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Joel Keenan

Age: 42


Number of Cruises: First Cruise

Cruise Line: Holland America

Ship: Maasdam

Sailing Date: November 4th, 2001

Itinerary: Western Caribbean

On day three we’re headed back to the Florida Straits, having gone northeast from Fort Lauderdale to evade Hurricane Michelle. It's windy with swells to 18 feet. The ship is rocking. People are seasick. I feel fine, though, and that's the important thing.

The door to our veranda didn't quite close last night and our cabin sort of flooded. Who cares?

This is the first cruise for my wife and me. We are overwhelmed by how great it is.

The captain, known by the passengers as “the genius,” came on the PA system a little while ago announcing his second change of plans. First we had intended to escape Hurricane Michelle by sailing in its intended path, to the Bahamas.

It didn't work. The hurricane caught up with us.

We reversed course for the straits of Florida, passing Fort Lauderdale last night. We're now in sunny weather on day 3, heading for Cozumel, our original destination.

I had told my wife that I thought we should head right INTO the hurricane as it crossed Cuba, since we would get past it fastest that way and would have clear sailing afterwards, on to Cozumel. Since I knew George Clooney wasn't on the boat, I didn't have a chance of getting anyone to carry this plan to the captain.

So off we went to the Bahamas, and then back to Florida, with a fair number of passengers playing "Show me what you had for breakfast" on day two.

I should tell you my wife was one of those getting sick, and SHE said this was the best vacation she has ever had.

This is a great ship if you can have fun while you're throwing up.

Since leaving on Sunday: We've taken a nap every day. We've been working on making another baby. We've been eating. We've been drinking black russians on the verandah. I've been reading those little synopses of the Times every day. We've seen two movies on tv.

Our tablemates are more adventurous. They've told us about the shows and the casino and this and that.

This morning I woke up to the sound of someone banging his key on our door. That's about the only thing that gets me out of bed. It happens about five times a day. People are always coming over to fix this or announce that or whatever. I don't mind. I get some exercise, walking to the door, and after all, they're taking care of us. So there I am in my underwear (not a pretty sight), and in walks this waiter with breakfast.

He puts it on the verandah and leaves. I go out there and sit down and have coffee. My wife is sleeping.

The ship moves as if on one of those motorized walkways at the airport. The sea slips by. It is quiet except for the steady splash below. The sky is blue. There is a warm languorous breeze.

I sit there drinking coffee and don't know what to think. I have never been anywhere or seen anything like this. It is peaceful and beautiful.

Day Four

In the early hours a burly man at the bow shouted "In the name of the Saints, man -- LAND!" We woke, rushed from our cabins sobbing, hugs all around.

It should have been like that. What a long ride to Cozumel.

I woke Wednesday morning and there it was. We were parked between two Carnival ships which looked whiter and bigger and more impressive than ours does. I wanted to start a shouting match across the pier, but I assume that is not done here.

You're not going to believe this, but it's true: It was raining. I mean, coming down. This stopped no one. We hit the dock like it was Ellis Island. Who cares. We're outta here. Let's go buy some blankets!

We did. My wife and I rode some horses led by a sweet 10 year old boy named Poncho. We rented a car and drove and drove. I wondered if the mosquitoes have malaria. We walked on the earth and it was good.

Oh yes: The beach. Warm breeze. Skies cleared at last. The water came up to the beach, blue or azure or something.

We met and fell in love. That's it. You know what it's like. Just the sound of the ocean, the long view of the water, whitecaps laughing, and sun.

Those things envelope you. They surround and protect you. It is effortless to stand there. It is an invitation: give up the stress and anxiety; you don't need it here.

Meanwhile, back at the ship, trouble in paradise:

First, the captain informed us that the Grand Cayman Islands were, for practical purposes, washed away by Michelle. So we won't be stopping there, either.


That left Cozumel and Ocho Rios. That's it.

This did not sit well with a lot of people, who wanted some money back for the inconvenience.

I think we booked a cruise in November. That's hurricane season. I know it's at the end of the season.

But it's still hurricane season. It says so anywhere you look for that kind of information.

One way I know this is true is that our cruise was discounted. So we got a discount for taking the chance that we'd get screwed. Which we did.

You can't have it both ways, taking the discount and then shouting no fair when the event that inspired it occurs. That's unreasonable.

But to me, the main thing is this. I left out part of my Cozumel story. Because we rented a car, and because we were in a strange place, and because I'm a typical male, we got completely lost and I never once asked for directions, because of course I don't need directions. I know where I'm going. Just give me a second. I'm sure about this. No wait. I think I recognize that thing over there...

We drove around a lot.

We wound up in the non-tourist section of the city. These consist of streets filled with water lined by shacks. There were some regular type homes, made of cement or whatever. But mostly they were that weird kind of corrugated metal on four sides with some kind of roof. Shacks.

We drove slowly through these streets because I didn't want to drive into a puddle that would turn out to be a six foot pothole. Some people rode by on bicycles. I remember one guy riding a bicycle with his girlfriend sitting on the bar, there. She was wearing a dress and simple beige pumps. I remember this because her dress and her shoes were clean and dry. I was surprised they could ride through all that water and he could keep her dry that way. It looked like they were riding to work.

A lot of people stood on corners. They were talking or smoking. And there were dogs everywhere. Just wandering around.

But what I wanted to tell you about is one girl. We drove past a shack on a corner. She was sitting on the ground in front of her house. She was, I guess, two years old. She wore a little dress. She had short black hair.

I have a little girl at home, seventeen months. So this girl caught my eye. And we looked at each other briefly as we drove by. I don't know if my wife saw her. But we stopped talking for a minute, and we never said anything about it.

I know we work hard. I work hard. I'll bet the other people here work hard. I think most people do. But there is not a passenger on this boat who is not simply lucky to be here.

We left last night. On to Ocho Rios. My wife's sleeping in. I have to play ping pong.

Day 5

En route to Ocho Rios, we have a lull in the action. Let me bring you up to date on a few details I've overlooked, like our cabin, the passengers, the service, the entertainment and the food.

The cabin

We booked the penthouse suite. Not that we could afford to do that, but my plan was to go on this cruise and then not do this sort of thing again for ten years. Now that we've discovered how great it is, we have the predictable problem of wanting to go again, but so be it.

So here's the deal. It's basically a hotel room type of suite with some exceptions: there are little halogen lights in the ceiling. There are dimmer switches everywhere. There is a foyer and a guest bathroom which I use while my wife hovers forever in the main bathroom.

There is a statue in the dining room of a young woman dressed in robes suggesting she's from ancient Greece or that she's just someone who enjoys wearing robes. I notice in passing that she has nicely shaped breasts. If you think that's an odd thing to notice, believe me: your husband notices that too.

There is a verandah which is great to have as you know.

The bathroom has a big tub with whirlpool jets that we have not yet used. Above the tub is a fresco of an angry looking man with a crab crawling up his face. I assume this is a Greek God of some kind because I understand that they got upset a lot. Maybe it's just the crab that's annoying him. Anyway, there's a faucet coming out of his mouth. That could be pissing him off too. Who knows.

Adjoining the bath are two sinks.

Adjoining the sinks is a hallway bordered by closets -- a walk-in closet. This is the one thing that, of all the things in the suite that I didn't think a person needs, I've really come to enjoy having. It's really nice to put all your clothes in a walk-in closet, and then to just walk in there and pick and choose what you want. I don't know if it's convenience or luxury or what. But I notice I like going into the walk-in closet to get some clothes.

There is a separate shower, and the shower has all these hidden jets that, with a twist of the knob, will shoot out a painful stream of water at your genitals. Maybe this a rich person thing, I don't know.

There is a separate bathroom in the main bathroom which houses the toilet, a sink, and what I think is a bidet. The bidet, of course, is designed to provide you with an unusually clean anus. And I think if you would like your anus to be sparkly clean, well damn it, I'm for that, too.

So that's the bath room. There's a dining room and a living room and a bed room, all nice.

The astonishing thing about this suite, though, is not the accoutrements. It's the service. Our steward, Yusnar, is the most endearing attentive person you could hope for on a cruise. On our first night my wife was cold. We added to our blanket two of those small "throw-blankets” from the living room.

We left those on the bed the next day and left our cabin. When we came back that night, the bed was made with two blankets, and the throw blankets were back in the living room. This week has been like that. He takes care of us.

The service on the ship has mirrored that kind of attention. Kind, thoughtful people work here.

The passengers

We like them. Some of the people in the elevators seem to be in a bad mood. That puts me in a better mood because I'm shallow.

I do notice one thing I should have noticed sooner but which became apparent to me only on the first sunny day, two days ago. I was walking by the pool where for the first time a lot of people sat sun bathing.

We are fat.

Please don't think I exclude myself. I am going to put on swim shorts and go to the pool this afternoon and it is not going to be pretty. “Natural disaster" comes to mind.

I don't think this is our fault. There is food everywhere. There are 50 ways to relax. And frankly, I think getting on a boat like this to run yourself ragged in a gym is crazy. I think it is our DUTY to get fat. And what we have here is a boatload of incredibly responsible people.

There were clues to our general condition. On the first day our captain said we should grab our life jackets for the drill but that if we didn't have them available, "don't worry about it." 

The food

It's good. I shovel it in.

The entertainment

We've seen some movies on tv. At our dinner table the other night we were talking about Castaway, with Tom Hanks and the volleyball. The question was, was the girl engaged to Tom Hanks when his plane went down right to give up on him so she could marry the other guy, thinking Tom Hanks was dead? Or should she have waited for him?

Lucy said she should have waited for him, but I said no, she was right to give up on him because women only have so long to make babies, so she had to make her move.

This did not go over well with Lucy. Apparently I wasn't supposed to say that.

The next night, kaboom: Lucy was said lawyers want to hurt people and doctors want to help people.

We're sitting with her boyfriend, who is a doctor. And I'm a doctor. But the truth is, I don't think much of doctors, in general. And I like lawyers, who are often funny and open minded.

Sometimes there's a moment in a conversation where you know you have two completely different choices. Make one choice and everything will be all right. Make the other, and look out.

And you have to decide, then and there, which road you and your table will do down. As I considered this, I expected that my wife and I would be eating in our suite for the rest of the cruise. I thought that would be ok.

So we went at it: Lucy, her boyfriend and me, with Paul and Carla and my wife looking on -- I was so engaged in the battle that I couldn't look over at them to see what they were thinking.

It was fast and furious. And to make matters worse, I dropped a bomb.

I told them I thought Bill Clinton was a great president.

Oh no! Michelle was a soothing sauna next to this!

Through it all I told myself, keep it on the issues. Don't let it get personal. This was not easy. Lucy's boyfriend kept telling me how naive I am, and that when I'm older I'll understand things as he does. I'm FORTY TWO. How old do you have to get? In Mozart's day I'd have been dead for seven years by now!

Day 6

I see Cuba passing by. An hour ago a lady in the Lido cafe said We should sink it. Because of Castro. Sink the island? I said. Well, she said.

It's Saturday. Last full day.

I'm ready to go. We need to start cleaning up after ourselves again.

But what a ride.

I told you the captain told us we had had to skip the Grand Caymans because we couldn't dock there. But in the Lido lounge we run into our dinner companions who say another ship docked in the Caymans yesterday. No problem at all! Only thing closed was the turtle farm! Everything else was ok! No! Yes!

I don't think there's a bunch of passengers our captain will be happier to see get off his boat. Everybody wants their port charges back, and why did he do the foxtrot around the hurricane and how come the toilet didn't flush and -- HE needs a cruise.

We get to Ocho Rios yesterday and dock three hours later than scheduled, and we'd have to leave at 4 p.m. that day, yesterday, to make it back to Fort Lauderdale tomorrow morning. Strong headwinds, or tailwinds. The guy CAN'T get a break!

The boat docks. From the verandah I watch everyone get off. My wife is sleeping. (We sleep a lot.) I see this tour director type of girl on the dock holding a bunch of tickets. Suddenly half the tickets blow into the bay. We watch them flutter into the water and sink. The tour girl turns to the other tour girl and says, I want to go home.

I finish my coffee and wash up and go down to the dock. It’s 1:30 pm.

I walk through Ocho Rios. A billion signs and shops and cars and people selling everything. Trinkets hash girls insurance drinks trinkets bags food hash jewelry bags food hair products cab rides tours hey look over here...

What a headache.

I get to a neighborhood, meet Sonia and David, pay them for a walking tour and we walk and talk. The neighborhood looks like what you think it looks like.

David, 35, wears a rastafarian hat. Sonia, missing her front left upper incisor, takes care of babies -- child care -- nearby. I ask David, why aren't you working now? He has a gauze dressing on his forehead where he banged his head diving for something. So he can't dive for now. So how do you live now? He gives tours.

I learn about three numbers:

10 -- number of US dollars you earn working one day in the pineapple factory.
15 -- percentage of high school graduates who can get a job with a living wage.
40 -- the age of David's father when he died of heart disease.

I meet Sonia's child care kids, 8 or 9 little girls. They're washing clothes in a basin with a scrub board. One of them draws a picture of the sun with a smiley face for my daughter. I tell her what a beautiful picture that is; she smiles.

A guy comes over and we shake hands. He asks for money for food. He has tar on his hands. He fixes roofs. I give him five dollars.

He says, "All one colour, man." We say goodbye, I thank Sonia and David and go back to the ship. A friend of Sonia's walks with me, asks for money for food, I say no, she walks away.

Back on the ship, more trouble in paradise.

At dinner Lucy's boyfriend interrupts her to say something. I don't remember what he said.  Lucy turns around to him, and says, "Do you mind?" Very slowly. Looking him right in the eye.

He is stunned and embarrassed, doesn't say a word. Lucy turns slowly back around to me. We continue talking and as we do, I realize this will be our last dinner together. If this is the cost of talking with these people, I'd rather eat with my wife who's good company by herself.

The night after Ocho Rio we saw this movie in the movie theater so we could have some popcorn.

The movie, Green Fingers. was about this guy who goes to prison after killing his brother when he finds his brother in bed with his beloved. The guy feels terrible about this, but that's the way it goes.

He becomes an amazing gardener. On a work release program years later he and his fellow inmates begin an amazing garden in this woman's home where he meets Primrose, the lovely daughter of Miss Wodehouse, a lunatic wealthy woman who loves flowers above all else.

Released from prison, he falls in love with Primrose and becomes their gardener.

Back at the prison, the inmates have entered into a contest at Buckingham Palace for best garden. But without whatshisname, they have no chance! So he commits a petty theft so he can go back to prison to lead their gardening effort!

He leaves Primrose a note before he commits the crime. The note says, Hey, sorry, but I'm a gardener.

Then we went to the Rembrandt Lounge to watch a car crash in the form of a song and dance revue. I made it through four songs, and then they wanted the audience to join in, singing Wasting Away Again in Margaritaville, and I told my wife, I'm outta here, and we went to the Lido Lounge for food, because it had been THREE HOURS since we'd eaten, and then we rolled ourselves down the stairs, had a black russian and went to bed.

Day Six

Our cruise is almost over. The internet cafe will close tonight, so I have to wrap this up, and I'm going to do it as simply as I can.

I have two reactions to our first cruise:

Cruising is a lovely experience: a stunning vacation imbued with leisure and tasteful luxury (except for the floor shows).

I'm glad we did it and I hope to do it again.

My second reaction emanates from the disturbing clash presented by wealth and poverty placed next to each other. You know what I mean.

What I thought about Ocho Rios was: these people have nothing to lose, and that is dangerous for us.

As a practical matter, in terms of protecting my family, I wonder about the wisdom of ignoring the disparity between my life and the lives of the people I met this week. I think ignoring this disparity, or rationalizing it by saying it is inevitable or it is their fault or we should just sink Cuba or whatever, may be a dumb move for our country.

Also, I have been thinking about a line from the Bible that I read 20 years ago, which astonished me then. I should tell you I am not a religious person, although I was raised Catholic. For instance, I don't believe in God. And if I did believe in God, I think the church would go to hell for the way it treats gays.

So when I finally read the Bible, in college, it was only because I thought it might be a good book which as you know better than I do it was.

Anyway, in one part of the new testament, Christ says this: Where your wealth is, there will your heart be also.

As we approach Fort Lauderdale on this lovely ship, carrying with me a little girl's drawing of the sun, having made a glancing acquaintance with the circumstances of her life, I do wonder what I should invest in, next time around.

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