You're thinking of taking a cruise to Alaska….
You're envisioning scenery, adventure, getting pampered. You're even hoping it might be romantic. Or maybe your elderly parents or grandparents have invited you to join their trip of a lifetime. Last year, a record 23 million cruise passengers set sail around the world. According to the Cruise Lines International Association, Alaska cruisers account for over a million people-58 percent of the state's summer visitors. But even if a cruise doesn't sound up your alley, maybe you think you can do it ironically. You know, lighten up. For the sake of the family. But before you book I'd like you to imagine waking up seven consecutive mornings in a floating but serviceable beige motel room. Two single beds pushed into a double. A watercolor painting of a lighthouse. There will be an ocean view but your window will not open. So unless you pay double the price for a balcony, you will live and feel and breathe the beige. This particular Floating Motel, awarded four stars by the Floating Motel Industry, will be home to 700 staff and 1,400 guests-or "mariners." This is apparently the average ratio for constructions of its kind.
Outside your "stateroom" there will be miles of orange carpet, a 30-foot brass statue of mermaids standing in clams, a quarter-mile walking track where jogging is prohibited and everywhere there will be warning signs, especially in the bathrooms. The signs will be there because either A) you are a child and have never been to an adult bathroom before or B) people have damaged and/or sued the Floating Motel Corporation. Don't flush syringes. Water is precious. Please open the door with a tissue. Used towels ONLY.
Should you forget to wash your hands-or even if you remember-there will be automatic hand-sanitizer dispensers located outside every bathroom, restaurant, lounge, bar, stairwell and elevator. Should you somehow miss these, a man with a jug, dressed like a bell-hop will be positioned at intervals down every corridor. Make no mistake, 20 times per day, something or someone will goo in your palm. In fact, the soundtrack to your Floating Motel voyage will be the whirr of hand-sanitizer dispensers, piped-in birdsong, omnipresent Muzak and the regular church bells of passenger announcements.
Bing-bang-bong: "Ladies and gentlemen, this is your cruise director, Tony, and I'd like to remind you of the art auction happening on the navigation deck at two this afternoon."
Bing-bang-bong: "Tonight at seven, glacier cocktails are only five dollars- at the Ocean Bar."
Inside the motel's hermetically-sealed "smart casual" restaurant (hand-sanitizer), the food will be mediocre. It will be described on the menu-and presented on the plate-as if it were fabulous but, in the end, mediocre. Two shrimp will comprise a shrimp cocktail, for instance. Wild Alaskan mountain berries tossed with mint and vintage Cognac will be a cocktail glass of leftover fruit salad with the addition of a mint leaf and two blueberries. Your mains will be bland, rich and safely well-done; the riskiest spice will probably be dill and, despite the Indonesian and Filipino wait-staff, the only chilies will come from Tabasco. The desserts will be terrible. Missoula Rotary Club Military Wives' Cookbook; circa 1950 terrible. Instant cake. Featherweight ice-cream. Coagulated meringue. Your first meal will be interrupted five times by three different people inviting you to tomorrow's ($15 per person) wine tasting. Because it's the first night and everyone will be so bon-voyage-jolly, you won't have the wherewithal to snap, "Not interested-and please don't ask me again." But fret not. You'll get there by tomorrow.
Above the main restaurant (hand-sanitizer), next to the pool (hand-sanitizer), will be the buffet (hand-sanitizer) where most people take their daytime feeds. You will learn to dread this circus. To cut down on waste, mariner gluttony and the unspoken threat of Norovirus, trays and serving utensils will not be provided. Instead, you will have to ask pleasantly hateful Southeast Asian dinner-ladies for each and every item. "Please may I have some mashed potatoes? And some ketchup. A bit more please. And a bit of beets. Is that a chicken breast or a fish fillet? Oh, it's a pork chop? No thanks, then." Keep in mind that hundreds of other mariners-mostly elderly, many obese-will be asking similar questions and more. Without trays, assembling a complete meal, with drinks, at your table-and forget about the ones by the windows, those are always taken-will require four trips on average. You will think to yourself: a sex cult couldn't have designed a better clusterfuck. Then: or could they?
For entertainment there will be bingo. Towel-folding workshops. Seminars on how to choose the right diamond. Free foot assessments followed by a sales-pitch for pricey in-soles. Even a depressing, 10-table casino (penny slots!). One rainy morning you might even find a happy-clappy assistant cruise director wrapping a toilet-paper blindfold around a man's head before bidding him to throw a bean-bag through a hole in a board in an attempt to win a Floating Motel t-shirt. There will be 20 other mariners, of all ages, cheering him on. You will think to yourself: How is this possible? At night, there will be musical tribute acts, family-friendly comedians and a magician with a dog. Also, thanks to a promotional tie-in with a hit network television series, each day will bring a new dance followed by a competition. On the last night there will be an all-singing, all-dancing finale where you-yes, you!-can strut your stuff upon the glitzy main stage. First prize? Another cruise! Second prize? Two cruises! You will spend most nights in your stateroom reading on your Kindle.
Bing-bang-bong: "Hey, folks. Tony again. I would like to amend the previous announcement. The ice-sculpting demonstration will be held on the Lower Promenade. And don't forget, all watches are 10 percent off today at Indulgences on Deck Seven."
As expected, most of your fellow mariners will be senior citizens. Bafflingly, there will also be hundreds of people without their parents who appear to have full mobility and control of their own finances. Many will be wearing sweatshirts printed with the word 'Alaska' and, say, a howling, critically-endangered Arctic wolf upon the front. Some will carry professional-caliber cameras with which they'll take pictures through tinted, water-stained windows. Others will observe and film sea otters-barely visible through high-range binoculars-with their iPads. A whale will appear and, for a moment, you will remember what it's like to be free.
Once, you will park beside a massive, calving glacier. Thanks to record-setting temperatures it will shed building-size icebergs in front of your eyes. (You will not ponder your personal contribution to climate change though later you will read a US Department of Energy study showing Alaska's temperature rising at twice the global average and the carbon footprint of your average cruise passenger being thrice that of a 747-like the two you will have taken to get to Anchorage.) These magnificent moments will comprise roughly 90 minutes of your Floating Motel voyage. But back to the rest of your week.
Bing-bang-bong: "We'd like to remind you that today our shopping consultant Shirley will be hosting a workshop on the best places to find Native crafts in Ketchikan!"
Occasionally you will stop at quaint, coastal towns with populations of, say, 15,000. There will be several other Floating Motels parked nearby, some of them twice the size of yours. They will cumulatively disgorge about 10,000 people into five city blocks of souvenir shops-many of them owned by the Floating Motel corporations themselves. You will now have six hours to experience Alaska. You will wonder why there are so many jewelry shops around and why, for instance, there is so much tanzanite available this close to the Arctic Circle. But you will not chase this information down-just as you will not Google Floating Motel waste elimination or how much exhaust you have coughed amongst the humpbacks of Glacier Bay (Friends of the Earth say cruise ships dumped a billion gallons of sewage into the world's oceans in 2014 but they're a bunch of whiners). Your soul, you see, like the planet, will be dying. Every morning-if you possess the barest shred of environmental awareness-you will awaken with the gorilla of anxiety seated upon your chest. His presence will inform you that you are not just part of the problem, you are the problem.
Your bar bill will be tremendous.
To escape, momentarily, from the Floating Motel-and all the Faux-tem Pole shops just beyond-you will plump for an excursion. You will not take the bing-bang-bong promoted helicopter-dog-sled-across-the-glaciers tour because, to be gauche, a thousand dollars for four hours seems a bit much. Instead, you and your spouse will go whale watching. First (hand sanitizer) you will walk down the gangplank and help fill a large bus (hand sanitizer). Before you set off you will receive a safety talk. About the bus. Because either A) you are a child who has never ridden an adult bus before or B) people have damaged and/or sued the Floating Motel Bus Corporation. To prevent you from having a single original thought, your bus journey will be narrated to within an inch of its life. You will hear canned jokes about the weather. You will learn when the local gold mine closed down. Upon arrival at the dock, you and your fellow mariners will be herded down a Habitrail of fencing onto to the whale-watching vessel. Here, you will receive another safety briefing and, just in case your internal dialog hasn't yet been drowned like a sack of kittens, the next four hours will be breathlessly narrated by perky biology undergrads. Again, you will see whales. This time you will consider joining them.
Post excursion, your hands will be sanitized three times between the gangplank, your stateroom and the gym. By this stage you will be conditioned to accept, even seek, the goo. You will wonder whether the entire Motel coming down with headline-worthy diarrhea would make the experience more, or less, exhilarating. At home, you're not a fan of weight machines but you can understand why there aren't a lot of free-weights available to elderly people on a tilting platform. For the next two hours you will wail on your body like a self-flagellating monk. This exercise will render it physically impossible to strangle your parents- who, though you love them dearly, are the only reason you agreed to board the Floating Motel. Luckily, your mother will share many of your sentiments, and will have a much better attitude in general than yours. Except, perhaps, regarding your father. But that is a different gorilla.
Back in your stateroom, surrounded by your favorite color — which is beige! — you will promise your spouse every imaginable means of reparation. She will have eaten 16 consecutive meals with her in-laws. You will wonder aloud why she's still with you. You will kiss the soles of her feet. For her part, she will have achieved what you did in the gym through equal parts meditation and room-service. Again you will ponder the size of your tab.
On your last night you will approach your octogenarian father at the back of a piano bar after a Broadway showtunes cover act. Because of the way he will have seemed to be avoiding you all week, you will agonize over whether you've spent enough time together. Whether this might, in fact, be the last time you see him. You will be impressed, however, that despite taking no excursions, watching the glaciers for less than 10 minutes and spending most of the week either reading, napping, poking about souvenir shops or ducking his head in the various entertainment areas, he will appear, like most mariners, surprisingly content. Your old man's enjoyment of this whole experience-which your Official Souvenir Portrait will refer to as Alaska's Inland Passage: the Journey-will reinforce, in a different way, the gorilla of anxiety's accusation that you, and not the Motel, are the problem. You will ask your father what his trip highlights have been.
He will reply that he liked it when his knee didn't hurt.
After compartmentalizing an urge to patricide-he is, after all, your beloved and respected elder-you will solicit an answer that's more Motel specific. After consideration, your father will reply that he also liked how people weren't on their phones all the time. You will think: Well observed, pops. $8 per minute phone rates will do that. You will then have the following conversation:
You (shouting): Hey pops, I had to print my boarding passes for our flight tomorrow. I still have 13 minutes of internet credit-do you want it?
Pops (also shouting-he will have spent the entire week without his hearing aids): I don't need to print anything.
You (still shouting but slowly, which is hard): No, Pops. Remember how you wanted to price-compare those shoe-inserts they were selling at the gym?
You: Would you like to have my leftover internet credit to do that?
Pops: I'm not on the internet right now. The internet here is too expensive.
(At this point, people around you will snicker-albeit in a good-natured and understanding way. We've all been there.)
You (still shouting slowly, but enunciating): Pops. I, your son, have purchased 30 minutes of internet time. I only used 17 minutes.
Pops: Okay, that means you have 13 left.
You: Good. Do you want those minutes?
Pops (bit excited, loves a bargain): Well, yeah. Do I have to use them now?
You: No, Pops. I've written down my name, my room number and my password.
Pops (intently studying the piece of paper you've just handed him) IS FLOATINGHELL ALL ONE WORD?