Friday, 24 April 2009
Our whole adventure feels like a dream already. Did we really camp on the northern most tip of Europe; watch mobile phone clips with soldiers in Siberia; bathe in volcanic waters in Japan; eat jellyfish on the slow boat to China; swim in the world's deepest lake and hike the world's deepest gorge; ride an elephant through a tributary of the Mekong; form part of a television audience in LA; smash a piñata in Mexico; climb a Mayan temple in the jungle; snorkel on the Belize Barrier Reef; drink moonshine in the moonlight and celebrate Easter in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean?
If it wasn't for the photos and this blog, I'd hardly believe it.
Like many an exotic sojourn the highlights from our trip are manifold. However, what has made our trip different has been the absence of aeroplanes and the land and sea travel adventures that we have had instead. So here, in no particular order, are my top ten World in Slow Motion journeys:
1) Sleeper train from Xi’an to Kunming, China. Forty two hours with, for most of the time, the carriage to ourselves, watching life in rural China go by: paddy fields being ploughed with water buffalo, men smoking skinny pipes, tiny coal mines, smoky factories and deep limestone ravines gnawed away by jade rivers. Ate one of the best dishes I had in China - delicious, anonymous green sprouts.
2) Getting a shout-out from Durrl the driver on the Megabus from Minneapolis to Chicago, USA.
“Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time ever in Megabus history this is your chance to come down to the front and make an announcement over the microphone. Come on down!.....We got some world travellers sitting here right behind me on the lower deck…. O, o, oooh! We’re gliding like Egyptian silk!”
3) Train from Toya-ko to Kyoto, Japan. 806 miles (about the same as London to Stockholm) in eleven hours, including the world’s longest tunnel (Seikan at 34 miles long). The connections were quick and easy, the seats flipped over when the train changed direction and the Shinkansen was slick, sleek and quick (186 mph).
4) Bed bus from Mengla, China, to Luang Prabang, Laos. Lying on a bed during daylight hours watching the concrete and tiles of China turn into the wood and mud of Laos, as the air temperature rose and the vegetation became greener and more exotic. Counting potbellied pigs was a favourite pastime.
5) Luxury bus from Guadalajara to Mexico City. There were only ‘executivo’ buses going to the station we needed so we treated ourselves to this moving lounge. Only 24 big, squashy seats on board; a coffee/tea machine; separate, clean ladies and gents loos; and personal headphones to watch a decent selection of new and art-house films. The journey was over all too quickly.
6) Crossing the Pacific Ocean on a 334 metre, 100,000 tonne cargo ship. The CMA-CGM Hugo was a beautiful ship and we were given the best cabin on board. The north North Pacific was a mess of storms forcing us to travel from Hong Kong to Long Beach through the Tropics, which meant fifteen days of sunbathing and stars. Even saw whales.
7) Copper Canyon Railway from Chihuahua to Los Mochis, Mexico. A creaky old train taking us through real bandit country: Desert, cacti, black vultures sunning on fence posts, cow skulls, cowboys rounding up cows. Broke the journey in dusty Creel to see the canyon, which rivals the Grand Canyon, and ate delicious gorditas in Divisadero.
8) Slow boat to Shanghai, China ,from Osaka, Japan. Passing through the beautiful Inland Sea and into the deep blue waters of the Sea of Japan and East China Sea, counting flying fish as we went. We met some wonderful fellow travelers and had an insight into what was to come in China from the predominantly Chinese passengers who did their laundry at 6.30am and ate with great gusto and speed.
9) Trans-Siberian Railway from Irkutsk to Vladivostok. This section of the epic west to east train journey had far more varied and beautiful scenery than the first leg: meadows, lakes and deciduous forests alongside the regular tundra, industry and cosmodromes. There were fewer spudnuts (potato donuts) available on the platforms, but we were wise to the samovar and had brought plenty of instant mashed potato.
10) Train from Hamburg to Copenhagen. Comfortable train with stunning views across flowering farmland, twinkling water and fields of wind turbines. The best bit was that the train boarded a ferry to bridge the waters between Germany and Denmark.
We’ve travelled 360 degrees around the world without leaving the earth’s surface. It feels like a historic achievement, treading in the footsteps of the great travelers of old before the aeroplane was invented. We didn’t do it in eighty days, like Phileas Fogg, but travelled considerably slower, taking time to soak up what was happening around us.
My early fears of not being able to complete the circle, because public transport to the places we wanted to go wouldn’t exist, were dispelled. It’s a big world, but the means to get around it are there. Travelling overland and sea is like a dot-to-dot puzzle, the more dots you join the clearer the picture becomes. That is what has made World in Slow Motion such a special worldwide wander and wonder.
‘AT LEAST IT'S SUNNY'
The tottering old man, on his way for a lunchtime pint, spots me and smiles
“Luvverly day eh?”
I’m home, back in the village, back in the heart of Middle England.
Middle England, that vague word for the comfortable, the respectable, the jolly decent folk who make up a large proportion of this country .
Whatever it is my mother plunged me right back into the thick of it without delay and soon I was facing my most daunting challenge yet.
Within 24 hours I found myself in a situation far more terrifying than anything we’d encountered out on the road: tea and scones with the ladies of the village.
Drunken Russian soldiers, Thai jungles crawling with snakes and scorpions, stormy ocean crossings, Szechuan cooking…nothing compares to facing the combined might of seven ladies of Middle England.
The questions came thick and fast, I did my best to accommodate them before beating a hasty retreat.
‘Your tulips are looking lovely’ one of them cooed as I headed indoors, 'isn’t it wonderful weather we are having…’
I smiled ruefully to myself as I recalled the many hours I’d spent during the course of our trip trying to combat English stereotypes, repel the images propagated by Hugh Grant, Merchant Ivory, Jane Austen et al.
All that effort to persuade everyone, from Americans to Zimbabweans that we didn’t all live like The Vicar of Dibley and yet here I was in the most stereotypically, ludicrously, absurdly English of situations.
The village couldn’t have been any more English if it had donned a topper and sung Noel Coward.
The birds are busy nesting and the air resonates with the hum of lawnmowers, the throb of RAF helicopters on manouevres and the beautiful call of blackbirds and robins.
The friendly postie has stopped by for a natter, marigold gloves are on display in the village shop window and my mother is worrying about the church flowers.
It’s warm and sunny (yes it does shine sometimes here) and people’s gardens are looking beautiful.
Gardening – there’s something I’ve not seen much of for a while.
I’ve been stuffed with cake, crumpets and even a belated Christmas lunch, drowned in tea, and listened to my fill of serious Radio 4 programmes.
It all is – to use a very popular English expression – ‘lovely’.
But under this idyllic exterior the old place harbours problems like any other and beneath the bucolic harmony I can sense real worries, even anger.
People mutter about immigrants and house prices and the price of petrol (it’s not ‘gas’ now) and the whole country seems a bit jaded.
The recession is biting and friends tell me of people losing their jobs. Politicians and bankers seem to be held in lower esteem than ever before and, as the Chancellor presented his new budget on Wednesday the headlines screamed about the looming economic apocalypse.
Whilst grumbling has always been a national sport it’s still knocked me off balance a little; things I’m told are a lot worser than when we left.
Not what I expected. This country is after all one of the world’s largest economies and this is a village where overall affluence seems to have increased hugely since I used to lark about in its meadows and streams in my short trousers.
Has the country changed whilst we’ve been away?
Well there’s no more Jade Goody, no more Woolworths and the Coop has had a lick of paint, but other than that it doesn’t seem to have really.
There’s the same automated queuing systems when you call up any bank or utility, the same obsession with celebrities, scandal and the weather, the same stories in the Daily Telegraph, brimming with self-righteous indignation (‘Balls Smear Unit’).
And the same sense of humour, perhaps the one thing I’ve really missed.
I venture out for a stroll round the village.
'Nice day' I shout out to the Major (Ret’d)
'It’s a cracker, what'
He gets back to his strimming; I return to admiring the neat little cottages and peaking into gardens.
Next morning we take a spin up to the Berkshire Downs. It’s St George’s Day and the English are celebrating in their traditional way of marking their patron saints day…by not marking it.
There’s the odd St George’s crosses flying, a few pubs festooned in bunting but largely it passes like any other day. People don’t even have a day off workholiday.
We head out into the green, the glorious green, for England is surely the greenest place on earth. (There are advantages to being a wet country).
It’s bluebell season and we search out this natural phenomenon. Come late April / early May the floors of many woods throughout the country are turned into carpets of bright, vivid blue, like they’ve been cast adrift at sea.
Kites and buzzards wheel overhead as we park up the car and head for a likely-looking spot – a small copse at the end of a rough track.
Breaking through the undergrowth and braving waist-high nettles we’re rewarded for our efforts: the wood floor is covered in bluebells, awash with blue.
It’s as if a school of impressionists have been let loose in a Dulux factory.
A throaty pheasant calls out with alarm, woodpeckers drum intently at rotten trees and
fat woodpigeons flop lazily over the tilled fields as the first swallows announce their return in the skies above.
And it’s very, very lovely.
We stop for a pint on the way home to toast St George - and dragon slayers in general – at a nearby village pub.
Three farmers, decked out in check shirts and bodywarmers, eyed us warily from a corner as I supped my ale in the beer garden.
'Lovely weather', the landlady says.
We return to the car and head home, rolling down out of the chalk downs into the Vale of the White Horse. The view is wonderful - quite, quite perfect.
I guess 'they' are right. It is only when you take an extended leave of absence from a place that you realise quite how nice it is.
45,000 miles and still nothing can quite compare to home.
And the weather really is quite lovely…
Sunday, 19 April 2009
I woke up with a start, the cold light of dawn searing into my retinas. I stretched my legs, rubbed my eyes and uttered the first of several primeval yawns.
It was hardly surprising: the bus clock read 5.40am.
Cursing the hour I looked out the bus window.
Pubs. A post office. Pigeons.
Hmmm that’s odd – looks vaguely familiar…doesn’t look like Belgium….hadn’t I been here before? Where was I?
This was soon answered – shop signs seeming to suggest we were in some kind of place by the name of Camberwell. Camberwell…hmmm…it was starting to come back to me.
Six hours earlier, in an Antwerp backstreet we’d boarded this bus, heading for London. It seemed a remarkably short period of time to cross three countries, travelling across Flanders before dropping down into France, catching a ferry from Calais across the Straits of Dover, back to England.
We’d piled into the bus, searching out seats amongst the passengers already on board. They’d started back in Amsterdam and many were sprawled about like lifeless corpses.
A couple of students with thick Northern accents occupied the entire back seat, an large Somali family took up the middle and furtive-looking chaps in leather jackets stared miserably at us from the front.
I picked a seat at the back, next to a monosyllabic, pale-faced young Londoner. He grunted at me and went back to sleep, his bowed head edging towards my shoulder.
He looked spaced out and distant: had he indulged a little too much back in Amsterdam?
Just in case we were entertaining the notion of sleeping the dozy Dutch driver had chosen to share his choice of Belgium radio with his passengers.
‘Fame, I’m going to liiiive forever…’
Lara chose to try and overcome this by nullifying all her senses - a well-practiced and often-successful technique which involved blocking her ears and eyes with earplugs and eyemask before topping it off with a good thick hood.
She sat there, trying to block out the world around her. It only needed an orange boiler suit and she might have found herself heading out to Guantanamo Bay.
Somehow we dozed and two hours later found ourselves waking up in France. Never have I been gladder to enter the port of Calais.
We whisked through French immigration before entering a little office entitled UK Border Agency – the first of many new changes back home? – and being greeted by possibly the cheeriest bunch of immigration officials all trip.
Perhaps the chubby English blokes standing about were bored at this ungodly hour but we found them polite, friendly and genuinely interested in our trip. All hail the new border bobbies.
We joined the queue at the terminal and found ourselves amongst hundreds of our fellow countrymen. Yellow British car number plates with their bold, simple lettering, a variety of strong British regional accents, orderly queuing.
It was all vaguely familiar and each little reminder, each little rediscovery came so quickly after each other that it was almost overwhelming. We were going home. It was sinking in now.
We boarded the P&O Pride of Calais and more déjà vu hit us – this was one of the cross channel ferries we saw from the deck of the Singapore a couple of days ago as we headed up to Antwerp.
We wandered sleepily past shops, row upon row of familiar British brands on the shelves, the smooth southern tones of the Captain washing over us in the background.
‘Abroad’ was disappearing; we were leaving the foreign, the different behind. Finally, after ten months of being bumbling foreigners in distant lands we would be back amongst our own.
Tired and confused, my head spinning with it all, I lay back against a seat and fell straight asleep.
An hour later we awoke, just in time to see the white cliffs of Dover. Or at least the base of them in the dark, the clock reading 4am.
England. We were back.
Within half an hour we were rolling through the Kent countryside, green road signs and red phone boxes flashing past in the bus’s headlights.
Sleep called once more and stuck with me right through until Camberwell.
Pubs. A post office. Pigeons. We were back in London.
There it was out there in all its glory – Oval tube station, the cricket ground and the Alec Stewart Gate, Vauxhall and the railway arches, the Thames and the Houses of Parliament.
The city looked smart, moneyed, grand. I felt emotional, until that was I found myself shivering on the cold, empty streets of Victoria.
London, where it all started all those months ago, and now where it all finishes.
The circle is complete.
Eurolines connects city centres in about twenty-four European countries. After the mammoth bus journeys of Mexico and Laos a paltry seven hours between Antwerp and London no longer seemed an obstacle. At an equally paltry 46 Euros, the price was just too tempting to turn down.
The bus arrived early in Antwerp, but was already stuffed full of slumbering bodies and Amsterdam casualties, making inserting ourselves into the legroom-deficient seats a little challenging.
We had opted for the overnight bus departing Antwerp at 23:30 (the other service leaves at midday) and had resigned ourselves to a sleepless night. After a couple of hours the bus stops in Calais at French immigration. Here you disembark and shuffle into French immigration and out again and then into British immigration next door. The new UK Border Agency was a jolly, dapper bunch; it was nice to be welcomed home by fresh-faced chaps in crisp, navy uniforms.
You then wait on the bus until it drives onto the ferry to Dover. You have to get off the bus for the hour and a half ferry crossing across the English Channel. Time enough to settle down for a sleep, or get something to eat or drink. Make sure you remember how to get back to the bus, for once boarding is called the bus doesn’t wait for stragglers.
Then it’s just another couple of hours from Dover to Victoria Coach Station in Central London from where onward buses are plentiful.
Saturday, 18 April 2009
It was time to leave the Rickmers Singapore and step on our first European soil for nine months.
The weather was foul but the stevedores didn’t seem to notice as they boarded the ship. Sporting dirty old orange boiler suits and grimy helmets, each had a pudgy, weatherbeaten face, a smoldering dog-end poking out from it, clamped between yellowing teeth.
They looked like miners setting off to face down the Maggie Thatcher in the 1980s, and we let them pass before it was our turn to totter down the slippery ladder to the waiting taxi below.
The cab was soon speeding us away from the quay, weaving between piles of split timbers, rotting ropes and all the other detritus of the dockside.
A large crane swung low, its cargo swooping in front of us causing the cabbie to swerve. Health and safety didn’t seem to be of great importance around here.
Neither did security, as we zipped about the enormous port apparently at will before finally exiting onto a highway, no barrier, no officials, no anything.
I looked back at the forest of cranes receding into the distance, the mountains of heavy containers, the little trucks with their flashing lights and the little workers in their dayglo jackets scuttling about under the heavy sky.
Perhaps China didn’t have it all – this port was just as big as those we’d seen back in Yantian and Hong Kong.
It's vital to Belgium – the country wouldn’t exist without Antwerp we were told by a local – and to Europe as a whole.
Along with Rotterdam, just over the Dutch border, and Hamburg, this port is one of Europes’s arteries, a lifeline between the continent and the rest of the planet.
Heading into town, soaking in new sights and sounds, we started to adjust once more to new surroundings.
There were red car number plates, imposing and timeworn buildings, strange and unpronounceable Flemish words.
The grid-patterned streets on the map have been replaced by a mess of wonky angles and confusing dead-ends; the broad, confident American voices have been usurped by a odd combination of European tongues.
There’s Flemish, heavy, awkward-sounding and, well phlegmy; Dutch, similarly impenetrable and unwelcoming; French, language of their Walloon compatriots and even English, a reminder that England lies just over the water.
Even people’s faces seem to be different, and far more interesting too. There’s not so many flat round faces here, instead there’s more angles, more dark shapes under the eyes.
Faces look more lived-in, as if they have been outdoors more, weathering the elements on their bicycles rather than opting for the air-conditioned comfort of a large SUV.
Perhaps the greatest difference though only became apparent when we spoke to people. I was amazed by the difference in attitudes and the general outlook which people seemed to hold.
We were back amongst ancient European enmities, built upon centuries of fractious relationships between tribes, kingdoms and nation states.
It didn’t take long to hear what Belgiums thought of the Dutch (and vice versa), nor did it take much persuasion to learn what the average Flemish Belgian made of their Walloon neighbours.
After two months in the US, that great melting pot of cultures where everyone pulls together under one flag it seemed very strange, almost petty.
There was little of that hearty American welcome here either, the smiley, friendly can-I-help-you American service was replaced by haughtiness, in some places almost barely disguised dislike.
Perhaps it was our dishevelled appearances after ten days at sea and ten months on the road, but I’ve never visited a town where more waiters turned their noses up at us.
At least we found a warm welcome with our couchsurfing hosts, Walter and Vera, an entertaining Belgium couple who are keen on cycling and absolutely obsessed with knitting.
Whilst the former hobby was no great surprise in a country such as this the latter was more curious.
Wool lay around the place in great heaps, there were huge scarfs galore and we couldn’t leave without stuffing several of their products into our backpacks.
What is it about wool? Surely it can’t be very practical in all this rain.
I wondered about this as Walter lent me a bike and peddled to their nearby allotment in search of dinner.
Their plot was muddy, given a good soaking in a recent downpour, and I enthusiastically joined him in harvesting parsnips.
Walter told me Belgians consider parsnips to be rather old-fashioned. I was shocked – surely not, how could they attach such an appellation to the mighty, immortal parsnip, the King of the vegetable world?
Parsnips, bicycles, allotments: It all felt strangely like home.
The next morning we found that the miserable drizzle had given way to beautiful sunny weather.
We rode the tram into town and made for the huge cathedral, standing proud in the centre. It’s a massive edifice, which took two hundred year to build, funded entirely by voluntary donation, I was told.
Inside the vast vaulted interior rang with sombre organ music; visitors and the faithful spoke in low voices and admired the Rubens hanging above the altar.
A local lad, Peter Paul, along with other Flemish masters (surely this is the name of a darts tournament?) cropped up several times in our visits to various churches and cathedrals.
I tried my best but found them all a bit grim. Give me one of the many fine Belgium comics or graphic novels anyday.
A couple of hours later we found ourselves at the Groot Markt, an impressive square surrounded by fine mercantile buildings all squashed together.
I craned my neck up at their crow-stepped steps, topped off with golden statues denoting their specific trade.
They couldn’t speak louder about how vital the port is to Antwerp, a city built on trade. “Without the port”, Walter told us, “Antwerp would not exist.’
And it would be considerably duller as well. The port has given the city, alongside many other things, a very interesting ethnic mix.
Besides the Flems and the Walloons, there’s a Chinatown (like in many ports), plus a sizeable community of Orthodox Jews (many here for the diamond business) and more recent immigrants, such as Moroccans and Congolese (a former colony).
All this sightseeing had given us a thirst and it seemed a fine time to sample the local fare.
This being Belgium we were keen to try their famous beers and soon we were supping on bollekes (those wide-bottom Belgian beer glasses) of De Koninck, one of the many local ales.
A large stag party of Dutch fellows larked about in the square, apparently touring the hostelries on scooters – it all seemed very European.
Suitably oiled up we stopped by a chip stand for another Belgium speciality – pommes frites, deep-fried twice (to give them an added crispiness) and drowned in mayonnaise.
I don’t know who thought of this idea but it works a treat. Can’t see it catching on back home though.
Maybe we should try it with parsnips…
Friday, 17 April 2009
We bid farewell to Philadelphia, ‘City of Brotherly Love’. I don’t know about brothers but the part of town through which we humped our massive packs in order to reach the Tioga Marine Terminal didn’t show a lot of love on its grim, rain-streaked streets. A kindly local called a taxi for us, fearing we might get ‘sticked‘.
Down at the docks we finally reached her - the Rickmers Singapore, our home for the next eight days.
She was anchored at rather dilapidated berth, where we negotiated our way through puddles, broken crates and piles of discarded strapping lines in order to reach her ladder.
I made way for a burly man who was descending the gangway brandishing a chainsaw before I climbed up the slippery steps. A smiling Sri Lankan chap checked our IDs at the top before a tall thin Romanian fellow – the Second Officer - showed us to our quarters.
We’ve a modest-sized cabin with en-suite bathroom, complete with writing desk, TV and DVD, sofa and the bible in High German. Not bad for a week’s voyage, and a welcome rest stop after months of constant travel.
The Singapore is significantly smaller than the Hugo (our vessel across the Pacific), 194 metres long, 28 metres wide and weighing in at 30,000 tdw. This is enough however to propel her right around the world, calling in at ports across the globe.
She doesn’t seem very heavily laden at present; perhaps it’s the global recession. Indeed her decks seem rather empty with cargo strapped down almost hap-hazardly on top of the holds in front of us.
Four large cranes stare down onto these decks whilst to the stern sit crew’s living quarters and the bridge piled up on top of each other.
We use the afternoon to explore our new surroundings, discovering a laundry, galley and a lounge, Tea’s Maid on the side, Wilbur Smiths on the shelves, framed jigsaws (windmills and ocelots) on the wall.
Dinner, as seems customary on cargo ships, is early: 5.30. There are other passengers – quite a nice change, after having the Hugo to ourselves. They make an interesting bunch, rather like a cast of misfits from a Miss Marple novel.
There’s a jovial Dutchman called Henk who’s sporting a Bob Monkhouse tan and bushy eyebrows, and Christoph, your archetypal stolid German, not saying much and watching you keenly through shiny eyes. Both have been on board since December - a fact I find hard to grasp - happily pootling around the world and ship-spotting en route.
We’re also joined by two ladies: Martha is an Alaskan who’s flown back to her birthplace of Philadelphia purely to catch this ship, before flying home immediately on reaching Antwerp; and Sylvia hails from Chicago, grey-haired and very chatty she’s also just joining us for the Atlantic crossing.
Somewhat fatigued by the exertions of recent weeks I’m content to listen to their adventures as we eat solid East European fare from the Lazy Suzie in the middle of the table.
Later we take to the deck outside and watch the crew cast off as we head out into the Delaware River. We pass dilapidated old ships, disused power stations and overgrown berths where fishermen gather. It’s an abject scene of decay and past splendours. Hong Kong this ain’t.
Accompanied by our pilot like a faithful little lapdog we head purposefully downriver, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania to starboard, Camden, New Jersey to port (Camden: all this way and I still haven’t escaped).
Philadelphia slips away against a deep red sunset and we bid farewell to Uncle Sam. Thanks America; you’ve been fun.
Tuesday 7th April 2009, 38°26’N, 71°21W Heading 89°
We’re now on the open seas once more. The Delaware took ten hours to navigate to the mouth of the ocean; we entered the Atlantic at 3am, awoken by the increased swell.
They say it takes a few days to find your sealegs; for Lara’s sake I hope it’s quicker than that - she has spent the day looking decidedly green around the gills as the Singapore rocks ceaselessly in the swell.
It’s only three metres but, given the Singapore’s size and cargo this is still enough to through us around a bit, whether rolling about in bed (steady now…) or sliding back and forth on one’s chair in the mess.
Mess - it’s a strange name for a dining room, but it seemed rather appropriate today as our food slid around on our plates, particular when Simon, the steward, produced a large steaming tureen of asparagus soup.
Sylvia, joining us on board back in Philly, is also feeling under the weather. She entered the mess room somewhat unsteadily and soon hastily returned to her room having only nibbled the edges of her ham and spuds.
We tried to right ourselves with an invigorating blast of Atlantic air, stepping out onto the deck just below the bridge. The sea looked restless and impatient, white caps all around.
We wrapped ourselves up against the cool wind and reminded ourselves of previous seafarers. This wouldn’t have troubled our ancestors, sailing in their little wooden boats in the opposite direction. Time to stiffen one’s upper lip.
They were soon a-quivering however as we were given a brief tour of the ship’s safety facilities. The third officer - a Filopino - and a deckhand in a boiler suit and a rather fetching Beckham-esque hair band showed us around in a disturbingly lacksidasical manner.
They brushed over Lara’s questions but brought our immersion suits - enormous orange rubber outfits which, stretched out on the floor liked like gingerbread men. Would we really fancy a dip in one of those?
Our other option seems to be the ‘freefall’ lifeboat, an small, antiquarian vessel rusting away outside our porthole. It sits perched at an angle, at the top of a short set of rails, rather like an aquatic rocket, ready for action.
The crewmen were kind enough to show us inside and I immediately wished they hadn’t, with rows of tiny seats set for bracing oneself at the impact of hitting the water from on high.
Things weren’t much more reassuring on the bridge, where the dead-eyed Second Officer dispassionately surveyed the rows of instruments around him and pointed to a nearby storm causing all the swell.
Lara nervously eyed a button above the charts: ‘dead man push button’. Was this a Bond movie?
He told us about the cargo aboard: machine tools, steel plates, trucks and perhaps the odd luxury yacht, bound for Dubai. Looking down from the bridge it didn’t look exactly overcrowded - was this the impact of the global economic downtown? Sure, he replied, going on to tell us that larger container ships had been hit harder, unable to sail for lack of business.
Maersk, the largest line in the world, has apparently sixty such vessels currently idling, whilst the Singapore itself has been affected, missing stops in Kobe and Yokohama where there simply isn‘t anything to transport.
I thought back to our friends on the Hugo and wondered whether they were affected. An awful lot seems to have changed since we sailed with them four months ago, laden down with 6,500 containers.
Wednesday 8th April, 38°27’N, 63°13’W Heading 90°
The clocks went forward over the night - one hour less sleep, one hour closer to home. We hardly slept much anyway, thrown around as we were all night by the heavy motion of the boat.
It’s still choppy outside, lending our surroundings a strange air, as if we are sharing our cabin with a family of poltergeists. Cupboard doors opened and closed during the night, the shower curtain kept opening and closing as I washed and we are constantly having to catch items sliding off the table and desk.
Whilst this constant rocking motion might be interesting for a while - rather like weightlessness might to an astronaut in space - it is starting to turn to discomfort and irritation. Lara spent most of the day groaning and staring at the horizon, willing her seasickness to disappear.
The amount of half-eaten food that Simon is collecting from our plates is increasing as well, though perhaps that’s to do with the quality of the meals. What is it with shipping lines and the vast quantity of meat and stodge they seem to feed their crew? Is there some warehouse somewhere churning out this stuff, like a kind of maritime equivalent of school meals?
I took my heavy copy of Moby Dick up on deck and sought out a dusty old deckchair from the neglected bar. Soon a little bird came and settled nearby - a swallow-like creature I’d observed before flitting between the ship’s cranes.
A passing migrant or a ship’s pet, it probably one of a whole menagerie of creatures these ships unwittingly carry between nations, both up above and in the ballast tanks below.
Our course has changed - bad weather south of Nova Scotia has compelled the captain to steer a course which will pass just north of the Azores - another isolated group of islands we didn’t expect to see during the course of our global circumnavigation.
America is now far behind; looking at the charts the closest land is now Bermuda, though thankfully I think we’re still quite some way from the infamous Bermuda Triangle. Or perhaps that’s where that bird is from…
Thursday 9th April, 38°43’N, 54°33’W Heading 90°
Maunday Thursday. I know idea what Maundy means but it looks pretty Maundy outside: foggy and wet, with drizzle drenching the decks and confining us indoors all door.
It made us pretty lethargic as a result, where we just seemed to sit and stuff ourselves with meat (every meal seems to be heavily meat-based), read or watch pirated DVDs.
On the way to lunch the Chief Officer stopped us in the gangway. He looked more dishevelled than usual, sporting just a crumpled t-shirt and boxer shorts, and wore a bemused expressed on his face.
“Pliz”, he said, “How is do you say greeting in English at Easter?”
“Happy Easter”, Lara replied.
“Sank you”, he smiled, and wandered off, tucking his t-shirt into his boxer shorts. Was he making cards?
Sylvia hasn’t been seen now for 2½ days, confined to her room apparently by seasickness. Perhaps she’ll improve tomorrow - the seas seem to have calmed down a bit.
Friday 10th April, 39° 12’N, 45° 25’W Heading 90°
Good Friday, and a number of denominations to cater to amongst the Singapore multinational occupants. Being good Catholics those Filipinos amongst the crew who can have taken the day off, confining themselves to their cabins.
The Romanian officers, on the other hand, have to wait: following the Orthodox Church they celebrate a week later than Christians, a few days after we’ve disembarked in Antwerp. That leaves the passengers, nominally Christians, who have been promised a special meal on Sunday and even champagne.
Religion and food aside I wanted to see what lay below the waters we were traversing. Up on the bridge I consulted the charts to find that apparently we’ve just crossed the New England Seamounts (whatever they are) and are now passing over the somewhat eerie sounding Sohm Abyssal Plain. I also noticed that we are on the edge of the Gulf Stream - perhaps that’ll speed us up a bit.
I also discovered our route has been altered again; we’re now heading right for the Portuguese coast, before turning north up past Cape Finistere and crossing the Bay of Biscay. The Second Officer made a long face at the mention of this notorious stretch of water.
Resolving then to make the most of the calm weather whilst we can we walked up to the bow, stepping carefully over piles of rusted chains and heaps of half-empty paint pots en route. I admired the vessel’s livery as we walked - a handsome combination of green and yellow, with red trim painted around moving parts.
Reaching the bow we entered another world, away from the constant throb of the engine. I leant against a capstan and adjusted my senses: brilliant sunshine, warm air and just the sound of the wind in whistling around the forecastle above us and the waves breaking on the sides below.
After all the hussle and bussle of the US, I lost myself momentarily as I gazed out ahead of us at the endless succession of deep blue waves, their peaks sprinkled with white spray. It felt as if I were entering a new, unexplored world, like my forefathers before me.
At dinner the missing passenger, Sylvia, reappeared after 3½ days of absence. Gently nibbling on a piece of bread she explained that she’d been laid low by a stomach bug, surviving on packets of chicken soup and reading a number of books. The current one is a Jeffrey Archer novel. No wonder she felt rough.
Yet another hour forward on the clocks today and we‘ve noticed how much later the sun is setting into the sea. It‘s the third clock change in as many days; we‘re now only two hours behind the UK time-wise, yet still thousands of miles away.
Saturday 11th April, 39° 40’N, 36° 25’W Heading 90°
We had an emergency drill today and thanks to the Captain forewarning us at breakfast Lara had everything ready an hour before the bell sounded. With our lifejackets, immersion bags and safety helmets already at hand we were up on the bridge, our muster station, before you could say ‘abandon ship’.
No so our fellow passengers however, who’d chosen to lie in rather than make breakfast. The Captain looked unduly concerned, casually smoking a cigarette, the smoke masking his heavy eyelids as Christoph tottered along, his twinkling eyes wearing a vacant expression beneath a plastic helmet.
Sylvia then puffed up the stairs, all of a fluster “h..h…how do I get this on” she asked, smothered beneath her thick, bright orange lifejacket. The crew set about helping her when finally Henk arrived, equally bewildered, brandishing a lifejacket but no helmet or immersion suit.
It was like a scene from Dad’s Army, as they fussed around and the Captain resignedly dismissed them. He later told Lara what a pain he found taking passengers on board.
Back down outside our cabin on Deck C, the crew and officers played about with the lifeboat, a grimy orange craft with a passing resemblance to Thunderbird 4.
Rather like the legendary lifesaver this craft perched on a ramp pointing at an angle into the sea behind us, as our very own marionettes tried to get its engine to work. At last the poor beast let out a protesting splutter, a puff of blue smoke and then a rattling whine, like a horse on its last legs.
Suitably reassured that this escape pod was primed and ready for action its tormentors turn it off, shut its doors and wandered away.
Let’s hope we don’t have to use it. There’s a big storm brewing in the Bay of Biscay and we’re having to sit and wait it out off the Portuguese coast - even this crew don’t want to risk six metre swell.
The worst food yet at dinner - some kind of rolled meat, of possibly bovine origin, combined with ham and a gherkin in the middle and slopping around in an orangey-brown sauce. Never had the stale bread looked more tempting.
Never mind; things should look up on the gastronomic side tomorrow, with the promise of an Easter barbeque.
Sunday 12th April, 40°00’N, 28°13’W Heading 90°
Easter Sunday. Party Time in the ‘Singapore Bar’ on the pilot deck.
The Captain had pulled out all the stops, laying out the works: tablecloths were neatly laid out, hand painted eggs in each person‘s place; the fridge was filled to capacity with beer, wine and champagne and the barbeque was fired up out on deck.
In the absence of a lift someone had set up a long rope and pulley which led down directly to the back door of the galley, a Heath Robinson style affair with which Simon, the steward gamely struggled, trying to haul up all the food.
It took him several loads to raise this banquet to the pilot deck but soon enough meat was being thrown onto the barbeque to sustain the whole of the Texas: lamb chops, chicken wings, fatty hunks of pork and a fish the size of a killer whale.
Officers, crew and passengers soon set to work devouring this carnicopia, along with garlic bread, a massive cauldron of rice and some Filipino speciality fish.
As the Azores passed by to the south we entered the European sphere for the first time in eight months. It seemed an appropriate moment to raise a glass of champagne. Then one of beer. Then one of wine. Happy Easter.
Soon the crew fired up the karaoke machine and the golden oldies started pouring out, just like back on the Hugo. What is it with Filipino sailors and ancient, soppy love songs?
After the eighty-ninth rendition of an Engelbert Humperdinck classic I was driven to change the CD yet, searching in vain, all I could find was Phil Collins.
There was nothing for it and soon Phil and his mulleted chums were booming out in the background, playing live to an enraptured German audience circa 1991 as back in the present passengers and crew emptied the fridge of Tsingtao, a Chinese lager which tasted suspiciously watery.
They were charming company. There was a Chinese fellow - a cadet who couldn’t tell us why he’d taken to the high seas - along with two shy Sri Lankan cadets who scuttled off at the first opportunity, and a whole gaggle of jolly Filipinos.
They were able seamen, oilers, electricians, the cook, the steward and the bosun, the latter of whom presented me with my latest ‘local’ hat - a Rickmers Line baseball cap.
It was, I’m sure you’ll appreciate, a great meeting of cultures from which we all emerged greatly enriched and enlightened as to the workings of other nations.
Well I did learn one thing at least: Tsingtao, according to one of the crew, stands for This Stuff Is No Good Try Another One. I couldn’t agree more.
Monday 13th April, 41°31’N, 19°35’W Heading 70°
Another disturbed night’s sleep, thanks to the big swell outside. At times it seemed so big and pronounced it felt like there were sea monsters outside playing keepy-uppy with the ship.
We rolled backwards and forth in time with the waves, the ship rattling around us like an old man with bronchitis. Things slipped along the table and the desk, cupboard doors groaned and so did we.
As daylight broke I looked out of our porthole to take a look for myself. Huge waves were rolling in from the North West, lifting us up as they rolled underneath us and dropping us abruptly as they headed on towards Africa.
We were like a cork in a bathtub, Henk said; the Captain just laughed. He seems to take a mischievous pleasure in our discomfort.
Sylvia showed us her secret weapon against sea sickness, rolling up her sleeve to reveal a rather whizzy watch-like gadget which looked like it had come straight out of The Goonies. “It gives me a small electric shock every few seconds”, she said, going on to explain that somehow it helped to nullify the motion sickness.
It’s hard to do much in our wobbly world; you cannot stare at a screen for more than an hour at best; we’re constantly catching food and glasses of water slipping off the table and even trying to walk around makes you look like an old drunk negotiating his way though the park.
Part of the reason for all this movement is the lack of cargo on board - the ship’s only 35% full (though that’s not unusual for the US-Europe leg of its route) and what scrap iron, machine parts and other assortments are being carried do not weigh enough to counteract the strength of the waves.
We’re all looking forward to reaching dry land now. Cape Finisterre should appear on the horizon tomorrow, and with it the first sight of land - and European soil. Not a moment too soon.
Tuesday 14th April, 43°32’N, 11°00’W Heading 70°
We finally saw another boat today, after a week of solitary sailing. Civilisation was close! As the day wore on and we approached Cape Finistere we saw more ships, oil tankers and cargo vessels heading for Spain or north up to Biscay. Even a light aircraft passed overhead.
After the rather bare void of the last few days the charts are suddenly crammed with features once more, coastlines and rocks, lighthouses and loose buoys and those squiggly lines denoted underwater cables.
The swell was still lively as we rounded the Cape and gathered for dinner. Spaghetti Bolognese and spring rolls; an interesting combination but a wise idea in these conditions?
The sun was still shining as we returned to the deck, our higher latitude is beginning to show. I’m beginning to look forward to the long sunny evenings back home.
England’s getting closer still - we’re back on GMT time and I now no longer have to open my battered old map more than one time. She sits there up above us, warm and welcoming.
We returned to the bridge and surveyed our next moves, all mapped out ahead of us out into the Bay of Biscay. The Captain’s decided on a series of long, drawn-out zig zag manoeuvres - an effort to counteract the rolling leviathans coming in from the West.
Soon the ship was swung around towards them, the waves breaking near the bow, and we started pitching rather than rolling, rocking up and down like a slowly nodding donkey.
Up three metres, down three metres, my stomach following a couple of seconds later. It’s going to make for an interesting night.
Wednesday 15th April, 047°55’N, 006°30’W
Awoke from the usual rolling pin slumber just as we sailed past Britanny. Another clear fine day - perhaps we’ll spot the coast of England today.
The Captain didn’t share our enthusiasm, or our optimism, the heavy brown rings under his eyes spoke of a sleepless night spent traversing the Atlantic rollers now thankfully behind us. He growled as we approached the charts so we made our excuses and quickly left.
It didn’t dent our excitement though - Lara was in a particular chippy mood as she tried to find English radio stations on the small stereo in our cabin. There was nothing but static on the airwaves but outside the activity was starting to crank up as the horizon started to fill with boats of all kinds: oil tankers, cargo ships, fishing boats and even a warship.
‘One of yours’ the Second Officer said nodding his head towards it ‘HMS Brocklesby’. I looked at the screen of boat recognition thingy and so it was. The first sign that we were on the edge of entering our homeland.
Gulls swung by to take a peek at our cargo and a massive cruise ship appeared on the horizon, bound for Southampton no doubt, bringing Terry and June back from the Caribbean.
We had entered the English Channel now and I walked up to the bow to stretch my legs, bumping into one of the crew, all splattered in paint. They always seem to be painting, though it seems to be a losing battle, like tackling some kind of maritime Forth Bridge.
The air had become colder and I could now see my own breath as I leaned against the bow and admired the long smooth waves. Should get a decent night’s kip at last tonight.
Five strange shapes appeared on the horizon through the low cloud: sharp masts piercing the sky, gunmetal grey bodies, moving in single file with great purpose. More navy vessels. Were we at war with France?
The fog was starting to fall as we gathered for dinner; England was running true to the stereotype, much to the amusement of our fellow diners. Another greasy fish platter later we returned to the deck and found ourselves in the middle of a real pea souper, visibility down to twenty metres at best.
Up on the bridge the navigator stared nervously at the radar screen, watching the yellow dots move slowly along the shipping lanes. A colleague peered out of the window and voices from other boats crackled over the airwaves in broken English. No-one wants a prang in the middle of the Channel.
The radar screen had also shown Jersey and Guernsey, just a few miles to starboard. Our first sight of Blighty. We hurried to our cabin and tried the radio again: we were met by a cacophony of southern English.
I scrolled through FM: ‘You’re listening to Duncan Warren on BBC Radio Devon…an RSPB reserve on the Isle of Sheppey to try to record a curlew….of the people that you’ve worked with on this record, Keith Richards must have stood out for many…we remember the man in the red fez, Tommy Cooper…it’s Handel week here on Radio Three…’
I finally settled on Radio Four and the soothing background natter of Midweek. I could imagine the scene back home, kettle on, budgie chirping, neighbour at the door to see if we’d like some of their potatoes…Mmmm Home - I could almost smell.
My reverie was broken by the Ten O’Clock pips, followed by the news. French fishermen were protesting again, apparently and blocking channel ports. Maybe we won’t be home so soon after all…
Thursday 16th April, 51°22’N, 02° 30’W
Awoke to the sight of France to starboard, or at least a vague blueish blur on the horizon. No England though, despite the fog finally lifting.
At last, after breakfast we gained the first peek of our homeland - the white cliffs of Kent sat above the glassy calm waters. Lara leaped excitedly about the bridge: “Look! It’s Dover!” Well Dungeness to be precise. Not quite to exciting.
We continued along the busy northbound channel, staying alert to the cross-channel ferries plying their way through the traffic.
It was starting to drizzle and it was all feeling too much like home. There was only one thing left to do and I rummaged around in my pocket to find a piece of equipment I’d hardly touched since leaving home- my mobile. Time to call the family.
“Hello Dad, I’m in the middle of the Channel”
“Clement Freud’s died!” he said.
“Right OK, well we’ll see you in a few days”
The phone reception - and England - soon disappeared behind a bank of fog and we carried on up towards Belgium and Holland.
We partook in luncheon, all excited about the pending arrival in Antwerp. Henk and Christoph had been at sea for four and a hour months, Sylvia had somehow survived the sharks, rocks, hurricanes she had feared and Martha was itching to try out one of the bikes rumoured to be stashed aboard.
We didn’t have long to wait. Soon the engines dropped and a pilot came aboard, our first of the day (one for the sea, one for the river and one for the harbour). We were heading into the River Schelde, gateway to Antwerp.
Soon the Belgium coastline appeared, first a faint grey outline, then a long dirty smudge before finally turning into a solid dark silhouette. It was like walking past a series of those indeterminate Flemish paintings, blimey those painters must have been bored.
A while longer and the sea pilot left us to be replaced by the river pilot. We could see both sides of the River Schelde now - houses, factories, gaggles of wind turbines, a cluster of dock cranes - and not a hillock between them. Flat as the proverbial Dutch pancake (for this was Holland now, not Belgium).
Henk proudly pointed out the landmarks of his motherland but it was difficult to get excited: aluminium smelting plants, chemical refineries, nuclear power stations lined up along the waterfront under a grey, miserable sky.
We passed the Dow chemical plant and the starboard side changed from Holland to Belgium. Tankers streamed past us on their way out to sea, leaving slug trails in the churned up water behind them.
Ever the accommodating host, Henk poured a wee aperitif as a jolly little tug boat ran up alongside us and we headed down to dinner.
Perhaps it was the cold chips and mushy prawns but we were all eager to get back on deck as the Singapore neared the massive docklands ahead of us
We watched the tugs slowly and delicately guide the Singapore through a set of locks and drank in the view: cranes and gantries presided over an enormous industrial landscape: oil refineries, rail yards, warehouses, mountains of containers and quaysides the length of several football fields.
Most stood empty, perhaps a reflection of the global downturn in trade. Certainly Antwerp has felt it, with business down 20% at the moment. A gigantic container ship stood empty, its waterline well above the murky waters of the dock.
We were being gently coaxed into a berth next to it. Many feet beneath us little men in yellow hats ran about catching ropes and securing them to the quayside, whilst forklifts chugged about, their lights flashing.
There was a faint bump.
Wednesday, 8 April 2009
“Don’t worry, those ships are so big you won’t feel a thing!” Well Dad, I’m feeling every movement of this one. We are rocking and rolling our way across the Atlantic Ocean.
The MV Rickmers Singapore is a much smaller ship than our Pacific vessel, the CMA-CGM Hugo , at a mere 193 metres and 30,000 dead weight tonnage in comparison to 334m and 101,000 tdw, and boy does it make a difference.
I’m no ocean expert, but looking out from the porthole the waves look about the same as the Pacific to me. Yesterday there was a three metre swell. We got up to a five metre swell on the Hugo. So why do I feel so dizzy and queasy on this crossing?
It must be because she is a smaller ship in length and breadth and is carrying a lighter load. Indeed, there’s not a lot of cargo to see from the deck, she's only thirty percent full. The shipping industry has been hit hard by the global economic crisis. Apparently there is some ‘general cargo’ in the hold below (steel plates, machines, yachts) but I can only see some precariously lashed old wooden planks and a rusty metal tub of a river dredger from Louisiana.
In my turbulent rock and roll sleep I have had plenty of time to come to understand the finer points of the Singapore’s moves on the ocean. In my delirium I categorised these moves as follows:
The rattle: Default background movement whenever the engine is running. Causes doors and fittings to rattle continuously. Often not noticeable over the ship’s other moves. On it’s own, for example when being piloted up a river, can gently rock you to sleep as on a train.
The roll: This is the standard ship move, rocking gently from side to side. There is a sliding scale of roll, like a marine Richter scale, which requires various levels of falling-over prevention, from the wide leg stance (the higher the scale of roll, the wider the stance) to the grab (especially useful in the shower).
The rolley roll: This is a horizontal version of ‘the roll’, usually experienced in bed, and involves a whole body roll from one side to the other, often knocking into your loved one on route. Can cause sleep loss and a sore back.
The poltergeist: This occurs at the higher end of the scale of roll and can cause things to fall off shelves, cutlery and food to slide off the plate and cupboard doors to open.
The phat air: This one is more of a pitch and fall than a roll. The ship suddenly feels light, it sounds like the engine has come out of the water and that the boat is flying. It then reconnects with the water with a thud. It lurches your stomach and brain into the air at the same time, giving a momentary head-rush followed by light-headedness and nausea.
The washing machine: Is a combination off ‘the roll’ and ‘the phat air’. It starts off as a roll, then develops into a weightless phat air followed by another roll to complete a 360° revolution, taking your stomach with it and leaving you feeling all washed up.
The fact that I am able to look at words on a computer screen to write this is an vast improvement on my condition yesterday. Yesterday mainly consisted of staring at the horizon, reading a book in-between, lying down to watch a film and lining my stomach to help prevent nausea. The Atlantic forecast is peppered with STORMS (always written in capitals on the chart), which we will have to dodge. I hope today’s improvement means that I’m finding my sea legs and will be able to dance the merry MV Rickmers Singapore dance all the way to Antwerp.
Monday, 6 April 2009
Scottish lassie: "Why thank you, it must be my high heels"
A deep red sun set behind the skyscrapers of downtown Philadelphia as the good ship M/V Rickmers Singapore sailed past, heading down the Delaware River and out to sea. We were leaving the US.
I stood out on deck and thought back to the last few months during which we’ve travelled across this huge country, from the coast of California to the docks of Philadelphia.
It’s taken us over 5,500 miles, through seventeen different states, from the Tex-Mex border to New England, from the Deep South to the Midwest.
When we first arrived I was slightly apprehensive, recalling the disappointments of my previous visit in 2001. In particular I remembered the dominance of the corporates, the chains who seem to have taken over many a place, steamrollering over the local features and quirks which give a town or region it’s own identity, the differences which that add up to make it unique, distinct and of particular interest to the visitor.
Riding the Greyhound along the interstate it was easy to think that the whole nation had succumbed to this, the view dominated by an endless procession of chain motels and identikit burger chains. It could have been anywhere, Maine, Missouri or New Mexico. Same, same, same.
Yet off the highway it was a very different story. For there is not one America, of course, there are many, and exploring the variety on offer, discovering these different worlds with their own distinct identities has been a great pleasure, full of adventure and surprises.
We have wondered at amazing landscapes, from the saguaro-studded deserts of Arizona to the frozen lakes of Minnesota, from the mountains of Tennessee to the swamps of Louisiana.
We’ve walked in pristine national parks bursting with biodiversity; we’ve seen wild turkeys, eagles and beavers; and visited both the start and the end of the Mississippi, one of the great rivers of the world.
We’ve been wowed by the cities, from the French quarter of New Orleans to the East Village of New York, the fine skyscrapers of Chicago to the history streets of Boston. We’ve watched Ibsen in Minneapolis and viewed Monet in Chicago; we’ve hung with hipsters in Austin and hobos in Nashville.
We’ve partied at Mardi Gras and slept in Liz Taylor’s old Hollywood home; we’ve drunk moonshine with rednecks and basked in homemade hot tubs under the stars.
We’ve ridden the Greyhound and the lonesome railroad; we’ve sped in a Porsche down in Texas, and paddled a canoe in North Carolina.
We’re taken a musical odyssey and found great sounds galore, from street jazz in New Orleans to blues in Chicago. There was zydeco in Jackson and country in Nashville, rock ‘n’ roll in Memphis and mountain music in the Smokies. We found polka in Minneapolis and Motown in Detroit; visited Elvis’s Graceland home and found Johnny Cash‘s last resting place.
We’ve tried burgers and fries, hash browns and links; kolaches, knish and Vietnamese pho; beignets and gumbo, po-boys and crawfish; collard greens and cornbread, black-eyed peas and BBQ ribs.
And there were ramps and catfish, walleye and wild rice; clam chowder, lobster bisque and buffalo wings; Philly cheese steaks, doughnut holes and pretzels; food from a dumpster and acres of pizza.
We’ve washed it down with a wide range of beers, many local, all delicious. We supped Dogfish in Boston, Dead Guy in LA, Honkers in Chicago, Summit in Minnesota, Lone Star in Texas; Abita in Louisiana; Yazoo in Nashville, Yards in Philadelphia...
We’ve lived through a thousand films, the quintessentially American: paper bags for your ’groceries’; steam escaping from vents in city streets; stoops and fire escapes on brownstone buildings; bow-tied academics on Harvard campus; white picket fences and red hip roof barn; state troopers and police cruisers; huge firetrucks and burly heroes; yellow traffic lights hanging on wires; ‘city limits’ signs on the edge of town; neat clapboard houses with a basketball hoop in the front yard; workshirts with name badges on; people with the ‘Jr’ suffix; retro-style diners…
But it was the people of course, which stick in the memory. There’s been the good, the bad and the quite clearly mad.
Thanks to our common language, our shared history and perhaps most of all the wonders of couch surfing, we have been able to get closer to Americans than people in other countries and nearer to finding out what makes this huge country tick.
We’ve stayed with nurses and hipsters, Spanish surgeons and Argentinean biochemists, musicians and teachers, students and stock market traders.
They’ve put us up everywhere, from bordello-themed rooms down in New Orleans to log cabins high in the mountains; from terraced houses out in the suburbs to crash pads in the middle of downtown. We’ve slept on couches and mattresses, floors and even a massage table.
We’ve made friends with strangers who’ve welcomed us to their town, memorable characters such as Wers-leh ‘White Lightnin’ the blues guitarist’, ‘Durl’ the bus driver MC and ‘Mow-reece’ the tram driver, who just digged my boots.
They’ve come from all backgrounds: rich and poor, vegan and carnivore, Democrat and Republican (‘you‘re liberal?! Get outta my house!’). There’s been hippies and hawks, rednecks and poets, veterans and protestors, gay, straight, black, white and all shades in between.
We’ve met Mexican labourers and Chinese chefs, Baptist preachers and Vietnamese microbiologists, tatooed ex-cons and Senegalese cabbies, Native American croupiers and Cajun waiters, drugstore cowboys and Puerto Rican plumbers, whooping frat boys and rednecks in Dodge Rams, ‘huntin’ bucks and drivin’ trucks’, flying the Southern Cross.
Given this range of backgrounds it should be hard to define what being an American is - you could ask them and they’d never be short of an answer. Perhaps therein lies the actual answer, for we found that Americans always have questions and are never too shy to express their own opinions.
There’s little English reticence here, and perhaps a greater certainty in their beliefs. Opinions are often more polarised and on controversial issues it seems never the twain shall meet: abortion, same-sex marriage, the right to bear arms...
I found the latter particularly difficult to understand: on several occasions I was shocked to discover the nice, sane person we were travelling or staying with was packing a piece. ‘Because I need to protect myself,’ I was told. From what? Other people with guns?
I just bit my tongue. Coming from a mild, rather phlegmatic country I find it hard to comprehend such a mentality. There are some issues I guess where we will have to agree to disagree.
There were benefits to being English here though and after several months of enjoying American’s most generous hospitality I can no longer argue that the ‘special relationship’ is purely one-way. We have often been quite overwhelmed by people’s kindness where people would go out of their way to help or to offer advice to someone from ‘the old country‘.
Many a time a local would prick up their ears upon hearing our English accents and soon the questions would start flowing, from the usual about the royals, the weather and the Beckhams, to those about the UK economy, their favourite British bands and how I sounded like Hugh Grant.
I learnt a great deal from these little encounters, and gained a real insight into people’s everyday lives, the lives that make up America. They seemed to enjoy this too, such as the fellow in a Mississippi sub shop who insisted on stumping me my meal in exchange for a natter.
And here I would sway between loving and loathing, buzzing on the good points but perplexed by the bad.
There’s still things there I find hard to understand: an obsession with the big and the energy-intensive; the gross disparities between rich and poor; a blind obedience to the flag and an unquestioning reverence for ‘patriots’; a poor public transport infrastructure (in some places non-existent); rampant obesity and the fast food culture...
But one thing stood out here above all else here: religion. It seems that in America the zealots shout louder. I lost count of the number of signs I saw warning that we were ‘all going to hell’ or the amount of insane rants I heard on the radio.
There’s a sizeable portion in this country who subscribe to this, and are not afraid to show themselves. We came across them throughout the land.
Back in New Orleans they stood out in Bourbon Street, amidst the maelstrom of drunks and debauchery with their hellfire grimaces and their placards of sinners: ‘sports nuts’, ‘pencil neck weak kneed gutless men’, ‘rebellious women’, ‘witches’, ‘pot smoking little devils’ and, bizarrely ‘used car dealers’. Come on now, you can’t condemn Frank Butcher…
It all left me aghast and disturbed. How did this happen? ‘Well what did we expect?’ one American said to me, ‘after all you sent over all the puritans‘.
He had a point, and I guess for every Thomas Paine and William Penn there must have been a boatload of religious nutters seeking a new land where they could express their free opinion (or empty their guns into armadillos).
Back then it was a land of opportunity and today it still struck me as such - a land where, if you go for it, you really can ‘make it’. The ‘American dream’ lives on, and millions still come here in search of a better life.
It’s a ‘can-do’ culture where people work hard and seem less likely to say ‘no’. It never took us much effort to enter a new place and find someone who could fix our laptop or give us a ride to another town.
Standards of living seem generally higher and for many life is comfortable. Or should I say was, until the economic bubble burst.
Perhaps they grew too comfortable and complacent as the world’s top dog; certainly many are now learning the hard way that economic fortunes can go down as well as up.
Can they turn this around? Of course they can, and they’ve got a nice fresh young chap at the top who they hope can do just this. Returning to the US, just after Obama took power we felt a
palpable wave of relief amongst the people we met.
‘Hope‘. It's a good slogan for the US.
I hope to return myself one day. Keep the cheesesteaks warm.
Our route retraces (albeit in reverse) that made by William Penn, founder of Pennsylvania, as we head down the Delaware River, passing between Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on one side and Camden, New Jersey on the other, and out into the Atlantic.
And that'll be it for our America leg. Out of the New World and back to the Old. It's going to be quite a change, but then we will have time to adjust as our ship takes eight days to cross 'the pond'.
Our home for the next week will be the Rickmers Singapore, a mighty vessel carrying cargo around the world. You can follow our progress across the Atlantic via Rickmer's ship tracker here.
Sunday, 5 April 2009
Remember those ‘attainment goals’ I set myself when we first landed on
Goal: To meet someone called Chuck or Randy (particularly if their name also includes the suffix ‘Jr’ )
Not met really, though I did hear of many. A friend also knows at least two people called Hank. Who are women.
Goal: To eat a Corndog
Not met. I’m sorry. Friends were happy to chow down on this bizarre hunk of fat on a stick but I just couldn’t do it…
Goal: Visit a High School and look inside the students’ lockers
Not met, and wisely so, given the stories I heard about High Schools.
Go to a live recording of a chat show
Achieved? Yes - visited recording of the Jimmy Kimmel Show in LA. Instantly forgettable. Why did I agree to this in the first place?
Watch an Ice Hockey match
Not met, due to the extortionately high price of a trip to watch the Minnesota Wild. However I did better than this and attended the Roller Derby in
Visit a space centre
Not met -
Get admired for my accent and asked if I'm from 'Scotsland' / Denmark etc
Easily surpassed. Our accents drew attention and often admiration on countless occasions, particularly in the south.
Australian tops the charts as the nationality I was most mistaken for. Others included Irish, Dutch and even more bizarrely, Ukrainian.
Persuade someone I am Prince William’s cousin
Not achieved. But I did persuade someone that the Queen regularly pesters me, inviting me round for tea.
Collect bizarre questions about my home country, e.g: ’Do you still drive a horse and carriage?’
Achieved? Yes plenty, though even more Americans seemed more interested to hear about the present state of the
Not achieved exactly, but I like to think I managed far better when I met Frank and his 1932 steel guitar up in the Great Smoky Mountains. I’ve never heard the blues like that before…
Sadly not. But I did collect a great deal of interesting new expressions I’d never come across before. “I wouldn’t take you to a dawg fight…”
Tick. Pizza in the village - one dollar a slice. However the great
Eat pizza in ‘Noo York Cidy’
Buy a ten gallon hat
Not met. But perhaps I went one better, returning home the proud bearer of a genuine mountain man’s hat, a hillbilly headpiece from Civil War days.
Meet a stressed-out, coffee-guzzling cop like the fat one off ‘NYPD Blues’
Not met. They were all too relaxed, somewhat disturbingly. Nor did I get hold of one of the collectible playing cards with their name and face on - something I was told all cops have.
Go to Mardi Gras in
Met. And I will return.