Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Crossing the Atlantic

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean
Lulled by the gentle, Atlantic swell we glide eastward. It’ll take us four days to get where we’re going. After more than seventy days of port hopping we’re all kind of glad to be out on the open again. Four days isn’t much, but it’s four days without maneuvering and for and aft and bolting down the doors in dubious ports. The engines rumble along and all doors are wide open. Padlocks sway idly on hooks. Here and there are clothe lines with laundry and tool bags safely left in corners during coffee breaks. For four days we’re an island.

I remember crossing the Atlantic for the first time, in the late eighties. I worked on a reefer ship that ran bananas from central America to Europe. My first port on the other side was Almirante, Panama, a tiny fart of a town consisting of nothing but dilapidated shacks. We were warned not to go ashore because the Americans were rounding up the general, and had the locals all stirred up. We went anyway, of course. I remember that utterly exhilarating sense of being in another world. I was not only in another country with another climate and on another continent, I was in a kind of place that didn’t exist in the northwest Europe where I came from.  People cooked their meals on fires outside their huts. They congregated and made music during work breaks. There was very little electricity and there can’t have been much television. As far as I can tell, the people of Almirante were blissfully unaware that the Americans were thought to have them all stirred up.

A lot has happened since then; I’m afraid I lost count a bit. The wall came down soon after Almirante and eastern and central Europe broke open. That same decade Yugoslavia spiraled into a civil war and Belgrade got shot to shit by the NATO. Kuwait was liberated and a decade later Irak was democratized. Afghanistan was in there too somewhere. In the mean time, six weeks old newspapers became condensed versions emailed to the ship by the home front first, later by the World radio.

Now we’re headed east. We going to Africa; west coast first and then into the Mediterranean to the north African shores. During coffee breaks we watch CNN because these days we have satellite receivers on board. We have telephone and internet, just like everybody else. That is to say: perhaps not in Libya. Who knows what goes on over there? All we know is that they’re getting the shit bombed out of them. CNN makes us believe that they have what was coming. Just like all the others. Evildoers! Mad dogs of the middle east!

Perhaps somewhere in Libya people still cook their food on fires in front of their houses. Maybe there are even still a few who gather to make music during work breaks. If that is so, then they probably also let their clothes out to dry on lines, or tool bags in corners when they go off on breaks, without having to fear that someone will come to swipe them.

I hope so.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Barbados - The final gathering before crossing over

Morose from looping around South America we pull into Bridgetown, the capital of the island Barbados. And we’re not alone. There are four huge cruise ships in today and they spew their passengers out over the town. Three centuries of British rule, says a line guy, but now we’re discovering our African roots.

This afternoon we’ll cast the lines off a South American shore for the last time and head just there: Africa. We’ll be crossing the Atlantic for four days.

Into the sun we’ll go.
A cruise ship in the port of Bridgetown - Barbados
Cruise ships approaching the port of Bridgetown - Barbados
Bridgetown, Barbados
Two more cruise ships in the port of Bridgetown - Barbados
Morose from looping around South America we pull into Bridgetown, the capital of the island Barbados. And we’re not alone. There are four huge cruise ships in today and they spew their passengers out over the town. Three centuries of British rule, says a line guy, but now we’re discovering our African roots.

This afternoon we’ll cast the lines off a South American shore for the last time and head just there: Africa. We’ll be crossing the Atlantic for four days.

Into the sun we’ll go.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Fort de France - Martinique

Martinique has a few claims to fame. It’s somehow believed that the first “Western” coffee plant was imported to Martinique from Ethiopia. This was in 1720 and it must have caused the Martiniquans to stay up later than usual and embrace whatever entertainment they could device. Not long after, a baby girl was born in the island town of La Pagarie, and named Marie Josephe Rose Tascher de la Pagarie. Somehow she managed to catch the eye of no one less than Napoleon, and she became Empress Josephine Bonaparte.

All that excitement enticed Draga to head for shore, and she left around noon. Remnants of fort St Louis and a beautiful old church just a few steps away from the ship lured, but Draga’s idea of an afternoon out is to sit somewhere, drink coffee and look at people going places. An hour later she was back, soaking wet, mumbling that Fort de France is a joke; only shops and no coffee places.

As she paced nose-up top the mess room to finally get her coffee I couldn’t help wondering what that cathedral looked like on the inside, or fort St Louis, or whatever happened to that first Western coffee plant that they imported to Martinique from Ethiopia.
Fort St. Louis - Fort de France , Martinique
Fort de France , Martinique
Fort de France , Martinique
Fort de France , Martinique

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bateau des Iles - A House made from a Ship at Bourg des Saintes, Iles des Saintes

Coming into the marina of Bourg des Saintes, on Terre de Haut, the largest island of the Iles des Saintes archipelago, the observant visitor will notice a big white bow sticking out of a rock on the water. On its flank is written Bateau des Iles. Only then will the visitor notice that it’s not a ship but a house, build on the real bow of some old ship.

I remember watching a Discovery Channel special about this house, but I hadn’t remembered where it was. I do remember it cost the owner a fortune to get the bow there, and to convert it into a house. But it was his life’s dream, and his wife (interviewed on the side) seemed happy with it too. I wondered then, and am still, why anyone would want to drag some old bow onto a plot of land and not (a) build a new house in the shape of a ship, or (b) buy a ship and live on it.

If I would feel the need to live on a boat (I’m now living on a boat, but I mean when I’m not working), I’d probably buy some old ship somewhere, buy a waterfront plot and build a dock to park the boat against. Then the dock could be expanded into a house, based on the boat. Now that I’m thinking, I’d probably make the whole thing detachable so that Draga and I could take the living room and kitchen out for a spin on Sunday afternoons, while the garage and the bathroom stay behind.

We could even park a camper in the carport and connect it to the main structure with a flexi-duct, so that when we come back with the living room, we can take the spare bedroom out shopping. And maybe we can build a bedroom out of a helicopter.

There, it’s been decided. I’ll tell her over dinner. Now all we need to find is a waterfront plot, not too expensive and preferably close to home, and a supermarket nearby with a movie theatre, and a library of course. And Draga wants a dog, so there has to be a park in the immediate vicinity.

Real estate agents may use the below comment form. All reasonable quotes will be taken seriously.
Bateau des Iles - A House made from a Ship at Bourg des Saintes, Iles des Saintes
Bateau des Iles - A House made from a Ship at Bourg des Saintes, Iles des Saintes
Bateau des Iles - A House made from a Ship at Bourg des Saintes, Iles des Saintes
Bateau des Iles - A House made from a Ship at Bourg des Saintes, Iles des Saintes

Friday, March 25, 2011

The delightful church of Bourg des Saintes

The Church of Bourg des Saintes
In Bourg des Saintes, Iles des Saintes, just off Rue du Marigot, stands a delightful little church, with a modest steeple that still hovers like a beacon over the town and doors wide open. Inside rules an atmosphere of Caribbean ease. There seems to be an emphasis on the humanity of Christ in this church, and more specifically on the humanity of His earthly parents and the humanity of their little family.

Salt of the earth; light of the world
The main altar of the church of Bourg des Saintes

The face of the main altar is as modest as the rest of the church, and features a crucifixion and the words “Salt of the Earth; Light of the World.” To the right of Jesus on the cross is painted what seems an angel. Elsewhere in the church stands a statue of that same person:

Saint George / Saint Michael in the church of Bourg des Saintes

An image of someone killing a dragon is often depicting either St George or St Michael. George is often shown piercing the dragon with a lance. He also usually carries the Georgian symbol of a red cross on a white field, or at least some obvious combination of these colors. And he’s most often seated on a white horse. Michael doesn’t need a horse because being an archangel, he has wings to get around by. We don’t know how it got the better of the dragon; all we know is that he fought him. There are three Michaelean battles recorded in the Bible; two of which are with satan. Once Michael expels him from heaven (Revelation 12:7-12) and once he argues with him over the body of Moses (Jude:9). But in both accounts he doesn’t kill him or run a lance down the dragon’s throat. The statue of the dragon-slayer in the church of Bourg des Saintes has the lance, colors and theriocidic mission of George, but lacks the horse of George and has the wings of Michael. I’m not sure if this weird hybrid is a cultural phenomenon to be treasured or a complete screw up of some ignorant sculptor, but I’ll keep my eye open for more of these saint Georchels.

Statue of a lovely lady - I wonder who she is...

A lovely eyeing lady holds a crucifix. No idea who she is. She holding on to three red flowers; three white lilies are a symbol of purity and thus Mary, but Mary is mostly dressed in blue and she wouldn’t be holding a crucifix. I sure hope this isn’t supposed to be Mary and the sculptor who created Saint Georchel was running a two-for-the-price-of-one special. This lady is outfitted as a nun but I don’t know which kind. I’m obviously not less ignorant than any sculptor.

Mary teaching Jesus from a scroll

Mother teaching a royally robed pre-adolescent from a scroll. It’s a very small scroll. Maybe a shopping list, but certainly not Isaiah or something like that. It’s highly unlikely that Mary ever came close enough to any kind of scroll that she could touch it, and certainly not to a scroll that Jesus would famously learn from. It looks like our sculptor was running a three-for-one special.

The Good Shepherd

The Good Shepherd, presumably. The sheep also functions as holder for the cable of the sound system.

A delightful statue of Joseph, depicted as carpenter, holding on to the infant Christ.

The church of Bourg des Saintes, viewing down the isle to the entrance.

The steeple of the church of Bourg des Saintes looming over the town.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Bourg des Saintes, Iles des Saintes

Technically, we’re in France. At least, that what I’m guessing. Nobody really seems to know, or care for that matter, and neither do I. But we’re in French speaking country, and we’re paying in Euro.

We’re docked in an enchanting bay, off the coast of a town called Bourg des Saints, which is on a Caribbean Island called Terre des Haut, which is part of a group of islands called Iles des Saintes, which is part of Guadeloupe, which is a part of France. At least, that’s what I’m guessing and trying to piece together from various flyers. Of course I could consult the Wikipedia, but where’s the fun in that?

Part of our intensely secret mission, which I can’t talk about, is hauling super-secret goods ashore. We have a few little boats for that, and I’m the one who’s supposed to keep those bastards running, and for that I need to do periodic inspections on the fly. That means that I take boat 1 to shore, boat 2 back to the ship, boat 3 back to shore and boat 4 back to the ship. And in between waiting for the next boat (10 minutes) I dart through alleys and dash across squares – in full regalia, sweating oil and shaft grease and with tools and weaponry sticking out of every pocket – shooting pictures left and right.

My flash-impression of the three streets surrounding the marina is a lot more positive than that of St Bart yesterday. Tourism doesn’t seem to have picked up much here; locals saunter about their modest domiciles, a few T-shirt shops hang out their slowly fading wares, and a  hardy helping of little oompah-loompah scooters stands hopeful outside a rental joint.

Folks mostly live off fishing, informs me a kind gentleman from beneath the Good Shepherd. A nameless church on Rue du Marigot lured me in. The gentleman has seen many shapes and forms come in but perhaps not a besmirched engineer, especially one who finds life’s weight lifted some when staring at symbols that have survived centuries of madness. Every culture depicts their Mary’s, Jesuses and Josephs their own way but in the end, the need to depict and explain mankind’s orphanhood has been with us for as long as we have realized that we’re out here by ourselves. And so we believe that God is up there, out there, taking care of us in ways that go beyond our imagination. And sometimes He puts an old wrinkled man in a church, to console a wandering engineer.

Fishing huh, I say. Imagine that.
A street in Bourg des Saintes, Iles des Saintes
Another street in Bourg des Saintes, Iles des Saintes
Little scooters waiting for someone to rent them
The charming bay of Bourg des Saintes, Iles des Saintes
Cute house - Bourg des Saintes, Iles des Saintes
Yet another street - Bourg des Saintes, Iles des Saintes
The local library - Bourg des Saintes, Iles des Saintes
Waterfront - Bourg des Saintes, Iles des Saintes
Waterfront - Bourg des Saintes, Iles des Saintes
Boats in the bay of Bourg des Saintes, Iles des Saintes
Central square and church - Bourg des Saintes, Iles des Saintes

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

St Barthelemy - Playground Of The Haves

In the north-east tip of the ring of islands that form the border of the Caribbean Sea lies a little blip of an island called St Barthelemy, a.k.a. St Bart, named by Christopher Columbus himself and after his brother, who, we shall assume, was named Bart. So next time you want to dazzle folks at a party, pose the question: who was Bart Columbus? If anyone guesses right, ask them why Bart became a saint, and let us know through the comment form.

St Bart somehow managed to become territory of France. Hence the locals speak French, and they even pay each other in Euros. US dollars are excepted with Caribbean cheer, provided they come in fistfuls and not too much is demanded in return.

St Bart is a right playground for the “haves” (meaning: those who have, as opposed by the have-nots; that us, basically) and the haves have it, display it and parade it about. Yachts the size of warships lay inert on their chrome anchor chains. Crew stand on low boat decks, donned in spotless white garb, tying little zodiacs to gilded boulders.

The island’s only town, Gustavia, sits like a spider in a web of houses on the flanks and pinnacles of hills all around. Its Mediterranean heritage is obvious in the architecture, the false balconies and the white painted louvers. There are even clear traces of Scandinavian designs, but how Scandinavian architects ever got a say on the island is not immediately clear.

Beaches abound. Shore sided companies rent sailing boats, jet skis, scuba gear. Every free foot of shore line has been turned into a terrace. In the early morning light, rain oscillates between drizzle and shower. St Bart yawns and stretches. Then it awakes and embraces another day of leisure and unbridled entertainment.
The Luna, off the coast of St Barthelemy
The Eclipse off the coast of St Barthelemy
Sail boats in the sun
St Barthelemy
St Barthelemy marina
More boats and a herd of zodiacs - St Barthelemy
Just a street in St Barthelemy
Edward Grieg meets Gone With The Wind - Strange blend of styles in St Barthelemy

Monday, March 21, 2011

Fort Lauderdale - possibly the largest gathering of cruise ships in the world

We like to do business with the Americans because we can sue the crap out of them when they do something wrong. Thus, our only US port in months is one of myriads of service techs, sales people or wannabe’s. We get donuts, pens and baseball caps. Free advice on all kinds of things. Tune ups, shake downs and clever one-liners that were practiced in a mirror. And we get stores that make us think it’s Christmas. Pallet after pallet, truck after truck. Food, parts, fuel. The works.

And of course, the US border patrol would like to know if we’re all carrying our I-95’s. They march on board, all gunned up with nothing to shoot at. Ludin, apparently, comes from a solid pedigree of potential terrorists and is marched off for in-depth scrutiny. The remaining crew get subjected to the piercing inquiries of officer Snodgrass, a chubby good ol’ boy with a drawl that testifies of a heart for beef jerky and old John Wayne movies.
“Hey,” I say, “Are you related to the famous Snodgrass?”
Snodgrass speaks not but his eyes say, “Famous Snodgrass?”
“The poet,” I say helpfully, smiling fatherly, “Anne Sexton’s buddy…”
Snodgrass speaks not but his eyes say, “You want fries with that?”

A painful yelp rises from the belly of our beast. The store keeper’s trying to mush months worth of goodies into a freezer the size of a beer crate. And a timid ribbon of eerie reeking smoke just ascended from the main refrigeration plant. “Is that supposed to happen?” he asks sincerely curious.
“That depends on your religion,” I reply. “I like to believe that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love Him. Do you love God, son?”
“Is God going to repair my fridge?”
“Well,” I say, trying to stay on the theological straight and narrow, “God is an engineer, and I was made in His image.”
“I’ll make an extra strong pot of coffee then,” he says.
“You do that,” I say while pull a screw driver from my back pocket, release the stainless steel front and brace for an all-nighter. I can already feel the goodness of all things working together.

Fort Lauderdale seen from Port Everglades
A Princess monster docked in Port Everglades, Fort Lauderdale
Cruise ships docked in Port Everglades, Fort Lauderdale
The charming harbor mouth of Port Everglades

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Aruba - more Dutch than the Netherlands

My generation grew up in the Netherlands not knowing any better than that Aruba was Dutch, together with Curacao and St Marten. Nobody questioned this very much, and many of the islanders came to the “main land” to work and live. Of course, there were also people from Suriname and Indonesia that did the same, and we lived together, all happily united in the Netherlands. At least, that’s how it seemed to me.

In reality, the Dutch spent a few centuries looting these lands and killing those who thought that wasn’t entirely fair. They’ll never recover, and there’s very little original culture left on Aruba, but it has wonderful beaches and are now top tourist destinations. The capital of Aruba is Oranjestad, which is pronounced with the emphasis on the second syllable. It means City of Orange, where Orange is part of the last name of the Dutch royal family, and signature color of the Netherlands.

The architecture shows a blend of Dutch Calvinistic austerity and colorful Caribbean cheer. From the parking lots and malls surrounding the port rises a merry din. Up ahead is the marina and all around the blue-green water of the Caribbean Sea. Whatever its cultural heritage, Aruba still looks like a fine place to spend a holiday lazing.

Aruba welcomes a traveller with lots of parking lots and malls
Nice coasts
Slick marina too
Can someone please retire me...?

Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Panama Canal

Unique in our time is the ability to take seagoing vessels across the isthmus of Panama. Fortunate for all of us, there were already a couple of lakes half-way and all that needed to be done was connect the lakes with the shores on both ends. Unfortunately for the canal builders, the lakes are much higher than the Pacific on one end and the Caribbean on the other. The solution lies in a series of locks that receive the ships one at a time, then are filled with water and thus actually lift the ship up the lake-level. Funny looking locomotives drag the ship in and out the locks; up the hill, down the hill, two convoys per day. Few people know this, but the canal runs not straight north-south, but diagonally from south-east to north-west.

Twenty-five thousand men died building the canal. The total cost is estimated at around 375,000,000 US dollar. France had the first go but gave up. The Unites States continued, finished it and became the proprietor of the most lucrative shipping project in the Americas. Since 31 December 1999 the canal is owned by Panama. The first year that the Panamanian ran the canal, it made them a little under 800,000 dollar. Last year they made 2,100,000,000 dollar off of it.

Early in the morning we join the north-bound convoy at Balboa, slip through the Miraflores Locks and onto the canal. At noon we arrive at the other end and line up to enter the Gatun Locks. Locals hoard on tribunes and wave and cheer us on. We stand on deck and wave back, wide-eyed and exited. It’s fantastically bizarre to see perfect strangers this close to the ship, and all of us enjoy it. From a sailor’s perspective, the Panama Canal is one of the most surreal places on earth.
Eraly morning arrival at the Miraflores locks
Funny looking trains drag us up the hill
The Panama Canal
Little island somewhere in the lakes we're crossing
Some parts are kinda wide
Big blue neighbour going north too
Couple of big boys right behind us
Tribune at the Gatun locks
We can almost shake the viewers' hands
Nice line guy
Finally, the end of it
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