amw (amw) wrote,

Piraeus → Suez Canal

May 9 - Day 1 - All Aboard

Lunch: vegetable broth, pork schnitzel, gravy, boiled potato, green beans
Dinner: steamed white fish, white sauce, rice

In port.

After processing my passport at the passenger port, i got directed to a taxi together with a tough-looking dude and his suitcase. No one said anything. The taxi passed through Piraeus proper and headed out to the container port, where we were told to get out and show our passports to another guy, who opened a gate and said we were to wait there. A bus picked us up and drove through several towers of containers before pulling up vaguely in the vicinity of our ship.

I asked the tough guy if he was working onboard. "Yes. Chief engineer." It was a relief to be with someone who knew the ropes. He wandered over, nonchalantly stepping over the tracks for the massive cranes that dwarfed the ship, whose hulk already blocked the morning sun. A guy in a jumpsuit and hard hat came barreling down the gangway and grabbed the chief engineer's suitcase, then headed back up. I followed, up the bouncing aluminum plank with only a couple of ropes to hang on to. Felt like i climbed 5 storeys just to get to the deck.

The captain processed the new chief engineer first, in Russian. Then it was me. Passport. Chinese visa. Vaccinations. Health insurance. Flight out of Taiwan. Check, check, check, check, check. That was it. "When are you free for a safety briefing?" I said right away. What else am i going to do?

The steward - J - took me up to my cabin. On this trip i am the "supercargo". Big cabin on the top deck. Two portholes. Plush carpet. Proper duvet. Utilitarian but solid furnishings. Everything is on a non-slip mat - the phone, the VCR, the (CRT) TV. "Sorry, there are no garbage bags. We ran out." There are three bars of soap and two boxes of laundry detergent and five rolls of toilet paper and a towel. This is better equipped than most hotels i have stayed in.

A bit later the 3rd officer - D - picked me up for the safety briefing. Nothing much to say while we are in port. Here's your life jacket. Here's your immersion suit ("i'll explain that later"), here are all the different decks, here's the bridge ("nice view, eh?"), the sauna, the pool ("noone uses it, but you can if you want"). He met up with a colleague and handed over some cash for a Greek SIM card. "Talk to me if you need internet." He took me out on deck and into the lifeboat. How many of those mystery orange lifeboats have you seen over the years without ever being allowed inside one? It looks like a drop-ship from a sci-fi movie. "Here's our fishing gear. Here's our pyrotechnics!" He said we may do a drill somewhere near Sri Lanka, then he'll explain all the other stuff.

D was talkative. Explained that the crew is 16 Filipinos, 1 Latvian and 2 Russians. Guess who's in charge? "You're 37, right? We don't usually get people your age." He had seen my passport. There aren't many secrets onboard - everyone's passports are held in the office and all valuable "personal effects" (electronics, jewelry) must be listed on a public register. Everyone has a phone, a tablet and an external hard disk. Some have a wedding ring. He said normally the passengers are retired couples. "And they are always Swiss. Swiss have lots of money!" Apparently one of the previous couples had taken him on a tour of Jerusalem when they called into Israel. "They paid for the whole trip!"

He said i could basically go anywhere i wanted. "Just make sure to lock the door when you come back inside, since we are in port." I guess the same goes in pirate waters. "Normally passengers don't go on the cargo deck when we are docked, but if you want to anyway just wear your hard hat and come see me for a high vis." D is on duty from 8 to 12. Not AM. Both AM and PM. The watches work 4 hours on, 8 hours off, rotating. That's gotta be a killer schedule.

I am guessing the cook and the steward work more regular hours. Breakfast is 7:30. Lunch at noon. Dinner at 5. Coffee break at 10 and 3. They didn't use military time. Another little non-military/merchant navy gap happened when i talked about rations. They don't get rations. They get provisions. Cook has a fixed budget in euros but has to provision locally, so he tries to set a menu based on what he can afford at each port. If the provisions run out, that's it. He didn't elaborate, but i assume it's spam and beans for all. "Just tell me if you want anything special, though. You're the passenger so i will do my best to make sure you get what you like." I explained that i try to eat vegan, but that i knew what i was getting into coming onboard. I told him i will eat what the guys are eating, period. But i also said that if something spicy and vegetarian comes out of the galley one day, i would be very happy. J said Sundays are good because they have a buffet, so you can kind of put together your own meal.

I feel like i should tip. The cook. The steward. Someone. But i feel weird tipping before anything happens - that is too much like a bribe - and i feel weird tipping anyways because if the previous passengers were rich retirees who could take random crewmembers on a day trip to Jerusalem (which is in the West Bank and doesn't even have a seaport) then anything i give is probably going to be insulting. I'll take some time to try figure it out. Time is something i have a lot of.

Speaking of time, i timed how long it took to get a container from the dock to the deck. For the longer, more problematic containers (e.g. the ones on the far edge) it's about 90 seconds. Usually it's faster. The ship seems to be 17 containers wide. I can't tell how many containers deep it goes below deck, but i think it's 6. There are 6 stacked above the main deck. The bow is so far off in the distance even from my deck (7 storeys up) i can't count how many rows there are, but there are four toward the stern. There are five of those massive AT-AT cranes loading and unloading in parallel. We are a big momma container vessel.

May 10 - Day 2 - Slopchest City Limits

Breakfast: fried egg, "luncheon meat", tomatoes
Lunch: mushroom soup, roast chicken, gravy, potato wedges, mixed veg (cauliflower, cabbage)
Dinner: roast pork loin, gravy, mashed potato, carrots

In port.

I saw the captain very briefly, for breakfast. I asked if we were fully loaded. "Ha! No, we are only fully loaded in Asia." When i said it seems Europe imports a lot from Asia but i don't know what we export he not-answered with "everything in Europe is made in Poland". Apparently we will set sail this afternoon.

I received my first "Slopchest Price List" from the steward. What's in the slopchest? Cigarettes, alcohol, water, soda, voice SIM cards (no data - i guess that's when i need to go to "the SIM card guy"), chips, nuts, chocolate and toiletries. Also, unexpectedly, Christmas cards. I ordered water, beer ("Milwaukee's Best") and peanuts. I haven't had any water since i got onboard. Normally if i am not drinking coffee or alcohol, i am drinking water. It's now been over 24 hours since i had a drop.


We set sail around 3pm, directly behind a smaller container vessel. I tried to snap a few furtive photos, though i know taking photos in commercial ports is illegal. I feel i should document this somehow, even if the pictures are all just a bunch of colored blocks against a blue background.

It feels good to be at sea. We passed the other ship before reaching Cape Sounion. Goodbye, Europe.


J mentioned at dinner that he hasn't seen the captain yet, and the approval for my order needs his okay. I guess i will get water at some point. Mean time i will survive off of coffee at breakfast and pineapple juice at the other meal times.

Clocks retard 1 hour.

May 11 - Day 3 - The Guys

Breakfast: scrambled egg, frankfurter sausage, tomatoes
Lunch: chicken and vegetable broth, roast duck, gravy, french fries, red cabbage
Dinner: fried white fish, white sauce, rice, mixed veg (cabbage, peppers)

At sea.

The captain is impenetrable. Much like yesterday, i saw him today at breakfast for a few minutes. This time he started a conversation. "So, you know there is a sauna and pool. Talk to the bridge if you need it." I asked about going onto the cargo deck and he said just to let the bridge know before and after. "Also, wear real shoes." Everyone on the superstructure wears slip-on sandals. I am glad that i have a pair too - i fit right in. Well, aside from being European and a woman and not having any work to do.

"Real shoes" are non-slip steel-caps and only for the cargo deck and engineering. One lap of the ship is about 800m. If i get down there and do a few laps i might actually feel like i am getting some exercise beyond taking the stairs from G deck to B deck and back every time i eat. The captain said it's fine if the bridge says it's fine. There might be bad weather or pirates. And i can visit the bridge anytime there is no pilot, i.e. anywhere outside of port and the Suez. I said it feels good to be at sea. The captain smirked and nodded - i think - and then abruptly left. "Work to do."

The up-side is that seeing him finish his breakfast in under 10 minutes and leave without saying a word to the steward ("mess master", the captain called him) makes me feel less bad about finishing my lunch and dinner in 15. Yesterday i felt awkward leaving my dishes behind. I am not used to being waited on or cleaned up after. The only meal i draw out is breakfast because, goddamnit, i can finally sit down and work my way through three long cups of coffee. Fucking southern Europe and their shit-ass espressos that are done in 30 seconds. Slowly sipping a hot drink makes a meal much more enjoyable. I have missed drinking coffee like a Canadian, eh.


"The captain was a man of few words" - a hackneyed line i now understand.

I barely see anyone. People are either in their cabins, or (i presume) at their duty stations. When you do see someone, they have little to say. The chief officer, or 1st mate, doesn't eat lunch. The captain eats late. He's actually called the "master", incidentally. The steward doesn't know the chief engineer's schedule because he is new, but i haven't seen him since we embarked together. I think the Filipino crew hang out - their rec room has a karaoke machine and a bar - but the senior officers seem to be introverts, and i eat with them. Or - to be more precise - i eat alone in their mess hall.

The pace suits me. I did want this trip to be an opportunity to spend time alone and in peace. But it's been surprising just how very much solitude i am granted. For some reason i expected the crew might want to chat. But i guess you don't take this job if you want to chat. It's refreshing not to have to make excuses or go out of my way to be alone.


I wanted to take a walk round the ship this morning, so went up to the bridge. It's not like Star Trek. There is only one person up there, on watch. Makes sense - just like space, the sea is big. Point it in the right direction and let it go. If something appears on radar you've got plenty of time to steer out of the way. Of course there are computer screens and flashing lights and buttons and radios and an epic view out of a dozen windows. It looks like you would expect a bridge to look like, even though there is no hustle or bustle like on a Hollywood bridge. 3rd mate D wandered over in sandals, shorts and T-shirt. We chatted.

It's funny talking to a seaman. Everything is in relation to a port. He's visited Canada - Vancouver and Prince Rupert. I said that must've been cold compared to here. Apparently Prince Rupert is nice in the summer, but him and the guys got a little creeped out when they went ashore to look for some fast food. "It's so quiet, it was like a ghost town. There was noone there." I told him i lived in Toronto. "Hmm Toronto, i never heard of that. Is there a port?" I have never heard of Prince Rupert, but i guess it has a port. I explained there are bulk carriers that navigate all the way inland to Detroit, possibly even Chicago, but they are specially built for the canals and great lakes. I'ma guess they don't have a Filipino crew. Detroit and Chicago are probably as meaningless to this guy as Toronto. "Did you visit the bridge in Vancouver? It's like the Golden Gate. We sailed under it."

D explained that this ship has been sold and will soon be operated by another shipping company, so he only has a 4 month contract onboard. It's tough - normally he gets a 9 month contract, so this year he will be going home early with half the money. He is trying to figure out if he should try to find something that will last through to Christmas, but because it's off the usual schedule it will be difficult.

One thing i asked after he commented that the rolling on small vessels is much worse ("the chairs on the bridge go flying from one side to the other") is if you have to work your way up to a big momma ship like this one. Nope. You just work whatever contract you get.


At lunch J apologized in advance. "We have roast duck, but it didn't come out so good. It's really hard, like rubber. I guess we got an old duck." It was definitely tough, and not easy to get off the bone. Even when i ate meat i never bought anything on the bone, so i have very little practice butchering animals. I hope i tore off all the flesh properly and didn't embarrass myself. Then again, i think the cook was more embarrassed. He came out and apologized too. "I put it in at 8:30 this morning and then at 11:00 it was like this. It must have been an old duck. I don't think Europeans have good duck. We had really good duck in Singapore, and in Taiwan. China, they have the best duck."

I asked a bit more about provisioning. The company gives them a budget but continually tries to cut it as much as possible. They have to order the cheapest everything. And there is nothing that can be done when it arrives and it's crap. File a complaint with head office. Nothing will happen. He seemed surprised that the provisions in Europe would be lower quality than Asia, though, because Europe is closer to head office. I mentioned that i had noticed the quality of produce going down just from Italy to Greece. Not restaurant meals - those were much more varied and delicious - but the quality of raw fruit and vegetables, and (i presume) meat. If you are a poor country you ship all your good produce to the rich countries, and Greece is close to the bottom rung of Europe. The cook confirmed that. "Yes, the best place in the world for provisioning is America. Their food is such high quality." America is rich and gluttonous enough that all the rest of the world sends them their best produce. No doubt that's what's in this buttload of refrigerated containers we are hauling halfway round the world.

We talked about Asian food. I tried to explain some Chinese dishes, but it's hopeless. Most Chinese dishes i know are just named for the main ingredient. The English translations are different even in different parts of North America, much less in Philippines or other parts of the world. I said i liked mapo tofu, though it's not vegetarian. "Ah tofu, i think we have some. It's a white block, right? You can fry it?" I nodded and tried to explain what in the west we call home-style tofu, with wood ear mushroom and bamboo shoots, but wasn't sure if those were ingredients he would know. I realized i don't really know much about Filipino cuisine besides adobo and balut. All the Filipinos i know just eat western food. Perhaps they don't even eat tofu there. The Indonesians do - they also have tempeh - but perhaps the Chinese brought that to Indonesia via Singapore. Next time i see him i should ask him about his home-style dishes.

The cook said if i get bored i can come down to the galley. Apparently there was another solo passenger who traveled with them a while ago. She was an Italian photographer. She spent half the time taking photos of funny stuff like distant rocks, or big waves. She hung out in the galley a lot and helped him make pizza. I get the feeling cooks in the merchant navy aren't the same as cooks who come through culinary school or an haute cuisine apprenticeship. It seems more like accounting. The focus is on purchasing and nutrition, the budget set by bean counters instead of well-to-do foodies. He said his passion is music. "I play guitar, that's what i do in my spare time. We have karaoke on Sunday nights, sometimes Saturdays, you can join."


Tonight we go through the Suez. We drop anchor in the evening and wait for all the other ships. The first ships will probably start going in around 1am. Apparently you go in a convoy, so all you can see is the ship in front of you and the ship behind you. Since it's night time i probably won't see anything at all. Maybe i will wake up in Jeddah. After Jeddah, it's pirate waters, so all portholes need to be closed and covered, and noone can go outside. I will hide under my blankie and read. Or perhaps go down to the galley and see if cook will teach me how to make adobo.


Sunset at sea is the most beautiful thing. Aside from the constant chugging of the engine and the sucking vents keeping the bathroom (and my skin) bone-dry, there is not a sound. No people, no birds, no nothing. And in every direction? Nothing. A few clouds in the sky, gray, white, beige, yellow, orange, burnt, scarlet, blue. Blue all around. I know the water is teeming with life, and there is a crew of 20 or so wandering round the rest of this superstructure, not to mention there is a whole bunch of other vessels anchored around us waiting to get into the Suez... but right here, right now, it feels like it's just me and the sea. The sun sets. Life is beautiful.

Tags: food, i am a hermit, travel

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