It was fun while it lasted (Reflections of an ex-crew member)

Costa Victoria is an old ship but one that has recently been refurbished with new balconies, terraces and windows. Elegantly furnished with a classical nautical style without the modern kitsch, the ship is refined and stately. Even if it’s only a mid-sized ship, it does have 964 cabins, 5 restaurants, 10 bars and at least 14 decks (storeys) to get lost in. For crew members, the Victoria supposed to be one of the better ships to work on after Costa Atlantica and Costa Mediterranea.

Ale showed me around eagerly as I’d never been on the Costa Victoria before. The main halls were decked with fairy lights, Christmas trees and other festive decorations.

On of the main lounges of Costa Victoria

On of the main lounges of Costa Victoria

Deck the halls with boughs of holly...

Deck the halls with boughs of holly…

Crew members gaped at us as we walked past. I saw deckhands and engineers in overalls, fixing something at the spiral staircase. Housekeeping trainees vacuuming the carpet. A girl in a navy blue blazer manning the reception desk. A bartender polishing wine glasses. Romanians, Italians, Indonesians, Philippinos and Chinese.

They watched and tried to figure us out. But only with Ale in his Officer’s uniform and myself without, they must have a hard time seeing the full picture. To them, I’m no one, without a uniform. They saw only a guest, an Asian girl. They didn’t have to figure me out. They wouldn’t have to speculate if I were to become one of their trainers, supervisors or colleagues. Or if I were to be someone they’d perhaps somehow share a part of their lives with for a brief period of time. A friend? Nope – I offer them little interest.

One of the many restaurants

One of the many restaurants

At the spa

At the spa

After a thorough tour around the passenger area, we went to one of the open bars at the deck. A Chinese bartender greeted us sweetly and took our orders. I knew exactly what I wanted: a Cappuccino.

Back in Costa Classica, Ale and I used to trade stories and shoot the shit at the open deck bar, over caffeine. The ocean would slosh below us, the ship would sway from side to side and the conversations would flow. I do miss those times though. These kind of shipboard friendships are rare and when you do find peers that you could share your lives with, these bonds run deep.

The open deck

The open deck

Later that day, Ale surprised me by showing me Gervasio & Isa’s room. Turned out that this musician couple was also onboard and they too had played a part in making my last contract on the Classica amazing. As I didn’t know of their presence on the Victoria, I squealed with delight when I first saw Gervasio’s head poked out of the room. We were great mates then and I hadn’t seen him for ages!

“How come you aren’t working today?” Gervasio asked when he sat down to catch up.

“Urm, because it’s a weekend?”

Gervasio & Ale- my two buddies of the Costa Classica

Gervasio & Ale- my two buddies of the Costa Classica

Isa-Gervasio's girlfriend and an amazing flamenco dancer/singer

Isa-Gervasio’s girlfriend and an amazing flamenco dancer/singer

It then dawned him that he had just lost track of the days of the week. That wasn’t unusual. I was usually guilty of that when I was working on board. When you work on the ship, you exist on a different time and on a different universe altogether. The sun may rise and set but time just melts away. Time is defined by the cruise ship’s schedule. Short cruises allow one to feel the rush and anticipation while long cruises seem to drag on. Days slip away without names. I was sure it just meant a Singapore day for the ship’s crew instead of a Saturday. And the next day would be called a Sea Day instead of a Sunday.

As Gerva and Ale continued to fill me up with ship’s gossip, I felt the familiar pang of as if Big Brother was watching over us somewhere. Gerva mentioned that the rules had tightened on board and the management was making the musicians work harder than usual. There were a lot of disgruntled opinions and general unhappiness amongst them.

I listened and nodded. I still felt a certain unease while listening to them rant. Like I couldn’t relax completely. The thing was, it felt like as long as I wasn’t a paying passenger, I shouldn’t be taking up space in the splendid lounge.

I’d never feel completely at ease when I lived on the ship. Even if it was during my rest time and I had complete right to chill over a glass of wine at the passenger area, I’d still feel guilty as if pleasures shouldn’t be enjoyed publicly when you’re a crew. The only time when I completely unwind is when I was back in my room.

6 years of that. Wow– time sure did swoosh by. 

Having said that, it was never just tears and fears. More often than not, my salty memories are also of laughter and joy. I did have a good life while I was a seafarer. I had been to places where I’d never imagine myself buying a ticket to (like the Arctic or Madagascar); I was offered everything I needed on board including someone to clean my room everyday; I worked less and my job was easier compared to the other crew members (some had to work in galleys or the crew areas for 13 hours straight); I’d met people from all walks of life and the stories they’d shared with me were priceless!

The people, it was the people that I met that had made it all worthwhile.

Hanging out during gala nights on the Costa Classica (2011)

Hanging out during gala nights on the Costa Classica (2011)

Flanked with students and friends in my farewell party on the Costa Classica (2011)

Flanked with students and friends in my farewell party on the Costa Classica (2011)

That job somehow defined me as a person and a wanderer. It was a perfect gig to feed my wanderlust. I had embraced the seafaring life, had lived like a sailor and now, I’m tougher. It taught me how to appreciate freedom, the open water and the endless horizon. It taught me how impermanent everything was and how utterly beautiful life could be, even if it was served in bite-sizes. Most of all, it showed me that life wasn’t about what you do, but with whom you do it with, mattered most.

PS-There are SO many tales that I’d love to share with you about those 6 years spent on board and across so many different oceans and continents. Please hang in there as I slowly work my way around to telling them all.

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Ying Tey

Ying Tey (Piccola Ying) is a Malaysian freelance writer based in Germany. She’s always in the pursuit of adventures and tales; so far, she’s chalked up 68 countries to date. She’d previously funded her travels by teaching English on Costa Cruise Ships (yes–including the one that sank!), by making caffè lattes in London and Melbourne, and by writing copy for a Singaporean advertising agency, that persuades you to buy a Mini Cooper instead of a Toyota.


Today, she just wants to inspire you with stories that will make you take the path less travelled.


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4 comments

  • Rhonda Foster 31/12/2013   Reply →

    Miss Ying, I just had to take a moment to tell you how much I enjoyed reading your well written and intriguing article about your life as a crew member aboard a cruise ship. You truly are a gifted writer and I encourage you to expand your literary talents and write a book! If it happened to be anything like this article, it would definitely be a fun read! Best wishes for the New Year – it’s going to be great!

    • Piccola Ying 31/12/2013   Reply →

      Wow, thank you for that nugget of compliment, Miss Rhonda! I’m flattered. You bet I’m going to turn all those years of seasickness into a book alright! And a wonderful New Year to you too. I hope you’ll keep coming back to read more tales! 🙂

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