I’ve just come back from my first cruise, a four-day out and back from Port Canaveral to the Bahamas with Susan, her brother and his wife, and Susan’s parents. (Note: By “cruise,” I mean spending time on a cruise ship. I’ve done Boston to the Dominican Republic by sail, but that was something entirely different.)
I thought surely I’d have to write something about the affair, but really there’s not a whole hell of a lot to say that wasn’t said by David Foster Wallace in his essay for Harper’s way back in 1996.
The key differences between his and my experience: 1) I didn’t go alone. 2) While I can see where he’s coming from, I don’t know that I experienced despair (and knowing what we know now about Wallace adds a whole new layer to his essay). 3) Most importantly, ours was no luxury cruise.
Ours was a sort of entry-level cruise. Perhaps its entry-level status, short duration and cheap prices were the best explanation for the interior décor of the Carnival Sensation looking like something puked up from 1989. (A friend of mine went on a different Carnival ship last year but her photos are representative.) Hell, maybe it was someone’s idea of luxury at some point, but elevators should never be out of order in a luxury vacation and the pattern on the carpet shouldn’t make you as seasick as the actual sea does. And while I spent nine weeks at sea on a sailboat that had a hand-pumped toilet, when I think “luxury” I expect that the toilet will flush immediately every time.
That’s not to say it wasn’t fun. In terms of vacationing, I tend to be happiest among ruins or when at or near the sea. Also, when I’m well fed. It’s been forever since I’ve slept on a boat and slept I did. Long and hard, the movement of the waves rocking me gently, the only interruption the couple in the cabin next door, going at it like rutting animals (and good for them!).
What’s not to like about a 72-hour feeding frenzy in which people kiss your ass at all hours of the day? Besides, once you figure out the rhythms of the ship and which parts of it scare away the more obnoxious guests, you can enjoy yourself.
Some other observations:
* Many people, including Carnival staffers, seemed under the impression that this was a Caribbean cruise. The Bahamas are not, have never been and never will be in the Caribbean Sea. Grab a map. Have a look. The Bahamas are in the Southwest North Atlantic. The Caribbean doesn’t start until the south shores Cuba, Dominican Republic, Haiti, etc. I’m going to assume that the officers navigating Carnival ships aren’t as dunderheaded (or duplicitous) as Carnival’s marketing departments.
* Speaking of lying employees, cruise directors — liked old farmers, sailors and cowboys — will take folk tales and legends and run with them as if they were their own. Our own cruise director told us that she had personally, on other Carnival cruises, been asked: at what altitude the ship cruised; if the crew sleeps on board; if one was required to get wet while snorkeling; at what time the midnight buffet is. Har. De. Har. Har. This is taken directly from Wallace’s essay: “I have heard upscale adult U.S. citizens ask the ship’s Guest Relations Desk whether snorkeling necessitates getting wet, whether the trapshooting will be held outside, whether the crew sleeps on board, and what time the Midnight Buffet is.” I’d bet good money he was appropriating an industry joke that was old and tired even back in 1996.
* The food! My god, the food. You just can’t really wrap your mind around it until you experience it. And while the concept of fat Americans feeding at the trough is an easy target for ridicule, it’s hard to escape the insanity when you’re in-country. Yes, even as I was slightly repulsed by slow moving herds grazing for hours at the buffet, by the end of the trip — and this was only four days — I found myself getting panicky if I knew I’d be away from food for more than an hour. MY GOD WHERE WOULD THE NEXT MEAL COME FROM?!?! WHAT IF I STARVED?
And the buffet was the least of it. I know how to negotiate a buffet without getting too crazy (except with the soft-serve ice cream). Oh no. The meals at the sit-down restaurant were the true killers. Handed your typical restaurant menu, you become aware that you’ve paid for it all already, so there’s no guilt in adding both an appetizer and a dessert to that entrée. And then the waitress tells you that, actually, there’s no guilt in adding all the appetizers. And if you can’t decided between the steak and the lobster? Have both! If you didn’t like the steak, or, hell, if you liked it, but are still hungry (or curious), you can order the Cornish game hen as well! You’re on a cruise! It’s paid for! No one will judge!
It’s just not safe, all this food. It’s like giving a top-line health-insurance plan to a hypochondriac. He just may kill himself from X-ray poisoning or unnecessary chemo-therapy.
*The crew is like the damn United Nations. Italian and Greek officers. Thai and Filipino servers. And representatives of all the Balkan states working side by side without killing one another.
*The entertainment. If Christopher Guest is ever looking to do a sequel to “Waiting for Guffman,” he should report directly to the Carnival Sensation and sit through a few of those numbers. The “Purple Rain” number during the second night’s show and the “I Feel Pretty” (sung by half-naked men in a baseball locker room) during the third night’s show were particular standouts. Who choreographs these things? How do the dancers and singers get through it with a straight face? Especially when even supposed rubes are killing themselves laughing as they drown in a sea of cheese. In an odd way, it reminded me of being in a strip club: whatever enjoyment I might get is overwhelmed by wondering what life choices the performer made to end up in this sorry situation.
* I’ve still never won a damn bingo game in my life.