“if I hear YMCA one more time…”
Last week, I shortchanged the handful of faithful readers (who actually give a crap about my day to day activities) by skimming over much of the Diamond Princess Cruise experience, my first, to whine morosely about walking pneumonia, a precocious three-year-old and my lack of writing time like some drama queen on Quaaludes.
A few of my online friends actually wanted to know more about the cruise, like, um, the good stuff that usually goes on on cruises, the friendships, the feasting, the fu--, y’know…
I wouldn’t know about two of the three, but I sure did eat well, and often, on board the ship, when I wasn’t chasing after our son James, arguing with him that Fruit Loops weren’t available at the buffet for dinner, dropping him off and picking him up from the shipboard daycare, known as the Pelican Club, making sure he was wiped clean with a warm washcloth, teeth brushed, diapers changed, pjs on, and in bed with his cartoon network when each day ended.
Or tending to my other, more grown-up child by marriage, my husband Eddie, who moaned, groaned, sighed, gulped loudly and otherwise made his illness – an abscess in his throat which traveled into one of his lungs to cause walking pneumonia – obnoxiously well-known, and otherwise might as well not even have been on the trip.
Right, the food.
The reason I do anything or go anywhere is to satiate that insatiable beast known as my taste buds. Too bad my tummy bears the results. I knew from watching enough travel shows and watching friends swoon in remembrance of their days bellying up to the 24-hour buffet that cruises attract millions upon billions yearly for the unending food alone.
To a large extent, I wasn’t disappointed. How could I be with 24-hour room service (despite a small selection, a continental breakfast served only until some ungodly early hour like 9 a.m., and all-you-care-to-imbibe booze with fancy hors d’oeuvres for a party of 50), the International Dining Room, for the dinners, with two seatings for unlimited amounts of high-end cuisine, from Beef Wellington and Poached Zander (a type of perch fish), to Lobster Thermidor and lobster tails with butter sauce, the alternative Dine Anytime restaurants featuring Sante Fe, steak, Italian and Asian themes, afternoon tea, pizza parlor, hot dog and burger stand, make your own sundae, the port excursions to cheap and plentiful Mexico…?
Oh yeah, I ate, well and often. And, about 75 percent of the fare beat out our cross-country road stops (salt is not evil), or anything we might scrounge up on our own with our own money at home in Washington (except for Macrina Bakery and Mia Roma’s). But the fare didn’t arrive on our plates without a few glitches, naturally (I wouldn’t be a Banks Weber without a few glitches).
First, a warning for the slobs among us. If you plan to cruise, you must bring or buy extra fancy duds to wear, or just stay in your stateroom for the duration, chomping on cold cereal and 50 pounds of shrimp cocktail with lukewarm Coca-Cola tasting strangely of last week’s underwear. You can’t show up to any of the dining rooms, not even the 24-hour casual dining area known on board as my home away from home, the Horizon Court. Part of the week, we had to wear smart-casual, which meant a dress, sensible shoes (or shoe-looking sandals), a pantsuit, collared shirt and pants with nice shoes for the men, the other part of the week, the fancy duds, which meant going to the Oscars in full floor-length regalia. I saw chicks with tiaras, five-inch heels and designer gowns, dudes in tuxedos, waiting to get their pictures taken professionally like a prom. You’re not allowed outside your stateroom without either of these, depending on the designated day, after 5:30 p.m. (I also saw a lot of slobs like me make a five-minute run for the buffet line in their swimsuits and slippers, loading up to bring back to their staterooms.)
I don’t know about you but I can’t stand dressing up, least of all to eat my fill. My preferable mode of dress is an old t-shirt and underwear, with a beach towel over my lap to catch crumbs and spills, no need to loosen the belt or pop the pantyhose.
Second, for our nightly fancy dinners, we had this waiter from some former Russian province who gave a scary imitation of Sonny Corinthos during a kidnapping over at the soap opera GH. If the slightest thing went wrong, he’d flip out, go deep, dark and intense, and perform a monologue worthy of Hamlet. Once I caught him making love with his arms to an empty spot next to the pile of menus, enunciating quite loudly and frantically, “But they were right HERE a minute ago!” He was good for a few laughs though, none of us assigned to table 15 dared make a fuss for fear of setting him off, and when we catered to his enormous ego, he’d tell a few risqué jokes, like how he got seconds after his roommate on the ship was done with a pretty girl, “We may be locked up, but we are not in prison.” Ew, soap please.
And third, I’d much rather have set up camp at the Horizon Court Buffet, where I could eat in private without some over-dressed, rich old fartknocker forced to sit next to me pretending to be interested in our pathetic lives (there was one lady… I wanted to shove her beloved boat of cocktail sauce down her throat). For some odd reason, our cruise ship didn’t feature the much heralded “Midnight Buffet,” with ice sculptures and big bands like on other ships. No need, with this all-you-can-eat haven which served continental breakfast, breakfast, snacks, lunch, snacks, dinner, after-dinner snacks, and late-night snacks around the clock.
I’d find an international smorgasbord in there, almost every other hour. If I blinked sometimes, or spent way too much time watching the Princess cruise commercials in a loop on TV in my stateroom, I missed a dish. The best dishes were those that lasted for barely an hour before the rest of the passengers converged, the seafood cioppino, the Indian curry with chicken, the Filipino pancit and adobo chicken, the Swedish muesli (is there scotch in here?), the build your own nachos.
Every morning, I’d sneak up there, gorge on my Southern and Yankee staples, grits swimming in butter, fried egg on top, makeshift gravlax salmon sandwich, then sneak back into my stateroom to wait for my family to rouse. Every afternoon, in between trotting our son James off to Kiddie Kare for his three hours of “class,” I’d sneak in lunch, even when I wasn’t hungry, and that’s when I’d find the gems that never lasted, even the leftovers from the fancy International Dining Room.
Eddie did three gigs with the special guest artist, local Seattle saxophonist Darrin something or other throughout the week, in one-hour increments. The second gig, on Wednesday, I was able to attend without James trying to play on his dad’s keyboard or running away, sitting there on a lawn deck chair with my pile of shrimp cocktail, prime rib with au jus and creamy horseradish sauce, veal in dark wine sauce… perhaps the best time in a long list of bad times, pure serenity, listening to Eddie pound out every painstaking chord while fighting through the remnants of his walking pneumonia, playing with gusty winds blowing his charts around with one hand, noticing one by one people outside Darrin’s entourage (about 40 who signed up to cruise just for his performances) gathering closer, as they realized this band blew the ship-board staff away.
Another big bonus, simply stepping forth onto such a huge ship, so many amenities, surrounded by an ocean deep for most of our ride, visiting strange ports of call, so familiar yet so different—playgrounds straight from the ‘70s, with a metal slide, ouch! and see-saws, how abject poverty gives birth to clever entrepreneurial impulses (it took me two ports to figure out that the Mexican moms thumbing through wallet pictures for me was their way of asking if I wanted to pay them a dollar to take a picture of me and my son).
I spent the rest of my spare free moments just sitting out on our balcony, between vertigo and bliss, commenting to Eddie once, “This is probably the only chance we’ll get of scoring an ocean view.”
To be honest, it took me two days to fully absorb that I was on a ship with 16 levels, staterooms, casinos, lounges, restaurants, pools, jogging area, putting green. We went through the rigmarole of customs, my mind focused solely on keeping James close by, keeping our documents in order, so when one uniform paused us in front of what looked like fake palm trees to take a picture (that’ll be $25 for the portrait package, another $25 for a DVD with five seconds of your son), another to welcome us, two more to pimp some unlimited Coca-Cola sticker, four in a row in front of elevators to… what? They want to escort us to our floor?... I remained in a daze until going through our stateroom, Dolphin 209, like a hotel room in a five-star resort, Italian cookies on a silver plate, chocolate on our pillow every night, a bucket full of ice in the fridge, bottled water, the best shower head I’ve ever had inside and outside our home.
I never wanted to leave. We heard that many frequent cruisers stay put, lounging on their balconies, sipping champagne, reading a book on a lounge chair by the pool, playing Bridge with a group of friends, ignoring the pomp, circumstance, and constant pimping for Princess-related paraphernalia, including diamonds, Swarovski crystals, chains by the inch, cheap costume jewelry, the insipid cruise soundtrack of all the painfully phony sounding songs, “YMCA,” “Hot Hot Hot,” “Macarena.” They must’ve played the first two in particular about 5 million, 7 thousand, 88 hundred times, complete with the arm moves.
You haven’t lived until you’ve seen old, tanned people in satin and velvet bump and grind to “YMCA” in a vodka-induced sweat past 11 in the evening.
Everywhere I turned, there were masses of ‘em, old people in a sweat, clamoring to be first to sample this tasty morsel, load up on that tender to a port of call, try out the best tours, catch the finalists in the cruise’s version of “American Idol,” watch all the big-screen movies, the champagne glass water fountain sculpture, the Valentine’s Day extravaganza with gigantic sugar heart cookies and balloons… just plain bedlam. In a twist of fate that worked in our favor, we missed most of the clamoring because we slept in, with my husband sick as a dog, our son beat from all the previous weeks of traveling and Kiddie Kare fun and my two-hour bowel emptying ritual from the IBS-D.
When we did try out the various attractions, especially visiting the three ports of call, we stuck to what Eddie remembered from working as a staff musician decades ago and with what we were most comfortable with, touring some parts of Mexico in the comfort of a taxi cab and sitting around in an air-conditioned restaurant, eating like pigs.
In Puerto Vallarta, we learned that lesson (to tour in a cab) real fast. Within the first 10 seconds of walking around downtown in the heat and humidity, I was ready to climb back on the ship, into my stateroom and stay in a fetal position for the duration, on a bed of ice. To worsen my already over-heated, humidified state, James wanted “uppie!” from only me, refusing to walk at all. I couldn’t see straight after a while, and Eddie took pity on me, calling another cab to this place called Pipi’s, recommended by a clerk selling scuba diving lessons, for the best guacamole. He wasn’t selling me a load either.
We hardly had a chance to watch the waiter at work the first go ‘round, because James flipped out at the next table, having ordered a flambé dish of fajitas. James hates flames. He stood up on his chair, crying for me.
After calming down somewhat, after several reassurances that the fire was gone, he sat down to nosh on the freshly deep-fried chips, while his parents swooned over the home-made guacamole. Incredible what a mortar and spoon can do (the mortar’s the stone-ground container, right?), with the simple ingredients of an avocado, some tomato, chilies, onions and cilantro, with a splash of tiny limes. We ate another helping, and that’s when I had a chance to really check out the artisanship of the waiter.
His guacamole alone proved well worth the trek down into hell, a sad deterioration of a once-sleepy village, into an Americanized clone.
Eddie told me that the town had changed dramatically, with many more shops, restaurants and just shtick geared toward the American visitors. Why, right off the port sat a Wal Mart and a Sam’s Club. Down the street aways sat sushi/teppanyaki joints, more resorts, storefronts that resembled Long Beach, CA or El Paso, TX more than a true slice of Mexico.
In industrialized Mazatlan, we fared better, running into an informative tour guide/taxi driver, not at all pushy or slick with the capitalistic bottom line. Jose seemed genuinely interested in showing off his town, getting to know us better and sharing a bit of his life. A former professional baseball player, Jose had lived briefly in California, hoping to make it big in the big leagues as a pitcher, but an arm injury sidelined him back home to Mexico. He showed us a picture of his wife and two children, talked of his family’s tequila factory (Petron’s just a name now), wanting to save up for the Internet, a cousin further down the country who once helped make ceviche for an American group stranded on the port when their ship sailed away, on the way to driving this group to the next port to catch up. “They drank the entire drive down, at my cousin’s, even as they were boarding the ship,” Jose described, grinning and steering his cab deftly through the narrow convoluted streets, between beachfronts, a cathedral and a quaint town square.
It was then that I’d wished the temperatures were lower, so I could stop and walk around with my camera, snapping shots of daily life… two schoolgirls in their Catholic uniforms chatting with two boys against the backdrop of a decidedly Caribbean-colored building, bright pinks and blues a landscape fighting for attention from the green and azure seas, the famous cathedral.
The cathedral, oh my God. I snapped pictures inside, one flash, then knocked it off because of the guilt of blaspheming the holy ground (my camera just stopped working for 15 minutes after), kneeled at a pew, did my sign of the cross, once a Catholic…, gazed up at the altar, lit from above with intricately detailed stained glass work, which caused the transparently clear glass chandeliers to glow preternaturally in an explosion of color. The statues had a life of their own, as you can tell from the one I captured of an enraptured Mary at the entrance.
We weren’t allowed to spend as much time in Mazatlan, a truer picture of old Mexico, and even less in Cabo San Lucas, prettier than the other two stops. But we saw enough to appreciate a different, laidback lifestyle, marred with enough hardship and government corruption (Jose says this new guy is cleaning up the streets of drugs though) to give greater understanding to the constant influx over the border.
On our last night aboard the Princess, we had the pleasure of understanding a little more, through the perspective of a waiter at Horizon Court. Trex (like the dinosaur) came from Grenada and the Royal Caribbean. He decided to try a new ship for experience, has been with Princess only six months, and much prefers the more flexible Royal Caribbean. We agreed the Princess’s strict rules and regulations left much to be desired, and learned from Trex that being one of only three or four black employees didn’t feel very warm or hospitable or international on an internationally speaking ship. And surrounded by so many old people, well. He talked up his homeland, urged us to visit, try Royal Caribbean next time. We promised we would.
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