Getting your first roommate in college (for example) can be intimidating, as any life change can be. But getting a new cabin mate on a cruise ship is particularly so. Sharing your limited personal space with a complete stranger is not something common, after all (one-night stands excepted, I guess). But when that stranger is invariably from another nation, indeed probably from another hemisphere entirely, of a different color and different religion speaking a different language (or many), you just don’t know what to expect. When approaching my first cabin as crew, I thought I was prepared for anything. Talk about a failure of imagination…
B deck cabins were about twenty feet below the waterline. The corridor was taller than on the newer ships, but just as narrow. The poor lighting emphasized the lack of freshness and painted everything in a dismal, back-alley vibe. Thick veins of exposed pipes added to the feeling. The entire scene could have been a set for the climactic showdown in a bad action movie. My cabin door was horrendously scratched, dented even, as if somehow utilized in a brutal dog-fight. Adding to that impression were the sounds coming through the door: the sharp crack of hand-to-hand combat.
It was surprisingly roomy for a crew cabin, no doubt due to the lack of a sink and a shower shared with the neighboring cabin (common on newer ships). But on Fantasy, those were down the hall. Inside were two narrow bunks and two wooden lockers, smudged with age and flaking laminate. A small desk was completely covered by a 13-inch television, the space beneath stuffed with a dorm-sized refrigerator. A single chair hosted a Nintendo. The air was stiflingly hot and stagnant: the vent being hidden behind a randomly-taped plastic bag that cut off air flow.
The narrow access to the bunks was blocked by my new roommate. His tiny body lay diagonally across the cabin as to fill it, legs splayed wide open, each foot propped onto its own case of dried noodles. His rear sat deep into a smashed third box, and his head rested on the feet of a huge teddy bear that occupied the lower bunk. The controls of his gaming console sat comfortably on his lap. Though the Nintendo was hooked up to the TV and the controller in his hands, the screen instead blasted a very loud, very obnoxious Asian martial arts movie.
And he was completely naked.
I had never met a man from Thailand before, certainly not one bare-ass naked and spread-eagled in front of me. Such things would become commonplace once I got used to ships, of course.
‘Ben’, he called himself, because his real name was a whopping eighteen letters long. Upon waking he immediately mentioned his girlfriend was going to sleep with him every night. How two humans and a four-foot teddy bear could share a bunk so small—my own head and feet both pressed against the walls—was a marvel. But Ben and ‘Amy’ were quiet and courteous. The only noise they ever made, in fact, was their incessant watching of what appeared to be the same martial arts film over and over and over.
“When are you going to get a new movie?” I finally asked, exasperated.
“It’s not the same movie,” Ben replied. “It’s a forty-part Chinese movie I bought in Malaysia. Dubbed in Korean for Amy. Subtitled in Thai for me.”
“On a Japanese TV,” I added. “On an Finnish ship under Panama’s flag, serving Americans like me.”
“See?” Ben exclaimed. “You’re learning ships already!”