The things they carried (back to the Philippines)

This is my scratch paper to talk about some of the stories behind Containers, my new audio documentary on global trade, technology, and the people who make capitalism run. Episode 2 just dropped. In it, we meet two Filipino sailors, who risked being fired from their jobs for talking to a journalist, so that they could tell me about their lives on the ships that bring you nearly everything you buy.

They had to trust me before they even took a step down the gangway. So, when a request from an intermediary came in to help them as their ship plowed across the Atlantic, I couldn’t say no.

It was a bit of an unusual request. Let me try to explain.

Seafarers (as sailors are usually called in these days of diesel-powered megaships) rarely spend much time in any given port. For the first 2/3 of the 20th century, sailors might be in port for a week! They’d get to know dockworkers, go carouse in local bars, and generally get the opportunity to see the world’s cities.

But containerization changed all that (see episode 1 of the documentary). Putting everything in big steel boxes, rather than wedged into the hull of the ship, makes the process of unloading a ship very, very fast. It varies a little, but if you’re working a container ship, you would expect to catch just a few hours on land, at most a day. And then you’re back out on the oceanic string to Asia.

Who are these sailors? If you’re talking captains and officers, you encounter mostly Europeans. If you’re talking crew, the biggest contingents are Filipino, Chinese, and Indian people. There is an ecumenical religious group, which maintains a church and hangout for seafarers down at the port, the International Maritime Center. They have clocks hanging on the walls showing the times in four cities: Oakland, Manila, Hamburg, and Mumbai. Shipping describes an unusual geography.

The International Maritime Center chapel. (Note incredible painting on left.)

So, what do these guys do with their time on land? They shop. The Maritime Center runs van service for the guys, so they can get from the Port to wherever they want, which usually happens to be … Emeryville, the big-box center of the San Francisco Bay.

The most popular stores are Best Buy and Target, with a little nod to Victoria’s Secret. (Aside: Why Victoria’s Secret? It’s not only the lingerie, the chaplain told me, but because there is a secondary market back in the Philippines for the Victoria’s Secret lotions and perfumes. So it’s part of a side hustle for the sailors.)

But — and we’re getting back to the request one of the sailors made in a second—they can’t always be sure that the big box stores are going to have precise items. So, if somebody back home wants exactly some kind of thing, they have to figure out a way to get it. Usually that means having a contact in Los Angeles, Long Beach, or Oakland find and acquire the goods, and the seafarer pays them back when they arrive in port.

My intermediary with the sailors had in fact does this before. And the sailors had been good on their word and paid them back. But the friend was not going to be in town, so I was asked if I could do the seafarers this favor.

It was a little weird because I’m a journalist and journalists don’t (generally speaking) pay sources. But this wasn’t paying a source, I reasoned; I’d get the money back. And when I saw the list of things, I couldn’t help but say yes. Here’s what I was asked to procure:

  1. A pair of youth size 6 green Nikes, Kobes, to be precise.
  2. Two singing Elsa dolls from the movie Frozen.
  3. 1.7 ounces of Dolce & Gabbana cologne in the light blue variation.

There was a sketch of a life in those three items.

So I tracked them down and threw them in my trunk. It wasn’t hard. And we met up and went to Target and drank some beer in the Berkeley Hills and had dinner and talked about everything you can hear in the episode.

Then, we went to my car and I handed over the stuff and was given the precise amount of money back.

I drove the guys back down to the Port and dropped them off at their terminal. Then I drove around under the bright lights thinking about all the mysterious boxes going in their different directions. Boxes doublestacked on trains, boxes hitched to trucks, boxes piled on ships. Boxes in the hands of a Filipino sailor heading back home to surprise his little brother and sisters with presents.

Night Port.