Cruising as much about the company as the scenery

How is it possible to fly 2,500 miles, cruise for eight days through the Hawaiian Islands, sail for five more days to Ensenada, Mexico, and the first words I want to put down on paper are Faina and Ellis? To whet your appetite, Faina, at age 4, was evacuated to Siberia during the 900 day siege of Leningrad. "My mother had to help dig trenches one day a week, there was no food, so my mother, sister and I, were loaded onto cattle cars and shipped to Siberia where we lived for three years."

Ellis, is Faina's fourth husband and is a retired physiology professor who's built like a hickory limb and seems to have stepped off the set of "Raiders of the Lost Ark."

"Faina is presently my third wife," Ellis said with a twinkle in his eye.

About two months ago, Orllyene, my wife and I signed on as ballroom dance instructors on Carnival Cruise Line's beautiful ship "Spirit." Our job was to teach two ballroom dance classes each day on the five day crossing between Hawaii and Ensenada. In exchange, we feasted on sumptuous meals of prime rib, grouper and tarts dripping in chocolate, and had cabin 4199. Every day Pepito, our steward, straightened our cabin, stuffed our bathroom with towels, made and turned down our bed. The only hardship was leaving Ensenada.

We made port in Honolulu, Kona, Hilo, Nawiliwili, Lahaina and Kahului. Each island is a scenic blockbuster; pristine beaches, volcanos, rain forests and quirky settlements. "Please do no wash your feet in the sink," notice in the café restroom in Hanalei spoke volumes about island propriety. I got the feeling that "hey, we're on an island and aren't going anywhere so relax."

Before returning to Ellis and Faina, a travel tip. Personally, we found rental cars to be preferable to tours. However, roads to scenic attractions can be jammed. The exception is Highway 19 which takes off from the historic district of Hilo on the Big Island. Hilo is filled with intriguing wooden buildings which are considered a prime menu item by termites, so see it before it's gone.

From Hilo, Highway 19 makes a bee-line for Honokaa and the Waipio Valley, a Michelin two-star scenic attraction. At Papaikou (vowel anyone?) a loop road veers to the right, quickly drops beneath a canopy of trees so tall and thick that vines hang like tentacles. Rushing water gushes unseen down a gulch beside the twisting narrow road. Moss clings to the stone walls that disappear into decaying leaves. Cortons, their leaves wet with rain, glisten, yellow, orange and burgundy. When a bit of sun sneaks through the canopy, hibiscus blooms proliferate. When we rejoin Highway 19, we're suddenly liberated, cruising through sugar cane fields in the open air with a magnificent view of empty ocean.

Honokaa slumbers like the volcano it clings to. Just 44 miles from Hilo, it is not of our mall-processed world. The Salvation Army building is a focal point; a mid-sized supermarket and a burgeoning Ace Hardware store hold court over tiny gift shops, bakeries and art galleries that line Main Street.

"I've had this store for 27 years ... snoop as much as you want," Teresa says as soon as we step into her cavernous emporium of vintage Hawaiian shirts, old magazines, depression glassware and dry goods. My husband is on Saipan ...we (USA) got kicked off Iwo Jima so now there's a lot of construction work on Guam and Saipan. I told him Saipan is like a ham sandwich and Honokaa is like a buffet. I'm going nowhere!"

"We met through a dating service. When he called, I told him I'm a wild woman so save your money if you don't like to travel and dance," Faina's opening explanation of their courtship. Ellis seems anxious to tell us about a lake near their home in North Port, Florida. "It's the fountain of youth. It's a deep spring, 230 feet deep and nine million gallons of water siphon up from 3,000 feet every day. It's so full of minerals you float and it cures everything."

"Will it cure diabetes?" I ask. "Don't know why not. It cures everything else." Ellis has lived his life in the fields of physiology and medicine and is open minded enough to believe in the miraculous powers of a lake. Faina chimes in with her deep melodious voice, "There are many things that we can't explain now that someday maybe we will." Such sincerity and honesty. Their words cement our friendship.

Faina wears a variety of caps atop her coal black hair to add sass to her free flowing dress. A strong featured face, her dark eyes overflow with experience.

"In 1978, my son and I were sitting in our little apartment in Leningrad, watching the TV and I posed the question, would he like to immigrate. He was about to be drafted and sent to Afghanistan. I said, 'in 35 years we will be right here, watching TV.' In Russia this was a serious decision. If you apply to leave and they say no because they didn't sleep so well, you can't get a job and you are called a traitor; even our family wouldn't speak to us. I remember on the airplane when the stewardess said 'we have just crossed the border,' because they could have made the plane return." Ellis stared unmoving at Faina as she uprooted the past. The two veterans, entwined as tightly as a piece of electrical wire.

"I guessed you to be an archeologist," I said to Ellis because of the safari jacket and hat with the flap down the back he always wore. "You were close. I was a physiologist. The last nine years of my career were the best...I traveled around the country finding the finest students for MD scholarships at the Virginia Medical School."

More than once they had said, "We're never home" so I pressed them for details. "Back home in Russia everyone laughed at me when I said I wanted to see the world. We weren't even allowed to travel to another town without permission, you stayed where you were born," her accent getting thicker as long forgotten emotions bubbled to the surface. With school boy envy, "Did you ever ride the Trans-Siberian have 12 time zones in Russia, don't you know?" I pried. "We rode all the way to Bejing even stayed in a yurt in Mongolia, and once had one of those round the world airline tickets," streams of adventure tales gushing for hours. "Our next trip is to the Galapagos." Faina smiled.

Just before docking in Ensenada, we met in the lounge for afternoon tea. A Swedish girl, curvy as her violin, played a serene Chopin piece. White-gloved servers presented us with a selection of teas and petit fours. To my left, Ellis and Faina sat on a love seat, content for the moment. Unnoticed, the "hickory branch" bent across to his adored partner and gave her a kiss.

Before we parted they gave me their card. It says "Faina and Ellis, World Wanderers and Wonderers/Positive, Curious, Conscious, Adventurous and on the back, "Life shrinks or expands in proportion to one's courage-A.Nin."

-- Ron Walker is a sometime Smith Valley resident.


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