I just returned from postcard-worthy beaches surrounded by bejeweled water. Water that sparkled more than the engagement ring Kate Middleton is currently wearing on her royal finger. The Caribbean is home to some of the most amazing scenes anyone can attempt to capture on their camera, but without the right mode of travel, you may miss most of it.
My vehicle for this Caribbean adventure? A cruise – aboard a massive vessel that can only be termed as behemoth. We were wined, dined, and pampered while sailing to various ports of call, gazing at a body of water so large you tended to feel like only a speck of sand on an endless beach. This was the first cruise that most our party had taken, and we loved every minute of it. Mostly. What may have been lacking was the sense of touring the areas we were docked at, rather than traveling through them and experiencing the culture. The boat is a country unto itself, with its own food to taste, activities to try and music to dance to. But when we set foot on land and tried to experience new places for the first time, the ship couldn’t entertain quite as well.
This was our fault alone, as we signed up for the cruise line’s own excursions instead of footing across the island ourselves, or hiring a local to show us the sights. What we sometimes ended up with was a catamaran full of drunk parents and screaming children, or inebriated senior citizens gulping glass after glass of rum punch. Ah, tourists.
One day found us on a catamaran headed to the gorgeous, secluded island of St. John. I knew we wouldn’t have a true snorkeling experience with 50 other sunscreen-slathered passengers all swimming and snapping underwater pictures nearby, so my husband and I passed on that activity and instead took a dingy to the island while everyone else scared the underwater wildlife away. We were able to enjoy blissful quiet as we lay in the early morning sunlight, until a group of tourists emerged from the woods behind us like they were Dharma Initiative “Others” from an episode of Lost.
Another experience had us perusing the “shopping” district that the cruise line had recommended. Instead of experiencing native island wares, fake Gucci bags were thrust in our face alongside shirts that were 2 for $5. We might as well have had large cameras strapped around our necks while wearing Bermuda shorts and ankle socks. We reeked of tourist, along with the 100 people on our excursion with us.
The holy grail of any well-versed traveler is the chance to blend in with one’s surroundings. To do as the locals do, and experience something organic and ultimately private about the place you’ve journeyed to. With this in mind, know that I have always wanted to swim with a dolphin. I’ve imagined it spontaneously happening while enjoying a morning swim off the coast of some private island. This would be ideal, anyway. Instead, what we got as tourists was the Dolphin Cay experience at the Atlantis resort. Was it amazing? YES. There is nothing like feeling such a large, graceful animal swim beneath your outstretched hand, or taste it’s saltiness as it allows you to kiss its nose.
But over and over, what played in my head was a Burlesque cabaret of overworked girls performing the same routine for countless hungry patrons as they waved dirty dollar bills in their face. What nature couldn’t provide me – a wild dolphin chancing to approach me for a companionable swim – the resort offered with 50 dolphins in a cove, ready to perform their routine 20 minutes at a time. Our dolphin was a little rowdy. At only 6 years old, he hadn’t yet resigned himself to the daily grind that his 37 year old neighbor had. He splashed us, refused to perform certain stunts, and generally gave us all a laugh at his rambunctiousness. He hadn’t quite been tamed.
And THAT was my organic experience. Seeing a wild animal do what it instinctively did best. Be himself. Dolphins are highly intelligent, social creatures, but they are innately wild and need to behave as such. He allowed us the chance to see a REAL dolphin up close and personal. One with its own personality, sense of humor, and mischievousness.
To make the transition from Tourist to Traveler, I have to stop trying to create my own Wonderland at the drop of a hat, and allow the experience to simply happen of its own accord. Doing this is risky, though – its taking a chance that it may never happen. But at the same time, when I do happen to encounter something native and unique about a particular place, I’ll enjoy that it was a gift from God – from the land – and not fabricated by too much Rum Punch.