“Money often costs too much.”-Ralph Waldo Emerson
Devinder tells me that he’s originally from Bazpur, which is a tiny little town in northeast India. He says it’s about halfway between New Delhi and the border of Nepal, and then he pours us two cups of tea.
I take a sip of mine. It’s warm and minty and then I look out over the ocean. I’ve never seen it quite like this. It’s a beautifully mesmerizing mix of stars and sea. We’re alone in the bridge, which is perched eight stories above the main deck. It’s as high up as anyone can go on the ship and the view out over the Pacific Ocean is perhaps the only good thing about being on this ship.
When I asked Devinder if we could speak earlier this morning he told me that he was way too busy, but he said that things tend to slow down during his night shift and that we could meet then. The Captain’s usually the one up here, but Devinder’s the officer on watch until midnight while he sleeps.
The ship itself is actually on autopilot, so his job tonight is to keep an eye on the navigational equipment and run through a few routine safety checks.
I can tell that Devinder’s been hardened by life at sea, like most men who make a living on the ocean. His eyes are bloodshot and exhausted, but I can also tell that beneath it all he’s a sweet kid with a kind heart. He’s twenty-five years old and stocky in build, and his English accent is part Indian, part British. His first language is Hindi and he’s Sikh, which is the most popular religion in the Punjab region where he grew up. This would explain why he’s the only one on board that’s wearing a turban.
“Thanks for tea and for meeting with me,” I say. “I wanted to find out more about what it’s like to actually live and work on this ship. I have to tell you, I’ve only been on the ship for about a day now and its already starting to wear me down.”
“You know this is the first time we have ever allowed passengers on any of the container ships I’ve worked on,” he says. “But I must admit, we were all a little disappointed when we saw the three of you. We were hoping at least one would be a woman.”
We both can’t help but laugh, “Yeah, Tom, Howard and I are real eyesores.”
“But it must be awful out here on the ocean. It’s just you and the nineteen other crew members, which are all men. When’s the last time you even saw a woman?”
“Maybe in port about two months ago. I didn’t have a chance to get off in Sydney because we were behind schedule.”
“Wow, that’s rough. I can’t help but wonder, do you ever get lonely out here on the ocean?”
“Yeah terribly. I miss my family and it’s hard to keep in touch with my friends. We have access to satellite internet, but we have to pay for it and its expensive and also really slow, so it’s almost impossible to keep in contact with anyone.”
“So, I have to know. What on earth made you want to work on a massive container ship like this one?”
“I thought this would be a great way to travel and to see the world, and I thought I could make a lot of money doing this. I grew up in such a small town that there really weren’t any jobs there. My brother, who is three years older than me, has become a farmer like my father and that’s what I would be doing if I weren’t here now. They grow sugarcane, wheat, rice, mangos and they also fix tractors in their spare time.”
“And how did you get hired for this job?”
Devinder goes on to explain that he spent one year at Indian Maritime University, which gave him the certification he needed to apply for an apprenticeship with the German shipping company Hamburg Süd. Then, once he got hired he did two tours as an apprentice. The first was nine straight months at sea and the route that ship sailed was from New York to Brazil. “It was exciting at first,” he says.
He got to stop in some major American cities like New York and Miami, which were places he’d only ever dreamt of, and then places in the Caribbean like Negril, Freeport. But he’s quick to tell me that it wasn’t what he expected. He would work 15 hours a day for three weeks straight and then only get 6 hours of free time at every other port they stopped at.
After his first contract was up he went back to India for 5 months because he says that he needed to recharge and get his mind right.
“Mentally, it really takes its toll on you out here. Each day at sea is identical, we do the same routine, see the same faces and eat the same food,” he says.
Devinder explains the second contract he signed on for took him from Brazil to Spain and Italy, Switzerland, Belgium and India. That too was another nine-month contract, but by the end of it he was just completely drained and started wondering if he could even do it anymore. He said that even when they have a few hours in port they don’t really get to see anything. They usually have just enough time to take a taxi to a shopping center and stock up on toiletries and snacks and use the Wi-Fi at a cafe to call their families. “Even though I’ve been to many great places, it’s like I’ve never truly been there,” he says.
Devinder then dives deeper into the other reason he was drawn to this job in the first place. He says that he thought he could make a lot of money and that he loves money. His dream is to own a Rolls Royce one day, but the reality was that he was only making $700 a month as an apprentice. When he got back to India after his second contract was up, he knew he needed to try something different. He went back to school so he could get the certification required to become a second officer.
By his third contract, his responsibilities changed with his new title, but so did the stress.
There was more pressure on him now, as he had to answer directly to an unforgiving Captain as they sailed from Japan to Korea and China. He was doing less of the grunt work, but under more of a microscope and still far away from enjoying himself. Even though he was finally making a little more money he says, “I learned that money’s only good when you’re with your loved ones. When you have money and you’re alone, it’s of no use.”
Devinder then opens the lid on the darker side of life on the ship. He tells me that there really is no way to get off the ship if you’re unhappy. “Let’s say you’re six months into your contract and want to quit. You really can’t because it’s not like you can just get off at the next jetty with your luggage and take a flight home. Most of the crew are really poor and underpaid. Often times they are sending their paychecks home to support their families, so they don’t even have enough money to pay for a flight. You need official clearance from the Captain anyway if you want the company to give you your passport back and pay for your flight home. So, getting out of your contract is next to impossible because the Captain is only going to give you the clearance if there’s a good reason too. Being homesick or overworked isn’t going to get you home.”
My eyes widen as he tells me some horror stories. He says that some of the crew go crazy on board. That he can see their mood and behavior change as time goes on. When they first join they’re happy and optimistic and then around the three-month mark they start to change. They become impulsive and they don’t remember how to react normal to simple situations and often small disagreements turn into shouting matches and fistfights between the crew.
Some crewmembers want to get off the ship so bad that they cut their wrists and pretend to commit suicide in their cabins so they can get the clearance from the Captain because that’s really the only way he will actually sign off on it.
Devinder says that there really isn’t much friendship or camaraderie on board across all the ships he’s ever worked on.
He says that he only has two total friends because it’s very macho on board and they are really not encouraged to talk about their feelings with each other. “We have to keep our problems and sorrows to ourselves. The second you show weakness the crew will turn on you and you will become the butt of all the jokes. So, the crew turns to drinking. In the little free time we have each night, you can usually bet that everyone is alone in his room drinking either beer or Jack Daniels.”
Devinder goes on to say that this is his fourth contract and that it might just be his last. “It’s exhausting. We just sail back and forth from Australia to the United States. This has been the hardest route I’ve ever sailed because it’s such a long stretch at sea. It’s 30 days at sea and we only make one quick pit stop along the way.”
It wasn’t until yesterday that I found out that the ship actually stops in Tahiti for six hours to unload some cargo, which came as a welcome relief. Devinder tells me that we will have a chance to get off and stretch our sea legs, but that that’s not for another ten days.
I take my last sip of tea and thank Devinder for his time and then I walk down a dimly lit stairwell. A long gray lifeless corridor follows. As I walk towards my room it feels like I’ve gotten lost in the woods, like all the good vibes and positive energy that I’d built up as I crossed Australia are not only long gone, but never happened at all.
I take a long look at myself in the bathroom mirror feeling as though my energy is matching that of the ship’s and feeling lonely in a way that I rarely do. I then decide to move my mattress to the floor in case the sea acts up again tonight. As I close my eyes I say, “Only ten more days until Tahiti.”