16 January 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part I: Strangers on a Ship

A scene of heartbreak: there are lines for a game (under the
stacked deck chairs) but it ain't shuffleboard.
Location: Nassau, Bahamas
Today's telling detail: Grid lines on Deck 7

The first day on the ship reminds me of my first day of college. A day full of potential, where the overwhelming newness of it all is made manageable by the realization that it's all equally novel and strange to everyone else. The strangeness and novelty are both ice-breaker and social-leveler. We're all in this together, a communal sense of discovery and confusion. We don't have any social networks already established. So ... will you be my friend?

I meet Mary and Kelly first, before we board the ship in Fort Lauderdale. They're a married couple from Charlottesville, Virginia (Semester At Sea is based there, at the University of Virginia) and staff on this voyage--she's the ship's librarian; he's the ever-patient computer lab guru. (Since they're probably reading this: Hi, Mary! Hi, Kelly! Did I get all that correct?)

We bond over, among other things, my quest for shuffleboard. Over lunch in the Garden Lounge, shortly after we board, I confess to them that for the last several weeks I have been telling my friends that my goal for this trip is to play shuffleboard with Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. (Why? Because. Obviously.) Mary and Kelly think there might be a court, but probably no equipment. They would know: they've been on the ship before, as staff for Semester At Sea. As we finish our meals, Kelly says, with a gleam in his eyes, "Well, I know what we need to do next: find the shuffleboard court."

Off we go on our quest.


In the next day and a half, as I get my bearings and my sea legs, I will make other new friends in equally unexpected ways. (And hello to all of them who read this, too.) For example:

Barbara, who I meet the first night, while the ship is en route to The Bahamas. As I'm heading to the purser's desk to ask a question, I pass a group of several people chatting in Tymitz Square, the ship's central rotunda. A woman with short dark hair, who I guess to be around sixty, steps out from the group, holding a postcard. "Excuse me," she says as she hands me the postcard with a mischievous smirk. The postcard is a drawing of Manneken Pis, the symbol of Brussels: a small statue of a urinating toddler. Not at all coincidentally, he's in my book about traveling Europe. (Why? Because. Obviously.) I stare, speechless. When my brain finally unfreezes, I think: I have a stalker! and then, recovering, I think the more apt thought: This is one of the most thrilling, charming ways I've ever met someone. And she wouldn't have given me this if she hadn't really liked my book. We start chatting and she mentions that she's a Lifelong Learner--a Semester At Sea participant over 40 and not enrolled in a college but auditing the courses on the ship. Then she gestures to her friend Connie and says that they were about to head back to her room for some wine and cheese. Would I like to join them? Of course I would.

Chuck and Ce, who knock on Barbara's door just as we're trying to get a bottle of wine open. Chuck has the magic touch and gets the deed done. He's also naturalist and one of the other featured speakers. They've come to retrieve an ornate wooden bench Barbara has been storing for a mutual friend, but they stay for wine and cheese. (To recap: I meet Barbara via a postcard and Chuck and Ce because of a bench. Strange first encounters are the root of friendship.)

Mandy, a bartender at the Glazer Lounge, the large bar area at the front of Deck 7. I wander into the lounge while exploring the ship after saying goodnight to Barbara and company. It's a quiet space--empty aside from Mandy, who stands behind the bar. He's middle-aged, soft smile. His low-key demeanor and efficient movement when making my caipirinha indicates he's been doing this for a while. He has: more than ten years with Semester At Sea (caught up in conversation, I forget to write down the exact number). I ask if he has any particularly interesting stories, and he casually mentions a rogue wave. He has my attention. It was back in 2005. More than 60-feet tall. "I thought I was going to die," he says, slightly shrugging, the soft smile seeming to take on an edge of pain.

Erica, another author who will be speaking, and who I meet while we're working at one of the tables for passenger check-in the next day, in Nassau. We ask for everyone's ship IDs, then check a little box regarding something I no longer recall. One of the people we card turns out to be William Webster, the former head of both the CIA and the FBI, a fact that we learn from Sandra Day O'Connor, who is standing nearby. (All of this is true, I promise.) Later that night, we sit next to each other during the opening festivities and introductions. We turn out to have identical sense of humor--and, because of this, a tendency to lean over to each other and offer commentary regarding what's happening onstage. For the record, it's not all snark. But maybe, just maybe, there's a bit here and there, when deserved.

Jim & Adrienne, who sit in the front row of my first talk the day after we leave Nassau. They attend Erica's lecture that morning and befriend her; she tells them to come to my talk for more of the same sense of humor. They tell me I'd better be funny. I tell them to lower their standards. I'm only slightly joking, because the truth is, I'm nervous about this lecture. I know the basic material, but I've never given this given this talk before (about the social history of guidebooks). In fact, until about 3am this morning, it wasn't, strictly speaking, entirely written. But Jim and Adrienne laugh--at all the right points, even--and it seems genuine. Ditto for most of the other people in the audience.


One of the lines that goes over well is my comment about how, this being a cruise and all--"It's a voyage, not a cruise!" someone yelled from the back--I had hoped to play shuffleboard. With Sandra Day O'Connor.

What I don't say, because it's too painful, is what I discovered with Kelly and Mary that first afternoon:
There is no shuffleboard on the MV Explorer.

In my memory, as I stood on Deck 7, taking in the scene, I said it out loud, my voice edged with dejection, the words ragged and dragged out: "There is ... no shuffleboard ... on the MV Explorer." I was staring at a large rectangular grid painted on the ground. This was the possibly-a-shuffleboard-court thing that Kelly and Mary recalled from their previous voyages. It was a grid with numbered squares, yes. But it was empirically not a shuffleboard triangle.
My dream was crushed.

"Maybe we could get some chalk," someone said. "Or some tape."

"No, they probably won't let us do that."

My mind churned through the possibilities; it's still churning when I make that joke at the lectern. There has to be a way. My shuffleboard dreams may be only a few weeks old, but they will NOT ... die ... easily.  


  1. That postcard story is the best thing ever. And I am going to be kept up at night until I know how this shuffleboard thing shakes down.

  2. Meeting you first got our trip off to a great start, but we are sorry to have played a role in your Day 1 disappointment - the unsuccessful quest for shuffleboard. And we still don't know anything about that grid on Deck 7.

  3. Oh, no worries, Kelly and Mary--I enjoyed our little excursion to investigate! The disappointment was more than offset but the excellent company and the thrill of the hunt. Yeah, I'm still puzzled about that grid, too. What is it?! And I do wish I'd figured out a way to play SOME sort of shuffleboard on it. Next time.


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