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Sail Away

Going on a cruise is something a lot of people like to do these days. I had never partaken of that type of vacation until December 2012, via the graciousness of Ashley's dad. It was fun. We took the City of New Orleans train down to its namesake, and that was an adventure in itself. We met a record producer and his wife who were from Memphis, and had a fascinating conversation with them about how she'd known the long-lost musician Rodriguez back in her college days.

Having never been to New Orleans before, Ashley's dad -- a seasoned pro at traveling -- gave us the grand tour. We stayed downtown, walked by Canal St., stayed for a bit in the French Quarter, took a horse & buggy ride and learned some of the neighborhood's history, had some hot chocolate and beignets at Cafe Du Monde, and ate some delicious Boo Fries at Acme Oyster House.

The cruise set-off the next day, for a five-day trip, and it was enjoyable. We were on the Carnival Cruise Line ship Elation, which went into service in 1998. It was a big vessel. Granted, there are much bigger cruise ships, but this being my one and only experience, it certainly did not disappoint in size. There were several levels for passengers to entertain themselves on. Dinner was served each night in elegant dining rooms, but the food was pretty free-flowing throughout most of the day (and even some nights).

Cruises are popular because they often take you to exotic locales (ours took us to Progreso and Cozumel, Mexico), and the ship's crew caters to passengers' (most) every want and need. One might almost say that the guests are pampered. That's all well and good, but it's the part of the vacation that left me a little uncomfortable. Yes, the crew is paid for their work, but from what I could gather, the conditions of their employment are rather grueling.

I always find the whole people-serving-people thing to be a bit awkward, so I tried to strike-up some conversation with the folks who were running to-and-fro, getting our drinks, bringing our food, taking our picture, playing the music, etc. It was evident that the vast majority of them were not U.S. citizens. Many were from the Philippines, and several were from Canada. I also did some research and became aware that many (most?) cruise ships are not registered in the United States. Not sure if this has to do with avoidance of American laws and regulations, or not.

What I do know is what some of the crew felt comfortable telling me. They are on each ship under contract. These contracts keep them employed for anywhere from 5 to 9 months at a time, and during those months they were every day. That's right: Every. Single. Day. Some work longer hours than others. A couple of the guys I talked with would typically work 12-14 hours every day, sometimes doing different jobs. Then, they would go down to the crew's quarters, in the bowels of the ship, to rest, before starting the whole routine over again the next day.

Some of the crew I spoke with said that it wasn't so bad. They seemed happy, and smiled a lot. With some, I think it was really genuine. Still... many of them talked of families they had left behind in their home country, and who they were supporting by sending their pay back to. Others, I could tell, were often tired. One of my favorite crew members during the cruise had a few months left on his contract, and then he said he was done. He would find some other kind of work back in his native land.

I dunno. We're not really supposed to think much about the crew when we're on a cruise ship. They're there to serve the guests, much like employees do in hotels and restaurants. But it's hard not to think about them. They're people. They're fellow human beings. And they're away from home and loved ones for months at a time, and working every day of those months. It's true that we can say the same for the members of our armed forces, but then that's a whole 'nother level. We look upon the military with seriousness and respect.

We look upon cruises as fun and games. Unfortunately, they're not all fun and games, at least not for everyone.


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