responsible for placing several of their children on the paths to Ivy League colleges with our tips.

To escape them, we veered off into one of the casinos. I am no gambler--and I proved this by first imposing a $20.00 limit on my losses, and then blowing $380.00 in an attempt to recoup them. Lady Luck was absent that night; her evil twin, Miss Fortune sat at my elbow, urging me on… We abandoned the casino and found our way to one of the lounges, where a show was getting underway. The M.C. was the ship's social director, a real wizard at coaxing people on-stage to make idiots of themselves. The entertainment was provided by a small (though very loud) orchestra and some energetic dancers clad only in a handful of sequins. There were also an arthritic acrobatic team, a drunken magician and a comic blue enough to make Eddie Murphy wince. Between the "professional" turns there was a passenger talent show-- but I will draw the curtain of charity on that, lest I truly frighten you. There was apparently no particular dress code in effect, either...

Our daily routine of eating, wandering, drinking, gambling, watching shows and tipping someone to return us to our cabin was punctuated by going ashore and getting hopelessly lost in strange new cities. Every other day we'd make port somewhere and trundle off in search of adventure or duty-free shopping. These excursions were definitely not for the financially challenged. We soon became exhausted from shuffling about in stores where we competed with other passengers to be the first to relieve ourselves of the awful burden of our cash surplus.

In Nassau the prevailing commodities seemed to be three T-shirts for $10.00, or anything made from straw. In San Juan it was the potent rum, or the even more potent Puerto Rican coffee. (When properly brewed, it will enable you to run the mile in about a minute and a half; very useful for getting from downtown to the docks in record time.) In St. Thomas, it was anything electronic. I bought a video camera, which got a real workout on this trip. We saw beautiful buildings, lovely people, colorful beaches and shot about 20 rolls of film during our ramblings, in addition to several miles of videotape. There was an odd blend of splashy exoticism and drab, industrial environs; a juxtaposition of gaudy commercialism and grinding poverty. Men in brightly colored clothing would panhandle us, making for a rather surreal afternoon. We wandered everywhere, seeking local color and an unusual lunch...

...after which we would frantically attempt to find and board the ship before it sailed without us. Safe in our cabin we'd replay the day's events on our VCR, and comment on all the unusual things we experienced, and then go to sleep. After all, tomorrow held more surprises…

As I review the videotapes we shot, I see these things: I am dressed in clothing I would never be seen in at home. We are both loaded down with shoddy, tourist junk; we are toasting each other with exotic tropical drinks. There's Marsha in her new dress, sipping champagne at dinner; there she is gathering seashells on the beach, her hand shielding her eyes as she smiles at me with the sun in her pretty face. Here I am petting one of the dozens of stray cats we encountered in San Juan. Here I am, dressed up for dinner, looking decidedly uncomfortable in a suit and tie. We both have the strangest expressions on our sunburned faces as we wave for the camera. If I didn't know better, I'd swear it looks almost as if we were …having fun! Go figure...

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