At 16 years old, my parents took me on a cruise of the Virgin Islands. We always traveled as a family, but we usually camped and stayed within our own state of Minnesota and the neighboring states, with an occasional foray across the border into Canada.
I was the youngest of three kids, and by the time I was the lone child at home as a teenager, my parents were more financially stable, as happens with time. As a result, our vacations started to change from tents and canoes to hotels with pools and cabins on ships. Taking a cruise through exotic islands on water bluer than I’d ever seen was my first glimpse into the world beyond the American Midwest, and it sparked a wanderlust that has never dulled.
Moment of truth: my first glimpse of the broader world also included my first experience with love and lust, which may have been a factor in the wanderlust rooting so deep. But as first experiences with love/lust go, this was off the charts, setting the bar high for my love of the exotic and for all future romantic expectations.
Being new to cruising, my parents chose a lesser known cruising company, and didn’t realize until we were on the ship that the target audience of this cruise was mostly fifty years of age and older. There were a handful of other teenagers on the ship, but I didn’t even see them until the cruise was nearly over, and by then I had no interest in hanging out with them. As a sixteen-year-old girl hanging out by the pool alone, I found the service on the ship to be excellent — I was served a never-ending stream of colorful and wonderful cocktails, I never lacked for fresh-towels, and if I needed anything I just turned my head and a crewmen brought me whatever I desired.
Being young and naïve, I thought this was the same experience for everyone on the cruise. After all, wasn’t it the job of all those handsome, young crewmen to see to the needs of all the passengers? I was expounding on the fantastic service on the ship to my parents at dinner our second night at sea and didn’t understand why my mom laughed and my father just closed his eyes and shook his head. Turns out Dad had been watching me like hawk from his lounge chair a short distance away while Mom had to flag down a crewman each time she wanted her drink replenished.
There are advantages to being one of the few people under fifty on a cruise ship filled with mostly male crewman under the age of twenty-five. I reveled in this attention for the first few days. As a somewhat shy girl in a new and exotic place being doted on at every turn, I felt like a movie star and loved every moment of it. After about the third day of this, and as the persistence of my male admirers increased and their tactics to get my attention turned into tactics to get me alone, I turned to feeling overwhelmed. My lack of experience with dating, romance, and men was catching up with me, and the constant attention became oppressive and intruding instead of flattering.
There was one young crewman who acted the perfect gentleman through the entire ordeal. He brought me drinks and towels and asked me if I needed anything, but he didn’t leer as the others did (at least not openly), and he didn’t linger long enough to make it uncomfortable. When he noticed my discomfort because the attentions of a server became more than I could handle, he was suddenly there making it clear he would intervene if necessary. My dad did the same, but Miguel (that was my young hero’s name), often intervened first.
I saw him as nothing less than a knight in shining armor and his acts of chivalry did not go unnoticed.
Miguel was nineteen, from Costa Rica, and the most charming man I’d ever met. He was kind, funny, flirtatious, and completely aware of how inexperienced I was in the ways of romance. He kissed me in the moonlight, whispering things in Spanish that I’d yet to learn in my one year of high school Spanish, and lit a fire of desire unlike anything I’d experienced in my young life. He was exotic, foreign, exciting, charming, romantic, and I would have had agree to run away and be with him forever right then and there if only he’d asked.
He never did ask me to run away with him forever, but on the last day of the cruise, when we reached our final port in Puerto Rico, he did ask my dad for permission to show me around the sites of San Juan. Amazingly, my dad said yes. He cringes now when he thinks about it, but that was a different time. Now there is no way, with the threat of sex-trafficking, a father would let his daughter loose in a city he doesn’t know with a young man he doesn’t know. But in the mid 1980’s, we didn’t hear so much about all of that, and based on Miguel’s gentlemanly behavior of the few days Dad watched him interact with me on the ship, he agreed, and for that I will forever be thankful.
Miguel showed me the sights of city, talked about the history of Old San Juan, kissed me in a park overlooking the ocean, and held my hand as we strolled the streets. The most romantic gesture of all, one I remember so vividly now that it’s hard to believe 35 years have passed, was when we turned a corner onto a busy, narrow street with cars rushing by, and he gently pulled me to the other side of him so that he was walking on the street side and I was protected between him and the buildings. When I asked him why he didn’t want me walking by the cars, he looked at me with the sweetest eyes and said “My father told me that if you care about someone, you protect them. I am doing what my father said.”
I swooned, I quivered, I melted on the inside. This moment was better than any movie. Here I was in a romantic foreign city, walking with a handsome man, feeling like there was no one else in the world but us. Everything I saw that day was exciting, exhilarating, beautiful, exotic, foreign, and wonderful. Never had the colors been so vivid, or the new and unknown been so tantalizing. I felt more alive in that moment than ever before.
At home, I constantly felt like there was more to the world than I was seeing, more to experience than my day-to-day life, and more to me than my friends at home could understand or see. But walking the streets of Old San Juan with a charming Latino man, learning the history of the city and experiencing the energy of life in a foreign place, I knew this was how I wanted to feel forever.
My restless soul has never tired of exploring the world, and it starts to scream for release when not stimulated by the wonders of new and exotic places. I still love seeing a city for the first time, hiking through a forest that proves the world is so much bigger than me, diving in oceans that reveal a world of their own, standing in places where history runs deep and demonstrates the durability of civilization, sitting at a sidewalk café with a cup of coffee as a silent observer of a culture that is different from the one in which I was raised. I love where I came from and the life that molded me as child, and I’m thankful for the confidence and courage my parents instilled in me to go places outside of my comfort zone, to appreciate all the nuances of the world, especially that which is different from what I known.