Personal: September 2009 Archives

Written aboard the MV Hanjin Madrid, part of our Year of No Flying

Almost every day of our trip from Seattle to Yokohama by sea lasted 25 hours. Traveling westwards, we gained an extra hour every time we traveled a time zone, 1/24th of the planet. We'd head down to dinner at the mess, and there would be a big sign on the door: "RETARD 1 HOUR TONIGHT."

I made a practice of setting back our clocks every night at 10:00 pm. In fact, I even set an alarm to do it. It beeped at 10:00 pm, and I changed the clocks back to 9:00 pm. An hour later, it beeped again -- it was 10:00 pm again. I quickly learned to delete the automated alarm after I'd reached it the first time.

I wish I could say that we did something amazing with that extra hour every day, but we didn't. Sadly, it just blended into the copious quantities of free time we had. For those who don't have it, an extra hour of free time every day is an unimaginable luxury; but for us, on a ship for a week and a half without hard scheduled tasks, it made no difference at all.

Unfortunately, you only get 25 hours a day going westwards. Coming back the other way, you end up advancing your clock as you go, losing as hour at each step, leaving just 23 hours a day. The difference between 25 and 23 hours may not have made much difference to us, but according to crew members we spoke to, they definitely noticed the difference.

I've read that it takes the body about a full day to catch up with an hour's time difference. Fly from San Francisco to New York on Monday, and your body will have adjusted to New York time by Thursday. When it comes to minimizing jet lag, ships beat planes hands down, by traveling at the speed of the body's natural adjustment to time differences.

And then Friday disappeared. On a Wednesday afternoon, an officer informed us that, by the way, Friday would not exist. We'd just skip ahead from Thursday to Saturday, losing a day as we headed toward the International Date Line. Oddly enough, we'd be losing our day some ways before we actually hit the date line. It turns out that we'd normally have lost Saturday, instead of Friday -- but the crew works a shorter day Saturday, and would be unhappy seeing their day of (relative) rest suddenly vanish. Shipboard time would be modified accordingly.

This was my first experience with shipboard time, an idiosyncratic timezone floating through space, applying only to a tiny band of sailors (and us). Officers on the bridge were incredibly aware of time at local ports and UTC, but shipboard time ruled every important part of our lives -- work times, meal times, and occasionally, social event times. So far away from everything else, it made little sense to hew religiously to arbitrary external requirements. Time is ultimately for the people.

Blindness

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Written aboard the MV Hanjin Madrid, part of our Year of No Flying

I wake up at night. Pitch black. The bed moves, as if I'm in the beginnings of an earthquake. I'm on a ship. In the middle of the Pacific. And I need to pee.

I feel around, find a wall, make my way to the bathroom, do the needful. Why is it so dark? I can't see my hand in front of my nose. B and I fully closed the shades at night in our cabin, before going to bed. I didn't realize how effective those shades would be. It's been a long time since I've been in such total darkness. I feel around, trying to find the clothes I hung to dry in the bathroom. My pants have mostly dried, but my thick cotton socks are still sopping.

I head back to bed, thirsty. We left a water bottle on the table; where is it? I slowly sweep my arm around several inches above the table, hoping to make contact with the bottle. Failure. I find only the book I was reading last night, and my glasses.

The male line of my family is prone to poor vision. There was a time when I had a -5 prescription, my dad had a -10, and my grandfather had -15, My grandfather slowly went blind over the years, the soda-bottle lenses of his glasses increasingly unable to compensate against the effects of diabetes. What would he have done in my situation?

I feel around on the table, very carefully. My grandfather was incredibly organized, with or without sightedness. At his home, he'd navigate back to his room, open a drawer, and find a small item exactly where he remembered leaving it years ago. Sight makes us lazy, forgiving sloppiness. It's like the way cell phones have changed the way we make plans with others, making us more comfortable with half-made plans we hope to flesh out along the way.

Some time after my grandfather lost his sight, he and my father were heading to a small corner market a few blocks from the family home in Kolkata. My dad held his father's arm, as they wended their way through the streets. Then the power went out. Everything flickered and disappeared -- street lights, lights from homes, the sound of televisions. Pitch black. My father must have exclaimed. His father didn't. He just continued on, leading his son through the dark to the corner store. "Two more steps, then take a very large step," he told my father, guiding him over a gap in the sidewalk. My grandfather led my father safely to the store, and back home. In the land of darkness, the blind man is king.

I spend another minute, trying to find the water bottle, my hand running across every manner of unfamiliar shape except the one I'm looking for. Finally, I get up, find the shades, and pull them open a tad. Light streams in. There's the water bottle, right in front of me, mocking my sense of space and touch. I take a drink, and climb back into bed, falling asleep to the ship's slow rocking.

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Anirvan Chatterjee is a San Francisco Bay Area tech geek and bibliophile.

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This page is a archive of entries in the Personal category from September 2009.

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