If you should ever run into me at some social gathering and I mention in passing that I'm planning on going on a cruise, just go ahead and shoot me in the head, for surely the pod people will have taken over my bodily essence.
I would no sooner take a cruise than take a colonoscopy without anesthetic, and judging from the images I saw from the recent floating disaster called the Carnival Triumph, the pictures would look about the same.
Set adrift in the Gulf of Mexico because of an engine fire, nearly 3,000 passengers were stranded for five days without heat or air-conditioning, a broken sewage system too disgusting to describe, and a scarcity of food — which reminds me of that old joke about diners complaining that the food was simply poison, and they served such small portions.
After the "poop cruise" situation was followed hourly by cable news and the wretched tourists finally disembarked, they were heartened to learn that Carnival Cruises was offering full refunds on fares, an extra $500, and a credit for another cruise. The company tweeted that "of course the Triumph bathrobes are complimentary." If I were a passenger, I'd be burning that stack.
I used to think of cruises as something my parents did, when the passengers dressed for dinner and either watched a show or some other entertainment and then passed out. Now cruises are built around food and the all-you-can-eat banquet feasts that are available 24 hours a day. Cruise ships once required some decorum in dress, but the people I saw exiting the Carnival Triumph were the same American slobs you see in Walmart, with oversized T-shirts over baggy shorts and white, athletic socks with hideous sneakers. I wouldn't want to spend time with 3,000 people on dry land, much less trapped in an E. coli incubator on the open seas. And these leisurely cruises are looking more like episodes of Survivor. In 2010, the cruise ship Celebrity Mercury left Charleston, South Carolina, with 2,600 passengers and returned to port with 400 people stricken by an outbreak of the norovirus. All this comes only a year after the Costa Concordia ran aground off the coast of Italy, killing 32 and capsizing after the captain jumped ship. Didn't anybody ever watch Gilligan's Island?
My aversion to cruises dates back to the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro, when four terrorists from the Palestinian Liberation Front dumped poor Leon Klinghoffers' body overboard in his wheelchair. You might think that particular cruise ship would be retired out of respect, but the Lauro Line returned it to service until an engine fire caused it to sink off the coast of Somalia in 1994 with 1,000 passengers on board. Which brings us to the Carnival Splendor, which was attacked by Somali pirates in 2005. I'm certain that those passengers weren't aware that some of the cruise activities included dodging machine-gun fire and rocket-propelled grenades when they purchased their tickets. Yet still, the cruise industry reports a 23 percent increase in business in the past year alone. This despite the numerous incidences of cruise ships becoming floating petri dishes of disease. The Centers for Disease Control has said "sickness has run rampant on cruise ships," especially the norovirus, which has been derisively called the "cruise ship disease." Doesn't anybody just get plain old seasick anymore?
The cruise industry fights back by saying that the norovirus is a common illness found in hotels and other public places and is spread like the ordinary cold. Also, since cruise ships participate in the Vessel Sanitation Program, they are required to report the number of cases of gastrointestinal illnesses before the ship arrives at a U.S. port, creating greater attention to ship-borne diseases. On the CDC homepage, however, 16 cruise ships reported outbreaks of the norovirus in 2012 alone, with the Ruby Princess cited twice. But like the industry says, why sweat the intestinal eruptions when there are salmonella, E. coli, and Legionnaires' disease to be concerned about as well.
In 1994, 50 passengers on a cruise ship contracted Legionnaires' disease from a whirlpool spa, and the British ship M.S. Black Watch had a Legionnaires' outbreak in 2007, killing one. A hundred other passengers have filed suit against the company. Cruising may be fun for some, but I equate it with sitting in a hot tub full of other people's simmering sickness or an airplane full of coughing babies.
The disease-athon is not relegated to the four-day cruises alone. In 2012, the prestigious Queen Elizabeth 2 and the Emerald Princess were both hit by incidences of norovirus and gastroenteritis. I admit to a passing acquaintance with gastrointestinal problems myself, and it's adventure enough in my own home. I can't imagine too many things worse than suffering in a cramped loo in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
Just last week, the Royal Caribbean Vision of the Seas docked in Port Everglades, Florida, with 108 passengers and three crew members stricken with the norovirus and suffering from diarrhea and vomiting. The company reportedly apologized to the sick, sanitized the ship, and headed back to Aruba. Should I ever get another vacation in this life, it will be on terra firma. Let others smell the ocean air — or whatever that smell is.
Randy Haspel writes the "Born-Again Hippies" blog, where a version of this column first appeared.