Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Behold the West

One of the many hats My Fabulous Wife wears is that of travel agent; so my family usually takes cruises when we go on vacation. For example, this Christmas we took a week's Caribbean cruise out of New Orleans on Norwegian Spirit.

Among other ports of call, we visited Belize City. Belize is one of the few places where cruise ships cannot dock. Instead, the ships anchor a couple of miles out, and little water-taxis called tenders carry people to shore (You can see on Google Earth how far out the ships anchor). Tendering is more trouble than docking, but this time I was reminded of why I'll probably miss it if it goes away.

Big cruise ships are absolutely preposterous by every measure; Oasis of the Seas, which we saw, is one of the largest, at about 1200 feet long (four football fields), 185 feet wide (double the Titanic), 16 (as in 'sixteen') stories tall, carrying 8,000 people. Like so:

But as monstrous as the cruise ships are, they are still just dots on the ocean. Any ship at sea tends to look insignificant. And embarkation at the home port is like getting on an airplane: exiting from big concourses into a covered walkway which connects to the ship. There's no opportunity to really experience the scale of the ship. And if the ship docks at the places it visits, you simply walk down a short ramp onto a concrete dock, and hit the town a few hundred yards later. Again, not enough space to view a 1,000 foot long ship. Plus docking often means as many as four ships all within spitting distance of each other, like buses parked outside a mall, which makes them less remarkable. They look penned-in, bovine, like here at Costa Maya:

A ship just looks its best away from the shore. Like at Belize where the ships anchor:

(These aren't Belize photos)

This is what makes tendering so pleasant: the trips convey a real sense of departing and returning to a huge vessel, from right up close to far away. And stepping between the stable ship and a bobbing tender just emphasizes the difference in scale:

(a medium-sized ship)

Sometimes it's too windy to tender, and nobody gets off the ship. We experienced this a few years ago in Cozumel when the docks had suffered hurricane damage, and were unusable. There were six cruise ships off the coast waiting for the wind to drop to a point that made tendering safe....didn't happen. Oddly enough that was my second most memorable day of cruising; the sight of five other ships as an ensemble was just incredible. I had been reflecting in a vague sense for a few years that cruising was showing me something about the uniqueness of the West, but I couldn't quite express it. The collection of ships sharpened that impression, but not conclusively.

So on this Christmas cruise we returned to Belize, and I anticipated the little tender jaunts. What I didn't expect was 5 ships at anchor, close enough be seen at once, but with enough space that they didn't overlap. Once again I was struck by not just the ships, but the ships as a group.


Tendering away from, and returning to this gaggle of gargantuas sparked a little epiphany, what I call a Behold the West moment. Here are these crazy-big vessels, each costing $800 million-$1.4 billion, poised off some pretty beach. They tootle around the world for fun. People of modest means can afford to travel on them. There are dozens. Older, smaller ones go to breaking yards such as Chittagong and Alang  (see these places on Google Earth) as newer, bigger ones are built in Finland and France. Their staffs come from every country, but all speak the lingua franca, English. This world-spanning business is self-managed without any overarching authority, each company calling its own shots. And none of it is a big deal. It's just the West being itself: imaginative, creative, cooperative, competitive, trusting, self-motivating, confident, extroverted. Explosively productive.

So I was struck once again by being a citizen of this spectacular culture, and tried not to take it for granted. Because even in 2011, most of the world doesn't work this way, and despite her ruinous sins, the modern West is still Christianity's child, though a wayward one of late.

Tendering back to Norwegian Spirit I considered the pyramids as a sort of ancient analog to the cruise-ships; decided that wasn't a good fit. Pharaoh would see in them a threat to his authority, and he'd be right. And his people: why venture beyond the safe, reliable, life-giving Nile? No, the ships aren't floating pyramids. Then I remembered how the Parthenon looks when you come into the harbor at Piraeus:

The Parthenon, as the best iteration of the Greek temple ideal, better reflects a cruise-ship-making worldview: the long refinement process, examining each bit for improvement; constantly comparing the idea of a temple to the reality of a temple. Letting the idea and the reality each measure themselves against the other, and both improving through that interplay. In fact, this interplay between idea and reality, and the self-criticism imbedded within it is a cornerstone of the Western way. And if Pharaoh would balk at Norwegian Spirit, wouldn't the rambunctious Greeks love it? Well, some would: Diogenes would sneer; Socrates would yawn; but the likes of Aristotle and Pericles would be delighted. The West is their child, too; they'd be proud of her.

And aware of that pride, they might whisper an old Greek word into their daughter's ear: hubris.