Cruise during pandemic? Why not. I book my first cruise at what turns out to be the onset of the SARS-CoV-2 panic. Cruises are being described as “floating petri dishes”. Almost every cruise passenger signed up for this trip before the panic had built. Regulations shift constantly and the weeks leading up to it are full of emails from the cruise line with port changes and updates about the virus.
By the time myself and my partner board, there are already two errant cruise ships in the news.
One is quarantined, with daily updates on the number of people who have been infected televised as the test results come back. The other is refused from ports, stranded and meandering the ocean waiting for clearance somewhere. Travel and other restrictions are mounting, quickly.
I am loosely ambling through all the countries in the world and cruising seems like an affordable way to see the tiny islands connected by expensive flights. It sort of ends up being so, but also a floating prison of consumption… and also a beautiful experience of getting in sync with planetary forces and oceanic rhythms.
Originally the cruise during pandemic was meant to leave from Sydney, stop in Brisbane, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, American Samoa, and four islands in French Polynesia. By the time we leave, Samoa and American Samoa have been removed.
Where we end up going is far different from what we sign up for.
My friend since 8th grade goes on a LOT of cruises. He may have had a patron for a while, but that’s nobody’s business. He’s a fun, smart, guy with high end, camp taste and a warm heart. He knows how to get good bargains, and so I ask him for tons of advice on cruises, all of which ends up being incredibly valuable. I am very well-informed by the time I board and throughout, but, he has never been on cruise during pandemic.
While purchasing the cruise during pandemic I’m fascinated by them as an international product. It does turn out that the cruises contain a diverse set of people, but it breaks down into a sort of upstairs/downstairs version of modern globalization, in this case exaggerated by coronavirus related travel restrictions.
The Chinese are banned from taking this cruise, and whereas they would I’m certain make up a much larger percentage – the remaining breakdown is heavily white. USAmericans. Canadians. Australians. Europeans. Kiwis. A few scattered from other places, but considering the set of visas needed and the route it will take, there are not many.
This is not true for the staff. We’re being served by Filipinos and to a lesser extent Indonesians. They make up the cleaning and serving caste, and the management thereof. The executive decisions managing these are made by Indians. The engineering team has Filipino grunts, but Serbian, Croatian, and other Eastern European engineers overseeing these.
The captain is Swedish, the bridge team partly Scandinavian, partly Eastern European.
One day I watch a white man in a white uniform leaning on the wall watching as five Filipino men in blue jumpsuits handle the “Tendering Operation” process and bring in a lifeboat from the sea to the ship. They sweat and problem solve and risk their necks handling tricky physics while he just sits there.
It feels uncomfortable.
Being on this tiny microcosm of globalization during the outbreak of a global virus is somehow appropriate for me as a constant traveler. I see everyone on the ship react to the news from their home country. I see how the shifting sands impact everyone except the very rich, old, white people who can fly anywhere and play a strategy game with their choices.
They just keep on buying things, drinking at the bars, eating the food, gambling, working out, and vacationing. These are the Cruisenecks. This isn’t their first time and they brought everything they needed from alcohol (snuck in by hydration container bras to foil packets to plain luck) to clips shaped like clown fish to keep the pool towels attached to the deck chairs that they reserve by doing so.
The competitive deck chair reservation game makes me laugh. I don’t play it at all, yet somehow always when I want one it’s there for me.
I realize that I’m one of those people in a different way – I sneak in weed at half our ports of call. I’m a Cruiseneck.
I smoke daily in the bathroom, exhaling into the air intake above the toilet. It adds an extra air of surrealism to everything. I tip my Stateroom Steward $ above the daily gratuity. I wear my shirt that I got in Manila, just after the Taal volcano eruption. It says “Manila, Philippines” across my chest. 65% of the staff are Filipino, and love it. It works for me in this regard. I hear heartbreaking stories and fear amid growing travel bans they’ll be kept from their homes and families. I still wonder how much they are paid.
Myself and my partner are far younger than the average passenger. My partner separates people on this cruise into grades of ambulant. When he tells me stories they start with distinguishing how ambulant the people involved in them are. The less ambulant people are on this cruise in force. I am somehow happy that these old people are out there, seeing the world. I understand the urge to be somewhat comfortable when visiting remote places. The need for structure to the day seems to increase at the end of life.
Each day there is a schedule of events left in our cabin, which is called a “Stateroom”, and as with everything on the ship the added glamour is in the language only.
The schedule also increasingly devotes more and more attention to covering health reminders and sanitation measures, which makes its contents this odd mix of viral doom messaging and sales: products, workshops, bingo, alcohol, and musical numbers.
When we board the ship we get four different health forms to fill out, and we’re screened to make sure that we haven’t been anywhere infected. They look through every stamp in my passport, scrutinizing entry and exit dates. I am often in a different country every week and this takes them a full hour. I’m impressed with the level of detail, especially knowing now that this was the last cruise during pandemic. Our baggage is taken from us before this point, to be returned outside of our Stateroom.
The first few stops of the cruise are old normal. We get off the ship, get time to ourselves, get back on. I don’t purchase any of the “excursions”, the official outings offered by the cruise line that are ridiculously overpriced tourist traps.
I’ve tons of experience setting my own itinerary and have no problem doing so here. But, I only get a few chances to do so…
Our first stop is Brisbane, Australia, where I have already been on this trip. I use the time to score more weed and eat in restaurants better than available on the ship.
When I re-embark I amble through the main atrium, a sprawling central room spanning two decks with a grand piano and a sweeping staircase. I notice that an older woman is asking for a sudoku and crossword puzzle at the front desk, and I do the same. For some reason they give one puzzle each out every day on photocopied, non-branded sheets of paper. It becomes my daily routine.
There is also a Starbucks in this atrium, which I try my best to avoid, but eventually it catches up with me and I find myself doing puzzles while drinking a soy mocha at one of the tables there.
Now it occurs to me how this was the last time I innocently sat in an indoor crowded space with no thoughts of viral contamination. Simple, sweet, sublime.
The daily puzzle is just one of the many odd parts of Cruiseneck culture. For the first part of the trip, when they come in to clean our room they leave the towels folded like various animals. You can also buy these towel animals at the duty free shop upstairs.
I explore all the restaurants and bars on board. There is a faux Irish pub on our deck called “O’Sheehan’s”, decorated in dark green wallpaper and fake mahogany trim, tables, and chairs. It takes me a full two weeks to get the joke and realize it’s pronounced “oceans”.
We do end up being on the ship for St. Patrick’s Day and I baffle at seeing people celebrate here, in their green clothing and headgear and beads, drinking Guinness while the world sinks into chaos.
Generally, I end up eating at the main buffet. It’s included with my fare unlike more than half the restaurants on the ship, and it is run by an Indian chef. The vegetarian section is all Indian food, and it’s delicious, so I usually end up eating that paired with an arugula-heavy salad and when I feel I need a treat – a sugar-free dessert.
On entering the buffet, there’s someone there to spray down our hands with alcohol. This is so normal now, but I remember how odd it was then. The slight invasion of bodily autonomy. I don’t want my hands alcoholed all the time, and certainly not right before I eat.
“Washy washy” they say while spraying my hands.
This is the beginning of the surreal new normal for me. Adults, some of them in their 80’s and 90’s, being treated like kindergarteners, sprayed down by a worker with a big smile and singsong. I get that it is to increase compliance, and it works, but it still makes my eyes widen. I feel like I’ve entered an alternate dimension. I’m on a cruise during pandemic so you think I’d already have faced this, but no. It’s “washy washy” that does it for me.
I take to coming in through a certain entrance where a flamboyant Thai man has perfected “washy washy” into a whole song and dance that varies throughout the trip.
At first the buffets are all self service. Then they are self service but you can’t take your own silverware. Then you are served. The ship changes regulation every time the CDC changes regulations in the outside world.
But this again adds to the surrealness of the new normal, because within a week, we all already know there are no cases on board, yet we still have to adhere to the shifting safety regulations. Luckily all the facilities are left open, it’s just hygiene standards.
The entire interior of the ship is washed down more than once a day. The walls are scrubbed. I feel sorry for the crew. I’m quite sure that they didn’t have to wash walls twice a day on cruises before this one.
The captain regularly reassures us that there is no virus on board, but I don’t need his word for it. If there were cases – I would see or hear them. Perhaps just a stroke of luck, but here we are, floating on an isolated island of safety – where back on land people are quivering in fear, and dying.