It had been a long 48 or so hours. Our journey had begun at the Black Sea in Bulgaria where we took a ten-hour train ride from the coast to Sofia. After a couple hours layover, we departed again for Thessaloniki. After another layover, we trekked through mountains, along the coast to Athens. We spent that night in Athens. It was the Fourth of July. It ended in a blur, thanks to a bottle of peach liquor and a South African fellow we called "Safari Mother…". That next morning, early, we boarded another train for Patras.
There was, as it turned out, only one way to cross the Ionian Sea westbound. We assumed there would be a ferry or something of the like, but the trip was a 24-hour ride from Patras to Pescara. A simple ferry would not suffice for such a trip.
"You'll need to board a cruise ship," the woman at the docks told us, in broken English. She saw the panic in our eyes. A ticket on a luxury cruise ship was out of the question, as far as our budget was concerned. As if reading our minds, she said, "If you want, you can purchase a deck ticket. You will not get a room, you must sleep on the deck." Voila, our prayers had been answered. At four o'clock we walked up the steep gangplank towards the monstrous ship that would be our home for the next 24 hours.
Upon boarding, Eric, Marissa and I proceeded to set up camp. Having no prior experience camping out on cruise ships, we weren't sure where we should keep our things. We tried to get a place inside, assuming that they surely wouldn't force us to sleep outside all night, but we were quickly ushered out. It was clear, from the moment we stepped onto the ship that we would stick out like sore thumbs. The majority of the passengers carried their luggage by hand, we carried ours on our backs. Another notable difference was that the rest of the passengers looked well acquainted with the concept of showers and clean clothes.
After being tossed out of the lounge area, the three of us eventually made our way to the top of the deck, which had tables and benches along the sides of the boat. This, we figured, would be our best bet. Setting up camp consisted of putting our bags down and laying out our thin sleeping bags. Having accomplished that in under 60 seconds, we sat around for a few minutes not sure what to do next.
The logical thing was to explore. Marissa volunteered to stay behind with our stuff, while Eric and I perused around the ship. We hoped that our lack of backpacks would help us gain access to places that we had been tossed out of earlier. Our suspicions paid off.
Right off the bat, the first place that caught our eyes was the casino. Eric and I only had a few euros between us to waste on slot machines, but nonetheless, we pulled the levers with zeal. Within a few minutes, the casino personnel spotted us. "Can we help you with anything?" "No," we replied, and continued to pull our respective levels, both of us betting the minimum amount each time. The attendees backed off a few feet but did not leave, opting instead to just stare us down. When we were refused change for a five euro bill, we finally took the hint and left.
We walked around and discovered several rooms with plush couches and big screen televisions. We found the pool and jacuzzi. By this time, the ship had left the dock and I decided to go back and let Marissa have a look.
I sat down amidst our stuff with my book out. Try as I might, though, I couldn't concentrate. I kept looking up and around. Despite growing up on the coast, I have spent very little time on boats. This was my first time actual cruise ship. Never could I picture myself traveling the globe like this, but it seemed different here.
I wasn't one of these people. I was the invisible man, unnoticed by these luxury seafaring types. While I did stick out, I still was able to observe my fellow passengers in a different light. Tonight they would be sleeping in comfortable beds, while I wouldl be shivering in my sleeping bag. Tomorrow I would be back on land, traversing the Italian countryside, while they would be pulling into their next port.
The divide between those sleeping indoors and those sleeping outdoors became even wider. The entire ship was transformed, taking on an urban dwelling versus an inner city life vibe. The people with beds began to appear dressed up in evening wear; those of us sleeping outside merely bundled up.
The various bars and clubs onboard started opening up and the bedders began pouring in, sipping martini glasses and clicking their heels on the dance floor. The deck turned into a venerable skid row. The different camps began to take more shape and a certain seediness settled in. Soon, no one from the inside ventured outside. Eric and I walked into one of the clubs, curious, but we soon realized that this was not the place for us. Our clothes, unshaven faces and lack of cash were key indicators we didn't belong.
We went outside and opened our leftover bottle of peach liquor, joining the ranks of our fellow outdoor cohorts. A little bit of mingling and socializing went on amongst us, but even in the outdoor camp, there was a divide. Backpackers chatted with other backpackers, and Italians talked with other Italians, the Greeks likewise. It ended there.
I decided to take a walk before going to bed, but it was short lived. I found myself a bit intimidated by my fellow outdoor dwellers. Walking the deck at night was like walking through a low light alleyway. Conversations came to a halt as I past scruffy looking men along the dim walkways, the Ionian Sea being the only discernable sound. Piercing eyes watched as I slowly strolled by. Part of it was my imagination. Although I wasn't in any danger, I still felt uncomfortable. Why? I wondered. Did I have a good reason to feel this way, or was I just taking on the same role as those inside? Hard to answer.
I woke up early the next day after a chilly night's sleep. I had a bit of a hangover so I went to the nearest restroom to fill up my water bottle in the sink. The arrival of the new day's sun brought out the ship's bedheaded travelers – evident I was not the only one to wake up with a bit of a headache.
After a light breakfast of Nutella and bread, I changed into my swim trunks and a relatively clean T-shirt, sat down on one of the poolside deck chairs. I cracked a beer, opened my book and settled in. Somewhere amidst chapter five and my second beer, it occurred to me that it didn't matter if I was a first or last class traveler on board. I was relaxed and enjoying myself on a cruise ship in the middle of the Mediterranean. That could not be taken away from me.