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The (Minor) Agony on the Ecstasy

Prior to April, I had never taken a cruise. But I had always wanted to. I liked the sheer indolence of the word — rhymes with ooze and lose, as in your worries — as well as the ridiculously romantic notions I associated with pubescence and Saturday-night episodes of The Love Boat. I liked the unapologetic middlebrowness of standard cruise attractions like midnight buffets, steel-drum bands, duty-free shops. So when my husband of two and a half years suggested a three-day cruise to Ensenada, I jumped at the chance; we were newlywed enough to make this an addendum to our honeymoon, but married enough not to need a prolonged great escape on some desert island or rustic capital city. We only wanted to feel like we were away, particularly with the reality of the war in Iraq rushing in and the world looking less and less like our oyster and more like a collection of addresses where a boorish U.S. was showing up uninvited and wrecking all the furniture in the house. I longed not for an escape but for escapism; I wanted to bask in the lazy civility that went along with unlimited umbrella drinks circulating on every deck. The Vegas-on-the-high-seas setting of a cruise seemed just the ticket.

Everything started well enough. After slogging through a very long line at a San Pedro dock, we were whisked aboard the Carnival line’s Ecstasy, a massive ship that for me immediately lived up to its name. Once aboard, people got busy frittering away their time in a hundred different ways — playing slots at a casino, eating, drinking, sunning, reading, dancing to a live steel-drum band (surprise!). That first day, I settled into a coin-operated massage chair and vowed never to get back up. We departed in iffy spring weather, but it improved rapidly as we moved south: The sun shrugged off a morning skein of clouds, the water glittered all around us, and the land with all its earthbound problems disappeared by degrees into the horizon. All 2,500 passengers and crew were friendly, and despite the fact that we all traversed the same mile or so of ship all day, like ants swarming a hill, nobody ever seemed to be crowding anybody else’s space. I lay on a deck chair for about five hours without brooking a single interruption. I was still aware of pressing humanity, yet no longer of it — a heavenly paradox.

The decadence of all this disengagement was, like the chocolate confections at the endless buffets, almost too rich to believe. There had to be consequences. And there were, though nothing related to horror stories both mythical and actual that might have given me pause about going on a cruise in the first place — weird gastrointestinal illness, engine failure, pouring rain, paralyzing boredom. Our problem turned out to be the up-close attitudes of the same fellow passengers who had so generously left us alone.

At dinner the first night, my husband and I were seated with two other couples in the vast dining room. The couple across from us was genial in a yin-yang way — the husband pleasant but taciturn, the wife chatty and youthful despite her graying hair. We talked merrily about what we had done and what we planned to do once we docked in Ensenada — tour wine country, walk around town and buy Mexican tchotchkes. The time came to order appetizers, which included gratinée and some kind of escargot. I ordered the gratinée, which the wife instantly and cheerfully disavowed. “We don’t do anything French,” she said, wrinkling her nose. Her husband nodded, albeit a little sheepishly. It took me a couple of seconds to get it — they opposed gratinée, and all things French, therefore . . . they supported the war?

I was startled by this first intrusion into paradise. Next, I resented it. I opened my mouth to say that the French suited me just fine, when my husband gave me a warning kick beneath the table. “They have better wine than food anyway,” he said brightly, and changed the subject. I didn’t change it back. I was annoyed with my husband — my tactic back home is to attack all pro-war sentiment like a virus that has to be contained — but I was also relieved. I didn’t want to let anybody off the hook, but I also wanted to suspend that hook for the time being, if possible. That’s what I was here for.

In the ensuing dinner conversation, I discovered the husband of the couple was a career Marine who was now police chief of a small town somewhere east of Fresno. I relented a bit; this guy was clearly more ingrained with flag-waving than inspired by it. I even felt a little sympathy — he and his wife were probably looking to get away from the world, too. I looked out of the window at the sunset glowing crimson on the water — we were lucky enough to have a view — and felt restored to a certain dreaminess. Not even the fact that the husband turned out to be an American-history buff who participated in Civil War re-enactments broke the torpor. I was tempted to ask which side he fought on, but my mouth remained too occupied with the gratinée and the courses that followed.

The dreaminess persisted until late the next night. Wandering the boat from one entertainment option to another, we settled on a nightclub featuring a husky-voiced female singer and a backup band that included a mean rhythm guitar. Before the cruise I had braced myself for a lot of lukewarm musical talent doing cover songs by synthesizer, but I was more than pleasantly surprised to be proved wrong, at least by this act. Dahlia ran the gamut from Sting to Donna Summer to Dixie Chicks, all with a soulful delivery that got people onto the dance floor when they likely expected to be sitting down and tapping their toes. After my husband and I took a couple of turns ourselves — he’d promised dancing, part of the reason for this cruise — my happiness was nearly complete. I had good dance music and nowhere to be the next day.

I was literally floating, untethered to the daily grind. Then Dahlia, who had just finished singing a bluesy song from the lap of an appreciative middle-aged man, made an announcement. She said the man had a son fighting over in Iraq, and we should all send good vibes his way. Waving her mike in the air, she cried, “Let’s hear it for the war!”

I briefly considered ditching the club and going over to the disco a few doors down. But then I had another small revelation: These intrusions were very likely all over the ship. This place was a getaway, but it was also an agglomeration of mainstream American attitudes that I hardly encountered at work every week. This was not what I bargained for, I thought, but then again, it was: When I signed up for this cruise, I was hoping for an environment totally unlike my own, with potential surprises — and that’s what I got.

I decided I wouldn’t let those surprises spoil the trip; that’d be like letting a mild case of poison ivy spoil an otherwise spectacular stay in the country. Politically reprehensible opinions on vacation were, at this point, like exotic flora that was probably best to observe or judge from a distance. We stuck around for a couple more Dahlia numbers and danced some more before taking on the disco. (Lots of remixed Madonna; no politics.)

The rest of the weekend was as stellar as the beginning. I noted that the Ecstasy was staffed by people from countries all over the world; they all walked around with the names of their native lands — India, Sweden, Russia — pinned to their uniforms. They were lovely and cordial to us Americans in that Love Boat kind of way, though I was sure if you pressed them about their opinions on world matters, they’d give them to you. I didn’t press anybody, but the idea cheered me nonetheless. The couple we met at dinner wound up liking us so much that the husband gave us his card and said that if we were ever near Fresno, we could look them up and he’d escort us through town in a police car. That doesn’t quite beat a cruise, but it’s certainly somewhere else. And who knows? If we do meet up with them back on the ground and deep into California farm country, we may all sit down and revisit our conversation about the French.

Carnival Cruise Lines’ Ecstasy leaves from the Port of Los Angeles approximately every four days. Three- and four-day cruises range from $329 to $559. Call 1-888-CARNIVAL or visit www.carnivalcruises.com for more information.


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