No Comment Toothpaste

Darlie toothpaste

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February 6 – We arrived in Yantian yesterday afternoon. It shares part of its harbor approach with Hong Kong. The Hong Kong portions are marked with a line of buoys and a customs station floats among them. The approach to Yantian is pretty but the Port itself needs to be seen to be believed. It is massive, with at least 65 P1000587of the huge gantry cranes used to load and unload container ships. Every couple of years they tear down an adjacent hill, dump it into Mirs Bay, and erect 20 more cranes on top. The process is underway in at least two locations in Yantian. The Baltimore was shoehorned into a slip with what appeared to be inches between it an its neighboring behemoths berthed immediately fore and aft. The cranes went to work within minutes, positioning themselves even before the ship was tied up.

The Port is completely nuts. A seemingly infinite number of unlighted rattletrap trucks veer wildly around the approach to the ship taking on the containers fromP1000580 the cranes and delivering new ones for loading onto the ship. There are no traffic signals. The air in the Port is choked with diesel exhaust, and the noise of the trucks is deafening.

I went ashore at about 7 pm, with a proper ship’s ID card and my shore pass. There were two young Chinese men waiting at the gangway on the “U” deck. One spoke rudimentary English. They had gadgets for sale and offered to drive me into Yantian proper since the buses allegedly weren’t running due to the Chinese New Year – a transparent falsehood as several passed by the ship as we were talking. I hitched my wagon to the more experienced crew members and climbed into the two hustlers’ van with about six of the them. The mix of Tagalog, Chinese and broken English in the van was bewildering. Shore leave was to expire at 4 am.

After careening wildly through the unlighted Port facilities and out the porous security gate it quickly become clear that the plan was to take us on a tour of their friends’ shady businesses. Whenever an idea was floated about where we might go (a casino perhaps or, in my case, a coffee shop with wi-fi) the suggestion was shot down as impossible given the Chinese New Year holiday. We were deposited at a small storefront featuring cheap stereos, toy remote-control helicopters, flashlights and San Miguel beer among other things. Several more touts showed up while our original hosts ate noodles seated on plastic kiddie stools on the sidewalk, presumably their reward for delivering us. I was targeted as weird Internet guy by one of the female proprietors and a young metrosexual and repeatedly steered toward the back office, where I might indulge that vice on their computer. Really I just wanted to check my goddamn email on my goddamn laptop after 20 goddamn days on a ship, and didn’t think that should be back office stuff. It got skeevier; I decided to strike out on my own.

This was a big mistake. At least the touts spoke rudimentary English and accepted dollars. More important, they knew the way back to the ship. I didn’t, but figured any taxi driver would. But for the first time in my life I found myself unable to communicate with a single living soul. I tried to ask a woman working the front desk at a bar for directions to an ATM machine. I imagined that “ATM” was universal lingo but it’s not. When I did stumble onto a machine I (ridiculously) didn’t know the exchange rate, selected “200” and received two banknotes with Chairman Mao’s visage, honestly not knowing whether this was equivalent to $2 or $2000 US.

I also thought the word “taxi” was world standard, but was quickly proven wrong as I was reduced to miming holding a steering wheel to a uniformed official. He wanted to help, he truly did, but we just could not communicate on any level, although we parted friends.

I managed to flag a taxi but again the language barrier remained insuperable. And then – a miracle. As I was standing on the curb gesturing through the passenger window to the driver (how does one mime “container ship” or “Port”?), a young woman approached. She brought with her an older Chinese man whose English was exceptionally good. She had seen me on the curb with the taxi and had the man pull their car over to offer assistance. They spoke with the driver and could not get through to him either and so they put me in their car and drove me miles to the labyrinthine Port facilities. He was a British subject from Hong Kong and retired from the restaurant business. Two of his sons are doctors practicing in England. He has traveled extensively in the US. The young woman was his girlfriend and is studying English. I have not encountered a more generous spirit in a very long time. I fear that I insulted them by offering to pay for gas, but felt at the time that I should as we had traveled a long distance. “This wasn’t about money” the Good Samaritan gently stated as he and his angelic companion left me safely at the Port security office.

Two young men enthusiastically drove me all the way to the ship in a dilapidated pickup truck, with many gesticulations on our respective parts signifying love and respect for America and for China. I think alcohol was involved on their end, but they were fun guys. I gave them one of my Mao banknotes not knowing if I was letting down my country by being the Yankee cheapskate or setting them up for the month. (As it turns out it was the equivalent of about $15 US). The Chinese security man guarding the dockside approach to the ship’s gangway was fast asleep; I had to wake him so he could put me properly through his detector machine.

Almost lost in this is the fact that I enjoyed wandering around Yantian for several hours seeing the sights. Most restaurants have a prominent picture of Chairman Mao on the wall. There were many idiosyncratic businesses (a welding shop open downtown  at 10 pm), and lots of families out for an evening stroll, including grandmothers and tiny children. I had to laugh when one small shop’s resident dog regarded me with deep suspicion as I passed in a crowd on the sidewalk and began barking at me, and me alone, to the owner’s chagrin. It had apparently never seen a Caucasian. I never did find a coffee shop but there were lots of fireworks for the holiday and I watched a family launch a large purple paper lantern with a small flame at its base, which soared up over ten stories.

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“Die Hard on a Ship”

February 5 – Drills are a regular part of life aboard ship. Yesterday was the emergency evacuation drill. When the alarm sounded I grabbed the life-preserver stowed in my cabin and went downstairs to the “A” deck evacuation area on the starboard side. The Cook, a young father of 4 sons from Manila, took charge of me. Fire hoses were deployed for the scenario that the Captain, leading the drill by radio from the Bridge, presented as an engine room fire. Under direction of the Second Mate the hoses were trained over the side, the same procedures, the Cook told me, that would be used in case of pirates. My time on the ship is short but I dearly hope to witness a “repel boarders” drill.P1000359

We all loaded into the 42-passenger bright orange lifeboat from the A deck and strapped ourselves into the harnesses that ring the inside. One of the crew made convincing sounds of a cat mewing which bounced around in the fiberglass enclosure. Water and food is stored inside and there are flares and rockets for entertainment, or to discourage cannibalism. The Second Mate sat above us in the pilot’s seat and tested the engine to end the drill. The lifeboat can be launched by the pilot from inside the craft but the drill did not include lowering it into the ocean.

At dinner the Captain mentioned that instances of piracy are way up, particularly in the Indian Ocean near the Seychelles. This led to an impromptu game of “Make the Movie,” in this case an action thriller on the high seas. We made some progress on the plot (Russian Mafia, third-world buccaneering) disagreed on the director (Clint Eastwood vs. Mel Gibson) and quickly moved to casting. The Chief Engineer wishes to be played by Mickey Rourke. There was a brief discussion whether the actor was still animate whereupon the Captain pointed out the need for a diverse cast. I therefore suggested Ving Rhames for Chief Engineer but nobody else could recall him. The Second Mate who, it was decided should be the hero, was unhappy with our casting suggestions for his role (“A bunch of tired old men” I think he said), and insisted on Shia LeBeouf, which I thought an inspired choice but nobody else knew the actor. We didn’t get to the Captain; maybe stunt casting of Sig Hansen or, better, Stellan Skarsgård, the math professor from “Good Will Hunting”. (The Captain’s training in the ice-cold ship’s pool should be a plot point – maybe it allows him to survive keelhauling by the pirates and to unexpectedly emerge on the other side of the ship firing a machine gun).

It didn’t come up but I expect the Supernumerary to be played by George Clooney.

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February 4 – We are drifting again today, this time in the South China Sea east of Hong Kong. It’s a beautiful warm day with a light breeze. On my mid-day constitutional I saw a whale passing port to starboard just yards off the stern. I actually heard it first as it surfaced and exhaled with that distinctive sound; if the engine had been running I’d have missed it. Ten minutes later, as I was leaning over the bow, another whale surfaced twice for air heading in the same direction as the first one. I expected the crew to be blasé about it, just as an Alaska friend yawned at the sight of bald eagles in Homer, but it turns out that whale sightings are not that frequent. Anyway, it made my day.P1000492

The GPS on my camera no longer works, but instead displays a message to the effect that the GPS system has been disabled “in this region” – meaning China.

Because I mentioned at dinner that I had decided against the Trans Siberian, the Captain kindly went to the trouble to contact his home office in Germany and got information about how I might travel by ship from Hong Kong or Singapore to several locations in Europe via the Suez Canal. I know vaguely that there is trouble in Egypt (I have no access to news, and so far have not missed it) but I haven’t heard any suggestion that passage through the Canal is impeded. My reasons for declining aren’t about that, I just want to get onto land.

We arrive in Yantian tomorrow and I remain hopeful that my elevation to supernumerary status after Pusan will permit me shore leave. The email from the home office was not encouraging though. It noted, in a different context, that while passengers with a Category “L” (tourist) visa have been allowed to disembark in Yantian, two embarking passengers were recently denied boarding. Apparently only Category “F” (business) visas are acceptable for passenger boarding in Yantian. (Mine is a Category “L” visa). When the home office asked their agent for an explanation of this arbitrary distinction he replied, faintly echoing Chinatown,  “That’s China…” So I was a bit worried that if I get off the ship in Yantian, I may not be allowed back on by Immigration.

Crew members don’t need visas to go ashore on temporary leave, though, so my promotion is intended to get me ashore temporarily.

Either way, “that’s China…” is my new all-purpose response to every baffling ordeal. (“Forget it Jake, that’s China…”).

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Another Idle Day

February 2 – We were underway as of 6:45 am, but again idled shortly thereafter. Latitude:  30°42’35.11″N; Longitude: 125°11’16.92″E. I have learned that our idleness is intentional: The ship is killing time until its berth is open in Yantian, and is doing so at a location with less ship traffic than the area immediately east of Hong Kong. Our brief trip this morning was to take us away from smaller ships in a fishing area into which we had drifted. Again the weather is very pleasant and I enjoyed my walk around the ship, where I discovered a regulation basketball hoop Basketball court on the Hanjin Baltimoreon a lower deck at the stern. You would need at least 3 ball-minders or a container load of basketballs  to have a decent match, for obvious reasons. I would pay to see a game that pitted ze German size against Filipino speed in gale conditions.

The ship is 984 feet in length and 140 in width so a couple of laps (including several stairways) gives me a chance to stretch my legs. There is exercise equipment and a sauna that I haven’t used. The Captain does use the sauna and pool, which is filled with unheated water from the ocean when the seas are calm. I am too far removed from my Nordic heritage to find this in any way appealing.The Hanjin Baltimore engine room

The Chief Engineer is a good guy and, like most of the crew, a family man. He is passionate about his work in an endearing way and invited me after dinner to the engine control room to engage the lever to restart the massive three-story engine after our long drift. I enjoyed his overview of the engine and its operation. His English is quite good.

Late in the day the Captain had a deck chair delivered to my cabin which allowed me to enjoy the sunset on the adjacent deck, though with a down vest. It is getting noticeably warmer as we steam south.Deck chair in South China Sea

The schedule is starting to worry me as I have set hotel and airline commitments in China, and the ship is still scheduled to stop in Yantian (near Hong Kong) and in Taiwan before it reaches my jumping off point in Shanghai. I may try to bail in Yantian and take a train to Shanghai.

There are lots of DVDs on board. Today I watched Tom Cruise in “Valkyrie” and thought it was well done, with a great cast. Knowing the outcome of the conspiracy to assassinate Hitler eliminated most of the suspense though. Quentin Tarantino chose an unhistorical but more satisfying end to the Fuhrer in Inglorious Basterds.

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February 1 – The ship has been idling in the East China Sea for the last 12 hours. With the GPS feature on my camera and Google Earth, I know our precise location: Latitude  30°47’50.10″N, Longitude 125°20’4.32″E. Nobody on the ship is impressed with this technology; some openly question the utility of a GPS camera.P1000443

At breakfast the Chief Engineer made passing reference to replacing a blower, but didn’t elaborate. Because of the good-natured antipathy between the deck and engine crews, none of the former seem to know the nature of the delay, and I have decided not to bother the engineers with questions. It is a beautiful day with calm seas and I have been enjoying the sun. The deck crew spent the day washing the accumulated salt and engine soot from the ship, and cleaning windows while I read Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, which I enjoyed at times but found tedious at others.  I struggled with the notion that Patty, presented throughout as a jock and a person of limited gifts (she fails to notice that her best friend in college is a junkie, for example), was capable of producing the insightful autobiography that is central to the book.  The autobiographical sections read instead like they were written by Jonathan Franzen.

Owing to the difficulties in getting ashore in Pusan I have been promoted from “passenger” to “supernumerary” in the ship’s  record. This sounded good until I looked up the word and found it synonymous with “surplus,” “excess” and “redundant.” Still if it provides some official status that impresses customs officials in Yantian, China, our next port of call, I’m all for it.

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