‘MSC Rhiannon’ – passenger number two
Since October 10th 2013: 144 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country.
Finally released – let’s move on.
In a direct continuation of last week’s blog you should know this: 15 minutes after completing it I was informed that the Lebanese would not allow me onboard the vessel MSC had invited me onboard. From that moment onward I only had one priority. That was Thursday afternoon…last week.
Sometimes people tell me: “have fun”. I know it’s mostly meant as a harmless remark or at times out of pure ignorance. In return I have never heard anyone say “have fun” to someone on their way to the office or factory? However I see where people are coming from. They hear about a man traveling to every country in the world and they generally have no idea how much of an effort that takes. Therefore it may seem appropriate to say “have fun”. I’m not a backpacker and I sincerely doubt that I have any more fun than you. I have the greatest respect for anyone who can reach every single country in the world within their lifetime. No matter how you do it, how much you fly, how much money you have and much time you spend on it; it’s a remarkable achievement. Reaching every country without flying is yet something very different from “simply” reaching every country as I will now describe.
I first arrived in Lebanon’s capital Beirut, onboard the good ship ‘MSC Augusta’. That was back on November 11th 2017 and MSC in Cyprus had already arranged for me to disembark the ship. However on arrival to Beirut the Lebanese authorities changed their mind and I had to stay onboard. That brought me to the next port of calling which was Alexandria in Egypt. In a different project I could simply have flown from Cyprus to Lebanon or now in this case from Egypt to Lebanon. However within the Saga it’s just not that easy. So a few weeks later I was invited onboard the good ship ‘Irenes Logos’ which headed from Port Said to Beirut. This time I had procured a visa in advance which perplexed the Lebanese consulate that issued it: “but sir, you are Danish and can get it on arrival?” Well…better safe than sorry. My visa made no difference and I had to stay onboard the ‘Irenes Logos’ to the next port of calling which happened to be Limassol in Cyprus…on December 9th 2017. So that was basically a month wasted on what would have been an hour's flight.
As you may remember I then crossed into the northern part of Cyprus, boarded a ferry to Turkey (originally country no. 141), got on a bus to another city, got on a minibus, boarded another ferry and finally arrived to Tripoli in Lebanon, where I was stamped into the country on December 13th 2017. Then I spent the next few months waiting for a visa for Syria. In that time I could have flown to Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar, UAE, Oman, Bahrain etc. However you don’t get that luxury when you are not allowed to fly. No sir! You get to visit the countries which border the country you are in. With Lebanon that leaves you with two options: Syria and Israel. I feel somewhat certain that the picture is already pretty clear but I will keep painting :)
The country manager for Maersk Line in Lebanon, Chadi Houkayem, has been very helpful ever since I met him. He even managed to set up a meeting for me at the Saudi Arabian Embassy. For those of you who do not already know this, the visa for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) is not one which is easily obtainable. Furthermore you do not simply open the door to the embassy and say hello. As an applicant you get to speak with an agent for KSA, which in Beirut is across the street from the heavily guarded embassy. You may have heard rumors that KSA is ready to issue tourism visas in the future? Well…that depends on how far into the future we are looking. However at this point in time KSA does not issue tourism visas and those who seem to know about it do not believe that it will be anytime soon. Although soon is a relative term ;)
I received this gift from the Danish Red Cross in Lebanon. Chocolate inside and appropriately wrapped ;)
Okay now, back to the story…Chadi had arranged for me to have a meeting at the embassy. I showed up at the allotted time but my name had not been entered at the door so I was not permitted to come in. A few phone calls and 45 minutes later we had solved that and I entered the embassy (which is a very impressive building). To make a long story short the staff were very polite and friendly however they could not issue a visa on my behalf. The main reason being that I wasn’t going to fly and that Lebanon does not border KSA. Yeah, Yeah, Yeah…you’ve had enough examples but I’ll keep painting :)
On March 22nd 2018 I had finished last week’s blog. I had successfully visited Syria and I had secured a vessel opportunity to Egypt onboard the good ship ‘MSC Rhiannon’ which was scheduled to reach Beirut on March 28th and leave the same day. So far so good. Then I smiled to myself feeling good about the entire situation. I had a week to say goodbye to Lebanon which in most regards is a spectacular country with much to offer. 15 minutes later I received an email from MSC’s port captain in Lebanon:
“Good day, please note that as per regulations at Beirut port, only vessel crew (who has seaman book) can embark/disembark vessels at Beirut. Lebanese General Security informed us that the passenger cannot disembark/embark at Beirut as per instructions from their head office, and they don’t give any explanation why.”
Obviously I’m not prone to taking no for an answer. If that was the case then we would never have gotten this far to begin with ;) However you cannot easily influence the Lebanese General Security, which is a military division tasked with protecting Lebanon’s security. I firmly believe in the “six degrees of separation” which describes how every living organism on earth is connected through six degrees of separation or less. It’s kind of a hopeful way to look at life. Because we all know as many people as we do through school, work, sports, everyday life and family we can be sure with a mathematically certainty that I know somebody (one), that knows somebody (two), that knows somebody (three), that knows somebody (four), that knows somebody (five), that knows The President of the United States of America (six). I’m not sure that would be helpful in this particular case but through six links or less I would certainly know somebody relevant.
Many emails, WhatsApp messages, phone calls, meetings and dead ends later we reached the weekend. I really dislike weekends for the most part. I am always keen on doing whatever can be done today so we do not need to do it tomorrow. Well not always…but generally speaking. The weekends slow my progress down. Offices close, people go home and I get to wait. However eventually the weekend passed and Monday arrived. Then I received another email from the port captain that read as follows:
“Good day, Kindly note that we are not able to recheck with Lebanese General Security anymore, they refuse to discuss the subject again.”
I spoke with the port captain on the phone. I remember that I expected to speak with someone short minded who couldn’t care less about if I got onboard this ship or not. I was pleasantly surprised as I discovered that he was very sympathetic to my case and that he had done everything he possibly could. You see…Once Upon A Saga is not easily explained or understood. It takes more than a one line sentence to describe what it’s all about. If the selling point is that a man is trying to go to every country without flying then it may not always generate the needed understanding or incentive for someone to help. In fact I would argue that most people simply don’t care enough to help based on that. It’s everything else the Saga is about which generates incentive: humanity, inspiration, knowledge, motivation and more. And that takes time to explain. However the port captain was definitely in my corner.
Peter is a delegate of the Danish Red Cross. We first met in Swaziland back in 2016 and now reunited in Lebanon before he starts his next mission here in the Middle East. We might just run into eachother again ;)
The six degrees of separation theory falls perfectly in line with my “search for more doors” speech. In short you will not get anything if you give up at the first locked door. If there is a wall then there is a door and if the door is locked then search for another. The six degrees of separation is a map to whichever key you will ever need to a locked door. The tricky part is knowing which of your perhaps 500 connections to tap on the shoulder. And then they need to know which of their perhaps 500 connections to tap and so on. I went with the most likely of my contacts and while some immediately proved to be dead ends I’m very happy to say I received overwhelming support for the most part. And yet….imagine if I had just flown? Well…I didn’t fly. In all fairness I can see why the General Security wouldn’t let a passenger disembark a cargo vessel. However it’s a lot harder to understand why a passenger who has his papers in order cannot leave the country onboard a ship that has accepted the passenger? Why would Lebanese authorities put themselves between someone who is legally leaving the country and the means to do so? Well that is not something I will ever get an answer to but at this point I think we can all agree that Lebanon is a very safe country.
Susan, Raymond and Aram. I will miss them dearly!! We met every Saturday.
In the end a friend of mine turned out to have a very influential family member who wanted to help out. So last Tuesday (one days before the 'MSC Rhiannon' would arrive) this man went down to the General Security office at the port to hear what the problem was? Apparently there was no problem at all. I was then instructed to head down to the port myself and meet with the General Security. There is no way you will ever get inside the port unauthorized. The Port of Beirut is heavily fortified and guarded by all sorts of uniforms. However with a scheduled meeting with the General Security I more or less walked right in. A friend came with me and when we reached the General Security everyone was very polite and helpful. I was promised that I would face no problems with their office. None at all :) This was good news and I was quick to inform the port captain for MSC.
100 days in Lebanon; on the day I had not been home for 4 years, 5 months and 16 days (1,628 days), the Saga had brought us to 144 countries (without flying), there are 59 countries left, I had traveled 190,593 km (118,429 mi), the average time per country would then be 11.3 days, the overall speed for the project would then be 4.9 km/h (3.1 mph) and I had written 14 blogs from Lebanon. So much for numbers ;)
The next day I was tense. In my experience you are never guaranteed to embark on a vessel until you are onboard and it leaves. However with the progress we made the day before I felt there was definitely a good chance. Around noon I was informed that the ‘MSC Rhiannon’ had arrived and that it would depart again at 18:00 hrs. I spoke with the port captain who got me in touch with the port agent. The agent could advise that there were no problems now but there was still much paperwork to be done. In my experience most Captains aim to have me onboard at least two hours before departure. My stress level was through the roof. I had been working on this for a long time and these last few hours would let me know if I was “bought or sold”! At 14:20 I was told that all was well and that I should come to the port. At 14:41 I was at the ports main gate. Ten minutes later I was collected and brought to the General Security who collected my passport. Around 15:00 I walked up the gangway of the ‘MSC Rhiannon’. Around 18:00 we left the port and the Captain informed that my passport was onboard. I slept like a baby that night!
102 days in a country is a new Saga record. I love you Lebanon...but let's not beat it!
Now this is already a long entry but I’d like to say a little about leaving Lebanon and life onboard the ‘MSC Rhiannon’. The longer I stay in a country the more attached I become. Both in relation to places and people. On the Saga’s social media I have received a number of comments in relation to that I must really love Lebanon since I stayed so long. I do love Lebanon but it has nothing to do with why I stayed for 102 days. Those of you who read my blogs get a much fuller picture about what is going on than those who only follow my posts on social media. And if you got this far then you’ll hopefully understand how big a difference it makes if you can fly or not. A viable alternative to not having been let onboard the ‘MSC Rhiannon’ would have been to travel north to Tripoli by bus, buy a $200 dollar ticket to a cargo ferry, reach Turkey (again), make my way with buses and minibuses to another port, board a ferry (again), reach Cyprus (again) and travel overland to Limassol. In Limassol I would likely board the ‘MSC Rhiannon’ a week later and sail to Beirut before continuing to Egypt. That would have been a lot of effort, cost and time spent for nothing obvious.
I’m writing this while onboard the ship. I already miss my friends in Lebanon, I miss not having one last meal, one last night out, one last handshake and one last hug. My host has been absolutely astonishing! Such a remarkable person and I know that we will meet again. Someone else is Raymond who is the first man I met in Beirut and one of the last I saw. Raymond has been a friend ever since we met and I became a part of meeting with him and his friends every Saturday at Souk Beirut for tea. Aram is another friend who I met through those Saturday tea events. Aram and I have been to the local cinema in Ashrafieh several times. I could certainly have continued that tradition. Generally I have developed a large network of people in Lebanon which I regularly saw. I got to say farewell to most but I wish that I would have had more time. I would have liked to visit the Maersk office one last time where I have felt welcome every time I showed up. I would have liked to have the chance to meet some of the people in person who helped me in the final days before boarding the ship. “You can’t always get what you want. But if you try sometimes…you just might find…you get what you need’.
This cabin was mine...all mine! ;)
Onboard the ‘MSC Rhiannon’ I was immediately brought to the duty officer who was also the 2nd officer onboard. I was greeted politely and brought to my cabin. “MSC Rhiannon’ is a beautiful “little’ ship which was built in 2001. Many seamen argue that the older ships are much better than the new ones. Especially in terms of interior such as furniture, panels etc. Today container ships are mass produced and most of it takes place in Asian countries. But it didn’t use to be like that. ‘MSC Rhiannon’ made her maiden voyage from Gdansk in Poland, where she was built. Her home port is Monrovia in Liberia and since 2015 she has been operated by MSC, which is the second largest container shipping company in the world. MSC was founded in Italy but has its headquarters in Switzerland. The Captain (master) onboard is Indian and so is everyone else apart from the Chief Engineer, who is from Pakistan, and me being Danish.
The happiness onboard ;)
She isn’t really small because container carriers never are. However in context she is. The ‘MSC Rhiannon’ measures 188.1 meters (617 feet) in overall length and can carry 2,048 twenty foot containers. It’s what you call a “feeder vessel” because is picks up the containers from major ports and delivers them to minor ports. The service speed is nominated to be 20.4 kts (37.8 kph / 23.5 mph). However for the sake of fuel consumption and the environment she hardly ever reaches such speeds. The shipping industry generally does a lot to make it as clean and efficient as possible. Inside you’ll find safety warnings, recommendations and regulations decorating the walls near the common areas. However you’ll also find some less serious things decorating parts of the ship. All in all I found a very good energy among the crew which in many ways resemble family.
The good ship has an officer’s dayroom with game consoles, a flat screen TV, a DVD player and books. There’s also a crews dayroom, a gym, laundry facilities and a mess for dining. Meals are served three times a day and in my experience it’s usually western food. At least in the officers mess and then sometimes it will be Filipino dishes in the crews mess room. However to my delightful surprise we were served Indian food as nearly the entire ship’s crew was Indian. Container carriers are not amusement parks and being onboard mostly boils down to work, meals and sleep. However not for everyone. To my surprise there was another passenger onboard! I’m so used to being the only one. The Chief Officer had recently married and his lovely wife (Tarveen) was onboard for a few months. I remember when I visited MSC in Limassol back in November 2017. I spoke to Nita Jha (head of group HR & support services) and Captain S.K. Sinha (General Manager (safety, quality & insurance) / DPA) and they both emphasized that family was a really important element within MSC.
Delicious food onboard - and I even had a dessert which was made by passenger number one ;)
We did not sail straight for Alexandria in Egypt. We took a slight detour to Cyprus where we picked up some bunker (fuel) before continuing to Alexandria. Bunkering took about four hours and took place in open waters. A smaller vessel came up on our side and began the process. The sun had not set yet when we left Cyprus. By dinnertime the wind and swell had picked up and the good ship was moving a lot. Forth and back. Forth and back. Side to side. Forth and back. I didn’t get sick but I felt that I wasn’t far from it. I had to take it easy, stay focused and drink plenty of water. As it got dark it got worse. I went to bed at around 22:00 hrs and didn’t sleep like a baby. Not unless you are the kind of baby that wakes up all throughout the night. Fortunately I wasn’t sick but the good ship surely was moving about. The next morning I got up and headed for breakfast. Tarveen wasn’t there and due to the weather conditions the night before I hadn’t socialized much. After breakfast I went up on the bridge and spoke to the officer. He said we had four meter swell during the night (12 foot). That’s more than twice my height but given the size of ‘MSC Rhiannon’ it isn’t much.
"O Captain! My Captain!" ;)
Due to the weather conditions the Port of Alexandria was closed when we arrived. Too much wind and too much swell. So we got to wait for a few hours on the inviting blue Mediterranean with Alexandria in sight. I was given an internet connection through the satellite link and could communicate with my friend Hatem on shore. And we finally made it in. I said farewell to the crew and shook the Captains hand. I really liked the Captain from the first moment I met him. Within my first hour onboard, Captain Gaurav Koshal came to greet me with a strong handshake and a big smile: “feel at home as long as you are onboard”. There was clearly a good harmony onboard and in my experience that is directly related to the Captain. Management plays a role as well but probably not as much as the Captain. I wish them all fair winds and following seas.
Thank you all!! You made it a very special crossing! ;)
So now the Saga is on its way to Jordan. The road to get there is quite an adventure and I’m planning on sharing that in detail on social media. ‘MSC Rhiannon’ and her kind crew has brought me to Alexandria in Egypt. My friend Hatem is from Alexandria and it will be good to see him again. After a few days I will continue across Sinai by road and catch a ferry to Aqaba in Jordan. Sounds easy right? We will see ;)
Thank you MSC! You helped the Saga move forward once again.
On a final note: how incredible is it that I need to go via another continent in order to reach a new country? Welcome back to Africa.
Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - definately not flying.
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga