by Niall Doherty

Quick announcement: I just published my new book, The Cargo Ship Diaries. Get it here.


Fifteen days and six thousand-plus kilometers later, we arrive in Mexico. For two hours I stand on the bridge of the beast and watch our approach. It’s after dark, skies clear and stars brilliant. Two tugs and a pilot guide us into the sleepless port. Monster ships and monster cranes controlled by tiny humans. Too late to go exploring when the ropes are dropped, best get some sleep.


Sun going down and eager for a good view, I head into the concrete hills of Manzanillo, up slim steps and through narrow alleyways. I throw an old man a buenas tardes, tell an old lady I like her hat, exchange friendly palabras with a man named Oscar. Then the path becomes more soil than stone and the dogs begin to bark. Fuckers are furious and suddenly all around me. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.


There’s something called the Beaufort wind scale that’s used to describe sea conditions. Twelve is a hurricane. Eight is a gale. Zero is no wind, sea like a mirror. Apparently the latter is rare in the Pacific and Atlantic; too many currents. These past few days have been a one or two on the scale, no swells and thus minimal rolling. Ship so stable they’ve dusted off the ping pong table.


Barbecue today, joint celebration of the good weather and the chief engineer’s upcoming birthday. The grill is set up starboard side of E-deck, and there’s hot dogs and guacamole and a whole stuffed pig. I spend most of the evening chatting with the cadets. “I’d love to do what you do,” one says to me. A decade my junior, I tell him he’s far ahead of where I was ten years ago.


She asked me never to write about what happened between us. And I promised I wouldn’t. But that was two years ago now. Before getting on the ship I asked if she’d reconsider, hoping I could tell our story in the book. I wrote the chapter mid-Pacific and sent it to her while in Manzanillo, requesting approval before publishing. Awaiting her response.

Social skydiving in Panama City

Social skydiving in Panama City


I’m starting to feel it, eager to get back to work. Real, money-making work. Call me crazy, but I still believe I can put $100k in the bank by the end of the year, even though I’ll barely have two percent of that when I step off this ship. These next five months will be make or break, through Peru and Bolivia before settling in Brazil. I’ll need fast cash to make the Rio dream happen.


One day in Panama, I head to a mall for language practice. Resistance is a motherfucker, but eventually I get rolling. A couple eating ice cream, a pair of elderly gents on a bench, dude in line at the supermarket… then a cheesy opener for three stunners: “Perdone, tengo una pregunta. Es mi primero día en Panama. Dime, son todas las chicas aquí tan guapa como ustedes?”


I must have spent six hours writing today. A couple more chapters and the book is pretty much done. I go back and forth between excited and nervous. Sometimes I feel it’s my best work, other times that I’m incredibly self-obsessed to have written thirty-thousand words about my travels. Reality surely falls somewhere between the extremes. I guess I’ll leave it for the reader to decide.


We crossed the line right as the sun set behind some brilliant wisps of cloud, and the whole starboard sky lit up like a farmhouse fireplace seen through sleepy child eyes. Right on cue came a pair of dolphins in the distance, dancing above and below the red ocean sheen. Being there and breathing it all in, you couldn’t help but feel that everything was right with the world, and always would be.


The ocean is alive down around here. I saw a group of dolphins this morning close to the bow, followed by some shy whales off in the distance. More dolphins could be seen throughout the day. I glanced out the window at one point and saw several playing in the waves. Meanwhile, I’ve been busy sneaking around the ship and filming myself dancing like a lunatic. Only been caught once so far.

Crossing the equator at sunset

Crossing the equator at sunset


I’ve accomplished every goal I set for myself on this trip. Two books pretty much written, exercised five times a week, squatted fifteen minutes a day (until my knee ached), spent thirty minutes a day studying Spanish, averaged at least eight hours of sleep, finished reading at least five books (actually eight), avoided scurvy and shipwreck. All in all, a solid few weeks.


We cruise the last few hours to kill time, port not ready to receive us just yet, finally arrive right before the dusk, Lima shy in the fog with mountaintops peeking through the sky. I’ll spend one more night on the ship, then let myself loose on a whole new continent. But this moment right here, this one crammed with anticipation, I almost don’t want it to end.


First day in South America tops off with a four-hour dinner in the open air, conversation flowing with smart and thoughtful people. Kevin just put on an event for 150 heads in San Diego. Heather almost died last week on a ship back from Antarctica. And James builds tall bicycles and organizes music festivals in Australia. This is my church. Where’s yours?


We talk about non-violent communication, about situationism, about really trying to understand where other people are coming from and not responding in anger. Sometimes though, I believe all that stuff is just and excuse to avoid confrontation. Sometimes, I believe an angry outburst is entirely appropriate. That’s all some people pay attention to.


The bus to Cusco makes a good first impression. There are fully reclining seats and private TV screens. But the headphones don’t work, the road is bumpy, and the trip takes 23 hours. Still, the views offer good compensation. I woke up this morning and looked out the back window to see the road behind us disappearing beneath a carpet of cloud.

Final destination: Callao, Peru :-)

Final destination: Callao, Peru 🙂

Quick reminder: My new book, The Cargo Ship Diaries, is out now. If you like the above vignettes, trust me, you’ll love the book. Grab your copy here.