Saturday, October 26, 2013

Travelling Solo in the 1930s and 1940s

This is the 500th post on this blog. Thanks so much for reading. The blog has wandered a little since inception, with occasional posts on Jungian topics or the stock market. In the past year or two, however, I have tried to stick strictly to travel, perferably of the budget variety, and ot post at least three times a week..

 I thought you might be interested in an account my mother Mary Brady Piton (1906-1998) wrote about her travels as a single woman in the 1930s and 1940s. I grew up hearing these stories, and they certainly made me eager to see the world. I hope they have the same effect on you. Please forgive a few typos--the document is in a format which I cannot edit.


In 1935 I discovered the wonderful world of travel. I had been depressed and Kate suggested I take the same trip she had taken the year before: out of New Orleans on a United Fruit boat for 8 days to Cuba, both coming and going, and then two ports in Guatemala, Puerto Barrios and Tela, or maybe that is in Honduras. I had a wonderful time, met lots of nice people and even had a proposal of marriage from a Fruit Co. man who worked down there out in the jungle and was coming back for his leave. He showed me $6,000 cash but I didn’t like him; he looked like he could be mean. But it added excitement to the trips!

In 1936 money was scarce so I just took a 7-day lake cruise out of Detroit which only cost $75 or $85. We went up Lake Huron stopping at Midland, site of the massacre of the Jesuits in 1600. Again interesting people. We stopped at various places in Georgian Bay, including Mackinac Island which was charming. On the way back to Detroit we ran into a violent storm, so violent that the ship was tacking like a sailboat. It had a shallow draught to navigate the lakes and was somewhat topheavy. Everybody on the ship was seasick, but not me. Finally we had to turn around and head for Owen Sound, and wait there until a train could come up from Detroit to take us back.

I think my best trip was in 1937. Another Fruit Co. cruise 16 days out of New Orleans again, this time Cuba coming and going, down to Panama and back calling at several Caribbean ports. This was all on behalf of our load of bananas. There was a little sign on deck: “Bananas our guest; passengers a pest.” The boats had a capacity of 200-300 passengers, wonderful southern chefs - you could order during the day anything special you wanted for dinner. I met people on that trip that I kept in touch with for years afterward. One is Polly Anne May who lives in Cincinnati. We still write at Christmas. We always stopped in at Sloppy Joe’s in Havana; good rum drinks and a unique atmosphere.

In 1938 I went to California on a train excursion for 13 days, very cheap. We went through the Feather River Canyon on the Santa Fe RR and then a bus to Sacramento, where we boarded a river boat down to San Francisco. Jim was out there then. He had been working at Yosemite Park Inn and came down for the weekend. I hadn’t seen him since he went to California. Then we went on by bus to Los Angeles. There Jim had arranged with a woman he knew who was a voice coach for the studios to get us into M-G-M which was hard to do. We were to go in, this Irene Maloney from Chicago and I, as guests of Luise Rainer, the star who was making The Great Waltz, but it got fouled up and Luise had a tantrum because she didn’t know anything about it. The voice coach—I can’t think of her name—told her that we were very important people, that I was Secretary to the Governor of Chicago, and she being Austrian didn’t know the difference. Anyway, it all ended well and we had a lot of fun over it.

Then in 1939 Kate and I took our momentous trip on the Hamburg-American SS St. Louis in June. It was the first time German ships were taking cruises out of the United States, and this was the first one. The ship had just docked in New York the day before we left. It had earlier brought a boat load of Jewish immigrants from Germany first to Cuba, which had promised to take them and then wouldn’t; the United States would not take them., They were forced to return to Europe where England, France, Holland and Sweden I think, said they would take them. All the crew and the waiters especially were jittery. There was much breaking of dishes in the pantry. Later Fritz, our waiter from Munich with big beautiful green eyes, told us about the trips and they were dreadful. People killed themselves, including some of the crew.

The first morning out near Jamaica people said they saw submarines. We werent on deck that early. The crew pooh-poohed it and said they were whales. But there was a U-boat base in one of those Central American countries. In Jamaica the crew had to stay at the dock, the natives were so hostile.

Kate and I were invited to the captains cocktail party. We had gotten friendly with the Cruise department and they did the inviting. The Captain was no bigger than me but the first mate was formidableabout 6 foot 6 and with shaved head. Later, we were up on the top deck as we left Curaço to watch the sunsetwe had been invited. I was hanging over the rail as the channel was very narrow, and somebody tapped me on the shoulder. It was the Captain, and he said: May I look over the rail? I have never been in these waters before. So probably part of the purpose of the cruise was to check out that part of the Atlantic.

Later, after war broke out on August 31, the St. Louis was in Havana. It dumped all its passengers and made a forced run across the Atlantic to the North Sea and got home safely. Later, it became a troop ship and was sunk. The flag-ship of the fleet, I think the New York (they were all named for German-American cities) was in Brazil and sank itself rather than surrender. All so tragic!

In the summer of 1940 Kate was spending a few months in Mexico City and we decided to go down too. There was Grace Minot and a girl from Baton Rouge that I had met on the 1937 cruise and two young friends of hers, one half Mexican and the other her boss’s son and he lent us a car. That is a rugged drive and the first night out from Laredo on the Pan America n Highway another car ran us off the road. It was easy to fall asleep on the momentous road. Everything turned out all right after some scary hours and we had to carry a special permit because we had lost a fender. Some of us went on down to Acapulco by native bus and ate green-bone fish, I remember. Acapulco was just a tiny little village then with maybe 2 or 3 big hotels.

In June 1941 I took my last cruise anywhere. It was to Guatemala again on a United Fruit Co. ship I can think of the names of some of them but I can’t sort out which ones on which cruises. There were the Sixaola, Metapan—all alike but some bigger than others. On this trip were six recent graduates from California and Stanford University, who had been given the trips by their parents as a graduation gift. Very nice chaps, a couple sensational looking, and we had a lot of fun. At Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, we disembarked and took a train, narrow gauge, up to Guatemala City. There the United Fruit people were waiting for us with a big party, but we were so exhausted from the change in altitude, sea level to over 5,000 feet, that I think we all begged off; I know I did. The next day we set off for our week’s tour through the mountains. I was in a car with two Stanford boys - the rest had gone somewhere else - and a lovely couple and their 20-year old daughter, six altogether. Big limousine with a driver who was constantly urging us to hurry. It seems that he was clocked all through the trip, having to be at our various stops at specific times and report by phone to someone, probably the police.

Guatemala is a beautiful, strange place with volcanic mountains and villages where only one costume was worn, varying from place to place. We ended up at Chichicastenango, the most picturesque village of all. It was market day and that’s where I bought my two little turquoise owl pitchers for 100 apiece, plus as many textiles as I could afford. The Indians were not friendly, just passive. There was a haunting sense of mystery about the mountains, even threatening. The little white adobe church there had rows of burning candles down the center aisle and rose petals scattered about.

My last vacation before Phil came back was to Canada with Grace Minot of Chicago. By train to Toronto which seemed like a small town then, then a boat up the St. Lawrence to Quebec. But we got stuck on some shoals and had to finish the trip by train. We liked Montreal, so picturesque and such a lovely setting on the river. They had sightseeing cars painted gold with back seats higher than the front. We visited St. Joseph Cathedral high on a hill, and down the hill the tiny log cabin where Brother Andre was buried. He had died only a few years before after a life of many ‘miracles,’ and much revered. When I walked into the cabin I thought ‘this is a holy place.) I never thought that before or since.

We stopped at Tadoussac for 2 days, then took a boat up the Saguenay where we encountered many American clergy, who all wanted to know why I was traveling with a Baptist!"


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Congratulations Margaret - keep up the good work.

Your friend Joan on PEI

9:49 am


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