Monday, 21 August 2017

Gullible's Travels - 6

Gullible's Travels and the Alphatravel series will continue here for the rest of this week. After this time the series will be moved to my autobiographical blog Writing for Posterity which will once again be made public. The stories here have been edited for a more general audience but they will appear in their uncensored form on my writing blog. A link for those interested will be provided when this is effected. Deep End was never the place for this and other posts, it became a stop-gap whilst my site and other blogs are being developed. This blog will in future revert back to its intended use.

The calm blue waters of the Caribbean were a favourable first impression, especially after the open hostility of the Atlantic Ocean. The Caribbean had its moods as well but the knowledge land was never far too away gave a perhaps misguided feeling of safety. We were headed for the Panama Canal and I was really excited even though I didn't know much about it back then. I had joined in with the teasing of the galley boy but was equally in the dark, I was just as naive but not daft enough to let on.

The crew had told him stories about the Canal and I listened, though pretended not to. They explained how the Canal had locks where mules towed the ships through to the other side. He was encouraged to save left over vegetables to feed to the mules, something he did with great enthusiasm. He kept saying about the mules to me, asking if they bite. How the hell did I know.
"I suppose they might by accident if you got your fingers too close" I speculated.

A passing seaman was grinning as he walked behind the galley boy giving me the thumbs up and a wink. He obviously thought I was in on the joke and I smiled back conspiratorially. Cristobal was the city on the Atlantic side of the canal and we had an overnight stay before traversing the canal zone. The weather was perfect and all the tensions among the crew had lifted. We docked and after work went ashore. It would be unfair to say I hadn't enjoyed my times ashore before Panama, I enjoyed everything new ....even getting shot at. I felt I wanted to see and experience as much of life as possible, even bad things had a place. Life is a learning process and there is no better teacher than personal experience.

The street where we were walking, looked almost like a post apocalyptic New York. The buildings were huge multi-storey blocks of grey stone, although the poor street lighting may have given that effect. Between each building was a narrow alleyway, dark and threatening. Looking down these alleys the far end was fenced off, there was one way in and one way out. I made a mental note not to run up an alley if chased. People were hanging about on street corners and watching us carefully. My decision to go ashore with those closest my own age was a mistake. The three of us must have looked like little kids and once again I silently cursed my youthful appearance.

At home it meant I couldn't get served in pubs even though all my friends were, now I worried I looked weak and easy meat for a robber. We had been given warnings about the city being noted for violence and street robberies. The bar where we had been told to meet the others was up ahead and we breathed a collective sigh of relief. The Moro Bar or 'Boite el Moro' as the sign said, went some way to healing my problem with my appearance. The bat-wing doors suddenly flew open and we froze as a crowd rushed out the door straight at us. We were bout to panic until we realised they were all girls.
They surrounded us and guided us inside the door, all pulling at us and squabbling over who would 'pop our cherries'. I have to say it was one of the strangest but exhilarating experiences of my life. This was my first experience of the 'good-time girls' and I drank and danced long into the night. At the end of the night we had all spent up when the older crew members were negotiating with other girls. I was disappointed but also a little relieved I had no money left, I remembered Italy and didn't want to spoil one of the best nights I'd ever had with a somewhat sordid experience.

The three of us rose to leave but the girls wouldn't let us. We explained we had no money left but they were convinced we were virgins (especially as that was what the crew members told them), and in truth we looked the part with our fresh faces that had never seen a razor. This made us highly-prized and a fee wasn't required. I won't go into specifics but it was the perfect end to a perfect night and a far cry from Genova. The next morning we dashed back to the ship and were spotted coming back. Everybody gathered and looked at us laughing and cat-calling, they knew what had happened. For once we didn't mind the teasing.

Going through the canal was the icing on the cake. I loved the scenery as the waterway meandered through jungle and even a mountain. There was Panama State Penitentiary, and a plaque commemorating all those who died in the construction of the canal. At the other end was the Puntas des Americas the only connection (at the time) between the two continents. In between were two sets of locks, and of course the mules. The joke on the galley boy had been the fact the 'mules' were large locomotive engines on tracks, not the four-legged variety he (and I) was expecting.

In my travels I went through the Panama Canals maybe a dozen times. It never lost its magic and remains one of my favourite places on Earth. Already this ship had far exceeded any expectations and there was still Peru and Chile to come.

I is for....

Ireland, one of the few countries I would like to live in besides England. I visited Ireland many times over the years and one grandparent was of Irish origin. It was my grandmother but her brother lodged with her and he was the funniest man I've ever known. Christmas, weddings and even funerals were a real treat for me when all her family visited. For all that it took joining the merchant navy for me to start visiting the Emerald Isle.

The first thing I noticed about Ireland was how laid back the people were. My first visit was to Cobh (Cork) and it lived up to expectations. My grandmother and kin could easily have been characters straight from the movie The Quiet Man and I found they were the rule more than the exception. We docked at 7am and being on the 4-8 watch I headed ashore as soon as my watch ended. It was only two days before we were sending a Mayday off Plymouth. The ship was one of a fleet of small 600 tonne bulk carriers termed the Yellow Perils or the 'Guzunda' boats (goes under) due to their poor safety record.

The first thing I noticed was how close to the town we were. There was a pub right across the road just yards from our berth. No dock gates, nor even a fence, I have never seen the like before or after. It may have changed in the three decades since but even then this was unusual. Cork wasn't very lucky for sea-farers, it was the last port of call for the Titanic and the Lusitania was sunk of its coast by a German submarine three years later. There was also the supremely ironic headline after a reveller fell into the harbour drunk "Cork man drowns". Even in tragedy there was humour.

Everybody was alert and awake so I nipped away 15 minutes early. Across the road I saw two locals throwing stones up at a window of a pub and watched curiously. A woman in a nightgown came to the window and leaned out. She started apologising for oversleeping and said she would be straight down. I later found out the pub opened at 7.30am...... and it closed at 3am* that's dedication! The pub became my end of watch watering-hole.

*the doors were actually locked at 11pm and nobody was allowed to come and go until everyone who stayed, left at three

The biggest appeal of Ireland was also the main source of irritation. Although not unique, it was the first time I experienced people that were so laid back. After the hustle and bustle of life in England the Irish seemed positively comatose. Never is the human race such a rat-race as it is in the UK. Life is to be savoured not rushed, and in Ireland most were 'savouring' every moment. the people were easy to talk to and like my grandparent's family there was always cheeky humour inserted for good measure.

For all the family occasions and get-togethers, the only Gaelic I learnt as a kid was a phrase my Uncle Mick taught me. He never told me what it meant but it incurred the wrath of my grandmother. "póg mo thóin" was the term but I pronounced it similarly to the variant Pogue Mahone which was the original name of the Pogues. It was a source of amusement when the prudish BBC talked about the new Irish band which translates as "Kiss my arse". The Pogues subsequently dropped the 'Mahone' although it was the title of their last album.

There was a lot of laughter and although I never had any problems in Cork, there was another side to the Irish I experienced in Dublin. Let's just say they could be a little pugnacious. In a bar two were fighting similarly to the Fijian guys (as told in F is for...). I was trying to play pool and a little drunk voiced my displeasure.
"Can't you do that somewhere else, I'm trying to play pool!"

It was a bit rash on reflection, in England the sparring partners would likely both have turned on me. The Irish guys apologised sincerely, moved out of the way and promptly started punching each other again. The problem I encountered was when talking to a couple of Irish guys and buying the,m a few drinks. I had plenty of money and was enjoying the company. Next to me on the other side and not in on the conversation, was the biggest guy in the pub. Anybody that knew anything about my life could predict what was going to happen next.

Whether irritated by not getting bought a drink or simply by my accent, the huge guy started mouthing off at me. He offered me outside but I told him I didn't want any trouble. It carried on after and I knew it wasn't going to go away so when he called me chicken I decided enough was enough. It's not that I had a Marty McFly moment, I didn't mind being called chicken, it was probably true. I reasoned if the gorilla got hold of me in the confined space of the bar I'd be a dead man.
"Okay then" I said and headed for the door.

I already had a plan. As I walked out the door I started to run then stopped suddenly. Spinning round I swung my fist with everything I had and he walked right on to it. He dropped like a stone and I looked at my fist in disbelief. Quickly I dashed back into the bar, I had 3/4 of a pint left and wasn't going to waste it. I'd neck it quickly and leave by the back exit. Well that was the plan. The big guy walked back in and I was thankful of the brown trousers.
"That was the best punch anyone ever gave me, will you be having a drink with me?"

We ended up best friends and the rest of the evening was probably one of the best I can't remember.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Holy F*ck

*I feel the need to reiterate these events took place 30 years ago, people and times change, what was the may no longer be now. In addition, for those following 'Gullible's Travels this is out of sequence with the story so far*

In my merchant navy days I was blissfully unaware of politics around the world. It put me in some dangerous situations, yet I remained ignorant of the danger and came through unscathed. Perhaps it was because my ease confused people, or maybe it was just dumb luck. I tend to go for the dumb luck hypothesis, it seems to be a trait with my life. For sometimes bizarre reasons I find myself in situations normal people just don't get into, then I come through the other side when most would have died. 
Less than a decade after I lost my religion and put my Catholic primary school days behind me, I had the chance to tour the 'Holy Land'. It was after I had noticed my weird (premonitions, apparitions, etc.), and had begun my research into the origins of human existence, so I was quite excited about it. I felt sure that if there was anything going on I would sense it. A bit of a stretch really, I wasn't even aware of the politics of the country. In fairness most of the news I had heard was more about the conflict with Lebanon rather than Palestine. The ship was an RFA tanker and we docked in Haifa in the north west of Israel.

It had already been quite a weird kind of experience. We had a ship's football team and our first game was against a Chilean Navy ship. We won 6-3 and I scored a hat-trick, it was in my top 3 all time games. The Chilean guys nicknamed me Georgie Best who had long since retired and was a bit before my time, but possibly the only British football player they had heard of. The fortunes for our makeshift team continued in Belgium where we entered a multi-national ships' tournament. We took the piss..... quite literally. In between games we were supping beer from the many crates we had brought with us for 'refreshments'.

After a poor start and just a draw in a game against a Finnish ship, we followed up with two wins and began to draw attention. The attention was mostly due to the speed with which we necked the beer between matches and during half-time breaks. There were over 30 ships taking part and each would play five games against randomly drawn opposition. We won the next game and we were elevated to a kind of celebrity status. People were amazed at how we were seemingly pissed as parrots by the last game, yet tournament leaders with three wins and a draw.

The last game was against the only team who could beat us, a Romanian ship which had 3 wins and a loss. We were one point ahead of them and only needed a draw. By half-time we were 2-0 down and started arguing with each other as we had our half-time cans. A few punches were thrown but it was handbags at ten paces and we settled down for the second half. I think we must have unsettled them because we came back to draw 2-2 and I scored the equaliser (my only goal of the tournament).

So back to Israel. As we approached the port of Haifa the radio officer organised a match for the next day. Due to our unbeaten status and being tournament winners, he said "Good standard of play". Big mistake.... huge! We tied up in the evening and the following morning a coach arrived to take us to the venue. Looking at the countryside from the coach I was a little worried about the state the pitch would be in. I'd played before in Peru on sandstone and ended up with bumps and minor abrasions this looked to be similar terrain.

When the coach stopped at the huge stadium we were a little puzzled. We had only played on Sunday League pictures and here we were in a huge stadium. It was kind of spooky because there were only about 30 police in the stadium, apparently there to practice crowd control drills. The opposition gave us a little heart when we saw them, they were just kids..... youths, Israeli national youth team youths. Needless to say, they annihilated us.

The police had stopped watching and left the stadium by half-time where we trailed 16-0. Their goalkeeper was so bored he played for us in the second half. We still lost 23-1 and you can guess who scored our goal. Me? Not exactly, although everybody thought so and I wasn't going to disagree. In effect I was waiting on the halfway line when our (their) keeper punted a clearance up field and I dashed to where I thought it would land. Their (our) keeper came out and we both jumped for the ball....... and both missed it. It went over our heads and into the goal.

I always justified my failure to own up about not touching the ball, by speculating the keeper would have saved it comfortably had I not been a nuisance. Having said that, it was our keeper in goal for them so nothing could be taken for granted. The other oddity is the fact that technically it was their goalkeeper that scored so their team in effect scored all 24 goals........ nah, I'm claiming that one.

Things started to go further downhill from there. We were off the next day (it was actually Easter weekend) and three of us decided to hire a car and take a look round. One of the guys produced a road map of Israel from only he knows where and off we went. That's not strictly true, there were complications. We rented a car from Herz at Haifa airport and naturally opted for the cheapest. Unfortunately the cheapest wasn't available and instead we hired one with air-conditioning at a much higher price.

Fifteen minutes on the road and the car stopped, died, downed tools. The car continued to stop, start, every ten minutes. After much ado, we sussed out that the car worked fine if we didn't use the air-conditioning. We headed south from Haifa and came to a divergence in the road, giving us a choice of Tel Aviv or Jerusalem. No competition, Jerusalem was our Mecca in a bizarrely twisted metaphor.

I remember seeing a sign indicating sea-level and then the seemingly constant downhill gradient that followed. The landscape was unlike anywhere else I'd seen. It was in the most part barren but every so often there were oases of lush tomato and orange groves. Kids stood at the side of the road holding out fruit for sale. We thought they were holding huge apples but they were in fact the biggest tomatoes I'd ever seen before or since.

Jerusalem was a bit of a let down in truth. It was chock full of bloody tourists, we had landed on the most holy day in the Christian calendar. We never saw the usual places of interest, just spent a bit of time in a market place. Bethlehem wasn't much better but I insisted we see the spot where JC landed and we queued to get into this church. We were led to believe it was the oldest Christian church in existence (built in 287AD if memory serves) and purportedly built over where Jesus was born.

To get into the church you had to practically crawl through a low 'doorway'. Inside some sort of service or ceremony was going on, the burning incense hung heavy in the air, almost choking the assembled throng. Fat sweaty tourists stood shoulder to shoulder waiting for a turn to see the most holy spot on Earth (for Christians). I just wasn't feeling it. I was getting claustrophobic when one of my shipmates asked what the 'smell' was. I was tetchy and a little incredulous of his ignorance.
"It's fucking incense you idiot" I told him.

It was one of those awkward moments you get in pubs, when loud music stops suddenly as you're halfway through shouting a sentence. The sharp intake of breath from all those close enough to hear went some way to alleviating the incense problem and cured my claustrophobia. Although people were crammed in like sardines, there was a healthy 3 foot space all around me. As you may have guessed, I wasn't struck down, although I was almost arrested right outside just miuntes later.

We vacated the church and still overheating from the church I took my T-shirt off. Anybody would have thought I'd taken a dump in the middle of the street. I was soon surrounded by angry people - two of whom were in uniform - shouting what I assume was abuse at me. A fair assumption I think, considering the tone and gesticulation.  I didn't know what the hell was going on at first but it soon became apparent the sight of nipples deeply offends some cultures and I put my T-shirt back on.

I don't know if you are as ignorant of Israel's geography as we were, but up until leaving Jerusalem we had been in Israel. Now we were in Palestine and the yellow number plates on the Israeli hire car, sort of handicapped us. The Palestinian number plates were blue, something we were also unaware of but which became apparent after the fact. It was our intention to go to the Dead Sea next but we took a short detour to see King Solomon's pools. They were 2,000 year old reservoirs and quite amazing. It was a lot more serene than Jerusalem and Bethlehem, very few people were around.

We stopped on the shore of the Dead Sea by what appeared to be a deserted visitor centre. There didn't seem to be anyone around so we decided to have a dip. It was strange because we had to wade out about 50 meters and still the water only came up to our thighs. The buoyancy was incredible. I lay back in the water and floated with my legs and chest above the surface. As we left the salt dried on us in thin 'slates' which I found strange. It was like having a very thin tile stuck to my forehead.

Driving up the Jordan Valley we passed what looked to be a city of one story dwellings, so vast were they. I wondered if it was the old Jericho but never found out. It was deserted except for a few goats and their herders. In my imagination I expected the river Jordan to be mightier than it looked from the road. It seemed to be little more than a stream. We followed it north all the way to the Sea of Galilee. The water was much colder and clearer than that of the Dead Sea.

Our final stop was in Nazareth and it was there we experienced the problem number plates could cause. We left the car to get a drink and something to eat, it was night time by then. When we went back to the car there were about a dozen local people gathered nearby. When they saw us get into the car they started shouting and gathered round, rocking the car. We sped away putting one of them over the bonnet as the rocks started flying. It was a long time later I finally realised why we were targets of hostility.

So there you have it, my tour of the Holy Land, though fascinating in some respects, was disappointing in that I felt nothing. Certain places give me that 'tingle' - St. Michael's cave Gibraltar for one - a sense that I'm in a very special place, Israel didn't really do it for me.

Friday, 18 August 2017

Gullible's Travels - 5

Gullible's Travels - 4 is under 'H is for....' as a replacement post. For regular readers some of this may be familiar. It was the inspiration behind my article 'Horizons'

I had seen the English Channel and North Sea in all their magnificent fury but up to this point had yet to witness the wrath of the oceans. The Bay of Biscay had its own notoriety as it marked the end of the continental shelf and formed a bottle-neck for the incoming Gulf Stream. The depth of water plummets from 120 to 3,000 metres in just a few miles. This of course stirs up surface waters without warning. On this occasion the sea was remarkably clement and gave no indication of what was to come.

The crew was younger than on the last ship and I felt less of a kid.  I was still third youngest but most were only a little older. Of course I was immature enough to want to show my worldly wisdom. I had been deep water now, I wasn't just a rock-dodging car park attendant as ferrymen were disdainfully referred to by 'proper' seamen. Unfortunately my 'wisdom' didn't befit my self-assuredness and a tactical silence was key to avoiding the teasing heaped on the more naive youngsters. I would laugh along with the others despite not knowing what was amusing.

All in all it was a good crew and the spirits were high, that changed a couple of days out. The weather turned for the worst and this was a far cry from the stability of the supertanker. We were tossed around like peas in a hamster ball as the small cargo ship pitched and rolled every second of every day. There was a subdued silence amid all this chaos, nerves jangled but tempers were kept in check by fear. We were all in this together and we might need the man standing next to us. I was excited at first but when the hurricane hit and sleep was impossible, it felt I was being battered into submission.

Fear wasn't as much of an issue with me as with the others. My fear receptors were defective, or maybe I just felt an affinity with the sea. The sea was my salvation, my sustenance, without it I had no life to speak of. Not a life I wanted anyway, it hadn't done me any favours so far. A sudden crash and all the lights went off, alarm bells reverberated around the ship, I didn't move. I had learnt to ignore the alarm bells. They usually signified engine failure or some other engine room related problem, there was nothing I could do except get in the way.

Sleep was fitful so it made no real difference. The voyage across the Atlantic should have taken 7-10 days but a week had passed and we were barely halfway to the Americas. It was at the height of the storm I was called up to the wheelhouse for a four hour stint at the wheel. Words were in short supply and fear was evident in the eyes of seamen and officers alike. The deck-boy was on the bridge as a look-out and his cheeks were tear-stained. The haggard seaman on the wheel was only too eager to hand over the responsibility.

Under normal circumstances the ship would have been on automatic steering, it was impossible in this weather. If the set steering strayed more than ten degrees off course the alarms would sound, a single swell would spin  the head around 15-20 degrees. That was the problem with crossing the Atlantic east to west, the swells always hit on the beam. The ship rolling was more unnerving than waves breaking over the bow. There was the feeling it might not right itself and capsize. We hadn't had a hot meal for days as it was impossible to cook, not that anyone had an appetite.

The sea is an unforgiving animal and it's unwise to take liberties or underestimate the power of its mood swings. On a bright day when the surface was like glass, it was the most serene and calming feeling I had ever experienced. I would recommend it to anyone. At times like this it took a special person to endure it.

Taking the wheel I was immediately thrown off balance. It took a moment to adjust my legs to the rolling. I would bend one knee and straighten the other leg to stay upright. As the ship rolled I counteracted rhythmically, almost as though I were dancing with Poseidon himself. In the cold light of day I could see the nature of the beast. The 100 foot swells were like a vast wall of water looking for all the world about to swallow us up without even the necessity to belch. Then it would suddenly rise up beneath us, tantalisingly dangling the ship on the edge of a precipice. I began to hum.

My words were deliberately unintelligible, I didn't want the others to think me crazy. I muttered soothingly to the ocean "you're my friend, I know you won't hurt us, don't be angry" and the like. The others looked at me dancing and humming, my worries about appearing a little mad were too late. Just my perceived happy demeanour was enough to certify me. Then something strange happened. The storm began to abate, sunshine broke through the clouds ahead and suddenly life was looking brighter.

The sea taught me many lessons over time. It taught me my own insignificance and humility. It taught me fear is most often worse than reality and worry is counter-productive. I spent many hours on watch, staring at the horizon looking for land or other shipping. We spend our lives chasing horizons but they are unattainable, like the end of a rainbow. All they do is give us an indication on the course we should steer to achieve our individual goals. Horizons shift though, they are not a constant.

In bad weather or fog, the horizons all but vanish and the way ahead is hidden or obscured. It is the same in life. Circumstances beyond our control may cause us to deviate from our path. In such times it is important to focus, bend into the weather and press on regardless, trusting to fate. The storm will abate and the horizon will once again show us the way. It was there all the time, we just lost sight of it for a while.

H is for......

Holland. Okay maybe it should be N for Netherlands but there was little other choice. Haiti and Honduras were options and even Hawaii although a bit of a cheat. Regardless, I have omitted 'H' from the series as it goes back to my late teens and involves sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll which I feel is inappropriate. The story of this particular trip to Holland is told in full in 'Writing for Posterity' but for this blog it is substituted with Gullible's Travels - 4

On reflection I was glad I did the supertanker first, I didn't know it then but one decent run ashore in nearly 7 months was enough to induce cabin fever among many seamen. My naivety and adaptability, as well as my fascination with anything new, made the whole experience quite interesting. The next ship was the real deal though.

In direct contrast to the 250,000 tonne leviathan I left behind in Dubai, the next ship was a mere 6,600 tonnes. The composition crew were only fewer in number by three and it was like scaling down from a pigeon coop to a budgie cage. The cabins were much smaller and the atmosphere vastly different. This ship was to be a real adventure and would connect me with the rest of the world in ways the other could not.

Up until this point I felt a foreigner in a foreign land whenever I ventured from my island home. It felt that as a Brit I was somehow different to the rest of the world, whereas in reality we are all just people. Our trials and tribulations may vary considerably but on a grass roots level we are all the same. The adventure would begin in London just as the last one had, but it was different this time.

Instead of finding myself in a plush west end hotel to be taken to the airport by taxi in the morning, I found myself under the steps of the merchant navy federation building in the east end of London. The problem was that although I lived pretty close to London I still needed a train to get there and the coach for the airport. Having been told the coach would depart from the merchant navy building at 6am I knew I would have to spend a cold night on the streets of London. There was a train that was early enough but any delay whatsoever and I would miss the flight.

At this time I was only 17 years old but I had lived on the streets and the prospect of sleeping rough held no fear for me. It was a minor irritation, nothing more. Near the federation building was a pub and I tried to buy a beer but they wouldn't serve me. Okay I was a year under the legal drinking age but the main problem was my appearance. I still only looked like a kid even though my last growth spurt had finally begun. A man who looked to be in his late twenties watched me leave the pub and followed me out. I noticed him but didn't realise I was the object of interest as I trudged back to my resting place for the night.

The man saw me sit on the steps with my rucksack and must have thought I was homeless. I had learnt from the last ship to travel light and carried only the bare minimum. He approached me.
"I know a pub that'll serve you if you want to get out of the cold" he ventured in a thick Irish accent.
"I'm okay, I just wanted to kill some time" I told him in a rather offhand manner.

My disability had made me look at people differently. If I couldn't hear a person properly I had to learn to read them in other ways. I trusted my instincts. Only twice would they fail me when it came to people so it was wise to obey them. 'Micky', as he introduced himself, I felt I could trust. It was the early days though and I was a little cautious, Micky was bigger and maybe stronger than me but my youthful appearance belied an inner strength. The element of surprise always helped if things went wrong.

We went to another pub nearby and chatted away over a couple of beers. The more we talked the more at ease I felt. Micky had thought I was on the street and offered me a place for the night but I told him I was flying out to a ship in the morning. I went back with Micky that night and an impromptu party took place. Micky was married but his wife didn't seem at all surprised when he brought me back with him. A lady from next door came in and Micky started playing the guitar.

It felt much like when I was taken in by those wonderful people who briefly entered my life when I needed a friend most (see Tribute). I still had this thing where I hated being treated like a kid. My thoughts were confused. I wanted to recapture the childhood I felt was stolen from me yet wanted to be treated as an adult. The neighbour lady, 'Joss' (Jocelyn?) was attractive and seemed to like me. This was confirmed when Micky announced he and his wife were going to bed.
"It's half past four, I have to go in an hour" I whined.

Quite selfishly, I thought they had stayed up and partied this long, another hour wouldn't hurt. It would be fatal if I went to sleep now. 
"Just gives you and Joss enough time to get better acquainted then" Micky said with a smirk and he and his wife left the room.

Ever the idiot I didn't know what he meant, until I looked at Joss. She had that look in her eye I had seen before from a couple of older ladies. Coy but predatory. Just over an hour later I was hurrying out the door to get back to the rendezvous point. 
"Come and see me when you get back" Joss said and kissed my forehead like I was suddenly a child again.

It was odd that I found it irritating but I didn't understand things back then. I smacked her bum cheekily and promised I would see her again. The short distance back to the federation building was a blur. The sun hadn't risen yet but the twilight gave that eerie, yet oddly comforting feeling I only ever had in London. It was a special city indeed. The other new crew members were already gathering outside the federation and I was immediately labelled 'Moonie' as I floated on air whistling all the while. They suspected I had some kind of mental disability and in hindsight they had a point. It was cold and everybody was tired and only half awake but I was smiling from ear to ear and on top of the world. Clearly insane.

The coach took us from London to Gatwick Airport as the flight to Brest in France was little more than a domestic flight in distance. I had a window seat overlooking a wing. There appeared to be a rivet missing which I promptly pointed out to the stewardess. She whispered in my ear.
"Don't worry sir, there are another 19,999 keeping it on"

In contrast to the Jumbo Jets I had flown on, this plane had propellers and my concerns over the missing rivet were amplified as I experienced the worst turbulence I would ever witness on any flight. The plane just suddenly seemed to free-fall like being dropped through a trap door then bounce as if on an invisible trampoline. It was disconcerting more because I had never experienced even slight turbulence before and didn't know what was going on. The relief was evident on the faces of everybody when we bounced uncertainly on the tarmac of Brest airport little more than an hour later.

The first sight of the ship was a lot different to seeing the supertanker for the first time. I wouldn't say it was underwhelming, I had just expected it to be bigger. Although it was the same gross tonnage as the ferry boats I had worked on, being a cargo ship it was a lot smaller in size. The appeal for me was the layout, this was a real ship. It wasn't some gigantic floating oil refinery, nor was it a hollow box-like ferry boat. This had derricks, cranes and cargo holds. Up until now I had been a glorified painter and decorator but now I would be a real seaman.

[I have had many visits to France and will post about the most significant in a future post, Brest was quite uneventful by comparison]

Next up in Gullible's travels, the wrath of the Atlantic (which inspired my 'Horizons' article) and a visit to my favourite place on Earth

For Information

I have been posting old drafts from my autobiographical series. The Deep End is not really the place for these tales but as I finalise preparations for my site relaunch, they serve a purpose. The Alphatravel series will continue up to this time when they will be moved to a blog 'Writing for Posterity' (currently restricted viewing to members only) which is dedicated to my life experiences.

Recently there have been one or two comments filtering in and I would like to thank the person(s) involved. Without feedback I'm working in darkness and whilst I will always express my views as and when I feel, I do like to cater for what people find interesting. I cannot give a time-frame for the relaunch as it is well overdue already. Time and financial constraints continue to confound but the wheels are still turning albeit very slowly.

Thursday, 17 August 2017

Gullible's Travels - 3

Savona was the first port we docked at since leaving Saudi Arabia. As we didn't even get ashore there it had been four months since the other crew members had been off the ship. Joining in Dubai it had only been a couple of months for me. Sights of land were at a premium. The ship was generally 50 miles from the coast at a minimum, so we had just occasional glimpses of the great continent of Africa off our starboard side. The Straits of Gibraltar were like a welcome mat guiding us back to civilisation from the vast ocean. For a time, the Dark Continent remained a mystery to me. As we sailed into the port of Savona the Chief Steward asked me for my inoculation certificates.
"Umm, didn't know I needed any"

At the merchant navy office they assumed I knew I would need injections so neglected to tell me about it. My stay in the UAE was the only time I had touched foreign soil (sand) but it was enough to cause quite a stir among the Italians. A medical team came on board with white disposable overalls and masks. It seemed a bit overkill, if I had any disease I should have died from it in the two months since leaving the Gulf. Nevertheless I was given a number of injections and told I was quarantined for three days. It was a real kick in the teeth watching everybody going ashore and coming back with tales of mayhem and debauchery.

Merchant seamen always had a bad name in polite society, but shore-siders didn't realise it took a special mentality to go to sea. It may seem an exciting life, and it was. When it was good there was no better life. Travelling to distant lands, seeing new sights, climates, and cultures. When it was bad there was nothing worse. A floating prison tossed around in a hurricane, half an ocean away from dry land. You try to sleep on the deck of your cabin so as not to get tossed from your bunk, but it's impossible. Like trying to sleep on a roller coaster. This can last for days on end and you are constantly aware of your own insignificance, your inability to effect change. It is a truly humbling experience. Is it any wonder then that seamen are so rambunctious when hitting land.

We sailed, but thankfully it was just a short jaunt to Genova where I would finally get ashore. I did that all right, and before anybody else. We had just tied up and were taking bond on board (cigarettes and alcohol). Making a human chain we manhandled the boxes to the store. Some of the cigarette boxes had a steel band around them and inevitably I managed to slice my finger. It was a good one, right down to the bone, and an ambulance was called.

It took an hour and a half to arrive and despite all the dressings I had lost a lot of blood. I knew that because I was starting to feel light-headed, almost drunk. With my background I was no stranger to hospitals but the one in Italy was vastly different to ones I'd 'visited' before. There were kids running around unsupervised and a couple of people had their dogs with them. It just seemed chaotic. When I was taken in to be stitched up they insisted I lay out on a table as they did it, despite the injury being to my finger..

I wanted to see what they were doing and tried to look.but a nurse turned my head back. In the end the doctor said something and she let me watch. The doctor then said something else I didn't understand and she left the room. She came back seconds later with a woman who had a cut over the bridge of her nose. The woman looked worried and I assume they brought her in to see by my lack of concern, having stitches was nothing to worry about.

Eventually they let me go and the city was now mine to explore. I had a couple of hours before the rest of the crew would be ashore so I headed to the bar nearest the dock gate. It was always a starting point. This was also known by the local bar owners and they were geared up to cater for visiting seamen. Due to my age and appearance I always worried about getting beer at first, but never had a problem abroad. I don't know if the laws were different or whether it was just because I spoke a different language but I was never refused a beer. In the bar I was quickly pounced on by a lady of ill-repute and though never my intent, negotiations were entered into. The experience was not one I would want to repeat, it just felt sordid.*

*it was also quite amusing.... after the fact

The crew eventually arrived - shortly after I didn't - and we set down to some serious drinking, and a lot of raucous singing. When we were all turfed out of the cells at 6am the next morning, I was still in a daze. Memories of the previous evening were hazy at best. It was like the blood-loss had given the alcohol added potency. We were all arrested when riot police with white batons came charging into the bar after a dispute. I vaguely remember being bundled into a van with the others at gunpoint but nothing else. It transpired that during the day we were being charged at a cheaper rate for beer than after 7pm, the sudden price rise caused the unrest.

The next morning we were let out but the police weren't stupid, they were letting us out one at a time at 20 minute intervals. I stumbled around the early morning streets of Genova without a clue of where I was or where to go. As I walked past a building the door was slightly ajar. Still dazed and needing more sleep I went inside and saw stairs rising in front of me. They were somehow inviting so I closed the door and lay on the stairs, falling asleep instantly. A pounding at the door woke me and I opened it to find a very angry looking Italian gentleman holding a newspaper. He must have popped to the shop quickly and felt no need to close his door.

He shouted and gesticulated as I walked past him and stumbled down the road.

On a subsequent visit to Italy a few years later, I was in a bar when I saw my friend from school. At first we just kept glancing at each other thinking it unlikely to see the other in such an obscure location. In the end my curiosity got the better of me and I went over to him. It mirrored an incident in Gibraltar (and later New Zealand) proving it is indeed a small world.

The ship left Italy on the return journey to Saudi Arabia for another load of oil. I was sad to leave the sky blue water of the Mediterranean for the dark blue water of the Atlantic. As we passed the Canary Islands hundreds of birds* descended on the ship. It was strange and at first quite a wonderful sight but the ship moved out of range of the islands and the birds were stranded. Despite our efforts of putting out bread and water they started dying. The spectacle had turned to tragedy as we shovelled hundreds of dead birds over the side of the ship.

*the birds were canaries which were named after the islands not the other way round. The islands were named from the Latin canis - dog 'isle of dogs'

We stopped for stores again in Cape Town then headed into the Indian Ocean bound for the Persian Gulf. Dubai was our final destination before flying home via Kuwait and Athens. For a first trip deep sea, it was a relatively uneventful start when I consider what was to follow.

G is for.....

Gibraltar, the most interesting 2.5 mile square of rock in the world. Like the Panama Canal this is another place I would never tire of visiting. From the sea Gibraltar looks like an island but it is joined to Spain by a strip of land with the town La Linea at the border, From Gibraltar I could see Algeciras a place I had visited before with fond memories. Look the other way and you see the mountains of Morocco. The Straits of Gibraltar just 18 miles wide, 4 miles less than the 22 that separates England from France.

I could bore you with details of Gibraltar's history, like the fact it was the last stronghold of the Neanderthals, was alleged to be one of the Pillars of Hercules (I dispute this), etc. but this is just a personal experience view. Anybody going to the rock will immediately be compelled to climb it. I say climb but it was just a case of following the road which went almost to the top. Near the peak it's fenced off with warning signs. I suppose it was to stop stupid tourists from falling over the edge.

It could have been me. Having come so far I wasn't going to be denied by a sign and an inadequate fence. Looking at the other side of the rock there was a huge flat concreted area used as a water catchment. It was a strange sight, The Barbary Apes were all over the rock and were thieving little sods. One of the guys off the ship opened a bag of nuts and gave a few to one of the monkeys (yes they are actually monkeys despite the name) who accepted them gratefully. However when it realised it wasn't getting any more, the monkey jumped up and in one swift motion snatched the bag of nuts and bounced off the guy's chest. It was funny but they were also known to steal bags and cameras if people were careless.

St. Michael's cave was the highlight though. As I entered the cave, atmospheric instrumental music seemed to fill every crevice of the hollow rock. The theme from the Deer Hunter will always remind me of the cave. Huge stalagmites and stalactites were lit up emphasising the natural beauty. The cave had been excavated to below sea-level and everywhere was evidence of Neanderthals who once inhabited Gibraltar before the the homo sapiens sapiens took over.

It was said the rock once had a tunnel all the way to Morocco and was one explanation how the Barbary Apes came to be on Gibraltar. Personally I believe they came to Gibraltar after the last ice age and just before the Mediterranean's outer 'wall' was breached by the rising sea-level of the Atlantic Ocean. That evening I went to explore the night-life and there was a shock in store.

In the bar I saw a familiar looking face. It was someone I met on the streets when I first left school. I couldn't help but stare and found the guy staring back at me. In the end I had to go and see if it was him or maybe his doppelgänger. It was indeed him and I found out he was labouring on building sites. Back in England he had lived in a squat but now he told me he was living in a bunker from the war on the beach.

We chattered all night about our experiences in those dark days and all that had happened since. He invited me to see where he lived the next day and I promised to visit. It wasn't the only time I met people from the past in the strangest of places, far from home and proved it was indeed a small world.

The next day I went to the beach and he was indeed living in an old pill-box. He had made it quite cosy and very habitable. We walked to the end of the beach with the huge water catchment above us. It looked bigger from below. A twin-prop plane was approaching and the props were making stuttering noises, as if cutting out. the plane was very low and looked about to crash into the rock. I watched in horror, certain I was about to witness a catastrophe.

My old friend laughed at me. Unknown to me there was a runway at the end of the beach and the plane was merely coming in to land.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Gullible's Travels - 2

The first thing that struck me when I stepped aboard the super-tanker was how many skinheads there were on board. There were at least eight crew members with shaved heads and it was a little unsettling, not because they looked like skinheads, more because they looked liked mental asylum inmates. We sailed to Ras Tanura in Saudi Arabia but nobody went ashore. The deep water berths to accommodate the huge ships were well away from civilisation. Besides anything else we wouldn't have been able to get a beer anyway. There was strictly no alcohol in Saudi Arabia. It took just three days to load and we were under way.

It was quite a new experience sailing on such a big ship. There was very little pitch and roll even in bad weather, the ship sliced through waves effortlessly. The problem was when out on deck. Other ships would hurl some spray at you but on this ship when a wave broke over the bow a wall of water came rushing at you. At intervals all along the ship were 'bus-shelters' to jump into when a wave hit, the danger of being washed over the side was very real. We sailed through the Straits of Hormuz and headed south into the Indian Ocean.

I soon found out the 'skinheads' were those who 'crossed the line' for the first time. The line was the equator and sea-farers had a tradition in honour of King Neptune. Part of this involved shaving the head. The ceremonies varied considerably from ship to ship and mine was of a pretty mundane type. In a future post I will intimate one of the more 'interesting' ceremonies I witnessed.

We were bound for Cape Town where we would take on stores before sailing up the west coast of Africa. My memories of the passage through the Indian Ocean are hazy as I spent a good portion of it laid up. The first problem I had was heat exhaustion but at least it made the sunburn tolerable. We worked in just a pair of shorts but unlike the others I hadn't acclimatised. They had sailed into the heat over the course of weeks, I had flown into it in hours. Nor had I a suntan whilst all the others were brown as berries. Foolishly I tried to hurry my tan along and was quite badly burned.

I barely noticed, I was too busy falling asleep. The other mistake I had made was not taking salt tablets. Having never worked in such heat before I didn't realise the importance and as I didn't like taking tablets, I didn't bother. It probably contributed to me getting heat exhaustion. That was a weird experience but not entirely unpleasant. It was in effect like narcolepsy as I would just randomly fall asleep.

It could happen any time but as much as it was funny to a degree, it was also quite dangerous. A few times I fell asleep standing up and on separate falls I injured a knee and cracked my head open. I was lucky it wasn't more serious. By the time we reached Cape Town I was somewhere near normal - as normal as I get anyway - and I looked longingly at the shore. We had only rare sights of land since we left the Arabian Sea and not this close up. Table Mountain was probably the catalyst for my obsession with climbing mountains.

Mountains were always visible from the sea when no other land was in sight. For a seaman they were beacons, lures, the promise of terra firma and respite from the constant motion of the ship.

The stores were loaded from launches off Cape Town and looking out over the sea it looked flat calm. It was deceptive. This was where the Indian and Atlantic Oceans met, causing massive swells even when all appears calm. The lack of white water lulled us into a false sense of security but as we sat drifting the ship began to roll ominously. The Cape Rollers pushed us one way then as we righted in the troughs before another huge swell pushed us back once again.

This rhythmic rocking on such a huge ship wasn't unsettling though it made loading the stores entertaining. The problem came when every so often as the rolling built up momentum, we became out of sync with the swell and a roller would break over the deck. In my youth it was an adrenaline rush getting thrown across the deck or hanging on to a handrail for dear life. We always kept a wary eye out for one breaking over the deck and could usually tell when it would happen. There was then the mad dash for the bus-shelters. Inevitably one or two of us would be caught out and the others would laugh. It was great fun as long as nobody died.

[I did go ashore in Cape Town another time and will include it in a future post]

Working on the 12-4 watch was when I really started to become interested in the stars and constellations. Midnight to four in the morning was the perfect time for it too. I was fascinated by the new stars I had never seen before. It was my first time in the southern hemisphere and I had never seen the Milky Way like this before. I wanted to know everything and was fortunate the officer on watch was an expert navigator and willing teacher. This sparked my interest with the celestial bodies. Others said watch-keeping was boring but I would have happily paid for the experience.

The ship developed some engine problems and we anchored off Fuerteventura to get divers down. We lowered a floating pontoon for the divers to work off and three of us tended them. It was good, the weather was bright sunshine and the sea calm. We drank beer as the divers worked. The sea was inviting and we swam around happily, despite being told about the Hammerhead sharks. The divers had mentioned there were a few but we only saw one. We had assumed because the divers were in the water with them, these weird looking fish were harmless. It pays not to assume, we were later told they can be dangerous but they left us alone.

The Straits of Gibraltar were the next highlight. Only 18 miles separated the continents of Africa and Europe at this point. On the port side was Gibraltar looking like an island and to starboard were the Atlas mountains. We entered the Mediterranean Sea bound for Italy where for the first time in a couple of months my feet would be on dry land. Or so I thought.

F is for......

Fiji just emphasised how fate had a habit of putting me in bizarre situations, not of my making. I suppose the first incident I could be partly responsible but there were mitigating circumstances ......I was drunk. Fiji is one of the many idyllic Pacific Island paradises - or at least how people perceive paradise - but even there mayhem was an unwanted monkey on my back. Lautoka is the second largest city in Fiji with a current population of just over 50,000 so 25 years ago it was little more than a large village, relatively speaking. On our first visit myself and my drinking-partner went to a local bar as we always did.

I could say we always chose local bars over those frequented by tourists and other foreigners, because we wanted to experience the real people of the nation we visited. I could, and in part it might be true, the main reason was quite different. In local bars you tended to get charged normal prices whereas in a tourist bar or hotel the cost of drinks automatically doubled.

As ever we had a good time and interacted with the local people. We were objects of curiosity, not many foreigners visited this particular bar which was considered a little 'rough' at best.  Our first sight of the bar should have warned us off but we were thirsty. Outside the bar two local guys were fighting and watching them I was reminded of Ireland. I had witnessed a similar fight there but nowhere else except now, on the other side of the world.

The two guys stood toe to toe and swung fists at each other. It was like they were rooted to the spot, neither giving nor gaining ground, their legs immobile. Their fists were flying in all directions though and within 30 seconds one of the guys was knocked down. That was it, fight over. The man picked himself up and left whilst the other guy went back into the bar. I looked at George and shrugged then we followed the guy into the bar.

After a few singing syrups we were dancing and singing. The locals warmed to us and by the end we were sat drinking with a couple of girls. Naturally we bought them drinks, danced with them, and generally had a good time. It would be 2 weeks before we would return to Lautoka but we promised to look the girls up next time in and have a few drinks again. That was the plan anyway.

Two weeks later when we went back to the same bar, there was a slight problem. We had been so drunk neither of us remembered the names of the girls and 4weren't even sure what they looked like without a belly full of beer. One problem was solved immediately. The bar was almost empty and there were no girls in there.

We sat drinking just enjoying being out of the heat. There were two big fans on the ceiling but they weren't having too much affect except to circulate the warm air. Almost imperceptibly - to us - the bar started filling up and by the time we were beginning to wobble it was like it had been on our previous visit. It was then the two girls came in. They came straight to the bar and smiled at us. We bought them drinks and went to a table.

I was glad the girls had identified us because I couldn't honestly remember them too well. The dancing and drinking was just a pleasant and very hazy memory. In fairness, George was as clueless as me so you can imagine our surprise when the two girls we had been dancing with last time came into the bar. We looked from the girls we sat with to the two angry looking girls heading for our table and back again. Oops!

A big verbal argument started and was becoming more and more heated before finally erupting. The fight we had seen between the two guys at the bar had been almost with restraint, the girls had no such restriction and all hell broke loose. George and me jumped to one side as the four girls started slapping and hair tugging each other as the table and drinks were turned over.

With all eyes on the four-way cat-fight George and myself made a 'tactical withdrawal' and slipped out of the bar unnoticed, never to return.

Our visits to Fiji were frequent as part of the South Pacific cruise and it was uplifting each time. The other Pacific islands on our itinerary were similar but it was always Fiji where daft things seemd to happen. After a few visits to Suva the bulk of our crew eventually settled on a Travel Lodge hotel with swimming pools and good reasonably priced food. We were most welcome, no doubt due to the money we were spending, and there was never a hint of trouble. Music blasted out specifically on our request and all manner of japes took place.

Perhaps the funniest almost ended in tragedy. One of the crew had bought a huge turtle shell. He was only small in stature and the shell quite large. It somehow transpired that a wager was made which involved him doing a width of the pool with the shell strapped to his back. Everybody was in on the act and a substantial amount of money was wagered. The problem became apparent almost immediately. He sat on the edge of the pool and slipped into the water where he sank like a brick. The shell was way too heavy for such a little guy.

Give him his due though, he was game. We all watched with baited breath as he started crawling along the bottom of the pool. A raucous cheer went up from his supporters who egged him on. Halfway across the width of the pool he stopped moving but the cacophony from those who wagered on his success never abated. Indeed when one or two of us suggested it might be a good idea to fish him out, we were prevented from doing so. They said he was just resting....... until we saw the bubbles.

Quickly we jumped in and brought the poor guy to the surface where he coughed and spluttered. Even then those who bet on him achieving the feat complained we pulled him out too early. It was our penultimate visit to Fiji when the 'Battle of Suva' took place. In truth it was just a mass brawl and my first negative experience with Americans. To be fair the Americans were from a US Coastguard ship that had docked and a coming together of any foreign seamen was potentially explosive (see B is for Brazil).

Of all the bars and hotels in Suva, the US Coastguard guys happened to pick 'ours' to go and get drunk. At first all was calm, we were used to the Aussies being gobshites. The difference however was with the Aussies you knew it was largely tongue-in-cheek, the Americans came across as though they meant it. As the alcohol flowed freely I could feel the tension, it would only take a spark. The spark was a quiet unassuming Geordie guy.

Gerry was a man of few words and you wouldn't notice him in a crowd, he was also a former junior boxing champion. I didn't see the two Americans light the blue touch-paper but apparently they were being antagonistic. Quick as a flash two American sailors were dumped on their backsides. It was at that point I looked (as did most others) just in time to see a third American break a chair across Gerry's back. All hell broke loose as pitch battles erupted right through the hotel grounds.

I wrestled a 'foe' to the ground and punched him.
"Do that again, I didn't catch it!" came a voice.

Looking up I saw one of the deck-boys from our ship. He had just bought a new camera and was excitedly taking pictures as though he was at the royal wedding or something. The guy I was tussling with took advantage of the distraction and smacked me in the mouth so I hit him again.
"Thanks" the deck-boy said and scuttled off to take more pictures.

The 'battle seemd to go on for a long time but it was probably only a few minutes. The swimming pools were red with blood, most of which was a result of broken glass cutting bare feet. Our ship's hospital had a huge queue as seamen waited to be stitched up. We all had a severe dressing down from the Captain and thought that was the end of it. The next morning we realised it wasn't. I was watching the gangway with Gerry and another crew member when we saw a man-mountain coming towards the ship. He was off the Coastguard ship berthed ahead of us and it didn't take a genius to figure out his intent.

At the bottom of our gangway he stopped and started shouting.
"Where's this Gerry dude? I want the Gerry dude"

We looked at him and I thought to myself 'Sod that', he had a bit of a gut but he was huge. The guy was determined and we ignored him..... for a few minutes, then I could see Gerry becoming restless. When words like 'chicken-shit' came out Gerry turned to us.
"I'm going to have to go down there" he said.
"Don't be daft" I told him "look at the size of the twat"

It delayed the inevitable another 10 seconds but Gerry had lost patience and strode towards the gangway. What followed will forever be etched in my memory. Gerry was like a fly landing on an ogre's nose. I couldn't count how many times Gerry hit the guy as he dodged the lunges and telegraphed swings. All I do know is the approximately 90 seconds later the mountain was knocked back onto his butt, exhausted by his exertions in the blistering heat and Gerry came back up the gangway without having broken into a sweat.

During the course of this Alphatravel series there are incidents I may regret or wish I had handled differently. The events above are not condoned and today I would have a very different view of things. However, Alphatravel is my own personal experience of places and because I had a good or bad experience doesn't mean you will have the same.

Tempus Fugit

I am seemingly forever behind schedule for all the new things I am about to launch. Then I realised it is only me who sets such time constraints and I'm not good with schedules because my concept of time is not the norm. My website will be the last to be addressed as it is the hub for all the other projects.

So what is time? Time is fluid, individual perception varies considerably. For an example to illustrate significant difference in perception we have to compare species. A pigeon sees us coming in what we would call slow-motion, probably why they don't move until the last second. So if you see a pigeon at the same time it sees you and approach it, the same amount of time has passed but your perceived passage of time will differ to that of the pigeon.

Sticking to our own species, a child's day is longer than that of an elderly person. Of course this is nonsense as with the pigeon analogy. In another instance, time flies when you're having fun but drags when you're not. Again it's simply your mind setting it's own chronometer. This beggars the question of whether we can manipulate time. The concept of time travel has always fascinated me but I can't see it being anything other than a one-way trip.

Yes, I've seen and studied the theories concerning possibilities of present to past travel but it's nonsense in my opinion. Trust me, cannot be done. However, present to future is not only possible it can and is done.

The proof is with satellite chronometers. Time supposedly passes at a different rate in space, I'm not sure that is an accurate way to describe it though. It's the fact travelling at high speed will make time pass more slowly, location is irrelevant. If we could travel through space at near the speed of light and return to Earth, significantly more time will have passed on Earth than in space.

In effect this in some way validates stories of 'alien abductees', or even the longevity of 'Gods'. I tend to regard both with a little suspicion yet cannot completely rule them out. All I know is that to travel in time is pointless (unless you are waiting for a species to evolve) due to the one-way nature and the uncertainty the planet will still be habitable in the future.

However if you want to leap into the future just a little way, you will see all the blogs are up and running and the website is fully up to date. Tempus Fugit as the Romans would say.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

Gullible's Travels - 1

With a comment indicating an interest in my Alphatravel series I have decided to repost some old drafts titled Gullible's Travels. Although not explicit some posts are rated '15' in my opinion. Like most of my stories it is merely a statement of facts and the truth isn't always pretty.

The map above is a rough representation of countries I have visited. These are shown in the white areas. Over the coming weeks I will post about each ship I worked on in turn. The countries will be designated a colour depending on how positive, or otherwise, I was about my experiences there. Some countries I visited many times but I will give a holistic assessment of my visits.

My first ventures off our island were as a kid. My mother would organise a day-trip across to Calais from one of the ports in the south east. Ramsgate and Dover both had the hovercraft which was the favoured method of travel. I preferred the ferry boats that sailed from both ports and Folkestone as well. It was more of an adventure on a ship, on the hovercraft I had to sit down and not move around.

The catalyst for my fascination with travel was a school trip to Germany. Every sight, sound, smell, was absorbed hungrily. Even then there were clues to life. The journey was every bit as important as the destination, and I was in no hurry to get there. Every aspect of the journey was an adventure, the coach to Dover, the ferry to ZeeBrugge, and even the seemingly endless train journey. I watched the countryside which at first looked just like England, only the towns and cities indicated I was in a foreign land.

My heart was almost in my mouth but in a strangely exhilarating way. Nervous excitement, like waiting your turn on the roller-coaster. It felt good. After Germany I had my first trip to France without parents when I went with my friend and his brother. It was the first of many. Joining the merchant navy was the obvious thing to do even though I swore I never would. My father went into the merchant navy after leaving the coal mines and was always away from home.

This brings us to my first deep sea ship and the beginning of the odd odyssey that over a decade took me around the globe. The ship was a super tanker, the biggest ship on the ocean when it was built, but others had exceeded it by the time I joined. It was a mere 250,000 tonnes and was as wide as the ferry boats were long. This leviathan could only muster 13 knots at full ahead but still took twenty minutes or 8 miles to stop once under way.

I flew from Heathrow airport to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates with no knowledge of the country whatsoever. I dropped geography in favour of languages at school, mostly because I hated the teacher, the upshot being I hadn't even heard of the UAE. Having spent the night in a west London hotel, I felt a little special. I was just a fresh-faced kid but had never felt so adult. The solitude didn't bother me, I was used to it by then. Without a penny to my name I anticipated a quiet night.

On the bedside table was a Gideon's Bible. I had begun my research long before then so I picked it up to look for more clues. There was a £10 note underneath, the last occupant must have left it as a tip but the maid hadn't done her job properly. Thanking God for the gift I promptly left the hotel to get a drink. It would be far cheaper in a pub rather than the hotel, or so I thought. I was in Kensington and still under the legal drinking age I naively thought beer was a standard price everywhere.

It was getting on for autumn and the weather was showery. I had my trusty mac on with a trilby hat trying for all the world to look like Dick Tracy. My collars were raised to cover as much of my face as possible. I wasn't horribly disfigured although it felt that way. I just wanted to hide the fact my chin had never seen a razor blade. Getting served was easier than it was at home, I guess they never expected a kid to be out on his own in the backstreet pubs of the west end.

Ten pounds was enough to get me relatively merry back then but I was reluctant to go back to the hotel. That would mean sleep and the experience would move to the next step. I wanted every moment to last as long as possible. The past five years had been traumatic, the last the worst. I had spent so much time just surviving I'd stopped living. Stuck in an existence, a rut, a bad situation beyond my control, one that too many find themselves in today.

Wandering the empty streets I looked at the buildings, marvelling at the architecture not seen in the Lego-like village where I grew up. I stumbled upon a huge museum, aesthetic lighting enhancing every arch and chiselled column. For fully five minutes I just stood gawping in awe at the amazing artistry that went into the construction.

The next morning a coach took me to Heathrow, the first time I had been in an airport. People were tense and fidgety but I was like I had just been handed the keys to a chocolate factory. I only had one suitcase which was jammed shut and a hold-all for the excess. In order to take as much as possible I wore my three-piece suit and my 'Dick Tracy' mac, it seemed appropriate. Somebody told me it was cold at night in the desert and having looked at an atlas, that was where I believed I was going.

Stop-overs in Munich and Kuwait meant we wouldn't get to Dubai until evening. I flew Singapore Airlines on a 747 Jumbo Jet and enjoyed this new experience. Drinks were complimentary and I had a steady supply of gin and tonic brought to me by the hostesses. On top of that I was given a pack of cards, travel chess set, and a magazine. I didn't read it on the plane as I never tired of looking out of the window.

The first sign of my naivety was when we finally touched down in Dubai. As I set foot on foreign soil I was aware of a furnace like blast of warm air. Having never flown on a jet before I thought it was coming from the engines, as I moved away from the plane I realised it wasn't. Suddenly I felt overdressed. The second sign of my naivety followed almost immediately afterwards.

Unknown to me there had been security threats and the odd hijacking here or there. As the passengers queued to board a bus, armed guards were taking their landing cards. I asked the person next to me what was happening as I joined the queue. When he told me I realised I had left my landing card on the plane. Without thinking I dashed back to the plane to get it. I ignored an unintelligible shout behind me then heard a kind of splat as a bullet whistled over my head. I assume it was a warning shot.

If it was it certainly had the desired effect as I swung round abruptly, unsure of what had just happened. Then I saw the guards running towards me with guns at the ready. They were shouting but I didn't understand. Taking a wild guess I dropped my hold-all and put my hands on my head. They kept yelling at me as one patted me down and another cautiously opened my hold-all. Eventually an English speaker asked what I was doing and when I explained the guards relaxed. They still looked a bit pissed off but I saw the funny side of it. Five minutes in a foreign country and I was getting shot at.

I managed to clear customs without any further drama and a taxi took me to hotel. It was one of the best hotels at the time, before twenty years of building work saw others dwarfing it. The air conditioning was like an icy blast but most welcome. I was allocated a room and the 'boy' took me to my room. They were referred to as boys but were actually adults. The first thing I saw in the room was a hockey stick, presumably left by the previous occupant. It was a weird thing to find in a hotel room and I tried to give it to the boy. He shook his head and made a chopping motion with his hand across his wrist. It was though he believed he would have his hand chopped off for stealing it.

Although I thought the gesticulating to be overly dramatic, I shrugged and decided I'd keep it. The company's agent came to see me and was apologetic stating the ship was delayed three days and I would have to stay at the hotel. I could just sign for food and non-alcoholic beverages. The guy looked at me as though I would take the news badly but it was the best news I'd heard. I tried caviar, just because it was on the menu. I hated it and just ate the biscuits it was served on. The gateau trolley was my favourite. Down in the bar I had a result as well, coming to an arrangement with the barman whereby Martini was classified as a soft drink. I felt like James Bond.

Walking around the city I saw the other side of life in Dubai. Homeless people were sleeping on flattened cardboard boxes in doorways. There was a fine powdery sand covering the paving stones and i walked to the edge of town. I headed into the desert up a dune just to see how far I could go. The sand was very fine, not like beach sand at home. Walking through it became an effort after just a short space of time. I turned back and headed for the hotel bar.

The days passed and eventually a taxi took me to a launch. The sky blue waters were amazing as we sped across them on a high powered launch. It took well over an hour before one of the launch crew pointed up ahead and I saw the ship for the first time. I was glad to see it, I was sweating buckets. Because there was no room in my case I was wearing my three-piece suit and mac in 110 degree heat. If that wasn't enough I was carrying the hockey stick I found in the room. The ship didn't look much at first but as the launch drew closer I started to realise just how big it was. Being light-ship (no cargo on board) it towered above the water, getting up the gangway was to prove difficult.

It was with some effort I struggled up the gangway with case in one hand, hold-all in the other, and hockey stick in my teeth. The First Mate was at the top of the gangway to welcome me aboard but when he saw how I was dressed, and the hockey stick in my mouth, he closed his eyes and shook his head sadly.

E is for.....

Not all my experiences in foreign lands were pleasant. I approached all with an open mind being of the belief that the average person was no better nor worse anywhere I went. My experiences are personal and cannot be used to stereotype a nation.

Egypt and unfortunately my North African experiences were largely negative. In Port Said we went ashore and were immediately surrounded by a swarm of kids ranging between 5 to 14 years old at a guess. Visiting seamen were always a draw for the kids as I found in many countries. This was different though.

In South America we would get all our coins together and throw them in the air letting the kids scramble for them. The diversion was enough for us to escape their attention and hurry off to a bar. I told the others who hadn't used this ruse and we all dipped our hands in our pockets. When I threw the coins into the air all hell broke loose. The South American kids would jostle each other in an attempt to get the coins but once a kid had hold of a coin it was his to keep, regardless of age or stature.

The Egyptian kids started fighting over the coins and the bigger kids were taking the coins from the smaller ones. We stared in shock at the mass brawl I had inadvertently started and one of my shipmates looked at me shaking his head.
"You sick bastard" he said.
"I didn't know they...... I mean when we......."

I was at a loss to explain but once again it seemed by trying to do something nice, I had aggravated a situation. All in all, just like Algeria, I wish I hadn't bothered going ashore. There was no time to go to Giza, which I would have loved but at least I would see the sights of Suez and if it was anything like Panama I was in for a treat.

It wasn't!

The Suez Canal is only 'one-lane' so to speak. A convoy of ships would prepare to head south to the Red Sea from Port Said and similarly a convoy would leave the Red Sea headed for the Mediterranean. In the middle were the Bitter Lakes which allowed the convoys to pass each other and the journey continued.

On board the ship it was like a bazaar as an assortment of traders descended like the Biblical plague of locusts. Harsh? Perhaps in some cases but the majority were thieves. Everything had to be locked and stowed away, after losing plates, cutlery, and food, somebody wrapped bacon round the handles of the mess room door. It worked which was sort of ironic considering they were happy to against their religion by stealing anything they could.

I passed the deck-boy's cabin and did a double-take. He was stood in just his Y-fronts with and Egyptian guy running a tape measure over him.
"What's going on?" I demanded.
"He's measuring me up for jeans and a T-shirt" the deck-boy answered happily.
"Idiot! Put your clothes on" I told him and turned to the guy "You get back on deck you're not allowed down here"
"Yes boss, sorry boss" he said as he left the boy's cabin.
"Lock your door and keep it locked at all times" I told the boy and escorted the Egyptian back onto the deck where the other merchants were"

Now I'm not saying they were all thieves, some were honest tradesmen just trying to eke out a living. There was a hairdresser that could mimic any Brit accent while he trimmed hair, it was quite impressive. Then there was the Gilli-Gilli man who did magic tricks with cards and chicks, all the time saying 'gilli-gilli-gilli-gilli-gilli-.......'. The 'bum-boat' crews that guided the ship through tricky areas of pilotage were on board as well.

When I went back below the deck-boy was nowhere to be seen but not only had he not locked his door, he left it wide open. Another crew member saw and I told him what I had witnessed.
"Let's teach him a lesson" he said with a wink.

We stripped the cabin, even taking the light bulbs, and hid all the boy's stuff. For three days we kept up the charade, long after we left Suez then finally told him what we'd done and gave the boy all his stuff back. Talk about ungrateful! Instead of thanking us for a valuable lesson and the return of his belongings, he threatened to stab us in our sleep. There's just no pleasing some people!

Egypt was the final nail in the coffin and taught me one thing if nothing else, people who live on sand are a little crazy. North Africa had been 'interesting' in its own way but not really a place I would want to revisit. Algeria was a complete disaster and in Libya (not in this series), we weren't even out the dock gate. The only time I touched Libyan soil was to play football on the quay against a German ship. We were so drunk by the end nobody could even remember the score or who had won.

Even so I was looking forward to the Suez Canal and though not Panama (one of my favourite places on this planet), it did fill me with a sense of wonder. The surrounding terrain was flat and there was very little in the way of scenery. To somebody shore-side watching the ships traversing the canal, it must have been a bizarre sight. The water would be unseen and it would look pretty much like the ships were sailing through the desert.

With the terrain being so flat it also meant their were no locks which was a little disappointing. The map below seems to show the canal and surrounding areas have been developed since I was there but sand is sand. There were old burnt out tanks on either side of the banks, the remnants of past conflicts in an area troubled by war since civilization began.

Ships congregated in the Great Bitter Lake where the two convoys changed over and we were just left with the shorter leg of the journey heading south. It was easy to be happy with your lot, the heat and the endless monotony of the desert meant little when sat in the blazing sunshine with an ice cold beer. The Sinai desert was off our port side and to starboard was Cairo and Giza but too far away for us to see.

Never mind the next stop was Jeddah on the Red Sea coast. It is only an hour to Mecca from there but after a previous visit to 'holy lands' (Israel) had been a little catastrophic, I doubted I would bother to go and see what all the fuss was about.