Lessons from a Floating Motel

In my memory, I call it the floating Motel 6.

Now, I realize that might be a bit unfair to this plucky budget chain. After all, in a pinch a cheap motel is far better than sleeping without a roof (unless you planned to sleep under the stars, in which case it’s way better than a cheap motel). But such establishments generally are not considered luxury accommodations. And in my experience, adding water makes things worse, not better.

I’ll admit I’ve never been fond of life at the mercy of large bodies of water, so the idea of a cruise has always held limited appeal for me. Nor do I have a particular fondness for cheap, worn accommodations and their various lingering odors. So combine these elements with the culinary appeal of a dingy buffet restaurant, serving tasteless, fatty, meaty foods, and “luxury” is not one of the words likely to float through this vegetarian’s mind.

It was my first and only experience on a cruise. And it’s an experience I’m not eager to repeat. In fact, given what I saw and have since learned about employment practices on these ships, and related problems, I don’t intend to repeat it. But laying such considerations aside, there were plenty of reasons this trip was doomed from the start.

Believe it or not, this was a work trip. My company was one of several participating sponsors affiliated with this cruise for Christian women, and a few of our staff members went onboard in complimentary cabins to help with programming and enjoy our status as sponsors. I got a triple-occupancy cabin and invited my two sisters to join me for the four-day trip through the Gulf of Mexico, with planned calls at two well-known Mexican resort areas. This may not have been my ideal vacation, but it was complimentary, and that’s even better.

The first sign of trouble came on our way to Birmingham, Alabama, where we would board the ship. We received phone calls notifying us that the ship would be hours late coming into port. Our cruise would be starting later than planned. This was not a huge deal, but it was an indicator of the real problem, which the phone calls failed to mention.

Our second (and impossible to miss) clue came at the port itself, where we waited in the terminal with a host of Christian ladies and things became a little clearer. When the anticipated ship finally arrived and passengers disembarked, they entered the terminal on the other side of the building. And they began shouting at us on their way through.

“Don’t go!” they yelled.

“The boat is broken!”

“It was the cruise from hell!” they claimed.

Well, if given the choice I’d prefer a cruise from hell over a cruise to hell, but all the same I was a bit alarmed–and curious.

My sisters and I, along with a few other passengers, got as close to these disgruntled cruisers as the barricades would allow, and we asked for explanation. We were informed of various hardships: brown water coming from the faucets, non-functional engines, inadequate plumbing, a ship that had limped sluggishly through the gulf, and an assortment of other, more colorful problems.

When we asked the cruise line’s agents about these claims, they were quick to downplay them and assure us that everything was just fine. But soon a rumor spread through the throngs of waiting women: our itinerary had changed. We would not be stopping in the two resort areas as advertised. We would be making only one stop, in a place none of us had ever heard of. Checking this rumor, we confirmed it was true. The snorkeling expedition we had booked was not going to happen.

All this hubbub caused some of the women to second-guess the wisdom of this journey, but my sisters and I were on a free cruise–and I was there in a professional capacity–so we merely smiled at each other, looking forward to an interesting adventure.

Hours later, we found ourselves on the ship, waiting for our cabin. No doubt trying to prevent women from bolting, they had boarded us all without finishing preparations, so hordes of women wandered the ship waiting for access to their rooms and their luggage. As my sisters and I sat by a window, we noticed some TV news reporters who had arrived in their vans and begun interviewing passengers from the earlier cruise on camera. Another bad sign.

So we got on our phones and started checking the local news. Sure enough, passengers were telling horror stories of the cruise they had taken, with the ship operating on a fraction of its normal engine capacity and barely making it back to port. Here we were, sitting on that same ship and waiting to cast away, back the way they had come. Not good.

After dinner, when we finally had access to our cabin and it was time for sensible people to go to bed, we were still sitting in the harbor. The word in the corridors was that the ship indeed was broken, with only one good engine. The ship’s crew announced they were making repairs and we would soon be underway. But the longer the ship sat there, with words like “broken” lingering on people’s lips, the more a feeling of dread grew among many of the passengers, visions of the Titanic floating (well, sinking) in their heads.

At about midnight, I decided to go to bed. My sisters, feeling far more restless, wanted to go out and see if they could find out what was going on. I wish I had gone with them. I really missed out.

A mob of angry, panicked Christian women–some of them with children–had gathered in the ballroom. Some were demanding to be told the real story and others demanding to be let off the ship. In their desperation to control the situation and to keep passengers on the ship, the cruise line’s representatives made some unfortunate public relations gaffes. The tension increased, and finally the officials relented. Those who wanted to leave could do so–without refunds, they were careful to say. And they would be responsible for finding their own lodging and transportation from the terminal (in the middle of night) when they disembarked.

This was not the most attractive offer, but for some it was looking better than the confines of the ship. So several women went to get their luggage from their cabins. When they returned a few minutes later, their hopes of freedom were dashed. Just as they prepared to walk off the ship, the crew closed the door and announced we were pulling out from the port. And sure enough, a few minutes later–to the accompaniment of protests from the women who had given up on the cruise and now found themselves trapped on the ship–the engines roared to life and we were on our way.

After this exciting start, things got better…but not a lot. It turned out the ship’s engines were not operating at full capacity, even after the repairs, and we moved slowly through the gulf, chugging our way toward Mexico. Our one port of call was a small spot a mile from land, where we boarded buses for a trip to a small, decidedly non-resort town with a surprisingly visible police presence, where our options for adventure were limited to a market and massages on a small strip of beach sand.

Four hours after the ship docked, it departed, heading back the way we had come. And soon after, the rough seas started. Fortunately, my sisters and I were able to endure the motion with no more serious consequence than a dreadful lack of balance. But some of our fellow passengers were not so lucky, and that’s when the plumbing system’s challenges became obvious. I don’t think I’ll say more on that subject.

Perhaps the most amusing moment of the cruise came one evening when my sisters and I decided to watch a movie that was playing on the TV in our cabin. Well, we didn’t watch the whole thing–it was underway when we started. It wasn’t a very captivating production, and it obviously had been made a couple of decades earlier, but we made it to the end. We chatted and moved on to other interests as the credits rolled, then suddenly the whole thing started quickly moving backwards. We stared at it for a moment before realizing we were watching a broadcast of a rewinding VHS tape–about 10 years after we had last seen such an artifact. Someone somewhere on that boat was playing an actual videotape, rewinding it, and playing it again. It was just so weird. And historical.

Suffice it to say this was no luxury vacation. In fact, there’s no way it could have been. Putting a cheap, old motel on the water and serving all the late-night desserts your underpaid staff can generate just isn’t going to transform it into something it’s not.

Just as putting an expensive home around a dysfunctional family doesn’t make it a happy or healthy one. Putting a new pair of jeans on a body you hate won’t make you love the way you’re made. A new relationship won’t fix the flaws in you that wrecked the old one. It’s pointless to crave what other people have or to stretch beyond our means to keep up with the folks next door (or on the other side of town). It’s worthless to point our fingers at our leaders and cultural icons and blame them for our cultural problems, when our own spiritual corruption granted them power in the first place. And it’s pointless to look at the world around us for the answers to our soul-deep restlessness and our nagging sense that something isn’t right. For one thing, it will never be enough. For another, it won’t fix our faulty engines. It won’t give us what we truly need–internal healing, peace, and reconciliation with God.

  1. Kate says:

    Oh, what memories!! I had forgotten about the rewinding vhs tape! Thanks Amy for the picture you gave here for internal peace.

  2. Wow, great story! You had me hanging on to the very end, and then whammo — application, received!
    Sorry you actually had to live through that experience in order to write about it!

    • Amy says:

      Thanks, Michele! The experience had some saving graces: 1) it makes for a good story; 2) my sisters were there to laugh with the whole time!

© 2015 Amy Simpson.