“Do not take life to seriously. You will never get out alive.”-Elbert Hubbard
I like to eat dinner early so I find a seat in the Oceanview Cafe and anxiously wait for the staff to open up the buffet. I sink down into a booth and look out the window as the Infinity (one of Celebrity’s cruise ships) continues to creep through the Panama Canal. It takes most ships this size about 8 to 10 hours to pass through the three locks that raise and lower the ships from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean.
I believe we’re in the Miraflores lock now, which is the final lock before we reach the warmer waters of the Pacific, but honestly, I’m just not too interested in this kind of thing. I’ve never been one for memorizing names, dates and a bunch of historical facts of the places I travel to. I skipped all the free lectures about the construction of the Panama Canal that the ship’s cruise director offered this week and I can’t watch more than a minute of the historical documentary that’s looping over and over on TV in my stateroom. I hate to say it, but I just find all that information to be kind of boring, which makes me the black sheep on board because everyone else seems to love it.
Most of the other passengers have been perched outside in the soupy Panamanian heat all day.
They’ve all found spots along the railing at the bow of the ship on decks ten and eleven and they’ve been watching the painstakingly slow process with great enthusiasm. One person I even spoke with got up before sunrise just to watch us enter the first lock, but when I went outside and watched for a few minutes earlier this afternoon, I quickly saw all that I needed to see. The ship was creeping slowly through a slim canal and all it reminded me of was sitting in traffic on I-95.
The Christmas Cruise as I’ve been calling it has been pretty much what I’d pictured so far. It’s a real melting pot of passengers, they’re from all over the world and a decent chunk of them are retirees and so life tends to move a bit slower on board. There are no crazy belly flop or bikini contests and nobody’s shot-gunning beers by the pool. This isn’t that kind of cruise. The wildest thing about life on the Infinity is the daily Zumba dance class that happens at noon around the lip of the pool. The cruise director puts a funny looking wig on and the DJ plays all the horrible hits from the 90’s that should have stayed in the 90’s. And when he blasts Who Let The Dogs Out, that’s usually the cue that gets the conga line going.
I’m sitting alone, making an effort to not fill up on the rolls that are at my table, when I see an older woman use her cane to hobble into the Oceanview Café. She reminds me of my grandmother, her gray hair has recently been rolled in curlers and she’s wearing a beige sweater that she’s swimming in. She makes a beeline to the ice cream bar like she’s being chased and then presses her hands up against the ice cream counter’s cool glass display. As she peers down into the freezer, a huge smile spreads across her face.
There’s a sweet young Indonesian girl named Ajeng that can’t be much older than 19 or 20 years old that’s smiling and got her ice cream scooper holstered like a gun behind the counter. She’s got thick black-rimmed glasses on and her golden chubby cheeks are pressed right up against the underbelly of them. I love these two immediately. They are quite the pair and watching the two of them lovingly interact with one another like grandmother and granddaughter quickly becomes about all my heart can handle.
I’m close enough that I can hear the older woman place her order. “Sweetie”, she says, “I’ll have one scoop of Vanilla with some chocolate syrup on top.”
Just as Ajeng reaches down into the freezer to begin scooping, I hear someone yell out, “Mother!”
All three of us turn towards the entrance of the café. “There you are! I told you, you can’t have ice cream before dinner.”
The older woman’s daughter, who’s probably in her sixties, begins playfully scolding her mother. She walks over and leads her mother away from the ice cream display like she’s five years old while saying, “we go over this every night.”
Then she explains to her mother that she needs to eat a salad and some vegetables first. I can’t help but laugh and as the older woman gets a few steps away she takes her left hand off her cane and turns back around towards Ajeng. Then she raises her left hand up to her lips and blows a sweeping kiss with both arms to Ajeng that can only be translated one way, we almost got away with it, but don’t worry sweetie, we’ll try again tomorrow!
As Ajeng smiles and catches the imaginary kiss with her hand, her glasses slide up her nose as it scrunches.
The whole interaction makes my heart melt.
Then just seconds later, a little blonde girl around five years old walks up to the ice cream stand. She’s already got a strawberry cone in her right hand and its melting down her knuckles and dripping onto the floor, but she doesn’t seem to mind. I watch her closely as she gets on her tiptoes so she can peer deep inside the freezer. While she’s balancing like a ballerina, her eyes widen and I can tell she wants another scoop. Her parents call her away before she can get her order out and as she bounces away licking her cone a British couple in there forties comes up to the ice cream stand. Now we’ve been on the ship for six days so far and I already feel like I’ve seen every inch of it ten times over, but shockingly this is their first interaction with the ship’s offer for free ice cream.
They slowly read the names of the ice cream out loud in unison in what I can only describe as sheer bliss. They say each flavor louder than the last, “Strawberry, Vanilla, Lemon, Green Apple, Mango and CHOCOLATE!”
And then as if that wasn’t enough Ajeng then says, “and you can have any toppings you want”. As she reads the toppings off, the couple nearly blackouts with excitement, “peanut butter cookie, chocolate chip cookie, caramel, strawberries, chocolate sauce, sour patch kids, sprinkles and jelly beans.”
As they think over their order, a guy around my age stops and taps on the cool glass display, I can tell immediately that he’s fighting an internal war and trying to decide if he should get himself some ice cream or eat dinner first. As he thinks it over, I can see the child in him. He looks like he’s seven years old and like his whole life is in front of him. As he pry’s himself away he says to Ajeng, “I shouldn’t right now, but next time!”
Personally I’ve never been one for ice cream. I prefer salty snacks instead of sweets, but as I sit and watch the ice cream stand over the next ten minutes I can’t help but get mesmerized by it as well. It’s like it’s got this magical power over people and it’s bringing out the best in them.
An eastern European woman comes up to the ice cream stand next and she keeps saying in broken English, “iceyy coffee, iceyy coffee”.
Then she points to the container of vanilla ice cream and holds up her coffee mug. Ajeng reaches down, scoops a generous scoop of ice cream and then hovers it six inches above her coffee mug. The eastern European woman smiles and nods to reassure Ajeng that this is in fact what she wants and then Ajeng releases the ice cream from the scooper. When it plops down deep into the mug like an overweight man doing a cannonball, the coffee spills all over Ajeng’s ice cream stand, but only laughter from the two of them follows.
Next up is a little Danish boy that wants to try samples of both mango and lemon before making his decision and after him is a balding man in plaid shorts and a cabana shirt that I can only describe as “cruise wear”. He stops by with a pina colada in his hand and orders a bowl of chocolate with caramel as his topping. Then an Indian woman in tan capris whom I’ve noticed always eats dinner early like me brings over a plate of fruit and asks Ajeng to put some vanilla ice cream on top of it, which she does with a wide smile.
A South African man with a long pony tail sticking out of the back of his ball cap gets to the end of the ice cream counter and doesn’t realize that there are toppings to choose from until Ajeng asks him which one he wants. I watch closely as his eyes light up and he screams out, “Ohhhhh yeah, toppings!”
Then a Dutch woman with short hair and a bad English accent orders two scoops of Mango ice cream. An older American man who’s dressed too business-like for the cruise sticks an extra plastic spoon into the pocket of his button-down shirt after he gets a big bowl of chocolate ice cream. Then he heads back outside presumably to share the bowl with his wife. Once he walks away, a pretty Brazilian girl comes up and says to Ajeng, “I have a sugar tooth”, as she places her order. They both giggle but I think she got the translation wrong and that she meant to say sweet tooth, but who cares!
Then finally I watch as an Australian Dad limits his son to one topping under the famous line of, “you’ve had enough sugar for one day.” But the ten-year-old boy isn’t having it and he begs for sour patch kids and jellybeans until his Dad collapses under the pressure.
By the time I make my way up to the ice cream counter I can’t help but feel like I’ve just witnessed something really special. It’s as though something’s been revealed to me over the past fifteen minutes or so.
As I’ve been making my way around the world I’ve slowly started noticing something, but I couldn’t quite put my finger on the magnitude of it until now. And it’s such a simple thing that I don’t know how I failed to piece all together.
And that simple thing is that we, as human beings, are not that different from one another.
Weather you’re born in India or Indiana, we all have the same hopes and fears and we all want our lives to mean something. Maybe some of us want chocolate ice cream with sprinkles, and some of us want mango ice cream with sour patch kids, or some of us even want vanilla ice cream plopped into our streaming hot coffee mug. And so maybe an ice cream order looks a little different in Japan than it does in Johannesburg, but the simple fact is that maybe Howard Johnson’s famous song from way back in 1927 has a deeper meaning to it than any of us ever imagined it did. I’m sure you know that song I’m talking about and I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve even sung it a few times. It goes like this, “I Scream, You Scream, We All Scream for Ice Cream.”
The key words of course being “we all.”
Okay, now I know the cynic reading this is going to roll their eyes and say that this is irresponsible of me and that life isn’t this simple and that not all of us want actual ice cream. That is shallow and silly of me, but I can promise you that I don’t want to insult anyone by comparing people’s fondness for ice cream to the millions and millions of people that have long suffered all over the world.
But here’s the thing, I’ve seen life at its hardest most soul-crushing moments like when I walked down empty train tracks alongside Syrian Refugees that were seeking life’s most basic things and fundamental things such as freedom, food and shelter. It was 110 degrees that day in Syria and I’ll be damned if each and every one of us walking down the train tracks that day (our train had broken down) wouldn’t have stopped for a free bowl of ice cream. And surely that free bowl of ice cream would have lifted our spirits and brought us just a tad closer together, if only for a second. But ice cream isn’t the actual point. The point is that even during moments like that it’s only helped me gain a deeper understanding of the essence of a Maya Angelo written poem, Human Family.
And so I believe this experience at the ice cream bar and on those train tracks is exactly what she meant by saying, “I note the obvious differences, between each sort and type, but we are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.”
The Syrian refugees that I spoke with that day on the train tracks were no different than you or I, and I remember them telling me that all they wanted was respect and for their lives to mean something. And while I got a glimpse into how alike we all are, it also started dawning on me even more so when I was in Australia. Remember when I shared a cheeseburger with James while on the train from Perth to Adelaide (a man who had never left his hometown until that day)? Well, it’s taken this silly little ice cream stand for it to come full circle and for me to truly understand the depths of our resemblance to one another.
And even though I don’t like ice cream all that much I’ve never been more compelled to eat some than right now. So I decide to skip dinner and I order two scoops of vanilla with extra chocolate syrup. As Ajeng passes me over my bowl of ice cream, I ask her what her parents back in Java think of her being so young and traveling around the world on a cruise ship like this. She replies something eerily similar to what my parents said to me when I left Florida to set out to try and make it around the world over two years ago, “don’t stay home, go see the world,” they said, “and always follow your dreams.”