Cruises, Culture, and Responsibility

So I realize I haven’t posted in a good minute. My practicum, the last requirement for my degree, really took over my life; I’m not being hyperbolic. I no longer had time to be creative in the kitchen, I didn’t cook much at all, and I could barely breathe a second long enough to think to take photos of anything or post about anything. But now it’s all over and I actually got to take a vacation.

I took a cruise to Cozumel, Mexico on Carnival. Naturally, my parents weren’t thrilled about my going on this cruise given Carnival’s recent bout of ship issues, but luckily the one I was on had no mechanical problems.

There were, however, some other problems… [Warning: long post ahead.]

The morning the ship sailed I took my last final of grad school. I ran out of there in under an hour after furiously scribbling down answers. Since I live pretty close to the port we took a cab there and luckily got on board pretty quickly. It didn’t register at first that I finally had the opportunity to rest and relax, but as soon as I saw the inside of the ship and the decks, (and all that food!), I went crazy. I ate so much food the first day–“Mongolian,” pizza, a burger, cheesecake (and this was all before dinner), had a couple of drinks, and then ate escargot and brisket for dinner followed by the most hateful dessert I’ve ever seen: a chocolate molten cake that was all molten and no cake. Our first night of dinner we ate at a huge table alone; no one else showed up. But our wait staff–Joselito and Alberto–were great throughout the entire trip! They were also our only constants in a revolving door of faces.

The next day was spent at sea and we finally slowed down on the eating. Breakfast on this cruise was consistently terrible. (Making breakfast is really an art, not everyone can make grits, and making eggs in bulk is never a good idea.) We spent most of the day laying in the sun–letting the drinks come to us–and people watching. People watching really became our favorite activity on board, and there was no shortage of interesting people to look at: all the shapes and sizes, colors, ages, interesting tattoos, interesting clothing choices, interesting hairstyles… We also watched a whole bunch of folk allowing themselves to turn beet red while we lathered our own brown skin in SPF 70. If I’m getting mildly burned in the sun, then I KNOW some of those more melanin-deprived folks had to be in pain–and yet they remained in the sun, day after day. (Studying public health ruins everything. Seeing all these burned people was quite disconcerting: skin cancer is real thing!)

By the end of that first day at sea, both of us were getting cabin fever. The only thing that made that day, and the rest of the days, tolerable, were the staff on board. The men and women working on that ship were always so friendly and considerate; always had a smile on their faces, and not that fake requisite one, but a genuine smile–that is, if you were willing to actually address them as fellow human beings with lives as opposed to faceless objects of service, as many people on the cruise did. The staff were from places literally all over the world. We spent a considerable amount of time stopping them to ask about the country they were from, since it’s always listed underneath their names on their name tags. I would say the vast majority of men and women we saw were from Indonesia or the Philippines, but there were people from Romania, Serbia, Peru, Scotland, India, Thailand, and the list goes on.

The first moment that we both realized that it was time to get off the cruise was at the first dance performance by the Elation Dancers. It was supposed to be a show about rock n roll through the decades. We came a little late, about halfway through the 1950s, so I can’t speak on anything that happened before that, in fact, I’m not sure which decade they actually started with. But right off the bat, the entire cast was white. This isn’t inherently a problem, but when 95% of the staff are people of color, and there were no people of color on that stage, it was a little…odd. Especially since a position in entertainment is probably preferable to bussing the tables of ungrateful people. Secondly, in this showcase of rock n roll, they seem to have forgotten that rock n roll was not/is not a genre of only white artists. There was not one song performed by either black or latinx artists from what I saw, of the 1950s forward. I’m not sure how you represent rock n roll in the 1950s without including Doo Wop or Little Richard or Chuck Berry. I’m not sure how you talk about rock n roll in the 1960 without including many of the Motown artists, without James Brown, without Jimi Hendrix. I’m not sure how you ignore funk in the 1970s which is still rock n roll in a sense. Or how you exclude Tina Turner when she really took off as a solo artist. And in my own lack of familiarity, I can’t even name the countless latinx rock n roll artists, but not even a mention of Ritchie Valens or Santana?!

Needless to say, that show put me in a bad mood for the evening. That night at dinner, our table-mates finally showed up, but that was foolish as well, as these two men started off dinner (before they even sat down) by giving us a disclaimer that they weren’t a gay couple. -_-  But the combination of a great dinner menu (lobster tail and shrimp) and Joselito  (with his upbeat spirit and jokes) managed to put a smile back on our faces, and that night, all of the staff performed a song.

Saturday, we finally got to Cozumel. Neither of us were sure what to expect. We decided not to book one of those overpriced excursions that shuttle you around to only tourist locations and try and coax you into buying mass produced knick knacks that say “cozumel” or t-shirts that say “I partied in Cozumel.” When we got on land we asked the guides waiting at the port where they go, and where they eat, and what they would recommend we should do that didn’t involve paying for private beaches or swimming with dolphins. The two people we talked to seemed really excited to tell us what we should do–it was probably refreshing not giving directions to fat tuesdays or being asked where to take pictures with “Indians.”

We decided to take a cab into town and wander a bit, and then thought we would try and find a non-private beach later in the day. We got lucky. Our cab driver, Bernie, gave us great advice about where we should go, and then offered to be our tour guide for the day at a flat price. We stopped in the main square of town for a bit, and then he drove us down past town to where all the condos were–giving us a history of the town, of the Mayans, of his own life. We stopped at one beach for a bit so we could compare it to the beaches on the other side of the island, which was where we were going later, which aren’t privately owned, which don’t cost money, and where mostly only the local residents go. Then he drove us through the neighborhoods were they all live, and even showed us his mom’s house, before we stopped for a free tequila tasting. There was so much tequila, and it was all so good. Bernie really knew everyone on that island, which I suppose isn’t difficult given how small it is, but it made the experience that much better, and more personal. After buying a bottle of tequila, and a very strong margarita, we headed to the other side of the island, stopping at various beaches and restaurants to take pictures. We finally stopped at the beach that was our destination and we had more margaritas (with extra shots because we were with Bernie), and ate some food. By the time we finished we only had about 15 minutes to play in the ocean, but it was enough. We swam hard for the entire 15 minutes and then jumped out and got back into the cab. We got back to the cruise early, which was probably a good thing since we didn’t have to stand in long lines to re-board, but I low-key wish we had spent a little more time swimming in the ocean.

Neither of us realized how drunk we were until we stopped moving–a sign of good Tequila. After stuffing our face with more food, we took a nap before dinner so that we could be awake for the “Mexican Fiesta Party” after dinner (and yes, I realize ‘fiesta party’ is redundant). This was where major issue number two arose:

  • Assumption: A cruise that regularly makes trips to and from Mexico will have a Mexican Fiesta with music and dancing representative of and relevant to Mexican culture.
  • Assumption validity: WRONG.

At the start of the “fiesta party”, we just sat on an upper deck and watched. There was a little merengue playing, some salsa beats, etc, but I guess dancing to this genre of music for most white people (purposeful generalization) equates to copious amounts of shimmying. There was even some “Egyptian dancing” thrown in there for good measure (picture the worst dancing to ‘walk like an Egyptian.’) We finally went down and danced to the bit of merengue and salsa playing, but for the most part, the music oscillated between J-Lo, Daddy Yankee, and Pit Bull: Puerto Rican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban. *blank face* That was just the warm-up. The real party was only getting started, and as could be expected, it only got worse…

They started with the Cha Cha Slide. THE.CHA.CHA.SLIDE. Then, as I predicted, they moved on to the Macarena. Nope, my mistake. It was actually the Maca-chicka-rena, which involves switching back and forth between the Macarena and the Chicken dance. Then they decided to have a conga line, at which point we quickly got off the dance floor, and resumed our position in the upper deck, watching from above. Finally, after wearing out all the commonly known repetitive dances, they introduced some new ones. There was a dance called Samba Blue, that involved a dance move called the “awkward airplane.” Then were a couple others that I can’t remember, other than them being random songs having nothing to do with Mexican culture. The party finally rounded out with a dance to Mambo No. 5 by one hit wonder, Lou Bega. The only thing they didn’t do was limbo, and honestly, I’m shocked they didn’t since nothing else about that party was culturally competent. After the party was over, there was a spread of Mexican food for the late night buffet and an ice carving of a Mayan. That event was depressing.

Since the Elation Dancers were leading the party, I really don’t understand why they couldn’t have given a short salsa or merengue lesson (which I know also aren’t traditionally Mexican, but would’ve been more relevant than the damn cha cha slide or the Macarena).

Anyway, we still had one more day of cruising on the ship. Unfortunately, it rained most of the afternoon and evening, so we couldn’t just lay in the sun. So we took the day to people watch near the sushi bar. It turned out to be one of the best parts of the trip, not because we sat around drinking and gossiping, but because we met some more of the staff and got know a bit about their lives and what it was like to work on the ship. It was like a few hours of investigative journalism.

We met Iris, from the Philippines who has two kids back at home who she only gets to see maybe once a year. It was mother’s day, so that was a tug at the heart strings. The contracts for cruise staff are 6-10 months long of constant cruising with 2 month vacations in between. She was 1 month into this contract after having had a 2 month vacation. She said that she enjoyed working there about 50% of the time. When people talked to her like a human, genuinely asked her about her day–it was enjoyable. But much of the time, she said people talked down to her as “the servant,” or spoke with insincere kindness with their primary objective of getting something from her. She showed us pictures of her two children, a boy and a girl, and talked about how she was sending money home, working to pay off her daughter’s braces, and other things of that nature. She was really great, jokes for days. But in the middle of our conversation, another cruiser walked by and asked her for directions. She maintained perfect professionalism–a smile on her face, patience, an eagerness to help–even after being mocked by the customer, who after being asked to repeat the question when Iris didn’t hear it fully, opted to over enunciate and speak loudly to her as if she was stupid.

We also met a couple of young guys from Romania, one of which, Florin, told us that he and his girlfriend (of 7 years) came together, and they both work as waitstaff. Then there was the photographer, Marco, from the Philippines who was helping cruisers purchase the multiple photos taken of us throughout the trip, who was also being talked down to. Instead of getting frustrated, he opted for witty humor that went right over the customer’s head. We actually saw a lot of that–side comments made by different staff for their own personal amusement, probably to take the edge off of the constant rudeness and impatience of the cruisers who think the staff should be at their beck and call. The same people who don’t even bother to learn the staff’s names or pronounce them correctly even after they’re told how to. The comments were always super witty and had me cracking up, especially as the people they were directed towards didn’t get it.

The cruise was mostly enjoyable, but I was really happy to get off the ship. Being on a cruise [to the Caribbean, at least] feels like an alternate reality–there are no clocks anywhere, and the lighting is always a constant dim. The people are a mosaic of social problems, between the middle aged men and women trying desperately to hang onto their youth with their boorish behavior, poor dye jobs and awful hairstyles, and age-inappropriate outfits that just look sloppy–to the young folks trying desperately to prove they’ve made it in life, talking loudly about their lucrative careers and future planned vacations, and strutting around pretentiously in their kitten heels and designer outfits while talking down to and glaring at anyone they don’t deem their equals

The only people that I enjoyed besides who I went with, were the staff. As Black women (people) in the US, it’s to be expected that if you work with even one other Black woman, that the people around you are going to call you the other woman’s name, and they’ll do it often and unapologetically. It’s even worse when your names start with the same two letters of the alphabet, which is the case for the other woman I went on the cruise with, who I also work with. In our office, people often called us the wrong name. Walking down the street, we’re asked if we’re sisters, even though we really look nothing alike other than being brown and having natural hair. So let me say, it was incredibly refreshing that the staff on the cruise not only learned both of our names, but knew which one of us they applied to–NEVER confusing one of us for the other. Sure, you can say they’re paid to remember our names, but I think being part of the nameless/faceless makes them more sensitive to those microaggressions that eat at your dignity when people can’t even be bothered to remember your name and the face that it belongs to.

So thank you Joselito, Alberto, Iris, Marco, Florin, Ali, and Bernie for reminding me how important it is to respect other people, to live my life in a way that humanizes other people. I don’t think I’ll be going on another cruise, but if you do, take some time out of your sunbathing and cocktail drinking to get to know the staff members that are serving you. They all have pretty interesting lives. And if you go to Cozumel, find Bernie Lopez. He can show you around the island and/or teach you how to surf!

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