Lit-Mag #40 – Expatriations: The expat edition
The Burmese Option
In my best dream I have crossed the border
and my coins are wrong. Without the tongue
I gesture, sweat and wake aboard this boat—
Richard Hugo, The Anacortes-Sydney Run
New Zealand served itself for breakfast, although not rudely so. The freight ship I was cargo on loomed through the Bay of Plenty into the maw of Tauranga’s port. I yawned every bit as wide as the shipping lane appeared to be doing to accommodate the 800 feet of us: both events stank. Yet, everything – this thing, that thing, every thing – was brilliant. My virgin step in a new hemisphere had arrived.
I’d traversed the breadth of the Pacific Ocean aboard the MV Direct Tui – a container freighter 265m in length and 12 storeys tall. After a fortnight of liquid, reverberating machinery and an endless spigot of fish soup, I was welcomed back to firm soil by Mt. Maunganui lolling upright in its coastal bed of greenery. Kiwi FM began leaking into a boom box that was bolted onto the wall in my quarters about 24 hours before we arrived. The extended weather was declared to be glorious by accents that had magnificent diphthongs and slopes to my ear. I’d regained topography.
Sol and I were corralled in the ship’s state room for an hour to clear NZ customs. Sol was a freckled, Texas farm kid who had so far made his wages by drifting from dealership to dealership selling cars all around North America. “Time to expand, time to expand …” he repeated to me daily throughout our crossing. If he could clear a few hundred dollars on a hatchback, that would eek him through until the next sedan. The constellation his freckles formed was a distinct S shape, placed prominently on his right cheek. It did not require much imagination to draw parallel bars bisecting the figure to make it a dollar sign. Sol and I were two of the four paying passengers on the ship. A retired couple from Brisbane, Ruth and Lyle, completed the quartet of human cargo.
Leaving Chicago for a new life as far away as possible was a breeze. Locating a buyer for my sizable aquarium beforehand wasn’t. You’d think in a city that size it wouldn’t be much of an ask. So much time and effort I sunk into that tank. My trio of clown loaches colonised the upper reaches of that universe, sharing space with a loner of a fish. A pink-tailed chalceus. That fish was mesmerised by the constant orange and black juggle of those loaches playing in the water jetting out from the tank’s filtration flume. Maybe it hated them … or its confined situation. At any rate of fish conjecture, it wanted out of that tank badly. Two iridescent sharks prowled like a screen saver on the bottom left. Another two cichlids guarded the bottom right while a red-tailed shark oftentimes wove in and out of the other’s turf whenever it pleased. They only formed a unified school when I plopped frozen cubes of blood worms and brine shrimp into the tank for fish dinner. But only then. Now, there was nothing to do but give the aquarium away or sell on the cheap. It was on my penultimate day in Chicago that I managed to unload that whole fishy universe to a quiet woman from Wales for a couple hundred dollars. That was enough money to drive West with my parents until I reached the vast Intermodal Shipping Terminal in Long Beach, California.
A stevedore finishing up his graveyard shift was kind enough to drive Sol and I into Tauranga’s centre. It, too, still waking and yawning. We banged our van doors shut, entering our new world as if two helium balloons unclenched from the fist of a child. Our paths have not crossed since.
Emil announced to me that the Direct Tui would soon slice into the northern edge of the Doldrums, an unthinkably huge area of South Pacific current that swirls in leisurely perpetuity. He explained that jetsam bobs out here for years if buoyant enough, never to wash ashore, as if in orbit around the centre of nothing at all.
I consulted our sailing trajectory on maps scattered atop a drafting table in the ship’s bridge. I’m a map harlot. And a shameless one at that. I’ll navigate the angles of maps for hours be they the most rudimentary of metro transit pictograms or what lay before me here in crisp, bell-peeling hosannas: time zones upon time zones of map to fritz out on. All of it a new medium. Ocean water. We’d recently slid into the boundaries of Micronesia. My lifelong fear of vortices niggled at me and I tried not to think of tornadoes, whirlpools and digitised galaxies in sci-fi flicks that spooked me so as a boy … or anything else that one might become permanently stuck in. Like the Doldrums.
All up, a fortnight of ocean water occurred in front, behind and to either side of me. Turbidity varied. Flying fish arched out and back into waves the entire distance. The first few days off the Californian coast featured gulls and terns curlicuing around the ship’s crane and forest of antennae sprouting off the numerous decks. Those birds were the only company external to the ship, its crew, the passengers and the containers.
No other liners’ stacks appeared chuffing down the horizon line. Not an overboard crate, cooler lid, flip-flop or jettisoned rag. No errant chunks of Styrofoam. Not a single jet’s contrail chalking up sky the entire distance across the Pacific.
Zippo. Nothing. Nothing except … a basketball. A basketball, way out here in the Doldrums, seven days in on my crossing and bobbing right then and there just as orange as its first day of inflation. Dribbling through team after team of waves. Its orange and black colours rotated without pattern as it passed from crest to crest. My eyes locked onto that ball in the sea for as long as I could make it out in the ship’s wake.
I’d discovered that gazing out across swells of ocean surface was a quick hike into autohypnosis. My waking thoughts had calmed and settled from the mass exodus of Chicago, content to casually ‘be’ in the vacuous limbo that is day-and-night-and-into-day ocean crossing. But this was not a hokey Zen or quackery collapse. I did think of things, people and emotions. I checked the time on my wristwatch out of habit and was reassured to learn each occasion that time was progressing, even if slowed to a mosey. I stubbed my toe on a mooring cleat and it hurt. Badly. My head hadn’t been vacuumed out. I had geared-down into a cerebral crawl.
But that basketball jarred.
“Shitfuckdamn!” A triple-expletive of wonder.
“A basketball!” I bellowed, jabbing my finger out into points at the passing object like a spaniel. Not another soul to witness such a eureka. I slid through days when spying a floating basketball was the top anecdote. The ball came within metres of the ship before it caromed off the waves carved up from the prow. Landing back into its habit.
That basketball was a full-stop. A full-stop trailing the unclosed ellipsis that was my departure from Chicago. From America. And from a life there that was leading only into an eddy, not in any knowable direction. That evening, I informed Emil that I’d seen a basketball floating off the starboard side and how exciting that was for me. He replied with a protracted gulp of tea. And nothing else.
Emil Buca didn’t exist.
He wasn’t in charge but he was, resolutely, the man in charge on the freight ship. This is as clear as I can capture and write about his presence on the Tui. Officially, his rank was directly south of the Captain and north of all the other officers. He had access to all doors, locked and unlocked, whenever he felt the whim to strut through them. Even the Captain was not awarded such privileged access to the ship’s bowels. Emil was skilled at emerging through doorways, commanding them and the rooms he plowed into with his cutwater of bravado and polished boots. His was the first gaping palm I absorbed with my own, smaller version after entering my first room aboard the Tui. Quite the welcome-aboard handshake. Me, sitting timidly on a folding chair in a control room that resembled a Khrushchev-era fission reactor. Emil’s duties were countless. One was to brief new human cargo. His nostrils belched Marlboro smoke. ‘Do’s and ‘do not’s on the ship followed. Etiquette at large. Very large.
Though exactly my age at the time of twenty-nine years, he was twice my mass and triple the brawn. He strode only in the smudgy liminal band of time that shuttled me from Chicago to Melbourne, in the space that spirited from a decent job in academic publishing to no job in academic poetry. I’d stepped into a fortnight intermission between one life and the foyer of another. Emil was the conductor orchestrating the vessel that escorted me across that vacuous space. His English was stern. Diagonal. Immaculate. Waterlogged with Balkan machismo. The stubble on his chin could sandpaper a petrified forest into your best piece of furniture. We never sang boozy songs together. Not like I did with the Burmese crewmen on many late nights. His ego wouldn’t allow it. I was doing this relocation because I could. Because I was not stuck. I’d evolved from stuck into unstuck, unlike that old fish that waited so patiently to escape my tank.
Emil wasn’t larger than life. He didn’t smoke cigarettes, he fellated them in a constant orgy. When it wasn’t spirits, wine, tea or coffee cooling his radiator, it was nothing at all. He spoke perfunctorily of a wife and two children back in Romania while devoting equal conversation to clandestine ‘ladyfriends’ in every Pacific port. Two fraus in Surabaya, a sheila in Manzanillo and a string of betty’s dotted like pearls along the East coast of America – a constellation of displaced sin in which he wilfully connected the dots to draft the shape of his ego. Corrosion will finish him in time; just like it got Detroit. Never did he say that the woman in Romania he spoke of was his wife.
That was Emil Buca.
These were his boom years. Up for promotion to captain after navigating one more circuit of all ports-of-call. A native of Bucharest, he’d cut his jib on the Caspian Sea, moving up fast in the shady ranks that hold the shipping industry together. Time to expand. Again.
The Burmese Option
The change was obvious and occurred during lunch. A difference, instantly distinguishable. The culprit? Soup. On the tenth day in, the Californian fruit and vegetables which replenished the galley’s larder when in port at Long Beach had been exhausted past dregs and their tinned understudies were pressed into service.
The five officers of various rank and the four passengers of equal non-rank all dined together in the Captain’s mess: three times per day, every day, mostly amidst a taciturn language barrier of silence. Scheduled mealtimes were the sole awkward angle of the voyage. All being of Eastern European heritage, the officers instructed the lone Burmese cook to prepare courses built from either pheasant, sausages, bouillabaisse, ham, onion, cheese, unidentified game birds, potatoes or any combo of the aforementioned. On Fridays we were served ice cream sundaes with hot fudge topping. The last of my three Fridays on the Tui saw the fudge downgraded to candy sprinkles.
A leaden air hung above every meal sitting, thickening into outright dread toward the end of my time on the ship. The steward, doubling as the head (and only) waiter, picked up on his radar my tempered grimace at the sight of another meal staring down undisclosed game bird. Another meal with a supporting cast of canned-pea performance and vacuum-sealed fruit-cup star power.
The steward bent over my shoulder. In controlled volume to prevent detection from the Captain, he enquired if I would prefer ‘The Burmese Option’.
I had assumed no choice was available. I had assumed I was stuck with the menu I was served or zip. I was white. Western. A paid passenger awarded the default privilege to dine with the officers in the officers’ mess. Without any questioning as to what The Burmese Option comprised of, I replied with an enthusiastic if muted affirmative.
I felt ashamed. Chokingly ashamed. It hadn’t dawned on me what, when and where the twenty-odd Burmese crew ate? The officers rarely interacted with them. When they did, it was theatre of barks and acquiescence. I smiled and greeted the Burmese crew on my meandering laps around the ship. It didn’t go unnoticed that they were never present for meals at the officer’s table, but I failed to process that base data any further. I did not extrapolate segregation further into its cancerous parts.
Emil’s first words to me during his initial briefing were, “You’re allowed to go into any area or room that’s not locked. If a door is locked, then you’re not allowed.” Why didn’t I stroll into the galley for a peek? It didn’t even have a door. His second words, after glowering through a few room-scans and gestating an affected pause were “and don’t touch any of these fucking instruments. Any.” And so I allowed that warning to guide my time on the ship more than it should have, missing the point instantly and diverging further from it as the days lapped past.
The Burmese Option presented itself to be an array of spicy curries and rice. Nothing froufrou or fusion. Simply proletarian grub from Asia. Sure, I delight in a pheasant dish as much as a Polish ship engineer does, but I demand entry levels of variety. Assumptions were made about me that angered. Assumptions that I flatly wouldn’t want to dive into a steamy bowl of Burmese Option. Wouldn’t want?! I felt a little better about my own shortcomings knowing that they’re universally possible. If you’re unaccustomed to a new newness, it’s likely you’ll fuck a few things up at the beginning without a stroke of malicious intent. Like I had done. Like the steward had.
Burmese Option came in many varieties and whims. My favourite, an orange and brown swirl of roast pumpkin and thick curry (borderline gravy) was knick-named The Tiger. It was almighty and arrestingly hot.
25 January 2004 pulled a runner on me. Perhaps it sank? I didn’t get to live it.
The Direct Tui was programmed to call in to a repeating itinerary of destinations: San Francisco to Long Beach, then Tauranga, New Zealand, on to Melbourne, then Sydney and, finally, back to San Francisco. Upon completing every other circuit, it would call in to either Suva, Fiji or Manzanillo, Mexico. I had boarded the express service.
The Tui had plied its unevenly shaped figure-eight for sixth months before I wandered aboard and would continue doing so for another six until the ship’s owners signed it up for a new career. Its registered home port was Monrovia, Liberia due to flimsy liability laws and similar fine print skulduggery.
The Tui had never once called in to its home port. It was built in South Korea.
At 30-hour intervals, the ship’s steward scuttled up the central stairwell in his pied, silken slippers to the officer’s deck and scribbled in what time of day it was on a dry-erase notice board. Never was it the same sequence of 24 hours for more than a day and a half. The steward was expert at erasing as were all the crew and officers. Some rued dearly this accidental skill in private moments of choppy conversation to me. They were homeless. Stateless. Erasing is ingrained in their lives. It’s an unsteady life to exist for a year in a constantly changing time calibration, never to return home for exhales and decompression. An experience cherry-on-topped with the hiccough that is the International Date Line – that technical allotment of ‘day’ added or subtracted like a tax or a rebate on existence.
This jumble of time occurred leisurely enough that it marooned the details of a modern, landlocked life upon an atoll of irrelevance. The frantic shackles of time, that horrid cliché, the mad rush of Chicagoan life and requirements to be ‘heres’, ‘theres’ or both in quick succession, all of which subsumed my days until now, jettisoned away like a rocket booster that had ignited me into a low orbit of passivity. Lunch was tidily served at noon every day, mirroring the swivel all the ship’s timepieces received in constant resetting. Noon got around, it did.
I asked Antony, the Polish First Engineer, what was in the containers. He shrugged and I believed him. I enquired every Burmese crewman who knew a dollop of English if he knew what – exactly or inexactly – was in the hundreds of shipping containers.
None knew. Some of the containers? Practiced silence. Any at all? Crickets.
Late one night, I hit up Emil about the containers’ innards, hoping we might’ve bonded enough to loosen the slipknot on his lips. He claimed professionally rehearsed ignorance, though his reply was of the arms-akimbo sort. Indisputably, he was privy to the booty rollcall we hauled and was confident in me enough to fathom his bluff as bluff. Damned if he was going to pony up details though. I gave up and looked at the vessel’s speed gauge.
I realised minutes after this incident that I’d just cashed in my investment of four years in the Hyde Park neighbourhood of Chicago. Now, here I rode on a south-westerly aimed cargo ship pegged at 22.2 knots. This was the speed of my intermission.
I, along with the three other people logged as ‘passenger’ on the ship’s bill, was the answer to my own interrogation. People wishing voyage from shore A to shore B. Strictly transport, no nonsense. The reasons for going, irrelevant. Rent, meals, petrol, lodging, utility bills, the lot all taken care of in a singular presto-change-o voyage. The ship prowled the perimeter of a commercially-dictated polygon. I just needed the slow rope south it was to swing a ride on.
Six bits of freight were identifiable without question. Two bulldozers, two helicopters and, best of all observable cargo, two yachts. Each couple along for the ride in various states of dismantle, all too bulky for a shipping container, the yachts too puny to negotiate the distance on their own. One copter remembered its blade, the other’s was missing. Neither yacht had mounted boom or mast. Each dozer, having donned its plow as a hat, waited out the trip with heavy patience. I was afloat on a very choosy ark guided by a collectively evasive Noah. A Noah named Emil. Many of the containers had refrigeration units cooling the jets of whatever it was packaged inside. I wore long sleeves in my room because it, too, had an ambitious air-conditioning unit.
The Cut-Glass Bowl
I forget the name and title of the officer who claimed that he was a citizen of no country. He’d been mixed up in the shipping racket for so long that his native citizenship in an unnamed, virtually un-remembered Eastern Bloc nation had renounced him. Legally, on paper – whoever’s paper that might be – he didn’t exist at all. But he was as real as the rest of us way out there in the Pacific, having arms and legs and laughs and emotions. His game bird farts and outdated haircut were as fearsome as any other officer. He assisted me in stringing Christmas lights from the ship’s main exhaust stack to its monkey deck portico, an intimate space just big enough for all officers, crew and passengers to convene. He was here.
It is customary for a captain to ‘sponsor’ a celebration for his crew upon crossing the Equator in either direction. Steaks and seafood appeared out of nowhere on platters. I twinged upon realising that the steward must’ve held back sumptuous fare until this moment, seven days into the crossing. My gratitude that he did so cannot be captured in words.
At no point across the Pacific was there cloudless sky. The evening of our Equatorial crossing towered with cumulus and anvil-shaped billows ringing the full horizon hoop with spotless sky directly above the ship. Wine, beer and vodka occurred in spades. The Sun stooped lower, then lower still in the jagged clutch of clouds.
I witnessed a 360 degree sundown for the first and only time in my life. A sunset in technicolour. Colour not to be believed. Colour like you read about. In the east, wealthy blues and lavenders ran each other down. A glance to the west and the reds, oranges and yellows were loud as sinners in a pool-hall. I was thoroughly deafened by colour. My eyes, using all the short-term memory my body could boot up, hijacked perceptive energy from sound, taste, smell and touch to sustain this sightly Kapow! The slender umbilical of soot coiling upward into sky from the main exhaust stack was the only instance of black.
It was if it was the chain attached to a kaleidoscopic chandelier dangling from a ceiling I couldn’t discern. On occasion, booze talks wonders (if ineloquent ones), and I remember thinking exactly this description as it was happening before me then.
For much of the party, I drank with Antoni. He was an antique soul with a savoir-faire so avuncular that it felt like he’d helped me learn how to ride a bike without training wheels. Very comforting and not at all sinister in the ways an uncle trope can be spun. He was rounding his final oceanic lap before retirement to his cabin in Poland’s south. He sustained me in a barrage of booze shooters, ghastly in their heights of octane. Everybody got roaring pissed with everybody. Officers with crewmen. Estonians with Americans. Belarusians with Australians. Burmese with The Unspecified. Everybody aborad.
I jigged. The Burmese crew was in full-troupe force. Break-dancing, the limbo, souped-up waltzing, all manoeuvres from Rangoon proudly on display.
A boom-box throbbed. Ruth danced too. The only female on board unzipped her 82 years’ worth of life to reveal the coquettish pizzazz Lyle touted her to have exuded as teenager. And so here she was, the only dame in a sea of male, tearing it up in brown slacks, an orange blouse and with pearls bobbing just under her earlobes. Ruth had been a Queensland rodeo darling back in the day. A real pistolero. Acerbic of comment, she was. And was still being at the time. She tripped off a step during all the merriment, quite possibly breaking her ankle, but kept right on hoofing it up with all the drunken sailors and me.
We’d all converged from disparate haunts on the globe – way the goddamned hell out there – pointed somewhere in all that endless map.