Thursday, June 30, 2011

Alaska, Part II

Day 4 

Half-woke at 4 to daylight.  Got up early and ran 2 miles as we docked at Ketchikan.  Ship inched into the dock; it was nice to run without the wind.  Showered, ate, and walked through town, where brightly colored wooden homes are perched on brilliant green hills overlooking the harbor.

Lots of souvenir/jewelry/carvings/rock shops on Creek Street, the old red-light district. 

Took a funicular up the hill to see more totem poles, which are all over town. 

Also notable: beautiful plantings and flowers on many street corners.  Some of the flowers look almost tropical.

We walked out of the downtown, and then it was a little less manicured: lots of rusted-out cars, peeling paint, a Goodwill thrift shop, store fronts with “Everything Must Go!” signs in the windows.  This is the kind of stuff I like to see.  I like imagining what it’s like to live in places I visit, and I have a feeling that life in Ketchikan is hard when the cruise ships leave in September.

Factoid: Ketchikan boasts the smallest Wal-Mart in the world.  When it opened, it sold out in hours and had to close until it could restock. 

After lunch, I found a quiet corner of the Promenade deck and read and ate chocolate.  My kind of heaven.  Met Roy and Josine at 4 for Trivia.  Our group included a lovely young man from Sacramento and a husband and wife from Pleasanton.  Wife reminded me of my ex-husband’s wife in both appearance and inability to stop talking.  (“What car did Lenin outfit with skis?  Did Lenin drive?  Wasn’t he Russian?  Or Soviet?  Was he Russian or Soviet?  Were there Russian cars?  I don’t know anything about Russian cars.  Was this before World War I or after?  Did he say skis or snowshoes?”)  We didn’t do very well.  Lenin drove a Rolls Royce, but we missed it.

Sunny afternoon sailing up the Inside Passage.  The vistas were spectacular.  Sat on our balcony with Robert until someone next door started smoking weed.  There really is nowhere on a ship to escape entirely from other people.  Ironic, because that’s one thing that is apparently easy to do in Alaska.  And even I—bitter and complaining isolationist that I am—would feel so bereft and lonely if I had to be here for any length of time.  I would go mad with loneliness.  The beauty and serenity and bright, pristine splendor would be nothing without people around (whom I would undoubtedly work to avoid).

After dinner, we went to a revue in the Princess Theater: songs of the 20s and 30s by the Princess Singers and Dancers, who performed at about the level of a mediocre community college theater department. 

On exiting the theater, one of the young cruise directors asked me with a smile, “Did you like the show?” 

Being polite, I said, “Yes, I did,” whereupon Cruise Director called out, “Chester?  These people liked the show!”  “Chester” turned out to be the “feelings police” guy from yesterday.  He and his wife were sitting on a couch outside the theater.  “What ship are they on?” he asked crankily, not missing a beat.

I have decided that Chester and I are kindred spirits, and that I’m going to look for him tomorrow and sit as close as I can.

Day 5

Two-mile jog at six.   The water of the Inside Passage was glassy and almost black with the reflection of the steep hills rising on both banks, thick with untouched forest and brush.  Everything was green in a way that makes you think all other greens you’ve seen are something else entirely: a murky blue, or some version of brown.  Patches of snow lay at the top of the hills.  Sometimes you could see snow melt running into the ocean; sometimes it was frozen mid-fall against the crags.

From the ship, Juneau is much less picturesque than Ketchikan: all cinderblock and industrial browns and grays.  It has the distinction of being the only state capital without road access: everyone getting in or out does so by plane or ship. 

We docked at the base of a steep, green hill.  I was standing at the window and saw two eagles circling.  One of them landed on a tree directly in front of and slightly above us.  Fortunately, we brought binoculars.  I have never seen an eagle in the wild before.  Magnificent.

Robert and I walked through town. 

We had breakfast in a café (scrambled egg on a panini and very good Earl Grey), then browsed in a used bookshop, where I bought WE WERE THE MULVANEYS, by Joyce Carol Oates.  It started to rain, so we headed back to the docks, where tour bookers were hawking excursions.  We boarded what looked like a 1950s school bus and headed out of town to the Mendenhall Glacier.  We drove past Mount Juneau, the base of whose steep face is considered the most dangerous avalanche location in the urban US. 

More beautiful countryside, pocked with suburban homes.  Tour guide said most of Juneau’s 30,000 people live out toward Mendenhall.  (He also said he was a Republican and that even though it “killed” him to say it, Gore was right about global warming, whereupon both Robert and I said, “Duh!” loudly.)  I saw lots of churches (Church of the Nazarene, Church of Christ) and lots of rusted-out cars on front lawns.  Tour guide informed us that if someone wants to move to the lower 48, there is no inexpensive way to bring his car along, so many are abandoned.

Glacier (in the heart of the 17 million-acre Tongass National Forest) is smaller than when I was here in ’95.  But still beautiful, still that breathtaking shade of toothpaste blue I have never seen anywhere else in nature. 

Cottonwood trees abound; when the sun came out, they gave up their snowy puffs, making lots of people sneeze.
Arctic terns swooped and buzzed the ponds.  A waterfall gushed nearby.

Last night, we talked to a Filipino waiter who waxed rhapsodic about the US.  He told us we have no idea how lucky we are to have access to $5 meals at McDonalds.  Food is expensive in the Philippines, he said.  “You know what I love about America?  Wal-Mart.  Target.  Costco.  Yes, I have a card.  I love the Philippines, but I love America also,” he said.  I thought about that conversation at the glacier.  I love my country for a lot of reasons.  For me, natural beauty is higher on the list than access to Wal-Mart.  But I see now how privileged that makes me.  I already knew it, but sometimes it’s a good thing to be reminded.

Dinner tonight marred by news that norovirus has invaded the ship.  I am trying hard not to panic but am also gratified that my isolationist ways may yet come in handy.

Day 6

Jog as we docked at Skagway.  If it weren’t for the two other cruise ships already in port, I would have missed the town.

Breakfast on the Lido Deck: fruit and coffee for me.  After a while, the excess of offerings begins to wear on me.  Robert loves it, though: this morning, he especially liked the smoked mackerel.

The staff is taking the threat of norovirus very seriously.  When you arrive at the restaurants, you must wash your hands with anti-bacterial soap that is provided at the front door.  Staff stand guard and make sure you use it.  At the cafeteria-style breakfast, you are not even allowed to use tongs to put food on your plate: another staff member wearing rubber gloves uses the tongs for you.

Skagway is small and has the look of a wild-west town in Wyoming, except that there are no high plains or tumbleweed or cattle.  Wood-planked sidewalks without curbs, Victorian architecture.

There is a structure made entirely of driftwood:

Ubiquitous diamond merchants, jewelry and souvenir shops, several saloons.  We ate fish and chips in one, then walked through more of the town.  There was a lovely museum housed in the first granite building in Alaska, once home to the McCabe College for Women, which was really a college-preparatory high school.  Boys and girls were taught Latin, Greek, modern languages, natural sciences, history.  It was only in existence for three years, when a public school was finally built.  The headmaster was Oxford-educated.

The day was almost hot, but the wind kicked up after 3.  I can’t stop thinking about that school, about being a young woman in Alaska in the 19th century, learning Greek and Latin in a town five blocks wide, where winter days are five hours long.

These are some of the clothes that young women traveling to the Klondike were advised to bring at the end of the 19th century:

1 pair house slippers

1 pair knitted slippers

1 pair heavy soled walking shoes

1 pair arctics

1 pair felt boots

1 pair German socks

1 pair heavy gum boots

1 pair ice creepers

3 pair heavy all-wool stockings

3 pair summer stockings

Some sort of gloves for summer wear, to protect the hands from mosquitoes.

I don’t even know what some of these things are, but they make the whole endeavor of relocating to Alaska sound especially difficult for hands and feet.   We haven’t seen a lot of mosquitoes, which is surprising.  And here in Skagway, not many birds: just a few gulls, an arctic tern or two, one eagle.  Maybe we’re too far north.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Alaska, Part I

Day 1

 We couldn’t have picked a more spectacular day to depart from Pier 35 for Alaska.  Temperature was a nearly-unheard-of 77 degrees; sky was cloudless; bay was full of sailboats and gulls.  After the mandatory (and ridiculous) safety drill, we met our friends Roy and Josine on the Lido deck, where fruity cocktails ($9) were being hawked and a band played upbeat tunes (not one of which was "I Left My Heart In San Francisco").  A few passengers danced with crewmembers who tried gamely to look as though the whole thing was loads of fun.

It was lovely to sail out of the bay and watch San Francisco disappear. 

The Golden Gate arched against the sky.  I thought about the other passengers who love San Francisco the way tourists do (which is different from the way we natives do), and how leaving a city is not the same thing as leaving home.  My eyes got a little teary.  I’ll admit it.  The Cliff House was tiny on its precarious perch, the last landmark.

Our room has two twin beds pushed together, two small closets, a desk, a TV, a refrigerator, and a shower-sized balcony. 
The wall behind the bed and desk is completely mirrored.  It would be nice to be able to sit outside if we were going somewhere tropical, but very shortly after chugging out of the bay, it became clear that being outside and not doing anything was ill-advised.  They call it The Frozen North for a reason.    

We unpacked and Robert was delighted to find that his plan to smuggle in vodka went undetected by the authorities.  Amazingly, we were able to empty two suitcases and a garment bag into our dinky closets.  We met Roy and Josine again for a snack.  Fantastic fresh fruit, cheese, and lemonade. 

We had a drink (ginger ale: $4) outside the restaurant before dinner and people-watched.  As always, it’s my favorite part of any getaway.  If it were a competitive sport, I would win.  Lots of families with small children (school is out), lots of multi-generational families, many matriarchs and patriarchs in wheelchairs being pushed cheerfully by adult children who are way nicer and less grudging than I am.  Lots of people speaking different languages.  Many Asians, many Indians and Pakistanis.  Almost no black people.  Some people who are quite heavy.  I noticed several people with seasick-medication patches behind their ears and begin immediately to feel queasy.

Dinner was okay.  The highlight was definitely cream of porcini mushroom soup.  For dessert, I ordered vanilla ice cream with caramel sauce and told the waiter to hold the ice cream.  He didn’t get it, which made me a little grumpy.  This is the weird thing about cruise ships.  You start complaining about everything.  You think you won’t, but you will.  I don’t know why.  Suddenly, you feel massively entitled.  Or maybe it’s that even with all the activities, there really isn’t very much to do.

The ship was rocking quite a bit; Josine said she heard that tonight was going to be the roughest night.  So I took a meclizine and am now quite drowsy.  To bed.

Day 2

Exercise on the Promenade Deck.  I jogged over a mile and walked a mile and a half.  My ears ached from the wind.  There was no coastline visible, just endless vistas of gray, white-capped sea.  The deck has the feel of an earlier era: beautifully polished wooden slats, varnished benches and life-vest lockers, chaise lounges with navy-blue cushions arranged so that one can read and watch the ocean at the same time.  Vintage-looking clocks.  You can almost see Edward and Wallis Simpson having a stroll.

After breakfast (eggs, fruit, tea) and a trip to the “sundries store” to buy new batteries for my camera, I coerced Robert to indulge in my other favorite shipboard activity: trying to get away from other people.  I find that my curmudgeonly instincts are especially heightened when I am confined at sea with people I know I wouldn’t like on land.  I take offense when other people save seats, or sneeze without properly covering their mouths, or walk up the stairs without staying to the right, or neglect to say thank-you to the lovely people who wait on them.  I do not like it when children press all the buttons in the elevator so it will stop at every floor.  I do not like smokers.  (I know it’s really their nasty habit I don’t like, but I’m getting to the point where the distinction is largely moot.)  In short, I am not made for the communal aspect of cruising.  Fortunately, this is a big ship.  Robert and I hid out for a while in one of the nightclubs, empty but for a couple of gentlemen vacuuming the rugs.  We located a few venues (one of the theaters, the art gallery, the library).  And we ate lunch.  (French fries, cheese, more delicious fruit.) 

Back in the room, we fell asleep.  Up in time for afternoon tea (scones, jam, egg-salad sandwiches, walnut cake).  Bloated and leery of our room and its wall of mirrors, we made our way to Trivia.  Notable questions: Who invented scissors?  What color is the cross on the Swedish flag?  What is the biggest opera house in the world?  Roy is a chemist and knew about hydrogen.  I knew who lived in the 100-Acre Wood.  We got 16 out of 20, but were bested by another team.  We vowed to do better tomorrow.

We tried to read on deck, but even in my winter coat, I was freezing.  We relocated to the Wheelhouse, which is a nice bar/lounge.  I’m reading THE HOUR I FIRST BELIEVED, by Wally Lamb.  I almost gave up on it a few times, but now I’m glad I stuck with it.  It’s just the right kind of book for a trip like this: one you can read in spurts, then put down to watch the lady at the bar try to sing along with the piano player’s “One Singular Sensation.”

After dinner, we went to one of the theaters to watch a musician/comedian.  He told us he has been doing cruises since 1977, which made me feel too sorry for him to like him much.  Plus he likes puns and sings ‘70s songs in funny voices.  No patience for this on dry land, let alone on the high seas.

Day 3

There are 11 decks on this ship that are open to passengers: Fiesta, Plaza, Emerald, Promenade, Dolphin, Caribe, Baja, Aloha, Riviera, Lido, and Sun.  Our cabin is on the Aloha Deck, aka Deck 11, which means that we do a lot of elevator-riding or stair-climbing in order to get places.  I avoid the elevators for the most part (because they put me in alarming proximity to other people), so I get a work-out on the stairs.  You run into the same people over and over on the stairs, it turns out.  I imagine we’re like-minded in other ways as well.

After my jog, I made my way up to the salon (Riviera), where Gordana cut off two inches and regaled me with stories about women who do silly things to their hair.  She says women from the UK have the strangest dye jobs, and that the fact that my hair is in such good condition is because I don’t color it, but if I would like to, she would recommend a shade of red.  I told her that I’m 54 and this is what I look like, for better or worse, and she laughed nervously, as though I had inadvertently identified myself as peculiar and she was a little embarrassed for me.

Lunch poolside (Lido), where the sun had shown itself for the first time in two days.  We had hamburgers and hotdogs, but the wind was blowing my new haircut around and I finished fast.  Went off to read in a quiet lounge and was suddenly overtaken with intense sleepiness.  Found our cabin and slept hard for almost an hour, missing Trivia (and probably pissing off Roy and Josine).  Now I remember why I don’t read in the middle of the day.  Also, I think there’s something about being off the Internet that is discombobulating.

Formal night, which means men wear tuxes or suits and women wear sparkly dresses. 

Frankly, I was interested to see what some of these people were going to wear.  It was great fun to sit in the atrium, drink champagne, and watch the show.  Nearby, an elderly man and woman were having a conversation:

Woman: Doesn’t everyone look nice?

Man: This is such a load of crap.

Woman: Always a smartass.  What’s wrong with you?

Man: I don’t have to tell you.  What are you, the feelings police?

The man was genuinely disgruntled.  I love “the feelings police.”  I am going to have to think about that and see where I can use it.

Robert and our friends are at a magic show.  I hate magic.  Basically, it’s just someone tricking you, and then you have to applaud them for it.  I’d much rather watch the ocean slip by.  It’s 10:40 pm and the sun hasn’t set yet. 

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Memory, 1982

In 1982, my then-husband and I moved to Berkeley so I could go to graduate school.  My friend Jim got us an apartment in the building next door to his.  Growing around the front door was a huge, trailing jasmine in full bloom.  My mother stood under the doorframe and said, For the rest of your life, when you smell jasmine, you will remember this place.

It was a very ordinary one-bedroom apartment on the third floor.  It had an ancient kitchen with pale yellow tiles edged in black, and shag carpeting that Jim described as “owl-shit green.”  The ex and I slept on a platform bed in the dark bedroom, under a blue and white-flowered Laura Ashley quilt. We had a black-and-white TV in there.  It was about the size of a toaster.  I remember watching Michael Jackson do the moonwalk on that TV.

We didn’t cook a lot, or rather, we didn’t cook well.  I made a lot of pasta (which Neil Heidler ate too much of and threw up all over the owl-shit green carpeting).  The ex gloried in a dish of his own devising: vegetables sautéed in our big, red wok, then mixed with cream of mushroom soup and served over rice.  Needless to say, we ate out a lot.  On a limited budget, we often went to La Fiesta, a hole-in-the-wall Mexican restaurant on Telegraph.  Strawberry sodas and cockroaches on the walls.  Blue tiles inlaid on the tables.  Still the best Mexican food I ever ate.  I wonder if it’s still there.

I remember sitting cross-legged on the bed and doing accounting problems.  Standing by the bookcase in the hallway so I could talk on the phone.  Watching my husband perform at a terrible little club on Shattuck whose name escapes me, nicknamed “The Toilet” by the other musicians who were drawn in by free beers.

One of our neighbors was a woman named Andrea, and we got to be good friends.  She was working on a doctorate in archaeology and wanted to meet men in the worst way.  We used to laugh a lot, but I can’t remember why anymore.  We lost touch.

My close friend Sherry lived across town.  Every Thursday night, I would go over to her apartment and watch Cheers and Hill Street Blues.  (I think Thursday was the night the ex played at the Toilet.)  Sherry had a huge crush on Ted Danson.  I loved Daniel Travanti.  Sherry and I aren’t friends anymore.  I miss her so much.

The ex and I went to Tilden Park almost every weekend.  We rode the merry-go-round.  I always got a brick of pink popcorn at the concession stand.

He liked to jog, in those days.  It staggers me to remember that I did absolutely no exercise at all. 

I thought about all this this morning as I jogged past a house about a mile away from mine.  In the yard, a huge hedge of jasmine bloomed.  It almost stopped me in my tracks.