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Sunday, August 23, 2009

Nine Days on a Cruise Ship

Recently I took a 10-day ocean cruise to the Caribbean. I went with a handicapped friend who needed my assistance to get around. He wanted to see the islands of Bermuda, Saint Maartin, St. Thomas and San Juan, Puerto Rico. We sailed on the Royal Caribbean line, Explorer of the Seas, a ship about the size of the Titanic. Explorer of the Seas is so big it can hold more than 3200 people plus a staff of 1500. Many people have compared this ship to a huge floating city.
Although I had a fear of becoming seasick, that never happened. What I didn’t expect was to feel the power of ocean waves in so huge a ship. Occasionally the ship would rock back and forth, making the passengers seem a little drunk because people kept bumping into one another. When Explorer pulled out of Cape Liberty, New Jersey, the cool and rainy weather didn’t seem like much of an inducement to a cruise. That changed the following day as we neared Bermuda: we saw hints of a blue Caribbean sky and ocean.
As a veritable reader of ‘lost at sea’ stories, while gazing out into the middle of the ocean from an Explorer deck, I couldn’t help but think of the last moments of people who jumped overboard. The ocean that far out, especially in the dead of night, has a lost, scary quality—it feels like you are at the ends of the earth.
Most people on cruise ships do two things: eat and shop. Life on Explorer was no exception. Culinary delights are many, and most passengers I observed went into an eating frenzy. A pre-paid trip guarantees free food, from formal sit down dinners, to lavish buffets, to the most incredible desserts worthy of Le Bec Fin. Second, third, and forth helpings of lunch became the norm for most people. On the ship’s Royal Promenade—copied after a 19th Century Street in Italy— the jewelry, clothing and wine and spirits shops were always packed. There was also a cafĂ© where passengers could help themselves to free Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, sandwiches, bagels, fruit, coffee, and donuts. Alcohol and soda, however, were not free.
I brought two bottles of red wine in my carry-on luggage and made it a point to sip a glass of wine before the evening meal in the formal dinning room. If you’ve seen the movie Titanic, then you know what the dinning room was like: central grand staircase, chandeliers, women in evening gowns, a wait staff in bow ties. The only thing missing was the iceberg, although on our first night at sea a live orchestra played the theme from the Titanic as we dined.
My friend and I shared the dinner table with three ‘shopalocholic’ Jersey girls. These snappy twentysomethings tried not to be put off by the site of my handicapped friend, but I don’t think they succeeded. My friend’s objective in taking the cruise was to find a wife, a precarious endeavor even for the non-handicapped. People on ships tend to be in frivolous moods, and this is when they are not drinking. Cocktails by the pool are served every day before 11 am. Under the blue Caribbean sky, reggae music from a live band, and silky sea-breezes that put you into a deep trance, the offer of a tropical cocktail can be a hard temptation to overcome.
My friend, although he did not find a wife, got the attention of a woman with a penchant or fetish for handicapped fellows. I don’t know what it is about the sea that makes people throw away their inhibitions, but after two or three days of stalking him by day, this evening gowned clad “lady” turned my friend off forever when she fell down in front of him in a cocktail-induced stupor during the Captain’s Ball.
The Jersey girls had a good laugh, but my friend was mortified.

Our visit to the island of Bermuda was our best tourist experience, if only because Bermuda had a small beach near where Explorer docked. Ditto for Saint Maartin, where I strolled the town and took pictures while my friend talked to a local bar owner who described to him how the island came to legalize prostitution.
The generic shopping centers and tourist stores on St. Thomas where the Explorer docked could have been groupings of stores in South Jersey. To see St. Thomas you have to take special tourist excursion buses. When we stepped out of the ship to get a glimpse of San Juan, Puerto Rico, the first thing we saw was a giant rat race across the sidewalk.
Life at sea has one supreme advantage: worries and anxieties disappear in a flash, and you tend to live in the present.
Most people also gain anywhere from 12 to 14 pounds after an ocean cruise, but I actually lost weight. Don’t ask me why. Maybe it was my frayed nerves after spending so much time listening to the Jersey girls talk about their shopping expeditions.
While it was great to travel the sea, it was an even greater feeling to get back on land.

Thom Nickels

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