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CRUISE TO PANAMA
by Joseph Schmitt

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My friend Michael in New York City is an experienced cruise-addict with over twenty voyages under his steamer trunk. In fact, he’s a bit of a cruise snob. He’s partial to the stately feel of transatlantic crossings and the old-world ambiance found on classic ocean liners like the QE2. So when I rang him up to propose we take an all-gay RSVP cruise, he stammered out a litany of reasons why he couldn’t go…time, money, work, husband. “But Michael,” I said, “we’re best friends and we’ve never cruised together” (I knew that would get him). With that, he muttered, “Let me ask my husband.”

The warm reception we received from the RSVP staff at the dock, coupled with the collective level of excitement melted even Michael’s NYC permafrost. Smiles were everywhere as the vibrating thrusters pushed us away from our Ft. Lauderdale dock. As Michael and I perused the ship, we chatted with several large groups of friends, made noticeable by their custom, matching t-shirts that marked their unity. “This is out of control,” noted Michael. “Everyone is so nice! You don’t smile walking down a New York City street. You might get shot!”

Given our combined cruising experience, we decided to divide and conquer; a must-do on gay cruises where dinner reservations at upscale restaurants, bookings for shore excursions, and spa treatments go fast. Michael would handle dinner while I booked spa treatments and shore excursions. With all reservations attended to for the week, we retreated to our cabin to unpack for the nine-day adventure ahead to Costa Rica and Panama. With the help of the pre-cruise information we received back home, I was able to pack accordingly. Unveiling my costume arsenal, full of grass skirts, Amazonian loincloths, and jungle beads, Michael’s eyes grew larger with each item. “Please tell me you’re not going to wear that in public,” he asked. “Not me,” I told him. “You and me!”

Our first two full days en route to Costa Rica were at sea, and there is no better introduction to gay cruising than a Loin Cloth T-Dance. The experience of dancing outdoors under a Caribbean sun surrounded by scantily clad men and open ocean is otherworldly. The sight of seeing my best friend, a sophisticated New York socialite, feverishly dancing away dressed only in bright-green eyeliner and a parrot feather-accented grass skirt…priceless. True to my word, no photos were taken for print, but you get the picture.

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That night, many of our fellow cruisers were in a tizzy about Tinseltown’s biggest night. The ship’s captain was able to secure a last-minute satellite feed. Fingers and toes were crossed and breaths held as hopes for Brokeback Mountain ran high. We opted instead to go for the real thing, Country Western Night, aft deck 9, under the real stars. It was here we met new friends Big Joe and John. Michael even got his first lessons in two-stepping from John. Big Joe was enjoying his second week at sea with RSVP. The Westerdam had been chartered for a two week engagement. The first segment sailed through the Caribbean during Carnival. For us, this was only day two, for Big Joe, day nine. He raved about how wild and extravagant the Mardi Gras celebration had been. “How are you going to make it two weeks on a gay cruise?” I asked. “By going into rehab when I get back,” he joked. At least I think he was joking. Big Joe, a Seattle native, suggested we not miss Amy Armstrong, a bawdy, big-voiced cabaret performer and long-favored RSVP entertainer. So, it was off to the Crow’s Nest for cocktails and cabaret.

It’s impossible to do everything on a cruise, with the traditional casino, bingo, sports, shopping, etc. The daily list of activities presented by RSVP made our choices twice as difficult. Two days earlier during embarkation we met ChiChi, RSVP’s drag version of Julie McCoy. Dressed in a red, white, and blue outfit fashioned after a Shirley Temple acid-trip, ChiChi insisted we visit her poolside for some afternoon fun. What can I say about this Latin sexpot stowaway? Other than she taunts, she flaunts, she teases…she makes a big splash! After too much sun and too many cocktails, I wish I could report that Michael and I had returned to our cabin for a good night’s sleep before our Costa Rican jungle adventure, but that is not how the story goes. I can, however, confirm that the Northern Lights Disco onboard Holland America’s Westerdam closes shortly after 5 A.M.

Let me warn would-be cruisers to Costa Rica that kayaking in crocodile-filled rivers deep in the jungle is made doubly difficult in a two-man kayak when said kayakers are both hungover from the night before. Not only had I lied to my good friend that I was an experienced kayaker, but I had also assured him the task at hand was an easy one. It was not. In fact, we capsized within three feet of shore. Even the numerous monkeys in the nearby trees were laughing at us. Of the thirteen kayaks in our group, we were the only ones completely drenched from sweat and river water. To add insult to near injury, we retuned to camp only to learn that there was now a transit strike in effect. Michael came close to tears when we learned that all of the pothole-filled roads we had taken to get to our remote day camp were blockaded by picketing government workers. The only way to get us back to the ship would be through an intricate network of rivers through the jungle. That air-conditioned luxury bus idling in a distant parking lot, filled with bottled water and tasty snacks, now tormented us from afar. Dirty, wet, and thirsty we meandered the waterways for hours. My only solace was seeing the terrified look on my friend’s face with each passing crocodile.

Continued
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