Tale of Tales: Pico Iyer Goes Into the Blue

Pico Iyer’s Tale of Tales: Pico Iyer Goes Into the Blue is part of a series commissioned by Silversea Cruises to chronicle a world cruise through the eyes of some of the world’s best writers, photographers and visual artists.

This anthology celebrates all those who were part of the extraordinary 2019 World Cruise. Those who traveled farther into the world to discover its beauty. Those who were fascinated, amazed and delighted by the stories they encountered – the stories they shared – and the story they created.

Three small figures huddled under umbrellas as a furious wind tried to tear their protection out of their hands. The largely festive buildings along the shore were smudged into a no-color haze. For 17 days, California had been enjoying radiant skies and Tahitian blue seas, as if midsummer had abruptly hijacked midwinter. But now the downpours that many had been praying for were erasing everything, and all we could see were thick walls of gray.

“Nothing to see but sea,” said John, the passenger beside me, as our bus hydroplaned through the streets of central San Francisco toward Silver Whisper. “For seven days!” Eight, actually; or maybe nine, as Captain Destefano, warned us of storms that might pursue us for a hundred hours across the Pacific, wisely chose to delay our departure till the following morning.

Twelve hours later, still anchored in San Francisco, my wife and I walked up to Deck 10 as the day came up and saw unexpectedly clear skies rising above the harbor. The Bay Bridge gleamed in the rinsed new light. The sun, fighting to break through clouds, was turning a whole patch of sky into a pulsing golden plate. Not many yards across the bay, a rainbow arced shyly above the sea in front of Alcatraz.

I’d thought I knew San Francisco pretty well: I’d been coming here ever since my parents moved to California in 1965. But never had I enjoyed a 360-degree view like this. Walking along the deck, I could inspect the whole expanse of the bay in the round, each step disclosing a fresh angle. And every time we made a further revolution, the weather had made the city new again, something different. I’d never noticed how the massed skyscrapers of downtown abutted the rounded hills, Coit Tower at their top.

We set sail at last, and, three hours later, a medical emergency after the very first lecture forced us back the way we’d come, as if we were destined never to leave. But as we drifted under the ethereal, burnt-red expanse of the Golden Gate Bridge for the third time that day – we had been scheduled to pass under it only once, after dark – even excited crew members started snapping pictures of one another along the shining decks. The storms, the medical challenge (fortunately breaking out while we were still close to port), the enforced return: Every one of them had opened up wonders beyond imagining.

What kind of mischievous games are the Fates playing with me, I’d begun to wonder? When Silversea invited me to join its 2019 World Cruise almost two years earlier, I could hardly contain my excitement: In 44 years of almost constant travel, I’d never been to many of the ports listed on the itinerary – Mombasa, Zanzibar, Mahé, even Lisbon. And now, on my wife’s first cruise ever, she was going to get to see them, too. I eagerly signed up – the first time I’d ever accepted an invitation to speak on a cruise ship – and then consulted my calendar: i

In February 2019 I had recklessly committed myself to teaching in New Jersey. So too in March 2019 and April and May.

The only time Hiroko and I were free to join the ship, therefore, was the opening leg, which meant that Hiroko’s first day on board a luxury liner – and her second and third and fourth and fifth and sixth and seventh and eighth – would be spent at sea. Yes, the subtitle of my last slim booklet had been “Adventures in Going Nowhere,” but I’d never expected those words to be taken so literally.

Silver Shadow cruising/ Photo Silversea Cruises

My job on the ship was to be the first of nine special guests for “Tale of Tales,” diverting my fellow passengers with vignettes from my trips to Yemen and North Korea and Iran. But even before we’d boarded Silver Whisper, I’d learned an essential lesson: the true tellers of tales on this craft would be my fellow passengers.

At the Bon Voyage dinner in San Francisco, the elegant Czech woman next to me began reminiscing about her life growing up in Belgium and South America – after arriving on a train platform in Austria at the age of 5 with just one suitcase in hand and nowhere to go; the man across from us was talking of his home in Marrakech.
These veterans of World Cruises were swapping names of atolls and ports that might have been places on the moon to me; one person was describing staying on Marlon Brando’s private island; others were assessing the scuba-diving in the Seychelles.

The hidden treasure of any trip is one’s fellow travelers, I’d always known, but for someone invited to tell tales, this could present serious problems: My stories of joining my mother to see in the new millennium on Easter Island and then taking shelter in a Papeete, Tahiti, cinema to watch Austin Powers 2as we awaited our 2 a.m. flight back to California began to sound very prosaic indeed.

An hour after we boarded the ship, I realized that I was in even greater trouble: There were four or five hundred other professional travelers and tellers of tales among us, in the waiters and suite attendants and hosts who carried six trays, worked 16 hours and always smiled with perfect politeness, even as almost all their lives (and loves and family dramas) unfolded at sea

They had been circumnavigating the globe for years, for eight or 10 months of every year. “What did you see in Antarctica?” I asked one. “Oh,” she said softly, “just whales and penguins and glaciers.” Then she caught herself, and remembered: When she’d told her kids back in Manila about what she’d seen, they marveled as if listening to Marco Polo.

At breakfast, a friendly neighbor was telling me about his time living in Saudi Arabia and flying across indigenous Australia for “The Ambassador.” I met a diplomat and then, seconds later, another, who spoke of their time in Havana and Tanzania and Peru. Wonderful, 90-year-old Joan was telling us how robins in Minnesota sip at fermented cherry blossoms in the fall and then stagger around drunk.

Just behind the glittering place-names were deeper stories – two husbands buried, a love lost forever in Minorca – but even without prying too deeply, we realized we were riding on a glorious anthology of stories. “This is a human library,” Hiroko marveled. Soon we hardly noticed that we were hearing about the 7-year-old Japanese girl a friendly couple from California had somehow been given to raise or how that vascular surgeon from Mumbai had spent his boyhood in South Sudan and Somalia.


Nuku Hiva, French Polynesia/ photo Shutterstock

I’d been on cruises before – four of them, through Alaska and the Baltic States, and around the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. But I’d seldom been in the company of such experienced voyagers as here. No one thought anything of visits to Tristan da Cunha or a courtship on Silver Whisper (with a proposal in Rio); our lecturer Jon was recalling to us that French Polynesia is larger than all of Europe while two new friends were telling us how more people summit Everest in one year than visit the most memorable place they’d encountered, South Georgia Island.

A member of the staff explained how he awoke at 3 every morning so he could Skype his family back in the Philippines; his 1-year-old already knew to reach for her mother’s smartphone and cry, “Da-da, Da-da, Da-da.” Someone else was telling us how FaceTime had transformed her life aboard ship; now she could always see and hear her loved ones, even across oceans. The smiling staff were true citizens of the world, coming from everywhere and feeling at home almost anywhere. And when I’d thought of this community as a family, I’d never guessed in how many directions that could apply: a grandmother from Florida, widowed for 26 years, had grown so close to her butler and her suite attendant that she wanted to see their families when they came aboard to visit, too, as if they were her own.

Why, you’re asking now, am I not writing about the rocky and forbidding slopes of Nuku Hiva, the famously remote port at which Herman Melville jumped ship? Why no word of the Happy Valley where he’d stumbled into an unfallen idyll of beautiful, hospitable people without lawyers or police officers or jobs? “The Marquesas!” America’s great novelist had exclaimed, “What strange visions of outlandish things does the very name spirit up!”

Yet on arrival there, he found utopian pleasures beyond the farthest reaches of outlandishness and quickened the Golden Age fables that would gain momentum through Gauguin and Stevenson and Brando.

But we spent little time thinking of our first port as we grew accustomed to our days at sea. Every hour – every minute – the ocean was disclosing fresh colors. It was a landscape painting that never allowed us to grow used to it. We came to know its moods as we might a neighbor’s but still we could never anticipate the color-field painting it would present outside our window every morning: red above gold, yellow above blue, turquoise above emerald.

My wife slipped out of the suite just before midnight, as we were sailing from midwinter to midsummer, and stood at the prow, on the anniversary of her father’s death, sending prayers out to the heavens. Sunsets started exploding later and later and then the clocks were changed and changed again as if to remind us that nothing mattered but the calendar of the sea. I had wild dreams – of a string of beaches around the coast at Rio, of red mountains in Bolivia – and when we awoke at 4:30 one morning, we walked up to see the Southern Cross pinpointed against an inky sky, almost no lights of planes disrupting the clustered constellations.

Golden sunset with hundreds of seabirds/ Photo Denis Elterman

“A flying fish!” cried Hiroko, pointing to a polished silver stone skimming across the waves. “A shooting star!” Nature seemed as unresting as a member of the Silversea team as it threw off one dazzling watercolor after another.

Why am I not writing of the double rainbow improbably facing a near-full moon the day we left the ship at Papeete, the dolphins jumping along the ship as we headed to white-rimmed Moorea? Because we were living the Polynesian dream long before we disembarked at those palmy ports. “One tranquil day of ease and happiness follows another in quick succession,” wrote Melville, describing the heaven he’d found in Happy Valley, and that was our life at sea. No one was going anywhere, and no one was in need of anything she didn’t have. “To many of them indeed,” he concluded, of his new neighbors, “life is little else than an often interrupted and luxurious nap.”

So with us. The ship moved, and we moved around it, and everything was moving. We had no need of land, and we inhaled the spaciousness of days without much news or the beeping of incoming messages. When I developed a cough, I descended to Deck 3 and was treated by a nurse called Angel; my warm and open-hearted new friend Hope pointed out that the doctor’s middle name had “Love” in it. When I came up again, the vast colors stretching out on every side were new.

As we floated away from the sleeping beagle that was Nuku Hiva – our first land, our first boats in seven days – I started to entertain a seditious thought: To become a true Tale Teller, I could stay on the ship forever, or for the whole five months and fifty-two ports in all.

I could awaken early every morning and write for five hours in the sun-washed quiet of my suite.

Then I could go out to devour some of the world’s most hidden wonders, amid new friends from Belorussia and Goa and Bali. News was coming in now of “a massive winter snowstorm” crossing America. California was suffering under punishing new rains. A passenger from Brazil reported his friends were “dying” of the heat in Rio.

Here on the ship, however, we shared old tales – and started creating new ones – even when it looked to the innocent bystander as if we were going absolutely nowhere.

Guests arriving at Kital Island, Bali/ Photo Daniela Plaza 

Like the voyage itself, Tale of Tales is enhanced, once more, by in addition to Pico Iyer, our company of esteemed Tale Tellers, who played such a stimulating role in the Tale of Tales narrative. They mirror our guests’ world perspectives and inquisitive natures. And their creativity is a testament to our planet’s limitless wonders. It embodies the quest for authenticity, hidden beauty and unique travel experiences — each of which Silversea is dedicated to delivering in utmost comfort.

May our Tale Tellers’ writings, images and recollections re-immerse you in your own memories and stories – and beckon further, enriching explorations. Curious to learn more? Download the free e-book of all of our Tale of Tales world cruise stories.