I’m back on terra firma again after a week on a cruise vacation with Spouse and Spouse’s Parents. Not quite home yet, so still somewhat limited in terms of my internet connection, but I’m in the process of getting caught up. I also have some reflections on cruising, since this was my first cruise vacation, which I present for your amusement below the fold.
Cruising is actually quite strange, compared to most of the traveling I’ve done. Cruising is designed to ensure that people aren’t actually challenged by the experiences of their travels, which is rather missing the point, especially of international travel, as far as I’m concerned. Yes, I want it to be a vacation, but by the end of the week I had a strange nagging discontent because I hadn’t learned much of anything and hadn’t talked to many people who weren’t also on the cruise or employed by the cruise. In fact, one of my treasured memories from this cruise is breaking away from the planned off-ship activity when it got boring and finding a local beach bar playing reggae and serving Carib, talking at least a little with folks with an accent thick enough to float the cruise ship and enjoying something not so contrived.
A couple of times, I had to look down to make sure I wasn’t turning into one of the boneless blobbly lumps in a floaty chair from WALL-E. I was stunned at how accurately the movie captured the cruise environment taken to its logical conclusions. The whole time, scenes from WALL-E were playing through my mind like a faint background counterpoint of irony.
We, though, didn’t have robots at our beck and call. We had people. I found out that many of the employees work 10-12 hour days, seven days a week, for months on end, some of them separated from their families to do so. I don’t know if they think they make enough, and I don’t know if any amount of money is worth that – and these people are certainly not getting rich doing this. And for a lot of the time, these people are treated with about as much respect and consideration as the robots were in the movie, before the robot taught people how to be people again…which leads to some interesting speculation.
So in a way, this experience did challenge me and make me learn new things and have a new perspective. I’m still sorting it all out, so in the meantime I’ll share a few other odds and ends of thoughts from the week:
The US Virgin Islands used to be pirate havens, and since the original peg-leg variety went away, the modern jewelry store variety has set up shop instead. I wasn’t sure before that it was actually possible to be tired of looking at jewelry. Now I am. Ooh! shiny! turns into Aah! I’m blind! remarkably quickly in the Caribbean sun.
The jewelers have gone from loss-leaders to outright free gifts just to get traffic into the stores, and I had such a proliferation of flyers and coupons and offers that I felt like I was doing a scavenger hunt or doing a treasure hunt using a map made by a very forgetful and rather cheap pirate. (Perhaps the two attributes were related?) A couple of the free gifts were nice, though, and the rest will make assorted related children very happy the next time they play dress-up.
Spouse observed that the only thing that moves more slowly than an Army brigade is a brigade-worth of civilians. The procedures for embarkation and disembarkation do have a remarkable similarity to military set-ups, although the people on a cruise are more colorfully dressed and generally told that it’s part of their job to be cheerful, with varying degrees of success on both fronts. The other major dissimilarity was the employees handing out rum drinks as you get on deck, which especially in the warm weather functions as a passenger tranquilizer so the crew can go on about the business of getting the ship away from the dock.
This was the first time I’d ever been on a ship out of sight of land, and it was a more impressive sight than I had imagined. I had little difficulty understanding how truly terrifying that could have been for explorers without GPS and especially without an engine; I spent quite a bit of time watching the ocean and thinking about that, actually.
The seas were pretty calm for us, but the last couple days, cruising at a full 18 knots, there was more motion, and the thrum of the engines was quite impressive and all-pervasive. There are two ways to cope with the motion of the ship: one is to get “sea legs,” which feels a lot like having an inner-ear infection all the time until your brain learns to take into account the motion of the deck while one foot is in the air so that it knows where to put the foot down by the time it finishes the step, a lot like learning to walk all over again. The other is to drink until you sway at roughly the same frequency as the ship, at which point you don’t notice it any more. Both strategies leave one feeling rather queasy on the morning of disembarkation.
Speaking of food and drink – mostly drink – I was struck by the way the ocean is a lot like a desert, except in reverse. The ocean and desert are both highly unforgiving places where a traveler has to take absolutely everything she’ll need, right down to drinking water, with her. There are some people who live in close proximity to the harsh environments and have highly adapted coping strategies and cultures heavily shaped by the physical requirements, and everyone else thinks those people are weird (and everyone else is right, but so are the sailors and nomads).
And finally, a random observation: Sadly, some people’s unexplored depths, once plumbed, turn out to make you just a little damp around the ankles.