The Cruise Ship Diaries
February 13, Buenos Aires, Argentina
My friend D. and I are about to board the Infinity, a 2,000-passenger ship with 1,000 crew members, for a two-week cruise to the Falkland Islands, to Tierra del Fuego, and to Valparaiso, Chile. D. is contracted to lecture about South American travel and music as part of the onboard “enrichment” series, and I am her guest. We’re both urbane and well traveled, having spent time navigating the world’s most fascinating and complex cities: Hong Kong, Milan, Berlin, Buenos Aires, Tokyo—no problem. But we’re total novices when it comes to the arcane, socially stratified world of cruise ships. Without understanding quite what we’re getting into, we plunge into an environment as bureaucratic and controlled as Ceausescu’s Romania. On board we stumble through deck after deck of bland make-believe luxury. One moment we are in a Las Vegas-style casino, and the next brings us to an Atlanta convention-center bar. Suddenly we’re the dumbest, most hapless tourists on earth.
February 14, Montevideo, Uruguay
The most striking thing about the Infinity—besides its 12-story height and three-football-field length—is the huge white X on its navy blue smokestack. Naturally I assume the X is an attempt to attract a Gen X crowd (maybe this will be an Xtreme cruise, with skateboard ramps on the recreation deck). But I misread the smokestack. The ship’s passengers are mostly 55 and up. (Mostly up.) When they’re feeling especially adventurous, they jitterbug. The X is actually an uppercase Greek letter chi, which represents the Chandris family, who started Celebrity Cruises (and sold it to the American company Royal Caribbean in 1997). Still, the X is a powerful logo, bold and minimal. It’s a shame that nothing inside the boat is quite so crisp.
February 15, Sailing South Somewhere Off the Coast of Argentina
Besides D., the speaker lineup includes the clown/doctor Patch Adams, whose life was made into a Robin Williams movie. Patch is hard to miss. Standing more than six feet tall, with a waist-length gray ponytail dyed blue, he roams the ship in mismatched floral-print outfits—clown clothes. Patch lectures on the healing power of laughter (he’s very pro whoopee cushion) and the evils of war. There’s also the ubiquitous Colonel James W. Reid, described in the program as “Author, Artist, Explorer & Renaissance Man,” who delivers daily lectures about the cultural riches in each port of call. He can always be found on one of the ship’s television stations, wearing his Princeton blazer and droning on about significant German colonial settlements in Punta Arenas or how the Chilean leftist “terrorists” had an unfair advantage because they didn’t wear uniforms. One of his lectures is titled “The Colorful Pageant of Chile: A Focus on Colonial and Pre-Columbian Art and on the Conflicting Worlds of Literary Humanist Pablo Neruda and Military President Augusto Pinochet.” D. fantasizes about getting Patch onstage together with the colonel—a debate, perhaps, on the ethics of torture. Clown meets anti-clown.
February 17, Between Puerto Madryn, Argentina, and the Falkland Islands
In the center of the Emporium—a sort of floating mall—is an auction house run by Park West at Sea. This Michigan-based company specializes in selling astonishingly bad art. On this voyage it’s heavily promoting the works of one Tomasz Rut, whose favorite subject is the lovers’ embrace. Picture an old Calvin Klein Obsession ad in a color palette redolent of Rembrandt. While it’s not unusual to find tacky art for sale aboard a cruise ship, the Infinity is actually full of surprisingly good art. The decor of the public rooms may be garish—the main dining room features a two-story-tall mural of Versailles—but real art is part of Celebrity’s corporate culture. Sophisticated artwork graces every deck, bar, restaurant, and staircase. One evening I notice what looks like one of Liberace’s frocks mounted on the wall and am surprised to discover that it’s a macaroni-encrusted coat by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama. If my fellow passengers notice the art, however, they don’t acknowledge it. I don’t see one of them so much as slow down.
February 22, Punta Arenas, Chile
After we round Cape Horn—a momentous event that D. and I watch from the ultimate vantage point, a hot tub on Deck Ten—the tenor of the cruise changes. The ship’s gaudy interiors and jabbering passengers diminish in importance, and nature takes over. As we sail up the Beagle Channel, glaciers appear off the starboard side; thick fields of chunky ice radiate sapphire blue light. Despite rain and hail, everyone comes out on deck. Spellbound, people stop talking. Some even stop snapping pictures. For once it feels like something real is happening. If not for the voice of the ship’s onboard naturalist on the PA, this would be our first unmediated experience.
February 24, the Fjords of Chile
I spend much of my time trying to find parts of the ship where I can’t hear the ambient music, where I’m not cocooned in decor, where I can read or write or just look out at the sea. By the end of the trip I am a connoisseur of the Infinity’s quietest corners. D. and I are also trying to find the crew bar. We’re not allowed to go there, but we suspect that it is the only good bar on board. The crew comes from all over the world—Honduras, Indonesia, Bulgaria, the Philippines—and they’re everything the passengers are not: multilingual, smart, friendly, and engaging. The crew bar is reputed to be on Deck Zero, a location not indicated on maps of the ship. Passenger elevators have no button for Deck Zero, which becomes our Shangri-la. Following a map drawn by our favorite waiter, D. and I sneak into a hidden decorless elevator lobby—the mark of a crew area—and when the doors open, we’re thrilled to see a button that reads “0.” In the bar, Colombian dance music is playing. There are no pretensions here—no froufrou. It looks just like a neighborhood bar. For a moment we’re supremely happy. Then D. tries unsuccessfully to get someone to dance with her. We can’t buy drinks because the regular SeaPass is no good in the crew bar. There’s nothing for us to do, but we leave satisfied. Finding Deck Zero makes us feel like insiders.
February 27, Valparaiso, Chile
Usually after a two-week trip to anywhere, I would be overflowing with new ideas and information, but I feel strangely blank. As I wait to disembark, I marvel at the miles I’ve traveled without actually having had the experience of travel. This, I guess, is the point of cruising. When I plunge into Valparaiso, a city of gravity-defying hilltop neighborhoods, I feel as though I’ve woken from a long nap. From one of the city’s overlooks I peer down at the Infinity, looming large at dockside, and wait for it to pull away.