I don't enjoy good luck with ships. I happen to love being at sea maybe more than anything. But when I'm on board, a cruise ship is in a zone of danger, whether the Captain knows this or not.
One North Atlantic crossing I took, the ship caught on fire. On another voyage, long ago, a woman flipped over the rail and drowned. And soon after letting me off, a rust-speckled Russian liner ran into rocks near the coast of New Zealand and went down.
So when I get a last minute phone call to fill in for a sick shipboard lecturer, I am slightly nervous: What if I bring some sort of new virus aboard? Or what if -- as seems a lot more likely -- I end up boring passengers to death?
Still, this is a placid, high-end cruise down through the Panama Canal to Costa Rica to Mexico. A ship full of polite and tolerant people.
Sure, I say. When do we sail?
The first bad omen comes early. When I hail a cab at the airport and give the driver the Ft. Lauderdale port address, it takes him only a second to size me up. "You go to work on the boat?" he asks.
"Um, kind of," I say. "I'm a lecturer."
Something about this makes him snort, and when we can't find my ship, he laughs out loud.
"It's got to be here," I insist, "ships are large."
We screech past freighters and tankers until we get to the end of the piers where there is one last shape: the QM2, blowing smoke out of its black and orange stack.
Just as we're about to give up, I notice a sliver of white peeking out from behind the liner's sharp prow. Stuck in a backwater slip is a craft that is so small it is difficult to see. She couldn't be seaworthy. She looks like a floating hotel, with hundreds of heavy balconies. She is too fat to sail!
She is my ship. Since this is a secret dispatch, I'll call her Fancy Cruise Lines' Panamania, just for the purposes of this blog post.
Boarding goes well, except for the fact that my name isn't on the list of "enrichment personnel." I'm marched to the desk of the concierge, who barks into a walkie-talkie and decides that I must be either "Constance or Irwin Mandel."
When I say, no, she frowns angrily. "Do you know of them?" she asks. I say no, again, and the result is my being assigned the suite that Constance and Irwin had reserved.
Although I am very happy to see the sliding glass door leading to my private balcony, the in-suite bar, stocked with premium Scotch and Champagne, I travel in fear of a knock on my cabin door.
"It's Irwin," I expect to hear. "Get out of our suite at once!"
It isn't long before I meet the other lecturers: Simon Cheswick, a geography expert who wears a safari suit wherever he goes, and Jabez Wilkins, a "curator of mammals" at some museum and, according to the program, one of the world's leading authorities on bats.
I am an authority on nothing. How am I going to fit in?
I also find out that shipboard lecturers exist in a weird twilight world that is understood by neither passengers nor crew. "You are lucky," exclaims Sonny, who mixes martinis at the Mariner Bar. "You got passenger status! Soft life."
"You're much more staff than passenger," declares Hans, the cruise director and my boss aboard ship. "Pay attention to what you wear, say and do."
One of my extra jobs is to act as an unpaid tour escort on the excursions that take passengers on brief adventures when we are in port. I dress up in a Fancy Cruise Line polo-shirt, carry the first aid kit and tag along in the back to make sure no one is left behind.
This is a good way to see a small chunk of Colombia, when we dock there, and a slice of Panama, when we go on a walk into the buzzing, whistling jungle that abuts the canal. But when we go ashore in Costa Rica, I am worried.
I am worried about Morrison, an 80-year-old passenger stumbling and flopping in front of me. There are iguanas that look like rocks blocking our path. A nearby howler monkey keeps pelting us with some kind of nut. And we are about to tightrope across an Indian-made cable bridge.
Why is he allowed to go on these excursions? I think. But then I get my answer. I am instructed to hold Morrison's hand. Eventually I find myself grabbing Morrison by the armpits and dragging him, and nobody waits for us on the other side.
Back on the ship, it is time for fresh air, I think. My first lecture is on the program for early the next morning, so I decide to clear my head and have a swim. Passengers have preference for the pool, so I count the minutes until dusk, when everyone goes down to dress for dinner and the sun deck is mine.
This is the life. I do laps, and get knocked around by waves whipped up by the pitching of the ship. I smack some golf balls into a cage (some of which find holes and fly overboard). And, best of all, I catch a tropical sunset that nobody else is on deck to see.
In fact, I am so pleased, I skip dinner and order margaritas up there instead. I add some Mexican beer, a scotch on the rocks and a nightcap of cane rum and lime juice that ends up in one of my pockets and down the front of my shirt.
The next thing I know it is a windy dawn. I am awake -- thanks to the clack, clack, clack of stewards unfolding and arranging plastic lounge chairs. I find that I am coated with a thin glaze of salt and that I cannot feel my feet. But I have a lecture to deliver in a little over an hour.
I creep in the back of the Horizon Lounge as the cruise director is finishing up my introduction, and hop up on stage just in time for a jungle screech of feedback from the cordless microphone.
I find I have to yell into the thing to be heard over cascading dominoes and shuffling decks of cards. But I've got points to make, so I crank up the volume, swallow some water and keep pounding away. The second I feel as if I've hit my stride, it happens:
An old man who had been dozing slumps forward. Then he goes limp and slides onto the floor.
"I've done it," I think. "I've killed a man just by lecturing."
There are running footsteps and confusion during which I hunt for my first aid kit. Soon a ship's nurse orders everyone to stand back, but we can see her fanning the guy, unclasping his belt and unbuttoning his Hawaiian shirt.
Smelling salts are uncorked, and to my relief he is up again and being led away.
It's surprising, but I am told to finish my lecture. I clear my throat and do the best I can. After I get to the end, there is a sound that could be applause or could be a bridge hand getting underway.
But to my amazement, the audience surges from their chairs and moves toward me. "It is over," I say to myself. "And I am a success. I must have inspired them!"
My hand is stretched out, ready to be shaken. My pen curls into position, hoping to sign a book.
But one eager passenger pushes past. And then another. And when I hear the tinkling of saucers and cups, the sound of pouring, I know the truth. I am blocking the way.
This is shipboard, you see. Passengers get hungry.
And it is time for tea.