3.31.18 Shiny, Happy, Drunken People … and a Dash of Racism
Surely, no one wants to read about my first cruise. But if you do, then you are totally in the right place.
This is a long one, so settle in, won’tcha? Also, here’s a shortcut to a few high- and low-lights:
When I was a kid, my parents went on a cruise. They did not take their kids: we were left in the care of my then-kindergarten teacher, Mrs. Casey, and I had the best week ever by not going on a cruise. She was awesome. This says things not just about cruising in the 1970s, but also about what we were cool with our teachers doing then. In any case, cruising was not really a “thing” so much when they went, but it quickly became such once The Love Boat took off and invited everyone to “climb aboard.”
Since then, the cruise industry has grown up a lot, as have the ships. They are enormous tubs that would dwarf Titanic and carry thousands of people up and down and all around on a grinding schedule that is both combination well-oiled machine and cattle herding process. When you have to pack 3,300 people onto a ship in just a few hours – and get their cabins ready, and get their luggage on board, and deal with the last-minute headaches – there’s no way for it to be the kind of experience where Capt. Stubing is there to wave hello to every individual as they board. It reminded me of what Fred Thompson’s character said in “Die Hard 2” when they had to prevent all the planes from landing: “Rack ’em, pack ’em and stack ’em.”
We had our own reasons for going on a cruise. It wasn’t high on our list per se; it was more a thing to have done. I am hoping to cruise around the world after retirement, and since both me and the hubs have experienced seasickness on smaller craft, we wanted to go for a short run in case we had issues. Spoiler alert: We had none! (The movement of the ship is semi-constant, going from barely-noticeable to “I feel drunk even if I didn’t drink anything” but only on one night did I feel there might be an issue. I took a preemptive Dramamine and had no problems.)
To break ourselves in, we went on a 5-day jaunt from New Orleans to Mexico, with stops at Progreso and Cozumel. Your basic cheap, get in and get out run, on a not-top-of-the-line-but-perfectly-adequate brand. We could have researched this forever, but we had a short window of time to book things – M’s winter break – and that limited the lines, destinations and times we could go. So, we ended up with the Carnival Triumph. And here’s what we discovered:
One of the first things anyone will say to you about a cruise is “you will stuff yourself stupid.” The second thing is “the food is so good!” We were attempting to retain as much keto or low-carb integrity as possible with the cruise, and largely we did fine. (I succumbed while having ice cream, but kept desserts to that one basic food group.) And it is true that yes, you could stuff yourself stupid: there’s dining in the dining rooms, all-you-can-eat buffets with limited hours, 24 hours of pizza, and side joints that would serve deli sandwiches, hot dogs, burgers and a constant stream of serve-yourself soft ice cream.
We live in New York City, so we’re spoiled – but we found the food to largely be “acceptable.” The beef servings were tough (even when served rare) and the fruit options (for example) were limited to what you might expect in any given fruit cup (i.e., forget any berries). Cheese was cubed or sliced, primarily. Vegetables for salad were carby or limp. Lots of tomatoes. Winners: the all-beef hot dogs (despite their boiled grayish appearance) and the hamburgers.*
*A note on the hamburgers: You could get something like four different kinds of burgers with cheese and veggies and a special sauce on them. There was even one where you’d get a patty with cheese and a “patty” of bacon on top. I think we all know which one I tried, and I was in heaven. It wasn’t until Day Two that I saw the sign above the specialty burger joint, and realized it was “Guy’s.” And that sauce I loved? Donkey Sauce. Yes, I was reeled into the Guy Fieri Universe of Good God That’s Food?? and I loved it. You hear me? Those burgers rocked. I am not ashamed. Much.
We didn’t drink a lot. For one thing, the drinks were NYC expensive – like $13 a pop, which I only discovered when I ordered my first one (vodka, midori, pineapple juice) from a bar on the last day. It was possible to buy an “all you can drink” add-on to your ticket ahead of time – and let’s just say that yes, many, many people took advantage of it. I would have loved to kick back with a Pina Colada or 12 each day, but the sugar count and potential for blinding headaches kept me in check. If I’m having sugar, I’m having ice cream.
That said, have I mentioned there was a lot of drinking? Think of frat parties, and elevate that to frat parties attended by people who have a little money. There was not a lot of assholery, just a lot of guys who ought to know better drinking far more than was necessary, on and on for five days. Don’t forget that there are multiple bars where you can just pound ’em back forever. I ended up going to a whiskey tasting/sales pitch, which I enjoyed and had sips of about six whiskeys, and once in Cozumel we had VIP Dolphin Experience tickets that permitted us to have an open bar. I had two margaritas there, and another free one on the way back to the boat. There, that’s it for me and drinking.
You could research these cruises for your entire life – from Reddit threads to Facebook groups to official web pages, people seem to care about the minutiae of the whos and whats of cruises. As we have since learned, the port of call + length of cruise are two major factors in just how raucous the cruise will be. You leave from a party town for a 5-day trip you are going to land in party territory. You go for a week or more out of Galveston or Mobile or some other location that is not a party town, you have less of a chance. So, we blundered into this one.
It’s not that we’re not there to have fun, mind. But both of us were looking forward to kicking back on loungers and reading, or finding quiet spots to nap and chill or just stare into the sea. Those could be hard to find, because if you did manage to escape the omnipresent speakers blaring music all day, you also had to dodge the live singers/steel-drum players, and finally you had to leap the hurdle of Annoying Man Playing Music From His Smartphone Speaker.
But the thing that grated most on my cold, cold heart the most is the sense of Enforced Fun. (Everything on a Carnival Cruise is about FUN. It’s baked into the brand.) From virtually the moment you arrived to the moment you left, Skippy the Cruise Director (not his name, but it fits) was encouraging everyone to get out there! To have fun! And maybe win prizes! There were dance contests, there were hairy chest contests, there were trivia contests, there were photos being taken of you with all kinds of workers in costumes, there were live shows, there were comedy shows (so much more on that soon), performances in the middle of the dining room during dinner (please, I want to keep liking “Uptown Funk”). I was so happy when one day I got to do crafts with two other ladies; we had some goofy moments talking and it wasn’t like someone had put the volume on 11.
I’m not a person who can’t experience joy, but Jesus Fucking Christ it was like living in the cocaine-addled brain of a person with the attention span of a mayfly. You Will Have Fun Or You Aren’t Doing It Right. So what if my version of fun is quiet, or involves reading? Well, you have to do it in the game room/library or in your own cabin, Miss.
Adjacent to the “fun” was a casino. Not surprising. Slot machines, a craps table, some poker areas, and one big digitized hold-em table that didn’t even need a croupier. It was also one of the only places on board that allowed people to smoke with no non-smoking area provided, and walking into that area was like discovering the Land Where Hope Died. You can feel how you like about gambling, or slots, or poker (I like poker; there’s skill involved, while slots are so sophisticated these days they can anticipate your moves, and are just evil), but to match those who are likely addicted to gambling with an apparent paring of addiction to nicotine – it’s just sad and wrong. And of course there was a bar. So, indulge all your addictions in one place! It smelled like my childhood (when mom and dad smoked) and we couldn’t wait to get far, far away from it.
That said: We participated in several trivia contests. One made the nerd in me irritated: “What was the first James Bond movie?” The questioner couldn’t clarify if he meant the first one with Sean Connery or the first ever, which come on everybody knows that 1967’s Casino Royale does not count because it was a spoof and if you’re saying “But Daniel Craig was great in that one” you don’t know what you’re talking about so please sit back down. (Best part of that one was when the emcee read out the answers, if you missed one you were supposed to yell “oh, ship!” And that became a running joke.)
Another was all Harry Potter Trivia and even M could only get 15 out of 20, and he had a bit of a grumble over which animals are allegedly on the Hogwarts’ crest. But M and I sat in for Trivial Pursuit, which involved dividing people up into large groups. Each group of about 8-10 was given an oversized holder to hold the “pie pieces” (also oversized). Dear reader, we would like to say that We Fucking Ruled That Contest. Our team cleaned up handily – M’s final answer to win the game was to explain what the “c” in E=MC2 meant, and of course he knew that. (M notes that he was prouder of the fact that he knew it in LATIN. And the final trivial contest I entered was about 80s music. Of course I got all 20 right, but there was more to it than that. (Coming up later.)
Activities, Part Deux
OK, so this is not to imply we had no fun. We found our own fun! We got a lot of reading done. It was fine.
But here’s the other thing about “activities.” At virtually every turn, there was some way the ship was trying to score a little more cash from you. On the one hand, you could look at this as an a la carte vacation: you paid the bargain basement rate to come on board, and after that it was all up to you to pick what was important. On the other hand, photos cost money. Frames to put them in cost money. Drinks were a lot of money. Sodas cost money. Sunscreen was $14. Everything had a tip attached. Want to get on board faster? That’s money. Want to eat with the head chef? That’s money. Want the surf and turf on the dining room menu? That’s money. I’m surprised there wasn’t an express elevator option for extra money. Again, this coin has two sides – more people can go and spend what they can afford; or, you’re being nickeled-and-dimed at every turn. I can see it both ways. For us, it was like living in a mall for 5 days.
OK, before we get into the not so awesome, let’s talk awesome: Our off-ship adventures in Progreso and Cozumel were basically all we could have ever wanted. Yes, you have to get up early. Yes, you have to travel a bit more. But so very worth it!
Progreso: We decided to visit the Uxmal Ruins, which are Mayan and astounding. Chichen Itza is more popular but we’d been told it would be quite busy and further away and much more touristy (i.e., lots of Crap Shops nearby), so we opted for Uxmal, which was beautiful and hot and involved climbing many steeeeep stairs and then saying “oh, right, we have to go back down again.” This was also my first time in Mexico, and I enjoyed trying to instantly translate the signs with my rudimentary Spanish; I was also delighted to see that some of that rudimentary Spanish actually came in handy.
Cozumel: The cruise is one thing; the option to Swim With Dolphins is a whole other kettle of … well, you know what I mean. I had gone on a dolphin-swimming adventure years ago in Bimini, which was something of a bust – a lot of catamaran rides out to the middle of the ocean looking for the pod, not finding the pod, and finally finding the pod and getting about 10 minutes of free diving in their general vicinity. I was against actual contact with dolphins adventures as they are brilliant creatures and penning them up isn’t fair, but fine I’m only human and this option came to pass. The place we visited, for what it’s worth, has all kinds of humane certifications and the dolphins have grown up in captivity. That aside, I have to say it was wondrous. We got to pet them (the trainer guided them to us, it wasn’t all grabby grabby), we were in a small group (just four people), and they pulled us along with their dorsal fins in one instance, then pushed against our outstretched feet in another, moving so fast we were lifted up to a standing position as we moved forward in the water. We got kisses, we posed for pictures, and I don’t know that I’ve had that kind of smile on since I got married. I’d do it again in a heartbeat. They are the oceangoing animals of my heart. Oh, and we also got to pet manatees! After dolphins it was kind of like, “well, that’s nice,” but still: manatees!
Back to the ship: the other thing pretty much everyone will tell you if you say you’re going on a cruise is how awesome the entertainment will be. Now, I really didn’t have a ton of hope in this area. Where we live, we are spoiled. They are not going to one-up Hamilton, so the idea is to keep your expectations on a lower level than Broadway/Madison Square Garden. It’s a good time, it’s not The Good Time. So, I’d like to single out three things we attended to explain this further: The Good, the Bad and The Ugly.
The Good: We found Tony Ward, who played the piano in the round a room covered with oyster shells, to be a kind of soul mate. He had a little bit of an edge, and while personable did not have a You Must Have Fun Skippy Mode (requests with money are requests, requests without money are “suggestions”). Poor guy was dealing with a bad throat (we didn’t notice any singing issues, but he had throat spray handy) and we had a couple of fun chats with him – he likes funny, dark songs the way M does. He’s got a list of I think he said 125 songs people can choose from – he knows thousands more, but the offering list is apparently limited to 125. Anyway, one of those songs was Tom Lehrer’s “Poisoning Pigeons in the Park” and, well, that’s how M and he got to chatting about funny songs – and how M got him to play the off-list “Vatican Rag.” Go ahead and look that up.
Side note: One thing I haven’t gotten into so far is the makeup of the rest of the guests. As Easterners and New Yorkers, we were definitely in the minority: it felt as though almost everyone else was from Arkansas, Missouri, Alabama and Georgia. Racially it was a pretty cosmopolitan mix, and it was mostly families and couples; if there were singles it wasn’t clear to us who they were. But let’s keep in mind that “Vatican Rag” required a certain amount of preface before Tony sang it – though he did sing it with glee. We went back a couple of times to his show and even ran into him briefly while coming back from Cozumel. Good fella.
The Bad: It might be unfair to call the magician – who came aboard between Progreso and Cozumel, and whose name I forget but who looked like a Brad, so I’ll call him Brad – actually bad. But the ship paired his routines with dancers who wore big headdresses and Vegas-style dancer outfits, and there was often a whole lot more of them seen than anything he did. And when he did do his magic – well, it was all that dated shit where the woman goes into the box, and disappears, or the woman goes into the box and is miraculously not pierced by fiery torches, or the woman goes into the box and her hands go up while her head goes down and around, or the woman goes in the box and two women come out and … you get the picture. After a while I had to wonder just what issues Brad had with making women appear and disappear; it wasn’t precisely misogynistic … just kind of sad and dated and repetitive. I could have done with more card tricks (he did one). I know, not everyone can be Derek DelGaudio.
So before we get into this area, another small digression, referring back to our fellow passengers. We met some perfectly nice folks from all over, and mainly from the southeastern part of the country. But there’s one conversation I want to single out as a preface. At breakfast in the dining room one morning, I was placed across from an older white couple who had lived in many other places — she grew up as an Army brat — and recently re-settled in Mississippi. By the time she mentioned that I’d said I was from New York, and while I didn’t want to get into politics or religion, I sent up a small test question: What is it that East Coasters don’t necessarily get about Mississippi?
You could go a lot of places with that answer. You could talk about the fine cuisine, the sparkling urban centers, the forward-thinking schools, the delightful kindness of the people. But come on, we all know what we’re talking about. I mean, this is the state Chris Rock recently declared was proof that God could make mistakes. Still, she could have dodged. Instead, she went straight to how people in the state truly love their heritage and their flags and statues. (Trust us, New Yorkers know this already.) Then she segued directly into — and I swear without prompting — about how “our black folks” know how to say yes sir, no sir, they are always so polite — not like the black folks up where I live. I gently noted that I imagined she preferred politeness from people of all races and she agreed that yes, it was so. But this was her take on what we don’t get, which in my mind translated to “where I come from, black people know their place.”
So bear that in mind when we get to the Ugly Entertainment.
We’ve now arrived at a place where some are going to think I’m being oversensitive. I do not believe I am being so. What I saw was bad and ugly, and I do plan to write to Carnival directly on this (update: I did, see more later). I’m referring to the stand-up comedy shows on the cruise.
The way Triumph had it set up, there were four comedy shows of an evening, from two comedians: The early shows were for all ages, and I did see young kids up front. Cool. The later shows were for 18+ and definitely meant to be R-rated. Also, cool. On the first night they had comedy, we saw the stylings of one Seth Buchwald, a muscular guy with some outrageously amazing hair (a topic he riffed on). For his early show – remember, kids are there – Seth started out strong, with the classic “when we were younger our parents didn’t take us on cruises” thing, and quickly segued into “our parents took us on long car trips” jokes and those were good … until he then spent almost the entire rest of his bit talking about the various ways “our” parents used corporal punishment on us, even while driving the car. Yeesh. But we liked him enough to come back later and see the R-rated show, which was mostly about him talking to members of the audience and that was fine … if also a little one-note-y. But you know, cruise ship. Fine, he plays to the audience, he knows his crowd, I’m not going to get bent out of shape.
Having had a generally good time with Mr. Buchwald, we went to see Chris Wiles’ early show on the last night of the cruise. Remember, this is the family one and for kids and not his only show on the cruise. It was basically really juvenile dumb humor – he came out making noises and wearing footie pajamas and explaining how awesome they were to wear – and then things went dark and bad very fast.
Wiles (who is white) also played on the theme of “when we were young we didn’t have all these fancy things you kids have” jokes, which, OK – until he brought out a small shallow cereal bowl. He put this bowl on the top of his head and said that they would wear the bowl and pretend they were Jackie Chan. And yes, he did the “squinted” eyes. He might have made some horrible “language” noises,” but I had already turned to see if anyone else was laughing at this. He got perhaps a smattering of laughter.
Then he doubled down and said it was also a good imitation of much of the Carnival Cruise staff.
Readers, I have never booed in a comedy club before. I booed very loudly. It had no effect. Also, no one else booed.
And seriously: are you fucking kidding me?
The Carnival Cruise staff works fucking hard, including and perhaps especially Cruise Director Skippy. Many of those workers are from countries like Indonesia and India; I saw a few from Croatia and Russia and China, and several from European nations as well. But it was hard to ignore that many of the people in service positions were from Asian countries. To then have a comedian – who, by the way, is also a Carnival Cruise employee, and who I loosely call a comedian – make fun of them on stage while they are busting their asses to feed and liquor up a bunch of fat Americans made me so furious I didn’t know what to do with myself. I wish I’d walked out that second, but I stuck around to see if there was more horror to come.
There was, but a different kind: Wiles told a joke that involved a child who pressed all the buttons on the elevator. Wiles said “so I peed on him” and I got up and walked out.
Right. So let’s recap this, shall we?
1) A paid employee of Carnival Cruises told a racist joke in front of a crowd.
2) He then doubled down on it, insulting his fellow employees at the same time.
3) He did a second joke which, if you parse it mentally, involved exposing himself to a child and urinating on him.
4) He did all of this in front of a crowd that included children. Who sat in a room with a man in authority and their parents and other adults and did not hear or see anyone tell them this was not funny, that it was not acceptable. Undoubtedly he did this routine for multiple shows.
Know how we sometimes say “well, racists learn it from somewhere” – well, sometimes they learn it on vacation.
I could have gone to guest services. I could have tried to find someone in authority. In the end, I decided I would write up my complaint and send it to Carnival, and see what their thoughts were.
What I did do, instead, was go to where I’d planned to go all along – to 80s Trivia Night. I didn’t want to end my cruise on that terrible note. I got my pad of paper and pencil and sat down to field questions amid what apparently was also going to be a huge 80s dance party. And while waiting for things to get started, I just sat there and quietly cried.
I can’t tell you just how upsetting that whole moment in the comedy club was; I’m actually tearing up writing about it right now. We’re living in a moment in this country where everything we once believed in is being torn asunder by the asshole contingency, and then we have big corporations like the cruise industry apparently just being one more cog in the machine. This is wrong. And having it hit me in the face so hard like that, I really didn’t know what to do. I could go back to the room and cry. I could just sit there and be morose and answer trivia.
I sat and listened to the music of my youth. I wrote down every song. I knew them all. And a little voice inside me finally said, “Let the music save you.” So, when we all got up to dance, I got up to dance. The music, even the cheesiest of cheesy music from the 80s, will salve, if not save, us from the asshole racist contingency, even if just for a minute or an hour. So, we danced that night.
Tomorrow, we start writing letters.
P.S. Update: I wrote this post originally in February, shortly after the cruise ended and things were fresh. But I also wrote to Carnival with a snail and email letter at the same time, expressing my concerns specifically with the show. As of March 31, I have not heard back. I will update here if I do.
P.S. Update (4/20/18) After a month with no response, I followed up with Carnival, which earned me a call from Gary in customer service. He assured me they take this seriously, they have forwarded the comments to the ship’s entertainment manager. He noted that the entertainers are contract performers, and anything discussed beyond this point was confidential. I told him thanks, but that I was less than satisfied in that I’d never hear more about how this went down. If anyone reading this does come across this particular comedian on a cruise in the future, I’d love to hear how things went.
P.P.S Update (5/5/18) Approximately one week after I heard back from Gary, Chris Wiles posted his new upcoming dates on various Carnival Cruise ships. He is still working there; I would be surprised if anyone ever even spoke with him.