Heathrow

I am very lucky to travel the world and to do what I love doing.  I hope that those of you who followed my adventures throughout my American tour got some sense of life on the road: the highs, the lows and the mundane, all of which makes my life so exciting.

Today I am sat on a cruise ship in the port of Aqaba in Jordan, on the Red Sea.  My cabin door is wide open and the warm breeze is stirring the curtains.  Outside the sounds of the port are mixing with the wailing call to prayer from a nearby mosque.

All is good.

So, let me tell you about another aspect of my professional life.  The good and the……let me tell you about my journey here.

P&O Cruises’ smallest ship, the MV Adonia, is currently undertaking a world cruise.  10 days ago she left Southampton and has been sailing across the Mediterranean before passing through the Suez Canal and into the Red Sea.

I have been booked to join Adonia for 9 days, providing entertainment during an extended period at sea.  Usually on a cruise the ship sails at night and the days are spent in port, from which the passengers can go ashore and explore the sights either by themselves or on organised tours.

Occasionally there will be a ‘sea day’ when there is a greater distance between ports and the passengers can relax on deck or enjoy entertainment laid on by the Cruise Director which is where I come in.

On this particular cruise there is a strangely long period of 6 days at sea and I will be performing on three afternoons during that time and I am sure that I will be able to tell you of wonderful audiences, friendly people and of life at sea.

But this trip hasn’t got off to the best of starts:

The whole adventure starts off with my alarm going off at 5.45 on a Friday morning in Abingdon.  I have a flight at 10.00 but need to arrive at the airport 2 hours before, and the journey to Heathrow takes an hour and Liz and I need some breakfast, so 5.45 it is.

We get on the road by 7 and as always it is very difficult when Liz is not joining me on the trip.  It seems as if I’ve only just got back from the long Christmas tour and here I am jetting away again.

We make good time and get to the airport at around our target of 8.00am.  I have slight worries about the journey as it will be made with 2 different airlines and I have only been able to check in for the first leg with BA from Heathrow to Berlin.  I am greatly relieved to discover that I can check my bag all the way to my final destination in Aqaba, Jordan, but I will still have to find the Royal Jordanian Airlines desk at Berlin airport to check in myself.

Having said a nervous farewell to my suitcase, Liz and I have a coffee and some breakfast before saying a sorrowful farewell to each other.  It is a horrible moment as I walk through security and see her waving, trying to hold back the tears.  It is always a very empty feeling once I disappear behind that screen.

Security:  Belt off, shoes off, laptop out.  Keys, phone, watch, coins in my coat pocket.  All in the bin.  Stand in the swooshy scanning booth, on the little pictures of two feet, with hands up. Swoosh Swoosh and I‘m spat out the other side and into the bustle of Heathrow terminal 5’s shopping arcade.

I have enough time to buy myself a new pair of sunglasses, replacing the ones I sat on in America, and then it is off to gate A17 and the first of my waits.  I sit in the chair at the boarding are and entertain myself by trying to guess the nationality of everyone at the gate.  There is an extra level to the game today as some other entertainers are due to join the ship at the same time as me and it fun to try and spot them as well.  I have my suspicions!

We are called quite quickly and the flight is not very full, which is great.  As I’m sorting out my books and things that I want with me from my bag, one of my suspected other entertainers comes past.  He has a very smart roller bag and I comment on it.  He answers with a big grin and a laugh and makes his way to his seat.

I have 3 seats to myself and sit next to the window as we take off and bank over Wembley stadium before heading into the cloud and to the east.

The first leg of the journey is only about 90 minutes, so there is time for a coffee but nothing else and soon the engine not falls, the nose of the plane dips almost imperceptibly and we are making our approach to Berlin airport.

It maybe my imagination or the result of a long held perceived stereotype but the housing looks to be regimented and ordered.  As we get closer to the airport itself, blocks of flats abound and there is a certain feel of the old Eastern Bloc to the scene.  However, bucking that stereotype, the buildings seem bright, clean and vibrant.

Berlin

The plane touches down and taxis to the stand and I am soon off and into the terminal building.  I go through another passport check.  There is a large notice ‘DO NOT FORGET YOUR LUGGAGE’ but I have confidence in the information from the BA desk and bypass the carousel with just a nagging thought that when I am in Jordan, my bags will still be in Berlin.  Pushing such fears aside I head out into the main terminal.

I have almost 2 hours before my next flight, but am very aware that I haven’t checked in yet and don’t want to find that I’ve missed a deadline, so immediately track down the Royal Jordanian Airlines desk, at which there is a long queue.  I am amused to see that the man that I assume to be a fellow entertainer is waiting in the same line.

The queue moves forward slowly and rather worryingly a number of passengers are being sent over to the ticket counter where the staff are frowning and tapping away at their keyboards.  One of these is an Englishman, making a bit of a fuss and insisting that he be told what is going on.  I have a sneaking suspicion that he may also be joining the ship.

At last I get to the desk and it is an hour before departure.  The clerk, rather worryingly, peers at my ticket and at my luggage tags, back at my ticket again.  He asks for my complete itinerary and goes through another round of peering.  At last a thought crosses his mind and he asks me if where I’m going.  I tell him ‘from here to Amman and then to Aqaba.’

‘Tomorrow?’

‘No, today.  This flight in an hour and then on to Aqaba.’

‘Yes, but Aqaba tomorrow?’

‘No, today.  I have to join a ship.’

His face drops again and the cycle of peering and tapping resumes.

And suddenly there is a boarding card in front of me.  Hooray.  Just as suddenly he tears it up and goes back to his tapping.  Finally, finally, he resolves whatever problem there was and prints out 2 more boarding passes and a voucher for €10, as the flight is delayed.  ‘ How much by?’ I ask him.

‘An hour’

I explain I have a connection to make in Amman.  ‘How much time do you have?’ he asks.

‘An hour’

It will be fine he assures me.  ‘When will we board?’

‘An hour’

‘Will there be an announcement made?’

‘Oh, no, we operate a silent airport’

And with that I’m left to explore the delights of Berlin airport which are few and far between.

The terminal building is a huge circle, rather like I imagine the Hadron Collider to be.  The inner half of the loop is the public area and the gates themselves are behind each airline’s desks.   It is a good system, so long as there are no delays.

In the public area there are very few chairs, but in the secure gate area there are plenty.  Of course none of us can get to those for an hour.

I wander aimlessly about and see others wandering aimlessly about too and little by little we all aimlessly wander back and find ourselves  grouped around the Royal Jordanian desk hopefully waiting for the great moment.

At last a security guard arrives and we are allowed to filter in, having had our carry-on bags and ourselves scanned again and our passports checked once more.

The clock is now showing that we are an hour late and it is with an air of resignation that I see no plane is waiting at the gate.  It is quite amusing to watch everyone else coming in and watching their reaction as they realise the same thing.  One thing is for sure, I will not be getting the connecting flight to Aqaba tonight

I find an electric socket and plug my iphone  in as I think I am going to need it later and then fire up the laptop.  I send an email to the P&O Cruises port representative in Aqaba warning him that any entertainers that he is supposed to meet will not be arriving there tonight.  Then I open a blank page in Microsoft Word and stare at it.

One of the results of writing my blog at Christmas is the germ of an idea that I may try to write a book based on my experiences over the last 20 years and here, in Berlin airport with no immediate sign of going anywhere, seems to be a very good place to start:  ‘Acting has always been a part of my life. …..’   OK, it’s not on a par with ‘Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show….’, but it IS a start.

I write for about 50 minutes before the excitement of a plane coming in interrupts the creative process.  We all watch as it is refuelled and catered and at last we are allowed on.  Once again it is not a full flight and the boarding is affected very quickly and we trundle out to the runway just over 2 hours late.

This leg of the journey is almost 4 hours and there are films to watch and meals to be eaten.  Unfortunately my video screen isn’t working but, as before, I have 3 seats to myself.  I shuffle to the middle one which does work, but only in Jordanian, then to the aisle seat, which is fully functional.  I watch Rush (the motor racing film based on the 1976 Grand Prix season).  The editing for airline viewing is quite funny.  I’m sure that when James Hunt says something along the lines of ‘That was my FLAMING race,  the movement of his mouth doesn’t seem to match the word flaming’.  Same with the expletive ‘SUGAR!’

Having finished with Rush there is only about 30 minutes left of the flight and I watch the beginning  of the truly awful ‘Diana’ movie.  30 minutes was just fine thank you.

Amman

When the plane arrives at the gate I switch on my iphone and there is an email from Mohammad, the port representative asking me to call him.  He says that the easiest thing will be to just get a taxi from Amman to Aqaba and if I can get cash at the airport he will reimburse me tomorrow.  He says that there should be 2 other entertainers onboard and can I round them up as well?  I wonder if my hunches were right back in London and Berlin?

The first thing to do is make sure I have my bag.  If it has made it this far at all, it is now checked through to Aqaba.  Whilst I’m making enquiries I hear a voice asking about getting to Aqaba as he has to join a ship.  Yes, I was right, my mark from Heathrow with the smart roller carry-on bag.  I introduce myself and shake hands with Jimmy, who is a singer, with the most delicious Jamaican accent and a laugh that follows every sentence.  You just can’t help smiling in his company.

I explain to him what Mohammad told me and he agrees that this seems like a good plan (I suppose we are both tired but neither of us consider the fact that we are about to take a taxi over a distance that was supposed to be covered by a jet plane, but more of that anon).  We successfully negotiate the safe release of our bags and then are told to clear immigration.

As we are waiting in line Jimmy says that he thinks he knows the other entertainer. ‘I just have a feeling I know who it is’.  The man in question is the guy who was making a fuss in Berlin, being very British and slightly bolshie.  We see him marching up to the front of a line waving his ticket about and demanding that things are sorted out.  He’s being very British and slightly bolshie.

Jimmy goes to introduce himself and Christopher Hamilton comes to complete the three stooges.  We explain the new plan to him.  ‘Drive?  But its 4 hours across dessert and through mountains.  We won’t be there until 2 in the morning and I have a show tomorrow .  There is a flight out of here at 7 in the morning, so I’m going to stay here and get that one.’

Chris has already got himself a voucher for a local hotel, paid for by the airline and he is in the act of buying his visa.  Jordan has a strange arrangement in that before you can clear immigration you have to stump up 20 Dinars for an entry visa.  Every desk in immigration has a crowd around it, some people are waving money, some are waving passports, none are being dealt with.  Chris had marched to the front of one of these lines and done his best ‘British Empire’ line and got his passport stamped immediately.

Realising now that 4 hours doesn’t sound good,  I call Mohammad back and ask him about the drive: ‘only 4 hours’, he says.  At which Jimmy and I decide to stay put as well.  We have to go back to the transfer desk and get ourselves booked onto the morning flight, get our hotel voucher sorted out and then back to immigration all over again.  Along the way we seem to have picked up a hotel concierge who is going to drive us.

The mayhem and disorganisation at the passport desk continues with the happy result that both Jimmy and I get our passports stamped with the visa, without having to part with any money.

Amazingly our suitcases are waiting for us and we dutifully follow our concierge to the lower level roadway, where he makes a phone call and then takes us back to the upper level roadway.  A mini bus arrives and we load ourselves in.

My phone says it is now 11.30 at night and we are all beginning to feel the strain a bit.  As the mini bus drives in to the hotel, the engine stalls and the driver can’t seem to restart it.  Even here, 25 yards short of the hotel entrance but frustratingly the wrong side of a security gate, we are delayed.

The driver eventually coaxes the engine into life just long enough to roll us to the hotel and we are in.  What is the first thing we have to do?  Put our bags through a security scanner and be screened ourselves.  No more.  Please make it stop!

We shuffle to the desk (even Jimmy’s laugh is sounding a little less robust now) but the guys tell us we can’t check in, not yet but their motives are good.  The hotel is giving us a free dinner and the restaurant will stop serving in 5 minutes so ‘go, go and eat, come back to check in after!’

The dinner is a buffet with some delicious salads, meats and fishes and it is very welcome indeed. When we finish we go back to the front desk and get our room keys before trailing to our rooms and bed.  The room is basic but who cares.

We have to leave the hotel at 5am and although the desk promised to call our rooms, I don’t quite believe it and set my iphone alarm for 4.30 am and with that I sleep.

Sure enough at 4.30 my alarm goes off but a phone call there is none.  I feel rather smug and pleased with myself for correctly assessing the likelihood of a successful alarm call.  I get out of bed, shower, dress and get to the lobby as the top of the hour approaches.  The staff behind the desk look at me enquiringly.

‘I have to leave for the airport.  2 others will be joining me.’

‘Where are you flying to, What time is your flight?’

‘Aqaba,  leaving at 7.  We were told we should leave here at 5.’

‘But you are too early, sir.  It is only 4 o’clock!’

Bugger!

There is a little coffee counter in the foyer and as the rooms didn’t have any coffee making facilities I decide to stay there and write some more.  At 4.35 a member of staff comes over and asks if I was in room 412.

‘Yes, that’s right’

‘Ah, I see.  You didn’t answer your alarm call.’

‘No.  I was sitting here.’

That will teach me for being smug.

At the genuine  5 o’clock Jimmy and Chris appear and we wait for the mini bus.  Nothing seems to be happening so Chris asks at the desk what’s going on.  The bus is there waiting for us, apparently even though nobody thought of mentioning it.

We get on the bus and wait.  Other passengers dribble on.

We wait some more.  At last we make the short drive to the airport (we could have walked and arrived sooner).

We stand in a queue at a desk that says ‘All Destinations’  above it, to check in.  We wait.

We are told to go to another desk if we are flying to Aqaba.

We wait.  No one at the desk.

We sit down and wait.

At last a clerk arrives but says the desk is not open yet, so we should wait.

We wait.

The desk opens and we all stand up again and wait some more.

Once we are checked in we are told that the gate will open soon and we should…..

We wait.

Eventually the gate opens and we are screened once more before waiting for all the passengers to get on bus which drives across the dessert surrounded expanse of the Amman airport.

Cruelly, oh so cruelly, the bus drives us past a BA plane.  The Union flag tail fin mocking us with the knowledge that there was a direct BA flight to here after all.  Ha, ha, bloody ha.

Aqaba

The plane to take us on is  only a small regional jet and we are quickly on our way.  The views in the morning sun are stunning: mountains and dunes of sand stretching as far as the eye can see.  The thought of driving through that terrain for 4 hours at 2 in the morning is not appealing and I am very glad that Chris knew his stuff and prevented Jimmy and me from taking the cab last night.

The flight is just less than an hour and it is with a ridiculous amount of joy that I see the sea for the first time.  The plane banks hard round and we seem to land in the middle of the dessert.  Aqaba airport is very small.  Of course we have to be screened again and have our passports checked again but it is fine now, we are here.  We have reached our journey’s end.  All there is to do now is to join the ship and it is still early enough to have breakfast on board.

Our driver is not overly communicative but as we drive into the town itself we get our first glimpse of Adonia at the quayside.  We turn into a side street and the driver pulls up at a curb.

‘You wait. I get papers.’

We wait.

After 15 minutes he comes back and starts to drive again, then he starts chatting on his phone at great length and with great urgency.  He pulls over until the conversation reaches its conclusion.  We have no choice but to wait.

Next we stop at a red traffic light.  I am now getting irritated at waiting at traffic lights!

At last we turn into the port gate and there is Adonia again like a white beacon shining out to us.

The driver does a u turn in the main entrance of the dock and pulls up.

‘I need your passports, you wait here’, and he disappears.

We get out of his car and lounge around swapping stories of life on cruise ships, each of us trying to outdo the others with tales of terrible journeys and missed flights.  We all know that this particular one will be added to our respective repertoires and retold many times in the future.

It is Chris we all feel sorry for as he has 2 shows tonight after 4 hours sleep and a journey from hell.  Chris is a cabaret pianist and will have to rehearse with the resident band during the afternoon before performances at 8.45 and 10.45.  Poor guy.

Eventually our driver returns clutching our passports and some paperwork.  He gets into the car and we pile back into our seats and away he drives.  Yes, away, not towards Adonia but out of the port, onto a coastal road and away.  Nooooooooooooooooo!

We ask where we are going.  ‘Immigration’

But, but, but…we cleared immigration yesterday when we arrived in Amman and again just now arriving in Aqaba, why more?

A mile along the coast we pull up outside a municipal building and are shepherded in and told to sit in a long grey hallway.  Plastic chairs line the wall and there is a line of black grease and dirt on the wall at head level all the way along.

We wait.

Eventually someone who seems to be in his pyjamas comes to see our driver, and they talk earnestly.  Mr Pyjama than goes into an office with a window hatch and the earnest conversation continues until some stamping of passports happens.  This process is conducted purely by our driver, we have no part in it, and the three of us just sit and wait.

Mr Pyjama comes back out from his booth and says ‘Good morning’ to us and disappears into another office.

Driver now walks to another set of windows and waits for someone to appear, which they do not.  He goes into another door and after a while comes out again and returns to the line of windows.

He waits.  We wait.

We are sat in those dirty slimy chairs with the dirty slimy scum line along the wall for about 30 minutes whilst various people do various things with our passports until suddenly it is over and we can go back to the car.  The three of us, who are being admitted to the country, have played no part in the events at all.  Very strange, the whole thing.

And now we drive back to the port and drive into the gate once more and drive towards the security gate and…..as we near them the driver’s phone goes off again.  He pulls over while he talks.  He starts to do a u-turn again, back to the spot we were at an hour ago, but something is said that changes his mind and we make our way into the secure area of the port.

At last we are on the quayside, the wind blowing off the sea.  We pull our bags to the bottom of the gangplank where we are greeted by a crisp, smart P&O Officer.  At last, there will be some semblance of order and method now.

‘Good morning gentlemen.  Are you joining us today?  Do you have a boarding letter or the like?’  I fish mine out from the bag.

‘Good, good.  Yes.  Well, someone will be here to see to you shortly.  The thing is, that we weren’t expecting anyone to be joining today!’

We’ve gone beyond caring now.  We just stand on the dock like zombies.

Eventually a member of the admin team comes down clutching our cruise cards and we can board.

Chris shows his and walks up the gang plank.  Jimmy shows his and walks up the gang plank.  I am about to show mine until I notice that is has the name Graham Gould on it.  You couldn’t make this stuff up, could you?

The error is corrected and I get my own cruise card.  We are all checked into the ship and go to our cabins.

Even with our delays the breakfast buffet is still being served (there is always some food being served on a cruise ship), and we sit in the warm sun on the rear deck.  All of the cares and woes of the past 2 days slide away.  Even Chris is calmer now as he has managed to convince the Cruise Director to reschedule his show and doesn’t have to perform today after all.

Deep breaths all round and relax.

Welcome, ladies and gentlemen, to the glamour of life on the road.

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