30 days on a metal island: From USA to Australia on cargo ship MV Bahia

Oceans and Seas » Pacific
September 27th 2011
Published: September 27th 2011
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It may come as no surprise to regular readers of this blog, but I just love unusual, slow forms of travel. I am particularly enamoured with trains and cargo ships. There is just nothing like travelling across the vast oceans or landscapes of the world in slow motion, with plenty of time to reflect, absorb and prepare for the next destination to come. Hence, in line with most of my trips over the past four years, I have booked myself onto a cargo ship again – this time travelling all the way from America to Australia. It’s an epic trip that’s going to take thirty days via Colombia, Panama and New Zealand. A whole month at sea – awesome!

But sometimes, making travel arrangements for these kinds of trips can be a little... arduous. In the world of container ships, the passenger isn’t exactly a priority. The holy cow is, without a doubt, the cargo, and whether you make it onto the ship in time is nobody’s concern but your own. The time of departure on cargo ships is always approximate, and often changes at the last minute. You never really know until about two or three days before the planned departure if or when you are going to leave. In addition, you are given a long list of tasks to accomplish before you are allowed to embark or even receive your ticket. Yellow Fever vaccination. Medical examinations. Various types of travel, medical and liability insurance. Contracts and waivers to sign in case you die or get injured on board.

Then there is the visa. For my Australian visa, I am required to travel out of state, from New Mexico to Colorado, to acquire a ‘chest X-ray’ to determine that I am not infected with tuberculosis. Yes, that’s right. Because I lived in India four years ago, I am still suspect of being a TB carrier. (The funny thing is that if you come to Australia on a regular 3-month visa, this X-ray is not required. Maybe the logic is that you can infect less people in three months than you could in twelve?) After a drama in which my laboriously acquired X-ray films disappear into space for a while, I am finally granted the visa. But the elation doesn’t last long: a day later – exactly two weeks before I am due to sail – I am informed

I was very fascinated with these humongous tyres... apparently they use them for mining in Australia
that I am not allowed to embark the vessel because my US visa extension has not yet come through. My visa is due to expire on 30th July, the day the ship is set to leave – but the German ship company I booked with comes up with plenty of ‘what if’ scenarios even though US immigration assures me that I am legally allowed to stay in the country until my extension comes through. In the end... everything works out at the very last minute. When I call the port agent in Savannah, he informs me in passing that the ship is leaving a day early, and I make it to the harbour just in time. It’s a great exercise in remaining calm and surrendering to the flow.

But let me tell you one thing. Arduous and stressful they may be, these travel arrangements and uncertainties. But once you’re on the ship, it’s always, always worth it. So here we go.............

It’s Friday, 29th July, and I arrive at the container harbour in Savannah a couple of hours before planned departure time. I don’t care whether I am in Savannah – believed to be one of the most beautiful cities in the US - or not. After all the drama that preceded this journey, I am just so relieved to be on the ship that I am not going to leave it again until it is actually moving. You can’t imagine how deliriously happy I am to climb up the gangway, say ‘Magandang Umaga’ to the Filipino watchmen and meet the Bulgarian Chief Mate Atanas, who shows me to my cabin and informs me solemnly that I am going to be the only passenger on MV Bahia for the month-long voyage.

This time, I am in the ‘Owner’s Cabin’ on F-deck. It has a spacious living room with a couch, armchairs, coffee table, cupboards, and a huge desk. The separate sleeping room has two beds and an en-suite bathroom. It’s great. I settle in, make some excited phone calls to my parents and Sameer in Australia, and peer eagerly out of the window waiting for the ship to leave. Scanning the crew telephone list that somebody has thoughtfully left in my cabin, I am jubilant to spot that our steward is called Jesus, albeit by surname. I can’t wait to meet him and the other 23 owners of exotic names that so promisingly lurk from the small white sheet in front of me.

I’ve often said this, but travel, to me, is all about the people one meets, the bonds one forges, and the near-impossible meetings of characters. Yes, landscapes and sights are nice, but it’s always the people that connect me to a place and open my heart. To this day, tumultuous Pakistan remains at the number one spot of countries visited simply because of the wonderful, kind and generous people I met there. Then there are the challenges to my comfort zone. For example. Here am I, a tea-total vegetarian yogini who has chosen to live on a container ship where most crew members eat meat for breakfast, lunch and dinner, drink copious amounts of alcohol, smoke cigarettes and gamble. Not really the best match, on the surface. But travel stretches and opens the mind and brings us together with people we would have never met otherwise, and probably never chosen to spend time with voluntarily. And the most beautiful thing is that I always, without fail, fall in love. Deeply. Not necessarily romantically, though this, too, happens from time to time. No. The
Steward Bogart....Steward Bogart....Steward Bogart....

... getting ready to become Chief Cook
love I am talking about here is a general deep adoration and affection for the foreign, as yet unknown human being. I often fall in love with entire groups of people – despite of, or maybe precisely because of, our differences. It’s bound to happen again here on MV Bahia, the large container vessel I am going to be confined to for the next thirty days.

So the journey begins. Finally, at around 11pm, many hours later than predicted, the engine starts to hum and MV Bahia slowly eases out of Savannah harbour. I hang out of the window in my pyjamas and send an excited SMS to Sameer. We are finally leaving the USA behind and I fall into my bed exhausted, elated and massively relieved.

I spend the next day getting to know my new shipmates. As is common for passengers, I take my meals in the officer’s mess, where I share a table with the Captain, a young man called Peter Handley from Edinburgh; Chief Engineer Andrzej Kurdziel from Poland; and Chief Mate Atanas Georgiev from Bulgaria. On the adjacent table are the female electrician Katarzyna, junior electrician Janusz, second engineer Romuald and Fitter Antoni.
Noel and BogartNoel and BogartNoel and Bogart

Don't be fooled by the innocent expression on their faces!
All are Polish. The Filipino crew have their own canteen across the hall.

As I soon find out, eating in the officer’s mess is a serious affair. Food is taken in bleak silence with downcast eyes. It’s a bit like being in church and makes the lunch hour seem very long. Needless to say, I amuse myself anyway by observing the officers around me. Then, suddenly, I hear waves of maniacal laughter and shouting coming from the direction of the galley (ship kitchen). I crane my neck curiously. Enter the two characters who will make this voyage unforgettable for me. Ladies and Gentlemen, please allow me to introduce you to Chief Cook Noel Perlas and Steward Edgardo de Jesus.

I’m always a bit nervous to meet the ship’s cook, known by the crew as ‘cookie’ or ‘mayor’ (the latter being a Filipino term of endearment) as in some ways my vegetarian life is in his (hopefully) capable hands. He’s the man with the real power on the vessel. But I needn’t have worried. The man I am about to meet exceeds my wildest expectations. He carries the prosaic name of Noel Sueno Perlas (which translates as ‘Christmas Dream
Mr Noel Perlas in street wearMr Noel Perlas in street wearMr Noel Perlas in street wear

Note the Banditos look!
Pearl’) and looks like a roughed-up Filipino version of George Clooney. An 48-year old ex-martial artist, zoologist and pulmonary technician from Manila, he is one of the most interesting seafarers I have met to date. Within days he tells me about his lost career as a TV commercial model (‘I was a high value asset in those days’ he informs me sombrely. ‘Now, with age, my value is a little bit depreciated.’) and entertains me with stories of his many different jobs and talents, right back to when he was a college student. Apparently, if semi-reliable eyewitness reports can be believed, he is also something of a legend in South America – it is said that women all over the continent are dying to be with him for his charitable nature, and rumours of a monument that is to be erected in his honour abound.

Add to that his sidekick, steward Edgardo de Jesus, otherwise known as Bogart. Bogart, who sports an endearing hedgehog haircut, loves to sing on top of his voice while he carries plates of food from the galley to the officer’s mess. He often belts out operatic renditions of gospel songs such as ‘Shine Jesus
Dancing with Bosun AngelitoDancing with Bosun AngelitoDancing with Bosun Angelito

It was impossible to say no to this opportunity
shine!’ or classics like ‘London Bridge is falling down, falling down, falling down, London Bridge is falling down, my Fair Lady’ (much to the bemusement of the British Captain) or a Japanese children’s song called ’Moshi Moshi Anone’. In the weeks to come, I’ll often be sitting in the deadly silent officer’s mess laughing my head off because I hear those songs coupled with Noel’s faint whimpering in the background bemoaning the fact that he has so much work to do.

Noel, Bogart and I quickly become good friends. Collectively, we lose our minds on this trip. I’d like to say gradually but it’s more like a rapidly advancing disease. Due to the lack of entertainment on board, we dance tango through the galley, throw grapes and garlic smothered in nutella into each other’s mouths, perform magic tricks and make paper boats. ‘You know, Tiziana’, Bogart says to me one day in his charming Filipino accent, ‘we observe one thing! Every day you become more crrrazy!’ Sometimes it gets so out of hand that they kick me out of the kitchen ‘We never finish anything when you’re here!’ they complain and push me into the elevator. But it’s not just me. These two are without a doubt the funniest people I’ve met in my life, especially in combination. When they get bored of cooking, they start swaying and singing like chipmunks, wooden spoons in hand. I want to shrink them and put them in my pocket and take them with me to Australia.

Then there are the nicknames. Noel and Bogart have named most people on this ship. My personal favourite is Paracetamol, or ‘Parrracccetamoooooooooooool’, given to one of the A/B’s because he ‘has a round head like a Paracetamol tablet’. They add ‘We couldn’t call him Anvil, because that is a capsule’. Then there are guys with names like Driftwood, Teletubby, Duremon (Filipino version of Garfield the cat) and Mario Brothers. There’s never a dull moment in MV Bahia’s galley.

Food-wise, Noel looks after me well, especially considering the provision he has to contend with on a cargo ship. Unwittingly, he serves me quite an Ayurvedic diet, consisting mainly of rice, beans and vegetables. And he makes the most awesome apple pancakes in the world. I am impressed.

It doesn’t stop here. Without much ado, I miraculously acquire a brand-new Filipino family. Albert, third officer
With the mighty Bogart... With the mighty Bogart... With the mighty Bogart...

... to celebrate his promotion to Chief Cook
and my daily partner-in-crime on the Navigation Bridge, decides one fine morning that second officer Edizon is to be my boyfriend for this trip. This decision comes to him casually as he speaks to another officer via radio who enquires about the identity of his passenger. ‘Oh, she is the girlfriend of the Second Officer’, he quips, much to Edizon’s horror. However, Edizon soon changes his tune when we pass a Norwegian vessel on the Panama Canal and the crew shouts across to us to find out who I am. ‘She is my wife’, he yells back, promoting himself to my husband in no time. I choose the path of least resistance and together, we adopt 18-year old Mel-Vor Ursabia, a cheeky cadet with an amazing singing voice. Benjamin Balgos, third engineer, joins the happy family as ‘Pare’, or Godfather. Mel-Vor calls me ‘Mum’ from then on, and we often enjoy cosy family evening meals together in the Filipino crew mess.

Another most notable character is the aforementioned third officer Albert Alcala. He is a 26-year old Baptist with a crazy laugh and I visit him without fail every morning during his shift on the Navigation Bridge. Here, we
The Colombian pilot leaving our vessel....The Colombian pilot leaving our vessel....The Colombian pilot leaving our vessel....

We had planned to welcome him with a garland of flowers, but all we could find on board was a cactus
listen to gospel music, drink green tea, and talk about God, love and the world. We call it our daily ‘talk show’. He is interested in learning meditation so I teach him some techniques after his duty. In the afternoons, we sometimes sing gospel songs together in the crew recreation room on the Karaoke machine. And speaking of Karaoke, the very lovable engineer Benjamin Balgos takes great delight in mentoring me in heartfelt Tagalog love songs such as ‘Kastilyong Buhangin’ (‘Sandcastle’) and ‘Habang May Buhay’. There are many other wonderful characters I meet on MV Bahia, such as the adorable Bosun (boatsman) Angelito Yap who keeps chickens and orchids in the Philippines, and a gang of young cadets who I take to calling the ‘puppies’ because they’re so playful and cute.

Life on the ship is very relaxing, at least for me. I follow a pleasant daily routine. I start with pranayama and meditation early in the morning, followed by breakfast at around 8am, which I usually take with Noel and Bogart. Then I go for what Albert calls my ‘safety rounds’ - a daily walk around the ship’s upper deck and containers, looking at the ocean and checking what the crew is up to. After my morning walk, I’ll visit Albert on the Navigation Bridge and do some e-mails, as the Captain has kindly furnished me with a satellite e-mail account. I stay until lunchtime, and in the afternoon I either read or watch a DVD. At 4pm, I practice yoga, and 5.30pm is dinner time, which I’ll have with the Filipino crew. After dinner, I’ll spend some more time with Noel and Bogart, go for another walk and sometimes sing Karaoke in the crew recreation room before it’s bedtime again. It’s as regimented as ashram life, and it’s very relaxing to have absolutely nothing to do other than the most pleasurable of things. We have the occasional barbeques and Karaoke parties, table-tennis matches and basketball games (usually the ball ends up in the ocean), but overall it’s a pretty quiet life.

One of my favourite things on MV Bahia are the daily walks around the containers. None of the seamen can understand why I am doing this. ‘What is there to see? There is nothing!’ Bogart exclaims indignantly when I marvel about the ocean’s beauty one evening. ‘Better to sleep!’ The others smile at my excursions but also think that I’m a bit weird to do this. Yes, there’s oil and grime and strange smells and loud machine sounds, but look over the railing across the ocean and all that disappears. I especially adore the evening time, when the sun sets over the Pacific, the colours change, the clouds hang low in different formations every night, and the big bright orange sun plunges into the vast, moving, shiny waters that surround us. This is when you can find me at the front of the ship, staring into the distance, listening to the crashing of the waves against the ship and breathing in the fresh evening air. I am part of the ocean, sense the pulsation of life in big orgasmic waves within me, and I feel boundless freedom as it engulfs me. It is inconceivable just how much water there is on this planet – for weeks, I see nothing but water and sky. And the spaciousness of it feeds me.

There are a few stops along the way – Cartagena in Colombia, Balboa in Panama, and Auckland in New Zealand. Of the former two, I only get to see the container harbours as we stay for mere hours and are not allowed shore leave. Navigating the Panama Canal is an awesome experience. A crew of 18 come on board at every lock (much bemused by my welcoming them at the gangway with a cheerful ‘Buenas Diaz’), and it’s fascinating to see the huge ships pass through the tiny canal and how much work and logistics this involves.

I get slightly seasick only once, right at the beginning when we enter the Pacific Ocean. The waves are wild, and I am tossed around in my bed like a rag doll. But it’s sunny, and I observe thousands of flying fish jumping and playing in the waves, while big seagulls try to catch them. There is something so invigorating about the wildness and vastness of the ocean. Ginger tea and a healthy dose of singing gospel songs with Albert quickly cure me of my nausea.

Something lots of people ask me about cargo ship travel is this: ‘What’s it like to be the only woman on a big container ship full of working men? Is it safe?’ Good question. It’s an interesting experience for sure. Actually, I’m not the only woman on board. The electrician, Katarzyna from Poland, is female. But she’s also the Captain’s girlfriend so she’s out of bounds. Safe it certainly is. Sure, a woman will always get a lot of attention from the crew but it’s all good-natured and there is never a moment in which I feel threatened or unsafe. And maybe it would be fair to ask the seafarers if they felt safe in my presence!

At the end of my voyage, I leave MV Bahia with a big feeling of nostalgia. It’s been quite a surreal journey – stuck on a 250m long ship with the same 24 individuals day in and day out, and share a lifestyle that is alien and incomprehensible to most people I know. Yes, we had a lot of crazy fun, but I’m also mindful of the tough lives these guys really live. Filipino seafarers are separated from their families for ten out of twelve months and spend most of their lives on a ship. For me as a passenger these trips may be exciting, but after years at sea, it gets old. It is hugely monotonous and most of the time the men don’t even get to go on shore
With my Filipino 'husband'With my Filipino 'husband'With my Filipino 'husband'

... but now surrendering to it
as the cargo turnaround times are very short. All they see are containers and the ocean and the same old faces for months at a time. It’s a cultural choice that many men in the Philippines make to provide a better life for their families, but it must be hard to miss seeing your children grow up, rarely see your wife and miss important family occasions like births and deaths.

Be as it may, I’m really happy to have met these seafarers, and had a wonderful time being part of their lives for such a short but intense while. I’ll probably never see them again, but they will always remain in my heart. The bittersweet beauty of travel is its very transience: to become close to the people one meets in a short span of time, and to separate again until who knows when. Often, all that remains are beautiful memories that bring a big smile onto my face whenever they resurface.

To all the Filipino seafarers I’ve met to date – ingat lagi and mahal kita!


To find out more about or support The Mission to Seafarers, please
My 'son' Mel Vor...My 'son' Mel Vor...My 'son' Mel Vor...

... before he shaved off his moustache

I have written at length about the logistics of cargo ship travel in two previous articles. Please see:

Additional photos below
Photos: 30, Displayed: 30


18th April 2012
Mr Noel Perlas in street wear

what happened to his head ?
6th January 2013

Never would have thought of that!
How fun and exciting! I never would have thought of utilizing a cargo ship as a way to travel. I will have to think about that in the future... :)
11th May 2013

How true !
Madam, I am from India and have traveled all over India.I very much like your comment that Travel is all about the people we meet. Happy traveling!
2nd September 2014

30 days on a metal island
I really like reading this story. Though this is a large blog to read, but it is very interesting. The pictures are also very nice and beautiful. Thanks a lot for sharing the blog. Keep sharing.
2nd September 2014

Thank you, I am glad you enjoyed it :)

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