Back when I started cruising, in the late 60’s, when you stood out on the aft deck at night, or early in the morning, you could watch a seemingly endless stream of black plastic garbage bags being thrown overboard and drifting off in the ship’s wake . . . garbage disposal. We’d do skeet shooting off the aft deck, happily drive golf balls into the ocean and throw tons of paper streamers into the water when we sailed.
All of that has changed! Now a crew member who throws or discharges anything into the water is subject to dismissal. Carnival Corporation has a hot line that you can dial free from the ship or anywhere in the world to report an infraction which is immediately investigated. The cruise lines have come to appreciate that we all live on this planet with a single ocean that needs to be cared for . . . for all of our sakes. And, from a strictly business perspective, if we destroy the ocean . . . no business!
“Sustainable tourism” has become a kind of buzz word . . . meaning more-or-less that we want to be able to take people to experience various parts of the world without destroying what it is that people came to experience. Whether it’s a national park or monument, or an island, or a remote village . . . we need to learn to explore and visit without destroying.
For some areas we are already too late. When I first went to St Thomas in the late 60’s you could park your jeep on the front street next to the harbor and just leave it. There were traffic jams downtown only on the one or two days when the cruise ships were in port. You could pick up anybody hitch-hiking up the mountain. The old St. Thomian families were warm and gracious and it really was “America’s Paradise.” Now it is nothing but a parking lot for gigantic cruise ships who daily disgorge thousands and thousands of passengers to swarm jewelry shops, mostly run by Pakistanis and Indians and staffed by often surly “down islanders”, who now far, far outnumber the old St. Thomians, and traffic is worse than the 101 in California during rush hour. Crime is rampant. And, quite frankly, it is so sad that the last time I was on a ship that called in St. Thomas I didn’t bother to leave the ship.
St. John is hardly better. When I first visited St. John a 4-wheel drive Jeep was essential to venture anywhere outside of the tiny town of Cruz Bay. Now all the roads are paved and Cruz Bay is quickly becoming a sprawl of gift and T-shirt shops. Thankfully Rockefeller had the foresight to snap up much of St. John and turn it over to the National Park Service, so you can still experience some of what it used to be.
The story is the same in Nassau . . . giant cruise ship parking lot . . . other islands, like Aruba are trying to imitate Nassau. St Martin is no longer a sleepy little island, but like everywhere else, a giant mall for tourists.
Skagway, Alaska . . . now a parade of shops like Diamond’s International, Tanzanite International, Watches International, Junk International . . . a litter of shops catering to ship tourists with nothing to do with Alaska. What, pray tell, do Brazilian emeralds have to do with Alaska?
Trust me, I’m not dissing the cruise industry. As a former cruise-only travel agency owner, a passenger, stock holder and now on board lecturer, I have contributed my share . . . well, not to Whatever International . . . but to the industry and its growth. So there is nothing wrong with cruising, BUT we have to learn to treat the places and people we visit with the same respect with which we have learned to treat the oceans. Cruise ships will continue to be built, and will probably continue to be bigger, and cruising will continue to be one of the most enjoyable, relaxing, hassle-free and cost-effective way to see the world. Let’s just not destroy the world in the process!
We are currently cruising in the Amazon Basin on the Amazon River, in the heart of the Amazon rainforest. We struggle to do this in a way that respects and preserves this very fragile, yet extremely important ecosystem. When I look at all the plastic garbage that is thrown in the Amazon in Manaus, I think that we may respect the River more than the people who live here. Fortunately Brazil, already a world leader in using alternative fuels, has realized that it must legislate to protect and preserve the Amazon basin. It has already restricted cutting of timber and exporting any wood from the Amazon basin, much to the frustration of some of the locals who create beautiful carvings which ship passengers don’t purchase because Brazilian law forbids any unlicensed wood products being brought onboard. Brazil is requiring all of the farms that had been slashing and burning rainforest to reforest 20% of their land by 2011. Those who do not comply will face hefty fines. And the current Brazilian government is striving for “transparency” and to eliminate the time-honored practice of bribing your way around the law.
A little less than 20 years ago, cruise ships coming up the Amazon began stopping at a tiny village along the river called Boca da Valeria in order to give guests a glimpse of life in Amazonia. One of the first ships was owned by a Greek company called Epirotiki. Princess started stopping at Boca da Valeria about 15 years ago.
One of the entertainers on ROYAL PRINCESS is a magician/comedian named Bernard Reid. Bernard has been working Princess ships for years and was on the first Princess ships that called at this tiny village of Boca da Valeria some 15 years ago. He recalls a much different society where people walked around almost naked, and had no idea what money was, or what to do with it. It was an economy in which people traded with their neighbors and lived a lifestyle that was totally dependant on the river, the forest, and the community. Enter the tourists! According to Bernard, when the ships started stopping at Boca da Valeria and the passengers started passing out US dollars, suddenly things changed. When the ship left the men of the village would collect the money, get in their boats and go up the river to Parintins, get drunk, and come home and beat their wives and kids.
Now, fifteen years later, when the ship is stopping people flock to Boca da Valeria from villages all around the region and for the most part, put on a show. Every imaginable animal is on a string (totally against Brazilian law) and despite what I tell guests, some are willing to encourage this by paying $1 to take a picture. One of my best moments this year was when a toucan escaped and few away with a string on its leg! People dress their little children in feathers and loin cloths to pose for pictures a $1 a pop. Child exploitation? Depends how you look at it. Everyone is hustling for US dollars! If you want to buy a beer at the little bar you’d better have US dollars because nobody will have change for a 5 Real, the Brazilian currency, but pull out a $20 US bill and they’ve got change.
Ship guests will throw oranges and fruit off the ship to folks who come out to meet the ship in small skiffs, even although we ask guests NOT to do this because it endangers the lives of the folks in the small boats. That same sense of power, nobless oblige, and entitlement leads guests to save up pillow candies and pass them out to the hordes of children who come to beg, grab and demand, this despite the fact that we ask them NOT to give candies to children who have little access to dental care, and can buy candies at the store just like anywhere else in the world.
The passengers I can’t stand are the ones . . . like the gal today who was passing out the tiny “golf score” type pencils she stole from in front of the Shore Ex office. How generous! Even the children recognized cheap when they saw it! Another guy, last cruise, stole a bunch of Princess soap off the room steward’s cart in the hallway, and acting like lord of the manor proceeded to throw out Princess soap to hordes of grabbing kids. I thought that was really the height of generosity: giving away soap he had stolen!
Sometimes you cringe at these tourists (as opposed to travelers) and passengers (as opposed to guests). Most of the people on these trips are travelers who have chosen to be our guests and who really do know how to visit another culture and not stick out as ugly Americans, Germans, British, Canadians or whatever else. But some . . .
Freyzer Andrade is a young Brazilian artist from Boca da Valeria who paints beautiful paintings of Brazil on heavy paper and on canvas and sells them to visitors to Boca da Valeria for $20-35. He is very talented, speaks English and teaches art in nearby Parintins. And, believe it or not, in the depths of the Amazon he actually recognized me from reading this blog . . . so now I really must find a way to translate it into Portuguese!
Anyhow Freyzer is offering his paintings for sale and this guy from the ship wants to trade a beautiful painting for a cheap . . . cheap being the operative word here . . . pen knife. Of course Freyzer, recognizing the worth of his artwork, smiles patiently and turns down the offensive offer. Now this ugly American, Canadian or Brit . . . I don’t know which . . . ups the ante. He’s offering $5 US and his cheap pen knife! (How he got the knife on or off the ship, I don’t know, and I was tempted to throw him to our Chief of Security, but I didn’t.) Nicely Freyzer declines, and the guy stomps off acting as if the locals were taking advantage of him. I’m sorry, but what a jerk!
Over the years we have destroyed much of the culture we came to see. So we have a circus of people all grubbing for US dollars. We have children who are rude, unruly little beggars and sometimes thieves, who swarm anyone with a plastic bag and start grabbing whatever they can get their hands on.
In an attempt to begin to correct these abuses, mind you abuses by our guests, not the locals, we have asked folks not to hand stuff out to the kids, or give out dollar bills randomly, which the kids then immediately take to the little bar to buy potato chips. My wife watched an 11-year-old pull out a roll of US dollars to buy chips! This in a country where the minimum wage for a family, guaranteed by the government, is about $240 US a month! This kid’s dad, by working hard all day, might bring home the equivalent of $8 US. So we’ve asked folks who wish to contribute books, pencils, notebooks, whatever . . . to leave it at the reception desk where it is packed up and taken and given to the principal of the local school. This discourages children from rushing, pushing and grabbing for a pencil, and 90% of the kids in the swarm being disappointed.
Princess only has two stops in Boca da Valeria next season. Hopefully after giving it a rest, when we return we can return with a better commitment to protecting not only the oceans on which we sail, but also the societies and cultures we visit.