Saturday, December 18, 2010

NRP Sagres

It was an invitation for the boss, filtered down by editorial discretion and busy schedules to the photographer and me. There may have been a slight departure from the norm, wherein the sibling went along on my pass to see the beautiful Portuguese sail ship, but better sense prevailed. We needed to get the picture captions right.

So I went along in my Raggedy-Ann best, looking fatter than ever in a certain polka dot (not large, I might add) number. We got lost to start with. Not surprising - I was present. No matter, when we finally arrived, there was a certain chill in the air snatched away by the lights picking out the outline of the masts. But the light mist was undeterred by a stealthy wind creeping across the Arabian Sea. Clicks and I paced the length of the three-masted barque on the dock, ignoring our bladders and awaiting the signal to step onto the gangway.

The Consul General of Portugal Antonio Sabida Costa shook hands with the other guests waiting outside and nodded at Clicks. I melted into the tarmac. Best to be unseen for fear they might turn me away on account of shabby dressing. When it was time, the first few guests climbed the gangway and down onto the deck, to be greeted by the commanding officer Luis Pedro Pinto Proenca Mendes and several other important looking people. The Portuguese were perfect hosts, staid and reserved in their crisp white uniforms. The trainee sailors, uncomfortable in their new waiters' roles, weaved through the crowd carrying wine and bites. Clicks and I left the wining and dining for later.

Not many were familiar; they all looked high-society and proper in their starched shirts. The band struck up, softly picking out the soulful melodies on the Portuguese guitar strings while Sonia Shirsat's versatile voice broke through the whispered conversation with melancholy Fado renditions. We positioned ourselves in a spot where no champagne flutes would be tipped and no fancy china would be bumped off the tables. Watching the ambassador's wife sing along, seeing the wistful look to a far-off countryside in her eyes, made me belong in a small way. A very small way. Most of me felt like a sore thumb with bright blue nail-polish. After the guitars were packed away and the good-looking sailors began weaving through the crowd with tasty tid-bits from Portugal, we made our way to the important people. Work beckoned.

Predictably, Clicks did his job well. Predictably, I tagged along like a lost puppy, jotting down names and trying not to get pushed away. When our stomachs decided we'd caught enough in frames, we planted ourselves within reach of the buffet table. That's when we met him. Adrian Melo de Melo. South American-born Portuguese who liked "making funny". Actually, we met his voice first. A deep polite timbre from over the shoulder which suggested we try the bacalhau. Needless to say we pigged out on the tender cod fish. I tried, very hard indeed, to listen to the voice explain trivia about Portugal, but I was more interested in the bacalhau for the moment. Then Adrian lost himself in the crowd.

Just when we were deciding whether to leave or take some more pictures, the voice piped up again. Would we like to see the bridge while we wait for dessert? Yes, we would. We found him clicking away at a computer showing us how the navigation worked, giving us perspectives on how much of the sailboat disappears under water in a storm and how high the waves rear before they crash onto the deck. Dessert was being served when we got back on deck. The pasteis de nata were quite unlike anything I'd ever tasted. They appeared savoury but were incredibly delicious, lightly crunchy on the outside and melt-in-the-mouth soft and sweet on the inside.

Then my bladder sent urgent signals to my brain. I needed a pee spot before a puddle (not made of sea water) appeared on deck. So it was back to Adrian and he took us downstairs to the loo before we got a private tour of the spaces below, spaces most other guests did not get to see. First up came a showcase of ancient navigational instruments that are apparently still used by the greenhorn cadets as part of their training. They were taught to steer their course with the help of the stars and the sun, and find out other important data that would take them safely around the world and me over the edge.

The officers mess, with plush seating and fancy paintings, along with an ancient map of Goa caught my attention. We spent a while there before moving on to the Captain Proenca's office, where Adrian handed us a tiny Sagres tie pin. It was a deep red in the office, and although it appeared a little cramped, it was fancy when you thought of what the ship was actually meant for - training sailors. We were shown into the room where presidents met and treaties had been signed, the long oval wooden table standing testimony to names that made decisions affecting millions... And not everybody gets a chance to have a picture with the ship's captain (unless you're on a cruise, which we were most definitely not!).

I had my first trip into the roaring heat and noise of the engine room and marveled at things that didn't make much sense, but made me thankful for anyway. We spent ages chatting with Adrian, asking him questions about the things he loved, about sailing and travelling. He seemed to love what he was doing, but he dearly loved home too. We were introduced to the man who made the luscious pasteis de nata, made broken conversation with him in French and laughed at how he was fleeced by the local taxi driver.

Adrian told us about Portugal and the Somalian pirates who still prowl the waters. How many of the attacks are never reported and how it still is perilous to be on the high seas. And long after we called it a night and left with a "Muito Obrigado", Adrian's words still rang in my head. "There are three kinds of people in the world - those who are alive, those who are dead and those who are at sea."

We salute all sailors.