On Friday morning we finally saw them, those wretched refugees of the Carnival Triumph, after five days stranded at sea. They disembarked the floating Port-a-John on which they had been imprisoned, some wearing white cruise line bathrobes to protect themselves against the unexpected chill, kneeling to kiss the ground as they came ashore.
“United States,” a woman in a floppy hat breathed ecstatically to a television reporter. “Ain’t nothing better.”
A cruise represents not only a vacation, but a very specific kind of vacation. One books it when one does not want to have to decide, or plan, or worry, or change money, or get tetanus shots. The people who would take a cruise have considered hiking through Nepal, cycling through Norway, staying at quaint little flophouses in Eastern Europe — it’s not like they don’t know those travel options exist — and thought, “No.” They do not believe that getting your wallet stolen in Mexico City is “a good story.”
I have cruised, and I loved it, and so I say fondly: A cruise ship’s passenger log is comprised entirely of the exact demographic that is least prepared for a cruise to go to pot. A cruise is a giant boat full of your mother-in-law. Your mother-in-law does not belong in the wild.
What happened: Midway through a four-day Mexican cruise, the Triumph’s engine room caught fire, the ship lost power, and then suddenly it was just drifting, somewhere in the Gulf of Mexico. A four-day trip became an eight-day one. A 102,000-ton boat, the length of three football fields and containing 4,000 passengers, was reduced to Huck Finn’s raft. It took three days for some gallant little tugboats to tow it into port in Mobile, Ala. There was nothing for watchers at home to do but imagine the hellscape aboard the doomed vessel.
But now the survivors are back, ready to share what really happened. On the “Today” show, Matt Lauer encouraged two female passengers to tell him everything. But everything, edited. “Not too graphic,” he warned them. This was, after all, a morning show. The women appeared briefly flummoxed, trying to figure out how to tell a G-rated version of the story.
“It was, like, post-natural disaster,” Julie Billings said finally. “But stuck on a boat.”
Excuse us, Matt Lauer, but how could the story not be graphic? The filth, the waste, the rapid decline, is precisely what made the saga so horrifying for viewers and readers at home. We hung onto every bleated-out text message of despair, every description of what they were eating, and where they were sleeping, and where their waste went. (In red plastic bags. Marked with hazardous-waste symbols. Left outside state rooms. In ice buckets.We saw pictures.)
It was a drama, but not of danger. It was a drama of discomfort.
The smell. Just think of the smell.Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to think of the smell. The unrefrigerated food and the unrefreshed bodies, the uncirculated dankness of the cabins, so filthy that passengers began sleeping on deck chairs instead, lugging their pillows to some high-thread-count open-air slumber party.
“I’m just happy to be alive,” a woman told “Good Morning America.”
Hell is other people. Hell is other people on a boat. What will it take before we accept this? After David Foster Wallace writes about it in an erudite essay? After a Concordia captain abandons his sinking ship? After a New York Times reporter mentions that his journey on the classy Cunard was delayed for several hours so workers could scrub the ship down after a norovirus outbreak?
It’s over now, all over.
Carnival put the passengers on buses, heading either to New Orleans or to their origin point of Galveston, Tex. The company had promised to cover all travel expenses home. And to give each passenger $500 in compensation.
As well as a credit. A credit for another cruise.