In November, 1926, 60 year-old Emily Palmer (Mrs. Henry) Cape embarked upon a round the world cruise aboard the S.S. Belgenland , a ship of the Red Star Line. Departing from her native New York City on December 14, 1926, the cruise was scheduled to last 132 days, passing through the Panama Canal into the Pacific, and touching at Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Honolulu, before heading to Asia.
The Belgenland offered a routine typical of luxury cruises of the 1920s, though spread over an outrageously luxurious period of time. The days were spent in leisurely activities -- swimming at the pool, reading, playing games, sunning, and socializing -- and the evenings were enlivened by dinner parties and expert lectures on the ports of call. Cape consumed it all eagerly, leaping into the shore excursions, and fortifying herself by reading appropriate books in advance, such as Dhan Gopal Mukerji's Caste and outcast before landing at Calcutta.
Cape displayed a curious blend of tolerance and intolerance in her attitude, and she could be as repelled by difference as she could be attracted. Although she complained about some "ignorant" Catholic priests on board, exclaiming "No wonder their 'flocks' are 'low in education'" (1927 January 15), she was eager to indulge in Asian exoticism and to experience it directly for herself. The shore tours were carefully controlled by the cruise line, designed to provide a taste of a foreign culture, a view of the cultural and natural highlights, and a perspective on the history of the country, but all within a carefully and safely regulated framework. In all this, Cape thrilled. She was particularly taken by the antiquities of Japan and by a visit to a kabuki theater, and she was awed by the sweltering crowds in Hong Kong, Manilla, and Thailand. Thailand, she felt, qualified as the most primitive of places. When a crowd of poor Thais flocked around the group of white tourists, Cape might easily have reacted claustrophobically, but in this instance she commented only that "their nudity was picturesque." A few days later at Benares, India, the thousands of pilgrims, beggars, lepers, the blind and diseased, left her overwhelmed with emotions difficult to describe, but as in Thailand, she was enraptured with the "crowds of humanity much nude & many handsome bronze bodies!" (1927 March 6).
Cape's other shore visits were taken in Java, Singapore, Calcutta, Sri Lanka, Bombay, and Cairo. In some ways, Egypt was the culmination of her tour. Imbibing in the famous archaeological sites at Ghizeh, Memphis, and Cairo itself, Cape was toured through the mosques and Coptic Christian churches, through the bazaars, back alleys, and gardens in an enervating, but exhausting few days. She chirped, "Cairo! It's fascinating!" From Cairo, the Belgenland cruised to France, letting its passengers tour European sites. Cape arrived home in New York on July 24.