Black Skin, Blue Passport: Cruising Out of Our Comfort Zones

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I recently came across the Web page for Black Cruise Week. The site serves as a kind of clearinghouse for African-American-themed cruises, including everything from Black Gay and Lesbian trips to Tom Joyner's annual Fantastic Voyage.


Thirteen event cruises are scheduled for the rest of this year, with ports of call in Hawaii, the Caribbean and even parts of Africa.

The site's offerings reflect the increasing popularity of cruise travel among African-Americans. While precise numbers are difficult to obtain, one study reported that the Caribbean is a top destination among African-American travelers, who generally "prefer destinations that are both 'language comfortable' and 'color comfortable.'"

It's easy to understand the appeal of the Caribbean. From its sandy beaches and sunny skies to its transcendent music and food, the region embodies the kind of relaxation and indulgence that vacationers crave. Former English colonies in the Caribbean also have large English-speaking, black populations, making them generally friendly places for African-American travelers.

And cruises tend to be relatively budget-friendly, offering vacationers an opportunity to sample multiple islands without having to spend lavishly on a single destination. So it makes sense that so many African-Americans opt to spend holidays, family reunions and long weekends on Caribbean cruises.

I have taken a handful of cruises, and I admit that, on one level, I enjoy the low-impact pampering and entertainment, the blissful ease of a floating resort. But shouldn't vacations sometimes be about more than quickie group tours and where to find the best duty-free goods? Sometimes passengers don't even venture off the ship. I sometimes wonder if these passengers would notice -– or even care — if their ship mistakenly docked in Grand Cayman instead of Puerto Rico.

The growing cottage industry around entertainment voyages, with names like "Smooth Jazz Cruise," "Black Singles Love Cruise" and the "National Professionals Network Leadership Summit Cruise," seem bent on ensuring that black travelers return home having learned very little about the history, culture or people of the places they have visited. Sure, they will have made contacts and connections — with other Americans, of course — but, to me, that seems to defeat the purpose and spirit of international travel.


The older I get, and the further away life takes me from my student travel days, the more nervous I am about what "adult" travel has in store for me. Are off-the-beaten-path travel experiences just for kids?

Certainly, there are aspects of youth travel that hold little appeal for grownups. I can't say I'll miss the days of staying in the kinds of hostels where I had to sleep in my street clothes out of fear they would be stolen. I also won't long for the days of subsisting on gas-station snacks to afford museum visits in a city where the exchange rate rendered the dollar all but useless. And I will gladly sidestep the need to take a crowded bush taxi over bumpy terrain because a flight is too expensive.


Or will I?

While there is something to be said for choosing comfort and relaxation over saving money, there is also something very rich about having a sense of adventure. Which is why I think I'll save my next cruise for when I'm too old to do anything else. I'm sure Tom Joyner will still be doing his thing.


In the meantime, I think I'd like to get more out of the places I visit. I'm optimistic, for example, about the increasing popularity of heritage tourism, offered through companies like Soul Planet Travel, which presents a view of places like Brazil and Senegal with our history in mind.

I know what you're thinking and, yes, this kind of group travel can have its own limitations. There's nothing more suffocating than being tied for hours to a large group of people you wouldn't necessarily hang out with in real life. There's nothing worse than not being able to steal a moment alone in an intoxicating new place, to sit at an outdoor table with a glass of wine and, say, eavesdrop on a group of heavy-smoking teenagers, fumble through French with a sneering waiter or just sit happily and watch life go by because you've missed your train.


One of the things I notice when I am enjoying this sort of observant downtime is how few African-Americans I encounter along the way. There are as many explanations for this racial imbalance among Americans abroad as there are people to give them. Certainly the high cost of travel has something to do with it. Racism, and perceptions of racism, too, play not insignificant roles. Most people can conjure up anecdotes of racial affronts that occur overseas. Not even Oprah is impervious to discrimination when outside the country.

But by choosing the safest, most comfortable — yes, bland — vacations, we are denying ourselves the opportunity to experience the wonderfully challenging side of international
travel: the side that shows us that vacations do not have to be about sun and
sand to be just what we needed.


I'd like to suggest that the next time a vacation opportunity presents itself, we try to think of going someplace that challenges our notion of "language comfortable" or "color comfortable."

For inspiration, we might reach back to our student days, when discomfort was a state of being. Sometimes, I even reach back to my grandfather's days in the Army, when he traveled overseas to hostile regions on behalf of a country that had not yet abandoned its hostility for him or his family. For me now, as for him then, inspiration comes from knowing that knowledge can flow in both directions. You just have to be willing to take a few chances.


Tamara J. Walker is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania, where she teaches courses in Latin American history.