The Magic — Floating — Mountain: Notes on an Alaskan Cruise




This piece appears in the LARB Print Quarterly Journal: No. 17,  Comedy

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The Alaskan cruise from Vancouver to Skagway and back covers 3,000 kilometers. To undertake this brave journey, my family traversed some 20,000 kilometers — my parents coming from Delhi, my brother from San Francisco, my girlfriend and I from Austin.

We, as a family, are perfect candidates for a cruise. Far-flung, restless, bullying, strong-willed, we can rarely make decisions without devolving into arguments and shouting. Taking a weeklong cruise was a way of neutralizing our tempers by making one big decision upfront and letting the cruise ship, with its copious overfull buffets and set itinerary, do the rest.

We arrived in Vancouver in shifts, on a gloriously cloudy Saturday afternoon — glorious, because the clouds in Vancouver play the same role they do over the Dal Lake in Srinagar, adding a dash of white boiling unreality to an already-perfect scene, giving the blue deep crystal waters of the mountain-ringed harbor something to reflect. We were stunned by Vancouver’s effortless San Francisco–like prettiness. Swatches of sunlight revealed picturesque houses on the hillsides, and the harbor was animated with seagulls and lifting seaplanes, which, from a distance, with their silent smooth takeoffs, looked like seagulls themselves. We were almost disappointed to give up on the city and board the ship, the Zuiderdam, at noon.

The Zuiderdam, a stately black and white vessel, holds 1,900 people. It is owned by the Holland America Line, which once transported hundreds of thousands of immigrants from the Netherlands to the New World. Like the other cruise ships, we could see the Zuiderdam from the window of our hotel, one of a cluster of floating buildings pressing up against downtown with its glassy Hong Kong–like emerald skyscrapers (Vancouver, for a Western city, has a distinctively South East Asian city feel — this may have something to do with the city’s huge Asian population which, in turn, has attracted a lot of investment from China and Taiwan).

Boarding a cruise ship is a horrific process. You are packed into a warehouse that looks like a cleaner cousin of what one imagines Ellis Island was like and slowly propelled toward the US customs booth, where, if you have our luck, you will run into a frat-boy customs agent who cracks jokes as he stamps your passport.

America! It begins with wisecracks.

 

The ship immediately impressed us with its gaudiness: gold railings, red carpeting, elevators with glass doors imprinted with purple flowers — what the ship’s brochures called a “Venetian theme.” “It looks like a floating casino,” my girlfriend Francesca said. The premise of a cruise is that it will cost less than booking a hotel and paying for meals and that, in a sense, planning will be taken care of. “But they charge a lot for booze,” friends warned us. “Try smuggling some in if you can.”

Our first surprise on the cruise was how cheap everything was — cocktails for $6.95 (with a second free for $1 at happy hour) and $10 per head to eat a three-course Italian meal at the Canaletto, one of four restaurants on the ship.

Our next surprise was how cheap everything looked, despite the initial impression. A cruise ship advertises luxury, but it does not appear luxurious. There is something scruffy and used-looking about it. Francesca’s first impression was of a casino; mine, in the dining hall, with its shuffling old people, the obsessive instructions about sanitizing one’s hands, the food sequestered behind buffet screens, was of a hospital cafeteria. As for the general decor, it reminded me of what you may find beneath a tent at a Punjabi wedding. There was a flimsiness to the fixtures, a dank depression of reds, golds, and maroons.

Our barely functional room was done up in dull browns. But this didn’t matter because our balcony gave us a view along the very front of the ship. The swift gliding movement of the ship — which only entered truly choppy water on two or three occasions — was relaxing. Vancouver and British Columbia, with its pine-covered hills, soon gave way to open sea.

 

On our first full day on the ship — Alaska still a distant dream of whales and eagles — my father and I met for breakfast in the main restaurant, one of the more formal dining options. We waited an hour for our omelets to show up, and then, giving up, took an elevator up to the dining hall, where you can drink all the coffee you want and dictate your omelet from behind a buffet counter. An Indonesian staffer dipped a spoon into the largest pot of yellow egg ooze I have ever seen. In keeping with the colonial past of cruising, the staff is all “ethnic.”

The rest of the day — as it was to be on the days to come — was a haze of eating and drinking. We tucked away a big lunch; we sipped cocktails; we regrouped for dinner, attired in formalwear, as per the fussy rules of the ship; we loaded our plates with second helpings of cake. We were happy and satisfied. But then, as the days piled on, I began to feel, amid the rich plates of trout and the groups of cackling septuagenarian travelers from Australia, that I was on The Magic Mountain — narcotized by food as I drifted toward old age and death.

 

In Thomas Mann’s 1924 novel about … um … death, a young man goes up to a sanatorium in Davos for two weeks to visit his cousin, who is recovering from tuberculosis, and ends up staying, seduced by the food and his own mounting hypochondria, for seven years. I felt a similar thing could happen to me on the ship. Even as the ship raced forward, it sought to erase time, to wrap the sameness of the days in pointless events (shopping, trivia nights, free podiatric tests) and luxury (lectures on why you should buy paintings from Thomas Kinkade, “The Painter of Light,” who conveniently had a shop aboard the boat). The cruise captain, a chipper young African American man, often came on the PA system to describe entertainment options and offer sinister 1984-style comments. “All those who refuse to cooperate will be thrown off the ship,” he said at one point. He concluded all his comments with a cry of “woo-hoo!” which, by the end, was being imitated and mocked by everyone, spreading in the population the way only something egregious done by a person in power can. By my fourth day on the ship, knocked out by seasickness and depressed by the meaninglessness of all the luxury, tired too by family, I was sleeping for 14 hours a day. I wanted to be thrown off.

What saves you — from the ship, the drinking oldies, the sense of being trapped in an Indian colonial club — is Alaska.

 

Alaska, dislocated like a shoulder from the United States, is America’s largest and least dense state. It dramatically brings together sea, pine forests, snow mountains, topaz glaciers, and waterfalls. The ship makes three stops in Alaska: Juneau, the capital, a port of 30,000 people; then Skagway, an old gold rush town, at the top of a fjord known as “Glacier Bay”; and then, on the way back down, near Vancouver, at the scenic island of Ketchikan. Each stop, when you get past its tourist trappings, is a wonder of open country, reminding you how much power the United States derives from an abundance of space.

In Juneau, we walked around the Alpine-tinged downtown, eating crab rolls and crab cakes at Tracy’s King Crab Shack. King crabs are alarming creatures — growing to the size of dogs — and native to Alaska. From downtown, we took a bus to the harbor, and for a hundred dollars a head, were taken on a boating expedition to see humpbacks, back in Alaska after feeding in Hawaii. Every few minutes, the black whales frolicked to the surface, revealing themselves with puffs of water that hung in the air like smoke and with great tails that rose up before they dove beneath the surface. You never saw these behemoths in their entirety. A calf followed our boat for 30 minutes out of curiosity and even raised its head out of the water to look at us. It ignored its mother’s puffs and entreaties to come back to her. This was my favorite part of the trip — shivering on a small boat as fish the size of school buses plunged around us. 

Such a trip, where you pay a tour-operator, is known, in the parlance of the ship, as an “excursion.” It is best to book them on your own. This way, you get to escape your fellow cruise-inmates and also save money. Excursions are 15 to 20 dollars more expensive when booked through the ship, which makes sense: the economy of the ship, which subsidizes alcohol and food, is buoyed by these packages.

Our whale watching guides dropped us off at the Mendenhall Glacier, which, as it comes up to the water, depositing chunks of itself into the sea, is blue, the color of the minerals in the ice. A waterfall — Nugget Falls — pounds the beach near the mouth of the glacier. We stood in the spray, taking pictures. It was hard to admit that these things — waterfalls, the glacier moving back — were signs of global warming. In Alaska, it just made things prettier, more dynamic.

 

Skagway, our next stop, was more immediately digestible — a small town, with a high school class of four (“the prom is really awkward,” one of the tour guides said) and a single drag of old timber houses turned into shops and museums. It is the sort of tourist town where you are told a few foundational myths (it was hammered together during the Gold Rush, a sort of minor-league Deadwood), supplied lots of information to compensate for its boringness, shown the cemetery where a few unimportant people are buried, and are then quickly shunted off to the true highlight, which lies about 15 thousand feet above, in Canada, at the end of narrow railway tracks. A tourist toy train takes you through country in which miners climbed with backpacks, perishing by the thousands as they sought more gold. This train, outfitted with gold-colored Rexine seats, was tidy, cozy, and pleasant to ride after the other fussy forms of transport we had endured to get to Alaska. We ate sandwiches and chips and pies as the small black braid of metal coiled around a mountain before slipping into an open, cold country of glaciers, snow mountains, and aquamarine rivers. Another luxurious ride through hard country.

Toy trains can be dicey propositions — tricks to cough up money — but it was rousing to be on this one in May, the air thinning, the rail-line a carpet of pine needles, the people crowding near the front and clicking pictures at snow that exploded with sleek reflections.

 

Then, finally, one morning, on the ship, we were upon Glacier Bay. The ship lay wrapped in fog and rain; there was a commotion near our bedroom door as people stampeded through the hallways. The front deck of the ship had been opened! Guests walked on the wet deck, breathing white steam as the servers, now wearing coats and carrying umbrellas, served cocktails and cocoa with gloved hands. Above, hidden in the crow’s nest, the park ranger described each of the glaciers. They had split off from one mega-glacier 200 years before. Now they formed a gigantic national park that people sometimes traveled to by kayak, camping in the cold in the company of bears and foxes.

The glaciers were receding due to global warming, but like Nugget Falls, it was impossible not to feel the health and vitality of these pieces of ice, shocked into alien shapes by the winds. The Johns Hopkins Glacier was like thousands of gigantic pieces of blue chalk huddled together. Chunks came off the way they might if the chalk was held too aggressively to a blackboard — the blackboard here being the eternal white air. We stood on the railing of the ship, wet, pressing our sneakers into the prow. My cell phone came on, receiving an unwelcome torrent of text messages. The internet, my phone — these were all things that did not work on the ship and I had not missed them (the internet package was a bit too exorbitant for my menial tasks, and we had no reception). One of the last benefits of the cruise might be that it cuts you off from civilization. How long this will actually last, one can’t say. Shorter than it will take the glaciers to go.

 

By the time we came to our final stop, at Ketchikan, we were weary of tourist trappings and spent very little time in the town. By now we knew that the towns were owned by the cruise companies; they were continuations of the cruise; the shopping ambassador was like a doctor prescribing a drug from a pharma company that employs him. So we went on another self-booked excursion.

As if flying, cruising, boating, rail-riding, and busing had not been enough, we now took a floatplane over the Misty Fjords National Monument, which, as it turned out, was not misty at all. Everyone kept telling us how lucky we were. “It receives rainfall every day,” our taxi driver later said. Instead it was burning bright. Below, the reflection of the floatplane pierced the beaches and the blue water, and the brown shades beneath the water. We soared above lakes, mountains, islands, and volcanic plugs. There was not a single human dwelling around save for one US customs post Kurtz-like in the middle of a forest. The landscape was so gorgeous it was almost wasteful. Freshwater lakes pooled on tiny islands surrounded by saltwater sea. One lake on a plateau melted into a bright waterfall, like a gash on the top of a glass that never empties. The pilot made turns toward a snow mountain and then touched down in the water. He unbuckled as soon as we landed. The middle-aged British man sitting next to us was drenched beneath his sweater — though it was not hot. We got off on a jetty and looked around at the massed, hushed greenery. There was silence: no one in sight. All this land and no one to use it. It was eerie. It was the first time I was eager to be back on the ship.

But not so fast. We first had to make the return flight, which was short and not very scary — kind of like being in a bus, with the propeller coming on slowly, and the pilot carrying us with the gliding confidence of people who fly every day. Alaska has the highest number of licensed pilots in the United States; flying is the only way to get to many places in the state. On dry land, we took a tour of Ketchikan’s totem poles. Our taxi driver, a veteran, had worked as a medic in Afghanistan, assisting women whose perinea had been torn by sexual assault and rape. “I believe we should help people,” he said, justifying US intervention abroad. He had one eye. He had lost the other when a tree he was chopping fell down on him. His one good eye had cried involuntarily for a while and he had no peripheral vision, but he assured us that he had developed tricks to deal with this handicap. Of course he only mentioned it midway through the ride.

We stopped briefly to look down at a rushing stream which, later in the summer, fills with dead pink salmon. “The whole place stinks,” our driver told us, with that casual attitude toward beauty that Alaskans sometime develop.

Afterward, tired and hungry, we returned to the bosom of the ship, eager to do justice to it one last time. My father came back with many plates from the buffet. We were all content, before our time on The Magic Mountain ended, and we returned, cured, to Vancouver.

 

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Karan Mahajan is the author of Family Planning and The Association of Small Bombs. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker Online, n+1, and other venues.  

 


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