Travelling on a cargo ship

28 days on a container ship! The route: Antwerp (Belgium) – Valparaíso (Chile). The goal for the time being: Patagonia.

On my trip to Brazil last year I realised that I didn’t have the slightest idea of how far I was away from home, not to mention how big our planet is. I woke up in our accommodation 200 metres away from the sea, confused and tired. The evening before, while waiting in line at immigration at the airport, I felt that one day I wanted to find out how it was like to really “travel” like so many generations before us had been doing it. Arriving slowly, feeling the distance, and getting an idea of the numerous people and cultures that exist between home and the destination.

The time has come! Over the course of four weeks and surrounded by containers and men only I will be travelling from Belgium to Chile.

After a turbulent journey through the English Channel we got eight days to cross the Atlantic ocean. Sea, sea, sea. Blue, blue, blue. No sign of monotony. The water constantly changes ist colour according to the time of day, wind and weather conditions. When we see a ship in the far distance or on the radar, we euphorically try to catch the binoculars. Passing by the Acores, we get pretty excited, but unfortunately it is night time and we have to wait a few more days until we get to see land. Whenever the ship lands, we have a few hours to go on shore. Together with Michel from France, the third passenger on board, Gregorio and I are standing on the bridge, watching the Captain, first Officer and the pilot as they navigate the 274 metre long steel monster. As we get into port safely we happily step on shore in the Dominican Republic.

We have been looking forward to this day a lot, but have not dared to dream about such a fantastic day. Together with Lucas, a young Polish Engineer, Gregor and I take a taxi to the . “centro cultural” of Santo Domingo, the country’s capital. Our driver is from a little place called Boca Chica, which is situated a few kilometres away from the port, and usually guides sea bears with a hunger for love to the lovely ladies that are waiting for male company in bars and restaurant. We land in the “cultural centre” of Santo Domingo, a nice park with museums and a theatre. We are, however, not interested in the museum of Natural History, in front of which José has parked his car, happy to fulfil our wish to experience “culture”, but rather want to see the old town. Assisted by people passing by on the street, we finally land in the “centro colonial”. Wow! We were expecting a colonial centre, but not houses and streets being taken care as such, as we stroll around in the afternoon, over to the impressive town walls, down the stairs to the small city port. After having seen Antwerp I will probably find almost every other port small from now on, since that one stretches many kilometres along the water, and it took us eight hours to get from the dock out to the open sea.

As we wander in Christopher Columbus’ footsteps, José is patiently waiting at his car to drive us back to the port later on. However, we don’t want him to wait like a dog, therefore I go to get him. I remember it’s straight, then left, and that one of the crossroads is called something with “archbishop”. However, I realize that there are two streets with different archbishops in their names and that I have, of course, run to the wrong one. That’s right, I ran, because I noticed that I had already been away for some time and I don’t want the men to worry or my beer to get cold! Running in a Carribbean town, that just doesn’t fit the life style. I finally find José and explain to him in my slow and grammatically not quite correct Spanish that we would like to invite him or a drink.

He seems to understand him and I am happy to have used the time on the ship to almost every day study Spanish. There is plenty of time between the three meals, and we read a lot, sometimes play ping pong, which can be quite a challenge when the waves get bigger, or go to the sauna and swim in the small pool, which is filled with fresh sea water every day. Then we read again. At 5 pm we sometimes have a beer on deck with the Captain and the Chief Engineer, and there is a DVD and book room for evening entertainment, which is open to everyone on the ship.

José and I get back to the café just in time, as I spot Gregor from the distance heading for the street in goose-step that I have turned into before. The four of us have a drink together, looking at the Cristobal statue, and José tells us about the corrupt government, economic difficulties, his brother in Spain and the sad development of Haiti, which is the western part of the same island called “Isla Hispaniola”. He talks about his four children (4, 6, 7, and 8 years old) and about how much he has to pay for food, gas and his car. Since we have until 10 pm to get back to the ship, we agree to be shown around José’s hometown Boca Chica. A different kind of “sightseeing”! He keeps point left and right describing: “bar…, restaurant, supermarket…, bar, bar…, disco – nice chicas, supermarket!” We end up drinking the best Pina Colada of my life so far, sitting under palm trees and looking out at the moon lit sea, grateful for those unforgettable hours in Santo Domingo.

A few days later we already get to Cartagena, the Columbian city and the Caribbean coast in the North that I have been looking forward to a lot! The journey into the port at dusk is already quite an experience! We pass a Caribbean pirate landscape, a fort that was built to fend off unwelcome Englishmen a few centuries ago, who tried to conquer the port because of its value for trade with natural resources (i.e. silver). We sail into the bay where we have been awaited by modern sky scraper in front of ancient bell towers and other building.

Unfortunately, we get in later than expected, since we have to wait for our pilot. And then, the agent doesn’t come right away either, who has to approve of our short term stay. With the rise of container ships the time of ships in the port has been reduced to a minimum amount of hours. Before that, sailors spent many days on shore, which gave them plenty of time to get to know the different countries (or at least more than the next bar). Nowadays it’s only a few hours, during which time the port staff loads and unloads containers that weigh up to 32 tons. Since the life of a sailor happens mainly offshore these days, the comfort on board has improved a lot.

Therefore we only have a limited amount of hours in Cartagena. Late at night we wonder through the fantastic old town. Next morning we are woken up at 6.30 am in order to return to the city with our cameras and take pictures of the colourful buildings. We use those almost two hours to observe the exciting morning atmosphere in this tropic Caribbean town and have a strong Colombian coffee which is served by men our of thermos jugs that they carry around the streets in straw baskets.

Compared to Cartagena, Colón in Panama, where we arrive two days later, seems quite sad, poor and degenerated. After crossing the Panama Canal we will see that obviously most of the country’s earnings go into enhancing Panama-City’s already impressive skyline… The substance of the buildings gives an idea of how Colón might have had its appeal one day, but dirt, decay, and rubbish create a different picture today. We finally land in a shopping mall, of which one half is abandoned and the other one pretty lively. A few groups of tourist, apparently from a cruise ship are around and I have to think about the re-occuring questions of the Filipino crew members when we go on shore, whether we want to go shopping. Only slowly they are starting to understand that we just want to experience the atmosphere and that we are happy taking pictures and filming. They are getting curious to see our pictures and how we look at the world which for them is part of their every day life. I haven’t seen anything so far that I would like to buy and if I had, the thoughts about the additional weight to the 25 kilograms that my backpack probably already weighs would have made any shopping urge disappear right away.

After anchoring in the bay of Colón one night in order to wait for our time slot to cross the Panama Canal we sail through another bay leading to the first lock out of three in total. Gentle hills abundantly covered with vegetation lead our way. Long palm trees emerge from the forests. Panama plans to finish building a second channel, which is supposed to run parallel to the existing one. As we pass the construction site of the future entrance to the second channel one of the two pilots happily talks about the present situation in his home country. In his opinion, this new canal is a prestige project after countries like Chile or Brazil have been constantly talking about opening new Transamerica-Routes. Therefore, Panama has decided to grow in order to stay economically competitive. However, according to the pilot, with the present worldwide economic situation it cannot be predicted if and when these investments will pay off. I have to think about tunnel projects in Austria and have to smile. As different as the countries might be, there are unexpected and many parallels, even though there is no corruption in our country, only lobbying…

The bay goes deeper and deeper into the land, until it reaches the first lock of the Panama Canal. Our vessel, the MV Bahia, belongs to the widest ships that are able to cross. To the left and right are actually only a few centimetres. And in the front and in the back it is accompanied by railroad engines that are connected through tight ropes in order to lead the right direction. The captain has asked us to stay upstairs, because in case one of the ropes should burst and hit one of us, it would most probably not feel good. The engines have been especially constructed for the canal and cost about one million dollar each, he tells us in the evening. At the same time as we, an enormous cruise liner crosses the canal just to go to the other side of the lock and return again. The rates for such a ship to cross are about 300,000 dollars, for our vessel it’s about 200,000. We take pictures of the passengers on the cruise ships – 98 percent of them with white hair – and they take pictures of us. Afterwards we sail through a beautiful idyllic island area. The water is quite brown, but the bright green colour of the plants is breathtaking! The route for the ship is signalled by buoys, like on a main road, which the Panama Canal actually is for the international cargo traffic. At the third lock we see a view point, where we are again being photographed by tourists, and in the background we can already see Panama City. For quite a few years now the Panama Canal has been owned by the government of Panama, and since then, the pilot tells us, there have been less accidents as during the times of the US administration. He talks about the modified and improved working conditions, including more recreation time for pilots and other staff which are being kept without exception. In this case statistic has shown that constantly attempting growth of capacities with little appreciation of personal and human need does not result in economic efficiency and security at all.

Ever since I looked out at the Pacific Ocean as a teenager during a trip to Canada I have been fascinated by it. Here it’s the same again. It’s different than the Atlantic, more primal, wider, at the same time it almost has a calming and impressive impression at me. We pass Colombia, even though we were originally going to get here in order to continue to Ecuador before we decided to spend the summer in Patagonia instead of rainy season up there. As we cross the equator, I feel no pain at all, and we even get a certificate from the Captain. Compared to the Caribbean it’s quite chilly out here on the Pacific. Only 18 degrees as we reach Peru. I have never been that far south. The sun sets in the west, the days get longer and longer, Patagonia is coming closer.

In the evening we reach Callao, the port of Lima. This time, Michel decides to come on shore with us. In front of the port gate there is a helpful policeman who calls us a taxi. He wears a little radio around his upper body, the Latin American rhythm that comes out of it apparently puts him in a great mood while working. Again we are lucky with our taxi driver who first drives us to the old town of Lima, the capital of Peru, with 10 million inhabitants. Here, colonial buildings with their wooden balconies also give an unforgettable image. Walking around we happen to find the La Merced cathedral, a baroque colonial church, we get a tour of the San Francisco monastery, look at amazing Arabic wooden adornments, the bones of monks that are resting in the crypt underneath and continue to the Museo del Oro, the Inka gold museum. There we see impressive but almost to many exhibition pieces as well as weapons, such as those of good old Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. On our way to the beach district, Miraflores, we pass barbed wire and electric fences that surround buildings in the “better” areas of town. The streets of Lima are clean, but thinking about those apparent security efforts I feel rather locked in. At the end of this unforgettable trip on shore, Michel takes us out for a great lunch in a restaurant at the sea. Having asked where we are from, the waiter puts a French and an Australian flag at our table. With a pisco sour, the Peruvian (or Chilean?) national drink, we drink to our Australian citizenship.

Puerto Angamos. The last port before our journey with the cargo ship comes to an end. From the nearby village of Mejillones we take a bus to Antofagasta, the second biggest city in Chile. Up here in the North it’s hot and dry, and the Atacama dessert is known to be the driest dessert on earth. Thanks to the copper that is mined in this area of Chile, the country has experienced economic growth. Watching the power poles pass by on our way to Antofagasta I think about the dam projects in Patagonia. If they are really going to be realized, then enormous power poles will run thousands of kilometres South to North. It basically never rains in the North and I ask myself whether they couldn’t use solar energy instead.

In Antofagasta the streets go from the flat coastal area high up to the steep mountains. Here we want to have a look at the old train station which is unfortunately closed to the public. However, the friendly janitor spontaneously gives us a tour and tells us stories about the old railway, when this part of the country belonged to Bolivia, before Chile conquered it, which led to Bolivia loosing important mines but also its access to the sea. Because of that, Bolivia is the only South American midland today, still a trauma for the people of Bolivia today and economically a challenge for the infrastructure to export their minerals. On the other hand, northern Chile relies on its rival for water. At the moment, the railway only transports goods, but they plan to re-open it for tourists by 2011. Standing there I feel a little bit like in the wild west, and I know now where Butch Cassidy and Sundance Kid, whose stories were turned into a film with Paul Newman the young Robert Redford, were up to mischief.

In the evening I am tired and I start looking forward to our arrival! I am looking forward to different food, more land, mountains, people and to not being the only woman around, even though the whole crew has been friendly, courteous and respectful. We have one more day on the ship ahead of us before our four-week journey on the cargo ship comes to an end. Our actual journey, however, is only starting…