So as you will have gathered from our previous posts, we did in fact make it to the ship in time to set sail for Montevideo. The process wasn’t without stress however, starting before we even entered the port.
Having spent a night at a local Premier Inn, the taxi turned up on time and we set off on the 15-minute journey to the port. The driver was a former banker who had retired at 40, been ‘divorced and cleaned out by his wife’ immediately after, so started driving a taxi.
On arrival at the port a very brusque security guard was adamant that we couldn’t enter with a child. I later heard the tragic story behind this rule, but at the time just found it immensely frustrating, especially as the taxi meter was ticking.
I showed him our tickets, I showed him the email from the company confirming passage for myself and Lauren, “age 8” clearly written there, but he wasn’t for budging. I dug out the phone number of the Grimaldi agent, called him and he radioed through almost immediately to say to let us in, I even heard the message and watched as he listened, but he insisted that it was not up to the company but the police!
My Mozambican-earned patience and firmness when dealing with obstructive officialdom eventually paid off, as I waited until he pulled a truck off to inspect it, showed our paperwork to his colleague, who confirmed they knew all about the matter and waved us through! The first guy’s face as we drove past was a picture, but he was just being a pain in the whatsit.
We arrived at the Grimaldi office (a portacabin) and the friendly staff let us sit in a couple of office chairs while they tracked down a car to take us to the ship. They took a copy of our passports, and told us there were 8 other passengers on board (actually there are 6, with another 2 joining in Hamburg), and after about 20 minutes someone turned up to take us round the port to the ship. He drove right into the ship, into an enormous, cavernous deck, and a couple of friendly crew members helped us with our (immense) baggage, up in the lift to the deck where our lives will be played out for the next month.
We were shown to our cabin and left there, a bit bewildered at the speed and lack of information after such a long build up. I’m not quite sure what I expected, but I felt more like cargo than passenger!
After about ten minutes one of the Italian officers came by and asked for our passports and yellow fever certificates. Of course, the certificates were well buried in our packed bags, but I managed to dig them out. I gave them to him and waited for him to reappear, assuming he was taking copies. He never came back. And still hasn’t. Some of the other passengers later told us they also hadn’t got theirs back, so I’m not worried.
We unpacked and then decorated the cabin with our Christmas stuff, by which time it was 11am. I recalled reading on someone else’s blog that lunch was at 11am so having realized no one was going to give us a tour (or even tell us where the dining room was), we set off to explore. It would not have been a good start if Lauren had missed lunch!
As we cautiously wandered the corridors (they all look the same) one of the Filipino staff found us and introduced himself as the safety officer, and we agreed to meet later to receive our safety briefing. He also took us to the dining room, where we met the other passengers and were served a four-course meal at 11am. Given that we had had a substantial breakfast, this wasn’t really what we needed, but actually the four courses are (seemingly every day) a small bowl of pasta, a small fillet or slice of fish, some form of meat, and some fruit. The fish and meat often come alone, or occasionally with some sliced up cucumber or tomato, so it’s actually not as overwhelming or calorific as it sounds.
The other passengers are two retired French couples, who didn’t know each other previously but who are both travelling with camper vans, and a mid-20’s German couple travelling with their motorbike. All seem friendly and the elderly French are more than happy to chat to Lauren so she can practice her French, while the Germans seem happy to practice their (already incredibly good) English. Parfait! Wunderbar!
I managed to smuggle aboard a birthday cake for Lauren and while she was distracted talking to the French couples I managed to communicate with the kitchen staff who agreed to keep it for me in the fridge until the big day. Goodness knows what preservatives it has in it to have a sell by date of 9th January, but it was the best I could do. If the galley want to make something on the day, even better. I have candles, a big ‘I am 9’ badge, sparkly stuff, party poppers and other bits and pieces. According to the schedule, we are due to arrive in Rio that day. But the schedule is always wrong.
After lunch the German couple took us on a tour of the areas we are allowed – effectively deck 12 and the exterior of deck 13 which is where the bridge is. I think Lauren gave a pretty good overview in her post.
After the tour we mooched around our cabin for a while, feeling a little lost. The captain stuck his head in and shook our hands but with departure only an hour or so away, he was clearly busy.
Half an hour before departure all the passengers congregated on deck to watch the enormous ramp go up (it reaches almost to the top of the 12th deck) and the process of departing port.
The pilot arrived from Port of London and scrambled aboard onto a rope ladder and disappeared into a hatch right at the water level, before reappearing on the bridge. We tooted our horn, the engine was started (lots of black smoke emerging from the funnel), the flag was raised. Two tugs hung about, and a number of the orange-suited crew gradually removed some of the ropes until we were only held by a few at the front and one at the back. The last rope was removed by one of the tugs, using a machine to wind it in, and we were officially separated from the docks! The tugs were buzzing about pulling us sideways and while we didn’t even feel it, when we crossed to the other side we saw we were already a fair way from the side. We then proceeded to do an enormous u-turn across the Thames, narrowly avoiding the cruise shop docked directly behind us.
And then we were off! Finally after a day of stress, confusion, bewilderment, and half a year of anticipation. Down the Thames, as the sun set over London on a glorious cold but sunny winter day, past the marshes and fens and round the bend out to sea. It was a truly wonderful, exhilarating feeling, and all the worries fell away as I felt absolutely sure this had been the right thing to do, despite the naysayers.
This is living, doing what you want to do and making it up as you go along.
All too soon though the euphoria wore off as Safety Officer Jake brought us back down to earth with his talk of immersion suits, helmets and lifejackets, alarms, muster stations and what to do if someone falls overboard. Of course its necessary, and it is taken seriously – we were provided with a child sized lifejacket – but it did kind of burst our bubble. That, and the discussion of politics in the Philippines and Mozambique, which could probably have waited until we knew each other better!
Not long after the safety briefing it was dinner time and we re-convened in our usual places for another meal. Its funny how people are creatures of habit and I had been aware that the choice of table to join (French or German) at lunch would determine where we sat for the rest of the trip. Thankfully I had chosen the German table, not because there is anything wrong with the French, but because three meals a day in French might have been too much for my poor brain! One of the couples doesn’t speaks English so it would have been pretty full on. We have plenty of chats in the lounge, but I need time and tea to come to in the mornings before speaking in anything other than grunts.
During dinner that first night an announcement from the bridge told us that the ship’s clock would go forward by an hour at midnight. Lauren was most unimpressed when I changed ours immediately then tried to make her go to bed at the ‘new’ 9 o clock. I was very tired.
Apart from getting used to eating a lot of protein at 11am and 6pm, the hardest thing to get used to is the lack of fresh air inside – the deck is kept very warm although I have been going round closing heating vents and cracking open windows in the lounge. The air is also very dry and makes my eyes prick. The noise is a constant hum of the engine, and a constant hiss from the air vents, but you very quickly get used to that. The galley is always a hive of activity, apart from siesta time after lunch, and the Italian head cook can often be heard singing along to the radio as he chops and stirs. He invited us in this morning for a look round the galley and the enormous storeroom, which was quite an honour as it is ‘strictly forbidden’ for passengers to enter the galley. The fridge is as big as our living room in Maputo!
Apart from getting used to eating a lot of protein at 11am and 6pm, the hardest thing to get used to is the lack of fresh air inside – the deck is kept very warm although I have been going round closing heating vents and cracking open windows in the lounge. The air is also very dry.
Today is our second full day at sea, en route to Hamburg and then Vigo in Spain before heading to Dakar, Freetown and then crossing the Atlantic to Brazil, Argentina the Uruguay (don’t ask me why in that order, I don’t know).
The noise is a constant hum of the engine, and a constant hiss from the air vents, but you very quickly get used to that. Even when moving, there is hardly any movement in the ship, with just the odd gentle swell to remind us that we are at sea. We still blame the waves for our rubbish attempts at table tennis (or, as we have re-christened it ‘hit the ball once then scramble around on the floor looking for it’).
We have access to two outside areas, a more sheltered spot on this deck, and the incredibly exposed and windy ‘roof’ of the ship, where the bridge and the funnel are. There are a few ‘deck chairs’ but its too nippy out there to hang around right now. The view from the very top is incredible, but in this weather, you can’t stay up there long. Lauren is strictly forbidden (by Safety Officer Jake and by me) to go outside alone, but she does have free reign inside on deck 12.
We have been told that the crew will organize a visit to the bridge and to the engine room at some time during the trip, which will be really interesting.
The officers are polite but distant – you get the impression they deliberately keep it that way so passengers don’t go getting ideas above their station and bothering them when they have work to do. I guess its quite difficult for them as they are working and passengers are often casting about for something to do. I imagine the lines will be relaxed a bit once we have all worked out our place in the hierarchy. The all-Italian crew, headed by a tall, youngish and brisk captain, share our dining room but have their own recreation areas.
The all-Filipino crew are also friendly and polite but distant and you again get the distinct impression they are worried about you drawing on them too much or being too demanding. It’s a bit frustrating as there is very little information about how things work (should we leave our cabins unlocked so they can clean, as we have been told they do, can we just use the gym equipment whenever we like and how do you turn the treadmill on – it’s not obvious, are we allowed to go and get coffee whenever we like or only at meals, can we open windows/change heating settings, which ‘authorised personnel only’ doors are OK to go through and which not, what do the yellow lines mean….). I am now taking the approach of doing what I like and not worrying about it, on the basis they will say if we commit some major transgression! Mind you we depend on these people for everything! If necessary I will deploy my secret weapon, Lauren, as I have caught both staff and officers cracking sneaky smiles and winks at her while remaining distantly professional with the adults.
We have set ourselves up in a corner of the lounge, which has become the schoolroom and also a jigsaw station for Lauren (although everyone else seems to chip in the odd piece) and we plan to do schoolwork every day between breakfast and lunch and for an hour in the afternoon. Obviously, port days will be a different matter.
Speaking of port days, we have yet to reach Hamburg. We have been moored out at sea since last night, not far from the entrance to the river Elbe, which will take us to Hamburg. We should have docked there yesterday. Presumably we are waiting for congestion to clear in port. Everyone was very excited about the prospect of a few hours in Hamburg, thinking we would arrive yesterday night, but who knows if that will happen. Also, apparently someone ‘in charge of passengers’ will board in Hamburg, so maybe things will be clearer.
We went out on deck this morning after breakfast and before lessons, to clear our heads. It was surreal. A deep fog made it impossible to see much at all, and we just got glimpses of the incredibly still water far below. Some kind of optical illusion made the water seem very close. It was totally silent, in the early morning gloom, and it reminded me of WWII films where everyone is waiting at sea in total silence, terrified of U boats. Even without these references Lauren found it spooky.
Occasionally and for no good reason that we can work out, the ship’s horn blows – an equally spooky sound out here in the middle of nowhere. Maybe there are huge ships bearing down on us out of the fog and we are warning them off. Actually, if you check on a GPS ship tracker you can see there are in fact a number of vessels very close to us, but none that we can see and the fog makes us feel totally alone in our own little world.
We have no idea when we will be moving again, or if we will be in Hamburg long enough to disembark. We also have no idea of the specific arrival date in any port, so I am learning to let go and not plan. If we do manage to get off tomorrow in Hamburg we need to buy tracing paper, and a compass for Geometry. I also plan to buy a mug, as while I brought a travel kettle and my trusty Yorkshire tea, drinking it out of the tiny coffee cups from the galley or from the plastic ‘cups’ that came with the kettle just doesn’t do it justice.
Having prepared ourselves for a complete internet black out, actually we have had a signal at times from the Dutch and now German coasts, even when so far out we couldn’t see land. As of tomorrow, though I don’t have my mobile package anymore, so it will be a complete blackout apart from at ports if they have wifi.
I know I have gone on a bit in this post and it may be a bit disjointed as its been written in between french poetry and maths exercises during morning lessons, as and when the signal came our way.
Some of you think we are mad and have no interest in what we are doing whatsoever, but I know others have wanted details so here you go!