“Can you write a guest blog for me please?”
It sounded so simple, I thought. Just jot down some thoughts, make it funny, informative, and appealing, job done. Well, let me tell you, it’s not as easy as bloggers make it look! They say the hardest part about writing a story is in finding the beginning, because you have to decide what to write about, how you’re going to say it and where you want the tale to go; but for me, that was the easy part. Easy, because I’ve decided to tell you a tale from when I worked on cruise ships traveling the world, meeting interesting people and getting into all kinds of madcap trouble, but difficult because I not only have to protect the innocent by not revealing their names but, also have to decide exactly how honest to be about the guilty, or “me” as I’m also known… so here goes, and I hope you like it!
In the summer of 2001, I was working on a cruise ship operated by Renaissance Cruises, docked in the port of Barcelona in Spain. It's a beautiful city to visit during the day and an absolute cesspool of illicit activity during the hours of darkness, a wonderful contradiction of identity I’ve always thought. La Rambla is a perfect example of this: a wide cherry tree-lined avenue home to myriad street performers, open seating cafes and tourist shops aplenty during daylight hours yet the haunt of streetwalkers, drug dealers and other sellers of various sinful delights during the nighttime. Basically, if you had the money to pay for it, you could get it—well, so long as you didn’t mind conducting the business on a street where people took family pictures with living statues or bird warblers during their holidays! Anyway, my girlfriend at the time and I had decided to visit the Gaudi Cathedral in the centre of this wonderful city, the only such church to currently be under construction in the world, with work starting in 1882 and projected to finish sometime between 2026 and 2032—which says an awful lot about Spanish attitudes to timekeeping….
One thing about taking a day trip when you’re on a cruise ship: You need to start early. If you’re not back on time, the ship will sail without you, without hesitation, leaving you stranded in a foreign city where you may not speak the language, have no clothes other than what you stand up in, and a timely need to get to the next port of call for the ship which contains all of your fresh underwear. Which, incidentally, was something that at one point every Casino Manager who worked for the company had discovered! With this in mind we left as soon as we were able to, before breakfast, catching one of the crew buses from the Old Port laid on by one of the other cruise ship companies (a common practice back then: We used their buses, they used ours, it was professional courtesy really—except for the time me and a group of drunken crew jumped a passenger bus in Croatia because we were late, that was just straight up cheekiness). That meant we thought getting food from a street vendor selling Spanish breakfast wraps was a good idea (which is worth mentioning now as it shall feature later on in the story) and, thus fortified, set off for the compound.
After a nice walk up La Rambla, talking about how amazing it looked with the cherry trees blossoming, the clement weather, and total absence of hookers in the morning, we got a taxi to the entrance and then entered the Cathedral proper. We found ourselves marvelling at the wide-open spaces inside, the internal architecture, and commenting on the outside spires, gargoyles and rather large fruit baskets which adorn the towers several hundred feet in the air. An odd choice for a church building certainly, but they’re colourful, different, and definitely make the place stand out from other such buildings around the world. It’s a shame that so many of them look like they’re melting due to the pollution in the air from life in the 21st century, but it’s still an impressive sight. Once inside, we discovered that you could climb one of the towers (called the Passion Tower for some reason, monks being renowned for their lustful lifestyles) and enjoy an unrivaled view of Barcelona, something that we unwisely decided to do. I say unwisely because I for one had momentarily forgotten about my aversion to heights, and was at this point blissfully unaware that my companion also suffered from an irrational fear of her own! So, after wandering around the cathedral floor for a while and taking in the excellent architecture, gawking at all the statues, carvings, and windows while completely ignoring the collection plates positioned roughly every 10 feet we paid the small extra fee and went in. We found ourselves confronted with a spiral staircase, completely enclosed and with only a few small apertures every 20 feet or so for light to stream through, and started to climb.
Everything was ok at first, with me anyway. I have no problem with small spaces or physical exertion, and as I thought the viewing deck would only be a couple of hundred feet up at the most, my vertigo was not induced. However, it was at this moment, about 50 steps in and with people behind me that my dear companion decided to mention that she was deeply claustrophobic, frightened of darkness and not sure if she could continue! Now, I don’t know if you’ve ever had to climb a spiral staircase, but the fact is that the steps are not wide. This led me to suggest with people behind us, no real way to turn around, and steps about three inches across, our best option would be to continue climbing until we reached the observation deck, then get down as quickly as possible via the exit staircase, simple.
However, it turns out the light we could see and breeze we could feel wasn’t coming from an observation deck, but rather from a small balcony, or, more accurately, a tiny open space with a very unstable looking and short balustrade where she could recover from her potential panic attack and I could see out over the whole construction site, oh joy… This is the moment at which this whole adventure becomes farcical, because now, as she’s calming down I’m starting to freak out as my acrophobia decides to make a full and triumphant return—role reversal at 100 feet!
So there we are, with me doing my best impression of a terrified limpet, hanging on the walls like a distressed spider and frankly shaking with terror every time she moved (lest the entire balcony decide it had had enough of visitors stomping all over it and chose to end it all) and her dispelling the last of her fears at being cramped up inside by re-enacting the rooftop dance scene from West Side Story complete with twirling toes and high kicks—and nope, I’m not kidding either! Looking back she was obviously having some kind of reaction to the adrenaline rush which was causing her to express herself in a high-octane dance routine, but I could definitely have done without all the twirling at that moment, especially as it was punctuated by her pausing to point at faraway things and shout about how high up we were!
This is of course when it dawns on me that this situation is unsustainable. I’m having a panic attack, she’s in the middle of what appears to be a psychotic break with hysteria thrown in for good measure, and we’re 100 feet up in the air on what is now seeming to me like a window ledge, and a small one at that. We’ve gotta get down somehow and preferably not by the quickest route, so it occurs to me that I’m going to have to make a move, both literally and figuratively, in order to get us out of this predicament. With this in mind, I calmly reach out, touched her shoulder gently and say “We have to go back inside now sweetheart, but everything will be alright, I promise.”
To which her simple response is “Of course darling, no problem at all” and we make our way out of the area with no further trouble.
I’m lying of course. It was more of a sort of half-hearted swipe that ended rapidly because of my need to keep a firm grip on the wall behind me, and a kind of gurgled muttering that sounded like “In, in, gotta be in, now, please!” while sweating profusely and doing my best to ignore the death stare I got in return. Honestly, not my proudest moment, nor does it get any better for the telling, but at least it kind of worked as she agreed to go back inside and resume our climb, albeit grudgingly. As she does, I can’t help but notice a certain whiff of fear coming off her, mixed in with what I can only deduce is the scent of that street food we ate earlier just beginning to make its presence felt. I will admit that this was a fairly easy deduction as it was definitely also starting to pick a fight with my own stomach, resulting in the wind not beginning the only thing to create sudden gusts if you know what I mean.
Unfortunately, our ordeal was far from over. The tower is 500 feet high, shrouded in semi-darkness and with a strong draft coming from who knows where, meaning that we were barely one fifth of the way up, unable to see properly and facing a headwind (which was a mystery to me until I realized that not only was there air coming in from the higher up balconies, but that there were also holes in the wall; both intentionally placed there as viewpoints, but also from bricks that had come loose due to the age of the tower) which was only getting stronger as we climbed. Not to mention, we had to make frequent stops at every possible opportunity on a balcony or near a window for her to take a break and try to calm herself down, which caused me to then start practically hyperventilating, not a good look for either of us!
So to summarize our lovely romantic day-trip so far: We’re halfway up an ancient tower with holes in the wall, I’m panicking whenever we’re outside despite doing my very best to melt into the wall, she’s freaking out while we’re inside the tower, necessitating a helping hand from me to move her upwards, and our breakfast is threatening to overwhelm the other tourists on the stairs below us. All in all not the greatest morning I’ve had! Apparently the climb should take no more than 30 to 40 minutes depending on your age and physical fitness; needless to say, it took us quite a while longer even without the 10-minute breaks we had to take on each balcony.
But the worst is yet to come. Oh yes, the very worst instance of acrophobia that I will ever experience in my entire life was waiting for me at the top of this horrendous climb. "Why?" I hear you ask. Because once we finally reach the very pinnacle of this accursed tower, we discover that in order to get down we’re going to have to cross a small stone bridge from our tower to another about 15 feet away, suspended 450 feet in the air and built according to a design completed in 1882, which is to say about a foot wide with walls about three feet fucking high! Fully open to the elements, wind blasting in my face like it hated me personally, and with no safety wire or harness, I was going to have to cross a span that made the rope bridge across the gorge in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom look like the Forth Bridge!
There was no choice in the matter of course. It wasn’t as if we could live there, certainly not without the toilet facilities that were now fast becoming an urgent matter of need rather than just the usual cubicle of occasional relief. So, I screwed up what little courage remained to me and kind of scuttled across it, practically on my knees, with my eyes closed, gripping the sides like I wanted to leave fingerprints embedded in the stones, and mumbling a half-remembered prayer from my childhood to whichever deities might be listening. I also had to ignore the laughter coming from both behind me (which I never asked if it included hers) and in front of me, some of which was definitely coming from at least two of the monks stationed up there—a disconcerting experience to say the least. Somehow, I got across. Don’t ask me how, don’t ask me to describe it and never, ever ask me to do it again, but I got across.
However, as I lay there panting on the floor, wishing I didn’t resemble Shaggy from Scooby-Doo, I spied the open doorway into the tower and had a revelation. I was going to have to get her through that tiny aperture and into the dark stairwell beyond and down an identical tower, only this time facing forward with the knowledge that if we slipped we weren’t going to fall onto our faces but straight down a spiral staircase that had undoubtedly been the cause of death for more than one unwary traveler. My personal feeling was that I had had enough, I was done with this and we were leaving, especially as the street food in my stomach was now asserting its own authority on my bowels and informing me in no uncertain terms a visit to the facilities was needed. However, my strong-willed, independent and decidedly unimpressed partner had other ideas, and as I was barely capable of standing up her opinion carried the day.
Talking of her, she marched across the bridge as though daring God to just try and blow her off it, reached down with an expression of contempt and hauled me to my feet by the simple expedient of grabbing my ear and pulling, not seeming to care whether the rest of me remained attached to it. Without so much as blinking she slapped my face and hissed “Pull yourself together, even the monks are laughing at us!” (which I found oddly heartening; even at this point she was still willing to admit we were in this together). However, then she realized what had already occurred to me concerning the second tower and I watched, fascinated, as the colour literally drained from her face, leaving her a sort of trembling pale white mess who was no longer quite so in charge.
But then we had no choice but to leave, as the monk in charge of things at the top (whom I assume was simply insane for choosing to ascend the tower on a daily basis) told us we had to, due to more visitors arriving and filling up the available space. This meant that it was now my turn to be the strong one, and get her through the ordeal of getting down, preferably without killing herself, me, or anyone else stupid enough to get in her way. Somehow, somewhere in all of this, we seemed to reach the silent conclusion that it would be best to just get down as quickly as possible. No stopping on the balconies, no messing about, we would just get out of this living nightmare as quickly as we could. This was clearly the best plan, and only slightly hampered by the people in front of us, all of whom seemed to understand that descending slowly was going to result in them unceremoniously being pushed down the stairs!
Once we finally got down (I shall not describe the descent, although there are now YouTube videos of it available, which I wouldn’t recommend to anyone with even a hint of vertigo and which I can only assume were shot by demented thrill-seekers who enjoy flirting with death by holding a camera phone while walking down a dizzying flight of stone steps barely wide enough for a child's foot) there was no discussion, there was no pausing, we marched out of the building site like we had the Hounds of Baskervilles behind us. Eyes front, no talking, no stopping and without either of us saying a word, we headed straight for the nearest bar where we knocked back a couple of stiff shots in quick succession!
The thing is, I wish we’d picked a different bar. The alcohol was certainly welcome, but it had the unfortunate side effect of making our earlier street food experience decide in no uncertain terms that now was the time to make its exit, regardless of our location. Which was going to have to be in the bathroom facilities of the fine establishment we now found ourselves in, their appearance notwithstanding. That expression, however, turned out to be the exact opposite of their condition, because for some bizarre reason this particular Spanish bar had decided to install French-style lavatory squats, or “not-with-seating” holes in the fucking floor for their guests to shit in!
Yes, that’s right. A Spanish business dedicated to the wetting of men’s whistles had deliberately removed all their stalls, toilets and most importantly privacy guaranteeing doors to cut holes in the floor for drinkers to discharge their excess waste into, with nothing more than raised grooves on the floor to suggest where to place your feet! Even in my doubled over state of extreme pressing discomfort this didn’t strike me as the best plan, in fact it occurred to me that shitting behind a bush outside would probably be more private, safer and almost certainly more hygienic than this!
Unfortunately my guts had other ideas. A truly toxic combination of bad food, fear, humiliation, and now alcohol decided the matter for me, and I had no choice but to rip my trousers down, bunch them up by my ankles (trying to hold them off the floor with one hand) and let nature take its course in the most basic way possible. Ever tried to keep your balance in a squatting position so you can excrete half a river of dark brown sludge that’s doing its best to go in three different directions while holding your pants off the floor AND avoiding splashback? Neither had I up till that point, nor can I say I was entirely successful in the endeavor—I can, however, say that I was more successful at it than my partner, who it turned out was having a similar experience in the ladies room!
This was the first and only time I’ve ever had to hose down not just the floor after dropping the kids off at the pool but myself as well. All in all, not my best day.
That was it for me and Kelly Charlaire (not her real name obviously, although she was the one who had changed it for tax avoidance purposes in the US) in Barcelona that day. We headed back to the ship in a kind of stupefied, emotionally drained silence, vowing never to talk of this day again. Having said that, looking back now, I suppose I can appreciate the funny side of the whole experience, although it would definitely have been funnier if it had happened to someone else. Someone deserving perhaps, like Jack the Ripper, Caligula, or Tony Blair. To sum up, I’ve never been back there, you couldn’t pay me to go and really, anyone who can complete that climb, that descent and especially that crossing without becoming a whimpering 6-year-old child deserves a hearty congratulations from me—and a warning to always be wary of street food!
PS, on a personal note, should Kelly ever read this herself (yes, the real one, and no, not my current BFF) I would just like to say, sorry for the liberties taken with the story, thank you for being the wonderful person that you were during our all-too-brief time together, and that wherever you may be now, I hope you got to live the life you deserved.