· Escape Velocity ·
"Luxury is the enemy of observation, a costly indulgence that induces such a good feeling that you notice nothing. Luxury spoils and infantilises you and prevents you from knowing the world."
- Paul Theroux
Theroux was wrong about one thing. It doesn’t induce a good feeling, luxury. What is luxury anyway? I knew I was in for trouble the moment I caught sight of land from the plane, Gran Canaria staring up at me sucking me into the hole it was purported to be, as if Jabba the Hut and the quicksand had become a metaphor for my life. I hit the tarmac and immediately felt uncomfortable. Six months off the map and now this. Package tour busses. Vending machines. Schedules. Smooth and painted roads. Tourists. Complimentary toilet paper. Set costs. Consistent electricity. English that sounds like English. High rise buildings. Steak. Scratch free cars. Water pressure. Not naturally heated hot water. Prices that don’t necessarily include zeroes. Nightlife. Regular signage. Sex that does not require a questionnaire in advance. People who ignore me. Information boards. Recycling. White people. All on an island off the west coast of Africa. I can almost see the car ferries I caught with thousands of locals and no white folk, sitting in a sea of urine going across a river in Senegal a few days before. There was a purity in Africa that was missing here, despite the smell. Here, nothing felt real.
I had in store for me four days in ‘Europe’, the land of my forebears, and the resounding feeling was of being more foreign than I had in months. And underdressed. And unclean. And I felt this while being surrounded by Geordies and Scousers, all of whom seem to be smoking more cigarettes in one hit than I have in a month. Not good. Except the steak. I’ll take that. It feels like someone turned on the lights again, but that they were lights illuminating an archaic way of thinking, one that even in my youth I either scarcely tolerated or had some innate understanding of its excess. In my current incarnation it left me with a burning desire to turn heel and march back from whence I came. Africa was enlightened to me in that moment, which was no mean feat despite its obvious purities. At the end of the fours days I would find myself on a cruise ship, two words which give me deep seated pangs of ignominy even in just the writing of them. I mused to myself that this must certainly be the most turbulent, brutal way to reintegrate into a type of the society I was born into, a sort of reverse culture shock. Although I did feel some sort of reprieve when, after enquiring to a computer technician as to where the nearest place to repair a broken hard drive would be, he replied ‘Germany’, the thought of transitioning from Mauritania to cruise ship within five days invokes involuntary and violent shuddering almost instantaneously.
I spend the four days with Natalie, my flame from Israel newly rekindled, attempting to find an authentic experience, but largely failing. Camping illegally on a stone beach astride five star hotel resorts on one side and a concrete manufacturing plant on the other, after a drive through the admittedly gorgeous mountains of the interior and their quaint little Spanish towns, is about as close as we come. The south of the island, in particular, is the stuff of nightmares. We stop in Puerto Rico, a town we enter foolishly albeit haphazardly in order to find food, utterly unaware of the repercussions of the action. It is Khao San Road and what I imagine Kuta beach to be all rolled up in one, perhaps even worse. It is where the tourists have almost completely insulated themselves against anything local or authentic. The worst tourists eating (read: shovelling) the worst food getting berated by the worst touts, all on the worst beach on the island. Senegalese men try to sell you hash, neon lights kill the stars above, and arcades pollute the ears. Row after row after row of hotel apartments lie in the valley, only exceptional in their uniformity to one another. One restaurant promoter whispers to me in full view of the twenty other touts and sea of gorging Europeans in the fifteen metre radius of vision I had at the time, conceding that ‘All this shit (food) is the same in every restaurant. But I can get you a good deal’. He had greasy slicked back black hair.
There is another beach, quite close to Puerto Rico, which was named after the British, hopefully bestowed by Spanish locals in an attempt to rid themselves of it. Playa del Ingles is like the Vegas of the archipelego. Gross. Two golf courses mark your entry into town. I figure that surely these edifices must be criminal given the complete lack of fresh water on the island; at the very least it’s a horrific allocation of resources and funds. After that little excursion out of reality, you are hit with sand dunes just to make the contrast crystallise, dunes which are employed as a curiosity for tourists too languid in mind and body to jump the pond to the real thing in the Sahara. Five star resorts with imported marble and first rate architecture sits astride of tatty bars, ink parlours and seedy clubs run down with prostitutes. We don’t even get out of the car, making a beeline back to Las Palmas, the capital of the islands and seventh most populous city in Spain. It was more tolerable, even though it felt like what I assume Honolulu would. Perhaps its not coincidence that both towns have ridiculous names. Las Palmas was a real city, to be fair, with commerce that hummed and an actual Spanish feel, yet it was still business propped up the lifeblood which was tourism. I had become a part of that machine, and for that there was only shame and a resolve to not spend much money.
We board the ship late in the afternoon, and a sense of unease comes over me like the darkness under a storm. I generally travel in order to up the intake, so to speak. Everything is about experience begetting education, education begetting a more worthwhile life. I tend to go to a place, geographical or otherwise, and suck everything I can from it, everything that is formerly alien, and make it imbued in me so I can imbue it to the things in my future circumstance. Once I do, I tire of it and move again, shift my focus. It’s a solid summary of why my love life is perennially chaotic. There are too many things in the world to narrow my focus to a gaze as tight as love demands. And, I love going at my own pace, for better or worse, because of its absolute efficiency, and that has generally precluded me from tying my life to someone else’s (and from cruises, for that matter). The word settle is particularly apt for me, despite my disdain for its use in this context. I have, in ten years of travel, represented the antithesis of it. I always want different. More. My brother calls me a stimulation junkie, and I don’t see it as an insult. And so the problem here and now becomes apparent. Cruise ships, I have discovered, retain a somewhat different definition to the word ‘more’. Perhaps it is clearer to me with the clarity garnered by six months of scarcity in Africa just prior, though to my mind this place is the church of overconsumption and idleness. I can eat a vast array of food, most of which will never get eaten, at all times of the day. They use food, I feel, to break us out of our torpor, afraid that without it our perpetual state of inactivity might petrify us like an old forest. I could never get used to this life like some people do. It feels too much like an illusion, or worse, like a doll from a horror movie; ostensibly adorable but in actuality pernicious.
It is certainly an interesting social study though, this place, it has to be said, as hotels invariably are. It’s often hard to know, prior to getting into a situation like this, whether the people I you find on these ships actually exist in the world. I offer a disclaimer at this juncture that I am about to be brutal, and most definitely judgemental, largely on account of my traveller apathy, need to find humour, and all round arrogance. First. I have never seen so many distinct body shapes before in my life. I actually look at some figures and wonder how close said person is coming to having a mutilation. I wonder whether some are mentally handicapped. There is a guy, bald with a goatee beard that is braided, who is as white as a ghost and the size of a pre-pubescent child. He sits in the corner of the dining room, alone, and I hedge my bets on whether I will make it off the ship alive. The restaurant manager has a gait which makes you question where his body ends and legs begin, not helped by his wilful positioning of his belt line ten degrees north of where it should be. A walk through the pint sized gym onboard sort of feels like going to the planetarium as a kid; large bodies doing things you don’t understand in colours which are dizzying to behold, with fluids coming from places you didn’t know existed. A large woman, quite earnestly a beautiful person, as most of these people seem to be despite their misjudgements and overall ignorance, recounts the hospital operations she’s had on account of sunburn, while sitting in the sun with next to naught on, candidly describing her complexion to me as ‘Scottish, ginger, and trapped in an office for the past two years”. That is the trifecta right there.
It is perhaps the destiny of every cruise ship to be caught forever in time in the culture of the year that it was built. The Empress was spawned in 1994, and as such I hear Sweet Child of Mine at least three times a day, along with a whole host of music that lies in the realm of ‘know much too well for something I don’t know the title of’. Three jacuzzis with cheap plastic furnishings, business section with computers whose screen is a cube, mahogany. Hairstyles, where hair still exists or a bandana with an eagle on it doesn’t cover it up. My goodness, the hairstyles. The people were evidently acolytes of Kylie Minogue when she was in her pomp. Outrageous, Bad makeup and even worse sunglasses to hide the mistake. The staff all wear cheap uniforms, white sneakers and flowers on sickly green shirts, or ties that are tied too short under astro-turf black vests. One who runs the Brazilian dancing class - part of a team not inconspicuously named ‘Animation’ - they have next to the pool every day has evidently gotten permission to dress himself, presumably because his taste is in keeping with the overall policy. He will stand in front of three lines of ten people each - the old and the awkward - singing and shaking his organs in ways that should never have been discovered, with a wetsuit top, pink hot pants, and Air Jordan’s. While the thirty disciples step on each other while shrieking in childlike glee, oblivious to the sheer oddity of the scene they are helping create, I sit there wondering where to look, morbidly fascinated and internally embarrassed as the Macarena blares on the loudspeakers. They are, however, full of smiles, so who am I to cast my prejudices?
The pool is embedded with people whom one would think had never seen water before. The rise and fall of the ship lends itself to the formation of waves where they frolic around, in a state of sheer delight. All around me people lie down, mostly doing nothing outside of flipping themselves over every twenty minutes, many with a look of utter satisfaction at their paid for idleness. There is a woman on board who has boils all over her skin, and I remain unsure as to whether it is derived from a condition or an idolatry of the sun. Interesting how ‘idle' and ‘idol' sound so similar. Again in a state of bewilderment, my only amusement is from seeing theirs and unsuccessfully trying to understand it. It is the only stimulation I can extract, unless I turn away from the ship and towards the page. Alcohol is one of the few things capable of breaking the monotony. Alcohol in this place is, quite literally, analogous to giving fuel to arsonists. Women like the Brazilian, tits too big and head too small, who is obstinately spitting Portuguese out at us in the jacuzzi, knows this too well. It seems as if champagne is her weapon of choice this afternoon, although half of it is invariably lost to her cleavage in her rather entertaining attempts to walk. She flaunts herself at every man and his double her blurred vision can make out, and I muse to myself that rarely have I seen such an attempt to exude sex appeal go down in such vociferous flames. Alas, one misguided soul falls prey to the bait, takes disadvantage, and her overall existence is validated.
Just while I’m on topic. Speedos. Why hasn’t someone banned them?
The variety of tattoos on offer is abysmal. Lots of Chinese letters, barbed wire, the occasional flames, usually all sprinkled on the upper arm or small of the back. The price of the trip, at one hundred and fifty euros to cross an ocean over eight days, has ensured that a rather unscrupulous demographic, of which I am a member, has joined the ranks and made the sight of shrivelled seventy year old skin somewhat less frequent and more palatable, although their geometric hippy tattoos don’t add much to the calibre of the rest even if their range of dreadlocks and mullets and mohawks render the quality of the tattoos rather obsolete. Up near the bow a leotarded woman leads another twenty people in a yoga class. More sheep to the herd, more skin reflecting sunlight. Fifteen metres behind two Germans have set up camp at the corner. One has dubstep music blaring on decent sized speakers which he dances around furiously, while the other sits in a makeshift hammock and presumably concocts the next assortment of drugs. ‘The Dancer’ is mid thirties, obese to the point of creating his own gravity field, and presently one can see every section of fat on his body change locales at least five times per second, and each crying profusely at the maltreatment. We maintain a position outside a five metre radius, mostly... it’s difficult. ‘The Chemist’ seems to alternate between falling asleep and getting vertical for no apparent reason. At those rare moments I note the life jacket he’s wearing. His own life jacket. The man comes prepared.
You notice how as a ship sways disparate groups of disparate people walking the deck tend to bind together as they walk past one another? A force of gravity that sticks before you notice it. You stay within inches of one another for a most interminable amount of time, your straining to avoid contact just heightening the chances that contact will ensue. Just a random thought. Old people are funny. An Englishman, Gary, age 73, effectively mauled Natalie, picking her up under the guise of ‘You’re so small, aren’t you?’ for a second forced hug while seven of us stood there scratching our heads at the awkwardness of it, before following the group into a cabin to watch The Simpsons like sardines and, twenty minutes in, enquiring as to who the big group of people in the mirror are. To be fair, Gary had consumed - as is the ship’s governing doctrine - too much Cachaça and was out on his feet. He later assures me that Al Qaida does not, and never has, existed. We took him to bed at around one in the morning. He was swaying, the ship was not. Another German septuagenarian asks me at dinner - a four course spread, served at half past seven, only half an hour after the buffet lunch finally closes down - the most banal questions about Australia one can think of, which had me convinced at a point that he had only just learnt of its existence. He proceeded then to wax lyrical about how he flees Europe between October and March to ‘keep his skin brown’, lamenting the soaring cost of cruise ships as he prefers to travel the ‘ecological way’, at which point I promptly choked on my triple glazed chocolate fondue tenderloin sprinkled with the caviar of an extinct species of trout.
The ship feels more like a standard, standing hotel with every passing day. Having worked in a four and a half star hotel throughout four years of university, I have become wise to the ways an unprofitable venture tries to promulgate a façade of luxury, and when you’re selling an eight day cruise for one hundred and fifty euro, you are letting it be known that it is an unprofitable venture. You catch glimpses of the staff areas and note their simplicity and state of disrepair. You learn the wine bottles on display are full of coffee water (I won’t tell you how). The pictures are stuck to the wall with double sided tape. The piano has only one coat of white paint. Bathroom doors are easily broken if not already so. An almost perennially empty casino floor manned by men and women with eyes dulled to the point of blindness. TV reception needs fiddling to work. The only recommendations the food will garner would be from the health advisory, despite its abundance. Bedsheets have stains. The theatre shows they put on every night are based on contemporary dance and instrumentals - that is, areas that require little capital to fund - and the costumes could have been used in high school theatres. And in perhaps the most pertinent sign, there are mirrors - everywhere. However, I am reminded by something I read once to soften the blow, on how hotels are melting pots for children of the world: “Continents and seas, islands, peninsulas and ships, Christians, Jews, Buddhists, Muslims and even atheists are all represented in this hotel. The cashier adds, subtracts, counts and cheats in many languages, and changes every currency. Freed from the constriction of patriotism, from the blinkers of national feeling, slightly on holiday from the rigidity of love of land, people seem to come together here.” It is part of why I worked in hospitality, I imagine, and I keep it in mind to counter the illusions. Besides which, the staff are lovely. Better than we deserve, in fact.
I think, right up there with gluttony and overall uselessness, is an overarching feeling of uncomfortableness. A conversation with one of the waiters informed me that they work ten hours a day, every day, for six months straight. They make almost nothing. And that this guy, a 24 year old Brazilian, was happy about it, because he didn’t have to pay transport, food, accommodation, but he got to ‘see’ the world. Internet costs them thirty euro for two hundred minutes. Two ladies, nicest and most harmless women you will ever meet, ask me three times a day whether I want new towels, and call me sir. I can’t abide by the absolute abnormality of it on the deepest human instincts I own. If there weren’t so many Brazilians as customers, I would feel uniquely racist. For now, a broader sense of bigotry ensues. And here they are, ensuring as much as they can that whatever we do, we do as little of it as possible. There are people here that don’t take elevators just to combat the fact that digesting is the most exercise they do every day. The mere fact that there are elevators on a ship burdens me. But most revel in it. The pay big money to do absolutely nothing. It is insane. I know of no other word to describe it. Shelling out cash for nothing. Runs completely contrary to me. Why wouldn’t you want to fill your life with something? What do they talk about when people ask about the cruise, if it’s not their first? The lone bird that flew over the stern one day? Inertia seems to me to be one of the governing elements in life, unfortunately, and here customers pay to exacerbate it. Comfortability is the death of growth.
The Broadway Theatre. I must return to this in lieu of the new racism theme. I found myself there one night watching a game of bingo. Four players playing for twenty euro in amongst a crowd of fifty in a room that could hold a few hundred, orchestrated by a young man who I really hope has other duties to attend to on board. The stage looks as if it’s rotting as a plastic table is carried in from beyond the crowd and lifted up onto it. A number board is placed on it, where two women dutifully attend to the taxing task of generating and recording numbers. One of the four yells bingo and my misery ends until it is realised that he was mistaken and another dozen numbers need to come into play. The table then shuffles off backstage and the lights dim. Five minutes and a lot of rustling later and the curtains raise. A shadow is in the darkness until a spotlight gradually brightens enough to illuminate a rotund saxophonist with a greasy ponytail and cheap suit creating a live recording of every hotel elevator tune you have ever heard. He retains an odd stance as if on the bow of the ship with binoculars in hand, presumably explained away by the fact that he is wearing sunglasses in pitch black darkness and thus requires the extra balance.
I’m not sure what I was expecting of the actual theatre company, whatever it would turn out to be, but mildly racist ballet was probably not high on the list. Four principal male dancers, clearly given more material than the four principal female dancers - make of it what you will - head a crew of perhaps a dozen or so. After each elevator song - the saxophone bookends each choreography - a continent is chosen and a selection of the troupe perform the most derivative representation of it that one can muster. A projector screen shows an airplane whizzing from the Canary Islands off to its first continent; apparently for the cruise’s purposes, Africa is a city in Chad, and the population of the said city is demographically homogenous. The set consists of everyone wearing black leotards and black face paint (including a black dancer) doing what I can only describe as a synchronised rain dance, replete with shields and spears made of material Africans never had in the era the ballet was falsifying. Australia has someone dressed in paint pretending to play a didgeridoo while others dressed as crocodiles slither around on the floor at the feet of women dressed as emus. Two guys on pogo sticks dressed as oversized kangaroos complete the graphic which is now permanently burnt onto my retinas. Asia is like a five minute short of the blonde girl in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, North America apparently froze in time before Sinatra died, and Europe came to life through French revolutionary prostitutes and audience participation in Greek circle dancing. South America is overlooked, potentially in acknowledgement of the need to land there at some point, and I would assume the company director does not consider Antarctica a continent.
From that moment I had a fairly solid and unwavering aversion to the theatre, the snob that I am, but I could hardly protest Natalie’s proclivity for the Captain’s introduction and photo op. And so I found myself standing astride of our Hellenic skipper one night with a camera infiltrating the territorial limits of my nose. Although, in light of the gaggle of vagabonds I alluded to earlier, with whom I was whiling away the time, and given my nonchalance in general, the state of my appearance was rather inelegant. It started in the jacuzzi at three in the afternoon with a bottle of aniseed, two Germans, two Israelis and an uncontrollable Brazilian entertaining a much larger contingent with lunacy, and ended with a man with board shorts, a singlet and a broken flip flop stitched together with a toothpick photobombing another couples captains shot with his tongue, while obsequious women in ostentatious cocktail dresses swanned around shooting him death stares. After all this I find myself flanked by communist victory parade anthems, the master of ceremonies introducing each head of department, who then in turn salute the crowd. I decide at this point that my belief has been suspended long enough and my eyes will detach if they roll any further north, and leave in a hurry. I had a bottle of gin to attend to which would hopefully null the senses and shear off my short term memory.
The days pass in monotony as abject as that of the sea’s horizon. Most of the time it is too boring even to really drink (which is saying a lot for this author), and so I try to work, and when I don’t work, I smoke hash to build up the appetite to eat again, just to pass the time. We sail through Cape Verde one morning, and off starboard I see Mount Fogo staring back at me, begging me to climb it and overlook it’s caldera. The prison I have interred myself in though again denies my instinct for spontaneity, and I turn downcast, adamant that one day I will return. I look with jealousy upon the dolphins I occasionally see flying alongside the bow. This ship seems excessive in everything but experience itself, which is a concept that wastes away listlessly under the razing sun. I originally had intended on doing the crossing by yacht; harder to find and to do, yet a tale to be told it would be. Despite how cheap this behemoth indeed is, I find myself almost rueing the decision to change tact. And so, by the time we hit Salvador, I practically run off the boat faster than it sailed, enjoying the simple fact that I can walk one direction for more than a hundred metres and not die of drowning. Of the eight days on board, seven and nine tenths exceeded what was necessary, outside of the practical sense of getting from one continent to another at a cut rate, and I was ready to escape at whatever speed I my newly atrophied legs could summon. I don’t necessarily regret it, but let’s just say I now have an arsenal of first hand experience to reinforce the ideas I’ve had about - against - cruises for years, and that, should a heavily discounted - or even free - cruise be gifted to me in the future, I would have no qualms politely declining.
I mean, I used words in this piece that I don’t think I’ve ever written down. ‘Leotard’. Seriously Ben?