A working-class getaway: a Caribbean cruise!

At 81,700 tons, the Enchantment of the Seas is a big ship by any measure. Commissioned by Royal Caribbean Cruises, Inc., of Norway in 1997, she was built in Finland and is registered in Nassau. Last year, she was taken to Rotterdam, cut in two, and had another 73 feet added, stretching her length to 989 feet.

The 840 crew members are citizens of 52 nations. They toil to keep 2,252 passengers happy and well fed. They work six months without a break. Then they are given a six-week leave and a round-trip airline ticket home anywhere in the world.

The closest I ever came to an ocean cruise was Roy Rydell’s stories in the People’s Weekly World. A retired National Maritime Union seaman, he wrote many stories about the cruise industry before he died. Roy would have figured out how much surplus value those workers generated for their employer. All I know is that they earn every penny they make.

My granddaughter Anita just graduated with high honors from Goucher College in Maryland, and we all agreed that it called for a celebration. Googling one night, she stumbled upon an offer of cruise tickets at just over $400 per passenger. She reserved four tickets on the spot. My daughter Susan, a skilled travel agent by avocation, joined Anita in planning the adventure. So my wife Joyce, Susan, Anita, and I boarded the ship in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., Dec. 18 for the cruise with ports of call in Key West; Cozumel, Mexico; and Belize, returning Dec. 23.

Every night in the Champagne Lounge a chamber orchestra performed. Then came a throaty-voiced nightclub singer who sang old favorites. Evenings, we dined in the My Fair Lady dining room. Our assigned tablemates were a young painting contractor from Naples, Fla., and his recently widowed mother, and a real estate agent and his wife, a second grade school teacher, from Louisville, Ky.

The first night out, as we gathered around our table, the maître d’, an Italian, spotted my “U.S. Out of Iraq, Rebuild America” lapel button. “What is this?” he asked me.

I explained that the button expressed my opposition to the Iraq war.

Every evening that followed, he warmly greeted me. The evening of our farewell dinner, he put his arm around me and pointed at my button. “This is my man,” he announced for all to hear.

Cruising is no longer a preserve of the wealthy elite. Working-class people save to pay for an ocean cruise. Our shipmates were a rainbow of races and nationalities, Black, Latino, Asian and white.

One day I stepped into an elevator. I was wearing the lime green cap given to me by the Baltimore Building Trades with the message, “I’m IBEW and I Vote.” A young girl peered at my cap. “‘Eboo.’ What does that mean?” she asked. Her mother interjected, “International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, dear. It’s a labor union.”

I nodded. “I got this cap for going door to door in the midterm elections in Maryland,” I said. “We won a sweeping victory.”

“We need more Eboos down in Texas,” the girl said.

“Are you in the labor movement?” I asked her mother.

“No. We’re just liberal. We’re from Austin, a little spot of blue in a sea of Republican red.”

“Well, you didn’t do so bad,” I said. “You got Tom DeLay out and Nick Lampson in.”

“Yes, and we just won a special election down in San Antonio. We did pretty well, all considered.”

“I love Austin,” I said as the elevator doors opened. “Great food, great music, the Dixie Chicks!”

Her eyes widened with delight. “You’ve got it right there!” she exclaimed. “The Dixie Chicks are the best!”

At dawn, Dec. 19, the cruise ship sidled up to the dock in Key West. I was standing at the starboard rail. The inhabitants of this little town 90 miles from Cuba were still asleep as the sun rose. The palm trees and wooden frame dwellings were silhouetted in the still darkened town.

Somewhere a rooster crowed. “Did you hear that?” I asked a young couple standing beside me. They listened. And there it was again, nature’s shrill alarm clock.

I raced back to my cabin and fetched my sketch pad. I was already on the hunt for that rooster. Soon we trekked down the gangway. In front of the Customs House, an ornate Victorian brick edifice, I discovered not one but several roosters, splendid in their iridescent green and golden brown plumage, their combs fiery red. They strutted about like self-important politicians, crowing loudly to impress the hens who were too busy pecking away at cracked corn on the sidewalk to pay them any heed.

I sat down on the curb to sketch. My subject strutted off toward Duval Street. I pursued him but he flew to a rooftop cackling indignantly. I turned to another rooster. By midmorning I was applying the pastels to my rooster, actually a composite of several. Still, I needed a closer look at the head of the fine fellow just a dozen steps away.

I broke off a chunk of a conch fritter and tossed it at my feet, hoping to lure the rooster nearer. The rooster cocked his head warily and was just stepping nearer when in a blur four seagulls swooped down. One of them swallowed the fritter in a gulp.

My poor befuddled rooster cocked his head as if to say: “What happened?”

But I got my sketch of the “Gypsy Rooster of Key West” and returned to the ship. (To learn more, visit www.chickensofkeywest.com.)

We sailed down the balmy, breezy Gulf that evening for Cozumel, Mexico. There I made another sketch of the winding palm-lined avenue beside the turquoise sea. Riding offshore was a majestic cruise ship that looked just like our own. Joyce, Susan and Anita were Christmas shopping, including a purchase of a box of Cuban cigars. During a break, they visited the Havana Blue Lounge and sipped Mojitos made with genuine Havana Club rum.

We sailed for Belize that afternoon. Next morning, we dropped anchor beyond the barrier reef about 2 miles offshore. We stepped into a big motor launch that ferried us into Belize City. There we boarded a bus to visit Mayan ruins in the mountains in the far west. The two-hour trip gave us a glimpse of people in a Third World country struggling to cope with poverty and mass unemployment. From the top of the Mayan pyramid, 130 feet up, we looked out into Guatemala. We had barely an hour to take in this stunning scene before we had to board our bus to return to our ship; alas, no time to do a sketch.

That evening, we cruised for hours with land off our starboard beam. The captain came on the intercom, speaking in his clipped Norwegian accent. “That is Cuba you see off to the south,” he said. “We will be cruising along the coast of Cuba for several hours.” Did I detect a wistful note in the captain’s voice?

A cruise to Cuba, jewel of the Antilles! What a dream! It will be possible when we end the U.S. blockade. I’ll go with my sketch pad.

greenerpastures21212 @ yahoo.com