Tuesday, April 10, 2007

A Sailor and His Cape Town Girl

In 2003, I sailed on two cargo ships from Los Angeles to Cape Town. On the voyage from London to Cape Town, a Filipino sailor told me about his Cape Town "girlfriend" who worked at one of the dockside nightclubs. Here's how I wrote about it back then (using pseudonyms here):

A sailor painting
When I take my walks around the ship in the afternoon, I always chat with Manuel, an Able-Bodied Seaman, who goes about his duties chipping, painting, scrubbing, and splicing. He’s a short, pudgy guy, with a low-budget Superman "S" tattoo on his jiggly tricep. But he’s very easy with the smiles. A nice guy.

Manuel comes from a wealthy family near Manila. He says his father is a big-shot businessman who could have landed him a cushy office job with a dubious “import-export” firm, but he chose the more exciting life of an sailor. Lots of Filipinos try their luck as seamen, so he did too. He’s in his early thirties now, having worked as a seafarer for nine years.

One day he asks me if I have a girlfriend. I reply I do. In fact, she lives in Cape Town. His eyes light up, “You have a girlfriend in Cape Town?! Wow, me too! Me too!” He gives me a slap on the arm, buddies now.

Then he whispers conspiratorially, “The other guys are jealous that I have a girlfriend in Cape Town, so I don’t like to speak about her in public.”

“Ahhhh, right, of course,” I feign understanding.

He whips out a few pictures of a pasty white girl with black hair and a pleasant face. He gets a far-away look in his eyes as he talks about her. “That’s Christy, my girlfriend. I love her so much. She’s Portuguese.”

Manuel met Christy at one of dockside nightclubs where she works as a "barmaid." Though the club is known as a pick-up joint for sailors looking for prostitutes, Manuel assures me that Christy has nothing to do with that. She just works with the drinks. He boasts that he is the first guy who she met at the bar that she has really ever spent time with. “I’ve done this run to Cape Town a few times now, so when I first saw her at the club, I immediately fell in love. She’s so beautiful. Just look at her, man—isn’t she beautiful?!”

I scrutinize the pictures, “Yah, a real peach, Manuel.”

“Yah, my beautiful peach," he exclaims. "So, after the first time we met, I wrote to her from the ship and even called her when I was back home. Then I saw her twice again after that when the ship came into Cape Town. We’ve remained faithful for the last two years.”

Manuel's gush of sincerity and vulnerability is refreshing. I'm happy for him. “That’s great, man. So why are you so secretive about it with the crew?"

A sailor painting
He knits his brows, “They’re jealous. They’re always laughing at me, telling me that she’s nothing but a whore, that she isn’t faithful to me, that her job allows her to meet plenty of guys who will pay money to hang out with her. They say she’s not serious, but just having a good time with me. They say I should just look for a real relationship in the Philippines, like they all do.” His eyes glisten, “But Henry, I’m in love with this girl. Look at her! She’s so beautiful!”

I look at the pictures again. In one photo, Manuel’s got his flabby Superman arms wrapped around her as they perch on a barstool. His face is the image of pure contentment. In another, she rolls her eyes at the idea of being photographed behind the bar’s cash register. The third is a portrait shot of her in front of a line of fancy skyscrapers, not in Cape Town. In the last, a dog yips at her legs in her backyard.

When I ask where she lives, the name of the suburb reveals that it is one of the areas built for “poor whites” during the apartheid era. Apparently her family came to South Africa from Mozambique in the 1970s when the liberation war sent the Portuguese colonials packing.

“So do you have serious plans with this woman?” I ask.

“I’ve asked her to marry me three times already!” he exclaims.

“What?!” I jump.

“Yes, I want to marry this girl, but she says that she wants to take her time about it. She’s still in her early twenties, so wants to have a few more experiences in her life before she gets married. But I’m in my thirties, I’m ready now.”

Hong Kong
As I keep thumbing through the few photos, I ask where the one with the fancy buildings was taken. Manuel’s embarrassed now, “This one is actually in Hong Kong.”

“Wow, so she’s well-traveled!” I enthuse.

He emits a nervous laugh, “Yah, kind of. Uh, actually, a rich Chinese businessman who she met at the club offered her a trip to Hong Kong.” He quickly reassures me, “But it didn’t mean anything, it was just a holiday. She said that she didn’t do anything with the man, but just wanted to have a different experience. You know, travel a little. But she didn’t do anything with him. Nothing. I know. I trust her.”

I battle to compose my face to look convinced, “I’m sure you’re right, Manuel.” I can see that he is struggling too, anxiety creeping across his brow. I switch back to safer ground, “OK, so…still, do you think you’ll get married?”

Manuel’s back on a high again. “Oh yes, definitely. She just needs time. And after this trip to Cape Town, I’m sure she’ll be ready.”

Manuel wants to take Christy to the Philippines, maybe even give up his sailing career so that they can live together, as proper husband and wife, near his family. He might even take up that import-export job if she comes. He’ll build her a house too! And she can have lots of dogs! Etc.

Cape Town's Table Mountain and Table Bay
He’s got two days in Cape Town this time, then another two in three weeks time. But he has no idea if he will ever come back to South Africa as a sailor. His agency can hire him out to any company on any route. It's just been Manuel’s luck to get to Cape Town enough times to fall hopelessly in love with a dockside woman.

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