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Wayan's world: The other side of cruising

World

Wayan Waliarta has been cruising for more than 20 years and can't wait to do it again. But unlike you, his cabin doesn't have a balcony, he doesn't go for a second helping at the buffet and you won't find him playing blackjack at the casino after midnight.

For much of the 21st century, Wayan has "waited" his way around the world, serving families in cruise ship dining rooms as they indulge in second and third helpings from the endless buffets. When his daily shift ends (he works 10-11 hours a day, six days a week), he eats dinner by himself or with a co-worker, knowing that his beloved family is far away across the ocean.

Twenty is a big number in Wayan's world: 20 years at sea; 20 years married to his "lovely wife" Dekchi; and 20 is also the age of his firstborn child. Since departing on his first cruise, Wayan has spent, on average, only two months at home each year in Denpasar, on the Indonesian island of Bali. If you do the maths, that's less than three-and-a-half years at home in the past two decades.

Despite that absence, his family is the most important thing in his life. Asked why he applied to be a waiter on a cruise ship rather than in a local restaurant all those years ago, Wayan said: "I needed a job that could bring in a stable income for my wife and the new baby… Jobs in our town didn't pay well."

Wayan with his wife and daughter.

So, he first completed a Food and Beverage Service diploma at the Balindo Paradiso International Hotel and Cruise Training Academy in Denpasar, then applied for a cruise ship job, knowing "it promised good pay and the opportunity to meet people from all around the world". For Wayan and Dekchi, the decision has allowed Wayan to keep a stable job, unlike many of their neighbours in Denpasar, or at least it was stable until the global coronavirus pandemic closed down the cruising industry amid a tsunami of negative coverage.

For now, he is back at home in Bali, enjoying unscheduled family time. Over the years, his absences have taken a very large toll on his marriage and relationship with the children. In an interview with Newsworthy, via Facebook Messenger, he said it had been hard to keep their connection going, causing a lot of stress. He regrets missing important milestones in his family's life such as birthdays, anniversaries, deaths and especially the birth of three of his four children.

Technology is better now, but for the first 15 years he was unable to speak to his wife or children for months at a time. He would send them letters or "cute postcards" from port cities he passed through, and occasionally, he could send a message when he had access to free internet. There was no mobile phone reception on the cruises so calling was rarely an option.

Despite the intermittent contact, the father of four said he put a large emphasis on his children's education, sending almost all of the money he earned back to his wife and kids to pay for their schooling and daily needs.

Spending money for internet on his own phone felt trivial compared to his children's upbringing, he said, and he wanted to make sure they were looked after when he wasn't present.

Wayan is now able to make video calls to his wife and enjoys posting screenshots on Facebook. "I missed watching three of my children grow up. But now internet is free for employees, and I can talk to my youngest daughter on video chats. She talks and talks and talks about everything," said Wayan.

Asked if it was hard to constantly see happy families on holiday on the cruise ships, Wayan keeps his perspective. "I always try and remember that I am doing this to support my family. When it gets hard, my friends who work alongside me are there to cheer me up."

He said one of the greatest things a tourist could do on a cruise for an employee was to be polite, patient and have a friendly chat if they had a spare moment. He and his co-workers always enjoyed hearing travellers' stories. And there are perks to being thousands of kilometres out at sea. "I always become really close to the people I work with, and I have gone to many incredible places. My favourite place so far has been the Bahamas. I always hope that my next contract takes me there".

When Wayan's next contract will come is not yet clear. The world's cruise lines, which carried an estimated 30 million passengers globally in 2019 and employed more than 1.1 million workers, have cancelled their cruising schedules through to July at least.

In a normal year, Wayan would work for 10 months so he could save enough money to come home for two months for the family to enjoy each other's company. The way he sees it, unlike many parents, he gets to dedicate the entirety of that two months to spending time with his family, without worrying about work.

This year he is home early and like so much of the world, in lockdown. "I've been in the house for 14 days with my happy family. Doing artwork with the girls, and lots of eating." He's not complaining.

"Coming home to see my family is my version of a holiday."

* Podcast by Chelsea Young, from audio via Blackboard Collaborate.

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