Over the last few weeks, when people have asked Becky’s mom about where we were, she replied with “On a slow boat to China”. Well, Singapore is not exactly China, but our boat was headed to China after it dropped us off.
An Indian Ocean pig roast!
Our “Slow boat to China” was an enjoyable experience that was quite different from our trip across the Atlantic. We were concerned about the long time the ship was at sea; however, it turned out we need not have worried. Crossing the Indian Ocean does not involve more than 2-3 days of time without losing sight of land. Also, because of the land in the way, most of the shipping traffic takes the same route, so we were almost always within radar range of at least one other ship. We certainly did not get the “only people on earth” feeling that crossing the Atlantic Ocean gave us. The trip was broken up into 1-3 day segments which made the passing of time go quicker:
Mediteranean Sea transit.
Suez Canal transit.
Red Sea transit.
Gulf of Aden – piracy area transit.
Gulf of Arabia transit.
Rounding Sri Lanka.
Indian Ocean transit.
Straights of Malaka.
Garbage in Malaka Straights
Throughout the journey, we never had a clear day. The weather was sunny, but there was always a haze on the horizon that limited the visibility. It also meant that there was no chance of seeing the Green Flash . The haze gave you a feeling of being enclosed, and was rather eerie at times.
We did not spend as much time on the bridge and did not make as much of a connection with the Hanjin Brussels crew as we did on MSC Alessia – although Scott did play a couple of games of ping-pong with Rene the Cook and a few other crew members, so that helped break the ice a bit. It seemed to us that on this ship some of the senior officers were not as respectful of the Filipino crew and officers as on our other ship. There is always a hierarchy between officers and crew, on any ship, but it seemed to us it was a bit different on this ship. When those at the top of the hierarchy respect those at the bottom, everyone is much happier and things are pretty relaxed on the ship. On this ship, we could feel tension between the crew and some of the officers, which was rather sad.
If you think piracy was a thing of the past, think again. The movies portray pirates with romance and intrigue, but the real thing isn’t that pretty. Today, ships are boarded by pirates wielding automatic weapons and Rocket Propelled Grenades. Often in the attempt to take the ships, bullets fly. If your ship is taken by pirates, you can expect a minimum of six weeks waiting for the ransom to be paid. So far, inevitably a ransom will be paid – that is how it works and that is why piracy is a profitable business.
Pirate? Nope, just a Filipino sailor
All that’s required for successful pirates is a relatively lawless nation to use as a base, a nearby trade route, and access to fast boats and automatic weapons. In the past decade, the most dangerous spot was in the Straights of Malaka between Indonesia and Malaysia/Singapore. Currently, the biggest area of threat for piracy is in the Gulf of Aden between Yemen and Somalia, which is where we are right now.
To combat a piracy attack, this ship goes fast – 26 knots. At this speed, the risks are very low – the pirate boats simply cannot catch us. Unfortunately, there are many ships travelling in the Gulf of Aden and northwestern Indian Ocean, and most are not as fast as we are. This area contains major trade routes between Asia and Europe, as well the routes travelled by most of the oil from the Middle East.
On the last voyage across the Gulf of Aden, a small bulk carrier only 16 Nautical Miles from the Hanjin Brussels was hijacked. It was part of a convoy with a military escort, the only option for the slower bulk carriers and tankers who do not have the option to outrun the pirates. At the time of the attack, the officers on the bridge of Hanjin Brussels heard the VHF calls for helicopters, and the final announcement that “pirates have successfully boarded the ship”. The entire altercation lasted only 20 minutes. It was a sophisticated attack, with multiple boats threatening several ships within convoy simultaneously – which allowed the pirates to draw the military away from their actual target. Once the pirates are on board, there isn’t much the military can do. The pirates have the crew as hostages and the ship as well. Even the smallest ship is worth millions of dollars, not even counting the cost of the cargo.
The military escorts are limited by the Rules of Engagement for vessels in international waters, which do not allow a vessel to fire until a clear threat has been identified. Fast vessels coming close to a convoy of slow freighters don’t count. Fortunately, no crew members have been killed in the pirate attacks so far in this area.
About 12 hours after we left the international convoy area, another ship was hijacked. We have no further information beyond the location, but it was right along our path, and just outside the staging area for the convoys. Unfortunately, the pirates have Internet access and VHF Radios, so they can get all the same information that the ships do about the “escort zone” locations.
While listening to a security announcement from one of the warships we suddenly heard “Whiskey Whiskey Whiskey”! We thought “what’s this about alcohol all of a sudden?”. We quickly realized that he was explaining how to get further information, and listed a website. In the international radiotelephony spelling alphabet, W is Whiskey. Thus “The website address is Whiskey Whiskey Whiskey…”. If you’re interested, the website is www.icc-ccs.org, which we haven’t been able to check, since there’s no web access on the ship.
In the end, we successfully traversed the Gulf of Aden with no incidents. The next we learned that a ship 12-hours behind us was hijacked. We don’t have any more information on that vessel, so we can’t say how fast she was going or whether or not she was escorted.
Today we awoke to the humidity of the tropics. We are still only at 20 degrees north latitude in the Red Sea, so the temperature is not too hot, but hot enough to be the first true shorts and T-shirt day of our trip. The humidity and beautiful weather have brought an extra smile to our day.
Becky sitting on the bow of the Hanjin Brussels
We have discovered the bow area on this ship to be quiet (true on most container ships) and a pleasant place to be. There is a wind/wave break before the containers, which deflects most of the boat wind from the bow area. On this ship, there is a platform right on the bow, where we enjoy sitting and watching the world go by. It also is a great place to meditate and to listen to podcasts.
We have also found that on the bow there is enough flat and reasonably clean (nothing outside is truly clean on a container ship) deck space to do yoga. We were reminded how much nicer it is to do yoga outside than in our cabin or hotel room. Becky believes this may be why our yoga practice has fallen into disuse – because we did not have an outside location in which to practice. Now that we can do yoga outdoors, we hope to have it become our daily ritual again.
It is difficult to believe we have already been on board ship for over a week. This trip has not been as full of activity as our previous voyage – mostly because we are not experiencing the “everything is new” phenomenon. That being said, we are not feeling like we have accomplished much in the last week. Perhaps the next week and the Indian Ocean will be more productive.
By midnight tonight we will leave the Red Sea and enter the Gulf of Aden – currently the most pirated area in the world. The ship will go onto pirate watch for about 42 hours. Pirate watch consists of having two A/Bs (Able Seamen) on bridge watch – one on either wing. Also, all the exterior doors are to be locked and we are not permitted to be out walking the decks – so much for yoga on the bow! The ships engines will be cranked up to full cruising speed – about 26 knots. At that speed, our pirate risk in minimal – most of the ships that are taken can only go 8-12 knots.
When we envision transiting a canal, we visualize going through locks, like the Rideau Canal at home; however, the Suez Canal does not have any locks. It is a long narrow channel connecting the Mediterranean to a couple of small lakes and then the Red Sea. A connection between the Nile and the Red Sea existed as early as 2000 B.C., but fell into disrepair several times over the centuries, before being permanently closed around 800 A.D. The current canal is between the Red Sea and the Mediterranean Sea and was opened on the 17th of November 1869. The canal was closed from 1967 through 1975 due to ships scuttled in the canal during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. During that time, 14 cargo ships were trapped in the canal at Bitter Lake for 8 years!
Just prior to taking on the first pilot for the canal, Becky was informed that we could not be on the bridge while there was a pilot on board – especially Becky as a female. The Captain did not want to do anything that might offend or upset the pilot. We were told that the Suez pilots are frequently grumpy and difficult to deal with. The Egyptian bureaucracy challenges the ships, and the fees are very high – any change or anything out of line causes the fees to increase. The Suez Canal Authority knows it has a captive audience and they know how much it would cost the ships not to use the canal – so they only make it a little bit less expensive than travelling all the way around the Horn of Africa!
The first bit of oddness we noticed was that a canal crew was taken aboard by hoisting up a small boat using the “Suez crane”. The crew remained in the boat while it was hoisted up to the Upper Deck (the lowest above-deck level on the ship). We took aboard three crew members, who appeared to do nothing. Just before that, we had taken aboard a pilot and one other man from a pilot boat. The other man turned out to be the “electrician”, responsible for the Suez Canal Projector. This is a light that is rigged at the front of the ship just for the Suez Canal transit. It is so far forward on the ship that it is useless to the bridge. The officers we talked to think that it may be a legacy requirement – similar to the Suez crew. These requirements provided employment, so the jobs are kept in place even though they are obsolete.
After taking the pilot and Suez crew onboard, we proceeded south through the Port Said bypass channel. At the 28 km mark, the buoys changed sides – that is, the red buoy moved from the left side to the right side. This is the arbitrary point of the canal where we change from “returning to port” to “leaving port”. When we arrived at the El Qantara bypass, we tied up alongside the canal to await the north bound convoy. At this point we discovered the function of the rest of the Suez crew. The Suez crew gathered in their boat and they were lowered to the canal. They were responsible for bringing the stern lines ashore. There was a crew on another boat waiting at El Qantara to bring the bow lines ashore. We were amused at how much more efficient the local crew was, and pondered again exactly why we needed to bring a crew along with us down the canal. The only reason other than legacy we’ve been able to come up with is emergency mooring. There are bollards along both shores of the canal every few hundred meters, so if we needed to stop for some reason, perhaps having a crew on board to bring the lines ashore could make the process quicker.
The northbound convoy was a parade of ships led by one container ship, then a submarine (which we believe to be British), which proved to be quite entertaining. We sat and watched the passage of the ships of the North Bound convoy for 4 hours (military, container ships, bulk carriers, and finally tankers). We’re guessing that the container ship led the submarine to make the start of the convoy more easily visible. Most of the ships in the northbound convoy were large container ships. Currently, there are two southbound convoys and one north bound convoy per day. The first southbound convoy leaves at 1 or 2 am and proceeds to Bitter Lake, where they anchor and await the passing of the northbound convoy. We were part of the second convoy, so we tied up alongside at El Qantara and waited. Our convoy was only 4 ships, but perhaps the first convoy was larger.
When we finally departed it was already 4 pm and there was only an hour and a half of daylight left. We enjoyed sitting out on deck and watching the world go by. The Sinai (east) side of the canal is mostly desert – and rather flat desert at that. The Egypt mainland (west) side of the canal is mostly green.
As the sun was setting we arrived at Ismailia, where there is a small lake. We were amused at all the fancy resorts along the shores of the canal and the small lake. It was not that warm outside, so the resorts were empty – it must be the off season. We could not imagine why anyone would want to go to a resort on the Suez rather than on the Red Sea or Mediterranean, but apparently people do.
Once the sun dropped, the canal became a sea of lights – not too exciting, especially when you can’t go to the bridge and see the radar.
Overall, the Suez transit was neat but not nearly as interesting as we had expected. We suspect that the Panama Canal would be more exciting, as there are locks involved. We’ll have to wait for the report from Becky’s parents, who are taking a cruise through the Panama Canal in April.
We arrived at the pilot station at 11 am and were immediately brought into port at Barcelona. We were surprised at the efficiency, since the last time we were here our berthing was delayed by a few hours.
We descended the gangway from the ship into a maelstrom of moving containers, cranes and gantrys. On our last visit things weren’t this hectic, but this time our ship was trying for a quick turnaround so we could arrive at the Suez Canal on time.
Scott immediately headed along the wharf, despite the noise and activity, but Becky needed a moment or two to orient herself. Unfortunately, we didn’t communicate well, which resulted in Scott leading us across the gantry track to look for a different route out of the port, and then us standing at the corner of a working gantry with trucks transporting containers whizzing by. We clearly looked out of place and lost. One of the port employees saw our confusion, and offered us a ride to the port entrance. Much easier!
Our visit to Barcelona was brief. We wanted to see the Park Guell, part of the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Works of Antoni Gaudi”, do a quick email synchronization, and blog post.
We were pleased to learn that the entrance to Park Guell was free; however, this meant that it was crowded. There appeared to be many international high school groups visiting. The famous lizard statue was constantly crowded with people taking turns getting their picture taken with the lizard. We walked around the park and took many pictures – unfortunately, we arrived a little bit too late in the day for ideal lighting. The upper part of the park was closed for reconstruction.
We were fascinated by the architecture and décor of the park, with the organic forms characteristic of Gaudi everywhere, and tile mosaics everywhere with a beautiful mix of coloured and white tiles. Scott kept looking for a flat tile on a wall or bench, but all the tiles have been broken in pieces and placed in curved mortar to emphasize the organic forms. It is a beautiful spot, and we can understand why so many locals were here, and not just tourists snapping photos.
After visiting two cafes with free wi-fi and having a light dinner along Los Rambles, we headed back to the ship. We were again surprised at the lack of security at the port of Barcelona. Upon arriving at the gate, we attempted to dig out our ship ID cards, but the guard just waved us in without needing to see any form of ID. We proceeded to walk to the ship – thankfully the gantries were much less active in the evening than they had been earlier in the day.
Already the ship feels like home – it is nice to be able to come back to the same place at night, and still see different things each day.
We arrived at the container port in La Spezia without any surprises and were required to place our bikes inside a van – which meant one bike at a time and removing all the gear from the bikes. A bit inconvenient, but much safer than riding our bikes through the port, so probably for the best.
Our big surprise for the day was to be welcomed on board by Joern, the First Mate on the MSC Alessia when we were aboard. The chances of this are pretty slim, since NSB (the company operating the ship) has over 100 ships, and the officers can be assigned to any one of them. He had two months off over the winter, then decided to take a 2-month deployment so that he would have 4 or 5 months off in the summer to spend with his family. It was nice to see a familiar friendly face and hear a little bit about the MSC Alessia after our departure. Joern showed us how to use a sextant while aboard the last ship, so we’ll see if we can actually take a celestial fix or two while we’re crossing the Indian Ocean. Last time we were too slow – there’s only a short period where both the horizon and the stars are visible, so we clearly need more practice.
The Hanjin Brussels had originally been scheduled for Monday Feb 9, but was delayed by weather off Naples. We were first told Feb 10 for boarding, then on Feb 10 were told that a further delay to Feb 11 would ensue due to another ship (MSC Sarah) holding the berth our ship was to use. On the morning of Feb 10 we got another update from the agent that the ship would be berthing on the afternoon of Feb 10, and wondered what had happened this time. As we later found out from the Chief Mate, Hanjin Brussels had left Naples two hours after MSC Sarah, but pushed the engines to full power, and was able to pull ahead before La Spezia. This meant we got the berth originally allocated to MSC Sarah, and she had to wait for another berth to clear. It’s nice being aboard a fast ship! Amusingly enough, MSC Sarah spent less time in La Spezia and is berthed in-front of us in Barcelona .
We were very impressed by Umberto, the port agent for Hanjin in La Spezia. He knew exactly what was happening with our ship, spoke perfect English (better than the agents in Miami, Florida), and was happy to provide updates even on the weekend.
On this voyage there will be two other passengers. Peter, a Brit who has lived in Italy for 20 years, joined us in La Spezia. A second passenger will join us in Barcelona. So far, we have enjoyed being the “experts”, since this Peter’s first voyage on a container ship.
So far, the food on board has been excellent. We think it has been a step up from our last trip, which was also excellent. That being said, it is very different from Italian or Turkish food, we could just be enjoying the honeymoon period, where we are enjoying the change and familiarity of it all.
Last night we experienced our first bout of rough weather. It never got rough while we were on the MSC Alessia, so we had no idea what to expect. We had been warned that at about midnight things would get rough. We even enjoyed watching a storm in the distance while the sun was setting. However, when we went to the bridge after supper, the storm had passed and the skies were clear. At about midnight we experienced rough seas for 4-6 hours while we entered a patch of open sea with Force 10-11 winds (around 50-60 knot or 90-120 kph winds with 6-8 meter waves). It definitely did get rough, and we awoke to things getting tossed off of the table tops in the cabin. Foolishly, we did not clean up the room before going to sleep. So, eventually, Becky got up and did some clean up and moved the computer to a safe position on the floor. Then it got rougher again, and both of us got up to clear up anything that might fall down or break. After another 10 minutes of clinking glasses and crashes (projectile fruit that had been on the sitting room table), Becky remembered the glass bottles of water in the fridge. She placed some plastic bottles between the glass bottles and collected the apples and oranges from the floor and placed them in the fridge. She also added some toilet paper to the door clamp so that it would stop creaking. It is amazing all the noises in the night when the ship is rolling and pitching.
In the morning we awoke to a bright sunny day, with papers, water bottles, fruit, and other random things spread across the floor in our cabin (oops). We were both a little tired for not getting a great night’s sleep, but otherwise we were doing well – happy to have survived our first rough weather event. When going outside, we notice that all the hand railings are caked in salt and we can barely see through the windows. We guess that the high winds and waves sprayed water over the superstructure throughout the night.
We’re on the Hanjin Brussels on our way to Singapore, so you won’t see much from us until the end of February, but if you’re feeling like you’re missing your fix, we’ve uploaded photos from December, January and part of February for your browsing pleasure. Enjoy!
Just like Rome was not built in a day, there was no way to see Rome in a day. There is just too much to see. We spent four and a half days exploring Rome, and barely scratched the surface.
While in Rome, we did the requisite visits of Saint Peter’s Basilica, the Vatican Museums, the Sistine Chapel, the Coliseum, and Castel Sant’Angelo. In addition, we saw many public sculptures, piazzas and fountains and visited many beautiful churches. The Roman Catholics (specifically those in Rome) have amazingly beautiful churches with impressive frescoed ceilings and domes.
Saint Peter’s Basilica was impressive, but did not feel overly spiritual. We suspect that the grand size and the large number of tourists takes away from the spiritual feeling of it all. Fortunately at least two naves were set aside for prayer, so tourists were prevented from entering and snapping pictures. The decoration was so spectacular that Scott forgot to look for Michaelangelo’s Pieta, the prize of the Saint Peter’s collection.
In the Vatican Museums, we both enjoyed the architecture and decoration of the rooms themselves more than most of the exhibits. The Raphael rooms were particularly fascinating, but the frescoed ceilings everywhere were spectacular.
The Sistine Chapel was rather busy but amazing to see. The crowds and associated noise definitely took away from the spiritual nature of the chapel – it felt like a museum exhibit rather than a place of prayer. The frescos were truly amazing, and it was interesting to eavesdrop on some of the school groups. It would have been fascinating to come to Rome as a history or art student, although we wonder how much we would have taken from it. Many of the students looked rather bored.
Things Scott learned from the Vatican Museum:
A legend that there was once a giant pinecone atop the Pantheon, and when Christ was crucified, all the pagan statues in the Pantheon began whirling with such vigor that the top blew off the Pantheon, leaving the oculus as seen today, and sending the pinecone flying off into the distance, to be lost until the 15th century when it was brought to the Vatican and installed as part of a staircase by Michelangelo. (From a schoolteacher in the courtyard of the pinecone).
Many of the Vatican treasures were carried off to Paris by Napoleon, and to compensate the Pope at the time sent out a request for ancient treasures held in various villas. The response was so overwhelming that new wings had to be constructed to house everything.
Pope Julius II spent more time at war on back of a horse than in anything vaguely religious, as he tried to restore the Church’s secular power.
An important cardinal criticized Michelangelo for all his naked saints in “The Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, saying it was “more suited to a tavern than a papal chapel”. In response, Michelangelo painted the face of the cardinal on a devil in the underworld, with a serpent wrapping him and biting his groin. (According to Wikipedia, it was Biagio da Cesena, the Pope’s Master of Ceremonies, and the devil was Minos, judge of the underworld.)
After Michaelangelo’s death, another painter was hired to cover the saints in the Last Judgement with loinclothes. He is now remembered almost entirely for this, and has the nickname “The underwear artist” (Wikipedia again – Daniele Ricciarelli, nickname “Il Braghettone”)
We were staying very close to the Pantheon, which is a fascinating building. The dome is the best remaining example of Roman use of concrete, and is the largest unreinforced concrete dome in the world. Pretty impressive for a 2000 year old building! It has been a church since 609, and is still used for worship services today. Since Rome was so wet while we were there, we can confirm that the story about the oculus in the roof not admitting rain is false. It definitely rains inside, and there is a dedicated drain in the middle of the floor to let the water escape.
The Coliseum was a must see, but was expensive (12 Euro each) and the audio guide (another 4 Euro) was verbose but did not say much. The architecture is very impressive, but there is little left of the original decoration or seating.
At the Coliseum there was a special museum exhibit about the importance of conservation and the world ownership of ancient art. Italy has passed laws that make all items found in the ground to be owned by the public (that is the government) regardless of who owns the property. The exhibit was neat because it gave the history of various pieces of art that were stolen and then reclaimed. This wasn’t a regular exhibit, just a temporary one for early 2009, so we were glad get the chance to see it. Scott wonders if the negotiations between Italy and museums and collectors around the world for return of Italian antiquities will cause Italy to return any of the antiquities it has acquired over the millennia from Egypt and the Middle East? We saw a lot of columns and tablets covered in hieroglyphics. We also saw busts from Palmyra in the Vatican museum.
Given the wet weather, we decided to skip the Roman Forum, since much of it would have been outside too – another time.
The Castel Sant’Angelo is impressive from the outside but not that exciting on the inside. Again, it was an overpriced attraction (11 Euro each). There were many museums inside, but they were rather random – one of the museums focused on brand names that were from Italy, another contained various pieces of armor and swords from the Papal Guards over the years. There was also a small exhibit of paintings of important church figures, but none were particularly fascinating. We were expecting some sort of a history of the castles use through the centuries, and perhaps of the Papal Guard.
Overall, the most interesting places we found were the free ones – churches, piazzas, fountains, and just random bits of history and architecture we discovered as we wandered. The Vatican Museum and Sistine Chapel was the one attraction well worth the 14 Euros per person.
Since we were travelling to Rome, we decided to take the saying “When in Rome, do as the Romans do”, to heart. Unfortunately, we realized we didn’t know what Romans do, so we decided to meet some Romans. With our sample size of two, we discovered that Romans go to Patagonia on cycling vacations! Our sample was based on Alessia and Gabriele, whom we met through Warm Showers. They are heading off for a cycling adventure in Patagonia (Chile) and Argentina next week, but took time from their preparations to host us. Gabriele is going for 3 months and Alessia is going for 3 weeks. If you are in the area and see two Italians on mountain bikes, say hi!
Gabriele, Becky and Alessia
We had several long discussions with them and others about Italy, Rome and life here, and feel much more connected to Italian culture than we did during our travels in the south of Italy last year.
In our discussions about Rome, we learned that building subways for public transit is a real challenge. The city is so old, that anytime someone tries to dig a hole for the subway they run into archeological ruins that require investigation and often re-routing of the planned transit line. As a result, there are currently only two subways lines and we found they don’t really go anywhere useful for us. Surprisingly, they don’t go near the interesting historical sights!
We also learned that the Vatican and the popular opinion on issues don’t always agree (gay marriage, abortion, birth control, etc). Also we were told that only a small percentage of Italians are regular church-goers, so the Vatican doesn’t wield the same moral force it once did. However, the Vatican owns about 25% of the buildings in Italy and is a huge economic force. The government needs to balance the requests of the Vatican with public opinion. Right now there is a battle about the right to terminate life support. Eluana Englaro has been in a coma and on life support for 17 years, since a near-fatal car crash. Her father wants to stop the life support, in line with her wishes, but it currently is not legal to do so in Italy. The Vatican is trying to influence the creation of legislation that is specific to this girl that would prevent any removal of life support including not allowing her to be moved outside of Italy where it is possible to terminate the life support.
The Leaning Tower - yep, it's not just an optical illusion
Despite the heavy rain forecast throughout the north of Italy for the next week, we decided to head to Rome and play tourist for a few days, while waiting for our boat to arrive. The train from La Spezia to Rome goes through Pisa, so we had to get off the train and see the most famous tower in the world. Here are a couple of the requisite pictures.
We didn’t see much else in Pisa, since the weather was quite miserable. (We did buy two cheap umbrellas though – not much use on a bike, but great while we’re touristing!)