Saturday, July 7, 2012

A Sailor’s Life is the Life for Me

July 4, 2012 – A Sailor’s Life is the Life for Me

Sunday morning my parents drive me to Houston. We listen to Roll, Highway Roll, Take Your Pay, Jenny-Lynne, and Matthew 18:3 (among others) by The Woods Tea Company as we roll down the tree-lined highway. They’re travelling songs about the road and the sea, about cargo ships and old time train whistles. It seems apt as I head to board the Rickmers Dalian freighter for a three and a half week voyage across the ocean to Europe.

I’ve got a low grade nervousness for this unknown I’m going toward. I’ve found out as much as I can from my booking agent and blogs and the internet. But that’s got nothing on real life experience. What will it be like being stuck on a ship for nearly a month with a bunch of working men? Will there be any other passengers? Will there be anything vegetarian for me to eat? Can I survive that long without the internet? Will I get seasick?

I don’t know.

A soft rain falls as I hug my parents goodbye and get into the transfer van. I have to be officially escorted onto the dock and my escort is a talkative and friendly Filipino woman who’s lived in the States for twenty-one years. “There’s another cadet who’s female,” she tells me. “Here sign this for me. Your name, your nationality and your rank.”

“I don’t have a rank,” I say. “I’m a passenger.”

“Really? A passenger?” She makes it sound as if it’s very unusual. Then she shrugs it off. “Well, I’ll just mark that on here. Where are you going?”

 I fill her in and then she talks the rest of the way about travelling and money and family.

“Good luck!” she calls out to me after handing me and my bags over to the crew milling on the dock down below the ship.

“Thanks,” I say. “You too.” I hurry to catch up with the guys. They’ve started up the metal gangplank without so much as a “follow me.” But I follow them anyway.

At the top, there’s a podium with a sign-in book and two guys. They greet me with smiles and “Welcome aboard,” and ask for my identification. I hand the closest one my passport and wait as he marks me in. “Amanda Jane. Amanda Jane White,” he says, his Filipino accent flavoring the words.

“Amanda Jane. Amanda Jane White,” one of my bag carriers repeats, looking over his shoulder.

The second podium guy looks at me, “Is it Miss or Mrs.?” he asks.

Oh lord, here we go, I think. “It’s miss.”

“How old are you?” the guy with my passport asks.

“Thirty-four,” I say.

“Oh,” the second podium guy says, “You look only like twenty-three or twenty-four.”

“Thanks,” I reply dryly. The first podium guy returns my passport to me. The guy with my bag is walking off and I follow again, stopping once to look back to make sure I’m dismissed. They wave me off and I hoof it. We walk through part of the cargo area and into the ship. Down some passageways and then into a long conference room.

A tall, large, intimidating man dressed in a green jumpsuit greets me with a grunt. The bag carriers deposit my things on the floor and disappear. I’m left alone with a man who looks like he drinks vodka for breakfast and has never had anything but gristly meat to eat. I straighten my spine, lift my chin, and push my shoulders back.

“Do you have any documents?” he asks gruffly.
I hand him my passport, my ticket and my declaration of passage.
As he makes copies of them he asks, “Why do you want to ride on a cargo ship? Why not fly?”
It sounds like he’s suggesting I cancel my trip and fly.

“It’s something different,” I say, keeping the justification out of my voice.

He hands me the originals and goes to a phone on the wall. “Joe. Come down to the conference room. I wait only ten minutes for you.”

Long before the time has expired, Joe, a young, long fingered, skinny Filipino, arrives. He shoulders my main bag and my two snack bags and heads off. “Come this way,” he says.

The intimidating man says, “Anything you need just ask. We have soaps and shampoos and towels.” He’s almost warm. There might even be a smile. I can’t tell if he’s joking or not.

“Thank you.” A door separates us and I step it up to catch up to Joe. “I can take some of that,” I tell his back, knowing how much it all weighs.

“No, no,” he says. We climb up four flights of stairs, go through a heavy door, to the left and then another left. At room number 612 we stop and Joe lets us in. “This is your room.” He sets my things on the wraparound couch and then takes me on a short tour. He shows me the laundry room and how to use the machines. He takes me to the dining area. “This is your seat,” he points to a setting that’ll face me to the wall, and put my back to the second table. He walks me over to the corkboard. “Breakfast is from 7:00 to 8:00.” He points to the laminated paper that shows the meal times. “Lunch is from 12:00 to 13:00 and dinner is from 17:30 to 18:30.” Then he takes me into the kitchen and introduces me to the cook.

“Tonight it’s ficha,” the cook says. “You like ficha?”

I have no idea what ficha is. Sounds like a fish. I smile and nod. I’ve got to stop doing that. “Sounds perfect,” I say even though I don’t eat fish.

Joe takes me back up to my room. “I get you key later.”

“Thanks,” I say.

“Okay,” he says, and leaves.

I take in my new domain. I’ve got a bed, a sea green upholstered wraparound couch with a square coffee table in front of it, a pantry with a small fridge inside, two windows, a writing desk with a lamp and a rotating fan, a TV and DVD player, a radio, a wardrobe for my clothes and a bathroom with everything I’d need. Just perfect.

I go ahead and unpack. There’s enough closet space to have brought at least twenty times the amount of things I’ve brought and numerous drawers and cabinets with locks and heavy-weather
clasps that I have nothing to fill with.

On top of the white bedspread there are a folded towel and hand towel, a package of soap and a spare roll of toilet paper. It feels very welcoming.
I’ve got about three hours until dinner time. While I still have cell phone service I call my mom and my grandmother and fill them in on the minute details of getting aboard. I read a bit. Gaze out the window at the loading work going on down below me on the dock. Out the other window at the ships that pass by in the small channel. I nap a little.

When it’s time, I find the stairway door and make my way down from the D Deck where my room is to the A Deck where the mess hall is. 

I feel shy, like it’s my first day at a new school (and an all boy school (except for me and the Russian female Cadet) at that). At least I have an assigned seat and don’t have to worry about being invited to sit with the cool kids. I take a fortifying breath and push down the door handle, step over the ground level door frame and walk in. A few guys are sitting at the second table with food already on their plates. “Good evening,” they say.

“Good evening,” I say.

One guy is in the seat to the left of mine. “Hi,” I say and sit. He nods.

A large lazy-Susan sits in the middle of the table replete with things like salad dressing, salt and pepper, olives, cold cuts, water, juice, a bowl of salad covered with saran wrap, and other condiments.

Joe brings me a plate. “Ficha,” he says as he sets the pizza in front of me.

“Thank you.” I wait until he’s gone to poke around at it. Ah, yeah, pizza. The guy next to me is using his fork and knife to eat and his manners wear off on me. I pick up my knife. There’s some kind of meat tucked between the sauce and cheese. I ease it out and set it on the side of my plate. I usually don’t eat dairy, but I knew I’d have to make some allowances here, like I’d had to do at times in Peru, so the cheese goes down. The crust is tough and I have to saw through it to get bite size pieces to fork and stuff in my mouth. It’s edible.

Another guy enters. He’s tall, built thick, and has a shaved head. He looks serious like the tough young seamen in Hunt for Red October. He sits at my table two chairs to my right. He gives a tight nod to my soft hello.

The guys behind me finish their meals and leave bidding “Good appetite.”

My left side neighbor leaves too.

It’s just me and the serious guy. I’m struggling to be civilized. My knife scrapes the plate and I nearly lose a piece of pizza.

“In my country,” he says, his accent sounds Russian to my undiscerning ears, “we have a saying: ‘Fish and women you use your hands.’ I think it’s for pizza too.”

I laugh.

“I was trying to be civilized,” I tell him as I pick up my pizza. His face lights up with a brief, very brief smile. I fall slightly in love with him for a brief, very brief moment. “This is much easier,” I say.

We eat our pizza with our hands in silence.

“Excuse me,” he says when he’s done. He takes his plate into the kitchen and then he’s gone.

When I try to take my plate into the kitchen Joe chides me. “You leave it. I take it, okay?”

“Okay,” I say. I want to respect the rules but I don’t want to be waited upon. Maybe I just want to fit in to this world while I’ll be inhabiting it. And yet, I also want to be in my own world too. I go back up to my room. I’m too sleepy to do anything serious. I go from window to window looking out at the workers and then at the boats. I read some. I watch the sun set behind the tall buildings of Houston’s Skyline.

Even though we’re not set to embark until midnight on Monday or early Tuesday morning, I realize I’m in for it now. Who knows what I’ve got myself into. Here I am.

I’m on a boat. For the next three and a half weeks, I’m on this boat.

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