So I wrote a bunch of posts while out at sea, but obviously couldn't actually post them. Since if I were to post them seperately, they would all show up in reverse order, I am posting them all here as one megapost. It gets sort of long, so I put it after the jump. Photos are incoming.
Passing through Panama
It is hard to say much about the canal. It is interesting and rather pretty, but in a way that requires someone better at writing than I to describe. I will post a whole bunch of pictures at some point, but not today.
The issue, I suppose, is that the canal is a marvel of logistics, which I don't see directly, and of construction, which ended 100 years ago. Yes, you can see the hills through which they blasted, but they honestly don't look that different from the hills in Austin that were blasted apart to make room for 360, except for the color and vegitation. In a way, I suppose it is like the Mississippi I left a week ago, both of North America's top two waterways are industrial, working rivers, and seemingly have more important things to do than play themselves up as tourist attractions despite thier impressive and storied histories.
The other part is perhaps a change in perspective. Industrial scenes are still interesting even after working in one, but in a different way. What once would have seemed a mess of piping and hardware has become in my mind something more intelligible, kind of like how the letters of a foreign language look less exotic once you learn the language. I noticed as I was watching Escape Plan the other night, where the final brawl is in the engine room of a container ship and the scene seemed somehow less gritty and dramatic when you can identify those funny looking machines as fuel purifiers and can guess where all the pipes go.
I get the sense that there was more going on on the pacific side near Panama city and the entrance to the ocean, but it was nighttime when we passed through there. The locks themselves are pretty much the same as the Soo locks on the lakes, except there are more of them. The lake had a nice mysterious mist hanging over it, though I think it would also look nice in clear weather.
The water itself looks different in the different seas. The Caribbean had a nice light blue, while the pacific is much deeper blue. The Pacific also seems like smoother water, not in terms of waves, which are larger and cause more rolling, but in terms of the very surface of the water being flatter.
Port Report: Corinto, Nicaragua
We slowed down on the way up to avoid arriving in the night, because the port only works during the day. The working day was fairly normal until dinner time, when the entire mood of the ship changed. Most of the guys skipped dinner, but I went in anyway being an inexperienced traveller and unsure of the food on offer. I shouldn't have been so hesitant, since, this being a decently sized town, there are of course a number of restaurants of varying quality. Tomorrow, I will also be skipping dinner. Unless the steward makes something really good, in which case I will have two dinners.
This was my first foriegn port, and my first visit to a truly poor country. To be cliche, it really was different from America. The buildings were different, the people looked different, the roadways were organized differently, and through it all the cats and dogs looked exactly the same as back home, though there were many more of them roaming the streets, exacerbating the differences.
Perhaps this would be better off as less of a philosophical journey and more of a story. It begins after dinner when one of the ABs tells me that my fellow GUDE (who I was sort of relying on because he speaks Spanish, and because I am generally unsure in new situations) has already gone to some bar. He gave me the name, but between his accent and the spanish name, I wholly fail to grasp it. I smile and nod and walk off the ship.
The cargo is being unloaded by a group of Nicaraguan stevedores who are apparently compentant to a degree that surpised one of the mates and may well be cutting our visit here shorter than the rumored 4-5 days. To get off the ship I walk by the open cargo hold, filled to the top with wheat, and under the moving crane that is scooping up a load and then dumping it into basically a giant funnel that channels the grain into a waiting truck. These trucks are constantly on the move and driven by astonishingly careless drivers. I nearly got hit more than once just getting out of the port, and later on in the story I walk by the mangled bicyle of a fellow who got closer than that.
Fortunately, this port, unlike most American ports, doesn't require escort or that manner of bullshit. I nearly walked straight out until a security guard motioned towards a little customs station. I go up to the window and give him my ID and he says I need a shore pass. A what? I ask. A shore pass. In any case, I go back to the ship and ask the watchman about shore passes, he tells me where they are, and I finally make it out of the port and into the wild and impoverished streets of Corinto.
Immediately upon exiting the gate, looking very much like a clueless American and not even a little bit like a native, I am hailed in English by a fellow in his late teens. He tells me that he used to live in Miami, which may well be true, and that he had a bad accident with a motorcycle, which may also be true but probably wasn't. I was on the alert in alien territory, having heard all manner of tales from folks at Piney Point and elsewhere, and was fully expecting any sort of perfidy from this sincere looking fellow. I told him I didn't have any money (not true) and was just out to walk around town and look around (mostly true). However, Land Pilots, as they are called, don't take no for an answer and followed along with me as I walked pointing out the garishly painted plaza and other local landmarks. Eventually he started leading me fairly far down a residential area and the idea seized me that he was going to take me to some gang territory where I would be jumped and robbed and possibly beaten and so I started walking in pretty much any other direction as he tried to cajole me towards a place where "a large group of tourists from Oklahoma were hanging out". I never did meet any Oklahomans as the evening progressed, but I won't discount the possibility of their existance. Eventually I walked back to the garishly colored plaza and he finally decided that one of the other people from the ship would be more interested in his story.
I started walking again and, alone now, finally started to get a good look at the place. The people live in long row houses seperated by thin walls that affords each family one or two rooms mostly open to public view. There are no yards in town, just sidewalks, and it made me feel like I was walking on someone's lawn to take the sidewalk instead of walking in the cobbled street. Having started near the port, it wasn't that hard to get to a small beach at the end of a cul-de-sac. The short last bit of street was homes on both sides with people sitting on stoops and a small gaggle of cats and dogs napping right where the sand began. The whole beach was no more than 100 yards, half of it thick wet sand that smelt of fish and urine and the far half made of large black volcanic boulders. It was here that another land pilot found me and offered to find me some beer, then offered women, then when I turned both of those down he offered to rent me a fishing pole. That was apparently the full range of ambitions he was familiar with, and as good as his english was, the notion that someone could just be out on a walk seemed either wholly baffling or insufficiently lucrative to acknowledge.
At the far end of the beach was a bar with a two story balcony. I looked up to see my buddy waving, me being so profoundly out of place that he could spot me from a hundred yards away. My new buddy climbed the rocks with me and we came in through the balcony, though we parted ways upon entering. The GUDE and third engineer had been up there for quite a while and the third in particular was already pretty far into the cheap local beer, called Tona, or Tonya, whatever it is because I can't figure out how to make the ~ go on top of the n. The first thing he asked me was how old a girl wearing coveralls and a cut up t-shirt in the corner looked. Not quite yet comprehending the situation, I gave her a look and guessed 16. He gave a sigh and said, "yea, I kind of figured that." I gave him a look asking what, exactly, his purpose was and he came right out and told me she was offering her body for $40. I confess to being a little shocked, but he didn't notice because he was drunk and continued on that he was considering giving her $20 just to hang around because he didn't like the idea of young girls having to sell themselves.
That didn't keep him from going off with another girl of only slightly less questionable youth half an hour later. I don't drink, but I tried most of a bottle of the local To~n~a and decided that, as beer went, it was tolerable mostly because it was tremendously watered down. I got nothing out of it and spent most of the time staring out at an absolutely beautiful view of a bay with an electrical storm off on one horizon and the stars directly overhead. I am going to try and take pictures tomorrow, but I am hesitant of showing off anything too expensive or playing too much of the tourist. I didn't get the impression that I was in any great danger of crime, but I seem unable to shake my prejudices.
After a period of staring off at the water and small islands and thunderstorm out in the distance, I realized my companions had all left one by one with ladies of business. We had decided to meet up later at the restaurant next door, so I began to walk aimlessly around town.
It occurred to me as I walked that I am very glad not to be impoverished to the degree that this town is. Partly because of the material deprivations and partly because of the lack of privacy and partly because of how much smaller the world is with a patchy, overpriced internet connection, but mostly because the main form of entertainment for these people seems to be other people. There were old men on benches in the park chatting. There were youths standing on sidewalks socializing. There were children running through the streets, streets dominated by pedestrians and bikes, both pedal and motor, shouting at each other with the same energy whether the group had a soccer ball or not. The only people I saw not chatting were sitting quietly near chatting people, close enough to hear but far enough not to have to engage. And I don't like people. In Corinto, it seems that every day is the sort of old people party where people stand around and talk to each other out in the streets all evening long, a veritable hell on earth. These people seem to enjoy themselves, but I have always been in the minority in my misanthropy. I walked by some shops and considered getting some doodads for back home, but there aren't the sorts of hand-crafted native artsy things my mother gets excited for and I didn't take any money out at draw, where the captain hands out cash right before a port stop taken out of earned wages, so I only have some $40 to last for probably two more dinners.
In any case, I wandered the streets observing people and trying to coax cats up to me, none of whom were having any of it, tomorrow I may buy some meat to try and feed them, until I reached another shore. The shoreline around here has quite a lot of juts and jagged edges, so there are multiple shorelines facing in multiple directions. It was dark out, allowing a nice view of the houses north along the coastline and a clear view of the brigher stars. Along the way I had picked up another land pilot as one's shoes pick up sand on the beach. This one offered women, alcohol, and gambling machines, so I tried to push him off by telling him that God didn't want me to be sinning. His eyes got a little bigger and he nodded respectfully and took me into a small community chapel.
Walking in to a random chapel while on a walk brought me back to my trip to Rome where we walked into every cathedral we passed by to view all the art. In a way, this little chapel captured some of the same quiet and calm as those much more magnificent edifice, but aside from that it could not have been more different. A wood and drywall construction that could well have been a large garage had it not been a church, the only part of the pews that were polished were the parts people sat on. Indeed, rougher wood was evident between what were clearly the regular seats of reverent churchgoers. These were probably the only walls in town with neither garish paint nor graffiti nor art, just white drywall. There were no Christ images, no crosses, and in fact no bibles were evident, just a box with a rug on top for the altar. I only stayed for a moment so as not to disturb the Wednesday study group- three old women and a young man in a collar- and continued on.
I walked by a large warehouse behind a high stone wall topped with barbed wire. My tour guide informed me that this was the regional sugar depository and that the Greek ship docked in front of us, the Chios Luck, was there to pick up 25,000 tons of sugar. The next month they were planning on sending out 45,000 tons. That and the port were the only two industries I could see, but for a town this small, that plus tourism/drunken sailors is probably enough to make this a relatively prosperous community by regional standards.
I stopped at the restaurant only long enough to say good evening to my newly satisfied shipmates and long enough to notice that the food there looked really good. On the way back out, it was finally late enough and dark enough not to attract another land pilot as I took a meandering route back to the plaza and then to the ship.
Returning to the ship, I noticed that no one at all stopped me from coming in the main gate, our only defense was the AB on watch at the gangway. He asked where I had found ladies and alcohol, so I gave him directions to the bar and restaurant, then headed back in to write this and then sleep.
A second day in Corinto
I was the only one who showed up for the 0600 morning overtime. The day went fairly normally, the engineers were trying for the fourth day straight to fix a problem with the steam boiler and called me up to help out in a few places, just holding things and cleaning messes, and the rest of the day was going back and forth between cleaning things and "assisting" the GUDE working at the welding station. I am not welding certified and did not contribute in any way, but it was close enough to work to look like working if the officers happened to glance in my direction.
I did manage to get my hands on the ship's camera today. The officers wanted to get a look at a part of the boiler that is hard to reach into, so they sent me to the captain's office to pick up the very small, very cheap ship's camera. Our remote sensing solution was to duct tape it to a stick, but after cleaning the oil off, I was able to sneak it back to my room and upload all the photos, mostly pictures the deck cadets took under orders to photograph the entire ship or some such.
I made sure to check the dinner menu at lunch time and, good news, it looked like a disappointing meal, so right after work I took a quick shower and went out again.
Though I spent even longer wandering around than yesterday, there is less to report. I brought my phone to take pictures and though I tried to be discreet I still got some nasty looks for taking pictures around town and attracted more than one beggar at the sight of my nicer than average phone. I went back to the beach and walked about a mile down the "highway" and covered pretty much every street in the main part of town.
I had gone out with the intention of finding dinner and, remembering Tyler Cowen's advice to eat where ever you see lots of locals, found myself at one of the many fried chicken restaurants around town. A leg and thigh, small bowl of very sweet cole slaw, dried out fries and a coke cost slightly more than $3 american. I gave him a five and got back change in the local currency, the cordobas, currently trading around 25:1.
The currency is pretty neat, the 20 being a bright yellow bill featuring a group of black women around a tree on one side and a Mayan grinding corn near a beach hut on the other. The coins all include a triangular symbol designed as if to taunt conspiracy theorists seeking the illuminati and "En Dios Confiamos" on the back. Around the edge the coins read "Republica de Nicaragua" which is reasonable enough, as well as "America Central" as if the national treasury department is worried its citizens will forget what continent they are on if not regularly reminded.
In any case, the chicken was solidly good. Not great, but in no way bad. I sat near the front door looking out on the road when a different sort of beggar noticed my plate. A very thin dog came up to the door and sat right at the threshold making eyes at me throughout the meal. The workers shooed it away whenever they happened to walk past, but she always came back after putting on a show of leaving. A note on the animals-- though nearly all of the many dogs and cats wandering the streets seem to be stray or at least free-range pets, they are all far better behaved than the usual run of pets I have seen in America. You can go up and pet most of the dogs, and the animals that don't like people just stay away. I was never barked at, saw no animal waste on the roads or sidewalks, and never felt hostile intent from any of them. It is as if dogs don't really need to be trained, they just need to know who is in charge.
In any case, I left a bit of meat on one of the bones and brought it out with me. After walking a distance from the restaurant out of courtesy I handed the dog the chicken bone. She very excitedly began knawing on it when out of an alley came a much larger and well fed male dog. No sounds were exchanged, just a look and the smaller dog dropped her meal on the street in front of her to be taken by the stronger animal. She followed me for a bit after that, but I hadn't thought to bring out more than one bone. I gave her a pat on the head and she left.
Walking through town I heard quite a bit of music, but it was the sounds of Bob Dylan's Blowing in the Wind sung as a choir that caught my attention. I followed the sound into a church, not the church from yesterday but a much larger one with catholic statuary lining the walls. They were having Thursday night service at the large catholic church so I stopped in to watch the preacher wave some incense around while talking quite a bit about "hesoos" and "Dios". I am starting to worry that if I keep walking into churches then the whole God thing might become a habit, but perhaps there are worse things. The congregation was all in street clothes, the women were mostly kneeling at the pews while the men stood. The rendition of blowing in the wind, words probably changed, was the only song I recognized.
After the rather brief service, I walked into a store hoping to unload my newly acquired Cordobas. Then they told me that two triple A batteries were going to cost me seven US dollars, and I walked right out, thoughts even of picking up snacks vanished from my head. I had forgotten just how gringo I looked, the whole town being unusually subdued today and the land pilots less clingy than the day prior.
Walking back through the customs office, I spotted the engineering officers all leaving as a group. Apparently they finally got the boiler stabilized and were ready to drink heavily for a night. Looks like I will be the only one up at 0600 tomorrow.
I did look for little gifts or tourist trinkets or handmade native crap, but there really wasn't any to be had. The shops were all corner groceries or dollar stores (or a mix of the two) selling stuff probably pulled right out of the shipping containers on the dock that could have been found just as easily in any other part of the world. It was, however, interesting to note that they sold T-shirts made in Thailand, probably in sweatshops, and athletic pants made in Nicaragua, probably in sweatshops.
Having finished this post, the plan for the rest of the night is an apple fritter taken from the leftovers from dinner and a movie. Probably Cool Hand Luke tonight.
Extention of Stay; More adventures in Corinto
Apple fritter and Cool Hand Luke was, as expected, an excellent choice for last night, though the film ran a bit past bedtime and left me rather groggy for the 0600 cleaning run. Two of a seven man engine room showed up for morning over time, leaving me to sweep all four main floors of the house, the stairways, and the office all alone. Even with an hour and a half, there was no time for mopping. Such constitutes drama aboard a modern merchant vessel, or perhaps just drama at this stage of my life.
Another slow day, this time not because the engineers were preoccupied but because they had finally defeated the week of adversity against the fuel purifier and steam boiler and were taking it easy. The morning was spent sweeping the stairway down the exhaust stack, then I kept going down and swept until lunch. After lunch I put in some screws, carefully pulled off some insulation, wiped some mostly clean instruments, and cut a gasket out of a sheet of gasket material. I wasn't expecting this when I signed up to be a sailor, but really I didn't form a whole lot of expectations going in, and this is a pretty good gig.
As a money saving measure, I pulled out very little cash during draw, and still have $40 left. I expect to lose a full $20 bill today because I don't have any smaller bills and the merchants all give change in the local currency, the Cordobas, which are pretty much worthless. I am hoping I can get one of each type of bill and coin for a collection, and any remainder is going in a folder of foriegn currency that will be coming with me on future voyages on the off chance I ever come back here.
Rumor has it that the discotheque will finally be open tonight, and I passed a pretty good looking street stall selling some sort of burrito-like beefconfection, so the plan is set for the night.
And before continuing the story, an observation out of sequence. The women here carry buckets on their head with food or laundry or various sundries as if they were auditioning for a National Geographic cover article. It turns out that they have towels wrapped atop their heads like a flattened turban to keep the load balanced. To learn that they aren't holding it up by skill alone is a bit like seeing how a magic trick is performed.
In any case, shortly after walking out of the port is a crossroads. The first day I went left, yesterday I went right, so today I went straight down the road until either the road ended or the looming storm hit. This was a larger road than the other two and was the main thoroughfare for trucks leaving the port, so I got to watch cargo containers and grain truck roll by sometimes only inches from me and the other bikers/pedestrians. One thing I have noticed over the three days is that even pedestrians follow the traffic flow. Where in America people will walk up or down the same sidewalk willy-nilly, here people stay on the right side of the road even if it means crossing the road to turn around.
It wasn't too long before I attracted a persisant land pilot, this one a bicycle taxi driver around 16 or 17 years old. I suggested a few times that he find a paying customer as I continued walking and he pedaled along with an empty taxi, but he ignored me. In any case, he spoke reasonable English and was clearly trying very hard to learn, so I made conversation and even managed to understand nearly all of it except the bits where he lapsed into Spanish. He told me that what I had taken to be a small port town was actually 45,000 people and that Nicaragua was 6 million. He asked how large Houston was (I told him I was from Houston. I don't know why but I lie compulsively with these land pilots, offering each a different fake name, hometown, and any other personal details that come up.) and I couldn't remember, so I guessed 8 million, and he babbled on for a few minutes about how big America was, descending incomprehensibly into Spanish at times. He had apparently been to Miami and could tell me all about the attractive women there.
I came to realize that the road was going to outlast both my own endurance and the still looming rainstorm, so I turned around after forty five minutes. The taxi driver stayed with me, telling me all about first the Ukranian conflict, for which he used quite a bit of Russian words, being a student of both languages, and which I barely understood, then he informed me that his true passion was history, and he told me all about how the US was at the center of a New World Order run by Masons and the Skull and Crossbones. At which point I pulled out one of the native coins and asked him if the pyramid depicted on that coin was not indicative of his country also being run by the Masons and the New World Order. He said no, that unlike America and China and Russia, his government didn't keep secrets from its people. I told him with a laugh that if he didn't think there were any secrets, that just meant the secrets were being well kept, but he seemed like a fan of the Nicaraguan president so I didn't push the point. It struck me as a shame that a fairly smart young man with intellectual interests was stuck in the third world driving a bicycle taxi, but I didn't worry about it too much, because it isn't me and my life is pretty good.
Went into a supermarket, six short aisles of everything you need to keep a house supplied with household goods and food. Half of one of those aisles was given over entirely to various forms and flavors of instant ramen noodles, identical to the sort you find in America except for the language on the label. I picked up a small assortment of snacks, plantain chips, potato chips, oreo knock-offs, and some sort of vanilla stick thing I have seen in the Mexican parts of town but never tried. Additionally a bottle of coke and a can of pear juice that tasted more like the actual fruit than nearly anything you can get in an American grocery.
I stuffed it all in the pockets of my jean jacket and continued walking. There were more cats out today than the previous two days, but none of them were interested in making friends, even with bits of the dinner I will describe later on offer. Still, they were very pretty cats.
I made my way back to the beach and watched the lightning over the water. I wish I had brought my camera for both the storm and the grocery store, but alas, your imagination will have to suffice. I managed to lose my land pilot by walking into the water and up the coast a few streets at the expense of wet shoes, then walked by the street stall I had seen earlier. They told me they were selling enchiladas, but these were unlike the Mexican enchiladas I am familiar with. These are spiced rice with minced beef wrapped in a tortilla folded in half like a quesadilla. The shell is about halfway between a hard and soft shell taco, and dumped into the bag is lettuce bathed in some sort of vinegar and "Chile" by which they mean a very good pico de gallo style picante sauce. I was warned that it was "muy caliente- muy hot" but though my threshold may be a bit high being from Texas, it was not anywhere near spicy, though it was still good. I bought two more to bring back to the ship. I should note at some point that these enchiladas, each larger than a hand held flat, cost 10 Cordobas, or forty cents American.
A note on Nicaraguan food. I had sort of expected all of Central American cuisine to be essentially interior style Mexican food, but that isn't the case at all. There are plenty of rice and beans (and instant ramen) in the houses and grocery stores, but for nicer food they serve quite a lot of chicken, grilled or fried, and a few other dishes that only vaguely resemble Mexican food. In fact, I like it rather more than I had expected to, since I haven't seen anyone put cheese on anything, they don't seem fond of peculiar condiments, and are big fans of chicken with relatively little fish on offer for it being a costal town. I could eat happy here for a very long time.
Anyway, on the way back I checked the bar and restaurant for crewmen, then saw that the discotheque, while open, wouldn't be heating up until much later in the evening, and returned to the ship.
I was finally hassled by security seeing me holding a bag of enchiladas. My shopping was inspected by one younger and very serious security guard until one of the two older ones who were reclining and watching a central american league baseball game indicated that he should just let me go. He started to talk back when the older man looked at me and said "No problema", at which point the customs agent doing his job to keep the port safe from terrorist acts committed with snacks and street food gave up and let me in.
Tonight, enchiladas and Miami Vice. Tomorrow we leave, scheduled for 0800, but probably much later depending on how long the rain lasts.
Departing thoughts from Corinto
I always had a pretty poor impression of Nicaragua based on pretty much nothing. In my mind it was a blank spot filled with jungle and poverty and probably civil unrest. Certainly there is jungle, though I didn't get to see any, and there is plenty of poverty, both relative and absolute, but seeing Corinto, which admittedly may be one of the nicer spots, has changed that a bit.
I encountered no one threatening, there were no reports or rumors of theives, and while we went into stage 2 security measures (a single, coded access point indoors as well as a man standing gangway watch), there is no indication that those measures were ever tested. The bar charged gringoes a premium if there were no spanish speakers in the group, but the restaurants, street stalls, and stores all charged list price and accepted dollars at the current exchange rate where there was a cash register or at the easier to figure 25:1 when cash was managed by hand. None of the officials asked for bribes, none of the police or soldiers, of whom there were few except right around the port gate, hassled anyone. And behind the middle school/high school was a small basketball stadium crowded with spectators excited to see the local boys playing.
Basically, I found a functioning civil society with a rule of law and no visible discontent or crime in a place that I was expecting all the worst connotations of the third world. Add on top of that some excellent taste in food and absolutely beautiful coastline, and I find that Nicaragua, or at least Corinto, is a fantastic place for a tourist looking to relax for a few weeks at a time.
Of course, it is easier to exceed expectations when the expectations are very low, and I certainly wouldn't want to live here.
We head out to El Salvador sometime this afternoon or tonight, a voyage of 11-12 hours.
A Brief excersion in Acajutlo
I think perhaps you can only be happy when you are sore. Or when you are tired, or just mildly sunburnt, or some other slight malady that exists as a consequence of exertion. Sure, you break my ribs and puncture my lungs such that more fluid than air is burbling out of my windpipe with each ragged breath, that might be a mood killer.
The mood on the ship is changing. Or rather, it did change, pretty suddenly. I say suddenly, but the truth is I am not much of an observer of people. Or, I do a fair bit of observing, but not a whole lot of noticing, and I am not sure there is a single word or phrase to encompass that beyond "socially awkward". In any case, the mood may well have been changing for a while, but that changed manifested into a new state of morale sometime yesterday afternoon. When leaving the ship, we had ABs bitching about every little thing, which is pretty much their job description, but this bitching had a new bite to it. The deck officers are variously more shouty or more patronizing and our officers, excepting nobly the first engineer, are getting a bit less done each day. The other two GUDEs have quit complaining about my work ethic and started bitching about the jobs themselves. Even I have slowed down and noticed myself taking the stairs one at a time and pausing longer during transitions between jobs. I found myself excusing it as soreness, tiredness, and changes in the routine, but really it is all psychosomatic, since I am fully capable of sprinting up all four flights of stairs in the engine room without too much fuss if I put my mind to it. Or, perhaps, if I take my mind off it.
I don't honestly know what everyone is complaining about. We have had good jobs and not so good jobs, but I, at least, haven't been given an actively bad job yet. There are two kinds of good jobs in the engine room. There are the interesting, engaging jobs where you are getting something done, and then there are the jobs that are easy and low effort, but take a very long time. The absolute best example of the latter is firewatch. Our incinerator is absolutely terrible, so someone has to sit next to it the entire time it is running. Usually that is the second engineer, but when he has things to do or gets sick of it, he usually calls me to come up and just sit. If the temperature gets too high, I cut the knob back, and if it gets too low, I open the knob back up, and if there is an emergency, I shut the whole thing off and run to the engineers and make them fix it.
Anyway, rambling a bit. The point is that I am having a nice time.
As for Acajutlo, I didn't get out very far. The dock is in a major industrial center with only an handful of run down shanties pressed between the walls and the roads. It was a deal of trouble getting in, something something deck department didn't have their act together and made everything take three times longer than necessary, but that just means I got paid for a whole lot more than I would have otherwise. It also means I got a light sunburn, but that is how it goes.
I walked about two hours around giant industrial sites that would not have been out of place on the great lakes without much to tell for it. The people looked poorer than Corinto, but the people who took a taxi into town say that the town itself looked richer than Corinto. The scenery is, again, absolutely beautiful, and I am beginning to suspect that the entire pacific coast of central America, rising as it does so quickly from ocean to mountain along nearly all the length of it, is an amazing landscape.
Ten Days of Rolling Waves
The uncertainty of what we are doing after leaving El Salvador has finally ended, pretty much right as we depart, that being the last possible second for such things. Three days back to the pacific entrance of the Canal, one or two days through the canal, depending on traffic, then five or six days back to Orange, TX where there is the very slightest chance that we will divert somewhere to pick up another cargo, but pretty much no. Ten days from now the voyage that was expected to last three to four months will be cut short and most of us (including me) will be sent home. Too soon to collect any benefits at all from the trip, and I will be thrown back onto the Piney Point shipping list, the very last port to get a job, at the very bottom of the list.
It is enough to drive a man to despair, except that I will only have to get 90 more sea days before I am free from the worst of the Piney Point bullshit hanging over me.
A return through Panama
I had hoped to be able to see the famous Panama City, the Dubai of the West, as we came back through, since last time we went through at night. Well, lines are long so we are anchored for two days, giving me plenty of time to look at it, except that the city is only barely visible through the haze that surrounds it this time of year. Dust, you see, blown in from the Sahara is a critical part of tropical ecosystems all the way from Guatemala to the Amazon providing all manner of such and such for this and that and most importantly making it almost impossible to get a good sense of the size of the city and completely impossible to get a good photo of it.
I have spent two days hoping it would clear, but seasonal weather phenomena spanning a quarter of the globe are not so considerate. Added bonus, we are scheduled to go in slightly after midnight, so getting better pictures as we get closer isn't going to happen.
Oh well. Being a major shipping route between Houston and points Pacific, I will surely have another chance, or I suppose pair of chances barring a magellan voyage (which does happen in modern shipping).
Locals in small boats came up to us yesterday. This happens in the largest ports all around the third world, I am told, and these fellows were trying to sell fish, fresh caught straight out of the water we were anchored in. The captain purchased $150 of fish, oysters, and lobster and today for lunch we had a cookout. Free fish, free soda, and dinner outside on the picnic tables under the shade with the dust-masked silhouette of the city behind us.
Now we aren't a terribly social group on this ship, at least not the unlicensed members, so we mostly ate in silence with a few polite remarks, but still you could tell that everyone was enjoying it.
I, of course, radically dislike the taste of seafood, so I went out of my way to get a chunk of whatever sort of fish it was that had been grilled whole and despite my predilections looked really good. It was the best fish I have ever eaten, but it was still pretty gross and put me off the pretty good spanish rice the cook had made up to go with it.
The two highlights of the cookout were a free can of Dr. Pepper and another can of Coke I snuck up to my room afterwards. Normally, the only soda on board is in the slop chest (which is certainly where this came from), a deep sea tradition made necessary because variously addicted sailors, cigarettes, soda, candy, etc, simply can't typically pack enough cartons and cases of their preferred habit to last a month long trip. So the ship buys up a whole bunch, as well as soaps and other necessaries, puts it in a spare closet, and sells it at not much markup to sailors paying straight out of thier wages. I stay off the entire floor when the slop chest is open, lest I accidentally purchase something with wages I need to be saving up, not spending, so I don't get much soda on the ship.
A final note, yesterday was the easiest day working I have had so far. The way I can tell objectively was in the shower. You see, from the time I wake up to the time I finish the day I completely segregate myself from the bed so as not to get it dirty. Even my lunchtime nap occurs on the floor with a spare blanket as a
pillow. So I shower right after work. Yesterday I got in and the water was freezing. Usually the coldest setting is the absolute warmest I can handle, still sweating even after leaving the engine room, but yesterday I had exerted myself so little that I hadn't overheated my body and could take a properly warm shower.
Anyway, little victories. Plan is to get into Orange, TX around the 25th, plus or minus a day. I say that in the future tense, except I won't actually be able to post any of this until I get there, making it present tense for you, dear reader. It is almost as if this were an old-timey paper-mail instead of modern instantaneous communication. Is there a word for that? P-mail? That sounds kind of silly, but who knows. Anyway, word after that is that the layup which they will fire every one of us for will only last two weeks and they will be going back out again, leaving me behind, onshore and not being paid. Thanks for nothing, Liberty Maritime.
Well, nothing except around five thousand dollars for five weeks of work. And room and board. And sea days that would normally count towards health, pension, education, unemployment, vacation, and ratings upgrades were I not still trapped in Piney Point's abusive and controlling apprentice program. So as usual, the company is treating me fairly well, while the union screws me over.