February 19, 2013

Cruising Off Baja

[Note: Last week's cruising debacle resulted in thousands of articles and comments including this one: 7 Reasons to Never Ever Ever Vacation on a Cruise Ship It also caused me to revisit my own brief flirtation with cruising some years back and add the 8th reason: It's BOR-ING!]

"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 is has way-t00-much food. We have a nation so drenched in food that we now have to have our legislature 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, mountain sides 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

Posted by Vanderleun at February 19, 2013 12:45 PM
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"It is impossible to speak in such a way that you cannot be misunderstood." -- Karl Popper N.B.: Comments are moderated and may not appear immediately. Comments that exceed the obscenity or stupidity limits will be either edited or expunged.

More miserable details are added by David Foster Wallace in: A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again. Read it and cringe.

Posted by: Harry at February 19, 2013 1:49 PM

Years ago one of my co-workers managed to find a guy to marry her, and they went on a cruise for their honeymoon.

She gained so much weight on that one week, she showed up to work wearing smocks http://www.city-data.com/forum/attachments/fashion-beauty/56065d1263043056-ladies-house-dress-shorts-t-shirt-muumuu.jpg
It was quite a sight, since everybody (men & women) wore suits.

The marriage lasted a little under 2 years.

Posted by: Fausta at February 19, 2013 2:01 PM

Just the sight of that massive Carnival cruise ship gives me the willies. I have absolutely no desire to ever cruise, at least on those massive nightmares. I have no desire to leave a crowded city to be trapped on an even more crowded ship full of boring, unattractive obnoxious people. I'm turned off by the ads so I know I'll be turned off by the people who are attracted by those ads.

I could perhaps do a river cruise in Europe or a small boat around Greece, but that's it.

Posted by: phil g at February 19, 2013 2:29 PM

I have rented self drive canal boats in the UK and France and it is the only way to enjoy boating. Okay I have chartered sailboats too, but I'm talking about relaxing.

Posted by: Sherlock at February 19, 2013 4:14 PM

It sounds to me, Gerard, like you might be stuck in the doldrums. Why not organize and stage a mutiny? Half of the guests would probably participate; the other half would appreciate the distraction.

Captain Vanderleun has a very nice ring to it.

Posted by: edaddy at February 19, 2013 5:03 PM

I've never been on a cruise ship, but I have taken the Alaska Marine Highway (the state-run ferry boat system) with my car from Prince Rupert, BC, to Skagway & return. Everything is pay as you go and the scenery is exactly what one would see in SE Alaska along the Inside Passage from a cruise ship. One can even camp out in a tent on deck, eating his own brought-aboard food, sort of a far cry from those with 62 inch waists (wearing belts AND suspenders) awaiting their fifth serving of prime rib on a Carnival ship...

Posted by: dhmosquito at February 19, 2013 6:28 PM

Did a few cruises in the Western Pacific courtesy of Uncle Sam. We were usually at sea for 25 - 30 days at a time. Hitting port (Sasebo, Iwakuni, Atsugi, Hong Kong, Cubi Point) was an exercise in seeing who could consume the most alcohol and make the biggest ass of himself - all good fun. The only time we saw the ocean or the sky was when we manned aircraft for doing our duty for God and Country. My last trip was in 1968 and I was done. Never going to sea again - no sirree!

Fast forward to 2006 and our 50th wedding anniversary. My bride requests a cruise. What can I do, it's our 50th and all. We go. We have a great time.

Have been on seven more since then and enjoyed every one. Sea days are great for reading, walking, enjoying the sun. (We always go to sunny climes because of the constant winter drizzle here in Puget Sound.) We avoid the big ships. 1200 or fewer passengers are better. You can eat as much or as little as you desire - most of it quite good. (Lots of fresh vegies and fruits.) Osso Bucco (one of my favorite Italian dishes) is served regulary on the ships we frequent. And that's an attraction for me. We have experienced some difficulties (engine trouble, running from a typhoon in the South China Sea, swarms of flies in port in Mexico, etc.) but nothing worthy of complaining much about. We'll probably keep on going once a year for the sun, the time to read, the time away from computers, TVs and our electronic culture. It suits us at this point in life.

Posted by: Jimmy J. at February 19, 2013 8:20 PM

Any real Marine could tell you that there are only two things to do at sea: Eat until you're sleepy. Sleep until you're hungry.

Posted by: Casca at February 19, 2013 10:20 PM

The sailing cruise ships operated by Star Clipper line are fun. The sister ships Star Clipper and Star Flyer each have a passenger capacity of 170. Food was decent but no overemphasized.

Posted by: david foster at February 20, 2013 8:38 AM

If I didn’t cruise, I wouldn’t go to the places I’ve been. Not a rucksack-around-Europe type - I like being dropped in a city and picked up in time for supper. So I’ve seen things and been places I’d never otherwise experience, and I’ve seen things you don’t get unless you’re on a ship. Cruising past the Russian naval base at Krondstat at sunset; threading through the gorgeous waterways of Sweden; taking a day to travel the murky silence of the Panama Canal.

A deckchair, a balcony, sunshine and a Kindle: any time. Never gained a pound, either.

Posted by: Lileks at February 20, 2013 11:34 AM

Mr. Lileks! I agree with you wholeheartedly (and really admire your work). I also admire your work, Gerard, and am sorry that your experience was not good. We, too, have seen the waterways of Sweden and the amazing system that is the Panama Canal. A few things we have also seen while plying the waters in various places on various cruise ships (20 in all over 30 years): Russian submarines inspecting our vessel, hundreds of humpback whales, the Hubbard glacier calving, the green flash at sunset (five times), the incredible Milky Way and southern constellations from the pitch-black forward deck of a ship in Tahitian waters, and gazing at spectacular ports best seen from a ship as you approach or leave (Istanbul, San Francisco, Oslo, Venice, Dubrovnik, Kotor, Athens, Barcelona, Naples, New York, San Juan, Cartagena, Saint-Malo, Lisbon, Seattle, Victoria BC, Vancouver BC to name but a few). Yes, we have probably eaten too much, but we have enjoyed every minute. Unpack once and have the scenery come to you (and we have never cruised on Carnival).

Posted by: Rubysue at February 20, 2013 5:29 PM

I've been on two cruises, both times for events my company sponsored (and probably wrote off on its taxes). The Carnival ship was exactly as Gerard described it, full of enormous, crudely-mannered people trying, and sometimes succeeding, to eat their way through the mountains of food in the numerous buffets, then washing it all down with outrageously-priced umbrella drinks. After a time, they didn't bother with the umbrellas, and went straight for the bottle. It was a tacky exercise in excess. As a side note, one of the pool areas was set aside for topless bathing, but I shuddered at the thought then, and still do today. Some things should remain concealed. I later learned that Carnival is known in the industry as the "booze cruise". Easy to see why. The other cruise, Royal Caribbean, IIRC, was more like what Jimmy J. or Lileks described. The dining experience was more fine restaurant and less feed trough, the service efficient and unobtrusive, and the clientele less likely to have been on the Jerry Springer Show. A much better experience all around.

Posted by: waltj at February 20, 2013 8:02 PM