Ying Reinhardt: These scenes can hold no meaning anywhere, but here
Weaving between past and present, vignettes from a life at sea about solitude and friendship by a Malaysian writer who once taught English on cruise ships.
Friends and readers,
I’m afraid this finds you a little late in the month. I’ve been busy with editing and writing commissioned pieces, which I need to finish before I can move on mentally to other things, so thank you for your patience and your continued readership.
Meanwhile, I have another guest letter for you. It’s from Ying Reinhardt, a Malaysian travel writer and blogger, a.k.a. The Tiny Wanderer. We’ve never met, but we’ve exchanged messages here and there about writing and travel. I knew she had worked on cruise ships for a time and was planning to write a memoir about that chapter of her life, so I reached out. This has honestly been one of the great pleasures of this newsletter. Inviting people to share something potentially interesting to others from their own lives in a conversation or a letter. There are many more people I want to reach out to.
Ying’s letter is a collection of memories from her experiences aboard different cruise ships, where she worked as a crew lecturer between 2007 and 2011 teaching their staff English as a means to travel further. I’ve always found the seafaring life romantic, even as I know enough from what I’ve read that it often isn’t (especially during this pandemic, which stranded hundreds of thousands of workers at sea), and I enjoyed reading in Ying’s essay the specific details, even the language—the job titles, the code word for a certain emergency—that are rooted in the particularities of this life. I also know, from my own experience, that the greatest travel adventures, though often rewarding, can be the most difficult and lonely: a sentiment that is also woven evocatively through this letter.
Thanks again, Ying, for writing. And I hope her letter transports all of you for a moment, wherever you are.
Before you leave, you can also catch up on past guest letters. There’s the one by Kate Walton, an Australian activist-journalist, about being deported and banned from Indonesia, where she had built a life, and reconciling her feelings for her home country. And another by Elizabeth Wong, a Malaysian writer, about how a trip with her mother to a fishing village—and the complicated feelings it surfaced about identity, privilege, and belonging—led, thirteen years later, to her debut novel.
If you’re interested in writing a guest letter too, please reach out.
Till the next,
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A guest letter by Ying Reinhardt
Photographs also by the writer
I wake up to sunlight, soft and warm, streaming through the streaked porthole in my cabin. It is seven in the morning. In an hour, my English class with the crew trainees will start.
I clamber onto my knees to admire the calm waters of the Suez Gulf. We’re on the Costa Europa, a creaking mid-sized cruise ship that can carry 1,506 passengers. Its sailing season around the eastern shores of Africa usually begins in December, when the frigid winter hits the shores of Europe. From the port of Savona, Italy, it makes its way across the Mediterranean and squeezes past the Suez Canal, before sailing into the Red Sea and across the Indian Ocean. Passengers board the Europa in Port Louis, Mauritius, for a cruise that lasts fourteen days, during which it calls in on stunning island nations and port cities almost daily—Seychelles, Mombasa, Madagascar, Reunion, to name just a few. Then, in April, when spring thaws the ice and birds burst into joyous song once more back in Europe, the ship makes its return voyage.
Now, we’re sailing towards Alexandria, Egypt, on the way back to Savona. Amid the constant whirring of the engines and the lapping of the waves against the ship’s hull, I hear a crew steward running the vacuum cleaner along the long corridor that connects us all.
I sneeze and Rosano, the Italian singer in the cabin next door, shouts, “Salut!”
From the electrician’s workshop, the Italian-Lao chief electrician makes a joke (probably a dirty one) and sends other men into guffaws of laughter.
I listen to all this for a moment and relish my time onboard. These scenes, so utterly quotidian, are somehow comforting. They remind me that I am part of a bustling community, so often invisible, that keeps the floating hotels of the world running. These scenes can hold no meaning anywhere but here.
A man in stained overalls is doodling into my desk. In front of him, a B1 English textbook lies open, but instead of tackling the past continuous tense as I’ve told him to, he sketches a strangled-looking cat.
“Andrea,” I sigh. “Do you really have to do that?”
He smiles wickedly at me, like a toddler caught stealing from the cookie jar. “Do you really have to do that,” he repeats after me in his Italian accent, his voice pitched high. Just like a three-year-old.
I purse my lips to show him that I am not amused. It’s almost 8:30p.m. and I am exhausted. The Costa Classica has been at sea all day. My English classes are scheduled back-to-back; I spend most of the day sitting in the office, waiting for my fellow crew members to trickle in. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don’t. But they’re my students and it’s my job to be available to them.
From the tiny training room, I can hear cutleries and dinner plates clinking against each other as a crew steward polishes them and puts them away. The training room is inside the staff mess, where we have our meals. As my time with Andrea ticks by, the last of the crew still dining are already wrapping up their conversations, taking their dirty trays with them on their way out.
“You know, if you continue this way, I’m going to have to let your chief know,” I say. Andrea continues pressing his pencil into my desk, and a floppy-eared dog appears next to the cat. It’s infuriating. There’s no stopping him and he knows it. He’s a second engine officer, whose rank precedes mine.
Living on a cruise ship is like living on an independent floating territory, far from any inhabitable land, where the captain is sovereign. The hierarchy onboard is not unlike the hierarchy in large corporations, but on a ship, the chain of command is stricter, almost military-like: it’s essential to better manage hundreds of staff at sea, to avoid confusion as to who is in charge. What you wear, and the position inscribed on your name tag (which must be worn at all times, on and off duty), constantly reminds you of where you stand onboard. Those occupying the lower rungs of the ladder would hardly dare to question those on the higher rungs. A crew lecturer like me is somewhere in between—not really an officer, but not really a crew member either. We’re more like consultants; and as consultants, we can only suggest.
The last time I made a complaint to a chief engineer, he told me that if I really wanted his men to attend my class, I should dress up in a short skirt and heels. He said it in a manner that wasn’t unkind, but in the way of a shrug: This is the way things are done here. Stunned, I simply said, Fine, and fled down the corridor feeling indignant, enraged, and confused. I am not the kind of person to confront people and I knew I was in no position to ruffle any feathers. So I swallowed my fury and ranted to friends far away who would listen.
It is laughable for a man in his late forties such as Andrea to behave as he is behaving, but I know it’s his way of expressing his resistance to the company’s new policy. Management ashore had insisted that it is now obligatory for both bridge and engine officers with a poor command of English to attend lessons. It quickly became clear that not everyone is a fan of the policy, though not all officers are like Andrea. Many turn up and excel. Some already speak English well but enjoy a break from their nautical duties.
“Look, Andrea,” I try again, with as much enthusiasm as I can muster. “We both know why we’re here. Why not just try to make the best of it? If you want, let’s forget grammar. We can just chat in English.” I want him to know that I’m on his side. We’re both just trying to do our jobs.
“Ah, teacher! I got a better idea,” Andrea says. “I will learn English from you, but maybe in the crew bar? We drink, I study.”
I am first introduced to the possibility of a job as a crew lecturer on cruise ships by a Couchsurfing friend. Steve from Boston had been traveling for more than seven years when I meet him in Kuala Lumpur. He had funded his travels by teaching English in China, South Korea, and Vietnam. When he accepts a job offer to work on one of Costa’s ships, he tells me to consider applying as well. Working on cruise ships would not only fund my adventures, it would also be an adventure of its own.
I take his advice. In 2007, after four days of hands-on training on the modern, mega-sized Costa Magica, I get my first contract lasting ten months to teach English on the smaller and older Costa Allegra, which sails closer to home across the South China Sea. In the end, I am grateful for this experience, but it’s hard not to feel claustrophobic after a few months on a ship. The job isn’t difficult, but life onboard becomes repetitive. I am not ready to give up a life of travel, but I don’t want to embark on another cruise again—at least, not yet. When I discover that I’m eligible for a working-holiday visa in the U.K., I decide to go for it.
The next year, I move to London. There, I begin to build a strong network of friends. I have a fun gig working in a popular organic cafe on the ever-colorful Carnaby Street, and whenever possible, I travel to neighboring cities. It’s living abroad at its best. I’m thriving.
Yet, just a few months later, in November, I step aboard the Costa Europa in Savona, Italy, to begin my second contract.
It isn’t an uncomplicated decision. I already know how tough the going can get and have my reservations. But the hiring manager from Costa told me she would make it worth my while. The Europa promises an exciting itinerary from Europe to East Africa on a sixth-month contract, and after that, I will be transferred onto the Costa Atlantica for two months. They will fly me to the Caribbean, and I will do a transatlantic route back, sailing around western and northern Europe.
I have never been particularly good at geography or reading maps, but the thought of setting foot on Madagascar or Guadeloupe, places I had only heard of but never imagined I would travel to in my lifetime, compelled me to say yes. I let myself dream again.
I am twenty-four, with a penchant for wishful thinking and a determination to have the adventure of a lifetime. In a toss between a career and my wanderlust, I choose the latter. That visceral ache to go somewhere, anywhere, might have been the same thing Charles Baudelaire felt when he penned in his poem “Le Voyage”:
But the true voyagers are only those who leave
Just to be leaving; hearts light, like balloons,
They never turn aside from their fatality
And without knowing why they always say: “Let’s go!”
To maintain the seaworthiness of a floating behemoth, the crew has to keep cleaning, polishing, serving, painting, entertaining, vacuuming, baking, repairing, decorating, babysitting, managing, training, navigating—rinse and repeat, for twelve punishing hours, daily. When you work on a cruise ship, you learn to assemble a mental calendar by the ports it calls in on, rather than the days of the week. Sunday means nothing to us. We sign on to a ship with a contract that stipulates the amount of time we must stay onboard. In between, there are no weekends, no rest days, no vacation breaks, and no public holidays. There are only the occasional hours off.
Despite all the lofty ideas and impressions I have before I ever take a job with Costa, I quickly begin to realize that this dream job comes at a cost. You’re trapped in a vessel for months with people whom you don’t know (and who really don’t care to know you), and who don’t always speak a common language (at least, not yet). You’re doing a job that can feel redundant, where the managers treat you like a pest—and really, what else is there to do most of the time? Even when the ship docks, all you do is sit in the terminal and use the free Wi-Fi, because in certain cities, it’s just too expensive to hire a private cab to take you somewhere. So, to make everything feel more palatable, you start drinking and saying things like, “Onboard, I am only happy when I drink,” and find others agreeing wholeheartedly.
Often, on my first evenings aboard a new ship, I find myself alone at a table in the staff mess. I know it will take a while before I find my own company to keep. During this time, it can feel like even the most superficial relationships, the ones that naturally bind two people on the basis of doing the same work, elude me. There is only one crew lecturer on every Costa ship, so I have no one to share the trials and tribulations of the job with. I spend many evenings in solitude and in dread, wondering how many months are left before I can leave and do whatever I want far from the watchful eyes of security, colleagues, and managers.
But one piece of advice helps me. When I first trained under Alex, a senior Canadian crew lecturer on the Costa Magica, he had passed on several nuggets of wisdom. One tip he shared didn’t make an impression at first, but I have since taken it to heart. The profundity of his words becomes obvious as I spend many evenings in my cabin alone, yearning for human company instead of books and Gilmore Girls.
“Make one good friend. Someone you trust and someone you can share your days with. Trust me, that will make all the difference,” he said.
“Just one. When you don’t have this one friend, living with a thousand others can be really lonely.”
Roberto calls me Principessa, and I call him Maestro—which he is. A pianist, he mesmerizes the guests with his silken voice and piano medleys, ranging from the classical to the popular, in the lounges of the Costa Europa. When he plays on non-gala nights, he often dresses up in a casual suit, in the color of camel or anthracite, usually with a V-neck tee underneath. He’ll have a mint-colored scarf hanging from around his long and regal neck, his stringy, blond hair swaying, while his liver-spotted hands pound away on the Yamaha baby grand like a king.
He is the first friend I’ve made on this ship. I am not an assertive person by nature so I don’t know what drove me to approach him one evening, but I remember seeing him always eating on his own for dinner at a table near the entrance of the staff mess. Perhaps his solitary figure evoked in me feelings of kinship.
He smiled when he saw me approaching with my tray of food, and swept his hand theatrically over the table, as if to say, Welcome. Then he pointed to the bottle of Chardonnay next to him. “Wine?”
I nodded, and he looked pleased. In broken Italian, I asked if white wine is his favorite drink. I had noticed that he always has a glass or two to accompany his meal.
He said it calms him and helps him play the piano better. Then, he apologized for not being able to converse in English and asked if I would mind continuing in Italian. I said I didn’t; he spoke clearly, enunciated every vowel, and didn’t ramble. In the beginning, our conversation was halting and tentative, with many pauses in between as I searched for the right word. Occasionally, he offered up an English word to help me be more precise with what I wanted to say, but never out of impatience.
“Ah, you are Italian already!” he said, grinning, as I became more animated. It felt strange, forging a connection with someone closer to my father’s age than mine, but exhilarating too. I marveled at how two very unlikely people, who have practically nothing in common, could bond over dry lasagna and white wine.
In her essay “This Is Not My Father’s China”, Lucy Tan writes, “I had arrived in China the first time in search of belonging, not understanding that most ways of belonging are not given but earned.” That’s something I am learning. If I want to belong, I will have to get over myself and work for it, even if extroversion doesn’t come easily to me. When I start spiraling into depression and find myself seeking refuge at the crew bar, I know it’s time to leave my own pity party.
And that evening, after mustering the courage to join Roberto at his table, I worked harder than ever. Soon, it didn’t feel like work. When the conversation continued easily, like a ship’s sails catching the wind, my confidence swelled. The wine helped. My shyness receded into the background. I no longer felt self-conscious chatting away with the Italian vocabulary of a four-year-old.
Before long, two other musicians, a couple from Pesaro, Italy, joined our table. When Roberto left to play another set for the evening, Moreno and Francesca stayed on to keep me company. Just like Roberto, they were easygoing, vivacious, and patient with my broken Italian.
Since then, the three of us have formed a little gang of our own. Roby is my go-to Italian teacher, Francesca my fashion guru, and Moreno, the person who shares with me his love for manouche music. We’re a motley crew learning to find refuge in each other—even if it will only be for the five months we work and live alongside one another, even if our backgrounds, hobbies, and life philosophies differ.
On the Costa Atlantica, I meet Eduardo, a Peruvian who started working on cruise ships to save up for his wedding.
He tells me that for the first three months on his first contract, he hid in the aft of the ship every afternoon and cried. He was disappointed to have been commissioned as a steward of the petty officer mess, not the housekeeping job he initially signed up for. As a housekeeper, he would have had a chance to receive tips from passengers; serving the crew wouldn’t be as lucrative. But the manager only told him that, if he wasn’t happy with the position, he could go home—many would be happy to replace him. But how could he? He had already promised his family that they would have a better life.
Thankfully, he found friends who dissuaded him from quitting halfway. They say that once you quit, you can never come back. In the end, Eduardo pulled through, got promoted, and made his way up to become a hotel storekeeper—responsible for receiving, storing, and issuing all supplies and equipment for day-to-day hotel operations. When I meet him, he is already an old seadog on his eighth contract, doling out words of advice to rookies like me.
I won’t last quite as long as Eduardo. But later, over a span of four years and eight contracts, I will end up working on six of Costa’s cruise ships. I will travel to most of the world’s continents, including the Arctic Circle. I will sail through a piracy threat, a passenger mutiny, and a collision with a Belgian cargo vessel. I will meet many people on board these ships—some I will never speak to again and some who will continue to haunt me, but also some who will become good friends.
I celebrate my first Christmas at sea aboard the Costa Allegra. In the early evening, before the festivities are underway, the ship heaves and rolls across the South China Sea. It’s what the weather forecast would describe as mare arrabiata—agitated seas.
The swells rise and slam against the ship with such relentless force I have to hold on to the railings and walk sideways with my back against the wall. Glassware and crockery are breaking in the galley and mess rooms; the floors of the lower decks belonging to the crew are slick with water. There must be a leak somewhere. A housekeeping manager rushes past me along the corridor with a bucket and mop in one hand, while the walkie talkie in her other blared: “Pizza! Pizza! Deck 5, Murano Lounge!” Pizza is code for vomit.
I am lucky. A crew lecturer isn’t required to work through the storm, but for the others, it’s business as usual. It is only hours later, at about 11p.m., that the squalls die down and the ship starts to sail quietly again. Curious to see the aftermath of the storm, I go down to the crew bar, only to discover that it has turned into a karaoke bar. Among the tinsel and faux snowflakes, the Chinese galley staff croon out ancient songs of the Middle Kingdom. The Latin Americans are on the couch, chatting among themselves as they gulp down their beers and pass around a packet of potato chips. When they see me, Pablo, the provisions master from Honduras, gets up and gives me a hug. “Feliz Navidad!” He hands me a drink and we toast to my first Christmas onboard.
Later, I go to the balcony to get some air. The storm has left the air sultry and thick. I spot Gianni, an Italian drummer in his forties, whom I have become good friends with after discovering he is fluent in English and shares my interest in the spiritual pursuits of happiness. I take my place next to him on a wooden bench. Without speaking, we watch the ship leave a jeweled trail of light behind as we cleave through darkness.
This is a guest letter, and views and experiences related are the writer’s own. Guest appearances here aim to reflect the variety of life in this world.
YING REINHARDT is a Malaysian writer based in eastern Germany. Her work has appeared on Roads & Kingdoms, BootsnAll, Traveloka, Off Assignment, and Marie Claire. Her essay “To the Man Who Spoke with His Hands” will be included in the upcoming Letter to a Stranger anthology from Algonquin Books (Spring 2022). She is currently working on a memoir of her time on board Costa cruise ships. You can find her at www.tinywanderer.com and on Instagram @whereisying.