The only people who drink in this bar are sailors, drug dealers and whores. Shall we go in?”
Two hours after nodding mutely in reply to the cargo ship’s captain, eating cake at a Brazilian prostitute’s birthday party while my seafaring companion told the gathered ladies how I’d slept through my watch the night I was supposed to be keeping lookout for pirates, I wondered again if my beer obsession had gone a little too far.
When I announced my journey to beer-writing colleagues several were jealous, but all of them emphatically told me they would never do it. I guessed maybe it was moments like this that they were scared of.
We often tell each other we live in a shrinking world. It feels like that much of the time, when the other side of the planet is only a 24-hour flight away and we tweet, blog and e-mail global, real-time conversations without even thinking about it. But ocean travel revealed a different world to me―a huge world that exists outside the confines we’ve created for ourselves. It’s more lawless, varied and uncertain than we could imagine.
We do suspect it’s lurking there though. Romantics and discontents have always gone away to sea when they can’t find what they’re looking for on land. Some find it on the ocean, others on docksides, places on the edge.
As a traveler, I was a little wet behind the ears when I set out from Burton-on-Trent. Was I walking into danger? I simply never got round to worrying about it.
The tall ship was the highlight. When you’re spinning the wheel like Jack Sparrow, navigating by compass but gazing at the moon and stars, it’s difficult not to break into song. But a 140-foot long ship is a small environment when there’s nowhere else to go. And no one―no one―jokes about falling in, or messes around in the rigging, or disobeys the captain. You never feel in mortal danger, but you’re only one stupid or ignorant move away from serious trouble.
My friends seemed more concerned about the container ship leg though―and with good reason. There’s less immediate physical danger, but this is the hardcore end of ocean travel. The guys you meet aren’t here out of any sense of ocean-going romance; they’re here because where they come from, the $1200 US you get for a year’s toil is good money. Passengers are a source of curiosity, but not to be befriended.
The world’s docks run on bribes, and there’s no consumer rights body to complain to when some guy doesn’t feel like letting you on or off a ship unless there’s something in it for him. The captain had a locker full of cigarettes and whiskey to help smooth his ship’s passage along the lanes of global commerce. They came in handy when I boarded in Rio de Janeiro, where the customs agent thought I was trying to work a passage illegally. And again in Iran, after Tehran refused me a visa―although I still found myself looking down the wrong end of an AK47 when the captain suggested I go ashore in Bandar Abbas to “drink some non-alcoholic beer and look at pictures of Khomeini.”
But the captain’s stash was no use against the threat of pirates―we were lucky in Santos, and again off the coast of Somalia. And it was no use when I reached my destination. It cost me $275 in baksheesh to get off the ship, even though my paperwork was in order. The benefit of that though, was they turned a blind eye to me importing four-and-a-half gallons of contraband beer into one of the alcohol-ambivalent countries in the world.