Adjusting to the bizarre world aboard a luxury cruise ship

I will never forget my time on this giant floating playground. PHOTO: GETTY
I will never forget my time on this giant floating playground. PHOTO: GETTY
I am laid out on an impossibly white leather couch in a spacious observation lounge on the 15th deck of an enormous cruise ship, located somewhere in the Atlantic ocean off the east coast of the United States. I have an unending stream of coffee, gin, sliced melon, and chocolate cake at my disposal, and beyond the wide spotless windows, the cobalt-blue sea stretches out infinitely.

I am a passenger on board the Norwegian Joy, a behemoth of the cruising industry. It is my first cruise - I am a "cruise virgin" if you will - and it all feels very surreal, as if I have slipped through the looking glass into an alternative reality of near-constant luxury, eternally smiling waiting staff, ceaseless rattles and bangs of slot machines, mojitos on tap and enough smoked salmon to last a lifetime.

If I felt so inclined, I might submerge myself in the broiling waters of a hot tub on deck 17 while consuming my body-weight in lobster rolls. Alternatively, I might gamble away my meagre paycheck at the casino on deck 8, or sweat off the excesses of the past few days in the sauna on deck 16.

In March of 1995, the writer David Foster Wallace embarked on a similar cruise across the Atlantic. He wrote about his voyage in a brilliantly playful yet caustic essay titled "Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise", detailing the myriad new experiences he encountered onboard the Zenith (aptly renamed the Nadir by Wallace), from joining conga lines with inebriated fellow passengers to eating conch fritters and witnessing a woman in silver lame projectile vomit inside a glass elevator.

I, too, feel altered, transformed, by the past few days. I am here as a guest of a friend’s family, in the place of her beautiful grandmother who sadly passed away from cancer a few months ago. When offered this ticket, I scarcely knew what to think. I had never considered "cruising" as a holiday option; my idea of holidaying was camping with my siblings at Doc sites in the mountains, or more recently, finding the cheapest possible Airbnb apartment in a little European city, splitting the cost with at least five friends, and partaking a little too freely of the local alcohol. I couldn’t turn down such an incredible offer; when would I ever have the money or opportunity to travel aboard a 167,725gt leviathan from New York City to Bermuda and back?

I do not regret my decision. I am having a wonderful time, although my joy is somewhat tempered by the ridiculousness of it all. For starters, I feel profoundly uncomfortable by the constant solicitations of the staff, with their perpetual offers of fresh drinks, crisp linen, and dessert menus.

Having spent at least eight years in the hospitality industry, as a dishwasher, kitchen porter, waitress, barista, bartender, and general errand girl, I am used to being on the other side of the hospitality divide. I am used to being on my feet for more than 10 hours a day, smiling so incessantly my face hurts, tempering my tone of voice so as not to offend touchy restaurant patrons, and repeating to myself "the customer is always right". I am not used to being on the receiving end of this relationship, even after four years in posh Oxford. It is lovely, but feels wrong too.

Secondly, I am overwhelmed by the sheer excess of it all, from the cacophony of the casino and the glitter of the jewellery counters to the piles of food left on discarded plates in the ship’s 18 restaurants. I am the eldest of nine children and grew up under the watchful gaze of my Glaswegian father, who revered frugality and abhorred waste, slicing the mould off stale loaves before dinner, feeding us days-old porridge and boiled broccoli riddled with dead caterpillars. I am unused to leaving food on my plate, but even more unused to gigantic American portions. As a consequence, I am both afraid and enthralled by the all-you-can-eat restaurants.

I have learnt a great deal in my few days at sea. I have learnt that there are an almost-infinite number of ways emeralds might be cut and set in gold, and an almost-infinite number of price points for luxury jewellery. I have learnt that noise-cancelling headphones are a must. The avalanche of noise, light and colour is more bearable with a protective muffler inserted between me, the excitement, and the sheer Americanness of everything.

I have learnt that Americans truly do honour the flag to the point of obsessiveness, wearing it as sweat bands, bikinis, and even underwear. I have felt profoundly lonely and overstimulated. I have battled the desire to be alone with the impulse to make friends with everyone who smiles at me.

I have learnt what it is to masquerade as a wealthy woman, trying on diamond rings for the sheer hell of it at the ship’s jewellery counter. I have felt pampered to within an inch of my life.

I have learnt there is silence and beauty to be found aboard this ship, when one is alone on the cabin balcony, gazing down into the unending depths of the blue Atlantic. I have been transfixed by the silvery glint of the sun upon the waves, and the inexorable crawl of the evening fog. I have learnt that there is some magic to keeping fruit perpetually fresh after days at sea.

There is much I could write about - the overwhelming wealth and whiteness of the passengers, the environmental impact of these floating kingdoms, the wisdom (or lack thereof) of travelling in a bubble of recycled air in a pandemic, the wages and living conditions of the staff onboard, the enforced classes of passengers (premium, premium plus, and those lucky enough to afford access to the "haven"), the constant urge to "upgrade", to spend, to eat, drink, and be merry to the point of delirium.

But I am overwhelmed and distracted, and cannot organise my thoughts sufficiently. I have learnt that it is possible to feel simultaneously exhausted and well-rested; starving yet satiated; overstimulated yet still hungry for new experiences. I am much richer for this experience, and so grateful for the kindness of my friends.

I will never forget my time on this giant floating playground, but I will be glad to feel dry land beneath my feet and exist within a single time zone, as much as I will miss the never-ending jollity, Caesar salads and mojitos.

 - Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.


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