Finding affinity aboard a vegan voyageABOARD THE MSC POESIA- Eastern Caribbean Sea — The Carlo Felice Theater on Deck 6 is as big as a nice-sized movie theater. In it, 1,500 excited vegans — or soon to-be-vegans, at least for a week — are listening to a welcome speech that’s more like a pep rally.
ABOARD THE MSC POESIA, Eastern Caribbean Sea — The Carlo Felice Theater on Deck 6 is as big as a nice-sized movie theater. In it, 1,500 excited vegans — or soon to-be-vegans, at least for a week — are listening to a welcome speech that’s more like a pep rally.
Revving us up is Jessica Potter, a tall, seductively dressed redhead who truly is a rock star to this crowd as the author of “The Hip Chick’s Guide to Macrobiotics.” The other hipsters are Dr. Neal Barnard, a Fargo-bred grandson of ranchers who teases us that vegans are not creatures from the planet Vegas, and vegan bodybuilder Robert Cheeke, who’s muscle-flexing makes me snap a picture.
I’m in my element. Normally, going on a vacation is a challenge because I am a vegetarian and an organic eater, which means bringing my own groceries. And the whole idea of a cruise seemed like something to avoid talking about because as a spendthrift, it seemed decadent to me, and I didn’t want to be teased about cruise ship disasters either.
But I did an Internet search for vegetarian cruises, and lo and behold, “Holistic Holiday at Sea” popped up. It was a seven-day Caribbean trip aboard a luxury ship, not all of it vegan; some 2,500 other passengers belonged to other affinity groups.
Ours includes lectures by renowned physicians T. Colin Campbell, Caldwell Esselstyn, Jr., and Barnard, stars of the movie “Forks Over Knives” that recently showed to an overfilled audience at Duluth’s Zinema 2. Campbell wrote “The China Study,” Esselstyn, “Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease,” and Barnard, “Dr. Neal Barnard’s Program for Reversing Diabetes” and “The Cancer Survivor’s Guide. The trio’s research convinced President Clinton to start a plant-based, or vegan, diet (yes, a former U.S. president is vegan) after his stent procedure in 2010. Their research claims that a plant-based diet can prevent, reduce and reverse heart disease and diabetes.
Clinton’s story resonates with me because my father had the same stent procedure (Dad called it the “balloon treatment”) — and died nine months later, at the age of 54. I still have the letter he sent me in which he drew a picture of his heart and his doctor’s intended treatment. When he died, I felt that then-revolutionary treatment had failed, but now, I think it was his eating habits. Clinton has said he wants to live to be a grandpa; my father missed his chance by 17 months.
His now 23-year-old granddaughter, Rebecca, is on the boat with me. My husband isn’t. His motion sickness is so bad that he won’t even go on the Lake Superior Circle Tour — on land! We leave Ft. Lauderdale on a Saturday night and spend two days at sea. We are both sleepyheads and fail to take advantage of the fitness gurus’ workouts in the open air of Deck 14. Our cabin is on Deck 12. We eat three vegan meals a day, including a five-course dinner. Mushroom pâté and squash soup quickly become my favorite appetizers, and the bean burrito and chili my preferred main dish.
We spend two days at sea and there are classes all over the ship. There are 36 presenters on board, including yogis and meditation gurus, several cooks, even a veterinarian. There are recovery panels for people to talk about coming back from cancer, Crohn’s disease, diabetes and other maladies. But it’s also a party boat with a disco, casino, pools, lounges and restaurants, and even a “Baseball Greats” affinity group where old major leaguers tell their stories.
The first port of call is Charlotte Amalie in the U.S. Virgin Islands, where we take an enjoyable eco-kayak tour to a national park. Then there’s a skyride gondola. I’m scared and my legs are involuntarily shaking, but I can put to use the “integrative relaxation” technique I just learned from Yogi Chandrakant Hiester. As I crouch on the floor and practice deep breathing, I catch a sign that reads, “If the electricity goes out, do not worry. Do not try to get out. You are safe.” So much for relaxation.
The next stop is San Juan, where we had scheduled the tour we most looked forward to: riding horses in a rain forest. But it’s canceled, so we hop a tour bus to Cugas, a city in the Central Mountain Range new to tourism with the signs all in Spanish. We visit a living museum where elderly people roll Cuban cigars. Our presence was the result of the dream of a former mayor who wanted to remake his city as a tourist destination, reminding me of Duluth. What attracts me is that it isn’t a tourist trap.
That night back on ship, there are rough seas and the 80-something Dr. Esselstyn easily keeps his balance on stage, something the rest of us aren’t as good at. The next day, others and I are officially seasick. At least what’s coming back up is organic.
On Friday, we hit the Bahamas, where we board a glass-bottom boat in Nassau to float by Paradise Island. Our tour guide points out the homes of Nicholas Cage and Tiger Woods, but we want history and nature. We are impressed by how clear the water is with sponges waving in the sea. Fish dart toward pieces of the cheap white bread (not from our menu) our guide throws overboard.
The next day, it’s back to Ft. Lauderdale for a long, stressful trip home with flight delays and rerouting. Yet I’m rejuvenated and determined to practice the relaxation techniques I’ve learned, as well as what Yogi Desai says is common sense: You cannot control others around you, only your reaction to them.
I can’t control whether or not the planes are delayed or my baggage is lost. But I can control what I eat at the airport. I purchase a banana and an orange each for Rebecca and me. The fries and hamburgers don’t even tempt us.