Sailing the seas of global trade: From China to Europe on a cargo ship

by December 22, 2013 9:00AM ET

Follow a writer’s 27-day journey on a giant freighter


Most of the world’s goods travel around the world on the same routes traced by ships for centuries. Harvard historian Maya Jasanoff is making this journey aboard the 1,100-foot cargo ship “Christophe Colomb.” Follow her trip in photos and dispatches as she sails from Hong Kong to Southampton, England.

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Jan. 1, 2014


On Christmas Eve, as the Christophe Colomb floated in the English Channel in the wake of a buffeting storm (Force 11, one step below a hurricane), we received permission to dock in Southampton — the last ship in before the port closed for a two-day holiday. This was good news for the crew: They’d be able to Skype with their families, and the Christmas presents they’d ordered in Southampton would arrive in time. It was good news for me, too. The weather had turned cold and rough, ending my chances to be outdoors. Provisions had run out and the treadmill had broken, making unsatisfying meals even worse and exercise still harder to come by, I’d been ruing the prospect of a Christmas spent adrift, waiting for the port to reopen.


Yet as we glided into Southampton in the setting sun, I was pulled up short by the realization that this port visit would be my last. I’d grown accustomed to the rhythm of moving on, the privilege of surveying the world as we passed, the luxury of 360-degree light and space. I’d also been part of a community I would never see again.


In order to catch one of the last trains out of town before Christmas, I disembarked hastily, as soon as we moored. I exchanged hurried goodbyes with my shipboard friends, clambered down the gangway as it was still swinging into place, jumped into a taxi at the port gates, and within an hour or two of floating on the globe-encircling sea, found myself chugging between English stations on a jerky train. My nearly monthlong experience was over in a matter of moments.


For many days, I was shadowed by a ghostly sense that I was in the wrong place. The challenges I’ve felt readjusting to life on land throw into relief everything that I experienced on the Christophe Colomb. I kept in frequent e-mail and Facebook contact with the crew, eager for their reports on Christmas festivities on board. I kept waking up in the night thinking that my bed was moving, and confused to find that it was not. When I visited the British Museum one morning in London, I felt dizzy and bewildered by the crowds. Outdoors, it seemed that everywhere I looked there was something getting in the way of the sky. Even a country landscape seemed to have too much going on, too much clutter, too many trees, roads, houses, sheep. With so many options suddenly available to me for how to spend my time, I felt indecisive and overwhelmed by choice.


Before I set out on my voyage in November, a wise and well-traveled friend advised me that I would read less than half what I expected, but that I would never be bored and would return with my notebooks full. He was just about right. I read a little more than half of what I brought, watched fewer than half my videos, listened to just a handful of podcasts. I used none of the seasickness medication. Though I did not end up writing anything about Joseph Conrad while I was at sea, I filled two journals with my thoughts and took more than a thousand photos. I learned about individuals, an industry and a way of life — and got to polish up my French for good measure.


I come away from my weeks at sea thinking afresh about key elements that structure human experience: time, space, nature, society. Being mostly cut off from land-bound contact has given me a new sense of how selective and incomplete anybody’s understanding of the world, beyond the limits of our own lives, can be. Traveling relatively slowly has let me appreciate the richness of unpressured, open-ended time. Ringed all day and night by the sea and the sky, I appreciate more both the scale and the power of the ocean and the power of humankind to cross it. I understand land, as never before, to be the margin of an ocean that dominates the planet.


I also leave my journey with thanks and admiration for the work done by sailors, and heartfelt appreciation toward the captain and crew of the Christophe Colomb for such a warm welcome. My last words are for them. May your seas be smooth, your voyages safe, and your homecomings all you could wish.


Dec. 23, 2013

May not be home for Christmas

The Christmas tree aboard the Christophe Colomb.
Maya Jasanoff

The green sea looks as if it's foaming at the mouth with anger. Churned into surging crests, it rocks and rumbles our steel bulk, while the wind growls through the tight seals on my cabin windows and door. We're stuck, adrift off the Isle of Wight, unable to enter the port of Southampton — where I am going to disembark — due to severe gales. Because the port will be closed for Christmas and Boxing Day, and because of the long queue of ships waiting to get in ahead of us, and because of the instructions from company headquarters in Marseille that no ship be quayside on Christmas (it's expensive), we may be floating here until at least Dec. 26.


Until a few days ago Christmas spirit was building in board. Plastic Christmas trees, draped with tinsel garlands, got set up in the officers' mess and the lounges. The Filipino members of the crew celebrate primarily on Christmas Eve, I've learned, and one of the Filipino officers took charge of organizing entertainment for the occasion. "Parlor games," he calls them, in a charmingly archaic phrase to my ear: a singing contest and a dancing contest. "Will you be here for Christmas?" he asked me, his eyes wide with enthusiasm. "You can be the judge!" Then there would be a gift exchange. "And on Christmas Day?" I asked. "Christmas Day, we eat!" 


But what would they eat? The cook first suggested a barbecue. Not plausible, given that Christmas would be in the English Channel, and that even in the (much calmer, warmer) Mediterranean the sailors worked outdoors with heavy jackets over their coveralls and T-shirts wrapped around their heads against the cold. Then he suggested a buffet, stocked with a series of dishes more or less like what we eat every day. The captain countered with foie gras, roast turkey and bûche de Noël, for which he already had a recipe downloaded.


Unfortunately all the Christmas goodies and supplies were to be procured in Southampton. As long as the ship is unable to enter port, all of that is on hold, and I can feel the mood on the Christophe Colomb sinking. It already took a beating this weekend, on a rough passage across the Bay of Biscay, where 16 meters of swell and waves battered the ship and everything in it. The television in my cabin got ripped from its bolts and crashed to the floor. The treadmill thrashed into a wall and smashed it. All the Christmas trees got knocked over and haven't yet been righted.


I knew I had signed up for unpredictability of this sort when I started this voyage, and although I had planned on a more comfortable Christmas than getting buffeted in the Atlantic with bad weather and worse food, if we do end up here all week, I can chalk it up to "experience." I still have some of my own diversions left, including a few precious unwatched episodes of "Breaking Bad," and my radio is picking up the calming voices of BBC Radio 4.


The men who work here signed up for this too, but this week it is easy to see its personal cost. For a couple of hours it looked as though we might be able to divert to Hamburg, then return to Southampton for Dec. 27, instead of sitting here for several days. "Much better to go to Hamburg, then come back," said one of the sailors. "In Hamburg there's a seaman's club and for $10 we can have Internet and talk to our families all day." That's the closest to being home for Christmas most of them can ever get.


Dec. 20, 2013

Life in a box

A view from the “Christophe Colomb.”
Maya Jasanoff

Since coming on board the “Christophe Colomb,” I’ve woken up in China, Malaysia, Egypt and Morocco, without ever leaving my bedroom. It’s a remarkable sensation to be constantly in motion — some nights I’ve been jerked awake in my bed by the boat’s rolling with the waves — yet at the same time very constrained, with nowhere to go but up and down the linoleum staircase, around and around the deck. It’s made me think a lot about freedom and its limits.


Going to sea traditionally evokes adventure and possibility. The ocean presents a scene that’s both visually and metaphorically boundless. Every day since I’ve been here, I’ve watched the water reach, swell, push and churn around us, and I’ve felt lifted by it. When I try to photograph the ocean or describe it in my journal, I’m more than ever aware of how every art form is a kind of translation. Though at first blush so flat, featureless, monochromatic, the sea during these weeks has taught me to see more finely, to follow light, texture and movement.


But life on a ship is anything but limitless. It’s life in a box. As in the military, the sailors on board leave their homes and families for extended periods in a potentially dangerous workplace — an overwhelmingly male environment with ranks and uniforms and tight restrictions on personal space, actions and rights. Of course, many people find comfort in routines, and being inside this box also means being safe in the middle of a deadly environment — drowning, sharks, hypothermia, dehydration. You certainly wouldn’t want to be outside it.


Still, the men here don’t find freedom at sea. They find it in what going to sea makes possible. When I’ve asked the French officers how they ended up choosing this career, some have alluded in general terms to the chance to travel, but more often they say that since their contracts are three months on, three months off, a half-year of work at sea buys a half-year of freedom “sur terre” (on land).


The Filipinos spend up to nine months at a stretch at sea and, to a man, describe their decisions to work here as a way to help out their families: They bind themselves to liberate their kids. They say the money is so good (most earn $1,000 to $3,500 per month) that you’d have to be a bank manager or CEO in the Philippines to match it. One of them said, “It’s hard to be away from home, but we are used to it.” Another said, “Now my son is big enough that we can talk on Facebook.” And another, “I will do only four or five contracts more.”


I’ve heard a number of variations on this theme, but one in particular stands out. The cook has a 2-year-old son who was conceived on board the “Christophe Colomb” during a 12-day visit by his wife. He named the boy Christo, in honor of the ship.


Dec. 19, 2013

Between two seas

Containers aboard the ship as it passes through the Suez Canal.
Kristian Helgesen/Bloomberg/Getty Images

Toward the end of the year, a ship crossing the Indian Ocean and bound for the Suez Canal received some bad news. There was trouble in the canal zone, and the ship and its passengers would have to travel around the Cape of Good Hope instead, a detour of many days. The year was 1956. Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser had just nationalized the canal. The trouble was that the old imperial powers, Britain and France, wanted it back and invaded the canal zone to seize it — though they were forced to back down by the U.S. The ship was the P&O liner “Strathmore,” and on board was my mother, then 12, who was emigrating from India to the U.S. with her family.


I was particularly excited to transit the Suez Canal on the “Christophe Colomb,” thanks to my mother’s story and the canal’s place in modern history. The result of massive financial and human investment, the canal opened in 1869. Egypt’s ruler, Khedive Ismail, celebrated in extravagant style, commissioning Giuseppe Verdi to write the opera “Aida” and building a palace for the empress of France. Then he went bankrupt. He put his shares in the canal up for sale. Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli promptly snapped them up for the British government. “You have it, madam,” he proclaimed to Queen Victoria. Suez became a linchpin for British imperial defense and trade and remains a central artery of international shipping. When I heard how much the “Christophe Colomb” was paying to transit Suez — $800,000 — Nasser’s desire to wrest control of the canal made more sense than ever.


The officers of the “Christophe Colomb” were amused by my excitement. “For us, it’s sad, ugly. There’s nothing to see,” said the captain. It’s also a hassle for them. Westbound ships have to arrive off Suez between 11 p.m. and 1 a.m. to transit the canal in convoy around 6 a.m. (If you’re late but still want to transit that day, you pay a hefty surcharge.) Everything had better be locked, including the hatches around the anchor chains on deck, which some petty thieves have been known to climb up in order to get on board. At the entrance to the canal, the ship is joined by a boat carrying the first pilot, the ship’s agent and an electrician. All ships transiting Suez are required to have two special projectors installed at the front, in case they traverse the canal in the dark. Often some souvenir sellers arrive for the ride as well. Big ships like this one are expected to have a specially designated cabin to accommodate this Suez crew. The first pilot directs the ship through the opening stretch to Suez proper, about 30 minutes away. He gets off and is replaced by two more pilots, who take the ship to Ismailiya. They get off and are replaced by one or two more pilots, who guide the ship to Port Said, the canal’s eastern terminus.


That’s the official side. Then there are the cigarettes. Every one of these men receives a “gift” of cigarette cartons, according to an informally established tariff. By convention, the first pilot gets one carton; the second set of pilots gets two each; the third set asks for three but gets only two. The boatman, electrician and agent also leave stocked with nicotine. They all prefer Marlboro Gold to Red and don’t like the packages that have gruesome pictures of cancerous lungs — but they’ll take what they get. Our passage costs 12 or 13 cartons of cigarettes. “But that’s nothing,” says the captain, compared with some transactions in China, where 30 cartons are the norm (at least until recent crackdowns on corruption).


I got up as we slid into the canal from the Red Sea, with the dawn light stabbing straight through my porthole. All day, I wandered around the ship for views of the brown, sandy scene, dotted with bright orange military observation posts and the occasional plantation of palm trees. Fishermen pushed rowboats off the banks. Three pairs of fighter jets whistled overhead. I bought a couple of tchotchkes from the souvenir seller and tried to chat with the pilots. “Where are you from?” each one asked, and when I said, “America,” each one repeated, “America,” as if he were thinking something more — surprise, suspicion or disdain, I couldn’t say, but certainly not enthusiasm. We exited the canal as the sun set, bathing the Mediterranean in a gorgeous pink-gray twilight. It was a cold, early, wintry twilight that insisted we weren’t in Asia anymore.


Dec. 16, 2013

High-risk area

Vests on the “Christophe Colomb.”
Maya Jasanoff

“You weren’t scared, in the night, of pirates?” the captain asked me mischievously at lunch on Dec. 9. We had just sailed past Sri Lanka, into waters beyond the western edge of the navigational chart that we’d followed across the Bay of Bengal and onto the eastern edge of a different chart, titled “Anti-Piracy Planning Chart — Red Sea, Gulf of Aden, and Arabian Sea.”

The white expanses that indicate deep ocean on all the other charts is here covered by a huge red box labeled “High risk area,” which tints the ocean from India’s Cape Comorin (78 degrees east) west to the Suez Canal and from the Tanzanian coast south of Dar es Salaam (10 degrees south), all the way up to the mouth of the Persian Gulf. 


The manual for merchant ships called “Best Management Practices for Protection Against Somalia Based Piracy.”
Maya Jasanoff

A consortium of security services and insurers — headed by the U.K. Maritime Trade Operations office in Dubai, which oversees regional commercial shipping and acts as a liaison with military forces — has produced a manual for merchant ships called “Best Management Practices for Protection Against Somalia Based Piracy,” now in its fourth edition. It begins by describing the modus operandi of Somali pirates and outlining recommended protection measures. Somali pirates’ top objective is to capture hostages to hold for ransom. European merchant ships, including the “Christophe Colomb,” do not generally have armed guards or guns, so other tactics are needed to prevent pirates from boarding and seizing personnel. The manual suggests stringing razor wire or electric fences along the railings and setting up “well constructed dummies … at strategic locations” to look like sailors keeping watch. Lights should be kept off or blocked out at night. Personnel are advised not to go on deck.

Being in the high-risk area had little impact on my routine on the “Christophe Colomb,” except that this also happened to be the warmest, sunniest and calmest part of the sea we’d sailed on so far. The captain produced a lounge chair from a store cupboard so I could sunbathe on the south-facing side of the ship. “If you see a pirate, tell us!” said the chief officer with a smile when I headed out for a morning walk. One night in the high-risk area, we had a barbecue. Down by the starboard lifeboat, the Filipino crew members erected a spit made from what looked like a repurposed gear shaft and slowly roasted a suckling pig over an oilcan. Officers and crew (and passenger) drank Tiger beer and ate grilled meat and sang karaoke late into the breezy, twinkling night.

In “Ninety Percent of Everything,” a searing recent investigation of the container-shipping industry, British journalist Rose George caustically notes, “People love pirates. They are cartoons and thought harmless.” Like Johnny Depp in eyeliner or cute trick-or-treaters on Halloween. “In 2010,” she writes, “Harvard Business School chose Somali piracy as the best business model of the year.” Even the movie “Captain Phillips,” celebrated for its gripping portrayal of a Somali pirate attack, seemed to me to traffic in comic-book stereotypes: the Somalis as spectral villains with stick-thin limbs, hollow cheeks and goggling white eyes and the Navy SEALs as bulging, armor-plated, practically bionic superheroes.


On the “Christophe Colomb,” we’re doing our bit to make light of piracy. But the ship is also prepared. On deck, I noticed four of the rear fire hoses mounted on the railings, poised to blast away would-be boarders. Red plastic panels were set up over the low openings at the stern to resist grappling hooks. Hatches were padlocked. Our entry in the computerized Automatic Information System, which transmits information among ships about each vessel’s cargo, destination, etc., was deliberately scrambled. Up on the bridge, four bulletproof vests and helmets had been laid out — albeit made of metal, not Kevlar (lightweight but expensive), and weighing a good 20 pounds.

Rear fire hoses mounted on the railings.
Maya Jasanoff

When we sailed into the Gulf of Aden on Dec. 12, just off the Somali coast, the skies were clear, the sea was calm — perfect weather for pirates. No walks on deck were allowed that day. By then, the military cruisers had come into sight. While I was sunbathing, I watched one navy ship maneuver between two creeping tankers, likely acting as escort. In the evening, a charcoal-gray patrol boat cruised by as I photographed a blazing orange sunset. Two French navy ships on patrol made radio contact with the “Christophe Colomb” to check in.

The manual on piracy continues with advice on what to do in case of attack: “Section 10: If the Pirates Take Control. 10.1: Try to remain calm.” Your best bet is to get the entire crew to hide out in a designated safe room called the citadel. If pirates can’t find anybody to take hostage, the captain told me, then they’ll usually leave in a matter of hours. He took me to see the citadel. I won’t reveal its location, for safety reasons, but I will say that being inside was about what I’d imagine it would feel like to be locked in a bank vault. A set of utility shelves holds two days’ worth of bottled water and emergency food rations, a stack of inflatable mattresses with air pumps, a chemical toilet in a box and several dozen rolls of toilet paper. There’s a set of small folding tables. There’s also, critically, a satellite phone, with emergency phone numbers posted next to it — though this arrived a year after everything else.

Yet even in the citadel — a concrete response to the reality of pirate violence — comedy crept back in. Among the emergency supplies on the shelves, the captain told me, was a Monopoly set. “Seriously?” I asked. “Whose idea was that?”

“Yes,” he said, shrugging. “The company provided it. The idea is that while the pirates are on board, we will all be here inside buying and selling the Champs Elysees and Gare du Nord.” Maybe Somali piracy lends itself to comedy because no serious military, diplomatic or economic response has yet managed (or seems likely) to eradicate it.

Dec. 14, 2013

A walk around the deck

The walkway around the deck.
Maya Jasanoff

The “Christophe Colomb” is 1,199 feet long, which means that a few laps around the deck amounts to a pretty substantial walk. I had great visions, before I boarded, of taking long walks or even runs, gazing out to sea beneath the dome of a great open sky. Walking around the deck turns out to be about as charming as walking through a parking structure. It’s essentially a tunnel, one person wide, with containers stacked all along the side and overhead. Every seven paces or so along the rail side, there’s a pylon with a ladder or bars jutting into the walkway, and the ground is studded with gray-painted posts. Usually I’m too busy dodging and ducking obstructions to focus much on the glimpses of sea. About halfway along the length of the ship, the exhaust kicks in — a sticky, metallic tang so strong, I can smell it without inhaling. It clings to the back of my throat long after I return inside.

When you circle the deck, there are two magnificent places. One is at the bow (the front). When I clear the last containers and step onto the frontmost triangle of open deck, all mechanical noise vanishes — the engine hum; the grinding containers; whatever scraping, drilling, welding may be under way. I can walk right up into the ship’s gently pointed prow, step onto a low grille and look at the sea unbroken, stretching limitlessly ahead. The sea meets the ship, splits against the bow and crests back to strike the hull in strong retorts. It’s here that I feel most powerfully the ocean’s force, commanding even in its serenity.

For the smoothest circuit around the deck, when I reach the stern, I ought to go down a metal staircase from the upper deck. On the next level down there is an open space strewn with ropes as thick as my leg — and equipped with a basketball hoop, where the Filipino crew members play every Sunday afternoon, weather permitting. But I prefer to cut between port and starboard by staying on the upper deck and stepping over the high metal dividers that mark out the space for the container bays. 

The writer on the bow.
Maya Jasanoff

It’s from here that I get my second heart-stopping view: down onto the churning, seething wake behind us. If the bow is serene, the stern is pure Sturm und Drang. Our engine displaces thousands of cubic feet of water per second, and here’s the shattering consequence. The water erupts into whipped-white whorls, jets, chutes and eddies. The explosive frenzy makes me think less of water than of fire, of a mushroom cloud surging out of catastrophe. Here I feel the power of humanity as I’ve rarely felt it before — awesome, transformative, destructive.

Dec. 13, 2013

Crew recreation room

Karaoke is a popular nighttime distraction for the crew.
Patrick Guedj/Rapho/Getty Images

The party was in full swing by the time I crashed it on Saturday night. Leaving the officers' bar on Deck C, where I’d enjoyed a nightcap perched on one of the high green pleather bar seats, I went down to the Crew Recreation Room on the port side of Deck B. The layout is much the same as the officers' equivalent — there’s a bar with six swivel chairs anchored to the floor, a long banquette-style couch, a couple of coffee tables and a large flat-screen TV. But you can tell the culture is different from the moment you cross the threshold scattered with plastic sandals. Although there are Filipino officers onboard as well as Filipino crew, de facto, the division between the officer and crew mess and recreation rooms translates into a division between French and Filipino.

A couple of guys sat in swivel chairs, another five or six relaxed with their feet up on the couch. The dress code was T-shirts and shorts. The tables were strewn with cans of Coke and San Miguel beer, a bottle of brandy, bags of salty snacks from China and bright green-and-red cans of Pringles. At the far end of the couch a heavily tattooed and muscled sailor in a Barcelona football jersey held a microphone in his hand and belted out a love song.

Here’s the difference between French and Filipino culture in a snapshot: in the officers’ lounge the TV is hooked up to a game console; in the crew’s, it’s connected to a karaoke machine. The men handed microphones up and down the room, singing sentimental pop songs, while on the screen the words popped up against images of home: waterfalls, beaches, folk festivals. Sailors have long been known for their songs. Karaoke is the 21st-century answer to the sea shanty.

A young engineer peppered me with questions over the din. After we ran through the vitals (my age, my marital status, have I been on a ship before), he asked, “So what do you do every day? We are worried about you having so much time on this ship.”

“Oh, it’s very easy to fill the time,” I said. “I write every morning and I read a lot, and I talk to people. I visit the bridge, I take walks, and I run on the treadmill. In the evening sometimes I have a drink with the French, sometimes I watch a video.”

“You aren’t bored?”

“No, not yet! And I really like having this time to read and write and think.”

“You can enjoy having some me time,” he grinned, flashing his fingers in scare quotes. He added soberly, “For us, it’s always me time onboard.”

“Really? Even with the other guys around?”

“Yeah, it’s good to have other Filipinos. But we get tired of seeing the same people. Oh, we think, ‘It’s you again,’ ‘It’s your face,’ ‘It’s you,’” he said, gesturing around the room. “Nothing new.” He asked me if I’d had any trouble with seasickness, especially in the rough seas a few days ago.  “No, none at all. You?

“No seasickness.” He paused. “We have homesickness. We suffer from that a lot.”

Readers may have noticed that I have not said anything about my fellow travelers on the Christophe Colomb. I am on board as a tourist, a paying guest on a working ship. The officers and crew have given me a warm welcome, and I’ve been getting to know many of them during my days on board. I have told the Captain and some others that I am writing a blog about my passage. They are interested, but they don’t want to be featured personally. Out of respect for their privacy and professional integrity, I am treating my sources as anonymous, and limiting my reporting to incidents and conversations that relate directly to my own experience.



Dec. 13, 2013

Officer mess room

Red and white Burgundy with tied napkins to catch drips.
Maya Jasanoff

Every day I go down to Deck B, turn right at the mouth of the stairs, walk past a poster of Klimt’s “The Kiss” and a wall map of “The World of CMA CGM” and push open the heavy door to the Officer Mess Room.


The officers walk down together from the “Officer Recreation Room” upstairs, dressed for the occasion in white shirts with shoulder tabs, blue trousers (jeans permitted) and loafers. We sit down in assigned seats, unfurling our white cloth napkins from their white cloth pouches, labeled in Magic Marker: “Capt,” “C/O” (Chief Officer), “Pser” (passenger — that’s me) and so on. I am at the captain’s left. He invited me to sit there on my first night, much to my relief, instead of at the passengers’ place, a small, lonely table in the corner.


There are always two baskets of baguettes wrapped in white cloth napkins and an assortment of bottles: oil and vinegar, two brands of soy sauce, two kinds of Tabasco, Sriracha, ketchup and a suspicious yellow salad dressing. Also wine. Red and white Burgundy with bow-tied napkins to catch the drips. Two blue plastic envelopes hold the daily menu with a photo and ship-related announcements on the left-hand page (“16:15 Abandon ship instruction in ship office,” “Tonight turn your watches one hour backwards”), and the description of today’s meals on the right.


We are served by a white-jacketed steward, in hierarchical order: first the captain and me, then the chief officer and chief engineer, the second and third engineers and finally the two cadets, at the far end of the table. Entree, main course, cheese board — this is a French ship — then dessert.


It would be splendid, but for one thing: the food is monotonous, oily, overcooked. “Rice and potatoes, potatoes and rice,” sums up the Chief Engineer — and meat, meat, meat. The condiments scarcely help.


The best thing one can say for the food is that it provides a rich topic of conversation. Without the captain, meals would be eaten in near silence. He’s a spirited talker, a lively raconteur, quick to laugh and tease. He keeps things going minus any “news” in a community that’s been largely cut off from the world for weeks. There’s only so far these men will dig into personal reminiscence at the dinner table and only so far that talk of future ports or a homecoming can go. At least the food changes twice a day — even if it’s only from rice to potatoes and back.


Dec. 8, 2013

In the strait

The bridge on the Christophe Colomb.
Maya Jasanoff

The groaning started at night, after we sailed from the Port of Yantian, in China. I wondered if it was the wind. If so, it seemed like the perfect soundtrack as I headed out for my first days in the open sea on the Christophe Colomb, the container ship on which I am traveling from China to Europe. The noise got more abrupt, metallic, like the clanging of steam in old heating pipes. Then it broke free in a full-throated, grinding roar that seemed to rise and fall with the sea itself. I realized it was the containers, scraping against one another as they rolled with the ship.


In the morning, I went up to the bridge for a 360-degree view. There is open access to the bridge on the Christophe Colomb, and there is always an officer on watch duty: The day is divided into four-hour shifts, with three officers taking two turns each. The gray-blue sea formed ridges lined with white. "Rough sea," said the watch officer, "Force 6 or 7, near gale." But in a ship this size, that designation — the middle of the Beaufort Wind Scale, used by sailors to characterize the strength of storms — hardly feels storm-tossed.


Our next destination was Singapore, an "ad hoc call'' added (to my great delight) to the regular schedule. Situated at the tip of the Malay Peninsula, and at the gate of the Strait of Malacca — the narrow band of water that separates the Pacific from the Indian Ocean — Singapore seems destined by its geographical position alone to claim a leading role in international trade. Since its founding in 1819 as a British colonial trading center, the city has been a commercial hub and cosmopolitan crossroads, with a diverse population of Malays, Chinese, Indians and Europeans.

Singapore's multiculturalism remains as pronounced today as it was when Joseph Conrad made Singapore a regular port of call. Indeed, if anything it's increased, as the Filipino crew on the Christophe Colomb can explain: Some have friends and family who work here, just as they do in Hong Kong. In the six hours I spent on shore, I circuited the serene, incense-scented, air-conditioned, Chinese-built Temple of the Buddha's Tooth. I heard a clamor of horns and drums summon worshippers through the gates of the Hindu Sri Mariamman Temple for evening prayers and kept walking past the lime-green Chulia Mosque. I stopped in to one of the fabulously varied hawker centers (food courts), which make Singapore such an exciting culinary destination and I continued up to the Singapore River to the colonial-era General Post Office, now a hotel with a plaque commemorating Conrad outside. Though I've visited Singapore before and delighted in all these things, I've never felt as transported as I did stepping into its bustle from my confined, if mobile, home on the Christophe Colomb.

The Malaysian port Kelang.
Lai Seng Sin/AP

Yet, as I returned to the ship I was reminded of how every geography is culturally, economically and physically constructed. In the 19th century, Singapore appeared to be central in a British imperial system dedicated to trading opium and tea between India and China. More recently, Singapore reasserted its hub status by building a container port that has for decades been one of the largest in the world. But as ships get bigger, and economies realign, even longstanding or seemingly "natural" configurations can change. China and neighboring Malaysia have both been building ports far better able to handle today's supercapacity container ships. And as these ships have already started exceeding the limits of the Suez and Panama Canals (the Christophe Colomb, for instance, surpasses Panamax, the maximum size for a ship that can traverse the Panama Canal), soon the Strait of Malacca may be superseded by ships that exceed Malaccamax, and search out alternate routes.

Malaysia's Port Kelang, our last stop before crossing the Indian Ocean, is one of the newest megacenters of global shipping. It stretches for nearly four miles along a strip of coast about 25 miles from Kuala Lumpur. I got off the ship and had dinner in the dockworkers' canteen, crowded with men in fluorescent green vests eating plates of cheap, tasty Malay and Indian curries, using the free Wi-Fi and watching a sensational nature documentary on TV. (The only women in sight were cleaning the floor.) I walked back to the Christophe Colomb along the quayside, which was lined with ships owned by Chinese, Italian, Danish, French and South African companies; flying flags from Panama, Liberia and beyond; and crewed by Romanians, Filipinos, Indians and others. One thing is for sure: Wherever there is seaborne trade, there will be a kind of cosmopolitanism. Somebody had scrawled graffiti in Devanagari script on the yellow bases of the gantry cranes and written (in English): "I love in Nepal."

Dec. 6, 2013

The China trade

PORT OF CHIWAN, China — My first leg on the Christophe Colomb might have been faster by car, since our destination, Chiwan, is adjacent to Hong Kong. It forms part of the port of Shenzhen, which has been transformed in just one generation from a modest provincial town into a sprawling manufacturing and commercial powerhouse. “We have a saying in China,” said the ship’s local agent. “If you want to understand the history of China for the last 300 years, visit Beijing. If you want to understand the history of China for the last 3,000 years, visit Xian.” But “if you want to understand the history of China for the last 30 years, visit Shenzhen.”


The route that brings our European ship to the southern Chinese coast has long roots, however. In the 18th century, Westerners came to purchase coveted Chinese silk, porcelain and tea, and paid for it in silver. Concerned about the drain of coinage, they tried — unsuccessfully — to find commodities that the Chinese would accept instead. The Qianlong emperor dismissed one British ambassador, who came bearing the latest inventions of the Industrial Revolution, saying that he had no use for such baubles and whirligigs.


In the early 1800s, the British landed on a trade good that the Chinese would purchase: opium, grown in India. Soon the British East India Company became one of the biggest narcotics dealers in world history. When the Qing Dynasty tried to suppress this toxic trade, the British brought in the gunboats, crushing opposition, winning colonial possession of Hong Kong and forcing open Chinese markets. In the 1860s the French company Messageries Maritimes began running a regular Hong Kong service — continued today by its successor, CMA CGM, the company that owns the Christophe Colomb.


But the trade imbalance continues. It’s common for a ship like the Christophe Colomb to sail from Europe stacked with empty containers, with little to offer China but lots to bring back. On my first day aboard, large sections of the deck remained bare. “Will all these bays be filled?” I asked the chief officer. “Yes, of course,” he said, though “it depends a little bit on the season. Right now it is too late in the year for deliveries before Christmas.”


Arguably the greatest transformation between the China trade of yesteryear and now is the way that it’s packed. In his brilliant history of containerization, “The Box,” economist Marc Levinson makes a convincing case for the shipping container as an invention that truly changed the world, transforming global distribution, markets and labor. It also revolutionized maritime practice. When Joseph Conrad sailed around Asia, cargo operations could take weeks, with every sack, every crate, every log, every vat, maneuvered in and out by human muscle power. How to load a ship was one of a senior officer’s biggest challenges: It could make the difference between a profitable and an unprofitable voyage, a slow or a fast passage, and even life and death. For sailors, this drawn-out process had the benefit of long shore leaves, to indulge in the notorious delights of foreign ports.


Now, it takes as little as one minute (I timed it) for the giant dockside cargo cranes to pluck a container weighing up to 30 tons from the quay and sweep it into place on a ship. It’s surprisingly graceful to watch. A trolley slides across the beams of the loading crane, and drops a set of claws over a container that has been driven into place on a truck. The claws clamp the box, swing it up, glide forward into position over the deck, and drop the box into place. The whole thing looks as simple as plopping a sugar cube into a cup of tea. The chief officer monitors the process on a panel of computer screens, ensuring an appropriate distribution of cargo weight against ballast. He has no idea what’s in the containers, of course — only which ones need to be refrigerated, and which ones contain hazardous materials.


Port calls rarely take more than 24 hours, and since container ports are often far from city centers, for sailors today it’s often not worth paying for a taxi and negotiating in foreign languages and currencies for just a couple of hours on shore. I got out at Chiwan to see for myself. “Time is money, efficiency is life” proclaimed a sign on the road into nearby Shekou. I walked down rows of interchangeable shops selling knockoff sneakers and basketball jerseys, cigarettes, alcohol and tea, smartphones and MP3 players. “Eight years ago,” the ship’s safety officer told me, “it was super cheap to come here. You paid nothing for a taxi, you could bargain on the prices, and for $200 sailors could have good clothes for a year. Two or three years ago they charged $5 for the taxi. Now it is $10, each way. Next year, we will not come.”


So when we left Chiwan and called the next day at Yantian (neighboring Hong Kong to the west), I was happy just to sit on deck and watch the containers come and go. Clamp, lift, sweep and drop; clamp, lift, sweep and drop. Within a matter of hours, all the empty spaces had been filled, stacked eight or 10 high (and 10 or 12 below) with boxes of ocher and navy, evergreen and red. We may be too late for Christmas, but sailing tall with our brightly colored packages, we’re well decked out.


Dec. 3, 2013

Anchors aweigh

My cabin in the "Christophe Colomb."
Maya Jasanoff

HONG KONG —  The first thing I discovered is that boarding a container ship is a lot simpler than boarding a plane. No customs, immigration or security — which means no queuing, no fumbling with shoes and jackets, no undignified body scans and nary a Ziploc bag in sight.


On Friday afternoon, a cheerful young man with fashionably feathered hair arrived at my hotel in a black SUV and whisked me off to the container port in Kowloon, a mere 20 minutes from the central business district in Hong Kong. (The airport is considerably farther.) At the port gate, he grabbed a laminated pass and swept past the barrier into a city built of boxes.


We zigzagged among the stacks of containers — navy, maroon, ocher and gray — arranged in a grid, a tidy urban downtown where the buildings have been replaced by larger-than-life Lego pieces. One block, then five, then 10, then too many to count.


You can tell where the waterfront is by the fat trunks of the cargo cranes that line the quays and the long walls of hulls that fill in the spaces behind the container mountains with solid bands of blue. We drove past one ship and then another that didn't seem to end — that was it.


I stumbled out of the car, reeling with a kind of reverse vertigo, struggling to read the gargantuan white letters on the hull. "Wow," I said. It's not even the biggest ship in the CMA CGM cargo shipping group, the driver said, perplexed by the awe in my voice. I had no idea where to board this towering vessel. Then I saw a gangplank angling precipitously to the quay from a point seven or eight stories above. Bouncing up the springy steps, I met a Filipino seaman in coveralls, grinning hello and shaking my hand in welcome. On the deck, another sailor stood at a podium painted in slashes of red, white and blue, with a stenciled greeting, "Welcome on board CMA CGM Christophe Colomb."

The gangplank to board the Christophe Colomb.
Maya Jasanoff

"Passenger on board!" the driver announced, as he followed me through a hatch into a corridor and then an office. A man, the chief officer, swiveled away from a panel of computer screens with a broad smile. "Ms. Maya?" he asked. "Ah, finally! We have been expecting you!" I gave him my passport, ticket and yellow-fever certificate, and he led me into an elevator that took us up the decks of the "castle," which houses the accommodations, offices and galley and is topped by the bridge, the room or platform from which the ship is commanded. "It's so big!" I marveled. (Whatever capacity I have to think of something original vanishes in the face of wonder.) "Very big for cargo," he said, "but the cabins are not so big."

But small is entirely relative when you're on a ship the length of four Manhattan blocks. We arrived on Deck E and the door of VIP Cabin B, my cabin — rather, my stateroom. It had a foyer with two ample closets, a living area with a comfortable wraparound couch, a deep desk, a queen-size bed flanked by large side tables and a bathroom equipped with the unanticipated luxury of a bathtub. Best of all, from my point of view, there were five windows — three facing aft (the rear of the ship) and blocked by containers and two starboard (the right side of the ship if you're facing forward) and unobstructed — and a door onto a private deck, complete with a comfortable bench for staring out at sea. On 19th century immigrant ships, 10 to 15 steerage passengers would have occupied the space I have on the Christophe Colomb for myself.

But I am only the 31st person on this huge vessel — and the last, the only passenger, the only woman and the only American, in addition to eight Frenchmen, 20 Filipinos and two Indians. At 21:00, the 31 of us set out to sea. I went to the bridge to watch us pull away. One by one, the cargo cranes that had been dropping boxes onto the deck all afternoon raised their great jibs above the ship in slow-motion arcs, like the arms of titans granting benediction on our journey.

Nov. 27, 2013

Waiting for my ship

Haiphong Road in Hong Kong
Jerome Favre/EPA

HONG KONG — I woke this morning to the sheen of the dawning sun in the mirrors of the Bank of China Tower, the yelping of apes in the Hong Kong Zoo and news of my ship mistakenly lodged in my spam folder: a message from the captain informing me that the Christophe Colomb was awaiting entry to Shanghai, where the port was "closed due to strong winds." The Christophe Colomb — the container ship that will be my home during its four-week journey from Hong Kong to Southampton, England — is going to call in Hong Kong at 5 a.m. local time on Nov. 29, two days later than expected.


Although I have most of what I think I need, I have spent my extra time here in search of a clutch of final items: a cheap duffel bag, some ginger tea and a shortwave radio. It's a self-imposed scavenger hunt, and what better place for a scavenger hunt than Hong Kong?


While networks of shopping malls form polished retail cities with about as much local feel as a major international airport, lanes of street-facing shops and stalls provide cheaper, more colorful commerce. In a single neighborhood you can walk past medicine shops jammed with jars of pale, bulbous curatives and bundles of healing twigs; electronics stores stuffed with Japanese camera lenses; tea sellers whose fat, wheel-shaped parcels cast a smoky aroma over the sidewalk; vendors of suitcases, fish sauces, cell-phone cases and a menagerie of plastic, fluffy, fluorescent, battery-operated creatures, the monstrous offspring of generations of inbred cartoon characters.


Two hundred years ago, in what must have been the first guidebook for British travelers to Asia, "The East India Vade-Mecum" counseled sea voyagers to take a washbasin, a chamber pot, a pound of tea, five pounds of sugar, soap that could be dissolved in salt water and both a horsehair and a feather pillow — the latter for cold weather and the former for hot. Passengers added diversions to help pass the time: backgammon sets, concertinas, playing cards. Imperial civil servants used their weeks at sea to study Asian languages or to undertake courses of edifying reading. Travelers also took precautions for seasickness. "The East India Vade-Mecum" scoffed at "that unfeeling advice given to the unwary, 'to drink a glass of spirits,'" which "invariably tends to aggravate all the symptoms," and instead recommended “acids and laudanum, in repeated small doses.” An 1880s guidebook offered something even better:


Source: W. J. Loftie, ed., "The Orient Line Guide"
Medicine for the trip
Maya Jasanoff

The specific products and quantities may have changed in the past century or two, but I’m struck by how little the basic categories of baggage have. I've got my own soap, sugar (well, chocolate) and tea, and I've considered taking my own bedding. No cocaine lozenges to be found, but here's what I've procured for seasickness (see image at right).

And though I hope to emulate the high-minded activities of travelers past by reading and writing while at sea, I've also equipped myself with lighter fare: New York Times crossword puzzles, the last three months of The New Yorker and the first three seasons of "Breaking Bad."

I also have a satellite phone, which I'll be using to send dispatches from the ship. Till the ship comes in, I'm turning my scavenger hunt into a search for Hong Kong's best dim sum. Reader suggestions welcome!

Nov. 24, 2013

The slow boat from China

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — To be a historian today is to be a contrarian. In a culture obsessed with innovation, where even the start of our own century can look obsolete — pre-9/11, pre–financial crisis, pre-iPhone, pre-Facebook, YouTube and Twitter — my job involves studying the past. Why would any forward-thinking person bother with that?


My answer is that, in defining ways, the world is what it was. Today you may be able to communicate instantly with people on another continent, or fly over to meet them in a matter of hours. But chances are high that the screen you're reading this on got to you the way most commodities have always traveled (and the way 90 percent of the world's freight moves today): by ship. In fact, a lot of what defines our global present relies on geographical, economic and cultural connections, and even basic technologies, that are centuries old.


As a historian I am interested in how the past shapes the present and the future, and in how it can help us make sense of our interconnected world. History at once poses and helps to answer critical questions. When we seize an opportunity, what risks do we incur? What forces constrain us? How might changes that we consider to be positive actually cause suffering to others? And what responsibilities do we bear toward them if so?


To find out, I've been looking at a rich if unconventional historical source: the novels of Joseph Conrad. Today Conrad is best known for his 1899 novella "Heart of Darkness" (and its reworking in the movie "Apocalypse Now"), which describes a British steamship captain's journey up the Congo River to fetch Kurtz, a European ivory trader whose "method" has become dangerously "unsound." This book, like most of Conrad’s fiction, was based on personal experience. He was born in 1857 to Polish parents in present-day Ukraine, and spent 20 years sailing around the world as a merchant mariner — including a short stint as a steamship captain in the Congo — before settling down in England and becoming a full-time writer, in English, his third language. In an oeuvre of exceptional geographical and topical range, Conrad described the beginnings of globalization as we know it today: a world in motion and increasingly financially, politically and culturally intertwined; a world in flux, shaken by new powers, technology and ideas; a world whose dynamics strikingly resemble those of our own.


If we read novels to understand life better, reading Conrad can help us understand globalized life better. He explores what it's like to be out of place and to deal with difference, how to act when you are constrained by systems bigger than you, and how to make choices when every moral issue appears in shades of gray. His prophetic ability to speak to current concerns has helped make him one of the most influential English-language authors since Shakespeare, provoking and inspiring writers from Chinua Achebe to Mario Vargas Llosa to V.S. Naipaul to Ann Patchett to W.G. Sebald.


As part of my project to investigate the links between the globalized past and present — with Conrad as my guide — in a few days I will be boarding the CMA CGM Christophe Colomb in Hong Kong, a French-flagged Explorer-class container ship, and sailing to Southampton, England. When it was delivered in late 2009, the Christophe Colomb was the largest ship that carried passengers, and it's still among the biggest afloat: 365.5 meters long, 51.2 meters across, with a carrying capacity of 13,344 TEUs — or "twenty-foot equivalent units," the size of a container — which means it would take a line of trucks nearly 50 miles long to drive away with a shipload of cargo.


From Hong Kong, the Christophe Colomb will stop in the nearby ports of Chiwan and Yantian, and continue through the Straits of Malacca to Port Kelang in Malaysia. From there it will set out across the Indian Ocean, into the Gulf of Aden — otherwise known as "Pirate Alley" for its frequent pirate attacks — up the Red Sea and through the Suez Canal. After approximately 17 days at sea, the Christophe Colomb will call at Tangier for a penultimate stop before crossing the notoriously stormy Bay of Biscay and terminating at Southampton, about 27 days after leaving Hong Kong.


Yes, it's an extreme research trip. But I can think of no better way to understand the geographies of culture and trade that knitted together Conrad’s world and ours — or the contours of life at sea about which Conrad wrote so much. In fact, Conrad sailed parts of this route more than any other, participating in the commercial traffic that has for centuries linked Europe and Asia.

The Christophe Colomb is 365.5 meters long and 51.2 meters across. It would take a line of trucks nearly 50 miles long to drive away with a shipload of cargo.
Kenzo Tribouillard/AFP/Getty Images

Here's what I know about the voyage: Although the Christophe Colomb is a dedicated freighter, it does have five passenger cabins available for booking by private citizens like me. I've reserved a cabin situated on Deck F, which, according to the shipping company's brochure, will be "about 23m2, fitted with one double bed 200 x 160 cm" and "a refrigerator, a sofa, a tea table, a desk, an easy chair, a wall mirror and a private lavatory unit with shower, wash basin and WC." Thanks to a "Guide to Freighter Cruising" provided by the agent from whom I bought my ticket, I know that I'll be having my meals in the mess with the officers, that I should be able to get off the ship for its brief (six- to 24-hour) stays in port, that there should be a passenger lounge, a saltwater swimming pool and a "gymnasium, about 34 m2, on Deck A, provided with Ping-Pong table, rowing machine, home trainer, darts game." I also know "there is no entertainment on board." "You should take your own supplies of reading material," advises my shipping agent.


Here's what I don’t know: What will I do for 27 days? No Internet, no phone, no news. Nowhere to walk, nowhere to go. No fresh vegetables. I also don't know who else will be with me on the ship apart from the crew — will there be any passengers in the other four cabins? — let alone what will be massed inside those 13,344 stacked, locked chambers of secrets.


So while I'm excited about the adventure — about new sensory experiences, about the ideas and insights that come from a long time alone — I'm worried about things too. Not about pirates, as it happens. I like to think the new Tom Hanks movie, "Captain Phillips," offers a prophylactic: When the Maersk Alabama heads out from port, the ship berthed on the right-hand side of the frame is none other than the Christophe Colomb! (Admittedly, the greater reason not to worry about pirates is the size of the ship combined with the extent of international policing in the region.)


Rather, I've had a couple of inevitable dreams about shipwrecks and drowning. In waking moments I worry more about seasickness. I worry about getting lonely, with no connection to friends or family, and no sense of what the crew or any fellow passengers might be like. Most of all, I worry about cabin fever: about running out of things to read, or that I'll get too sick or bored or miserable to be able to read the things I do have.


Right now, my greatest challenge is figuring out what to pack, since whatever I want during these four weeks I will have to take with me. I have a range of seasickness remedies, sufficient (I hope) supplies of toiletries, layerable clothing and, at the advice of my shipping agent, "some cords … in order to protect objects such as radios and alarm clocks from falling" during a storm. Critically, I have an iPad loaded with books and podcasts and videos — and I have a stack of books in case I can't cope with screens. What should I read, watch or listen to? And what am I forgetting?


Maya Jasanoff

Maya Jasanoff is a professor of history at Harvard. She is the author of two prize-winning books, "Edge of Empire" (2005) and "Liberty's Exiles" (2011), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award for Nonfiction. She is currently writing "The Worlds of Joseph Conrad," which uses Conrad's life and fiction to provide a transcontinental history of the world circa 1900.