Corpus Christi

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South American Porcupine wants a smooch.

Reading this week:

  • War on Peace by Ronan Farrow

This past weekend my mom and I went to go visit my sister in Texas. My sister works at the Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi and performs in “Wild Flight,” which is the aquarium’s bird and animal show. Mom found some deal on Southwest to fly us down there so we bundled up and away we went.

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The aquarium.

The whole state of Texas quite frankly makes me uncomfortable. Back at the Academy there was a “movement order” you could participate in to go see a bowl game the Navy football team was in over in Houston. I went and got kicked out of a bar for being too drunk (I was, in fact, too drunk) and then left Texas the next day and I haven’t been back since. Also it seems to be a very flat place from what I saw of it. And full of Texans. But my sister has made for herself a rather comfortable living there and so yeah. We went.

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My sister rockin’ the show.

The first day we were there we accompanied my sister to work at the aquarium. We sort of had to because she only has her one car, but also of course she wanted to show off her work there and got us in for free. It is a pretty nice aquarium though if you know someone who works there I highly recommend it. She got us in to several animal encounters throughout the day and we got to meet a whole variety of animals, like the porcupine up top.

Pretty Kitty

Me and a cat you had to be very gentle around.

Besides the cat and the porcupine, we also got to meet a giant octopus (though they were a little shy) and a tiny baby alligator and a whole variety of birds. So pretty awesome! We spent the whole day at the aquarium (because, you know, my sister works full time) and then head home.

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The next day we spent the whole day at the USS Lexington. The Lexington is right next door to the aquarium, and I didn’t think we’d wind up spending like a whole day there, but we did. It is, after all, a pretty big ship. It’s an aircraft carrier though, which like, lame, but hey these things have engineering spaces so they’re not a total wash. This ship is of course the second Lexington, the Lady Lex having been sunk and CV-16 here named in her honor. Her nickname was the “Blue Ghost” because she used to be blue and was reported has having been sunk a lot. But she never sunk!

On the ship they have a wide variety of planes from throughout her service career, and like, two different Blue Angels at least. That, uh, that’s really all the intelligent things I have to say about planes. This ship has an escalator to get the pilots to the flight deck, but if you didn’t want to climb 12 decks worth of ladders frankly you should have gone submarines. That’s why I went subs after all.

Besides the flight deck, the ship has extensive self-guided tours throughout most of the other operational portions of the ship. You can even go down into one of the enginerooms. They didn’t let you go into any of the boilerrooms, though I got to run around tracing the main steam piping from the bulkheads to the engines. This being an aircraft carrier they had both high pressure and low pressure turbines connected to the shaft via reduction gears, and I was rather stunned at how small the high-pressure turbines were, though I guess yeah of course. I don’t think they could have been much bigger than our turbines on the submarine. But they had a low-pressure turbine to go with it and those guys are in fact pretty big. So there ya go.

After that our third day in Texas was a trip to go look at the South Padre Island seashore (it was quite windy) and then to go antiquing. Before antiquing mom lectured me that the point of antiquing was to look at stuff and not to buy stuff (I wondered how mom thought she had never given me a similar lecture in my 30 years of life) but it was only her that wound up buying stuff. The next day my sister dropped us off at the airport on her way to work and back to Maryland we went!

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USS New Jersey

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“Firepower for Freedom,” the Big J herself.

After waxing poetic about the Iowa-class, I got to go on the USS New Jersey this past weekend. “This past weekend,” by the way, was in July because I am way ahead on these blog posts that no one reads. The New Jersey is parked across the river from Philadelphia in Camden, New Jersey, and I was in Philadelphia to see the Carly Rae Jepsen concert which was fantastic:

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She is very blurry and my phone camera sucks but look it is her!!!

The weekend started off right because as soon as I got to the hotel room I checked to see if I had a view of the New Jersey and you can bet your sweet ass I did:

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But anyways the ship herself. I went to go see her the day after the concert and it was hot as balls. It was hot as balls the day of the concert as well, but that’s irrelevant. I got to the ship right as she opened at 0930 and there were only a few other guys there besides myself, all Navy enthusiasts. I took the self-guided tour. The New Jersey is the third of the Iowa-class battleships I have been on, besides the Iowa and the Wisconsin. I have physically laid eyes on the Missouri several times before but never quite got around to touring her to complete the set. All that to say that I didn’t see anything radically new and different on this tour, but it’s always super awesome to see this view:

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That bridge is doomed.

Of the ships I have seen I thought the New Jersey’s crew had done a particularly good job of keeping her up and making her a really nice place to tour. I was most amused by some of the details they added to make it really realistic:

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The Naval Academy has a “sample Midshipman room” that tourists can see. It has the layout of one of the (nicer, two-man vice three-man) rooms and has some random crap in there to show the sort of things Mids have. But if you were a Midshipman you know it’s stocked with books no one ever reads and crap no one ever has, but the New Jersey took a different direction. I knew I was among people that cared about realism when there was a snuff tin in someone’s locker and a donut and coffee on the XO’s desk. Realism!

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One thing that also amuses me on a sort of fundamental level is when these ships still have danger tags hanging. The above picture has one and there were several others that are dated 1990, from the ship’s last decommissioning. I love it. I always wonder if the WAFs are still around? Is the tagout log? What if they ever need to operate that equipment? Who is authorized to clear that tag? Does anyone care? Can you still cause an incident report? The world will never know.

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The above picture is of two five-inch cannons. On the New Jersey (and other Iowa-class ships of course), these 5″ guns are the little secondary ones on the side that they use when it is too bothersome to crank over the 16″ cannons. But on a ship like an Arleigh Burke-class destroyer the main armament is a single little ole’ 5″ gun right on the front. The DDGs also have missiles (though the Iowas had some bolted on when they were re-commissioned) and those are neat I guess, and they probably have better targeting systems, but the Arleigh Burke’s pride and joy is just an afterthought on the New Jersey and besides the donuts and snuff and danger tags that also amuses me deeply.

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Those were the highlights of the tour. I got to see inside one of the turrets, and some of the engineering spaces too though not as much as I would have liked (I could only poke my head into the boiler and turbine rooms). I spent about 2.5 hours on the ship before heading out and making it to the bus station to head back home. A real must-see if you’re ever in the area.

Lord Jim

Lord Jim

Reading this week:

  • The Education of an Idealist by Samantha Power
  • Why Europe Intervenes in Africa by Catherine Gegout

So this post is about both Lord Jim and Star Wars: The Last Jedi. I read Lord Jim in the Peace Corps and only came across it because it was free for Kindle on Amazon. I found the novel to be very powerful and it resonated with me on a personal level. It follows Jim, in Joseph Conrad’s “dude telling a story is the story” style, who we meet as he is first mate on the Patna, a steamship carrying Muslims on the Hajj. After the ship strikes an underwater object and appears ready to sink, Jim abandons ship with the other crewmembers, leaving the passengers to their fate. Once they reach port, the other crewmembers run away, but Jim faces a trial for his and their actions. After this he spends a great deal of time running away from anyone who might even have heard of him, before finding some level of glory on a remote island.

What made this book stick with me was the nature of Jim’s failure. Most of the failure I think you’ll find written about or shown in movies is just not reaching a goal. The hero tries really really hard but just can’t make it. They run as fast as they can but don’t make the touchdown, or fight as hard as they can but just don’t beat the bad guy. This is a relatable and blameless sort of failure. Maybe you studied really hard and tried to write the best admission essay possible but you just didn’t get into that dream school. So you failed, but as long as you put in the best effort possible that failure isn’t really your fault.

But Jim’s failure in Lord Jim is of a whole different sort. Jim is a relatively experienced seaman serving as an officer onboard a ship carrying passengers who’s life he is responsible for. When the ship appears ready to sink, he wants to load the passengers onto lifeboats and do what he can to save them. If he can’t save them, he knows it is his duty to die trying. But meanwhile the rest of the crew is abandoning ship, and doing it as quietly as possible so the passengers don’t panic, rush the lifeboats, and keep the crew from saving themselves. Jim teeters on the edge of this decision, standing dumbstruck as he watches the rest of the crew put the lifeboat to sea. Finally, at the last possible second, Jim jumps into the lifeboat and saves himself, leaving the passengers (so he thinks) to die.

This is a radically different version of failure. Jim knew what the right answer was, knew what his duty was, and instead chose the wrong answer aware the whole time that it was the wrong answer. It’s not that Jim just didn’t try hard enough, it’s not that Jim made a sincere effort and just made a mistake, it’s not that Jim made what he thought was the right decision that later turned out to be wrong, it’s that Jim leapt into that lifeboat knowing the whole time he was abandoning his duty. And while Jim faces his failure with honor in the courtroom, he afterward runs from every port he lands in as soon as he hears his failures are catching up to him.

Which brings me to The Last Jedi. One of the big criticisms of the movie was the character arc of Luke Skywalker. People didn’t want to believe that the young man so full of hope that takes down the Empire in the first three movies could turn into a bitter old man by The Last Jedi. But man when I saw that movie I got it. This Esquire article tries to explain Luke’s exile as some sort of enlightened pacifism, but that’s not it. The only reason Luke could fall so far is because he used to be that young man full of hope and righteousness. In Luke’s flashbacks we learn that the moment of his fall was when he came into Ben Solo’s room with the intent to kill the future Kylo Ren because Luke feared what Ben could become. Luke suffered the same failure that Jim did. Luke’s failure wasn’t that he didn’t try hard enough when training Ben, or that he didn’t kill Ben when he had the chance, Luke’s story is that he chose the wrong answer despite knowing it was wrong. Luke knew that killing Ben was wrong and evil, but chose to do so anyways. He stopped himself before he committed the act, but it was too late and Ben had seen his mentor betray him. Luke knew he had failed and couldn’t look himself in the mirror let alone face anyone else.

I understood both these characters because I had been there. At the Naval Academy and throughout the Navy they teach you integrity is the most important thing. We do trainings on trainings on trainings. We talk about it all the time, discuss scenarios. I was so tired of integrity trainings that I joked that you can only become so integreful, and I should be exempt because I was at maximum integrity (you can’t tell the truth more than 100% of the time). But then one day I was standing as a duty officer and I lied. I thought I had a good reason (and I learned everyone always thinks they do), but I knew it was wrong. And when I got caught and had to face my failure I couldn’t. You have a whole image of yourself and what kind of person you are but when it is put to the test you find out what you’re really made of. When Luke failed he sent himself into exile on Ahch-To. Jim ran away from any port that had even heard of his actions. I spent two years in Zambia.

Jim is saved because he winds up in the remote village of Patusan. Alone and just forced to be the best man he can be, free of anyone who might have heard of his past failures, he finds success and courage. The next time he has to decide to run or to do the right thing, he chooses the correct path. Luke is saved because Rey shows up. When he tells her of his failures, she just doesn’t care. She knows the kind of man Luke is and can be, and that’s all she demands of him. So that’s what he winds up giving. If audiences don’t understand these characters, I think it is because they have never really had to face failure the way these characters have had to. Theirs isn’t a failure of effort but a failure between them and the very nature of their being. Finding yourself after a failure like that is a deeper arc then just running a bit faster or fighting a bit harder.

Battleship

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The greatest movie ever made was the 2012 blockbuster Battleship. I love this movie un-ironically. It is amazing. It is fantastic. It exceeds everything else that has ever hit the silver screen, and quite possibly any other form of art or self-expression that has been hoisted into the human consciousness. I will be having a totally normal day, and I am not joking here, but suddenly this absolute cinematic masterpiece will pop into my head and I can’t think of anything else. This happened today and I spent a few hours clipping out some of my favorite scenes and creating the gifset below with the hopes that magnificent triumph of storytelling will reach a greater appreciation throughout the world.

Let’s start with the basics of this movie. I am not so blinded with love that I don’t notice the movie’s flaws. The movie spends the first ten or fifteen minutes attempting, for some reason, to set up a love story or something. If I was director I would have skipped this and gone straight to fighting aliens. It features Taylor Kitsh as an undisciplined bad boy, forced into the Navy by his older brother (played by Alexander Skarsgård!) after he steals a burrito. The love interest is Brooklyn Decker, who’s admiral father is played by Liam Neeson! The cast this movie puts together! An absolute powerhouse collection of movie stars assembled so that the real stars of the movie, the ships, don’t too far outshine these bit characters. Other significant players include Tadanobu Asano as the captain of a Japanese destroyer inserted to play the straight man, and Gregory D. Gadson as an Army double amputee inserted to provide a message of overcoming setbacks, or something, and also beat the shit out of some aliens. And I haven’t even mentioned that this movie includes freakin’ Rihanna, who is an absolute badass in the role of Petty Officer Cora Raikes.

After the movie sets up this love story/bad boy plot, aliens land. Frankly the Navy handled the first encounter kinda poorly but who gives a shit because now we’ve set up the thrust of the movie: aliens have landed and it is them versus the finest goddamned Navy the world has ever seen. Due to that first encounter our bad boy Taylor Kitsh is in charge of the small fighting force left to actually fight the aliens, with a ragtag crew at his side. The rest of the movie is them kicking some serious alien ass.

So let’s discuss Battleship as it compares to some other examples of the Navy movie genre. The most famous Navy movie of all time is Top GunTop Gun is okay. Launching planes to “Danger Zone” is a great thing to do, but because of that scene the movie peaks right at the start and it’s all downhill from there. Then the rest of the movie you get like what? One and a half dogfights? Psh lame. Plus as a general rule aircraft carriers are pretty uncool; they have Starbucks onboard. Movies like the recent Hunter Killer have a special place in my heart for being submarine movies, but even that action-packed thriller suffers for featuring a Virginia-class; fast attacks are supposed to be nuclear-powered sports cars and any boat with bilge keels is more like a minivan. But what does the movie Battleship offer you?

Mahalo Motherf

Battleship offers you RIHANNA SHOOTING AN ALIEN IN THE FACE WITH A FIVE INCH CANNON. Citizen Kane parades itself around as the greatest movie ever made, but at no point in Citizen Kane does an absolute fantastic piece of naval hardware get used to obliterate an alien at point blank range by one of the most versatile women of the modern era.

Fire Everything

The whole movie (except for the love story portions) is just badass nautical action after badass nautical action. It doesn’t hold back. In the above scene they think they’re down to a one-on-one battle, and they decide to throw literally everything their destroyer has at the alien ship. They launch every missile, they got all the dudes on machine guns, and our bad boy and his Japanese buddy are on the bow with 50 cal rifles for absolutely no good reason except for that it is fucking awesome.

Approach

But the real star of this movie, the real reason you came to see it, is the titular battleship, the USS Missouri, BB-63, the Mighty Mo’ herself. Here is another sincere, deeply held belief of mine: the Iowa-class battleships are the most beautiful thing mankind has ever created. The four sister ships are the largest and most powerful warships to ever float (that survived the war anyways) and represent the pinnacle of warship design in the final glorious age of that artform. Those babies got curves. Left without other options, our ragtag crew decide to try to bring her back to life and go head to head with the aliens once again.

Old Guys

And thus kicks off the greatest 10 minutes of cinematic history to the tune of “Thunderstruck” by AC/DC, itself perhaps the finest accompaniment possible to the seagoing splendor of this film. The crew has a problem: they have no idea how to drive the Mighty Mo’. But no worries! Out of the woodwork come the original crew of the battleship. There is a whole scene where old, proud men with even older and prouder mustaches appear in mankind’s greatest moment of need to take the old but gallant girl out of retirement to face battle one more time.

Big Wave

I cannot stress enough that I am being 100% honest here, but the whole scene where they bring the ship back to life gives me tingles every time I watch it. It’s so magnificent. The enginerooms on steamships always get me hot and bothered anyways, but watching, even in CGI, an Iowa-class battleship get the fires in her heart lit once more very nearly brings tears to my eyes. And to watch the bow crash through the waves on her way to her sacred duty one last time would be a sight I would do anything to see for real if I could.

Alien Tackle

A brief interlude here to emphasize this movie has everything. I love the battleship most of all but there is a whole storyline that happens on land, and that storyline is badass. On the ship, they needed a five inch cannon to take out one of the aliens. Our double-amputee friend though, he just straight up tackles one of the dudes. He goes toe to toe with a huge armored alien and he doesn’t even have any toes. He’s an Army dude so that’s points against him but still man, respect.

Power Slide

But back to the battleship. I love the movie Casablanca. Play it Sam, play as “Time Goes By.” We’ll always have Paris. Here’s looking at you kid. Fantastic. But at no point in Casablanca do they powerslide a freakin’ Iowa-class warship and then fire a broadside at an alien spaceship. I mean holy shit. It’s Tokyo Drift but with 57000 long tons. Show me another movie that powerslides an Iowa-class battleship and I’ll show you another movie that has even half a chance at beating this one as the greatest of all time.

Drop Some Lead Small

And just look at that broadside in action. I’m only giving you seconds-long chunks of these scenes, and all silent. It goes on for ten minutes or more, just non-stop battleship action. I could run the thesaurus dry and not have the words to convey it to you. You have to watch it.

Old Dude Shooting

Even the old dudes get in on the action! In Marine Week, we were taught to hold a machine gun burst for the amount of time it takes you say “Die Motherfucker Die.” These old dudes 100% ignore that advice and fuckin’ get some when it comes to shooting aliens. The ship is already launching full broadsides of 16″ rounds at these aliens and they’re still firing 50 cal machine guns I think mostly for funsies. Amazing. Fantastic. World-class.

Stupid Jets

The only major mark against the movie though frankly is right at the end. After all this SWOtivating battle action, after our blackshoe friends do all the hard work and kill 90% of the aliens and knock down the force field that was keeping the rest of the Navy at bay, some freakin’ pilots swoop in and act like they actually contributed. Terrible. Pilots. Ugh.

So that’s the movie Battleship. It’s so fantastic. It’s everything you could possibly want in a movie. It’s got romance. It’s got intrigue. It’s got the Navy’s finest warships going head to head with an advanced alien race and kicking their fucking asses by virtue of being total badasses. I love this movie. Please spread my gospel.

Pirate Hunting

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The high seas.

Reading this week:

  • China’s Second Continent by Howard W. French

Back over the weekend before the 4th of July, we went pirate hunting. For the holiday my mom went off on a cruise with some of her sisters, and so my dad, my brother, and I went off to go look at pirate stuff enroute to my grandma’s house for the holiday. Specifically, we were looking at Blackbeard stuff. Eddy Teach there, during his illustrious two-year career had made the Outer Banks island of Ocracoke his favorite anchorage. So, three hundred years later, my brother decided that Ocracoke was the land of his swashbuckling dreams.

Ocracoke is a lovely little island much better known for its beaches and touristy vibe. People drive around in golf carts, lifted trucks, and jeeps. We had a two-wheel drive Jetta. To get there we took a ferry from Hatteras, and I am always a fan of any high-seas adventure. I wasn’t in charge of this trip, and was literally just along for the ride, so I hadn’t done any research into where crap actually was on this island. Neither, apparently, had anyone else on this trip. After a brief consultation of a decorative illustration based on a 300-year-old map and a comparison of said map to Google Maps, we set off down a dirt road that quickly turned to sand that quickly turned to us getting stuck.

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Luckily for us, the beach towing dude happened to be driving by and spotted us in our plight. I mean this is exactly where you’d get stuck if you were dumb enough to get stuck so I assume he just hangs out here all day. He was very nice though and gave us some directions. Personally, I had been pushing to visit the lighthouse first because Google Maps said it closed at 1700 and it was around 1500 by the time we got to the island and got some lunch. Our tow-line enabled friend told us in the midst of rescuing us that Teach’s Hole, which is where Blackbeard liked to anchor, was near the lighthouse and nowhere near our fateful sandtrap. So finally off to the lighthouse we went.

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The lighthouse is pretty nice! The worry about it closing at 1700 was silly because you can’t go into it (I guess you can go into the bottom sometimes), so all you can do is stand nearby and look at it. It proclaims itself at the second oldest still-operating lighthouse in America and well um. Sure. Besides the above picture I took another picture from somewhat closer and both depict a 75′ tall brick tower.

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But finally we set off down a trail in a little miniature state park and we came upon Teach’s Hole! There is of course nothing much to look at because by definition an anchorage is just a stretch of water and stretches of water look much like any other stretch of water. There were people swimming. We did not swim.

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There is also on the site the above boarded-over well. This well was apparently used by Blackbeard. So that’s neat.

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Ocracoke also takes advantage of its pirate history for some good ole-fashioned tourist stuff. One of these things is “Teach’s Hole,” which is mostly a pirate-themed gift shop with a small set of Blackbeard-themed displays. The entry fee for the displays is $4 (free with $15 purchase in the gift shop) and the displays were probably worth about $4. They’re very nicely done but my favorite was a diorama depicting “Blackbeard’s Beach Party” because they used Duplos to put it together. All the rest of the displays are well-done replicas and models and things but then out of nowhere they use kid’s toys to display a party so legendary we’re still talking about it three centuries later.

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After a night on the island we set off the next day on the ferry back to the mainland, landing on Ceder Island and driving on down to Beaufort, NC. Beaufort is home to the North Carolina Maritime Museum and that place is really nice! First off the admission is free and let me tell ya it is worth every penny. We got there only 45 minutes before it closed so we didn’t have a long time to look around, but we got the gist of it.

The museum is most famous for hosting artifacts from the Queen Anne’s Revenge. The QAR, as the museum referred to it, was of course Blackbeard’s ship. They found it a few years back and brought up a bunch of artifacts and stuck them in the Maritime Museum. The QAR section of the museum is the largest section, but they also have a lot of displays on other watercraft from the region, the local marine life, and maritime history. They also have a library that is decorated exactly how I would like a library in my own dream house decorated, so always nice to get some #DesignInspo along with my #nautical.

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Our final pirate-related adventure was a block away to the Old Burying Ground which contained the grave of Captain Burns, an American privateer during the War of 1812. Mostly I wanted to go because it was on Atlas Obscura, but I got to find out his ship was called the “Snapdragon.” This is funny to me because on the submarine we had these exercises called Snapdragon and we hated them (maybe that was just me) so we called them “Snatchdragon” and this dude’s got a whole boat named that. Poor guy.

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And so with that we were off to grandma’s house. Far fewer pirates at grandma’s house.

Boats Part II

Sany crane.

Reading this week:

  • Fordlandia by Greg Grandin
  • Burmese Days by George Orwell
  • Out of the Mountains by David Kilcullen

Having achieved at least 50% of the boats I had set out to see, I was gonna catch a minibus back to Mpulungu, but I checked Facebook and lo and behold I had an answer to where the Dame des Isles was. So, exhausted but determined to double my boat batting average I set off for the spot. When I got there, the gate was closed and locked. Poo. But then it opened! And I managed to ask the guard (who was letting someone out the gate) about the boat. Unlike the other people I had asked, he knew exactly where it was. Where was it? The Mpulungu Harbor Authority (the italics are because, as you’ll recall, I had visited there and been turned away). So off I went to the Harbor Authority to Find My Boat.

Since it had been a few hours, I was hoping there would be different security staff at the gate. This was not to be. The same guy who didn’t seem to recognize my picture and told me to come back Monday was there. I asked him again about the boat and if he wasn’t sure it was there. Turns out, he knew exactly what I was talking about and had just meant that they didn’t give tours on weekends. Alas! I was so close to my goal, and yet so far! So I, um, not quite begged, but asked if it wouldn’t be possible to just look at it real quick, don’t I look trustworthy? At this point, being a security guy, he asked for my passport. I handed him my ARC (Alien Registration Card, which looks just like Zambian’s National Registration Card, except it says “Alien;” when these were first described to us new PCVs, with the Zambian accent it came out “Aryan Registration Card,” which seemed plausible if unfortunate and made us all really uncomfortable until a more experience PCV saw our faces and explained our mistake), and man, if you live in Zambia I recommend getting an ARC. Every time I show a Zambian their first, inevitable reaction is “You are Zambian!” and then they are about it.

The Dame des Isles.

The Dame des Isles, from a slightly different perspective.

Since I went from an annoying tourist to fellow Zambian, my new friend Banda, Chief of Port Security, agreed to take me on a (short) tour. So we walked over to the Dame des Isles and I took some pictures. Another success! We were walking back to the gate, but then more exciting than even getting all both historic boats I wanted to see, Banda walked me over to the boats they were loading in the harbor. This was super cool!

Men loading sugar.

My first reaction was “and they said breakbulk was dead.” There were cranes (made by Sany, which I liked the imagine was an off-brand Sony), but the boat they were loading was being loaded by hand by a bunch of shirtless longshoremen. They were loading it up with sugar. According to Banda, most of the port’s traffic are Burundian and Congolese boats shipping mostly sugar and concrete back to their respective countries. I was surprised to find out these were the port’s major exports, but I guess there ya go. The closest cement plant to Mpulungu, by the way, seems to be all the way in the Copperbelt, so that is some well-traveled concrete and I am amazed that for Burundi and the eastern part of the DRC that’s the best way to get it. Banda let me look all around and answered all the port ops questions he could, and then lead me back to the gate. Super neat! I love boats.

Sugar loaded by men.

From there, the rest was pretty straightforward. I caught a minibus where the drunk conductor tried to overcharge me, got back to Mbala super quick, did some shopping, and came home. Quite the adventure.

Boats Part I

Model of the Cecil Rhodes.

Reading this week:

  • The Snow Leopard by Peter Matthiessen (I thought it would be like Journey to Lhasa but it is much different)
  • Guadalcanal Diary by Richard Tregaskis

This past weekend I went to go look at some boats, the SS Cecil Rhodes and the Dame des Isles. These boats were both in Mpulungu and so I decided to bike on down there to check them out.

First off, Mpulungu is always farther away than I think it is. In absolute terms, it is 40km from Mbala, and I usually describe it as “all downhill.” This is in fact a lie, as it is only mostly downhill, and man riding downhill 40km still is somehow exhausting. Plus you are losing a lot of altitude, and it is rainy season, so in the first part I was pretty cold but by the time I got to Mpulungu it was very, very hot. Good think I brought like 4L of water on this trek. I set off at about 0700 to try to beat the heat and get as much time in Mpulungu as possible, and made it there at a little before 1100.

First things first was lunch, which was lovely actually, thank you for asking, and then to find these boats. The Dames des Isles I found out about from my most frequented Facebook page, Mbala / Abercorn. The page didn’t list the location, and I didn’t think to ask before setting off. So I biked the waterfront, even stopping by the Mpulungu Harbor Authority where security told me to come back on Monday. I looked around at what I thought would be likely locations in Mpulungu before setting off for the SS Cecil Rhodes, the location of which I knew (mostly). I did take a second to ask the page, however, where exactly the Dame des Isles was.

The Cecil Rhodes is not nearly as intact as the Dame des Isles. This thread is where I got all of my information (I found it looking for SS Good News information). The Cecil Rhodes was another early steamer on the lake (I think the second, actually) but failed to find much fame or fortune after the death of its namesake. It rested in the bay west of Mpulungu until the opening days of WWI, when the Germans towed her out into the lake and sunk her. The Germans were trying to prevent her from being armed and entering the Battle for Lake Tang. The Cecil Rhodes by this point was laid up and had her engine out, and maybe wouldn’t have been a threat, but I guess Germans are thorough. Lucky for me though, her engine being, as discussed, out, has laid in the same spot for the past 100 years, ready to be found by your intreprid correspondant.

As you can see from the thread, a previous team had gone out and located the thing, pinpointing the location on a map. I had been meaning to go for a while but never got around to it. Since it was pinpointed, the only thing to do is to go out and look at it, but this is much easier said than done. Mpulungu is hot, and the road to the village, though not too far on the satellite map, is improbably steep and occurs, you know, about 52km into my bike riding. At a particular corner in the road, I tied up my bike and set off into the village.

Walking through strange villages is always fraught. As a white person, when I walk through a village I am usually The Most Exciting Thing To Have Ever Happened Ever. For the record, I humbly disagree with this assessment, but the kids don’t. You start walking through a village, and if you’re lucky people don’t notice. But before long the kids notice, and immediately scream MUZUNGU PELE! MUZUNGU PELE! as loud as they can. I don’t know why they do this. There is one kid in my village that screams my name at me every time I pass. Like, I know kid, calm down. But so now the heralds have sounded in this strange village. At first the kids just stare. This is usually alright, I am used to it. But before long, one kid becomes brave enough and starts to follow me. As soon as one kid does it, then the other kids aren’t scared any more, and the crowd grows. Children come out of the woodwork, out of the trees, out of the water, out of some strange pocket dimension and begin to amass. I always try to hurry lest we form a critical mass and collapse into a singularity, or something. At any rate, they’re really loud and get way too close.

Adults are also very friendly, but tend to want you to stop and talk. They’ll grab your arm in a friendly way and want to greet you. Cool, but these conversations are always them welcoming me to Zambia and being surprised I know how to speak a little Mambwe. I can never quite convince anyone I live here. And none of this helps find the Cecil Rhodes. The trick with adults is to immediately ask for directions. That distracts them and they point you on your way before they can think to ask where you are from. If you don’t employ this method, then before long adults are handing you their naked babies so they can take a picture of their naked baby with the white person, and then you’re just fending off naked babies left and right.

I can employ all these strategies for a bit, but at some point I was gonna have to ask someone about the boiler. Villages are twisty and turny and convoluted and the boiler was half-buried in the ground somewhere. Luckily, I had a picture I downloaded off of that thread, and so I could show people my phone and ask if they had seen it. The first kid I asked knew immediately what it was and pointed me down a path. I walked a bit down that path when I got stopped by a guy who wanted to know where I was going. I showed him a picture of the boiler, and then the only really twisty part of this narrative happened.

Upon seeing this picture of a boiler, he apparently immediately concluded I wanted to go to a lodge. When I showed him the picture he said he could show me and then started walking me down a path. People kept asking him about me (I’m right here, people) and eventually I actually listened and figured out that he was taking me to a lodge. And I was apparently going to pay him 100 kwatcha for this service. This sort of thing has happened to me before, and I always wonder what goes through people’s minds. I know random white guys don’t wander through the village every day, but given that I am, and I speak at least some Mambwe, why is the next conclusion that I want to go to a lodge? After showing you a picture of a hunk of metal in the ground? And the people I specifically ask to walk me somewhere never think I am going to pay them, it is only the people that just start doing it without asking that think they’ll get money out of me? Anyways.

So I figure out we’re going to a lodge, and so I say I don’t want to go to a lodge, and show him the picture again. I figure out he hasn’t spotted the boiler, and has only spotted the lake in the background (we are in sight of the lake this whole time), and at least one of us is very confused as to why I need directions to the lake (it’s very big and hard to miss). Realizing this, I point to the boiler in the picture, which he now notices. He asks what it is, but I had forgotten to look up the Mambwe for “it’s a 100 year old boiler from a ship the Germans sunk,” and when he suggests it is a water pipe, I say yes, because a boiler is kinda sorta a water pipe. So now he tries to take me to a water pipe. Then I try to explain it is a boat engine, but worry that won’t help because it doesn’t look anything like the outboard motor the canoes on the lake use. He is confused; I am confused. I try to show him my Google Maps with my pinpoint and how we have been walking away, but my limited Mambwe also doesn’t cover Google Maps. Eventually he takes me to his brother, who speaks English. I show the brother the picture, he immediately recognizes it, and takes me right to the spot, which was about 20 feet from where I met brother #1. For the record, brother #1 was trying very hard to help and I appreciate it and I really should have learned Mambwe better.

The boiler, hidden in its pumpkin patch.

The boiler, and many children’s feet.

But aha! Success! The boiler! It is currently in the midst of a maize and pumpkin patch. Some vines are cleared away, and I manage to take a few pictures of the boiler along with the feet of the small children who can never be scooted away effectively. Meanwhile the owner of the maize patch explains to me that it is a boat engine (his exact words, so I don’t know how to feel about calling it a boat engine myself and worrying that wouldn’t be clear) while trying to explain and sell to me the maize and pumpkin he is growing in this patch. Pictures taken, boiler touched, history interacted with, it was time to bolt, and I head out of the village and back to Mpulungu, sucking down a lot of water because have I mentioned it was hot?

Join me next week for the exciting conclusion, “Boats Part II!”

Pics of the SS Good News

Just wanted to post some sweet photos of the SS Good News recently posted on the Mbala / Abercorn Facebook Page!

“This photo was taken by the Federal Information Dept in the late 1950s early 60s.” Link
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“The Good News in drydock with the Morning Star moored offshore. This appears to be on the east coast of Kumbula Island just opposite was is now the port of Mpulungu.” Link
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“Here is the Good News being examined after being shelled by the German naval forces in 1914. While the earlier smaller missionary vessel the Morning Star was refloated by the African Lakes Company, the Good News was abandoned.” Link

Previous posts about the SS Good News:

Mpulungu

Building the SS Good News

Building the SS Good News, Part 2

I Found the SS Good News!

I Found the SS Good News!

Me, with a section of the SS Good News. Reading this week:

  • Churchill’s History of the English Speaking Peoples, arranged for one volume by Henry Steele Commager

Today my efforts to find the SS Good News finally met with success. I set off on my expedition at about 0600. I overpacked; I brought enough food along with camping equipment to spend a night out in the bush, but I wound up making the whole trip in one day. From my hut I followed some bush paths and then a rather nice dirt road to Kituta Bay, where a guidebook to Zambian National Monuments said I would find the Good News. Kituta Bay is gorgeous. It’s the next bay over to the east of Mpulungu harbor, and the valley opens up into this (today anyways) sun-dappled valley surrounded by mountains. I started wandering the valley, looking for what I assumed would be a fairly obvious, 50 ft long metal hull sitting out in the open. This wasn’t a terrible assumption, based on this picture from a 1991 guidebook to Zambia’s National Monuments: Sorry it’s a terrible picture. As I was wandering around a dude asked me where I was going and I said I was looking for the Good News. He pointed me to a clump of trees and I head that way, thinking the ship had been overgrown in the intervening years. I dragged my bike towards the shore until my feet were submerged and put it up against a tree, and continued wandering around looking for the ship. Eventually, to my surprise, some kid called my name. Turns out he’s the brother of one of my neighbors, and knew about me. I tried to ask him about the boat, but he didn’t know, so I continued tramping through a marsh, supported at times just by floating mats of grass. Eventually the kid brought a slightly older guy around, and I showed him the picture I had (the same one above) of the boat. He asked me if it was the Good News and when I was like hell yeah and that I would follow him. He lead me over to a clump of tall grass and as I looked around for a hull he started digging. A chunk of the SS Good News. Turns out in the 30 or so years since the picture was taken for that guidebook, the ship has apparently fallen over and been buried. We dug up several portions of the boat. As far as I can tell, it is indeed the ship and not a 50 gallon drum or anything. I assume there’s not a whole lot of metal ships laying around anyways, and the whole area seemed big enough to match the ship and the parts looked like riveted ship hull sections. I was very happy to have finally sighted the ship but a little dissapointed there wasn’t more to look at. But I can say for sure that, despite what you read on other websites, the SS Good News is buried at the very center of the bay, but you’ll have to ask around to find it. Loaded up in the boat, paddling out to the bay. At this point, I asked the dude showing me around if it was possible for him to take me to Mpulungu. I didn’t want to bike the 2500m of vertical elevation change back up to my site, and was hoping to catch a minibus out of Mpulungu. He offered to take me for K100 which I thought was a pretty good deal. So we found a boat, loaded up my bike, and started paddling across the bay. I had imagined paddling all the way around to Mpulungu, but after paddling across the bay the dudes taking me concluded it would be easier to walk over the hill separating Kituta Bay and Mpulungu. I am glad we did. We walked through a gorgeous village (named Kipata, I think) which had massive trees, a really nice bridge over a small river, and a waterfall. I am glad I got to see that. Once we got to the hill, the dudes split the load and one dude shouldered my bike and we hiked over the hill like that. At this point I realized I had accidentally hired porters, colonial-style, and I didn’t know how to feel about that. But it was pretty cool. After hiking over the hill, the guys deposited me on the road to Mpulungu and I biked the rest of the way in. Despite it being Sunday I found an open bar and rewarded myself with a beer.After my beers I caught a minibus to Mbala and biked home. It was a great adventure and I was super excited to have laid eyes on the hulk of the SS Good News. Hopefully the next person looking for the boat has an easier time than I did!