Saturday, January 4, 2014

Carnival on the Caribbean - At Sea

Today is our first full day at sea on the Carnival Liberty. We're currently rounding the western end of Cuba, which is about as close as most Americans ever get to a good cigar. The distance almost looks swimmable, but I see no other boats.

Titanic, How you don't want your cruise vacation to end.

This is our first cruise vacation in over 15 years. Time has dulled my perspective on the things I dislike relative to a beach holiday or road trip. Most notably, it is hard to escape the noise of the "carnival" occurring on top of the boat or the crowds of people. After a while I lose interest in the same quarter mile loop that strategically leads through the smoky casino. More subtly, travel is about experiencing something new, and cruise ships are strictly designed to provide comfortable familiarity for a largely American customer base, just in excess. The biggest risk of travelling by cruise ship for someone who wants to expand their world view is in not actually travelling anywhere.

However, with a moving boat you can't beat the built-in breeze. My expectations for the food were low, so that threshold has been pleasantly exceeded. And, we've finally escaped the long winter of 2013 for at least one week. I'm also happy the chronically sporadic pain from a disc herniation has sufficiently subsided in time for vacation. The average age and physical condition of our fellow cruisers makes a slightly creaky middle-aged guy like me feel 18 again. The odds for a good holiday are in our favor considering the recent string of self-inflicted bad press Carnival has faced, but it doesn't hurt to be in swimming shape. And, it's worth being cautious when your British-American cruise line's corporate office is in Miami, it trades on the New York Stock Exchange, but its ships are incorporated in Panama and fly Bahamian flags.

Carnival is one of the most affordable cruise options (you get what you pay for), and that attracts some people with low-brow taste or similarly subdued expectations. It also means the service will be no more than adequate. Our otherwise friendly waiter last night wasn't a bon vivant foodie or a maître d' in training. He unceremoniously plopped an otherwise visually attractive plate in front of me and said "Enjoy your dinner," and that was about the limit of our interaction. We did enjoy finding a nice New Zealand wine with which we're familiar listed on the menu for only $18.99 more than we'd find it in an Ohio supermarket ($11). But any remaining attentive service quickly dropped off after the wait staff learned we were choosing tap water over highway robbery. A couple hours later, I saw my dinner entree less artfully presented while passing through the buffet area.

It's a good thing Stacey and I don't drink much alcohol. Carnival makes up for the cheap fare with a steep overhead on liquor. Considering the amounts I've seen some passengers stow away, they would have gotten more for their buck at an all-inclusive resort or higher-end cruise. And they have to consume a lot of the $7.50 drinks for any kind of buzz, because I don't think the mixologists at these places waste too much alcohol on a cocktail. So when I see obviously drunk passengers, most who look to be experienced at putting a lot away, I wonder "Just how much did you spend?"

Unfortunately, I forgot to bring a pair of sunglasses, and that cost me today. I could almost see the dreamy dollar signs in the ship shop clerk's eyes when I asked where I could find a pair.

Again, these aren't complaints. We knew going in what this was all about--a no stress way to get to several new places, relatively inexpensively. The service is what I expected, and the workers--particularly those who clean the rooms--put in tremendously long working days for little thanks and less money. It's hard for the Management to scrape by with a Panamanian registry. Next time, we may go back to a slightly higher budget, but the alternative still beats working. I've done enough of that over the past year to appreciate this week's recharge very much and small kindnesses like a monkey made out of towels.

The people who are getting their money's worth here are the portly ones. Yesterday afternoon we attended the mandatory safety drill, and I noted the lifeboats were rated for a specific number of people, but I don't know if the manufacturer took into account that many of my muster station neighbors might need more than one seat. Most of the boat's international crew might be shocked to learn I'm an American based on my BMI. I'd guess nearly half the passengers are morbidly obese fellow citizens. There are more personal scooters and oxygen tanks here than the typical Las Vegas retirement community. I haven't seen many of these folks sunning themselves on deck; it's not a convenient stop between the buffet and the casino. Stacey and I can get anywhere on the boat fast, at least uphill, because the stairs are virtually empty other than the workers.

Having had only a small bowl of stir fried rice noodles, calamari and vegetables since breakfast, I kind of feel ripped off.

However, it's sad to see so many tremendously large kids washing down mountains of processed food with gallons of soft drinks. Mom and Dad weren't stingy on the soda card. Thirty five bucks for the bottomless fountain Coke must seem like a bargain compared to the alcohol. It's no different than a video game or too much television; just keep the kids out of your hair with a bad habit that lasts a lifetime. Least fortunate, you don't see many of these kids with Grandma and Grandpa because Grandma and Grandpa didn't live past 60. Nearly all the truly old people here look like they are still in shape and could take me, so I won't give them any trouble.

I did meet an interesting woman on deck last night while waiting for Stacey to finish a spa treatment. She has brain cancer and just started talking to me about it. She was worried for her kids but not for herself; this cruise was an opportunity for them all to escape for a time. I admire someone fighting off a disease for the sake of somebody else. That's more character than I can claim and bravery too. When my neck starts acting up, I become very self-centered and defeatist. The woman also illustrated the sad irony of addiction. Smoking a cigarette, she said her doctor told her not to quit because it would be too traumatic to her system during treatment. I wonder if that is the truth, wishful thinking, or selective memory. My new friend made me think, and for that God bless her. I have the typical introvert's aversion to someone new coming up to me and engaging so frankly, but I'm glad she did. I'm not usually the listening type. Our conversation was worth some secondhand smoke.

Stacey is presently reading on the deck chair next to me, looking very good as usual, hair flowing luxuriously in the wind. When my hair blows in the salty wind, it ends up looking like an 80s coiffure that won't subside without a wash.

Tomorrow is Cozumel, the Mayan Riviera really, as we'll take a ferry to the mainland for a shore excursion. But I've been to the area several times already. I am looking more forward to the places I haven't ever visited (Belize, Roatan, Grand Cayman). I just won't fool myself that I've really "been to" these places on a cruise.

April 21, 2013