The Sound of Silence

What I notice most is the silence. I knew this quiet was waiting for me, longed for it, even, at times. No background engine hum, no squeaking stabilizer outside my window, no pitter-patter of children running through the hallways of the MV Explorer. Just the ticking of the clock and the unbearable echo of emptiness ringing in my ears.

With Andrea at a sheep market in Ghent, Belgium
With Andrea at a sheep market in Ghent, Belgium

I longed for this echo at times during the three-and-a-half months I spent at sea, feared it at others. Because I knew it would mean I would be missing sitting in the sun over coffee and conversation every morning, missing my students and their stories and the tingle of their success, missing the congratulations of my colleagues when they’d read my latest essay published in an online lit magazine, missing Harry and Grace who lived down the hall, missing Kay and Andrea and Matt and Larry and Barry and Mike and Sheila and Karen and Grett and Gordon and Rodney and Suzanne and so many others, so many moments shared.

Having my hair wrapped at a flea market  in Tenerife, Canary Islands
Having my hair wrapped at a flea market in Tenerife, Canary Islands

I’m back home now, physically at least, and I am glad to be settling into the familiarity of my family and the usual routine. But I can’t help reaching back to our voyage around the Atlantic during the fall Semester at Sea, wanting to hold onto that fullness for as long as I can. I want to keep that sensation of success, that confidence, that feeling that I am more adventurous, that feeling that I am bigger, stronger, more authentic. I want to remember my students, several of whom said mine was the best class they’d ever taken. I want to always be looking forward to the next port, the next chance to encounter something new and exciting, the next chance to chat with people who don’t speak my language. I want to always feel that awe at the scent of green spaces, surprising because it’s been so long since I’ve walked the damp, mossy earth, touched the rough bark of poplars and pines, seen the divine in the blossoming of bougainvillea or hibiscus.

Arriving in Roseau, Dominica
Arriving in Roseau, Dominica

I miss my shipboard friends. I miss the community and the camaraderie and even the conflict, the need to figure out how to be with each other because we share this small space and we cannot hide. I miss measuring time not by days or weeks but by ports (“That assignment was due before Ghana,” and “Did we do that after Buenos Aires or Rio?”) As my plane took off from Florida where the MV Explorer deposited us at the end of the semester, as this new craft lifted over the Atlantic Ocean and banked back over the flat patchworked terrain toward “home,” tears stung my eyes. Already I was missing the endless 360 degrees of blue, blue water all around me, the breathtaking sunrises and sunsets, the bowl of the sky speckled with stars, thunderheads visible on the horizon a day’s ride away, the simple thrill of catching a glimpse of whales or dolphins or flying fish.

“Are you ready to go back?” Several people have asked me that already, as if it isn’t obvious, as if there isn’t a glow radiating around me, a faraway look in my eyes. But I don’t think they quite understand my eager, unhesitating reply. I don’t think they can hear how hollow is this silence.

© 2012 Linda J. Kobert


Bragging Rights

View of Cape Town from halfway up Table Mountain

I just got back from hiking Table Mountain. OMG. My legs are spaghetti. I can hardly walk. In fact, I’m not sure what I do can be called walking. I have never felt like such an old lady. Thank goodness I was with some amazingly patient people.

I went with Ann and her husband Dale and a student Sarah. It was a fabulously beautiful morning, with brilliant blue skies and lovely spring breezes. But the mountain is a fickle beast. We were more than half way up, taking a little break and having a bite to eat, when I looked up and said, oh shit. The table cloth that often covers Table Mountain was pouring over the ridge and down the gorge we were hiking. So we rushed to stow our stuff and hit the trail again.

We were planning to hike to the top and take the cable car down, but along the way the people heading back down the mountain told us the cable car was closed because of gale-force winds. We could have stopped anywhere and turned back, and the rest of the group left it up to me (me being the slowest hiker, even on the way up), but I had to do it. I just had to. With a backpacker husband and two extreme outdoors sons—one of whom climbs everything: walls, trees, mountains—I needed those bragging rights.

View at the top of Table Mountain

By the time we got to the top, it was whited out with fog. I couldn’t see because my glasses kept fogging up. I couldn’t take pictures because my camera lens was fogged up…not that there was anything to take pictures of in that cloud. We walked around on the top, where there are lots of trails, and we went about a quarter of a mile to where the cable car wasn’t working and the cafe wasn’t open and the bathrooms were locked and sat on a bench outside the cafe and snacked on cheese and crackers and nuts in the gale-force winds, shivering, teeth chattering.

When we headed back to the gorge to hike down, I realized why they say you need a guide to find your way. If it were up to me, we’d still be up there wandering around in the cold and the wind and the fog on the tundra-like landscape with no discernible landmarks. I couldn’t tell up from down, and I never would have found the gorge. We did find it—thank you Dale—and managed to make it down despite the pain in my left knee and my right hip. Ibuprofen helped a lot, as did the walking stick I found on the trail. But after a while my legs just decided they’d had enough. They turned to rubber, and I barely made it down the mountain.

We were walking down the road toward the cable car stop at the bottom of the hill where we hoped we’d find a taxi, when the police came by and asked us if we wanted a ride (I’m sure it had nothing to do with the way I was waddling, still leaning on my gnarled stick even on the paved road). They took us to the taxi stand, and the taxi took us to the ship, and I managed to climb the steps up the gangway to the fifth deck. And now I’ve got my feet up, lying on my bed, and I dare not move. But I climbed Table Mountain! 3,558 feet. Ha!

© 2012 Linda J. Kobert

Wakeup Call

“I’m a control freak,” Andrea said, “and I like to walk fast.”

It was a fair enough warning. The four of us had taken the train from Antwerp to Ghent for the day. We’d trooped after her, she with a map in hand and a plan in mind, through the streets of Ghent on a scavenger hunt, seeking out the highlights of the historic city: the ornate Gothic cathedral, the ornate Gothic government buildings that looked like cathedrals, more Gothic churches, the Castle, the canals.

But by two ’o clock, we were all a little grumpy. We were tired, and lunch had been a disappointment. Now we were just trying to be polite.

Then we passed the café. It was on the other side of the street, nearly lost in the shadow of the (ornate Gothic) town hall. We crossed the cobblestones and ducked between parked cars and walked up to the window that said Huize Colette. We peeked in the window. We peeked in the door. We walked inside to look at the menu written in chalk on the wall behind the counter.

“What do you think?” someone said.

“Do they have hot chocolate?” someone else said.

We asked the round young woman behind the counter if she had hot chocolate.

“Do you want milk, half milk, or very dark?” she asked in fair Flemish English.

We looked at each other. We had no idea what to say. We’d never been given a chocolate choice before. The woman smiled at our confusion and gently suggested we take a seat; she’d be right over.

We were like kids, bouncing and giggling and ogling the chocolate torte tempting us on the counter. We did as we were told, and when the young woman—she owned the shop—came to take our orders, she explained the difference between milk (the usual milk chocolate), half milk (semisweet dark chocolate), and very dark (that 85% cacao you can only get in specialty stores in the U.S.).

“You can also get very dark as ‘wake up call,’” she said. “With espresso.”

My eyes lit up. “Is it very bitter?” I asked.

The woman smiled sweetly and nodded.

“Do people add sugar?” I asked.

“We can give to you,” she said.

So my compatriots ordered milk, and I ordered a wakeup call. (What else?!)

“What about the torte?” someone said.

“Should we?” someone hemmed.

“What do you think?” someone else hawed.

“We’ll have one to share,” I said.

The hot chocolate came in fat mugs on silver trays, and the chocolate torte came with a dollop of whipped cream and four forks. From the very first sip we were all in heaven. We couldn’t stop oohing and ahhing. My wakeup call took my breath away—I never did add the sugar. And the chocolate torte disappeared—just disappeared.

We floated out of Huize Colette on a high that had nothing to do with caffeine. Somehow our grumpies were gone, washed away by the best hot chocolate any of us had ever tasted.

But something else had evaporated into the sweet-smelling air of that delightful little café, too. We continued on our tourists’ quest, but somehow the fun we were having together—our joking banter, the pictures we snapped of each other, the scent of flowers along the way—was more important than laying eyes on every numbered icon on the map. And by the end of the day when we melted into chairs on a restaurant piazza near the canal, a bottle of wine between us, the sun setting into clouds of beautiful colors beyond the Castle, we all just sighed. This was what we’d remember the most about this trek to the city of Ghent.

(c) 2012 Linda J. Kobert