As I sat on the beach in Cabo San Lucas, I gazed out at the hordes of new people crowding the beach, accosted by hawkers selling trinkets. The day before was quiet, barely a soul on the beach. This morning, however, three cruise ships dropped anchor and drip fed passenger after passenger into this popular port.
I spent four years of my life at sea, working for Norwegian Cruise Line as an executive casino host, a sweet gig. I got paid to see the world and experience other cultures. Or so I thought.
It has been five years since I left ships. I quit, not because of the lack of international labor laws, long hours, constant safety training or exotic ports, but because I was tired of pretending that everything was always excellent for the sake of paradise-seeking passengers.
Do I regret leaving? Definitely not. Do I miss it? Some parts.
During my time off ships I have come to appreciate the difference between traveling as crew and traveling as an overlander. They might share some similarities, but I'm here to highlight the differences.
Ports of call are finely-tuned machines. What you may think is an “authentic experience” is actually as artificial as Cheese Wiz in a spray can. Your route and experiences are predetermined by the industry in order to maximize the amount of cash you can spend in your alloted time on land.
In most ports the selection of local food was supplied by the same chain restaurants found in the States. Hooters and the Hard Rock Cafe, serving bad food at three times the price you'd pay for something decent at a local hangout. Think those burritos and fajitas you're chowing down on in Puerto Vallarta are authentic? Nope. Invented in Texas.
When you're traveling by car you get to visit places a packaged tour bus would normally fly by. You have awesome experiences just by happening to be at the right place, at the right time, with time to kill. For example, we recently found ourselves in the middle of the Día de la Virgen de Guadalupe celebrations in Mexico - a non-stop week of partying, parades, good eats with homemade fireworks blasting throughout the night. We didn't plan it, we just happened to be there.
A week later we ended up in a small mountain town, strolling through the central plaza. Hungry for a bite to eat, we asked about the local food scene and were told there were all of two establishments serving dinner. We chose the closest, a tiny hole-in-the-wall place with no menu. It was run by a lady who could have been anyone's grandmother. Despite the limited options for dinner, she obviously had decades of experience cooking simple and delicious food. Even though we spoke less than a little Spanish at the time, she happily brought us some of the best Mexican food we'd ever had, at a cost that can't be beat.
Experiences like this were rare on ships. Overlanding makes them an every-day occurrence.
One of the biggest reasons I started working on cruise ships was to go places. For example, while docked in Cozumel, I took a trip to the ruins of Tulum. This “full day” tour consisted of a short ferry ride, followed by a guided tour along the gift shop-infested streets of tranquil Playa Del Carmen for 40 minutes. Then we piled into a bus which promptly halted at a rest stop consisting primarily of gift shops.
Finally, we arrived at Tulum. We piled out of the bus and strained through the crowds to hear the tour guide's canned speech about the ruins. We were herded through the site quickly, and then left to enjoy the "local" arts and craft stalls. Back on board the bus we stopped at another fun-filled "rest" shop. And just in case someone forgot to pee at the last place, we spent another 30 minutes at another "craft" store, before arriving back at the ferry terminal.
The ruins were impressive, but this full day tour was clearly geared towards shopping rather than learning about ancient Mayan culture. I wanted more time to see what I had come to see. I left feeling like a cow who had just been herded into the milking station.
Fortunately, I had the pleasure of returning to Tulum on this trip. This time we could set our own schedule. We got up early, beat the tourist rush, and avoided the souvenir-touting madness. We spent two peaceful hours walking though the ruins. They were spectacular, almost surreal in the early-morning light.
All this time we saw maybe a dozen other people. Rather than being spoon-fed a tour, we were able to move at our own place and if we cared, check the guidebook for more information. It was quiet, no screaming kids, or “Honey quick take my photo with the lizard!” Perfect.
As we left the park we walked past hordes of people waiting for their tour groups to assemble. I felt a little guilty that we had just finished spending the morning in the park practically alone.
As a crew member my time on land was usually spent running errands like going to the store to buy toothpaste, or picking up a new suit for work. I never had the time to fully experience a destination. I was constantly in a rush to get off the ship, run around, and get back in time for work. Even the most relaxing memories I have...kicking back on the beach, grabbing a beer in a cafe, taking Jessica out to a fancy dinner...they all seem a blur. We were in and out of port before I had time to commit anything to memory.
It was rare that I had time to go far enough inland that I was no longer caught in a tourist trap. This made it difficult to see anything authentic, or to meet anyone interesting. It seemed like everyone was affiliated with the tourist industry, and meeting a genuine person was a rare occurrence. Through the eyes of a cruise ship worker it seems like everyone you meet on land is trying to sell you something.
I used to think that this was what travel is supposed to be like. I could not have been more wrong.
This trip I spent an entire week in Cabo San Lucas, a port I visited a number of times while working on ships. I had enough time to figure out where the locals shopped, did laundry, grabbed a bite to eat, and where they went to relax. Plus, I got to see what the town was like in between the cruise ship rush. It was completely different; toned down, friendlier, less rushed, and less about money. We got to explore at our own place without being constantly hassled by touts and tour guides. And when I wanted to go on a tour, I had time to befriend a local operator, get good advice, and negotiate a decent price.
Having a full week instead of just a day in Cabo allowed me to slow down and relax. I didn't have to stress over time constraints. I never had to take a cab or worry that I was going to be late getting back to the ship. I could walk or drive everywhere and if I wanted, stop along the way. I learned how much more enjoyable travel could be if you just slow down a bit.
Don’t get me wrong, I don't regret the four years I worked for Norwegian Cruise Lines. It made me appreciate many things, especially what I am doing now. It's great to be experiencing a different form of travel; one where you can take the time to experience a place and not just pass through it on your way to the next gift shop.
Over the next few weeks we will write a series of articles on life at sea, not as passenger but as staff and Crew. What to expect, where to get a job, the good and the bad.