Contributing Writer/ Photographer : Andrew Wyatt [ TheRFW.com/blog/DirtySanta ]
I was warned.
“You better pack a Santa diaper cuz you’re gonna shit your Santa pants!” exclaimed one veteran of Jam Cruise in a text message before I packed my trademark red sequin suit for my first trip for the week-long music festival set on a 13-story cruise ship bound for the Caribbean.
As a nine year veteran of the Burning Man arts festival in the Nevada desert, I was prepared the spectacle of Jam Cruise that’s akin to a floating Mardi Gras.
With over 2,000 costumed participants bouncing to a non stop cacophony of live music through every deck, hallway, and stage on the ship, I felt instantly at home.
What was overwhelming about Jam Cruise was how instantly everyone felt at ease and felt at home. Musicians, bringing a mix of funk, blues, folk and word beat rhythms, played harder and longer while also feeling relaxed with each other and their enthusiastic fans. Each day through the wee hour bleary-eye dawns impromptu guitar and tambourine jam sessions dotted the deck. My favorite came with Nathan Moore leading a “You Are my Sunshine” sing-along on a sidewalk deck for one sunrise.
As for the audiences, even before the MSC Poesia chugged its way from its Port Everglades berth, Jam Cruise participants flitted happily around each other like glowing obits of fireflies over the backyards of forgotten youth. As sun set and the first notes of music splayed into the warm South Atlantic air, cruisers set out to greet each other as packs of porno clowns, zebras, bananas, unicorns, and numerous other costumed alter egos. People didn’t simply want to meet each other, they wanted to know each other.
A particularly poignant moment came to me after a port stop in Roatan, Honduras. A young couple that I spent the previous evening with dancing and laughing, approached me with a gift they had bought at a shop on shore. That evening I was dressed in my Santa suit, and as they handed me a beautiful brightly painted porcelain figurine, they announced, “We just knew that Santa needs to get a Christmas present too, so we got you a little something.” I was so overwhelmed by their kindness I choked back tears when I hugged them both.
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In a quiet moment that night, I reflected on Jay and Erin’s openness. I watched dark waves ripple along the ship’s bow and the corners of my mind. I thought of Thornton Wilder’s character, Emily Webb from the play “Our Town” who wonders aloud at the end of her life,” Does anyone realize life while they are still living?” For me that question is haunting and difficult to answer. But, at least for that week, on that boat the answer, I was shown by others that the answer was a resounding “yes.”
It would’ve been difficult for even for the Grinch and Ebenezer Scrooge combined to ignore the Christmas spirit among cheerful and trusting folks on the cruise. Late the last night I felt fatigued and sat in deck chair with a blank stare. Brock Butler of Perpetual Groove stopped in front of me, leaned over and drew the shape of a smiley face in the air in front of me. I broke into a smile and thanked him for the gentle reminder that even as the festival drew to a close it still wasn’t too late to let my heart grow three sizes too large.
The emotional scale was matched by the impressive scale of the cruise ship. The MSC Poesia, an Italian owned vessel, and is named for the Italian word for “poetry.” On first glance I wasn’t reminded much of poem. I was thinking more on a Biblical scale, like a modern day Noah’s Ark with indoor plumbing. The floating behemoth was christened in 2008 by film actress Sophia Loren. Though, it’s not the largest cruise ship on the seas it is a mobile symbol to Western economic affluence. It weighs in at 59,000 tons, and loaded with restaurants, night clubs, an art gallery, a two-story theatre, full spa, and miniature golf course. Thirteen elevators connected all the nooks and crannies together into a gleaming Las Vegas at sea.
As I stood on the deck of the ship the last night I turned and saw a passenger hoist a beer in the air and shout, “A toast to you all! I feel the love!” Still holding his beer heavenward he laughed and shouted, “But what does it all mean?!?” His playful, but unanswerable question lingered in my thoughts. Jam Cruise is disorienting as it is euphoric. Though travel on the boat was stable to the point it was barely perceptible that the ship was in motion; yet, the festival capsized previously held expectations of what I believed about the goodness in people. Unleashed from the moorings of life’s daily grind, Jam Cruise placed my feet on a faraway shore feeling something like hope. Perhaps there is hope that we can treat one another kinder and gentler at home as we can at sea. I began the trip wondering if I needed to bring a diaper, and instead, I returned with a life-preserver.