Istanbul

Between the Black Sea and the smaller Sea of Marmara, there lies the narrow passage of the Bospurus, a shallow gorge only a few hundred metres wide. It is bridged several times by new and glittering suspension bridges, and on either side, lies the ancient and noble city of Istanbul.  It is not hard to imagine that this city is not modern Istanbul, but the Stamboul of Graham Greene’s novel, or the Constantinople of the Middle Ages, or even the Byzantium of antiquity. Even the Istanbul visited by James Bond in “From Russia with love” is full of romance. 

To me Istanbul is one of the most evocative and exciting places in the world. At a cross-roads of cultures, neither Islamic nor Christian, not Mediterranean, but influenced thereby. The might of Russia lies to the north like a sleeping giant, the deserts of Arabia are near enough to the East.

And we came there, by ship. Our ship came from Constantza, in Romania, and arrived in the roads on a rainy morning one February. We were taking the ship from Constantza right round Europe to Bergen in Norway, a journey of many weeks, and the majority of the crew were gathered ready to get off and go home – from right here in Istanbul. What a place to go home from…one minute, the exotic banks of the Bosporus, a few hours later – Birmingham New Street. What a contrast!

There were all manner of ships in the roads. Rusting, nondescript freighters from Cyprus. Small fishing boats, huge bulk carriers. The wind whipped the sea, and the rain spattered down. Mist obscured the top minarets of the Blue Mosque and the towers of St. Sophia’s cathedral. It was not a pleasant morning – but this was Istanbul. What possibilities!

Our boss was a man called Marco, a big man in his late thirties, half Italian and half Brazilian, a man who spoke excellent English despite not having heard a word of it until the age of sixteen. Marco took one look at the city and said, “lets go ashore”. Even as our colleagues were climbing onto a small boat to take them ashore to a fleet of taxis and the airport, we were going to be left behind. A word with the Captain assured us we had time to go ashore for an hour or two. A moment to collect our passports and such cash as we could muster, and we were on the boat ourselves – in our work clothes, in sea boots, with no coats. But Marco was taking us to Istanbul.

The rain was against us, but we cared naught for it. Romance was in our veins. Once ashore, the rest of the crew said their goodbyes and melted away. For a brief few hours we were alone with this great city. She would surely give of herself to those who dared for a day to visit her, to those who seized the moment. Could she be romanced for a brief fling? We started with a few beers and a light lunch in a dockside workman’s café – it was that time of day and the place recommended itself to us by being a dry place to sit out of the rain, no more than yards from where we came shore. Thus fortified, we first spent a little time obtaining some local currency, and then we sallied forth in a taxi to see what we could find – we were bound for the Bazaar.

Marco was an interesting character. As a youth he had run carpets out of Iran in the days before the Iranian revolution of 1978. He had spent time in the East and was confident he could find a fine carpet here in the bazaar. He was the kind of person that got things done, quite frequently by breaking or bending the rules. I had a stormy professional relationship with him, but one of the rules of our business, strict and unbreakable, was that work was work, and it was never brought into the bar or the social setting. Here we were amiable companions, work completely forgotten about. Such people as Marco are rarer nowadays, in our modern world of Safety standards, regulations and operating procedures, work instructions, meetings and Powerpoint presentations. And our world is poorer thereby.

The bazaar was a riot of colour and fragrance, all manner of things hung up for sale, every possible variety of cloth, leather and material. Carpets and kitchen utensils, trinkets and tools, presents and gifts. Here of course one had to bargain. Marco, who knew about such matters, warned us solemnly. You MUST bargain. They will not take you seriously otherwise. They will start the bargaining at four or five times the lowest price they could sell it at and still turn a profit. Keep that in mind…

Wandering around the bazaar my eye was caught by a merchant selling waistcoats. These were in gorgeous fabrics, a sweep of colours and styles. I thought they were great, but not so great as to part with serious money for them. The trader saw me and came across to pluck at my sleeve. He named an outrageously high price; insulted, I suggested to him that he might keep his waistcoat at that price. Those were not my exact words. After some bargaining and good natured insults, this peddler of cheap cloth, this charlatan who had tried to get me to part with over sixty dollars, sold me a rather fine waistcoat for a little over a tenner. I was delighted with my purchase. My wife wore on it occasion – it was in very bright colours – for a year or so, and I think it is still in the children’s dressing up box.

I found Marco in a carpet shop, arguing with the owner. He had strung the owner along and had a dozen of so of his finest carpets laid out over the floor, examining them minutely. He clearly knew good from bad in the Turkish Carpet scene, but I don’t think he had the slightest intention of buying a carpet then and there. But Marco was a Poker player and you could not read his face, this not being helped by a big black beard. He nearly caused a scene, mind. One of the pointers to a true Turkish carpet of quality, he had opined earlier, was that it could be washed and would not stain. No substance would stain it. The truth of this assertion I did doubt somewhat, but the evidence at the time – our subsequent escape from the carpet shop –  did point to him being quite correct. The carpet merchant served strong Turkish coffee to Marco, as was the custom in such shops. And Marco, sipping this coffee, quite deliberately spilled some on one of the merchant’s carpets. It all looked quite accidental, of course, and he was all apologies, but we onlookers knew he had done it on purpose. A cheap carpet would be ruined by strong coffee. We do not know if the actual carpet on which Marco spilled his coffee was one such, because we made our exit shortly thereafter, as it became quite clear to the carpet merchant that Marco had no intention of actually buying a Turkish carpet.

Alas, our time was coming to an end. We found a taxi, and made a mad dash through the rainy streets back to the dockside, to meet up with the small boat that would take us back to our home away from home. Istanbul, goodbye! You showed us a little of yourself – just a glimpse, a tantalizing glimpse. Not for us a whole night with you, but just a hint of thigh, a hidden curve of bosom. Istanbul – well we remember you, though we visit you again as older and perhaps not so wise men.

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A brief visit to Colombia

As the ship approached the coast, it was clear that an immense thunderstorm sat over this part of coastal Colombia, towering forty thousand feet into the sky over Santa Marta. The gloom grew as evening wore on, partly from the failing light, partly as we slid underneath this colossal storm. Lightning flickered, and the storm took all our attention as the supply ship lumbered along, rolling gently in the swell.

We made landfall at Santa Marta as rain started in earnest, lightning almost constant at this point. We waited patiently for the shore agents to arrive, listening to the warm rain lashing down. When three vehicles swung into the dockyard, we gladly ran out into the downpour to climb in and ready ourselves for the journey to the airport. The route to the airport lay along switchback mountain roads, during which the rain increased for a time to an absolute tropical frenzy.

At the airport, we all checked in, and it became apparent that some form of unforeseen local airport tax was payable. We have agents to deal with this kind of thing; we ourselves retreated to the café and drank beer. Outside in the darkness the rain came down.

Later, around 9.30p.m or such, the aircraft arrived, and we paid for our beer, which was a vanishingly small amount for the thirty or forty beers we had sunk, perhaps US$30. As we boarded the plane the rain was still falling, lightning was still lighting up the storm clouds, thunder booming away even above the noise of the engines.

At Bogota, we collected our bags, and almost immediately made the acquaintance of the security teams, the “Men in black”. These were smartly dressed, unfailingly polite, fit looking young men in dark business suits, all clearly but discreetly armed. Part of the experience of visiting a country like Colombia at our employer’s expense. James Bond eat your heart out! Swiftly then in MPVs to the hotel, where, after a swift check-in (so much quicker than the sluggish desk at the Mexico City Airport Marriott) we went to the bar for more beer. It was after 11p.m when we arrived. I called it a night at 1.20a.m; some of my colleagues were still going strong at 5a.m.

After a troubled night’s sleep I didn’t go down for breakfast until 9.30a.m, and breakfast was superb. Freshly prepared omelettes with all the trimmings, fresh orange juice and black coffee. Can one ask for much more for breakfast? Together with a colleague I took a stroll around the enclave surrounding the hotel, buying a few trinkets in the process. Cash was easily available at the ATM, and it was conspicuous that the cost of living was low, in that the amounts of cash available in the machine corresponded to low dollar amounts. Also very conspicuous were the private security guards, everywhere, in various uniforms, all heavily armed, all polite and well mannered, and many with dogs. Restricted as we were to the immediate environs of the hotel, further exploring seemed pointless, and we returned to the hotel. For a couple of hours I read a book.

Around noon I had a couple of beers with some of the guys, and discovered that the British Airways flight had been cancelled. The airline had contacted some but by no means all of us. This put the cat amongst the pigeons…I took myself to reception and worked the phone for a while, but, frustratingly, took nothing away from those calls. I resolved to go the airport anyway, a few hours early at around 2p.m, and see what could be done there.

As we arrived at the airport the depth of security was revealed – unknown to us there was a point car behind us as we’d motored to the airport, and as the five of us moved across the road into the terminal, it was clear to see four of the immaculately suited and suave security guards forming a box around us, and all very alert and attentive to his surroundings.

After another wait of half an hour or so we were all safely checked onto an Iberia flight to Madrid, and off we went. As we passed onto the airside, the security guards asked me if I’d thought their service was good. I thought it was and I said so. But as we passed through Customs and Immigration – and this is no lie – I knew it was going to be alright. The guy on the customs desk was a long haired youth in his twenties, and he was listening to Nirvana.

A toolbox talk

As part of my last job I was a coxswain of small boats. Not an instinctive driver of such boats, nor even a particularly brilliant one, but nevertheless a perfectly competent one. Small boat driving was the one area of my job that has given me the most satisfaction, though it wear me out from a purely physical viewpoint. This story is not really about driving small boats as such, but is the tale of an incident in a small boat that involved me. It has stuck in my mind for a number of reasons, not the least the gorgeous weather at the time.

On a time four of us were out in our Norpower 25’, a sturdy dory or work boat with a big diesel engine and huge propeller; it was a calm and sunny day in Tropical waters, in late afternoon. Our task was nearly done – I shall not attempt to describe that task in detail, save to say it involved the boat being physically attached front and back to a long cable towed through the sea. Our task was to replace a section of that cable, a piece some 100m long. We brought with us a new section, wound on a reel, and we would take home the damaged one we would be removing.

The time came to free ourselves from the cable, which being many kilometres long and towed from a large ship – our primary work place and home away from home – was under perhaps a ton of tension. Hydraulic pumps and winches were to be used for this task. We went to do this task, and nothing happened when we moved the control levers. This was a worrying moment, but we gathered our wits about us, as we had been trained to do, and soon enough after a brief search, we found a leak in the hydraulic control equipment. This meant that it was no longer possible to free ourselves from the long cable using machinery. The time was around 4.45p.m, and we found ourselves in a potentially quite hazardous situation. We were in a small boat on the open sea, attached to a cable without the obvious means to free ourselves, unable to navigate or control our boat, and to make matters worse, about an hour’s journey from the mother vessel, with perhaps ninety minutes of daylight remaining.

It so happened that on that occasion I was a workman – I was not the Coxswain. It also happened that I was far and away the most experienced and senior person in the boat. What did we do? It is instructive. We paused to discuss the problem. This is a technique we use regularly in our industry, a technique proven to reduce accidents and injuries in the work place – the concept of the “toolbox meeting”. Then, the coxswain, a young woman, call her K, yielded the helm to me as the more experienced person. We had to get the cable free of the back of the boat. Since we were towed from a rope attached much further forwards, we contrived to let out that rope manually, by letting the brake on the winch slip. This enabled us to free ourselves from the cable at the back of the boat, though not without some difficulty, and the task took fifteen minutes. As the sun sank to the horizon we were conscious of impending darkness, ever aware that the run back to our mother ship, would take most of an hour.

Nextly, as Coxswain I caused the boat to move forward, such that the rope on which we were towing became slack, and the boat was under way independently. This was a delicate task involving some concentration. Slowly then I ran the boat forwards up this winch rope, and my colleagues looped the slack into the bows of the work boat, since the winch, being hydraulic, would not work. It was a 200m long rope and by the time the task was done, there was a blazing sunset, a picture of glory, the sky painted red and gold and pink and orange. The final task was to remove the clamp that held the rope to the cable. This, though a delicate manouvre, is one we were all well familiar with, and in moments we were free of the cable and clear to go home. A potentially disastrous situation had been averted, through teamwork, clear communications, strong leadership, and familiarity with emergency procedures.

It remained only for us to motor the 4 miles back to our home away from home, this task taking getting on for a full hour since the ship herself was making 4 knots away from us, and the work boat could only make 10 knots. It was nearly dark when we arrived back, and we were well ready for our dinner after such an exciting adventure and – truth be known – such a narrow escape.