What is ‘In Limbo’ about?

On Saturday 2 June 2012 I received an e-mail from a Russian captain. It had been more than a year since a sailor had been in contact with me. I had interviewed the captain in Istanbul in February 2010. In his e-mail he was asking me to do “something”. Once again a merchant sailor was requesting my help! What could I do? Just one year ago I would have replied that I write and that I could tell his story. That way people would know what was going on at sea. This was my official (and truthful) answer during a journey that I started in summer 2009 and that finished in spring 2010. It took me to seven different Mediterranean ports: Barcelona, Istanbul, Ceuta, Gibraltar, Civitavechia, Suez y Haifa.

The objective of the trip was to document the situation of abandoned crews in the Mediterranean. Back then there were about 500 abandoned crews in the Mediterranean. They were sailors whose ship owner had abandoned the vessel and its crew in a port. Some had no food, others survived on charity and the majority had no idea what was happening to them.

On 2 June 2012 I had thrown in the towel. I guess that to some extent I felt that I had already done my duty. In 2009 the National Council of Culture and the Arts (CONCA) gave me a grant to document the situation of abandoned crews. I received other grants as well and slowly but surely I collected stories from abandoned sailors. I worked with various photographers, a documentary maker, some journalists and, much of the time, alone.

I published articles in the press and academic journals, gave talks, started a blog in this newspaper and converted the issue into my doctoral thesis. A publisher asked me to write a book and I abandoned the blog without realising that it was a useful and necessary way of letting people know what was going on out of sight, beyond the horizon. The publisher lost interest in the project due to the economic crisis and I did nothing about it.

At 09.35 on Saturday 2 June 2012 I was at home in Barcelona when this e-mail arrived from some part of the eastern Mediterranean. I had a cup of coffee in my hand. I took a sip and burnt my tongue. I was taken back to the stench of abandonment, the madness and the point of no return. At one point during my trip, I think it was in Ceuta, I wrote that I was worried that one day I would be damned by the captains, mechanics and sailors that had explained abandonment to me. Damned for not having done anything. On 2 June 2012 my view was that I could not do any more. I had forgotten my own reply: “I can write!”

Due to the damned economic crisis we sometimes forget who we are and what we can do. I found the notebooks in which I had written about the trip. Maite San Miguel helped me to edit the material, Carme Ferré checked it and Richard Thompson translated it into English. Many others have encouraged me as well. I asked El Periódico de Catalunya to post the now completed text on their web site.

In Limbo is an experiment in making a subject visible that can be modified along the way. For now, I have decided that each week I will publish my experiences of a specific port. Posts relating to this port will be appear on Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. The whole project will last for eight weeks and can be altered if readers offer ideas about how to make it easier to read. If you read the posts you will see that sometimes I recount other stories from around this disorientated Mediterranean. There are not many but they have helped me to better understand this sea which we live next to and to which we owe part of our identity.

The tale starts in Barcelona with the story of a captain who nearly went mad living alone on a ship. The names of the ships and the sailors have been changed. If individuals’ names appear here they will be prevented from working. In the maritime world sailors can be blacklisted.

You will see that it is part travel narrative and part investigative journalism. Although I would never dream of placing myself in the same league as Tiziano Terzani, Javier Darío Restrepo or Ryszard Kapucinski, I have tried to follow in the tradition of these greats. A few years ago I worked for the wonderful publication Cambio. In the magazine office Gabriel García Márquez always summed up our work as: “Go, live it and tell it.” I have gone, I have experienced abandonment and I have tried to write about it. I imagine that to some this will seem like a shoddy exercise in literary journalism. For others there will be points of view that are missing. I am in agreement with the first criticism. I am not a writer, I am a journalist. Regarding the second criticism I can assure you that I have tried to include comments from everyone involved.

I was never able to speak to the vast majority of the ship owners as they were just impossible to track down. I repeatedly called Panama, Bolivia and the Marshall Islands. I was always being told “wrong number” and phone lines were disconnected from one day to the next. Then I went in search of the consignees and shipping agents. Some spoke to me on condition of anonymity. Others did not even reply. Some companies were declared bankrupt and disappeared. They ceased to exist. Some banks that had acquired ships did not want to talk and hung up on me.

John Berger speaks about “the invisible that helps us to explain the visible”. For me, this is what my journey was about. In Limbo is a look at a world that has allowed unrestrained capitalism, a dehumanised scenario. Economic globalization started at sea and it is there that it has been refined. At sea you can experiment far from prying eyes. Sailors who elected their vocation and had a trade are now part of an automated dehumanized production line. In the cases that I describe they are abandoned when they stop being “of use” to the system.

In The Culture of the New Capitalism Richard Sennet writes: “The boss of a dynamic company recently said that in her organisation no-one has ownership of the position that they hold and that work done in the past certainly does not guarantee an employee a place in the company.” This has been going on at sea for decades. On ships they deliberately mix nationalities that do not get on so that the crew never feels united. Sailors with different religious beliefs sail under flags of convenience and no-one takes responsibility in the case of abandonment. No-one is responsible for anything. No-one knows anything.

For over four years on European shores people have been refusing to take responsibility for their actions. The consequences of a risk society have already become the norm. Another step has already been taken at sea – the abandonment of people. Abandonment can cause madness. There are those who have taken their own lives and others who have abandoned themselves as they no longer feel human.

At 12.30 on 2 June 2012, I decided to pick up the towel. I can write. That much is true.