My parents retired to Phoenix and we live in New York, so we only see them a couple times a year. Those visits often take the form of a shared vacation instead of hanging out at each other's houses. We've done Disney and Hawaii, but cruises have also been a surprisingly good way for our three generations to spend a week together. The ships are safe and accessible for young and old – there's elevators everywhere and no traffic for kids to wander into. The food's not great, but it is taken care of, and none of us have to meal-plan, cook, or clean. There's lots of activities to do together, and we have our own private spaces to retreat to when we need them.
The last cruise we booked left New York on March 8, 2020 (!!), three days before the global cruise industry shut down. Rachel and I backed out the week before for fear of being indefinitely quarantined in a tiny cruise cabin, only to spent the next three weeks in the epicenter of the American pandemic, quarantined to our 650 sqft. apartment. Meanwhile, the rest of my family set sail on literally the last cruise of the pre-pandemic era... and had a great time.
Rachel and I have been sitting on a Royal Caribbean cruise credit ever since and put it to use last week on the Anthem of the Seas. The Anthem sets sail from Port Liberty, a 25 minute drive from our home, making this the most convenient vacation we've ever taken.
This was my first cruise since getting into photography. My goal was to find dramatic images in a vacation experience contrived to have no rough edges. I shot over 3,500 frames during the week, mostly with a Leica Q. It has a slightly wide 28mm lens which worked well in tight quarters and a full-frame sensor that renders silky images under low light.
Mom and Dad
My dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer on Wednesday, flew to New York on Thursday, and set sail on Sunday. As he said in his Christmas letter this year, "I've heard a doctor tell me, 'you've had a heart attack,' 'a stroke,' 'kidney failure requiring dialysis,' and now, 'cancer.'" My mom has daily headaches and no doctor has been able to tell her the cause. Both have a harder time getting around than they used to.
On this cruise, we got seven days with adjoining cabins. The girls ran freely between the two rooms. We ate at least two meals together every day. We did puzzles, played games, and watched live shows together. My dad read bedtime stories to Julia. My mom taught Julia to wave to strangers in glass elevators, and taught Emma how to order virgin drinks at the bar. At night they listened to the monitor after the girls went down so Rachel and I could go out.
We do not take this time for granted.
There's no question which of us had the best time on the cruise: Emma.
She enjoyed exploring a new environment with a bunch of unique, interesting spaces. She met new friends via the kid's activities (it didn't dawn on us until we were onboard that this vacation comes with childcare). The stop at Royal Caribbean's private island, "A Perfect Day at CocoCay", lived up to its marketing promises. And though the rest of us would have preferred a lower quantity of higher quality food, Emma said that this was "the best food week of her life." It was an opportunity to try a lot of stuff that she'd never have back home – and to split deserts with Grandpa every night.
Julia was up early most mornings, which gave us lots of time to explore the ship's nooks and crannies before the sun and other passengers were up. The carpeted confines were safer than toddling through New York. We had lots of fun climbing stairs, riding elevators, making friends, and running hallways while the ship rocked side to side.
"Do you get days off?"
"Ha. No. We get hours off."
Crew members generally sign up for an eight month contract and work fourteen hour days, seven days a week, with no days off for the duration. An entry level member of the housekeeping staff makes $900 per month – about $2 an hour. Living expenses on the ship are minimal – mostly SIM cards and Internet – so most of that income goes back home to support family. At the end of a contract, they'll go home for two months of unpaid "vacation," then sign on for another eight months.
We met a lot of crew from India, the Philippines, and Indonesia. For many them, working cruise ships offers an opportunity to move their family into the middle class and to send their kids to a decent school so that they won't have to work on a cruise ship. Everyone expresses gratitude for their job and wears a perpetual learned smile, at least while in front of guests. A single complaint or a subpar rating on the post-cruise survey could derail the trajectory of their family's lives.
Ludy and Eva were our servers in the main dining room where we ate dinner along with 4,000 other guests. They were so kind and attentive despite being stretched thin. We'd ask for something for the kids one night – yogurt, or a fruit cup – and it'd be waiting for us when we got to the table every night after.
Joey was the sommelier at our favorite bar. We saw him nearly every night. He's funny, patient, and hospitable. He has three kids back home. His oldest is eleven years old, his middle child is Julia's age, and his youngest was one month old when he left home for this contract. His eight months will be up in March. He'll return home, see his then nine month old daughter, then set sail again before her first birthday.
He hopes to only be doing this "four or five more years."
Anant was our housekeeper. He's responsible for fifteen cabins and spends twenty minutes cleaning each one in the morning, then another twenty minutes on each one in the evening. Fifteen cabins up and down the same hallway. Twice a day. 240 days straight.
Anant's service was impeccable. On the first day of our trip, Emma let on that she liked the towel animals. By the end of the week we had a terrycloth zoo.
I don't know that any of these folks would be better off if the cruise industry didn't exist, and the cruise industry wouldn't exist if it had to abide by US labor laws. I don't even know that exploitative labor practices is the fundamental problem. The fundamental problem is that the world is inequitable and a cruise is just one place where that becomes really obvious. The deep disparity between guests and crew cast a cloud over the voyage that was hard to shake. It felt like the closest we'll ever come to having servants, and it didn't feel good. Ultimately, we did what we could: treat everyone with kindness and respect, and tip generously. But that didn't feel like anywhere close to enough.
We're grateful for the beauty of the ship and sea, the time with my parents, the memories with our kids, and the unrelenting work of the those who made this experience possible and enjoyable.