Where no Travel Writer has Gone Before

Travel Stories: In a five-part series, Rolf Potts joins Trekkies aboard a "Star Trek" theme cruise to Bermuda

11.16.09 | 10:21 AM ET

By Doug Mack

I’m 30 minutes into my lecture in the cruise ship conference room when I realize the audience is beginning to sour on my travel presentation. I was doing fine when I was telling tales and sharing photos of faraway places—but when I switch to the topic of travel writing, folks in the crowd begin to tense up.

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A man in the back raises his hand. “If you’re a travel journalist, does that mean you’ve come here to write about us?”

“Yes, as a matter of fact I’ll be writing about everything that happens on this cruise.”

A woman in the front row wrinkles her brow at me. “So that means you’re kind of like the Talosians from ‘The Menagerie,’” she says.

“Talosians?”

“Yes, the Talosians,” she says. She gazes at me for a beat. “You’ve come to observe our behavior like we were animals in a zoo.”

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I give the woman a neutral look; I’m not sure what she’s talking about. 

“Season one, episode 11,” the guy in the back offers. “Original series.”

“I guess I didn’t see that one,” I say finally.

Fifty or so people stare at me with a mixture of pity and disbelief: It’s as if I just told them I’ve never seen a sunrise. 

I’ve been at sea with these folks since we embarked from New York a little more than 24 hours ago. Two days from now we’ll sail into port at Bermuda, but most of my travel companions are less focused on our earthly destination than on more far-flung corners of the universe—places like Vulcan, Romulus and the Klingon homeworld. 

Indeed, this journey is not your average vacation—it’s “Cruise Trek,” an annual sea-pilgrimage for fans of the “Star Trek” TV and movie franchise. For the next week I’ll be sharing passage on the Norwegian Dawn cruise ship with over 100 gung-ho sci-fi fans. In addition to the standard cruise amenities (bingo, shuffleboard, all-you-can-eat restaurants), I’ll be participating in “Star Trek” trivia games, attending Q&A sessions with mid-level “Star Trek” celebrities, sitting in on science fiction writing classes, and witnessing a “Star Trek” theme wedding. 

The twist to all this is that I’m not much of a “Star Trek” fan. I enjoyed J.J. Abrams’ 2009 “Trek” movie—and I’m familiar with the old TV series from years of cultural osmosis and syndicated reruns—but the show’s universe is largely uncharted territory for me. In a way, the “Star Trek” franchise is like a country I’ve visited a few times en route to other places: I can recognize the basic landscape, but I’m not familiar with the customs, nor do I speak the language. 

All of which leads to a valid question, which the woman in the front row asks after a few moments of uneasy silence. “If you don’t know that much about the show,” she says, “why did you choose to spend a week at sea with a bunch of ‘Star Trek’ fans?”

I knew this question would come up eventually, but I have yet to prepare a concise answer. I want to confess that I’m fascinated by the idiosyncrasies of Trekkie culture in the same way some people are intrigued with Inuit or Maasai culture. I want to admit that I have a weakness for counterintuitive travel strategies, and this seemed like a wacky, entertaining way to enjoy my first-ever sea cruise. 

Instead I say something about exploring imaginative landscapes in the context of physical landscapes. I talk about how the travel sensibilities of Trekkies can hold a mirror up to American ideals, just as the travel sensibilities of Herodotus held a mirror up to Greek ideals. I mention that, metaphorically, a cruise ship is kind of like a space ship. 

All of which is true enough, I guess, but the woman in the front row isn’t buying it. “And I bet you want to poke fun at the weird people who bring Vulcan ears and Starfleet uniforms on their vacations.” 

She says this in a playful tone, but in truth I very nearly wasn’t allowed to come on the cruise for fear that I would write the kind of glib, “Trekkies = über-dorks” story that has characterized four decades of mainstream reporting on the “Star Trek” phenomenon. Cruise Trek organizers interviewed me by phone two separate times before they would sell me a ticket—and my travel writing lecture this afternoon is as much a method of identifying me as an outside journalist as it is an educational seminar.

Photo by Rolf Potts

I’ve assured the Cruise Trek gatekeepers that I haven’t come to cherry-pick flamboyant Trekkie clichés for my story—but to be honest, exotic preconceptions are half the fun of travel. Take a trip to Ethiopia’s Omo Valley, and you’ll be disappointed if the Mursi tribeswomen turn up wearing sneakers and blue jeans instead of lip-plates and goatskins; journey into the jungles of Papua New Guinea, and you’ll want to take photos of the locals who wear penis-gourds, not the ones wearing soccer shorts. In the same way, I’m hoping this “Star Trek” cruise will yield a cornucopia of color and eccentricity—not just Vulcan ears and Starfleet uniforms, but Klingon-speakers and Cardassian-costumed cross-dressers. I’m hoping for “Trek”-themed folk-band sing-alongs and angry three-hour arguments about starship registration numbers. And, as much as anything, I’m dying to know what it’s like to experience a sea voyage to Bermuda when your travel companions would rather be making a space voyage to Romulus. 

Of course, I don’t admit this to the “Trek” fans in the audience. Instead, I assure them of my sober journalistic objectivity, and proceed with my presentation about the ins and outs of travel writing. When I’ve finished, the woman from the front row comes up and introduces herself as Irene Nemster.  Her husband, a soft-spoken fellow who stands behind her, is named Stuart.

“I didn’t mean to sound cynical during your talk,” she tells me. “I guess I’m afraid you’ve come here to stereotype all Trekkies as oddballs.” 

“She and I definitely qualify as Trekkies,” Stuart says. “We’ve evolved to the point where we had to designate an entire room of our home just for ‘Star Trek’ collectibles.”

Irene furrows her brow at Stuart. “But we do have lives outside of ‘Star Trek’!” she says. “We’re parents, we’re musicians. We’re active in church and synagogue. We play tennis and go fishing.”

Stuart gives me a wry look. “She owns a book of Leonard Nimoy’s poetry.”

“OK, that’s true,” Irene admits. “And believe me, Mr. Spock cannot write. But at least it’s autographed!” 

After several minutes of listening to Stuart and Irene detail their collection of “Trek” memorabilia (including a life-sized Klingon cutout that spooks unsuspecting houseguests in their basement), I ask Irene to clarify the story behind the Talosians.

“The Talosians are highly evolved observers,” she says. “They study emotions by keeping a menagerie of more primitive species, including humans. And they can control their captives’ behavior by altering their senses.”

“How do they do that?” I ask.

“Basically, they use telepathy to make people see things that don’t really exist. They use people’s own ideals and expectations to create seductive illusions that have no basis in reality.”

When I first hear this it sounds like a nifty little critique of consumer travel writing—but in coming days I will discover that it just as readily applies to the baffling idiosyncrasies of the leisure-cruise industry.

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Columnist Rolf Potts is the author of Vagabonding: An Uncommon Guide to the Art of Long-Term World Travel, and Marco Polo Didn't Go There: Stories and Revelations From One Decade as a Postmodern Travel Writer. His stories have appeared in National Geographic Traveler, the New York Times Magazine and Conde Nast Traveler, as well as in “The Best American Travel Writing.”


26 Comments for Where no Travel Writer has Gone Before

Megan Hill 11.16.09 | 1:18 PM ET

This is amazing. I can’t wait to read tomorrow’s piece!

Alison 11.16.09 | 1:18 PM ET

Loved this piece, very well-written!

Trisha Miller 11.16.09 | 1:50 PM ET

Well-written piece, as I expected it would be, but I’m a little surprised to learn that Rolf didn’t dig into some pre-cruise research by watching hours and hours of old Star Trek episodes, in order to understand the Trekkies culture and language, the way he would before any other trip. :)  But no matter, I’ll still enjoy his series, and I’m still envious of him and this assignment!

Lindsey 11.16.09 | 4:14 PM ET

Rolf,
You are a brave man, for voluntarily being captive on a floating ship like that!

Makye Ame 11.16.09 | 10:51 PM ET

Where’s the travel?  I mean there is so much good writing out there that goes unpublished and then to have a piece like this that is nothing special and doesn’t involve any real journey or exploration.

Is this series of articles supposed to be some cheap David Foster Wallace knockoff?

I really disliked the piece and am starting to feel that Worldhum has fallen into the comfortable groove of publishing mediocre work by writers they’ve already published before.

Makye Ame 11.16.09 | 10:57 PM ET

I just realized that this is going to be a five part series.

Mix it up a bit for heaven’s sake!

Epiphanie 11.17.09 | 1:05 AM ET

Dear Rolf,

What a brilliant idea! I think fan culture is a phenomenon worth exploring from a lot of angles, and I love your self-reflexive style, as always. Keep up the fab work! :o)

Marcy Gordon 11.17.09 | 3:13 AM ET

Ha! I wonder if the travel agent that recently booked a straight Italian couple on an all gay cruise had a weakness for counterintuitive travel strategies? I’d be suspicious of Rolf too if I was a Trekkie and found out he was writing about my theme cruise from a non-Trekkie perspective. But I guess we’ll have to wait and see how the story unfolds.

Travel-Writers-Exchange.com 11.17.09 | 11:04 AM ET

Interesting post about Trekkies at sea.  Who knew there was a Star Trek themed cruise.  It definitely is not the “normal” travel writing that we’re used to reading.  Kind of refreshing…

Aaron H 11.17.09 | 12:37 PM ET

I can’t think of two thinks I care about less than cruises and Star Trek, but this is a great article—funny and full of insight.

Lindsay 11.17.09 | 3:11 PM ET

I laughed so much while reading this. Love it!!! Great piece.

Mike Costantino 11.17.09 | 5:32 PM ET

What with all the interviews and “observations” I hope Rolf found some time to really enjoy himself. It’s gotta be tough spend all your energy channeling Lévi-Strauss.

Matt Stabile 11.18.09 | 10:52 AM ET

Nice work Rolf, really enjoying the piece. It’s always great to read travel pieces from a different angle.

@Makye Ame : I think you’re missing the point. To say that this piece “doesn’t involve any real journey or exploration” is quite narrow-minded. As most travelers know, it’s not the destination but the journey. What better way to look back on a lifetime of travel and exploration than to view it through the prism of a mundane, prosaic cruise? Yes, David Foster Wallace did this in his own way, and Rolf is doing it his.

Sure there are plenty of articles and ideas out there about the next off-the-beaten-path destination, but the danger is losing the thrill of enjoying those places and cultures. Perhaps a cruise is needed every once in a while to remind us all of that.

http://www.TheExpeditioner.com

Grizzly Bear Mom 11.18.09 | 1:27 PM ET

I loved the Wayne and Rita part of the story.  Aren’t people fascinating? 

But confess, Rolf.  Considering the adventure in your travel stories I find it difficult to believe that you volunteered to go on a cruise.  Aren’t you really serving time for some offense?

travel agents indonesia 11.20.09 | 2:17 PM ET

nice share and website..thanks for the tips.I loved to the Wayne and Rita part of the story


http://travel-tour-indonesia.com

Ben 11.20.09 | 11:51 PM ET

Rolf,

Thanks for showing, yet again, that a good travel writer is every bit as savvy as an academc anthropologist—but more entertaining and often more honest.

Well done.

Eric Stillwell 11.23.09 | 1:13 PM ET

Rolf—

This is a fantastic series of articles. My wfie and I have been on nine Cruise Treks over the years—including the original Bermuda Cruise Trek many moons ago—and you really captured the heart and spirt of this wonderful group of people. Unfortunately we weren’t on board for this Bermuda cruise, but we did go on the Blue Danube Cruise Trek in 2008 and are booked for the Mediterranean Gateway Cruise Trek in 2010. I encourage those who are interested—or even just curious—to check out the Cruise Trek fan page on Facebook!

Aly 11.23.09 | 11:27 PM ET

This was a great piece (series). Very upbeat, humorous, but I must say I was most moved by the last part.  You really did Trek fans right by including the testimonials by the fans who were not the ‘extroverts.’  I am a very extroverted life of the party kind of person now; as a jr. higher and teenager though I was just as much an outcast within my family and school as any kid could be.  Star Trek helped me hold onto my values and beliefs, and not compromise myself and who I was in some effort to ‘fit in.’  I am quite ‘normal’ now socially, and I have Star Trek to thank for it.  And I would not be embarrased in the slightest to wear my uniform at any situation.

James L. Moore 11.24.09 | 2:33 PM ET

This is an excellent piece of writing and a great idea for exploration.

There are so many communities ‘out there’ and I have always thought there should be a book just about these odd, random, eclectic communities of people—- RV parks in Arizona, Philadelphia Eagles fans tailgating before a game, WoW guilds online, bikers gathering in Sturgis, etc. etc.

All of these sub-subcultures throughout America.

Write on.

Melanie Sargent 11.25.09 | 12:34 AM ET

What a fun, interesting read!  I never dreamed that I should explore the sci-fi arena before as it has never really compelled me.  However, after reading this, I’m thinking that the underlying theme is all about the “what if’s” of life, and that’s what I’m interested in.  I liked the cultural tie-in’s as well.  Like attracts like, and we tend to “like” people when we are “like” people, sometimes it just takes a cruise ship to get in touch with the commonalities. 

And, speaking of cruise ships, I have off and on been contemplating taking a cruise (I like the idea of getting a taste of different places and then coming back later to the ones I liked the best), but they sound too much like Vegas, and I’m not crazy about Vegas…!  So, you helped convince me that it wouldn’t be a good fit for my personality. 

Thanks for sharing a great bit of information and humor with us!

Panama Hotel 12.03.09 | 10:45 AM ET

Love the piece. When I initially saw the title,  it touched, in a thematic sort of way, on a bigger theme in travel which is our need/want to go places that are ‘undiscovered’ or ‘unknown.’ For those who haven’t read it, a specialist named Stanley Plog did a report for Cornell Hotel & Restaurant Administration Quarterly in which he defines certain destinations as well as the people who like to go there into varying categories of “adventure.” Our boutique hotel (http://www.loscuatrotulipanes.com) here in Panama is located in Casco Viejo - a slightly offbeat colonial city with quirks and downfalls. It’s gorgeous and culturally rich, but not for everybody. The people it attracts are venturers - and not the type you’d see in Cancun. Inevitably, the unknown destinations become known, and the undiscovered spots get discovered. According to Plog,  if you’re aware of the factors at play, you can manipulate a destination on this curve.

kha 12.08.09 | 2:19 AM ET

who paid for this piece—the writer or the cruise or pr company?

Michael Yessis 12.08.09 | 7:04 PM ET

Hi kha. World Hum paid the writer for this piece.

Wendy 12.18.09 | 2:34 AM ET

We need to find the new island.

Wendy 12.28.09 | 10:45 PM ET

Thanks for sharing a great bit of information and humor with us!

Onelia Herriot 12.31.09 | 9:22 PM ET

I loved this piece. I am just an ordinary Joe (or should I say Jane) I went on Cruise Trek 2007 New Zealand. I am also Australian but Star Trek is a multicultural environment so I didnt feel left out.

2007 was my first experience of Cruise Trek although I had heard of this group for many years. I was traveling solo and was amazed at how easily and quickly I was embraced by my fellow CT cruisers. Everyone made an effort to welcome the new comers and then it is up to the new comers whether they wish to mix or just have a cruise. I must admit knowing that knowing there is 100 other people on a ship of 2000 that I had something in common with was comforting.

I am far from the “hard core” trekkie that many would think would join this crowd, for example in the trivia contest I only could answer 1 out of 50 questions and that was an extremely easy one, so you dont need to be a uniform wearing card carrying trekkie to enjoy the activities. And from my perspective its not about the “stars” so much as the feeling of family among my other companions that was the best part, although I will admit that having breakfast and having a star of your favourite show ask if they can share your table was pretty cool as well. (and one which I think most people the world over would love to have occur)

I enjoyed the experience so much that i am attending the 2010 Mediterranean Gateway cruise.

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