Monday, March 28, 2011

Cruising, Part Two

Since my cruise essay is so damn big, I'm breaking it up into parts. Here's the second part of the first draft. You can read the introductory section ("Forward") here.



I boarded the ship, the Carnival Triumph, around noon on a Monday. The first mistake I made was not to have surrendered my luggage at the Ellis Island-like check-in process. Once on the boat, we were not able to enter our cabins for a few hours, so I had to carry my heavy bags around everywhere.

David Foster Wallace did not have to deal with this problem, as his bags were taken from him at the airport as he boarded the cruise line bus. “A... crowd-control lady has a megaphone and repeats over and over not to worry about luggage, that it will follow us later, which I am apparently alone in finding chilling in its unwitting echo of the Auschwitz-embarkation scene in Schindler’s List.” It’s a great image, but here again I have to defer to DFW’s tortured genius, as I did not think of the Holocaust once during my own cruise.

We had a great view of the New Orleans skyline as we departed. The mighty Mississippi awaited, with storms in the distance.

One of the first things I tried to do once we set sail (Can I say “set sail” if there are no sails?) was to stand in front of the ship and get a “I’m King of the World!” picture. (An homage to both Titanic and The Office.) But it turns out there are no places for the unwashed masses to stand in the front of the boat. The best I could do was stand off the frontish side and get a “I’m Going To Tell This Story!” picture.

One afternoon I was bored so I rode the glass elevator in the atrium from the second floor all the way up to the 11th floor. It’s difficult to reconcile those words: glass elevator, atrium, 11th floor, with the fact that I was on a boat. The thing was huge. A floating hotel. I wondered how it compared to an aircraft carrier, oil tanker, or battleship.

It’s an incredible feat of nautical engineering, the culmination of thousands of years of seafaring, war, fishing, and exploration—all for the sole purpose of pleasure. Or more accurately, making money.

It’s a strange feeling to be floating in the middle of nowhere, with no land in site. Especially on a ship of this size, and with so many people. It’s like a small city disconnected from the world. A strange mix of crowded isolation. Sitting at the back of the boat watching the water churn behind us was very calming.

Some people got nauseous or sea sick, but I enjoyed the rocking of the boat. The last two days of the cruise the boat was very rocky. It was like being on a low-impact roller coaster all the time. The water in the pool sloshed from side to side.

When I visited the dance club late that night, I reflected how I’d never been in a disco that was swaying before.

The weather in New Orleans had not be very tropical, so when I woke up Tuesday morning and came up on deck, I was pleasantly surprised to feel the warm Gulf weather. This is what I wrote on my notes: “Sun!! Warmth!!! Hot girls in bikinis! This is why I’m here.”

Before I left on my cruise, the standard refrain I got from everyone was, “Don’t forget your sunscreen!” I heard it as often as a performer hears “Break a leg!” This advice seeped into my brain to such an extent that I bought four different tubes of sunscreen. The downside of all of this skin care paranoia was that, although the weather was sunny and beautiful for much of my cruise, I was so vigilant about skin care that I hardly gained any color at all. DFW had a similar experience, although he was one of those uber-nerds who slathered that white zinc oxide stuff on his nose.

Under the hot sun, I contemplated life boats. Each ship had dozens of them hanging along the side like a row of beads. But these were not little dingie rowboats. They were highly sophisticated machines with motors and a steerage cab. In thinking about all the resources that are used up during a cruise, it’s amazing to think of all the engineering, manufacturing, and materials used to create an army of objects that, in all likelihood, would never even be used.


On the itinerary for my cruise were two dates designated a “FUN DAY AT SEA.” These were days when we would be traversing the Gulf of Mexico, and therefore all fun would be had onboard. In other words, no stops in port.

When I first saw that on the itinerary, I was excited. FUN was the port, the destination, the only agenda for the entire day. How could I not enjoy that? That was before I realized the role that single word played in the Carnival propaganda machine.

I first noticed the insidiousness of the word during the Welcome Aboard Show the first night of the cruise. This was my introduction to cruise ship live entertainment. I’ve never seen any stage shows in places like Vegas, Branson, or Gatlinburg , so I don’t know how they compare, but do people really enjoy this kind of thing? It was a cheesy song and dance medley all about FUN!!! Men and women in sequins pranced about singing various songs with the word "fun" in it. (Fun fun fun til our daddy takes the t-bird away, Girls just wanna have fun, etc.) They went through dozens of costume and scenery changes, the only constant being three huge props: the letters F, U, and N.

It felt like they were trying way too hard to put the word “fun” in our brains. So that when we came home from our cruise and people asked us how it was, we would automatically answer, “It was so fun!” It was less entertainment than indoctrination. “You are having fun... you are having fun... you are having fun...”

DFW touches on this as well. He mentions how the word “pamper” is strategically placed throughout the cruise’s promotional material, and that it’s no accident that the word also conjures up an infantile helplessness, since the cruise essentially takes all decisions and responsibility for fun away from the cruisers. “You WILL have fun,” the brochure commands.

The word FUN was everywhere, often in all caps. Every afternoon, a fresh copy of the ship’s bulletin, FUNTIMES, would arrive on my cabin bed, along with an towel-animal and a small foil-wrapped chocolate.

The guide to port excursions was called FUN ASHORE. The Carvinal credit card they were hocking would let you earn “FunPoints.” With that you could buy watches and apparel at “The Fun Shops.” The order form for taking home bathrobes and beach towels (aka “cruise comforts”) was labeled “Fun Stuff.” Even my luggage tags said, “Enjoy Your ‘Fun Ship’ Cruise.”

After I got home, the survey Carnival sent me asked me to rate my “Fun Ship experience.” Even in their feedback, they want to put fun on my brain.

There were indeed times when I had “fun.” Perhaps the highlight of the week was karaoke-ing Jimmy Buffett’s “Cheeseburgers in Paradise” on Wednedsay night. Aside from Karaoke, I went to the dance club on the ship every single night. I’ve never been “clubbing” four nights in a row. I don’t know if “fun” was the right word, but it certainly was exhilarating to consider the fact that at 1:40 am on a weekday I was in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico in a loud thumping rocking dance club. It was not my usual Monday night.

I also had a particularly good time on the last afternoon and evening of the trip. Around 4:00 pm I was bored and melancholy, so I decided to throw caution to the rough seas and ordered a mixed drink. I drank the rest of the day and ran into lots of new friends, who bought me more drinks. I experienced drunk cruising, drunk dining, and drunk packing for the first time in my life. The lesson I took away from this was that good things happened when I drink.

But the FUN was not constant, and only one of dozens of words I would use to describe the week.


The thing I most looked forward to before my cruise was the food. Everyone who has ever told me about their cruise raved about the food: how good it was, how many choices there were, a bottomless supply available everywhere and at all times. Before I left I told people, “I plan to eat my weight in shellfish!” (The similarity between the words “shellfish” and “selfish” was not lost on me—my subconscious liberal guilt was already at work.)

In truth, I was mostly disappointed with the food. The meals on my cruise ranged from crappy to a little above average. There was nothing that completly rocked my taste buds, and several things that were just plain horrible. The dining menu tried to dress up dishes, but like the FUN propaganda, it felt too forced. The first night I ordered something with an elaborate “sun-dried tomato” name. From the description it wasn’t clear exactly what it was-- it turned out to be unremarkable tomato soup. “Corn-fed chicken” was on the menu, as if that’s a rare and special type of poultry.

The breakfast I had the first morning was crappy: bacon, eggs, cajun sausage, and the worst toast I’ve ever met. I happened to be wearing my Moosewood Restaurant t-shirt that day, and reflected on the irony of eating such a meat-heavy breakfast while wearing it. Moosewood is a famous vegetarian restaurant known for its vegetarian cookbooks. I usually take it for granted that where ever I am that there are vegetarians there, but from the demographics of my cruise I’m not sure that was the case.

I should probably point out that, according to one of DFW’s many footnotes, the cruise line I was on, Carnival, has a certain reputation in the cruise industry. He describes it as the Walmart of cruise lines. So that may explain the demographics and substandard food on the cruise. For example, Wallace luxuriates in the fruit baskets left in his cabin every day. He never ate so much fruit in his life. Really, he goes on and on about the fruit. I’ve never seen anyone get so excited about fruit before. In contrast, there was no fruit left in my cabin.

Like almost every cruiser you talk to, Wallace focuses a lot on the food. I only had two meals that were worth, well, writing home about. After my horrible breakfast Tuesday morning, I had a crappy lunch experience as well. It’s too involved and boring to explain in detail, but it ends with me getting a crappy burger and fries and eating it on the back of the boat, watching the water churn out behind us. About two hours later I was walking past the lunch buffet and saw shrimp quesadillas under the sneeze guard. Shrimp quesadillas! And I wasted my lunch on a sub-par burger and fries?

But then I realized—I’m on a cruise. The food is free (or pre-paid) and I have nothing else to do. Why not indulge in a mid-afternoon meal? That’s why I’m here, right? To break out of my usual routine and eat my weight in shellfish?

So I had a second lunch. If not the best tasting, it was the meal that made the biggest impression on me. I got cilantro pesto with “Home Made Chips,”, tortilla crusted chicken, and of course, shrimp quesadillas. The food was good, but it was the thrill of having a spontaneous second lunch that really stuck with me.

I woke up the following morning feeling a little bloated, so I went to breakfast determined to have a light breakfast. FAIL. I ended up getting grits, cantaloupe, salty potato slices, french toast, and “panko crusted eggs,” a deep-fried hardboiled egg, which was the star of breakfast, mostly for its novelty.

Perhaps the most novel thing about eating on a cruise ship is the scheduled dinner every evening. It’s in a nice restaurant with servers and bus-people fretting over you. Only, there are no prices on the menu because it’s unlimited and already been paid for. At the end of your dining experience, there is no bill to pay or tip to figure out. You just get up and leave.


Tune in for the exciting conclusion-- or really just the last two sections (Foreign Lands and Friends)-- at some indeterminate time in the future.

UPDATE: That some indeterminate time is now. Here's the last installment.

1 comment:

Des said...

The deep fried hard-boiled egg sounds interesting and like it might be good.