Back on the Map
I fell off the map for the last two months. It’s been a whirlwind. I’ve been constantly moving, one temporary home to the next. It’s hard to take space to sit and process when you don’t have a home base. And I’ll be honest– after a month on a ship, it’s taken me a while to adjust to land again. A lot has happened since my last post in July… I’ll give you a quick run down now and follow soon with more stories from my adventures so far.
Back in July, I rushed to Thunder Bay, Canada, to catch my ship. But flooding delayed the trains bringing our cargo of wheat from the western plains. The Isa went to anchor in the bay, so I spent a week looking at my ship from the top of a hill… Finally, Isa docked and I was welcomed aboard by the crew: 21 Polish sailors, all guys, from 21 to 62. This ship and these guys were my home for nearly a month. After a week loading, we set off east, through Lake Superior, the Soo Locks, Lake Huron, Lake Erie, the Welland Canal, Lake Ontario, and the St. Lawrence River all the way to Hudson Bay. Then came the last radio transmission, from the coast guard station at Port aux Basques, Newfoundland… “You have departed Canadian waters… have a good voyage”…
We hit the open ocean in the middle of the night on a Sunday… I woke up rocking side to side. Some cold, salty water made its way in through my porthole window before Piotr helped me seal it closed. Seven days to cross the Atlantic. We moved our clocks one hour forward almost every night. I never got sick, but I cheated– I used a scopamine patch for the first couple of days to ward off queasiness.
And then, way off in the distance, I could just make out the coast of Ireland. We had reached the English Channel. Soon we started seeing other ships… more and more by the hour. We passed them by the dozens, all types– tanker, container, bulk cargo… huge ships leaving northern Europe and moving out to their next destination. We even got passed by a Maersk container ship, twice our size, chugging along faster than our 14 knots. Two days in the channel, then a few hours through a canal and some locks to arrive… in Gent, Belgium.
Up til a week before, we didn’t know whether we’d be taking our grain to Holland, Belgium, or even Italy… so when I disembarked and waved goodbye to Isa, all I could think was “OK, now what. What the heck am I doing here?” Turns out I couldn’t have picked a better place to land. In my two weeks in Gent, I was met with nothing but generosity and warmth. I made friends with the Maritime Police, who gave me a tour of the port and even acted as my personal taxi service a few times when I was in a pinch (you can imagine the curious looks I got, stepping out of a police car with my luggage in tow!) I met a street musician who showed me where to find the best fries in town. I found a temporary home in a community house. Having a kitchen, and people to cook and eat with, was such a gift.
And now I’m officially a sailor– I spent my birthday on a boat. I left Belgium on an inland barge named Vigilia and spent a week on board with five dudes from Holland and two cute Maltese doggies.
In Antwerp, we loaded sand from a big ocean bulker into our inland barge (see in the picture, above? Their ship is on the left, ours is the lower one on the right.) I struck up a conversation with two guys up on the deck of the saltwater ship. They told me they had brought this sand here all the way from Australia. Two straight months of sailing.
We finished loading around 3 a.m. and headed south down the Rhine… wound our way past bustling cities and green pastures, power plants and loading docks, rocky valleys studded with vineyards and medieval castles. I loved being on a boat again. To me, a boat feels like home… the smell of bunker fuel, the familiar feel of steel, the constant hum of the engine… So far boats have been more home to me than land. On a boat, you’re moving. But your home moves with you. I got off a few times in Germany, only to find myself in a strange world where I didn’t know the language, didn’t know anybody… after a couple hours, I was relieved to go home to the boat.
I caught a plane from Cologne to make it to Stockholm in time for the annual WISTA–Women’s International Shipping and Trading Association. That was three weeks ago. Now, I’m still in Sweden– in Gothenberg. Catching my breath and sorting out my plans, figuring out where to next. I’ll spend some time here catching up on all the sound, photos, and stories I’ve gathered so far. Stay tuned for more updates soon.
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.