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Stranger #17 - Kay, The Brilliance of the Seas

Holidays are a time to refresh.  A time to explore new places and activities.  A time to not think about the day to day.  Cruise ship holidays are a particular type of get away that does not suit everyone.  A combination of faux luxury, doing nothing and activities like a holiday camp, that provide a way to get away without leaving the comforts of home; you unpack once but get off in far off places for a few hours to return to your made up bed. The Brilliance of the Seas, a smaller Royal Caribbean cruise liner, accommodates 2500 passengers and roughly 840 crew who do everything for the passengers: waiting on tables, cleaning, lifeguarding, way finding, engineering and of course, guiding the ship to its destination.  The ship is like a small town on the water, and this town offers many opportunities to speak to strangers, both passengers and crew.

Our journey starts in Sydney with excitement that can be felt.  The area around the ferry terminal at Circular Quay is buzzing.  People with suitcases, in holiday attire, head to the ship to luggage drop so they can lunch and spend time in the fantastic location.  The Harbour Bridge and the Opera House marking the territory, water shining and glinting and passengers in family groups with matching outfits!  One family have tops and shorts with yellow duckies, the type you float in a bath, printed on a blue background.  The 10 of them move as a group up the queue to enter the ship.  Another group, not far behind, have vivid, fluro coloured Hawaiian shirts.  We are heading to Hawaii, after all.

My friend and I spend our time having lunch at the museum at the quayside and forgo the opportunity to visit the Rocks this time, although it is tempting.  We will have plenty of opportunities to look for purchases over the next three weeks.  

Royal Caribbean have a number of ships that ply the southern hemisphere from late November to early April, travelling between Sydney and New Zealand, out as far as Vanuatu and to ports around Australia.  The ships then make their way across the Pacific to the US to do short and long journeys around the coast of the States.  Some passengers on this cruise will not be leaving in Hawaii, as we are, but staying on to Vancouver and some to Alaska.  Back to back cruising is a thing.

The passengers are attracted to cruising for all sorts of reasons.  I ask new people I meet every day, why they travel by ship.  The answers I get surprise me in their diversity: it is cheap, the only way to get to Tahiti I could afford, they like the company, meeting new people, they can travel easily around the ship in their wheelchair, it is a slow way to travel, they like being surrounded by water, they hate to fly, they like the rest, nothing to do and no place to be.  The business model of Royal Caribbean seems to be to offer cheap accommodation, a cabin or Stateroom as they are known, food and entertainment, and then charge extra for everything else. Laundry, booze, soft drink, internet, has a premium price.  There are other ways to encourage passengers to spend money too: Casino, art auctions, shore excursions, hairdressers and beauty treatments, duty free shops and all of this to encourage the passengers to do more travelling with Royal Caribbean.  Points gained with each purchase.

One man I meet on a shore excursion in Tahiti, holding hands with a woman, tells me he had only got into cruising last year, when he retired and was now spending the next 6 months at sea around the US, onto Europe and then back to Australia from Greece.  He met his ladyfriend, who he is not going to let go, on a cruise around Australia and now they would do all this together.  He, and now she, following in his footsteps, has got so many points using the casino that they can do this for ‘free’.  In a moment of reflection he tells me that he was horrified to work out that he has put $US500,000 through the slot machines to get this privilege. He is at pains to point out that, of course, he has not spent all that money as he wins sometimes, $US16,000 on one hit at the beginning and $US12,000 another time so it isnot really half a million dollars he has laid out.  He tries to explain his maths and the point system to us: how you don’t just win money but get points that are put towards other cruises, but he lost me on the second senstance when he told me about the time commitment as well as the money.  Most nights he would spend three to four hours, after the entertainment, putting coins in the machines.  Of course he did not win the money as real money, not coins spilling out of a machine, ka-ching, ka-ching but as an electronic payment, to be spent on more machines.  I try to imagine what $US16,000 in 10c coins spewing out of a machine would sound like.

On about day three or four, the days began to merge, I meet Kay.  A woman in her early 70’s dressed in bike shorts and a colourful printed sports shirt.  She is just on her way from Pickleball, a new activity she was introduced to on day one.  She had also done rock climbing and trivia that day.  Kay was born in the UK, moving around with her family.  She learnt how to sail in South Africa and spent seven years travelling the world ending up in Australia.  Together, she and her then partner travelled to those islands that most of us only look at in an Atlas or on Google maps: the Lesser Antilles, St Helena, St Martin.  They sailed down the coast of Venezuela where they met a family who travelled with their teenage kids.  After a brief two month stop to earn some money to go to the next place they had some decisions to make: back to the UK, give up or go on to Australia.  The last would involve getting through the Panama Canal.  The friends they met assisted them to do this by lending their teenagers for the passage so they had enough hands on deck to be able to accomplish this.  They ended up island hopping through the Pacific to Bundaberg via Fiji and Vanuatu.  Then they bought a bigger boat, 50ft instead of the 30ft they had built.  Kay spent another 5 years travelling but worked out that this man, who she had spent 17 years with, was not the one she wanted to grow old with.  She left him in the Marshall Islands making her way back to Brisbane.  He got the boat, setting off for the Philippines, she stayed in Australia and still lives in Queensland. Some of her family followed her to Queensland, her parents living in a house she built for them.  Kay likes to be on the water and being near water.

Kay explains the finer points of Pickleball to me.  It is like a small tennis court and you play with a big ping-pong bat.  The ball is lightweight.  She had played squash for many years so had a good eye and so enjoyed playing.  She is going to look up a team when she gets back to land in a couple of months time.  

After Kay split up with her sailing partner, she swore off men and sailing.  Three months later she met a man, at a sailing club, Mike, who became the love of her life.  They spent 22 years together until his death.  They did everything together, spending the winter months sailing in warmer climes and the summers 4 X 4 driving to remote places in Australia.  They would do this in a camper trailer and then a motorhome.  When Mike died, Kay took up walking.  She had already started attending gym, to keep herself sane whilst being Mike’s carer, and then she investigated cruises.  She met a woman on the first cruise she went on who she is going to catch up with in Vancouver, where she leaves the Brilliance.  They will travel together for a couple of weeks and then she will fly to New York where she is picking up a coach tour that will take her to Los Angeles.  She will fly home from there.  She shows no signs of stopping anytime soon.

Kay highlights, for me, the reason why many people love to cruise; there are other people sharing the experience and most things are taken care of for you.  She admits to missing Mike, especially the affection, but she has found things to help to fill the void: walking, hiking, cruising and other travelling, but she would like a friend to share these things with and may have found one on the cruise.  They are planning a trip to Greece together in 2025 on the back of her river cruise from Amsterdam to Budapest she has already booked.

By the time we leave the second port in New Zealand and have four consecutive sea days to fill, the passengers have found their own rhythm partaking in daily group activities like Danceasize or yoga or less active things like watercolour painting or the craft group.  I get up early (never have been much good at sleeping past about 6am) and get out to do some crochet.  I find a spot next to the pool in the adults only area that offers tea and coffee and snacks for most of the day.  Michael who staffs this area and sets it up each day at 6am is interested in my blanket.  The Tetris shapes fit together so nicely.  He asks about who taught me how to do this, how long it takes and who gets the final product.  As the days progress we get to know each other more.  He, and his wife, both work on the ship.  They have left their 10 year old at home in the Philippines with his mother, but now she has a phone of her own they talk to her everyday.  He works on the ship as it allows him to send his daughter to a good school so she will be able to do better than him. He likes this ship because there are so many people from the Philippines on it; cooks, waiters, hospitality staff.  His contract for this ship ends in November so he will have spent, with his wife, eight months at sea. Michael is quietly spoken and ends each question or statement to me with ‘Mam’. I tell him my name and then he calls me ‘Miss Vicki’.  

The rest of my days are spent eating, and there is always food available, reading by the pool, walking around the ship on a set path on level 5, doing progressive trivia in the afternoons and some of the entertainment in the evenings.  The theatre on board is host to the Australian Beetles, a little lacklustre for me, and other shows by magicians, a juggler, and a comedian which I forgo.  I prefer to spend my time watching the party band, Blowout, who hail from Mexico and can belt out tunes from 70s, to 2000s with the aid of lyrics on a phone.  The 80s night is particularly good with some people dressed for the occasion in rara skirts and a lot of fluoro.  I would like more UK and alternative 80s music but dancing to ‘Hit me with your best shot’ willhave to do.

Royal Caribbean, as well as all the other cruise lines, put a lot of effort into entertaining the passengers; shows, talks, activities, kids clubs, gyms, exercise and yoga sessions, bands, classical musicians, tango classes and trivia.  There is trivia most days in many venues; themed by year or subject and then special challenges.  ‘Are you smarter than the crew?’, or ‘Are you smarter than the officers?’.  Linda, who I played this with for two days running, is smarter than the crew but not the officers.  I find something about that heartening.  I like to know that the people we have entrusted our safe travel across the many miles of ocean to are smarter than me, well at least they knew more of the pop culture answers than I did.  Who did play Monica in ‘Friends’?

The progressive trivia each day at 2:30pm offers the opportunity to interact with other people I do not know: Linda and Michelle both have US accents although Michelle now resides in Western Australia.  David and Caroline are from South Africa.  David has huge knowledge of The Simpsons, Simon and myself from Australia with Kay joining us a few days in.  The questions are a good mix of popular culture, geography, history and science.  The host, Lauren who hails from Newcastle in the UK has to spell words out because of her accent which she keeps apologising for.  She also reminds us, at the beginning of each round, and makes us repeat this, ‘It’s only a game’.  She has experience of players who take this all a bit too seriously.  The scores are not calculated until the last day, just to build the suspense.  We, the Solow, are happy to get fourth place out of 43 teams.  Not a bad collective effort.  

The Brilliance docks early on the last day and we wake in the Port of Waikiki.  Getting off the ship and through US Immigration and customs is easier than I thought. We make our way to our new place of residence for four nights. (More about this next week).

The next few days gives me the opportunity to reflect on the phenomenon that has become cruise ship holidays.  People love the experience, so much so they do the same cruise more than once.  One couple in the cabin next to ours have done this same trip 4 times.  I think this is when the journey becomes more than the destination.  The ‘Hi-di-Hi’ aspects of cruising are just a little too much for me.  There are no longer wet t-shirt, or the loveliest ankles competitions but the 'Best Male Belly-flop' and 'Most handsome man in the Universe' were billed at least once on this trip. I have now done two cruises and think that may be my limit.  But, hey-ho, never say never.


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