As we walked free from that ship, I encountered one of my other selves – the one who used to travel rough and now hates to travel at all – and he stared at me and demanded: “What the hell are you doing here?”
“Well, we wanted to get to Faroe to see the eclipse, and taking this cruise seemed the only way – ”
“Yes,” said my grumpy other self, “take a cruise if you want to be one of eighteen hundred overfed Anglo tourists pampered by eight hundred handsome underpaid Goanese waiters and Filipina cabin stewards. Take a cruise if you’d like to be seated next to the same people for thirty meals – if you can stand wearing a jacket and shoes and a tie – if you enjoy being asked whether you’re enjoying yourself – if you want to be able to eat all day – if you like living in a three-dimensional world of bars, food bars, lounges, clubrooms – if you want to hear the anecdotes of people who’ve gone on three cruises a year for the past nineteen years – if you want to pour pollution into the ocean – ”
“Wait,” I interrupted, “you exaggerate unkindly. Our fellow passengers were not all overweight or over seventy; not quite all were even English or white. I shall remember at least half a dozen who were far from boring and with some of whom we’ll continue in contact. Yes, the ‘Oriana’ was less like a ship than a floating city block fourteen storeys tall, but I’ve heard there are cruise ships more than three times larger, with six thousand passengers! The eight hundred staff were not all Goanese waiters and Filipina cabin stewards: think of the necessary cooks, dishwashers, launderers, storehandlers, engineers; and they told me they weren’t required to work more than ten hours a day except on days of crisis. Pity them for the work they have to do on ‘Turnaround Day’, in the few hours between one crowd getting off and the next swarming on! If you were bored, it was your fault: you could have switched your television on and heard about all the entertainments and gone to the quiz nights and the comedians, taken bridge lessons, played bingo. If you were itchy from lack of exercise, you could have taken the yoga class, or used the stationary bicycle in the gym, or shivered more than once through the snow to the top-deck swimming pool. Instead of poking around by yourself in those few ports where the ship touched, you could have paid for tour vouchers and let yourself be taken around in coaches like everyone else. The cruise companies claim that they now recycle all the food waste and take all the human waste ashore for burning, and I think I believe them. They certainly did their utmost to prevent outbreaks of the dreaded norovirus, by spraying our hands as we went into dining rooms and confining us to our cabin if we got diarrhea. Why, you could say these cruises are a good thing. There are thousands of frail people, on crutches and wheelchairs, who could never have hoped to see exotic lands, and this way they can. If my own bones hadn’t healed up after my last bicycle crash, I might have had to be glad of a cruise.”
“So, are you going to take another?”
“Never.” On this, all my selves agree.
The cruise could not be faulted for luxury and diligent service, if those are what you want. But it consisted of one of the P&O line’s usual routes down the coast of Norway, with a diversion to Faroe tacked on because of the eclipse. It was impossible to find out anything in advance about eclipse preparations – whether the cloud prospects had been studied and a viewing position chosen, even whether protective goggles would be provided (I had lost the Number 14 welder’s glass I’d always taken before). “You’ll have to call Entertainment”; “You’ll be told on the ship.” What a contrast with, for instance, the party led by Tom Van Flandern to Mexico for the 1991 eclipse: dossiers of advance information for months ahead, planning conferences over the preceding days. On the ship everything was left to two lectures (the second on photography) by Robin Scagell.
Most days were days of confinement in the ship, out of sight of land – the more-than-two-day distances from Southampton to Faroe, Faroe to Tromso, Alta all the way to Bergen (without touching central Norway), Stavanger to Southampton. You might expect a cruise along Norway to be a threading of that incredible maze of fiords that you see in the atlas; but the ship, so huge, kept far off that coast. On the last day, we expected to get off before almost everyone else, being among the very few “self-debarkers” who had only hand-luggage. But high winds (they seemed high only on the top deck) caused the ship a difficulty, never quite explained, in Southampton harbor. Though the ship was fast to the dock, we weren’t allowed to get off, and everyone had to stay on board for yet one more night, at prodigious cost to the company in food, free drinks, extra entertainments, and labor. At last and appropriately on All Fools’ Day, April 1, we hurried out, wheeling our two small bags through a baggage-reclaim hall dense with perhaps four thousand monster suitcases. It was some days later that I came down with the norovirus. Well, it may not have been that, though we know that there was at least some of it on the ship: we’ve heard from one friend that he had it and was confined to his cabin for sixty-six hours. It’s over now; and let life resume.