Shaking off the inevitable hangover, much like a dog shaking itself dry after a paddle in the stream, I headed back over to the visa department of the Indian High Commission. Got all my forms filled out, new photos taken (I lost the ones I got in London somehow – since they require oversized 2” x 2” pics and they cost me £1.75 EACH, this annoyed me no end). Then I headed over to Carl’s place of work to meet Nilan Jayawardana, the General Manager of McLarens Shipping Ltd. After a chat and a cup of tea, we resolved to find a clever way of getting me to India without me having to swim. Only, as always, it’s not up to Nilan, it’s up to the parent company in Taiwan who don’t know me from Adam. But hope springs eternal.
There’s ship that leaves a week on Friday which goes to Mumbai which looks promising. But then I realised: Mumbai! Oh s—, I didn’t specify Mumbai as a possible port of entry. Jeepers! Chennai, Cochin, Tuticorin yeah, but not Mumbai!
QUICK!! SHREDDER! TAKE ME TO THE TECHNODROME!!!
I raced back to the Indian High Commission and begged them to give me my application form back. They said I’d have to re-apply tomorrow AND PAY THE FEE AGAIN.
But, hang on, it’s not part of the form, it’s just handwritten, on a piece of paper, a note for the attaché.
Okay – what’s your reference number, have you got your receipt?
Yeah, it’s just here in my copy of Lonely Planet… THAT I’VE JUST REALISED I’VE LEFT IN CARL’S OFFICE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF TOWN. Erm… when do you close?
In ten minutes, sir.
Oh, hang on: we found it anyway. Don’t get too many applications from flame-haired wonders from Liverpool, you know (he didn’t really say that last bit).
Gimme gimme gimme [I scrawl “AND MUMBAI” on my list of possible ports of entry].
I headed back to Carl’s office, sneaked in (he had gone home for the day) and retrieved my Sri Lanka Lonely Planet and that infernal visa receipt. Another tuk-tuk to the bus station and then the slow bus back to Negombo. That night I returned to the Rodeo Pub for the first time in six weeks (it feels like longer) reclaimed my old spot at the bar and watched the West Indies fight an epic Twenty-20 battle against England, with the Windies the deserved winners. It’s the Twenty-20 World Cup here in Sri Lanka at the mo, a fun time to be around. Lots of people gathered around TV sets in shop windows. It’s nice, I like it.
Friday started butt-crack-of-dawn-early with me taking the bus back to Colombo. Newly furnished with my bank statements I rucked up to the Madagascan Consulate for take two. Only one problem: they now wanted proof of an onward flight. I walked out of the consulate and screamed at the sky. The consulate would be closed by the time I booked a flight, printed out the eticket and then cancelled it (hoping for a full refund). Groan. So I headed over to the shopping mall next to the Cinnamon Grand hotel to sponge off the free wifi. I spent the afternoon sending out a copious number of emails to all and sundry, pretty much begging to be allowed on a ship going to India in the next week. By the end of the day I had no replies, so I gathered my stuff together and set off on the 2 hour journey to Unawatuna. It took 5 hours.
Being an idiot, I forgot where I was supposed to get off the local bus in order to catch the express bus down to Una, the one that takes the brand spanking new motorway. So instead I found myself getting thrown around like a rag doll (these drivers are MANIACS) crammed into the slow bus along the old coast road. With it being Friday night and tomorrow being a full moon ‘Poya’ day, everyone was keen to get home and the buses were full to the brim. If I said it was a slog it would be an understatement, but hey – it just makes the beer taste better once you get there.
“Raggedy Man: Goodbye.” So there’s me, on the beach in Unawatuna, watching Doctor Who on my laptop and sobbing LIKE A LITTLE GIRL. It’s over. She’s gone, the Doctor’s assistant, Amy Pond, the girl of my dreams.
When this expedition is over, I’m going to have a Pond of my own. We will raise a ginger army, travel through time and space AND TAKE OVER THE WORLD.
You’ve been warned.
So then, a relaxing weekend in Unawatuna, THE beach destination of Sri Lanka. Sat in the shade of the trees outside Happy Banana, yammering away to all and sundry on the internets and trying not to worry too much about the impending DOOM that awaits my attempts to get to India on a ship. But then on Saturday night I get a call from my man Dino in the UK.
You want a ship to India?
Dino, being the wily fox that he is, had written to Dioryx, the Greek shipping company that helped me get on board the CMA-CGM Turquoise all them many moons ago. So while my numerous emails to Sri Lankan shipping companies hadn’t even got me a one-way ticket to Palookaville, Dino’s email to these guys had scored a direct hit. There was a ship leaving next Tuesday with my name on it, Bound for Cochin: the very port I need to be to catch the next ship *finally* to The Maldives and The Seychelles.
DINO YOU LEGEND!!
Hallelujah. Just one sight hitch: I’d need to have my new Indian visa in hand before I got on board. I’m supposed to get it on Tuesday, so if the visa isn’t ready until the afternoon and the ship leaves in the morning, I’m screwed. But let’s worry about that tomorrow. Tonight I’m living it up and drinking to the memory of the late, great Amelia Pond. She rocked my goddamn universe.
My incredible plan for Sunday night was stay up all night drinking and partying at Chili’s Bar in Unawatuna. Then I was to take first express bus back to Colombo at 6am AS I HAD WORK TO DO!!
I had to take my passport, photos, application form, cruise tickets, air-tickets, bank statements, itinerary, inside trouser measurement and father’s maiden name to the Madagascan Consulate in order to get my Madagascan visa (third time lucky!). Then I had to go to the Indian High Commission and ask them (very nicely) if they would be so kind as to give me my visa a little bit quicker.
All went surprisingly swimmingly. I got the Madagascan visa there and then. The lady at the Indian High Commission told me to come back in the afternoon. I headed over to the shopping mall’s foodcourt and hooked myself up to the free internets. Thanks to the magnificent Dino Deasha, the confirmation of the ship to India came through from Dioryx in the early afternoon, as did the green light from CMA-CGM headquarters in France. I couldn’t believe it. This is it. The final piece of the puzzle. The pathway home is there, confirmed, I’ve finally done it. Sri Lanka to India, India to Maldives, Seychelles, Madagascar, Madagascar to Africa.
It’s over. I won.
After promising Dino I would commission a golden statue of him riding Battlecat from He-Man (he would be sporting a golden mullet and clutching the Sword of Omens in one fist and the World Cup in the other) I called the local shipping agent here in Colombo to sort out the nitty-gritty. He asked me to bring my passport over to the CMA-CGM offices once I had the Indian visa in hand, which would hopefully be at around 4.30pm that afternoon.
In the event, I was made to wait around for a bit in the High Commission and thanks to traffic being a bit of a nightmare, it was 5.45pm by the time I got to the office. Thankfully the shipping agent was still there. My visa was scanned and I was made to write out a declaration of what equipment I would be taking on board. Done this kind of thing a zillion times before, no big deal thinks I.
CMA-CGM have been nothing short of amazing on this adventure, stepping in to help me out of some of the most trickiest fixes that I’ve encountered along the way, and for that I am eternally grateful. What happened next was by no means their fault, or Dioryx’s for that matter. I’m going to give as balanced as an account as I can, bearing in mind I’m still in Sri Lanka now writing this and, as I learnt in Cape Verde, you don’t cut off the branch while you’re still sitting on the damn thing.
So, just as I was leaving the office, the shipping agent told me that he wanted to send my Indian visa – the one that stated ‘ENTRY: COCHIN – BY SHIP’ quite clearly on the visa itself – to the Immigration people in Cochin to ensure that I’d be allowed to get off the ship. This seemed a bit of overkill to me as a) my unusual form of entry was clearly stated on my entry visa and b) I’ve entered India by ship before, on a CMA-CGM ship from Pakistan.
Even *if* the authorities in India decided, weirdly, to not allow me into the country, no harm done: the cruise ship is living from the very same port. I could – and would – quite literally sleep in the port until it was time to go. The idea that I’d be forced to stay on the ship to its next port of call, Egypt, which would require me to pass through the High Risk Area for piracy, is quite frankly ludicrous and something the good people at Dioryx in Greece and CMA-CGM in France did not even consider… well that is until the local agent here pointed out this one in a million possibility.
But, that’s okay, we’ve got a day to play with, right? The ship isn’t even coming in until 1400 tomorrow. We’d be able to get the green light from India in the morning and be on the ship by tea-time. Splendid.
Or so I thought…
It was now getting dark and I didn’t feel like there was anything more to be done today, so I thanked the local agent and jumped in a taxi to go meet up with Carl the Friendly Yank from last week at the pub for a celebratory beer. My friend Daniel Zainulbhai who I played backgammon with in Dubai is in Colombo for the Twenty-20 Cricket World Cup and so he came along as well. It was good to catch up over a brew, have to say though, my earlier confidence that THE REST OF MY LIFE (because that’s what this is) was back on track had taken a bit of a knock. I mean, come on, surely the port authority guys in Cochin would say yes. Of course they would.
But that nagging doubt was creeping up my spine… I’ve been here before, I’ve been here before, I’ve been here before…
So, so many times it’s not funny.
I’ve been here before.
At 9pm, I figured it was time for me to head back up to Negombo. I said what I hoped to be my last goodbye to Daniel and Carl and by 10.30pm I was back at my old friend Sachal’s place. Unfortunately, Sachal is still away. I was good to stay there and everything, but I was gutted I was going to miss the geezer who without a shadow of a doubt is the greatest dinner party host of all time. Ho-hum. I headed over to Rodeo for one final bottle of Lion Lager and that night I slept rather fitfully. Which is damn unusual for me.
I’ve been here before.
At 7am I was up an’ at ’em, gathering my things together and getting on the bus to Colombo.
Here it was, the day of days. The day that would define the rest of my life. I can’t stress this enough: if I don’t get on this ship, chances are I’m going to miss the ONE cruise that goes ONCE A YEAR from India to Maldives to Seychelles to Madagascar.
I cannot take a cargo ship to The Maldives or Seychelles because of piracy and I there are so few yachts (and cruises) in the area I could be waiting until Kingdom Come before I see dear old Blighty again.
If I don’t get on this ship, I can’t begin to explain how f—ed I am. I can’t start my next project until this is over. I cannot earn any money until this is over. I cannot continue my life until this is over. Mandy waited as long as she could, she waited 3 and a half years, but she could wait no longer. I’m breaking up here, I’m honestly struggling to keep it together. This journey has cost me too much. Too much money, too much heartache, too many missed opportunities, too little achieved: check out how little I’ve raised for WaterAid, how few people read this blog, how I got right royally screwed over by the TV people, how I SOMEHOW still don’t have a publisher for my book. It gets to me, it really does. I’m sure that I’m fairly good at what I’m doing, but now and again I get a crisis of confidence when all I want to do is howl at the moon, admit defeat and return to Britain a heroic failure who came so close, so so close, but gave up seeking that one yes after too many noes.
Don’t forget – it was the start of JUNE that I arrived in Sri Lanka. It’s now the start of OCTOBER. This is getting beyond a joke.
By 9am I was in the old foodcourt with the free internet hitting REFRESH REFRESH REFRESH like a crazy badger. They couldn’t say no, they wouldn’t say no.
Well, as it transpired we would never get a chance to find out. Today is a public holiday in India and so (as odd as this sounds), the immigration people in Cochin were off work. Dino (in the UK) and I started sending some frantic emails back and forth to Dioryx and CMA-CGM: I’d sign a special Letter of Indemnity which would see me sued to death and quite possibly jailed should I not be allowed off the ship. I have the visa – signed by the attaché – that specifies that I may enter India through just one port, Cochin, and that entry must be made on a ship. I have press contacts in India who would be very interested in hearing how I was not allowed into India with an official Indian visa. Everything, anything, just PLEASE let me on this ship.
And then, just after 1pm, it happened.
I got a call from the Port Agent. Where are you? I’m coming to pick you up to take you to the ship..
OH MY GOD.
I’ve done it!
I’ve f—ing well done it! I’m going to the ship. The Odyssey Expedition is FINALLY FINALLY GOING TO END!! After 1,371 days on the road for the first time EVER I know, I KNOW I’m going to make it. I’m going to do it. I’m going to be the FIRST PERSON IN THE WORLD TO GO TO EVERY COUNTRY WITHOUT FLYING!!!
I’ll admit I danced a f—ing jig.
Then, just as I was putting my video camera back in my bag, I got a call off the local shipping agent, the one who was a bit funny with me the day before.
We have no word from India.
Yes, I know, but Dioryx have said it doesn’t matter, the Port Agent is coming…
That is what I am trying to tell you sir, you will not be getting on the ship.
But the Port Agent is coming…
I have told him to come back. We have informed France that you will not be boarding the vessel.
I tried to reason with him, but he wasn’t having any of it.
I checked my emails, texts off Dino went back and forth, one last round of begging, but no, the die had been cast.
Dino’s golden statue of him riding Battlecat from He-Man would have to wait. And so will you, my loyal Odysseans, we’ve come this far together, through hell and high water, you’ve been taken around the world by one of the most ridiculous people on one of the most ridiculously idiotic and underfunded adventures of all time. Don’t worry, I’ll get there. IF I HAVE TO SWIM I WILL GET THERE.
198 of 201. I did not come this far to be beaten by Sri Lanka, of all places.
I will fight. And I will win.
Steam shooting out my ears, I spent the remainder of the afternoon writing passive (aggressive) emails to every shipping company operating out of Sri Lanka pleading (demanding) to be put on the next ship outta Dodge. I’ve never typed so furiously or passionately in my life. I don’t care what I have to do, what I have to pay, just somebody – somewhere – pleeeeeease put me on a ship!!
Last weekend in Unawatuna, I met a lovely British couple, Shaun and Debs, who recognised me off the telly and told me that if I was ever in Colombo I was welcome to stay at their gaff. Rather not looking forward to the cramped 2 hour bus journey up to Negombo with all my bags after a day like today, I called to take them up on the offer. Be warned, Graham Hughes: terrible tenancy to turn-up. Shaun and Deborah were incredibly hospitable and we ended up drinking till the wee small hours, putting the world to rights and discussing why we can’t make electricity by harnessing the Earth’s magnetic core (for the answer, see Mythbusters).
The next day began with even more emails of sheer desperation, going through the dozens of shipping types who have helped me out in the past, from all over the world. I figured if I cast the net out far enough, somebody, somewhere might be able to help. There was a Maersk ship leaving in a few days and they seemed a possibility, and after speaking to the guys from Hayley’s Advantis, it looked like perhaps the old Morning Viship – the ship I was originally hoping would take me to The Maldives when I first arrived in Sri Lanka back in June, might (*might*) be able to fit now me on board. This would cut India out of the equation and make my GPS line home look a little less like it was drawn by a spider on ecstasy.
But the best option on the table came courtesy of Captain Paneer of Emirates Shipping in Singapore. He and I had spoken when I was attempting to get to Sri Lanka from Singapore (feels like a lifetime ago) and he suggested a ship called the Vira Bhum run by feeder outfit Regional Container Lines (RCL). It was scheduled to leave a week on Friday (October 12) and arrive in Bombay, India the Monday after (October 15), which would give me a few days in which to hurry back down to Cochin and jump the Costa neoRomantica (which I have a ticket for) before it departs the following Thursday (October 18). This would be at one tight schedule – a few days out one way or another and I’d be knee-deep in donkey do.
Captain Paneer was brilliant. After yesterday’s shenanigans I was (understandably) a bit paranoia that something might go wrong at the last minute, but he responded in the best possible way: telling me it was ‘a million to one chance’ that the ship would omit Colombo and that the berthing date for Bombay (October 15) was set in stone. This allayed my fears like you wouldn’t believe.
The next day, confirmation came through from the good folks at RCL.
I printed it out. My passage to India (and therefore Maldives and Seychelles) all now hinged on me being able to amend my Indian visa to say I was entering via Bombay, not Cochin. On Friday morning I marched down to the Indian High Commission for what I swore would be the last time. I had THE FEAR that they would tell me I needed a whole new visa. Not only would this be infuriating (if you recall I already had to cancel the visa I got in London) and costly, it would also rob me of one of the last 7 blank pages remaining in my passport. As I have at least 8 more countries to visit before I reach South Sudan, this would be one hell of a pain in the arse.
The nice lady behind the counter couldn’t believe I was still here in Sri Lanka. Neither could I. I told her what had happened and she took my passport and told me to wait. So I waited. After what seemed like an eternity (might have been half an hour) she called me back over. She had amended the visa! It had been re-stamped and re-signed by the attaché and it was ALL SYSTEMS GO GO GO!!!
I headed back to Shaun and Debs and announced that I would be spending the weekend celebrating on the beach in Unawatuna. Which is exactly what I did.
With confirmation from the owners, charterers, agents, customs, immigration, the international war-crimes tribunal in The Hague and the ghost of Jimmy Stewart, the stage was set for what would be the final leg of The Odyssey Expedition. Sri Lanka to South Sudan, over land and over sea, without flying. However, after last week’s emotional roller-coaster I tried my best to put it out of my head as far as was possible: I didn’t want to get crazy excited that I was set up to finish this adventure JUST IN CASE my hopes and dreams were once again crushed by a Vogon sitting behind a desk who doesn’t like the look of me.
But first… Unawatuna beach!! Lovely place, gorgeous clean sand, turquoise waters, great tunes, cheap beer and, most importantly, TURTLES!!
This weekend I decided to be a bona fide beach bum. Last weekend in Una I stayed at the Village Inn where I usually hang my hat as rooms are only four quid a night. However, my run in with THE BIGGEST SPIDER, LIKE, EVER last Sunday morning put me off staying there again. I was brushing my teeth, just a towel around my waist when BOOM! This Shelob motherf—er springs out from the gap between the basin and the wall. I remember backing away and saying in a calm, collected voice ‘this is most disconcerting’, although others in the vicinity may have heard a girly scream.
But why do I need a room when I can just sleep on the beach? There’s the ocean to bathe in and free showers to get the sand out from between your butt-cheeks. And no spiders! I assume. Friday night gave way to Saturday, when I visited the nearby turtle farm and sanctuary.
Saturday night was raucous as ever, I think I may have upset a Canadian by constantly referring to her country as ‘Canadia’ and berating her for allowing Justin Bieber to happen. I really need to work on my chat-up lines. Sunday day was spent on the great Glasto 2013 ticket stampede, with Stan once again stepping up to the challenge and securing your humble narrator here with a ticket for what will be my TENTH Glastonbury festival – the biggest and best music festival IN THE WORLD. OH YEAH!!
Sunday evening was all about the cricket. Hosts Sri Lanka had made it to the final of the World Twenty-20 where they would face the West Indies. I tried my best to get tickets for the match in Colombo, but it was not to be, so I had to make do with watching it on the big screen on the beach at Happy Banana. The Sri Lankans – bless ’em – had set up bonfires on the beach and firework displays for when they won.
But as much as it pains me to say this, they didn’t win. After a strong bowling performance, they collapsed in battling and the West Indies ended up taking the gong. Ah well, they set off the fireworks anyway, danced on the beach and lit the bonfires. Not surprisingly, the Sri Lankans didn’t stay out late, and by 2am there were only a handful of people left on the beach, sitting around the embers. There were two lovely French girls, Frederique and Delphine, a handful of Aussies, a Sri Lankan guy who worked in the Full Moon pub and a guy from South Korea who teamed up with me to try and teach everyone how to dance… (wait for it… wait for it) …………Gangnam Style!!
But eventually everybody retired and I was left on my own, looking out over the Indian Ocean, plotting my escape like Steve McQueen in Papillion.
The next day I was kindly given a free lift back up to Negombo with Frederique and Delphine who were heading up to catch their flight back to Shanghai. One of the good things to come of my extended detention on the Isle of Serendipity was that I would be able to see Sachal again as he had now returned from his trip to Malaysia and Pakistan. I wrote to him telling him I was on my way up – with a couple of lovely French girls in tow, and he immediately promised (in ultimate Sachal-style) to rustle up a feast complete with beer, wine and good cheer to see them on their way.
I arrived to find an American couple, a guy from Mexico, a girl from Germany and a guy from Croatia all staying at the B&B, eating and drinking with good ol’ Sachal holding court. It was classic night in at Sachal Mir’s, and a good time was had by all. It’s great when you have friends that, like you, always say yes no matter what and then worry about how they’re going to do it later. My friends back home Lindsey and Anna are prime examples of this attitude, and it’s what makes them THE MOST AWESOME PEOPLE IN THE WORLD.
The following Wednesday I had my meeting with RCL – the shipping company that would (hopefully!) be taking me to India just in the nick of time for me to make my Costa cruise ship connection to The Maldives and The Seychelles. Wanting to put on a good show, I got my broken shoes fixed (thanks Sachal!), put on a shirt and turned up with a package of tea for the office and a bottle of arrack for Shamindra Wickremesooriya, the director of Delmege Forsyth & Co. (Shipping) Ltd. (the owners of RCL) here in Sri Lanka and Sajith Salagadu, the Head of Operations. But this was a mile away from the frosty reception of last week. I was taken down to the board room, given a cup of tea and given the opportunity to have a damn good natter with Sajith and Shamindra about my adventures, about travelling on cargo ships and about how much I really, really want to finish this thing and go home.
They were wonderfully reassuring, there didn’t seem to be any doubt that I would be allowed on the ship and that no last-minute obstacles would come my way.
Afterwards, I headed over to the In… On The Green pub for some red hot quiz action. I did this quiz on my own a couple of weeks ago (the day I arrived back), but only managed fourth place – won’t be making that mistake again! I met with Jacqui, who I had met at the first quiz, and joined her team. Later we’d be joined by Hannah, a mate of Gemma’s from back home. I’m happy to say that we won the quiz (by one point) and the 3000 rupees behind the bar went down a treat. I was intending to head back to Negombo after the quiz, but Hannah told me she had a twin room at the Colombo Hilton, paid for by her company. Now I’m not going to pass up an offer like that, so after a few last Colombo cocktails at the Kama nightclub, we went back to her gaff and started abusing the free room service. Mmm… 4am jerk chicken. Lovely.
The next morning I staggered back to Negombo. Over in Liverpool, my dad was having his heart surgery today. A triple-heart bypass and one of his aortic valves replacing. As much as you get told that such a thing is routine these days, and that Broad Green Hospital is one of the best places in the country to have it done, it’s still a massive worry. How could it not be?
Imagine my surprise then to get a phone call that afternoon off my mum which came from their home number. ‘Here’s your dad’, she said as she passed the phone over. ‘Hell-looo’ comes the usual cheery Colonel Blimp of a voice. ‘Eh? What happened? Why are you at home?’
‘Well, they had a patient who was having complications in the ICU and there would be no bed for me after the op, so they postponed it for another day.’
It’s one of those weird things isn’t it? While being annoyed that my dad was sent home (half an hour before he was due to go under the knife), there was some sense of relief that the op had been put on hold – after all, the word ‘complications’ is something that floats like a menacing cloud above all surgical operations, whether we wish to think about it or not.
So then Thursday evening saw me say my fond farewells to Sachal and headed down to stay with Shaun in Colombo. We went out for a beer on Mount Lavinia beach to the south of the city and drank a toast to Sri Lanka, the place that just didn’t want to let me go.
Major major thanks to everyone who helped make my stay in Sri Lanka a fun and hilarious one over the last few months: Natalie, Anita, Marina, Elena, Subajee, Asanka, Lily, Olivia, Will, Chistoph, Julian, Luisa, Stephan, Marcia, Manisha, Emer, Ruth, Sashka, Stasha, Peter, Harry, Heather, Gary, Killer, Henry, Carl, Shaun, Deborah, Jacqui, Willem, George, Sam, Nancy, Frederique, Delphine, all the lads in Una working ship security, everyone at RCL, Delmege Forsyth, Emirates, BTL and Hayley’s Advantis, Janaka and the Rodeo staff, and an extra special shout out to Mr. Sachal Mir: CoachSurf host, B&B manager, dinner party maestro, teller of tales, spinner of yarns, maker of mischief, prince of Negombo, king of the Sufis and all round good egg.
HEY SRI LANKA! Good morning…! And, if I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening and goodnight x
Fri 12.10.12 – Mon 15.10.12:
I said thank you and goodbye to Shaun and was at the RCL offices for noon. After more photos with the staff and Sajith, I was put in the company minibus and sent off towards the port. In the Sri Lankan immigration office I tried to act as cool as cucumber, when really I was freaking out inside. The moment the guy stamped my passport out I felt like punching the air and going WOOOOOOOO!!!, but I didn’t think it would go down so well. The immigration guy might think I’m really happy to be leaving Sri Lanka, when in reality I’m just REALLY HAPPY TO BE LEAVING SRI LANKA!!
I have to be honest, I didn’t breathe easily until I was not just onboard the Vira Bhum but we were exiting Colombo seaport, following the setting sun west towards my next goal: The Maldives. Somewhat inconveniently, I would have to get there via Bombay, 1000 miles to the north. It’s a bit like getting to France from the UK via America, but I’m not complaining. So long as I get there, so long as I get home for December. I’ve broken too many promises on this journey, I’ll be damned if I break this one too.
The Vira Bhum is a Thai-registered ship and, fittingly, most of the officers and crew are from Thailand (including the Captain) and the remainder is made up of guys from Burma. Captain Buntheam is a top guy. I thought he was a bit young to be a captain, turns out he’s been a captain for 19 years. He definitely enjoys that Thai blessing of looking way younger than he actually is. Everybody has been really friendly, the cook is obsessed with feeding me, which is no bad thing: the food onboard is excellent. Imagine being at a top Thai restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner and you might understand my enthusiasm.
At 0000h on Friday night we crossed 78° East of Greenwich, hitting the Somali pirate High Risk Area (HRA) which will be my playground until I reach Diego Suarez in Madagascar at the end of the month. We’re at security level 2 now, which isn’t the lock-down freak-out state of Level 3, but there must be three crewmembers on watch at any one time, we have a couple of dummies on the back of the ship pretending to be look-outs and I’m not allowed to go out on deck without a chaperone. This is no great inconvenience as it’s much nicer too look out over the azure Indian Ocean from the starboard wing of the bridge.
Saturday and Sunday passed without incident. I watched Drive on DVD. Excellent film, bit miffed they used *that* title. I wanted to make a film called Drive. It was going to be a road movie, but instead of American kids crossing America in a Ford Thunderbird, it would be British kids crossing America in a Ford Thunderbird. Kinda like The Inbetweeners meets Fear and Loathing. It would have been THAT good. Never mind, I’ll just focus on my other named-after-a-song-on-REM’s-Automatic-For-The-People film script, Monty Got A Raw Deal. We’ve done systematic tests and you can never have enough films named after songs from that particular album.
Talking of film scripts, over the weekend I did a massive re-write of my period adventure film, The Amazon. It’s now looking shiner than an Italian businessman’s suit. It’s one of the great things about being on board a cargo ship, it really gives you time and space to disconnect from the outside world and focus on something whole-heartedly. Next I think I’ll concentrate on polishing off my Indiana Jones fan script, Indiana Jones and the Heart of Darkness. I know it’ll never get made, but goddamn it, how many other Indiana Jones scripts were dreamt up in a Congolese jail cell? None. That’s how many. NONE.
We arrived at the Bombay anchorage at around 0100 on Monday morning, several hours early (this ship is like the Millennium Falcon, I tells ya!). We weren’t supposed to be getting our pilot until around 1500 and not come alongside until 1800. However, as if the gods of Mount Olympus are finally somewhat impressed by my tenacity after all these years, the pilot was on board for 1100 and we were making our way into Mumbai Harbour before lunch. And what’s this to port? Is it a cruise ship I see before me? I get on our ship’s AIS (Automatic Identity System) and there it is: the Costa neoRomantica. Sitting in port here in Bombay, waiting to take me away-ha-ha.
However. TII. THIS IS INDIA. My visa states that I may only exit the country from Cochin. But, if you think about it, I wouldn’t be leaving the country, would I? I’d be hitching a ride on the cruise down to Cochin, and then yes, exiting from Cochin when the time comes. Hmm… watch this space.
We pulled into port around 1300. By 1600 I was still on the ship, still sitting waiting. I had to write out a letter explaining why I was here. So did the captain. After all the hoops these damn Vogons made me jump through to get my “special” visa, “Because f— you” was my initial response.
OKAY OKAY INDIA, I get it, YOU DON’T LIKE VISITORS. I understand that, which is why I keep telling anyone who’ll listen to go somewhere – anywhere – else instead. I know tourists and travellers are a constant headache for you, that we wear out your rubber stamps and make unnecessary paperwork for you. We know that we are vermin and not fit to walk on the hallowed shit-covered streets of your beautiful caste-ridden nation. But please, India, I’m just passing through, I won’t leave a mess, I promise. Just give me 3 days, that’s all I ask. In return I will double my efforts to shout far and wide – to anybody who is in earshot – to not upset the Indians by actually visiting India and spending money. Heaven knows India has more than enough wealth to go around as it is, it’s not like millions of people are living in slums or anything.
Oh for the love of……
At 1900 I was finally on the ferry across Mumbai Harbour heading towards the Gateway of India. Would have been nice to see it in the day immigration guys!! I met with my CouchSurf host for the evening, the awesome Sandeep, for drinkies at the (in)famous Leopold Café. I was here last time…
My great and eternal thanks to Sanjith and the guys and gals at RCL and Delmage Forsyth Colombo, Captain Panneer at Emirates Shipping in Singapore and to Captain Buntheam, Chief Inthachod, 2nd Yarungsee, 3rd Somsuay, Chief Engineer Tosakul and the crew of the MV Vita Bhum for being *quite literally* the saviours of The Odyssey Expedition. I can’t thank you all enough. I can see my pathway home illuminated before me – I’ve never felt confident enough to say this before, but this truly is The Beginning of The End of The Odyssey Expedition.
You’ve come with me this far with me, now pray come a wee bit farther…
I’ve been here before. I’ve done this exact same thing before. Travelling down from Bombay to Cochin on the train. Madness, I know. Do you know how many countries I have left and returned to in the course of this adventure? I added it up once and it came to over over 100. And we’re not just talking obvious places like Britain, France or Australia here, I’ve double-dipped into Mauritius, Tuvalu and Kiribati. Before this adventure is done, I’ll be able to add Mozambique and Uganda to that list. So much for a nice continuous sine wave across the planet!
I was up until 4am last night updating my blog, organising my Mozambique visa, replying to emails, thanking those who deserved thanks. I woke up at 7.23am, 7 minutes before my alarm was due to go off. This happens to me a lot and is nothing to be concerned about. Even though I made him a leeeetle late for work, Sandeep was good enough to drop me halfway to the train station from where I would be taking the 16345 Netrawati Express down to Cochin.
Sandeep had secured me the ticket online last night after we had got back from drinks with Manisha, the bubbly Indian girl who I had travelled around the Ancient Cities of Sri Lanka with a few months ago.
So then it was into one of the incredibly old black and yellow taxis that buzz around Mumbai and up through the heart of the city to the train station. Mumbai is a funny old place, originally a series of islands, it’s now the city with the most amount of reclaimed land in the world, all built upon concrete tetrapods. Kinda like Mega City One, if you think about it.
I was expecting a bit of a wait for the train to arrive, as I was a couple of hours early (I’m sure Sherlock would not approve, but I ain’t takin’ ANY chances!!). But low and behold the train was already there waiting. I found my carriage (and my name on the dot-matrix printed passenger list pasted next to the door – I love that), it was locked from the outside but the one next to it wasn’t, so I climbed aboard, found my bunk and got a little more shut-eye before we took off.
Indian trains are filthy, the toilets stink to high heaven and there’s cockroaches that you have to pick out of your hair in the night. But what do you expect when you’re travelling 1000km for less than a tenner? Plus THE CHAI IS TO DIE FOR, you can sit with your feet dangling out of the open door, you get your own bed and the food on board is excellent. Order a Biryani for £1 and it’s better than what you’d get on the Curry Mile. There’s chai wallahs, coffee wallahs, bread wallahs, samosa wallahs, fried banana wallahs, Rubik’s cube wallahs, all sorts… anything your heart desires (so long as you desire Indian cuisine and plastic trinkets). These guys wander up and down the carriage all day shouting out their wares in that peculiar Indian nasal drone that makes them sound like Welsh Daleks.
Once you’re out of the smelly old city, the Indian countryside is a real treat. As the monsoon season has just officially ended (any rain you may encounter from now on is a figment of your over-active imagination) everything is delightfully green. Sorry I was a bit mean to India yesterday, I do really love this place, not in an unbridled, passionate love-affair kinda way, mind you, more of a love that you have for your pet dog – no matter what they do (short of killing a toddler) you can never stay mad at them for long… just wook at whis wovely big eyes.
So we chug on into the night, heading down to Cochin, heading down to meet the Costa neoRomantica (NOT Necromantica! — although I reserve the right to use that word as a title for a love story involving zombies), heading down toward country number 199: The Maldives AND BEYOND…
After firing off my blog on Wednesday evening I met with Niall Doherty, a fellow overlander who has been suck in Cochin for the past few weeks trying to get to… you guessed it! Colombo on a cargo ship. Two adventurers cut from the same mould, it was all very predictable that we would get on like a house on fire.
We went to the pub, which is pretty much the only pub in Fort Cochin. There we were met by the indomitable Vipin Es, the coolest Indian on the planet, who I met at this very waterhole two years ago when I was trying to do the exact same thing that Niall is trying to do now… get to Colombo on a ship!
Vipin brought with him a few mates: Alex, Nate and Isla, and after one two many Kingfishers I was magnificently three sheets to the wind talking utter gibberish as usual.
Fantastic to meet Niall: somebody who can truly appreciate the trials and tribulations of travelling without wings. He, like I, had trouble getting across Pakistan, and got to India on a ship from Dubai, same as me (although he took the cruise ship option). Niall is also a web-designer, which means that a) his website looks a zillion times better than mine and that b) he makes money as he travels. No penniless wayfarer he.
But unlike me, Niall isn’t trying to get to every country: his four year journey of the soul will just take him around the planet, spending as much time as he wants to in each country. This is his first time in India and he (currently) pretty much hates the place. I can certainly understand the frustration and despair that India can bring out in a first-timer: looking back on my blog entries (before blogs were invented) from 2002, I see a lot of what he was saying in what I wrote back then. But, you know, I’ve mellowed. Despite everything, I really like India, I can see me coming back here again and again, if for nothing else then for the chai.
The bar closed at 11pm, and for some reason they wouldn’t continue to secretly serve us from the front gate as they did when I was here back in 2010. So we ambled around the deserted streets for a while (Cochin isn’t a big night out) until at last we found a hotel with a café that served all-night coffee.
A terrific night, great to see everyone again. Bit gutted that I missed Natalie from Sri Lanka and the Debstar from Liverpool who were in the vicinity (kinda), but you can’t have everything.
Niall was good enough to let me crash at his hotel – a good thing too, the hotel I stayed at last time’s prices had gone up from 300 rupees (£3.75) for a non-AC room to 1000 rupees (£12.50). Did I mention I was a penniless wayfarer?
The next morning, Niall wanted to interview me for his website, and I wanted to interview him for mine. You can see the interview I did here:
Unfortunately you won’t be able to see what *I* filmed of Niall on *my* camera on *my* tape because…
[The ensuing rant about THE BASTARDS at mmmmm has been deleted upon later sobriety.]
More worrying though was the lack of cruise ship. The Costa neoRomantica was scheduled to arrive at 8am. By 9am I still couldn’t see it. I went to the ferry jetty to head over to Willingdon Island where the ship was due to come alongside. Maybe it was around the other side, obscured by the port buildings. But on a journey in which pretty much everything that could go wrong has gone wrong, I was secretly terrified: sometimes cruise ships omit ports…
Sometimes because of the weather…
(no, the weather was fine last night)
Sometimes because of immigration problems…
(oh dear God NO)
A million WHAT IFs shot through my head. This wasn’t a regular cruise run, it’s the journey down from Europe to Australia for the winter. The ship isn’t coming back to India. What if, like me, they had a terrible time with immigration in Bombay and decided that Cochin just wasn’t worth it? What if they had just headed straight to the Maldives? What if…
I heard the beast before I saw it. I craned my neck out from the jetty to get a better look. It slid out from behind the nearby trees with an effortlessness that belied its gargantuan dimensions. The Costa neoRomantica. THANK THE MAKER!!
My ferry followed the cruise ship across the water to Willingdon Island. We came in on the west side, the ship on the east. I knew that immigration would be a pain in the arse, and I was right. I went to the immigration office to find nobody there. Then I was made to wait for an insufferable amount of time (sweating hot with all my bags, don’t forget). It wasn’t until noon that the guy who was allowed to stamp things (like me out the country) turned up. It would be 1pm before he actually stamped my passport. Good job I was the only foreign person IN THE WHOLE COUNTRY OF 1.1 BILLION people getting on a cruise that day.
The nice port agent took me to the ship. Some exasperated Colonel Blimp of an Indian policeman didn’t like the idea of me walking on the ship and having my bags scanned with the cutting edge X-ray technology to be found at the entrance. Better his chap at the nearby trestle table rifled through my dirty underwear instead (travel tip: always put your dirty underwear on top). With no drugs, bombs or dutiable items to be found, Colonel Blimp looked a bit miffed, so he made me stand there for ten minutes in the sweltering sun for no reason other than he could.
But I’m a big guy, I can take it… and I know it *really* annoys these types when you take it on the chin with a mischievous little smile. Never let them see you bleed. In time, I was on the ship. My cabin is great: a nice big king-sized bed (a bit of a waste, when you think about it) and a HUGE porthole for me to wave my willy at King Neptune through. I asked the steward, Jose from Guatemala, to lock the minibar. This is going to be a dry ride, if you know what I mean. Oh, for heavens sake, pull your mind out of the gutter for five seconds.
Simple fact: I only drink when I can afford to get drunk. This will not happen on this cruise.
But it could happen back in Cochin. And, happily, the ship wasn’t leaving until midnight. So, as I was all checked in and on board, I just had time to single-handedly win the afternoon quiz and then head back to Princess Street for Round 2 of the great Fort Cochin drink-off. Niall, Vipin and Alex were joined by Nate and Isla as well as some extras they had found, presumably roaming the streets looking for a good time.
One drink turned into two and then three (and these are big-assed bottles of Kingfisher here), and before I knew it, it was time to get back on board the ship. With the ferry stopped for the night, Alex gave me (and everyone else) a lift in his car. Unfortunately, getting to Willingdon Island over the bridge takes an age (the ferry is MUCH quicker). I suppose it didn’t help that us passengers were doing our level best to down a bottle of peach schnapps on the way and I had Green Day blasting out on the stereo at full volume.
By the time I was coming up to the port gates, I was getting calls off the ship, my mum and dad, the Queen of Sheba and Lord frikkin’ Lucan asking where the hell I was. I was trying to get through the gates, say goodbye to everyone (*hugs!*) and leg it through the rain towards the ship, just in the nick of time: the last person on board. Phileas and Sherlock would be proud.
I arrived bedraggled and raggedy (as always) looking very much the stowaway that everybody looks at me and assumes I am. I headed up to the open-air bar on Deck 11 and, after gesticulating wildly at the Indian subcontinent, camcorder in hand, realised something: I’ve been in and around the monster continent of Asia since January 2010 and now, finally, I take my leave. Goodnight Asia, you proved a formidable foe, but I proved that if you want something bad enough – and you’re patient – not the even the might of the Himalayas or the breadth of the Pacific can get in your way.
I rounded off the night with some new-found friends who possibly took pity on me and bought me a beer and later on there was a shared bottle of wine with the lovely cruise staff. A great night, and a great leap forward for The Odyssey Expedition.
Well then, Costa neoRomantica YOU LEGEND!! Thank you thank you thank you for letting me on board. Thanks to Amy and Laura at Rooster PR in the UK, Costa Cruises and Lorna Brookes, you queen of the persuasive email, I owe you BIG. This is it, dear readers, for the first time since the beginning of June I’m really heading west. At long last, the end is within sight. I’ll see you there.
Friday was spent at sea, familiarising myself with the ship. Good news: the bars are open until 2am. Bad news: I don’t have enough money to drink. I’ve got about £400 left to get me from here to Liverpool, through at least 15 countries. Can it be done? Probably not, but that why God invented credit-cards eh?
The ship is lovely, the food is tasty and plentiful (although I’m not eating much these days) and the staff are brilliant. Of course there’s a certain amount of loneliness that comes of being the only person on the ship on my own, but I’m quite an outgoing going chap, so not to worry. In any case, gives me some more time to work on my scripts (and that taster, Mike ;-)).
So Saturday I woke with the lark to find a city floating past my porthole. This was a trifle bizarre, but only because I’ve never been to Male’ before. Male’, the capital of The Maldives (apostrophe intentional), is one of a ring of islands encircling North Male’ atoll. The Maldives is made up of 26 of these gigantic atolls, which between them encompass 1,192 islands (more or less depending on the tide). But, more importantly……..
I MADE IT!!!
Oh my Gods, there’s an outside chance I might just finish this yet……….
Male’ isn’t the tropical beach resort destination that you think of when you think Maldives. It’s a rectangle-shaped city, sitting on the water, every last inch taken up with buildings. There is a beach, but it’s an artificial one… they had to import the sand. If you want to see those resorts you see in the holiday brochures, you need to pay a man in a boat to take you there. But as I’m strenuously attempting to send less than zero on this cruise, I was content to do walk a lap of the city: a walk of less than 3km.
The highest point of Male’ is just two metres above sea-level, which makes Male’, and The Maldives in general, the second most endangered country in the world from climate change after Tuvalu http://theodysseyexpedition.com/category/tuvalu. But while Tuvalu only has around 10,000 inhabitants, The Maldives has over 400,000. There’s going to be no country willing to grant 400,000 people asylum when the waters rise. And, believe me, they will rise. They’ll rise because every peer-reviewed scientific paper in the world on the matter of climate change says it will. It will for the same reason that we can predict the next appearance of Halley’s Comet, the next transit of Venus, the same reason that the Curiously Rover landed safely on Mars and Felix Baumgartner landed safely from his skydive from the edge of space. The same reason that Peter Higgs predicted the existence of a Boson fifty years ago, which was only recently proven by the largest and most complicated scientific apparatus in the solar system, the same reason that GPS satellites suffer from the minute differences in time predicted by Einstein’s Theory of Relativity over 100 years ago and for the same reason that new research into the genome of all living things has proven Charlie Darwin right, right and right again.
BECAUSE SCIENCE, BITCHES!!
If you choose to believe tabloid newspapers, politicians, Fox News and oil companies in regard to the matter of climate change, you’re a bloody fool. A reckless fool. That is all.
There wasn’t a lot to see on Male’. The Sultan’s palace was all but destroyed in 1968, with only one small outbuilding left standing. Something else you need to know about the city of Male’: there is no alcohol. Like, none. Not even in your hotel minibar or anything. But not to worry, I had a SECRET PLAN.
Last July when I was tramping my way around Sri Lanka, I went for a night out with the Colombo massive, a night that ended in me taking a rather inexplicable trip to Galle with a rather fetching Croatian girl called Anita. This kind of thing happens a lot in my life, it’s nothing to worry about.
As luck would have it, Anita’s latest assignment dropped her, just one week ago, in the Maldives. Hell yeah! So at 6pm I trotted over to the Beehiva Nalahiya Hotel to meet with Anita. She had a hotel apartment (seriously – I never knew these things even EXISTED before Colombo – isn’t that hilarious?) with her colleague Augustine who hailed from France. And so us Euro-types set off in search of a boozy night out. Luckily for us, the airport of The Maldives is not situated on Male’ island, it’s on the nearby Hulhule island of. Ferries make the 15 minute journey all night and there’s a hotel there. With a bar. And in the bar you will find (oh yes) sweet, life affirming beer. The cause of, and solution to, all of life’s problems (© H. Simpson 1997).
Dunno why, but beer tastes better when it’s (kinda) illicit. In other news, my Maldives guidebook needs updating: it says that the president is still Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, the guy who’s been in charge since 1978 and doesn’t take kindly to criticism. Like Russelll Crowe, if he was in charge of a country and a possessed a specially sharpened mobile phone. But in the last couple of years there have been developments. In 2008, the rather tyrannical Gayoom lost his position to a guy called Mohamed Nasheed http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohamed_Nasheed, ‘the Mandela of The Maldives’, a nice guy (educated at John Moores Uni in Liverpool, no less) who was pretty much forced to resign at gunpoint last February and was succeeded by Mohammed Waheed Hassan, his vice-president… DON’T YOU JUST *LOVE* AFRICAN-INDIAN-MIDEAST politics?? A shining example to us all.
Well, at least Hassan is promising a *real* election come July next year. If it happens, it’ll be The Maldives’ first free and fair election since independence from Britain in 1968.
But I have an interesting fact about the Maldives: it’s one of the few Islamic nations in the world that allows Israeli citizens to visit. And speaking of The Maldives as a Muslim nation… you do realise that today I broke a brand new world record…?
I’m now the first person since Ibn Battuta in the 1300s to visit every Islamic nation on Earth without flying. And he never went to Brunei! So I win!!
If you’ve never heard of the great Moorish traveller Ibn Battuta, you should really look him up – his memoirs are hilarious. When he came to the Maldives in 1343, he married three different women and then had to flee the country – never to return – when it transpired he couldn’t afford the dowries. He’s the Marco Polo of the Arab World and – I have to say, a little more honest about his experiences than Mr. Mint-With-The-Hole was.
And so on into the night we put the world to rights. Saturday night is the equivalent of Sunday night here, and everyone – including Anita and Augustine – had work in morning. Thinking about it, so did I.
I’ve still got a shed load of work to do in order to get me to South Sudan and then back home before Christmas. Two of the nightmare visas – Mozambique and North Sudan – have been left in the capable hands of my top mate Lindsey in London. There’s still a zillion things to do before you see me back in the UK. I just hope to hell I get there before Christmas, I have fish to fry.
The following morning I was up with the lark (for some reason) and frantically updating this site (TWO NATIONS LEFT TO GO!!!) for the first time since June. I said my tatty-byes to the gorgeous Anita, who I will no doubt see again in some far-off places, and returned to the ship. We set sail at 1pm, set sail for the TWO HUNDREDTH COUNTRY of The Odyssey Expedition… The Seychelles.
The end is in sight, dear reader. 199 down, 2 to go. BRING IT.
The two days at sea passed like some velvet morning (when I’m straight). For the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to be less of a fat bastard using a novel invention I like to call ‘the beer diet’. It’s nice and simple: you just drink beer and don’t eat anything. Honestly, it works! Magic!!
However, on a cruise upon which I can’t afford to drink and the food is UNLIMITED and FREE, my great diet plan has been turned on its head. Now all I have to stop me stuffing my face with cheese and prosciutto is my own willpower.
On the Tuesday we crossed 0° latitude, that magic invisible line of red that seamlessly circumnavigates the planet. Why is it 0°? Because that’s the angle of Polaris, the North Star, in the sky relative to the horizon at this exact point of this marvellously oblate spheroid we all call home.
The last time we crossed the equator, I had to make up for the insult I had hurled at King Neptune by switching hemispheres without his permission. Once in Ecuador, once in Gabon, once in Kenya, thrice in Indonesia, twice on the way to Kiribati and twice on the way back again.
That’s ten times I’ve kicked sand in Uncie Nep-Nep’s face. Happily, on this crossing Monsieur Neppy was in a much better mood with me and there were (thankfully) no head-shaving shenanigans to be had. Just a baptism of equatorial water and the chance to dress up as Ol’ Neppo himself.
I was then forced to dance to Italian pop music, which was something of an ordeal. What is it with Italian pop? Why does it always sound like the backing music of a porno? But hey, it beat scrubbing deck paint off my arm for two days straight.
Being somewhat of a storytelling balladeer it made sense that I should do a talk about my travels, not just for personal glory (and the scouse compulsion to be entertaining), but also as a good way to meet new people who may (if I’m a good boy) buy me a beer. An American called John who I had met while chatting to Josie, the English speaking hostess, set up for me to do a presentation in one of the meeting rooms, which of course I did. There’s actually very few native English speakers on board, which should be unsurprising since it’s an Italian ship: I’ve met people from France, Germany, Denmark, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Poland, Belgium, The Netherlands, Austria, Croatia… the only English speakers are from the US, Canada or Australia. I don’t think I’m met a fellow Englisher yet!
The ship is a fine old lady, and as a water taxi service to two of my three final destinations, I seriously cannot complain. Costa have well and truly saved my bacon. AND I LOVE BACON!!
THANK YOU COSTA!! You may use the following picture for all your future publicity: