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

By Doug Mack

I’m sitting at a bus stop in a downtown stretch of Hamilton, Bermuda’s tidy capital town. It’s been raining off and on all morning, and the sky is the color of television tuned to a dead channel. Three seats down from me, a Bermudan office worker is wearing knee-length shorts with a blazer and necktie. He looks like one of those jokers who shows up to his high school prom wearing his tuxedo with flip-flop sandals. I’m getting ready to ask the guy what wacky occasion would inspire him to wear shorts-and-a-tie to work when I spot another fellow wearing knee-length shorts and a necktie on the opposite side of the street. Then a bus pulls up, and three more men wearing suit jackets, neckties, shorts, and knee-length socks disembark. 

MORE: Part One | Part Two | Part Three | Video

In one of those painfully lucid duh! moments that characterize so much of travel, I suddenly realize what’s going on: This is Bermuda, and in what is probably the most storied gesture of style on the island, local men are wearing Bermuda shorts with their business suits. For some reason I had just assumed that knee-baring office-wear would be as dated and anomalous in downtown Hamilton as togas in downtown Rome, or Viking helmets in a Stockholm business meeting. 

After a few minutes of rubbernecking at the Hamilton fashion scene, I’m joined by Irene and Stuart Nemster, two “Trek” fans from my cruise ship. Irene was the one who gave me a stern warning against depicting her fellow Trekkies as weirdos at my on-board travel-writing lecture a couple days ago. Since then we’ve become friendly, and the pair has invited me to join them today on an improvisational walking-and-bus tour of the island. This morning we took a two-mile hike along an old railway bed cut into the island’s coral-rock landscape; now we plan to take a series of buses out to explore some beaches and tide pools along the island’s central coast. 

Back when I was first planning this journey, I fantasized about a cruise ship full of “Star Trek” fans disembarking at a place like Bermuda. I imagined bars full of cruise-tourists pretending that the local black rum was really Klingon Bloodwine, restaurants full of Trekkies insisting that the Bermudan fish-chowder had a flavor similar to Romulan jumbo-mollusks. I envisioned plastic-eared Spock lookalikes on rental scooters giving “Live Long and Prosper” salutes to Bermudan traffic cops. Instead, the Cruise Trekkers have descended upon Bermuda wearing discreet vacation-wear, seeking out the same diversions (carriage rides, aquarium excursions, glass-bottom boat tours) as the other Norwegian Dawn passengers.

To assuage my disappointment, I’ve requested that Irene and Stuart don “Star Trek” T-shirts for today’s outing. Stuart’s T-shirt sports a picture of Spock; Irene’s shirt bears an image of the entire original-series TV cast. Starting this morning from the Royal Naval Shipyard (from which British ships sailed to burn down the White House back in 1812), we’ve made our way halfway across the fishhook-shaped, 21-mile-long island. Palm trees line the coves where snorkelers bob in the aqua-blue water; houses in pastel shades of yellow, pink and green dot the contours of the landscape. Action-packed “Star Trek”-episode analogies are in short supply this morning, if nothing else because our landing party has yet to encounter anything resembling a conflict. From what we experienced so far, Bermuda is a user-friendly realm of white-sand beaches, polite schoolchildren, well-maintained villages and cruise-tourists happily wandering down the middle of the streets. The most dangerous aspect of the island would seem to be its lack of sidewalks.

Our bus driver, a trim black guy wearing aviator sunglasses, has noticed Stuart and Irene’s T-shirts. “I like ‘Star Wars’ better than ‘Star Trek,’” he says. “But my wife loves that movie with the whales in it.”

“‘Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home,’” Irene says. “That’s a good one.”

“Kirk isn’t my favorite captain, though; he’s too impulsive. I like Captain Picard. He’s more of a diplomat.”

This is the third time today some random Bermudan has started talking to us because of Stuart and Irene’s T-shirts. It’s as if the world of “Star Trek” has, over the years, become its own universal dialect; even people who claim to dislike the show seem curiously familiar with its characters and episodes. After awhile, our driver’s Kirk/Picard analysis segues to a discussion of his children (his daughter is a whiz at math; his son is addicted to video games), which then segues further to a recommendation of some less-touristed beach areas near Harrington Sound. Stuart cross-references this information on his tourist-bureau map while Irene strikes up a conversation with a grocery-toting woman across the aisle from us. Irene is a naturally gregarious traveler, but I joke that she’s only chatting up the locals because she wants me to depict her in print as the kind of traveler who chats up locals. 

“I’m not sure if that was you talking just then, or if it was the Hawthorne Effect,” I say to her. The Hawthorne Effect, as Irene and I have recently learned, is when the subjects of a study alter their behavior in response to the fact that they are being studied.

“Stuart will tell you I’d act the same way on a bus in New Jersey,” Irene counters. She stops and thinks for a moment. “What’s that other rule—the one that makes the Prime Directive impossible?” 

“Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle,” I say. The Prime Directive she refers to—which is a key ethic in the “Star Trek” universe—states that space travelers should observe but not interfere with alien societies, whereas the Uncertainty Principle suggests that observers interfere with whatever they are observing by the simple act of observing it. 

“Well then by the terms of the Uncertainty Principle you had already altered my behavior before I had the chance to experience the Hawthorne Effect.” Touché!

I usually don’t discuss quantum physics when I travel—and I suspect Irene doesn’t either—but for the past few mornings we’ve been attending Cruise Trek’s science-fiction writing classes, and the sci-fi concepts we’ve discussed there have seeped into the way we’re deciphering our experience of Bermuda (including my “color of television tuned to a dead channel” line above, which I cribbed from a class handout on William Gibson’s “Neuromancer”). 

The science fiction seminar is taught by Curt Duffy, a Los Angeles college instructor, with input from Lolita Fatjo, who served as script-coordinator for several TV incarnations of “Star Trek,” including “The Next Generation.” A dozen or so studious Trekkies have been attending the class in a Norwegian Dawn conference room each morning. One of the first exercises was to write a six-word story in the style of Hemingway (“For sale: Baby shoes, never worn”), and many of the students’ micro-tales proved intriguing:

“Implant exchange. Brains for brawn? Deal!” 

“Fate closes doors. Break the windows.” 

“Dog knows all, tells us nothing.”

“Lost in darkness. Opened my eyes.” 

It’s been years since I’ve read much science fiction, so as we’ve delved into the genre I’ve been surprised at how much ethical and philosophical common ground it shares with travel writing. Just as postmodern travel reportage attempts to make sense of an ever-changing world, science fiction is less an examination of things happening in outer space than a critique of developments and dangers right here on Earth. There are other thematic crossovers as well. One of Curt and Lolita’s lecture topics was epistemology, the study of how we know what we know. At first this subject resulted in a discussion of the “Star Trek” “holodeck” and the illusion-world of “The Matrix”—but soon (after a bit of travel-dork nudging on my part) the class began to ponder which aspects of our experience in Bermuda qualify as “authentically Bermudan,” and which are tourist fantasies that have been created for our consumption. 

I am reminded of this distinction later, during the “Harbour Nights” celebration in Hamilton, which I attend solo after my day of exploring the island’s trails and beaches with Stuart and Irene. Cosponsored by Norwegian Cruise Lines and the Bermuda Department of Tourism, Harbour Nights is a weekly waterfront fair featuring art exhibitions, souvenir stalls, food vendors and musical performances. The most transfixing event of the night is the Bermudan gombey dance, which blends African, British and New World influences in a colorful masquerade performance. I sit on the seawall and watch as two-dozen feather-plumed Bermudan men leap through the street to the accompaniment of fifes and snare drums, swinging axes and brandishing crossbows. Front Street is draped with strands of Christmas lights, bathing the dancers in a warm nighttime glow. 

Midway through the performance I’m joined by Brian Moloney, a 20-something Canadian who has been tagging along while his autistic brother David participates in Cruise Trek activities. Brian isn’t much into “Star Trek,” but he’s become intrigued by the concepts we’ve discussed in the science-fiction class—most notably the distinction between authenticity and simulacrum. As the gombey dancers wind up their act, Brian and I begin to speculate about which aspects of Harbour Nights are a true expression of Bermuda and which have been invented for the benefit of people like us. 

“What do you make of the dance performance?” Brian says.

“I don’t know,” I say. “This morning I saw businessmen wearing Bermuda shorts to work, and they weren’t doing it to impress tourists. I’m guessing they put on gombey dances even when cruise ships aren’t here.” I pause and scan the waterfront. “How about the hair-braiding booths?”

“Not real,” Brian says. “Not for random white people at least. Children’s train?”

“No. But the fact that it’s full of adults right now is just goofy enough to make it seem more real somehow.”

Brian and I go back and forth with our little game for 15 minutes before he gets up to find his brother. When he leaves, I listen to a trio of Bermudan teens playing a local variation of the same game 10 feet down from me on the seawall. Instead of trying to figure out what is authentically Bermudan, the three girls are delivering a giggling commentary on each of the tourists walking past—which of the young males are cute, which of the old males are fat, which of the couples are dressed in clothes they would probably never wear back home.

Listening, it occurs to me that the events along this waterfront are real in a way Brian and I hadn’t considered. If “Star Trek”‘s Prime Directive really is an impossible goal—if local communities are fated to be impacted by the mere presence of outside observers—then events like Harbour Nights are a rather shrewd way of quarantining the crush of short-term cruise-ship visitors that arrive each week. Tourists here get a small but appealing taste of Bermuda; Bermudans get to showcase aspects of their culture in a way that shields the quieter parts of the island from the mass-tourist gaze. The whole of Harbour Nights thus becomes more real than the sum of its parts. 

The events on the Hamilton waterfront begin to wind down, and I catch a ferry back to the wharf. A re-entry queue stretches alongside the Norwegian Dawn, and as I’m waiting in line I overhear a young couple comparing notes on their day.

“I ran into Randy when you were in the gift shop,” the husband says. “He told me there’s a group of like 200 hard-core Trekkies on our ship.” He pauses to give his wife a covert look. “Apparently they’ve been traveling incognito this whole time.”

I walk up the gangplank with a sudden feeling that the trip home could get interesting.

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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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