Breakfast: "milk rice", canned fruit
Lunch: beef and vege broth, "baked chicken" (parmiagiana-ish), gravy, rice, mixed veg (peas, corn)
Dinner: stir fry beef, rice, mystery pickle
Everything is gray. Only the regular flashes of sheet lightning illuminate the world. GPS is down, but the cell bars betray our proximity to land. There is still a straitful of sampans, container ships, tugs, barges, gas haulers, tankers and other vessels clogging the mist. We must be reaching Singapore Island very soon. I almost want to try sneak off the ship and get a ramly burger, but i'd never make it back in time. Because i'd also want a nasi lemak, and a roti chennai, and a satay, and a char kuey teow, and a beef rendang, and a Hainanese chicken rice, and an asam pedas... Veganism aside, the food of this region is what i most miss from Australia. Perhaps i should come back here after China just to eat.
God i miss good eating.
I just saw the fucking mother of all ships. A powder-blue Maersk 24 containers long, plus superstructure, engine/chimney and bow. Insane. The Suez was breathtaking and this whole journey has been magnificent, but now it's like we've really arrived in the beating heart of international trade. The atmosphere is electric. I haven't seen this much commercial boat traffic in my life, ever. And we haven't even rounded the corner yet.
This is spectacular. It is overcast and misty and large drops are lazily plopping onto my shoulders. The islands rise up in the distance like floating mountains, jungles in the clouds, just another shade of green. Everywhere there are ships - or outlines of ships. Still no sign of civilization on land. But it's the smell i recognize. I don't know how, i don't know what memory it's evoking, but it's a thick stench of salt and muck and diesel and something familiar, a taste caught in the back of my throat.
I was in Singapore once, briefly, for a layover in 1995. My sister and i were chaperoned minors. All i remember is intense humidity and jet lag. I was in Hong Kong too, in the late 1980s. My memory of that is very fuzzy, but i'll never forget my awe at the chaos and density after a childhood spent only in quaint, low-rise European cities. I wonder if i remember these smells, these sights from one of those visits to the edges of the South China Sea? My true Hong Kong "homecoming" will be later in June, but even this, floating between the islands of Malaysia and Indonesia, in the stink and the fog, this cloying gray-green limbo... It recalls the sense that something is happening here. This is an exciting place to be.
Jesus Christ that's a lot of boats. I stopped counting at 50. Suffice to say there are tons. They're all very large cargo ships either anchored here or moving incredibly slowly toward one of the ports in Malaysia, Singapore or possibly Indonesia. There is definitely more than one port, i can see AT-ATs and tall cranes on most every shoreline, past the fields of ships. The smell has got to be diesel or some other chemical pollution. I feel like i'm inside a single steel rib of a mechanical leviathan stretching to the horizon.
We might have been a big momma in Europe and the Middle East, but in Asia we are small potatoes. There is another 24-long docked here, the MSC Erica. We're wide as she is, but nowhere near as long.
May 25 - Day 17 - World Port
Breakfast: french omelette, tomatoes
Lunch: egg-drop soup, pan-fried pork, french fries, mixed veg (cauliflower, cabbage, zucchini)
Dinner: fish roulade, rice, spinach and garlic
I have given up asking for the full monty. Egg is enough meat for breakfast without adding more meat in the form of bacon. I will still accept "luncheon meat" because that's a magical food. I already started asking for half-serves of meat for my other meals after the steak incident, though. Fish is the only meat that doesn't make me feel fat. Dairy sowieso makes me feel fat. So i think fish will be my backup option when confronted with non-vegan menus in the future. Or pork blessed with whatever magic transfigures it to spam, char siu or al pastor.
Crap. Now i want a pork bun.
Scratch everything i have written up until now. 24-long container ships are common as 3-leaf clovers. Seeing over a hundred cargo vessels anchored round the place is not remarkable at all. Dinghies weaving between 4 lanes of shipping traffic? Sure. Ships transferring bulk goods into other ships while at sea? Check. Throw in some oil rigs for good measure. Sunset over Singapore as we sail into the South China Sea? Are you fucking kidding me?
What we've done to our planet is both awesome and terrifying, and still she radiates beauty. What a journey this is.
May 26 - Day 18 - Terraphobia
Breakfast: apple pancakes
Lunch: tomato soup, deep-fried fish, rice, salad
Dinner: braised beef, rice, spinach and tofu
I miss the rolling of the wide ocean. The South China Sea is studded with ships and it feels ridiculously improbable that Oliver Queen - or anyone - could "disappear" here for 5 years. It feels more like a South China Diesel Puddle.
I mentioned this to the captain at breakfast and he said we're lucky that the weather is holding. The sky is blue with fluffy clouds and there's barely a sigh of wind. He says in a few days - perhaps even tomorrow - it will be much worse. He also asked if i would like the firm to organize a hotel because we will be arriving in Kaohsiung around midnight on the 29th/30th and the ship leaves at dawn so i will need to disembark overnight.
That hit me like a ton of bricks. Somehow i felt like i could keep on sailing forever, seeing the whole world from a distance, beautiful sunsets in a permanent roll, dopey and happy on the waves. Thinking of the world ashore, it seems impure, tiresome. I won't be moving any more. I won't be alone any more. I won't be free any more. It will be dirty and crowded and blocked by a hundred highrises, a thousand people, a million things in my way.
The last time i felt this nauseous was i guess a week or two ago when i was thinking about clothes and immigration and work. All sources of intense anxiety for me. But now it seems just the idea of leaving the ship is horrifying. I have never slept this soundly or felt so safe, so completely at peace and content... It's just me and the sea and three square meals. I am scared that land will break the spell.
I went for a walk to ease my mind. The first time i've been on the upper deck and made a full circuit. G-deck gives you an odd sense of perspective. I knew we were a big ship, but surely not big like those 24-longs? Doch! We're 20 long - 4 in the back, 16 in the front. From G-deck you can only see the 8 closest to the superstructure. I found the basketball court too - a hoop, key and 3 point circle in the Alien cathedral. It is boss as hell back there. Dark, greasy, industrial. Doing two laps of the ship was a great idea. For the first time in weeks i am slick with sweat, head to toe. Getting myself prepared for actually wandering around the place once i am back on land. Yeah. I'll be alright. Always have been.
Vietnam officially has the best sampans. After sunset they're illuminated with fairy lights. Vietnam also joins Sri Lanka in the short list of two countries that gave me both a custom welcome text message and data bars from beyond the horizon. I'ma guess there's a cell on an oil rig, though according to my map there is also a tiny island called Con Dao that could be the source. Now... i wonder if China put a cell on a Paracel?
May 27 - Day 19 - Fade To Gray
Breakfast: scrambled egg, tuna, tomatoes
Lunch: mystery gruel (meat scraps, lentils, potatoes), frankfurter sausage
Dinner: "chicken curry" (with rice, boiled egg, pickle, tomato, onion - almost a nasi lemak!)
These ships move too fast. The sea deserves longer meditation than cutting through it at 20 knots allows.
Consider, we are moving at the gentle speed of a car in the city - not even in the country. And in the city there is far more to observe than in the sea. How much do people miss by sitting in their vehicles? How isolated and divorced from the world around them? The older i get, the more i walk. I walk places even when faster transport is offered freely. But it's not free, not really. The cost is loss of perspective, missing the spaces in between. Sitting here, feeling i am moving too fast even through the emptiness of the sea, it just hardens my resolve to travel slowly and mindfully.
Sailing into a stormfront doesn't get old. White sky in the distance, black clouds overhead. White water at the horizon, black water here. White birds with black wings dip and dance like i do, we revel in the wind at our faces and rain on our backs like it's our last flight.
May 28 - Day 20 - Pearl River Limbo
Breakfast: scrambled egg, cucumber
Lunch: steak, french fries, mixed veg (cauliflower, zucchini)
I am surprised we are still at sea. The stormfront last night rolled in around the Paracels, after which my phone did not have a single GPS update till this morning. It claims we are still in the middle of the sea, roughly halfway between the Paracels and Hong Kong. How can that be? We still appear to be moving north at a reasonable clip, though ahead of us is another ominous-looking stormfront. What's more puzzling is if we are to arrive in Kaohsiung tomorrow, where is Shekou and why are we not there yet?
Traveling with patchy GPS, no internet and only a handful of downloaded street maps has left me navigating like a caveman. Sun tells east/west. Match mountains, rivers and other prominent landscape features to unzoomed street maps and a low-res topographical projection. But even if i had been better prepared with the resolution of maps i brought with, i am not sure Shekou would appear. I know it's in the Pearl River Delta zone, but it's not a major city. Yet. Famously, Shenzhen went from a village to a major hub within about 20 years, so i guess Shekou may be one of those in progress. But right now it's just a mystery port somewhere in the PRD, which presumably means passing between Hong Kong and Macau, a waterway surely busier than the Singapore Strait. How will we fit in a stop in the next 36 hours?
Not that i'm complaining, mind you.
Delay confirmed. ETA in Kaohsiung is now a much more civilized Tuesday afternoon.
This feels like Jeddah all over again. Blinding white mist all around, hovering in limbo. The difference is here there is a thundering gale, enough to blow my tanktop up to my armpits. Boobs on parade. Good thing we're not in Jeddah.
May 28 - Day 21 - Smells Like Guangdong
Breakfast: scrambled egg, "luncheon meat", cucumber
Lunch: chicken noodle soup, pork schnitzel, rice, mixed veg (zucchini, carrot)
Dinner: bbq chicken wings, pickles, rice
It appears Shekou is about as close as you can get to Hong Kong without actually being Hong Kong, just across Hau Hoi Bay. It is frustratingly difficult to confirm the exact location, because on my map app at this level of zoom China is just a big white box with no coastline and no cities - not Shenzhen, not even Guangzhou. So, basically, no map at all. My GPS blob is in a mystery spot somewhere west of Yuen Long. It sure looks like Hong Kong out the window, though, all smog and jungly mountains and highrises and boats. I am definitely going to need to download some better maps before i visit here again.
And i am itching to visit here again, a place of unparalleled childhood wonder for me. God, back then i suspect this whole coastline was undeveloped. Now there is a major container port - the busiest i've seen yet - and three urban centers: Yuen Long on the Hong Kong side, something else on this side (Shekou?) and through the smog, where the supertalls reach for the heavens, it has to be Shenzhen. I am so hyped to explore here. Just sitting out on the hot steel of G deck is thrilling, first time this trip i've sat down outside. Singapore felt exciting - a hub of global traffic - but it's just one island. This feels like a gateway to something more. It's fascinating to me how it all will develop here.
I know the romance will disappear. No doubt in the middle of all this industriousness it's just the same as every other city in the world. McDonalds, Starbucks, Best Buy. But what might make these new Chinese cities different is that they are planned from the ground up in ways unlike Australia and North America's human-unfriendly sprawl. Working here must be a civil engineer's wet dream, a place with a blank slate and the money and workforce to make big ideas happen. And then, the cities themselves populated largely by rural transplants, first-generation immigrants from another world. Everyone says the property development boom is a bubble, which it most likely is, but the country is so massive there are still hundreds of millions of people here yet to urbanize. It's a recipe for something interesting to happen.
Maybe nothing will happen at all. But these are the things i hope i can get a feeling for once i get back here. I fear 3 weeks won't be nearly enough. (Famous last words...)
The wind changed, and salty air flows over the deck. It's easier to breathe out there now, but all the smog has been pushed deeper into the bay, completely obscuring whatever megacity was at the end of it. Life rolls on. I have a clearer view of the city closest to us now, and what i thought was a rollercoaster appears to be a statement piece of architecture; a huge, squat building with a curved roof in bright colors. Ferries from Hong Kong arrive every 10 minutes or so. Orange ones and white ones and blue ones. Across the bay there is a strip mine - or possibly agriculture - that has stained the entire hillside turquoise. Perhaps it's all wrapped in plastic?
Guys in hard hats ride the AT-AT crane and jump off on our ship to unjam containers, then ride it back up again like a trapeze. This whole journey i have closed my eyes and imagined i was Faith - from Mirror's Edge - able to run and jump and cling on to the rows of containers and climb the towering cranes. I didn't think that people would actually do it. It's the first port i've seen guys walk on ships and cranes and all over. I'm sure it happens everywhere, but as i said, this is the busiest port yet. There is a constant buzz. You can tell there are people working here, not just machines.
In the bay mini container ships shuttle back and forth - they're tremendeously cute, little bathtub-shaped things 3 containers long and 4 containers wide. Tugs and pilots are out every hour or so to guide another ship in. Something went by that could only have been a houseboat, because what other purpose could that kind of very flat, low-decked ship have? No deckspace, just a couple pre-fab buildings on it. Surreal. I seem to recall there is a whole subculture of boat people in Hong Kong, but then again i could be confusing it with a computer game or science fiction story. It's been so long i can't remember what's real or not.
But, patience. First, there is Taiwan to explore. I wander when we'll leave? Marble (my globe app) shows the distance as about 600km, so i guess that's a ~15 hour voyage. The cranes are picking us clean here - the ship looks like a chewed up Breakout level - but they've gotta leave some stuff for the other eastbound stops.
I guess i should do laundry one last time. After the sun goes down.
Well, that was a treat. I had expected we'd head out in the direction of Macau to leave. Instead, under a blood-red crescent moon, we sailed east past the new airport and Lantau Island before taking a very tight starboard under a huge bridge that didn't exist 30 years ago. I don't know if everything was blurry because i had already removed my contact lenses or if the smog is really that fucking bad these days. I fear the latter. Even still, Kowloon and Hong Kong Island and even the "small" settlements are pretty damn awe-inspiring at night, especially from the water, towering high over the piddling little two-deck ferries and pilot ships. This is a vertical city, after all. Epic way to close off this trip. Now, to try get some sleep. Tomorrow, Kaohsiung.
May 29 - Day 22 - Bonus Day
Breakfast: "Hawaiian toast" (grilled cheese and pineapple)
Lunch: cauliflower cheese soup, grilled white fish, rice, salad
Dinner: roast beef, gravy, mashed potato, red cabbage
Breakfast was a grilled cheese with canned pineapple, called "Hawaiian toast". Which, i guess, could be the inspiration behind the canned peach grilled cheese from earlier in the voyage, a dish i am hereby christening "Georgian toast". Though, come to think of it, Georgian toast sounds a little like a Soviet-era torture technique.
Captain said we'll be in around 16 to 18, depending on the pilot. So i should be all settled in Kaohsiung by sundown. I thanked him and his crew for being great (i slipped the steward a $30 tip the other day, enough to buy some internet or a couple bottles of liquor). He nodded and smirked in his inscrutable way. "Well, yes, we are not professionals, we are not a cruise vessel." Thank God for that.