My first impression of the cruise ship was that it was fucking big. We entered the belly of the beast through a long, zig-zagging umbilical cord of glass and steel. Before I stepped aboard I took a quick look down at the water far below and wondered just how much it cost to run these gargantuan things.
I’d never been on a cruise before, but I wasn’t a complete virgin to being at sea. When I was little, my family and I would take a ferry across the channel for vacations in France. It’s so long ago now that what memories I have of it give me the impression that the vessel was much larger than it likely was. I recall stumbling about after my parents, tired, impatient, and vaguely nauseous. I was probably whiny and annoying. My strongest memory from the experience is walking back and forth through crowds of people as we searched desperately for somewhere to sit so my brother and I could pass the time playing Top Trumps.
That memory came back to me as soon as I boarded the cruise ship. Based on my experience, that’s the most congested part of the voyage- right before you set sail. We boarded around 1pm and the ship was set to depart Galveston at 3:30pm. You can’t go to your rooms straight away, and there was a free lunch buffet on the deck, so almost everyone crowded there. As I squeezed through the densely-packed herds of grazing Texans- nervously anticipating screaming children kamikazeing into my delicate undercarriage- I thought back to that ferry I took as a kid.
The good thing is that once the ship gets going, everyone kind of spreads out as they follow their own unique schedules and drift toward their particular haunts. Some places, like the swimming pools and hot tubs, are always busy. I wondered on that first day if having so many people in one space could lead to conflict, perhaps even an old-school mutiny. There was a news story last year about two families on a cruise ship that got into a fistfight. I can easily picture such a thing happening. Whenever a lot of people are crammed into a small space with each other, their worst selves come out. I learned that one in college.
We decided to leave the melee of the lunch buffet and head up to the top deck in search of personal space and a nice view of the city. We were also keen to acquaint ourselves with the layout of the vessel, which can be quite confusing during the first day or two. What we weren’t prepared for was just how windy it was on the highest deck, even though we were still docked at the port. As I ascended a set of rail stairs, the Astros baseball cap my uncle got me prior to my first visit to Houston decided to launch itself overboard where it hovered high in the air for a brief moment before dashing itself into the waves below.
That was my favorite cap- and the only one I packed for the trip. So for the rest of the week I wore Anne-Marie’s backup unisex sunhat. I also borrowed her backup unisex sunglasses, as I didn’t have a pair of my own. Basically Anne-Marie’s unisex backups saved me from returning to land looking like one of those Feral Ghouls roaming the Mojave Wasteland.
The view from the top deck was indeed lovely, and you could get a nice picture of Galveston’s historic Strand District. I didn’t think I’d get to see those old Victorian streets, but they are literally the other side of the road from the cruise port. It’s crazy how small it all is- but I like it. The port is actually on the north-west side of Galveston, nestled in the straight between Galveston Island and Pelican Island, and therefore facing the mainland United States. At first I was a little disorientated, because I just assumed that a port servicing the Caribbean would be on the Caribbean side of the island, but I guess that’s where all the beaches are.
We also cast our eyes back on the ship in order to get a decent impression of the entertainment and the kind of cruise we were in for. And my takeaway now is that the Carnival Cruise Line is one that aims to provide a balanced experience at an affordable price. It doesn’t cater to any one demographic, and there’s quite a variety of things to do onboard. There are two swimming pools, six hot tubs, a mini golf course, a gym, a spa, a basketball court, a giant outdoor cinema screen, countless sunbeds, an oversized chess board, and enough tequila to render yourself swiftly comatose. And that’s just the stuff on deck. Below deck they have everything from a comedy club to an art gallery. There’s a little something for everyone. It’s not packed with loads of shrieking children but at the same time it’s not a gentle waltz for senior citizens. You have to make peace with the fact that you will be sharing the ship with people whose vacation is a different pace from yours. If you want a particular tone then I’d suggest going for one of the more specialized cruise lines. I think Carnival are quite good- especially for first time cruisers- because you get a lot for what you pay.
We were never bored or out of things to do, and we actually had a lot of fun just trying different things out and seeing what was for us. There were some things we didn’t try because we already knew we wouldn’t like them- such as the nightclub, karaoke bar, and casino. There was some kind of “Singles Mixer” that Aaron kept doggedly insisting I try out. Every time I looked at him he’d grin and start stirring ingredients in an imaginary bowl with his hands.
“Bollocks to that,” I told him. There wasn’t enough fresh crumpet for my liking. Although there was a good range of people onboard, the demographic most absent were twenty-something millennial types. There were families with small kids and a few families with teenagers, but I didn’t see any young adults traveling in groups of friends. I tell you what though, if I was a chain-smoking, obese, fifty-something redneck covered in faded tattoos I’d have been fucking in, because there were shit-loads of them.
Although they attract a wider variety of people now than they ever have, cruises are still super-popular amongst the elderly. I didn’t realize until I went just how much old folks loved their cruises. But I’ve since learned that this is a longstanding stereotype.
After checking into our cabins, the last thing we did before setting sail was attend a pointless and somewhat chaotic safety briefing. It was there that I started to notice how many old folks there were. A hunchbacked grandma trotted past me with a tiara of electric candles atop her fluffy white head. Across the candles were the words “Birthday Girl” and even though she looked like the old people I was used to seeing back home, she moved about with frisky kind of energy that took me by surprise. We all had to stand in lines, pressed as tightly together as possible, and wait for everyone to arrive- which took ages. In front of me was a guy so old he could barely walk. He held a walking stick in one hand and clutched onto the elbow of a younger man with his other. He wore a cap that said “Vietnam Veteran” on it, and he looked at my t-shirt and then up at me. I was wearing a graphic tee with a pair of Brittany Spaniels on the front, in honor of the breed that helped me get over my phobia of dogs six years ago.
“You know that’s one of the best dog shirts I’ve ever seen,” the old timer croaked at me with a nod of respect. The way he phrased it amused me- it suggested he was a connoisseur of graphic tees with dogs on them.
We were packed so closely together that to start a conversation was to involve almost everyone around you. Before I knew it everyone was inspecting my Brittanys, craning their necks and standing on tiptoes to get a better view. It is quite an unusual and striking t-shirt after all. The dogs are rendered in intricate detail, and it feels like I’m wearing a painting. That’s why I bought it. It’s just so pleasing to look at. I found it at a vintage clothing store in Bristol- the city near to where I live in the UK.
“Good dogs. They make for some fine companions, don’t they?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
We had to wait for a good half hour, and it wasn’t all fun dog reminiscences I tell ya that. Next to me were a single mom and two kids that kept fighting. The kids were quite different in age- one was at least fourteen, and fairly big. The other was about nine or ten, a little runt. The brothers kept getting in arguments, the younger one telling the older one that he was “straight trash” at basketball. I figured the older brother was surely too far apart in age to be bothered by this, but it seemed to really get to him, and at one point during their on and off skirmish, he grabbed the little one by the hair and yanked his head down. The kid screamed in pain and we all shifted uncomfortably, pretending not to notice.
“I HATE YOU!” the younger brother said.
“SHUT THE FUCK UP AND ACT YOUR AGE!” the mom said, not even trying to lower her voice. At this point people started staring at them, perhaps in the hope of some entertainment to get us through this soul-crushing ordeal.
That has to be an American thing, I thought to myself. To not adjust your behavior in the presence of company, to be completely unaffected by the presence of strangers all around you. Maybe it’s just a Texan thing, I have no idea.
“Mommmm, why do we have to stand here? I’m boreddddd,” the younger brother whined, pulling on his mother’s arm.
“Because other people are stupid and can’t get to their fucking Muster Stations like they’re supposed to,” she answered him.
We learned later that some passengers had tried to get out of the safety briefing by hiding in the shitter. It was a fruitless endeavor because they scan everyone who attends and therefore can identify who is missing. But I can’t throw stones as I was considering doing the exact same thing not too long before. When the staff member for our Muster Station finally arrived, he was met with sarcastic cheers from the crowd- and disgruntled boos when he informed us that we were still waiting on several passengers.
The safety briefing itself lasted less than five minutes and those of us at the back could barely see the guy as he demonstrated how a life jacket worked. Then we were allowed to piss off, and I had to reunite with Aaron, Anne-Marie, and Aaron’s parents Sylvia and Ted, who were at different Muster Stations. Rendezvous points are of key importance during a cruise because there’s no internet and no cell service, so you have to at least pay attention to the layout or you’ll be wandering the art deco hallways long enough to get flashbacks to the mouse puzzles in Kamoshida’s Palace. Gold star if you get that reference.
Luckily I had been paying attention, and I found my American family waiting for me at a little place called the Redfrog Pub on Deck 5. And that’s where we’ll end today’s post. In the next couple of episodes I will cover in greater detail the particular places and activities we experienced. Thank you for reading, and let me know in the comments if you have any feedback for these travel diaries!