Glacier Bay NP from a cruise ship. Photo by Michael Denning on Unsplash

My first time on a cruise ship was four years ago, and only for two non-consecutive nights. Before that, I had had ideas about cruise-vacations, most of them circling around the conviction that vacations like that were not to my taste. I’d fallen into a trap that I suppose we all do from time to time, that of forming a conviction about something that I hadn’t experienced firsthand and didn’t know much about. It was a conviction that was easy enough to sustain, because, after all, vacations on cruise ships don’t just happen to a person, and for all their deliberate ease, they still require more effort to orchestrate than just getting in the car and driving to a place. Plus, for a long time, they seemed expensive to me (no matter how many people told me they’d gotten a deal), and it was easier not to spend the money on them than to risk it.

So I had more or less determined that I’d never bother with a cruise.

On top of that, once I read David Foster Wallace’s essay, “Shipping Out: on the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise,” first published in Harper’s Magazine in 1996 and later, renamed, as the title essay in Wallace’s collection, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again (Little, Brown, and Co., 1997), I felt confirmed in my suspicion that cruises weren’t for the likes of me. In that essay, which he wrote on assignment for Harper’s, Wallace describes the experience in encyclopedic detail and is often funny, but the humor tends to come at the expense of everyone on the ship aside from Wallace himself, unless you think that his depiction of himself as an irreconcilable and hipper-than-thou outsider is funny. I suppose I did when I first read the essay, since, as I remember, I thought that his arch wit and overarching assertion that engaging in consumerism to combat existential despair was the unacknowledged tie binding all the passengers and employees in a desperate pantomime of fun was a form of truth-telling.

Perhaps time and experience have altered me (one can hope), but now I hear in Wallace’s ironies and pretensions the shadow of his own despair falling on the world he wrote about. And I’m not impressed with what sounds to me now like cruelty more than like meticulous observation of the idiosyncrasies of fellow human-creatures.

Portraying the rehearsal of a variety show featuring passengers’ talents, he writes of a group of old men practicing stand-up comedy,

What follow are four successive interchangeable routines where the manner and humor are like exhumed time capsules of the 1950s: jokes about how impossible it is to understand women, about how very much men want to play golf and how their wives try to keep them from playing golf, etc. The routines have the same kind of flamboyant unhipness that makes my own grandparents objects of my pity, awe, and embarrassment all at the same time. One of the senescent quartet refers to his appearance tomorrow night as a “gig.” (Harper’s 54).

Reading it now, it seems to me that Wallace was laughing at, not with, the people he observed on the cruise ship, and meanly. I would like to make peace with a younger version of myself who admired Wallace’s nerdy weltschmerz and move on — to a more open view of people and what they enjoy.

I’ve had time to rethink my own ideas about cruises.

Plus, without even having to do that much, I had the opportunity a few years ago to take an overnight cruise during a trip in Scandinavia. The cruise ship is a very reasonable way to combine lodging and transportation for passage from Sweden to Finland and Estonia, it turns out, so my partner and I booked a ship leaving Stockholm in the afternoon that would deposit us in Helsinki the following morning.

Anyone familiar with cruise vacations would’ve felt right at home with our “practical” cruise experience: after we boarded and found our stateroom, we ascended to the topmost open decks, where the mood was light with the spirit of embarkation. Along with hundreds of others, we got a beer and sat in the lavish sunshine of a Swedish summer afternoon watching the international flags whip in the breeze overhead as we pulled out of Stockholm. The view of Stockholm’s archipelago — a glacially formed array of something like 30,000 islands of various sizes, now renowned as a vacation destination — was worth the price of the cruise. It was all breeze and glassy water, green and rocky islands, boats and cottages and clear sky. When we’d soaked in enough to hold us for a while, we went in to explore the ship.

Huvudskär, Stockholm Archipelago. Photo by Hakan Tas on Unsplash

I’d had no idea what to expect, so I was surprised to find that I was on the seaworthy version of the Las Vegas strip. A casino, bars and lounges everywhere, pools and shows, and even shopping (duty-free). The dining room and its buffet were vast, enclosed most of the way around with windows. If you were patient, you could land a table with a blinding, sparkling view.

Later, long into the night, there was karaoke, which we stumbled on and couldn’t tear ourselves away from, so entertaining was it in its eclectic internationalism. Among the inevitable familiar pop songs in English sung by Swedes and Finns and Estonians mainly, but also by people from surprisingly far-flung places, there were Finnish and Swedish pop songs and even folk favorites. There was nothing cool about it, yet the whole scene elevated to sublimity in my mind because it seemed so clear that everyone was genuinely having fun. There wasn’t an air of competition, despite some sort of prize being offered, and at any given moment, some number of the people in the audience probably couldn’t understand what was being said by the emcee or sung by the participants, but everyone cheered and clapped, and people signed up eagerly to sing, and there was something gloriously fun about it all. I started to think that maybe I’d been unfair in dismissing cruises from consideration.

So, when my parents suggested that they’d like to take the whole family on a cruise to Alaska for their fiftieth anniversary, I thought, why not give it a try?

It seemed, if nothing else, like a nice way to have a family reunion and see a bit of Alaska at the same time. Alaska’s not close to anyone who lives in the lower 48, but having lived on the east coast most of my life, to me, it had always seemed almost insurmountably far away.

Funny how the things that seem to fall outside the scope of possibility for one person seem to another only like invitations to a challenge, or simply like normal, everyday life. That’s how I might phrase, in a nutshell, one of the takeaways of such a trip. For while I and a few thousand others comfortably lived like modern, urban Americans on a floating mall, bundling onto the promenade decks or debarking to gasp at such wonders as the Tongass Rainforest, the Mendenhall Glacier, Glacier Bay National Park, and College Fjord, indigenous Alaskans have lived in those places for thousands of years, and over time, people from other parts of the planet have been drawn to the very harshness and difficulty of life in these northern seas and tundras (admittedly, a great many were motivated by the incentive of finding a pot of gold).

Cow moose and calf. Photo by Stéphane Kirouac on Unsplash

These — to us — remote and wild and stunning landscapes, with their menacing and majestic wildlife and dramatic weather, are home to people who are much like us, who get takeout and play video games and binge-watch Stranger Things. Maybe the midnight visitor to the trashcan is a black bear instead of the raccoon who ransacks mine; the threat to watch for on the hiking trail is a cow-moose instead of a copperhead. These flashes of recognition that other people in other places are real seem, once we’ve experienced them, beyond ordinary and self-evident, but until we experience them, it is possible to believe that Middle Earth or Atlantis are as real as Antarctica or Ecuador. Travel helps to make the real world more real, more graspable, and that’s true even when the mode of transport is a colossal theme-park (assuming you get off the ship in the ports).

Before spending a week on such a ship, I would have thought that cruises took away the most valuable aspect of travel by controlling the traveler’s exposure to nearly everything that makes traveling such a potent shaker-up of perceptions, assumptions, and paradigms. As it turns out, though, you’d have to be pretty determined to succeed in turning a cruise into a hermetically sealed envelope of bubble-wrap. There are probably people who do. Those are probably the same people who move through their daily lives like that, oblivious by nature or design to the world around them. It takes all kinds, as they say — and that turns out to be one of the reasons that cruises, despite their “amenities” and lingering, simulated 20th-century European ethos, plunge us (oh, not literally, we fervently hope) into foreign waters.

Life on the ship itself is an undiscovered country.

For all its similarity to resorts and pleasure-domes the world over, it is never the same river twice (to steal an old adage). Travel’s companion piece to the confirmation of the reality of places we’ve never been is its foisting of other people upon us, every which-way. Living on a cruise ship for a week is a lot like visiting a small, walkable city: unlikely as it might seem, you start to see the same people in the hot tub and in the dining room and in the casino and out getting a beer in port. You strike up conversations; you exchange stories about the places on the globe you hail from. You listen carefully in order to understand content and tone through regional accents and dialects. You think things like, “wow, I would never have thought that someone from New Zealand would want to cruise the Alaskan coast.” You think about what it would be like to cross the Pacific on a ship and wake up one day off the coast of New Zealand. You imagine, for the first time, white nights in December, rounding Cape Horn. Your Australian table-mates regale you with stories of their globe-trotting — ”usually warmer places,” they say with a wink, “but you’ve got to see the glaciers while you can” — with a glacier visible through the window behind their chairs.

I’m not suggesting that traveling on cruise ships is exactly the same as hoofing it with a light pack across some unfamiliar land, staying in hostels and negotiating menus in unknown languages. Nor is it the intimate experience of nature or humanity you might have by tent-camping in Denali State Park or by living in an RV park for an entire season. But I’ve also not found it to be the soul-crushing wasteland of “Professional Smiles” and “hell is other people” encounters that Wallace meticulously described.

There are potential downsides to cruises that Wallace didn’t address.

For my part, I’m less dismayed by the marketing of a particular fantasy of “luxury” than I am by the behind-the-scenes ramifications of consumption: in 2019, it’s worth looking into the environmental impact of cruising, as well as such things as labor conditions onboard. It’s clear that such large ships carrying so many people must generate massive amounts of waste of all kinds, and we should care to know how responsibly that waste is handled. On that subject, news articles abound asserting the transgressions of the cruising industry (a recent one, for example). And when nearly every staff member on board a cruise ship is from the Philippines or Eastern Europe, except for the officers and entertainers, who are almost all white and Western European, from the UK, or from the U.S., it doesn’t take a particularly savvy observer to wonder about the hierarchies of pay, benefits, power, and living conditions and how closely those hew to hierarchies of class and ethnicity and gender.

These questions troubled me as I noted countries of origin on the nametags of servers and stewards; they troubled me as I spotted harbor seals and sea otters swimming among icebergs as the ship propelled us through the fjords of southeastern Alaska and alongside receding glaciers. I wrestled with them as I took in the astonishing beauty of this unfamiliar region, as I soaked up hours of presentations by the ship’s naturalist, a woman whose knowledge of the flora, fauna, and geology of Alaska was so encyclopedic and her offering of time and information so generous that she made me want to turn back time and be a naturalist when I grow up (all hail, Sandy!).

But just as I hadn’t known that the panhandle of Alaska was a rainforest or that Glacier Bay was covered by glaciers as recently as 1750, I hadn’t thought about the emissions or labor-standards on cruise ships before spending this week at sea.

The cruise was a learning experience for me in many ways, and that’s something that has to be factored in (however imprecisely) to any examination of tourism’s ramifications. Ultimately, although it’s never a bad thing to consider how your actions might have a positive or negative effect in the world, those who pin the responsibility for vetting cruise lines on the individual tourist looking to take a vacation rather than calling for governments around the world to levy and enforce environmental and labor standards on the cruise lines themselves are barking up the wrong tree.

Until a majority in the world agrees that the environment and working people are more worthy of protection than corporations are justified in doing anything for a profit, one person’s decision to avoid cruises will matter not at all. This is particularly evident when you note the proportion of oceangoing tonnage that cruise ships represent among global maritime traffic: according to the UN’s Conference on Trade and Development, in 2018, ferries and passenger ships made up just .3% of the world fleet by tonnage. This suggests that if you’re concerned about what cruise ships contribute to air and water pollution, or about what happens to ships when they’re retired from the fleet (see shipbreaking: it’s not pretty), you might consider the possibility that ordering from Amazon and using petroleum fuels are activities that, in aggregate, drive the other 99.7% of the world shipping industry, and thus, by comparison, taking a cruise is fairly low-impact.

Living in the world is always a balancing act, if one cares to think about it, of sustaining one’s own life at the expense of other lives.

As the ship pivoted slowly in College Fjord to allow passengers on all sides to view Harvard Glacier unobstructed, we snapped pictures of seagulls and tried to catch sight of the brief spouts of vapor that humpback whales exhale, hoping to see one breach. And we — at least some of us — wondered what our presence would do to the animals, the water, the ice, and the air. These experiences that make us more aware of the beings around us and help us perceive how intricately our lives are interrelated and interdependent seem to me to be invaluable, even though there’s no guarantee that everyone who boards a cruise ship will disembark with a newfound passion for environmental activism or become an advocate for humane labor practices. We can’t save the world by acting individually, but we have a shot at it by acting together, by voting for representatives who legislate and enforce what our consciences dictate. If travel — by any means — sparks in thousands of individual consciences the conviction that other lives deserve our care and require us to advocate for them, then perhaps its influence can offset the damage it causes.

Copyright © 2019 Jennifer Brown. All rights reserved.