I started to strip off as I usually do… at the airport obviously.. not just randomly in the street or anything. Removing my outer layers of clothing, watches, belts, the obvious accoutrements.
The security were ultra clear and concise with us today , as was to be expected. But where I would be anticipating a harsh demeanour and an authoritarian tone, I found it to be quite the opposite.
“I’m sorry, love” the lady behind the security belt expressed.
“We’re having to be a little stricter than usual with the liquids thing. You can’t use your own bag now. It has to be the clear resealable ones we provide… Look… here… if you take the lid off your hairspray we can make it fit”
I ws heading out for such a short trip I had elected to take only hand luggage. So trying to squeeze all of the toiletries and cosmetics I require on a cruise into a sandwich bag had proven to be difficult.
I sacrificed the miniature shampoo and conditioner in lieu of the essential make up items and as I headed off to pass through the body scanner she shouted after me…
“Have a nice day!”
I turned to look at her. And for a split millisecond as our eyes met her expression said it all
We are Manchester.
We smiled at each other and I walked away.
After being greeted with a similar approach by all of the staff in the airport that day, which was also the day after British Airways had experienced a system failure and there were tens of dozens of passengers stranded in Departures.. the mood wasn’t sombre, or tense, or even inciting discourse as i had expected. It was one of solidarity and understanding.
I spend a large portion of my working life in airports and more often than not these days the experience is less than pleasant.
Waiting in line and packing and repacking my hand luggage is par for the course but my experiences in airports at the other side of the pond this winter season made the whole experience of travelling from one ship to another virtually impossible at times. But I’ll come back to that.
Today I watchfully observed the demeanour of the other passengers, the faces of the staff at the airport, and the general air of understanding that floated fluidly above the ordinarily chaotic scene at terminal three. But today wasn’t one of those days.
I approached the supervisors desk towards the back of the security area and ventured a tentative “Excuse me” over the edge of the lofty and virtually unreachable vantage point from which he surveyed all he was required to manage.
I perched my chin on the edge and stood on the tips of my toes so he could see me. I hardly EVER wear flat shoes, but today I was anticipating a bit of a walk at the other end so I’d opted for a more sensible footwear option, bedazzled of course, but not so helpful in my current situation.
“He looked at me expectantly, with an expression that portrayed more of a ‘Please don’t give me any grief.. its hard enough today’ than a ‘Can I help you Madam?’ sort of face.
I took a breath
“I just wanted to say that I know you are operating under heightened security measures at the moment and understandably this is a hard time for everyone. I know you’re going to get a lot of complaints from people today because of this but I just wanted to say that I think you and your staff are doing a marvellous job”
His face immediately softened as I continued. His furrowed brow unfurled and he allowed the tension in his face to pass as I finished my point.
“Everybody has been cheerful and helpful and I just wanted to let you know, just incase nobody else tells you that today. Thanks for all you do.”
As he replied my face suddenly began to flush and I instantly felt a bit of an idiot for being so open with a veritable stranger. I gathered my things and literally bolted with his reply ringing in my wake
“Thank you… he offered… I’ll be sure to pass that on to the staff” And I legged it.
Its a little over two weeks since the terrorist attack on Manchester’s concert arena. 22 died and 59 were injured.
I live about 10 miles outside the centre but like many other Northerners and then subsequently Londoners, indeed Brits collectively this last week, I feel inextricably linked to every single person involved in the awful tragedies. Be it victim or survivor, family or observer. And the emergency services that responded so quickly and efficiently to what for them must have been one of the hardest nights of their lives.
I know what its like to have tough times and to a large extent my own personal losses in the past half year have kept me from my writings. I felt unable to even attempt to bring humour into anyones life let alone try to share it with the world. But the people of Manchester have inspired me. And as I open my laptop for the first time in over six months to start my most recent rumination I dedicate this blog to them.
WE are Manchester.
As is usually the case for me I have spent the majority of the winter cruising season hopping in and out of the United States and the Caribbean manoeuvring my way from one vessel to the next, barely ever really spending any length of time in any one place. And as much as I love the US and in particular, Florida, I have had very little time there per say other than the odd hotel night in transit here and there and a short six day vacation with Steve seeing friends at the end of January. But disembarking the beautiful Celebrity Equinox in Fort Lauderdale on this occasion on my way to join the Celebrity Eclipse in Aruba proved decidedly more difficult than I had imagined.
It appeared my frequent ‘in and out’ visits to the US on my visa waiver status had raised some alarm bells with immigration and CBP (Customs and Border Protection) and I had been flagged up as a ‘Person Of Interest’
Subsequently I had been ushered into a side room in the port before a brusque and statuesque lady official came inside to address me.
She left no doubt in my mind that she was less than impressed about my constant comings and goings in and out of the United States and whilst I had made it abundantly clear to her that I was only ever ‘popping in’ on my way to another ship, she was quite adamant that I had, in her words “Been abusing the terms of my ESTA” (this is the visa waiver programme for Brits travelling to the United States)
Allegedly leaving the US to travel to the Caribbean wasn’t considered a ‘significant enough departure’ and I apparently needed to be in possession of a B1/B2 visa.
I don’t mind telling you I was quaking in my wedges as I tried earnestly and fruitlessly to explain to the Grace Jones look alike that I was indeed only following the same course of action as any other guest entertainer in my position and that I was completely unaware of the visa prerequisite. I assured her I would rectify the situation at my earliest possible opportunity.
This didn’t seem enough for ‘Angry Grace’ and my protestations were largely unheard.
She was such a meanie. I could feel the hot tears beginning to well up in my already tired eyes. I genuinely thought she was about to deport me.
The last 15 years of my career flashed before my eyes as I panicked that everything I had worked so very hard for was about to be snatched from under my nose.
I allowed her to finish her spiel before i offered my explanation, muted and tentatively.
“I have three more cruises to complete before I have a month at home. I promise to book an appointment with the US Embassy in London the minute I exit this room. Please don’t deport me. I’ll lose my job. Its taken me 15 years. FIFTEEN YEARS to get here!!!”
“Who said anything about deportation?” she retorted.
“But… But..” I whimpered
“I’ll stamp your passport but not for 90 days. Just for the time left until you leave for the UK. And you need to get a visa”
“I will I will” I answered, hurriedly collecting my possessions and following ‘Angry Grace’ back to the desk.
In the car on the way to Miami airport I felt woeful. I allow myself an occasion self indulgent moment in this line of work… when I sometimes think about how life might be if I had chosen a more vanilla existence. I was headed to Curacao. And whilst I knew it to be a lovely Island, I would be spending two days in a hotel there alone. And with my new ‘Person of Interest’ experience looming over me I felt a little low and less than excited about my day.
I dragged my cases out of the ‘Uber’ and to the check in desk where i wearily presented my passport to the attendant.
“This flight has been cancelled” She said. “Didn’t you receive the email?”
Befuddled I answered “No, my company book my travel. It wouldn’t come to me. What do you mean cancelled?”
“Yes you’ve been rebooked on the afternoon flight tomorrow and we have taken the liberty of booking you a hotel here in Miami. We apologise for the inconvenience” she offered.
As a complete knee-jerk reaction an excessively loud “YAAAAAYYYYYYYYY” spontaneously erupted from my lips before I caught myself and covered my mouth. People around me in the same situation were clearly distressed at the disruption to their travel arrangements but my automatic response was to cheer. I had friends in Miami. LOTS of friends. And now I would have a day to shoot about and see as many as I could. Everything happens for a reason I thought. And I skipped off with my vouchers to find my shuttle bus and call my pals.
It was a great day. A truly great day. I lunched with friends, shopped at Lincoln Road, made plans for dinner and took my first ever ‘Uber Pool’
If you’re unaware, ‘Uber’ is very similar to a taxi service. You order the driver online, punch in your destination and a fully vetted person in their own vehicle turns up to take you where ever you ask to go. Its cheaper than taxi’s and though the drivers, especially in Miami don’t always speak English too well, I’ve never had a reason to complain. ‘Uber Pool’ is where you do exactly as above but agree to share your journey with other possible passengers on the way. Its much cheaper and you meet some REAL characters.
I’d taken this option several times throughout the day and on my journey to meet my friends for dinner in North Miami ‘Josef’ the Uber driver proved to be a real hoot. Granted, he picked up and dropped off so many passengers on my journey that I was half an hour late but I met a pregnant nurse, a Brazilian honeymooning couple and a young Russian student on the way to meet his parents. He didn’t say much.
I had a blast and I think Josef did too. I’m pretty sure this job was as much a social life for him as a source of income. He had us in fits of laughter the whole journey. His constant declarations of “Come on lets go paaarrttaaayyy” may have given it away.
This was a good day I thought. A really good day.
The next morning I rose to discover I had an email from the airline asking me to contact them about the days travel. I promptly called to be informed my 12.45pm flight would now not be leaving until 9.45pm but that I would still have to check in for the flight at the original time.
I tried to remain positive, drawing on the memories of the epic day I’d had before this and assuring myself I could busy myself for nine hours in the airport no problem.
As the day wore on so did my patience and the airport staff informed us that my onward flight from Aruba to Curacao had been cancelled and that the airline would be putting us in a hotel in Aruba.
I called my Curacao hotel and cancelled the reservation and dutifully boarded the plane.
Wearily I dozed until the landing in Aruba. This was a SERIOUSLY dilapidated plane. I forced myself to sleep to avoid thinking about the actual physical signs of rust in the fuselage and the decided lack of carpeting anywhere on the plane.
As we disembarked, now utterly exhausted an announcement over the public address system caused my ears to prick up.
“Passengers scheduled to fly to Curacao please wait outside the plane at the foot of the stairs after disembarking”
Confused I joined the group…..
The supervisor, trying desperately to organise the now exhausted passengers caught my eye and I asked him
“I don’t think I’m supposed to be on this flight. My flight was cancelled and the airline are booking me a hotel”
“No ma’am. The flight has been rescheduled. We have chartered a small plane to take you to Curacao tonight.”
“So theres no hotel here in Aruba for me?” I added
“No ma’am. You’ll be taken to Curacao very shortly.”
“But I’ve cancelled my room. And the Island is tiny. Its 1am now… will there even BE any taxi’s in the airport in Curacao at this time of night?”
“No ma’am probably not” he muttered sheepishly under his breath
“But I’m a woman travelling on my own… with no transport and no accommodation. I’ve been awake 18 hours already. What am I supposed to do?” My voice now raised I implored him for a more suitable answer.
“i can’t help you. I’m sorry” he answered and began to walk away
At this point I could feel myself starting to sweat. That uncomfortable kind of inner heat where you feel you may well just turn green and burst out of your shirt.
Enraged, I now began to shout impatiently.
“YOU HAVE A DUTY OF CARE TO ME. YOU HAVE MESSED ME AROUND FOR TWO DAYS AND I HAVE PATIENTLY ACCEPTED ALL OF YOUR MISDEMEANOURS TO THIS POINT. BUT THIS IS BEYOND THE JOKE. YOU CANT DO THIS. YOU CANT. YOU HAVE TO HELP ME.IS THERE NO ONE YOU CAN CALL?”
But he was gone.
I stood there utterly bereft trying my best to weigh up the options available to me. It would be pointless to call my agent. It was 5am in the UK right now. How could he help me? I had HAD a hotel and cancelled it on the bum advice of the airline. And now I was stuck. With no idea where my luggage was and no idea where I was going to sleep tonight.
What was I going to do?
To be continued………..