The entries are by day. Full line breaks indicate breaks in time throughout the day.
Sunday (Oct 3rd).
Headed south, all is rain. The strength is variable, but its existence is not. Passing silently, canals, highways, power plants. Ponies hunched with their backs to the wind. Drab brick terraces hunched likewise.
I feel so utterly strange. After the convoluted transfer in St Pancras, I have no idea where I am going or what awaits me. I am simply on the train: slanting rain on the windows, the rocking of the rails, the chemical smell of the toilets, the intermittent beeps of phones receiving messages. I check mine again - nothing. I am alone in a vast sea already.
Near Folkstone, the chalk arises from the ground; first small bumps, pimples on the flat landscape, then larger ridges, the backs of sea monsters undulating through Kent. It is all hills and trees until one more tunnel dumps us, without ceremony but with great surprise, along the side of the sea. Though the day is grey and damp, the water is calm.
I made my way, not without difficulty thanks to two overweight suitcases, to my Victorian closet at the top of the hill. It is nice and not without charm, tastefully decorated in neutrals and slate blues, with a window that overlooks the station. A still life of Danish porcelain and oranges graces one wall. Car traffic passes on the rain-soaked street below, like white noise. Sitting here, I picture the map of the town in my head, trying to remember how to get to the cruise docks, the fortress, the high street where I will likely find dinner. It's only 4pm, but I am hungry. Curse this weight which the months here have added.
It is true that I go home to someone familiar and loved, and with a strange and foreign thought floating around in my head, unbidden but seemingly brought on by consideration of the permanency of certain things; but I will miss those I have loved here - and I do not shy away from calling it love, for that is what it was. All have left a mark; none will be forgotten.
My friend drops me off at the train station in York. We embrace. "What will I do without you?" he asks. "You'll be fine," I reply.
Such is my mind - nearly thirty years old, and still prone to flights of romantic insanity. Though lately, dramatic and terrifying flights of phobic insanity creep in as well. Schizophrenic, perhaps. My own brain often surprises me.
I ventured into town and ate dinner at an empty Italian place on the Dover high street, where music played that I was certain I could recognize, if only it wasn't sung in Italian. I was chatted up at the end of the night by the owner (cum-waiter-cum-chef), a short, rotund divorcee of fifty with a Mediterranean complexion and dark, bushy eyebrows. His name was Adam, and he complained of the British weather and the British temperament (especially the propensity to regularly drink to excess and their lack of honesty) nearly as much as I do. He'd felt guilty to charge me for a whole bottle of Prosecco when I couldn't finish it on my own, but I managed to pawn the last two glasses off on the table behind me, an older couple who will, it turns out, have the stateroom nearly above mine on the same ship tomorrow. I'd already had half the bottle to myself by then, so I cannot remember the woman's name, but the husband's name was "Harp" (it says so on the "business" card he gave me, along with their cabin number). They barraged me with tips and tidbits - do this, don't do that - and told tales of other cruises too numerous to mention individually. They're regular cruisers. From Nebraska. The restaurant owner offered me a meal tomorrow, on the house; I said I could come back for lunch. He spoke kindly of the US and Americans, and of friendship. Perhaps now I must go back.
The rain has abated and the sun has set. I can hear the muffled voice of the PA from Dover Priory, and it seems odd to me that I won't have to navigate my way through the small station again.
Didn't sleep well last night - attributable to some combination of the hard bed, the nerves and the prosecco, I'm sure - and snoozed my alarm to gain another hour of fitful sleep. The B&B owner kindly made me a breakfast sandwich to take with me, as I had slept through breakfast. He had also called a taxi. I was on my way to the dock at 10am, far too early to be able to do much, but unable to disagree.
The check-in, security and boarding process, while elongated, was straightforward, unhurried, pleasant. Joking with the security staff, chatting about places to see in York, the like. No rush. Finally boarded and through the cavernous main atrium (a hotel lobby on the water, it would seem), I got to deck 11 where lunch was being served in the buffet while the cabins were prepared and generic upbeat music played over the PA: "everybody wang chung tonight." The ship is enormous; I watched from this unthinkable height as the navigational antenna dipped slowly against the backdrop of the SeaFrance ferries and the famous white cliffs of Dover, and felt nervous and slightly nauseous. The ship rocks with a mode almost like breathing while asleep. I called S - damn the cost - because I had to hear a familiar voice, I had to know everything was ok. I was overwhelmed.
Just talking to S (who had woken to my call) made me feel better. We promised to speak again soon, and I went for a belated lunch at the buffet. Sitting on the deck now, the sun winning against the clouds, I feel much more relaxed. I cannot let my fear get the best of me. For all the glamour and the million wait staff trying to sell you overpriced booze, this is just a ferry. The white painted steel I-beams, the water spots on the glass, the bright orange emergency equipment and the heavy doors, they are all familiar. Except this isn't a trip to the island from Portsmouth, or out to Arran from Ayr or Wemyss Bay. This is a trip home. The word brings tears to the backs of my eyelids. Home.
We are finally underway - I watched, with a large crowd, from the deck off the lobby, fore and high, as we passed between the walls of Dover harbor and outward. The sunset is phenomenal, setting the foggy air alight. I have toasted to my Sister Sea with the last tiny dram of my 18-year-old Macallan; one sip for her, and one for me. May this go towards the "angels' share." I sit now on my balcony (a pleasant and unexpected surprise), watching the wake below me and the steady, blurred horizon farther out.
Needless to say, this is still the Atlantic, albeit a small portion (I'd like to see where we are, and wave as we pass the Isle of Wight), so the air is chilly. Some of the passengers, likely already drunk, tested out the swimming pool. A hot tub I can understand, but it is so cold and humid that my joints ache.
I have plenty of time to sit here by myself; I should go up to the top decks and take a look around.
I turned the small TV in the room to the map channel to see how far from the Isle of Wight we are, only to hear something familiar; sure enough, I turned up the volume to be greeted by Barber's Adagio for Strings. Almost as soon as it had begun, it ended, giving way to lifeless, rhythmic easy-listening fake jazz. The ship trembles ever so slightly under your feet. We are not far off the coast of Eastbourne, and the lights of the coast are still visible off the starboard side. The relative humidity is tremendously high - something in excess of 80% - and I can tell; I am constantly chilled, my joints ache, and there are grains of uncooked white rice in the salt shakers. My mother once used that trick, probably a holdover from her youth in the midwest, but in the dry altitude of Arizona and Colorado, it is unnecessary. I hear the wind whistle around the bars of the balcony railing, and am almost convinced it is the wind which causes the ship to shudder, and not the waves.
It is still odd to me, funny, in a way, that room service should be free of charge, but as always the minibar costs.
Woke to swells, the ship's rocking becoming more of a roll, alternatively pressing you into the bed or lifting you from it. It is not severe - just about the level to start the car alarm cascade on the ferry, by my reckoning - but with my lack of sleep and lack of food, it still enough to cause my head to ache and my stomach to turn ever so slightly. Sitting on the balcony helps, feeling the air move around me. Somewhere beyond what my eyes can see lays the coast of France; we are not so far, as we are still trailed by seabirds.
Wednesday. Happy birthday to me.
The swells (the sea counts as "rough" in the captain's log) confined me to bed all of yesterday, trying desperately to eat a sandwich from room service (it took nearly all my power to call them) but unable, in the end, to keep anything down. Reception finally sent up some antiemetic, which I took and which quelled the illness long enough for me to sleep. I managed, just after dark, to put the room-service order for breakfast out. This morning, it came, and I was able to keep down a muffin, a roll with strawberry jam, and a Pepsi. I finally managed to shower and get out for lunch - and oh, what good the food and fresh air on deck did me. The motion is not so obvious from the open deck; I have even been able to read. I should eat again soon before I let the nausea of an empty stomach catch up with me again.
I now have birthday letters to read, and I will try to get online briefly later to check my e-mail. The room stewards have left me a towel wrapped up as a dinosaur, placing Ten Tons of Uranium (yes, I brought him and Pegasus with me) aside it on the bed. I laughed heartily when I returned to my room. I should tip them heartily as well. We are now off-shore of where Portugal begins and Spain ends. I ran into the couple from the restaurant in Dover this afternoon on deck, and was able to chat with them; the seas will get better (even the open Atlantic). We're in a shipping lane - we have passed and been passed by many a freighter and cargo vessel - and it is soothing to sit on the upper decks, read a book, nurse an iced tea, watch the container ships pass, and only notice the motion of our own vessel on the waves by the occasional sloshing of the pool water out of the confines of the pool.
And, as if to say 'happy birthday,' the cafe is serving Mexican for dinner tonight.
With the new headphones from S, I can just hear Jacqueline Du Pre's rendition of Elgar's Cello Concerto above the roar of the sea below. It is dark but the ship still pitches and rolls, its progress seemingly fits and starts; stars move in and out of view from my small balcony.
I watched the sun set behind a razor-straight horizon of sea, then later, after a brief trip to the gym (it is nearly impossible to run on a treadmill when the floor is moving beneath your feet), I went up to the silent and dark upper deck, far forward of the pools and the lights and the music, and gazed at the stars. When it comes to stargazing, a ship is its own worst enemy, trying as it does to flood its minuscule portion of the great, black sea with light. But I found a reasonably dark spot, the most forward and highest on the ship, and from there could see the stars - I remember tears running down my cheeks, singing along with the Rowing Song, spinning slowly and arcing my neck to see better. Even out here, the ship is too bright to allow one to see everything, and there is some remnant cloud cover which, though I cannot see it, I can perceive through the blurriness of the stars that are in view. Tiny, sparkling lights on the horizon are actually more ships; we pass out here, far from land, my Nebraskan friend says, in order to spare the closer waters for fishermen. So anything and anyone en route from the northern portions of Europe to the Mediterranean must first pass by this way.
Lisbon tomorrow morning; I may stay on the ship, or perhaps wander at my leisure into the town; I have no desire to be up at 8, though with the bustle of docking I may well be anyway. I have a propensity for semicolons, one that even poor Simon cannot fully comprehend.
At least, I hope someone else finds it as amusingly ironic as I do that there is a rowing machine onboard the ship.
It is an odd sensation to fall asleep at sea - rough seas, no less - and wake up docked in calm waters. Somehow, I woke this morning early, just in time to view the quayside of Lisbon slipping past slowly. We pushed silently under an enormous bridge, lovely in the early morning fog; all of the buildings on shore were bathed in a reddish glow - which, of course, didn't show up on camera.
It has been odd, remaining on the ship when many others disembarked for their guided tours of Lisbon hours ago. The crew run drills, the announcements for passengers to disregard alarms coming every ten minutes. I'm so used to the motion of the sea, I feel as though I'm still moving, like when I was a little kid in the ball pit at a McDonalds. The view from my bed out the balcony window could be the view from any hotel in Lisbon; it's only when one puts one's head over the edge that one sees the water.
The sky, though reasonably light, is hazy. The air is warm. A major road passes just off the port side, where we are docked - it was probably the sounds of traffic, of civilization, coming through my open balcony door that woke me. The building just across (it appears to be a train station) is painted an unapologetic sky blue. And they're down there driving on the right side of the road, praise God. Kids ride bikes down there just like kids ride bikes anywhere. Aside from the poor man in the macaw costume at the bottom of the gangway, this is any city on any weekday, just getting on with its business.
I could really use a Coke.
What likely woke me this morning, in hindsight, was the bridge - as we passed under it again just now, departing mainland Europe for the unknown, it howled with a thrumming, deep sound, loud as a jet, though whether the sound came from the traffic motoring across it, the trains rattling slowly along on the second deck or the wind (a chilly and insistent, but not vicious, wind from the sea) through the cables, or some combination of the three, I cannot know for certain.
After spending all day re-acclimating myself to stillness, to the certainty that the floor will be there when I move to lower my foot, I am nervous to return to sea; especially, as it is now, the open ocean, the real deal, the 788 nautical miles of nothing but water and sky until Ponta Delgada. The ship's horn sounds, three long blasts to signify our passage through the mouth of this sheltered inlet. My brief luck, being attached to a Portuguese phone carrier instead of the ship's, will soon disappear. I did manage to refill my phone with credit while we were docked.
The water turned choppy almost immediately, as though a line had been sighted and drawn across the mouth of the harbor, with the lighthouse as its midpoint; a trip to reception for more antiemetic revealed that the weather was expected to worsen. I sat, silent and still, in the sports bar while awaiting dinner, allowing the medication time to kick in and settle my stomach and my nerves (maybe I should consider taking this stuff when flying...). I was halfway through my second chicken strip when the news came.
The captain began an announcement over the PA, addressing it to "ladies and gentlemen and all members of the crew," and at that point I knew the news was bad. My stomach lurched, this time without the help of a passing wavefront. I have a copy of the announcement here in my room, so I can peruse it at will - if one wills to do such a thing. Because of inclement weather, specifically a low-pressure system sitting just off the coast in the Atlantic as well as a possible later interception with Tropical Storm Otto, our route was being altered.
We're foregoing the Azores, which, I'm sure, will disappoint me at some later point (we're being reimbursed, obviously). But for the time being, the more pressing concern is riding out the night. I was not - am not - yet mentally prepared for the Atlantic crossing. We're headed southwest now, and we'll cross the ocean farther south than originally planned, to avoid the storm (NOAA predicting, as the announcement said, 35-knot winds and swells of 24 feet... good God) and hopefully avoid Otto in the coming days as well. The announcement, obviously, must by its nature take on a cautiously optimistic tone: "This new route... will provide us with a much better chance of great weather, smooth sailing and an on-time arrival in Port Canaveral." To normal human beings, such a statement is almost a guarantee of such "great weather" and "smooth sailing," but to me it is a guarantee that there will be no such things. I did note, on the map, that our new route takes us past Madeira, which is comforting (knowing a port is not far is a kindly thought). The sea (at this particular moment, anyway) does not seem worse than the last two nights, with the exception of a whipping, blustery wind (I have video of the pool hitting a rocking resonance and splashing everywhere - they've since been drained). The antiemetic seems to do its job, and though we rock and shudder, I do not feel sick or dizzy, but the fear is still there. The fear that things will get worse; the fear that they've emptied the pools because they know something we don't, the fear of swells twice as bad as what I've already (and just barely) endured, the fear of screaming wind and rain and spray and an eventual erasing of the horizon into one great grey mass.
I did manage to go to the gym, just after sunset, but I had to give up on the treadmill after ten minutes of a slow, halting pace. It was simply impossible to keep going with the ship itself seeming to grind to a sudden stop as it crested another swell, the downturn of which would propel me into the hand grips. I moved to the elliptical instead, finding it easier to move with both feet and hands planted firmly, even if I was farther from the window and unable to see the frothy white of the ship's wake. Funny that something like that should be so comforting.
Perhaps I'll try to get back to my book. I'm reading Stephen Fry's autobiography, and as much as I love the man, the book is so full of 'Britishisms' and, to be frank, monosyllabic conversation, that I simply can't get into it. Perhaps the issue is that I do not love Fry the man, but only Fry the character, Fry as I know him and see him.
Funny how I came on this trip to try and discover who I am, only to find I am a sniveling, crying coward who spends all her time curled in a little ball and hoping things will improve. Other passengers (everyone but me, it will invariably seem) sit around playing cards and bleeding money and complaining about the service, while it's all I can do not to run screaming through the corridors shouting "MAKE IT STOP!" At dinner, the woman behind me was complaining to her husband that it's been ages since she ordered and the food still wasn't there... "did you not notice," I wanted to say to her, "that the sea is rough? So perhaps the chef is having a difficult time, and maybe you could cut him or her some slack...." I can do little to nothing, so who am I to bitch about my dinner taking a few minutes longer to prepare? I should hope the cook takes all the time necessary not to accidentally cut off a finger in seas like this. But even that I could not do - cowardice to the full, the embodiment of it, the incarnation of the god of cowards.
I slept poorly, more likely because of my nerves than the actual motion of the ship. Indeed, there were points this morning when a glance out the balcony door - closed for the first night since leaving - would reveal a slate-grey palette, with no differentiation between sea and sky, save the random whitecap. But now, just before 11 (the clocks on the ship were set back one hour last night), the sun is bright and the horizon a thin silver line. Though the wind blows fiercely ("near gale") and the sea is choppy and rough, the air is pleasantly warm (almost 70 degrees, according to the bridge).
Earlier, I missed an announcement from the captain, as I couldn't hear the PA (there are speakers in the hallways but not the rooms, so the voice was lost under the constant noise of the waves and wind). Something about how the weather will remain like this as we skirt the lower edge of the low-pressure system (I suppose that, had we stopped in the Azores, the weather there would not have been conducive to photography or, generally speaking, enjoyment of the outdoors). They're showing Casablanca in the disco this afternoon, and tonight one of the musicians will perform Celtic music on her guitar. But to be honest, at the moment I'm sick of England. I'm sick of Stephen Fry's autobiography, I'm sick of the incessant drivel I've read lately about the Victorians and the way life was between the Wars and so on. I just don't care.
A rainstorm; as fierce as it was brief. It would seem I'm benefitting quite nicely from this strong westerly wind: we're traveling southwest, and I'm on the port side, so no rain blows in my balcony. I could see the knife-edge of the rain moving off behind us, and in the distance, out toward Africa, is a break in the clouds, where the ocean transforms from this purplish royal blue to liquid platinum, as if an invisible breakwater could be found just beneath the surface. But presumably, if we are in the rain then we are passing through the front. Now more rain, and the view outward blurs to monochrome; soon the horizon will be nothing more than a watermark on a sheet of paper.
It seems odd to me that I should only just have noticed the small paintings hung inconspicuously along the corridor walls. They are, I suspect, not meant to be noticed, but meant to prevent the walls from being noticed.
The swells have become intense; early this afternoon, without needing to be told, I still held my breath when the captain came over the PA to tell us the waves were 15 feet. We're passing Madeira at the moment (by Harp's reckoning - and a sidenote within a sidenote, I keep running into him on deck, but never his wife, so I hope she's all right; but as he says, they're seasoned at this, despite coming from landlocked Nebraska - we should pass within 50 miles of it, a shame not to stop). I think the feel of the swells is worse now, after I managed to swallow my fear and catch the showing of Casablanca, because they align more closely with the length of the ship. The whole of the vessel rides the whole of every intruding swell; the ship rocks, not front to back, but side to side, which gives the faulty impression of each swell lasting longer. The wind still whistles through my balcony door and wails through the rigging on the ship's forward instrument tower. The captain expects we should, if we are patient, come out of the worst of it into a calmer and warmer tomorrow.
The sunset was spectacular, taking up the whole of the sky and filling it with blue and gold, purple and amber, all polished and gilded and sparkling. But when the spectacle was over, the darkness was absolute. There is nothing to be seen out there now but our own lights reflected back in the pale blue of the churning water of our wake.
I will try soon to go to the gym, but I do not have high hopes in seas like this. At dinner, I had to grab a knife at the last moment which threatened to slide off the table. Almost as regularly as breathing, I am pushed into my chair, then lifted with a dizzy head until finally my brain is shuddered and jostled back into position.
It's funny, the way people desired to be lied to: simple, subtle things. The map on the ship's informational channel shows our progress and our projected route; though being a round globe projected flat on the screen, the line across the Atlantic to Canaveral is shown as perfectly straight. We will travel a (reasonably) straight line, and we know this, so intrinsically we look to see a straight line. To see the "real" path, the geodesic, which would appear curved on such a projection, would seem odd and incorrect. And so we are "lied to" in order to preserve our own sanity, by being told we will travel a straight line on a flat map.
I should try to go to the gym, for my mental as much as my physical well-being, but I'm suddenly so tired.
I would have been disembarking right about now, lining up for my 4x4 tour of that particular island in the Azores chain. But instead we pitch and roll and there is nothing but water; even the sky is water. It's upsetting to me that this should have long since ceased to be a vacation. I am not relaxed, I am not enjoying myself. I am enduring. I put my head down last night, just to take a breath before going to the gym, and woke up an hour and a half later, surprised (I gave up and went to bed... it was only 9:30). I am forced to eat more than I would otherwise to keep my stomach in a perpetual state of half-full to stave off seasickness (waking up with an empty stomach is a sure way, I have learned, to feel nauseous). I find that I am glad the showers are as small as they are (and really, they are just as big as the weird plastic en-suite bathroom "pods" in my room in Wentworth when I first moved), for it makes showering easier, when one is able to plant both feet firmly against a wall. I sit up on deck and try to read, but even that escape has been taken from me; I cannot concentrate on the words, but instead watch the ocean just above the top of the page, waiting for the inevitable swell to encroach slowly, unstoppable like a nightmare's monster, and me glued to the spot and unable to run. I watch the bow of the ship tilt skyward, then tip down as if meaning to plunge into the sea in a dive, only to crash against the water below and shudder as it rights itself. I wonder what the cutoff is? When the waves are larger than the draft of the ship? I still have so many technical questions, but I never encounter anyone but the hotel and restaurant staff, to my dismay. With each knot in my throat, my eyes dart to the nearest window, balcony or railing, searching desperately for the horizon and a steady reference frame - just as when I am flying. My only respite is being here, already on the surface of the water, instead of 3 minutes of freefall above it.
The weather is warmer, when the wind isn't blowing at least. We were told yesterday that sea and sky were about the same temperature, 75 degrees or so. Sunrise creeps later and later as we travel south. But every day I still cannot go up on deck without a coat, and every day still the clouds have moved in and the wind has been wintry; how I long for warm sun. It's been so long since I've encountered summer. And since I've encountered calm. Thanks to the moratorium on free soft drinks, I've had a slim amount of caffiene (I try to make myself instant iced coffees by putting ice, milk, and coffee together in a glass, but they taste of the fake coffee), yet I still grind my teeth.
There is some value, though. The seas were so rough for the past day or so, and the air so relatively dry now, that when I woke this morning and opened my balcony door, I discovered crystals of salt on the railing. The ship is a giant pretzel.
Did I mention the darkness is absolute? It isn't, quite. Out there it is. But here, atop this infeasibly large ship, this massive metal island unto itself - here there is always light.
Another beautiful sunset, this one the first from the port side; I could tell just before dinner that we had turned westward. I finished a book, ate too much dessert, went to the gym, stepped out into improbably warm air. All of the good movies seem to be on the German channel; I'm left with the remade Clash of the Titans and rerun after rerun of Julie and Julia. During the afternoon, the seas seemed calmer, but now the swells have returned. Perhaps it is the darkness that makes everything more frightening.
Late last night, or I suppose early this morning, when the dawn was still nothing more than a blue line across the horizon, I woke to pee, but for some reason was drawn to my balcony instead of back to bed. I stepped outside, and the air was warm and comfortable. The sea around the ship was lit by the lights onboard, and seemed to glow from within like a thick turquoise fog. And behind a few low, grey strips of cloud, the universe.
I smiled a smile of my whole being, saying silently, "there you are - I've been waiting for you." I blew a kiss to Orion, who, at that time of morning, hovered just outside my balcony doors. I went back to bed feeling happier than I have all week.
And this morning, the swells are smaller and the sun shines. The weather looks so pleasant, in fact, that for the first time this trip I began to worry about not having sunblock.
I am finally beginning to learn the subtleties of my Sister Sea. The slight variations in color, for example: the crests are a deeper shade of blue than the troughs, such that when one looks out from the first swell across the ocean, one sees this striation all the way out to the horizon, sparkled with wavelets of white and silver accents. But we do not see the true ocean currents, the great cycles of mass driven by sea temperature and salinity; we may perceive the surface, but her depth is hidden. What lives down there, Sister? What creatures take up this boundless expanse and call it their own? My eye searches to the furthest horizon, seeking some variation, but aside from the gilded edge provided by Father Sun, there is nothing. Nothing but Sister Sea and her royal hues, Brother Sky and his constant lightness, Father Sun low on the horizon, still sleepy with winter, and somewhere below it all, Mother Earth (capital E earth, as in the globe), imperceptible in her fullness, round and great and verdant and full of life and expectation. I do not have what it takes to be a mother. It takes more than simply owning the correct equipment.
Perhaps my Sister scares me because I wish so much to be like her, deep and mysterious and capable, mighty and nurturing and unknowable in her entirety. But I, instead, am all the things that she is not, weasely and frightened and superficial, and I hate myself for being intimidated by one who loves me regardless. Why am I so afraid all the time? Why am I frightened by the sea, by the sky, by the truth of life and death that knits us all together? Why?
After dinner (during which time a friendly busboy with a babyface pointed out to me that we have the same phone) and a trip to the gym, I stepped outside into the balmy night air to see the stars. At first, lying back on the raised wooden bench that surrounded the pool, I could see very little. Surely we can't be producing that much light pollution, I thought, but unconvinced I stood and retreated cautiously to the furthest forward deck, high above the lights and incessant pop music from the deck PA. In the darkness here, as my eyes adjust, what I hoped to see appears before me, wild and bright as love itself. "There you are," I whispered. "I've been looking for you." The galaxy above me, around me, enveloping me; the stars and the constellations and the cool gas of the Milky Way. We deprive ourselves. We pour our light out into the universe, afraid of that inky darkness as an island is afraid of the ocean, and so we miss it - we deprive ourselves, and we suffer needlessly. How I wish that every human being could see this as they prepare for bed at night. Are we alone? people ask anxiously. Look around you, open your eyes. Of course we are not alone. We never were, and never will be.
We are, at the moment, at 29deg 40.27' N, 035deg 10.74' W, busily crossing the Atlantic near its widest point. It is equally comforting and frightening to comprehend, to see that map and the glowing little beacon that represents us.
The wind has died down, and with it the swells; the sea is calmer as well as warmer. But I still suffer, still misplace my foot when I think the ship has rolled beneath me. Running on the treadmill was incredibly difficult. My brain is still sloshing about inside my skull, like the milk in a jostled jug.
I was shaken from a sleep full of strange dreams (likely due to watching Coraline, in German, just before bed...). Thinking it a fluke, that I had only dreamed the motion, I rolled over to return to sleep, only to be jostled again, quite violently. I nearly jumped from the bed. The seas had once again turned rough, and this time our ride is not smooth: we slam down into the trough only to meet the next crest halfway, sending violent shudders through the ship and setting the joinery to creaking. I am out of antiemetic. I hope the banana I saved from last night's dinner, and the Pepsi I've allowed myself to open ($2.75 or something like that, stupid minibar), will stave off any illness.
A few minutes outside on the balcony was enough to determine the cause of our different "ride" - the swells are coming straight toward us from the front, instead of at an angle. We hit several in a row and our sinusoidal motion grows worse and worse until we hit one or two out of phase, crashing into them and sending off a massive wake to carry away the energy. The blue sky far behind us, the grey cloud before us, and the waves traveling antiparallel to the ship seems a bad portent for what may be coming. I will hurry and get dressed to make sure I'm up on deck to hear the captain's lunchtime announcement. It's become a usual thing since we left Lisbon.
It is difficult to describe the sensation of attending a musical production, complete with lighting, set, costumes, mics, etc, in a two-story theater... on a boat. It boggles the mind (enough so to warrant my spending of $4.75 to log on to facebook and announce it).
The sea is calmer now; the swells earlier were remnants from hurricane Otto, nowhere near us but sending out a line of swells while moving north near the Bahamas.
Tonight, I emerged from the theater onto the open upper deck and looked up to see the stars. I started up the stairs to the dark foreward deck, but paused at the end of the lit portion. I looked up again.
"Aren't you coming to see us?" the stars asked.
"I am," I replied. I shivered, despite the muggy warmth still in the air.
"Are you scared?"
"I am," I replied again.
"Don't be afraid," the stars replied. "No matter where you are, you are with us and we are with you." That is the secret I learned tonight. In gratitude, I went all the way to the dark upper deck, craning my neck at the beautiful galaxy, tonight dressed in wisps of milky cirrus cloud, and sang a tune I know by heart: the Eagles' "Seven Bridges Road."
Another time change overnight. We're now only two hours' difference from the East Coast - in fact, of the three maps which are shown, variously, to display our position, the second map (the three being at different levels of zoom) shows us on the eastern edge of the USA's ocean border, into the Sargasso Sea. It is overcast, and the back of my neck is still sore from the heat of sunburn. We're truly in the middle of the ocean now. There's no turning back.
Rain... lots of rain. Erasing the line between sea and sky, ocean and air, liquid and vapor. We are in the middle of the Atlantic and shall disappear into the unending grey, lost forever in the void. But now the rain abates, and the blue line of the horizon is barely visible once more. All is not lost.
Sighted the first vessel, so far as I can remember, since leaving Lisbon. It was sometime between three and four in the afternoon, as I sat starboard on the main upper deck at a table near the pool. A middle-aged couple playing rummy at a table nearby, as I sat and fiendishly read my chunky Frazer, pointed seaward. "You have younger eyes than us," the man said. "What is that out there?" I looked, and an inch-long, multicolored miniature of a container ship presented itself just shy of the horizon. I answered in kind, but continued to watch the ship afterward, glad not to be alone.
The copious information and miniscule typeface of The Golden Bough, however, eventually strained my eyes and my brain too far. I realized I was weary, suddenly fighting the onset of a headache. I took a respite with a banana, a brownie and a plastic cup of iced tea, but I noticed as I ate that the color of my fingernails seemed off, too deep a purple, as if I was chilled. The rain was starting up again. Fatigued, I ventured back to my stateroom, took an excedrin and watched the horizon turn hazy through the balcony doors. It is now only 5pm, but the rain has changed the nature of the light, and the room feels darker. I should take a nap.
This evening, I took a walk around the Promenade Deck (aptly named), along the jogging track that runs the perimeter of the ship. In so doing, one passes along a corridor with the exterior wall to one's left (there is a prescribed direction of travel, yes), a chest-high railing or large portholes to one's right, and above, hanging like baskets of flowers from a balcony, the lifeboats. These are no wooden dinghies. They are great molded-plastic, traffic-cone-orange whales, some traditionally shaped, some with cross-sections like a hydrofoil to prevent capsizing, all completely enclosed and impeccably clean from disuse. This particular ship, I believe, was christened in 2001, which means that, other than perhaps for full-on crew drills, these lifeboats have likely never been used. They remain silently moored, just overhead like enormous slumbering bats, to their mothership. (I later learned, thanks to one of the NCL TV channels, that the lifeboats are equipped with fresh water and emergency food rations, and that the inflatable life rafts which are stored in white barrels around the Promenade Deck are mainly intended for crew members, and only for passengers as a back-up.)
A bit later (just before 7), up on the high, forward deck to watch with appreciative eyes the stunning, iridescent colors of the sunset, I happened to look aft and see, to my utter astonishment, a bird. I followed its movement, flapping about the rear of the ship, off to the side, riding an air current, raising again above the edge of the plexiglass - as it moved, so did I, aghast, rushing to the edge of the deck for a better view. The black shape disappeared. Stunned, I sent a text message to S: "I swear to God I've just seen a bird." It seemed utterly impossible. Here, in the middle of the Atlantic, a bird. Sure, I've seen a handful of flying fish escaping at the last minute from the wake coming off the prow of the ship, but a bird? Unbelievable. I walked down to the next deck, tracing the path I'd last seen the bird take, straining to see it again, hoping it wasn't my mind finally gone mad with cabin fever (Jose and Gerald did leave me a swallow as my towel animal today). But suddenly, there it was again! It flew past me, and I got my phone out just in time to record a few seconds of video as it flitted upward and finally perched on the instrument tower. I watched it for some time, convincing myself it was real, long enough that a busboy (the one with the same phone) walked by and said, "the bird? Yeah, it probably nested in the smokestack...." It wasn't just me. What a relief. My curiosity sufficiently, if not completely, satisfied, I ventured inside for dinner.
We are past the halfway point - the captian said as much during his noon announcement - closer to the US than to Europe or Africa. "Three more days," Harp said when I saw him after lunch today, holding up three fingers for emphasis. What day is it? Is it really Tuesday? Do we really arrive on Saturday morning? I'm only just getting used to this. And just as I do grow accustomed to this life of relaxed repetition, other facets of my life come into focus and I am shaken from complacency over them: how it is that I am now almost thirty, unmarried and without children; how I loved, and who I loved, in recent years. The unease rumbles in my stomach just as surely as the waves still splash around inside my head.
The clouds have dispersed, and the moon, the thickening curve of a D, shines so brightly among the stars that it gilts the waves between us in silver. The illuminated path to the Moon Goddess, straight and narrow and always a direct line by its very nature. One need only to look.
Just before 11pm, I watched the moon set, a fiery orange crescent that slipped slowly into the dark ocean. I bid her goodnight, her disappearance signaled by a pale blue glow on the horizon which eventually faded, then watched the myriad of stars that grew brighter in the darkness. I sang to them again, one of the only songs I can think of which seems appropriate to the circumstances. "Sometimes there's a part of me, wants to turn from here and go; running like a child from these warm stars, down the Seven Bridges Road...."
S has said he's glad that I've experienced the Sea in so many of her various moods, for it is only through these experiences that this cruise truly becomes a voyage.
I woke to sunshine and a mandatory crew emergency drill. Both were difficult to ignore.
A word about cruise ships: everything is a bar. If it sounds like a bar, it is a bar. If you're not sure what it is, it's a bar. Even if you don't think it could possibly be a bar, it's a bar. Champs? Bar. Windjammer? Bar. Garden Cafe? Yep, there's a bar in it. Java Cafe? It's a bar, I kid you not.
As if to make good my earlier comments, around 2pm the bar staff started wandering the deck with huge trays laden with plastic cups of rum punch. These they appeared to be giving away freely, and when a waiter came by my table asking if I wanted one, I warily asked why. "It's my birthday," he replied. I prodded, is it really your birthday, and he just shrugged and said no with a smile. I took a cup. A few minutes later, an announcement over the PA by the cruise director indicated that it was a party, and no more; just dancing to a live band and free rum punch from 2 to 3. I didn't argue.
The two cups of punch I imbibed while laughing at drunken old people dancing without scruple or dignity across the deck were, to be honest, my first alcohol of the trip, the sip of whisky I shared with the sea on the first night not included. It is not that I have gone tee-totaller or am abstaining for moral or physiological reasons; it is simply because I do not wish to double the price of my cruise by purchasing drinks on board. Every drink is so insidiously charged to one's room, they seem to flow freely, and the mandatory 15% gratuity goes practically unseen. Imagine the shock that some of these passengers will feel when they realize that nearly two solid weeks of drinking has cost them hundreds of unexpected dollars. Imagine one is frugal and only consumes, say, two beers a day; each of those beers costing at least $5 means roughly $130 for the trip. The soda is treated in the same manner; food may be free (it is, anyway, if you realize there is no point in going to one of the "fancy" restaurants on board that charges a cover), but if you want something to drink (other than flavorless iced tea and truckstop quality coffee), it'll cost you. And I did notice that my head was none too pleased with the combination of alcohol, heat and the gentle rolling of the ship - yet another reason to abstain.
While I refrain from booze and much of the daily activity the cruise director schedules, most people have no such reservations. They wish to be entertained, to sit in the jacuzzi all day with a constant flow of frilly drinks in bright plastic cups; to eat constantly (in the only hour they don't seem to have the buffet open, the ice cream counter remains heavily visited) and then be pampered in the spa with treatments designed to "melt the fat away;" to spend hours in the casino and the art gallery (who ever heard of buying art on a cruise ship?); and to be subjected to a non-stop parade of party music and pretty lights (I maintain that half of the "musicians" on this ship are not musicians. I listened to a pair the other day at lunch who did no more than sing along with background music, a glorified karaoke. The guy had a keyboard, but he merely played along with the simple chord progressions of the music, and the girl often did nothing but step rhythmically from side to side and shake her ass for the benefit of any leering men in the crowd. I got up and walked to a completely different deck, where I was sheltered from this monstrosity - I'd texted J that "Mellencamp almost had it right, this loud salsa band is crucifying Santana" - though I had a mind to boo them off the stage). All I want is to be left alone with Sir James George Frazer, and to be allowed the occasional extra serving of dessert. I don't even want to have my used dishes cleared for me - I'd rather carry them myself to wherever they'll be washed.
I have been impressed with the piloting of the vessel; according to the informational channel (and the captain's daily updates), we have maintained a heading of due west - 270 degrees - for several days, to within a degree either side.
I have sunburned my arms a bit, the back of my neck and a triangle at the center of my collarbone (thanks to a half-buttoned polo I was wearing), and my hair seems - if I am not mistaken - a shade or so lighter. But it is impossible for me to stay out of the sun for long; it is such a welcome visitor after so long without that familiar warmth. Almost to my detriment, I wish only to sit quietly in the warmth of the sunshine, and be happy.
There is no doubt in my mind why people throughout the ages have worshipped the sun. I worship the sun.
Tonight I witnessed what may be the single most spectacular sunset of my life. I stood in rapt attention as the pastels turned to fire and the sun was quenched in the ocean. Pray tell me what I might sing, and I will sing it with abandon and without hesitation! But words failed me. My voice failed me. I wanted to shout praises, to sing hymns, to take a knee or cross myself or something to consecrate me to that sacred event in which I had just partaken. Instead, dumbstruck, I laughed and cried, all at once, unable to move or speak or make so much as a sign with my hands.
I was not alone; the forward decks had filled with people, all watching the same stunning cosmic dance. Even the captain and a few of his starched-white crew were to be seen leaning against the railing, arms crossed, eyes wide, silent. The communion of saints in the swish of the water and the whistle of the air. I remained, tears in my eyes, until the last of the color drained from the sky and it became the moon's turn, to extinguish the candles and bathe the world in cold silver. "Do not weep, Sister," I told her, the only person watching her approach across the sky. "For it is your right and your power alone to blot out the Sun." After a pause, smiling, I added: "Do not forget what I said of you last night."
Even now, the colors in the sky and the mirrored ocean are burned into my retinas. I cannot move from where I sit, afraid to lose the image. Tonight my heart leapt and resided in the sun and the sky and the sea and the moon and the clouds, and there it burned, a willing sacrifice on the altar of the universe.
US Customs landing cards were handed out yesterday. It seems so strange - I know all the things I have to do, the list of things awaiting me when I disembark is long and detailed and each one noted in my head, but still they seem so foreign.
The water, last night and this morning, is so utterly calm - even more so than when we first left Dover and ventured into the Channel - that it is hard to tell we're moving. I lay awake in bed last night with the balcony door open, listening in vain for the familiar swishing sound of the ship's wake. I could almost convince myself that I'm sitting in a hotel, and the ocean is merely a wide channel moving silently past me. Even the report from the bridge lists the sea conditions as "calm, rippled: 0ft" and the wind as "Force 1: light air" (it's too bad Force 2 is "light breeze" and not "heavy air").
Late last night there was a special chocolate buffet, and the line was out the door. As I was joking congenially with a woman in line in front of me, a group of four (what appeared later to be husband and wife, mother-in-law and father-in-law) joined the line, not behind me, but next to me. Over the course of the next fifteen feet the younger of the couples had succeeded, how I still don't really know, to move in front of me in the line. Soon they were in front of the jovial, short woman I had been speaking to previously. Upon reaching the stacks of empty plates, the older woman was in front of me, and her beer-toting husband behind. I kept trying to assert my position, but said nothing. It was when we reached the first platter of delicacies that I lost my patience: the woman, in front of me, took a piece of chocolate pastry and passed it over me to her husband. Unwilling to be treated like an inconveniently-placed table, I swiftly moved around the woman as she parcelled food onto her own plate, taking the next pair of tongs and carefully serving myself, making sure to take enough time that the woman and her husband had to wait until I finished.
I took my leave after that, retreating with my plate and silverware back to my room, where I sat on my balcony and complained to the sea and the sky and the moon, finally apologizing for losing my patience. But if a friend or family member were to ask me whether I'd recommend they go on a cruise, I'd say no. We don't fit in. We say please and thank you, we clear our plates and hold doors open and tip well and are generally polite, even, if not especially, to those people who are the servers as opposed to the served. I can see why the mandatory daily gratuity charge was instituted. And it depresses me.
I've woken too early today. I seem to be coming down with a cold; a sore throat, thanks to all the mucus running down it all night, kept waking me, and combined with another time zone change has left me with wide-open eyes. It's only now 9am. I called room service and asked them if they could bring my breakfast order now, instead of in an hour. They kindly obliged. As they always do. I need to find a way to break some of my bills. I've been tipping (extra, I know) my room stewards, and I'd like to tip the guy in the sports bar who knows my order. But thanks to the cash machine at HSBC, all I have is sticky-flat new twenties.
I have once again seen our peregrine passenger, this time from my balcony as he swooped low past the side of the ship. There does not seem to be much doubt now that the stowaway is some form of small falcon. Though we are now only 700 or so nautical miles from Florida (and nowhere near that far from Bermuda or the Bahamas), so as we approach the continental shelf I will be on the lookout for more marine life. Still there are flying fish, one or two at a time, only every so often, floating like bubbles from the ship's wake.
I retreated indoors because that awful excuse for a band was polluting the air on deck again, the woman caterwauling just out of key, the man singing the same dozen songs over and over, with the bass too loud and the mid-range too quiet, plunking chords on a keyboard as though this was penance enough for using other people's music. When I'd eaten lunch and returned to the pool deck from the aft of the ship only to discover they were still on stage, I gave up on the crowded scene (the performers were receiving little applause, and the smell of stale cigar smoke hung in the air under the eaves) and reclined instead in the small chair on my own balcony, placating myself with Beethoven's Pastoral.
I wrote a letter to the Captain, eloquently thanking him for changing course while expressing my regret at thus missing the stop in the Azores. Part of my intent was merely to put words to the disappointment which still, at times, catches me unaware. But part was more selfish: to take a chance on thus winning myself something; perhaps a letter in return, or a smile and handshake, or a free t-shirt. As if I have grounds for complaint.
The weather is so pleasant, I wish I could remain out in the sun, but like the first nice day of the season I am unprepared, my skin having no protective tan from days on end in the sun. I burn easily like the pale northerner I've become; like the first day with a tank top in the warm sunshine of a Tennessean April, I come inside to find my lips chapped and my forearms pink.
It's 4pm... perhaps I'll go amuse myself for a while indoors with "When Harry Met Sally."
Last day at sea. Another time change - this one putting us, finally, in step with the eastern seaboard - and we're in the North Atlantic basin, just at the edge of the continental shelf. I woke early on account of the extra hour, and decided to head up on deck early to finish the last dozen pages of Frazer. As a reward, I received not only the honor of finishing the book (I swear it has more pages than the Bible), but also a go around the buffet breakfast. Is there anything so wonderful as breakfast? Chopped fruit, bacon (the American kind, and they had both chewy and crispy, marked by little signs), thick-cut french toast... all I had wanted was a cup of coffee. Imagine my elation.
The air is some 80 degrees and the water, according to the captain's noontime announcement, nearly 84. We're about 120 nautical miles north of the Bahamas. I sat out on the aft deck for a while before and during lunch, away from the nuisance that is "Cafe Latino" (yes, them again), letting the sun soak into my skin like a balm. I've seen three ships, two tankers and one laden container vessel, since waking this morning; doubtless there are others which have escaped my view. It's not so busy as the waters were crossing the Bay of Biscayne, but still, there is activity enough to suggest, despite the watery horizons, that we're finally back in civilization.
Since finishing the Frazer, I've decided to give myself a break (there's nothing else I want to read, really), but it made me feel a bit awkward as I sat before lunch, as though the fact that I was doing nothing would be brought to everyone's attention. The hypocrasy of the statement is obvious enough - most everyone else is here to do precisely that, nothing - but such as my Western philosophy is well-congealed, I am the center of my own universe. For better or worse.
I think I'll go do a few laps around the Promenade Deck, then come back up for some dessert. The musical abomination should be finished "playing" by then.
The water is growing minutely rougher, now that it is shallower and we're nearer land. More shipping traffic, but no wildlife to speak of - except for a large dragonfly and a monarch butterfly, individually seen being blown about on deck earlier this afternoon. We're just under 200 nautical miles from Port Canaveral on the Florida coast. S is already in Orlando; two hours ago, in fact. I've donated (ie, pawned) all of the other books I brought (which I'd bought cheaply and only for the journey) to my room stewards, with a note to keep them or pass them on, as they so desire. It's a habit I've grown into of late; I take a book, good but reasonably transient, with me as I travel, and once finished (usually at the end of a flight) give it to whomever expressed the most interest in it as I read. I am my own personal book swap.
I have been feeling more and more... well, excitement, I suppose, as we approach ever nearer to land. The thought of actually seeing S after all this time, being accustomed to his existence as a disembodied voice, actually caused me a small amount of queasiness. Tomorrow morning we dock at 5am, I'm scheduled to go through customs at 7 (it's actually done on the ship), and disembark at 9:30. I have the feeling that I'll be awake long beforehand. To that end, I've stowed a diet Pepsi in my backpack, and set my alarm for 4:30, mainly because - even before dawn - I'd like to see landfall; I want to see the lights of the port sparkling across the water in the distance, and hear a voice cry out "land ho!" (even if only in my head). My excitement expresses itself outwardly as a vague agitation. I'm simply never quite settled, always wanting to do something, unable to sit and relax, wondering why the time doesn't proceed faster.
I watched the sunset tonight from the forward deck - last sunset over the sea, a nearly cloudless sky, but the hue toward the west, toward land, was different than before. The wind rushed at us, carrying a different scent. No longer the fresh air of the ocean, but the warm, sweet smell of shore and swamp. It's interesting the things that become apparent, when nothing else exists to the eye but air and water.
We come into port at 5am. I plan on being awake.
1:48am. We've just docked.
Just after midnight, I opened my eyes to my first glimpse of land; a string of lights on the horizon. I wouldn't have known we'd docked, but I left my balcony door open as usual, and woke to loud music. I thought perhaps it was a party on deck, until I located the source of the sound as a well-lit bar which we passed painfully slowly. I heard the change in the engines, and we were swinging around to the side - so I threw on my coat, grabbed my keycard and my camera, and went upstairs to the foredeck. Sure enough, along the starboard side (which I couldn't see from my balcony), we'd pulled alongside a quay, hard-hatted staff ready in the darkness to secure the ropes to the massive cleats. Upon returning to my room, once our ropes were in their hands, I found my phone to be back on a land-based carrier, which gives me internet access once again.
I wonder if anyone else has noticed that the ship has stopped. Nearly 2am. All movement ceases, save me typing away under a desk lamp, and all of the port staff hard at work tethering us once again to the firmament of earth.
And as the sun rises on central Florida, the weary traveler is there to greet it, her ship safely harbored.
I thought I would miss it, but as I emerged from my stateroom for the last time, having cleared customs and returned to collect the last of my things, the sun was a red glow on the eastern horizon. It's been a long time since I witnessed a sunrise, and especially since I've done so by waking before it (as opposed to staying up all night). It's now just after 8am, I've eaten breakfast and the sun, rising just as surely as it always has, warms by back as I sit here on the pool deck. Now we wait until our "color" is called - I'm purple, 9:30 - and then disembark. Steve is due to meet me at 10. Herons and seagulls, and one pelican, skim the still surface of the water below. Jackdaws, sleek and spindly, hop across the open decks, stealing crumbs, occasionally making a raucous show of their presence.
So this is it. Somehow, as I watch the waking scene below, I can tell it's home. Home. That word swells up in my chest and sticks in my throat. I've never been here before, and yet I know the place. It bears a familiarity that I can only now appreciate.
Across from us, at other terminals, are a Disney Cruises and a Carnival ship. The Carnival ship is enormous, crowned with a bright yellow and blue waterslide; it dwarfs us and the Disney ship. The Disney ship is sleek, sharp, traditional and aesthetically pleasing. They're still calling about two dozen people to complete the mandatory customs check (first, by politely calling "all those who have not yet," then by room number, and now, forcing their hand through embarrassment, by name); people mill around on deck, talking prolifically into cell phones that are finally available to them again. The sun is warm on the back of my neck. Gerald, the younger of my two room stewards, asked for my e-mail address this morning. I was so amused that I gave it to him. I'm on my second cup of coffee, after chugging a diet Pepsi earlier. I am anxious; as I watch the scene to the west, cars and hotel shuttles, buses and trucks, port authority crew, bags unloaded and loaded, I have no other wish than to be in the fray. My heart thuds within my chest. Home is calling.