Prior to moving to St Thomas, my feelings towards cruise ships were dispassionately neutral. Having been on one once before, I classified them much the same as dear DFW – A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again – and they’d thereby lost what little space they had occupied in the competitive realm of my mental real estate market. When I moved into my first island apartment and found that the landlord had posted a copy of the week’s cruise ship arrival schedule on the fridge alongside other helpful notes about the flat, I tossed it aside, figuring watching cruise ships come in was some quirky pastime of hers. It only took me about a week to realize noting cruise ship schedules was less of a hobby and more of a survival strategy I would come to know all too well.
St Thomas is one of the busiest cruise ship ports in the Caribbean, often accepting 11+ ships per day. The behemoths that cannot fit on one of the enormous and always jam-packed piers are not deterred and instead, anchor out in the harbor and shuttle their droves of passengers in via tender. On busy cruise days, the already over-populated island is stretched well beyond comfort with around 20,000+ extra people deposited on its shores in a matter of minutes. As one can imagine, this propagates an array of unwelcome stressors, the most notable being the obscene traffic on our two-lane roads, rendering a trip across the island an exercise in not voluntarily swerving your vehicle off the cliff, lest you have to endure one more excruciating minute behind a barely-moving safari taxi stuffed with cruise-shippers, all staring at you through their camera lenses. The 16-deck monstrosity, now effectively blocking your once-peaceful ocean view, does not soften the blow.
Cruise ships are the epitome of island paradoxes in that they are the financial bread and butter to the territory but as much as they are valued, they are universally despised. It’s a double-edged sword – no cruise ships in port means insufficient business for the 100 or so odd shops and ready-made adventure tours that rely on them for their survival, yet lots of cruise ships in port equates to traffic, the stress of over-crowding, and what feels like an invasion of an alien species who carelessly mucks up our beautiful beaches and generally pisses off everyone they come in contact with. They are the shameful parasite we wish to shake, though would likely perish without.
Cruise-shippers are known island wide to belong to one of three main demographics: the Newly-Wed, the Over-Fed, and the Almost-Dead. For many understandable reasons, the cruising vacation strongly appeals to those on a tight budget, those who are not well-traveled, those who prefer as much food as they wish to consume (think: 8+ meals per day) to be “all-inclusive”, and those who require constant supervision should they keel over at any moment. And while these generalizations are a consistently accurate way to define this traveler, I believe there is an even simpler explanation: cruise-shippers are the pack animals of our society. Had karma landed them in the animal kingdom rather than the human race, you would find them happily grazing away, wandering about aimlessly with their fellow sheep. In all fairness, I do realize that there is a small faction of decently cool people who choose cruising vacations as well (granted, for reasons I have a hard time wrapping my head around), but because they arrive in hordes, any sense of the individual is lost en masse. So for all intents and purposes, to us, they are one.
Beyond moving as a group, cruise-shippers possess a few signature traits that separate them from the rest of the locals and regular tourists. Their choice in overly practical footwear is always a clear tip-off; regardless of the ensemble (dress, shorts, or swimsuit), they can be found in a brand new set of running shoes in preparation for the strenuous exercise of getting in and out of cabs and of course, power shopping. Over the years, my cruise-shipper spotting skills progressed to the point that I could distinguish between the passengers of the various cruise lines. A perennial favorite car game, akin to the old standby SlugBug, is something I dubbed Spot the Disney Cruiser. The Disney Cruiser is a unique breed characterized by the presence of the entire extended family unit: Grandma, Grandpa, Uncle Joe, Mommy, Daddy, Sally, Cousin Frank, and Bobby Jr. These are people with an affinity for family reunions and due to an extra-special occasion (Grandma and Grandpa’s 65th anniversary perhaps?) have decided to take this year’s big event to sea. You can spot them with their fanny packs and bottled water, dressed in matching outfits (identical neon t-shirts with the family name emblazoned across the front, even better) should the perfect Christmas card photo op present itself. And of course, the unmistakable presence of Mickey Mouse and Crew adorning all accessories.
Cruise-shippers, true to their deep-seated pack instincts, have an undeniable need to relate to one another and plaintively deliberate on all of the near-death experiences they have survived thus far on this wild and crazy island – harrowing cab rides, over-priced magnets, questionable conch fritters, you name it, it’s a jungle out there. Due to the size limitations of the island and the fact that there are few places to escape the onslaught, you will often come into closer-than-desired contact with the crowds and sometimes have the misfortune of being mistaken for one of their kind. When forced to squish yourself into a space on the sand between them in an effort to maintain your tan on your day off, it’s inevitable they will try to suck you into the herd. Things normal people inherently interpret as strict “leave me alone” signs (iPod in ears, avoidance of eye contact, sleeping…) the cruise-shipper sees as invitations for conversation – you’re alone which is cruise ship code for lonely, right? Never, under any circumstances, admit to being a local. It is essential to self-preservation and avoiding the drowning stream of questions that follow: “Wowee, you live here? Why? What do you do? Why do you drive on the left? Are the locals speaking English? Where can we find the cheapest rum?” And on and on they will go. I recommend to instead use this opportunity to perfect the nuances of your varying accents; after all my time amongst the cruise-shippers, my Jersey and Southern accents in particular are quite convincing.
Walking around town on a heavy cruise ship day (a dreadful venture embarked upon only out of pure necessity), one must prepare to be accosted by obnoxious taxi drivers, yelling to everyone and no one in particular with their persistent refrain: “Back to the ship! Back to the ship!” It only takes a minute for your nerves to be brought to a boil and a great reserve of willpower is called upon to keep yourself from snapping back, “No, God damn it! I don’t need a f***ing taxi!!” Though when you survey the reaction amongst the crowds of cruise-shippers, you’re baffled to discover they oblige with an indifference that is entirely indicative of a life of being herded around, perhaps even a comfort in being told exactly what they’re supposed to do. And that’s when I realize the underlying genius of this taxi driver catchphrase. What is, on one level, posed as an offer – a question-like demand to meet transportation needs – is in the very same sentence declaring what we’ve all been wanting to communicate all day. And the cabbies get to yell it. Back to the ship, indeed.
For those of you who are cruise-shippers yourself, I am sure you are a delightful human being. Break free from the pack and come visit us on your own so we can see YOU. Right now, I’m afraid you’re being blocked by that group in the matching Donald Duck hats.