Ah, Panama

Excerpted from Journey to the Joie de Vivre.

A journey without suspense would be boring.  Here in Panama the suspense is when my ship comes in (ha!) and when she departs, both of which facts are still unknown.  All I know now, having talked to the Port Agent this afternoon, is that the Matisse arrives sometime tomorrow night and departs in the wee hours of the following morning.  At the Manzanillo International Terminal, it only takes 8 to 12 hours to unload and load 2500 containers.  Having been through this before, I have learned to be patient.  And even though checkout time is 1:00 PM, I’m sure the hotel will have no difficulty charging me for an additional night, no matter what time I leave.  This little suspense is completely expected.  (Memories of sitting uncomfortably surrounded by my luggage in the Washington Hotel lobby for three hours waiting for the time allotted to take me to the port.  The charm of the old Washington disappeared completely when I learned in Tahiti – too late for me to do anything about it – that they had charged an additional night anyway.)

The unexpected suspense this time is due to my leaving behind all my cash and jewelry in the almost invisible safe in the dark closet of my hotel room in San José, Costa Rica.  As soon as I opened the closet here in Panama and saw the open security box – much more accessible here than there – I thought, “Oh my God, my stupidity has reached alarming new heights.”  Fortunately, I was able to call the hotel in San José and finally, after several hours of calls back and forth with a very kind guy named Daniel, it turns out he can send the money by Western Union and that the jewelry will be sent by DHL or FedEx before I depart.

This is one more cost, along with my emergency dental work and the new watch that I had to buy at the airport to replace the one I lost, that has unexpectedly reduced my travel fund.  I am realizing that the unexpected is more compelling when you’re over 65.  That’s the lesson for today.

It is worth recording the heroic efforts on the part of Daniel Cubero of the Hampton Inn in San José to return my things to me.  First, on company time, he deposited my US$400 with Western Union, which was when he discovered that they would not accept euros (I had stocked myself with those too).  So this morning, on his own time, he went to the Central Bank and changed the euros into US dollars and returned to Western Union, where he made a second deposit, then called to tell me that that I could now retrieve them both in a Western Union office that he discovered very close to my hotel here in Panama.  In addition, he had Federal Express pick up my jewelry this morning at seven o’clock, and urged them to make a priority delivery, since I am uncertain about my departure time, and he informed me that they will be delivering my things between three and five this afternoon.  This is all from one country to another, and jaw-droppingly amazing, and I asked him what would be the cost of the Federal Express shipment, expecting to have to pay a great deal for it.  He said, “No, no, no, it’s on the hotel.”

Several times I have expressed to him my groveling gratitude at everything he has been doing for me, and he has said “No, no, you are family.  I have put myself in your shoes.  I understand your position, and we always want to do absolutely everything we can to help.”  I think this is not just Hampton Inn training on the part of Daniel.  I think it is also the fact that he’s Costa Rican and a gentleman, and Costa Rican gentlemen treat older women with great kindness, understanding and affection.

The hotel in Panama had sent a taxi across the country to the airport to pick me up.  He wasn’t there, as the attendant wheeled me out of Customs, but a quick cell phone call straightened things out.  I had said, “But I can take any old cab,” and the attendant said, “Not here, you don’t.”  Just then Alexander strode up, apologizing for his lateness.  He was a dark lanky, man with a frizz of graying hair and the deadest eyes I had ever seen.  I’m accustomed to the openness of Costa Ricans – they meet your gaze, they say hello to strangers on the street – so to meet those dead eyes was like a punch in the stomach.  He was polite, certainly, helping me into the back seat of his taxi, but I sat there puzzling over what was so clearly distrust on his part, and the possible reasons for it.

It’s also the custom in Costa Rica to talk to taxi drivers – every encounter is an opportunity to relate to another human being – so I leaned forward and started to ask Alexander questions.  He was from Colón, so I was able to ask him if conditions there had improved since my last stay there.  This was all it took to get him going, and we passed the hour’s drive very pleasantly.  When we got to the hotel, his eyes were still remote, but not as dead as they had been.

Over the next 30 hours or so, I needed a taxi twice to take me to Western Union and back (the first time I had lacked a comprobante number), and I always asked for Alexander, telling him about the fix I’d gotten myself into and listening to details about his family as we dragged our way through the insufferable traffic.  And I asked for him again when it was time to take me to the port.  His eyes had warmed up by then, and as he left me and my suitcase at the port gate, we shook hands.  As it happened, the hotel didn’t charge me the extra day, and I wondered if Alexander had been chatting with the people at the desk about my difficulties so much that they had taken pity on me.

But, ah Panama!  First impressions survive – the overwhelming humidity, oppressive clouds bearing down overhead, construction everywhere, a pristine concrete highway slicing through what was once some of the most forbidding jungle in the world, decaying tile in the bathroom, maddeningly slow service, creeping traffic and always, always the question of when I am going to leave.

©2016, Sandra Shaw Homer

 

 

 

 

The Joie de Vivre Comes from Within

“I am an ordinary person with an ordinary life. Even my acceptance of ordinariness is ordinary, the undercurrent of so many ‘big books.’ Madam Bovary, War and Peace, Freedom. The mistake is always the same: trying to live the life one has in one’s head instead of the life before one, which is endlessly generous if you humble yourself to it as the only possible means of fulfillment.”  — Tennant-Moore

Photo by SSH

Photo by SSH

 

“A detailed, rare, and rewarding ride over a watery part of the world.”

Letters from the Pacific

49 Days on a Cargo Ship

Debut author Homer chronicles her experiences traveling via cargo freighter.

Homer’s first book is an adventure story—the journal of her 49-day trip through the South Pacific as a passenger on the Louise, a cargo freighter. The author hates flying, and had no interest in a cruise ship’s gorging and gambling, so she decided, why not rough it? From Costa Rica to Australia and back, by way of Tahiti, Fiji, New Caledonia, and New Zealand, the Louise churned its 45,000 tons (cargo and author included) into the “open-ended silence of the sea.” Its passenger comes away with plenty of good stories to share along with “a decidedly unromantic view of the life of a seaman.” In Fiji, Homer missed out on seeing Raymond Burr’s orchids but did visit a pricey resort with “a man-made island in the shape of a giant footprint.” In former colonial islands, she discovered to her chagrin that “the French seem always to be French, no matter where they are.” The glorious and the grim are each delineated in detail, from the “foreign country of constellations in the sky” to the constant awareness that “a freighter is a noisy, dirty, smelly beast.” The aches and pains of travel are here in full measure: the cold of the ship, the pangs of arthritis in her knees, and the limbs barked against listing furniture. Because much of the journal comprises minimally edited diary entries and letters to friends, the reading experience can be choppy, especially since past and present tense mingle freely. But because of the immediacy of the reporting, Homer’s character—questing, worrying, laughing—comes across with terrific clarity. We come to know her well, or feel as though we do, and the curious world of cargo ports and the crews that visit them become even more intriguing through her eyes.

A detailed, rare, and rewarding ride over a watery part of the world. — Kirkus Reviews

Letters from the Pacific by Sandra Shaw Homer

Traveling to Write

This essay first appeared on Allyson Latta’s www.allysonlatta.com, Memoir Writing and More. Reprinted with permission.

In the roomy bottom drawer of my desk are three generations of travel journals, my grandmother’s, my mother’s, and mine.

My grandmother’s are strictly reportorial: “Spent entire day in my room with diarrhea. Missed tour of Santa Maria Novella.” My mother’s style is livelier and more descriptive: “Went to Les Halles at 3 AM and had some onion soup, along with a couple of glasses of brandy, and then irresistibly bought an entire crate of the most beautiful peaches.”
For years my mother kept the ship’s logs as she and my father knocked around in small yachts. These make pretty dry reading — position, wind, currents — but every once a while something interesting happens, the anchor dragging in the middle of the night, the dinghy painter separating mysteriously from its cleat, and these call forth my mother’s seemingly endless talent for limericks, small bright “literary” moments of sheer entertainment.

My own journal style has tended to follow my mother’s and I have found that describing things adds immeasurably to the pleasure of travel. I never wrote specifically for entertainment, however, until I took a forty-nine-day freighter voyage around the South Pacific.

“But what are you going to do all day?” my friends asked.

“Write about it, of course. You want to be on the mailing list?”

And as I sailed along I set about writing my first full-length travel manuscript, Letters from the Pacific: Forty-Nine Days on a Cargo Ship.  The original idea had been simply to describe what was happening and send it back to friends and family in installments whenever I got to an Internet café in port. But very early in the voyage it became clear that I was taking this trip for a lot of reasons that had nothing to do with adventure, and I started working on a parallel journal, my feelings opening up in the presence of all that wide, wild, empty ocean.

I began to discover the power of memoir — and the fact that travel, removing yourself bodily from your daily life for extended periods of time, offers a wonderful opportunity for reflection and truth-telling.
It also offers the perfect chance to practice one’s writing.

Description:
Cruising along the north coast of Honduras at 257˚, west by south, at 11.5 knots, winds so light that the sea looks wrinkled like the skin of a pachyderm. A torpid haze hangs over us, deadening the light, turning the nearby Bay Islands into amorphous humps rising out of oblivion.

Characterization:
The Captain’s Dinner Diatribe tonight wound up with, “Media, politics, all just a circus.” He took a forkful of salad and then looked at us both intently over the rims of his glasses. “Like the Romans — give them bread, give them circus. Keep the people happy.”

“But, Captain, you’re so cynical!” I protested.

“And the world is not cynic? What about Iraq and the so-called weapons of mass destruction? Three days after invasion they are saying, no weapons of mass destruction. That is not cynic?”

I countered, “The western powers were supporting Saddam Hussein for years. I would call that invasion hypocritical.”

“And what means hypocrite?” Rodolfo and I were obviously expected to wait for the answer. “Hypocrite, Greek, it means actor.” And he lifts his hands from the table, palms up, in that international gesture, What more to say?

Humor:
The morning after my first night in the room, I reported to the Signora the foul emanations of sewer gases from the bathroom. Unable to sleep, I had sniffed around until I identified the shower drain, no doubt squeezed into the old building without a trap. I threw a towel over it and went back to bed. The Signora told me that “these smells always occur in the bad weather,” and then she suggested that next time I use a wet towel. I recognized in her insouciance about the plumbing something wonderfully familiar, and it felt just like home.

Reflection:
It’s incredible to me to be passing Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia in my transit to Malta, these places having been nothing more for me than bad news in the daily paper. Now the shadow of the coast, sometimes visible, sometimes not, haunts me, because I know I’ll never go there and its mysteries will remain forever locked in the realms of fantasy and horror. Incredible also are the stars; we are somewhere around the thirty-ninth parallel, not that far south of where I grew up and lived half of my adult life. Could it be that this is the same nighttime sky?

Travelling is a little like losing your identity; everything familiar that defines who you are is gone and you open up more fully to your surroundings, emptying yourself of the quotidian so as to fill yourself with the new and strange. In such open-hearted states experience becomes more intense, and this lends great power to the pen. Somewhere I read a quotation that I wish I could ascribe: “Great stories happen to the people who can tell them.”

Someone asked me recently where I ever acquired the dream of freighter travel, and I couldn’t pinpoint it. I love the ocean, certainly — many happy times spent on small boats, and the romantic idea that must be hidden away in some nook in our culture, of climbing on board a freighter and writing a book, destinations be damned. And I had always loved tales of ships and the sea. If you have read any of that rich literature (Conrad, Melville, Dana), you know that there’s plenty to describe out there in the middle of nowhere: people, conversations, subtleties of relationships in close quarters, movements of the ship, weather, and the ever-changing sea and sky.

One freighter voyage was not enough, as it turned out, and my latest voyage took me to Europe. While the first had not been at all about destinations (more like jumping off a cliff), the second one was; there were a few people I wanted to see and things I felt I had to do before a looming major surgery that might have made any future such trip impossible. Facing my increasing physical disability made this trip a great deal more poignant, and I determined that it would be an active search for the joie de vivre.

So this time I was writing with a special purpose, and that was to focus on all the things that gave me joy: the vivid colors of a fishing boat in Malta, the first taste of a seafood ravioli on the Italian coast, the silky perfection of a Michelangelo sculpture, sharing a day in a remote Alpine village with the family of a dear friend, holding my sister’s hand in Paris as we both felt the tones of an 18th-century cello pierce our hearts … There was all this and so much more, and I realized that writing about it helped me to find what I was looking for.

Excerpts from the unpublished travel memoir, Journey to the Joie de Vivre

©Sandra Shaw Homer, 2014

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