Monday, November 3, 2014

2014 update

Here are the last four ships I have worked on, serving as Master, over the past 8 years: Currently on the Helix 534, Mobile Offshore Drilling Unit, well servicing in the Gulf of Mexico. Previously (briefly) Sapurakencana 3500, pipe lay and heavy lift on sea trials and delivery from Shang Hai, China to Jahore Baru, Malaysia. Global 1200, pipe lay and heavy lift in the western hemisphere; Ghana, Venezuela, Mexico, US. HOS Achiever, Multi Purpose Subsea Construction Vessel, Gulf of Mexico (Macondo oil spill remediation) and one trip to Norway for a crane installation.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Going to Kandy

First trip to sea, first cargo port. 1970. When we reached our discharge port, Colombo, we were brought to a cargo pier that was, as always in those days, in the center of the city. My extreme fortune was to go to sea at the last possible moment when cargo was still being carried in small ships to small ports. Containerization hadn't come along yet in such numbers that required new dock yards to be built miles from town. So when you had crossed the ocean you were brought into the port and nestled against ancient stone wharves next to equally ancient warehouses and cargo, in this case bagged grain, was unloaded by large gangs of longshoremen. We would position the derricks for them, "yard and stay" rigged over the dock and the hatch. We would open the hatches, taking off the tarps and pontoons.. Usually a tarp was used to keep rain out by hanging it from the cargo runner when the hatch was not being worked. Men needed to move bagged cargo numbered in the dozens. In addition to this there was always the possibility of a "shore gang" It worked this way. I made $40 a day plus overtime.. The only overtime I could make in port was on the gangway watch since we weren't doing maintenance. But, I was still supposed to work 8 hrs on weekdays. So the Captain would allow the Bos'n to hire a couple of guys to work for me. I gave him $10 a day and I was free to go ashore except for gangway watches, every third day. The Bos'n would keep $5 from each member of the deck dept who did this and hire twice as many natives to get the maintenance done. They were given hand tools and were able to clean out the hard to get rust (under the hatch coamings, etc.) for about a dollar an hour. I found myself free to go ashore, two days at a time! Not having much money left to spend, I didn't really do much, but I did try to get clear of the city and see the country of Ceylon (Sri Lanka).

As I walked across a busy street which was swarming with people someone leaning against a wall motioned for me to come talk to him. Reluctantly I approached this strange, brown man wearing the long white skirt (doti) that everyone seemed to wear. He said "No matter where you go in the world there are always more good people than bad people, or else there wouldn't be any people" I thanked him and went on my way, relieved that he had seemed to be a good person. I asked two policemen where the train station was and they asked me what was in my wrist band. I made a mental note to not wear the wrist band ashore any more. They recommended that I take a taxi, that it wouldn't be that much money and would be a lot quicker and safer.. So, for about $10 I hired the first car they hailed for me and we all decided I could make it to Kandy and back in a day. I had no idea where I was going, but they seemed to know best.

That taxi took me all the way to Kandy, which was about two hours into the center of the island, up into palm tree forest covered mountains to a couple of thousand ft elevation. this was a great discovery to me. The old capital of the kingdom of Ceylon. The taxi took me to a Buddhist temple that was older still, built by the ancient kings of the realm. It was the temple of the Tooth, because it had one of Buddha's teeth enshrined there. The tapestries depicted an incisor; the floors were teak as were the beams and ceilings. After being instructed to remove my shoes I was allowed to go into the center of the temple and view the casket where the tooth was enshrined. In another week, I was told by my pious taxi driver, the annual festival celebrating the tooth would take place. One hundred elephants would parade throughout the city from and back to the temple. These animals would be decorated to the max, with silks, gold fittings and painted brightly. The lead elephant carries the casket (which is really seven concentric caskets) made of ebony, ivory and gold. and troops would guard the procession until it was back safely in the temple. Man, did I want to see that. Still do. As we headed back down the mountain we stopped for dinner and there were two Western travelers there (the backpacking kind) who marveled that an 18 year old kid from a cargo ship could afford to hire a taxi for the day. We also stopped at a river where some guys were washing their elephants, used for skidding logs out of the woods. The driver talked them into letting me ride one for a few minutes. We also stopped at a tea plantation where dozens of women were picking tea leaves over a mountainside, visible from the road side stop where we had a cup of the same tea. The girls that were nearby came over to see who the driver had with him. This was another world away from any world I ever thought existed. One last stop at a huge tree which had medicinal properties. At the driver's insistence I chewed a leaf and felt my whole face grow numb for a few minutes! He couldn't explain what it was, but everyone knew about it. I hope nothing has changed in the past 46 years so that when I do return I can be reminded of that time and place and update this story with more details.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Columbia Baron, part 2

Repairs were needed to the bricks in the fire room after the explosion during lighting off in Texas, but all we really did was bunker in Trinidad. this involved being anchored for a couple of nights there and gave me a chance to explore.. I never had been anywhere tropical, so most of the day was spent walking around town looking at all the weird trees and just soaking it in. The night before I'd gone ashore on the launch with a few of the other guys who seemed to know where to go. As soon as we stepped on the dock we were met by "shore pilots" a common occurrence in any third world port in those days. Someone who hopes to benefit from steering you in the direction of one place of business or another. This tropical gentleman steered us to the Admiral Benbow Inn, a few blocks from the dock. This was a place where you could order drinks and dance with the girls. There was also "rooms" in the back which had chicken wire walls above 6'. No air conditioning. It was the first time I had ever seen a juke box with a video screen. In fact, the only time. One of the girls that sat at our table was very interested in the leather wrist band I had worn. It had a place in it for folding money and she wanted me to take it off. That didn't happen.. and I made it clear that I didn't want to dance either.
Surviving the first port, some kids my age threw rocks at me when I ventured away from the center of town, so I went back down the flower covered streets and found the launch boat again. When we finally heaved anchor and steamed out around the island all the old guys were passed out, drunk in their rooms. When the Captain called down for us to secure the gangway, as it was still rigged outboard and the ship was starting to roll in the Ocean swell, no one showed up to help the Bos'n except us ordinary seaman. This became quite a chore as this steel stairway was hinged at the turntable at the upper end and was moving around a lot. We got a few lines around it and took the stanchions out, then folded it back inboard to its stowed position. When the ABs sobered up and tried to tell us we were too young to work with them on the hatch tops, maintaining the cargo gear, we called them on it and the Bos'n backed us up. So our lot in life improved, as long as we stayed sober.
We had lost the third mate to a stroke while we were anchored there, taking fuel. He was an old Norwegian sailor, who had started on square riggers when he was 12 years old, fifty years before, in 1920. He had really cool tattoos, the old kind, that spoke about a seafaring life that no longer in existed. Just think, when he was 18 guys he worked with that had been sailing for fifty years had started to sea in the 1870s. As he was carried down the gangway in a stretcher I spoke up to the Bos'n that I wanted to go home too, since I had been sea sick the whole way (9 days) from Texas. He turned to someone on the upper deck who I hadn't ever met and said "Captain, this kid says he's sick and wants to go home" The answer: "Tell him he signed on for a year" I didn't ask again. Felt better soon after that as well..
the trip to Durban (the Suez canal was closed due to fighting between Israel and Egypt) took over two weeks at 12 kts. Once we crossed the equator the air got cooler and drier, and the swells longer and higher. The constellations of the N hemisphere sank below the northern horizon a little more each night and strange ones rose higher in the southern sky. As I stood my lookout, on the dark and silent steamship I could see Scorpio really take shape, claws first and finally the whole tail, covering that whole quadrant of the zodiac. Finally the Southern Cross, around which the southern celestial hemisphere turns, spoke of another section of the galaxy that had been hidden from me my whole life. Ships are "space ships" in a really low, slow orbit. More so in those days when the only way to know where you were was to triangulate the stars. The fact that we traveled along on a curved surface just made it seem all the more as if we were thrust out into space, the atmosphere acting as our windshield. Navigators are completely caught up in these facts: the earth is turning on its axis 900 mph (at the equator) The sun takes 365 days to circumnavigate and due to earth's tilted axis, precession the seasons take place. Add our speed and direction and there is plenty to account for before you know where you might be under heaven. There's local apparent time, zone time, Greenwich mean time.
None of this mattered too much to me at that time. We approached Durban in close to the coast of South Africa. A little more repair work to the fire brick, more bunker fuel and I managed to go ashore for a day. The city sits on a low bluff looking east into the Indian Ocean. The surf is good enough to attract even Australians. Because of Apartheid, the black part of town was as off limits to us as the city was to them. This struck me as an unsustainable situation. I had to pass by a black night club on the way back to the ship, and since I had sat in a white night club without talking to anyone earlier I was reminded of Trinidad where everyone (all black) had talked to us! Just as I passed the front door a fight burst through the front door, or rather a stabbing victim of a fight. He lay there on the side walk, bleeding so that I had to pass around him and still no one would even look at me or acknowledge my existence. Amazing. Hope he made it. I made it back to the ship and we sailed for Colombo.
The seas were rough most of the way, the first day out of port we all had to go on deck to secure everything, the ship changed course and slowed down so we wouldn't be swept overboard, but we still got plenty wet and hung on to a line rigged fore and aft to go anywhere. I said "25 foot seas" in my journal (which didn't have much information in it about such conditions) You can smell India as you cross the Indian Ocean. They burn cow dung for cooking. As you get closer the overall sense is that the other side of the world is "a world apart" where everything is different. "Caution" doesn't describe the feeling that you get.. Of course once you're there and find out that people, animals, plants all live and thrive there you are drawn into that dreamy, eastern realm trying to understand, knowing you will never figure it out or fit in.

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Last voyage of the SS Columbia Baron

Columbia Steam Ship Company was based in Portland, Oregon. Like many other small shipping companies still around in the 50's and 60's they carried cargo during the Viet Nam war. In 1970 I was 18 and getting out of high school in Houston, Tx. I had to register for the draft at school that year and my number in the lottery system indicated I had a good chance of getting drafted. Since I didn't plan for college I decided to go to sea, which would effectively take me out sight, out of mind if my number came up. The Seafarer's Union didn't forward any mail from bill collectors, parole officers, federal investigators, etc. One week after I came home a graduate, I found my Dad showing my Mom where Ceylon was in the Encyclopedia and found out he had heard of a ship I could get job on that was going there and beyond. A summer job; and then I was to enroll in "college" with the money I would make. As Senior Invsetigating Officer in the Marine Inspection Office of the Coast Guard he knew the guys at the Union Hall well enough to get me a job. I had gone to his office, which was near the ship channel and we had gone aboard a US cargo ship. We went in the fidley and looked own into the engine room.. too confining, and hot. On deck I felt much better and the running rigging was in use, loading cargo. This seemed like a better bet. When the ship arrived we went to Hall together and in the side door to the Patrolman's office. The ship channel in the background out his window, he said I just missed an "acting AB" (Able Seaman position) job on a ship that left that morning. Pier head jump. Just as well, I took an Ordinary Seaman job on the Columbia Baron. Later I would find out that there were 7 high school and college kids working aboard. The reason we all got jobs for the summer would become clear during the trip as we heard the story some of the homesteaders (senior union members who stayed on more than one trip) had to tell.
My whole family and a few neighborhood friends rode with us when I went to join the ship. Berthed at a cargo dock in Corpus Christi, loaded with bagged grain and making ready to "sail". Steamships sail when they depart. The deck department were working overtime to stow the cargo gear when we pulled up on the dock, eye level with all hands who were leaning on the rail taking a break to see who was arriving at the last minute. I took my new sea bag full of new work clothes into the house and found my room after the Bosn looked me over and winked at my Mom when he said I could just go get ready for letting go lines. They would handle the dirty work on deck. The other kids in the car laughed to think I would be allowed to do anything that exotic. When I came out my Dad was talking to the gangway watch who it turned out was someone he knew. Paul "Red" King. He had taken his seaman's document the year before when he pulled a knife on another crew member. He was gaining Red's assurance that, in order to prevent any further loss of income from a subsequent loss of seaman's document, him and the crew would "keep an eye" on me my first trip. Great. Just as my family drove away there was a fire box explosion and and an ambulance came down the dock to get the fireman/watertender "Whitey" who hadn't set the burner all the way in and gotten burned trying to light off the boiler. We got the fire box repaired (bricks had gotten knocked lose) in Trinidad, our bunker port a week later. Whitey failed to make the trip. Hearing the sirens, my parents came back along the dock and found out what had happened from the Bos'n.. They also still had my pillow from home along and I was called to get it and bring it to my room while everyone smiled again.
This wasn't exactly as I had envisioned "leaving home" in my mind during boring classes in high school when I decided to seek adventure on the high seas. Sailing was delayed and I saw my folks one more time the next day when they were leaving to go back to Houston. We had lowered the lifeboat over the dock to scrape and paint it and I was finally dirty from working and could shake my Dad's hand goodbye and wave at my Mom without feeling childish. Don't worry, I'll be fine. Yes, I'll write.

I was on the mid watch. Which meant I worked from midnight to 0400 and then again from noon to 1600. It took some getting used to, and I din't start working overtime in the mornings until we cleared Trinidad. I remember waking up a few hours after we had left the dock in Texas and seeing some islands in the moonlight out the port hole. I thought I was already seeing the world! It turned out to be dredge spoils in Corpus Christi Bay. the pilot boat that night was a sailboat according to my watch partner.. Even though there were sailing pilot boats in the early 20th century, I have no idea why Port Aransas pilots were using one in 1970.
So, off we went, I was signed on to Articles and my home country was falling away astern to never be seen again by the same person. When I would fly home four month later from Taiwan by way of San Francisco I would not be even remotely the same. Unfortunately, I stayed sea sick, slept until noon, had trouble sleeping after dinner and generally was a mess for the trip to the West Indies. Finally, one night on wheel watch I passed out at the wheel. The Chief Mate had to take a look at me and figured out that the problem was mostly constipation, from changing diet, no excercise and dehydration due to the sea sickness. The cure was prescribed by the Bos'n. Get on deck after breakfast and work, which I did. Seas were boarding onto the main deck occasionally and it didn't matter if I didn't make it to the rail to puke. After a while I felt better and didn't have to see the Chief Mate again, which suited me fine.
The mate on my watch was a short hispanic guy who had been in WW II just a few years (25 to be exact) before. He seemed really old to me. We called all the old guys "schizos" because they would be really mad one minute and then happy and foolish the next.. no real in between for most of them. Forget the fact that they had been torpedoed and shot at in their lifeboats when they were my age. We just thought they were exagerrating everything to do with this. It couldn't be that hard! The crew for that little ship was over 40 people. Good thing since we were all only partially capable of making the thing go through the Ocean and around the World.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

SS Warrior Part I

In the mid seventies I was in a program with the Seafarer's Union to get full seniority. This involved training at the Harry Lundberg School in Piney Point, Maryland (Mike Sacco taught the class) and then working at the hiring hall in Brooklyn, NY. While I was working in New York I availed myself to the Union's library and archives next to the hall. There I found microfiche records of newspaper articles going back to the start of the Sailor's Union of the Pacific. I also attended morning meetings held by Frank Drozak who was President at the time.

At some point I was given a job and my training was over. I flew out to join a Sealand ship in Europe, the Warrior. Big company, great run, 6 month contract since it didn't involve coming back to the States as it was a "feeder" ship. Sealand was rebuilding a few ships for military cargo that would connect Rotterdam and the Persian Gulf through the Mediteranean Sea. We and two other ships were filling in by moving containers from Italy to Rotterdam.

When we arrived in Lisbon we found out the deal. The ships were out of lay up. Old C-2 class freighters, built in the late 40s and early 50s, with all their cargo gear removed, could carry about 250 containers. They made about 8 knots on a good day. The Warrior had been in a bit of trouble during the start of their service in Europe. I joined the ship in Lisbon where they had been in the shipyard. Portugal was trying communism and the workers didn't seem to want to work, the Captain said they would play soccer most of the day instead.

The old ship sailed. It was November. The decision was made to stay away from the northern passage to Rotterdam, across the Bay of Biscay and through the English Channel into the North Sea to the Maas River.. All rough waters for and elderly vessel. Steamships have a life span of about 30 years.. and this one had come out of "moth balls" to fill in on the run. So off we went to the south and into the Mediterranean where we stayed until winter was over. I guess that means the other two old ships had to make the northern leg. We were missing an anchor that had been cut off when the ship was towed into the shipyard without power.

The mid point of the European feeder run I am talking about was Algeciras Spain. Across the bay from Gibraltar. Ocassionally an SL 7 would call there from the States.. We tried to get groceries from them at times. Those ships were/are close to 1000' long and would do 30 kts if you could afford the fuel. We could see them on the horizon with a noticeable rooster tail as they rang up sea speed leaving. We, on the other hand spent a few days drifting along the coast of Algeria and went under tow for Genoa, one end of our service along the west coast of Italy. Naples was the southern end with Livorno (Leghorn) in the middle.. near Pisa.

We were shooed away from the coast of Monaco by their "Coast Guard" which was a yacht with Royal crew members that had guns. "You are disturbing our guests" (at the casinos and resorts.. who were probably ship owners) OK we were a little rusty, but the hull was black anyway.

We tied up to a stone quay in the old port. At this point, the company began to loose favor with the crew.. Most of the officers got off. It was Christmas time anyway, for the unlicensed guys to also get off there would be penalties. Without power we had not heat, no hot water. I took a bath in a bucket of cold water on deck and left the ship for the holiday. The Captain hadn't issued a draw against our wages, so without money (no debit cards in those days kids) I walked the streets looking for a Christmas miracle.

I came to the stree where Colombus was born! It said so on an arched entry to the narrow old street.. Up the street was a police station and when they heard my story they let me sleep there; "hey, maybe you are the next Colombus" At least it was warm. I ate at the seaman's center which was in part of an old castle near the port. Great town. The company should have put us up ashore at that point. More about this later.

When I went back to the ship it was sunny and calm and we actually moved it along the pier by hand! too cheap to hire a tug! bastards. we hooked up handy billy (tackle) to the mooring lines and laid into it as the aft crew slacked their lines and the ship drifted along the pier obediently for about a ship length. Eventually we had power again, the holidays were over, we loaded for Spain and departed. The pilots hated us.

Since the original Captain had gone home, the office sent out a retired Captain and a Port Engineer as Chief to try to make her go enough to continue. They were having loads of fun. We were not impressed. One thing that really bothered me, even though I was just a helmsman, was that the RADAR was disconnected and under a tarp on the wing of the bridge. We sailed for months like this. Being without eyes in any bad visibility has some interesting consequences.

By now most of the officers had gotten replaced with whoever their union could catch. The mate on my watch was from Ohio; having sailed during WW II after becoming a "90 day wonder" through the US Maritime Academy at King's Point. When the war was over he went home until now, kid's needed money for college, back to sea. One night approaching Naples with passing rain showers and no moon the Capt had told him to be on the lookout for the S. tip of Sardinia which should show a light off our port bow. We were making our usual 9 kts and I reported a light to stbd a couple of times, apparently passing along on an opposite course. He continued looking to port for the light house. In the rain the intermittent light that I saw didn't exhibit any characteristics that he was looking for. After a while he got a little nervous and called the Capt, who showed up in his sock feet.. Without saying a word the Old Man went out on the wing of the bridge in the rain and hollered "hard right" almost immediately. When I spun the wheel and began to bring the ship around it became clear that the swell, which had been behind us, had increased. In fact it seemed to pull at us, in the direction we were just headed. Not a good feeling. Looking out the open hatch to port where both the Capt and the Mate stood now I saw fingers of white jump up at regular intervals, fairly close.. a mile or two? Not the horizon anyway, on fact, it was the base of the cliffs of SW Sardinia! We steamed around to a little more than 90 degrees to stbd. and the Capt went below, slamming the wheelhouse door. The Mate was visibly shook up, having almost wrecked the ship on the rocks. After a while we did indeed see the light to port and kept it to port as we turned east again and proceeded to Naploli. I didn't rub it in about the light I had been reporting. Its just a fact that without RADAR mariners have to think a lot harder and never let their guard down. Pessimism is the order of the day if you want to keep all together and be allowed to carry on with your business. No day dreaming, no sky larking or wishful thinking.. The sea doesn't care about those things. It demands "pay attention or I will cost you everything".

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

SS Penn Leader

In 1974 (or so) I was waiting for a ship in New Orleans. Shipping was always better in Houston, but I had reconnected with friends in New Orleans and didn't mind that it took longer to get a job. While I waited I worked for a jeweler on Royal St named Mr Antin. He told me he had stowed away on a ship from Brooklyn when he was a teenager and came to the Crescent City to seek his fortune.

After a few months of waiting at the union hall my shipping card had enough seniority to get me a job on the Penn Leader, bound for India. I was standing on the levee talking to a friend when the old ship passed by, going to load grain. When I told her that I was going to India on that ship she just laughed as if I was making it all up! I would be gone for close to four months.

The Penn Leader was a converted T-2 tanker; hatches had been added to allow the WWII era steam tanker to haul sugar from Hawaii. This was to be her last trip and, as I learned later, the Captain was not happy with the fate of his ship. He hated India and took sick as soon as we arrived in port, leaving us for a hospital stay in New Delhi.

We sailed the same route that my first trip had taken, around the Cape of Good Hope, stopping in Durban, South Africa for bunkers and arriving, over a month after leaving New Orleans, off the port of Madras. We then spent two weeks at anchor before we entered port and began to unload our cargo. One day we swam off the back of the ship and even though we were far offshore and the water was clear, we all got sick with sore throats and ears. We were innoculated!

Once at the dock I was able to call home on Christmas day! A great difficulty in those days. When I finally got a call through at the public long distance company it was evening, but I woke my parents up before dawn due to the time difference. I also went to the market nearest the ship and made friends with someone my age who found me a bicycle, which I bought for $20 and was able to sell back to him when I left (for slightly less) That helped a lot since everything interesting in town was a little too far from the docks to walk. Taxis aren't very convenient if you're not sure where you're going. One night when I was on my way back to the ship a police officer, also on a bike rode alongside me for a while to tell me "you must not ride without holding the handlebars" I just kept riding and disagreed politely with him until he gave up. Not sure what he would have done if I had stopped.

Soon after we arrived, the ship became infested with cock roaches. We couldn't really work during the day due to the method of unloading which involved about 75 people being on board. The grain had to be scooped into sand slings and lifted to a rail car where it could then be bagged. We were unloading around 1,000 tons a day. We were in port close to a month!

When the Captain left the young Chief Mate was in charge of the ship. I gave away my gangway watches and took a week off, from Christmas to New Year. The Captain had been holding us to the minimum draw allowed by law, $60 a week. He didn't want us to waste money in this country that he disliked so much. So I borrowed $60 more from Chilinski, one of the older ABs and bought a plane ticket to New Delhi! The plane flight took a few hours I realized how big India really was and wondered if I was doing the right thing. By the time I got to New Delhi I had to buy a wool blanket! It had been cold for a few days and I was going north by train to Rishikesh. I knew this was near the mountains and higher in elevation, on the Ganges River. The Beatles had studied meditation there. What I didn't know yet was that the train took all night and I would have to take a "tonga", a two wheeled horse drawn carriage, for another hour after Hardwar, the last stop for the train.

Once I arrived at the end of the trail I took an open ferry boat across the river. This was Rishikesh, a collection of Ashrams along the Ganges River at the place where it comes out of the mountains and onto the plains of northern India. The river is crystal clear at this point. On the ride across I noticed fish below us that looked like trout, only they were 4-6 feet long! When I got excited about it, pointing and talking loudly to anyone who would listen, one of the other boat passengers made sure I understood that "No one fishes here. No one ever hunts or eats meat of any kind. This is the one of the most sacred places of Hinduism." I assured him that I knew that, but that those were really big trout.

I got out of the ferry and headed up the hill. I was told by everyone at the landing that the Ashram I was asking about was twice as expensive as the ones along the river that were about $1.50 a day. I felt recklessly rich even though I had very little money. For my $3.00 I was given a large suite of rooms, my own bathroom (even though the water was cold) and two teas a day. The main meal was lentils and chapati, bread that I watched being made on the open coals of a wood fire in the room where the cook worked. No one was at the ashram as it was winter, except two other Americans. They were in school in Benares, down the river a few hundred miles. They said they were preparing to go farther up river on their spring break when the water level is low and pilgrims seek out the high valleys of the Himalayas where many yogis live in caves. Uttar Kashi, one of those valleys, had been described to me by Maharishi when I first met him at Humbolt University in Arcata, California.

As we meditated and lived quietly, going back to the landing for fruit and yogurt (which came in coconut shells, unrefrigerated) we met one of the other yogis who accompanied Maharishi in the West at that time, Satchitananda. He had been an attorney before he became a yogi and he asked me what life on the ship was like. I was a little confrontational in my answer perhaps: "Its like an Ashram, only there is no God" He stopped talking to me and showed me the heel of his bare foot, a universal insult in the East. Our conversation was over. I guess I was trying to pursue the question I had been asking about "a blind date with God" (after Cosmic Conciousness, God Consciousness is achieved) when I had studied with Maharishi in Spain. My point was, "how can we be expected to pursue a practice that promises this without any discussion of the nature, character or origin of God. Transcendental Meditation was taught and learned as a scientific way to use one's physiology (breathing, awareness) to purify thoughts and emotions (the soul).

I took a day off and hiked up into the foothills. After the initial jungles near the river the path leading up was through relatively open woods. There were wild peacocks and large monkeys. The monkeys gravitated to wherever people were and had really big teeth. I had thrown a rock at one that sat outside my room for a few days staring at me.. he didn't budge, just moved his head to avoid the rock. I was instantly repentant for my transgression against the order of the region. I had hiked for about two hours when I came out of the trees onto a barren ridge and could see the snow covered peaks of the Himalayas! I was in the midst of a Himalayan village of small stone houses.

There was a pile of stones on the ridge with a small, hand forged iron trident laying across it. As I picked it up to look at it and contemplated taking it with me, I looked below to what I thought was an abandoned stone building with no roof. There was a man and a bunch of kids looking up at me from inside! I soon found out this was the (roofless) school for a small village of people who lived on this ridge. The teacher brought the kids up to meet me. He spoke English and explained that the kids didn't speak Hindi, which he was there to teach them. I had put the trident back and he explained that it was the sacred symbol of the God Shiva. The pile of rocks was the shrine for the village. He further explained that when the shrine had been disturbed in the past a tiger had come up out of the river valley and killed one of the villagers. I was really glad I hadn't disturbed it too much. He went on to explain that the village owned a rifle and would go to the river side to hunt deer! So there you go, I was less than 3-4 miles from the landing where I was told that no one ever ate meat! India; it seemed that every mile changes things by a few thousand years. These villagers had to carry water up from the river to water their barley crop and the teacher asked if I could arrange for a pump that would lift water from the river up to their barely patches. I still want to meet that request some day.

On the way back down the path I met someone about my age who had been sent by his Master to the valley to bring back one squash, which he carried like a baby, back up into the mountains.. And so life goes there, with a lot of footwork. I also went with the Americans to see a yogi who lived in a cave very close to Rishikesh. He had been there for forty years or so, he had dreadlocks that reached the floor when he stood up. Even though it was cold, he had nothing to wear but a loin cloth, no furniture in his cave except a picture of Shiva on the wall above a wooden platform that made it easier to do his asanas. He knew Maharishi and of his work in the West as a watered down attempt to interest people in the yogic practices described in the Vedas, which had given rise to Hinduism. He didn't see the point, the interpreter said we were practicing the McDonalds version of those ancient truths. We went away glad that we did not have to approach any other yogis to be able to practice our watered down version of knowledge that would eventually enlighten our consciousness (In those days I was hoping it wouldn't lead to a "blind date" with God).

We three went on one last hike before I had to leave for the city. I had a plane to catch back to Madras to rejoin my ship! We wanted to climb down from where we were staying to the river. The bluff below the Ashram was steep as a cliff, soft clay and sand. I thought we could make it so I went first. I fell about twenty feet and cut the heel of my left foot. The guys waved goodbye and went back. I still had another twenty feet or so to the river which, at that point was a deep pool with a dead water buffalo in it! It took a while to summon the courage to dive into the river, which turned out cold and swift. I made it to the gravel bar upstream and back to my room, but not without getting rejected by Shiva. The river Ganges is considered to be his hair, so before I dove, I asked him for help! It seemed that some huge elemental force or voice answered, but in the form of a question that was not addressed to me: "Is this one of your followers?" followed by: "Because he is not really one of mine" It seemed as well that the answer came back as "Yes, but he doesn't know it". I had my idea of who it might have been that answered, but I kept it to myself and reassured, dove in, hoping it would work out in my favor.

When I got to Delhi with a makeshift bandage on my foot and only a few dollars, I found out that there was an airplane pilots strike. I had to rent (for one dollar a night) a cot in the hall of a hotel in Old Delhi that catered to European junkies. Hippies who came there to live out their days as heroin addicts. They didn't sleep much so neither did I. The following day I found the Meditation Center, near embassy row, and they let me sleep on the floor for another night. After a third night back in the city I was able to board the plane to Madras, but when I arrived at that airport I had to beg money for the train into the city. Begging in India is somewhat acceptable if you are lower class but it was disturbing to most of the crowd at the train station when I did it, even though I was limping by this time on what I thought was an infected foot.

When I finally made it to the port my ship wasn't there! The street urchins that lived in the port felt sorry for me and told me that the American ship had finished unloading and had been moved to another berth awaiting departure. I was very glad to get back aboard the old ship! The Chief Mate had the agent send a Doctor to look at my foot. He heard my story and said that the reason it wasn't infected was that there are many sulphurous hot springs that feed into the Ganges above Rishikesh. He added that it was still a miracle that I made it four days on the streets in India without contracting an infection.

We fed the urchins, who would climb the mooring lines and eat left overs from a bucket on deck. I gave the one that had told me where the ship was a tee shirt which came down to his knees and he wore it every day, the leader of his troop. Those little guys don't live long, a twelve year old is an elder statesman. I asked the Captain if I could pay off and stay in India to hike up the Ganges in the spring and he said "Absolutely not, this is not a fit place to leave any American" and we sailed for Singapore.

The ship was sold in Singapore and I tried to pay off again, but Singapore would not allow any one to stay unless they had their airfare to their home country, which was $800; a lot of money in those days. Impossible to get as there were no cash machines. Pay off was back in New York when we arrived at JFK at midnight, there was a dispute between the crew and the company over living conditions as there had been almost 90 days without cold water so we hadn't been able to take a shower without cooling the water off in a bucket. We settled for half of what we were due; $15 a day x 45 days.. Our flight home had taken two days due to a long plane trip through the Mideast and Europe during the fuel shortage. It was winter and I went to New Haven to stay with Kelvin Chin at Yale where I slept on their couch for 24 hours! I still had the wool blanket I bought in New Delhi and still wore it as a coat (Kelvin made sure to explain where I had just come from when we were out around the campus) until I left for New Orleans on the train. The "Southern Crescent" was full of people going to Mardi Gras and I felt like a King returning to his kingdom from exile.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

Matarani, Peru

Our last port leaving South America was in Peru, just over the border with Chile. We had made three ports in Chile, some only for a few hours. We heard from Customs officials that Chile and Peru were having a border dispute, a few miles away and both armies were facing off with soldiers and artillery. This port stop was for cargo to carry back to the US, lead ore. Its a heavy cargo so a small pile in the bottom of a couple of cargo holds was a shipload. I stayed on after we unloaded in Tacoma to clean the holds and found out that it was more than just a greasy, dark sand as it burned my skin when we were hosing down.

The ship looked small as we climbed up out of the port to the bus stop, going to town. There was one dock, a very small harbor surrounded by cliffs, and the Pacific Ocean beyond that. The loading equipment clanged and banged as it delivered ore by conveyor from the mine in the side of the mountain. This was also the port where the Spanish had loaded ships with gold taken from the Inca capital of Cuzco, which is only a few miles inland but high in the Andes Mountains. When we got to the bus stop we noticed how bleak the landscape was and found out we had about an hour to wait for a bus. There were about 6 of us and we walked around, across the road, back over to the edge of the cliff above the port.

For hundreds of meters in every direction there were crumbled walls and broken pottery so we began picking up pieces of pottery and glass and wondering why there was so much. One of the workers from the port came across the road to walk with us and explained:

In the 1500's after Pizzarro had conquered the Incas and taken their Emperor captive ships started coming to collect the gold that the Spaniards were taking from the empire. Gold to an Inca was the sacred blood of their Mother Earth. So all their gods and goddesses, sacred animals, etc. anything they loved was made into gold statues. Also gold masks, jewelry, etc all had religious significance. The priests that were with the Spanish soldiers were determined to stop idol worship and almost all the gold was melted down and carried down the mountains to the ships to send back to Spain.

The town that grew up here, above the port attracted goldsmiths who made the gold into chains, crucifixes, etc. so that it would be suitable for the King, God's representative on earth. The town was rich. Ships brought the finest dishes, perfume, clothes, etc. from Europe for the Europeans who lived there. Also along for the ride were rats. After many years and a lot of dead Incas, sunken ships, broken hearts.. Bubonic plague ravaged the town, killing the inhabitants. The riches from high in the mountains slowed to a trickle and the ships quit arriving. Then over the next 400 years the houses crumbled and nothing remained but broken dishes and perfume bottles. They looked like little footballs, only dark blue.

As we were looking closer to the edge of the cliff the youngest in our group let out a scream! He had been poking around at something that looked like a barbeque pit with a corrugated iron lid. When he opened the lid he dropped it and we all went to see what he found. There was a row of skulls lined up along a wall under the lid, all looking out to sea! The Peruvian port worker explained that this was done by the Indians (Incas) from the mountains. When they realized the Spaniards had all died and no new ones were coming and that there were no more rats or plague in the town they collected a few skulls to put as a warning to any future invaders from the sea.

We left our collected pieces of pottery near the skulls and went back to the bus station to wash our hands. We didn't feel real good about taking the lead ore at that point, but went to town anyway when the bus came. In the 15 mile ride there was not one blade of grass or thorns, nothing alive. It has never rained along the coast there, all the moisture from the sea rises up into the Andes and waters the home of the Incas. Town was dusty, quiet.. kind of strange for a weekend. We bought a few souvenirs at the hardware store and got back on the bus.

Just as the bus came around the last curve in the road at the edge of town and started to climb into the bare hills I looked at the outlying neighborhood of the town. What I saw was hundreds of people walking with candles! In the dark this was an astonishing sight. I tried to ask around on the bus as to what was going on, but it was mostly Indians and they wouldn't say. Was it a Catholic holiday? A local tradition? Something to do with the skulls? The bus went back to the port and we walked back to the ship in silence.

The next day as we were finishing cargo we heard that war with Chile was over after a few artillery rounds had been fired by each side. No one was killed. The leaders of the two countries were satisfied about their borders after all. We sailed for the States with a little bit more of Mother Earth in our holds.