"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 any leap of faith, and didn't know her well enough yet to realize she was being literary rather than literal, 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 Mombasa 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|
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 either, and I felt a certain kinship with her on that account. I'm not John McPhee, but I do what I can. We're both mid-level craftsmen 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 being on the scene in Uganda during Idi Amin's coup, and taking his portrait, several times, 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.
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, unwilling to join "a bunch of wealthy foreign whites" as they "ogle an impecunious native," 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|
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.
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 Southwestern 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.