I have very mixed emotions about cruise travel. There's the old side of me that remembers fantastic family vacations at resorts and on cruises, memories caked with the residue of absolute joy. And there's the new side, the backpacker side, which silently writhes and struggles in the wake of "money travel" and the foreign concept of the land not being of much interest.
Freshly disembarked from the Sapphire Princess in L.A., I will begin by saying there were great meals, belly laughs, excellent massages and very friendly crew members from whom I reaped beneficial information and fun stories.
Even though I traveled with my parents, an often rocky experience in the past decade of vacationing, the cruise atmosphere made it incredibly easy to enjoy a day without the stress and difficulty of decisions. I'm very glad I got on board for this trip.
There are certain aspects of cruise ships that strike a backpacker as unsavory, commercial and completely unauthentic. What was once a battle against man and every ounce of mother nature is now a floating casino and spa with absolutely no thought to the nautical experience (aside from the slight inconvenience of the ship's roll and maintaining balance in the shower).
The term "cruise director" is synonymous with a lacquered, cheesy grin and a clipboard listing about 70 daily activities, many of which you would never consider if not marooned at sea.
Within the open ocean is a sea of 60-40 couples, incredibly perky cougars on the prowl, families with seven year-old twins and recent divorcees taking back their lives, not to mention a slew of Rascals scooting about. Of course, every cruise liner caters to a different demographic, which accounts for the vast differences among the commercial cruising fleets, but what they all share is the sense of ease that, in the mind of a "bare-bones" traveler, strips the so-called adventure down to physical displacement and cognitive retirement, which is in many cases the whole point.
Not all water travel is cruise travel, however.
Many land-lovers refer to Semester at Sea as a "glorified booze cruise," a term which would never be used to sum up the voyage by an actual participant in the program.
Aside from the fact that drinking is forcefully limited, it's an experience of measuring the Earth's waistband and the notches in between, a chance to see how small the world really is and how connected we land mammals actually are to each other.
It's one with a solid emphasis on the nautical experience, which cannot be ignored when the smaller MV Explorer sends alarm clocks and water bottles flying around cabins with an extreme roll.
It's a shared journey with about 700 other college kids, and even though some of them are unfortunately disconnected to the concepts of self-awareness and cultural acceptance, one can discover amazing insights on board from fellow travelers hoping to be moved by all that movement.
Every week, thousands of new suitcase-luggers board cruise ships for a trip made so often the water highways display hull marks. These are no new trails being blazed.
And it's rarely the destination that makes the difference on these journeys. In fact, the cruise is the reason why people board, not the fact that the ship ports every other day for four hours in Mexico.
But does anyone really still believe in this "off the beaten path" business? There's virtually no land or odyssey undone after these hundreds of thousands of years of human existence, and in the last millennium, such journeys have been documented in detail by the first eyes, the most enlightened eyes, the most knowledgeable eyes, and the newcomer's eyes that relates to the common denominator.
And if you are somewhere no one else has been, chances are you're not going to make it back.
Tour companies boast trips that take paying customers into the unknown - along with twenty other strangers who all have the similar delusion. There are the locations and transportation methods that the majority frequent and utilize, and there are those that self-proclaimed travelers justify as less common and, therefore, enviably adventurous.
Voyages begin every hour of the day that press the boundaries of previous limitations, and what once was a trail blazing experience will soon, if it hasn't already, become a valiant attempt at something potentially more extraordinary.
The Lingering Question
Water travel enabled civilization to spread, discoveries to occur and still manages to remain the most "green" method of mass, extended travel today, and somewhere in this evolution of usage, cruises became the bearers of romance novels, geriatric shoes and illegitimacy as a means to discover the world and the self.
Is it because we backpackers envy and despise those with money to spend without readjusting life plans?
Are we hurt by the devolution of water travel to its Disneyland appeal?
Or do we believe we must bleed for our passionate pursuit of world exposure?
I take a morsel of offense to the approach of the "authentic" often exercised by cruise-goers or unaware travelers. Tourism sustains an incredible amount of countries' economies, and I have to assume a massive proportion of this help comes from the cruise culture in ports of call.
Coastal cities with active harbors have many similarities: overpriced day tours, suave salesmen hanging out by the docks, boardwalks or shop-lined thoroughfares to facilitate the flow of traffic towards the art galleries and jewelers abroad, and manufactured local culture [where blocks away people continue to live their true lives].
To sail away from a port believing the nice man who sold you authentic tequila or Mayan-inspired jewelry was your connection with something real and authentic from that country would be to rob you of the opportunity to see past the cruise port facade and notice the way that man actually lives, the way he views his life and culture.
Authenticity. Who seeks this, and is it possible that there are those who really don't want to find it? Is this what separates the self-proclaimed traveler from the ones who take vacations or [dare I mention the ever-present debate of] tourists?
We meet multi-cultural resort and cruise workers and feel worldly for interacting in a melting pot, but to what extent have we flexed to meet their alterations of personal culture?
Is the point of a cruise the ease and only the ease, and if so, is the cruise destination the cruise itself? If so, I'm not sure I like that.