The remnants of Caio Saldanha’s past life are fossilized on his Instagram feed. In December, the Brazilian DJ uploaded a video of a deliriously packed cruise ship floating on the rippling Atlantic ocean. But since then, that euphoria has been set aside. Instead, Saldanha, who has worked a number of different cruise dates in his career, posts a few Instagram stories a week detailing the two months he has been trapped at sea.
The Trump administration issued a no-sail mandate on all boating on March 13, the day before Saldanha launched on Celebrity Cruises’ 1,000-foot Celebrity Infinity ship for a 24-week stay. That left him, and more than 100,000 other crew members across ships, in virtual limbo. The crew of the Infinity bobs alone on the outskirts of Tampa Bay, waiting for their bosses to repatriate them back to their home countries. For now, Saldanha, and his fiance who’s aboard with him, are powerless.
The specifics of the mess the cruise industry finds itself in are laughably arcane, but it broadly boils down to a dispute with the CDC. As the Miami Herald reports, cruise companies only expected to be shuttered for a month after the March 13 decision, which meant that they kept most of their crew at their post to resume operations after the expiration date. But in April, the U.S. government extended that no-sail order to late July.
The CDC is allowing crew members to disembark from these ships, as long as cruise companies eat the bill for the private transportation of their employees back to their home countries. Executives have balked at those offers, calling the chartering overhead “too expensive,” and many of those CEOs have drawn up plans to avoid the cost by working at the fringes of legality. Case in point: The last Saldanha heard, his ship will be headed to Barbados on May 27. From there, he’ll fly to Brazil to avoid American guidelines. (After this interview, Saldanha confirmed that he is back home as of June 3.)
Meanwhile, the human toll on these cruise ships swells by the day. There have been multiple suicides reported among trapped crew members, including a 39-year old Ukranian woman who went overboard on a Carnival vessel. Some have been condemned to windowless on-board residencies, or have been living under strict coronavirus lockdowns. 15 members of a Royal Caribbean crew went on a hunger strike in early May, but that matter has allegedly been “resolved.”
Saldanha himself is in contact with many of his colleagues trapped on other boats, which is all he can do to put pressure on his superiors to get them on dry land again. For now, Saldanha bides his time by watching movies, playing video games, and speaking to the press. We talked about the injustice of the industry, how Chomsky is informing his activism, and how after a while, even the beauty of an Atlantic sunset can begin to feel like a prison.
When you first signed up to go DJ on some cruises, were you aware that the coronavirus was out there? Or did you not pay much attention to it?
Before we embarked, we thought about the pandemic. We didn’t get information from the company before, but when we came to the US we saw Donald Trump on TV talking about the cruise ships, and how they were a dangerous environment, and the no-sail order. We got back to the company, and said, “Will we embark?” And they said that everything is fine. We embarked on March 14, and we got the message that we’ll be sailing to Tampa Bay, and that we didn’t have any information about what was going to happen in the future. That was the first day. It was very complicated.
They disembarked all the passengers, and they kept all the crew members on the ship until further notice. It was hard to understand the situation.
What was that messaging like? Did they just say that you’d be stuck on the boat for a short period of time? Or did you know it was going to be months from the beginning?
They told us it was going to be at least 14 days. We didn’t have any kind of measure to avoid Covid-19 on the ship. There were no measures before quarantine to avoid the threat of the virus.
You don’t have any coronavirus cases, right?
We don’t have any cases here as far as I know. But we are aware that we might be exposed to the virus. That’s not good at all. Especially as a couple, if I get sick, or my fiance gets sick, we would be separated. It makes us really stressed, and really afraid. You’d be sick and alone.
People are just now seeing headlines that 100,000 people are still stuck at sea, do you feel forgotten at all?
Yes, that’s the feeling. This industry is focused on passengers. Nobody thinks about the crew members. This industry is focused on keeping a good image for the public and the service, and they forget about the workers.
Does it feel like you’re caught in the middle of a bureaucratic mess?
After a story from the Miami Herald, where Royal Caribbean said that this was a financial issue, and it was too expensive to do as the CDC wanted to do for repatriation, I don’t think that it’s a bureaucracy problem. It’s a crime. It’s a crime that this company is practicing. They’re sending us to Barbados. We’re arriving there tomorrow, and they’re going to fly us home May 27. I can interpret that as a way to avoid the measures that the CDC has laid out. It’s a big cartel. They’re trying to avoid doing the right thing, and care about us.
You post stories on Instagram where you’ve documented nearly every day you’ve been trapped at sea. What’s it been like keeping your social media updated, and keeping friends and family tuned in on your plight?
Yeah, I stopped posting photos on Instagram about my job. I’m just giving information to people who follow me to try to expose what’s going on. I’ve stopped every bit of social media as a DJ — the stuff we do to get an audience, or work when we’re on land.
I’m exposing my situation. I’m trying to help. A lot of people are in silence right now. So I’m using my social media to make it a journal, or a channel, for everybody to see. I want to be a source in the middle of this.
As you mentioned, there are thousands of people stuck on cruise ships right now. Have you been communicating with anyone else on other boats?
Yeah it’s interesting. I’m in contact with an Argentinian girl who works on Royal Caribbean. She was repatriated two days ago. We’ve got someone on the ship who’s the music director, and he and his girlfriend went through so much worse than us. For five days, they were in a crew cabin with no windows. We’re sharing everything. People on other ships are reaching [out to] me. We’re developing a network of people who are thinking the same way.
Are you on lockdown?
We have good treatment right now. We have a guest cabin, we have a balcony, and we can go anywhere until midnight. That’s not a problem, we’re not gonna be outside the cabin that late.
What allows you to forget that you’ve been on a cruise ship for two months? What’s been an escape?
We are watching a lot of movies. We are watching videos on YouTube. We’re trying to learn more about financing, because we will need to be prepared, back on land, to face a new reality as far as work goes. We’re going to need to change our jobs. We can’t work here anymore. We’re playing games, we have things to read, we’re passing our time, and we go outside and watch the ocean. We aren’t always stressed.
Are there ever any moments, where you’re looking at the ocean, that you’re like, “You know, this really sucks, but at least there’s a nice view.”
You know, when you’ve been stuck at sea this long, you don’t see it as beautiful. The sea is a jail, it’s oppressive. It’s so beautiful, but the meaning of the sea goes away. When you’re so exposed to the same view, you get desensitized.
Are you still making an income right now? Is the cruise company still paying you?
They said to us that they’d stop paying us in full on April 25. That was the last payment. Then they started giving us $13 a day until it reached $400. But for a few weeks, we didn’t get any money from that. We didn’t reach $400. I really don’t know what’s going on right now. [Saldanha has since received the full $400.]
Are you thinking about going to court?
I had an offer for a class-action lawsuit. I contacted the lawyers. I’m still reading and studying it. I don’t like to sign anything before I’m sure about it. But the psychological damage is already here. We feel like our psychological integrity is not preserved.
Have you always been an activist? Have you always been vocal about worker injustices? Or did this experience spark that inside of you?
This was always a concern for me, but I never spoke about it. I read a lot of books that are important to our knowledge as a worker. I read Marx, Adam Smith, Foucault, all of the economic thinking that is related to philosophy. So I do a lot of reading. And now I’m in a situation where I see those kinds of injustices grip a whole industry, I started to speak up. It makes me think about my reading of Noam Chomsky, about profit over people, and neoliberal thinking. My readings have made me an activist, I think.
When you’re back in Brazil and hopefully this pandemic is finally over, what’s the first thing you’re going to do?
I will get married to my fiance. And also, we’ll walk our dog. That’s what we want to do so bad. We miss the animals.