Capetown, Dubai, Doha, Mumbai, Shanghai, Hong Kong, Barcelona, Venice, Muscat all have one thing in common – they are cruise ship destinations. In the last year or so, I have or am about to travel to all of these ports. However, my status is neither that of passenger or crew but somewhere in between like the fabled centaur half man, half horse.
Cruise ships, of course, have their very efficient and highly trained staff of engineers,
navigators and people who serve and clean and generally keep the boat operating like the finely tuned pleasure ship it is intended to be.
However, in addition to the passengers and full-time crew, there is a bevy of auxiliary staff who come on just for the cruise. This includes singers and dancers, bridge instructors, ambassadors whose job is to dance with women who want to dance. There are art instructors and computer specialists and sometimes naturalists. There is usually a destination speaker as well as a world affairs speaker.
My assignment is world affairs speaker. I am called to speak when the ship is at sea. Usually, two hundred or so guests will gather in a large theater or auditorium for what is always a forty-five-minute talk. The reason it is never forty-six minutes is that a rhumba lesson or trivia contest will be taking over the room the minute you are done.
For those people who choose not to attend my lecture, it plays on an endless loop on the ships closed-circuit TV. This makes watching television in the cabin tricky because the last thing I want to see is myself delivering a lecture. As a result, you have to change the channels while squinting and with a hair trigger on the channel changer.
The greatest challenge that speaking on a ship creates is that you do not know your audience. My topic generally involves the two things that should never be discussed in polite company, religion and politics. In my case, my topic is the politics of religion.
I can assure you that I have, over the three and a half years I have been speaking on cruise ships, more than once found myself with my foot in my mouth. I may have inadvertently challenged firmly held positions of people who are on the cruise not to be challenged or get an advanced degree but to enjoy a well-deserved vacation.
To spare my sensibilities I shall not go into great detail of the specifics of some of my more ill-advised statements. However, once you have taken a controversial position, remember two things: your comments are being broadcast twenty four seven and you are on a ship. Part of your assignment as world affairs lecturer is to engage with the guests who wish to talk. I enjoy having these discussions but I know I have struck a nerve. I sometimes have to resist the temptation to have a coke and eat a candy bar in our cabin.
Thanks to these engagements, I have had a chance to see the world and meet many
interesting people and make more than a few friends. The greatest lesson came from a man from New Zealand. I was speaking about American foreign policy on some issue and I said “we.” He came up and correctly chided me – do not say we because we are from all over the world. When speaking to an international audience and a very split American audience, it is always a high-wire act without a net. I have fallen off the wire more than once but as they say, the only answer is to get back on and focus more
Perhaps I shall see one of you on one of these cruises. You never know ... Welcome aboard!