I can see why they call these coaches ‘luxury’, I mean – the seats recline a whole TWO inches! Amazing!! And the vibration of the window glass no doubt cures no end of ailments. They’re so lush they even give the driver a special pair of cast iron boots on which to gently thump on the brakes whenever he feels like (usually when you’re in the loo). All I can say is that it cost me $184 and it was worth every penny. If pennies were made of rat droppings.
When it’s cheaper to drive somewhere on your own in a Hummer than to take ‘public’ transport, the word ‘public’ is nothing more than a shitty lie.
The coach of all sorrow arrived in Townsville at around 1pm. I hurried to the internet café – but still no word from the owners of the Mell Seringat. I began to panic. I emailed them again, but I already knew in my heart it was too late. But the working day hadn’t started yet in Germany… there was still hope!
At 5pm I met up with Robbie and Sera, flatmates of my CouchSurf host Eagle. Robbie is from Queenland, Sera’s from Texas and Eagle is from New Zealand. They all work at the Billabong Animal Sanctuary. After a short ride back to their house (‘The Nest’) I discovered that they like to take their work home with them – not only did they own a couple of pythons, they also owned an inland taipan – arguably the most deadly snake in the world. Nice! One of the pythons had recently given birth (to eggs) and the baby snakelets we being kept in what looked like tupperwear containers, but for snakes. I also met their pet parrot, although I was not keen on even seeing the giant spider that lurked menacingly trapped in a box on the other side of the room.
I was tired after my long journey. The ship was originally scheduled to leave next Saturday, which would have given me a bit of breathing space to sort something out, but the schedule had been moved forward to 2300 tomorrow. After a few abortive attempts, I finally got through to the port agent who had some rather bad news for me. The ship’s estimated time of departure had been moved forwards, again, to between 0900 and 1100 tomorrow. The only way I could possibly get on board is if I had the permission of the ship owners (I already had the permission of the charterers) and I had that permission yesterday. In a blind panic I emailed just about everybody who worked for the company in Germany, but when the message finally came down the line, it was a big NEIN!
They hadn’t heard anything about what I was doing until just now (our earlier emails must not have gone through) and it was far too late to sort anything out now, less than 12 hours before the ship was due to depart.
Upset and furious at myself for travelling 1,300km up here for no good reason, I looked for a plan B. There was another ship leaving on Sunday from Brisbane. It was also owned by a German company. I emailed them and awaited their reply. By this time, Eagle and Robbie had packed up for the night (they had to be up early tomorrow) and so I was left chatting to Sera. Sera’s a right-wing gun-owning, Republican voting Christian from Texas. I’m a left-wing, gun hating, Labour voting atheist from Liverpool. Needless to say, we got on like a house on fire. I love a good ding-dong.
Not wanting my trip up to Townsville to be a complete waste of time, Eagle, Sera and Robbie ensured that I at least had some most excellent experiences while up north. Last night I got to feed a freshly killed chicken to a python (called Leia) and today Sera to took me to the Billabong Animal Sanctuary where they all work so I could feed a crocodile Irwin-style. A giant (and I mean GIANT) salty – the biggest and most aggressive crocodiles in the world vs. me with a piece of meat on the end of a stick. Needless to say, the magnificent beast won the day, but not after a couple of minor skirmishes in which I was the victor – teasing the great reptilian with my prowess on the lifty-stick and the fact there was a nice high fence between the two of us.
While at the Sanctuary I also got to annoy a cockatoo, infuriate a parrot, exasperate a wombat, irritate a koala and bother a cassowary. Lovely! The horrifically overpriced coach back to Brisbane (what does this thing run on – gypsy tears?) left at 1pm, so I said my fond fare-ye-wells to Eagle and Robbie before Sera ran me into the city, purchasing sushi for me along the way (thank you Sera!!). And here’s me thinking all Republicans are evil. Evil people don’t buy me sushi, I’m sure.
Sera dropped me off a the bus stop (for $190 one would expect a station, no?) and soon I was heading back to where I came from. The same rest stops, the same films on the TV, the same big long (mostly) empty highway. Met a bunch of backpackers on board from The Netherlands and Germany and had a much better time heading down than I did heading up (a journey on which I talked to nobody). If it wasn’t for the horrendous bogan (what they call chavs in Oz) mother, four unruly kids and more unwarranted slapping than a punch-up outside The Lisbon. When I’m in charge, you’re going to need a licence to look after kids. Even if they’re your own.
The bus drove into the night and was as uncomfortable as you’d expect. Although slightly less uncomfortable than that time I was on a coach in Bolivia and the old man next to me put his hand on my leg and I had to pick it up and put it back on his own leg. That was awkward.
Frustrated with my lack of internet, I called top mate Alex Zelenjak in Sydney to see if he could find anything interesting heading up to Taiwan in the next few days. I was also mulling over the magnificently crazy plan put forward by Odyssey follower Jason Budzinski in Texas – a plan that would involve me taking a P&O cruise ship to New Caledonia, then a Swire cargo ship to Keelung in Taiwan, then get the train down to Kaohsiung in order to meet the Mell Sembawang on April 15. The chances of pulling this trick off would be as remote as Everton’s chances of ever winning the damn Premiership, but it got me thinking… what if there was a ship going direct from Brisbane to Keelung?
The coach arrived in Brisbane’s miserable concrete Roma Street Transport Terminal around noon and I was off like Usian Bolt off the blocks to the library. Air conditioning, free internet and still clinging to the possibility of a ship getting me to Taiwan before April 15, I had work to do.
After an hour of scouring the internet, I came across the Holy Grail: A ship. On Monday. Going straight to Keelung in Taiwan. Arriving April 13. And it was owned by – oh joy of joys – PIL. The same owners as the Southern Lily 2, the ship that had happily taken me from Fiji to New Zealand in January. The KOTA JUTA, you are my saviour!
Emails went out to everybody I could find who worked for the charterers, an Aussie company called PAE. Within 20 mins I had a call back from Trish in the Brisbane office saying it would be okay with them, but I needed to talk to PIL head office in Singapore for confirmation.
Happily, I still had my PIL contacts in my old emails, and so another email shot went out to the good guys over there – especially Captain Panneer, the head of operations. In a very short space of time (we normally have a few weeks to organise these things – here we had just a few hours) Captain Panneer had written back with a massive thumbs-up pending a decision by the ship’s management company, Anglo-Eastern. I told Captain Panneer I owed him a beer or two when I got back to Singapore.
Job well done (Anglo-Eastern are based in the UK, so I wouldn’t hear back from them until the evening our time), I packed up my stuff and headed over to the City Backpackers to abuse not only their free internet (sorry!), but also their cheap (for Australia!) beer they have on at happy hour. At exactly 19:58, the final confirmation came through. This must rank as the fastest hitch in the history of international container ship travel – a green light from three companies: one in Australia, one in Singapore and the other in the UK, in less than a working day.
Having snatched victory from the jaws of defeat, I ordered a jug of Carlsberg and the celebrations began. Ran into a couple of scousers from West Derby (it has almost become weird if I don’t meet people from my home town), played pool like a champ, met a couple of lads wearing ‘Pussay Patrol’ T-Shirts from the Inbetweeners Movie and singularly failed to chat up the topless waitress. There was a topless waitress. In the backpackers. After five days of excruciating frustration, it seemed that all my dreams had come true.
Major major MAJOR thanks to PAE, PIL and Anglo-Eastern.
I’ll see you in Taiwan my friends.
Sat 31.03.12 – Sun 01.04.12:
Literally woke up in the gutter. Well, it was sort of half in the gutter half in a bush. Man that was a big night. Gathering up my belongings like a common vagrant, I headed over to the Brisbane library to finalise everything for my departure on board the Kota Juta on Monday. Only problem was that I got there at 6am and the library didn’t open until 9. I’m thinking this kind of things happen to tramps all the time. I lay back on a concrete plinth in the atrium and fell back asleep. You can do that kind of thing in Australia and not get your things stolen. Nice!
Woke up again at 9.15 and sorted what needed to be sorted in order for the sorting to be sorted. This included writing to Hartmann Reederei, a German shipping company and asking (very nicely) if they’d let me board the Mell Sembawang, scheduled to depart Taiwan for MICRONESIA (196 out of 201) and PALAU (197 out of 201) on April 15. Hartmann are the owners and although the charterers, Mariana Express, have already said it would be groovy, I can’t expect to shimmy on board without the owner’s consent.
I can’t find any other cargo ships that call into Micronesia and Palau, so if they say no, I may well be sunk. The message is in the ether now, let’s hope it reaches a favourable destination.
I then took the wise decision to head back to the city and check into a backpackers and have a (much needed) shower. I may look like a hobo, but I certainly don’t want to smell like one.
On my way up to Townsville I got a message from an Odyssey follower called Sam, saying it was a shame that she missed me in Brisbane. Now we could meet up! After Sam and her boyfriend Chadd had finished watching some very important football match (real football for a change, Australia!) we met up for drinkies. After demolishing a pitcher or two in the backpacker bar, I was invited to crash on their couch so we headed off to the Brisbane suburb of St. Lucia (been there!) for some much needed pizza and beer, slightly peeved that the backpackers wouldn’t even give me a partial refund.
The next day Sam and I went out to visit Mt. Coo-tha, a bit of a tourist draw around these parts. Sam was good enough to drive me up to the summit, which offers sweet views of the Brisbane River as it snakes through the city. At the base of the Mt. Coo-tha is the Sir Thomas Brisbane Observatory, wonderfully enough, Brisbane is the only city in the world named after an astronomer. I’m beginning to like this place a lot more. Although it is still way too hot.
Unfortunately, Sam misplaced her wallet at the summit so after the observatory we headed back up the hill to look for it. Even worse, on the way up she was clocked by the police doing 10k over the speed limit – boom, big fine. BAH!
Mon 02.04.12 – Wed 11.04.12:
It was an early start on Monday morning. Sam had to go into work, so I grabbed all my gear and tagged along with her towards the city centre from St. Lucia. After saying thanks and goodbye, I reached the city centre with half an hour to spare. Although only 8am, it was already shaping up to be another SCORCHING HOT Brisbane day. I really don’t know how people do it. It is nice once in every blue moon to go a whole 24 hours without sweating your teeth out.
I reached the PAE shipping office just after half eight and was taken around the office to meet the staff. I had already spoken to James Kurz, the operations officer, on Saturday morning and I spoke Trish to on Friday afternoon while feverishly attempting to gain passage on the MV Kota Juta, scheduled to leave Brisbane later today and arrive in Keelung, northern Taiwan on April 13… thus giving me ample time to amble down to Kaohsiung in the south to make the Mell Sembawang (if they let me on board!) by April 15.
James drove me down to the port and there I got to stand on the roof of the control tower for the Kota Juta’s terminal: one of only two (I think) container yards in the world to be completely remote controlled. That’s right peeps: the forklifts running the containers around are all automated… and soon WILL BE TAKING OVER THE WORLD a la Metropolis, The Matrix, Terminator, I Robot, Westworld, Battlestar Galactica, AI, Silent Running, Alien, Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, THX-1138, Hardware, Transformers, Doctor Who and Wall-E.
Don’t say I didn’t warn ya.
After that I clambered onboard the good ship Kota Juta and met with Captain De Silva, an affable chap from Sri Lanka for whom this will be his first voyage as master of the vessel. It’s a hell of a job. The pay is good, but the responsibly is immense. There are at least 1000 things that could conceivably go wrong on a ship like this, and, like a doctor, if you have just one tiny massive cock-up you’ve not only lost your job, you may also face criminal proceedings. It’s like the diametric opposite of being a politician, in which you can make as many idiot decisions as you like, kill as many innocent bystanders as happen to get in the way and still walk off with your legacy (and best selling memoir) intact.
But think of it this way: have a look around your room. The computer you’re reading this on was almost definitely brought to you by a container ship. The chair you’re sitting in was probably brought in by container ship. Your TV, your Blu-Ray Player, your couch, your coffee table, the carpet, the ring on your finger, the glasses on your face, the clothes on your back, the food in your gut, the light bulb currently lighting the room… and if you happen to be enclosed in concrete at the moment, the very material that surrounds you was brought to you by container ship. If the entire merchant navy went on strike your world would grind to a halt in a way that it wouldn’t if all lawyers went on strike (in face, without lawyers, humans would be more productive than ever).
Needless to say, my appreciation of the merchant navy has grown massively in the last few years. The MV Kota Juta will, in fact, be my 12th major container ship of The Odyssey Expedition – if all goes it plan (don’t worry, it won’t) they’ll be 4 more jaunts like this before I’m finished – the ship to Palau & Micronesia, the ship to Sri Lanka, the ship to Maldives and back and then the ship to Madagascar (in order to hit the Seychelles… on a yacht!).
The crew on board the Kota Juta are mostly Filipino, and the officers are mostly from India. But the two officer cadets, Ed and Joel, are both British – to be able to bang on about British stuff that nobody else in the world knows or cares about is a rare treat for me, and of course it wasn’t long before Ed was cooking up horrible things to do to me in the spirit of the law of the playground.
It had come to Ed’s attention that despite me crossing the equator on a ship on at least a dozen occasions (the yacht to Sao Tome (8 times), Indonesia (3 times), the ship to Marshall Islands (twice) and the ship to Nauru (twice)) I had never taken the time out to placate Neptune. This is something that should have been done the first time I crossed the equator – and, for a couple of new recruits on board the Kota Juta, it was something that would happen on Easter Sunday, just a few hours after going from 0°00’001”S to 0°00’001”N.
The ceremony involved me being “shaved, shampooed, immersed, profaned and purified” as well as being forced to drink the “equatorial holy water” which, I can assure you was anything but holy.
I had to stand in a barrel filled with sea-water, have egg cracked on my head, get covered in paint, have my hair shaved, drink some noxious concoction involving vodka and chilli powder and then get drenched with a fire hose. All this was to take place in the presence of Neptune, who is traditionally played by the eldest man on the ship, in this case it was the Boson. He gamely turned up dressed in some bedsheets, welding a tin-foil trident and with a mop on his noggin.
And so it was into the barrel for your hapless narrator… let the ceremony commence!
Happy Birthday Mand, and Happy Easter everybody else!
If I’m to stand any chance of completing this quest, there are two things that must happen. One is that I am given permission to travel on the Mell Sembawang, a cargo ship out of Taiwan that calls in to both Micronesia and Palau – two of the final six countries I need to visit. The other is that a kind-hearted yachtie takes pity on me and agrees to ferry me up to The Seychelles from Madagascar.
For the other countries, there are other options, other routes, other shipping companies, but for these two critical legs of The Odyssey Expedition, I have no other alternatives, no aces up my sleeve, no Plan-B if things go tits-up. It’s Hobson’s choice, and if Hobson says no, then I’m screwed.
I had sent an email off to the owners of the Mell Sembawang as soon as I found out I would be travelling on the Kota Juta to Taiwan, now that was a week ago. However, the inconsiderate timing of Easter (movable feasts… grr…) meant that there was a good chance that my request hadn’t even been picked up by the powers that be. I had asked my cousin Christian (who speaks a little more German than me) to call them last Monday (the 2nd) and confirm they got the email, but after some crossed wires (and Easter looming), it wasn’t until Tuesday (the 10th) that he had a chance to get in touch.
At first, the news was good. Relayed to the ship’s email system via my mum, things ‘looked positive’ and I could feel a huge weight lifting off my shoulders. I went to bed happy. But then the next night, in the wee small hours of Thursday morning, I checked the ship’s emails. There was one from my mum.
The news… was not good.
Hartmann reckon they won’t be able to accommodate me on the Mell Sembawang.
This is a crushing blow. It’s halfway through April and I’ve only been to 4 countries this year. It may well take the rest of my life to get to the final 6. My friends Dino, Hugh and Danny are getting married at the end of August/beginning of September (not to each other, sadly) and I’m going to feel a right chump if I miss their weddings, especially as they’ve all been so supportive throughout this ridiculous mission and since I’ve already missed so many of my other friend’s weddings while off gallivanting around the world.
The Kota Juta arrived in the northern port city of Keelung on the afternoon of April 12. After saying goodbye to Captain De Silva and the crew, I picked up my tattered old backpack and the port agent ran me to the train station. Taipei here I come!
I’m actually quite glad to be visiting Taiwan proper for the first time. My original “Odyssey” trip to Taiwan took me to just the Matsu islands in the far north-west, which is technically closer to Mainland China than it is to Taiwan (don’t tell George Galloway that, he’ll demand they give it back), and I’d hate for people to think I wasn’t getting a full cultural experience of all the 201 countries and 14 overseas territories I’m visiting on this journey, as that tends to fill right-on hippy backpackers with a rage usually reserved for animal testing labs, Japanese whalers and people who wear fur coats.
So in order to imbibe the vibe, upon arrival in Taipei, I proceeded to walk around for three hours with all my kit, in the sweltering night heat, attempting to find a youth hostel that was a) listed in the Lonely Planet and b) actually existed. These two things would be asking a bit too much of the fabric of space and time, so instead I ended up in a rather pleasant backpackers hidden away on the 15th floor of an apartment building that would have remained a enigma hidden inside a mystery hidden inside a secret level of Super Mario Brothers had it not been for a sign written in blue felt-tip pen on a torn piece of paper stuck to the wall with sticky-tape.
The guy who ran the hostel was as surprised to see me as I was to find the place: this was, generally speaking, a Japanese hostel, and flannel-footed mugwumps like myself were very few and far between (no wonder given the lack of signage). But I can’t complain, the dorm room was clean and pleasant enough (although there was one snorer onboard who I was forced to strangle to death in his sleep – it was the most humane thing to do) and the free wi-fi was a sheer joy.
Now – to business! Here’s what I’m thinking: Hartmann (the owners of the Mell Sembawang) have said they can’t accommodate me, so maybe if I speak to the charterers and the captain of the ship, and there’s a spare cabin, then Hartmann would be able to take me.
In my over-optimistic appraisal of the situation, I hadn’t realised that saying ‘they couldn’t accommodate me’ was nothing to do with cabins or accommodation, it was just a polite was of saying ‘Nein’.
If I was going to stand any chance of getting on this ship, I needed to head down to the southern port city of Kaoshiung, stat. Luckily for me, the Taiwanese have been good enough to actually building a speedy, efficient and, most importantly, INEXPENSIVE way of travelling from one end of the country to the other. ARE YOU PAYING ATTENTION BRITAIN, AUSTRALIA AND AMERICA?
It’s quite a simple concept that they’ve come up with: they have a ‘railway line’ and what they like to call ‘trains’ run along it. For those of you living in backwards, impoverished nations like Britain, Australia and America, a ‘railway line’ consists of two metal rails which run parallel to each other, separated by blocks of wood or concrete that we like to call ‘sleepers’. A ‘train’, a thing that’s a bit like a coach but can hold 1000 passengers instead of 40 and runs off electricity rather than fossil fuel, hurtles along the ‘railway line’ taking people to their destination. But as there is no reason for this ‘train’ to stop at red lights, stop to refuel or get stuck behind an old granny doing 25 in a 70 zone, this ‘train’ can run at speeds of up to 300kph.
In real terms, this would mean you could get from Liverpool to London in around 45 minutes.
Also, because railway lines, mile-for-mile, cost 80% less to maintain than roads, and because, mile-for-mile, electricity is 95% cheaper than paying for diesel to fill the equivalent number of coaches you would need to transport 1000 people, that saving can be passed on to YOU, the customer! And so the turn-up-before-9am fare from Taipei to Kaoshiung is DA-DA-DAAAAAAAAA… £30.
Meanwhile, for the mouldy old coach from Brisbane to Townsville the lizards at Greyhound Australia will quite happily charge you $298 ONE WAY… and have the audacity to call it a ‘saver fare’!!! (Don’t believe me? Check out their website.)
But that’s nothing compared to the unbelievable fisting the British commuter faces every day at the hands of the UK railways. The turn-up-before-9am fare on Virgin trains from Liverpool to London (which is less distance than from Taipei to Kaohsiung… but takes twice as long folks!) is a brain-melting £300 – a week’s wages for the majority of Brits. That’s nearly $450 for a two and a half hour train journey, upon which you have to PAY FOR WI-FI and a sandwich costs a fiver.
LORD GIVE ME STRENGTH. In Turkey, a coach journey over the same distance costs LESS than – yes – signing up for Wi-Fi on a Virgin Train in the UK (never mind the f—ing ticket)… and the Turkish coach companies provide Wi-Fi FOR FREE!!
I do sometimes wonder how much crap people are prepared to put up with before they go postal. When I get back to the Blighty, nobody is going to be safe: when I say that the UK railway system is the biggest, most horrible, most blatant and most disgraceful rip off in the world, I’ve got the passport stamps to back up my assertion. I’ll be John Betjeman’s??? goddamn Rottweiler.
Within 90 minutes of boarding the train in Taipei, I was in the very southerly city of Kaohsiung: the place from where the Mell Sembawang would be departing in just two days time. I checked into the Kaohsiung 202 hostel and jumped online. There was a message from the captain of the Mell Sembawang saying they did have space for me on board the ship. A ray of sunlight. Now all I needed was permission off the owners, Hartmann.
My cousin Christian in Denmark was due to call Hartmann later today, which would be in the morning for Germany where the company is based. In the meantime, I thought it would be a good idea for me to head over to see the charterers, Mariana Express, and say hi. I met with Johnson Sung, the general manager and David Tsai, the operations manager. They were really friendly guys and wished me well in getting the permission I required to get on board.
I got back to the hostel and anxiously awaited 4pm – the time head office in Germany would open. At 4.05pm I received a rather angry email. An email that had been CC’d to everybody involved – the charterers, management, agents, crew, the queen of Sheba…
By the expression ‘the couldn’t accommodate me’, I assumed this meant that they didn’t have any spare cabins, but this was just a nice way of saying ‘no’. And given that fact, the veritable blizzard of emails arriving at Hartmann this Friday morning from the guys in Taiwan, the guys in Singapore, the captain of the ship and your humble narrator here, it looked to the guys in Germany that I was trying sneak onto the ship without their permission. It was really not a good look.
I put my head in my hands and took a deep breath. The resultant expletive measured 5.8 on the Richter Scale. What to do? What to do?
Persistent Googling had discovered a ship leaving once a month from Japan that goes to both Palau and Micronesia, but since the Keelung – Okinawa ferry service stopped a few years ago, getting to Japan without flying would mean getting a Chinese visa, taking the train from Kaohsiung to Keelung, the overnight ferry to Taiwan’s Matsu islands, the day ferry to the Chinese port of Fuzhou, the coach up to Qingdao via Shanghai, the overnight ferry to Incheon in South Korea, the train down to Busan and the hydrofoil over to Fukuoka in Japan. I know this because I’ve already done that same journey in reverse.
The other problem was that this ship seemed to visit every major island of Micronesia before crossing the Pacific to the west coast of the USA – leaving me 13 time zones west from my 198th country, Sri Lanka. I worked out that if I took this option I could be home just in time for the world to end in December.
I wrote back to Hartmann, apologising about the mix-up and explaining that I didn’t mean any offence. To my surprise, they wrote back accepting my apology and giving a phone number for me to call to discuss this matter further. I gave them a call. I honestly can’t recall what I said, but I must have sounded desperate enough for them to take pity on me. If I agreed to pay the deviation insurance (I’m nothing if not a deviant) as well as pay for my own food, they’d take me.
The resultant WOO-HOO!! shook the pillars of Hercules.
But when the confirmation email arrived, it informed the ship that I would be getting off the ship in Guam, not in Hong Kong. Now I was in a pickle. I had been pushing my luck getting permission to travel on the Mell Sembawang in the first place, and now I had to call Germany again asking for more?! The ship’s route is Kaohsiung (Taiwan) > Naha (Japan) > Saipan (Northern Mariana Islands (US)) > Guam (US) > Yap (Micronesia) > Koror (Palau) > Davao (Philippines) > General Santos (Philippines) > Hong Kong. Getting off in Guam would mean not visiting Micronesia and Palau, which was the reason I had just raced up to Taiwan in the first place.
I sent an email explaining the situation, and waited for the response. After a few hours spent frantically hitting F5, there was still no word from Germany. It was now 9pm in Taiwan and 2pm in Germany. I couldn’t take it any more. I had to call them. Again, I can’t remember exactly what I said. But they said it would be alright. And I said THANK YOU.
As I clicked off the Skype call I jumped off my backpacker bunk and danced a goddamn jig around the dorm. Some you win and some you lose. Today, I won.
After the good news from Hartmann, I did what all good backpackers do on Friday nights in strange and foreign lands. I went headed to the pub. A guy staying in the hostel called Nathan gave me a lift to the Brickyard and there I met a bunch of Canadians and Americans with which to celebrate my good news.
I woke up this morning, well, this afternoon, in the spare room of a couple I had been drinking with, and after thanking them profusely (and eating their bagels), I headed back to the backpackers to get everything all sorted for tomorrow’s big excursion. Saturday 14 April 2012 was a big day for us scousers, as not only was Everton playing Liverpool at Wembley for the FA Cup Final, the Grand National horse race was also being held at Aintree. Intending to watch both of these events on the telly, I headed over to the Bottom’s Up bar, took my place at the bar and ordered a Taiwan Beer and a hamburger.
The match started well, but then went downhill from there, with Liverpool winning 2-1 over Everton (my team). I fared better in the Grand National, winning the pub sweepstake and a miniature of decent whiskey for my troubles. Given the time difference, it was now rapidly approaching the midnight hour. I was toying with the idea of going back to the backpackers, getting an early night and all that jazz, but then a couple of German guys invited me to join them going to a nearby club. That club turned out to be a strip club and being a fine upstanding member of the church, I opted to go someplace else (and it wasn’t because it was too expensive, oh no).
So we went to some downstairs dive with a dancefloor, crammed with revellers and cheap drinks. I was busy dancing the night away when a chap came up to me and said that I looked just like Graham off that TV show. I explained that I was Graham from that TV show (secretly hoping he didn’t mean Graham Norton) and soon I was posing for drunken photos and pulling funny faces for the family album with this guy and his mates.
At some point one of the guys behind me took my hat off my head, presumably for a photo. But instead of giving it back like a normal decent human being, the absolute f—er walked out of the pub with it on his head. By the time I realised he’d done a runner with my novelty iconic headgear, it was too late. Security footage revealed that the gobshite did indeed walk out wearing another man’s hat (a deviant as well as a common criminal) but by now he was probably miles away. The bar manager apologised, it wasn’t his fault, but by-jingo, I think you could see the steam shooting out of my ears.
My up-to-this-point fairly upbeat demeanour took a swift nose dive. With my hair now exceptionally trim since King Neptune had his wicked way with me, and my hairline noticeably receding, I need my hat now more than ever, especially considering the next three weeks will be spent on a ship traversing equatorial waters – and my complexion is firmly on the whiter side of pale.
And so thus it was that on the 1,200th day of The Odyssey Expedition, after 3 years, 3 months and 14 days on the road, after 195 countries, 17 territories and countless nights on the lash – from Buenos Aires to Beijing, from Dubai to Dar Es Salaam, from Jerusalem to Jakarka, from Tehran to Tarawa… somebody finally stole my stupid, smelly, dog-eared, moth-eaten, good-for-nothin’ hat. And I loved that hat.
The good news is this: that hat is cursed. I had a special hex put on it by the cannibal king of a South Pacific island (which shall remain nameless) by the light of the blood-red eclipse.
By the combined power of Lapitan ancestral spirits, King Neptune, Ahura Mazda, Hanuman the monkey god, Amun-Ra and Joseph’s Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, I Hereby Declare That Whosoever Wears or Possesses THE HAT (apart from me, I’m vaccinated) Will Suffer Like No Human Being Has Ever Suffered Before!!
THE HAT will not only ensure that this wretched tea-leaf laments his thieving ways by giving him a smelly head, dandruff, lice and premature baldness (that’s my personal contribution), but will also strike down this akubra bandit with impotence, gonorrhoea, tuberculosis, chlamydia, scrofula, Alzheimer’s disease, yellow fever, the bubonic plague, repetitive strain injury, elephantitus, herpes, the human paplova virus, variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob Disease, bird-flu, scoliosis, dengue fever, eczema, smallpox, rabies, jaundice, gangrene, measles, mumps and rubella, Parkinson’s, giardiasis, Spanish flu, a pulmonary oedema, trypanosomiasis, diphtheria, lupus, tinnitus, legionnaire’s disease, rift valley fever, genital warts, Asperger’s syndrome, tape-worm, altitude sickness, myxamatosis, conjunctivitis, onchocerciasis, Hepatitis A, B, C, D, E, F and J, syphilis, foot and mouth disease, cholera, deep-vein thrombosis, haemorrhoids, swine-flu, athlete’s foot, polio, bovine spongiform encephalitis, gross obesity, anaemic dysentery, psoriasis, typhoid, leukaemia, Huntington’s, malaria, arthritis, sunburn, sunstroke, a real stroke, schistosomiasis, multiple sclerosis, tinea, Japanese encephalitis, full blown Aids, tennis elbow, thrush, filariasis, ingrown toenails, meningococcal meningitis, the common cold and whatever that kid had in ‘Mask’. And that’s just on the first day.
THE HAT will give him constant ear-worms of David Hasslehoff’s greatest hits, it will make his genitals smell like Gregg’s pasties, it will make him fall for one-legged golddiggers, it will turn everything he eats into sand and everything he drinks into Dr Pepper, it will put a virus on his computer, filling it with kiddie porn and automatically sending it to PC World to be fixed, it will reprogram his iPod so that every song is either Celine Dion or Crazy Frog, it will make him fancy Camilla Parker-Bowles, it will make him walk funny, it will cause large tufts of hair to spontaneously spout out of his nostrils within 50 feet of a member of the opposite sex, it will make Noel Edmonds his best (and only) friend, it will lower his IQ sufficiently to make him vote Republican in the upcoming US presidential election, it will give him a seat that doesn’t recline on an overnight flight, it will ensure all his children are born with tiny penises (including the girls), it will make him find Russell Brand incredibly funny, it will make one of those tiny spiky Amazonian fish swim up his urethra while he’s having a wee, it will make him wear cardigans from Marks and Spencer, it will deny him entry to the pub, it will hide the remote control down the back of the sofa, it will call him every night at 3am offering them life insurance in an excruciatingly loud, nasal and high-pitched Indian accent, it will give him a tacky ugly wobbly tramp-stamp of a Chinese character that he thinks means ‘longevity’, but actually means ‘penis’, it will put sugar in the fuel tank of his car, it will cause him to wet himself on stage in front of the entire school, he’ll wake up wearing nothing but a Union Jack at the Celtic end, it will get every insane bomb-happy muslim in the world to declare a fatwa on him, it will re-programme his TV so every channel is Five, it will make sherbet fall out of his pants while he’s walking through Singapore customs, it will put a sharp stone in his shoe while he’s running for the last bus, it will summon his dead relatives to float around and tut disapprovingly every time he masturbates, it will transubstantiate any toilet paper that touches his nipsy into sandpaper dipped in extra-hot chilli sauce, it will make him believe that wearing socks and sandals is acceptable, it’ll give him a muffin-top, it’ll give him manboobs, it will do a secret poo in his bed under the duvet, it’ll make him go cross eyed, it’ll make his teeth fall out, it’ll make him fall into a Glastonbury portaloo, it’ll put polonium in his cocaine, it’ll get him sacked for abusing livestock, it’ll make what’s left of his hair turn ginger, it’ll make him jump up and down on Oprah’s couch, it’ll change his name to Keith (if it isn’t already), it’ll make him fart and follow through, it’ll make his boiler explode and his house burn down, it’ll replace his Facebook account with that of Gary Glitter’s, it’ll get Mel Gibson to abuse him and breath heavily down the phone, it’ll set the hillbilly psychos of the church of Scientology on him, it’ll eat his last piece of cheesecake, it’ll replace all his DVDs with ones by Tyler Perry, it’ll make him invest heavily in Marconi, Enron and Kodak, it’ll replace his cornflakes with scabs and he won’t notice until it’s too late, it’ll leave piss on his bus seat, it’ll get Freddie Kruger to haunt his dreams, it’ll get Freddie Mercury to haunt his bumhole, it’ll get David Cameron to give him a hug, it’ll change all his fonts to papyrus, it’ll wet his carpet and scatter cress seeds on it while he’s banged up in a Congolese jail cell for 6 days, it’ll stencil the word ‘TWAT’ in permanent marker across his head every night while he’s asleep, it’ll never give him a long piece in Tetris, it’ll make his girlfriend cheat on them with his dad, it’ll leave an anonymous tip-off leading the police to find Madeline McCann in his basement, it’ll put him in the incorrect aspect ratio, it’ll put him on the sex offenders register, it’ll snipe him on eBay, it’ll make his toenails fall off, it’ll slam the piano lid down on his fingers, it’ll swap his car for a Sinclair C5, it’ll make his chair collapse, it’ll make people point and laugh, it’ll infest his skin with parasitic wasps, it’ll compel him to make an arse of himself in front of the nation on X-Factor and it’ll make his willy shrivel up, turn blue and drop off.
After years of illness, torment, ostracism and ridicule, THE HAT will one day make him fall into a Calcutta cesspit and trap his hand under a boulder of rock hard poo, forcing him to cut his own arm off using a small blunt penknife in order to escape.
After making him crawl blind for through miles of foul-smelling excrement, THE HAT will flush him out over a hundred-foot cliff where he will be left dangling by his one good arm. THE HAT will then fill his underpants with itching powder. After a few days of unceasing agony and torment, the branch he is hanging onto will snap and he’ll be left quadraspazzed on a life-glug for 37 years. Unfortunately for this hapless hat thief, his nurse is a psychopath and takes sadistic pleasure in mixing sulphuric acid into his IV solution. And so the ratbag sonofabitch who stole my hat is left in excruciating pain, friendless, diseased, incontinent and destitute with acid running through his veins. For 37 years. THE HAT will sit and watch, grinning to itself – but the curse will not end there.
After 37 miserable years, the delirious hat thief will think that his mum has finally come to visit, but then realise too late that it’s not his mum: it’s that psychotic nurse who promptly covers his face with a pillow filled with of broken glass and used needles. She then cuts off his face and feeds it to the dogs. The subsequent lack of a face, the complete paralysis and apparent brain death causes the twat who stole my hat to be declared dead, which would have been a release, if only he were really dead, which of course he is not.
Although unable to scream or move a muscle, he can feel everything that is being done to him. His not-quite-dead cadaver will then be harvested by a short-sighted mortician who removes all of the hat bandit’s remaining teeth using the aforementioned blunt penknife from 37 years ago, now rusty. The mortician then drops the still-alive ‘corpse’ off to be abused by drunken medical students who are recreating The Human Centipede in the basement of their faculty using bodies of recently-deceased vagrants. After having his lips stitched to the rancid poo-pipe of a putrefying tramp, the thought of being buried alive seems no longer so bad, but instead the —-ing gob—– —-faced bastard —-headed —- who stole my f-ing hat will be handed over to the American military and dropped off the side of USS Carl Vinson into the pit of Carkoon, the nesting place of the almighty Sarlacc, where they learn a new definition of pain and suffering as they are slowly digested over 1000 years.
And, if I’m being perfectly honest, I think that’s letting him off lightly.
There’s a lot of boring technical stuff that I have to keep on top of while bumming around the known universe. Keeping this website updated is one thing, keeping my cameras charged is another. I also need to avoid running out of tapes. Thus far, this expedition has eaten over (get this) 500,000 words, 600 blog entries, 300 hours of video tape, 10TBs worth of disk space and tens of thousands of digital photographs. There’s one person generating all that content, and that person is me. Needless to say, managing it single handed is a bit of a nightmare.
But that’s no excuse for running out of tapes. While I was wondering around Taipei on Thursday night I saw a ton of camera shops, all selling the little miniDV cassettes that my antiquated steam-powered Sony A1 uses. It gives a great picture quality though, so I’m nay grumblin’. At the time I was trying to find a hostel before my legs fell off, so you can forgive me for not stopping and browsing.
So today, still reeling from the loss of my hat, my job was to find some tapes to last me the three-week voyage to Micronesia and back. Easier said than done. First of all, I walked to this giant department store that looked like the building they used at the end of Ghostbusters only built in the 1980s and therefore rubbish. I went up about 17 escalators, through the perfume department, womenswear, kidswear, menswear, OAP wear, evening wear, LGBT wear, emo wear, gangster wear, chav wear, serial killer wear, highland fling wear, clown wear, lumberjack wear, international space station wear… eventually I made it to the AV department, which mostly consisted of kettles. With only one tiny counter for digital cameras, I wasn’t getting my hopes up, but, come on, if I can buy a pack of 5 miniDV tapes in some dusty border rown in the Casamance region of Senegal, surely – SURELY – I could get a tape from a department store in Taiwan’s second biggest city?
Well yes, I could get a tape. And by that I mean A tape, as in singular. I bought it in case my main quarry ie. more than one tape was to allude me. And allude me it did. I was hoping to get all the funny photographs of me being shaved on the Kota Juta up online today, but no, instead I walked around for over 3 hours trying – in vain – to find a single damn camera shop.
Taiwan has the same retail mentality as China, India, the Middle East and Africa – you can never find a single shop, you can only find an entire area of shops selling exactly the same thing. It’s as if one guy sets up his novelty trombone shop and then the next day there’s a shop selling exactly the same novelty trombones next door. In a week, the entire road is selling the same novelty trombones as the first guy. Within a month, every shop in an entire city block is now selling novelty trombones.
This is a bit weird for us in the UK, a place where you set up a Bargain Booze ten doors down from a Spar and you can expect death threats and bricks through the window, but it’s the way that the vast majority of the retail sector of the world operates. Which means if you’re the wrong side of town to little cameraville, you don’t stand a chance of finding a minDV tape. This was a day when staying with a local family would have been a damn good idea.
Arriving back in the hostel at around 5.30pm, I was glad to hear that one of the guys that was staying there had put out an SOS on the Kaohsiung ex-pat forum requesting my hat back. Sadly, however, nobody had owned up to it, so the curse remains. By 6pm I was at the Mariana Express office, slightly south of where I was staying, and there I met David Tsai, the head of operations. We set off for the port and I got to watch the Mell Sembawang come in: the ship that would take me to not only Micronesia and Palau, but also Okinawa in Japan, Saipan in The Northern Mariana Islands, Guam, Davao and General Santos in The Philippines and Hong Kong.
After this leg of the expedition, I will have just FOUR countries left to visit. BRING IT ON PEOPLE, BRING IT ON!!!
Mon 16.04.12 – Sat 21.04.12
The Mell Sembawang is a wonderful little boat: my cabin is clean, the air-con is working, the food is magnificent (I had steak in pepper sauce yesterday YUM) and the guys on board are a good laugh. We’re making our way to the US territories of The Northern Mariana Islands (formally Islas de los Ladrones (Islands of Thieves) and Guam. On Wednesday we pulled into the Japanese port of Naha on Okinawa island, but as we were there for less than three hours and a shore pass would cost (get this!) $250(!!!!!) I opted to stay on the ship.
So most of this week has been spent mooching about, brooding about the loss of my hat and wondering what the hell I’m going to do with my life once all this is over. The crew have cleared a space on deck just in front of the living quarters for playing basketball. Ever tried playing basketball on a ship while she’s rolling through great waters? I thought playing darts on a ship was tricky.
Aside from our Chief Engineer from Poland, I’m the only one on board who doesn’t hail from The Philippines, but as usual the crew have welcomed me warmly, giving me the run of the ship (within reason) and kitting me out with a natty safety helmet and hi-vis vest, which makes it look like I’m meant to be here. Or maybe like one of the little guys from Fraggle Rock.