Tuesday, November 6, 2012

Belgium 2000-2012

Throwing down anchor in Antwerp, Belgium.

 “Want to go to Brussels tonight?” Bahar asks as she cracks two eggs in the pan she’s been frying some sausage in.

“Sure… I’m up for Brussels,” I respond, afraid to say no to anything.

I’m sitting at the kitchen table of Bahar’s family in Hoboken, Belgium (a suburb of Antwerp), chowing down on an assortment of spreadable and sliced cheeses, deli meats, sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, bread, sweet nutty specialties recently arrived from Turkey, hot tea and cookies. 

The most hospitable Bahar with a delicious cake of her own creation. She's quite the little baker and plans to open up her own pastry shop in Antwerp some day.

 “Well I’m working tonight at the restaurant in Brussels, so you can come if you want,” Bahar says.

It's Tuesday, September 18 and I’ve only been on terra firma for 3 hours yet I found Bahar (well, she found me scurrying from one Quick fast food restaurant to another near Centraal Station) and I landed smack dab in the middle of a typical Belgian brunch. I’m surrounded by her brother, sister, and friend—her father’s around, working downstairs, and her mother and other brother are due back from Turkey on Monday—and everyone’s talking, bickering, and laughing. We’ve been excitedly catching up on the last 8, 10 years in details small and large. Obviously the tale of my sea voyage has dominated the topic of conversation, but now Bahar has been telling me about the Belgian restaurant chain she works for, whose specialty is all-you-can-eat ribs. 

Amadeus is The Place for Ribs.

 “I work from 6 to 12 so you’ll be alone, but I’ll try to get off early and we can have a drink,” Bahar says. “You could eat ribs for dinner!”

Indeed a few hours later Bahar and I were on the highway from Antwerp to Brussels, and having some damn good conversation while she drove. Although we hadn't seen each other for 8 years and both confessed to being nervous at any possible awkwardness, we were picking up like old friends. A main topic of conversation was this year of being alone that I had embarked on. She couldn't quite empathize with what she viewed as me taking a huge risk, yet she shared her experiences doing an internship in Paris a few years ago, which was the longest she'd been away from home, on her own. 

Upon arriving in Brussels, we got a parking spot across the street from her work and she marked some spots on the map then sent me on my way.

The Grote Markt of Brussels.

Steeple in the Grote Markt (Grand Place) in Brussels, Belgium.

Kelci and the Grote Markt.

 That night in Brussels I did not eat ribs (although I did on another two occasions); instead I stuffed my face with the sandwiches the ship’s Chief Chef had made for me that morning while I sauntered down Boulevard Du Jardin Botanique at sunset. I suppose it was then I realized I had been half expecting to get back on the ship that evening, that this was just another port of call. I mulled this over while walking around for a few hours, having coffee and writing in my notebook at a café, and walking around for another few hours. I suppose I gave up and accepted my fate as just another ordinary land dweller, and finally came back to Bahar’s work around 11:30, where she sat me at a table close to her dish-washing post and started pouring me beers. 

Reflection in the Magritte Museum.

View from the top of the hill, near the Royal Palace.

Square in front of the Grand Palace. Beautiful sky!
Magritte's sky in a window of the Magritte Museum below a real life double.

Sunset coming down Boulevard Du Jardin Botanique.

We left Brussels sometime between 3 and 4 a.m., and enjoyed having the silent Grote Markt all to ourselves!

 I had vague recollections of visiting Brussels as part of the Belgian exchange program through my High School when I was 17, but the most I could remember was feeling alienated by the French influence—this city was not Belgian the way the cities we’d visited in the North were, the way I’d come to know and regard Belgium in the short week and half since our High School group arrived. I remember being ushered hurriedly to Le Manneken Pis through narrow streets crammed with red and white gingham-covered tables, and I remember being disappointed in the tiny boy mounted on an out-of-the-way corner peeing, while grey heavy clouds loomed above.

Cobalt sky at twilight in Brussels.

Looking down Vlaamsesteenweg from St. Katelijneplein in Brussels.

Full moon over a guild house facade in the Grote Markt, Brussels.

 This time around I ended up visiting Brussels twice—the first night of my stay with Bahar and again the last night, and both times Bahar left me to my own devices as she dutifully went to work in the restaurant. On my last night, I again went in search of Le Manneken Pis and found him on a corner surrounded by a large group of tourists, even including a guided tour, taking pictures. I literally couldn’t help but laugh at all of us, all of us come to find this point of interest.

There he is! Surrounded by tourists!

Kelci and the peeing boy. Can you tell by the look on my face I am suppressing a laugh on this absurdity?

Bahar in front of a Burssels candy shop. Too bad it was closed because Bahar loves candy shops!

 Neither time I visited Brussels with Bahar could I get a grip on the city—I wasn’t bothered by the French yet the city was strangely international in a way I couldn’t put my finger on. It seemed overwhelmingly young, like teenagers were particularly fond of partying on its literally red carpeted streets, and Bahar and I managed to meet two business women and their boss from Norway (that had been kicked out of a strip club earlier), a guy that kept spitting on us (on accident) from Chile (who proclaimed to be the owner of the Irish pub we were sitting in front of), and two Romanians (one of which was running a Greek restaurant and the other of which offered us the Presidential Suite at the Sheraton). Only in Brussels was I bothered persistently for cigarettes, and only in Brussels did young Moroccan boys get in our face and hassle us to share our frits with them. (Although these things are irritating, they don’t hold a candle to the way San Francisco crazies can disturb you.) 

Chowing down on ribs at the Antwerp location of the restaurant Bahar works in.
Riding one of Bahar's bikes through the center of Antwerp, with the Cathedral of our Lady rising into the black sky behind me.

Of course Bahar and I spent a lot of time in Antwerp, good old Antwerp with its medieval winding alleys, cobblestone streets, guild house facades, and ornate cathedral. Bahar loves Antwerp and feels quite proud of her city—she thinks it's the perfect size, not too big and not too small, and it's easy to agree with her opinion that's it's beautiful. We hung out with her friends, went to the movies, partook in Belgian specialties like waffles and frits, ate at restaurants, and frequented cafes to sample the many wonderful beers Belgium has to offer. Bahar loves sweet beers so we attempted to try as many new sweet beers—the stronger the better—as we could find. Sometimes we would go to cute or unique cafes and sometimes places specifically for their beer selection, like Bier Central near Centraal Station. 


Partying down in Molly's Irish Pub in Antwerp.

 One particular night in Ghent, after an afternoon spent at the sea in Blankenberge, we started out with some usual choices, Kriek and La Chouffe, then progressed to more adventurous choices: I ordered Bière De Miel Biologique—an organic honey beer—and Bahar ordered Geuze Mariage Parfait—the perfect marriage. When the server brought the beers, she gave me Bahar’s and vice versa. One sip of Bahar’s beer brought a scowl to my face; an uncanny yeasty bitterness enveloped my mouth. I almost said out loud, “Do I have to drink this?” but then Bahar realized the switcheroo. If I couldn’t stand the hyper-fermented yogurt taste of the beer, how was Bahar’s sweet palette going to handle it? Somehow, she managed, she really suffered through it. What a champ! Later her efforts were rewarded by an extremely drunk Belgian leaning on the table to talk to her and the table flipping over, spilling her fresh beer all over her front. We took it as a sign—I got a to-go cup for my remaining beer (yes, those exist at bars in Belgium!) and we made our exit over the canal and out of the city center. 

The Dreupelkot/Beer House in Ghent had a funny menu. "This is rather difficult to explain: Frenchmen say that foreigners are crazy; Holland people pretend to know best; and the Germans are always talking about their Reinheitsgebot, a 500 years old law concerning the prime materials used to produce beer. They are right for these beers,..."

Our adventurous picks: Bière De Miel Biologique and Geuze Mariage Parfait. This was obviously before the drunk dude flipped the table over.

Despite how disgusting Mariage Parfait was, Bahar finished it! Look at her empty glass!

 My third night in Belgium was another special one. Since Bahar had to work, I went with her brother Mehmet to a party for the Erasmus international students at UA (Universiteit Antwerpen), where everyone was supposed to bring a food dish from their country. I appeared to be the only U.S. contingent and had acquired a few boxes of chocolate chip cookies with the Statue of Liberty on the package and a jar of peanut butter with an American flag stretched across the label—American style! it proclaimed. I instructed the confused students to slather the peanut butter on the cookies; the few that did seemed to enjoy it and Mehmet agreed it was a hit. As the night wore on I kept feeling secretly superior to everyone there: I was here having a great time and I didn’t even have to be a student to do it! The truth would come out as I got to talking to someone new—and there were a lot of conversations that night—that I wasn’t actually a student at the University, yet I had a great time meeting all the people from different counties at the beginning of their semester in Belgium. After we left the party in the University building, we loitered in one of the squares drinking and smoking for a long time, went to a dance club in the red light district with a couple Polish girls we had acquired along the way, and then Mehmet took me to meet Bahar at a nearby pub where she was having a drink with a coworker. Bahar, her coworker, and I ate doner kebab at a place run by goofy Turkish dudes then we were chased down the street by drunken Belgian students who were trying to throw a bicycle inner tube around our heads. All in a night in Antwerp! 

Mehmet brought this Turkish dessert that sort of tasted like cotton candy but looked like strands of hair. Towards the end of the dinner we started up conversations with groups of people based on the premise they had to try this sweetness. The wasted girls on the left thought the candy made good mustaches.

The Polish girls we acquired made some interesting shots called Mad Dogs. I was a big fan so I got the recipe: most of the shot glass filled with vodka, slowly pour a berry liqueur into the top, and a few dashes of Tabasco. LEKKER!

Yours truly flanked by the Polish girls on some abandoned furniture outside University housing.

The streets of the center of Antwerp are overtaken on Thursdays because it's students' night!

 Bahar was the perfect host; she embodies Turkish hospitality in a completely overwhelming way to me. We went out almost every day, riding our bikes to the center, or taking the train to the sea, or driving to Brussels, and when she had to work she installed me with one of her family members. So many times we would discuss plans to do separate things since she, you know, had a life to attend to, and each time she would end up coming with me, chaperoning us on another exciting adventure in Belgium. In a very perfect way, she was the ideal landing pad for me; I almost can’t fathom how I would have made the well-fed transition from boat-dweller to European city dweller without Bahar and her warm family.

The one night we stayed home, after I got my hair done at her cousin's fabulous hair salon in Hoboken.

 A couple points of interest in Antwerp are the new MAS museum and the Flemish House of Literature (Letterenhuis). I wasn't able to view the collections of the former but I made it up to the observation terrace on the top floor just in time for a stunning rainbow that stretched across all of Antwerp. It was amazing! The trip to the MAS was worth that alone. As for the latter, the Letterenhuis, I can recommend it to anyone who is interested in/has studied literature and writing or anyone who is interested in the book as an object. The staff dutifully informed me none of the exhibits were in English, but I opted to have a look anyway. I was not disappointed! On the main floor, an exhaustive timeline of keypoints in Flemish literature kept pace with literary developments around the world, and many display cases held unique manuscripts and first editions by Flemish authors, usually surrounded by other ephemera from the same period.

The new MAS.

Beautiful rainbow viewed from the roof of the MAS.

This picture may suggest I am the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

This text was on the wall in the women's bathroom of the Letterenhuis. Rough translation: "Life is not a book. The beginning is nowhere. It is here and there and yonder, and everything happens at once. A book is different." Louis Paul Boon, Abel Gholaerts (1944)

Bahar and I enjoying the Belgian coast.

Sunset over Blankenberge.

Cargo ships making their way through the North Sea--that was me a week ago!

Last bits of orange peeking through the clouds.

Enjoying the sunset with a bottle of liebfraumilch.

 My favorite day was the afternoon we spent in Blankenberge, which is a town on the coast of the North Sea in West Flanders. Once we came to the beach, after walking down the shopping street from the train station, something in me clicked: days before I had sailed past this town on the ship. I recognized the sea and the clouds; I saw the cargo liners moving through their routes close to the horizon. To the right was even a small port with cargo cranes standing at the ready. Although I was in a transition period, I felt serene on the sand before the water. It reminded me of San Francisco’s Ocean Beach, the day I swam at Coney Island in New York with Cricket before I flew to Argentina, and the many waters the ship had sailed through. But now, almost three months after I had left home, I was standing on the coast of the North Sea, mere kilometers from my end goal: Amsterdam. My future and my past met each other here on the Belgian sand; one of my feet was in the sea and the other was taking the step towards Holland. 

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Grande Buenos Aires: The Media

As is common with freighter voyages, the dates and ports of calls of call differed from the first schedule I reported. Not only was the ship late in picking me up from Zarate, but it continued to fall behind schedule as my trip progressed. Sometimes I wonder if the Grimaldi fleet of cargo ships are hands on a watch running out of time as they ever more slowly completely their revolutions.

Here's what ended up happening:
(and it's annotated! Click the link below the map to get full notes and dates)

View Grande Buenos Aires Voyage in a larger map

Here are a couple of my favorite videos, but check out my Youtube channel to view all my uploads.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Grande Buenos Aires: The Last Days

The Grande Buenos Aires makes it way through the North Sea.

First came Emden. That tiny blip of neatly parked white cars and wind turbines towering across the horizon. Several crew members had disembarked and new faces started appearing in the hallways and on the decks. Faces of Italians and Indians I hadn’t just shared a life-transforming month with. The Germans’ disposition shifted and a bit after midnight on September 14 they drove their RV off the ro/ro ramp and out of the Grande Buenos Aires—earlier that night at dinner I had produced a bottle of California Pinot Noir (acquired back in Tilbury) for a toast to our camaraderie as the sole passengers. Even Peter who never drank had half a glass.

One of the last meals I shared with the Germans.
The majority of cargo in the Port of Emden, Germany seemed to be Audi automobiles, all wrapped in white protective coating.

Wind energy is big in North Europe. The new passengers told me it's bad for the sealife, though.
I don't know if they're right but I agreed with them anyway.

Early the next afternoon the ship was pulling out of the port. I hadn’t touched land.

Then came Hamburg. The trip up the river was long and scenic and I passed most of the day taking pictures on the deck even though I was shitting my pants: my spirit cruise was coming to an end in two or three days and I had lost track of time, thinking I had four or five days. The big bad world daunted me; all decisions had been made for me for the past 32 days; all meals prepared and fed to me; all bedding and towels washed and replaced. What was I going to do without my ship peeps, without this floating group home that moved at 18 knots and had a dead weight of 26,169 tons, without the structure and predictability of its routine?

It appeared as though many local Germans were taking advantage
of the early September mild weather by going for a sail in the Elbe river.

Some scenery coming up the Elbe river.
Notice Chief Cook Marcelo taking some pictures from the deck on the right.
The beginning of the river banks hosted more rural developments.
The industrial area of the port looms.
The Captain and the local pilots at work.

There was much evidence of nautical tourism and passenger ships near the city center.

Yours truly, wearing the stocking cap I got from the Seafarer's Centre in Tilbury.

Colorful facades inhabited the banks of the river Elbe nearer the center of Hamburg.

Many church steeples dotted the horizon, mixed with other towers and construction cranes.

This was a modern building being constructed on the water. It was interesting to see Hamburg's prosperity illustrated in the many construction cranes and mix of old and new architecture. 

The Chief Mate in position on the other side of the bridge.

A little bit of good ol' America in Hamburg. The Louisiana Star!

 Well, if I had to disembark, we were going to go out in style. On Friday, September 14 Mikhail and I walked down the ro/ro hatch, got the port shuttle to the gates, and called a taxi. We got dropped off on St Pauli, which is basically Germany’s version of Vegas I soon realized: the streets teemed with regional Germans who had come to drink, gamble, ogle naked ladies, and hook up with prostitutes, the latter of which were neatly dressed and made up girls that lined the street corners with crisp black fanny packs strapped around their hips. (What a juxtaposition to the prostitutes of the Manila Discotee back in Vitoria, Brazil!) We had a few drinks at the 24 Carat Cocktail Bar, checked our email, walked around, ran into Marcelo and Filipo chowing down on doner kebab, and eventually became overwhelmed by the tourists looking for their weekend thrills before their looming weddings (Hamburg is the place for bachelor parties). Mikhail bought me a bouquet of roses from a street vendor, which was sweet: I love flowers and had wanted some in my cabin ever since I beheld the florist section of the Asda supermarket in Tilbury.

Checking our email and having a drink in the 24 Carat Cocktail Bar in Hamburg.

One side street comprised of adult entertainment businesses. There were so many people on the streets!

Party down, haha.
 A few short hours later, we decided to grab a cab and head back to the ship, but not without a bottle of Jameson, special request for the little lady! Our cab driver was a young Turk who spoke English well, so we told him our stories while we traversed the entire international shipping zone of Hamburg looking for a night shop that had Jameson. A few tries in, I settled for Valentine’s and we were finally deposited back at Terminal O’Swaldkai. We went to the galley, cut off the top of a water bottle, and plunged the peach roses into the warm sugar water I had concocted.

Oh dang, there goes one more day on the Grande Buenos Aires.

Our cab driver with the bottle of coveted whiskey. Disclaimer: I, a passenger of the Grande Buenos Aires, drank this whole bottle and didn't share with any crew :-P

Back on the ship, with my roses in the cut-off water bottle masquerading as a vase.

The next day the first wave of new passengers embarked: a couple of Dutch/Germans who were starting a two-year tour of South America that they had been dreaming of for 45 years. The remaining 10 passengers would board in Le Havre, long after I had disembarked. At dinner I began to pass my knowledge onto them as my previous fellow passengers had done when I embarked in Zarate all those days ago. What the meals usually consisted of, how much wine came with the meals, who ate where, how to send an email via satellite, the schedule of the steward (Mikhail)… but, I found myself losing patience with their wide-eyed sense of discovery, their lamentations they missed their dog, their disappointment the ship didn’t have wifi. This ship will change your life if you let it I almost wanted to shout at them.

Some of the cargo in the port included this public transit metro car, which looked pretty out of place among the construction equipment waiting to be loaded. 

The ship docked behind ours.

My Top Shop blouse flutters beautifully and forlornly in my cabin window while Hamburg passes outside.

Coming up the river to the Port of Antwerp on Monday, September 17 was bittersweet: it’s Belgium! It’s Antwerp! It’s the port! My two worlds collided: the first time I left the United States and my culture bubble burst was over 12 years ago and Antwerp, Belgium was the scene of the crime. That trip with my High School exchange program had transformed the way I looked at the world and had ignited my life-long obsession with travel and Europe. I remember being amazed at the smallest things, like how Diet Coke was Coca-Cola Light and how you had to pay to use a public restroom and how common fragrances like hand soap and deodorant just smelled different. Now, perhaps the one most perception-shifting travel experience since then, the Grande Buenos Aires, was going head-to-head with Belgium literally and figuratively. Who would win? I didn’t even want to take bets—I was still in denial I would be disembarking and maintained my desire to stay on the ship forever.

Back to sailing through the North Sea.

Entering into the port area of Antwerp, Belgium.

We were cruising next to this other cargo ship for a while.

Cargo cranes stand ready and at attention. 

The cadet raises the Belgian flag.

Traffic lanes in the Schelde river.

We waited in the lock next to this building for a while, and I caught the reflection of the ship's insignia in the reflective windows. Little did I know this would be the scene of immigration control when I left the port the next day. 

Waiting in the lock from the river to Grimaldi area of the port.
I ended up getting one extra night: we docked around 21:00 and I made arrangements to disembark the next morning at 10. I spent the night organizing my things, throwing away unneeded papers and brochures, consolidating toiletries, and did one last load of laundry. Slowly my little space transformed back into the generic cabin that all passengers encounter upon embarking. I kept going outside to watch a good chunk of the crew unload a truck of kitchen supplies, including crates and crates of bottled water, which were hoisted up to deck 12 and moved into the galley. Supplies I would never partake of.

I reluctantly left The Consoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, which I found in the ship's library, on the ship despite it being a beautiful hardback edition and despite the fact it was the best book I'd read in a long time. 
The ship's pantry shortly before restocking. Notice the crates of bottled water on the left.

Telltale signs of Italian and Indian fare: cans and cans of tomato sauce and bags and bags of  basmati rice.

Chief cook Marcelo and Engine Officer Filipo in the galley. Filipo liked Marcelo because he made good Sicilian dishes and Filipo was obsessed with being Sicilian. 

The sunrise on September 18 was insanely ablaze; a bold red streaked through the morning thundercaps above the cranes of the port. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ship, it started raining and a brilliant rainbow pierced the grey sky. I tried to eat breakfast but could barely muster it; I was nervous about going into Antwerp and trying to find my friend Bahar, a holdover from the Belgian Exchange period who I hadn’t seen in 8 years. I was also really sad and was trying not to think about it. Nonetheless, Mikhail brought me a stock of wrapped sandwiches the Chief Cook Marcelo had whipped up. Whatever happened, I wouldn’t immediately starve upon disembarkation.

Amazing, yet ominous, red sunrise in the Port of Antwerp.
Red sky at night, sailors' delight.
Red sky in the morning, sailors heed the warning.
My dad taught me that one when I was young.
I went back to my cabin and finished packing up my backpack, trying to account for every possible scenario. Rain? Cold? Warm? Pleasant? I wrapped my shoes in a trash bag before inserting them into the netted pocket on the side of my back pack. I put the Sellotape I had purchased in Tilbury in my bag at the last moment—never know when you’ll need to tack up a map or poster to a barren wall. Everything empty, except the peach roses in the cut-off water bottle on the dresser that continued to open to a full bloom.

My bouquet sits by its lonesome on my dresser.

Bye bye familiar corridor. 
A few minutes before 10, Mikhail arrived at my cabin, picked up my bag, and we took the elevator down to deck 3, where I walked off the ro/ro hatch one last time. Crescenzo, the Chief Mate, Shona, Miguel, and some others were down there. Trying to keep my composure, I kissed each of them good-bye then we headed to my waiting taxi. Smiling, Mikhail said, “Have fun in Amsterdam, don’t drink too much, don’t smoke too much, be good,” and slammed the door shut. My eyes watering, watering, but I told myself: hold it together, you gotta go through immigration control, you gotta go to the city center, you gotta find Bahar.

And I did, I did do all those things, and I didn’t even cry.