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!"