It’s hard to know exactly what to say when a gentle and diffident woman from a developing country tells you she’s been separated from her 1 year old baby for 3 months because she’s left her home to work abroad, leaving her daughter to be raised by the infant’s grandmother. “We have to make sacrifices sometimes,” she said resignedly, “Maybe I’ll get to see her this week on Skype.” It’s even harder to know what to say when the young lady in question is helping you to make your way out of a hot tub on a vacation where you can eat all you want, and lounge around with drinks all day and do nothing while she works.
I recently had my first experience of spending time on a cruise ship. I absolutely loved being at sea! The ports, the all-you-can-eat food, constant entertainment options, free room service, twice daily housekeeping, and a seemingly tireless bevy of solicitous and friendly staff were pretty easy to take too. And yet, in my self-conscious, bourgeois way, I couldn’t stop wondering about the lives of the crew.
The story of the young mother far from her child was not the only one like it I heard. I tried hard to engage with the people working there in as genuine and real a way as I could. Even so, I couldn’t be sure whether their responses were calculated: whether they found my curiosity intrusive rather than recognizing it as a struggle toward empathy. They were being paid to be polite and friendly to me, and they did their jobs well. Their name tags also displayed their country of origin. While interesting, it seemed invasive. Good service doesn’t require knowing more personal information about them. When I asked about their lives, they were obligated to answer politely, but maybe they’d rather I just stuck to requests for drinks and more towels.
I was told there’s a pool and night club of sorts on the lower decks meant exclusively for the crew. Working 10 hour days 7 days a week plus extra training, I’m not sure when they’d find the time or energy, but I hope they do. I wondered about comradery, and the sense of insularity that might exist between them. Us passengers must seem like transient blobs, here 1 week gone the next, to be replaced by more and more. One night at dinner, when we’d been at sea all day with no port stops, our server asked my friend whether she’d had a good time on shore that day. It must be a very small and narrow world when you work long days with no weekends.
Each evening, the turndown service in our cabin included the incongruous addition of an animal, rendered realistically by the cunning manipulation of a rolled towel, and left for display on the bed. I’m told this textile origami is “A thing” on cruise ships. While impressed by the skill, I thought a lot about the incongruity of people, many of whom likely came from subsistence lives, spending part of their ten hour work days shaping rolled towels into animals for the amusement of replete first world vacationers.
I always made a point to ask staff their names, to ask how they were doing, to wish them a good day, but it never felt like quite enough. Maybe I’m just not a good Darwinian, or a believer in fate. My life has hard stuff too, and maybe every single member of that hardworking crew would rather work 7 days a week for months at a time far away from home, than be a blind woman. Truth is I’ll never know. They’re clearly trained to be polite and cheerful all the time, which creates a pleasant experience for me as a guest, but makes it impossible to gage sincerity. Despite all my self-indulgent ethical dithering, the truth is I’d go again. I absolutely loved being at sea, and although I’d certainly consider doing it on a cargo ship, I definitely enjoy hot tubs and free room service.