Ship Tales: From Australia to Europe

‘We have a rule in the Philippines’, growls the man to my left. ‘If you don’t sing, you dance’.

I seriously ponder dancing for a moment, but the prospect of gyrating before a dozen drunken Filipino sailors who are singing sensuous love songs, full of feeling and soprano tones, becomes less and less attractive. One sailor sticks the microphone in my face, another scrolls through the songs on screen and before I know it I am singing ‘Down Under’ – badly, very badly. I bellow, miss the words, am off key. ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ is much better, after I learn not to bellow and how to read the damn machine.

Meanwhile the drink flows; cigarettes are passed around; delicious Filipino concoctions mass on the tables; I breathe a sigh of relief, having done my duty.

But what am I doing singing karaoke with drunken Filipino sailors? Is this a seedy bar in the Philippines? No, I am in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, on a container ship. I needed to get from Australia to Europe and since a sea voyage beats flying any day – for flying is one of the worst forms of transport invented by human beings – I boarded a ship from Melbourne. Not a cruise ship full of bored and overweight passengers desperately seeking amusement in the bars and shops and nightclubs, but a container ship, a working ship plying the run. And a long run it is: from Melbourne to Tilbury, via New Zealand, Panama, the Caribbean and the east coast of the USA. Two massive oceans, five seas, the Panama Canal, all in 37 days. Our ship is the La Tour, owned and run by CMA-CGM, the French company supplying the French possessions in the Pacific, sailing vast stretches of open sea on a route followed by few others.

On board we have 23 officers and crew: the captain and engineers are from the Balkans, from Montenegro and Croatia, while the crew and the three mates are Filipinos – hard-working and competent sailors who are not confrontational, preferring quite means of addressing problems when they arise. Over the next long month I would get to know many of them very well, sharing stories and drinks, singing karaoke, celebrating an equatorial barbeque, gaining an insight into the sailor’s life, pondering sex on the high seas …

Local: A Waterborne Village in Motion

What is life like on a working ship, especially for crews who live for nine months at a time on board? A container ship cares less for its passengers than its cargo, its arrival and departure moments to which you must adapt rather than expect it to bow to your own schedule. So also with La Tour (named after a French painter and not a bowdlerised form of ‘the tour’): I soon lose count of the changes in ETA and ETD for each of our half dozen calls at ports. It all depends on when a dock is available, how fast the containers can be unloaded and loaded, and directives from the central office in Paris. So when we have the chance for shore leave, doubt lingers as to whether the ship will suddenly up anchor and depart without us – so we always make sure we are back a few hours before the ETD.

Chinese built in 2000, La Tour is a smooth, clean, relatively modern and fast ship. Our cabin is anything but compact, reserved for spare voyagers – the ‘owner’ perhaps, company executives, repair crews for engine overhauls, and passengers. A bedroom, bathroom and living space with a couple of portholes, plus access to the communal lounge, small gym downstairs – and pretty much anywhere else on the ship. Yet we are contained by that absolute boundary of the ship itself, the edge of the constantly quivering deck and a sea that plunges to unknown depths a step away.

The ship is constantly alive, full of myriad inter-lapping movements. The quiver and surge of the engines at full steam ahead is the constant backdrop, but as I write (after a storm), we ride the oncoming waves like a slow and sensuous fuck: a gentle push, withdraw, push, with the occasional rush of blood. At other times, with a cross wind and diagonal swell from the stern, it begins rocking, heavily and deeply. At one moment you run down the hall, small steps acting as brakes; at the other moment you are climbing a steep mountain. But the roll is never consistent: a quiet half dozen may suddenly be followed by a massive lurch, the horizon now at what appears to be 45% to where it should be, chairs sliding, cups falling off tables, a roll onto your other side in sleep even if you didn’t want to. Turn the swell to the front of the ship, but at a good angle and the ship adds a juddering crunch to the roll, for the nose dives into the wave, the tail goes in the air, and then the ship shakes itself like a drenched dog, all the while rolling heavily either to port or starboard. But even on the quietest sea, the proverbial pond or Pacific doldrums, the tiny quivers, shudders, the gentle lift and drop, the tilt on the floor, remind you it is not at rest.

One word struggles to capture the feel: fluidity. I mean not the standard feel of a ship on a fluid surface, but the actual ship itself. What does that mean? It flexes, bends and wobbles! I first notice this flexing when standing on the bridge, watching for the massive bow wave in heavy seas. Slightly out of focus, peering into another world, I notice what seems to be the ship shaking itself. No, it is more like a slow, rubberised wave that runs through the ship’s hull. You can see the containers and crane at the bow move to a different rhythm than those closest. I had of course heard of flexible steel hulls, but to experience it: a massively reinforced steel hull, carrying engines, equipment and over 20,000 tonnes of freight, rippling, flexing, wobbling.

A ship alive; so also with the human beings on board. The human dynamics of the ship soon become apparent as we encounter the familiar roll of a wintry, windy and wet Tasman Sea – our first leg. It is a complex mix of tribal arrangements, following ethnic, linguistic and political lines. The ex-Yugoslavs – a Montenegrin captain and Croatian engineers and electrician eat together in the officers dining room, talking amongst one another in what are supposed to be separate languages (for political reasons) but which they all know is the same language. And the Filipino crew draws to its own dining room the officers who are also Filipino – the three mates, who are perfectly entitled to eat in the officers’ mess, opt for the noisy and crowded crew mess at the other end of Deck B.

Yet these are not ad hoc arrangements, as I find in a later conversation with the captain, for they are the result not merely of financial considerations but also of a reasonable amount of sociological study – some combinations work well; others don’t. On earlier voyages I had encountered Kiribati crews, Chinese crews, Papuan crews, Koreans. And he had worked with Indonesian, Japanese and Indian crews. The company finds that a few senior European officers work well with Filipino crews, but that Indian and Filipino do not (caste systems from India), or that European and Indonesian is not a good mix. So they are careful about organising crews, since they spend a long time together in restricted conditions.

The third tribe – apart from the ex-Yugoslavs and the Filipinos – is made up of the passengers, who have their own table in the mess. We – a Dane and Australian – meet three other passengers from New Zealand. They had come from Europe and are on the last leg of their voyage, from Melbourne to Napier. Obviously they have been too long together, driving each other up the wall: the logorrhoeic John, the retired minor bureaucrat with all the superficiality of an autodidact’s universal knowledge coupled with a mania for collecting things, the reticent and happy-to-follow Greg, friend of John and small businessman (radio transmitters etc), and the former seaman Les, bedecked with gold chains and bracelets, a sweep of white hair and the desperate air of one who had spent too many days at sea listening to John’s drivel. Les smiles broadly every time I cracked a mild joke at John’s expense or simply shock him. Napier could not come too soon, for otherwise one passenger would have been testing his swimming skills in the Tasman. After that we are the only two passengers.

On this flexing, quivering ship with its tribes, the rhythm of one’s day becomes very simple. Without ‘entertainment’ that serves only to remind you of boredom, the day’s simplicity becomes a pleasure: it turns around the meals and what you do with the time in between: breakfast 7:30 to 8:30, lunch 12:00 to 13:00, dinner 18:00 to 19:00. Unless there is a talker (but he had gone in Napier!) or the captain feels like a chat, the meal usually takes half an hour. The great excitement is reading the menu for the day (apart from breakfast, it is always ‘new’) or the news print-out – during our voyage, the World Cup results, or Tour-de-France, or, for some reason that is entirely beyond me, ‘Britain today’. Between meals: a quiet hour on the bridge before breakfast pondering the sea over a cup of tea, and then writing, some Danish language practice (don’t ask me why) and reading during the 4-5 hour stretches in between meals. Exercise? One might climb the endless stairs, inside and outside, up ten floors to the bridge and down again, or join a sweaty sailor or three in the simple but effective gym – for the weight machine, rowing machine and the surreptitious comparison of muscled bodies.

Eating, sleeping, writing, reading, being ogled by sweaty sailors … the other pastime is talk – as much or as little as you want. At meal times, an on-deck barbeque, during a safety drill, a pause on the deck, in the engine room or deep in the bowels of the ship, but above all on the bridge, mouths open, questions are asked, answers given, opinions shared, glimpses of other worlds and lives shared. But talk also takes wing beyond the outer limits of the ship, over seas and oceans to other places (often home) and other voyages. So let us stay on the ship a little longer.

Of Floatation Suits, Karaoke, Sex and the Mysterious ‘Passageway’

Calmly churning our way through ocean after ocean, peacefully reading and writing, wandering the deck … Not quite, for the ship is full of quirks and hidden corners, whispered secrets and the plain weird.

Take the floatation suit, for example. The overly keen third officer has given us a ‘familiarisation tour’, allowing us to peek into the lifeboat before plonking us down in front of a computer screen to watch a riveting presentation on lifeboat procedures. But I am soon transfixed by the floatation suits, barely noticing the questionnaires signed and the Yellow Fever certificates passed over. Back in the cabin I cannot wait to struggle into the snug floatation suit, stored neatly in the cupboard for that unwanted emergency which would require us to abandon ship. Made of the same neoprene as wetsuits, albeit in a bright orange that clings tightly to my body, it has a triple effect: I began sweating profusely, looked like a Telly Tubby and produced the most unflattering photograph I have ever witnessed.

Or Groundhog Day: on the first of July, the mate on duty announces that tomorrow we repeat the same day, since we are to cross that strange human invention, the International Date Line. And so, the next morning I wake with some excitement, for it is 1 July all over again. Will exactly the same events happen today, the same meal in the mess (probably, but it is the same no matter which day), the same acts, conversations, same stretch of ocean covered, same readings from the instruments that measured our voyage, same latitude and longitude, same markings on the sea chart? Groundhog Day? Sadly, it is not to be.

Or almost being strafed by a US Marine helicopter gunship: we are sailing along the east coast of the USA, past the Carolinas and up to Virginia. I am reading quietly earlier in the afternoon, only to look up at the hint of noise and see, through the porthole, close by and in great detail the massive, camouflaged helicopter gunship on our bow. It sweeps across our bow and then turns to pass up our starboard side, directly overhead. Holy shit, I think, running to the deck in time to see the second pass. Up on the bridge I mention it to the captain and chief engineer. ‘Americans!’ shrugs the captain. ‘Only in the US would they do that’, meaning … ‘weirdest people on earth’.

Or drunken sailors: at an outdoor barbeque. Crossing the equator, in the Pacific doldrums (a curse for sailing ships, a blessing for ships with engines), still calls for a celebration. Soon enough the music is blaring and the fire raging in a half 44 gallon drum fire, which is piled high with all manner of recognisable and unrecognisable meats. The deck is full of very drunken Filipino – or ‘Pilipino’ as most of them say – sailors and even more drunken Croatian engineers. As they toss bones, cans and cigarette butts in the water, occasionally pissing over the side, they lean alarmingly over the railing in the midst of the Pacific. Amazingly, the count of sore heads in the morning is the same as the night before. The Bosun speaks endlessly about praying, missing church on board, Muslim neighbours, his seasickness. The third engineer, a man married three times and with an impossibly white shirt and winning smile, chats up my partner, asking whether she has a twin sister he could hook up with. And the habit for photographs is not some stiff pose with a photo smile – the smile that you put on when you think what a smile might be – nor even a pose by a monument, but a moment of extravagant mockery: everyone piles together, arms outstretched, drinks held aloft, heads kinked, frozen in time … The best approach to photos I have seen for quite a while.

Or sex on the high seas? Is it restricted to porn and five finger fantasies? Or do the younger horny men, with testosterone pumping through their systems, form bonds at sea, bonds that are regarded as either normal for sailors while at sea (but not at home)? Or is all this kept in a classic closet? Or is there one who is the ‘tart’, who is sexually available for a bit of massage, fellatio or buggery for anyone who is interested? Is the strict hierarchy of the ship also maintained in ship sex? I do remember a passenger on a previous ship, who liked to invite the young men into his cabin for massages and lessons in English … and possibly some French and Greek. Perhaps the old saying from the navy still applies: on shore it might be wine, women and song, but at sea it is rum, bum and fiddle.

Which brings me to the ‘passageway’: the captain is not one to forget things, for on the second last day of the voyage he mentions ‘the passageway’, asking whether I would still like to be initiated. I had mentioned it once, on our first day, a long month ago. Today the chief officer turns up early – boilersuit, helmet, boots, gloves and torch. I am impressed and grab my helmet. The English might call it the ‘Burma Road’, but for the normal people in the world it is simply the ‘passageway’. What is it? Let us see.

Having cleared the alarms on the bridge, the chief undoes the massive latches on an air-tight and water-tight door – ‘for fire’, he says – and plunges down a stairway. More like a ladder, really, slippery with oil on the steel steps. ‘It’s easier to go down backwards’, he says, skipping down the stairs as if they are a garden path. The bottom is exactly that, the bottom, the bowels of the ship, beneath almost 30,000 tonnes of containers, let alone the ship itself. Between me and the sea floor – about 5 km below – is nothing but the ocean and a sheet of 10mm iron.

‘This way’, he says, ducking under the first of scores of scalping devices. Actually, they are part of the infrastructure of the ship, its bones, and we are climbing through them. An oval cut into the iron allows us to pass along, ducking, slipping, echoing, with the sound of water and creaking containers all about us. We are on our way to the bow, which soon announces its imminent presence by the curve of the hull. Tighter and tighter become the spaces, and I soon became well aware that tall people of vague European extraction are not even on the drawing board when it comes to this type of construction.

I may as well be caving, I think to myself. But at last we reach our goal: the bow and its thruster – a small engine used to get the bow over in tight spots in port. The thruster itself is down a surprisingly cavernous space, a couple of ladders slick with the obligatory oil. I feel as though I have happened upon a treasure cave, deep within the earth – except of course that we are deep in the ship and the ocean, the lowest point, in fact, that we can go. But the treasure is the not the thruster – no matter what any male might think – but the thrill of standing behind that massive knob at the bow of a ship, the one below the water-line, a little like a battering ram to part the water and protect the ship should it run into the odd whale, log, or debris of another ship. And the crashing noise is the water, like perpetual surf created by the ship itself.

Sadly, we cannot stay there forever, since the chief is busy with the duties of four imminent ports (Tilbury, Dunkirque, Le Havre and Rotterdam). So I set off the way we had come. ‘No, this way’, says the chief, ‘there’s more’. We had come up the port side; on the starboard side the passageway winds its way back to the start. Torch on, ducking, stretching, small steps to avoid slipping in the oil and then, like a horse sniffing the stable, I am off for the escape hatch. ‘Not so fast’, says the chief. He pulls me over, places a hand on my shoulder and whispers: ‘Do you want to see the cargo hold?’ I am awed, for now the deepest secret of the ship is about to be revealed. He bangs open the levers – alarmed as well – and hauls back the airtight door, beckoning me inside. I am a little worried that he doesn’t follow me in, imagining him slamming the door shut with a wicked chuckle, holding me there for ransom or perhaps as a sex slave for the crew. It is not to be … but the space looks like it could well be used for exactly such purposes: in between the deepest container, with reefer outlets and dirt scattered about, a talented artist had painted a woman wearing nothing but a wicked grin, her legs spread wide in invitation. ‘Do not enter here’, someone had scribbled, as if to state the obvious on a ship full of men.

Outside the cargo hold, we stand in reverend silence for a few moments. ‘Time to go’, says the chief. After climbing the ladder from the depths and stumbling out of the hatch, daylight feels strangely different.

The Sea

Beyond the boundaries of the ship is the ever-present reminder that Earth is a water planet; that land and land-based creatures are in the minority. No wonder ancient mythologies, such as those of Mesopotamia, depicted the sea as a chaotic threat to the order of land. But our presence on the sea embodies another paradox: the sea is both danger and support, both threat and succour, potentially threatening to sink us any moment and yet providing the only means of bulk, long-distance transport that we know. Ultimately, the sea holds the power of death and life.

Needless to say, I find it absolutely fascinating, spending long hours on the bridge or on deck, watching and experiencing its constantly changing nature. From the Tasman, through the Pacific, the Gulf of Panama, the Caribbean, the Atlantic and finally to the English Channel, we are crossing half the world by sea.

Pacific

After the Tasman, our next challenge is the Pacific itself. It is a big fucking ocean. Even with a reasonably fast, modern ship, it takes us 16 days from New Zealand to Panama. On this crossing we pass from one hemisphere to another (on the tenth day at 400 in the dark of early morning), water in the toilet and plug holes begins rotating in the other direction; the southern cross disappears and the pole star appears – the great navigational device of timid Euro sailors who feared to pass out of their comfort zone. To experience the Pacific in this physical sense, day after day with the horizon only the circle of the sea, brings home the sense of vastness as nothing else can.

And that vastness is ever-changing. With my eyes compensating for the lack of distinction between sea and sky, I watch the ocean change from pitch black to the first glow of dawn and then hiss at the end of the day as the sun set. Over the length of the voyage, the sea’s colour shifts from metallic blue under late cloud, to deep aqua on a sparkling morning as we slip into port, to white capped black beneath the heavy clouds, to translucent light blue in the full glare of a winter sun, to light grey in a moment’s diffused light, to silver when the sun shines through a hole in the clouds directly in our path, to a deep clean glassy blue under a tropical sun, to what is perhaps the most disconcerting of all: the feel of the surf at home, for I feel on those days like putting on my board shorts, walking down the stairs to the beach and going for a swim on a stinking hot day. At others moments I would experience an astonishing moment that can only happen at sea: the clouds open for a few minutes and a full moon throws a couple of patches of glistening light directly before the bow of the ship.

Squalls of rain pass, especially on the Tasman Sea. Whipped across by the winds blowing from the Southern Ocean, cumulus and stratus and altus and cirrus and nimbus clouds (and their myriad combinations) skid by on the horizon or blow down upon us. Once you get into the Pacific, they say, it will be smooth, especially in the tropics. But the first two days of the crossing have a heavy roll, with the south-westerly swell (from the Southern Ocean), lifting us from the starboard rear and rolling through to port. And then the swell turned to ENE, precisely our direction, gradually gaining strength. A tropical storm hits us: rain belts down, leaks through the portholes; the ship’s gentle up-and-down motion, running directly into the swell, gains a sideways judder and roll. We began to hit the waves hard, creating massive bow waves and the occasional wall of spray that is whipped away by the wind. Some sleep less well than they might, although I sleep in rocking comfort.

Being in the middle of the Pacific Ocean has a curious estrangement effect. The seasons arrive in a hurry, skipping along in a way that suggests the earth’s orbit has sped up: hour by hour the light becomes stronger, the day lengthens, temperatures rise and the clothes come off of their own accord. Sap rises, as does lust … Soon summer arrives. The water looks inviting, and given that at home I swim at the beach for nine months of the year – all of summer and most of spring, summer and autumn – the urge to go for a swim comes mightily upon me. But then I know that as a MOB in the middle of the Pacific I would have little chance of survival, given the difficulty of keeping one’s eye on a face bobbing in the water, the speed of the ship and its slow turn.

Sitting on the bridge I think often of sailors in small boats navigating the Pacific: Islander sailors setting off for distant and most likely unknown shores on rafts and canoes; Magellan and his crew as the first Europeans who were promptly becalmed and spent months on the ocean; Bligh and the open boat that he navigated all the way to Batavia, but above all lone sailors, especially at night in heavy seas, having to rely on the boat-builder’s skill and a good deal of luck, especially when the stars are obscured, the moon is on strike and the night pitch-black. For the captain, to take on an ocean like this as a solo sailor (we are talking about 16-year Jessica Watson) is pure madness, the risk of accident at night – a log, a whale, whatever – far too high. And it certainly wouldn’t be pleasurable.

Animals

Perhaps the greatest surprise is the animals. This time I know what to expect, but I am still astonished at how much animal life can be found out on the ocean. Of course, the kilometres of ocean depth beneath the surface team with life, but I can see only what goes on above the water, far, far from land. In the Tasman and the southern reaches of the Pacific we meet the mollymooks, smaller cousins of the albatross, spending like their larger relatives – the royal albatross – years at sea after they learn to fly, using the wind to bank, turn and fish, snoozing on the rolling swells of the south.

Later, in the tropical zones, we would meet the flying fish. I first spot one skimming the top of a wave, disturbed by the ship’s passing. I think it is a small black bird like a swallow … but then realise: in the middle of the Pacific? And then there are those strange seabirds from the legendary Galapagos Islands (what a thrill to be so close the islands at the heart of evolutionary theory), with their webbed feet, long beaks and big black and white craps. They bring home the effect of land-based birds on a sailor: four appear initially, hovering, with wingtips curled, waiting for the flying fish to appear. As soon as one is spotted, they flip over, pull their wings in and dive bomb into the ocean before flapping up again with their catch. They join our ship for a few days, sleeping on the foremast at night, or even resting there and drying out during the day. But land birds signal hope for sailors; an anticipation for creatures hard-wired to walk on terra-firma.

Alongside the birds, strange insects might join us in Panama or Georgia and then perish as we change latitudes, fish might flit about and myriad wriggly things would swim out of sight beneath the ship, but the highlight for me is the brief sighting of a whale. Gripping the handrail, about to climb the outside stairs to the bridge, a movement catches my eye: less than ten metres away, a massive grey-black back, slick with sea-water, breaks the surface and rolls in a leisurely fashion on the surface for a moment before plunging again into the deep. A dolphin? No, too small and not out here. A whale? It must be.

Upstairs on the bridge I ask the mate on duty: a whale, he assures me. Until now we have sighted a few spouts in the distance, viewable only through binoculars, but this one has come right by the ship. Did it come to have a look, I wonder, attracted by the thundering noise of its engine and propellers thrashing away in the water? Or is it as surprised as I am, thinking that it had a whole ocean in which to surface, only to find a ship at the tip of its left fin?

Atlantic

The grey Atlantic! The Pacific might have myriad moods, colours and facets, but the Atlantic is – primarily – grey. For a brief moment or two, the Atlantic may glitter in the sun as I make my way about the deck. But the captain says that sun on the Atlantic is unusual, even in summer. He speaks of storms, the sea rising up to two metres during a fierce one, of the mere half dozen captains who take ships in winter on the northern Atlantic route, for most cannot sleep on the winter roll, of how I too would find be troubled by such storms even if rough weather doesn’t bother me. As the captain speaks, the fog and rain return … But the Atlantic is a signal that the end of the voyage is in sight – about nine days away.

Global: The Look to Land

We may be a waterborne village in motion, the far-reaching sea may be the natural boundary for that village, yet thoughts always pass beyond the sea to land. I may be talking with a quiet captain on the bridge at dusk, with a bosun in the bow, a wary first mate or a keen (and newly-capped) third mate, but each of them would inevitably bend the discussion to home.

The bosun is happiest to talk in two of his elements: his natural home on the open deck or after a drink at the Equator barbeque. I first find him in the open space of the bow. Past the pilot access points, the stages and stacks of containers, ropes, grease pots, ladders, storage and safety cubicles, the bow is a peaceful spot, away from the noise of the engines – assuming you are not crashing through mountainous seas. Here he is, along with his mate, AB Lorenzo of the pock-marked face and deft table-tennis hand. The bosun sports a bandana, whiskers and twinkling eyes; I am not sure whether the resemblance to a pirate is conscious or not. He tells me of his home in the south of the Philippines, in amongst the Muslim separatists who are working towards their own state. Does that create tensions? I ask. No, we Christians and Muslims just live amongst each other … and my brother is a senior officer in the army. No trouble. He told me of the dislike of Spanish due to its colonial associations, of the way kids want to learn English, of Tagalog, the Philippines’ own language. And all this before a drink: at the Equator barbeque he tells me of his faith, of missing church, of women and children …

The captain’s personality usually defines a ship. I have experienced a loud-mouthed racist with whom everyone feels comfortable, since he was direct and clear; in contrast to a mercurial brooder who scared the daylights out of the crew since they never knew what he would say or do next. On La Tour the ship runs quietly and of its own accord, again a direct effect of the captain. This one leaves what needs to be done to those who did it best, never raises his voice, never loses his temper, retreats when needed for time to himself (fully confident that the officers can do their jobs) and the emerges to speak when he feels the need. The crew confides that they much prefer his approach, since Filipino culture is generally non-confrontational.

At dusk or in the early dawn the captain is happiest to talk. From Kotor in Montenegro, a walled city that once had its own fleet like Dubrovnik a little to the north, he comes from a long line of seafarers. So strong is the tradition that sailors from elsewhere in Eastern Europe (he mentions Russia) come to Montenegro to study and train. Kotor is like Dubrovnik, he tells me, a walled port that dates back to Roman and even pre-Roman times, with a long and proud maritime history. Once, Greek and Roman triremes docked, as did the ships of the crusaders, Arabs and medieval traders, each leaving their mark. But with a wife and two small children he finds it difficult to be away for up to five months at a time.

I mentions that he would have been born in the former (or ‘ex-’ as he called it) Yugoslavia and ask about languages. Now Montenegro claims, he tells me, to have a separate language, at least since independence after 2008. But they all know it is the same language – Serbian, Croatian, Montenegrin – with regional variations within and across countries. I also ask what he thinks about the breakup of Yugoslavia: everyone wants his own little kingdom, he says. And the possibility of centripetal forces bringing Yugoslavia together once again? We are beginning, he says, to realise that small independent states are quite weak against the multinational companies and powerful states around us, so there are some moves to cooperate and present a united front.

But his comment about the Balkan war strikes me. He too feels that Yugoslavia had worked well as a socialist country. And he had witnessed its destruction, the NATO attacks, had served for a year in the army, although a senior officer had given him a non-combat role since he was so young and at the maritime college.

I ask, ‘what was the war like?’

After a pause, he says: ‘We didn’t know what was going on’.

Next down in the chain of command is the first mate, or ‘chief’. Should anything happen to the captain – a two-day rest after the murderous string of ports, or accident, illness, abdication, dismissal – he is in charge. The chief is a wary man, suspicious of officialdom (especially at port), deferential to power. But on a dark bridge he fires back a question at me after I had assumed our brief opening exchange is over. He wonders whether we are bored, how much we pay for the passage (a lot for him!), why we choose to go by sea. We talk more openly of the ship’s cook – I think he is pretty good, but the mate says they always complain about the cook. He laughs at the invitation we had received to the third engineer’s birthday party, especially when I say I have never sung Karaoke before. Sometimes we have a band on board, he says, since many play instruments.

Soon enough our conversation turns to work on board and, of course, home. He had gone to sea out of tradition and for the money, for the pay is much better than at home. But he comes from an island in the north of the Philippines, where people still manage largely on their own, something he much prefers – fishing villages, vegetables and animals, no big cities at all. His girlfriend too is from there. But I ask about contracts and work, especially in light of the many captains and officers who cannot get work during the ongoing Great Recession.

‘We are paid less than them’, he says simply, ‘but it is big money at home, so we don’t mind. We have work’.

‘What do you do with the money?’ I ask.

‘According to the contract’, he says, ‘80% has to go home, although what you do with it after that is your own business’.

‘Like the many other Filipinos working overseas …’ I say. ‘But do you like working as a mate?’

‘I’m not bored!’ He assures me, for it is hard work. “But I do find myself caught between company and crew, each making demands one way or the other’.

Yet in all these conversations, a simple comment from the second mate stays with me. We are talking about pirates and their extent – from Port Said and the Suez to Indonesia and the South China Sea, from Madagascar to the West African coast. And then he says: ‘83 Filipino sailors are being held on ships right now by the Somali pirates, and have been for some for months. If it is a French or American captain and crew (as on a recent Maersk ship), they rescue them immediately’.

Land: Signs, Ports and Pilots

Talk and thoughts may constantly turn to our preferred firmament, especially that section of it called home, but the signs of land are a sailor’s delight. Eagerly anticipated, warily assessed (reefs and rocks and so forth), the signs of land are inescapably part of being at sea.

Signs

And the most telltale signs are the birds; not the seabirds which spend years in the deep ocean, not the land birds who crap themselves at the smell of a sea-breeze, but the coastal dwellers who don’t mind heading out to sea for a day or two. So the cormorants arrive. I make my way to a quiet bow to make closer acquaintance. About fifteen pairs of webbed feet cling onto the white steel of the foremast, wings out to be cleaned, bums dropping massive blobs of white and black shit. A dozen or so today join their four friends, who had been with us since yesterday. But as we draw nearer to land, they are off to find another ship further out to sea where it would conveniently disturb the flying fish so they could snap up one or two.

And the birds do their trick, for as I am out perusing them and avoiding their shits, I sight land for the first time in over two weeks: this time the mist-covered and mountainous coast of Panama. While thinking of Spanish invaders first viewing the Pacific, indigenous people responding, the accident-prone first efforts to build the canal, I realise once again that this gentle approach to a new land, which suddenly emerges from beneath the mist, is – paradoxically – both a privilege restricted now to a few and the way most people have done it for centuries, if not millennia.

Ports

Ports, ports, ports: the meeting point, for a ship of our size, between two elements, water and land. Half a dozen ports for our voyage half-way around the world: Napier, Tauranga, Manzanillo, Kingston, Savannah, Philadelphia, and then at last Tilbury. They involve tight schedules, mad rushes to unload and load containers, chronic lack of sleep, quick visits to town for all manner of necessities (food, gadgets, sex, internet, telephone calls), and of course the age-old excitement of a port town.

Napier might represent the myth of merrie olde England to its myriad English immigrants, Manzanillo might be far too dangerous to visit at night, shore leave at Kingston might be forbidden due to a very brief stop, and Savannah and Philadelphia might manifest that increasingly strange American phenomenon: internal heritage tourism that reinforces their extraordinarily insular view of the world. But two moments in port stand out for me: the Panama Canal and the port of Philadelphia.

The Panama Canal: legendary, anticipated, thoroughly engrossing and tiring. We are booked in as soon as we arrive – at 1.30am. So, short of sleep, we stagger onto the bridge to watch the passage: by Panama City, into the Pacific entrance and the Monteflores locks; tight fit, up one, two, three locks and into the dammed up channel (almost a lake in parts) that is fed by fresh water streams. We arrive early at the Atlantic end, so after lying at anchor for four hours, we enter the three locks to drop to sea level once again.

Of what do you think when passing the canal for the first time? I ponder the stories of its construction, already told to me at primary school, especially about the mosquitoes and yellow fever that killed so many of the French workers on the first effort. They had arrived here after a triumphant construction of the modern Suez Canal, only to come to grief with disease, landslides (due to an effort to cut a sea-level canal) and bankruptcy. Only then did the Yankees put together a consortium, construct it in the 1910s and 1920s and promptly arrange for as lengthy a lease as possible – so much so that Panama did not get control of the thing until a few years ago. The Yankee concern about losing control to those lazy Panamanians has become an embarrassment, for the new owners have done more development and upgrading than the Yankees ever did.

Of course, the canal and its myriad derivative industries probably provide the primary source of employment in Panama. With a fee of half a million dollars for each passage, it functions much like the Danish ‘sound tax’ on the Øresund, or the similar Dutch tax for passage through Amsterdam. Thousands of ships pass through month by month, year by year, providing employment in maintenance, renovation, new construction, drivers of the land tugs, and the endless pilots. We have five pilots: two to share the initial passage, one to get us out through the Atlantic locks, another through the breakwater and a fifth to get us into Manzanillo.

More of those pilots in a moment, for the other signal experience at port is Philadelphia, after the eight-hour run up the Delaware River. It is pushing midnight and I cannot sleep. By the port window are too many lights, too much excitement for the little boy within. So I kneel on my bed and look out the porthole, which has a view directly over the container deck. I watch the last container loader scurrying to get the job done, for he is late. The massive machine moves smoothly back and forth, pulling out container after container and then slipping in their replacements. Fifty meters above ground, with a glass floor to see what he is doing, the driver deftly lines up the massive container latch, dangling on the end of cables that can easily tangle, clamps it shut over a container and hauls it out or in. If out, it is gently lowered onto a waiting truck – those curious semi-trailers used only in ports – while men scurry about beneath (with a death-defying confidence beneath those 40 tonne containers); if in, he picks one up from the truck and lowers it into the grooves designed for it on the ship. First containers go deep into the ship, out of sight for me; later the final layers are laid. Midway, the massive metal separating plate – the deck, really – is raised and dropped carefully into place. The containers below are now sealed, the ones above still to come. As the containers swung out and in, I notice figures on the deck, wharfies and seamen, ducking out of the way when a 40 tonne container comes in, jumping out as soon as it settles into place to secure it with the braces and connect the cords – if a reefer. Mesmerising stuff.

Almost before the last container is in place and before the ship’s crane is swung back and nestled back into its nest (the seaman has been waiting in the cockpit, cigarette glowing), the engines rumble and I am on the bridge. Half an hour it takes for a 200 metre ship to manage a turn in a river that seems 201 metres wide. Tugs puffing and churning, bow-thruster pushing, rudder hard to port, engine astern, walkie talkies crackling, pilot and captain hanging out over the fly bridge. Bow down the river and the tugs are gone, along with the harbour pilot. Now it is the quiet river pilot and the eight-hour run back to the ocean.

Pilots and Cigarettes

Pilots: possibly one of the most fascinating features of a voyage like this and often the main human contact between sea and land. Personality types may have something to do with differences between taciturn and the garrulous, the sourpusses and the charmers, the obnoxiously rude and the gratefully polite. But each port also has its own pilot cultures. English pilots are overly officious, uniformed and officious. Australians and kiwis tend to be quiet and focused, sipping a coffee, uttering commands quietly and often saying a calm thankyou when the reply comes. They seem to prefer compass points – 231 or 067 or … – rather than the more usual ‘port 10’, ‘starboard 20’, ‘midships’ and so on. The Panamanians are something else, all of them – and there are many – given to pilot versions of machismo. Disdain for the crew, ignoring passengers, barely acknowledging the captain’s authority, never saying a thankyou for a command carried out and gold chains on hairy chests. By contrast, Jamaicans simply charm the pants off you (there is but one woman present): smiles, jokes, stories, laughter, a constant chatter that made you feel like you are sitting at a pub with the best of friends. All the while, the commands are passed on in between the long narratives, calmly and in plenty of control. Only when the ship has to dock in a tight corner does he stop for a few moments, although now chattering into the walkie-talkie. As for the Americans on the east coast, they are garrulous and friendly to a superficial fault and usually full of crap – at least whenever they open their mouths, which is almost all the time.

But what does the pilot do? Vital for the very functioning of the world’s shipping networks, pilots specialise in access to ports for large ships. They may be canal pilots, guiding ships through the Panama or Suez, river pilots for long hauls up navigable rivers such as the Savannah or Delaware, or harbour pilots, specialising in the intricate knowledge required to escort ships in and out of the world’s harbours. In each case, they require intimate and specialist knowledge – of shoals, rocks, sandbanks, currents, tides, quirks and tricks – in order to navigate those massive ships in the tightest of spaces.

Even though I have encountered pilots often enough to be familiar with their roles, they never cease to amaze me. Some use computer mapping, GPS and whatever the latest gizmos might be, while some rely purely on years of experience, along with sight and sound. But they carry out their tasks with uncanny precision. Let me give three very different examples, one from Australia as we depart Melbourne, another in Jamaica and the third in the run up to Savannah.

In Melbourne, the pilot guides the ship out of the tight heads on a dark and stormy night, after the long, four-hour passage through Port Philip Bay. The echoed calls on the bridge are enough to thrill any lover of the sea: port 10, port 10; midships, midships; 222, 222 …. But the most astonishing of all is, when out past the heads and in a heavy swell, he goes down to the side more protected from the swell, climbs down the side of the massive container ship on a swaying rope ladder and leaps – in the dark – onto a tiny orange pilot boat bobbing in the waves. As he speeds off to join another ship, now heading into port, we turn to New Zealand and are off.

The second moment comes from Kingston, Jamaica, where a tense and furious situation is overcome by the sheer force of personality on behalf of the pilot. We arrive early, are told to wait for a berth in port, then told to ‘go, go’, and then, when we are at full steam, to wait once again. The captain is absolutely furious and gives the ship the equivalent of an ocean burnout: 40,000 tonnes hard to port at full steam. A foul mood ensues on the bridge, until the calypso pilot comes on board and eases the mood within minutes. A smile, a joke, a declaration that the harbourmaster is responsible for the stuff-up and therefore an idiot – he has the captain laughing in no time.

And then Savannah, with its quite river pilot and garrulous harbour pilot: here the pilots are willing to talk with me rather than the captain and mate on duty, although I suspect they are immediately drawn to me since I am the only ‘native’ English speaker on the ship. In the dog-watch hours the river pilot boards, preparing to guide the ship for about four hours up the Savannah River to the city of the same name. Intrigued with long-distance travellers when his job keps him to the end of the voyage, we talks of the sea and home, of destinations and plans – as one does at sea, I suppose.

As river pilot, his task is to protect the river itself, ensuring that the ship does not do anything too outrageous. Not so the ageing harbour pilot, who comes on with the tug and guides the ship into its berth. In about fifteen minutes I have his life story, his politics, and his view of the world. He has done it all – tug captain, salvage captain, NY pilot, for 40 years – and takes no shit, whether that is homeland security (‘what do you think, that I’m a terrorist?’), or the feeling that Japanese ‘fishing boats’ have far too much surveillance equipment upon them, or that container screening is pointless, since if you actually get caught smuggling you are really, really stupid.

But I also learn that American pilots occasionally accept cartons of cigarettes as ‘gifts’. Australians and Kiwis do not accept them – or rather, they are never offered – whereas everyone else seems more than happy for a carton or two. Never a word is said, the pilot expresses feigned surprise and gratefulness when the carton appears, even though he has perhaps placed a cigarette packet in an obvious place to to indicate a preferred brand – a ritual of practised exchange.

Intrigued, I later ask the captain about the cigarettes.

‘If their opinion is important’, he says, ‘it makes things easier. The inspector at Panama, who checks the worthiness of the ship before entering the canal, is vital. Without his OK, the pilots won’t board and we won’t proceed. That’s why he gets two cartons. The others, if they have been helpful, one each’.

‘What about New Zealand?’ I say. ‘No smokes there’.

‘No’, says the captain. ‘They tell me they could take them, but it would create far too many problems with customs if caught. Actually, I prefer the Jamaicans and Panamanians. It is easier to get things done; no masses of paperwork; no small-minded officials who will find something if they look hard enough. You know, in Australia or the USA, a blinkered petty bureaucrat will look over all the paperwork in minute detail, looking for a slip. Waste of time’.

But after I notice a carton slipped to one American pilot, the captain simply observes, ‘It is the way it has always been done, a way to build relationships’.

Economics: Sailors, Ships and Profits

It may have been a waterborne village in motion, surrounded by the dominant element on this water planet, and those on board may have enjoyed the simple solitude while bending their thoughts homeward, but the main reason the ship plies these routes is economic. Beneath the patriotic French-flag-waving and chest-beating claims to being the third largest shipping company in the world, CMA-CGM is in the business of making a profit. And they do so by generating surplus value – trying not to pay the workers what they are worth and charging more than they should for the goods shipped. In short, cost-cutting here; over-pricing there. This economic reality influences every moment of one’s day on a container ship.

Everyday Life

So let us begin with the seemingly small moments of everyday life and then work our way to the big picture. Initially, the major events of the world seem very distant from our day-to-day reality, appearing only as printouts on the back of used paper from the captain – the World Cup, Tour de France, Gulf of Mexico oil spill … More interesting and important for our daily lives is the new menu at breakfast. The first meal of the day may be largely the same (four different versions of egg on toast; four types of ‘breakfast meat’, should you want them; some more toast), but after that everyone reads the menu for lunch and dinner with great interest.

Why the great interest? Are we starved for news, seizing on the smallest piece of information like hungry lions? Not at all, for precisely with the food does capitalism on the high seas influence our lives. From the deckhand to the captain, all talk of the dropping food budget – from USD $12 to $9 to $7.25 per person per day – and the consequent pressures on the cooks and what can and cannot be requisitioned. Even more, the company has decided that the second cook is to go in Rotterdam, leaving them with but one cook.

As these complaints roll on, I find a shopping list for 23 sailors and passengers, from the back of a news print-out:

Bonded stores:

Beer                                                         8 Cases

Cigarettes                                79 CTN      15800 Stick

Whisky:

Johnny Walkers Red, 700 ml,     4 Btl           2.80 Litres

Johnny Walkers Red, 1 Ltr        7 Btl           7.00 Litres

Liquor:

Bacardi Rum, white, 1L            2 Btl           2.00 Litres

Ricard Aperatif, 1L                  7 Btl           7.00 Litres

Wine:

Sparkling wine Seaviw Brut (75cl) 9 Btl                  6.75 Litres

Assorted red/white wine (75cl)   65 Btl          48.75 Litres

Cask wine red/white, $L & 5L each 17 Cask  76.00 Litres

Engine:

Fuel oil                                                     196 MT

Diesel oil                                                  146.0 MT

Lube oil                                                    51,560.0 Litres

Fresh water                                               500.0 MT

General:

Detergent & soap                                       40 kgs

Grease                                                     550 kgs

Paint                                                        1,815 Ltrs

Thinner                                                    274 Ltrs

Kerosene and solvent                                 nil

Steward:

Cereal & pasta                                           35.0 Kgs

Coffee ground & instant                             5.8 Kgs

Tea (in bag @ 2 gr.)                                   8.0 Box

Sugar                                                       21.0 Kgs

Salt                                                          8.0 Kgs

Fresh meat                                                511.0 Kgs

Fresh fish                                                 155.0 Kgs

All canned food                                         310.0 Kgs

Eggs                                                         900.0 Pcs

Fruit, fish                                                  53.0 Kgs

Vegetable, fresh                                         114.0 Kgs

Butter                                                      8.0 Kgs

Margarine                                                 nil

Cheese                                                     33.0 Kgs

Milk                                                         96.0 Ltrs

Bread                                                       30.0 Lvs

Flour                                                        75.0 Kgs

Spices                                                       5.0 Kgs

An extraordinary insight into what makes a ship tick. Yet, while the dwindling amount of food is the major focus, everywhere one looks, miniscule cost-cutting is in place – all ‘justified’ by the ongoing economic crisis that began in 2008. For example, the first mate feels that he is caught between the crew and the company, with the latter making demands for stringency and the crew complaining. He knows full well that as a Filipino chief officer, he earns far less than someone from, say Europe or the USA, but it is still big money at home and he has more work than he can take on. The chief engineer (from Rijeka) finds it ridiculous that he should be questioned about every request for spare parts and maintenance. ‘We used to have four engineers’, he says, ‘but they want to cut us down to two’. The catch is that then they have to pay for extra personnel while in port for maintenance work. The captain talks of the communications equipment, which was replaced recently with a much cheaper version, which also happens to be far less effective. Now he can wait for up to two hours for a satellite connection in order to carry on the necessary business of a container ship.

Marx’s old point is still perfectly valid: in order to increase profits and market share, companies seek to cut costs in terms of personnel and equipment, shaving wherever possible, flogging people to work harder for less. Of course, the excuse for such cuts is hard economic times, a recession, the worst downturn since the Great Depression. But do they increase expenditure again when business improves?

Sailors (Workers)

The brunt of these perpetual efforts to squeeze out extra surplus falls on the sailors themselves. Seeing them at work, calling the deck of the ship their home for nine months at a time, you soon realise that it is hard, physical labour. Part of the international working class, they toil with heavy machinery, with all its dangers and concerns with safety, much like train drivers and truck drivers, miners and farmers. And it is their labour that keeps capitalism running. Obvious enough, but their work is usually (and conveniently) hidden on passenger vessels; here you simply can’t miss it.

The crew is Filipino, a common enough feature of international freighter shipping. They may be Korean, or Kiribati, or Chinese, but the reason is the same: they are a cheap labour source that keeps costs down. Or rather, they enable a greater profit margin for the companies who employ them and ship all that crap around the world. The perversity of the situation is that at this time and place, the current arrangements suit this Filipino crew. How? Again and again, I ask them – able seamen, bosun, steward, cook, perhaps a third or first mate – why they went to sea. Some say it is tradition, but all say it is money. Even at their reduced wages, it is more than they could earn at home. Better still, as Lindo the steward tells me, they are paid in US dollars – worth even more at home.

Inevitably, they send money home to support families, as do the ‘maids’ and cleaners who work in hotels in Copenhagen, wealthy homes in Hong Kong … wherever Filipino maids are wanted. It is a whole economy that relies on a large slab of its able workforce going overseas to send money home. Although it counts as a rational response in a deeply irrational situation, attempting to extract a morsel or two from a feast that is largely denied them, in the end it suits the owners of capital far more than underpaid Filipino workers.

But are they competent? Jim Stanaway, a captain on the Hansa Flensburg in 2008, once opined: pay peanuts and you get monkeys. And the news reports of shipwrecks (such as the Pasha Bulker in Newcastle in 2007) will always make the point that the crew is Filipino, or Korean or what have you. The implication: incompetence is a national trait. The reality couldn’t be further from the truth, since I encounter capable, hard-working seaman, welding, painting, greasing, operating a neat and tidy ship. Ideal if you are a shipping company: they work hard and competently and accept far lower pay packets.

Perhaps crews like this one may have the last laugh. With their quantitative increase in skills, crews and officers may eventually lead to qualitative change: Filipino, Kiribati, or even Montenegrin or Russian, may well bring about a quiet mutiny at the heart of capitalist trade. One can only hope so.

Officers

What about the officers whom these mutineers would overthrow? Do they share the perspective of the crew? Or are they a distinct on-board ruling class? The answer is yes to both questions. On board the ship itself, they do seem to function like a ruling class. Often the shipping companies attempt to reinforce the difference by clearly demarcating the in-board ruling class from the crew by ensuring the officers are from a different linguistic, ethnic and national background. But once we move beyond the confines of the ship, the officers too are subject to the real owners of capital. For example, like the crew, the officers fudge their hours when in port (10 hours is mandated for rest); everyone knows it happens, the authorities keep checking paperwork to pretend it doesn’t. On the Japan (Tokyo, Yokohama), Korea (Pusan), China (Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenzhen, Fuzhou, Hong Kong etc) run, it is perhaps two hours between ports, so in a week you may get one or two hours sleep a night. Then accidents happen. However, at other times the shipping company blurs the difference between officers and crew, training some crew to become officers. While this might be an old policy to divide and conquer the working class, it is also due to a shortage of officers worldwide – in the vicinity of 1500. So pressure is on to reduce the requirements to become an officer. And also to reduce the pay – hence the Filipino officers. Less and less common will be the degrees from maritime universities such as the one on Kotor, with its four-year degrees and strict requirements for experience.

Ship

Ultimately, both crew and officers serve the ship and its contents. Or rather, while they serve the company and generate its profits, the way they do so is to focus all their energies on the ship and its ‘vital’ contents. The ship itself is a product of the Chinese shipyards, about ten years old. A cheap Chinese ship? In some quarters it is fashionable to think so. But as the chief engineer points out, the Chinese know perfectly well how to build prohibitively expensive state-of-the-art ships; it all depends on how much the client is willing to spend and in most cases those buyers want cheaper ships. Why? Firstly, for the buyer an expensive ship that will last thirty years or more is no good, since by the time you have paid it off it will be hopelessly obsolete. So you order a cheaper one without all the fancy gear, which will be paid off in a few years and can then turn a handsome profit for a few more before it is sold – at the moment when problems begin showing up. Secondly, for the manufacturer a ship of lesser quality has a built-in obsolescence, since it will need to be replaced sooner. As with washing machines and computers and mobile phones, so also with ships.

After all, as a buyer you need to reserve funds to run the thing and buy fuel. Halfway between diesel and oil, that fuel is so thick it needs to be warmed in colder climes before it can be used. And given the volumes, they speak not of litres but of tonnes. At about the 80 revs a minute needed to sustain a speedier vessel like this one at 20 knots, the engine burns about 100 tonnes a day. A quick calculation: with about three days’ stoppage for six ports in a 37 day voyage, that is 3400 tonnes for our voyage. All of which does not include diesel for the four generators and fuel oil heater. It takes little imagination to see that with Peak Oil, the shipping industry is severely fucked unless it finds an alternative mode of propulsion – the only viable option left is sail.

Nonetheless, the ship’s purpose is to carry cargo. So while we are engaged in calculations, let me offer a few more. The maximum load for this ship is 28,000 tonnes, made up of no more than 1100 containers, some full, some empty. According to Marisec (http://www.marisec.org/shippingfacts/worldtrade/number-of-ships.php), as of October 2010, the world has about 44,000 ships that carry freight (and 6600 passenger ships). Given that this is a medium-sized ship, we can multiply the amount this ship carries with the number of ships and come up with a reasonable idea of the amount of material goods shipped around the world with each voyage: 1,232,000,000 tonnes. Mind you, that is not per year, but per voyage.

If we want to find a rough calculation of how much freight is moved per year, we may take the number of containers in the world (which ship 90% of all cargo), take their average capacity at 27,500 kg (not including the 4000 kg of the container itself) and multiply by the number of trips made each year for each container. These figures come from 2005.

Number of containers:     18,000,000

Average capacity:            27,500 kg

Subtotal:                        495, 000,000 tonnes

Number of trips per year: 200,000,000

Total:                                     99,000,000,000,000,000 tonnes per year

Increase to 100% (from 90%):  110,000,000,000,000,000 tonnes per year.

As the engineer says: people shift a lot of crap.

All of these thoughts – whiling away the time on a long voyage – lead me to another point that first struck me in the middle of the Pacific: what of the much-vaunted volatilisation of the market? This is supposedly the generation of wealth out of speculation on finances and the money markets, the removal of any material base in the old sense for the generation of surplus value (which winds up being profit most of the time). One has only to travel on a medium-sized freighter like this one, or perhaps a tanker, in order to see the hard, physical reality of the stuff unloaded and loaded at each port, the sheer volume that this one ship can hold. Multiply by hundreds and thousands of ships like this, as well as the oil tankers and gas tankers and coal bunkers and, plying the world’s trade routes … they are as concrete as ever and those who work on them and for them are as exploited as ever.

End of the voyage

Standing on a bridge and silently watching an Atlantic dawn over the port bow I realise two things: this is an experience impossible to express and it is to be one of the last mornings at sea, for the voyage is drawing to a close. The last part of a journey always has the mixed pleasure of endings and beginnings, the knowledge that what you have is passing and the anticipation of what is to come. That sensation is much slower on a ship, for it builds up over the last few days.

One way to deal with that imminent end is to list the achievements of the voyage:

We have crossed two oceans and four seas.

My partner lost 15 cm from her waist through rigorous exercise.

Roland gained 15 cm on his chest and about 30cm on his shoulders from the weight machine.

My partner read 22 novels.

My partner read a 600 page commentary on the book of Acts by none other than the riveting Dick Pervo.

Roland learnt how to tie 18 different types of knots.

We ate 106 meals at the officers’ mess and four on land.

Our table tennis game has become very mean and sharp.

My partner elicited winks from the captain.

… was told by the third engineer it was just as well she hadn’t had children, since they would have ruined her beeeyuuuuutifullll body.

… was smoothly told upon disembarking by the first oiler that he would meet her in his dreams.

On Day 38 we pass from the English Channel to the Thames estuary, eventually taking on the harbour pilot for Tilbury. However, even in the channel the crowds are evident. For the English Channel is like a ship highway – massive container ships, tankers, ferries, sailing boats, para-surfers, wind-surfers, swimmers and dog-paddlers. Already I feel a resistance to the crowds – of people and tasks – and a longing for the solitary stretches of the Pacific. I wonder what it would be like to be on land again in the midst of myriad people in summer frenzy, desperately trying to get home, crowding into trains. I feel a strange disconnect with the world of the land and its ways. Above all, I feel like a traveller from strange and distant lands, much more ancient than here, lands to which I long to return.

A Chinese Conversation

A creaking wooden shelter which one attains by a wooden walkway, wave upon wave of mosquitoes attacking our bare legs and arms and heads, sweat running down the smalls of our backs, the plops and squeaks and murmurs of a lake alive, peaceful gardens formed in that distinctive Chinese fashion, faces alight with the intensity of our conversation, furtive looks from some to assess possible interest of another sort – on a steamy July evening on the outskirts of Beijing, we sit under that shelter and discussed life, relationships, people and politics. Seven of us are part of that group: two young men, a down-to-earth woman, Liu, who translates with exceptional fluency at the more difficult moments, and three of the most beautiful women I have encountered in China. We talk late into the night, although it seems but a moment. I keep some notes, but when I am looking at them later, the wind takes them and scatters them far and wide, so I rely on memory to reconstruct that extraordinary evening.

Food, language, relationships and politics are our main topics, although we also laugh over my bewildering moments in China, dislocations that make me stop and realise I am in a very different place in the world. During the whole process, a subtle shift happens in my own perceptions of China. To put it bluntly, I begin to fall in love with China. It is not the glorious food and absolute importance of meals for getting things done (two hours are allocated to meals as a matter of course), not the intricate script and musical intonation of the language, not the everyday matters of love, life and relationships, not the increasing expectation that I would learn Chinese, not even the refreshing feel of Marxism being a part of normal, everyday life. Or perhaps it is all of them and more.

I begin by recounting those bewildering moments, which my interlocutors seem to find exceedingly funny.

‘In my room’, I say. ‘There’s a Taoist god over the toilet: all red, face screwed up in a grimace, as though to indicate precisely what one should do immediately below’.

‘Maybe he would like this’ says Yang, one of the young men, pulling a brightly coloured satchel out of his pocket. We lean over and peer at it.

‘“Coffee for Men!”’ I say. ‘That would help’.

‘Maybe it has added testosterone’, says Eva (her English name, I forget the Chinese one).

‘Or maybe a triple dose of caffeine’, says Liu. ‘That would really get things moving’.

‘Or a smoke or two’, I say. ‘There’s no shortage of cheap cigarettes here’.

‘Just like a communist party gathering’, says Yang. ‘It’s normally shrouded in an impenetrable cloud of smoke that screens their deliberations’.

‘But what about the signs everywhere?’ I say. ‘They announce the ‘Beijing Patriotic Health Campaign Committee’ and its warning not to smoke. Yet beneath that very sign is an elaborate ashtray, just in case I can’t help myself’.

Laughter echoes across the lake at the sheer practicality of the Chinese.

Food

With all this talk of human plumbing, discussion turns to food.

‘The food here is not likely to block up your pipes,’ I say. ‘Endless varieties of freshly cooked vegies, tofu, fish, fungi, soups, rice, and intriguing parts of land animals and sea creatures I have never seen before’, I say.

‘In fact’, says Chen, ‘each region has its own specialties, likes and dislikes, creative ways to eat in a way that is usually extremely good for one’s constitution’.

‘You know’, I say, ‘when I first went to China, I was thrown by the sheer amount of the food provided. It comes out in stages, a few dishes to begin with. So I would do my duty and try to eat all that was placed before me’.

‘But then more dishes follow’, says Liu, ‘with soups towards the end and fruit, all pushing the earlier dishes towards the middle of the table and then, when no room was left, piling dishes one on top of the other’.

They all nod.

I say, ‘Well before the middle stage of that feast meal I realised that even my optimistic approach to food and renowned eating habits would not make even a dint in this feast (really an ordinary meal). I had been brought up by Dutch parents, for whom the greatest compliment to the cook is to eat all the food. If you leave something behind, it obviously means you don’t like it’.

‘It’s the same in Japan’, says Eva. ‘But that Japanese custom has led to more than one diplomatic crisis. For in China, if you eat all the food, the host has obviously not provided sufficient food – the source of great shame’.

‘So how do you approach a meal now?’ asks Chen, touching my knee.

‘I sample each dish, making approving noises, helping myself to more of the ones I like’.

‘What about chopsticks?’ asks Chen, still with her hand on my knee. ‘You are quite good with chopsticks’.

‘Ah, now I am wary’, I say. ‘I have been told that when someone in China says, “you are very at this and that”, it means you are actually terrible’.

Again they laugh.

‘But seriously’, says Yang, ‘you seem to manage with them …’.

Is this another form of the ‘compliment’, I wonder. But then I say, ‘We actually have a long history Chinese presence and food in Australia, back to the gold rushes of the early nineteenth century, so chopsticks are well-known’.

‘Yes’, says Eva. ‘Usually the food matches the implements, bite-size pieces that are easily handled by those two sticks. But what about that shellfish, or the massive chunk of pumpkin, or the slippery sea cucumber that simply will not sit snugly between the sticks on the way from plate to mouth? How do you manage those?’

‘Ah, not so well’, I say. ‘Maybe I need more practice? But I have a question for you: why chopsticks?’

‘We just have them’, says Liu.

‘It’s more than that’, says Chen. ‘Did you notice at the party last night that the pieces of fruit were provided with toothpicks, the cake was served on small platters with a plastic knife, the banana is eaten while touching only the skin’.

‘Yes, I did’.

‘The real reason’, says Chen, ‘is that we do not touch the food with our hands. The thought of using fingers and hands is not on the agenda’.

‘Very hygienic practice’, I say.

‘What about Australia?’ asks Liu. ‘What are your distinctive foods?’

I mumble a few things about an immigration nation having displaced Aboriginal people, about the creative mix of a mind-blowing range of culinary traditions. Then it hits me: ‘Yes! The Aborigines have given us crocodile, distinctive fish, goanna, unique vegies … and kangaroo’.

‘Kangaroo! Can you eat that?’

‘Of course’, I say. ‘It is very good for you, even for vegetarians, since all the meat is in the tail’.

‘But aren’t they rodents?’

Suddenly I have an image of the Land of Oz covered in oversized, hopping rats.

Language

‘Are you planning to learn Chinese?’ says Chen.

‘Yes, why don’t you learn some Chinese?’ adds Eva.

‘I have been asked that question far more often on this visit than before’, I reply.

‘How many times have you been here?’ asks Chen.

‘Four’, I say.

‘It’s about time you did, then’, she says.

‘Well’, I say, ‘I am trying to become proficient in Danish first and learn some basic Russian. Perhaps Chinese is next’.

‘You can’t rely on a translator forever’, says Liu. ‘Especially if you keep coming to China and spend more time here’.

‘Ah, the translator’, I say. ‘There’s something extremely intimate about the translator’s voice in your ear, with those small headphones. It feels like she is close beside me, leaning over and whispering, with a silky, slightly husky voice, deep and resonant’.

Chen leans over and whispers something in Chinese into my ear that I can’t understand … for now.

‘But why do you ask me to learn Chinese?’

‘China is becoming more important in the world’, says Yang, ‘so more and more people are showing us some respect by learning Chinese instead of expecting us to speak their language all the time’.

‘As Mao said: the whole world will learn Chinese’, I say, laughing with the others. ‘But you have the most amazing and formidable script. I am continually in awe at the way you write it. What is it like to learn at school?’

‘It takes many years’, says Liu. ‘You see, the top half usually tells you what the syllable is; the bottom half the intonation’.

‘That musical intonation! Beautiful but damned hard to learn’, I say. ‘It’s like a flautist on a caffeine overdose’.

Liu says, ‘There are four types of intonation: type 4 is a short up and down, 3 is longer and goes down, 2 goes up, 1 stays level at where you finished the previous sound. So my name, Liu, is a type 3, while the lecture yesterday was given by Liu, type 2’.

‘Oh shit’, I say. ‘As soon as I try to speak, I’ll probably say, ‘Would you like to see my arse?’

‘Here’, says Liu’, ‘Try this’. She writes out a couple of sentences in Chinese, with the transliteration’.

‘Wo hui zhong wen? Ni hui ying wen ma?’ I try.

They laugh and insist I try again, stressing the intonation until I come close.

‘But what does it mean?’ I ask. ‘I am an idiot and cannot speak Chinese?’

‘Close,’ says Liu. ‘It means: I cannot speak Chinese. Do you speak English?’

‘OK, I am going to give Chinese a go’, I say. ‘I will set out to learn 400 words by the time I return, so I can get by’.

‘200 words would do it for a start’, says Liu.

‘I’m encouraged by a Russian friend’ I say. ‘She launches enthusiastically into a new language without shame. Words are mangled, syntax pure Ukrainian, punctuation all over the place. Yet I can make sense of it most of the time, especially since it is improves daily through such enthusiasm. So next time I will try the same in China’.

Chen leans over and translates what she said earlier, with a smile: ‘Maybe you should move to China …’

Relationships

‘What about relationships?’ I ask. ‘I notice that most couples over 25 seem to have a child’.

‘In the countryside they may have two, or if they are rich’, says Robert.

‘Yes, I’ve learnt not to ask whether people have children’, I say, ‘but whether they have a child’.

‘The fine is very high if you have a second child in the city’, says Robert. ‘Although sometimes a couple will return from overseas with a second child, and then you don’t get fined’.

‘What if I turned up with four children?’ I ask.

‘That would be fine’, says Robert.

‘But doesn’t the one-child policy produce an ageing demographic?’ I say.

‘Yes,’ says Eva’. ‘There’s increasing pressure on the government to change it and allow two children’.

‘But the great feature of the policy is the way it has broken down the traditional focus on patrilineal descent’, says Liu.

‘What do you mean?’ I ask.

‘Well,’ says Liu. ‘It used to be the case that the chief inheritance passed to the eldest son. His parents would buy an apartment for him and his wife and he would be expected to carry on the father’s work’.

‘What about the daughter?’ I ask.

‘She used to have to take care of her ageing parents alone’, says Liu.

‘So sons used to be expensive’, I say. ‘And daughters cheap and useful’.

‘Exactly’, says Liu.

‘But what happens when is there is only a daughter’, I ask. ‘Like you’.

‘Now an only daughter must inherit’, she says. ‘But it also means an only son must take care of his senile parents, and parents assist a daughter as well as a son in buying a place’.

‘So patriliny has become mixed lineage’, I say, ‘It depends entirely on the gender of the only child’.

‘Yes’, says Liu. ‘And that’s a good thing’.

‘But when do people begin relationships and marry?’ I ask.

‘In the countryside it may be late teens or early twenties’, says Robert. ‘But in the cities it is more late twenties’.

‘Does everyone get married?’ I ask. ‘Or do people live together and not get married?’

‘It happens more often now in the cities’, says Robert. ‘People increasingly live with their partner before marrying’.

‘Like you’, says Yang.

‘Yes, my girlfriend and I have been living together for a few years’, says Robert.

‘But what if you want to have a child?’ I ask.

‘Then we would probably get married’, he says.

‘What about staying single?’ I ask.

‘It’s slowly becoming more common’, says Eva. ‘Some prefer not to marry, enjoying their own company and (for women like me) the flexibility that comes with not having a child’.

‘Gays and lesbians?’ I ask.

‘Yes, that’s becoming more common in the cities,’ says Robert. ‘It’s difficult to come out in the countryside, but in the cities there’s more flexibility and creativity for an open gay or lesbian life’.

‘Sounds like most countries’, I say. ‘But what about affairs and divorce? Do people get divorced?’

‘That’s now more widespread’, says Chen. ‘If a relationship goes sour, people are more ready to end it’.

‘What about you?’ I say. ‘Are you married and do you have a child?’

‘I don’t want to talk about’, she says, and turns away.

‘The children’, I say. ‘They seem incredibly well-behaved. I understand that children are taught to show great respect to parents and grandparents. How does that work?’

‘The key is a Confucian word: jiong [*CHECK]’, says Huong. ‘It may be translated as “respect for parent”’. Huong has just walked up the short stairs to join us in the shelter. She wears a hugging Chinese dress with a split up the thigh.

‘Before the revolution it also included ‘ti’, says Eva. ‘That means respect for the elder brother. But that has now disappeared. So one must do what one’s parents say, consult closely concerning relationships and marriage, care for one’s parents in their old age’.

‘Ah, if only my four children had learned jiong!’ I say.

‘Four!’ says Chen. ‘You have four children?’

‘Yes’, I say. ‘All between the ages of 29 and 20’.

‘You don’t look old enough to be the father of four children’, says Chen.

‘Flattery will get you everywhere’, I say, laughing.

‘Do they show you respect?’ says Huong.

‘If only’, I say. ‘Two did not speak to me for some years during their teenage years, but now they all speak to me now, so they must think I am not a complete idiot. But that’s quite normal …’

‘Normal!’ says Liu. ‘Doesn’t sound like it to me’.

‘Perhaps jiong was formulated to negate precisely the effect of those difficult years’ I say.

‘Yes’, says Huong. ‘Should a teenager swear at his or her parents, the whole network of relatives, especially in a village would come down on the recalcitrant like a ton of bricks’.

‘Then again’, says Robert. ‘Teenagers do rebel, take paths against their parents’ wishes, choose not to take up work in the family farm’.

Is China Still Communist?

‘Communism …’, I say. ‘Is any of you a member of the communist party?’

‘I am’, says Chen.

But the rest are not.

‘Why did you join?’ I ask her.

‘It’s a good idea’, she says. ‘But becoming a member also enables you to take on more important jobs’.

‘Like vice-president of the university?’ I say, laughing. ‘But do you think China is still communist?’

‘Of course’, she says.

‘Tell me more’, I say. ‘Western media and analysis – for which I have little time – portrays China as retreating from the revolution, as a fully capitalist country that is no longer communist, as run by an autocratic government that doesn’t permit any difference of opinion, throws dissidents and business people in prison, and won’t allow liberal democracy’.

Chen laughs. ‘They don’t really know what is going on here. Let’s say there are three layers. The first is at a local level, where you find plenty of communal efforts at a local level, with farming, market gardens, people looking out for one another and so on.  The second is what we might call mafia-style capitalists, the wealthy business people who try to stay ahead of the law’.

‘Yes’, says Robert. ‘They’re responsible for the contaminated infant formula, exploding watermelons, extortion and so on’.

‘In the West, these mafia dudes are known as “good business people”’, I say, to much laughter.

‘But the third level’, says Chen, ‘is what I would call the planned economy. This is where the government comes in. They own all the major businesses, permit outside investment if it is partnership with the government, ensure that all of the economy comes under their control’.

‘What about the mafia capitalists?’ I ask.

‘They try to stay one step ahead of the government’, says Chen. ‘But more often than not the government catches up with them, at times arresting those who have flouted the law too much’.

‘I remember a couple of Australian citizens of Chinese origin who were arrested recently for bribery, corruption and industrial espionage’, I say. ‘The press in Australia reported that they had been arrested for business reasons, that the government wished to influence a particular deal in which they were not coming out favourably. So it was presented as though you cannot operate a business without the government wanting to seize their assets’.

Chen laughs again. ‘In other words, they were trying to operate outside the planned economy’.

‘For many in the West’ I say, ‘that is no better than an autocratic government, a dictatorship, or an oligarchy’.

‘But that assumes some ideal form of government’ says Chen, ‘like the thoroughly discredited “liberal” or parliamentary democracy maybe. To be a hard-nosed realist about this, if you are surrounded by those who would love to see your demise, and if your long-term goal is the victory of communism over capitalism, then a hard line is sometimes required’.

‘In another world’, I say, ‘where capitalism is a relic of few basket-case states, then you might be able to switch to a very different way of operating. But that isn’t the case now’.

‘I used to believe that liberal democracy was the best way to go’, says Eva, ‘but then I realised it’s crap and that what we have here is better’.

‘Actually’, I say, ‘the description of China as retreating or betraying the revolution expresses an impossible romanticism about the pure revolution and its aftermath. It is always best if the revolution is still to come and that all the revolutions we have had are failures which can conveniently be forgotten’.

‘That’s easy in the West’, says Chen, ‘where there isn’t a successful revolution to learn from. Instead of day-dreaming like that, we have had a successful revolution, like in Russia. Both Lenin and Mao realised that any revolution needs a good, efficient army (actually, Engels was the first to articulate this position), since everyone will do their best to rip apart any communist revolution’.

‘One of Engels’s favourite sayings was taken from the Gospels’, says Eva. ‘You need to be as innocent as doves and as cunning as serpents’.

‘And I have noticed’, I say, ‘that the reality of Chinese life is that communism very much part of the social and cultural fabric, of everyday discussion and debate. For example, Marxist studies are fostered throughout China, the work of Marx and Engels is being retranslated into Chinese from the original sources instead the first translation, which was made from the Russian translation, the school curricula has Marxism as a central feature, and even the struggles over softer and hard-line approaches take place within a Marxist framework. That seems more communist to me than anything you’ll find in most other places’.

‘That’s true,’ says Chen. ‘Let me put it this way: in light of a fair degree of capitalist economic relations and the pervasiveness of Marxism, we can take four approaches. First, those in charge are thoroughly cynical despots – a little like the priests in the church who foist superstitions on the people but don’t believe it themselves. In short, they are simply in it for their own gain while mouthing platitudes to Marx and Mao. Second, they are stupid and don’t know what they are doing’.

‘Both possibilities don’t seem tenable to me’, I say, ‘since they don’t measure up to what is going on’.

‘So that leaves us two other options’, says Chen. ‘Third, they have released something over which they have no ultimate control’.

‘That would be the favoured position of those in the capitalist world who mistakenly see a connection between capitalist market relations and bourgeois democracy, arguing that China will eventually follow a path similar to some Western states’.

‘Some “dissidents”, as they are called in the West, believe the same thing’, she says.

‘But that would be to overthrow the state’, I say. ‘I think in other countries it’s known as “high treason”’.

‘Exactly’, says Chen. ‘So that leaves us the fourth possibility. The government is in fact largely in control through a planned economy. Some elements of mafia-capitalism seek to escape that control, but they keep getting caught in the larger scope of planning’.

‘Perhaps they have had a good look at what happened in Eastern Europe’, I say. ‘There mafia-capitalism gained complete control’.

‘So I’d call what we have here state capitalism’, she says. ‘It was a term originally coined by Lenin when describing Germany under the Social Democrats before the First World War. They sought to use the best features of capitalism – technological know-how, organisational practices, even factory efficiency and Taylorisation – in order to build communism. But the state was firmly in control – hence state capitalism’.

‘It goes much further that what they tried in the USSR’, I say.

‘Yes, it’s also quite different from what they tried there’, she says. ‘Actually, what we are undertaking is a massive experiment, one that hasn’t been tried before’.

‘I guess no one knows quite how it will turn out’ I say’. ‘But it’s definitely worth giving it a go and is scaring the pants off the capitalist West’.

‘Are you sure you don’t want to come to China?’ She says.

Snus, Satanism and the Veneer of the New: Norway and Its Contradictions

Norway defies expectations, as full of contradictions as it is of fjords and mountains: a European country that perpetually thinks of itself as on the periphery; a place where equality is regarded as the highest virtue and yet wealth is everywhere on display; an ancient society overlaid with a veneer of glittering modernity; a deeply conservative Christian place where Satanism is rife; an obsession with health and exercise with an incurable addiction to snus.

I had the chance to experience Norway, up close and personal, for more than three months while living in Oslo. During that time we immersed ourselves in the city, rode bicycles along the ragged, fjord-riddled coast, travelled by train over the ranges to Bergen and back. We lived there from late ‘summer’ to early winter. Why ‘summer’? In the same way that Australia really does not have winter, so also Norway does not have a decent summer – by which I mean 40 degree heatwaves, killer UV readings, beach swimming for nine months of the year. A tell-tale sign of the absence of a real summer is whether the people are heliotropic: do they unthinkingly move into a rare ray of sunlight? Do they dine al fresco when the sun looks like it just might peek out, even if they need winter furs and blankets to do so? Does everyone strip off and try to sunbake when the mercury gets above zero? If the answer is affirmative, you are in a place that has no summer. But the winters are stunning. The first snow-storm hit us in the early days of November – and that was late start to winter. No panic: snow-ploughs out, fingers itching to grab the cross-country skis, work forgotten at any excuse to get out and enjoy the crisp air.

Greenish-Yellow Blobs

Yet, as soon as I too set off to relish that winter air, I noticed two things: ice is slippery and strange yellowish blobs everywhere. As I stepped out of the door on the first icy morning, I almost went arse over tit. Looking up, I saw that people had automatically and unthinkingly adopted their winter shuffle: body held still, legs moving only below the knees, short steps. It was a skill I had learnt the hard way many years before through a series of Canadian winters. Eventually, bodily memory kicked in and I too was shuffling about like a local.

Once out on a Norwegian street, one cannot avoid locals engaged in some form of vigorous exercise. They may be pedalling bicycles furiously up one of the many hills, running deftly over the ice in slick winter gear, doing chin-ups while waiting for the traffic lights to change, beating a path through the forest on skis, calling to one another in that strange lilt with the falling inflexion. And out on the street, one cannot avoid the other side of that obsession with exercise: striding along, I soon found I had to step carefully, for the footpath was spattered with green-and-yellow gobs – and that was just the fresh ones. When I first encountered these deposits, I wondered: does everyone have sinus infections here? Is it the water? The climate? The brown cheese – myseost? No, I finally found out: it’s the snus. Not quite chewing tobacco, snus is a small satchel of finely cut tobacco that you stick in your mouth, preferably high up under your lip so that it sits snugly on your gum, and let the nicotine seep into your system that way. Much beloved in Sweden as well, it produces a nicotine-soaked population, receding gums, teeth problems, warnings from dentists, and big yellow-green balls of snot to spit out on the footpath. All that pure health, clean air and vigorous exercise cannot avoid this love affair with small doses of poison – or is it that such obvious vigour is impossible without snus?

Religion, on the Dark Side

Dig a little deeper and the more of this enigmatic country rises slowly to the surface. On my walk on an early winter’s day, after dodging fair, fit and snus-gobbing locals, I find myself in a hillside graveyard full of granite stones silhouetted in snow. At the top of the hill I enter a church, a Norwegian Lutheran church where worship is under way. Well-maintained and a little over-staffed, the church still enjoys the benefits of state patronage; although in typical Norwegian fashion, so do all other religious and quasi-religious groups. Unlike Sweden, which has recently disestablished the church, and unlike Denmark, which maintains its state (Lutheran) church, Norway has both disestablished the church and yet not. Depending on their size, all religious groups may receive state support (even the humanists!), and yet the Lutheran Church remains the official church of the state.

Why? The largely secular population believes that the church is actually a beneficial feature of their society – but only if liberal bishops are appointed. But what does the church’s own membership think? In the church in which I worship, the grey-hair out the front is a smiling liberal, entertaining the well-dressed children and adults. He may be favoured by the secularists, but not the majority of nationwide church members, especially outside the major cities. Notoriously conservative, or rather, pietistic, the majority would prefer complete separation from the state – so that they may decide their own affairs, their own leaders, their own doctrinal directions.

At the same time, Satanism is rife. Satanism? On a train I see a couple with a child decked out in all the black and silver of Satanic heavy metal; in a conversation in the early hours, my friends tell me of church burnings, black masses and desecrated tomb-stones. Apparently, Norway is one of the few countries where some actually believe the occult posturing of heavy metal bands (and all their derivatives). My friends attribute it to the late modernisation of Norway, to the dominance of pietism (so that Satanism becomes a natural obverse), to the deep and long northern winters, to the veneer of modern and official secularism, to the persistence of ancient tribalism in the midst of a late modernisation …

Perhaps there is something in that last point: Jorunn keeps insisting that Norway passed from a pre-modern tribalism to a post-modern tribalism, without a long period where the private individual was worshipped. If so, it is a mixed blessing, for tribalism can be incredibly supportive and parochial, inclusive and narrow-minded, minding their own and rejecting outsiders.

Wealth versus Equality

It takes little time to stumble onto the next contradiction, as any visitor to Norway can soon attest. Try to buy a loaf of bread and you will have little change from ten dollars (60 kroner); buy a beer and you will soon see why people nurse one drink for a night; try to buy a train ticket and realise you need either to sell a vital organ first and take out a bank loan. In other words, bargains are not always obvious in Norway. The very same item – say, prawn-cheese (I kid you not) – that costs 50 kroner in ‘expensive’ Denmark, just across the water, costs 200 kroner in Norway. The reputation for being one of the most expensive countries in the world is fully justified. Why? Mistake? Taxes? Distance? None of the above, for money courses through the Norwegian economy from North Sea oil. It funds efforts to put Norway on the map, such as the Holberg and Nobel Prizes, the glitter of Oslo, obscenely expensive apartments on the foreshore, the ‘future fund’, set aside for a time when the oil runs out, and some very high wages.

Wealth separates, does it not, between the haves and the have-nots, the latter producing the wealth of the former? The desire for wealth makes one strive to crush your best friend in order to make a buck. Not so in Norway, or at least in the public opinion of Norwegians. In survey after survey, Norwegians will state their highest value is likestilling. Difficult to translate, it includes the senses of equality and justice. It hardly needs to be pointed out that equality and justice sit very awkwardly with a cashed-up Norway. How can you espouse equality when the money that is everywhere obvious relies upon and produces inequality? And it is not that everyone is wealthy, that poverty no longer exists in the country. Is it blindness to the reality of life, or is it the problem of the new (wealth) sitting uncomfortably on the old (collective values)?

Veneer of the New

The longer I stayed in Norway, the more I felt it was a case of the latter: the new really is a recent and hastily applied veneer over much older patterns of life. Four examples: one from the villages, another from Oslo itself, a third from bodies and their clothes, and a final one concerning peripheries.

Cycle around the coastal fjords, as I did, and you soon come across a fishing village with a few houses perched on the rocks. Small for heat retention, looking to the sea which until recently was the only mode of transport, wind-blown, often ice-bound, these houses look like they have grown out of the rocks. And yet, incongruously, in the harbour is a massive, new and gleaming oil ship – a tanker perhaps, or a service ship for the oil platforms with a helicopter perched on the bridge, a pipeline ship or a coastal patrol.

Or cycle through Oslo and you cannot not escape the sheer glitter of the city: the vast sheets of perspex and glass, shiny steel, glistening freeways and cranes dancing gracefully to their own rhythms. Oslo continues to transform itself into a ‘modern’ city, with high-rises, freeways, the constant process of destruction and recreation. Along the foreshores of the stunning fjord on which the city sits are ever more sparkling apartment buildings, built just yesterday. Yet all you need do is dig a little and the older stones and patterns of the city emerge: a worn street sign with Danish spelling, cracked bitumen under which an ancient paving stone lies, a gravestone that speaks of hardship and a short life, a rock on a chimney that speak of older building practices.

Yet perhaps the best way to put all this is in terms of bodies. As I travel, I love to observe the way people in different cultures carry their bodies. The almost imperceptible differences show up in a tilt of the head, a way of walking, the way one stands, lost in thought, the modes of inter-personal interaction. On the streets in Norway I was struck by a sense of discomfort. The expensive clothes were worn with little sense of how they should be worn; high heels looked not glamorous but awkward, lycra gear for every form of exercise simply looked ludicrous. Danes would scoff at uncultured Norwegian peasants and fisher-folk. I prefer to see it as a bodily manifestation of the contradictions I have traced: the new sits oddly on a collection of older customs, values and ways of living.

Periphery?

And one of the most persistent expressions of those older ways came as a complete surprise: the perpetually expressed sense that Norway is country on the periphery of the world. For someone coming from Australia I found this ridiculous: is not Norway in Europe? Does not the plane require a half-degree variation from Singapore to head to Oslo? Do not Norwegians travel, incessantly? Yes, yes and yes, but still the peripheral sense persists. It may be expressed by a wealthy middle-class professor who spends all his time abroad, from a close friend who was mortified at having to move back to Norway, from constant comments about Danish imperialism, or from the incurable habit of Norwegians to look southward. Admittedly, if the world is Europe, then Norway does seem a little peripheral; and if your imperial masters (the Danes and then Swedes) characterise you as marginal barbarians, then it probably sticks after a few centuries; and if the train to Oslo used to be a two-car affair that broke off from the main train at Göteborg, then you may feel shunted off to the side. But I read it in a different way: the contradiction of a place that feels peripheral and yet is not, in which the old and new sit together uncomfortably, unmediated and rubbing up against one another.