Typed on Gionny’s bloody nauseating Olivetti Lettera 22

This quote was a response from a good friend of mine, to another, who only recently discovered I was writing a travel blog.

One reason to retire is to avoid embarrassment – it hasn’t actually worked!

Haven’t we all experienced embarrassing moments while travelling? Those toe curling moments when you realise the implications are so great you wish the ground would open up and swallow you. Sometimes they can be cultural insensitivities simply based on ignorance.

Sometimes they are based on ignorance alone!

Embarrassments – A typical café in deepest darkest Italy.

Jeez it’s just a bloody coffee

1992 Italy, with a colleague on a Greenpeace research trip. We’d stopped for an afternoon coffee in a crowded café in an otherwise sleepy little Italian town. A perfectly innocuous and simple operation.

But it was 3 o’clock in the afternoon and I ordered a cappuccino. I found out very quickly that YOU DON’T ORDER A CAPPUCCINO AT THREE IN THE AFTERNOON IN A CAFÉ IN DEEPEST RURAL ITALY.

With my travelling companion hissing in my ear:

“A morning drink, don’t do it, order something else,”

I continued with my quest. An abrupt and deathly silence descended upon the café. I think I was lucky to get out of there alive! I actually found the whole experience really ridiculous and hilarious. My friend, on the other hand, was seriously mortified and angry for the rest of the day. AND I didn’t get my cappuccino.

Embarrassments - Greenpeace activists protests against oil drilling.
A typical Greenpeace RHIB (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat).

The devil is in the detail.

Rewind to 1985 and I’m sitting in a ferry cafeteria. The ferry had just arrived in Holland from the UK and as I wouldn’t be returning to the UK for the foreseeable future I felt justified in being a little self indulgent and ordered a full on English fry-up breakfast.

As I awaited my order I reflected on the night before as I’d rushed from London to Harwich in a van full of Greenpeace action equipment and towing a trailer carrying a large RHIB (Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat). I’d arrived at the ferry in the nick of time and they’d just managed to squeeze me on. Quite stressful.

Now I was relaxed, as I knew I’d be the last vehicle off the ferry and I’d have time to enjoy my cholesterol feast. Looking out of the window my experienced mariner’s eye perceived the vessel was stopped and end-on to the quayside. But there was just one niggling detail I couldn’t quite workout.

My breakfast arrived and I casually listened to an announcement in Dutch and English about a vehicle blocking the exit door and would the driver come immediately. My only thought was: “What a stupid selfish bastard, holding everybody up.” A second announcement came as I tried to coax the HP sauce from the bottle, this time they gave a Dutch registration number. I’d just taken my first bite when a third and outraged announcement threatened to drag the offending vehicle off the ship. At that moment my eyes were drawn to the van keys lying on the table, particularly the key fob with the registration number.

THAT “niggling detail!”

It was at that moment the “niggling detail” became abundantly clear. Nowadays cross channel ferries are all ro-ro ships (roll on, roll off) with one door in the bow and one in the stern (front and back for you landlubbers). This means loading and discharge are much more efficient and vastly quicker. Back in 1985 there were still a few one-door ferries operating and it was just my luck to be on one. That “niggling detail” was that we were tied up stern-to the quayside, the same as we had been in Harwich. Instead of being last on last off, it was a case of last on first off. Umm, that would be ME.

Frantically arriving on the vehicle deck I rushed to my van.

The crew were furious as I was eating into their ‘down’ time between discharge and re-loading. The truck drivers were equally furious because, presumably, they had tight agendas. Most of the trucks were Dutch and because my van had Dutch plates they assumed I was Dutch. I understood nothing of what they were saying but I DEFINITELY understood the sentiment. It didn’t sound nice! 

It didn’t help when it took me several attempts to reverse the van and a large trailer off the ship. 35 years after I still think of my unfinished fry-up.

Embarrassments - The Greenpeace Vessel MV Greenpeace
The Greenpeace vessel MV Greenpeace – affectionately known as the “Black Pig”.

In 1991 I was in Kuwait just after the Gulf war that evicted Saddam Hussein from the country. I was with a friend and Greenpeace colleague Paul Horsman. We’d just waved goodbye to one of our ships, the MV Greenpeace. The ship was in the Persian Gulf for 6 weeks as a floating base to conduct scientific studies on the effects of the infamous oil fires and oil spills resulting from that war.

Before Kuwait the ship had already been in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

But, to add credibility to the science it was imperative the ship and her 30+ crew and scientists be allowed to operate in the coastal waters of Iran. The ship had reached the end of her permit to remain in Kuwait and had to leave for international waters to await permission to enter Iran. Obtaining that permission was mine and Paul’s assignment. No pressure.

It gradually became clear Paul and I would have to physically travel to the country and knock on the relevant ministry doors rather than relying on fax communication (the modus operandi at that time). To do that we needed  visas.

Pilgrim visa for Iran
Visa for Iran travelling from Kuwait as a pilgrim

We’d been trying for weeks but had come up against a brick wall. Then a junior official at the Iranian consulate in Kuwait suggested we could enter the country as pilgrims. It was so simple. Neither Paul, and definitely not ginger headed me, would normally rate as bona fide pilgrims but we weren’t going to argue the point. Never look a gift horse in the mouth.

Those pilgrim visas came through remarkably quickly and with flights booked we were set to leave the next day.

Things went pear shaped. 

We’d previously arranged to meet a group of expat journalists that evening. In their hotel room one of them produced a bottle of whisky. Then another appeared and then another. They’d smuggled the golden nectar into the alcohol free country.

We’d been in the Persian Gulf for six weeks and in deference to local laws we’d observed a strict policy of abstemiousness. The ship’s crew and scientists had not touched a drop of alcohol during all that time.

When those bottles appeared it was, for me, temptation beyond endurance. The ship had left and I got hammered.

I must have passed out because the next thing I remember it’s 5am and daylight. Paul is trying to tell me something about an airplane we have to be on!

Embarrassments - Graffiti on the wall of the American Embassy in Tehran
Embarrassments – 30 years after and the art work on the abandoned American Embassy in Tehran is still pertinent today.

The next few hours were a blur until we arrived in Tehran. Paul told me later that he’d literally poured me into a taxi and on to the plane. He said afterwards that the most embarrassing and difficult part of the debacle was getting me through a really edgy security check totally reeking of alcohol. mmm, not well.

I only regained some semblance of compos mentis while changing 200 US$ and being intrigued to receive two wads of Iranian rial notes the same size as two house bricks.

I was fully conscious as we drove past the abandoned American embassy compound with the still relevant anti American graffiti.

Paul completely carried me that day –figuratively  and at times literally.  That day I don’t think I actually contributed anything very positive to obtaining those all important permits and definitely didn’t contribute much to saving the planet!

While I can probably claim the unique distinction of having travelled from Kuwait to Iran with a hangover while travelling on a pilgrim visa it was definitely NOT one of my more glorious moments.

Not sure if Greenpeace has a statute of limitations. I hope so because even after 29 years I’d be seriously fucked – again.

A most embarrassing episode.

One thought on “Embarrassments

  1. You make me laugh. I cannot imagine what type of trouble you’ve been getting into since you’ve retired.

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