Bex Hall recently completed a rather unconventional journey, traveling from Athens to Hong Kong on a container ship. Between being the only female on the ship, completely cut off from the online world and passing through the pirate corridor of the Gulf of Aden, this was a pretty unique journey. I had to interview her to hear more about this incredible travel experience!
You recently travelled on a container ship from Athens to Hong Kong. What inspired that idea?
It’s not my first time! My dad is an ex-merchant navy man and I grew up with tales of the high seas since a young kid. In 2004 I took my first voyage across the Atlantic from Europe & back on a container ship as a passenger. I taught the crew English and loved it so much (being at one with nature, the extended family feeling being with the crew) that I decided to try a different route later.
How long did it take to complete your journey?
37 days in total! I travelled from Athens, Greece to two ports in Italy, two in Spain, back to Athens and then the long journey through the Suez Canal and Indian Ocean to Singapore, and eventually Hong Kong.
And you didn’t experience sea sickness/home sickness or culture shock?
Hmm, that’s a tough one.
Sea sickness: I think I’ve been blessed with my father’s genes so no, I didn’t. The Indian Ocean was undergoing monsoons so it was a little rough, but the best way to deal with a slightly squiffy stomach is funnily enough to eat a lot of food (no problems for me, I love eating!)
Having travelled a lot in my life, I wasn’t homesick—maybe a little bored sometimes (see next question).
Culture shock? No. They were an international crew: European Officers (Swiss Captain, Polish Chief Officer and German Engineers) and Filipino crew. It was lovely to have such an international mix—and seeing everyone work together so well as a team, irrespective of nationality. A true lesson in International Relations.
What’s it like traveling on a container ship – describe an average day.
Breakfast is very early: 7am – 8am! I would go down at 7:30 and eat: a huge breakfast laid on with fruits, eggs of choice and porridge (for me – the cook saw I liked it and prepared it daily for me).
Then I would go back to bed for about an hour, wander to the front of the ship (the ‘castle’) where I resisted the urge to do a Kate Winslet ‘Titanic’ moment and sat and read my Kindle instead.
Back in time for lunch at 12:30pm (again, a HUGE cooked meal) then a nap until about 3ish. I would then go and swim in the pool, write some of my book/travel articles, chat to any crew who were around and at 5pm I would go ‘on watch’ with the Chief Officer (he became like my uncle). Depending on location, I would often spot dolphins, and near Sri Lanka I spotted a whale spouting!
Chief & I would go for dinner at 7pm (yes, you’ve guessed it, a huge cooked meal again—starters & main!) then up to the Bridge to watch sunset.
I spent the evenings playing table tennis with the Cook (after he made the Galley spotless), chatting to the crew, playing Patience with my pack of cards, writing, reading or watching a movie.
It’s obviously a lot different to everyday life in the Western World – was it easy to adapt to this environment?
Hell yes! I always thought I didn’t like routine, but when on a ship you get used to it, and actually, when we docked in Singapore and the Chief and I went ashore for a while, I couldn’t wait to get back to the quiet of the ship’s environment. It was so gentle, relaxing and calming compared to the rush, rush, rush of every day life.
I’m sure that’s why ship’s crew are such gentle natured people: they aren’t exposed to the every day hassles and aggression of land.
Did anything about the experience change you?
I had no access to internet at sea, so I learnt to go ‘back to basics’ almost and respect and enjoy things such as looking and tracking the stars at night, reading (I read—a LOT) and talking face to face to people, which seems these days to be lacking with the advent of social media.
What kind of people were you travelling with?
As I said, the senior crew were European, the crew Filipino. Regardless of rank, everyone was incredibly inclusive and friendly. I often sang karaoke with the Filipinos’ at night in their Mess Room, discussed life in Poland with the Chief Officer, put the world to rights at dinner with the Captain, etc.
On a ship, your world is what you make it…and it was made it an enjoyable environment for everyone. This was due to excellent people management skills from the Captain, who had no illusions or pretences about himself and believed in treating everyone with respect.
Just as I was getting used to the company on board, going through the pirate corridor of the Gulf of Aden required us to have security on board, so a team of three joined us for 10 day. This didn’t upset the equilibrium at all and the British ‘lads’ were incredibly professional, respectful and interesting.
I am not a nationalist by any means, but their presence, respect for other cultures and openness as to describing why they were needed on board really made me proud. No matter that I was a passenger (and a female one at that): I was present for every briefing, drill and exercise. It was fascinating.
So you were the only female on board?? What was that like?!
I was a little afraid at first—and certainly got my fair share of teasing from narrow minded people before I left! But as I mentioned earlier, the crew are very gentle people and respectful.
I felt like a councellor (from the things we talked about), sister and niece all in one! And as I say, it was nice to talk to the security team who were from my home country: the UK. We’d swap stories from home and played cards a lot! I think they were a bit shocked at my Blackjack and Poker skills.
Did you learn anything from the people you spent time with?
See above re: my comments about the security: I learnt a new found respect for the people who undertake this work. And I learnt even more to not let nationalities divide us.
Looking back what was the highlight of the whole journey?
Ohhh, that’s hard! There was just too much I enjoyed and gained from it! Highlight? The food (it was seriously 5*) , the BBQ on deck the Captain arranged to thank the crew for all their hard work, and the kind, gentle people I met.
Would you recommend this form of travel to others?
If you’re all about the journey, not necessarily the destination and like being at sea, but don’t want to be around crowds of people on a cruise…if you want to experience REAL life at sea, and meet people from different backgrounds, understand their culture, then this is the trip for you.