St. Petersburg Times Online: Business

Weather | Sports | Forums | Comics | Classifieds | Calendar | Movies

Cruise ship workers enjoy oasis

Cruise ship workers from around the world find a little bit of home at the Port of Tampa Crew Center.

By KATHRYN WEXLER, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published January 22, 2002

TAMPA -- The Sensation cruise ship docks at the Channelside port every weekend, and out pour suntanned customers toting suitcases and wearing smiles.

TAMPA -- The Sensation cruise ship docks at the Channelside port every weekend, and out pour suntanned customers toting suitcases and wearing smiles.

Behind them, another troupe trickles out, this one with calloused hands and weary eyes.

They are cooks and maids, sailors and bellhops, people who toil deep in the ship's windowless belly, making each choppy trip a joyride for those above deck.

No minivans await them. They skirt the crush of yellow taxis. On foot they plod north, along an industrial stretch of Channelside Drive a few blocks to the one spot in Tampa that makes them feel that home isn't an ocean away, and life isn't only about service.

At the Port of Tampa Crew Center, open just over a year, Finesse shampoo and hot Indonesian meatball soup are selling briskly. Hindi movies rent for $3 a week. Money can be wired to South Africa.

But most importantly, there are 39 lifelines here: cheap, lightweight phones placed side-by-side in the small store. Privacy is irrelevant in a place where languages from nearly every continent collide. Besides, after longing for a familiar voice for days at sea, who cares who's listening?

There are mothers to call in Honduras, Australia, Guatemala, Croatia, England and Hungary. Lovers, too.

"Cheryl." A shy smile sweeps over Felix Archibald's face when he says the name of his beloved, living in his Caribbean homeland, St. Vincent.

The 40-year-old sailor gazes into the distance far beyond Channelside Drive.

"She's not there," he says, his smile now gone. "She's probably in church."

The Channelside district, with its aquarium and entertainment complex, may beckon locals out for fun, but it isn't much of a playground for the foreign work force. Miami and New Orleans serve many more than three or four cruise liners a week and have ethnic food stores, mini-supermarkets and easy public transit that cater to the crews. Here, the more ambitious trudge a mile to the nearest Publix. A few with extra time and enough money for a cab head for Wal-Mart.

"They have, what's it called? Dale Mabry Street?" asked Juan Romero, manager of an onboard Internet cafe. From his perspective, as one who is moored to the port each Sunday, Tampa's got no groove.

"Everything's closed here," said Romero, 41, from Venezuela. "I-bor City," he said, mispronouncing Tampa's bar district, "is supposed to be a real hot place. But it's closed Sunday morning."

Instead, the crew shop has little gold mailboxes for rent and Maxsport tennis shoes for $19.99 a pair. Maps of Tampa never sell. International calling cards are white hot buys.

Crew members do not have to smile here. They do not rush down carpeted halls to deliver room service while it's still hot. They need not fold, iron, fry, dice, wash, carry or scrub. Here, they are the customers.

"We need a place like this," said Sulaeman Appandi, a waiter on cruise ships for nine years.

In one corner, 15-year-old Robinson High School student Nida Sultan each weekend sets up steaming vats of Pakistani chicken and vegetables her mother prepares.

In the other corner, a Filipino husband and wife team recently have begun selling hot lunches. Diners pop their silvery dried anchovies into their mouths, eyeballs and all. And from a folding table, Alex Rachmansyah dishes up Indonesian specialties like meatball soup. He is sold out by noon.

The authentic tastes from home boost spirits. So does the simple fact that nothing sways or roils underfoot. And how, even on a deserted stretch like Channelside Drive, the scenery isn't entirely blue.

"It's a pleasure to come outside and sit," Felix Archibald says, near a half-dozen chairs that face the four-lane street. "Even on a pier."

After a while, the sea holds no excitement. The ship becomes just a floating hotel.

"At first it's so hard," said Sulaeman Appandi, a 42-year-old Jakarta man, devouring a plate of peanuts and fried chicken. "But after two years, three years, it's okay. Better than my own country for work."

Neil Louis, from Mumbai, India, says he has a bachelor's degree in economics from Bombay University. His job now is to carve and decorate the ship's food. He's been doing the same work for five years.

"One or two days a month, we feel happy," said Louis, 30. "We get our salary and call home. Other days, it's like a prison for us. We need to do it to survive."

None of this is lost on Roberto Darato, the manager who mans the store seven days a week, buys wares at Tampa's megastores, stacks the shelves at night and conscientiously serves his customers with dignity.

"We need to treat them nice, make them happy," says Darato, 53, originally from the Philippines. He was a captain on merchant marine vessels for 25 years. "I love these guys."

To open the store, Darato left behind his wife and five children in Plantation near Fort Lauderdale, where he worked in a similar crew store. "I am alone here," he says. "I just feel like I'm on the ship."

It has been eight months since Jun Liu held his wife and 5-year-old daughter, in Zhe Jiang, south China. He leans on a low partition near a row of computers that promise Internet access but bear signs that read, "OUT OF ORDER." His eyes are troubled.

"I'm missing (them) every day. I call every week," says Liu, 34, who devotes $100 of his monthly $700 salary to calling cards. Still, it's so much cheaper than using phones with surcharges onboard.

But nearly an hour has passed since Liu left the ship, and he is due back any minute. Every receiver is in use.

"Not today, I don't have time," Liu says glumly.

He has labored in laundry rooms of ocean liners for five years. "Just a little time to sleep. There's too much linen, you can't realize. Towels, sheets, everything."

Heather Carmichael is one crew member chasing a dream, not running from poverty. At 32, she is an acrobat who performs her five-minute routine twice a week for Carnival Cruise Lines. Her partner is her fiance.

The ships were a terrific place to perform, said Carmichael, of Scotland. And she finds plenty of time to lounge at the crew's swimming pool. Once, she ventured to International Mall. But it was far from the port, and the crew center has nearly everything she needs anyway.

"This place is more personal," than other crew stores, she says. "It feels like you have got family."

The feeling, though, is short-lived. The crews that wash over Channelside Drive every few days transform the port district into a melting pot only momentarily. Once several hours of freedom are up, the workers retreat to the ships again, leaving Channelside to its moviegoers and latte drinkers.

"I miss home," says Ariaja Ikadek, 29. This stop was a good one: He spoke briefly of his parents and his wife, and heard the babbling of his 1-year-old son Gade, all living together in Bali, Indonesia. He has six more months before he sees his green homeland again.

"I miss it very much," he said. Within the hour, the sun in his face, he was headed back to the ship.

-- Kathryn Wexler can be reached at (813) 226-3383.

© Copyright, St. Petersburg Times. All rights reserved.