The Cruise Ship Professor

9th June 2022

By Emeritus Professor Kathryn Robinson

What do an anthropologist and a cruise ship have in common? Well, more than you’d imagine. When they come together, the knowledge and learning of our world only becomes more real. This is what happened when Emeritus Professor Kathryn Robinson (Kathy) first hopped on board a new journey as an anthropologist.

When Australia closed its borders against COVID in February 2020, I was on a small cruise ship in Indonesia, ready to give lectures and guide passenger experience on a cruise 'Circumnavigating Sulawesi'.

The island of Sulawesi has been the prime focus of my research in the 50 or so years that I have been an academic anthropologist. I was an ANU PhD student in 1985 and then worked at the RSPAS, or Research School of Pacific and Asian Studies (a forerunner of CAP) since 1995. The broad interdisciplinary and lively research culture of RSPAS meant that I imbibed an extraordinarily broad knowledge of Asia and the Pacific, not only anthropological knowledge, but from all the disciplines in the School.

Looking to opportunities post-retirement, in 2013 I agreed to work on a small ship cruise (this one had around 50 passengers) circumnavigating Sumatra. This was my introduction to a pleasurable activity in retirement, one in which I could share with curious travelers some of the deep knowledge I had acquired in my life as an academic researcher. The small ship cruises take passengers on voyages of discovery that encompass many hard-to-reach places and provide well- organised activities overseen by 'experts' that include marine /diving professionals, ornithologists, geologists as well as anthropologists. Activities 'on shore' include choregraphed cultural and ritual performances for which I provide 'interpretation.

Cruise1Passengers coming ashore, Papua New Guinea

The activities are organised by local agents and, in many cases, there is little information on where we are headed. Driving out of Rabaul where the ship had unusually come alongside, we headed to the hills and witnessed an extraordinary fire-lit ritual with dancers in magnificent masks walking through coals. I had a flash of realisation; these were Baining people who are the subject of anthropological debate beginning in the 1930s.

Back on the ship, I logged on to the ANU library and refreshed my understanding of the debate (about being boring and lacking certain social features), which their vibrant performance gave lie to. Years later, on the Indonesian island of Tanimbar, close to Australia’s northern shore, the set piece cultural performance in the ritual stone boat, where customary political roles are enacted were disrupted when a fight broke out among the actors. I made a few enquires of spectators and came to understand that one of the participants, in a play for local power, had sat in the wrong place, 'trying it on' to claim elevated status in this performance.

It’s very exciting for an anthropologist to find herself in hard-to-reach places where human actions and desires that you know from reading, are enacted in front of you. Or for an anthropologist of Indonesia to sail through Polynesia to Easter Island and understand many aspects of the deep historical connections of Austronesian speaking peoples.

Cruise2Canoeing through the mangroves to Tufi, PNG

Another unforgettable moment was a cultural performance in an island in the d'Entrecasteaux passage in PNG, where young dancers enacted the kula exchange, an iconic study for all undergraduate anthropology students. The dancers wore head dresses representing kula canoes and moved in two circles; those with the ceremonial necklaces moved one way and the armbands the other, meeting up to exchange. Later, the dancers excitedly asked me if I’d noticed that when the trade canoes met up, the dancers conversed in the language of the place represented in this enactment of the kula.

The hallmark of anthropology is the 'participant observation' methodology, the deep curiosity about the minutiae of everyday lives, anywhere and everywhere. I have found that the 'ethnographic habitus' stands me in good stead with people everywhere, not just in Indonesia where I have the advantage of speaking the national language. I have had wonderful encounters with extraordinary people and have been able to share interactions with some of the passengers, in markets, around cultural performances.

Cruise3Impromptu cloth market for passengers, Sumba Eastern Indonesia

Cruise4Community leader waiting to greet passengers Savu Indonesia

This very satisfying 'add on ' to my academic career has been stopped--hopefully temporarily--by COVID, but the cruise industry is coming back. The small ship cruises that offer itineraries to places often only reachable by sea—and where go ashore in through zodiacs or lighters from ships anchored off shore—are only open to people who can afford the relatively high cost. But for their money, the passengers experience water sports (swimming, canoeing, diving and snorkeling) and land-based visits to village communities, small towns and national parks. They are entertained with performances by local people.

Cruise6Village vendor displaying Areca nut and mustard stick, Papua New Guinea (for making betel pan)

Cruise7Souvenirs set out for sale to passengers

I once had the experience of returning with a research colleague to the village of Lamalera on Lembata island (eastern Indonesia), where I had been on the cruise ship a few days before. I took the opportunity to discuss with them what they got from the visit. They agreed that everyone who participated on the extraordinary cultural displays (from spinning and weaving, to dancing; from blacksmithing to recreating the famous harpooning of whales off their large canoes) had received cash payment. Their main complaint was that the passengers had not purchased many of the cloth and other handicrafts they had prepared. But their biggest grievance concerned the actions of a European tourist who had been there on our arrival: he climbed on the chairs they had set out for the passenger-audience so he could get better photos, and then jumped onto one of the boats from which they were displaying prowess in launching harpoons and jumping in to the water - reenacting whale hunting (which we watched form the deck of the ship). I assumed he had some kind of relationship to the community, as they did not stop his actions. Their complaint? He had not paid to take the photos. “Your passengers had paid so they had the right-he didn't”.

This was an interesting lesson to me about how tourism comes to figure in the economies of these remote locations with subsistence economies. I was reminded of an experience on another cruise where a man complained to me (speaking Indonesian) that the payment he was supposed to receive had not been passed on by local officials. The local 'fixer' travelling with us had contingency funds to directly pay him. For the anthropologist, this event gave me insight into ideas of ownership of resources that are 'free gifts of nature', how this man came to have rights as the 'owner' of a bird of paradise colony that keen birders had visited in the early morning.

Between 2013 and 2019, I worked for three different companies on over 20 cruises. Besides feeding my pleasure of engaging with people in many places and gaining deeper insight into their lives, working on the small ships has provided many new experiences such as drift snorkeling in Raja Empat marine park (in The Coral Triangle) or an encounter with whale sharks in the Philippines; not to mention the many hours on deck with the passionate birders who are always happy to share their experience.

Cruise5The owner of the dusun burung ‘bird village’, Raja Ampat Indonesia

Cruise8A big moment: meeting the late Seaman Dan on Thursday Island

Oh, and one day I saw the 'green flash' as the sun went down.

We look forward to sharing more of Kathy’s unique experiences in the future, once the COVID ship has sailed; when we can finally say we’ve truly cruised past the shadows of the pandemic.

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