We are at sea today 50 or 60 miles off the coast of Columbia, headed west toward the Panama Canal, cruising at 18.8 knots. Our scheduled entry to the canal is 5:00 o’clock tomorrow morning. Winds are out of the southeast at 10-12 knots with two-foot seas glistening in the morning sun. Clouds dot the blue horizon with showers and an occasional rainbow. Does it get any better? All I can think of that would be better is being on a sailboat in these near perfect conditions though there is nary a sail to be seen.
Yesterday the Vaandam was docked all day in Aruba, a tiny country off the coast of Venezuela. The island, a protectorate of the Netherlands, is only 20 miles long and 10 miles wide and has a population of around 100,000. Its white, fine-grained sandy beaches are considered among the most beautiful in the world. Embry and I did not let the opportunity go to waste. Right after breakfast we headed out with towels in our backpacks and hiked about two miles to the nearest beach, where we rented two lounge chairs under a palm umbrella. Embry got in her swim in crystal clear waters with perfect temperatures while I sort of bounced around in the salt water and floated effortlessly. We strolled down the beach for lunch at a raunchy bar where we sat across from a bunch of drunk, beefy, middle-aged, laughing Americans with tattoos. Two foot long iguanas slivered up under our table begging for a morsel of food, and grackles perched fearlessly on the chairs around us. Welcome to the islands! This will probably turn out to be the only experience we will have like this since the Pacific Ocean will much colder and rougher, and the South American ports will not be as lazy and laidback as Aruba.
As we dozed away and read our books under the shade canopy, it was hard for me not to notice about a half dozen women and one guy under the canopy next to us, all in their early twenties, clad in very skimpy bikinis and all drop-dead gorgeous. I wondered if there might be a beauty contest going on somewhere. I could not help making the comparison between these 20-somethings and all us 70 and 80-somethings on the ship. A lot happens to our bodies over a lifetime. Were we passengers on the Vaandam ever that young? Did we ever look like that? Will they look like us in 50 or 60 years? Of course, the answer is yes, sort of. Such is life and our fate as homo sapiens on the planet Earth. And looking back on it as a septuagenarian or an octogenarian, you can’t help observing, my, how fast it all goes by.
Back on board that evening Embry and I had dinner at the fancy, onboard restaurant, which is not included in the standard fare and offers fixed-priced, gourmet meals for an additional $50. But for us it was free because we had received a special gift card upon our arrival from an anonymous source. We also received a special gift card entitling us to free alcoholic beverages for the entire cruise, limited to 15 drinks per person per day. Only 15 drinks per day? My goodness. While it is a bit of a mystery, we suspect that we are being cultivated for something. Once we figure out who is cultivating us, I will sign up and buy whatever it is they are selling. In any event the meal was spectacular and worth ever penny that we did not have to spend. And we are indeed taking advantage of the drink gift card though, rest assured, we are staying well below the maximum allowed free drinks.
The service was also spectacular at the fancy restaurant as it has been everywhere on the ship since the moment we arrived and leads me to my conclusion as to what is so appealing about cruising. Every employee we have passed onboard–and I mean every employee, no exceptions—looks you in the eye, smiles, and says something like, “Good morning, how are you today?” Many also ask us if we need any help, just let them know. Now where, other than being on a cruise ship, do people smile at you all the time and ask how you are doing? I can’t help wondering how Holland America trains these people. Some hotel chains come close like the Ritz Carlton or the Hyatt or Marriott resort hotels, but nobody does hospitality training better than Holland America. I also can’t help thinking how much better the whole world would be if hospitality training was a required course for everyone on the planet. Having another person—someone you do not even know—greet you, look you in the eye, smile, and say hello is transformative. It makes you feel so good. It is contagious. You can’t help smiling back and something like, “Hope you have a good day too.” If we all did this to each other all the time, would there be wars?
And to be clear: it is not because Holland America hires only “nice people.” They hire ordinary people just like every company does. The Holland America cruise ship experience is exhibit A that people can in fact be trained to be nice to other people, even if it is only during working hours and on a superficial level. But, hey, this is a start and better than the day-to-day meanness and acrimony that are too much part of our lives in the “real world.” And I am convinced that when all is said and done, a major part of the cruising experience is the hospitality you receive every day, every hour, no exceptions. If only one of the candidates for president would step forward and promise, “Mandatory hospitality training for all, no exceptions,” he or she would be elected, hands down.
The other thing that stands out about the crew on the Vaandam is their diversity, and I will return to that in a later blog. Now, on to the Panama Canal, one of the wonders of the world I have always wanted to see. Stay tuned….