For fifteen years I worked on Greenpeace ships, sailing around the world for about six months of each year with an international crew, campaigning to protect our environment. This was quite a different way to travel. The downside was there was very little leisure time, so you had far less freedom to explore compared to the usual sightseer. That meant not much lying around in deck chairs or spending whole days in museums (and I think one of the most appealing aspects of travelling for many of us is not having to work. It’s somehow more socially acceptable to be unproductive when you’re in a foreign country.)
As a sailor, you might get one and a half days off per week, but then again, you might not. If there are provisions arriving or major repairs scheduled or if it’s your turn to be on harbour watch or, in Greenpeace world, if there is an action to be planned, executed or debriefed, or an open ship day, or some community event, these can all eat away at any free time you may have. It was fairly common, particularly in the earlier days, for me to work every day for two months or more.
The allure of visiting new places was usually greater than my tiredness and I always tried to see at least something of each country we visited. Unfortunately in the Canary Islands this was only the airport, the quayside and the road in between, and in Israel I never even set foot off the gangway. I suppose it would be cheating to claim that I’ve been there, but sometimes spending time with the local people can be more enlightening than walking through the streets, which leads me to the huge upside of my travel experiences.
We had family in every country. A group of enthusiastic volunteers would greet us at almost every port, and it is difficult to convey how wonderful that was. They would live with us while we were there, help with our logistical problems and, if we did have any spare time, show us where to go, how to get there and what to eat. Often they even organised parties or dinners for us.
I’m sure the most interesting way to know a place is through its people. You can see all the attractions, but when you live and work alongside locals you can get a much greater insight into the idiosyncrasies of a culture.
Although I’d previously been a tourist in Croatia and Slovenia, it was not until we visited these countries on the ship and worked with the inhabitants in some stressful situations that I understood the differing temperaments of these neighbouring peoples. While the Slovenians were generally focussed, calm and reserved, the Croatians seemed to revel in the very highest forms of drama. There was screaming, there was crying, there was a noisy party on deck involving a water-pistol filled with slivovitz. Good times, but perhaps one reason why Yugoslavia didn’t work out as a unified nation?
In Taiwan we were convinced to eat stinky tofu and other slightly alarming dishes that turned out to be delicious. In Mexico I was instructed to sip tequila slowly and try it in the three-shot bandera cocktail. I was also taught about the complicated Korean drinking rules, which need to be well-understood in order to avoid trouble. (Hint: never let your glass get empty if you’ve already had enough to drink.)
The welcoming events in the Philippines were particularly elaborate. Once we had dinner at an Archbishop’s palace and another time the crew members were given white tunics or long skirts and driven by bus to a hall on some remote coast for a baila, or community dance.
As one of only two women from the crew present that night, I was kept pretty busy attempting not to trip over various partners’ feet, but the highlight was listening to our South American captain sing a duet of Don’t cry for me Argentina with a local singing star. That may have happened if we’d been tourists in a karaoke bar, but he probably wouldn’t have been dressed like this.
As a tourist I probably wouldn’t have slept outside in a hammock in the Amazon jungle after learning basic survival techniques, met the Indonesian president or joined Yemeni women in a sing-a-long on deck.
Singing and dancing were recurrent themes in our travels. Salsa lessons in Colombia and a Bollywood dance class in India killed all my inhibitions. On a transit to New Zealand, we were told to practise three songs and prepare three speeches for our arrival ceremony. This was fairly intimidating anyway, but along with the haka directed at us it became quite a terrifying experience.
Of course, the trips were not all about parties and special treatment. Since my first ship campaign in 2000 in the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific, we always tried to make a difference. The mere presence of the Rainbow Warrior in Saipan at that time finally persuaded the U.S. military to clean up the toxic pollution caused by the transformers they had left on the island since WWII.
We helped clean up an oil spill in Sweden, tested radiation levels off the coast of Fukushima and spent ten days with crew members taking turns at attaching ourselves to the anchor chain of a cargo ship due to be loaded with pig iron in Brazil. This led to authorities and company representatives agreeing to stop the deforestation and abusive labour practices associated with their industry. We held an impromptu medical clinic in a remote PNG village and worked with Médecins Sans Frontières to transport medical aid from Cyprus to Beirut during the 2006 war between Israel and Lebanon.
After the scary welcome to New Zealand, we sailed to the sub-Antarctic islands where tourism is virtually non-existent, in order to take footage of their pristine biodiversity and spread awareness about oil exploration plans in the area. Years later I sailed to Bear Island in the Arctic circle for the same reason.
We did what we could to help the communities we visited and they repaid us in triple with hospitality, generosity and glimpses into their lives. It is the people who make a country. Without ever touching the soil of the Canary Islands or Israel, I met a thriving hippie community in Gran Canaria, eager to play bongos on the deck of our ship throughout most of the night and I discovered that the some of the teenagers wearing tie-dye and singing John Lennon songs with us in Haifa were leaving the next day to start their compulsory military service: one year for the girls and three for the boys.
I’ve been so lucky and sometimes I wonder if everybody could experience the world in the way that I have, would there be any need for war? If only people could appreciate the infinite variety of ways there are to express our common humanity, would we need to kill each other? If we could acknowledge that all anybody really wants is love and security, would we need borders? The Earth is full of beauty and bounty, and if we treat her with respect she can provide us with everything we need.
Sometimes on the ship we would spend weeks or months at a time at sea, freed from the constrictions of nations and passports. In the earlier days we had very little contact with the outside world. Alone with just fourteen other humans, some shearwaters or a few flying fish, the everyday world would float away. During these times, it became especially clear to me what was important in life: water, air, food and connection with other humans.