Vinod and I reached the Roma Termini station well in time and bought tickets by a local train to Formia-Gaeta, the station that served the port town. We were headed there for the last task before heading home, that of inspecting a ship. After the tickets were bought through a vending machine we were told by the information centre that the ticket had to be validated before travel, for the tickets were valid for two months. The 7.49 am local to Naples was crowded, but we managed to get seats, which were not comfortable. It felt as if the tyres of the coach wheels were due attention. The train attained speeds of about 200 kmph and we got to Gaeta ahead of schedule at 9.10 am – a distance of 130 kilometers covered in 80 minutes with many stoppages; it was a slow train! The Agent of the ship to be inspected had arranged a pick up – the entire facilitation was charged an atrocious fee of Euro 200. It was raining slightly and temperature hovered around 7 degrees with icy winds. The city of Gaeta is clearly demarcated from Formia. Once again there was hardly any Security or Customs to clear vehicles and people into the port area. After the initial examination of the ship’s hull we boarded the ship. We received a warm welcome from the Syrian Captain and his Greek Superintendent – the 12 crew members consisted of 7 Syrians and 5 Pakistanis. During the stay on the ship we were treated like long lost friends, particularly the Pakistanis. The Captain was a voluble gentleman who served us huge cups of coffee and tasty almond Baklavas. He had poignant tales of the ongoing Syrian conflicts to share and his views of Jewish and American machinations were so seriously recounted that they merited belief. His own village in Banyas was affected little, but the family has got separated between Lebanon and Syria. He wants to go home, but does not know which place he can call that now. A deck hand who belonged to Allepo, in Syria, mentioned that the fighting at times gets so severe that thousands die every night! The saving grace, according to him, is that the huge city is still intact; the villages have been reduced to ashes and dust. The Captain invited us to lunch. The Chef, a happy and well-rounded Syrian, served us a delectable soup followed by chicken and potatoes and a preparation of eggplant and mustard seeds, which was had with Syrian pitta bread. Though the chef suggested a helping of rice there wasn’t enough place to oblige the offer. Instead I had a banana to end the meal on a sweet note. The cuisine on the ship mostly consisted of Syrian fare; Pakistani cuisine was only to break the routine. The Syrians found the Pakistani masala a bit hot to handle (pun unintended).
Gaeta is a small Italian port town on the Mediterranean Sea. The population of the town is less than 25,000. This city was a popular resort during the Roman times. It was, till a decade ago, also popular among Italians who wanted to spend a few days out in the sun on the beach. However, the Euro changed all that. The place became pricey and tourists moved to Spain, it is said. The average salary of Euro 1600 in the private sector is at a discount of 25% vis-à-vis the public sector. Italians pay a high percentage of salary as tax, of various kinds. It goes as high as 55%. The high taxes have affected corporate jobs too – factories are closing and moving elsewhere. The fun loving Italians who spent their time in leisure and pleasure had that taken away from them. Many do not have enough to spend and those who do, spend less saving for the rainy day. All this have affected the economy. The dominant role of Germany and France is blamed most of the time for financial problems in the rest of the EU. The woes in Greece are another classic example. The Superintendent of MV OSTRIA, the ship we inspected in Gaeta Port said that his daughter who was employed in a travel agency had her salary downsized by over 50% in two tranches. Children who used to share their incomes with older parents no longer did. The retired government employees suddenly saw their pensions slashed by over 50%. All these were done for the stated objective to contain deficits. In this context it is very interesting to see the contrasts in Ukraine and Turkey. Kiev was under siege from the public protesting against a Government unwilling to commit itself to the Euro. Turkey, on the other hand turned away from its original plan to join the Euro zone. Many restructuring proposals were placed before it by the Central Bank of EU and the country thought it better to reverse the original direction. It benefited in hindsight, for the economy is flourishing now as a result of transplantation of factories and booming tourism. The decision of Tony Blair not to adopt the Euro, while still being within the Union, now seems like the right decision made against popular advice of the time.
The ship was at port to load 5000 tonnes of cement to Benghazi, Libya. Rain played spoilsport for a while. But, when the loading operations started it was a joy to see the productivity. There were just three people hooking a lot of 6x2 tonne bags for the Gottwald to swing into the hold of the ship. Two forklifts offloaded the cement bags from trucks on the ground. 30 tonnes was unloaded from a truck in less than 5 minutes. The driver of the truck dismantled the side panels of the trucks for the forklifts to work and put them back in sections as soon as the work was completed. A forklift, a hold hand and his supervisor completed the team inside the hold. The speed with which work was done, and without any fuss, was enviable, to say the least.
We had to walk to the port gate as per instructions given. Near the gate Customs officials demanded to examine our bags. They were upset that we had walked past ignoring them. Of course they spoke Italian and we could only smile. No harm done, we boarded the car sent by the Agent and got to the station. We were in time to catch a fast local back to Rome. This time the seats were better and the travel was more comfortable. We reached Roma Termini by 3.30 pm and decided to go directly to the Coliseum. By the time we got to the gigantic monument it was already closed for inside entry. We did spend a lot of time circling it and marveling at the magnificence of the grand stadium. Scenes of the movie, Gladiator, returned vividly to add to the thrill. As light faded in the horizon we made the walk back to the hotel.
The journey back home to Cochin would begin the next day morning – the tasks of inspection had been done and the schedule afforded sightseeing too, albeit hurried. Over dinner we decided to take a taxi at 6 am to the Fumicino airport to head for Madrid, from where we would emplane to India. The necessary instructions were given at the hotel reception before repairing for the last night in Europe during this trip. All had gone well; the ships inspected were the right ones for our purpose and the interludes had offered opportunities to visit heritage and tourist sites. Thank Him for that.