By Uche Usim, who was in Barcelona, Spain
At about 5pm on February 1 2016, my phone rang. I ignored it thinking it was the amateur “419ner” that earlier called to lure me into buying some unknown goods he claimed to have imported. I cut the call and dismissed him with ‘get behind me satan’. When it rang again, I picked my phone with the sole intention of blasting him. Lo and behold, it wasn’t the ‘wasp’ calling. It was Mrs Victoria Soluade, the Managing Director of Soltan Travels and Tours calling from Toronto, Canada.
After the usual entreaties, she went straight to the point: “Uche, history will be made in May/June this year. Something that will revolutionalize cruise vacation is loading. In fact, I want you to be a part of it”. She didn’t say more than that and there was silence at both ends. She wanted me to guess, but I didn’t know what to think. I wondered what this woman that pioneered cruise travel in Nigeria had to tell me. Has she broken new grounds? Because that is what gladdens her heart. Has she bought a cruise ship? (She readily tells you there is nothing too big for her God to do) What could it be? Nothing clicked. Don’t blame me. My brain was preoccupied with thoughts of Nigeria’s worsening economy, Niger/Delta hostilities and the rampaging Fulani herdsmen. These robbed me of pleasant reasoning. I was blank.
What history? I asked rather curiously. She laughed and offered to bail me out. “Royal Caribbean International (RCI) is taking delivery of its latest ship called Harmony of the Seas later in the year. It is the biggest, newest and costliest cruise ship ever built. It is nicknamed the floating city and costs $1.5 billion. It is bigger than the titanic and has capacity for about 6,000 guests. The company plans to host journalists and top cruise sales agents from around the world as part of the launch programme. There will be pre-inaugural cruise out of Southampton and another out of Barcelona. We will be in the Barcelona batch in early June. Are you interested?”, she asked softly.
My reply was a thunderous yes! Who wouldn’t want to be part of history especially when such opportunities are rare?
Since then, she gave us (the “chosen” journalists and top cruise sales agents) regular updates and documents that would help even in the procurement of Schengen visa.
At last, I took my application to VFS Global office in Lekki about six weeks prior to the trip. The company (VFS) is merely an application collection centre for many countries, including the Schengen nations in Europe.
About three weeks later, the UPS delivery man returned my passport only for me to discover I was denied a visa by the dreaded Spanish Embassy. Reason? I did not show proof of stay.
How come? I exclaimed as I struggled to recover from the shock. I know visas aren’t rights but privileges; but as a journalist that has travelled to about 30 countries including the US, UK and other European countries without any blemish, I least expected any hassles in renewing my Schengen visa.
Worse still, I had valid US and UK visas in my passport. My application was backed up by a detailed letter from The Sun, an authentic hotel reservation, verifiable documents from RCI and above all, my bank statements were okay.
So, where did I ‘sin’? Which village demon wants to rob me of the opportunity to be part of history? What next? Luckily, my office and I got in touch with “Nigerian big men” who intervened and I got it at no extra charge or having to re-apply. Besides, I had time to fix the mess. But some of my colleagues were not so lucky. The Spanish embassy refused them visa on various grounds, including some of them that have travelled severally to Spain.
Some travel agents with us described the Spanish embassy as “annoying and frustrating”.
They claim their customers booked on vacation to Spain hardly make it because of the visa challenge. They feel the embassy has turned visa procurement into a major revenue earner.
By June 2, it was clear I was the only one that got the Spanish visa. Wale Ojo Lanre of Nigerian Tribune already had a valid Schengen visa issued by Germany. Gabriel Osho of TVC is a US citizen and doesn’t need a Schengen visa. The Travel Consultants among us like Mrs Victoria Soluade and Mrs Bimbo Durosinmi-Etti are Canadian and UK passport holders respectively. Others like Mrs Tinuke Nwakohu and Mrs Arit Tunde-Imoyo got their visas from other Schengen nations.
Journalists from Channels, TVC (cameraman), Vanguard, Ebony Life and others couldn’t make the trip. The development reduced the number of intended travellers from 21 to about eight. So sad!
On June 3, I got to the Murtala Muhammed International Airport (MMIA) somewhat depressed because my colleagues and I had designed our own onboard itinerary. We had planned to explore the world’s greatest cruise ship and compare notes. We had planned to interview as many people as possible but little did we know our plans would be shattered by the Spanish embassy.
At last, Turkish Airlines flight TK 626 took off at exactly 8.40pm. It was not a full flight and I lounged on four seats in the economy cabin. After 6hrs 35 mins flight, we landed in Istanbul and I connected Barcelona in another two hours. On arrival, cool but fresh air welcomed me. Barcelona is the home of the famous football club, FC Barcelona. After a short Customs and Immigrations formalities, a shuttle bus from my hotel, Best Western, was on ground to pick me up.
After some rest, I went sightseeing and familiarized myself with the city. The next day, Sunday, I headed for the Barcelona seaport Terminal B, where Harmony of the Seas was majestically docked awaiting to host over 4,000 journalists and top cruise sales agents from around the globe. The gigantic vessel dwarfed other ships nearby and had countless RCI staff milling around her.
Blinding camera flashes created its own spectacle as anxious guests clicked ceaselessly. Everyone wanted the best shot of the ship. It was a carnival of some sort.
Having watched the online video of the new ship, I didn’t know where to start my adventure from as I walked into the floating city. At 66 metres (217ft), it is the widest cruise ship ever built, while its 362m length makes it 50 metres longer than the height of the Eiffel Tower. One could pack the whole Oshodi into the foyer literally speaking. The sheer size of the ship was astounding. I forgot I was floating on water, especially when I was on the Royal Promenade. It felt resort-like and that is a big plus because I never felt the wave. That was perfect for those prone to seasickness. Indeed, the ship was buzzing with activities. There was something for everyone, irrespective of age or gender. Was I to start from the bionic bar, a programmed robot that mixes and serves any available drink of your choice? Was I to head straight for the Ultimate Abyss, the tallest slide at sea at a 10-storey plunge? Should I go for the exhilarating multilevel perfect storm slides? I certainly had a choice problem.
First things first. I needed to get to my room and unpack. It was on the Deck 9 (ninth floor), room 198. It was a balcony Stateroom that afforded me the golden opportunity to savour the wonders of nature. It provided a peep into the ocean to see Harmony sail blissfully on the calm waters of the Mediterranean. Though I had cruised on Brilliance of the Seas, another ship owned by RCI, what I saw in Harmony was more than harmonious.
In the evening, it was time for dinner at designated dining rooms. There, I connected with other Nigerians onboard. I met Mrs Inge Cross, International Representative (Africa), RCI, Mrs Bimbo Durosinmi-Etti, Managing Director of Traveltron Nigeria Limited, Mrs Arit Tunde-Imoyo, Managing Director Travel Plans and Tours Limited, Mrs Tinuke Nwakohu, Managing Director of Aviator Travels and Tours Limited and Mr Gabriel Osho of the Television Continental. There were other nationals around. I also met journalists from different countries. We compared notes on how the noble profession is practiced in our respective climes. That will be a story for another day. We had a sumptuous dinner but I wasn’t quite satisfied because I chose from a menu list I was quite unfamiliar with. As people got engrossed in various conversations, I sneaked away to the Windjammer, a large buffet area dubbed the ‘market place’. It was Mrs Cross, that noticed I was ‘missing’ at the dinner table. She figured I may have gone to the Windjammer to make myself happy. She was right but I didn’t go alone. I lured Wale Ojo Lanre of the Nigerian Tribune to join me. He ended up thanking me profusely for “opening his eyes to varieties”. Though the Nigerian women aboard Harmony are regular guests on cruise ships but they also doffed their hats for the floating city. They promised to market the new ship to many Nigerians as part of their efforts to deepen cruise sales in Nigeria.
The next day, we met the President/Chief Executive Officer of RCI, Michael Bayley, some of his management staff and the Captain of Harmony, Gus Andersen during an international press briefing held in Studio B.
He hinted of plans to collaborate with cruise sales agents to grow the Nigerian market.
That done, it was time to get into the groove. Yes! The world’s biggest cruise ship is literally packed with fun. The ship has so many features that will keep you entertained at all hours of the day and well into the night. She’s constantly buzzing with energy. I played table tennis and basketball. The ship has three big pools, a relaxing spa, wine-pairing dinner, shopping arena and live music at every turn. Remember the popular Starbuck Coffee? You’ll find it onboard the Harmony. I made out time to speak with some RCI staff and Nigerians onboard. I watched one or two shows. There was certainly so much to catch up with in a very short time. Three days appeared to be three seconds. In a short while, I was all packed. It was time to disembark. I made my way to town and flew the next day to Turkey. I connected Lagos four hours later and landed at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport to behold darkness. A saddening anti-climax.