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Finally, the faffing is over

The cross-ship transfer had, like pretty much everything else, been a bit farcial and poorly planned but had essentially taken place without incident. My bags arrived and our new ship, the MS Westerdam, had an almost identical layout meaning I did not spend hours wandering around lost. Well, not deliberately, anyway. With departure not slated until 3am, I had headed back out at midnight, partly as I wasn't yet tired and had nothing better to do, and partly out of curiosity: I followed small packs of crewmen from both ships out on leave, and taking a different direction from the port, had stumbled upon a (now mostly closed) shopping centre which would have been of significantly more use if i'd known about it before – cheap supplies and a large internet cafe could have been utilised. Instead, I amused myself watching the mass of Filipino crew pretty much buy out the entire stock of a small Asian grocer near the port entrance (masses of bottled water and instant noodles were purchased. As these are all people who work on the ship, this is probably significant, though I'm not sure which worries me most: their need to buy food or water), and also form huge queues at a local McDonalds and Kebab shop. I then took a quick stroll back round the port where local youths with their booze, thumping music and souped-up boy-racer cars were starting their Friday nights, and headed back on board around 2am.

I awoke with us well under way, and, allegedly, with no more changes to ship or plans still to occur. The daily program had been delivered to my “stateroom” (a fancy word for the level of accommodation I am in) which indicated that despite a delay of 27hours to the timings I had received and been working to all along, and with a significantly longer stop in Tenerife listed, we are actually scheduled into Cape Town 9hours earlier than planned. If I had known that, I would have arranged to collect my hire car that same day, and thus leave Cape Town a day earlier. Even if I had just gone 200km or so, it would have allowed myself much greater leeway in my onward journey. Instead, it's going to cost me a nights accommodation and forces 2 long days of driving. But it is, at least, vaguely useful information.

As I suspect will become normal, I didn't really do very much. I watched the Southern coast of Spain glide by in the distance and occasionally wandered around a bit or had a snack or drink. I have a list of tasks I want to get done whilst on board, which remain as yet untouched; ditto my books. That evening I had a couple of beers on deck whilst watching as we passed through the Straits of Gibralter. The mass of light of the mainland oddly punctuated by the looming blackness of the Rock of Gibralter, whilst Tangiers on the opposite side looked far more inviting at night than it has done from my previous approaches by ferry, or, indeed, land. As we passed the rock, we also passed another cruise ship, lit up in multicolour like a slightly surreal christmas tree. I had already worked out that we were travelling at a pretty decent rate of knots, though there is no information as to just how fast - the rate which we overhauled it helped confirm those thoughts, and I idly wondered just how fast. By last orders at 3am, the last bit of land was just a small line of lights deep on the horizon. The next time we see mainland (though not any land) should be Namibia in 9 days time – anything else likely means we have major problems.

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The Noordam in port and, below, the Noordam and Westerdam together in Palma harbour in the early morning

Posted by Gelli 04:25 Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Germans...

When I had gone to sleep, we were docked on the far side of the harbour and just a couple of dozen passengers seemed to be waiting to board. By the time I went to breakfast at 8am, we had moved docks to the main central location, the other 3 cruise ships had all departed, 2 new ones had arrived, and we seemed totally overrun. There had been less than a hundred passengers onboard last night – now there seemed to be several hundred. A huge influx of mostly elderly Germans had joined and were milling around. I queued 20minutes to get some food.

Although the Westerdam does not arrive for 12hours, I suspect that the real charter starts here – Mallorca has long been a favourite for German holidaymakers, and assume that most people who will be joining the ship and all charter flights will come through Mallorca. And as they have a ship here, they may as well let people board to make use of the free food and rest in their cabins if they wish, rather than stay ashore.

For me, it gave me a previously unexpected opportunity to get out and explore a bit of Palma, somewhere I never expected to visit in my life. Now, all of a sudden, I had a full day. And I must admit, Palma kind of worked for me. I would have loved to have had a bike and gone for a ride inland or explore on my own, but the only easy option was a free coach tour (in German) being offered, which I declined. Which left me with just Palma's town to peruse. It was a long walk into town, but not an unpleasant one: along the harbourside, past rows and rows of yachts (2 or 3 of which were of the ridiculous yacht type, those barely smaller than our cruiseship) plus heavy sprinklings of British, German and Swiss number plates in the cars parked in the port.

The old town was much nicer than I had expected, and I was happy wandering it's bustling old streets. Though only late May, it was already heaving with tourists, and I suspect it would be a miserable place in a few weeks time when the real crowds start to hit. It is a standard problem, and one increasingly hard to solve: finding somewhere nice that everybody else hasn't already found, and where you can still enjoy without the hoardes of other visitors and 'tourist' prices.

With my understanding of the ship and it's facilities now slightly better, I took advantage of a local supermarket and stocked up on cordial, coke and nibbles. Then, went for something to eat. Admittedly, if I had wanted to, I could have brought enough stuff from the ship to eat, or returned there, thus saving money, but it was definitely Paella time. I love a good Paella. To be fair, even an average one is normally pretty good in my eyes. I had planned to have one in Barcelona, but eventually decided to save money. I was not about to let another opportunity slide.

Two hours, one large seafood paella, 3 beers and one almighty rainstorm later, I happily started ambling back to the ship.

Posted by Gelli 05:32 Archived in Spain Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

WooHoo. After the hard bit, NOW i get stuck. Typical

And with that, I was in Spain, on dry (well, dry-ish) land, and sadly needing to leave fairly quickly.

But it was not that easy.

Spain, I rapidly discovered, was shut. Apparently both the previous day and next day were holidays in Spain, and with yesterday being a Sunday, today had been turned into one as well. And Spain was essentially a ghost country. Walking along the main street of Vigo at 11.30am, I saw one vehicle and one other pedestrian. Nothing was open, not even McDonalds, which did not bode well as I had no food or supplies. I was in a bit of a pickle.

I had gone to the railway station, planning to catch the 13.33, only to be rapidly laughed down. Attempts for 2 later trains also failed. Apparently, there was no space on any eastbound train today, full stop. Hmmmm. Buses, I thought? Erm. No. No space. Well, I thought, it might be more expensive but surely i can hire a car and drive to the border. Nope: none of the 3 rental offices were open either. Feck.

Eventually, I managed to get a ticket – the sole remaining ticket – Eastbound for the following day. It will be a long day of many changes and will delay me a while, but i have no choice. So i paid up, took the ticket and then went to find somewhere to stay. It was empty outside, overcast and gloomy, if not that cold. The one hotel whose name i had noted down weeks ago in case i did need to stay turned out to be full, so i started looking at random. The next two were also full. I decided there and then to double my budget and take the first bed I could find at 50euro or less. The next place offered me a holiday special price which turned out to be 198euro. Erm. Thanks but no thanks. At least for now. The next one was 20euros, and i accepted without even bothering to look at the room.

And with a ticket out and somewhere to stay, there was nothing for it except to explore the ghost town of Vigo. I went around the harbour and watched some of the unloading of the Green Cape from a distance, strolled around the Marina and wandered around the old town. Though much of the city is not desperately exciting, the old town at least still retains hints of its old seafaring past: Jules Verne had once visited, and Vigo is even mentioned in a couple of his books. The old parts are quite nice indeed, and even the main street is not too bad. I decided fairly early on that I would like to see the city again (a) on a nice sunny day and (b) open.

But I had also forgotten that this was Spain, and they do things different on holiday: by midday, cafes and restaurants started to open. Pockets of groups of tourists could be found around the old town and harbour. By 7pm, the town was full of wandering locals out taking a stroll, and every restaurant and cafe was packed. Now, i wouldn't starve through lack of open establishments: Just a lack of a reservation.

Yup, Welcome back to Europe.

Posted by Gelli 05:02 Archived in Spain Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

After all that, it's Vigo time

Finally, at 10am on the morning of my 18th day aboard, we were moored in the port at Vigo (yes, Vigo: 3 changes of port after and we eventually ended up right where we were scheduled in the first place) and I disembarked from the mv Green Cape. During my time aboard, I had never once felt bored – indeed, I could easily have used another 3 or 4 days to finish all the things I still wanted/needed to do - and I left with half a dozen books and plenty of films/tv shows that I had taken with me, still unread/unwatched.

I took my leave of the Captain and his crew, slightly unsteadily took a walk down the gangway and on to dry land for the first time in over two weeks. It has been the longest continuous period at sea in my life, though it hasn't really been all that long. Taking one last look back at the ship, I then disappeared through the harbour and out into the town with the aim of finding an unlikely railway station or a bus to either Pontevedra or Vigo.

In general terms, i disembark fit, refreshed and ready for London life and weather (yuk) again, though it is not all roses. Traveling with so many Poles had led to inevitable consequences, and I am pretty much now a raving alcoholic: On at least 3 occasions I woke up the day-after still horribly drunk. Also, my dodgy knees have really started to object a bit to the stairs: It is 9 flights to go down to the mess, and 6 to go to 'A' deck and hence outside. At an absolute minimum I have traversed 80 flights of stairs a day, and on some days at least double that. And in the last 2days, my jaw has really started to ache in what i suspect is probably my first problem/pain with wisdom teeth, and could cause me pain &/or bankruptcy in the next few weeks.

I am, however, looking forward to not eating potatoes for a few days: I have had potatoes in one form or another at least twice a day since I boarded, and have probably eaten more boiled potatoes on this voyage that in the preceding 5years combined. Apart from that, the vegetables that have appeared most often (excluding salad) are onions and sprouts.

The crew have been brilliant throughout, and as well as making sure we didn't sink/drown, have completely repainted much of the ship and overhauled pretty much everything that they could: wiring, ropes, floors and much else. For them, the journey continues as normal for another few days through the increasingly brutal looking Bay of Biscay (complete with major weather warnings) around to Hamburg and Rotterdam. There, several of the crew disembark on leave for a while. For the remainder, it is on to Antwerpen and then back down to warmer seas, climes and South Africa – several of those are already looking forward with great anticipation to the next passengers, embarking in Antwerpen: Two young English girls, and with at least one officers wife also joining for a voyage, the journey will doubtless be very different to my one.

Posted by Gelli 14:58 Archived in Spain Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

End of a continent. For now, anyway.

Though there is still a short port stop back in Walvisbaai, Namibia, to go, Africa has now ended for me, on this trip at least. With luck, I will be back next year on a short visit at least: some people will be kicking round lumps of leather around, and I have some pieces of paper allowing me to watch some of them.

For now, it is over. In any substantive way, this has been my first visit to Sub-Saharan Africa. It has certainly been the first one where I have had had any chance to be any kind of tourist. Watching the waves slide by and the sun going down from the deck of the Green Cape, I started to reflect on it all. For most people, 'Africa' is still kind of seen as one large scary poor and backward place, and more than I did before i got here, I can kind of understand where that comes from. Though a mass of individual tribes, cultures, languages and backgrounds, much of sub-Saharan Africa really is not actually all that different to each other.

A majority theoretically speak English; Many of the local languages are descended from the same Bantu routes, and local customs and laws do not always differ as much as might be expected. Colonial history, and the struggles since independence (economic as well as violent) still weigh heavily on many places. The people are almost all extremely friendly, and optimistic about the future. Racism – with the exception of that by white Boer's – between blacks and whites is generally hidden at the very least, though i certainly wouldn't say that it was gone. Instead, tribal conflicts seem to be of more relevance in many areas, although to many people, a white person still means a rich person.

Politics, political leadership and governance are still lacking by Western standards and ideals, and corruption is still rife throughout public office. That is not to say that all of Africa is corrupt and poorly governed and all of the West is not. Definitely not. But certainly everyday dealings with public officials in Africa requires very different skills than in many other places, and in some areas are best being actively avoided. And at higher levels there are still depressing trends of nepotism (to family, friends and tribes), regular changing/manipulating of rules to cling to power, and corruption on grand scales.

It is a vast and beautiful area, with any number of natural treasures, landscapes and scenes hidden away: But it can take time, money and effort to visit and see many of them. Some of the greatest gems are the people themselves, especially rural ones away from major tourist trails and infrastructure routes.

Much of Africa is extremely poor, but to the average traveler, tourist or backpacker it is not cheap, and that comes as a bit of a shock to many who expect it to operate more like South East Asia or India where things are much cheaper. Much of the backpackers world is entirely unconnected to that of the locals: hostels and tour groups are often owner by expats, and can be almost entirely self contained, meaning only small amounts of money trickle down to a few locals employed in lower level jobs. Prices, whilst possibly cheap by Western European standards are not as low as expected by many. Supermarkets and more western shops/restaurants tend to be Expat owned or South African chains. Crafts and Transport are the exceptions where locals and tourists tend to mix more, but even then tourists tend to use more luxury lines than the local majority (and buses in general are not as cheap as often imagined), whilst on minibuses and at craft markets backpackers fall into one of 2 categories: those who pay what is asked as its only a short holiday and its not worth the hassle of haggling, or those who haggle hard and are often offended at how ridiculous the price markup is, simply because they are white/tourists. At least buses/minibuses are the great reducer, due to the sheer number of people that get crammed in: For many, this is the only true local experience they ever get.

The food can be delicious, but tends to be quite bland and nothing to write home about. Filling and cheap is traditionally more important. Fruit, left to grow naturally and not full of additives, modifiers or grown out of season is normally excellent. Beer tends to be pretty good, although some local brews are literally death-in-a-cup, as are many local spirits and home-brews.

But from a personal perspective, what did I enjoy most or will i miss most?

Honestly, I don't know. I have lots of great memories but lots of regrets. Many great experiences, but also knowledge of things missed: not one single incident or moment stands out as the best, or, indeed, worst. Sadly, there is not a single country that I feel completely satisfied with what I saw/did, meaning that I pretty much have to return to all of them. When I first arrived here, I had no plan (or idea) beyond a few weeks at random in Namibia and then see what happen and how the mood took me. In a way, I think I expected to stay in Africa 2 or 3 months before moving on somewhere else. 9 months later, things went very differently and I could not have guessed or envisaged how things would turn out. Many parts were certainly unexpected. But I have no real complaints. Heck, even Hamish taught me many things and gave me several unique experiences.

And at the end of the day, I think that is all I am really looking for when I travel: that it teaches me about myself and the world, and that I get new and varying experiences and perspectives from it.

Posted by Gelli 22:26 Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

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