Travel should be about helping you connect with the people of the countries you are visiting, to understand their culture, their economy and their history. What I like about cruising is that we get that opportunity, not only in port, but also with the people we meet on board.
There are typically over 60 nationalities working any given cruise. While they are primarily from India, the Phillipines and Indonesia, there is also strong representation from the Caribbean and other countries where economies are struggling. Workers will hail from places like Serbia, Croatia, Poland and Hungary and recently, we have noticed a stronger contingent from the Ukraine and Russia.
We often get to know some crew members better than others, chatting them up during down times, and getting to know them. It starts off with how long they have been with the cruise line, and this particular contract, and it easily becomes a conversation about the family they have back home, the struggles in their country and the deeper we get into a conversation, especially if we have frequent contact, we learn about the day to day life of a citizen in that country.
Aryah is one example that comes to mind. We had a couple of lovely conversations with her on a couple of occasions. She was from India, but definitely had more Chinese traits then East Indian features. We were intrigued, and learned after conversing with her a few times, that she came from a state in the most north-east part of India called Assam, just below Tibet. Did you know India was a federation of 28 states and 9 territories? I certainly was not aware, until that moment when we engaged with her. Of course, its logical, since India was an English colony, and would have received a governance system similar to other federations colonized by the United Kingdom.
We had our iPads with us, and looked up a map to locate her state since we were curious to see where it was situated, given her strong Chinese features. Just as she had explained, her state was just barely connected by a tiny state that served as a bridge between them and the rest of India. Otherwise, they were surrounded by Bangladesh, China and Mayanmar.
It seemed her father was a well off merchant in her home state, but that she had chosen a life on the high seas, to be away from all the turmoil at home and because the income potential on a ship is far more than any employment prospects back home. She explained that she lived in Mumbai now (formerly known as Bombay), very far from Assam, but that she was looking forward to returning to her village at the end of her contract.
The more we talked, she opened up about discrimination in her country and in Mumbai where she lives now and how she was regularly sneered at and even verbally attacked in public places or transportation because she obviously came from Assam, known for its multi-ethnic population, and where currently 1.9 million citizens have been told by India that they need to prove their citizenship in order to remain there. Similar to what is happening in the US, where Mexican-American’s are being asked to prove legal citizenship.
And then there was young Anne, from the Philippines who chose life on cruise ship to be able to work and be with her same sex partner Karn who worked at Starbucks. They put in long hours, but it was worth it as she explained as they could each support their family back home, and be with each other. She seemed in love, always bubbly with excitement, and eager to engage in conversation about the day, or a story to tell.
Its not just the ship’s crew that hails from all over the world. The passengers do as well. The cruises we have taken have been largely populated by Americans and Canadians, but we do come across other nations. Like the group from Japan, wearing exquisite kimonos on one of the ship’s formal nights. They took pictures together, and individually, chatting together, while the other passengers around them admired their beautiful silk garments and also took pictures.
A cruise ship reminds us that we now live in a global world, where residents of every nation can interact daily, still within the realm of their culturale heritage. It is fascinating, complex and rewarding to navigate among language, culture and ethnicity while sharing a common experience. In a world of hashtags, likes, and followers, its nice to be able to still have those opportunities for human connection.
* Cover photo credit to Tim Van Horne, the Canadian Mosaic Project. More information available at: https://canada150mosaic.com/the-project/