(9:43 a.m. EDT) -- For the Martinez family -- sisters Lourdes, Glorimar and Florin and Glorimar’s son, Jose Perez -- Saturday evening aboard Royal Caribbean’s Adventure of the Seas broke down like this: Best of ‘70s music trivia at 8 p.m.; a Celine Dion tribute show at 9:30; and ‘70s disco inferno dance party at 10:30. In between, there’d be cocktail-fueled conversations about how lucky they were to be leaving their troubled home island of Puerto Rico behind for a while.
“We did bingo, three or four trivias, a few shows. It’s a very welcome distraction,” said Jose, 27. “The first thing we did when we got onboard was buy the endless alcohol package. We knew we were going to need it.”
More than a week after Hurricanes Irma and Maria crashed through the Caribbean, many people are still living without electricity or running water. Countless tourists were desperately trying to get to their home countries and finding themselves frustrated by ever-changing airline schedules.
To help with relief efforts, Royal Caribbean sent Adventures of the Seas to Puerto Rico, St. Croix and St. Thomas last week to pick up people who wanted to leave the islands and to drop off much-needed supplies to the affected ports. In terms of damage, it was evident St. Thomas took a beating, with hundreds of trees still on the ground.
- Cruise Critic is onboard Adventure of the Seas, as the ship sails its humanitarian cruise from San Juan -- with stops in St. Thomas and St. Croix -- to Fort Lauderdale. Read our first report of a three-part series, after displaced residents, stranded travelers and friends and family of Royal Caribbean are rescued from Puerto Rico.
Some of the passengers who boarded the ship were carrying all that they had left in one or two suitcases. Others were juggling dogs on leashes and wily children who refused to be tamed.
Cheryl Sanchez, who got on the ship in San Juan to go home to Davenport, FL, noticed many passengers react in similar ways once aboard the ship.
“I enjoyed watching everyone who had suffered so much and through such tough times and then they felt the air and they exhaled,” Sanchez, 49, said, referring to the ship’s air-conditioning. “This is a good time for everyone to take a break and relax a while, and then go home and deal with life again.”
The cruise was free for evacuees, although extras -- like an alcoholic beverage package or a soft drink package -- were to be paid for by the passengers. That meant three meals a day, stage performances and organized activities (including a belly flop contest in the pool and a scrapbooking workshop) were all included.
More than one evacuee said they’d heard the cruise was a “humanitarian” mission and assumed they’d get folding cots and, as one woman said, “a sandwich and a bowl of water.” (Yes, she did say bowl.) Some didn’t even expect the cruise to really happen, having dealt with countless airline cancellations and disappointments in the days after the storms.
“Even in that line, before we got on, I was still waiting for that disappointment,” said Andy Sanchez, 46, Cheryl’s husband, referring to the long lines in San Juan, where they boarded the ship. “When I got on the ship, I felt that air and we got on the elevator and we didn’t feel like we were prisoners anymore. …We went and ate. We ate. Then we took a shower. Then we slept.”
It was such a relief, Cheryl Sanchez said, that she saw her husband in tears: “It’s a blessing.”
With that relief also comes guilt. The bulk of the Martinez family remained in Puerto Rico. At least one member of the family is in constant touch with someone back home, seeking updates. Florin Martinez, whose husband is working with FEMA, worries for her three children and eight grandchildren.
“We’re not telling them how much fun we’re having,” she said.
Because communication systems on the islands have been so spotty, for some the cruise was a reunion with friends and co-workers. The Martinez family have run into multiple neighbors.
“There’s a lot of ‘How did you do through the storm?” Jose Perez said.
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Malisa Hedrington, 35, boarded the ship in St. Thomas with her son, Kayden, 7. She recently finished cancer treatment -- her disease is in remission -- and one of the first people she saw onboard was one of her nurses. She saw another acquaintance as well.
“Everyone’s lives changed in five hours,” she said.
Hedrington works as a sales consultant for Little Switzerland, a luxury jewelry and watch company in the Caribbean, so while she’s worked with many cruise goers, she’s never taken one herself. This, her inaugural cruise, was happening because all of the windows of her house are broken, the interior is water-logged, the roof is bent back and the structure is unstable.
“People who come off the cruise ships always tell me I have to try it, so now I can tell them, ‘Yeah, I’m trying it,’” she said.
Once onboard, Kayden spent much of the afternoon with others aged 6 to 10 doing cruise line-organized activities. His mother took a much-needed break and thought about the future. She said the pair would go to Chicago to stay with her mother so Kayden could go to school.
And then? She’s not sure. She doesn’t know if she’d ever move back to the island permanently.
"It’s all in the air," she said.
Or, more exactly, on the ocean.
--By Natalie Pompilio, Cruise Critic contributor