“Want bananas?” I asked. It was 6 a.m. at H-E-B. “Yes, if can you find some green ones.”
“Maybe I could pick some up when I go aboard the banana boat.”
Later that day at 1300 hours, I climbed the gangway behind Chaplain Karen Parsons, of the Seafarers Center, through several doors to a bare mess hall lined with safety posters around one window. We missed the lunch crowd.
A 30-year-old T-shirt clad man, James, came out of the galley smiling, “May I get you something to drink? Coffee, water or juice?”
Karen asked for water, I juice. A moment later, he reappeared with glasses full of ice. “Sorry we only have mango.”
“Great, my favorite,” I said.
He smiled broadly. “It’s our favorite juice in the Philippines.”
We are aboard MV Star, the refrigerated “banana boat.” A poster proclaims English as the official working language.
James remembers Karen from a big birthday party last month. He asked her if she got the photos through “messenger.” After searching, she couldn’t find them. Asking for her phone, he quickly found the landscape photo of 21 happy crew members sitting behind a table full of food.
The center had received a gift of six nice wristwatches. What do you do with six and 21 crew members? You hold a raffle. The birthday boy won one watch and great fun was had by all.
The faces in that photograph beamed broadly with eyes laughing. A break that day from stressful jobs these men hold.
In order for me to get bananas, they must arrive in Galveston at 11 p.m. every Sunday night. One day in Santo Tomas, Guatemala, two and a half days across part of the Caribbean Sea and all of the Gulf of Mexico, a day in Galveston, and over again.
James, has just completed three of his nine-month contract. Before this contract, he was off for 10 months. His family owns a rice farm where he works between ships. He enjoys it, but it doesn’t pay.
I sip my mango juice as James and Karen chat like old friends. The fire at Notre Dame in Paris. His aunt lives there doing domestic work. His family in Houston wants him to come to the United States to live. He would only be able to go home every three years. On the ship, he goes home every nine months, and the company pays his way.
And he really likes his home in the Philippines.
A relative who captains a ferry in the Philippines wants James to get certified, so he could be a cook’s assistant on the ferry, but it pays less.
Then there is money. James is an economic expert on money exchanges. Now it is 52 pesos to $1 U.S. When Karen visited the Philippines in 2000, it was 33 pesos to $1.
Almost an hour has slipped by. James had an energized conversation with someone who cares. An oasis for this young man at sea.
Get involved: www.galvestonseafarerscenter.org.