Friday, April 13, 2007
Stranger in a Strange Land.
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Greetings Land Lubbers,
I promise this will be my last rant about the banana republic that is Trinidad, but only because we've left the island and they had their last chance to fuck with us. What follows are a few paragraph of the problems we had getting out the door, but from then on it is sailing reports through the Caribbean Seas and our exciting times in other exotic lands. Bear with me, I have to get this off my chest.
Well, the entire crew has arrived, but not without the typical T&T impositions we've come to know and love. Now if it seems that I'm harping on this poor country too much, I would suggest you reserve judgment until you've had to accomplish anything here. It isn't so much the fact that the entire country's infrastructure lacks any technology more recent than the invention of carbon paper, its that the population so willingly accepts and condones it. This is made all the more infuriating by a culture of corruption, regulation, taxation and bureaucracy. At every turn someone will demand that you tip them, fill out a form, pay a surcharge - all while limiting your efforts as much as possible.
On top of that, there is no consistency what so ever to these restrictions. For instance, suppose you want to buy an ice cream cone, but have only American money. Of the three stores located in the marina, all owned and run by the same management, one will gladly sell you the ice cream, take your money and give you change in the local currency. The second will refuse to accept your money and demand that you go to the money machine (which works only three out of any four times you use it) and the third will accept your dollars providing you fill out a form and provide copies of your passport. I'm not kidding.
Every organization has different rules for the same situation, and each time those rules can be altered according to the mood of the employee or official involved. When Mota arrived at customs, he was made to wait several hours because "he didn't have an advice". I showed up and gave them a duplicate copy of the same documents he had, which they then gladly accepted and then gave him the advice. This is what they were actually supposed to do in the first place. When Jeff arrived, they didn't care at all about "an advice" but needed proof that it was a sailing yacht. The fact that the vessel was being stored in a boat yard that only handles sailing yachts, or that it says sailing yacht on several of the documents including the US Coast Guard title didn't deter them from wasting our time.
Of course, when Mike & MaryAnn arrived, they didn't even look at their papers, and just waved them through, but when Jennifer arrived they demanded proof that I was the actual owner. Of course, she had several documents proving that already but it required my giving them exact same documents to free her from the nightmare that is T&T customs. No mention of having an "advice" or proving that it was a sailing yacht. And that is just at the airport. Once we finished there we had to go to the local port captains office and repeat the whole process again.
Oh, and the port captains demand bribes. If you happen to show up there with a piece of equipment in your hand, you will be told something like "Oh, I really like that, you should make a present of it to me." Now, you don't have to do that, you could refuse, but then any chance of getting the rest of your gear through without several more days of delays will mysteriously increase. To pour more salt in the wound, you can't leave T&T unless you have a special form from the port captain proving that your vessel has satisfied any outstanding claims from the various workers who you may owe money to. A reasonable enough system if it wasn't used as part of the money collecting shakedown scheme that is T&T customs & immigration.
I walked into Immigration at three thirty, thats the 2nd floor of the white building on the left. I was trying to get through fast enough to make Customs before the witching hour. Strangely, it took exactly thirty minutes to complete the transaction which in all other circumstances takes less than fifteen minutes.
I then went to Customs (the light blue building) and walked in at exactly one minute after four, only to be told I would have to pay a special late fee, and that because there was a typo on the letter from the boat yard (the extremely pretty but totally useless secretary at Aikanes filled in the wrong date on the form), I would also have to pay several hundred more dollars as well.
At this point I was so totally disgusted with the scam artists that pose as officials in this dirty, backward, corrupt country that I just laughed, and said "Of course, you need more money, I expected no less". The woman at customs then told me that "Since I was rich (remember, I owed a boat and she didn't, although after spending several weeks in her country I'm probably less solvent than her) I could afford to pay more than others".
I think that pretty much sums up the attitude of the country. If you are even perceived to have anything of value to them you are an automatic target. If they can rip you off, they will, at every opportunity. If they think they can shake you down, they will. If you want to get anything done, the cost will be whatever they can get away with. It is no surprise that so many people here are poor, or that so few are getting rich raping the country's economy. Rule of law, good governance and a good work ethic have never been established here, and the result is a real disappointment. If you had any plans of ever sailing here, I'd strongly suggest you come with everything you could ever possibly need, and expect to pay a lot for very, very little. But I'm not bitter.
So, we'd finally cleared customs and were all set to leave the country, when one of the alternators failed. I brought it to the local marina's shop called Dockside Electric, where Sherman (not his real name, I just think it reflects his myopic attitude) assured me that if I got it to him by 9am, he could have it rebuilt by 2pm. I dropped it off in time, but having learned some of the ways of this country, I went back at noon to check on things.
Sherman said "Oh, the alternator guy is out to lunch (lunch starts around 11:30 and goes until 3:00) but will work on it as soon as possible." Okay, I come back at 2pm, only to be told that there is another job that is delaying things and it won't be ready until tomorrow. I ask to speak with the manager, who then explains that there is a ship coming in soon, and they need at least four mechanics to work on the ship, and there was never any chance of the alternator being repaired until next week at the earliest.
When I explain that his salesman promised it today, he just shrugs and says "Well, I told him that this morning. He knew we weren't going to be able to fix your alternator.". No apology, no attempt to find another shop, just a "We know you need us, we don't care how long we delay you, you probably don't know anyone on the island that can help, so you're fucked unless you want to pay three times as much for it" accompanied by the T&T smile. This is their way of doing biz.
The American way of doing biz is to explain carefully and calmly to the owner that I contribute regularly to several different sailing news groups with tens of thousands of readers, and that I will make it my top priority to explain just what any other cruisers can expect from his shop, and took my alternator with me. I then spent a few more hours going around the port until I found someone who can work on it, will do it the same day and will get it right.
By the way, while I was waiting at the counter for Sherman, a customer in front of me complained of basically the same thing. He was promised a part, then left hanging - for three weeks. He was furious, and I don't blame him. What's worse, I spoke with several other cruisers that complained of delays, hassles, mistakes and the like from them. There seemed to be an even higher incidence for anyone who happened to have their vessel moored at the very expensive docks at Crew's Inn.
So, I got in my dingy and motored over to the over side of the bay and began searching for a decent mechanic. I found one within an hour. The folks at Caribbean Marine Electric not only rebuilt both my alternators, they came to the boat, installed new voltage regulators and batteries (for about half of what Dockside was asking) and the work was done right - but they weren't owned by locals so their work ethic hadn't completely faded yet. They did a great job, even working overtime before the big holiday weekend started - a thing unheard of in this country.
We had one minor problem when the alternators didn't seem to be working afterwards, but we realized it was a load balancing issue and that they were behaving appropriately. Of course, this is only after we spend a few dollars more, and it took another day to leave, but hey, its Trinidad, where the motto is "Come here, give us your money, wait, and leave unhappy". And an accurate motto it is.
Okay, rant off. Did I mention that Trinidad sucks? Oh, sorry, stop me if I repeat myself.
We had moved the boat from the dock yard to the marina a while back, which is the fanciest place in the entire island. We are surrounded by mega yachts, tricked out power boats, and all number of high end vessels. At least we were the only catamaran on the dock, which made pointing out our boat to others easier. Then another boat pulled in to the dock just ahead of us.
It was a brand new 50' St. Francis sailing cat with all the toys and gizmo's you'd expect on a mega yacht. It had just crossed the Atlantic, having started from Cape Town, South Africa thirty days ago. On board were the delivery captain, the owner, and a crew of three other guys. On the aft deck awning was a three foot high satellite dome. "Hey Robb, how come we don't have one of those?" was the first question I got. "Yeah, but we got woman crew, which would you rather have out at sea, TV or live, naked girls?" was my answer.
After securing the boat, the first thing they did was take out a brand new stainless steel grill large enough you could barbecue a cow on. Then they turned on their 54" LCD screen and started watching "Girls Gone Wild". Then they turned on their air conditioner and put their clothes in the on board washer/dryer. And made cool drinks using their ice maker. Realizing that they were ruining my crew's morale, we decided to try to trade Jennifer for the ice maker and the LCD screen. They refused. I'm not sure what that says, but apparently cool drinks and video is worth more that a cute blond. They did offer to take her with them (several times) but we always held out for more appliances then they were willing to trade.
We've since gotten to hang out with them a bit. We all ended up eating at the same barbecue shack the other night. At one point, one of their crew leaned over to us, pointed to another crew member and whispered "See that guy, he fell over board when we were crossing the Atlantic. We didn't realize he was missing for ten minutes, then we took another ten minutes to go back and find him. He was treading water in the Atlantic Ocean for twenty minutes wearing only a Tshirt and shorts." We looked over at him. He was drinking quite heavily. We never saw him sober for the rest of the week we were there. I don't blame him.
We finally fixed our mechanical problems, got the boat ready and left the suck hole that is Chaguaramas and have hit the high seas. The boat is handling well, we've had at least twenty knots of wind on our stern and following seas between six and eight feet. We were concerned the first night out about getting hit by pirates (there have been several incidents of this coming out of Venezuela) but our worries were for naught. We left T&T and decided that instead of taking a straight shot to Panama we'd go to Aruba instead. It is one of the three islands just north of Venezuela that make up "The ABC's", the other two being Bon Aire and Coresao. These are all beautiful islands and I wish we could spend more time exploring them. As it is we'll only spend a night in Aruba, where AnnMarie will fly in and join us for the trip to the canal.
Piloting the boat has been a breeze, especially with the auto-pilot, but getting the main sail up and down is a bit of a chore. Invariably we get soaked. I was up there in just my underwear when I huge wave soaked us. I took them off and threw them back into the cockpit, and vowed never to go up to the mast wearing clothes again. They only get wet and take too long to dry. The crew have been amazing, hard working, fun and very diligent about keeping good logs, a vigilant lookout and steering the boat safely.
I've been trying to instill good habits in them, one of which is to not leave stuff lying around. It may seem like a small issue, but it matters. The other night I needed to climb up on the coaming and ended up stepping on a sandwich some left out.I got mad and threw it overboard. The next morning I was asked if I'd seen my underwear about the boat. Everyone was grinning. I looked up and saw them flying on the mast spreader, with the letters FKO bleached into them. What comes around goes around.
So, we've had pretty good luck with mechanical issues, except for our freezer. There appears to be something wrong with the condenser unit, which isn't something I'd let anyone in Chaguaramas touch, so we have only a small fridge to cool things down. We've divided the freezer into two sections, one we've packed with ice, the other food. It won't keep ice cream from melting, but it is good enough for most stuff. Well, almost. Mike bought some shrimp which went bad. If you've never smelled bad shrimp, be glad. We ended up having to completely empty it, wash everything down with bleach and vinegar and baking soda several times.
From now on, we don't buy fish, we only catch it, which means we don't eat a lot of fish. Apparently Mota has some weird anti-fish curse placed upon him (he has never ever caught a fish) which seems to extend to the rest of the boat. We've been trolling various lures for several days and have yet to get even a single bite. Very odd. We have managed to capture over fifty flying fish. Apparently some internal death wish makes them jump up onto our deck. It scared the shit out of some of the crew the other night.
Sailing long passages across the ocean may seem romantic or fun or exciting, but truth be told, it is mostly boring.The first day out you feel a little nauseous, are tired and a bit disoriented. It gets better over time, but not much gets done or happens. The high light of the adventure so far was putting Mota in his rainbow outfit, rigging him up to an up-haul off the mast, and suspending him in front of the dolphin striker (the upright triangle that juts out of the cross beam at the very front of the boat) so that he could be "On Top Of The World" and a butterfly all at the same time. No doubt this will be a Utube video shortly.
We've had a number of dolphins swim along side us. These appear to be "Spinning Dolphins" because they leap out of the sea, spinning, then crash back in. They travel in large packs, several hundred sometimes. They are beautiful, sleek and powerful animals. You can't help but think that they want you to come play with them. When they saw Mota, they swam away. We never saw them again, but Jeff thought he heard one of them say something about "weirdos from the West Coast", whatever that means. We're having fun, none the less!
Other than that, we continue on to Aruba, we will pick AMP up and head for Panama. We heard from the canal agent there, they say there is a three week wait. Not sure what that means yet.
Hope all is well with you and look forward to seeing everyone again.
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