Commie on a Cruise
I learned long ago that people judge the way one travels. I had a history professor who asked the class if anyone had been out of the United States. I said I had and he asked me where I had been. I told him, but he scoffed and dismissed me when I said it was a two week bus tour of Europe. At the time, I worked as a housekeeper at a hotel. The trip was something extremely expensive. I nearly ran out of money on the trip itself. But to him, it wasn’t an authentic experience because it was a lowly bus tour and only two weeks. He said, “Oh, you went on one of those whirlwind tours.” I went from feeling proud and happy to feeling embarrassed. The man called himself a socialist but was oblivious to his own privilege and elitism. (In another instance he chastised me for playing video games, saying that it was better to spend time reading.)
This spring, I went on a cruise. I am embarrassed to talk about it for a variety of reasons. On one hand, from an environmentalist perspective, I may as well tell people that I traveled around on an oil spewing toxic waste barge. From a socialist perspective, the workers on the ship work long shifts with miniscule pay. The workers are hyper exploited. Beyond this, it is seen as something old people do. So there is a little bit of ageism. It is also viewed as tacky and inauthentic. When it comes to cultural capital, cruises (at least on the mainstream cruise lines) are viewed as a tasteless way to travel. Middle class liberal sorts prefer long term travel, study abroad, conferences, retreats, socially conscious travel, or self-catered travel.
Well, I went on a cruise. I’ve gone on one before. There are many reasons why I have gone. The previous time it was with my boyfriend who hates travelling. So, it is a way to travel that appeals to the people that I know. I always travel alone. Even if I join up with a group tour, I end up alone. As for my previous cruise, I was actually meant to travel with a companion, but it fell through. Thus, for me, a perk is the potential to bring someone with me. None of my friends or family are really into travel.
But, even going alone, another incentive is that the price is pretty low. It is a great way to see some countries for a fairly low cost. When I went on a cruise this spring, I bought the cheapest room. I didn’t gamble. I don’t like shopping. I don’t drink alcohol. So really, once I was on the ship, I spent almost nothing. Spending nothing was a fun little game (well, I did buy excursions). This is a super deal for someone like me who isn’t lured in by the overpriced…everything…on the ship.
Finally, cruising is pretty easy. It is fairly hassle free and generally relaxing. Even having the cheapest room was better than having and FINDING my hostel in Minsk. There is no stress of finding accommodations or food, since it is all right there on the boat. And since the ship is enormous, visible anywhere on most islands, it seems fairly impossible to get lost.
With that said, here is a communist’s experience with a Carnival cruise:
I chose to go on a 10 Day Carnival Cruise to the Southern Caribbean. The cruise included Barbados, Grenada, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, Tobago, St. Thomas, and Puerto Rico. This seemed like a pretty good deal because a.) I really wanted to go to Grenada because of its brief history of socialism. b.) When I was 19, I told myself that I would one day go to St. Lucia after I read Omeros by Derek Walcott. c.) It was a new island each day! d.) I was curious about learning more about the other Caribbean countries on the itinerary.
I chose Carnival because it was fairly inexpensive and because I like that it attracts more diverse vacationers.
With that said, I began by cruise by walking from my hotel in San Juan to the cruise pier. I didn’t want to pay for a $40 transfer, so I walked. I felt proud of this as navigating the cobblestone streets with my bags made me feel strong and capable. When I arrived on the ship, I found that almost everyone on the cruise was from the U.S., with a smattering of Europeans who appeared to be either from Germany or Scandinavia. Most of the passengers were retired, but there were people of all ages and even some college aged individuals. From the conversations, it seemed that these people had more working class backgrounds. There were teachers, nurses, police people, truck drivers, fire fighters, etc. but most were retirees. The majority of the cruise passenger population was from the Southern United States, overweight, and white. However, I believe that about 10% of the cruise passenger population may have been people of color, including a few large African American families that were travelling together. In this sense, the cruise was not at all an elitist adventure. My impression was that it was everyday people who had been saving up to go and treating themselves to some pseudo-luxury. The people looked like the people you might meet at Walmart or Old Country Buffet. Of course, there were better dressed, fit, middle class people, but for the most part, the people on the ship reminded me of my mother or people who might be friends with my mother. Just average Americans. I don’t mind that since I live in a communist bubble (speaking mostly to socialists and feminists). It is interesting to be around people who have no qualms with going Black Friday shopping, going to church, and eating at buffets. (By the way, I do like buffets. I like salad bars and as a vegetarian, I have a much easier time finding food at a buffet. I often pick healthier meals when I eat at buffets. My main gripe is that the food quality is never awesome).
As soon as I got on the ship, the buffet was open and passengers immediately took to stuffing themselves. I have read that cruise passengers gain 1-2 lbs a day, which seems impossible. However, buffet for every snack and meal, plus drinks could easily result in this. I also read that cruise passengers drink eight times the amount of alcohol they normally drink. Well, just as I was going to buck the trend by resisting the spend, spend, spend mantra of the ship, I decided that I was going to avoid gaining weight by eating sensibly. In the end, I actually lost two pounds on the cruise! Yes, I have work to do in becoming a fat positive feminist. Still, there is something a bit unnerving about watching people eat so much and thinking about the enormous amount of food waste. It is an environment wherein consumption of all sorts is encouraged.
The consumption was one of the more bizarre aspects of the ship. The ship is a cashless economy. The room card doubles as a charge card. Thus, each time you do a fitness class, buy a soda, or purchase a souvenir, you just hand over your room card. You receive a bill at the end. A person can check their balance at a kiosk, but the ease of spending and the high prices surely results in some unpleasant surprises. Beyond the bizarre shopping mall feel of the ship is the shopping while at port. Upon disembarking from the ship, passengers are handed a map. However, the map is devoid of landmarks or tourist attractions. It is a shopping map. The shopping map is entirely useless as a navigational tool as it is minimally marked. The map tells passengers where to shop for the best deals on watches, jewelry, and souvenirs. Passengers are also warned not to leave the shops near the pier. Thus, passengers really don’t see the country. They see the weird, strip mall-esque duty free zone by the ship. I went on ship sponsored excursions, but I also ventured beyond the piers into the cities to explore on my own. I found very few tourists who ventured far from the ship. For instance, I explored Bridgetown, Barbados for a few hours on my own and only saw three cruise passengers in the city. It was very similar on the stops in Grenada and St. Kitts. Passengers really didn’t explore beyond the thin belt of shops near the ship. But, everyone travels for different reasons and everyone has different comfort zones. If passengers don’t explore, it is probably due to mobility issues and the fact that the ship itself seems to discourage it. Of course, if passengers were empowered to explore on their own, the ship would not make money off of the excursions or deals that it has with various shops.
(A busy shopping street in Bridgetown, Barbados. No cruise passengers to be seen)
On the ship, most of the food service and housekeeping staff appeared to be Asian men, with the Philippines representing most frequent country of origin. Bar staff, child care staff, and program staff tended to be young and white. Desk service staff appeared to be female and Eastern European. So, it was interesting how there was a racial, gender, and ethnic divide in the work. The most visible staff were always white, young, and English speaking. Because of the cashless economy, tips are charged at the end of the stay. However, I wondered how the tips were divided among the staff or if the staff even received the gratuities. Because of this, I left a little extra in my room for the housekeeping staff. Actually, I felt bad that everyone on the ship had to work so hard. To mitigate this, I kept my Do Not Disturb sign up for two days. I figured that I really didn’t need daily housekeeping as I had plenty of towels and could tidy my own room. Despite my efforts to create less work for the staff, the head of the security came to my room to check on me. He demanded to know if I was alright, as I had left my sign up for two days. Oops! I explained that I had left it up because I didn’t need room service, but after that, I just let the housekeepers do their thing.
(The handiwork of an overworked housekeeper)
Another curious aspect of the cruise atmosphere is the social construction of fun. The word fun is thrown around all of the time. Everyone having fun? We have another fun show coming up this evening! Even the daily newsletter/schedule is called “The Fun Times.” There are various activities to keep passengers entertained. These include various musical performances, magic shows, mini golf, the pool, the water slide, contests, comedy shows, etc. I decided I really wasn’t interested in any of them. Instead, I spend my time reading, writing, or walking on the fitness track. Each night I made a ritual out of watching the sun set and doing some star gazing. Because I was only 8 degrees above the equator, I desperately wanted to see the Southern Cross. I actually spend some time doing writing and research while on the ship, as I was finishing my Master’s Degree in Teaching. Time on the ship provided ample time to finish the 80 page paper I was working on. But, I also spent time in one of the six Jacuzzis on the upper decks. I enjoyed doing this at night while star gazing. The only problem was that the ship creates an enormous amount of light pollution. As such, it is hard to star gaze. The night sky should be dark and clear in all directions, but the deck lights block out the stars. As a whole, I felt alienated from the fun. I was alone almost the entire time, but enjoyed eaves dropping on my fellow passengers to get a peek into their lives and world views. Unfortunately, Carnival’s idea of fun is not nerd friendly. So, I made my own fun. However, I did participate in trivia! This was a highlight of my time on the ship. I even won a trophy for winning at trivia. I had a proud moment wherein a won a trivia game as a solo player against various teams. From then on, when people saw me, they said, “there’s that smart girl.” It was very flattering and lots of fun, of course.
(Fun for everyone. Except me. Though, I do regret never trying out the waterslide)
The only other thing I will note is the pseudo-luxury. Now, I got the impression that no one on the cruise was really rich. Rich people probably wouldn’t go on a Carvival Cruise. They would go on a more exclusive yachting trip. Even the upper middle class have would probably pick a different cruise line. The passengers had money to spend, so they weren’t the poor. To me, they really did seem like my idea of average Americans. The original goal of Carnival and other mainstream cruise lines was to make cruising affordable. So, while it is affordable, it is still presented as a luxury. This is why passengers are encouraged to buy expensive jewelry and watches. It is why they are told to get spa treatments. It is why there are formal dining nights wherein passengers must dress up if they want to eat in the dining room. There was even an art sale. All of this is a packaged way to sell the idea of luxury to everyday people. I think it is a way for working people to ape the lifestyle of rich people. In a way, it is also an escapism from social class. Thus, I think that for many passengers, the cruise is more about a vacation FROM class than it is an escape TO a destination. For a moment in time, and in that space, the passengers get to experience spending without consequence (until they get their credit card bill). Of course, people are still divided by the expense and location of their rooms, but I am sure there are many others like me who retire each night to their tiny interior cabins.
I enjoyed my time on the islands, but I will discuss them in a future post, as I would like to write about what I learned about each of them. While the visit to each island was brief, I stuffed my days and tried to make the most of my short time. I do believe that I learned quite a bit about each of them and that it further piqued my curiosity about the Caribbean.
So that was my experience. It was a lot of consumerism. It was a lot of complaining older adults. It was a lot of exploited workers. It was boot camp for the ideology of fun and spending. It was lonely. I felt isolated and alienated. But, at the same time I enjoyed it. I made the experience my own by reading, walking, star gazing, playing trivia, doing school work, and making the most of my time on the islands. If I did it again, I would prefer to have a companion. Can I justify the ecological damage? The banal hedonism? The Donald Trump supporters and offensive t-shirts? I find it all kind of fascinating. People may judge me for it, but I would go again.