Of Security Guards and Extreme Endurance and Patience

The sea is calling! After two months in Sri Lanka and India, we had to pack our stuff together and get going. Getting ready to set sail is always exciting, getting ready to get back out there and have nothing but waves surrounding us. What’s going to go wrong this time? Will the wind be blowing in the right direction for a change? Then there is the excitment of getting to go to a new country or even a new continent, meeting new people, finding new musicians to record. The down side is of course having to say goodbye to our new friends. Will we ever meet again? Either way, if we do get the chance to come back again, we will have at least 15 places where we can crash. From boat engineers all the way to bar owners like Sumeda from the Beach Café. Most of the people we get to know a little better would rather help us fill out documents for immigration than bid us farewell. Especially when the stay at a place was a little longer than expected, it’s pretty tough to say goodbye. But when the going gets tough, the tough get going. The show must go on and we keep it going full steam.

Before we can untie Marianne, there are always a couple things we have to do. We need food and water. So for a two or three week trip that’s pretty easy – two Liters per person per day plus a little extra for brushing teeth and cooking. So for a two week trip that makes 70 Liters or so. Since it usually takes a little longer than planned, we always buy extra food. But what about a two month trip? How many water canisters do we need and even if we can manage to get enough, would they fit on the boat? How many apples, bannanas, pasta, and canned food do we need? We always try to avoid having too much stuff rotting away, while still keeping as much fresh food as possible on board.

While Hannes was still working at Sumedas beach café, I called up our Tuk-Tuk driver Ekka and he took me to the nearest place that sold water canisters. Ekka knows best where to get the cheapest stuff. Same for used, cheap canisters – he knew where to go. Turns out they were old vegetable oil canisters, but a real sailor wont mind a small oil layer on the surface and a weird aftertaste to the water. Plus I rinsed them a couple times. Should be fine.

Anyway … back at the harbor I started filling my ten canisters with water. But a relatively thin hose and low pressure forced me to sit there for a full two hours. Which gave me sufficient time to think of a strategy how to get the 280 Liters to the boat. NOT an easy task. Not just because of the weight of the canisters and the distance to the boat but most of all because of the at least seven brown uniforms I have to get past, which all have the same apparently extremely empowering word stitched on them: Security. This special forces team of the harbor basically wont let any objects past the barrier unless you have a permit for them. But the brown-uniformed unit at the entrance are just the first level of this exhausting game. The boss of the game sits in a little hut behind the entrance and his stitching does not just say Security. Oh no … it has the word Officer in it. And Customs. He is the Customs Officer. Do not underestimate the powers of the arch enemy. Keep your eyes and head down towards the ground and speak in a low and polite voice whenever the boss is around – that is, if he allows you to speak at all. After having gone through this process in my head for a full two hours, I felt ready to take on the challenge.

It would not have been the first time the barrier-boys tried to get some easy money from us. Well, easy they think. Their rules are pretty simple: if you want to bring anything at all into the harbor, you need a permit signed by customs, the Navy, your agency, and of course, signed by Big Boss Bob sitting in his shack behind the brown suits. Even if it’s just a rope or screws for 5 dollars. Either you bring the signed documents or some random amount of money, or a bottle of whisky or rum. But not the small ones, it’s gotta be a big one.

Our rules are also very simple: no way in hell. No way in hell are we going to start bribing people. We will pursuade, or even better, convince them that letting us pass free of charge is the only right thing to do. This route, of course, always takes a little longer, but the resulting stories are also generally more fun to tell.

Here in Sri Lanka, every sailor is obliged to have an agency which is supposed to help in getting the beaurocratic stuff done. It’s pretty easy to just do it yourself, but no – having agencies do it for you takes more time and only costs a small fortune. Sounds convinient, right?

My agent listened while I explained for what I needed permission, pointing at the 14 yellow canisters. Secretly I was hoping for a free ride to the boat on one of the many available trucks outside the agency. “Oh, this is going to be pretty difficult”. Translated this just means: “What’s in it for me?”. He refered me to the security people and said they have a shopping cart I could use. There’s no point in discussing this further I thought, so I thanked him and got ready for the battle at the gate.

The only way to get this over with fast was to phrase my plans in a way that on the one hand sounded nice and on the other eliminated as many beaurocratic and monetary steps as possible. The only way to do this is to sort of come up with your own story. As the security guards tried to rdirect me to my agency, I immediately replied “no problem guys, my agency says there is no need for a permit for this water”. Maybe a lie, but sounds reasonable, right? So next on the agenda: money. They wanted money. As I explained that my agency did not mention any fees to me, they replied that it would be fine for me to take the canisters in and carry them to the boat by hand. 280 Liters. That makes 7 trips, carrying 40 kg, and a total of 14 km. That’s almost a half marathon. I probably wouldn’t have survived this plan of theirs, or at least my arms would have fallen off. I needed transportation!

So it’s off to the almighty Customs Officer. This guy was well busy, slightly bent over the table, arms crossed, reading the newspaper in a Larry King posture. Again I had to explain that I did not need or want a warrant or permit or whatever. All I wanted to do is get that shopping kart and transport my water (it’s just water man!) to my boat. Turns out the shopping kart was currently out of order. Plus he thought I should go speak to my agent again anyway. About what though? Whatever. So I actually went back to the agency, more or less hoping to get one of those trucks. As I told the agent everything is arranged and we can hop on a truck now, he looked at me over his glasses and replied: “Oh, the thing is that it’s past 4pm now and that after 4pm we have to pay 1000 rupees to pass the barrier”. News to me! Slightly annoyed I seriously walked back to the officers at the gate and asked them about the 1000 rupee fee after 4. They did not understand. So I told them everything from the beginning and ended the story with the 1000 rupees. I could see how the money part caught their attention and the main guy got all excited. He said that if I help him out, he could maybe help me out. I ignored his money talk and repeated my story. No chance. Hannes and me get this everywhere we go: a little bribe will do wonders. But no Sir, that is not how we roll. We just wont have it. And most of all not for a couple of canisters filled with water! But as I was thinking about what to do next, he made his point a little clearer, rubbing his thumb against his index finger. One last time I ignored it and just kept explaining what I needed. Changing the subject away from money always puts them off. Not this guy though, he was a persistent little dude. He said he wont help me unless I put some cash on the table. So that’s the last straw. I was over this stuff. I tried my best, but these guys were not willing to cooperate. And it was getting dark already. I got up and out of his office, stood in front of it, and read out loud and clear for everyone else to hear what the sign outside the building said: “It is a punishable offence to bribe … ”

I guess no one had ever done that before. I then made it very clear that I could not give him any money, since I did not want to go to jail. I also mentioned that my religion forbids bribery and then I went on to ask him whether he was religious. I ended the discussion with “I’m now going to get my canisters and drive to my boat, alright?”, got up, and left.

Back at the agency, my agent didn’t really know what excuse to come up with now not to have to help me. Except that: “Oh, now all trucks are in use”. What a coincidence! But the next truck that was returned to the agency, I simply hopped on and started loading my canisters on the back. The driver asked “No problem with customs?” … “Not the tiniest little problem! Let’s go!”.

Finally we arrived at the barrier. But the security people simply ignored us. I seriously couldn’t take this sh** anymore, so I jumped off the truck and opened the barrier myself, whilst waving the driver through. Who would have thought – now the security officers got pretty angry and started yelling at me. When I asked them what the problem was and that everything had already been thoroughly discussed, my drivers smiled and hopped out of the car to come to help me with the barrier. Apparently this sort of thing no one has dared to do. Even some of the security guys had to smile now. Luckily, my driver talked to the super-boss (whom I hadn’t even gotten through to yet) and sorted everything out. One of the security guards came up to me, put his hand on my shoulder and said that I was a “good guy” but that I really shouldn’t touch the gates. I did the same and said in my overly polite voice that they wouldn’t make my life in this port easy. All guys seemed to like our little reconciliation and I already felt the great feeling of victory. As I hopped back on the truck and yelled “Go go go, let’s go! They’re coming!”, they couldn’t suppress their laughter any longer.

So this is how we spend our time sometimes. I wondered whether this hassle was worth it and whether they now had a little more respect for me. Well, I found out the next day when I was asked if I had a bottle of whisky or rum. New day, new security guys, new game!

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