I’m currently sat at anchor, 5 miles from land, in a place called Songklah, Thailand. You know that film, ‘The Beach’? – Well it looks exactly like that. It’s so close, and yet so far. I’m hoping that my Chief officer will let me go ashore- we berth on the 8th, and I turn 30 on the 9th. Thirty years old . . how did that happen?
Anyway . . .
There are two types of ‘seaman’s clubs’ that you will visit when you are traipsing around the globe on a deteriorating bulk carrier- firstly, there’s the one which is operated by a mission, and then, there’s the other kind.
My first trip to a seaman’s club was in Dunkerque, France last year. A mini bus came to the ship, and drove me and some of my Indian shipmates to a congenial building in the suburbs of Dunkerque, which almost reminded me of a multinational youth club for adults- even the smell reminded me of Moreton community centre, all those years ago. There was no charge for this shuttle service. There was a bar, selling reasonably priced beers and spirits, some pool tables, internet stations with skype facilities, a shop selling souvenirs and exchanging dollars at a fair rate. Indians, Chinese, Malaysians…you name it, it was an international melting pot of vastly differentiating creeds and cultures, (and me from Birkenhead) all with one thing seemingly in common – being a mariner. These places are a godsend to the mariner; and whilst I was in there, I honestly did not appreciate just how important places like this are to the seafaring community. Only after visiting other foreign ports did I become aware of just how much this type of seaman’s club means to the seafarer.
That brings us on to the other type of seaman’s club. It’s the same story, pretty much in every port I’ve been to in China, Turkey, Egypt, Thailand et al. The taxi driver picks you up, the price you were quoted is now ‘per person’ rather than for one trip, which you were initially quoted-you ask to be taken to a town or city; they take you to a horrible little shop, where you are almost forced to look at their crap gear. You just want to get off the ship, do some exploring, get some food, see some trees! You’ve been on a bulk carrier for two God damn months with nothing but sea! The last thing you want to see is luggage cases and counterfeit sports gear!!
Then they try to bottleneck you into exchanging your money at a borderline criminal rate. There’s probably a bank around the corner, but, let’s be clear- you’re here to financially fucked!
I now have a fair few thousand nautical miles under my belt, and I have since frequented a few of the latter types of seaman’s club. I’m currently alongside in China, and I can’t sleep, so I thought I’d put down in writing about yesterday’s foray. It started as I expected, with an inflated taxi price, a trip to a crap shop, a crap exchange rate, and yes- lot’s of crap cases and fake brand clothing. I can’t say crap enough to convey how crap this place was.
“Please take us to a bar. Not a seamans club, no jiggy jiggy please” I said to our driver. “We want some beer..only beer.” – so we pull up down a seedy little side road. The driver smiles at us, and signals us to get out the car. He then walks up to a large black door, presses a bell.
We are greeted by an elderly Chinese lady with an unforgiving glare- “Mama saan” I thought, and I was right. “Mama Saan” is basically the word for pimp, used by the AB’s on ships. We walk in to a pitch black room, and then dim lighting sequentially illuminates the small dance floor and then suddenly, the bar lights are turned on.
A split second after we agreed prices for Heineken, two mini skirt clad girls came down, and both headed directly for my shipmates. I can’t say I was not happy about them heading towards them and not me! At first I was laughing, because the O/s was seemingly not wishing to partake in any hanky panky, despite her leering and snake like advances! The Scottish Junior engineer however, was lapping it up like a kitten to milk, as he had done in Thailand. I was relaxed, and enjoying a beer, and surfing the internet, attempting to navigate around the Great Firewall of China (anything Google related is banned) when a third girl came down!
She spent the best part of half an hour asking me if I wanted to fuck her, or have a massage, each time I was politely declining. It became annoying. The naivety of the Jr Eng almost made me have a pity induced seizure “This one says she really likes me” he said enthusiastically – then I thought back to the time after he’d had his fun in Thailand – ” Oh man, she was saying she’s never fucked anyone like me before and was saying like, how nice I was and that” – I’m nodding away smiling but inside; I’m losing faith in humanity!
The same bullshit happens in every brass house you visit (I realize this makes me sound like a sex tourist, who regularly pays to fuck women; never have, never will.) They want you to buy them stupidly over priced drinks, which you feel obliged to do so, they bring a tray of crisps and nuts over, which you clearly state that you do not want- the girls are well drilled . . Excuse that coarse metaphor- I mean in the sense that, as soon as the plates of eight dollar shit gets put down on the table, they instantly take hold of the nuts and try to feed them to you, in some disgusting faux erotic way. I’m obviously saying “NO!!” in an attempt to minimize our bill- but I notice the other guys munching away! Uncomfortable feelings increase, in synchronization with the bill!
Thankfully, some friendly Russian sailors came in, and thwarted the unwelcome advances( unwelcome for me and the O/s, at this point the Jr Eng was Balls deep) within minutes the girls that were tying to elicit business out of me and the OS were upstairs being abused by our new Comrades. We had maybe 10 bottles of beer, and it cost us $50 USD. In all fairness, I spend more than that on a night out at home, but, relatively speaking we were royally ripped off! Oh, and by the way, “Mr Putin will use his Nuclear weapons” according to one of the chipper Russian sailors I was chatting to. So we have a nuclear winter to look forward to!
I’m not slating the ‘other’ kind of seaman’s club. They obviously serve a purpose. The girl that the Jr Eng went with, subsequently went with two other guys from our ship! Which turned out to be a laugh when they all realized it, when comparing photographs…and prices! I just don’t like being ripped off. Our job is hard enough without having people trying to take us for all we have at every chance. I guess that’s shipping though. There’s a sponge, so it must be squeezed for all it’s moisture. We risk our lives to contribute economically to societies which in turn attempt to just rip us off.
I much prefer the first kind of seaman’s club.