Misty Fjords National Monument in Southeast Alaska
On my kitchen table, there is a pile of Lonely Planet guidebooks to various places. Many times, I will page through the books carefully reading about the places to visit, the best places to sleep, and even the best restaurants.
Lately, I have been spending a lot of time daydreaming about Alaska. I have planned several possible itineraries:
Southeast Alaska: Ketchikan, Prince of Wales Island, Wrangell, Sitka, Juneau, Haines, and Skagway.
Central Alaska: Anchorage, Mount McKinley (Denali), Fairbanks.
Southwest Alaska: Anchorage, Seward, Homer, Kodiak, Katmai National Park and possibly Unalaska/Dutch Harbor.
“Bush” Alaska:Nome, Fairbanks, Deadhorse, and Barrow.
All four itineraries would cost much more than my usual vacations, especially as many involve charter flights on float planes, rental cars, and trips using the Alaska Marine Highway ferry system. I can probably fly the 6,100 miles (9,900 km) to Argentina for half of what any of the above would cost me.
Why don’t I take a cruise? The thought of being with the same group of strangers for a week or more, leaving the ship only to take “baby steps” trips ashore would drive me off my rocker. I have always entertained some contempt for cruise passengers, referring to them as “boat people” and insisting on communicating with them only in Hungarian. (I have a thing about strangers: I can put up with them on a day trip, but only in small doses.)
If I had the money, I would start by going to the Alaska panhandle first. There would be a lot of rain, but it would be beautiful—and there is all that great fish to eat!
The USS Petri Dish, I Mean the USS Diamond Princess
I have just watched a brief HBO documentary about the cruise ship Diamond Princess, whose passengers had the unenviable role of being the first people outside of China to come down with the coronavirus. It was called “The Last Cruise” (which it was for the 14 passengers who died of the virus).
In all my travels, I have avoided cruise ships—not because of the spread of infectious diseases, but because I don’t like to be in the position of having to be nice to the same bunch of wealthy strangers for multiple days in a row and because I don’t like my vacations to be highly regimented.
Another reason: I remember a cartoon in the New Yorker a number of years ago in which we saw a cruise ship whose name was S.S. All You Can Eat. Even under normal conditions, I’m fighting the “Battle of the Bulge” and certainly don’t need unlimited access to calorific foods.
The documentary consisted largely of cell phone videos taken by passengers and crew. It was evident that the filmmakers were aghast at the conditions of the crew, who were forced to associate with one another in close quarters while an epidemic ranged throughout the ship.
The ship sailed between Yokohama and several ports in Southeast Asia including Okinawa, Hong Kong, and a Vietnamese port not named. As the ship was homeward bound to Yokohama, it was discovered that a passenger boarding in Hong Kong had come down with Covid-19. When the ship reached Yokohama, it was put on quarantine for over a month, as cases spread like wildfire through the ship, infecting some 700+ passengers and an unspecified number of crew members. Passengers who had come down with the virus were carted off to Japanese hospitals.
Eventually, most of the American passengers were put on a military aircraft and returned to the U.S.
Sometimes I think that David Foster Wallace was the type of writer I should have decided to dislike. Even though I have not ventured into his fiction masterpiece, Infinite Jest, I find myself so liking his essays and speeches that I am consciously rationing his work as if it were a delicacy that was doomed to disappear. Doomed like its author, who after years of depression and unhappiness hanged himself from one of the rafters of his house at the age of 46.
Just because much of his life was a horror story does not invalidated his brilliance or his humor, even though it could not save him.
I have just finished reading his book of essays entitled A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again. The title essay runs for about a hundred pages and contains some 137 footnotes which are priceless about 7NC (7 Night Caribbean) passenger cruises and the people who taken them, as well as the people who conduct them. Many of DFW’s pieces are footnoted, though I suspect the magazines in which the essays originally appeared probably excised them with editorial exasperation.
My favorites of the seven essays were about tennis, the films of David Lynch, the Illinois State Fair, and, of course, the Caribbean cruises. I have also read his later collection, Consider the Lobster, which I also loved.
Over the next several months, god willing, I will tackle his fiction.
Watch TV and you will see them by the hundreds: Actors with that professional corporate smile. Everything is fine. There are no negatives. Well, that’s not me. Let me greet you with a suspicious scowl. I don’t know you and I have no reason to send a ray of sunshine up your ass. I was always good at what I did, but I was hopeless as a salesman. (That never bothered me as that was not my intention.) The following is a long footnote from David Foster Wallace’s long essay on taking a Caribbean cruise for the first time, entitled “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.”
This is related to the phenomenon of the Professional Smile, a national pandemic in the service industry; and no place in my experience have I been on the receiving end of as many Professional Smiles as I am on the [cruise ship]: maitre d’s, Chief Stewards, Hotel Managers minions’ , Cruise Director—their P.S.’s all come on like switches at my approach. But also back on land at banks, restaurants, airline ticket counters, on and on. You know this smile—the strenuous contraction of of circumoral fascia w/ incomplete zygomatic involvement—the smile that doesn’t quite reach the smiler’s eyes and that signified nothing more than a calculated attempt to advance the smiler’s own interests by pretending to like the smilee. Why do employers and supervisors force professional service people to broadcast the Professional Smile? Am I the only consumer in whom high doses of such a smile produce despair? Am I the only person who’s sure that the growing number of cases in which totally average-looking people suddenly open up with automatic weapons in shopping malls and insurance offices and medical complexes and McDonaldses is somehow causally related to the fact that these venues are well-known dissemination-loci of the Professional Smile?
For this post to make any sense, you’ll need to know the exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and the Mexican peso around the time of my trip. When I was there, the peso ran around 17.5 to the dollar, or about 6¢ each.
There is not much love lost between cruise ship passengers and Mexicans. (In fact, there is not much love lost between cruise ship passengers and me, for that matter.) They tend to be retirees whose idea of paradise is to rot on some beach somewhere. They know next to nothing about the countries they visit. In fact, they don’t know the language; their wallets are stuffed with dollars; and they basically listen to what their handlers tell them.
I was in Izamal when for a brief moment, I was mistaken for a boat person. I hand just seen the Church of San Antonio de Padua and wanted to get back to my room. There was a taxi tout next to the Centro bus station who said a taxi would cost 100 pesos for the five-block ride. I glared at him, said that was demasiado caro (“too expensive”), and hoofed it back to my room, which I would have done in the first place if I weren’t recovering from a nasty blister on my right big toe. The tout looked surprised: These boat Gringos weren’t supposed to know any Spanish, and certainly wouldn’t know that the in-town taxi rate in Izamal was only 25 pesos.
Cut to Progreso, which has two or more cruise ships call each week. The malécon fills up with American cruise ship zombies, who quite naturally have to relieve themselves from time to time. There are bathrooms (sanitarios) in the alleys off the malécon, costing 5 or 10 pesos each. The equivalent price in dollars is 30-60¢, but U.S. coins cannot be exchanged for pesos in Mexico, so the bathroom is charging $1.00 to Gringos. (The sign on the right side of the above photo sets the price in Mexican currency for a bathroom visit to be 10 pesos.)
Finally, also in Progreso, I saw a scene that annoyed me to no end. I purchased a one-way ticket to Mérida for 21 pesos. At the same time, a tout was selling round trip tickets to Mérida for $10.00 each, about four times what I paid. The boat people were grabbing them up as if they were a bargain. Several, seeing that I spoke Spanish while looking like a Gringo, came up to ask me questions. I smiled and answered them … in Hungarian. I have no intention of being a cavaliere servente to a bunch of brain-dead Yanqui tourists.
Since I am something of what Spiro T. Agnew called a “nattering nabob of negativity,” I thought of concentrating on travel activities that I would avoid like the plague:
Speaking of the plague, going on a large cruise ship ranks right up there. I don’t know which is worse, catching Legionnaires’ Disease or equivalent rot when cooped up with several thousand upscale vacationers, or pretending to be friends with said vacationers when I have zilch in common with them.
Ziplining or bicycling, not recommended for someone with an artificial hip or panhypopituitarism.
Staying at a luxury hotel or resort and spending hundreds of dollars a night for a bed and a lot of snooty attitude.
Skiing because of its demogaphic profile, high costs, and high potential rate of injury. (Okay, so I’m a wuss. Is that OK?)
Traveling in the jungle, as I am mosquito-phobic. I’ve got to this age without contracting any tropical diseases, and I want to keep it that way.
I don’t make friends with other American tourists: I travel to interact with the natives of the country I am visiting. If you see me on my travels, don’t talk to me in English, because I will answer you in Hungarian. The only exception: I belong to The English Group of Buenos Aires (TEGOBA) and enjoy attending their Friday meetings.
Visiting wineries, as I am diabetic, and alcohol turns to sugar in the body. Besides, I don’t even like wine.
Within these boundaries, I manage to have a great time when I travel. My next travel post will emphasize the things I love about travel.
One of the Seagoing Ferries of the Alaska Marine Highway
We’re barely into July, and I’ve already had it with this summer! It started with triple-digit daily temperatures in New Mexico and continued with a Mexican Monsoon heat wave in Southern California. I am looking to take a vacation along Alaska’s Inside Passage using a combination of a flight and a series of short trips on the Alaska Marine Highway. I would not consider taking a regular cruise line for the following reasons:
I don’t want to eat myself into an early grave.
I don’t want to be sociable with other passengers: I would rather grimace at them than play in their reindeer games.
I don’t want to pay a ridiculous single-traveler penalty—because I would be going alone, me and my Kindle loaded with 1,500 books.
The places I would like to visit include Ketchikan, Sitka, Juneau, the Mendenhall Glacier, Skagway, and nearby parts of the Yukon. Ideally, I would go after the first frost has killed off most of the mosquito population. I understand there is a narrow gauge railroad that connects Skagway with Carcross in the Yukon, and I would not be averse to visiting Whitehorse.
My question is: Can I manage to afford two vacations in one year? Perhaps, if I’m lucky. But I have a strong desire to leave summer far, far behind me.