John Wilcock column header


The Column of Lasting Insignificance: February 21, 2009


WE WERE SITTING in El Mirador, the hotel where young Mexican studs make their death-defying dives several times a day into a rocky cove 135 feet below. Unfortunately, it was only 11 am and the next performance was scheduled for 1 pm.

“Let’s go to a massage parlor “suggested my new friend Bob, an old roué I had met at an earlier dinner on the cruise ship from which we had unfettered ourselves for the day.

Bob Lambert, a veteran of five world cruises (each 90 – 120 days) had made himself something of an expert on foreign sexual mores so I was less apprehensive than I might otherwise have been. He advises giving Mumbai’s Red Light district a miss.

With my handy guide and protector, we found a taxi driver outside the hotel who was happy to transport us to his favorite cathouse. A teenager with a loaded carbine patrolled the sidewalk outside.

He even agreed to wait for us while we had completed our visit. “Dos minutos ?”, he asked, jovially holding up two fingers. That’s how long he guessed he’d have to wait.

Bob Lambert

Climbing the stairs in his wake we found ourselves in a small lounge, furnished with sofas, a soft drink machine, and six young ladies in halters and very short, shorts. Pick your masseur. An experienced negotiator, Bob agreed on a price of $65 plus tip, for each of us and moving back into the waiting room before him, surreptitiously managed to get three seconds of videotape of two of the girls chatting by the Pepsi machine. “Special massages” should be the goddess-given birthright of every adult man or woman. It’s a pity that in puritanical America it’s declared illegal. Then it was back to the Rotterdam, so we never did get back to La Quebrada to see the divers, but I had taped them some years ago and was sufficiently familiar with Acapulco from writing my book, Mexico on $5 a Day, I passed on taking any tours.

Bob’s own book, Wave Lengths, is an amusing account of his adventures both on and off board a typical world cruise, which can cost as little as $28,000 and as much as $250,000 for penthouse accommodations.

Tipping is a controversial issue with the cruise line, Holland American (HAL) now docking every passenger $11 a day in lieu of separate tipping — not only is mandatory tipping outrageous (adding at least $100 to even the shortest cruise) but it’s a fresh admission by HAL that they won’t pay decent wages which must therefore be subsidized by passengers. (You can, with trouble, adjust your tipping fee.)

There are endless recreational pursuits, plus the pools, hot tubs, and library/Internet cafe, but little inter-mixing between passengers except for the lunchtime encounters which are barely a few degrees above boredom, not surprising, says Bob, “given the limited socio-economic pool cruise ships one draws from.”

And of course, that pool really is restrictive. At least three-quarters of the guests on a typical cruise are elderly, some very frail, others in wheelchairs, and with a high proportion grossly overweight. Some passengers never leave the ship, even at the most enticing stops, and all take advantage of the almost 24-hour food service to eat like there’s no tomorrow.

Wandering into dinner, on an unassigned schedule, is a crapshoot. You’ll be directed to any table where the menus are just being handed out and most of the time you’ll find nothing in common with your fellow diners who are apt to be from small towns and have an imagination (or lack of it) to match. Subjects such as politics, drugs, sex, religion, ideas are carefully avoided and on the occasions I wore my High Times T-shirt nobody had ever heard of the magazine.

As luck would have it, today, I hit the jackpot finding myself across the table from two of the men that HAL had hired to dance with the old ladies. Bob had written that the opportunity of getting to dance was the only thing that enticed some of the older ladies on cruises and my dinner parties confirmed it. If you dance with somebody twice in succession, one remarked, “the jealousy is enormous.” “If you give even a fraction of time more to one person than another there’s hell to pay.”

Being a roaming dancing partner is hard work — requiring one’s presence from the time the music starts in any of the lounges, until midnight — and both men pointed out the hazards of making the slightest wrong move; being put off the boat without appeal at the nearest port.

Both talked of rich patrons they had danced with but neither had been invited to any of the estates, ranches, or chateaux they had been told about, although there were legends in the trade about some predecessor who had snared a lifelong partner.

“It’s an exhausting job but you never know what the future might hold,” one said smiling. In addition to the bed and board, HAL dancers are paid a few hundred dollars a month and have other perks such as free tours available to them. There are no female dance hostesses to cater to the many single males. (Bob: “single means all alone; solo is somebody who pretends to be single.”)

Bob wrote that the classic myth of the business “rumor, tale or truth — concerns the dance host who did meet and marry the woman of his fiscal dreams, only to return to the same ships on which he had hosted as an esteemed guest, probably living in the penthouse, Lord over all.”