Back to the Surreal (Cruise) Life
Anyone for a game?
Day 77: Over the course of the past 75 days, I have slept on a communal bed in rural China, witnessed the slaughter and butchering of a sheep in Mongolia--a sheep whose liver, kidney, stomach and lungs I helped eat one hour later--and danced with a 76-year-old grandmother in the hills of Cilento, Italy, while her husband serenaded us with bawdy songs on his accordion. These are events we would consider far from the mainstream, and yet, at the time, they didn't feel strange or out of the ordinary. In each case, I was struck by the fact that I had never done any of these things before.
Getting back onboard a cruise ship, it turns out, is a return to the surreal. It begins at the cruise terminal in Southampton, where 2,507 people from around the planet have come together of their own choice to coalesce into a gigantic lineup. I took my place among the multitudes. Next to me stood my brother Erik, who flew in from New York to join the herd. There we were, waiting. A gap would appear in front of us and we would shuffle forward to fill it in. This was the cruise's first event.
Are we having fun yet?
The second was the emergency drill. An alarm is sounded, passengers snatch their keyhole lifejackets from inside their identical closets and congregate at various prescribed points around the vessel to listen to instructions. This ship has a formal English feel, and the captain's voice, which booms over the PA, is no exception. It is a study in clipped restraint, with just the slightest hint of caddishness belied by the contrived inclination towards formal verbiage.
The captain's emergency instructions contained a few choice lines such as "Take to the water only as last resort" and "In an emergency, it is possible that the incident may last for some time. It is therefore our policy to muster guests away from the elements in one of the lounges." The speech was, for the most part, smooth sailing, but the captain stumbled badly over the phrase "will direct the correct number" and he never quite recovered. Still, the thought of being mustered away from the elements in one of the lounges is one that I won't soon forget.
As the ship got underway--towed by three tugs down Southampton Channel--passengers congregated on the front deck, bidding goodbye to the receding line of wavers back on the concrete peer and then turning their heads into the breeze. Not far ahead, a car ferry was steaming directly for us. It was carrying a full load-cars and people--but was nevertheless a midget compared to the hulking, luxurious mass of this 150,000-ton ship. The cruise liner sounded its horn, and the blast was of a sufficient magnitude as to suggest what an impact might actually be like: a dull clang of hull hitting hull on impact, the car ferry listing badly, cars spilling over the side and splashing into the channel, passengers screaming. Nautical disaster, you realize very suddenly as the wind howls in your ears, happens anything but suddenly. The car ferry, which was sailing under the Red Funnel brand, turned abruptly to starboard, motored out of our path, and resumed its course up the channel. As it passed, the people on board stood on deck and waved. Hardly anyone on the cruise returned the greeting. Such is our size.
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