Read a piece in an old Sunday Telegraph about this travel writer’s experience with poverty in Argentina, and recalled two incidents from my youth, when I was in the Merchant Navy.
We were berthed in Vitoria, a Brazilian iron ore port, and we were on a run ashore with lots of money to spend, and hopes of a good meal, more than a few drinks and a bit of relaxation! We were all experienced sailors, so were keen to have a good time and not worry too much about the costs! We trawled the main drag, and eventually found this restaurant which faced on to the main street, with a covered veranda and a good area where the tables were spread out. We had been told by the foreman on the ore-jetty that this was probably the best restaurant in the whole city, so we decided that he should know what he was talking about, so we dived in! The booze was good, but the food was fantastic; with meat so tender it wasn’t eaten, it surrendered! Great cooking, wonderful food, magic music, good company; not often sailors find that combination abroad! The routine was that the bill for the food was separate, but the booze was paid for as it was served, so we built up a fairly large chunk of notes by the end of the evening! Now in Brazil at that particular time, inflation was rampant, with the exchange rate altering by the hour, so with sterling in our wallets, we were sitting in the pound seats, if you understand the saying; but when we got ready to leave, we of course had this fairly large chunk of notes which didn’t mean very much to any of us; so I scooped it all into one hand, called the elder of the two waiters who had been looking after us all evening, and dumped the lot into his hands as we left! Thought no more about it, apart from not having to lunk all that excess Brazilian money around, as it was virtually worthless!
We had to spend ten days in port, as the iron ore had to come some seven hundred miles by rail from the interior, and the port stocks had run out, so we went ashore three nights later, and because we’d had such a good time before, we trundled along to the same restaurant where we had spent the first evening; but as we walked through the door, we were stopped by the manager, who kept us waiting for maybe three minutes while a centre table was cleared, the whitest table cloths I have ever seen placed on top, and superb cutlery and plates spun into position, before we were ushered forward like royalty! Once again the food was superb, the wines were even better, but the service was out of this world! I motioned the manager over, and asked him why we being treated in this way, not that it wasn’t very nice, but it was a little bit unexpected. His reply left us all sober and humbled. “Senor,” he said, “We understand that you are English, and do not know much about Brazil, but do you know how much the tip which you left three nights ago was actually worth?” We all shook our heads. “Your tip, which was shared equally between the three waiters and the four kitchen staff, was the equivalent of three months wages for five men! So when we saw you coming back in once again, my staff decided to show their appreciation for your generosity in the only way they know how!”
My last trip to sea commenced and ended in Hong Kong, and we were flown out and back by B.O.A.C., the forerunner to British Airways, and on our return trip, we landed in New Delhi at about two in the morning. We all stumbled out into the transit lounge, and stocked up with beer, but when the senior steward announced there would be a dely while a valve was fixed on the fuel system, he also announced that the drinks were on B.O.A.C., so I waved over the waiter, a tall, rake-thin Indian whom we had immediately named ‘Winston’, and ordered two rounds of fourteen beers just for starters! Three rounds later, the senior steward once more announced that the aircraft was now fixed, and we should prepare to board. As we had all received lots of Indian coins while we were actually buying our drinks, there was a fair chunk on the table, so I said to the lads, “We’ll give all the change to Winston,”and so scooped all the coins into my hand, waved ‘Winston’ over; took his hand and slapped all the money into his palm. He gazed down at his windfall, gazed once again; moved his fingers over the coins, and passed clean out! We learned that we had given him the equivalent of nine months wages! My only comment, uttered through the fog of alcohol was, “Shit, he mustn’t get paid much money, if that’s nine months pay!”