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- Visiting South America
Only the English Build Sandcastles.
Rio de Janeiro, December 1975.
On Boxing day 1975, after sailing ten days across the Atlantic from Southampton, the Motor Vessel "Drina" docked in Rio. After two of years full-time academic study, this was my first trip for practical training as a Marine Engineer Officer Cadet. I was 19.
It was sunny, hot and humid the day we arrived. But this was just the beginning of about two months sailing on the South American Coast and we'd have more than our fair share of wind, rain, fog and thunderstorms during that time.
The stevedores were off for the Christmas holidays, so it wasn't long before we were ready for our first night "ashore". Somehow I ended up in a bar. Imagine that. Then we went for barbecue chicken. My first meal in Brazil being very hot, spicy hot.
This was the first of two visits to Rio on that trip. Our journey down and back up the coast was scheduled to begin and end in Rio, with stops at Santos, Montevideo and Buenos Aires.
Built in the 50's at Harland and Wolfe in Belfast (yes, the same shipyards as Titanic) the MV Drina was a "reefer" designed to carry frozen and chilled meat. We could also carry general cargo.
By all accounts our ship was well-known on the South American coastline, as were the crew. The company, Shaw Savill and Albion, had been shipping goods to and from the U.K. and up and down the South American coast for many, many years.
There are times I think about this trip and want to do it again. In many respects I was too young, too immature I suppose, to really appreciate the experience. I knew relatively nothing of the history and culture of the places I'd go and the people I'd meet. I think that's my regret. Not being better prepared to immerse myself in a new and different environment.
Montevideo: A trip back in time.
I don't remember if it was on the way down the coast, or coming back up, but at some point we sailed up the River Plate and docked in Montevideo.
Visiting here seemed to me like a trip back to a better time. Little did I know or undertand that the country, much like Argentina, was under a civil-military dictatorship and experiencing a great deal of unrest and turmoil. I had no idea, no concept at all, of people "disappearing".
How could I have been so ignorant, so foolish, so naive? Was it my youth?
1970's Montevideo had old steam trains, old 1950's American cars and old colonial style buildings. It also had at least one cinema showing Brit films, because I went with a group of guys form the ship to watch one of Peter Seller's "Pink Panther" movies, the one where Sellers had the manservant Cato to "suprise attack" him.
The film was in English, which was great, Trouble was the subtitles for the locals were popping up a little before the actors spoke, which meant they read the punch lines before we heard them.
The audience was roaring as we asked each other, "what was that he just said?"
After working up and down the South American Coast, some of them over a decade, the guys on the ship knew their way around, so after the movie they took me to one of their favourite liitle restaurants for steak, egg and chips. With beer.
South America is famous for its meat and the steak I had was huge, it covered the plate and some more. It was cooked how I liked it (well done back then) and with a liitle encouragement from the others a liberal supply of beer, I finished it all.
As I sat back and patted my stomach, they all aksed in unison, "how was that steak?"
"Great" I said.
"Yes" they said, "Not bad for horsemeat is it?"
I wonder if it's these guys' descendants who've been running the meat industry in the U.K. for the last little while?
Buenos Aires: A hotbed of violence and unrest.
By the time we got to Buenos Aires I was aware that all was not well within the city. My understanding at that time was the military junta, comprising of leaders from the Argentine Army, Navy, Air Force and Civil Police, were locked in a power struggle. Just before we arrived, the authorities had begun a crackdown on prostitution. For us on the ship, this meant that bars in certain areas of the city were now off limits for us.
The Second Engineer was very concerned for us lads on the ship. Just the trip before one of the Engineering Officer Cadets had been in a bar that was raided. A raid meant that everyone would be arrested and then each individual had to prove their innocence to be released. A sort of "justice in reverse" so to speak.
So the cadet arrested was from Belfast. He had a reputation for being extremely aggressive all the time. I heard it said that one night he took on about a dozen men in a bar in Portsmouth and was the only one to walk away.
The story we heard was that when presented with a night in an Argentine prison cell, our cadet from Belfast tried to fight his way out. This was the first mistake. When officers came to his cell and demanded an apology he made his second and final mistake by telling them where to go.
They had him hanging by his wrists up on tip-toe and stripped naked. Then they beat him around the kidney area using leather truncheons filled with lead shot.
Four days they had him there.
The ship sailed without him. In the end our company had to call on the British Consulate to go to the jail and get him out and then on top of that, pay to fly him home.
Needless to say I didn't go to any of those "off limits" bars. We went as close as we could though. We checked out the side streets.
That's when I saw an event I often talk about.
During my time in Buenos Aries I saw quite a bit of the city. One Sunday afternoon we went to a local swimming pool. It was so hot that day, about 115F, even the locals were commenting. Us engineers were O.K. with it though, we had gotten used to working in the engine room where it was hotter than that at times. For us, it was good just to see the daylight and breath fresh air.
There was one event however, that still haunts me a bit. I saw a man, spread-eagled up against a wall, surrounded by what seemed to be Policemen. He was being patted-down, with at least one shotgun to his back. Three or four cars with their front doors still open, closed off the area around them all.
Looking back, I guess a few seconds before we turned the corner a man had either been walking or maybe running down the street, when the squad cars hemmed him in and the armed officers jumped out.
I once heard it said that around the time I was in Argentina, some 14,000 people disappeared without trace. Many were tortured before being killed. Some were handcuffed, drugged and then taken alive in a plane to be thrown out into the sea.
Sometimes I wonder if that was the fate of the man I saw up against the wall that day.
Only the English.
My two visits to Rio in 1975-76 were unforgettable. Why? For the most part, the weather was atrocious!
The day I walked up Corcovado Mountain to see the statue of Jesus, the fog came in and we couldn't see a thing, apart from when we had a two-second gap in the cloud, all I would have seen was the statue's Big toe.
The day I went up Sugar Loaf Mountain there was a huge thunderstorm. The cable car after ours got stuck when lighting struck.
The day I went to Copacabana it was freezing cold with fierce winds that blew sand in your face. It was the day after a big storm at sea and the waves were crashing in. It was just us guys off the ship on the beach that day. We had the whole place to ourselves. Apart from a fresh pineapple vendor.
At the beach that day we tried to swim, but it was too rough. We couldn't sun bathe and there were no bars in sight. So we did what came naturally to us. We began building sandcastles.
We numbered about eight or ten men that day, so it wasn't long before we had quite the structure going on. Walls, ramparts, fortified towers a moat and a bridge. Our castle was impregnable!
Then came a voice from the distance, "Hey English!". We looked around a bit and then carried on building.
"Hey English! Hey! Hey! Hey ..... English!"
A guy selling pineapples was striding across the sand toward us.
"Hey English! You like some nice fresh pineapple?"
I have to say that was probably the best pineapple I've ever had, and it certainly brightened our day.
Just as the guy was saying his thank you's and good bye's and turning to walk away, one of us asked him, "by the way, how did you know we're English?"
A huge grin came across his face.
"Only the English build sandcastles!"