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Leaving the land (1990) Back to stories index

The immigration officer stamped out my passport without looking at me. I got my passport and seaman discharge book, and walked to the end of a boat pier near world trade center in the southern shore of Singapore island. The boat was not a ferry boat, but a supply boat with lots of boxes and packages as well as gas bottles, pipes, machine parts, and bags of cotton and old clothes - all ship supplies. The boat carried me and other two signing on sailors, both of them had previous sea experience, to a chemical tanker waiting at an anchorage off the shore.

Just a month ago I was walking the streets in down town Yangon, between government offices and a private seamen organization to prepare for my first sea going trip. There were lot of documents, photos, certificates, telex transfers to be done, as well as many signatures to obtain to clear my way to the trip outside the country. My job title was Junior Engineer. What was in that title was unknown until the day I signed on. Later I received an air ticket to Singapore and a letter from the shipping company to present upon arrival Singapore airport.

The immigration officer at Changi airport looked at the company letter with suspicion obviously shown on his face. He looked at me, my passport and then talked to another officer. That another officer picked up the phone and made a call to somewhere. I believed he was calling my shipping company. I was lucky to arrive before 5 PM on a working day. The officer told me to step aside to give way to other waiting passengers.
Five minutes had passed. I was summoned to the immigration counter again. The officer said that I must sign on a ship within 3 days and that I must not stay in Singapore more than 3 days. Then he took a final look at me and my photo in my passport. He then wrongly stamped in my passport using the same rubber stamp he used for other passengers most of them were westerners - that was 30 days stay. Suddenly he realized his mistake and scribbled red lines across the stamp with his pen, took another rubber stamp which was adjusted ready for Myanmar and the like sailors, pressed angrily against my passport. I was permitted to stay 7 days!
After collecting my bags at the luggage belt I reached the customs counters where I went straight to the green channel since I did not have anything that required declaration. However, noticing my poor (Myanmar) appearence, one of the officers stopped me and shouted,'OPEN YOUR BAG!' I was a bit shocked. I put my poor looking bag on a table, opened the lid and showed him what were inside. There were clothes, books and some stationary in my bag. The officer took a look inside and walked away quietly and quickly as if nothing had happened.

Crew cabin for two engineers I was awaken by the sound of the ship horn. The 16000 tons red and yellow color chemical tanker was now just a few hundred meters away from the supply boat. Fifteen minutes later I was on-board the ship to take my first sea duty. An engineer directed me to a small cabin which I would share with another sailor. There were two sleeping berths, a table between the berths, a cupboard for each of us, an internal telephone, and a washing sink. The cabin did not have a toilet.

I changed into a boiler suit and reported to a senior. My first job was to move the gas bottles to the forward end of the boat where some repair works was required. Then together with other engineerss I carried the engine stores down into the engine room. All of them were heavy and hard objects. After that an Engineer showed me briefly in the engine room what I had to do during my duty, the places, and things that I must remember. At 7 PM we got dinner in the sailors' salon. The ship had two salons: one for the sailors and the other one for the officers. I was to eat in the sailor's salon.

After the dinner I went down the engine room again to start taking my first 8 to 12 duty (8 PM to 12 PM). First thing to do was mopping the floor plates and cleaning inside the control room and the tools rack. I then learned to read and write in the log book. At 11 PM the ship took the anchor up and started her voyage to Indian sub-continent and middle east. During the engine preparation and manoeuvre another senior junior engineer came and helped me. At 0030 AM I was released and went up to the deck.

The tall buildings and the harbour of Singapore, other ships at the anchorage, the million lights from all those objects got smaller and smaller as we moved south and then westward cutting through the water of Malacca strait. The white-grey smokes from our engine trailled behind the ship. Birds were flying over our heads. It was first time for me to leave the land for a long voyage. I did not know what was really inside my mind. I thought about home, my parents, and looked forward to my new life. I was to go that way for at least one year - the contract period. I knew that as a Myanmar national I was paid about half the usual salary for the same rank, and it was not clear if there were such benefits as insurance, medical treatment for injuiries or sickness and so on. In fact I had no chance to see my contract if it ever existed, except that people told me I had to complete a year at sea.

At 2 AM I was called to come down the enigne room again. I pulled myself into the boiler suit and reached the control deck where I was told to move with the duty engineer some spare parts, a pump and tools to the lower deck where 4 to 8 duty engineers would do some urgent repair job during their shift. At 3 AM I was back in my cabin. My normal duty starts at 8 AM. The 4 to 8 duty engineer would call me at 7 AM so I could care of my morning business, have breakfast and take my 8 to 12 shift with a senior engineer. Then after the lunch I would have to do some day jobs such as cleaning and repair with the second engineer.

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