The Love Boat

My mom and I have vacationed together every summer since 2001. Given her reliance on a wheelchair and my pathological twitchiness, most of our trips have been by car. Since she likes to smoke and I like to drive and both of us like to piss, the quintessential American Road Trip just made good sense. I pump, she puffs, and everyone stays happy.

This year, we tried something different. "The Fun Ship" is Carnival Cruise Line's answer to the question, "What would happen if every trailer park Republican south of the Mason-Dixon Line locked themselves and their children on a floating Indian casino for seven days in the Caribbean?" 

The Carnival Legend is a marvel of nautical engineering and efficiency. Eleven hundred crew and 2,300 passengers swarmed comfortably on the 10 guest and three crew decks that span the length of her 1,060-foot hull. Although much of her decor reminded me of an off-Strip casino, the majority of the Legend's guests marveled at her appointments like their walk down the gangplank had transported them to Valhalla. Maybe it was the ministrations of the wait staff (culled it seemed from the Prozac division of the United Nations cafeteria), but I've never been surrounded by so many genuinely exuberant people my entire life. If this was bliss, I'll take mine with a stiff shot of hermit's misery.

After slipping an Argentenian purser a 50 to fast track mom and me to our spacious "handicapable" suite on the Verandah deck, we changed into our drinking clothes and repaired to the smoking section by one of the Legend's four swimming pools. Given its proximity to fresh air, clean ash trays, cold drinks and a hearty breakfast and burger buffet, this would be our base camp for the next week. From here mom could blow smoke onto the other cancer-loving loungers, I could swill ice tea and water—the only complimentary beverages on the ship—and both of us could snipe anonymously at our white trash shipmates' expense. I brought four books to kill time, but this latter diversion was way more entertaining. Steven King couldn't have written a horror story more disturbing or realistic than the one mom and I lived on the Lido deck. 

The first port-of-call on our Caribbean getaway was Cayman Island. This tropical paradise nestled beneath the protective wing of Cuba's southwest shore is a vital port of the British West Indies, and is inhabited by a pleasant breed of island people, one-third African, one-third Jamaican and as I was to learn, at least seven-eighths American Capitalist Pig. From our deck a mile off Cayman Harbor mom and I spotted what looked like a Dairy Queen sign atop the tallest strip mall on the island. Only after disembarking my tender ship did I realize it was actually the Cayman Island Harley-Davidson dealership.

Other ugly American ports-of-call included an actual Dairy Queen, a rastafied IHOP and a Walgreen's. Crass commercialism on the high seas was more plentiful than bad pirate jokes ("Show me yer Booty!") and statues of bad pirates:


After picking up some t-shirts for mom's friends ("The beatings will continue until morale improves!"), I snapped some pictures and returned to the mother ship. One day down, seven more to go…

Day three took us to Cozumel, a good old-fashioned Mexican border town on the high seas. My Baja experience prepared me well for the onslaught of street hawkers, limbless beggars and pushy cabstand operators that awaited us at this otherwise sleepy tourist trap. To save mom from smoking three more cigarettes in her next nervous twitter, I negotiated rent on a dilapidated Suzuki Samurai and took us on a three-hour driving tour of the island. From our dusty seats we saw a Mayan burial ground ("Donde es la casa de caca?"), the tranquil Caribbean, the raging shores of Cozumel's Gulf coast, and a lizard on a flat rock. Unlike his Mexican compatriots, the four-foot iguana let me get within 20 feet of him without trying to sell me a Tanzanite necklace or a timeshare.

After several evenings of fine dining and not-so-great gambling in the Legend's restaurants and casino, we sailed into Belize, our third of four ports-of-call. Like Cayman Island, there was no gangway from ship to shore, so mom stayed on the boat while I snapped up witty t-shirts ("This pirate's hideaway is rated Aargh!") and photos. Belize gained its independence from Great Britain in 1981, and is the only country in Central America where English is the native language. This fact wasn't lost on the enterprising businesspeople of Taiwan, as evidenced by the consulate I stumbled upon during my walking tour of the peninsula:

Now I know where local shopkeepers get those authentic Belizian beads and souvenir shot glasses.

On the morning of day six we reached Roatan, Honduras, the last stop on our exotic journey. Before reaching this best-of-four ports on our excursion, we and the other 2,300 guests (prisoners?) on the Carnival Legend were treated to a cavalcade of Vegas-style shows in the Folies Theater. Nightly diversions included a juggler on a unicycle, a Broadway show tunes review, a comic, and a choreographed dance number featuring 30 of the ship's wackiest and most shameless guests. I was waiting for David Hasselhof to jump onto the stage with a gong, but that dream never came true. To deaden the effects of this high-school talent show, mom and I chased prescription meds with Sweet Rob Roys and double G & T's like there was no tomorrow. With hurricane Edward brewing in the Gulf of Mexico 400 miles north of us, that fate seemed more desirable with every clinking glass.

The guide and driver on our three-hour tour in Roatan was a cabbie named Carlos. Carlos spoke great English, and he took us to all the predictably lovely whistle stops on his native island. Unlike all previous ports, Roatan's relative lack of crass American commercialism was a welcomed sight, and mom loved the experience. Roatan boasts the second largest barrier reef in the world, and the clearest crystal-blue waters in the Caribbean, two facts not lost on the dozens of Canadian hippies and SCUBA divers we bumped into on her unspoiled shores. Belize was the country that offered the most logical reasons for American expatriation (no taxes on imported personal effects, hot girls, cheap rent), but Roatan won my vote for this concept based on her purely visceral spoils. I've never been to Hawaii, but in my reasonably well-worn scrap book, Roatan ranks high among the most beautiful and unspoiled places on Earth.

Our northeasterly route to Tampa Bay Seaport on Florida's Gulf coast took 40 hours, and we docked promptly at 8:00 a.m. Sunday morning. By a quarter-till-nine, mom and I were stationed with the other passengers on the Legend's Palisades deck. At 9:15, US Customs officers were patting us down for unclaimed fruits and vegetables. They didn't find my hand-rolled Honduran cigars, and they didn't care about mom's seven t-shirts. At 10:30 a.m. mom and I had parked my rental car at the Waffle House in east Bradenton and were enjoying cheese grits and hash browns, smothered, covered and diced. Our Caribbean vacation took eight days and set mom back roughly 4,000 dollars (airfare and alcohol not included), but it was worth every penny. We argued as parent and progeny always do, but laughed more. For eight days each of us got to reflect on our past, and to talk about our future. Conversations like these are always worth the time and price of admission. I will always make light of our creepy family vacations, but I will never take them lightly. 

Thanks, mom.