Masters and Commanders

A cruise is a great way to take a break as long as you're not belowdecks

The Rhapsody docks in Key West on Tuesday afternoon and disgorges a herd of passengers who mob the boutiques and tourist bars. Crew members purposefully slice through the crowds like locals, but their thoughts are far away. They find the pay phones and dial home.

A group of Filipino workers from the engine room gathers in the evening below the stoop of Key West Style, where a darkened window displays a mannequin with "USA" plastered on her breast in plastic jewels. A drunk tourist heckles them from the sidewalk. "This looks like an ambitious crowd," he slurs. "This is what you do. Bust this place open and start selling things at half price."

At the Caribbean Moonlight Madness Pool Party, 
passengers gorge themselves while servers work well 
past midnight.
At the Caribbean Moonlight Madness Pool Party, passengers gorge themselves while servers work well past midnight.
Waiters who receive one "poor" evaluation often lose 
$300 the next week.
Waiters who receive one "poor" evaluation often lose $300 the next week.

Most crew members try to blend in with the crowds of affluent Americans. They wear the latest styles of blue jeans, sports jerseys and Nikes. But many are still treated like unwelcome guests. Enrique Lao, a 47-year-old Filipino who has worked for decades on ships that call on American ports, still grapples with his disappointment.

Lao's life has been intimately connected to the United States since childhood. His mother worked on Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines during World War II. She applied for citizenship in the United States but was denied, so Lao grew up in Angeles City, next to the base, where many children in the community were deformed. He walks with a stagger to demonstrate what they looked like. "Deformation," he says in his pidgin English. "Toxic."

Lao hoped for a better life when he joined a cargo ship in 1975 that called on U.S. ports. He signed onto his first cruise ship in 1989, the Royal Caribbean Sovereign, and has worked on seven ships since then as a painter and cleaner.

In many respects, he's grateful for the work. "I am happy as a seaman," he says. "No apartment to pay. Free television, free ice cream, free steak. It's good."

The salary funded school fees for Lao's three children, and part of the pay now goes to his half-sister. But the sacrifice has been wrenching. At sea eight months at a time and home for only two, Lao watched his children age through snapshots. "They grew up without me," he says, "but they understand it is because of the money. They have a good life because I can work."

Nevertheless, decades of putting into port in the United States and watching Americans lead privileged lives have left him bitter. Today is Lao's only day off this month. He left work at 3 p.m. and will return to the ship before it sails tonight at 11:30. On other port days he's lucky if he gets off for an hour.

"Since 1975, I am stepping my foot in America," he says, pointing to the brick promenade around him. "I am glad I am receiving American dollars, but it is not American standards."

Lao's great hope was to become an American citizen. He thought he would have a chance because he has visited American shores for so many years. But he recently learned that submitting an application would be futile. The waiting list for Filipinos who wish to move to the United States is about ten years long. Lao would receive no special treatment, even though he serves thousands of Americans.

Next year Lao will have worked for Royal Caribbean for 15 years, and he will be eligible for a $7,500 retirement check. He plans to return to the Philippines and invest in a business with a different type of tie to America. He will buy a small building, like the hut across the street with a fake clock on it that says, "World Famous Conch Tour Train." Seafarers and tourists will come to him with American dollars and he will convert them into Philippine pesos. "A money changer. That's my plan when I retire."

As a longtime employee, Lao is exceedingly rare. More typical is a young cook from South Africa who is waiting for a friend to finish a call down the road. He dislikes his job and doesn't plan to return. "They will tell you you are going to see places, but most of the time it is the passengers who will see places," he says. "We are on duty. Like right now, we just have two hours for a telephone call, then we have to go back."

On Friday evening the Rhapsody arcs around the tip of the Yucatán and sets a course for home. The chance to buy a sombrero has come and gone; most people who wanted tourist braids now have them; and the Cuban cigars are safely stowed. This is an evening to take stock, and not just in terms of who's sunburned or who has casino chips. Cruise director James Andrews repeatedly buzzes onto the shipwide PA system and implores the guests to attend a very special ceremony: the Friendship Celebration Parade and Sing-a-Long.

At five minutes before showtime passengers dutifully pack the rails around each level of the ship's multistory atrium. They flip through flyers depicting crew members as cartoon faces. One face wears an African head wrap, another a pointed Vietnamese sun hat, another a sort of fez. The parade begins promptly at 8:15. A man dressed as Uncle Sam leads the procession waving an American flag, followed by an Eastern European woman in a cowboy hat and chaps and crew members in various work uniforms. They congregate on the terraced foyer and flutter national flags. The American and Canadian colors greatly outnumber all others, though few North Americans are waving them.

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