The Ethics of Cruising

IMG_1063Last night—or afternoon, really, if we’re going by local time—I arrived back in the United States after spending a week in Norway and Denmark. I’ve become enamored with Europe these last few years, most specifically with southwest France, but have really wanted to get to Scandinavia, too, so when my cousin asked me if I wanted to join her on the inaugural voyage of the Disney Magic through the Norwegian Fjords, I had to go.

But yeah, that’s right. I was on a Disney cruise.

All things Disney aside (I admit to being a cautious believer in the magic of Disney, inexplicably drawn to it and yet highly suspicious and often critical of its privileged contradictions at the same time), cruising is a very sanitized way to experience foreign countries and cultures. Seeing Norway through the lens of ten-hour stops at various ports was different than seeing the Caribbean this way—something I did at age 15 and only years later understood the significance of—but to a certain extent, the culture still comes to you, pre-packaged and simplified: buy a moose-themed souvenir or maybe something with Anna and Elsa on it, eat your Norwegian waffle, then head back to the boat for 24-hour Disney movies on the stateroom television, three- and four-course dinners (with double dessert if you so desire, which I admit to indulging in one night), and Broadway-style shows about how everything is possible if you believe in the power of your dreams.

Before I left, I tried to learn a bit of Norwegian. Up until now, my international travel has consisted entirely of visiting countries where I speak enough of the language to get by (so, France) or countries where I’m with someone who speaks the language, but a month ago, neither my cousin nor I knew a single word of Norwegian. Unfortunately, though, the free online program I found did not cater to people who needed to learn key phrases in a short period of time. Case in point, my very first lesson taught me how to say “I am a woman” (“Jeg er en kvinne”) and “I am not a man” (“Jer er ikke en mann”). At least, I think those are the correct translations—strangely enough, there was never a situation where I had to say either thing. In fact, every single person we met in port spoke English.

Still, all of this together makes me a very self-conscious traveler. I try to blend wherever I go, though often my over-reliance on jeans (not even the skinny variety!) is sometimes a bit of a giveaway. Blending, though, means a lot of silence. While walking out in public, I prefer to communicate mainly through smiles and nods, and I often choose taking in a beautiful sight with my eyes rather than through my camera lens. I don’t want to be seen as that tourist, the one who comes, consumes, and leaves again without bothering to take the place on its own merits, to think about the place beyond what it offers the monetized traveler. The American exceptionalist who is happy to cherry pick the best a place has to offer, who doesn’t make even the smallest attempt at understanding. (To my mind, these are the same type of people as those who don’t know a single word of another language but who then complain about people who would dare to not speak English while on American soil.)

In a way, I guess that when I travel I grapple with the ethics of tourism and my own moments of failure. I struggle with the balance between experiencing and collecting. I worry about my own hypocritical need for the veil that makes me feel, even for a little bit, as if I am not an outsider. I want to see what it truly means to live a different way, and yet I still find myself drawn to the tourist hotspots and taking the guided tours (in English, of course). I’m happy for the comfort of familiar things while at the same time sad for the ways some places have adapted to keep me, the foreigner, the shortest of short-term visitors happy.

This won’t be the last cruise I take in my life. I’m sure of that. Unlike David Foster Wallace, I enjoy the overall experience of cruising, and I’d be lying if I said that seven nights of early June Norwegian weather doesn’t have me dreaming of the Caribbean for the next one. I liked the lull of the ship, and I like the plethora of already-planned activities just waiting for me (I attended a napkin folding class on this cruise, and also a tequila and margarita tasting), and the insane amounts of delicious food offered at every meal. I liked having no computer, no cell service, and very limited Internet. In a strange and perhaps shameful way, I liked that I could return to something familiar if I grew too overwhelmed by the difference of the great big world beyond the walls (I’m sure that’s not the correct technical term) of the ship. I liked seeing five new cities and two new countries in eight days. The cruise was great for what it was, flaws and all, but I think if I were ever to go back, I’d try to do it a different way.

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