Tuesday, October 16, 2012

The Country of the Grande Buenos Aires Meets London

Yours truly, on the ship in the Port of Tilbury

When I walked off the ship into the port of Tilbury in the UK, my first shock was being able to read the markings and labels on the bales of ply wood that were stocked in the warehouses. It was Sunday and the industrial area was eerily quiet, the sky was a hazy blue, and the temperature was comfortable—what I imagined was a classic late summer day in England.

England?!  I thought to myself.

Although I could sense something familiar in the climate that signaled to my senses that we were, indeed, in North Europe, a part of me was still in Brazil, still somewhere near the equator in the Atlantic ocean, still outside the hot waters of Dakar. Of course we had been coming towards North Europe for some time, but the ship rocking to the rhythm of the open sea was more like a state of being than a state of moving. Coming to a new port is like leaving a country you previously didn’t know existed (the ship), only to realize that geographically this country is neighbors with countries all over the world.

I spied this spider's crazy handiwork in a discarded tire on our walk to the Seamen's Club/Seafarers' Center 

Tilbury Seafarers' Centre

Panorama of our docking place: to the left is another Grimaldi ship, The Grande Africa, whose chef and crew I chatted with at the Seafarers' Centre, and to the right is my ship, The Grande Buenos Aires 

The Germans and I were making our way to the Seaman’s Club in the port to check our email. As we crossed the long driveway from the ship to the main road, which cut through a bank of warehouses, I exclaimed at the novelty of the experience. The lorries and fork-lifts were still and no souls crossed our path. We stepped on metal ties that had been discarded from the ply wood bales and kicked up a metallic chorus that echoed throughout the still space.

MV Grande Buenos Aires.
Date: 09/09/2012
Port: Tilbury
Next Port: Emden
Shore Leave
Besides briefly stepping into the port of Dakar to buy souvenirs a few meters from the ship’s cargo hatch, the Germans and I had not been on land for 17 or 18 days, and the last time we had checked our email had been 20 or 21 days ago. Around the time we docked in Dakar, I used the ship’s email account to send a message to friends and family via satellite, which was refreshing: it reminded me I had people on the outside that were still thinking about me although I felt safely insulated, surrounded by my ship family and the rhythms of sea life.

View from the ship's cargo hatch.

Some of my peeps: Chief Cook Raphael, Driver Crescenzo, Steward Mikhail, new Chief Cook Marcelo, and Engine Officer Filipo. This was Raphael's last night with us; he was disembarking the next day. Note the stocking caps acquired from the Seafarers' Centre.

We ended up staying in Tilbury for almost 4 whole days, which afforded me several trips to the Seaman’s club (picture: drinking Stella Artois with some of the crew—we were the noisy Italian contingent—and trying on hand-knit stocking caps left for cold seamen) and a couple trips to the mega-market Asda just outside of the port (where I stocked up on chocolate and booze, two things the ship lacked). That would have almost been enough civilization for me, but then I learned I could take a 40 minute train ride into London from Tilbury.

London! I hadn’t even considered this possibility!

On Monday September 10, the passenger’s steward, Mikhail, and I took a short day trip into the city. The Paralympics had wrapped up the day before, but residual athletes, donning their country’s exercise costumes, flooded the area near Parliament and Big Ben. I felt as though I was beholding the society of a booming metropolis for the first time—there were children! and women! and people from all nations! As we made our way through the crowds of tourists, I remarked to Mikhail that I could tell what countries folks were from just by looking at them—their attire, their hair style, the features of their face gave them away. Considering Mikhail was a Ukrainian that had immigrated to Italy and I was routinely mistaken for nationalities other than American, I wondered aloud, “What country do people think we’re from?” He deftly answered, “From the Grande Buenos Aires!”

Big Ben! I had only been to London once before, for a few hours in 2000 as part of the Belgian exchange student program. I have an old picture of my 17 year old self in front of Big Ben on that trip, too, and I was wearing my trademark Op Ivy hoodie.

Mikhail takes a picture - and look! Men, women, children!

These peeps were protesting outside of Parliament, some specifically regarding the Olympics and others different issues. I love seeing a city's protesters, but that's probably just the San Franciscan in me.


TPOD: Tool Pic of the Day

I liked this little edifice. I read the plaque but I can't remember what it said :(

Closing of the Paralympics.

In the late afternoon, a fleet of military aircraft blazed through the sky, leaving a trail of red, white, and blue smoke (think union jack, not stars and stripes), which was the official ending of the Paralympics and London’s big summer. We returned to the ship in time for dinner, and I learned that the ship would be docked in Tilbury for another day, at least—Grimaldi seemed to have some problems coordinating with the port workers, which was causing delays to the on- and off-loading of cargo—so I could go to London again the next day, as well. For me, it was all good news, but the Germans were growing impatient. They had been traveling already for a year, and the woman’s son was scheduled to arrive in Germany for a visit in a couple weeks. The original itinerary of the ship would have had them home in Freiburg by now, and besides, they were sick of pasta, pasta, pasta. They wanted sausages and potatoes! 

The Germans and me at dinner: PASTA!

On Tuesday, September 11, I got up early, had a light breakfast, made sandwiches for myself, and headed towards the train station again, this time alone. I arrived to Fenchurch station in London a little before 9:30; the working stiffs had mostly made their way to their offices, and there was a startling crispness and quiet to the streets. My first stop was an HSBC atm, where I got a shockingly good exchange rate: £50 for $83. It was a gorgeous day, bright blue skies and large, white puffy clouds. As I made my way to Petticoat Lane, where the merchants were just setting up their stands, and up Brick Lane into the Shoreditch area, my heart kept bursting at being alive, at beholding this strange moment in which I found myself.

Whenever I came across a map, which are usefully placed all around the city, I took a picture since I had not obtained a thorough map of my own, yet. Cheers to the graphic designer! 
It seemed like all of London was under construction; this and some other signs (e.g. the abundance of independent and chain shops alike) makes me think London remains prosperous despite the economic downturn strangling the US and parts of the EU.

Scenic capture on small street near Petticoat Lane.

Reflection squared: the ideal scenario for a self-portrait

Brick Lane, where the London Overground crosses.

For one, I was surprised to find my self-agency had returned: reading and speaking English indeed made tourism easier, but I also suddenly felt re-aligned with the flow of energy I had embodied when I traveled in Europe last summer (mostly) alone. I had felt young, endlessly excited by the magic of being alive, and totally on fire for life last summer. Coming to London with Mikhail the previous day had been fun and exciting—there is something special involved in sharing your discoveries of a place with someone—but today I was reminded of how much I love wandering interesting streets alone, stopping to take artsy photographs of reflections in mirrors and windows, staying in a museum all day or only for 30 minutes, searching racks and racks of clothing for the perfect blouse. This agency and contentedness made me well up with self-pride and love, which is something I had lost in Argentina. I felt as though, perhaps, I was coming full circle.   

Street art on Brick Lane

Brick Lane is a cute little street with tons of vintage shops, clothing and jewelry boutiques, and furniture stores.

Coming from Brick Lane to Bethnal Green Road

Scenic view of an East London street.

Once I made it to the area around the Shoreditch High Street station, I stopped for a glorious café latte, made with fresh ground espresso beans and organic pasteurized milk (the ship only had high temperature processed milk, which didn’t need to be refrigerated but also tasted a bit gross to me). I dusted bits of raw sugar onto the thick foam and took little crunchy bites as I gazed out the window at young, hip Londoners meeting and departing from their friends in the late morning.

"I'm a poster. An advert." Love the social/political awareness of the graffiti on this advertisement. 

It's true: adore and endure each other.

Cool street art.

There were attractive local maps wherever there was a cycling station. London employs the easy community bike rental scheme found in many major cities, such as Paris and Barcelona.

In the early afternoon, I took the tube to the Waterloo station and walked along the Thames to the Tate Moderne, in front of which I found a nice bench and ate my sandwiches. The scene was simply stunning: the cotton ball clouds drifted calmly through the brilliantly blue sky and reflected in the waters of the river, while the City of London dazzled me from across the shore. I found it difficult to pull myself away to enter the museum, yet I did, and took in a couple of exhibits, including one on Poetry and Surrealism.

On Blackfriar's Bridge

Self portrait in reflective window

Panorama of the Thames outside of the Tate Moderne.

Click to enlarge, then read the text of "The Bigger Picture." I felt like this embodied my experience on the ship. I didn't cry in the Tate Moderne (probably because I didn't find any Van Goghs there!) but I got pretty close when I read this. It reminded me that I have a poet's spirit, as well as how influential the Surrealist have been to my work. 
The Uncertainty of the Poet, by Giorgio de Chirico (1913)

After the Tate Moderne, I crossed Millennium Bridge into the City of London  and stopped in the Tourist information center, where I got a nice map and directions to a local book store. Once I found the bookshop, called Daunt Books, I submerged myself in English literature for a good 60 or 90 minutes. Although during my travels I had become dissociated from my life back in California as a library paraprofessional and book artist, I instantly felt at home, surrounded by books I could read and understand. This led me to think there must be something inherently “bookish” about my character, that I can unequivocally be comforted by books and the information and stories they carry. Again I realized my voyage had razed qualities of my personality, and then these qualities had re-manifested themselves, naturally, reinforcing truths about myself I held to be unalienable.

From the top floor cafe of the Tate Moderne. You can see Millennium Bridge...

Crossing Millennium Bridge

Welcome to another attractive map!

St. Paul's Cathedral

I left the bookshop after limiting myself to one purchase—a book called How to think more about sex from a British series called The School of Life (the title of the book sounds much more risqué than it actually is)—and did some good old fashioned shopping. First I went to a drug store that had a Clinique counter, and stocked up on toiletries. Then, to a stationery store to buy stickers—I was going to make some Kelci-trademarked lighters for my friends on the ship. Lastly, I was on a mission to acquire at least one new piece of clothing: I had been subsisting on the monotony of 2 pairs of travel pants and 3 tank tops for what seemed like forever. I found a beautifully feminine blouse at Top Shop and felt like I had accomplished something great.

By this time night was beginning to fall—it was late summer, fall was threatening around the edges of the twilight, yet the sky stayed blue until about 8 or 9 o’clock. I strolled past St. Paul’s Cathedral, awash in orange lights that contrasted with the cobalt sky, and made my way to a restaurant/pub to partake in the British specialty of fish ‘n’ chips and a pint of London Pride beer. It was delicious, and I was amused by the Chinese business people that had flooded the place, drinking wine and champagne and partying down.

Chinese business peeps getting down in an English restaurant and pub

Fish n Chips! Yes we have good fish n chips in San Francisco, but it seemed authentic to have it in London. 

Going down into the tube.

A nice touch of stenciled street art on the ubiquitous "Mind the Gap."

After dinner I headed back on the tube to the area around Fenchurch station, and popped into a local Irish pub for one last pint of London pride. While nursing my beer alone, I watched the televisions they had installed around the perimeter: Barak and Michelle observed a moment of silence on the lawn outside the Whitehouse, their heads bowed. “Oh yeah, it’s 9/11,” I murmured to myself. My memories of the day—and more strongly, recalling memories of the day with friends and loved ones as we grew older—threatened to flood my mind; instead I reveled at being alone in a pub in London, about to catch a train back to my ship, which I considered my country, as the moment I found myself reflecting on the anniversary of 9/11. It's a strange life, but it feels really good to be me, I thought as I took the last gulp and set down my empty pint glass. I had fallen in love with London today, and had fallen back in love with myself.

Building ablaze with lights near Fenchurch Station. Good night, London!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

Transitus Equatores on the Grande Buenos Aires

I rode on the Grimaldi cargo ship The Grande Buenos Aires from August 13 to September 18, 2012. I embarked in Zarate, Argentina and disembarked in Antwerp, Belgium. The ship called on the ports of Santos, Brazil; Vitoria, Brazil; Dakar, Senegal; Tilbury/London, the U.K.; Emden, Germany; and Hamburg, Germany. 

We’ve been crossing the Atlantic Ocean for 5 days with no sight of land and at 12:22 this afternoon, we crossed the equator. I went to the Germans' cabin and we had a countdown till 0 degrees according to their GPS, which was attached to their cabin window, then we cheered! We had heard stories about the crossing of the equator on the last tour, when a good portion of the crew as well as all twelve passengers were baptized in an equator-crossing celebration. We had also heard rumors that there was something in the works for us today, but none of my inside sources were able to give me details.

I spent the afternoon on the deck with my fellow female passenger, the German lady, sunbathing. I had a glass of white wine. Resolved that nothing big was planned for us, I showered, dressed, and carefully did my make up, in anticipation for dinner at 6 pm. Around 4 there was a knock on my door: “On the bridge. 5 pm.,” said the steward. Oh shit.

Around 5 I ran into the Germany lady on deck. We smoked a cigarette together and I realized she was just as nervous as me, if not more. Her partner, Peter, had made his living as a seaman, so he had crossed the equator for the first time long ago. Although the lady had crossed the equator the first time, on their way to South America one year ago, there had been no celebration. For their southbound journey, they had taken the Grande Francia. This ship and his captain were apparently somewhat insufferably rude and stuck-up. The crew and I heard a lot about the crappy food and atmosphere on that ship. The weird thing was, our chief chef, Raphael, was the chief chef on the Grande Francia when the Germans made their southbound journey. He insisted he was not given a big enough budget on the Grande Francia to obtain high quality ingredients like meat and fresh fruit. The food on the Grande Buenos Aires, my ship, was excellent (if not also quirky due to the limitations of storable food items).

The German lady and I bit the bullet and climbed the steps/ladder leading to deck 13, the top deck sometimes used for cars and on which the bridge was located. The captain and the first cadet took a look at us and the captain said, “No, no tennis shoes. You’re going to get wet.” We went off to our cabins, laughing hysterically (read: nervously), to take off our shoes and make adjustments to our clothing.

Upon returning to the bridge, we were ushered toward the center of the deck and we were blasted with water from a water hose, which pumped salt water from the sea. They had rigged up a mini stereo and dramatic neo-classical music was playing in the background. Then, Neptunus and Femme Fatale (crew members dressed up in costume) flicked soupy food-stuffs from a large pot of random ingredients the chief chef had gathered from the galley. For the rest of the ceremony I kept exclaiming, “There’s parmesan cheese in my hair!” and “I smell like dinner!”

We were then presented with a certificate printed on a very nice vellum paper entitled, “TRANSITUS EQUATORES.” This certificate is in Latin, I presume, and here is the Google translation of it. Some of the words I could not find in other latin-english dictionaries either… so please excuse its brokenness.

Day 27 in the year 2012 month 8, in the name of Neptune, god of the sea, storms, etc., we comandantis bastimientos, “BABY CALAMARIS.”


1) Be sure to navigate to all of the storms and floods and pamperos without fear nor aquamaris flumicellis
2) Remember to roll back the entire features Waters bastimientos fetid earth scocciant

Baptism by water, crossing the equator with bagno salatas uevas fracidas and when, head to feet.

Name: Baughman McDowell Kelci

All batizzantes abligati are wholly without scampo, pagans and alcoholic alcoolicas refrigerator for veterans passing equator.

And then show that Neptune will be in all things, mercifully for the transitions of the sea and of the rivers in the world, sowing your seed.


In addition to the certificate, with an apology they gave us the invitation the ceremony, which they forgot to give to us at breakfast. We had toast with bruschetta, fruit, and sangria on the bridge. There was a round of pictures taken and then all the Italian started to smoke in synchronicity  We sat with the captain and chatted for a while, then the wind picked up, the sun slipped behind the bridge, and the shadow made us cold.

We returned to our cabins and got changed, then headed for the deck behind the galley, where the crew had started the grill going. I was overwhelmed with food and beer being shoved into my hands. I chowed down on a chicken drumstick, grilled and salted to perfection. The crew made jokes about each other eating all the little pieces before I could get my hands on anything. Then, Hasan, the crew’s steward, summoned us for dinner with the captain. By some miracle I consumed a huge amount of deeply satisfying food that night at dinner instead of talking with captain, the Germans, and the officers. First Hasan brought out a round of Indian dishes, which was a treat in my opinion. Us passengers were always served Italian food, prepared by the chief cook, who was Italian, although the second cook was Indian and prepared the food for the Indian crew. These were rice dishes with grand Indian spices such as dimensional curry and cardamon  Then, many rounds of grilled meats were presented, including lamb and fabulously flavorful and rich steaks from Argentina, which were especially delicious since they were charred from the barbecue  in true parrilla style. For dessert, a delicious flan with dulce de leche and cream.

Even after dinner was over, the celebratory mood prevailed over the ship—the crew were socializing and having fun, laughing and whooping it up. I was able to spend some time hanging out with the Italians for a few hours, smoking cigarettes and laughing even though I didn’t understand much of what they were saying.

We had three BBQs like this one; the first was the day after leaving Vitoria, crossing the equator was the second, and the day after leaving Dakar was the third. The last one was by far my favorite. We had the barbecue and the dinner itself on the top deck, number thirteen, next to the bridge. I especially came out of my shell on this night; I made a lot of conversation, a lot of jokes, and I danced with Shona and Fabio on the deck. At the end of dinner, the chief chef presented a wonderful platter of eclairs and pastries, filled with chocolate and vanilla pudding. Much later that night, I was put to bed while I recited a poem I had been working on, a poem I originally wrote in 2008 and was now making real: Love is a jug / of stillness / we found them / frenetically filled their hearts…

By this point on the trip, I realized it was going to end; I had made friends and we were now on our way to North Europe, where I would disembark. I realized I had license to take as many photographs as possible, to open up and have as much fun as possible. For about 20 days I had gone without the internet, cell phones, movies, and t.v., and I was about to go for another 6. I had had limited access to contact with my friends and family, and no news of the going-ons in the developed world. Yet life went on, the world turned, the ship kept moving through the ocean. Yes, soon I would leave the ship for my unclear life in Europe, yet I wanted to remain in this never-never-land of simple existence, simple pleasure forever.