Recently, I boarded my first cruise ship. It sailed from Galveston, Texas and made the loop down to Mexico. I did it to attend an seagoing conference related to my profession and I did it in spite of my nearly 100% certainty that the experience was going to be pretty creepy. I won’t name the cruise ship company. I mean, it really doesn’t matter, right? Let’s just say it was more economy than first class.
Which begs the question are there any cruise ships that don’t look like dilapidated 1980’s discos? Are there new ones? Ones that look like fairly modern shopping malls vs. really old ones? You know, ones with less chrome and more faux white stone? Ones with better logos?
Which, in turn, leads me to ask, what is a cruise ship? What exactly does one expect to do there? To my mind it’s pretty much a moving shopping mall. And as such, its set up to make people buy things; mostly memorializing your time on the ship. Things like hats, t-shirts and if you’re feeling adventurous, more cruises. Or perhaps, a photo of yourself in front of a big backdrop beach mural. “Look, I went on a cruise ship,” that photo will say for the rest of eternity. And I’m thinking, where will they keep that photo? In a book? Or, on the mantle? What kind of house will surround that photo?
On a cruise ship, the questions never end.
The cruise lasted six days or so. I spent most of my time at the conference, but there were a couple of days set aside to enjoy the shore destinations. And there was time to wander the decks and nibble on the wide range of delightful cuisine. I came to understand that for a significant percentage of the passengers, it was fun to find a chair and sit in it. Some would sit at the bar. Some would sit at the gambling tables. Some would sit by the pool. Find a chair. Sit in it. See how it works?
But there’s more to it than just sitting. It seemed to me that a number of these folks had worked out HOW to sit in these chairs. They radiated a devil may care, I’m on vacation, look at me living large kind of vibe. They ate the food. They sat in the chairs. They perfected sitting-as-public-performance. Meant for consumption by their fellows sitting nearby and by the occasional person who, for some inexplicable reason, might be standing.
Which led me to wonder, can’t you do this at home?
No, you can’t. You can’t do this at home because you wouldn’t be on vacation, you might just be some clown who’s out of work. And you can’t do this at the mall, because malls are designed to keep you moving. You’re expected to march along and keep buying things. You can only sit at the mall if you’re chewing. Teenagers have been attempting to hang out at malls for years. You can see them at your local mall now. Looking restless. Not sure where to drift to next. That’s mall voodoo. Keep em moving. “Don’t sit,” says the mall.
But the cruise ship is not that way. “Please, go ahead and sit,” says the cruise ship. “We’re renting you the chair. AND we’ll sell you some shit when you get up.”
When you reach the shore destinations on day three (fantasizing about a quaint little beach town in Mexico), you dutifully line up to exit the ship. And there you go, one of two thousand guests, courageous enough to leave their on-board chairs for a walk on the shores of a mystical foreign land. Loud speakers instruct you in how to be herded along through digital guest screening procedures, feeling like livestock going down a chute in some giant processing plant.
After you leave the ship, you walk down a long, long, long pier in the hot tropical sun, plodding along toward your quaint little Mexican beach town. To one side, you pass a group of Latino men and women dressed in traditional Mexican garb and dancing to traditional Mexican music blaring from loudspeakers, welcoming their guests to the wonders of Mexico’s vast and varied cultural delights. Its the single most tragic thing I’ve ever seen. No one gave a shit about them. And they, understandably, didn’t give a shit about us. Whatever it takes to bridge cultural divides, this was not it.
The walk wears down the less robust guests, insuring that they are ready to enjoy an exotic foreign chair when they reach the shore. And when they reach the shore, there are some chairs, surrounding by an endless maze of vendor stalls and duty free liquor stores all built to look like some sort of little Disney south of the border theme town. All stocked with a limitless supply of more mementos of the cruise. Local crafts, (all made in a lovely local Chinese factory), more hats, more t-shirts and lots of stuff with tequila company logos. The kind of items that say, “Look at me. I’m sitting and having a drink!”
Which led me to wonder, how long will it be until I can get back on the boat, and maybe someday, get free of all this? The only good thing I can say about the sinking of the Costa Concordia, is at least they sank the boat at the start of the cruise. If I had been forced to witness all this and then face drowning, too, it would have really been just too much.
But I was definitely the odd man out. By a factor of one to a thousand. Clearly the guys who like to sit were sitting, displaying their vacation vibe and lapping up frozen margaritas while their children sulked listlessly at the next table, conniving some new way to get sugar. As each dazed child shook off the ADD inducing effects of three solid days of dancing neon and casino lights, they stared at the slow rolling beach waves, waiting for the fast cut edits to kick in.
And our giant seagoing mall waited by the pier, where it has waited so very many times before, lined up next to four or five others, disgorging their herds of liquored up vacationers. And suddenly, it was clear to me. I now knew what a cruise is all about. Its about surrounding yourself with yourself. With your comfortable ESPN, french fried, loud carpet world and enjoying some mother fucking down time.
And some damn fine sitting, too.