A disco cruise to the South Pacific turns downbeat
It’s a question that matters, a question of class more than anything: Do you holiday on cruise ships? And not small cruisers, not the boutique vessels that take small groups up the Mekong on cultural tours, people who say, “We went on a cruise – but not one of those.” The question is about the liners, about Carnival, P&O, Royal Caribbean – ships wider and taller than office blocks, with interiors like shopping malls, where you can gamble, drink and eat around the clock; companies that do package deals, that take thousands of people at a time to places such as Nouméa or Brisbane.
Playwright David Williamson asked the question in 2005, and answered it in a blistering lecture. Australia was divided in two, he posited: those who were materialist and aspirational went on cruise ships; those who cared about art and ideas – the elites – did not.
Williamson wrote of his cruise: “The ship was stacked to the gunwales with John Howard’s beloved ‘aspirational Australians’. The dinner conversation made this plain. They aspired to all manner of things: to holidays like this, to new cars, to kitchen refits, to renovations, to private education for their children, and to practically anything made of plastic, wood or steel.”
In the intervening 10 years, Australians are taking more cruises than ever. Cruise holidays are more popular with Australians than any other nationality in the world. This year, one million Australians will take a cruise.
The cruise I went on was one of those massive ones, with thousands of people, that sails to the South Pacific. It was sold as a disco cruise – with entertainers popular in the 1970s performing nightly high-energy, 50-minute concerts.
My fellow cruisers did the things you would normally do on holidays – they danced badly, ate and drank too much, and lay around in the sun, tanning.
But other things about that week stayed with me. Desultory games by the pool organised by tired-looking activities staff, a cafe where you could eat free roast beef sandwiches any time of the day or night. There was the terrible carpet, with a pattern that looked like vomit – quite deliberately, because people did vomit on it. There was a solarium that smelt of chlorine and was also a restaurant, the grown woman with a stuffed Ewok that accompanied her everywhere and had its own seat at dinner, the incredible sunsets unlike anything on land, the auditorium where “heroes of the ’70s” performed their nightly medley of “Stayin’ Alive” and other disco classics. On the last night the MC asked us to pay tribute to our waitstaff by waving our napkins in the air like helicopter blades, which we did. We chanted “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie! Oi! Oi! Oi!” while this happened, which we were not asked to do, but did anyway.
Close my eyes and I am back there again – visually and auditorily assaulted by screens and announcements on every surface. In a rush come the promotions for the on-ship poker machines that were busy at all hours, pensioners drinking bourbon and cola when the bar opened at 6.30am, the endless “meals” in endless quantities with no pause in the access to it, the riot of sequined tops, the Sexiest Man on the Cruise competition, the man who told me he’d had 27 drinks in one sitting by the pool, then complained about the Indian doctors at his local public hospital where he had been sent four times for heart complaints. I am back with the worker who made my latte one morning and told me he had been to Nouméa “perhaps 300 times” but only seen it once, the divorced women travelling in pairs, the divorced men travelling alone. Everywhere the longing for connection, palpable as the white wine warmed and the disco floor grew thin and the ship’s motors hummed on below.
But the predominant thrum on the cruise ship was around comfort and complaint. Passengers were as peevish as any of the upper-class English visiting the colonies in an E. M. Forster or Somerset Maugham novel.
Comfort or lack of it was the main point of discussion at mealtimes: this cappuccino is too hot, the boat motor noise bothered me last night, the music was too loud, the cabin is too small, we paid too much for the internet, I had to queue for lunch.
Among the Australian passengers, a sort of sourness pervaded the atmosphere and there was an absence of real joy. Sadness hung around the staff, too. You’d see them doing the breakfast shift and then they’d still be on deck serving dinner at the 9pm sitting. They worked nine or 10 months at a time, away from their families, one load of passengers disgorging, another embarking hours later.
Each time I came back to my cabin, the world’s most efficient cleaning staff had been through. Several times a day, the toilet roll would be – I don’t know, manipulated? – to display a neatly folded triangle of paper. In the afternoons, a hand towel would be left on my bed, shaped like a swan.
When we got to the destination, a lot of people didn’t even bother getting off the ship. Why leave when there was all that free food on board? There was a shuttle going to the museum. No one got on.
It wasn’t all bad, of course. I slept better than I had in years, the water rocking, the motor humming in the hull, letting me feel as though I was sleeping on the bonnet of a car that was warming up, oddly comforting, as it might be for a cat. But I left the cruise dispirited and depressed, and five kilograms heavier. Viewed at arm’s length, the cruise seemed like a metaphor for why the world was going wrong. Entertainment options filled every waking hour – often mindless things such as poolside bingo or “best belly flop”. Time with your own thoughts seemed to be almost feared. Opportunities for eating were endless and unregulated – at least seven eating opportunities a day, not including cabin service, and the roast beef roll stand, and yet even these had massive queues before the doors opened, as if people were starving after the buffet two hours earlier. Those who had paid a booze premium, and were wanting to get their money’s worth, spent the week in a sort of glazed stupor, hectic with sunburn, sloppy and fighting with their spouse at dinner. They were recognisable by their special cocktail cups, dangling from their necks like babies’ bottles.
As in life, the ease of the experience – so many staff, so much food, so much service – was deceptive. Cruise ship comfort is built on Third World wages and conditions. And then there is the pollution. Passenger ships release extraordinary emissions.
And yet cruise ships are here to stay. They are our Soma. We go for a holiday to relax – and deaden ourselves with over-consumption. We get taken away – but to nowhere really. We’re on a boat, somewhere that could be anywhere. The experience is all inside the thing – the mirrors of the atrium, the kerching of the pokies, the bar showing nonstop NRL highlights. The moments of beauty – the things that knock your breath out of you, the reason to travel – seem to happen despite the cruise ship rather than because of it: the stars on the night when you float in the empty pool and the birds that travel for a time alongside the ship, the pods of dolphins.
We’ve got to ask the question – what does our love of cruising say about us? More than 10 years ago Williamson wrote this: “Aspirational Australia will doubtless party on, playing deck games and comparing prices, but when the ship finally berths they may look out to see a destination much bleaker than they’d imagined … An obsessive focus on material acquisition, encouraged by governments who worship economic growth and little else, have locked us into a probable long-term disaster scenario for Cruise Ship Australia and for the planet as a whole.”
There was a strange man on the ship who filmed everything on his iPad: a close-up of the hands of the keyboard player in the reggae band, the meals of people not at his table, people cleaning the ship, an empty swimming pool at dusk, people selling T-shirts in the gift shop. We were both travelling alone and I thought about befriending him but he was too enthralled in his weird project to look up. Each moment of bleak strangeness was there, trapped in his little device, and like everything else on this ship, I couldn’t help but ask that other key question of cruising: for what?
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 13, 2016 as "Taking it on bored". Subscribe here.