In northern Brazil, I took a public ferry to the canal communities near the city of Belém, where people keep tarantulas as pets, and to a nearby island called Algodoal, where the Amazon pours into the Atlantic. In Kerala, in southern India, I paid five cents to a ferryman who sang as he rowed across the black estuarial waters, just like the ferryman who let Hermann Hesse’s Siddhartha ride for free in his youth. (Better him than Charon, the mythical Greek figure who ferries souls across the River Styx to Hades.) An hour or so west of the modern ills of Cancún, Mexico, I took a ferry to an island without cars called Holbox, and from a village in Croatia, I ferried to the resort island of Hvar, where a Balkan brass band was playing in the harbor. Some crossings were more dramatic than others. I once hid from another passenger (we were feuding) on the small Fishers Island ferry to New London, Connecticut. And imagine my delight one spring, after a hectic week of traveling, to find a little ferry right outside my hotel in Stockholm. Docking at various spots in the city, it gave me a satisfying command of a maritime capital.
“This is where the rich people live,” a crew member named Igor told me in perfect English as we docked in the Östermalm neighborhood. “And over there is the church where our Princess Victoria’s wedding will be. She’s marrying her personal trainer, so one day he’ll be king. Isn’t that great?” Not the kind of remark you would expect from a taciturn Swede. But then, since you have nothing to do but look out at the world as you cruise slowly along in the open air, ferries provoke conversation.
“I hear it’s very modern,” my Copenhagen ferry captain remarked about the plastic-surgery opera I’d just seen. The boat was full as it left the opera behind, and I noticed that the passengers, whose faces had looked crimped moments before, were relaxing into the ride. This ferryman, whose first name was Henning, had been at his post for years but had not yet seen an opera performance.
“But from what I hear,” he said, “it takes too long for Carmen to die.”
I nodded in agreement, and took it with a grain of sea salt.
Bob Morris is the author of Assisted Loving and a contributor to the New York Times.