Cora couldn’t believe she had finally done it! All her life she had dreamed about traveling through the famous Mediterranean. Not as a tourist, certainly not in a yacht or on a cruise ship. She simply wanted to traverse that body of water, accompanied by the two best books on the history of Mediterranean culture. She didn't know why she thought it was famous, except that so much had seemed to have happened there - battles, trade - and so much seemed to have been built there.
Most of the Mediterranean was just a big bubble in her head, to be honest, but Cora knew what she knew. The area was important, on so many levels. She had the vague idea of having first heard about it when she was six years old, which was about when she began to take reading seriously and to understand what a library meant.
All the while she was growing up, Cora had been crafting her plan. She had the advantage of being a very patient person. Patient and frugal. She had to save up and she set about doing it to the extent that in a few years the account designated for the dream trip was large enough to purchase a plane ticket and have the balance to pay for modest lodging and food. She wanted to stay as long as she could, but didn't know how long that would be. How expensive was the Mediterranean, anyway? Was she going to be able to avoid the tourism scenario? It was truly the last thing she wanted.
The first step for Cora had been to fly to Greece, knowing as she did that the city of Athens might leave her unable to tear herself away for the water part of her voyage. She adored what she called "the old stuff." She knew she should have become an archaeologist and had never really figured out why she hadn't. Well, a lot of people had laughed at her, probably because they didn't know what archaeologists did or why they did it. Nobody had ever asked why or wanted to know what she thought it would be like to work on excavations in Egypt, Mesopotamia, Rome, Syria, or the countless sites in Latin America.
Despite the pull of Athenian architecture and artistic displays, Cora remained firm and, after six days in the capital, she continued slightly southward where a boat had been reserved. Well, not the boat; rather, a ticket she had paid for that gave her the right to her own modest sleeping room and bath. It was not a space for the claustrophobic, which Cora was, but not to an extreme. These details are important, and just to be very clear, Cora was not interested in a cruise (nor did she have the money for it). The passengers on her boat were ones who probably had to travel by water to reach their homes on islands or to do business in the region.
Cora was not interested in whether the simple passenger boat had a bar or nocturnal music. She was not planning on starting up conversations in order to try out her not-so-modest knowledge of Modern Greek. (She could hold her in own in the language - so beautiful - in party conversation, and could even defend her political views. However, conversation was unnecessary to the success of her trip.)
Cora was absolutely thrilled with her solitude, mostly because she did not feel alone. Her focus was on the water, the thousands of islands - each with volumes of ancient history attached, as if floating next to a buoy - and the peoples who had made the region their home. Who still did, in many cases. She lamented not having been able to master all the languages and dialects of those languages she would certainly encounter. It couldn't be helped, and her priorities had been, were, clear. She wanted to go through, cut through, the Mediterranean Sea as if it and she were timeless. She wanted to be porous, like a sponge, soaking up its identity until it became her starting point for viewing the world.
It was rather odd, what Cora intended, hoped, to do, because she was running away from nothing - not a terrible childhood or the all-too-frequent abusive relationship. She was running toward something, or floating toward it. She was opening herself up as much as humanly possible, and she hoped to receive all that she was going to be passing through as the ancient waves bobbed all around her. Nirvana? Perhaps. Oblivion? Doubtful. This was a plan to find pure pleasure and convergence.
Convergence of what, she hadn't a clue, but it was sensual and she was ready. Water can do that to people. It is often much more persuasive than alcohol. And its effects last much, much longer.
Cora had chosen her history books well. They were good companions, sturdier and more reliable than trying to rely on an iPad for reading material. There was unlikely to be a good connection in the middle of the Mediterranean. There certainly hadn't been one thousands of years ago and yet information had readily been shared by residents there. It was called talking to other people and sharing documents, however they might be created - on parchment, clay, metal. No screens, better information systems.
It was a day or so out of Athens and moving past the Saronic Islands, when Cora was informed that the boat was in the vecinity of the Cyclades. Oh, that couldn't possibly be true! Spending time on Naxos, the largest island, seemed an impossible experience, but it was now hers. This was where the original frying pan had appeared, and art forms of Cycladic culture could well have influenced Jean Arp. Amazing. The Cycladic peoples probably had come from far away - Anatolia (wherever that was)? - and had been overrun by Cretans.
At least the humble traveler was able to sample some Santorini, the best local wine with the Italian name. The wine was much less flavorful and filling than the architecture - old, something an archaeologist would be drawn to - and so Cora kept reading, entering long passages in her journal, taking digital photos she could immediately see were fabulous. Only once in a while the white-washed houses and bright blue sky betrayed the exposure of the image.
Life was exactly this. Life was the Mediterranean Sea, its history, its layers and layers of DNA, its diverse everything. Except, of course, for its sun and steep slopes of countless little villages that looked alike, but weren't alike at all.
Cora's eyes grew moist as she realized she would be unable to set her foot on more than three of the over two hundred islands known as the Cyclades. She was realizing that she would never be able to afford the passage on the boat she was traveling on for the amount of days she want to be travelingg on it. For all she knew, this could be the trip of a lifetime. Meaning, of course, that she might want to spend a lifetime, the rest of her life, exactly where she was: in a single, defined space (the boat), on a single, confined body of water (the Mediterranean).
Ironic, when you thought about it.
On a break from the Cyclades walks, Cora was reading about mythologies of the Mediterranean when the waves quickly took control, cradling her, their rocking motion lulling her to sleep. In her sleep, which must have been the result of the anticipation of the trip, now really happening, the Mediterranean was transformed into a very broad river. Distortions like that often occur in dreams, of course. It felt like the little sea was moving toward... an ocean? Like a river.
In this way Cora was soon moving from the gentle lapping of the book pages to the waters of the River Styx. Why that specific river? Perhaps because the name had haunted her always, in the good sense. She thought it would be a good name for a pet, or title for a novel. It was one of the first rivers students in elementary school learn. They might not hear it in classes nowadays, which is a terrible thought.
However, Cora was not ignorant about the ancient world, its beliefs, and the river with a ferryman or boatman named Charon. Mythological history explained that it was one of several rivers in Hades, the Underworld. Oddly enough, it is also the name of a deity known for her ability to provide valor and strength to those entering battle. Even as she slept, the dream puzzled Cora, who wondered why the Styx was associated with positive and negative forces and why it was at once river and woman.
There were no experts at hand, on the boat, to resolve that question for her, so it was just as good that Cora was merely dreaming… but there remained the problem of the association between the Styx (river or goddess) and hatred. Styx, the figure with the worst and best features, and mother of (amongg others) Nike. Just a shoe now, but nevertheless a daughter of Styx. The river that corroded ships trying to sail across it and that gave Achilles his strength.
A woman, after all, with changing form, function, name, image.
And the dream goes on, because Cora is now seeing the story A la deriva [‘Adrift’] by Uruguayan writer Horacio Quiroga on the pages of the book on her lap. It is not written there, of course, but has appeared most likely because of the drifting along feeling, the movement of the silvered waves.
Quiroga's story was different, and the man in the little boat is drifting downstream because he was bitten by a snake and will never reach the doctor in the next village. It was a story that had drawn Cora in. Spanish class. The narrator gradually slowing down as the man's life slows down, as the boat does not transport him in time. Not a matter of the souls transported by Charon who must pay their passage with a coin or wander the Styx for a hundred years. Still, both boats leading toward death or something similar. Not what Cora had dreamed about for so many years.
The Ship of Fools. "Oh no," Cora cries out loud, but not so loudly as to disturb anyone. There are many references to a ship (but not a frigate) over the centuries. Art and literature have entertained us with the image of people who are fools because they are either deficient in intellectual capacity or engage in the actions that make humans look the most stupid. Dimwits, all together on a boat.
Was Cora herself a dimwit? She had actually gone so far as to do a drawing with water-soluble pastels. Pastels that were oil-based, but did well with water. Did that have a hidden meaning? Weren't oil and water incompatible? It was about this point that Cora shook herself awake, because the dream had become absurd. That can happen. We can feel stupi or crazy because we dreamed something exceptionally strange.
Shaking her head, even a couple of stretches, didn't manage to waken Cora completely. It must be the waves, the waves, the never-ending rolling... And now there is a dream about another dream which years ago was about drifting along the St. Lawrence River, drifting into an inlet with snapping turtles. Revived that inlet in the reading of a story by Paraguayan writer Augusto Roa Bastos. Snapping sounds in the water of turtles or capybaras. Cora hates this dream, and its insertion inside another dream makes her fear she will never sleep again. It is the snap, click, or ripple of subterranean - not Mediterranean - substrata.
Nuestras vidas son los ríos ('Our lives are rivers that run to the sea') washes the nightmare away, but Cora doesn't miss it. The line itself, from an important Spanish poet named Jorge Manrique, is repeated too often, and nobody notices much anymore. Ancient metaphor.
There is no frigate like a book. The phrase creeps carefully out, and Cora knows it is from a favorite writer of hers, from one of her favorite poems by that writer. She recites it, because she knows the gentle poem by heart:
There is no Frigate like a Book
To take us Lands away,
Nor any Coursers like a Page
Of prancing Poetry –
This Traverse may the poorest take
Without oppress of Toll –
How frugal is the Chariot
That bears a Human soul.
Emily Dickinson had spoken here of a frigate, much more imposing and aggressive than Cora's little boat-ferry, but the concept was the same: a mode of transportation that leads us over, and into, surprising depths. This detail was not lost on Cora. She looked at her two sturdy, speechless (but not wordless) companions and faces reality.
It is irrational to think she could spend the rest of her life moving across the surface of the Magnificent Mediterranean. At some point there will be no more money and the waters will have morphed into a Stygian Mediterranean. Ultimately, she has to go home. Can she take the Big Sea with her? No, but she will have her eyes and the words she would only seek at night now, when no view of the Sea would be possible. Her eyes will work with her fingers which will work with pen or pencil or brush and paint.
She will have her Mediterranean, be its boat, know its story, tell its tales.