Monday, January 21, 2008

The Cruising Life, V6: The Final Chapter (for now)

(A painting of our ship by one of Holland America's captains)

Friday. Last day. Tomorrow when we arise we'll be docked in San Diego. Our luggage is to be placed outside our cabin doors tonight before lights out. I always hate packing up the room as the end nears. Maybe this is really where the rubber meets the road in cruising, at least for me: when all else is said and done, I just hate to leave the boat. I'm never anywhere near ready for the experience to come to a close. Of course, it doesn't hurt that there is delectable food and drink under foot at literally every moment, and the fabulous staff does everything for you, often quite before you've realized you need or want it done. But even without these perks, it's just a fabulous way to spend a week. All of our cruises have been a week's duration but there are 10-day and 14-day and 21-day cruises. They list several month-long ones, and even a 114-day cruise which stops everywhere in the world and Surinam twice. I wonder if I'd reach a point where I was sick of it. So far I don't see it happening.

(Mazatlan. The view forward out of the harbor.)

This morning we attended one of the disembarkation lecture / farewell shows (right after bingo where they were giving away a Caribbean cruise for two--we HAD to play that one!), and the Cruise Director reminded us mournfully that "after tomorrow you're going to have to start cooking for yourself again. You're going to have to make your own bed. You're going to have to pay attention to what day of the week it is." And it's really true. The days blend together, especially the days at sea where we call on no ports, into a blur of fabulous meals and walks around the Promenade Deck and late night snacks and hut tubbing under the stars and movies on the big screen--in the gently rocking thousand seat theater--and Diet Cokes ready to hand. (They say that folks on average gain a pound a day on a cruise. Given my already hugely messed-up interface with food, that's actually a threatening statistic. Sunday the shit hits the fan!) Oh, and daily sudoku and crossword puzzles at your door.

And sleeping. The lazy rolling of the ship is like sleeping in an immense bassinet. On our first cruise we had an inside stateroom, which means no windows. We called it "the cave" because it could be perfectly dark at any time. And I slept like a bat in there. Thank god there's a gentle good morning chime from the hallway at 8 bells or I'd have slept all day. The next cruise we sprung for a verandah, and it turns out I slept like a baby in that room as well, usually with the door open and the sounds of the sea as a serenade. So it wasn't the cave after all. This time we went on the cheap and got another inside stateroom, but as "Mariners" they bumped us up to a window for no additional charge. And guess what? We slept like babies in here too. The conclusion? It's the motion of the ocean, baby. It's the gentle roll of the ship, and the little soothing white noise. I always loved sleeping on a boat from my youth, and that love gets satisfied in this setting.

(Also Mazatlan at the pier. The aft Lido pool.)

Yeah, some of the activities are contrived and there's a certain cheese factor (which, being from Wisconsin, maybe doesn't rankle me as it would some), but it's easy to steer clear of those things and make the cruise your own. Reading a book on a deck chair out in the middle of the Pacific is an awesome way to spend a couple hours. And even being quite selective in what seems worth doing to us, we had trouble finding time to sample everything, even during the at-sea days. This afternoon we signed up for a benefit walk for the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation, called "On Deck for the Cure." There were probably a hundred of us, and we all got a t-shirt and then spent an hour walking the Promenade deck together. It's just a little thing, but they put a great little staff on it to hand out warm washcloths and pink lemonade, and a group of staffers cheered us on as we passed the start / finish line, holding cards telling us what lap we were on and dancing to a boom box playing inspirational music. (Three times around the ship equals a mile, so a 5K was about nine times around.) And there are a zillion of these little things during the week, all very smoothly and professionally produced.

We wonder how they mold such a happy and accommodating staff, but we heard nary a cross word out of anybody--passenger or staff--this whole week. Most of the kitchen and dining room staff, and also the housekeeping staff are from Indonesia and the Philippines, and they're all men. There are plenty of women staffers on the ship, but these two groups are virtually all men. The customer-service staff (front office, excursion office, shop tenders) are usually American or European, people with great English skills. These workers all have varying-length contracts, but most are on board for between eight months and a year before having a couple months off. Then off to the next tour. But during that time, at least the Philippinos and Indonesians, as we're told--they are able to make enough money that they "live like kings" in their native countries. Whatever the truth of the matter, the staff is unfailingly polite and friendly and chatty, and they always comport themselves very professionally (they all must know each other, of course, but they virtually never interact with each other in public. Contrast that with the average McDonald's, where off-duty workers are often hanging around the counter chatting with their friends on the clock.) I just wonder how Holland America manages to achieve such a high degree of smooth professionalism.

(The midship Lido pool, the "indoor" one with the roof retracted.)

A couple of the staff members come to mind. Their names are often difficult for the American and European tongue, so they often give themselves nicknames, which are usually printed on their nametags. One fellow who is part of the Bistro staff up on the Lido Deck (where informal dining takes place, and where we ate all but one of our meals) goes by "I. Hunky Dory"--which is claimed to be close to his real name--and his little schtick is to make a point to memorize the names of every person he encounters. And I'll bet he took on at least 500 names during this week. As he wipes off trays and equips them with silverware and plates he calls out "Hi Jim! Hi Maria! It's Huuuuunnnnkyyyy Doooorrrrrryyyyy!" And on and on for a zillion names. He had mine on the first day, and he would always say "Hi, Bil. Where's Susan?" (as she was on the other side getting an bagel.) I don't know that he ever met Susan, but he remembered her name too. During today's disembarkation lecture, the Cruise Director introduced "the most amazing, the most important single person on this ship... Hunky Dory!!!" There was an explosion of applause as he came onto the stage, and he immediately began pointing around at the 700 people in the auditorium and saying hello to them by name! The Cruise Director informed us that Hunky Dory was the Oosterdam Employee of the Month, of the Year, and was the 2007 Employee of the Year for the entire Holland America cruising staff! He got a standing ovation for that. Another fellow, a waiter high up in the Crow's Nest bar (the highest public space on the ship with a panoramic view of the ocean from 13 or 14 floors above sea level) goes by the name "Booze, Booze, Booze!" because his name roughly transliterates as "Booze." He announces his arrival into any public space by saying with a growl "Booze, Booze BOOZE!!" to laughter and applause. He turns out to be a really friendly and likable fellow, and these little handles give a way for people to attach to those from another culture (which is in turn surely good for their business).

Lastly, there is our Cabin Steward, Aef (which I pronounce, incorrectly I'm sure, as Ah-yeff). A young man of 20 or 25, he seems as though his interaction with you each day is the highlight of his year. The moment you leave your room for meals he has everything tidied up, and after dinner the bed is turned down with a chocolate on the pillow. And he makes towel animals (though on one occasion we couldn't figure out what it was. He kept saying "lobster," and we were sure that wasn't really what he meant. Jellyfish, maybe). He is responsible for 14 rooms which, when extrapolated over a thousand rooms, gives an idea of how big this part of the staff is. On turnover days, he does most of the work himself with two helpers who swoop in and assist with bathrooms. These guys all work really hard, so I hope it's as good a deal for them as we're told it is. To judge by their attitude, it must be. He gets a big share of the tip that Holland America charges the accounts automatically each day (which can be custom-tailored, or eliminated altogether, at your request), and we made sure to give him a healthy supplement. He was awesome.

(Several more futile attempts to catch the unbelievable size of the ship.)

And so wraps up another cruise. As I write this, I'm laying on my bed looking out the window at the sun setting over the Pacific. We've had really good weather the whole time, though it's been a bit cooler than normal. I would love to wake up and find that for some reason my cruise had been extended for another week.

(Addendum: the following morning, after we had sent our bags away and vacated our room, we were up sitting by the Lido pool having a scrumptious breakfast with the City of San Diego spreading out before us, and the slender, attractive 30-something women next to us was overheard saying: "God, I can't IMAGINE anyone wanting to do this for longer than a week!" So I guess I haven't pegged it accurately for everyone. But hey, she was a bitch. I'm sure of it.)


Jeffy said...

Sounds like a fabulous vacation! There can't be a better indicator than wishing that it could go on when you get to the end.

On top of that you managed to miss some really chilly weather back home, so you did pretty well in that regard too.

wunelle said...

Yeah, I was REALLY unhappy about leaving the ship when I got off the plane at Milwaukee into below-zero temps.

Now the photos seem wistfully paradisical.

But at least I still have my hat!

Karlo said...

I must confess--I've never had the least desire to take a cruise. I'd be like the little kid in the back of the car constantly asking: "Are we there yet?"