Sunday, August 24, 2003

Blogfodder: Days 1 through part of 4 on the ms Maasdam

a.k.a. Blogging By Boat

Day 1. First impressions, recorded after-the-fact:

Customs flanked by what will soon be ubiquitous kiosks: watches, binoculars, coffee, tees with cartoon moose. Pick up on-board credit cards (charged to your own credit card all-at-one-go, or in this case, to Dad’s credit card); all is part of the flat (but steep) cruise cost on board save drinks and spa services, which we will use, shops, which we will try not to use but will quite likely end up visiting once or twice, and casinos and art auctions, which we will avoid, as I have a gambling addiction detected early in life when I lost $180 in one go at a street fair and vowed never to gamble again.

The ship from up close is no longer, as Robert Cormier once proudly described a luxury home on the good side of the tracks, a great big birthday cake of a boat, but a mountain, a wall, a backdrop. In we go, and the mountain becomes a movable neighborhood, apartment tract and shopping mall all in one.

The two 2400 HP motors, one astern, two aft, are already buzzing the floorboards; by the time we leave Vancouver port the entire ship will become a single vibrating chair, no quarters required.

The cabin is much like the hotel room we just left, albeit much, much smaller, and closer to the water. If you’ve got a window here, you’ve got an oceanfront view. On the cabin desk, stationary with our own names printed on it, Mr. And Mrs. J. Farber, and an outline of our Holland-registered ship, the m.s. Maasdam. Must find out what m.s. stands for, and why it’s always lower case.

Casual dinner too late for Willow – we’re stuck with the 8:00 seating, table 61, all week. Steak like pot roast, but all-Filipino, all-male waitstaff friendly.

Crash at 10:00.


Day two, I suppose. Crossing from Canadian to American waters. One whale early this morning, a tail and a single spout off the water from the almost deserted deck. Too much food and luxury; I can feel my beltline tightening despite my best intentions. A cruise ship is no place to diet.

Afternoon passes into early evening. There are 1400 people on this ship, yet I can sit in the hot tub on the Lido deck under the half-closed dome and have the place to myself for an hour. My beard is trim from an afternoon stylist visit; my stomach has adjusted to the pitch and yaw of this afternoon’s rainstorm. Somewhere in the decks below my wife and daughter sleep, my brother draws, my sister wanders; somewhere below my parents may or may not be together, talking, reading, laughing. Somewhere all our fellow travelers do what they are doing, whatever it might be.

There are 1400 people here, on twelve decks, five of which are primarily residential. The richest among us live in the suites one deck up, some of which may be as large as our largest room back home; the vast majority primarily reside farther below, in balcony-less, even windowless cabins little more than a bed, a nightstand, and a bathroom. Between them is Verandah deck, our own, where each room has a small living room complete with couch, table, desk and television between the bedroom and the private balcony. Thanks to the generosity of my father, for this week-long journey, Darcie, Willow and I in live one room, Sarah and Jesse sharing a room beside us, and then my parents’ room.

Although there is surely a deck or two unnamed by our passenger maps for the crew to sleep and live upon, from our tourist-given perspective the “other” decks contain our fun and function here: two floors of shops, a library, an Internet café, and a two-story nightclub-slash-presentation hall. There’s even a large movie theatre, where last night the rest of the family saw Finding Nemo while Darcie, Willow and I went to bed too early.

There are 1400 people on this ship, and through a few will eventually visit sauna and/or fitness center, their weight will increase by an average of three pounds each over the course of the journey. Buffets run all day in the Lido lounge, first breakfast, then pasta, salad, deli, ice cream, supper, and late night snack. Near the pools taco bars and burger grills serve out midday meals to the not yet full. In the main restaurant, breakfast and lunch are semi-casual affairs, where waiters seat you at community tables for a menu-ed meal, but dinner is served at assigned tables in two shifts, 5:45 and 8:00, each evening; two dinners, tonight’s and one other, are formal, meaning tuxedos or full suits for men, ball or evening gowns for women, and the rest are informal, meaning slacks and button-downs – jeans are not allowed.

There are 1400 people on this ship, not counting crew – another 600 or so, waiters and stewards and busboys, roomcleaners and deck-swabbers, entertainers, hair stylists, masseuses. Surely captain and ship’s crew abound, although we see only glimpses of them in their sharp blue uniforms as they pass through like infrastructural fish in a sea of paid-for excess.

After a soak I sit with my Tanqueray and tonic and a Garrison Keillor book on the deserted deck and watch the water in the nearby pool flow front-to-back and back again with the movement of the ship, rising three, maybe four feet at a time before it ebbs away again to swamp the shallow end. Somewhere, 1400 people eat, dress, gamble, and otherwise live their week out, invisible on the rolling eternal sea.


The sea is growing rough, as it was this morning: the endless whitecapped sea stretches out infinite towards the horizon; I head downstairs. Darcie, whose head and stomach never really managed to adapt to the slight motion of the engines and the ever-forward movement, is lying down, feeling and looking green. The baby’s in her element, happy to meet-and-greet this near-infinite group of cruising mostly-retirees all afternoon, and after spending much of the afternoon happily meandering around the decks while Jesse and I chased her laughing, has finally gone down for a nap just in time for us to dress for dinner. In a few minutes, we’ll make our way two decks down and congregate at table 61, our assigned spot, where Al and AG, our otherwise-Filipino-named table servers, will try to convince the seven of us – Mom, Dad, my two siblings, Willow, Darcie and me -- that nothing is moving, and that we should eat well of this evening’s menu.

But we don’t. The seas get worse and worse, and Darcie in her lavender prom dress gets greener and greener; the baby remains asleep. In my tie and a dark blue suit that once belonged to my father I scoot out to find my brother, wearing an identical suit of similar origin, and we wonder together why Dad would buy two identical suits before I pass on the message that we’ll not make it to supper tonight, sorry. We have to rouse the ship’s nurse to get more Dramamine, and eat boiled chicken and toast with the baby until, after a short run through the halls looking for balloons with a well-fed Uncle Jesse, bed for the three of us at 11:00.


Day three, if you count the first evening boarding as a day on board. Morning; this afternoon we land in Juneau, and helicopter off to stand on frozen-ice glaciers for twenty minutes at a time. The water is turquoise and deep; on either side of us, the land begins to close in, rising high enough to top the clouds. Whales off portside before breakfast. A time shift for daylight savings – all day I’ll think it’s an hour ago.

Something’s wrong, and I think it’s me.

The women doing our hair in the salon yesterday are white South African. Their contract extends eight months with no vacation. One told Darcie: I miss my boyfriend, and we’ve got all that you see here at home – mountains, ocean, whales and glaciers. What we don’t have is work, because we’re whites. I realize it’s the first time I’ve been confronted with the way racism works in South Africa. Somewhere, intellectually, I knew that whites were a race-downtrodden class, but never had to think about this woman, whose best choice for work is to ride the waves half a world away from family and homeland with her hands in my beard.

The men – boys, really – who clean the rooms are mostly Filipino, like the waitstaff. Darcie reports a conversation with a roomcleaner yesterday who mentions a son at home, three months, he has not seen, and will not for a few months more. At breakfast before my massage appointment, while Darcie and Willow were off to the bathroom, a short conversation with the young Filipino waiter behind the waitstation adjacent to our table, who had been eyeing our blond and beautiful daughter. How old? he says. Thirteen months I say, do you have children? Four months, he says, a boy. I’ve never seen him.

And how long have you been on the ship? I ask.

Eleven months.

How long do you have left?

Thirty two days.

I assure him that he’s only missing the parts where a child is an object, and cannot love back, or play, and he smiles. I’m lying, of course, out of kindness, and I think we both know it. But the charade is all we have.

I’m reminded of how I felt in Dhaka, watching poverty from the back of rickshaws, through the glass windows of the backs of cars. Like George before me, I begin tipping heavily for services, too heavily, twenty dollars where two would do, even though stated ship’s policy is to frown upon tips.

But what I want to do is give everything I own to these people, and to the families and friends I know back in Dhaka. Three things that keep me from doing so: first, a sense of the ridiculous – what would other people say? Second, a sense of the futility of giving away one’s worldly possessions when one makes little and has no savings – what would I give? And third, a sense of the vastness of need in the universe – I could give away a penny to everyone I saw in need, but it wouldn’t make a dent in the weight of the world upon our collective shoulders, would it.

Something’s wrong, and I think I like it – the person I wish I could be is the person who frowns at these experiences, and struggles to stay distant from the luxury on board. But this is fast becoming the wrong place to be wrong like that. It’s hard to stay separate, and inappropriate to identify with the crew and staff if one is to truly take advantage of their services – and how can one avoid it, other than to stay in one’s room, the door barred against food and well-dressed cleaning boys? The ship is alternately luxurious and confining, a treat for the body but a split to the soul. I am becoming torn, and Darcie feels it too – we are becoming torn together.


Juneau out the cabin window as we pull into port around 1:30; we’ll stop here until 11, and move on through the silent waves to Skagway, and then Ketchican, a day stop at each, before another “sea day” on the way back South to Canada and Vancouver, BC.

The town looks bright and colorful from the deck, a slight line of small buildings and streets snug between the clean water and a green mountain looming steep and high into the clouds just a few streets in. It’s the narrowest city I’ve ever seen. Other cruise ships overwhelm the harbor, swallow the town, block the view. Juneau is only accessible by water or plane to the rest of the state – no roads have been build to connect the seaside cities along the Alaskan coast, as there’s no need, and the mountains are too high to be worth the bother. I’m reminded that, in less than a week, I’ve traveled from one of the most congested and dense countries in the world to one of the most sparsely populated areas outside of the poles and the deserts. Reminded, too, that much of Alaska is technically rainforest, or practically so – the “nice day” the captain promised is cloudy and cool.

Also struck by how cold it is in summer here. In a few hours we’ll be wearing gloves, hats, long underwear and winter coats, standing on an actual glacier, via helicopter, when a week ago it was 92 degrees Farenheit and too humid for my thick long hair and New England skin to acclimatize to. Of course, that was near the equator; here the days are 50% longer in summer, as well.

And Juneau seems a bit French for an American state. Jesse agrees; when we were kids we learned it as Juno, and when did everything become spelled in French? Jokes about Bosteau, Massachussemont follow in the typical family humor pattern of one-upmanship.


Dinner outside of town; who knew you needed to make a reservation immediately upon leaving ship? The originally-from-Arizona cab driver on the way to dinner informs us that many of the shops in Juneau – a typical tourist town, like Provincetown almost, but with even less local shopping – are actually owned by the cruise lines. This explains the on-board tv channel devoted to promoting some stores by telling horror stories about shopping gone awry (products broken, shipped glass never arriving) at the “wrong” stores.


Day four, or, as they call it on ship, “Skagway” – as opposed to Sea Day or Juneau or Ketchican. Morning – just about 9.

Waking up later and later each day; this morning at 8:30, even with the daylight savings time change just a night ago. Right outside a dock and a landing helicopter; when I opened the curtains and stepped onto the cabin balcony, a greyblack speckled harbor seal head was turning this way and that, like an owl’s, in the water directly below. Odd, when last night I fell asleep with the garish lights of Juneau’s touristy shirt shops and jewelry stores and artisan galleries.

Surprised, in some ways, to see no town in Skagway. Originally I figured it was because we were on the other side of the boat from the dock this time around, but then I read the daily “on board” greensheet slipped under our door last night: where Juneau town was right up against the boat docks, Skagway – a town of 600 residents and, when the ships are in, as much as six thousand tourists – is a quarter mile walk. Just docks down here up against the mountains. Not a bad change, actually.

Today the family separates – Jesse and Mom and Dad off on a wilderness adventure; Sarah rockclimbing the local hills and cliffs. Willow, Darcie and I have a short scenic railway journey planned at 12:45, and, now that they’re waking in the background behind me, will probably eat breakfast together and wander through town beforehand. A nice family day, just us. Maybe I’ll even have a chance to post this stuff before it grows stale.

posted by boyhowdy | 2:27 PM |

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