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.
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 In the far corner an end table has disappeared beneath out of date German newsmagazines and issues of Maxim.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.
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.
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.”