My hip bones ache from a night on the stained carpeted floor and announcements come in a static-y Arabic over the ferry speakers. I close my eyes again, aware of the huge boat’s pitching. The man at my feet utters a throaty snore and I submit, reopening my eyes to the blue and yellow upholstered chairs looming above us. I pull on my jeans underneath my heavy sleeping bag and don my long sleeve shirt to avoid offending other passengers with my bare arms, although the air is stale and hot. I sway around bodies sprawled across the floors and make my way to the washroom where I rinse my face and pee before remembering that the bathroom has no toilet paper. After ten months on the road and scarcely a single facility with toilet paper, my mind still refuses to process this indignity. Checking the mirror on the way out I find a bad African Queen impression: loose button down, scarf, tan nose below the sunglass line and casually messy hair. I smirk at my own descent into a walking stereotype and push out the heavy metal door that reads: watch your hand.
At breakfast the bartender refuses Alan a cafe Americano, claiming he doesn’t have change for the euro twenty that it costs. Alan sits back down at our little table and nibbles at his packaged cream filled croissant. I’m sure he asked for the chocolate, but he is stronger than I am and capable of suffering in silence. I return to the counter and order an Americano for Alan, and this time the bartender charges a euro fifty so he doesn’t have to bother making change. I take the coffee with a forced smile and murmur, merci, thinking to myself how very like the English word, mercy, it sounds coming from my mouth.
Once, at a gas station in North Carolina a woman named Ella with a grin that stretched across her broad face spooned out what she called The Best Grits You’ll Ever Have. We traveled all over the southern United States and Ella was right. At that metal counter that shone from years of careful daily polishing our little Yankee tastebuds experienced something so buttery and creamy that it warmed us even as the damp winter chased us down the coast.
“Mercy, child!” She nearly screamed when Alan asked to make her picture, “Don’t you think you better?” She leaned over the counter and the chest of her uniform draped nearly to our grits as she refilled our half-empty mugs with Folgers before she stood up straight and smirked proudly for her photograph.
Ella chattered warmly until we could not physically imbibe any more coffee. We reluctantly stood to leave the gas station and Ella circled the counter and clutched us both simultaneously. Alan and I somehow folded into the creases of her body and she squeezed with the strength of a python, rocking us slowly back and forth. She waved broadly as the door chimes rang behind us.
Now, the Mediterranean swells outside the porthole windows. We try to savor our little paper cups of coffee and walk outside for some fresh air. The decks are packed with men smoking cigarettes and spitting. I step into a restroom and find a woman washing her four-year-old boy’s bum in the sink. I’m not sure of the decorum, so I quickly rinse my hands in the water she’s left running and smile. She does not return the favor.
By noon I’ve found a place to sit and read. I try to ignore the hissing of men and leering eyes I had hoped to leave in Northern Africa. I peer into my book as though there was nothing else in this world. The man sitting to my left begins clipping his toenails and placing them on the table.
At dinner time the boat staff informs us that the dining room is closed and it is impossible for them to open the door so that we can have the silverware we’ve requested. If we are interested in purchasing some cake from the bar, they can provide us with a fork. No, merci. We eat ramen for dinner. The noodles are crunchy because we have no hot water to cook them. It’s just as well because we’re eating with our fingers.
We settle back into our sleeping bags for the night and the Mediterranean churns, dark and grey below us. Just 23 hours left onboard. I close my eyes and for a moment feel Ella rocking, making us promise:
“Y’all be safe in that big crazy world, hear Child? Mercy, it’s crazy.” Yes, Ma’am. Mercy, we’re trying.
Morrigan McCarthy is a writer and documentary photographer currently cycling around the world to document the daily lives of twenty-somethings around the planet. She loves to travel, but her heart is back in New England wearing thick wool socks and sipping a hot mug of coffee in the foggy ocean air. She’ll be back for it, someday.