Dispatches from Graduate School – Part 24

Cali Pitchel McCullough is a Ph.D student in American history at Arizona State University. For earlier posts in this series click here. –JF

[Taken directly from *The Way of Improvement Leads Home*]

We disembarked this morning at 7:45 AM and headed directly to the Ft. Lauderdale Airport. Sleep deprived and likely five pounds heavier,we made it to the airport at 8:15, three hours before our scheduled flight to our connection at Chicago. After a four-hour flight (which included not one, but two holding patterns because of inclement weather in the Chicago area), I now sit at gate B7 at the Chicago O’Hare airport for a three-hour lay over before heading home to Phoenix. I can’t complain with the poor schedule because the entire trip—flights, cruise, and a variety of overpriced sundries—came to me a gratis. (Thanks, Mom and Dad!)

I tried to remain reflective the entire cruise, but I still feel undecided about the experience. I cruised once before to Bermuda in 2006 and I cared little for the five-day excursion. Incidentally, we shared theAtlantic with a tropical storm, which meant copious amounts of vomit and extreme cases of motion sickness. Fortunately for me, I avoided personal illness, but to witness my fellow cruise mates losing their buffet meals lessened the excitement of being at sea. Our very recent venture down the western Caribbean felt smooth aside from one night of rocking which felt gentle when compared to my Bermudian jaunt of 06’.

Our ship, The Allure of the Seas, housed 6,000 passengers and 2100 crew members. We stopped at three ports: Labadee, Haiti; Costa Maya, Mexico; and Cozumel, Mexico. Labadee and Costa Maya are essentially owned by Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines—the shops are endorsed by RCCL and those employed at the port conform to RCCL policies. Cozumel, a fully functioning island on its own, benefits immensely from cruise line tourism, but also retains its own local flare.

Labadee and Costa Maya made me extremely uncomfortable,especially considering some of the reading I’ve been doing about tourism and tourism spaces. Costa Maya exists only because of its relationship to Royal Caribbean. When you leave the ship you are greeted by a native man dressed in full Mayan regalia, body paint included. Just beyond the dock a replica of a Mayan ruin looms over the Señor Frogs and the duty-free shop. I thought of two things immediately—spectacle and commodity. I know there is nothing new about the romanticization of the Other, but to actually walk through a place constructed completely upon an imagined Mayan past calls for pause.

The same went for Labadee. I sat in the hot Haitian sun and watched a perplexing performance by local dancers. The fire-eater, clearly playing the part of the witch doctor, pleaded to the point of harassment for the audience to tip generously. We added our dollar bills to the grass basket and left feeling embarrassed and ashamed at the implicit eroticism behind his routine. The highly sexualized performance, certainly approved by RCCL, meets the stereotypical expectations for thousands of tourists a week.

Cozemel felt entirely different. We hailed a taxi downtown and walked the brightly colored side streets in search of an authentic dining experience. We settled into our seats at a bustling carneceria and ordered freshly prepared guacamole and salsa that required a continual dabbing of your brow. It was real Mexico—elegant hotels aside blighted corner stores; multi-colored buildings next to crumbling foundations and half-constructed mansions; men and women on dingy motorcycles riding past shabby merchants selling chile covered mango candy, minty chicle that loses its flavor after three or four chews, and ice cold Coca Cola from the bottle, always served with a straw. I felt no remorse as we boarded the ship because I felt as if I saw a true representation of Cozumel—not some pre-packaged image suited to satisfy tourist desires.

The complementary vacation, aside from the problems I see inherent in the cruise experience, allowed for non-stop family time and an abundance of relaxation. While sunbathing, I made it through Environmental Inequalities and about two-thirds of Crabgrass Frontier—an accomplishment for which I am proud (a nay saying classmate said I’d get nothing done). Tomorrow begins a treacherous three-days of constant work, but I couldn’t have had better mental, physical, and emotional preparation for the rest of the semester.

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