The month began with a cruise ship gig. Specifically a monster of a four-ship, twelve-country, fly-all-over-the-damn-world-doing-magic-for-wealthy-septuagenarians cruise ship gig.
The schedule: fly from LA to Hong Kong. Get on a ship that ends up in Vietnam via Cambodia. Fly Vietnam to New Zealand. Ship from Auckland to Dunedin. Fly from there to Mauritius, off the coast of Africa. Five days at sea to the Maldives islands, then fly to Brazil to board a ship that goes along the Amazon river. Get off in Manaus, and finally fly back to LA, pass out, and wake up overjoyed at finally being able to stop living out of a suitcase and listening to terrible magic jokes [link].
On most cruise ships there are two main categories of people: guests and crew. As a Guest Entertainer (my official job title on these gigs) you fall into a slightly odd middle ground: you are technically a guest who also has a work contract. Since even the smallest cruise ships have maybe 400 guests and 500 crew, the average of three guest entertainers on board represent about 0.3% of the shipboard population. This can result in frequent confusion when embarking and disembarking, since most port and immigration processes are only set up to handle the 99.7% majority of “guests go here, crew go there.”
Most of the time this just results in awkward delays as you wait patiently for the port representative to discover what you already know: despite being under the age of 65 and carrying all manner of equipment, you are supposed to go to a guest cabin even though you don’t have a ticket, and appear on an odd section of the ship’s manifest.
In Brazil however, it gets weird. Ask anyone who has worked in the cruise industry about Brazillian immigration, and they will likely respond with a shudder, a thousand-yard stare, and a comment that it can be an absolute shitshow. To cut a long story short (and believe me, this story is long enough already), for the purposes of a Brazil based cruise gig, I had to enter the country as maritime crew. Normally you go through immigration as a generic tourist/transit passenger, since your work is being done in international waters, not the country itself.
But Brazil is weird. Luckily the agency I do ship gigs through is filled with cool people who have their shit together, who helped me organise the necessary maritime documents. The main one is a kind of ocean-specific passport called a Seaman’s Discharge Book.
Yes. A Seaman’s Discharge Book. Not a Maritime Worker’s Record. Not a Nautical Transit Document. Not an Oceanic Passport or any of the many other options I’m sure the committee in charge could have thought up. Instead, a group of people straight-facedly sat down and decided to name an important maritime law document a Seaman’s Discharge Book.
So, I had my Jizz Diary, cough, sorry, my Seaman’s Discharge Book, I had my yellow fever vaccine certification, and I had my maritime Approval-to-Board port documentation. All well in advance of the journey.
I set off. Through Hong Kong, Cambodia, New Zealand, and Mauritius. Three weeks. Many experiences, many adventures, many highs and lows and everything between, but none of them strictly relevant to this story.
Halfway through the trip, just after leaving Mauritius for five days at sea - what would normally be the least eventful of the journey - I received an email from head office.
“Hey Simon, just checking: do you have an ENG-1 Seafarer Medical Certificate? The next ship has just emailed and you will be required to obtain one before joining in Brazil.”
I replied that I’d never heard of one before; it hadn’t been part of the extensive all-the-extra-stuff-you’ll-need-because-Brazilian-immigration-is-weird briefing package. Was it something I could get hold of from the medical department on the current ship?
After a long and informative conversational with the medical department, no it wasn’t. It turns out that the ENG-1 Seafarer’s Medical Certifiate can only be issued by a doctor with a very specific accreditation from the Maritime/Coastguard Agency. I sent this update back to head office, reminding them that I was also at sea for the next five days, with minimal flexibility to go hunting down maritime approved doctors, and that I would await further instructions.
Thus ensued an email chain that grew steadily over the next five days until it included cruise directors from two ships, head office staff from three companies, multiple travel bookers, and several names I didn’t even recognise as I watched the growing crisis unfold.
To summarise the email thread:
Q: The ship says Simon needs this medical certificate. He’s at sea now. When he arrives in Malé, he has ten hours before his flight to Brazil. Could he get it there?
A: After extensive research, no. There are no doctors in Malé or indeed the rest of the Maldives islands accredited to do the medical.
Q: Ok, could he do it upon arrival in Brazil before joining the ship?
A: No. Not only are there no accredited doctors we can find in Brazil, the gap between the plane landing and the ship departing is way too narrow.
Q: Does he really need this medical? Surely there must be a exception we can apply for based on the grounds of sanity.
A: Apparently not. While it’s entirely possible - nay, likely - that this is a load of bureaucratic BS that doesn’t really matter, someone in the chain of command somewhere is being a stickler for rules and is telling us there are no exceptions.
Q: We’ve found a doctor in Fort Lauderdale, Florida that can do the ENG-1. Could we fly him there?
A: Well theoretically yes, but holy shit that’s a long and time consuming detour, not to mention the expense of booking all those additional flights at short notice.
At this point it’s worth mentioning an option that wasn’t raised. Specifically: abandoning the whole thing as too difficult and letting the cruise navigate Brazil with one less guest entertainer.
Back on my second or third ever cruise gig, I made a passing joke to the Cruise Director about how my job felt relatively insignificant compared to more critical things like food and beverage. She countered by explaining that, hell no, the variety that the guest entertainers bring to the evening shows is a critical part of the cruise experience. Good shows can make a cruise, and bad ones can break it. A cruise is a complex machine, and the guest entertainer shows, while only one cog in that machine, are big damn important cogs that are not easily replaceable at short notice.
This ship in Brazil needed its Australian magician shaped cog, and an increasingly large number of people on an email thread were trying their damnedest to get it one.
Meanwhile I’d been doing my own research. My flight to Brazil from Malé wasn’t a nice direct one, but instead went Malé > Dubai > Saõ Paulo > Salvador. Something stirred in my memory. Back when having that first conversation with the ship’s medical team, one of the staff had consulted a list of ENG-1 approved doctors around the world. I went back to check, and there was one doctor - Dr Keith Nicholl - on the list based in Dubai. According to google maps, his surgery was about 25 minutes drive from Dubai airport.
I sent this discovery in to the continuing email shitstorm, and the storm abated slightly as a plan began to emerge. I was scheduled to transit through Dubai for about two hours from 4am-6am on Tuesday, arrive in Salvador later that night, stay in a hotel and then join the ship in the morning on Wednesday. If we moved my connecting flights back exactly one day, I would have a day to hunt down Doctor Keith, get the medical, then fly and join the ship on Wednesday as planned.
We then discovered that Doctor Keith doesn’t work Tuesdays.
New plan. Hole up in Dubai for two days, get the medical, then change the connecting flights to join the ship in the next port of Recife. The entertainment schedule might have to flex a bit to accommodate, but it was still a better plan than anything else available.
However, by the time we figured this out I was already in Malé with five hours left before my existing flight. Changing the flights for this unconventional plan needed approval from Cruise Ship HQ, and the time difference currently made it 5:30am over there. They were due to get in to work at 9am, which would be just barely in time to switch the flights over before I had to depart.
I looked in to the possibility of just taking the first Dubai leg of the multi-stop flight, then pausing there to await further instructions, but the helpful check-in staff explained that it was an all-or-nothing deal. While obviously they couldn’t physically force me on to the next flight, my luggage would be going all the way to Brazil, not to mention the administrative issues that would result. So I sat in the airport, one eye on the clock and the other on my email inbox, and waited.
With 15 minutes left before check-in closed, I got a text message from my agent (who, apart from being an all-round champion of a human being, had been a bastion of sanity and support throughout this whole process) saying the ticket change had come through, and we were good to go with the Dubai plan. I didn’t actually have anywhere to stay in Dubai yet, but head office had a whole three hours of flight time with which to figure that out.
The next part went remarkably smoothly. Flew to Dubai, picked up my bags, got a tourist visa-on-arrival, got to the hotel which has been booked in the interim, and passed out for about fifteen hours. While the many and varied delights of Dubai beckoned, I was so wiped out from the last 48 hours that I ended up taking a mental health recuperation day and catching up on the TV and web shows I’d been missing while constrained to low speed ship internet.
I also triple checked my plans for the following day. I had an 8:30am appointment with the only ENG-1 approved doctor in 3,000 miles, and of all the times in my career I didn’t want to be the person who screwed up the schedule, this was a big one. I checked the address. I checked the route. I checked how the local cabs worked. I made sure I had local cash as well as my credit card. I planned to get there an entire hour early. I set two different alarms and went to sleep.
The plans worked. I made it to the surgery and met Doctor Keith, who administered the medical. It became clear during the process that the scarcity of ENG-1 approved doctors isn’t anything to do with the complexity of the examination, but simply how obscure the certificate is. Maritime law is weird, and sometimes causes you to end up in Dubai for two days doing what would otherwise be a relatively trivial medical examination.
He finished. I thanked him, and went to pay. My credit card was declined.
Now, on this current trip alone I had just used that credit card in about five different countries. Even before I started doing weird ship itineraries, my job has had me bouncing around the world so much that the bank was very aware that I was a frequent traveller. I checked my mobile banking app and confirmed that there were no alerts, and that I was well under my card limit.
We tried again. Still declined. I suddenly realised that despite all my planning, I had neglected to bring a second credit card or enough cash for the medical exam instead of just two taxis. This credit card had taken me around the world without ever having had an issue before, and I’d clearly become complacent about it.
I called the bank, forcing myself not to think about how much the call was going to cost. After the standard Kafkaesque nightmare of trying to get through to a human, I found Casey. Casey was intelligent and helpful. She double checked everything, confirmed that she could see the payment attempt that had been declined, changed some settings, and said that according to their systems, the card should be good to use now. With the battle-hardened cynicism of decades, I brightly asked if she’d be ok to stay on the line while we tried again. She agreed. We tried again. Card declined.
Meanwhile Doctor Keith’s receptionist, at whose desk I was sitting this whole time, was looking at me supportively but warily. I smiled and rolled my eyes as if to say “banks, hey?” while mentally running through my options if this didn’t work out. We’d already established that they didn’t accept debit cards or US dollars. The surgery itself was in a residential compound far away from anywhere that looked like it might have ATMs or money exchanges. I began to worry that the ENG-1 and I were like star-crossed lovers; so close yet unable to truly unite.
Suddenly Casey made an “ahhhhhhh” noise in my ear. She had discovered what was going on. It turns out that Bank of America, like many organisations, doesn’t plan well for the 0.1% of its customer base who travel extensively and sometimes erratically at short notice. Due to a suspected fraud attempt just over a month ago - not bad enough to immediately cancel the card, but bad enough to be wary about - they had issued and sent me a replacement card. Allowing for what must have seemed like a healthy buffer, the existing card could still be used for a month. That month had clicked over in the past few days, right at the most inopportune time possible.
To cut another long story short, Casey eventually managed to enact an obscure procedure in the bank’s card procedures, and reactivate the cancelled card. She explained that this could only be done once, and only for five days. That would mean the last few days of my time in Brazil would be credit cardless, but it was all I needed for now. We ran the payment a fourth and gloriously final time, and it succeeded.
I took a photo of my brand new medical certificate and forwarded it to the email thread. I’d like to think that it resulted in a NASA-mission-control-like group cheer from everyone involved, but I suspect the reality was more a series of wan smiles and comments to the effect of “thank f*** for that.”
The final chapter of the Dubai trip was surprisingly fun. 36 hours earlier, once my travel plans had actually been confirmed, I made a Facebook post asking if anyone knew any cool people in Dubai who might be down to hang out. Sightseeing is fine, but I’ll take the company of interesting people over even the most spectacular tourist attraction any day. One Facebook reply had borne fruit, and through a mutual friend I ended up at the opening party for a new lounge bar with a group of local expat radio DJs, who had said they were willing to trade drinks for magic. They were actually such a fun group that I found myself wishing I had a few more days explore the city with newfound good company, but an early morning flight beckoned. I still had to make it to Brazil.
After a day of navigating language barriers on the mostly Portuguese speaking Latam airlines, I landed in Recife at about 9pm. As per the now much more relaxed get-Simon-a-damn-medical-certificate email thread, a hotel was booked and an airport pickup arranged. After getting my bags and walking out to the arrivals area, there was no pickup person to be found.
This wasn’t that surprising. In my experience to date, scheduled airport pickups are only there about 60% of the time, and the rest of the time you just find a cab or a shuttle, keep the receipts, and get reimbursed later. However, looking around Recife airport made my wary traveller sense tingle. Apart from the usual obviously dodgy “hey, you want a taxi” guys found at many second world airports, there were some more official uniformed looking people holding “taxi” signs, as well as a series of ATM-like machines each labelled “SAFE TAXI.” Of the four machines, only one was working, and didn’t seem to have an English language mode.
The idea that a “safe taxi” might be something sufficiently noteworthy to make signs about made me pause, sit down, get on the airport wifi and google “recife taxi safety.” The result was a long list or travel advice articles about Recife’s unreliable taxies, scams, violent crime, and general dangers for tourists going out at night. It was now about 9:45pm.
Most of the uniformed taxi people didn’t speak English, and those that did didn’t exude a vibe that gave me confidence they weren’t just part of a better-dressed more elaborate scam. I decided to try phoning the hotel. If anyone knew best how to get there from the airport, it should be them, right? I dialed the number from the booking sheet. A voice replied in what I assume was Portuguese, followed by English: “This number does not exist as dialed.” I double checked and did some brief research on how Brazil’s country codes and area codes work. Tried a few combinations. “This number does not exist as dialed.” I looked up the hotel on Google, checked the address to make sure it was the right one, and noticed it has a different phone number listed. Ah ha! Someone has made a typo or other mistake with the phone number. I dialed the one from Google. “This number does not exist as dialed.”
At this point, while starting to wonder if the hotel even existed, whether I even existed, and whether this whole situation was some surreal dream state that I was in, a guy walked over, said something in Portuguese and gestured to a sign with an unfamiliar name on it. Clearly he was asking if I was the guy he was there to pick up. I started to make “no, not me” gestures when I noticed that there was something written on his sign other than the name. In smaller print, in the corner of the sign, was the name of the ship I was joining.
The gestures suddenly became more complex. “I am not this guy..." [point at name, point at myself, shake head, thumbs down] "...but I am going to this ship!" [point at ship name, point at myself, nod, thumbs up].” He doggedly continued to try Portuguese on me until it became fully clear that I was a linguistically ill-equipped foreigner. He pulled out his phone, dialed a number, exchanged a few sentences with it, then handed it to me.
“Hello there! To whom am I speaking?”
The voice had a thick Brazilian accent, and an intonation that made me think of a jolly swashbuckler. This sounded like the voice of a man who took the chaos of the world in stride.
“This is Simon Coronel, guest entertainer for [cruise company] scheduled to join the [ship name]. I’ve just arrived in Recife, and am very confused.”
“Ah, Mr Coronel! Excellent. So, the hotel they currently have you at is the HOTEL, correct?"
The background scam-detection process running in my mind flagged this as a good sign. If the other party possesses correct information about you, that means they are probably either legitimate, or running a the scam at such a high level that the CIA is probably involved and you’re screwed no matter what you do.
“Yes, that’s correct.”
“So that hotel is a very very long way from the airport AND the ship. Not a good spot. If you are ok with it, we can put you in the hotel of the other guy. He was meant to arrive, but has been delayed until tomorrow. I do not know what happened to your normal pickup guy, but this may work out conveniently.”
I looked at the pickup guy. Nothing in his body language or facial expression suggested a scam. He seemed bored, faintly annoyed, like a guy doing a job, waiting for instructions from his swashbuckling superior. I didn't like this plan, but I disliked it less than my other options at that point.
“Ok. Whatever gets to the ship quickly and safely.”
“Excellent, Mr Coronel! I will arrange things.”
I handed the phone back to the pickup guy. A short conversation ensued, and he beckoned me out to the parking lot. We loaded my luggage into a van branded reassuringly with a big transit company logo, and drove. The hotel wasn’t great, but it was functional. The floor was bare tiled, there was no apparent air conditioning, and the bed was furnished with a single thin sheet, a pillow, and nothing else. But the door locked, the toilet flushed, and the wifi worked well enough to send an update to the email chain. It turned out that the swashbuckling Recife port agent had pre-empted me and already informed everyone of the hotel change. I followed the emphatic advice of Google and did not go out to explore the streets of at night.
I’d landed in a city I hadn’t planned to fly to, been collected from the airport by a guy who wasn’t there for me, and was sleeping in a hotel that wasn’t the one I was meant to be at. It had been quite a day.
The next morning I was woken up by a phone call. The transfer to the ship has arrived. I met the guy in the lobby, headed to the ship, and boarded with remarkably little hassle. Escorted up to the check-in lounge in air-conditioned luxury, accompanied by a cup of tea, I went through the familiar and relaxing check-in process. After the usual forms had been filled out, the receptionist frowned. Something was unusual.
“Now I’m seeing here... do you have an ENG-1 medical certificate?”
I thought back over the past week, back to when an innocuous email had kicked off a whole chain of insanity. The last-minute airport flight plans. The two day Dubai detour. The inopportune cancelled credit card. The long-distance phone calls. The late-night Recife arrival. The taxis, the hotels, the weird meals grabbed at weird times en route, and the cast of characters involved. I smiled.
“Yes. Yes I do.”
I handed it over, and all was good with the world.
Five days later I learned that the ship company had decided not to reimburse the medical expenses. This has not yet been resolved at the time or writing, but has rejuvenated the email thread.
If this gets resolved without another unexpected trip overseas, I'll be very happy. Either way, I'm applying for a second credit card.