A Summer of Excess MAG

December 16, 2008
By Taylor Wear, Kearneysville, WV, WV

The Explorer of the Seas is a name that brings to mind not string quartets and velvet-backed chairs, but rather bearded, yellow-slicker-wearing Ishmaels in last-resort lifeboats, sailing right to the edges of maps (eyes to telescopes) into the uncertain parts that fearful cartographers used to label “here be dragons.” It’s an unusual moniker for a cruise ship.

She is swanky and upscale, with the prepackaged elegance of painted Egyptian gold and Las Vegas pink. At times she is so ludicrously extravagant that she is almost comical, with midnight buffets adorned with ridiculous swans carved out of ice and mountains of food for passengers who really weren’t that hungry anyway. Every attraction is aimed at our desire to keep up with the Joneses. Twenty-four hours a day passengers can sample fluted glasses of the world’s finest champagne while admiring a handful of diamonds on her royal promenade. In the dining room, floor-to-ceiling windows display an absolutely breathtaking view of the sapphire waters steadily lapping at the rudders – ignored by most for the flashing lights and chiming bells of the casino below. Who cares about the view when you’re on a floating shopping mall?

On the fifth day, she docks at St. Martin, the Dutch half of a small tropical island in the northwest Caribbean. Mountainous and arid, the secluded ­beaches and picturesque scenery bring about a new kind of luxury, one that is innocent and undisturbed. The ocean here is a different shade of blue. It is not the dark foreboding navy that swallows up naive ships and sailors, but a brilliant azure that makes the sea almost indistinguishable from the sky. The water is clear enough for us to see the white sand trenches getting steeper and steeper beneath, like steps in a swimming pool. The overpowering briny odor associated with most North American beaches isn’t found here. Rather there is simply the fresh, clean scent of unadulterated air, and something else you can’t quite put your finger on, perhaps cotton or the damp flowery smell of an oncoming downpour. The vegetation is a shade of emerald so bright it’s almost painful to look at. There are smiling women with warm, welcoming belly laughs and faint Eastern European accents sitting on woven blankets in the sand, braiding their daughters’ jet-black hair into thick ropes. You get the feeling that you are floating in a fishbowl; the sky and sea and air are your own private kingdom, foreign and exhilarating, but familiar and therefore safe.


The detour is an accident. Like ­forgetting to carry the one when adding or washing a red sock with a load of white shirts, it seems small and inconsequential at first but nevertheless causes change. The fishbowl is turned over and everything perfect disappears, leaving you gasping for air and fumbling for the map. You find yourself in the outskirts of town, the sky now an ominous gray. The white sandy beaches and cerulean waves are replaced by gravel roads, dusty sidewalks, and crumbling stucco buildings with broken windows. You aren’t sure where you are; all you know is that it feels vacant and hollow, much like the shattered glass bottles scattered about or the empty shells of businesses in this ghost town in paradise.

Then, a girl about your age steps out of a laundromat carrying a baby. Her coarse dark hair is twisted behind her head, there are dark bags circling her eyes like bruises, and her sandals are too big. For a terrifying second, you think she is looking at you, and you jerk your head away.

You have seen poverty before. When you were ­seven, your parents took you to visit your grandparents in Nogales, a small border town in Mexico. You were standing near a vibrant rainbow of a mural when a boy your age scurried up. His face was dirty and his heaving chest bare, and hand-beaded necklaces were strung on his thin right arm like Christmas tree garlands. He offered you one, catching you off-guard. The necklaces were pretty, but you didn’t have any money, and you reached for your cousin’s hand – why, you’re not sure. You remembered the four words your father had taught you, “Lo siento, no gracias,” and you smiled awkwardly, ashamed and uncertain. But before you were even on the second syllable, the boy turned and ran off to find his next customer. You were shaken.

Now, at 15, you see a difference between Mexico and what you find here. The living conditions are just as bleak; it is the people who are different. In Nogales, they were impoverished yet determined, survival of the fittest. They did what they had to to get by. Here, though, it feels more desperate, hopeless. There is a sense of having given up and letting nature run its course. At 15, you know what irony is. You look up and see rows of million-dollar summer villas owned by white people who are rarely here, carved into the rock cliffs above these slums.

Evening is falling; it is time to get back on board the Sunset-Strip-with-rudders and take your place in the dining room. Your friendly Trinidadian waitress, who works 11 months each year to pay her son’s ­education back home, serves you. Suddenly the lobster bisque and strawberry napoleon seem less appetizing. You look out the window – you’re the only one doing so – and watch the island, the beaches, the young mother and her too-big shoes, grow smaller and smaller until they’re a tiny speck on the horizon. And you think, Never again.

The author's comments:
This piece was originally written for my AP English

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