Jeff Hammer: Getting back to traveling

Leaving Wyoming by way of commercial air travel is not easy, especially if one is interested in playing in and around salt water. It’s also been my experience that coming back is even more difficult. However, recently my wife and I recently completed something we haven’t attempted in almost three years. 

On a Friday not long ago, we drove to Jackson, where we spent the night. Early the next morning, we boarded a commercial airliner for Salt Lake City and then eventually to Los Angeles. Not long after we arrived at LAX, we transferred to a bus for the short trip to a pier where we then boarded a cruise ship that would eventually take us to the Central American country of Panama. Twelve days on the high seas interspersed with a few stops in countries along the way. 

Our last day on a cruise ship before this trip was during the first week of January of 2020, a lapse of time that was completely involuntary given the Covid situation, and without a doubt it was good to be back, however it seems that not all cruisers share my feelings. Before Covid, during each of our previous cruises we encountered ships full of passengers. Not this time. 

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Our ship, according to workers on board, was about half full, which was both good and bad when it comes to fully enjoying the cruise experience.

It’s good because fewer people on board means less competition for tables at eating establishments and at the theater for nightly entertainment programs. We were never faced with having to wait in line for a table to come available at what had been previously the most popular restaurant on board. 

On this trip, we came to know very well one of the assistant maitre d’s who was responsible for specialty diets of guests. 

Because of an encounter with a heart surgeon nearly eight years ago, I try to order dishes that can be modified with less salt, and because my wife totally supports that situation, she also has switched to a low salt diet. Each evening, after we had finished eating, Remwel, who hails from the Philippines, would find our table so he could provide us with both the lunch and dinner menus and take our orders for the following day. He proved to be more accommodating than we expected, but I shouldn’t be surprised. I can count on one hand the number of cruise ship workers I have met over the years who have not bent over backwards to make the cruise experience more enjoyable.

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Another positive situation resulting from having fewer passengers on a ship is that the wait staff in the restaurants have time to visit with diners; so we engaged Remwel in conversation each day. 

The life of a worker on board a cruise ship is a study in dedication to service. We didn’t eat all three of our meals at that particular restaurant, but there were some days when we would. I’m not sure when he slept, or even if he did, because on those days at some point during each meal, he would find us to make sure we were well taken care of.

During one of our visits, we asked about how the pandemic had affected the lives of cruise workers. His face lost its smile as he informed us that most workers were kept employed for a while, hoping the virus would run its course in a short period of time; but after a few months, with no money coming in, the cruise lines sent most of its workers home. Remwel was one of those. 

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The life of the family of cruise workers include long periods of time where the spouse of a worker or the parents of a worker must care for his or her children. Workers send a good portion of their earnings to support their children and other family members back home, and Remwel took great pride in letting us know that he was trying to save for college for his two children. 

Life is hard enough in the Philippines. Most of its citizens experience a level of poverty that would be unfathomable to most of us in the United States. The Filipino government, unlike our government, could not financially support its citizens with free money during the pandemic.

It must be understood that cruise wait staff undergo rigorous training before they are allowed to perform their duties with passengers. They are schooled in the art of keeping their emotions in check during any situation, but especially when dealing with the sometimes unreasonable demands of passengers from many different countries and backgrounds. (And no, Americans are not the worst behaved passengers on board. A certain European country can claim that unsavory distinction, in my opinion)

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So, it was somewhat of a shock to me, when he became a little teary-eyed when he described how when he would cook meals for his children during the pandemic, they would be fed first and he would accept any food left over. He quickly recovered and expounded how glad he was to be back on board, even though he would not see his family for at least two more months.

Because of the long periods of time that workers are away from their families, they depend on each other for support. Only on a cruise ship can you see workers from at least ten different countries in the same restaurant at the same time. One of my most vivid memories of the cruise was to see a young man from India gently tease a woman of approximately the same age from the Philippines, and the resulting smiles of sincerity from both warmed my heart. 

That unfeigned support for their fellow workers makes me wonder how people from fifty-two different cultures and backgrounds can come together in close proximity for the common purpose of providing impeccable service to passengers from many different countries while supporting each other at the same time. 

Meanwhile, those of us in the United States elect our peers to represent our best interest in our respective federal legislative bodies, and it seems all they want to do is verbally attack each other and be contradictory to the point that nothing positive happens for the benefit of those of us who elected them in the first place. 

Maybe the answer to that mess would be to put them all aboard a cruise ship where one of their requirements would be to spend an hour a day serving passengers. A little humility never hurt anyone. The remaining seven hours (more if they choose) of their shift would be legislative work. And we would not let them off the ship until they worked together to produce some meaningful legislation.

End of opinion…for the time being.

The entertainment portion of the cruise turned out to be a mixed bag. A negative aspect of having a half-filled ship was that some of the smaller venues did not have enough members in the audience to provide for its participation, so the effect was that the entertainment value for those events fell a little flat. 

However, the nightly entertainment in the main theater was as exceptional as it had always been, with the usual variety of comics, singers, and magicians, but the most entertaining act was a rock band from the Philippines. They rocked the house with energetic talent and had the audience standing on its collective feet at the end of their performance.

While on board, we were never stationary for long, but we did take a little time to watch television. To stay abreast of the news, we were presented with a choice of FOX News, MSNBC News, or the BBC news channel. We don’t watch much TV at home, choosing to have the basic minimum of cable channels, which does not include FOX News or MSNBC News. Watching both channels was kind of an eye opener for me.

We would switch back and forth from one to the other, but after a while what became apparent was that both organizations spent more time on opinion than news. As a result, their viewers are never presented with unbiased reporting, and what is even more irritating to me is the smugness of some of the employees who pose as newscasters. 

An example of how news organizations can be selective in what they want their viewers to see instead of reporting the facts was how each organization chose which tragic stories to air. FOX spent a huge amount of time on the horrific murders of four college students in Moscow, Idaho and only a minimum amount of time on the equally brutal murders of five patrons of an LGBTQ nightclub in Colorado Springs. On the other hand, MSNBC chose to do the opposite. Those decisions were puzzling to me. Are not all lives equally important?

Many Americans, depending on their political leanings, marinate in one or the other broadcasts on a daily basis, and the result is further political polarization of our citizens, which reminds me of the hopeful lyrics to “Old News,” a song from one of my favorite country rock bands, The Steel Woods.

“’… I’d hate to think that you think I hate you,
And I hate the thought of you hating me too,
So let’s hash it all out ‘til we’re red, white, and blue,
‘Cause I’d hate to think that thinking is old news…”

I’m sure my idea of stranding our elected representatives on a cruise ship until they decide to work together is a nonstarter; but maybe choosing to use independent thought and the willingness to compromise, not what our political party or our favorite cable news channel tells us to do or to think, will bring us the good news that our country needs right now. We deserve nothing less.

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