Mapping A Route
Next week, I board a cargo ship and set sail on a yearlong adventure. My plan? Circumnavigate the globe by ship. Spend time in port cities en route. Document global trade from the perspective of people who carry out the actual, physical process.
You’re probably thinking “Whoah whoah whoah, you’re doing what?! How’d you come up with that crazy idea?” Well… one thing leads to another…
I grew up in a small southern town with railroad tracks right through. I became curious about how transportation networks and trade routes shape places. In college, a course called Globalization Politics got me thinking about how trade interlinks global economies.
I’ve never thought of myself as a water person, but a family trip to St. Croix last summer changed my mind. I spent a day on a sailboat with two old brothers who shared hilarious sea stories. When I came home, I added “learn to sail” to my to-do list.
Last fall I had the opportunity to apply for a Watson Fellowship. I wanted to create a project for myself. So I brainstormed and wrote down all the things I wanted to do. Go to China. Learn to sail. Find out more about global economics.
When I read on Wikipedia that over 90% of the stuff we get from overseas gets here on huge ships, I was floored. Sure I knew “everything comes from China,” but I’d never stopped to think about how it actually gets here. I’d never even seen a cargo ship before.
So I picked up the phone, called the Cleveland Port Authority, and started asking questions. I went up to the port to meet the Eemsborg, just in from the Netherlands. I boarded the ship to talk to the captain and crew. I pulled out my map and said I wanted to sail around the world. They examined the route I’d penciled in while I scribbled down their advice. Avoid the North Atlantic in the winter. Look out for pirates off the coast of Somalia.
Over the next few months, I learned everything I could about the world of cargo shipping. I scoured the internet. Called up shipping agents and marine surveyors. I even joined an organization called WISTA– Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association –and went to the US branch WISTA meeting in DC. I found out there was a whole micro-world of bulk shipping right in my backyard–on the Great Lakes– and I took a nine-day trip on a bulk ore ship as a trial run for my Watson project.
Well, I got the Watson fellowship! Now, I’m getting ready to set sail. I’ll go back up to a port on the Great Lakes, board a saltwater cargo ship, and this time head east through the St. Lawrence Seaway and across the Atlantic. I’ll spend this year traveling the trade routes to get the story of global trade firsthand. I’ll be posting tape, text and images all year here on Transom. Stay tuned.
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.