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Cruising to Africa on the Queen Elizabeth II

From kidnapping, shrunken skulls and shark-infested waters to ballroom dancing and caviar -- the Hiskes share their fascintaing story of a Cruise to Africa.

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[Editor’s Note: Dolores and her husband Johnny celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary with a half-price cruise on the world’s most famous luxury liner, departing when September 11, 2001 was an extremely fresh memory (and travel was therefore desperately inexpensive-she wrote to me that the price had increased 50% within eight months). While more from the tourist’s point of view than the travelers’, it still makes great reading. Dolores’s words (with occasional help from Johnny, such as the description of Napoleon's house) combine a sharp eye and a good wit. So…a glimpse into how the other half lives…and travels.

October 23, 2001 London & Boarding

Here I am in the QE2 computer room happy as a lark. Security was extremely tight upon boarding-handbag search, personal photo of everyone boarding & matching it to the passport, all kinds of other checkpoints prior to being allowed to board. I tried taking a picture of Johnny while he was on the escalator leading to the next level in the waiting area and security had a hissy fit, barking that no photos were allowed under any circumstances! The dock she was berthed at was next to the one used by the Titanic, as was gleefully pointed out to us by a dock employee…

We are having a wonderful time! This is a huge, comfortably shabby old ship and thankfully our room is large enough with sufficient storage, and nice sized bathroom with tub. Great down pillows & comforter. We slept well last night, our first night at sea.

The two couples who are our dinner companions are friendly and companionable, which is always a relief-one never knows, and hears horror stories of getting stuck with really grumpy and complaining people. It’s difficult getting used to a 7:30 p.m. dinner when we usually eat by 4 p.m. at home (only way we can keep from ballooning!) but hey, it’s a tough job and someone has to do it….

Our London experience was just great as well. I loaded up with neat mummy goodies at the British museum for the kids, bought a wool turtleneck at Marks & Spencers (all other stores outrageously expensive) and was ecstatic to finally remember where that wonderful art supply shop was (near Covent Garden), track it down, and acquire the small nylon portfolio I’ve always wished I had purchased last time. And they were closing them out at half price, too!

We saw two plays-"Noises Off" was hilarious but the other one was so very outstanding as to be life and/or attitude-changing. An utterly devastating black comedy about the current Prime Minister and his chief spin doctor that either had us rolling in the aisle laughing or gasping in horrified shock. Superbly acted and directed, "Feelgood" left us simply stunned!

I left all my anxiety and fear of travel behind in Livermore once I stepped into our rented car, and haven’t looked back since. Actually the scene here is not necessarily reassuring, as there are a number of terrorists living openly in London on the dole and nobody can do anything about it. The thing is, kicking someone out of the country here falls under the jurisdiction of the Federal judges, who are only accountable to an international tribunal partially comprised of those sympathetic to Taliban causes. Parliament cannot touch them. There is currently a huge debate going on about passing a new law to better deal with this kind of thing, but right now this is where they are at.

London observations: Everyone seems to be getting ready for Halloween, and downtown stores feature all kinds of costumes. Not hearing too much about Guy Fawkes, who used to be the Big Thing when we lived there in 1963….Smoking is way down. Theater lobbies used to be filled with thick blue haze at intermission, now only a few smoke…flu shots are called "flu jabs." Johnny asked for hot cereal and they asked him which one he wanted heated up, Rice Krispies or Corn Flakes. When he asked for oatmeal they said, "Oh, you mean porridge!" … Two countries, still divided by the same language!

We get a two-page equivalent daily digest of the NY Times every morning. News doesn’t put your mind at rest, does it? Always in the back of my mind is the question "What next?" It is hard to be away when there is so much tension and unrest. And it does interfere with being able to have our minds free and enjoy everything with complete abandon. But unfortunately, that’s simply the way the world is right now, isn’t it?

Walking through London we came across a big cartoon posted in the window that was sadly funny: Two old duffers are sunk deep in their cloistered leather club chairs, smoking their pipe and being served cocktails. One grumps to the other, "James, the future just isn’t what it used to be!"

October 26th, 2001 Madeira

It's a grand old ship, but when they tell you it is class-free don't believe it for a minute. Each deck has its own restaurant, the higher the deck the better the room and the better the restaurant. We upgraded at the last minute and are glad we did-the room is bigger, with more than enough storage for all the junk we brought with. Almost as much room as we have in our wall of closets at home, in fact.

Although the frequent formal dining "gets" to us every once in awhile, and night before last we played hooky and ate in the informal Lido cafeteria. Just as good food, but self-serve and it was nice to be just the two of us for a change. (We have great dinner companions who have been assigned to our table at the Princess Grill, but are running out of excuses to accept invitations to play Blackjack with $1000.00 minimum bid and Johnny is still wrestling with the theory and practice of what to do with a caviar spoon. And what do you say to someone who liked the Canary Islands so much when on Holiday they decided to buy one of their own?)

Yesterday we had our first port-of-call, in Madeira. What a gorgeous, beautiful island! It is just like a Greek Island but with Santa Barbara or San Diego weather. Madeira is all about marlin fishing and retreats for the very wealthy. It is a colorful, joyful place with beautiful glazed tiny mosaic tiles for sidewalks and streets, many outdoor cafes, farmer's markets everywhere. Johnny, intrepid researcher that he is, had researched it long ago and made tea reservations on the terrace at the justly famous Reid's Palace Hotel, a huge venerable old place high on a hill which flaunts pictures of presidents, royalty, & movie stars in its lobby. Here is where Winston Churchill stayed and painted most of his lovely watercolors.

Our table overlooked their world-famous gardens, but we had two close calls: (1) Johnny almost broke his paper-thin porcelain teacup, but didn't (2) and while holding the tray of pastries so Johnny could take a picture, I tilted it a bit so the goodies would show and half of them slid in my lap. Egad! But all's well that ends well, they slid into my huge, thick linen napkin which quickly swallowed them up and nobody saw. Whew!

Since we sailed at midnight, we had time to go to another famous place Johnny had located for dinner, a tiny ethnic restaurant that featured Fado singers. Fado singing is a mixture of wailing, passionate laments, crying, yodeling, and plaintive singing. We enjoyed skewered swordfish done on the grill while listening, and got back to the ship in plenty time. (Though we did hear stories of one person who had taken a postcard with a picture of the QE2 to show the taxi driver when it was time to go back. He was running late. The taxi driver smiled and nodded vigorously, then quickly threaded his way through town and ended up at…the post office!)

And yesterday morning Johnny, at long last, finally, finally saw "The Green Flash," an elusive phenomena which every so often briefly flashes at sunrise or sundown on the horizon. He has been looking for it for twenty years! Not only did he see the green flash, but he also saw the far rarer blue flash that sparks before it in a fragment of a second. He was ecstatic!

The ship is so very British-the captain announced the weather forecast as follows: "Increasing cloudy and rainy, but otherwise sunny and clear." (The weather in London for most of our stay had been just fantastic-but two days prior to leaving turned bitter, dark, cold and leaden-street lights on at 2 p.m. At last, the London we know and love!)

It is touching how nice everyone is to the Americans. At our embassy in London there are heaps of flowers on the lawn, and a commemorative garden is being planted. Any American-bashing has effectively stopped, at least for now. It is almost as though it took a tragedy like this to make them appreciate us. Indeed, I think it has made us all appreciate each other and what we have. No more taking anything or anyone for granted, that's for sure! We watch BBC-World News every night, and in the morning get a comp two-page summary of the New York Times.

Our roles have reversed-Johnny is up at dawn taking long walks up on the Boat Deck, but I sleep till he wakes me around 9, and can hardly get up. Quite a change from my usual up-at-4 a.m. mode! Guess we're each doing what our bodies tell us we need the most.

We had a formal dinner the other night and met the Captain, and I thanked him for the thoughtful 50th anniversary card he had in our cabin when we first arrived.(I wonder which little mice we know and love had something to do with that, eh?)

October 29, 2001 Cape Verde

On Halloween, tomorrow, we cross the equator. It is rumored that King Neptune himself will be climbing on board, in full array, for a special crossing-the-equator ceremony. It is strongly advised that all spectators wear something that can get wet. There is a signup sheet for those wishing a special certificate of crossing, which we both signed up for with fear and trepidation…

Yesterday we made OUR second port of call, to one of the Cape Verde Islands. Bleak, dead country. Hot, muggy, all volcanic rock. Poor, poor people-no real industry we could see. The farmers' market had fish and veggies, but they were covered with flies. We took the tour, bouncing along for over an hour in an old beat-up bus with no air conditioning or springs of any kind. The tour consisted of stopping at the other end of the island at their "resort"-a volcanic beach in the blazing sun, with no shade or facilities. The native bus driver announced "We can only stop here for 30 minutes" and everyone quietly groaned-five minutes would have been more than adequate!

There used to be mass starvation here, but currently they get most of their food from the U.S. Nothing very much grows here. Goats are the only animals, and they eat everything and anything. Laundry cannot be put out on the line to dry w/o someone watching it, lest the goats eat it. Here they have a proverb: "The goats teach us to eat stones so we will not die."

Right now we are opposite Sierra Leone-kind of hard to imagine! Johnny (who always keeps his nose to the wind) announced we have entered the zone of the north east trade winds, indicated by the ocean rollers. One ocean swell looks just like another to me, but he could tell they have reversed directions from a few days ago and are now all moving from the north east. Coming attractions: the doldrums.

For survival, I now only eat steamed veggies at night. The Princess Grill has only one seating, at 7:00 p.m., but the other two couples who are our table mates don't get there till closer to 8, and while they will serve salad, etc. first they hold off on serving the main dish until everyone has arrived. And I've found that I simply cannot eat that late and sleep well afterwards! And besides, peasant that I am, I much prefer the self-serve Lido Grill. And so I have made my main meal there, at lunchtime. The food there is simply unsurpassed and irresistible-today they featured roast beef, roast lamb, barbeque spare ribs, oven roasted potatoes, six kinds of veggies, home made rolls of every kind, dozens of salads (including Caesar), roast pheasant, garlic soup, spinach-lentil soup, pickled herring of every kind, and of course desserts. Desserts! Blueberry marzipan cake, apple cake with a thick walnut crumble crust, cream cakes, always Tiramisu (which seems to have supplanted the more English but similar Trifle), pecan pie, apple pie, and on and on. After you have put the desserts on your tray, you then pass through a gauntlet of toppings: creme fraiche, soft vanilla custard, ice cream, chocolate and fruit sauces of every kind. I'm in heaven, but am back to getting up early-very early-in order to jog around the ship every morning. Got to keep my love handles from turning into arm rests!

Johnny, the inveterate aristocrat, much prefers the elegant evening dinners in the Princess Grill which begin with all the caviar you want. Beautiful china and crystal place settings, with a gorgeous heavy lead Waterford crystal Christmas tree in the middle of every table for a decoration. One of the couples at our table decided to upgrade their accommodations to the penthouse suite on top of the ship, with their own veranda. Complete with butler, evening hors d'oeuvres, etc. Even though James and Sybil are now eligible for the top Queen's Grill they have chosen to stay with us at dinner time. We are delighted, as they are great dinner companions and have many stories to tell. They are British and live in London, but they have a home in Florida as well, where they commute to several months a year to get awayfrom "those ghastly English winters".

No matter where you eat, evening meals require formal dress. Gets a bit old for me, but Johnny is reveling in it. He loves to wear his tuxedo and I must confess it is nice to see all the beautiful evening gowns (I used to love going to opening night at the opera just to see all of the gorgeous dresses!) and one gets used to it. Evening entertainment is multiple and endless. Movies, lectures, shows simultaneously abound. Saw a wonderful movie the other day which we had somehow missed back home, "Chocolat." They have live shows every night-usually the QE2 band and a comedian. Not too bad, actually - last night the British comedian confided, "My wife and I finally had achieved the peak and mutually compatible experience we'd always dreamed of-we both had headaches at the same time!"

We get the British paper every day as well. (The newspaper reported that last Sunday an English pilot realized a childhood dream by floating to a height of 11,000 feet attached to 600 toy balloons filled with helium-they were 4 ft round balloons. He said "I once saw a film called The Red Balloon when I was a child in which a boy floats off on balloons, and ever since I've wanted to do it."

November 1, 2001 St. Helena Island

St. Helena Island-one of the most remote places on earth. No air service at all. Here is where Napoleon was banished to for the rest of his life, and here too is where the oldest animal in the whole world lives-a gigantic tortoise that allegedly was alive in Napoleon's time, if you can believe our guide. People have told us you can scratch under the tortoise's neck and it will hold its head up so you can scratch it better, just like a cat!

It is a very nice little island, cute shops and incredibly honest and friendly people. Very isolated, they are all an interesting mixture of European, Oriental, and Black. Extremely friendly and polite, as well as very attractive.

We just walked around town today, getting the feel of it-since we will return here on our way back up the African coast, we'll take the official tour then.

Last night was Halloween, and we went up to James & Sybil's pre-dinner celebration of their 20th anniversary in their new penthouse suite. It had to be seen to be believed! We would never have even known it was there much less found it without very specific directions from them first…

…Up in the Queen's lounge there is a narrow, unlabeled, nondescript stairway in the middle of the room. Go up the plain stairs, and at the top are two security folks checking you out before you can go up the next flight of this-time-elaborate stairs to the very top, where there are only a few of these luxury suites. You are ushered to the correct place, and the huge, ornate door opens.

Voila! Like a Hollywood set from an old twenties movie about pure luxury! Plates of goodies awaited us, and James and Sybil gave us the grand tour. Huge bathroom, endless closets, a bed that looked larger than king-size, a comfy drawing room with velvet drapes that shut, and a large outside veranda enclosed on all sides but the one looking out, with patio furniture. And a gorgeous full moon. Sigh! The people who had originally booked it backed out after September 11th, and lost their entire fare. No refund possible. But for us, it was a dream evening. Six of us were included, as well as the head Purser.

They did the ship up very cleverly for Halloween, and down in the Lido (for the midnight buffet, which we have never dared to touch but just looked at) they had over 30 cakes, each one decorated with an incredible scary Halloween theme. I took pictures, they were so well done! (We just went down to look it over, then made a hasty escape to the theater for a late-night movie. We knew that if we ever once took a single bite-just once-we'd be lost souls! Doomed forever!)

Johnny said we have passed the doldrums, and are now in the southeast trade winds. Seems to me I remember lots of B-grade movies made in the '40's about action mysteries taking place in the trade winds (Remember heavy-lidded Hedy Lamar slinking noiselessly through the beaded curtain, whispering huskily "I am Tondelaya!"). To think that now we are actually here!

We are settling into kind of a routine now. We go to lectures together (heard several marvelous presentations on globalization), and I jog at dawn (haven’t seen any other joggers and am something of a curiosity there), and go to a watercolor class afterward. It's so wonderful to be painting again! I never have time at home, and I surely will try to make time when we get back. It’s so relaxing…I just love it!

We take dancing lessons at noon from excellent teachers. We have an afternoon cappuccino, then either a lecture, movie, or tea dancing. Something big in Europe I'd not seen before: "Sequence Dancing." It is ballroom dancing, but done to a precise routine which is repeated and repeated for the length of the song. Everyone is doing the same thing. A bit like square dancing, but it is regular ballroom dancing. Currently it is all the rage in Europe, and is certainly beautiful to watch!

News isn't very good these days, is it? Underlying all our enjoyment is a sad, tight feeling that is always there. Security on board is very tight, and they always give us the address & phone number of the U.S. Embassy when we go ashore-if there is one, that is. We are to take a copy of our passport with us as well. It isn't easy being so far from home during times like these-somehow I always have the admittedly irrational feeling that if only I were home I surely would be able to think of something that would make things better…there are so many lovely paintings on board, and for some reason many of them are of the New York skyline featuring the World Trade Center and jets flying overhead…

I do have one troublesome situation I haven't figured out how to deal with yet, and that is this: I was talking with a lady who came on a nonstop flight from Seattle. We were each knitting, and I mentioned how nice it would have been to be able to knit on the plane but of course I had to pack it in my checked luggage. Her eyes got wide and she said she never even thought of doing that-she just took her aluminum knitting needles with her on the plane, and nobody ever said a word! I'll probably talk to the head Purser about it and let him handle it or not, as he sees fit. Seems to me Seattle should have feedback about that one…

We both are having a wonderful time, but for myself being gone several weeks at a time is enough. Johnny could travel forever! Here is a wonderful quotes that is painted over one of the doorways which reminds me of Johnny, who never tires of travel:

"We shall not cease from exploration, and the very end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time!"

November 2, 2001

At last I have found someone with an even worse sense of direction than I have. None other than our very own Captain Warwick! Our distinguished Captain! After yesterday's noon announcement about latitude and longitude and weather, he then finished with "I hope you all have a very enjoyable day tomorrow at St. Helena." The thing is, of course, we had just been in St. Helena the day before! Needless to say, it got a good laugh out of everyone.

We have a distinguished British comedian on board, although I had never heard of him before. Sir Jimmy Saville. He’s sort of a cross between Dan Rather and Billy Crystal, and had his own T.V. show for almost 30 years. He's kind of hard to explain, but has a razor wit and has accomplished much good in Britain. Dad asked him if he had seen the green flash, just to see how he would answer. He then asked Dad, "Is that a medical condition or something?" He's given a couple of lectures and it's great fun just to go and hear his stories. Jimmy said he began life as a "nahtigin" child (when his Mom’s friends heard she was pregnant for the 8th time, they said "Not-a-gin!") and began working as a coal miner making 50 pence a hour. Now he has a gold-plated Rolls Royce, and BBC recently contracted with him to be on a show for £1,000 a second!

There are always so many good things to attend on board, I end up missing many of them because I just plain get tired. But after 10 p.m. long after I'm blissfully sleeping is when the ship really comes to life-big band, piano-clarinet recitals, jazz groups, tea dancing, ballroom dancing, comedians, shows, movies, and on and on. I plead guilty to sneaking off to bed by then and watching the continuous reruns they have of "Upstairs, Downstairs," (what else?) and slowly falling asleep. We both are getting lots of reading done as well.

Day after tomorrow we arrive at Cape Town and will be there several days prior to turning around and beginning the long trek back.

November 7, 2001 Capetown (1)

We are among the land of the living, though for awhile I wasn’t too sure about that…seasick!

"Just a little jab in the rear to help that tummy," the doctor had said. "you’ll sleep for two hours and wake up feeling right as rain!" Eighteen hours later I woke up, and then only with great difficulty. The light was blinding so I was in dark glasses too, as well as fighting a foggy brain. (What was IN that shot, anyway?)

Capetown! We had attended a number of informative Capetown talks beforehand, the best was by a member of Parliament in Capetown. He said despite the high crime rate it was perfectly safe…as long as you did not venture into "Cape Flats" or venture near "Malay town," where there had been violent anti-American demonstrations the previous weekend. I’ll have much more to say about these two places in my next missive, but let’s just say for now I thank God we are safe, and kiss the deck every chance that I get. Honestly, I don’t understand how we manage to get ourselves into the fixes that we sometimes find ourselves in…

Anyway, Capetown is an absolutely beautiful and captivating city, as well as one of stark contrasts. There are eleven official languages, but Afrikaans is the most common. It is a major port and cultural center complete with opera, symphony, museums, libraries, etc. 48% of the population is "Coloured" (their word for people of mixed ancestry), 27% Black, 23% White, and 2% Asian. Many of the Coloured have European features, and are light to medium tan. All speak the "King’s English" and wear their hair just as we do-no dreadlocks.

We rented a tiny tinny Renault-a horrid little thing I wouldn’t wish on anyone. It took two hands to release the handbrake, which often just refused to budge. No springs that we could detect, only rattles aplenty.

The first day we drove to Groot Costantia, a lovely old historic home that is the center of one of their famous wineries. Johnny ordered a copy of a rare book on Dutch architecture from the area, and the store owner drove out to deliver it in person and stayed on for tea with us on the beautiful lawn patio of this lovely old home. A nice interlude! Very idyllic.

Then on to Cape Point. Amazing! Breathtaking! Overrun with funny baboons, who pile on top of your car, under it, and run all around you. It is crucial that you shut the car windows after parking-one unfortunate car’s upholstery was piled high and smeared all over with baboon doodoo-not a pretty sight. Some are shy. Some have "attitude," and if they want to walk where you’re standing you’d best step aside and let them pass. ("Toto, now I know we’re not in Kansas anymore!") We hiked up to the peak. Well, Johnny did, but I was waylaid short of the top by the impassable and unsurmountable obstacle of a great souvenir gift shop.

Next-Cape of Good Hope! So much like Point Reyes in California, except for the ostriches running all around! Big ones, little ones, all kinds. Delightful! Amazing! The roiling, crashing surf was an angry crescendo-I can only imagine the struggle of those old ships of days gone by trying desperately to round the Cape of Good Hope…

Speaking of ostriches, there are ostrich farms all over. They sell the meat mostly, but also the eggshells to tourists. A female lays 15 eggs during each season, one every other day. She stops when she has 15 eggs. But…wily farmers remove an egg every other day or so, and so when poor Mom counts her eggs she sees she must lay still more to reach her quota of 15 ("Darn! I could swear I had 15!") and so she keeps on laying until she has her 15 eggs. Little does the hapless Mom know she had already laid dozens of eggs!

Driving in Capetown is horrendous. Although Johnny had driven on the left-hand side of the road many years before, somehow this time presented more of a problem-he kept veering close to the curb to avoid the feeling of an imminent head-on, but then I began yelling at him to "Move over! Center it! You’re going into the ditch!" etc. More than once the side of the car brushed against bushes, trees, fences, and curbs. I was a sniveling wreck of a harridan, but we made it. Parked overnight in a garage near the ship, and awaited the next days’ adventures.

This is some kind of ship. It is the fastest ocean liner on the seas, and can go backward faster than some ships can move forward. It is not the most glitzy ship on the seas by far, but big, comfy, old, and elegant. Very stable. One gallon of fuel moves it 50 feet, and it is so veddy veddy British! Subheadlines in the British newspaper reported on a current campaign to rename Brussels Sprouts British Sprouts. They serve it a lot here, frequently mixing is with diced bacon which is just delicious. This is known as "dressed sprouts."

Word got around, and the Cruise Director asked Johnny to give an astronomy lecture on the southern skies. He agreed, and it was put in the daily announcement. A good forty people showed up on top of the boat deck, but unfortunately it was too cloudy to see anything, so he decided to give his backup talk on the Green Flash.

The Cruise Director quickly ordered the conference room to be set up with microphone, chairs, etc. because of the larger-than-expected crowd. I had illustrated it beforehand with several large watercolors to show how the light hits the earth’s atmosphere and disperses into colors like a prism just prior to dawn and sunset. It was well received by all present, with many questions and a lively discussion afterward. A number of fellow passengers now say they plan on getting up before dawn to try and see the Green Flash themselves-we’ll have to see how many actually show up! He is currently booked for a series of lectures, whether or not the skies are amenable to viewing. "The history of the universe is next!"

November 10, 2001 Capetown (2)

Day Two, we charged forth in our unreliable, pitiful little Renault for a visit to Hottentot Country, now an area of large estates and manor houses set graciously in world-class flower gardens and vineyards. Our erratic steed would stubbornly shift from 1st to 4th, not budging an inch from 3rd to 4th. No hillholders and a left-handed gearshift presented a continual challenge that almost proved unsurmountable under emergencies.

Boschendal is a justly famous manor house, with ceiling, walls, and furniture made of the most incredible and exotic woods-beefwood, stinkwood, sweetwood, yellow wood, and of course the "usual " teak and ebony. Imagine a setting in a Yosemite Valley about ten miles wide, this exquisite 1600's mansion house, and 4,000 foot wild and jagged peaks all around. Fantastic!

Stopped in Stellenbosch for lunch on the way back home, a kind of South African Carmel. The restaurant had a penguin theme, and the owner explained that in Afrikaans, "peng" means to "peck," and "guin" means "wine." So-peck your food, and drink your wine! Did a bit of Christmas shopping there, too.

Up to this point all was going relatively smoothly. Now we were in the home stretch, heading back. We had studiously and fearfully managed to avoid Cape Flats, which we had been repeatedly warned about. Cape Flats, with its growing waves of native migration from the north who descend on Capetown and throw up shanty towns of corrugated iron, cardboard, etc. as far as the eye can see. Cape Flats, whose swelling numbers of hopeless, destitute, poverty-stricken inhabitants comprise the vast "other" half of Capetown, and are responsible for the dubious honor of the highest crime rate in the world.

We came to a junction in the road where the arrow pointing to Capetown was at a 45 degree angle, and weren't sure which direction to go in, but made our best guess….

We drove…and drove…and suddenly found ourselves in a desolate, filthy no-man's-land. A nightmare moonscape. With a shock we realized we had taken the wrong direction, and were now heading full speed into the depths of the dreaded Cape Flats! Our vengeful steed was bent on taking the ultimate revenge…

Hearts pounding, we realized we were on a one-way road and had to keep going until we found a cutoff to the street going in the other direction. It seemed to take forever! I frantically searched for the door locks, could not find them anywhere. Only with the greatest skill with the left-sided gear shift and mastery of the right-hand U-turn in the left-hand lane did Johnny finally manage our speedy and desperate retreat.

I never did find the door locks, but Johnny said "Well, we're just about back now, so we won't need them anyway…." (Hah! Sure, we won’t…)

One more stop-Long Street. Johnny's old guide book shows it to be a quaint old neighborhood, full of old book shops, etc.-he loves that kind of thing! Circling the neighborhood, we finally found a place to park on a rather steep hill right behind another car facing downward. Curbed the wheels, cinched tight the emergency brake, and got out to explore the neighborhood for those old bookshops…

However, there's one little problem with older guide books. And Johnny is not one to waste money on a new guide book when a ten-year-old one will do quite well, thank you. But things can change since they were last written. Specifically, the neighborhood. We had inadvertently stumbled right in the middle of Malaytown, where we were warned not to go! Malaytown, where the radical Muslims hang out. Malaytown, where there were violent anti-American demonstrations the previous weekend. We were right in front of a mosque, with chador-clad women and tough looking men loitering about, looking at us with surly stares. We spun on our heels and dove back into the car for what we fervently prayed would be a fast getaway.

But the hateful old clunker had other plans…the emergency brake stuck, and would not come loose, despite Johnny's desperate pulls with both hands and all his strength. I was flying all around the car with pounding heart, still trying to find the elusive locks. No luck. Several toughs who had just been lying in the street slowly got up when they saw us stall, gave lazy yawns, and with flat eyes began to nonchalantly stroll towards us…

Finally, FINALLY, F I N A L L Y Johnny succeeded in releasing the brake, but getting the car to back up the steep hill almost proved fatal for the miserable pile of junk. With terribly smoking clutch and immense relief we spun the wheels, laid a lot of rubber, squealed up the hill, and rounded the corner. There before our incredulous eyes was a huge billboard with large black letters loudly proclaiming "Africa’s Not For Sissies!" Amen!

Finally we reached the shelter of the Avis station, limping in a bit more bedraggled than when we started out. The attendant noted that a hubcap was missing. Johnny pointed out that we had opted for full insurance coverage.

The lovely clerk in her natty red uniform sweetly countered, "There is a hand-written waiver at the bottom of the contract that clearly states in case of theft of any items there will be a $25 administrative charge plus the cost of the missing item."

After some vigorous negotiation she dropped the management fee but we paid $20 for the hubcap. When all was said and done, Johnny asked her if they had ever before lost a hubcap or other pieces of the car. "Always," she said.

So ended our adventures in Capetown. Now we are huddled deep into our deck chairs with great relief, happy to once again be on the move within the confines and safety of this great ship, gazing gratefully at these words inscribed over the doorway:
"The anchor heaves
The ship swings free…
The sails swell full,
To sea! To sea!"

Nigel & Mary, our other tablemates, are wonderful company as well. He’s a grand old Tory from an old British family who flew Spitfires during World War Two. They live in the suburbs, but spend the colder months at their place in the Canary Islands. Their English home is older than our country, and he claims it has a ghost. He was quite matter-of-fact about it, saying it is a common phenomenon in many of those very old houses. I pressed him for some details, and on Halloween he related a few shivery stories.

Nigel is "shocked, simply shocked" at how some men dare to unbutton their jackets during the after-dinner shows and actually put their thumbs in their braces. Queried I, "do you mean thumbs in their mouth?" Turns out "braces" are "suspenders." When I told him that, he said "Oh no, my dear, suspenders are what hold girl’s stockings up.")

He and Mary are dears, and faithfully come to all Johnny’s lectures as well as to the one that I subsequently gave on illiteracy our last day at sea. They are loyal to their friends, and what more can anyone ask?

November 12, 2001 Jamestown, St. Helena Island

(Two days out of St. Helena, the South East Trades are weakening. We will cross the Equator today while going through the doldrums, bound for Dakar, Senegal. No one we've talked to who has been to Dakar before is getting off the ship this time, saying "Once was more than enough!" Since we are scheduled for a "safe" tour organized by the QE2 (as opposed to running off by ourselves) we felt curious enough to want to see the place for ourselves…)

St. Helena (2)

Here, of course, is where Napoleon was exiled for so many years after his defeat at Waterloo. This island is indeed is forbidding to behold with its wild and twisting volcanic peaks, seemingly barren of any vegetation whatsoever, rising up out of the sea. The nearest airport is 700 miles to the northwest, on Ascension Island. If we miss our boat it might be another month before another ship stops by. The Cruise Director pleaded with us, "Please don't miss the boat. At least not on my watch!"

There are 5,000 residents in this 48 square mile rugged volcanic island, who are unbelievably friendly, honest, and well-mannered. Almost from another time, another era…They are descended from a mixture of Europeans, Africans, and Asians and are most attractive. St. Helena is a favorite with philatilists-Johnny bought a new issue on Napoleon.

This time we took the grand tour, which included Napoleon's house with its Rich selection of artifacts and memorablia. There, right in front of our Noses, was napoleon's hat and robe! Just sitting openly on a hatrack! Next To it, the youth-sized bed he slept in dramatically illustrated how small he Was in size.

A photograph of a thoughtful Napoleon taken shortly before his death was on The wall: he had the look of a bitter man frustrated at not achieving his lifetime goals. Also on the wall were a dozen deathmask photographs of him - reverence for him as a person, or relief that he was gone?

And the garden was just superb. He planted and tended most of it during his exile. After the barren, volcanic rock down at sea level, it blew our minds to realize that all of a sudden there was lush jungle-type cloud-forest vegetation all around us! Huge ferns, giant bushes and plants, wild lilies, giant lupine, and many other flowers and trees with the French flag flying over the property…

And we finally were introduced to Jonathan, who rules the island. He is extremely suave, well-mannered, and does not look his age at all. He is very serene and dignified, and much taller than we'd been led to believe. And he just loved it when I stroked his throat! (Oh, did I mention Jonathan is the giant tortoise?) Jonathan is 500 years old according to our guide-older even than our country! Reputedly he was a good friend of Napoleon. (Johnny snorted in disbelief and when he got home researched it and found out Jonathan was only 120 years old…)

We had been told that he just loves it when someone scratches his big neck underneath his ponderous, scaly head, but I ended up being the only one who tried it…When I slowly & gingerly patted the top of his giant head he abruptly jumped a mile and withdrew into his shell, and so did I!

He once again emerged and I very, very cautiously reached out and scratched underneath his massive corrugated throat. He closed his eyes, stretched out his huge head even further, and wanted more. Just like Kiwi! Jonathan is reputed to be the oldest living thing in the world. He lives a completely stress-free existence, and only moves when necessary. And then only very slowly. I think perhaps I could learn something from Jonathan…

Also fascinating was "Jacob's Ladder"-it is 900 feet long and has 700 steps straight up to the top. It was built by the military to link Jamestown with the garrison atop Ladder Hill, hauling ammunition and supplies to the top. A native said "Only the young or the foolish climb those stairs. You break your heart going up and your leg coming down." But I could see a number of dauntless folks from the QE2 climbing to the top, and then back down again. Natives have learned to descend quickly by hanging crosswise over the smooth, steep metal railings, knees hooked over one side, arms & shoulders over the other, and away they slide! (It was mighty tempting…heh, heh, heh…but I didn't. Yes, I'm sorry now.)

After the tour I was ready for a delicious lunch & nap back on the ship, but Johnny wanted to take a taxi back up into the forest and take the one-hour hike straight up a jungle trail to the lone tree on the very top of this island. So putting aside fleeting and regretful thoughts of that lovely lunch and dessert I was going to miss (no way would I let him do that hike alone), I went with him.

We hiked. We hiked and we hiked, straight up the trail, with 7 foot grasses and bush growing thickly on either side of us. One didn't dare step into the grass-because there was nothing on either side of the grass for almost 1,000 feet straight down, on either side. Just focused on putting one foot in front of the other, up and up and up. Finally we reached that wild, lone twisted tree that marks the highest point on the island-it was fantastic! To heck with all those desserts-the climb and the view were something I'll always remember! It is amazing to think how bleak the island is at sea level yet how lush and lovely it is when you are on the top.

Just prior to sailing the St. Helena school children came on board in their uniforms, and gave us a choral recital in the grand lounge. They sang local songs in their sweet, clear voices about Jacob's Ladder, their lovely island, Napoleon, and a "whip and chain" song about a slave who was about to be flogged to death because he fell in love with his owner's daughter. They were beautiful, charming, modest, and well-behaved. They had European features, but were light tan to medium brown and had with slightly slanty eyes. I loved them! I miss my "kid fix!" I wanted to hug one and take him/her home with me! Where are my grandkids when I need them?

At dusk we all gathered on deck to watch the ceremony of pulling up the anchor. St. Helena is the only stop we make requiring tenders and anchoring. The anchor on the QE2 is as thick as a heavy man, and when it was dropped upon arriving a great cloud of rust dust rose from the uncoiling seldom-used anchor chain.

Raising it made for a very dramatic scene-white-clad officers and boatswain's mates clanged bells to mark various positions as the anchor chain was slowly raised; creaking, groaning, shrieking, and otherwise making an unholy cacophony of discordant sound. Afterward a band on deck played lively music to celebrate yet one more successful anchor-raising on the QE2, and three horrendous, deep, ear-splitting blasts from the ships gigantic horn signaled that we were once again on our way.

The Ship (2) Now that we're on the home stretch I'm taking a closer look at this great ship & appreciating the workmanship and history of it…It is the only transatlantic ocean liner left that was made for that purpose, the fastest cruise ship in the world. And the elegant food is to die for! Fifteen percent of the world’s production of Beluga caviar is consumed in the Queen’s Grill.

Fresh flowers everywhere-in every room, on every table. Towels completely changed twice a day. Covers pulled down at night, with a nice little chocolate mint on the pillow. The service is unbelievable. It's not the most glamorous or glitzy ship on the seas by far, and the entertainment is occasionally just mediocre, but we like to read anyway and it is very, very comfortable. More than enough storage in our room-some drawers are almost empty, but filling fast from little items we've picked up here and there.

We’ve been wondering with growing trepidation how on earth we will pack it all, but the Cruise Director is quite grateful to Johnny for his astronomy seminars (they've been ongoing at the passengers' request, with growing attendance) and is giving us two QE2 collapsible soft-sided nylon carry-ons as a thanks. They are fairly large and hopefully will hold all our junk. We’ve added two huge ostrich eggs, several carved teak and ebony masks and statues to our pile, as well as the shark's jaw and numerous books and miscellaneous trivia of all sizes and shapes. How will we ever wrap, pack, and fit it all in? Sigh…There was a magician entertaining us at showtime last night, perhaps he can wave his magic wand and have it all fly into the suitcases without a hitch…

Interestingly, more and more people get up at dawn to try and see the Green Flash. They are faithfully joining Johnny on deck, standing like stone and staring out to sea like Pointer dogs as the sun rises. But so far nobody else has seen it. I do fervently hope some of them see it, or there may be mutiny-he might be forced to walk the plank!

On another note, you would think that by now I could find my way around. No. Not so. By a long shot! There are some stairways that only exit at the very top, but you can't tell when you begin going up. And there are some activity rooms that only face one side of the ship, so that even when I am on the right DECK if I walk the length of the ship I don't know if it is the wrong DECK or just the wrong side of the ship. Some elevators only go down to the medical clinic, some only go up to the Queen’s Grill. I am frequently late to various functions, just haplessly trying to find my way. There is a quote over one of the doorways that must have been written for people like me:

"It is better to have absolutely no idea where one is and KNOW it, Than to believe confidently that one IS where one is NOT!"

November 14, 2001 Dakar

Dakar. What can we say? Except that once again when we stumbled back onto the ship just prior to sailing (I was next-to-last on board, one gangplank had already been pulled) we dropped onto our hands and knees and kissed the deck…

The approach to the city by ship is lovely, but trust me. It is skin-deep only…I suppose we should have been forewarned by the thinly-veiled phrases on handouts that the ship passes out prior to each stop…"adventuresome…" "don't take your purse…" "colorful…" and among the phrases they list as those likely to come in handy for this particular port was a translation for "Stop! You're killing me!"

Dakar is 95% Muslim and 5% Christian. Our Sengalese guide said they all get along quite well-that people in Dakar are judged on their character traits, not color or religion. Recently a Christian was elected in some capacity in an overwhelming Muslim neighborhood.

40% of the people live in abject poverty. They are the blackest color we have seen outside of true aboriginal country in Australia. Children don't study very much because being educated makes no difference whatsoever about your future prospects-everyone is on the dole. Our guide was an example: intelligent, well-spoken, & knowledgeable; even he is on the dole when there are no cruise ships around with passengers to guide.

The morning tour was all around the city, with a stop at the bazaar to shop. The weather is suffocatingly hot and humid, we breathed sultry steam. As the hot, rickety bus hurtled through town I passed five accidents. As soon as we rounded the beautiful waterfront buildings we entered another world-one of filth, garbage, poverty, crime, and absolute chaos.

The bazaar was a cacophony of 8-foot open-air "shops" with plastic tarp overhead & a piece of jagged corrugated metal as a common wall. When the bus let us off all of a sudden everyone disappeared, and Johnny and I realized they were all in back of us. ("We’re right behind you…")

Everyone yelled at you at once, plucking at your clothes, calling you into their store. Horrible deformities could be seen everywhere. (Anyone remember the movies "Red Shoes"? The way they converged on you brought the same feelings of panic that Moira Shearer experienced when she couldn't stop dancing in that movie, and dreadful things began plucking at her…)

I was going to buy a stuffed doll, but a fellow passenger warned me it would be confiscated-they don't allow any stuffed merchandise on board. Why not, I asked? "Because it is stuffed with hospital waste!" A vendor tried desperately to sell Johnny a live monkey-can't you imagine what customs would say over that? Besides, Johnny told him he was really looking for a shrunken head…

I wanted a shrunken head for [grandson] Connor (only thing I could think of to top the stuffed Piranha I once brought him from Rio), and the replicas they had in the shops were truly fearsome. Grotesque, grinning faces with shark's teeth and wild hemp hair. The shopkeeper motioned me to walk in the back room where the really shocking ones were stored, but something kept me from going back there. I was glad when I found out what happened to a fellow passenger later…

In the afternoon a ferry took us out to the island where slaves were kept prior to being shipped to America, Brazil, etc. Slaves were the only currency in Dakar during that period-they were kept in dungeons underneath the house, 20 to a room, shackled neck, arm & feet. Let out once a day for bathroom privileges. If one of them got sick, he was tossed into the water surrounding the island ("we couldn't have an epidemic now, could we?") and gradually the shark population built up to horrendous proportions. Many people died this way. The water is very warm (85 degrees), the climate stifling, and large schools of sharks still circle to this day, waiting…

About 3-1/2 million slaves were taken from Africa to Brazil over a 350 year period, 1475-1825. A comparable number to the Caribbean and America. African slaves were preferred because they did not succumb to white man's diseases, as did the North and South American Indians. They could work in a hot climate-no Eastern Europeans, please-and they were easily accessible. Tribes were always at war rounding up other tribes for sales to the slave ships arriving at the coastal ports.

When we got back on board the ferry which took us on the 10-minute ride from the island to the mainland, swarms of small boys tried to hang onto the boat and come with so they could keep on begging. They were beaten off, about 200 feet out. But one young boy clung unnoticed for a good half mile but when he was discovered the guard made him let go and he had to swim back by himself in shark-infested waters…but after all, who would care very much one way or another if something happened to one little boy?

That evening we heard about a fellow passenger who had ventured into town on his own, gone way back in one of the shops, and was temporarily kidnapped. The shop owner slammed the metal bars protecting the shop down and locked it, and would not let him out until he had emptied his wallet. Another passenger had his small carry-on ripped from his shoulder and lost it.

There is a very good reason why people who have been there before did not get off the ship.

Now we know why.

There was a hat contest on board, and while I didn't participate I got a big kick out of some of the entries…the theme was Musicals, or Songs. Some of my favorites were a lovely angel with golden coins falling from her hands- "Pennies From Heaven." And Napoleon's hat, with a toilet in back with blue paper streams falling down from it-"Napoleon's Waterloo." And a teakettle with a doll next to it, and teabags hanging down from it-"Polly Put The Kettle On." And my personal favorite: a bridge with streams running under it, labeled "Afghanistan," "America," "Israel," etc. It was "Bridge Over Troubled Waters"!

While I said earlier that the entertainment in the great lounge was occasionally mediocre, the live evening entertainment in the smaller lounges was always great.) And the lectures were just fantastic, of university-level professionalism.

One of the best is Nigel West, the super-spy expert who alone was responsible for bringing out of hiding the man in Venezuela who single-handedly engineered the success of the Normandy Invasion, and having him attend the big anniversary celebration at Buckingham Palace, finally receiving the medal that had been awaiting him all those years…

Everyone has heard of MI5, but how many people know about GCHQ? It is far more secret, and employs twice the number of people than are currently working for MI5…. Nigel is currently working on assignment in Washington D.C.

Johnny and I each bought one of his books, and attended his book signing. When it was my turn Nigel looked at me a moment and then said, "Do you know that women make the best spies?" I then told him about the telegram I received after attending U. of Illinois, "Please go to this address & see about employment with the U.S. Government." (I never did go, but was intrigued enough to have kept the telegram to this day…)

Well, we're almost done with our voyage. I opened my mouth once too often and was tapped on the shoulder by the Purser to give a program as well. Tomorrow at 10 in the Yacht Club. Titled "Illiteracy: Causes and Solutions" (what else?) At home I've frequently had bad dreams about having to give a workshop and not having my overheads and notes, and waking up in a cold sweat. So here I am, doing just that. Now IF only I can find my way to the Yacht Club in time…

Tomorrow evening Johnny's on-deck lecture will feature the northern constellations. He has helped many persons finally see the green flash (thank goodness!) His own personal score is eight sightings so far.

We understand London is really cold, and Oxford has been below freezing. Hard to imagine, sitting here in our shorts, sipping lemonade! We will miss our evening hot tub sessions in the aft deck with tuxedoed waiters bringing us drinks at our beckoning, but now are looking forward to home, family, old friends, and hearth.

But what a grand adventure - with memories to last a lifetime!

Dolores Hiskes, author of Phonics Pathways, is one of the world's experts on teaching reading. Her website is

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