Gary's Travel Blog

Preparation - Forty-Two Day Sea Journey to West Africa

September 12, 2006

My old Webster’s seventh New Collegiate Dictionary defines anxiety thus: “a painful or apprehensive uneasiness of mind usually over an impending or anticipated ill.” Well, however it is defined, I got it. It is over this quest of mine: To visit at least one hundred countries and detached jurisdictions, as defined by the Traveler's Century Club.

As a child in small-town Rochester Michigan I had one abiding ambition: To get out of there and see the world. Over the decades hence, my childhood ambition has refused to release its grip on me. Clearly, I got out of Rochester. I have seen some of the world, but never enough. Serious effort to quench the flame began when I boarded a bus in Los Angles in January 1954 and ventured into the dark unknown, headed to Mexico City and enrollment at Mexico City College. That was the beginning of a lifelong quest, but where does it end?

That question brings up the subject of present travel plans and the attached anxiety. I have visited 92 of the 100 places I seek. For reasons not clear, the here and now came to me as the perfect time to complete my quest for 100. I set out to travel the Balkans, a pocket of nations in the past I have avoided. Putting the Balkans together in a travel package proved to be a bit like reconstructing Humpty Dumpty’s egg, difficult if not impossible. One day in Balkan frustration, I took a search engine sweep through freighter cruises. It was a fateful search. I am now scheduled to board September 25, in Antwerp the roll-on, roll-off cargo ship Repubblica di Genova, for a 42 day sea voyage to the west coast of Africa. Five new nations in the offing: Cameroon, Congo, Senegal, Togo, and an unlikely tiptoe upon the soil of Angola, because of the unwieldy visa process in its Washington embassy. My anxiety isn’t produced by the prospect of short stopovers in West Africa. The sense of unease pounding my body is produced by the 42 day journey itself.

Forty two days as the only passenger on a cargo ship? I must keep reinforcing the concept that I actually will plunge into this pond of the absolute unknown. I have never been aboard a cargo ship—Holland America Line this ain’t—I have never been alone for over a month; have never been cut off so completely from my environmental comfort zone. Will the visas I have ordered from a Washington visa service and my passport get back to me in time? Will I go stir crazy aboard the Genova? Will I remain healthy during the voyage? Will I pine for Jeanne and our dog, Alfy, with such intensity that I become unhinged to a greater degree than my normal state of unhingedness? Ah, these are the questions; the questions to be answered on this blog/website, as the journey unfolds and I e-mail feeds from the Genova and the Balkans.

When the Genova docks in Hamburg during the first days of November, Jeanne will meet me. From there plans have been made, and tickets purchased, to fly to Zagreb, Croatia. From that capital city, we hope to tour via rail coaches and buses most Balkan countries, with Romania thrown in for good measure. More countries; hopefully, I will begin the quest for 150.

September 13, 2006

First day of panic, well, almost. This morning I received an email from one of the Grimaldi functionaries setting up the 42-day sea voyage for me. The Genova is going to be on its way out of Antwerp two days earlier than previously announced. Luckily, Jeanne and I built in extra time for me in Belgium to handle this eventuality.

Cargo ships are seldom on an inflexible schedule. Hopefully, My United flight out of Dulles will land on time in Brussels, September 23. Then I will train to Antwerp and find a way to locate and get to the ship. If not, as I explained to Mr. di Falco in my return email, I'll hotfoot it to one of the Genova's two ports before leaving Europe, Le Havre and Lisbon, and board before it winds its way down the west coast of Africa.

The fact that the Genova is hightailing it early, could mean it will arrive in Hamburg a couple of days early, and I will have to wait for Jeanne; but then again, perhaps not. The only constant is change.

September 15, 2006

I am scheduled to fly to Brussels a week from today. The tension mounts. Tension aside, the wrinkles in the schedule of the good ship Repubblica de Genova are causing serious issues. First, the ship is leaving two days early. Luckily, Jeanne built wiggle-room into my plans. Now, however, I’ll have to land in Brussels, get to Antwerp, find the ship and get aboard, all in one day, Saturday, the 23rd.

Yesterday, in response to my query, my contacts at Grimaldi informed me that, instead of returning to Hamburg, early because it left Antwerp early, the Genova inexplicably will be returning to Hamburg three days later than scheduled. Jeanne has her tickets to fly to Hamburg from Dulles Airport on November 4, arriving on the 5th. So, a decision will have to be made: Is it cheaper to keep Jeanne on ice for three days in a hotel in Hamburg or make the ticket change? To add to the confusion, we can’t make any changes for at least a month, because the schedule is likely to change again, as the ship wends its way to and from western Africa.

Yesterday I had a long meeting with Allen Comer, the electrical engineer and webmaster who will design and operate the website I hopefully will feed regularly from the ship. The website should be up and running before my flight to Brussels. If so, I can spread the word to all those in my email address book; if not, Jeanne will have to do it. The goal is to have a functioning website so that any of my interested friends and family can follow my adventures (and mishaps) over the next two months while I quest for 100.

HOLD THE PRESSES! It is 11 AM and I just received an email from Mr. L. Smets, who runs the Grimaldi operation in Antwerp. The Genova is now scheduled to arrive LATE, not early. It will arrive in Antwerp during the evening of Tuesday, September 26, and embark at 10 P.M. the next day. Now, I have the challenge of either making a ticket change or hanging out in northern Europe for three or four days; and the question is begged: Will this schedule stay solid? Stay tuned sports fans! The excitement is just beginning.

September 19, 2006

I remain firmly anchored to Jewell Hollow. Progress, however, is being made. Today, I committed to a four night stay at the Hotel Adornes in Brugge, Belgium. Ah, but I embark from Antwerp, you might reasonable exclaim. Antwerp, for reasons of its own, appears not to have sufficient lodging capacity; besides, Brugge is an old canal city and reputed to be one of the most beautiful small cities in northern Europe. Plus, I have never been there.

First, the Grimaldi people informed me the Repubblica di Genova was going to suck-in its mooring lines from Antwerp a day early. The next day, the word was emailed to me that, in fact, it would not push off from the dock until September 28, three days after the original date. My ticket, which gives me hope that United Airlines will safely deliver me non-stop from Washington Dulles to Brussels, is for a flight scheduled to lift off during the early evening of Friday, September 22. The delayed departure of the Genova was going to cost me additional dollars, no matter how I chose to spend them. I could change my flight. That would cost $200, plus. The alternative is to take the flight on Friday and spend money for European hotels while I wait for the Genova to get underway. I chose to get to Europe on schedule. Frankly, I am not certain how well I would handle a delayed takeoff. I am anxious enough, as I prepare for an almost two month epic sojourn away from Jewell Hollow. A ticket change to a later date would bring another dose of bone-shaking anxiety. What if Grimaldi emailed to alert me to the fact that the ship had changed its mind and was leaving early? Whoa! No, I shall leave these shores as scheduled.

National tourist offices: From some of these national bureaucracies my emails are not returned; others, the employee in New York, Ljubljana or wherever, takes a real interest in my quest; it has been particularly true for the tourist offices of Romania, Slovenia and Belgium. Clearly, the most helpful person to me has been Liliane Opsomer, the press and P.R. person for the Belgium office in New York. She recommended what sounded like a wonderful small hotel in the heart of Brussels, but it was full. I emailed Liliane (we’re on a first name basis now) and again asked for help, this time in Brugge. Bingo! She was back in no time with three small, pleasant looking (the websites) hotels, and I hooked up with the Adornes. Contrast that with Serbia: I emailed the tourist office in Belgrade. Nothing! I then wrote the ambassador in Washington; he has attended the University of Michigan and I mentioned that I had earned my law degree there and gave him a little “Go Blue” razzamatazz. Nothing, no answer! Maybe Serbs don’t want American writers prowling around; regardless, it will be cold turkey in Serbia.

September 22, 2006

Here it is: Friday the 22nd. Thank God it is not the 13th (that is another story, best left untold for another time). Jeanne has me packed in our largest suitcase. The only question remaining is: What have we forgotten, neglected to pack? We decided against a hair dryer, because our old faithful nearly burns up under the stress of European current. Jeanne even threw in an outdated sea sickness patch. I doubt that I will need it. Beginning with our first voyage, a 1979, plunging, pitching five-day dart of the QE II from New York to England through a raging November Atlantic, neither of us have ever been affected by mal mer.

The Page County Literary Society met yesterday. Paco hosted. Each member gave me a gift. Jake gave me a poncho for the inevitable bad weather (the weather report for Brussels for the next 3 days: 70s and rain) and Paco gave me a black leather laptop-all-around-schlepping-stuff-shoulder-strapped carry-on bag.

I journeyed to Harrisonburg yesterday. The big trip was to allow my learned and interesting dermatologist, Dr. Chris Sheap, to check me over before I encounter the sun along the western coast of Africa; he found one pre-cancerous spot, which he dispatched with liquid nitrogen.

What have I forgotten? What have I forgotten? Forty two days on a cargo vessel, with not a CVS or Wal-Mart in sight. One of the most fascinating aspects of this sea voyage is that I cannot visualize any part or portion of it. Having traveled widely on most continents, I can visualize exiting the airplane, lining up for customs and immigration, going to the ATM machine, watching the Euros spew out, catching the train to Brussels Central Station, changing trains, chugging to Brugge, getting into a Mercedes taxi (it seems that all taxis in Northern Europe are Mercedes) and entering my hotel. I can see myself walking the cobbled streets of Brugge, stopping here or there for a snack or drink, but I cannot visualize my life aboard the Repubblica di Genova.

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