Last year I took a ten-day ocean cruise to the Caribbean with a handicapped friend who needed my assistance. Tim wanted to see Bermuda, Saint Maarten, St. Thomas and Puerto Rico. More to the point, Tim hoped to find a wife— a difficult task for a man who is barely four feet tall and was born without arms. But brave Tim was determined to put himself "out there" for the ladies. He went so far as to book us separate staterooms, definitely a wise investment should a hook-up occur.
We sailed on the Royal Caribbean line's Explorer of the Seas, a huge floating city that holds more than 3,200 people. What kind of city, of course is the question. Philadelphia is a city. So is Albuquerque.
I'd never taken a cruise before and in fact had always derided cruises as an artificial form of travel.
Room with a phew!
And what is "real" travel? That might be winging it for a day in Rome, as I did a few years ago when I stayed in an obscure hotel room no bigger than a large closet. The room offered a view of the Tiber and Saint Peter's, but it also harbored a stink comparable to a decomposing body.
"Real" travel might also include the time I wandered the streets of Florence until the wee hours, talking to the natives as well as to North African immigrants who made their living selling trinkets in front of the Basilica di Santa Maria del Fiore. Or the time I spent in Paris waiting for friends near the Louvre until a bathroom urge forced me to ask two security guards where the men's room was. Claiming ignorance of English, the guards brushed me off, forcing me to flee to a little park across the way and pee behind a labyrinth of sculpted hedges.
Panic on the autobahn
When I traveled to Austria, I rented a car in Vienna with the intention of driving into the mountainous wine country region. A wrong turn led me to the mountains, all right, but I was miles from my destination, an obscure hotel on the Danube. A lost driver going too slow amid streams of speeding Austrians can be a deadly affair. In my case, I had a number of large trucks creeping up on my back bumper until I was reduced to nail-biting panic.
My only recourse was to knock on a farmhouse door and ask for help. Relief came in the form of a woman who invited me in to join her friends in a round of (big stein) Austrian beer. I found my way to the Danube hotel four hours later.
Then there was the time in Stockholm when I witnessed the graduates of the Swedish Naval Academy and their dates drink themselves to oblivion before "ransacking" the hallways of a four-star Hilton.
How, I wondered, could travel on a cruise ship compare to such genuinely serendipitous experiences?
Our tablemates, the Jersey Girls
Mornings on the Explorer, I'd shower and shave Tim, but after breakfast we went our separate ways. I'd usually read by the pool, go to the gym and then meet Tim for lunch. Evening meals on most cruise ships are formal affairs where one is assigned a table. Your tablemates are selected randomly and stay with you every night for the duration of the cruise.
Our tablemates were three sassy, careerist Jersey girls most likely on the hunt for boyfriends. To say that they refrained from asking Tim and me too many questions is an understatement. They were civil and polite as one is polite to customs agents when entering a foreign country.
On the first night, when it became apparent that their steady dinner companions would be a little man in a wheelchair and a gay man assigned to look after the little man, something in them went into freeze mode. Jersey Girl cruise ship fantasies give way to major letdown is how I imagined the screaming headline.
All you can eat
Still, the culinary delights on a cruise ship are many, I discovered. Passengers drift from formal sit-down dinners with private headwaiters to lavish breakfast and lunch buffets, where it's customary to come back for five or six helpings. On Explorer's Royal Promenade— a Disneyland reproduction of a 16th-Century Italian street— I felt I was in the heart of another mammoth shopping mall. Passengers shop for jewelry, clothes or expensive trinkets and then gorge on free Ben and Jerry's, or they sit in the ship's cafe where one can consume (at no charge, of course) any number of bagels, cakes, fruits and light breakfast fare.
When passengers aren't cruising from one eating and drinking experience to another, they fight for spaces around the pool. The ship also had a Moroccan-style smoking lounge with dark oak wood paneling, strange looking chests and Sir Francis Drake-style paintings. The lounge could have doubled for a museum's period room. Tim would retreat there 20 times a day when he wasn't lighting up outside on the deck's smoking section.
Sex in the men's room
On a cruise ship anything is possible, as I quickly learned while watching an on-ship variety newlywed game show filmed the night before in Explorer's large theater.
"What's the most outrageous thing you've done on the cruise so far?" the host asked a young, wholesome-looking couple.
"We had sex in the men's room in Johnny Rocket's restaurant," they answered.
Johnny Rocket's, located on the ship's upper tier, is a family-style 1950s hamburger joint. On dry land, such public sex might have gotten them arrested; on this Caribbean cruise, it drew hearty laughs and a round of applause.
On our second day out, in Bermuda, Tim and I left the ship for a few hours' stay at a nearby tourist beach. This was no rustic patch of nature but more of a special enclave: an artificial, contrived imitation of a natural Bermuda beach geared for cruise ship tourists.
This is not to say it wasn't beautiful. We saw strolling peacocks and white-helmeted police officers and even had a few words with the Muslim beach overseer. But there was no getting over the fact that the area had the sanitized look of an expertly polished tourist trap, complete with a lawn chair and umbrella rental tent.
St. Thomas was even worse. The ship docked into a sort of shopping mall complex filled with boardwalk-style gift shops and restaurants. To experience the "real" St. Thomas, you had to take a special $40 excursion to the other side of the island.
On another stop we explored the island of Saint Maarten, where prostitution is legal. Here I noticed large numbers of matronly-looking women walking the beach, selling beads and offering to braid women's hair while keeping their eyes open for roaming "single" men.
"You want beads for your girlfriend or wife?" a particularly assertive woman asked me not ten minutes after I'd plunked myself down on a beach bench. Off in the distance, I could see the docked Explorer, its science fiction hugeness dwarfing this small, poverty-entrenched island with its desperate locals running around to make the most of a five-hour port of call.
Tim finds a woman
Midway into the cruise, in the ship's fake 16th-Century Italian village, Tim did indeed attract a woman— admirably built and attired, albeit older and hopelessly alcoholic—who found him cheek-pinching "adorable" and suggested getting coffee.
A few nights later, dressed to the nines in a sleek floor-length evening gown and jewels, Martha approaches our dinner table at the Captain's Ball, where Tim and I sit with the still-frozen Jersey girls.
"May I sit beside you?" she asks Tim, grabbing a chair and planting it between us. She's slurring her words. She plants a kiss on Tim's cheek, seems to look at him for a long time. The Jersey girls look away in embarrassment.
"Now, tell me again, who you are?" she asks me, extending an accusing finger.
Suddenly Martha's body slopes to the side then falls off the chair. She's lying on the floor in her evening gown. Tim reverses his wheelchair to make room for the headwaiter, who rushes over to pick her up.
Even in this condition, Martha reaches out to pinch Tim's face. But Tim isn't having it any more. He tells her to go back to her own table and stop bothering him.
The Jersey girls, true to form, continue to chat about shopping and their day at the spa. As for me, I'm feeling nostalgic for that stinky, closet-sized hotel room in Rome.♦
Thom Nickels will read from his new novel, Spore, at Borders (Broad and Chestnut Sts., Philadelphia) on Friday, July 23 at 6 p.m. and again at the AxD Gallery, 265 S. Tenth St. (plus reception) at 5:30-7:30 on Saturday, July 24.