26 February 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 10: The Thrill of the Drum Hunt

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.

This transaction involves a guitar, not a drum.
But that's not really the point.
Today's location: Guayaquil, Ecuador
Today's telling detail: Christián's amused and frustrated yelling into his cell phone

It begins with the first person with whom Louis makes eye contact once he's off the boat. That's how his drum hunts always work. In this case, it's a customs official on the blacktop just off the gangway at the port of Guayaquil, Ecuador. And the official—a middle-aged man with owlish glasses and a chartreuse safety vest—is already on the task, talking on his cell phone, his tone all business. 

He snaps his phone shuts and turns to Louis. "The best place to find a drum is the Mercado Artesanal, in the middle of town. You can take a taxi there."

* * *

We need more information, so we ask another local standing nearby, one of the tour guides herding our fellow passengers into a white minibus. She says the same thing: Mercado Artesanal. 

"I like to triangulate," says Louis. Verifying the leads will keep us on track--we'll only be in town for a few hours, so we need accurate information. A third local at the pier says the same, so that settles it.

* * *

There are five of us along for the drum hunt; Louis Patler is our fearless leader. In his outfit of green t-shirt, khaki shorts, and running shoes, he doesn't look exactly conform to the fedora-and-machete stereotype of South American artifact hunters, although his attire is much far better suited for our specific type of fast-paced urban exploration. Louis is a social anthropologist and one of the speakers on the ship; his topics include "The Future of the Future" and—not really related to the rest of his lecturers--"Drum Hunting," a lecture he gave just a couple of days ago, while we were transiting the Panama Canal.

Louis's drum hunts are his introduction to a culture. Every culture has drums of some sort, he points out in the lecture, and each place typically has its own unique and traditional type. He has several drums on stage, all of which he's purchased on this very trip. He picks up a handsome, handmade wooden conga from Montego Bay, Jamaica, which he bought from a Rastafarian master drum-maker. It had been the guy's personal drum for years—the drum-hunting party had ended up at his house—and though Louis had admired the craftsmanship, he assured the charismatic drum-maker that, truly, he didn't need to buy it and take away this beautiful instrument that clearly had so much personal meaning. But the guy said, no, something told him it was time for a new owner. Louis should have the drum. Play it, cherish it. 

Louis has acquired dozens of drums over the course of his travels all over the world. But even though he loves drums, the real point of the hunt is not really to acquire an instrument but to see a new culture. It's an ice-breaker with strangers, it's the quest that serves as the framework for exploration, it's a way to see everyday life and meet people with similar interests. He puts the question to the audience: What's your quest? What do you want to find in each new culture? 

After the talk, I rush over to the lectern, all but elbowing people out of the way. I'd love to join him sometime, I tell him, trying hard to stay cool and suppress the eager, desperate, borderline petulant voice inside me: PLLEEEEEASE! TAKE ME WITH YOU THAT SOUNDS AWESOME LET'S GO RIGHT NOW.

* * *

There are no vans available for hire at the port of Guayaquil, evidently, only cars roughly the size of toasters. There are five passengers from the ship: Louis, me, Bill, Judith, and Suzanne. Not one of us is willing to miss this opportunity, so we cram into a tiny but well-kept sedan—Bill, Suzanne, and me in the back, Louis and Judity contorted precariously into the front as our driver, Christián, heads toward the market (which he, too, thinks is our best bet).

As we enter the market--a vast, modern warehouse space with warrens of shops selling clothing, bags, trinkets, and other merchandise--Louis instructs us in the fine art of seeking out the particular types of drums he wants, the older, more traditional ones. "I've learned to enter a shop and never look straight ahead," he says. Most people want the shinier, newer drums, so that's what the shopkeepers display most prominently. "I always look down low or up high." 

Now, if the words "Artisan Market" conjure images of, say, a woodworker hunched over a table, knife in one hand, intricately-carved piece of mahogany in the other, a pile of shavings growing below; or a weaver working at a loom, a brightly-colored blanket taking shape slowly but surely--well, if that's what you're thinking, you should probably give the Artisan Market in Guayaquil a pass. They have mass-made sweaters with ostensibly traditional patterns; they have mass-made maracas painted with the word "ECUADOR"; they have mass-made drums that are roughly the same general design as traditional drums, except they're much smaller and have your choice of such traditional motifs as Knockoff Sponge Bob or Bloblike Purple Thing With Teeth And A Tale--Oh, I Guess That's Possibly Barney.

There are bigger and better and less Barney-adorned drums, too, but they're all new. 

Christián is working the phone, calling everyone he knows who might have drum tips. And over and over, I see his face start to light up before he says, with a frustrated chuckle, “No, no! Estos son nuevos--el no los quiere. Solo viejo. Viejo, viejo!”  Those are new. This guy wants old.

* * *

On our second pass down one aisle of the market, we strike up conversation with a shopkeeper named Carlos. He looks a little bit like Mandy Patankin (Inigo Montoya) in “A Princess Bride.” Again, the same result: nuevo, sí; viejo, no. But Carlos is intrigued by these odd, inquisitive tourists, and he and Louis strike up a conversation, with Christián translating. Soon, Carlos is on his phone. He has a friend who he knows will have a drum. And the friend does. He's on the other side of the country, but he can get the drum to us next week.

There's a collective groan. We don't have a week. We only have a few hours. Christián shakes his head, laughing again. He's a professional but incredibly low-key guy, early thirties, wearing the professional-but-low-key guy's uniform of short-sleeved checked shirt and jeans. He's also clearly very amused by his atypical tourist charges. By this time, we've talked to nine different people, either in person or on the phone. Louis's record on one drum-hunt is twenty-one people before getting a drum; the minimum was two.

We linger in Carlos's shop, and after a time, he pulls out a small guitar from behind the counter and starts strumming it. He offers to sell it, and it seems like a joke, but Louis says, well, okay. It's a nice little instrument—and, hey, it's better than leaving empty-handed. Louis insists that Carlos play one last song on the guitar, a sort of blessing before it's passed on to the new owner, as the music fills this otherwise quiet corner of the Mercado Artesenal and we all grin goofily, a sense of collective accomplishment and kinship.

* * *

Christián is still working his phone, and as we leave the market, he has a new destination in mind. He's heard there's a musical instrument store not far from here.

The Ecko Music Store. You have to check all bags at the
front so, sadly, I have no photos of the scenes inside.
As it turns out, the Ecko Music store in central Guayaquil isn't that hard to find. It's a big store, two stories, both lined with broad windows showing off the wares to passersby: guitars, drums, keyboards, amps. There's also a giant disco ball that marks the corner entrance. It's probably four feet in diameter, big enough to serve as an exercise ball for, say, a Shih-Tzu, with several much smaller disco balls orbiting along the equator. The whole disco solar system is suspended from the broad overhang of a roof that caps the two-story building.

On the second floor, a twentysomething salesman wearing a hot-pink polo shirt--his store uniform--is showing off keyboards to a father and his young teenage son, a budding rock star in tight red pants, a black t-shirt, and canvas shoes. The kid is wearing playing Pachelbel's "Canon" (of course) and messing with the various buttons and knobs above the keys, testing out the effects and loops. The salesman pushes one button and suddenly the song sounds like a trumpet with a drum-and-bass beat, but the kid scowls and shakes his head, reverting back to the piano. As Louis investigates drums, Christián makes a slow, shy, self-conscious lap through the keyboard section, cautiously looking at each one and its price tag; the cheapest one is $1,060. His daughter plays the piano, he says.

Louis finds a traditional drum, well-made … and brand spanking new. But he decides that's all right. It's well-constructed, gives a great tone. He tells the salesman he'll take it.

Downstairs, as we head toward the exit, drum in hand, we stop for a moment to observe another scene unfolding. A group of nuns in flowing white habits is chatting intently with one of this slick young salesman, all of them carefully examining a sound mixing board. We watch the nuns gesture, explaining their sound-mixing needs, and then we head back to the street, drum in hand.

11 February 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 9: I Kissed a Fish (and I Liked It), or Neptune Day is a Very Strange Tradition

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.
King Neptune surveys his scalywag subjects.
Thanks to Dean Jacobs for the excellent photo.
Location: The Equator 
Today's telling detail: The long line to kiss the fish

When I heard that there was going to be some sort of ceremony when we crossed the equator, I figured there would be a good amount of droll pomp and circumstance, maybe a speech or two accompanied by boisterous cheering. I promised myself I would enjoy the moment and activities, and embrace the goofiness of it all as an active participant.

I had not counted on fish guts being involved in any way. I had certainly not counted on a bucket of green liquid--cold, frothy, slimy, noxious-looking stuff--being poured over my head, oozing its way into my every pore, its clammy tendrils matting my hair, pasting my shirt to my back, and making a particularly unwelcome pass below my waistband. Nor had I anticipated that I would not only volunteer for the experience but wait in line for it.

As I stand there, shivering, covered in goo--some of which, I have been told, once belonged to the inside of  fish--and standing next to two strangers in a similar state, I think to myself: this is how cults get started. Everything that follows only confirms this belief.

That's me in the yellow shirt, taking the Neptune Day plunge with my
fellow shellbacks. Thanks to Frank Murphy for the sweet action shot.
The three of us jump into the pool to wash off. When I clamor out, a beautiful woman dressed in a white robe stands next to a large, imposing man with green skin and wearing a crown--King Neptune, overseer of the ceremonies.

The woman in white waves a fish in front of my face and commands me to kiss it.

I demur, offering a sort of cheek-to-cheek nudge, like the French do. I'd rather not get too frisky on a first blind date, not just because it's a fish but because I know there are various mysterious illnesses are going around the ship, and I know the fish has had many suitors before me. As my eighth-grade health teacher might have put it, when you kiss a fish, you're kissing everyone the fish has kissed.

Suddenly the fish lurches toward me, aiming for my mouth.

"No, KISS it!" cackles the woman in white.

It's part of a tradition, I remind myself, followed immediately by the inner musing, for roughly the hundredth time this morning, that, man, do these ship people have some weird traditions, and, man, is this Neptune Day thing is the weirdest of them all.

They tell me it all goes back centuries--this is what seafarers have done forever to celebrate the equator crossing. I see this as proof positive that there is no surer recipe for bizarre, bad ideas than having lots of bored men in close quarters, removed from the rest of society. See, for example, Lord of the Flies, Animal House, or my high school soccer team bus. On an old-fashioned ship, you'd have the extra delirium-creating elements of malnutrition and not knowing if and when the map would simply run out and you'd be in real-life "here be monsters" territory. Given the circumstances, it's amazing, frankly, that they weren't doing this sort of stuff every single day, but managed to bottle it all up and wait for the equator crossing.

If you go read the Wikipedia page about "Line-crossing ceremonies," it's full of wry descriptions like this one from an officer on a ship called the HMS Blossom, observing a ceremony in 1825:

There were on board the ship a great number of officers and seamen, who had never yet gone South of the Tropics, consequently were to be initiated into the mysteries of crossing the Equinoctial line, and entering the dominions of Neptune; great preparations had been making since our leaving Woolwich, for an event which promised to some part of the crew great amusement, to the other great fear; many a poor girl at Woolwich, and at Spithead had been deprived of some part of her wardrobe, to adorn Amphitrite; from one a night cap and gown had been stolen, from another some other part of dress, and although I had no hand in it, I was as bad as the rest, for I was consenting thereto. An immense grey horse hair wig, sufficiently long to reach well down the back of Neptune, had been purchased in England by subscription, accompanied by a venerable grey beard to sweep his aged breast; a tin crown and a trident completed the regalia.
In many cases, though, the ceremony went way beyond silly costumes into straight-up hazing: beatings, tarrings, horrible stuff. In Charles Darwin's diary from his trip on the HMS Beagle, he recounts being shaved and put on a plank, at which point Neptune's minions
lathered my face & mouth with pitch and paint, & scraped some of it off with a piece of roughened iron hoop. —a signal being given I was tilted head over heels into the water, where two men received me & ducked me. . . . Most of the others were treated much worse, dirty mixtures being put in their mouths & rubbed on their faces.
So, hey, at least I've avoided that. And, I remind myself as I stand there on the pool deck, I've gotten conflicting information about the fish content in the green slime I've just washed off--some sources tell me there really are guts in there; others say it's just a few token drops of fish sauce in the whole big plastic cauldron. I never saw any actual internal organs slide past my eyes, so that's good.

But there is still a fish--a real, dead fish directly in front of me. It gazes back at me, its eyes amber circles with a black dot in the middle, glassy and unperturbed. Jaded fish, this one; been through a lot. "Dude, just do it already," it says to me. "Show me some lip-love. I'm not gonna bite you."

Everyone's watching. For the crowd, for the sailors who have had to endure far worse things, but mostly for my own sense of pride, it has to happen. I pucker up and lean in.

There were more odd Neptune Day festivities after the fish-kissing. And you can read all about them ... over on the Europe on Five Wrong Turns a Day Facebook page. Or send me a postcard and I'll mail you Part Two. Yup, sorry, I'm going to make you work for it. 

07 February 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 8: My Kind of Party

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.

Location: At sea, on the way to Guayaquil, Ecuador
Today's telling detail: The beds 

One day, I arrive back to my cabin to find, in the little shelf above the cabin number on the door, a gray sheet of paper carefully torn from a notebook and folded in half, to roughly the size of an index card. I'm baffled. The only things typically left for me are the pastel-colored Daily Explorer pamphlets, which are distributed to all rooms and list important information like the next day's Cocktail of the Day and schedule of speakers. This is useful because it lets me know when to start panicking and finally finish preparing that speech by retreating to the bar with my laptop and ordering a Cocktail of the Day.

But this is more intriguing, less panic-inducing. On the outside of the little gray piece of paper, centered and in handwriting far neater than my own, it says:

Inside, again centered and thoughtfully laid-out, is an invitation. Wine, cheese & crackers in Chuck & Ce's cabin, just down the hall.

So it is that a few days later, there are nine of us crammed into a small room, drinking wine and eating snacks and having one of those conversations that pinballs gleefully from one subject to the next.

I've brought my own chair from my room, at the request of the hosts, and I sit wedged between the built-in desk and the end of one of the two twin beds that flanks the sides of the room. Si--short for Simon--leans against the desk; his wife, Bertie, sits on the other side of me, on one of the beds. In all, four or five people are seated on the two beds.

This packed-together set-up lends the party a agreeably familiar air: I think to myself, This feels like college. Well, aside from the boat thing and the better quality of booze. And the fact that the conversation includes moments like Si's story about the guidebooks.

"Have you ever heard of Baedecker's guides?" he asks after Barbara--my new friend who introduced herself to me with  Manneken Pis postcard--mentions that I'm a writer who used a vintage Frommer's guide to tour Europe.

"Of course!" I reply. "They were the first guidebooks to have brand cachet and real name recognition." I want to continue with all the fascinating details of the books' little-known role in history, like the infamous Baedecker Blitz during World War II, but I catch myself before my mouth and brain are off to their usual Awkward Anecdote Races. Party small talk, I think. Keep it simple.

"Yeah, I used to have a whole bunch of them,” Si says. “Old ones, too--from 1919. I bought them in New York in . . . I think it was 1936." 

It bears mentioning: I am the youngest person in the room by at least thirty years. And yet my presence feels entirely natural here--the conversation flow rapidly and easily, one moment contemplative, the next sarcastic, even ribald. 

We talk about Trader Joe's snacks and blue eye/brown eye experiments. We agree that peanut butter filled pretzels are sublime and that racism is, well, pretty damn horrible. Eventually, as often happens in conversations among strangers traveling together, the topic turns to places we've been, places we've lived. Two of the women are startled to discover that at different times, they each lived in Cambridge Bay, a small Canadian town in the northerly reaches of Nunavut.

The conversation ricochets again and we're talking about toilets around the world. We're making stupid jokes, telling stories that, in other settings--not among friends, in a small cabin on a cruise ship--would make any of us blush. I'm struggling to keep up, frankly, while Chuck and Barbara and Bertie toss one-liners left and right. 

"I was on a train in India a few years ago, there were some squat toilets," someone says. "This guy was using it, on this bouncing train, and while talking on his cell phone. I don't know how he kept his balance without two hands on the railing!"

"Well," says Bertie, with the confident cackle of someone who knows she's about to get off a crowd-pleasing line, "At least he wasn't texting!" 

06 February 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 7: In a Quiet Nightclub in the Panama Canal

If you're just joining the voyage, you can catch up on the previous Enrichment Voyage posts over here. Or, if you prefer, you can also start from the top and read all the stories, oldest to newest, in one long post.

Location: The Panama Canal
Today's Telling Detail: The lack of empty seats

Most days, the Glazer Lounge is all but empty in the mornings--but most days, we aren't going through the Panama Canal.

It's about 11:30am, and the Glazer Lounge is packed with more people than I've seen since karaoke night. This time, though, there is no off-key warbling of "Don't Stop Believin'" and there are no parents covering their kids' ears and eyes as college students do a grinding, grinning version of "The Thong Song." The room is library-quiet. Above the empty dance floor, a now-stationary disco ball provides the room's only slight twinkle of liveliness. Nearly every one of the red C-shaped cocktail-lounge chairs is occupied; the frosted-glass-topped tables are spread with books and maps and paper cups of coffee taken from the dining room early this morning and long-since drained. But to get up to throw it away would be to risk losing your front-row seat for ... 

... For what? We're anchored, waiting for our turn to proceed to the next lock. The landscape isn't changing and, anyway, a drenching rain limits the view, even if it does lend the nearby islands an ethereal quality--tiny, misty, jungly Lost Worlds in miniature.

Of course, that's not the point. We're in the Panama Canal. It wouldn't matter if visibility were all of two inches. We might not that be all that impressed if the Loch Ness Monster suddenly poked its head out of the water in front of us, followed by a flotilla of unicorns ridden by Elvis. Because, honestly, there's basically nothing that can top the very existence of the Panama Canal and our current presence inside it. 

The Panama Canal. The very thought of it is unreal. In size (the thing cuts across an entire continent), in water usage, in history, in sheer ambition ... it's unreal. Even the seemingly minor details defy belief, like the fact that when you transit from the Caribbean to the Pacific you are, in fact, moving east. That can't be right. And those other ships passing by, the Panamax behemoths built specifically for this transit, their dimensions immense but calibrated down to the inch, to take up the absolute maximum amount of space in the canal locks. They shouldn't fit in that space. And those colorful cargo containers stacked high on the decks, a Brobdingnagian Jenga game designed by Mondrian. That's some CGI stuff, not reality.

When you're in the Panama Canal, there's really not much to see, which is perhaps the neatest trick of all. It's all so low-key. You'd think there would be fireworks, a laser show in the mist, a deep-voiced announcer proclaiming each ship's entry into the locks, followed by the chorus of "We Are the Champions." At least a neon billboard on the shore. That's how they'd probably do it back in the States, if we were building it now. 

I like it better this way, the unreal, ambitious project manifest in a way that makes your forget how unreal and ambitious it really is. We see only water, mist, trees, some other ships--the same sort of things we've seen basically every other day on this voyage. None of that has brought so many people to the Glazer Lounge before. 

But we need to be here, just like we needed to be out on the deck, stomping through puddles, at 6am, as the ship approached the Gatun Locks, the canal's entry point. We need to be here not for the things we can see in a glance but for what this whole experience represents--in a large sense, we're here simply to know that we were here. In the Panama Canal. Verifying with our own eyes, that, well, yes. This thing. It's real. All those stories, all that ambition, all that history, all that turmoil ... all that stuff. It's crazy. And it really happened. And now, even in our own small way, reading a book in a hushed cocktail lounge, we're a part of it.