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It Was an Odd Feeling Being a Young Woman of Color on This Luxury Cruise

I was onboard a luxury, once-in-a-lifetime cruise that felt catered to an entirely different crowd.

The iPad was silent. Propped up on the tray table, 20,000 feet in the air, it mutely played the Hindi movie Dil Dhadakne Do.

Its two audience members were cramped in the always shrinking airplane seats. My best friend Chetana and I didn’t need to read the subtitles. The movie is on a six-monthly rotation for me, and I was mouthing the dialogues.

“Tum kar kya rahe ho? Tum karna kya chahte ho?”

“What are you doing? What do you want to do?” asks an exasperated Priyanka Chopra of her onscreen brother, Ranveer Singh. Such simple but loaded questions.

This airtime screening on the flight to Singapore from Delhi was in preparation for our impending cruise trip, mirroring the swanky Mediterranean cruise that the movie had picturized. Fiction is a window to reality, or so we thought.

Truthfully, I didn’t know what to expect on a 17-night cruise. There are a dizzying number of articles on cruise travel, including a vast variety on Fodor’s. I had initially thought that I could just fly back home if I didn’t like the experience. Turns out, escape isn’t possible in the marine realm. You can’t just pack up and leave. It’s not a restaurant you’re at with a bad blind date. You’re in the middle of the ocean, often floating between countries, navigating international laws and safety procedures. 

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Related: I Want to End My Cruise at a Port on the Itinerary. Is That Allowed?

But once onboard, the thought of fleeing didn’t cross my mind. What really struck me, again and again, was how we were standing out among 600+ guests. We were on a segment from Singapore to Dubai with 100 others, while 500 guests were world cruisers circling the globe from Miami to Barcelona. They had been sailing since January and would end their voyage in May. 

Mostly North Americans, predominantly white, they glammed up every evening in their finest clothes. Together, Chetana and I were fish out of water: under 60 years old (the average age onboard) and casual campers. Not retired or semi-retired, but very much glued to our laptops while trying to earn nowhere near enough to afford a luxury, round-the-globe cruise.

Life Onboard a Luxury Cruise

“Sun hawa, Dikha de rasta, Thodi, thodi der chal mere saath.”

For days, these lyrics were floating in my head. I wanted to pull them out of the deep end and release them, but streaming on a cruise ship was impossible. Apple Music, YouTube, Spotify, nothing worked. Ultimately, I asked a friend to record it and send it as a voice note on WhatsApp—it was such terrible quality, but I was getting desperate. The words were finally set free one sunny morning on the balcony as I meditated on the blues of the waters and the nothingness around us. 

Even without this song, there was a lot of music in the air. On the top deck, I watched the sun kiss the waters every day, basking in the familiarity of their love story. The whoosh was a constant in my ears up there—it was a long argument with the wind to let me stand still. The roar of the engine was much louder down a few flights of stairs: in my balcony, the reflection of the moon on inky waters kept getting disturbed by the ripples.

“Listen to us, not your phone,” the elements reiterated while rolling their eyes at me.

In the Maldives, the sun was a golden blob shining over the fathomless blues of the Indian Ocean. In Thailand, the dramatic skies turned a range of colors: blue, purple, and pinkish-orange, before going black. In Oman, the white architecture was a juxtaposition to the parched, arid desert. I am a sunset fiend, and my ears pricked up every time the captain made his noon announcements: “For all the romantics out there, the sunset today will be at…”

The guidebooks don’t prepare you for the beauty your eyes will open to every day on a cruise. The ocean is limitless, the sky is an infinite canopy, and in these scenes of superlatives, we’re minuscule, no matter the size of the ship.

We weren’t just bobbing with the waves; we were on a magnificent boat that parted the waters in style. The Regent Seven Seas Mariner is a luxury cruise ship—this is the address you want if you’re spending a few weeks (or months) sailing. Our stateroom was surprisingly spacious, with two twin beds, a couch and a coffee table, an en-suite bathroom, a closet, and a balcony. 

Related: Does (Ship) Size Matter? The Big vs. Small Ship Debate

But my haven was the bed. I would just sink into it, ensconced in its warmth, forsaking all others, lulling myself to a deep slumber with the rocking motion. 

The ship was indulging its guests with multiple restaurants and lounges, a theatre, an open-air swimming pool and Jacuzzis, a spa and a fitness center, jogging tracks, and indoor and outdoor games.

What I loved was the staff and their hospitality. They knew your name and your preferences, and in my case, your food allergies. You dressed up for the evening and came down for a pre-meal drink, and you would be served canapes. You took a seat in the theatre for a post-dinner performance, and someone would come to ask what you’d like to have; no judgment if it were a hot cup of green tea you wanted in the freezing room. As you welcomed a new port from the deck, the staff would be with you balancing a tray full of flutes of Champagne. Although I don’t drink, I gleefully enjoyed the attention, lapping it all up like a favorite child.

Finding Community in the Middle of the Ocean

Olivia, from Canada, invited us for tea with her husband, and in a kind, teacher-like voice, she shared the secret of making a good cup with a teabag: “I ask them to give me warm milk on the side.”

Silver teapots sat on white table cloths on the tables. A display of desserts and snacks was set up on the dance floor. Massive windows in this lounge were the prisms that brought in the sun and the sea. This was the back of the boat, and the frothing water created the waterfall-like white noise on the balcony. Inside, a pianist languidly moved his fingers across the piano, and the softness carried into our conversations. 

That day, I spent the day in Goa, touring a museum and eating poee (bread) and chicken xacuti (Goan curry). I even managed to grab a cup of masala chai at a five-star resort, hence the conversation directed toward tea. It had been 10 days since we set sail, and I was beginning to miss the simple pleasures of home. I followed Olivia’s lead for the rest of the trip and asked for ginger water, English breakfast, and warm milk on the side—formulating my own version of chai.

A few days later, another couple invited us for dinner. Ed and Wendy from the U.S. taught us shuffleboard on the 11th-floor deck under starry nights. I often did laundry and yoga at the same time Serena did. She is a jewelry designer who had her boutique on the cruise, and she gave me pointers on how to deal with seasickness (less water, more carbs, and slices of green apples). It was close to the end of the trip when I bumped into a fellow Indian who settled in the U.S. decades ago and tried to remember my Spanish greetings when chatting with a sweet lady from Puerto Rico.

Cruising is a community activity, and we didn’t know how much we were missing these small interactions until we found them. On this sail, world cruisers had found their groups. It’s hard not to when you have a routine and a shared space. You meet each other in hallways and lifts. You share a meal or a drink, attend performances together, schedule chess or card games, and go for port excursions. There are also meet-ups and block parties to know thy neighbor, and these friendships fill a vacuum when you’re so far from home.

For us, though, most interactions were with the staff, many of whom were from Asia. Their kindness became our anchor. And there were many random, little buds of conversations with nameless strangers.

My eyes closed, resting on the floor of the fitness room, a yoga mat beneath me, I was breathing from my stomach. The guided meditation required us to feel the motion of the ship, to become one with it. Suddenly, a guest, a woman, who was working out nearby, gleefully woke us up to say there were dolphins in the distance. All four of us on the floor jumped up and stuck by the big windows on the side, including our instructor. I couldn’t see anything.

Back on the mat, repeat. This time, I did spot them. My phone was in my stateroom, and it wouldn’t have been able to capture the sight anyway. 

The first time I had met her, Wendy had told me about the pilot who jumps into the ship to help the captain maneuver into the port. This sight also eluded me for the entirety of my stay, but a kind gentleman on the cruise shared a set of photos—thanks, Airdrop. 

Related: Don’t Be *That* Cruiser: 13 Things You Need to Know About Cruise Etiquette.

A Sense of Comfort & Belonging

But there was a peculiar interaction that gave me pause. 

On a Bollywood night, after we had departed India, a lounge played five Hindi songs for guests sweetly dressed in shimmering kurtas. Taylor Swift, with the added dimension of sitar, wasn’t exactly Bollywood music. I get it—most people would sit down when Hindi music played, so it had to be doctored for foreign sensibilities. 

I danced to a Shah Rukh Khan song with the singer with all the enthusiasm I showed in my cardio dance classes. The music finished, everyone clapped, and I took a bow. A lady turned to me with folded hands, possibly complimenting me with the gesture, and said, “Sorry, I don’t speak your language.” I was confused because I had been talking in English all night and told her so.

The cruise also had a series of lectures on India, all delivered by non-Indians with very Western perspectives. I dissented, privately, to Chetana. By this time, I was adrift. I felt like “other.” It wasn’t just our age or the color of our skin. The cruise simply catered to a different clientele with a different worldview.

Years ago, it wouldn’t have registered or mattered. In the last couple of years, maybe because of the pandemic, I have embraced the comforts of home and become more aware of my Indianness, proud of who I am and where I come from. I crave my dal-chawal and chai, I want to watch Bollywood movies, and I like to talk in Hindi. I also empathize with the desi desire to bring theplas and bhujiya with you when traveling. In a foreign land where people may not understand you, familiar foods, words, cinema, and songs are a sense of comfort and belonging.

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jacketwatch September 6, 2023

Thank you for this lovely read.