In February, news of a cruise ship stranded at sea for five days of heat, stench and plastic bags instead of toilets eclipsed all other current events. Evidently stymied politicians don’t interest us as much as people like ourselves bobbing around on a smelly ship, eating cold waffles and sleeping on mattresses dragged on deck.
Joel and I have taken a similar cruise, so I easily imagined the nightmare of 4,000 people afloat in the heat of the Caribbean with no air conditioning, no lights and no way to escape. Even when things tick along nicely on a cruise — a welcoming sun surrounded by blue skies and calm oceans, intriguing ports and excursions, evening entertainment worth staying awake for — stressful situations often cause reactions ranging from disgusted sighs to red-faced ranting.
Just navigating the maze necessary to board the ship can plunge happy people into grumpiness. On the morning we embarked, Joel and I stood with a mass of pluckily polite people in a line that crawled toward the terminal two blocks away. Most of us wore weary expressions and the warm clothes we’d layered on to fly from colder climates.
Once inside, carrying a multitude of bags bulging with cameras, electronic gear and extra clothing in case the luggage had been sent to Cuba, we patted pockets, rummaged through purses and unzipped carry-ons, searching for the documents needed to clear one checkpoint after another.
Eventually, we thought we’d passed the last test, but no. Everybody had to stand under bright lights in front of a backdrop of palm trees, wearing our wrinkled clothes and tired faces, trying to smile for our welcome-aboard photograph.
Finally, we were free to find our rooms, not yet ready for occupancy, and the crowded buffet, no seats available. We then spent the rest of the day wandering around, sharing our confusion about locations and directions: No, this is Lefty’s Lounge; dinner is in the Crystal Room. The spa? Someone told me it’s a deck down and aft on the port side, wherever that is. No, I’m not getting off the elevator; it’s the only place I know where I’m going.
Joel and I soon realized that, if our marriage were to survive, one of us had to wear our glasses so we could read the small maps posted around the ship, none of which carried the helpful designation, “You are here.”
I spent a miserable morning the next day, sitting with my book mid-ship on the sun deck at the mercy of loud music with undecipherable lyrics blaring constantly to the joy of the younger set and my despair. Then, as I watched a raucous group building a pyramid with the little umbrellas they collected from the rum drinks they kept buying one another, Joel found me and led me to a wonderfully serene area where every deck chair held either a sprawled body or a beach bag someone left to reserve it.
The massed bodies waiting impatiently outside the dining room on the first night at sea resembled the eager crowds waiting to push their way into Walmart the day after Thanksgiving. I sensed a general air of anxiety: What if we don’t like the people who’ll be at our table for the next seven days? Or worse, what if they request alternate seating after eating with us?
More pandemonium occurred each time the ship got to port as people gathered to disembark for shore excursions and stood in lines that wound around on the departure deck like so many strands of soggy spaghetti. Everybody eventually left to swim with dolphins, visit a turtle farm, tour a banana plantation or wander around on their own having no idea where to go or what to do, spending most of their time looking for a restroom.
Despite brief bouts of irritation, impatience and unhappiness during our seven days at sea, on the morning we disembarked, nobody departed the ship wearing bathrobes they’d been given to keep warm on deck at night, kissed the ground when they’d made it ashore or flushed toilets inside the terminal just because they could. We didn’t know how lucky we were.