Monday, December 19, 2011

Lessons from Susan

I've surprised myself with my ability to exist in a dorm and interact all day with other people. I'd even taken to joking with one French man about him running around the dorm in his underwear, whereas before I'd just pretended not to see.

The sole limit to my tolerance seemed to be breakfast. I'd choose a table where I could be relatively alone at for my morning meal—picking one where three of the four place settings had already been used, or taking one next to French-speakers that didn't mix with others, of which there were a few though not many—and down a few liters of the ship's weak coffee before pleading with one of the staff for a bit of yogurt. I'd cut up whatever fruit—which would change depending on the output of whichever island we were near—we were given into a bowl on top of granola, and then douse it in yogurt and voila, a decent breakfast. I passed up the eggs and bacon every morning. I'd had quite enough eggs in the earlier part of MariesWorldTour.

Some days yogurt was available on the breakfast buffet, but on days when it wasn't, I'd receive my yogurt quietly, as it was palmed off to me in a corner. I assume it's a "by request" thing, like fried eggs on a plate instead of scrambled eggs from the buffet.

Speaking of requests, I'd made a strategical error on Day One. I'd known through my own connections there had been a last-minute cancellation by a high-end magazine writer, and that a cabin had become available on this sold-out cruise, but I hadn't had the gumption to get upgraded out of the dorm by throwing around my credentials on the first morning on board, and anyway, maybe they'd sold off the cabin to a person on the waiting list. I'd quietly mentioned my writing work later in the day to one of the higher-level staff—though I'd foolishly downplayed it and hadn't even mention my weekly Wanderlust magazine web posts—after I'd been horrified at the size and population-density of the dorm.

As the days went on, I'd developed strategies for handling the situation—I'd shower during the French-speaking meeting when the other dorm occupants were away, use the tiny shower no one else liked anyway so I could take my time even once some French-speakers realized that by attending the English daily meeting, they too could have some down time. I avoided the musty co-ed toilet stall room by going into the ladies rooms by the lounge or restaurant. And I'd brought my own dollar-store power strip from Tahiti—which gave up the ghost with five days remaining—so that our room of 10 could manage charging our cameras and phones on the single outlet our room provided.

But as the days went on, I realized that the older man who had been magically spirited out of the dorm in the first 20 minutes on-board had taken the cabin I'd had my eye on. It took me several more days to piece together that he took some travel photos and that I could have been the one showering in private and not looking at French men in their underwear.

But then, I think of Susan, the passenger who teaches conflict resolution in California.

"Sometimes your needs and that of someone else are just different." That's one of the things she teachers her students. That's tough to accept sometimes, but the best example of that from my last few weeks has to be the person I saw on Day One in the guesthouse in Tahiti. She was going on about her phone not working here. I thought that was silly. Days later, I learned that she had a sick mother and it was actually a really big deal that she couldn't communicate with home. Now that her mother had died, I'd taken to communicating for her. I feel guilty every time I think of my non-charitable reaction to her initial remarks.

"You don't know her needs."

The other thing Susan had told me was about exclusivity. Would I really want the exclusivity of being upgraded, or being given an elite press experience, or being shown the best experience on board while the others experienced the reality that most of the 2,200 passengers a year experienced?

The answer at night, when I would clumsily climb up into my tiny berth, shifting my weigh while shimmying along up the bed to avoid bashing my eye on the sprinkler head on the ceiling, was "Hell yeah."

But during my rational moments of thought—post-liters of coffee—I knew the answer was "Certainly not."

I'd taken free stuff during the first MariesWorldTour. Mostly, I'd gotten things I'd learned I didn't need anyway, but I'd gotten a few trips that I'd had mixed reactions to. The best had been the canoe-camping safari in Zimbabwe. This was fantastic and I rate it among my top trips of all time. I had no problem writing rave reviews. But other trips had been mediocre—with one being just plain awful—and what I learned was that when you've met the press agents, made friends with them, and you have been hosted as opposed to paying your own way, you feel compelled to say something nice about an endeavor.

Much better to be objective, I'd remind myself when I thought about the sprinkler head, about the musty toilets, about me being in the way of seven others whenever I'm standing in the aisle by my locker, about how when you have the top bunk, you have nowhere to sit just to put sunscreen on your legs. I'd found very little information online about the dorms, so it's good to be free to write about the experience. Which wasn't horrible but wasn't great either.

I still feel compelled to say nice things about the Aranui, even without the exclusivity factor. The sweet dining room staff goes to a lot of effort to find me food that doesn't have fish or shrimp in it. The kind man that makes sure I get my yogurt told me on Sunday that it was God's day—I have no concept of days here at sea and am a mild-atheist, meaning I don't care if other people want to believe in whatever they please so long as they leave me alone about not believing—and that seemed so gentle that I couldn't help but smile. The guy who teaches us drums, dancing, and hat-making also happens to like to go into shady Marquesan churches to sing beautiful hymns. The guides are patient beyond description, tolerating repeated requests for information that they've just finishing explaning to us. And watching the ship provide a lifeline of cargo to these remote islands is a marvelous experience. Seeing the cars, beer, canned goods, washing machines, and new bicycles materialize by crane out of our cargo hold is a unique experience in the world of containerized freighter travel.

But the number of passengers on board is the Achilles heel of the trip, as the swarms of people and the management it takes to transport them makes it feel more cruise-like and less freighter-like than most cargo ship journeys. We were carrying around 160-170 passengers, as opposed to the few dozen Paul Theroux described in his 1992 book "The Happy Isles of Oceania." He would have been on Aranui 1, I think, though it might have been the 2. The Aranui 1 held 25 passengers and was in service until 1991, when the Aranui 2 took over. The current Aranui will be replaced by the Aranui 5 next year, which will hold around 270 passengers—sixty more than the current ship. (There is no Aranui 4, since four is an unlucky number to the owners of the Aranui, whose heritage is Chinese.) On the up side, the trips will cost less, with the increased volume of passengers making up the difference in cost and ultimately generating more bookings.

For those of you looking for a smaller ship, you might check out the Tuhaa Pae, which makes similar runs to the Australs. These are only a week long except for the occasional itineraries that also take in Rapa Iti. Rumor has it that the next incarnation of the Tuhaa Pae (#4—this isn't a Chinese company) is a miniature version of the Aranui 3 and will carry up to 100 passengers.

By the time you read this, I'll have only two more days to go in my top-berth dorm bed in the Aranui 3. The close quarters have been trying but also a little funny. Everyone in the dorm has worked hard to cooperate in making a tolerable environment, and most surprisingly, I didn't explode at the close quarters and large groups of people on the ship.

I think I even enjoyed it.

And I did it on my own terms—no freebies, no upgrades, and no exclusivity.

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