Recently, I was presented with an opportunity to enjoy a cruise to the Caribbean as part of Aquafest.
Aquafest is the brainchild of Tom Baker, president of CruiseCenter, and winner of Condé Nast Traveler 's prestigious title "World's Leading Large Ship Specialist." Aquafest organizes cruise packages for LGBT folks (and friends thereof). Significantly, their events are integrated with nongay cruise lines, offering a chance to be out and proud without being segregated.
I love travelingâ€¦ However, I've never journeyed in tourism circles, never been part of a larger group -- gay or straight -- nor have I ever been on a cruise. Every time I tried to imagine what to expect, all I could see was the huge face of Gavin MacLeod -- his gleaming, bald head blinding me with reflected sunlight. I bought dark sunglasses.
Eager to assimilate myself into the alien world of cruise culture, I arrived in Fort Lauderdale with my boyfriend and boarded the MSC Lirica , the Italian, Mistral-class cruise ship that would be our home for the next 10 days.
The ship's interior, with its colors of emerald, coral, and camel -- and accented with enough brass to craft a French horn for every child in North America -- reminded me of those Reno casinos you find near but off the Strip.
We met our gracious host, Tom Baker, and the rest of our queer peers. We were a group of about 70 -- small in relation to previous groups, as we were told by the event manager, Tom Thompson (Aquafest clearly has a strict "Toms-only" hiring policy).
The majority of the group was middle-aged, middle-class, and middle America. I got the sense that this opportunity, to be openly gay en masse in a predominantly heterosexual environment, was a rare event for most of the group; not so for me and my boyfriend, coming as we were from Los Angeles, where being gay can sometimes feel like an afterthought -- something as important as your religious beliefs, but not as socially weighty as, say, your choice of footwear.
We dressed for dinner, which was to be formal. For someone with my punk roots, this means wearing something without missing buttons. Luckily, my boyfriend has better fashion sense, and like something out of an episode of Project Runway , he quickly transformed my look into something more (forgive the pun) suitable.
We arrived at the doorway to the restaurant, but there was some confusion: Staffers were explaining to members of our group that we would have to enter from the (otherwise identical) entrance on the other side of the restaurant; that "this entrance" was off-limits to us. Because the Italian staff spoke only broken English (in some cases not even broken but disintegrated), this bizarre request was not immediately believed, but we begrudgingly acquiesced.
Once seated, Tom Baker explained that half the restaurant was reserved for Aquafest, but, as fate would have it, the rest of the dining room was booked for a huge group of, wait for itâ€¦French Orthodox Jews -- not exactly known for their support of homosexualité -- and it was they who sanctified the entrance we were barred from.
It was a screwball comedy waiting to happen, and I wasn't sure if I was nervous or elated by the idea of starring in it. Before I could react, in burst Hedda Lettuce, the green-hued drag queen who was our MC for the cruise.
The somber and formal group on the opposite side wore shocked, almost terrified expressions, as wide eyes witnessed this sequined, glittering, seductively curvy 6-foot-1 giant of a woman, with her hugely coiffed kelly green hair. Oblivious to the presence and politics of the other half of the restaurant, she shouted, "Welcome, everybody! Welcome to the Lirica ! How's everyone this evening?" Her answer was a stunned silence. Well, and one stifled laugh -- that came from me.
We were to share the dining room for the next 10 days, and in that time I witnessed a fascinating evolution, as two very different groups of minorities, literally separated by a wide aisle and separate entrances, observed the other. In that time, Hedda Lettuce proved to be a kind of glitter-gilded dove of peace. A fearless diva, she alone was unintimidated by what anyone thought of her; she waved to the other side, blew kisses to the dour-faced rabbi, and ordered kosher foods.
After a few nights of this, two very wrinkled, hunched, older women slowly, sheepishly made their way through our "gay section" and stood, transfixed -- staring at Hedda with nervous smiles. Hedda stopped flirting with the wait staff and glided over to the two women, who were half the size of Hedda. They listened as she greeted and cooed at them without understanding a word, their grins so big you'd think they were children seeing Santa.
That was all it took. The wall between the groups was less distinct after that. For the rest of the cruise, yarmulke-capped men of various generations would encourage each other to pose for pictures with Hedda, and the hollers and whoops that Hedda would elicit from us gays were matched by joyous Hebrew songs. Oh sure, there was still some kaynahorah sent our way -- not everyone was pleased we were there -- but there was a childlike curiosity, a desire to play, that pervaded the two divided groups. In this way, I saw the true value of Aquafest's choice to be integrated.
Unfortunately, none of the aforementioned warm-cuddlies could help the food. For that, I'd require a thesaurus, book-marked at the word inedible . Looking around, you could see diners pushing their food around with forks, their faces confused, trying to recall what it was they ordered, uncertain whether that was what was on their plate.
"A doggie bag will not be necessary."
The breakfast buffet turned out to be loosely based on the British breakfast, minus the delicious meats. My options were sweet runny beans, pale yellow scrambled eggs (resembling loofah sponges soaked in oil), stewed tomatoes, gray sausage links, and what I assume was bacon but may well have been the scarred remains of a dead crew member.
I opted to skip breakfast in lieu of coffee, but was astonished to find that the only cups provided were about the size of a newborn baby's fist. By the time I filled my cup and found a place to sit, it would be time to get a refill. So I got three cups of coffee and sat down, self-conscious, certain that I had just proved to the overwhelmingly European passengers that Americans really are gluttonous creatures.
Eric Himan, the hunky and gifted musician who was hired as Aquafest entertainment, proved to be the first of us to start showing signs of Internet withdrawal. Because it was cost-prohibitive to use the ship's pay-per-minute computers, none of us had gone online since we'd set sail. Tapping his fingers on the table in a staccato rhythm, he confessed he didn't know how long he could last.
I wanted to tease him for being so silly, but deep down I had the same anxiety. We were the Donner Party of the World Wide Web, and no one knew for sure how long we could survive before killing the ship's officers and pillaging their modems.
Days passed with little circumstance. My boyfriend, an avid sunbather, took advantage of each island's beaches, whereas I would try to break free from the artificial and commercial structures that grew around the ports, to discover a more authentic culture beyond.
As the cruise progressed I became more impressed with Aquafest while simultaneously growing frustrated with the cruise ship itself. The language barrier proved to be the greatest challenge, and led to situations that either made me laugh or cuss, depending on how many Manhattans I'd had.
A simple request to have delivered to our cabin a bowl of soup, a plate of rice, and two hard-boiled eggs resulted in a 40-minute wait, at which point a waiter brought us seven plates of rice! We took one plate and refused the rest, but that didn't stop the kitchen from sending another waiter five minutes later with seven bowls of soup and, true story, 14 hard-boiled eggs.
"Do they think we're a hospital children's ward?"
"I don't know, butâ€¦this soup tastes like creamy pee."
Afternoons, as my boyfriend napped, I'd visit the Coffee Corner -- one of the ship's many cafés and, ironically, the only room on board that had no corners. Snuggled against one of the curved walls, I'd order a Diet Coke. It would always come with a swizzle stick, at first causing me a moment of worry: What had they put in my soda pop that needed stirring?
On one of these occasions, a voice over the loudspeaker informed me in five different languages that there was to be an art auction. What intrigued me was that one of the selling points they mentioned was there would be art "for the ladies, and also the gentlemen." Really? Gender-specific art? I went to investigateâ€¦
It was the same kind of art that is occasionally displayed outside the entrances of your local supermarket, or at a kiosk in a mall -- dancers, horses, flowers, pastel pastorals, etc. I studied the assortment and realized I couldn't see which was meant for what gender. OK, the still life of chrysanthemums in a picnic basket, that's pretty feminine. But the circus clown balancing on a barrel of alcohol -- which sex wants responsibility for that?
By the end of the cruise I was split down the middle. While I missed the rocking back-and-forth motion that so lulled me at bedtime, I was eager to escape the piped-in pop music that played on a loop in the hallways 24 hours a day. (Imagine hearing "99 Luftballons" every other night in your dreams!) I'd often wax poetic about the vision of hundreds of kites flying over the coastal cemetery in Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, but never again want to see the cleaning woman who wasn't aware her uniform was sheer enough to show she never wore underwear.
Luckily, Aquafest does not book its cruises solely on the MSC Lirica , and I can with sincerity recommend Tom Baker's services.
I leave you with this advice: Not everyone in the world is lucky enough to be queer, so when traveling amongst the poor majority that isn't so fortunate, remember, keep an open mind. And be careful when ordering eggs.