17 July, 2005

The cab ride that started it all.

The QM2 security check.

At 4:30 pm, we all had to put on life jackets and learn about abandoning the ship. Great fun.

This may give you a sense of how high off the ground the QM2 is.

And this might give you a sense of how long the hallways are on each floor. It goes about as far in the other direction. And not a rollerblader to be found.

This is where the masses congregate when the boat starts to move.

The Maritime Telecommunications Network makes all of this high tech stuff possible.

The NYPD made sure we didn't get lost on the way out. Or maybe that tiny boat was protecting us somehow.

The infamous Pier 57 used by the NYPD to imprison people during the Republican Convention in 2004. As ominous from this angle as from all the others.

Our last glimpses of New York and New Jersey.

And my first glimpse of the network.

17 July, 2005

Day 1. "We've never had the entire bank of computers fail for so long at the same time." That was today's quote from check-in at the Queen Mary 2. Somehow whenever someone affiliated with 2600 travels, that sort of thing seems to always happen. So I wasn't too surprised.

Today marks the actual beginning of something I've long dreamed about. From this point onwards, with a few intermissions, I will be heading east until I wind up back where I started. Or at least a few blocks south of where I started in Penn Station when I cross the States in a train hopefully sometime in late September. The QM2 leaves every few weeks from its berth at 52nd Street on the Hudson River. It's as big as a city block, buildings and all.

So anyway, I'm now on that boat. After months of preparation and all kinds of last minute freaking out about things that needed to be done before leaving, it's now finally begun. And I have to say it's exactly as I expected it to be which is like nothing I've ever experienced before.

Taking a boat is a lot friendlier than taking a plane. While you have to go through the same basic sorts of security (and I didn't see anyone being subjected to "extra" searches), the atmosphere is a whole lot more pleasant overall. Definitely orders of magnitude better than the last experience I had in a West Side pier.

So after that slight delay caused by the computer failure which nobody really seemed to mind, I got my first taste of cruising culture. Once they check to make sure you have a passport and ticket, you get to wait in the check-in line where you're processed. They take your picture with a little webcam like they do now when you enter the country at airports. But this picture is used for a little credit card they make on the spot. They tie it into an existing credit card of yours and this is the sole means of buying anything on the boat. It also serves as your room key. You find one of these lying around and you basically own the person it belongs to. I've never clung to a card so tightly.

So once you actually walk over the gangway onto the boat, you're greeted by two rows of staffpeople which I suppose serves to inflate one's sense of self-importance. It works. I felt like I was one of America's wealthy which, surprisingly, most people on the boat don't actually seem to be.

When you finally start moving around and exploring, the sheer lavishness of it all really knocks you over the head. (But that's always been the point of sheer lavishness, hasn't it?) It doesn't feel like you're even on water most of the time but rather in a somewhat bizarre and expensive hotel/resort from which there is no escape. I spent several hours just walking and finding new places. It really does seem to go on forever. And yet, feelings of claustrophobia set in every now and then. After all, each and every one of us is stuck here for the next week.

It's also incredible just how slow this thing is. It's been eight hours since we cast off and we just cleared the eastern tip of Long Island. Even the Long Island Railroad is faster than this, to give you a sense of how incredibly slow an ocean liner can be. But I think in the end I will have gained an appreciation for something we often forget - the ocean is pretty fucking huge. And, for that matter, so is the world. But zipping around on jets everywhere, you tend to forget that.

It's also so much more of a big deal when you leave your home city by boat and it slowly fades away into the fog and you push on into unknown waters. (Unknown to me, hopefully not to the people in charge.) But it's hard to experience such a thing without a degree of emotion.

The technology on board is also quite impressive. I have WiFi in my room, the net connection seems just fine for my purposes, and the $14.50 an hour they charge is not nearly as bad as what I was expecting. (If you dare to use one of their phones, expect rates in excess of $10 a minute. They're quite emphatic in reminding you to replace the handset properly. I can only imagine what might have happened in the past to prompt this stern warning.) There's also an email function on everyone's TV set: Each guest is assigned an email address. If you read any incoming mail, it costs you $1.50 per message! Quite outrageous. However, if you simply delete a message without reading it, it costs you nothing. Since the subject line is quite visible before you must make that decision, you can easily subvert the system and receive short messages from anywhere for free. Something we take for granted back home but which feels like an accomplishment out here.

There are all kinds of little oddities here such as having your meals and room service already paid for (alcohol not included). You're assigned to a particular restaurant for dinner at a certain time and wind up sitting with other people also assigned to that table. I met a very interesting couple from Scotland named Bob and Margaret (they have nothing at all to do with the British cartoon series of the same name) who actually are doing a round trip on the QM2. They got off in New York this morning and got back on this afternoon, spending a few hours walking around the city, going to Chinatown, riding the subway, visiting B&H Photo, and, oh yes, taking a boat ride around Manhattan. It's amazing the kinds of conversations you can have with people when you're thrust into a situation like this. I learned that their entire trip came about because Bob had misbehaved after a night in various pubs and this was how he was making it up to Margaret. "The most expensive night of his life," she noted. That notwithstanding, they got a really good deal on the whole thing.

So these are all only a few initial impressions. I'll either have many more to share in the days ahead or a very strong desire to escape from this vessel.