Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production

Vol.24.8: VOYAGES TO NOWHERE

V024-08_walMartSeasWAs with so many other areas of contemporary social life, cruising has evolved into a niche industry .   The experience one might have, or one might be inclined to have, aboard a cruise ship, can vary greatly.   There are cruises for younger people who like to dance and party into the wee hours of the morning, cruises for senior citizens (perhaps the fattest part of the market, although such cruises are not marketed specifically for oldies).   There are Disney cruises for kids, cruises for eco-travelers, jazz cruises, cruises for gays and lesbians (not together though), New Age spiritualists, even nudists.   Cruising has gone the way of TV, the movies, popular music, and most other dimensions of life where the market and bean-counters hold the reigns of popular taste.

 

There was a time before cruising, when ships were used for transportation that actually wentsomewhere.   It was also a time when people of different social classes sailed in the same ship.   Typically they were segregated by social class, or economic status, and confined to their separate parts of the ship designated for their respective class of service.   Remember Jack, from steerage class aboard the movie version of Titanic ?   But at least in the film the differences sparked the possibility of some drama and adventure from the very contrasts of the ship’s passengers.   The social homogeneity of the niche cruiseship is a recipe for boredom.

 

This is perhaps why the cruise industry is afraid you might have a moment to figure that out. As much as it might seem to contradict the popular impression about cruising, these ships are probably the last place one should go for a little peace and quiet.   Any ship creates plenty of ambient noise: the thrum of the engines, the hiss of the waves against the hull, the unencumbered wind whistling through the open decks.   But the interior of a cruise ship is a cacophony of intrusive racket that either reflects or encourages the sort of frenetic activity that ‘cruisers’ feel compelled to engage in to “get their money’s worth,” and to convince themselves that they are indeed having “the time of their lives,” as the brochure promised.   Just to make sure that nobody misses a chance at some activity in its micro-managed environment, almost constant public address announcements remind the cruiser that “the Bingo jackpot is up to $2,500,” that the “Cocktail of the Day” (usually with some stupid name like a “Fuzzy Navel” or “Bermuda Bombshell”) is being served in the Shangri-La Bar on Deck 9, that all T-shirts and sweatshirts are half-price today in the Boutique, the bridge tournament is about to begin in the game room, that we shouldn’t miss tonight’s Las Vegas-style Show in the Flotsam Forum, or meet with the coordinators for the passenger talent show.

 

The deck with the ship’s casino is awash in the plinking, bonging, and bleeping sounds of the various swindle machines, and the clanking of chips being won, and mostly lost.   A large cruise ship also has several bars and lounges, which, if they do not have “live” music, will have “dead” music that is piped in over the public address system between activity announcements.   “Dead” music is also piped into hallways, public areas, elevators, game rooms, and restrooms.   There is almost no escape from the droning elevator music or “proszacian” New Age monotony.

 

Added to this is, particularly on the newer generation of “megaships,” the visual assault of neon, garish lighting reflected in mirrors, complete with legions of intrusive waiters and waitresses roving every deck in search of customers and tips.   In addition to the floorshows and movie theater, there are televisions in most of the bars, and also in each cabin where one can view other films, or video tapes of port lectures and excursions.   There is even a channel for those who prefer to remain hermetically sealed off from the environment they are traveling in.   It consists of a camera that is focused on the ship’s bows and the horizon.

 

Contrary to the nostalgic image of passengers snoozing in lounge chairs, contemplating the horizon for hours at a time, and taking leisurely walks on the promenade (as opposed to power-walking and jogging in spandex workout gear), the contemporary cruise ship is a perverse form of conveyance that regards even a millisecond in which one might have a contemplative thought, or engage in unorganized activity, as a felony against the hospitality industry, or a signal of incipient mutiny.

 

In most cases cruising is not really “travel,” but a packaged experience that almost incidentally involves “destinations,” or ports of call.   Increasingly, the industry that provides these “packages” has come to the conclusion that destinations can be made less and less important to their clientele.   The ship itself, particularly the “megaship,” can itself become the “destination.”   After all, cruising is a business, and if cruise lines can get their passengers to spend more of their money on board rather than in those shops in port, well then, all the happier are the stockholders.   And so the cruise ship, being built to ever larger sizes, has become a fusion of those two most salient features of American economic and recreational life—the shopping mall and the theme park, wrapped in the garish taste and décor of Las Vegas.

 

For all the frenetic fun that supposedly happens aboard cruise ships one wonders if anything of existential significance happened to anyone aboard.   It seems that a sea voyage should have some life-altering, even if not terribly significant, result.   I wonder how many love affairs were born and died during the two weeks aboard.   One cruise line regularly sends me its newsletter, which always contains an item about some happily-married couple that first met aboard one of their ships (often they were widowed or divorced at the time).

 

Has cruising become so cheapened by its over-use—some of those aboard had been on dozens of cruises, many times on the same itinerary—that there was nothing left for discovery, nothing new, or renewing?   One of the famous cruise ship films was An Affair to Remember , but if it’s your 43rd cruise, one might be lucky to remember the count, much less what happened, unless it was that time you got an upgrade to a cabin on a higher deck.

 

In the final analysis, unlike a voyage , a cruise comes to an end not, as a true journey does, with arrival at a new destination, but takes you back to where you started.   It’s a journey where you really haven’t been anywhere and “getting there” isn’t half the fun ; now it’sdesigned to be all of the fun .

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©2005, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 9.26.2005)

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