Riding the Gentle Waves Of Globalization On a container ship across the Atlantic - By Uwe Siemon-Netto
Long lines at immigration, stagnant air, inedible food, jetlag and leg cramps - what does the weary transatlantic voyager do when he can't take the indignities of air travel anymore? Our traveler has found a solution: crossing the Atlantic on the ultimate vehicle of globalization - the 75,000-GRT containership MSC Alessia. The trip took 11 days to reach Antwerp from Savannah, Georgia. But when he finally arrived, a state of blissful relaxation was his reward.
On my third day at sea, Captain Jürgen Langer's calm voice roused me from a deep slumber in a shady spot on the "E" deck. I had just finished a hefty German lunch of sauerkraut and smoked pork prepared by Alfredo Cruz Sandel, the MSC Alessia's Filipino chef. Lulled by the ship's gentle roll and the vibrations of its giant 10-cylinder engine, I had settled in for a long siesta.
"Let me show you my favorite place on this vessel," Langer said. We took the elevator down to the "U" deck and then moved forward to the ship's bow, passing a patchwork of red and blue, yellow, green and brown containers stacked to the height of a sizable apartment building. This path had already become part of my daily exercise of power-walking the entire 1,000-foot length of the freighter 10 times back and forth.
When we reached the spot where the winches for Hamburg-registered Alessia's two 27,000-lb anchors are housed, the captain invited me to climb a steel ladder up a small turret. It led to the top of what he called "the spoiler," a huge vaulted roof designed to streamline this hulking boat. We sat down, filled our lungs with sea breeze and marveled at the absence of engine noises. All we heard was the whoosh of water parted by the ship's bow.
For once, I felt the vastness of the ocean. I had crossed it many times by air, but then, the Atlantic never seemed more than a hypothetical entity, visible only as a blue blob on a monitor as my flight progressed. Now I smelled and saw the real thing. At 25 knots, we were too fast for the dolphins that often swim playfully ahead of slower craft but we did spot flying fish racing above the azure water before finally diving into it.
Just then, a four-engine jet passed 35,000 feet overhead on its way to America. "Those poor people," we said in one breath, pitying passengers squeezed into badly ventilated spaces. "I wouldn't change places with any of them," said Langer, master of this $100-million ship whose cargo was probably worth 8 to 10 times as much.
It was easy to be smug given our circumstances, which are privileged. Every day, 3,500 ships stacked with a total of 18 million of containers crisscross the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, according to the German newsmagazine, Der Spiegel. That's a lot. But even if each of them carried 12 passengers, the maximum allowed for vessels without a doctor on board, they would amount to a total of merely 42,000 - peanuts compared with the millions flying at any given moment.
Freighter travel does not please everybody. It won't enchant you if you feel too grand to clean your own bathroom, make your own bed or do your laundry in the same facilities as the crew. If you expect to be entertained while slurping gaudily colored cocktails topped by paper umbrellas, or if you prefer ships to be floating shopping malls, better to take a cruise.
On a container ship, you ride the gentle waves of globalization, an activity in which Germany holds a leading position in Europe; you become part of the ceaseless traffic of goods around the earth, and an adjunct to tiny seafaring communities - in our case just 22 men and one woman cadet staffed the Alessia. This might seem a mundane experience. Still, I cannot imagine a more appropriate way to go for voyagers who love reading books or watching sailors at their work and listening to their yarns. They have splendid stories to tell, tales of eccentrics you could meet in vessels like the one my wife and I were traveling on.
There was, for example, the story of a resident from an old folks home who owns shares in one of the 100 container ships operated by NSB, a large German corporation. Once a year, she bids farewell to her fellow geriatrics and moves for six weeks into one of "her" vessel's staterooms. These are generous suites; ours measured of 330 square feet and consisted of a bedroom, a bathroom, a large and sunny living room with two sofas, comfortable armchairs, a desk, a coffee table, plenty of closet space, a fridge, a CD player and a TV set fit to run videos and DVDs. The lady in question tours the world in the dowager style of ages past, with eight large suitcases, including her silver and chinaware for tea parties to which she invites the officers, chiefly Germans but also some Filipinos, plus other passengers should they fit such memorable occasions.
Sometimes one runs across odder types on board of freighters. Some pensioners with fixed incomes have settled in almost as permanent residents; at ?100 ($130) a day, life on a ship, including three meals is a bargain compared with a landlocked dotage almost anywhere in Western Europe, especially if you consider the availability of tax-free liquor at laughable prices. Occasionally people come on board expecting to die. This was evidently the case of one elderly lady who left a detailed will in her desk drawer. Langer buried her at sea, with her body draped in a German flag.
One's stateroom neighbor could be a genius completing his magnum opus. Author Alex Haley was such a man; he wrote "Roots" traversing the Pacific on a bulk carrier. On the other hand, you might be stuck with a pair of thirsty septuagenarians like the husband and wife who consumed 84 bottles of wine, 10 cases of beer, two cases of liquor and other potent beverages on one of the Alessia's recent 42-day voyages from Bremerhaven via Antwerp, Le Havre and several points in the United States to Vera Cruz, Mexico, and back. The thought of these two stagger around their ship still made Langer and his staff shudder as we imbibed our modest nightcaps in the Alessia's comfortable recreation room.
Not surprisingly, Langer's favorite passengers on recent crossings were three bouncy Frenchwomen and one wonderful Irish girl whose radiance is still talked about in many ports. "Any Irish lass on board today, captain?" one man asked. "No, not this time," he answered dolefully. "But check with us when we return."
No oddballs shared our table in the officers' mess, just a pair of schoolteachers from Westphalia whose only peculiarity was that before coming on board, they had ordered precisely four apples for each of their 42 days at sea. Actually, if there was anything eccentric about the Alessia, it was her idiosyncratic itinerary. Normally, freighters stick to fixed schedules, but not all vessels chartered by Geneva-based Mediterranean Shipping Company, or MSC, which "occasionally does things a little differently," as one of its American harbor agents phrased it.
We were booked to board the Alessia on June 3. But then we were told that she wouldn't reach Savannah until June 10. That date passed. What followed was a suspenseful period when the moment of departure seemed anyone's guess. As luck would have it, a friend lent us a beachfront apartment in Florida, turning our wait into an agreeable adventure. It so happened that we had just finished reading a biography of John Adams (1735-1826), the second president of the United States, who was quite a frequent transatlantic traveler. He often had to wait three months for a ship to take him to Europe. Compared to that, MSC Alessia's 12-day delay was sheer progress.
As the day of her arrival drew ambiguously near, we checked into the "Inn at Ellis Square" in Savannah, where our room overlooked the 19th century cotton warehouses and offices along the Savannah River. One night went by, then another. At last, on the third morning, a huge vessel seemingly as a tall as our eight-storey hotel wafted past our window, as tentatively predicted by the MSC's harbor agent. It was the MSC Alessia.
A taxi took us straight to her gangway, a steep 48-step ladder. Next, a towering young German officer bounced down these steps, shouldered my 70-lb suitcase filled with books, files and CD's, and stormed back up again, followed by two Filipinos carrying the rest of our luggage. One of the two turned out to be our steward, Melchizedek Santos.
Soon after, an Asian named after the Old Testament's divine mediator served us tartar steak for breakfast and, with the cheerful north German lunchtime salute, "Mahlzeit," , the traditional Saturday "Eintopf" (a thick vegetable stew) with Frankfurt sausages. Globalization indeed! Then as we sailed from America to Europe blissfully cut off from the intrusive gadgets of modern times - mobile phones, the Internet and television - we realized that tallest man on board was even more global than the rest.
Chief engineer Hans-Jürgen Meyer, who shared the captain's table, is a German who divides his time not just between land and sea but also between continents; his wife and children live in Brazil. But a German he clearly is. Never in my life have I seen a workplace as spic and spam as the three-storey engine room he commands.
In his dry way, Meyer told me the hilarious anecdote of a "lapfish" one of his colleagues keeps in his cabin. Though pets are not allowed on board, this gentleman had fallen in love with Colombo, an Arowana belonging to a highly intelligent species inhabiting the water around Indonesia. He built in his stateroom an aquarium for this ever-growing beast, which he hand-feeds with cheese, ham and other delicacies.
One evening as the chief engineer sat pondering the animal's beauty, it abruptly popped out of its habitat and landed on the cabin's carpet. He threw it back into the water but it popped out again, and again, until he realized that it just wanted him to hold it on his lap. Well, it's a yarn but a true one, though not of the kind you would hear on Carnival cruise ships.
You see, the gentle waves of globalization have ushered in a new era for international travel - quite distinct from the aimless world of mass tourism. This era reminds one of a distant past. On the MSC Alessia you can read, next to the officers' mess, a notice informing you of the warning signal in case of piracy: "long-break-long-break-long-break-long." And acts of piracy do happen, not on the Atlantic but in other seas. Off the coast of East Africa, Langer once had to chase barefooted bandits with flare guns from the deck of a containership he commanded; in the Straights of Singapore, one of his colleagues turned his huge vessel around to hunt down brigands who had been menacing another boat. The dire prospect of being ploughed under by a 75,000-ton steel colossus at a speed of 25 knots made them disperse quickly into the night.
In this new era, travelers are captivated not by entertainers but by the brilliance of the people whose masterful work they watch on the bridge. "It's just like driving a car," said Langer when, guided by two pilots, he steered this vessel weighing 100,000 tons, cargo included, by a miniscule lever into the tight lock on the River Scheldt just before entering the container port of Antwerp. Only a few feet separated its hull from the embankment.
Actually, we were fretting that a force 6 storm might suddenly come up, as forecast, compelling the Alessia to return to sea. But this didn't happen. We stood there, marveling at Langer's precision work and the glowing beauty of this brightly lit harbor, the beauty of a massive, never-resting workplace that has become a paradigm of the globalized economy.
When we walked down the 48-step gangway in the morning, we felt unlike after any other transatlantic journey - relaxed, well rested, almost dizzy from all the clean air we had inhaled and the five books each of us had read. Will we do it again?
Is there any other way?
- Uwe Siemon-Netto, a veteran journalist and Lutheran lay theologian, is scholar-in-residence at Concordia Seminary, St. Louis.