Tween Deck

In the stairwell, near the menu and next to every light switch is a list of everyone on the ship; their nationalities, ages and jobs. For your traveling convenience the ship’s crew and officers have been color-coded along traditional colonialist lines. The officers are German and Russian. The crew is Kiribati. The captain is German and looks like Santa Claus. On our second day he takes us on a tour of the ship.

Places of Interest aboard the Punjab Senator

It’s overcast and windy and the decks are wet with ocean. Standing under the wooden slats of four damp and dripping containers, the Captain tells us they are packed with untreated cow hides that will be made into leather in Japan. And that is where that smell is coming from. Inside on the D deck is a room with a pool that is never filled. This is the pool room. The activity room next door has the ping-pong table, dart board, exercise bike and sauna. Up on the E deck between the stairwell and our cabin is the officer’s lounge. In the far corner an end table has disappeared beneath out of date German newsmagazines and issues of Maxim. Against the wall the bookcases are stacked two deep with hefty paperbacks, some in Russian, more in German and a quarter of them written by Tom Clancy. Three shelves hold the ship’s movie collection, hand-labeled VHS cassettes of movies dubbed into German and Russian and taped off of television. We watch Goldeneye in German. Crossroads in Russian gets turned off five minutes in.

Engine Room

On our third day the Chief Engineer takes us on a tour of the engine room. The engine is loud and clanging and everyone in the engine room wears noise-canceling headphones. Two pairs of guest headphones are by the engine room door next to the industrial warning sign that says, in pictograms, that we had better use them. As we walk through the pipes past the turbines and switches the chief engineer takes great pains to explain the engine to us. The Chief Engineer has a thick German accent. Inside our headphones we smile and nod.

Smoke on the water

We are heading north from Oakland to Alaska, along the Aleutian Islands to Russia before going back south towards Japan. We are drowning in daylight. The water is ice blue and too cold to pump into the small pool on the D deck. The laminated notice that clocks will be set back one hour this evening is posted outside the mess hall. Every third day it is joined by a notice that the stores will be open for a half an hour after dinner. There are two stores on the ship, two closets next door to one another and across from the mess hall. The bonded store sells hard liquor and cigarettes and the other store sells everything else. The utility shelves lining the right wall of the second closet are stacked with twenty-four can flats of Fanta, Diet Coke or Rostocker, cans of potato chips and peanuts and chocolate. You can pay at the end of your trip with cash, American dollars or euros. The men leaving the first closet carry bottles of red wine and cartons of cigarettes. The most expensive brand is Marlboro, and this is what the officers buy. The least expensive brand is Brooklyn. We stare at the stacks of Brooklyn cartons in the bonded store. “That’s where we’re from,” Mister Chen says to the Captain. “Those cigarettes,” says the Captain, “are maybe not so good.”

To see the sea

You have to get used to the ocean. I spend the first day lying on the couch and staring at the ceiling. But the water’s churn and sway induces not just nausea, but sleep. So we sleep soundly at night, and nap after breakfast, and sometimes we nap again after dinner. By the second day my stomach allows me free reign of my senses. And for all our time onboard sleep will follow us as an ever-ready friend.

The Cabin

They warned us. They warned us about the food. The freighter agency literature mentions several times that the food may not be what Americans are accustomed to – “for example,” it says, “there may not be dessert.” The first morning’s breakfast is called “Hunter’s Toast,” which turns out to be toast smothered in something like liverwurst and topped by a fried egg. Breakfast is usually one part egg, one part meat, and one part toast except when it is sausage and a puddle of tomato sauce. Breakfast is served from 7:30 to 8:00am, which means arrive at 7:30 and leave at eight. One pot of coffee and one pot of hot water sit on the table next to the basket of tea bags and peanut gallery of condiments.


Meals are our only scheduled events and they form the backbone of our days. There are four meals, the three you would expect and coffee, which is served at 4pm for the officers and at 10am for passengers. And when I say passengers I mean us, because we are the only two passengers on the ship. We are also the only two people on the ship who speak English. There are four tables in the Officer’s Mess Hall and we sit alone at the four person table against the back left wall. It feels like attending summer camp entirely by yourself.


Dinner is at 11:30am, a bowl of soup followed by a hunk of meat covered in white sauce and served with potato or rice. Like most institutional menus the ship’s menu has a clear pattern, and three times a week this includes dessert. Twice a week, when ice cream is served after lunch, supper will be “cold buffet.” If there is pudding, supper is anyone’s guess. Food on the ship, of course, can be supplemented by purchases at the Ship’s store.

Punjab Senator at the Port of Oakland

The turnstile is at the far corner of the parking lot where two barbed wire fences meet. Pass the turnstile and enter the cage, where the security guard checks passports against a list and then directs us past him to wait at a curb. Now we are inside the container yard, two yokels with backpacks among the heavy lifting of industry. Trucks grind by along tight yellow lines. There is a reason why everyone else is wearing a hard hat.

Scylla and Charybdis

A van picks us up and drives us past the stacked containers and the whizzing, skeletal machines that stack them. We are let out along the straight shoreline of the port, the Punjab Senator rising above us from the water and the cranes dwarfing the ship from the shore. The cranes are lifting containers from the ship and swinging them above our heads to the beds of the trucks parked underneath the cranes. A longshoreman offers to take our picture with the ship, several times.

The only way to the freighter is up a long shaking staircase more rope than metal. We climb, gripping the handrail and the slick black wetness that coats it. At the top of the stairs a short brown man in a paint-splattered blue jumpsuit writes our names down very slowly. An impatient white man in a clean tan jumpsuit with the name of the ship on the back in red comes along to correct him and leads us to the ship’s office, where we surrender our passports. Then he takes us to our passenger cabin on the E deck. We listen to a brief summary of safety procedures in broken English, and then we sign a form saying it is our fault if we die.

Passenger Cabin

Our new living room has two portholes, a couch, and a love seat. Against the far wall a desk and a chair sit under a clock set to no time in particular. A web of bungee cords tie the television and stereo to the top of the cabinets. The mini-fridge holds a few cans of Fanta, a few cans of Diet Coke, Rostocker Beer and a bottle of champagne. These are gifts from the captain. The cabinets hold a single glass. To the left of the loveseat, underneath the plastic plant, are our two full-body water immersion safety suits, size extra large.

The Cranes of Oakland

Since buying our passage aboard the Punjab Senator seven months ago the departure date has swung from July 17th to the 16th and then back again, only three days before departure, while we slept on the living room futon of a very understanding friend. When we call the terminal the morning of our departure the time has changed again, from morning to evening, and we are told to arrive any time after six. We arrive a little after seven. The Punjab Senator is now scheduled to depart at five the next morning. We are glad we bought Vietnamese sandwiches, and we split a can of Fanta.

Leaving California

At five in the morning the ship groans and we are on our way, peering out the window past the cranes, then Alcatraz and the Bay Bridge and the ferries and freighters until we are alone on the sea.


The plums are just ripe in the garden at the back of the house, and they hang low on the trees. We pull shut our backpacks and close the door behind us when we go. At the North Berkeley BART station there’s tape over the money slots and all the trains are free. There are posters with a self-congratulatory message about public transportation and keeping the earth clean. We are ready to leave California.

12th St/Oakland City Center is as close as BART gets to the entrance of the Port of Oakland. Bring sensible shoes. Head towards the water from Oakland City Center where everyone is Chinese for four blocks, and then everyone is black, and then there isn’t anyone. Walk down Adeline Street until it splits in two, one half spitting gravel for half a block until it runs into a fence and the other half rising into the air. Walk up.


The road is empty. On the left are the cranes and containers stacked four high and eight deep. On the right is the railroad, the tracks, engines and stacks of containers. The road slopes back to the ground and then turns right, staying parallel with the line of giant cranes. The sidewalk comes and goes. Now the left of the road is fences with truck entrances and six feet of rocks and gravel between the fences and the road. Every ten minutes there’s another leaning Portajohn, some with doors closed and others with doors open and stuffed full of brown paper towels. It’s only two miles from the BART station but the monotony of the gravel and the silence makes the walking last forever.


We reach the Hanjin terminal fence with relief, but it’s fifteen more minutes of walking between the endless fence and endless road before we reach the gate and can enter. We follow the sedans and compacts into the Hanjin parking lot where people greet each other as they change into or out of orange safety vests. In this parking lot between containers and the railroad and the cranes even the cars are vulnerable and small.

SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: Oakland’s Jack London Square has last-ditch public bathrooms and a big chain bookstore for last-ditch travel planning and very little else. Pick up a spare meal or two from one of the Chinatown restaurants south and east of the Oakland City Center BART stop.

san francisco

It’s a five minute drive from McKinleyville to Arcata, and James drops us off across the street from a shelter. This is the bus station. In New York homelessness seemed binary – you are either homeless or you are not. In California homelessness is a rainbow, and every color travels with us on the Greyhound bus to San Francisco.

At lunchtime the bus stops at a McDonalds across from a Taco Bell, down the street from the Chinese Buffet. We sit on the grass dividing the street from the parking lot and eat McChicken sandwiches from the dollar menu. The rest of the way to San Francisco the bus smells like cigarette smoke, and our mouths are coated with mayonnaise.

SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: A slow, sinking feeling.

the other trinidad

I have never traveled by freight train but it must be faster than the Coast Starlight. On the Coast Starlight hours are spent waiting for the freight trains to pass, then rolling forward, gently creaking, before rolling slowly backwards for ten or fifteen minutes more. Inside the train it is like the Empire Builder but older, decorated in dark earth tones that say we weren’t thinking about how hard this might be to keep clean. In the lounge car they show two movies, starting The Pink Panther an hour before the sun sets. By 10pm the train is hopelessly delayed, and the smokers gather in the stairwell to complain. In the lounge car on two small television sets a college basketball team fights racism.

Our mistake was asking to be picked up at the time the train was scheduled to stop in Dunsmuir. It is 5am when we arrive. Desperate passengers crowd the exit stairwell until the door opens, and then stand still while the woman in front of the line has trouble squeezing her luggage out of the train’s refrigerator-sized doorway. Collin and Leanne are in the parking lot, where they have spent the last four and a half hours. We get in Leanne’s car and head toward McKinleyville. It is a four hour drive.

We stop for coffee.

SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: Traveling very slowly through large expanses of night, and of nothing.


The Empire Builder takes two days to reach Portland, stopping along the way at every small town in Wisconsin with a hot coffee vending machine. The Empire Builder is a real train, with special cars for eating and for looking out the window and torso-sized metal boxes that dispense lukewarm water for absolutely free. The Empire Builder has exactly one available electrical socket. It is in the lounge car, and someone will be using it.

The train cars are two stories high. The bathrooms and the elderly and infirm are on the bottom level, and everyone else sits above them. Each coach car has three bathrooms, a men’s changing room and a ladies’ lounge, preserving the polite fiction that we will not all be wearing the same clothes and underwear for the next three days. Casual awful overpriced food is available for purchase in the Lounge Car, while those of a more formal bent may wish to make reservations at the Dining Car for formal awful overpriced food.

union station

Sleeping was uncomfortable the first night, but by the second night we are masters. This is because we are now so tired we could sleep anywhere. And we nap. Napping is the secret of sleeping on trains. Sleep whenever you are the slightest bit tired. Bored? Try closing your eyes! The constant unstructured drift between sleeping and wakefulness unmoors you from time as you have known it, leaving you wondering just how many weeks have I been sitting here, again?


The acknowledged sightseeing highlight of the journey is Glacier National Park, where the train curves through mountains and sits in the East Glacier station while a horse walks the length of the town. Throughout North Dakota the squat station buildings are surrounded by groups of people waiting for friends or relatives leaving or arriving. A woman greets a kid in a Harry Potter costume. A man in a blue tee shirt that says “Groom’s Father” in iron-on letters stands by a woman whose pink shirt says “Groom’s Mother.” They are waving to someone, but the train moves slowly, and by the time we pull out of the station they are walking away from us, back to the parking lot.

SUGGESTED ACTIVITIES: Becoming unmoored from traditional concepts of space and time.


Penn Station. Pennsylvania station. The half-renovated basement rec room of New York City transportation. All Amtrak trains leave from this dim warren. There isn’t a choice. Thread your way underground to the Amtrak departures board and wait there for the track announcement. New York to Chicago, Lakeshore Limited. Yes, there are lounges with seating, but you are about to sit down for eighteen hours, and the auxilary departure displays are sometimes delayed. Did you buy food before you got here? It’s a long trip. You should have. If you haven’t, buy food now.

Train Food

It gets dark in upstate New York, and the porters walk the aisles dispensing pillows in disposable sleeves. Pillows don’t mean a night’s sleep, and don’t expect one. Nap, jerking awake long enough to stare at Cleveland in the dark. When you get tired enough to sleep again you will.

SUGGESTED ACTIVITY: Feeling morally superior to people with more luggage than you.