The Ecphorizer

Messageries Maritimes
George Towner

Issue #68 (July 1987)

Washington Irving wrote in praise of sea travel. The interval at sea, he maintained, represents an ideal way to erase one's impressions of one continent before taking on the experiences of another. He saw a week or so at sea as having somewhat the same function as the bland sorbet that separates

...we spent the days and evenings taking the world apart...

the fish course from the meat in a well-regulated gourmet dinner.

Nowadays, of course, we jet from land to land, from culture to culture. One night of uneasy semi-sleep in a stuffy airplane [quoteright]cabin is all that detaches the impressions of a traveler going between London and Delhi or New York and Tangier. The cultural cushion that passenger ships used to provide is now simulated by the bland and cultureless Hilton-style hotel, which releases the traveler at one end and envelopes him at the other — a neutral environment that is neither Europe nor Asia, neither American nor African.

But passenger ships did more than just reset the traveler's cultural responses. They were also marvelous vehicles for making exotic friends and for evoking wide-ranging discussions. With nothing but the endless ocean to look at and no outside news except the noon wireless bulletins, sea travelers were thrown back on their primal intellectual resources. They were encouraged to stand away from the world and view it whole.

I came on the scene just at the tail-end of passenger ship travel. With more ships being scrapped every year, I grabbed what was universally judged to be the best of the dying breed — Messageries Maritimes, the old French colonial service. It ran two services regularly out of Marseille: one through Suez to Colombo, Singapore, Saigon, Yokohama and return, and the other via Panama to Tahiti, Sydney and back. The ships were great old queens, with teakwood lounges, spacious outside cabins, and splendid cuisine. And (I kid you not), the second-class fares were actually cheaper than flying.

The first time I sailed on Messageries Maritimes was in 1961, from Yokohama to Saigon. The Cambodge disdained any kind of air conditioning, and we sweated down the South China Sea in the heat of September. I celebrated my birthday drinking little schmoo-shaped bottles of Perrier with a German kid, who like me, was doing his wanderjahr. There was a young French doctor aboard, just married and out of medical school, who was taking his bride to the medical station at Kratie, up the Mekong river. We talked globally; about the civil war in Laos, which had not yet leaked down to Viet Nam, about the pros and cons of communism in China, and about the whole Oriental concept of life. But I also remember a heated discussion about whether it was really fair to require the Laotians to put license plates on their elephants, as well as the possible mechanics of such attachment. When I stepped ashore in Saigon I felt practically no culture shock, for I was just re-entering the familiar world at a different point.

My taste for Messageries thus whetted, it was natural for me to book passage again in 1968. This time I was returning eastward from living a year in southern France. I went down to the great headquarters building facing the Marseille waterfront — an art-deco palace already showing the seedy look of imminent abandonment — and reserved a berth from Sydney to Panama. Thirty-six days, sixteen of them in port, for 300 Australian dollars — about $420 US! Stops in New Caledonia, the New Hebrides, Tahiti, and Nuku Hiva! No travel agent could have painted a more attractive prospect.

In the event, it was everything I had hoped for and more. After making the trek across Asia and down through Indonesia, then hitchhiking through the center of Australia, I was ready for a little European comfort. The Calédonien stood white and regal at the Sydney pier even though she was making her last voyage, destined to be broken up in Marseille. We cast off with all the ceremonies, and settled down to three French meals with wine a day. I read old copies of Blackwood's Magazine and boned up on my French.

My companions aboard included a Canadian professor of geography, a Swedish engineer, a Swiss language teacher, and a funny little German named Alfred, whose quasi-nazi spoutings earned him progressively smaller helpings from our discriminating French waiter. During the days in port, we swam and snorkeled while the ship loaded copra. On Efate we hired a guide to take us to a jungle village; he started shedding his clothes and putting feathers in his hair as we got farther and farther from the coast. On Nuku Hiva we got ourselves invited to a pig roast, where the piece de resistance had been dispatched by modern technology, a claw hammer. In Tahiti we toured the local bars and took a motor launch over to Moorea. At sea, we spent the days and evenings taking the world apart and putting it back together again. It was that kind of trip.

Thus when I finally quitted the ship in Panama, I was perfectly ready for the bus trip north to America and new employment. My month at sea had cleansed and reset my perceptions as no other experience could.

So I guard my memories of sailing on Messageries Maritimes, for the line has now disappeared. The nearest approach to passenger ships at all are freighters that carry up to 12 voyagers. I recently took a cruise to see if I could recapture the old flavor. It was a lot of fun; but, alas, a ship that leaves one port and returns there remains chained to the land. It is a floating resort, not a means of passage. The people aboard achieve no cultural neutrality, for they are not really going anywhere. Even though they are sailing the sea they are not true passengers, and their ship cannot rival the old Messageries. 

GEORGE TOWNER, travel bum turned editor, writes about the former occupation while trying to find new talent for the latter. The question is: would a really good editor accept the stuff he prints in these pages? We should try a change of command and see. You can read about George's latest book here!

More Articles by George Towner

We have collected the essential data you need to easily include this page on your blog. Just click and copy!close
E-mail Print to PDF Blog
Return to Table of Contents for Issue #68