nichollsretirementproject

Archive for the month “March, 2016”

Passing the time.

When we mentioned to people that we were planning to finish our prolonged journey home from Papua New Guinea with three weeks on a container ship, (not a cruise ship, a container ship), their reactions fell into two distinct categories: those who said “Are you completely crazy?” and those, fewer in number, who said “How exciting!”  Some people even wondered whether we would find ourselves sleeping in a shipping container.

Well, for those people, here’s our cabin, which soon became our home and our cocoon.

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The other question that was frequently asked was “Won’t you be bored?”  Well the answer has to be ‘No, absolutely not.’  Somehow, every day seemed to fill itself.  What I never realised is that it is possible to stare at an ocean for extended periods of time and not even notice the time passing.  I suppose it is a form of meditation, but watching the wake of this huge ship was an endlessly changing view of which we never tired.

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One morning, as we were doing one of our tours of inspection around the outer gangway of the ship, we spotted a whale – only very briefly – but nevertheless we saw it and I almost got a picture to prove it.  You’ll have to take my word for it, but the spurt of water that you might be able to see in this picture was coming from the blow-hole of a whale.  Honest.  That was certainly enough excitement to fill one day.

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Our first day on board was partly taken up by our security briefing and alarm-drills.  We were four passengers altogether, two Frenchmen, Jacques and Youri, and then Linda and me.

We all had to learn that there are a number of different alarms on the ship and that they all had different, and dire, meanings  The general alarm of seven short blasts and one long one could signal anything from “Man overboard” to “Attack by pirates.”  Whatever the emergency, passengers were to make their way directly to the bridge and await instructions from the Captain.

A wailing noise would signify a fire alarm and again passengers had to go to the bridge, while all the crew were to go to their pre-assigned fire stations. (The captain actually showed us pictures of a container ship that caught fire not long ago, and it was not a pretty sight.  Apparently several containers from China were marked as “Christmas goods,’ and after several weeks exposed to the tropical sun on the top layer, one container exploded, took several of its neighbours with it. Eventually half of the ship was engulfed in a raging inferno.

The subsequent investigation discovered that the “Christmas goods ‘ had, in fact, been fireworks and no way should they have been exposed to full sunlight, even in a container.

If we heard short-long, short-long, short-long, we had to grab our survival suits and our pre-prepared bag of warm clothing and make our way to A-deck in preparation for “Abandon Ship”.  A-Deck is where they keep the lifeboats.  There are two of them on board and each will hold 40 adults.  The total number of crew and passengers was 32, so that was a comfort.

Everyone has a survival suit in their cabin and we were told not to open them unless there was an emergency.  However, one was provided for training purposes and Jacques, being the best looking of us all,  volunteered to be the model.

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Piracy around the Gulf of Aden and off the coast of Somalia is still seen as a potential threat, although there have been no reported attacks for over a year now. No-one seemed particularly nervous about it, but everyone was aware of the possible danger.  The general feeling was that the Bougainville was so fast that it could easily outrun any pirate vessel and it was so big that it would be extremely difficult for pirates to get aboard. In all probability, any sensible pirate would look for an easier target that was slower and lower in the water.  Nevertheless, some serious thought had gone into what might happen and we were trained in what to do if, heaven forbid, a “Captain Philips” situation should arise.

I am honour bound not to reveal details of the ship’s piracy protection plan, but suffice it to say that despite the relaxed attitude to the potential danger, it was, in fact, taken very seriously.  Hi-jacking a ship like the Bougainville would be a coup and a substantial meal ticket for any enterprising Somali pirate captain!  It also wouldn’t be a particularly gratifying experience for any crew-members or, indeed, any passengers involved!

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Meet the Bougainville.

One thing you have to understand about the Good Ship Bougainville is that she is, well, huge!

CMA/CGM is the third biggest freight carrying company in the world, (Maersk is the biggest), and the Bougainville is their flagship, the biggest and newest in a fleet of over 300 vessels.  She is, by any standards a big bugger.  She can carry up to 18,000 containers in stacks up to 20 high. She commands the sea.  Some of the following pictures might give you an impression of just how big she is.

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The sign on the bridge says it all.

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What this means, in practice, is that by time you have walked down the 96 steps onto the outer deck, walked 148.71 metres to the sharp end, walked about 85 metres across, then 249.29 metres down to the blunt end and back, you’ve covered a kilometre.  Do that four times in the morning and four times in the afternoon and you’ve walked five miles.

Can’t remember when I last got so much exercise and fresh air!

The Last Leg

So the big day finally arrived.  We had received instructions to report to Westports Business Centre at Port Kelang at 9.00am sharp and ask for Nesan, the port agent for CMA/CGM, the owners of our container ship.

Taking local advice, which was that if you get caught in the morning rush hour it could take two hours to get out of Kuala Lumpur, we organised our taxi for 6.30am.

So, we crept quietly out of our room, along the deserted corridor and down in the lift, backpack, rucksack and rolling cases and all.

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Pressing the button to go down in the lift was like pressing a button to start the final phase of the adventure.  Note the numbering on the buttons:-

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 The hotel belonged to a Chinese company and the number four in an unlucky number in Chinese because the word for ‘four’ and the word for ‘death’ sound too similar for comfort.  So there was no fourth floor and no fourteenth floor, but for that we had to have Floors 3 and 3a and, unnervingly, Floors 13 and 13a.

As it turned out our timing was perfect and we found ourselves on the bow-wave of the morning traffic build up.  An hour later we were sitting in the Business Centre waiting for Nesan.  His office was deserted. We waited.  Another hour passed.  All the other offices were opening.  No sign of Nesan.  9.00am came.  Still no sign.  The ship, was due to sail at 10.00am., or so we thought. 

We started to get a bit nervous and eventually managed to get hold of Nesan on the phone.  He said that he was sending ‘his man’, who arrived a few minutes later and then disappeared, we know not where, with our passports, our yellow fever certificates and our two $50 notes.  Again we waited. After about half an hour, Nesan’s man turned up and told us to present ourselves to the immigration desk. 

Why are immigration officers always so bloody grumpy?  I greeting the official with a cheery ‘Good morning’, to which he grunted, looking at me as if I were a drug smuggler.  He pointed to his electronic fingerprint machine and indicated, without a word, that I should put my two index fingers on the little screen.  He then stamped my passport, pushed it back to me and that was that,   No civilised interaction took place.  I went back to the waiting area and it was Linda’s turn.

What was keeping her so long?  What could possibly go wrong now?  From where I was sitting, guarding our bags, I saw an animated discussion going on at the desk.  On closer inspection, I could see that Linda was clearly in control of the conversation and enjoying it, so I sat back and waited for her to report on what had happened.

It transpired that the official had seen from her passport that she was born in Swansea.  All of a sudden, she had found a new friend.

“Swansea got beaten by Spurs,” preened the now animated official who was clearly a Spurs fan.

“Yes, but Swans beat Arsenal last week, so there is still everything to fight for.”

I was on the point of going up to the desk to remind Linda that we had a boat to catch, when the now jovial immigration official stamped his new friend’s passport, courteously handed it back and wished her a pleasant trip.

And so the last leg of our trip began.  Nesan’s man bundled us into a minibus with muddy windows and we set off through the security gates and onto the dockside for our first glimpse of a working container port and the Good Ship Bougainville.

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Looking up at the gangway, we suddenly understood why we had needed to get a certificate to say that we were fit enough to travel!

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Definitely, No Black Tie.

Sometimes good things just happen.  Who would have thought that the dingy, dark little side street at the back of our hotel would house an absolute jewel of a jazz club?

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No Black Tie had an uninviting, heavy, wooden front door, covered in posters.  It was set back in a dark corner away from the road.  It reminded me of a Shakin’ Stevens song that was all the rage when I was a kid.  The words were something like:-

“Midnight, one more night without sleeping,

Watching till the morning comes creeping.

Green door, what’s that secret you’re keeping?

 There’s an old piano

And they’re playin’ it hot behind the Green Door;

Don’t know what they’re doing

But they’re laughing a lot behind the Green Door.”

Well, it wasn’t midnight, the door wasn’t green and the Age Police were not yet on the door, so we went in.  We were rediscovering the joy of live music at very close quarters.

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The whole club couldn’t seat more than about fifty people.  It provided good food, over-priced wine and great jazz.

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The performance area was just big enough for the piano and three of four chairs for the rest of the musicians.  The lights were low and the atmosphere was vibrant and alive with jazz.  We loved it. We went there on four of the twelve nights that we spent in Kuala Lumpur.  We would have gone more often, but it seems that some of the musicians had other commitments and the staff wanted some time off.  Outrageous, but there you are.

If ever you are stuck in Kuala Lumpur, go and find No Black Tie.  If you are stuck with a spare five minutes, google them. A revelation!

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So much less trouble…

… than the real thing.  Kuala Lumpur does a very good line in plastic trees.  From a distance they look just like the real thing…

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… but they don’t need watering, they don’t drop their leaves and…

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best of all … they can be all sorts of pretty colours and…

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When it gets dark, you can switch them on…

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…and stand in front of them.

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Who wants real trees, anyway?

But only one at a time.

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Don’t you just love digital photography?

It enables you to take a thousand pictures and then throw away nine hundred and ninety nine, in order to keep the one that worked.  It also enables you to lose yourself for an entire morning in a butterfly park and not even be aware that it’s lunchtime.

Again, these pictures are going to be small.  Please click on them and they should become a more comfortable size.  Enjoy!

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The upside of Kuala Lumpur -al fresco dining

Once you get away from the grey heart of the city, there are some really exciting parts of KL, where the streets come alive as the sun sets and the revelling goes on until long after respectable folk like us have taken to their beds.

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One such area was just up the road from our hotel.  It was a great place to eat, even if you didn’t always know for sure what you were eating!

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Actually, we never did get around to find out what ‘frog porridge’ is, – there is a limit to our adventurousness – but Linda did try the ‘chicken fish.’  Apparently it tasted like chicken… or fish.

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Apart from good, cheap food there was always plenty of live music performed by an endless progression of musicians who would turn up with some pre-recorded backing music on a machine and would then either sing or play guitar for the assembled diners.  Several of these roving troubadours were people with serious physical disabilities who could nevertheless belt out a good tune and were earning their living by entertaining the restaurant clientele.

Everywhere was bustle, bright lights and business.

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Amid the bright lights and the bustle was a stall that made ice-cream ‘before your very eyes.’  The ice-cream itself was a bit indifferent, but it was worth buying some just to see the performance, in particular, the absolute concentration on the face of the young woman who did all the work.  Street entertainment and ice-cream.  What better combination?

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Even KFC got into the spirit of the area.  Well, they would, wouldn’t they?

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The downside of alfresco dining.

Although it’s always fun to eat outdoors, there are one or two things that are almost bound to make the experience less enjoyable.  Tropical rainstorms are one of those things.

The pictures below show the slow progression into chaos of what started off as a pleasant evening meal.

Once the rain started, the staff at the restaurant made great efforts to reorganise the various tarpaulins and random beach umbrellas to minimise the amount of water getting through onto the heads of their customers.

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This was the moment that Linda became aware just how unsuccessful those efforts had been.

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So now we were trapped. We had finished our meal as the heavens opened.  The rain gave every impression of settling in for the night.  We were about 15 minutes’ walk away from our hotel.

As if by magic, a chap turned up selling umbrellas for 10 ringits a piece!  That equates to about £1.50, or $2.00 or €2.00. At that price, how could we resist? 

Clutching our newly acquired umbrellas we ventured out into the storm to make our way back to the hotel.  You would think that, by now, after all the travelling we have done in various parts of the world, we would realise that if you pay £1.50 for an umbrella, you are going to get wet.

It started at our feet and gradually worked its way up.  By the time we got back to the hotel, the only parts of us that were dry were our heads and shoulders.

In order not to bring too much water into the hotel, I tried to spin the rainwater off my umbrella.  You can see how useful that was!

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We decided to donate our new acquisitions, one to the cupboard in our room for the convenience of the next guests, and the other to the wastepaper bin.

Splashes of Colour.

A lot of Kuala Lumpur is grey.  The corporate world likes grey.  Grey buildings, grey suits, grey pavements, not a lot of colour.

So imagine what a relief it was to discover the bird park.  Enjoy the display. To save space. I’ll make these pictures small.  Just click on them and they should improve.

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