Sunday, April 21, 2019

South American Diary #11: The church at Nercón


     Happy Easter! 

     I've got a holiday treat for readers of all denominations: a visit to the Our Lady of Grace Church—Nuestra Señora de Gracia—in the town of Nercón, Chile. Made of local cypress and larch about 1890, it is one of 14 distinctive wooden churches on the island of Chiloé which, together were designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000. The official citation reads:
The 14 churches of Chiloé represent the only example in Latin America of a rare form of ecclesiastical wooden architecture. They were built on the initiative of the Jesuit Peripatetic Mission in the 17th and 18th centuries and bear testimony to a successful fusion of indigenous and European culture and technical expertise. 
     I've only seen one of the other 13 — the lemon yellow Church of San Francisco De Castro, beautiful too, though on a larger scale, and painted, on the outside, so its grandeur seemed a little forced after the stunning simplicity of the church at Nercón.  UNESCO produced a video featuring a few of the other churches. 
     Makes me wish I could return and see them all, though it's hard to imagine how any of them could be sweeter than this imposing-yet-humble wooden structure, built by seafaring missionaries on this island, which historian Renato Cárdenas called “a distinct enclave, linked more to the sea than the continent."
     That would explain the sailing ships suspended from the ceiling, a practice found in Scandinavian churches honoring the vessels so important to parishioners' lives, though in the New World it's thought they also symbolize the ships that conveyed them to their new homes. Something I had only seen once before, in a small ornate stone church in Quebec City: Notre-Dame-des-Victoires.
     The colors inside, particularly the intense blue of the side altars, were particularly affecting, as were the folk art figures, the bare wood, the careful carpentry: while it is not true the church is built without nails, there are not as many as you'd expect.

    I was so focused on taking photographs of the place, I neglected to quiz the woman who opened the church for us. That was  a mistake. I assumed I'd find background online, but I there isn't a lot. Someone should write a book on these churches.  I'd do it, in a heartbeat.
     People purporting to be faithful talk about humility a lot, but often that ideal gets lost in the gold-leaf grandeur that religious leaders feel obligated to plaster over themselves and their surroundings. 
     Our Lady of Grace Church reminds us that there is beauty in simplicity, in minimalism—and few things are simpler than a cross—in natural materials in their natural state. Just to put a coat of paint on this church would be a desecration. It achieves a harmony with the nature buffeting it, very much like a ship itself, a tight vessel designed to be battered by the woes of the world and convey the souls sheltered within to a safe, snug harbor. 
    So here's hoping that this Easter—if you celebrate it—you can look beyond the grand  trappings, the lacy bonnets, if people still wear Easter bonnets, the overflowing candy baskets and dripping spiral hams, and connect with the basic message and suffering, redemption and rebirth that is at the heart of the Easter story, or so I've been led to believe. All who suffer are not redeemed, but the possibility is always waiting for those who seek redemption.


Saturday, April 20, 2019

South American Diary #10: Marion

    "There is a God," announced Marion Kaplan, arriving, camera in hand of course, onto the  windblown early morning top deck of the RCGS Resolute, traveling north through the Falcon Fjord.
     While I wasn't willing to join her in that leap of faith, I allowed that the austere scenery  spread out before us in shades of blue and gold was indeed fantastic.
     "On the day I booked, this is what I imagined," she said, referring to the One Ocean Expeditions voyage through the fjords of Chile. 
      I had no reply because, in all honesty, on the day I booked I hadn't imagined anything. I didn't know a fjord from a Ford. I am not a traveler prone to pre-meditation, seldom pausing to ponder where I am going or what might be there. I certainly never considered that the other passengers aboard the cruise would provide an important aspect of the adventure, if not quite to rival the scenery, then certainly a way to fruitfully occupy the periods between exploring ice-choked waters in Zodiac boats and clomping around coastal bogs and ogling moss-covered rockscapes.
     When Marion first joined the large round white clothed table where I was sitting, on the second dinner of the expedition, I didn't peg this 80ish, five-foot-tall woman as someone I wanted to get to know better. She mentioned, in her proper Queen's English, that for the past 25 years she has lived in Southwest France.
     "Are there any French people there?" I inquired, tartly, perhaps trying to show off my scant knowledge of the area. "Or is everybody English?"
     But Marion wasn't going to be distracted by snide dinner companions. Finding herself in the company of journalists, she brought up a particular friend of hers who had covered the Nuremberg trials. 
     That shut me up and caught my attention. The Nuremberg trials just don't get tossed out as dinner conversation much anymore, though we didn't linger there, but sped on to her shooting photographs in Africa for Time and Life, and  the half year she spent aboard Arab dhows—ancient sailing ships, the last echo of the tradition of plying spice routes that went back to antiquity. She traveled from Kuwait to Mombassa and then down the African coast, first as a passenger, then as crew.
     She didn't mention it, but I later learned the odyssey ran in the September, 1974 National Geographic. 
     After a number of years abroad, in 1962 she decided to go home, she told us. Money was tight, so she hitchhiked. By herself. From Johannesburg to London.
     "How long did that take?" I asked. 
     She pondered a moment.
1966, Salisbury, Rhodesia
    "About two, two and a half years," she said.
      The next morning at 6 a.m. I was online, looking at her photographs, such as this from Rhodesia. And I ordered one of her books "Focus Africa," which contains an account of her epic adventure in thumb-waving.
      She wasn't Dorothea Lange, but she wasn't bad, and I felt a certain kinship with her on that account. I'm not John McPhee either, but I do what I can. We're both mid-level craftsman who managed to brush our fingers against the fabric of history as it unfurled around us. Perhaps she more than I.
      In her brief accounts of her career during conversations aboard the Resolute, she failed to mention certain significant aspects, like taking the portrait of Idi Amin, or having tea with Robert Mugabe. She never mentioned climbing Mount Kilimanjaro with a girlfriend, sleeping in caves , a detail revealed in a bravura paragraph from "Focus Africa" that bears repeating in full:
     I passed my days with people who welcomed me, moving on before the welcome grew cool. I slept in some strange places: in, under and on the tops of trucks, in caves on Mount Kilimanjaro, in the bush and in deserts, in a police station in Uganda, a priest's cubbyhole in the Congo, a barracks in Nigeria; on the floor of a train, on the hatch of a schooner and the deck of a dhow, in filth on a Nile barge, in comfort on a Congo riverboat; in a maternity house in Khartoum, a war victims' hostel (l'Association des Amputés et Mutilés de Guerre de Sénégal) in St. Louis and missions of all denominations, in village huts and crowded quartiers, in embassies and private homes all over Africa.  
Congo, 1968
     Sharing the evocative name of the Senegalese hospital proved to me we were on the same page. Her politics in the 1982 book easily bear the strain of being transported to 2019. A kinship with the Africans she meets—she lets the Sudanese women on that Nile barge try on her bra—and barely suppressed contempt for the white rule of the British in Rhodesia and for the mercenaries wallowing in blood in the newly-independent Congo, where she "learned at first hand what I had always suspected: that the strong pictures warfare makes, of tough men and smoking guns, can be an illusion, a mirror image of macho. There were few 'real men' in that overarmed assortment of misfits and numbskulls."
     I grew to appreciate such frank assessments during our two weeks as shipmates. When the ship stopped at Puerto Eden and we eagerly went ashore to meet the last surviving members of an indigenous tribe, she refused to go, she said, because the tribespeople demanded to be paid to have their photos taken, a practice she dubbed "neo-colonial." 
     In her book, several times she encounters English club ladies, who marvel that she would accept a ride from a black truck driver. What if she were attacked? (She was, and her description of the event—the last three lines of a 12-line paragraph—has to be one of the most understated attempted rapes in the wide sweep of English literature: 
     "....In Marrakesh a couple of goldsmiths who had accompanied me around the suq and the great Djemaa el-F'na with its marvelous open-air entertainment—storytellers, contortionists, snake charmers, worldly and unworldly amusements—set upon me with intent on the way back to my back-street hotel. But theirs was a very small car, and my pigtails and trousers, shrill screams and clawing fingernails won out. There it is: my only nasty experience." 
Paleo-anthropologist Richard Leaky
      Speaking of unpleasant experiences, I did have one with Marion, which either must or shouldn't be told, and since I'm not sure which it is, I'll let you decide. 
     Having met Marion, I spent the next week seeking her during meals out and savoring her candid observations. It isn't often one can talk to someone who photographed both Robert F. Kennedy and Haile Sellasie, Emperor of Ethiopia, the Lion of Judah, descendent of Solomon and the Queen of Sheba, at least in his own estimation. She seemed to appreciate the company of Michael Cooke and myself, as fellow journalists, and a relief from the prattle of ordinary tourists.  
     It was after a lecture by Ian Goodwin, an Australian glaciologist and climatologist, that I found her on on deck, standing at the rail, watching the ceaseless ocean rush past. 
     "What a waste!" I exclaimed. He spent an entire hour telling us about the glaciers he was studying and nothing more. "A babble of specifics," is how I put it, complaining that he never pulled back to give the big picture, never uttered the kind of concise, quotable sky-is-falling warning required for any proper newspaper story on climate change. 
     Marion disagreed. She said she was glad someone is studying these topics, and obviously understands them better than either of us. I left her, a bit ruffled that my pal had not agreed with me, but giving it no more thought.
    Until  dinner.
Haile Sellasie
     Michael and I joined Ian to talk more about his presentation—it turned out he is concerned not just about climate change, but about the risk that climate scientists are skiing over their tips, in essence, issuing  warnings that might undercut their reliability since they'll be found true for our grandkids more than for us. 
     Marion drifted over and we beckoned her to join us.
     "He hated your lecture!" she told Ian, sitting down,  pointing in my direction with what struck me as malicious glee. I collected my jaw off my lap and tried a bright spin: not "hated," certainly, just didn't understand, and wished it had a broader scope rather than limited to what he knew and had studied. Marion would have none of it, and drove her point home.  No, no, no, Neil was quite clear in his condemnation.
      "Marion, you're being ghastly," I finally said, and managed to wrench the conversation into other areas. 
     Later in dinner, she seemed to sense that perhaps she had exhibited bad form, and observed that she would no doubt die soon.
    "Not soon enough," I muttered, sotto voce, an ire I carried into the next day, when she perched nearby, obviously expecting us to continue our usual conversation. I gave her the cold shoulder. The honesty I so appreciated when directed at those not myself felt quite different when focused on me. It felt like betrayal.  I was done with her, and imagined pitching her book into the trash, unopened, when I got home.
     But that quickly faded. As deep a well of resentment I no doubt possess, it tends to be thin gruel over any protracted period. "Save grudges for the 7th grade," I like to say. 
    I grew hungry for our previous conversation. There was the deference due to one's elders, the unavoidable fact that, while I was still sitting crosslegged, singing about the colors of the rainbow in kindergarten at Fairwood School in Berea, Ohio, Marion was tagging along after mercenaries rampaging through the Congo, using live 9mm bullets as earplugs to cut the noise from their gunfire.  She forged her own travel papers, and did herself up in a slinky dress, high heels and heavy makeup to wobble her film past border guards who might confiscate it.  Once Kenneth Kaunda, president of Zambia, interrupted his own speech to tell his band of young followers to stop roughing up Marion and another photographer. "No, no," he shouted. "They are all right. I know them. Leave them in peace."
     So we returned to our old habits, though I did make a point to never say anything to her I wouldn't want widely disseminated. We never spoke of that encounter again, and I gave her a warm hug as we parted, jotted down her email, and received an invitation to look her up in the South of France, which I appreciated but would never follow up on.
     The Resolute was docked at Santiago, Michael and I were off the ship, through customs, and about to board our bus to the airport when I saw Marion Kaplan for what must be the last time. She was far behind everyone, but gamely hurrying to catch up, best she could, her camera slung around her neck, at the ready. I snapped a farewell photo.


Friday, April 19, 2019

It’s too easy to say, ‘Bob did it’ — Chicago safety experts on Notre Dame fire

     Opportunities for do-overs are rare in the column biz. The scribbling finger of Time rushes on, and each new situation tends to be unique.
     But sometimes the chance does arise. When Notre Dame Cathedral burned in Paris Monday, I leaped onto social media, with everyone else, saying the first thing to pop into mind, like everybody else.
     “How could this happen?” The question answers itself. The scaffolding! It was the roofers. I remembered a column written in 2006 when the Pilgrim Baptist Church burned, inspiring me to flip open my tool box and grab the 2-pound sarcasm drilling hammer: “… city officials speculated that roofers working on the church just might have touched off the blaze. Gee, ya think?” I wrote, almost gleeful. “You mean the guys with blowtorches working at the exact spot the fire broke out? Now there’s a theory. It’s ALWAYS the roofers …”
     Chicago is a city of laborers, contractors, masons, pipe fitters, plumbers, iron workers, crane operators, site foremen and, yes, roofers. Perhaps some after-echo of every single one of them looking up from their Sun-Times in 2006 and muttering“schmuck” caused me to set down the hammer, pick up a phone and actually do my job.
     “It’s awfully easy to say, ‘Oh, Bob did it,'” said Tim Fisher, director of the American Society of Safety Professionals, based in Park Ridge. “I was a firefighter. I’ve investigated hundreds of incidents, and very rarely did I find an incident caused because of negligence — usually something went with it, a series of circumstances that compile.”
     For example?
     Fisher recalled a fire where a cement mixer shorted out and set fire to lumber stacked nearby.
     The blame belonged … where? To the guy in charge of maintaining the mixer? The person running it? The worker who stacked the lumber? Or the foreman overseeing them all?
“In this organization, we don’t believe in blaming the worker,” Fisher said. “We believe a lot in identifying what we call the ‘key factor.'”

To continue reading, click here.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

South American Diary #9: In the company of rare birds

Crested caracara , near Serrano Glacier in d'Agostini Fjord (Photo by Jacqueline Windh)
     No matter how much you love birds, they never love you back.
     I'm not sure how that unspoken truth factors into the widespread appeal of the avian segment of the animal kingdom, but it must. Birds play hard to get, their quick transit through their air so different from our earthbound plodding. People are everywhere; birds, not so much. Certain humans yearn for what glimpses we can catch of them. They have beauty and grace and we ... get to look at them, sometimes, if we're lucky.
    As a guy who glories in the range of ordinary birds to be found in the Chicago area—cardinals, sparrows woodpeckers, bluejays, robins, herons, ducks, hawks, vireos, finches—of course I'd keenly anticipate what wondrous birds I'd encounter cruising the coast of Chile. 
    And I was not disappointed.  It started with a pair of kelp geese, a coal black female and her snow white male, seen on a rock on our first Zodiac foray from the ship, just past the Garibaldi Glacier. A slow-moving falcon called the caracara (above) was a common sight, as were albatrosses. We saw red-footed cormorants and once and—though I missed it, alas—a pygmy owl.
Simon Boyes (photo by Jacqueline Windh)
     The voyage—of the RCGS Resolute, under the auspices of One Ocean Expeditions—had its own resident ornithologist, Simon Boyes, who has been leading bird-watching tours since 1977, and done some 300 trips on all seven continents. 
     "When I was about 12, I found my love of birds," he told us, at the expedition's start. "I found I had to know what everything was called. I had to know, for some strange reason it motivated me all the time. You need to know, what they are, these little things hopping along the rocks." 
     I was intrigued that Simon read classics at Oxford.
      "It was useful for studying the scientific names of birds," he explained, noting that he preferred Greek to Latin, which did not surprise me: in his history, Herodotus turns his attention to birds, to ibises and ducks, as well as creatures less tangible: phoenixes, winged snakes and doves that speak with human voices.  
    Simon had no interest in being interviewed, at least not by me—the media is in trouble when bird-watchers draw away from us in distrust—but I managed to ask him about Oxford as an institution. 
    "I thought it was terrible," he said. "It was just so pre-historic."
    In his opening talk, Simon noted that three Wilson's storm petrels had already gotten stranded on the upper deck.
     "There's lots to look at, lots to learn about," said Simon. "I hope I can encourage you to share my love of bird-watching."
    And so we did. I loved hearing Simon talk about birds. He spoke of the sooty shearwater—"We have seen plenty and we probably will see more"—and the steamer duck, both flying and flightless, including the etymology of the name which, to my surprise, was not a nod toward their eventual culinary preparation.
     "Reminds some folks of a paddle steamer, which is how they got their name."
     I let the bird names wash over me: the dolphin gull and the Chilean skua, the Andean condor and the black chested buzzard eagle. The variable hawk  and the green-backed firecrown, a hummingbird that I would later see, hovering directly in front of my face. (At least I think that's the variety of hummingbird I saw, a foot from my face for less than a second).
    Simon would give us a detail or two about each bird and move nimbly to the next. The last part of the name of the thorn-tailed rayadito means "little striped one," aptly enough.  We met the the dark- bellied cinclodes, the fire-eyed diucon (below) and, a favorite, the dark-faced ground tyrant. Then on to the long-tailed meadowlark, the black-chinned siskin, and the Chimango caracara, which I would see several times, on the wing and perched in trees above our heads. 
     "There are no crows in Chile," said Simon. "So these birds take the niche of crows, cleaning up the eco system." 
     Simon mentioned the magellanic oystercatcher and the Southern lapwing.    
     "We may come cross the two-banded plover," he speculated, before flashing a photo of the grey-breasted seed snipe.
    "Not a true snipe," he sniffed, with a trace of censure, followed by its slightly smaller cousin, the least seedsnipe. The rufous-chested dotterel and ... prophetically in my case -- the South American Snipe.
The South American Snipe
    Prophetic because, a few days later, I found myself plodding through a marshy grassland  beyond the Falcon Glacier. A pair of my shipmates had paused, gazing down at a spot in the tall grass. There was the slightest movement,. They moved off, but I stayed, slowly tracking the little guy  through a screen of blades. It was amazing how well he was camouflaged. Just a flash, a form, then vanishing again. 
     But I stood still, up to my ankles in water, and as he ambled off, I gently followed him, sloshing along. For one moment, he came into plain sight, distinct from the grasses, and I took his portrait. Then he was gone again.
     I had always heard of snipe hunts, but didn't imagine I'd participate in one, never mind be successful. I rushed to show the photo to Simon, and he confirmed my identification, with what I thought was a touch of asperity. My hunch is that, in his eyes, I somehow wasn't worthy of the prize. This was his profession, after all, and if anyone finds a snipe, it should him, and not this dabbler, this bulbous-nosed American dabbler. It almost sounds like a variety of bird, though were that the case, Simon no doubt would have warmed to me a little.

A fire-eyed diucon, seen at  Puerto Edén, Chile (photo by Jacqueline Windh)


Wednesday, April 17, 2019

"Explore our creativity"—street art should not just be saved, but encouraged

Santiago street mural

     I'm back from my trip to South America, one aspect of which meshed neatly with current events in Chicago. This is today's column in the paper—my South American Diary series will continue tomorrow, and on off days when the column doesn't appear, until I've exhausted the material I gathered, which will probably be sometime in May.

     Yes, I was chagrined when I realized that Chicago's historic mayoral election on April 2 would find me up a Chilean fjord on a research ship, gazing at glaciers. Not exactly ideal place to take the political pulse of the city.
     In my defense, when I accepted the invitation, I had no way of knowing the contest wouldn't be between Bob Fioretti and Paul Vallas, or some similar head-scratcher. Besides, the Sun-Times has a very deep bench, and I knew it would cover the election just fine without me.
     Besides, travel is broadening. It gives fresh perspective. For instance, Saturday, I had a few hours to kill before the flight home, so ducked into Santiago to visit a home of poet Pablo Neruda. En route, I couldn't help but be impressed by the street art: colorful, dramatic, and everywhere.
     The seed of a thought—Chicago has many murals like these, but could use more—had barely been planted when news came Monday that Ald. Brian Hopkins (2nd) has finally succeeded in creating a City of Chicago Mural Registry, to list approved artworks so that Streets and Sanitation doesn't accidentally remove them.
     The registry was sparked last year when the city, trying to woo Amazon with a flurry of housecleaning, erased several significant murals, including a piece by French street artist Blek le Rat that Cards Against Humanity founder Max Temkin commissioned for the popular party game's Elston Avenue headquarters.
     "Every so often Streets and San would roll up with a soda blaster, and we'd run out and say, 'Don't take it down! Don't take it down!" said Temkin. "The morning when Mayor Emanuel was touring the Lincoln Yards site with Amazon they just came in the middle of the night and did a wholesale clean-up."
     Hopkins began compiling a list of street murals, which turned out to have a second use
     "People were saying, 'How do I access this list of art? I'm going to be in Chicago next week. I want to go see it,'" said Hopkins. "I realized we had a tourism opportunity on our hands. What started out as an attempt to assist Streets and San employees morphed into a cultural phenomenon."

To continue reading, click here.

Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Flashback 2006: Roofers again at scene of crime

Notre Dame roof and spire, 2017, destroyed in a fire on Monday

     Forgive me for interrupting my South American series. But the fire at Notre Dame Cathedral Monday was truly a shock, one that has to be addressed. Modern life has reduced fires everywhere, in homes and factories, never mind near-millennium-old icons such as the most popular tourist destination in France.
     The initial fear might have been terrorism, but I had a different suspicion, one that, while not confirmed, is given credibility by the scaffolding around the church roof. I wrote this when the great Pilgrim Baptist Church burned. You'd think people would learn, but they never do.  
     I remember hearing from roofers who felt ill-used when this ran, so phoned a few roofing and contracting safety associations looking for their perspective. My sense is it'll be a long wait. 


     The heart breaks to see a tragedy like the fire at Pilgrim Baptist Church, for the twin loss, both to the architectural history of the city and to a vibrant spiritual community. But there is one aspect that almost makes a person have to smile, albeit a cynical, head-shaking curl of the lip. That was when city officials speculated that roofers working on the church just might have touched off the blaze.
     Gee, ya think? You mean the guys with blowtorches working at the exact spot the fire broke out? Now there's a theory. It's ALWAYS the roofers. Do you realize how many public buildings burn during roof work? Two years ago, the Billy Graham Center in Wheaton caught fire. In 2002, we almost lost another Louis Sullivan building, the magnificent Carson, Pirie Scott Building downtown, when roofers set the place on fire, and exploding propane tanks sent burning debris showering onto State Street. In 1999, it was another black church, St. Stephen AME Church, one of the oldest African-American churches in the city, that was burned, destroying the roof and charring the walls. I'm telling you, roofers are worse than the Klan.
     OK, that's a bit extreme. It isn't always the roofers. Countless roofers are reading this now, with their coffee and doughnuts, waiting for the supervisor to show up, and if there were ever a group that could tar and feather a guy, it's roofers. So we should recognize that other trades also torch the places they're supposed to be fixing. In 1998, the 120-year-old Barrington United Methodist Church burned to the ground when workers repairing a window burned a hole through the wall. Old churches are generally tinderboxes that could be set on fire with an ice cube.
     That said, roofing is a particularly nasty, smelly, extra-dangerous business involving open flames and hot tar, which burns like napalm.
     So, don't blame the roofers—but maybe an extra level of caution could be exerted when repairing the roofs of irreplaceable cultural treasures, particularly old churches. Say a guy standing there with a hose. Or at the very least, the minister, watching carefully, his left hand on a cell phone, ready to call 911, and his right hand on a Bible, praying with all his might. I would if it were my church.
     —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Jan. 9, 2006

Monday, April 15, 2019

South American Diary #8: Shipmates

Julia Carlson

     Julia Carlson is the first person I've met who lives in Tasmania. So I wasn't about to let the opportunity go to waste when she joined me for breakfast after the ship docked at the port of Santiago. 
     Tasmania is an island off the southeastern tip of Australia, and the very definition of the far margin of civilization, in my view. I had to know: why go to all the effort of leaving her home in Dover—population 500—drive an hour and a half to Hobart, fly an hour to Sydney then 13 hours in the air to Santiago, three hours more hours to Ushuaia, then two weeks of sailing, all just to end up in another far corner for the planet?
     "I come from the end of the world that's paradise and go to the other end of the world that isn't," she said, carefully, as if she had practiced the line.
     Nobody goes on a cruise for the people. Well, maybe they do; I didn't take a poll. I certainly didn't sign on to the RCGS Resolute's expedition up the coast of Chile for that purpose. The focal point were the fjords, glaciers, moraines, waterfalls, forests, stone-strewn beaches, marine life, wildlife, birds. 
     Yet interacting with my fellow passengers, who tended to be a decade or two my senior and often from places I had never been, became a secondary highlight. Between all those deep dives into nature and science were breakfasts and lunches, coffee and cocktails, dinner and discussions at the rail, in the observatory, in the Zodiac boats rushing to and from shore. 
    I'll be honest. I really liked the people part. My life and job are so constructed that I mostly sit in an empty room, staring at a computer monitor, pounding a keyboard, twirling words into something fluffy and consumable, like cotton candy wanded around a paper cone. Occasionally I phone or visit someone, but that's an exception: one or two hours out of every eight. 
     I loved hearing how people speak. 
     "I'm spending my mum's inheritance," explained Julia, when I asked her about her career. "I looked after my kids, so I didn't have a profession. Just a mom."
     She was free to roam after her husband died two and a half years ago, but all was not loneliness.
    "I got a new man now," she said, with a note of pride.
     Some people became favorites, and I was comfortable plopping down next to them—the first people I spoke with: Keith, an oil industry professional and his wife Maggie, a budding writer; Dr. Lorne Greenspan, an MD turned medical administrator from Toronto, and his girlfriend Donna Cohen; Gregory and Karen, adventure vacation planners from California, Gillian and Colin, a bluff couple from Australia (you really couldn't go wrong with Australians. They love to travel and do it well); Len Miller, the sole Chicagoan, who grew up in Roger's Park; Alex, 10, the sole child on the ship, and his parents; Marion Kaplan, who took photographs in Africa for Life, Time and National Geographic in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s and really deserves a post of her own. 
    Not that every encounter was pleasant.  The English, older ladies traveling alone, could be problematic. I sat down across from one I hadn't met and began conversation, which she stopped dead.
    "Are you Jewish?" she asked, vis a vis nothing. 
     I pressed my palms against the table and hunched my shoulders, half standing up, as if to leave, my attempt at a small joke that baffled her. I stayed, pushed past it, and was rewarded with a story how she went to Africa in the company of a man not her husband. 
     "It was an arrangement," she said.
     The most anodyne older person held some sizzling tidbit of the past: an adventure, disappointment, achievement. There were always kids to talk about, the fire axe behind the glass if conversation lagged. 
     Some were almost unapproachable. The German couples formed such tight bonds—think hydrogen atoms—and always sat at the tables for two. The Germans in general seemed a taciturn race: I sat with one solitary traveler, Yuri, and we ate pretty much in silence, my forays into conversation perishing in the Teutonic cold. 
      A few passengers seemed to give up the effort. 
     "How many times can you ask 'Where are you from?'" complained a scowling, fierce Englishwoman with cat's eye glasses, to her companion, as they took a seat beside me before a lecture.
     I briefly considered turning, smiling warmly, and replying, "I'm not saying a word to you." But I thought better of it, and zipped my lip. I carry around the urge to speak like a metal cylinder of compressed gas, a burden I sometimes contain, often don't, spinning the valve despite my best efforts. I have no doubt that if you questioned my shipmates, they'd say I was gabby to the point of logorrhea.  And that was with my hand white-knuckling the knob, trying to keep it shut. 
    "These fleeces make my skin crawl," she continued. "Everything that touches my skin has to be cotton, or silk."
      I fingered the green REI fleece that I wore continuously on the voyage. Again considered speaking, something along the line of, "I have three others at home identical to this, in various colors. I love them." Again, I said nothing, and avoided the woman until the last day of the voyage. 
     But those were in the minority. I had some conversations I'll remember for a long time. My father is not a bluff Irishman like Sean Smyth, of Dublin, who was there with his adult son David.  Sean and I had a wonderful, warm, close, confidential, uproarious dinner. It was so normal I didn't take notes.
Sean Smyth
    A few days earlier I had sat in the bar with him while he made our acquaintance by showing off his tattoos, with the names of his children—David, April—and grandchildren, applied by himself when in his cups, using a needle.  
     He worked in some vague quasi-military role in Syria and assorted hotspots. 
    "My job took me away when he was growing up," Sean said. "I was never around for him. He left when he was 17 and went to Australia."
     Where David started a very successful travel business, and invited his father to go on this voyage.
    "I said, 'Why son are you bringing me?'" The answer was they had never spent time together, and now they would, to what seemed like wonderful effect.
     What about his wife, I asked, David's mother?
     "She wasn't asked to come," Sean said.
     The two men were very different.
    "He doesn't drink whereas I drink," said Sean, hefting a pint. "My son is like my dad."
     I hear you, brother. David was a bearded, taciturn man of 41, sporting a large earring, and I wanted to ask him how he viewed the whole thing, but literally never had the opportunity. Though judging from their body language, seeing them always together, exploring the magnificence of nature, I felt I had my answer. I meant to corner David but didn't, though in my defense, I was on vacation too, in theory.
      The central story I got is that everyone has a story, if you only ask, only listen, and be patient until they tell it. You sometimes have to push past their thorns and prickly armor. The fierce Englishwoman with the cat's eye glasses warmed up after a film by one of the ship's photographers, Jeff Topham, who projects a casual, smiling surfer dude demeanor but grew up in Liberia and recently returned to help the country reclaim its photographic legacy after years of ruinous civil war. 
    We paused in a hallway and the Englishwoman explained how she spent several years in Zambia with a lover, but realized, in her interactions with his family, she would never be accepted and reluctantly went home to England. 
       We struck up a conversation the next day, the last day of the voyage. She was apparently inspired by a talk I had given about telling your story. The subject got to first impressions, and I warmed enough to gingerly her to tell her about her rocky start, given her enmity to the clothes I was wearing, a tale that shocked and amused her.
      "I live alone and talk mostly to my cats," she said, by way of explanation and apology, which I accepted readily—many people, myself included, have a habit of talking first and then thinking about what we said long afterward, if then. I said we had never been properly introduced, and ask her her name. She didn't reply. I asked again, and she didn't reply, so I let it go. 
     Later that evening, she rushing up to me in the hall. For some reason, it hadn't sunk in what I was trying to find out.
     "Suzanne," she said. "My name is Suzanne."