Cruise in Twelve Knots
CIE’s Culture correspondent, Terry Caesar, recently returned from his first cruise ship adventure, which took him from his current home in Texas across the Gulf of Mexico. As we expected, a retired professor’s experience of the “cruising life” was utterly unique.
The first thing that hits you as you step off the gangplank onto Carnival Cruise’s modestly-named Triumph cruise ship is the noise. Not the din of over 3,000 passengers excitedly crowding about –sipping their first drinks, asking all manner of questions—but the music, relentlessly pounding, booming, fairly bouncing off the walls and then spiraling upwards from a central bar into a cone of glittery lights and metallic surfaces. What is a cruise? My first impression of my first cruise – a Vegas lounge on steroids.
Here’s the fundamental sensation of a cruise: not seasickness, (you get used to pretty quickly the pitch and roll of the waves) but disorientation. The Triumph consists of eleven levels. Steps as well as elevators lead up and down among these levels, but it’s not always entirely clear if you are on the 4th floor instead of the 5th. Do you have to press the up or the down button in order to return to your stateroom on the 8th level? The result is that for certain periods of time each day the mammoth Triumph swallows you up, and you cease to know where you are. Surprisingly, it begins to be fun to get lost.
Our waiter for the five-day excursion is from Bali, supplemented by two others from Croatia and Serbia respectively. There’a girl at the Help Desk from South Africa, another from Ukraine. Our chief steward is from Indonesia or the Philippines, it’s never clear. So it goes. It doesn’t take long to be both amazed and delighted by the composition of the crew, even as you wonder: why is it so exceptionally diverse? Perhaps the reason is economical — these people work cheap. My wife, Eva, asks a Balinese crew member if he likes his work: “Good for me, not for you,” he replies. (His answer is even more interesting if it’s political.) A ship like the Triumph represents a colonialist fantasy come true, whereby virtually the entire world exists to serve the United States.
Eva and I make a critical error in choosing to dine alone for dinner, thereby opting out of the peculiar sociality of the cruise. We make this choice afraid to find ourselves seated with some boor or vulgarian wearing a t-shirt reading, “knuckleheads are fun.” In any case, we became closed off to our fellow passengers over the course of the next five days, only vaguely or occasionally experiencing how everybody is so damn friendly. Nothing puzzling about this. If on land we go about our separate ways, at sea we go about the same ways — eating, attending seminars, staring out over the ocean. For the duration of the trip, we’re acutely aware of the difference between our “normal” lives and a cruise. It behooves us to see that literally that we’re “all in the same boat.”
The biggest reason why we’ve come on this cruise is to see the famous Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza. There are some seventy Carnival excursions emanating from the Triumph’s two designated destinations on the Yucatán Peninsula: Progreso and Cozumel. First up: Progreso. Unfortunately, I thought the excursion to Chichen Itza left from Cozumel, the second stop, not Progreso. Result: the excursion to Chichen Itza has already left by the time I realize that we should be on it! We didn’t “miss the boat”; we missed the excursion the boat affords. Instead, we wind up wandering around the disembark spot of a town, trying to console ourselves that it’s so hot—heavy, searing, shocking heat –we’d have keeled over if we had even managed to gain the great pyramid of Kukulcan. Before a shuttle bus arrives to take us back to the ship, Eva chats with a 60-year-old local woman, who “comes to town” twice a week to do laundry from 6 am to noon. She has 9 children and 21 grandchildren. She looks to be pure Mayan — same flat face and squat stature. Although she’s not “historical,” she represents the Mayan culture as well as any statue.
Back aboard ship: the beat goes on, and the shrieking cajoled out of every audience at each public occasion continues – Acupuncture at the spa! Showtime at the Roma theatre! The name for this is Fun. And in one more day, we will enjoy what the official Carnival bulletin terms the “Fun Day at Sea.” I don’t see how anyone could top David Foster Wallace’s brilliant, multi-vocal, sardonic dissection (it’s 100 pages!) of the whole cruise ship experience in the title essay of his collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. But his “fun” is more subtle than that on offer at Carnival. It’s not as oppressive or total as ours. (He seems to have enjoyed a tonier cruise line than Carnival.) On this cruise, you refuse to have FUN, FUN FUN at your peril. The injunction to FUN names a veritable substance, like the sea air, and you can’t help but breathe it. Shame on you if you want to lie on a deck chair and read a book. And never confess if an oil rig far in the distance in the middle of the night lit up like a Christmas tree becomes one of the most cherished moments of the cruise.
There are no newspapers on the Triumph. Telephone or computer use is prohibitively expensive. Unless you want to try your luck with your stateroom television, you’re effectively cut off from the world. The better to have more FUN, Carnival might reply. Yet fun doesn’t come into existence all of itself, and it’s not separable from the larger political world; indeed, it might well be formed by this world. I’m forced to consider, if briefly: Is there no relation between ISIS or Ebola and the near hysteria of the fleshy youngsters cavorting in the big pool on the 9th floor Lido deck? I’m reminded of Foppl’s siege party in Thomas Pynchon’s novel, V. African tribes circle round the Germans in southwest Africa two decades into the twentieth century, so they seal themselves off in a farmer’s plantation. “To hell with them out there,” one declares. “Bolt the doors, seal the windows, tear down the plank bridges and distribute arms. Tonight we enter a state of siege.” The result is a ceaseless orgy.
Three groups either marginal to the normal land population or else in a minority relation to it become highly visible on the cruise: blacks, the disabled,and the obese. There are also homosexual couples to be seen but not as many. I’ve never in my life dreamed of so many obese people in one spot, wobbling as they walk, rolls of fat rippling across their bodies. They appear unashamed, and why shouldn’t they be? Obesity enforces the ideology of food — its importance, its duplicity. You may chose not to eat more lest you become like them, or you may choose to eat more because it will take a long time even for an overweight person to gain as much weight as these porkers.
A three-hour tour of Cozumel could have been little more than an excuse for consumption, each stop providing bevies of touts the opportunity to ply their hammocks, beads, and hats to each passing bus. In fact, this tour is fascinating, especially the stop at a Mayan village. Of course it’s not a real Mayan village. But the materials out of which a Mayan facsimile has been constructed (straw, wood) are so meager, so, well, real that it compels belief on a deeper level, particularly when factoring in the genuine Mayan who gives us all a little introductory speech in Mayan. The old guy (he’s 74) is charming, and we’re enthralled. Eva speaks a bit to him (in Spanish) afterwards. “God bless you,” he says in farewell. I’m not sure what god he worships, but certainly we’d have been no closer to Mayan history — right up into the present — had we stood on top of Kukulcan.
Fifty years ago the population of Cozumel was 2,000. Today it’s 100,00. As a tourist venue, the island is rather literally the creation of cruise ships. Is anybody complaining? Not that tourists like us who visit for half a day can see. The adjoining town of San Miguel gets to earn its identity as part of Mexico, the cruise ships get to earn their identity as significant players in the game of international tourism. Everybody’s happy. The dynamics are so obvious there’s little merit in doing more than gesturing at them. The only unproblematically honest thing in Cozumel is nature. Not the nature that functions as a further touristic resource – whether to snorkel, swim, or sail – but rather the nature that produces hurricanes. We see Cozumel today with the same knowledge as if we lived there: the whole thing, from cruise docks to low cement houses, could all be destroyed in a day.
It’s our last dinner. The London Restaurant. At one end of the vast room, staff sing “Leavin’ on a Jet Plane.” Then some perform — of all things — the Macarena. The mix makes sense somehow, especially for those passengers who’ve taken numerous cruises. We leave an envelope of tips for our waiters; they shake our hands vigorously; we all attest to the fact of our precious time together. There are worse ways for a cruise to end. Let this be the emotional equivalent of what you reply more personally when back home somebody asks how you liked your cruise. “Oh, I loved it. It was wonderful.” And the wondrous, no, the fun thing is, you mean it. At least for the moment to say you loved the cruise becomes as true as your waiters crooning that they’ll never forget you.
Sudden thought: where was the shuffleboard? Was there in fact any shuffleboard somewhere on the Triumph? Or has this particular game vanished, forever lodged in decades past when cruise ships were really luxury ships that had space and leisure unimaginable on today’s noisy, crowded decks? There’s so much I don’t know about cruising, and even more I don’t care to know. In a disingenuous footnote, Foster Wallace mentions that he’s yet to find out what a “knot” is. Me, too. I’m pretty sure our speed averaged more than twelve of these suckers as we traveled to and fro across the Gulf of Mexico between Texas and Mexico; I might be wrong. Specialized vocabulary has its own appeal but it’s not limited to that appeal. So I conclude that for five nights aboard the Triumph, I tried to be content to enjoy its surface — sans shuffleboard – and not get all tied up in knots.
Terry Caesar is an American writer currently living in Texas who has spent time in Brazil. He is the author of several books, which are available on Amazon.com. His most recent book is a memoir entitled, Before I Had a Mother.