Written in tiny letters on the emergency evacuation placard in our cabin were two handwritten words penned into the margin, “Grande Alcatraz”. Five weeks and two continents later this cryptic doodle from a previous passenger would have a clear meaning.
Our ship, the Grande Nigeria, was a massive floating parking lot designed to carry vehicles of every shape and sort as well as containers worldwide. As a working cargo ship, that happens to take passengers, we passengers (three in total) were left to our devices without much contact with the crew. All passenger activities aboard ship were of the self-guided type and our entertainment was not mission-critical for Grimaldi.
We spent the first day getting used to our life at sea. The actual areas we were allowed to go on the massive ship were relatively few but we had a port and starboard outside deck area, a common recreation room with a couple of couches, tables, stereo system, and a foosball table, and a dinning area were we took our four course meals. The ship had a small gym with some workout machines, free weights, and a Ping-Pong table no one ever used. We soon settled into a daily rhythm and found ourselves surprisingly engaged and content. The boredom we feared was imminent never materialized.
The daily routine revolved around eating lunch and dinner with the other passenger and mealtimes became the anchors of our existence. Each day was a duplicate of the last and they all went something like this:
8:00am wake and drink tea or coffee
9:00 go to gym to sweat and grunt on the various contraptions for an hour
10:45 go outside with GPS to see where we are
12:00 Shannon work on laptop to make a video. This is a huge project and takes almost four weeks. Mike on the other hand returned to the cabin at this time to read books.
1:00 Mike falls asleep and Shannon continues to slave away on the computer
2:30 Mike wakes up and drinks coffee; Shannon is still at the computer
3:00 Mike goes to the recreation room to see all the nifty things Shannon has done
7:00 back to the cabin to watch movies on the laptop and read until lights out
The downside to middle age softies like us suddenly hitting the gym everyday became clear after a few weeks – we were both sidelined by strains and injury. We spent the remainder of the trip getting fat and hobbling around the ship, Mike with a back spasm and Shannon with a painful tendon in her heel. Speaking of fatness we had an exceptional chef who made delicious multi-course meals that significantly upped our normal calorie intake compared to our diet on the road.
Passengers are assigned a steward or cabin utility person who serves the meals, cleans the cabins, and provides any needed assistance. Our faithful steward wasn’t worth two shits and was the laziest ass-kisser we have met in a long time. Routine cleaning consisted of sprinkling water on the bathroom floor and taking out the trash. He spent more time explaining how the room was detailed than he actually spent doing the work.
We stopped in many ports during our voyage, sometimes going ashore for a few hours but often choosing to stay aboard and watch the constant activity of ships being loaded and off-loaded in port. The Gambia, a tiny country in West Africa, is one port stop we wished we could have avoided all together. Greedy officials squeezed the regular payment of Johnny Walker, cash, and cartons of cigarettes from the ship’s captain. These “fees” are normal for the port but having passengers aboard from the United States (us) was new to the immigration officials and instantly dollar signs appeared in their yellow eyes. A never before seen fee of US$80 each was now required as a transit visa; of course to paid in US dollars, no receipt given. No actual requirement for a transit visa could be found on the government website. Unfortunately we were unable to argue our position as the captain negotiated this payment without our knowledge. To add insult to injury our new transit visa was worthless for any sort of transit and we were not allowed by the immigration officials to set foot off the ship. With The Gambia being the exception, we enjoyed all the other ports of call and appreciated the breaks in the long voyage.
Summertime in Uruguay is comfortable and easy; this probably explains why people were not rioting in the street to secure passage north on the Grande Nigeria. It is the middle of winter in Europe. The only other passenger was a Moroccan named Anouar who was finally leaving South America after traveling three years in a Mercedes RV with his family. Anouar was an interesting and friendly companion. We all became fast friends on the voyage with plans to meet to up in Morocco later this spring.
Sailing with our motorcycles allowed us time to slowly adjust ourselves mentally out of Latin America. Traveling by freighter was enjoyable, educational, and is actually cheaper than traveling by air once room and board are factored in. The first four weeks went by smoothly and it was only into the fifth week, once we started calling on ports in Europe, that we became restless and impatient. In the end we were eager to leave the ship and start our new adventure in Europe. We were glad we traveled by cargo freighter and would definitely travel this way again.
For detailed information about traveling by cargo freighter see the following article: Crossing the Atlantic by cargo freighter – how to and common questions