For those avid readers of The Best Advice So Far: the blog, you’ll have noticed that there was no Friday post last week. This is because I was out to sea, unplugged from WiFi and Internet access, as I headed out from Miami to the Bahamas as part of my younger brother’s wedding celebration.
As a side note, I should tell you that, as much as I enjoy digital connection and writing, the break did my soul good. You should give it a whirl sometime. However, my focus in this post will not be on making room for silence in your life or how important it is not to let technology interfere with our human interactions. Those are both important topics. But today, I want to let you in on an intriguing human phenomenon I witnessed during this oceanic excursion.
We arrived in Miami on a Saturday evening. My sister-in-law-to-be picked us up at the airport, where we promptly got lost in construction and confusing signage, turning a 7-minute ride to the hotel into nearly an hour-long “adventure.”
The hotel was a tall gray building, standing out above the downtown Miami skyline. There was some kind of circus in town, as well as a concert by a major artist and a prominent bike race. It was mayhem. There was no parking at the hotel, even though it had been paid for.
Once we checked in, our small traveling group was tired and hungry (they didn’t even have little bags of pretzels or nuts on our flight). But feeling frazzled, most of them didn’t feel like hunting down a restaurant; so they just made their way down the block the multi-level grocery store and decided on grab-and-go “meals” they would eat back in their rooms.
Some of the wedding party had already arrived and were out and about. Others had to be picked up in shifts as they arrived mere hours apart back at the airport.
I myself wasn’t particularly fazed by all of this. I enjoyed the change of scenery and multicultural population of Miami. But in addition to interacting with strangers on a regular basis, I’m also an observer. And what I noticed was that people seemed very guarded. The streets were crowded with people, but even huddled at crosswalks, elbow to elbow, people went to great lengths not to look one another in the eye or greet each other – not even with a silent nod or smile.
Some of my party hid for the rest of the evening in their rooms, exclaiming that they’d been “stared down” by the “sketchy” and “scary” people on the streets. Constant stern reminders were doled out regarding keeping money and valuables in your room (hidden well, because “these people will steal it right from your room”).
The next day, Sunday, I made plans to meet up with an author-friend I’d connected with online. As I waited for him to pick me up, I was chided curbside by a relative stranger who sucked his teeth and questioned my judgment and warned me about “these people down here,” expressing in ominous tones, and with much wagging of head, that I’d likely be kidnapped or chopped into little pieces and hid in a dumpster, and just what did I think I was doing?
Later, while my author-friend and I explored the marketplaces downtown and grabbed some lunch, I got several texts from my mother, asking me if I was OK (interpret “still alive”) and assuring me that if I needed to escape, I could run away, hide somewhere and call her, and she’d come and rescue me. I assured her in return that I would certainly keep that option handy.
At the time these dire messages came through, the “murderer” and I were eating gourmet French macarons we’d just purchased from the authentic Parisian pâtisserie, Lauderée. I had to laugh at the irony. In fact, the only escaping called for was trying to extricate ourselves from the sales pitch of a seductive Israeli girl exclaiming what beautiful eyes we had as she tried to sell us some magical “diamond dust” exfoliant (valued at $239 per jar, but if you don’t tell anyone, she’ll sneak it to you for her super-secret rate of just $39.95, because you are a very rare person indeed, whom she likes much more than all the other average schmoes out there).
Well, as you can see, I was not murdered.
The next day, we all got gussied up for the wedding and headed by shuttle to the cruise ship loading area. The woman who welcomed us and instructed us to fill out the health forms before approaching the check-in desk was exuberant and had a genuine smile. We were ushered around the long queue of travelers to a place at the far end of the counter, where we were cleared for early boarding, with the onboard wedding not quite two hours away.
Now, perhaps another time I’ll talk about the wedding itself; but it does not quite fit here or help make the point, since it was held in a private function room with family only. Suffice it to say that, for the hundreds of weddings I’ve been part of (mostly as a musician), I’d never before been part of a wedding aboard a ship. Everything was very last-minute, but came off just fine. We celebrated. We ate. A lot. We were pulled aside at every turn by the cruise photographer asking us to do Darth Vader chokeholds and whatnot. And I gained a sister-in-law. (Hey, sis.)
It was after the wedding, however, when the cruise ship finally headed out to sea, that the second phase of my very interesting observation began.
See, as I looked around me, I saw people who to all appearances were very much the same as those on the streets of Miami. In fact, all of them had been people on the streets of Miami for at least some period of time before boarding the ship, just as we had. There were big black dudes (like Andre) and Cubans (like Martez); there were Latinos and Latinas (like Franco and Maria), Indians (like Sachen and Narayanan) and Islanders (like Lennox). There were people from every nationality we had seen the prior two days on the streets of Miami, and then some. There was even a group of Deaf people traveling together. Young and old. Married and single. Fat and thin. Gay and straight. Groups and loners.
But suddenly, as the ship untethered itself from the mainland, so the people aboard seemed to untether themselves. As the Miami skyline faded from view, so did fear, guardedness, judgment and prejudice.
Strangers smiled and laughed and exchanged names. Personal details were shared openly. This one was on the cruise alone. That one was finding a positive way to get through the anniversary of a divorce. We were part of a wedding party. Nobody cared why you were there; it was enough that you were. Congratulations and condolences passed back and forth with equal ease.
Cheers were loud and raucous as karaoke singers took the stage, whether they were amazing or terrible, drunk or sober. Everyone was on a first-name basis. Shouts of “You go, Nikki!” or “Yes! You got this!” rang out, as if from old friends at a house party.
If the only open space to set down your heaping plate were at a table already occupied by a couple people, you thought nothing of asking if you could join – that’s if you hadn’t already been invited to do so. And whether people spoke your language or not, smiles and gestures were exchanged and you made it work. People dug out high school Spanish or French words and phrases, and gave them a spin after decades. If all else failed, they just pointed to the sun or the food or the ocean and smiled real big.
Workers smiled continually. And you know what? It wasn’t fake. It really wasn’t. I asked everyone from William, the cruise director, to Presemann in the kitchen, to tell me the truth about whether they really liked cruise ship life and work. And they did! They liked people. They were enjoying the ability to travel and see the world. And it showed. They were willing to share their stories, their background – both the good and the bad. There were no pretenses. We were all in this together.
One of the DJs, Daniel Filipe, exclaimed how he wished “the real world could be like life on these cruises,” where everyone, no matter their story, just decided to get along, to be friendly, to reach out to one another, to talk and laugh and have fun together.
I didn’t see one person clutching their wallet or purse to their chest. Phones and sunglasses and bags were left on lounge chairs around the pool while people swam or grabbed a drink or an ice cream cone. I noticed some personal items of value that stayed unattended for as long as an hour. No one took them. No one worried that they would. You just kind of had the feeling that the people around you had your back.
But here’s the thing. Why did the skeptical, closed-minded, guarded, racist, naysayers from on land have such a drastic change of heart at sea?
Was it merely because they believed no one could murder them easily and get away with it out there? That seems unlikely. I mean, what better place to throw a body than overboard into the middle of the ocean, if that’s what you really wanted to do?
Cabins were keypass entry only. And there were nearly a thousand of them. So if I wanted to swipe someone’s stuff from poolside or off a bar top, it’d have been a cinch to both take and hide it.
I don’t think people let their guards down because of the isolation of the environment. No, the best I could conclude is that people just made the choice to maximize their time. They’d paid for it. For most, it was a rarity they may not experience again soon, if ever. And so they just collectively agreed to be in a good mood, extend some trust, let down walls, not worry about judging others and just – enjoy life for a while.
Four days seemed to last weeks. In my last post, I talked about being overdue for some real input. Well, I got it. It did my soul a world of good to experience this microcosm of the best in humanity. (This is not to say that there wasn’t the odd person here or there who equally chose not to join the parade, but to be sour and to complain about everything and everyone, just as they had on land. But they were in the vast minority.)
Friday morning, the mood changed. The ship was docked once more in Miami, and you could feel people towing along every bit of the social and emotional baggage they’d left behind only days ago. Smiles and greetings were few. Courtesy was nearly non-existent as people jostled through long lines for one last free meal. Faces looked haggard (and, no, I don’t believe they were all just drunk from the final night of partying). As people disembarked, the customs people had no smile. They barked orders and hurried people along.
Back to shore.
Back to lines of taxis.
Back to “reality.”
But it all made me wonder: why does a mundane, skeptical, detached, fearful existence have to be our norm?
I’ll admit, we were all tired. We crowded into one hotel room my brother and his new wife had rented for the night, as many as 11 of us at a time, passing the hours until it made sense to hit the airport once more to return home. I slept a bit, all folded up under a desk. When we went to grab some food quickly, the lines were long. People were rude. Impatience abounded. Outside tables were not shared.
And again, I kept coming back to that question: Why?
When the time arrived, we called Hubert, the large but quiet Haitian man who’d gotten us from the pier to the hotel a few hours earlier. Only this time, I undertook a little experiment. I asked a question about Hubert’s job as a taxi driver. He was happy to tell us. Then someone else in our little party showed interest in his homeland of Haiti. We asked how rebuilding was going after the 2010 earthquake. We asked about his family. And Hubert began to smile. Then to laugh his deep, rich laugh. It felt like the cruise ship had felt, right there in that taxi. It felt like we were all in something together, if only for a short while.
When we arrived at the airport, our party was being dropped at two gates, quite some distance apart. Hubert told us that an airport run only included one stop, but because we had been so nice, he was going to shut the meter off to deliver my niece to her gate free of charge. We shook hands and said our goodbyes.
It’s all got me thinking, when it comes to our human interactions, do we really need to be on a cruise ship in the middle of the ocean for things to work between people? For us to let go of fear and walls and isolation from the others all around us?
I mean, doesn’t it all just come down to choice?
All I can tell you for sure is that I’m banking on it. I’m making the choice to let more people in, rather than shutting more out. I’m choosing smiles and laughs and sharing stories over keeping my eyes on the pavement and clutching my pettiness to my chest.
Anyone else on board?