Checking Out The World

You would be forgiven for thinking that the most challenging aspects of sailing around the world pertain to raging storms, rascally pirates and the sheer vastness of the oceans to be traversed. I am both apologetic and grateful to tell you that this is not the case.

Apologetic because these are generally the more exciting things to tell people about, but grateful because in order to tell people about them one has to endure them oneself. That our circumnavigation has been entirely absent of pirates, and mostly absent of raging storms, is quite alright by me, and I remain perfectly contented to read the accounts of other people who have suffered in these matters rather than to undergo them myself. I would, however, change the sheer vastness of an ocean, but only by making them even bigger. I love them.

No, the hardest thing about sailing around the world is not simply reaching the blue line that is the horizon, but rather getting through all the red tape that one finds wrapped around the lands one wishes to visit. It is not the machete-wielding, wooden-legged, eye-patched miscreants that pose the biggest threat to a completed circumnavigation; but a man in an office in a suit with a name-badge that says something like Colin, and Colin is of a fervent disposition to make your life incredibly and needlessly difficult, and he will harness the entire weight of his country’s jurisdiction in order to do so. Or perhaps jurisdiction doesn’t even come into it, and Colin will simply demand of you a special fee – better known as a bribe – to stop him from screwing you in one way or another (Ahem, Indonesian Colin.)

I am talking about the arrival and departures loopholes that the circumnavigator must find a new way to dance through in each new country he comes to, because they each play a different tune. With varying degrees of interest and effort taken by custom and immigration officers, we have had possessions rummaged through, hosted sniffer dogs on the boat, suffered items confiscated, seen both ourselves and our items swabbed for traces of drugs, witnessed our laptops and hard-drives scrutinised, watched a snorkeler check the hull for foreign growth, and observed all manner of chemicals squeezed and sprayed throughout the cabin. It has been nothing if not interesting.

But not all countries have a Colin manning the gates; some are in fact disarmingly welcoming. In Fiji, for example, four characteristically large islanders squeezed down into our cabin and could not have made us feel more at home in their country if they tried, though perhaps this was because they now occupied every square inch of our actual home, and so their country was all we had left.

The trade-off for such a lovely peoples, however, is often a particularly tiresome bureaucracy, which manifests itself in entire forests-worth of paperwork. For example, if you want to sail to Fiji – and you really do want to sail to Fiji – you have to fill out thirteen pages of painstakingly tedious documents. These ask you things like whether or not anybody got sick en route, and how many people died as a result of that, or otherwise. Or otherwise? If these questions weren’t absurd enough items to be found on a form, consider that you have to answer them before you even make the passage, as if every sailor holds the capacity to prognosticate on these matters of life and death. It is salt in the wounds to discover one has to fill out the entire thing again when landfall is made in Fiji, although at least this time you can accurately answer that yes, a crew member did die on passage, after a filing cabinet full of bureaucratic stupidities tipped over and squashed them flat.

I’m afraid the inverse to this is not much more desirable: the case whereby the paperwork is straightforward enough, but the welcome is non-existent, almost hostile. The manner of the greeting we received from the customs official in New Zealand, for example, suggested we had said some unforgivable things about his mother, rather than cracked a beer open to celebrate making it halfway around the world. At least there was only one form to fill out, which we completed quickly and obediently, though only so that he would soon leave and we could get around to saying some unforgivable things about his mother.

This side of the trade-off is particularly evident in countries where France has overstayed their welcome by a century or two. (A case of the pot calling the kettle noir, from an Englishman, I admit.) This is largely because in these places one has to deal with a populace admirably capable of speaking the international language – i.e. English – but is at extreme pains not to admit it. In French Polynesia we arrived at the relevant offices smiling and cheery, and had hardly uttered a “Hello” to the man behind the desk before he launched into an unintelligible tirade. That is, unintelligible because it was delivered in a flamboyant French flow that lasted so long one could have matured the smelliest of cheeses in the time given, and so it was hardly surprising that his sermon was met with only vacuous gazes come the end. Then, as if we had ruthlessly twisted the man’s arm with our very blinking eyes, he reluctantly launched into the entire speech again. We were happy to find our understanding of the French vernacular had come on remarkably this time round, until we realised he was actually invoking his flawless English in order to reprimand us for our shortcomings in his tongue.

This felt particularly unkind because James actually has a good grasp on the French language – when it isn’t being delivered at an indecipherable speed – and he made efforts to demonstrate this. But Monsieur Colin, as his badge read, was childishly unwilling to meet him halfway on the matter, and with a scowl he thrust the small amount of paperwork across the desk, which we might have quite easily completed some time before had it been at hand. I consoled myself that in these troubles we were in good company: in his Innocents Abroad the ever-quotable Mark Twain wrote, “We never did succeed in making those idiots understand their own language”.

For better or worse, the checking in and out of countries is seldom an uneventful undertaking. By far my favourite experience of clearing out of a place occurred in the same nation where Indonesian Colin bribed us of an arm and a leg (my arm, James’s leg) when we checked in. That’s another story, but the day I spent completing departure formalities in the Anambas (the Indonesian islands of which I wrote recently), as James stayed aboard Blue Eye to service the engine, was one of the most accidentally entertaining days I’ve ever known.

It began with immigration. Indonesia, unlike many countries, trusts the sailor to come to their offices to complete clearance procedures. Whilst this removes the problem of having to wait a sunrise or two for the officials to come to you, other trials present themselves in this scenario instead. Namely, that there is often a proper order to visiting these offices, and if you don’t take to each office in the prescribed sequence then the whole system may well dissolve and be lost forever, simply at the hands of your foolishness. That it is not always apparent to the foreigner where said offices have been arbitrarily dotted around the town, or what the order to attend them in might actually be, is of no excuse to the authorities who cannot at all fathom how this could be confusing to anyone. They know perfectly well where the offices are, those offices have always been in those places, and the order in which one is to visit them has never changed. Anyone who is perplexed by this matter must be a buffoon of the highest order.

Fortunately, I knew I was to begin with immigration. In the immigration office I found two men sitting back in their chairs, their feet up on the table, their hands up on their heads, and their eyes directed up at the television screen. They were watching Dunkirk. At first they seemed put out by my untimely arrival, but then they remembered that they were in fact at work – not home – and so they soon brightened up and stamped the passports. I signed some things, they signed some things, some paper went back and forth; all the normal inconsequential bureaucratic nonsense carried out in the appropriately official and formal atmosphere. As I stood to leave, they requested selfies.

This had become quite familiar in Indonesia, particularly in the less touristy islands, but it was a very amusing thing to happen with the authorities. I happily obliged them, and as we were saying our farewells I pointed to Dunkirk and told them that was where I was from, near that small English harbour on the screen now. This was extremely interesting to them, and they gestured toward the sofa, inviting me to stay and watch. I explained I had to go to all the other offices that morning, but thanked them, and retreated into the Indonesian heat. As I walked away it crossed my mind that I may have just waltzed into – not a government building – but in fact somebody’s living room, and that they had no more idea about the process we just undertook than I did. And that’s the thing about Indonesia. It may be cumbersomely officious, and you might get bribed from time to time, but they’re admirably relaxed about these matters. The public and the private – work and home – they are almost one and the same. Their lives aren’t so discrete, their walls not so thick. An Indonesians existence play out in the streets and the buildings as much as it does in their kitchens and living rooms. This means that when Indonesian Colin bribes you upon arrival to his country, with one hand he might take a small fortune from you, but with the other he will buy you iced tea at his favourite café. He might be your adversary, but he is still your host.

This permeability between the public and private was evidenced at the next office as well. The customs man was asleep on the sofa when I walked in. I stared at him for a while, willing that he might awake, but he didn’t rouse at all. So I passed in and out of the door a few more times – each time with increased enthusiasm – but still he didn’t stir. Eventually, awkwardly, I had to poke him awake. He was neither annoyed nor embarrassed by this, but admirably indifferent. Silently he lit a cigarette, stood up slowly, and then went into the back to collect the relevant papers. We each scribbled on them here and there, quietly doing our part so that the world might keep turning in this strange way that man has designed it to, before he gestured that it was done. He returned to his prone position, and I slipped out the door.

Quarantine was quite a contrast. Quarantine officials in the Anambas don’t do nearly as well as their immigration and custom counterparts, in that their office is located in the heart of what appears to be a scrapyard, patrolled by the kind of dogs you keep your eyes on as you shuffle by. Inside I found no television, and certainly no air-conditioning, but rather a topless man sitting at his desk with an industrial fan blowing in his face at such a rate that he hardly heard me come in. When he did see me he wasn’t in the least abashed at the state of his dress, or lack thereof, but hurried me into a chair across from him and smilingly went about the paperwork which we required from him, or perhaps that he required from me – I don’t really care to recall. Once complete – it took longer than usual as we had to keep chasing the paperwork about the room on account of the fan – a colleague of his arrived, and requested the inescapable selfie. I said certainly, and then indulged the topless man as well, who was so good as to don a shirt for that ad hoc part of the procedure.

Only one visit more was required to complete the mountain of paperwork that was deemed necessary to clear us out of the country, and that was the harbour master. I weaved through the hubbub of Tarempa to the port, and as I reached the office door the skies unleashed one of their tropical downpours that brings as much rain in a few minutes as an English drizzle can muster in a month. Darting inside I began the final proceedings for clearance, when all of a sudden the power went out. The reaction around the office was almost non-existent; it was as if they had been waiting for it as soon as they heard the rain hammering down. I remained for quite some time, contentedly chatting with the locals that wandered in and out – some with business there, others simply with things on their mind – and felt more like I was at a social gathering than an administrative centre. Those permeable Indonesian walls again. I was almost sad when the deluge ceased, and the power came back on: I had finally checked us out of Indonesia.

So long as you are willing to see it so, these clearance formalities can be a fascinating aspect of a circumnavigation, and one can learn a lot about the country they’ve arrived at before even making it past Colin and his gates. But so often we are doomed to many hours – sometimes entire days and nights – of simply sitting and awaiting the arrival of an official, who merely squiggles on and stamps a piece of paper when he eventually turns up. We could have done that! we tell him. Having just spent days, perhaps weeks, crossing significant portions of the earth and experiencing a freedom that is devilishly hard to come by anywhere else, to be halted indefinitely in our tracks by a dotted line that is lacking the word ‘Colin’ scribbled on it in a certain style, is about as infuriating as it gets.

They say that the average Brit spends six months of their life in a queue in one shape or another: at the bank, at the post office, at the pub. Mostly the pub I’m betting. Getting up one day and deciding you’re going to sail around the world will roughly double that number for your lifetime I would venture. Dreamers be warned.

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