23 September, 2005

The beginning of our last day in the water.

A last look at our really neat stack of neatly stacked containers.

Another freighter also on the way to Long Beach. No idea where it just came from.

Because when you get cast overboard, there's nothing like a good cigarette.

I finally found the traditional poodle picture that the company has on all of its boats.

Part of the downstairs office.

All kinds of accounting and ship info is kept on these machines. At least I assume so.

I'm sure it's not what it looks like.

Another look out the front window of the bridge.

The charted course has us closer to the States than ever.

The Coast Guard boat rushes to intercept us.

The captain lowers the ladder so the Coast Guard can board.

Our first glimpse of the pier.

These are the giant mechanisms that do the loading and unloading. Seeing them at work is a spectacle to behold.

Our boat is lined up for the unloading process.

Unloading begins quickly.

Quite a lot left to go.

23 September, 2005

Day 70. I got up late in the morning and right away noticed that the ride had smoothed out significantly. I looked out the window fully expecting to see land but once again it was nothing but sea as far as I could tell. But I couldn't see that far as it was now a bit foggy. So land could very well be quite close.

I turned on my Verizon phone and got a time signal but wasn't able to make an actual call. Playing with the radio I was now able to hear some AM stations and even a few FM ones. I heard a station ID from Santa Barbara. I checked the television and was surprised to see a grainy picture of a Spanish station but no sound. I figured being German TV sets they wouldn't even be capable of getting signals from American channels. Regardless, all of this was ample evidence that we were getting ever closer to land.

For some reason the hot water in my room had stopped working so I walked into the hallway feeling a bit grimy. Not really a big deal since I could take care of all that stuff in Los Angeles. I tracked down Ben and we hung out for a little bit visiting parts of the ship for the last time trying to see land. We saw a couple of boats including a sail boat and another freighter. But the really exciting thing was seeing an actual bird for the first time. And then *that* was overshadowed by a bunch of dolphins jumping out of the water as if to welcome us. Oh, but it gets better. In the distance we saw something big. Really big. It was out of the water, then gone, then visible again. We figured it had to be a whale. Amazing. What a great way to come back into the country.

We still had a few hours before we actually arrived. We spent some time up on the bridge watching the preparations for our docking. There was a definite air of anticipation that hadn't been there before. The captain was in uniform for the first time and more people were hanging around.

We had our last lunch downstairs and it was pretty much like all the others. I thought the captain might have been too busy to make it to this one but there he was right on schedule. This was all just another day with a slightly different outcome. He seemed as relaxed as ever as did the other members of the crew. He told us that we would be boarded by the Coast Guard at 3:00 p.m. and that we should wait for customs in the office downstairs when that time approached.

After lunch Ben and I checked out the scenery. Land was now visible through the fog. Since we still had some time we decided to play a few last games of ping pong. The moment we started we were quickly visited by one of the guys in the room downstairs who told us that it was rest time from 12:00 to 1:00 p.m. It was the same guy who had told us about the 9:00 p.m. cutoff time for ping pong a couple of nights earlier. The sound must have driven him crazy. We felt bad but it was also pretty funny because he always seemed so comically exasperated. He was kind of short, had a shaved head, and somehow reminded me of Popeye the Sailor Man. He was also always telling Ben how it was a bad idea to wear sandals and Ben would somehow always seem to trip or have some misadventure with his sandals while this guy was in eyeshot. So somehow all of our interactions were always tinged with humor.

I used the rest time to settle the remaining financial matters with the captain for the extra snacks and drinks I had over the past ten days. It was pretty cheap considering. Then it was time to pack up which usually takes me about ten minutes. The hardest part is always getting my bags to close. I had wanted to bring an empty Coke can that said "For Maritime Use Only" on the top but it just wouldn't fit anywhere and if it had it would have gotten all bent. So I had to let it go.

At the appointed time I was watching from the bridge and things suddenly seemed busy. We saw the terminal ahead with the name of our freighter company on it. A Coast Guard boat was heading directly towards us. They circled once and the captain went out on the deck to lower the ladder. As Ben and I headed down to the office to wait for the next step, we passed the two sunglass-wearing Coast Guard guys heading up the stairs. It was all starting to get official.

While we were downstairs we ran into the Kiribati guy who had done a piece for the film. He wanted to show us some videos from his country. So we went to the crew's recreation room (very similar to the officers' version upstairs) and saw some footage from the islands he called home. We watched the part of the opening ceremonies from the 2004 Olympics where two members of the Kiribati national team appeared for the first time. We also saw some dances, ceremonies, and sporting events. It was really cool to be invited into this world and the guy seemed so happy that we actually took an interest. Ben said his next trip would probably include that part of the world. I can't believe he's already planning where he wants to go next. But I guess in my mind I'm doing the same thing.

It was now time for everyone to assemble by the office and wait for customs clearance. We were told that the passengers would be dealt with last. We watched as the various crew members were talked to by the three customs officials, two women and one man. The man in particular seemed to delight in finding little inconsistencies in people's forms. The chief engineer was denied permission to enter the country because of some craziness involving his having a sailor's visa instead of a tourist visa. The fact that he was from Germany which should have meant that he wasn't in need of a visa at all didn't enter into it. So his plans to visit America were dashed because of some bureaucracy. Even Russia hadn't seemed this rigid. The last I heard there was a chance that something could be done for tomorrow if he was able to get some other kind of paperwork finished but I'll never know how it turned out.

After a while it was time to deal with the passengers. We had to write all the countries we visited (we had to write really small) and answer some questions. In my case I had to tell them where I was from and whether or not I had ever lost my passport. Since this was a replacement passport with that fact prominently displayed on it, the obvious answer was yes. So after answering a bunch of their questions, both Ben and I were told to take all of our stuff all the way back up to our respective rooms and wait for them. It seemed really weird but whatever. While we were upstairs waiting, we each promised not to leave the boat until we were both done with whatever they were going to do with us. Showing solidarity to a fellow passenger is always a good thing.

They came for me after about 20 minutes. I was told to step into the hallway while two of the customs agents opened all of my bags and went through what sounded like everything I had. I say "sounded like" because I wasn't allowed to watch them. Instead I had to stand out in the hallway and have a conversation with the bureaucratic guy who kept asking me about my lost passport as well as all sorts of other things like what I did for a living, etc. I wish I knew what he thought I was capable of doing with my three little bags but I did my best to simply answer his questions and get this ordeal over with. I'd only been searched once before on the entire voyage. That was when I arrived in Japan off the ferry from China. The guy there looked very briefly at one of my bags and was so nice and respectful that it didn't even feel like a search. I guess I should have expected this kind of welcome home.

It was over before too long and I got to lug everything back downstairs. Somehow they had managed to repack everything in my bags which were just about bursting at the seams. Impressive. I went back down to the office and waited for Ben. I got to witness the other bits of bureaucracy that were taking place on all sorts of other levels. There was one really tall German guy who apparently worked at the pier and was telling one of the boat's officers that a piece of the boat needed to be fixed within the next hour. When there seemed to be some hesitation towards tackling the problem before unloading, the guy said it was okay with him if they wanted to wait. "If you wait, it will be even more broken," he said. "It's okay. We *like* it more broken." Dockworkers seem like a lot of fun.

It took about a half hour but they finally let Ben go. Apparently they wanted to look at the CDs he had on him, ostensibly to see if they were really CDs or something. But Ben's computer was still broken so they had no way of doing this. So they finally just gave up.

We were both free to go. Incredibly, it had taken longer to process two passengers off a boat than it did to take care of several hundred off an airplane. Go figure. We said our final goodbyes to the crew and then it was time for the moment I dreaded: walking down the steep, long, and flimsy ladder that led from the boat to the dock. It really is so easy to fall off this thing. Big gaps on the side, spaces on the bottom, rickety handrails, and a very difficult to walk upon surface. It was such a challenge that I had to leave one of my bags since I wouldn't have been able to even fit if I tried to carry all three at once. This of course meant that I got to traverse it three times instead of one. But I eventually made it down to the ground in one piece.

Now we just had to figure out how to get the hell out of here. Ben's mother and girlfriend were picking him up but apparently regular people aren't allowed anywhere near the docks. It's a shame really since it's quite fascinating to watch the huge containers being loaded and unloaded by massive robotic arms. We walked in the direction we thought the exit was since there weren't any signs at all to give us direction. Back in the States for mere minutes and I was already as lost as I was in any foreign country. We got a few hundred feet when an 18-wheeler pulled up next to us. The driver asked where we thought we were going. Apparently nobody had ever walked in that direction before. We learned that we had to ask for a "shuttle" in order to leave the complex. So we walked all the way back and found a gruff looking guy who apparently had the power to call us a shuttle. The unloading of our boat was picking up pace as we stood around waiting. In the distance we saw the steward looking at the land from the deck of our former home. After about ten minutes our shuttle arrived.

I was so wrong to have been afraid of riding over the ocean on a freighter. Riding through the parking lot on this shuttle was what I really should have been worried about. It was a little passenger van but it had no door on the side! That was bad enough but the driver delighted in whipping around curves at maximum velocity. Since there were no seat belts either, the only thing keeping us from being propelled outward was our tight grip on our seats. And this parking lot went on forever too. Every space was taken by a cargo container on a trailer. It looked like a great place to have a shootout.

Ben had asked his mom to give me a ride to a train station in Long Beach. It supposedly connected to Los Angeles somehow. But we still had to make our way out of the complex after being dropped off by the death shuttle. They really believed in keeping this place airtight; we had to exit through unmanned revolving metal barricades that I could barely fit my bags through.

Once we extracted ourselves we found Ben's mother and girlfriend who, after exchanging pleasantries after not having seen him in over a year, got everyone crammed into the car and set out to find the train station. It didn't take very long and it appeared that the train actually was a part of the Los Angeles subway system which seems to get bigger every time I see it. I never would have been able to find this place without a car though so I'm forever indebted for getting a ride.

After saying goodbye to everyone, I was back on my own. For a little while anyway. My friend John from San Diego was coming up to meet me and he would be arriving in a couple of hours. All I had to do was figure out how to take this subway into Los Angeles. The biggest challenge was getting a ticket from the machine. Unlike the ticket machines of Japan, the ones here are real bitches. One machine refused to take bills, another had a blank screen, the third and last took forever but eventually processed the transaction. I honestly don't know what options exist when none of the machines work which certainly seemed like a common occurrence.

The "train" was what would be called a tram in Europe and a trolley elsewhere in the States. I realized now why when I called the Long Beach transit people for instructions they kept referring to both a train and a bus. They clearly didn't know *what* to call it. For the record, it's the Blue Line of the Los Angeles subway, easily recognizable by its yellow stripe.

The train quickly became full and extremely loud. I don't think I'd ever been in a train car before with so much back and forth conversation going on, not to mention all the cussing. It seemed like everyone here knew each other as questions would be called out to people all the way on the other side of the car. This was the line that went through Compton, one of L.A.'s most notoriously bad neighborhoods. In the middle of that realization, my friend Dave called me to let me know that he had just heard it was Initiation Night for the Bloods. Oh what fun. And on top of that he warned me about wearing red. I just so happened to have my blazing red HOPE staff shirt on as I was heading into Compton. I thanked Dave for his good timing and tried not to worry about this.

Other than the noise and some rowdiness, the train ride was fine. I transferred to the red line and headed to, get this, Little Tokyo. This was a section in the downtown part of Los Angeles and I had picked a place to stay there mostly because of its proximity to Union Station where I would be leaving out of in a couple of days. But the hotel I picked turned out to be a true Japanese hotel. When I got there, it felt for a moment like I was back in Tokyo. Everything was written in English and Japanese, yen were exchanged for dollars, and there was even a Japanese Family Mart across the street! My room also had a Japanese look to it, complete with magnetic flashlight and two bags of tea, not to mention NHK on the television. What a transition!

I got settled in and met John at Union Station. We stopped back at the Family Mart and I was delighted to find out that they carried the very Boss coffee I had become addicted to in Tokyo. It's a small world after all. I got John a can and he also fell under its spell.

We naturally went to a Japanese place in Little Tokyo which was a welcome change from the rather predictable fare that had been on the boat. The neighborhood wasn't as lively as I had hoped, especially considering it was a Friday night. But it was great to be on dry land, see a familiar face, and be able to reminisce about Japan (John had been there in 2000).

It was right about this point that I started to become aware of something rather strange that had apparently happened at some point over the past few weeks. When I tried to access my GSM voice mail, I was told that my password was invalid. It wasn't very easy to guess so I didn't think it had been compromised. I also noticed that T-Mobile was using a new voice mail prompt. Something must have gotten screwed up in the transition. Nevertheless, I called it with my CDMA phone and let it go to voice mail just to see if the greeting had been changed. Well, guess what? Some guy named Tim Shiblowski had his greeting there instead! What the fuck?!

I spent about a half hour on the phone with T-Mobile who connected me with a technical guy who seemed to actually know what he was doing. And he gave me his honest assessment of the situation: *somehow* my voice mail had gotten swapped with this other guy's and probably the inverse had happened to him. Apparently this sort of thing occurs every now and then and they don't know why. So I got my account back but wound up losing every message that had been left for me during my absence. Thanks T-Mobile.

It was after midnight but we still wanted to do stuff. So we walked around the neighborhood a bit and found ourselves back at Union Station. We figured it would be fun to go to either Hollywood or Santa Monica. We looked into getting on a subway but they had already shut down for the night. Great. We went outside to see if there were any bus stops or maybe even a taxi. We saw a parked bus and asked the driver if he was going anywhere. He said he was about to head to Santa Monica. Well, that was too perfect.

We walked over to the nearby bus stop as he pulled in. The fare was only 75 cents! A taxi probably would have been 40 dollars. It seemed like this was the bus we were destined to be on. But I don't think I'd ever seen a sorrier bunch of passengers than those who were on this thing. Half were drunk out of their minds. Others were by default out of their minds. And the rest were just incredibly tired. It didn't help that the bus driver loved to tailgate and make sudden stops. At one of those, the passenger in one of the front seats managed to sail right onto the floor and well over the yellow line. He was obviously a bit messed up as it took him several minutes to remember where he was and get back into his seat. And the fact that every time a new passenger sat next to him, they would jump up almost immediately and move somewhere else told me that he must have also been emitting some pungent odor.

When we finally arrived in Santa Monica more than an hour later, only about five people actually got up. Everyone else was sound asleep. The bus driver had to wake up 30 people and usher them all off the bus. They looked so lost stumbling around in the street. I wondered if they were even supposed to be in Santa Monica or if they had all missed their stops.

Santa Monica also had a good number of homeless people. I'd already been approached by around a dozen homeless in downtown Los Angeles and they were all extremely chatty. (More than one claimed to be from New Orleans.) Santa Monica turned out to be no different. They were on every corner and seemed very worse for wear. I had forgotten about this side of life here.

John and I hung out at the beach for a while and spent time catching up. I hadn't seen him in a bird's age after all. It was good that we got together at this stage of the trip since we always stayed out until really late and wound up with really bizarre sleep schedules.

It was dawn when we found our way over to a Norm's and got ourselves some food before looking for a bus to take us back to downtown. There were a number of crazy people on the streets talking to grocery carts and cursing at street signs as the sun came up.

I'm actually home, aren't I?