Friday, July 27, 2018

From ‘Slow Boats to China’ by Gavin Young

‘Greek captains never will use a chart,’ E.M. Forster wrote on a Mediterranean cruise ………. ‘Although they sometimes do have one aboard, it is always locked up in a drawer; for as they truly say, it is nothing but paper and lines, which are not the least like the sea, and its far better to trust to yourself, especially in parts where you have never been before.’

……the contrast between a Greek harbor and a Turkish one, even the difference in the Greek and Turkish attitudes to life. In Greece anyone can wander down to the quayside; it is impossible to imagine anyone in seafaring Greece being arrested for wanting to look at the sea or at ships. Kusadasi [Turkey] is small and of no military importance, yet a cloud of police surrounded the gate, and big-chested loiterers in jeans and T-shirts, obviously plain-clothes men……..By temperament, Turks are lockers-up and lockers-out. …….Few Turks seem to think the world is a happy place.

Most Turkish boys, particularly those working in hotels, yearned for jobs in Germany. They said they wouldn’t hesitate to marry any German girl – ‘She could look like a sausage’ – if it helped them to get work permits there. Many did marry for work permits, and were the envy of their friends, who had to stay behind in Turkey and go through their military service.

‘…………Turks ….are a bit quiet, reserved, but Parisians are much more so.’

Turkey is a cat country. In Ephesus you come across them everywhere………

The Smyrna waterfront is spectacular.

By then he [Ataturk] must have begun his slow decline into terminal cirrhosis of the liver. The heavy-drinking Turks are not hypocrites; they have never held the manner of Ataturk’s death against him.

Turkish music is the perfect Oriental music for Westerners. Much Arab music is too snaky, but the Turkish variety thumps along merrily with zithers, or slows to a gentle berceuse for lutes and two-foot flutes; it is, on the whole, simple and melodic and can be whistled.

…….the countrymen of Ataturk, who possess one of the world’s finest cuisines……..

Turkish Cypriot friends had told me that many of them, particularly the young, were disenchanted by the crude manners of the mainland Turkish soldiers.

A Turkish Cypriot friend once said to me, ‘There are men here of thirty who are still virgins. Muslim tradition prevents them, on pain of death or a terrible beating at the hands of the girl’s brothers or rather, from touching a Turkish girl. They’d do anything to get their hands on a foreign girl, but, of course, its not always possible. You have no idea of the intensity of the frustration here.’

Cyprus is friendly. On the Greek side they overcharge tourists, no doubt, but, while Turkish attitudes are often surly or take-it-or-leave-it, Greek Cypriots usually smile and are usually helpful.

……the Egyptian saying, ‘God has given earrings to those who have no ears.’

Egypt is a very poor country of great charm and spiritual resource, and it deserves better times and at least minimal riches. The receptionists had charm too – like most Egyptians – and deserved a richer country.

Incidentally, if you fall from a big ship – or even from a relatively small big one – your chances of survival are virtually nil. Sea, wind and engines would overwhelm your cries, and you could wave until you were blue in the face but a ship’s wake or a swell would hide you. Once overboard, ten to one you’re a goner.

Soon they pulled themselves back to the normal, vociferous world, and resumed their animated chatter – which, for peasant voices born and bred to carry long distances across villages and fields, meant something more like raucous shouting.

It was an interesting experiment in human transplantation. Iraq, rich in oil and land and poor in population, and Egypt, nearly destitute and barely able to support a population that seemed hell-bent on doubling itself in a few decades, had come to an agreement. I had seen fellahin [Egyptian peasant] from the Nile clumping about the riverine towns of Iraq, easily distinguishable from the native peasants by their browner skins, round-necked galabiehs and speech (the accents and idioms of Egyptian Arabic are as strange to the Arabs of Iraq as the English spoken in Kansas is to the people of Yorkshire). But not only fellahin were transplanted. Young Egyptians with some minimal experience in hotels in Cairo are to be found in the hotels and restaurants of Baghdad, Basra and Mosul. It is good to see them there, because however adept or inept they may be in their work they are always cheerful; Egyptians are inveterate jokers. Iraqis, on the other hand, like the English, feel that waiters’ work is mysteriously demeaning to the soul, and work off their humiliation on the diners.

………like many Egyptians, he was a man of much laughter and kindness; he was also very serious and a passionate talker.

In Jedda, attitudes to foreigners – any foreigners, not only sea travelers – depend largely on the whims and personal relationships of individual Saudi officials.

The official puritanism of the Saudis involves depriving even passing sailors of so much as a glass of wine or beer, while behind their high marble walls the Saudi elite make merry with their cellars of smuggled Scotch.

Like Cubans, Filipinos are easygoing, irrepressible people, and their country is an uproarious mélange of spontaneous song, easy sex and flamboyant spirits highly spiced with a strong dash of day-to-day mayhem, mostly by shooting.

Jedda hotels are always full of affluent pilgrims or businessmen. People come to Saudi Arabia to find God or gold; there is nothing else there.

The Saudis were, almost to a man, deliberately rude and unhelpful, he said. ‘They actually put obstacles in your way for the hell of it. Yet if they want something from you, they expect you to go miles out of your way on their behalf.’ There was only a hint of indignation in his diplomat’s voice. ……. ‘As we all know, they have all the money,’ Dr Watson said with a sad smile. ‘And, as we all know, we need it, don’t we?’

Ask ten urban-dwelling Saudis directions, and you’ll probably get at least six different answers and four arrogant shrugs – and, if you cant speak Arabic, you’ll get no answers at all.

Most blacks in Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries are descendants of slaves brought over from Africa……… Slavery in Saudi Arabia was a strange system. Despite an official ban on the practice, there were slaves there until quite recently. The term can be misleading. In Arabia slaves often became affectionate servants rather than the pitifully ill-treated human beings we read about in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Furthermore, eventually a faithful slave was almost invariable rewarded with his freedom.

Abha! The capital of the Asir province on the northern Yemen border, a mountainous but watery region…….It was a region of some of the loveliest villages I had ever seen, with miniature skyscrapers that were really mud towers with small shuttered windows. After sunset they glowed like dolls’ houses……The people of Asir were short and dark……Abha …….It was cool up there after the desert; the food was good; and the girls, who were beautiful, went about unveiled and often bare-breasted…….

……..Saudi Airlines office …….I ……survived a stiff dose of rudeness from two Saudi clerks, and finally bought a ticket to Bahrain from a jolly Pakistani from Lahore.

I realized with joy that people like my taxi driver existed – exceptions to the evident rule that wealth and its arrogance had deprived too many Saudis of all grace, generosity and tolerance.

….flights….. ‘All go on time,’ he grinned, ‘except Saudia. With Saudia, some prince comes along with eleven persons and everyone is turned off the flight.’

When I pointed to a group of Pakistani labourers and said, ‘Once all the work was done by the Yemenis, and by black Takrunis from Nigeria,’ he answered, ‘The Koreans are the strongest workers now.’
‘Lazy, lazy.’

Twenty-five years ago Dubai was little more than a mosque, a modest palace, a shipping office and a clump of palms. No census has been taken in Dubai for some time, but estimates circulate of an immigrant population that outnumbers the Arabs of Dubai by ten to one. The vast majority of the expatriates are Indian or Pakistani…….

He repeated bleakly, ‘Desperate I am saying. You know, I’ve been back to Pakistan only once in two years, and there’s no sex for people like me here. The prosses have all gone.’
‘Prostitutes – girls and women, mostly from India. The Dubai government sent them off home, so now there are only the air hostesses………..The go only with the hotel’s front-office managers and assistant managers, who have more money……..the Filipino girls……They all make jigajig with Arabs for money’

Maudsley said bluntly that, though British seamen probably weren’t any less good at sea than others, and perhaps just as good, they certainly could be a liability ashore, delaying the ship. This was the downfall of British seamen. ‘My last job ……..Terrible trouble we had with the Brits – knifings, fights, arrests. Its always been unusual to have no trouble with British seamen. You have to have someone standing at the top of the gangway when they come back on board, taking bottles off them. We’d have to go around all the brothels to rout them out, and they’d be hiding under the beds…….Of course, the Scawegians (Scandinavians) can be the wildest cowboys, but the Brits always seem to find the lowest dives possible. The British seaman has always had a reputation ashore.’

You cant argue with a Baluchi demonstrating hospitality; they are among the most stubborn peoples of the world. In my distant days as a shipping clerk in Basra…….. Baluchis had been much prized as watchmen, as much for their stolid honesty and unshakeable devotion to whoever employed them as for their physical toughness.

It is odd how, to the half-wakeful brain, Baluchi sounded like English, and once or twice I started up, thinking that someone had said something to me.

There was no place for enmities or secrets aboard Al Raza. She had no cabins, and no one could steal a little privacy behind closed doors, for there were no doors. The eight men slept, in shifts as their watches dictated, on small wooden bunks in four partitions two feet high and opening onto each other. Every word, every action was public property except in the thunderbox (toilet), and even that was not soundproof. But there is no privacy on any Asian native craft between Suez and the Sulu Sea. Asia is no place for privacy.

Ghani Adam asked, ‘Why do you travel with us on Al Raza when you can fly?’
I would have liked to quote Graham Greene about ‘the universal desire to see a little bit further, before the surrender to old age and the blank certitude of death’.

There are only two Master Attendants in the world; one is in Colombo, the other in Singapore. All other ports have harbor masters. It is not clear why. In ‘The End of the Tether’, Joseph Conrad writes of the Master Attendant in Singapore:
A Master Attendant is a superior sort of harbor master …a Government official, a magistrate for the waters of his port…..

………the Baghdad Gate (an old and still-existing trade with Iraq accounts not only for this name but also for the Muslim population of Colombo).

Between Sri Lanka and the Maldives were great sub-oceanic trenches, some perhaps thirteen thousand feet deep.

……..pan, the tiny sandwich of betel leaf, areca nut and lime that all Asia east of the Gulf chews……

……..though I had been glad to sail with Maldivians, somehow the crew lacked the spirit of other seamen I had met. Was it shyness, wariness or xenophobia? Shyness, I think. The Maldives have always been isolated, and the islanders have little knowledge of outsiders. Today fifteen or sixteen islands of the archipelago have been turned into tourist resorts. But everything has to be imported……….so the resorts are horrifically expensive and have little to do with the people of the Maldives………

These Tamils are far more open, friendly and less shy than the Maldivians ………Physically they are not so different.

Tuticorin’s population consisted of Hindus and Muslims as well as Catholics, he said, but the non-Catholics were shopkeepers or workers, while those involved with the sea were, to a man, members of the Church. ……….Tuticorin is surrounded by flat land as white as snow. ……..The salt here is marvelously pure,’ the chevalier said. ‘In fact, one third of India’s salt comes from Tuticorin.’

For some reason, Tamil eyes often seem larger and brighter than other people’s. Like all Asian seamen, Tamils seem to be compulsive washers.

………..Andamans ……… ‘Elephants here are imported from Assam. They’re less temperamental than the ones from Burma…..’

Captain Sujit Choudhuri lived up to the standards of no-nonsense friendliness I had come to expect from Indian masters like Dennis Beale, Bala and John. In fact, now that I think about it, I found this quality in all the masters I met between Cyprus and Singapore. It is as if ships’captains live at some isolated level of self-assurance, philosophically removed by a life sandwiched between sea and sky from the landlubberly pettiness of the rest of us.

‘We are Kurds,’ they said gruffly.
When I asked them who they preferred, the Shah or Ayatollah Khomeini, they answered, ‘Both are bad. The Shah is looking too far forward, Khomeini too far back – he wants to see 700 AD in 1980.’

………Chinese faces began to turn a deep pink, the inevitable and undisguisable effect that liquor has on pale Oriental skin.

…..among the young Malays, homosexuality is not rare.

…..passed three young Malays who pranced and giggled in women’s dresses. Bushey said, ‘Malays don’t mind that sort at all. They accept transvestism as quite normal. ………..Wonderfully tolerant about that, the Malays. Good for them…….’

…….the waters of South-east Asia are full of waving, smiling people.

The mountains of Sabah rise up like a series of tidal waves, with Mount Kinabalu dominating the skyline at fourteen thousand feet, the highest peak in South-east Asia.

…..ships’ officers are an easygoing, friendly – though often bitchy – lot with an interest in talking as a safety valve for the restrictive nature of their monkish existence. Relationships on ships are generally easy and casual, and antipathies are kept well in hand, even ashore.

The headlands and forests of North Borneo remain as mysterious and reticent as ever. ……These are the shores of the Land Below the Wind, as Malay sailors still call the wilderness of Borneo because they lie ten degree below the typhoon belt from Japan to Luzon.

The superintendant, a stout and friendly Malay ……….. ‘Lets say that the Sulu pirates are not as bad as the Thai pirates in the Gulf of Siam. They don’t rape all the women they capture, and don’t kill all the men. I can’t say I’m sure of the percentage.’

He spoke with the Hispano-American accent that distinguishes a Filipino from a Malay.

The others washed their mouths as most Asians do after a meal, swilling water around their tongues, using their fingers as toothbrushes to rub their teeth, and spitting over the side.

Frank …..took me to the harbor. There one realizes what a seafaring people Filipinos are; the bustle of the port was greater than anything I’d seen since Singapore. Zamboanga is not a big city, but its port serves all the south-west of the Philippines.

The ship’s decks are covered by folding beds or bedrolls with hardly any space between, so men and women of all ages are stretched out side by side. ….Young men and young women lie together, their brown skins almost touching, but this doesn’t seem to create any problems; no one takes advantage of anyone else. Such a mess of humanity on the deck of a shipful of Arabs …..would soon create a shambles of spit, dirty paper, bits of food, babies’ pee. Here people eat and drink from flasks or beercans, smoke, peel fruit – and then clear it up. There is no squalor or smell. Once again I notice the extraordinary cleanness and almost finicky neatness of people in South-east Asia. Their clothes and bodies are always clean; they never stop scrubbing themselves. They don’t seem to sweat much, and even the men’s bodies are virtually hairless., which I suppose helps. They think Europeans smell of death. To me, Asians smell faintly of straw-green tea, a pleasant smell. In the eastern Mediterranean or the Red Sea a ship’s toilets are soon clogged and stinking, the floors awash with urine and vomit. How do they get so much of their shit on the seats and walls? On m.v. Jhuvel, at 11.00 p.m. off Zamboanga del Norte, with hundreds of passengers aboard, the toilets are immaculate.

Compared with Manila or at least the southern Philippines, Cebu is a quiet, unhurried place that pillows its cheek against the soft folds of a mountain range and seems to doze.
…… ‘Anyone who says he’s busy in Cebu is a liar. People work harder in Luzon ………where life is more insecure. It is harder to find work there, and they are frequently visited by typhoons that sweep away hillsides, bridges, even dams. Cebu is a city of the semi-retired.’

There is a saying in Manila: ‘Filipinos have survived Spanish and American domination: four hundred years in a convent and fifty years in Hollywood.’

………. ‘Curry ship’ means any ship from India.

‘Boys throw stones at frogs in sport,’ wrote Plutarch. ‘But frogs do not die in sport, they die in earnest.’