The sun set, and the first notes of music floated on warm South Atlantic air.
Jam Cruise had begun.
I was among the throng of cruisers that first week of 2011 who flitted happily around each other like glowing orbits of fireflies over the backyards of forgotten youth. The cruise ship hadn't even chugged its way from its south Florida berth as music festival participants began jamming, dressed as zebras, bananas, unicorns, clowns and other alter egos. People didn't simply want to meet and greet each other, they wanted to reacquaint themselves with the unfettered ways of childhood dreams and friendships.
Jam Cruise is a week-long music festival set on a 14-story cruise ship. For the 2,000-plus participants, the annual event is a frenzy of experience that's part "Alice in Wonderland" and part "Peter Pan," set to a continuous live music sound track. Samaria Airamas of Plattsburgh was a first-time passenger aboard Jam Cruise this year, and she marveled in disbelief at the "moving oasis of happy, sharing people.
"Halloween is my favorite holiday," she told me, "and the festival was Halloween for a week." Airamas was particularly impressed with a number of costumed passengers walking on stilts. For my part, I have been known for several years photographing festivals around the country in sequin Santa suit. I was ready share in the holiday spirit of the trip.
While the cruise ship festival may have felt like a journey to Never Never Land, there were two real ports of call: one in Roatan, Honduras, for six hours, and a layover of eight hours in Costa Maya, Mexico.
There was little time to soak in sights and sounds there, but most of us found our way into various excursions. Some snorkeled, went sightseeing, shopping. And they helped with a community service project in both locations sponsored by festival organizers. I joined a group of friends who spent the day on a small beach near the port. Local children played in the surf with cruise passengers, and we all were treated to a solo vocal/folk guitar performance by the cruise ship musician.
RELEASE THE MAGIC
A particularly poignant moment came after the stop in Roatan. Jay and Erin, a young couple with whom I had spent the previous evening dancing and laughing, approached me with a gift they had bought at a shop onshore. I'd been dressed in a Santa suit, and they handed me a beautiful brightly painted porcelain figurine.
"We just knew that Santa needs to get a Christmas present, too, so we got you a little something."
I was so overwhelmed by their kindness, I choked back tears as I hugged them.
In a quiet moment that night, I reflected on Jay and Erin's openness. I watched dark waves ripple along the ship's bow and around the corners of my mind. I thought of Thornton Wilder's character, Emily Webb from the play "Our Town," who wonders aloud at the end of her life, "Does anyone realize life while they are still living?"
For me, that question is haunting and difficult to answer. But at least for that week, on that boat, the answer I was shown by others was a resounding "Yes."
As more time passed from my experiences on the cruise, memories surfaced that go back further — of catching fireflies in my grandmother's backyard. We, like many kids, used Mason jars with nail holes poked though the lids to let in air. All those blinking, swirling lights made us think we'd caught Christmas in our jars.
But at the end of each night came my grandmother's stern instruction to unscrew the jars and let the fireflies free.
"That's the only way everybody can catch the magic!" she would say.
I would have loved to linger a bit longer in the South Atlantic before returning to the sub-zero tundra of the North Country. I wished I could clutch and hold on to all the warm-hearted people I met on Jam Cruise.
But as night falls on the twinkling lights of snow-crusted Plattsburgh, the best thing to do is to open my palm and release the goodness of those memories into the cold air.
That way, perhaps, someone else may catch the magic.
Andrew Wyatt is a freelance photographer for the Press Republican and for eight years has freelanced as a photographer and writer documenting music and arts festivals nationwide as the merry 'ol elf, Santa.