My bedroom no longer sways in the night and I no longer work to the melodies of a three-piece Latvian orchestra in the background. Oddly enough, I now seem to wake up each morning in the same location where I fell asleep the night before. Nobody is cleaning my room every day, washing my windows (which have now transformed from round to square shaped), dictating what clothes I need to wear. If I am going to be late for something, I no longer have to make an announcement throughout the entire community where I live, informing thousands of people to expect some delays in my arrival.
‘Ship life’ is the term used by all the thousands of cruise ship crew members worldwide to describe the unique lifestyle that defines the entire essence of our existence. Whether working on board a 150,000 ton, 3000 passenger ocean liner or a 500 passenger ultra-luxury ship, ‘ship life’ involves the rules, both written and unwritten, the interactions of several hundred crew members representing over fifty nationalities, the late nights in the crew bar and the fish head soup (popular among the large Filipino segment of the workforce), the fake smiles and ‘good afternoon madams’, the cabin inspections, the obnoxious guests, the security screenings, the consistently failing relationships. Nepalese security guards, Ukrainian dancers, Filipino deck hands, South African hair stylists, Moldovan bartenders – everyone survives in an unfathomable underworld that rules every second of how we live and work.
‘Ship life’ is also what I have just left behind. Do I miss it? Of course I do. It is a sense of community that I do not think is possible to experience any where else on this planet. But, just like many of those who live in the real underworlds that exist on land, I had to leave it behind before ‘ship life’ became the ‘only life’ I would know.
I will admit that as a crew member I was spoiled. I would fall asleep in Barcelona and wake up in Athens, with the process simply repeating itself over and over again while the destinations constantly shifted from St. Lucia to Curacao to Hawaii to Quebec City to Rome to Dubai, Malta, Norway, Kuala Lumpur, Samoa and on and on.
My actual job was that of Tour Manager, responsible for the shore excursions we offered our guests in the various ports of call. I dealt with hundreds of local tour operators all over the world who treated me well, almost too well. After all, I ran the department that sold their tours and therefore controlled the flow of money that ended up in their pockets. Whenever I wanted (or perhaps a friend or someone I needed to impress wanted!) to swim with the dolphins in the Caribbean, ride a helicopter over the active volcano in Hawaii, visit the ruins of Petra or sail to a secluded Greek island, I simply asked and instantly received.
In addition, my team and I were treated to gourmet meals, beach parties, private tours and unlimited rental cars, surfboards, resort passes and more, the cost of which was always taken care of by these tour operators. Seldom was it even discussed, it simply was the norm. During the Christmas holiday season we were truly spoiled, much to the envy of the other crew members, as we would return to the ship in the afternoon carrying endless bottles of champagne and wine, gift certificates, even iPods and $300 Maui Jim sunglasses.
Some would say that my team of five staff and I had the best positions on the ship. I would not for an instant disagree.
I did earn my salary, having to work extremely hard, seldom less than 10 hours a day and every now and then up to 16 hours, without a day off for the entire six month contract. The pressure bordered on extreme in regards to both exceeding revenue goals and ensuring the thousands of guests on tour remained happy. As a result, in between my paperwork, constant emailing and handling of guest issues, I usually only managed a couple of hours off in each port, a quick stroll or swim, a bike ride or some surfing, simple activities to maintain the last remnants of my sanity.
Crew members always joke to each other that the best times off the ship are simply when the ship itself is not in sight. A day spent on a beach with the ship still in view is pointless and better spent on ‘metal beach’, the crew sunbathing area on the topmost deck of the vessel. For those that can get far enough away in order to truly release the day’s frustrations, they undoubtedly enjoy an extremely valuable period of time. But once you re-enter the port gates at the end of your day, and you wipe the sand from between your toes, that first glimpse of the ship forces a dreaded yet necessary alteration in mindset. Back to the routine, back to the ‘ship life.’
As time passed on board and one six month contract became another six month contract and then another, it began to wear me down. My brain began to numb, I questioned my reasons for being on board more frequently, I dreamt of going to the movies, having a normal relationship or standing in a bathroom bigger than the toilet it holds. When a new contract commenced, I would be fueled by a fierce motivation to make it my most productive and rewarding contract ever. But once the first two months would pass, this fire always began to wane, as I realized once again that this contract would be just like all the others. I then suffered through the final two months, cursing and vowing that I will never return, counting the days until vacation time, that moment when I can finally send my uniforms back down to the linen keeper for storage.
I always ran down the gangway when vacation arrived, as we all do, away from the impossibly long days and the unhappy guests screaming and demanding refunds for boring tour guides or rainy weather. I yearned to put the lack of social life that often drove me to stare at the walls of my bland cabin in a state of comatose boredom, behind me. No more late arrivals to port, no more tasteless food, no more mandatory crew life boat drills that seemed to always take place on the mornings when I finally had time to go to the beach.
For the first two weeks of vacation I relaxed at home, adjusting to a new world where I had absolutely nothing to do at all. But then, after visiting family and friends, taking a short trip to Mexico or Europe, I suddenly always found myself less than a week away from my return date to the ship and without having found another job.
By this point, I am quite predictably no longer able to recall the frustrations, the boredom, the angry passengers or the life-draining intensity of my work on board. I can now only remember the good times, leading me to the inevitable process of convincing myself, ‘The days were not so long, I had plenty of free time. I can handle the screaming passengers, it was not so bad. What a wonderful social life! The wine & cheese nights, the crew parties, the movie nights, the open-deck crew barbecues. Besides, this contract I will go to the gym and go to the crew bar more often and finally write that book I always wanted to write. I will not be bored at all.’
One week later I am walking up the gangway again, under a stupor of self-deceit, shouting my ‘Namastes’ and ‘Ciaos’ and ‘Hola chicas’ to those crew I recognize.
After this process repeated itself for four years, the notion of remaining stuck at sea forever started to weigh on me. The money was excellent, but I had already achieved my financial goals and now had the means to take off on any adventure I dreamed of. The balance of what I enjoyed on board versus what I wanted to accomplish in life had begun to change drastically. The time had come to quit while I was ahead and leave ‘ship life’.
Gathering up all of my courage, I recently resigned from my position, following that strong inner urge to head in a new direction.
In one phone call to the head office, I left behind the ‘coneheads’ (crew member slang for ‘passengers’ – referring to the movie ‘Coneheads’ where the aliens left their brains at home before going on vacation). I left behind the management meetings that discussed such pressing and stimulating topics as the need for special technicians to remove the semen and blood stains from the sheets and the severe shortage of lamb and salmon for the upcoming voyage. I left behind the constant intestinal illness notification emails from the medical department, informing me of which crew members had a case of uncontrollable diarrhea and were now confined to their cabins for twenty-four hours.
Now that six weeks has passed since my resignation, and I remain confident that this was a sound decision, I can admit that I do miss certain aspects. But ship life does not allow you to have one foot at sea and one foot on land; you must definitively choose one or the other. For years I was unable to decide and so ‘ship life’ chose for me, as it does for most of those working on board.
What I do miss has nothing to do with my position or the tour operators that gave me such a royal treatment wherever I went around the globe. Instead, I long for the underworld that ‘ship life’ represents. For months at a time, hard work and hard fun intermixed with allegiances and alliances, secret lives and special favors. As in many other spheres of life, a successful existence on board depends on ‘who you know’. Without favorable connections, little gets accomplished and few problems are resolved to your liking.
The on board crew mafias operate vital black markets that control a wide range of items, from printing services to dry cleaning to phone cards to alcohol to snorkeling expeditions and fresh fruit. Catamaran tours were traded for sushi platters, alcohol was sold at inflated rates by certain crew after the bars had closed, entrepreneurial chefs delivered filet mignon and twin lobsters to crew cabins for a small ‘fee’. Money was actually rarely used, with favors that enhanced one’s life on board usually acting as the preferred currency.
In such an environment, the appeal is great; everyone has a chance to be a superstar, to live the life of a gangster. I traveled the world, building bonds on many continents and within the vessel itself, both friendships and enemies alike. I had the power to make miracles happen (to send crew to the Sistine Chapel or the Pyramids) and likewise to destroy dreams (deny crew the opportunity to see the places we visited) within our confined and unique community. The potential rewards of such a lifestyle are immense – the money, the status, the fantasy. It starts out as honest work, but the essence of ‘ship life’ reverberates throughout your being, so effectively igniting that innate instinct to not only look after yourself and your interests but to improve the conditions of your life. Working on board a cruise ship you can choose to hide in the background or try your hand at ruling the world.
Now, when I try to fall asleep each night, the strong winds cause the willow trees outside my window to sway, leaving my room itself completely unaffected by its gusts. Although I no longer wish to float upon the seven seas, I still close my eyes in the hopes of fading into some sort of familiar dream, perhaps one in which the white sands stretch forever, the money flows and the world is my home.