Tuesday, December 20, 2005


In my armchair I peruse the information packet that John pointed out. I’m thinking that I’ll need to find him to translate it for me, but I open it to find descriptions of the ship’s amenities in Chinese, Japanese and – heavens – English! A pleasant female voice comes over the loudspeaker. I’m expecting to hear two different languages without understanding either one, when, joy of joys, she rattles off the spiel a third time in a very familiar sound. Lunch will be served at noon. I return to the info packet where I learn that I can buy a phone card to call Japan and update Mo on my progress, take as many showers as I want at any time of the day or night, and – wonders of the seven seas – do laundry!

The second of two loud, grating noises stirs me from the armchair. Perhaps they are pulling back the gangway. I look out and am shocked to see churning brown water between the ship and the dock. We are shoving off.

Through the salt-stained window I gaze in wonder at the harbor. The harbor, is there anything like it in all of man’s made world? The docks are criss-crossed with shining railroad tracks and on them I steal a last glance at China Rail C62 gondolas, those jack-of-all-trades freight cars I saw hauling coal, logs piled high, sacks of grain and rice, heads of Chinese cabbage, slabs of steel, coils of wire and even a Chinaman or two. Out on the docks in the piles of cargo in various states of loading, unloading and storage, businessmen walk freely among stevedores, each deep in conversations and dealings of their own desires. Black and white Volkswagon Santanas with roof-mounted lights careen around it all with more of the unblinking police presence, who seem to find great sport in keeping watch of it all.

Down the docks on either side of the harbor, the ships stand in two great, single file lines like ancient mastodons frozen in the middle of a modern circus parade. Above them rise the looming cranes like a vast plague of prehistoric insects, descended from the heavens to feast on the commerce of the world.

A smaller ship, the Chang Jiang no. 5 passes us on starboard. A small boy pulls his mother to the window and presses his face close to the glass to watch it. The lines of ships and cranes go on for literally miles as we glide out of the harbor and into the brown, brackish water of Bohai Bay, colored by silt brought all the way from the Gobi Desert by the Yellow River.

I’m anxious to take in the view to port, but two Japanese men, one old and one young, sit chatting by the only windows on the left side of this deck. I ascend the stairs to the top deck where a Japanese man is the only person about, engaged with the view at one of the port side windows. I join him. He greets me with a cheery, “Hi!”

“Hello,” I answer.

He introduces himself as “Barry,” and he’s curious about my travel plans in Japan. I tell him that I will be in the country for at least a couple of months, visiting a “friend” in Hokkaido.

“Hokkaido! Brrrr! So cold. And so much snow. Well, at least you should have a white Christmas,” he told me. “Do you eat turkey?”

“My family usually has ham at Christmas in the United States. I have no idea what I will have this year.”

“It will be interesting for you, being in Japan for Christmas. There aren’t very many Christians in Japan, but in December, everyone becomes Christian. And by New Year’s, they’re all Buddhists again.”

“Well, that’s okay. Nearly everyone in the U.S. becomes pagan at Halloween,” I reply.

“How long will you stay in Kobe before going to Hokkaido?”

“Not long. I will take another ferry that same night.”

He looks appalled. “But this is such a long journey! You should take some time for sight-seeing. And another ferry? Ah, ah, ah!” he half laughs, half shudders. “The Sea of Japan is often very rough this time of year.”

I feel my stomach turn a slow somersault.

He motions me over to a map of China and Japan on the wall and points out the highlights of the voyage. Tonmorrow, we will pass between mainland South Korea and a large Korean island, both visible from our ship. On the following day, we will come into Japan between the islands of Honshu and Shikuko, passing under four big bridges along the way. There is also a world map on the wall. I show him Cleveland.

“Lake Erie is not very deep, only 70, 80 meters, yes?”

“Yes,” I reply, quite impressed. “It is very shallow and gets very rough.”

“What kinds of people are in Cleveland?”

“Well, besides Caucasians, there are lots of eastern Europeans.”

“Really? What do they do?”

“Many of them immigrated to work in the steel mills. Cleveland was built on the steel industry.”

“And blacks, are there many blacks?”

“Yes, quite a few.”

“Many criminals?” he asks immediately.

I cringe at the stereotypical question. I’d say that most Asians are quick to associate blacks with crime, but then I’d be stereotyping, too. I try to answer democratically. “Well, there is certainly crime in Cleveland, but not just by blacks. The steel industry has been declining for 20 years now, leaving many people out of work and living in poverty.”

He moves the discussion back to Japan. “There are many hot springs in Hokkaido. You should visit some of them. Although, it might be awkward for you. Japanese baths are very. . . public. Is difficult for Americans.”

“Yes, we Americans do like our privacy. But I visited several public baths in China and enjoyed them.”

“Good! What I recommend you do, is go to an hot door hot spring on day when it is snowing. Is very nice! And you should drink some sake while you sit in the hot water with the snowflakes falling. But just a little! Not like a fish!


Both Maureen and my former roommate Zach can tell you that I am not a person who enjoys doing laundry. When I was living in the U.S., I would customarily fill a big tub to overflowing with about two weeks’ worth of dirty clothes, then when I was running out of clean things to wear, spend an evening doing about four loads of wash and loathing every minute of it. However, when I found out that the Yanjing had free laundry facilities – as in electric washer and dryer, I was overjoyed.

I took only my camera bag and a small backpack to China. My clothes, including the ones that I wore, were two pairs of pants, a pair of long underwear, a button shirt, two long sleeved t-shirts, two short-sleeved t-shirts, four pairs of socks, four pairs of underwear and my two-piece jacket. In China, I had added a pair of heavy long underwear and a sweatshirt for the cold winter weather. I found no washing machines in the parts of China I visited. Washing clothes meant doing so by hand in the hotel sink and hanging them to dry, or giving them to a laundry person, who would also wash them by hand (much better than I ever could) and then hang them to dry. Either way, the clothes being washed would be out of service for at least a day.

When the weather was warm, my strategy of washing one set of clothes and wearing the other worked fairly well. As October wore on and the nighttime lows dropped into the -10s, then -20s, I often found myself wearing every article of clothing I had. Then the question of whether to do laundry became a question of whether to be clean, or warm. I chose warmth. When I boarded the Yanjing, it was going on two weeks since I had washed any outer layer of clothing, and many days even for my socks and underwear. I stripped down to one layer, bought a bag of soap from the information desk, took everything else to the ship’s lowest deck and threw it into a washing machine. When that load was dry, I did the same for the clothes I was still wearing. I was thrilled to take my clean clothes out of the dryer and carefully fold each article. When everything was clean, I longed for more chores to help me pass the 2-day voyage.

Outside, the sun was setting on my first day at sea. I had yet to venture out on deck, but earlier I had noticed a door on either side of the uppermost lounge. I tried one, found it unlocked, and stepped outside. The wind was low and it wasn’t as cold as I had imagined. I walked to the railing and reveled at the sight of the sun-gilded water passing beneath me. Why I had even considered flying? From Walt Whitman’s “Song of the Open Road:”

The earth, that is sufficient,
I do not want the constellations any nearer,
I know they are very well where they are,
I know they suffice for those who belong to them.

John found me in the lobby while I was waiting for dinner service to begin and asked if he could talk with me and practice his English.

“Of course! I am delighted to find someone who speaks English as well as you.”

He was a sailor by trade and had previously worked on cargo ships, which he vastly preferred.

“On them, I got to see the world. We usually had 2-3 days of shore leave when we were in port, and I got to visit many cities in the U.S., Europe and Asia. This is boring,” he said, sweeping his arm around the ferry’s lounge.

He was 35 and married, with a 9 year old daughter (“very beautiful”). “Do you get to see them very often?” I asked.

“Every two weeks, but only for one night.”

“That’s not very long!”

“No, it is hard sometimes. But after each year at sea, I have 4-6 months of vacation. I spend that with them. And I enjoy traveling to different places in China. I think travel is very important for people.”

“Yes!” I heartily agree. “I find people who travel to be much more understanding and accepting of different kinds of peoples and cultures. Just as I find people who have studied English, or another foreign language, to be much more patient when I try to speak Chinese. Some people talkveryfastandIcan’tunderstandawordtheyaresaying, and that is very frustrating for me. But I find people who have studied another language will speak slowly and clearly, and try to use simple words so I can understand them. I think traveling and studying foreign languages gives us new perspectives. Do you know this word, perspectives?”

“No,” he said, shaking his head. “But I like to learn new words!”

“Perspective means a way of thinking or looking at something. Traveling helps us find new ways of viewing the world. Those are new perspectives. Will you encourage your daughter to travel to different countries when she gets older?”

“Yes, of course! Even now, I often bring her with me when I travel in China.”

“How do you travel in China?”

“By train. I don’t like flying. All you see is sky and clouds. On the train, you can see the land.”

John found me again after dinner, but we had only a few minutes to chat before several of the ship’s female attendants waived us into the bar, where the evening’s karaoke session was well under way. They all clap when I walk in. I respectfully decline singing.

“Do you sing?” I asked John.

“No, I just listen, but some of our girls are very talented,” he said proudly. “That one,” he pointed to the one holding the microphone, “was on CCTV.”

The crowd was thin, but none of them seemed to mind. They gleefully passed the two microphones among each other and poured their hearts into the words flashing up on the screen. All day they sweep the halls of the decks, serve breakfast, lunch and dinner, run the snack bar and wait on each passenger’s every beck and call. And then for three hours on the two evenings they are underway, they stand at the front of the bar and nurse their dreams of stardom. Even the two sitting outside at the still-opened snack bar joined into the lyrics of familiar tunes, swaying to the music with ship’s gentle rocking.

The next day began with flecks of snow falling into a blue-gray sea from a gunmetal sky. Barry joined me at breakfast.

“And what will we do today,” he wondered aloud, looking out the window.

“Enjoy the scenery?” I suggested with a laugh.

“Those people over there,” he said, indicating a table of young to middle-aged Chinese women, “go to Japan looking for work. Much like Mexicans going to the U.S., I imagine. They don’t get good jobs in Japan and don’t make very much money, but is more than they make in China, and they can send some home to their families. People in the west have an ‘American dream.’ Many people in the east have a ‘Japanese dream.’”

“What do you think of Sino-Japanese relations?” I asked.

“Economically, they are good. But politically, they are very poor. Because of Koizumi,” he added. “Crazy Koizumi.”

“Well, I disagree with much of what the leaders of my country are doing.”

“Yes, yes! If I was Mr. Bush,” Barry continued, “I would stop worrying so much about Iraq and attack North Korea. They are the real threat. I wish Japan and the U.S. would use force there. Mr. Bush thinks he can control all the world’s oil. And maybe he can in the Middle East, but then Katrina hits New Orleans. . . he can’t control nature.”

Laying in my bunk back in my room, the only semblance of motion is the low drone of the marine diesel engines and the slow, back and forth movement of the sun on the floor through the window. The sun! I look outside to where it has broken through the clouds and shines down on white-capped waves of deepest blue ocean dreams.

Is there anything more singular and constant in its purpose than a ship on course in open water? Cars and buses twists all about on winding roads, trains start and stop at every station, even airplanes climb and dive and sweep through the sky. But a ship, a ship surges ever onward, seemingly unchanging, through the vast sea.

I return to the window where the view has not changed. It is a wonder to me that not all long sea-goers either lose their minds or write Nobel Prize-winning novels. But the view does change, with the weather, with the sweet sight of passing ships, with the 10-fold sweeter sight of land, any land. And the sea is but a wrapping. Let the mind dive deep into all the known and unknown, imagined and unimagined wonders of that watery world.

But man’s home is not the sea, nor is it the sky, or outer space, or anywhere that man must rely on technology to survive. Give me the land.

We’re in sight of it by early afternoon, slipping past South Korea and sailing past island after island for the rest of the day and into the night. I go out on deck again for sunset and notice my roommate also come outside and disappear around a corner. I follow him and find more decks, stairs leading up and down. I ascend to the highest level where the lifeboats hang at the ready and the SONAR beacon sweeps endless arcs on top of the navigation tower. It is invigorating to be outside at the edge of day and night, at the edge of sea, land and sky, islands and boats passing on both sides.

In the sunset light I meet Yu, a Japanese politics student in Tokyo returning home after 10 months of traveling through Europe and Asia.

“What was your favorite place?”

“In Europe, I liked France, Germany and Norway, but my favorite country is China. It’s so big!”

He’s anxious to get home, though, after so long on the road. Me too.

Both John and Barry tell me we will pass under the first bridge in Japan between midnight and 2:00am. “It’s very beautiful by night, so many lights!” John says. I want to see it, determine to see it, but during karaoke the sea grows rough and the cigarette smoke drifts through the bar and I return to my room feeling a bit nauseous. I lay down to rest but am too hot in the well-heated cabin. I strip down to my underwear, put the sheet over me and lay down again as the boat sways back and forth. The next thing I know, the water is calm, the sky is clear, Japan is floating by on either side and dawn is breaking. I dress quickly and rush out to the deck, where Yu joins me. His eyes look wet, and I don’t think it is from the wind.

He runs back in after a few minutes, shouting “very cold” over his shoulder as he passes through the doorway. I agree with him, but inside am thinking this is balmy compared to the mountains above Reshui. We pass under the second of the four big bridges, ships and fishing villages drifting by on either side, the sun hiding behind a sky of gray cotton clouds, then darting out to bathe sea and land together in golden morning brilliance. I stay out until breakfast is called at 8:00.

A trilingual announcement over the P.A. system in early afternoon announces that we are about to pass under the world’s longest bridge, linking the Japanese islands of Honshu and Shikoku over several smaller islands. The sky has gone temporarily overcast and is missing the magic of the morning light, but everyone rushes onto the decks with their cameras. Except for Yu, I was alone at sunrise.

I leave my camera inside but join the throng on the top deck. Barry comes up with his video camera and is very anxious to tell me that the morning’s weather report indicated very rough conditions on the Sea of Japan. My stomach turns over again.

The bridge stretches for 12km and Barry tells me it took 10 years to built. There are two decks. The lower one is for trains, of which two pass while we are in site of the bridge. The upper level carries a highway with a steady, but by no means busy, flow of traffic.

“Such a big bridge and so little traffic!” Barry exclaims. “There are three bridges connecting Honshu and Shikuko. Is too many. I think, one would be enough. The toll here is very high, about 5000 yen to cross. In America, you use the term ‘freeway.’ We have no such thing here, only ‘pay-way.’ And of course, all Japanese people were taxed heavily for the construction.”

“My tax dollars supported the war in Iraq,” I retorted. “It could always be worse.”

He didn’t seem to share my opinion. “At least in Iraq you have some hope. All we have is. . . idol,” he said disgustedly with a sweep of his hand from end of the bridge to another.

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