Never To Return Again: Chapter 23

Sunrises come and go.

But once in a while, like genuine friendships they can warm the heart in a fleeting glance of fellowship that makes them a phenomenon that draws us closer to nature, some of us closer to God, or to that which good in this life. Others still are transported by pretty sunrises to that special place of inner warmth brought about, at times, by the love of a fellow human being, even that of a lover.

As they had come to rest on a couple of the comfy sun beds that dotted the deck of the HMS Orca, Ken and Lynn gazed up through eyelids still a tiny bit sleepy from the exertions of the previous day. Yet somehow this tiredness was one that was a pleasure to endure, as with every waking moment, the strands of cloud that been illuminated so beautifully by the rising sun in multiple hues of crimson and orange, dissipated and gave way to an almost robust solid blue sky.

Energy came streaming back into their weary bodies as they sipped orange juice for its revitalizing vitamin C and strolled the deck in an impromptu morning constitutional, as referred to by Agatha Christie in her mystery novels in which she narrates the life of Hercule Poirot, a character that one cannot help but warm to.

The warmth of the sun was rivaled somewhat by a sensation Ken had rarely felt before. It was November, a sunny day, yet there was a chill in the air that he had not encountered in his travels so far, except maybe on the roof of the train back in India or Pakistan, as it passed through some of the more mountainous parts of those provinces.

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Never to return again: Chapter 22

The dismal drive up through the drizzly autumn weather on the winding mountain roads that led to Lourdes would have been enough to depress even the most upbeat band of cheerleaders. However, the sight that met their eyes when they took that final turn into the town was something to behold:

The Sanctuary, as the main church in Lourdes is called, is located above a shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary, who in 1858 appeared to a young Bernadette Soubirous, a rather poor fourteen year old miller’s daughter who at the time was out gathering firewood with companions that included her sister.

In front of the church there is a sizeable area, surrounded by poplar trees and benches, shaped a little like a miniature Hippodrome at which they disembarked from their bus. Due to their drive up having been pleasantly interrupted by a cheap yet excellent lunch in a dineresque restaurant called a “routier” it was by now dusk and it was rapidly getting darker by the minute as several hundred or possibly even thousands of the faithful had gathered to form a candlelight procession. Round and round the circuitous path they walked, in quite an orderly fashion and eventually the milling crowd began to wind its way down an embankment road that leads to the shrine which is located at the entrance to the grotto where the apparitions – all eighteen of them – had apparently taken place, just over a hundred years ago.

Although Ken was not of a very religious persuasion, he had respect and admiration for the people who were. His home life back in Rangoon had not necessarily included any regular attendance of chapel, communion services or Mass. Too wrapped up in their lives had his parents been to set him the kind of example to which he might have aspired.

Nevertheless, while growing up in the relative comfort of an expatriate middle class existence, his life had been dotted with episodes of adversity. So once in a while he would slip into St. John’s Catholic Church on Bo Sun Pet Street, not far from his home, whenever the opportunity arose.  When facing any kind of personal struggle or even when just feeling somewhat sad at any time he would sit down quietly in a pew at the back and basically just spend a little time with Jesus. Quite often Mass would be in full swing, as it were, and this would dictate where he sat, away from the proceedings, which he felt he really ought not to involve himself in, out of respect for the good pious congregation that was going about its daily business of the Mass.

At other times it would be just him by himself, sitting alone as the only human figure in the room. He would gaze up at the figure of Christ hanging on the cross, which returned his gaze with the kind of eyes that seemed to follow him as he would get up and pace back and forth, moving around the church in a pensive, harrowed state, trying to deal with whatever it was that he was dealing with at the time. At first Jesus had appeared to him as an inanimate object – the wooden sculpture that it was, physically. But over time, he would find strength in him. He found it soothing for the soul to be able to just share what he was going through with someone who would simply listen and not try to take his troubles as some sort of problem that needed to be fixed – and fixed right now, as is the way among men.

This man was different. Indeed as he had been able to pick up from the Mass liturgy over the years, this was not a mere man.

A quick smirk crossed his face as he caught himself reflecting on this and ended as a long smile as it occurred to him really how much solace and true peace this had brought him.  There were periods of his life when simply dropping by for short visits to St. John’s had given him the ability to get more grounded. His times in churches had calmed him down when the strife had depleted his energies. Sore and hollow he has sometimes entered the heavy wooden doors, the portals to these sanctuaries and as a kind of therapeutic effect on his worried soul, these visits of despair indeed had given him some kind of hold, some direction, and the strength to pick up the pieces, gather himself, and move on.

How ironic it was then, that after having actually met the great Mother Teresa herself back in Calcutta, that he was now once more drawn to a place of worship, of such optimism and hope, but most especially of faith. Holding their candles high, with such a sparkle of life in their eyes, the pilgrims circulated the path that wound round the piazza and strode with so much confidence, singing “Ave, Ave, Ave, Maria” repeatedly and ending in such sweet harmonies on these simple notes that it could not but uplift even the most sorry of doubters.

As if an unspoken instruction had been issued in advance, most of Ken’s group of travelers simply joined in and merged with the crowd. They let themselves be swept along in this mood of soothing and almost trance-like wandering, with the whole crowd finally gathering outside the grotto, some of them lining the steps that lead down from the church which was built atop the rocks that surround the grotto. Many were holding rosaries and saying prayers quietly as the majority of the crowd burst spontaneously into hymns that had been well practiced over many years, singing to the Blessed Mother, a large illuminated statue to whom stood erected at the entrance.  They felt truly at peace as Mary was peacefully watching over the scene, with a benign inclination to the neck as if to bow meekly in a gesture of gratitude for such veneration.

All this walking was quite invigorating and made everyone hungry for supper, for which they walked on to one of the older, somewhat dilapidated hotels of the pilgrim resort. Due to their late arrival, as it was now past nine o’clock, the staff laid out a simple mixture of local fresh produce for them: carrots, celery, tomatoes, cucumbers and hearty, crusty baguettes. What was most enthralling were all of those soft gooey cheeses that the French are famous for, which were laid out at what the head waiter proudly referred to as “ze cheese station”.  These kinds of delicious Brie and Camembert creations were nothing like one sees, even in a fine up-market delicatessen. These were purchased directly from local dairies and farmers.  The sweet overpowering flavor coming from the ripeness of the fruit and vegetables and the combinations of some sweet pears and tart apples was washed down with glassfuls of local wine. Added to that were handfuls of walnuts and mouthfuls of bread ripped off the nearest baguette, dipped in the soft cheeses, adorned with a local spicy sausage reminiscent of the salami they had enjoyed over the past week or so in Italy.

As they dined on this second simple repast of the day, Lynn leant forward and looking Ken directly in the eye, so intently that it made him pay full attention, she told him that she wanted to go to morning Mass in the Basilica the next day, an idea that was actually not all unappealing to him. So after such a hearty rather picnic-like supper they withdrew straight to bed in order to gather their strength for the next days’ exertions, which after morning Mass was to include a short hike up into the Pyrenean Mountains.

And so it was that at nine o’clock the next morning, not having needed much in the way of breakfast beyond a cup of coffee and maybe some orange juice that they arrived at the main entrance to the basilica, having walked there from their hotel which, although as already noted was of the rather shabby chic variety, did have a very good central location within walking distance to just about everything in town.

Some of the artistic components of this enthrallingly beautiful building of the basilica would have impressed even a layperson, not necessarily an expert in matters of church architecture, but what seemed to just stop many a pilgrim right in their tracks, striding purposefully on their way to Mass, was an array of crutches and walking paraphernalia, even Zimmer frames hanging on nails and hooks on the wall. These had accumulated over the years and considering this was the 103rd anniversary year of the apparitions. When he remarked on this, Lynn explained to him that she had read that theologians had surmised that God would grant physical and spiritual healing only to those who truly believed in him in the depths of their hearts, but that the healing was something that would come at so unexpected a time, that the person receiving the physical healing would be lifted up even higher in their spiritual healing.

At this he felt a bit left out, but immediately realized that it should not be for a the reason of such a simple notion as feeling excluded that people ought to become followers of the Catholic Church. It was not as if he had any apparition of his own, but he realized that if he wanted to spend any amount of his life with Lynn, he would have to make this kind of thing a part of his life. He wondered if he was even qualified to become a Catholic. Surely there would be some sort of instruction or training that was needed.

He was arrested in mid-thought by the splendor and beauty of the building, as they moved through the entrance and on into the main room. A plaque informed them that just a few years ago the oval Basilica of Pope Pius the Tenth had been consecrated to commemorate and celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the first apparition. This was one of the largest rooms he had ever been in, he was not sure if even the magnificent splendor of the Hagia Sofia could rival this. It was not so much any impressive costly marble or fancy facets of the room that moved him so much as the sheer fervor with which everything was being done.  This was Ken’s first ever experience of what was clearly a High Mass. The priest would pause ceremoniously in the middle of the proceedings to spoon more of the lit embers onto the incense, which the altar boys swung around the room so very generously, enshrouding everything in swaths of smoke that to Ken symbolized the Holy Spirit, though later he found out the rising incense is actually meant to represent the prayers of the faithful rising to Heaven.

He respectfully did not partake of the communion wafers or of the wine that he had learnt are only to be dispensed to the faithful in good standing with the Church.

The homily was delivered in several languages, which extended the duration of the Mass to almost two hours. But this was not a problem, as the attendees did not seem to want to leave, quite content to remain far beyond the time when the ceremonial part of the event had concluded.  In what could be described as waves of wellbeing they were filled with the warmth of the good messages passed on to them by the priests who clearly felt at home both in English and French, as well as German and a few languages Ken did not recognize.  The incense that had filled even this large cavernous hall began to subside, hanging in the air for an eternity before finally dissipating. The organist played various fugues by Bach and some very mesmerizing melodies by lesser known composers, which gave this room a magical mood of sheer bliss and contentment second to none.

As they slowly, pensively filed out of the depths of the building, the brilliant sunshine that met them outside was almost as exhilarating as what they had experienced within. Ken had not felt such elation for a long time. Who would have thought that he actually would find this kind of joy in a little country town nestled in the mountains of the Hautes-Pyrenees….

At the agreed time of eleven o’clock they were picked up near the church for a spectacular scenic sunny hour’s drive to Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, which also known as Somport. So engrossed had the conversations on board the bus been, that when they were getting off at their destination, Ken looked around their mountainous surroundings and was delighted to get one of Lynn’s loudest snorts of laughter when he said: “Some port, this is….”  with emphasis on the word “port”. After a light lunch they were to ascent the first mile or two of the most popular way to walk the route of pilgrimage known as The Way of St. James, or as the locals referred to it “El camino” or just simply “The Way”.

Not having packed anything in the way of thermal wear for the majority of the group the hike amounted to not much more than a brisk walk up the hill, but quite soon they felt how special this trail was, not just judging by the intoxicating upbeat mood of the fellow hikers whose walk was going to be one of up to 500 miles over the next few weeks, but also by the sheer beauty of their surroundings, craggy rocks jutting up out of the rough terrain, the steepness of which took their breath away very quickly. This had them looking for a place to rest and regain their composure and a perfect solution presented itself to them in the form of a chalet-style café off to the side of the trail from which they could see for miles around. It had a small terrace jutting out over the slope with a view back over the dark green rolling French Basque piedmont and valleys below. Fortunately the sun persisted as the weather was markedly improved over the rain they had driven through up to Lourdes the day before.

After taking it all in for much of the afternoon, some of their co-travelers updating their travelogues or simply reading quietly with their feet dangling off the deck, our two lovebirds sat in the back corner of the terrace, lapping up the remainder of the day’s sunshine. Before long, however, the coolness of the late autumn evening set in and they returned down the steep slope, into the village of Saint Jean. They soon forgot the chill that had belayed the air as they mastered the downhill drop which was indeed so steep that the jarring to their knees was almost painful, and their thighs felt like they were going to explode from the intense burning sensation that this return hike was giving them.

Fortunately they had not ventured too far up the hill, so before long they were back on the bus, leaving just as night was beginning to fall for the drive to Biarritz, to arrive in the dark of night and literally pour themselves into bed on board the Orca, exhausted from the last few days’ exertions.

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Oh, no, not a Finrand!?

Finland got a conscience and and planned to report to the alien invaders that they had been spending the space cash (bribe) that all the countries had received and were told not to spend….. complicated enough? Well, anyway, the other countries got wind of the Finn’s plan to confess, so every country with nukes nuked them…. So this clip is the “pretend surprise” they are all putting on about that country’s demise.

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Never to return again: Chapter 21

A couple of members of the kitchen staff had disembarked in Naples and returned to their families in the region. The resulting shortage was an opportunity for Ken to offer his culinary services which he felt anyway needed some refreshing and before long – in just a couple of hours – he found himself able to help with not just the preparation of the ingredients, but also the compiling of menus and actual cooking of dishes. The captain was so impressed by his new sous chef’s capabilities that he compensated his cabin charge and even added a small salary to boot. Ken was doing the work of the three staff that had left the galley.

One thing that gave him pause was the tightness of the cooking quarters aboard the Orca in comparison to the Kanang where the space had been expansive. The half a dozen kitchen staff tiptoed and swiveled around each other sometimes carrying burning hot pots of bubbling food or even pans afire with flambé dishes such as the baked Alaska that was such a sensation the evening it was paraded into the restaurant by the chef accompanied by members of the kitchen staff waving sparklers.

Their movements from one end of these rather closed quarters in the little space available were similar to those of an elaborate ballet. The workout this gave them was also second to none and it meant that they had to keep hydrated, drinking substantial amounts of water to keep them from drying up.

The crossing to Olbia was a short one, yet it left much to be desired in the department of smooth travel. A storm had come up in the middle of the night and so a short trip was extended unexpectedly as the HMS Orca fled into a nearly bay on the East coast of Sardinia for a few hours of shelter. Most of the guests aboard the ship were not even aware of this exercise, as they dozed off the exertions of the days of trekking around ancient towns, temples and volcano’s edges.

Olbia on the Northeastern most tip of Sardinia was their next port of call. Indeed a port that already now in the early 1960s was receiving more tourists than it was originally designed for was undergoing an expansion to accommodate the welling crowds that passed through here on to the vacation spots dotted along the coast line known as the Costa Smeralda. The Aga Khan was in the process of developing this area for the purpose of high end tourism. Some of the resorts were already completed, but the main project of the town of Porto Cervo (the port of the stag) was still fully underway. The marina was completed and a handful of sumptuous motor-yachts were already moored here in anticipation of what was to come.

The few expatriates who already lived here and had done so for many years before, viewed the proceedings with much suspicion and yet with a kind of indifference that was probably the result of a calm life of leisure that they had led up to now. Their villas were hidden in the verdant rocky hills surrounding the port and so they hoped they were assured of their privacy and continued quiet but nevertheless, the scale of the developments around the marina and up the hill all the way to the main road from Olbia was certainly cause for concern.

Ken and Lynn ambled among the boutiques that had already been appointed around the marina, near which a restaurant had been booked for lunch, but was causing Jonathan the steward a headache as apparently the seventeen guests that he had reserved for had been understood to be seventy. While this was being sorted out they had time to explore some of the back alleys that led from the port up the hill to various vantage points from which the view of the scenery below and around the bay was quite beautiful, with the hallmark emerald green color of the water giving rise to remarks of how it truly did resemble the color of that precious gemstone, the history of which was now related to them by another steward by name of Ingemar from Sweden, whose hobby turned out to be the study of precious stones. One most fascinating factoid was the fact that the name of the person with which the hunchback of Notre Dame had such a fascination – Esmeralda – stems from the Latin name for emerald.

Lunch was sorted out after all, after Ken had joined the negotiations with the restaurant which insisted on the crew of the Orca taking with them at least half of the extra food that had been purchased for the group. The refrigeration space on the ship would be fully utilized, but the quality and freshness of the produce and meats was of such a high quality, it was no problem to use them for some of the meals during the next few days aboard.

The party boarded a bus to head towards Cala di Volpe, in English the Bay of the Wolf, above which a private home was had just been converted into the club house of a golf club, which had a spectacular view across the bay and to the string of islets that ringed the lagoon below and off to the side. Moored in this bay was what they had initially thought was a navy destroyer but which upon second glance turned out to be one of the private yachts of the Aga Khan himself. The spare helicopter landing pad was the subject of much amusement among the travelers who thought it was so amusing to think that one might need a second, but then if we think about the caliber of guests that he must entertain on board, they agreed that probably a third and fourth helipad might actually be recommendable.

As they milled around the terrace from which they were viewing this huge vessel with such glee, a near shriek was emitted from the crowd as with James Bond-like exuberance a small speed boat shot out from a hatch at the side of the ship, landed in the water with a splash and proceeded with an enormous spray of water towards the shore. Rumors circulated among the group that indeed it might be that Sean Connery was a visitor and that this would be the fitting way for him to depart. But the manager of the restaurant explained to everyone that this was neither the British agent 007, nor any other agent for that matter but that instead it was the Aga Khan’s personal chef who was coming ashore to do some shopping for the dinner aboard that night.

So much time was spent that afternoon at the club house of the golf club that they were able to witness the return of the chef to the boat much to the chagrin of the group as theories where aired as to how he would return the boat to the ship, considering the cubby-hole that it had emitted from was about five or six feet above the waterline. Their discussion and debate was cut short by the fact that as the speedboat approached the ship from the same opening whence the water-shuttle had emitted a ramp now emerged as well as two mechanical arms that extended telescopically and were attached to the back of the boat and then literally scooped it back into the hull of the larger vessel.

The entertainment value of this whole episode was so high that it lingered into the evening which they spend back aboard the Orca which had pulled round from Olbia and was now moored just outside the marina of Porto Cervo. Many of the evenings laughs were based on members of the waiters bursting out onto the dining deck making splashing noises as if they were aboard a speedboat being launched into the water. But the one thing that stayed with them the most from this visit to Sardinia was certainly the depth of the green and blue color of the emerald waters around this craggy coastline that was such a contrast to the rough and rocky countryside nearby. A harsh wind came up as the evening evolved into a rather blustery night aboard the ship. The forecast that had been gathered by the captain from the local weather service showed no promise of improvement either, so much so that an excursion the next day to an olive oil farm had to be canceled as torrential rain continued to fall over the next two days, at the end of which the captain regretfully informed the guests that they would have to move on in order to keep to their itinerary. Jonathan appeared aboard having made a quick trip into the marina, where he had arranged with the owner of the olive tree orchard to bring a bottle of their best virgin olive oil to be presented to each of the guests as a form of compensation for not having been able to make the visit.

This was greeted with such astonishment among the guests, many of whom insisted on paying for the oil, knowing that this oil is certainly not inexpensive. Ken was idling on some chairs on the back deck with Lynn when he heard the news of this generous gesture. The two of them had a good laugh about this because they had coincidentally already bought a bottle of exactly the same stuff – for a tidy sum – at a delicatessen near the marina of Porto Cervo just that morning!

The comedy of errors that is life continued to confound them and amuse them, much to the chagrin of Jonathan and the crew. They informed the captain who also with thanks to Ken’s helping out in the galley now wanted to reimburse them for this purchase. When he heard how much they had paid for it compared to the price that Jonathan had managed to get, he suddenly stopped and said that if they had paid that much, it really was their own fault.

And so with various sources of amusement they laughed their way across the Western Mediterranean over the next few days, passing between Corsica and Sardinia as they headed directly toward a place in the South of France that nestled in the Basque country, which had a worldwide reputation for both spiritual and bodily healing: Lourdes, the place of pilgrimage not far from the Pyrenean mountains of Andorra. They disembarked the next morning at a port near Perpignan in a region whose vegetation had taken on a glowing bright hue of green as a result of the past few days of rain. The plan was to return aboard the HMS Orca in the port of Biarritz a few days later.

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Never to return again: Chapter 20

Rome. Spread across more hills than you can count, set halfway up the boot that is modern Italy, it was the center of the world during the five centuries that it dominated it. They entered it in horse-drawn carriages, reminiscent of the chariots that swept through the Circus Maximus. They ambled through the Foro Italico – the Italian Forum – where the focus of its ubiquitous power was concentrated and the exact same place in which Senators and Emperors ambled among the then upright and powerful pillars, columns hewn from marble and stone by slaves taken from all the corners of the Empire, now somewhat crumbling but still a solid reminder of the splendor that had once been.

Ken was struck again and again by the vastness, yet intensity of the place, with the Roman Coliseum rising at one end of the Foro in all its magnificent glory, in which many a brave gladiator had met his death and in which naval battles that the Romans had fought overseas were re-enacted to celebrate their glorious victories.

At the other end of the Forum stands – as it has done for almost two thousand years – the Arch of Titus, in celebration of yet another battle won over yet another people vanquished at the hands of such indubitable domination. Lynn was taking notes, writing down her feelings and emotions, reflecting on the gravitas, the sheer depth of the history that had occurred in this place so long ago, that now the people of Rome keep it as a memento of past significance.

Strange to think that today the few things that the Italian people dominate have so little to do with military might. They manufacture phenomenal automobiles. Their fashion is celebrated all over the world as supermodels come to walk the catwalks of Milan. Their fine wines are enjoyed in every corner of this planet. It is as if they are giving back for all the atrocities committed in times of a global presence that spread from Babylon in the East to Britannia and the Western reaches of today’s Morocco. Today, their fine foods grace the globe, with Italian restaurants existing further afield than the furthest boundaries of its might did two millennia ago! Oh, and let us not forget the fireworks, a totally Italian invention, accredited quite wrongly to the Chinese, who however can take the praise for pasta which Marco Polo in a trade-off during his travels to the Orient had received in the form of Chinese noodles in exchange for the gift of pyrotechnics which as a matter of fact did actually originate in Italy.

These things wandered through their minds, and especially for Kenneth the significance of empires came present in his thought as he pondered the British Empire, relatively short-lived compared to the Roman one, however one which at its zenith held a fifth of the earth’s people in its grip, His home country had built up its world dominance in just over a hundred and fifty years, starting in the late 1700’s – marked by the thundering defeat of Napoleon in the early nineteenth century that echoed around the world and raised not just eyebrows, but many hands in surrender. This exuberant nation’s climactic rise was helped by the coincidence of the Industrial Revolution which it drove to ever newer heights.

And now, just a few decades after reaching its apex, after its highest point in the early twentieth century, British culture and civilization was still felt not just symbolically, but physically and geographically in the form of the Commonwealth, the over fifty nations of which still recognize the Queen of England not just as a symbolic figurehead, but as their leader and in title since just over ten years ago at the London Declaration co-signed by all member nations in 1949, when she was declared officially as the Head of the Commonwealth.

How he now yearned to get back to his homeland. How it pulled at his heart, while he felt that somehow his traveling back there could mean not being with Lynn anymore, for as much as she liked and loved him, she was as Irish as they come and thus could hardly imagine living in the country that had occupied hers for such a long time. It became all too clear to him that he would have to find some sort of compromise if he was to keep any chance of spending even just a part of his life together with her. The decision was an easy one. As much as he needed to complete his journey home, to find his roots – if there even were any to find – he knew that he was somehow destined to be with her. This much he was sure of.

Yet none of this had come up in any of their many talks which they both enjoyed so much, speculating about life and philosophical matters, about history, its implications for the present and about the future, however strangely not yet about their own.

So now they found themselves wandering across St. Peter’s Square, gazing up at the magnificent Basilica of Saint Peter and the Vatican City, the walls of which enclosed this smallest of nations with the greatest of influence. Their thoughts were not really permitted to wander off into the direction of history’s mysteries or of worldly presences as they entered through the enormous doors into the inner Sanctum of the building, the crepuscular rays at that very moment illuminating one of the most centrally striking architectural pieces of the building, Bernini’s baldacchino of dark, elegantly twisting columns of marble joining in an ornate roof beneath the great dome, covering the altar….

Massive sculptures of the saints could not be ignored as they oozed out of the mighty high walls on all sides and gazed down gently on the milling crowds of visitors. There is not likely any time when this place is quiet, so strong are the throngs of pilgrims and tourists whose curiosity is satisfied to the fullest by what they see all around them. Dazzling stained glass windows that shed a light when hit by direct sunlight, creating almost blinding fluorescence that preceded the invention of artificial fluorescent light by hundreds of years; the place is dotted by so many sculptures of such voluptuous creativity. Their realism and exactness to so much anatomical detail could initially be construed as inappropriate in a place of worship, but because they show saints, apostles and angels, all of whom are depicted in an aspect of glorifying God that there is no taboo, there is just beauty and reverence and so much love and emotion that almost lead to a sensory overload – but only almost….

Although the work of Michelangelo plays such a significant role in the creation of this place, still it is only a part of a greater body of work, put together over the centuries and millennia by hundreds of great artists over the ages. Possibly the most recognizable individual work of art has to be his painted fresco on  the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel and the most striking individual part of that piece must be the central picture of God’s hand reaching out such that his fingertip should touch that of Adam, his first human creation. Beholding such awe-inspiring beauty and such exquisite creativity made it impossible for those who saw it to hold back their gasps of surprise and their sighs of appreciation. One of the great little inventions that made it possible to view the fresco without developing a crick in the neck were those mirrors on wheels, set at an angle to make it possible to see the ceiling in perfect detail. These useful contraptions were few and far between and not offered at some ridiculous fee by usurpers of the visitors’ vulnerability.

That scene in the bible where Jesus threw the money lenders and tradespeople out of the temple sprung unavoidably to mind as Ken observed this and had to smile to himself and also share a smile with Lynn as they strolled through so much magnificence in such a short time….

The breathtaking beauty of the experience they shared in Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Vatican was made close to overwhelming by the resident choir which was practicing hymns, arias and even carols as Christmastime was fast approaching, just a couple of months away. The ever rising crescendos of notes rising up through the incense-filled air from a Mass that must have been held just before they had entered the main church were enough to transport them into a dreamlike trance which made them drift around with their feet hardly touching the ground as they tried to take in every ounce of their surroundings, absorbing them for later reminiscence and detailed remembering of such a unique experience.

They knew this was a place they would have to come back to again in order to spend enough time to gain a full appreciation of what there was to observe in the areas they had been to as well as in other parts of this complex labyrinth of buildings. They did not even have time to enter the Vatican Museum, but had the distinct pleasure of walking through the natural beauty outside in the Vatican gardens, to contrast the manmade beauty they had just experienced within.  At such short notice a personal audience with the Pope could of course not be arranged, not even by that most resourceful steward Jonathan, who continued to act as their very helpful guide on this excursion.  Having spent an evening over a simple, yet sumptuous meal and then slept the sleep of angels in an albergo not far from Saint Peter’s, their group had the very good fortune to gather together the next morning with several thousand other onlookers  as Pope John XXIII – “that is John the twenty-third…” as Jonathan did explain so aptly – appeared at the window of his papal apartment and shared his time with the adoring crowd gathered below, waving and blowing kisses which he received in plenty in return!

On a bus en route back to the old Roman port of Ostia, it became quite clear to them that this was the most memorable part of the trip so far. And it confirmed that they had chosen the right place. On the night that they were leaving Hammamet, the guests aboard the H.M.S. Orca had decided to come to Rome. They had been presented with one possibility of cruising up the Adriatic Sea to Venice and Dubrovnik in Bosnian Herzegovina, which would have added about four days to the itinerary.  The alternative that they chose was to come to Capri, Pompeii and Rome. It had been a decision that was made easy when an accompanying Oxford Don who was also Professor of the Antiquities explained that the frivolities of Venice and the charm of Dubrovnik would be available to visit at a later time.

But for those for whom another time would not come, to have voyaged through the Mediterranean Sea and to have been in Italy and not to have stopped to see Rome could be construed as almost sinful!  At this statement hands jutted up and were steadily raised in a democratic and almost unanimous vote of confidence to come here and save the sights of that once powerful state capital rumored to be sinking in a lagoon in the Adriatic and that pretty historical walled city, its attractive marina and pretty poplars dotted along the Dalmatian coast for a later date.

As they lingered on the deck of their vessel pulling off now onto the next leg of their adventure, the sunset afforded them from the West warmed them not just physically but also spiritually as had this whole episode on their brief two day junket to Rome. What lay ahead of them was almost trivial at this point, but curiosity got the better of them and a few of the guests inquired from the crew where their travels would take them to next. And before long, even before bed, the rumors became firm fact. The next stop would be Sardinia. More specifically they were to dock the next day at the port of Olbia and pay a visit to the shores of the Costa Smeralda.  This met with the approval of everybody on board, especially the Irish contingent which was made up of Lynn and a traveling Irish tradesman from the Ring of Kerry near the western-most tip of Southern Ireland. The guests aboard the H.M.S. Orca, including the few from the Emerald Isle were headed to the Emerald Coast.

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Scott the Swiss guy’s thought of the moment

This just occurred to me while on a short break from the daily humdrum – call it a “Thought of the Day” … a Reflection of the moment … a “Sudden realization of the ‘here and now’…

Why should we be so consumed with ways to prolong our life? There is just so much irony in the fact that in our pathetic attempts to put off death, we end up missing the very thing we are trying to extend: life itself.

I cannot possibly claim to have discovered the big secret to true happiness…. but I am sure you agree this would be a good start:

We could surely all begin to enjoy life more as a happy consequence of not concerning ourselves with worry: with what might happen, what could have been, what other people might think, etc. Any effort put into any of these ridiculous notions is futile. It is a total waste of energy and saps our ability to thoroughly enjoy what we are doing, to relish all those enjoyable little moments that a truly happy life is made up of.

 

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Never to return again: Chapter 19

Chapter 19

Herculaneum is a hole in the ground. For want of other words that is really what it is, nothing more. But we cannot leave it at that. Surely this opening statement that their guide made followed by an emphatic pause to look around at the faces for effect, would awaken anyone’s interest…. Why a hole? What made the hole? How big is this hole?

No amount of questioning could prepare them for what they were about to see. Because of the relative open nature of excavated Pompeii, the idea of such a thing as a hole in the ground was enough to awaken fears of claustrophobia in the most non-claustrophobic person.

In the short twenty minute drive in rather heavy mid-afternoon rush hour traffic, they were informed of the fate of ancient Ercolano on the day after Pompeii had been buried in a pile of hot ash. Because the wind on the day of the event had blown pretty much all the ash right into the rather more famous neighboring town, here in Herculaneum the people were befallen by a much more slow and deliberate calamity: flowing rivers of molten lava sliding down the side of Mount Vesuvius. Theories abound on how quickly this must have happened. The much smaller number of victims on the ground gave an idea that the locals here had had much more time to evacuate, either up the coast to the North or into various vessels in the Mediterranean Sea nearby.

As they turned the last corner there was nothing that could have prepared them for what they saw. Like a sunken piazza in the middle of a square, lined by four busy roads which bustled with the afternoon’s traffic, ancient Ercolano was only very partially excavated – only fifteen percent of it had been uncovered! Due to the solid nature of molten lava the work had been a labor of love and was clearly something for much more patient archaeologists. The seemingly makeshift scaffolding that held the burgeoning twentieth century street at bay, preventing it from falling to the ground below, looked like it was just about to collapse. Haphazardly tied knots in sacking at the end of bags that appeared to be straining under the weight of the chopped up tarmac and concrete did not give our fearless explorers  a great deal of confidence that this venue was indeed safe.

Nevertheless, they walked down a set of planks which were interspersed with one foot long two by four inch pieces of pinewood that looked like it had been drummed together from other construction sites and a nearby kindergarten class had been called in to nail them to these wobbly walkways. Gingerly the ladies whimpered and squealed as they held onto the open wall to one side as they were immersed deeper and deeper into the dingy depths of the excavation site.

The humidity of the day was not much help to make this a more pleasant descent, but once they had arrived at the bottom, any doubt about this undertaking was swept aside by what they saw. The few buildings that had been exposed by the careful digging that had been done so far were in such good condition, they immediately transported you back to Roman times. The detail was intricate and drew you in to take a closer look. A black marble statue stood on a pedestal in the middle of the first room that they entered, shining and reflecting what little light there was so perfectly that one could be forgiven for thinking it had been sculpted just last week and not two thousand years ago. The fixtures and architectural details were as if in a modern home – decorated in a classic Roman theme – and as they wandered from room to room through the house they would utter “oohs” and “aahs” reminiscent of the firework display from the evening before on Capri. Only these noises were a little more subdued. They were uttered in surprise and fascination at the exhibits which bore such a feeling of newness that it did not seem unlikely that this whole place had been filled with counterfeit reproductions of that ancient era rather than the real thing.

There were a few pieces of furniture that had been recreated from the molds that the lava had left behind when it had flowed over a table, for example, encapsulating it in an oven-like form. The wood must then have burned and disintegrated, leaving a hollow space the precise replica of the table that had been destroyed. By pouring in a form of fast hardening resin and then chipping away the lava, local craftsmen had been able to reproduce quite a few of the pieces of furniture that had stood there on that fateful day.

The typical home of an ancient Roman, especially of the well to do, was not cluttered with heavy sofas, armchairs and armoires. Instead a kind of minimalism was more the fashion of the day. The room they spent a lot of their time in would have been the triclinum, simply because a lot of their time would be spent dining on the stereotypical grapes dangled into their mouths by trusty slaves in their employ. But not just grapes, but also sumptuous meals would be served, with the every ready vomitorium nearby, a room with a low-edged basin which was fed by a steady flow of water. Here they would come from the dining room to stick their fingers down their throats – and I am trying to put this as delicately as I can – in order to make room for the next course….

And so it is that until you reach this central part of the home you often have to pass through any number of antechambers in which there is nothing but maybe a fountain in the middle or a chair of two, placed on opposite walls, possibly to give intermittent rest to the two slaves whose sole purpose during a dinner party it was to direct wandering guests to the next room and the next, and so on.

Producing yet another of Lynn’s loud snorts of laughter, Ken commented on the rooms that housed nothing but a fountain in the center with mosaic basins surrounding them, saying “Aha! Finally a real Triclinium, one with a big basin to catch all the rainwater that trickles in eee umm….”

Before they could get into the swing of things, the tour was concluded and they were told to return to the bus in a half hour, as it was to bring them back on board the ship where the chef had prepared a  typical Italian dinner of scaloppine al limone and risotto Milanese. The risotto was cooked for over half an hour, reducing a mixture of broth or builllon and some white wine along with amounts of butter that surely would require a license in a built up area….

On board the ship, the crew had set up the rear dining deck in such a way that it afforded them another view of Vesuvius at an entirely different angle from the one they had seen it from the night before on Capri. An assortment of candles placed here and there gave the whole scene a romantic sparkle that was a welcome sight for the weary returning trekking tourists. This was a perfect conclusion to a delightful visit to a place that would now be remembered fondly both in their hearts and in the stories they would be able to tell.

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Never to return again: Chapter 18

Chapter 18

And so it was on the evening of the day after the next that the H.M.S. Orca was moored just off the sheer cliffs of the island of Capri, a short distance from the Marina Piccola. Like an impressive monolith jutting out of the waves of the Mediterranean Sea, this beautiful isle with its clear turquoise waters had captured the imagination of Augustus, the first Roman Emperor. As the first of his ilk he was naturally prone to some serious nation-building, and that can be seen in the structures still visible on this island today. His legacy consists of twelve villas that he built and the ruins of which are still dotted across Capri on various prime precipices as reminders of those early years of the Roman Empire.

In order to start this building frenzy which lasted the best part of ten years, he traded the surely economically more attractive and certainly more substantial island of Ischia for Capri with the then powerful city of Naples.

They transferred into small motorized boats that whisked them ashore for a short stroll around the port to stretch their sea legs, followed by a ride up the hill to a restaurant whose terrace just over the crest of the top of the hill afforded them a splendid view of the Bay of Naples and Mont Vesuvius, with the lights lining the harbor reflecting romantically, as if reaching out to them to lure them to some unknown secret delights of the city.

Very soon they understood how Augustus had fallen in love with this place. Wandering around the terrace, which could have held twice as many tables as it did, sipping on chilled sparkling wine, Ken and Lynn linked arms as they gazed lazily across the bay and delighted in the light of the moonlight that reflected in the calm waters of the main harbor below them. It was a balmy evening for this time of year and so both restaurants and private residences were bustling with life and activity. The maître d’hôtel who had greeted them at the entrance brought them to their tables which were dotted along the edge of the terrace so that almost everyone had a direct view across the Bay of Naples.

At the captain’s insistence the name of the restaurant was not disclosed to them, not even from the covers of the menus which were inscribed simply with the word “Menu” in an elaborately flowing script. From the minute they came through the door, Ken told Lynn that he knew what his first course was going to be and trusting him she agreed to have the same. After all, as the saying goes, when in Rome, do as the Romans do, so when in Capri, an insalata Caprese, or a salad in the style of the island of Capri, has to be one of the things to enjoy. The amalgamation of soft mozzarella cheese with fresh vine tomatoes, drizzled with just the right amount of pure virgin olive oil, to be soaked up with fresh basil leaves and a smattering of sea salt came together exquisitely on their palates, that it did not really matter what followed as the main course….

After two long days of napping across a relatively boisterous sea that did just enough to rock you in and out of deep sleep on deck during the day, the patrons were in a very convivial mood as they chit-chatted on the other tables and reminisced to their own or others’ visits to this enchanted place. But for our young couple, the evening was one of idle reflection on the beauty of life and its luxuries, for this was surely one of if not the nicest places they had both dined. And so they reveled in the delights of the mysteriously unnamed ristorante and let the evening’s charm roll over them. They did not want it to end, but when they ambled outside after the meal they were met by their trusty troop of mules which would bring them back down to the boats that took them back to their ship, they realized the evening had come to its conclusion, but in their cabins where they collapsed once more into bed, the dreams of their romantic dinner on Capri followed them into their sleep and did not let go of them until morning.

There was movement on deck and below, as they breakfasted on the dining deck and the Orca turned around the eastern tip of the island into the Bay of Naples and the sheer size of Vesuvius became clear to them. This volcano had erupted some twenty or so years ago, actually during World War II, destroying quite a few aircraft of a nearby US Army Air Force base in Pompeii. But of course that eruption is dwarfed by the larger one of AD 79, described elaborately by Pliny the Younger as his uncle Pliny the Elder who was killed in an effort to launch a rescue effort by ship to save a good friend. The horrors of these events were brought home to them after breakfast as they listened to one of the stewards relate some of the historic highlights surrounding the places they were about to see.

Never in his wildest dreams had Ken expected to have this rare opportunity to see such places he had read about at school. As they disembarked and were bussed to a vantage point on the edge of the still smoldering volcano, they noticed small wisps of what appeared to be smoke rising from the crater above. There was some general assurance that it was safe, but all nervousness subsided when they got off the bus and were drawn to the edge of the crater to see what the source of the smoke was. It turned out to be sulfuric steam emitting from various cracks in the surface. The smell was quite acrid and it struck them what a contrast this was to the delights of the evening on Capri just the night before. As a last little souvenir prior to leaving on the bus – after about half an hour of exploring the edge of the crater – they were encouraged by the steward who seemed to know so much about this place to try the echo.

Mostly their fellow travelers issued forth with the tried and tested “Echo!” and some German tourists standing nearby shouted their “Hallo, Echo!” but this all seemed rather pedestrian to Ken who wanted to make the moment more memorable than that. And so it was on the spur of the moment he hollered the words “Lynn, I love you!” across the open expanse, only to have this declaration repeated several times as it bounced off the opposite side of the huge bowl of rock and did not seem to want to stop being repeated. This was followed by an outburst of applause which came not just from their group of co-voyagers but from anyone who had witnessed this very touching public announcement of an intimate reality. Lynn threw herself around his neck in a tender and lasting embrace and it was from this point onward that their love was cemented for good. It was exhilarating to feel such fondness for one person, but it was made even more emotional by the flood of well-wishing that followed on the bus to Pompeii.

Even members of other traveling groups patted Ken affably on the back with gusto, wishing him and Lynn all the best and the smiles and winks continued from among their co-travelers. One could not help but be swept up in the intense camaraderie that had developed among their group. It was more than just an acquaintance but there was almost a sense of family that was developing among the people from aboard their ship. It was uncanny. The bond that had grown between them was helped along by little displays of kindness, like reminding a fellow passenger who was wrapped up in a shopping experience that the ship was about to leave and that they had better get back on board unless they wanted this trip to turn into an impromptu Mediterranean trek.

But trekking is what they would be doing a lot of over the next few hours as they descended upon ancient ruins of Pompeii which had been excavated over the last few hundred years after Vesuvius buried this town under a hot volcanic ash almost two thousand years ago.

Though obviously worn down by the ages, some structures still survived in remarkably good condition, or at least well enough for one to be able to recognize the various rooms that made up some of the larger private residences. Their favorite room had to be the “Triclinium” which they found out was the name of a formal Roman dining room with three chaises longues lined up in a U-shape for the stereotypical reclining and consuming of grapes slowly let down into ones mouth by a trusty slave…. Due to the lack of roofs which had either been burnt away by the falling volcanic ash or which acid rain had taken care of since the industrial revolution, our young couple launched into fits of giggles every time their knowledgeable steward guide told them “And here we have another triclinium, and as you can see from the mosaics and frescoes in this room….” Ken instinctively made a side comment of “Well, with a roof as wide open as that one I should say that if you are dining during any form of precipitation, there would surely be more than a trickle in yer triclinium.” Lynn let out an unrestrained snort followed by a shriek at the loudness of the noise she had just made. Their lighthearted hilarity got so out of hand that the couple had to break away from their group just to try and calm down. This they did by setting off to do a bit of exploring of their own.

The interesting aspect of day to day life for the ancient people of Pompeii, fascinating though it may have been, was repeatedly overshadowed by exhibits of the faceless, cowering shapes displayed in glass cases of the various members of the populous who had lived here in AD 79. One really shocking one was of a dog with its owner – probably out for a walk at the time of the eruption – who appeared not even to have been running for cover. The owner was crouched down, as if to tie a shoe lace with his best friend sitting on the ground patiently by his master’s side, as if waiting for a truck to pass by, ducking briefly from the splash as it flew through a big puddle nearby.

When in fact it became clear from the statuesque shapes that stood in their stark glass display that this apparently temporary position they were in was to be how they were during their last breathing moment, Ken and Lynn could not hold back a tear or two. This sensation came over them again and again, as they marveled at the details of domesticity and city life that were revealed in the many exhibits that dotted the site. Ambling around the next corner and into another building there was another, and another. These grey ashen figures were frozen in their final form, in the exact moment of their deaths. It sent shivers down their spines to think of it every time they came across yet more of these morbid mementos of a catastrophic event from a time so long ago, yet made so present by what was left for all to observe.

It became almost too much to bear, so much so that the air conditioned coach was their only hope and last refuge to recover from all the death and destruction they had witnessed. Of course it was a great privilege to have been there to and seen this significant history. They appreciated that this was something most people in this world would not experience. However, as historically interesting as Pompeii is, the gloom that surrounded all these sullen shapes, dotted around the entire site of excavation – many of them noticeably having returned to the fetal position, in which they eventually died – was just too much for the mind to take in at one time. The only consolation they could find was the faint hope that death had come quickly for them. But as sudden as an explosion that is a volcanic eruption is, envisioning pieces of burning ash falling or even floating to the ground did not give them much hope that the demise of this people had indeed been quick and painless.

With such depressing thoughts, they sat in their seats and gazed out of the windows of the bus as the other guests returned in little groups that had formed. The trail of destruction that Vesuvius had left was not yet over. They were told that before returning to the ship they were to make a brief visit to the neighboring town of Herculaneum – or Ercolano as the locals call it – “as a contrast to Pompeii”, whatever that might mean….

 

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Never to return again: Chapter 17

As the evening moved on the various parties assembled around their table regaled each other with stories of trips they had taken and adventures they had experiences on their travels around the world. At first there appeared to be a bit of a game of one-upmanship developing between the different nationalities, but after a while the stories of the exotic and exciting nature started to slow down and yield to stories of hometowns and villages where people had grown up.

It was then that as different as everyone realized the various nationals at this table were, the one common thread that actually held them together was their love of home and specifically the people back home that they had grown up with and  many of whom still remained back there. Those people that were the salt of the earth, those individuals who it was comforting to know would still be there whenever we return back home, doing what they had done all their lives, and doing it well and with such non-chalant ease.  They were simple artisans, skilled craftsmen, town mayors or even higher executives of local companies, it did not matter. 

They were the ones who would avidly ask us about our travels when we returned to them, for it was through us that they vicariously lived out their phantasies of foreign lands. It was as if we should be able to confirm their theories or romantic notions about the far distant places they like to dream about but would never dream of venturing to themselves.

And what was also clear was that in an effort to live up to those imagined pictures that our hometown folk have drawn about places they have only seen on the silver screen or on television, we would be prone to embellish our experiences with a few extra features that may or may not have actually occurred. We are not really making it up, but really it is more like we are filling in some of the blanks that appear as a result of incomplete travelogues or events we failed to fully document at the time we witnessed them.

Ken heard from both the older Italian gentleman as he did from the retired British Major that the reason we to paint a slightly prettier picture of these remote places for our friends back home is because we love them too dearly to want to disappoint them. For we see their eyes light up as we tell them the details of our trips and travels.

In order not to have to make up too much of the specifics it is important therefore to keep our eyes open – and to take notes! – when we travel. Photography is also a great help and as the Indian gentleman produced a beautiful photo album to share with all present, Ken told Lynn he would like to acquire a camera of his own. For although he had written down quite a few of his thoughts and impressions from his travels, he did not up to this point have any photographic evidence of all the places he had been to.  Especially disappointing at this very moment was the fact that he did not have any portraits of all the wonderful and interesting people he had met on his voyage so far. His thoughts drifted back to the river boat on the Mekong and all the crew members. He would have liked to have kept a photo of his Egyptian friend Mohammed and of the chef and crew of the Nankang container ship that he had spent so much time with.

The night fell around them and shadows emerged from where previously bright sunshine had illuminated the square around the brewery and the stories continued for so long that before they knew it the time had moved on close to midnight and a return to the Orca would be inevitable. 

They said their goodbyes and joined by the major and his assistant, with a bright full moon rising over the roof of the building to help the bright burning torches and lights that regaled the brewery, they set off back down the hill on some rather uneven cobbles they did not remember climing up earlier in the day. They mad their way through quiet sleepy neighborhoods and down to the Hammamet harbor.

Having cleverly negotiated their way past the night watchman, which included giving him a couple of bottles of Herman’s best brewed beer, they reached the quayside where the HMS Orca was moored alongside the other ship, they tiptoed across the deck of the Mephisto – looking nervously left and right as they imagined priates with knives held in their teeth bounding out of the shadows at them. What turned out to be much more scary than those imagined fears was the reality of the teetering walk across the wobbly gang-plank-like contraption. This most likely had something to do with the amount of beer they had all imbibed, Ken thought.

Back in the comfort of their own cabins they found a note from the Captain informing them of the next leg of their adventure:  after leaving port at the crack of dawn the next morning they would cross the short stretch of the Mediterranean, passing Sicily and then be moored for the next evening off the island of Capri, where they would go ashore for dinner.  Lynn mentioned to Ken that this dinner will have to include an insalata Caprese, the tomato and mozarella salad named after Capri. 

Then that night they would cross over the bay to moor for two days in Naples. There they would have the chance to visit the active volcano Vesuvius, and the two ancient towns of Pompeii and Herculaneum, famously covered – one by ash and the other by lava from the eruption of Vesuvius in AD 70. 

So once more with excited anticipation of what lay ahead of them, they turned in for the night and lost themselves in the softness of the sheets in their beds for yet another deep and invigorating sleep to prepare them for the exertions to come.

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Never to return again: Chapter 16

The swell from the wake of the HMS Orca did not hit anything for the next three days as the captain decided the larger waves they were encountering would better be hit at a slower speed, with less of the lunge and crash phenomenon that a vessel of a certain size encounters.

On deck this was welcomed by one and all as a pleasant three days of dozing was most welcome after the excesses of Greek food experienced during their time on the island of Rhodes. Various forms of leisure were slowly emerging after a day of napping led to the need for some form activity. Giant chess pieces were being heaved about on the prescribed checkered boards of which there were two at either end of the deck. Some of the crew members, with a little time on their hands between the two ports of call were able to join the guests for the odd game of chess or backgammon.

Among the younger contingent on board a rather unusual pastime had developed: the throwing of a boomerang out into the air over the open ocean followed by a desperate scramble the group of youngsters involved to catch the returning piece of curved wood. This proved to be quite entertaining and a throng of onlookers gathered to watch this display of athletic dexterity. The older passengers had learned to set up their deck chairs outside a perimeter of possible contact with the careening mêlée of youngsters who had made up this sport, which probably had never before been played so much – if at all - aboard a moving ship.

Lynn had become engrossed in one of her many rather dry text books so Ken found himself in the middle of the boomerang action usually around mid-morning in the time leading up to lunch. It was a perfect way to work up an appetite – certainly more fun than shuffleboard or drafts.

But it was when a returning pieces of the L-shaped Australian piece of bent wood caught a sudden gust of wind that lifted it abruptly a deck higher and went careening into the captain’s cup of tea, smashing the fine bone china into smithereens, that this whole activity sadly came to an immediate stop.  This was most upsetting to the young participants as well as to the onlookers, who voiced their displeasure even more vocally than the youngsters who actually did not seem all too bothered and simply went on to the next fad.  It is astonishing that despite their lack of aged wisdom the less seasoned guests on the boat were always quick to think of something new and quite clever, much to the chagrin of their elder fellow passengers….

The ship’s captain was quite adamant that the offending boomerang would not be returned to its rightful owner until landfall would be made in Southampton about three weeks hence. As he was the master of the vessel his word was not to be argued with and so both the athletic contingent as well as their fans had to accept it.

Unfortunately, the next great thing to absorb a lot of their time and energy was a new form of shuffleboard in which whole assembled deck chairs were shoved across the deck, with the intention to be to get as near to a martini glass perched on a little table some thirty or forty feet away at the end of the deck, without knocking the glass over. This added to the further dismay of the wait staff. However, they were prepared to tolerate the occasional breakage of the odd glass which was preferable to the rugby-like developments among the throng that had been cavorting around trying to catch the returning boomerangs that had resulted in the breakage of the captain’s fine bone china.

Thinking ahead to his next port of call, Ken was tempted once more to let his mind wander to the final destination of his voyage. Due to the rather full program of the last week or so the mere thought of it had not even had a chance to enter his mind. England was indeed a far distant concept right now, even though he was predominantly surrounded by a very British crowd of nasal english-speaking Anglo-Saxons on this vessel.

Considering for once the hot and humid climate of Rangoon he had become so accustomed to, there was something rather intimidating about the idea of spending any length of time in a place where cold temperatures are not just a faint possibility but a stark reality to be dealt with on a regular basis. This thought crept into his head as he lay in the middle of a nicely relaxing snooze on a deck chair during a quiet spell just as they approached the harbor of Hammamet.

But these musings would have to take a backseat for a while as land had appeared on the horizon and the distinct possibility of terra firma presented itself. Passengers were beginning to stir in their cabins and on deck as the H.M.S. Orca sidled its way up alongside a similar-sized steamer of a nondescript nature. The harbor was entirely full and due to the shortness of docking space, the captain had not been able to secure a place of his own directly along the dockside. So it was necessary for everyone to walk across a short gangplank construction of sorts, cross the deck of the other ship, whose name, the Mephisto, added a sense of mystery. Then a quite solid set of steps took them down onto the quay below.

Not dissimilar to Istanbul, the sea of turbans and tunics told them they were in a Muslim land. The mosques and minarets were less numerous, but then this is a much smaller town, containing what our travelers had been particularly looking forward to exploring: a quite ancient Medina – an old town with a ten foot tall wall around it, nestled in the center of the much larger modern city. The idea of a Medina called forth visions of spies darting around dark corridors in cloak and dagger dramatics. Some popular movies had centered around exotic old towns like this, in Marakkesh, Cairo and Istanbul. There were usually chase scenes in which our hero or heroine were either after or had acquired and were escaping with some piece of information. The destiny of the world often hinged on the delivery of that microdot or key piece of code back to the government authorities back home.  Ken liked to toy with the idea of being a spy himself.

As they wandered through one of the entrance gates to the Medina of Hammamet, there were one or two groups of the other passengers alongside them, but turning a couple of corners they were soon quite alone. A little boy, probably around eight or nine years old was trailing them quite obviously. At first this was no problem but as they continued to go deeper and deeper into the mysterious maze that the streets composed for them the young lad, though always a few steps behind them, almost caught up with them and began to walk alongside them.  After a while this got to be too much and they stopped quite suddenly and turned on him.

“Why are you following us?” Their question made him smirk which astonished them even more than they were already by the fact that a complete stranger thought it was acceptable to stalk them so obviously. He seemed harmless enough, but then his countenance became serious as he looked over his shoulders both left and right. This leant quite well to their thoughts on spy movies, but still an explanation was expected.

“You know how get out of here?” He just let the question dangle in fron tof them for a little while. Lynn’s jaw dropped as they looked at each other, realizing that they hadn’t the faintest idea how to extract themselves from this interesting yet rather intimidating place.  It was not as if there was anybody else to ask, and even if they could, most likely they would be met with gallic shrugs, part of the legacy left behind by the French colonialists, the Pieds Noirs….

“You see? I show you how get out of here….” was the boy’s punchline, quasi. Ken’s heart sank as realized he would likely be asked to pay him for his services. As he reached for his wallet, the little fellow would not have any of it. Shaking his head and wagging his finger like an upset teacher who had been given a wrong answer, he beckoned them to follow him.  Setting off in a completely different direction from the one they would have chosen, he strode ahead of them at a speed that was quite hard to keep up with.  He darted left and right, through narrower corridors than they had gone through up to now. They were almost losing their breath in an attempt to keep up with him.

In a matter of mere minutes, however, he led them directly back to the exact main gate they had come in through about a  half an hour earlier and spun round on his heels to make a deep bow as he waved his hand to that main gate as if it was something he had created himself. It was hard not to regale him with a little applause which they did to express their relief at such a simple extraction from a place they would very likely have taken hours to get out of by themselves….

‘If you do not want us to pay you, may we buy you dinner?” This suggestion was very well received. With a huge smile, his eyes lighting up and almost embracing them both, he beckoned them again and spoke a whole trail of Arabic that might as well have been Greek to them. Oddly enough, the word “Brauhaus” kept appearing in his rhetoric. With a frown Lynn, who had been to Germany before started to shake her head. “No Brauhaus, no Brauhaus!”

“Yes, Brauhaus, mem Sahib Meier.” So engrossed had they been in this exchange, that they did not realize they had indeed just come to a halt outside what without question was a Brauhaus, a micro-brewery and restaurant, if you will, along with a telltale number of copper brewing vats lined up at the back of the main room. There were little terraces with colorful Dinkel Acker and Erdinger parasols affording shade to the tables arranged on them.  People were sitting outside in groups around these table and seemed to have very little problem imbibing considerable quantities of the yellow nectar that was issuing forth from within thanks to a handful of very adept waiters who were serving a large number of patrons.

“Mem Sahib Meier – he make beer. Missus Meier – she from here – she make lamb and couscous!” The evening was shaping up very nicely, they thought, as they gathered around a table with a group of other visitors. There was to be no table in a quiet alcove to sit by themelves and whisper sweet nothings in each other’s ears.  That was fine with them, as the last four days aboard the ship had been rather quiet and uneventful – well, except for the boomerang and shuffle chair matches.

Assembled around the particular table they ended up at were the retired major from the ship as well as his personal assistant – the mousy librarian like lady that they were sure was not just that. Apart from that a couple of young Italian ladies and a man who could be their grandfather and they were also joined by an Indian gentleman with his wife whose bright sari, covered with shiny little shiny trinkets and faux diamonds, that sparkled very prettily in the evening sunlight.

English was selected as the common language, thank goodness, Ken thought, looking around thinking that this lot would have given a serious workout to the best United Nations translators if they had remained in their native tongues.

Add to that the English spoken by Mister Meier, the proprietor, which sounded like it might as well have been German. His jovial countenance was similar to that of the owner of the jewelry store back in Rhodos and somehow quite similar to that of the extrovert character of Zorba the Greek played by Anthony Quinn. They had seen some previews of this film in the viewing room aboard the H.M.S. Orca. There was quite a buzz around it and it was expected to come out later this year sometime.

Hermann Meier was the brewer’s name and keeping his patrons drinking plenty of beer – and thus keeping them happy – was the name of his game. And that he did very well, and with ease, for there was nothing quite as enjoyable after a day in the heat of the North African sun than to quench your thirst with a stein of his fine cold refreshing beer. They had become so hot that when the first drop of this fine drink met their lips, the perspiration that resulted almost immediately mixed with their tears of joy and comfort as this liquid balm soothed the heat of their bodies that had built up from hoofing around the ancient Medina of Hammamet.

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