THE GRIN ON MY FACE stretched from the deck to the point where you could just make out the last of the ship’s wake in the moonlight. I had one glass of red wine, just one. Well, and that frozen sweet-melon cocktail at this little beachfront bar in Mykonos, but no more.
Yet, on my fifth night at sea, I had an unbridled need, even with this small dose of alcohol, to tell someone, anyone, how great this all was: the ship, my Jacuzzi bath, the spa, the food, oh my god, the food, and then there was that man who kept coming around to my penthouse suite asking whether I wanted anything, anything at all — and even when it was that I merely mentioned I had a sore throat, he said he’d bring me some salt, an old-fashioned remedy, he said in his cute Turkish accent and voilà, there it was and voilà, my throat was better. But the only guy at midnight at the aft of the lido deck was the Filipino guy steam-cleaning the chairs and I was fairly certain he wasn’t feeling the overwhelming joy I was. So I kept quiet.
I went back to my room to celebrate my new-found happiness and ordered a little midnight snack from the 24-hour room service, all part of my all-inclusive deal. I had white albacore tuna salad, a side of French fries with ranch dressing and a pitcher of hot chocolate. Because I could.
Let me be clear. I did not begin this 12-day Black Sea explorer cruise on the Crystal Serenity without a conscience. I knew about the environmental impacts of cruise ships in ports, their exploitation of Third World workers, the well-fed international crowds that frequent them. In my 20s I hated them as much as the next backpacker. You’d never see me on a cruise ship. Until I was there, grinning like an idiot.
It was one of those all-expenses-paid gigs that only regular travel journalists get, courtesy of the cruise line and the local agent. They said I’d have the editorial independence to write whatever I wanted. But, I mean, really.
It started with those brochures: the Crystal Serenity’s six-star service, how it was the biggest ship in the luxury cruise category, that Nobu’s restaurant Silk Road was part of their all-new, all-inclusive deal — basically, food, wine, spirits and gratuities. There were seven dining areas, five bars, two swimming pools, a casino, a computer lab, four boutiques, a library and a gym with yoga and spinning classes. Did I mention the spa?
It was an all-you-can-eat-and-drink-and-sit-in-the-sun fiesta, all the while travelling on a funky little tour that would take me from Venice through the Mediterranean and the Adriatic to Katakolon and Mykonos, and then through the Dardanelles and the Bosphorus Straits into the Black Sea for Yalta, Sevastapol, Odessa and ending, finally, in Istanbul. You see, I had no choice but to go.
The problem was my research. It included location material from Lonely Planet (a throwback to my post-university travelling days) and some reviews from cruise websites. Then there were the stories on the Costa Concordia disaster and a report that detailed al-Qaeda’s plans, buried inside a porn video marked “Sexy Tanja” (no relation) and found in the underpants of one of their operatives, to seize cruise ships, dress their passengers in Guantanamo orange jumpsuits and execute them one by one. On camera.
But it was the essay by David Foster Wallace that appeared in Harper’s in 1996, the same year he published Infinite Jest, that really had me. Now, some might say taking holiday tips from a chronic depressive who committed suicide in 2008 and filed this particular essay among his collection of essays, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, is not ideal planning for a luxury cruise. But there it is. I could not, after reading the essay Shipping Out: On the (Nearly Lethal) Comforts of a Luxury Cruise, put it out of my mind.
Here’s what my tour guide had prepared me for: 1) I would be faced with masses of fleshy bodies in various states of deterioration; 2) There would be an abundance of cheese; 3) My unreasonable expectations of perfection would be crushed; 4) Despair, sadness and loneliness would permeate much of my days at sea.
So, then you can imagine how the unrestrained joy I felt did not factor in as much as I had anticipated.
From the time I boarded the ship in Venice until about a week after I was back in Jo’burg I felt like I was floating — which, duh, I was when I was on the ship. But even when I was on land, or way under it in the World War II catacombs in Yalta, I felt that way. It wasn’t an altogether great feeling, this floating sensation.
What you must understand is this: the ship acts as a bubble, protecting you from the big bad world, taking care of your every need. The crew pick you up from the airport and transfer you to the ship. They accompany you off the ship when you reach a port, taking you in for a few short hours and bringing you back to the safe, sanitary, glorious bubble and keeping you there until it is time to go back to your (inevitably and, from this day forward, inadequate) home.
While you are in the bubble, the outside world is visible (as you choose to see it through, say, TV news or from the inside of your tour bus or from the deck of the ship), but it doesn’t really affect you. This appears to apply to various port destinations.
For example, whether you happen to be visiting Greece or Italy, whose economies are about to implode, or if you learn, as you are floating on the Black Sea on your way to Istanbul, disturbing news in an SMS from your husband that says he “hopes Turkey doesn’t bomb Syria” because they just shot down a Turkish plane.
All that matters while you are in the bubble is the bubble, and our bubble was undoubtedly and seriously upmarket American. In which case it seems to be slathered in hand sanitiser and is, overall, not a bad place to be if you happen to be on a cruise. (I was told repeatedly, and not tinged without a bit of jealously, by everyone to whom I mentioned it was my first cruise: “Well, you started at the top.”)
In the bubble, tea-time canapés were served promptly at 4.30pm by the Turkish butler and there was an unlimited stock of Perrier and Coke Light (or almost whatever else I could have asked for) in my fridge. There were Aveda bath products, which I put at the centre of my two-sink granite-topped hand basin (shutting my own shoddy toiletries in the drawer away from sight) and a pillow menu from which I could choose from four types for maximum comfort. There were two robes; one a light linen, another a thick white cotton, and soft white slippers.
Are you getting all this? What I am telling you is that I had two massages (one deep tissue, one 75-minute hot stone) and a pedicure and sat in the hot and wet saunas, and doused myself in pricey Elemis products in the changing room.
I had room service daily, lobster twice, filet twice, caviar three times and the best beef carpaccio and the best sashimi I have ever had in my life, and more wine than I usually drink in a year. I had so much fantastic food and wine at every mealtime and other times that weren’t mealtimes but merely snack times (also in between snack times, tea times and mealtimes) that I found myself constantly resolving not to eat dinner or lunch or my tea-time canapés. It rarely worked.
Group on a stick
Wallace did not warn me about the hand sanitiser. It was everywhere. It was not something that even existed in 1996 (along with text messages or Facebook or Twitter or 9/11 or the common usage of the term “global economic collapse”), or surely he would have mentioned it.
It was especially visible outside the ship, encased in round, space-age machines that dispensed the stuff in invisible blobs before you headed out into the real world, preferably safely accompanied by a Crystal Cruises minder and local tour guide.
To stay in the bubble, I learned, is the preferred behaviour.
I ended up impressing (or shocking?) my fellow passengers over sushi the night we left Katakolon when I told them I took the bus with the Italians from one of the other two cruise ships (read: not “luxury”) from the port to ancient Olympia where, along with a handful of museums, are the awe-inspiring ruins of the village where the first official Games were held in 776BC. That I figured out how to get there on my own they found “interesting” and appeared to be in awe (horrified?) that I did this with a few pages from Lonely Planet.
I did the same in most of the other ports but found out why, when you are in a place for a half-day or a day and a half, to go with the group on a stick tour is not a terrible option. You are bound to get lost, especially in the Crimea where nearly everything is in Russian, and by the time you find out where you want to go the day is over.
I spent most of my $300 tour allocation on one full-day tour in Yalta and surrounds (this is not part of the all-inclusive and neither, sadly, were my spa visits), mostly because of its name: The Saints, Czars and Authors of Russia. So, on what must have been the hottest day of Yalta’s illustrious history, I joined the first group tour of my life and jumped on a not-really-air-conditioned bus with Alexy, a suspicious, sour-faced tour guide who used “practically” incessantly, a sort of tic he would use in place of “actually” as a way of stretching out his commentary, which was nonstop from the time we entered the bus to the time he left us at the ship.
Our trip turned out to be mostly about the czars — we went to the Voronstov Palace and the Livadia Palace, the summer retreat of Nicholas II, where the 1945 Yalta Conference was held — and Alexy, always with the Crystal Cruises tour stick, gave us helpful instructions like “That is the place to take a picture,” so we could have an optimal photo experience.
We finally ended up at Anton Chekhov’s house — the one where he lived at the end of his life and wrote The Three Sisters — but by the time we arrived we had to sweep through and rush back to the ship for our impending departure. We hardly said goodbye to Alexy, bolting off to the comfort of our bubble (after a squirt of hand sanitiser) because travelling on a Crystal Cruise ship means never really having to leave air-conditioned, abundant America — at least not for too long.
The view from the pool
My first day at sea was so busy. I went from a massage to a lecture on ancient Olympia to a spinning class, somehow missing the shopping director’s presentation, which I was sad about because I wanted to know what a shopping-director lecture entailed (in summary, he helps guests to locate where to shop — the really expensive stuff —in port). Wallace had warned me about the busyness.
“They’ll micromanage every iota of every pleasure-option so that not even the dreadful corrosive action of your adult consciousness and agency and dread can fuck up your fun,” he wrote. But I was worried. I was missing out on the whole relaxation part because I didn’t want to miss out on the activities.
This is why, on my second day at sea, I landed in the front row of the Seahorse pool. I was faced with dozens of bored-looking men and women — almost all 50 and over, white and slightly burnt, save one Middle Eastern-looking family and a few Asians — whose bodies were in the aforementioned various states of deterioration and who were snoozing under the tangerine umbrellas or were buried in their iPads, their Kindles or their books, the authors of choice being Mario Puzo or Ken Follett.
The Crystal Sextet — six Filipino men in Hawaiian shirts and white polyester slacks — played The Girl from Ipanema, Wild World, Margaritaville and Otis Redding’s Sittin’ on the Dock of the Bay. I tapped my feet and, at some point, realised that I was reading my book without glasses. I was healed!
But no one seemed particularly joyful except me and the teenager with the lanky body and long brown hair, who told me she went to school at Santa Monica College in California and that her mother was the masterclass teacher on the ship (part of the performance from the Music Centre in Los Angeles). I had to tell someone so I blurted it out: “This is amazing, isn’t it?”
“I know, right?” she replied, grinning.
I looked up and saw Richard, a short, greying man in his 60s, his belly protruding over his blue swim trunks, shuffling over. We had met a few nights before in the hallway outside the Hollywood Theatre, our “muster station”, which is where we were assigned to go if the ship was sinking (think: Costa Concordia; everyone else was) or on fire or (and this was just me, I think) raided by terrorists. I knew from our conversation, during which we were all strapped into our bright-orange life jackets, that Richard’s wife was from New York and although he sounded like a New Yorker he was from Montreal, where they both now live. They have been retired ever since he sold the family clothing business and now they cruise — on Crystal exclusively — twice a year.
By the pool he confided in me, a fellow writer, that he was writing a book “that’ll never see the light of day”.
“Mine neither,” I told him.
“Confessions of a Clothing Maven is the title,” he told me.
I told him it was a great title.
“Do you know what a maven is?”
I nodded, confused.
“Good,” he said. “I’m going to have a Yiddish glossary for all the goys.”
And with that he shuffled off.
The “ex-South Africans” who lived in England were on to me.
“Isn’t the Mail & Guardian a rather serious paper?” the woman asked. I nodded and smiled and made a note to avoid them for the rest of the trip.
You’d think it would be difficult in a confined space — at capacity the ship could hold 1 070 passengers, but this particular cruise only had about 650 on board. But somehow you’d see some people daily and others just the once and never again.
For example, I bumped into eighty-something Mama Lee, as she is known on the ship, several times. The first time I met her she was wearing a pink T-shirt with sparkly jewels, pink earrings, pink nail polish, pink lipstick, purple bejewelled sandals and purple shorts. I showed her my hot-pink toenails and we bonded.
She told me how she and her late husband, who made their money in Fort Lauderdale real estate, used to cruise together (their first was in 1962) and the day before he died he told her to keep on cruising. So she did.
She now lives in 7052, one of the basic staterooms — no verandah, says she doesn’t want it, it would make her stay in her room — and was celebrating her 100th cruise, after three and a half years of going pretty much nonstop, on that very trip. She does needlework all day by the pool and every evening from 5.15pm she dances in the Palm Court to the tunes of the Crystal Sextet (who slip into formal wear at night), takes a break to eat dinner and then comes back to dance, sometimes until midnight.
I asked her whether she went into port often. “Sometimes I go because I think I should,” she told me. But every time she does leave the ship she remembers why she doesn’t do it more often. Mama Lee loves the bubble so much that she only goes home to Florida to see her kids and grandchildren a few days a year.
So it was not until I went to the Avenue Saloon (next to the Pulse nightclub and the Stardust Club) after dinner one night that I finally allowed myself to really absorb the undeniable despair of the cruise ship experience that Wallace had told me about. It came to me as the piano man played cover versions of American Pie, Sweet Caroline and Runaround Sue.
A woman in pale pink with diamond drop earrings and thin, greying hair pulled back into a bun held her hands up and swayed to the music, her eyes closed. She was not smiling. She looked German and in her mid-60s and she was on her own, and I thought maybe she was wondering where the time went. I felt my own hair (thinning, not yet grey) and pictured myself at her age. Only 20 years to go. The world will be another place then and I will not be on a cruise ship, not least a luxury one, not unless I decide to pursue my new-found unbridled desire to be a cruise-ship writer and never leave the bubble again.
On day 11 I woke up completely depressed. The previous night some jerk dropped my “travel documents” by my room and suggested I watch Crystal TV to find out “helpful” tips for departing the ship. I suddenly realised that it was all coming to an end. For lunch I decided to get some Rocky Road to cheer myself up.
I noticed the hand sanitiser next to the ice-cream bar and was grateful for the protection (turns out the norovirus is a particularly nasty one and can spread fast on ships) from the outside world.
That evening I turned on the Crystal TV channel to see them all waving goodbye to me: the South African tour director, the Norwegian captain, the Austrian hotel director, the Portuguese food and beverage manager, the Italian maître d’, the Filipino pool guys, the bartender from Croatia, all as It’s a Wonderful World played in the background. Bastards.
I disembarked in Istanbul and was sent packing to the Istanbul Ataturk Airport, finally landing a few hours later at Charles de Gaulle, only to be told by an unfriendly French woman that our flight was cancelled. No apology. Bubble popped. Forced like cattle on the airport shuttle to a sterile hotel with cheap sheets and dinner of rice and something resembling chicken stew. And then, the next morning before dawn, on the aeroplane back to freezingly cold Johannesburg.
Wallace had called the cruise brochure text “positively Prozacian”, which is just about right. If you can manage your own bubble within the bubble it is the sort of antidepressant one could OD on. But it’s not forever.
Sigh. All I have now is my personalised Crystal Serenity stationery and my hot-pink pedicure (fading), the three kilos I gained (unattractive), remnants of my George Hamilton tan (gone any day now) and a crick in my neck, which I am convinced has something to do with my own inferior pillow selection and the lack of a pillow menu from which to choose a new one.
This piece ran in July 2012 in the Mail & Guardian