Crossing the Black Sea to a Disco Beat
If you're at all like me and one day, in the midst of plotting your path around the world, you stumble across the problem of the Black Sea and learn that there is a ferry that travels from the Ukrainian port of Odessa to the great city of Istanbul, then like me, you become misty-eyed at the thought of the journey. You imagine Jason and his Argonauts rowing its dark waters to claim the golden fleece, you read a Wikipedia article that states certain scholars believe the Black Sea is the setting for Noah's flood, and you then fire up Google Earth, zoom in on the Black Sea and, with the aid of this heady combination of satellite photography and broadband, become lost in thoughts of its ancientness. The idea of crossing the Black Sea in no time seems very romantic.
Romantic is certainly one word for it, but perhaps not the first one that springs to mind after stepping on the Yuzhnaya Palmyra for the first time. It is one of two ships that cross each week between Odessa and Istanbul and back again. The Yuzhnaya Palmyra leaves Odessa on Mondays, and the other on Saturdays. That's it. If I missed the Yuzhnaya Palmyra, I would wait five days for the next one--a lifetime, when you're on an 80-day schedule. Thus, I had all of 18 hours in Moscow and 18 minutes in Odessa, with an overnight train ride in between (where the on-platform Babushka count was far higher than anything on the Trans-Mongolian, incidentally). Call it an unintended irony of slow travel. Odessa--what I saw of it, at least--looked nice and I plan on returning one day, and for more than 18 minutes I hope. I can't say the same for Odessa's ferry terminal, which had a real institutional look, one that I was lucky enough to gaze at mindlessly for a painfully long time waiting for customs. I took my place at the back of the line. That is where I remained, because everyone who joined the line after me budded in front. It wasn't a line-up so much as a festival of Machiavellian budding, a game of musical chairs without the music or chairs. When, after two hours, I got near the door, there was one person in front of me and one person behind me. I inched in close and thought to myself, Okay, now no one else can bud in. As I completed the thought, however, the line lurched forward and a middle-aged Ukrainian woman who, not a second ago, had been standing directly behind me now had her foot in front of my foot and her handbag in front of my suitcase. She was making her move, as brazen as Dale Earnhardt. Fine, I thought. I can play by those rules. I have youth and size on my side. Just ask those two Mongolian women. When the line lurched again, I was ready. I stepped over the middle-aged Ukrainian woman's foot, pushed her bag to the side and stepped through the door. I didn't look back. The battle was won, but the war was lost.
A day on board a Ukrainian ferry, it turns out, is quite boring, especially if you don't speak Ukrainian. The passengers sit in the public areas and smoke, and it's all part of larger effort to conserve bodily energy. A full quarter of the Yuzhnaya Palmyra's deck space, I would estimate, is allocated to party environments. There is the disco, the casino, and the music hall--a big bar with a stage. A one-night crossing, it so happens, makes for a memorable night indeed.
The Benny Hill of magicians
Down at the Music Hall, one of the bartenders did a cocktail-making show to the accompaniment of a Christina Aguilera song played on a continuous loop. It featured plenty of juggling and bottle flipping, like in the movie 'Cocktail' but the high point of the night for everyone was the magic act. Like all magic acts, it was about the magician rather than the magic. He wore a white satin jacket and white leather shoes. For each trick, he would choose a busty, leggy blond from the audience--not a tall order on a ship filled with Ukrainians--and escort each on stage to be his assistant. A typical trick: The magician takes a piece of tissue, crumples it up in his fist, blows on it and-presto--the tissue has vanished into thin air, at which point the magician begins vigorously searching the body of his assistant in a manner that in some parts of the world would culminate in a lawsuit. He checks--and by checks I mean feels--under her arms, her waist, her thighs. He spends a surprisingly long time searching the waistband of his assistant's pants. Nothing. Finally, he unzips the fly of her pants and pulls out not the tissue, but a pair of panties--whose waistband he had just cut--and holds it triumphantly above his head. The woman covers her face in shame and walks off. It wasn't mock shame, by the way, but the real Freudian stuff.
The next morning, I got up early to watch the sun rise over the Black Sea. On the Yuzhnaya Palmyra's back deck, I beheld the golden horizon and the inky-green water, imagining what it must have been like to row an ancient wooden boat across the same inky-green expanse 3,000 years ago. Voices interrupted my reverie. The disco was closing and the last ones standing--two couples--were ejected onto the back deck, where they were unwilling to concede the fact of day. They shouted a lot, they laughed, they would grow silent, but then the shouting would erupt again, followed by more laughter. One of the men--round-headed and broad shouldered--took off his shirt. The morning breeze was cold, but his insulation was thick and evenly distributed. Each couple came together, arm in arm, and began slow dancing to the sound of nothing more than the Yuzhnaya Palmyra's diesel engines.