Last May, I spent seven days on a Holland America Alaskan cruise. The cruise was part of a 12-day tour with the other five days on land.
Leaving the luxurious cruise ship after that week was a culture shock.
No one placed my cloth napkin on my lap. No one pulled out my chair. No one cleared my dishes. No one offered me dessert with every meal, including breakfast.
I felt like I was experiencing how the other half lives. Somehow I don’t think the employees echo that sentiment.
Every night when my mother and I came back to our room, we found two chocolates on our pillows as well as a towel animal. One night, we were treated to towels shaped into a peacock – It’s like they knew about my obsession with exotic birds.
Our stateroom attendants, Amelia and Made, made sure to ask about our day, and smiles never left their faces.
We were staying in a room on the dolphin deck. It was the lowest guest level on the ship. If this was 1912 and we were on the Titanic, we would be the third-class passengers that went down with the ship.
On our last day, we went to the verandah deck to sneak into the penthouse suite. It had a king sized bed, a private living room, a walk-in closet and boardroom.
After we left, one of the stateroom attendants told us the room costs $7,000 a week per person, confirmed by Expedia’s website. He also said it cost more than he made in a year.
An undercover reporter for Channel 4’s Dispatches, a British television station, wrote about his experiences working as a cruise ship waiter.
He spoke of staff that made two dollars an hour and didn’t have a day off in eight months, employees that weren’t able to save any money because they owed their paychecks to the recruiting agencies that got them the job, or were still paying off flight costs, as well as staff that did nothing other than work, sleep and eat.
The story wasn’t about the Holland America cruise line, but it mimics some of the stories we heard on board from the primarily Indonesian and Philipino employees.
A bartender told us about family he had back home, how he was working just to provide for them and that he hadn’t seen them in months. Another employee told us the only opportunity to leave the boat was for a few hours, a couple of times a month.
The ports, especially Ketchikan and Juneau, were streets lined with stores selling jewelry and souvenirs.
I kept searching for authentic Alaska, but this was it. The economy is built on tourism. The citizens are there to serve the cruise ship passengers, at least in the towns close to the shore.
Many passengers never did more than walk the streets of these commercialized towns, but I can’t see the appeal.
Our family paid extra for excursions booked through the cruise company.
We boarded a float plane and flew over glaciers to Taku Lodge, a cabin in the woods that served us a grilled salmon feast. One of the employees chased a black bear up a tree when it tried to join in our meal.
Another great side-trip was in Skagway. In the morning, we went glass blowing and met a journalism graduate who worked the tourist season in order to travel to places like Thailand and Cambodia the rest of the year.
In the afternoon, we took the Alaska Railroad to British Columbia and drove back on a bus.
We travelled through walls of packed snow, higher than the train. The mountains towered into the clouds with powder highlighting the peaks. The air was brisk, but not cold, as many would expect.
The undeveloped tundra is one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen.
Gliding through the waters of Glacier Bay was one of the serene experiences. The captain shut off the engines in order to appreciate the silence and protect the national park. We saw hundreds of seals sunbathing. Goats were perched on impossibly tiny ledges. Grizzlies fished on the beach.
The natural beauty surrounded us no matter where we were made it the trip of a lifetime.
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