Some of the fun gets lost on English-only speakers

By Janet Mendelsohn
Globe Correspondent / September 27, 2009

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Searching for a way to visit Colombia without ignoring US State Department warnings, we came across a Royal Caribbean cruise from Colón, Panama, to Cartagena and Santa Marta, Colombia, and from there to the Netherlands Antilles’ “ABC’’ islands, Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao. Nearly buried on the website was the brief note that the cruise is sold almost exclusively to Latin Americans, designed to meet their tastes in entertainment, food, and beverages. Spanish would be the primary language aboard ship.

My Spanish is rusty at best, but my husband, Bob, has a decent command of the language, and the destinations sounded great. We booked a week aboard the Enchantment of the Seas.

As English-speakers, we would be a small minority among the possible 2,446 passengers.

Once on board, Colombians and Panamanians celebrated their top rankings at a champagne reception, cheering “Eso es! Eso es!’’ (“That’s the way!’’) when the captain announced where the passengers were from. Shouting “Eso es!’’ too were the next most numerous, from Chile, Venezuela, and Argentina. The 150 Americans and Canadians were more subdued.

That good-natured international rivalry reached fever pitch late one night when a Latin dance contest demonstrated that salsa and meringue are a matter of national pride.

More than just dipping our toes into another culture, the cruise proved to be an entree to more meaningful, enjoyable conversations than one typically gets as a tourist abroad. Throughout the week, sharing meals and sightseeing created a common bond. Curiosity flowed both ways. We met Latin Americans well informed about US history and politics.

In 2005, the Enchantment of the Seas was enlarged and updated. The ship felt crowded only in the plush theater for the biggest extravaganzas, a Broadway-style musical and a fabulous Argentine tango performance. Neither needed translation, nor did our tango class taught by the show’s stars. Hugely popular Spanish-only comedy shows eluded our grasp, but a trivia contest was a riot and required only that we recognize American TV and movie theme music.

The experience isn’t for everyone. Lois Lustig, Elaine Bergenfeld, and their husbands, from Long Island, N.Y., said their travel agent failed to tell them everyone would be speaking a language they didn’t know. All four were still upset in the airport heading home.

“We picked this itinerary for the ABCs and because we had great past experiences with Royal Carib,’’ said Bergenfeld. “I had a good time, but the language barrier put a pallor on it. If I had known in advance, we would have picked another cruise. During the shows, when people laughed, I wanted to understand what was said. Even exercise classes weren’t translated.’’

Other Americans took it in stride. “We didn’t know, and it wouldn’t have mattered,’’ said Allen Graubau, a farmer from near Williamsburg, Iowa, vacationing with his wife, Linda, and two sisters. “If I’d known, I would have learned a few more phrases in Spanish beforehand, but we managed to communicate pretty well anyway.’’ Beth Grabau, a Farm Services Agency/USDA county director, agreed. “We have a growing Latino population in Iowa,’’ she said, “Being in the minority [on the ship] you could see and understand better how they feel.’’

Ship announcements were bilingual. Appropriate language newsletters appeared daily in cabins. All crew spoke English. Americans found one another by the Solarium pool. At dinner, without asking, we were seated at nearby tables by the maitre d’.

But Royal Caribbean seemed ill-prepared for the Latin Americans. Bars and the casino, usually big profit centers for cruise lines, were slow. It was easy to get a table in Chops, an excellent steakhouse where there’s an additional fee.

Myriam Scrugli, of East Somerville, explained the problem was US prices and brands. Originally from Colombia, she was vacationing with her sister and their father, from Bogotá, and with her daughter, Vivianna.

“We all had a great time,’’ said Scrugli. “The itinerary was unbelievable. The mix of people was terrific. But spa treatments and drinks were much more expensive than what I paid last week in Bogotá.’’ (Higher, too, than in Panama, we noticed post-cruise.) “We chose the trip thinking the food would be familiar for my father, and it wasn’t,’’ Scrugli said. “No arepas, no fried bananas.’’ Too few crew spoke Spanish. Latin Americans’ favorite beers weren’t stocked, and few bartenders could mix the traditional Brazilian drink, caipirinha, made with cachaca and lime. Instead, guests did without.

In Cartagena, where Miami-esque skyscrapers and colonial forts are reminiscent of Havana and San Juan, the population exceeds 1 million. Thick walls still protect the 400-year-old city from the Caribbean Sea and pirates who centuries ago lusted for gold and silver destined for Spain. Security is quite visible. We strolled narrow streets lined with low, yellow, sky-blue, and salmon-washed buildings, admired frescoes in a 16th-century cathedral, and bought emerald earrings. Balconies dripped with bougainvillea whose magenta and orange blossoms seemed to grow brighter as the sun grew hotter. Midafternoon, we cooled off in the ship’s pool, but we weren’t ready to leave Cartagena. Returning for dinner, our balcony table overlooked ancient Plaza de Santo Domingo, where white lights linked tree to tree and delicious aromas rose from lively cafe tables. Suddenly, a troupe of folkloric dancers appeared, dazzled, then slipped away.

Santa Marta, a city of 250,000, had less for tourists but we had no time to sightsee anyway. We were going to hike in Tayrona, Colombia’s most popular national park. During the hour-and-a half bus ride, along with regional history, our guide issued a warning.

“Stay in the middle of the paths,’’ she said. “Watch for snakes, black widow spiders, red ants that bite, insects that sting, and don’t touch the foliage. It causes a rash.’’ At the park, it got worse. A huge sign painted with a giant mosquito warned “Fiebre Amarilla’’ (yellow fever). Everyone sprayed.

Four young machine gun-toting Colombian soldiers accompanied our group of 22 at a distance. The other hikers, all Latin Americans, seemed to take this as normal, so soon we did, too. With views of the 19,000-foot Sierra Madre, the park’s spectacular setting reaches perfection at virgin beaches where the warm, blue Caribbean meets green forested cliffs. At water’s edge, among boulders, the soldiers posed for photos.

By the time we reached Curaçao, we were content just to shop and relax at a waterfront cafe. Bonaire has a growing reputation for eco-tourism. We saw windsurfers, snorkelers, scuba divers, and flamingos from a Jeep we shared with two New Yorkers. Charlie from Brooklyn and his Colombian-born girlfriend, Sandra, still struggle with each other’s language but, like us, they were having a grand time learning that despite one’s place of origin, at least on a vacation, we are often very much alike.

Janet Mendelsohn can be reached at

If You Go

Royal Caribbean International


Seven-night southern Caribbean cruise aboard Enchantment of the Seas. Departure from Col?n, Panama. Ports of call: Colon; Cartagena and Santa Marta, Colombia; in the Netherlands Antilles, at Oranjestad, Aruba; Willemstad, Cura?ao; and Kralendijk, Bonaire; then back to Colon.

Dec. 6-April 4. Per person (cruise only) from $529 for interior stateroom to $1,899 for deluxe/suites (Christmas week).