Back to the Beginning

October 3rd, 2012 | by Allison Swaim | Series:

A year ago I set out on a pretty crazy quest: I was going to circumnavigate the world by cargo ship. Stop in port cities en route. Collect stories of global trade and the people who make it happen. I had a Watson Fellowship to fund the project, and a bag full of recording gear. You may have followed my posts here on Transom before I departed last July and periodically at pit stops along the road.

One year later, I can finally say that I finished the circle. I went eastbound around the whole globe, seeing each place I left bleed into the next. Six months at sea aboard 8 cargo ships: M/V Isa, M/V Vigilia, M/V Auto Bank, M/V Baltic Breeze, M/T Korsaro, C/V Maupassant, C/V Kota Layar, and C/V Maersk Malacca. Six months on land in 9 global ports: Thunder Bay, Canada; Gent, Belgium; Goteborg, Sweden; Istanbul, Turkey; Limassol, Cyprus; Port Said, Egypt; Singapore; Hong Kong; and Shanghai, China.

In my first week “off the boat,” I made a short video to reflect on my year. It’s a rough draft, and an experiment in a new format for me. I want to do more like this, short “video poems,” and really make the sound rich. In this cut, the sound is recorded through my computer using Quicktime player, and sound and image are all mixed in iMovie.

Pretty much my only set of parameters for the year was a line I penciled in on a map I found on Google images. With such a sparse score, I had plenty of room to improvise. Suffice it to say it was NOT all planned out at the outset. Believe me, I tried to line things up from the beginning. But after a while I contented myself with the realization I was going to have to piece it together one ship at a time. Much of my land time was dedicated to learning about the inner workings of the shipping industry, making contacts with shipping companies and arranging logistics. Time on board was immersive, prolonged field time, primarily dedicated to collecting sound, image, and loads of field notes.

Map: Allison's Final Route- Thunder Bay, Canada to Charleston, SC.

A map of Allison’s route around the globe.

The last leg of my voyage took me exactly halfway around the world. It had taken 10 months and 7 ships to cross 12 time zones and arrive in China. I crossed the remaining 12 time zones in just one month aboard my final ship. I left Shanghai aboard container vessel Maersk Malacca on June 27th. We stopped in Busan, S. Korea, for loading operation and crew change. Then we hit the Pacific Ocean. The Pacific is HUGE. Most maps don’t show it all, but look at a globe and you’ll see it takes up almost 50%. We sailed nearly three weeks without a sign of land. To be perfectly honest, not seeing land didn’t faze me so much. On a ship like that it’s pretty inconsequential  if you’re near land or not. You can spend all day without seeing the ocean, especially if you work down in the engine room. There’s a never-ending list of jobs to be done for the crew. And I kept myself busy writing, recording, sketching and re-sketching a story line.

The main drawback during long stretches of sea-time is the high price of communication: the cost of a phone call increases exponentially. When we’re at port or near shore, crew can call home with a calling card or send texts with a roaming SMS plan. Out in the middle of the ocean, the only contact to land is the satellite phone. A phone card costs $20 and will get you 19 minutes of calling time. I made a few emergency phone calls to radio colleagues to troubleshoot technical issues with a wireless microphone set I’d bought in Shanghai. It’s incredible to see how fast those 19 minutes whiz by, especially trying to talk your way through recorder malfunction. In the end, my second engineer on board got the microphone working. When you’re at sea, you make do with who and what you have on hand.

Balboa, Panama was our first stop after 18 days of ocean. Then we passed through the Panama Canal into the Caribbean Sea and north to the right of Cuba. In Miami, I touched down on US soil for the first time in a year. Next stop, Savannah, Georgia. Hearing that Southern accent on the VHF radio, a few miles from port… I can’t describe how much I felt at home in that sound. I’m from the South, so I was excited to introduce my crewmates to this region of the U.S. Point out the crepe myrtle trees as the ship passed by the old downtown. Field questions: “You don’t have winter here, do you?” “Of course we do! Not now, cause it’s July…”

My last stop was Charleston, SC. My parents and sister drove down from my home in NC to pick me up. They came on board to see the ship, meet the crew, and get my stuff and me. It was bizarre to have two very separate parts of my life interact. My favorite moment was when I caught my dad and the chief mate pulling out their phones to swap photos. Dad showed pictures of my brother’s truck, the big fish he’d caught. Chief mate: “These are my kids… My island…” My dad: “Do you have a boat?” “Of course! Let me show you…”

I’m still recovering, getting used to the idea of being on land, and being in the US. It’s pretty weird to come all the way around the world and get dumped off right where you started. For days I would wake up blinking and dazed. How could I possibly have ended up back in my house in the same bed I left? Like I dreamed the whole thing up? I definitely didn’t dream it, though. You, Transom readers, were my witness as I checked in along the road. And now, in my suitcases, I’ve got 2.5 terabytes worth of media on my hard drives. Yep. I’ve got a long road ahead of me as I move into production mode! Over the next year, I’ll be writing, and creating radio docs, video poems, installations, and talks out of the material of the year. You might see some on Transom and in other venues, TBD. Stay tuned.

Allison Swaim pulling away from Singapore Harbor

Allison Swaim pulling away from Singapore Harbor

My Trade Route Stories site has more about my adventures.

Allison Swaim caught the radio bug during a month-long stint as a reporter at Radio Victoria in rural El Salvador. She learned how to tell stories with sound at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in the fall of 2008. Discovering radio was like getting her license. Holding a microphone gives Allison an excuse to do what she loves: talk to people, hear their stories, learn their perspectives. Allison grew up in Salisbury, NC and is proud of her Southern roots. The Midwest became a second home in her five years in Oberlin, OH. She graduated from Oberlin College in 2010.

6 Comments on “Back to the Beginning”

  • Jack Rodolico says:

    Allison…really wonderful video. I see it says “Draft 5″ so I assume it’s a work in progress. But I love where it’s going and doesn’t seem to nee much to me. Glad the journey is behind you and I look forward to checking out more of your work.

    Jack Rodolico

    • Jack, I’m so glad that you liked it. It’s an experiment in a pretty new medium for me. And my work process for this was new also– being able to use Quick Time to record and just throw things up fast was liberating. I tend to be very detail-oriented… this can be good when you’re in the final stages of production. It really bogs things down when you’re still conceptualizing and forming the work, though. It was great to find ways to use the tools I had to come up with a rough working process that allowed me to experiment without thinking too hard about details. Hoping I can keep rolling this way as I dig into the mounds of files I dragged back from the sea.

  • Jake warga says:

    Welcome back, looking forward to hearing what comes of it. Out of all the gear I trust you have cleaner video, other voices, cleaner audio, etc. Not that it has to be polished, but I’d like to hear what I see, not just hear what you saw.

    • Jake, don’t worry! I have hundreds (wince) of hours of tape and video. I can guarantee it’s not all great, but there’s some good stuff in there. Luckily, I did a decent job of logging and some transcribing throughout, so I have an idea of where to go first to start digging out some of the gems.

      I’m now on the hunt for collaborators to join me as I move into production mode– I’d like to round up a team: a couple more producers, an editor, and a web guy/gal. Then, I’m going to need to round up funds to pay us well for our time.

      To that end, I’m putting out a call for folks interested in joining the team. Doesn’t need to be a full-time commitment–I’m still thinking through different configurations for how to distribute the work load, and a lot will depend on who comes to the table and how much money I can track down. I’m applying for PRX’s Global Story Fund to get the project started.

      The first item in the line-up is a series of audio portraits of some of the men and women I sailed with. That will form the building blocks for other audio and multimedia work.

      Get in touch with me if you want to collaborate and/or if you have ideas for where to look for resources (i/e, space, support, $$, etc!)

  • Chris says:

    I am amazed at the fascinating stories one just happens to stumble upon.
    Allison sounds like you had a unique life experience and I wish you well. I hope to use your experience to teach my children of the possibilities that are out there waiting to happen.
    Thanks and good luck

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