We went on our first cruise many years ago. It was the Alaska cruise up the inland passage in celebration of my parents fiftieth wedding anniversary. The whole family went as it then existed, all sixteen of us. None of our children were married yet. One nephew was young enough that we worried about his whereabouts and safety. The excitement of it all, the novelty of a ship and the extraordinary scenery made it a trip of a lifetime that each of us remembers as the very best time.
The years have fled. Our children are now in their forties. Our oldest grandchild has her drivers license. By age alone I have become the patriarch of the family. A few years ago we rediscovered cruising as a way to see parts of the world that we might not otherwise have the chance. To be sure, it’s only a sampling, but one can experience and learn a lot from observant sampling. We recently returned from Europe on a trip that included, as part of it, a cruise from England, across the Channel to stops in Holland, Belgium, France, Portugal and Spain.
It was on that part of the trip that I began to think of the cruise ship as a womb experience, which may help explain why it is such a popular way of travel. The womb is the ultimate safe haven in which the developing child has every need met without asking and without responsibility. Birth is the traumatic exit from that Eden into a world in which demands must be made, responsibility learned and consequences endured. No wonder psychological theory has often focussed on the womb and birth as a key to emotional problems in adulthood. No matter how much we might like it, we cannot return to the secure, nourishing environment of the womb. Or maybe we can.
A cruise ship is something like a womb for adults. It is, even on the largest ships, a tightly compact, secure place in which every need is provided. Nourishment in almost any form is provided day and night. Staterooms are cleaned and replenished as if by magic. Entertainment abounds in every venue. Pools, spas and workout rooms pamper the body. The digitally encoded ship’s ID card establishes one’s right to be on board, and gives the added illusion of the ability to afford whatever one wants at any time with a simple swipe and a personal thank you by name. At ports of call one can experience something like birth by leaving the ship and entering an alien world. Like newborns everywhere, the newly birthed are often whisked off to nurseries in the shape of tour busses attended by nurses in the form of English speaking guides. The more adventuresome can go on their own, but like toddlers everywhere they seldom go far. They test their new freedom with some apprehension and are generally quick to return.
Unlike the reality of human birth, cruise passengers are able to reenter the womblike security of the ship at the end of each day’s landing. And I think this is key. For many, the psychologically infantile desire to reenter the womb may be little more than a fantasy worked out on the therapist’s couch, but I suspect that it is a subconsciously lived reality for many cruise ship passengers. The womb can be reentered! Security, for a price, can again be yours. The excitement of new birth at each port is made less anxiety ridden by the sure and certain knowledge that the womb awaits one’s return. I suspect that is also why the last night on board is so difficult for many. It is time to leave the fantasy of the infantile and reenter the world of the adult in which the maternal womb is not even a memory.