Before this trip I had never been on a cruise. I’d never been interested in them. They seemed the sort of thing that would appeal to other people, not me. And there is truth in that instinct. I would not have enjoyed this cruise as much if it were not full of fascinating writer-people to talk to. There have been times when I ate lunch with a random selection of people from the ship. They were friendly and we had a pleasant conversation, but it was not the sort of energizing conversation that I have with writers or the family members of writers. On the other hand, I suspect my experience is somewhat typical. The cruise offers such an array of activities that there are certain to be some that lie outside the interests of any particular individual.
I expected luxury, and I expected to feel guilty about having that luxury. Saying “I’m going on a cruise” feels privileged and self-indulgent, and it is, but it is also an eye opening educational experience in ways that I did not expect. Before I spent a week on a ship I was never able to distinguish port from starboard. Now that happens instinctively because I need it to find my way from one place to another. Until I stood at night looking over the railing at endless water and felt the deck under my feet moving slightly, I did not understand what was meant when people said they feel “at sea.” There were a couple of days during the cruise where I felt emotionally off balance and disconnected from myself, as if I were lost out in the ocean. Looking down at those waves I comprehended that the ship was the only safety available. If I were to go into the water I would die before I could find any other safety. My creative mind helpfully pictured that for me and I visualized myself swimming, watching the ship get ever further away. Then I stepped away from the rail and went back inside where there were walls between me and the vastness of the ocean. On a map, we’ve never been that far from land, just tooling around between Florida and various islands in the Caribbean, dodging Cuba. Looking out to sea, I realize how big the world is.
On the first day there was a paper in my stateroom introducing the ship captain and crew members. I tossed that paper without really reading it. The captain seemed as irrelevant to me as the various airplane pilots who have taken me places. Here at the end of the week, I see it all differently. I’ve heard the captain’s voice announcing arrivals and departures. I’ve heard him explaining why the ship stopped unexpectedly in the middle of the night (because some drunk guy told his wife he was going to jump off the ship, and she panicked and called the emergency line.) I’ve heard him explain that a medical helicopter would be landing to remove a very sick patient. I’ve seen him across the room as he stopped by one of our social events. Slowly I’ve come to understand that we are all in his hands, that his decisions truly matter for the course of the ship and for my experience on it. I also begin to feel connected to nautical tradition where out on the ocean everything stops or changes to help others in distress. I watch the social atmosphere and tiers of service and interaction on the ship. Then I realize that I am participating in cruise traditions that have their roots hundreds of years ago. I begin to understand in ways that I did not before.
I expected to feel uncomfortable being served and waited on. During the first day I thought that expectation was justified when I saw how much of the serving staff had brown skin and that the majority of the vacationers were white. Then I witnessed how many staff members read my badge and greeted me by name. Then a staff member saw Howard on shore and stopped Howard to make him sit down and wait for a car to take him back to the ship. The staff member realized that Howard was on the front edge of heat exhaustion. I watched native tour guides and heard their accents in context without the slight deference that accented people always display in the US. I hadn’t even realized that the deference was there until I saw Mexican and Jamaican tour guides standing strong and confident in their own countries. They were professionals, intelligent and very good at a very difficult job. All of the serving staff are smart, sharp, highly trained, and function so smoothly that most guests will never notice the multitude of ways that their stay has been made easier. I have been meeting the eyes of staff, learning their names, and giving them as much professional respect as our brief encounters will allow.
I was surprised at how international an experience I’m having on the ship. I knew I would encounter other cultures on the shore, but I find them on the ship as well. Our captain has an eastern European accent. Most of the staff are not from the US. Among the guests I’ve heard a dozen different languages. Many of our retreat attendees have come from outside the US. I love hearing voices with different perspectives. It helps me see my assumptions which had been invisible before.
The ship itself surprises me in small ways. The bathrooms all have thresholds to step over and they latch in ways that remind me I am on a ship, not in a hotel. Most of the time, I am only aware of the motion of the ship as a slight rumble, not really different than the rumble from an air conditioning system in a building. But then there will be a moment where I feel as if I am dizzy. I’m not. It is just that the room is moving slightly around me. Once I identify the motion of the ship, I can adapt for it without trouble. I brought sea sickness remedies, but I have not needed any of them. I enjoy watching the logistics of getting the massive ship into and out of a port. The sunsets at sea have been uniformly gorgeous, which has more to do with the clouds and the sea than the ship, but they surprise me and it is only on the ship that I can see them this way. Behind the ship the wake stays visible all the way to the horizon and gives me thoughts about how we all mark the world by our passing.
We have already scheduled the cruise for next year. I’ll be going again. Next time I’ll be much more familiar with how the ship works. Howard and I will not attempt to go without internet because apparently we keep portions of our cognitive functioning stored in the cloud. I did no writing until I was reconnected to the internet. I have mixed feelings about that. Things that were unexpected obstacles this time will not be problems next time because we’ll know what to expect. I do hope that I’ll learn as much next year as I have this year. I believe I will because it was other people who taught me and I will not run out of things to learn from others. I’ve learned and grown from my conversations with the attendees and the staff on the ship. It will be interesting to see how all my new thoughts settle when I get back home.