A Nautical feat
Edu Jarque (The Philippine Star) - January 2, 2016 - 9:00am

MANILA, Philippines – It’s no longer a surprise to encounter Filipinos all over the world. On all our cruises – from four-day sails around Asia to an almost-two-week holiday at sea covering a couple of continents – we never fail to meet our kababayans all dressed up in their well-starched uniforms, brandishing never-ending smiles, ready and eager to attend to our desires and requests.

During our most recent voyage aboard Celebrity Cruises’ Celebrity Millennium, we wondered just how far our fellow nationals have reached on the global maritime career path. So we embarked on a self-imposed mission, and soon discovered that two out of ten officers of this particular ship’s top hierarchy of officials are – you guessed it – Filipinos.

 And both of them are women!

Meet Maria Cristina Bejar-Gallardo, human resource manager, and Dr. Jennifer Bartolome, senior medical officer. Together, they forge a hard-to-beat duo that provides wellness and warmth, among many other needs, to both passengers and crew alike.

In her previous life, Cristina was an expat in Indonesia, a vice president of a prestigious insurance company. Her responsibilities were not for the faint-hearted, as it included the nitty-gritty oversight of mentoring and nurturing the employees, the conduct of intense and comprehensive leadership programs on self-improvement, and leadership trainings, and as well handled all the logistics of the corporation. She had her plate very full indeed – and yet had it all well-covered.

Thus it was a seamless transition into the operation and management of the personnel of the ship, as she was simply the best-suited for the sought-out, hard-to-fill vacancy.  She admits she initially joined Celebrity Cruises as she wanted to travel, to see all the amazing places she only dreamt of – all at no expense. “It just sounded so attractive to me.” she shares.

“The contentment of the officers and staff is a definite top priority,” Cristina discloses. Anticipating that her colleagues may get bored with the ho-hum of life at sea, she instinctively and continuously organizes seminars, workshops and demonstrations to boost confidence and increase self-worth, and exciting participative activities such as regular karaoke nights and talent shows, basketball tournaments and other sports-related competitions, fun runs at different ports-of-call, auctions of brand-new and slightly-used items… and the seemingly endless list goes on and on – all for the recreation and relaxation, cooperation and camaraderie, growth and advancement, harmony and happiness of the entire team.

More importantly, she deals with employees’ attitudes and behavior, in hopes to enhance performance which eventually leads to customer satisfaction.

It’s very apparent she truly loves her job – for she claims there are virtually no downsides to her assignment. When pressed on what she misses most, she thinks long and hard. “Simple home-cooked meals with mongo and ampalaya,” she confesses. The Filipino delicacies she longs for most include bibingka and sapin-sapin.

“But then again,” she continues with a wide smile, “our innovative chefs and the supportive kitchen staff somehow always come up with pleasant surprises.”

Cristina proudly reveals that her idol is her hardworking dad, a former naval officer, who gave it all up to join the core of professors at the Philippine Military Academy (PMA), the state-run university of the Armed Forces. He was promoted to superintendent and dean of the PMA, and eventually became both a general and a professor at the institution – a never-before-achieved accomplishment.

As she was raised as a family-oriented girl, she appreciated her father frequently bonding with his family in the chilly hills of Baguio, where she lived her first 18 years.

Cristina, a mother of three successful young adults, has been with Celebrity Cruises for three years and counting. As she wears her three and a half stripes on each shoulder, she is the topmost Filipino on board the Celebrity Millennium, a core unit of the ship’s inner sanctum, the Executive Team, consisting of the captain as the chief executive officer, the staff captain as the chief operating officer, the chief engineer and the hotel director.

As we leisurely toured on foot the quaint Japanese town of Kochi on our first port of call, we crossed paths with the ship’s medical officer Jennifer Bartolome, who we had earlier met during the captain’s welcome reception.

Jennifer credits destiny for her fateful jump on the oceanic adventure. “Being a specialist in personnel training for emergency procedures,” she shares, “I was designated a few years ago to continuously conduct crash courses specifically for the marine officers of ocean-going foreign ships that had no medical staff on board.”

“Before long,” she adds, “I was prodded by my friends from the Philippine Transmarine Carrier, a local manning and hiring company for cruise liners, to enlist for exciting new experiences in this up-and-coming industry.”

When the opportunity knocked, she asked herself, “Why not?” Thus her love affair with Celebrity Cruises began and the year was 2007.

As we spotted a special glow exuding from her, we soon discovered that she had her mother and three of her sisters traveling with her on this specific voyage. In fact, she has taken her mom and siblings on numerous previous cruises, spanning different countries.

“It’s an appreciated privilege that really touches my heart,” she confesses. “It gives me a real high when I am surrounded by my family while I work.”

Her next travel plan is to play host to her several nephews and nieces on shorter Asian cruises, mainly due to school and job restrictions.“How can I enjoy all these blessings if I am all by myself?” she queries.

“I am what I am today, all because of my father, Lauro Bartolome Sr., who had a flourishing plow foundry shop where he worked tirelessly to send my siblings and I to school,” she recalls with fondness. “He has since passed on and yet I am forever grateful to him. He made me realize my dreams.”

Jennifer heads a close-knit squad composed of two other doctors and three nurses. Together at their clinic, they attend to the medical requirements of passengers and crew, monitor patients, handle emergencies and work to maintain everyone’s well-being.

With all the perks and benefits of their respective jobs, the two lady officers admit that they are humbled by the responsibility bestowed upon them on deck – to nurture the mind, the body and perhaps even the spirit of those who sail with them.

As the seeming attractions of material possessions start to diminish, they sincerely yearn for meaningful conversations, memorable moments and genuine friendships – for these are what memories are made of and that’s all that matters at the end of the day.

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