The cruise cocoon

A guest lecturer on a luxury Aegean voyage asks: Is this any way to see the world?

Published December 8, 1998 8:00PM (EST)

So there I was, comfortably settled on the deck chair, the sun suffusing me with warmth, the glistening Aegean surrounding me, a book in hand, ready to be read, but no real urgency to do so. Yes, almost perfect. Then, a tap at my shoulder, "Excuse me, I don't mean to interrupt, but could you tell me about the ancient Minoans? It says in my guidebook that they all perished in 1750 B.C., but you said in your lecture that it happened in 1400. So which is it?"

Not the kind of question you really want to answer on a beautiful day of cruising on a gorgeous 175-foot yacht from Santorini to Crete. Not really the kind of question I wanted to answer just then, and not really an interesting answer. But then again, I was there to answer questions like this and dozens of other more obscure, less obscure, silly, smart, banal. I was on this yacht not because I'd won a prize, and certainly not because I'd paid $7,000 for this privilege -- excluding airfare, plus a $1,000 premium for single-occupancy. I wasn't there to work on my tan, or to stare deeply into the lolling waves and allow myself that delicious mesmerizing sensation of time ceasing and life passing hypnotically as the moment evaporates on the surf, as your very being gets drawn into the white foam, and you can almost picture yourself as some ancient mariner, pre-Coleridge, voyaging God knows where for who knows how long, like some Odysseus on a trip that will hopefully take somewhat less than the requisite 10 years, seduced by the waves ... "Excuse me, but could you tell me some more about the Colossus at Rhodes?"

And why shouldn't they ask? They had paid good money. They had traveled halfway around the world, promised in their glossy brochures that they would spend a luxurious week and a half aboard a world-class private yacht with world-class facilities, state-of-the-art navigation equipment, superb international cuisine, gracious staff, guided tours of some of the most magnificent ruins of antiquity, several days in Athens and then Istanbul, excursions to idyllic islands and exquisite coastline -- and me. Well, not me, precisely. Rather, a "guest lecturer," who happened to be me.

At first, it seemed like the ideal arrangement. All expenses paid. Luxury accommodations. A chance to revisit some of my favorite spots on the planet. Three or four formal lectures and an opportunity to relax a bit at the end of a busy summer. My friends rolled their eyes every time I mentioned it. "I don't want to hear about it!" one said. "Oh, you!" was all another could muster. "How? All I want to know is how?" asked one person. "You don't know anything about antiquity or the Aegean! You're, you're ... a writer!" she said indignantly and stormed off during a party.

Fair enough, though not really accurate. I did know something about the region and its history, but I couldn't argue the impression that the whole thing seemed, well, like the ultimate free lunch.

It wasn't. Boy, was it not.

To begin with, there's this newly burgeoning world of tourism, the cruise industry.
In the past decade, the cruise industry has left the Love Boat in its wake,
and today, thousands of Americans who otherwise might be driving that
Winnebago through Yosemite are instead traveling the world by ship. New liners
are being built and launched each year, and they sail to the four
corners of the earth. The cruise industry is expected to grow by an
astonishing 35 percent a year for the coming years.

At first glance, why not?
Cruise ships take much of the hassle out of travel. You don't have to worry
about hotels and restaurants, about renting a car or making reservations,
about navigating through unfamiliar countries or about trying to make yourself
understood where you don't know the language. And cruise ships are family friendly, with built-in, floating child care, an attentive staff and a guaranteed social
life. And it's all very safe. The excursions from ship to shore are planned
out for you. The buses meet you at the dock, whisk you to the site replete
with English-speaking tour guide, then whisk you to a pre-arranged meal at a
tourist-friendly restaurant, and then back to the ship and onto the next port
of call. And if you have a bit more to spend than the average family, you can
go upscale, to a luxury cruise, or to a private, 175-foot yacht, with fewer than 30
passengers, a dozen crew and one guest lecturer.

Of the passengers on my cruise, only four, or two couples, were under 60 years
old. The rest were between 65 and 92. They were educated and affluent. They
were respectful of other cultures, curious, on occasion playful. They were
happy to be traveling, seemingly content in their lives and thrilled to be
seeing places they had dreamed of seeing for decades. A fair number were on
their second marriages, and this trip was their honeymoon. That included the
oldest person, a 92-year-old retired university administrator who had served
as dean of a prominent state research university in the 1960s. Several were doctors or lawyers; one was a retired clergyman of a very large
and prominent urban congregation. Yet another was a former research scientist
and engineer for an aerospace/defense firm. All in all, it would be hard to
come up with a more successful or well-educated group.

But that didn't make spending a week and a half with them fun. The trip that
seemed too perfect on paper turned out to be far more difficult than
I had anticipated, and made me question not only myself but the whole
industry now devoted to bringing the world to you on a ship.

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Four lectures, 45 minutes to an hour long. That was all that was officially asked of me. Four lectures. On archaeology and the life of Heinrich Schliemann, the man who unearthed ancient Troy at the end of the 19th century; on the Crusades and the Knights of St. John of the Hospital, who ruled the island of Rhodes until evicted by the Ottoman Turks in the early 16th century; on early Christianity, the isle of Patmos and the writing of the book of Revelations; and on Istanbul, which was our final destination. The lectures were scheduled according to when the yacht was due to dock at the various ports; three were after breakfast, and one took place just before lunch. In addition, I was asked to lead an informal discussion on Islamic fundamentalism and modern Turkey, which I did after dinner and several cocktails.
All of the passengers and most of the crew attended the lectures. The passengers were attentive, except for one 82-year-old man who kept falling asleep because his hearing aid was broken, and the crew were attentive, except for the two waitresses from the Seychelles, who didn't understand much English. The atmosphere was relaxed, and I encouraged people to ask questions as they arose and to challenge me if they didn't understand or didn't agree. I was often asked to clarify or elaborate, but rarely did anyone raise a contrary voice.

In the eyes of the passengers, I was the designated expert. I was part of the package deal, sort of a second coming of the Encyclopedia Britannica. "Oh, you're so smart," became a common refrain. I was constantly sought out for my opinions, my ideas and my data, often on subjects of only tangential relation to the areas we were visiting. "So, Zachary," said the former defense worker, "what do you think of this prick Clinton? An informed guy like you, I'd like to hear what you have to say." And of course, I did have an opinion about Clinton, and I did offer it, but after a few days, I began to wonder: Why are these people listening to me? Why was what I had to say about Clinton or art or food of any greater worth than what any of the passengers had to say, or the cruise director, or the waitresses? Why did I get the distinct feeling that I could have said just about anything and they would have nodded gravely and said, "Yes, you're right," or at the very least pondered my responses seriously.

At times, I felt like the professor in a "Doonesbury" cartoon years ago. He
notices during his lectures that the students are frantically taking notes,
and it occurs to him that no one is actually paying attention to the substance
of his lectures. So he starts making stuff up. "God is dead. Right is wrong.
Black is white." One student turns to another while scribbling and says, "Wow,
this is really cool. I never knew that." The professor collapses on the
lectern, despondent.

Over the course of the trip, I became acutely aware of the cult of the expert,
and of the peculiar fetish for knowledge and education that we have. I was on
the ship to fulfill a certain task, of no lesser or greater importance than
steering the ship, cooking the food, cleaning the rooms and organizing the
schedule and logistics. And much like the captain of the ship, the
cooks, the waitresses and the stewards, I was treated the way I was because
of my function, and my function was Knowledge Guy.

We see the same dynamic every day on television, where someone is presented as
"an expert" whose opinion is supposed to count. The problem with expertise
isn't just that the people identified as experts sometimes aren't. For me, the problem
with being a guest lecturer was that I'm not sure that anyone actually heard
anything I said.

Perhaps I'm being unfair. After all, I actually liked most of the people. The
Boston Irish former defense contractor had a delightful conspiracy complex. I
said over dinner one night that one place I'd like to visit is Angkor Wat in
Cambodia. After the meal, he beckoned me over. "Psst," he said, "I was at
Angkor Wat once." "Really?" I asked, "What was it like?" "Don't know," he
replied. "Dark helicopters, late at night, early '60s, can't say more." The
former president of the large state university talked about his new book on
American morality, and many of the passengers generously bought drinks for me
and shared their stories, of marriages, kids, deaths, divorces, careers and
earlier travels.

But I still felt that I was engaged in a numbing endeavor, and the nature of
cruise travel was at the heart of the problem. Even with a small group on an
intimate ship, cruise travel creates a cocoon enveloping the traveler in a
gauzy web of security. Cruise travel surrounds the passengers in a glass
bubble that allows them to see the sights but not smell the smells, touch the
terrain or interact with the place. Cruise travel is virtual travel. You're
there, but not there. You've left your country but you haven't really gone to
another country. Instead, you've taken your country with you and you see
another world entirely through the lens of your own.

Take the ancient city of Knossos on Crete, or the majestic ruins of Ephesus on
the coast of Turkey. Knossos, inhabited more than 3,500 years ago by
mysterious groups known as the Minoans, is an archaeological site meticulously and
controversially restored by Sir Arthur Evans in 1900, with glorious colorful
frescos and throne rooms. But now, thanks to cruise ships, the site is overrun --
even in late September -- with thousands of tourists, so many that the fresco
rooms have been closed because the moisture from condensation of human breath
and sweat is eroding them. Dozens of tour groups flood the site throughout the
day, and guides lead the groups through the various stations, five minutes
here, two minutes there. And then, lunch at a nice antiseptic restaurant in
Heraklion, and then back on the ship. It's almost impossible to actually
contemplate the site, and it's even more unlikely that you'll actually have to
meet a Greek, other than the tour guide and the bus driver.

Ephesus is one of the richest cities of early Christianity and now an
extensive site that will take years to excavate. The day we were there,
several massive ships had docked in Kusadasi, the port 20 miles from the site,
and these ships then offloaded 5,000 souls who went directly to the
site for two hours and then back to Kusadasi for some shopping in
thoroughly westernized shops whose only claim to Turkishness was the fact that
they were grouped together in something called a "bazaar" -- which was no different
from American strip malls but at least had an exotic-sounding name.

Travel agencies tout these trips for allowing the traveler to see some of the
wonders of the ancient world, but what they see mostly is other tourists and
professionals who make their living catering to tourists. According to the
guides I talked with, the growth of the industry in the past decade alone has
been incredible. Ten years ago, Ephesus was attracting maybe a quarter of the
visitors it does now, and the Turkish government is trying to increase the
number. The same goes for Greece, or for almost every country in the world.
Tourism is a huge business that guarantees an influx of hard currency. And
cruise ships seem to have cleared the major road blocks that had kept the
numbers of tourists lower: ease and safety. Cruise ships
provide a blanket of comfort and security, and in response, millions more go
to places such as Turkey and Thailand.

At one level, what's the harm? Tourism doesn't destroy cultural diversity. Tourism tends to stick to such narrow paths that the cultures outside the
tourist routes aren't affected. Yet, tourism could
eventually destroy the delicate ruins that tourists come to see. In Egypt, for example, the
tombs in the Valley of the Kings have already suffered damage that they had
managed to avoid for 4,000 years. But at the same time, the money from tourism
allows the host country to spend more money on archaeology and preservation.
The excavation of Ephesus, to take one site, is funded largely by the entrance fees
that tourists pay to visit.

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Throughout the cruise, I couldn't help but feel a deep sense of loss. A loss of experience. A
loss of vitality. A deadening mundaneness. The passengers were most alive when
they got disoriented, in the Istanbul airport, or when the Aegean refused to
cooperate one evening and violently rocked the boat with immense lolling
swells. Then they were forced to confront the environment around them, to
integrate the unknown, to grapple with it, even though it was threatening and

For that is the great and eternal secret of travel: It isn't easy and it isn't
always fun. The cruise industry is transforming travel into vacation, but not
all travel should be vacation. Sprawling on a beach is one thing, but trying
to combine the ease of a vacation with the challenge of learning about
something unfamiliar makes for a depressing juxtaposition.

It might have been better if there had been no guest lecturer, if there had
been no tour guides providing reams of history and lore in one-hour lumps. It
might have been better because trying to know oneself and the world requires
effort and work, and the cruise industry is about making life hassle-free and
effortless. It caters to every desire, and people often desire to know more.
So what do you get? You get the guest lecturer. The cruise-ship industry wants
to satisfy the mind and the body. "Look, we'll give you both creature comforts
and edification." But edification as a product, edification as a bonus, well,
that isn't really edification at all. It's an illusion of knowledge and of
learning, brought to you by Disney.

Edification isn't something you can give someone. It isn't like a shipboard
buffet or nicely made beds. If you want to learn about another culture, about
history, about an alien society, you have to touch it, you have to talk to the
people, you have to read and think, and grapple and struggle, and realize in
the end how much you still don't know. The cruise ship gives people the
illusion that they've learned something, when all they've learned is what it's
like to travel on a cruise ship. I hope the passengers did learn something. I
hope they did have fun. But for me, I felt mostly sadness and a sense that
this face of the future is slowly but surely destroying the past.

When the trip ended, we all exchanged numbers, and some of the passengers have since sent me photos and thank you notes. I'm sure most of them will treasure their experience, and some may have fond memories of me, as I do of them. But weeks later, I'm still left with a queasy feeling, as if I participated in a hoax. The more I've thought about it, the more I agree with my friends who rolled their eyes and called the whole thing a scam. It was, but not in the way they meant. I felt like a party to the scam, responsible for creating an illusion. Part of me wants to write to each passenger and say, "Look, what you got from me wasn't knowledge or learning. It was the hint of knowledge, a taste of learning, packaged and neatly wrapped and then stowed away. What you saw wasn't ancient Greece or modern Turkey but nifty little portions offered to you in predigested mouthfuls." But then again, most of them would probably read that and say, "Why is he so upset? That nice young man, so smart. What a nice addition he was to the cruise!"
SALON | Dec. 8, 1998

By Zachary Karabell

Zachary Karabell is the author of "What's College For? The Struggle to Define American Higher Education" (Basic Books). His new book, "The Last Campaign: How Harry Truman Won the 1948 Election," is published by Knopf.

MORE FROM Zachary Karabell

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