In Case You’re Tempted . . .

A version of this first appeared on off-the-beaten-track.net.

FAQS about Freighter Travel

Documentation, Visas, etc.

It can be a long and frustrating process arranging travel on a freighter. Not that many ships carry passengers anymore, they carry fewer these days because there’s no doctor on board, and there are varying age limits. The most popular routes are sometimes booked a year or more in advance, so it’s wise to get started early. Travel to a specific destination can also be frustrating, because many shippers prefer not to book passengers for a partial voyage.

The documentation required is also daunting, depending on which countries the ship will stop in. Visas, vaccinations, release forms, contracts, proof of travel insurance and medical certificates acquired no more than 30 days in advance of sailing are some of these. Handy to have a scanner so you can sign things and simply email them back. US citizen entry requirements for other countries can be found at: abriggs.com.

Booking Passage

Fortunately, most travel agents specializing in freighter voyages are familiar with all these requirements and are good at handling things in a timely fashion. My favorite is a UK firm called The Cruise People, because they have more varied and interesting offerings. For information about what it’s like to be on a freighter, freightercruises.com is the most complete – with the caveat that I have found this agency less than responsive.  They all will require a 50% deposit to hold a booking.

Preparation

Before my first voyage, I spent hours on line looking at maps of ports and collecting tourist information for every port city, all of which I printed and took with me. This was very useful preparation, although foul weather and a nighttime arrival prevented my disembarking in two of them. Unpredictability is a watchword in freighter travel. One never knows how long the ship will be in port, and shore leave is always at the captain’s discretion.

Communications at Sea

Internet: some companies are now offering individual email accounts through their satellite connections. This is email only — no browsing is available.  There is the sat phone, but it’s expensive, and its use is also at the discretion of the captain.

What to Bring

Packing for my first voyage took me two months! I was going to be in three climates and I had to keep extending my checklist when I remembered something else I couldn’t be without. Be prepared for 220 voltage, and take enough of your prescription medications to last the whole voyage. Ships’ medical stores are pretty complete, including antibiotics, and there’s a “slop chest” for cigarettes, toothpaste and other small items, although brands are limited.  For some it may be useful to know that some companies, CMA CGM among them, now have a “dry ship” policy. This doesn’t prevent your bringing liquor on board, as long as you’re discreet about it (luggage isn’t inspected), and nobody objects if you search out liquor stores ashore.

There’s always some kind of gym equipment on board, and sometimes a ping pong table, but if you plan to do yoga, bring a mat – few cabins are carpeted.  Bring a tablet well-stocked with movies, music, podcasts and books, if looking at the ocean all day is not your thing.  Some fellow passengers have brought cell phones with international calling cards, so they can at least text home when within range of 3G service.  Don’t forget your chargers!  A camera.  The list goes on  . . . .

Money

Make sure you have an international debit card so you can withdraw local currency from ATM machines, which are ubiquitous in all the places I have visited, except on Fiji, where there are three exchange booths on every block.

Sea Sickness

Sometimes, the weather can be rough, and freighters are not equipped with stabilizers as are cruise ships, so they bounce around a lot.  Anti-nausea pills help (they put me to sleep), the but best thing I’ve found are Sea Bands, small wrist bands with a round plastic button that you position exactly two finger widths above inside of the wrist.  There’s an acupressure point there that controls nausea.  You can find these on Amazon.

Accommodations

Cabins are more than adequate, with bed, desk and chair, sofa and coffee table, mini-fridge, plenty of storage space and a private bathroom (shower only), air conditioning and a window for looking out at either containers or the ocean, maybe both.  Once you’re unpacked, you’ll feel perfectly at home.  Happy sailing!

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2016

The H. S. Schubert

The H. S. Schubert

Speaking of Food . . .

I’ll never make it as a food writer, but I had fun describing the delectables on a recent freighter voyage.  Forgive me . . . I just couldn’t help sharing!  Excerpted from the recently published Journey to the Joie de Vivre.

People ask me about the food.  After my first freighter voyage, I was truthfully able to say, “Not that bad.”  Aboard the Matisse, it wasn’t quite as good, but it still wasn’t that bad.  Now, aboard the Coral, it is finally that bad.  I am eating for sustenance only and loading up on salad and bread and butter.

The salad is invariably iceberg lettuce, green or red sweet peppers, sliced red onion, unripe tomato and cucumber.  I suffered a small shock when I poured oil and what I thought was vinegar over my first salad, only to discover that the vinegar was really soy sauce.  I told the Messman I would like vinegar.  He brought me another little cruet of soy sauce.  Could it be that a Filipino Messman (he says he likes to cook!) doesn’t really know what vinegar is?  I told him as soon as I boarded about my milk allergy, and ever since then he has been assiduous about telling me he’s put a ‘little bit of milk’ in the rolls or ‘a little bit of milk’ in the mashed potatoes.  But today he asked me if I would like ice cream.  I begin to suspect he’s being impish.

The Chief Cook has a penchant for pork: Batter-Fried Pork, Steamed “Roast” Salt-Pork, Pork Slices à la Microwave and Roadkill Pork Chop.  Last night I was thrilled to find Steamed “Roast” Breast of Chicken.  The only fish so far has been Pressed Mackerel Steaks.  This morning I finally looked at the calendar and calculated that this voyage is 19 days, not 17 as I originally thought; that’s two more days on this incredible diet.  I can’t wait for Italy!

© Sandra Shaw Homer 2016

Photo by SSH

Photo by SSH

Can You Taste It?

I feel I gave the sense of taste short shrift when I all I could think to do was feature the hyperbole of food writers.  So see how this one tastes.  Excerpted from the forthcoming memoir, Evelio’s Garden.

One of my chores on the verandah has been to cut back the basil. I have seven pots of it out there, all gone leggy and struggling with aphids. Evelio’s organic insecticide is the most potent thing I’ve ever used on these aphids, but they need to be sprayed directly in order to be killed, and when there’s a lot of foliage some get missed. A drastic cutting-back was the only solution. The infected branches I simply tossed over the rail, but the healthy ones were starting to accumulate in my basket in a sufficient quantity to make Rosa pause, in her mopping of the deck, to ask me whether I made pesto with macadamia or pine nuts.

Until that moment, it hadn’t occurred to me to make pesto. I hadn’t thought at all what to do with all this basil, but pesto sounded like a good idea. I had both macadamia and pine nuts in the house (the macadamias are local, the pine nuts a treasure brought by my friend Shirley from a small town 400 miles north of Toronto), plenty of garlic and extra virgin olive oil, even real, imported-from-Parma Parmesan cheese. I hadn’t made pesto in years, since jars of it often make their way into the Tilarán supermarkets, and washing and pulling off all those leaves from the stems is a chore.

Italian pesto isn’t a staple of the Costa Rican diet, but Rosa worked for many tourist seasons at an Italian restaurant near here. So when I had it all made up, I invited her to sample it.

“Better,” she said. “At the restaurant they don’t use any cheese. And why would theirs be runnier? Too much oil? Why wouldn’t they use cheese – because it’s cheaper?”

I confessed that, yes, no cheese certainly made their pesto cheaper. I pulled out a jar of the commercial stuff and read the list of ingredients; no cheese there either. I dipped my spoon into the lovely pale green paste I had just made, closed my eyes, and . . . ah, so densely green and nutty, with just enough cheesy sharpness to make all the difference.

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2016

Photo by Marten Jager

Photo by Marten Jager

The Joie de Vivre Comes from Within

“I am an ordinary person with an ordinary life. Even my acceptance of ordinariness is ordinary, the undercurrent of so many ‘big books.’ Madam Bovary, War and Peace, Freedom. The mistake is always the same: trying to live the life one has in one’s head instead of the life before one, which is endlessly generous if you humble yourself to it as the only possible means of fulfillment.”  — Tennant-Moore

Photo by SSH

Photo by SSH

 

We Travel to Discover Ourselves

“The great stillness in these landscapes that once made me restless seeps into me day by day, and with it the unreasonable feeling that I have found what I was searching for without ever having discovered what it was.”     Peter Matthiessen

 

 “A good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.”   Lao Tsu

 

“Living abroad, traveling, both experiences simplify our lives. At home, the web of our social life, work life, of our responsibilities, even our amusements and pleasures, all conspire to complicate our experience. However good the life, it distracts us. Traveling we (can) leave much of that distraction behind. In the simpler world of traveling, experiences come to us one at a time. So they register more clearly. And there is more time to mull, to consider the kind of surprising connections that, for me at least, often lead to an essay or a story.  Occasionally even to a poem. I get back to first questions, questions about how meaning is made and sustained.

“Oddly enough, perhaps, something similar happens in writing about travel or the expat life.  Much of the clutter of living disappears; it’s easier for me to arrive at clarity and, I probably shouldn’t say, to approach mystery.

“. . . I travel hoping to get further in, to find in the world and myself a common humanity. I travel to awaken from the trance of our culture, the trance that leads us to assume that our ways are the ways. To travel is to know, to feel, that our ways are our ways and that’s all. I consider it a good trip if I suffer as much “culture shock” coming home as going.

“And I travel for beauty, to be undone by beauty. Just for the oh of it. To be always alert would be to see beauty everywhere, I suppose, but, fallen as we are, the beauty that is always there is just more available traveling. And I want it.”

Kevin Oderman, from an interview in Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction, Fall 2015

Chart of Panama Canal, Photo by SSH

Chart of Panama Canal, Photo by SSH

The Echoes of Sound

The following is an excerpt from the forthcoming memoir, Evelio’s Garden.

When the first Red-lored Parrots fly over in twos and threes, always easterly, my ears still remember the calls of the Canada geese on their southward run in the autumns of the north. Philadelphia is on the Great Eastern Flyway and, even in the center of the city, the call of the geese overhead reminded us of the wild places and cold sunsets on the Chesapeake Bay.

It was a haunting, hollow sound, a sound of echoes and lost places. My brain is still hard-wired to recognize those sounds and memories, even after so many years in a tropical country, far from the wintering grounds of the geese. And it takes me a day or two to realize that what I’m hearing is a bird the color of new leaves with a blunt head and a red patch above its beak that loves to gather by the hundreds in the trees and shake them to death while noisily deliberating what to do next.

A large flock of parrots cased the jocote tree today and determined, after a few raucous minutes, that the fruit wasn’t ready yet, and so they peeled off, some landing in the tops of the three eucalyptus trees next to the house, bending the slender topmost branches like a big wind, until they continued on their way.

In the North, the flights of the geese always pulled at me in a particular way, made me ache for other destinations, a less complicated life. They called to me of a simpler, richer time, a freedom and a dignity that our modern lives had lost.  The parrots harken to the same impulse in me, except that now I smile at the birds, at their noisy antics, and at my old associations, and I am reminded that what I have chosen for myself is a life infinitely richer than what I had before.

© SandraShaw Homer, 2016

Photo by Alison Shaw

Photo by Alison Shaw

Encouragement for Memoirists

“Your life ends up being made up of the things you remember. You forget most of it, but the things that you remember become your life. And if you can make something that someone remembers, then you’re participating in their life. There’s something really meaningful about that. If feels like something worth trying to do.”

— Doug McGray,
Co-founder and editor-in-chief, California Sunday and Pop-up Magazine

Photo by SSH

Photo by SSH

“A detailed, rare, and rewarding ride over a watery part of the world.”

Letters from the Pacific

49 Days on a Cargo Ship

Debut author Homer chronicles her experiences traveling via cargo freighter.

Homer’s first book is an adventure story—the journal of her 49-day trip through the South Pacific as a passenger on the Louise, a cargo freighter. The author hates flying, and had no interest in a cruise ship’s gorging and gambling, so she decided, why not rough it? From Costa Rica to Australia and back, by way of Tahiti, Fiji, New Caledonia, and New Zealand, the Louise churned its 45,000 tons (cargo and author included) into the “open-ended silence of the sea.” Its passenger comes away with plenty of good stories to share along with “a decidedly unromantic view of the life of a seaman.” In Fiji, Homer missed out on seeing Raymond Burr’s orchids but did visit a pricey resort with “a man-made island in the shape of a giant footprint.” In former colonial islands, she discovered to her chagrin that “the French seem always to be French, no matter where they are.” The glorious and the grim are each delineated in detail, from the “foreign country of constellations in the sky” to the constant awareness that “a freighter is a noisy, dirty, smelly beast.” The aches and pains of travel are here in full measure: the cold of the ship, the pangs of arthritis in her knees, and the limbs barked against listing furniture. Because much of the journal comprises minimally edited diary entries and letters to friends, the reading experience can be choppy, especially since past and present tense mingle freely. But because of the immediacy of the reporting, Homer’s character—questing, worrying, laughing—comes across with terrific clarity. We come to know her well, or feel as though we do, and the curious world of cargo ports and the crews that visit them become even more intriguing through her eyes.

A detailed, rare, and rewarding ride over a watery part of the world. — Kirkus Reviews

Letters from the Pacific by Sandra Shaw Homer

A Christmas Moment

This “moment” is excerpted from the forthcoming, Evelio’s Garden: Memoir of a Gringa Naturalist in Costa Rica.

The extra-rich biodiversity of Costa Rica includes amoebas, one species of which has been bugging me off and on for several months. Each time, it seems to take a different medicine to rid me of the thing, which means the process drags out over several weeks during which eating is just a plain chore.

As I do every Christmas morning, I visited a few local families to swap out homemade gingerbread for tamales, and at one house I happened to mention my amoeba. Alba, mother of three, said she had cured one of her boys of an amoeba recently with the bark of the olive tree – la cáscara de aceituno. Her husband Mariano volunteered to take me to a nearby farm where he could whack off some more of this bark with his machete.

The farmer came out to greet us and be introduced. He was pleased to offer the bark of his tree if it would make the señora feel better. While Mariano trekked downhill to the tree, I waited at the edge of the pasture in the weak sunlight, observing the make-shift rusty tin-roofed sheds and cheap plastic plumbing fittings around me, smelling the cow manure, realizing that this poor family had been on this land for a long time, cluttering up the farmyard in whatever ways necessary to house and care for their chickens and cows.

There were a few scraggly fruit trees dotting the landscape, just as abandoned as ours at home. Mariano snagged an orange from one as he came back up the hill.

I read in the paper the other day that the cost to produce a tamal has gone up by 30 percent this year. Mariano’s family is indeed poor, so to spare four tamales for me is a stretch. The only additional gift they can give is their time and care, so I was keenly aware, as I waited for Mariano on that poor farm, that this was truly a Christmas moment.

© 2015 Sandra Shaw Homer

Photo by Rick Brazeau

Photo by Rick Brazeau

 

The Sense of Listening

Long distance train travel offers plenty of opportunity to meet people, and, as a writer, I’m always tempted to make notes of our conversations, especially if they’re revealing of character.  As part of my series on the use of our senses in writing, I add the sense of listening — perhaps the seventh sense, the art of listening between the lines.

 

My first evening on the train, I was seated in the dining car across from a large man, who identified himself as a high school science teacher, and his slender wife. The inevitable question among strangers on a train is, “Where are you from?” When I answered Costa Rica, he looked a little glum and finally said, “I don’t know anything about Costa.” Then he turned to my seat mate and asked her what she did (the second inevitable question). She said she was a statistician.

“I’m no expert on calculus, but I just read a very challenging book about it . . .” and he proceeded to tell her all about it. “I imagine you work mostly with existing formulas,” he prodded her.

“No, I have to write quite a bit of code myself,” she answered. He was silently glum for another moment and then said his wife had had a gastric bypass. The statistician, shy and obese, said nothing.

How do we create characters? I like to do it with conversation; people reveal themselves so quickly in their speech – their attitudes, their approach to others, their humility or arrogance, their desire to please or to show off. Physical descriptions often escape me when I’m so busy listening to what people say. And it’s not only what they say but how they say it that I find myself making notes about afterwards.

In the snack bar this morning, I met a self-described “Christian Author”  who was very happy to tell me at length about her literary career. She was a middle-aged woman wearing an unkempt blonde wig that was tilted just a little too far forward, so that the hair in back stuck out at a 45-degree angle. She said she had published a poem or two in some Christian magazines, but that her manuscript had so far been rejected by publishers.

“I refuse to edit a single word,” she told me. “My hands were guided by God. What do you do?” she asked. I confessed that I too was a writer, but mostly about travel. “Oh,” she mused for a while. And then she asked, “Have I offended you?”

“Not at all,” I said, rolling up the remains of my trail mix and finishing off my tea. “We all have our own spiritual beliefs.” And then I escaped, but not without being blessed with her business card – from a real estate company.

It’s difficult at times to keep your personal judgement sufficiently at bay so that the character you’re describing shines through on her own. But, of course, your own judgement is the lens through which you experience the world, so it’s important to err on the side of the Golden Writing Rule: show, don’t tell. My sense of irony, however, is always a little difficult to control.

In the parlor car on the Amtrak Coast Starlight, they serve a light lunch, and it’s a pleasure to escape the hustle and crowding in the dining car. Here I met Alex, a robust man in a long-sleeved plaid shirt. We introduced ourselves as the train slowly wound through the magnificent pine-forested Cascades. His English was excellent, but I detected an Eastern European accent. He was Russian! I couldn’t believe my luck.

“I have to ask your forgiveness for bringing this up,” I said, “but this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: what do you think about what’s happening in the Ukraine?”

“I do not approve of this,” he said. “In fact, many people are not approving.”

“And Putin?”

He smiled – at my audacity, or at the fact that everyone asks him this question? “His official rating is 83%, but it’s really in the low sixties,” he said. “Putin has done nothing to develop the economy. But people in Russia are used to dictatorships. This one, at least, is soft dictatorship. When Yeltsin tried to introduce democratic reforms, people were uncomfortable.” (What a trove of information!)

“So you obviously don’t work for the government.”

“I am travel agent.” This gives Alex the chance to travel the world on an agent’s discount, and he’s taken advantage of it. We were just then passing a pristine river winding through a narrow alpine valley. He said, “This looks just like Siberia.” I snapped a photo.

Capturing the style of speech – accent, grammar – is often overdone when painting a character with what comes out of his mouth. That can be distracting, so I tend to under-do it, which may not be enough!

My last evening on the train, I was seated with Bill and Phyllis, a cheerful couple in their seventies, who had only been married for fifteen months. Bill asked his wife if she wanted butter with her roll, then grinned at me and said, “We’re still getting used to each other.” He had almost no chin, but an ear-to-ear smile. I guessed they had met at church, since Bill mentioned that his son and granddaughter and been to Nicaragua on a missionary school-building project. Phyllis asked me what I had ordered, apologizing for her macular degeneration. “I’m sorry, I can’t really see your meal from here,” she sighed. They had both ordered the “light entrée” – a flattened piece of chicken breast coated with an unidentifiable sauce and served over white rice. Phyllis took a couple of bites, then leaned into her new husband’s shoulder and asked, “Is this the chicken?” All of us laughed.

No need for irony with Bill and Phyllis – just delight!

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2015

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