30 January 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 6: Mr. Travel Writer Stays on the Ship

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: Colón, Panama
Today's telling detail: the cookies

The most adventurous thing I did today was buy cookies. I risked my life to do this. And they weren't very good cookies. But they were the highlight of my trip to Panama, because I hardly saw anything in Panama--arguably, I saw nothing genuinely Panamanian. 

For all but a half-hour or so today, Mr. Travel Writer stayed on the ship.


There's an assumption among a large portion of the population that "travel writer" inherently means things like swaggering, adventurous, worldly, dashing. Streetwise. Wise, period.

Those people have not read my book. As I confessed there, well ... 

I’m kind of a wimp. Trekking across Nepal holds zero appeal for me, and meditating in a forest sounds like a great way to get eaten by a bear.

Still true--even if, to be sure, I had made some small gains in the confidence and competence departments by the end of that trip. 

Throughout the Enrichment Voyage--and at other readings and author events--I've had all kinds of people ask me for advice. Where should I go in this city? How do I negotiate with a cab driver? What are your tips for finding the best, most authentic [insert Cool Local Thing]? 

To which my first reaction is to think, "Hell if I know. You're asking the wrong guy." 

But you can't say that when you're Mr. Travel Writer. People are counting on you, looking up to you for advice. You'll disappoint them and feel like a total phony if you confess that you're just as much out of your element as anyone else, just as inept at haggling with drivers and vendors, just as unsure which of those dumpy-looking streets will lead to unexpected delights and which one dead-ends at the Tourist-Hating Thugs Annual Convention & Ritual Sacrifice.

And you're just as susceptible to utter panic wisely-considered concern when warned about an unfamiliar town. 


Here are some fun facts about Colón:

  • It's the Caribbean gateway to the Panama Canal, the port closest to the entrance. That's why you, the tourist, come here. No other reason. It's about five miles by sea from the industrial port of Colon to the front door of the Gatun locks.*
  • It's the third-largest city in Panama, if you believe Wikipedia, with a population of 232,748 (ibid).
  • As we learned in the pre-port presentation, Colón is the second most dangerous port on our voyage. (You are probably wondering exactly what we all were wondering: Hold on, then, what's the MOST dangerous port? And I, like the presenter, will keep you in suspense until we get there.)
  • It's a high-risk, low-reward sort of place. There were excursions you could book through the ship (nearly all of which were sold out by this point), but there was basically nothing to see in the town itself--no big museums or interesting historic districts or anything like that--and it's evidently pretty dangerous to walk around on your own, as a tourist. I talked to a few other people who had been there before, and they all shook their heads. Don't bother. Stay on the ship and catch up on your reading.
  • Proof of the high-risk part: I heard of only two people who decided to ignore all the warnings and walk around town (together). They were robbed at gunpoint. Not kidding. 
  • Proof of the low-reward part: If you go to the Wikipedia page listing the largest cities in Panama, there's a representative photo of each of the top four. The photo of Colón is billed as the "skyline," and the brightly-colored buildings in the foreground appear to be the most interesting and well-kept structures in town. Those are, in fact, at the cruise port, and that photo was clearly taken from a cruise ship. I know because I snapped that same shot from Deck 7. 
  • There is a casino at the cruise terminal, just out of the left side of the frame in that "skyline" photo. There's also a Radisson there. And some restaurants and souvenir shops and a large store offering electronics at discount prices. But let's go back to that first one: there is a casino right there, as if it say to cruise passengers, "Okay, look, we realize there's not much for you to see or do here, but we do want you to get off the ship. So, here. Have a casino."

Mr. Travel Writer did get off the ship. It wasn't the casino that attracted me. It was the souvenir shop. Mostly, I needed to get some COLON-branded swag for a friend who has a delightfully immature sense of humor and, as it happens, also has colon cancer. (For you, Ari, I braved the mean streets of the Cruise Terminal Mall. I thought about posing for a photo in front of a city sign, giving Colón a one-digit salute on your behalf, but there was an armed guard standing right there and, well, I didn't want to cause an international incident.)

So I bought a red baseball cap with large white lettering reading COLON. I got some postcards. I went over to the edge of the terminal area and stuck my head outside that invisible tourist-protecting force field and into the street; I lived to tell the tale. 

And I went to the local big-box grocery store, just to see how the average Panamanian--or rather, the sort of Panamanian who shops at a store in a cruise terminal--lives. I headed for the cookie aisle, because my goal had been to sample the baked goods in every country, and this would have to suffice for Panama. There were the full range of Oreos--double-stuffed, inside-out, Christmas-themed--next to the full range of Digestive Biscuits and shortbreads and the like. As with the rest of the store, the shelves offered an intriguing mix of European brands and American brands, all flashy logos and layer upon layer of plastic wrapping. 

After much searching, I found a package of cookies that appeared to be made locally. Or at least there was no English on the package, and the little discs were filled with guava, meaning tropical, meaning probably from around here, or at least trying to be, and that's good enough for now, because I'm hungry.

In all likelihood, there really are a least one or two interesting things to do in Colón. In all likelihood, not everyone there is carrying a gun. 

But Mr. Travel Writer decided not to investigate. 

* Some bonus fun facts for you: 

  • The largest vessels that can fit in the locks are called Panamax ships, and they're built specifically for the purpose of transiting the canal at the absolute maximum size. 
  • Panamax ships are 950 feet long by 106 feet wide. Or, to it another way, they're about 18% of a mile long.
  • Therefore, it would take 28 ships, lined up bow to stern, to stretch from the Gatun Locks back to the port.
  • A chase across 28 Panamax ships would make an excellent scene in a Bond flick. They could call it "A Man, A Plan," in reference to the famous palindrome. Or, if the plot involved purging the bad guys from Colón, the title could be "Colón Cleansing." (You're welcome.)

27 January 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 5: Cartagena Dreamin'

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: Cartagena, Colombia
Today's Telling Detail: The bookstore

It's sometime after the third or fourth hour of wandering and eating (and wandering some more and eating some more) that one of us puts our amused, slightly perplexed facial expressions into words.

"I really can't believe I'm in Cartagena," Erica says with a small laugh. "Eating tamarind ice cream." She stops in the middle of the sidewalk, ice cream in hand, and surveys the scene.

"It's pretty great," I reply. "This is ... not quite what I expected." I take another bite of my own ice cream--guava, because, like tamarind, it seemed an appropriately tropical choice.

Our two companions chuckle and nod in agreement, even Charlie, a history professor who's been to this history-rich city before. Keith's smile isn't quite as big and goofy as mine or Erica's are at the moment, but his wide eyes signal his glee. He's an entertainer on the ship, a comedian and magician, used to being on stage, and he has the most expressive eyes I've ever seen, every slight widening or virtually imperceptible half-wink telling a story of its own.

There's something surreal and wonderful about seeing a place for the first time and feeling that out-of-body sensation of questioning if you're really here, doing this thing, in this unfamiliar place--because you'd swear that thirty seconds ago, you were still at home, living out your everyday life. Your brain hasn't quite adjusted to being on the road; you still get a sort of Novelty Buzz from the newness and strangeness of it all. That Novelty Buzz is especially profound if you've stepped straight into this new world from a ship that is basically a continuation of life at home, what with all its cushy amenities and familiar language and potable water. And the Novelty Buzz is most potent--most brain-tingling, most mood-enhancing--when a place is drastically different from your expectations.

Let's just put it out there: I did not anticipate being completely charmed by a city in Colombia, especially not after last night's pre-port presentation, which included warnings that there had been explosions in the country. So, you know, watch out for that.

The fact is, in the Venn diagram of tourist expectations, there is no overlap between Daydream Caribbean City and Colombia. 

Well, I'm here to tell you: It turns out that when you're thinking of your daydream Caribbean city, you're actually thinking of Cartagena, Colombia. The Caribbean that doesn't exist outside of your daydreams and the Colombia that doesn't exist at all, if you go by news headlines and Hollywood thrillers (always such an accurate indicator of reality) are somehow manifest in a single municipality on the Caribbean coast. 

Charlie and Erica walk along the top of the wall of the original fort.

In fact, Cartagena will see your Caribbean Daydream Checklist and up the ante. For example, there are two forts because. Charlie, the history professor, excitedly tells us the town's decidedly siege-filled past, as we stand on top of the stone walls surrounding the old town--these walls were the first fortifications, built in the 16th century. They did the job for a while, Charlie explains: "The locals can't take it. But here come the English and the French, and they've a lot more firepower. So now we need a bigger fort." He points to the hill on the other side of the walled city, where we see a massive fort surrounded by angular walls, the Castillo San Felipe de Barajas. It's impossible to overstate how massive and intimidating structure this is--it's the Spanish Colonial Death Star.

But for all that history and all those balcony-lined streets, it's a more discreet detail that sticks in my mind as the day's best moment, the town's most alluring feature. It's a small shop, part bookstore, part cafe, called Abaco. We nearly walk past it without noticing, but Keith is on the lookout for a place to get some water--it's a hot day--and spots the coffee shop display case just inside the front door. When he steps back outside, there's an Evian bottle in his hand and a look of delight in those expressive eyes.

"That's a really nice little place," he says to the rest of us. "You should go look inside."

The space is seriously not big--compare the footprint to a typical Barnes & Noble and it's probably not much bigger than, say, Self-Help or Teen Paranormal Romance. But there are very high ceilings, and large windows on the street side flood the room with light. A brick archway divides the room in two, and the bookshelves, stretching high above arm's reach, are tucked in a larger framework of exposed-brick walls, as though the books are revered icons on display in the niches of a church.

It feels like some ideal combination of library, chapel, and hip modern loft; an effortless blend of old and new, and crammed with books yet somehow uncluttered. We linger for several minutes, enjoying the calm and the utter charm of this store. Erica and I try to find our books, to no avail, although we do spot the Spanish translations of Fifty Shades of Grey and its sequels. And when we return to the bustling streets and outside, we look back over our shoulders, slightly dazed, the Novelty Buzz in full effect. In this city of unexpected delights, this is the most surprising and wonderful of them all.

23 January 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 4: Seasickness and Its Discontents

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, in transit from Jamaica to Cartagena, Colombia
Today's telling detail: The bear

Sea legs, it turns out, are most definitely a real thing, but no amount of acclimation can keep you steady on your feet in ten-foot swells.

It's a day at sea, and walking has become an exercise in slapstick comedy; the floor is a moving target, never quite where our feet expect it to be. Our attempts to stay upright are an exercise in absurd ambulatory adaptation. Dramatic recreation:

Outside the piano bar, three generally spry Road Scholars in their 70s are amused and frustrated:

First Man: Everyone's walking like they're drunk! 

Woman: I haven't walked like this since I was 23!

Second Man: It's embarrassing--stone sober but I can't stay up!

The effects of the waves on our gait is embarrassing, but even worse are the effects on the inner ear. Where there are swells, there is seasickness, and there are a whole lot of green faces today.

One person I meet says that the guy in the neighboring cabin has been holed up all day, making all manner of loud noises of nauseated agony: "He sounds like a bear!" My own stomach is feeling a bit topsy-turvy, though I'm actually mostly functional, a pleasant surprise, given my generally impressive/alarming abilities as a nausea magnet, capable of finding queasiness in the unlikeliest of conditions.

The clinic gives out free Dramamine, which is generous if amusingly Halloween-like, although probably the guiding principle is not benevolence so much as the crew's understandable desire not to have the evening's entertainment be a show called "800 People Projectile Vomiting."

The ship has its own coping mechanisms: four-meter-long stabilizing fins that are deployed in rough seas. As they're being deployed, they make the most horrible noise, an ominous THUNK THUNK THUNK that reverberates throughout the ship, as conversations stop and eyes widen and, inevitably, some smartass starts whistling "My Heart Will Go On." We hear it several times throughout the day, and it's never less than bone-chilling, even after a nearby crew member has offered smiling reassurance that's just the stabilizers. Not everyone has gotten this information, though, and I hear several people speculating, passing along rumors that evidently make their way to the voyage's Program Director, Nathan, who prepares a special slide for the evening's pre-port discussion:

"Please don't worry," Nathan says, with a patient smile, to the assembled passengers. "We are NOT running over a pod of whales."

21 January 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 3: Jamaica's Vital Signs

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: Montego Bay, Jamaica
Today's telling detail: The rebar

We're only about a mile from the port in Montego Bay when we spot the first unexpected sign, on a street corner. It's not the content so much as the placement and the precise form that are striking: atop the crossroads sign at intersection is fully-formed, 3D, larger-than-life KFC bucket. As we drive on, into the urban heart of the town, we notice that seemingly every street sign has advertising space at the top, as  though the roads themselves are brought to you by Juci Patties or Rainforest Seafood.

On the outskirt of town, we stop at the Great River Bridge, where the eponymous river drains into the Caribbean. The area here is incredibly lush, in that tropical way: palm trees, sugar cane, all manner of tall grasses and trees that I can't identify, the whole backdrop a showcase of every conceivable size and shape of leaf, every possible shade of green, with the occasional grace note of bright pink bougainvillea.

This is what we wanted to see. There are six of us along for the ride, and when we got into the van at the port, we asked our driver and guide, Mark, to take us out of the city. We want to see more, we said: the remote villages, the overgrown hills, the potholed, precarious road less traveled. Mark is an an affable native of Montego Bay, casual but professional in jeans and a untucked white button-front shirt. I guess him to be around forty.

The Great River Bridge, is our first stop. We park down the road a bit, where the highway shoulder is wider, and as we walk back toward the bridge, we pause to take in the rest of the scene. There's a field with two small soccer goals and a pair of goats roaming around. There's a three-sided and slightly ramshackle hut that is empty now but evidently transforms into a restaurant later in the day--a hand-painted sign reads "Las Vegas Jerk Shop." Out front, there's a grill fashioned from the metal inner part of a car wheel; a piece of rebar bent in half sits on top. Mark says this is called a coal pot. When we drive back this way a few hours later, we'll see a few people standing in the hut and smoke rising from the coal pot, a large hunk of meat on the rebar.

What most intrigues me, though, are the signs by the bridge. One identifies the body of water: GREAT RIVER. The sign doubles as an ad for Grace, a large food manufacturer in Jamaica. (See the photo at the top of this post.) Across the street is a sign reading, "Welcome to St. James," the Jamaican province we've just exited (the country has fourteen provinces in all); as we crossed the bridge, we had seen an identical sign saying, "Welcome to Hanover." In each sign, the Os are Pepsi logos, and a photo of a glistening, oh-so-refreshing Pepsi bottle stands to one side of the text.

Throughout the next several hours, as Mark drives us around the region, into the mountains, along remote roads, we'll see this over and over: municipal signs of all manner doubling as billboards.

Our group includes four Enrichment Voyage speakers: me; Susan, the artist-in-residence; Bob, a writer; and Dean, an author and photographer. Dean tells Mark that he'd like to visit a school, as part of his ongoing work to document people and cultures--when he's back in the States, he does presentations to schools, showing pictures and telling stories about what life is like for kids in other countries.

Mark laughs slightly the first time Dean says this, but then shrugs. Sure, let's find a school. By now, he's gotten used to some of our goofier tourist requests and our interrogation regarding Jamaican culture ("What kind of fish is that guy carrying?" "Are there many shipwrecks here?" "Are the police corrupt?")

The security guard at the gate of Merlene Ottey High School greets us with a quizzical look, but she lets us in anyway, pointing us to the school office, a one-story building painted in the brightest of yellows, with a grey corrugated-metal roof. Beyond the office are a few slightly larger but otherwise identical buildings, with students in brown uniforms walking around the the campus.

Dean offers his spiel to the principal, works his charm, and we're in. We wander the grounds for a few minutes, escorted by the principal, who answers our questions and introduces us to students and teachers. We visit a shop class and a drafting class, where Susan chats with some students about their drawings. The principal is quick to point out that there's also a computer lab and the standard curriculum of math, science, writing. Her pride in the school is evident.

As we leave, I turn back to look at the school and see that a slogan has been painted  on a low wall in the courtyard between the classroom buildings. It says: "Determination to succeed through commitment and service."

We drive on, higher into the hills, farther along the winding, narrow roads, the encroaching trees often forming a deep-green tunnel. Every now and then, a few houses appear--and they really do seem to appear spontaneously: it's all leaves and branches, leaves and branches, and then a hut suddenly bursts from the undergrowth. Sometimes, they're clustered together, forming a village; other times, there's just a lonely abode perched on the edge of the road, dangling above the steep drop-off below.

More than a few of these buildings are pieced together with scrap lumber of varying conditions, and many of these are tiny--not just one room, but so small that if any adults sleep there, it'd have to be standing up or lying across the diagonal. And several of these huts--structurally questionable and with no nearby neighbors--bear bright-red signs with white text: "Top up your Digicard Here." There does not appear to be any other commerce going on inside the buildings--no items for sell, no services offered. Just an all-but-empty hut with a red sign.

I'm confused and intrigued. In my mind, where I'm from, "Cell phone store" equals "Gleaming Verizon storefront at the mall"--or, at the very least, "Phone card store" equals "Random convenience store that also sells a gazillion other things."

After seeing a dozen of these signs, I ask Mark. Are they really selling phone cards here? In these overgrown, rolling hills, where the houses are, few, far-flung, and more than a bit ramshackle, do that many people have cell phones, let alone service?

Mark looks at me like I've asked the goofiest tourist question yet. "Yeah, mon," he says. "There's good coverage. People go to those stores to buy more minutes. We don't have contracts like in the United States--you just go to these places and get more time."

Near the end of our day of driving, Mark takes us into a posh subdivision overlooking Montego Bay. The housing here is considerably larger and typically surrounded by large fences.

Several of the houses appear unfinished. There's a complete ground floor--doors, windows, everything, and the places appear to be occupied. But it looks for all the world like the second story has been pulled off by some sort of impossibly precise tornado, which left behind only a forest of rebar protruding from the first floor.

We had seen this on the smaller houses in the countryside, too, over and over: one-story structures with rebar sticking out the top. But seeing them here, and feeling that same sense of confusion and wonder, is a good reminder that intriguing, unexpected, and culture-revealing things are to be found wherever you travel, not just the so-called "real" places out in the countryside, but even here in suburbia.

Of course, as Mark patiently explains, the second floor never existed. Yet. In someone's dreams, though, it does. The rebar is aspirational; it is the foundation of the future, the root of what's to come. Though it has no written words, this is the most important, telling sign we've seen all day. It says: When we have the money, we will keep building. And we know that day's coming, someday soon enough.

18 January 2013

Enrichment Voyage, Part 2: A Little Night Music

Location: At sea, en route from Nassau, Bahamas to Montego Bay, Jamaica
Today’s telling detail: The crowd’s sudden hush

The piano bar on Deck 6 is all but empty. There are about six of us including me, Sandra Day O'Connor, and a few of her friends. No one else, possibly because many people are still in the dining room, just down the hall, lingering over the first of three formal dinners we'll have on this voyage. At least a few cruise-ship traditions/expectations/stereotypes have carried over to the MV Explorer, and formal dinners are one of them, even if "formal" here is defined fairly loosely. A piano bar is also expected, of course, although this one has a sign above the black grand piano labeling this a study area named after a Semester At Sea donor.

But for this voyage, at least, it's a real piano bar with a real pianist, David, an Englishman with a tan blazer, a grey mustache, and low-key demeanor, even when he's playing--no body-rocking showmanship here, just sublime music. That's not to say he isn't graceful--he is, emphatically, his hands flowing across the keyboard like water over rocks, effortless and mesmerizing. 

This evening, he's playing the classics. I think I recognize some Gershwin, some Cole Porter, maybe some Hoagie Carmichael, probably some Nat King Cole. But I don't really know. The songs sound awfully familiar to me though I don't recall the lyrics or the title of most--they're tunes I've heard in the background of countless movies, or maybe at my grandparents' house years ago, or possibly ... Well, I'm not sure where I've heard them, but some sort of Nostalgia Lobe in my brain is buzzing in the most pleasing way.

For a few numbers, David's wife, Leanne, joins him on vocals. She's every bit as good, her voice lush, her phrasing expressive. She sings what she says is the first song she ever sang for David, “Embraceable You," and then we all sing “Ain't Misbehavin'." Well, everyone else sings, because they know all the words, while I kind of mumble until we get to the chorus, at which point I finally join in, shyly: "Ain't misbehavin', sending all my somethingsomethingsomething!" 

A few people walk by, just leaving dinner, and sit to listen. Many of them are quite nicely dressed--men in suits, women in cocktail dresses, not the usual ship attire.

Leanne puts down her microphone and goes to sit down, to which Sandra Day O'Connor says, "You should go sing some more”

Leanne laughs and says the only thing you can say to that: “Yes, your honor.”

I see a large and especially well-dressed group coming down the hall, a couple of dozen students from Morehouse College, who are on the ship as a sort of December term. Several of the young men are wearing maroon blazers with the Morehouse insignia.

Leanne finally has permission to take a rest, and David is between songs. One of the Morehouse men asks if he can sing something. David shrugs. Sure, if it's a song he knows, too.

"How about 'Amazing Grace'?" asks the student. He's tall, in a black suit, with an orange and navy blue bowtie.

He picks up the mic and looks at the ground, suddenly nervous. I'm nervous for him. It's a song we all know and have heard sung brilliantly. No pressure or anything.

He looks at David, takes a breath, puts the mic to his mouth, and closes his eyes.

What happens next will become shipboard lore for the next week. Did you hear about ... ? Were you there? Was anyone actually there? Did it really happen?

I was there. It actually happened. He was absolutely astonishing, his voice confident but with a plaintive edge, each word seeming to carry the weight of the world, beautifully.

There is not a dry eye in the place by the time he gets to the end. He motions to David to do it once more from the top, faster this time. More of a rollicking, gospel flourish. Our moist-eyed hush turns into an giddy buzz, all foot-tapping and body-swaying. And by the end, we're all on our feet, applauding with everything we've got. 

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.  

14 January 2013

Enrichment Voyage: Prelude to a Cruise

Location: Fort Lauderdale
Today'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.