Cruising Around The Caribbean – Part 3

For the first day at sea, we forgot about the virus. We were cut off- both physically and digitally- from civilization, and had no desire for the end of the week to ever arrive. All thoughts of the real world remained on land as we began familiarizing ourselves with the Carnival Freedom.

I wrote in the last post about our first impressions and the variety of entertainment onboard. Today I’m going to cover some of our routines and habits. The best place to start, I think, is with our cabins. They’re about what you can expect- neat, squeaky-clean, and as efficient as possible with their use of space. You can pay for bigger and more extravagant rooms if you have the dough, but I didn’t really see the point as I’d only be using the cabin for sleeping. Your bog-standard stateroom is as big as it needs to be, with a comfy bed, an en suite shitter, a TV, several closets, a desk, and safe in which to put your valuables.

I was a little miffed that the King-Sized Bed I requested turned out to be two Twins squeezed together with a sheet cheekily pulled over the top, as though I wouldn’t notice when I inevitably woke up in the middle of the night to find myself sunken down a gap I don’t remember being there before. So I ended up only sleeping on one side of the bed, which felt kind of weird, but it was still comfy as hell, so I can’t really complain.

But you don’t care about freshly-laundered bedsheets, do you? This ain’t a TripAdvisor review. You’re here for tales of scurvy and diarrhea, mid-morning mutinies and whirlwind romances. Incest! Betrayal! Don’t worry, we’ll get to all that in due course. When it comes to getting a feel for how the ship works, everything starts with the cabin.

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Outside your door there’s a little mailbox. Each morning you find a printed sheet that outlines all the activities for the day ahead. So the first thing we did was peruse this, see what things interested us, and make a mental note of the places and times. The first thing that caught our eye was an “Art Auction Introduction with Champagne”. I love art- and when I travel to regions that interest me, I like to seek out local galleries to see how the native landscape is captured by its resident artists. I spent a day doing this in Szentendre, Hungary. But as much as I like looking at paintings, I probably wouldn’t have tried the Art Auction stuff if I’d been traveling alone. I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford anything, and given that I wouldn’t be able to take part yet had to sit perfectly still, I wasn’t all that tempted with the idea. But I’m glad in hindsight that I wasn’t traveling solo, because I would have missed out on an enjoyable experience.

The idea to go was suggested by Anne-Marie. She loves art, always has. The only thing she loves more than art is champagne. She and Aaron had been to one of these Art Auctions on their previous cruise with Carnival and insisted that it would be worth our while. We didn’t need much convincing. We knew that no matter what we did, we’d have fun. I found that what made every activity memorable was not so much the activity itself, but the reactions, commentary, and camaraderie of our group.

As we entered the ship’s art gallery, we were handed raffle tickets. The clean-cut art dealers running the auction event were dressed in expensive suits and held themselves with this refined, elegant sense of posture. They did that thing where they tucked one arm gracefully behind their backs and gesticulated with the other. Also, they were all South African for some reason, and spoke with thick Afrikaner accents.

Despite the fancy-ass suits and the fancy-ass paintings and the fancy-ass champagne, the tone of the event was a lot more lively than I expected it to be. Giant speakers boomed out Taylor Swift songs and when the lead art dealer took the stage it was like the introduction of a champion wrestler into a testosterone-fueled arena. The colorful persona of the guy made the introductory presentation less boring, mostly because he was prone to these “Freudian Slips” like “I’ve agreed to suck off everyone that enters the raffle” that caught everyone off-guard.

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Once the presentation was over, the raffle began. It was then that I realized the true wisdom in coming here. Paintings are expensive. People don’t tend to buy them on a whim the way they do candy, comic books, and clothes, which sell themselves. To sell these things the dealers need a careful, subtle strategy. They warm you up to it. They’re sly foxes, I tell you. So on this first day- which consisted only of the introductory presentation- they handed out loads of free stuff.

It all made sense now. The upbeat pop songs, the free champagne, the flamboyant comedy of our host. It’s all meant to create this party atmosphere that you can’t help but want to get involved in. On that first day you don’t have to commit to anything. The raffle tickets didn’t cost a dime. We just sat there and got free swag.

Aaron and I didn’t win anything, but halfway through the raffle Anne-Marie’s number was called and she was given a whole bottle of champagne. A minute later, Sylvia’s number was called and she was gifted a bottle too. I couldn’t believe our luck. I’ve always had this feeling that in life “It’s always someone else’s number being called”, both literally and figuratively. And, okay, I technically didn’t win anything myself, but I felt like a winner by association.

At the end, the lead art dealer went mental and pooled all the remaining gifts together to give as one giant bonanza. A tote bag, a lanyard, a key chain, a bottle of champagne, some posters, and a bunch of other goodies. He asked his dealers to bring him every prize left. And then on top of that, he revealed that the winner of this grand finale would also get TWO ACTUAL PAINTINGS FOR FREE. Yep. Paintings that sell for over a thousand dollars.

These guys were going all-out to incentivize us to stick around for the week’s auctions. “Give them a taste for winning, and they’ll want more” I imagined them saying to each other beforehand.

The ticket was selected and the crowd drew in its breath.

I didn’t immediately recognize the number, but in the corner of my eye, someone was standing up.

Anne-Marie had won again.

Sylvia immediately cupped her hands around her mouth and started loudly cheering. We were all delighted for Anne-Marie. This felt like a good omen for the rest of the trip. And we now had three bottles of champagne between us. The day before- with its worries about the cruise being cancelled- felt like a lifetime ago. Our luck seemed to have changed.

Anne-Marie, now the envy of the room, returned to us flushed with a mixture of excitement and disbelief, unable to stop giggling. I was happy that out of all of us, it was she that won. She was the one most excited for this event, and I knew that the idea of owning a real painting probably meant the most to her.

The next day we returned to the gallery for the first auction. Anne-Marie was greeted as a VIP, and was treated to a private tour by the art dealers while the rest of us had to wait in line for the gallery to open.

The auction was actually a lot of fun. The crowd was even bigger than the day before as people no doubt hoped there might be more free stuff gifted away. For the first 20 minutes we browsed the gallery and asked the dealers questions about the paintings. We were each given 3 stickers and had to place them on the frames of the paintings we liked best. Those with the most stickers would come up at the auction.

I was excited to see what a real art auction looked like. Ever since I was a kid and I watched that Simpsons episode where Bart wins a factory, I’ve been fascinated by the crazy way the auctioneers speak. I wondered if it might be awkward if no one put up a bid. Most people were here for the free goodies, so I knew it wouldn’t get very competitive. In fact, once they realized there wasn’t a second glass of champagne coming their way, a lot of people just up and left after the first half hour.

This wasn’t an auction for hardcore collectors. It was about giving people a taste of the art world in the hope they’d like it and sign up for good. The dealers were nice folks- but they were also here to do a job. To sell paintings and increase the membership of their club. The paintings were all good and there was a decent range on display. My favorites were the impressionist ones and the ones that changed depending on their exposure to light. But there was no love for my man Edward Hopper, sadly.

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I was a little put off by the prevalence of Christian themes in a lot of the paintings, but I guess these were chosen to appeal to the many Bible-Belters onboard. The one I hated the most was a hideously-maudlin Thomas Kinkade piece called “The Open Gate”. The dealer explained that the gate’s openness and the light shining through is meant to signify that everything will be fine so long as you have faith in God. It’s the kind of sentiment that makes me want to puke simultaneously out of every orifice, and one that’s downright offensive when you consider the indiscriminate suffering of COVID-19 right now. I later told Aaron that’d I’d like to see a response painting that reflected my personal worldview- a closed, rusty-looking gate in a chain-link fence stretched across a desolate landscape, maybe a flaming garbage can or a rotting carcass for added effect.

Almost no one bid on any of the paintings, but it wasn’t awkward. These guys had done this before and knew what to expect from a crowd composed mostly of newcomers. If no one bid, the guy would just say “Going once, going twice…fabulous round of applause!” and we all clapped. Also, it wasn’t pointless to watch if you had no intention of taking part. Before the bidding started, we got a neat little seminar on each piece, so we learned a lot about the painters and their techniques. The auction lasted a good hour and a half, during which time about 4 paintings were sold. Even though I had no money and no desire to own any of the paintings, I kept feeling an overwhelming urge to put my hand up.

Our days at sea mostly followed the same loose format. We’d check the ship’s schedule each morning and proceed to meander throughout the vessel, stopping off at bars or lounging on the deck in between sampling the activities we liked. I actually enjoyed most what we did for the vast majority of our time- sitting around talking and drinking. The drinks aren’t included with your booking of course; that’s how they make a lot of their money. We drank at a steady pace throughout the day, usually with long gaps between each drink. There is an option to sign up for drinking packages that last the whole week, for those people with a pathological hatred of their own money (and liver).

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We were never really drunk- just lightly and pleasantly buzzed. And we were saved a lot of money by the three bottles of champagne we’d won at the gallery. Anne-Marie, ever the architect of our schemes, devised a plan for us to make our own mimosas using the orange and passionfruit juice they had at the buffet on deck. Casual as you like she took an empty half-gallon water bottle from the cabin and started siphoning the delicious juice at the buffet. Aaron and I formed rank either side, easily concealing her small frame from any witnesses to the heist.

It didn’t take us long to finish it either. There are few things better than fresh mimosas in the sun.

“Free champagne tastes better than any other kind of champagne,” Sylvia mused, and we all agreed.

We spent countless hours doing this sorta thing- simply enjoying the weather, the alcohol, and each other’s company. Ted and Sylvia filled us in on all kinds of stories from up in Wisconsin, Aaron and Anne-Marie shared details from Houston, and I chimed in with tidbits from the U.K. We hadn’t seen each other in so long and we felt like we could keep on talking from sunrise to sundown.

It was during one of these lounging sessions that the ship’s captain made an announcement over the intercom.

“We regret to inform you,” he said, “That there’s been a change in our itinerary…”

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