Almost 4 weeks ago, I rushed to the hospital where one of my uncles had been admitted for injuries sustained from cutting a tree branch. Thankfully, he is alive and is expected to make a full recovery. The large tree branch he was cutting snapped under its own weight, lashing a sharp branch across his face nearly gouging out his eye. Incredibly, he maintained the wherewithal to throw the razor sharp chainsaw far from him as he fell from the ladder breaking a few of his ribs as he crashed down. His helper ran to the neighbors to telephone medical services before he was rushed to the hospital.
When I saw him in the recovery room, he was happy to see us and charming the nurses, "I met my wife when she was a nurse tending to me in the hospital" which was a good sign. They helped him to stand and use the restroom with intense pain in his eyes. He was so tough, he reminded me of his son, my cousin Joey. When we used to play rough as children, Joey would amazingly get back up after being knocked down from something that would surely bring tears and tantrums from other kids. Sometimes he would even laugh. I still respect him as much even to this day.
While my uncle was recovering, I was invited to stand in for him as he was scheduled to take a Caribbean cruise with my other uncles. Having been on a cruise ship before, I knew the routine and happily joined for a chance to visit three island countries in the Caribbean: Jamaica, The Grand Caymans, and Cozumel. My two uncles are priests in their 70's, one of whom was visiting from India.
On our drive from Dallas to the port of Galveston, we made a quick pit stop to a sporting goods store in Houston where I picked up a $5 jump rope as I recalled how I missed my workouts on the previous cruises. The food on a cruise ship is typically very good, and guests can become bloated from over eating and not enough exercise.
We reached the port by early afternoon and boarded the enormous 11-story cruise ship. It was a floating city, a modern marvel of engineering. Our ship was filled with labyrinths and passageways that confused and contorted our sense of direction as we moved about the interior tunnels to our room. We shared a modest windowless cabin with a drop down bunk bed and a "shoe box" bathroom near the crew quarters at the bottom of the 3000+ passenger ship. Something about living with the bare essentials away from the world was quite appealing and despite the small space, I enjoyed the week long experience. I learned to appreciate sneaking back into the room after wandering the ship in the evenings and changing in the dark before climbing like a cat onto my bunk. If I made it back too late, I'd have to judge a snoring competition between my uncles.
My uncle Johnny, who has been on nearly 2 dozen cruises, is my Dad's older brother and also a Catholic Priest. We traveled with Fr. Joseph Nalpat, my uncle's classmate from the seminary nearly 50 years ago. I met him in India when we last visited and looked forward to seeing him again as he reminds me of my own college best friend. Despite the large amount of crew and passengers, one runs into many familiar faces as we pass by each other at meals, on deck, or walking back to our cabins. Within a short time, my uncles and I became ship celebrities as we stood out as atypical characters.
In past cruises, my uncle was allowed to say mass for the people in a meeting room; however, this time the ship was not able to accommodate. He would become a celebrity on the ship as passengers and crew enjoyed his comedic homilies and guidance as many would reach out to him for private counsel. Life is very difficult for the crew members that often stay on board the ship for months at a time, some of whom don't get to leave even when the ship reaches a port. While the passengers might enjoy a variety of food in abundance, the crew does not dine as opulently, citing ramen noodles as a typical meal. Most of the crew are from countries such as Russia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and India. While their compensation is not much by western standards, it typically offers more than many make in their respective countries as well as the chance to travel the world.
We celebrated mass each day in our tiny cabin which was pretty cool. In fact, the gospel readings spoke unusually about the sea and how despite being alone and far away from land, that God's presence could be found even there. I reflected on this as I jumped rope on deck and stared off into the ocean while marveling at the clouds that filtered rays of golden light.
On a previous cruise, one of the ship stewards was struggling with being away from her family back home where her brother was dying of AIDS. The ship offers limited communication at a premium expense (even to crew) and so phone calls and internet are difficult. My uncle offered her comfort and encouragement which I witnessed her sincere gratitude as she hugged him and wept.
One of the neatest things that I observed was that despite the typical divide that exists between passenger and crew, my uncles (and myself by extension) were accepted unconditionally by both classes. My uncle would often strike up conversations in different languages with the crew and win friendships that would often garner gestures such as complimentary bottles of water in our room when we returned in the evening. There is a palpable caste system which disturbingly reminds me of slavery in some respects. The most disturbing of which I witnessed came from the rudeness of obese passengers towards the immigrant staff. A simple mental exercise in role reversal would have solved the issue, but people either forget or don't care.
Once, there was a knock on our cabin door with an expectant crew member seeking counsel for the loss of his newborn child. My uncle spoke with him in his native tongue (Konkani), to which his face lit up from nostalgically being able to converse with a priest from back home. I sat on the top bunk dangling my legs like a mute as both my uncles could understand and seemed to know the punchlines in conversation while I smiled obliviously. Jokes were made at my expense, but I dished out as good as I got.
Despite not being able to say public mass, people still recognized that my uncles were priests as we dressed up for formal dining and they each wore their collars. It was funny to walk around with these two older priests while I looked like Jesus with my long hair and beard. Children and adults did double takes, and some even took pictures. They were like my "spiritual bodyguards". One lady came up to us at dinner and gave me a high five; needless to say, I felt the love.
Even though I was raised in a pretty faithful Catholic upbringing, I always felt that we tended to be more on the liberal side of the faith in that we were encouraged to seek out and try new experiences fearlessly. Besides holding a few concepts sacred, such as prayer and the holy sacraments, we were free to love whomever and do whatever so long as we didn't hurt ourselves or others. This particular cruise was an entry level sail for many as it was their first experience. There were many young families, and people of all ages and races. It was nice to be able to sit down and have conversations with them.
One morning for breakfast I dined by myself while wearing one of my "Ali" t-shirts as my uncles had arisen earlier in the morning and had eaten hours before me. While I was eating, an older man joined my table and struck up a boxing conversation. He asked me who I thought would win in a fight between Muhammad Ali and Mike Tyson (two of my favorite boxers). Having thought about this very question many times before, I gave him my answer. I said that Ali in his prime was so fast that no fighter could hit him which spoiled Ali as he had never known the diminishing ability that comes with age; however, when he returned to the ring after his 4yr exile, Ali had to learn new strategies for defeating his opponents which he ultimately figured out and once again regained the World Championship. This made Ali in my opinion the undisputed greatest fighter of whom I argued would defeat the invincible "prime Tyson". The man laughed at my explanation which he had never heard before and I could tell that he liked it. I said that all of us have a 'trial version' of ourselves before we become who we truly are. He smiled and with a sincere tone offered that he had once been in prison when he was younger, but now he was in a better place with a loving wife and together they were enjoying life with this cruise. It suddenly occurred to me that our ship was named 'Freedom'. We shook hands and parted ways but continued to run into each other on the ship as friends.
It rained "liquid sunshine" on the first day we made port in Montego Bay, Jamaica. We signed up for a day excursion to visit some local sites and have the famed 'Jerk BBQ' for lunch. Jamaica is beautiful, but has a large population of poor people. The island depends on tourism for its economy. There were palatial homes on the island built by the rich who vacationed there, but the locals lived inland and seemed to work very hard to make a living. My uncle hilariously asked the tour guide about visiting a pharmacy for a knee pain that conventional medicine had failed to ease. She laughed and mentioned that Marijuana is legal for purchase in Jamaica; however, the cruise ships do not allow drugs or alcohol on board as they cannot regulate the taxes.
The next day we reached the Grand Cayman Islands with abundant sunshine. We booked an excursion to snorkel and swim with stingrays. We boarded a small boat and drove off into the shallow ocean where we got to experience some of the clearest blue waters and hold stingrays in our hands. My uncle fearlessly jumped into the ray infested waters for a chance to hold them. The male rays were much smaller than the large 5ft wing-spanned females. One lady screamed relentlessly grabbing onto fellow tourists for protection as the rays glided under the surface fearlessly touching the humans in turn.
On the last port of call, we took it easy on the beaches of Cozumel. Every port charged a premium to wealthy tourists needing a cab or bus to get around the city. We walked a few blocks away from the tourist center and secured a cab to a local beach where there was a resort that offered large inflatable obstacle courses floating on the azure blue waters. My uncle, being who he is, immediately attempted to climb a 12 foot floating wall. I warned him to take it easy, but he excitedly swam off to scale the inflatable slide; his swimming trunks nearly falling off in the process. I helped him to climb the first platform from the water onto a floating raft, and while I waited for him to slide down I heard a loud tumble. I raced to the other side of the platform to see my uncle pinched in between the base and the inflatable steps of the slide. Once I could tell that he was okay, I couldn't stop laughing as his legs were dangling under water trying to pull himself free. His belly had prevented him from sliding all the way through the gap and two men came to help pull him out. I swam under the platform and tried to push his legs up, but he was securely sandwiched between the tubes. Eventually the two men pushed the tightly tethered tubes far enough apart to pull my uncle out and like a kid, he jumped back into the water to swim off innocuously. It was hilarious, and each time I think about it I start to laugh. My 77yr old uncle is the most hilarious person to which strange and comedic events seem to gravitate and orbit around this loving and bizarre priest.
That evening as we set sail for the two day sea voyage back home, we feasted on hamburgers and ice-cream cones on the gluttonous lido deck while the sun set on our Caribbean Island tour.