I put together a little video of our time at sea for anyone interested. Please be forgiving of any slightly shaky editing, I’ve never done anything like this before…
We arrived in Montevideo sometime overnight, and disembarked earlier today. The Grimaldi agent had already taken our passports, and when we woke up we were told to be ready to disembark at 10.30. Lauren’s first response was we would miss our 11am lunch!
Our passports had been stamped in our absence and after some emotional goodbyes to crew and officers, and lots of wishing of good luck to the other passengers, we simply walked down the ramp and out of the port into Montevideo old town, mingling with the mainly Brazilian tourists who had arrived on a cruise ship docked next door. We got some funny looks with our backpacks.
I honestly have mixed feelings about leaving the Grande Amburgo.
Of course, we have 6 months of amazing adventures awaiting us, and I’m excited to get on with that, but we have almost become institutionalized on board – the initially baffling routines are now ingrained in us, and we’ve got to know the personalities and interests of some of the crew.
Lauren in particular has been made very welcome – I swear most of the crew don’t know my name but they all know Lauren and greet her every time they meet. We were all told the Gelato was finito yesterday (Wednesday is ice cream day normally) but moments after everyone dispersed, muttering that they’d been looking forward to gelato all day, there is Lauren being ushered to the kitchen for the last of the ice cream.
The thought of having to deal with the ‘real world’ again is not attractive. Yes, it will be nice to be able to skype home more easily and eat something green that isn’t ancient lettuce. It will be good to be able to stride out and go somewhere that doesn’t end in a loop back the way we came after 200 yards.
But if I was told we had another month on board, I’d be perfectly happy.
I wanted to do this because I wanted to be ‘at sea’ – I loved the notion of being many hundreds of miles from any other vessel, of seeing sea in every direction. And the choice of cargo ship was because I didn’t want to do a cruise.
And I did love the open sea, although it was surprisingly the smallest proportion of the journey. I did love looking around and seeing nothing but sea and sky (and, often, our resident birds diving and swirling). Seeing dolphins on multiple occasions was fantastic. Even the flying fish I could watch for hours. The sunsets and (occasional) sunrise were often stunning. And yes, shore visits were fun, even the mad dash into Rio.
What I also loved, which was more of a surprise, was the actual cargo aspects – the logistics of loading hundreds of vehicles at top speed; the manoeuvring of enormous containers by cranes that stand many metres above the top deck of a 13-deck vessel; the logic of what is going where; the odd-shaped covered shipments that towered above us as we picked our way through the decks. The camaraderie at port and the autonomy of finding our own way in and out of these enormous places full of heavy machinery. All the different ships and boats, from tankers to canoes. I even loved watching the ramp being lowered and raised each and every time! Turns out, I’m a heavy machinery geek 😊.
I also loved getting to understand a completely different way of life and the social aspects of life at sea. From the Filipinos who send money home to families they see only a couple of times a year, to the young Italians who see going to sea as an only option after a bad school career, to the older and more reserved officers who work incredibly hard far from home. There is a great competence about men (they were all men, although the captain made a point of telling Lauren that many of the senior officers including captains are female within Grimaldi) who deal with big, heavy complicated things. Watching the incredibly complex process of loading and unloading many containers plus all sorts of bizarre consignments and hundreds of vehicles proves that there are skills that may not come with fancy degrees but which nonetheless demand great experience and intelligence. From the crane operators in charge of machines that stand 15 stories high, to the chief mate in charge of the whole cargo, to the drivers who know exactly how to fit everything in, to the chef who keeps nearly 40 people in 3 sittings fed and content for 5 weeks on 4 weeks’ supplies.
The seemingly-rigid hierarchy of this group throws up some interesting anomalies – the Filipino senior officer proves the separation which seems so clear at first can be overcome. The Italian steward who works alongside the Filipino one. The engineers who keep the engine going yet are not officers. The affable Italian driver who spends more of his time with the Filipinos. The fact that the Filipinos speak way better English than the Italians who manage them, and are far more at home in various ports.
I don’t claim to understand this world, but it has been a fascinating insight into the lives of people we might never have met, and for whom I have developed a great respect.
During the trip, there were of course a few moments of frustration, but genuinely none of boredom and after 40 days at close quarters, I can honestly say that Lauren and I get on better together than many mothers and daughters. Its been fantastic, a trip of lifetime. It truly couldn’t have gone better.
Now lets see what South America has in store for us!
Somewhat illogically from a geographical perspective the route of the Grande Amburgo goes past Montevideo, through the wide bay that separates Montevideo and Buenos Aires, and up the river Paraná to Zarate, before returning to Montevideo where we will disembark.
We were already 6 days behind schedule due to the delays at Dakar, but when we reached the bay we were held back another day waiting at anchor for a pilot to come and take us up the river to Zarate. This is an 18 hour journey, under pilot the whole way. There turned out to be 2 or 3 pilots who took turns. One of them gave me his daughter’s phone number in Buenos Aires should we need anything when there.
While I enjoyed the ‘deep blue’ of the open sea immensely (we’ve been watching Blue Planet II) and it’s definitely been my favourite part of the trip, there was also something fairly mesmerizing about our slow paced amble up the narrow river, through wetlands and lush foliage, passing the odd ramshackle hut and a few massive haciendas. We overtook canoes and scruffy little row boats, and were in our turn overtaken by speedboats captained by shirtless and shoeless locals.
We spent the entire day of the approach up on deck, moving from the skyscrapers of Buenos Aires before breakfast through the Tigre delta and upriver to the eyesore that is Zarate port in the evening.
On the approach to Zarate we passed under a huge road bridge spanning the river – standing up on the top deck it felt like you could reach out and touch it – and docked alongside another huge RORO.
Zarate port is enormous, and there are thousands of brand new vehicles, arriving from upriver factories by boat and from closer ones by truck, being loaded onto massive ships like ours. Everything from little Vauxhall runarounds to enormous heavy farm machinery. The loading of the vehicles went on all evening of the first day, all of the second day and until midday of today, the third.
Yesterday we decided to go ashore, for once in a relaxed fashion as town was walking distance to the port (well, about 5 km but along reasonably safe roads) and we had no curfew. We had originally planned to organize a taxi, but as all the passengers coincided at the gate at the same time, and as the previous days’ 40 degrees had cooled to a positively chilly 28, we decided to walk and save some pesos.
We set off along a green-edged narrow road, the super fit German and Swiss guys up front setting quite a pace. My back had ‘gone’ that morning and I hadn’t had time to swallow some painkillers, so it was a fairly painful yomp into town, but at least we got to stretch our legs.
We followed our usual routine – (cash machine – sim card – coffee/ice cream has become our shore mantra) and sat in a pleasant café on the square catching up on the world. Its amazing how when you have not been online for days, an hour of internet is perfectly sufficient to say hi to friends and catch up on their news, and to scan through the headlines and decide nothing much has changed. The first news I saw was an attack on Save the Children employees in Afghanistan. I have good friends who work/have worked for Save the Children. Good, committed people. My first instinct was to turn my phone off again. My next was to get right back to the real world and stand shoulder to shoulder – if only figuratively – with those who are trying to do some good against such odds. In the end of course I did neither, ‘liked’ a statement condemning the attacks and continued scrolling through my news feed….
Once we were all caught up, we wandered around the town, looking for somewhere to print a few photos we want to leave for the crew and a present for our long-suffering steward.
Zarate is a fairly nondescript town with not much going on, but the streets are tree-lined and shady, there is a pleasant main square, the traffic is more than manageable and the people exceptionally tolerant of my massacring of their language. Lauren claimed I was just mixing up Portuguese, Italian and French and hoping for the best, which is a bit unfair as I believe on the whole I was understood.
By 1pm the shops were starting to close for the 4 hour siesta, so after lunch in a lovely (if, ahem, laid back) café, we decided to head back. We were both tired, and my back was killing me, so I decided to try to get a bus back. The port is an enormous part of the local economy and I believed that there must be public transport to it. I’d seen some buses passing us on the way in, so knew they went at least part way. A kind nurse at a bus stop pointed us in the right direction (literally) and after a 15-minute wait at a shady bus stop an old rattly bus came along. We confirmed with the driver it went to the port, and when I asked how much the fare was he just waved us on. Everyone else had electronic passes like oyster cards so I guess we should have bought one somewhere, but no one seemed to mind, so we got a free bus back all the way to the port.
Today we headed off back down the river and had to face the reality that is packing after 5 weeks.
My back is still bad (terrible timing, it was fine all the way round Europe carting a massive backpack about) so we took things easy. Most of our stuff is now packed, and we received confirmation from the captain that should everything go well, we will dock tomorrow morning in Montevideo and disembark around noon. It will be tough to say goodbye to the Great Hamburger.
Yesterday we docked at Paranaguá, just for a few hours. We had already decided that we were not interested in leaving the ship – the port is a way from the city centre, we only had a few hours, and I had very few reais left. Paranaguá didn’t look that exciting a place. It was a nice approach though, through tropical islands and wetlands.
Fortunately, as it turned out, immigration had other ideas.
To the great surprise of Grimaldi (who take passengers on this route every 3 weeks…..) we needed to go into town to have our ‘exit stamps’ as this would be our last port of call in Brazil. I was in the shower and some of others were sleeping after lunch when there was a knock at the door and we were told we had to go ‘now-now’ because a minibus was waiting to take us to town!
We dressed rapidly and I grabbed the usual assortment of dollars, euros, debit cards and local currency that I spread across various pockets in case my bag gets nicked, and we were ushered down the elevator, and then after the massive rush ended up standing on the side of the dock waiting for the agent. We decided that as its rare to get all passengers together, we’d do a group photo, so here is the Grande Amburgo class of January 2018.
Eventually we set off on a port bus and then after clearing security (this is alleged to be the most modern port in Brazil, but they struggled to get the revolving doors to work) we were transferred by airconditioned minibus to the central police department, which also hosts immigration (we are far from a border so I can’t imagine they have much to do). As the only person speaking Portuguese the agent asked me to translate, which given the mix of languages meant a three way Portuguese – French – English conversation that kept me on my toes.
We sat there in a row for about half an hour – at one point the chief of police for the state came out and was intrigued to hear we were from a cargo ship. Once I had answered some of his questions, I pointed him to this blog as the best way of getting a feel for what its like. He opened it up on his phone and started reading immediately. I also asked him if the immigration would take long, emphasizing that we only had a few hours. Despite it not being his area, he went off to see, and our passports emerged a minute later….
Given we were downtown now, we decided we might as well have a mooch around – the driver of the minibus assured us a taxi would only cost 25 reais and even called one for us for later in the afternoon. We were joined by one of the French couples and wandered around the aquarium first, highlights being a virtual reality thing where Lauren ‘walked among sea lions’ to hilarious effect for those of us watching from outside, some piranhas and some rather dozy looking turtles and a sad, lonely jacare.
It wasn’t exactly Lisbon’s Oceanarium but it passed a pleasant (and cool) hour. I though it was kind of funny that it was right next to the fish market….
After that we wandered along the river front – pretty boats and a small beach on one side, the town main square lined with colonial type colourful houses on the other – and concluded that Paranaguá is actually a pretty nice place, laid back, friendly and attractive. The sort of place where cars stop and wave you across if you dither, and people seem to know each other.
The centre of the square has a bizarre kind of ceramic crab…
The taxi driver arrived on time, charged exactly what had been agreed, and gave me his entire family history going back to great grandparents from Italy and England and cousins in South Africa, in the 20 minutes it took to return to port in time for ‘chicken and cheese Thursday’ dinner.
On the way out of port in the evening, there was the most incredible storm. No rain, but masses of thunder and incredible lightening. I got some amazing video but haven’t yet worked out how to convert into pictures, so you will just have to take my word for it (I did post a short clip to facebook).
Purple lightening lit up the whole sky, illuminating for a split second various islands or other boats, and then fork lightening would hit the sea. There was a really strong wind, especially as we came out of the sheltered bay and into the open sea, and I let Lauren stay up until nearly 11 watching it. We were stood right at the front of the top deck, next to the bridge, with the wind roaring past us, waves slapping hard on the boat, surrounded by the storm.
What an experience.
I have been meaning to tell you about some birds that have travelled with us all the way from Dakar. There are four of them, and they come and go but seem to have adopted us as home all the way across the Atlantic.
Apparently, this is quite common and sometimes they go all the way back again with the same ship.
I don’t know what they are, and they never come close enough to get a good view, but I can watch them for ages wheeling around and diving down, disappearing below the surface for a second with the force of the impact as they hit the sea, bobbing back up with a fish in their mouths.
It’s a beautiful day today, and I am writing this up on deck. I’m in the shade, but the humid air would be oppressive if not for a slight breeze. The only sounds are the hum of the engine and the waves slapping on the side of the boat, with the occasional crackle of the radio from the bridge. We are too far out to sea to spot land, and there is just blue water and the odd cloud to be seen in every direction. The smells are the now familiar hot rubbber-oil-sea water mixture. On days like this, I could do this forever.
Yesterday we spent the day docked in Santos, the port that serves Sao Paulo. We decided to forego a trip ashore in favour of hopping on the internet through the erratic mobile signal for long enough to finish all the various exercises missing from Lauren’s schoolwork, so that she could finish her exams and get them sent off.
It was an intense day – she had to learn 2 songs, analyse a symphony, and do an art project as well as some interactive grammar exercises and some comprehension exercises, but she got it all done and I even had enough credit left on the phone to upload all the exams. It’s always a massive relief when they are submitted. We have completed four modules, and have four to go, although I just heard that the next 4 modules that should have been sent ‘mid-January’ will now only be sent mid-February which is a right pain in the whatsit.
But we will make it work.
In the meantime, Lauren gets a day off for completing her exams, and then tomorrow starts on some bits of the British curriculum I have curated, mainly coding which isn’t in the French curriculum but I think she will enjoy.
For now though, I’m enjoying the peace up on deck.
It’s fair to say that our visit to Rio started off rather stressful. We were due to dock at around 8am, and stay in port until 6pm. However, as we have been repeatedly warned, the schedule is no more than a notional representation of what may happen. In actual fact we docked at 5am but were not allowed off until after breakfast, when they announced we needed to be back on board by 12 noon!
So much for my idea of getting the metro up to Botafogo, walk the couple of Km to sugar loaf, take a leisurely trip up to the top, then finding a nice place somewhere near the beach and hit the caipirinhas.
The 3 older couples had organized a 6-hour guided tour which was now called into question. The guy who turned up didn’t want to reduce his price for less time so there was much confusion as everyone blamed everyone else. I tried to stay out of it but as the only Portuguese speaker he seemed to think I had organized it, when I (and the Germans) had been quite specific we wanted nothing to do with a guided tour. We had prepared for the day by getting currency in Vitoria, sim cards for our phones, downloading offline google maps and planning our route.
The others, having planned on a guided tour, had not prepared at all. However, when the negotiations with the tour guide fell apart, they all decided to get on the port shuttle bus that would take us to the exit from the port. I’m not sure at this stage if they all understood this was not the tour bus, there seemed to be a lot of drama, especially as one couple speak no English at all. Anyway, the tour guide followed them onto the bus and carried on trying to convince them to go with him, much to the frustration of the poor port workers needing to get to a meeting.
One of the cadets from the ship then got involved, telling them Rio was dangerous and they didn’t have money or know where they were going or how to get back. One couple gave up and went back to the boat in a huff. The others followed us out to the taxis. I tried to offer to negotiate with the taxi driver for them, so that at least they wouldn’t get ripped off, but they hadn’t decided where they were going yet, and needed to change money first (this was not the area to do that) and we only had 3 and a half hours, so I eventually left them to it.
The Germans (who have confirmed they don’t mind my using their names, so Nicki and Moe) and us jumped in a taxi, whose driver offered us sweets and lots of blather in the hope we would not notice he hadn’t zeroed the meter. Didn’t work and he ended up stopping on the outside lane of the highway to reset it after I insisted. The taxi to Urca, where sugarloaf is, took about 20 minutes and 10 USD – a bargain split four ways given that the guided tour guy had wanted 65 euros each!
We caught the cable car up to the middle station – it was hot and humid and ‘jungly’ with amazing views from all sides.
Nicki was disappointed not to see monkeys. I imagine they ‘discourage’ them as this is one of Rio’s main tourist sites.
After a pleasant wander round (and coming across this enormous fella..
…..we jumped on the second cable car that goes up to the top. It was definitely worth it, with stunning views all round, from Copacabana on one side to the city centre and (just visible in the distance) the G for Grimaldi on the funnel of the Grande Amburgo. We could also just make out the statue of Christ over on Corcovado.
Once we’d seen all there was to see and bought the obligatory magnet (Lauren is collecting one per country) we took the cable car down and bumped into the other four passengers who had managed to massively overpay for their taxi and then not go up the mountain because they wouldn’t accept euros. They seemed happy enough though, drinking some beers and enjoying the view from below.
Leaving Lauren with the others in the shade at the cafe, I set off looking for phone credit, which proved to be quite a challenge. It was incredibly hot and humid, and we had less than an hour before we needed to be back on board.
I walked very fast for about 20 minutes before coming across a tabacaria that sold credit. The old guy running the place wasn’t the fastest, and felt the need to break off what he was doing and greet everyone who went past. This would be charming if I hadn’t left my child 20 minutes yomp away and needed to race back to get on board on time.
Mobile phones in Brazil, as least for foreigners, are a pain. They won’t accept registration without a tax number, you can’t buy credit in a shop with a card, online or through the phone app they won’t accept foreign cards to top up, and they bombard you with meaningless promotions and competitions the whole time. I have received about 30 etxt messages in the last three days from the mobile company, all rubbish.
First the guy needed my phone number, which he noted down five times incorrectly, even though he was simply copying it off the screen, then he had to look up what to do because it was registered in a different state, then he had to input something into a machine. When I eventually got a text message saying I’d topped up, he couldn’t tell me how to convert that into data but by this stage I was ready to give up. I’ve no idea how much data I have or when it will run out.
I raced back to the café, we grabbed some lunch to takeaway (Lebanese, yay!) and jumped in a taxi back. We made it back to the ship with 5 minutes to spare!!!!
After a lunch of hummus, spinach kibbe, Lebanese salad and chicken, Lauren retreated to the cabin to watch Minions 3 while I spent the afternoon up on deck enjoying the sight as we pulled out of Rio.
It’s a bonkers city, with all the high rises squashed into the flat bits between the mountains and the sea, then the colourful favelas stretching up the valleys and mountainsides. Helicopters buzz around constantly, the sea is a thoroughfare for everything from tiny wooden row boats to enormous cargo ships, and the domestic airport built out on the edge of the bay is a hive of activity as planes zip at an angle between the mountains then land on what looks like a tiny strip hovering over the sea.
Having entered the bay under a large road bridge, we assumed we would exit the same way, but in actual fact we exited right past the back of sugarloaf. Once we were past sugarloaf we had a great view of Copacabana before making our way past various islands and heading south towards Santos, only a few hours away and the biggest port in South America.
We got up at 6am today to catch the sunrise and our arrival in Vitoria. The sun rose behind some clouds and was nothing special, but the same can’t be said for the approach to Vitoria and our first sight of South America.
Given I’d googled Vitoria and the first few headlines were all grim gang-related news, I wasn’t expecting much from the place. But the setting is stunning – around a couple of long stretches of bay, with various islands and the river we are currently docked at cutting through the middle. Steep mountains (think, mini sugar loafs) rise up from the coast, with high rises on the small area of flat land, and colourful more rustic houses built up the mountain sides. Various peninsulas jut out into the sea, with some very exclusive looking property on them.
Once the pilot was on board, we made our way into a wide bay and then under an enormous bridge and up the river to the docks, passing people out kayaking and fishing. We passed very close to the side of a mountain as we edged up the narrow river. After the high rises and glitz of the centre, we also passed by what looked like a more traditional fishing village full of colourful houses spreading up the sides of the mountains, with small fishing boats docked below.
Unfortunately, we kept on going straight past the city, to dock on the ‘wrong’ side of the river well beyond the city centre. Its not clear if we will be able to get off, and I am writing this as the cargo unloading gets underway, with an enormous crane moving back and forth outside my window.
Eventually during lunch, when we had all but forgotten about being allowed out, we were handed our passports – with a new Brazil stamp in it, which has finally christened our new passports – and told we had a mere 4 hours to play with.
We decided that wasn’t enough for any real taste of the city, and decided to sort out the practicalities, so that we would be organized to make the most of Rio next week. Sim cards for data so we could use google maps and communicate, some local currency, some mozzie repellent etc.
Along with the Germans we made our way to the port reception, where we had to be entered into the register and photographed before being allowed to leave.
The guy who accompanied us to the reception offered to give us a lift, and waited for a while as we were processed, but I could see he was getting a little anxious as his lunch hour ticked away, and then a taxi driver came in and started giving him hassle for stealing his supposed fare. I took an instinctive dislike to the taxi driver, and told him in no uncertain terms we had not ordered a taxi, were just going for a walk, and had no currency to pay.
I would have been happy to get a taxi but there was just something about him I didn’t trust. Eventually we were released into an industrial park, which admittedly didn’t look promising territory. Another much friendlier guy offered to take us to the bank (having heard the conversation about having no currency) and he had a nice enough car with seatbelts, so at first, I acquiesced – we all piled in, and Lauren had strapped herself in before I asked the price to the mall. He wanted 50 USD! No wonder he was friendly! Ludicrous. We had been told it was an hour walk. We all piled out again and started walking – to be honest we were just happy to be stretching our legs.
We walked along the dusty road, often being passed by enormous truckloads of brand new BMWs and Porsches being offloaded from our ship, until a blue car screeched to a halt and the driver waved us to get in. I approached cautiously (this is Brazil after all, in a run down industrial estate, and I have my child with me) and he said he was a stevedore on the ship and would give us a ride. He asked where we were going and I told him the mall, and he said would take us there ‘because it’s a long way for the little girl to walk’. I could have told him, she can far outlast me in any physical exercise!
I had the opposite instinctive reaction to him than I did to the first guy, and given he knew which ship we’d been on (and, indeed, that we were from the port), after a quick confirmation with the Germans, we jumped in and buckled up. We then drove further and further from the port, left the built up area behind… joined a highway…. Let’s just say I was starting to wonder if my instincts had failed me and we would be yet another statistic for google to scare tourists off Vitoria with… How difficult would it be to put two and two together and pretend to have seen us getting off the ship… how bloody far was the mall (perto was all I got as we kept speeding down a highway out of town)…. I made a big point of saying I knew how dangerous Brasil was so we had come out without any money and only one card between us….. Either the guy was completely trustworthy and I was being a bit cold given he’d deviated massively to drop us at the mall… or we were headed for a ditch somewhere.
Luckily, just as I was thinking I’d made a rookie mistake on day one on the continent, we pulled up at a swish shopping mall. The guy pointed out where to get taxis back from, and I felt guilty for ever doubting him. I thanked him profusely for going so far out of his way, and told him it was a lovely welcome to Brazil. He waved this off, with a stern warning to never accept lifts from strangers in Rio, as Rio is apparently dangerous……
At the mall we did everything we needed to do – the first answer at the phone shop was that foreigners can’t have sim cards, which i came prepared for by knowing the law (foreigners register with their passport numbers) and being polite but insistent in that very lusophone-country way. Eventually no turned into maybe turned into yes, and the guy registered both sim cards with his tax number rather than faff about trying to work out how to do it with our passports.
After we had completed chores and shopping, and jumped on the free wifi at the mall, Lauren decided she wanted to go on one of the electronic moving stuffed toys (not sure how else to describe these monstrosities) that were weaving around the mall. They are like mini motorbikes dressed in cuddly toy outfits…
Turned out, the adults found it quite fun too….
Not, perhaps, ones first idea of fun in Brazil – tropical beach, caipirinhas, jungle tours etc… but it made us giggle.
On the way back, we bumped into the driver who travels with us to drive the forklifts and various vehicles on board. He told us he had ‘done everything’ but that side (containers) was being slow, so he had nothing to do. He insisted Lauren ‘drive’ his forklift, and then even let her up into the cabin of the monstrosity we have been admiring since Tilbury…
A great end to the day.. well not quite, as its Saturday so pizza night!!!!!!