In Civitavecchia the old sailor dressed strictly in black gave me a small postcard featuring the image of the Stella Maris and he spoke to me about Mount Carmel, in Haifa, Israel. Since then I have had it in my purse and I have looked at it now and again. A woman with a serene expression is levitating above a choppy sea. Behind her there is a brigantine that is heading towards her. It impresses me that there are waves that come and there are others that go. I imagine that they are not having a good time aboard the brigantine and that their only hope is this woman. What if I go in search of the Stella Maris? The Mediterranean sea route from Egypt to Israel no longer exists so I have no other option than to go by land. The Sinai peninsular is the only thing that separates me from the Stella Maris.
The taxi driver leaves me in the Suez bus station. Five of us have travelled from Port Said to Suez – a lady with her son, two men and me in the front seat next to the driver. No-one has said a word the whole way. From Suez there is a bus which will take me to Taba, the town bordering Israel, and from there I will go to Haifa. Two hours later we arrive at the bus station and all that I find here are soldiers and bearded men.
To be honest, this almanac in search of abandoned crews in the Mediterranean is now going to change genre. It will now be a journey without a compass in search of the Stella Maris. She is the star of the sea, the lady to whom all sailors turn when they set sail, regardless of whether they are Muslim, Buddhist or Christian. They associate her with the star or the compass that guides them. The lady of the sea is a divine woman who bestows blessings while they are just men who, despite the invention of globalization, continue facing dangers at sea. And there are plenty of them.
There are no buses to Taba because there has been a bomb threat near the border and I do not fancy spending another night in Suez. I have spent an hour sitting on the floor and no-one has approached me. Suddenly an old man puts me on a bus and, without telling me anything, orders me to sit down. Taba? He does not answer. The other passengers board: bearded men that look at me with a frown and finally, a woman covered from head to toe in black that looks straight ahead and seems not be concerned about my uncertainty. At some point the driver turns off the main road. There is a mini-revolution on the bus but he completely ignores it. In the middle of nowhere he stops. Taba, he says, and I step down on to the road.
In front of me there is a road and some parked taxis all belonging to the same collective. Taba? Without even bartering I get in to a taxi and it is the driver who offers me a discount. It is seven in the evening and it will take us the whole night to cross the magical Sinai peninsular. I will only stop once, to look at the sky and to understand that deserts and seas are united by the stars. They shine with equal intensity in these places that remain untamed by man. For thousands of years man has navigated using the stars. I do not know how to navigate but when I look at the sky, the sand or the sea, I feel freedom. It is what sailors are always explaining to me. Now, finally, I think I have experienced it.
Only a few lines more. On the Egyptian border I am interrogated by some men. Once again there are three of them. Barcelona? Football? Messi? Of course. I am almost the Argentinian’s cousin. I did not know that I knew so much about football and I mentally thank the sports section of El Periódico de Catalunya newspaper. Guardiola, the masía, Cruyff – yes, he came up with the idea, the Nou Camp – I have been thousands of times. They let me through and return my rucksack and my laptop. I cross the Egyptian desert and I arrive at the Israeli oasis. There are street lights on the pavements, ornamental palm trees and a Hilton to welcome me. Once in the Eilat border zone I am stopped by a blonde girl. She is about eighteen years old with a pig tail and a machine gun. A little teddy bear hangs from the gun sights of her weapon. She finds it suspicious that a woman, travelling alone, has arrived in Israel on foot. It is not only the sea that is circular in this part of the world. The interrogations are too.
I am exhausted so I tell her the truth. “What I do is write stories about abandoned sailors who are lost in the Mediterranean.” The girl calls another soldier. There is tension. Abandoned? I start with the story of Faisal in Barcelona and the atmosphere changes. Now I have their attention. The two of them make themselves comfortable. I talk to them about my sailors, about my rusty colossi, about Vladimir’s miracles in Turkey, about the pirates that the Filipino captain encountered, and about the hunger and the madness. The young woman ask how long has this been going on for. The official answer is that six years ago the Joint Maritime Commission of the International Labour Organization identified the abandoning of ships and crews as one of the worst problems that the shipping industry is facing. However, it continues to happen and the economic crisis has meant that even more people are being affected.
What did I do in Israel? I was absolutely sure that there were no abandoned crews in Haifa but I had set myself the goal of visiting Mount Carmel. There was something that intrigued me about this star of the sea. It turned out that Mount Carmel was a place of pilgrimage for tourists. A old man lived in the temple and his only earthly mission was to ensure that the visitors filled the coffers of the monastery. That was the first disappointment. The second was that the Stella Maris was depicted as a gold and pink Virgin Mary. She was humble, contrite, respectable and, worst of all, sanctimonious. She was nothing like the powerful woman invoked by sailors. The woman on my little postcard is strong, beautiful, tough and relentless. It is to her that sailors cling to every time the sea becomes rough and that happens with regularity. The third disappointment was that on Mount Carmel, the home of the Stella Maris, there was not a reference to the sea or to sailors. An oil painting enthusiast had painted a lighthouse on a prior visit. It was the only maritime reference on this mountain for tourists.
When I arrived in Barcelona, I hung the laminated tag in my study like a picture. Now I know that it states my name, my nationality, the date and that “I am not authorized to be in the canal in the event of a conflict”. Youssef, the Amazig lad who works in the bakery in my street, translated what is written for me. “Are you some type of police officer?” he asked me. “I was in the Suez Canal collecting stories about abandoned sailors”, I answered. He asked me to tell him more. So I returned to Civitavecchia, Gibraltar, Ceuta and finally to the Suez Canal without moving from the bakery. “So there was a conflict when you were there then”, he says.
Wednesday. Closing the circle in Istanbul.