Wednesday, December 10, 2014

What Happens When You Don't Go Ashore?

The Norwegian Sky makes two trips a week from Miami to the Bahamas.  Its definitely one of Norwegian's "Party" ships

Over dinner one evening while onboard the Norwegian Star from Copenhagen to Miami I heard a man tell a tale about his around-the-world cruise.  He began the journey in Miami, traversed the Panama Canal and then crossed the South Pacific to Australia.  From the land of dingoes and koala bears he traveled north to Thailand, then further west to India, before making landfall in Durban, South Africa.  Later they stopped in places like Ascension Island and Dakar, Senegal, before crossing the Atlantic and returning to Miami.  His world-circling cruise took up 180 days, almost exactly one-half of a year, and he had enough stories to tell from the journey to last him the rest of his days.

I was fascinated by his tales of the ports he visited, the islands he explored, and the people he met.  However what intrigued me even more was his story about a fellow traveler who sailed around the world with him. This man boarded the cruise ship in Miami, sailed for 180 days and did not leave the ship until it returned to Miami a half-a-year later.  The fellow traveler on the Star was as flummoxed by the port-avoiding traveler as I was.  When I asked him why the port-avoider never left the ship he said, “He wanted to see if he could do it.”

Although we were scheduled to depart Miami in mid-December on a five-day cruise to Jamaica and Grand Cayman, I was tempted by the extremely cheap fare Norwegian was offering the weekend before on their three-night cruise to the Bahamas aboard the Sky.  It was one of those fares that are simply too cheap to pass up and despite my partner being unable to travel with me because of other commitments, I booked the cruise and traveled without her.  One cruise magazine had declared that this 3-night weekend cruise to the Bahamas was “the best weekend getaway cruise” and another said the cruise was “the best party cruise sailing from Miami.”  Our earlier experience on the Sky suggested that both statements were correct.

Earlier that year we had taken this same cruise ship on the same itinerary, to the same islands and to the same ports.  Thus there was nothing new to see on this journey but it was taking me back to the Bahamas.  For more than 30 years I have felt that the Bahamas and the Turks and Caicos Islands are more my home than any place I have lived since moving from Wisconsin long ago. A journey back there, if only for a weekend, would be a sweet reunion with where I belong.

As the Sky sailed into Nassau harbour on Saturday morning I was finishing breakfast in the Great Outdoor Caf√© on Deck 11.  All around me weekend cruisers were talking about the shore excursions they had planned during our 10 hour stay on New Providence Island.  A couple from Tampa and their two small children were going to take part in the Blue Lagoon Dolphin Encounter where they could swim with bottle-nosed dolphins in a semi-enclosed area not far from the cruise terminal.  A seriously red-necked couple from Jacksonville was drooling over their upcoming day trip to the super gaudy Atlantis development that has destroyed much of the beauty and character of Paradise Island.  Seated nearby was an octogenarian couple from New York that was planning to take part in the Charm of Nassau bus tour. Having lived in Nassau earlier in my life I never found anything that was particularly charming about the place but remained silent and decided to let them discover that reality on their own.

The Hilton British Colonial Hotel on Junkanoo Beach in Nassau used to be painted pink when it was the Shreraton British Colonial Hotel.  Luckily now someone at Hilton knows a little about what color to paint the outside of a hotel

Others around me were similarly excited about their coming adventures and when the cruise director announced that the ship had been cleared by local immigration authorities and people could leave the ship, the bulk of the occupants on Deck 11 moved like a drove of lemmings toward the stairs and elevators and they began their departure.  I slowly finished my breakfast and watched the occupancy level of the ship decline exponentially in a matter of minutes.  Looking around me I overheard others conversing about their plans for the day.  They had no interest in stepping off the ship and were instead going to remain on board.  A man with a classic Eastern Shore of Maryland accent (You can tell Eastern Shore people by how they pronounce the word “sure”.  While others say “sure” if you are from the Eastern Shore you pronounce it like “shore” and this man was “shore”) stated emphatically that the cost of food and everything else in Nassau was disproportionately excessive so he was going to stay onboard where he could eat lunch for free.

His logic struck a chord with me and I remembered the story of the round-the-world traveler who stayed onboard his ship for 180 days.   My only interest in departing the ship was to visit Bahamas Immigration to get a visa stamped in my nearly virgin and newest passport.  From there I wanted to hike past the gaudy Hilton British Colonial Hotel to Junkanoo Beach to drink a Kalik beer at the Tiki Bikini Bar on my favorite Bahamian beach.  If I walked quickly and drank even more quickly I could obtain the visa and have a beer and be back onboard by 10:00 a.m.  That would give me a full 8 hours to watch and listen to others to find out why some people travel hundreds of miles by ship and never leave its confines. 

The Tiki Bikini Bar was the only one on the beach that was open at this early hour on Saturday morning.  A sign posted prominently on the side of the bar offered three beers and three shots for $10.  When I was in college three beers and three shots for $10 would have been an easy decision to make.  Forty five years afterward I view things a little differently. 

The Tiki Bikini Bar on Junkanoo Beach was open for business early on Saturday.  The Kalik was cold, the coconuts were abundant, and Jill from Wichita was stumbling away from the bar after four coconut milks and rum drinks that Byron made for her

Byron, an expert coconut slicer and bartender summed up families nicely as he sliced open a coconut for a woman named Jill from Wichita.  Byron’s grandfather was puttering around inside and out of the bar making himself look active and trying to get in everyone’s way.  “That’s my drunken grandfather,” Byron said.  “A family isn’t a family unless it has a drunk or a drug addict or both in it.”

A mildly drunken Brit from Kent near London was sitting at the end of a beach bar drinking a pina colada when he tried to shock me saying "You know what the most common name is for a baby boy born in England today?" I didn't.

He said "It’s Mohammed" He then added "It used to be Oliver but now it’s fucking Mohammed!"

Snickering I said "Well if I had a choice between Mohammed and Oliver I'd pick Mohammed any day."

Annoyed that I didn't take his lets-hate-all-Arabs bait he bellowed "Well MY NAME is Oliver!"

I finished my beer and said "And that proves my point."  Saying farewell to Byron and Jill the soon-to-be coconut milk and rum addict, I returned to the ship.  It was 10:00 a.m.

I met Mark, a pretentious New Yorker who sat at the other end of the Outrigger Bar on Deck 11 forward where he nursed a bottle of Samuel Adams as I ordered a 32 ounce oil can of Foster’s Lager, the supposedly Australian beer made famous to Americans (and despised by Australians) in the movie “Crocodile Dundee.” 

“How did you know they have Fosters,” Mark demanded.

“I have sailed on Norwegian several times before and know that they carry Foster’s.  The oil cans are the best bargain for beer on this ship.” 

At $8.00 for a can of beer a Foster’s was the best value by volume especially when a 12 ounce bottle of Sam Adams or Stella Artois was $7.06 with the automatic gratuity added. 

“Well I wouldn’t know about bargains,” Mark smirked, “I bought the ‘Ultimate Beverage Package” and I drink as much beer as I want for one price each and every day!”

Mark’s “bargain” cost $55.00 each day for each person in his stateroom.  Assuming his wife or girlfriend was along he was shelling out $110 per day for the three day cruise, or $330.00 to drink as much beer as he wanted.  At $7.00 a bottle for the Sam Adams he was drinking, Mark would have to consume eight bottles of beer each day just to break even.  There was no bargain involved until after he had swallowed eight beers every day and by the time he reached that plateau of beer volume he likely wouldn’t realize if he was enjoying a bargain or not.

Sheila who lacked the smugness and the New York accent snapped at Mark and told him to not be so rude to me.  To me Mark was just a typical New Yorker whose middle name is “Rude.”

I asked Sheila about their cruise because she seemed more approachable and less under the influence than Mark. 

“We cruise all the time on Norwegian,” she began.  “Usually we sail to Bermuda for seven days but this time we decided to come to Miami and try a weekend in the Bahamas.”

Curious about her activities I asked Sheila what she and Mark planned to do in the Bahamas all weekend long.  Rather matter-of-factly she said, “We plan to drink.”

“You’re not getting off the ship at all this weekend?”

“Not until we get back to Miami.”

Wanting to know more I pressed her further.  “The Bahamas have a really cool history,” I said.  “Plus there are all these beaches to explore.”  As we talked we were looking over Nassau harbour toward Junkanoo Beach from which I had just returned.  Turning our heads the other way we could see Paradise Island and the monstrous Atlantis development that has defiled so much of that once-beautiful island.

“If I wanted to be surrounded by niggers and spics we would have just stayed in New York City this weekend,” Sheila barked.  “We go on cruises to get drunk.  We could give a fuck about history or anything else.”

The ship was about one-half full at lunch time.  Many people were plopped down by the various pools and hot tubs with plates heaped full of food and several drinks ready for quick consumption.  The juxtaposition of the sun-seekers on board the ship with the spectacularly scenic beaches was difficult for me to comprehend.  Not more than a mile away people were luxuriating on crippling beautiful Junkanoo Beach.  However these people were beyond content with staying put by the pool and ignoring the beauty all around them. 

Beautiful Junkanoo Beach was just a stone's throw from the cruise ship yet more people seemed content to look at it from the pool deck on the Norwegian Sky than to walk a few hundred meters to it and explore it on their own

Marsha, from the great cheesehead state of Wisconsin, slurred her words as she tried to explain why she remained onboard.

“It’s so fucking cold where I live (Green Bay) that I don’t need to walk and I don’t need a beach.  All I need is to get away from the fucking cold and that is what I’m doing.” 

In Paul Theroux’ excellent tome Happy Isles of Oceania he describes an encounter with two American tourist couples somewhere in the South Pacific.  He listened to their conversations and realized that these people had been in many places but they did not have a clue about where they had been.  Theroux called them the “Been There’s and the Done That’s” because, in his mind, that was all these couples were getting out of travel.  He summarized this encounter by saying “A tourist doesn’t know where he’s been.  A traveler doesn’t know where he’s going.”

I was a tourist when I first came to the Bahamas because I took no time to get to know where I was.  I found more joy in sending postcards back to someone with a cute little note about where I was, than I did in digging into where I was and learning about why I should not leave.  It did not matter at first that the Bahamas had a robust history filled with tales of pirates, and gun runners, and booze runners, and more recently, with cocaine runners.  To me, all the Bahamas were, was a warm place away from an ex-wife that came complete with pretty beaches, and pretty post cards and lots of drinks to keep me numbed from most of what was around me. 

Marsha was that same sort of a tourist.  She could care less about what was nearby as she soaked half-drunk in a hot tub.  In Marsha’s view it could just as well have been the hot tub at the Hilton Garden Inn on Lombardi Avenue back home in Green Bay.  The beer tasted the same here and her buzz was the same as back home.  To Marsha all that mattered was that it wasn’t cold outside as she became drunker. I view travel, even a cruise, through the eyes of a traveler and overlook the fact that most other people on a ship or in a plane view things through their eyes.

Norwegian Cruise Line had an active afternoon planned for its guests who chose to stay onboard.  At 12:30 there was a shuffleboard tournament on the sports deck.  At 1:15 there was a card making class in Captain Cook’s lounge.  Afternoon trivia was available in the same lounge at 2:00 and at 3:00 there was a seminar on relieving back pain in the aerobic studio.  At 3:30 that same studio had a class on bicycling and at 4:00 there was a dance class for single women pool side.  And also at 4:00 there was a “win, lose, or draw” card contest at Captain Cook’s. 

These and other activities were available to keep people active and engaged and I walked up and down the steps and traversed the length of each deck for four hours to learn if anyone took part in what Norwegian offered.  Most of what was offered was being offered to empty rooms although four people probably in their 80s sat in Dazzles lounge watching the movie “Guardians of the Galaxy.”  The movie had the best turn out of all that was offered.

The rest of the people who stayed on board were in the pools and soaking in the hot tubs beer and liquor drinks in hand and a plate piled high with carbohydrates waiting for them in their beach chairs.

Taylor, Tracy, and their son Travis from Fort Lauderdale were wallowing in one of the hot tubs on Deck 11 when I arrived.  They had been on a morning tour of Nassau and had apparently seen all they wanted to see.  Now Taylor and Tracy were going to get drunk and Travis was the designated watcher.

I asked Tracy if they made it to the west end of the island with its exclusive homes and thick growth of trees.  They hadn’t. 

I asked if they saw the fuel docks on the south shore of the island or the Kalik brewery nearby.  They hadn’t. 

Did they stop by to look at Lake Cunningham?  “Where’s that,” Tracy asked.

Did their tour guide point out the U.S. Embassy as they drove down Bay Street?  He hadn’t.

What about Potter’s Cay that sits beneath the bridge to Paradise Island?  “Where’s that,” Taylor asked.

The T family had taken part in the “Grand Tour of Nassau” but it appeared the only thing grand was the price. 

“We saw the hotels on Cable Beach,” Taylor proudly added.  We could see those same hotels and the beach in front of them from where we sat in the Deck 11 hot tubs. There was no need to pay a tour guide to take them there. 

Tracy said “The best part of the tour was the Straw Market.”  She pointed at the three identical t shirts they had draped over their pool chair they had purchased in what is most likely Nassau’s largest and most famous tourist trap.  Each was white with the words “I (image of a heart) The Bahamas.”  Apparently that was all they learned about the Bahamas from their grand tour.  

The T family didn’t have a clue.  

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