Niches

"A friend, as it were, a second self."
-- Cicero


In this chapter of my month-long vacation – and, moreover, my life – I could not fully do my novella of the Arctic justice without describing its characters.

Aboard G Adventures’ (sometimes referred to as G.A.P. a.k.a. the Great Adventure People) MS Expedition, I quickly learned that the feeding hours were one step above lunch period in high school.  Dinner was a step above the teen years due to the more comfortable seating (individual, padded chairs chained to the floors versus plastic picnic tables), 4-course meals, and exceptionally better company.  Then, there were similarities between my high school cafeteria & the ship’s atmosphere: the food was still mediocre & usually fried, and there was a political undertow.  Like no nerds attempted to sit with jocks, certain people were hand-picked to esoterically join the captain for dinner.

To remove herself entirely from this silent social game, Mom sat alone – at a table suited for six – in the corner of the boat’s dining room, hands neatly folded.  That first night & meal, it was solely her & me until some of the staff arrived late and filled in the holes.  Confident employees were encouraged to fraternize with guests as part of the bonding experience, I enjoyed their company nonetheless.  In fact, Guy, Kevin, Lauren & Natalie – the four staff members brave and/or removed enough from the social undertow to join our empty table – proved to be riotous, erudite and great conversationalists.  As sometimes a cheerleader would grace the debate team with her presence, so the four crew transformed our estranged table into the hotspot.  First, Kevin shouted mid-meal “Fuhmuh!” in his thick British accent a.k.a. Fulmar to all within earshot as the Arctic bird flew by.  Second, Guy (pronounced “guh-ee”) beckoned a crew member to serenade me with the guitar & sing “Michelle” by The Beatles.  Third, a guest from another table stopped by to inquire about a particular type of bird she saw through the window.  Last, Guy told the most hilarious story about attending a funeral as a boy growing up in Seychelles + an alleged dead girl awaking from a coma + he and the entire village of mourners running in horror.
In chatting with Lauren and Natalie – both considerably younger than Kevin and Guy – I learned their backstories.  Lauren was an Australia-born, Kansas-bred, New York freelance photographer & had visited all seven continents.  Natalie was a cute blonde that hailed from Canada but – after backpacking much of Europe – resided in England.  Throughout the course of the cruise I learned most of the staff’s history:

Frank, an American-sounding Panamanian; “Scobie” (his nickname), originally British but now a Tasmanian farmer who lived a dual life on the Arctic/Antarctic; Jonathan, a glaciologist from the United Kingdom settled in Ecuador; Dmitri, distinctly Russian but lived in Seattle & worked in Japan; Jon, a Californian who admitted he spent more time in Russia, Antarctica & the Arctic than at home; and Guy, raised in Seychelles but spent his adulthood among true aboriginals in Arnhemland, Australia.

The next day – and the first morning on MS Expedition – the excursion leader questioned who, of the 94 guests, had set foot in the Antarctic?  One does not make the haul to Arctic Circle as a starter vacation, still I was surprised when a third of the people raised a hand.  That was my first indication that the handful of countries stamped in my passport was chump change compared to the travel resumes of these people. 

As days passed & I spoke to more and more of the passengers, I was choking on humble pie.  Iceland? Been there, try Siberia. A jaguar in Belize? How about getting 3 feet away from a brown bear’s face in Alaska?  Two countries in one month?  This is my third country in three weeks.  Like in Iceland, these people came from all parts of the globe: Israel, Sweden, Australia.  The largest slice of humble pie was served cold in the form of three, very different, unlikely characters: Louise, Giles & David.

The second day of the cruise, all the customers sat in the lecture room for the customary recap of the day’s events & preview of tomorrow’s. As usual, Mom & I plopped down wherever, not minding whose unspoken posse we split up or were entering.  That was when and how I met my brother-from-another-mother, David.

This eve only was the Captain’s Toast.  I banged glasses with Mom, other people in my vicinity & an affable guy who seemed in his late 30s/early 40s.  I eye-balled the pretzels & peanuts he munched on voraciously… too voraciously since the man offered me his dish.  I dove in for a handful, asked where he found those snacks and struck up a lukewarm conversation. Within three sentences, I was hooked on David’s Aussie accent, lingo and tales.

David was the epitome of a migrant.  As mentioned earlier, everyone within MS Expedition had some far-away countries under their belt (including the entire crew from bartender to engine mechanic), but I doubted any rivalled David’s travels.  Little of the planet remained untouched by him, save Antarctica and some Caribbean countries.
He lived and practiced psychiatry in a suburb of Sydney.  When I shared my adoration for Sydney, we deviated into judging other parts of Australia.  I was shocked to educate Dr. David about Devil’s Marbles – a site practically in his backyard (Northern Territory, Australia). From behind me, I heard a woman profess “they’re not all that spectacular” and swivelled my chair around to see Louise.

Louise & Giles (pronounced “juh-eye-ulls”) were a London couple, married for over a decade, but still quite young at heart.  Louise was the more vocal, straight-forward of the two with her stereotypical British accent, rosy cheeks, and blonde bob.  Giles was a jocular, assertive, smart ass with scruffy, salt & pepper hair and glasses that concealed his beady eyes.  Despite their constant verbal jabbing – usually started by Giles, but finished by Louise – they were well versed in the going-ons of the world and equally well travelled.
After the summary, the majority of the crowd sauntered up to Deck 5 for Day Two’s dinner.  I noticed the same most of the young couples sat with the other young couples (there were only a few on this cruise); the Brits hung around other Brits & there was Mom, in the usual corner spot.  However, we were flattered to be joined by Louise & Giles once again.  Then, David emerged from Deck 4 and sat down too.  The three of them split bottles of wine and more personal narratives were shared.

By the end of the dinner hour, Giles held nothing back (i.e. no topic was too inappropriate).  The five of us toyed with the preposterous idea of jumping into freezing water a.k.a. a polar plunge.  Perhaps it was the wine, perhaps it was the excitement of casting off, perhaps it was the infectious nomadic stories, perhaps it was the ardor of new-found friendships, perhaps it was each of us trying to throw away our old personality & reinvent ourselves as rebels.  Anyway, that night David, Giles & I sealed our fate as we shook hands and committed to partake in a polar plunge, should the MS Expedition offer it.

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