Friday, July 09, 2004

Dancing Queens

Very, very early this morning I was shaken awake by the woman next to me. "Little sister. Little sister!" Huh? "Hurry, get up! It's breakfast time...." Coming out of a deep sleep, I couldn't make my mouth form any words. I just shook my head and sank back down onto the futon.

An auspicious start to the day.

The slow boat to China is fantastic. Today has been filled with card tricks, no-rules ping pong, misty islands off the portside, late night karaoke, and a couple of bottles of Johnnie Walker whisky.

One of the things that sets this boat apart from other long-distance ferries is that this one is staffed by Chinese beauty queens. As the last person to board the boat, I had their undivided attention and was greeted by a whole line of them. The women were all wearing blue and white suits, high heeled shoes, and red and gold beauty queen sashes. There was no explanation as to why. They waved and bowed and one escorted me to my dormitory. The style of English she used would be appropriate for a military academy. There were no requests, only orders. "You! Follow me. Stand here! You! Wait here! Give me your passport! You! Sleep here!" I followed her commands like a little sheep.

Not long after setting off, I lay down on my futon for a nap. A couple of hours passed before I was scared awake. My prone body was being forced into a life jacket by the militant beauty queen. Her sash had disappeared and she was wearing a life jacket and a red hard hat. Once I was suited up too, she ordered me to the lifeboats. What the hell happened during my nap?

Out in the lobby there were dozens of passengers milling around in puffy life jackets. No one was in a hurry to get to the lifeboats. We were just having a drill. Eventually people started lining up to await further instructions while I stood and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. Those of us with the cheapest berths waited downstairs while passengers from the first class watched a video showing them important details about how to launch lifeboats. My group never got to see that video. Economic social-Darwinism on the Communist boat? The cheapskates left to drown?

All the passengers crowded into a space on the top floor while a high-ranking crew member gave lengthy evacuation instructions in Chinese. The three English speakers (Marcus, Nuno and I) were herded together. One of the ship's officers translated only what he thought was the most important point. "If the ship starts to sink, please refrain from smoking."

Later that night, the talent portion of the voyage commenced. After the women in blue suits and high heels finished swabbing the floors and clearing away dinner plates, everyone gathered for some entertainment. First the beauty queens performed a choreographed dance number . Then, they sang poignant karaoke renditions of Chinese pop songs. Next, I was ordered to make a fool of myself in front of all the passengers and crew. The boat's drunk captain pointed at me, pointed at the karaoke song book, and pointed at the makeshift stage.

Halfway through my rendition of Madonna's "Like a Prayer," a child was brought forward in the arms of a beauty queen. The boy presented me with a bouquet of plastic flowers that had been swiped from a vase on the windowsill. I giggled most through most of the rest of the song. Returning to my room later, all the previously shy women were suddenly friendly. Singing off-key in Asia can do wonders for your popularity.

I'm happy, here on this boat in the middle of the sea. Halfway between anywhere. As much as I want to arrive at our destination, it would also be nice to stay indefinitely on this boat of two time zones. Are we on Tokyo time or Beijing time? Does it matter? The only relevance time has is the time that the kitchen is serving food. Otherwise, there is nowhere to go. There is nothing pressing to do. We'll arrive in China soon enough.

Thursday, July 08, 2004

Day One

When does a day begin? Does it start at one minute after midnight? Or does it begin when you wake up? I don't really know when the first day of my round-the-world trip began. Either it started at one minute after midnight, while I was still trying to finish ten procrastinated projects... or it began after dawn when I awoke from less than two hours of sleep. When it was time to go, I made a frantic effort to get to the post office and onto the train to travel to the coast where the ferry was waiting.

I was so late this morning that I almost missed the boat.

After months of dreaming and talking and planning and worrying, the round-the-world journey has actually begun. It starts today because this is the day that all known faces and places are left behind. Ahead is uncertainty, unknown languages and undoubtedly unappealing foods.

The rough plan:
China - July to August
Australia - August to September
New Zealand - September to November
SE Asia - November to January
India - January to February
Turkey - March
Europe - March to July
United States - back to New Orleans in July

The plan is open to change and a bit of serendipity.

The best of all worlds would be to meet up with friends and family along the way. Anyone living or traveling through the above places should feel free to get in touch.

For now, home is wherever the backpack is stashed. Tonight that is on a ship somewhere in the Sea of Japan. As the boat left port, I stood on deck, watching as we floated toward China and away from Japan. I wondered what I was getting myself in for. I'd been anxious about the start of the trip for days and recently started talking about surviving the trip as opposed to enjoying it.

But all those apprehensions disappeared within ten minutes of being on-board. While the ship was still in view of port, two Japanese university students asked me to take their picture. We started talking and as simply as that they adopted me as a traveling companion. We're going to head to Beijing together after the ferry lands near Tianjin. First they were two and I was just one. Then we were three. That was before we met Marcus, the Swedish student. Then there were four. With Nuno the Portuguese priest, we became five. Ken, the Japanese surfer, makes six.... And the circle of fellow travelers grows every time we sit down to a communal Chinese meal.