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Mark travels from Sydney to London without flying, via famed cities like Bangkok, Istanbul, and Prague; and obscure locales like Maha Sarakham, Goreme, and Aktau. He catches a cargo ship across the Indian Ocean, risks a dicey gauntlet of terrorists and Chinese tanks, has beers with a naked ex-Soviet officer in Kazakhstan, eats shrooms for breakfast in Amsterdam… As he travels across the globe, he tells it like it is with off-kilter opinions and left-field humour. You’ll laugh as you learn about the world and what it takes to travel it.
At Fremantle’s North Quay Harbour, huge cranes shift hundreds of containers onto and off of cargo ships. Trucks roll in and roll out of the docks, and men in yellow jackets buzz around. A security guard drives me to one of the ships. I climb steep metal stairs onto the deck. A Filipino bloke — Bernardo — takes me to a seven-floor structure towards the back of the ship that spans almost the width of it; in it are offices, bedrooms, dining rooms. My room is one of a few kept spare for journeys that require extra crew. It has a lounge, bedroom, and bathroom, and is furnished like a suite at a 3-star hotel. A yellow hard hat and life jacket hang on wall hooks, and on a table in the corner is a large black holdall. A white label is stitched onto the holdall: “Solas smart suit type 2a. An insulated immersion suit / anti-exposure suit. Made in Scunthorpe.”
Bernardo gives me an information booklet, tells me to wait in my room, then leaves. The booklet looks like it was created in the mid-nineties when clipart was edgy and exciting and anyone with Microsoft Publisher was a graphic designer. Images used include bananas, dancers, flowers — none have any relevance to the text. I learn that the ship is called MSC Uganda (but is German, not Ugandan). It’s 294 metres long, weighs 53,324 tonnes, can hold 4,545 shipping containers, and uses more fuel in a day than the average car owner uses in a lifetime. Those stats make it sound like a beast, yet it’s one of the smallest ships at the port.
After six hours of being idle in my room, I get a call on the in-room phone and am told to go to an office to meet the captain: a German fella in his late-fifties, named Waldemar Murawski. I like that name; it’s seaworthy, strong-sounding. I wouldn’t be happy with a captain called Malcolm Shufflebottom. I’d trust Malcolm Shufflebottom to drive a bus, but not a cargo ship. “Welcome aboard, Herr Walters,” says the captain, as he crushes my fingers with his handshake. He tells me I’m free to go wherever I want on the ship. “You must be careful, though,” he adds. “There are many ways that you can injure yourself. You can fall over things; things can fall on you. And if you fall into the sea, it’s a major problem — for us, and for you.” He gives me an indemnity form to sign; it says that I give up my rights to make any claims against the shipping company, even if they’ve been negligent.
The officers, engineers, and mechanics are all German (except for one Filipino); the deckhands — those that do the hard, dirty work — are all Kiribatian. I’ve never before heard of Kiribati. It sounds like a made-up country. But the Kiribatians on board insist that it’s real. They claim it’s an island nation in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. I’ll take their word for it for now, but next time I’m online I’ll check that they’re not lying.
I eat meals in the officers’ mess-room. A waiter serves us food; he calls everyone “Sir” — he calls me it too. I’ve gone from eating cereal bars in a room that stunk of urine to eating cooked meals served by a waiter in an officers’ mess-room. Things are on the up. There are four tables of four. Everyone sits in the same seat each time. They barely speak a word to each other. They must run out of things to say after months of sitting next to each other for three meals a day — especially when they have no news or weekends to discuss. (There are only so many times that you can debate the best size and colour of shipping container before the topic gets dull.)
Ulrich: “Herr Ernst, did you see the game last night?”
Ernst: “No, Ulrich, I didn’t. We’re on a ship; there’s no TV. I never see the game. You never see the game. No one on this ship ever sees the game.”
Ulrich: “Ah, right. Of course. So what did you do last night?”
Ernst: “Nothing. I was with you. We both did nothing. We sat and talked about that we did nothing the night before. We had this same exact conversation, like we do every night.”
Ulrich: “That’s not true; not every night. There was that one night we were so bored that we—”
Ernst: “We must never ever talk of that night. Never.”
After dinner, there’s an abandon ship test drill. As instructed in the information booklet, I grab a life jacket and hard hat and head to the port-side lifeboat. I’m the first there, and feel smug to be. Ten minutes later I feel less smug: a spectacled mechanic comes to get me to take me to the other side of the ship. I’ve been stood at the starboard-side lifeboat. Starboard? Port? Cut the jargon and just use left and right. A few crew get in the lifeboat, lower it down to the water and circle around for awhile. As that’s happening, I ask the spectacled mechanic about pirates.
He says, “We don’t worry about pirates because of the speed of our ship. Pirates are faster, but if the ship they’re trying to board is moving quickly, it’s difficult for them to get their ladders attached and get on board.”
I’d feel safer if we had some grenades. I guess we could improvise, if we had to: use potatoes from the kitchen. While not as effective as a grenade, a well-aimed potato can cause a bruise.
At 11pm, a couple of tugboats latch on to the ship and pull us away from the dock. Then the ship’s engine kicks in. I walk out onto the deck. With one hand I hold onto a railing and with the other I cling to my hard hat — it’s so windy that it’s at risk of blowing off. People are stood along the harbour, waving ships off. I shout at them: “Goodbye you cow-stealing Aussie scum. See you back in the motherland when you’ve done your time.” After ten minutes, we pass the lighthouse that marks the end of the harbour, and we’re out at sea.
The ship lurches constantly. As I lay in bed back at my room, I feel nauseous. The room spins like it does at the end of a night of too much boozing. The captain said that many people get seasick during their first time at sea, and that it can last for days. I try to sleep, but the creaks, cracks, and whirrs — that come from above and below, left and right — keep me awake long into the night.
I’ve stopped looking out of the windows in my room. There’s nothing to see but sea. They should have spent on wifi instead of windows. (The only internet on board is via a computer in the captain’s office.) Maybe it’s not the cost of the technology that’s the problem, but weight restrictions. Giving in-room internet to a ship of lonely blokes at sea for months at a time would require several tonnes of tissues to be stocked on board.
With no porn or TV, I resort to going for a walk. The barriers bordering the ship’s outer edge are only half a metre high, and the walkway is no more than a metre wide. I nudge myself along at a pace only slightly faster than stationary. It takes me ten minutes to reach the bow. After I sing My Heart Will Go On, I’m eager to return to my room. Partly because I could die out here and partly because I’m wearing trainers — borrowed from one of the crew to adhere to health and safety rules. I don’t like wearing trainers. It’s like putting a child in a cage. For half an hour it’s ok, but any longer is cruel.
Land ahoy! in the afternoon: we pass between jungle-covered Indonesian islands. The one on the left is Sumatra, the one on the right is Java. As I sit on a deckchair on F-Deck (the top floor of the ship), with tropical islands either side of me, the sun on my face and the wind in my hair, I think to myself that this is the life, that this is why I’m not settling down and being a boring bastard. Since I turned thirty a year ago, I’ve had an increasing amount of people asking, “Mark, don’t you think you should settle down?” These people have never been anything but settled. They’ve lived their lives in one town. They married a local and got a mortgage and are part way through a fifty-year slog of doing a job they hate. To turn the question around on them, ask when they’re going to unsettle, is met with a blank stare. The way I see it, most people live until they’re about eighty, and those years should be split between being settled and being unsettled. Eighty divided by two equals forty years of each. So it mathematically makes sense not to settle until you’re forty. You can’t argue with maths. People who settle before that should be the ones being questioned on their life choices. To think you’ll work hard when you’re young and then go wild when you’re retired is bollocks. How many intrepid seventy-year-olds do you see? By the time people retire, they’re mostly worn out. Their vigour and enthusiasm has wilted at best, died at worst. Health and vitality are priceless — the best years of them shouldn’t be spent in the rat race.
I go to the “bridge” (as us seafaring souls call it); in it is a steering wheel thingy (not the official nautical name); a large control panel that contains hundreds of buttons and dials; and three monitors — two display radars and one a map. The map is super detailed; it shows not only where land is, but sea depths and danger points. I note that we’ve detoured around an area marked “Explosives Dumping Ground”. Bernardo is currently controlling the ship. He tells me: “It runs on autopilot except when near land or when passing through a congested shipping lane. But even when on autopilot, we need to keep an eye on the speed and reduce it if there are large waves or swells to prevent damage to the ship or containers falling off. Problems are rare but do happen. At my previous company, during a severe storm we lost three tiers of containers.”
I later visit the gym, pool, and sauna. Don’t think, though, that this is a luxury liner: the sauna is the size of a fat man’s coffin; the pool is a small metal box filled with seawater; the gym has only three pieces of antiquated weight-lifting equipment. To properly exercise, the only option is to run in circles — small circles because there’s not space to run in large ones. The crew go months at a time without any decent exercise, which — along with the stodgy food — explains their chunky bellies. It’s a cooped-up existence, and one I’d struggle with. They get paid well and aren’t stressed or overworked, but the boredom must take its toll. They don’t even get to see the places the ship goes to, as they have to work the whole time the ship is docked. For me, to be on board is a novelty, but a week is plenty to play at being a sailor. I’ll be glad to be back on terra firma, where I can run in circles as large as I like.
In the evening, there’s a barbecue on F-Deck. With today being my birthday — and the captain knows this because he’s seen my passport and various forms with my date of birth on them — I head up there fearing that I may be in for some high jinks: Walking the plank? A mermaid stripper? Sucking off an octopus? It’s times like these that you need Google. Google would know how sailors celebrate birthdays. There are, it turns out, no mermaids, no planks, no octopi. The crew, it seems, always have a barbecue on Tuesday evenings, and no one cares that it’s my birthday. There’s not even a single bloody balloon. When no one’s looking, I slip my speech into the bin.
As we eat and drink, I ask the captain if when he was a child he wanted to be a captain.
He says, “Yes, that was my dream. But these days we use auto-pilot, so I spend most of my time doing admin. I chose this career because I wanted to sail ships, not to do admin. Shipping companies want to take as much control away from captains as possible. The reason for the delay at Fremantle was that I wanted more fuel before we departed, but head office said we had enough. I’ve sailed ships for decades, yet I have to argue about this. I don’t want to work like this, but what can I do?”
Back in my room, with nothing else to do, I decide that my hair — which hasn’t been cut since before the trip began — needs some DIY work on it. I gave up on overseas hairdressers years ago; though they’re cheap, what you want and what you get are often entirely different. The last time I visited a foreign barber, I ended up having three haircuts in a week. The second to try and undo the mess of the first, and the third — which I did myself — to try and undo the shambles that was the second. I’m no Vidal Sassoon, but I can hack a five out of ten. A five isn’t great, but it’s better than the slicked back on the sides, quiffed up at the front, Vietnamese-style shocker that I got last time.
At 1.30am, an alarm sounds around the ship and the phone in my room rings. The captain says a Singaporean immigration officer is on board and wants to see me. The officer stamps me into the country without asking any questions — like: “Why the heck are you arriving on a cargo ship?!”
A local on board selling sim cards to the crew says that he’ll drive me into the city centre. You have to take chances on people when you travel, believe in the kindness of strangers. Do I like the look of this person? No. Would I leave him alone with my sister? No. Is he the only way for me to get out of here? Yes. So I’ll give him a go.
Ten minutes later I’m sat in a van with him, weaving through the streets of Singapore. There’s nothing to fear when arriving late at night at a place unknown with no hotel booked. Most will know the word “hotel” even if they know little to no other English. And if not, you can put your hands at a slant by the side of your head to imitate a pillow. Nine times out of ten, they’ll know what that means. The other time, they’ll interpret it as you asking to go to bed with them — that’s the risk you have to take. If there’s absolutely nowhere to stay, you can — aided by Red Bull or whiskey or whatever your poison of choice — pull an all-nighter somewhere central and open (like the main square or outside a bus or train station). Don’t look lost — that’s how you attract the sort of attention you don’t want. Look like you’re awake and out by choice and you’ll be alright (probably).
Van man drops me at the Hawaii Hostel. The receptionist is asleep across the check-in desk. After I wake him, he takes me to a grim room without windows. I’m straight on the internet. In the past week, I’ve not read nor seen any news. I might have missed the Second Coming or the invention of teleportation. (I’d take the latter over the former.) But nothing significant has happened; same old blah-blah-blah stories about people killing each other. Then I lay in bed and think back over the trip so far. I thought it might take a month to reach Singapore and that I would come via East Timor and Indonesia. It’s taken eight weeks and I didn’t step foot in either of those countries. And I’ve spent four times more than expected. Maybe I should start to plan ahead. But where’s the fun in that?