You Must Live It
Six months ago, I set out to catch a ride on a ship. I had my recording gear, a shiny new camera, and a map of the world with a route sketched in pencil. The plan: hitch my way East around the world on cargo ships, travel the trade routes, and get the story of “global trade” from the ground (or, in this case, the sea!) Since then I’ve crossed the Atlantic on a bulker, hopped on a barge to travel down the Rhine, boarded an RORO car ship to sail from N. Europe through Gibraltar, and spent Christmas on board a tanker in the Mediterranean. I washed up on shore in Turkey, and now I’m in Istanbul, counting down the days till my next ship leaves for Singapore. In six months, I’ve learned a lot about how to tell a story. Along the way, my focus has shifted quite a bit. Here’s how:
1. My scope has narrowed.
I started with the enormously broad topic of world trade at sea. Once I got my way on board and into that world, I found myself less interested in the ports and the perspective from land, and more and more interested in the people on board who choose the sailor profession. People for whom life is divided into “on board” and “on shore.” People who see the world from this side. Like Anti, from Croatia, who I met at Rosenhill Seaman’s Club in Gothenberg, Sweden.
“Seaman’s life”–as they say on board–is unlike any other. It takes a certain type of person to make it at sea. And I am absolutely captivated by the narratives of the people who choose this career and their unique perspectives on life. They spend most of their lives in a world that very few of us ever see, carrying the bulk of global trade to maintain reality as we know it.
Anti’s advice: “You must live it!” That’s the only way to really understand what it’s like to be a sailor. So I’ve stepped up to the challenge, racking up sea-time to experience life on board and get access to these stories.
2. I’ve become a main character.
Because I choose to “live it,” I must step into the frame and use my own lens, my perspective as a newcomer to the bizarre environment on board. This is MY sea story as much as anyone else’s. The times when I’m engaging as a part of the “scene” are the best moments; provide the most real tape. In radio school I remember learning to be a good listener, not to fill every silence with new questions and instead to wait for what my interviewee might say next. But I tend to be too passive in the field. I back off too much and try to fade into the wall.
The fact is I’m not invisible. I am a part of it. By being there, I create the tape– by asking questions and interacting with the people and environment around me. My voice is a critical thread to pull the story together. So, I’m trying to get better about marking tape, starting each recording with something like, “OK, here we are in ______, ______ is happening… and I’m about to go find out about ______.” I try to speak a little more slowly; try to get my questions “on mic.” My questions and my presence in the tape are even more important because most often English is a second language for the people I’m recording.
Here’s an example from my very first day on my first ship, Isa, in Thunder Bay Canada. After dinner, a bunch of the crew “went shore,” and so I went with them. The van from the seaman’s mission gave us a ride from the ship in to town, and dropped us off in the Walmart parking lot. So here we are in Walmart…
After a 15-minute trek down the highway, we finally get to the liquor store.
And cut. After that, they forced me to turn off the recorder. “C’mon, Alooshka. Enough work for today.” So I put away the gear and enjoyed the moment.
Sailors have a tough life. They spend much of their time far away from home, without everyday comforts folks on land take for granted. Yet they know better than anyone how to live life to the fullest. In my time at sea, I’ve learned to appreciate small luxuries and to take every chance to celebrate. “I have only one life.” Simple but powerful words from 23-year old Marcin, a deckhand. These words have stuck with me throughout this journey. My hope is that by living it, by sailing with these people, getting to know them and sharing experiences, I can do justice to their stories. I must start by telling my own.
More sea stories to come 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.