As a retired military man I am grateful that I am not deployed to far away seas these days. In San Diego, this holiday weekend has been an opportunity to meet with friends. Saturday with an outdoor concert by the San Diego Symphony at the downtown waterfront ending with Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (with cannons!), Sunday with a gathering at Mission Bay, and today for breakfast at a restaurant our friends have enjoyed since the husband was a child.
Looking over all the random stuff I have collected in my travels years ago in the Navy, I am recalling how much I learned about marketing since those days. For the longest time, I was quite the buyer. Fresh out of bootcamp, I was “accosted” by a photography film and developing service. I think they were out of business before the contract expired.
“you are going to see the world, kid. You need something to take pictures and to develop them. Sign right here…”
It took a while to learn to bargain proficiently – which is how most of the world operates between vendors and customers. I love hunting for bargains today. I am always asking for any discounts, and chatting with anyone and everyone. But many, even today, will not admit they may subscribe to the old saying, “a fool and his money are soon parted”.
Thinking back to my childhood, two of my favorite characters from television or movies who were amazing at marketing (trading goods), was Pat Buttram’s Mr. Haney in the 1960s television comedy, Green Acres, and Don Rickles character, Crapgame, from the movie, Kelly’s Heroes.
Whether knowing the “talk” of a salesman with just about anything you wanted – or didn’t want, and helping me to avoid “being sold” to a guy who could trade up to get what he needed, I know that my experiences in the Navy were invaluable in my later years. If it was a more-comfortable chair for my boss in the Pentagon, I could get one through “appropriation”. Or if some repair work was needed sooner than the bureaucracy allowed, I could barter favors for moving the work order to the top of the “day’s worklist” stack.
But in the early years, particularly when traveling around the world, I was a tenderfoot with a pocketful of cash, so there were life lessons to learn in salesmanship and becoming a prudent shopper. How many of us, Sailor, Soldier, Airman, Marine, or merchantman have walked past a street hawker without looking or at least listening, to the pitch for gold, jewelry, or girlfriend – swag?
“My friend, my friend, I give you good deal!”
There was always a little marketing going on, from trading shipboard things like embroidered military unit patches, engraved Zippo lighters, military ballcaps. Before widely marketed, Levi’s jeans, Nike shoes, and other “Americana” might make good currency. Sometimes, barter involved Marlboro cigarettes, American whiskey, or music CDs. Yes, kids, there was a whole economy going on, before Paypal. Before Amazon. Before the Internet. A long time ago.
I recently found and then misplaced a picture of me and my shipmates sitting in a beachfront cabana somewhere in South America, decked out in Panama hats. Must have been Ecuador. We had encountered a pretty streetwise kid- a New York City kid visiting his uncle there – who was helping Sailors with the local menu and beer prices. I think he made a kickback but we weren’t complaining. Does any American twenty-something really understand the foreign currency conversion to the dollar? After blowing through your money on the first visit, wisdom then seems to show.
And then there are unique buying opportunities. Ecuadorian vendors in Manta presented me with “genuine” Inca figurines. They were clearly cheap copies but the women selling them from a blanket made me feel I had to buy something. At a beach cabana a kid sold me (yes, I bought one) a fishnet hammock.
In Toulon, France, others offered ladies handbags far more reasonable than the Cannes Louis Vuitton storefront (of course cheaper meant a knockoff). I told my shipmate he could have saved $400 and his spouse wouldn’t have known the difference. Yet he bought the real thing. There were replica French (a nicer word than counterfeit) perfumes in Egypt. One sailor was buying these and fancy stopper bottles from other vendors, to resell at home.
Elsewhere there were Turkish carpets, former-Soviet Army medallions and belt buckles, and amber jewelry (in Bulgaria). Leather goods and inlaid gold and metal items in Spain. Jewelry using ancient Greek and Roman coins in Greece. Tailored suits in Sicily. How many visiting sailors bought panini sandwiches from buxom women in waterfront kiosks in Toulon, France? (These women were Italians!). Anyone visiting Toulon at the time knew “smash” sandwiches.
With the Internet, I imagine these same vendors now have Point-Of-Sale shops, Apple Pay, PayPal and international shipping. Perhaps I too, shall open a little shop. “I give you good deal!”
Word of the day, in Turkish: hamur işi (ha’ -moor i-shi). Pastry.
How many times have you thought about places and people you have not seen in twenty-five years? As we get older, do you, like me, reminisce about the adventures of your youth. Or has the worries of life crowded out the faces, names and places? Perhaps it is due to long-dormant memories that are triggered by seeing one of the random bits I have collected an carried with me over the decades. Or, in not thinking every single day about work, a calmer mind has time to reflect.
As Sailors, most of us looked forward to foreign ports of call. (I say “most of us” as I knew some shipmates who wanted nothing to do with anywhere that was not the the USA.) But I was interested and excited to get off the ship. I have always been a people person. Probably why I was so interested in learning foreign languages. A conversation might only take using (badly) the six or so words. Some might even have a couple phrases learned prior to visiting Egypt or Turkey. With a “hello” or “how do you do”, in Arabic -I purchased a cassette tape introductory lesson before leaving the American base – it was a good thing that most spoke some English.
I am thinking about that first visit to Hurghada, Egypt, when I had a conversation with a young Egyptian dock worker while I was waiting for my ship to come in. I had just flown seventeen hours from the U.S. to board the ship that was in mid-deployment. I still have the papyrus bookmark and a photograph in my random collected “stuff”. Or talking with the merchant while we drank tea, who hoped one day to get to America so his young daughter might get needed surgery. Or riding with my buddies in a cab, at night, while the cabbie raced along, no headlights (to preserve the battery, he said) honking and dodging people and animals in the street. Completely unperturbed (the cabbie, not us).
Once when I traveled to New York City, and hailed a cab, the driver was “middle eastern”? Then as now, I think about the gentleman near the Grand Bazaar in Istanbul wanting me to buy some gold jewelry. “How did you learn to speak English so well?”, I kidded.
“I was a cab driver, New York. Two years.” he replied.
“I think I have ridden in your cab!” I said.
For a brief time ashore in Turkey I was a millionaire. Well, it was when I exchanged my U.S. currency for Turkish Lira, at a time before the currency was revalued by their government to track with other world currencies. With all my new “wealth”, what would be my most prized purchase? a book. A bilingual dictionary. Twenty-five years ago, with no Google and no Amazon to browse and shop, a book – in a stall in an open-air Izmir market – a sözlük (pronounced sooze’ luke) was my Rosetta stone.
With that dictionary, I met Hikmet and his brother during our Izmir port call. They were entrepreneurs in international business of shipping and receiving (they owned and operated a MAILBOX, ETC store). I was their opportunity to practice “american”. Over tea, we “conversed” in their broken English and my crash-course (on the fly) in Turkish.
In 2018, Sailors do not appear to be deploying to the Middle Eastern waters any less than their predecessors. For thousands of years, armies and navies have been making port calls. Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, Ottomans, Western Europeans, Americans, and now Russians, So I am sure that vendors, street hawkers, and students will know “my friend”, “how much?” and “I’ll give you a good deal!” in everything from ancient Greek to Chinese. But what of the millennial generation? I hope they find an Internet connection for their smartphone translator app. As for me, I still have my bilingual dictionary.
Watching the movie “Castaway”, I think anyone got a little emotional when “Wilson”, the soccer ball with the hand-stained face, was adrift in the open ocean. It might have been the character’s (loose) connection with sanity. Now, I’ve never really had that one thing that I held onto for dear life; I’ve never been stranded either. Yet, I have been known to leave ballcaps, bluejeans, and engraved Zippo lighters behind when leaving port. Most of the time, it was a voluntary trade for something unusual such as a Soviet Navy belt buckle. Or a Turkish lighter, an Ecuadorian fishnet hammock and even an Egyptian thobe (male one piece garment).
The USS PETERSON visited the Black Sea on the way back from a Red Sea deployment. We were unaccustomed to being welcomed as tourists; however, the Ukrainians were just as welcoming to American ships visiting Sevastopol. And we had cameras openly, not the kind you see in spy movies set in Eastern Europe, but like tourists from Scotland to Burundi: Japanese models. Like everything else marketed in the early 1990s.
Taking my new camera, I went out to look for amber . I tried to order a Black Russian (vodka and coffee liqueur) in a hotel bar that looked out upon the Black Sea; I had an equally impossible time finding an ice-cold Pepsi. And there were other distractions. Several of us ventured into a nightclub that was a bit of a circus. It featured a woman doing an acrobatic dance floor show that might have been a strip show. Who spoke or read Bulgarian to know from the marquee? Later, I was looking at some Russian znachki, these enameled badges or pins, that were collected in Russia like sports memorabilia or Hard Rock Cafe pins, back in the early 1990s. And walked away only to realize that I didn’t have my camera over my shoulder.
At the waterfront, I found a Port official to report my loss. He spoke no English and I spoke no Bulgarian. But nearly a dozen years after my last college class in Russian, we could haltingly converse about my missing camera in a common language. A few months later, the reply to my inquiry sent to the Canon marketing office in Sophia, Bulgaria was not promising. How many regular people could possibly own a Canon SLR camera in a nation that only had capitalism (glasnost?) for five or so years?
Bulgaria became a hot destination for inexpensive vacations by young western Europeans staying in hotels and hostels. Beachgoers enjoying the Black Sea. Perhaps some young entrepreneur used my camera to start a business. (Babes of the Black Sea?) Marketing ads for amber jewelry. Fashion images for the newest Yuppies. And perhaps my old camera is living there still. Twenty-three years ago I left my heart in Varna, Bulgaria. Well, not really. But I did leave my camera there.
When I was a kid, maybe younger than 8 years old, I went on my first passenger ships, the Cunard Lines SYLVANIA and QUEEN MARY. Traveling with my mom one summer from New York to England and then returning to New York City. I generally recall 3 memories of that time. Two were shipboard: being entertained with other kids by the staff while our parents were so seasick they were in their cabins, receiving a die cast model of the ship(s), and a random memory of being fascinated by men working on a pipe in the middle of the lane in front of my grandmother’s home in the Isle of Man. But the point of this all is that I don’t get seasick.
Rowboats, canoes, kayaks, harbor ferries and water taxis of various sizes and conditions, and three U.S. Navy warships have been how I went to sea in the intervening fifty years. Until this week, so many years ashore dulled my senses and passion for travel and the sea. The dining, getting to know some people, the excursions in our ports, and the shows we took in have been the highlight of cruising. The rocking even as slight as the large liner does pleasantly lulls us to restful sleep. For me it has again stirred my memory of the wind and wave.
This ship, however, is too big. Too many people. And although I am not, well, insensitive, I really do not want to travel with large groups of some tourists. I’ve been irritated by their cultural norm of pushing through around and over, mobbing really, at the brow coming on and off, (like at our travel stop in Cozumel). I imagine if you come from a place that has 2 billion residents you push to avoid being run over. Yet this ship has travelers and staff from all parts of the world. After several days, a vessel with six thousand passengers is too much like vacationing on Southern California highways during rush hour.
Give me a smaller, more personable ship and I’ll take the adventure anywhere. Nevertheless, I know my wife and I will make new friends, see some amazing sights, and enjoy more cruises in the future.
Usain Bolt and Harry Belafonte grew up in my parish – tour bus driver & guide
On a zip-line and rafting tour in Jamaica, the limes, bananas, coconuts, and sugar cane compete with mangroves, towering Hindu bamboo and brightly colored flowering plants for my attention. While zooming through trees up to 40 mph (there are big cushions at the downhill station if the brake and guide fail to stop me) fed my adrenaline-junkie, the afternoon spent on the river was a great way to take in the people and history of Jamaica. The rafting guide explained how various plants have health and medicinal properties – and though Americans sterotypically associated ‘ganja’ with Jamaica, nothing Reginald listed in the average diet included weed.
Patois is the native Jamaican dialect, and after a brief intro, we were all “ai’-ree” (doing well) and affirming questions with “ya, man”. Jamaicans have a deep pride in their country, and while it is very evident that the poorest Americans are richer than most of the population, I think even the “CJs” -Crazy Jamaicans, (self-named) locals who walk in front of moving trucks and buses – would find much of my complaining young countrymen more than foolish. Though this is my first trip in the Caribbean as a civilian, and a first ever to Jamaica, I can see why people return again and again. For me, the food, grog and Cuban cigars are pleasant but bouncing up and down a rocky and muddy road with a group of laughing fellow travelers and guides on the way to rafting is a lasting adventure.
“Put da lime in de coconut, stir it all up” -Jamaican health tip for lowering blood pressure
The last time I boarded a vessel the size of the Allure of the Seas, it was gray and I was an enlisted volunteer(ed) carrying equipment. While an aircraft carrier does not deploy lounge chairs nor launch aircraft, on this voyage, my wife and I saw divers launch into a pool several decks above the waterline. This was all part of an entertaining acrobatic and sychronized diving show.
However, the most entertaining part of this trip has been having brief conversations with passengers who are fellow veterans. You see, I wore my “Retired Navy” ballcap boarding in Florida and disembarking on our first port of call. From the first greeting in the line with a retired Bo’sun while getting registered at the embarkation terminal, to the Air Force vet my wife and I sat with at a dinner, to the Navy Vietnam Nam-era airdale, there have been a lot of quick greetings and instant recognition.
” I can recognize veterans”, one Navy wife said. I think she actually said, she could “smell ’em a mile away”, but I knew what she meant. I think people who served have an instant kinship. One of my fellow passengers, a man and his wife about half my age went snorkeling with my buddy, me and four others at our stop in Haiti. He smiled knowingly, when I remarked how cool it was to be zooming away toward our dive spot in a RHIB. Most Navy people recognize this acronym as Rigid Hull Inflatable Boat. Yet I think he or possibly his wife, was Dutch or German.
Yeah. The folks who are frequent cruise vacationing people also seem to have that camraderie. Many start around our age. I think cruise veterans and particularly Navy veterans get the best new sea stories to swap with one another from trips like this. It does “take one to know one”.
(Image) The last time I was off the coast of Haiti (USS PETERSON)