Saturday, April 26, 2008

At Sea, Friday April 25, somewhere north of Algeria

I’m going to try to write a generic letter, but it may not be possible. The laptop still conks out unpredictably, making me re-boot. My trip has reinforced my co-dependent love relationship with this machine. In Ft. Lauderdale I discovered that it had kicked the bucket, and only yesterday did I get to see a repairman, for only one hour, so he could fix only part of the problem. It seemed to be a keyboard connectivity problem so I bought a Bluetooth keyboard, which I am using now. However, there is something else wrong, so it collapses every five minutes. Let me see how far I can get this time.

I’m in a ship’s cafeteria, watching the race past, directly below my window. And scraps of floating paper. It seems that paper floats a long time. Now I am passing a large dead leaf. Two days ago, however, I passed two spouting whales. The beasts did not reveal themselves in the flesh but I could see their spouts. Land is nowhere visible now, but I can see a ship on the horizon. In the Atlantic one never sees other ships or airplanes, but on the Mediterranean, there are freighters.

Yesterday I rode a cable car to the top of the rock of and watched a monkey snatch a candy bar from a woman who had been warned not to make food visible. There is a 500 pound fine for feeding them. There are five packs of apes, one of which encroaches on a district of the city, so there is a debate about whether to cull them. I think they should remove them to a desert island, but that approach does not have much support. The Gibraltarians are more inclined to shoot them instead. There is a legend that when the number of apes declines to 34, Spain will re-capture Gibraltar, so during World War II Churchill imported some extras to prevent that. Now they have increased to over 200.

Day before yesterday I was in for four hours, which I mostly spent in a Starbucks and searching fruitlessly for English books. I didn’t even open my map. I was across the street from the cathedral but didn’t go in. Never again will I have to take a geography exam, and I find my interest in sightseeing – especially in viewing a quota of famous sites – is steadily declining. Reading and keeping up with world news is more important. Our TV sets on board were out of range of satellite reception for about a week, but now I can get CNN a bit, though Wolf Blitzer only comes on in the middle of the night. So I read. By now I’ve read Obama’s first book and am 2/3 through his second one. Both are excellent but in different ways. In Seville I found a London Times but no English books that appealed to me. I was too busy in Gibraltar with the computer problem to search bookstores, where I might have found something good.

I did enjoy Gibraltar. The houses are scrunched tightly together along streets about 10 feet wide. People are bilingual, speaking mostly Spanish socially but English with the tourists. There’s no university; they send students to UK for university education and pay the whole costs. The water comes from a desalination plant that uses diesel. The driver told me it is the dirtiest plant in Europe. I was chasing around on foot trying to buy a computer to replace my dormant Mac; I found a tiny pink plastic one that looked like a toy, but they wanted 390 British pounds for it, so I pressed onward to the Mac store, where the technician revived my own machine. Main Street was full of pedestrians, lacking any cars, and cops patrolled in pairs, wearing the old-fashioned British “Bobby” hats, plus day-glo vests.

Before Seville we had a day in – a beautiful island near the Canaries. (See photo above.)I took a bus tour of the whole island, which is steep and mountainous. Little farms are on terraces, stair-stepping down the volcanic cliffs. Most of the tourists took a cable car up and a famous toboggan ride down the mountain in wicker baskets through the middle of the street. Two guys hold ropes to steer the basket, but on one of the trips the basket got out of control and the woman passenger had to go to hospital for stitches and is being flown home to the States. I skipped that experience. My bus trip was adventure enough.

I have to admit that I’ve been bored out of my mind on this ship. Three times a day I sit down to a table with a retired affluent couple or two. There are hardly any single persons, and the conversation is rarely stimulating. Many of these people spend a lot of their lives traveling. It’s not unusual to encounter someone who has been on 30 or 40 cruises, and much of the conversation deals with the quality of food on different liners. However, I just spent the afternoon with two different couples who both had interesting stories to tell. One was a former intelligence officer in a nuclear submarine who explained how the antennae work on satellites and in submarines. He was humorous and broad-minded.

The library contains hardly anything except schlock fiction. Today I spent the morning in one of the ship’s numerous bars so I could plug my computer somewhere near a table. The place was full of women doing some kind of craft together, cutting and pasting colored paper to make kindergarten-style collages. Then the men joined them for a game of trivia. Nobody seems to miss their newspapers; they do evidently enjoy the comedians and magicians who give shows in the theatre, and the piano bar where the player (who looks like Werner Erhard) specializes in Fiddler on the Roof songs.

Tomorrow we will dock at , Sardinia and I will walk around hunting Herald Tribunes. I expected to befriend a single woman to walk around with, but so far I haven’t. Truly, there can’t be even one percent of the passengers who are single, and few couples seem to form groups, except long enough to eat one meal together. Nevertheless, they say they adore cruising because everything is so luxurious and they have nothing stressful to do. I think they need something purposeful to do, but I guess people differ because that’s not what they want. I really hate this way of living. Every night I’ve been having bad dreams, mostly about discovering that I’ve wasted my whole life. If I spent more time doing so little, such nightmares would overwhelm me with a crushing sense of meaninglessness.

Maybe the final days of the trip will be more interesting. After Cagliari we go to Rome – or rather to , the port, where we can go to for three or four hours. They tell me there’s city bus there where you can hop on and hop off wherever you want. If you stay on, it makes the circle in 90 minutes. St. Peter’s is going to be closed for a ceremony inducting new bishops, much to the disappointment of several tour groups. Tonight one woman complained that the Catholic Church ought to be more accommodating.

After Rome we will dock one day at Livorno, allowing a 1.5 hour trip inland to Florence. Good. I like Florence. Then there’s to be a day in Marseille (where I’ve signed up for a tour) and then to where I’ll debark – thence to Paris, Berlin, Kiev, and finally Moscow for five weeks. In Paris I’ll meet Ignat, who will be there with his girlfriend for a few days.

I’ve started taking my dinner in one of the fancy dining rooms instead of the buffet. But tonight I’ll skip that because it’s another formal night, and I didn’t bring a tuxedo. There are several dining rooms on board, most of which are free, but a few with a cover charge. In all of them the food is good and certainly abundant. One morning I sat beside a Mexican couple. The wife, who was only slightly overweight, brought four huge platters of food to the table for herself alone. She didn’t consume all of it but made a heroic effort to do so. I suppose she had decided to try everything they had on offer at the buffet.

The waiters and stewards are from many different countries, so I particularly enjoy talking with them. One Filippino guy now offers his cheek for me to kiss and I always oblige. There are several Romanians, a few Thais, and lots of Ukrainians, who say they earn much more here than at home. One elementary school teacher from Donetsk says she earns five times as much here waitressing than by teaching in Ukraine. But she lefthome because she doesn’t like the politics there.

There are many conversations about the US Democratic primary race. At first I thought almost everyone here was an Obama supporter, but then I ran into two astounding racist men. One of them said such vile things that I got up and moved my food and cutlery to a different table. There’s not much discussion of the candidates’ policies – just their personalities and mythic biographies. It’s amazing that such legends can survive, given the existence of several well-researched biographies. Some argue that Obama is a Muslim, though his autobiography is beautifully written and accessible even on this ship. But one couple insisted that he hadn’t written his own books, for blacks aren’t intelligent enough to do so!

Here comes another freighter on the horizon. Our own ship, the , I huge; it carries 3080 passengers when full but we were 700 passengers short at first. In Madeira they took on 200 more – people who had missed the ship in Fort Lauderdale but flew over to join us on this side of the pond.

Blessings to you all. Don’t expect souvenirs, though!

Saturday, I couldn’t get access until today, so I will post it now if the laptop will cooperate. I spent part of the day on Cagliari. It’s a bigger city than it appeared to be from the harbor. I’d add something now but this laptop is not reliable and may fail at any moment.



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