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. 

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