Fish Out of Water
Seasick and Solitary on the Sandy Beaches Cruise
Although I didn't know exactly what to expect going into the Delbert McClinton Sandy Beaches Cruise, suffice it to say violent illness was not part of the travel plan in my head. But I had been fighting off a whomping case of the flu the whole weekend by the time we sailed Sunday evening, and there we were in Cancun before I peeled off my sweat-soaked pajamas. Worse yet, just when I thought I had slept all the flu out of my system, my landlubbing inner ear kicked in and laid me out for another 36 hours. By the time I kept down two meals in a row, we were nestled on the pier in Cozumel. (Memo to Norwegian Cruise Lines: sorry about that elevator.) Quarantined in my dorm-like cabin while the rest of the passengers socialized and got acquainted -- those who didn't already know each other from the five previous Delbert cruises -- I felt like even more of a stowaway than before when the realization set in that I was one of maybe two dozen passengers born after the Kennedy years. Even among the musicians, the only one I could rightfully call "junior" was Kenny Wayne Shepherd. Already, it was obvious I had been consigned the role of the invisible (young) man. Which maybe explains why I came back to Texas with cornrows, but let's not go there.
Not being the most social animal in creation even liquored up -- and not about to tempt the nausea fairy any more by drinking -- I came to revel in my illness-assisted solitude. Besides all the rest I was getting thanks to the motion-sickness pills, and the soothing effect of looking out the window and seeing nothing but water, I developed a sudden, almost violent affection for R.E.M.'s "Don't Go Back to Rockville," even writing out the words on a legal pad I brought along. There's a line in the song that took on added meaning out on the salt:
It's so much easier to handle all my problems if I'm too far out to sea, but something better happen soon or it's gonna be too late to bring me back.
It's impossible to tell if Michael Stipe is singing "see" or "sea," but either way I took the line to heart. It's also much easier to handle all your problems if you're sleeping around the clock; at least that way you can avoid potentially embarrassing situations with inebriated fortysomethings in Boomer's Disco. I've always had an older women jones, and under different circumstances may have been tempted to start something (or at least try), but the truth is I just didn't have the stamina.
So, no drinking, no carousing, and on the first few nights, fast asleep before the first performances at 9pm. What in the world was left to do on this boat? The free exercise room was out; the last thing I wanted to do in my condition was go a round with the StairMaster. There was a cage to hit golf balls, but I don't do that on land, so why start on water? (Batting cages, though -- ) That left nothing but spending money I didn't have.
I had brought a couple hundred bucks for souvenirs and incidentals (booze), but if I'd hit the ship's casino, duty-free gift shop (offering everything from expensive, top-shelf perfume to plastic Viking helmets), or a couple of the day trips offered by the onboard travel office, I'd have been cleaned out quicker than a day trader's desk after an Amazon.com free fall. Even the video games, something I can relate to infinitely more than a slot machine, cost $1 per game. What's up with that?
And someday, I'd like to visit the Mayan ruins at Chichen Itza and Tulum, stretch out on the white sandy beaches of Isla Mujeres, and snorkel among the shipwrecks off the Honduran island of Roatan, I'd just like to have more than an hour or two to work with -- that way I would feel like less of a turista gringo. As it was, I was content to stay in my cabin and watch CNN or the pay-per-view channel, offering The Matrix, Life, A Midsummer Night's Dream, and Arlington Road, among other fare.
Then there was the music. Wasn't that really what this thing was all about, or was it only the lure to get these people to drop the price of a computer for the trip? Was that even an issue? It didn't seem to be for the people ponying up the bucks.
We get spoiled in Austin, where even during traditionally "slow" periods (December-January), it's still possible to go out and see at least one worthwhile bit of live music a night; just last week saw Beck, Reverend Horton Heat, the Flatlanders, Daniel Johnston, Half Japanese, and Eugene Chadbourne all grace local stages. If one has the necessary means, out on a boat in the middle of the Gulf is as good a way to see Stephen Bruton or Joe Ely as waiting for them to come to Omaha or East Lansing. If cruisers get a chance to spend their hard-earned dinero bolstering the local economies of scenic Caribbean ports of call, then so much the better, right?
Sure, except that in the brief time I spent off the boat in Cozumel and Roatan, I saw plenty of people who would, if asked, probably choose another method of putting food on their table rather than catering to tourists. Maybe next year, Delbert and friends can hold a benefit show to help send the little girls who braided my hair to college. Those impressions lingered long after my other symptoms mercifully subsided.
If it sounds like I wouldn't recommend a Sandy Beaches vacation to my friends, it's a moot point. My friends live in Austin and can see Marcia Ball pretty much whenever they want, plus they tend to worry more about rent than exotic boat trips. But I'd be lying if I said I didn't enjoy myself. As vacations go, it was certainly relaxing, although I chose to relax in a different way than most of the others. I read Phillip Kerr's Berlin Noir by the pool, rejuvenating my flu-weakened muscles with sporadic trips to one of two Jacuzzis.
Most everyone else, when not napping poolside after one margarita too many, relaxed in one of the shipboard lounges watching someone perform. In Austin, that's something I do six nights a week. And, lest I forget, I was supposed to be there in a professional capacity, sizing up Sandy Beaches for our eminent publication, without which I would never be in a position to do stories like this in the first place.
Hoping to find some kind of angle to get a story (the idea of writing about being sick first surfaced as a joke), I ostensibly kept one reporter's eye attuned to my surroundings, while lacking the energy to do anything more strenuous than crossword puzzles. But after plenty of rest and breathing the salty tropical air, I did begin to feel better. Good enough to tap my feet to Wayne Toups, sway my hips to Tommy Castro, and take some lousy pictures of Sonny Landreth.
Ironically, as the Norwegian Sea hit a rough patch of weather on the way back to Houston Friday evening, scores of green-complected people hit their cabin heads while I finished my dinner for the first time all week. It was lobster. Suddenly, I felt like Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley: not part of a world where people can afford to do this sort of thing, but immersed in it nonetheless. Only where Damon's character aspires to be part of this world, I don't. I come into contact with it now and again as a writer, but I belong at the Hole in the Wall's Rock & Roll Free for All on Sunday nights.
I'll tell you one thing, though. Put Britney Spears, Beck, Snoop Dogg, and the Black Crowes on a slow boat to Jamaica, and I'll sign up to "cover" that sucker in a second.