Perspectives On Cruising 
In Alaska

Sonya E. Simpson

© Copyright 2004 by Sonya E. Simpson

This is a story about the first cruise I've ever taken. It was a cruise to Alaska, leaving from Vancouver, Canada.
I went as a guest of a friend of mine so I got to go for free at a time when I sorely needed a vacation!

I went on a cruise and I was fortunate enough to go for free. I paid for my flight but my friend Sharmaine, who is one of the lead singers in the ship’s entertainment productions, brought me aboard as one of her guest. She had been cruising since February and had already been to hot Puerto Rico, friendly Aruba, fun Mexico, busy Panama and exotic Hawaii among other places. I had a week off in June and that’s when the ship made it’s run to points in Alaska leaving from Canada.

Now, when I think of cruises I think of warm, sunny places, endless food and beautiful accommodations. This was my first cruise so my expectations were all from second-hand information. When I told my family, friends or co-workers that I was going on a cruise to Alaska I got different reactions. Adventurous people, with their faces lit up with excitement, spoke of hiking and exploring. Others just found it confusing. Vacations equal sun, beaches, and small islands don’t they? What kind of vacation is there in Alaska? I personally am not a seeker of thrills that involve the combination of “outdoors” and “strenuous physical activity“. My plan was to relax, enjoy the break from my very hectic work schedule and bring a warm jacket.

A smooth flight and a fifteen minute taxi ride through Vancouver brought me to the dock. I didn’t see much of Vancouver the city but the views of the mountains as we drove through were magnificent. I eagerly greeted my girlfriend whom I hadn’t seen in months. She checked me in at the desk for crew members which was separate from the other passengers and we boarded the ship. Sharmaine led me to my cabin. We went down the brightly colored, thickly, carpeted stairs passing displays of sculptures and other artwork before she pushed through the swinging doors marked “Crew Members Only.” We were met with lots of hustle and bustle. That plain, hard, industrial tile reminiscent of school cafeterias all across America stretched down a long and wide hallway. Carts of sheets and towels and other stuff needed for the passengers above lined the hallway along with numerous racks of luggage. We passed the faces of all skin colors, shapes sizes and features. It seemed all the different people of the world were down there wheeling luggage racks, talking, walking, busy, busy, busy and working hard just for me and my comfort (oh yeah, and the other passengers too).

Sharmaine pushed through one of the many a heavy metal doors off the corridor and we were now in a tight hallway, turning right then left or left then right.

We just left the highway,” she said, “that’s what we call it. Oh yeah, and remember the number on that door, 2300.”

She knew that I am not good with directions and already I had lost my bearings down under in this ship.

Finally we reached my cabin. It was small but had a lot of storage space. We were about one flight above the sea and all I saw from my porthole at that time was the wooden dock and an occasional pair of feet walking by. As I unpacked, Sharmaine and I chatted. She told me about her experience so far. As “cozy” as my cabin was she told me that I am luckier than some of the other crew members. In the same sized cabin they have a bunk bed so that two people can share the room. They work long hours (14 hour days or more) for very little pay and yet some of them have worked on several cruises. When I asked why, she explained that they have somewhere to live, something to eat and money in their pockets which makes some of them a lot better off than remaining in their native countries.

And how is it for you?” I asked, knowing full well she wouldn’t belikely to work a 14 hour day.

She told me that because she is one of the lead singers she had a better contract. She didn’t have to share her cabin and had other privileges that other crew members didn’t enjoy. She was able to eat in the main dining room with the passengers, patronize the passenger area gym and bars and she didn’t have to wear a name tag. She worked only on show nights and had rehearsals a few times a week. Comparatively, she was living the good life, the elite amongst the crew members. I asked her if there was any resentment towards her and she acknowledged that there was some resentment from the occasional fellow crew member but because she was warm and friendly towards her colleagues she was well liked despite her privileges and relatively light work load.

Later, after I napped, Sharmaine showed me around the ship. Our first stop was the dining room where we ate from the never-ending supply of food. My willpower was tested and failed so I vowed to hit the gym every day to offset the damage. As we toured the ship I took note of the luxury of our surroundings. Marble floors here, plush carpet there, a chandelier hanging above a small lounge and artwork in every nook and cranny. I appreciated the thoughtful gesture of placing a “day of the week” sign in the elevators. I could have easily forgotten that it was already “MONDAY” as I spent my days aboard the ship. There was a lot to do. The ship had a coffee shop with internet access, a small lending library, a gym, a spa, 2 or 3 pools, a jacuzzi, a play area for children, a nightclub, various lounges and a theatre.

All of the time that Sharmaine was showing me around the ship she was greeting other crew members, chatting with them, and expressing a genuine interest in their personal lives and introducing me to them all. During the week as I made my way around the ship without her I really saw the person who served my coffee or fixed my martini. The coffee girl was from the Phillipines, the bartender from Lithuania, the cook from South Africa, the clerk from India or the receptionist from Spain. The world was here as evidenced by their name tags which stated both their name and their country of origin. Sometimes I would navigate my way around the ship using the more efficient crew stairwells or elevators to emerge through the “crew members only” door into the gym or the small diner. I liked knowing these “secret” passageways. Other times I would stay in the passenger elevators and stairs, feeling like the pampered and privileged guest. Each day during this week I enjoyed the amenities of the ship and each night I descended down into its functional, industrial, undecorated foundation.

This odd, duality colored my whole perspective of the cruise. I experienced the cruise both from the guest’s point of view and somewhat from the crew’s point of view. Seeing both sides brought to mind a stagehand working behind the scenes of a theatre production. You just can’t see the play the same way as the other audience members even if you sit with them. You always see both the play and the production of it at the same time.

Another type of duality during this cruise involved my fear of the ocean and my love of it. That feeling of being disconnected from the reality of your life that you get when you are on vacation was exaggerated for me by being at sea. Always there was the gentle (and sometimes not so gentle) rocking of the ship as I sat in the theatre or walked along the outside deck to get a photo of the glaciers, mountaintops, or lush greenery of Alaska. I found this swaying peaceful and soothing. Especially when I was sitting in the darkened theatre in those deep, plush chairs or lying in bed at night. It brought to mind images of being rocked in loving arms. In this way the water was soothing to me. In my cabin I saw just a small piece of the ocean through the porthole and it was still huge. Or I watched it through the wide open view in the gym from the elliptical machine as I tried to work off the huge meal I’d eaten earlier. Once I watched a flock of birds travel beside the ship, flying alongside us, occasionally dipping into the sea for a fish. They accompanied us for a while, impressing me with their stamina. My mind wandered for a moment as I watched the wind push a woman and her pre-teen daughter along the outside deck and whip their hair around. When I looked for the birds again they were gone. Had they finally found some piece of land to rest upon? I envied them a little bit.

Sometimes after being at sea for a day or two the vastness of the ocean, all of that open space with this little ship plopped down in the middle of it, began to overwhelm and I yearned for the steady, firmness of land. This was our run: we left from Vancouver and after a day or so at sea we stopped for a few hours in Skagway, Alaska. After that, a day or two at sea then a stop in Juneau, Alaska for about 5 or 6 hours. The last stop was in Ketchikan, Alaska then at sea for 2 or 3 days.

When we docked in Skagway, passengers and crew straggled off the ship and made their way into the small town. Sharmaine and I were with them. Skagway had wooden sidewalks and storefronts reminiscent of the Old West. It was distressingly isolated to this city girl. We were ready to eat something other than cruise food so after shopping briefly we had lunch at a local bar & grill restaurant. I was just happy to be on land for a few brief hours. We shopped hastily and made our way back to the ship not wanting it to depart without us. I felt tiny walking along the dock next to the hugeness of all the cruise ships parked there. But as I made my way to an open space and saw the mountains rising into the sky, dwarfing those ships, I felt large and full of life and as connected to God and nature as those mountains. This is how I preferred to experience Alaska during my cruise.

In Juneau I was on my own. Sharmaine had to participate in a safety/evacuation drill that took a lot of time. As we left the ship, there were buses waiting to take the passengers on whale-sighting excursions, or hiking through the wilderness or downtown into the city. Aahhh, a city. I felt comfortable amongst the busyness of the capitol of Alaska. So many stores and restaurants to choose from. It even had a drugstore where I bought some make-up. While I was in town I decided to take the Mount Roberts Tramway to the top of the mountain. I am afraid of heights so I stared at the floor of the tram as we rose hundreds of miles to the top of the mountain in a metal box strapped to a metal rope. Bravely, I peeked out at the trees growing on the mountain one time.

Finally we were at the top. We saw the town spread out and the tiny ships docked all surrounded by a vast, virginal landscape. At the top of the mountain I took some great pictures and browsed the souvenir shop. There were also guided walking tours or nature hikes available. I considered having lunch at the restaurant but having limited time opted instead to catch the film about Native culture. Afterwards there was a live performance. A man performed an oral tale passed down from generation to generation. I was immersed in his movements, the beat of his percussion, the chants and changing tones of his voice and the tale itself of revenge and redemption. It was my favorite adventure in Alaska. Afterwards, I hurried back down the mountain and back onto the ship.

Our last stop in Alaska was in Ketchikan. To me it was a combination of the other two stops. It was bigger than Skagway but with that same rustic feel. Not as big as Juneau but with the busyness of a city. We spent the three or four hours on land shopping in a small mall, sifting through beads at a bead shop. Then it was back on the ship for another two or three days on our way back to Vancouver

There were no overnight stays on the cruise so every evening was spent on board. I caught all of Sharmaine’s shows and afterwards we went out to get a taste of the night life on board. I met passengers through Sharmaine as they came up to compliment her on her performances. One night she spontaneously sang a duet with another singer in one of the lounges. I felt a moment of real fear and panic as a passenger urged me to join in and sing along. My voice being what it is, I declined. Another evening as we sat in one of the lounges at the back of the ship, I looked out at the ocean roughly churning up foamy water behind us as we sped along. Glancing up into the sky I noticed that it was swathed in dramatic shades of pink and orange as a showy way of ushering in the dark of night. It was 11:00 p.m. and the dark was approaching but still not there yet. Those long, long Alaskan days kept me from going to bed before 3:00 a.m. and added to that surreal, vacation mindset.

During those last days at sea, we journeyed through glaciers and other Alaskan landmarks. Those events were marked by passengers crowding around the indoor windows on deck or outdoors on deck standing in the brisk and chilly wind for photo opportunities.

At that point, during the last leg of the trip, I was craving the land. I’d actually learned my way around the ship and had met a very diverse, international group of people in the crew members. I’d also enjoyed some of the Native Alaskan culture and connected with the great outdoors in my own way.

On that seventh day I said goodbye to some new friends and to my old friend, Sharmaine. And yes, this landlubber even waved goodbye to the ocean & the ship with a promise to meet again, maybe somewhere in the Carribean.

I am a mother of three children who works at a brokerage firm in New Jersey.   I have been writing poems & stories since I was 11 years old. I am very excited about pursuing my interests in writing more seriously and sharing my
work with the public.

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