2 years ago
As a man, there are certain things, you’d feel a little embarrassed about owning up to – crying during Bambi for example, or having a penchant for wearing ladies underwear. Included in that list would also be getting seasick on a Pedalo. While I’m making no admissions with regard to the first two (maybe another day) I will own up here and now to the third. A long time has passed and the wounds have almost healed.
It was 1987 and we were marginally off the coast of St Julians Bay in Malta. In my defence, I have to say that it was a bit choppy and the previous night’s Pina Colada was already making overtures regarding a re-appearance when I got on board. But there’s no doubt that it does little for your macho image or street cred, to be forced to abandon ship (and your girlfriend) 100 yards out and swim back to shore, for fear of having a long pedal back while picking regurgitated coconut out of your sandals.
I only mention this, to give you some idea of my state of mind when it was recently suggested that we might go on a cruise. You see, me and water just don’t get on. I’m fine when I’m in it – just not so good when I’m on it. And a more recent awkward moment in a rowing boat on a glass-smooth boating lake in Cleethorpes confirmed that my constitution hasn’t exactly improved with age.
I consulted numerous cruise veterans, all of whom assured me that I wouldn’t even know that the ship was moving. I trusted these people. And so imagine my confusion that sorry day, with the cruise duly booked and embarked upon, when I awoke at 2.00am to find the ship being tossed around like a cork, and to hear the sort of crunching, grinding and juddering noises I’d imagine they experienced just before the Titanic disappeared below the waves.
This went on for what seemed like hours – but miraculously I wasn’t ill. Early next morning, I woke to the dulcet tones of the Captain, booming out over the ships tannoy. Apparently we’d sailed through a force eleven storm the previous night, but the ship had coped “very well”. You could have fooled me! He was probably right though. When I later looked it up, I found out that a force eleven storm equates to 50ft waves and that the only thing worse, is a force twelve - which is a hurricane. Just the thing for someone without sea legs. But I was fine.
It was to take transport of a different kind to give my stomach a proper test.
The night after the storm, we arrived in La Palma, which is one of the lesser-known of the Canary Islands, and has the distinction of being the steepest island in the world. It’s somewhere I’d never been before and knew nothing about. So I did what I’d never do under normal circumstances – I booked a coach tour too.
Now don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against coaches – for other people that is. There’s no finer conveyance for transporting school children, pensioners and the mentally impaired - professional footballers for example. But they fall fairly and squarely into the category of ‘public transport’. Something that just doesn’t fit well with my need to be in full control at all times. I’d already had to relinquish more control than I was comfortable with, by allowing someone else to steer the ship. I feared this coach malarkey may be a step too far. But it was too late now. It was parked in front of the ship and one of the seats had my name on it.
Well we all got on board, and ladyfriend and daughter took the two seats in front of me. I was joined by a lady with a name badge and a clipboard. A sly glance to my right confirmed that she worked for the cruise-line and was doing a form of quality assessment on the trip. I’d love to know what she wrote, I really would.
It all started well enough. The tour guide was a blonde haired, middle aged woman from Leicester called Diane. I’d imagine she went to La Palma on holiday in around 1983, met a swarthy lothario called Raul, and never went home again. But then again, I imagine lots of things as my stories can prove. Anyway, the coach set off and Diane waxed lyrical about the wonderful flora, fauna and wildlife we were all about to witness in the local National Park, located high up in the centre of the island. We were definitely in the right place she told us – far better than any of the other islands. I was getting quite excited. Actually, that’s a lie. I never get excited. But I was starting to think the day might not turn into a total disaster, which is my normal default position on such occasions.
Anyway, after about 40 minutes of enthusiastic build up, we passed the park visitor centre on our right, which Diane told us we regrettably wouldn’t have time to visit. I couldn’t help noticing it was getting quite windy by this point, but thought nothing of it. A couple of minutes later, we arrived at a barrier at the entrance to the park, and Diane leaned out to have a conversation with a park ranger.
“I don’t know whether you caught that”, she said (How the heck would I? They were speaking Spanish) “but the park is closed today because of the wind”. An entire national park closed because of wind! Imagine closing the Peak District or Dartmoor because of wind – or anything else. Incredible.
Some body asked about a Plan B, and a somewhat flustered Diane admitted she had no Plan B, but would ring Pablo in the office for instructions. But Pablo wasn’t answering his phone – he was probably out watching a bullfight or seducing a teenage holidaymaker from Crewe called Tracey – but in any event, we were driven to the visitors centre, while he was located and dragged back to work.
What a dump this place was! It turned out to be a dark concrete monstrosity hidden behind a building site. Its only redeeming feature was that it had toilets. Unfortunately, they were the kind of toilets often found in foreign parts, where the urinals are in full view of anyone walking past. This wouldn't have been such a problem if people had been walking past - but they weren’t. They were standing right outside, queuing for the Ladies.
Now one of the things I don’t understand about women – of which there are many – is why they ever put up with this. In just about every other area of life, they fight tooth and nail to put right any perceived inequality, no matter how slight or apparently inconsequential. And yet they meekly tolerate a situation in which they spend significant chunks of their lives standing in whiffy queues with other women they don’t know, just waiting to pee.
Why there isn’t a world-wide campaign for more ladies toilets, I have no idea. Why there isn’t marching in the streets is beyond me. But there is neither, which is probably why I never make any money as a plumber fitting toilets, and why this line of resigned women was very slowly shuffling past the gents, with the urinals in full view.
This would have been far less of a problem if the folk in the queue were strangers I’d never see again, rather than people I was about to share a coach with for the next two hours, and a ship for the next two weeks. If someone catches you mid-flow, you just don’t want to set eyes on them again. You really don’t.
So I clambered dispirited and humiliated, back on the coach to be informed that Pablo had now been contacted (maybe Tracey had given him the knock-back) and a revised itinerary had been swiftly worked out. I don’t know exactly what it was he said, but from what followed, can only assume that it was something like “Drive them around for a bit and waffle.”
We were each handed a leaflet, describing what we would have seen if we’d been let into the park (talk about rubbing it in) and for the next 45 minutes were driven through some of the most God forsaken villages and countryside I think I’ve ever seen anywhere, while Diane rambled on about what we could have experienced - if only the weather had been better or if it was a different day or if it was even a different time of year.
Apparently anything and everything of any interest or importance happened, appeared, or could have been experienced on another day. But no, not today. All there was today was bananas, acres and acres of bloody bananas.
Now you won’t often catch me bad-mouthing bananas. It’s the perfect healthy and handy snack food. In fact, I eat them most days. But when you’ve seen one banana field, believe me you’ve seen them all, and there’s a limit to the amount of information you can take in about fucking bananas, without developing an almost irresistible urge to use one as an impromptu gag. Diane however, was fascinated by bananas. Maybe living in a place like this gets you that way. But I still wasn’t, and I suspect from the glum faces of my fellow passengers, niether were they.
By this stage the lady next to me, who was supposed to be assessing the trip, had actually fallen asleep. Which is a shame, because she possibly missed the most exciting part.
Then the coach driver took a phone call. He mumbled something to Diane in Spanish, and I noticed a discernible change in his style of driving. We were travelling along very narrow, twisty, country roads with steep sheer drops just inches away, but he was driving rather quickly now. Too quickly for my liking anyway. Ever wondered whether it’s possible to powerslide a coach? I can tell you that it is.
Diane continued with her monotonous droning lecture about bananas, (If I’m feeling particularly vitriolic towards you one day, I’ll educate you on the differences between the La Palma banana and its Caribbean cousin) while the woman two seats in front started to go a rather fetching shade of green. I wasn’t feeling too good myself by this point – far worse in fact, than I was in the force eleven storm the previous evening. Every now and then, the driver would take another phone call, mumble something else in Spanish, and push his foot just that little bit further to the boards.
Eventually, after about 15 minutes of this mayhem, Diane finally came clean…
“Erm, you may have noticed that we aren’t travelling at our normal leisurely pace, (Oh really? No shit Sherlock!) but the thing is, that they’re closing the road ahead of us at 11.00 clock for essential roadwork’s and if we don’t get there for then, we’ll be stuck.”
Now the thought of being trapped on this damned coach on this damned island for a minute longer than necessary caused me to abandon all thoughts of personal safety and to mentally implore the driver to give it some more welly. At 2 minutes to eleven, and with my breakfast almost at the point of no return (or should that be some return?) we passed the cut off point, and everything returned to normal.
On another day, at a different time of year, in different weather and without road works, La Palma may be a wonderful place. But for me, today was crap beyond all measure.
To cap things off, Diane announced that we would stop for refreshments, before returning to the ship. I was temporarily buoyed at the prospect of a cold beer, but my hopes were again somewhat quickly dashed.
“There will be coffee and tea”, she said. “But I wouldn’t drink the coffee at all, if I were you. And as for the tea, well I’m a tea drinker, and can drink it anywhere, but you might not find the tea here… err… to your taste. It’s not very strong, and erm… not very warm either.”
All of this was delivered without any sense of irony or humour. I turned to sleeping beauty sitting next to me who’d woken up by now “It’s alright for you,” I said “you’re getting paid to be here.” She said nothing.
Next we arrived in a village so devoid of life, that even the tumbleweed couldn’t be arsed to tumble, and it just lay lifeless by the side of the road. Diane pointed out a miserable looking, utilitarian and characterless village hall, where we were instructed to queue up for the aforementioned maligned beverages and a biscuit. I chose to just drink water.
I looked around the room. And I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a sea of uniformly miserable faces, outside of a crematorium. But by this time, me ladyfriend and her daughter were virtually hysterical with laughter. The whole thing was just so bad beyond belief, that it was totally funny. I’m not sure anyone else was in on the joke though.
As we returned to the coach, the green woman had returned to a more healthy yellow, and she thanked us for taking her mind off the worst excesses of the Coach’s Grand Prix by making her laugh. I didn’t know she’d been listening otherwise I might have really opened up. But the rest of the journey back to the ship was punctuated by even more bananas, more tales of interesting things that happen on La Palma when we’re not there, and a frankly astonishing request for a round of applause for the driver. If it had been down to me, he’d have been totally deafened by the silence, and Googling ‘gearstick orifice extraction techniques’ on his return to the depot, but we Brits are remarkably polite at such times, and most of the group complied.
I was just starting to feel very sick again when the ship mercifully loomed into view. We got off the coach in surprisingly high spirits – partly through euphoria that it was finally all over, and partly because it had been incredibly bad. Well, it had been quite good really.
There was absolutely no chance of me risking another coach tour the next day though, which is why I spent it on ship. This turned out to be a good thing for two reasons. Firstly my visit to the gym happily coincided with that of a Russian cabaret contortionist called Valerie, whose act had held my attention for longer than was decent the previous evening. I shall leave all the details of that encounter to your imagination though, because I have less salacious fish to fry.
When we got back from dinner that evening, amongst the events announced in the newsletter for the following day was a free 45 minute seminar on the subject of boosting metabolism, hosted by the ship’s fitness instructors. Now that’s something that interests me – not because I want to lose weight or anything, but because I’m incredibly greedy and would like to eat a lot more and stay the same. So my partner and I decided to go along. I refuse to reveal her motivation for going, on the grounds that doing so could result in me having to recover my testicles from a place God never intended them to be located.
Anyway, the seminar provided some very useful information, but I figured out its true purpose within about 3 minutes of the start. I’m not sure whether anyone else did. My friend certainly didn’t.
The instructor talked about exercise and nutrition, but made it clear that in his opinion, none of this could be effective if the body was in a toxic state. He then proceeded to tell us about all the aspects of modern life which would create this toxicity. We had no way of knowing how toxic our bodies were, but guess what? He miraculously had a simple test we could all take. All we needed to do was make an appointment with him, (He’d already collected our names and cabin numbers at the start of the session) and for a mere £45 each, all would be revealed. And because good health is a family issue, couples could take the test on a two for one deal at the special price of just £80.
Yes, to top off an already remarkably troublesome day never to be remembered, we were now being shafted for our holiday money into the bargain. Could this holiday from Hell possibly get any worse? Well if it hadn’t been for the five star accommodation, Michelin standard food, and wall to wall sunshine, I really don’t think I’d have survived it at all.
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