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.
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."