On my recent stint as a water-colorist on board a cruise ship, Nancy, my traveling companion and occasional container for my mental health, took photographs to preserve her impressions. I wrote. Here are some vignettes:
* * *
Our stateroom steward came in a half dozen times a day to empty the wastebasket, check the bathroom supplies, bring fresh flowers and make towel sculptures. “Fred,” in his late 60’s, was from the Indian subcontinent. His English was as difficult to decipher as some of the things he did for us.
Most nights when he turned down our beds, I found my nightshirt in a lump by my pillow. But Nancy’s nightgown would be arranged to look like a butterfly or a fairy. The first time this happened, we stared at it together. Nancy took a photo.
“Do you suppose he’s naked when he does that?” I asked
“I don’t know, Elena,” Nancy said. “That’s your fantasy.”
* * *
One morning we were ushered into breakfast near a woman who was finishing her own meal. Our butts hadn’t even touched our chairs before her words shot at us like BBs.
“The muffins are good and I like the way they do the eggs my coffee wasn’t hot enough it looks like it’s going to be a better day than yesterday I enjoyed the glacier I’m from Ottawa–”
I made an immediate decision to not engage, to be surly if necessary. Nancy murmured something. It didn’t matter one way or the other.
“I’ve never been on this coast it’s a long way to come for a week on a ship there are so many nationalities I can’t understand what half of them are saying it’s a problem we have in Canada the multi-culturalists bah they violate my civil rights these Muslims with their robes and head-gear.”
Nancy and I exchanged glances. I thought about spitting my prune pit at her. Nancy, in her gracious Libra way, asked, “How do they violate your civil rights?”
The woman slammed down her (cold) coffee cup and raised her voice, unnecessarily because she had already cracked my water glass. “Well, I don’t want to have to look at them!” she declared.
There was a pause. “Where are you ladies from?” she asked.
“Oh really, you’re American? You aren’t as aggressive as most Americans. That’s a compliment, by the way. I would never live in America. Your political parties hate each other.”
Nancy and the woman actually shook hands when we left. I do admire her ability to be civil.
* * *
But then I have my gracious moments, too. When I called in at Guest Relations the day after my first watercolor class, Umar informed me that a student had complained about me.
“She said that she asked you for some paint and you ignored her.” He looked sympathetic. “I wasn’t going to say anything to you because this lady, she seems to have so many concerns but maybe there’s something you can do for her.”
I took the name and stateroom number. The only person I could remember offending was the reporter from the major newspaper which will continue to go un-named. I thought about the chaos of that class when 50 people swarmed the table fighting for a few squeezed out tubes of paint. http://www.elenalouiserichmond.com/2011/07/meltdown-in-alaska/
I said to Nancy, “My god, couldn’t she see what was going on in there?” But of course, so often we can only see what affects us.
I called the student and gushed over the phone that I was sorry I had ignored her. I asked her to introduce herself to me at the next class and I would make sure she had everything she needed. I can do this for a student but I don’t care to put myself out for a spiteful woman who launches herself at me before I’ve had my tea.
We never saw the woman from Ottawa again and I never heard back from the offended student. But for the rest of week, whenever I saw Umar at Guest Relations, he smiled conspiratorially and asked “And have you seen our friend today?”
* * *
Nancy’s favorite person on the ship was Graham Sunderland, The Naturalist. He gave lectures about pretty much everything on land and sea that we could see from the decks.
After teaching my first watercolor class, I spent two days in fetal position so I didn’t hear Graham’s early lectures.
“His humor is off-color,” Nancy said. “I know he would appeal to you.”
After the second lecture, Nancy reported that The Naturalist –she always referred to him as The Naturalist–said, “Whales are like people on a cruise ship. They open their mouths and food swims right in.”
At the first lecture I attended, The Naturalist explained that while most salmon return to the stream where they were born, it is a myth that they all do.
“Salmon are like human beings. There are always some bozos who get it wrong.”
We ran into The Naturalist one evening on an outdoor deck that was unpopulated because there was no place to sit. The three of us talked about the ship’s caste system. I told him that our running joke was what we might do that could get us put off the boat in Juneau.
Graham’s degree was in Ornithology. His first year on a ship, he had rescued the dead bodies of various birds that flew against the boat and knocked themselves out. He had wrapped them up and put them in kitchen’s freezer intending to use them (somehow) for his lectures. He was not branded a bozo who got it wrong and he was not put off the boat in Juneau. He was asked back for a subsequent year.
“I hope we run into The Naturalist again,” Nancy said at least once a day.
Our last day on the ship, Graham, Nancy and I met for tea which stretched into dinner. He told us more funny stories from his twenty years of experience. One question that seems to be asked quite often, prompting Graham to an aside that salmon have a higher I.Q. than a lot of folks on cruise ships, is
“Does the crew sleep on board?”
On one run, a sarcastic staff person replied, “No, we are air-lifted off at night to sleep onshore.”
In the evaluation forms at the end of that cruise, someone had commented, “I enjoyed everything about this trip except the noise from the helicopters at night when I was trying to sleep.”
Graham’s comment about the photos that Nancy took that evening was that he looked like a Taxi Cab in his yellow shirt. I said I looked like the drunken fare he had to take home. And Nancy looks like someone who got her wish to run into The Naturalist again.