When we moved to Puerto Rico, the idea was for it to be our launching pad to see more of the world: To live a life transplanet. Over the last four years we have been very involved in improving the land, tearing down the existing abandoned house, building the cabin in the jungle, planting trees and making trails that we have hardly had a chance to lift our heads up and look around. Yes! We live on a beautiful tropical island, but what else is out there? This week we finally took our trip off the island.
For me, I haven’t left Puerto Rico in 3 years, 11 months so I was pretty excited. We figured checking out some of the rest of the Caribbean would be a good start for us. How about going on a cruise? I have been somewhat reluctant to take a cruise because I really have a disdain for anything mass-produced and I hate feeling like one of a crowd. A sheeple if you will. However, after a long talk we decided this might be just what we needed to recenter, reconnect with civilization and remember why we chose to be jungle hillbillies in the first place.
We took the small commuter plane out of Mayaguez because you can just leave your vehicle there without any cost to park. It was a beautiful short little flight of only 30-40 minutes. When we arrived in San Juan we took a taxi to the port. I was a little overwhelmed by the people, the process and the sheer scale of what we were about to embark upon. We had also not eaten anything in anticipation of the gluttony that was about to ensue. However, that made it even harder to concentrate on the stimulation all around.
After arriving on the ship, checking in and getting the all-important Sea Pass Card that would act as both identification and the main/only monetary instrument onboard we attempted to explore the ship a little. We found our tiny 100-square foot room and tried to find a snack only to be told that all dining halls were shut down for the required safety drill. They blasted a horn and then filed us out like cattle and showed us where the life boats were. It was hot and uncomfortable to be pressed so closely to strange people especially when feeling inundated with everything around us. After that chaos we settled into our room and prepared for our first meal in the dining hall.
As luck would have it, we had an awesome table of people who were outgoing, cheerful, helpful and just plain fun. As the week progressed we got to know each of them even more and started to spend time with them outside of the dining hall. Each night I looked forward to not just the amazing gourmet meals that we would have at dinner, but hearing about each of our table-mate’s days and seeing our awesome waitstaff. Especially Willy from Philly (which was actually the Phillipines) who would sing Kenny Rogers and other songs to us and spin and toss his serving tray. I am not sure if everyone was as fortunate as we were in that regard.
The next day was “at sea” which meant we would spend the whole day with everyone else on the ship. It was a great chance for us to wander around and explore the boat. The pool was definitely the place to be. There was not a single lounge chair available and it felt very crowded, so we didn’t spend much time there even though it had a great atmosphere. Probably my biggest complaint about being on the cruise in general was just that there were almost always people EVERYWHERE.
At the Windjammer buffet breakfast/lunch/snack (and dinner if you chose) area, it lived up to its name by jamming everyone in there to jam lots of food in their system. We couldn’t find a seat to eat and ended up taking our plates out to other decks. They don’t provide you with trays either (probably in an attempt to limit the all-you-can-eat scene) so it was kind of a balancing act especially because all the elevators were so full that we had to use the stairs with 2 plates of food and drinks in our hands.
They do a pretty good job of attempting to keep you busy and entertained, especially on the At Sea days. We watched a super high quality ice skating show (and then went ice skating, yes, ice skating on a cruise ship!!), enjoyed a dancing and singing spectacle, watched the FlowRiders, climbed the rock wall, saw a couple of comedy show and other activities. It truly is like a little (and by little I mean huge in terms of density in population) floating city. I tried to check out some of the behind-the-scenes staff work areas, but was always ushered out and scolded. The staff members were always helpful and fairly friendly but it was obvious that the line between staff and guest was a sharp one, and something else that I didn’t exactly care for in my egalitarian mindset.
As for what was included and what had an additional charge, here’s how it worked. Almost all the food and entertainment was part of the cruise price. All the buffet which was open almost always as well as all the food in the dining hall. What wasn’t were any drinks besides iced water, coffee, tea, lemonade and OJ served in the Windjammer. This meant that any sodas or alcohol had an additional charge. They also had specialty restaurants on board that weren’t included. We avoided anything that had an extra fee especially because they were extra expensive and had a very easy time smuggling on alcohol both from home and from the ports. One thing we were a little shocked by was the automatic charge of $13.50/per person/per day on our Sea Pass for tips to the waitstaff, maître d, and room attendants. We also quickly and thankfully learned that we could take that off and pay an amount of our choosing if we wanted.
We were slightly concerned about sea sickness as both Britton and I have experienced that in small boats. On a ship like this there is hardly any rocking at all. There is a slight unevenness almost like feeling drunk and unsteady. Sometimes the hangers would rock in the closet and we could feel a rumble beneath our feet of the massive engines that powered the ship.
I enjoyed the adult only areas a lot more because it meant fewer people in general though the teenagers as they have done throughout time immemorial always tried to pass as adults. We also felt a lot more “grown up” because we dressed up more. It was required every night to wear at least pants (no shorts) to the dining rooms and the two nights at sea were formal. We don’t have any truly formal wear (like a tuxedo or evening gown), but we definitely cleaned up well. I really like dressing up, so this was something pretty fun for me.
Sometimes in Puerto Rico I have felt that our differences as “gringos” are more noticeable than our similarities to Puerto Ricans, but on the cruise ship there was an instant camaraderie to anyone from Puerto Rico. Suddenly on a ship with people from all over the world we had more in common than different and the conversations were always around which city we were from and how we “Puerto Ricans” were well-represented on the ship. It was pretty cool to feel included as an adopted Boricua. We also met people from Italy, Colombia, Chile, Mexico, India, Phillipines and from all over the US. At the Latino bars when they played merengue, bachata, salsa and reggaeton I felt at home and Britton had to remind me that we would get plenty more of that when we got back so we should check out the other bands all over the ship.
An evening full of people in the Promenade, a successful attempt at imitating a busy downtown of a city where our room was unfortunately located directly above a loud bar that played music until 1am every night
Overall, the culture on the ship was unique due to so many factors. Like a floating island, we learned about the language spoken (English officially, Spanish and then other languages unofficially), the television (of 20 channels about 10 of them were about the ship, excursions, the spa, shops, and other ways to take more of your money), the money system (Sea Pass was gold), favorite locations and secret spots, food, customs (for instance hand washing stations everywhere!), taboos (like going into staff areas), pastimes and more.
We also learned of the social strata and structure with the Captain basically acting as the leader of the community, but the Cruise Director as the main face of the ship. As guests I felt more like a product than a person because we had to be managed and squeezed of as much money as possible. There was an air of luxury, of course on a luxury liner, but also of trying to pull it off while having us sleep on what was essentially a bunk bed with no box springs. It was a magician’s trick and if you let the illusion lull you, it could work quite well. But underneath, you could see all the work it took to maintain a place without any plant or animal life whatsoever. It was a fabrication of fantasy and not close to real at all.
To give you a sense of the falseness of this, the ship traveling through the heat of a Caribbean summer was actually too cold for me and we attempted to turn off the air conditioning in our room, but it was still cold from the base temperature of the ship. Perhaps we have just acclimated to no air conditioning, but it seems strange to be too cold in the tropics.
Just a fraction of the staff (in this case dining staff) that it took to pull off the illusion
Like in the awesome hypnosis show in which our tablemate friend Tiffany fell entranced, we were enchanted by the ship
More fun dressing up in Caribbean attire at the Promenade
A towel monkey made by our room attendant and a Cassie monkey in our bay window over the Promenade with artificial lights that never went out and made it difficult to sleep
If I had to say only one thing about the cruise though, it was food. Perhaps it is because we live where food is pretty much always the same and pretty hard to come by certain things (like asparagus, King Crab, green beans, lamb, duck, etc) and definitely hard to find gourmet preparations. This made it gluttony at sea! We were so stuffed every night it was actually quite uncomfortable and I am happy to be back to eating very little again (well almost) -haha!
The impact of 2000-3000 people and a huge ship that is larger than the Titanic showing up in your little island every day is hard to comprehend. I suppose as humans we can adjust to anything and perhaps it’s because of our life surrounded by hundreds or acres of jungle and very few people or luxuries, but the cruise ship industry still seems almost like science fiction of the 1800s if you think about it at any depth. I tried not to think too much about the inauthenticity of the illusion and instead tried to learn, have a lot of fun and gorge myself on delectable foods I won’t see for a long time.
Stay tuned for more about our stops and other adventures on our first cruise ever.