Sunday, 23 July 2017

B is for......

Brazil one of my top 5 favourite countries. Despite this, 'B' was a difficult choice. I could tell a dozen stories about experiences on various trips to Belgium, or maybe an anecdote about a highly enjoyable time in the Bahamas. Then there was the less enjoyable but interesting experiences in Bahrain where all the Saudi sheikhs go for a piss up and 'cabaret' because their own country doesn't allow alcohol and strippers. The runner up would have been an unscheduled stop in Barbados when the engines failed but Brazil makes them all pale into insignificance.

I only visited Brazil twice and the experiences were quite different. The places were as diverse as the people. This diversity wasn't apparent on the first visit. The port of Paranagua (at the time) could easily have been one of the banana boat ports of Central America I had visited, in that the terrain and facilities - or lack of - were the same. There were subtle differences though and most noticeable were the smiles per square mile. In Paranagua the warmth of the people was palpable.

In order to understand my experience in Paranagua, you need to know the circumstances. In 'Sea-Daze' the events culminating in the visit to Paranagua begin in Millwall docks and are related in full. This is just part of the story......

The crew on this ship were stereotypical of the view many shore-siders had about seamen. Amoral, belligerent, rum-sots. Drunken brawls were common amongst themselves and such a mixed crew exacerbated divisions. It seemed like they took the most ill-disciplined scum-bags from every pool in the country and stuck them on this one ship. There was one Geordie, one Jock, one Taff, one Scouser, etc., I represented Prescott Street Pool (London). By the time we reached Brazil it felt we had a cargo of dynamite on board a ship of heavy smokers. We hadn't been ashore since getting arrested in Oman (told in 'O is for....') and hadn't seen an available woman since Lisbon, some 3 months earlier.

When we tied up alongside in Paranagua my eyes lit up. After the nightmare of the Persian Gulf and a strange enlightenment in Cape Town, this looked to be more familiar ground. The terrain reminded me of many banana ports I had visited in Central America. In many visits to this type of port I had never had a negative experience yet I had doubts. The volatility of this crew was far in excess of any others I had sailed with. Alarm bells rang inside my head when I saw there was another ship in port.

Being on watch I managed to get ashore before the rest of the deck crew and I walked past the other ship noting it was registered in Greece. It could have been worse I suppose, I didn't know any crew member who had a specific dislike of Greek people. There was only one bar in the small town/village as it was (I understand it has been developed over the last 30 years) and on entering, my heart sank. There were a dozen or so Greek crew members in the bar and they were quite vocal.

Part of me wanted to warn the Greeks there were a bunch of arseholes headed this way in an hour or so, but the other part wanted to believe our crew capable of behaving in a civilised manner. Yeah, reading that back it was a stretch. Weeks at sea and a number of unfortunate events on the passage would have strained any crew, this bunch didn't need an excuse. As soon as they walked in I could feel the tension. Surprisingly, for almost an hour all was well. I was sat with a steward and the deck boy who also saw the warning signs. We sat at a table well away from the middle of the bar. The Greeks had quietened down a little when our crew walked in and I began to think it might not kick off after all, which was just around the time it did.

A Greek seaman accidentally knocked the beer out of the hands of one of our crew and grinned sheepishly. I guess by his silence he didn't know any English, it wouldn't have mattered. If he had bumped into anybody else there wouldn't have been a problem, but it was the Scouser and he could start a fight in an empty room. A master of misinterpretation it's likely he took the Greek's sheepish grin to be mockery. Who knows? What I do know is it resulted in a chain reaction that started a mass brawl. The three of us sat at our 'out-of-the-way' table and watched the spectacle unfold with interested bewilderment. It was like a saloon brawl in a wild west movie. At one point the three of us quickly lifted our beers just as one of the Greeks was thrown head first over our table.

When the whole of the Paranagua Police Force entered the bar - all six of them - it was like a tap was turned off. The fighting ceased instantly..... except for one guy. He was a Geordie and a big lad. The police saw he was the only one still throwing punches and homed in. It took all six of them to subdue him and they hauled him out of the door. There was no more trouble after that, perhaps because the ladies distracted the combatants or maybe it was just out of everybody's system. Several of the Greeks left but those who remained ended up being treated like long lost friends. It was the nature of seamen, argue and fight with a person then buy them a drink and sing with them.

[When in the middle of an ocean, a thousand miles from any land, and a hurricane hits...... It is easy to criticise the behaviour described above as loutish and disrespectful, indeed there were many times I was ashamed of some of my fellow countrymen, but in mitigation the psychological impact of life on board a ship should not be overlooked]

Later that night we were all on board discussing the possible fate of the Geordie guy. Nobody was optimistic about his prospects. We were still talking about it when he walked in, swearing and cursing. When I found out what the Brazilian police had done to him I literally laughed out loud. The evening had ended on a good note having made friends with the Greek guys and this was the icing on the cake. The police had bundled the Geordie into a car and drove him a few miles into the jungle where they dumped him. He had to walk a dirt road back to the ship in darkness. It was an apt punishment made all the better by the fact the guy hated creepy-crawlies and imagined all sorts of snakes and spiders lurking in the surrounding jungle.

The Greek ship sailed the next day and it was maybe a little coincidental that for the rest of the three weeks we were in port, no other ships came in. It meant we had both grabs working for us but I wondered if it was because the authorities just wanted to get us out of there as soon as possible. As stated though, there was no more trouble and in the six months I spent on that ship, those three weeks were by far and away the most harmonious.

I could go into the fun times we had with the 'good-time girls' and indeed there were some hilarious antics (told in Sea-Daze) but one thing in particular stole a piece of my heart that will forever remain with those wonderful people. For all our faults, most seamen were notoriously generous and after almost two weeks in port we ran out of money. One of the crew who still had a little money left was ashore and the girls told him to fetch us. We had spent a lot of money in the two weeks but for the last week everything was free.

It was rare indeed to receive such reciprocal generosity. I always (perhaps unfairly) summarised my experience with the people of Brazil thus: If you have lots they will take but if you have nothing they will give. Of course this was a small town/village and there are one or two other places I have experienced similar, just not to that level. It wouldn't have happened in the next Brazilian port, Santos, a major city.

When we arrived in Santos it wasn't Carnival but you would have been excused for thinking it was. The place was like a beehive of activity compared to the sedate pace of life a few hundred miles to the south. It was World Cup fever and every shop and bar had a television on 24/7, when Brazil were playing, everything stopped. Crowds of people who didn't own their own televisions* crammed shops and bars, over-spilling onto the streets. Each goal celebrated with incredible enthusiasm, each victory celebrated until dawn and beyond. The atmosphere was electric.

*An assumption, they probably did have their own televisions but just wanted to join in with the party atmosphere, I would have done.

We were only there four days but none of us wanted to leave. It was in Santos I became aware of the diversity of ancestry among the people. Brazil was a melting pot of races and nations. Nobody would look out of place and it gave a psychological homely feeling. Like most other countries Brazil does have its problems and as a result I label one of those countries I love to visit but wouldn't want to live there. For me it will always be good memories of hugely positive experiences.

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