I admit to being fascinated by the Carnival Cruise ship drama (Twitter hashtags—no kidding—#poopboat and #poopship) as we watched the disabled behemoth limp back to Mobile on Thursday with 4000 crew and passengers in a floating soup of raw sewage and onion sandwiches.
As low-information travelers, our family has been on no less than three Carnival cruises, so I know a little about the culture of those ships. It’s an odd mix of senior citizens, families with young children, and the people who purchase the unlimited liquor cards. The seniors play bingo, the children romp around Camp Carnival, and the fun folks with the unlimited liquor cards spend their nights grinding in the disco and their mornings with their heads hanging in the suction-operated toilets. The ship carries a group of people who would never under normal circumstances choose to spend time together crammed onto an opulent miniature city for a week, staged by a crew that works slavishly to serve the needs and the whims of the passengers 24-7.
Suddenly last week, thousands of people who packed their bags for fine dining, magic shows, and romps on the beach found themselves in survival mode. Hollywood couldn’t have written a better reality-show script: grandparents celebrating their 50th anniversary, recent college grads on their honeymoon, a homeschooling family from Waco, football buddies from New Orleans. Who would survive the Sludge Boat?
DRUDGE screamed terrifying headlines about the misery in the Gulf:
FLOATING PETRI DISH LIMPS TO PORT
SLEEPING WITH LIFE VESTS FEARING CAPSIZE
HOARD ON BOARD
PASSENGERS FIGHT OVER FOOD
The stories from the Carnival Triumph early Thursday made it sound like a third world county:
Conditions on board a cruise ship stranded in the Gulf of Mexico have deteriorated dramatically, reportedly leaving passengers fighting over food and the vessel caked in urine and raw sewage. Passengers on board the US cruise ship Carnival Triumph, which has been stranded since Sunday after an engine fire, are using mobile phones to convey tales of carpets soaked in urine and passengers sleeping in tents on deck.
Food supplies are said to be running low, with passengers forced to queue for hours for cold onion and cucumber sandwiches, and there are also reports of fights breaking out as groups of “savages” fight over the dwindling supplies.
Speaking to CNN, passenger Ann Barlow said: “It’s disgusting. It’s the worst thing ever”, while her husband Toby told the news channel there is “sewage running down the walls and floors”, with passengers asked to defecate in plastic bags and urinate in showers due to their being only five working toilets between 4,200 people.”
It seemed that every news outlet in the country sent reporters to meet the ill-fated cruise ship in Mobile, no doubt expecting to see horrific scenes of human carnage as medics wheeled feces-caked passengers off the ship. It was clear in the lead-up to the ship’s arrival in Mobile that they fully expected to be greeted by angry, disgruntled passengers looking for lawyers. The media prepared us all day for how bad this would be as they followed the ship into port.
CNN sent Erin Burnett and Martin Savage to the scene to capture the human drama as it unfolded. They seemed surprised when the ship sidled up to the dock and, as the CEO of Carnival Cruise lines addressed reporters, a cheer arose from the crowd gathered on the shore and from the passengers hanging from the rails of the ship.
Suddenly, the narrative changed midstream, and though reporters tried valiantly to keep up the “traumatized victim” meme, passengers greeted them with story after story of ordinary Americans who basically said that conditions were awful, but they made the best of the situation.
In one exchange, Savage absurdly attempted to compare the plight of the stranded cruise ship passengers to victims of Hurricane Katrina. Passenger Rob Kenny politely corrected him: “Yeah, but let’s put that in perspective. Katrina was a major devastation. We’re in a freaking cruise ship.”
Like Kenny, many passengers recounted heartwarming stories of good that came out of their harrowing trip.
Passenger Joseph Alvarez said, “The worst was the fire. The best was having that quality time with my wife. We started a Bible group and it was a very uplifting spiritual time for our group.”
“It was awesome. It lifted up our souls and gave us hope that we would get back,” said Alvarez of San Antonio, describing the Bible study group that met in the evenings and was attended by around 45 passengers.
“It was 2 1/2 days of great fun and then it was bonding and family coming together and helping each other,” said Mercedes Perez de Colon, whose sister had been taken off the ship for dialysis earlier in the week. She was surrounded by her family in a heartwarming group hug.
Earlier in the day, Fox News anchor Greg Jarrett had spoken to another member of the same family, Brenda Colon. Jarrett asked Colon if Carnival was negligent for not having better contingency plans:
“I’m not really sure how all of that works. Here where we’re at, they’ve been doing a really great job. We have water. They’ve been able to restore power on some of the parts of the boat so we’ve been able to charge our phones.” She commended the staff, saying, “They’ve been able to put on comedy shows, play movies for people. The crew on board has been wonderful and that’s all I can speak to.”
Asked about the offer of a free cruise and $500, Colon said, “It’s better than nothing, that’s all I can say. It’s better than nothing.”
Joy Dyer, a young woman from Oklahoma City who had been living in the “tent city” on the deck because her room conditions had deteriorated, told Martin Savage and Erin Burnett, “The situation we were in was a terrible situation and there were a lot of terrible and frustrating things to deal with.” But she said the crew made all the difference.“What we were in awe of the entire time was the crew that was completely unselfish. They served us with smiles and served us in ways that are truly unthinkable. The things that they did for us, yet they did it with smiles. We built relationships with the crew. We came home intending to keep up those relationships. They did not have to serve us to the capacity that they did, but they chose to make the most of it and that encouraged all of us to make the most of it.” Dyer added that a sense of humor was also an important element, saying, “We found…laughter in spite of what we were dealing with and that helped us all to get through it.”
Joe Perkin, traveling with his friends on their fourth cruise together, told Martin Savage, “We made friends for life, which obviously has some value to it. For the most part people were very kind to each other and the crew was always smiling and very kind.”
Julianna Hair and her mother, Julie shared Bible verses that encouraged them during the ordeal. Speaking to Fox News as she walked off the ship, Julie clutched a Diet Coke and expressed her gratitude for her family, saying, “I’ve learned humility from this trip.” She said,
Sunday and Monday it was just a bunch of fear. You could just feel fear. But we had a good prayer meeting. She quotes verses. Julianna knows 290 verses. And we were in the middle of quoting and she busted out crying and I said, “Julianna, lets just keep on quoting,” so we read the next verse and the next verse said, “Cast your burden upon the Lord and He will sustain you.” And after that we had a peace. The Lord gave us a peace that was like no other. And I’m thankful that He protected us.
The Carnival Triumph, a floating city in the Gulf of Mexico, was a microcosm of how humans deal with calamity and adversity. We see the same patterns anytime an event propels a group of people into circumstances for which they were unprepared, whether they experience a power outage, loss of city services, or being trapped on a floating cesspool.
Some people handle the circumstances with aplomb and take the adversity in stride, while others weep and wail, tear their clothing, and phone their lawyers.
One theme emerged as passengers disembarked from the Carnival Triumph: passenger after passenger praised the heroics of the Carnival crew members, lauding their smiles, good attitudes, and selfless actions in the face of the miserable circumstances.
We may not ever find ourselves on a giant floating toilet in the middle of the Gulf of Mexico, but perhaps someday we will be forced to live through a natural disaster, a long-term power outage, or something worse—an EMP failure or the dreaded Zombie Apocalypse the federal government warns about. How will we respond?
I’d like to think I’d rise to the occasion and be the girl cheering others on, leading Bible studies, and encouraging the Floating Slumber Party of the Century. I’d like to think that I wouldn’t be the grumbling, complaining wretch who brings everyone else down, causing them to run the other way when they see me stomping down the Promenade Deck. Proverbs 17:22 says, “A joyful heart is good medicine, but a crushed spirit dries up the bones.” I hope I’d be the former rather than the later. I did manage to remain cheerful through a recent 6-hour power outage during which our family enjoyed a lovely candlelight family game night, but during that six hours we only used one of our “last three flushes” and we didn’t deal with a food or water shortage. To be completely honest, if our power outage had stretched into a day or more, I’m not sure how long my good cheer would have lasted.
The story of the so-called “Cruise from Hell” reminded me—and reminds all of us—that we can choose how to respond to a crisis and that how we respond directly impacts not only our own emotional reaction, but the responses of others around us. Clearly, the positive culture of Carnival Cruise Lines’ well-trained employees raised the spirits of the guests, despite raw sewage running down the halls of the ship and passengers being forced to defecate into plastic “bio-bags.”
Lewis Mumford said, “Humor is our way of defending ourselves from life’s absurdities by thinking absurdly about them.” Guest after guest exited the ship and giggled about the bio-bags, recounting stories of lost modesty and awkward communal living conditions. While they certainly didn’t say they enjoyed it, they saw the absurdity in the whole thing and it was clear some couldn’t wait to get off that ship and tell their survival tales.
On Friday, CNN’s Ashleigh Banfield spoke to Jacob Combs, who told her, “You’ve got to smile and laugh about it.” Banfield asked Combs, “Were there some people who weren’t quite as positive as you and who were angry after all of this?”
Combs was philosophical:
You know, I think each person on the ship had a different experience and that caused some different reactions. You know some people had more flooding. Some people had more smoke. Some people had a really hard time. Maybe they were elderly and couldn’t get up the stairs and that justified some of their response. But as I’ve said a couple of times, you’ve got to find a way to be positive in that situation and look on the bright side or it’s just going to become even more miserable for yourself and miserable for everyone around, so that’s the kind of policy I decided I was going to live with despite the horrible conditions and there was lots of positives. The crew was amazing. They helped out, hand and foot, all the time, there was nothing to complain about on that side.
Maria Morales, with a group of women on the “2013 Divas Cruise,” related how their positive attitude affected their time on the ship:
The main thing we kind of brought out of this is that staying positive and having each other was what kept us going and having that bond…we really achieved the purpose of our trip. And most of all is our faith. We are all women of faith. And I think that was the main thing that kept us going. That faith that someone higher was taking care of us.
Though we will surely hear the requisite complaints and fault-finding about Carnival’s missteps before and during the cruise and we’ll hear harrowing stories from passengers (one told her parents, “Everyone will need some kind of psychological help” after the cruise and the first lawsuit has already been filed), the exuberant, upbeat passengers who emerged from the ship on Thursday teach us a valuable lesson about handling adversity — attitude makes a difference.
It was clear that the Carnival guests who cheered and smiled and waved as the ship docked in Mobile chose to find good in the midst of their miserable plight. They worked together, embraced their faith in God and found comfort in prayer, looked for the positive, and laughed at the absurdity of sharing the most intimate bodily functions with total strangers. They found a way to survive — and even thrive — while trapped on a ship in miserable circumstances, and we can all learn something about the importance of faith, humor, and a great attitude from their example.
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