What transpired to be an incredibly long day, started in Thessaloniki before dawn. It was raining hard and John and I took far too long getting off the train, so we found ourselves shunted into the goods yard and having to walk the five-hundred meters back to the station like a pair of divs.
I had a few hours to mooch about, say hello to the Aegean Sea and drink an overpriced coffee (I needed the toilet and McDonald’s was closed) before returning to the station to hop on the train to Skopje (pronounced Skopia, by the way). Incidentally, on the off-chance that the girl from Canada with the hotpants – whom I helped get the coach to Athens because no domestic trains were running – is reading this, when you ask for somebody’s help and they give it, try saying thank you next time, then people won’t think you’re a cow.
Skopje is the capital of Macedonia, or to give it it’s full crazy title, The Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (keeps the Greeks happy) and the train was supposed to be a two hour affair – just enough time to grab a coffee and attempt to watch Lost on YouTube.
HOWEVER, the Macedonian border guards had other ideas and soon I found myself waiting in a freezing cold doorway with a fellow unfortunate (an American called McClane who was also heading towards Kosovo) because we were Johnny Foreigners and they wanted a doctor to come and make sure we weren’t dying of the bubonic plague, or swine flu as they are now calling it.
The train left on it’s merry way to Skopje without me – the next one wasn’t for five hours – and so after a doctor came and asked me if I was dying (the answer was no), we had to go and get the bus to the capital. Which was annoying.
But what was good was the fact that there was a bus to Prishtina, the capital of Kosovo, pretty much ready to go as soon as we got into Skopje. I just had time to stuff a burger-and-fries-in-one-huge-bun into my mouth before jumping on the bus and getting Kosovo ticked off my list of countries that aren’t really nations, but I’m counting them as nations because I like nice round numbers.
Arriving into Prishtina, I was then dropped into a little bit of a quandary. I bought a ticket for the bus into Serbia, but the driver wouldn’t let me on. Luckily, an American K-For guy was on hand to translate the situation. Serbia doesn’t recognise Kosovo as an independent state and since I entered ‘Serbia’ (ie. Kosovo) from Macedonia, the guards on the Kosovo/Serbian border will want to know how on Earth I managed to enter ‘their’ country without getting a passport stamp and consequently not let me in.
Confusing I know, but the upshot of this was that there was no way I could get on the bus to Serbia.
Never fear though – as long as I’m not trapped on an island, there is always plan B. I got the bus to Montenegro instead.
The bus dropped me off in a nowhere town in Montenegro called Rozaje in the middle of the night and I waited in the freezing cold (it was comparatively warm in the northern Europe) for the late bus over to Belgrade in Serbia. I got through the border control okay – the only funny thing was that the Serbians stamped “Annulled” in Cyrillic over my Kosovo stamp – kind of childish when you think about it, but there you go – you go around ethnically cleaning areas of your own country, you can’t really complain when they decide they don’t want to your mates any more.
Strangely enough, they also ‘annulled’ a stamp from Thailand that was put in my passport three years ago.
This event has obviously meant that Thai-Serb relations are at an all time low. Or maybe the guy with the stamp was just having a really groovy time STAMPING THINGS. WITH HIS STAMP.
I like stamping things too.
I got off at the first town over the border, Novi Padar, only to find they had not dropped me at the bus station. It was now 1am, there wasn’t a soul around and I didn’t really have a clue what to do. Luckily, a battered sign pointed the way to the bus station, so I started walking. It was a good kilometre away and when I got there, I was greeted by a nothing but sleeping tramp, who promptly farted so loudly that the walls shook.
Luckily, a bus soon pulled in – I asked the driver if there was going to be any more buses back to Montenegro tonight. He didn’t speak much English, but I got the impression that there were no more stopping at the bus station tonight, but if I went back to where the bus I was on had dropped me off, I could flag a passing coach down from the road. My gesticulation skills are currently at an all-time high.
I walked back, pursued by stray dogs, and waited in the dark beside a huge puddle on the main road. Would I be waiting here all night? Will it ever stop raining?
After twenty minutes, a bus came by. The sign in the front said ‘Podgorica’, the capital of Montenegro. I practically threw myself in front of it just to make sure it stopped – and it did. I’ve haven’t been this relieved since I found out that everybody else on the planet finds bananas as hilarious as I do.
We got into Podgorica so early, my legs were shaking. I immediately hopped a taxi to the nearby border with Albania. My driver, Ratko, was top – he didn’t speak much English, but he got the gist of what I was doing and was happy to take me into Albania for a couple of minutes to stomp around and get some footage and GPS readings to prove that I had broken in.
But like when I went to Albania with Stan a couple of years ago, we soon turned around and headed back to civilisation. Interesting fact – everyone with a car in Albania owns an old Mercedes. Everyone. Weird.
Tell you what though – last time I came along this road, it was the middle of the night and we though that we were in the middle of farmland or something because there wasn’t a SINGLE light on in the distance.
Well, I guess if we had waited until light, we might have discovered that the land south of Podgorica is a national park. It looked like the lake district (in the north-west of England), only bigger. Beautiful.
Talking of beautiful – Montenegro – what a gem! Croatia will always have a special place in my heart but I’m seriously considering doing the dirty on the old girl. Montenegro! The mountain fortress! Wow!
…And tonight on ‘Top of the Balkans’, we may have a brand new number one…
Then it was onto the bus to Herceg Novi near the border with Croatia, some good Montenegrin nosh stuffed into my pie-hole and then the old border drop into Croatia. Soon enough, I was on a bus heading north from Dubrovnik to Spilt. On the bus, I got chatting to Tom, a recently-graduated civil engineer and fellow loather of all things concrete-and-glass-curtains. STONES and CLAY and WOOD, please. Thanks. Good chap – he was inter-railing around like your favourite ginger scouser here, only not as maniacally – he was taking a good three months to go about it, not three weeks.
Hadn’t been to Spilt before – wow! – it’s just as bloomin’ marvellous as Dubrovnik. Roman ruins! Statues! Crumbling old stuff! Yeah! Oh, I’m torn now… Can’t I love Croatia and Montenegro evenly? Like your children, no favourites? We could all convert to Mormonism and live together in a big house and… well… er…
I’ll shut up now shall I?
There were no trains north until about 10pm, so we marched off to the pub, drank more than was possibly reasonable and I polished off a big plate of fish like an big yellow, cartoon alleycat. YUM!
The guys who ran the pub were several shades of excellent, and when it turned out the owner was an Evertonian, well, it was free drinks all round. A tiny Japanese guy was so excited that he had just eaten shark that we all arranged to climb Mt Kilimanjaro together next year.
Tom and I somehow staggered back to the station in time to get onto the night train to Zagreb. It would be getting in at silly o’clock in the morning, but tomorrow, I would be heading back to Budapest… tomorrow, I’ll be getting my bag back.
Was rudely awaked by Tom ‘accidently’ throwing water in my face. Ah, well, it did the trick anyhow. We got off the train and said our farewells. Tom would be heading to Ljubljana in Slovenia, whereas I’ll be shooting straight through Slovenia on the way to Vienna.
It means nothing to me… OH VI-ENNA!
Wasn’t there long though – a quick change and I was heading east towards BUDAPEST! AGAIN!
GET. MY. BAG. BACK!!
Now, you should know by now that things are never that easy when it comes to The Odyssey. I only had ten minutes to run off my train, get my bag and run onto the train back to Vienna.
It means nothing to me… OH VI-ENNA!
If I missed it, I’d miss the night train to Liechtenstein and end up waiting until the next day. Timing was critical. I guessed which side the train platform would be on. I guessed wrong SOMEBODY GET THESE GODDAMN DAWDLERS OUT OF MY WAY… the platform was a mass, a sea of people, running now – Platform 6 – over there, Christ it’s hot in here, at the barrier, my jacket wrapped around my waist drops to the floor, I almost go flying but my cat-like reflexes honed to perfection in the mosh-pit of the Krazy House save the day, I grab the jacket off the floor – Platform 6 – THOUSANDS of commuters coming the other way, I’m fighting against the tide, but my salmon-like instincts honed at way too many music festivals save the day, I zig and I zag… I look at my watch – six minutes – run into the left luggage office – oh no.
Where’s the bloke I spoke to the other day? There was just a toothless old hag who didn’t speak a word of English. Panic panic panic. I try to explain as best I can, gesticulating wildly like Doc Brown. The seconds are ticking away, let me over there, I’ll find it, it’ll be there, she lets me into the store room, dusty old shelves from before the war, did I mention Hungry fought on the side of the Nazis? Well they did. The rotters. And Laura Bush killed a man. No, really, she killed a man – look it up on Wikipedia.
Back to the action: shelves and shelves and bags and bags and nothing – no toilet seat, no ‘please look after this ginger’ tag, no fresh clean undies. Two minutes.
My shoulders slump, the old lady is about to let me out of the back room when an idea pops into her crusty old head. It might be in the office. I bounded over her in a single leap. I scanned the office. A desk, a lamp, dirty faded brown wallpaper. Nothing. My fists clench. One minute. I turn around…
There by the door. To the left of the door! BAG! My old grey Lowe Alpine Pax 25 backpack! The bag that has accompanied me on every crazy adventure of the last eight years. The bag that has clung to my back like a baby koala in over 100 countries and over 50 music festivals. Me and bag. Together again. Mmmmm.
I hate to interrupt this little love-in, but… Thirty seconds!
The little old guardian of the bags wanted me to write my details and sign a bit of paper. I have never written so fast or so illegibly in my life, not even when Mr Marsh was walking up the rows of desks in GCSE English collecting papers after we had been told to put our pens down.
I ran out of the office, sweat pouring down into my eyes making it difficult to see. What platform? If it was one over the other side of the station, I was done for.
Platform 8. Really close. Run, Graham, run you mad ginger man!
A whistle blows. My hair stands on end.
The doors are closing. I fling myself into the rear carriage – the door closes on the backpack. The station isn’t going to give it up without a fight. I heave with all my might and suddenly I’m transported into another world – a world of peaceful, relaxed, sedate commuters sitting in silence.
I take my seat.
My face is red, my t-shirt (worn for 6 days don’t forget) is stuck to me like I’ve been three rows from the front at an Arctic Monkeys gig. In Death Valley. I stink to high heaven. All I needed was a can of Special Brew and a dog on a string and the image would have been complete.
Then again: nobody has complained yet. I guess I must have a fine musk – it would explain all the looks of love I keep getting because if anyone seriously has a thing for greasy ginger hair, they’ve got some serious issues.
I made it! I made the train back to Vienna!!
It means nothing to me… OH VI-ENNA!
I took up residence in the train toilet, and washed myself with water and wetwipes. I brushed my teeth and changed my clothes. Like the bloke from Little Britain, I felt like a new man. Although… I should really have invested in some tongs to deal with my underwear.
In the morning, I would wake in Feldkirch on the border of Liechtenstein and Switzerland.
I had won.
It all started so well…
By 5am in the morning, I had already stepped foot in both Liechtenstein and Switzerland. My logistical powers were at an all time high and so far in Europe, I hadn’t made one serious cock-up when it came to getting the right train to the right place at the right time.
That was before I realised that there were two San Marino’s in Italy, and they are jolly close to each other. One is a city state, a principality with it’s own Grand Prix and everything, the other is a small village in the foothills of the Alps.
Guess where I ended up today?
After an impossible number of train changes, I was on a train that was going to a place called S. Marino (which I naturally assumed LIKE AN IDIOT stood for ‘San’). After half an hour in I thought, hang on a minute – this train is going so slow it may as well be going backwards and it’s stopping at every two-bit barn and dog turd along the way.
Intercity trains don’t behave in this manner. Something isn’t right. My spidey sense started tingling… TO THE INTERNET!!
Now getting online on a train is difficult at the best of times, but doubly so when you factor in them thar bloody large hills looming above me like fat stone gods of yore blocking the signal in much the same way as YER MA blocks out the sun when she’s at the beach. But eventually, after much persistence, I got up a map of the area.
These are not the San Marino’s you’re looking for.
You may go about your business.
Now move along.
Oh turds on toast with treacle toffee topping. Trains don’t go to San Marino. You have to get the bus from Rimini.
Panic stations. I tried to reschedule my route, but it was impossible. If I dilly-dallied about, I would miss my train to Rome. There was nothing for it but to scratch this one down to experience and press on to the ‘big smoke’ – I’d have to hit San Marino on the way back up through Italy, on the way to Monaco, Andorra and Barcelona.
This being the case, I got in to Padua train station with a couple of hours to spare. I bought a book, did some work on the website and generally pottered about. With about 15 minutes to departure, I lumbered over to the ticket counters to buy a reservation (you need to get them on intercity or international trains even if you have a rail pass – they generally cost a couple of Euro), but the queue was MASSIVE. And there were only two ticket desks open (of the ten). But that’s okay… IT’S NOT LIKE IT WAS RUSH HOUR OR ANYTHING.
Oh, hang on, it was.
Looks like the Italians have been taking lessons in utter ineptitude off the Britain’s Rail ‘Service’ (I prefer to use the term ‘Vast Brocade of Incompetence’ myself). So I waited, got a bit panicky, went over to the automatic ticket machine to try and get a reservation there, realised that you couldn’t do that, lost my place in the queue, looked at my watch – three minutes until departure – realised that there was no way out of this mess and bought myself a ticket from the damn machine. A whole god-damn full-price adult ticket. Sixty Euro worth.
Sixty Euro! That’s more money than I’ve spent this week! Idiot! As I took the ticket from the machine, the full stupidity of what I had done dawned on me. I could have just paid the conductor a few Euro on board, even if they had made me pay a fine, it wouldn’t have been sixty Euro. Bad decision-making based upon the fact that the train station was FULL of people, and so I assumed the train would be FULL of people, and I’d be left standing up without a reservation and they would kick me off for not having a seat. Maybe. Or something like that.
The train was almost empty. I had four seats to myself.
And then it started to rain.
And so on to Rome…
I arrived at some ungodly hour, which I thought was actually quite appropriate. I slung my bag into the Pop Inn Hostel (with crazy guy Cesar running the joint, I warmly recommend it – it’s right by the train station too), and hit the streets – I had to step foot in Vatican City tonight.
And so, I found myself walking through Rome with my heart on a string, dear god, please help me. I’m so very tired of doing the right thing…
It was past midnight when I got to Popesville and there I found that the entire Piazza di San Pietro was cordoned off. No public access tonight, young Hughes, you atheist dog. Oh well, might as well see if there’s a back entrance (I would expect that of the papacy, wouldn’t you?). So I set off for my first (and possibly last) lap of an entire nation – a nation with its own flag (yellow), bank (corrupt), leader, and even its own army (kinda), although when I did manage to find a Swiss Guard to have a natter with, his costume made me wonder if he was a proper bodyguard for Zeus’s god’s shiny-coated representative on Earth, or had just come back from a spectacularly unsuccessful fancy dress party.
Anyway, he wouldn’t let me in – not even one foot! Private property, apparently. Ah well, the Piazza opens at 7am and my train leaves at 7.20am – bags of time. Mr. Willy-hat hasn’t seen the last of this little ginger wanderer.
But as I had already started, I thought that I might as well complete a lap around the place and OH MY GOD it’s a bloody fortress! Seriously, round the back are like, fifty-foot walls (from which boiling tar was no doubt thrown in times past) – although, forgive me for saying this (if you’re a forgiver!) but it all smacked of insecurity to me…
If my best mate was the chap what had the power to conjure up an entire universe (all 100,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000+ galaxies of the bugger!) out of THIN AIR, I wouldn’t be hiding in a fortress like some kind of balloonless Bowser, I’d be sunning it up on a beach in Thailand, laying in a hammock drinking coconut milk, safe in the knowledge that no lightning, tsunami or assassin’s bullet would ever come anywhere near me BECAUSE IT WAS MY MATE WOT MADE THE UNIVERSE!
But that’s just me – you can probably guess that I’m not one for pan-dimensional super-beings from beyond the stars. All seems a bit… well, you know… silly. I’m especially unimpressed by the ones who sit there picking their nose while the disease-ridden, flying hypodermic needles they invented (fancy that!) kill millions from malaria, dengue fever, Japanese encephalitis and elephantitis and other horrific diseases I couldn’t hope to spell unaided.
Incidentally, did anyone see the pope stuffing a message to his god in the wailing wall this week? I couldn’t help but imagine a kid stuffing his letter to Santa in the letterbox…
I walked and I walked – around the Vatican City (I’ve never strolled around an entire city before, never mind a nation!) and down through the streets around the Pantheon and to the Coliseum. I didn’t want to sleep. The night was fresh, the streets were empty – save for the rumble of the occasional car on the cobblestones. A city unspoilt – a city where I saw no multi-storey carparks, no 1960’s concrete shopping malls, no heartbreaking highrises, no disgusting office towers set to depress, no beautiful buildings left to rot, no revolting hotels made of grey solidified slop…
The curse of the latter twentieth C may be hiding out on the outskirts, but here, tonight, in the centre of Rome, all I saw was stone and wood and clay – and the beautiful epic decay of centuries, as the pillars of stone and sun-baked bricks slowly eroded their way back to the nature from whence they came.
Something that concrete can never do – age gracefully.
Not Britain then. Not Liverpool, London, Leeds, Manchester or Brum. The one place on Earth seemingly unbewitched by the twentieth century nightmare of concrete, glass and asbestos. Of that rat Le Corbusier’s fascist conceit – machines for dying in.
A place immune. A clone town this is not. So how did this make me feel? Elated I guess, that such a place exists and that the cretinous children of Le Courbastarder haven’t got around to ruining it yet, but also saddened – that such a place exists is proof (if any more proof where needed) that such a place can exist.
But no, it’s all 30-year lifespans, Vegas-style, for the rest of humanity, like I’ve already pointed out – we didn’t rebuild the twin towers – disposable buildings for a disposable land-filled age.
So what are we leaving our grandchildren, eh? What wonders? What sights? What art? What BEAUTY? NADA. A handful of good tunes, some good books, some decent films, some cool television shows – but nothing permanent. Nothing to say LOOK KIDS – WE WERE HERE; only what is downloadable. The entire output of a generation, squeezable onto a 2.5″ hard drive.
The Queen, on the turn of the millennium, lighting a torch with BRITISH GAS emblazed on the side in a costly DOME designed to last less than a decade.
Forget that, I say! When 99 became 00, I was at the pyramids trying to connect our glorious part (OUR past! We killed all the Neanderthals! We’re the only race of humans left on this planet!) to some kind of glorious future. But now, ten years on, all I can see is a future that will be all but forgotten in just a few centuries time. The great age of nothin’ doin’, the second coming of bread and circuses.
Sorry, we were all too busy watching soap operas…………
And what are we building in England now to show the grandkids? A big white horse!
To paraphrase top designer Scott Jones, that’s something a child would think of…
We really need to get a grip. Buildings are the most public of artforms, the reason people fly thousands of miles across the globe to Rome to Giza to Agra to Machu Picchu. But even in our daily lives, we HAVE to look at the damn things, whether we wish to or not, they barge their way into our daily life without asking. It should be against the law for them to depress the hell out of us.
The least we should expect is that (if we listen carefully) they don’t sound like two women comparing bargains. Well, I got my glass curtain from TX Maxx – guess how much, go on guess…
Rome, you are beautiful, you will always occupy a special place in my heart, but I’ve been walking for over three hours and it’s getting light. The Coliseum towers over me, mocking my disposition towards modernity. Look what we cobbled together, Graham, WITH OUR BARE HANDS – before pneumatics, before electricity, before JCBs, before AutoCAD, before 3D printers… Two THOUSAND years ago, Graham, LOOK!!
Hahahahaha! Go on – beat THAT!
Bet you can’t.
We can, but we choose not to. Like Dash purposefully running slow in the school race.
We could be Incredible, but we choose to be pedestrian. How sad.
I turned my back on the stadium, half broken but still breathtaking. This is a battle I fear I’ll fight all my life, but don’t worry – it’s not all hot air. The masterplan is kicking in – and my little black book Development Hell is safe in the hands of my girl in Australia. I’ve still got a long way to go this year, but that’s nothing to the roads I plan to travel this decade.
I got back and checked the GPS to see if the border hop to the Vatican had been successful – no, I couldn’t claim it, I really couldn’t – the barrier was DEAD ON the border. Showed my walking route around the walls quite well though. I’d have to go back in the morning (well, three hours time) and do it properly.
6:40am: Back to the Vat in record time – I ran around St Peter’s Square (it’s not square, but I don’t know what else to call it) and then back into the taxi and onto
Our ferry got us into Pozzallo, which is not the same place we left from (Catania), so we raced to the train station and hopped on the OLDEST TRAIN IN THE WORLD up to Catania. One of those trains where you can OPEN THE BLOODY WINDOW and STICK YOUR HEAD OUT!! Health and Safety be DAMNED I say, be DAMNED. The conductor was bo-diddly crazy, and everyone on board didn’t seem to be heading anywhere – they were just there for ‘the craic’.
I can’t express to you, the joy of windows that OPEN – in buildings, in trains, on buses – give me AIR! Not phoney, dry through-the-(might-not-be-working)-AC air, real immediate O2 – air that you do not have to ask someone else for, air that can’t break down on the hottest day of the year – fresh, flowing, cool democratic air. Happiness is an open window.
We got back to Catania and before long we were on a bus to Palermo. Now, my new masters at National Geographic need to know that I haven’t got the plague so they can get medical insurance on the production should I flake out in Africa and they’re left with half a production called EPIC FAIL! So I needed to see a quack and have a check up (cold spoon test, etc.). Laura and I traipsed around Palermo in the blazing heat for three hours – two medical clinics, three hospitals – they all sad no, bugger off you ginger git. If I wasn’t ill at the start of this little detour, I was by the end of it (that’s a joke, by the way; I’m never ill – even when I’m ill).
Darn it. Naught else to do but to grab a bite to eat and hop the bus to Tranpani where our ferry to TUNISIA leaves in the morning. Our first taste (a nibble no less!) of Africa!!
I know I’ve still got San Marino, Monaco, Andorra, Spain and Portugal to go in Europe, but I’ll be back next week to do them – there is no way overland from Tunisia to Morocco.
Oh, and I’ll be going to Cyprus once I’ve finished Africa – it’s all in hand, DON’T WORRY!
Fri 15th May;
A few of you have asked for an update on how it’s all going and what craziness I have planned for the future.
So here you go…
It’s 15th May 2009. I’ve hit 84 of my target 200 countries. I’m eight weeks behind schedule. This is not as bad as it sounds! If I was on schedule, I’d be in Australia by the end of July! The schedule has a lot of leeway in it to accommodate things stuffing up (as they invariably will!).
HOWEVER, my back is really up against the wall now due to not being allowed to step foot in Algeria or Libya – this is not a good turn of events, and doesn’t bode well for some of the other African and Middle Eastern countries I was planning to pull that ‘Border Hop’ trick in (don’t look at me like that! It worked in Suriname, Panama and Haiti!).
The Next Bit…
I’ve got to get from Morocco to South Africa overland in less than a month – including boat trips to Cape Verde and Sao Tome & Principe. Not easy by any stretch of the imagination, but doable all the same.
Then, I’ll be heading up to Djibouti (Madagascar, Comoros, Seychelles and Mauritius all have to be ticked off the list). I’m giving this leg six weeks because those four islands are going to be a NIGHTMARE!
After Africa, it’s all pretty much Terra Firma (with the exception of the Maldives) until Australia – the Middle East, The Sub Continent, China, SE Asia – all overland or scheduled ferries.
After Oz, I have twelve pacific nations to get to. Whether it’s going to be possible this year is, honestly, debatable – cyclone season starts the beginning of December, which will make it damn hard to hitch a lift.
Having said that, I intend to plough on regardless – cargo boats run all year – they can race around cyclones in a way that yachties can only dream of.
The biggest overland obstacle is going to be visas. I’ve got two passports but even so, places like Equatorial Guinea and Bhutan do NOT like visitors of any shape or form.
The thing is, nobody has attempted this before, so even if it does take me more than a year it’ll still be a world record – but to make it a real achievement I’d like to spend Christmas with my girlfriend in Melbourne with 200 countries under my belt!
So is the Odyssey still achievable? Hell yeah, you better believe it baby – it’ll take more than The Caribbean to stop this cat from dancin’…
The ferry to Tunisia was supposed to leave at 8am, so Laura and I dragged our asses to the port for 7am. The ferry didn’t arrive until 8am. By 10.30am, we were still in port.
Welcome to Africa. We haven’t even left Sicily yet. Better get used to it.
The ferry took all day – it was supposed to get into Tunis at 4pm.
We got in around 8pm. The first guy I spoke to (well, he spoke to me) claimed to be a taxi driver (he wasn’t) and would charge us 20 diner (about a tenner) to take us to the bus station. I haggled him down to 15 diner and we jumped in his ‘taxi’ (’twas a car). Upon arriving at the bus station, he demanded 20, which considering we had made some unscheduled stops along the way, I thought was fair enough, until he started demanding 20 EURO.
Welcome to Africa.
Unfortunately for Mr. Taxi, I haven’t just stepped off the banana boat (this was not Barbados and Captain Ainsley Adams hadn’t made me sleep on the floor). I made it quite clear that he was getting paid in his own currency (he was already getting twice the going rate in a metered cab). We had a bit of a standoff, but what was he going to do? Wasn’t even a real taxi driver. The silly sausage – he’s lucky I chose to pay him at all.
I HATE it when people have NOTHING BETTER TO DO than to confirm the bloody stereotype of a nation, and when that person is the first person you meet, it really makes my blood boil. British Footy Hooligans, Loudmouth Yanks, Arrogant Israelis, misogynistic Middle-East rip off merchants, take note – you’re doing what everyone expects you to do. Stop it you great galloping galoots.
In Tunisia, there are mini-buses called Louages that head off wherever you want to go once they’re full. Laura and I hopped the one to Tabarka on the Algerian border. The driver drove LIKE A MAN POSSESSED. Laura, unbelievably, managed to sleep (she has similar Jedi powers to me…!) and we arrived not in three hours (as scheduled) but in two. It was too late for the old border hop, though. That would have to wait until morning.
Everything is going to plan…
Laura and I hauled ourselves out of bed as early as we could and jumped a taxi for the short ride to the Algerian border. Now, if this was anything like the border into Panama, Ukraine or Belarus, it would be possible to get through the first set of border guards (the ‘home nation’ if you will) and talk to the second set (the country you wish to enter) and by doing so step foot over the border, which invariably runs half-way between the two.
That’s not the case in Tunisia, though, as I was about to discover…
We arrived at the border around 7am. Laura stayed in the cab (best not filming stuff on borders – gets you into trouble!) and I went to speak to the guard – would he let me pass to go and speak to the Algerian guards?
Would he hell!
‘Interdit’, he kept saying, and no amount of pointing at my pocket and offering to pay a ‘fee’ would sway his stance. This was the start of my fortnight of disaster, and why it has taken so long for these blogs to go up online (sorry!).
There was no arguing with him, so I just had to turn tail and get back in the taxi. This is a very, very bad thing.
Algeria is as remote as remote can be, it’s one of those nations that nobody, not even its jolly Muslim neighbours, likes (brotherhood of Islam – ha!). You can’t get in there from Morocco (the border is closed) and you would be hard pressed to find a way in from Mauritania, Mali, Niger or Libya. The only easiest way in is through Tunisia or by getting a boat from Spain or France. Back in Tabarka (Chewbacca), Laura and I grabbed the next Louage to Tunis while I tried to work out how on Earth I was going to get in to Algeria.
We arrived in Tunis around midday, and made a beeline for the Algerian Embassy, to see if I could get a visa. Thanks to a combination of Lonely Planet marking down the Algerian Embassy, when what we needed was the Algerian Consulate (Embassy, Consulate, High Commission – what’s the difference?) and two different taxi drivers who didn’t know where they were going, by the time we got there it was past 1pm and the Consulate was closed. We spoke to the guard and he assured us that I could get a visa on Monday.
This put me in a pickle – do I stay in Tunisia until Monday and try to get a visa then, or leave with Laura tomorrow on the ferry back to Sicily? Working it out logically, it would put an extra week on my journey to return to Algeria after finishing Africa. Two more days in Tunisia seemed like a better bet.
I just hope that the guard wasn’t lying to us…
So now for the Libyan border hop, through the Medina (market) in central Tunis and into another Louage (we got to sit in the front of this one) and the rest the day spent travelling south to Ben (Obi-Wan) Guerdane on the Libyan border. Laura and I ran down the batteries in my ipod and fought over who was being DJ (me, obviously – it was my ipod!).
We got in very late and headed over so some nasty, nasty border hotel and bedded down for the night.
Again we were up at the crack, I said my farewells to Laura and shoved her on a Louage back up to Tunis (or at least I thought I did). I got a Taxi to the Libyan border, and in a damn near carbon copy of what happened yesterday, the Tunisian border guards turned me back.
Leo – the Webmaster – doesn’t like me swearing on my blogs, but you can probably hazard a guess at the string of expletives that I launched at the desert. But they said I could get a visa from Sfax, a city halfway back to Tunis, and that the embassy was open today. I made a beeline, passing up my change to go and visit Tatouine (oh yes it exists!) and the Star Wars film sets.
Upon arrival in Sfax, I headed to the Libyan embassy, which was (surprisingly) open. But there was no chance. Since Colonel Saunders, sorry, Qaddafi decided in 2000 that westerners were coming over to Libya and stealing their precious things, they won’t let you in without an invite.
Like one of those bloody clubs in London that you wouldn’t want to go to anyway because they charge 16 quid for a pint of shandy…
So I hit the streets of Sfax to shake things up, see if I could make something work.
If I had known that there was no way of getting a visa to Algeria on Monday, I would have jumped on the train to Tunis and met Laura, got on the boat to Sicily with her and headed over to Barcelona where my parents and the Producer of The Odyssey television show, Matt, were waiting.
IF I HAD KNOWN.
But at this point I still believed that I could get a visa for Algeria on Monday and the alternative was going to be too much of a nightmare to even contemplate. Maybe I could convince somebody to take me over the Libyan border tomorrow in a 4×4 or something, anything.
I got chatting to a few guys who spoke English – Semi, Anis, Wahleed and their friends. At first they were full of ideas, but then after making a few phone calls, they seemed to come down on the ‘it’s impossible’ side of the debate. I then started walking back to the hotel where I had dumped my bags, which is when I ran into Raouf. Having introduced himself as a poet, Raouf and WAS the illegitimate child of Chris Morris and my mate Chris Pye, not just in looks, but in mannerisms; I almost expected him to force me to eat Cake or draw a cartoon willy on the question paper.
He said he could get me a journalist visa, and, out of options, I thought I’d give it a punt.
In hindsight, I should have headed up to Tunis and met Laura. I really wish I had done. The Louage I put her on ended up going nowhere and she had a total ordeal with the bloody Tunisian men in Ben Guerdane, dragging her around various places before (thankfully) some women came and told them to do one, and put her on the right bus.
I thought Tunisia was one of the safest Muslim countries for women. Obviously being the ‘safest’ in a league that includes rampant female genital mutilation (99% in Somalia!), rape victims being stoned to death and woman being routinely beaten to death by their own family in ‘honour(!)’ killings, THAT AIN’T SAYING MUCH.
Quite what is honourable about a gang of men murdering a female relative in cold blood is anyone’s guess.
And don’t give me that moral relativism bulls**t; wrong is wrong, period – I’m sick of people hiding their personal darkness behind their rotten religion. We don’t stand for people eating each other in the Solomon Islands, but more catholic priests have been excused by the Vatican for raping children than have been ex-communicated.
Anyway, I messed – let’s give them the benefit of the doubt shall we? In future, no. I’m just going to assume that everyone I meet in this part of the world is a rotter, and let them prove me wrong!
I’m sorry Laura. You shouldn’t have had to put up with that. Nobody should.
Anyway, I decided to stay in Sfax for the night, and try again for the border with Raouf in the morning. Raouf and I went out for a meal and a few drinks (which I ended up paying for, of course!), but I had a good night – the food was excellent and I got to dance to some Arabic music until the wee small hours, so I’m not complaining.
My spidey-sense started tingling when on the way back to my hotel, Raouf started asking for an insane amount of money for the visa. I told him to leave it and I’d see him in the morning.