Saturday, April 3, 2010
The Cruising Life: 2010 Edition
I could end up writing the same post, or series of posts, every year at this time. Indeed, that's probably exactly what I've done minus the little details which differentiate one cruise from the next. And I guess that's the lesson in a nutshell, at least for me: the larger phenomenon of cruising, of vacationing on a ship as opposed to other vacation modes I've experienced, trumps the internationalism of the rest of the trip and all the little cultural details.
This is our fifth cruise, all of which have been on Holland America. We've hitherto always cruised during Susan's winter break in January, and this year had to pick a different time due to other scheduling conflicts. But we realized in our choosing process that where the ship went wasn't really TOO important. Hence, we ended up on an Eastern Caribbean cruise, which is what we took a little over a year ago. But that was a ten-day cruise and this one was seven. And the two cruises have only two days in common: a day in St. Thomas and a day spent at Holland America's private Bahamian island, Half Moon Cay. The other stops on this year's cruise are Grand Turk in Turks and Caicos, and San Juan. I've flown in and out of San Juan a number of times for work, but not in the past six or seven years, and Susan has never been there. The cruise comes and goes from Ft. Lauderdale, and we begin with a day at sea, arriving at our first port of call on the morning of the cruise's third day.
(I offer a summary apology for worse-than-usual pictures in all these posts. I found at the end of each day's doings I had failed to get pictures of much of anything that would immortalize our cruise. Maybe I was having too good a time to remember to take pictures.)
Day Three: We got up about 7:30 and the boat was just being docked at Grand Turk, capitol of the Turks & Caicos islands. We had breakfast up on the Lido while we waited for the ship to be cleared to disembark its passengers. The previous night I had talked a bit with a staffer in the library about what to expect on Grand Turk, and about whether we should plan to take a taxi to any other parts of the island. "There's really nothing to see there, nothing to do except sit on the beach," she said. I asked if there were anything in town to see, and she winced a bit dismissively and said "No, there's really nothing there." Nonetheless we decided to take a taxi for a tour of the seven-mile-long island, not least because six and a half hours were considerably more than was needed to sit on the beach (which was immediately adjacent to the cruise ship pier). But also, it seemed like--as with so many of these island destinations--the area around the cruise ship dock was new and specifically tailored to appeal to the shopping-happy tourist. All these places have the same big-chain stores: Diamonds International, Ron Jon Surf Shop, Jimmy Buffett's Margaritaville, etc. And there's always jewelry places and at least one store specializing in high-end watches.
I find this makes me a little sour. The money needed to put up and stock and run these shops is well in excess of what anyone in the local economies is likely to have available, so it's always foreign money putting up the swanky shops--and foreign entities taking in the profits from the ventures (minus some tax revenue and the pittance paid to the local workers). And, of course, the shops have nothing whatsoever to do with the places one is visiting--beyond what an expensive big-city ad agency tells us is "the island experience"--so that the very essence of the travel experience is seriously diluted. I appreciate that the cruise lines are bowing to conflicting gods here: the cruisers need to be kept safe and protected from a too-authentic experience (more adventurous travelers would likely not be cruising in the first place); doubtless without these developments the cruisers would be less likely to get off the ship--and to complain about the destination in the first place. And indeed there is already a sense that Grand Turk is a dubious cruise ship destination. But on the other hand, what's the point of traveling only to see the expected things? I can hear the rebuttal that the Caribbean is firstly all about the turquoise waters and the white sand and the sun. Fair enough. (An aside: I grew up in Brainerd, Minnesota, about two hours north of the Minneapolis / St. Paul metro area. And the area was a summer vacation hotspot for the Cities folks, many of them owning summer cabins there. But we used to marvel at how all the expected comforts of the metro area--Targets and Wal-Marts and Starbucks and Loewe's and Menard's--were relentlessly stripping the area of the very charms that made people leave the Cities to visit! People were dying to flee the congestion and commercialization of the city, only to demand once they arrived at their destination all the things they were fleeing back home. Now Brainerd feels much like a suburb of Minneapolis. Such is progress, I guess.)
Anyway, we walked swiftly through the shopping complex to the taxi stand and hired a driver to give us the nickel tour of the island (all 7 X 1.5 miles of it). He was at first a bit reluctant, presumably since it would mean giving up whatever other fares he would get, but we agreed to pay his fare and to allow him to fill the cab for the first ride into town--thus giving him a double-dip. (Unfortunately, pretty much everything we saw was from the window of the car--a Chrysler minivan with non-opening windows--so I have no pictures of the tour.) Later he told us that the cruise ship bringing 2,000 new people every day to an island with only 6,000 permanent inhabitants is a decidedly mixed blessing; it certainly brings some dollars to a poor economy, but again, many of those dollars never leave the cruise ship shopping complex. But he was also clearly disappointed that so few people desired to leave the complex and see anything of the small island. He thus was glad to have people in his cab who wanted to know about his island home.
It's a charming place, but poor; and the island suffered a hurricane in 2008 that decimated everything, and from which they're still a long way from putting things right. It sounds like 80-90% of all buildings and houses sustained serious damage, and more than 50% were completely destroyed. The island is gradually rebuilding, but evidence of this storm is still everywhere. And there just isn't much money around to put toward the rebuilding effort. The island, while very small, is the country's capitol, and it sports a strange status. There is an elected premier, but the country (and the premier) is overseen by a Governor who is appointed by the English Queen. And yet the country uses American money as its standard currency!
Driving is done on the left side of the road (as befits its British heritage), but with mostly American cars (with steering wheels on the wrong side), which is a further twist to something which my mind already struggles to develop an intuition about. (I can imagine that having the steering wheel on the wrong side would be a continuous reminder that I needed to be on my guard; asking me to drive my regular car on the wrong side of the road would surely invite trouble.) Our tour took about 90 minutes, and we went past the airport (there are no international flights currently; one must ride a small airplane to an adjacent island and thence out to the US or other country to the South--and it's very expensive), a number of small official buildings and numerous houses. At the end of the island opposite to the cruise ship dock is an old light house to warn sailors of the many shoals off the island's Northern tip. The light house was built in England and disassembled and brought over by ship and reassembled in place in 1852. We stopped for a look there, and bought a diet coke from the little white booth which seemed very strange out there in the middle of nowhere. There used to be an admission charged to the grounds, but they stopped manning the ticket booth after tourism stopped following the hurricane. The $7 admission signs are still there, but we waltzed in for free. Looking out to sea from the lighthouse one can see massive waves breaking on numerous rocky shoals a mile or two out, making the lighthouse seem quite necessary.
A couple odd things. For years the island's main industry was salt-making, and remnants of this are still all around. Sea water was let in by a series of channels to ponds of various sizes scattered throughout the small town (which is called Cockburn Town), where it evaporated in the tropical sun and the salt collected. The industry closed down in the '60s, which means that the only way for most people on the island to make a living currently is to work for the government. In addition to the now oddly incongruous channels, another offshoot of the old salt industry is a large collection of donkeys and horses on the island, animals previously used to harvest the salt and move it around. They were kept in corrals for years after the industry closed, but since the hurricane they have been allowed to roam the island and forage for grazing (our driver said there was no money to feed them). And so one must always be alert for the four-hoofed creatures everywhere one drives.
So it's the same story we've seen elsewhere: the island is poor, and the cruise ships are a way of bringing people and attention and needed funds to a poor place. But the ships would not visit without the island making a bargain with the cruise line and its preferred vendors (which, for all I know, are owned by the cruise ship company itself). And so some money comes in, but much less than if the locals were allowed to provide more of the goods and services, and in exchange for that there are a bunch of semi-interested tourists who come and go each day from this tiny place.
Next up: San Juan.