Thursday, October 8, 2009

Drinking Mate' In Malta And White Coffee In London

Big birthday wishes to Chevy Chase, Sigourney Weaver, Jesse Jackson and my favorite of the bunch: the recently departed David Carradine.  You are all celebrated!  That's why you're called celebrities...

Each morning I wake up at 5:20 AM (except for the Lord's Day of course, when 5:20 AM is closer to bed time than it is to rise and shine time) and go out back of our apartment to stretch in the dark.  As I stretch, I ponder with great urgency the hugely important question of: "mate' or coffee?"  And these days mate' has been winning out big time.  So once through stretching I go and sit on our second story balcony where I can see the messenger clouds shouting to everyone with pink-tipped exclamations that that big lion's-maned sun is coming to bully us through another day again.  And while all of this celestial madness is unwinding over the Mediterranean Sea, I sit, just some guy who currently spends his days working at a Maltese shipyard, and I pour myself a mate'.  And it's marvelous.  Sometimes it's hard to remember that I spent the majority of this year in South America, and it can be equally hard to remember while living with nine people that I am a person who normally craves and seeks out lots of solitude, but out there on that balcony, while drinking a delicious mate', I am back in touch with these truths, and I am quite pleased.  I toted four kilos of yerba to Malta, and I'm already well into kilo number two.  Uh oh. 

And a funny little travel story: On my first morning in London, over a month ago now, after sleeping for nearly twelve hours straight, I woke up and ventured out into the unknown streets to seek out a much needed cup of coffee (coffee won the argument that morning).  I skulked around my hotel's neighborhood, nearly getting creamed by every car that whizzed past me coming from the unexpected side of the road, and feeling slightly vampireous in the oppressive, un-caffeinated daylight, until I finally discovered a coffee shop.  "Large coffee please."  "White or black, sir?"  Perplexed, I stared at this nice British lady and finally uttered: "You guys have white coffee here?"  To which she very annoyedly responded: "Room for cream?"  And I quite smoothly replied with: "Oh!  Yeah, just a little bit white for me, please..."

Whoopsies.  Well, how else does one learn the ways of the world without throwing themselves headlong into new parts of it and getting embarrassed tremendously en-route to figuring out how other people in other places do things?  Part of our birthright upon being spawned on a particular planet should most definitely be a feeling of home no matter where we are, but unfortunately this feeling of world citizenship seems to have been seized from us with the creation of political boundaries, cultures and greediness.  So to reclaim yourself a citizen of this humongously tiny Planet Earth means a monumental effort to see as much as possible, get into the heart and eyes of a place, fill your pockets with the parts you adore and take them with you (i.e. mate' from Argentina to the Mediterranean), be a regionalist (when in Rome...), order incorrectly, get laughed at, fumble through language barriers, and always remembering that you're just as stellar a hominid as the rest of 'em.  Because when on Planet Earth, do as the Earthlings do, and yes, that most certainly includes salamanders, lichens, narwhals, politicians and river otters...

Post-Script: We spent the past two days moving by hand 18.5 tons of steel ballast blocks back into the bilge of our ship.  There is no doubt tonight that I am the inhabitant of a body, and that this body of mine is a soar one.  We also painted the majority of the boat's interior, and tomorrow begin sand-blasting and painting the outside.  Oh yeah, things are happening around here, and it feels damn good.

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Photos Of Malta

The view from our apartment's balcony:

Typical Maltese fishing boats in the Sliema Harbor in front of our abode:

Our funny little van that nine of us cram into everyday to go to and from the shipyard.  Let us lovingly refer to it as the Sardine Can:

Maltese vista:

The quiet city of Mdina:

Photos Of The Boat And The Shipyard

The Hull:

Fred in the Bosun's Locker:

The rotted base of our main mast...yikes:

Yeah she's in bad shape, but I trust her completely:

Tea time!

The dogs of the Bezzina Shipyard:

What's happening to me?

A Glimpse Of Our First Month

To all of you animal lovers out there, a very happy World Animal Day's Eve to you.

The last time that I was under the weight of maintaining a blog I was in Peru, Planet Earth, and now that I am in Malta, Planet Earth I am finding it to be as difficult as ever to whittle out a little piece of time to reflect, organize and share my experiences on a computer screen.  This is the first day since arriving in Malta one month ago that I have had a day off and not been hungover (don't worry mom, it's only my fifth day off, and sometimes hitting the town is a spiritual necessity when you're working six days a week...), so I thought I had better take advantage of the time and clarity and finally get down to writing about month one of this grand adventure.

Our boat Mir, named for the Russian Space Station, is currently sitting on a dry dock at the Bezzina Shipyard in Malta.  The boat was formerly known as Marilou, and at this point we still lovingly refer to her as Marilou at least half the time, because in the state she's currently in, which I'll get to shortly, she is still very much in a transitional phase from her old self, to her new incarnation of Mir.  One could go so far as to say Marilou is a caterpillar, the dry dock a heavy coating of chrysalis, our crew an eager team of metamorphosis catalyzers, and shortly a mammoth butterfly by the name of Mir will emerge to float and glide across the seas.  One could go so far as to say all of that, but that would be silly.  But assuming I was willing to entertain such a metaphor I would continue it with: for now, the chrysalis is quite thick, and Mir is still very much dormant within her cocoon.

We pulled Mir-ilou out of the water and put her on the dry dock three and a half weeks ago.  If you don't know what a dry dock is, or how it works, I will quickly explain it: The shipyard has a few gigantic concrete structures that have approximately 20 foot high walls on two sides, and are open on the other two sides.  The length of the dry dock is 200 plus feet.  The entire structure is hollow, and using pumps can either be filled with water, or emptied so that it is full of air only, which makes it buoyant.  Following me so far?  So three and a half weeks ago they filled one of these dry docks with water, and it sunk beneath the surface of the harbor, and we pulled our boat over the submerged platform where she was secured to a bunch of metal towers and then the water was pumped back out of the dry dock, and she came back up above the surface of the harbor, where she now sits, completely out of the water, and about five feet up in the air, so that we can work on the inside and outside of her hull.  Here's a photo to help you visualize:

Make more sense now?  All of the water you can still see drained off, and she is now resting just above that dry platform.

Here is how she currently looks on the dry dock with scaffolding built all around her.

Our goal was to be on dry dock for no more than three weeks, but week three came and went last Wednesday, and now according to the shipyard workers we will be back in the water on October 17th at the earliest.  It is quite expensive to rent the space on a dry dock, so we were all well prepared for a lot of very hard work once she was up to get her back in the water as fast as possible.  And hard work it has certainly been, and unfortunately it is out of our control when she gets back in the water because the steel work, sand blasting and painting that still needs to happen on dry dock is not ours, but the shipyard's to do, and we are now very impatiently waiting on them. 

Marilou is in very rough shape, but she is also extremely charming and beautiful, and her potential shines right on through the rust, holes, corrosion and rot.  The first three weeks of work were almost entirely dedicated to getting all of the old concrete out of the hull.  So there we were, hunkered down in the belly of the boat day in and day out, chipping ancient concrete from between the steel ribs of Marilou.  Hammers, chisels, jackhammers, air chisels, needle guns...Clean, clean clean...More chipping.  As we got down through more and more layers I began expecting that I would come across some old clay pots, or trilobite fossils.  Once all of the steel in the hull was exposed we could see what needed to be cut out and replaced, and for the past week plus the shipyard workers have been cutting huge holes in our poor Marilou.  So basically this entire first month has been almost exclusively demolition (not only concrete removal, but walls, old tanks, pipes, refrigeration, an old, broken, two-ton Rolls-Royce Diesel engine, and more), but we are just now finally standing on the cusp of building her back up, which I imagine will do wonders for our group morale, to finally see progress and improvement.

Malta is a very strange place.  A little speck of a country in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea (I can finally spell Mediterranean correctly on my first try just about every time now), that has a tremendously long and complex history, so is covered in old buildings, forts and ancient temples, but is also very much trying to keep up with the rest of the world, so for every old stone structure there is a huge crane erecting a new high-rise hotel.  It is very often ugly; dirty, overdeveloped, smoggy, but then suddenly surprises you with a spectacular moment of beauty; an old stone church, a harbor full of brightly painted fishing boats, or a walkway spangled with nice restaurants and cafe's overlooking the Mediterranean (got it again!) Sea.  Nothing happens quickly in Malta, which oftentimes is an endearing quality in a place, but when your boat is on dry dock and it's costing a fortune to keep it there it is far from cute when it takes a week to service a power-tool, and even longer to find an open market to buy vegetables to feed the crew.  In many ways Malta reminds me of Mexico, in that it is very unorganized, but somehow there is order in the chaos, and everything takes just a little (or a LOT) longer than it necessarily needs to.  Our latest example of Malta being Malta was when a very long awaited for pallet of paint arrived from Singapore, which just the waiting process for this particular pallet is a story in itself, but once it finally made it to Malta, and we were informed of its arrival, and greatly relieved to finally have our paint, we were then told that we could not retrieve our goods because in the same container as our paint was discovered an illegal shipment of cigarettes.  We then had to wait many many more days to get our paint because the Maltese customs office was...We have no idea.  Searching through our paint cans for cigarettes?  Huffing our paint thinner while smoking the illegal cigarettes?  Who knows, but it sure was the icing on a very frustrating and comical Maltese Cake, because when in Malta you are forced to have your cake, and eat the whole damn thing, whether you like it or not, meaning you are at the mercy of the Maltese pace, and that's all there is to it.  Adapt, or have a frustration-induced brain aneurysm.  Oh, and it's also covered in extremely easy to pronounce names such as: Marsaxlokk, Mqabba and Ta'xbiex, which is helpful with navigation.  

There is so much to say, as there always is when every single piece of life is new and unusual, but geez, this has already been a really long blog update.  I didn't even mention the people who are my new apartment mates, co-workers and family.  Just know that they are a wonderful bunch.  That's all for this one, but hopefully now that I have gotten this thing somewhat up to date I can do a better job of keeping up with it, and not allow myself to get buried again and again beneath weeks of noteworthy experiences.