I woke up in a strange place

By Marc Heiden, since 1997.
See also: a novel about a monkey.

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January 18, 2009

This is from a brief journal that I wrote four years ago.

Off the coast of Vladivostok, 2004

Fushiki port, through my port-hole.

The ride from Kyoto to Takaoka was extremely stressful. I missed the 12:10 train due to a fiasco at the post office, trying to ship my possessions back to the U.S. As a result, I could only catch the 2:10, which would make me 1h33m late for the immigration formalities at Fushiki Port. Having already deactivated my JPhone, I called Yoshida-san from a pay phone in Kyoto Station. Yoshida-san is the representative of the United Orient Shipping & Agency Co. Ltd. who has been given the unfortunate duty of dealing with foreigners like me. He ran through train timetables with a muted desperation matching my own, and agreed that there was no faster way for me to make it to the port than the 2:10 train. However, the Japanese immigration inspector would be long gone by the time I arrived. Yoshida-san was not sure if he could convince the immigration inspector to make a trip back to the port for me. He gave me a phone number to call once I arrived at Takaoka Station, and pleaded with me to hurry.

Alarming alarm.

I had to stand for all but the last half hour of the train ride, close to three hours in total, and was stared at by toddlers, whose mothers did nothing to dissuade them from thinking that this was a strange sight, indeed. I made the requested phone call from the squat, orange pay phone on the platform at Takaoka Station, after a quick consultation with a stranger to confirm that it was, in fact, a phone. The recipient of the call was a cool, calm, collected sort of fellow, not easily ruffled by not knowing why he was being called or how to speak the caller's language. I told him my name, Yoshida-san's name, and the name of the United Orient Shipping & Agency Co. Ltd. That done, I raced to a taxi and tried to give evidence of my panic to the driver; he performed admirably, tearing through the streets of that small Japanese town. I hurried through the fence and down to the edge of the water, where bored-looking Russians stood in small groups, smoking, clutching boxes of Japanese electronics. A short, young man in uniform led me up the gangway to the ship with urgency; I was, apparently, expected. Once aboard, however, total calm fell over the proceedings. The Japanese inspector asked if I intended re-entry to Japan, took my gaijin card, and had me fill out the disembarkation card that had been stapled inside my passport for the last year and a half. That was all. I smiled and gave him my thanks in Kansai-ben, which never fails to crack up Japanese people. The Russian captain collected my passport and tossed it into a plastic tub, the only blue passport visible among dozens of red ones.

My pleasant cabin.

A tall woman led me through the halls of the ship to my cabin. She carried herself with a dignity that stood in stark contrast to her discomfort with the English language. The cabin had two berths, 'a' and 'b', but 'b' was mercifully unoccupied. (I noticed immediately a box on the wall that said 'CCP', meaning 'SSR', meaning Soviet-era. The photos of Putin on the main deck served as reassurance that the rest of the ship has moved on, though.) I thanked her with a spa-si-ba. She seemed surprised and delighted, and responded with a sultry pazhalsta as she closed the door.

When I was alone in my cabin for the first time, I began running, jumping, and cheering Public Enemy lyrics — for a couple of minutes, at least, before I collapsed and slept for a little over 14 hours. I awoke briefly as the ship was leaving port, about two hours after I'd arrived, and briefly again as the ship was out to sea, and there was only darkness through my porthole.

They said there would be a swimming pool aboard.

According to documents that I received with my ticket, the RUS — our ship — was built in 1986 in Poland. Its maximum speed is 18 knots, its maximum capacity is 400 passengers, and it has three decks. The amenities were significantly fewer than what the floor plan sent by the United Orient Shipping & Agency Co. Ltd. described. The duty-free shop and barber shop did not appear ever to have been open. The pool had cars in it; there was no sign of the sauna or the table tennis, and I didn't really want to find the casino, whether it was there or not. As I walked past on Saturday afternoon, a man was giving a speech with paper and markers in the Night Club Bar (described as the Night Disco Club in the floor plan).

Motivational speaker.

In another room, there were instruments set up, and glittery letters read "Bis Band". Late on Saturday night, there was the sound of live music, and Russian men and women head back and forth in that direction. After all of my time in Japan, I am floored by the presence of so many tall women, so many of them wearing very short skirts.

Locked hatch.

I spent Saturday afternoon studying Russian and then exploring the ship. Cars were crammed into every space possible above deck; smaller things with engines, like motorcycles, occupied the spaces left over. There was nobody around. You could steal a car, but where would you go with it?

Cars from Japan to Russia.

The crew all seemed to know that I was the one and only American on board — they recognized me by sight. For dining purposes, I was seated with the three Japanese passengers, which was fine — we hit it off immediately. Our first waitress, a dour woman, did not respond to our pleasantly proferred spa-si-ba. Another waitress, a young girl whose blonde hair had a purple tint, went from dour to happy upon receipt of our spa-si-ba, and shouted a cheery "thank you" my way when cleaning our table later.

Food has been surprisingly favorable from a vegetarian perspective. I slept through dinner on the first night, but a phone call alerted me to breakfast on Saturday morning. (I missed the call twice while trying to get the receiver free of the metal frame. Fortunately, there was a third call.) A pleasant, spongy bread was in plentiful supply for all three meals. Breakfast included a few thin slices of something that may have been sausage, warm oatmeal, and eggs with small diced tomatoes. (In my disorientation, I initially believed it to be a slice of grilled fish.) Lunch had a small salad, soup with onions, potatoes, and some kind of meat. Dinner was a different small salad, different soup, and mashed potatoes (quite yellow, but quite good) along with some mixed greens and chicken. My stomach suffered little ill effect from separating out the greens. There was tea for breakfast and dinner, with iced tea for lunch.

Etsuko is a chatty young nurse from Kobe. She has traveled to an immense number of countries across the world and knows scraps of many different languages. Her English is okay, although she denies it. (She has particularly good command commend of the simple future and past progressive tenses.) Mitsuo is a taxi driver from the countryside. He is also traveling, although his English is too basic to talk about his plans in detail. Tomohiko is young, 20 or so, and wishes to become a baker. He is traveling to Europe to study from master bakers in France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, and others. He has a fair vocabulary but no grammar or fluency (which is overrated for international communication anyway). He speaks with pride of Japan's recent victory (over America) in the Baking World Cup.

Tomohiko, Etsuko, and I

Tomohiko, Mitsuo, and I

We sat in the "cinema room" on Saturday night — closer to the TV, people watched a Russian variety show, some music videos, and a dubbed version of "The Full Monty". No one laughed or made a sound, but many people stayed for the entire film. Behind us, there was a bar. Mitsuo gave me $6 to buy two bottles of Sapporo beer, specifying "four glasses". (The Japanese entrusted all negotiations with the Russians to me.) The purchase economy on this ship accepts yen, dollars, and rubles. Prices are rounded evenly for each currency. Hence, a bottle of Sprite is 100 yen, the two bottles of beer are $6 — no calculations of each day's precise exchange rates are done. (One is at the greatest advantage paying by yen.)

In a companionable mood, I drank one glass of beer, as did Tomohiko and Etsuko, and Mitsuo polished off the rest as we talked about where we'd been and where we were going. There were occasional glances from the silent Russians toward our direction, but no comment. After the movie, some other Russians began a card game; the table had an empty bottle of Absolut Vodka and a full bottle of something called "Red". These Russians were amused by Etsuko's comically exaggerated threats to steal their whiskey. Mitsuo and Tomohiko bid Etsuko and I goodnight and headed back to their cabins.

On Sunday morning, after a halting translation of the other Cyrillic letters on the 'CCP' box, I realized that one of the two metal knobs was for volume. I turned it up and heard, of all things, "Your Woman" by White Town, released by Parasol Records of Urbana, Illinois. Over the next half-hour, Russian pop songs were alternated with English ones, until someone apparently grew impatient and switched radio frequencies in the middle of a song, bringing us to a Russian-language cover of "Here Comes the Sun". It did, in fact, look brighter through the porthole of my room. Seeing another cargo ship was an almost dizzying burst of color, clouds aside.

First glimpse of shore through my porthole.

And that's where it ends.

I woke up in a strange place is the work of Marc Heiden, born in 1978, author of two books (Chicago, Hiroshima) and some plays, and an occasional photographer.

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Written by Marc Heiden, 1997-2011.