It was a hot and stifling night in East India. I was worked off my feet and pouring sweat. I felt, and probably looked, like hell.

I’d just managed to see of the last of the three teams of inspectors: Customs, the Immigration Bureau, and Quarantine. I’d already dispensed 20 Double Happiness cigarettes and five bottles of baijiu (grain liquor), but there were still some agents from Port State Control – the authority charged with inspecting foreign ships in ports all over the world -- negotiating with the captain in his room.

"Third officer! Someone else is coming aboard," rang over the intercom all night long, calling me to attention.

"Take him to the mess hall, first," the captain was being blackmailed in his room, the first officer was arguing with the main PSC man in the freight room, the second officer was asleep, and I, the third officer, was trying to think up a plan to sort out the situation.

No matter who comes up that ladder, the first thing you do is pull out a cigarette - this was what my last chief officer taught me; stick a cigarette in their mouth and light it, so even though I don't smoke, I now handle cigarettes as skillfully as "Columbo" wielded his cigars.

The man who appeared told me that he was port security, as he handed me slip to inform me that the day after tomorrow was India’s national day (on Aug. 15), so all ships had to fly their flags at half-mast.

A perfectly reasonable request, though asking me for cigarettes after I’d finished signing the form was not. The captain had literally just given me an earful “Are you just going to bring every ragtag and bobtail up to see me?” I had to think up another way to get rid of this guy.

"OK, OK, this one’s for you," I said as I handed over the freshly opened packet of Double Happiness [a brand of cigarettes] in my pocket, basically begging him to get off the ship. Gandhi would turn in his grave if he knew his countrymen were using the remembrance of his self-sacrifice as a cue to extort foreigners.

All the hullaballoo had triggered a re-occurrence of my migraine. We had cast-off before the dawn, and I hadn't had a nap all afternoon, so my eyes were bloodshot and dry.

"Third officer! Customs is coming aboard."

"Son of a ------, didn’t they just leave?"

"He says he is boarding customs..."

"Fine, fine, fine, take him to the main restaurant"

The noise from the freight room was getting a little crazy, so I helped the first officer close the door, ensuring that if he did accidentally lash out and kill someone, we could possibly avoid getting arrested. I then ran up to the captain's room, and with a quick rat-a-tat, swung the door open to a scene of four people sitting in stony-faced silence.

"Captain, sir, customs said that they can take the form once you have signed it, but they also want five cigarettes." As soon as I said the word cigarette, I knew I’d crossed a red line.

“Goddamn it, didn’t customs just leave?" The captain's eyes were even redder than mine, as though he had just been crying.

"He said he was boarding customs...," in fact, he had definitely just been crying.

"Only two, no more," the captain said, gathering his authority.

I opened the cabinet, grabbed the cigarettes, and then rushed off to the restaurant in a trail of smoke. My migraine was now pounding, and I recalled that I hadn't eaten dinner. My mouth was a desert.

I repeated the words "Only two, no more," attempting to mimic the tone of command in the captain’s voice.

I wanted to take these corrupt customs officials and blast them out the hatch, but as they were giving me the evils, I asked one of the crewmates to do the dirty instead. I couldn’t take it any longer, it was 8 p.m. and I still hadn’t eaten. My blood sugar must have been super low, which was probably the cause of my migraine, so I went to the second restaurant to grab something from the fridge.

"Third officer! There’s someone else coming up the ladder, I already took them to the main restaurant…”

“Who is it, this time!? Who cares it was always the same, here’s a cigarette and some water, “what do you want?... Great!... Here you go, now beat it!”

"He says he’s selling fresh produce."

"What the f-----! We’re not buying food right now! Tell him to scram! 』

Hysterical, I snatched the cigarettes from the grocer’s bobbing head, and sent him packing. "Do you need to drag every damn ragtag up to see me?" the crewmate just looked at me sheepishly and went on his way.

The migraine, itchy throat, and burning eyes were taking their toll, all I wanted was a bath and some shuteye, but I still had three hours of duty left.


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"Third officer! Come to my room," the captain bellowed.

They must have finally finished negotiating. I rushed up to the captain's room and led the PSC officers off the ship. I wanted to ask if the PSC made any reports, or how much it had all cost us, but the captain slammed the door shut – making his feelings quite clear.

The guys from the PSC appeared very satisfied. As they left, I noticed that the freight room was completely empty, save a scattering of documents littered all over the floor, as though a fight had broken out.

I started to worry if the first officer had been injured. It is a hard thing to say, but every time we dock at a South Asian country, we have to battle through this same scenario on the first night, and words cannot express how much of an aggravation it is. As I threw a pack of rice into the microwave, beep, beep, beep, the hunger pains almost too much to bare, I began to feel the muscles in my shoulders begin to relax as the tension of the last few hours began to re….—

"Third Officer, two more uniformed officials have come aboard.”


This article originally appeared on the Chinese-language ASEAN edition of The News Lens. The original can be found here.

Translator: Zeke Li

Editor: David Green (@DavidPeterGreen)

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