Thursday, March 16, 2017

What I Did On My Spring Vacation, by Jerome Comeau, Age 41. Part one -- The First Day

After talking about it for several years, last year it was announced that the Jonathan Coulton Cruise (aka JoCoCruise) was in 2017 going to be out of San Diego, and furthermore was going to be able to control the whole boat (instead of sharing the cruise ship with non-JoCo people), and Jean and I agreed that this was the year we'd go on the Cruise. So we saved up a bunch of money (Cruises are expensive, y'all), made our reservations, and on Friday March 3rd we boarded a plane to San Diego for JoCoCruise 2017.

This year was the first year that JoCo had the full boat, and it was the first year of West Coast cruising, and also the first year of returning to Holland America Lines as the Cruise Provider, so it was a year of firsts including my first-ever cruise, as well as my first JoCo cruise. Lots of the JoCo Crew have done multiple JoCo Cruises, so I was a little nervous we wouldn't know anyone, but Friday night as we wandered back into the Hotel from some last minute sundry shopping, I ran into my old friend Jaques whom I knew from my time in Chicago. He and his lovely wife Dawn were also on the cruise this year, so I suddenly felt much better about not being isolated and alone -- if nothing else I could glom onto Jaques and Dawn and it would be less scary. That turned out not to be the case (if anything, I found it difficult to find any time to hang out with Jaques and Dawn, which I feel pretty lousy about), but it was a nice reassurance to my fears. Also, travelling with Jean is the bestest; she understands my (entirely irrational) anxiousness around the Day Of Travel, and does her best to keep me calm and grounded. She's pretty amazing y'all.

After a comedy of errors around our rental car at the San Diego Airport (turns out lots of people want convertibles in San Diego, and Thrifty is willing to rent the same car to three different people), we were off and on our way. The good news is that, in an emergency, it was entirely possible to walk to the airport from the Hotel (and, consequently, the dock) in about 20 minutes, so driving was simple.

Unless you're me, of course, because apparently my ability to drive in strange cities is now Completely Broken. If there was a wrong turn possible, I managed to take it (usually more than once -- I missed the turn onto Harbor Blvd (the frikking waterfront road) THREE DIFFERENT TIMES. Fortunately, we were able to finally get checked in, and then make a run to Best Buy for a new camera and a stop at In-N-Out because we always stop for In-N-Out in Southern California. Our room was on the top floor of a 13-story hotel, so the view was spectacular. Of course, it was a view of the construction cranes around the harbour and not the actual ocean, but hey, it was one night, and the balcony was really lovely.

To soothe my Day Of Travel worries on Saturday the 4th (Embarcation Day), we ordered room service for breakfast, and then took the rental car back. Yes, we only had it for one night, but I'll be damned if it wasn't entirely worth it to have a car for our one evening in San Diego. Our boarding time was officially 1PM, but many, MANY people decided to go early. I made us sit in the lobby until a quarter til, because the less time I could spend in crowded lines the better, plus I was at the time trying to pass a kidney stone (this part of the story has a happy-but-scary ending in a later entry), so I was drinking lots of water and trying to be within 15 minutes of a bathroom at all times.

If there's one thing that nerds know how to do, it's queues. Seriously, even had the HAL people NOT done a great job of delineating, determining, and drawing out the line-up process, I'm pretty sure we would have done a fair job of it anyway, but HAL was on-point with their process, at nearly Disney-level organizational status. We got in a line to drop off our bags (to be delivered to our staterooms and therefore not gum up the actual boarding process) (and I went to the bathroom), then we passed into a line to fill out our heath and safety forms (and I went to the bathroom), and then we got in a line to get our HAL room key / photo ID / moneybadge, and then we got in line for our nametags and lanyards, and then we slipped into a line where they checked our passports, and from there we were funneled through the gangway and onto the boat (where I made an immediate bee-line for our cabin and the bathroom).

The MS Westerdam was, to me, huge: 285 meter keel, 32 meter beam, 11 passenger decks and five coaldecks, 82,500 gross tonnage with a passenger capacity of 1,916 and a crew of 800. It was not quite entirely full (JoCo had a little over 1700 people signed on at departure), but it was full enough that it felt pretty cozy. Many other cruisers mentioned that the Westerdam felt small to them, as previous cruises on the East Coast had used much larger ships, but to me it was the largest water-borne vessel I had ever been on. I was moderately concerned that I would need to deal with seasickness, but I only really had problems early in the morning in our pitch-dark cabin when I couldn't reset my horizon-line, as it were; after turning on the lights or going for a short stroll I was fine, even during the roughest parts of the trip (which, granted, were totally tame when compared to some horror stories I'd heard).

Speaking of our stateroom: we had an interior cabin, which meant no window or other exposure. It did have a queen bed, and a surprisingly spacious bathroom, and was really quite lovely (except for the one ceiling light that couldn't decide if it wanted to be on or not). We did mildly miss the window later in the trip, but once the lights were out the cabin got DARK, which was great for allowing us to get plenty of restful sleep as the ship gently rocked us into our dreams. Were we to go again, we've talked about an exterior balcony/veranda or something, to allow a little morning light in so we could get up an moving more easily, but I'm getting ahead of myself.

Our steward for the trip was Roni, a young Filipino man (this is a theme during the cruise, btw -- I'll come back to this), who was nothing but pleasant and gracious. He introduced himself as we were getting settled, learned our names, and never failed to greet us and ask us how we were doing. He cleaned up after us, did a fantastic job of tidying up our natural slovenliness, and his towel-animal skills were pretty awesome.

We popped into the "New Monkeys" meeting to get our bearings and hear the various traditions and in-jokes explained to us, as well as how things were going to work -- the auditorium and the dining room could only seat about half the total number of nerds at one go, so the entire boat was broken into Red Team and Gold Team, complete with a Red Leader and a Gold Leader (chosen by lottery and entirely arbitrary). As a member of Gold Team (Y-Wing the Best Wing, Bombers in da House, Remember the Alderaan), we were Of Course the superior team -- an early concert and a late dinner -- as opposed to Red Team (Flybois Always Show Off, They Use X Because Otherwise They Couldn't Find The Target) who were early dinner / late concert. It was also when I took the Temperance Pledge, disconnecting me from the real world and any internet or other digital connection for the duration of our trip; Jean took a "modified" pledge which allowed her to poke at her phone when we were close enough to land, although she didn't spring for the wifi package on the boat. After the first night the wisdom of our choice at least for us was apparent; it meant our late morning wakeup and even later lunch did not ruin our dinner plans.

Departure was weirdly anticlimactic -- the ship was so large that the only clue that we were moving was the fact that the dock started to get smaller. Also, it was COLD on deck. So we headed to our first concert. The performance was fine, but the woman sitting behind us was so drunk it made the experience miserable. It was not an auspicious start, and I was beginning to think we had made a terrible, terrible mistake. After the concert, the entire population of the ship tried to swap places along one corridor on one deck, which was a huge mistake. Jean and I ended up going back to our stateroom for 10 minutes or so for a bathroom break (this is a theme!), and then tried again for dinner.

Our waiter for dinner was Al (short for Aloysius), another young Filipino gentleman whose cheer and good humour settled me back down, and I relaxed and enjoyed a truly delicious meal. I even had the pate (which I never do), which was ASTOUNDINGLY good. However, this was possibly our first mistake of the cruise: Jean and I decided to dine alone at a 2-top table (which we ended up doing for the rest of the cruise), which meant we spent a large amount of time with just each other for company. Don't get me wrong, I love Jean's company and if I had to I would spend the rest of my life with her and only her perfectly content. But it did mean that we didn't get to know our fellow cruisers particularly well, and that was a less-good choice (not a bad choice, but not a great one).

A post-prandial constitutional (thanks, Georgianna, for that fantastic phrase) along the upper deck, followed by drinks in the ACTUAL 10-Forward (yep, it was a bar, at the bow, on Deck 10, with windows and a bar and everything), and then back to the stateroom for a good night's sleep on a surprisingly-comfy queen-sized bed.

Things I learned on the first day: not drinking alcohol on a cruise is preferable to drinking alcohol on a cruise. Not only was I present and able to enjoy myself without worry, but I was also smugly superior to all of those drunken jerks who couldn't manage to shut the fuck up during the concert. Thankfully, this was an aberration rather than a pattern, but it didn't prevent me from being annoyed by it. Also, being social takes WORK. In our swag bags for the trip (we got one almost every day, which was awesome), in addition to the FULLY FUNCTIONAL UKULELES, we also got "friendship pins". These were two buttons, one green with a gigantic and easily readable YES (subtitle "I DO want to friendship right now") and one red with a gigantic and easily readable NO (subtitle "I do NOT want to do friendship right now"). These two buttons may have been the best idea ever for a boat full of introverted nerds, and I love them so much I am thinking about wearing them every day in the Real World (aka, the longest, most boring Shore Excursion of the cruise). Also, I noticed that many cis-conforming folk went ahead and noted pronoun preferences on their name badges, which is awesome: the way to make something normal and not-strange is for us all to normalize the behaviour, so trans and nb folk don't have to feel weird about doing it because the rest of us are too.

Anyway, that was Day 1. Day 2 was a Day At Sea, and that was interesting.