Friday, April 23, 2010

Hangouts On Board

We are crossing the northern Pacific, leaving Russia in the Bering Sea, and passing by the Aleutian Islands.  I am not getting about to take pictures as much as I’d like, but they are very beautiful.  They rise starkly from the water, dark brown in the distance, streaked vertically with the clear white of snow and ice.

Today is the fourth day of the passage, with three more to go.  For the last three days, and tomorrow, we lose the hour between two p.m. and three.  Two days before the passage, we lost two hours, one in the afternoon, one at night.  Everyone is very tired, feeling stretched thin.  I would honestly choose jet lag, changing eight or twelve hours all at once, over this changing the clock gradually.  Every night I get to sleep an hour later.  Last night it was five a.m.  I get up in the late morning, but I’m still always tired.

Usually during the cruise, since I normally go to sleep between one and two a.m., the library is inhabited by very few people.  There are the jigsaw puzzle ladies, and one or two people who are reading or on the Internet.  Recently, though, it is more crowded, because more and more people are finding it difficult to sleep.  The casino, also, is busier late at night.

I like the jigsaw puzzle ladies.  Most people, over a long cruise, find their favorite place to hang out.  It’s a big ship, and there are several sorts of places, which is good.

(I intend to add some pictures to this post, but in case I don’t or they aren’t very good, and you are curious, go to the Holland America website and look at the ship named ms Amsterdam.  Their photos make everything look fabulous and classy, which I suppose it is, but it’s also just the ship I’ve been living on for almost four months.  Kind of like living in a mobile hotel.)

Decks one and two are cabins only.  Below deck one are decks A, B, and C.  These are crew quarters, although some crew are on passenger decks – officers, heads of departments, entertainers who are brought in for one or two performances.

Deck three is the one that has an outside deck running all around the ship.  It’s the promenade deck, since that’s where you go to promenade, but on this ship the deck is called the Lower Promenade.

Near the center of the ship is the atrium, which is a large vaguely round area that rises three storeys.  All the cruise ships I’ve been on have an atrium, and each one has a large piece of art or something rising through the center.  This one has a fancy clock.  Our atrium starts on deck three.  The various heads of departments, hotel manager, cruise director, and others have offices around this space, and in the center are desks that are used mostly by travel agency representatives.  Many guests book through Cruise Specialists International or another agency like that, as they can get good group rates for cabins, and usually organize social events and shore excursions especially for their group.

Deck four, called the Promenade deck, holds the lower level of the large theatre where the evening shows take place, in the bow.  In the stern is the lower level of the main dining room.  In between, in the atrium, is the front desk, which handles just about everything the guests need.  It’s like the front desk in a hotel, which essentially, is what the ship is.  There’s also the smaller theatre, which is where movies are shown, and where classes like mine, and lectures are held.  And the photo gallery.  Every cruise ship has photographers wandering around taking pictures, and also taking formal posed shots on formal nights.  All the photos are set out in the gallery, where you can go and look through a very large number of pictures of people who, like you were when the picture was taken, were leaning on the stern rail on the Lido deck.  If you’re persistent or lucky, and they don’t all start to blur because they all look alike, you’ll find the one of you.  If you like it, you can spend what seems like a large amount of money for a photo, and take it home.  You can also take your own pictures and take a tech class on deck five, to learn how to do marvelous things with them.  Each Holland America ship has a Microsoft trained employee, who teaches people how to use Microsoft software to edit photos.

Deck five, the Upper Promenade deck, is where the library is.  In the bow and stern are the upper levels of the large theatre and dining room.  The Ocean bar is on one side of the atrium, the area in which a band plays dance music starting at four in the afternoon, and continuing as long as there are dancers.  This is one place the dance hosts work.  They are enrichment staff, like me, but work more hours, four or five a day.  They are here to dance with women who don’t have a partner, and as there are more women than men at the age level of most guests, and on board, they keep busy.

There are three shops on deck five, also.  One sells jewelry, and it is larger than both other stores put together.  They constantly bring out new things, so that there is always a reason to go in – to see what’s new.  Oh, I forgot, there is a fourth shop, also a jewelry store.  It is smaller, and sells only very expensive stuff.  It has a curtain across its entrance, which is drawn when someone requests a private viewing of a Faberge egg or something equally valuable.

One of the other stores sells clothing, most with the Holland America logo on it, and also hats, bags, and other Holland America stuff.  The smallest store sells liquor, but also has some drug store items, such as toothpaste and aspirin.  That is where my books are on sale, along with CDs and DVDs from assorted entertainers.

Further back, there is the piano bar and Explorers Lounge on one side, and the library on the other.  The piano bar, known as the Rembrandt Lounge, is Stryker’s bar.  It isn’t a traditional piano bar, it doesn’t have the piano in the middle and people sit around it and chat with and confide in Stryker.  The piano is on a platform at one end of the room, and people sit in chairs with little tables scattered around, to listen.  As in all the bars on board, there is alcohol available, for a fee, but no one feels uncomfortable if they sit there and don’t drink.

Stryker has become one of Melissa’s closest friends on board.  He’s had an interesting life, working for a time as an actor.  He needed a stage name at one point, and chose Stryker, and that’s what he goes by now.  For those of you who are X-Men movie fans, the Colonel Stryker in those movies is named after him.

He can’t read music, but can play anything.  He is well valued by Holland America, because he is an excellent entertainer, singing as well as playing.  He is good at interacting with his audience, and has introduced Name That Tune games this year which I really enjoy, especially because when I play with Tony, who’s from Calgary, our team usually wins.  After the daily humiliation at the regular trivia game, it’s nice to win, even if the prize is yet another Holland America key chain or luggage tag.

The casino is on this deck, and sitting in the library I hear assorted dings and clangs, as people play the slot machines.  Once in a while I hear a slot machine release a surge of coins, but that doesn’t happen often.  There are tables, too, for poker, roulette, and blackjack, and a cashier who is barricaded behind wood and glass.

There’s also a sports bar, with a flat screen TV tuned to, what else, sports.  There’s usually no one there.

At the front end of the library is a room full of card table-sized tables, usually the haunt of bridge players.  Then there is the library proper, with bookshelves and lots of books.  Along the outside wall are large windows and the leather chairs with footrests that I like so much.  This area is usually crowded, and noisy.  It’s rather odd, but people who want a quiet place to read tend to go across the ship to the Explorers Lounge.  If I can’t get a leather chair, and there are only five of them, I’ve discovered a little area on deck four, where there’s a space about ten feet by ten, which isn’t really useful in any way.  There’s a storage area on one side and a wheelchair washroom on the other.  It’s a very narrow washroom, as I’ve discovered, too narrow to turn a wheelchair around in.  The one time I tried I got wedged between the sink and the garbage bin, which is set in the wall and so can’t be moved.  I wondered how long it would take for someone to discover me, and wished I’d brought a book in with me, but after much wriggling of the chair, I did get out.  Now, I back straight out.

One other wheelchair washroom, while I’m on the subject, on the Lido deck, for some reason has its own speaker and so the canned music playing at a subtle volume out in the restaurant, is ferociously loud it there.  Plus, it’s always freezing in there, too.  But, they do have push buttons to open and close the door, and rails to hold on to, and a sink at a lower, more-reachable-from-a-chair height, so they’re all good.

Anyway, back to this area of deck four.  Someone has thoughtfully placed two green chairs there which, although they aren’t as comfortable as the ones in the library, have footrests.  There’s rarely anyone there, so it’s a good place for me to settle to read or write or do email.

Just aft of the book part of the library, is an area with two large tables.  This is jigsaw puzzle territory, and as such, it is well guarded from anyone who might want to do something else with the tables.  Puzzles are worked on by groups, and at assorted times, but every night, beginning around midnight, three or four of them arrive, and they are often still at it when I leave at two a.m.

They are older ladies, and they get quite rowdy as they put pieces in place.  The ship has a lot of puzzles on hand, and the librarian even kept one hidden, so that they’d have something new to work on during this crossing.  Rose is the puzzle lady I know best, although I first met her when I was sitting out on the promenade deck (which also has deck chairs) and she approached me out of the blue and wanted to show me some photographs she’d taken.  I was happy enough to look, and although she was a little uncertain of how to bring up the pictures she wanted to show, or how to zoom in to the part she wanted, she was so enthusiastic about them, and told me about assorted people in some of them, it was all interesting.  She showed a lot of concern when I broke my ankle, and always stops to chat when she arrives in the library.  She’s a widow, still misses her husband a great deal, but is determined to continue traveling and have new experiences whenever she can.  She wears large glasses of a type that distort the eyes, so she often looks vague, but she’s not.

Behind the puzzle room is another room with some computers and comfortable chairs.  At the back is a large table whose top is all inlaid in different colours of stone.  There are a couple of electric plugs back there, and so laptop users tend to congregate there.

In the evening, while Stryker is playing, there is a violinist and pianist in the Explorer’s Lounge, and I can hear them play when I sit in the library.  They are very good, and play a wide variety of music.  There’s also usually a small chocolate buffet set up there at night, but I pretend I don’t know that.

During the day, the bars and lounges are used for assorted events.  There is a kind of Olympics going on, in which people hit small balls with large hockey sticks through traffic cones, or toss rings into hula hoops.  All participants win Dam Dollars, which can be exchanged for assorted Holland America clothing and cups and things.  These games sometimes take place in the Ocean Bar, which is where I teach my off-program but regular writing classes.  The book club is in Stryker’s bar.  My on-program writing classes are in the movie theatre.  Most spaces are busy most of the day.

Deck six, the Verandah deck, is where the verandah cabins are, cabins that the same size as most, but have a small balcony.  Deck seven, the Navigation deck, has the suites, double-sized cabins with bigger balconies.  That deck has its own lounge, which has its own concierge as well as other staff.  There’s also a business center there, with Internet hook ups.  I guess for what those people pay, they deserve a few extra perks. The bridge is near the bow of deck seven.

Deck eight, called the Lido deck, has one swimming pool near the bow.  It has a retractable roof and deck chairs all around it, and is a popular place.  I’m not sure why, as it tends to be stuffy and smell like chlorine, but especially when we were in warmer places, it was filled with bodies, most of which overflowed their bathing suits by a considerable amount, lying in the sun if the roof was open, and in the humidity if it wasn’t.  (Speaking of bathing suits, one of comedian performers did a hilarious bit about how guys above a certain age should not be allowed to wear Speedos.)

Deck eight also has the cafeteria style restaurant, and then there’s an outside deck at the back, which also has a pool.  It’s a nice place to sit, as there is shade if you want it, and lots of tables for people who want to eat outside, as well as lots of deck chairs.

Deck eight has the gym, where the treadmills are right along the front, in front of tall windows, and the spa, where you can get everything – waxings, massages, facials, mud wraps, acupuncture, and so on.

Deck nine only exists in the front third of so of the ship.  It’s called the Sports Deck, and as a volleyball court, a basketball court, (both with netting as walls and ceiling so balls don’t end up in the ocean), and a short running track.  When we’re moving, it tends to be very windy, so runners tend to go very slowly for half the lap, and very fast for the rest.  There’s also an area for teens to hang out, and a day care area, where little kids, who are very rare on long cruises, can paint and play.  The ship has a childcare person.  She spent the first three months with one five-year old, but currently I think there are three or four little kids.  She does many other jobs, too, helping out as needed.

Also on deck nine, right in the front, is another bar called the Crow’s Nest.  This is the party place.  While the music there for much of the evening is dance music for ballroom style, like the Ocean Bar, and this is the other place the dance hosts keep busy, after about eleven or so there’s a DJ who, when he gets tired, lets people plug in their iPods to the sound system to they can dance to rock and roll or whatever the current popular music is called.  He plays this style of music, too.

Each formal night there’s a party up there, and as the formal nights on this ship are all themed, there are appropriate decorations and drinks, and people come dressed appropriately.  Most recently we had a Prohibition theme, and everyone who went to dinner in the dining room was given either a fedora hat or a feather boa.  Bullet hole stickers and signs saying things like “Bathtub Gin Joint” were common.  Other themes have included pirates, garden gnomes, and the tropics.

The Crow’s Nest is the favorite place with the few younger people on board who find each other there.  Some older folks hang out with them, too.  I find it amazing how comfortable people are these days with people much older or younger than themselves.  I would no more have sat around with one of my parents’ friends than I would have agreed to go to a high school class wearing a beanie cap.  And I never called any of them by their first names.  It’s different now, and better, I think.  (OMG, I sound so old!)

Cruise Ship People - Dr. and Mrs. Rosenberg

They are the couple that everyone is referring to when they talk about how it’s so wonderful to see such old people enjoying life on a cruise ship, but really, some people should recognize when they’re just too old.

They are both in their nineties.  He was an army surgeon, and then, I assume, had a practice.  I don’t know very much about her.  I only know about him because today, I was sitting in a green chair, and the other one was empty.  For some reason he sat down in the other one and told me a story about when he was an army surgeon in these waters, the northern Pacific along the Alaska coast.

I’ll get to the story in a moment, but I want to think about why people feel the couple is too old to be on this long a cruise, or maybe on any cruise.  She is definitely suffering from some level of Alzheimer’s, although she is often quite lucid.  During the early weeks, not just days but weeks, she had problems remembering which cabin was hers.  This wasn’t a problem only for her, as the hallways run the length of the ship, and all the doors look the same.  Still, a number of people ended up memorizing her cabin number, so they could help her find it.  She is very trusting when she is confused, and turns to the nearest person for help, so the others in cabins near hers were her first helpers.  She also had problems early on figuring out the taps in the washrooms, some of which turn on automatically, and some of which have handles to turn.  She normally wears baggy track suits, comfortable and easy to put on and take off.  Her hair is curly and, while thin, is long enough to stand up from her head and wave gently in any breeze, looking like milkweed pods in flight.

She is very dependent on her husband, and he is not as patient as he might be, although I know it is very difficult being a caregiver for someone with Alzheimer’s.  Still, he speaks harshly to her, often, and she cries.  At first a lot of women on board spent time comforting her and were angry with him, but I think we all have a more balanced idea now of what’s going on.  Sometimes, though, she singles me out from everyone else in the library and wants to talk.  Often she’s sitting at some distance from where I am, and I can’t always hear well enough to understand, as she never speaks loudly, but I enjoy seeing the animation in her face.  And I smile and nod, and sometimes ask a question based on what I have pieced together, and that’s all she requires.  She has one of the most wrinkled faces I’ve ever seen, and the loveliest smile, and her eyes are blurred with age but that just makes them look soft and sweet.

Today, for the first time, I had a little time with him.  He sat in the empty green chair and told me about how, during the war, (WW II, I assume) he was the surgeon on ships that carried upwards of two thousand soldiers up and down the coast of Alaska.  He said they got their pay every month, but given the sparse population along the coast of Alaska at the time, there was nowhere to spend it.  So, they started gambling with it, and craps became the most popular game.

One time, everyone on board was playing craps.  “There was a group of about thirty guys over here,” he said, gesturing with a hand, “and another thirty over there.”  As people lost, the groups got smaller, and they merged.  “Eventually, there were about twenty guys who had all the money, and they got together and decided to keep playing until one man had it all.  And after a while, there were two guys, and they each had $70,000.”  His glasses are slightly tinted, and his eyes are still sharp.  He glanced up at me from time to time to make sure I was getting the points he wanted to make, but most of the time his gaze was slanted down, and inward.

“They weren’t sure what to do at that point, a lot of money would be riding on the next throws, so someone went and got the chaplain.  He found a brand new pair of dice, so no one could say they were loaded, and he stood right there while they threw.”

I don’t know much about how to play craps, but Dr. Rosenberg told me the different numbers that came up, and I gathered that the two men were tied for a while.  Then came the throw that wasn’t a tie, and one man won it all.  Everyone was very civilized about it, and the chaplain took the money and put it in the ship’s safe.  And everyone else wondered what it would be like when their tour ended and the ship took them to whatever port was their home base in the States, but the guy never said much, so no one knew.

And then, when the tour was over, and the ship reached the home port, the first people aboard from the shore were two Military Police, and they marched right up to the man who’d won all the money, arrested him, and took him away.

And none of the other men could ever find out what happened to all the money that was in the ship’s safe.

Near the end of his telling me this, his wife came by, looking very lovely in a beige suit, jacket and skirt, and a matching cloche hat, her hair wisping out beneath it.  She tapped him on the shoulder and said they needed to get going.  He ignored her for a little while, and so as I wanted to hear the end of the story, and since I could tell he was approaching the finale, I asked her if they could wait a couple of minutes.  And he twisted in his chair to where she stood just behind him, with her hand on his shoulder, and in the gentlest way said he’d be ready in a moment, and she smiled and stood quietly while he finished talking to me.  And then he rose, she put her hand through his arm, and they went off to do whatever it was that had got her to dress up so nicely, looking like a couple who’d lived together forever, which I guess they have.  And I though with envy of the couples on board who know each other’s flaws well, and are sometimes brought to anger or tears because of them, but who know at the deepest parts of their hearts that they still want to be with that person more than anyone or anything else in the whole world.

Monday, April 19, 2010

I'm afraid that after all the excitement about finally having the x-ray, I don't have any news.  The doctors sent the x-rays to a lab where someone of the orthopedic persuasion will look at them.  They wanted to know how quickly I will be able to see an orthopedic surgeon once I get home, so I will try to find out.  The fact that this question was asked makes me a little nervous, but I think it's because the doctors here are ER doctors, and so don't know as much about long term care for an injury like mine.  I pleaded for a walking cast, but they want to wait to hear what the x-ray reviewer says.  They also seemed reluctant to let me fly home without using the wheelchair.  So things might change, but they might not.  But I am getting stronger with using the wheelchair.  One doctor also suggested I might be able to use a walking case with a walker, but I think I prefer the wheelchair to that. 
  Anyway, my spirits are good, and I continue to get more writing done that if I was more mobile, so it's not all bad.  I'm still letting people help me more than I used to, which seems to make them feel good, so it makes me feel good, too.  And since we are crossing the Pacific now, I'm not missing any ports.
  Russia was the last port, and we reach Vancouver on the 25th.  We stop in Seattle the next day, then have two sea days to Los Angeles, which we reach on the 29th.  I get home around midnight that day.
  We cross the Date Line tonight, which is kind of cool.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ankle, Take 2

As I write this, it's almost midnight, April 18th.  Tomorrow, the first April 19th for us, is more or less six weeks since I had the surgery on my ankle.  And tomorrow I will have a x-ray, to see if things have healed enough for me to graduate to more mobility.  I don't know what all the possibilities are, but a walking cast, even with a cane, would be heaven.  Keep you fingers crossed for me!

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Wheelchair World

I’ve been using a wheelchair for six weeks now.  And if I thought before this that I had an understanding of what it’s like for people who use them, I was way out of line.

In the wonderful comic strip For Better or For Worse, there is a teacher who uses a wheelchair.  She meets a man, falls in love, and plans to get married.  When one of her students asks her how she knew this was the right man for her, she says that when they first met, he sat down to talk to her.

I so get that now.  I have sometimes wondered if my dogs, very small ones, get sore necks from looking up at people all the time.  I don’t know if they do or not, but I do know that my neck gets a workout.

Lots of people stop to chat, which is great.  It’s nice to know people care.  Sometimes they just want a quick update on how I’m doing, sometimes they have time for a bit of conversation.  I usually enjoy the attention, and most of them are interesting people to talk to.  Some of them have boarded the ship more recently, and they often ask me what happened.  Sometimes this seems a bit intrusive, but usually they are genuinely curious, in a good way.  The way they ask sometimes reminds me of when I was pregnant, and complete strangers would feel perfectly comfortable asking me about it and even touching my big belly.  I guess when someone is different in a way, but not too different, people feel less of a barrier exists between private and public.  I’m not sure, but it’s interesting.

The world looks different from this lower level.  It reminds me a bit of being a child, or of a museum exhibit I once saw in which furniture and other common household items were all huge.  Climbing on to a chair and sitting with my feet dnagling, because they didn’t reach the floor, was fun, helping visitors to rediscover the child within.

In a wheelchair, though, it isn’t always fun.  My feet do reach the ground, but when I go to the cafeteria restaurant I am not high enough to see what food is available.  When I go in a store, on board or on shore, the display cases are too high for me to get more than a sideways look at what’s in them, which usually isn’t enough to tell what anything is.   Some aisles or sidewalks are too narrow, and some sidewalks don’t have ramps at the corners.  I can’t reach some things, clothes hanging on hooks, some light switches, books on a higher shelf in the library.  My ankle has improved enough that I can often stand up on one foot to see or reach things, but it’s still a special effort.

And maybe being short adds to how everyone seems to believe that I am totally incapable of doing anything for myself.  I know that for the most part, people genuinely want to be helpful, but I’d rather wheel myself than have someone I don’t know well push me somewhere.  I know how far a normal chair has to be for me to comfortably and safely get myself from wheelchair to it, and which brake to set on the wheelchair so I’ll be able to reach it when I need to get moving again.  The one thing I can’t do is carry a plate of food or a drink to a table, and the stewards who work in the various restaurants are always ready to help.  Why, though, if I wheel myself into the dining room, does one of the servers, or even the maitre’d feel that they must push me to my table?

There are dangers, too, caused by the inattention of others, although this is rarely deliberate.  I’d never noticed before how often people step backwards while talking to someone, without looking behind them.  Or they stretch out their legs under a table and, since my bad leg still doesn’t bend well at the knee, kick my bad foot.  Or they are walking down the middle of a hall, and don’t think to move to one side to make room for my chair, which is wider than I am.  And the number of people who text while walking through a crowd, without looking at all where they are going, is phenomenal, and common in every port I’ve been in since breaking my ankle.  And, even if people are looking where they are going, they are looking at their face level, not down lower.  All this is perfectly normal behavior, but it takes on a whole new facet from a wheelchair.

I’ve encountered, in the past, a person in a wheelchair who became annoyed when I asked if she wanted me to hold a door open for her.  At the time I was a little offended.  Now, I understand.

Using a wheelchair removes so much independence and control from your life.  I want to hang on to every little bit I can.  I’ve worked at wheeling myself around, and while my triceps are still not at the level where I can wheel laps to get an actual workout, they now rarely begin to ache when I wheel myself around the ship.  And even if they do begin to hurt, I’d still rather push myself, to make them stronger.

The wheelchair is my friend, because I can get around the ship, and some places on shore, with it.  It’s faster than using a walker, and crutches are still considered by the doctors to be unsafe.  I can still teach writing, do my own writing, come up with discussion questions for the book club, sew, feed myself, take a shower, etc.  So, of course, I start feeling horribly guilty when I whine about the limitations I experience, and about what I have to miss at the ports we visit.  There are many people on board who use wheelchairs or motorized scooters.  They have been and will be, in their chairs for months and years.  I will use mine for only a few weeks.

There’s a fraternity of wheelchair users, too.  We always smile at each other, or nod in passing.  Sometimes we stop to speak.  We notice each other, and I suspect that most of them don’t get noticed by many mobile people.  I’m a bit of a different type of user, since so many people saw my fall or heard about it.  My leg is obviously in a cast, and I work on board, so lots of people know me, or know about me.  Through the book club and the writing classes I’ve worked with at least a couple hundred people, and even if I don’t remember all their names or faces, they know me.  I suspect, though, that most people in wheelchairs do not get asked how they are doing, or even if they are enjoying the cruise or what they did on the last shore day, which is what most people ask each other all the time.

Maybe mobile people feel uncomfortable with people in wheelchairs, or people with any sort of disability.  Maybe, like me, they feel guilty for what they have that the other person doesn’t.  Maybe, just because the person in the chair isn’t at face level, the mobile person honestly doesn’t see them.  I think most people know in principle that a person who uses a wheelchair is still a person, but it’s difficult to treat them as if they’re no different.

I’m the same person still.  I know this, even if others don’t treat me the same.  I understand, I really do.  Having been on both sides of the wheelchair issue, I am lucky, because once I can leave my chair behind (and not attached to my behind) I hope that I can use my newfound understanding to continue to realize that people are people, no matter how different they might appear.


I wrote the above yesterday.  Today I decided to do an experiment, and accept help whenever it was offered.  I allowed my trivia team to move my chair to where they thought was the best place for me to get into it, and to watch while I transferred from the place I usually sit during the game into the chair, because they worry that if I make the transfer with no one around, I could fall and reinjure my ankle.  Usually I explain that I’m trying to be as independent as possible, and so tell them I prefer to do it all myself.

While seated in the library, reading, one of the book club members asked if I wanted anything to eat or drink.  Normally I would have said I didn’t need anything, but I actually was a bit hungry, so she went to check out the snack place in the library, told me what there was, and carried a plate to me.

After book club, one of the members stopped to chat with me.  When we finished talking, it looked as if I could be trapped inside the circle of chairs we’d used for the group discussion.  I thought I could get through, but I might have had to push one or two of the chairs aside for the wheelchair to fit through the gap.  I waited while the person I’d been talking to moved several chairs, so that there was plenty of space.

I went for supper alone, as Melissa was otherwise occupied, and as soon as the stewards in the cafeteria restaurant spotted me, I permitted three of them to help, one to push me past the foods so I could see what there was, and he even read out the little signs for me, so I’d know what there was and the signs, while they actually aren’t to high for me to see them, could have been.  He then asked what I wanted and wheeled me to a table.  He joked about it being the best table in the house, but it was by the window, and not the first and easiest table to reach.  Two other stewards then brought my food and a glass of water.

And you know what?  It actually felt kind of good that all these people wanted to help me.  Yes, it does make me feel more helpless than I’d like to feel, but accepting help from other people is not something that comes easily to me.  Trust doesn’t often come easily to me, either.  Letting down my guard today resulted in a positive experience.  I felt a little less alone and more a part of the human community.  And it’s kind of nice to know that just as I can give to others, it can feel good to allow others to give something to me.

Friday, April 16, 2010

The Darker Side

Four months is a long time for any community, especially one made up of primarily older people.  Life is lived to its fullest on board a cruise ship, at least by most, although there are some who complain of being bored.  But just as life is lived, so too it ends.  I was going to call this post “Life Goes On”, which seems a rather dark joke, because I am going to talk about illness and death, but perhaps it would be an apt title, because death is part of life.

It’s a part that we don’t seem to want to think about very often.  In a couple of the books the book club has read, there have been references to days in which the dead are celebrated.  The Day of the Dead in Mexico, the Ancestors’ Festival in China, these are days when the dead are remembered and bonds with them are renewed.  One question I raised for discussion was why Americans and Canadians have no such festivals.

No one had much to say, which interested me because it appeared that our culture’s reluctance to think about death extended to not wanting to even discuss the possibility that we might take a regular time, even if only once a year, to think about it.  North Americans are focused on the future.  We think about where we are going, and not about where we came from.  While some cultures consider the connections from the past to be of paramount importance, because they have shaped who they are today and the life they continue to lead, North Americans wish to shake off the bonds of the past.  It’s what is new that is important, ways in which we can change, grow, and become more than we are today.  As countries formed primarily by immigrants, with the exception of the First Nations people, our lives are, by definition, shaped by a desire for change and a hope for something better.  Remembering the past has no role to play in this.

There are always several deaths on a cruise ship.  I don’t know the exact number, but I’m told on a world cruise there are usually up to a dozen.  The first occurred only three days after we left Florida, where the cruise began.  There are also medical debarkations at pretty well every port, people whose illnesses need more than what the doctors and their facility on board can do.  Sometimes the people come back.  Sometimes they go home.  Sometimes they do neither.

I’d met the woman who died three days into the cruise.  She was a very large woman in a wheelchair, happy to be on board, eager to meet lots of people.  I knew the wife of one of the men who died.  He felt ill, the doctors wanted him to go to a hospital, he insisted he felt fine, but agreed to get off.  He died two days later.  His wife hadn’t packed anything, as she and her husband were expecting to get back on board at the next port.  Her friends packed for her, and shipped the luggage to her home.  How does one deal with a loved one dying so far from home, in a strange place, with no friends or family close by?

Today one of the watercolour teachers, the equipment manager, as the aides, such as she and Melissa, are laughingly called, learned that her husband, at home in Florida, died of a heart attack yesterday.  This woman, Jane, had accompanied Carol, the main watercolour teacher, two years ago, but didn’t come last year because her family didn’t want her to be away for so long, again.  Her children are grown and married, and this year she persuaded them all to do without her for the four months so she could come on the cruise again.  Her husband had heart problems for a number of years, and has had surgery for it.  Yesterday, he called 911 when he felt the chest pain, was taken to the hospital, was treated, but died.

Maybe it’s because I was at a birthday party last night, at which most people were Jewish, and we talked about Jewish guilt and Catholic guilt, but what is mostly in my mind now is how guilty Jane must be feeling.  Even though it sounds as if there is little that she, or anyone could have done for him, she must wonder.  Jane is a wonderful person, always smiling, upbeat, and energetic.  As one friend said, if they are on a tour together, and the tour is boring or tiring or a dud, Jane still always makes it fun.  I didn’t know her well, but I always enjoyed spending time with her.

Her husband died at home, in a familiar place, with friends and family close by.  It is Jane who is alone and in a strange place.  Did she, or anyone else here, think that when they get home, someone they looked forward to seeing might not be there?

And so I’m thinking of all the people who were on the ship, and who now aren’t, who aren’t anywhere.  They came on board expecting to spend four months on board, making new friends, and seeing new sights.  They spent time reading, or listening to music, seeing the shows, going to the movies, eating good food, playing cards, or whatever they liked to do.  Did they think, when they boarded, that they might die during the cruise?

And yet, despite the sorrow, I admire them.  Many of the people on board are not healthy.  You can tell, just from looking at them, listening to their harsh breaths, seeing the flushed faces, observing how little energy they have and how difficult the slightest things can be for them.  They chose to come anyway, instead of sitting at home, waiting for what is to come.

There was an elderly man on board last year.  He was called ‘the skeleton’ by others, because he was clearly very ill and was wasting away.  Most people assumed he had cancer, but no one knew him well enough to ask.  He was traveling alone, and one thing people did learn was that when he was younger, he had been a famous singer, giving concerts in clubs and later on stage.  One night there was a talent show for the ship’s guests, and he received permission to get on stage, not to sing, because he didn’t have the breath, but to play one of his recordings and lip synch to it.  He did this, and everyone applauded him.  After the show, he returned to his cabin, went to bed, and died, discovered the next day by his cabin stewards.

I love this story, and it has been corroborated as being true, unlike some of the stories I’ve been told.  He relived his glory days, and then let go.  Other people are here doing something they love, maybe experiencing the dream of a lifetime.  Maybe they continue to travel to carry on learning and growing as human beings.  Or maybe they just want to be with people they like, in a setting they like.  Whatever it is, they are living their lives in the way in which they want to.  Death comes anyway.  It is never welcome, but the knowledge it is coming cannot prevent you, or those you love, from living.

I don’t know what Jane is thinking.  Yesterday she’d gone to Tokyo with some friends, and so no one knew how to reach her.  She learned about her husband when she returned in the late afternoon.  Today is a sea day, and so she will fly home tomorrow.  Today, she insisted on playing trivia, which Melissa and I also do every sea day.  We call it our daily dose of humility.  Jane isn’t on our team, and her team sits at a distance from ours, so I didn’t see her.  She played because she always does and her teammates have become friends.  I like to think, though, that there’s a deeper reason why that game should have been her final social event on the ship.  So much of our lives is made up of trivia, the small but quirky, interesting, surprising, and unusual pieces that fill our existence.  I hope Jane continues to value the small elements of her life, even when they are overwhelmed by a larger event.  I hope her husband did, too.

Friday, April 9, 2010

Hulang Bay, Vietnam

Our second stop in Vietnam was this lovely area.  I've always wanted to see the South China Sea, with it's outcrops of rock sticking up above the water, each one wearing a wig of greenery.  I wasn't able to get about here, but luckily my kids took some great pictures.

This is the sort of thing I mean.  Isn't it beautiful?

These rocks are known as the kissing rocks, because they lean towards each other without quite touching.

This photo is a little blurry to give them some privacy.  Here they are again, from a different angle.

   And here it is again, serving as backdrop for my two equally beautiful children.

The tour they went on included a boat ride through this area, and a stop on an island which held a cave.  The above sign was in the cave.  Here are a couple of pictures of it.

The kids told me it was very beautiful, but also very crowded.  The only way to get to the cave way by boat, and this tour, cruise and cave, was very popular.

All of the boats jammed in together here are tourist boats.

Other than boat tours, there were many other things to see in Vietnam.  A couple of my friends, instead of taking a regular organized tour, hired a taxi, which is most cases was a motorcycle.  Riding around on the back of a bike is a good way to see things, because the driver knows the area and can take you to the sorts of things you want to see, or take you to his favorite place.  Motorcycle taxis were common in Cambodia and India, too.

Since he was on a boat, Jesse had to be piratical.  Here he is, with the equally piratical Sasha, one of Melissa's good friends from the cruise.

Pirates are supposed to climb masts with knives held in their teeth.  Jesse didn't have a knife, but he did climb.  Melissa also attempted to climb but, while no one noticed Jesse, her climb did catch the eye of someone official, and so she had to come down without reaching the top.

Sorry, this seems to be more a family album than a travel piece, but Sasha took some very good pictures.  Here is one of my piratical children.

Phu My, Vietnam

In Phu My, we'd arranged a tour to visit the tunnels that were used by the forces fighting against the Americans during the Vietnam war.  For obvious reasons, I was unable to go, and so the photos were taken by Melissa.  My son Jesse joined his sister and me on the ship between Singapore and Hong Kong, and it was really great to see him.  His presence has made me miss my 'real' life even more, although this isn't necessarily a bad thing, as the cruise is drawing to an end.  And, I hope to get my cast off while we're in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on one of the two April 19ths we will have.

Ok -First, market pictures, because Melissa knows I like taking pictures of markets.

Now, the tunnels.  Here is the guide demonstrating how quickly and easily he could disappear into the jungle.

 Note in the first picture of the above series how small the opening is.  The Vietnamese are mostly small people.

This is Adam.  He's from Calgary, and is one of the few young people on board.  He is not very tall, but he is stocky and heavily-muscled.  At this point in the process, his feet were still dangling above the floor below him, but he was stock.
    Melissa was on a tour in South Korea with Adam and his Dad, Tony.  They told me there was a group of school kids at the same place.  The girls were very taken with Adam.  We've noticed that Asians are very interested in people who are different.  People often want to touch Melissa's hair, for example.  The local people usually want the pictures taken with foreigners, too, but the school girls were fascinated with Adam, reaching to touch his beard stubble and feel the muscles in his arms.  I guess in an area where most men are small-boned, and have very little body hair, foreigners can seem very different.

Jesse and Melissa did manage to get through.

Some entrances were more obvious, either because they were in safer areas, or to lure enemies into the tunnels.  Melissa said it was very interesting seeing this aspect of the war.  The people wanted to show their side of the experience, but were calm and non-confrontational, which would have taken some doing, because I suspect many of the Americans on the cruise still have a lot of anger and hurt pride.  There are Vietnam vets on board, but many of the cruisers chose not to get off in Vietnam (in part because of the dirt, garbage, and being forced to see poverty in action), or to take tours that took them to only shrines or shopping districts.  When asked, the Vietnamese guide said that the vast majority of people in his country don't want to think about the war or have no hard feelings.  Most people, of course, were born after it, and there was almost the impression given that the war hasn't made such a large imprint on the Vietnamese psyche as it has in the States. 

These men are dressed as the soldiers did during the war.  Below is a ventilation opening to the tunnel system.

  Here is a demonstration of making some traditional foods, the rice sheets in which other foods, meat and vegatables, would be rolled.
Below are some pictures of the area.

Sunday, April 4, 2010


I guess I have already written some impressions of Cambodia in my last post.  Here are some pictures.

Most of the businesses along the streets were in a smallish building that had a larger space in front.  The space had no side walls, but was shaded by either a corrugated metal roof or a tarpaulin or awning.  Most of the business dealings took place in the front area, which would be much cooler than inside the building.

I am not sure what the local language was called, but its text was beautiful, as you can see.
  You also see that this is a cell phone store.  In every town we've been in, big or small, there are always a great many mobile phone stores.  It's obviously big business.

Another common sight in most Asian countries is the large number of motorcycles in use.  This makes sense, as with the climate you can use a bike all year.  They are cheaper to run, and are faster and more flexible on the road.  As another common thing in these countries is the terrifying way people drive, as things like lane markings and traffic lights are seen to be suggestions rather than laws, motorcycles zig and zag and so can get you to your destination faster.  As there seem to be no helmet laws, or if there are they, too, are taken as suggestions only, we heard that there are frequent accidents, but the people we saw tended to be good at getting around, even if their driving was, by our standards, insane.

There were no sidewalks in this downtown, and being a pedestrian was either exciting, stimulating, or terrifying.  In the wheelchair, being pushed, it seemed even more frightening, as I couldn't make a quick move towards safety.  People drove all around, coming off any paved or dirt area that happened to be beside the road whenever they felt like it.  Vehicles cut off other vehicles all the time, drove onto roads at odd angles, and basically it was every driver for himself.

The vehicle shown above is a tuktuk.  They are taxis, but seemed to be used mostly for tourists.

Despite the litter and garbage everywhere, the extreme poverty as demonstrated by the constant beggars, the slapped-together shacks that many people lived in, the dust, and the crowds, there was beauty to be found.  I'm glad I had a chance to see Sihanoukville, for it was the first place where I felt I had the chance to see the real life instead of the sanitized fantasy many places concoct for tourists.

Musings in Harbours - Shanghai

I’m now sitting in the same chair in the ship’s library, a leather chair that’s very comfortable and has a footrest that’s the perfect height for my leg.  There are five of these chairs, all in front of the big windows, but only one is located near an electric socket.  I write here as well as doing internet and email, and so it’s helpful to be able to plug in my computer.

It’s night, not quite as late as when I wrote the above in Hong Kong, but it’s equally dark outside.

Shanghai is a very modern city of about 20 million.  At the moment the many tall buildings, some of which appear as if a science fiction fan designed the architecture, are lit up, in bright colours, some of which sparkle on and off.  I use the word ‘modern’ intentionally, for everything I see appeared in the last couple of decades.  China opened up to outside investment in 1989, and in 1988, the largest buildings in the area I can see from my chair were three storeys high, and they were farm houses.

Shanghai is now the most popular city to live in, here in China, and so is also expensive.  I didn’t get out today, usually on our overnight stays in cities, Melissa scouts out places I can go during the first day, and then we go out together the second day.

There is a noisy group of people next to me.  I know some of them, and they are nice people, but at present they are watching the brightly lit smaller ships going by and making cracks about them.  The ships are either harbour tour boats, dinner cruises, or gambling boats, and they all are beautifully lit up, each one quite different from the others.  One appears to be a three-masted junk, with no sails up, but the lights run as if they are rigging, and it’s lovely.  Another has short runs of lights along the hull on each side, and they are slightly curved, and the rows of short curves look just like gentle waves lit up by the city.

The boats all have Chinese characters in large neon lights, and to me they add to the beauty.  It’s a tacky beauty, in a sense, dependent on bright colours and very bright lights, but somehow instead of being overwhelming as Las Vegas neon is, each ship is fun and lovely.  This is probably because I can only see one or two at a time, so there isn’t too much neon all at the same time.

Anyway, this group next to me is having fun joking that each ship’s writing says something like “Chop Suey” or “Mao Tse Tung.”  A boat with a paddle wheel at the back just went by, decorated to look something like a Mississippi paddleboat, and someone joked that there are really Chinese people sitting at the back, paddling, since the labour here is so cheap.

I’m am very tired tonight.  I’ve not been sleeping well, as it’s difficult to find a position where my ankle is comfortable at the same time as the rest of me.  And I’m a night owl,  wired to wake up at ten p.m., even when I’m tired.  I’ve tried various things, melatonin, Benadryl, but nothing helps.  And, of course, I can’t go to the gym and do a hard workout, something that often does help when I have insomnia.  Maybe it’s the exhaustion, but the jokes from the people next to me really bother me.  I don’t like to see anyone acting so smugly superior.  I’ve also heard this same group, complaining about our ports in Cambodia and Vietnam because, and this is a direct quote, “It was impossible to avoid seeing the poverty.”

It’s true, in South America there was a shuttle bus at each port that did not allow pedestrians in the port itself, due to the danger caused by cranes and front-end loaders, and these buses always took us to a ritzy shopping area.  Sometimes we drove through a poorer neighbourhood, but most people didn’t look outside the bus that much.  And in Africa, the smaller towns in Namibia were quiet with little street life, but there weren’t the beggars we see in Asia.  In Cambodia, though, as you’ll see when I post that blog (or maybe I already have, I tend to wait for a time when the internet access is fast, as it is often slow, before uploading photographs), the shuttle bus took us to a market place downtown, but it was impossible to avoid seeing the dirt, the constant litter we’ve seen in every country since India, and the poverty.  Beggars, many missing limbs or horribly disfigured, were everywhere.  All the people trying to sell us something, or offer us a ride in their tuktuk, a motorized or bicycle-driven open-sided taxi, were very aggressive, refusing to take ‘no’ for an answer.  I know that last bothers people, but this is still part of our experience of this country.  I can’t sympathize with people who wish to think every place we go is a little part of paradise, and that everybody there is delighted to see us.  Plus, so many of these very wealthy cruise guests still haggle when buying something, happy if they can save themselves a dollar or two that would probably mean another meal to the vendor.  Haggling is a game, and can be fun, but I get the impression that many cruisers are very afraid of somehow being conned into paying too much for something.  I’m not the best judge of how to handle bargaining in a poor country, because I do not have to worry about every last dollar.  I often feel, if a price seems fair to me for what I’m getting, and most things in these countries are amazingly cheap compared to what they’d cost at home, I will pay that price.  I’m not trying to show myself as some special angel, just that I wish wealthy people could share more.  Either that, or I’m just very grouchy right now.

To be fair, I did hear many people, after Cambodia, talking about how hard the tuktuk drivers worked for them, especially those people who used bicycle vehicles, and how they were happy to pay the ten dollars or whatever was asked for a two-hour tour.  Not everyone wants to hide from reality, in order to feel they are above it all.

I guess I am a little grouchy this evening.  The group next to me speaks so loudly that everyone in the library can hear them.  This is actually rare.  While the library is a hangout area, most people speak quietly to others near by.  I actually took a strong dislike to one of the men in this group, for he, while being mobile, was rather rude when I once asked, back when my foot was still painful and needed to be raised all the time, if he would mind moving to a different leather chair so I could use the plug.  He had every right to say no, of course, but he was rather nasty about it, and said he might want to use the plug, but he never does.  He was rude on another occasion, when I wanted to sit in the chair beside him, and he wouldn’t move his foot, even when asked, which meant I couldn’t get myself into the chair.  He asked why I wanted to sit down, and I said because my ankle was broken, and he said it looked as if I was already sitting.  Which I was, in my wheelchair, but I still got very upset.

My first impulse on that occasion was to run away and sit somewhere else.  I get this impulse whenever I feel unwanted, run away so as to no inflict myself on anyone.  I was a bullied child until I was 13, and so was unwanted a lot, and sticking around usually meant more unpleasantness..  Anyway, I am a grownup now, and am trying to change this rather futile behavior, and so after I went away, I returned.  He had moved his foot a bit, and so I sat next to him.  He started talking to me, asking me about my foot and what I did on the ship, since he could see from my name tag that I do something here.  He was actually quite pleasant, and even apologized for his earlier behavior.

So he’s not a bad person, I actually quite enjoy one on one conversations with him.  He just likes having a court of other people around him with whom to laugh and joke.  He’s even interested in writing, and shyly asked me about “a friend’ who was writing a novel.  I suspected he was talking about himself, but I answered his question about what I, as a teacher and editor, would expect to find, strengths and weaknesses in such a first novel, and he must have found it helpful, because he started coming to the writing class.  He’s been very pleasant since, even brought me a book by John Lescroart.  Lescroart’s a thriller writer, and his first book has just been rereleased, after his 20th was published.  He did a fair amount of revision on that first book, before this new edition, and he wrote a very interesting forward about what he changed and why.  The cruise guest brought me the book because he thought I’d be interested in reading that forward, which I was, especially since most of the things Lescroart changed are because of things he’s learned that are also things I teach in my beginner classes.

Anyway, I suppose everyone has their own prejudices.  I must, too, I know.  It doesn’t mean I have to like sitting and listening to other people making fun of what is different than themselves.

Okay, enough grouchiness.

Musings in Harbours - Hong Kong

I’m sitting in the library, my usual place these days, other than the cabin, during this time of reduced mobility.  We left Hong Kong at night, late, around eleven.  From the library windows I can see the lights of the city pass by.  We’re traveling so smoothly, and slowly, as we leave the area, that the lights along the shoreline and up the mountains seem to float past, like a gentle stream.  The lights go on and on, sometimes big buildings with names like Olympus and Toshiba lit up in enormous neon letters, sometimes smaller clusters of lights, or apartment buildings, or a brief dark patch, perhaps a park.

Hong Kong is very big, very beautiful, very smoggy, and the harbour is always busy.  I expected the harbour to look like it does in the movies, filled with junks with their red or brown sails fully out, but of course that’s ridiculous.  There’s no reason for a sailboat to have its sails unfurled this close to shore, in fact it would be dangerous.  There still was a great variety of ships, though, ferries, which were painted in bright colours and patterns; tugs, often pulling a barge of some sort.  Actually, for a while earlier today, there was a parade of tugs pulling barges that each had a big crane on it.  There are small power boats, fishing boats, tour boats, modern sailboats, and lots I didn’t recognize.  It was an engaging vista during the day, as I sat on the back deck on deck 8, always changing, never boring.  No junks, though.

Now we’ve left the bay.  The water is becoming rougher, her in unsheltered waters.  I can see an occasional shoreline far off, wearing its necklace of lights, but other than that there is only black.  I’m reflected in the window, the bottom of my cast, my other leg bent to support my laptop.  My eyes in the window look tired.

I went off the ship today, which was good.  I have more or less adapted to the fact I can’t do all the activities I’d planned for Asia, although at times thinking of what I’m missing makes me sad.  Most areas are too crowded, or there are many stairs, or it’s just too difficult for Melissa to push my chair because the street surface is too rough.

We went to a mall that is attached to the cruise ship terminal.  A very large, over 700 stores, very upscale, and very expensive mall.  Hong Kong, like Singapore, is an expensive place to live.  There is clearly a great deal of wealth in both cities, and they are said to both be wonderful places to live.  I assume that last comes with a caveat – wonderful if you can afford to live there.

I still get overwhelmed and over-stimulated way too easily.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe it’s the fact that I’m lower down since I’m sitting in the wheelchair, or that I feel vulnerable since my foot with the cast is usually held out in front of me, since I still can’t easily bend the knee, and so it’s easy for other people, who are usually texting on their cell phones and so aren’t looking where they’re going, to bump into it.  Or that I have no control, usually someone is pushing me, although I am beginning to build up my triceps and so can wheel myself for longer stretches.

Melissa thinks my body gets overwhelmed because I get tired quickly, since most of my energy is going into healing.  I don’t see why my leg can’t take care of the healing while the rest of me does other things, but the fact remains that I can get very stressed much more easily than usual.  And I’ve never been a person who deals with crowds, noise, and lots of stimulation particularly well.

Blog readers have sometimes asked me if I am really as upbeat as I appear in my posts.  I guess the answer is – usually.  I don’t tend to post when I’m too tired or depressed, and so those moods don’t always transfer to the readers.  But even before breaking my ankle, there were down times.  Sometimes I get tired of having to be so cheerful and perky when I’m around guests, even though most of them are wonderful people.  There have been a large number of segment people on board recently, people who aren’t doing the whole world tour but are on board for maybe ten days.  They are different, it’s actually very interesting, as they are typical of people I’ve seen on shorter cruises.  They tend to be heavier, and spend a lot more time in the casino and bars.  They are also often louder, and much less pleasant.

On the whole, the round-the-world people are different, as I think I mentioned in an earlier post.  They are friendlier, because they tend to regard the ship as their home community for the four months.  They are kinder and more considerate.  There’s a sense of connection.  It’s not perfect, no group or time spent with strangers ever is, but it’s been pretty darn good.  There are, though, always people who like to find something to complain about.

Back to my upbeat mood – I truly do love what I’m doing.  The writing students are enthusiastic and they write interesting material and ask great questions.  And the book club has been a big hit.  It’s sometimes tough coming up with enough discussion questions, since most questions I find at the back of the book or online assume everyone has finished the book before discussing it.  The club readers all read at varying rates, and so I divide them into groups according to how much they’ve read, and come up with questions for the sections of the book they have finished.  But the discussions are always lively, and I tend to move from group to group, eavesdropping, adding a question of comment if the talk seems to be flagging, but it rarely is.  Sometimes fewer people than usual attend a meeting, and then we can discuss  in one big group, which I really enjoy, because even though it’s more difficult to make sure everyone, even the quieter ones, get a chance to speak, I get to fully participate in the discussion.

So yes, even with the limited mobility and the missed activities on shore, I am upbeat.  Most people are great, and they show their appreciation for what I do, which makes me very happy.  I think I’m doing a good job, but it sure helps to get outside affirmation.