by Paul Ross
A vacation on a large cruise ship is a lot of things: convenient, easy, hassle-free (unpack once!), planned and scheduled, largely affordable, entertaining and unchallenging. You’ll know when, where, with whom and pretty much what you’re going to eat, who won the knobby-knees contest at the aft deck pool between the disco and life raft station zebra and exactly how long the “endless night soiree” will last. What’s not to like? At times, and on specially-themed outings, there are even opportunities to learn something. But, mostly, there is relaxation--especially during those long “days at sea.” Yes, vacation cruising can be many things. But it is not travel.
Travel can include difficulty, surprise, expense (both monetary and personal), challenge and always a chance of the unknown, which necessitates awareness. There are “lessons” aplenty but they’re rarely pre-digested and aren’t spoon-fed. You not only learn about the places and people you visit, but also about yourself.
You’ll have to find eateries on your own and they may be native and weird. Or, as an adult, you might even enjoy a brand new taste sensation. There may be a schedule--which can vanish in the instant it takes to get a blown out tire, be caught in a storm, or meet an unexpected situation or person of interest. Cruising is Disneyland afloat. Travel is what happens behind the scenes, beyond the gates and out in the world. The challenge is real but so are the adventures, discoveries, revelations and delights.
But what about those times off the boat—the infamous (and costly) shore excursions? When you hit an exotic port of call? There are locals all around the dock, lots of crafts to buy and tours that deliver an indigenous experience. Wrong. It’s all a show; a modern variation of “blacking up” for a minstrel performance. And many’s the vacationer who’s returned home and found “China” stamped on the bottom of the authentic spirit ashtray.
When 3,000 people disembark to “discover” a town of 200: it is not genuine, it’s an invasion. And how in hell can you have “a day at leisure” when--the entire time--you’re on the clock!?
You can come back from a cruise with the same photos as at least 800 of your fellow passengers, a tan, 7-14 more pounds (on average, for an 8-day trip) and the most dreaded single word that anyone can reply to the inevitable question: (How was it?) “Nice.”
But, with travel, you can truly create memories that will last a lifetime, unique and personal experiences, and surprising adventures spanning the gap from absolutely frightening to glorious beyond words. Artists and statesmen are born of travel. Cruising makes consumers.
There may be exceptions. I can think of one possibility.
On one of the cruises that I’ve taken, I was given a tour of the onboard medical facilities by the ship’s doctor. There was a fully-equipped surgery, linked by satellite to specialists all over the globe, and a spacious recovery suite that’d be the envy of any big city hospital.
I asked the doctor if passage was ever refused to anyone on the basis of his or her health history. The answer was no, but then he went on to elaborate that occasionally terminally ill customers have booked the recovery suite, and the entire floor for their families and a supporting staff of doctors and attendant nurses, for an around-the-world cruise, the patient knowing that the journey would not be completed.
My first reaction was to scoff. But then I thought, “What’s better?—Finishing out your days in a hospital, looking out at the same thing, or gazing through a porthole watching the world go by?”
Luckily, I’m not currently compelled to ponder the idea further. For now, I wouldn’t be caught dead on a cruise ship, but near it might be a different story.
-Paul Ross is a Santa Fe-based photographer and writer. He has more ashore at www.globaladventure.us.