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The Ship of Poles (& the Idiot Traveller)

We are a ship of Poles. 22 to be precise plus one Ukrainian, 2 Germans and one Australian.

We slip slowly down the river, in the Belgian winter fog, out of Antwerp bound for Cape Town via Porto, Vigo and Wallis Bay. Our ship, the six year old, 200 metre, 30,000 tonne, Blue Master 2.

Loading and leaving Antwerp + Antwerp port wind farm

I board the ship after two days in Antwerp, a fleeting visit to Amsterdam and a two hour pursuit of the immigration office around the port of Antwerp. In keeping with the tradition of something always needing to go wrong on every trip, the agents “Slow Travel” despite having to do little other than provide basic information in emails have clearly been unable to check that the immigration office is still at the address they have previously given.

Twas a foggy (and cold morning), leaving port, the pilot etc on the bridge

This, and the fact that they have failed to notify the security office of my passage aboard the ship, thus involving a long delay at the gate, adds $40 to my taxi fare, for which I shall seek my pound of flesh.

I cross the docks playing chicken with 100 tonne cranes, forklifts, trucks and a myriad of utes and other vehicles and board the ship. I am well prepared for my 27 day trip with 10 books loaded on my iPad, miscellaneous ideas for writing and a guitar to be learned (an exercise in wishful thinking judging by past experience). I also have Spanish, French and Italian grammar in case I find myself unable to sleep.

The security officer at the top of the gangplank summons someone to take me to wherever they plan to take me which turns out to be the ship’s office. There I am greeted by one of the engineers, who advises the crewman to summon the Captain and the Steward.

Most of the action, for those who are not working, takes place on the so-called “Poop” deck.

Aside from providing a degree of childish entertainment to passengers (aside from its English meaning, poop means to fart in German) this deck, one level up from the main deck is where the mess rooms, kitchens, and ships office are located. From here going up it’s up past “A” and “B” decks (crew quarters) and then on up to “C” where my cabin in located and “D” decks which are both accomodation for officers and elite passengers (Eduard and Renate – my German fellow passengers). Above this is just the bridge.

Further down are the four levels of the engine room and the two levels of holds and at the front the upper deck and the fo’c’sle.

Two many stairs, fixing the crane, the engine room and the engine

The fo’c’sle (otherwise known as the forecastle in normal English & formerly crew quarters) is the topmost deck right at the front. There is nothing here except for the structure for the forward radar (there are three radars of which the ship uses just one at sea, normally) and forward lighting structure, plus a few rolls of razor wire which, in certain ports are wrapped around the hawsers to prevent stowaways climbing the ropes.

From my perspective the fo’c’sle is the most important deck on the ship. Here at the front it’s entirely quiet save for the sound of the sea and wind. It’s also the best place for watching for dolphins, whales and flying fish among other things. In good weather one can make like Kate Winslet and stand meditating on the rushing water, wind and waves.

Chris trying to be karmic and the dolphin I summoned

Crossing the equator, there are thousands of flying fish and I also expend a myriad digital images trying to photograph them as they emerge from the water just in front of the bow and flit away across the ocean, effortlessly traversing 200 metres of water in a single flight.


These days, though, the ocean is a sadly empty place. We see just a handful of pilot or other small whales, two pods of dolphin and almost no birds aside from a handful of migratory swallows and a dozen or so terms and other seabirds which I don’t recognise.

Of the once mighty great albatross and the frigate birds which once used to haunt the path of all the large ships, there is not a single one. The ocean is a desert.


The ship is like a living, breathing thing. No matter where you are, except right at the bow, you cannot escape the sound or vibration of the engine, seven giant, Japanese made, cylinders powering the single prop. In addition to the engine the ship creaks and groans continually as it labours over the incoming swell.


From stern to bow the ship is 199 metres and to get to the bow one walks along the main deck five metres above water level. For me, at least, this is quite mesmeric; the rushing sound and motion of the passing water and the endless changing patterns and colours, light, dark and foam. Looking down into the water one has the sense as the dark patches swirl past of looking down to the centre of the ocean.

When not in ones cabin, the mess or fo’csle, the passengers spend most of the time on the bridge or passenger deck (deck D) soaking up the sun or sitting, on the bridge, with the watch officers watching the world go by.

Barbie on the passenger deck, the control panel on bridge, boat training

Our ship of Poles are a friendly bunch although almost all our interaction with the crew is with the Captain, Mariusz and the first (Bogdan), second (Sambor) and third mate (Kamil), the steward (Severin). Suffice to say their last names are unpronounceable, except perhaps to other East Europeans, as are almost all Polish last names. I get the sense that the passengers are tolerated, if relatively normal and not too demanding, as a sort of inconvenient added burden.

My two German fellow passengers, are Eduard and Renate. They are in their late fifties and make very good and humorous company. Eduard is a failed public servant – in the sense that he worked for the German Government for most of his working life as a senior overseas aid person in various places around the world administering and supervising German aid programs – but now sees all aid programs as largely a racist and paternalistic failure which, far from aiding developing countries actually hinders them.

Renate is a pharmacist and researcher and they are on their way to Namibia (Formerly German SW Africa) to do some research on the German history in Namibia.

The rudder control room, Renate and Eduard relaxing?, engine room

Unlike the entire rest of the world they view Angela Merkel as a German disaster story who is more interested in staying in power than anything else (they quote, for example, her decision to close the German nuclear industry which they say was not driven by good policy but to simply keep the Greens onside and thus keep her position). They think the German energy policy “Energiewende.” is a disaster and are climate sceptics.

Inevitably this produces some interesting breakfast and dinner time conversations, as we traverse the fields of politics, climate change, world wars, overseas aid, energy, human development, identity.

Eduard is quite talkative which is fortunate for him because he is able to compete with me while Renate is much quieter. They have an interesting dynamic no doubt developed over 40 or so years. As an example, Eduard, has a habit of saying to Renate at least a couple of times each meal “Correct me if I’m wrong….” which, of course she does, frequently and with alacrity. This seems to imply that Renate often thinks Eduard to be wrong.

The lifeboat with the 20 metre plunge, fixing the crane, boat drill (if we all stare at the life raft long enough it will leap over the side

Eduard and Renate have three children, Eduard II, Elsa and Marie. Eduard II lives in Luxembourg and is a currency trader or some other such activity designed to produce wealth but with no other discernible benefit to humankind. Apparently like the Americans there is something of an unfortunate tradition, in Germany, to name your first born son after his father.

I’ve always seen this as a very egotistical and patriarchal tradition that, I assumed was restricted to the US, like the vast majority of stupid practices. Leaving aside the questionable ego involved in naming your child after yourself (and the inevitable confusion involved), why does this seem restricted just to men? Why not Renate II?

I guess, once again, women are not so foolish.

Like all the best parents, Eduard and Renate are slum landlords, with an apartment in Berlin for which they extort large sums of money from their two daughters and, presumably, provide no maintenance in return.

The quid pro quo, however, for Eduard in particular, is that his eldest daughter, Elsa, is attempting to re-educate him in an attempt to make him into a good human being instead of a scion of capitalist, conservative, society. As a part of this she buys him books for his birthday which she thinks may improve his understanding of society. Currently he is reading “The Lies that Bind” – rethinking Identity (Creed, Country, Colour, Class, Culture). But it is not clear to me which of Eduard’s many failings Elsa is trying to address with this book.

Flying fish

Fortunately both Eduard and Renate appear to understand my sense of humour and Eduard takes the frequent jokes at his expense in good humour. The Polish crew members, on the other hand, seem someone bemused and, when some look a little put out, I have to assure them that I am only joking, it is just Australian humour which, frequently, relies on taking the piss. This seems not to translate well into Polish humour, however, or simply is lost in translation.

Others, less kindly, might simply argue that my humour it is not Australian humour, at all, but simply Chris Harris humour which is understandable to only one person on earth or is, perhaps, just not funny.

Aside from meal time entertainment the trip is largely taken up by sleeping, lying in the sun, reading, taking photos and writing. I started the trip with pretensions to writing for two to four hours daily and to producing, at the end, my best-selling Man Booker prize winning novel. Sadly the first week produces nothing but five or six desultory, five to ten page long first chapters, all of which end in the bin.

Porto street art

On day seven I decide that, given my inordinate success at novel writing, I will gracefully retire to writing my periodic blog based on a series of sequential events over several years. By day ten I suddenly realise this looks more like a memoir than several unconnected blogs and by the end of the second week I have written 50 pages.

Porto street art

From this their emerges, unasked a section which I, realise, would have the good makings of a novel. I then proceed to write an outline including the characters, their stories and the plot lines. Suddenly from nothing I have an accidental memoir and an accidental novel, or, at least, the first twenty pages – which is ten pages longer than I have every succeeded in getting previously. But, I caution myself, completing ten laps of a 100 lap race is no guarantee of finishing.

Porto

Aside from this the other events of note are a Saturday barbeque, a tour of the engine room and visits to Porto, in Portugal and Vigo in Spain. We get six hours in Porto which turns out to be sufficient to have a good walk around the old city and find a fine coffee shop and spot for lunch. Porto is a fine city with lots of gracious old buildings, wide streets and interesting old quarters which are decorated with good street art. But despite everyone’s ravings about it I don’t find it more or less interesting than a myriad other beautiful old European cities.

Porto

Vigo, the northeast most city of Spain, in Galicia, is the reverse. Despite being told it’s not very interesting I find it an interesting city of friendly people, wide gracious streets and people friendly boulevards. Importantly I also find a supply of organic crunchy peanut butter and six good avocados to substitute for the sausage breakfast.

Vigo

Our interesting tour of the engine room simply serves to demonstrate to me my ignorance of all things ship. This starts with the revelation that this ship, along with most large vessels, has a single engine and prop where I had always imagined they would all have twin engines and screws.

Vigo

The ship, built in China, has a Swiss designed, Japanese made engine and whereas I still had images of a dirty oily edifice, the engine and its surroundings are an immaculately clean and entirely computerised operation comprising its seven cylinder 11620 kw engine which consumes 28000 litres of fuel oil daily, a desalinating plant capable of producing 20,000 litres of drinking water daily, its own air conditioning plant, a workshop than can do pretty much anything other than repair a broken prop or drive shaft and several massive compressors for starting the engines and generators as well as other bits and pieces such as plant for separating oil from water.

The big beast (engine), Renate in engine control room, the air conditioning and the compressors

My cabin is a gracious and comfortable seven metres by six metres with ensuite, desk, table, wardrobe, TV, radio, drinks cabinet, dining table and chairs. This used to be the fourth officer’s cabin but like the rest of the transport industry crews have been downsized and have lost fourth officers and radio officers.

There is also a satellite modem connected to a piece of metal whirling around somewhere in the sky. With this I can communicate, via data, with the rest of the world for a cool 150 times what I pay for my internet ashore. So it’s limited to WhatsApp and email. A large attachment or photo, if one is so ill advised to download one, can set you back $1 a pop.

The bridge, water patterns, at sea, the crane (again)

One of the downsides of a life at sea, at least for those who are not engaged in the manual labour of constantly maintaining the ship, is that life is almost entirely sedentary with the sole exercise being that involved in climbing the endless flights of stairs between the main deck and the bridge, six floors up.

This lack of exercise is compounded by efforts to feed the entire crew into a stupor with three cooked meals a day. The food is what I would describe as canteen food. As such it is a mixture of the very good (soups for example) and stupendously awful (every third breakfast is a single Polish sausage which both looks and tastes disgusting). If you were a vegan you would surely starve. But given a single person has to cook for 25 people in a single sitting at the same time then it is a noble effort by Robert, the cook.

Walvis Bay – entry, the lagoon and some bush regeneration

In the event that 3 meals a day is insufficient, the pantry is always stocked with bread and meat which you can slip down and consume in case the late night hunger pangs suddenly hit your well engorged stomach.

One might imagine that one could do one’s daily 10,000 steps around the main deck but in reality the main deck is an obstacle course of pillars, protrusions and slippery decks that pretty much guarantee that anyone foolish enough to contemplate using it as an exercise area will quickly find themselves exchanging pleasantries with ones insurance company.

Not to be deterred we have noted that the ship’s owner has obligingly provided us with a gym and “swimming” pool.

Boat drill

It would be fair to say, however, that maintenance of the gym is not the highest budgetary priority for the vessel’s owners. The equipment consists firstly of six aerobic trainers that appear to have been purchased in a garage sale circa 1990. Assuming they were ever completely serviceable their physical decline appears remarkably similar to mine.

The rowing machine works not at all, much like my memory on a bad day. The two bikes are operational providing you have no desire to know things such as heart rate, distance, time etc. The weight resistance machines look as if Henry Ford used them to keep fit and the static weights appear to have been used for training by Dean Lukin (who won gold for Australia in weightlifting around 1980) when he was a child.

Unloading in Walvis Bay (taken from Cabin window)

Undeterred, you finish your session and look forward to a few cooling laps in the pool. Suffice to say that it’s possible that the average tadpole or small goldfish might manage to keep fit in the pool but for anyone over about a foot long swimming laps might prove to be awkward. In addition, unless, however, either of those animals had miraculously obtained lungs their ability to breathe would be somewhat constrained.

As for the crew and passengers, plunging into the plunge pool would tend to leave them winded or worse if they failed to notice that it was permanently empty. This is leaving aside the slight illogicality, in a ship traversing the tropics, of an indoor swimming pool in a windowless room below decks. Not to be deterred, however, one may pass a pleasant fifteen minutes in the sauna in the event that, the tropical heat, on deck, is insufficient. Or, that would be possible if the sauna was anything more than a lined timber box permanently at a temperature of 20ºc.

Having enjoyed the pleasures of the pool and sauna, I make a mental note to research the address of the German office of Fair Trading, or its equivalent, and write them a friendly note regarding the accuracy of the ship’s advertising.

Water patterns, on the dock at Vigo, Walvis Bay cricket pitch (all the best places have one) and my cabin

Given the situation of the gym and the main deck the Captain, Mariujs, has wisely decided that he will take his exercise on the bridge. He thus appears three or four times daily for a spin around the outer reaches of the bridge trudging his domain once every forty seconds or so in a clockwise direction.

Fortunately the remainder of our vessel appears to be in better shape than the gym, pool and sauna although, in the event of an emergency, it seems likely that, unless the emergency were catastrophic, the entire contingent of crew and passengers are more likely to be seriously injured by a prospective evacuation in the lifeboat than by the emergency.

Such an evacuation involves boarding what looks like a large orange slug perched some twenty metres or more above the ocean. On being released it hurtles uncontrolled at high speed off the ship, like some malfunctioning fairground ride, until it plunges at high speed into the sea. At which point every occupant presumably suffers severe whiplash at best, other than those with a fear of heights who will have both whiplash and PTSD as a result of being dropped, effectively, off a cliff.

Randomly: Sunet, the bow (the only quiet place), Porto and lunch in Walvis Bay

Our only obligatory task, as passengers, is to attend the weekly boat drill. The general assumption seems to be that the average passenger is a moron since, regardless of how many times one has done the drill, one is required to wait in ones cabin until the steward arrives to guide you to the muster station, 30 metres away. Here the three of us stand, among the crew, where we are instructed to “obey the Master’s orders”.

For most this might appear straightforward but, for me, it is a somewhat traumatic idea since I have spent my entire life disobeying my Master’s orders, no matter from whence they come.

In the event of a critical emergency, where obliged to evacuate, this occurs via rocket ship. One removes shoes, dons ones survival suit. Then you squat a somewhat amusing exercise if the entire crew were to do it collectively since it would look like some sort of communal bowel evacuation. All together now.

Cape Town – ocean pools and the beach

Then donning ones lifejacket you board the orange rocket ship. This particular rocket ship is not designed to launch one into space but, along with a maximum of 39 other people, so launch you semi-vertically downwards, twenty+ metres to the waters surface. Here, if it does not break apart, as the third office and safety officer, believes it is likely to do, you will hit the water surface with the impact of a speeding bullet and enable the medical world to study 40 simultaneous cases of whiplash and worse.

Alone, on the world’s oceans, far from land, in your orange rocket ship, you watch your ship go down and wonder if you will ever be able to turn your neck again which is currently lolling at at angle of 45º to port.

The likelihood of such an eventuality seems remote given the ship is just six years old and well maintained. The life of the average seaman (the ordinary seamen and the able seamen) is a never ending life of maintenance similar to the mythical maintenance of the Sydney harbour bridge where you start painting at one end and when you finish you go back to the beginning again. Everything has to be regularly sanded and painted or oiled and greased to keep rust at bay.

It’s a life of routine and, presumably, unless you have a mass of videos or a reader (I managed to read more books in a 27 day trip than in the previous few years) of some boredom. It is to some degree subject to unknown schedules determined by wind, tides and the exigencies of available berths and pilots – such that the ship can end up anchored or drifting off shore for days at a time as it once did for four days off Durban.

On day 18 we reach Walvis Bay the principal Namibian Port. This is very much a port city and pretty much everything is focused around serving the cargo ships and occasional cruise ships that call here to give their passengers access to the Namib Desert and adjacent nature reserves. From the point of view of entertainment it doesn’t have much to recommend it and pretty much comprises a single long main street and an esplanade with a bunch of good restaurants that service the tourists passing through on their way to elsewhere. Fortunately, for me, it also has a great coffee roasters and coffee shop. “xxxxxx” where I spend a pleasant couple of hours each day.

A twenty minute walk due west and one hits the Namib Desert but surprisingly, even in February, Walvis Bay is cool due to the mixture of fog and cloud created by the cold Benguala current and the cool winds blowing north from the Antarctic across the southern Atlantic ocean.

Having been both a German and, later, South African colony, when it was known as South-west Africa, until liberated in 1990 by SWAPO (the South West African People’s Organisation) it retains influences of both and there is still a significant non-Black population evident. Like Zimbabwe and South Africa it confronts similar issues with large areas of the country still owned or managed by the remnants of the former colonial powers.

We depart Walvis Bay late on Sunday night to a glorious sunset and the sight of two of the world’s largest drill rigs lit up like Las Vegas as they seek to find additional fossil fuels with which to put an early end to humankind’s current stay on planet earth or at least the existing technological society. It seems no number of calamities or warnings will stop the climate criminals.

From here it is two and a half days to Cape Town. For most of those two days we see little of anything due to the fog created by the Benguala current and the fact that it is flat calm and almost windless. Even the summer sun fails to completely burn off the fog at any time of day.

Greeted by whales, and Table Mountain

Arrival into Cape Town is a different story, however, with glorious sunshine, views of Table Mountain and a pod of whales to greet us.

Albania – Europe’s former recluse

They say that Einstein said that the sign of an idiot was doing the same thing twice (actually I think the word was repeatedly) and expecting a different outcome. This is the thesis of the Idiot Traveller. I am a world expert, while travelling, in repeating mistakes.

I command that you stop misquoting me…

I am also happy to go on accrediting the saying (in reality it was “Insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results“) to Einstein, although there is no evidence he ever said it.

So having done little travelling in the last year it was important to follow the the creed of the Idiot Traveller. You start with booking your car, for pick up on arrival in Tirana, on the wrong day. Cost: an extra €30. You compound this by booking it for return two days after you leave, cost €60 (wasted). How does one do this? Buggered if I know.

Then based on these mistakes you book your car in Podgorica a day late and at the airport. Which isn’t useful when you are arriving by bus. Cost €20 (taxi fare) and €30 (extra days rental).

Then of course there is the small issue of leaving bits of my DNA everywhere. No, not in that sense. Two pairs of sunglasses, adaptor, hat, keys (requiring me to be rescued via a new set of keys sent by taxi). The list goes on. You’d think that after 55 years of travelling (yes I was first stuck unaccompanied on a plane at 8) that you’d learn to check twice before moving.

Arrival

So, our first job was to persuade the rental company to find a car a day early. This might have been easier if I hadn’t decided to try and entertain the rental car person with my witty repartee about drivers in Turkey and Georgia; asking him if Albanian drivers drove like Turks or Georgians (the thesis being that Turks are good drivers and Georgians are simply people in cars with a death wish).

That’s right. Jokes don’t work well in second languages. He looks at me strangely and replies “No they drive like Albanians. Here we are Albanians”

Panda 2 (right): cheaper to run and prettier

On finding we have a Fiat Panda and him asking if a Panda is ok for us. I tell him it’s fine. Cheap to run. Just find a patch of bamboo. That joke doesn’t work either. At which point Kaylee tells me I’m an idiot (traveller) and the car guy thinks so too.

Solitary confinement creates trauma..

Albania, was until 1991 Europe’s equivalent of North Korea. An entirely closed and paranoid society. Its long time leader, Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hodgeha) believed Albania was the only true communist society on earth and refused to even associate with Russia or China after they fell out.

Enver Hoxha – no longer able to poke his nose into other people’s business

No one was allowed to leave Albania and few people, if any, entered. The society was a police state with everyone subject to strict controls and surveillance. Any breach of the rules and everyone in your family paid the price.

If Albania were a person (Al Bania) he would be a very disturbed individual and this, perhaps, explains Albania’s many idiosyncrasies.

The House of Leaves

Albania’s trauma is well documented in a great little museum called the “House of Leaves” located in central Tirana just across from the orthodox cathedral.

Albania was, for fifty years, the archetypal police state. Every aspect of public and private life was controlled via the state security apparatus.

Tens of thousands of Albanians were recruited as state spies to eavesdrop and spy on their fellow citizens. Virtually no one was allowed to enter or leave the country. The society was completely closed. Everything was rationed. In 1991 there were a mere 3000 cars in the entire country (heaven!!)

The House of Leaves Museum tells the story of the ubiquitous state security apparatus. The walls list the thousands executed, imprisoned or persecuted by the state under the leadership of Enver Hoxha (pronounced Hodgeha).

Mercedes for everyone

One of the first things one notices about Albania are the German cars, especially the Mercedes. For a poorish European country it has a remarkable number of expensive cars. That, in itself would not be an issue except that there is a German car gene that emerges in Albanians driving German cars…it’s a sort of arsehole gene which convinces them that they can drive as they want regardless of road rules, safety or manners.

If you drive a Mercedes you may overtake where you want, when you want. You may drive at whatever speed you feel like but, most importantly, it is compulsory to treat every other car driver as a second class citizen, cutting them off , cutting in, abusing them and generally. No level of psychopathy is too extreme for Mercedes owners.

This specific problem (call it the Mercedes syndrome) is compounded by an odd Albanian trait which essentially persuades all Albanians that it permissible to simply stop wherever they want, for whatever reason. Need to grab a coffee. No worries! Simply stop in the middle of the road, blocking all traffic, and nick in for take away. Feel like a park? Don’t worry about finding a parking place. Just stop. Need to pick your nose? Look at your phone? Think about the meaning of life? Just stop where you are. No worries.

Mercedes, yes, religion and communism, No!!

One of the side effects of 50 years of totalitarian communism (a sort of oxymoron) apart from a love of symbols of outrageous consumerism (eg Mercedes, BMWs and Audis) is that all the most obvious remaining signs of the era have been systematically erased, except perhaps in Albanians commitment to secularism (it is the least religious society on earth some say).

The giant statues of Stalin, Lenin and Enver Hoxha now hang out discreetly behind the museum, hidden from the everyday of Albanians, waiting, one day perhaps, to be restored as a part of history rather than as the open wound of the recent past, as they might currently be seen. We visited Stalin, Lenin and Hoxha, where they were hanging out, as part of the city walking tour (highly recommended) which also included Enver Hoxha’s house – also closed for now as part of the same concept of keeping the recent past hidden.

Ironically, directly across from Hoxha’s erstwhile house is a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet (apparently Albania’s first fast food outlet – as yet Albania has no McDonalds) the sign of which reflects nicely in Hoxha’s living room window – a symbol, so our guide tells us of the victory of capitalism.

The remnants of the recent past are everywhere. In the park on the corner are one of the 270 bunkers built all over Tirana/Albania from which the valiant Albanians would repel the perfidious Americans, Russians, Chinese etc. And in the middle of the park a piece of the Berlin wall sent to commemorate the fall of communism. It sits next to a replica of the entrance to the chrome mines where political prisoners were sent to mine and die.

The abandonment of the past is not restricted to images but to buildings also. On our tour we pass the Pyramid, constructed after Hoxha’s death and intended to be a massive memorial to his memory. Today, after several uses over the years, including as a Telecom building it lies empty.

The “Pyramid” now lies empty.

Despite the irreligious attitudes of Albanians, the wasteful symbols of formal religion abound. A new and, as yet, unfinished mosque donated by Turkey (a miniature version of the Blue Mosque in Istanbul) – costing billions because the Turks need to waste their spare billions on something – and a cathedral incorporated in 2014 and incorporating an impressive ceiling with the largest mosaic in the Balkans.

Speed limits and speed humps (aka sleeping policemen to the Poms)

In theory there are speed limits in Albania but everyone ignores them. There is a good reason for this as Albanian speed limits are totally idiosyncratic. You can be speeding down a freeway at 80-100 kph and next minute there is a 30k speed limit. The reason? An intersection. Never mind that only one tractor and a passing camel have emerged from that intersection since Christ was a boy. And it’s like that at every intersection. So everyone just ignores them.

Similarly most stretches of superhighway have 30, 40 or 50 k limits for no apparent reason other than either (a) a peculiar Albanian sense of perverse humour (let’s really give drivers the shits) or (b) let’s collect lots of traffic fines by imposing weird and ridiculous speed limits.

If this were not enough, Albanians have an obsessive love for speed humps. Everywhere. And often. And in the weirdest places.

That is bad enough in itself but for whatever reason the accepted speed to traverse a speed hump is apparently 0.1 kph. So everyone slows to a virtual stop even though most of the humps could be comfortably crossed at 50 kph. The reason for this excessive caution is not clear but maybe goes back to when there were only 3000 cars in the country and a car cost you the equivalent of 10 years wages.

Having said this, most of the speed humps are entirely unnecessary since traffic in Tirana makes traffic in Istanbul or Sydney look like a paragon of fast flowing traffic. The city is one large traffic jam – but nevertheless it has many redeeming features from a plethora of tree lined pedestrian streets, good markets, to great night life, good food (especially the boreks) and lots of friendly, helpful people.

Meeting the Deputy Minister for Justice

You know how it is? You rock up in your AirBnB in Divjake after going out for dinner and go to tell your host (who speaks no English) that you will be leaving very early in the morning so will not need breakfast. Not to worry. she indicates that her daughter, Fjoralda, speaks good English. So we sit on the lounge chatting about life, death, Albania etc…Eventually I ask Fjoralda about her work and life and it turns out that Fjoralda Caka is the Albania Deputy Minister for Justice. You never know who you will meet on the lounge in Divjake.

A pleasant evening with the Deputy Minister for Justice, Fjoralda Caka and her Mother

A day at the beach and in the mountains

This was the archetypal Australian at the beach experience. Arriving in Divjake – which unlike many of the ugly beachside towns find throughout the Mediterranean (see eg most of Spain, most of the Albanian and Montenegrin coastal architecture) – has made a real effort with its buildings and streetscapes.

It’s a hot day and we head for the beach – which turns out to be a wasteland of eroded dune systems – systematically vandalised by thousands of cars – dirty looking water in a lagoon etc. We dutifully pay our beach entry fee anyway and head out on the long ricketty boardwalk which had been built over the lagoon out to the ocean proper…

The boardwalk ends at a bar on the beach which, at least serves good gin and tonic and plays some good blues…while we contemplate the miles of cars and umbrellas on the beach and long for a proper Australian beach.

If you can criticise Albanian beaches (or at least the ones we saw because we heard Himare and other places are much better) – you can’t criticise the mountains which are spectacular and a welcome escape from the heat and crowds of the coast. if you are a walker or mountain lover – Albania’s alps are beautiful and rugged.

Skanderbeg and Krujë

Then there is the famous Skanderbeg. Now you may never have heard of Skanderbeg but every Albanian has. There is a statue on every second street corner in Albania. There are Skanderbeg streets, Skanderbeg parks and a giant Skanderbeg museum to be found in Krujë just outside Tirana.

But there is more. Not content with populating the country with more Skanderbeg statues than there are Albanian citizens, they are busy erecting Skanderbeg statues in every other country in the world. No Skanderbeg in your country? Don’t worry one is coming soon.

Skanderbeg mania and idolatry not withstanding, Krujë is well worth a visit. The old citadel incorporates not just the aforementioned museum, but the ethnographic museum, a great old church now converted to a mosque and incorporating some nice frescoes, among other things such as great views, the Skanderbeg olive tree….

See the full set of images on Flickr below click links):

Making In-Rhodes – more than just a colossus – on a side trip from Turkey

2018-02-27_1455I arrive in Rhodes on a slow winter’s day. The 60 kilometre journey from Fethiye, in Turkey, by hydrofoil has taken twice as long as expected due to heavy weather. The Rhodians are fortunate because, had I decided to behave like almost everyone else who has arrived for the last couple of thousand years, I would have invaded it.

Rhodes harbour at dawn

As it is, looking at Rhodian history, it seems that it was a bit like a conga line of uninvited dinner guests. They arrived sans wine or food, hung around for a while, behaving unpleasantly,  living off the hosts and then leaving when someone even more unpleasant arrived. Occasionally unable to find a better dinner party they’d return and gatecrash a second time.

This unparalleled complexity of Rhodian history has left an 80 kilometre long island full of rich mixture of fabulous archeological sites from a dazzling array of cultures all within a days drive.

Rhodes was inhabited from Neolithic times but around the 16th century BC, the Minoans came to Rhodes followed by the Mycenaeans the following century.

Later Greek mythology recalled a Rhodian race called the Telchines and associated the island of Rhodes with Danaus; it was sometimes nicknamed Telchinis.

Then from around 700 BC the arrival of uninvited dinner guests accelerated starting with the Dorians for pre-dinner drinks. The Persians arrived for aperitifs about 460 BC but left when the Greeks arrived in time for hor d’oeuvres in 458 BC. In In 357 BC, the Carians turned up from Turkey but left when the Persians returned in 340 BC, for soup. The Persians clearly didn’t get along with the Hellenes because they left again when the Macedonians returned.

By this time we are on to main course and all the uninvited guests have left and the Rhodians and their invited guests (the Romans) stayed and enjoyed themselves until the Arabs and Genoese started coming around and dropping in for the odd year or two. Finally the Knights Hospitallers turned up around 1310 AD, followed by the Ottomans for coffee in 1522. In 1912 the Italians came for port and cigars and stayed until 1945 when the British arrived for a quick pre-bed time snack before finally handing the entire place to the Greeks in 1947.

Rhodes map

Most visitors I talked to seemed largely unaware of this history and for them Rhodes is just famous for the Colossus and for the fabulous medieval city left by the Knights Hospitallers of St John.  Apart from that all they know is that it is just another Greek Island.

But Rhodes (Ρόδος to the Greeks, Rodi in Italian, Rodos in Turkish and Rodi in Ladino) is anything other than just another Greek Island. To begin with it’s also Turkish in the sense that it is one of the few remaining large Turkish communities in Greece. Around 2000 Muslim Turks live in Rhodes, a historical anomaly due to the fact that Rhodes was under Italian rule when the population exchange was done between Greece and Turkey in 1923. It also had one of the most vibrant Jewish communities in Europe until the Germans sent most of them, except a few dozen rescued by the Turkish Consul, to Auschwitz.

Jewish memorial

Memorial to members of the Jewish community murdered by the Nazis

The city of Rhodes is also the largest remaining intact medieval city in Europe, with the old city being a world heritage property. And like everywhere else in Europe if you visit in winter you can have it almost entirely to yourself with just the small disadvantage that three out of every four cafes, restaurants and bars are closed and that most museums and archaeological sites close at 3 pm.

This has both advantages and disadvantages depending on your preparedness to get arrested and left to rot in some Greek jail. Essentially almost all closed archeological sites are, simply, open archeological sites with a closed gate and no security. Walk around and, generally, somewhere, there will be a gap in the fence, steps up the wall or a combination of both, thus inviting you to have a very personal, free and uncrowded tour,

Given that security costs money there is rarely security and, if there is and you are caught, indulge in the Gallic shrug and explain that you actually got locked in when the site closed. Regrettably if you are not prepared to take this risk and you arrive too late, well tough. And, yes, yes, we all know the “but what if everyone did that argument?”. Well they won’t.

A quick visit to a deserted Ialysos courtesy of dodgy fences

Time was, when arriving in a strange city, you’d simply jump in the nearest taxi go to your hotel, check in and sort yourself out. Said hotel had a reception and someone awaited to, at worst, let you in or, alternatively, you just stayed at one of a plethora of hostels which were also permanently open.

Today, however, in the epoch of mobiles and AirBnBs one may well arrive to a locked door and, in the event that you do not have a local sim card, you end of standing by the front door in a form of limbo. Do you wait and hope that someone turns up? Or leave and try and find a wifi connection? Is so where? And can you justify investing in your 26th coffee of the day just to have a wifi connection? Or just go and get a coffee and hope someone turns up by the time you get back? Will the host arrive and leave again before you return?

Normally, in these circumstances, it will start to get dark, the rain will start to come down, you will realise your parka is at the bottom of your pack under 10 other items. If you go for a coffee, the nearest cafe is closed and, if not, you only have a 100 Euro note to pay for a 2 Euro coffee.

By now your bad knee is hurting walking around town past past ten other closed cafes and, as you realise you are finally and completely lost, you notice standing, on the corner, in the shadows, a group of 5 large tattooed bikies. It’s no good appealing to God or Allah because you are an atheist and you prepare to hand over your computer, camera, wallet and passport. So, wishing for something good to happen, like the death of Donald Trump you walk on in hope.

As you approach the only bad thing that happens is that you realise your prejudices and cowardice are as rank as the next persons, as one of the five heavily tattooed female soccer players greets you pleasantly in broken English…then as you turn the corner you see your AirBnB with the light streaming through the open door. Still, life was simpler when you either booked into the local Hilton or you couldn’t afford to travel at all.

There is little about Rhodes that is not to like. Stunning coastal scenery, friendly locals, one of the most beautiful medieval cities in the world, the three ancient Dorian/Roman cities of Lindos, Kamiros and Ialysos, plus an incredible mixture of Greek, Turkish/Ottoman and Jewish cultures, among others. Not counting of course the indelible traces of 200 years of occupation by the Crusaders.

A couple of hours to the south are the remains of two of the six great Doric cities, Lindos and Kamiros. Of the third Ialyssos, just above Rhodes City, little remains apart from a temple and some stairs and fortifications. All of these ancient sites sit in stunning locations above the water and for hundreds of years during the Dorian and Roman eras were the most important Rhodian cities.

Lindos

A winter trip to Lindos down the highway takes just an hour, followed by a further fifteen minute walk from the empty car parks through the winding white-washed deserted streets of the modern day Greek city and up the ancient stairs to the fortress. This is a place of four ages, first the Dorians, then the Romans, the Crusaders in the form of the Knights Hospitallers and the modern Rhodians.

From here the inhabitants were masters of all they could survey and that, perched in their fortified eyrie, was a large slab of Rhodes.

Rhodes, though is far more than the grand gesture. The real beauty of the old city of Rhodes are hidden lanes, gardens, the lights, the fountains, the footpaths, the doors and steps and a myriad other bits of the city that in other places are simply sources of light or places to walk but in Rhodes are works of art.

Around the streets of Rhodes

The most famous building and street on Rhodes is, arguably, the Palace of the Hospitallers and its adjacent road. Certainly it and its surrounding defensive network of moats and walls are impressive and as the Ottomans found, initially, an attackers nightmare. But while it’s certainly worth investing time in visiting it, for me the surrounding laneways, alleys, ruins, mosques, synagogues and the hospital etc are equally if not more impressive.

The palace in Rhodes

One of the features of the palace are the mosaics, a number of which came from Roman ruins in Kos. In the absence of almost any interpretive signs – the Greek custodians, presumably, believing that if you don’t provide signs then visitors will be obliged to buy guidebooks – you are required to guess at the use of most parts of the building.

This includes guessing whether the mosaics were stolen from Kos by the Hospitallers (which given the propensity for the Catholic Church to steal most things it owns is highly likely), or later by the Italians who decided that they knew best what Rhodes should look like.

Mosaics in the Palace

The Hospitallers hung out in Rhodes for a couple of hundred years having returned from killing Muslims on the crusades and, following a four year campaign ending in 1310, they made Rhodes their headquarters and their private domain until evicted by the Ottomans. What goes around comes around. From there they went to Malta after their defeat by the Ottomans.

The Knights were structured  into eight “Tongues” (languages) or Langues, one each in Crown of Aragon, Auvergne, Crown of Castile, Kingdom of England, France, Holy Roman Empire, Italy and Provence  each of which occupied a property on the Street of the Hospitallers.

The Street of the Hospitallers

At the bottom of the Street of the Hospitallers is the famous hospital, now a museum. Here the victims of the church, the dead and wounded from numerous campaigns were bought to recover or die having been sacrificed for God or King. The knights were well known for the medical practice, ironically enriched by their contacts with the Arabs, with significantly improved hygiene practices.

My departure under a beautiful winter sky heading out on the next stop on my mini circuit of southern Turkey and adjacent Greek islands. Next stop Kos, via Symi.

The complete archive of Rhodes images can be found below:

Images of Rhodes city and surrounds

Images of Lindos

Images of Ialysos and surrounds

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The Art of Nothing

Nothing: nothing to do, nothing to fix. No work to go to, no garden to tend. No meetings to go to, no dance classes…absolutely nothing to do except watch the world go by.

It’s perhaps the greatest indulgence of travel, especially travel where you hang out in a place or places for a long time. Sit on the great meeting place of the Bosphorus, the great melting pot of Istanbul and watch the people and the ships go by.

Such is my pleasure, at least for now. I can stand or sit in the autumn sun and watch the leaves fall. Watch the gardeners in Emirgan Park planting the bulbs for the Spring Festival. Just ahead a single worker is marking out into which areas which colour bulbs will go.

Planting out bulbs for Spring

Up the hill a couple are practicing for their wedding day, this coming weekend and the photographer is taking a few pre-wedding photos. Other wedding couples walk the paths.

The fishermen cast their lines as they do every day along the Bosphorus, hundreds of them line the water catching God knows what from the murky waters below.

Into the distance a line of ships shimmies up the Bosphorus heading for the Black Sea just an hour away. At this time of day they are all heading north. In a few hours the line will reverse and head for the Mediterranean. Oil, bulk carriers, containers.

The cafés are full. The men play backgammon. Families pass, soaking up the autumn sun. The call to prayer starts, the sound flowing up the hill from the minaret framed by the Bosphorus Bridge.

Just nearby a group of older homeless men are listening to four young Turks playing guitar and singing

Each five minutes a ship from a different country passes along the Bosphorus and under the bridges linking Europe and Asia while, if you stand and listen carefully, you will hear a dozen different languages in 30 minutes. The main road is a melee of traffic, Mercedes and BMWs mixing with the ubiquitous scooters. Traditional Turkish cafes sit just up the road from a mess of McDonalds and Starbucks. Across the road Ai Wei Wei is hanging out his latest exhibition in the local museum.

The park is a blaze of autumn colours and sunlight peopled with walkers, sitters, basket ballers and the emptiness of the off-season, absent of tourists.

Turn left out of the park entrance and head down past old Ottoman buildings.

Just on the left part of that past is being redeemed – an old Ottoman building – forbidden from being knocked down is being renovated at huge expense. Right takes you up the cobbled street past the car wash and the hairdresser, along past the giant old plane trees and past a bit of the old Ottoman past boarded up and yet to be redeemed.

Finally the last 100 metres and it’s back to the flat. All in a walk of just a kilometre, easily strolled at quarter pace in just 30 minutes.


97 Days Adrift in Europe (part 15) – Rome

After 93 days, this is the last stage of my short European trip. I will hop on the ferry from Dubrovnik to Bari and then by train on up to Rome for my first visit to the Eternal City.

First, however, I must survive the trip to Bari, deck class. Travel terms are a bit like those used by real estate agents. When you buy a house (not that most people will ever be able to), you go out on the deck/verandah, tie yourself to the handrail, stand on it, peer through your binoculars at the tiny window of blue ocean and ask “Is that what you mean when you say ‘ocean glimpses'”. To which the real estate agent replies, “No that is what we call expansive ocean views”

Leaving Dubrovnik for Bari, Italy

So it is with travel. Take the term “economy class”, on airlines. First there is, mostly, nothing economic about it. For the $2000, odd, it takes to fly to Europe you could buy 444 cafe lattés. 444. And think how much more pleasure you would get from 444 cafe lattés than you will get from a flight on a flying silver cigar tube. It’s more fun poking your own eyeball out than it is flying.

Secondly, it’s definitely not classy. No, the words “airline” and “class” should never be uttered in the same breath. Similarly with “first class”. I mean, first? This is like offering someone a Big Mac and calling it gourmet food. It would only be gourmet if the only other choice were a turd sandwich.

Random Rome – 1 – round every corner a little treat

So it is with first class on airlines. It is only “first” in comparison with “economy” which, if we had truth in advertising, would be called “jail class”. You are effectively locked in for the term of your flight (life if you crash) and fed pigswill. Once imprisoned the jailers come around and give you orders in return for your $2,000. Seat upright, blinds up (or down), you can’t listen to that now, put that under your seat, do not leave your seat, don’t breathe out, prepare to die etc.

Whichever way you look at it flying is a turd sandwich, uncomfortable, evil smelling, bad for your digestion, your health, your wallet and your temper. And that’s before you board the plane.

Which, in a roundabout way brings me to “Deck Class” on ferries. In theory this means that you get a nice comfy reclining seat in which you can sleep. But, no. You get an unpleasant, uncomfortable, narrow, plastic lined seat, hard as rock which smells of the vomit from the last 20 passengers that had the misfortune to sit in that very seat.

Random Rome – 2 – No Roman was ever too tiled to build a fountain

So every passenger who is in “Deck Class” knows they have two choices. They can literally sleep on the deck or they can compete for the ten comfortable spots in the bar where you can stretch out and there are cushions. Even here, the ferry owners have attempted to ensure no one gets a good sleep by putting up little separators on each lounge just where your knee or shinbone would be if you were to fully stretch out. So you are forced to sleep partially in foetal position.

But before you get to enjoy this luxury seating, however, you must race up the boarding ramp and fight off your fellow deck passengers who, when you beat them to the spot, will spend the rest of the trip trying to work out how they can pay you back by stealing your camera, iPad etc or by by infecting you with the Ebola virus they contracted in West Africa. Nevertheless anything is better than real deck class – unless you are carrying your own mattress around all of Europe, of course.

Unexpected explosions of old buildings on the new

It is a beautiful full-moon lit night as we leave Dubrovnik for Bari and we enjoy a smooth crossing to Bari arriving at 8 am. Bari is a well designed port, if you are a long distance walker.  The ferries come in approximately 2 kilometres from the entrance to the port and the ticket offices. This makes a lot of sense to foot passengers with plenty of luggage who have to lug it the entire 2 kilometres. I am later informed that there was/is a shuttle bus – but in the form it appeared it was clearly wearing an invisibility shield.

I start walking but it’s already hot and after 500 metres I find myself opposite the street which goes to the train station – which is my destination. I can either walk the remaining 3.5 kilometres up and back to the street which, as the crow flies, is just 40 metres away or I can jump over the fence and risk getting either impaled or shot by trigger happy Italian Carabiniere.

The Pantheon. A little old building just around the corner from the……

This is Italian humour at its best. “They” made jokes for 20 years (until it became politically unacceptable) about Italian tanks with one forward gear and ten reverse gears. So we, Italians, will make the foreigners unnecessarily walk for kilometres with a 20 kilo bag.

I examine the 3 metre high metal fence with a view to climbing it. It appears that someone has filed ever point on fence to a razor tip, presumably anticipating just such a plan.

“Luigi, what are you doing, today?”

“Nothing Paolo”

“Please go and sharpen our fence”

“But Paolo, I only did that yesterday”

“Yes but the three tourists who were impaled yesterday, on one of them the points didn’t penetrate entirely through their body”

Around the corner from the….Largo de Torre Argentino & the Fountain of Trevi

Nevertheless I find a relatively hidden spot where the columns and adjacent trees make climbing and descending relatively easy and not withstanding the imagined fusillade of shots from the guards, two minutes later I find myself on the other side of the fence.

Two hours later I am on my way to Rome on high speed train. I shall be staying with my friend, Mike Krockenberger, from day 2 onwards, but the first night I at an AirBnB about 15 minutes from the station. Because I am much later than anticipated, mine host has taken himself off to work at his restaurant.

I am stranded outside the flat, Idiot Traveller, style. I have no way to contact him because my phone has gone flat. My only option is the grocer’s opposite. It turns out, in due course, that the shop owner has a highly honed skill in deduction. Strange tourist comes in pointing at the phone and gesticulating at the tower block opposite but he does not deduce that this is the person for whom his mate Alessandro has left the keys.

…….Which are around the corner from the Italian Parliament, the Egyptian Obelisk of Montecitorio (every city must have one) and Aurelio’s Column…and just before you get to…..

Eventually I get to make a call at which point mine host tells me he has left the keys in the grocery shop opposite and asks to speak to the owner. Now, I’m not one to judge but I feel the shop owner was lacking a little in his use of grey matter.

Day 1 in Rome starts with a 3 kilometre walk up the banks of the Tiber, crossing at Garibaldi Bridge, and then on a standard tourist track up around the Largo di Torre Argentina, the purported site of the assassination of Julius Caesar, , then on to the Pantheon, passing in front of the Montecitoreo Palace, home of the Italian Chamber of Deputies. Immediately adjacent is the Marcus Aurelius Column dedicated, of course to yet more wars waged by the powerful using the bodies of the poor as cannon fodder. From here the Fountain of Trevi is a mere 200 metres away.

The fountain was originally the “terminus” of the Acqua Vergine one of the aqueducts that supplied water to ancient Rome. Nowadays it is the home of a never ending infestation of tourists who come not only look at, to give it its due, what is a pretty spectacular fountain  but also to throw coins into the fountain. The Fountain is best avoided except at quiet times.

Trajan’s Market and Trajan’s column

An estimated 3,000 Euros are thrown into the fountain each day.