Days 522-529: Frankincensed

06.06.10-13.06.10:

The mission this week was to clamber on board the MV San Cristobal bound for The Seychelles.  As emails and phone calls went back and forth behind the scenes, I found time to head out into the mountains with Robert, a British businessman who I had met through my dealings down in the port.  He was taking me to see the Frankincense trees and the land he was planning to turn into a Frankincense farm – not just for sweet smelling sap to chuck into your thurible and wobble about before your congregation, but for the essential oil you can collect while the sap dries out.  A handful of experiments have shown that this oil may have an effect on cancer cells.  It just might be the thing we’re looking for – something 100% natural that targets and destroys cancer cells while ignoring healthy cells.

I said MAY.  Don’t get your knickers in a twist.

Unfortunately, the great work that is being done in the field of cancer research is being constantly undermined by the hysterical ravings of the Daily Mail, who as Dr. Ben Goldacre has pointed out, seem to be on a crusade to catalogue each and every inanimate object in the universe into two boxes – one marked ‘causes cancer’ and the other marked ‘cures cancer’.  This disinformation is then dissimilated amongst the hoi polloi in 72pt block capitals every time they have a bit of space left over from wittering on about immigrants and Princess Diana.

As a consequence, the idea that frankincense oil might target and destroy cancer cells simply sounds too good to be true.  Now I’m the ultimate sceptic – I don’t believe anything I read, anything I’m told or anything I see unless I’ve got good, sensible, independently verified evidence (preferably published in a peer-reviewed journal) to back it up.  And I’m sorry, but your word is not good enough: as Radiohead once sang, just cos you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.  As a consequence I don’t believe in fate, luck, guardian angels, horoscopes, ghosts, tarot cards, tea leaves, the apocalypse, demons in the closet, karma, conspiracy theories or the galactic warlord Xenu.

But if it is true, the Robert is going to be on to a winner.  Frankincense trees only grow in Oman, Yemen and parts of Ethiopia and Somalia.  They take seven years to mature to the size when you can start farming the sap, which is about the time they’ll need to get the cancer-killing properties verified without a shadow of a doubt.  And hell, if it turns out to be a false positive, so what?  The world needs more trees.  And I’m sure Robert can tap into the Bible Belt market for Epiphany presents consisting of a packet of Gold, Frankenstein and Grr.  I’m in for a punt on the old Frankie Goes To Hollywood, so I sponsored a tree.  Hell, I’m sure I can fob the essential oil I’ll get from it in seven years time onto some daft old hippy lady with too many cats.  I’ll tell her it’s good for her chakras.  Whatever they are.

Robert also took me to the nursery where they grew the trees from seedlings and I even got to have a chat with the doctor who is pioneering the cancer research.  I’ve got to say, I now know at least 1529% more about Frank-N-Furter than I did last week.

As the week dragged on as two things stood tall on the horizon – the imminent departure of the San Cristobal and a little thing called the World Cup.

My efforts to board the San Cristobal were a little tinged with reticence, though: not because of the ever-present threat of piracy, but because getting on this ship would mean spending pretty much the entirety of the World Cup at sea.  I’ve already missed my girlfriend for 18 months, my 30th birthday party and Glastonbury for two years running, missing the World Cup as well would be a wrench.  But then again, I guess it goes to show how dedicated I am.  I WILL do this, one way or another GRRR!!

By Friday night, I still hadn’t heard an answer from the owners of the ship.  Once again, I had the nod from the shipping company and the shipping agents, but that does not suffice.  Luke, Dave and their mates crowded around at Dave’s gaff to watch the opening match of the 2010 World Cup – South Africa vs. Mexico.  The pundits pundited, the adverts advertised and the fans blew their stupid plastic vuvuzelas as the tension mounted towards kick off.  The ref blew the whistle and the game began…

And the signal was lost.

Was it just us?  No – we checked next door, and they were having the same problem, as was the café downstairs.  We called Club Oasis and their feed had been cut as well.  Al-Jezeera sport, hang your head in shame… it would later transpire that the signal was cut for the whole of Arabia, devastating football fans throughout the peninsular and beyond – especially given that, unlike in the UK, they had to pay through the nose for a viewing card to watch the damn thing.

While the others watched the black screen willing the game to come back on, I hopped by Luke’s place to check on my emails.  By this point it was way past working hours, the ship would be leaving for The Seychelles this weekend and I still hadn’t got word from the ship owners.

But there was a new message in my inbox.

It’s a no.

I returned to Dave’s and we sat around watching a black screen with snippets of top international football randomly popping up every few minutes to tease us with what we were missing.

As if to add insult to injury, the exact same thing happened the next day during the England match.  You could hear the ex-pats from here to Kuwait collectively groan and curse Al-Jezeera Sports like a gypsy hag whose lucky heather is rebuffed by a man in a top hat.

Stick to the news, Al-Jez, stick to the news.

On the Sunday, Khalid the senior boarding officer for the San Cristobal took me into the port so I could have a natter with the captain.  I knew there was no chance of me getting my passage, but what I wanted to know was why.  As I boarded the ship the coils of razor-wire surrounding the deck kinda gave the game away – PIRATES.  The captain was a great guy and said he would be happy to have me, the problem is this:

To sail in these waters, these cargo ships have special anti-piracy insurance.  Part of the deal is that they have to sail with the minimum number of crew possible.  So even if I paid for my own super-duper kick-ass insurance I’d still be putting the insurance of the entire ship (and cargo) in jeopardy.  If the worst happened and we were boarded by pirates the insurance company would have an excuse to say sorry see you later mashed potato and dump the costs of dealing with the release of the vessel in the hands of the ship owners.

The chances of me getting on one of these boats slipped down from slight to snowball-in-hell.  Where do we go from here?

Day 530: Somali Piracy: Q&A

14.06.10:

Yesterday I discovered that the chances of anybody taking me onboard a ship bound for The Seychelles was about one in a million.  I also found out that another shipping company, Maersk, had a freighter leaving on Tuesday to those infernal islands.  So after spending the day trying to get a message to the right people, I headed over to the Oasis Club for the last time, knowing that if it wasn’t to be I would cut my losses and get the hell out of dodge.

The club was packed.  HMS Chatham had just come into port, escorting the container ship Asian Glory back to safety.  The Asian Glory had been captured last January and had been held in the Puntland region of Somalia for almost six months. Eventually after lengthy negotiations the owners shelled out $7,000,000 for the release of the vessel and the luxury cars it was shipping.

I got chatting to the good chaps of the Chatham (including the captain) and tried to get my head around this whole pirate problem.  Here’s what I’ve learnt this week, amalgamated from my meetings with the Royal Navy, the US Navy, the Swedish Navy, the Dutch Navy, the crew of the Maersk Alabama, the captain of the San Cristobal and various mariners who have frequented Club Oasis over the last ten days…

How did all this get started?

Because Somalia has lacked an effective government since 1991, it has no navy (well, it has a navy, they just don’t have any ships).  This means that for almost twenty years the waters around Somalia have been a free-for-all in terms of fishing rights.  Anyone with a ship, a huge net and on-board freezing capabilities could sail around to the waters off Somalia and fill their boots.  And they did.  By 2005, fish stocks in the area had got dangerously low and the local fishermen turned to piracy to make ends meet.  By 2007, the pirates had grown more and more audacious and started targeting large international cargo freighters and even oil tankers.

Joint task forces from NATO and other inter-governmental navies have been patrolling the waters since then, but rather than result in less pirate attacks, there has been a steady escalation as the pirate zone now covers a vast swathe of the Indian Ocean and ‘employs’ over 1,000 people.

Why can’t you just blow the feckers out of the water?

We’d like to!  But that would risk escalating the situation.  At the moment, very few of the hostages they take are killed, but if we start shooting first and asking questions later, then it could result unnecessary and unacceptable civilian deaths.  Although that doesn’t stop the Russians….!

What about putting armed guards on the container ships?

Again, it risks escalation and these pirates have got rocket-propelled grenades.  It’s too risky.

What about doing convoys?

Yachties are increasingly meeting up and doing the Gulf of Aden run in flotillas, but for big cargo ships, it’s just not economically viable to have them sitting around a port for a week waiting for other ships to turn up, plus once the pirates are on board there’s little use another ship in the area can do – even fully armed naval ships are powerless to stop the situation.

Are the kidnapped British yachting couple Paul and Rachel Chandler still alive?

We believe so.  But Rachel is not well.

What do you do when you catch the pirates?

We take their weapons off them, put them all on one boat (pirates usually hunt in packs), give them enough fuel, food and water to get back to Somalia and then set them free.

WHAT?!

Yeah, we set them free, there’s nothing else we can do.  We can’t take them back to Somalia to stand trial – there’s no government, judges, juries or prisons!  Tanzania, Yemen and The Seychelles don’t want them and maybe can’t afford a ton of court cases and to pay for their incarceration.  We don’t have the space to keep them in the brig for six months until we go back to the UK.  So we disarm them and send them on their way.

So how on Earth do you think we’re ever going to get rid of these pirates?

The only way we can get rid of the pirates is to support the Somalia government in taking back their country, that way they’d have a navy to stop foreign fishing boats coming in and stealing all the fish.  Also, they’d have a judicial system so we’d have somewhere to take the pirates when we catch them.

Unfortunately after the disastrous interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, no government has the stomach to take on the madness that is modern Somalia.  In short, there is no end in sight.