Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Homeward Bound: 3 January 2007, At Sea

“Hump Day” at Sea: The Wednesday before Saturday docking in Los Angeles. It’s that strange, pre-melancholy time of a round-trip cruise: too early for packing but not too late for tanning. Passengers wander like zombies with their “pre-paid gratuities forms” trying to figure out if this is a too-generous or too-stingy way to facilitate the age-old conundrum of tipping at sea ( myself included). By 6:30pm tonight, the decision will have to be made: the first deadline of arrival mode. Many will miss the demarcation and heave a secret sigh of relief. “Oh well, they can’t take the tips out of my account so I’ll have to distribute cash ( usually 20s) around the deck.”

And certainly, if any are deserving of tips for services rendered, it is those who minister to passengers afloat. Crew leans against bulkheads in exhaustion. I saw one steward standing up asleep, his head cradled on a pile of towels atop a companion way service cart. They’re tired, and tired of us: the constant state of any/everyone who has ever worked at sea.

John Maxtone-Graham once wrote that “every cruise is exactly the right length, except on the final day when everyone is ready to go home.” For the passengers, that is certainly a wisdom-filled truism. For crew – they are home. And, no matter how friendly or accommodating they may be, all crew ( especially officers) are vaguely resentful of all these people “in their house.” From first-hand experience, I know it. Having first gone to sea aboard Crystal Harmony for a brief stint in the early 90s, and then for two-and-a-half World Cruises, 45 countries and almost 16 full months aboard Crystal Symphony I can assure you: working at sea is as hard as it gets. A friend so employed for several years called it “ship tired”: a unique combination of exhaustion, sleep-deprivation, time-change-confusion and not knowing-or-caring what day it is or into what port one is pulling.

The computer room assistant ( a paragon whose patience would rival a saint’s) spends his first days at sea listening to passenger complaints about “how slow the Internet” is and the rest of the cruise running to the printer to retrieve documents for guests that will then get left behind or discarded. He rarely gets thanked and is looked upon as a liar when he explains the simple fact that “we are at sea” which should alert most passengers as to why their precious download speed might be a wee-bit slower than one secured on land via cables. ( Sigh). How I do feel for the crew. At about this point in the cruise, their smiles are a bit droopy, their “my I help you sirs” a little less crisp and their attitudes a bit more sanguine: they know us now. The standard response to all our “how are you todays” sent their way is almost always a variation of “Excellent!” but now rendered with an even more robotic Stepford Wives quality.

And, of course, they are emotionally tired as well. Many, especially those from Southeast Asia or the Philippines, are working aboard ship to support families at home: families they sometimes don’t see for months at a stretch. Contracts of eight months long are not uncommon, certainly for the most menial of crew occupations. Privacy is a luxury they never have, as – except for officers – most cabins are shared. Plus, of course, there are dozens of new customs and languages to hear and process. When I sailed, I was one of only seven American crew (U.S. citizens making splendidly spoiled passengers but splendidly awful crew) among 800 comrades from 35 countries. Aboard Celebrity Summit¸ 65 nationalities are represented – a United Nations afloat if ever there was one. For a young man from Goa or a young woman from Manila it is hard work indeed, and a long, long way from home.

They make our coffee and our beds; wash our clothes and our toilets. Our food trays they carry and our ash trays they empty. They pour and they prod, preen and pretend to love it and all to refrains of “it is my pleasure sir” and “how may I assist you” and in general without most passengers understanding the extreme amount of work that is accomplished to get us coming back.

However, most love it – love it in ways incomprehensible to those who labor ashore. A magazine writer who crewed briefly entitled his chronicle of the experience as “the greatest thing I’ll never do again.” Crew works their aft off, but gets to see the world in the process. Sadly, however, because of the work load, sometimes whole ports – whole countries – drift away to stern as those in ‘tween decks servitude are just so: stuck between decks serving or sleeping and too busy-or-tired to even poke a head on deck to see the sites sailing by. It was for just this reason that after going round the world once, I signed up again. I wanted to see all the places I had barely glimpsed the first time.

The crew is tired, and never more so than now: poised in mid-stream, literally, for that most-exhausting but anticipated of days, embark/debark, when one load of human freight leaves and another takes its place. But, also for a few hours that day the crew can breathe more freely. For a few hours, the ship is empty of those whose spoiled and unknowing vacations make their employment possible. For a few hours, the only people onboard are those who call it home. For a few hours, the ship belongs to the crew. That is the greatest gratuity of all.

More anon.

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