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A Passage from Hong Kong

A container ship and tugboats in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbour

Compared to cruise ships and navy vessels, with their crews of thousands, container ships are ghost ships. George’s Kendal had a crew of twenty-one, and there were thirty on Christophe Colomb: eight French, twenty-one Filipinos, and one Indian—all men. The Frenchmen were all officers, but most of the Filipinos were low-skilled ordinary or able seamen working as oilers, fitters, deckhands, and kitchen staff.

About 20 percent of merchant seamen worldwide are Filipino. Shipping companies seek them out because they speak English, have a good reputation for reliability, and don’t cost much. (CMA CGM used to crew ships with Romanians, whom the French judged better trained, but they now prefer working with Filipinos, who always greet you with a smile.) The lone Indian, for his part, was a painter: Indians always work as painters on CMA CGM, I was told, because they’re even cheaper than the Filipinos.

As the ship’s only passenger and only woman (also French-speaking and half-Asian), I made the most of belonging nowhere to talk to everyone. I got to know the captain best, an energetic fifty-year-old who seemed forty. On the job he was an attentive and exacting manager; on the side, he was a lively raconteur and wit, his expressive face twinkling with ironic humor. When he joined up, in the early 1980s, to be a captain in the merchant marine was “to be something”: a job of great distinction, with plush living on board, well-qualified crews, interesting ports. No more. He scoffed at the ship’s “plastic” (wood veneer) trim, the tacky reproductions of Klimt, Dalí, and Van Gogh that adorned every deck in heavy Korean-made frames. He bristled with irritation at navigational errors by his lieutenants, and hollered at the steward for failing to put out the correct knives with fish. As for the romance of the sea, for many crew, I found, time at sea is a constraint that buys freedom back on land. The French work on three-month contracts, interspersed with three months of leisure sur terre.

The Filipinos go to sea on nine-month contracts, and to a man, they said they did it for the money. Most were earning between $1,500 and $3,500 per month—high wages even by Western standards. In the Philippines, they told me, they would have to be the CEO of a major company to earn as much. A young engineer, who was just starting his career at sea, said that if he could work for even half the salary in the Philippines, he’d do it, but the jobs weren’t available. The most senior of the less-skilled workers, the fifty-three-year-old bosun, had toiled since his early twenties in some of a ship’s most menial positions, and earned his way upward. His workaday face, a sunburnt scowl, broke into a gap-toothed grin as he proudly described his four grown children’s careers in law and business.

These jobs can take a big personal toll. The Filipino engineer had gotten married five days before starting this contract, and already had a baby on the way. He didn’t suffer from seasickness, he said, but “we get homesickness. A lot.” Some of the men on board had families recently affected by Typhoon Haiyan. “The company gave one free phone call home for those affected,” an officer told me, and the phone networks were frequently down.

In shipping, as in so many other “globalized” concerns, one man’s cost-cutting may create another’s opportunity: a job outsourced from Europe translates to a job, sometimes a good one, created in Asia. Shipping captures the conundrum of globalization. By bringing better-paid jobs to Asia and cutting costs for Western consumers, the industry may be doing such damage to working conditions, to the standard of pay, and to enforceable regulations that it may end up sinking a great many of the people involved.

I was curious about how the two distinct communities on board Christophe Colomb—French and Asian—lived, separately and together. I came closest to shipboard life at mealtimes, when I dined with the French in the Officer’s Mess.

I’d been primed for bad food by Rose George, who endured self-service buffets of French fries and hot dogs stuffed with Cheez Whiz, prepared by a well-meaning Filipina with minimal training. Maersk banned all alcohol on its ships a few years ago, and, adding insult to injury, had just decided to save money by replacing paper napkins with paper towels (a savings of $50,000 per year).

Christophe Colomb should have merited a Michelin star by comparison. Before meals the officers quaffed aperitifs in the Officers’ Recreation Room (the chief engineer favored the perroquet, pastis mixed with crème de menthe, which perfectly matched the room’s lurid green furnishings). They descended into the dining room together, dressed in white shirts with shoulder tabs, blue trousers, and loafers, and sat at a white cloth-covered table at appointed seats, marked by cloth napkins in labeled pouches. A white-jacketed steward served every course—appetizer, main course, cheese board, and dessert—beginning with the captain and me, and continuing down the table by rank. We had red and white table wine, baskets of baguettes, and neatly printed menus describing the day’s fare.

But such ceremony merely pointed up the nastiness of the food itself: monotonous, oily, overcooked. “Rice and potatoes, potatoes and rice,” groaned the chief engineer. And meat, meat, meat—mostly gristly cuts purchased in China. The captain grew so frustrated that he prowled around the storerooms hunting for neglected treasures. A case of mangosteens, rescued on the point of rotting, was a special prize. One night, for a change, I cooked dinner for the officers myself.

I had some sympathy for the Filipino cook, since he was expected to produce dishes as foreign to him as Chinese delicacies might be for me. “How did you learn to cook?” I asked him one evening. When he’s in the Philippines, he said, “I see the videos in the office”—instructional films shown by the catering company. He had also taken a two-day course in Manila on “Eastern European Cuisine Introduction,” and had a certificate attesting to his specific training in Ukrainian, Russian, Croatian, and Polish cooking, and—in case it hadn’t been covered sufficiently yet—“potato cooking.”

As the officers glumly chewed their rice and potatoes in near silence, I came to see the dull food as a particular injury to a community so starved of variety in their daily lives. Small talk limps when there’s no outside news, nobody different to talk to, usually not even notable weather. Anecdotes from ships past, or anticipations of homecoming, can only go so far among men who, as the captain observed, “will never talk to you about their lives.”

At the other end of the passageway, in the Crew Mess and Recreation Rooms, a different culture prevailed among the Filipino officers and crew. Food centered around a giant cauldron of rice, and usually a chicken stew, every man serving himself. After dinner, the threshhold of the Crew Recreation Room would be crowded with plastic sandals. I could tell the men inside were watching a movie when the only thing coming out was cigarette smoke. I could tell they were playing the video game Counter-Strike when there were sudden whoops and cheers.

And I could tell when the captain had opened the “Slop Chest,” the onboard store where the Filipinos could buy beer, when they started to sing. One evening I crashed the party to join guys in T-shirts and shorts, sitting with their feet up on a long couch, around coffee tables crowded with cans of San Miguel, Coke, and Pringles. At the far end of the room sat a heavily tattooed and muscled sailor in a Barcelona football jersey, belting out a love song. On the TV in front of him a karaoke machine spit out the words against a sequence of images from home: folkloric festivals, waterfalls, beaches. As the men passed microphones up and down and crooned their sentimental favorites, I remembered how sailors have always been known for their songs. Karaoke is the twenty-first-century seafarer’s version of the shanty.

To help captains manage the predominantly Filipino crew, CMA CGM supplies a pamphlet entitled Understanding the Filipino Seaman: His Values, Attitudes, and Behavior, by Dr. Tomas Quintin D. Andres, an “intercultural consultant.” Published in 1991, it reads like it was written at least a century earlier. “Filipino seamen are a happy blend of several races, basically Malay with Chinese, Spanish, Indian and American admixtures…. In their veins run the rich Christian values of Europe, the pragmatic and democratic values of America, and the spiritual values of Asia.” Andres goes on to characterize subtypes of Filipinos in terms reminiscent of dog breeders: “The predominantly Malay Filipino…is trusting a child, naturally tolerant, forbearing and kind but belligerent when provoked,” “The predominantly Spanish Filipino seaman is generous but arrogant,” etc.

There is nothing in the guide about one of the more intimate habits of Filipino seamen, namely bolitas. These are small inserts that many Filipino sailors put in their penis, by making an incision with a razor and sliding something into the wound: a ball bearing, say, or the tip of a plastic chopstick. This becomes a “secret weapon,” according to the Norwegian scholar Gunnar Lamvik, which makes it easier for Filipinos to attract Brazilian prostitutes; George quotes Lamvik: “the Filipinos are so small, and the Brazilian women are so big.” The captain had heard horror stories from colleagues about ad hoc surgeries they had to perform (there are no doctors on these ships) on Filipinos’ swollen and infected members, when the insertions went wrong.

For Filipinos, bolitas or no, there aren’t many opportunities during a nine-month contract on this route to find women if they want. Many ports are too far from a town to go ashore (Tangier, Port Kelang), and in others prostitutes would be too expensive (Southampton, Rotterdam), so they are left with brothels in the smaller Chinese ports (Yantian, Chiwan). Other than that, there is the never-discussed but age-old assumption—supported by the dwindling condom supplies in the infirmary while the ship is at sea—that sailors have sex with each other.

My experience on Christophe Colomb resembled George’s on Kendal, and I learned a great deal from her book about things I couldn’t see: the backstories and systems that make shipping operate the way it does, such as the byzantine ownership patterns and contorted legal regulation. Like George, I came away from my voyage with great admiration for unheralded seafarers, and appreciated her book for bringing them to notice.

Is that enough? She hints at some remedies for the industry’s ills. Make working conditions much better, regulation much tighter, enforcement much stronger, ships much greener and safer, and the industry—and the planet—will be much the healthier for it. The most sweeping reform would be to rein in the system of flags of convenience. Even simply giving sailors regular, inexpensive Internet access would mark a major improvement in their quality of life. This also means consumers should be willing to pay more for imports, or forgo them altogether. It’s certainly easier just to thank the sailors.

I learned things from going to sea that I could never have grasped just from reading George’s book. She admits that “shipping can be poetic despite itself. There is the singing of its winds” and the evocative language of navigational charts, dense with terms applied by “men who sailed through emptiness and tried to anchor it with names. Fairy Bank, King Arthur Canyon, Shamrock Knoll.” She finds beauty, as did I, in the brightly colored boxes that hold our goods. But these are man-made things.

Often, living between sea and sky was simply magnificent. Standing at the prow of this Empire State Building–sized ship, racing toward the horizon in almost pure silence, I saw flying fish leap up and outpace us, skimming dozens of feet across the sea. I walked through the below-deck alleyway over a giant steel floor panel that had been buckled and bent by the sheer power of the waves. I woke up in the night because my bed was moving beneath me. I saw the green sea foam in angry wind, and the cobalt sea slip and slap in calm, and sharp blinding sheets of sea in sunlight between gray blurs of rain.

On one of the lower decks, by the starboard lifeboat, the sailors one night set a converted crankshaft over an oil can filled with charcoal, and slowly roasted a suckling pig. We had an outdoor barbeque party, on a broad strip of deck walled on two sides by containers. The karaoke machine was brought out, and buckets of Tiger beer, and the cook hacked pork while others flipped squid and hot dogs on a giant grill. For a few hours, all thirty-one of us ate the same food around the same table, passed around the karaoke mikes, chaffed and laughed, and we could look up between the containers at stars as clear as you’ll ever see them from earth, and forget—or celebrate—that this was happening a thousand miles from anywhere a person might call home.

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