Location: Fort LauderdaleToday's telling detail: Izzy's faint smirk
In a hotel lobby that embodies vacationing at its most melancholy--an out-of-order cigarette vending machine along one wall, a gift shop called Forget Something? along another--a rotund man with flat-top hair is calling out names of cruise ships. He speaks each one into his microphone with the fervor of a carnival barker, his pastel shirt sweaty from the strain of his enthusiasm.
"Okay, next up is The Infinity! Oooh, you folks are gonna love this. It's a great boat with really good food and eight restaurants. You'll eat very well, I'm telling you."
The barker's name is Izzy. His job is to gather the hotel's patrons and herd them into the white vans waiting outside. The vans will take us to the Port of Fort Lauderdale, just a few miles down the road, to our respective dates with the all-inclusive, sun-dappled, rum-punch, chaise-longue version of manifest destiny that is the Caribbean cruise vacation. Nearly all of the hotel's patrons, the shuttle driver from the airport told me last night, are on their way to or from a cruise ship. Fort Lauderdale is the biggest cruise port in the nation, he said, probably the world. For him--for everyone at this hotel--it's job security.
Izzy's expression falls when I inquire about my ship. "Yeah, that one, I've heard of it," he says with a facial twitch that I recognize as the customer service industry's mask for a sneer. "That's the educational one, right? It's not a real cruise ship."
Izzy is correct on both counts. The ship is called the MV Explorer and it's best known as the floating campus of Semester at Sea. It is 590 feet long and 25,000 tons--plenty big, to be sure, but notably smaller than The Infinity's 965 feet and 91,000 tons. And the journey upon which I am about to embark is not--as I will be informed repeatedly by various of my fellow passengers, most definitely not--a cruise. It's a voyage, if you please. Officially: an Enrichment Voyage. Over the course of the next twenty-six days, we'll visit ten countries and cover more than seven thousand nautical miles before disembarking in San Diego.
The Enrichment of the name will be provided by a wide range of workshops and lectures. The speakers include a wide range of deeply impressive people: bestselling authors, a Buddhist monk, esteemed researchers and academics from various fields. And the father of modern reality television.
And Julian Bond, the civil rights leader whose long line of credits includes being a founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and the chairman of the NAACP.
And Justice Sandra Day O'Connor.
And then there's ... me. The resident travel writer. I'll be giving a few talks and leading some workshops on, well, travel writing.
I'm excited, even if Izzy is doing his best to dampen my mood. If I'm to be honest, though, I'm also slightly terrified. It's intimidating company, for starters--whimper-inducing, hypertension-creating intimidating.
I've also never traveled quite like this before. The only other cruise I've been on was a long weekend thing from Seattle to British Columbia and back, with my parents and my sister and her family. I passed the sixty hours or so (1) on deck, bundled in a jacket and shivering, as one does in the Pacific Northwest in October, and (2) indoors, in slow-motion pursuit of my just-learning-to-walk toddler nephews.
This Enrichment Voyage, I'm thinking, will be rather different, in ways that I can't even begin to comprehend. Longer. Sunnier. Lonelier, since I won't know a soul, and Maren won't be joining me for two weeks.
Izzy's disdain, oddly, has put me at ease. The impression he's giving me: It's a small ship. It's full of nerdy weirdos. I think: My kind of people.
Over the course of the next three weeks and change, I will eat tamarind ice cream and kiss a fish and decline the opportunity to buy freshly-skinned iguana at a public market. I will go zip-lining and drum-hunting. I will meet impoverished children who clamor into boiling, sulfurous-steam-belching mud pits to gather hot clay for tourists. I will cry at the sight an unspeakably beautiful library. I will challenge Justice Sandra Day O'Connor to a game of shuffleboard. I will drive through active volcano zones and browse countless cheesy souvenir shops. I will fall in love with a city in Colombia, much to my amazement, and be terrified by a city in Panama and be exhilaratingly baffled by a city in Peru. I will become exceedingly fond of just about everyone on the ship--my fellow passengers, the crew, the staff.
I will give lectures about the art of storytelling, and then have genuinely amazing and odd experiences that defy easy retelling, as if mocking the very points that I was trying to make at the lectern. And in the course of the coming weeks, here on this blog, I will do my very best to recount them nonetheless.
Expect short posts capturing interesting moments or impressionistic snapshots of the ports, the people, the ship life. My goals: new material every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday for the next--count 'em--nine weeks or so. (If I say it out loud, it might actually happen.) And if you were on the ship, please feel free to chime in; I'd love to hear your comments and your own stories.
All right. Let's start the engine, untie the ropes, and get this voyage underway.
N.B. Just so we're clear, since I was a speaker, Maren and I were traveling as guests of the Enrichment Voyage, for which I remain profoundly grateful and about which I'm still kind of amazed. I mean: Julian Bond. Sandra Day O'Connor. And me. I still don't think that makes sense. But I'll take it.