Category Archives: Travel (in general)

A Need to Know

Near Cachoiera. Bahia, Brasil.

Near Cachoiera. Bahia, Brasil.

Over the years there have been several elements that have consistently played important roles in how my life and my art have unfolded. I grew up immersed in art; my parents took me to museums and encouraged me to be creative – to use my hands by drawing, building, and photographing. Unwittingly, they also taught me to enjoy solitude. Beyond this though, throughout my university pursuit in the visual arts and to this day, I have always craved movement and change (I moved sixteen times in twenty-two years). I have also always felt strongly compelled to learn about and understand other people and cultures – so much so that as a teenager I considered anthropology as a career.

Once I settled into nesting by making my home with Steve, while continuing to dabble in art, the urge to address all of these interests led to my leaving my all-consuming day job as an archivist and setting out to travel on my own for several months. If I hadn’t done so I would not have realized that travel and photography are my true passions.

I have come to understand that both these pursuits have everything to do with the need to know. When I travel, I am completely open to discovery. I want not just to set foot in other lands but to become a part of them, however briefly. I want to see and experience that which is different about other cultures and, dispelling all assumptions, learn about what we all have in common.

Cachoeira, Bahia, Brasil.

Cachoeira, Bahia, Brasil.

In her New Yorker article this past July, Loneliness Belongs to the Photographer, Hanya Yanagihara wrote:

…the person with the camera is not hiding but receding. She is willfully removing herself from the slipstream of life; she is making herself into a constant witness, someone who lives to see the lives of others… the photographer moves through the world, our world, hoping for anonymity, hoping she is able to humble herself enough to see and record what the rest of us—in our noisy perambulations, in our requests to be heard—are too present to our own selves to ever see. To practice this art requires first a commitment to self-erasure…

…The annals of photography contain many extraordinary portraits, but the ones we linger on longest achieve something exceptional: they suggest that in the microsecond it takes for the shutter to blink, some communion has been found, that an unseen life has become a seen one, that attention has been paid, that an act of witness has been accomplished. They remind us how much we want to be seen, and also how infrequently we practice the skill of seeing others. But if there is a cure for the invisibility of loneliness, it is this. It is why, depending on who you are, that click of the camera’s shutter is a sound that evokes either anxiety or relief. Click: I see you. Click: I see you. Click: I see you. You are not alone.

The camera is the instrument through which I observe, discover, and learn as I travel. Although I am behind it, it connects me to others at the same time. It starts the conversation – be it through simple eye contact with the person I am photographing or, sometimes, a profound sense that the person I am photographing understands she has my complete attention and respect. It is when I travel and photograph that I can truly see.

Near Cachoeria, Bahia, Brasil.

Near Cachoeria, Bahia, Brasil.

I am attentive to my environment; I am constantly framing moments in my mind’s eye as it sweeps the landscape around me. I try to capture the feel of things with my photographs – of people, of spaces, and of objects. Although I have begun to work on photographic projects in the last year, my pictures are first and foremost about the subject in each individual image and about the impression it made on me. I work toward getting at what lies beneath the surface. Through photography I collect experiences, remember, learn, and share what I have felt and seen. To quote Yanagihara again, “The lens may distance the photographer from the rest of humanity, but with that distance comes an enhanced ability to see what is overlooked.” I would also venture to say that wandering with my camera brings this photographer closer to intimate exchanges and humanity. It is my propensity for travelling alone that, perhaps ironically, enables this.

Quilombo near Cachoeira. Bahia, Brasil.

Quilombo near Cachoeira. Bahia, Brasil.

Quilombo near Cachoeira. Bahia, Brasil.

Quilombo near Cachoeira. Bahia, Brasil.

Revisiting the Hanjin Lisbon Container Ship through Photographs

Cargo Ship, Life Boat

Hanjin Lisbon Container Ship, Life Boat

It has been more than eight months since I stepped off the container ship, that transported me to Hong Kong, en route to China. Time has passed and so much has happened since that journey. For one thing, I lived in a foreign city for six months where I learned a new language; I can now speak and understand Chinese. Well… a little, anyway.

Now I am back home in my own neighbourhood, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I have been surprised to discover that a number of new buildings and restaurants have popped up in my absence. It seems to have happened so fast; there were only holes in the ground when I left. It appears that time and life keep moving on.

This has prompted me, in the last few postings since my return, to reflect on the months that have gone by. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, my long journey began on a container ship. Here is a link to the blog posting covering my three weeks on that ship.

Was I Truly There??? China? Vietnam? Cambodia?

Me in Front of Storefront, Dali, Yunnan, China

Here I am in Front of a Storefront in Dali, Yunnan, China

It is hard to believe that only a few weeks have gone by since my return from Asia; I am so completely into the swing of things at home in the Boston area. It is ALMOST as if I never left. I can just barely “touch” China (where I lived and travelled from September 2013 until the end of March 2014) and Vietnam and Cambodia (where I travelled afterwards). They are elusive memories. And yet, profoundly, as I was out and about yesterday a large group of Chinese walked past me. Suddenly, a familiar feeling marked me and tied me to my time in China – I had a pleasantly warm and physical sensation throughout my body. My brain reminded me that I did, in fact, have particular experiences at particular times.

I left China feeling indifferent to the place, or so I thought. Now, I find that I miss it. I never thought I would and yet I do… I cannot figure out what it is that I miss; it is completely intangible – especially since while I was there I had mixed feelings about the country itself. But I realise there is something intangible about life there that I wish I could put my finger on. No matter. China did get under my skin and into my heart. I may not recall all of it, and certainly not necessarily on demand, but my past makes me who I am, now. The reality is, I truly was there.

Below is a small sampling of the photographs I took during my final three weeks in China: Shaxi, Dali, Fujian Province.

Shaxi, Yunnan Province China:

Grandmother and Grandchild out for a Stroll, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Grandmother and Grandchild out for a Stroll, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Shaxi Cultural Revolution Maoist Headquarters ("If the country wants to prosper and become strong then follow the birth plan" -- jie hua shen yu : one child one couple)

Shaxi Cultural Revolution Maoist Headquarters (“If the country wants to prosper and become strong then follow the birth plan” — jie hua shen yu : one child one couple)

Doorway (detail), Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Doorway (detail), Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Building a House, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Building a House, Shaxi, Yunnan, China

Dali, Yunnan Province, China:

Street Scene, Renmin Lu, Dali, Yunnan, China

Street Scene, Renmin Lu, Dali, Yunnan, China

Bai Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Bai Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Woman, Dali, Yunnan, China

Alley, Dali, Yunnan, China

Alley, Dali, Yunnan, China

Fujian Province, China:

Fisherman, Fujian, China

Fisherman, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Fishermen. Near Sanshazhen, Fujian, China

Fishermen. Near Sanshazhen, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Sansazhen, Fujian, China

Xiamen, Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Xiamen, Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Xiamen, Nan Putuo Temple, Fujian

Xiamen, Nan Putuo Temple, Fujian

Xiamen, Near Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Xiamen, Near Zhongshan Park, Fujian

Yongding County's Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County’s Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Woman, Nanxi, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Woman, Nanxi, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County's Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County’s Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County's Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Yongding County’s Earth Building Cultural Village, Fujian Tulou, Fujian, China

Back in the U.S.A.

 

Last Night in Kunming (I look so happy since I was amongst friends but it was sad to leave them. Photograph courtesy of Klaus Hornetz)

Last Night in Kunming. I look so happy since I was amongst friends but it was sad to leave them. (Photograph courtesy of Klaus Hornetz)

I arrived home two weeks ago today, almost to the minute, as I start to write this post. I am delighted to be with my husband and cat and all the other things that give me a great sense of place and contentment. BUT! I know soon my feet will begin to itch and I will want the road again. It is just my nature. Steve has asked several times, jokingly, “Now where is your passport?” He knows me.

A friend who also knows me sent me the following excerpt which is from the German philosopher Herman Hesse‘s book, “Wandering”, (Triad/Panther Books, 1985)

“Once again I love deeply everything at home, because I have to leave it. Tomorrow I will love other roofs, other cottages. I won’t leave my heart behind me, as they say in love letters. No, I am going to carry it with me over the mountains, because I need it, always. I am a nomad not a farmer. I am an adorer of the unfaithful, the changing, the fantastic. I don’t care to secure my love to one bare place on this earth. I believe that what we love is only a symbol. Whenever our love becomes too attached to one thing, one faith, one virtue, then I become suspicious. Good luck to the farmer! Good luck to the man who owns this place, the man who works it, the faithful, the virtuous! I can love him, I can revere him, I can envy him. But I have wasted half my life trying to live his life. I wanted to be something that I was not. I even wanted to be a poet and a middle class person at the same time. I wanted to be an artist and a man of fantasy, but I also wanted to be a good man, a man at home. It all went on for a long time, till I knew that a man cannot be both and have both, that I am a nomad and not a farmer, a man who searches and not a man who keeps.”

“… I am condemned to be untrue. I belong to those windy voices, who don’t love women, who love only love. All of us wanderers are made like this. A good part of our wandering and homelessness is love, eroticism. The romanticism of wandering, at least half of it, is nothing else but a kind of eagerness for adventure. But the other half is another eagerness – an unconscious drive to transfigure and dissolve the erotic. We wanderers are very cunning – we develop those feelings that are impossible to fulfill; and the love which actually should belong to a woman, we lightly scatter among small towns and mountains, lakes and valleys, children by the side of the road, beggars on the bridge, cows in the pasture, birds and butterflies. We separate love from its object, love alone is enough for us, in the same way that, in wandering, we don’t look for a goal, we look only for the happiness of wandering, only the wandering.”

“There is no escape. You can’t be a vagabond and an artist and still be a solid citizen, a wholesome, upstanding man. You want to get drunk, so you have to accept the hangover. You say yes to the sunlight and your pure fantasies, so you have to say yes to the filth and the nausea. Everything is within you, gold and mud, happiness and pain, the laughter of childhood and the apprehension of death. Say yes to everything, shirk nothing, don’t try to lie to yourself. You are not a solid citizen, you are not a Greek, you are not harmonious, or the master of yourself, you are a bird of the storm. Let it storm! Let it drive you! How much you have lied! A thousand times, even in your poems and books, you have played the harmonious man, the wise man, the happy, the enlightened man. In the same way, men attacking in war have played heroes, while their bowels twitched. My God, what a poor ape, what a fencer in the mirror, man is – particularly the artist – particularly the poet – particularly myself!”

I am part farmer. I need to set roots into the ground. However, I have discovered over the years that I am a nomad who is able to set my feet firmly on the ground wherever I go; my drive to move on is strong as is my ability to make myself feel at home almost anywhere.

 

Why I Travel

During a Walk in the Alleyways of Kunming

During a Walk in the Alleyways of Kunming, Yunnan, China (that’s me on the right!)

For me, it is all about culture, landscape, food, architecture, and people – although not necessarily in that order. When I travel, my priorities change from day to day. But this is exactly why I travel. It puts me in situations I may never have imagined and spurs me to do things I thought I never could. It also provides me with new perspective on life. Most importantly, I suppose, through travel I have learned that people are generally kind and – despite its many pitfalls – the world is a fairly safe and basically good place. I never cease to be impressed by the kindness of strangers.” Many have become friends. China is a country that has never really gotten under my skin and yet it has begun to touch me. I am very aware that it is the people I have befriended who have made this happen. In the end, one of the most central aspects of travel is learning to connect with people. 

Weekly Traditional Chinese Music in a Pagoda at Daguan Park

Weekly Traditional Chinese Music Performance in a Pagoda at Daguan Park, Kunming, China

Weekly Traditional Chinese Music in a Pagoda at Daguan Park, Kunming, China

Weekly Traditional Chinese Music Performance in a Pagoda at Daguan Park, Kunming, China

Man on the Street, Jianshui, China

Man on the Street, Jianshui, China

Some of the Crew on the Cargo Ship from Oakland, CA to Hong Kong

Some of the Crew on the Cargo Ship from Oakland, CA to Hong Kong

We all learn about other countries through films, media coverage, books, etc., but actually experiencing new places and people first-hand is a very different thing. Stereotypes and expectations have to be set aside. I find that the best way to get a good sense of a country is by adapting to its culture, pace, language, etc. As soon as I started travelling, I realised that I needed to learn at least the very basics about the cultures of the countries I was going to visit. I always make sure that I have key words and phrases to use – however poorly I may pronounce them. It is easy, and a very good idea, to laugh and smile a lot; this usually goes a long way in winning people over. And, of course, I always try to show great respect to people I meet. All of these small efforts ultimately enhance my experience and help me connect with those I encounter.

I enjoy being an explorer. I have travelled to few places (and yet, more than most people – I am fantastically fortunate) and feel compelled to return to almost every country I have visited, so that I can delve further in. The first time I go somewhere, I tend to do too much, afraid that I may not have a chance to return. When I am, fortuitously, able to visit again, I attempt to cover less ground and probe more deeply. Slowly, all too slowly, I am learning to experience new places by taking the time to just be. Travel is a voyage of discovery – not only of the unknown but of oneself. This voyage has become an inevitable and inseparable part of my life.

Street Scene, Kunming

Street Scene, Kunming

Singapore

Singapore

Coney Island, NY

Coney Island, NY

Outside of Cahors, France

Outside of Cahors, France

Luang Prabang, Laos

Luang Prabang, Laos

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

What I most savour is wandering, getting (a little) lost, and exploring neighbourhoods that are off the beaten path, so that I can get a sense of how people live. At times I feel as if I must look like a gawker to those who inhabit these communities. However, it is my endless curiosity about people that leads me there; I look for differences from, and similarities to, my own life experiences. I’ve been to Paris three times but have only visited museums there twice. There are so many districts, streets, parks and gardens, restaurants, cafes, markets, etc. to explore. It’s certainly not that I avoid museums, but in new cities I venture in only if there is something that I really want to see. At heart, I would rather spend my time meandering and observing, interacting with and learning about other people.

100 Days After Death Celebration (where I was invited to join, off the street, as I peaked in), Siem Reap, Cambodia

100 Days After Death Celebration (where I was invited to join, off the street, as I peeked in), Siem Reap, Cambodia

Workers at What Phou , Champasak, Laos

Workers at What Phou , Champasak, Laos

Naxi Woman with Daughter, Lijiang, China (I ate at her restaurant regularly, that week)

Naxi Woman with Daughter, Lijiang, China (I ate at her restaurant regularly, that week)

I have learned that travel can ground you in the present, if you are able to immerse yourself in each moment of your day-to-day experiences. These experiences can take you outside your comfort zone but they also make you face yourself – both your strengths and your weaknesses – and push you to adapt and to manage all manner of new exploit.

Fixing a Broken Rudder, Luang Prabang to Nong Kiau, Laos

Fixing a Broken Rudder on an 8-Hour Slow Boat Trip from Luang Prabang to Nong Kiau, Laos

Of course, one of the best ways to get to know a new place is by eating there. Food. Glorious food. I adore it. I am almost always willing to try new and different flavours, textures, meats, vegetables. I like to eat and I like to eat well. I am always in search of the best local food. But enjoying a cuisine is not the same as understanding the customs of a country with regard to its food. I have learned not just about different dishes, but also ways to order and eat them. In restaurants in China, for instance, at first I would shyly try to catch the attention of the wait person but eventually I adopted the body language and tone of voice of the local customers and I too, brazenly and loudly call out “fuwuyuan!” (waiter!).  

When ordering from street-food carts and small stalls, which in China and Southeast Asia are often devoted to one type of food, one has no choice but to order what they make. When I go into a restaurant with a menu, only to find that it has no English translation or photographs (menus with photographs are actually common) I’ve learned just to look at what others are eating and point – I want this, I want that. I always try to learn the rules of eating in the countries I visit, by either asking people I have befriended or watching others. In China, for example, only a foreigner uses a spoon to scoop up food from a communal dish and put it on his/her own. The Chinese just take their chopsticks and eat directly from the central dish, with little ceremony. If there are bones, they are discarded (or sometimes spat) on the table beside the individual’s plate.

The Outside Ring, Angkor Wat, Cambodia

The Outside Ring, Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Street Food, Mexico City, Mexico

Street Food, Mexico City, Mexico

Food Truck, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A

Food Truck, Cambridge, MA, U.S.A

Food Stall, in a Beijing Hutong, Beijing, China

Food Stall, in a Beijing Hutong, Beijing, China

I am always on the lookout for the new, and the familiar, in this vast landscape of food. But natural landscapes spur me on too. As much as I adore city life, and am a city girl by nature, I also have a strong urge at times, to get away from it – often far away – from people, from concrete and glass, from the confines of our man-made world. The arts have always been part of the inspiration for my globe-trotting. As I have had the luxury to travel, I have learned that whether it’s the craggy and volcanic terrain of Iceland; the karst mountains and river-ways in Guangxi Province, China; the wats that are slowly being enveloped by Cambodia’s natural landscape; the Canadian prairies; or the desert of the American Southwest, the natural world is a stunning place and it calls out to the artist in me. My favourite way to see the world is with my camera in hand, so that I can capture both the vast views and the smallest details of my surroundings. These often magnificent landscapes are impossible to describe in words. Therefore, I will let the following photographs say it all:

Near Pas de Calais, France

Bray Dunes near Pas de Calais, France

Countryside in Normandy, France

Countryside in Normandy, France

Along the Mekong, Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Along the Mekong, Phnom Penh to Siem Reap, Cambodia

Toward Kong Lor Cave, Outside of Ban Nahin, Laos

Toward Kong Lor Cave, Outside of Ban Nahin, Laos

Off of Victoria Island, Vancouver, Canada

Off of Vancouver Island, British Columbia, Canada

Outside of La Purificacion, Mexico

Outside of La Purificacion, Mexico

Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico, U.S.A

Bandelier National Monument, New Mexico, U.S.A

The Pacific Ocean Somewhere Between Oakland, CA, U.S.A. and Hong Kong

The Pacific Ocean Somewhere Between Oakland, CA, U.S.A. and Hong Kong

There is also a darker side to travelling in developing countries (something I never considered until I visited Southeast Asia); one encounters quite a bit of poverty. How do I deal with poverty and other tragedies I witness in some of the places I have travelled to? I have seen people on the street (often missing limbs) begging. Sometime they are with their young children – or they just send their children out for the day to do the begging themselves. Do I ignore all of this? Acknowledge those on the streets who beg, with a nod of my head? Volunteer briefly somewhere? I have done the first two. I’m ashamed to say I have not done the latter, although I have thought about it, often. I feel I have no choice but to try to shut it out and make an effort, instead, to buy as locally as possible, in shops where I know people work extraordinarily hard, long hours. I also visit NGOs. Still, I cannot forgive myself for remaining outwardly indifferent to those in need. As a Westerner and a First World traveller I have faced this often in China and Southeast Asia. It is worth noting, though, that I’ve also had the same experience in North America.

But both in my own country and while travelling, I have, on occasion, attempted to engage, and even bought a meal for, some of the impoverished people whom I’ve met on the street. I have been glad when I did so, that I did not simply turn my head, and instead chose to connect, however briefly. Confronting these issues and our own discomfort with them is not easy; it takes time and effort. I now feel compelled to volunteer in a community in need, when I return home, and may consider joining a service-based trip to an impoverished region somewhere in the world, in my future travels.

Everywhere I go, I have had to learn to embrace the differences and the cultures and not feel guilty about being an outsider who clearly comes from a wealthy country. However much I have learned in seven months in China, or three weeks in Italy, as a visitor I will never do more than scratch the surface. The truth of the matter is that despite having made friends who live in Beijing, Xingping, or Kunming, or befriended the people who sell me baozi or coffee daily, I am and always will simply be a tourist. I attempt to connect, but the cultural and linguistic differences often make it difficult to truly do so.

San Francisco, CA, U.S.A

San Francisco, CA, U.S.A

Sunday in Central, Hong Kong, Filipino Women on their Day Off Gathering Together

Sunday in Central, Hong Kong, Filipino Women on their Day Off Gathering Together

Market, Luang Prabang, Laos

Market, Luang Prabang, Laos

Tombstones in the Countryside, Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

Tombstones in the Countryside, Xingping, Guangxi Province, China

I have a friend who takes tours when she travels. She has asked me several times to join her, and says that tours take you to places you might not otherwise easily see. I enjoy travelling on my own for the very same reason. There are many benefits to independent travel. I set my own pace, schedule, and itinerary. I eat what I want, whenever and wherever I feel like it. I decide my daily activities and go with the flow as each day unfolds. I can stick to my plan for a particular day, but I may just as easily deviate from it and do something different. I choose whether to take a day or night train, or bus, or whether, instead, I want to fly somewhere. Although I’ve never gone on a tour, I suspect that I have more opportunities on my own, to chat with locals and even other travellers, than do people on tours. Guided groups may be logistically easier, but really they are just another, and to my mind more limited, way of seeing the world. The fact remains that however one travels, solo or with a group, we are all tourists. 

Many friends and family members tell me I am brave to travel solo in places that are so foreign to my Western cultural upbringing. I don’t think I am particularly brave; this is simply what I want to do. And by travelling on my own, I have learned some important things about myself.

My voyage of discovery has led me to many places and has changed me in a number of ways. I have learned to manage with less and laugh more. By travelling on my own, I have had to become more outgoing and sociable, and my many adventures (and even misadventures) have left me feeling confident and adaptable. In essence, learning more about the world and how other people live, makes me feel like my own world has expanded. I would like to think that I am more easy-going now, although I don’t know if family and friends would completely agree with this: after all, I am who I am…. But having survived my many travel mistakes, from being bitten by a dog in Laos, to several brushes with travel scams, I now feel that I’m just not as troubled when things go wrong. I have learned that there is no point in being stressed out; when you go with the flow, things have a way of working out perfectly fine.

Me! at the Great Wall, China

Me! at the Great Wall, China

For those of you who are beginning to feel your wanderlust grow beyond being satisfied by a long weekend here, or a two-week vacation there, I offer just a few tips that have helped me in my travels.

  • Plan, but also try to go with the flow: When I plan a short vacation overseas, I tend to over-schedule. Create a skeleton of a strategy first, and firm up the more important logistical details before you leave on your voyage, but always make sure you allow for flexibility. You will discover, by speaking with locals or fellow travellers, that your expectations and goals may change.
  • Set your budget: You do not need infinite funds to see the world but you do need to know what you can afford. Your money will carry you farther if you travel in places like Southeast Asia. It will, of course, run out much more quickly in North America or Europe.
  • Pack lightly: I travel with very little – I have been away from home since the beginning of August and travel with a carry-on bag and a day pack, and this includes a camera with three lenses and a travel tripod. Washing items by hand is a simple endeavour and, depending on where you find yourself, it costs very little to have your clothes cleaned for you. Remember, if you need anything else, you can always buy it.
  • Be adaptable: Travelling for a longer period of time can really take you outside your comfort zone. Depending on where you travel, chances are transportation will not run like clock-work. Each new environment provides different challenges and no two places are exactly alike. Consider the situation, stay calm, and adapt accordingly.
  • Eat well and remain open-minded: In most of the world, food is a central link to culture, tradition and family. Do not be afraid to try food that may be utterly foreign to you. Ask locals, such as guesthouse employees, taxi or tuk tuk drivers, where they eat. Consider taking a cooking class. I have done so in the past, have learned a lot about why a cuisine uses particular ingredients, and have thoroughly enjoyed myself.
  • Do not be afraid to venture off the beaten path: But also, don’t ignore more heavily explored areas. There is good in both, and keeping your eyes and heart open to each will allow you to connect to a place and people.
  • Respect the local culture.
  • Learn a few words of the language of the country you are travelling in. This will carry you a long way! Ask questions of locals and other travellers. When given the chance, most people will be glad to have a conversation with you – even if you end up using a sign language of sorts to communicate.
  • Establish a routine: Visit the same restaurant, cafe, fruit stand as often as you can – even daily, if possible. You’ll get to know the people there. It is always a pleasure to become an honourary part of the community, if only for a short while.
  • Stay connected with friends and family. It will make travel easier for you. Today, long distance communication is easier than ever, via email and Skype. At times these modes of communication are a life-saver! 
  • Trust your gut.
  • Pace yourself and allow for downtime. It has taken me years to figure this one out.
  • Have fun! Learn! Maybe you can even blog about it!
Dali to Kunming by Train, Yunnan, China

Dali to Kunming by Train, 3-Level Hard Sleepers During Day-time Travel, Yunnan, China

My Slow Boat to China: Travel on a Cargo Ship

Yours Truly on the Hanjin Lisbon Cargo Ship

Yours Truly on the Hanjin Lisbon Cargo Ship (Photograph courtesy of Martin Wildi)

For years (decades, in fact) I have wanted to travel overseas by ship. I had always imagined that if I went this route it would be to Europe – and I never pictured travelling via luxury liner/cruise ship. In any case, it never happened. Then one day this past Spring, my friend Martin, from Switzerland, sent me an email saying that he would like to take me up on my offer to visit me and Steve in Boston. He had plans to travel in the U.S. for about a month and then take a cargo shipping vessel from San Francisco to Asia in July. Of course I said come and stay with us. What he did not expect was for me to ask if he minded that I join him on the ship. I figured I could change my plans to returnto China in 2014 and head westward by sea in August 2013 instead. I received a positive response and thus began my preparation for a trip on the Hanjin Lisbon.

                   

When I told people I would be crossing the Pacific and other sea waters to get to Hong Kong via cargo ship,  many of them asked, “Why would you want to do that? Don’t you think you’ll get bored?”  My answer was that I wanted to experience slow travel. I wanted to know what it feels like to cross such a distance in more than the 24-or-so hours it takes to fly it. I didn’t want to once again go from one airport to another similar one across the world, in an airplane where people are encouraged to keep the shades down and sleep, or watch a movie or two or three… on their own private monitors so that they barely feel that they are travelling. I also very much wanted to leave the hustle and bustle of land-bound life. I wanted to listen to the wind and look out at the sky and the sea.  I wanted to not be plugged in to the internet atevery moment of the day or night. I guess I just wanted to completely disconnect from the world for a time.Perhaps I’d even spot some sea life in the form of birds, flying fish, dolphins, whales…

Martin had booked his trip via the German shipping company, NSB Reiseburo, and I worked with their travel office settling everything with them – including getting a medical certificate confirming that I am healthy and able to travel (since there is no doctor on board ship). I booked a flight to San Francisco for August 6th; the vessel was expected to leave the Port of Oakland on the 7th and I was told we would be on the water for 20-23 days. This was exactly what I wanted – slow travel.

San Francisco Seen from the Port of Oakland

San Francisco Seen from the Port of Oakland

I arrived in San Francisco and stayed with my cousin Rachel not for one night but for five. Cargo ships have *somewhat* fixed schedules for port arrival and departure but an exact itinerary is not guaranteed – this kind of uncertainty is in the nature of freighter travel. Our initial departure date jumped forward first by one and then three days. I then started receiving email notices two or three times daily from the Oakland Port until boarding confirmation was finally settled.  The working vessel is the priority and a late passenger, for instance, would just be left behind; passengers are incidental. Also, ships may be cancelled or re-routed with little notice.

Port of Oakland

Port of Oakland

Port of Oakland

Port of Oakland

In the early afternoon of August 11, Martin and I walked up the Hanjin Lisbon’s gangway at the Port of Oakland, with the second mate leading the way, holding on to the hand rails that were covered – in places – with machine oil. He took us to our cabins; mine was comfortable and spacious – approximately 18 square meters in size – with a bed, sofa, table, desk and chairs, fridge, wardrobe, television and DVD player, boom box, and en-suite bathroom. It also had a window overlooking containers. No ocean view for me until the last three days of travel on board.

We were given a tour of the Mess Hall and told that we would eat with the Captain of the vessel and the Chief Engineer (CE). We were also shown around of the rest of the ship and informed that though we were free to come and go as we pleased, we were expected to stay out of the way as people worked. As requested, I did not rock the boat, so to speak.

The ship was to depart at 1800 on the 11th but did not actually leave port until 0309 on the 12th.

On the Water

On the Water

As you can imagine, travelling by cargo ship is certainly not the greenest form of travel and therefore is not guilt-free for the eco-conscious. Unfortunately, cargo ships are responsible for extremely high levels of pollution, although sustainability is starting to be addressed. Because a container ship carries cargo from point to point anyway, I did feel as if I had simply stuck out my thumb to hitch a ride; no great harm in that! My choice to travel by container vessel would not affect the route; the ship would still go on its way. This is not the case with air travel, in which fewer passengers means fewer flights.

There are other pluses and minuses to the shipping industry, as cited in Michael Causey’s review of Rose George’s, “Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate” (Washington Independent Review of Books):

George deftly outlines a central paradox about shipping: It is everywhere yet remains unnoticed. Preferring to hide behind a cloak of disarming dullness and ubiquity, the shipping industry is increasingly intent on downplaying any outward appearance of swashbuckling, high seas turmoil or excitement. The shipping industry, in fact, purposely tries not to be noticed and pestered by regulators, which has resulted in the mistreatment of workers (including rapes by fellow crewmen), often without legal recourse, and a failed “security” system. For example, U.S. ports receive 17 million containers a year and physically inspect only 5 percent of them. Thus, these Swiss-cheese-like security programs often miss illegal drugs, counterfeit goods and stowaways, who either are trying to attain a better life outside their country or forced into sex trafficking.

There were also a couple of things I learned from the Chief Engineer (CE): a) Fuel: The ship uses vast quantities of low-grade fuel. Three types of fuel are used on a container ship and, except in countries where higher-grade fuel is required, the low-grade fuel is most often used. b) Ballast Water: Ships pull in sea water at one location and release it in another, which means that the vessel could be transporting ocean life with it –  this of course, like low-grade fuel, has to be destructive to the ecosystem.

Despite all of this I can say I LOVED travelling via cargo ship and would do it again in an instant!

My Partner in Crime, Martin

My Partner in Crime, Martin

NSB’s ship officers are mostly German and the crew is predominantly Filipino. Viktors, the CE, was born in Russia and has lived in Riga, Latvia, since his early 20s.  The Second Engineer was Polish. I found that some of the crew and officers were friendly while others kept to themselves. Over time, I met all 24 crew and officers on board the ship and discovered who was willing to have conversations and who would prefer to be left alone.

Viktors, Chief Engineer

Viktors, Chief Engineer

One of the Crew

One of the Crew

The Captain, CE, first and second mates, and second engineer spend two months on board, followed by two months at home. The rest spend four to six months away from home and return to work two to three months after their leave. Many of these workers have families waiting those many months for them.  On occasion, the crew and officers have the opportunity to take short shore leave, but often at port they simply work extra long hours.

Most employees have laptops and spend time in their rooms on their own or with their fellow crew-mates watching DVDs, listening to music or playing games. But they also often gather together in the lounge watching television, singing along to music videos, drinking, smoking, and playing cards. I noted that The Officer’s Lounge is twice the size and was always empty. Never once used.

One Sunday afternoon I went to take photos of the crew (this the only time off for the crew and this afternoon/evening of rest is cancelled if the ship is at port and at work). At first they acted a bit goofy and seemed embarrassed by the camera but then they just let me shoot. They invited me to join them in their games of rummy and of course I did and had a blast. I won most of the games and they tried to force numerous beers on me (big drinker that I am!!) after each win.

Cargo Ship Crew's Day Off

Cargo Ship Crew’s Day Off

I got to know the people, little by little. I had only small glimpses into their characters and spent a relatively short time with them but my interaction with them was one of the things I thoroughly enjoyed. The crew were so much more fun than the officers but I gradually got to know the officers as well. The CE was very easygoing and a sweetheart.  One morning at breakfast, he asked me if I was on my 4th book. He had taken note that I am a reader; I was almost done with the Nick Cave novel, “And the Ass Saw the Angel.” Yes, it was my 4th book.  The Captain, on the other hand, was a very moody man and under much stress when on board the vessel. However, I learned to go with his unpredictable temperament and even made him laugh on occasion.  And then there was the first mate – born in Poland but living in Germanywith his American wife. He mostly spoke German (despite English being the official language on board), and ignored me until nearly the end of the trip when one night I caught him in a good mood, I suppose. He did not let me get a word in edge-wise as he told me all about himself. People are curious.

The CE gave Martin and me a tour of the cavernous engine room which is situated below the upper deck and takes up the length and width of the whole vessel. I took photos that afternoon as well as the next, on my own. The noise level and vibration are high in the engine room and ear protection is a must, to muffle the sound. In general the roar generated by the engine intake fans, located on the upper or A decks, is very loud and even reached deck E, where I was living – but I only heard it outside on the deck.  Engine exhaust blare is always felt and heard on larger vessels. This is just the way it goes, but all in all it was not too bad.

Engine Room Overview (Engines are 2-strokes slow speed)

Engine Room Overview (Engines are 2-strokes slow speed)

The ship’s above-water decks are 9 “floors” high and the engine room is probably 6 “floors” deep – to the bottom of the ship. Inter-modal cargo containers take up the majority of the above-water space on the Hanjin Lisbon; this vessel can carry close to 9000 containers. Living quarters are a relatively small section in the four middle floors of the ship. Below the living quarters are the kitchen and mess halls. The A Deck has a gym and one large office. The Upper Deck the lowest of the eight decks (but the first above water) has the entrance to the engine room as well as the laundry room, etc.

Stairwell

Stairwell

Stairwell

Stairwell

I had the impression that I ate a lot. Breakfast was at 0730 – although I had a first breakfast prior to the official time (I was up at 0500 every morning and hit the mess hall a little after 0600 — the cook and steward knew my morning schedule and coffee was made as soon as I arrived). Tea time was at 1000 and lunch, at 1130.  A second tea time was at 1500 and supper was served at 1730.

Meals were large, and heavy on meat although on Fridays fish was served. I attempted to eat lightly but it was not easy since there were few vegetables offered. Meals were served separately for officers and crew: in the mess hall for the officers and passengers, predominantly German food was served. The crew ate mostly Filipino food in a separate mess hall. Below is a typical menu:

  • breakfast: strammer max, (eggs with meat – here is a recipe for a fancy version of what we ate) – or some other style of egg with meat – bread, cereal, cheese, juice, coffee, tea, milk, fruit
  • lunch: meat of some kind, potato, and a frozen vegetable, perhaps
  • dinner: more meat or eggs of your choice, rice or potatoes, perhaps a frozen vegetable, an iceberg lettuce salad  with cucumber, carrots, radishes, green peppers, and tomatoes, cold cuts, cheese

Martin and I socialized primarily during meals and tea time. I spent a lot of time on my own, which was perfectly fine with me. Over the course of those 20 days I was able to read  six books and five New Yorker magazines as well as take notes on my experiences and photograph the ship. Several evenings a week we played backgammon together, drank beer, watched a video, or looked at the photographs we had taken.

Every day was more or less the same and I had my own routine. As required, I set the clock back an hour before I went to bed. At some point during the voyage we had to change the date forward a day less an hour, before bedtime. As I mentioned above, I’d wake up early, so I would grab coffee and a snack from the crew’s mess hall. I would then head down to write to Steve and my family – using the ship’s email service. After breakfast I visited the Naval Bridge to check how far we’d gone since the previous morning. With the officer on watch, I’d review the sea charts andthe vessel’s hourly progress as well as take a look at the three radar screens. Then I’d go back to my cabin or onto the deck and read. If it was not wet I would climb up and down the stairs and walk the “walkable” decks. I’d then read some more. For a few days I even tried to add cycling at the gym to my daily “regimen” but that did not last long. And of course there were mealtimes.

The waters, on the whole, were extremely calm. There were perhaps two or three days of rougher movement, which was barely felt on such a large vessel, but one day, as I walked down the hall of A deck I could feel the to and fro, back and forth, rock and roll, pitch, writhe… While looking out the windowat the end of the hall I could see only sky one moment and only water the next.But even this did not induce seasickness – which I had expected to experience at some point during the voyage.

Glasses in the Wheel House

Glasses in the Wheel House

One morning the entire sky was filled with sheet lightening reflected in the clouds. I could hear thunder far in the distance. It had rained all night. The morning started very dark but then the sun slowly, slowly forced its way through the clouds. Quite a few days saw very calm waters – sometimes so calm the water was like a shimmering mirror. At times fog came along with these calm waters, but on other days they were accompanied by a perfectly clear blue sky.

On the Water, Pacific Ocean

On the Water, Pacific Ocean

On the Water - the North Pacific Ocean (photograph courtesy of Martin Wildi)

On the Water – the North Pacific Ocean (photograph courtesy of Martin Wildi)

I had often wondered what cargo we were carrying but thought, for some reason, that the answer might in fact be nothing! My suspicion was finally confirmed one day by the Captain; we were travelling with mostly empty containers. Full containers had been off-loaded in Long Beach, CA, and many empty containers put on the vessel in Oakland. These empty containers would be off-loaded at ports in Asia and beyond and would be replaced with full ones. He also informed me that a Captain never knows what cargo his vessel is carrying unless it is flammable.

I realized that I had become a savvy sea-farer when, while doing a crossword puzzle one day, I came upon the following clue: Korean strait port – and I actually knew the answer: Busan!!  We were supposed to arrive at the Busan, Korea port on the 23rd.

It took almost four fulldays to pass the Aleutian Islands and we were, at one point, south of Russia in the North Pacific. To the north of us, were Russian shipping vessels. South west, within easy view, was another cargo ship, on its way to a different port in Korea, and there were fishing ships within eye sight – almost touching distance from us. This was a strange sensation because prior to that, we could only see other vessels via radar – a hundred nautical miles or more away. It was the first time we had passed a ship within sight in about eight days – since being on North Pacific waters. That day we were expecting to begin passing through Japan (due north of Yukusha) –  through contaminated waters from Fukushima…. so there was no water intake around that area (in nautical map-speak, I learned that this means: from 30° – 50° latitude to 130° – 150° longitude).

We arrived in Busan port at 1530. The actual city is far from the port so instead of taking shore leave, Martin and I watched the Port of Busan workers – on land – do their thing. Complex pulleys and chains lift containers off the vessel and literally plop them onto trailers and then drop different containers back onto the ship. Upon arrival at our berth in Busan, we saw rows of empty trailers just sitting in wait. Suddenly the air was filled with the sound of little trucks whirring around and backing up as the trailers appeared to just attachthemselves to these trucks. They were ready to accept containers, take them away, and return empty for new ones or, hours later, return full so that new freight could be put on board.

At Port

At Port

From my observations at the Ports of Oakland and Busan it became quite clear that these cargo ports are very busy places, built to handle tremendous numbers of container movements efficiently. Crew (and most certainly passengers) are not permitted to wander around within the terminal. Cargo ports are quite different from cruise ports. Each port handles very different cargo (sometimes one particular type of cargo and sometimes numerous types), which may be loaded / unloaded by very different mechanical means (cranes, pulleys, etc.). Individual cargo ports are divided into separate operating terminals which handle the various cargoes, and are run by different companies. Take a look at this very interesting National Geographic piece, “Megastrucures: China’s Ultimate Port,” to get a feel for what I saw at the ports. In fact, we had to anchor ship for almost 24 hours before we could enter Shanghai’s Yangshan Port, which is what this video is about.

So, my trip began at the Port of Oakland, continued on to the Ports of Busan, Yangshan, Ningbo (where Martin and I took off for a few hours to wander this small place that seems to exist solely for its port), and finally ended, at the Port of Hong Kong. By the time my voyage was over I had travelled on the North Pacific Ocean, through the Yellow (or East) Sea, and on to the South China Sea. My trip on a slow(ish) boat to China had lasted a total of 20 days. Here is the vessel’s complete route:

La Spezia – Port Said – Suez Canal – Singapore – Vung Tau – Hong Kong – Yantian – Ningpo – Long Beach – Oakland – Busan – Shanghai (Yangshan) – Ningbo – Hong Kong – Yantian – Singapore – Suez – Port Said – Naples – Livorno – La Spezia

I highly recommend this mode of transportation. As I’ve said, I’d travel this way again without hesitation and hope that I will have the opportunity to do so. If you are not in a hurry to get where you want to go, are in fine health, and are not afraid of the wide open sea then I suggest this unique mode of travel. It’s relatively inexpensive (certainlycompared to cruise ships) and easy to arrange, as more and more freighter companies are offering passenger service.