Wednesday, October 12, 2011

When the Journey is the Destination

We recently had the opportunity to go on a cruise with a whole group of friends. Actually, it was my brother-in-law's trip that he and his forum mates (whom we also know) planned many months in advance. But just a month before the sailing date, he took on a new job, and all of a sudden he couldn't go on the trip! Unfortunately, canceling this late would incur a 75% penalty!! Ouch! The next best thing  was to look for someone to take over his reserved slots and not let the penalty go to waste. And here is we enter, stage left.

B and I were already going to be on that side of the world just week before the cruise date which made us the ones most likely to take over the trip.  But an unplanned 12 days away from home?! That sounded quite... exciting irresponsible! We  had a few pressing matters on our calendars so weren't really too keen on staying away longer than necessary--But what about that penalty? And the opportunity?

After a couple of weeks vacillating, we decided to. Just. Do. It.

When were we going to have another chance at a trip with a whole group of fun friends, to a destination that wasn't even on our travel radar, and at a cost that was almost nil for us?  (wow, now that I type this, it seems like a total no-brainer--why did we even hesitate?) We could always stay in touch with Manila by text and email anyway. And thank God for grandparents who love to see us leave the country so they can have the kids with them. We paid the "name-change-penalty",  arranged schedules at home, did some destination research, and then we were on our way.

The first part of the journey was a regular business trip with lots of workshops and enjoyable hosted dinners. But before long it was time to go to Rotterdam and board the ship for those 12 full days of "irresponsible" R and R.

With technology nowadays, one never gets to really leave work behind. Those darn smartphones just keep us so connected. But then that dreaded "no signal" started appearing. Erratic communication slowly weaned us from being in touch with Manila every hour of the day. Then it happened that we could only connect when we were docked at a port (and really, who wants to be texting home when your day is busy looking at new sites and things?) The downtime really happens when you're at sea, but that's also when the texting doesn't work so well.

I also missed buying the internet "special" being offered on the first sailing day--$100 for 250 minutes--which I found too expensive for mediocre connection and for minutes that I would probably wipe out with one log in session. After struggling to stay connected for a number of days, I gave up and decided to just let it go. B on the other hand tried really hard to stay connected, until his phone conked out on the 5th day--as in  d-e-a-d. Was this a message from the universe?

And that's when my real R and R began.

Just being in the moment without trying to communicate with anyone else except those who were with me felt strangely new. Twelve days, and Blackberries or iPhones were not being prioritized? What joy! With that kind of freedom, I now found it easy to focus and fully enjoy our travel companions.

It's a fantastic bonding opportunity to be traveling with a big group of friends. On a cruise, it's even better because hotel, restaurant and transportation logistics are out of the way. The ship is small enough for impromptu gatherings at any lounge, bar or library, but big enough so that you can still do your own thing.

One of the best things too about cruising with a big group is that dinner each evening is an instant party with no one having to worry about the menu. We had four tables among us and we sat with different people within our little group each evening, allowing everyone quality time to catch up.

Oh, I have to mention that the Filipino crew members were amazing. Service level was very high and extremely personal. They're generally very thrilled to meet fellow kababayans from the motherland (they are used to meeting kababayans residing in otherlands). Dennis, the security officer on this ship is Filipino. It turns out the company that does the manning for the Holland America is owned by a friend of ours, and Dennis was alerted that we would be onboard! He joined us for dinner a couple of times, and really made sure we were well attended.

Our wine steward, Carding, entertained us each evening with his card tricks and toothpick riddles, and inspired the guys in our group to start showing off their own tricks too. This became a regular after-dinner ritual, extending meals to over three hours each evening.

Dennis shared what it's like to live on board for an extended period of time. He told us how homesick the crew gets sometimes that even if they can eat steak and lobster whenever they want, the Pinoy crew would still rather have the local canned sardines! If they have some, they treat it like a rare and precious commodity, hiding it and eating one little fish at a time. I made a mental note to bring a a few cans of Ligo or 555 the next time we go on a cruise, and to tell all my friends about it too (I just forgot to ask if they prefer the tomato or oil base, spicy or not spicy?)

Without the concerns and demands of regular life, I even looked forward to the long days "at sea".  I got to catch up on my reading, hang out at the gym spa,  and just stare out into the expansive hypnotizing ocean. Like a retreat, this  slow time allowed me lots of time for introspection, reassessment and refocusing.  A luxury that is hard to come by at home when everyone is so busy with life in general!

Much as I was enjoying the experience, I have to admit that this trip was a bit too long to be away from the kids. We welcomed the end of the cruise, just as much as we looked forward to beginning the trip. We were heading home recharged and enthusiastic, and with lots of great memories. I can't believe we almost passed up this trip! While work nourishes the need to be responsible, a trip like this nourishes the soul. I'm glad we had our priorities in order.

A big thanks to my super generous BIL for this extraordinary experience. He's actually been on a Baltic cruise before so the only thing he really missed was being in the company of his forum. But they are such a strong forum that this is only one of the many trips yet to come. And if this new job still keeps him from going on those trips, he knows who he can count on to take his place. We won't even dare to think twice next time!

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