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
Im 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.
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.