The entertainers fall into two groups: young, talented musicians and dancers – from all over but a good number from former Eastern Block countries – and has-been performers. The former contract with the cruise line and either stay on one ship or rotate between ships. Our ship’s permanent band had musicians from Russia, the Ukraine, the US and Canada. They played every night in various shows and demonstrated amazing versatility: jazz, big band, salsa, musical hits, you name it. The evening shows were mostly Broadway-style dance and song affairs. Not Broadway standard, but good.
The has-been entertainers were all 70 plus and rather sad, though they often had stories of redemption and were flogging books and CDs about it. The pianist with a bad toupee who had accompanied Frank Sinatra for ten years. The country singer who had gone blind from diabetes but had lost 200 lbs and regained his sight. The former Cirque du Soleil acrobat who gamely tried to juggle and balance on a swaying stage. The comedian who nearly died in a bad car accident and was paying his medical bills. It’s a reminder that most artists and performers are insecure in old age.
We went on a tour of one of the massive ship’s kitchens. Everything was stainless steel, even the ceiling, and reassuringly spotless. In the baking section the cooks were constructing a giant gingerbread house. The Head of Maître D’s (an Italian) and the Head Chef (a Mexican) described their world to us in a funny routine which somehow involved the Italian throwing spaghetti around. They were each in charge of hundreds of staff. Something the Head Maître D’ said stuck in my mind: “Believe me, the employees on board give me far more headaches than the passengers.”
There are roughly three groups of staff: Ship officers and crew, food and beverage and staff, and entertainers/fitness instructors/casino and spa workers. The last group tend to be North American or from the UK, sometimes Eastern Europe and Ukraine or China. There were several husband-and-wife teams. Many of the ship’s officers are Filipino, a good proportion of them women. The restaurant staff were frequently Latin American, Filipino and again Eastern European. Our cabin steward was a delightful Filipino whose wife was also working on the ship. We met them on shore once when they were on their day off, and they gave us big hugs.
When they come across one of the few babies on the ship, the Filipinos hold their arms out for them longingly and automatically, as if the babies were magnets, and by touching them they could connect with their children at home.
They have contracts for about eight months, and then go home for a long holiday. I wondered whether the different nationalities mix much below decks. I heard some good-natured bantering between a Mexican and a Filipino server. The Mexican was teaching the Filipino Spanish and teasing him because he couldn’t roll his ‘r’s. ”Perro” (dog) the Mexican trilled. “Pewo” the Filipino echoed. I guess the nationalities stick together socially. The entertainers and officers ate in the same restaurants as the passengers, and usually with their compatriots. It looked like a United Nations Special Council. The Russian musician was certainly never invited to eat with his Ukrainian colleagues.
We were politely waiting for our bus group to be called to disembark the ship in Panama when a huge and raucous Latin America family group pushed their way in front. “Don’t you ever get fed up?” I asked the Slovenian Cruise Director as he waved his hands apologetically towards us. “Never.” He said. “I love my job” he added, without a hint of irony. But in the last few days of the cruise, the cracks were beginning to show. I witnessed one of the fitness instructors send an obese passenger to her room to sleep because she dozed off in his class. In the restaurant one evening, the Maître D’ had to break up an argument between two servers over who was going to go off duty first.
Some passengers had had enough too. When you ask a Mexican a question which involves an opinion in the answer, he or she will often answer with “it depends”. I heard a man from the US blurt out “Don’t say it depends, don’t say it!” His wife turned her face away in shame, hissing “Shut up! You’re so STUPID!” They were selling off jewellery on that last evening at sea. I doubt that man bought anything for his wife.
The entertainers pulled out all the stops in the theatre for the last show. There were multiple encores before the glittering singers and dancers could leave the stage. One couple said they would definitely watch the show again, they were staying on the ship for the next cruise. This made me utterly sad. We walked through the sparkling casino to do a last tour around the Promenade Deck. The ship seemed to be hurrying home. The wind buffeted , and in the disco suspended above the stern, the few passengers who had not gone to bed at 10 pm gamely tried to dance to 80s pop music as the ship swung in the swell and dance floor undulated under their feet. Outside on the deck the life boats loomed suspended above us, and we discussed the culturally inappropriate ship safety video we’d had to watch which was all based on TV show called ‘Love Boat’ (from the 70s I think) which about half the passengers, including MLH and I, had never seen. We didn’t get any of the references or laugh when the canned laughter came on. Hopefully there isn’t a code word from the show you have to say before they’ll let you on the last lifeboat.
Back in Fort Lauderdale, Florida the next morning, we had breakfast and walked off the ship at the appointed time. The food delivery vans were arriving to off-load their goods already. The huge mechanism of the Caribbean Princess was engaging to prepare to do this all over again in half a day, but for us, cruising was over.
Nestless and Restless Season 4 is also over. Thank you for sailing with me. I hope you will be a repeat passenger in the future.
Playa del Carmen, December 2019