Prison Gangs

Unfortunately I have had to plan my route to avoid Iran and Turkmenistan for as a Brit they are not overly inviting on the visa front. So I have to catch the ferry across the Caspian Sea from Alat in Azerbaijan to Aktau, Kazakhstan. It sounds simple enough but you would be amazed at the in ability to schedule a ferry time table, it makes British trains seem timely. The talk on the street is that it can take up to a week to catch the ferry and you need to be at a moments notice to move. So I cycle straight to the port of Alat south of the Azerbaijan capital of Baku. And there is even a ferry leaving that very same day, win for me.

Day 1 of waiting, on arrival at the port I am directed to a few temporary porter cabins which have clearly become permanent feature behind which a few tents make up a small camp and bikes lean against a wall. Apparently I’m not the first to arrive. The news is that we are due to leave mid afternoon. I’m chuffed and settle down to introducing myself as everyone emerges from their temporary shelters to have breakfast before packing up for our immanent departure.

Oh how naive we were, Mark a Swiss cyclist has been at the port for a two days already and is a touch sceptical about our chances. Over the course of the day a few positive faced new arrivals join the rag tag group set up behind the porter loos. And come late afternoon our chances are looking somewhat slime.

Day 2, we are like the Lost Children that or refugees. Our camp is surrounded by a tall fence topped with razor wire; hand washed clothes flitter in the wind as they hang from a make shift washing line, the sun at its height insights the concrete to scold any bare feet and people huddle round gas cookers tucked in the corner out of the wind rusting up communal meals of what ever supplies people have left over; as people full from bags salts, pasta, herbs and spices all I have to offer is a pack of instant noodles, Mark even has olive oil in a glass bottle, oh how the other half live.

Today our odds look poor. It was apparently a 80% chance of boarding at 8am but as it is mid afternoon by now that could mean any day this week. The French contingent start up a make shift game of patonk with stones but to an observer it would look like a bunch of adults just throwing rocks at an old battered can of coke.

Day 3, yesterday evening we actually boarded the ferry. 5pm we were harried along to customs. Only to discover that we were playing a game of hurry up and wait .We have moved on from our refugee camp with our passports confiscated we have moved to a floating and immobile prison. Three square meals a day, a bed, a shower and a deck on which to exercise. Time is moving slowly. Cards, tea and smoking are the primary means to pass the time; its times like these I wish I smoked. There is even a drop of contraband in the form of a lonesome bottle of wine.
Day 4, we left the wall late afternoon yesterday. Seeing as the captain didn’t, God only knows what we were waiting for but we are finally at sea. Its ben a while for me and I must admit I get a touch of nostalgia from the smell of oil, the vibration of the engines and the view from the bridge. My time in the navy seems a long time ago now.

Gangs have formed, the French can be found on the starboard waist sat on a blue bench; they chat away in their softly spoken mother tongue, smoking cigarettes and reading well thumbed novels, probably romantic fiction. The British, as there is a Welshman among the English, every rose bush has its thorns, can be found in a corner of the mess deck gathered about a kettle that someone pulled from a bag, playing cards and causing a bit of a ruckus with our loud vocals. Though we have nothing on the Kazaks, who have smuggled in vodka in their trucks, they are a harmless bunch but their mother tongue could never be said to be a soft language; they always sound like their blood is boiling or teeming with alcohol I suppose. And then there is a miscellaneous gaggle made up of a Swiss man, an Austrian or two, a yank and a Hungarian. We are all one big group really and break bread together but I do always find it funny that when ever there is aa big multi national group people gravitate towards their own kind.

“Its funny” seems to be my phrase of the trip I’m constantly saying it. I am yet to meet a bad egg, some people I know that I wouldn’t be friends with in the outside world but I can still shoot the shit with them for a few days. Travelling and cycling provide the basis for these temporary friendships. But I’ve met a fair few people that it feels that you have been friends for a long time despite only knowing one another for a few hours or a few days. Have I found my people? There are a lot more dreadlocks than I expected.

People who know me will be aware that I struggle to make good conversation and new friends, I’m the quiet one in the corner. But in school growing up I was in fact an awkward chid, unsure of myself with quite low confidence. Accept when on the rugby pitch where essentially a Harry MK2 would take charge. I think it stems from the practice in schools of forcing awkward children to stand-up at the front of class and humiliate them selves on a regular basis. I was never good at reading out loud in front of class or parroting French back at the teacher. I still get prickles of sweat under the collar when I read the odd thing out to my friends. Three or four times a week you were selected to stand up in front of the class and read aloud a paragraph or two. And French lessons were just as harrowing. I dare say that I was not the only one but the habitual humiliation of children is poor practice. Teachers aren’t idiots (one would hope), they could clearly see the embarrassment of the reader as he (me) sputters out the long and seemingly complex assortment of syllables. They say children can be cruel but what about teachers

There’s a chap on here called Thomas, an ex logistics officer. We get chatting about my future ideas and prospects, dare I say it, my future careers. I am a person you needs a focus or a kick up the arse. I get on really well with the guys who are a touch younger and seem to have a life of perpetual travelling, I love that they are doing that but I would really struggle after a while at the lack of direction or security. I’m glad there are people out there doing it but I find that I’ve more in common with the chaps who are on a sabbatical or taking a time out before finding an entirely knew career. I do find myself pondering what I will decide to do or more likely stumble into.

Charles-Henry like me day dreams on the bike, a graphic designer who is in need of a new direction. We both let our thoughts wonder onto the idea of opening a cafe or travel writer. Boys can dream and apparently not always big. I cant see myself getting a job making money for some multi global nor can I see myself leading a team in an office lit with fluorescent energy saving bulbs. Once this trip is over and I find myself in South America perhaps I will just turn around and cycle back the other direction.

3 thoughts on “Prison Gangs

  1. Lisa Barton

    So good to meet you on the floating prison and to read your blog. Safe travels and will keep looking out for the updates
    ps we did look out for you and we’re going to throw you a couple of batteries 😄 (saw Thomas) you must have been going so faster


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