A slow boat to Myanmar – nearly
I was at the airport shooting pictures to illustrate a Singapore Airlines story when the office rang to say there was an opportunity, if we could move quickly enough, to embed with the U.S. Naval relief operation heading to cyclone hit Myanmar.
Early the next morning I was aboard a U.S. Navy supply ship heading up the Malacca Strait. There were 8 journalists on board – writers, a BBC tv reporter and cameramen, and 3 photographers. It was a 2 day trip up to the USS Essex, and with little else to do on board, I photographed the crew preparing supplies which would be transferred when we arrived. With only experience of ferries to go on I’d feared getting horribly seasick – but was holding up okay, and excited about what we’d find when we got to the Navy ships.
We transferred to the Essex by helicopter. I quickly learned to use the word “helo” – pronounced “heelow” – as no one seemed to understand me when I said “chopper”. The supply ship had been crewed by ex-navy “civilian mariners”, but I’d been warned that things would be “different” on the real Navy ship. And they were.
If there’s one thing this experience has given me it is an indelible association between US Navy ships and disinfectant. Where the supply ship had been pretty crusty, the interiors of the Essex were sparkling clean – floors, walls, celings, everything – spotless. Every time I descended a set of stairs or a ladder (of which there were many) and my nose reached the same level as the deck, I’d get a heady whiff of disinfectant. A few days ago I visited the lavatories in a Singapore shopping centre and the smell took me right back to the Essex – I guess they were both using the same floor cleaner!
On the Essex and later on the Harpers Ferry, we were always “escorted” by either Navy or Marine media liasons. Although we were “free to move about the ship,” the reality was slightly different. This was good in some ways – on occasions when I managed to evade my escorts, I got lost in the labyrinth of corridors and hallways on each deck and it took me forever to find my way. Hunt-for-Red-October lighting at night and a flashlight strapped to my head, I’d wander around in circles.
Then there was the food. The man from the Wall Street Journal got lost and asked a passing Marine for the “mess hall” to which he got the barked response, “YOU MEAN THE CHOW HALL!!!” before being politely escorted to the right place on the right deck.
The “chow hall” resembled a high school cafetaria, complete with cliques of cool and not-so-cool kids (I was later told that majority of the crew of the Essex and some 90% of the crew on the Harpers Ferry were under 21). You had to be quick when you got in line – there were dozens of hungry sailors and marines behind you, and neither they nor the chow hall folks had time for a sense of humour. If you didn’t know what you wanted, you got either dirty looks or something you really didn’t want. I became good at barking out my meal preferences in seconds: “Meatlof! Potatoes! Gravy!” It was true American cooking – and at meal times you could just smell your way to the chow hall. I had to reset my body clock to the ship’s meal times – breakfast at 6am, lunch at 11am and dinner at 4.30pm.
My first time in line as I got to the top of the queue, I took a plate from the stack but seeing that the cook already had a plate for me, was about to return mine to the stack when the Marine behind me behind me muttered, “You touch it, You take it!”, so I spent the next 20 minutes pretending it was perfectly normal to be carrying two plates about.
The bunks were cramped – 4 to a tiny room, shared showers with everyone else staying in “officers county”. Our Marine escorts remarked on how luxurious this was. They were living in “trees” the next deck down, 3-stacks of bunks on either side of a two-foot corridor. I wondered how sailors and marines manage it – at sea for months at a time, no privacy and no space, on a metal hulk rocking in the waves.
Trying to tell the story of the aftermath of the cyclone from the Essex was limiting – there was only so much I could do without making landfall. We photographed the navy preparing drinking water for delivery, helicopters shackled to the decks not going anywhere, and resupply trips between ships. You could feel the frustration among the crew – everyone I talked to spoke of feeling helpless, even angry, that here was a ship loaded with clean water, food and shelter only 50 nautical miles from the disaster area, yet the stubborness of the Myanmar junta was preventing its use.
The Navy had been prepared to let media on board in the event of an aid mission, but when it became clear that just wasn’t going to happen, we were transferred back to the crusty supply ship for the slow 2 and a half day trip back to Singapore.
On the return journey there was none of the anticipation of the journey out. Most of us felt frustrated being stuck on a ship with nothing to do and no story to tell. We resigned ourselves to the trip and found ways to keep ourselves busy. What do journalists do on a slow boat back to Singapore? They play the American version of Trivial Pursuit against one another, they play ping pong against the crew, they count down the hours until the next chow time, they read books while trying not to look at the clock too often.
The hardest thing of all was once back on terra firma, trying to drop off in a stationary bed, with no rocking of the boat or groan of the engines to lull you asleep.