Friday, January 30, 2009

Travel Blog #13: The Great Shirt War

Jill R. from Salem wrote in to ask if I was EVER going to get back to Photoshop stuff. Yup. Shouldn’t be too long now – because the trip journal is over half empty. Vacations are odd that way – particularly vacations that start off on the longish side.

We are at sea for two days now. Then we put into port at Santarem – which is the beginning of the actual Brazilian Amazon.

At sea days are lazy days. Sheree and I spend hours on the balcony cutting pictures, talking, playing endless games of Yahtzee on my iPod and watching the Amazon whisper by. We watch the shore with binoculars and through telephoto lenses and get excited every time we see a human on land.

It’s quiet out here on the balcony. You hear the soft whoosh of water as the ship moves. People on shore stop and watch. Many of them are in canoes and they wave their paddles in the air and wait for those on the ship to do what people on ships do best: waving back. I wonder what we look like to them in this relatively enormous boat, floating down the brown water of their Amazon.

Nights here are interesting. Adrian, the deck attendant, told us that at night he goes out with a huge broom to sweep a carpet of beetles off the deck. They are apparently drawn by the light. Sheree and I have been out several times at night in the hopes of seeing a living carpet of writhing black, but have only found a few beetles, usually on their backs kicking their stick legs in the air.

They run the ship with a minimum of light at night for that reason. They’ve also closed off the back portion of the Panorama deck – the outdoor seating behind the buffet – because too many bugs come into the ship when the doors open.

“I hate bugs,” one pudgy woman in way too-red lipstick tells me in the buffet line. She looks to me like I am a kindred spirit in bug-hating. “I just hate them. Don’t you?”

“Well. It’s the Amazon,” I explain. Sheree has made frequent observations about my inability to be social with most people. I agree with her, so I have decided to be social. “Bugs live here.”

“Well I hate ‘em,” Pudgy sniffs and pokes at the corn salad with the tip of the serving spoon. “Don’t much like corn either.”

What happens to otherwise mature people on cruise ships? I wonder. Do they forget what a blessing it is to be on the freaking Amazon River, experiencing things and people they would never have the opportunity to see otherwise? Can a trip like this actually revolve only around corn and bugs?

I smile at her and ladle a spoonful of corn onto my plate. Carbs or no carbs. I am making a point that appears to be lost on her. She sniffs and then waddles away.

The water of the Amazon is a tan brown. Not green. Not blue. Brown. And there’s a never-ending parade of foliage floating on it: tree branches, logs, leaves. The air has become more dense. Humid. Heavier.

We ramble around the ship. We are prepared to gamble about ten dollars a day on the penny slots in the casino – which takes about twelve seconds. I go to the Library room – a place with great leather wingback chairs, listen to my iPod, cut pictures and write. We’ve been to a wine tasting (wine is a great passion for both of us) and we’ve soaked in the hot tub.

Currently we are sitting in deck chairs in the hot sun. I am reading a photography magazine, pretending I don’t know Sheree is looking at me with That Look in her eye.

“You should take your shirt off,” she says finally.

I make the non-committal-but-never-effective sound, like I am simply too engrossed in my magazine to possibly pay attention to anything else.

“David?” she says. There’s a sharp tone now.

“Ummm?” I say.

“Your skin is white. You need to take your shirt off. Get a tan.”

The whole matter of whether I tan or not is of much greater interest to Sheree than it is to me. Besides, I am a big guy and I’d rather not take my shirt off. Really.

“Mmmmm,” I say.

There is a profound difference between ‘Ummmm?’ which finishes on an upward inflection and ‘Mmmm’ which has a downward inflection. The upward inflection says “Pray – please continue.” The downward one signals that I am done talking now. Sheree has chosen not to grasp this yet.

She sighs.

“No one cares, you know.”


“Take your damn shirt off. Tan,” she says.

I look up at her.

“I don’t want to take my shirt off.”

“Why not? Give me one reason. Just one good reason,” she says. Whenever she says this, I know that no reason will be good. All are destined to be blown out of the sky, poked full of holes and shot down in flames.

“One reason?” I ask, playing for time.


“Because if I take my shirt off, Greenpeace could come along and try to put me back into the water, thinking my navigational sense has become confused and I have beached myself. Then the media will come out to cover the story. They’ll run headlines: “Pasty White Mystery Creature Found on Cruise Ship.” Nah. Better to keep my shirt on.”

“That’s not a reason,” says Sheree.

“Nope. But it’s funny.”

“Only to you,” she says.

“Well…that’s all that matters,” I respond, snapping the magazine open again to signal that I am now returning to my reading and she should leave me alone.

Time passes. Precious little time.

“So you’re not going to take your shirt off?”

“Nope.” I don’t look up.

“I think that’s just stupid,” she says. “You look so much better with a tan.”

“Mmmmm,” I respond.

Time passes. She sighs again.

“It’s part of a growing experience,” she says. “You’re the only one who cares.”

I sigh – look around me, and surrender wordlessly. After all: she’s right. I ease out of my shirt, burrowing back into my chair as quickly as possible, holding the magazine so it covers most of me. Okay…as much as possible.

“Was that so bad?” she asks.

“Mmmmm,” I respond.

Time passes.

“Look at that,” says Sheree.

Since I have already lost the shirt war, I have nothing more to lose and I look. She is pointing to an inlaid design on the deck.

“It looks like that thing da Vinci used,” I say. “You know? The one where the perfectly proportioned man stands there with his arms spread wide. You know?”

We saw a da Vinci exhibit in San Antonio last year. I am not only being conversational, I am telling my wife that I did, indeed, pay attention. While no woman has run screaming to her death in the vast ocean at the sight of me without a shirt, I am pretty sure it’s just a matter of time.

“You’re right,” says Sheree. “You should stand there.”

Blood turns to ice. “What?”

“Stand there. Spread your arms. I’ll take a picture of your shadow.”

“WHAT?” I ask. The worst ones are the ones you never see coming. I have this instant image of myself making a spectacle of myself in the middle of the crowded deck. It’s a hot day. Everyone’s out here. People will wonder what I am doing and they will look.

“You’re kidding, right?” I say.

“What’s the problem?” asks Sheree.

I am tongue-tied at the prospect of having to explain something so obvious. Finally I shrug and start to put my shirt on.

“No shirt,” says Sheree. “I don’t want lines of clothes in the picture.”


“No clothes lines.”

“Want me to take my pants off too?” I ask. “Cause there is as good a chance of that happening as there is of me standing up in the middle of a crowded deck with no shirt doing an airplane impression.”

She stares at me. I stare back. I think there are sparks flying off in all directions just behind the blue of her eyes.

“Not gonna happen,” I say.

She continues to stare. I return to my magazine. She continues to stare. I have read the same line seventeen times. She stares. What exactly am I so hung up about? I ask myself. So what? She's doing a good thing for me. I am sitting directly in the middle of great steaming piles of personal growth here. I sigh. I think: so I stand on a deck with my arms spread for a minute. What’s the big deal?

Wordlessly I get up and promote my own personal growth. I stand with my arms spread.

“They have to be on the corners of the compass,” says Sheree. “Put them precisely on the corners. And your head in the middle. No! Over to the left.”

She’s talking loudly, which is what she does when she is excited. People are looking. People are studying. I’ve already told you that people will watch anything on cruise ships. Right now they are watching us with great interest. In fact it feels like every pair of eyes is fixed on me right now, a big guy steadfastly telling himself it’s no big deal.

“Take the picture,” I hiss – reaching the end of my personal growth tether for the day.

“Just a second,” she says. “I need to change my settings. Don’t put your arms down.”

Crap. I resist the urge to make sputtering airplane noises and I stand there. If I make stupid noises and actually draw attention to myself, people will think it’s my idea. My profound hope: if that happens, I will be laughing with them.

Seven years later, she has her picture.

And I still haven’t seen it.

We’ll be in Santarem tomorrow.

One other bit of information: We start our Malarone tonight, by the way. Malarone is a “holy crap” expensive pill designed to reduce our chances of getting malaria. It has a long list of side-effects that don’t sound pleasant. But apparently most people never feel a thing. This means, of course, that we are probably doomed.

Sheree and I don’t even take aspirin…that should be interesting. We've been drinking pitchers of lemon water to ensure we don't get dehydrated in this humidity...but not drugs yet.

Hope you remembered your Mararone. You don’t want to go home with a case of virtual malaria, do you? We start tonight, okay? You are supposed to take them on a full stomach. This, fortunately, is never a problem on a cruise ship.

But at least I get to put my shirt back on. For now.

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