Tuesday, April 21, 2009

April 20, 2009 - Galle, Sri Lanka

Anti-submarine net blocking the entrance to Galle Harbor

We woke this morning to the sound of Sri Lankan Navy gunboats circling us. We were both exhausted from the rough passage here and it took a few cups of coffee before we were ready to face the bureaucracy here. Once we were fully caffeinated, we contacted the harbor pilot and our agent over the radio. We were instructed to proceed to the mouth of the harbor and wait there for a Navy boarding party. There were breakers rolling across the shoals in the east side of the bay, so we headed back out to sea before turning into the main channel approaching the harbor.

We ended up idling around the mouth of the harbor for an hour waiting for the Navy boarding party to inspect us for hazardous substances before we could thread our way through the anti-submarine nets and enter the harbor. I was getting more nauseous rolling in the swell at the mouth of the harbor than I'd been at any time on our passage, but no amount of coaxing over the radio could move port security to allow us to wait for the Navy just inside the harbor entrance behind the breakwall. Eventually the naval officers arrived and conducted a cursory search of Mata'irea. Then we were allowed to follow them into the harbor.

Once inside the harbor, our options were to Med moor (drop our anchor and tie our stern off to a floating pontoon) or tie up alongside a large concrete pier known as the Thunder Dock due to the booming sound made by the swell surging up under it. The delivery crew off of one of the three catamarans in the harbor came up in their dinghy and told us that a boat that had tied up to the pier recently had some rat problems. That settled it for us, it was time to try our hand at Med mooring (so named because it is a common practice in crowded marinas in the Mediterranean).

Our agent was waiting for us on the Thunder Dock and really wanted us to tie up there. We declined and said we'd meet him at the pontoon. For $225 we expected some help with the lines, but that was apparently beyond his brief. Luckily, the delivery crew off of one of the five other sailboats in harbor volunteered to give us a hand. With the help of three willing Americans and one recalcitrant Sri Lankan, we managed to get Mata'irea safely moored. We had just enough time to heat up some leftovers from lunch, then it was time to deal with the officials.

First up was a visit from Customs. Our $225 agency fee included a $25 fee for Customs. On top of that, local customs officers are relentless about getting booze and cigarettes off of cruisers, which they then sell on the black market. We've never paid a bribe, and we aren't about to start in Sri Lanka.

I'm usually the picture of polite deference when it comes to dealing with officials. I've smiled my way through an overzealous quarantine inspection in Australia, an impoundment in Kupang, and a sit-in the Forestry office in the Andamans. But something about the combination of corruption and having to pay an agent an obscene amount of money to do something that I do myself in every other place in the world just set my teeth on edge.

Our agent began completing our Customs declaration for us and asked if we had whiskey or brandy aboard. I replied, "Yes, but I'm not giving any of it to anyone." He looked a little taken aback by my bluntness, but continued completing the forms, which he passed along to the Customs officers. The Customs officers reviewed our paperwork and asked to see where we stored our alcohol. For what possible reason do they need to see it, other than to try to cadge a bottle or two off of us? So, as I led them down below, I said, "Sure, you can see it, but not a single bottle is leaving this boat." I showed them our liquor cabinet, with open bottles in it. They looked very disappointed that they were all open (and as such had no resale value) and made me amend my hard alcohol declaration to say "used." Then they asked to see the wine. I took them back to show them one of the storage compartments that Indian Customs put under seal in Port Blair. It still had the seal on it. They opened the compartment and looked as disappointed as I usually do each time I'm confronted with one of the many bottles of nonvintage Hardy's that we still have on board. They turned a few bottles over, reading the labels, and talking among themselves. Finally, they said that I should take out two or three for our use during our stay in Sri Lanka, before sealing the compartment with another customs seal and leaving in disgust.

And we're off to see the wizard . . . err, immigration officers

After Customs was through, the agent and I went to visit Immigration to get Sten's and my passports stamped. After that, it was off to Port Security to get gate passes for both of us. Both processes went smoothly, but I've never gotten so many incredulous responses to my being the Captain. Each person I dealt with wanted to know where my husband was. I told them that he was busy on the boat taking care of his duties as Chief Engineer (which in this case meant washing our lunch dishes). As the agent and I left the Port Security office, the Immigration officer who had just done our clearance approached me about arranging an inland tour through him. I felt a little pressured being approached by an official with an offer of commercial services. It just didn't feel right. But I had a ready excuse for not hiring him as we had already contacted a tour guide who was recommended by some other cruisers. So I said this to the Immigration officer, several times, several ways. Polite refusal didn't seem to be working, so finally, I had to get our agent to step in and give the official the brush off for me.

Normally, we wouldn't hire a tour guide to drive us around, particularly not in a country with such a well developed transportation system and one in which many of the people speak English. But we are just so wiped out from the passage here that if it was left to us, we'd probably end up spending the whole week sitting in Galle. In addition, back in Thailand when we thought we weren't stopping in Sri Lanka, we gave away our Sri Lanka Lonely Planet to Jimmy and Caroline on Blue Moon. That clinched it. So, we decided to pamper ourselves by putting ourselves in someone else's hands for five days. We're a little hesitant as we're not really guided tour people, so we'll have to see how it turns out.

Outside the gate we were met by Batu, a tuktuk driver who works with our tour guide, Leel. Batu took us to Leel's mother's five room concrete house where that warm and welcoming lady, wearing a white house dress decorated with sprigs of pink flowers, made us delicious milk tea. She brought out the tea in fancy porcelain cups and served us a variety of cookies and sweets. Leel arrived as we were enjoying our second cup of tea. We discussed our travel plans and Leel invited us to come back that evening for a traditional Sri Lankan meal of rice and curry. Leel and his cousin Joseph, joined us and Batu in the tuktuk (a vehicle that comfortably seats two, not four) for the short ride back to the harbor.

On our way back to the boat to shower and gather our laundry before returning to Leel's for supper, we got waylaid at the Thunder Dock, where Sten managed to get invited aboard a former Japanese Coast Guard patrol boat to check out its systems. While Sten toured the engine room and I had a glass of water in the crew's mess, a jeweler magically appeared. I couldn't help but wonder how it was that a jeweler has a gate pass to an uber secure harbor - a place so secure that only the agents can come in to deliver fuel or provisions. There were now three of us crowded around a table in the crew's mess. There was no air stirring in the place and I was getting hotter and sweatier by the minute. While the jeweler was trying to sell me large quantities of semiprecious stones with the assurance that I could sell them for much more back home, the captain of the boat, who was sitting next to me, began fanning me with a piece of paper. That made me a little uncomfortable, but when he lifted up my hair to hair to fan my neck, I had to get out of there. I found Sten hanging out with the engineers in the shade and breeze and gestured that it was time for us to go.

After dinner at Leel's house, which was accompanied by a glass of arrack (the local hard alcohol made from fermented and refined palm sap) and cola, we returned to the harbor late at night. The long walk from the gate, past the docks, back to the boat, felt safe, probably because there are navy guards everywhere. Along the way we got to talking to the Immigration officers who were standing outside their office enjoying the relatively cool evening air. It didn't take long before they began to question us about what kind of alcohol we have on board. Before we could fully process the thought that "wait, isn't that Customs's business?" they were inviting themselves aboard for a nightcap. We just laughed them off and kept walking. Everyone that we've met here is very friendly, but it doesn't take long before they start to try to work an angle. It makes us feel like walking dollar signs.

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