I’m back!

So, here it is, my first post in what seems like a decade. I know I have a small, but dedicated readership on here, so I apologise for my absence. Sorry. But, I’m back! And I hope to be posting on a far more regular basis than before. I’m sure you’ll understand both why I’ve been inactive for so long, and why that is now going to change, as you read on.

My last post on the 28th May 2013 detailed my first couple of months working on the Royal Caribbean cruise ship, Enchantment of the Seas. Since then, not much has changed. However I was promoted to Head Broadcast. Which basically means I delegate work rather than actually do it… I’m hoping to base myself on a much larger ship, then I will be able to properly maintain equipment and fix issues.

I did have a short, three-week, holiday back in Thailand. Most of it was spent in airports, on planes, busses and trains. But I did enjoy the remaining time. And of course, seeing Mos again after seven longs months was amazing. We spent every minute of the holiday together. We immediately decided that we’d never be apart for that long again. It’s not fair, it’s not fun, it’s horrible. But, there was light at the end of the tunnel, Mos had been offered a job on my ship. I won’t go into the frankly ridiculous hoops that we had to jump through to get the job offer. But I will say that Royal Caribbean need to take a serious looks at their hiring system. In particular their hiring partner in Thailand. Unhelpful, dishonest and corrupt.

Sadly most of the holiday was spent filling out paperwork and visiting various hospitals, offices and embassies to get Mos’ visa. This is a fairly simple process, but as with everything else the hiring partner (recruitment agency) made it far more difficult and complex than it needed to be. Even so, we enjoyed the hours of taxi rides around Bangkok, we enjoyed the hundreds of BTS train journeys , we even enjoyed a handful of crazy tuk-tuk trips.

In between the two main paperwork periods we managed to escape to our farm and family in Bueng Kan, northern Thailand. It was great to see them again, and our dog Khao San! Who I hadn’t seen since I left Thailand in April 2013. It was also a chance for us to see the new house our family had been building. It is on the same site as their previous house, but far bigger. Mos and I have helped them out with money to get the house built and up to a decent standard. Our family are farmers and happy with the most basic accommodation. Naturally, Mos and I want the best for them, so we’ve helped fund a new kitchen, tiles, equipment and labour to assist the construction. They even built me my own western style bathroom.

As usual out visit was far shorter than we’d have liked. And it was now time for us to head back down to Bangkok to completed the final few tasks to get Mos on her way to Miami! Mos’ contract started a week earlier than mine, so she was going to be flying to Miami, boarding the ship and getting to know people all by herself. I knew she’d be fine, but I was still very nervous for her.

As Mos holds a Thai passport, she was told that she would have to start her career in Royal Caribbean as either a laundry attendant or in room service. She chose room service, which is much less physically demanding, but still has horrific hours. Again, I could talk for hours on the unfairness of this system and what many rightly see as racial profiling, but I won’t. That is the system, it’s been very cleverly set up by the Royal Caribbean legal team and it’s pretty bullet proof from a legal standpoint. Ethically however, it’s disgusting and archaic.

Mos’ role is a mid-level job in the food & beverage department. She works very long hours and answers to a team of supervisors that are tripping over themselves to impress their manager. Sadly, this is normally executed by overworking those under them and pushing the legal working hours to the limit… sometimes exceeding them. This role for Mos is very much a stepping stone to get into the Adventure Ocean team, who look after the babies, toddlers, kids and teens on the ship. As a result, she puts up with far more than she should. There is a light at the end of the tunnel as they say.

Having said that, I have learnt not to trust any information the company gives me. I only believe it if I can see it. There are countless examples I could give, but again, to refrain from this post becoming a rant, I won’t. We’ll just say this, Mos has all the qualifications needed to join the Adventure Ocean team. She has been approved by our Miami office. She has been told by HR that it’s very likely to happen. But, I’ll only believe it when Mos starts her first day in Adventure Ocean.

Even if our next contract does have Mos in Adventure Ocean, we’re not fully sure that we’ll return to the company. There are a few points that are making us look elsewhere. Mos’ biggest factor to leaving ships is the distance from her family. Not so much the geographical distance, but the time delay in information. We often only check our Facebook pages, phone home etc twice a week. So, if anything happens at home, we will hear about it a couple of days late. Meaning it difficult for us to respond to anything urgent. An issue which has affected us and one that I will discuss later.

One of my main issues with our work on ships is the lack of a ‘home’. Sure, we have a cabin on the ship, but it’s not a home. I want a home, that we can own together, that we can furnish, decorate and enjoy. We are also keen to start a family in the next few years, and that is simply impossible on ships, and difficult without a homely home.

Another issue that plagues me throughout this industry is the feeling that nothing I do means anything. I don’t help anyone. Nothing I do matters. Sure I can install a full HD broadcast studio, I can build a stereoscopic camera system from scratch, I can operate a multi-national satellite network. I can do plenty of complicated, difficult and technical things. But at best, all these skills do is enable people to watch TV. It lets people watch a football match live from the other side of the world. That’s it. It doesn’t matter, it doesn’t change lives.

I don’t save lives, I don’t put out fires, I don’t help people, I don’t serve in the military. And that is something I want. I want to do something that benefits someone else. Someone that needs it. And that is why teaching has caught my eye. And not just any teaching. I am looking at teaching English to children in rural Thailand. Children who’s families can’t afford to send them to the expensive schools, colleges, universities. In Thailand, fluency in English is the holy grail of education. It can open doors to scholarships, jobs, societies and it is a vital skill for any visa application in the west.

As a TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) teacher, I could also travel, like I do now. These teachers are in demand across the world. And salaries vary greatly. In Thailand, a TEFL teacher can expect around $1,000 USD per month. Some schools will also provide accommodation, flight and lunches, but not all. A TEFL teacher in South Korea and expect to receive $2,500 USD per month, again some schools will include some added bonuses, some won’t. In addition to this base salary, many TEFL teachers take on private lessons, where they teach students 1-to-1 for an additional fee. Which can be anything between $8-$50 USD per hour.

Both of these salaries will strike anyone from the ‘west’ as low. But you have to take into account the living expenses and quality of life. In Thailand for example, your $1,000 USD salary which equates roughly to 30,000 Thai Baht, would easily allow you to have your own air-conditioned bungalow, run and maintain a motorbike, drink socially and eat every meal in a local cafe and still have 30-50% of your salary to put into savings. The quality of life is also vastly different to that in the UK for example. There is very little stress, you have far more spare time and far less admin work such as paying personal taxes and bills.

Most valuable to me though is the impact I would have on the lives of my students. I would be giving them a skill that they will have for life. A skill that will give them more opportunities that their parents would have had.

To get started on this idea of becoming a TEFL teacher, I have started my certification and training program. It’s with a company in the UK, and I am able to complete the course online with tutors and various bits and pieces at my disposal. I’m currently 36% of the way through the course having completed four exams and having scored an ‘A’ grade on all four. I will have completed this certification before the end of my contract at the end of July.

Also, as if fate has already decided that I am going to become a TEFL teacher, I have been offered a job in a tiny remote rural village in the North East of Thailand. This village has also happens to be home to Mos’ family. Bueng Kan.

So, right now, Mos and I are working away at completing our current contracts. We’ve got 87 days left. I’ve got my certification to complete. We’d both like to start learning Spanish. And we’re also researching ways to invest our money. So lots to be done. Plenty to keep us busy. Who knows, maybe by the next time I update this blog we’ll have a completely different set of plans… That’s what’s so exciting…

Ship Life

Here’s another landmark to add to the still relatively young 2013. As you will most likely already know from my previous posts, I’ve been waiting to be assigned a ship for my new job. Six weeks ago, whilst on Koh Tao, sitting in the office of a small production company, I got an email. This was the email I had been waiting for. It simply read; ‘Ship Assignment – ENCHANTMENT OTS – Baltimore, MD – April 13th’. Which is American for the 13th April. At the time, this was only three weeks away. Which was great, something was finally happening. But it also meant that I would be leaving Mos far sooner than we’d expected. But as we’ve discussed many times, this was going to be great for our future. My new job on the ship would allow me to take home plenty of tax-free cash, and, they’d be able to hire Mos too. We’d be able to build our savings account to the point where we could buy a house in the UK, or, retire in Thailand in the space of a few years. And of course, you need money before starting a family.
Shortly after I received the email Mos and I started running around the island doing last bits of shopping that I’d neglected. Socks for example. Living in Thailand socks quickly make their way from the wardrobe to the bin. We had parties, sometimes multiple parties each day. On an island like Koh Tao, the resident community is small, and as a result people want to say goodbye when someone leaves. But as most of them are small business owners finding a single date and time for a party is nearly impossible. So, and I’m not complaining about this, we have lots of leaving parties.
Royal Caribbean, my new employer, had booked my flights from Bangkok to Washington DC. But I still had shopping to do and more importantly a visa to get! So I headed off to Bangkok to start the process, which annoyingly, was at precisely the same time as Songkran, Thai new year. Songkran is effectively the worlds biggest water-fight. It’s brilliant. But it also means that the entire country, including foriegn embassies close down for the week. Luckily I managed to get my visa granted, hours before the shutdown.
A couple of days later Mos traveled up from Koh Tao to meet me in Bangkok. As this would be the last few days we’d spend together for possibly up to seven months we decided to treat ourselves. We went for nice dinners, shopping, sightseeing and even to Siam City theme park. Where Mos proved to me that roller-coasters really can make someone projectile vomit. Despite this, we had a great day.
Once Mos and I had exhausted our time, money and bodies it was time for me to leave. I picked up my new suit, tuxedo and shirts from my tailor. Packed my bags and headed off to the airport. Mos and I had one last milkshake together before I disappeared into customs. I hate leaving her, especially at airports.
I flew with Qatar, who I’ve flown with a few times in the past and they have always impressed. This trip was no different. And in case you’re wondering, Doha airport still has a huge amount of camel themed souvenirs along with countless diamonds, jewelery and watches for sale.
Once I arrived in Washington I was met by the US Immigration team. And like all crew, apparently, ushered into a waiting area where my visa and passport where double and triple checked against their various databases. After an hour I was let through. The first thing you see when you leave Washington Dulles airport is a huge American flag. Today it was back-lit by the sun with perfectly trimmed grass surrounding it. It was like I’d walked into a film. After a short wait my van arrived to pick me up and take me to my hotel.
Maybe it was the 32 hours of traveling. Maybe it was the feeling of elation after finally getting through customs. Maybe it was just me being acclimatised to rock-solid mattresses and hot, humid rooms in Thailand. But the Holiday Inn at Washing Dulles airport had the best bed. Ever.
During the day other new crew arrived at the hotel. Most of us had arrived by the time we had our complimentary dinner in the restaurant. I met a guy from Serbia who was going to be signing on as Stage Staff. His name is Srdan, but it’s pronounced the same as the English word ‘surgeon’. It turns out Serbia is one of the biggest denominations of crew on this ship, behind the Philippines, Indonesia and India.
The following morning we were all picked up by a coach and driven to Baltimore, which is just over an hours drive away. Once we arrived at the port, US Customs and Border Patrol met us and led us into a secure crew area where our belongings were x-rayed and we were searched. Finally we were moved to  secure holding room with tea, coffee, pastries and the usual tea trolley bits. We had to wait for the passengers to get off the ship, once they were, staff distributed our contracts and other paperwork and took or passports. Then, we were led to the gangway of the ship. On the ship we dumped our luggage in the middle of deck one, which, apart from a small area for guest embarkation, is completely for crew. We waited in line at the HR office to have our photos taken and information checked. Once we had completed that, each persons supervisor came to pick them up and begin to show them around their relevant work, living, leisure, eating and emergency areas.

Enchantment at DockEnchantment at Dock.
Thankfully, my job comes with a rank. I’m a 2-stripe officer. To give you perspective, the captain is 4-stripe. And out of the 850+ crew, only 240 of us are ranked with stripes. Starting with half-stripe followed by 1-strip, 1.5-stripe, 2-stripe and so on. The crew is further divided into three groups; crew, staff and officers. Officers are the marine department, the people that stand in the bridge, along with the various heads of engineering and so on. The crew are the people that keep the ship running; engineers, cooks, cleaners, deck boys, painters, laundry and so on. The staff are the people that are neither required to operate or maintain the ship. The staff are the luxuries; executive housekeepers, concierges, cruise directors, managers and me. I work in the Broadcast team. I say ‘team’, really it’s just me and Frank. Between us we manage all of the broadcast related satellite equipment, the encoders, decoders, streaming systems, scheduling systems and just about anything on the ship that involves video of any description. Having said that, the collective term for all employees is ‘crew’.
My job and rank means that I have access to all of the guest areas, all day, I can use any of the crew, staff or officer facilities and most of the guest facilities. In-fact, tomorrow I will be going to the on-board spa & saloon to get a long-overdue haircut. One restriction on all crew, even the captain, is use of the casino. No employees, of any rank or role can gamble on board. Which is fine, because even if you did want to gamble your wage away, there are plenty of casinos in the ports we visit.
Another restriction that applies to all employees is alcohol. Royal Caribbean operate a zero tolerance policy on alcohol and drugs. You’re allowed a blood alcohol content level of 0.04 whilst on-duty, and 0.05 when off-duty. Both of which are far lower than most drink/drive limits. If you’re found to be over these limits at any point you will leave the ship, and the company at the next port. As for drugs, any possession, use, or trace in your system of drugs will result in you leaving the ship at the next port, getting fired and being turned over to local authorities. Which could mean a 25-year prison sentence in a small jail in the Bahamas. Not good. None of which bothers me as I’ve never touched drugs and I very rarely drink alcohol.
During my first two weeks on the ship my predecessor, Homer, was on-board to show me the ropes and get me up to speed. Which on this ship meant showing me all of the equipment that is broken, or about to break and how he manages to do his job around them. Homer is now on a four-month holiday and will be rejoining the fleet in Australia on the Radiance of the Seas. It’s a hard life.
My first two weeks didn’t only involve Homer showing me computers that pre-date most modern civilisations, I also had ‘training’. Training, like most other things on the ship is divided into stuff you need to know to save your life (Marine), and stuff you need to know to make guests happy (delivering the ‘wow’). We had two or three sessions each day. I, unlike most, found the marine training interesting and looked forward to each session. After all, it could literally save your life. The training that they call ‘Delivering the WOW’ bored me to my core. There are hour long presentations on how to smile at guests, how to point at things in ways that don’t cause offense, how to converse with guests and various other life-lessons that anyone who wasn’t locked in a box from birth would have picked up by the time they were ten years old. I hated it. With a passion.

Enchantment in ArubaEnchantment of the Seas in Aruba.
Our ship, the Enchantment of the Seas, is now one of the smallest in the fleet. She is rumored to be second in line to be sold off or given to one of our subsidiary companies. This rumor was as good as confirmed when she was scheduled to leave her 14-day cruises from Baltimore and move to a 3/4-day cruise schedule from Port Canaveral. 3/4-day cruises are like a hospital ward for the terminally ill. Ships are sent there to keep them running and operational until they die, are sold off or scrapped. I joined the Enchantment on the 13th April 2013, which was her last ever voyage from Baltimore, as she repositioned to her new home port of Port Canaveral.
We arrived in Phillipsburg on the island of St. Maarten after three full days of sailing from Port Canaveral. I’m not sure what exactly I was expecting from Phillipsburg. But I wasn’t surprised at what I found. Disappointed, but not surprised. Phillipsburg, much like all of the ports I have visited since, was full of brand name shops. Each of the ports has the same 8-10 brands. Each port has the same arts and crafts markets selling branded trinkets, most of which are made in China and printed with the name of the port you happen to be in. Phillipsburg represented everything I dislike about the classic package holiday. I’ve never understood why people travel half way around the world, get on a ship, and then get off and shop in the same shops they have in any mid-size city back home. I also dislike the time restrictions. When I go to a new place, I want the freedom to explore the local scenery, meet local people and eat local food. Cruise passengers pile off the ship, go to the generic beaches, eat in McDonald’s and shop in the brand shops. Maybe I’m the strange one…
On the evening of the ninth day of the voyage we had to divert into Nassau, Bahamas due to a medical emergency with a passenger. Probably a case of too much McDonalds. People on cruise ships eat like machines. It’s amazing to watch.
Before reaching Port Canaveral I had to familiarise myself with all of the equipment before Homer left. As I said before, this was less training and more showing me what was broken and how they work around it. For example, the edit suite is a 2006 vintage AVID with less processing power than pretty much any new $300 off-the-shelf laptop. I won’t spend this entire post complaining about the dated computers, miss-used equipment or broken machinery that we have in broadcast. Largely because I’m not sure I have enough time to make the list. I’m only here for seven months afterall.
After the various Caribbean and Bahamian island stops, which all fitted nicely into the crew shopping motto of ‘same shit, different port’, we arrived in Port Canaveral. Our new home. From this point on we will be only taking three and four day voyages. The three day itinerary is as follows; Day 1 – Port Canaveral, Day 2 – Nassau, Day 3 – CocoCay, then we arrive early in the morning back in Port Canaveral in order to disembark the guests and pick up the new ones. The four day itinerary is; Day 1 – Port Canaveral, Day 2 – CocoCay, Day 3 – Nassau, Day 4 – At Sea.  Port Canaveral is in the US state of Florida, the other two stops are both in the Bahamas.
CocoCay, which you may not have heard of, is our private island. It is owned by Royal Caribbean and is for the exclusive use of our guests. The island is a nice small island, there is snorkeling, hiking, jet ski hire, swimming, beaches and so on. There is also a very large, free, barbeque. Which I’m pretty sure is the reason most people really go. Cruises seem to be almost entirely centered on eating.
Nassau is a small town in the Bahamas, with western prices. We’ve also been warned by our chief security officer that the Bahamian police often set up drug selling operations to try and sell you drugs and then arrest you. The prison sentence in the Bahamas for drug possession can be as severe as 25 years in jail. Nassau, lives up to my earlier description of the ports we visit. One thing that is particularly depressing about Nassau is the large amount of puffer-fish and starfish that have been caught and dried out to be sold as souvenirs. Having seen many varieties of both these species in their natural habitats around the world, I can’t see the attraction of having a dead one sitting on your mantle piece.
As far as life on a ship goes, it’s great. I get free food, free gym time, free accommodation, I pay no tax, I have no bills and I get paid to effectively be on holiday. Much of my time is now spent trying to get Mos, my wife, onto the ship. Part of the deal when I signed up, was that they would provide Mos with a job on my ship. So far they are proving to be as useless at this as they were during my sign-on period. However, tomorrow our ship gets a new HR manager. Hopefully that will speed up the process!
We are currently sailing from Coco Cay to Port Canaveral, where we are due to arrive in nine hours. I hope to be getting off, I need to open a US bank account to keep my cash safe. It also makes it easier to buy online and send money back home to Thailand. Not sure if I’ll be going with someone or not. Most of the people I know are ‘management’ level, so they don’t have timetabled work hours. Like me, they just have to make sure they are there when something breaks.
Port Canaveral itself is fairly basic. There are taxis or a shuttle bus for the crew to head into town. There is a small shopping center (Mall), a Walmart, Cocoa Beach, Hooters, McDonald’s, a Post Office and various other eateries and shops. Most of the crew head to Walmart to stock up on luxury snacks, toiletries and drinks. The on board crew shop – ‘The Slop Chest’, is fairly limited in selection. It’s also our only American port. Which means that any crew that are signing on or off their contracts change over here. Which adds to the chaos.
Changeover day (Port Canaveral) is where we load on the new guests. Which means that at 15:45 each changeover day we have a full emergency drill for the passengers (PAX Drill). I am part of a seven person life boat team based at muster station 2. Which is good because it means I get a seat on a life boat rather than a life raft in a real emergency. But it’s bad because I will have to control 143 scared and panicking tourists.  I don’t mind it too much as I get to shout at them for 40-minutes detailing how they will all die if they don’t listen to me.

This is my life boat, lowered and ready for lowering in Nassau, Bahamas.

Enchantment Lifeboat

Elephant Nature Park

As soon as I arrived back in Chiang Mai, from Bangkok, I got a phone call saying that I was going to be picked up at 07:00 in the morning. We were providing production services for Leopard Films in America to film their House Hunters International series. It’s an ongoing project that the company has worked on various times in the past.

This episode was following a guy from America who was looking for property in  Thailand. Chiang Mai to be exact. If you’re not familiar with the show, they follow a person or family as they look to move abroad. They normally view 3-4 properties and then at the end of the show they pick one. During the course of the show they talk about their new lifestyle in the country and participate in various activities, normally ones that highlight the area they are in. It’s a widely used format, I know that in the UK we have at least three shows that are almost identical.

It was nice to be on a small crew again. We had a crew of six. Pretty standard for a documentary style TV shoot. Once again I had the chance to meet some new crew. And again, they were great.

I joined the crew after they had completed the filming of the properties. As I joined, we had two days of ‘activity’ filming. On the first day we visited some temples, which was nice, because Mos and I had only managed to visit a handful so far. We also went to a few spots around town for eating and drinking.

Day two was the real highlight. We went filming at the Elephant Nature Park. There are many places up here in the mountains of Northern Thailand to see elephants. If you want to ride one or see them working (Thai’s use elephants much like we use work horses in the west), you can go to a handful of places. Some of these places are great and care for the elephants like members of their family. Some, beat the elephants unconscious as part of their training, chain the elephants to trees for days on end and generally abuse them. Sadly, for tourists, you won’t be able to know for sure until you get there. If you ask to see where the elephants sleep or how they are trained etc and the staff get defensive, you have almost certainly stumbled across a place that tortures elephants in the name of tourism. If they are open and happy for you to look around and the elephants seem happy, hopefully you’ve found a good one.

The Elephant Nature Park, is different. They rescue elephants from work camps, tourism facilities and zoos. Any elephant that is being used for financial gain is rescued. They bring the elephants to their park, give them medical assistance, get them healthy, then let them roam free around the expansive park. Visitors to the park are educated about the use (and abuse) of elephants and taught the story of each elephant at the park.

Each elephant at the park has a member of staff that looks after them. They feed them, walk them down to the river and bath them and generally build a friendship between them and the elephant.

We arrived to film the visitors feeding the elephants, or course we all had a go. My favourite was a blind elephant (I can’t remember the cause). She could hear you and would feel around with her trunk until she found you and then find your hand and then take the fruit.

After a few hours of feeding and filming interviews we walked around the park with the elephants occasionally coming over to see what we were up to then wandering off again. Some of the elephants were clearly still a bit nervous around people showing their previous lives of fear. Others just wanted to play or take the camera.

In the afternoon we walked with a few of the elephants down to the river, where volunteers can help bath the elephants. For most elephants this is a fun exercise. For some, this assistance from the volunteers is the only way that they can bathe. One elephant, called Medo, carried an extremely visible limp and disfigured hip from a life of abuse. Please read more about Medo by clicking her name (it’s a link). Here is a picture of Medo that I’ve pinched from the Elephant Nature Park website –

As you can see. She is severely disabled. But thanks to the park she is living freely, without abuse and in the company of other elephants. Medo is just one of the many stories at the park. If you want to help you can look at the Elephant Nature Park website here.  You can volunteer there, they will provide accommodation, food etc. Or you can just visit for the day. I would highly recommend a visit. Although you can’t ride an elephant as so many people seem to want to do. You are able to see happy and ‘free’ elephants playing, socialising and generally being elephants.