Gary's Travel Blog

Point of Embarkation, Antwerp - Forty-Two Day Sea Journey to West Africa

Sunday Morning, September 24, 2006 - Brugge, Belgium
Hotel in Brugge

It is sunny, warm and I took a walk along the canals of this ancient city.

My home for the next four days is the Hotel Adornes (left), at the corner of canals and streets somewhere in Brugge Belgium.

Last evening I undressed and got into a bed for the first time in over 30 hours. I slept long and well. . In order to stay awake after my late morning arrival at the Adornes, I walked the streets of the neighborhood. I found a small grocery nearby and wandered through. I returned for dinner, choosing four types of pate, brie cheese and a box of toasted bread-like crackers and walked back to the hotel. I sat at my open viewing window and enjoyed a Brugge picnic, washed down with excellent duty-free whiskey.

My room oversees the corners of the canals and streets below. I open the large, French windows in my huge bathroom (the room is tiny) and either stand or sit and take in the passing panorama. People of all stripes and sizes pass below afoot, peddling bicycles and in autos.

First the ducks floated into view, reminding me of the days long ago when Jeanne would feed Mallards at our doorstep, after calling them in from the St. Clair River in Michigan. Then, regally floating down the canal in front of the hotel came a gleaming white swan. "Where is the mate?" I inquired to myself. An hour or so later, swan spouse floated into view, as if to answer my question of family status.

Travel brings about sensory overload, with the ceaseless new sights and experiences. I most enjoy the encounters with strangers.

I remember the shabby Brazilian gem merchant in Port Au Prince. He took me to dinner at a restaurant that was a front for a smuggling ring. After dinner it was on to a threadbare casino, where a drunk colonel slid the action on his .45 and placed it at my temple to convince me that he was a powerful Haitian.

I remember the young man in the mountains of Cyprus, who opened the fresco-filled ancient monastery for my singular, slow inspection.

I will never forget the young Beijing woman who produced a feast for me at her mother's home in a Chinese military compound, to the great consternation of the neighbors.

So far the most interesting stranger I have encountered on this trip is a Mr. Peepers-looking, thin-jawed young man I met on the train from the Brussels airport. He asked me if I spoke English. A lost itinerant engineer, he was soon to be on his way to China, near Nanjing, to oversee the construction of a chemical plant for a Belgium company. He was looking forward to finding a Chinese bride, after an undisclosed number of failed marriages with "shrill" American women. His last gig was three-year mining project in the wastelands of Australia, where he lived on a beach in solitude. From solitude to a billion two plus folks. Reflect on that culture shock. After we took our leave, I remembered I could have taught him my two Chinese phrases: hello and thank you. Useful, those two.

Monday, September 25, 2006 - Brugge, Belgium

In Quest of 100 is not about Belgium, Brussels, Brugge or anywhere else in the low lands; it is about travel to new lands. I am, however, in Brugge. In a Brugge holding pattern, waiting to glide tomorrow... onto the good ship Repubblica di Genova. Adventures, therefore, are bound to happen.

Yesterday morning, the sky was North Sea-dark. Rain was clearly in the offing, but when? The single goal of this holding-pattern day was to acquire additional luggage, to reduce the weight in the giant roll-along. Because I would be living in the Euro economy for the next several weeks, I thought it also prudent to load up on the currency.

The Adornes manager directed me to a bank ATM on the way to the market square, the entrance to shopping center of the town. I began my search for Euros dressed in a long sleeve cotton T shirt. After a brisk walk along a canal, some twists and turns through the cobble stone streets, I arrived at the locked door of the ATM. Ladies arrived. They needed funds and possessed the card that unlocked to door; I followed them in. After a couple attempts at mastering the machine, out popped money of the Europeans.

With money, but chilly, I doubled back to the hotel. Wearing my heavy, mink-oil-treated leather jacket and a non-descript cap from the British Virgin Islands (it counts toward the 100), I again began the walk to the market square. Midway there, a pelting rain began its dance. At the square, I found refuge and a beer at one of the bistros that rim the open space, seemingly the home to horse carriages and bright yellow tour buses. The beer went down and the rain let up.

Chocolate Candy

The streets beyond the square are filled with high-end shops, tens upon tens of them. I am often struck by how tourists shop on holiday for things probably purchased safer and at similar or lower cost at home. When the Caribbean cruises ships disgorge their hundreds at the various island moorings and anchorages, the cruisers rush to spend money on cut stones and precious metals they have no way of authenticating; strange! Before I found the recommended department store, the chocolate shop our young hotel desk clerk touted to me came into view. That solved the issue of lunch: a few pieces of walking-and-chomping-chocolate would do very well.

On the second floor of the first department store I entered, the toilet appeared to be a strong profit center. I left the lady a half Euro, rather than the 30 cents required. The second floor was also the location of a very busy luncheon business. After my business with the toilet lady, I followed the signs to a door to the first floor. As I opened it, a high-pitched shriek erupted. My faulty Dutch/Flemish (one written language) had allowed me to open an emergency door. I turned around to face at least 50 diners, who were now my audience. I spread my arms, bowed deeply from the waist and scurried away, before the emergency-door-police could apprehend me. Down a legal set of stairs I went and out the front door.

At the second department store I bought the cheapest of the very expensive bags on display. Back down the shopping street to the square, across and on my way Brugge home. Soon I realized that the streets I was traipsing along were unfamiliar. I was lost. A man emerged from his home. Without hesitation, I began in English (in European nations where the native tongue is a language as arcane as Dutch, Norwegian or Swedish more common languages are taught at early ages). I could follow him; he would start me on my way. We passed under the ornate town hall, and on through the fish market square and we walked on and on. Finally, we came to a park. My guide pointed up a street and told me that my hotel was just beyond a left turn I was to take two blocks ahead. I did as I was told and was more lost than when I began my guide-led trek.

I walked aimlessly on. The first person I stopped was an out-of-town trucker; no help. I yelled at a school boy passing by with an audio device in his ears; he did not stop. I was on a canal; I knew not which. I spotted my first two Brugge canal barges, ala Amsterdam; it was small conciliation. I asked a man working in a business (perhaps advertising) in a ramshackle business; set 50 years from the street. He walked me back to the street and set me off in the direction opposition to where I had been walking. I asked a couple of women emerging from their car. I asked a young Spanish student in her native tongue. Over bridges, along canals I walked. It was now near six p.m.; I had begun my walk to the market square before noon. Finally, an attractive young woman, with a winning smile, getting off her bike at her front door assured me that I was following the correct canal in the right direction to my Hotel Adornes home.

September 28, 2006 - Casting Off

"There is a cholera epidemic in Angola. I have ordered all the crew to get vaccinations, said the commendante (captain of the ship, Repubblica di Genova).

As he sat, I stood.

He scowled and we met for the first time. "You must get vaccinated."

"I don't have a visa for Angola." I replied.

"You need vaccination."

"But it is too late, I replied."

"No", he insisted. "Tomorrow, you get vaccination, free of charge."

As yet, in the afternoon of the following day, no talk of needles.

At dinner in the large lounge, the captain acknowledged me once by asking in English: "You like Italian food?" My first night on this Italian ship and they served -ready for this- pizza. Pizza, after excellent spaghetti, then a nondescript boiled meat and fruit.

On his way out of the lounge, the captain spun around to me and with another scowl stated the obvious to keep me firmly in my place: "This is a working cargo ship. It is not a luxury liner.”

“I understand. I take orders well," I said obediently.

To which the man in control of my life for the next 42 days said sternly: "I don't give orders; I give suggestions."

"Fine, I'll take your suggestions well," I replied.

The captain has yet to introduce himself to me; ergo, I have no idea of his name.

Cabin on the Genova

My cabin is very large and spartan. The dining steward is also my steward. Nice fellow. He has no English to match my no Italian.

He introduced me to the chef, an energetic fellow who has a twenty year-long romance with a woman in Tampico, Mexico. We speak Spanish together.

This morning I was awakened by the mighty metal-to-metal-clang of the giant crane clawing out the inbound deck-stacked containers

A few moments ago, I learned there is no gym on board, as I thought. For the moment, that is not a negative: My pate picnics in Brugge and the long walk on cobblestone streets have brought on an attack of gout; first time in years.

Am taking my super aspirin that Dr.Dale prescribes; I feel improvement already.

September 29, 2006 - Brugge, Belgium

The Repubblica di Genova and I are still parked in the Antwerp Euro Terminal.

The first mate is Romanian. He has less time on the ship than I. The first evening, he sat next to me at dinner; he had, obviously, just come aboard. His English is sound, and he is willing to speak with me. It was from him I learned that the engine crew is still replacing a bearing. We won't leave until tomorrow, September 30. Bad bearings will ring a bell with Jeanne: The Maasdam lost bearings on two of our Holland America cruises out of Norfolk.

I continue to gently feel my way in my new environment. I avoid the captain, though my cabin and his office and quarters share a common wall. I deal with others when possible. My morning routine is unfolding: I dress, take the corridor in front of my cabin (the captain and I are at a dead end –pun intended-), take one corner and walk down the stairs to the deck below. That deck has everything I need: the office, where I write my email contributions to the website, the lounge/dining room and the kitchen. While the chef and I chat in Spanish, he prepares me a morning espresso coffee.

Crane on Genova

The deck containers are being stacked a few feet from my forward-facing porthole. It is an intricate dance of man and machine. The moveable crane operator is deft in his art: The steel boxes are placed precisely, nary an off inch. Each box has holes at the four corners. Before a container can be placed on the one above, a portable steel slug must be placed by a stevedore in each of the four corner holes; this, obviously, to keep the boxes from sliding about in rough seas. The crane man must drop the four corners of the incoming box precisely over the four corner slugs protruding from container below. No margin for error in this steel box ballet. I find it difficult to watch as a stevedore scurries under a hanging box to adjust a misplaced slug.

Without knowing, I know that the office corps of the Genova had a going away dinner last evening. Luigi, the kitchen (and my) steward, sought me out to make sure that I was at dinner at six sharp. When I arrived, no one else was present. My place was set at my usual corner of the long, ten-place table. Luigi brought out the soup and served me. I continued to be the one person at the captain's table. Three trainees came and sat at a round, four-place table and Luigi served them (no soup). The female purser (in whose office I write my emails) is leaving the ship today for her three months ashore, and perhaps others. "Christmas time is no time to be on the ship," she told me. It is rumored that the salt and pepper-haired, sixtyish captain is about embark on his last roundtrip as an employee of Grimaldi. Regardless, the crew rightfully had its party without the non-Italian-speaking stranger.

This is one of Grimaldi's oldest ships; eighteen years I have been told. It is very worn, but clean. I am impressed at how clean my chef friend keeps his stainless steel kitchen. Perhaps I'll disembark for a while today to shoot some exteriors of the di Genova.

The luncheon was special today. We had a young Italian in a tie and jacket, a dignitary from Grimaldi in Northern Europe, and other Grimaldi ground employees. The fellow who sat next to me was a cargo planner. One time he sailed refrigerated cargo ships. Told me that the Japanese are deathly afraid of fruit flies. When a ship of bananas arrives, they force the cargo to remain a month under constantly regulated temperatures, with hourly computer printouts. If the temp on the printouts should vary a 1/10 of a degree above the proscribed level, they must begin anew. Sounds very Japanese to me.

The luncheon today was the usual tomato-sauced pasta to begin, then a very nice lightly sautéed whole white fish, followed by a thinly sliced meat of some sort. Large dark grapes for desert and wine from beginning to end. There was much chattering in Italian throughout, while I chatted with the Romanian first engine mate to my left (the cargo planner was to my right) He was the first to ask me a U. S. political Question: "All and all, is Bush good for the United States?"

I pondered for more than a moment before answering that one.

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