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The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler’s Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia

Wednesday Oct 16, 2013

Named a "Top 10" travel book by Publisher's Weekly, EDGE offers you an exclusive insider's look at Alden Jones' "The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler's Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia."

Upstairs on Deck 7, in the faculty/staff lounge, Mag, from the Philippines, served up piña coladas and Tiger beer and bowls of cheddar-flavored Goldfish. Early on, the young and the childless gathered nightly to commune with potential friends and travel companions, and to occasionally get drunk and sing karaoke.

I was big on karaoke. My preferred karaoke song was "Crimson and Clover" in the style of Joan Jett, but that was not available on the ship's karaoke machine, so I resorted to Christina Aguilera's "Genie in a Bottle." Kate, the 28-year-old administrator and assistant to the Executive Dean, was also a fan. Kate's karaoke song was "Bette Davis Eyes." She sang it with in a deep-throated alto, with lots of gusto and usually a dance move or two.

I'd first noticed Kate during staff introductions when we were docked in San Diego. She stood at the podium and said "I'm not sure exactly what my job on Semester at Sea is, but I'm sure you'll all help me figure it out," with an easy, liquid laugh and a comfort in her body I admired. She had short auburn hair that she kept pinned back with an elaborate network of bobby pins. It occurred to me that she was charming and magnetic and fun to be around, but it did occur to me that she was gay.

During the crossing from Hawaii to Japan we were at sea for ten days. It was the longest stretch we traveled without a port. Our group of friends found a quick intimacy during those nights we were "stuck" on the ship, and soon we were dishing about recent relationships.

I explained to Kate, "The last person I dated had a psychotic cat, and I have a neurotic dog, so we didn't stand much of a chance." In addition to using the word "person," I risked my reputation as an English professor by choosing the gender-neutral "they" over the singular "her." It was exhausting to come out all the time when you looked as straight as I did, though my hair was chunked out at the time in bleach blonde and candy apple red, which alluded to a detachment from the mainstream.

Kate said, "Just so you know, I mostly only date women," and grinned.

We both took quick sips of Tiger beer.

Kate's daytime post was at the center of the ship. When I passed through the central offices on my way to the dining hall, I caught glimpses of her half-hidden behind her computer monitor, writing up the latest Dean's Memo, or laughing with her work-study students. Before we arrived in Japan I stopped by to request a dry-erase marker.

"Blue or black?" she asked.

"Either one will do."

"What are you doing in Japan?"

"I don't know, exactly," I told Kate. "I got a rail pass."

"Me too," she said, and lifted her hand for a high-five.

Kate had studied abroad in Nicaragua and traveled extensively in Guatemala and Costa Rica. It was rare that I could talk about my time in Central America and not have to explain anything. Kate and I knew, from our shared attraction to the same places on the planet, that we would be good travel companions. But as for getting together? Oh, that would probably be a bad idea. One hundred days on a small ship would be a long time if something went awry.

Kate and I sometimes shared a chair in the Faculty/Staff lounge, even when two seats were free, but for now we were just, as she put it, "besties."

Days, we were busy. When there weren't classes to teach, there were meetings. I spent my hour-long windows of free time on the elliptical machine at the gym, or grading papers in my cabin, wishing I could be sitting by the pool, on Deck 7 aft, among the students who rocked in the sun, watching the frothy wake of our ship fading into the horizon.

Then I figured out I could grade papers at the pool.

In Exoticism class, we discussed Arthur Golden's novel, "Memoirs of a Geisha," and the film adaptation of the novel.

"White, Western author, writing about a Japanese geisha. Being forced into prostitution worked out pretty well for this girl. Realistic?"

"I loved the movie," one student said.

"Me too!" several students said.

Ah, yes. Work to be done.

The ship cleared in Kobe and the Amazing Race began: the contest was judged on who could see the most and the best of Japan in five days. The stakes seemed high during this first port. No one wanted to miss the Best Thing, and no one had a surplus of time. We swiped our cards at the gangway, scattered. We were free of school obligations while in port.

In Japan, Kate and Brian and I spent a night at a ryokan on the island of Miyajima, wearing matching kimonos, eating delectable, unidentifiable foods in our own private dining room, and lounging in the baths. That night we drank sake, still in our kimonos, into the wee hours.

Brian guessed that I'd grown up on a hippie commune with free-spirit parents. I almost spit out my sake. "Sorry to disappoint you," I said. "I spent my youth at the Montclair Kimberley Academy, dressed in Laura Ashley."

I guessed that Kate, with her well-adjusted manner and easy happiness, had grown up with parents who were still madly in love, a few brothers, a golden retriever or a yellow lab, and spending her summers on Martha's Vineyard. Kate almost spit out her sake. "Try single teenage mom on welfare," she said. Then I did spit out my sake.

Brian, the scruffy, anxious vagabond artist who'd settled in Portland, Oregon, revealed that he'd grown up in Georgia.

Kate and I looked at him quizzically, then said in unison, "Georgia?"

When you sail into the open sea with strangers, you can leave your past behind.

We took a train to Kyoto and biked around the city. Here is a picture of the silver pagoda. Here is a picture of the gold pagoda. Here is a postcard from the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. We spent two nights at a karaoke club and sang until our vocal chords betrayed us. The last morning, Brian woke up to find Kate and me sharing the narrow futon to his left while the futon to his right had been abandoned.

"So," he said, "this is how it's going to be for the rest of the trip, huh?"

Kate and I giggled, kissed. At least we had lasted until Japan.

Then we were back on the ship.

From "The Blind Masseuse: A Traveler's Memoir from Costa Rica to Cambodia" by Alden Jones. Reprinted by permission of the University of Wisconsin Press. © 2013 by the Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System. All rights reserved.


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