Cargo Freighter Travel: Part Three – the People 6

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• The people that end up taking these long cargo freighter passages are uniquely odd. I have been one of them and I’m certain in many quarters qualify as both unique and odd, so I don’t mind talking a bit about some of them, though I will change the names.

passengers on cargo freighter with cape town and table mountain in background

pulling into Cape Town on my first freighter passage

I really want to be clear about this, especially since a couple of these people read this blog. I really liked these folks (well, except the French dude — don’t know him at all). I just tend to be occasionally observant, and also think some of their stories are interesting. I hope no one takes any of these as negative or insulting.

o Jasmine and Thomas were a recently married couple that were talking an extended cruise on the first freighter I took. It was a retirement present to Thomas, who had just retired as a very prominent theologian in California. They had been on the ship 53 days when I boarded. 53 days. They had flown to Singapore and boarded the ship there. It then went north to a few ports in China, then to South Korea, back to Japan, over to Shanghai, down to Singapore again, over the Indian Ocean to Durban and Cape Town, South Africa, over the Atlantic to Buenos Aires, up to Uruguay, then to a few ports in Brasil, where I boarded.

They were then crossing back to Cape Town and getting off there, where he was scheduled to give a Easter sermon at Desmon Tutu’s church and then they were flying back home. Their comment to me when I asked whether they had enjoyed their extensive time at sea: “Interesting, but I don’t think we would do it this long again.” I opine that if you can happily do two months at sea together – you aren’t going to get divorced anytime soon.

o Jennifer and William were a long-term dating couple, she from South Africa and he from Ireland. They had flown to Florida, bought two motorcycles there and rode throughout the U.S., then down Central America, over to Columbia by small boat, and down the east side of South America to meet the ship in Rio. She had never ridden a bike until this trip.

There were two great stories about their trip – the boat ride they took from Panama to Columbia, that I’m not going to tell here, and what happened to them as they pulled into Rio, which I will.

Their agreement was if they got separated on the road, the person in front (usually William, since he rode faster) would stop and wait at the next gas station or other noticeable location for the person behind to catch up. This apparently happened a lot, with no complications, until the last time. This time he had stopped for gas a few hundred miles from Rio and she didn’t stop and continued ahead for a while longer. She eventually noticed that he wasn’t following her and pulled over to the side of the road at a rest stop to wait for him.

He flew by some time later – he didn’t see her, or so he said – and by the time she got back on her bike and got going, he was gone. She couldn’t catch up to him. He didn’t stop until he got to Rio, a few hours later. They hadn’t made any plans on where they were going to stay in Rio, so she didn’t have any idea where to look for him when she finally arrived a few hours later.

Their only cell phone was in her bag, so she couldn’t call him either. She also had all their money. Having no idea how to find him, she stopped at a police station in Rio and reported him missing. As you can imagine, she was a little frantic.

He, apparently, was not, since he’d decided to just go to the Copacabana Beach and hang out and wait for her to somehow find him. Somehow she did find him. She just drove around Rio – one of the most dangerous cities in the world – for a while alone and eventually saw his motorcycle parked on the street adjacent to the beach. He was getting some late afternoon rays. They were an interesting couple.

o Ian was a married guy from Chicago that had made a deal with his wife. She was a doctor in the last years of her residency back home. He wanted to travel the world. They both wanted to have kids in the near future. Since she couldn’t leave home for more than a few weeks, their deal was that she’d let him travel the world for seven or eight months, as long as he agreed to be the stay-at-home parent to the soon-to-be-conceived kids when he got back.

inside bridge cargo freighter

inside the bridge of the cargo freighter as we are about to dock

He had traveled through South America for months before boarding the ship to South Africa, where he was to meet his parents and his wife on arrival. She had taken her two weeks vacation to meet him at the mid-point of his trip. He then was going to drive through a good bit of East Africa with his retired father, who had bought a used Land Rover for that purpose in South Africa.

While I find all of that fascinating (and without ever meeting her, I think his wife may be the most understanding woman on the planet), what is more amazing to me is that the freighter ride was not the last time I ran into him. We parted on the docks in South Africa in mid-April. . . and then he walked into the hotel bar where I was having a late afternoon beer in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, which was about 3,500 miles from Cape Town (as the crow flies), almost four months later. He was now traveling on the overland truck that I had only that day agreed to board for the next three weeks to Aswan, Egypt. Ian sat down and had a couple beers with me and we marveled at the size of the world.

o Sean was the only other passenger on the ship I took from Hong Kong to Brisbane. He was an older Scotsman. I’m sure he’d be offended by me saying this, but he was British. Very British – in that upper crusty way that only Brits can seem to manage pull off. He had taken a freighter from London, through the Suez Canal, all the way over to Shanghai – a thirty-day passage. He then went overland over the next five days to Hong Kong, to catch our boat, which then would take ten days to get to Brisbane. He then caught his only flight of the trip, a short one to Sydney, to there meet his daughter and his grandkids. He was visiting them for about three weeks, and then catching another freighter from Sydney back to the U.K. again back through the Indian Ocean and the Suez Canal – another thirty or so days.

So he basically was spending 80-90 days traveling, almost entirely at sea, in order to see his daughter and grandkids for about 20 days or so.

And my trip is odd?

He was an incredibly interesting guy. He had been a wine importer for decades in Edinburgh and sold that business a few years ago. His son was a successful author that had just placed a book on the NY Times Review of Books’s 100 Best Books of 2009 list. He personally knew the last two British Governors that were in charge of Hong Kong before the handover, Chris Patten and Sir David Wilson.

engine room on cargo freighter

one floor of the engine room – massive

We had an interesting discussion of what a few high placed Cabinet officials he knew thought of George W. Bush’s foreign policy (the reviews were not favorable). While the Cold War was still going on, he’d driven to Moscow once with his son and a separate time through Eastern Europe to see Romania.

He just totally fit the British aristocrat mold – down to his wearing nicely starched long sleeved, button down Oxford shirts with pressed long pants to each meal (though he did dispense with the jacket). The most amusingly British thing about him was his complaints. This was the sixth freighter he’d be on and he was incredibly annoyed with almost everything on this ship. Brits of a certain class level can complain in a manner that I don’t think anyone else can effectively duplicate.

The silverware at our dining table was a disgrace. The wine available on board was contemptible. The poor, young Filipino steward that waited on us for our three meals a day, “though he was obviously trying as well as he could. . . that’s not a proper steward!” There wasn’t even a bedside table in his cabin, for God’s sake. And please, don’t even start about the quality of the food.

He spent the better part of two days crafting a “strongly worded” email to the shipping company that he sent off on the computer on the bridge. What I particularly love about his complaining was that it had that understated British distain to it that was somehow not offensive in any way whatsoever – as if it should have been so obvious to everyone that this or that was far below par, but then again, what else could one expect from people out here off the Isles? I began to look forward to dinner, if only to hear what had rubbed him the wrong way that day. “Michael, have you noticed the state of the bathroom towels in your cabin. . . . ?”

I’d much, much rather hear a rich Brit complain about anything than a rich American. Our people are so damn annoying and offensive when we complain about anything. We have a lot to learn from the Brits on that particular score.

o Claude was a Frenchman on my last cargo freighter passage. I have no idea about anything about him because he speaks no English and I speak no French. I do, however, know that watching him eat most meals is entertainment in itself. The last couple days, we have had some sort of fish soup available as a first course. He has asked, through another French woman passenger that does speak some English, to have his served with just the fish. No broth, just the pieces of fish.

For dinner one night, we had stir-fry beef and mashed potatoes. The potatoes were served by scooping them out with what must have been a small ice cream scooper, so that you got 3-4 little spherical balls on your plate. He just wanted the potatoes, so they gave him a plate piled with little balls of mashed potatoes. It looked like a potato pyramid. He gave a little clap when it was placed in front of him.

Yesterday, for lunch, he picked out all the yellow corn KERNELS from a mixed salad bowl on our table using his small coffee spoon. After he got a nice pile of them on his plate, he then proceeded to eat them individually with his fork. Doesn’t get any better than that.

Addendum: I finished writing all of that before my last lunch on board.  We had steak, corn and broccoli. I figured that Claude would be quite happy that he was able to get a healthy portion of corn for his lunch, as indeed he was. He ate the steak. He ate all the corn on his plate. He ate his three pieces of broccoli, except for the bottom parts of each, the three bases. He then took the mixed salad bowl on the table, which had been fully replenished since yesterday, and again proceeded to spoon out a heap of corn kernels onto his plate.

He then took his butter knife and slowly and methodically scrapped off the exterior green portion of the base of the broccoli that he had saved from his meal. I was unaware the exterior was of a different flavor and/or texture than the interior, but I have never claimed my personal breadth of palate is that vast. He then cut the remaining broccoli into very small pieces, as if mincing garlic, and spread it out over the top of his pile of corn. In addition to that, he then placed a black olive, with pit, on each of the north, south, east and west corner of his corn pile from a jar on the table.

Then he took two pieces of sliced French bread from the community table on the plate and removed the inside of each piece to make two little bread boats. After preparing this odd little feast, he then ate up the corn and broccoli combination, and used the bread to mop up some residue (why scoop out of the interior of the bread? Alas, I have no idea). The olives appeared to be a bit of a dessert course. Bon Appetite. ???!!!

• I have been reading a good bit of fiction on this trip. Some of the characters that are drawn, especially in some of the more modern fiction (reading some Vonnegut now), seem unbelievable in their little absurdities. Then I began to pay attention to the people around me..

Humanity is ever fascinating, that’s all I am saying.

Part one of travel by cargo freighter and part two of travel by cargo freighter.

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About Michael Hodson

I’m an attorney that took off on my birthday in December of 2008 to circumnavigate the globe without ever getting on an airplane. After 16 months, 6 continents and 44 countries, I made it all the way back home. Right now, I am back on the road writing about it all.

6 thoughts on “Cargo Freighter Travel: Part Three – the People

  • Becky D.

    Ha! Love the stories of your fellow travelers. About scraping out the inside of the bread – my husband (who's Mexican) and his family do this too. Supposedly it's to be healthier, as you don't need to eat that much bread. They just eat the crusty outsides. I say they're missing out on the best part! Who knows if that's why Claude does it though! 🙂

  • Rachel Cotterill

    These are great stories :)I agree with you that a couple who can happily do this sort of thing together are unlikely to get divorced any time soon… I spent six weeks in a tent with my husband when we first got together, which was probably as good as any test of a new relationship!


    Everyone on the road has a great story to tell. It may be one of the best parts of traveling.Certainly hope Jennifer and William got a second cell phone. C'mon they are cheap now!

  • Reba

    Sounds very interesting! I think I would pay to watch Claude eat a meal…not even my quirky toddler eats quite in that manner. Fascinating!

  • Poi

    I really enjoyed reading this, I must just be really nosey. There’s some weird but interesting people out there!

  • Rafael

    Very nice stories. The details and characters of each one of the fellow travellers rose up as you described them.

    On another subject, would you point us the path for those who want to try such a trip, on a cargo freighter cabin? Companies, price, how to contact them, where they go…?


    Best regards,

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