Travel in the Time of Plague

Travel in the Time of Plague

By Patrick F. Cannon

I have been traveling the seas since 1961, when the United States Army so generously conveyed me to Europe on the USNS General Patch, one of the fine troop ships whose accommodations rivaled those of the legendary King Oscar sardine tin. Since then, I have spent much pleasurable time on the waters of the world.

            I have had the pleasure of manning sailboats on the Atlantic and on Lake Michigan, often captained by almost sober sailors. A mighty cruise ship took me to the pleasures of Alaska; a somewhat smaller one to the Celtic Lands. A river boat took me down the Danube; and a barge through the canals of France.  All of these, alas, forced one to consort with numerous fellow wanderers, not ideal in this era of the pandemic. But I had the wanderlust! What to do?

            As it always does with me, fate took a hand. I was perusing my latest copy of National Geographic when I came upon a story of an intrepid chap who sailed around the world on a tramp steamer. As one of only six passengers, social distancing presented no difficulties. For those who might be interested in such a trip, he recommended purchasing a copy of the quarterly magazine,  Tramping for Fun, which lists opportunities for such travel. I eagerly went to my local Walgreens to buy a copy.

            There were several trips on offer. I chose the S.S. Despond leaving from Charleston with a load of cotton bound for Havana. From there it would sail to Tampico, Mexico with sugar and cigars. At Tampico, the ship would load barrels of tar bound for Frontera in the State of Tabasco. There it would ship chile sauce for the trip through the Panama Canal to the Port of Paita in Peru, to slake the Peruvians well known passion for the tongue tingler. As experienced travelers know, Peru is the world center for the trade in guano, which is the polite word for bird poop. This powerful fertilizer was destined for San Francisco, where it was prized by the pot farmers of Northern California. Although the good ship Despond would continue on  to the Orient, I would debark in Frisco after two months at sea, with the hope that the dreaded virus would have run its course by then. 

            I duly booked my passage. Upon arrival at the dock in Charleston, I was greeted by the skipper, Captain Charles Allnut.  He gave me the good news that since I had been the first passenger to book passage, I would get a favored stateroom, next to his own on the upper, or Melchiza Deck. I must say he was a rather grizzled fellow, and would constantly chew on an unlit cigar. I learned later that he had spent much of his career plying the Zambezi as skipper of the river steamer,  the African Queen.

            I was one of only four passengers. Kasper Guttman was a rotund chap, who had a hearty laugh and a fund of amusing stories. Traveling with him was a slight, wiry little man named Joel Cairo, who pomaded his black hair and smelled vaguely of gardenias. Then there was Mr. Tigran Grigoryan, who spoke only Armenian and kept to himself. We had our own steward, a smiling native of Macao by name of Chan.

            The rest of the crew was a veritable United Nations. The first mate was Ezekiel Starbuck, a Yankee from Nantucket. The engineer, who we rarely saw, was a wild looking Irishman who could sometimes be heard late at night singing “Danny Boy.” The cook (I must admit the food was better than one expected) was a Frenchman called “Frenchie” by one and all. Apparently, he had been a chef in a well-known Paris hotel when inspectors found frozen asparagus and a micro-wave hidden in this kitchen. He was banished from France forthwith. The deckhands were the usual mix of Lascars, Malays, Filipinos and Montenegrins.

            At our ports of call, neither Cairo or Grigoryan would go ashore, but Guttman was game. In Havana, we sipped Daiquiris at La Floridita, Hemingway’s favorite watering hole. Guttman claimed to have known Papa in Spain during the civil war, but I had my doubts. Anyway, we loaded up on cigars and rum before returning to the ship.

            As we steamed into the Gulf of Mexico, the heat became intense. I took advantage of this to perfect my tan, while Guttman stayed in the shade and fanned himself with a fan imprinted with the name of Marrakesh funeral home. At Tampico, we quaffed cold beers and ate the famous tacos. At Tabasco, the skipper kindly laid on a tour of the famous chili fields – bright red as far as the eye could see. I declined a tasting, but Guttman was game. It took him a half dozen Modelo’s to cool his palate.

            I stayed on deck for our trip through the Panama Canal. The required canal pilot seemed miffed at being assigned such a small steamer, particularly since Starbuck kept muttering “we should never have given it away.” But we made it to the Pacific and continued south to Peru, where we offloaded the chili sauce and loaded the sacks of guano. I must say the stevedores treated the sacks of fertilizer with more than the usual care.

            The cargo was bound for San Francisco, but we needed to stop to refuel and fill our fresh water tanks at Puerta Vallarta. For some reason, Cairo decided to go ashore, but soon disappeared on some errand of his own. Guttman and I strolled through the ancient city, and once again quaffed beers at a charming outdoor café. Most of the passersby were the usual American tourists, but there were also a significant number of British expatriates and defrocked priests. We met Cairo on the way back to the ship; he was carrying a strangely-shaped package tied with twine.

            And so, finally, to the City by the Bay. Upon docking, we discovered that the dreaded virus had finally been brought under control, and that we had a new president. I said my goodbyes to my fellow passengers and tipped our steward and cook. As I went down the gangplank, I noticed that Guttman and Cairo were being tailed by a shadowy figure. It was Grigoryan in disguise! But I decided to hail a cab and go directly to the airport, where I would treat myself to a first class ticket back to Chicago. I had seen much and avoided what I was later told had been an interesting election..

Copyright 2020, Patrick F. Cannon

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