Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Behind the Smiles

Being on a Disney Cruise was like living a dream. If the company's parks and resorts are dubbed "the happiest places on earth," the Disney ship could very well be touted "the happiest place on the seven seas." All crew members, from the captain who steers the ship to the maintenance man who wipes the windows, are in an eternally jovial mood.

We held our breaths as we set foot on the humongous vessel and entered the grand lobby atrium of the Disney Magic. The P.A. system enthusiastically announced our arrival. "From Orlando, Florida, let us all welcome now...the Jadie Family!" It was like being transported to another world where guests are treated like royalties, pampered with radiant smiles and lavish attention. Food and drinks were abundant and overflowing, and were available 24/7. Service was exceptionally personal. The world practically revolved around us.

As the ship steered on to its next destination, we got to know better some of the crew. We couldn't help but think how exciting it must be for them to be working on a cruise ship - and Disney at that! You get to see different places and meet a lot of people with diverse backgrounds. Imagine, working and having fun at the same time! It will not be like going to work at all, would it? But soon we discovered our misconception and saw certain hard truths behind the seemingly incessant smiles.

Winda is our stateroom host. He makes up our bed and replenishes our supply of toiletries and other stuff. Whenever the ship docks, he goes ashore not to go sight-seeing but to call his wife and kids. In the middle of the cruise, he suffered a toothache due to wisdom tooth eruption. With a sigh, he said he has to finish his contract of 3 more months before he can seek full dental service. Asked if he plans to take his family on a Disney cruise, he said yes but only in his dreams because the cost will be staggering.

Gian is one of the ship's professional photographers. He tells us it's hard work. It's not unusual for them to have to skip lunch and miss their meal ration. They then have to get by with instant noodles and bread. Sometimes, they are asked to do photo shoots after their shift and at ungodly hours. They were very thankful to see us Filipino guests which happens only once in a blue moon on a Disney cruise because it somehow eases their homesickness. "A breath of fresh air," was how he described us in contrast to other guests of different skin color who treat them shabbily.

Day in or day out, at sea or ashore, men in yellow jumpsuits are ubiquitous around the ship wiping windows, sweeping floors and painting railings. Refurbishments are done endlessly to keep the ship looking good as new and sparkling clean. They are the maintenance team and Anto is one of them. With beads of sweat forming at his forehead, he was still able to manage a smile when we exchanged pleasantries. He says he longs to go back home and be with his family permanently. He has already missed some of his children's youth and is afraid they do not know him anymore. He suffered an injured back because of work and was given the chance to go home to recuperate. But his family time was cut short as he decided to go back to work so his son can graduate. He dreams of putting up his own business so he can be with his family and never be geographically and emotionally alienated from them.

Despite these hardships, they still go on and work with a happy face. "Just whistle while you work." as Snow White had sung. They know their priorites. They are adaptable and can endure tough times making them tough people; the latter, as we know, are the ones that last. They are still able to smile despite their personal obstacles, health setbacks and financial constraints.

I know we were on vacation and ought to have a good time and not think about this stuff, but I couldn't help seeing these people under the light of truth. I know we were supposed to have fun and they were supposed to be working; but having grown up and practically co-managing a family business had given me the opportunity to look at employees not as lowly mortals to whom we owe a certain amount of money at payday, but as people who have their own unique situations, needs and aspirations in life.

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