The Challenge of Describing Incredible Things

In one case technical — and I am NOT a techie — but the engine room tour on my first freighter voyage begged to be described.  It was sensory overload — far too many details — and without creating endless lists of things, the challenge was to make it interesting, speed it up and come to a crashing finish.  Tell me if you think it works:

The Grand Event yesterday was our engine room tour, guided by the voluble Chief Engineer, Karlo.  It was one of the most impressive sights any of us had ever seen (although hot and noisy, even with earmuffs).  From the keel to the topmost access hatch, it rises 10 stories high, and aft-to-forward takes up 30% of the entire hull – add in the fuel storage tanks along either bulkhead, and it uses up more space than the cargo hold.

Lila had the good sense to bring along a notebook, and her jottings added to my memory and a further interview with the Chief, produced some remarkable statistics.  The eight-cylinder twin-turbo-charged main engine produces 35,000 horsepower at 91 rpm, and Karlo assured us that newer ships (this one is only nine years old) can produce up to 105,000.  To convey the scale of this monster, we saw two new replacement pistons hanging aft of the engine, still wrapped in plastic, each measuring five meters high, and we were told that the 7.5 meter diameter propeller weighs 45 metric tons.

At full speed, the Louise burns 110 tons of fuel a day, on “economy speed” 70, at $350 to $400 U.S. per ton.  Depending on conditions – currents, depth, wind and weather – it takes an hour and a half to move this fully-loaded ship up to her maximum speed of 23.5 knots per hour.  That’s a lot of inertia.  I didn’t ask how long it takes to come to a full stop.

Because bunker fuel is as thick as asphalt, it needs to be purified by means of an on-board centrifuge and then heated at 145C. to the correct viscosity before it can be burned.  The sludge that remains after purification is pumped into tanker trucks in port.  No unprocessed fuel, oil, or bilge contents go into the ocean.  (Neither does sewage.)  Because of European and West Coast U.S. environmental regulations, in addition to the 3,500 tons of bunker the ship has to carry low-sulphur fuel for use in those ports, as well as gasoline to use dockside.  With her tanks topped up, the Louise has a range of 15,000 nautical miles.

In addition to the main engine, there are four diesel-run generators, producing 440 volts at 60 cycles for a total potential of six megawatts (newer ships can produce up to 6,600 volts) and a desalinization plant that produces 25 tons of water a day.  This multi-staged water-maker, which includes mineralizing and treatment with ultraviolet light, produces all the water used on board for cooling, hydraulics, plumbing and human consumption.  The Louise takes on no fresh water in port.

Impressive also was the workshop and spare parts storage, including every kind of machine tool, a huge lathe, untold numbers of hand-tools – each in its numbered slot on the walls – shelf after shelf of steel boxes filled with every kind of fitting the ship’s engineers could possibly need, paints, chemicals, and numberless drums of oil.  As Karlo pointed out, there’s no handy machine shop out here in the middle of the Pacific.  He described for us, too, all the backed-up back-up systems for running the show, all computerized and far too complicated to recount.

In that vast space amid the hellish din of so many thousands of mechanical parts moving simultaneously at high speeds, surrounded by a labyrinthine complexity of ladders and hatches, kilometers of insulated wires and pipes snaking in every direction, valves, blowers, boilers, turbines, turbo-chargers, condensers, a steering gear the size of two small farm tractors, air compressors, a seawater central cooling system, block-and-tackle for moving heavy equipment around, and a 3,300 volt bow-thruster – with that enormous, panting, thrumming monster-engine at its heart – the steel planks vibrating beneath our feet with the eternal beat of the ship, the three of us stood open-mouthed in awe.

 

Anyone who writes faces a particular challenge with sunrises and sunsets, because it is so easy to fall into the cliche trap.  How to be original?  How to make the reader share in the wonder?  Here’s an attempt:

I woke early and pulled the curtain back from the porthole in time to see the sky just pearling up before sunrise.  I quickly dressed and climbed to my usual perch on the top step to F Deck, facing aft, a little northeasterly.  It was slow in coming.  First a faint pink lined the clouds, then a golden light gradually deepened along the horizon, and puffs of cloud over the indigo water turned from mauve, to rose, to bright pink.  The horizon clouds opened to form a rose-tinged bowl, scalloped like a seashell, and suddenly the sunlight poured into this bowl like molten gold, too brilliant to look at.  I watched for half an hour, at the end of which I fully felt the blessing of this diurnal gift to the planet.

Both these pieces are excerpted from Letters from the Pacific, my first travel memoir.

© Sandra Shaw Homer, 2017

Photo by SSH

New Nonfiction Piece in Cleaver Magazine

In the hall, all is pandemonium. Even the ambulatory patients are incapable of making it to the fire exit on their own. The staff is operating on adrenaline and rote training. At the exit, I hold the door open for the wheelchairs and aides guiding the patients on foot. One grand dame holds up traffic by asking me what I’m laughing about. There is a twinkle in her beautiful gray eyes. Perhaps she sees a joke and wants to share it. Perhaps there really is a smile on my face. Someone from behind gently pushes her forward. Feeling a little useless where I am, I ask one of the aides what I can do to help.

“Check the bathrooms!” she gasps.

Read more . . .

© Sandra Shaw Homer 2017

Photo by SSH

Words as Camera: Erin Van Rheenen at Four Corners

Lower Antelope Canyon, photo by David Webster SmithLower Antelope Canyon, photo by David Webster Smith

On a trip to the famously photogenic Four Corners, a traveler chooses to leave her camera behind.

How many of us have thousands upon thousands of trip photos on our hard drives, waiting to be sorted and shared? And who among us hasn’t wondered, in this age of any and all images available at the click of a mouse, why bother to take pictures at all?

On a recent trip to the outrageously scenic Four Corners, I chose to leave my camera behind.

Without a machine clamped to my face, I figured, I would have time to think and write. And sketching with sentences would give me something to do while my traveling companion set up his shots.

*            *            *

“The guy in Escalante is deluded,” says David, my fellow traveler, one warm October afternoon at Calf Creek Falls. “That definitely wasn’t the most beautiful waterfall in the world.”

I have to laugh. We’re on the return hike from an idyllic falls in southern Utah. We splashed in the pool at the base of the 200-foot cascade, mist hydrating our sun-cracked skin. While maybe not the most beautiful in the world, the falls had looked and felt pretty damned good.

David’s vision may have been colored by the fact that for the better part of an hour he’d fiddled with his camera, trying – and failing, in his estimation – for the silken effect of falling water caught on a long exposure. My vision had been colored, too, by the roar of the falls, cool water on chafed feet, the smell of sunscreen and the chatter of other hikers claiming 20-minute miles. I recorded my impressions not with a camera but with pen and notebook pulled from my day pack.

David tried to stop time, to freeze flowing water. I tried to extend time and expand focus, searching for words to convey the beauty but also noting context, like that we’d arrived in a deserted clearing but left behind a group of more than 40, including 23 hikers of a certain age on a Road Scholar tour of the Southwest. In my notebook I described the vertical stripes of desert varnish and the Fremont granaries tucked high in alcoves, but I also posed questions. (Can you do that with photos?)

What does it say about us, for instance, that of the dozens of people arriving at the falls, the vast majority did one thing: pulled out a camera, first thing, before even turning to a companion to share the moment?

In the face of this overwhelming tilt towards the visual, another question arises: what can writing do that photos can’t? Why photograph, or describe in words for that matter, landscapes that have already been nailed down by hordes of fellow travelers? (Google Calf Creek Falls for a small taste.) Is beauty diminished by having to share it with crowds of people, as if each gaze leeches away a little bit of the gorgeousness?

In the Southwest, there may be enough gorgeousness to go around. The variety is astounding, and often seen in the same landscape. A scrubby plain falls away under your feet, exposing the steep-sided howl of a canyon. Palisades jut skywards. Mountains are the buried rib bones of a fallen giant, exposed by wind.

Some places are especially crazy. Think of all that water can do – swirl and eddy, surge and crest and crash – then imagine rock doing all that, but caught mid-action. If you judge by geological time, the rock actually is in motion. It’s only in our split second of human time that we see the landscape as static. We make it even more so with photos, grasping at a permanence that doesn’t really exist.

At the end of Desert Solitaire, when he’s leaving the Southwest for New York City, Edward Abbey writes, “Five hundred and sixty tumbleweeds roll toward the horizon, herded by the wind; may they, too, never come back. All things are in motion, all is in process, nothing abides, nothing will ever change in this eternal moment.”

But we want the eternal moment to abide, and the timeless furniture of that moment is there for us to try to capture: peaks and domes and spires and Seussian hoodoos, in colors that come especially alive at sunset and sunrise. Comb Ridge rears up like the 100-mile spine of some prehistoric lizard. East of sunset-hued Capitol Reef National Park, ashen monoliths look like where Darth Vader has his summer home. Loopy hieroglyphs — ATV tracks — scar barren foothills. Irrigation makes for the occasional neon green field hemmed in by red rock sentinels. Towns huddle in the shadow of cliffs scrumptious with lollipop swirls of color. Dirt and gravel tracks lead who knows where, branching off from curving one-lane highways. Up at 9,000 feet, the sun supernovas though aspen leaves quaking like sheets of gold leaf.

Did I stick to my no-photo plan in the face of such splendaliciousness? Not exactly. I pulled my phone out more than once to snap shots of scenes I didn’t have the time or inclination to get down in print. Try describing the landscape as it’s whizzing by outside your rental car window. Sometimes you just have to snatch away an image, however blurred or partial.

But is that so terrible? I’m not sure. I do know that at its heart – and despite Facebook and Instagram privileging one over the other – the photographic impulse is not so different from the desire to describe a scene in words.

Both are attempts to hold on to beauty. Even more, both are tools to let us sift through a world that’s far too big and varied to take in at a glance. Whether we chose to hone our gaze by narrowing down in words or images, both methods let us see more deeply, if less widely.

The process is the same whether we’re using camera or words: focus, capture, edit and enhance. Sharing is the final step, whether it gets you a “like,” a nod, or nothing.

They say that travel broadens us. The vacation frame of mind lets in more than our workaday blinders. But that very broadening calls for a way to focus and take hold. Trying to get even a fraction of it down in words or pictures is not just a grabby exercise; it’s a way of going deeper, of really noticing, and of doing the processing work – both mental and technological – to help make sense of this crazily beautiful world we pass through all too briefly.

A version of this article appeared in the Santa Rosa Press-Democrat.

Erin Van Rheenen writes travel narratives, profiles of prisoners, philanthropists, scientists and filmmakers, and fiction in which place is as important as character. She has won awards for her fiction and nonfiction, worked as an editor and staff writer, and taught in high schools, universities, and at the San Francisco Women’s Jail. She is also the author of Living Abroad in Costa Rica. See more of her work at http://erinvanrheenen.com

 

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