ALPSIDE DOWNED: Our “People of the Sea” (Part 1)

BERN, Switzerland (MindaNews / 24 April) –  A luxury ship cruise is associated with pleasure and fun and merrymaking. And this month we were on a ship of the Costa Crociere S.p.A., an Italian cruise company, do to just that.

We certainly enjoyed the week-long cruise, stuffing ourselves on the buffet meals and snacks that were available at Deck Number 9, the “food deck””, almost 24/7. We enjoyed the long dinners offering exquisite Italian food and wines prepared by the ship’s cooks, went to the disco almost nightly, and treated ourselves to the nightly shows featuring world-class artists and performers brought onboard by the company.

This was the second cruise for my wife Theresa and me, the first one in 2015 on an MSC Cruises ship also in the Mediterranean. Bu this trip was different, because we encountered daily other Filipinos and experienced close-hand their daily lives and struggles.

Of the ship’s 1,100 crew, about 80% were Filipino, working as room stewards, waiters or busboys, as so-called entertainment “animators”, as cooks, as security or offshore personnel, or as deck maintenance crews. They were everywhere — in the business shops or in the casino, in the bars and restaurants, on the top decks or the lower decks, greeting us with their smiles and “kumusta po kayo!” when they saw that we were Filipinos.

They offered us the goods during the whole trip. “Ano pong kailangan ninyo? Ako po ang bahala sa inyo,” was the reassuring refrain we got when meeting a Filipino crew member. We got extra food portions, a few drinks gratis, discounts at the spa, even a bottle of champagne offered spontaneously over the bar so that a Filipina member of our group could celebrate her birthday.

When we joked that we wanted Filipino food like adobo or sinigang, our Filipino waiters said it could be arranged, “pwedeng ayusin, sir”. No was never their answer, although we reassured them that it was the Italian delicacies we were after in the dinner menu. And we got stuffed— starting out with the carpaccio, a dish of raw meat or fish thinly sliced or pounded thin and served with lemon, olive oil, salt and ground pepper. Then we had the pasta or the various kinds of the risotto, a rich and creamy rice dish of the Italians. We tried once a risotto nero, undaunted by its black color, and found the squid cuts in their ink sauce very tasty. For the main menu, we had the osso buco, a classic Milanese dish of braised veal shanks in a hearty wine- and vegetable-based sauce. I was even lucky to find and try wild pig on the dinner menu (the meat was cooked very tender and with virtually no gamey smell, being smothered with spices and sauces.)

Our kababayans were happy to serve us, saying that they often had a Filipino couple or two as passengers, but never this big a group (we were 20 Filipinos in all).

They gave us their best service, not only in the nightly dinners but down to the housekeeping. We saw how trained and motivated they were, and how high the work standards were. And they gave more. Our Filipino waiters gave us a treat on Italian night, offering a dance performance of “Volare”, the beloved Italian classic, to the delight of all the diners.

Then they next danced to the hit song “Sofia” by the Spanish singer-songwriter Álvaro Soler. “Sofia” was released in 2016 and was big in Italy, going seven times platinum in Italy.  The waiter’s dance brought the house down. Or rather, it brought the dinner crowd composed mostly of Italians to its feet.

And on the last night, Costa showed for us “Gente di Mare” or “people of the Sea”, a video production honoring the crew of the ship.

“Gente di mare” was the Italian entry in the Eurovision Song Contest 1987, performed in Italian by Umberto Tozzi & Raf. In this highly popular song, the singers describe themselves as “people of the plain” who feel they are prisoners of the city, and contrast it with the freedom of the “people of the sea”.

There were Filipinos on almost every clip on the video, and I realized with a jolt how our ship and many others on the high seas all over the world were kept afloat by the service and dedication of their Filipino crew. “Lulubog ang Costa pag umalis ang mga Pilipino dito,” was how one bartender put the matter squarely.

But with the good things we saw also came the painful truths. The crew was on 8 month-long contracts, but they received no pay on the 2 to 3 months that they were on vacation. And they said there was no assurance of the next contract.

They worked long shifts of 10 up to 12 hours, with no days off. In Corfu, we met a group of Indonesian crew members who said their shore leave was only 3 to 4 hours, just enough to relax and buy personal items and to find local wifi and receive or send off  important messages to their families.  (To our dismay, we learned that the crew had to pay for wifi onboard, just like the passengers!)

Onboard, it seemed like the so-called “animators”, the crew that pumped up the party people, were always at the next entertainment event. “Lagare” was how the Filipinos called it, jumping from event to event.

I met a young Filipino on his third year cleaning the top deck of the 294-meter long (or about 900 feet) ship early one morning. He said he had started at 5 a.m. and would finish his shift only six hours later. And in winter? I asked. “Mahirap nga pag winter, ser, malamig,” was his reply.

Our steward took care of housekeeping 24 rooms on our deck. He was one of the oldies, those who had worked on ships for ten years or more. He was saving money for a daughter who was starting medicine in a private school in Manila. His son had a rare nervous syndrome which resulted in a stroke when he was aged 5;  he survived, but he had not developed as well as the others. His wife managed a computer shop that he had opened in Manila.

As we were leaving our cabin on departure day, he told us, “Mamaya sir, makikita nyo akong mag-kandarapa,” He had only a few hours to clean the vacated cabins and get them ready in time for the next passengers arriving for the next tour. (Mindanawon Abroad is MindaNews’ effort to link up with Mindanawons overseas who would like to share their thoughts about their home country and their experiences in their adopted countries. Brady Eviota wrote and edited for the now defunct Media Mindanao News Service in Davao and also for the SunStar Cagayan de Oro. He  is from Surigao City and now lives in Bern, the Swiss capital located near the Bernese Alps)