That will be one hundred and twenty million, please....

Our Zimbabwe correspondent sends this picture of a gentleman simultaneously doing his weightlifting exercises and paying the modest tab for a party of four at a Harare eatery where, miraculously, some food and drink was actually available. These days the sealed plastic bags of bills, known as "bricks," are rarely opened. Worth ten million, the brick itself has become an unofficial unit of currency.


Aujourd'hui a Paris

So far the latest wave of violent riots, in which over 100 policemen have been wounded in the northern suburbs of Paris, some 25km from here, have not had an impact in the sedate seventh arrondissement; our biweekly routine of relaxed hunting and gathering goes on as normal on Wednesdays and Sundays at the spectacular open-air market beneath the elevated train along the Boulevard de Grenelle, Paris 15.


There but for the grace of God go I again

An Antarctic cruise liner of Liberian registry, the M/S Explorer, has rammed a large chunk of ice or some other kind of "an object" and has probably sunk by now. It all went down, so to speak, in waters quite near to those we sailed last March on the way to Palmer Station.

Either Polar expeditions are much more dangerous than other cruises, or far too many of them are going on. There certainly do seem to be a disproportionate number of mishaps.

Thankfully all passengers are reported to have safely abandoned ship to bob about the frigid waters of the Drake passage in lifeboats, but having seen those waters and been given a tour of a lifeboat on the Alexey Maryshev I'm pretty sure that, freezing and nauseated, the experience must be no picnic, and certainly no way to spend Thanksgiving.

UPDATE: You really should go look at the pictures, they're chilling.


Bamboo on the High Line

According to Wikipedia, the "Promenade plantée" in Paris' 12th arrondissement is the only elevated park in the world. A model for what might be done with the innumerable abandoned lengths of railway across the globe, it is a three mile long stretch of potted plants and boardwalk above one of the city's less fashionable boulevards. If Manhattan's high line ends up anything like this it will be a great success, at the very least for real estate developers; along the Paris Promenade buildings which once endured a tortured, Woody Allenesque proximity to rattling trainlines and their attendant grime and filth now sprout clean modern facades and rooftop extensions and broadened windows that take full advantage of the tidy slice of greenery slicing past outside. Now if only we could get New York to copy the Velib concept!

"Enjoy watching the city bustle past far below while on a tranquil stroll"

"I liked this bamboo bower the best"


The Salad Building

Paris is full of fabulous architecture, but few recent efforts are as spectacular as Patrick Blanc's green wall at the Jean Nouvel designed Quai Branly museum. Forget green roofs, the towering wall right on the river Seine looks as if some tropical jungle has finally taken its revenge after decades of deforestation and abuse at the hands of man. There's something post-apocalyptic about it, in a good way.

Grown without soil on a continually moistened substrate of felt cladding that wraps the building facade like a wet blanket, Blanc's 'vegetable wall' is a chaos of chlorophyll that puts passersby directly back in touch with nature. If only we could retrofit the utilitarian concrete block horrors of the last several decades with this stuff. Just imagine how it would spruce up former East Germany's lingering plattenbau.

Bare feet only

Spectacular, minimalist graphics from a postage-stamp sized lawn in Mallorca.


Karl Julius Kreye

Congratulations to ak718 and everfred, whose first child made his way into the world at three o'clock this morning, Munich time! With a name that sounds like he might have played pro basketball circa 1975 or served as Kool and the Gang's conga player in his last life, we just know his future is assured. Welcome to planet earth!

Lunch, anyone?

From Atlas, in Brooklyn, comes this picture of me enjoying some pure sailing pleasure. Captain Jan Glinski, perhaps suffering under the delusion that I might still retain a shred of dignity after our voyage together, must have thought to spare my feelings and therefore did not send me this charming portrait. Instead Joseph, with no such illusions, forwarded it right back over the Atlantic to me with the comment that he has never ever seen me looking this miserable, not even in Antarctica.

From the salt-matted hair and the pink unhealthy skin, which somehow conveys both intestinal distress and solar overexposure, to the slit-eyed aggression prompted by the intrusion of the nausea-inspiring camera lens, it just doesn't get any more fun on the high seas than this.
Photo: Jan Glinski


Fifty Two hours on the edge of Nausea

And quite a few right over the side of it.

Early in the trip, with Mallorca just receding into the distance; the captain doesn't seem to think much of the skies

I know, you were almost jealous; you were picturing me bobbing about on a placid Mediterranean Sea, eating toasts spread with paté de fois gras and sipping prosecco under an azure sky, a flip-flop dangling from one suntanned toe. That’s certainly how I was picturing myself, but it didn’t work out quite that way.

Last Friday at about two in the afternoon we finally set sail from Palma de Mallorca, armed with an expensive and personalized weather report from Commanders in Boston. The nasty influences of the two storms which we had been waiting out had apparently moderated, and although the wind direction was no more favorable, its velocity had diminished. The seas north along our route were thought to be less of a churning toilet bowl. Above us, clouds still clogged the sky, but here and there showed patches of blue. Outside the harbor the water was smooth and the breeze light. Putting up the mainsail, we enjoyed a blissful two or three hours sailing west along the south coast of the island. They were to be the only relaxed moments we would spend aboard.

Rounding the tip of the island we felt for the first time the full force of the wind and waves into the teeth of which we were to turn, should we hope to sail to France and not to Africa.

“Better get your foul weather stuff on,” said Jan Glinski, our wild-haired polish captain. Glinski has triangular straw-colored protrusions of sun and salt-bleached afro jutting out from the sides of his head, and looks something like a cross between Klaus Kinski and Klaus Nomi. Nonetheless, he inspired me with total confidence, as he had that quality essential in great leaders: his emotional temperature seemed always appropriate to the crisis at hand. In the many long hours of terror and discomfort to come it was always some relief to look at Glinski and realize that for him, nothing we were experiencing was remotely threatening or out of the ordinary.

I put on the largest pair of black goretex bib overalls to found on the boat, but found them rather snug. As we turned upwind and the first massive wave cascaded over the dodger to catch me full in the face, however, I realized they would keep me more or less dry.

Within minutes I felt queasy. I sat gripping a winch and staring fixedly out at the horizon, wet and apathetic and dejected, trying desperately to control the roiling demons of motion sickness that churned within me. Asked to go downstairs for one brief moment to retrieve something, I returned green, and promptly launched the morning's breakfast over the side in a pathetic but violent column of yellow bile. They say that one feels much better after actually puking. This is manifestly untrue. I felt as horrid as I had felt before, but with the additional miserable sensation of having had someone thrust a wire-brush vigorously down my esophagus.

Aah, sun-dappled medieval streets of Mallorca, why did we ever leave you?

The seas were huge, the winds ten knots stronger than we had hoped. The boat heeled over at an alarming angle, its toe-rail in the water for much of the time. Blasts of chilly spray doused us with absurd frequency. To remain seated rather than tumbling head over heels into the ocean (for I had by now given up all pretense of the Mediterranean being anything so gentle as a "sea") required almost standing, wedged against the opposite cockpit bench. It was exhausting, and as we were soon to start a rotation of three-hour shifts, Jan urged Kuba and myself to go below and to rest at every opportunity. I told him if I were to go below I should surely upchuck once more. "Just close your eyes and get directly into the berth; don't bother to take off any clothes," said Glinski. It was excellent advice. I crawled in in full foul weather gear and curled up into a moist and wretched foetal ball, where I lay, unsleeping, for six hours, my eyes shut tight, while the boat slammed its way through some five to ten waves a minute, bucking and rolling. It was like being a ping-pong ball trapped in a washing machine. I did not, however, barf again. Not until later.

Kuba, looking slightly green around the gills himself.

Update: If you can read polish, check out Kuba's account of the trip.

My shift behind the wheel, watching out on deck from midnight to three, was actually rather a relief. Dazed by exhaustion, dehydration, and the late hour, I relaxed into a hypnotic consideration of our heading, which I meticulously adjusted on the auto-pilot. I even managed to urinate off the stern. Actually going below and using the head was out of the question, as it was permanently slanted at a thirty-degree angle and was in any case buried so far in the interior of the vessel that to visit it was to invite permanent and fatal retching; I determined conclusively that such on-board toilets are not for use underway, but rather for convenience in port or at a mooring. Therefore, on passages, one pisses over the side, or rather off of the stern, something which terrified me, as the open cockpit of the racing boat had only three wobbly steel cables behind the wheel to prevent the driver from stepping backwards off the yacht and into watery oblivion. Jan and Kuba would fearlessly turn their backs to the wheel and duck between the top two wires. Wedged there, they did their business with apparent effortlessness. I, shy, with a combination of performance anxiety and terror, found it almost impossible to free myself of my accumulated fluids through the proper channel. That my coveralls were at least one size too small made it all the more difficult, as the zipper of the dry-suit ended just below my belly-button, far out of reach of my traumatized, shriveled and frigid member.

Extracting enough of myself to get anything done required removing first my parka and then the shoulder straps of the overalls, a monumental effort of such concentration and exertion as to guarantee a repeat bout of murderous retching over the side. Then, if ever once freed, my dimunitive and horrified pecker was seized with paralysis. Gripping the cold cables for safety with both hands, as the wind whipped and the surf crashed, I was never able to coax forth anything more than the most meager of dribbles. After some minutes standing there half naked I would conclude to my horror that there was no other option than to bundle everything away again, with the result that I spent most of the trip not only nauseated, but in a chronic agony of bladder-fit-to-burst discomfort. Finally I developed the technique of kneeling on the deck and clinging to the lifelines while spritzing pitifully onto the stern, prompting Jan to comment that "with an act like that" I should "join the Cirque de Soleil."

My shift over, I went below for a few more hours of sleepless slamming about in the bunk. Reemerging at midday, I was greeted with the grim news that the GPS navigation system had failed. In the night the running lights atop the mast had also gone dead, and a fiberglass batten was working its way steadily out of the sail. Some twelve hours later it finally clattered onto the deck, narrowly missing Kuba. That afternoon one of the shrouds on the port side came loose. As we were on a starboard tack (the wind blowing from the starboard side of the boat) this was not for the moment a crisis. "Except that we can't tack," said Jan. The shrouds are steel supports for the mast, in this case a $200,000 column of carbon fiber composite. We were headed directly for the coast of Spain and could not turn onto the port tack without the risk of snapping off the mast. In which case we would be swimming to Barcelona. As the afternoon faded into evening, faced with a choice between crashing into the shore and breaking off the mast, I puked a few more times, while Jan and Kuba considered our options. "Can anything else go wrong with this trip?" Jan asked.

Approaching Spain the wind dropped from 25 knots or more to an almost manageable 18, and Jan seized the opportunity. While I steered, doing my best to keep the boat pointed into the wind, Jan and Kuba reefed the mainsail, and we tacked, heading northeast almost directly towards Marseille. But Jan didn't like the look of the mast, even with the smaller area of the reefed mainsail diminishing the load. Up into the wind again, and down with the sail. As the wind rose, even the jib tugging on the mast on the port tack gave cause for concern. We took this down too. Now, to add to the misery of my bursting bladder, churning stomach, and general wet, salty chafing was added the ignominy of motoring! We were no longer even sailing, just plowing up into the headwind on diesel power. The wonder of a sailboat, of course, is that its majestic sails, filled proud and round by the wind, hold it in tension with the water, letting it carve through the sea. If I had found the ride rocky before, I now discovered that our earlier travels had been comparatively smooth. Without sails we were nothing better than an overpriced lobster-boat with a mast, rocking this way and that with each and every wave. Now even Jan felt queasy. "The puking captain," he said, heading for the rail. But he managed to resist. Looking rather green and sitting back down, he said, "I hate powerboats."

I had been counting the minutes, so it was rather a disappointment to find, when we consulted my hand-held GPS for a coordinate position, that we were some eleven hours behind schedule. All through the rest of the long night we motored, dead into the wind, which wavered between 25 and a ghastly 35 knots. I took the nine pm to twelve and six am to nine shifts. I may possibly even have slept for a few minutes in between, as totally exhausted as I was. By now I had eaten nothing for almost 48 hours, and despite drinking as little as possible I had the constant sense that if I did not soon pee, I would pop. Every splashing wave and crash landing of the hull against the water was a torment. Would this ever end, I wondered. At last, late on our third afternoon, the industrial refinery smokestacks of Port Napoleon appeared on the horizon. We plowed on. Our goal had been to reach this, the yacht's home port, at 5am, in order to negotiate its tricky entrance in the morning light. Instead we arrived just before sunset thirteen hours later, squeezing through the narrow channel in the last of the day.

It feels so good when you stop. Once we had tied up, we rushed to the bar. Nothing has ever tasted quite so divine as the first beer at the marina restaurant. Over a bowl of peanuts and some chopped salted pork fatback, we commiserated. "It probably wasn't the most fun trip we've ever had," concluded Jan.

What ecstasy! Pulling into Port Napoleon with the setting sun. Note the jib, crumpled and sad, laying out on the deck


Sitting here in limbo

North 39.56624 deg.
East 2.63629 deg.

Rocking gently back and forth on the placid waters of the inside harbor at Palma de Mallorca it is difficult to believe the terrifying forecasts typewritten on mimeographed sheets and posted on the message board at the Capitania, the marina HQ where slips are assigned, here at this vast yacht club of thousands of boats. I am surrounded by million-dollar hardware, the sun is shining, and the cormorants are lounging on the bow mooring lines, drying their feathers. But out there, according to the ominous posted reports, it is Force 7 on the Beaufort scale and the seas are savage and confused.

Although the medieval old city is spectacular, Palma de Mallorca's charms are limited to those one might imagine from an over-touristed yachting capital populated largely by twenty-something boat rats just in from one or another other sun-soaked leisure destination. Yesterday, to relieve the tedium of waiting for calmer seas, and to get away from the flip-flop stores and sunglasses boutiques, we drove out of town to the north-east, exploring some of the island's lesser traveled byways and villages. Some are very old. In Pollenca we climbed the famous 365 steps to the tiny chapel at the top. The three of us, Captain Jan, First Mate Kuba of Posnan, Poland, and myself, the vice-assistant deck-scrubber, all agreed that those tourists we found clambering out of their cars at the top were doomed and would go straight to hell. We went to Alcudia, another ancient port with narrow, canyon-like cobblestone streets fit only for pedestrians and Vespas. We ate apple cake.

We drove onwards, to the Cap de Formentor, the northernmost peninsula of the island, on one of those heart-stoppingly winding Mediterranean roads that snake up and over crags and ridges with little regard for the precipitous cliffs around the corner. The Bay of Palma faces due south; the 35 knots of wind we were reading about on the wall of the Capitania were alleged to be coming from the north. Indeed, at the top of the north-facing cliffs there did seem to be a bit of a stiff breeze bending the tufts of sea-grass in our direction. Reaching the lighthouse, we parked and got out of the car, only to be almost blown back down the road. Up ahead, at the scenic overlook, I saw a man leaning at almost 45 degrees into the blast, resting his weight on the wind.

The sound was awesome, every blade of grass and branch of stunted shrub whistling and humming. Below, the sea was churning. Smashing into the rocks, it sent spumes of white surf far, far up into the air. Out on the water it was chaos, a confusion of waves from two directions making a vile sabre-toothed chop, with many meters separating the crests from the troughs. There was not a boat to be seen anywhere.

Having gone rather pale at the sight, I turned to Jan. With as much cheer as I could muster I said "at least now we know it was not such a bad idea to hang around for a few extra days. I wouldn't want to be out in that." This was such an understatement that it verged on dishonest.

"I thought you might enjoy having a look," he said, "I thought over the past couple of days perhaps I had seen some doubt and disappointment on your face."

I was certain I had not protested our decision not to sail; now, having seen the raging sea, I considered demanding that I be driven straight to the airport to await the blissful safety of the first possible discount flight back to Paris.

Sensing my terror, perhaps, Jan proposed that we stop by the enormo-market in Palma on the way back to the hotel, to purchase provisions. It proved to be an excellent psychological tactic. In the security and comfort of the welcoming and familiar shopping experience, with its long American-style aisles of countless goods, its rows of hams and sausages, acres of pickles, teabags and countless Spanish cheeses, biscuits, granola and potato chips, I felt my fear slipping away as I fondled heads of lettuce. It really made one quite hungry, all this shopping. What a tragedy it would be not to stick around and eat all this stuff, so carefully selected. I think I'll give it another day and see if we don't sail tomorrow....