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Cruise Culture

January 15, 2000

For the last ten days, I have had the fortunate opportunity to experience life on a cruise ship. Not only was I a guest, but also one that was afforded the privileges of a crewmember: passage through crew areas, meals in the crew mess, but moreover, the chance to see a side of cruise life that guests will never know. Therein lies the difficulty in defining what culture truly is on a cruise ship. Bear with me while I explain.

The culture of a cruise ship, regardless of size, name, or destination, relies heavily upon the utilization and maintenance of a singular factor called fantasy. People pay obscene amounts of money so as to take part in this fantasy and enjoy the benefits that follow in such an environment. These benefits being a luxurious setting with impeccable cleanliness twenty-four hours a day, excellence in culinary artistry combined with a rich selection of wines, poolside bar service (plus the little bottles of shampoo and conditioner). With such amenities, who in their right mind could dispute paying anywhere from $3,000 to $8,000 plus for temporary residence on a floating dreamland?

The crew: two words that describe the integral tool of the cruise ship, without which would mean imminent demise of the fantasy. It is comprised of various races from various corners of the world, all brought together to form a microcosm of the society we already know outside of the cruise ship. It is a hierarchical society that places the levels of importance in comparison with the different decks. The lowest deck on the ship, otherwise known as deck "zero" houses the people who maintain and keep the ship as a working, moving overture that reeks of the aesthetic. These people are, for the most part, from developing countries like China and the Philippines, where the standard of living is somewhat reminiscent of the poorest areas in the United States. For this reason, these people (I insist on maintaining a certain amount of redundancy in calling these workers people, simply because their station on the ship indicates a less-than-human feel) are resigned to the fact that while working on the ship, they have to live six people to a cabin that would normally sleep and house four. If images of sardines are flashing through your mind, you are not far from what these people experience. However, with rather shady/seedy living conditions and horrific work schedules, I often have to be reminded that these people are earning more money than they could have ever imagined making in their respective countries. And I feel obligated to add that these people send almost the total of their wages home to their families.

The hierarchical progression is what one would normally perceive in any society. As the deck number increases, so the importance of the crewmember. The only instance where this was not the case pertained to my sister who worked as an independent contractor on the cruise ship. She lived on the deck just above deck zero that was commonly known as the "ghetto". This ghetto only being called such because of its proximity to the lower levels that house the deck zero workers. I imagine that this attitude stems from the attitudes similar to those in any gated community where the rich abhor the idea of mingling with the hired help. And as we made our way down the corridors, a chance encounter with one or many of the inhabitants of deck zero became a bout of surreptitious glances and a quickened pace. There are reasons for these mannerisms, I know. In having representatives from many different countries working onboard, one must think about the different cultural characteristics and how they may be interpreted. It seems that a majority of the workers from zero come from countries where the female is viewed as being lower in social standing than the male. For this reason, it seems to these workers that any form of catcalling, whistling, ogling, and any other form of communication that may be offensive, is deemed as appropriate. For this reason, I have seen an increase in animosity and anxiety when others encounter the workers from zero. Given, this does not mean that all of the workers from zero are this way, but the group mentality of the other crewmembers lends itself toward the acceptance and assurance of generalizing the group as a whole.

But, in speaking about the social hierarchy, there is a natural progression much like that in any power-scheme. One's status in this hierarchy is directly proportional to the amount of time he/she can spend in the common/passenger areas. If one is rather insignificant as indicated by their job title, they are confined to what is comparable to a jail sentence in the crew areas, managing only a few hours in the outside world for recreation. This usually leads to many nights of alcoholic binges in the crew area bar or random cabin parties that last long into the night. I won't delve into the strict drug policy that is enforced at random throughout the ship. I will say that the workers from zero do seem to be somewhat of an exception to the drug rule simply because they would not be able to function on their fourth shift without the token snort or two of cocaine to keep the body upright and the mind frustratingly alert. This is, of course all speculation, seeing as I would not like to be sued for marring the name or fantastic façade of the cruise ship, nor would I like any suit to be brought against me for slander. But, I ask you, how would you be able to perform/function everyday with only 2-4 hours of sleep a night? However, the cruise line would never tell a possible employee of such atrocities. What they claim to offer is an intermingling of different cultures and an opportunity to expand one's horizons. But, unlike the upper deck 24 hour buffets, the façade quickly melts away and memories of dorm living come back to haunt your fragile mind. You begin to see how your roommate reminds you of the lazy bum who commandeered the entire room with his sweat socks and pizza boxes. And at the instant of extreme panic, you realize that there is nowhere to run, nowhere to escape. You can only let yourself slip into a catatonic motion and hope that land arrives soon.

Cruise life is fantastic. But, there is a side that is not evident and is it not found by the passengers. While on a cruise, one must really take into consideration what it takes to make and maintain the fantasy onboard. Therein lies the ability to see what is truly happening behind the doors, deep in the belly of the cruise ship fantasy.

-Doug Manger
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