“Here the people could stand it no longer, And complained of the long voyage.”—Christopher Columbus
Vacations follow fashion, like everything else, and now cruising is back. Full employment, cheap oil, a flush Wall Street—the problem is what to spend it on. And think of the Titanic. Never mind that it sank. Those passengers were so elegant, so romantic, so pampered. Don’t we deserve some of that good life?
I recently had an irresistible offer. The director of cultural affairs (or public-relations man) of a Greek cruise line called me. He had read my biography of Hemingway and liked it. He was looking for a few good men—or women—to entertain the passengers on an upcoming cruise to the Amazon over the Christmas holidays. In exchange for three lectures about South America, my daughter, my wife, and I would get a 12-day luxury cruise from Guadeloupe in the West Indies to Manaus, a thousand miles up the river, in Brazil.
This promised to be an exceptional voyage. Not only would we be on the first ocean liner to sail the Amazon, but there would be other lecturers on board: a scientist who would explain the ecology of the river and an astronomer who would point out the stars, especially Halley’s Comet, which was making a rare pass round the earth and would be visible in the Southern Hemisphere. As well as the usual dance band, we would have some classy young musicians on the trip: a soprano, a tenor, and an émigré Russian pianist.
However much you have traveled—and we had been around the world twice in our youth, with no guidebook and very little money—cruising suggests elegance, glamour, and the traditional trappings: the captain’s table, officers in neat uniforms, evening gowns, fancy dress parties, ballroom dancing, stewards serving beef tea, trap shooting, deck quoits (whatever that is). We looked forward to traveling to exotic places, being catered to, having no responsibilities and meeting new people, perhaps even strange or romantic ones. My wife scanned her wardrobe (faded jeans and sweaters) and bought a cocktail dress. The daughter got some out-of-season shorts. I took my suit to the cleaners.
The trip began in Miami, where we looked cautiously at our fellow passengers (identifiable by their luggage tags) as we waited for the charter flight to Guadeloupe. We had plenty of time to scrutinize each other— 11 hours, as it turned out. There was no explanation for the delay, nor any prediction of when we would leave. It was like traveling on Aeroflot. The cruise line was hopelessly disorganized, tried to do everything on the cheap, and was not especially concerned with the welfare of the passengers. Tempers frayed, and we settled into the complaining mode typical of a large group of thwarted Americans out to have a Good Time.
Our flight was due to leave at two in the afternoon and reach Guadeloupe at six. We were to be whisked to dinner on the ship and spend the evening seeing the island. Instead, after a chaotic checkin (more bad vibes all round—we would have 12 days to remember who pushed ahead of the old ladies in the line), our flight finally left in the middle of the night and arrived at five in the morning. Guadeloupe was a pastel-washed town in the bleary dawn, and every French shutter was firmly closed. Somehow the crew—as sleepy and exasperated as we were—got us all into our cabins, and we fell asleep.
We were summoned to breakfast at eight, after only three hours in bed, on the Orwellian intercom we came to despise. How could they do this to us? In the morning light, our outside cabin looked poky and cramped, the narrow shower required some skill to negotiate, and our toiletries obstinately slid into the sink. But we thought we’d better get some food, our first real meal in 24 hours. So we made our way to the dining room, where a ragged crowd was eating scrambled eggs. No sooner were forks raised to lips when the alarm sounded and the waiters urged us to our lifeboat stations. Some passengers obeyed, but most either went on eating or stayed in their cabins and tried to sleep. Such masterly planning was typical of this cruise, a kind of floating Fawlty Towers unleashed on the high seas.
Later in the day, I chatted with two Canadians, one large, one skinny, who shared a cabin lower in the pecking order than mine. The large one had taken the upper bunk, which collapsed, sandwiching the thin one. The steward finally extracted him, but instead of apologizing, he simply waved his arms about, in a manner worthy of Basil’s employee Manuel. “Well, whadda ya expett?” he cryptically asked. Most of the paying victims were wealthy, conservative, and dull. But a spirit of camaraderie and adventure prevailed as things continued to go badly wrong on the ship of fools.
To make up for lost time, our scheduled stops in the Caribbean islands of St. Vincent and Bequia were cancelled. No apology and no compensation was given to the passengers—not even a complimentary bottle of wine to soothe our feelings. The waiters, mostly flatfooted Greeks of a certain age, grumpy after a lifetime of toiling in the tavernas of Piraeus, tried to ignore the passengers. They knew little English, in any case, and could not understand Southern American accents. They often brought the wrong order to puzzled but helpless diners or (an old Greek custom) took a tithe by leaving part of it out. When I asked the wine waiter to describe one of the bottles, which on the menu had no year or vintage but a high price, he simply said: “Very nice. Very new.” When I frowned at this, he suddenly shifted his tack to “Very good. Very old.” Ironically, we discovered the Greek food—studiously avoided by most of the passengers, who clung to the tough steaks and rubber chicken—was excellent. We ordered it whenever we could.
Before we had met, the astronomer had arranged for my family to sit with his at one table. This was a well-intentioned move. As a fellow academic and father of daughters, he assumed we would be compatible. And so we were—but not for three meals a day. After the first week, I was ready to jump overboard. His wife was of the thin, worrying variety, and he professed not to drink wine—until my bottle was placed upon the table. He lost no time in confiding that he used his college salary to pay his taxes on the ample royalties of his textbook. But when his wife asked him to order a bottle, he always refused. Each night he faithfully set up his telescopes on deck, but it was often too cloudy to see very much. Eventually we were rewarded with a white blur which, he assured us, was Halley’s Comet.
It took several days for the passengers to recover from this fraught beginning and start to enjoy themselves. We stopped in Grenada, which had been invaded by our heroic troops. No signs of this campaign remained. In Tobago—which our cruise pamphlet called “the idvllic island of Robinson Crusoe,” though that fictional character had no connection with the place—we picnicked on the beach.
The daily routine makes a cruise a somewhat regressive experience, a bit like being at a giant house party or a protracted family reunion, where rituals are observed. At first, it is fun to dress for dinner, to go to the captain’s cocktail party. You have a program of events, with everything laid out for you, including what degree of dressed-upness is required each night. There’s a hairdresser and a manicurist, a sports director and a masseuse, a steam bath and a barber, a sickbay, a doctor, and a reading room. The ship is a shell in which you are encased and encapsulated, and all these strangers become as familiar to you as your neighbors at home. In fact, they become a good deal more familiar, since you see them in all varieties of dress and undress, and there is nothing to do but talk to them or observe them eating, drinking, and speaking to other people. Ships encourage intimacy. People tell each other confidences—and perhaps lies—much as they might in railway compartments. This is perhaps one of cruising’s charms.
In our somewhat impersonal world, where most people travel the fastest way between two points, hoping for as little contact with others as possible, cruising is a real anomaly. You take a completely circular journey, hope to lose all sense of time, and don’t mind in the least meeting as many congenial people as possible. But there’s the rub. The person you enjoyed talking to once may be a bore by day three, and your routes of escape are limited.
I found it difficult to read or write on deck or in the lounge. I kept looking up, as the people swirled around, so I would not miss a chat, a deal, or an assignation. We took home plenty of unread books and a couple of blank journals. After dinner, instead of attending the nightclub, dance hall, and gambling casino, I’d stroll on deck, eager to be on my own for a bit, and then retire to my room to read. One evening, I met a middle-aged but newly married couple who pointed to the sky and said: “That’s our star!” When I asked about that romantic idea, they proudly showed me a deed that proved they had actually bought a piece of the solar system.
In some ways, a cruise resembles an academic conference: a place to observe flirtations, pairings, quarrels, and hurt feelings. We soon got to know the prettiest young woman on board, eager for adventure and adept at eluding her mother. When we docked outside Port-of-Spain in Trinidad on Christmas Eve, she went off on the tender to explore the bars with the handsome Greek cabaret singer, he of the shirt open to the waist, gold medallion, and hairy chest. Hours later, as the ship was steaming off to sea again, I met her mother scouring the halls. “Where on earth can that child possibly be?” she wondered. I had to restrain myself from saving, “She’s making it with Giorgos in room 43.”
The cruise line was caught off guard on Christmas Eve. A group of the religiously inclined were outraged that no arrangements had been made for a service. An officer was dispatched on a motor launch to fetch a priest and returned with some haggard Graham Greene-ish character. Many passengers were half-asleep in their bunks when the dreaded intercom summoned us to Midnight Mass. After Trinidad, the ship set off for some serious ocean cruising down the coast of Venezuela. The real adventure lay ahead in Brazil, where we would find, the cruise pamphlet assured us, “alligators, turtles, monstrous manatees, jaguars and coiled anacondas crouched deep in the jungle.”
Next day, as the wind came up, my daughter’s ping-pong balls sailed unerringly overboard, and the ship’s supply ran out. Unlimited chocolate eclairs and a rough sea proved her undoing. Christmas Day dinner became The Diminishing Party, as everyone at my table gradually decided to celebrate queasily in their bunks. I sat alone, surrounded by lobsters, turkey, and desserts, and saluted the survivors at other tables, waving my paper hat and squeaker across the near empty dining room.
For the next two days, the program read “At Sea.” Here the time warp came into play. In a setting where Fred Astaire would have felt at home, the passengers sat at tables around a dance floor, smoked cigarettes, drank cocktails, danced with their wives, watched the wavering chorus line, laughed at the feeble cabaret jokes, and made believe they were handsome devils in some romantic movie. Our host, the charmless cruise director, a bad-tempered Italian who thought he could sing, each night croaked out his theme song, “Mala Femmina.” In the daytime, he was responsible for the often haywire arrangements; at night, he scowled at the audience and screamed at the children who disturbed this curious adult ritual. The entertainers themselves were tired and jaded, at the nadir of their profession. The young classical performers, in contrast, were lively, fresh, and enthusiastic. As the ship lurched creakily from side to side, threatening to fling her and her partner into the grand piano, the soprano gamely took off her high-heeled shoes, planted herself firmly on the floor, and continued to sing.
Soon it was time for the lecturers to do their duty—after all, we were part of the entertainment—though none of us were introduced, in person or in the daily news sheet. The man who had hired me had ordered 30 copies of my Hemingway book. But since the book-signing party was scheduled before my first talk, no one knew who I was or came to the party. I sat rather forlorn amid piles of my neglected masterpiece.
I couldn’t take this personally, and the arrangements for my first lecture were as haphazard as everything else on board— the service, the interminable waits for the tenders that took us to and from the ship, almost anything that involved organization. My audience had been mistakenly directed to the darkened movie theater, where Papillon still had 45 minutes to run. We shepherded them to the cabaret lounge, where I stood at the podium, framed by les girls, who were rehearsing their show. They gradually tap-danced their way across to the exit, all feathers and bottoms.
I gave three talks about books and people loosely connected to the places we would visit: the South American travel books of Evelyn Waugh, Christopher Isherwood, and Paid Theroux; the Brazilian poetry of Elizabeth Bishop; and Roger Casement and the Rubber Boom in Manaus. The cruise director insisted on showing Papillon night after night, though he had a copy of Werner Herzog’s marvelous movie Fitzcarraldo, shot in Manaus and set in the era of my talk. Despite my request, no works by my authors were available in the bookshop on board, and of course no reading list had been sent to the passengers. But many of them proved loyal patrons. Before my first lecture, a charming and sophisticated Mexican child approached me, gravely shook my hand, and said: “I wish you a very plee-sante conferencia.”
So I lectured, as the ship rocked gently on the Atlantic Ocean between Trinidad and the Amazon, just after my audience had put away a substantial lunch, a few drinks, and a daily dose of Dramamine. The golden oldies, as if under a spell, fell asleep as soon as I began to speak and did not wake up until the real crowd surged in at the end of the hour for the highstakes bingo game. But they all clapped appreciatively, and one comatose fan told me: “I did so enjoy your talk. You must tell me sometime what it was all about.”
Halfway down to the Amazon, off Cayenne on the coast of French Guiana, we stopped at Devil’s Island, which for more than a century had been a notorious penal colony, hi the 1890’s, Captain Alfred Dreyfus had been unjustly imprisoned there. We climbed up the steep hill in the intense equatorial heat and saw, in the cracked walls and rusting cells, the remnants of its bloody past. Some French residents had come over from the capital for the weekend, and the women lay topless on the rocks. The teenage boys from our ship stared in disbelief.
In order to save docking fees, the ship moored outside the harbors. The transfer of 470 mostly elderly people onto small tenders in swelling seas was unbearably tedious. We once waited for more than an hour, on ship and on shore, to spend only 45 minutes in the dreary, squalid town of Santarem. It was difficult to see birds and monkeys on the distant banks of the wide muddy river, let alone the jaguars that crouched in the jungle. The cruise did not provide any maps or detailed information about the Brazilian ports, perhaps because there was nothing much to do there. Most passengers resented the high prices the cruise charged for tours, which could be bought locally for half the cost.
Belem, on the coast of Brazil, lies near an island in the mouth of the Amazon, the Ilha de Marajo, which is larger than Switzerland. We ignored the tour, left our daughter on board to play with her friends, and took a five-hour walk across the steamy town. We saw the market, cathedral, museum, and closely confined animals in the rundown zoo, and ended up on a boat ride through the creeks and channels of the Guama River. It was not thrilling, but at least we could form some private impressions of the place instead of being herded onto buses with the usual crowd.
From Belem, we began the voyage up the Amazon. The pool on board was emptied, since we no longer had sea water to fill it, but people still sat around it in deck chairs. Every day at four, a brief, drenching rainstorm drove everyone indoors. The riverine journey became rather alarming when the ship had to negotiate, with the aid of a pilot from Belem, a narrow channel in the river. We had already noticed that the handsome captain’s orders were not always greeted by a smart “aye-aye, sir.” This time the crew and officers engaged in an unseemly shouting match, a Greek chorus we could have done without. It was nasty listening to the engines madly braking at the bend of the river, wondering when we would go aground.
We approached a village in the jungle, where scraggly dogs and black pigs rooted in the mud and dugout canoes bobbed next to a rickety pier. The villagers, carrying pots on their heads, their full-bellied children clinging to their legs, strolled out to greet us. They waved, and the passengers on deck put down their Bloody Marys to record the scene on their video cameras. But the ship, which must have seemed from the shore as tall as a skyscraper, created a huge tidal wave as it lurched ever closer. The jetty was swamped, the natives dropped their pots and swim for their lives, the dogs and pigs dawned. I closed my eyes. This was tourism—sitting on the upper deck 50 fee in the air, drink in hand, looking dow i on ant-like peasants doing their laundry and preparing their meals. I couldn’t help feeling ashamed of being part of something rich, fat, and intrusive. We managed to destroy the place before we could invade it.
Soon the lot river, its color a greenish mud, was so wide we could hardly see the shore on either side. After days of ocean cruising, the effect of this calm, flat scenery was oddly disturbing. But the reality of actually being on the Amazon was not enough for the passengers; they wanted photographs and souvenirs to confirm the experience. At Alter do Chao, a torpid village with thatched houses resting precariously on high stilts, they rushed off to buy things. A short time later, they returned laden, like primitive tribesmen, with rough-hewn canoe paddles, bows and arrows, spears, and feathered headdresses. At Boca do Valerio, where stupefied Indians with stained red hair stared at us from the banks of the sluggish river, we walked through a jungle trail and finally saw some wildlife: a bright swarm of butterflies.
In Manaus, our final port, we got up early and left the ship to tour the essential places before catching a plane home. We saw the Indian Museum and the Teatro Amazonas, built in 1896 by the rubber barons at a cost of two million dollars. Caruso sang there, in the days when people were so rich they drank champagne and ate cheese imported from France. Today, alas, Manaus is a dull town. The schedule gave us no time to find a boat and see where the Rio Negro and the Amazon, flowing in two different colors, join each other in one mighty stream. We realized that we would have had to travel another thousand miles upriver, to Leticia, in Colombia, and on to Iquitos in the Peruvian Amazon, if we wanted to see the truly primitive and exotic life we had hoped to find at the end of our journey.
In the afternoon, hot and sweaty, exhausted and desperate for a shower, we were herded, like refugees, into a few small rooms in a depressingly third-rate hotel. We ended the trip in a style typical of this cruise line, traveling to the airport in an old bus, with sealed windows and no air conditioning, that felt like an oven. The furious passengers, finally discharged from protective custody, actually cheered when the plane took off. Touring was tiring—they were looking forward to going back to work. As I stared out of the plane window and saw the spectacular view of a hundred winding tributaries, I reflected on how little of that endless river we had actually seen.
A cruise—an uneasy cross between a high-class prison and an impoverished convalescent home—offers a secure base and organized tours for timid travelers in foreign parts. The whole point of it, I finally realized, was not to travel and see places, but to stay on board to be fed and entertained. I disliked the groupiness, the claustrophobic confinement, and the rigid schedules. I missed my solitude and liberty to come and go as I pleased. I learned how dangerous it was to surrender your freedom to a cruise operator who was indifferent to your needs. There was a vast difference between my imaginative idea of a journey to the Amazon and the dull, sometimes agonizing reality of this voyage. Americans being guided by Greeks through Brazil was not a successful formula.
Leave a Reply