February 12, 2013

Ye Trip Log of Four Days on a Cruise

“I had discovered the crowning error of the city, its Pandora's box. Full of vaunting pride the New Yorkers had climbed here and seen with dismay what he had never suspected, that the city was not the endless succession of canyons that he supposed but that it had limits - from the tallest structure he saw for the first time that it faded out into the country on all sides, into an expanse of green and blue that alone was limitless….” - F. Scott Fitzgerald, My Lost City, 1932.


"Walter always, lifelong, working that 51/49 smart-to-stupid ratio." - Michael Chabon, Telegraph Avenue

It never fails to amaze me just how big this country is. We had a layover in Atlanta, a city that feels deeply Southern to me and yet it was a longer journey from Atlanta to Fort Lauderdale than Ohio to Atlanta. Whole lot of real estate. Makes me wonder if the winters are really as genteel in Atlanta as I imagine.

On our approach to Atlanta there was a deeply fetching fog. We were struck by the sight of a tiny collection of skyscrapers visible above it - maybe ten or fifteen in all. It looked sort of like Stonehedge, these truncated 'scrapers.

Meantime I used the Liturgy of the Hours on iPad and wonder what the Orthodox Jews behind me on the plane think. Maybe that I was “stealing” their prayers, which is what one rabbi joked to Cardinal Dolan upon noting that his breviary was composed mostly of the Psalms.

And this just in: Orthodox Jews are very loud. Wow. Wasn't just us that noticed, we overheard the people in front of us talking about it too. Last trip we took we also had a guy and his family next to us talking extremely loudly. It's purely anecdotal, but I wonder if it's a coarsening of culture, an indifference to other passengers, or if it's just we're too used to quiet.

The odds finally caught up with us. After all the trips it was finally time for an airline to lose my luggage. Fortunately we arrived in Fort Lauderdale a day before the cruise and so have some wiggle room, although it wasn't particularly comforting that four hours after reporting the lost luggage there's still no update. If they don't find them I suppose we'll have to find a Walmart and buy clothes. Which kind of sucks. Won't have any contact lenses either for the trip.

So there's a sense of unease today despite how pleasant the hotel. Seventy-five degrees at 4pm! Nice weather if you can get it. A stunner of a day. The pool frocked with palms. Sun, yes. Wearing jeans because those large suitcases cannot be found. I was thinking yesterday about how odd it is we need a passport or driver's license to prove we are who we say we are. The importance of that one little piece of paper, or laminated card, is huge. And how easy to lose. And yet here it's apparently possible to lose two forty-pound suitcases. Fortunately I didn't pack the passport in the checked luggage. In the future I guess I'll have to be more sensitive to what I pack in carry-on. Like your house getting broken into, you're usually only wiser after it happens. Otherwise you play the odds.

Six pm, no bags. I plan a trip to ye olde neighborhood CVS (or “csv” I called it, obviously still in work mode) to buy a contact lens case and solution in order to try to extend the life of my one-day disposable to five days. But then, just before we walk out the door, they call and have our bags.

Rather than suffer the ignominy of drinking a $5 non-craft beer downstairs I head out to the local supermarket. Found a quick-mart and bought a six of Sierra Nevada Pales. A six is more than I'll drink and the cruise folks are Nazi's when it comes to smuggling in alcohol, so I have beers to spare. I happen across a homeless-looking man while walking back and figure he'd appreciate a beer. I walk towards him, nod to him, hoping he'll ask me for money at which point I'll present the free brew but he doesn't and I don't. So here I am sitting on this “gold mine” of three extra beers.

The all-you-can-drink alcohol package on the Royal Caribbean cruise is a rich $45-55 a day. Which was an easy "no" in my case. Kind of interesting to see what RC thinks is the over/under on drinking. I assume they're making a slim profit or at least breaking even on the $50 a day plan versus people just paying ala carte. Assuming drinks are $5-ish a pop, that's a healthy ten drinks per day. Of course you figure that people going for the alcohol package are going to skew towards the heavy drinkers but still that's a pretty generous amount of quaffing. (A quick Google shows mixed drinks on RC cruises are $7-9, but that's still five mixed drinks a day.)


Oh but a hotel pales, even one in the warm, sunny climate of Flor-i-day, beside the frisson of a boat, including a cruise ship. Laying out next to a pool is not unlike what I was doing at the hotel pool but it feels different here. On the elevator we had two big black dudes, us, and the Amish. This cruise feels downright multicultural. Oh the youth surrounding me. “Banquets where beautiful and virtuous ladies walked half-naked, with their hair loose like brides,” to quote a Jack Gilbert poem.

We clung to the pool until the muster drill, or as I joked the “mustard” drill. (Hit fake applause sound effect here.) About a half-hour of time-wastage but at least we don't have to have life jackets now. A buzz-kill no doubt for the many semi-inebriated cruisers since alcohol sales stop a half-hour before the reveille call. They let you on the boat now pleasingly early providing an almost full day on the first day. Can't get in your cabin till 1pm but that hardly matters. Folks seemed slower to respond to the muster than a decade ago and of course I spy in that, as always, the Decline of Civilization. Or maybe just the Europeanization of American life, like how in Rome people take rules “under advisement”.

Fatigue was the order of the day, so I drank recuperative beers (they really seem to help with exhaustion) very slowly and then half-slept, half-read and half-watched the rippling pool waters. The pool was smartly designed with a very shallow beginning (2 inches of water) before the edge of a six foot drop. Then to the room - how splendid to see the ship depart from our private balcony! Idyllic. Oh it's been almost a decade since my last cruise. I remember the appeal now: from the kitschy plastic toucans of the pool area to the viscerally real ocean from the balcony. From Disney to raw nature in one fell swoop. The infrastructure of Fort Lauderdale behind us, we headed through a narrow passage into the wide sea, the ship's horns blasting while people fished from a dock and looked so small.

We'd set dinner for early, 5:30pm, and to my delight got seated at a table for two next to windows with incredible views of the sunset over Fort Lauderdale and then Miami. The food was excellent and the waiter chagrined we didn't take his recommendations (steak, carrot cake). He's from Turkey, late 20-something, maybe 30, and has a fiancee, an American, who decided to convert to Islam for him it would seem.

Opening show at the Platinum Theatre was very pleasing. A little bit of everything - orchestra, singers, an acrobat, a funny comedian, Bruce somebody. Enjoyed the music but it was too short-lived; Styx 'Come Sail Away' was the only song. These shows seem tailor-made for short attention spans with a mega number of entertainment options elsewhere on board.


I believe I have my sea legs now. What a difference a great sleep makes. Slept 9:30-8 and it felt a tousand (as the Irish say) times better than the previous night's sleep for some reason.

One funny thing about a cruise is that you wouldn't know you're on one except for the room balcony. On the ship itself you can spend 99% of your time next to a pool or at dinner or at a show with no clue you're actually sailing on water. Few good ocean views in the lounge chairs of sunny areas. . But out on the balcony - which presently is surprisingly pacific with the lack of a strong wind - you get that full view of sea from six stories up. There's only one word for it: majestic. Majestic sea meets majestic ship - they seem to kiss in mutual respect. And the briney waves coming off the ship's hull are mesmerizing. Purblind bliss to be alive, and it makes me want to read something sea-worthy, something majestic, like Homer's Odyssey or Melville's Moby-Dick.


Closest thing to breakfast in bed is breakfast brought to the room on cruises. Perhaps my favorite part of the cruise! And all “free”, ha. I watch the slow parade of waves generated from the ship…lulling, calmer and more “organized” than the waves on a beach. The consolation of two seemingly immovable objects, sea and ship. Of course both impressions are illusory if the ship's much more. I want to dive off the balcony and dream into that azure sea! Just for the experience of it, the thrill of jumping off a cruise ship, for the momentary straying from limit and convention. Not a good idea at any point but especially when not next to land, and yet the ocean's bigness still seems something of a rumor to me. I tend to think, oh so falsely, that there's always another boat that'll come around despite the fact that ocean distances are heroic. Oh the water so true blue / I'd love to hole up in your hue.


So this morning was time for a leisurely enterprise we've never made time on a cruise before. We explored, methodically, every deck. From the wedding chapel on deck 15, to the cool jazz bar on 14, and all the nooks and crannies down below. Basketball court, rock-climbing wall, putt-putt and a wave pool where people tried, almost all unsuccessfully, to surf. Among the spectators was the Amish crew, still fully dressed under the Caribbean sun. Then came to an out-of-the-way deck area that included a topless woman bathing. The extremes of bodily modesty I guess.

The days get behind you wickedly quick here. How could it be two in the afternoon already? With no reading, no drinking. Just cruising by the long, long island of Cuba. Didn't know I felt starved for the sea, the sparkling sea. How great is it that cruises and air travel have become affordable for the masses? This would be an unattainable luxury just a few decades ago.


We moved twice to avoid obnoxiously loud people. Ear plugs are a cruise necessity. The second move was a bit of a maneuver given my precarious balance of carrying beer mug, half beer can, full bottle already opened (I bought an extra beer to prevent premature bar-ulation), towel, shirt, and shoulder bag. The bridge too far was using my foot to try to move a lounge chair, resulting in a spectacular crash of beer, getting a poor man wet. I apologized profusely and he said it was okay. Embarrassing. I was one of the obnoxious people. My first beer so I wasn't alcohol-impaired. All because of my overestimating my athletic ability.

Of course the real downside of a 4-day cruise is that it's only four days long. That's what we call a killer flaw that all vacations share. Plus I'm mentally accustomed to week long beach-like vacationeering, so we're on the short stick of time. Drink ye well tonight for tomorrow we shall die. Friday already and tomorrow is Cozumel, leaving only Sunday as a cruise day and its consolations. In some ways this is the second to last day already! I figure it's time I get a mixed drink from an itinerant seller who happens to be in the area. His sales pitch is pitch-perfect: “It's medication time!” I'm skeptical of how much alcohol the mixed fruit drinks contain since the received wisdom of the millennium is that they don't contain enough to interest the drinker of the species, men. If whiskey was fruity and came with a drink umbrella men would still drink it out of respect for its potency.


T-shirt sighted: “If you can't remember it, it didn't happen.” Which is, I suppose, a reason I keep trip logs. Today felt like a vacation tipping point since as long as Cozumel was still in the foreground we could always say, “We always have Cozumel.” And now we can't, for it sped by with greatest rapidity. Meantime I hear the tune “Love Boat” and “Dancing Queen” from the pool speakers reverberating even here to this suddenly mournful balcony. Meaningful kitsch - vacations attract sentimentality like a hull does barnacles.


It's always intense to wake up in the morning and see a different view from the night before. In this case Mexico's Yucatan peninsula, specifically Cozumel. We watched as ten uniformed men and women hurriedly set up a bridge to the dock and a dozen or more steel girders to lead the way. One female agent had a handsome German Shepherd there, presumably for drug or bomb-sniffing purposes, though none of those disembarking were checked by the dog.

We adventured our way off the gangplank and entered Mexico where I would get a proper sun-scalding. But first walked the gauntlet of sellers just past the dock and got a cab to Paradise Beach. A bit on the corny side, with big play-toys in the ocean for kids of all ages to climb and explore, such as a huge slide, which drew me in.

Very shortly a loud family from the East Coast arrived. The young teenage girl shouted that she hates beer, her dad making her drink it since it came as part of a bucket deal. She said she only drinks vodka straight from the bottle. The father also very vocal, hollering here and there and making a spectacle to the Mexican waiter over the fact that umbrellas aren't available in the first row of lounge chairs.

People: the cause and solution of all life's problems. If Paradise Beach can seem as crass and loud as its unimaginative name, the tackiness can't overcome the jewels of sun, water and piscine underwater kingdoms.

The incredible lightness of being
sun-clad, water-dappled
floating over flowery fish
cruising sandy-bottom past
camo'd flounder, single-winged
with one eye
floating on the waters
THIS is time travel
if only for a day or four.
Relax & dream of the witbits.


It's the little things in life, like sitting on a bazillion-dollar ship's balcony in a foreign port of call drinking coffee. Er, that doesn't sound too little. But what a moment it creates, to see the sea in a different way. Riding six stories above the frolicking waves (and yet they somehow look close…maybe fifteen feet down). The grace with which the ship moves - it's like she's walking on the waters. You see the chop of waves but oddly she's rock steady. It's like magic. So definitely the balcony seems the reason for a cruise vacation. What an awesome way to start the day. Can easily see why our planet looks like a blue marble from space - all blue, as far as you can see.

And now the last day at sea. We're going in the wrong direction, away from the comfort waters of the southwest Caribbean towards the “noreastern” clime of Fort Lauderdale. Too late to jump off the ship since no land's in sight!

Joe Queenan in One for the Books writes of the wisdom of classic books, mentioning that if you're a man thinking of early retirement you should read King Lear first. I never thought of that work as having that practical an application. John Switzer, a favorite Dispatch columnist, hates winter but, paradoxically, wouldn't live in a place without dramatic seasonal change. Counter-intuitive, but perhaps you need winter in order to truly enjoy summer, just as you need work in order to truly enjoy one's free time.


I'm really staying put on the balcony, really giving it a good ride today. Want to drink it in and savor if, even if the passing waves sort of physically represent an hourglass of sorts presaging the end of this vacation. But I need not be so grasping - there is a life beyond the physical beauty. There is a sun greater than this sun. From today's morning prayer: “Let us pray to Christ The Lord, the sun who enlightens all men, whose light will never fail us.” The difficulty with which the rich enter Heaven must be related to the sensation of fullness that trips like this foster. It's harder to remember God here. And yet there's also a sense of gratitude that one can consciously refer to God. "And still boyhood operated on their minds, retaining all its former power to confound wishes with plans." (Chabon)

So yes I bathe in this sunny deck, feeling like a less lonesome version of that soul in that Hopper work Morning Sun. I feel enlivened by the lack of noise, the sheer gratuitous joy of a day at sea, passing the island of Cuba. There but for an accident of birth go me. How incredibly fortunate and unmerited to be born in a first world country.

Certainly the timing of this cruise seems liturgically perfect: during Mardi Gras and right on the jaws of Lent. I'm grateful that modern technology has brought air travel and cruises, once unaffordable luxuries, to the middle class. It's kind of interesting that an atheist author wrote that it's the super-wealthy who, paradoxically, first recognize how we can't be satisfied with money or the things money supply. It's often the poor and middle class who seem to think there's some “Big Rock Candy Mountain” to be found in gold and affluence. The quicker you find that out, he said, the better. Not that some of his clients weren't awful despite that knowledge. “Trust fund babies” seem to have a straight uphill climb. Limits are as necessary and natural to humans as the Creator intended. And yet on this very vacation I try to satiate on sun and scenery, sitting on this balcony until the boredom of satiety occurs, a seemingly unreachable goal. The roiling royal blue carpet and ever replenishing waves, yore of yores, gold spilt sun.


We're docked in Fort Lauderdale and it's better than a sharp stick in the eye. You figure getaway mornings will have little to recommend them, but Steph retrieved coffee and so there's a few lingering moments. Actually not a bad length for a cruise. Felt surprisingly full.

Full bore reality sets in apace. Calm before ere storm. A long way from the wonderful live reggae music out on deck 11 by the pool, sipping a 25-ounce Fosters ale.

Sweet flight back. Almost too short. A great time to read, that's for sure. Read some of Chabon's Telegraph Avenue, said some morning prayer, received the shocking news of the pope's resignation via the Drudge Report…The time flew literally and figuratively.

On the plane a 30-something lady grew irate with her sister before the flight, screaming that she was an idiot and even slapping her. After the 2+ hour plane trip, she started hate speeching her again and while walking to baggage claim overheard on a security person's walkie/talkie that two people were having a verbal fight and were heading to baggage claim and it might be a good idea to keep an eye on them. Steph and I overheard, stopped in our tracks, and meanwhile who goes by us but the perpetrators themselves and one of the sisters said, “they're talking about us?” and I nodded my head.

Can it be that I was really on that deathless main? Was it all a dream, those mornings starboard, that stellar weather on the sun-shot water? Now is when it really kicks in, at 7:15 morning with no view, no sun - with work on the immediate horizon. Now is when it kicks in. How it seemed no bind at all to pray last week, “Angel of God….to whom His love commits me here.” Commits me here! To that wonderful place?! Just can't remain there is all...

1 comment:

Tom said...

“If you can't remember it, it didn't happen.”

That's a pretty weighty thought for a T shirt. Only true in a strict sense for God, of course, but then aren't we His heirs?