Cruises, Destination and the Authentic

Do travelers cruise?

Do travelers cruise?

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.

The Perspective

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.

The Annoyances

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.

Getting in touch with the open ocean

Getting in touch with the open ocean

The Difference

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.

The Realization

Ocean, Sky and You

Ocean, Sky and You

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.

Land-lovers beware

Land-lovers beware

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?

The Authentic

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.

The Point

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.

A Backpacker's Guide to Cruises

For some, this title is ironic, polarizing, an oxy moron, a moot point. Backpackers don't cruise, are you kidding me? Gasp - cough - lean against a wall in disbelief... I think backpacking is a mindset as well as an art form exhibited in the travel arena. What happens if Grammy wants the whole family to sail together to the Caribbean? And how about a reunion with your best friends from college? Sometimes it really is just about enjoying yourself and traveling conveniently, and instead of wasting energy debating the gross consumerism and inauthenticity of commercial, mass travel, why not go along for the ride - just as you would on the top of an Indian bus.

Ship Knowledge

The ship's bow

The ship's bow

Quickly, here's your ship direction guide:

The bow is the front. The stern (or aft) is the back. Port is the left-hand side. Starboard is the right-hand side.

To remember this, port and left both have four letters while you point to the stars with your right hand.

As soon as you embark, get a lay of the ship - just as you would seize the town upon setting your bags by your new dorm bed. Ask the crew where you can find whatever's important to you: a relaxed bar atmosphere, the least crowded pool, the coolest free stuff to do on board, and more.

If you get seasick, go to the stern to the lowest level possible and try to stay outside in the fresh air. If you take dramamine, prepare for the subsequent, 2-hour nap. Stay hydrated, and bring packets of lemonade or drink mix if you don't like chlorinated tap water.

Click with the Crew

Cruise ship crew

Cruise ship crew

Even if your ship is a Cialis commercial, don't forget that there are hundreds of people on board who see the world the same way you do. Those would be the crew members - people who have figured out how to travel and make money simultaneously. They work (more or less) ten hour days, seven days a week, and when someone interacts with them that doesn't fit the mold of the cruise-afficionado, it's a breath of fresh air they stick around to relish in.

I had long talks with the spa workers, the waiters, the bartenders - they all enjoy engaging in conversations that don't involve pool towels and premium wine tastings. These are the people who will tell you what to do in port and where to find the best value food/internet/just about anything.


Get your sherpa on!

Get your sherpa on!

As this is a backpacker's guide, be sure to bring your ...backpack. Don't think just because you're following the crowd that you should pack like them also. Wearing a backpack will make it easy to carry on your own luggage and not have to drop it on the terminal and wait for its arrival later. Plus, collapsible luggage can fit under your bed.

Remember there's a laundromat aboard. You don't have to pack seven of everything for a week trip. You also have free shampoo and a clothesline in the shower. Pull out your hostel skills and wash your delicates in the sink. Did you know shampoo is quite alright for washing cotton clothes (and probably others)?

What to bring:

Note: This packing list is optimal for a week in a hot climate.

Cruise Footwear

Cruise Footwear

Footwear: sneakers for the gym, walking in port, and around the slippery deck and sandals that work going to the pool and to dinner

Cruise ship attire: one pair of comfy pants (that can hopefully pass as dressy), one pair of shorts (exercise-friendly), a bathing suit, 2 - 4 t-shirts (some classier than others), a sweatshirt, one nicer outfit that doesn't wrinkle too much(if you're traveling with grandparents or a pinkies-up crowd)

Undergarments: 2 - 4 pairs of underwear (wash in sink or laundromat), 2 pairs of socks, and you ladies can figure out your own bra situation

Other essentials: a scarf/colorful pashmina if you're a lady, antibiotics and cipro for traveler maladies from the port, laptop (for media storage or if you like paying $.50 per wireless minute), a bottle of wine (that's all you're allowed as a cruise passenger), a cover-up and/or sarong, and all the obvious items like cameras and a toothbrush

Traveling in Port

Preparing for Flight

Preparing for Flight

This will be one of the most aggravating aspects of cruise travel for the natural vagabond. Be prepared that you'll only be spending roughly five hours more or less in your cruise destinations. Here's how to maximize your time on land:

1. Do your research before you sail. Get familiar with the layout of the city and figure out the one thing you'd like to do in the port city.

2. Read the newsletter delivered to your room the night before a port. Note the sunrise time (wake up for all sunrises!) and when people can begin disembarking the ship. If there is a tender (a smaller boat that takes people from the ship to shore), listen to announcements and get in line early for one of the first boatloads. Tenders take longer.

3. If you want to pay more for convenience, go with a cruise-sponsored trip, but if you're sticking to your backpacker guns, know there are plenty of salesmen past the gangway willing to haggle and offer the same trip. It will probably be cheaper, but you may have to lean on them a tad for making it back in time to the ship.

Find the real city

Find the real city

4. Find the main area of town where they funnel cruise-goers and keep walking a few blocks until you find the real city.

5. Don't buy liquor and expect access to it on the ship. They will package it for your final night to avoid losing out on alcohol sales at sea. Research other contraband in order to avoid losing anything you purchase as well.

6. The less baggage you have in port, the fast you can get through the line to get back on the ship.

7. If you have to tender, get in line 75 minutes before the ship embarks just in case the line is huge. If the ship is docked, line up a half hour or more prior.

Avoiding Extra Costs

Cruises today range from tens of thousands per voyage to incredibly affordable [considering the included service, transportation, lodging, food, and amenities offered for free]. I'm frankly amazed that for almost $100 a day my trip was actually possible.

Lots to Oggle

Lots to Oggle

This is only the upfront cost, but if you follow the road rules of the backpacking type, it's possible to exercise, eat constantly, witness comics and flamboyant performances, learn from pros and entertain yourself for days for no extra charge (unless you can't resist a frosty brew).

Aside from gratuities for your cabin steward, one could avoid the ship charges altogether! But we all know that's not the point of a cruise.

Why Cruise?

I can see only a few reasons why a backpacker would travel on a cruise: a family trip, a reunion or trip with a group of people, or pure pampering in an all-inclusive setting.

For these trips, a cruise is an incredible way to travel, but since backpackers are often about roughing it, immersing themselves in the destination, paying pennies, and moving solo/in pairs, it doesn't always make sense to float on the ocean with 3,000 other people your parents' age.

Getting in touch with the open ocean

Getting in touch with the open ocean

Here's what some backpackers said about cruises...

@nomadicmatt: Cruises aren't really a backpacker thing but in their own right can be a fun time. I've been on a few. lots of food!

@heyitsbryan: not my fave

@mattyingram: cruises make me feel like I'm in a straightjacket, listening to ABBA, watching someone on a treadmill. I need to breathe! [I don't like having limited time in ports] you do get to see more places without moving...but thats part of the fun, the crazy places you stay and crazies you meet. It constantly changes, and you have freedom to move.

@thetravelbee: Well, I'd like to take one, it sounds like fun! I have never been on one.

One thing that is sure to upset the backpacker majority is that the schedule port cities aren't really the "destinations" of the voyage. For many on board, it's not about the land but being at sea with all the amenities and excitement. I was in shock when people chose not to get off the ship in Mexico, blaming the weather or schedule engagements on the ship, but one can't get too obsessed with this.

Yes, for the backpacker, it is about the journey, just as much if not more, than about the destination. When the journey is too easy and the destination isn't enjoyed, what's the trip all about?

Getting away from "it all"

Did this guide help you? Have you had any personal experiences with cruises in the recent past? Do tell.

Reflections at Sea

Cruise, Sunset, Laptop, Travel

Blues and smog and a golden quarter sink Toward the smell of sewage and marine life amidst hopes of notoriety and fame The cobalt supports a sea of turquoise with dreams As lofty as their shoulder pads But what professions result from a demand from salt and pepper Are those that justify radical dreams of nomadic existences Cargo and sailers and whales blowing exclamations I see the entire sky tinted with the brown Of us, the creation of our products and needs From which we all escape for a moment of starboard sliding These currents cannot budge our dreams for which we overpaid But did we? In another time this may be so However the disappointment of commerce leads people like Myself to revel in the luxuries of the older I am among the wine-sipping, cigar-pulling, tequila-thirsty cougars and leather skins We're all out to experience something odyssey-esque Getting in touch with the 70% we know nothing about Shivering in the surprising chill of the world's wind Taking part in the pleasure of the extravagance

Catalina had golf carts and primary colors and jagged-toothed ferns From my most recent memories, and not the best ones at that Where I retched on the catamaran and cringed at neighbor's declarations And time again lapses to bring the cobalt to my retinas In a more succulent way, this time Where I can utilize every plane of reflected light from the tainted sunset Something makes me believe the homogenous quilt before me Is interrupted by body masses wider than cars And more magnificent than than combined human will can summon.