My Crazy Caribbean Cruise

A few weeks ago, I read a news story about a group of people who rioted aboard the Norwegian cruise line because they’d just had it with the poor service aboard, which included clogged toilets and canceled ports. If I’d read that story a year ago, I would have shrugged in sympathy but now I can nod in empathy because I’ve been there.

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At the end of last November my father asked me if I would be okay with staying in a room with him and his girlfriend for two weeks. When I asked him why he was asking he said he wanted it to be a surprise, but I said I would need to know more details. When he said he was planning a two- week Caribbean cruise on Norwegian, I eagerly agreed. I’d never been on a cruise before, but I’d heard good things about cruises. They seemed so exciting and wonderful.

While I’m not one for surprise vacation destinations, my dad’s girlfriend Gabrielle is, so my father decided to tell her we were going to Florida. When our taxi arrived at what was supposed to be the LaGuardia airport, she was surprised by a cruise port with a hulking cruise ship. I wasn’t surprised but I was impressed. The cruise ship had many stories and the uppermost story had an array of water slides that thrilled the kid in my heart. The outside of the ship was painted with a colorful mural of sea creatures.

Our trip got off to an ominous start when Gabrielle couldn’t find her ID and my father declared that meant we would not be able to proceed with the cruise, but luckily Gabrielle ended up finding it in one of her bags.

The port was crowded and the cruise ship no less so. We hung out in the dining hall as we waited for our rooms to be opened. The food wasn’t bad, but I couldn’t help but be reminded of my college dining hall, except my college dining hall didn’t have staff members running around singing “Washy, Washy!” in an effort to get patrons to wash their hands. I had trouble relocating the table of my traveling companions amongst the crowd but eventually I found them, and we found our room.  It wasn’t super luxurious, but it wasn’t shabby either.

The first stop on the cruise was a destination I had been to many times before: Florida. I would have preferred to go to Disney World for the tenth time in my life, but I knew I would be outvoted by my traveling companions, so I settled on going to the Kennedy Space Center for the second time in my life. Unfortunately, I’d also been outvoted in the last presidential election and now a portion of the space center was closed due to the government shutdown imposed by the president I never would have chosen.

Much to my disappointment, the next destination on our trip, the Bahamas, was canceled due to inclement weather. The possibility of ports being canceled had never even occurred to me but apparently, it’s not an uncommon occurrence on cruises. When I lamented the missed port to the woman who was doing my nails, she told me I wasn’t missing much but I wasn’t willing to take her word for it. While it’s quite possible this activity would have been outvoted in the same way Disney world was outvoted by my traveling companions, I’d been looking forward to swimming with the pigs in the Bahamas.

While my father did not enjoy animal encounters like I did, he knew he couldn’t entirely deny me the pleasure, so he booked a dolphin encounter in Jamaica. The tour bus that took us to the dolphin encounter was driven by a friendly man who drove on the opposite side of the road from what I’m used to and who kept having us repeat a phrase that translated in to “no worries.” Before we had the dolphin encounter, we were treated to a petting zoo of other animals including parrots, rabbits and iguanas. I enjoyed it but my dad complained about what a tourist trap the place was, while Gabrielle complained about the various people who kept accosting her, trying to get her to buy various products. My father opted out of the dolphin encounter and I thought that was a wise decision, considering he’s so bad with animals he could even make Flipper flip out.  After I had a lovely encounter with a dolphin named Zeus and paid too much for a picture of said encounter, we hopped on the bus to our next Jamaican tourist destination, Dunn Falls. While my father and Gabrielle opted to lounge on the beach, I opted to climb the falls. I was nervous about my decision, but it ended up being the high point of my trip, both literally and figuratively. It was a true natural high. At first I was wary of falling on the rocks amid the rushing water and I was hesitant to take the hands of strangers but soon I was lost in the intense beauty of the atmosphere. I was part of a chain of humans helping each other ascend a fierce natural wonder and I knew it was one of those magical experiences I would count among the most precious in life. I made it to the top.

In the downtown area we encountered a man with a donkey, a rabbit and a parrot. I squealed in delight and had my picture taken with the animals. The man told me he would pray for me. Whether he told everyone he would pray for them because he felt it was a nice thing to do, or whether he felt a grown woman who got this excited over animals really needed prayers, I’m not sure.

I would have liked to stay longer in Jamaica to see more sights and participate in more activities such as bobsledding and zip lining, but we had to go back to the cruise ship. The feelings of wanting to stay longer and do more were feelings I experienced at every port.

The days when we didn’t go to any ports were known as at sea days. I used the time to swim in the pool, slide down water slides, exercise in the gym, dance at clubs, dine in restaurants, see shows at the theater and pamper myself in the spa. The water slides were fun for me but my enjoyment of the other amenities on the ship were tempered. My father was outraged when I came back from the spa with a body brush that cost forty-five dollars. I defended myself by explaining that he didn’t realize how persuasive the woman at the spa was. I hadn’t wanted the brush, but I hadn’t felt comfortable saying no. I was proud of the miles I was achieving on a treadmill at the gym but then a staff member told me I was going too fast and wearing the wrong kind of shoes. One day while we were dining I heard a woman at the next table telling the waiter that they should give one slice of meat to women and two to men and telling her dining companion that she had no patience for people who were on welfare because they all needed to just get a job. After she finished eating, she came over to our table to apologize for talking too loudly. I guess my facial expressions of disgust had been too obvious. There was no good way of telling her that it wasn’t the noise level but the content of her speech that was the problem for me.

I found the comedy show I went to unfunny and the hypnosis show embarrassing. I was not hypnotized, and it was clear that no one else was either because they did a poor job of pretending. The 80’s musical show didn’t do much for me and it did even less for my traveling companions, as they walked out on it. The pool was too crowded for me and with all the people at the club, I was hoping one would talk to me, but it didn’t happen.

Our next stop was Belize. In the parking lot of the information center a man on a bike approached me. He gave me his name and said that today was his birthday. Then he explained that he wanted to buy a pizza but didn’t have enough money and asked if I would give him some. His story seemed suspicious, so I refused but then I became wracked by guilt. As our tour van got ready to leave, I gave him the money. Our tour guide asked him to leave and then explained to us that he was using the money to buy drugs. “But you’re nice,” a man who had seen me give the money said. Then I was driven to Hell.

Hell is a group of domed black rock formations you can look out over and of course there is an accompanying devil cut -out where you can insert your head with the logo “I went to hell” printed over it.  After that we went to an aquarium where I got to further indulge my love of animals by petting turtles. I found more humor, in the downtown area when street chickens gathered in front of a KFC and of course I couldn’t help but take pictures. Then I found magic in an unexpected place.

I’d seen a tiny beach in the town and after we’d finished walking around the town, I told my father I wanted to go back to it, and he said I must have imagined it but sure enough it was there. I hopped into the water and discovered it was littered with fish carcasses. They appeared to have been discarded by fishermen. I could have left the water in disgust, but I kept swimming and soon my attention was drawn to the other people in the water. There was a handsome boy of about five or six with chestnut colored skin and shining hazel eyes. An elderly bronze- skinned man with a smile that revealed missing teeth kept reaching into the water and grabbing fish carcasses. He would extend the arm with the fish carcass out to the boy and say “Phoenix!” as he did so. The boy would grab the skeletal remains and gaze upon them with wonder and delight, as his pale-skinned mother watched from the shore. Meanwhile an adolescent boy who gave off the aura of being mentally younger waded through the water in shorts and asked me when the cruise ship was leaving. And somehow this aquatic fish graveyard became imbued with a sense of magic akin to that of the waterfall.

The old man hugged the boy’s mother around the waist and said it was nice meeting him as she packed up her things on the beach. I dove under the water and grabbed the biggest fish skeleton I could find. “Phoenix”, I said as I handed the treasure to the boy with the shining eyes.

When it came time to reenter the ship, I discovered to my alarm that I did not have my boarding pass. The woman taking the passes looked at us in consternation. Then she said, “You owe me a drink” and whipped out the boarding pass I had apparently dropped on the ground earlier. I was embarrassed at my carelessness, but I hope that woman enjoyed her drink.

As we ascended the ramp to the ship, we encountered something more alarming than a lost boarding pass. An inert and unresponsive old man with blood across his face was carried out on a stretcher as paramedics. I figured he’d had a heart attack and wasn’t long for this world.

Meanwhile there was a norovirus outbreak on the ship. Announcements were made to report any sickness and extra precautions were being taken to halt the spread of germs. At the buffet we were no longer allowed to get food ourselves but had to have it given to us by the servers. Elevator and room doors were constantly being scrubbed down. Gabrielle was feeling queasy and she vomited that night but the next day she decided to power through for our first Mexican port destination. The Mayan ruins ended up being a worthwhile destination, but the bus ride took forever, and the tour guide’s jokes about human sacrifice just became disturbing after a while. The vineyards didn’t do much for me, but my wine connoisseur father appreciated them.

When we got back to the ship that night Gabrielle came down with a fever and my father called the doctor. The doctor said Gabrielle would have to be quarantined for two days and so would my father and I. I said, “No way!’’ and figured we’d be able to circumvent the doctor’s recommendations.

The next morning when I woke up and gazed out my window, I saw a body bag being taken to an ambulance on a stretcher. Seeing my second dead person on this cruise, combined with the norovirus outbreak, was a bit much for me. This was starting to feel like some horror movie zombie cruise. I may have screamed a little too forcefully at Gabrielle when she touched my water, but the last thing I wanted were her Norovirus germs.

My father got a call reminding us that we had to stay in our room, and he exploded in righteous anger, saying there was no way they were going to quarantine healthy people and slammed down the phone. I summoned up my own righteous anger and side by side we determinedly walked downstairs to go to our final port of the trip, another Mexican port that included more Mayan ruins and a park full of butterflies.

We encountered a problem at the gate. Our passes had been flagged and we were told we would need to speak to the captain. My father kept saying that the quarantine rule was unfair and nonsensical, and the captain kept saying the cruise ship was legally obligated to enforce the rules and if we weren’t going to follow them, we needed to disembark and fly home. When I expressed my concern that being confined in the room with Gabrielle would guarantee I got the norovirus, an accommodation was made that I could have my own room. Unfortunately, this room was on one of the lower floors and the feeling of rocking in the sea nauseated me. Matters weren’t helped by the fact that my anti -depressant/anti-anxiety medications had melted due to the moisture in the previous room. Even though I wasn’t sick I was placed on the same quarantine diet of Gatorade and yogurt that Gabrielle was placed on. The ship personnel had apologized for the delay in bringing the food, but we had to understand that a lot of people were sick. The guard placed at my door to make sure I didn’t leave the room didn’t set my mind at ease. I started sobbing. A doctor was sent in to talk to me and assess the situation. When he asked if I felt comfortable remaining on the ship, I truthfully answered no. For a few terrifying minutes I was afraid I would be sent to a mental hospital in Mexico and I could only imagine the horrors that would await me there, but the verdict was that I would disembark in Cancun and fly home with my father. Gabrielle would have to remain on the ship due to passport issues. Amazingly she did not dump my father right then and there for leaving her alone on the cruise ship of doom.

At first my father was angry at me for my behavior and pointing out the hypocrisy, considering his own behavior would have been pointless. “Look at what you’re leaving behind,” he said as we walked towards the city and the ship’s massive hull receded from our view. I knew my father was expecting me to feel regretful but all I could think was “Bye, Felicia!’’

I did, however feel regretful, that we didn’t get to explore Cancun because from what I glimpsed from the taxi, it looked like an amazing place.

My dad’s attitude towards leaving the cruise and towards me softened that night at the hotel. Unfortunately for him, the Norovirus caught up with him and he spent the night vomiting. He was convinced I would get the Norovirus myself soon and so was I. My mom was so convinced of it that she had a whole arsenal of supplies ready for me upon my return including, gloves, masks, medicine and disinfectant. Miraculously, the virus spared me.

In the aftermath of my ill-fated cruise, I realized that it’s a certain kind of person who enjoys cruises and I’m not that person. While I did have some enjoyable moments on the cruise, they were mostly experienced off the boat and they would have been better experienced through a different travel medium that gave me more time and freedom. The showy, gaudy, crowded, restrictive atmosphere of the cruise ship is not for me. Many people are shocked when I tell them I saw two people die on the cruise but one friend pointed out that it’s not that surprising because a lot of almost dead people go on cruises. We’re not able to get any refund for our cruise because we disobeyed the captain’s orders, but we take it as a lesson learned.

Norwegian still sends me notices about discounts on upcoming cruises. I’m going to have to pass.

 

A Family Vacation Sans the Family: Part 3

*No one knows what the hell I’m talking about at this point but I figure I might as well finish what I started.*

After a few hours my mother and I arrived at a congregation of houses in the woods and determined that this was where our rental house was located. We drove past a swath of pine trees and an expansive lake with a dock until we came to the house that would be ours for the next few days.

It was a rather charming house with a large foyer and cute little knick knacks for decorations. My personal favorite was the sign that said “Wisconsin State Bird” with a painting of a giant mosquito underneath (although I’m used to vacationing in Florida and the bugs in Wisconsin are nothing compared to what you find in the Sunshine State.) The room I was staying in bore the decor of a little boy (the home owner’s son.) Of course since the turnout for our family vacation was lower than expected, we had some vacant bedrooms. The only real downside of our accommodations was the shoddy internet connection, but I do realize that the purpose of a retreat in the woods is generally not to spend time on the internet.

On the first day my mom’s boyfriend drove down to Wisconsin to meet us but after that it was just the two of us. We sought out hiking trails but there was a surprising lack of them. Finally we found one. It was an uphill trail and at the bottom there was a sign that said “Show off your selfie skills.” I took a picture that proved my selfie skills were quite lacking.

There were a lot of steps to climb to get to the top and it became arduous at times, especially since I still had a cold  (I was also worried that I would drop a snot rocket on one of the steps, causing a hiker to trip and fall to their death) but it was worth it for the view.

Every day at dusk we were treated to a beautiful sunset over the lake that we got to enjoy  from the dock. I feel like at this point, if I was a better writer, I would describe the views of the forest and the lake and the sunset in vivid detail. I would make my readers (if there even are any at this point) feel like they were there and I’d make them marvel at the wonders of nature, but since I’m not that kind of great writer, you’ll just have to take my word for it that the views were spectacular (or I guess I could just post a picture or two.) Okay, spectacular may be overstating it a bit, but I’m judging by the kind of standards I had for a vacation destination like Wisconsin.

The lake was enticing to me. I wanted to go swimming in it and I wanted to go boating in it, but it was too cold to swim and with our rowing skills, my mom and I feared that if we went out on a boat we would never return.

On the day before we left we found a place to go horseback riding. In addition to horses, this farm had other animals such as llamas, goats and dogs. When a dog came up to greet us my mom said she thought it was an Australian shepherd and I said I thought it was a blue heeler. His owner informed us he was an Australian Shepherd /Blue Heeler mix.

The horse I rode was named Leo and the horse my mother rode was named Rowdy. Or maybe it was the other way around. Or maybe I’m misremembering and their names were nothing of the sort. I have no recollection of the name of the guy who led us on the horseback ride through the woods, but I remember he wore a cowboy hat and smoked like a chimney. He was a nice guy, although the anecdotes he shared in the beginning about horses throwing people off their backs didn’t exactly leave me feeling reassured.  The horse I was riding gave me a scare as we crossed from the road to the forest. He started whinnying and trotting quickly and I had this vision of him dashing madly down the highway as I clung helpless to his back for dear life. The tour guide noticed my panic and reassured me that everything was okay-my horse was just trying to catch up with his friends. After that it was all smooth sailing. I mean riding.

In the evenings, after we’d watched the sun set, my mom and I would eat dinner in our cabin, enjoying such delicacies as steak and corn on the cob.  There was a sense of peace and comfort but feelings of wistfulness also permeated the air. As we noticed all the empty chairs around the table and the sofas that had room for several more occupants, we couldn’t help but think of the family vacation that could have been. We couldn’t help but imagine my grandfather sitting there surrounded by all his children and most of his grandchildren, as we told stories and played board games and the sound of our laughter reverberated throughout the cabin.

Since the amount of time we spent in the cabin in Wisconsin ended up being abbreviated  due to the lack of family participation, our stay was over before we knew it. Even after we got back home, we continued to experience sadness over the “family vacation that wasn’t.”

On his nightly phone calls with my mom, it became apparent that my grandfather’s health was declining. I thought of what a shame it was that he wouldn’t have a grand family bonding experience in the woods in his cache of final memories and I knew such an opportunity would never again arise in his lifetime (I suppose if I wanted to put a positive spin on it I could be grateful that I got to spend quality time alone with my mom and we got to strengthen our relationship, but we live alone together so we already spend plenty of time together, and we’ve always had a good relationship.)

Oh well,  at least we tried. And at least I got to see Wisconsin. Now in my mind it’s more than just the cheese state and the state that Hillary should have campaigned in. It’s the site of the family vacation sans the family.

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