“And how do you feel?”
“Well, Doctor S said that when it kicked in, I’d know… That it would be like finding light in the dark… I am not really sure that I am seeing the whole light yet?”
The doctor laughed from the bottom of his belly. “Listen, I wouldn’t quite word it as ‘poetically’ – shall we say – as Doctor S put it… but, the tablets are mainly to help build your confidence a bit, which will have a knock on effect on all the other aspects of your life.”
“Is the light more like when someone leaves the hall light on and the light shines through the gap under your bedroom door? Rather than the floodlight I was expecting?” I asked him as I got up to leave his office. He smiled, “Give it time, Pam! Come back and see me in June. And enjoy your holiday!”
Months ago, me and my good friend Kasia (she allowed me to use her real name), decided to book the same time off work together to say goodbye to her twenties, and also just because I really, really, needed a holiday, and not just a week long one where I was last minute waiting to see if I’d even been accepted onto the flight. I had a whole fourteen days off with her, and a whole seven to myself beforehand.
We wanted to see a place that neither of us had been before, (a complicated feat for someone as well travelled as Kasia) that offered beaches and hiking so that there was enough to hold both of our interests. The Caribbean sounded like a good place for us to go. We concluded after some research, that the best way to maximise the number of islands we could explore, whilst offering value for money, was to do a cruise – something that hadn’t ever really appealed to either of us before.
See, Kasia is a ‘traveler’ who likes to do things on a whim. She enjoys hiking up big mountains with a small backpack, and visiting places that are so hard to reach, that they often involve sitting on a crammed bus for hours upon end, a chicken or other random farm animal sitting on her lap. I on the other hand, like running water, to have a plan and to have a simple, easy to use transportation service to hand. (I mean, for my 29th birthday, I asked for a really good iron and if that doesn’t say a lot about me as a person, then I don’t know what does…) So, to do something like a cruise was more than a little bit out of both our comfort zones, but undeniably even more so for Kasia.
The compromise was this. We would do a holiday that involved things that interested both of us, and Kasia would organise the whole trip. All I had to do, was show up to the right place at the right time, with… hand luggage. No, that is not a typo – you read it correctly.
“But… we are going on a two week trip, and I have another week in Scotland before that Kasia. They are absolutely opposite climates!”
“Exactly!” she told me, so I would have to complete multiple transfers across multiple airports, within very short time slots, and she would be super pissed if we missed a connection just because of my need for a variety of shoes. “I am going to look the same on every single beach! It’ll look like I only own two bikinis!” I argued petulantly.
She smiled. “This (the cruise) is not my typical kind of holiday, and so I am compromising on that; therefore, you can compromise on luggage.” And so, with that, the conversation was closed, and the matter (in her mind was resolved).
The night before I left Glasgow for Puerto Rico, I messaged Kasia to reconfirm the address of the place we’d be staying in San Juan. “I’ll do it on the flight to Orlando.” She replied. I shared my concerns with my mum. “Kasia still hasn’t booked anywhere for us to stay, and I’ll already be on a flight without wifi… I haven’t even booked my connecting flight to Puerto Rico!” I barely slept a wink that night. It wasn’t until my second flight of the day, touched down in Orlando, until I got a message from Kasia regarding accommodation.
“Pam, San Juan airport has no wifi, so you won’t be able to contact me. I’ll wait for you there, and this is the number of where we will be staying. Please message him when you land to San Juan, because he will come and get us from the airport. Also, where we are staying has doggies! :)”
She had attached me a contact with a boy’s first name, but I didn’t even have time to think about anything else right now, other than the immigration queue of at least 2000 people ahead of me, being attended to by a meagre four clerks on duty. My next flight departed in 1h and fifty minutes, and for sure, there would be no way I was catching it, unless I urgently got to the front of that queue. I asked for help from one of the airport staff. “Sorry, ma’am, it’s not our concern. This is immigration control and you will just have to wait.” I spotted another guy frantically talking to another airport staff, who looked as though he may be about to have a breakdown too, so I approached him and asked where he was going, and as luck would have it, we were both going to San Juan, on the same flight, seated together, no less! What were the chances!? Safety in numbers, we marched ahead and personally asked every single person in that queue, one by one, if they would mind us to go before them, edging along slowly as we pleaded our case to each and every weary traveler on their way to Disney. We made it to the front after 25 minutes.
“Arddress of where you’re staying in America?” The security man barked at me.
“I’m actually transiting to San Juan.” I replied politely.
“Puerto Rico is still the United States, madam. What’s your address?”
“I’m going on a cruise.”
“Yes, I can see that, but your ship doesn’t depart for another few days, so where’ll you be staying until then?”
“On the boat.”
“The Royal Caribbean is not an acceptable address. It’s not even on land.” He glared at me.
Fuck, my hands were sweating, as was my entire body from the sheer panic of potentially missing this flight. It was the last one departing for San Juan of the day, and Kasia would be waiting with no way of contact. I hadn’t even had time to even think about the accommodation, and now, under interrogation, my mind drew blank. I’d always stayed in well known hotels with work, or pre planned my accommodation well ahead.
“I’m staying with my friend, in San Juan. He’s called, – “ I glanced down at the contact number I had just saved to my phone.
“That is not an acceptable address. San Juan is a big city.”
Exasperated, and under pressure from the masses, the immigration guy finally relented. “Look, I will let you pass on this occasion, but do not enter again without an address, and cruise ships DO NOT COUNT.”
I’d never been more thankful than in that moment, (as me and my new pal hurtled through airport trains and various terminals) for having only hand luggage, but I also cursed under my breath at how stressful this day had already been. Christ… there’s a lot to be said for the ease of the package holiday!
After four airports, three flights and more than 24 hours of travelling, I finally met Kasia at the arrivals on San Juan airport and together we texted our pick up. “So, where are we staying?” I pushed for more info. “Oh Pam, you’ll love it! It’s so cute, and it’s in the old town. Plus there’s doggies and a balcony!” Picturing a cute Air BnB in my head, something didn’t make sense. “Who looks after the dogs though?” Kasia had a funny little twinkle in her eye, “Okay, so it’s a couch surfing host. I knew you wouldn’t be too thrilled, so I didn’t tell you… But trust me, you’ll love it Pam!”
I don’t really know how to describe this couch-surfing thing to you, other than it’s a bit like a social networking site for travellers to meet other travellers who let you stay in their home in cities all around the world for free. I really wasn’t down with the idea of staying in a strangers house… I took a long blink and a few deep breaths. Safety in numbers, right?
We arrived to the (admittedly, very cute) apartment late, and both in desperate need of showers. “Pam, you can go first.” The host, who we will call Pedro*, ushered me towards the bathroom (which didn’t actually have a bathroom door. Just a heavy curtain to separate it from the rest of the space. Shit. Where were the clean towels? I called over to Kasia.
She stared at me as if I was a weirdo for not thinking of such a commodity. “You didn’t bring one?”
“No, Kasia. I did not bloody bring one! Firstly, I am used to staying in accommodation that provides towels on arrival. Secondly, how the hell was I supposed to fit a towel into that tiny hand luggage that was to last me three weeks!?” I had somehow managed to cram four pair of shoes, Kasia’s birthday gifts, and a laptop into this hand lugagge, and now she questioned where was the towel?? The towel was the bloody last of my priorities!
“It’s okay, I have a spare one.” She opened her case and fired a small purple piece of fabric that resembled a shammy used for cleaning cars across the room. I looked at her, as I tried and failed to make the ends of the fabric meet around my ‘grossly obese hips’ (that’s a story for another day, or if you’re that interested, ask me about it). Thankfully Pedro salvaged my dignity by lending me a much bigger one.
I hadn’t even told her yet that I hadn’t packed pyjamas… I’d been intending to sleep (in the comfort of a hotel twin bed) in my pants. Now, sleeping on a sofa in someone else’s house, I’d have to improvise.
I’m going to tell you right now, sleeping in denim shorts is about as comfortable as a rogue pebble in your shoe. FML.
Thank GOD Pedro had a washing machine, even if he didn’t own a hairdryer (guys eh!?). My hair might go wild, but at least my clothes would be clean.
This, was going to be a holiday, quite unlike all others…
Pedro was actually a very cool guy. Not only did I love his two dogs, even though I’m a cat person, but, every morning, he made us the best coffee I’ve ever drank in my life. He took us road trips, hikes, drove us to cool beaches, danced us all the way to cool bars and joined us for full moon yoga, but most importantly, he introduced me to waffles. I won’t bore you with the details, despite the fact I could write an entire blog post about waffles alone… but I am pretty sure I gained a few kilos from that waffle cafe.
He also introduced us to other people; including a Spanish speaking French guy, and two Colombian girls who were also staying at his place, and all of us spent time enjoying the beach together. Thanks to the confidence of these energetic Colombian girls, for the first time possibly ever, I didn’t feel ashamed about my body while wearing a bikini. In fact, despite them offering to donate me some boobs, and me, being possibly the skinniest, smallest chested, and teeniest butt on the beach, I can honestly say, zero fucks were given as I lay next to all these curvy, thick Latino girls looking amazing at the beach. In fact, as the girls insisted we take beach pics, I felt the most confident I had ever felt in my life, because I was surrounded by people that reassured me it was okay to be. In fact, it was how I should be!
As a result, I did something I said I’d never do; I posted photographs of myself in a bikini for all to see on my instagram, and judging by the response, perhaps I don’t look too shabby in a bikini after all. I wanted to be on holiday forever!
I wasn’t thinking about, wether my legs needed work, or how many calories were consumed eating those waffles. All I could focus on, was how much fun I was having, and how outside of that Dubai bubble, no one really cares if you have a six pack or you don’t; if you have massive boobs, or you don’t. The vibe was just to be happy, and it was the most liberating feeling in the world.
The last piece of advice that my aunt texted me before the cruise was, “Don’t be late back at Port. The ship leaves without people!”. I stressed this to Kasia. She had also told me that people get really dressed up for the ‘formal’ nights and Kasia snorted that little laugh that she does when I told her this. To be fair, how would we ever do ‘formal’ attire when we were packing hand luggage? My mother kept insisting that I pack a formal dress (in particular one gold and white one I had from years ago…) until eventually I poignantly reminded her that Kasia wears t-shirts with slogans like, ‘kiss my ass’ on them, and that could she really picture both me and Kasia doing black tie? Knowing how strong headed I am, she finally relented. And this was exactly what people meant when they tell you that mothers know best. They really do…
Expecting hoards of people as we arrived to the ship, we were surprised to see that the departure dock was in fact quite empty. While I was just relieved that we had finally made it to the ship at all, after some last minute confusion between the departure port (yes… we were at the wrong one on the other side of San Juan), I gradually began picking up that the few other stragglers just reaching the cruise were all lugging suit carriers. This was my first suspicion, particularly because we now had an extra PLASTIC bag full of essential items that we couldn’t quite fit into our teeny hand luggage. I let Kasia handle that, since she suggested we only take hand luggage.
The bag kept falling off of the handles of Kasia’s case. “We look like fucking gypsies.” she whined. She had a point though – we did look like gypsies. But like mildly classier versions. Stepping on to the ship, we realised that we were in fact, very very late, especially when we swiftly ushered past people lined up on the decks by the masses before we were huckled into a large ballroom and told to leave our luggage outside since there was no longer time to find our rooms before the compulsory safety drills started.
It was like being at work, except with thirty times the people – the sheer volume of people on this boat was terrifying.
Our room, thankfully was very spacious and light. Very reassuring considering that our room was in fact, haunted by some thing/person/ghost sitting down forcefully on our bed several times a night. At best, it motivated us to spend more time outside of the room. At worst, it gave us a trip full of sleepless nights and morning mood swings.
To be fair, it’s hardly surprising to hear of a haunted cabin on a ship, especially after discussing with the staff the quantity of old people who live on cruises for an entire summer – months at a time, bobbing along the sea from one port to the next. (Apparently it’s cheaper than old folks homes! Sign me up!) Another ex cruise worker told us of the shocking number of domestic murders that occur on cruises too. At least our ghost was pretty friendly – I don’t think they were a murder victim.
If I had to describe a cruise, I’d say it was a bit like, a classier, posher version of Butlin’s – something like a floating holiday village. It is where failed rockstars go to perform as a last resort – (Kasia sat through an hour long performance from one such band – something I’m not sure she will ever let me forget about, since I left her there pretending I had a sore stomach, and instead spent that hour blowing up her party balloons and hanging birthday banners alongside the ghost in our cabin). It’s where every role on the ship has another duty alongside their own. The beautician isn’t really just a beautician we discovered at the ‘Ladies Pamper Party’. Rocking up expecting a free facial, we were instead met by several beauticians who convinced us all that we all looked like shit and that “no matter how many face creams you buy, nothing will halt the ageing process, and that is why we have a resident doctor who can cater to all your needs including fillers, facial enhancements and botox. Here’s a price list!”
The first day, Kasia especially, was a bit wary to ‘let her hair down’ as the saying goes. We were suspiciously observing these Americans and Latinos queuing up for family portrait photo shoots dressed in their three piece suits and ball gowns, while we stood on the sidelines in our crinkled Zara and Topshop get ups. “How did these people even know about these themed evenings?” We wondered out loud. They clearly read the fine print. Guess who did not? Us – correct!!
I on the other hand, had to keep wearing the only clothes that didn’t resemble crepe tissue paper since IRONS ARE BANNED FROM CRUISES. So, after Marie Kondo rolling my clothes to fit as many outfit choices as possible into my miniature case, my pretty little linen dresses now looked as elegant as a dust sheet, and I had to improvise the same three outfit choices over and over switching up shoes, lipstick and earrings.
Apparently irons aren’t safe for cruises, which is very odd, seeing as smoking on the ships designated areas and the casino is allowed. Of course you can use the on-deck laundry service, which is extortionate, much like the wifi. Guess I’d be looking like Bart Simpson for the whole trip, but at least there’d be no WiFi for Kasia to document it!
F. M. L.
But after a while on the boat, we got into the swing of things, even reserving the same dinner table every evening at the same time despite snorting with laughter after overhearing a conversation with an irate woman that her favourite table was unavailable at her preferred time slot. “There’s people who book a specific table for the same time slot every single night of their cruise…” the hostess told us with a forced smile hiding amusement behind her eyes. Two days later and we had become those people. Absolute hypocrites.
Because of this little routine we had got going, we befriended the couple at the table beside us. (They had the window seat – best seat in the house!), and by the end of the week, we had joined our table onto theirs, completely gatecrashing their romantic meals for two. They were so much fun, and even helped us celebrate Kasia’s 30th, alongside the waiters who we had come to befriend, and our newest recruit to our squad – a Chilean woman who was a solo traveler, (let’s call her Lina). We aptly nicknamed our exclusive club as The Sugar Daddy Squad – seeing as we were probably the only three single women on the boat who were not widowed and were not retired. Everyone else appeared to be on a family reunion; honeymooners; married with two point four children or retired and on their annual cruise.
One such couple, were sat on our opposite side. A large, red faced beefy man with a southern drawl, who consumed bottles upon bottles of red wine, chased by a few cognacs. They were always sniping at one another and oddly, every evening, his wife would leave the table just after he had ordered desert, leaving him to eat his last course alone. He was old enough to be my dad, and then some.
“I’ve been waiting for my wife to leave all night, so that I could finally talk to you girls.” He leaned across the table to us. “I used to have a polish girlfriend. She was blonde too.” He grinned at Kasia. The man kind of reminded me of the Big Bad Wolf in Little Red Riding Hood. He continued to ask us what our plans were for the upcoming trip to St. Martenn. “You know… you go on that French side, there’s a nudist beach up there if that’s your thing.” He slurred. “Maybe see you girls there…?” He winked as he hauled himself out his seat towards, I’m assuming to another bar, or back to his wife. That Sugar Daddy life really was not actually quite so appealing after all! Kasia nicknamed him Diabetic Daddy after that, and of course, we avoided that particular beach, and any eye contact with that table for the rest of the cruise. There are some things in this life you cannot unsee, and that sleazy naked man is one of them.
There were quite a lot of ‘heavyweights’ shall we say on the cruise ship (enough to even warrant a poolside belly flop competition!). Another one of them somehow stretched my favourite white sandals to the point where my toes were slipping out the front and gripping onto the floor for dear life after during a team game. The ship had nightly gameshows which were packed out to capacity every night. One such gameshow was Adult Quest. Seeing a group of hairy men parading down a catwalk wearing bras and women’s heels (including my white ones) was nothing short of worth it, even if I did have to buy a second pair of the same shoes. Even more worth it, was the girl who frantically tried to swap clothes gracefully with her six foot five boyfriend but ended up revealing her massive pink high waisted granny pants to the entire audience as she hopped to the centre stage, both her legs stuck down one trouser leg. I swear I almost peed myself laughing.
But the best days, were the days we spent exploring the ports. The three of us, Lina, Kasia and me concluded that our trio was invincible. It was like an adult Power Puff Girls. Lina could speak Spanish and Arabic, and she could haggle the price of anything. Kasia, a Polish and Russian speaker was the photographer, the hot-pant wearing, sex symbol of the group and the day trip organiser. Me on the other hand, was the donkey who carried bags, the swimmer, the obtainer of free drinks, and the runner, a skill which came in particularly handy on the day that we almost missed the boat in St. Marten.
Lina loved a bargain, and even more than a bargain, she loved to shop. We left her to the markets, while me and Kasia sat unsociably in a coffee shop connected to wifi and drinking iced frappaccinos. Somewhere in-between the depths of IG and editing our feeds to make sure everyone knew we were ‘living our best lives’, we lost track of time and where the hell was Lina? I could see the ship though (well, it was kind of hard not to due to it’s sheer size), so I felt like it wasn’t that far anyway. I checked my watch when Lina finally reached us at the cafe. We had eighteen minutes to catch the ship. As we tried to take a shortcut through a carpark, I asked a local guy how long it would take to reach the port. “It’s around a twenty five to thirty minute walk.”
It was at this moment, my superpower of the Sugar Daddy Squad presented itself. I started running, thinking that surely, if at least one of us could reach the boat, we could tell them to wait, that there were others just coming behind. At this point in time, I was never more thankful for having long legs. I ran and ran and ran, until I couldn’t even see Kasia or Lina behind me anymore. I even took off my flip flops because they were just slowing me down.
Next thing, a silver tinted out car, screeched alongside me. “Paaaaaaaaam. GET IN.” Lina had her head hanging out the window, Kasia in the front. What the hell was this chariot, and who was driving it??? The door threw open and I jumped inside. Safety in numbers, right? “Hi! I’m Chris!”. We were in Chris’ car for all of about sixty seconds before arriving at the port. It was like something out of Need For Speed or GTA. And as we all launched ourselves out of the car as fast as we had gotten in, we got to the ship with four minutes to spare. At the start of the holiday, I said I’d never hitchhike or get in a strangers car. Ten days later, here I was. Never say never… (Oh and don’t tell my Dad. He’ll kill me!)
I could go on, and on, about the hilarities of this trip. Like the cave explorer in Aruba who asked us if we wanted to meet later and get high on magic mushrooms. Or the day in Curacao where we lost our tour, and so joined another tour for one dollar each (thanks Lina!) in a bit to get back to the boat. Or the taxi driver who proposed to me numerous times and gave me a plastic shopping bag full of natural salt, to ‘take home for cooking’ shortly before he attempted to snog Kasia. Or the three times in one day that I fell – first, on a rock after being hit by what seemed like a tidal wave, secondly in the sand, face first playing bat and ball at the beach, and thirdly into a door/wall in Pedros house as a result of spraying too much mosquito repellant and turning the tiles into an ice rink. The cockroaches climbing up the wall and onto my FEET in the bar bathroom in Bonaire, my bruised black and blue legs looking like they had the chicken pox after being eaten alive by mosquitoes. Trips to the nearby waffle shop to use their bathroom for certain situations, because it had a door. Buying two bottles of shampoo instead of one conditioner, and consequently, Kasia having to unknot my hair for an hour while secretly thinking that we’d have to cut it… Kasia’s sunburned bum that had an imprint of hands on her butt cheeks…
But my favourite part of all, was how content I felt. I think this is what people mean when they say they are relaxed.
On the last night of the cruise, I was standing outside on our cabin’s balcony. I was thinking about how relaxed I felt, and how this had been the best holiday I’d ever had, when Kasia slid the door open and came out to stand beside me. “Im sorry for being moody today.” she whispered to me. “I’m sorry too.” We hugged each other and then we sat there for a while looking up at the stars. Because it was so dark at sea, the sky lit up like tiny twinkly fairy lights sparkling above us. The stars are generally hidden in Dubai thanks to the light pollution, and while everyone knows they are still up there, lighting up the sky somewhere, out in Dubai we tend to forget.
Was this what Dr. S meant when he talked about finding the light in the dark? Maybe the light wasn’t a flood light, and maybe it wasn’t the hall light that creeps underneath the bedroom door. Maybe it was the twinkly lights that are always there, but we just can’t see them for the blinding city lights and the light pollution that engulfs us. It reminded me of a quote that I read:
“A shark in a fish tank will grow 8 inches but in the ocean it’ll grow 8ft or more. The shark will never outgrow its environment and the same is true for you. Many times we are around the small thinking people, so we don’t grow. Change your environment and watch your growth.”
NB. (Make of that what you will. I have my own theories about my personal growth and the light pollution that’s been stopping me from seeing the stars.)
Kasia, my mum, my friends and family, this trip… they were all my lights in the dark. They’d been there all along, but I just couldn’t always see them because I was focusing on the wrong things in my environment, and perhaps even had the wrong people in my circles.
“This is so romantic.” I interrupted. “thanks Kasia, for the best holiday I’ve ever had in my whole life… And just so you know, if the boat starts sinking, I’ll definitely make space for you on the floating door.”
“Is this our Jack and Kate moment?” Kasia replied, laughing.
“I think so…”
“Well baby girl, I can’t think of anyone else I’d rather be having a romantic moment with.”
I truly couldn’t either.
*One really exciting thing about writing blogs is that you get to choose people’s fake names. I thought it would be more fun than it is, actually – because you have to keep remembering not to use their real names anytime you mention them, and also, it’s quite hard trying to find a name that suits a person‘s personality that they won’t be offended by. Hope you like your name, Pedro.
See more of my holiday adventures on my instagram by clicking here.