I want to start out by saying that I would not give up the fact that I went on a cruise for the world. I did a cruise in what I feel was the best way I could. It let me see two of my absolute dearest friends get married, let me hang out with a bunch of people I knew, and several whom I didn’t know but immediately liked. That’s the fun thing about friends-of-friends, you end up having something in common from the get go, and you’re almost pre-screened in terms of getting along by being vetted by the same central people.
Day. Renee. Thank you so much for inviting us on the cruise, letting us be a part of your big day and week, and know that none of what I’m about to say about cruises should in any way be construed to say that I regret going on this particular cruise for an instant.
There’s something about the reality of cruising that I wasn’t entirely prepared for. I was prepared for a certain amount of commercialization of the experience, sanitization of the cultures we were visiting, that sort of thing. But I’m not sure I was prepared for quite the onslaught that we got by cruising. It started almost from the moment that we got onto the ship as the first person we talked to was someone trying to get us to attend the art auction that evening. It turned out this was an ongoing theme of the entire cruise, the idea that people out at sea could make wise investments (yes, both the word “wise” and “investment” were used) in art in setting that is designed to make people forget that money is actually money. The only place on the entire ship where little green piece of paper change hands is in the casino, which are already designed to appeal to those who don’t mind seeing their money go flying away in the hopes of making a small return on their investment in the end. On the rest of the ship, the ever powerful cruise card was god. It bought you drinks. It provided your cover charges. Properly swiped it even got you a game of air hockey. It’s a nice numbing sensation until you get your bill at the end of the week and you’re reminded that every swipe of that card actually was tied to a credit card account that you were required to provide on check-in.
The auctions were a daily event. Sometimes multiple times daily. I never attended one, though I did wander around the gallery of hotel art from unknowns and undated lithograph prints. The descriptions just built on my normally healthy level of cynicism. The most egregious was the speed auction, 40 pieces of “art” being auctioned off 30 seconds at a time. Come watch your fellow passengers wisely build their art collections. Yes, this was one of the times that “wisely” was used.
On our first day at sea there were also seminars offered on how to shop once one got to port. I also didn’t attend one of these, but got a full report from two friends of ours who did. And were, at that time, instructed that the single most important thing you could take on shore was not your passport (never needed anyway), was not your all powerful cruise card. No no no, it was in fact your shopping guide that told you all the approved places to shop at the port of call. Not that you ever needed it. Each port of call was a little village ringed with walls and with controlled access in and out, any of them could have been completely traversed by foot in just 15 minutes. And all of them had the same stores. Diamonds International. Tanzanite International. Del Sol. In fact, one of the main selling points in that shopping seminar was the fact that the controlled access to the areas meant that locals couldn’t get in. Because, you know, you certainly don’t want to be rubbing elbows with brown people while you’re on vacation in the western Caribbean. And the last bit of advice from the seminar? Buy diamonds. They’re the best possible souvenir from a cruise, you know. Plus, remember that you’re going to be in each port only a few hours, so if you see something you like, there’s no time to think about it. Buy it! Buy it now! You might not see the same setting at the next port, don’t you know!
Ah, the ports of call. Each was a little enclave meant to provide people visiting from cruise ships the most American experience possible while in foreign countries. Now, I won’t fault that they all accepted the American dollar exclusively, as we visited three countries in four days so currency conversion would have been a bitch. But a lot of tourist towns like that will accept dollars anyway. Even the little shopping that I did outside of the controlled little enclaves I had no problem paying with green pieces of paper and getting the same in return (in spite of warnings that the locals might try to give us change in local currency in order to game the exchange rate). In the end there was nothing about the ports of call that made the bustling island of Cozumel different from ex-pat friendly Roatan different from sleepy Belize different from recovering-from-Hurricane-Dennis Quintana Roo. Everything was bright colors, diamonds and tanzanite.
In the end we decided that we wanted to go back to Roatan, hopefully to the beautiful Anthony’s Key Resort where we had a dolphin encounter. But then we want to be on our own to decide where we should go, what we should do, and what we should see. We don’t want to be high pressured into making bad monetary decisions by people with titles like “shopping adviser” or being told we should go wisely buy some bad art. In the end, we’re probably just not the people that the cruises were set up to entertain. I know this because a lot of people were entertained. At the close of the cruise we attended the tail end of a question and answer session about the hows and whys of running a cruise, and every other question was:
“I just think we should all give a big hand to the people who planned those wonderful shows!” (half-hearted applause) In the end we went to two-and-a-half shows. The two were both Second City shows, known quantities and about the quality that I was expecting. They’re also something that the cruise ship can just book rather than having to come up with on their won. The half was a dance show that was poorly choreographed with bad sound quality and had a “grand finale” of the crew of the ship walking out, waving flags from their nations of origins, singing “We Are Family” then applauding the audience.
“I just want to say that all the food this trip has been just so wonderful!” (half-hearted applause) The food was better than I expected. We had some pretty good all-you-can-eat sushi the night we pulled out of New Orleans (which turned out to be good timing, as everything was still fresh, people who went later reported everything tasted frozen) that included sashimi in the cover price and waitresses who insisted we eat more, more more. The other was the teppanyaki table, the toughest reservation on the boat since there was just one 10-person table that did three sittings a night. Those were the only two places we ate that I would actually go to and pay money for if they were on the mainland. The main buffet made Old Country Buffet feel classy, both the casual and formal dining rooms were serving food that wouldn’t have felt out of place in Chili’s, and the French option was way oversalted and one entree had to be sent back for inedibility.
In the end the cruise let me hang out with some people who are very dear friends. Which is good, because bitching with them is the one thing that kept me sane. It let me see two people I care about greatly and who love each other as much as anyone I’ve met get married. And it gave me enough of a taste of Roatan that I know I want to go back. Otherwise, what it left me with was the idea that a lot of the problems I had might have been just my ship, but a lot of them felt like ingrained problems of the cruise industry, since all of the ships end up going to the same docks at the same time, and I can’t imagine that the people one ship over are having that different of an experience when they’re being herded ashore the same place I am.
It also provided me some interesting characters, which will be my next and rather more writing-related post.