In the company of eight thousand boxes and a gallery of soft-porn

By: Shivaji Das

From Singapore to Hong Kong on a container ship

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(Disclaimer: All names have been changed to protect the crew’s privacy.)

I am armed and ready; with my medical insurance, a declaration that I and only I am responsible for my life and death, ten books, three types of board games, and a flute I didn’t know how to play. Lobo and I are taking a container ship to travel from Singapore to Hong Kong, a journey and a leave application purely for the sake of the journey and not the destination.

Our journey doesn’t begin that well. At Singapore’s port, I pose for a photograph for the entry pass, when it comes out I realize that my face has been replaced with a pockmarked cucumber.

But the blue seas hadn’t obliged easily. The container ship we were going to board was at first delayed by three days; a fire in a refinery in Brazil. Then another day of delay crept in; choppy seas around South Africa. Indeed, for someone like me used to travelling by low cost carriers, it was hard to oblige to this call for a cicada’s patience that travelling by a container ship demands for.

Our ship finally presents itself as a big blue wall. It is a French owned vessel named after a famed Verdi opera. We don’t give a name to an aircraft, car, or a bicycle, but every ship must have a name.

We climb up a number of tentative stairs to the deck, a rusty iron door is opened, and an Indian man in helmet and penguin like uniform greets us in. He takes us to meet the chief steward, Doru, a Romanian, who swiftly guides us to our cabin and then departs. One breath later, I realize that I am staring at a calendar featuring a naked girl. We have entered the world of sailors.

Why a container ship? Two months ago, I had met Ahmed, a seaman in a container ship who was originally from Singapore but had married into a family that managed a beachside shack in an Indonesian island, having thus carved his whole life around the seas. Ahmed suffered from general learning disability. But he could still say this to me with his severe stammer, “Only when I am on the ship, when I see nothing else but the sea and the sky, I feel so much peace.” Right then, we decided to try out Ahmed’s world.

There is one inviolable arrangement in our ship and everyone we meet on-board for the first time, tells us of it, “Dinner is served precisely at seven every evening.” The dinner hall is decorated neatly with an overdose of white linen. Like kids enrolled into a new school, we try to blend in, giving an eager and silly smile at anyone who enters. We are at the officer’s eating area and they treat us with the coldness reserved for new students. They eat quietly and depart one by one. I had been worried about the meals on-board because there are rumours going around that container ships tend to employ Filipino cooks. And nothing scares a vegetarian more than the prospect of a Filipino cook. Wonderful people as they are, Filipinos have a rather nuanced understanding of vegetarianism. I still have vivid memories of the meal time interactions with a motherly lady whose house I was staying at in the island of Bohol, Philippines. Every time she cooked, she would beam with tenderness, “I know you are a vegetarian. So I added some carrots to the pork dish. And over there, you must also try our national dish, the chicken adobo, purposefully; I put half a bell paper in there for you.” Just to prepare for such an emergency, I had packed a container-load of vegetarian instant noodles. Our chef, Edouard, turned out to be a Frenchman instead, and he obliged to my request instantly by churning out an omelette (I do eat eggs).

The youngest of the officers comes back in to dining room, “Hi, I am Marius, a cadet. Do you mind if I give you a tour of the ship?” Marius, a Romanian, is an engineering graduate who is interning with the ship. There is a certain childlike aspect about him. He says he has more time than the others because he is on medical leave, having hurt himself while lifting some weights, possibly a case of hernia. Marius shows us the saltwater swimming pool, the gym, the entertainment room and the bridge. With all the climbing up and down the five stories of the ship’s castle, the tour takes only twenty minutes, after which he smiles apologetically, “I suppose that is all there is to see.”

We spend the rest of the evening on our own watching the giant cranes loading and unloading the containers from our ship. These containers might have travelled thousands of kilometres over land and sea, but this is the only time when they fly, as the cranes lift them up and swing them around with ropes, a jaunty graceful swing like that of a heroine in those Chinese martial art films, with all our toys, key chains and Christmas trees inside them. All this while, the ship keeps sucking in oil from the much smaller bunker ship, its wet nurse for the night.

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