The countess was drunk again, floating motionless on her back in the warm water of the ship’s swimming pool. Wrinkled, thin and heavy with jewelry, she seemed to have an ability to remain afloat instead of sinking as the weight of her jewels would dictate. We watched her while awaiting the crew members who would haul her out on a nightly basis. During her more sober day the poor countess, who had recently suffered the theft of other jewelry from her chateau, was comforted by an Indian woman who lived in Florida. She was on board to give cooking lessons. In between dishing up curry and dal, she told us about her Irish husband who sold upscale plumbing to sheiks in the Gulf and showed us how to tie saris. She flashed around in her own bright saris encouraging us to donate money or condolences to her new best friend, the countess. We demurred.
We had boarded the small cruise ship in Bali and were headed towards Oman, a passage that would take nearly a month. Along the way our itinerary would take us to Java, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, the Maldives and India. The cruise was to be the formal transition to our retirement although it also became an interval in the unexpected consultancy in Rome. I was still mourning the loss of my mother and our departure from Rome, the sunny Italian lifestyle, our many friends and the travel for work and pleasure. It was time for a break before we gathered our wits to really understand a new way of living.
The trans-Pacific flight was interminable: Seattle to San Francisco; San Francisco to Hong Kong across the date line; then Hong Kong to Bali, another five hours. We landed in what must be the most beautiful island in the world, an oriental version of la dolce vita. A Hindu island floating in a Moslem world, it was filled with smiling people, soft gamelan music, fringed silk umbrellas, textiles woven in ikat designs, paintings and carvings. Rituals ruled the island with statues of gods draped in black and white checkered cloth symbolizing the polarity of positive and negative forces. Swastika designs on buildings and fences encouraged cosmic energy and harmony. Slender, graceful women in sarongs balanced towering offerings of fruit and rice cakes toward the split gates of the intricately carved temples. Hens and chicks pecked while fighting cocks were cooped up in upside down baskets. Rice paddies glistened green on the terraced hillsides. Tall bamboo poles leaning with the weight of small offerings decorated village streets. Small shrines stood in the fields. The soft scenes defined our vision of paradise with the gods and people in harmony even though we knew that the island had a violent history. We were tempted to stay forever like many expatriates whose villas are featured in design magazines but we could see our ship moored in the harbor awaiting us. A complete fugue
from reality was not on our itinerary.
The ship was not luxurious except for the food and wine. Our floating world contained about 200 passengers, mostly Americans with some seasoning of wealthy and well-dressed Europeans. Aside from the countess and an English lord living in South Africa who always dominated the scene whenever he appeared at 11:00 a.m. at an outdoor bar to sip his bouillon, the Europeans weren’t at all interesting except for their ritzy clothes. Every evening they dressed in “smokings,” tuxedos to us, and beautiful cocktail dresses in contrast to our dresswear mostly bought at Macys. We felt distinctly lower class, which in their eyes we no doubt were. One dress-up night, however, Glenn felt a lot better about the European competition. He had reluctantly brought his own Italian tuxedo along. We were on the dance floor when he felt someone tugging at his jacket. A German was fingering the fabric. “Nice,” the man said.
The casual Americans were a mixed lot: an elderly man in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and his harried wife, permanent cruisers who told us about shipwrecks and a society formed to tell tall tales of survival (not a group we aspired to join), fat cats with fat cigars and right-wing views, and a woman celebrating her 90th birthday with her family. Also making a splash was a nasty tempered but well-dressed travel writer and her friend, equally rude and well dressed but obviously along only to fetch and carry for her aggressive boss. Completing the roster was a mother and daughter from Oklahoma. They caught our attention by spending their daylight hours lounging near the pool in the burning sun. Mother, overweight with skin like leather tanned in a pattern that included large cancer-like moles liberally scattered over the exposed parts, wore a pareo that didn’t cover enough when she left the pool. The daughter, as wide as she was tall, unfortunately favored a small bikini. She was like an upside-down pear and it was amazing that she didn’t fall over when standing.
Each day started with a wake-up call from the captain: the weather report, the port schedule if we were due to dock and then reading of ghastly doggerel written in the 1920s by the “poet,” Don Blanding. This was the signal for breakfast on deck under the spreading sun umbrellas. The days at sea were filled with Indian cooking tutorials interspersed with lectures from an over-the-hill political commentator and a self-help guru – a flashy painted woman who wore wide brimmed hats and heavy jewelry that clanked when she moved her arms. Eschewing their educational efforts, we lounged on deck watching the thousands of silvery flying fish trying to escape the bow wake. They went leaping and bouncing along like pebbles tossed in a game to see how many touch-downs could be made before finally disappearing under the water.
During our long sea days the crew frequently dined with the passengers, especially on formal evenings. Our captain was well-known by many of the Americans. They were like groupies, each one vying for his attention and crowing about whatever crumbs of attention fell their way. The captain’s table, with its flowers and premium wine, was an eagerly sought after delight. Six lucky passengers were able to sashay into the dining room escorted by the ship’s social director to be seated by their place cards while they awaited the captain’s formal entrance. Our handsome Scandinavian host, somewhat red of face, was a bon vivant who thrived on the fawning attention from his passengers. One evening the lottery selected us to share his repast, Glenn on the right and me on his left. I trotted out my best outfit which was low cut but covered by a light shawl. The captain, somewhat worse for wear, took a great interest in the shawl and worried about its arrangement. He kept turning in my direction and I could see in his eyes that he was concerned. Was it sufficient to keep my chest warm, or did the shawl need to be adjusted? He fussed, rearranging it to suit his taste, which was to have more exposure, damn the air conditioning. No one said anything although our table mates looked like they would burst trying not to laugh out loud. I tried to look like it was a normal occurrence. Glenn bore up outwardly while inwardly considering whether to smile or demand a duel at dawn on the afterdeck where trap shooting was available.
Social misadventure struck again when we were seated with the unpleasant Oklahomans and the dour Polish ship’s doctor dressed in his formal uniform with the blood-red shoulder tabs. While we ordered extra champagne to drown our sorrows at having to dine with the mother and daughter, the conversation began. Mother was swimming in oil money, the proceeds being displayed around her neck and on her fingers. She let us know that money meant nothing as she had so much of it. The daughter told us that she was employed as a bra fitter, and then, proud of her own assets (original or not) she spotted the ship’s photographer heading our way. Without missing a word in the tale of her exciting career, she grabbed both huge breasts and plopped them on the table for the photographer and us to enjoy. We were struck speechless at the crude display. Her mother didn’t notice a thing. Instead, she started on a new conversational gambit: what did ships do when a passenger died? The good doctor was then in his own glory as he told us about the morgue on every cruise ship. We skipped dessert.
Languid days slid by, each one hot and sunny with no breeze or even clouds on the horizon. The sea was usually empty but one day a small yacht came in view. The captain contacted the boat by radio learning that a family, husband, wife and small child, were on a long passage of their years-long round-the-world cruise. They had left the last port with inadequate provisions. The crew began to lower the captain’s rubber runabout. The galley crew loaded up champagne, sandwiches, fruit and more durable ships stores. The ebullient captain, always ready for some fun whether it was feeling me up, reciting poetry or joking with passengers, fired up the outboard engine and we lined the rails watching him whizzing off to deliver the sustenance with a flourish. The husband waved one of the champagne bottles in thanks. The runabout and our captain were hoisted back up and we sailed on, soon leaving the family far behind on their lonely voyage.
An inviolate sundown ritual was celebrated whenever we were far from land. Everyone gathered with their champagne glasses to watch the sunset, hoping for a glimpse of the elusive “green flash.” The flash, visible for less than a second, is an optical phenomenon when a green ray shoots up from the sunset point just as the sun sinks into the ocean. Green curves more than red/orange making that light visible after the red rays are obstructed by the curvature of the earth. The flash comes from the refraction of light as in a prism. Whenever we were rewarded with the show, a shout went up: “I saw it!”
The brilliant tropical sunset brought an end to each perfect sunny day. After dinner, we left the others to enjoy the little casino or Las Vegas-style entertainment while we sat on deck thinking of our future life and watching the stars and the white wake shimmering in the moonlight as it was endlessly left behind.
The ports of call looked as though they were set up for a photo shoot in the cruise brochure. We acted like the tourists we were, flaneurs, lounging or strolling about as onlookers, not on the boulevards of Paris but on guided tours, with little opportunity or desire to actually experience the lives we observed. This was sanitary sightseeing: food, water, accommodations and sights were all clean and neat. We were no longer expatriates or travelers.
In Java we climbed the temple of Borobudur, watched ox races and released baby turtles to the sea. In Kuala Lumpur we stood in a Chinese temple watching the paper Mercedes and houses burn during an incense laden funeral. We relaxed in rickshaws in Penang on the way to a restaurant filled with banks of orchids flourishing in the tropical damp. A stop in Phuket offered the opportunity to ride an elephant. In the Maldives we snorkeled with myriads of brightly colored little fishes before helping the chef select larger fish for dinner at the market. We took in the sights of Cochin with its canals and nearly empty Jew Town before attending a service in a Hindu temple in Mangalore where the priests rang bells, clashed cymbals and beat drums in deafening sounds to call their gods. The seething carpet of humanity in Mumbai appeared beyond the Gate of India erected by the British in the days when empires were thought to last forever.
The visual highlight of the cruise was a day trip to the Taj Mahal. We flew over dry and dusty brown plains to Agra where we joined throngs on crowded roads, humans in every kind of transport available along with cows blithely ambling through traffic as we headed to the glittering white monument. Cows were a traffic hazard but provided amusement when we saw a good looking heifer with her head in a beauty shop doorway trying to see what was going on with her female counterparts.
Built for a beloved wife who died in childbirth giving life to her fourteenth child, her husband, Shah Jahan, began the construction of the Taj in 1632. His architects and builders produced an unrivaled masterpiece of Moghul art in homage to Mumtaz Mahal, his third wife. Contrary to photographs, the building does not stand alone. Rather, we were surprised to see it is part of a complex of four magnificent buildings, each of which is an architectural marvel in itself. The entrance to the complex is white marble. Two mirror image buildings, a mosque and a guesthouse to the sides of the Taj, are red sandstone. The four buildings surround a beautiful Persian garden with fountains, pools and trees. The translucent marble exterior of the Taj is sumptuously decorated with geometric, vegetative and calligraphic designs, both carved and inlaid. Inside, to my eyes even more beautiful, are delicate marble screens surrounding the sarcophagi of the Shah and his wife. The screens are carved into lace-like shapes set with jasper, jade, turquoise, carnelian, lapis lazuli and other precious stones in designs of vines, fruit, carnations and tulips. What better evidence could there be than this monument to one of the greatest love stories of all time?
To complete the display of Indian design and in recognition that Agra was the former home of the Koh-i-Noor diamond, we visited a boutique featuring jewel encrusted Mughal jewelry. The women tried on heavy emerald, ruby and diamond necklaces and other leftovers from long-dead maharanis. We all preened for a while thinking of what it would be like to live in purdah dripping with jewels but hidden away from life outside the walls of the women’s quarters. After the modeling session, the shopkeeper, no fool he, brought out new rings, bracelets and necklaces of the same design. Women lusted and men sighed in recognition that credit cards would be extracted from their wallets. Jewelry flew off the shelves in a shopping frenzy. The English lord bought his wife a necklace of 27 large star sapphires, only emphasizing the theme of the cruise which seemed to be Jewelry Я Us. Crew members along for the excursion kept trying to push us along with little success as items flew off the shelves and into shopping bags. Not suitable for dull Seattle, I passed on the florid designs. We were late boarding the mosquito filled chartered aircraft with our treasure trove, only arriving at the ship after midnight, hours behind schedule. When we pulled up to the dock the captain was pacing back and forth in irritation. The crew held out champagne at the top of the gangplank to entice us while the ship’s orchestra played “When the Saints Come Marching In.” Obediently, we marched up the plank arms outstretched for the drink.
The engines hummed and then, hours later, at dawn, we awoke to silence. Our captain, skipping the poetry, announced that shortly after leaving Mumbai, our last port before Muscat, Oman, one of the two engines had given out due to fouling in the murky waters of the harbor. The engineers had worked all night without success. We limped ever more slowly over the Arabian Sea. Instead of a white wake, the water became increasingly oily looking as we approached the Persian Gulf. Large iridescent green globs floated on the surface reflecting a burning sun. It was hard to believe that a fabulous pearl fishery had existed for millennia in these waters, now polluted and nearly fished out.
The rocky coast appeared, ten hours late. Not a scrap of vegetation was in sight. Arab watchtowers built on the golden colored rocks looked down at us. We docked. As we were leaving the ship, the ship’s tour director informed us that the luxury hotel the cruise line had booked for everyone was not available for an unknown reason and that we would be sent to a different but slightly less famous hostelry. The English lord turned purple with rage. He screamed and he yelled and he made threatening gestures. Then he repeated the performance until the other passengers waiting patiently in the bus began to yell at him to shut up. Undeterred, he continued until he was left on the dock with his wife who probably felt that she wouldn’t be able to flaunt her sapphires in a lesser establishment.
She need not have worried. The five-star hotel was a glorious vision of the Arabian Nights. An enormous lobby was dominated by a larger than life size rotating bronze sculpture of a sheik holding a hawk on his outstretched arm while mounted on a prancing Arab stallion. Windows overlooking the beach and the Gulf of Oman were surrounded by colored glass etched with designs featuring the ceremonial rhinoceros horn handled daggers favored by the Omani men. Sculptures of elegantly horned Arabian Oryx heads hung on the walls. Zanzibar chests were topped with models of dhows.
The air was heavy with the scent of frankincense – the gift of the Magi. Sensually unveiled and barely dressed Arab women lounged by the pool and handsome men in white robes and gold banded headdresses sipped coffee nearby. We visited the souk and bought coral beads. When I went to get them strung later a sniffing jeweler said they were only dyed that beautiful color.
But some of the traders had genuine treasures:a bronze dhow manned with little figures of merchants carrying their goods to Zanzibar, their ancient trade route and former possession, and a copper bowl engraved with the name of the family who had once owned it. The little boat sits with those collected in other lands. The bowl is now filled with pomegranates, the symbol of welcome, mixed with red chili peppers for warmth, a memory of the heat of the southern lands and travel that was an introduction to retirement.