CORRESPONDENCErnLetter FromrnSouth Americarnby Jeffrey MeyersrnCruising the Amazonrn”Here the people could stand it no longer,rnAnd complained of the long voyage.”rn— Christopher ColumbusrnVacations follow fashion, like everythingrnelse, and now cruising is back. Full employment,rncheap oil, a flush WallrnStreet—the problem is what to spend itrnon. And think of the T/’fc7nfc. Neverrnmind that it sank. Those passengers werernso elegant, so romantic, so pampered.rnDon’t we deserve some of that good life?rnI recently had an irresistible offer. Therndirector of cultural affairs (or public-relahonsrnman) of a Greek cruise line calledrnme. He liad read m’ biography of Hemingwayrnand liked it. He was looking for arnfew good men—or women—to entertainrnthe passengers on an upcoming cruise tornthe Amazon over the Christmas holidays.rnIn exchange for three lectures aboutrnSouth America, my daughter, my wife,rnand I would get a 12-day luxury cruisernfrom Guadeloupe in the West Indies tornManaus, a thousand miles up the river,rnin Brazil.rnThis promised to be an exceptionalrnvoyage. Not only would we be on the firstrnocean liner to sail the Amazon, but therernwould be other lecturers on board: a scientistrnwho would explain the ecology ofrnthe river and an astronomer who wouldrnpoint out the stars, especially Halley’srnComet, which was making a rare passrnround the earth and would be visible inrnthe Southern Hemisphere. As well as thernusual dance band, we would have somernclassy voung musicians on the trip: a soprano,rna tenor, and an emigre Russian pianist.rnHowever much you have traveled —rnand v’e had been around the world twicernin our youth, with no guidebook and ver}-rnlittle money —cruising suggests elegance,rnglamour, and the traditional trappings:rnthe captain’s table, officers in neatrnuniforms, evening gowns, fancy dressrnparties, ballroom dancing, stewards servingrnbeef tea, trap shooting, deck quoitsrn(whatever that is). We looked forward torntraveling to exotic places, being cateredrnto, having no responsibilities and meetingrnnew people, perhaps even strange orrnromantic ones. My wife scanned herrnwardrobe (faded jeans and sweaters) andrnbought a cocktail dress. The daughterrngot some out-of-season shorts. I took myrnsuit to the cleaners.rnThe trip began in Miami, where wernlooked cautiously at our fellow passengersrn(identifiable by their luggage tags) asrnwe waited for the charter flight to Guadeloupe.rnWe had plent)’ of time to scrutinizerneach other— 11 hours, as it turnedrnout. There was no explanation for the delay,rnnor any prediction of when we wouldrnleave. It was like traveling on Aeroflot.rnThe cruise line was hopelessly disorganized,rntried to do everything on therncheap, and was not especially concernedrnwith the welfare of the passengers. Tempersrnfrayed, and we settled into the complainingrnmode tpical of a large group ofrnthwarted Americans out to have a GoodrnTime.rnOur flight was due to leave at two inrnthe aifernoon and reach Guadeloupe atrnsix. We were to be whisked to dinner onrnthe ship and spend the evening seeingrnthe island. Instead, after a chaohc checkinrn(more bad vibes all round —we wouldrnhave 12 days to remember vi7io pushedrnahead of the old ladies in the line), ourrnflight finally left in the middle of thernnight and arrived at five in the morning.rnGuadeloupe was a pastel-washed town inrnthe blear}’ dawn, and every French shutterrnwas firmlv closed. Somehow therncrew —as sleepy and exasperated as wernwere—got us all into our cabins, and wernfell asleep.rnWe were summoned to breakfast atrneight, after onlv three hours in bed, onrnthe Orwellian intercom we came to despise.rnHow could they do this to us? Inrnthe morning light, our outside cabinrnlooked poky and cramped, the narrowrnshower required some skill to negohate,rnand our toiletries obstinately slid into thernsink. But we thought we’d better getrnsome food, our first real meal in 24 hours.rnSo we made our way to the dining room,rnwhere a ragged crowd was eating scrambledrneggs. No sooner were forks raised tornlips when the alarm soimded and thernwaiters urged us to our lifeboat stations.rnSome passengers obeyed, but most eitherrnwent on eating or stayed in their cabinsrnand tried to sleep. Such masterly planningrnwas t)’pical of this cruise, a kind ofrnfloating Fawlty Towers unleashed on thernhigh seas.rnLater in the day, I chatted with twornCanadians, one large, one skinny, whornshared a cabin lower in the pecking orderrnthan mine. The large one had taken thernupper bunk, which collapsed, sandwichingrnthe thin one. The steward finally extractedrnhim, but instead of apologizing,rnhe simply waved his arms about, inrna manner worthy of Basil’s employeernManuel. “Well, whadda ya expett?” herncryptically asked. Most of the paying victimsrnwere wealthy, conservative, andrndull. But a spirit of camaraderie and adventurernprevailed as things continued torngo badly wrong on the ship of fools.rnTo make up for lost time, our scheduledrnstops in the Caribbean islands of St.rnVincent and Bequia were cancelled. Nornapology and no compensation was givenrnto the passengers — not even a complimentaryrnbottle of wine to soothe our feelings.rnThe waiters, mostly flatfootedrnGreeks of a certain age, grumpy after arnlifetime of toiling in the tavernas of Piraeus,rntried to ignore the passengers.rnThey knew little English, in any case,rnand could not understand SouthernrnAmerican accents. Thev often broug htrnthe wrong order to puzzled but helplessrndiners or (an old Greek custom) took arntithe by leaving part of it out. When Irnasked the wine waiter to describe one ofrnthe bottles, which on the menu had nornyear or vintage but a high price, he simplyrnsaid: “Very nice. Very new.” When Irnfrowned at this, he suddenly shifted hisrntack to “Very good. Ver)’ old.” Ironically,rnwe discovered the Greek food—studiouslyrnavoided by most of the passengers,rnwho clung to the tough steaks andrnrubber chicken—was excellent. We orderedrnit whenever we could.rnBefore we had met, the astronomerrnhad arranged for my family to sit with hisrnat one table. This was a well-intentionedrnmove. As a fellow academic and father ofrndaughters, he assumed we would berncompatible. And so we were—but notrnfor three meals a day. After the first week,rnI was ready to jump overboard. His wifernwas of the thin, worrying variety, and hernprofessed not to drink wine —until myrnbottle was placed upon the table. He lostrn38/CHRONICLESrnrnrn