For the past seven days I have been bobbing about in the South Atlantic. Over the next few days I will post a few selections of my adventures:
Since Christmas I have been at home with Liz. The long weeks of the tour are a series of happy memories, and home life has taken over. Much has gone on in Oxfordshire: we have been starting to market my shows various grand stately homes, and we have discovered a brand new cinema in Oxford that is extremely civilised and serves humous and flatbreads, as well as allowing you to take a glass of wine (in a real glass) into the film with you. Oh yes, the Curzon is an extremely middle classed cinema geared perfectly to the local clientele. In the comfy seats (little sofas to snuggle up on) we have watched The Greatest Showman, The Darkest Hour and The Post, all of which we have enjoyed immensely.
But this week it was time for me to travel again as last year I had been booked by P&O Cruises to provide some entertainment on board Aurora as part of her South American Grand Tour.
Sunday 21 January
I am used to flying of course, but usually I have to be at Heathrow airport good and early ready to board a flight at 9.00am, or some such time. Today however I am not due to leave British soil until 8.20 in the evening so we have the entire day to get ready. As the shroud of night is pulled back and dawn allowed to make her presence felt I am amazed to see snow – real snow with heavy flakes – falling over our garden. Not only is snow falling, but it is laying too and soon the grass, the flower beds, the paths, the shed and our cars is covered in white. There is something about the snow that brings back such happy memories of childhood and Liz and I watch from our upstairs window in delight.
This being England the snow doesn’t last long and by 10 o’clock the precipitation has changed to rain, accompanied by a thick misty fog which doesn’t lift for the rest of the day.
I spend the day packing my cases not entirely sure what weather conditions will await me in the South Atlantic, but hopefully covering a few bases. The traffic can be very heavy on a Sunday night as various London folk return from their weekend homes, so we decide to leave plenty of time to get to the airport. If anything the fog is thicker and the rain heavier than at any time of the day, and seems to mirror our moods as we prepare to part once more.
We were right to leave plenty of time, for soon after joining the M40 we run into the back of a long traffic jam. We edge forward inch by inch, getting dazzled by the very bright brake lights of the Jaguar in front of us. The Sat Nav gives us gloomy predictions of our arrival time and has no better suggestions, so we inch and we inch and we inch, wondering if I might not be heading south after all.
Eventually we see a smear of emergency lights flashing through the fog and we crawl pass the wreck of a car, which seems to have damage to every single panel, being loaded onto a flatbed truck. Once clear of the accident scene we speed on our away again and reach the airport bang on schedule.
The curb side drop off zone at Terminal 3 has been the scene of many tearful goodbyes over the years and today we add another one as we hug not caring about the rain. I pull my suitcases out of the car and watch Liz drive away, before starting to walk towards the terminal. For some reason I don’t seem to be able to maintain control of my luggage and it is only in the dry of the building that I discover that one of the wheels on my large case has sheared clean off (presumably as I was unloading it just now), meaning that I have only three wheels on my wagon from now on, which promises to make things rather awkward.
I am due to fly with Latam Airlines, a carrier that I have never heard of, but was reassured a couple of days ago to see that they had flown the Pope to Brazil, so they must be OK. I check in quickly (having to sign a form declaring that my case was damaged before entrusting it to their care), and in no time an walking to the gate and getting ready to board. The plane is a nice modern 777 and the Brazilian crew are friendly and welcoming. I do not understand Portuguese but I have flown enough to know exactly what they are saying. I do up my seat belt, I stow my carry on bags, I put my tray table in the upright and locked position and I remind myself that smoking in the lavatory is not to be attempted as there are smoke detectors there – yes my Portuguese is coming on well.
Also on the flight is a large group of P&O crew (wearing sweatshirts and carrying kit bags with the company logo), who will all be joining Aurora for the beginning of a new contract. My time onboard is only seven days and I can’t imagine the pain of the goodbyes that they have had to say as they leave for 3, 6 or 9 months away from their homes.
The flight is bound for Sau Paulo in Brazil, and will last just over eleven hours through the night. I scroll through the movie options and decide to re-watch The Artist which did so well at the Oscars a few years ago. I plug in my headphones (surely somewhat superfluous?) and settle back to enjoy the film.
Dinner is served – I have a smoked salmon salad, which is rather nice – and watch to the end of The Artist. Next up Skyfall, and I cover myself with a Latam rug and lean on a Latam pillow and let myself doze off. Bond fails to keep my attention and half way through the film I turn the monitor off and settle down to sleep. The night is restless, but I do manage to get some shut eye and when I wake and check the flight map I am amazed to discover that we are only an hour and forty minutes from Sao Paulo.
I resume Skyfall and watch to the end before, enjoying a breakfast omelette and potatoes which is served an hour before arrival.
Monday 22 January
Flying into Sau Paulo brings many childhood thoughts to my mind, for it sums up (to me, at least) the centre of the Brazilian Formula 1 industry. Back in the early 1970s when I first became interested in the sport the Grand Prix was held at The Interlagos circuit in the city, a sinuous switch back circuit built in a valley between two lakes (the name of the circuit means ‘between the lakes’). The local heroes of the day were Carlos Pace (who the circuit is now named in memory of) driving for the Brabham team, and Emerson Fittipaldi who drove one of my beloved Lotuses to the World Championship in 72. These men opened the flood gates and soon the racing world was filled with talented Brazilian drivers including Nelson Piquet and of course the mercurial and brilliant Ayrton Senna who is buried in the city.
Although the GP switched to Rio in the late seventies and early eighties, it came back to a shortened version of Interlagos and now is permanently homed here. I’d love to spend time in the City and pay a visit to the both the track and Senna’s grave but unfortunately I only have a couple of hours layover before my next flight (and it is 5am!).
As I am transiting straight to Uruguay I don’t have to clear immigration in Brazil so apart from a quick security check I am soon at the gate awaiting to board a smaller plane to Montevideo along with the rest of my P&O colleagues.
By the time we take off it is daylight again and I look hopefully down at the massive sprawling city trying to catch a glimpse of the racing circuit and although I can see lots of lakes there doesn’t seem to be much between any of them. I do however see miles and miles of the favelas – the poverty-stricken shanty towns that blight all large Brazilian cities.
The flight lasts for about two hours and follows the west coast of South America, with rivers and sea glinting through the high clouds.
Latam come up trumps and serve a choice of ham and cheese roll or a muffin to accompany my coffee – the major airlines struggle to serve a bag of peanuts these days, so the snack is welcome. A babble of Portuguese comes over the intercom and my newly-discovered linguistic skills help me to deduce that we are beginning our descent into Montevideo airport.
As we break through the clouds I see that we are over the docks and immediately below me is my home for the next 7 days – Aurora moored next to a massive cargo ship, and resplendent with her blue funnel. I haven’t been on a cruise ship for around three years and in the intervening period P&O have undergone a re-branding. The ships had traditionally been white-hulled with pale yellow funnels, but now the prows have a large Union Flag design painted on them and the funnels are blue. ‘Harrumph!’ say us traditionalists, although I must admit it does look rather smart.
The airport is right on the other side of the city and it takes quite a while to make our landing. As in any airport I stand with hundreds of other people waiting to clear immigration (although I am able to use an electronic passport reader and get through quickly), and then waiting for my bags which take an agonisingly long time to come through.
Eventually I grab my large suit carrier and my three-wheeled case and make my way out into the lobby where I am greeted by a man holding an ‘Aurora’ sign. I will be on board as a passenger, whilst all of the others on my flight are crew, so have to go through different immigration checks and will be taken to the ship in a mini bus. I get a car and we start the long drive back to the docks.
Montevideo is an impressive city, and is on the banks of the River Plate, although the mouth of the river is so wide that you cannot see the opposite bank. A huge sweeping curve of a beach is filled with people playing in the surf or just soaking up the rays. It is like a Californian city with the Spanish architecture and palms alongside the sands. Inevitably much of the building caters to the holiday market and there is a succession of rather drab, dare I say Eastern bloc-looking hotels, but as we get nearer to the docks it is apparent that here lies the ancient part of the town and the architecture becomes more interesting again.
Aurora is the only cruise ship in port, although the container ship that I saw from above dominates the skyline with its multi-coloured metal containers piled high, ready to take whatever to wherever.
My taxi pulls up along side Aurora and in the cool of the shade that her hull provides I complete the paperwork to allow me onboard. My cabin is on deck 10 (so quite high up), and right towards the bows which means if we hit heavy oceans in the Southern Ocean I could be in for quite a rollercoaster ride!
Even though it has been a few years since last I was on a ship like this everything is reassuringly familiar. I unpack and then go for a walk to discover my bearings. Theatre, restaurants, bars, library, cinema all as and where I remember them.
On returning to my cabin I see that I have received a packet from the Production Manager informing me of my show times and I am quite surprised to discover that my first show (Mr Dickens is Coming!) has been scheduled in the cabaret slot in the main theatre on 26 January – 2 shows at 8.30 and 10.30. Usually my gigs are during the day as part of the lecture programme, so this is quite a promotion! The passengers are used to seeing top comics, brassy singers, old-fashioned crooners and large glitzy shows with high-kicking dancing girls: I hope that I’m up to it (not the high-kicking, I think I’ll give that a miss this year).
I mooch around the ship for the rest of the day and admire the scenery. Also in port is the might of the Uruguayan Navy (rather a motley collection of small ships, including one that proudly boasts number ‘1. It would appear that Uruguay is not too worried about an imminent attack from the sea.
Another feature of our birth is just outside the harbour walls, where there is a boat’s graveyard. A collection of what appear to be fishing boats rust in various states of submergence. It is a rather sad reminder of Montevideo’s moment of international fame when the German warship Graf Spee scuttled in the bay.
I have a salad lunch from the buffet and do a little rehearsing in my cabin, before going to a ‘safety briefing’ in one of the meeting rooms. There is only me and a harpist (Rebecca Mills who has also joined the ship today) present. We are greeted by a member of the Entertainment team who runs through the required briefing knowing full well that we have both heard it many times before.
For dinner I sit out on the rear deck and have a delicious steak as a 5 piece band serenades the guests with a selection of easy-listening songs from the 70s (Neil Sedaka features prominently), each of which is followed with ‘thanks guys, thank you so much, yeah, thanks guys’ even when nobody applauds: it is a tough gig for a band.
Having finished dinner I return to my cabin fairly early and get ready for bed. It has been a long day, or days, and I am looking forward to catching up with some real sleep and then tomorrow I will explore a little of Montevideo.