In the port of Miami, I walk on the cargo ships side of the quay, from the other, where the cruise ships are lined up, a clanging/nasty voice and the annoying sound of a pianola resound. This strip of land is the last I will set foot on for weeks. On a ladder that bounces me off with every step, because it hangs on the high wall of the ship, I step into my floating home, an area I will not leave until we reach the other side. With the help of the pilot we depart and with his leaving we greet the rest of humanity. Darkness engulfs/submerges/embraces the lights of the coast and encloses us too.
From the beginning I knew that this is how I would travel this last stretch, metre by metre, (nautical) mile by mile. I wanted to experience the measurement/mass/size of this ocean and the time it possesses, navigating the surface beneath which lies a mystery that man will never discover, and is therefore still the cause/reason of/for so much fantasy. I knew I needed this time and space to let the experience of this year sediment and prepare me for the return/arrival: programs, structures, things, mirrors, the same bed every day, only listening to languages I understand. And I knew I would have wished to enjoy the emotion of coming closer, of soon being able to sit at a table with my family again to eat Dad's spaghetti, to make an appointment with friends at the café or to spontaneously consume the sofa by chatting.
In the company of 24 men, half of which Chinese, half Filipino, two Romanians and one Ukrainian, I am the only passenger on board, the only woman. People with whom I thought I would have little to do became protagonists through cohabitation. Everyone has their own, and in living together, we people share our stories. Each one contributes to lead this huge but then tiny means of transport, the interdependence on a ship makes everybody necessary. I, who could not assist to the navigation, received a nice compliment at the end of this journey, I now know, the nicest thing a captain could say: "you on board, was like to have always good weather”.
And this year I have learned to accept compliments. I know that the sun I carry inside me is light, what I have gathered along the way. It comes from the encounters with people, animals, rivers, flowers, religions that help me comprehend, politics that make me think, rituals that have re-baptised me as a daughter of this earth. I accept this compliment with ease because I know it is not about me.
Travelling has given me the opportunity to stop/pause. I have been able to listen, to feel uncomfortable, I have been given opportunity to find solutions not just by talking, I have had occasion to learn to trust ignorance about tomorrow and so have been allowed to realise that many barriers are imaginary or in any case often just fruit of thought. Flowing together with time, following the curves of the ground, without fellow travellers, one also discovers to never be alone.
My cabin is very comfortable, certainly the most luxurious accommodation of the last twelve months. After expressing the wish to visit the whole ship, I was given the necessary armour to do so: shoes with metal toes, helmet, suit, gloves, goggles and earmuffs… most of the ship I am only allowed to enter accompanied in any case. While exploring the spaces where I am authorised to spend time without wearing protective clothing, the deck quickly became my favourite and the pilot armchair turned into my official position. From here you have the best view. I am also allowed to come any time at night, the room is then completely dark, which ensures the best vision, in addition to the radars it is also constantly checked using telescopes. Here I can also follow all the steering/navigation, it seems that there is a storm on our trajectory and to avoid its centre as much as possible we slow down our gait.
Before departing, I read about the seafarers' beliefs: by crossing the Atlantic, I conquer the right to an anchor tattoo. When I told the captain that if you have sailed more than 5,000 nautical miles you deserve a tattoo of a swallow, he had to laugh because his body would now be a patterned with it. I realised with him that these traditions belong to a time when such distances were very likely to be imagined without return. Today everything is different... but I nonetheless avoid whistling and sleeping on my stomach. Many analogue methods are still in use, such as the Azimuth and the paper charts on which Dan, the second officer from Romania, draws the route first with pencil, and only after enters it into the on-board computer.
"I miss my daughter and my wife. My daughter is nineteen now, she will soon leave our house.... at least we hope so, for her sake, she is a smart kid! Difficult age! They both keep sending me messages about how one can't understand the other. They write it to me, here, in the middle of the ocean."
This year also strengthened the relationships I already had. I noticed with the conversations from Miami that me and my family and friends perceived this time very differently, for them it was a year of absence, for me it was a year of constant, strongly perceived presence. The distance to the beloved was filled (up)/drenched, practically this meant precision in the expression and intensity in the uttering of emotions when we were in contact. But above all, the people I love appeared in every moment I stood before scenes that took my breath away - a certainty I would probably never have realised in the busyness of everyday life - they were all opportunities to feel the love.
Andriy doesn't show too much enthusiasm in the captain's request to show me the engineering rooms as well, according to my wish. I only ever meet the chief engineer from Ukraine in the sports room, he trains on the treadmill every day from 18:00 to 19:00 for a marathon - his view/outlook into the future and relationship to the solid land. After I was allowed to visit the gigantic machines and lost my voice, we had coffee, he brought a good machine for himself.
"When I was seventeen, all I knew was that I didn't want to join the army. I grew up in the Soviet Union. The only way to avoid it was to go to naval school, so I applied there. I guess I chose something technical because of the bikes.... as a kid, I was always riding bikes, working on them was fun. Now I'm used to this life, the hardest part is still missing the family. I'm the opposite of my wife, she can't sleep when it's noisy and complains about our neighbours, I wake up when there's silence, to me it means something is wrong."
Maybe that's why I've always liked cars and planes.... they are objects that allow you to move around, that serve something. They don't take up space unnecessarily, but help you conquer it. This year has allowed me to use quite some means to move, often they were random and shared passages, my favourite. Every item I carry has its story. In my case a reused plastic bag, in the plastic bag little wooden waves with red edges. I took about ten pencils with me, five of them are still there, all short. I didn't miss anything, if I did, I could buy it, and I was allowed to give away what I didn't need. Exchange, one of the oldest forms of living together with other people, is still alive among those who see the whole earth as their home. Soon I will also return this backpack to the friend who lent it to me. Life with the house on my shoulders is similar to life on a ship. Everything has its place and is ordered by necessity. There is only what is needed, and that also means constant maintenance work, here the rust that has developed is cleaned with a drill and then repainted, I repaired my three pairs of socks with needle and thread. An opportunity to think about "possessions", what you own can become an anchor.
Also tonight, a point was discernible where the sunlight ends and the darkness begins. With a single horizon, 360 degrees of flat surface, one can notice such things. One sees the great system, the roundness of the planet, the movement of the elements/spheres in space. Everything here on earth is reduced/can be narrowed down to the appearance of the sun, which begins the day, and its fading, which introduces the night. Everything is subject to this basic rhythm, an essentiality from which all complexity arises. Sailors learn to read these elements, for them they are like maps. On the ship, there is the encyclopaedia of navigation, divided into chapters such as stars, clouds, waves, winds and so on. Like Dan, Baja, the full seaman, is always ready to answer my many questions. We spend hours together, nearby, with telescopes on our eyes.
"Normally the contracts for Filipinos are of nine months, but this time I asked for six months only. Nine months is too long, I'm bored and on this ship the gym is not very furnished. As a child I dreamed of being a sailor and now I'm here living the dream.... But my favourite part of all is always when I can fly back to my family."
We are obviously much closer to the storm. We have been ordered to lock all the drawers and doors and tie up the furniture, from tomorrow we have to be careful when moving, always have a free hand to hold on to. This morning the ocean was jagged, the water messy, now huge waves with white streaks are coming from far away, tons of water on which we are already riding like on a roller coaster.
I realise that it was scary for me to go back without a plan, because where I go now, you risks drowning without a plan. But this essentiality reminds me of what I have learned. This trip was about "keeping the question open" my only resolution was to try "not to know for as long as possible". Many questions were resolved in the simple answer: if you follow and listen, decisions are natural. Starting from what is there, life conquers the space and time to happen.
We rise, and then the muzzle falls, because the waves also come a little from the side, circling the ship. I secure myself with pillows on each side and behind the head not to hit it while sleeping or fall out. To experience the character of the ocean from the inside, instead of imagining it from its edges as I have often done, is an honour for me.
I wish that life will continue to hide my fears behind adventures I cannot resist, as my mother did with the bitter medicine drops in the sugar cubes. Be they always welcome, these little deceptions/scams. I wish to my naivety and unconsciousness/recklessness to never be forced to give up. I don't want to wait for a festive occasion anymore, to share hugs with my family, and I want to call the days what they are: Gifts.
It seems to float not on a surface but between two consistencies, that of air and that of water, two interacting densities, a dance. I wouldn't want to be anywhere else.
Since the beginning of April, there’s a new woman on board, she is is more cheerful and peppy than the one she has replaced on the calendar in the dining room. Today it was especially fun and challenging on the treadmill, it went up and down and I had to avoid inducing more bruises on my hips. The two young cadets are sick, pale and have to stay in their cabins to vomit. Here on board I am told that I have the stuff for life at sea, and I believe it, because it also feels unnatural to me to have to stop navigating soon. Arnold, the messman is proud that I eat just as much as before and also continues to fill my cabin with biscuits and sweets every day.
"In my spare time, sometimes also in the washroom, I listen to music. It drifts me away from here and takes me to thoughts I like to think about. Memories, familiar places. I listen to very melodic music, mostly love songs. Sometimes I sing along, but I don't have a good voice for singing."
It is not possible to explain how this seemingly always the same landscape does not cease to fascinate. It's like listening to music or reading. Pinocchio, The Old Man and the Sea, The Odyssey, Brahms, a lullaby. A human in the immensity of the ocean; the wind, the light, also seem to be created every day for the very first time. The origin.
It seems that behind our backs a new storm is brewing, we have to hurry to escape it, and hope that the one in front of us will move further away. Increasing the speed is difficult, they explain to me, because the propeller sometimes dives out of the water on these waves and therefore can't push. On the chart we are using now, which is a much bigger scale than the ones that also show earth, the depths are written too. Right now we are navigating to 6000 metres from the ground. We are also very careful about communication, at sea it is obligatory to be aware of the presence of others, the route and the programme must be changed and adapted in case someone needs help and you happen to be the closest.
That's life too, just like on the ocean, I think to myself. Reference points are created as you move forward, decisions about moving forward are dictated by conditions, difficult times, relaxing moments and sometimes the questions, "Where to?" and "Why?". Then there’s the stars, the light along with the colours and even the mystery, to answer them.
I love these moments, in which life sings so loudly and passionately, when the body becomes small and the beliefs become fragile. There is nothing in this world that deserves a label, experience will always win over knowledge. The "forever" does not exist and awareness of frailness is essential for body and soul to vibrate. In our culture, stiff is synonymous with strong, in nature it is the opposite of flexible, and means prone to breakage.
The water is calm again and I see a group of dolphins. I don't care if I haven’t seen whales, it is enough to know that they exist. Birds appear flying in groups. After the Azores, we use a new map on which the Strait of Gibraltar already appears. We move all clocks for the last time.
In the port of Algeciras I couldn't sleep, I was missing my cradle. We are not allowed to disembark, and I wouldn't feel like it. I am sad and have no words. The sea that awaits us feels like a swimming pool. In this sleepless night I rummage through my diaries and what I read is that I wish to write.
We continue to navigate between Africa and Europe on the Mediterranean. I love it because it is the sea that inspired the dreams of my father, my grandfather and who knows how many more. I have bathed in this sea from a very young age, I feel like I know this water. The clouds, small and light and not too high, I seem to recognise them too. This is home, I have arrived. The water like oil, smooth, calm, still, allows to notice the trace of our passage. It feels like we pass in silence, as tiptoeing not to disturb the tranquillity of the islands. Malta, Sicily, Ischia, Elba... all greet me welcome like aunts. In Salerno, I invite Haichao, a cadet from China, for an espresso.
"I'm going to be an officer, but I don't want to spend my whole life doing this. Maybe a four-month contract a year, and the rest of the time I can travel, like you, just to see the world. I think I'm also going to open an ice cream shop in China where I serve the ice cream in half melons.... they do it like that in Thailand, it looks awesome and is so so delicious!”
And it happened there, entering the port of Genoa, once, for less than a breath, that I perceived the whole journey, the whole year, and everything that preceded it. I looked back at the wake: "this is where I come from". In the stillness of an Italian Easter Sunday, from a deserted port through a city that sits entirely at home eating, I return to my home. The announcement at customs of the familiar voice of the train, a photo of the seats which I could send to friends without comment, my father who picked me up at the station in Bellinzona, like hundreds other times when I came back from Lugano, then from Como, then Milan, then from further and further away again and again. Then Zurich, the flat, the kitchen, the cup with my name on it. For wherever you start, and from wherever you return, everything, in any case, goes on.