3 Weeks At Sea – Part 1: Spaaaaace Madness!

a moment of loafing in the sun

a moment of loafing in the sun

[September 15 – October 8, 2012]

We began our slow trip to the east with a 23 night cruise from Vancouver, Canada to Tianjin, China aboard the Diamond Princess. I had mixed feelings about supporting the cruise industry, but curiosity won out; I wanted to experience it rather than scoff in ignorance my whole life. Besides, it was on sale. Repositioning cruises such as this one cost half the usual price, which turned out to be over twice our monthly budget target. Still, if we hadn’t scheduled this we might have never left at the rate we were going. It gave us a deadline, which gave us focus.

The Suspiciously Awesome Arrival: We boarded to discover that we had been mysteriously upgraded to a super sweet balcony room. Holy crap! We figured we had a 50/50 chance that they would discover their mistake and punt us back to our obstructed view cabin in the lower decks. There must be a word for a surprise that is so wonderful that it fills you with dread because you aren’t sure you’ll actually get to keep it. We spent the day in limbo trying to stay unattached until finally relaxing and settling in after dinner. At last, we had arrived!

fear and loathing on the high-seas

fear and loathing on the high seas

The Setup: I told myself this cruise would be all about lovely scenery that I could mostly ignore while floating from the US to China. I was thinking “Ahhhh. 23 days at sea with nothing to do but to come down from the stress of what it took to get here. I will lock myself in the cabin for days on end and lose track of all external reality.” This was not to be. Our cabin came with a friendly steward who was directed to come in and tidy twice a day. !!! 0_o !!! This mandatory courtesy slash safety protocol caused a daily cat and mouse game of cabin occupancy that initially shocked me into a depression that lasted days. (I’m an introvert. Princess needs her alone time.) This will be part of a recurring “no escape form humans” theme, but I digress.

I thought that I’d be too cool and/or jaded for those cheesy cruise activities. But every day a schedule was delivered and included things like dessert buffets, dance lessons, lectures, classes, and movies. And the excursions, which I had valued only as lures to get Scott out of the cabin, started looking interesting…nay…imperative. The FOMO set in. Because really, when would I get another chance to hike an Alaskan glacier? How could I not visit a dog sledding summer training camp? I wound up doing about 10% of the available ship activities. These things were fun, but looking back I probably would have been better off sticking to my guns and getting the alone time.

never got tired of this

never got tired of this

The Good: Early on we had the joy of seeing a whale that paced us only 100 meters away and then leapt out of the water and did a flip, which I was totally convinced was a greeting. Moments later we saw water shooting up from the blowholes of maybe 30 of the rest of the pod off in the distance. It was magical. Sometimes I was profoundly in touch with the movements of the ocean through the ship. Most of the time I really enjoyed the chance to practice awareness to stay in balance on my feet. During the week at sea we set the clocks back each day until time became increasingly meaningless and we were awake for sunrises without having to try. I rather enjoyed the daily report from the captain which tended to remind me that this wasn’t completely a cellophane-wrapped adventure; there was always some twist in the plan and it was neat to be kept informed en masse. There was that ever so slight chance of a cold, watery death that spiced up the day when the weather got rough, promoting a greater atmosphere of cameraderie and gratitude in our otherwise pampered existence. At night I would sit outside and make peace with my fear of the dark ocean and the various monsters that were most likely lurking out there in the surrounding fog. But my favorite thing was just sitting on the balcony, watching and feeling the ship’s movement with the waves and marveling at the endless water on the horizon in every direction – I loved this so much that I was always a bit down when we would pull into port.

joy! another compulsory disembarkation photo

joy! another compulsory disembarkation photo

The Meh: Overall, I felt cruising was more of a “go with the flow” adventure than a “retreat” (much in the same way that I no longer expect burn events to be “restorative”). The flies in the ointment ranged from sad overcooked vegetables to the huge letdown of missing a much-awaited port to avoid a super-tsunami (we had to skip Aomori, Japan), or spending a sleepless 12 hour night being aggressively jostled in a shallow, stormy port. I found the idea of making plans to be stressful and preposterous but felt still compelled to do it every day for fear of missing out. The attentiveness of the staff – being monitored and greeted in all places or wrangled by our steward – kept me on edge. I felt out of place dressing like a punk amongst the relentlessly fancy. There was strong pressure to overeat and overspend, the music playing on the ship was inescapable, and the mandatory photo ops defied reason.

getting down to a mere two layers!

strippin’ down to hunt glaciers

About half of the ship events did leave truly fond memories: creature sightings that would get the whole ship buzzing, morning Zumba class with spry people aged 20 to 80, glacier sightings (and glacier sounds!), the Ship Info lecture, the Horse Whisperer lectures, yoga class on a moving surface, and the thermal spa. We avoided every single formal night, the live shows, and the consumer experiences with no regrets. In the end I managed to get just enough restorative time that no one wound up dead, but it wasn’t really enough to bring me to a state of calm.

so many ways to kill ourselves with food!

pass the insulin, please

All in all it was an adventure that I’m thrilled to have experienced. It proved to be a fairly comfortable introduction to some universal aspects of open ocean travel aboard a giant ship. I’d do it again…but not as a way to recover from overstimulation. It seems sooo obvious in hindsight. I’d go for either a themed cruise (yoga, martial arts, detox, etc) with few stops, or one going to the right place for a low price, favoring the companies making the biggest changes toward environmental responsibility. I might even try a freighter if it’s going my way.

One might question the logic of wallowing in luxury for weeks as a precursor to spending months in rural China. Fortunately, a week in Beijing broke our fall. But first I’ll cover the places we stopped during the journey in Part 2: Alaska, Russia, Japan, and China.

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