Cruising Complications

AKIE BERMISS: I’ve never been on a cruise.  Never in my life even set foot on a cruise boat.  But every time I get a brochure from Princess Cruises in my mailbox I give it considerable thought.  The thing is, to someone like me, cruises seem like a really extravagant affair.  You pack your bag, you go to the docks, and you basically check in to a floating hotel room for a week.  And all your food is paid for.  You’re waited on hand and foot.  You sail around where its beautiful and sunny and warm.  I could be wrong about all this, of course, as my knowledge of cruises is pretty much informed by what I’ve seen in movies.

It also helps that everyone I know who HAS been on a cruise is some what lukewarm on the experience.  But I wonder if that’s a personality-type issue.  Most people go on vacation and want to do fun and exciting things: scuba-diving, dancing, hiking, etc.  Me?  I bring a few books, some note pads and pens, and obscene amounts of music.  I like to just sit around the hotel room and read.  If I go out to beach, its to drink something and read near the water.  So I be a cruise would be a really awesome vacation for me.

Also I’m peculiar in that I love boats and ships and yachts and things.  I’m really into the idea of sailing (though I’ve never really been on a sailing trip for any extended period of time) and astrolabes and just getting away from it all.  At the same time, I’m terrified of bodies of water.  I hate to swim and I find all aquatic creatures terrifying.  Being in water makes me feel incredibly vulnerable for some reason.  Being on top of it though and looking down into the depths?  That seems like a good ole time.

If I were independently wealthy my first conspicuous acquisition would probably be a really big boat.  And a crew.  And I’d probably just sail around the world for the rest of my life.

Of course thats just the romantic side of things.  The fat American in me loves the idea of endless buffets and alcoholic drinks and desserts.  And not having to do any work.  I get pretty excited just staying at a motel where I don’t have to clean up after myself and I can leave my clothes on the floor.  Cruises seem like the perfect get-away to me.  I wouldn’t be particularly interested in any destination either, really.  For me, the joy is the cruise.  I don’t want to be on a boat that’s not going any where.  Lets keep moving!  Let’s sail where its hot and dry or where its cold and icy.  I really don’t care.  As long as we’re at sea I’ll feel like Odysseus in search of home.

And, so you know it, the naysaying has no effect on me.  I’ve been told time and time again how uninteresting cruises are and I don’t buy it.  You’re only having as much fun as you think you’re having, I think.  And I think taking a cruise would be all the rage.  If I can’t go to outer space (and I assume I still can’t) this is really the next best thing.  And one day — on day soon — I will actually go on a cruise and then we’ll see what the actual verdict is.  But I think it’ll be the start of something grand.

Til then, I’ll keep humming the melody of “On A Slow Boat To China” to myself whenever I drive over a bridge.

STEVE MURPHY: I have been on roughly 7 kabillion cruises.  Or at least that’s what it feels like.  When I was about 12 my grandparents decided the best vacation for our 15-person family would be a cruise.  This worked really well for them, because they don’t get around so well and this kept us all in once place, and it worked for us because… well, we were little kids and cruises are really fun for little kids.

But now I’m 30.  And we’ve gone on cruises almost every year since then.  I’ve been to just about every island in the Caribbean, some multiple times, plus a number of other exotic locales.  Or, that’s what the cruise lines would have me believe.

In reality, I have not “been” to these places, in that I could tell you almost nothing about them.  This is due to the shallow nature of cruising.  Yes, I have been to Croatia.  Yes, the city I visited, Dubrovnik, was beautiful.  I spent a whole four hours there, and made the most of every minute… but does that really count as having “been” somewhere?  It’s shallow in the most basic of senses: I literally visit the city closest to the waterfront, and then get back on the floating hotel and sail away to the sounds of a cover band playing “Red Red Wine” for the 5,239th time.

My problem with cruising is twofold.  First, there’s the problem that’s unique to people who cruise a lot: they’re all the same.  Sure, the ships are a little different from each other, and sure, the different cruise lines have different personalities… but in the end, cruises are all the same.  And the more you take, the more the things that don’t change make you want to jump overboard.  But that’s not my primary problem.

My primary problem with cruising lies in my inability to describe the places I’ve been.  The ship docks.  I get off the boat.  We have a few hours.  We go into town.  But the town is never just some local town, it’s been distorted and made fake by the constant flow of rich visitors to this one coastal point.  It’s filled with high-end jewelry and clothing stores, cheesy restaurants and tourist traps.  The town is completely non-representative of the local culture.  What port am I talking about here?  It doesn’t really matter.  They are identical, with few exceptions.

I prefer to travel the exact opposite way: I like to go to a place and immerse myself in it for a week.  Eat local food, see local sights, avoid tourist traps, until I feel like I’m part of the local scene, like I understand the vibe of the city I’m in, until I feel like I don’t want to leave and can’t wait to get back.  Cruises never provide this feeling of comfort, instead letting me dip my toe in a place only to immediately leave.  And nobody else on the ship seems to have a problem with this type of ‘visit.’  That drives me crazy.  When my wife and I get off the ship, we immediately try to walk in the opposite direction from the little town the locals have set up just for tourists.  We find a local restaurant where we’re the only Americans, and we do the best we can to feel the place before we have to leave it behind.  But it’s frustratingly difficult, especially when traveling with a family who wants to stay together and does not share my desire to get out of the cruise-mandated visitation area.

It doesn’t help that the places most cruises visit in the Caribbean are impoverished.  Here I come on my floating luxury hotel, poor people of the world!  I remember getting of the ship in Cartegena, Colombia and taking a bus to a local church, which was a tourist destination.  The bus was clean and beautiful and air-conditioned, and we must have looked like aliens as we ascended a hill through a town made literally of corrugated sheets of steel and planks.  The place looked like District 9.  And then, at the top of the hill… a church, the inside of which was covered entirely in gold.

Now, to be fair, Cartegena is a very big place and every city has its downtrodden areas.  But the juxtaposition of our giant luxury ship and this shanty town just embarrassed me, made me feel ashamed that I come to these places in an air-conditioned bus for just a moment, see their church, and then I’m gone.  And what else do I know about Cartegena?  Absolutely nothing.

And so it did not surprise me when a cruise ship visited Haiti after that devastating earthquake.  Haiti’s seen as a ‘private beach’ day.  Which is to say there isn’t even a little fake town to visit.  The cruise line doesn’t even pretend to be visiting Haiti.  They list that day as a ‘private island’ day, and taking in the local culture isn’t even presented as an option.  Instead the cruise line has beautified an already-gorgeous beach it owns, and surrounded it with fences (and in this case, armed guards) to keep the locals out.  We wouldn’t want any locals getting in, after all.  They built bars on the beach, hired a few locals to wait tables (or have the ship’s waitstaff pull double-duty to serve drinks on the beach in some occasions), and built a series of wood huts behind the beach, where a hand-picked group of locals can come to sell small wooden trinkets.  These trinkets are identical and available on many islands. Wood masks, wood statues.  They seem to be mass-produced and distributed throughout the Caribbean.

But this is really what cruising is all about: blinding yourself to the places you’re visiting.  “Oh, we’re going to Aruba today?  I can’t wait to see what it’s like there.  Oh, look, a beautiful main street covered in pastel buildings, all of them selling high-end jewelry, dotted with stores from Ralph Lauren and Hermes!  Aruba sure is a beautiful, luxurious place!”  And then… back on the boat, never to give it a second thought.  When you get home you tell people you went to Aruba, and it was beautiful and show them the bracelet you bought.  It’s easy to see how visiting Haiti would, for many cruisers, be the exact same thing.  “Haiti is just gorgeous.  It’s this big, beautiful beach with locals selling wood masks and theses adorable drinks served in a coconut, and everyone has a jetski.  Earthquake?  What earthquake?”

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