Okay everyone, it's time for a sunny cruise. But remember, on shipboard your cabin steward makes the good times roll. He cleans your stateroom, changes the towels, turns down the bunks, puts a chocolate strawberry on your pillow, and generally falls all over himself to make you happy. Besides that, he's your best source of shipboard news and advice.
We had just boarded the Pacific Princess when our steward Jimmy (from Manila) knocks, announcing our every whim is his pleasure. Our whim at the moment happens to be fresh fruit, which he produces in three minutes flat. Teresa and I munch on a couple of bananas as we see the pilot boat come alongside. The Princess's engines throb, and the ship starts to move.
Jimmy, knocks again to advise us: "You get good view topside. You go. You see." He's right. We see Istanbul's skyline of bridges, hills, harbor, and more than thirty minarets looking like asparagus pointing the way to heaven. As we head down the Sea of Marmer, the sun makes its descent coloring the western sky a violent pink. We quickly discover on this ship: Jimmy knows best.
But Jimmy is not around when we meet our dinner table companions featuring a lady from New Jersey who doesn't know the difference between a monologue and a dialogue. We want to change tables but don't know the best way to pull it off.
Back in our cabin, I seek Jimmy's council. He says, "For too much talking woman, you go see dining room manager." Jimmy then rubs his thumb against his fingers — the sign that a tip would help. Fair enough, I think; after all it means extra work for the manager and his staff. I decide on $30. The manager obliges and the next night we find ourselves dining with some great folks from Canada and Oregon who, like us, are interested in history, books and architecture — and know the rules of polite conversation.
The manager tells me that table seating is his biggest headache. It's not unusual for 20% of the passengers to request a table switch. It's no wonder. Cruise lines usually match folks up by age, rather than, say, common interests or education. We conclude management could solve most of this by using software screening similar to the computer dating sites on the web. Hey, we could make this ship into a real love boat.
The sunsets, dinners and evening dancing are great, but it's the likes of Jimmy that make the trip happen for us. This guy is unfailingly polite, obliging and caring — even when working one of the toughest jobs on the planet. Most of the cabin staff sign eight-month contracts with fourteen-hour shifts, seven days a week. That means no days off for almost a year! British and Australians sign for six months, while Romanians sign for nine months. I never found out why the difference.
Crew members such as Jimmy truly want passengers to be happy and yes, even romantic. That's because they work for tips, plus a small salary and are thus highly motivated. Bleeding hearts may label this exploitation, but let them try to convince Jimmy's brother, who worked two contracts back-to-back, earning enough to return to the Philippines, buy a tiny house, hire a servant and retire for life.
Or take the two Mexican guys who are our waiters. Carlos and Jesus bring us birthday cakes, sing in Spanish, and even show us how to rhumba. Just one more eight-month contract, and they return to Mexico City to start a bakery. It's a win-win situation: your vacation is their salvation.
The ratio of Princess crew to passengers is 2:1 or better or 300 crewmembers for 600 passengers. Compare that with a Vegas hotel where it can run ten guests to each employee and you soon understand another reason why the service is so good shipboard.
The dining room manager tells us that most shipboard food comes via container ship directly from the U.S. Even the water is from America. Unlike airplanes where air is recirculated — meaning you are breathing everyone's coughs, sneezes and flu — shipboard air is fresh off the waves. The manager believes this is why so few passengers end up in sick bay. But hey, if you do get sick, you've always got Jimmy right there to nurse you back to heath.
Robert A Payne hails from Incline Village, Nevada where he writes a travel column for a local newspaper. We thank him for submitting this recent article for inclusion in the SeaLetter. Robert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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