Réveillon in Rio
Millions of people have taken cruises all around the world, but I am not one of them. I’m not sure exactly why I’ve avoided them all these years. Is it the fear of nausea ruining the vacation? Fear of boredom? Insufficient lifeboats?
My wife, however, has long dreamed of going on a cruise, particularly the one she says is the most famous in Brazil — the New Year’s Eve cruise to Rio. One afternoon, without my knowledge, she made a reservation for us on the cruise.
My wife is a very kind and organized woman, a retired bank manager, and during the course of our marriage had rarely set sail on a course that would surprise or frighten me. Until now. When she finally confessed, I was in a state of shock. Me, on a cruise? She had grown weary of my vague excuses and had left me no option by securing our cabin reservation with a cash deposit.
As the tiniest compensation, her secret was revealed at the end of January 2016, so I had eleven months to adjust to my fate. “It will be great,” she assured me. “You’ll see. Thousands of Brazilians together on a ship celebrating New Year’s in Rio watching the fireworks. It has to be fun.”
With no other recourse, I began assembling a mental image of myself on a ship with 2500 Brazilians and 1,000 staff/crew. Psychologists report this is the best way to overcome a phobia, by imagining yourself doing what you fear and emotionally preparing for the worst. Should I bring my own lifeboat?
My wife assisted me in my mental preparation by showing me the website of our cruise line. We located our cabin. (I silently counted the number of lifeboats, which were drastically inadequate by my estimate.) My wife explained that she had chosen an excellent room with a balcony near the top of the ship. She said the higher the floor, the more exclusive the cabin.
She also told me that cruises are flexible as to the number of cabin occupants. This is especially valuable in Brazil, where parents don’t go anywhere without their children, no matter how old or young the children are. On planes, buses, and lifeboats, Brazilian children — infants, teens, adults — are traveling with their parents. Newlyweds travel with newborns and bring along the grandparents as second stringers.
Contemplating our December 26 departure, I sailed onto the Internet, searching for the secrets of a successful cruise. Assuming the ship didn’t hit an iceberg along the coast of Brazil where icebergs don’t exist, mostly I was plagued with sickness fears. How would I avoid the inevitable and unforgettable ailment that accompanies sea voyages, whether from ship-tossing nausea or something health experts call norovirus? Better known as the stomach flu. The symptoms are nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, and stomach cramps. I read that while the norovirus often occurs on ships, it’s everywhere, ranking second only to the common cold.
For those of you whose fantasies are more in line with my wife’s, I would advise booking early. A New Year’s cruise is particularly popular, and all the cabins on ours sold out months in advance. Additionally, like on planes only worse, as it got closer to the departure date, the original prices went up dramatically.
Fully armed with several medications guaranteed to cure seasickness, we left Curitiba at midnight, taking a taxi to a private bus terminal, where our cruise reservation would provide us with a comfortable bus for the six-hour ride to Santos, a harbor located in the state of São Paulo. The 50-seat bus arrived on time, 12:30 am, and soon 25 Brazilians and I were ensconced with all our luggage, a free snack box, and a clean bathroom.
Never having been on a cruise, I had no idea what to expect, other than fear. However, I was immediately calmed into submission when our bus departed 30 minutes ahead of schedule. The driver had a list of names, and no one else was expected, so we left.
As there are no passenger trains in Brazil, long-distance travel is negotiated by plane, car, or bus. The bus system is extensive and multi-faceted, with bus fares dependent on the bus’s seat positions, literally. Our bus was rated semi-leito, which meant the seats reclined farther than on a normal bus or plane. Each seat had its own footrest, and there were several TV screens scattered throughout the ceiling. There are also leito buses that provide fully reclining seats with private curtains and personal TV monitors, much like first class seating on international plane flights. These first class or executive leito buses only make overnight trips.
As we snaked through the darkness on the deserted streets of Curitiba and headed for the highway, the bus’s interior lights went off, and with my free supply of bottled water, I settled down with a book under my personal dome light.
There was a door at the front of the bus that closed off the driver, just like on a plane. I don’t think the door was for protection against a terrorist attack, however. Perhaps it was so the passengers wouldn’t be bothered by the radio squawks reporting traffic delays due to bus accidents.
Much to my relief, not only were there two drivers, but there was a bus attendant with a microphone to keep both drivers awake. In semi-comfort on the semi-leito, I dozed off, ignoring the fact that I’d never been on a bus that departed early at 1 am. Suddenly, the trip wasn’t so bad.
Our bus made a halfway stop at an enormous restaurant along the highway, which was obviously built to accommodate boatloads of buses. There was a carbon-copy rest stop on the other side of the highway, and both were open and well-lit at 4 am. The bus attendant had informed us that we’d have a rest stop halfway, and here we were at a 24-hour restaurant exactly midway, three hours into the ride.
We approached the harbor in Santos early the following morning. The cruise boarding process was organized with skill and calmness. Our bus dropped us directly in front of the terminal building, where we handed our luggage off to the crew after they had entered our names into the ship’s computer. Inside the massive terminal building were a snack bar and clean bathrooms and sufficient seating for 2500 New Year’s revelers.
About 90 minutes later, just as we were adjusting to our cruise jitters, PA announcements began to organize us into groups for the boarding. Our documents and hand luggage were checked as we passed through metal detectors similar to an airport screening. No liquids were allowed, but I was permitted to keep the snacks I hadn’t consumed on the bus. I read this as a sign of our and every cruise’s flagship motto: You will never be without food. Soon we were boarding, again ahead of schedule, after the desk clerks or ticket agents or whatever cruises call them took every passenger’s digital photo.
For the first time my wife and I were setting foot onto a colossal cruise ship, and we were lost in reverie with all the other open-mouthed passengers. Everyone was trying to get themselves, plus the 900-foot vessel, into a selfie. Onboard, what else but a buffet lunch awaiting us.
Next challenge: Did ships have bellhops to guide us and our luggage to our cabins, or did the crew get their entertainment watching us get lost? And why were all the sleeping quarters on a ship called cabins anyway? More important, had they skimped on the lifeboats to open up more deck space, like those Titanic guardians of cruise design?
After the lunch buffet, we strolled onto the upper decks, surveying Santos harbor. A cargo ship called the Basic Rainbow was being unloaded, and Brazil’s largest port was busy with a constant parade of freight trains. Twelve decks below, I spied the last stragglers heading up the gangplank. I wondered if today’s cruise ships that stood 175 feet high still called it a gangplank. Maybe that was only for the mutineers being sent to a watery grave. I took a photo of the mooring line at the stern, two ropes each a foot thick that held us to the dock, while my wife refused to believe that a ship could be held secure by rope. Her incredulity made perfect sense.
After a perusal of the upper-deck entertainment: shuttleboard and miniature golf, which I learned had been renamed minigolf in the 50 years since I’d last played, I spied the circling radar atop the bridge. I’d seen it in so many movies that now it looked like a cliché. Assuming it wasn’t a prop, there was a good chance we’d not get lost.
In the afternoon, we made our way to our cabin, Room 9160. I was disappointed we found it so easily on the 9th deck. Our luggage wasn’t there, but it arrived an hour or so later, parked outside our door. We were also provided with an ID card with our cabin number. It was a thick plastic, the size of a credit card, and I later learned was to play a significant role in our voyage. At the bottom was a bar code that was scanned to reveal our portraits taken by the cruise agents before we boarded. A stolen or borrowed ID card was useless. It seemed everything important in the digital world now fit onto a plastic card. The ID was also a key card to unlock our cabin. Like English becoming an international language, plastic cards now have a universal size.
As the luggage arrived without warning, there were no bellhops to ask why the rooms on a cruise are always called cabins. It may have something to do with size, or lack there of. Our cabin, one of the largest on the ship, which included a king size bed, private bath, and balcony with two chairs, was as small as any room I’d ever seen in a Manhattan hotel.
Our cruise bed was comfortable and rigid. I’m a fussy sleeper, as my aging lumbar demands a firm mattress, which seemingly don’t exist even in the best hotels. Our bed was a marvel considering it was the only place to sit down in the room; it must have gotten plenty of use. It came equipped with six pillows, another bedding surprise. I couldn’t recall a hotel stay that didn’t include my requesting additional pillows before the bellhop had time to extend his hand for a tip.
Our cabin had an extra bed folded into the wall, four feet off the floor. It was like a flying Murphy upper bunk bed. I was grateful there wasn’t a third party staying with us, as I had no idea how we would use the bed. Call room service for a step ladder?
There were more lamps and closet space than any hotel. It had a safe, not quite as big as Kate Winslet’s on the Titanic, but I still couldn’t crack the code. A call to the “front desk” provided us with assistance. The air conditioning control was on the wall, and the simplest I’d ever encountered: a button with up and down arrows – warmer or cooler. No digital temperature readouts or timer settings. The air conditioning was so quiet I was certain it wasn’t working, and I couldn’t find the a/c vent.
Having lived in Brazil for several years, I’m in a position to refute the common misconception Americans have about the country. Thanks to global climate change, the Amazon is frequently in the news, and Americans think Brazilians live in the jungle. If not the jungle then on the beach, swinging from hammocks, with the typical work day consisting of shaking a palm tree for coconuts. The day’s biggest challenge is keeping the coconuts from falling on one’s head. Weekends are busy with bananas.
Surprisingly, most 21st century Brazilians don’t fit this description. Nevertheless, it’s still a struggle for Americans to hear descriptions of cleanliness in Brazil. Brazilians’ habits of personal hygiene and home order surpass anything I’ve witnessed. They are extraordinarily fastidious, as if their homes were modeled on Hollywood movies, which may not be that far from the truth. The critical nature of their domestic quarters borders on germophobic sterility.
Certainly the constant presence of maids contributes to this custom. Everyone has a maid and not just at home. Every store, every office, every supermarket. The maids have maids. The apartment building where I live has a maid who cleans only the lobby and game room, never inside the apartments. She polishes the stainless steel and mirrors in the elevators. The hallway outside my apartment entrance is clean enough to eat off.
Therefore, this inquiring expat wanted to know: Would our Italian cruise ship equal Brazilian standards? I asked my wife. “It’s better than a 5-star hotel,” she replied.
Her positive response was certainly inspired by our maid, a perpetually smiling Indonesian fellow who spoke English and cleaned our room twice a day. His immaculate tendencies included a continual supply of fresh towels and vacuuming our wall-to-wall carpet. The hallway outside our cabin door stretched the length of the ship, and it was carpeted as was the rest of the ship. There was rarely a moment in the day when our maid, whose name was Gede, wasn’t enthusiastically cleaning the cabins on the 9th floor or vacuuming the blue and gold carpet in the hallway, which reached from bow to stern – 275 meters, nearly 900 feet. It was so long and narrow and symmetrically perfect it didn’t look real. It appeared more like an optical illusion created with mirrors.
Nine hundred hallway feet is a lot of carpeting; yet, I never saw a stray candy wrapper or frayed carpet edge. Despite its obvious seaworthiness – which we experienced at exactly 5 pm as we set sail under another cliché, a few hearty blasts of the horn – the ship was spotless. I wondered if the Italian owners had prepared especially for a sold-out crowd of fussy Brazilians.
I’m not the oceanic type, so after we’d unpacked, I prepared myself for the worst. Even the most experienced sailors have yet to discover the secret to excessive eating combined with nausea. I feared that minus excessive eating, what would be the purpose of a cruise? However, as we all know, marriage is based on compromise, and my wife had forced me into it.
Much to my surprise, the first morning I awoke nausea-free. My wife and I moseyed down the endless blue and gold carpet toward the endless breakfast. There was the beaming Gede, inquiring as to how we’d slept. My honest answer, “Like a baby.” The ship had sailed all night and despite staying just a mile or so off shore in calm waters, we could feel the swaying as we lay in bed. The gentle side-to-side rocking, Gede said, was caused by a headwind. “But it’s nothing,” he informed me.
My wife’s analysis: “The bed rocked me to sleep.” She pronounced it akin to a self-propelled hammock.
Ready for breakfast, I came face-to-face with an unalterable truth: nobody knows why people go on cruises, some more than once. Obviously, something was going on. Why are cruises so popular? I was determined to find out. Was it the luxurious bedding? Or that I couldn’t hear my neighbors above or below me? Why couldn’t hotels soundproof their rooms like this? And how did a 65-ton hotel bobbing in heavy winds rock me to sleep like an infant in his mother’s arms?
For the moment, I focused on the matter at hand – my first breakfast. The buffet was everything I’d heard about for the simple reason that it was everything: fresh fruit and juices, French toast and pancakes, scrambled eggs and bacon and sausage, and Brazil’s specialty: a dozen different freshly baked breads.
Stuffed, we returned to our room and surprisingly found Gede vacuuming the hallway. I began my search for the Holy Grail of cruise popularity by putting the friendly Indonesian under the hot lights. Gede was happy to chat, and each time I saw him, which was pretty much every time I went to my room, I engaged him in conversation. I wondered if his job description included being present at all times, like an office receptionist who needs a substitute to go to the bathroom. I asked if he was bothered by all my questions. “Oh no, I like to talk,” he said.
“Will you get in trouble if you’re not working?” I asked.
“Oh no, Mr. Mike, they tell us to be friendly. Talking is part of my job.”
I’d heard of customer service, but this was unusual. In karmic reflex, Gede’s boss’s head suddenly popped into my room. “Hello! How are you?” he bellowed. “Gede is my brother,” he said, putting his hand on Gede’s shoulder. At first I thought he actually was Gede’s relative until Gede revealed the Indonesian man was his boss. He looked a bit younger than Gede. “Gede is very serious about care for the guests,” he said.
“Everybody loves Gede,” I concurred. “You should give him a promotion.” The boss told me he would nominate Gede for employee of the month, then he shook my hand and glided onward. Afterwards, Gede told me he had worked on our ship for five years but didn’t want a promotion. A promotion would be more work. My carpet was being cleaned with Buddhist desirelessness.
Our three spacious meals a day were served in the same dining room, and they ran like clockwork, even dinner, which required an on-time arrival I once thought impossible for Brazilians.
On the first day, we’d assumed they wouldn’t have time to prepare a full dinner with waiters, so we’d eaten in the 24-hour bistro. My sister-in-law, who was on the cruise with us, went to the dining room on the first night; however, she was 20 minutes late and refused entry.
The instructions for dinner were demarcated in the Daily Program, a 6-page newsletter delivered to our room each day with details of upcoming events. There was an early (7:30 pm) and a late (10 pm) seating for dinner, so a prompt arrival was essential for the kitchen staff.
Everyday restaurants in Brazil do not count on double seatings. Brazilians are not accustomed to being rushed. For example, the bill for a meal never arrives until the customer asks for it. Otherwise, it would be insulting.
For all our ship’s dinners, the guests were on time. As a few hundred people left the ship each day for beach excursions, the ship had dinner as the main meal of the day, also a switch for Brazilians. Nevertheless, the staff kept the Brazilians in line. I began to realize that the ship wasn’t merely a hotel rocking me like a cradle, it was an otherworldly experience where revelers abandoned their cultural norms.
Accordingly, everyone dressed up for dinner, joining the more formal setting of the only meal not served buffet style. There were assigned table numbers printed on our ID cards. We sat at a table for four right at the entrance to the dining room, the same table each night, with my sister-in-law and her teenage son.
We were given a few menu choices, two or three entrees and appetizers and desserts. Our waiter, Marvin from El Salvador, whose name and country were on a card on our table, was at our beck and call, as he was only responsible for three tables, a total of 16 guests. When I asked Marvin how many choices from the menu I was allowed, he replied, “How many do you want?” He also supplied a kid’s menu for my wife’s nephew and served him a personal pizza every night along with French fries. At one dinner service, the entire menu was Italian, and after dinner, all the waiters paraded through the dining room, each one hoisting a tiramisu cake like a prize. There was Italian music to inspire the parade, followed by a cheerleader directing a conga line of passengers. What’s an Italian dinner on a Brazilian cruise without a dessert conga line after all?
Every night after dinner, there was live music in three or four bars and even a small casino, where, again, the norms didn’t apply. For example, smoking was allowed in the casino, and people were permitted to stand around the tables and observe the gamblers. In the lounges when the musicians would take a break, a new group would take its place. The music, like the food, was unceasing.
Nothing prepared me, however, for the karaoke bar. Not only was it standing room only, but no matter how badly the poor schmuck was singing, the passengers were dancing and singing right along with him. Is this a Brazilian tradition I’ve missed out on? Avoided on purpose?
On the first night after dinner, when I felt the ship begin to pitch, I feared the worst – nausea on a full stomach. Was it possible to anticipate nausea? Does that help combat it or encourage it? If not nausea, I anticipated at the very least a lifeboat evacuation drill.
The ship sailed and rolled every night, and there were times when I wasn’t sure if people on the dance floor were dancing or merely trying to balance upright. Everyone looked drunk, although that may have been from the unusually strong drinks.
Years ago, I’d read an essay I’ve never forgotten about the world’s greatest star-gazing happening at sea thanks to the lack of ambient light. I’d love to report on the glorious sunrises/sunsets that I soaked up from the unique vantage point of our veranda. Or the romantic star-studded nights over the wide open seas my wife and I spent on the balcony. But I won’t because I’d be lying. While we could count on Gede keeping the hallways groomed, no one can count on the weather: the days and nights were overcast.
The most interesting and unique aspect of the voyage was the disappearance of money. No money ever exchanged hands between passengers and staff, even in the bar. I carried the ship ID card and nothing else. I left my cash and passport in the room safe, and anything I needed came with a simple scan of the ID. Everyone had his/her own ID, including children. It was a unique experiment in the value of the digital revolution; we brought our IDs home with us.
Perhaps this was the Shangri-la secret I’d been searching for – the keys to the kingdom lay in having no keys. Maybe Karl Marx was right: no money, no ownership. Did Adam and Eve carry cash? An idyllic vacation is one with empty pockets.
Another trauma I’d feared that never occurred were annoying announcements. Cruise ships are required to have a PA system for safety broadcasts, but the last thing I wanted were peaceful moments of contemplation destroyed by a beckoning plea for the upcoming shuttleboard tournament. However, the PA system was used only twice, and they were important presentations for the entire ship.
On the first day, just an hour or two after arriving, the PA warned us at least half dozen times about a mandatory safety meeting. After hearing the PA bark the same message so many times, I feared for my PA peace. In protest, I didn’t attend the safety meeting, only to learn from my wife that everyone’s ID had been scanned at the 10-minute life jacket presentation. An hour later, there was a printed letter slipped under our cabin door, informing us that someone in our room hadn’t attended. However, that someone would be expected at a make-up session the following morning.
When I arrived at the second safety meeting, I was shocked to discover only 20 or 30 delinquents were in attendance. I had never seen Brazilians so obedient: 2500 passengers, and only a handful had disobeyed the directive? Was this the locus of a cruise vacation? A ship is an unimaginable country where no one breaks the rules?
The ship’s passengers even paid their final bills ahead of time. While we joked about a line of 2500 people all paying on the last morning their ID charges accrued from drinks and shopping, we saw no such line. Somehow, before we dropped anchor back in Santos, all the bills had been paid; I know this because everyone’s ID was scanned as we exited.
The second and final PA announcement came at the end of the week with a non-obligatory invitation to the disembarkation meeting. My sister-in-law attended with her son, as she was even more nervous than I and feared being left on board.
Again, I was sorry I’d skipped this meeting, as she told me that the ship’s captain had appeared. I never saw him onboard, unless he was gliding around in disguise, which wouldn’t have been difficult as there were dozens of male crew members dressed in all-white uniforms. Would the ship’s captain stand out in a crowd like royalty? Or was he cleverly hidden among the other uniforms, a necessary doppelganger effect in the age of high-seas terrorism?
The first thing the captain said at the meeting: “Every ship has two captains, just like pilots on a plane. So don’t worry that no one is steering the ship right now,” which was something my sister-in-law was already considering. For the rest of the meeting, on the challenge of getting the passengers and luggage off the ship in an organized fashion, the captain focused on everyone placing the luggage outside the room the night before we arrived back in Santos. Many times, the captain declared, people forgot to leave clothes in their closet and disembarked in their pajamas. When we finally did depart, I was frustrated in my search for pajama-clad passengers, people who wanted a reason not to leave.
Each night the ship journeyed to a new location along Brazil’s pristine coastline with its lush greenery rolling into the South Atlantic. Each morning, we opened the double curtains and stepped onto our balcony for a glimpse of the mountains pointing their heads skyward. We squinted at the sea and had the same thought, How is it possible to sleep better than at home? We didn’t even get up during the night to pee.
After our voyage, the ship was heading for Italy. My wife loved the idea, but I wasn’t ready to lose sight of terra firma. How frightening would it be to hit a storm with no land in sight for a week? I wasn’t about to push my luck. I was grateful our voyage was calm enough that there were times I couldn’t tell if the ship was moving without looking at a reference point on the shoreline.
At every breakfast and lunch we were seated randomly until each round table of eight was full. On a few occasions, I met people who spoke English. There was a German fellow who owned his own construction company although he didn’t look more than 30. He and his Brazilian wife lived in Germany. While I chatted with him in English, asking about the European immigration crisis, my wife talked to his wife in Portuguese. She didn’t speak English and spoke to her husband in German.
After breakfast in the elevator back to our room, my wife and I compared notes. I’d learned that a million Arab immigrants had been welcomed into Germany this year alone, and tensions were running high. My wife discovered the Brazilian woman was on her second marriage with the German, and she had two sons, one from each husband.
With nothing to do all day, people should get bored on a cruise, but I never got that impression, even though most of the people I met had never been on a cruise before. I wasn’t bored nor did I feel confined, probably because at least once a day I’d set out from my room and get lost en route somewhere. Who would have guessed that getting lost could be a form of entertainment? Even with direction arrows pointing to the room numbers and my cabin number stamped on my ID, I’d get lost. I wasn’t disoriented, though, unless you count the bewildering sensation of never carrying a dime in my pocket for a week.
Without money or stress, tranquility took over, not boredom. Was the secret the vistas of the watery horizon, hypnotically enticing like staring into an open fire?
For me, a confessed pedantic, the placidity lay in the organizational success of the cruise ship, not to mention the lack of decisions. We didn’t choose where to eat or which museum to visit. There was nowhere to go and nothing to do. Decisions can make a vacation seem like you’ve never left home. I’d never envisioned stress-free travel. Travelers accept stress – where to exchange dollars for Turkish lire before the waiter gets angry – as the necessary flip-side of discovery and epiphany. “One’s destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things,” as Henry Miller said.
A cruise is the opposite of a destination: a prelapsarian hideaway plus a smiling crew member always on hand for assistance. The ship was a stasis for exuberant New Year’s revelers. We never felt afraid or cold or hot. We ate too much and got sunburned at the pool. That’s it.
Lacking nausea or icebergs, I searched for a fault in our floating Eden. I found one — the lack of water. It was a surprise to me, like a child hearing the lifeboat drifter had died of thirst. I asked Gede about drinking the water from our bathroom sink. “It’s okay to brush your teeth,” he advised. The bottled water in the restaurant and the minibar was our only option. All the food was free but not the drinks. Everything on the ship came in dollars, so we paid 8 reais for half-liter bottles of water and 10 reais for cans of soda, five times what we’d pay in Brazil, which was only a mile away as the fish flies.
While the passengers lolled in 5-star comfort, I got the impression the staff worked their asses off, Gede’s smile notwithstanding. He told me he was married and had two small sons, but he hadn’t been to see them in Indonesia in seven months. When I asked if there were a lot of Brazilians on the staff he said, “No. Brazilians stay only for a month or two, then they quit. It’s too much work for them.”
Another oddity was that the first class passengers were invisible. I wanted to see what they looked like, but as Jack Dawson discovered on the Titanic, it was invitation only. There were no signs on the ship that said “first class,” and we could walk down the hallway of upper deck cabin suites and steal a peek, but they ate in a separate dining room. For New Year’s Eve, they seemed to be having their own parties, maybe because their rooms were big enough. They had a private sun deck just below the bridge, with crew members stationed at the foot of the two leading staircases.
I wasn’t surprised about the first class segregation, but it would have been nice to get a glimpse. Was their dinner menu different? What clothes were they wearing for sunbathing? We are all accustomed to segregation on planes and accept the logic that some get better service for more money. However, when we economy folks board a plane, we get to check them out, admire their fat-leather accommodations, and say to our wives, “One of these days, dear.”
Oddly, I never heard anyone show the slightest interest in the folks upstairs on the private deck. If we didn’t see them, they didn’t exist, it seemed. Perhaps that was the ultimate insult – they were ignored. This was in conflict with my curiosity, and it was an unexpected attitude for middle-class Brazilians, who are envious by nature. It was a nothing’s-going-to-ruin-my-New Year’s cruise approach.
My sole disappointment came with my burning desire to see the captain’s bridge and hear those fancy nautical terms bandied about. If not the bridge, then definitely the engine room to watch the blackened, shirtless workers tossing coal into open-fire pits day and night. (I was misinformed.) After pretending to be a legitimate journalist and begging for a private tour, preferably from both captains simultaneously, I was politely informed that due to 21st century security measures, all such tours no longer exist.
One day with nothing to do, I gave myself a tour, aided by a tiny fold-up map. I spent a few hours wandering the 13 decks, although guests weren’t allowed below the 4th deck. Could the massive engines take up three decks? I assumed the first three decks were all above the water line, but wouldn’t the engines be below the water? Another mystery. I received vague reports as to what was concealed on decks 3, 2, and 1. Perhaps they harbored the secret engine at the heart of the pleasure vessel – the keys to the organizational wizardry, the man behind the curtain.
On my self-guided tour, however, I did find the spa, complete with hair salon, manicure/pedicure, and Swedish massage. There were jewelry and clothing stores and even a childcare center. There was a basketball court, a theater with nightly free shows, an Italian gelato store, plus the Starlight disco, which opened at midnight. There was a video arcade for the kids, plus a teens’ club with a warning at the entrance: “Admission ages 14-17.” Despite my best sleuthing efforts, I was unable to locate one crust of dirt or a musty corner.
The roof deck had a saltwater swimming pool plus ping-pong. Alongside the pool was a terrifically designed kids’ water park with a giant metal cauldron that filled with water until it reached a tipping point and then dumped itself onto the screaming little ones. The water park had a rubberized floor perfect for slip slidin’ away. Conveniently located behind the pool and water park was a 24-hour snack bar, where snacking access was guaranteed freely even without an ID card. I also discovered quiet corners with comfy couches where I could sit for hours reading undisturbed.
After my tour, I bragged to my wife that I’d seen the entire ship. I soon suffered the consequences when we got lost looking for the cigar bar and library, which were clearly marked on my map. We found the cigar bar eventually, but it was closed. We never did find the library.
We didn’t care when we got lost; it only added to the charm. It’s not like getting lost in a strange city surrounded by people speaking another language who can tell just by looking at you that you’re a foreigner. We were safe and dry and everyone spoke English or Portuguese. We were floating.
The raison d’etre of the cruise was New Year’s Eve, which is celebrated in Brazil in white clothing. An old custom allows for the option of choosing underwear of a different color, but the choice must be made with careful consideration based on one’s dreams for the coming year: yellow underwear for good fortune; red for passion; and white for peace.
Like Eskimos and snow, Brazilians have numerous words for a party, even more than they have for a maid. There’s a word specifically for the party on New Year’s Eve: réveillon.
My wife purchased a bottle of champagne in advance, and she was situated on the roof deck hanging over the railing by 10 pm for the midnight fireworks display. The exhibition is held every year at the mouth of Guanabara Bay in Rio. Our ship arrived in the Bay around 5 pm, and everyone was on deck to soak in the famous Rio skyline at dusk, passing Sugarloaf and the Christ statue visible atop the neighboring Corcovado.
The only interruption in my camera’s busy shutter (or technically the shutter sound added to DSLR cameras to create an element of nostalgia), was my own caesura, reminiscing about my youth and one of my favorite movies, Now Voyager. Bette Davis and Paul Henreid are falling in love on a cruise as it sails into Rio, but Henreid feels guilty about his attraction to Bette because he’s trapped in a loveless marriage. Bette insists he cheer up long enough to enjoy the glorious scenery: “Oh, Jerry, look,” she says. “There’s only one sailing into Rio harbor.”
The fireworks were not a disappointment, as they skyrocketed upward from half a dozen barges parked at the mouth of the Bay before Rio’s most famous beaches: Ipanema and Copacabana. There were several other cruise ships anchored nearby, not to mention numerous small, private boats. No one seemed to know exactly when midnight arrived, but every time someone popped a bottle of champagne, people cheered. When I popped our bottle, I felt like they were applauding for me personally. The exact stroke of midnight wasn’t critical, and its fluidity had the added advantage of people yelling “Feliz Ano Novo” many times.
For those of you who have never been to Brazil, be forewarned that Brazilians are crazy for fireworks. They can be legally purchased at a fireworks store and accompany every event from soccer games to birthday parties to Christmas and Carnival. I won’t be surprised when a holiday is named – “Loud and Annoying Fireworks Day.”
For some reason, it seemed important to time the Rio fireworks, and I can report they lasted 16 minutes. Afterwards, the festivities extended throughout the night with live music and dancing on the roof deck and in the other bars. Our ship left Rio just after the fireworks, but I never noticed the departure.
My wife and I survived on the dance floor until 3 am. After falling into our king-sized bed, we slept through the night, amazed the all-night revelers were unable to disturb our slumber. Their noise, no doubt, was muffled by Gede’s heavenly carpet. Despite being in Brazil, we were elsewhere.
Each day we anchored at a picturesque beach, and each night we sailed off to the next one. Thus the ship’s itinerary provided a delightful, shifting day/night rhythm. While I never got seasick, some passengers must have, and for them knowing the ship would dock each morning was a blessing.
My wife and I took a few excursions off the ship, which, like everything else, was well-organized. Each morning after breakfast, we took a slip of paper with a letter on it, then waited at the launch area for our letter to be called.
While visiting famous beaches was an attraction, I prepared myself for the fear of restriction: being forced to spend an entire day stranded on the beach. I had grown accustomed to my new home. What if it rained?
Once again my worries were unfounded when I learned we could return to the ship at any time. The excursion boats ran back and forth to the beaches all day with abundant crew members on hand for assistance, like keeping us from falling when we boarded. The boats seated about 100 people, and there were sufficient life jackets for all.
When we arrived at each beach, we found a white tent placed on the dock with the name of our ship that could be spotted easily from anywhere on the beach. At the tent was a sign with the time of the last boat back to the ship. Our first stop at a beach in Santa Catarina was deemed uninteresting by my wife, and we remained on the ship that day. However, we visited three other beaches on succeeding days: Ilha Bela, Ilha Grande, and Buzios.
At Buzios, a beach hideaway for the Rio wealthy, we took a dune buggy tour to survey the winding landscape and million dollar homes. We glimpsed a hotel that our driver said charged 5,000 reais/night, more than a thousand dollars.
On Ilha Grande, it began raining as we arrived, so we spent an hour or two waiting it out at a dockside bar. Busy doing nothing, I invited a Brazilian couple that we’d met on the cruise at breakfast to share our table. We were already sharing the table with a woman we didn’t know; she was on vacation on Ilha Grande. She turned out to be a professional musician, Aline Morena. She spoke English and was kind enough to give us two of her CDs and refuse my money. She lived in Curitiba, as it turned out, and told us stories of her frequent musical tours. Accidentally sitting next to her was one of those serendipitous encounters travelers miraculously stumble upon.
According to plan, everyone followed the excursion rules. No one was left behind; the crew was certain of this because our ID cards were scanned when we left the ship and when we returned. Digital travel made easy.
It was impressive the way the crew simultaneously managed to be polite and obliging while enforcing the rules. Strict enforcement wasn’t something I expected on a New Year’s cruise. For example, there were deck chairs that circled the pool, but one day when I tried to move a deck chair to escape a sunny rain shower, I was prevented by a friendly pool boy. He pointed to the walkway that shouldn’t be obstructed and led me to a different chair under an awning.
This brings me to my most remarkable discovery: While the cruise ship was owned by an Italian company and there were many Italians on the staff, Gede told me that among the 1,000 staff, there were 72 nationalities. Okay, I understand cruise ships have been around for a long time, and Italians have plenty of seaworthy practice, I guess since the days of Columbus, but how do you practice the logistics of feeding 3500 passengers and crew? How do you practice getting us 2500 wandering souls on and off the ship in a timely fashion without incident? More amazing, how do you organize a staff in 72 languages?
At the end of our journey, back in Santos harbor, we departed in a calm and orderly fashion by letter groups and on time. While we waited for our departure, the ship’s theater played videos from a gag TV show with pratfalls requiring no translation. What better way to broadcast an international goodbye than with laughter.
We said farewell to several couples we’d met during meals. Many passengers were exchanging information and promising to stay in touch. It was like summer camp, friendships forged in the buttery warmth of adolescence. Unlike kids, I knew we’d never see our cruise companions again, but it didn’t matter. We wanted their names in our phones to remind us of our floating paradise.
I will conclude my story by confessing that the secret of cruise bliss is still a mystery. Certainly there was nothing to be afraid of. Perhaps the mystery was part of the pleasure. Come to think of it, it’s not the only mystery. For example, how does an object weighing 65,542 tons float? And how did Gede keep those 900 feet of navy-blue corridor clean without losing his infectious smile?
One morning as we were leaving our room for an excursion, we saw Gede and told him we’d be gone for a few hours. He announced, “Okay! I will wash your veranda.”
B. Michael Rubin is an American living in Curitiba.
All photos by the author.