Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change
Into something rich and strange.
These words, spoken by Ariel in Shakespeare’s The Tempest are a beautiful way of describing the profound opportunities for transformation that time offers. A broken bottle to sea glass, a tiny polyp to a forest of coral, a cave carved by the force of the waves, a human changed by new insight and experiences.
It seems particularly apt for me that Ariel describes change this way, because much of what has changed me in the last decade has come from having spent so much time traveling by sea. Not everything—throwing my life to the winds and moving sight unseen to Canada was perhaps the most transformative thing I have done in recent memory—but much of who I am now compared to ten years ago is tied to what cruising has offered me.
I wrote the other day about Geoff DiVito, my fellow speaker onboard, and the question he asked us in his latest talk: Why do we travel? He said the most common answer is to experience other cultures. I have been thinking about that, and I find my conclusions rather dismaying. Yes, I have been a lot of places, but truly I haven’t experienced very much of other cultures except carefully orchestrated visits to semblances of the real deal. What else can one expect when one goes ashore after breakfast and is back at sea by dinnertime?
I have chosen recently to say I have “set foot in” rather than truly visited many places I have been. Don’t get me wrong—it’s been fantastic, but authentic? Not that often. I feel a special affinity for the ports without much tourist infrastructure, the ones where the shops are for the people who live there, not for people just stopping in for the day. Towns where you could buy new underwear or socks but forget finding a souvenir t-shirt or fridge magnet. Towns where the traffic jam is caused by people picking up their children from school rather than a clog of taxis and tour buses. Places that won’t take my dollars or Euros. I love being ignored by shop keepers who converse with each outside their stores, to whom I am all but invisible because they aren’t selling anything I am likely to want. The kind of town so many people seem to think is a waste of a day in port. Nothing much here, they say. Nothing to hold one’s interest. You mean like Diamonds International, or duty free this or that? I’ll pass, thanks.
I was a little surprised that experiencing other cultures was the most common answer people gave to why they travel. As James Michener once wrote, “If you reject the food, ignore the customs, fear the religion and avoid the people, you might better stay home.“ I’ve been in ports where people on the shuttle going into the town just stayed on the bus and went straight back to the ship. I must confess, I have done that once or twice too, but not for the reasons Michener identifies. Once I recall, it was blistering hot somewhere in Southeast Asia, and where we were dropped off was a honky tonk beach with no shade. Back I went. Nothing to gain from staying.
I’ve been on tours where the judgmental attitudes I overheard were heartbreaking. Too dirty, too poor, too ramshackle, too—different. But some of my most profound insights about people have come from making my way through admittedly hygiene-challenged food markets, or along the streets even a little removed from the tourist zone, where people are more their authentic selves and what you see is a better reflection of their lives.
Authenticity is hard to come by on cruise stops, but it can be done, and I am trying harder to seek it out. It’s these experiences that have the potential to make travel add up to more than a list of places I’ve been. It’s seeing an old man with burn scars in Vietnam and thinking I can guess how he got them, or seeing piles of plastic trash in a country where food was brought home in banana leaves that were thrown behind the house to decompose, and now the habit is hard to break. It’s realizing that people were wanting a photo with me because blonde hair was still a rarity in some places and I was the exotic one. It’s seeing little offerings to the gods outside houses every morning because that’s just how to start the day. it’s seeing signs that say “our children are not your photo op.” It’s seeing an entire family on a motor scooter with children wedged around the parents because they are doing their best with the resources they have, however unsafe it may seem to western eyes.
Even a quick travel stop can give one glimpses of all these things. And then, building on what is authentic, we find over time that we have changed. A sea change, rich and strange. Through looking for authenticity outside ourselves, we begin to find our own.