#Sold Out

I have a music teacher, his name is Tony. Tony is black and adopted. He is 25. His mother and father are white. His real mother and father are no longer alive. He comes from Texas, lives now in California and was educated at Julliard in New York. Tony is a fine upstanding citizen, a musical genius and a pleasure to be around. I’ve known him for two years, and not once in that time had we ever discussed race, or the place it plays in US society. Not once, until last year, when all the American Football players began to kneel during the national anthem before their games began. We were sitting playing guitars, strumming away to AC/DC Back in Black, when suddenly I turned round to him and asked this very question.

“Tony, be honest with me, very honest, no BS. You’re black, you’re African-American, and you’ve seen what’s going on in this country for the past months with all the athletes kneeling during the national anthem. You’ve seen what Black Lives Matter have been saying and doing, you’ve witnessed at first hand how this country is so divided, but have you personally ever suffered any kind of racial abuse, either growing up or since you moved to CA a few years ago?”

When I asked this question I was somewhat convinced that just like everything else we read or see on TV, the bias towards sensationalism in our media far in a way outweighed the reality of life. I fully expected Tony to turn round and tell me that most of what we were looking at on TV was stage-managed to drum up support for factions in society that had nothing better to do than create issues that really didn’t assist in the harmonic bliss I seemed to live with on a daily basis. How wrong and how naive was I. This is what Tony said to me.

” Alan, I have lived 25 years, in Texas, New York and now CA. In all 3 States I lived in nice middle class suburban areas, other than in NY where Manhattan is as diverse as it comes and everyone seems very wealthy. Let me tell you how life really is if you’re black. Let me also tell you how I have seen it, living with white parents, white students and now in a predominantly white middle class area here in Orange County. Let me also tell you that what I am about to say is not at all exaggerated. It’s the truth. After you listen, you can then decide who is embellishing the truth.” He looked at me straight in the eye and then he began.

“I drive a great car, a Ford Mustang Shelby. I drive it everywhere because there’s no public transportation down here in OC. Do you know I get stopped by the cops at least twice a week? Do you know why I get stopped? I don’t speed, I don’t do anything illegal, I just get pulled over. It doesn’t matter if I am here in Laguna, or in long Beach or up in LA. I get stopped, and every time it’s the same nonsense.

” You’re joking?” I said, not quite believing what he was saying.

He continued.

” I am a music teacher, I drive to schools, I drive to people’s homes, white people, Chinese people, brown people, black people. It doesn’t matter. If I pass a cop, especially where schools are located, they will come from nowhere, lights flashing, pull me over and ask me why I am where I am. It happens so regularly now that I know the drill off pat. I stop, put my hands where they can be seen, wait for the cops to come to my window and I stay silent until they ask me the very same question every single time.”

“What question Tony?” I asked.

“What are you doing here son?”

“Son??” I laughed

“Yes. SON!. No respect. As soon as I tell them I am a music teacher with clients in the neighborhood, as soon as they see my guitar, my books and my other instruments, they very quickly and impolitely step away and wave me off as if I’m a piece of dirt they’d just happened to get stuck on the side of their highly polished shoes, and without apology, send me on my way”

Well Tony’s story blew me away. It got me thinking that I really knew nothing about the racism that people were going through on a daily basis and that being closeted, very comfortably, in a predominantly white are with predominantly white friends and a very white attitude, was so far from reality, that I had to take action. I had to find a vehicle to show my support for the black community and all the black friends I had. It was time to do something to raise awareness, time to react and time to make a statement that will never be forgotten.

At the top of this page you’ll find a lapel pin design. In my next post, later this week, I will send out more information on a campaign I am going to run in conjunction with some major athletes in the USA to raise awareness for a cause that most of you know is already rife in our society. A cause that millions of people suffer from each and every day in a country where everyone is supposedly equal but as I have come to find out, where no one actually is.

#SOLDOUT

Cruise Blues The Final Chapter.

IMG_3936How much does the US government spend when a US cruise ship enters another US port? Is the continual paranoia which has engulfed this country since 9/11 become so intense, so overblown that when a ship enters a port the Coast Guard is called out in a gun boat? Obviously the answer is a resounding YES, as you can see from the enclosed picture. When I stood on my balcony, cases packed and ready to go downstairs to finally get off this claustrophobic can, I was dumbfounded when a gun boat pulled up alongside us, with its machine guns manned and pointed directly at our starboard side. ‘ We are American citizens!!’ I shouted at the top of my lungs, whilst waving my white handkerchief. This was all received with much amusement from our neighbors in the room next door. The coast guard followed us for at least thirty minutes, moving back and forth alongside and then behind the ship. Why they did this, I would never find out, but it completed its task with one final swing past our room and then just vanished. It was as if the war had ended and our victory was confirmed. Perhaps this was standard procedure, perhaps not, but in any event, in my humble opinion, it was an unwarranted show of force and complete waste of tax payers money! I dislike guns at the best of times, but as you can see, this was a gun armed and probably ready to shoot in the event of trouble. The only trouble I could foresee was going to be getting 3000 overly fat people down a very long narrow gangway and onto dry land. The ropes were being tied and the ship was being prepared for just this purpose, when I received a call that it was time to descend that dreaded staircase one last time to deck 7, with bags in hand and hope in heart.

“Was that show of force all for me Erickson?” I asked in my usual sarcastic manner. He had no idea what I was talking about or perhaps he just didn’t want to discuss it, but when I asked him again, he really had no idea why we’d been followed and made a point of telling me he’d never seen such a boat on any of his previous cruises, either to Alaska or indeed any place else he’d traveled. Lying bastard!

Escorted down a further 2 flights of stairs, we found ourselves in the dining area of one of the ‘posh’ restaurants we hadn’t had the pleasure of frequenting. It was distinctly purple and drab. We sat. We sat some more. We watched, (our window seat had a bird’s eye view of proceedings),as 3000 people tried to exit the boat. It was a laborious process, but even more laborious was the small talk coming from Erickson. He wanted to get off the boat as much as we did, he had a trip planned with some of his colleagues and he kept a close eye out for the customs officer that was supposed to come on and interview us and the time on his watch, in order that as soon as she showed, he could GTF as quickly as possible.

His phone rang. “I need you to email your hotel and air reservation to my superior on the 7th deck” he said.

“Why?” I asked.

“The company needs confirmation you are going to go home”

“Where else would I be going Erickson??” I was puzzled and confused as to why anyone would really care where I was going, but, with all the info on my iPhone and readily available, I pushed a few buttons and sent the schedule to whoever was demanding to see it. What I didn’t realize as I pushed the ‘send’ button, was that not only was my plane reservation for two days hence on that email but also that I had failed to delete the conversation with my business partner Lisa stating clearly and in black and white that I had made up an excuse just to get off the boat. There was NO emergency. “Fuck” I thought, ‘what if the customs officer reads that email?” I shit my pants. I could only imagine the conversation.

“Well Mr Z, we understand you have a family emergency?”

“Yep”

“Take a look at this email. Is this an email you sent? Does this email clearly state you think this cruise is a waste of your time, that it’s filled with fat ugly morons and that you think US law is a fraud?” This was just some of the terminology I’d used when, in desperation, I’d emailed Lisa to make all the arrangements that would get me out of this mess. And now, unwittingly, I’d passed them on to US customs. Shit!

Miss Rowntree walked into the room at that precise moment. She was representing US customs and Immigration. She was really pleasant, asking us if we had a hotel for the night in Juneau, or did we need assistance. She then asked us if we had any fresh fruit in our bags, and after answering no to both questions, she proceeded to place a little piece of green sticky tape on all our bags. That was it! We were free to go. I couldn’t believe it. She didn’t ask anything else, didn’t care what my email had read and more importantly, didn’t even explain to us the process of the Jones Act. It was Christmas, Hanukkah and my birthday, all rolled into one! Freedom!

We were escorted off the ship and driven to out hotel, about a 6 minute drive or 10 minute walk, as we later found out.

It was over.

On reflection, there are many things I would have done differently. The first of which was NEVER to have booked that damn cruise in the first place. We spent two brilliant days in Juneau, escorted by an incredible tour guide we’d found called Dennis. He took us where we wanted to go, when WE wanted to go. We weren’t tied in to eating with undesirables, WE were the undesirables! This was the vacation I had imagined. I saw eagles, bears, salmon, glaciers and waterfalls. We ate good fresh food, and slept in peace without 3000 people annoying the crap out of us every minute of every day. I now knew how I would come back to Alaska next time and how to tour it the correct way. I now knew that Alaska was indeed somewhere I wanted to return, and finally, I definitely knew that I was the lucky one, because these other 3000 poor bastards were stuck on that boat another 5 days, and that was something I could never have done.

I filled out the survey from NCL, you know, the one you get in your email from every company you speak to nowadays. When I filled it in, I asked for someone from NCL to call me so that I could explain to them in person my misgivings and thoughts on how they as a company could improve the whole experience. As of today, I have not hear a peep, nor do I expect to. And so, my sea sickness pills still sit unopened in my drawer. My fears of puking up all across Alaska never materialized, but now I have the experience to tell all of my friends that unless you are a complete lazy bastard who likes to eat all day, and sit around while the world passes you by at the speed of impudence, then stay off the boats and stick to dry land. Alaska had me hooked from the moment my feet got off that boat, and I can almost guarantee it will do the same for you.

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Cruise Blues – Part 5

IMG_3886Taking advantage of people trapped on board a ship with no possibility of escape seemed to be a recurring theme on this cruise. As we marched back down to deck 7, at 11 AM on Monday morning, or perhaps it was nearer to noon, (time flies when you’re not having a blast!) a group of jewelry vendors had set up shop in the Atrium lounge. They were offering half price jewelry to everyone who purchased something, anything,  before 2 PM. What an offer!! On closer inspection, and just before a cooking demonstration, which was about to begin right behind them, we found the product to be no more than cheap crap. Losing interest and again trying to avoid the lines that were gathering around these vendors, we made our way to the cheap seats, enabling us with a good view of 6 top chefs taking on recipes to die for. We were all given a recipe card, which I read and an instant thought came into my head, ‘where the heck was this great food when I wanted to eat it?’ My question was soon to be answered, although not in the manner I quite expected. The recipes looked amazing, at least the pictures did, and now these 6 incredible chefs were about to prepare them, live, right in front of us.

Tossing ready-made salad and adding tinned crab, then encapsulating it inside an oval bottomless tin band, made for interesting viewing, until the chef started to get it wrong and began describing everything as ‘fresh’, which it wasn’t. His efforts, followed by a round of applause, led us to an early exit and dress rehearsal for the speech I was about to give to guest services, which, we hoped, would get us off the boat some 24 hours from now. That cooking demo had proven to both of us that everything on this boat came out of a can or freezer. I suppose if you think about it, there’s not really any other way to serve up food to 3000 people all day every day. But in the end, my impression was that quantity and not quality was the sole aim of the kitchen staff. Frequent visits to the buffet would prove that theory beyond a shadow of a doubt.

“I have a family emergency and have to get off the boat!”

Erickson, Filipino by birth, Scandinavian by name, looked at me, bemused, and devoid of any retort whatsoever.

“I will disembark in Juneau if that’s OK with you Erickson?”

He stood there, if only for a moment and then looked at me with his sad eyes, “you will miss the rest of the cruise?” A question, not a statement of fact.

“Yes Erickson” I said with a glum expression spread across a hidden smile. Our conversation ended as Erickson made way for his superior, who in turn made way for her boss, who in turn made way for a reading of the law!

The Jones Act.

Now, let me tell you, getting off a ship, even if it sailed out of one US port and was approaching another US port, is nigh on impossible. I can’t imagine how difficult it would be if you boarded in the US and asked to get off in a foreign country! I was going to summarize the Jones Act for you, but to save me the trouble and you the pain in reading it all, here is a link. If you are interested, please go ahead and take a look.

http://www.cruiseco.com/Resources/jones_act.htm  Copy and paste this into your browser to be amazed and amused!

The Jones Act prohibits any cruise ship passenger from disembarking at any port other than from the port where that passenger originally boarded the vessel. Unless, and there always has to be an unless, unless you pay $300 to the government. See any sense in that one??? Nope, me neither! In other words, if you get on in Seattle, and even though the ship hasn’t been to any other port of call, AND it’s 1st port of call is another US port, you are fucked and have to pay. As far as I was concerned, $300 was worth every penny. Heck I would have paid them double just to disembark! Erickson was back, and he was startlingly reassuring with his sympathetic solace. After about half an hour, we were all set. Instructions had been radioed ahead, the cruise company had very nicely offered to book me a hotel and arrange a flight too. There was no way on earth I was going to allow this to happen because we’d already decided that we would spend at least two more days in Juneau, and I wanted to make all the arrangements myself in order that I didn’t get lumbered with a shitty hotel and an early flight home. I told Erickson to do nothing until the following morning when I would confirm my exit plans.

Back in the room, it was time to access the daily entertainment guide, just in case there might be something, anything, to take our minds of this tedious experience. There was nothing. Nothing other than a singles get together for the under 20’s, followed by another one for the over 40’s, followed by yet more trivia, a scavenger hunt and oh yes, another trip to the buffet. I went to sleep.

Monday afternoon dragged by. It was perhaps the longest day I had ever lived! Evening came, and we wandered out on deck, still foggy, and walked yet another mile or so, after which we walked into the funniest scene I think I’d ever witnessed. In the Atrium bar, there happened to be a duet performing. One was a 70-year-old Filipino on guitar, the other, an even older African-American with an Apple Mac, and a sax. These guys were singing, half asleep, reading the words, which were sung in a manner that sounded like both of them were drunk or stoned or both, from the Mac, as some of the old folk on the boat were dozing off on the comfy chairs provided. In the other corner, there was a line of people all dressed up, waiting patiently to get a photo opportunity with the ship’s captain. It was as if we’d wound the clock back 100 years. They were dressed in tuxedo’s, long dresses, short skirts, jewelry, scarves and many other fashion accessories one could imagine. I looked around and wondered what had happened to ‘party like a Norwegian?” and where was ‘Freestyle Cruising?” This was OTT and by far the best comedy show we’d seen since we boarded. People were taking it so seriously, and in the end I had to make a quick exit before my sides burst with laughter.  My cold, now in full swing, was becoming miserable, and so soup, yes from the buffet, and an early night were the order of that particular moment.

With all our plans made, and an offer of free internet from Erickson, and unlimited access to the ships satellite telephone system if required, we went back upstairs to plan all the details of our ‘great escape’. The noise from the ocean, as we steamed at 20 knots, made for a very soothing and comforting alternative to the fight that the kids next door were having and after taking a night-time cold remedy, I was out in moments and managed to sleep for about 6 hours, only to be rudely awoken by the nightmare I was having about spending 5 more days on this boat.

Morning was soon to arrive, with dawn at 4.14 AM, and our clocks having been put back an hour to adjust to Alaska time. The sun was up, the fog was gone and the scenery breathtaking. We were ready to depart this Hell on water, but we still had 9 hours to Juneau. Time to make all our arrangements and more.

Cruise Blues – Part 4

IMG_3899Sometimes in life a little solitude does one good. A cruise seemed like an ideal place to spend time together, rest up, admire the scenery, read a little and have some fun while seeing a little bit of the country that, until now, had remained illusive. Inside our cabin, state-room to be exact, we sat, turned on our mini TV set, looked at the map and coordinates the captain had projected onto the screen and then tuned into ESPN to watch the baseball highlights. This was excruciating. Next door, they were still fighting. The kids were unhappy about something and their balcony door was being slammed open and closed at regular intervals and with some gusto to boot. It was still light outside and my suggestion of ‘let’s go for another walk’ seemed to fall on deaf ears. By now my throat was on fire and my cold advancing faster than the speed this boat was moving. And so, with the clock ticking along to 8.23 PM, I rested my head on the pillow and the next thing I knew, it was 5.40AM!

The sun wasn’t up, although it was supposed to be. It was thick fog outside. We couldn’t see anything off the starboard side of the boat where we were situated. I looked over to Wendy and in the most sarcastic of tones said, “only 36 hours until we can get off, hopefully for good!’ She smiled, and as we stood outside in the freezing cold, looking into a solid grey mist, we realized this was not for us. We had contracted a severe dose of cruise blues.

The gym, situated on the 12th deck, forward of everything except the SPA, was delightful. On the evening we had boarded, a South African crew member called Garry had told us to come around 6 AM to work out or we wouldn’t get it. I thought he was joking, and I asked him, “with all these large people on board, does anyone actually work out?” He was adamant. Arriving at 6, there was even a line, all be it a short one, ready and waiting to get their out of shape bodies into some sort of shape to allow them all to eat all day! With a certain cold in the works, I was lackadaisical in my efforts to sweat and get my heart rate up into a frenzy, and after 45 mins, I was done. By the time we left, the gym was full to bursting. Garry had been right. It wasn’t even 7 AM and this place was claustrophobic. There was no place to hide, unless you fancied a shag in a lifeboat. But even they were locked up!

Buffet time again! You’re getting the picture now I presume? If not, look at the one posted above. We were at the rear of the ship, sitting outside, the sun was up, if only briefly, and there were hundreds of breakfast addicts munching endlessly on bacon, bacon and more bacon. The gentleman in this shot sat for at least three hours that morning just eating, and he wasn’t the only one. The sun soon vanished, sadly for the rest of the day, and after an hour session at 9 AM in the Spa with an acupuncturist, (arranged by choice to try to alleviate and old shoulder and foot injury and to pass some time), we sat back down in our room $394 poorer, and planned our escape. There was now 34 hours left until our arrival in Juneau Alaska and to freedom. We’d made our decision, we were off! The only issue now was how to get off and how to get a refund. The refund part wasn’t really an issue. We realized that we might just have to forfeit the money spent, which would be a complete waste and a tough lesson learned, although at this point, neither of us cared. The only thing that mattered was our escape. We felt like criminals, caged up for life but ready to do a runner after the lights were turned off. The only difference was, we would make haste for land at 2 PM the following day with the sun at its highest point in the sky and no place to hide.

Five and a half laps round the deck equals one mile, or so the sign states. They only thing it doesn’t say is that when it’s blowing 40 MPH outside, one side of that lap is impossible, the other side, well let’s just say you don’t need to try too hard to accomplish your goal. We walked a mile. We walked another mile and then, out of nowhere, the fog lifted, the sun, still hidden, refused to come out, but I could have sworn out of the corner of my right eye on the port side, the easy side, with the wind behind up, I spotted a whale funnel.  I looked again and then stopped. By now there were two, perhaps more, and then it happened. An Orca appeared!! If you look closely at the picture below, this is exactly how it occurred.

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I was really in heaven. I’d come to see whales, eagles, and bears, and here was my first whale. There were lots of them passing by, all moving with grace and at speed. All Orcas. Before we knew it, everyone was watching, and after about ten minutes, the crowd just dissipated, in favor of? You guessed it, more food. This was wonderful. To be positioned in the middle of the ocean with land at least a full day from where we now sailed and to be surrounded by whales, well, just maybe this cruise wouldn’t be so bad after all? Perhaps we were being hasty with our decision to leave? Perhaps the first sighting is the best and then after that it becomes boring? Maybe that’s why the majority of guests just retreated back into the buffet? No matter what, we stood mesmerized and momentarily happy. This experience was certainly different, it was cold, windy and it was desolate, but I was completely warm inside, and so was my feeling of accomplishment.

Another mile round the deck and then lunch. The whales had gone, the fog was back and we still had 26 hours until landfall. Perhaps it was time to check emails or perhaps it was just time to reflect on what had been a close encounter of the whale kind. I decided email it was, and so, armed with the thought of paying a fortune to get on-line (we had been warned in advance) I returned to my state-room, turned on my Ipad and hooked up to the internet at $1 per minute plus connection charges. It wasn’t too long before the temptation to book a hotel in Juneau and a flight back to San Jose, took center stage once again, and robbed me of any idea I had of remaining transfixed to the study of Alaskan whale behavior for any longer that I had to. Land was calling, and land it would be. Time to execute our exit strategy.

Cruise Blues – Part 3

IMG_3832With so many people on board, I was surprised that when I reached the 12th deck the line for the BBQ was small and orderly, the pool, extremely small and already filled up with kids and the band? Well the band was actually a DJ on an Apple Mac, surrounded by crew members all dressed up like Pan’s People. If you don’t know who Pan’s People are, you are either very young, or you’ve lived in America all your life and in both cases, you have missed out! The party was in full swing, the food was nice, cooked fresh in front of us and the atmosphere, for those who wanted to get down and dirty, was definitely party like. Time to grab a cheeseburger, some fresh BBQ corn, eat, then explore the ship. It was 4 15 PM on Sunday July 28th. Our next port of call was Juneau Alaska ETA Tuesday August 30th at 2 PM.

By 4.45 PM I was done. I’d eaten, I’d looked around the ship, had my hair blown in all directions by a sea breeze which was now at 20 knots, and was ready to relax in my room and read for a while before taking the time to further explore our vessel’s night life. I’d also discovered that there was a water dispenser in every corner of every restaurant, which were open 24 hours a day, and I was beginning to believe that the little Filipino man selling Aquafina to everyone who was interested, was actually a total con. I’d also figure out that the ‘soda plan’ $6.95 a day for all you can drink/per person, was another con. With soda priced at $2 a pop, you would need to drink at least 4 a day to get your money’s worth. Who does that?? Oh yes, I forgot, all the extremely fat and unhealthy people who just boarded this boat!

My room, my sanctuary, all the damn noise coming from left and right and above. This was no vacation, this was a survival course for sure! The family to my right were arguing, the chairs and feet above me were being continually dragged across the 12th deck, and without warning, while I lay on my bed, book open and ready to read, it actually started to vibrate, throwing me into total confusion and bringing on thoughts of a cheap Chinese brothels I’d heard about, you know, the one with the happy endings! I was shocked. Having no idea what was causing this, I stood up. Nothing. Complete calm. Back to the bed. Vibration! It would take me several hours to get used to this and it only happened now and again, but I never did figure out what was causing it. If any of you ‘cruise buffs’ out there have any idea, I’d be delighted to hear from you. No sarcastic comments please!

It was now 5 30PM. Time to eat? Oh no, wait, we just did that, right?? Well this is a cruise, are you not supposed to eat ALL the time? We headed upstairs, or was it down? In any event, the stairs were becoming a habit. It was the only way to bypass the girth on all the fat cruise people who hogged the elevators. With our evening about to become a drag, time passing as slow as possible on board this draconian form of transportation, we found ourselves in a seedy looking lounge towards the aft of deck 8. Are you impressed with my nautical lingo? As were entered, Sarah, an English-born lady with a scowl on her face that looked as if it had been permanently etched into her skin, was in the middle of announcing that evening’s movie tune trivia quiz. Whoo hoo! I cried. Entertainment!! We decided to sit down, and take part. What a mistake!

With 10 out of a possible 20 wrong, we came second. It was now 7 PM. Should we eat? It was still very light outside and the weather was excellent, so we decided to entertain a trip to the buffet whilst popping into the casino for a quick look round. Mistake number 2. Never enter a casino on a moving ship. The putrid smell of cigarette smoke along with and overwhelming desire to escape the continual ka-ching of the slot machine, leads to nausea and headache, in that order and all at once. After a quick exit, we decided, it must be time to eat! (Do you see a pattern evolving here?) Buffet time!

When I booked the cruise they told me on the phone that NCL is famous for its ‘Freestyle’ cruising. Just exactly what did that entail? Well, for those of you who don’t know, it means that you never have to dress up. You can go out to dine looking like you just came home from work or the beach or a jog. No tank tops, no open sandals and no swim gear, but other than that, anything goes! Also on the menu was free food, in all but 5 of the restaurants. The speciality restaurants charged extra to eat there, and I was soon to find out why. Well, as we entered the buffet there was an overwhelming desire to plunder, as shown by the many ignorant, overstuffed, carefree buffet goers who’d laid out the path in front of us. They were leading by example, the only question was, should we follow? Plate after plate was piling up in front of me, some vacationers taking three plates at a time and struggling to make it back to their tables without adding even more food to their stash. Remember folks, this was eat what you want when you want for the next 7 days. There wasn’t ever going to be any shortage of anything, but most of these people had obviously never received the memo.

Standing still for just a moment, it was hard to calculate where all this food was coming from, but it was east to determine where it was all going. I was looking at animals, hungry at that, walking back and forth again and again with mountains of food piled sky high into next week, all ready to devour and then return. It was frightening. I took some Indian food, some veg and a wee bit of chicken and made my way to a seat at the very rear of this buffet restaurant, closely followed by Wendy, my better half. We just looked at one another, puzzled, and together, we smiled with that knowing confirmation that THIS was not for us! It was now 7 45 PM, and as we didn’t drink, didn’t gamble and had no intention of eating anything else for at least 12 hours, we sat back and contemplated why on earth we’d actually booked this cruise and more to the point, how the heck we were going to get off ASAP?? Both questions resonated through the onset of the cold I was rapidly developing and both questions remained unanswered as the weather deteriorated, the noise increased and the thought of one whole week on board this tin can filled with obnoxious, tacky and self centered cruise junkies, festered deep into a soul that just craved privacy and calm!

Cruise Blues – Part 2

IMG_3815I’ve stayed in some crappy hotel rooms in my time, especially when traveling to New York. Most of the rooms that have given me issues have come from reviews that looked great but upon arrival have turned sour the second the key is slotted into the door to unlock nothing but a box like impression of this gorgeous room you thought you’d booked on line. This room on the ship wasn’t the worst, far from it, it seemed quite spacious. It had two beds pushed together to make a kind of king size alternative. It had a miniature TV set, a nice closet, some drawers and the bathroom was a reasonable size, if you like to shit and shower simultaneously! The balcony was great, with two comfy chairs outside, and we had a couch and safe and refrigerator too. We looked at one another, decided this wasn’t going to be too bad and then without warning God came into our room via the loud-speaker system that appeared to be anchored into the ceiling. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have a mandatory evacuation drill commencing in 15 minutes. Look on your key cards to identify the area where you are required to meet the crew member assigned to your muster section.” “Bloody Hell!” I exclaimed, “that scared the shit out of me. Where’s my pills!!” Without hesitation, we abandoned the cabin in favor of unpacking later and attending out life saving lecture, just in case! And so, back down on deck 7, of course by using the stairs, we congregated, along with the 200 other people assigned to our station, waiting patiently to be shown how to put on a life jacket. This process took 60 seconds, but the waiting time to finally see it happen was more like 25 minutes, accompanied by three further God-like announcements on the tannoy and one alarmingly loud blast from the ships foghorn. Drill over, and we were back up 5 flights of stairs, this time to unpack. It was now 3.50 PM and we were about to set sail. Panic over. My life was about to have another item crossed off its to do list, and it wasn’t too long before I realized that this was definitely not going to be one to write home about, more like one to write to everyone about!

Party Time!

The boat was moving, I was feeling nothing other than the urge to do something. The announcement was crystal clear.

“It’s time to party like a Norwegian!” exclaimed Pedro, out cruise ship entertainment director. “How does a Norwegian party?” I asked myself. The one’s I’d met in my lifetime had been incredibly boring, pleasant, but boring, and nothing like the ‘party animals’ Pedro was insinuating in his loud boisterous tannoy tone. Before I could say sea sickness, there was a stampede. Although I was in my cabin, I could hear it. It seemed to be resonating from right above my head, but to be sure, all I had to do was open my door and watch the herd, motivated by Pedro’s offer of free booze and BBQ, rush onwards and upwards towards deck 12, where all hell was about to break loose.

Now, let me digress. When I booked this cruise, this was the phone conversation I had with the lady at NCL. This is almost word for word, remembering I had this discussion in February of this year. Time is a great leveler, but I’ll do my best to relate it as accurately as possible.

NCL “Good morning Alan how can we help you book your cruise?”

Alan “Well, I’ve been on your web site and as I’m a first time cruiser who gets seasick getting into a bath, I wondered what advice you could give me if I booked an Alaskan cruise?”

NCL “You picked the right company to make your maiden voyage with.” ‘Duh!’ I thought! “Alaska is a good choice and on our boats you will not feel any movement and won’t be sick. I promise.”

Alan “We are thinking of going in July”

NCL “Best month to go”

Alan “OK here is my criteria before I book. I would like a room that is located in a QUIET part of the ship. My sister went on a cruise and all she heard for 7 days were seats being scraped across the deck right above her. I would also like to be in a part of the ship where movement of any kind is at a minimum, should it get choppy.”

And that, my friends is how I ended up on the 11th deck in room 050. Personally guaranteed by that NCL lady, not to be noisy and to be fairly steady in case of a squall. Those words and choice of room were now resonating, as 3000 people headed out to party like a Norwegian, and all of them, bar none, were banging chairs, glasses, feet and anything else they could party with, right above my room. I was not impressed, my heart sank and my whole demeanor changed in moments. On top of that, a family of 4 had moved in next door and while standing on my balcony introducing myself to the mother, the two kids were complaining that they would have to share a bed or sleep on the floor. “It’s a lot smaller that we anticipated.” she told me. “Fucking right!” I had no idea how 4 people would fit into this room. It was tight enough with 2. On the other side of me was Keith. Keith had his wife and his sister in the same room. Kinky! I prayed to my God, no not the one implanted in my ceiling, that this was going to work out, then we decided, “it’s time to party like a Norwegian!” and made a B line to join the herd, the BBQ and the on board entertainment. We were sailing into the Puget Sound and I was about to confront Hell on the high seas!

Cruise Blues – Part 1

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When I was a kid, my father’s best mate, Monty, took me fishing on the river Clyde. We caught two cod, but I puked up everywhere, not just once, but three times. It wasn’t a memorable day for me, but it was the day that I realized in an instant that I preferred to remain on solid ground than out at sea. My focus remained that way for many years, vowing often that I would never ever go on a cruise of any kind. Indeed, my last memories of boarding a decent sized boat came in the 1990’s when I decided to go to France for the day from Dover in England to Calais. That trip, smooth as glass on the English channel, gave me yet another opportunity to clear my stomach in front of a host of laughing seagulls, and in the end, my car, which was parked up inside the boat, laden with beer, wine and all things French, became a refuge until we docked back at the port of Dover and exited back onto terra firma to huge relief and a three-day course on how to recover from a dose of acute sea sickness. I swore, with my hand placed on every bible, that I would never ever board another ship, never go out fishing and NEVER go on a cruise, no matter what anyone else told me and no matter how persuasive they might be. I was done, finished, and with no inclination other than to spend the rest of my days, here on earth.

July 28 2013.

Alaska had always held a certain mystique for me, and here we were, arriving at Seattle International airport, with our cruise to ‘The Last Frontier” on the Norwegian Pearl, but only a few hours away. Trepidation? Nope, not me. I had booked this vacation 6 months prior to this date, in the knowledge that I had never actually been on a ‘large’ cruise ship, and with everyone I knew on the planet telling me I would never get sea-sick on such a huge vessel, I was actually very excited about the prospect of visiting a State that I had never been to. My visit to Dr. Rashkis, my GP, 3 months prior to the departure date, had armed me with my back-up plan in case things got a wee bitty rough. I had a bottle full of pills that, as he described, “would put pay to any inclination I might have of emptying my breakfast, lunch, or dinner on any unsuspecting soul”. I was confident, brave and ready. This was it, and this was going to be fun. The sun was shining, the sea was calm and the lines were huge, as we arrived in our taxi in front of what I thought to be the largest ship I’d ever seen. It was just before 1 PM and sailing time was 3 hours away, but there were already people on board and even more people waiting to check in and join yet another huge line to show their documents and begin their cruise experience in style. The ship held over 3000 passengers and 1500 crew, so you can imagine the log jam that this number of bodies can create, and yet, the port staff of NCL kept it all moving at a terrific rate, clearing us for boarding in no time at all. There was just this nagging doubt in my head that said, “what would I do on board for the next 3 hours?’ I was going to spend a week on this ship, so why board so early? Holding that thought for less than 60 seconds, we were off into Seattle (just a short walk from the pier) to experience the delights that are Pike Place market. Rainier Cherries (fodder for our proposed cherry-stone spitting contest from our cruise ship balcony), Beechers mac’n cheese (an excellent elixir should the seas become rough and my stomach needing to be quickly emptied), along with some other goodies which filled up our bellies and an hour and a half of time that would have been completely wasted standing on board our ship waiting for the ropes to be let go and our journey to begin. Once we arrived back at the dock, bellies filled to bursting, the queues had vanished and we were ushered promptly on to deck 5, where, before we knew it, our dreams of cruising Alaska were about to become a reality.

The Atrium.

The atrium was the center of this particular vessel, situated on deck 7, mid-ship, (I know, I learnt all the seafaring terminology!) and we were ushered straight into this particular section of the boat as soon as we boarded. On one side they had their ‘tour and excursion desk, and on the other, Guest Services and Dining. In the center, underneath a tacky chandelier, were many empty seat, a sea of bodies, all vying for position in a line to order a weeks supply of soda and water and on the far wall, a projector was shooting images of the incredible Alaskan wilderness, which seemed only to be a matter of moments away. Oh, how wrong can one man be?? Behind a desk, just off the center of this room sat a Filipino man, his aim, to sell you something that no man has ever sold you before. His sign read, ‘Unlimited Soda. $6.99 a day” His other sign read, “Bottled Water. 3 bottles $10. 10 Bottles $25” His face read, SUCKER! I asked him one simple question. “Sir?” I offered. He looked up and was about to open his mouth, but I beat him to it. “If I want water at dinner, are you telling me that I have to buy it now and take it with me from my room to the dining hall each meal? Also,….” I made sure he couldn’t get a word in edgeways, …”how much is one soda if I order it during a meal?” The verbiage that came out of his mouth in response, made little sense. The gist was as follows. There seemed to be water available at dinner and at other meals, but I was unsure what kind of water that might happen to be. He was simply agonizing to listen to and his version of ‘don’t drink the water in your room’ poured scorn on any song or political speech I had ever heard. He was rambling. The outcome of his response? I made a B line for my deck and my own cabin, just to make sure I had a balcony, one which I’d paid for, and that it was safe to stand on without charge. There was two ways to get to deck 11. The stairs, and the elevator. This brings me to my next issue. How do you fit 12 extremely fat people in an elevator without suffocating the thin people? I wasn’t about to find out. I took the stairs!

The long hallway that led to my cabin, 11050, sorry, wait just a minute. I should say State Room, though why it is called a state-room, I have no idea. It’s probably because when you sit, waiting for time to flash past on a boat, and it never does when you are cruising at 20 knots, you get yourself into a complete state! Anyway, this hallway was littered with unclaimed luggage sitting outside the doors to their recipients cabins, (read state rooms), and as we dodges past these bags and the crew who were attempting to place the bags outside the correct rooms, we eventually stumbled upon room 11050. With our bags just sitting and waiting to be collected and placed inside our room, I took the key card I’d been given at check in, out of my pocket and prepared myself to view complete luxury. After all, the brochure has described my accommodation with adjectives such as ‘spacious, luxurious and substantial’ The door opened and in we walked. My first impression? Surprisingly good. My initial reaction? “This won’t be too bad at all”. My gut feeling? “Oh Fuck, one week in this cage? I am truly fucked!”

To be continued.