Postcards #4: Integrated Shore Leave Services Provider
Jan 28, 2015
Approaching the port of Kaohsiung our pilot is having an intense, rapid exchange over the radio. As we close in on the narrow gap in the breakwater he turns to explain. He’s coordinating with all the other pilots which ship is going where and in what order. Kaohsiung’s port is constrained, with ship movements carefully choreographed. Our 320 metre long post-panamax is part of this ballet.
Entering the harbour I see something I haven’t encountered elsewhere on our journey. There are families joyously waving at the ship from a revolving restaurant. The other ports we’ve visited have been in remote industrial areas, away from the general public. Workers who see ships day after day tend not to wave.
I enthusiastically wave back from the bridge, doing my best to impersonate an extra in the opening sequence of the movie Titanic.
The port is expanding and as part of this the city has relocated the Hong Mao Gang Village. The waving families are visiting the Hongmaogang Cultural park overlooking the harbour. Soon even larger ships will be able to call at Kaohsiung, adding to the seemingly endless expanse of red and green Evergreen containers stacked on the quays.
"Are we allowed to leave the ship and visit that restaurant? Is it inside the port?” I ask the Captain, who seems to know all the decent restaurants overlooking ports. He’s not been to this one, but tells me to take shore leave and ask a taxi driver to get us there. I hadn’t realised everyone on the ship has the option of shore leave at Kaohsiung, unless they are on duty.
We carefully cross the quay to the shuttle bus that will take us to the port entrance. The bus is tiny, smaller than the individual containers stacked around us. Straddle carriers weave by, strange truck/crane hybrids that wouldn’t look out of place in an episode of Thunderbirds.
At the port entrance we bump into four of the crew getting into a taxi. They’re trying to haggle down the US$40 fare, but with this being the only taxi around there’s no leverage. The city centre’s too far away to walk to and we don’t know the local public transport system. The only other option is to return to the ship. They relent and agree to the fare. It’s their first shore leave since departing Latin America weeks previously.
Another cab turns up for us. The driver, Mr Winna, asks where we’d like to go and what we need. We’re not sure. He mimes possibilities at us. Some shampoo and soap? Some food? Some beer? The usual things a sailor needs. We agree, opting for the normal shore leave experience. For ten US dollars each Mr Winna will take us wherever we want for three hours and get us back to the ship before it leaves.
Mr Winna knows everything a visiting sailor might need in a hurry. Heading into town he offers us currency exchange, converting US dollars into New Taiwan Dollars at a fair rate. Later he passes around a price list for a local massage parlour.
Soon we arrive at the place that has everything we might need after weeks at sea. It’s a Carrefour, a branch of the french hypermarket chain store. Attached to an outlet mall featuring a Nike clearance store and a KFC. Next door there’s an Ikea. I’ve flown half way around the world and spent a week travelling by sea only to find myself in a retail park much the same as the ones outside any European city.
Mr Winna heads to wait for us in the menswear shop his wife runs. If we need anything we can go see him or give him a ring. We walk through the city instead. Down the road we find ourselves at Dream Mall, full of high end fashion stores like Dior and Chanel. I wonder if the stock for these shops is currently being unloaded from our ship.
Quickly our three hours are up and we’re back at the port, arriving at the shuttle bus the same time as some of our crew. They’re bubbling with energy and joking around, showing us their shopping and sharing photos they’ve taken posing with mannequins in a lingerie store. They’re the happiest I’ve seen anyone. We all pile into the tiny bus, far more of us than there are seats.
“It’s ok," one of them jokes as we squeeze in,
“we can travel Indian style!”
It’s surprising how uplifting just a few hours on land can be. Aboard the ship the topic of missing land comes up. It's trees and greenery that folks mention the most. The Captain is looking forward to gardening in an allotment upon retiring. Another officer wants to quit and buy a farm instead. But for now we’re back at sea, departing the turquoise blue waters of Kaohsiung into the Taiwan Strait.