Travelling by Dhow
Somewhere a long way away it’s my wife’s birthday and A Fish Called Wanda is being shown to the British public for the first time. Here in the Gulf of Oman my chief preoccupation is avoiding seasickness. During the night I was aware of a freshening wind and a not unpleasant increase in the ship’s movement. Now, at 6.30 I’m feeling rather ill. The waves are coming in at a height of 5 or 6 feet and the wind from the south is causing a sideways roll to add to the impressive pitching and rising of the bows ahead. We have some anti-sickness plasters which have to be stuck on behind the ear, from which a chemical called scopolamine is released into the system, preventing nausea.
All of us stick them on, making ourselves look like initiates of some new religion, apart from Nigel Passepartout, who seems quite unaffected by the rise and fall of the Al Shama. He has his camera out already and is trying to set up a prize-winning shot of old Kasim asleep with the sun rising behind his nose. Unfortunately everyone keeps tripping over the recumbent old man and waking him. When he sees the camera he is delighted and turns and stares into the lens with a fixed grin. Nigel gives up.
The last few feet of the bow area are reserved for washing. A plank, laid vertically across the deck, serves to run the water away and allows a certain modesty cover, but basically, the bathroom, like the lavatory and the bedroom on the Al Shama, is alfresco. Once the morning ablutions are done (and the Gujaratis are compulsive washers) the bathroom becomes a kitchen extension and now (eight o’clock) Ali Mamoun is preparing the lunch, rolling red chillies on a stone, and then chopping aubergines and onions.
A fish bites and we all rush to the stern, where for a moment a gedri of Moby Dick-ish proportions breaks the surface and skids and spatters along the water allowing us just enough of its time to create tremendous excitement before flicking off the line almost disdainfully and returning to the depths.
With breakfast before seven and very little to do for the next twelve hours, time passes slowly. I finish Stanley and His Women and wade into a thick Spanish novel called Fortunata and Jacinta. But mostly I sleep. The sun becomes so strong that most parts of the boat are too hot to stand on, and simply moving around is highly energy-consuming. There are regular false fish alarms. At these times the Al Shama resembles a Second World War aerodrome, with combatants suddenly scrambling into action, only to reach the stern, bearing cameras and tape recorders, to find that yet another has got away.
After yesterday’s dose of Springsteen on the Walkman, today I offer the crew Oistrakh’s Brahms Violin Concerto. Anwar listens for quite a while before pronouncing it, ‘Great disco!’. Anwar tries a little bit more English on me each day. He’s learnt it at school. Hassan his colleague knows only two words, ‘Mi-kel’ and ‘Jack-son’. Whenever he sees me he grins manically and shouts, ‘Mi-kel! Mi-kel Jack-son!’.
I, in turn, press on with my Gujarati. I’m pretty handy with ‘Thank you’ (mehrbani), ‘Good morning’ (salaam aligam) and today, after a very good lunch, I embarked on ‘Congratulations’ (Mubarakhi) and the less problematical Thik-Thak (‘Hey man! Everything’s OK’).
Weather conditions improve during the day and sea-sickness is avoided. The captain informs us that we have just left the Gulf of Oman and are now in what he calls the ‘Big Sea’, the Arabian Sea. There is no land south of us now until Antarctica. Only ocean, through which we are making our way, at 8 knots an hour, a pace at which many marathon runners could overtake us. The natural world assumes a much greater significance out here. The sky and the sea is watched anxiously. Apart from the fish alarms, the sight of a school of porpoises loping by or flying fish skimming across our bows can be the highlight of a morning, and now, at five o’clock, I find myself waiting impatiently for the next entertainment – the sunset.
It’s quite a short show, only about half an hour, but on a clear day like today, the view is immaculate and of course quite unobstructed. I watch every detail down to the five-minute climax when the golden ball comes to rest magnificently on the horizon before being squashed, squeezed and distorted out of sight, returning for a final brief manifestation as a shimmering disc on the surface of the sea, signalling that it’s time for the infidels to get amongst the gin and Glenmorangie.
There’s no lights out, because the lights never go on. So we’re in bed by 7.30, looking up at the stars. Ron tunes in to BBC World Service for the eight o’clock news from London. Gorbachev’s proposed reform of Soviet agricultural policy seems wonderfully irrelevant.
I drift off to yet more sleep with a last lingering image of Nigel’s head, with a miner’s lamp-style torch strapped around it, protruding from his sleeping bag reading about another dhow trip in Gavin Young’s Slow Boats to China.