My First Cruise: Learning, Friendship and Open Bar on the High Seas

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Lisbon, September 2017. I’ve spent a few pleasant weeks there. I think to myself, “Self — you’ve been living outside of the US for about 8 months now. And you’ve got a conference to go to in October. Shouldn’t you be thinking of ways of getting back to the US, like maybe eventually? Also, your country called, and it needs you.”

Fair point. But I was in no hurry to return, especially with Agent Orange in power and Greed as the national religion. How could I get back to the States, but slowly? Maybe on a boat. That moves slowly. And stops in a lot of places.

This could be the best idea I’ve ever had, or the worst. Anchors aweigh!

At a talk I attended the very day I had the boat idea, somebody mentioned in passing this thing called “The Nomad Cruise.” Excuse me, what is this? 14 days on the water, 4 ports of call, and a full program of talks and workshops covering everything from marketing, web design, photography, cryptocurrency, financial planning, and other topics of interest to location-independent entrepreneurs. Oh, and unlimited food and booze. The cruise would be leaving in seven days from Las Palmas, Gran Canaria. Price: eminently reasonable.

I’ve never been on a cruise. I don’t know anyone on this cruise. I have no idea what is going to happen. Where do I sign up?

I. Who are these Digital Nomads anyway?

Location-independent workers are a recent thing, but not that recent. Even a pioneering book like Tim Ferriss’s 2007 The Four-Hour Work Week: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich — the closest thing to a Bible of Digital Nomadism — was merely describing a trend already well under way. What’s new is the acceleration of this demographic trend due to a few factors. Some of them are push factors, some of them pull:

  • Advent of the freelance economy. Long-term employment is diminishing.
  • Advent of location-independent jobs. If you’re a graphic designer, personal coach, writer, virtual assistant or online entrepreneur, you can work from any café with an internet connection.
  • Ubiquity of internet connections, even in remote areas.
  • High cost of city living without a commensurate quality of life.
  • Political unrest.

Of course, there are as many reasons for going nomad as there are nomads. Personally, I had wearied of San Francisco’s coupling of high cost of living with mediocre standard of living. I asked myself, what else could I get for $2500/month in rent besides deficient-to-absent public transport, impossible parking, rampant petty crime, exorbitant taxation, pointlessly expensive everything, needles and humanure everywhere on the streets, and an embarrassing homeless problem? After November 2016, for the sake of my sanity, I was also eager to put as much distance between myself and Agent Orange as possible. My fellow American refugees felt similarly.

Many of the nomads shared my reasons for hitting the road. For some, price arbitrage is a motivating factor. At $1000 a month, you would be living in penury in a place like Paris. In the US, you would be below the poverty line, qualifying for government assistance. On the other hand, you can live very well on that budget in a place like Bali, Guatemala, or Chiang Mai (as illustrated by Chris Dodd’s well-crafted video). And you get an ocean view!

Here are some of the circles I noticed in the big Venn diagram of nomads:

  • Young folks with limited income who dreamed of seeing the world, and finally did something about it.
  • Entrepreneurs with passive income and location-independent jobs who figured it would be fun to hit the road for a while.
  • Dedicated nomads perpetually on the move, with little intention to return to their home country.
  • Political semi-refugees from where the atmosphere can get oppressive: Hungary, US, Poland, England.
  • People at a transition point in life: divorce, breakup, career change, or major health-related event.
  • Watersports enthusiasts who just need to surf, kiteboard, scuba etc.
  • Cryptocurrency enthusiasts.
  • Entrepreneurs leveraging cost arbitrage to get their startups off the ground on minimal cash.
  • People from affluent countries whose robust social services afford its citizens the latitude to take extended trips, e.g. Netherlands, Germany, Sweden.

Following that last observation, most of the Nomad Cruisers were from Germany and the Netherlands, with sizable contingents from Hungary, North America, Spain, and the rest of Europe.

Minutes before leaving port, the Nomads scramble for the last threads of free internet connectivity

Even beyond national origin, a few questions distinguished the flavor of nomad: Are you doing this by choice or chance? Are you broke or thriving? Are you running away from something you don’t want or towards something you do want? Are you a consumer or creator? Are you an active contributor to the places you visit, or just using them like utilities?

I predict that the nomad trend will only continue accelerating in the years to come. Humans are the only animals that remain curious well past childhood. Given a chance to move around and experience new surroundings, many will.

 

II. What to do when stuck on a really big boat for two weeks

What’s a typical day like on a cruise? So many options to consider: Have a cocktail by the pool. Drink a cocktail in the pool. Drink a cocktail in the jacuzzi, on a deck chair on the ship’s prow, while reading a book, as tropical breezes caress your body. Go to the buffet for a meal. Go to a kitschy ABBA tribute show. Nap. Climb a wall. Go to the buffet for a snack. Play ping-pong, basketball, foosball, or an improvised drinking game. Repeat nap. Go to the buffet just because it’s there, it’s all-you-can-eat, and it’s always open. Have an inspired conversation. Cocktail nap. Or do jack diddly squat (known as “fuck-all” in England).

My days on the ship quickly developed a discernible structure vaguely resembling my terrestrial life. Emphasis on vaguely:

  • 7-8ish (actual time depending on what transpired the prior night): Get up. Meditate.
  • 8: Go to the gym and hop on the treadmill for about 5000m, or join the 1-hour bootcamp conducted by Eddie the Egyptian-Canadian.
  • 9.30: Get a quick breakfast at the buffet.
  • 10-1: Attend the morning talks. If poor delivery or not interested in topics, go back to room and read.
  • 1-2: Have lunch with a bunch of Nomads. Do my best to join a table of people I haven’t met yet.
  • 2-3.30: Attend afternoon workshop.
  • 3.30-5.30: Attend other impromptu workshops, or create one of my own (which I did 3 times). If neither is happening, nap or goof off by the pool.
  • 6pm: Acroyoga on the upper deck of the prow, conducted by Nikki, Stephanie and Patrick.
  • 7.30pm: sit-down dinner. Find a table that’s a mix of people you know already and like, and new people you’d like to meet. If you’re really lucky, you’ll find someone you can talk to about how you both used game theoretic explore-exploit algorithms and the 37% rule (that would be Marius).
  • 9pm: Back to the upper deck for the poolside bar, or to the Latin dance bar, or the coffee bar, or one of the other bars whose identity is fuzzy now for some reason.
  • 10ish: If imbibed enough drinks to dismiss all standards, attend cheeseball show at the theater. Elvis, Beatles, ABBA, whatever. For the ABBA show, think lots of glitter and implausible blonde wigs on olive-skinned Spaniards. Bring more drinks to make the kitsch go down easier.
  • 11.30: Drinks and dancing at Cyan Disco, or music jam on rooftop, then disco.
  • 1-3am: Crash.

Now, you don’t have to be serious about sleep science (I’m writing a book about it, yo) to realize that something here is not sustainable — namely, partying late and waking up early. There were mitigating circumstances allowing me to pull this off and still be battle-ready every day.

First, I drank sparingly — maybe 3 days out of the 13 (the night of the ABBA show was definitely one of them). On a party ship with an open bar and perpetually drinking partiers, this is a far more impressive feat than it seems, so allow me to congratulate myself here. No alcohol means better quality sleep. Second, I crashed way early on some of the nights. Third, I took naps. The lilting rhythm of the ship’s movement is good for rocking you to sleep.

The fourth trick is a bit of a deus ex machina. The Canary Islands and Panama are 5 time zones apart. So if you’re sailing westward from one to the other over 13 days, you get an extra hour on the clock every other day. So you can party your buns off, go to bed late, and miraculously wake up at 8 o’clock again the next day. By the end of the cruise, I was effectively getting up well past noon by Canary Islands time, but according to my new time zone, it was only 7.30am. Bonus!

Of course, this means that a cruise in the west-east direction would be very physiologically taxing, as one would be waking up an hour earlier every day. That’s pointlessly brutal, and if I ever think of doing something that dumb, please talk me out of it immediately.

III. Yeah, but will this cruise make you smarter?

The centerpiece of the cruise was the continuing education program of officially scheduled talks and workshops, supplemented by independently organized meetups and masterminds. There were three 40min lectures every morning between 10 and noon, then a 90min workshop in the afternoon. The days were themed: Digital Nomad day; media; passive income; lifestyle; business; finance; marketing; the future.

Overall quality of the presentations was uneven with some of the presenters being totally unprepared, while others were very good at what they did. Some of those:

A. Photography

The first was Oguzhan (pronounced osan) Altun, a Turkish photographer who runs the biggest photography school in Geneva. I had always been a skeptic when it came to seeing photography as art. What skill was there in pressing a button to capture what was already there for the eye to see? Oguzhan finally explained the art and skill of photography in a way that I understood.

For example, there’s a lot you can do besides twiddling with the variables of aperture, exposure, composition and perspective.

  • Use an item of foreground interest to show scale, or to distract from a warhorse tourist attraction (e.g. Eiffel Tower).
  • Catch your subject in the diffuse light of the golden hour, around dusk or dawn.
  • Select, select, select — only show 1% of your shots.
  • Wait until you can capture “the decisive moment” when something rare and interesting happens. Oghusan goes to great lengths to stake out timing, locations, and perspectives, and his meticulous work shows in his photos.

A second photographer, Michelle (Shelly) Kutzner, offered other useful tips. Get closer instead of zooming. Photograph into the light for a silhouette effect. Use water reflections. Get interesting foregrounds, or create them. Use a small aperture to turn light sources into starbursts. Use the frog’s eye view to make people look taller and jumps higher.

This is how the pros do it. Oguzhan Altun’s night time picture of Panama City.

B. Web programming

Another presentation that I got a lot out of was by designer and programmer Marius Schulz. Often the most difficult step in learning anything is the first one. For years, I’ve been meaning to learn web design, but always got snagged on how to get started. What program do I open? How do I test my code? In 1.5hrs, Marius demonstrated great patience in showing a roomful of rank beginners how to use the native text editor on a Mac and the Chrome browser as a rudimentary platform for web development. Now I know how a CSS (cascading style sheet) works! Marius had impressive programming chops and an agile mind, so I’m not at all surprised that he started a new job at the London offices of Facebook.

C. Personal finance basics

Pauline Paquin is a French digital nomad for 15+ years residing in Guatemala in a house she built herself. She gave a subtly empowering talk on “Freedom Through Financial Independence.” The cornerstone of her financial independence math was to save half your salary. To those who only make, say, $1000 a month and can’t afford to save, she had a piece of simple arithmetic advice: “Then just double your salary! Then you can save $1000 a month. There’s no upper limit to how much money you can make.” Indeed.

D. Search engine optimization (SEO)

One of the supremely competent individuals on the cruise was Rob Bertholf. A former college lecturer in computer science, he’s a deep thinker on search engine optimization (SEO), Google Adwords, online marketing and branding. And in case you had any doubts about his abilities, just Google “search engine optimization expert.” His name pops up first. Impressive.

Rob has a framework of thinking about things much broader than just SEO which he calls ideation through research. He talked about the hierarchy of keywords: branded, product, authority and lifestyle. A key question the successful marketer must ask himself: “If my offering is the answer, then what is the question?” Then target that question and make sure those who ask that question are led to your offering.

Rob was also remarkably giving. Every afternoon, he made himself available for hours to whoever had questions, and stayed until everyone was sated. He has dozens of hours of video teaching everything he knows, so if you want to learn more about his work, look him up.

E. App development

Mirko Kiefer of Blackbelt Labs gave a workshop demystifying the process of creating a smartphone app. You go from an idea, to validating the problem, to validating a solution, to creating a minimum viable product (MVP). Then you iterate on the cycle until the app works. Mirko took us through a series of questions and exercises to clarify the development process:

  • What is the problem? Is it a problem worth solving?
  • How could an app solve that problem?
  • Why would someone pay for that?
  • Where are your users? Actually interview them.
  • Define your ideal user — age, location, income, habits, hobbies, goals, desires.
  • Build your app audience. Aim for 100 people who really care about what you’re doing, and get to know them really well.
  • Prototyping and user testing. Use POP (prototyping on paper), Marvel, Framer, Sketch, or InVision to come up with the wireframes, the key screens, and the sequencing of the screens.
  • Test the minimum viable product. Continuous beta testing is crucial. Use Fabric, TestFlight, or HockeyApp.
  • Launch and repeat!

Mirko emphasized that the most neglected part of the process was product validation. Never assume you know what your customers want. Talk to them instead!

And just like that, you know a lot more about what goes into app development than you did a few minutes ago. Amazing!

There were other eye-opening talks that whose details were too technical for me to write up.

  • Lars Müller gave a talk on Amazon “whole-tailing”, which was not about eating lobsters in one gulp but rather a cross between retailing and wholesaling which I had never heard of.
  • In her talk on re-marketing, Pamela Wagner, a certified Google Adwords expert, showed how to make an ad follow a customer around the web wherever they go. That ad you see on Facebook that just happens to be the thing you searched on Amazon five minutes ago but didn’t buy? That’s re-marketing (or re-targeting). Remarketing aims to monetize the 97% of your traffic that bounces, thereby increasing your return on investment as much as tenfold. I knew of it, but had no idea how crafty and effective it can be. Pamela is a 7th dan black-belt at this. Look her up if you feel your company could use her services.

F. Environmental science in the Anthropocene

The most mind-expanding talk of the entire trip, however, came as a surprise. Adam, the environmental officer of the ship, had been quietly attending the lectures, and volunteered to give one at the very end. I was frankly looking forward to hearing the specifications of the ship and its environmental impact. How many horsepower does this baby have anyway?

That was not what his talk was about.

Instead, Adam made a deep, technical foray into environmental science in the anthropocene. What effects do we have on the environment when our value system prizes economic growth and acquisition of goods at any cost? In Adam’s words, “The problem with the current economy is that we value man-made things more than natural things.” If we’re serious about reducing human environmental impact and protecting the biosphere (and ultimately, ourselves), we need to flip that around.

I think of myself as a reasonably well-read person — hey, I’ve read both Field Notes from a Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History by Elizabeth Kolbert. But this talk was an exhilarating barrage of statistics and paradigms I had never seen before.

• The maximum power principle or Lotka’s principle, or the fourth principle of energetics in open system thermodynamics: “In network design, the pattern that maximizes power will prevail.”

• Maximum amount of freshwater that can be consumed per year is 4000 cubic kilometers. Right now we’re at about 2600.

• Aragonite saturation ratio: Aragonite is a form of calcium carbonate used by many organisms, including corals, to build their shells. The higher the acidity of the ocean surface, the lower this ratio gets. In pre-industrial times, the ratio was about 3.44:1, meaning that there was three times as much aragonite in the water as needed to prevent shells from dissolving. Now, it’s around 2.90. 2.75 is thought to the magic number. Below that, corals and other shells dissolve, and you get ecosystem collapse. To keep the ratio high, you need to drop CO2 levels below 430 parts per million, which is even lower than the 450ppm suggested as the upper limit to prevent global warming.

• Everyone knows that in an ecosystem, there are more predators than prey. In scientific terms, you have more primary producers (plants) than primary consumers (herbivores) than secondary consumers (antelopes) than tertiary consumers (carnivores and omnivores). So people immediately grasp that if you have a jungle with, say, 1,000,000 tigers, you’ve got a problem. Which means that right now, we have a problem, because the average human consumes 75 lb (34kg) of meat per year. Americans consume 271 lbs (123kg) of meat per person per year, and the rest of the world is trying to catch up. In their eating habits, humans are now behaving like apex predators, and Earth cannot support 7.3 billion apex predators. So we humans have a choice. We can either eat into extinction everything that moves, and drive ourselves into extinction in the process. Or we can change to a much more sustainable and perfectly palatable plant-based diet.

• Emergy, transformity, and solar emjoules per joule: That is not a typo. According to Wikipedia, “Emergy is a type of energy (exergy) that is consumed in direct and indirect transformations needed to make a product or service; it is a measure of quality differences between different forms of energy. It is measured in units of emjoules, a unit referring to the available energy consumed in transformations.”

Let me illustrate with an example from food. Let’s say you have a handful of wheat and a slice of bread that have the same amount of calories. It’s straightforward that the slice of bread took a lot more effort to produce. So the bread took more emergy, even thought it contains the same amount of energy.

What makes emergy a trippy concept is that it’s about the amount of energy that goes into creating different kinds of energy. Get it? So wood is less energy-intensive than coal, which is less energy-intensive than oil. Sunlight is the base measure; by definition it has a transformity (or transformation ratio) of 1.0 solar emjoules/joule (seJ/J). For wood, that ratio is 36,000:1; for coal, 67,000; oil, 148,000; electricity, 300,000.

Once you start thinking in terms of emergy and transformity, you realize that electricity and oil are highly refined forms of energy that should not be used frivolously. Burning oil for heat, or even for internal combustion engines, starts to seem mindlessly profligate — like feeding your dog caviar or something. Yet that’s what billions of vehicles do every day.

• “Electricity is not an energy source; it’s just a vector.” An obvious truth which had not occurred to me until Adam mentioned it.

• “The countries with the highest conflict are the ones with the highest reserves of oil and natural gas.” Think: Middle East, Russia, US. Another blindingly obvious truth, corroborated by my recent reading of Windfall: How the New Energy Abundance Upends Global Politics and Strengthens America’s Power by Meghan O’Sullivan of Harvard, a fantastic book that will reshape your understanding of global politics.

The Geobiosphere: Ecosystems and monetary value. This one slide summarizes a mind-boggling amount of information.

 

IV. Talks I presented

I also gave a few talks and workshops. The first was “SuperCharisma: How to be a compelling speaker”, a public speaking workshop I’ve conducted before in places like San Francisco, Bali, and Lisbon (VIDEO). The audience was receptive to that, so I also conducted “Self-Hypnosis for motivation, health and pleasure”, “Meditation for hustlers”, and “Cultivating authentic sexual power.”

These last three I made up on the fly. Briefly:

• In the self-hypnosis workshop, I taught people a simple countdown method to hypnotize themselves into a trance state and then give themselves suggestions. A technique I demonstrated helped an audience member reduce his subjective back pain by 80% in about 2 minutes. Another helped folks get rid of phobias. Over the next days, multiple people told me about breakthroughs they had achieved with the technique, from pain control to better sleep. People: hypnosis works.

In the meditation workshop, I taught five different techniques:

• Focus meditation: The ability to focus is the key skill enabling success. Also, your life is what you choose to pay attention to. Therefore, there is no skill more essential than the ability to concentrate and focus your attention.

• Open attention: This is about perceiving everything coming through your sensory channels instead of tuning it out: attending to vision, feeling, sound, smell, and taste. It’s the flip side of focus, and a big part of enjoying the stimuli the world is offering us.

• Loving-kindness (metta) meditation: here, you practice compassion by first focusing on someone you like effortlessly (e.g. niece, nephew, pet), then extending those warm, fuzzy feelings to the rest of the world. The more you practice this, the better you get at it.

• Walking meditation: walk slowly enough that you can actually feel and catalog everything that your body is experiencing. A favorite of Zen centers.

• Tonglen: from the Tibetan, “giving and receiving.” This is where you breathe in and feel the suffering of the world (receiving), then exhale pure white light and relief (giving). Intense and powerful.

The sexual power workshop was a bit more esoteric, but enough people were interested that I went ahead and did it. It was an introduction to basic energetics systems of Eastern wisdom, and how to cultivate it in the body.

• In the Taoist tradition, chi is the energy that we can learn to cultivate and circulate. The polarity between the receptive feminine (yin) and the projecting masculine (yang) initiates the flow. The microcosmic orbit is the path running up the back, to the top of the skull, down through the mouth and the front of the body, terminating in the perineum. By coupling breath to a visualization of the energy flow, you can get pretty high pretty fast. This visualization is also useful for delaying orgasm in men and intensifying it for both men and women.

• The Tantric tradition speaks of spanda, the vibration of the universe. All forms of energy involves vibration: molecules vibrating is heat; sound is vibrating air; radiation is photons vibrating. Even at absolute zero, the universe is still vibrating, as required by Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. By plugging into the spanda for 5-10 seconds at a time throughout your day, you can access bliss. The works of Daniel Odier cover this stuff well.

• Strengthening the pubococcygeus (PC) muscle in men and woman can both enhance energy circulation and intensify orgasms. There are two main exercises: holds and flutters. Holds are intense contractions held for a few seconds to build strength. You’d want to do a set of 10 2-3x a day. Flutters are light, repetitive contractions that increase control. Do sets of 30 a couple of times a day. The Multiorgasmic Man by Mantak Chia and Doug Abrams is an indispensable reference for all men.

V. The Ocean

Staring at the ocean is one of the pleasures of a transatlantic cruise. The immensity of it: water in every direction as far as vision permits. I saw no land, no other ships, no birds, nothing for a whole week: just water.

Being amidst such aquatic immensity moves something deep and unnameable within me — some atavistic pull to jump into the big swimming pool where all life began. Perhaps this is why I’m not distressed to be on this life raft completely at the mercy of the elements. The worst that can happen is that I return to my birthplace from 2 billion years ago, rejoining the cycle of life by becoming fish food.

That said, our raft is a pretty nice one. The Pullmantur Monarch is totally self-sufficient for a maximum of 2730 passengers and 800 crew, with gigantic diesel engines to power 74,000 tons of steel, wine and disco to cross any ocean at a mildly hairdo-perturbing 19 knots (35 km/h).

All of this makes me wonder: how did the old explorers do it? There were no satellite maps, radar, sonar, depth charts, or GPS. Heck, they weren’t even sure that the world was round. It wasn’t until the 1740s that sailors could determine longitude accurately, so all of the sailing that happened before then was guesswork. Ships were rickety rat-infested wooden things that routinely ran aground. There was no refrigeration, so you had to develop a palate for salted pork — every day for 300 days — to survive. They didn’t know about vitamin C, so if starvation didn’t get you, scurvy did. And ship doctors were not just worthless but downright dangerous. So if you got sick, you were literally bled to death by a “surgeon” even before the cholera could get you.

If you were lucky enough to reach land, that was the beginning of your troubles. Malaria, dengue, yellow fever, poisonous plants, wild animals, hostile natives — no shortage of threats on your life.

So when a Vasco da Gama, Fernão de Magalhães (Magellan), Francis Drake or any other would-be conquistador set out on a mission to discover the western route to the spice islands or the “New World”, they were signing up for a suicide mission. The captains had no idea how far they had come, how far they had left to go, how deep the water was, and where the sea monsters were hiding. They could run out of food, freshwater, or their crew’s subordination.

It was a total act of faith. And completely, utterly nuts. I promise never to complain about slow on-board wi-fi again.

I’m sure most of the explorers got shipwrecked. Those stories you don’t hear about. But shockingly large numbers of them successfully made it to West Africa, India, Caribbean Islands, Central America, and North America, creating the modern world in the process.

Staring at the sea was awe-inspiring at the far scale and endlessly fascinating at the close scale. The surface of the water is a continuously variable skin, rising, falling, undulating, breaking up, re-forming, foaming, splashing. Its topography and motion is fractal: tiny waves look and move like big waves.

After staring at the water for some time, I started to see valleys, mountains, rivers, gullies, just like on solid land. Ocean is like land, only sped up. Here’s a watery mountain range, rising out of flat nothing! And now it’s gone. A time-lapse video of continental plates sped up a trillion times would look a lot like the ocean.

Or maybe land is just like the ocean, only slowed down. Caught in a crystalline lattice, rock molecules want to flow like water, but need more time. The movement of stars in galaxies is water slowed down even further. The center of the Milky Way looks like a giant whirlpool, sucking down stars into a supermassive black hole of 4.5 million solar masses. Even though the process is unfolding on a time scale of millions of years, you can recognize the pattern immediately: it looks just like the water draining out of your tub.

VI. Don’t do as they do: the via negativa of cruise health

There’s an old Persian saying about Loghman the Learned (Loghman-e Hakeem), a freedman who was renowned for his wisdom, gentility, and self-made wealth. Someone asked him, “How did you become such an exemplar of civility and politeness?” He responded, “I learned politeness from the impolite. I observed what they did, and studiously avoided doing it.”

Going on a tropical cruise is a crash course in learning the via negativa of wellness. Watch what the average cruise passenger does on a daily basis. Watch what their bodies look like (they’re all wearing swimsuits, so that’s easy). Now ask yourself, “Is that what I want to look like at 60?” Then, proceed to not do whatever they are doing.

How do people behave with unlimited access to food, alcohol, and leisure activities? Most people in affluent Western societies have all of that on a daily basis, so a cruise isn’t dramatically different from their everyday lives. It’s not like they go on the Stuttgart savanna with a sharp stick to dig up tubers. The main things you’re adding on a tropical cruise is free time and sunlight.

The problem is that we are 3 million-year old brains and bodies thrown into the year 2017 C.E. Then, there were no supermarkets. No bakeries. No TV. No cars. No handheld attention-sucking gizmos. People hunted and gathered their own food, walked many miles a day, rose and slept with the sun, and conversed for entertainment. Sugary and fatty foods were scarce and therefore prized.

If you lived in a nordic region, you had fair skin (low melanin) so you absorbed as much sunlight as possible to manufacture vitamin D. If you lived in the tropics, you had dark skin (high melanin) to shield your body against harmful ultraviolet rays.

Now, herds of pale people have traveled beyond their overcast ancestral homes into places with unlimited sunlight. Their ancient DNA says, “Look! Sun! Get out as much as possible! Make more vitamin D!” So they lay out in the sun for hours on end, while radiation emanating from a big fusion reactor in the sky bakes their skins, cracking it into ravines, gullies, and canyons, mutating their DNA into cancerous form.

Incidentally, do you know which country has the highest rate of skin cancer in the world? It’s Australia — English palefaces getting too much sun.

So the passengers lie down in the sun for hours, eat to excess, smoke, drink too much, exercise rarely. They eat kilos of beef and sausage. They load their plates with 5 kinds of dessert because it’s there. They drink nutritionally void, diabetes-inducing sugar-laden sodas. This probably does not come as a surprise to anyone. What continues to surprise me is that everyone knows that this stuff is bad for you, and continues doing it.

Why do so many people consider health such a disposable commodity? Our bodies are the ultimate non-replaceable good. There’s a word for that: sacred. There’s not a whole lot that’s sacred in Western societies. Except for maybe cars, and expensive possessions in general. People generally don’t graffiti their cars, ram them into walls for fun, or pour beer in the gas tank just to see what happens. If anything should be sacred, it’s your body. If people treated their bodies with the same degree of reverence as their cars, they’d be far healthier.

Watching these cruise passengers evoked a spectrum of emotions. Compassion, because damn, it must be difficult being creaky and out of shape. Terror, because that’s what I’ll become some day, if I’m lucky to get that old. Bewilderment, because surely they know better than to keep mistreating their bodies. Anger, because what the hell is wrong with them?!? Despair, because there’s not much I can do about it.

In the end, as if going through the Kübler-Ross stages of grief, I arrived at acceptance. Like the Tao Te Ching says, the world is perfect as it is. I continued to do my thing: eat a mostly plant-based diet; exercise every day; avoid alcohol; sleep well. And by being able to just look at situations instead of getting all worked up about them, I can be much more effective as a public health educator.

VII. Ports of Call

One of the features of a cruise is that it stops places. So after, oh, ten days of seeing nothing but water, we made our first stop in St Kitts. It’s a little Caribbean island — half of St Kitts & Nevis — with friendly people and nice beaches. I walked around the downtown area of Basseterre a little bit, camped out in a café to slake my 10-day old thirst for a decent internet connection, then hopped a cab to go to the beach where our group congregated. Our cabbie talked nonstop: about his 3 kids, 4 names, and 5 different jobs. Most important: a native of the island is a Kittitian, which sounds like a cross between a small cat and a petition.

That is the stuff Blue Curaçao is made of.

Apparently the scuba diving in St Kitts is outstanding, and a large contingent from our group dove, spotting some manta rays and sharks. So I made a mental note of getting PADI certified for the next such outing.

Curaçao was substantially similar to St Kitts, except with a persistent Dutch influence. We hopped buses and went straight to the beach and stayed there all day, so I have nothing cultural to report other than it being super nice and insanely hot, with white sand beaches and pellucid blue water.

Aruba was the final stop before Panama City. The beach was walking distance, so that’s where I walked. From the high food prices and proliferation of luxury stores along the main drag, I gathered it’s a high-end destination. So I went for a high-end swim, swigged down some high-end beer, and took a selfie of myself with on the beach with said beer to out-selfie all selfies for all time. I’m in Aruba, peasants. For a solid 6 hours.

Panama City was the final destination, which afforded me the opportunity to catch up with my old friend Luis. He knew that I would want to check out the Canal, so we went straight there as soon I arrived in town.

“I’m sorry, can’t hear you — I have a fake phone in my ear.” Teasing dummies at the Panama Canal Museum

The Panama Canal Museum is excellent. Now you’ve all heard of the Panama Canal, but nothing will prepare you for the superhuman magnitude of this engineering marvel. The exhibit did a good job of conveying the sheer hubris and pigheadedness that went into the building of the Canal. “Yeah, there’s like swamps and jungle and stuff, for like, oh, 80km (50mi), but we’ll just plow through the whole thing and excavate 800 million tons of mud. Oh, also malaria and yellow fever.”

The first people to attempt the project were the French. After dumping today’s equivalent of billions of dollars, they just gave up. Then the Americans came, and with the help of the legendary Dr William Gorgas, they managed to reduce the threat of malaria and yellow fever so not all the workers dropped dead.

A man, a plan, a canal. Palindrome ruined.*

On an even grander scale, Panama recently added another lane of traffic in 2016, doubling its overall capacity. The receipts from the Canal afford Panamanians a decent standard of living, with free education and no income tax.

 

VIII. Farewell

The night of our arrival in Panama City, our crew gathered one last time at a rooftop bar for drinks, revelry and goodbyes. Many of the cruisers would continue their nomadic ways at Bocas del Toro, an archipelago 10hrs by bus up the isthmus. Others returned home or went to neighboring countries like Colombia and Costa Rica. The next morning I hopped a plane back to Los Angeles. Huge thanks to Johannes Voelkner, the creator of the Nomad Cruise, for taking the initiative to create this adventure in friendship and learning, and to Bori Vigh, for organizing the learning program.

Preparing for the group photo. We were arranged according to height, so this part of the photo is mostly guys. The cruise was 60% male, 40% female.

* The original palindrome was “A man, a plan, a canal. Panama.”

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