My mom pitched the weekend getaway: a three-night cruise out of Miami with Pitbull.
Yes, Pitbull, the Miami rapper known for his signature "Dale!" catchphrase. He entered my world when pool parties gave way to middle school dances. His songs with titles I could never print trigger repressed memories of preteens grinding and twerking. I only imagined it would be worse in the middle of the Caribbean with adults on a boat stocked with endless booze.
Reading my mind, my mom threw in a game-changing perk: Between my parents' generosity, the cruise was free. My whole family was going, and my boyfriend could come, too.
Sure, I would have to endure two Pitbull performances and a Q&A session with fans, but we were sailing to the Bahamas for a private beach party. It was a cross I was willing to bear.
My dad has worked at cruise lines for more than 25 years and I've lost count of how many sailings I've voyaged, but my expectations were high.
On a breezy March weekend, I walked off the gangway onto the Norwegian Pearl and was greeted with a high-five from a crew member of Sixthman, a company that charters cruise ships for music festivals. They've sailed with artists for every fan, from KISS to John Mayer to Lynyrd Skynyrd.
From here on out, I was pleasantly surprised.
Onboard and ashore, the good vibes were infectious. Couples, friend groups, spring breakers, multigenerational families, bachelorette parties and moms who left the kids home with Dad came from around the world to party with Pitbull. Free half-shots of Voli 305, a vodka reminiscent of lemon drops promoted by Pitbull, helped.
Everyone flocked to the pool deck to see Pitbull kick off our weekend with a performance, but the stage didn't appear to be ready, so Pitbull made a quick appearance and spoke about his humble beginnings before we set sail.
That's where I and so many other Cuban-Americans connect with Pitbull, a Miami-born descendant of Cuban exiles. Armando Christian Perez (his given name) spoke about his family's plight and his hustle in the streets.
Then, Miami radio celebrity DJ Laz took the night away. The party spread to other venues onboard as party hits played day and night.
I never caught a glimpse of Pitbull milling around the ship. It was rumored he and his crew were lodging in the Haven, a luxurious row of cabins with special accommodations at the top of the ship.
After we docked Saturday, tender boats ushered us to Great Stirrup Cay, a Bahamian island owned by NCL. There were shaded beach chairs and hammocks for relaxation, and a dance party and flip cup tournament on deck for anyone who didn't want the party to stop.
Surprisingly, there weren't many millennials on board. Most passengers were in their late 30s and older, including many who looked as though Pitbull could be their grandson. Sixthman seemed to expect this with a planned '80s theme night.
Even Pitbull was in on the theme. His highly anticipated first performance Saturday night on the pool deck opened with Phil Collins' In the Air Tonight, among other hits of the time, as bits of his life story flashed on screens next to the stage.
Pitbull quickly switched gears to hip-hop and reggaeton as his dancers gyrated to hits from the early 2000s to his newest single, Greenlight. He took no breaks and the performance lasted about an hour.
My hopes were high for the second performance, and here's where my sole complaint comes in: Sunday afternoon's performance was the same as the night before. Same Phil Collins intro, same setlist, same choreography.
I get it. Even the shortest shows are complicated and a lot goes into these performances logistically, from sound to lights to costume changes, but I expected to see a shakeup for round two. A repeat performance was disappointing.
Still, fans packed in for a Q&A with the rapper that followed. I heard fans picking his brain with playful curiosity, like what was his favorite drink.
He also gushed about charter schools, including a network of schools he has supported called SLAM (Sports Leadership and Management), and gave a shoutout to a SLAM school in Tampa that's set to open this fall.
Pitbull was patient as he listened to excited fans stutter and stammer to ask questions. He was gracious and responded with winding, bilingual anecdotes and answers.
I started to realize this was more than just a weekend at sea. For many passengers, this was a pilgrimage with someone they could relate to beyond party anthems.
Like many of us, Pitbull came of age listening to stories of fleeing communist Cuba and surviving in Miami on little more than an unbreakable will. He bounced among a dozen schools before eventually working his way to a global stage, representing so many who defied the odds to make it.
Yet here we all were: on the pool deck of a luxury cruise ship, sailing back to the Port of Miami where Pitbull's father docked boats from the Mariel Boatlift in the 1980s.
I rushed off the ship Monday morning to get back to St. Petersburg for work. Heading west toward the Everglades, I kept scanning the radio to catch a Pitbull song.
Contact Colleen Wright at [email protected] or (727) 893-8643. Follow @Colleen_Wright.