29. My Merchant Mariner Travels Around The World (Part 2)

My promotion to Saloon Steward after only one trip was not only an ego booster but it also saw a boost in remuneration, which was handy for Joan and the children. The duties involved then, although a complete different kettle of fish than Pantry-man, were right up my alley for having learned all the intricacies of catering and Silver-service from my dad. Silver-service is a learned art form of serving at tables and which requires much practice and dexterity. The steward holds the serving-fork above the serving-spoon both in the hand, and uses the fingers to manipulate the two as a pincer for picking up, holding and transferring the food to the plate, and also all type of plates is also placed on the table in the Silver-service manner; very hygienic but crap when the ship is rolling. The same goes for keeping cutlery and plates from slipping and crashing on the deck (floor), but when been forewarned about rough weather eventuating, flipped-up table-top edges are secured, table underlay table-clothed on tables are wet down and all chairs are hook secured to the deck. I felt crashed and crushed once when I slipped up when pouring wine from the wrong side, yes there are even rules for that. According to a Safmarine Director, who was an extra passenger on that trip, and  had checked out not only my settings, serving but also my pouring of wines, which was the only thing he found a disservice with because of me serving it from the wrong side. I had did it from the left, and at that moment when checking me about it in company, I felt like that ships steersman  who had for a split second forgotten his port-side from his starboard side (port is left and starboard is right) and crashed into seaway standards.

I didn’t go ashore in East London and Port Elizabeth because of having been there and done that and I found it more enjoyable writing to Joan. She was pregnant again, naturally, and because we missed each other terribly and writing was the only means then for us to communicate, we wrote heaps of letters to each other. In letters to her, I wrote about my traveling experiences as visually as possible so that we could experience it together, even about female acquaintances met because of wanting to be as honest as possible in our relationship. What I had also learned while as a Merchant Mariner was that the reason why it was said that ‘a seaman has a woman in every port’ was because of the necessity of it at times. To be in the company of all men for three months or more, confined together in micro spaces and to be subjugated  to all type of egos, which some had as large as elephants,  and characters, which some would be like Walt Disney ones, isn’t really very good for one’s complexion at all, if you get my drift.  The opposite sex was then a great distraction from at times seeming to go either berserk or signing off the ship. Now the thing is that female company to the majority of seaman when in other ports wasn’t for sex but for their company so as to keep their sanity. Yes I know women in general can drive a man crazy at times, but hey, what would we do without them. I have had women friends while at sea and ashore now, which for me works both ways and for Joan, if done with integrity.

But that’s by the by because we hit Durban running, that is my sea mate Bazil and I. We befriended Joseph, who was Zulu, at a busy city street corner while he was selling newspapers in a torrential down pour. He was trying to sell his papers while also trying to keep them dry. It reminded me of my newspaper days; so with both Bazil and I grabbing half of his paper load and running in between the traffic selling them, and with him following suit, got his not so wet papers sold in quick time. While the three of us stood in a shop doorway laughingly drying ourselves with one not so dry newspaper we couldn’t sell, he invited us to his humble abode for a smoke of the good stuff. We were never short of a good smoke on board ship after that and on other ships too, and the Zulu ladies he introduced to the crew to do their laundry while in port, were more than obliging to look after any other needs too. Actually we were on our way to a place called the ‘The Chocolate Box’ by other seaman, which intrigued us to find out why. It turned out to be a brown painted, city council high-rise residential building. Those flat dwellers loved seaman around because of the boisterous booze parties that always seemed to end at dawn. The women folk at those individual flat parties at times consisted of single mothers, married mothers whose husbands were away and divorced women, and they all seemed to have adolescent children, which was another reason it was called ‘The Chocolate Box’ because of the variety, a bit of seaman humour. The crew-members that always hung out there were of the old sea-dogs who were there for the older women, which left the younger ones at a loose end. My other two shipmates Bill and Martin who had arrived earlier though were having a good chat with them, so Bazil and I joined them seeing how we four were the youngest there. But been younger didn’t stop the younger single mothers and young girls from flirting outrageously with us, but with their mothers watching their frivolousness they would be often reprimanded. That didn’t deter them though, and it seemed like an enticement game they were playing amongst themselves. They were also very brazen in their approach because you had to be wary of them when going to the toilet. The toilets in those flats were communal, so if going, they would sneak out while their mothers were occupied elsewhere with one of the older seaman, and follow you in. The cubicle toilets were used by both sexes, and without any embarrassment they would use the one next door to one with the door open. What was also disconcerting was the sighting of the way seated haunch up on the seat, which was at times necessary because of the toilets filthy conditions, but you would also be given a cheeky grin. There also seemed no shame for some of them to flash discreetly when back in the flat sitting down. The mothers as role models were no better, because as neighbours when attending those parties would slip out with a seaman partner to their neighbours flat to have sex, or use the flat owners bedroom if they had young children at their own. Those women and young girls were not prostitutes, what it was due to was their humdrum existence and they took whatever pleasures came along to spice up their lives. Those older seaman always frequented the Chocolate Box when in port because they knew what was available, sexually safe, and they could pick and choose their sex partner without any conditions, a hold on them, and conflict amongst them.

The four of us having enough of that ‘eye opening’ experience rather made for the safer haven of our more sedate friend’s at their clubhouse. They knew that we were coming around because of me phoning Ann from the ship to shore telephone; yes we had all the mod cons of telecommunications and didn’t have to use semaphore flags to send messages. Knowing of the good time had the previous trip with us; they had invited more of their friends around and also laid on a variety of drinks. Been in good spirits, yes that too, got everyone been really sociable to the extent that Ann’s brother suggested that we go the next day and have a braai (barbeque) at a friend of his sugarcane plantation. No sooner said than done because we were picked up from the ship the next day.  What we had told them was that we would supply all of the meat, but what we didn’t tell them was where we would get it from. Ships have the biggest walk-in larders, fridges and freezers I’ve ever seen, and with the help of the chef and aid of the Gangway Master (Able-seaman on gangway watch) we just walked off with the best meat cuts and boerewors (traditional South African sausage).  Now because it was a well-known fact that the best dagga (marijuana) was grown amongst Durban’s sugarcane, didn’t come as a surprise when it was offered to us in emptied out cigarettes refilled with the good stuff,  and  Durbanites it seemed would rather have a smoke than a drink, but when in Rome do as the Romans do.  I was actually surprised to see that the women weren’t lazy in doing the same, even Ann. Now for those that don’t know how a South African braai functions let me lay out the etiquette of it. The braaier (the bloke that barbeques) has the honour of been the only one allowed to do that while the other blokes only partake in fireside conversation and to keep him supplied with beers and themselves too. The meat is very important on these occasions; not like in Oz where just ordinary sausage, chops and steak seems to always be the go here. Boerewors is a must and sausages of different flavours and thickness, lamb and pork chops, only the best steak, marinated chicken, kebabs and even a rack or two of spareribs; making my mouth water already. A braai is also known as ‘dop ‘n chop’ for the reason that ‘dop’ is Afrikaans slang for an alcoholic drink, which goes with the meat, that always also has to flow. As it is strictly a man’s domain, women are allowed to do salads, rolls and other stuff that they are good at doing, and to also keep the kids from out under the men’s feet. I’m going to be shot for that but a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do. Maybe it was the jovial atmosphere combined with drinks and the smoke that got Ann sidling up to me and been affectionate, which she hadn’t done before. Having no such intentions towards her because of seeing her only as a companion when in Durban caused me to shy away from her, but she though must have felt slighted because of approaching me about it. It wasn’t that I hid it from anyone that I was married, but in the short time making the acquaintance of many people then, it had never come up in conversation. It did then when telling her that I was happily married with two children and another one on the way, which just for the moment seemed to throw her. Ann then threw me by putting her arms around me, hugged me, gave me a kiss and then told me that was why she liked me because of my honesty and that she only wanted to be my friend.

Before knowing it we were back in Lourenco Marques again, but this time we didn’t do the jungle thing but the city thing. With its golden coastline, cosmopolitan mix and great food and nightlife, it was like no other African city. It was what it was of a really burgeoning capital; crumpled colonial charm and all. Restaurants, bars and a thriving artistic community made for a lively meeting place in the city’s centre, which was where we made for. Seaman having a habit of bars hopping when it’s in close proximity to each other because in that way they can not only make the acquaintance of many interesting locals, but also see more of the surrounds instead of staying in one location. We worked our way to a very interesting nightclub situated at the railway station barely functional but with stunning early twentieth-century architecture with long platforms and wrought-iron lattice work. It was one of the hippest nightclubs with live music and jazz that we were quite content just to kick back and chill out to, or so we thought. A few of our old-salts who had also wandered in and joined us but finding it boring,  encouraged us to go to a strip club in the red-light district that they had heard about, and haven’t yet been to one we made our way there. Horas in Portuguese are hours, but there it meant whores that were plastered with ‘horas’ signs all over the place. You could do an eni, meni, mini mo there and still find them all pretty similar, so we went into the first one we came across. There sure were plenty of real horas there who if allowed to would grope men’s crotches unashamedly and expectantly join them at the bar, demanding drinks be bought for them. That strip club  had  mirrors plastered on every possible surface, which the locals danced in front of in hypnotic reverie, and it had a full-on naked lap dance strip on the stage, which we thought more than sufficient for been first-timers there. All of that had worked up a growling appetite, so we strolled to the Costa do Sol beaches that stretched for miles along the Indian Ocean coast line with offshore carol reefs that teemed with exotic fish. At the beachfront restaurants and snack bars they served spicy dishes of seafood straight out of the ocean, with the specialty, prawn piripiri; a dish of juicy succulent prawns chilli spiced, which we had by the bucket load.

Beira our next port of call that was also in Mozambique was of real interest to me for the simple reason that I had heard of the Gorongosa Game Reserve there.  Because of the entrance to the harbour been shallow it had to be navigated through a long narrow channel, but once we were alongside and made secure, my first interest when receiving permission from the Chief Steward to go ashore early in the morning was to head straight there. Seeing the great herds of buffaloes, kudus, hippos, elephants and lions that roamed the Beira Wildlife Park, which only had a long fence that separated it from the adjacent Kruger National Park in South Africa, was the highlight of that trip. The night-time’s though was spent gallivanting with those shipmates of mine that knew every nook and cranny in which they could wallow almost like the wildlife in their pleasurable pursuits. Then it was down the coast to load cargo, take in bunkers at Cape Town, be with Joan for only one day in port, damn, and head for England.

Thinking that the voyage there would be uneventful was wishful thinking for the entire ships contingent. In the seaport of Dakar in Senegal (Western Africa) all on the ship almost didn’t continue the voyage through their stupidity. My pantry man, who was a Muslim, fell down the flight of stairs leading from the galley to the saloon when the ship rolled in high seas. He was carrying a large platter of an assortment of sliced meat cuts for the captain, chief officer and chief engineer’s lunch when that occurred, and on hearing the crash of the platter and his screams, my rushing out of the saloon found him at the bottom of the stairs with his body all twisted. He was a young fellow and on his first sea voyage, so all thoughts that he had was to get back home and his request for me to fetch his Koran. We were on our way to England and almost halfway there, so there was no way of turning back for medical treatment that he required and that was not available aboard the ship either. The nearest port of call was Dakar, and after the Sparky (wireless operator) relayed the situation, the captain was advised to lie at anchor within the seaport and not to berth the ship. That caused annoyance to the captain and officers who wanted to be underway as soon as possible because of the delay caused through having to change the ship’s course. What they didn’t seem to realize was that the country was a Socialist Democratic Republic and Muslim, and then again maybe they knew but thought that seeing that the crewman was also a Muslim that they would receive preferential consideration for bringing him there. On the other hand, because of the apartheid policies that affected South African Muslims they didn’t want any South African ship to come alongside in their port. The port authority sent a water police craft alongside the ship to achieve disembarkation of the injured seaman, but because of feeling snubbed and not getting their South African white mentality way, they wouldn’t assist. We as crew-members assisted where we could, but it was very obvious to the Senegalese that the white officers were making it difficult. As the police craft moved away with the injured seaman, other police craft, speed boats and dingy outboard powered boats could be seen speeding and making for the ship with shouting and gesturing Senegalese on board, and with some brandishing weapons. While the ships anchor was frantically hoisted, with the ships officers barking orders that were been very slowly and haphazardly obeyed by the crew, the small craft were circling the ship, and abuse from its occupants were hurled at the officers. Although in French it was to the effect that not much sympathetic consideration was giving to the Muslim seaman for affecting his immediate and expeditious removal off the ship, of which they had been notified by the police craft that took him ashore, and that they were going to blockade the ship. Our anchor had just been weighed when they began throwing grappling hooks aboard, and what got us out of harm’s way there was when the officers assisted by disgruntled crew-members manned the water hoses. The high pressure force of the water hoses were used for washing down the exterior of the ship of the salty seawater that accumulated and caused rust, but it was then used on the small sea craft and Senegalese. That was not the first time that the white South African officers thought they could throw their weight around as in apartheid South Africa.

Due to the detour to Dakar we had to go alongside for bunkers (fuel and water) at Las Palmas de Gran Canaria the co-capital of the Canary Islands of Spain off the northwest coast of Africa. Our first port of call was Glasgow in Scotland. We sailed into the North Channel towards the Firth of Clyde and up the River Clyde to Glasgow in Scotland. The city itself because of its sombre grimy appearance brought to mind that it looked like it required a good scrubbing, but all in all it was a lively and interesting place to wander around in, especially Sauchiehall Street where it was all happening. There were still groups of Teddy Boys with their supposed Edwardian style of dress of the 1950’s; however, pipe stove trousers, picker winkle shoes and dandy waistcoats seemed a bit poofish to us. Maybe that’s why we had many altercations with them that usually eventuated into verbal fights. We also learned the hard way that those of them that wore caps, had razor blades inserted in the peak brims that they used as a cowardly form of attack. Our retaliation because of receiving and having to bear the result wasn’t to their liking when as a form of defense we eventually bore switchblade knives when frequenting their dance halls. We never had to use it though because it was only a matter of producing and flicking it open, which was more effective than their caps, and when learning that South Africans had a thing about knives and were skilled in its use, they gave us a wide berth. The women who frequented those nightspots were friendlier than their counter parts, but we also learned that with them it was wise to inquire were they lived. If it was in the suburbs of terraced homes you were assured of a woman that was safe to be with and a safe passage back to the ship; however, if they lived in the city’s housing estate you took your life in your hands, both ways. It wasn’t also advisable to be in the vicinity of the rival soccer supporters of the Protestant Rangers and Catholic Celtic teams because bloody confrontation and running fights were the order of the day or night when games were in progress.

Then down the coast  of  Wales to sail up a fog swept River Mersey to Liverpool in England, which on that trip gave me no insight of what to expect once docked and ashore. I wouldn’t have also imagined in my wildest dreams that I would wander into a place called ‘The Cavern’ and listen to an unknown group that were eventually known worldwide as ‘The Beatles’ that were belting out their Mersey beat. The pubs and dance halls were also other venues to get the feel of the city from scouse (a native of Liverpool) characters that were always ready to talk. Because of the compactness of the city, transport was never a problem because we found it easy to get around on foot, and when incapable of getting back to the ship due to far much booze, buses that abounded and the suburban tube trains solved that problem. Whenever hearing the tune of ‘Ferry cross the Mersey’ it brings back nostalgic memories of the Pier Head landing stage where embarkation on the Mercy Ferries took you across the River Mercy to towns like Birkenhead for unforgettable nights of seaman’s fun. What I couldn’t believe though was when young boys on the streets would accost you to offer sex with their sisters for a packet of cigarettes. In cafes when having a meal, girls and women would approach to buy them a meal for the price of sex. In pubs, purchasing drinks for them or a couple bottles of plonk (cheap wine) to take to their place of residence would be assured a lay for the night. On buses, the tube, ferries or any mode of crowd transport they would chat you up at the drop of a hat to either invite you around for a cuppa or arrange for you to meet them at functions, which invariable resulted in having sex. The pram brigades as single mothers were known because of them pushing their babies in prams through the dockland areas were just as promiscuous. They wouldn’t bat an eyelid when approached, after negotiating not for money but scarce for them to obtain quantities of ship provisions, so as to sneak behind stacked wharf cargo and out of sight to discreetly have sex with the provider. Others would wear wharfie garb with their hair tucked under caps, sneak on board ship, and wander around the crew’s quarters and have sex with any who wanted to just so that they could stay, sleep and be fed for the ships duration in port. Many of them were promiscuous for a very good reason. England was a sea faring nation, so it wasn’t that their women weren’t acquainted with seamen who traveled the world as we did. What it was due to was that many of their men had been killed in action during World War 2 and on the home front as the still bombed out building sites attested to. And that meant that there were very much more women than men or the ones that were unattached were gay, which there were many of them. The young women who frequented the Flying Angel, a haven for seaman while in port, where there for companionship and entertainment, and the chaplain was there for succour for us. Under the watchful eyes of the chaplain they would be on their best behaviour as we moved on the floor to bodies out of reach type of dancing, and because of knowing the drill we played the real gentlemen. What occurred after when asked to see the young ladies home was another matter, and the way they sorted that out at the end of the evening was to ask that seaman for the last dance. At times there were up to twenty seamen from other ships there and only five of them. I, fortunately, always got asked, and my shipmates who missed out always wanted all the details on my return back to the ship, which wasn’t to their liking. They knew of the liking women had for me, and that was one of the reasons they vied to go ashore with me in case they got lucky, which they thought I always did. They also had the notion that my appearance was the attraction; I though thought my socialization skills the more appropriate, although people did comment on the distinctive look of my slightly greying temples, which was a family trait, my inherited olive skin and my muscular build. Good-looking to me never came in the equation but a passion for life did though, for to grasp life with both hands and to live the moment was always my philosophy.

There wasn’t much Welsh spoken in Swansea that was to be our last port of call before sailing back to Cape Town.  But there was the character and vigorous toughness of the coal miners met there with their tenacity that would have been due to their backbreaking audacious task of mining. Although finding Wales a grim grey country with its mining and quarries, it did make up for it with its superb coastal scenery when seen from aboard the ship in sailing in. Also, its magnificent medieval castles although in various states of ruination and a mile of pubs right along the harbour at Swansea that we seaman found to be the best pub-crawl in the whole of Britain. What was also found was that some of the women who frequented those pubs had the tendency in wanting to keep to one partner while in port. Seaman on the whole or the ones sailed with and were my shipmates were very particular who they chatted up, especially when berthed most times for up to a week in port. Because they were that selective, it always made it a safe bet that the women would be safe too, particularly if they took a fancy to a crewman and spent the duration of the stay in port aboard the ship in his cabin. It wasn’t allowed; however, because the gangway watchman was always one of the deck crew that did the same, and with the pubs in close proximity to the ship, it was a simple matter to go back to the ship and bring back ashore a change of seaman’s clothing for them to slip on as a disguise to fool the officer on watch who was most times in his cabin. With the crew’s quarters back aft away from the officers that were amidships, those women wouldn’t only indulge their sexual needs but also their human needs like their washing, ironing, and clothing running repairs and cleaning of the cabin. Cooks were the earliest rises in the morning of the crew for the daily baking, making of breakfast and the preparation of lunch and dinner for officers, crew and passengers at times, so their late night cajoling was limited when going ashore. Because of that, feeding those women was no problem because they also saw to their human needs in reciprocation for meals received. When partying in our cabins, which was most nights after going ashore and coming back, they were then entertained if not having women of their own to be in their company and to dance with them. There were also those of the crew though who either brought women not of that calibre aboard and who would wander around from cabin to cabin trying to sell their wares to ever who was so inclined. Or whom they couldn’t smuggle aboard and had sex with them in the many still standing though devastated oil refineries and numerous factories, which had been judged a worthy target by the Luftwaffe in the centre of Swansea during WW2, and came back aboard alone. They too would join in our partying that then extended out of the cabins and into the alleyways. That trip to me was a real education of how the other half of the world lived. However, having been fully cargo loaded we were then sailing back to Cape Town.

Image

S S South African Merchant. Aft (back) crews quarters. Poop Deck – Top of quarters. Amidships – Samson Post (vertical post), Rigging’s (boom-masts, ropes). Midships – Deck House. Deck – Officers Quarters and Mess room (eating saloon) starboard and port-side. Companion way (stairway to passenger deck). Passengers Quarters and Saloon. Boat Deck – Lifeboats. Pilot House – Steering and Navigation and Captains Quarters. Forehead – Storage and anchors.

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