“Travel is only glamorous in retrospect.”-Paul Theroux
“This is as far as I can take you kid.”
After I collect my things out of the trunk, the taxi quickly pulls away and I’m left scratching my head in an empty parking lot. I twirl around 360 degrees because a massive cargo ship should be easy to find, shouldn’t it?
But I’m an ant in LEGOLAND. Sydney’s Port Botany is gigantic. Just the container terminal itself sits on 160 acres of land and it’s littered with thousands of shipping containers that are stacked as high as the sky.
I take a tense breath, and it goes without saying, but I can’t afford to miss my ship.
I had a feeling something like this would happen because nothing about traveling around the world overland has ever been easy. Boarding each bus, train and boat has always found a way to cross me up and leave me wondering why I’m even doing this in the first place. Today is no different. I mean, I could have flown across the Pacific Ocean in about 12 hours or so, but if I want to do what I originally set out to do, then that means I’ll have to spend the next month at sea.
My voyage across the Pacific has already been delayed by two days due to rough seas off the coast of Australia. I can’t imagine that the Captain’s willing to wait so much as a millisecond longer than he has to for me. It’s been raining non-stop ever since I got to Sydney earlier this week and I only found out a few hours ago that we were actually cleared to disembark tonight. When I checked my email this afternoon, Julie told me that today’s the day and that I need to board the MV Cap Capricorn at exactly 8:00PM.
Julie’s someone I’ve been working with for the past six months to book my ticket and help me along with all of the paperwork required. We must have exchanged a hundred emails in order to organize this whole thing. It’s so much more confusing and expensive than you might imagine. I had to fork over nearly $2,500 for the ticket and I had to jump through a bunch of hoops, one of them being that I even had to pass a physical within 90 days of sailing.
So two months ago while I was in Malaysia I had to track down a doctor that was willing to sign off on the fact that I was healthy enough to spend a month at sea. On top of that, I needed to get emergency travel medical insurance. The policy had to show that I was covered in the event that I needed to be air lifted to safety from the middle of the Pacific Ocean should things go terribly wrong. And that’s not to mention all of the other documentation I had to provide.
The company Julie works for is called Freighter Expeditions, which basically acts as a broker for cargo ship cruises like this. The company motto is “a unique cruising adventure”, and their website promises that it’s a more relaxing way to sail than the big cruise liners. Way back when I was in China, I told Julie that I needed to go from Australia to either North or South America and then she contacted a bunch of shipping companies on my behalf.
You can’t just “hitch” a ride on a cargo ship like most people think.
There are so many rules and regulations as far as visa’s, work permits and immigration forms that the only way to “hitch” a ride would have been to actually get a proper job with one of the shipping companies. This means that I would have needed to go through the interview process, then get hired and attend safety trainings as well as sign a six-month contract, and that’s assuming that they would even hire me, so all that was obviously out of the question. It’s not like I could have gotten on one of the big cruise liners either. They rarely sail across the Pacific Ocean and if they do it’s ungodly expensive, so that too was out of the question.
Finally, after months of searching, Julie eventually found a German-based shipping company that was heading in the direction I needed to go and was also willing to take passengers, so I quickly snatched up the ticket. The MV Cap Capricorn is literally my only way across the Pacific Ocean overland and it will eventually sail under the Golden Gate Bridge and drop me off at the Port of Oakland.
Now if I could only find the ship.
I look down at the instructions I scribbled on a piece of notebook paper and they say that I’m supposed to follow a road past gate 37, where I will see a sign that reads “crew drop off and pickup point”. Then at the end of that parking lot it says that I will see a green shed and security gate and that I’m supposed to press the button and a security guard will check my passport and then give me a ride to the ship’s gangway.
This is a real needle in a haystack mission.
The sun has just gone down, I’m surrounded by a maze of containers, and of course Port Botany is completely devoid of any and all forms of human activity. And even though I’m finally in a country where people speak English (like me), of course there’s no one around to ask for help. Fitting. But thankfully just before I reach an epic level of panic mode I see a small white sign with red letters across it that reads “gate 37”. I follow the road alongside it like I’m supposed to and eventually wheel my trusty duffel bag right up to the aforementioned green shed.
I’m quickly buzzed through a gate in what might just be the most unofficial immigration process of all time. No one checks my ticket or my bags or performs any type of security check on me. I simply tell the guard that I’m a passenger on the MV Cap Capricorn and then I’m taken straight to the ship.
The first person I officially meet on board is Devinder. He’s the second officer and he quickly leads me up the gangway and directly to my cabin. He tells me that he’s from a small town in India, but he’s noticeably frazzled so he cuts our conversation short by telling me, “We’re behind schedule because of the bad weather the past few days. I’ve got to get back out there and make sure all our cargo gets on board. There will be a briefing with the Captain tomorrow morning after breakfast. I will see you then.”
I close the door to my cabin and have a look around. The room is nicer than I expected. It has a couch, a desk (with a broken chair) and a twin bed (with a rock solid mattress). Overall, it’s not bad. I have my own private bathroom and a small porthole window that looks out over the back deck of the ship where I can see the containers Devinder was talking about getting hoisted onboard by giant dockside cranes.
I take my first deep breath of the evening and it’s filled with relief for having made it onboard in time and then I begin the ritual of unpacking. As I stuff my socks into a dresser that’s bolted to the floor I say to myself, okay I can do this. A month at sea isn’t so long.
I’ve been traveling so much that the first night in a new hotel room is always confusing. I usually wake up in the middle of the night needing to use the bathroom, but I can never remember where it is while I’m half asleep. And I’ve walked into more walls than I care to admit because of it. Just last week I had my rudest awakening as I walked headfirst into a frosted glass bathroom door at 2AM.
That is until now.
When I wake up tonight I’m in mid air.
I quickly notice that my entire body isn’t where it should be. Before I can piece together exactly what’s happening I come crashing down and land in a heap on the floor.
The Capricorn was rocking and rolling so much so that I’m actually surprised that I even fell asleep to begin with. I tossed and turned and rolled from one side of my tiny mattress to the other as the freighter sailed into the remnants of the swell that surrounded Sydney.
By 4AM sheer exhaustion took over and I must have let my guard down enough to doze off to sleep. This also happened to be just seconds before we hit our biggest wave of the night, which shot me up and out of my bed like it was spring loaded.
As the port side sinks low and the starboard side rocks high, all the other things that weren’t bolted down slide past me on the floor. My cell phone and wallet flew off my desk and they tumble by me before I can reach out and collect them. As I lay there cursing my decision to spend a month on a freaking cargo ship, the copy of Robinson Crusoe that I brought along with me flies off the shelf that’s above my desk and lands right in my lap. I hold it up to my face and look at the cover. There’s just enough light shining through the porthole that I can see it clearly. I can’t help but think of the irony and then wonder what’s wrong with me.
Why on earth did I decide to bring a book that’s about a shipwreck with me?
The next morning at breakfast, I meet the two other passengers that have also purchased a ticket, and for as great as Jonathan and Alan were, Tom and Howard are unfortunately the exact opposite.
Tom’s Australian and around my age. He has cool tattoos that run down his arms and a big red hipster beard. He’s got an interesting story, but getting a word out of him is a real chore. He’s quiet and solemn and would only grunt answers as we both ate our scrambled eggs in the dining hall. Eventually I was able to work out of him that he worked in the gold mines in Coolgardie, which just so happened to be one of the towns that I passed through on the Indian Pacific Railroad a few weeks back.
For the past 5 years Tom worked as a truck driver in the mines, driving the same route each day, twice a day, which he tells me was not only monotonous, but also grueling work. He’s reluctant to talk, but he explains that he recently quit and that he’s going to try motorbiking around the world. He just crossed Australia over the past two weeks. The bike itself is somewhere on board, its been disassembled and packed away in one of the containers and Tom will resume riding it once we get to California. I was assuming we’d have a lot in common considering that we both quit our jobs and are trying to make it around the world overland, but unfortunately trying to get anything out of Tom is like pulling teeth.
Eventually he says that he’s looking forward to the isolation that this long stretch at sea will provide. I completely respect and understand this because I myself have been there before, craving solitude and wishing that I could just get away from it all even when it appeared that I was already away from it all. And so I know what Tom’s really saying to me is code for – please stop talking to me and asking me about my life!
So I oblige, because his one-word answers eventually become so excruciating that I simply can’t take them anymore.
As an uncomfortable silence begins to take over the dining hall, Howard bursts in and breaks it, “Good morning gentleman.”
He’s fifty something with broad shoulders, curly white hair and a South African accent. Howard’s enthusiasm quickly takes over the room like a bull in a China shop, but he immediately rubs me the wrong way. He berates Tom and I with facts about his life before even asking us our names, one of them being that he’s currently living on a sailboat in New Zealand and another being that he’s a made a ton of money in the business world. Right of the bat I can tell that he’s quite the character, but not necessarily one I’m looking forward to spending a month in near isolation with.
One of the first things out of his mouth is one of the strangest things I’ve ever heard someone say. Before he takes his first sip of coffee he says, “I’m a celebrity.”
I couldn’t help but laugh at the absurdity of that, not that he isn’t a celebrity. He may very well be one, but who goes around telling people that within the first minute of meeting them? I can’t imagine Brad Pitt walking into a Starbucks and when the barista doesn’t recognize him, he stops and says, “By the way, I’m a celebrity.”
He explains his claim to fame without anyone needing to ask him. He say’s that he’s hiked to both the North and South Poles unaided and that stories about him have been on the news, which I admit is a tremendous accomplishment. It’s his delivery that irks me. Instead of talking to Tom and I, it feels like he’s talking at us and I make a mental note to never speak about my own travels like this to anyone.
Howard moves from his celebrity bit right into the reason he’s taking the cargo ship across the Pacific Ocean before I can get a word out. He’s trying to become an environmental activist and by not flying he says he’s saving fossil fuels. Howard’s developed his own theory that he calls One Point Zero, which has to do with reducing carbon emissions. I’m all for that, but I’m already so put off by the guy that I couldn’t care less about what comes out of his mouth.
Just as I’m about ready to excuse myself and run full speed back to the safe solitude of my room, Devinder’s voice crackles over the ship’s intercom and he announces that we have a safety briefing with the Captain in ten minutes and that we need to report to our muster station.
The entire crew is already outside on the upper deck by the time Howard, Tom and I get up there. It’s a real melting pot of men from all over the world. The deckhands are lined up against the railing and they are primarily Filipino, Indian, and Chinese. Each one is dressed in blue overalls and white helmets, making them look like coal miners. Nearly all of them are covered with grease stains and a few of the men even have streaks of soot smudged across their worn and tired faces.
The officers are standing next to a pile of bright orange life vests and I can tell by their accents and complexion that they’re Eastern European. There’s a clear divide between the crew and officers, but they do have one thing in common, which is that they all look absolutely miserable. I’ve never felt such negative energy in all my life. It’s palpable and it feels like the ship is sinking even though its not.
One thing surprises me about the group and that’s just how small it is. Only twenty men run the entire ship, which is absolutely monstrous by the way. The ship itself is 228 meters long, 37 meters wide and 57 meters high, which just length-wise means it’s over two and a half football fields long.
The Captain begins by announcing that he’s Polish and then tells us that we’re carrying general cargo and that our max sailing speed will be 15 knots. Then he rattles off a few other random facts about the ship, but it feels like the gist of his briefing is just to remind us to stay the hell out of the officer’s way while they’re working.
We are then told to put on our life vests and asked to climb into the emergency vessels that are hanging just over the railing of U deck so we can practice how to safely evacuate in case of an emergency.
Once we complete the rest of our required safety drills, the crew is dismissed and Devinder takes Howard, Tom and I on a brief tour of the ship.
Thankfully the sea has calmed down a considerable amount since last night, so we’re able to walk around without falling into things. Even in the light of the morning, there isn’t much to see. Every inch of the ship is stacked with containers. Devinder walks us from the starboard side to the portside, then from stem to stern. No matter what the angle, all that we can see are containers. There are blue ones, red ones, white ones and occasional orange ones.
Once we get back inside Devinder takes us up and around the interior of the ship. We begin in the engine room and meet the lead engineer who wants absolutely nothing to do with us. Then we make our way to the communal areas on deck A that we will have access to. One of the rooms has a few couches pushed up against the walls and a TV with a DVD player in the center of the room.
Next up on our tour is the gym, which is a windowless room the size of a prison cell. There are 4 dumbbells that must be at least forty years old and an exercise bike that’s missing a pedal. We skip the dining hall because we all found that on our own this morning and we end our tour by visiting the bridge and seeing all of the navigation equipment. We are told that we can come up to the bridge at anytime, but that when we’re up here not to say a word because the Captain is concentrating.
The whole thing is really quite depressing and after the tour ends I ask Devinder if we could find somewhere to talk. I’ve got to know why someone would ever want to work on a ship like this because I’m less than 24 hours in and I’d already give anything to get off.