Friday, October 21, 2016

The More Things Stay The Same

We’re currently skirting Taiwan to avoid a Catagory 4 typhoon.  I’ve been securing the deck for two days now.  I’ve been stowing lashing gear.  Securing large items.  Putting leashes on anything with wheels.

Tonight we’re hitting the worst of it.  We’re quartering the waves (not going directly into them, but keeping them off our beam) and there is a hurky-jerky to the rolly-poly motion that keeps swinging my office chair around while I’m trying to watch a horrible and pixilated b-grade movie.

In a couple of hours it’ll worsen, then start to slacken in the morning.  By the time we anchor tomorrow evening, outside of Chiwan, the seas will be flat.  That’s what the forecasting service is telling us, anyway.

The indirect path that information flows on a ship is remarkable.  For two months there has been rampant speculation about the fate of this ship.  While sitting at coffee this morning, one of my daymen said the mate had told him this was the last time we’re doing this run- the next voyage will see significant changes.

Then, two hours later, I come across the mate and he tells me the same- no more Pakistan.  No more Shanghai.  But we’re adding on two ports in India and another in Sri Lanka.

Avoiding the 5 hour transit up the Yangtze River is fine by me- we’re there so short a time that I have yet to touch that Chinese soil in almost a dozen visits, so my only real loss will be an anxious hope I’ve harbored that one day we’ll be delayed so I can go ashore.  And I have nothing good to say about Pakistan at all- I’m sure there are wonderful things about the place I am too ignorant to appreciate, but I will not miss the security risk, pollution, and hostility.

I am looking forward to riding in an Indian rickshaw, then tipping the old man the equivalent to a month’s salary… adhering to the unspoken code my first Bosun likened to “paying it forward” for the next sailor, no matter the flag of their vessel.  Not to mention it will be another country I will touch lightly on its fringes from the ubiquity of a container port, being exposed to it fully but retreating back to US sovereignty by the time I actually need an American toilet.

I am also excited to see another city in Sri Lanka- I have always really felt weirdly at home in Columbo, and it’ll be interesting to see if I will have the same feeling towards other parts of the country.  This change only supports my initial thoughts about the effects of shipping on the once war-torn Ceylon, land of tea and gemstones- her proximity to every single trade route between Europe, Australia, and China will see her become the next Singapore.  You heard it here first, years ago, and now it is becoming fact.

OK.  I need to secure the crap in my quarters against these damnable waves.

Today was a good day.  Now onward.

Friday, October 14, 2016

An Exchange Rate To Write Home About!

5 days at anchor in Hong Kong were a much needed respite for me and the gang.  Due to the clause in the Agreement, “(a) In port the hours of work shall be 40 hours per week, eight hours per day between 8:00 A.M. and 5:00 P.M., Monday through Friday. (b) 3:00 P.M. Knock Off,” we only worked 6 hours a day, leaving plenty of time to go ashore.

“The Agreement,” that governing contract between the sailors and the company that gets discussed and argued every time the needle-guns shut up long enough for the human voice to be detected by the human ear, is universally described by Chief Mates as the “most creative piece of literature in the English Language.”  I think of it as a list of catch-alls only sailors could dream up.

Speaking of marvels- it is almost impossible to describe a city like Hong Kong that has so many superlatives attributed to it; to single one out and draw attention to it only denigrates the whole place through its failure to give attention to all the others.  It is the densest, the largest, the most populous, etc… so much so that I was content to wander around, completely lost.

The Temple Night Market is possibly the most famous street in Hong Kong- more Kung fu scenes have taken place there than anywhere else.  I wandered past the endless stalls of cheap electronics, watches, tchotchke, down narrow, dank alleyways barely wide enough to allow two people to pass, past dark doorways where women plied their trade with calls of “Mah-sah! Mah-sah for you! I have strong hand!”

Dead pigs on carts, chickens hanging in the windows, luck cats, woks on propane burners balanced at the edge of curbs… like Chinatown in New York.  Or Chinatown in San Francisco.  Or in Singapore.  The Hong Kongese might distinguish themselves from the mainlanders a few miles away, but they are Chinese in every way that this foreign devil can tell.  Chinatown, as only a place in China, but technically not-China, could be.

For $1.75 US I took a subway from narrow lanes beneath a riot of criss-crossing prayer flags and the steady rain of window-unit a/c condensation in the older part of town to the downtown Hong Kong of laser-lit, projected imaged glass skyscrapers, high-fashion flagship stores of every concievable brand under the sun, neon-lit Ferris wheels, double-helix stairways made of solid glass… jaw dropping and bigger than Texas in every way… even in the volume of its self-aggrandizement.

Eat.  Shop.  Shop.  Eat.  If you want bargains, Hong Kong is the place.  Stomach the grisly aroma’s in the old city and get lost in a maze of electronics stalls that are endless.  Wander for hours and never see the sky, never see the same stall twice.  You’ll mostly see the same merchandise at the same price, and convince yourself that you’re seeing the same people over and over again, but you’re not.

Or walk, like I did, and try to get lost.  Due to Google Map’s ability to show you exactly where you were, when, I can go back and see that the first day I wandered I only walked 5.5 miles in the 4 hours I was ashore.  My last 4 hour stint was 7.7 miles.  I changed from my newer flip-flops to my older, and more worn pair to give my feet a break.

I bought $300 US worth of HK dollars ($2,500!) and 5 days later I still had over $500 of it left over… I think I was so overwhelmed that the glut sickened me to buying.  I ate.  I bought some necessities.  I bought nothing for “the fun” of buying it.

At the end of the day, though, Hong Kong is a fractal.  It is amazing on each level, and when you zoom in, you find there is a repeat of the overarching pattern of the city in the neighborhood; and the same pattern of the neighborhood as in the block; the same pattern in the shopping center; in the store; in the department; on the shelves; in the merchandise; in the circuit board of the merchandise….

I found the hive-like energy of Hong Kong endless.  I found its proportions and glitz stunningly alien and bizarre.  But, ultimately, I found the city of superlatives… boring.

We heaved anchor on the morning of the 6th day and I was finally rested from the 21 hour day in Singapore the week before.  I serviced my needle guns, changed out the cups on my grinders, and set about to putting 2-part epoxy lipstick on this big old rusty pig.

Underway, making way… bitches.  And they pay me to do it.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Sri Lanka to Hong Kong, via Singapore. Again.

I forgot how much I like Columbo, Sri Lanka.  As I predicted 4 years ago, the country has done very, very well now that the war is over.  I counted no less than 21 cranes and 15 new skyscrapers; Chinese money has flooded in and they’ve finished the new container port.  They’re building another new one further up the coast, too, and as I said then: They are the next Singapore.

Tuk Tuks, cars, motorcycles, pedestrians, bicycles, and the odd rickshaw still share the roads… and while the underlying grit still remains, the investment dollars are pouring in.  Several of the crew and I went to dinner at a place owned by the third mate’s friend in a courtyard lined with new, fancy restaurants catering to people like us- Westerners with dollars to spend.  It was good.  It was safe to eat.  It was… not very Sri Lankan.

The chief cook wore a hijab to dinner; she is not Muslim, but she refused to eat anything with pork in it because she was wearing the head covering.  The 2nd Engineer and Wiper drank too much.  The Third Mate ordered too much food.  For a brief minute, though, all the freaks that go to sea and lose their minds to monotony and stress seemed like normal people doing normal things out in the world, and we weren’t the institutionalized suffering from Stockholm Syndrome induced by the chain of command and the absurd- we were just people having dinner.

Two hours later, of course, we were hoisting the gangway and steaming back out to sea.

The Bay of Bengal crossing was uneventful, and when we landed in Singapore five days later we had two days in anchorage- so I went ashore two days in a row.  I bought a cheap electric kettle and a coffee mug so I can make coffee in my own quarters.  I ate frog with the third mate at a place in the heart of Chinatown filled with frog art, where the staff wore all green and had frog eye hats on.

All in all, it was a Singaporean minute away from the grease, the stack ash, the smell of heated bunker fuel and paint, and the same psychologically deteriorating personalities that - regardless of likability - wear like stones in the shoe.

At 0600 I was called out to take the ship from anchorage to the dock.  We were all fast by 0900, and I immediately started doing crane lifts.  I lost count… but I think we did 30 lifts and worked until it was time to let go at 2130.  I didn’t finish until 0030- 18.5 hours later.

The C/M, the C/E, the Electrician who walked through my paint, the Chief Steward, the Chief Cook, and the 2nd Mate all walked down the gangway before we departed and their replacements came up.  To my surprise, the Steward and Cook are familiar faces from my second ship- I spent 5 months with them!

In spite of the change of crew, however, we rolled out like we always do, the worn out cogs replaced with fresh cogs, the clockwork machinery moving this big old girl and all her little boxes.  We burned tons of bunker oil and moved from one port to the next.

Coming into Hong Kong tonight I realized it must be the prettiest city I’ve seen- from the water, or otherwise… it truly is breathtaking and I haven’t seen its like anywhere else in the world.  It is as if Seattle and San Francisco’s geology were merged, and then the Chinese moved all the tallest and brightest neon skyscrapers from Shanghai, Ningbo, Chiwan, and Qingdao to its hilly shores, then threw in two soaring suspension bridges to lord over it all.

Word is that we may spend the next 5 days in the inner anchorage, with a launch, while a shore gang of welders (our friends from Singapore) replaces some machinery on the bow and stern.  If that is the case then expect photos from in the city of Hong Kong, itself.

This is shipping, however, and I have learned not to get my hopes up.  The word is “if.”  When the captain can’t confirm it then it’s nothing more than a rumor.  Don’t count on it.  Never get your hopes up.  Skepticism is the most prudent action.  Expect the worst.  Prepare for disappointment.

I am all of these, and yet my fingers are crossed.