A floating village provides for the good life

Published 1:50 pm Saturday, January 9, 2010

The cruise ships sail from Tampa and Fort Lauderdale and Miami, great ocean-going pueblos, 10 decks high, passengers lounging on their verandas, gazing at the sea, workhorse Americans trying to get out of cell-phone range for a week and sweeten up to their families. It is a beautiful thing to behold.

You walk around the ship as Florida slips past in the gloaming and smell hamburgers frying and hear the rhythm of mojitos being shaken and the clik-clok of the ping-pong tables and pick out the accents of New Jersey, Canada, Atlanta, Little Havana, Iowa, people who have left their lives behind and formed a village of 1,200 souls joined by a solemn compact to try to have fun.

Vacation cruises are advertised as luxurious journeys to exotic places, but a chief pleasure is the reading of books and another is making small talk with strangers. On steamer chairs topside or poolside, in the lounges, everywhere you see men and women with their noses in books, devouring them for hours. The Book: Man’s Chief Weapon Against Tedium. Woman’s, too. I read a book of stories by a young Pakistani writer, Daniyal Mueenuddin, and found it riveting, the most wonderful thing I’d read in a long, long time, thanks to the freedom of being at sea, away from CNN and NPR and Google, out in a vast silence in which the details of Pakistani village life loom large, as if one were actually there, sipping sweet tea with Saleema and Husad and Mr. K.K. Harouni.

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It’s the village aspect of ships that we love. The food is OK, the entertainment is third-rate Las Vegas. The ship docks in Mexico and you take a bus to look at Mayan ruins for 45 minutes and return to the SS Gringo. Fine. It’s the village life that’s wonderful, the pleasure of people-watching and eavesdropping, which the automobile has cheated us of, the camaraderie of card games. Remember that? Back in my leisurely twenties, I sat around for hours with my Republican in-laws and played gin rummy and Five and then I fell in among earnest Democrats who preferred to sit and argue. Cards belonged to the Elks lodge and the Ladies Circle and my generation didn’t go in for that. Decades passed and nobody shuffled. And suddenly, walking into a salon full of card players, I remember how much fun it was, the gentle teasing and the small talk. “Go ahead, amaze me,” an old lady says to her grandson as she slaps down trump. He folds his hand. Everyone laughs.

The ship sails south across the Gulf of Mexico and you lie on deck, the Aztec sun beating down on your northern Protestant skin, and you’re moved by the bravery of the semi-naked folks around you, beefy people with pork butts and shoulders, piano legs, unashamedly browning themselves. There are few perfect specimens past the age of 20. For women over 30, the bikini is not a friend. Most American men should not remove their shirts in public. There are old ladies who serve as living examples of the danger of solar radiation. But who cares? In this village, we are who we are, mortal beings, why pretend otherwise?

The ancient Mayans did not take vacations on ships. They were busy growing maize and hauling rocks to make their temples higher and you just have to wonder if a little down time wouldn’t have been a good thing for them. An intelligent people, whizzes at math, who developed a calendar more accurate than the Gregorian, but they did monumentally stupid things like cutting holes in their teeth to insert chunks of jade — good God, the pain! — and they bound babies’ heads to make them pointy and then there was the practice of human sacrifice. They did it to win the favor of the gods and as an express ticket to heaven, but who did they sacrifice? Not the enemy. No. Their own warriors, children, virgin women — the very people a society needs for its survival. Duh.

I read about Pakistan and watch my daughter in the pool. Little boys tear around and hurl themselves into the water, but little girls congregate, bobbing, ducking, holding hands, chatting, reassuring each other by small gestures that You Are Not Weird, You Belong Here With Us. Boys cannonball a few feet away and the girls are unfazed. And that’s what I did on my winter vacation. Back to basics. Let’s all try to get along.

Garrison Keillor is the author of “77 Love Sonnets,” published by Common Good Books.