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Living the life you dream of means some day you have to wake up. For a year I'd traveled the world, sipped vintage Champagne, ate at swanky restaurants and bedded down in suites at five-star hotels. Without opening my purse -- well, maybe twice I opened my purse -- I still paid. Journalism was my game.
The last night of my last press trip was a Patagonian cruise from Ushuaia to Punta Arenas, navigating Tierra del Fuego's icy jigsaw puzzle of glaciers and barren islands. The route would take us around Cape Horn, graveyard of 800 vessels and an untold number of poor-bastard sailors. It was the sort of adventure that fueled me. The ship's baronial dining room was festooned with ice sculptures of mermaids, swans and Poseidon. That vengeful god of the sea must have had it in for me. Who was I to think I belonged at the captain's table? Acting like I'd grown up on beluga caviar and blinis instead of peanut butter on white bread. In this fantasy life that really was my life -- at least for a time -- I gorged on platters of lobster tails and king crab legs while at home in New York I settled for canned tuna.
Crystal chandeliers jangled as we bumped a wave. The swells grew brutal during dinner and the prisms accelerated to clanking, swaying higher and higher like a children's swing set out of control. These alarm bells I chose to ignore. I'd had a little to drink.
I clinked Champagne flutes with my tablemates, Countess de Beaumont and Georgia Pickles. Georgia returned her glass to the white linen table, not taking a sip, which I thought was bad luck. She exercised irritating moderation when it came to alcohol, preferring calorie-free pharmaceuticals.
My eyes met the Countess's and we smiled: aren't we living the life! We'd been through plenty of turbulence before and come out fine, more or less. Georgia, who wore a tufted, neon orange life vest over her shiny silver jumpsuit, was more anxious about the violent waves. She raised her iPhone, searching for a signal.
"You look like a superhero," I told her. "You can rescue us all." Georgia couldn't even manage a grim chuckle. She had a greenish pallor.
A white-jacketed waiter swept by and reached for my tumbler of bourbon. I gripped it tightly. He got the message and moved on. No one takes my drink until I'm done. The bourbon, my apéritif before Champagne was poured, mingled with striated glacier ice cubes that tinkled against the crystal glass as we hit another wave. The ice could have been hundreds or thousands of years old yet tasted young and fresh and clean.
"This alone makes it all worth it," I murmured.
"Did you see the Gunther Plüschow glacier?" the countess asked excitedly. "I've heard it's even more majestic than the ice tundras in Iceland."
"I meant the glacier ice in my drink," I said. "I've never had such wonderful ice."
"Oh, Marin, you always like what's in your glass best of all, don't you?"
As if I'd ever seen the countess without a Champagne glass in every photo she'd struck a pose for. She jotted a few lines in her reporter's notebook, her handwriting neatly baroque despite the pitching ship. "I can't forget any details about those penguins," she said. "It'll be great for my article."
"The penguins again," I said, exasperated. "Write this down. My list of phobias. Snakes. Birds that walk. Monkeys. Penguins. What's next?"
The countess looked alarmed, her eyes mentally flitting over each category I'd listed. She recovered herself and laughed. "Marin, you know me so well. But that penguin did try to attack me and the others were about to gang up." She shook her head, her brown curls quivering. "They were like short men in tuxedos with their chests puffed out. Short men are always trying to prove something, chasing and swarming."
Our visit earlier that day to a colony of Magellanic penguins had coincided with mealtime, when they waddled en masse to the shore for fishing. It so happened the countess was standing near the water and thought they were coming for her. She shrieked and raced back to the ship. I'd gotten it all on video.
Georgia twisted the seasick-fighting wristbands she'd bought at a drugstore in Ushuaia before we set sail. "I never should have come on this trip," she said. "I feel as cut off as when we were in Fiji. I haven't been able to get a signal for hours."
"Come on!" I argued. "You'd rather be checking Facebook than cruise around Tierra del Fuego? Don't you care we're seeing the glaciers before they melt? Though I must say glacier ice is delicious." I took another sip of my bourbon.
"Global warming isn't my idea of humor," the tall, wind-chapped Norwegian captain barked from across the table.
Another one of my jokes falling flat. I was about to protest I was in total agreement with him when I heard what sounded like a gun shot. Then booming. A thundercrack. Except for the clanging chandeliers, the dining room fell silent.
"That is your glacier ice breaking," said the captain.
"I haven't heard it break that bad since we boarded," the countess said. "I'm going to the lifeboats." She bolted from her chair and became the catalyst for an exodus of nearly the entire dining room.
"I've got to find a connection somewhere, see what's going on," Georgia said. She rose and staggered toward our staterooms.
I watched her go, still feeling resentment for what she'd done to us despite her profuse apologies. I drained the last of my bourbon and got out my Android, thinking I might get some good video footage of the disintegrating glaciers. I tied my blanket-like black shawl around my shoulders, donned gloves and joined the other passengers on the upper deck.
The countess was bent over a railing, searching for the mechanism that would release a lifeboat from its mooring. "There must be a lever here somewhere," she said. "Shouldn't the captain be preparing us for the worst?"
"Stop, Jackie," I said. "For God's sake, this is the Mare Australis, not the Titanic. We didn't hit an iceberg. You don't even know what you're doing."
At the mouth of a bay, the water grew calmer. The stars shimmered on waves like royal blue tissue lamé. Our ship hugged the opposite shore from the glacier breaking apart. Yet it looked like it was coming closer. Strange. At first I thought it was an optical illusion. The one-eyed Chilean steward who had been flirting with the countess for the past three days stepped on deck. He was dressed in a tight-fitting, navy wool uniform and carried a walkie-talkie. His forehead was pleated with worry.
I saw what he saw. The glacier had split. A giant section of it, the size of a city block of skyscrapers, leaned in. I was too mesmerized to run. And where would I go?At first it looked like the sloping glacier had caused a minor wave, not much more than a ripple, gliding smoothly in our direction. But the wave got bigger, gathering heft, bursting with menace. I'd seen this sort of footage before. It was a tsunami. I felt the ship lift as if shouldered by a giant bodybuilder.
Our ship was a mere crouton in a soup bowl. Passengers shouted and grabbed for railings, doorframes, ropes, anything to hold on. We sloshed up the side of the soup bowl, then slammed back against another wave.
The bitter cold of the railing seeped through my gloves. I felt a grinding vibration pass through the ship. It didn't sound good. The force of the water dragged us down the shore. Rocks were audibly ripping holes in the bottom. The ship shuddered to a halt.
I thought back to the warm waters of Fiji, so recent and so far away. If only our ship had run aground there. Not here, nearly as uninhabited as the moon.
The countess was contradictory, fearless in seeking global thrills (sexual and otherwise), yet paralyzed by penguins. She was in action mode now, lunging forward to board a lifeboat.
I held back, not ready to abandon ship. Maybe it was the bourbon or my natural equanimity, but I couldn't believe our trip had come to this juncture. One by one the lifeboats were untethered by the coolly professional South American staff. They seemed in no rush, which gave me some comfort.
"Get on this boat!" The countess wildly waved her arms.
The lights on the ship went black. I realized it meant we were taking on water, triggering an electrical failure. "How much time do we have?" I asked a steward.
"I would get off now," he said.
I looked over the railing and saw the ship dipping deeper into the ice-filled bay. The lower floors, where the gift shop and dining room were located, were probably already flooded. I scanned the various bobbing lifeboats and passengers on deck and didn't see Georgia. She wasn't a dream travel companion but I didn't want her to die.
I gave my name to an officer with a clipboard and boarded. Our fellow castaways huddled together, their faces dull with cold. For the past three days I'd seen these international jetsetters during breakfast, lunch and dinner, but never learned their names. It hardly seemed worth the trouble now.
The Mare Australis groaned and sank down another few feet. The one-eyed Chilean steward jumped on our boat and threw off the rope so we were no longer attached to the cruise ship. He puffed out his rib cage and flexed his biceps, which made me think he was showing off for the countess.
"I think he has an eye for you," I whispered.
"Marin, try to be serious." The countess sat forward, clasping her mittened hands. Her chin tilted with bravery as she addressed our group of castaways. "If any of you survive, please know that I am Countess Jacqueline de Beaumont. I forgot my passport in my room. Someone please tell my mother that I was happy and secure all my life, thanks to her. I accomplished my goals. I saw all seven continents. If my remains are found I wish to be cremated and sprinkled in the lagoon over Moorea, by Cook's Bay in Tahiti near Club Med." In an aside to me she added, "You know, where I used to work."
"They'll never remember all that." I handed her a black sharpie from my handbag. "Write your name on your arm."
The countess's brown eyes flashed with defiance. She held up her little hand, refusing to take the sharpie. "This is not the end for me," she said. "If I die the count's family will get my title back."
The next day found us still on the life raft, no rescue in sight. I couldn't help but wonder, how did I get here?
This is an excerpt from the new novel The Junketeers: A Tale of Press Trip Thrills & Nightmares, by Julie Besonen and Baroness Sheri de Borchgrave. You can buy it through Tripatini's online shop at this link.
image | Brocken Inaglory