A Travellerspoint blog

June 2010


When I had gone to sleep, we were docked on the far side of the harbour and just a couple of dozen passengers seemed to be waiting to board. By the time I went to breakfast at 8am, we had moved docks to the main central location, the other 3 cruise ships had all departed, 2 new ones had arrived, and we seemed totally overrun. There had been less than a hundred passengers onboard last night – now there seemed to be several hundred. A huge influx of mostly elderly Germans had joined and were milling around. I queued 20minutes to get some food.

Although the Westerdam does not arrive for 12hours, I suspect that the real charter starts here – Mallorca has long been a favourite for German holidaymakers, and assume that most people who will be joining the ship and all charter flights will come through Mallorca. And as they have a ship here, they may as well let people board to make use of the free food and rest in their cabins if they wish, rather than stay ashore.

For me, it gave me a previously unexpected opportunity to get out and explore a bit of Palma, somewhere I never expected to visit in my life. Now, all of a sudden, I had a full day. And I must admit, Palma kind of worked for me. I would have loved to have had a bike and gone for a ride inland or explore on my own, but the only easy option was a free coach tour (in German) being offered, which I declined. Which left me with just Palma's town to peruse. It was a long walk into town, but not an unpleasant one: along the harbourside, past rows and rows of yachts (2 or 3 of which were of the ridiculous yacht type, those barely smaller than our cruiseship) plus heavy sprinklings of British, German and Swiss number plates in the cars parked in the port.

The old town was much nicer than I had expected, and I was happy wandering it's bustling old streets. Though only late May, it was already heaving with tourists, and I suspect it would be a miserable place in a few weeks time when the real crowds start to hit. It is a standard problem, and one increasingly hard to solve: finding somewhere nice that everybody else hasn't already found, and where you can still enjoy without the hoardes of other visitors and 'tourist' prices.

With my understanding of the ship and it's facilities now slightly better, I took advantage of a local supermarket and stocked up on cordial, coke and nibbles. Then, went for something to eat. Admittedly, if I had wanted to, I could have brought enough stuff from the ship to eat, or returned there, thus saving money, but it was definitely Paella time. I love a good Paella. To be fair, even an average one is normally pretty good in my eyes. I had planned to have one in Barcelona, but eventually decided to save money. I was not about to let another opportunity slide.

Two hours, one large seafood paella, 3 beers and one almighty rainstorm later, I happily started ambling back to the ship.

Posted by Gelli 05:32 Archived in Spain Tagged round_the_world Comments (0)

Suddenly, it starts to clear. And I don't like what i see

Once at sea, a few things started to become clear, and not always in a good way. There were 120passengers onboard, and we were to transfer to the Westerdam the following evening after 24hours berthed in Palma de Mallorca. A total of only 900 passengers would then continue to Cape Town (which as the 2 ships can take almost 4000, explains why we had been merged into one ship). The majority of the passengers, all the information and entertainment would be in German. We slowly managed to train the crew into making bilingual announcements, and providing English information to our cabins. One of which, a translation of a long letter from the captain, explained the complicated transfer mechanism that was in place, and that as an apology for inconvenience we would receive a free tour of a Mallorca (yay! A German tour with lots of old people!) and 100usd onboard credit. Which was just as well, as the cruise was definitely not all inclusive.

Yes, the food was included, but 2 of the eateries had supplements of 20usd to visit, and several of them – including the main dinning area – had dress codes which include items of clothing I don't even own, let alone have with me. At the end of the day, i'm a backpacker going to watch a sporting event, not a rich retired couple who enjoy dressing up. I worked out I was pretty much going to be constrained, at least in the evening, to the 'casual' dining area. In addition, despite having emails saying otherwise, alcohol and most drinks were extras. The price list showed a can of coke to be 2usd, 1litre of water 3usd and a 330ml can of domestic beer to be 4.75usd. On an American ship and with an increasingly strong dollar, that means i'm paying well over 3gbp for a small can of Budweiser or Coors Light. A small selection of 'Imported' beer (including, erm, Spanish beer in Spain) was 5usd. Not an enticing proposition. Worse still, in small print at the bottom it said that a 15% service charge is automatically added to all beverage purchases.

Bottom line: A 330ml can of Amstel will cost me 4gbp, over 3times what I paid on the RMS. St. Helena, and almost double that of a London pub, somewhere not renowned as a cheap drinking destination. In a supermarket in Barcelona for the same price, I could have bought about 15cans.

Wine and spirit prices are not worth looking at, and I suspect I will detox on this trip, not that I really need to as i've barely drunk anything in the last few months. There was also no information about services etc in the cabin, but I eventually discovered there was no self service laundrette on board: only a fee paying service (no price list, so I guess hideous), or hand washing in the sink which is what I will do. There is also no kettle, meaning that if I want a cup of tea, I have to travel half way down the ship and up 6floors to get it. Coffee is machine based, and very definitely designed for the American market: It's weak, revolting gnats piss. There is a proper coffee place as well, but that's 3usd a cup, plus the 15%. There are no true non-smoking cabins, which now the 'cleaning' smell has worn off, I get a big whiff of stale smoke whenever I enter my cabin.

Due probably to the small number of passengers, you notice the ridiculous numbers of staff trying to help you do pretty much everything even more than you normally would. Yet they are mostly Indonesian and speak limited English and little of no German, and even with so few passengers on board, they just get in the way and slow up even the most basic tasks. Like pouring coffee. I have yet to brave a 'communal' toilet, for fear that one will be offering to wipe my arse.

The entertainment includes films, including one – Invictus – that I really want to see, but it is the dubbed German version only. Most of the rest of the entertainment, I have been told, will be mostly 'big German names'. I have a TV, which at least gives BBC news and some basic American channels (such as CNN and ESPN which is mostly showing either drug-ball or rounders...), but is mostly German channels. And German TV is always dubbed, never subtitled. I can watch bits – my German is not fluent, but is ok, and there is a certain comedy value to see something like Friends or the Simpsons in German, with the different accents – but the novelty tends to wear off rapidly. There are also several in-ship channels, including one which gives voyage information, which which helpfully informs us in text and on a map that our location is Barcelona, despite the fact we sailed for 7hours and have been in port in Palma de Mallorca for a couple of hours by now...

I must admit that i'm starting to get a sinking feeling (metaphorically, not actually. There are no icebergs in Palma harbour), and have a deep longing to be back on my Polish cargoboat, or the RMS St. Helena. This is my first time onboard a cruise ship, and not one which is working for me to this point, although to be fair, I am in no way the typical passenger/target audience, and the fact that it is a German charter mean't I was expecting large numbers of elderly Germans and that tours/events/entertainment would be targeted towards them.

And things may yet change once we are settled aboard the Westerdam and out at sea with everything in place. For now, I am forgoing the free tour, and going to go and explore Palma for a few hours. I have never been here, and never expected to, and am sure there are things to see. Besides, whilst probably against ship rules, I can stock up on a few supplies and have a cheap beer ashore...

Posted by Gelli 14:08 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

Piss-up and brewery

As I might have mentioned previously, it was 07:06 on the morning of May 27th . I had left at 6, gone to the closest metro and walked the 3km to the dock with all my stuff. The bus service did not run to a timetable, and I didn't want to spent 10euro on a taxi. Luckily it was reasonably cool at that time of day, and I like walking.

With no other passengers seemingly trying to board, I plonked myself down on kerb and just watched the existing passengers slowly disembark. Most seemed to be middle-old aged Americans, generally very loud, and some incredibly stupid sounding. The only other waiting people had been met by a staff member (Daddy! Daddy!) and taken to the ship through a crew entrance. A few other crew members turned up and went through, and all I could do was sit and wait. By this time I had been up for 4hours and a coffee and a shit would have been nice, ditto some proper food, but none was available. Eventually, a trickle of other passengers began to appear, firstly an elderly South African couple, so I just watched them to see what happened. Almost another hour later, and we they were allowed to go through security (but no immigration control anywhere – I wonder what non EU passport holders did?), and, happily there was an open cafe and toilets to use. Passengers numbered under 30, and most of us didn't speak any/fluent German, which confused the poor Spanish terminal staff who were handing out forms for us all to fill, in German only. Confusion reigneth.

Another half hour later (but with at least my toilet and caffeine requirements fulfilled) and check-in opened. The staff were obviously not used to it. It took 20minutes to process me, as the woman dealing with me seemed to have never used a keyboard before and inputting my name/address/contact details took 10minutes. And yes, these are the same details I had already submitted electronically, that they had posted/emailed stuff to and which I had been contained on the 2 of the forms I had just filled in. She had also obviously never swiped a passport before, or, it seems, even seen one. And judging by the conversations at parallel desks, I was not the only person struggling. But eventually, I was registered, and had my keycard and went to wait. An efficient American woman then told me boarding would start shortly, rooms were ready, and gave me a 35page closely typed document of the cruise lines terms and conditions and legal bits, for my information. You could tell that the cruise company was American...

A few minutes later, boarding began. With nothing else to do, I was first on-board and headed straight to my cabin, only to discover my keycard did not work. Finding my way down to the front desk, I was told they would only be ready in an hour, but I could I fill out some forms... After declining the generous offer to refill the same forms as i'd just filled onshore, I gave in and took my bags and went out onto deck to wait in the sun and watch Barcelona. For what was a German cruise charter on an American ship, the whole episode had been an absolute shambles. I have honestly seen greater speed, and significantly more organisation in the average African city minibus terminal, and for those that truly understand what that means, you comprehend just how pathetic the whole episode had been. The really could not organise a pissup in a brewery. It was so bad that it was funny (though had I not been of a laid-back and patient temperament, things could have been very different) and I would not have been surprised it the German equivalent of Jeremy Beadle had suddenly appeared.

It was about to get worse.

A few others started to appear and I fell into conversation with 2 older Germans living in South Africa, during which, I discovered, that they had been given different information regarding ports of call and timings (inc departure), that we would arrive in Cape Town on a different date, and most astonishingly, that apparently we would be changing ships en route. Where, when and why were unknown.

This seemed to be confirmed by the next person I spoke to, a Portuguese-South African, Jose, who was the only other passenger I had seen who was not old enough to be one of my grandparents. Jose is a travel agent, but even he had only discovered this voyage a few weeks beforehand. He had been told a week previously that we would be changing vessels in Palma, where instead of the 4hours timetabled that I had known about, apparently we would have over 30hours – a full 24hours, followed by cross ship transfer to the Westerdam (the ship I am due to return on), and 3am departure. But despite departing over 24hours later than I knew about and with no change to ports of call, we seem to be due in Cape Town a day earlier... Work that one out. He had been told boarding began at 10am (better), but had been sent to the wrong dock and had done the same walk as me, but only in much hotter temperatures.

At the appointed time, I went back to to front desk, had the ship transfer confirmed (and was told I should have already been told about it) and finally got access to my cabin, where I dropped my stuff, had a well needed shower and then went to find food.

A long announcement was made in German, a few minutes after I was then yanked out of the dining room and told I was supposed to be on Deck 3 for a lifeboat demonstration. I arrived in time to see the few passengers disperse, but got talking to a handful of passengers and Dutch crewman, who then passed the word that at least half of the few passengers on-board were not German and might appreciate English information in future, and told us that they were expecting only 150passengers - 50 of whom had yet to turn up and we were thus randomly waiting for. I had been told it was a 10am sailing and Jose that it was midday, but it was gone 13.30 before we slowly headed out to sea, and rapidly left Barcelona behind.

Posted by Gelli 02:01 Archived in Spain Comments (0)

The background

It's 07:06 on the morning of May 27th . My single biggest fear (that the ship would not actually exist) has happily proved unfounded. But all is not quite well. Though boasting a passenger capacity of almost 2,000, there is only one other party of passengers – a woman with her 3 young children – who seem in anyway interested in boarding the ship. There is also nobody seeming to work or show any interest in me, and the only official looking people I can find don't admit to speaking a single word of any language that I do. It is one of those few moments of my life when I actively wished that my knowledge of the Spanish language went slightly beyond 'Hola', 'Paella' and 'Cerveza'...

Oddly enough, it had all started out pretty well. It couldn't last. I had worked Tuesday morning, and magically managed to get everything that I needed to, done. After lots of hard work and late nights for months our bit of the project magically looked like it would just about be completed on time. Having seen the situation a few months previously and all the chaos since, that in itself was pretty much miraculous. Unusually, I wasn't strip searched at St. Pancras, also also didn't have to contend with hoardes of frustrated BA passengers or ash cloud refugees (it's actually quite amazing. Everybody looks at you strangely for 15years for not flying, then a volcano goes off 2000miles away and all of a sudden you are a frickin visionary genius) and had an uneventful trip on Eurostar (there was no snow this time – last time had not been as smooth...). On reaching Paris, I discovered that, most unusually, the French were not even on strike. With that it was a quick transfer to Austerlitz for a bite and drink with some friends before the night train to Barcelona.

A pleasant evening in company of a non-flying Irishman, an Alsatian (person from Alsace, not a dog) and two Japanese followed, though I admit fearing the worst when being given a beer with green mould growing all around the rim.... All were impressed by my upcoming voyage, and all had stories of their own to tell. Sure, we were a couple of hours late into Barcelona, but I pretty much had a free day anyway, so no trouble. Checked into the hostel without problem, and then started my only chore for the day.

I was in Barcelona for only one reason: to board a ship to Cape Town, and the World Cup. Not this time a small personal type of ship like the RMS St. Helena or a cargo ship the MV Green Cape. Instead I was going south on a ridiculously swanky Cruise Ship, the MS Noordam. This was not the original plan (which was a Polish cargo ship), but instead a late change to enable me to work an extra 3.5weeks on the project. Though it mean't I lost out on several weeks of holiday and had to change/drop a number of plans/ideas, after it was agreed that my costs would be covered, in good conscious I couldn't drop my colleagues in it after I had finally worked out how to book the Noordam. The Noordam was one of 2 cruise ships which I had long known were heading down to South Africa to be used as extra accommodation for fans during the World Cup, but as charters, had proven incredibly tricky to track down and book. Indeed, I had already booked my return on the sister ship Westerdam, but even that had taken months to find, and even they couldn't tell me anything about how to arrange the voyage down.

But, eventually, and going through any number of contacts and middle companies, I had found it, and managed to book without problem. The voyage was paid (and cheap: my return fare turned out to be 1700euros, less than one way on a cargo ship, and had I taken the lowest class of accommodation on both voyages and been travelling with a friend, I could have done the return for under 900euros. Which for 28Days accommodation, food, booze and transport is fantastic), and I had receipts, but precious little in the way of other information. The documentation I had for my voyage just told me to go to Barcelona port, the name of the ship and the time/date. However, Barcelona port is not small, and nowhere did it mention where exactly I should be. Two different documents gave 2 different times, and the charter company had stopped responding to all communications over a week previously. Worse still, their website had essentially closed down, with just a holding note saying that sadly all accommodation in South Africa had been cancelled but that the voyages down and back remained unaffected.

With no information forthcoming from the charter company or cruise line, and agent/cruise issues meaning that online check-in was not possible, I had done some research of my own. I had worked my way through the databases available on the Port of Barcelona webpage, and found a dock number (but not terminal number), with, naturally, a port time differing to the two I already had.

And so on the previous day, I had gone for a walk around the port. Barcelona port is big. Even ignoring the cargo areas, there were 5 different docks used by ferries and a further 7 for cruise ships, spread over almost 3km. Naturally, the suspected one (D) was the furthest away. The walk was not the most exciting, and not really designed for walking. A trek over a large bridge and 30degree heat did not help. At the port control, they had no idea at all. At Dock D, the only person there was a window cleaner. The only one with any activity was Dock B, where masses of screaming kids were boarding a huge Disney cruise ship. But even the staff there had no idea. I had pretty much given up when my phone rang. An excitable German lady who seemed surprised that I was not fluent in German (and who's English was lacking) from the charter company was phoning up to ensure I had a return ticket from SA. Apparently they were mean't to check that a month previously and had forgotten. I reassured her that I did, and asked where and when in Barcelona the ship was departing. She said she had no idea, put me on hold for 5minutes, then took my email address (which they had previously used to send a dozen or so emails to), and promised to email me within the hour, and hung up. Realising I could do no more, I decided to enjoy Barcelona for the afternoon, met up with a couple of friends for a bit and relaxed. Checking my emails that night, I had a one line message confirming it was from Dock D, but no boarding or departure time.

At that, I resigned myself to an early morning, and started on the sangria.

Posted by Gelli 11:34 Archived in South Africa Comments (0)

MS Noordam

Barely a day after the last post has gone up, I ask you all, dear readers, to jump forward 6months. It is now May 25th 2010 – well, by the time you read this it blatantly won't be – and the next voyage is up on us. How's that for continuity, eh? What? Oh....

Though admittedly, I suspect that it is unlikely, all I can do is say enjoy the next less than thrilling instalments in what might – whisper it – be the last proper trip I make for some time. Well a few weeks, anyway...

Posted by Gelli 03:30 Comments (0)

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