You’re not supposed to talk to the staff on a cruise ship and they are not allowed to talk to you. But you see, I’m no Lady Mary material. Despite my status of the guest, I talk to the staff. I feel for the staff. And above all, I like to chat with the staff. Some are terrified when I approach them. They don’t want to be seen talking to the guest about anything else but guest-related topics. But I come back. Maybe when the store is not so busy, or when the buffet is fully stocked. I may be terrible with languages, but I know some basics. I know enough to communicate.
After the initial reluctance, they tell me things. I ask them about how life on a cruise ship really is. Are they happy with the work they chose? Do they ever think of giving up?
“They work us like slaves,” Józsa tells me. She’s a thirty-something Hungarian working as a server. She’s smoking a cigarette like it’s her last. We’re standing at a “staff only” hidden smoking corner. I am not supposed to be there. I am getting ugly stares from the Asian crew. I don’t know Chinese or Tagalog or Siamese to calm them down. They don’t know English and they don’t like my presence.
“Don’t worry about them,” Józsa notices my stare. “They’re good guys. You see Emmanuel?” She points to a short Filipino whose luscious hair is tied in a bun. “He’s dating Jana, a girl from Poland. They met on one of the cruise lines and now they are trying to work on the same ship at least, you know.” “Where is she now?” I ask. “I think she has a year contract for the Western Caribbean that will expire soon. He’s been doing everything he can to get her here. They’re really cute together.” “Oh, do you know her?” I ask. “No,” she responds. “But I’ve seen pictures. Anyway, where was I? Yes, they treat us like slaves. Our rooms are tiny and we have to share shower areas. There’s no privacy at all. We work 12 hours a day minimum. It’s shit.” I watch her frowned face. She looks so unhappy. “Will you return to Hungary?” I ask her. “Maybe you have a better chance there.” She almost giggles. “It’s same shit there. I am just paid less. Here I can at least save some money.”
Next day, sometime after my fourth slice of pizza, I notice a tall, handsome man with a chiseled jaw of Orlando Bloom. He is “Luka from Croatia” his tag tells me. I find out he’s always wanted to work on a ship; he even went to a special maritime school in Dalmatia. “I love this job!” he tells me. “Isn’t it hard work? Don’t they work you hard?” I ask. “It is, and they do,” he says and grins. “But I love it! I’ll tell you a secret, Leah, are you paying attention? The secret to this job is that you must love the sea! If you don’t love the sea, you won’t be happy. I get to see places I have never been, I don’t have to pay for my room and I make more than I would in Croatia. I love it!”
And so I meet the photographers, the waiters, the cleaners etc. I find out the jobs no one wants are taken by Asians; if you speak English at least somewhat decently you get to work at a cruise shop. The captain is (of course) a guy from Western Europe or something like that. It’s a hierarchy of positions based on your country of origin. Less third-world you are, better your chances of making good money. There are people who can’t wait for their contract to be over, and then there are those that want to stay. And those that stay, hope to save enough money to go back to their home country and maybe buy a little tiny place they can call home.