Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Entry 6, 3.11.11

Friday March 11th, 2011, 7:00pm (ship time)

Sitting on the back deck right now enjoying the weather. Tyler (my roommate) asked where I was headed; I told him I was going back to go write a little because the weather was so good. He laughed, and then said, "I forgot that 80 degrees and overcast is good compared to where you came from. You people from Michigan are weird."

Spanish word of the day: Claro. I think it means "clear," "I see," or "I understand." I'm guessing this because of how I heard it used today.

I should explain what the back deck is. The crew spaces on the ship (I will go into more detail about them some day when things are boring) are almost all deck 1 or lower and totally enclosed. A few lucky ones (officers, people with seniority, my boss) have a cabin with a small recessed porthole less than a meter wide. Other than that we live in a maze of welded steel, with the notable exception of the back deck (or alternately, crew deck).

If you take the ladder up from one of the mess halls at the stern of the ship (crew, staff, and officers' mess halls, but again, more details on this later), you will find on deck 4 a small hatchway that is usually propped open with something. Step over the lip and you emerge onto a small exposed deck with a rubberized floor, open to the air along the entire stern bulkhead and filled with battered old porch furniture. In fact, this is the rearmost location on the entire ship; the runninng lights and stern flags are all located here. The aft anchor and mooring equipment is directly below on deck 3, but the back deck is an area that is entirely at the crew's disposal. There's a small bar that serves beers for a dollar after 9pm, and sometimes there are themed music nights and dancing between the twin exhaust pipes of the emergency generators.

The main galley also has access straight onto the back deck, and so cooks and waiters taking smoke breaks or escaping from irate passengers can often be found here shooting the breeze. In some ways, the back deck is the place of refuge for the vast majority of the crew (i.e. everyone who doesn't have a window) as it is the only place you can get a breath of fresh air without having to deal with passengers. Occasionally a curious face will peek over the rail from the promenade deck when we're having a particularly good time.

Today we stopped in Roatan, an island off the coast of Honduras. I can tell that it was a manufactured port -- it consisted of a brand new concrete pier connected to the shore by a line of upscale shopping botiques. Once you passed through the gates it was a totally different world. There were only a few roads, most of them dirt, and while the area near the port seemed heavily populated there was no clear urban center. Countless small wooden piers stretched out into the water, most of them home to small wooden boats with outboard motors.

Most houses and other buildings in Roatan follow a predictable blueprint. The top story is the habitation or other primary area of the house. Underneath, half of the upper story is supported by a concrete or cinderblock foundation that serves as a shed or garage, while the rest of the building is supported with stilts. The reason for this became swiftly apparent, as a torrential downpour heralded the beginning of our day on shore and it never really stopped raining the entire time we were there. Puddles of standing water were everywhere, and anyone trying to live at ground level would find their house and belongings flooded very quickly.

I just had to move to a new chair, as we're sailing through a bit of a squall. It will be dark soon.

From the port, we took a bus inland. The island is very mountainous even from the shoreline, and quickly the road became a twisting path. Luckily it was paved, or else I'm sure that the heavily laden van (there were more than ten of us) wouldn't have been able to make it up the incline in the wet weather. The interior is very thick with vegetation; huge green leaves are everywhere and a machete would be absolutely necessary if one wanted to stray from the beaten path. Here and there are gated driveways appearing seemingly out of nowhere from the jungle -- homes of the rich and reclusive, I can only assume.

About twenty minutes later we came down the other side of the moutain. Here there was the first sizeable expanse of flat land that we'd seen so far, and it was absolutely jam-packed with resort buildings. Threading his way down a dead-end dirt road, our taxi driver dropped us off within sight of the beach and promised to see us again at 2:30. Unfortunately at this point it was still raining, and so our slightly bedraggled party trudged down the beach to a restaurant that someone knew about.

Besides a few condos and hotel buildings, almost nothing was indoors on the beach. We found the restaurant and pushed a couple tables together under a shelter so we could order. The restaurant itself reminded me of the Poseidon in San Diego taken another step further -- whereas at the Poseidon you can step from the patio right onto the beach, here the actual floor of the restaurant was sand. The first shelter went up right at the high tide marker! The food was decent, and I had a drink that was essentially a chocolate milkshake with several shots of rum in it called a Monkey-something. Delicious.

Still raining at this point, and everyone was sitting around in their beach gear with drooping faces. Finally I decided "screw it" and went for a swim anyway, because I didn't travel all the way to Honduras to let a little rain keep me from a dip in the ocean (not to mention we were already wearing swim trunks, what's the issue with a little more water?). The Caribbean was beautiful, warm like bath water and a gorgeous color of blue that you really have to see to believe. It was far warmer in the water than out of it, and I did shiver for a little bit in the wind as I ate, but the Brits were so busy talking about how the weather reminded them of home that I don't think anyone noticed.

Which is why, by the way, that the Brits have such an obsession with talking about the weather whenever they visit somewhere. The weather in London is so uniformly overcast and drizzling that to actually be somewhere else where there is different weather from day to day is very exciting to them. I know this is true because a Brit told me herself.

Other than that it was a fairly uneventful day. I am starting to become more acquainted with the Lady G's moods . . . this morning, I sat bolt upright in bed when the engines stopped. A ship in port and a ship at sea are two totally different things. In port, a ship is nothing more than a large, crowded, somewhat smelly houseboat. Once you pull out of the harbor, though, things are totally different. She becomes a living organism, you can feel her move and breathe all around you (especially down where the crew lives!). We are totally dependent on the Grandeur -- were something to fail catastrophically, we'd be at the mercy of the sea. This feeling of trusting your life to someone or something is a concept that I understood intellectually before that first day out of sight of land but had never actually experienced. I begin to understand why ships are always female to their crews.

It's a symbiotic relationship; while on one hand the Grandeur is our protector, our refuge, she also needs the million small things that the crew does every day to keep things running. For instance, there's a large metal casing on a pallet down in broadway that I'm pretty sure is a cylinder head (I could stick my head and shoulders inside of it with ease, if that gives you any idea of the size of the thing). Somehow I feel like that's a pretty important bit of the ship. Today another piece of engine appeared beside it, this one with rods running through it that probably connect valve rockers to the camshaft of a extremely large diesel engine. How the crew is replacing a cylinder head that probably weighs at least a ton while we're at sea I have no idea, but I'm impressed.

But the ship is more than just a protector. It's a home, and it is a home that moves. This may sound like a silly distinction, but it's important. The same way that being on a long train ride begins to blur the lines of what is real and what is not, being crew on a ship is doing the same thing to me now. I've only been on five days and already the rest of the world is beginning to slip sideways a little. It is hard to really be concerned with much on shore when tomorrow morning it will be hundreds of kilometers away.

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