Marsaxlokk-Jabal Ali; First impressions
4 February 2015; 10.00 Malta time
After what seemed like an interminable wait for the transport to take us (myself and three Croatian officers) from the hotel to the port, I am onboard the ship. I am rather impressed with the officers’ massive rolling suitcases. Climbing up that steep slightly swaying gangway with the precarious nets around the metal stairs the only gesture to safety is hard enough with a travel rucksack. Not sure how those enormous rolling suitcases are carried up. But there was something else impressive as well: as I fidgeted waiting for the transport which was about an hour late, the three of them were so still, so serene. A kind of moment of respite before work begins I suppose, but it reminded me of Marcus Rediker’s wonderful account of the tedium of worklife aboard ships and the way it is relieved by storytelling. And I suppose by learning the embodied art of tranquillity.
That climb up the gangway was glorious and terrifying and distracting (distracting, that is, from the task of observing this wondrous alien world). I so wanted to look out to port, to the cranes, to the containers, to the ship itself, so wanted to take a photograph of the ship; but there was a kind of efficiency in boarding, and the officers were so matter-of-fact I felt a bit self-conscious about this thrilling sense of wonder, at being here at last, at the sleek vastness of this enormous ship, and the dizzying smell of diesel and oil in the air (who would have thought I would find that industrial scent itself so seductive). Everything is metallic and angled and orderly. And the cranes, vast and swift and balletic in their graceful movement across the bodies of containers. The climb required all my concentration, not least because I had to keep myself from looking at the slick of water separating the boat from the berth, glinting under me at some great distance.
Coming through, I had to follow the officers to the ship’s office in what is called the Upper Deck, where the Croatian officers seemed to know the officer with stripes across the shoulders who met them –met us– there, with much embracing and vigorous shaking of hands and excitement in Croatian. Later a Filipino officer (unusually, given the mapping of nautical hierarchies to geopolitical ones, he is an officer, rather than a crew member) came to get me and up a lift we went to the floor where passengers’ cabins are located. He took my passport and my health certificate and proof of vaccination with him – and I suppose I shall next see my passport when I want to disembark (at Suez, perhaps? Or is it Khor Fakkan). He later called me up and asked which Philadelphia it was where I was born; he seemed a bit surprised that it was the US (although I cannot think of another Philadelphia). He also apologetically asked me some questions apparently needed upon arrival in Khor Fakkan: marital status and religion. And I told one truth and a lie: single and Christian. I would rather not have the government of Sharjah (or the UAE) imagine it has any say in my travel plans because they think/know someone somewhere considers me Muslim.
I was guided to my cabin and turns out I am not the only passenger, nor the only woman. There are two other passengers, both of them Swiss women in their 70s; one of whom has done this sort of trip 4 or 5 times, and both of whom are travelling to Malaysia, having boarded in Hamburg. They have been through the storm that slowed down the ship (which apparently threw everything around and made walking around the corridors precarious) and after giving me a tour are heading out to Malta to visit Valletta. The captain’s wife is also traveling with us, and as I was getting a tour from the confident Swiss women –who seem to know their way around- we also met a young Croatian woman who seems to be a cadet.
My room is on Deck F – the decks go from A at the bottom to G on top; and U which stands for the upper deck is actually below A; and the bridge and the wheelhouse (locked when in port) are above deck G and reachable by 16 steps from there, as one of my co-travellers told me. My cabin is vast. Certainly as a big as a hotel room with a double-bed and a sitting area. All the drawers and cupboards have to be slightly lifted before pulling out which I suppose secures them in choppy seas. The coffee in the passenger sitting room seems to be Nescafe and I am now really regretful that I didn’t bring my own lovely Brazilian Monmouth Street coffee (oh the problems of the bourgeoisie). The gym looks paltry and I will have to really do something for 30 or 45 minutes a day since I won’t be able to run (how I wish I could). The pool is a metal cube on one of the decks painted a desultory pool blue; empty at the moment but apparently to be filled in the Red Sea. Looks to me like a deadly hole, but my co-travellers seem to eagerly await the temperatures being warm enough for it to be filled. I haven’t brought a swimsuit (thankfully), so will not be using it (which is just as well, as the pool’s angular hardness looks like a very probable source of injury for someone as clumsy as I am). On the other hand, I shall be taking the steep stairs from one deck to the next, in lieu of being able to run the canals and rivers and around the containers.
In my cabin, upon arriving I overlooked the containers as they were being moved by the cranes across my window, briefly shadowing my sun. My windows overlook the bow (or did before the containers blocked it). Far below my cabin towers of containers begin like three-dimensional puzzle pieces. And a few layers below my portholes is a layer of refrigerated containers, and a crew member in hardhat walking alongside them with a clipboard on a narrow gangway, checking their status, I suppose, and that they are indeed refrigerating whatever perishable cargo they may have within.
The wail and screech of the container being moved, the creaking and clanking, the sound of refrigerated containers just below, the sound of metal scraping against metal, and the swift flight of the cranes all blend very well with the music of British Sea Power which eerily echoes the sounds of the ships and containers outside. I wonder how the crane operators learn to play this distant game of placing the containers perfectly atop one another with their faultless fit as the crane balletically moves over the stack of already-fitted containers. I feel –as the containers slowly tower in front of my porthole layer by layer- as if I am being slowly cocooned in the metallic belly of the machine leviathan, ready for my commodity circulation, dreading that the glorious sunshine shall be cut off by the layers of containers, which I suppose will go as high as they need to go. Economies of scale.
Nor I have any sense of what is in the containers. Their heft as the cranes moved them across the ship tells me they are not empty, but then they well could be already so heavy with the lumbering weight of the steel in their bodies, full or empty. And there is little that tells you what can be inside. Some have little yellow triangles saying “Super Heavy.” One, a Capital container (hah!), was cascading something liquid as it swept across the bank of containers. The one immediately in front of my window, CMAU461154 8 (45G1), doesn’t seem traced beyond December, when I look for it via the website of track-trace (which takes me to the CMA CGM website). The brilliant Charmaine Chua (commenting on Facebook) seems to think that for security reasons, the cargo manifest for containers is not posted until after delivery and unloading. Makes sense.
Lunch is not quite as bad as I expected. Meat and two veg, as anticipated, but not tasteless (though overcooked). The messman in the officers’ mess on Deck B is Rico (or Enrico), a sweet and tiny Filipino guy. The soup/salad/cold cuts are laid out and the main course and desert are served by Rico. A hot dog soup; generic cold cuts, a colourless salad of iceberg lettuce, and a chicken stuffed with something and breaded and baked and served with chips. But there is at least some fruit and veg, which is great, and tea, and I am holding out hope for some coffee rather than Nescafe in the morning. And there is a jar of sambal oelec on the table which should make everything taste delicious, regardless of what is in it. I wonder if I shall be able to ask to taste the crew’s food at some point.
The officers, all strapping Croatians, some with enormous arms and tattoos, most dressed in leisure suits (I guess when they are working they have overalls or uniforms on; I shall see tomorrow), sit, chat with each other, devour their food quickly and run back to work. They are scrupulously polite, saying hello to me, but also studiously avoid speaking or looking my way. Most accounts of why containerships would allow passengers on board say that they are there to entertain the crew and officers (we are also supposed to provide PR for the shipping company). It seems to me that the officers see us as incomprehensible illegible nuisances and are not particularly inclined to be entertained by us. But they also don’t hang around the mess for very long. Apparently in the port they are very busy, and the Filipino second officer mentioned that they are doing some underwater work on the ship as well. Which is perhaps why they are even busier than usual.
At the moment all is new for me. I feel shy meeting the officers, and the few crew members I have seen have said hello, but have maintained the courteous hierarchical distance that seems to be the order of the ship. There were sounds coming from the crew’s dining hall, but I didn’t dare knock on their door either. And meeting the captain in the stairwell was a bit embarrassing as he had to tell me which deck was mine as I kept climbing beyond where I was supposed to go.
I am looking forward to settling into the routine and to being cut off from communication tomorrow. I am looking forward to the ship leaving shore which shall give me a bit more freedom to wander around the decks (I hope) and the ability to go out into the sunshine at some point. There seemed to be a little deck outside the officers’ mess but Rico cautioned me against going out there and I didn’t want to alarm him too much.
The ship’s officers come in when they can, eat and leave. The chief mate always has his walkie-talkie with him. I haven’t seen the Filipino second officer yet and I wonder if he eats with the crew, or if I have just missed him coming to the officer’s mess. The cadets eat together at a small table – though not the woman cadet who eats at the main table. We are served water, tea or coffee at meals, and wine, sometimes, apparently. Though the crew and the officers seem to have their own supplies of wine and beer elsewhere and do not drink at meals (as they will have to return to work). The food is massively under-seasoned and over-cooked and I have been pouring salt and pepper and Tabasco or sambal oelek over every meal.
At the meals, the class and category hierarchies are firm and uncontested. The Croatians all are comfortable chatting with one another, but this separation of tables (with the woman able to transcend the bounds between the cadet and officer) and the modes of address the messmen employ are fascinating in their upholding of orders of difference. The captain sits at the head of the table and his wife sits to his right. I have noticed that the officers sit at the same seats at every meal. I wonder if there is a particular order they observe even at the table, where as the distance from the captain grows, the status of the person diminishes. The hierarchy even works in which decks are populated by whom, and the higher you go in the ship, the higher the status (and shorter the distance to their workplace). The exception to the proximity of officers to the bridge is of course the engineers – who have to descend to the bowels of the ship – but their cabins are nevertheless immediately below the passengers’ and ours are immediately below the captain’s and the chief engineer’s. The spatial distribution of status reinforces the order onboard I suppose. And of course it is the means by which a suppression of wages –determined geopolitically- is achieved. Edna Bonacich long ago wrote about split labour market theory and divergent or dual wage regimes, and this applies as strongly (perhaps even more strongly) to a ship staffed by transnational crews as it does to the Los Angeles markets she was studying in the 1970s. It cannot be clearer how the ship’s crew and officers –from the global South and the fringes of the global North respectively– diverge in their wages and incomes. And this of course means that class becomes articulated through a kind of geopolitical/racial difference; which is why the Filipino second officer disturbs these boundaries. I hope to chat with him. He and the woman cadet are those I am most curious about.
I still have the internet connection – and Facebook– which ties me to the shore in ways I am not happy about. I am looking forward to our departure tomorrow at 8 or noon…. And when we do, I am permitted to go to the wheelroom. I look forward to the sense of scale and vastness that shall come with being far above the containers and the sea. At the moment, with my view blocked by containers, and my routine one that takes me through narrow corridors to human-sized rooms, gyms, and familiar spaces, I feel a bit human-sized. When I stepped out briefly on Deck A and looked to the sea, I found that thrilling – and the unfamiliar again: the steel, the angular objects arising from the deck; the metallic stairwells going to dark and oddly shaped spaces; the warnings painted in bright yellow and red on deck. That is what I love about this all. That is what I need more of. Not the vastness of scale so much as the angularity and unfamiliarity of technology.