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Saturday, 14 April 2007

Antigua diary (part 1)

10th April

This morning i woke up in South London next to my wife. Currently it's around about tea-time and I'm sitting on the balcony of my room at the Antigua Royal beach resort, overlooking a bay with a white sand beach and turxoise sea in which i recently swam, alone. I know a lot about swords, and I know that this one is double-edged. I've said it before and I'll say it again, crazyness.

I join the ship tomorrow, which means tonight i get a free room here, and can I just say that there is no better way to shake off a long flight and the threat of jetlag than a swim in a warm blue sea.

There was a shaky moment when nobody came to pick me up at the airport, but a couple of phone calls later I was being driven around the twisty-turny roads, past the dozens of little shack shops and bars, to the hotel. At one point we drove along a ridge overlooking the ocean, atop of which was a large new looking building, which i assumed to be a luxury hotel, "The new hospital", my driver grinned, "not a bad place to get sick".

Either him or his friend Peas will pick me up and take me to the ship tomorrow. yes, his friends name is Peas. "Like the vegetable, y'know?"

Hungry. room service. Pizza. I said I'd start the diet when I got on the ship, I'm not on the ship yet...

11 April

Not a great nights sleep, but not as full of stress dreams as it could have been. Unless you count the vivid "I'm having an epileptic seizure" nightmare, which probably you should count.

Anyway, up early and down to sit under a palm tree and eat french toast and pancakes for breakfast. Not too shabby. Then Peas arrives and takes me and an American comedian called Andres to the ship. He's done a few cruise gigs before so I chat to him about it, he says I'll like it and I reply that so far, so good.

Getting on board takes forever, with visas, passports, schedules, and the fact that the performer who was in my room before me has decided not to leave quite yet. I stash my bags and a very friendly and helpful crewmember called Susana shows me around the ship and answers my questions. She's only been on the ship four months so doesn't quite know where everything is yet. "Look. Here. I carry several maps of the ship. Always.", she explains. This doesn't fill me with hope for my 10 day stay. We turn a corner in one of the crew only parts of the ship to discover two big black body bags, with something human shaped inside them, slumped against a door, complete with signs on them saying "DEAD". We stop in front of them, my mouth hanging open a little. "Not actual dead", Susana assures me, smiling sweetly, "For drill."

After thanking Susana, I kill time until my room is ready by wandering around trying to work out where things are. It's goes well, I can get from my room to the midship information desk, which is conveniently right next to where I'll be performing. Talking of performing, I was sure I'd been told that I was doing 3 or 4 shows per day - turns out that I got it wrong - it's actually 3 or 4 working days per trip. Ha ha. This means that I have today and tomorrow completely to myself, and then do two spots friday evening, followed by another day off. No complaint here.

Finally my room is free and I get my stuff in there and unpack. It's small but very neat and comfy. I like it a lot. I even have a window - sorry - porthole, so i can see the ocean from my bed.Yum.
I need an adapter for my laptop plug, so venture off the ship out into St.Johns. It's a bustling hodge-podge of shops, bars, restaurants, stalls, street performers, taxi drivers hawking for business. It's great. I can only think of one thing that it resembles, and that would be Mos Eisley spaceport in star wars. You know, where Luke and Ben find Han. It's just like that, but with more rum. As I walk down the main drag a taxi driver shouts at me "Want a taxi?" and then before I can reply he says "No, you look like a hiker", with real emphasis on "Hiker". I turn around and smile and he says it again, "Yeah - you're a HIKER" and cracks up laughing.

I find a shop to get the adapter and the guy who sells it to me, who obviously knows I'm British from the accent and the fact that I asked for an adapter for a British plug, says - in his thickest Antigua accent - "Fanks mate. Cheers" with the widest grin you've ever seen.

I'm hungry to I decide my next mission is to find the staff canteen - sorry, the crew mess. Surprisingly, I do. It's at the end of M1, the crew only, big long passageway that runs the entire underbelly of the ship from one end to the other. It's cool, being able to go through all the crew only doors as if I knew what I was doing. So the crew mess has some kind of food at all hours of the day, which is great. I am determined to eat healthily while I'm here, so I have some rolls with salad and kidney beans in which are a lot nicer than they sound, and a huge amount of glasses of fresh orange juice. It's a clattery, noisy, energetic place, the mess. Full of crew members from all over the world. They're not allowed to speak any language other than English in front of passengers (or PAX as I have learned they are called), so it seems that when they're below decks on their own time, they really make up for it. This makes the mess an interesting place to be.

During my earlier wanderings I stumbled upon the gym, so i decide to go back up there and work out. There is a line of at least 30 running machines and cross-trainers lined up at the front of the gym in front of the long round window that looks out the back of the ship. We're high up - on floor 16 - so the view is gorgeous, or would be if every running machine didn't have a large plasma screen attached to it. As you run, if you're careful, you can see a bit of the Caribbean around the sides of the TV. I hope I'm not the only person to tag this mentally as very wrong.

I have a welcome guide thing. It tells me all the rules and regulations of the ship - of which there are many. One of them is that i am expected to tip my cabin steward $3.50 per day. This fills me with fear. I'm not good at tipping. Oh, sure, I can leave money on a restaurant table, or say "keep the change" to a cab driver, but I'm not the kind of guy who can pull off the firm handshake with a couple of bills in it thing. Do I pay every day? What if I don't see him one day - do I pay double the next day? He came around earlier to check I had enough soap, I said yes thanks. Should I have tipped him? For that? Really? Oh god.

12th April

My sleeping/waking hours are still a little screwy, so I woke up at about 5am this morning and lay in bed looking at the ocean going by in darkness outside my window. I drift off for what seems like just a couple of seconds and wake to see learn blue sky. It's about 8am and we have arrived in St.Maartens. I get up and go to the gym for another work out, then down to the crew mess to see what kind of breakfast I can get. Fresh pineapple, mango, pear, peach and yoghurt. Quite stylish. I am doing well to avoid the huge amounts of cakes, pastries and fried goods on display.

When I get back to my cabin, the steward is cleaning my room. Oh god. Should I tip him now? If I decide to tip him once at the end of my stay will he just think I'm being tight today? I make the decision to tip him when he's finished today, so, as he says goodbye I say thanks and hold out some notes. He is clearly startled and confused. I say thanks a couple more times, still holding out the notes. He eventually takes them, smiling, and goes. I did something very wrong here but have no earthly idea what it is. Tomorrow I'll try not tipping him and see what happens. Way I see it, the embarrassing event has happened now, so the rest is just experimentation.

I go ashore for a walk down the coast of St Marteen's. The sea is the bluest sea I have ever seen. Dozens of shades of green and blue, vivid, snake around each other as I stand on the rocks and look out to the horizon. I have a good friend from here, and I can only say it's as relaxed and shabby as he is.

April 13th

Again, I wake up at 5.30am and take some photographs out of my porthole window of the moon over the ocean. At around 8 I head up to gym and run for a while. As I'm returning to my cabin I hear my name in an announcement over the ship's p.a. system. Apparently I have to go to "Club Fusion" to take part in the mandatory US immigration procedures, because we've docked at St.John, which is, I guess, America or something. So down I go to be met by an exceedingly large fellow in US customs uniform festooned with shiny badges and guns who takes my passport and looks me up and down. "You're British", he says. "You shouldn't be here". They other staff start to bicker about why I'm on the list of Americans. My quip of "I can't even do the accent" fall on non-sympathetic ears. I eventually have to get off the ship, go the the "Centre for Homeland Security", which would have been a lot more intimidating if it didn't consist of two jolly large black women talking about eyebrow trimming in a shed. They sort me out, and send me on my way cheerily. On the way back to the ship I pass the customs guy again, complete with shades and baseball cap pulled down over his eyes. He is great. "You get done what you need to get done?", he asks. "Yes sir" I say. He grins back, "Welcome to the Island, babe." He is a great man indeed.

I'm still worrying about the stuff I need for my show - I leave a message for the head of production services, who I've been told is the person I've got to talk to. Still no reply. This isn't helping my nerves. It has come to my attention that today is Friday the 13th. Great.

After leaving two messages and then paging her, the production supervisor finally gets in touch and organises my table. As the first show time approaches I get more and more nervous. Then it's here. I go on. And it's not great. Very quiet, hardly anyone at eye level, and only a few more dot around the three levels that stretch up in front of me. I do a show, and people laugh and clap a little, but nowhere near as much as they might, and should. I go back to my room, feeling like shit.

Lesley calls and I'm really down and non-talkative. We agree that we'll speak again after my second show. I lay on my bed and watch the start of "Batman Begins" and let myself have half and hour of feeling crappy. Then I have a word with myself. I work out what went wrong and how I can fix it. I get myself in the right mood. I go back for my second show.

It rocks bells. I have the floor and all three levels packed full of people roaring with laughter and clapping their tits off. Obviously I'm elated. I talk to Lesley afterwards and she reminds me that whenever I work somewhere new, the first show is usually pretty bad. It takes me one show to solve the puzzle that each new venue poses.
I celebrate by getting some candy from one of the ship's stores. Then I head down to the crew mess and treat myself to an apricot cheesecake, which, as I'm on a diet, I hope will be dissapointing. Unfortunately, it's divine in every possible facet. I walk in the warm moonlight back to my cabin, passing a solitary old man sitting on one of the deckside chairs. As I pass him he smiles at me and claps. I thank him, completely aware that - solitude notwithstanding - things are more than ok.

One more thing: I've decided to handle the cabin steward by simply placing the "Do not disturb" sign on my door all the time, every day until I actually need something changed. This way I'll tip him only when he's done something. Seems fair to me. It's been working fine until just now, when he called me on the phone and asked me if I'd like him to come and do my room now. I have a suspicion that if I'd said yes he may have asked for a credit card number.

Saturday 14th April

I wake as we're pulling into San Juan, as I become conscious I hear someone slip something under my door. Thoughts of threatening letters from my cabin steward fill my head, but no, it's just a letter explaining my schedule for the next few days and what I have to do today legally. There are things to do today legally because today is changeover day - the cruise has come to an end for pretty much a whole ship full of people (except the rich ones who pay for two cruises back to back), so they all have to get off and let a whole new bunch on. It is, as you might imagine, perfectly organised chaos. I get off the ship and avoid it, instead deciding to go and explore San Juan.

It's gorgeous. All the other stops so far have been very Caribbean, but suddenly we're in a Latin country and everything is different. It's quieter, for a start. Less bustling. Gorgeous Spanish architecture in colours that were once vivid pinks, greens and yellows, but which have now faded to classy pastel shades. I walk around for an hour or so, taking photographs. I buy a hat, conscious that nobody's going to pay attention to my jokes on stage if all they're looking at is the comically sunburnt Englishman. The hat says "PR" on the front in orange letters. In West Side Story the Jets refer to the Sharks as "dirty PRs", so by buying the hat I officially announce my joining of the Sharks. They were always cooler anyway.

I end up in a bar called "Senor Frogs", and sit on a stool in with my back to the bar drinking a very cold beer while watching baseball and hockey on the TV, feeling like my favourite private eye, Spenser. The bar is perfect. It is a large, dark, cool room with a restaurant to one side. I look across the dusty wood floor and watch the palm trees sway in the breeze just outside the big open window. Old Atlantic soul plays and I giggle at hockey fights.

While I'm watching the sports channel, an advert for Las Vegas tourism plays. i think this might be the most honest advert in the history of marketing. It consists of two guys talking, i can't hear their conversation because the sound is muted, but then the tagline appears: "Las Vegas: Our fabulous Broadway shows can be your alibi". I mean, wow.

I walk around town some more. I liked San Juan before, but it's even better when you're walking off a pleasant beer buzz. After taking some more pictures, I end up back at the ship, walking past all the people in the long lines to check in. According to my schedule I have two more shows tomorrow night, then nothing at all until i go home on Friday.

Up to the lido deck to sit by the pool and read? Be a fool not to.

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