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7 days, 2,300 vans, 44 crew and me

August 10, 2010

I have to close off my travels.  I knew that if I didn’t do it the day that I returned then it might not come until those seven days spent singing myself ’empowering’ tunes about how I’m not going crazy; spent looking out and out at sea, more sea, AN ISLAND! and more sea; spent squeezing between the cargo of FIAT vans that filled up every spot of deck space: the seven days of silence except for dinner nods and smiles to the cap’n and his crew would seem like another life.

Living on a freighter – a boat where the crew have been already for 3 months, with another 4 before their half-year holiday on land – is no life.  The Filipino crew’s broken English went as far to tell me this fact at every meal we shared.  We would sit in the Captain’s mess (dining room), I (the only girl) on a table of my own.  The sailors would stare at me open mouthed (unless they caught the Captain’s glare) and we would eat the three course meal that the cook had prepared.  It contained a lot of meat (no veggie option here), bread, rice, potato and usually pasta.  We would eat fruit for pudding (to ward of scurvy – no joke) then they would all go out and smoke.  Everyone was in their cabins by 9pm and to wander the corridors alone felt desperately sad and a little unsafe.   Lots and lots of shut doors, long hospital-like lit corridors and the sense that at sea there was little community.

Within the crew there were two tiers of worker.  The first were the sailors, the second the people who looked after our food, linen etc.  Hierarchy is part of running a boat but the gap between these two tiers was a depressing example of two communities pitted against each other.  ‘They just monkeys” the Captain said about the people who cooked his food, served it, cleaned his room, clothes, sheets.  ‘The monkeys’ moved around the boat silently.  If they made too much noise, or the smallest of mistakes they would be yelled at by the closest sailor.  When we arrived at a port the sailors were allowed to leave the boat and have ‘shore-time’ but the other staff were not.  An embarrassed cabin-boy approached me just as I was leaving the boat at Gemlick (a port in Turkey) and signed that I buy him a toothbrush.

There were times on the boat when I was filled with a certainty that I suppose you can only get after being alone, reliant on your own internal monologue to entertain.  I would go outside on the deck, walk through the lines of FIAT vans (every space on board was taken with this cargo), feel the salt air warm on my skin and watch as the sun set on the distant horizon.  I would feel so proud of myself for (apparently) remaining sane, for still no smoking (my canny plan was to not take any cigarettes on board and come off a non-smoker – so far the resolve has held) and for the journey I had taken that was coming closer to an end with each metre of sea our boat pushed through.

At other times I would walk through the cars with my head ticking crazy.  I would be angry at the stupid separation between sailors, staff and passenger.  I would be furious that no-one was explaining why we were having yet another 6 hour impromptu stop in the middle of the Mediterranean.  I would be bored – another six hours til dinner and then who knows when I would manage to sleep and for how long until yet another day would begin.  At these times I would plot direct action.  Quite apart from what could be done when I returned to the UK I would think about these FIAT vans that surrounded me with metallic air every time I went outside.  I’d think about the keys that were visible in each of the unlocked cars.  I’d consider how much of the remaining time I could spend opening each of the vans’ doors, taking out the keys and throwing them overboard.  I would feel guilty for the sailors on the ship and the response they’d get from their company when they arrived with a useless cargo.  I would snigger and then wonder whether this planning was anything more ‘worthy’ than the wanderings of an idle brain.  Who would benefit from my direct action and who would stand to lose?  My idle brain would move on and I’d go in for another walk around the bridge.

There’s more to say and maybe one day I will not have just returned home, not be plunged in London living and consultancy work stacking up, not be distracted my current events – and then I will sit and read my diaries of this journey and write about the traveller’s life I led.  Until then I can say it was bliss to arrive in Ravenna, bliss to forgo a hitch-hike to London and take the overnight train instead and such such bliss to be home.

One Comment leave one →
  1. Stephen Graham and Hazel Bowmaker permalink
    September 23, 2010 5:21 pm


    Our friend Mark Lloyd told us to have a look at your website as we are planning to go to Africa next year without flying (from te UK). We have been looking into freighter boats and have so far not had much (any) luck! We don’t want to pay a fortune for travelling and are quite happy to stay in a grubby cabin or on the floor, but all the ones we have looked at are really posh and cast a lot of money! We were just wondering how you managed to travel by boat. How did you arrange it? Did you pay? Is there a budget option?

    Any help or information on this would be great and very much appreciated.


    Stephen and Hazel


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