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Cruising Off Baja

“A life on the ocean waves,
A home on the rolling deep…”

— Sea Shanty

In travel, I once thought there were only three levels of tedium that overtake one between departure to destination. If you go by car, your tedium level is light. You have the power to interrupt your journey at any point as well as a changing view and a task, driving, for diversion. Travel by rail or bus introduces you to the second level of tedium when only scheduled stops enable you to break the journey, but the scenery remains in the middle distance as a diversion. Should you go by air, your despair and terror are lessened by the knowledge that, except for extreme distances, your powerlessness and lack of view will at least last no more than a day.

The three levels of tedium. Each more or less equal to the others and each part of what you pay for wanting to indulge in the mindlessness of modern travel. But I have, this week discovered, a fourth level and this level contains all the horrors of travel plus the horrors of actually being there. This is a level of tedium previously unexplored by me, but rumored to exist by sensible travelers who have gone and returned to tell the tale. I should have believed them but, like the fool I have always been, I had to experience it myself. Right now I am still trapped within the confines of the experience but it isn’t too soon to send out a warning in the hopes that there are others out there who will not be the fool I was; who will turn back before committing themselves to this constantly renewing fresh hell on the ocean waves.

But should you have a taste for tedium, should boredom be like mother’s milk and daily bread (lots of it) to you, you will be surfeited by this otherwise antiquated mode of travel. Indeed, for sheer, mind-obliterating tedium, for the kind of vacancy induced only by event horizons with no events and fewer horizons; for a feeling that arises in no experience other than incarceration, there is nothing that can beat the tedium induced by that modern masterpiece of torpor, stupor and pointlessness, the Cruise Ship.

This marvel of contemporary capitalism — a hotel that takes its patrons far out of reach of any competition — has no peer when it comes to simultaneously suspending and extending time. At sea, the ship”s clock is all there is and its pendulum pulses exceedingly slow. After a day or so, you exist in this world with either way too much time or outside of time altogether. Either way the first thing to leave is your mind and judgment. This is hardly noticed by most since management has arranged for a host of activities so mindless that you will be convinced for days that you are actually in possession not only of your mind, but your right one at that. It is only when the credit card bills arrive long after you are at home that you will realize what you have done to yourself.

The sane reaction to a cruise, once one has trapped oneself on board and has perceived exactly what sort of fresh and renewing hell one is in, would be to wait until midnight and throw yourself off the ship in the hopes that the props would convert you to chum before the sharks found you.

But since you are obviously so insane as to actually get on the cruise ship in the first place, this blissful option is closed to you. Besides, the small pattern of looping dots on the map in the main lounge that lays out your trip to nowhere gives you the hope that, when all the little red dots have changed to green, you will be released and returned to life. Since the ship only moves at a piddling four dots per day, and since the dots are many, you try not to peek too often lest despair absorb you and you hear the chimes of the starboard rail at midnight.

Still, in the brief moments of lucidity that come between meals and naps, an experience aboard a cruise ship is not without its uses. It can, properly considered, instruct you in the deeper meanings of your foolishness. Indeed, it can cause you to re-examine attitudes towards life issues you previously thought of as resolved. Capital punishment Vs. life imprisonment comes to mind at this moment.

Before being trapped aboard this bobbing monument to all that is mediocre in our culture, I had been of the firm opinion that for certain crimes only death was a just reward. After these past days hiding from Muzak in my ironically named “Stateroom,” I am beginning to believe that life imprisonment in such a room, even if were a bit larger, would be a finer and more just torture than a bit of nod and wink before the big sleep at the end of a needle or rope.

As an added punishment to the condemned, I would allow him the cable system I possess of four channels, two of which endlessly repeat either an infomercial for amber jewelry and the roast of a minor celebrity. The others are devoted to the X-files and Wolf Blitzer and seem, after a couple of days, completely interchangeable. A week of this begins to melt the sheathing from every nerve fiber you possess. Several decades would a hell beyond imagining. For especially heinous crimes, the remote would be removed from the cell and handed to the steward who hasn’t been tipped in ten years.

Another lesson learned when trapped on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean is a lesson, a deep lesson, about food.

I’ve long held that one of the sure signs of the success of modern civilization in the United States is that we have, for the first time in the history of creation, created a culture whose central problem is that it has  way-t00-much food.

America, for the first time in the history of man or the planet Earth, has become a nation so drenched in food that we now have to have our legislatures spend time passing laws making it illegal to sue those companies whose business is offering cheap food in massive quantities to the population. Given that the entire history of life has been a ceaseless search for adequate food, the advent of a nation that produces, winter, spring, summer, and fall, way-too-much food is a signal event in evolution. But it still, alas, remains a problem for the human animal that has evolved to consume food whenever and where ever available. Since many cannot just say no to the bacon-chili cheeseburger option, the persistent supply of cheap food is a problem.

Cruise ships seem, as part of their most persistent purpose, to be designed to eliminate this problem of way-t00-much food once and for all. Never before have I been in an environment that pushes food at its end users as frantically and methodically as a cruise ship. The offers come thicker and faster than the suggestions to buy at Amazon. Your Gold Box is on your screen all day every day. You can pass but it all comes back the very next instant.

Whole herds were sacrificed for this ship. Flocks of poultry that could darken the skies have be plucked and jammed onto its ravening spits. Oceans of grain and islands of sugar cane have been hijacked into its ovens. In New Zealand, mountainsides of happy, gamboling lambs have been seared black beneath its broilers. And, of course, in the quiet, seldom visited case marked “Sugarless Desserts” lurks the knowledge that “there”s always room for Jello.”

Like the boiler rooms deep below, the buffet pulses heat night and day trying to push out and dispose of all this food. It looks to be way-too-much and on land it would be. But this ship”s passengers are doing their level best to keep up with the buffet. On any given day it is difficult to say who holds the lead, but both sides struggle to stay on top.

While somewhere long ago this ship may have had a sign that said; “Our Policy: One mammal per person per seating,” that sign has long since been purloined to decorate the refrigerator of a double-wide somewhere in Oklahoma. Indeed, a brief, very brief, glance at many in the buffet line that has no end confirms that unlimited opportunities for gluttony was one of the lines in the brochure that made them reach for their Discover cards.

More than the sea or the money, it is the food that fetches them at sea. Five, six, seven times a day. The moist pink carving boards, the sizzling griddles, the burbling steam tables, and the tiers of dessert offerings have lured them here as surely as the Sirens of old lured mariners to their deaths on the rocks of the lee shore. The only difference here is that the rocks in question are made of mashed potatoes with three kinds of gravy, and the comforting knowledge that a portable defibrillator is fully charged with a trained operator on call only three decks below.
Written for a bottle at sea, somewhere off the Baja California Coast

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Don Rodrigo June 5, 2018, 2:03 PM

    I am so old I remember traveling on the ocean just as a means of transportation.

    I see these massively top-heavy cruise ships as invitations for a rogue wave.

  • Gordon Scott June 5, 2018, 3:09 PM

    I find 45 minute ferry rides to be about the most I like in sea transportation.

    I did look into riding on one of the big cargo ships as a passenger. It’s somewhere around $110 a day, and sometimes you’re on there for 30 days. It might be interesting, for a week or so. Certainly one will not have seven meals served.

  • Ray June 5, 2018, 4:24 PM

    I was in the Navy and there is nothing more boring than traveling from beautiful Pearl Harbor, HI, to beautiful Vietnam at 16 knots economy cruise speed. After awhile you begin to wonder if this cruise will ever end. Are we doomed to cruise across the Pacific forever like the flying Dutchman? The Flying Dutchman is a legendary ghost ship that can never make port and is doomed to sail the oceans forever.

  • Ga Gator June 5, 2018, 4:25 PM

    Sounds like heaven compared with my first cruise in 1963. Nineteen days across
    the Pacific aboard the troop ship Gen Hugh Gaffy dodging two typhoons between
    Oakland and Korea.

  • Mike June 5, 2018, 6:19 PM

    You must not drink nor gamble, Vanderleun.
    I took a cruise from the Gulf of Mexico to Jamaica, Grand Cayman, and then to Cancun. It was kinda fun. But I had a teen and a pre-teen at the time and so it really was a “vacation” for their mother and I as they had entertainment for both of our kids and we didn’t have to watch over them for a week. The wife and I enjoyed the shows, gambling and drinking whilst some ship employee babysat.
    The kids had a blast, and I got to relax a bit.
    So not bad. But like you said, the bills will come. But for us, we had just done a remortgage and used a portion of the cash to pay for the trip ahead of time. I also enjoyed being able to smoke some Commie cigars from Cuba in Grand Cayman and do some snorkeling in Cancun. And while you seemed to hate the amount of food, the wife and I tried a LOT of different stuff that we don’t normally get in “fly over” country.
    So I don’t have any regrets about it…
    Sorry your cruise sucked.
    No regrets.

  • ghostsniper June 5, 2018, 7:07 PM

    Well I for one would not be bored for one second.
    I’ll remind you of that mantra I learned in the army, “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.”, and get into I would. Waist deep. As an architect and an engineer I’d want to know everything about all of it, especially the part Don Rodrigo mentions above. “Why doesn’t this bitch fall over???” Seriously, I’d be all down in the nooks and crannies, I’d wear the captain out. “Yes, of COURSE I want to see the axle bearings, silly!” There would not be one dull minute.

    We did a Windjammer back in the 80’s but that was a canoe compared to today’s cruise liners. Vertible cities without a country, and they move. Whoa. A skyscraper, lying down, with engines. HUGE engineers. Go out on your street and step off about 400 paces in any direction and that’s about how long one of them cruisers is. And wider than your property is deep. WOW! Height? Taller than most cities in the US.

    As far as food goes. “The ocean called, they’re running out of shrimp.” Mountains of seafoods and fruits. All day, everyday, non-stop. And crystal clear water, no lemon pleez. blechhhh
    No land meats, just ocean meats. And keep em coming.

    Yes, retiring to the cabin would be prison, so I would spend little time there. No, I don’t drink, dance, and listen to old doods swaying and singing 40’s toons, or gamble. Not when there is so much other good stuff to check out. And I prolly won’t buy stuff neither. Stopping at 3rd world tourist traps doesn’t strike my fancy much neither. It’s all about that boat.

    Can I rappel off the side and check out the waterproof seals on the portholes? I’ll bring my own rope, swiss seat, and snap links.

    Oh yeah, “Where da gyroscope is? I know there’s one in here somewhere keeping this leviathan upright.” Can I stick an earth magnet on it and see what happens?

  • Gordon June 5, 2018, 7:25 PM

    So it was you, Ghost, who made that Greek cruise ship roll over? The one up top of the post? You and your magnets, man!

  • SGT.BAG June 6, 2018, 4:32 AM

    Floating cattle cars with fancy names..but the calamari is palatable.

  • ghostsniper June 6, 2018, 4:40 AM

    Ya know, a billion square miles of ocean and these fuckers are crashing ships and subs all over the place. They just can’t stay away from each other, just got to get on each others nerves – it’s like a hobby!
    I read about that thing awhile back, total loss, was scrapped.
    The method for uprighting it was interesting, counter balance and pulleys and pumps. Oh my!

  • H June 6, 2018, 5:42 AM

    The description is precisely how I imagined a cruise would be.

    My wife was a travel agent for all her working lifetime and went on many cruises. She’s been saying for the whole of our 26-years of marriage that we need to go on a cruise. She seems to have a different definition of “need” than I do. I’m 65 years old and seeing the end of the tunnel getting closer all the time, and with a little luck may be able to live just short enough to avoid it.

  • pbird June 6, 2018, 9:08 AM

    Yeah…that’s about it. Alaska though, is nice to look at.

  • Larry Geiger June 6, 2018, 10:00 AM

    Went from Port Canaveral with my wife, her twin sister and the twin’s husband. Had a nice relaxing week. Food was ok. We are basically old fashioned people and just went to regular meals. The twin’s husband loved dinner. He could order 3 appetizers and no main course or two main courses and one dessert. Whatever he wanted. Went to couple of shows. Don’t drink. Don’t gamble. Don’t do much of anything like that. Sat and watched people trying to hurt themselves on the wave thingy on the back of the boat. Pretty funny. Better than AFV. Spent some time each day, while the other guy took his nap, sitting on my balcony watching the Flying Fish. Great fun. Spent evenings sitting way up high in the wind and in a little bar up high in the back listening to a solo guitar guy for an hour or two. At both stops we went on a snorkeling outing. Everyone else was drinking rum and having a blast. Great fun. Went to bed each day around 9:30pm or 10:00. Early breakfast. Never got in the pool. Didn’t play Putt Putt. Did climb the wall on my 60th birthday and had a cheeseburger under the awning outside at the cheeseburger place. Looking at the ocean never gets tiring.

  • Larry Geiger June 6, 2018, 10:01 AM

    Oh yeah. And the twins wandered all over the place doing something. I have no idea what. They said that they had fun 🙂

  • Larry Geiger June 6, 2018, 10:03 AM

    And for those who are confused the sunk ship in the picture was in the Mediterranean. Not the Caribbean. And not off of Baja. Costa Concordia. It’s now in port in Italy being chopped into scrap. Interesting story how they floated it off the rocks and towed it to port.

  • Harry June 6, 2018, 12:43 PM

    For another view of crusin’ here is David Foster Wallace: https://harpers.org/wp-content/uploads/2008/09/HarpersMagazine-1996-01-0007859.pdf
    Spoiler – he didn’t care much for it either.

  • ghostsniper June 6, 2018, 1:18 PM

    I’m stymied, what’s not to like? (other than the cost)

  • Daniel K Day June 6, 2018, 2:25 PM

    Ships are fine. They carry stuff, lots of it, heavy stuff. They’re out there on the ocean, and I’m here on the land where I belong. My view of traveling on ships is like Charles Grodin’s view of planes on Midnight Run.
    I’ll travel by ship after, and not until, I can walk on water.

  • Vanderleun June 6, 2018, 6:36 PM

    Extra points for citing the very good, in fact excellent, comedy Midnight Run.

  • sandra hirsch June 8, 2018, 6:10 AM

    We have taken part in several cruises, so I do understand your point of view. That said, we have flown into Barcelona and boarded a ship that made several stops in the Mediterranean in as many days.
    We were able to visit places we had not seen on our road trips around Europe, and at far less cost.
    The only caveat is that imo, a balcony cabin is the only option..Otherwise, to get a breath of air, one must hang out in the public areas around the pool, and other locations where people drink too much and become loud and stupid..
    Traveling can be uncomfortable, no matter how it is done, so this is a ‘pick your battles’ situation, and a better option for those of us who kissed our hitchhiking and back packing days goodbye a long time ago.

  • EX-Californian Pete June 25, 2021, 4:38 PM

    I’ve done 10 or 11 Caribbean cruses on RCCL, and one to Alaska. The last one was around 2008. Every single one of them was absolutely killer. The food was incredible and non-stop, there was multiple bars & lounges on each ship, and a lot of the single women on the cruises were mostly looking for “vacation romance.”

    On top of that, I never paid a dime for a cruise, the gazillion drinks I ordered- for myself and various women, the airfare to & from Miami, the hotels, or the limos that whisked me from hotels to the ships. I only paid for souvenirs, renting a vehicle on each island, and LOTS of cash tips for the ship’s crew members.

    How? I worked as a bodyguard for one of the entertainers and got an “entertainer” card to use on the ship. My client was a “comedic impressionist” named Scott Record- a hugely talented guy. I don’t know if he still does shows for RCCL, but if he does, check out his routine, it’s insanely hilarious.

    Yeah, go ahead and hate me if you want.

  • Webutante June 25, 2021, 8:03 PM

    Whatever possessed you to do such a thing, Gerard? I would rather have all my teeth pulled than be incarcerated on one of those gargantuan ships. Did you walk around the deck in your bedroom slippers and bathrobe after eating several ice cream cones and falling in a trance? But maybe you did it to get material to write about it here? In all events, this is one of the funniest pieces you’ve ever written and I have tears in my eyes from laughing so hard.

  • Mike Austin June 26, 2021, 3:31 AM

    I’m with Johnson: “Being on a ship is like being in jail, with a chance of being drowned.”

    A cruise ship offers up the Seven Deadly Sins in unlimited quantities at all hours of the day. All aboard!

  • Tired Dog June 29, 2021, 9:59 AM

    Ferry between Danish islands, which ones I forget, cold of winter but plenty of Gammel Dansk to warm the soul.
    Might try a coastal schooner trip some time, but no desire at all to board a city at sea with 5k of my closest friends.
    May the winds be favorable and the seas easy, sail on sailor.

  • Mike-SMO June 30, 2021, 11:00 PM

    I have vast cruise experience (Battery Park to Richmond, Algiers to the Quarter) so I appreciate your take on the offshore party boats. You might have some entertaining observations about rail travel.

    High population density Europe has an extensive rail service since subsidizing the choo-choos is cheaper than paying the welfare for the otherwise useless workers. Shipping people is expensive (toilets, WiFi, food, time), and Boeing/Airbus have that market sewed up. The railroad profit is in “unit trains” of coal, grain, crude oil, shipping containers. The babble by SloJo and Willy’s Ho about high speed rail is a con for theft, bribery, and graft. The Lefties who are all cheerful about high speed rail have no idea how much fly-over country is between the Hudson and Sacramento Rivers. Max tolerable rail range is about 125 miles, except for the Acela due to the horrendous traffic in New York and Washington. Rail traffic between Saint Louis and Chcago is iffy unless you have armed security at both ends of the trip. I can still see the look of desolation on an elderly friend’s face when I explained that the “City of New Orleans” was a once per day “Disney” ride that ran the River south of Memphis to stay out of the way of the profitable unit trains and to provide access to the gangster casino barges floating in the Chicago/Memphis/Saint Louis/Pittsburgh Sewer and that, since the bar car and snack machines were an Amtrak “profit center” there were no longer stops where he could get Southern Cooking in boxes at station stops (fried chicken, pulled pork, bisquits, fruit pies, etc). Even Russia provides airports and uses the Great Siberian Railrod for bulk, and armored vehicle transport. The last surge in Russian passenger travel was in “Gulag Specials”. My late wife and I considered a vacation trip across Canada coat-to-coast. There are trains in the Maritimes and in the Rockies to exotic places like Vancouver but no link between Toronto and Banff, because no one in their right mind will waste the time crossing a thousand miles of nothing on a CN train. Kind of like Kansas City to Denver, but even worse.

    Railroads used to have “dining cars” which have ended up as diners near factories and shopping malls in Paterson and Peoria. If you want good food on a railroad, bring a basket or stuffed pockets. Buses (Greyhound and Trailways) couldn’t survive on “free” Interstate highways, even with restrooms and WiFi.. No “high speed rail” system can survive as anything but a novelty, considering the capital cost of the roadbed and new equipment. And I’d still have to pack lunch and a pillow, after taking out a loan for the fare.

    Your interpretation of the “new” City of New Orleans rail travel might be enlightning or at least entertaining.