Written by Alissa Musto
About one year ago, I moved everything out of my Boston apartment and decided that I wanted to live on a cruise ship full-time. As a professional pianist and vocalist with a few cruise contracts under my belt, I was officially fed up with Boston’s dwindling music scene, rat race, traffic and winters and allured by the lifestyle, opportunity and adventures ship life had given me a taste of.
Living at sea is a unique lifestyle, almost impossible to explain to those in the outside world. I’ve heard it described as a continuation of high school, living in a big luxury hotel, summer camp for adults, a never-ending frat party and a prison; and while it is none of those things, it certainly simultaneously embodies elements of each.
Living in such a concentrated environment, where loneliness is common despite almost never being alone, everything becomes intensified — drama, romance, work-related stress and problems back home. The highs are high and the lows — oh, the lows are low. I’m not sure about what the exact conversion would be, but similar to how one human year is equivalent to seven dog years, life onboard moves fast.
Ship life has taught me some valuable lessons, applicable to both life on land and at sea. One year (and a few dozen countries later), I’ve only spent about six weeks home, but have racked up a plethora of friendships, memories, experiences, international phone bills and life lessons that will stick with me through each upcoming contract, and long after I disembark for good.
1. Material possessions do not bring happiness
When I’m at sea, I am living out of two suitcases in essentially, an extended-stay hotel room — quite a downscale from the two closets of clothes and South end condo I occupy at home. However, I can’t say I ever stop and miss my “stuff” back home. I used to think certain things were so important and essential for happiness and success; a luxury car, a nice house in a nice neighborhood, fancy clothes and shoes, etc. Yet, I’m perfectly happy here without those things and honestly, happier here than I ever was sitting in traffic in my Mercedes. Material objects really don’t bring us joy and only once I was away from it all did I realize how little I actually need.
2. Social media is really not that great for your head
Onboard, internet connection is quite slow, expensive and unreliable; I only use it for business emails and to keep in touch with family and close friends back home. My social media usage plummets when I’m onboard and occasionally gets checked when I have strong cell service in port; still, if I have the opportunity to explore a new place, I’m likely not spending the day glued to my phone. I don’t miss it. I don’t think about it. When I meet new friends onboard, we talk and get to know each other in real life — on hikes, over meals, not via our cell phones. Weird, right? Well, on long travel days heading back home, I find myself mindlessly scrolling through Facebook and Instagram at the airport, catching up on everything I’ve been “missing out” on while I was away. I’m ashamed to admit it, but that’s when the FOMO starts kicking in — friends’ weddings from that weekend, events, parties, this one just got engaged, that one just got a new job, etc. etc.
And then I stop and think “are you kidding me?!” I literally spent the last month laying on the beach eating tacos, petting sloths, and performing for hundreds of people and then seeing some pictures online makes me feel INADEQUATE and NOT ENOUGH?! Social media is a straight up highlight reel; it makes us think everyone else is killing the game, while we’re getting left behind. And that’s an absolute lie.
3. The people you surround yourself by are everything
While working at sea, I’ve met some of the most ambitious, adventurous, courageous and outgoing people I’ve ever encountered. No matter what your position onboard is, in one way or another, you’re there to a) make some money and b) travel around the world. Like myself, every friend I’ve made on ships wasn’t satisfied with the idea of staying in his/her hometown their whole life with a regular 9–5 and then ACTUALLY made the leap to pursue a career that accommodated those demands. I like these qualities in a person. Unsurprisingly, it is not rare for these sorts of like-minded individuals to form strong friendships and become a tight-knit community. My best contracts have not been defined by how nice the ship was or even the itinerary, but by the people I was surrounded by. You can be in the most beautiful place in the world, but if you don’t have anyone to experience it with, it’s meaningless. On the other hand, good friends will keep you motivated, accountable and find the good time in even the rockiest sea day and dumpiest port.
4. Life at home will still be there when you get back
Deciding to take the leap was horrifying; I was afraid I would lose everything I had built back on land — a large network, strong friendships and a great career in “my” city where I truly felt at home. I was worried that if I went away, everything I had worked for would too. I was wrong. Ironically, my local music scene even nominated me for Songwriter of the Year in the New England Music Awards in the year I was physically in New England the least. The internet makes our world incredibly connected; today, you don’t need to be there to be there.
In the short time I’m home, I still go to the same spin studio. I still go to the same coffee shop. The same people are still working there. Most people I run into are still doing the same thing; same job, same drama, hanging out at the same places on the weekend. I find myself having conversation after conversation with folks who haven’t even realized I’ve been away for the past three months. So many people feel like they “can’t” take that trip, or study abroad or quit their job or try living in a new city because they’re afraid of leaving what they know. I promise, it will all be there waiting for you if you decide to come back.
5. Americans can be incredibly ignorant to the rest of the world
Whenever I join a new ship, I am in the overwhelming minority as an American. Having friends from all over the world has introduced me to so many beautiful cultures, languages and traditions, but has also taught me how unapolgetically ignorant and uninterested us Americans are in what’s going on with the rest of the world. Do you know the name of the king of the Netherlands? Or that the Netherlands even has a king?! What does the leadership in the Philippines look like? How is the government in New Zealand run? Who are the main players in Brexit? Because I promise you, regular folks from all of those places could tell you a thing or two about Donald Trump, our upcoming election and the state of our affairs.
All of my Dutch friends, regardless of intelligence or ambition, are fluent in both English and Dutch and at least conversational in French and German, (I always find it cute when they correct me with “yes, but my German is not THAT good”) while my native tongue, English, is just the professional minimum standard around the world. I would like to consider myself an educated, well-read and globally-conscious individual. I have two degrees. I try to keep up with the news. I’m an avid reader. Yet, before the first time my boyfriend mentioned living in Vanuatu, I had never heard of this country. Be honest — have you?!
Without getting too political, there are also an awful lot of people, particularly in my generation, that think we have it so bad in America. Meanwhile, I work alongside people who go home and simply don’t have the same rights that I enjoy when I go home. They can’t speak out against their governments. They can’t love who they want. As women, they are truly second-class citizens, in both society and personal relationships. I have close friends who grew up in government censorship, cruel corrupt regimes, war zones, third-world poverty and other environments simply incomprehensible to anyone raised in the United States. For most Americans, the world starts and ends with America. That’s how we’re raised, and quite honestly, unless you decide to live or work abroad, there’s not much motive nor incentive for shifting that mindset. I certainly don’t consider myself exempt, but I would like to believe my time onboard has made me increasingly aware.