domenica 3 aprile 2011

From Port Said to South America

Last Ramadan, Giuseppe Acconcia made enquiries about pursuing his life's dream

I tried to cross the Ocean several times. In 2005, I half succeeded in finding a sailing boat from Morocco to the islands of Barbados, but my final goal is to reach South America. And so I obtained the nautical passport before coming to Egypt to look for a boat.
The old city of Port Said appears with its new buildings, showing signs of the free zone declared in 1976, and its ancient houses, facing the road with their wooden verandas. A lot of them seem abandoned. And they really are -- or so you think when, entering the hall, you see the decaying wall and the damaged stairs. Walking through those buildings and the streets near the port, Port Said looks like La Coruna. In this extreme city of the Spanish north-western region, Galicia, there is the same atmosphere. The wind, coming from the seaside, blows on the city and pushes the citizens, walking on the docks. It is not the wind of Tarifa, the southern town of Andalucia, where Morocco and Spain meet each other. But the attitude of the people is similar. On the docks of Port Said, young men look at the hundreds of ships passing from the Suez Canal dreaming about a new land and a new future. A different wish motivates Tangiers citizens who crowd the cafeterias near the port. They are angry, rather, because they were living in Europe and were sent back to their country. Every morning they try to hide on the keel of a vessel to reach the Spanish coast. But the people of Port Said have never been in Europe, so they just dream about the indefinite opportunities that the sea could give. Port Said has all the elements of a border city but without the same drastic contradictions of Gibraltar. Actually, the only city it is possible to reach by sea from Port Said is Port Fuad. There are free green ferries every ten minutes that connect the two sides. The huge beaches of both cities are empty. The black colour of the sea calls to mind near-by Suez Canal activities. A man on a cart with two thin horses crosses the waterline. For Ramadan, all the buildings show coloured lights and everything is empty, waiting for the time of the iftar. Between five and six o' clock, a strange increase in car accidents and brawls is evident. The mosque of Port Fuad is full of people for the afternoon prayer, a lot of men with their zebiba, the sign of constant prayers, hurry towards the mirhab. The same people crowd Saad Zaghloul St. and the small alleys of the souk at night. Like in islands of southern Italy, fishermen are salting anchovies.
I start asking about boarding at the Pan lines on Gomorreya St. A worker, busy with his business, suggests visiting an agency, called "South Africa" or else a man, Mohammed Said, who works near the stadium. "They find a crew for long cargo trips, it is exactly their work, you will find them tonight at 9 o' clock after iftar", Ahmad assures me. In the evening, near the big stadium of Port Said, all the people point out a cafeteria called Kalitro, where Mohammed Said is working. He is very famous in the city. Seated with his fellows, he has the look of an old salt. Suddenly he discloses to me that all his ships are directed to Greece. "You could go there and try to find a boat to South America from Cyprus," he suggests. "It is very hard to find a ship to South America from Egypt. Have you a nautical passport?" I show him my documents and so he starts talking about the work of CMA. Apparently, it is the only agency working towards the other side of the Ocean. I leave Mohammed Said in his homely cafeteria, arguing with fellow sailors.
I find CMA on the third floor of a new building. The director of the logistics sector, Ahmed Reda, informed me about a ship leaving from Damietta to the United States. "All the cargos to South America stop in Europe, Malta or Rotterdam. There are no direct links between Egypt and South America", he assures me. At the same time, he gives me the telephone number of Marie Paule Aubert, based in Marseille, the headquarters of CMA. "Sometimes she sends the travel permit for few passengers and I give them to the maritime authorities. To be in contact with her is the only way to cross the Ocean by ship", he concludes. About the possibility of working on the ship as a crew member, he insists that is almost impossible because all the crews are 99 percent foreign. "Even Egyptians could not have this kind of job!" His colleague suggests that I visit the K lines agency. Going to the South African company, I find the offices of K lines. Mr. Ennaoui talks at length about his container vessels that in this case are mostly directed to India and Singapore. "It is not common, your request," he admits smiling. "But you must talk directly with the Thai headquarters". Walking on the road towards South Africa, on the 23rd July st., I find a small yellow house with an interesting marble inscription. "In this house of Italy lives and is perpetuated with the deed of Italian institutions under the glorious signs of the Sabaudo's shield and the Fascist party the thousand-year spirit of the homeland, the power to resuscitate the new imperial Rome." The monumental plaque concludes with "1938, Duce and head of the government, Benito Mussolini, the founder of the Empire". Astonished, I stop for few minutes looking at this abandoned building, then I proceed.
The place that everybody calls South Africa, it turns out, is really called Nasco. It hides behind an old mirror window. No results -- all its ships are directed to Greece. My last stop for this first trial will be the port. I cross gates 1 to 8 and I join the Suez Canal House, an ancient white palace built in 1869, facing the main gate of the port. From this side it is possible to reach gates numbering in the 20s where cargos stop. Inside the port, there is a quiet atmosphere. Jibs freight tankers. Nothing, compared to the stressed attitudes of the sailors in Casablanca or even Naples and Porto. One of them, Hussein, informs me about a brief schedule of ships' arrival and departure. "Only Maersk lines go to South America", he explains. With such interesting news I will continue looking for a boarding from the Egyptian coasts to South America, entering slowly into the parallel world of sailors and maritime workers.

Giuseppe Acconcia

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