So I wanted to get away to begin the reconstruction on my third book, “The Mermaid’s Plight.” As most of this book takes place under the sea, I decided my best bet for inspiration would be to go somewhere where I could free-dive and snorkel under water. Since it is currently March and much too cold in the northern Pacific, I decided to seek out some place tropical. With a budget hovering somewhere around $1,000 including airfare, I had a tough time finding a tropical place that did not require me to take a tour to get out on the reefs every time I wanted to swim. I wanted beachfront access. Either the airfare was too high, or the room rates were astronomical, leaving the food budget to suffer. Then, something popped up in my newsfeed:
Picture: Our floating city
Caribbean cruise, anybody? For $700 USD I could get 8 days and 7 nights with food included. It gave me pause, and I scrambled to find a buddy to buy into the double-occupancy to snag that amazing rate. My awesome childhood friend Elyse jumped at the chance and we booked it. We arrived in Miami just in time to see the sun rise, not knowing what to expect.
We checked in, clutching our backpacks and avoiding the baggage check chaos for those who apparently needed two massive suitcases a piece to survive the week out. Inching our way up the gangplank in line with the others, we did a happy-dance to the sounds of loud techno music designed to pump us up for our adventure. After a brief wait on deck watching the shore disappear, we made our way to our staterooms.
Picture: Our stateroom. Small closet and bathroom not pictured.
Then the party began.
Our ship was about a quarter mile long, and 16 stories high. It held a capacity of 5,609 humans, guests and staff included. It was basically akin to taking everyone who lives within city limits of our little town and putting them on one ship. It was incredible. There were 28 restaurants, a casino, a bowling alley, Broadway theatre, comedy club, movie theatre, a library, several stores, a little hospital, a spa, water slides, 6 hot tubs, salt water swimming pools, multiple live bands, three night clubs, a ropes course and likely dozens of other things I never even saw. And all the alcohol you could ever drink. Other than select areas, there was no natural lighting and only recycled air conditioning. And no clocks. It could be two in the morning or eight o’clock at night and you would never know the difference. Most of the time you couldn't anyway, since there was the daylight savings time change in addition to our passing through time zones every single day without fail. It was similar to being inside a Las Vegas hotel… Only you can’t leave.
Photo: An example of all the lovely things to do on a cruise ship. If my husband had been present, however, he may have insisted I attend that second one…
At the risk of sounding snobbish, all the entertainment factors were lost on me. I seek to be enriched, not entertained. (Rarely, anyway).
The ship itself was kind of a marvel of engineering. The sway was only noticeable at times (being IN the pool and watching the water rush out and back in was a trip!) and we made good time, always on schedule. So much food, in abundance, all the time! Servers wandering the tables, picking up empty dishes as soon as they are set down. All I could think about was their employee training regime, and what it was like. Bright smiles and enthusiasm all the time, everyone addressing me as “Madam,” everywhere I went. The structure of the state rooms and everything else was perfunctory, but while everyone else on the ship was out partying I would lay awake in my bunk contemplating the workings of a septic system for some 2,500 toilets.
What's even more fascinating to note is that after all port fees, taxes, government fees, employee wages and other expenses, the amount of money they make off each passenger is extremely low. In fact, after hunting around on the internet and talking to staff to collect numbers, I calculated that with all the millions spent on board on this one trip, the amount of money the cruise line would take home in their pocket after all expenses was approximately just over half a million dollars. (Did I just do their taxes? I think I just did their taxes).
We had our mandatory maritime “Muster drill,” or “Lifeboat drill,” which is a practice drill required of all vessels as soon as the ship leaves shore. The alarm went off and we all had to go to our designated stations to pretend that we were about to evacuate the ship. Apparently calling out, “Will the lifeboats be seated according to class?” isn’t very funny.
And since we’re on the subject of Titanic jokes…
Picture: I really would love to talk to whoever was in charge of stocking the library.
Then we returned to our rooms. Which was something of a problem. There were several different elevators per floor, and a whole mess of long hallways attached to more long hallways to find your one little room among hundreds!
Picture: Enter the maze. (This would be extraordinarily difficult if you were drunk)!
The next day was spent entirely at sea. I sat on deck most of the day and worked on my book. There was so much going on all the time on this cruise and I barely partook in any of it. I averaged about eight hours of writing per day, sometimes in the library, but mostly on deck. I have this strange habit that has taken me years to learn about myself: I’m a social writer. Not like I want to be interacting with people while I’m trying to write, but that I do my best writing when there’s a mess of people around me. At home I write in solitude with the television on. I prefer it if my husband is around doing something nearby. Background noise is my muse. It’s also a big part of my deep satisfaction while traveling: I can be surrounded by hundreds of strangers, knowing no one, and be completely at peace in my solitude among them. It’s my happy place. So a crowded cruise ship was a well of inspiration for me and I wrote 162 pages by hand - half the first draft.
The people-watching was also prime. There were young kids shadowed by harried parents as they played in the kiddie pools and little slides. I saw young teens experimenting with adult night clubs, pretending they were old enough to be there. Young adults, fresh out of high school taking advantage of the international waters drinking age of 18. College students on Spring Break trying to make a cool party of it by dancing by the hot tubs at all hours of the day and night and collecting bedmates like souvenirs. There were older couples, dressed in fancy suits and gowns everywhere they went, seeking out that old timey upper class experience. And singles who never left the casino and lamented the thousands of dollars they had lost. So many people who had spent thousands and thousands of dollars to be there, and thousands more on board.
We stopped in Roatan, Honduras. I hopped into a taxi cab and ended up sharing with a few others. We went to a beach I had read about, West Bay. Roatan is 48 miles long and 5 miles wide, it is home to approximately 75,000 people. (10,000 American citizens). We sputtered along on the poor roads and between the gated mansions I caught snatches of the slums and poverty of the local people. At West Bay I asked a few locals about the best snorkeling spots and followed directions to some of the best off-shore snorkeling I have ever enjoyed. I was a little uncomfortable snorkeling alone, but I kept myself within line of sight of other snorkelers and it felt good to push my comfort zone.
After a few hours of that, I wandered the beach asking locals about the economical advantages of cruise ships in port. Turns out, there’s a reason you get a discount for paying cash. Any credit card transactions are heavily taxed to the point that the government takes the majority of the money out of Roatan and onto the mainland. The locals that must suffer the card-toting tourists don’t even get the benefit. Sad game. That didn't sit well with me.
The next day was Belize. We disembarked at Harvest Caye, a 75-acre, 50 million-dollar man-made island - built, owned and operated by our cruiseline. This island actually does do a lot for the local Belizean economy, so it is not entirely distasteful, but I took one look at the 2,500 beach chairs and the 2,500 cruise passengers doing exactly what we’d been doing on deck and I had a moment of panic. I practically ran to the water taxi to bail off to the mainland, and ended up spending a lovely day in the village of Placencia.
Picture: Private Island Panic!
Being on the cruise really reminded me of the amounts of copious waste we put out as a society. It was literally inescapable. The amount of wasted food bothered me. So much indulgence, gluttony and waste – then visiting the ritzier areas shadowing the communities where people actually go without – really bothered me. And the garbage. I’m sure I sound like an elitist snob who doesn’t know how to have fun, but damn! I’m sure you could have found prime examples of all seven sins on that ship. I've really never felt more classically American. Sorry-not-sorry.
The illusion The Reality
Photo: Human impact, Belize
Tough to swallow, but we are all contributors.
On a lighter note, the next day was a lot of fun; Elyse and I hopped a bus out to the Chacchoben Mayan ruins and spent a lovely morning and afternoon crawling all over pyramids and learning about the Mayan people who lived there. We spent the last hour at a beach club with a horrible beach offering a buffet that defines the term “botulism risk.”
Photo: We really kicked ass together on the fun
In Cozumel the next day Elyse and I went snorkeling, then she left with a friend. I returned all of my rental gear except the fins. I tied them together with a scrap of rope for an instant monofin, and presto! My first open water Mermaiding swim happened. I got some really great depth and distance. I really prefer swimming in the buoyant waters of the ocean vs the chlorinated nastiness of the public pool I train in at home. It felt natural and wonderful and I really wish I had had my tail to pull over the fins. Fellow snorkelers and divers still addressed me as “the Mermaid” afterwards, so I must have been swimming well enough with just the fins.
Overall it was a very interesting experience, and as a collector of experiences, I’m glad that I did it. It was fun to try buffet-style travel, sampling different ports and getting just a little taste. I know for certainty, for example, that someday I will return to Belize for a more in-depth experience.
In the end, the most valuable thing I learned was that a cruise ship, with its many kitchens, onboard water desalination systems, independent electrical grid and copious storage space for food, supplies and humans would be an excellent stronghold for a zombie apocalypse. If you had the right crew, shore supply acquisitions teams and dictator, of course.