Tue 27 Nov 12:
IT’S NOT OVER YET!! I’ve still got to get from here in South Sudan back to my hometown of Liverpool. And if you think I’ll be flying home, think again because THAT’S EXACTLY WHAT THEY’LL BE EXPECTING ME TO DO!! Nah, in the spirit of the adventure thus far, I shall be headed homeward overland, without flying (of course).
This presents a number of obstacles, which I shall list for you here:
1. I can’t go directly north as the border between North and South Sudan is closed. And a war zone.
2. I can’t go east and take a ship from Mombasa in Kenya because of Somali pirates.
3. I can’t go west because the borders are either closed or dangerous. In any case there are no roads.
4. My ONLY option is to go South Sudan > Uganda > Kenya > Ethiopia > North Sudan.
5. Travel through the northern ‘badlands’ of Kenya is fraught with danger. The first time I did it was terrifying enough.
6. Ethiopia has stopped issuing visas for foreign nationals in Nairobi, I have to get the visa in London. Good job I have two passports (and a good friend in London).
7. I have to get my visa for North Sudan in Addis Ababa. If I’m lucky, it’ll take 2 days. If I’m unlucky, it could take 6 weeks.
8. The road from Addis Ababa to Gondor on the border with North Sudan takes 2 days.
9. The ship from Wadi Halfa in Sudan to Aswan in Egypt only goes once a week. If I miss it, I risk outstaying my visa.
10. The visa regs for Libya are still at pre-revolution levels of insanity and travel though Syria is out of the question. I’ll have to take a ship across the Mediterranean. The last ferry from Egypt to Greece ran 15 years ago.
I know what you’re thinking: Hey, Graham! The Odyssey Expedition is over! Take a load off! Take your time, there’s no rush.
But you’re wrong. There *is* a rush. I have something, or rather somebody, quite wonderful waiting for me back in dear old Blighty and I have a promise to keep, a promise that I made through a closing door on the London Underground. One word: December.
So I’m hurtling back to the motherland as fast as visas and shipping allow. One last adventure eh, Uncle Bilbo?
Hey, look on the bright side: this means you get to enjoy a wee bit more of The Odyssey Expedition as I round out this four year journey of the soul.
I was supposed to be heading back to Uganda this morning at butt crack o’ clock, but it wasn’t to be. I just had way, way too much work to be getting on with. The last couple of nights had been spent in Aengus’s company compound, a collection of small self-contained apartments spread out around a central eating and drinking area. Bedecked with decent wi-fi, it proved a fantastic base camp for dealing with all the requests for interviews and stuff that Casey and I were receiving. I would have liked to have spent today hanging out with Josh, perhaps going down to the River Nile for a beer, but last night, just as theodysseyexpedition.com site was finally getting the kind of visitor figures I feel the old girl deserves, a concerted spam attack, courtesy of those dastardly Russians (who else?), shut down the site.
Cue frantic emails fired back and forth between webmaster Si and I. Damnit – I had just been featured as the first story on Yahoo.com’s front page. Not a time for my website to be down. The Yahoo piece got over 2,000 comments, and strangely enough, the overwhelming majority of them were supportive. And this is Yahoo News: troll paradise!! Although my favourite comment came courtesy of a reader of The Daily Mail site saying ‘I hope he’s not on benefits.’ Yes, I secretly flew home to Liverpool every two weeks to sign on. Quite.
There were sooooo many written interview questions to respond to from all over the world and I also had to write a 1,500 word piece for the Telegraph (I flat refuse to be ghostwritten) and while beavering away, wishing I was seeing a bit more of Juba, in came an email from Paradigm Talent Agency. As in THE Paradigm Talent Agency http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradigm_Talent_Agency. Wanting to talk representation.
Jaw. Hits. Ground.
You know when an evil genius comes up with an insanely convoluted plot to take over the world? Once in every blue moon, his nefarious scheme is just that insane that it actually works. The possibility of using The Odyssey as a stepping stone to Hollywood has been in the back of my mind since I started this, but I never thought it would seriously happen and then crikey-oh-blimey it just has.
So then, a new blog for the new year, after The Odyssey Expedition is over, timelocked & embalmed, all about my hilarious attempts to a) break into La-La-Land and b) convert Liverpool into Livvywood.
Then, just as I thought things couldn’t get any better, I get an invitation to give a TED Talk. A motherf—ing TEDTALK!!!
You can’t say I didn’t put the effort in.
It was 5am and I was up and showered, ready to begin my long journey back to the UK. Remarkably, in terms of physical distance, Durban to Khartoum in North Sudan is 3142 miles and Khartoum to Liverpool is 3244 miles, so I should be halfway there, but if only things were that easy. All things being equal I could jump in a car (or a boat if I was feeling fruity) and head on up the White Nile to Khartoum. From there it’s just 10 hours (if that) to Wadi Halfa on the border with Egypt. If there was a road crossing the border (clue: there isn’t) it would be a few more hours by bus to Aswan and an overnight train journey to Cairo. I could be ready to get the ferry across the Med in less than three days. I could be home in a week. Seriously.
But things are not that easy up here in North Africa. Not that easy at all. First up, the border between South and North Sudan is VERY closed, as is the border between South Sudan and Kenya. There isn’t even a road between South Sudan and Ethiopia, so you can forget about that too. The only way out of the country (without flying) is back to Uganda and the only way from there to North Sudan is to wheel around through Kenya and Ethiopia.
Kenya is no problem, you can get a visa on the border. Ethiopia, however. Urgh. Not only can you not get a visa on the border, you cannot even buy a visa anywhere in Africa (with the possible exception of Somaliland). You have to get it in London. Furthermore, a visa for North Sudan almost just as hard to get a hold of. The Sudanese embassy in Addis Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia, is infamous for its mercurial nature. I can take very little on this portion of the journey for granted.
Nevertheless, I have set a date for my return to Liverpool. By hook or by crook I will be crossing the River Mersey on the ferry and arriving at The Pier Head (in front of the iconic Liver Buildings) at 2.45pm on Saturday 22nd December. Mark my words: BY HOOK OR BY CROOK, I SHALL BE THERE!!!
Everybody reading this is welcome to come along if you can make it. Please bring the flag of your favourite country (or your favourite flag)!! Afterwards we will be heading off to a secret location for booze, music and dancing. You can say you’re coming via Facebook at: https://www.facebook.com/events/376044069148554/
I am racing to get to Kampala before 5.30pm today as my gorgeous friend Lindsey has been an angel/star/legend again this week and nabbed me one of ’em pesky Ethiopian visas for my second passport and posted it DHL to Uganda. It arrived a couple of days ago. If I can get there today before it closes, I can continue my journey onto Kenya tomorrow night, thereby saving me a day of travel. Nice!
However, the bus, rather predictably, broke down on the way to the border. Flat tyre. The bus boys spent an hour trying to take the wheel off, but that last nut just refused to budge. So they reattached all the other nuts and we piled back onboard and proceeded to Nimule at a more gentler pace. Thank God for double wheels.
At the border there was no time to mess around. I cunningly did the old tourist trick of ignoring the MASSIVE queue and walking straight into the immigration building and then looking a bit lost. It doesn’t always work, but today was my lucky day, not only did I get stamped out of South Sudan in record time, I also got stamped IN to Uganda in record time. I abandoned my wonky bus (I didn’t want to be trundling along at half-speed all the way to Kampala) and clambered onboard whichever bus looks like it was leaving next. We thundered south, arriving at the outskirts of Kampala around 5pm, I was willing us to get into the station straight away, but it wasn’t to be: we got caught in a traffic jam. Possibly karma for me jumping the queue this morning. It was 6pm by the time we got to the bus station. There was a bus leaving for Nairobi at 7pm, but I couldn’t leave without my passport.
Too late to arrange a CouchSurf, I checked into the Kampala Backpackers for the night, caught up on a stack of written interviews (damn my fingers ACHE! Why can’t they just ring meeeee?!) and then crashed out at an embarrassingly early time (for me) of 11pm.
Up at 7am and down to DHL for 8.30pm. Passport – avec Ethiopian visa – in hand (praise be to Lindsey!), I bought a ticket for the bus to Nairobi, leaving at 11am. Well, kind of. After finding out what time the bus left I shopped around the bus station for a better deal, timewise – this bus would get into Nairobi at 11pm. I thought it better to get an overnighter. However, I had been told that the buses north from Nairobi to the Ethiopian border left at 6am, and all the other buses I could find left at 7pm this evening, arriving Nairobi 7am tomorrow: my schedule would be all skew-if. Last time was in Nairobi, since I spent the morning getting my Ethiopian AND Djibouti visas (something that would be double impossible now), I was told that the big bus had gone and I would have to take a mini-bus. A minibus covered in Hello Kitty stickers designed to take Japanese kids to school. SURPRISINGLY, it broke down about 17 times on, you know, the roughest highway in the whole of East Africa, costing me at least a day of travel. Won’t be making *that* mistake again.
So I went back to the Spider Bus (the one that left at 11) and asked for a ticket. The woman smiled and told me they were now sold out. I had only been gone 10 minutes!!
A helpful bus guy told me not to worry, they could sort out a ticket for me, but I’d have to sit on a low stool in the aisle. As it wasn’t an overnighter, I figured in for a penny in for a pound and took him up on the offer. I then went on a quick dash around the city, picking up supplies for the last leg: video tapes, wetwipes, handgel, shampoo, deodorant (how hard is it to get spray-on deodorant in hot countries?!), talc and plasters. Kampala is an epic busy city. When I was here last Sunday I was lulled into a false sense of security, I should have noticed it was Sunday in this, a deeply Christian country. (So Christian in fact that they want to introduce the death penalty for homosexuality. Oh I can see Jesus, being a unkempt, unmarried, unemployed 33 year-old who hung out with sailors and prostitutes (sound familiar?), being SO GLAD at this prospect – him being the least chromatically adept member of the pantheon of White-Man’s Gods… *chuckle*)
Anyway, chores completed, I raced back to the bus station and before I knew it we were thundering east towards Kenya at a frightening rate of knots. We got to the frontier in good time, but after that we really started slowing down. Our eta of 11pm became midnight, became 1am, became 2am… I’m a champion sleeper, but even I have my limits, and I think sitting in the aisle on a tiny three-legged stool while being driven through Kenya at night is quite possibly it. It was all I could do to not fall off the damn thing.
Still, managed to do an interview for CNN from the floor of the nightbus to Nairobi. Not a lot of people can add that one to their bragging rights.
We were stopped numerous times by the police, the most hilarious moment being when I was taken off the coach (just me, not the other five people sitting in the aisle) and was told that I had broken the law and that I was going to be arrested and held in the jail cell (pointed out with his baton) until Monday morning.
The usual course of action in these circumstances is to act all shocked and dismayed and ‘see if we can come to some sort of arrangement’. Not me.
‘Sorry about that, officer, I’ll just go get my bag.’
‘Oh no, sir, it’s okay.’
‘No, no, it’s just here by the door, I’ll get it. Hey I’m tired anyway – it’ll be good to get my head down, even if it is on cockroach-infested concrete, and – who knew? – I have a certain fondness for African jail cells.’
‘Sir, please, it’s okay, you didn’t know.’
‘Ignorance of the law is no excuse, officer’ say I, grinning broadly, whilst readying my saved ‘HELP! BEEN ARRESTED!!’ text message to go out on Twitter. You know what they say, no publicity is bad publicity. (Well, unless it involves having sex with children, eh Max?)
‘No no, it’s no problem, you can get back on the bus.’
‘Ah, okay, thanks… goodnight!’
Remarkably, I did manage to get a few minutes sleep on my three-legged stool. However, we didn’t get to Nairobi until 5am.
PIER HEAD, LIVERPOOL: 2.45PM SAT 22 DEC. BE THERE!
If you didn’t already get the memo, I will be returning home to Liverpool in time for Christmas, arriving on the famous Ferry ’Cross the Mersey at 2.45pm on Saturday 22nd December. After hugs and kisses and handshakes and how-the-hell-are-you-still-alives, we will be heading off to a secret location for an evening of booze and depravity (I hope!).
Everybody reading this is welcome to attend, bring your friends and family, the more the merrier. Say you’ll be there via Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/376044069148554/
So after a night of almost no sleep I find myself in Nairobi, ready to get this 6am bus to the border. For some idiotic reason only known to the Kenyan government, all international buses leave from the area of Eastleigh, aka ‘Little Somalia’. When I was hear three years ago, the roads were all dug up like you would not believe. Some were just massive holes as though they were operating some kind of ‘cut and cover’ operation for a new subway system. Glad to say things have changed massively since I was last here.
Oh no, they haven’t. The roads are just as insane as ever.
The rest of the city is actually quite respectable. Why they chose to locate there national and international transport hub here of all places is quite beyond my programming. Perhaps they just really want you to fly. Talking of flying, if I flew to Addis Ababa, I could get a visa on arrival – I wouldn’t be at all surprised to here that the difficulties put in place for people who wish to overland aren’t at the behest of Ethiopian Airways…
But I can’t fly, as easier and as cheaper as it would be. I’d see it as cheating, and come on, I’ve got just THREE WEEKS from today to get back to my hometown of Liverpool. If you don’t see that as an epic challenge, you either a) have no soul or b) don’t know Africa very well.
I am taken by a bus tout over some mounds of dirt and across various WWI-style trenches to the Moyale Bus (Moyale being the bordertown between Kenya and Ethiopia). I clamber onboard and fall sound asleep.
I’m woken up an hour later by the same tout, The bus hadn’t moved. ‘You have to get off the bus, it needs to go for petrol.’ Unhappily, groggily, I sling my bags over my shoulders and shuffle off the bus.
‘When will it be back?’
Cursing myself for not getting the later bus yesterday, spending the day in Kampala and getting a decent night’s sleep on a real seat, I sat on the narrow wooden bench outside the ticket shack. With my backpack as my pillow and my other two bags as my teddy bears, I leaned to one side, curled up with my sleeping bag over me and fell fast asleep.
Yep, you can add ‘sleeping rough on the streets of Nairobi’ to my (rather copious) list of insane things I did before I died.
At 9am I was woken by the tout who I assume had been fending off ne’er-do-wells as I slumbered. Great! Time to go!
Time to buy my ticket. The bus doesn’t leave until 3pm.
Oh for the love of—
Ticket in hand, I jumped in a taxi and headed off to find breakfast and wifi. Anywhere but Eastleigh. I was hoping to meet with Tom, a guy who had contacted me on Twitter offering beer if I was ever in Nairobi. Unfortunately he wasn’t going to back in the city until 2pm, so we would end up just missing each other.
That is if, of course, the bus actually left at 3pm, which, of course, it didn’t.
By 6pm I was getting a little tired of this. But it was when people started climbing on board the bus and I looked at my ticket that my heart really sank. This was Bus #1. My ticket was for Bus #2 which was currently Christ-Knows-Where.
I had words with the bloke in the ticket office. He swapped my ticket for one of a passenger who hadn’t turned up. Thank the maker.
And so I took my seat like the wanton cuckoo I am and off we jolly well popped north towards Isiolo and then even norther to Moyale. The road to Isiolo is paved, but after that… oh God. Did I mention yesterday that it was the worst highway in East Africa? I wasn’t kidding…
The ‘badlands’ of northern Kenyan are not so called because they are full of bandits (although there are probably a few still knocking about), but because they’re no good for farming: dry, arid, dusty – you’d struggle to grow a moustache here (speaking of which, mine has gone, Movember is over). I’ll tell you what they’d be great for, Kenya: building a goddamn road. A nice straight road, made of tarmac, from here to the border with Ethiopia. You know, given that the entire expanse is remarkably flat and devoid of mountains/rivers/cities that may otherwise get in your way. If you ever do the drive down from Cairo to Cape Town, this is the *only* major section of dirt track you’ll come across (I can’t say the same for Casablanca to Cape Town, but that’s another story).
But like this time three years ago, all we have is an exceptionally dusty, potholed, bone-juddering ride up to Ethiopia. Ack, I’ve given up blaming the government. I’ve found something else to blame and it’s not even the UN… it’s the entire system of Presidencies. I swear they are designed to encourage corruption, nepotism and criminality on a global scale. If you don’t believe me, read my upcoming book ‘Machiavelli’s The President’ for a clear-cut examination of everything that is utterly insane about having one guy who is at once Head of State, Head of Government AND Head of The Military. Oh, and the fact that they all get magic immunity from prosecution for anything they do, either from the UN (Robert Mugabe) or the own legal system (Mitterrand) or by way of being pardoned for all crimes by their best mate who magically (and undemocratically) becomes Fuhrer, sorry President upon the former’s resignation (Nixon).
What have I learnt from visiting 201 countries? That the presidential model of government is flawed: epically, fundamentally and irrevocably flawed. But this is a discourse for another day.
We bumped and grinded our way to the bordertown of Moyale, arriving at around 4pm, which was good as this isn’t a 24 hour border crossing. I was stamped out of Kenya without any fuss, walked across the bridge (there’s ALWAYS a bridge!) and entered Ethiopia. It was nice not to have to surrender any more US dollars. I swear, the last couple of weeks have cost me more in visas than I spent travelling over the last few months.
$50 for Zimbabwe, $50 for Zambia, $50 for Tanzania, $20 for Tanzania (first time), $50 for Uganda (first time), $100 for South Sudan (no joke), $50 for Uganda (second time), $20 for Kenya (second time, although I had to argue my way out of not having to pay for a full $50 visa).
My heart goes out to the poor dears working tourism in these parts. $390!! I could have had a family holiday to Disneyland for that (only because we’d sneak in, mind). AND I still have visas to purchase for Sudan, Egypt and Turkey.
Oh Europe (excluding paranoid spoilsports Russia and Belarus) how I love thee! Let me count the Schengen ways!!
Like Mozambique and Tanzania, it is illegal for Ethiopian buses to run at night, so I checked into a little hotel on the Ethiopian side of town, downed a couple of St. George’s while checking my emails and retiring to my room around 9pm. Moyale is currently undergoing a water shortage, so it was a warm bucket bath before bed to rid me of the red Kenyan dust (which was EVERYWHERE). I set my alarm for 4am, exchanged sweet nothings with the lovely Casey who called me on my new Ethiopian number and then got myself some much-needed shuteye.
Yet another early start and by 6am we were hurling north towards Addis Ababa on a brand spanking new commuter bus, travelling along Ethiopia’s impressively smooth asphalt roads. The last time I did this run I was crammed into a minibus with Matt the Lonely Planet guy while he continued his quest to find the only bottle of Diet Coke in Ethiopia (it’s Ethiopia Matt, who do you think is going to be on a diet?), this time was somewhat more comfortable. With nothing left to read, the guy next to me speaking no English and the crappy battery on my laptop only lasting an hour or so, I spent most of the day playing a game of shutty-window with the guy behind me (every time I opened the window, he’d shut it) and observing the beautiful Ethiopian countryside.
Miles away from the images ingrained in the collective subconscious of Starvin’ Marvins living in dust tents, flies all over their malnourished faces, modern Ethiopia is, despite having way too many child workers (the highest number in the world, fact-fans!), coming on in leaps and bounds, with infrastructure, irrigation, sanitation, schools and hospitals popping up all over the country and some of the best roads outside South Africa in Sub-Saharan Africa. The people are epic friendly and aside from the odd pick-pocket, crime is mercifully low. But the countryside: WOW. Most of Ethiopia is up in the mountains, unspoilt hills of rolling green, trees and the occasional terraced farm – it reminds me of Colombia, especially as the bus winds through the narrow mountain roads.
Addis itself is one of the highest capital cities in the world, sitting at an elevation of 2,300 metres above sea level. Like Quito in Ecuador it belies its position slap bang in the middle of the tropics with cool fresh nights and what can only be only described as a permanent state of springtime.
But we wouldn’t be getting to Addis today. As I said yesterday, buses don’t run at night here, and by dusk we had only got as far as the magnificently-named town of Awasa! (bang optional), which sits on the lake of the same name, just a couple of hundred kilometres south of the capital in a north-south belt I’m going to call Ethiopia’s Lake District (maybe people call it that already, I dunno, they should). I had paid for the bus to take me right through to Addis, so I’d be getting it again at 6am the next day. But a guy on the bus whose name was Azmara (his nickname was ‘Isit?’) told me there would be a faster way to get there – a minibus would be leaving at 4am and would get us into Addis for 9am tomorrow morning. As I needed to get an Egyptian visa as well as the aforementioned Sudanese visa (for reasons I will go into tomorrow), this sounded like a good plan – in my experience, most embassies only accept visa applications in the morning.
Isit? said he’d meet me in the morning, bringing the minibus to my hotel. Sweeeeeeet.
After that I found a place to spend the night, ate some spicy roast lamb for din-dins and, after getting online for a couple of hours to deal with some more Qs an’ As (hey! I can get paid for this! Who knew?!!), I dived into bed to get a few hours shut-eye.
I got a phone call at 4am – it was Isit? calling to tell me that the bus was waiting outside. Crikey: when he said 4am I didn’t think he actually meant 4am. I grabbed my things, dropped the key at the front desk and then spent a good ten minutes trying to suss out how to escape this damn hotel – the front exits were locked (good job there wasn’t a fire eh?). Eventually I exited through a back door and hopped on the minibus. We drove around Awasa for a bit picking up passengers and when we were full, we hit the road.
The downside of having decent roads in an African country is that the crashes become more spectacular and infinitely more deadly. The first death of the morning was a hyena, splayed out in the middle of the road, a tyre track through its belly, guts spilled out all over the ground. A second hyena (a living on, possibly feasting on the first) was narrowly avoided through some evasive manoeuvres, but a dog a little further down the line was not so lucky, our minibus crunching over the poor beast, a muffled yelp before eternal silence.
But what I really, really didn’t want to see was the dead human a few miles later. Hit by a car or a truck not more than a few minutes before, his body lay face down, motionless in the middle of the road, brains dashed out across the white dividing lines. The women on board gasped, the men tutted (very similar to the tuts emitted when we ran over the dog), but the minibus did not stop. I asked the driver to pull up, but Isit? said not to worry, the police will come. I asked him how they will know to come if nobody calls them. He didn’t answer. I took out my phone. Even if I knew the number for the emergency services or Medicine Sans Frontiers, I had no damn reception.
‘He is dead,’ said Isit?, ‘it would make no difference.’ I objected to this notion on the grounds that a dead body in the middle of the road is likely to cause another crash further down the line as people either rubberneck or swerve to avoid. Isit? did nothing to allay my fears. He just shrugged and said ‘This is Africa.’ I was uncharacteristically silent for the rest of the trip to Addis.
We arrived, as promised, at 9 on the knocker. Isit? put me in a taxi and I hurtled off to the Egyptian Embassy.
Back when I was in the London for the Olympic Parade, the day before I met Casey, I went to the Sudanese Embassy to ask about getting a visa. They said they could issue me one on the spot, but there was only one problem: it would only be valid for two months. It was September 11, meaning I’d have to enter Sudan before November 11. Even in my wildest imaginings I didn’t think I could get off the Costa neoRomantica (at this point still unconfirmed) on October 28 and make it to Sudan via South Sudan in this timeframe.
This left the option of either getting the visa in my second passport that I was leaving in London with Lindsey or else getting the visa in Addis. After one too many horror stories about getting a Sudanese visa in Ethiopia, I decided to get the visa in London.
To do this without me being there in person required a Letter of Invitation from a company in Sudan. I wrote to the tour agent recommended in the Lonely Planet, Mr Midhat Mahir. He wrote back saying not to worry, I didn’t need to get a full visa, all I needed was a transit visa. This would give me two weeks to waddle from the eastern bordertown of Gallabat to the northern bordertown of Wadi Halfa and the visa only took a day or two to get through. To get a transit visa all I needed was a visa for Egypt as ‘proof of onward travel.’
Now, if I’m to be back in the UK in time for Christmas (it’ll be my first one with my family in Liverpool since 2008) one thing HAS to happen. I *must* be in Wadi Halfa, north North Sudan in eight days time. As it is Tuesday today and it takes at least three days to get from Addis to Halfa, I have just four days to get my Sudanese visa. Monday morning will be too late.
To my shock and dismay, when I arrived at the Egyptian embassy I discovered that to be issued with an Egyptian visa takes three days. THREE DAYS? Are you kidding me? This is the visa that costs US$15 and is instantly available on arrival at all land borders, sea ports and airports. THREE DAYS?!! Even if I got it on Friday morning (any the sign said they only return passports on
I left the embassy, head in my hands. Okay, Plan B: forget about the transit visa, just go for broke Graham: you’ve got four days… get a full one. I had been told that it would speed things up if I had a letter of introduction from my own embassy, so I jumped in another taxi and headed to the other side of town to go ingratiate myself with my fellow Brits. HA! You didn’t think it would be THAT easy did you? For some (quite frankly insane) reason, the British embassy only issues such letters after 1,30pm – you know, after the window of opportunity for submitting visa applications that day is over.
For the love of—
Okay, Plan C: head to the Sudan embassy and have a chat, see if we can come to some sort of arrangement. After all, I’ve been to Sudan before, caused no trouble and I don’t have an Israeli stamp in my passport or even a visa for South Sudan (shh! it’s in my my other one). I queued up and spoke to a nice chap behind the window called Sidir. He told me that if I can get my Egypt visa for Friday morning, they could issue me a same day visa for Sudan. Perfecto!
It was now 11am – Addis is a big city and the embassies are (tremendously unhelpfully) spread out like you would not believe.
I jumped in a taxi. Take me to the Egypt embassy. He didn’t speak hardly any English so I attempted to gesticulate ‘Egypt’ with hand movements, but didn’t get very far, he must have just thought I was a big fan of The Bangles. I roped in a hapless bystander who translated for me, and off we toodily-pipped. Halfway there I remember something the lady told me a couple of hours earlier – that they only accept payment in local currency, the birr and you had to provide a receipt proving how you got the birr.
As there were NO official exchange places on the border with Moyale, this rule seemed as arbitrary as it was retarded: wouldn’t nearly all overlanders needing to get a Egypt visa in order to get a Sudanese transit visa have come up from Kenya? Wouldn’t they have all had to change their money on the border and therefore not got a receipt?? It’s not like we’re talking Brewster’s here – the visa fee was about US$18. But still I needed a receipt. So I asked the driver to take me to an ATM on the way. He took me to a bank out of the way. We got to the bank at 11:35am – the deadline for visa submissions at the Egypt embassy was noon.
I queued up at the cash machine for what felt like an age (I think the woman in front of me was negotiating a business loan with the damn thing), and asked for 500 birr, thinking I’d get a receipt. Normally, if no receipts are available you get a little notice saying ‘No Receipt Available – Do You Wish To Proceed?’ Not this one. Yep, despite the government seemingly demanding proof that your $15 worth of birr wasn’t handed to you by the waterlogged corpse of Osama Bin Laden himself, the Bank of Ethiopia thinks its alright to not even warn you that no receipts will be forthcoming until after your money has popped out.
The number of times I’ve got a receipt from a cash machine and instantly crumbled it up and thrown it in the bin and now, just as I need one…
Urgh. Looking around, I spied a branch of Western Union up the road. To the taxi drivers chagrin I ran up to it. I had dollars I could change: which would mean a receipt.
Now you’d think changing $20 would be a doddle, considering the whole process on the border takes all of – ooooh – 30 seconds?
As the minutes closed in on midday, the guys at Western Union needed copies of my passport, a full set of fingerprints, an iris scan, a sample of my brain tissue, my gerbil’s maiden name, my inside leg measurement, a twenty-seven page form signed in triplicate, stamped with a variety of loops, squiggles and logos which must be garnered from the headquarters of the intergalactic bureaucratic federation four systems down from the Seventh House of Were.
TO CHANGE TWENTY F—ING DOLLARS!
Christ these people must love their jobs. ‘What did you do today, my love?’ ‘Oh, I merely crushed the hopes and dreams of at least a dozen people using the slow grinding wheels of insufferable bureaucracy.’
‘My Hero!’ *hugs*
By the time I left Western Union it was 11.51am. The last thing I needed was a traffic jam.
That’s when we hit a traffic jam.
Luckily for me, my driver knew some back-alley routes across town. We bumped our way down the dirt tracks that connect the main drags and arrived at the embassy at 11.59am.
I practically threw my bags at security – ‘keep ‘em!!’ and charged over to the visa office just in the NICK of time.
I threw down my passport, passport photos, money, receipt for money and my pre-filled form. The lady smiled and told me that the visa would be ready for Thursday afternoon. Fantastic! (The ‘three days’ includes the day of application.)
I thought I might as well push my luck. Any chance I can get it in the morning? I’m a *ahem* famous traveller and I always say my favourite country is Egypt, come on – you guys owe me!
Call on Thursday at 9am and we’ll see what we can do.
THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU.
I stepped out of the embassy a morning well spent. If everybody kept their word I *would* be home for Christmas.
I headed back to Mexico Square (near the Sudanese Embassy) to meet my CouchSurf host, Tadesse. My lovely girlfriend Casey has been sending out requests on my behalf while I’ve been on the road. With Case on the case, I can’t lose. Tadesse is a local lad who works at the Ministry of Roads. We met in the restaurant of the Wabe Shebelle hotel and sat down for a spot of lunch. I had the spicy lamb (I think I’m getting a little obsessed), while Tadesse opted for a vegetarian option, Ethiopians, being a breed of Orthodox Christians all of their own, fast before both Easter and Christmas. Poor guy, having to go veggie for a month – it’s enough to turn anyone to the Dawk side…
After lunch we headed back to Tadi’s gaff in the Kazanchis area of town. We stopped at a pub on the way and I got chatting with an old guy who remembers when the population of Ethiopia was 8 million. It’s now pushing 90 million. You’d think considering the strain all these damn rug-rats are putting on the planet, parents (in general) would be a little less smug, but hey, I don’t have kids (thank God), what do I know? After beer I met with Tadi’s flatmate, a Brit from the New Forest called Catherine. Tadi was staying with his mum that night, so Catherine and I went out for drinkies with her Ethiopian mates. Ah: St George’s, 37p a bottle: that’ll do nicely! Later in the evening we went to a nightclub where I almost got into my first fight of this journey (also millennium) after some guy tried to pick-pocket me. I was more insulted by his ineptitude than anything else. His friends held me back. After that I wanted to call it a night, more out of sheer tiredness than anything else. It had been a long day.
Ethiopia is a remarkable place, not least because it was the only African country not to suffer the indignity of colonisation, and not only for its immensely strong cultural identity: a country which boasts not only its own unique alphabet, but also its own unique was of telling the time (“three in the morning” means “three hours after the sun rises”). It, like Kenya and Tanzania, has pretty good shot at being the birthplace of modern humans. The discovery in the early 70s of ‘Lucy’, for a long time regarded as the so-called ‘missing link’ between apes and mankind, in the Afar Valley cemented Ethiopia as the physical anthropology, primatology, archaeology, linguistics, embryology and genetics Mecca for anybody with the slightest interest in evolutionary biology. Any dimwits who honestly believe the world to be 6,000 years old, look away now: Lucy (or, to give her full name: Australopithecus Afarensis), the first early ape we found that walked upright is 3.2 MILLION years old.
Presuming Lucy is you decent ancestor (she’s more likely a cousin, but we’ll come to that later), there are at least 160,000 generations separating you and her. That’s an EPIC number of births, marriages and deaths.
Today I was up bright and early. I met with Tadi’s other CouchSurfer, a softly-spoken Kenyan doctor who called Dan. Dan had been in town for a medical conference and was flying back to Nairobi tonight, so before he left and with no visa shenanigans to be had today, we decided to team up and go see the sights of Addis Ababa. Top of the agenda: The National Museum… home of a certain Australopithecus Afarensis that I may have just been talking about.
The museum was interesting, but Lucy and her friends were definitely the stars of the show… there’s so many of them!
It’s almost a miracle that any fossils survive at all, so to see this many early hominids all in one place (some were replicas, but Lucy was definitely the real McCoy) was, for me, a treat beyond measure. It was also great getting Doctor Dan’s take on the morphology of dem bones dem bones dem dry bones: although our cranial volume is now ten times what Lucy’s was (a result of runaway sexual selection is the word on the street) the structure of our arms, hands, legs and feet has remained remarkably consistent over the past 3,000,000 years.
It one of the iron laws of evolution: things don’t evolve unless they are forced to: by the pressures of either natural selection or sexual selection. If you’re sitting pretty at the top of the food chain and there’s no advantage to be had by having a slightly bigger brain or brighter feathers than the other males, you ain’t going to see much in the way of evolution for millions of years. It’s the reason sharks and crocodiles have barely changed since the late Cretaceous.
Doctor Dan is currently training to be a neurosurgeon. When he qualifies, he’ll be one of just ten in the entire nation of Kenya: that’s one brain surgeon for every FIVE MILLION people. It’s a wonder they get time to sleep. He’ll enjoy a lifetime of being able to patronise any other living being (with the possible exception of rocket scientists) with the line “well, it’s not exactly brain surgery, is it?”
Rather thinking I may have missed my calling there…
After the national museum, we walked up to the Ethnological Museum (don’t bother asking for directions, the word ‘Ethnological’ isn’t even in my lexicon, never mind the pretty basic English you’ll find in Ethiopia).
The setting of the museum kinda stole the show I little bit: it’s the site of Ras Tafari’s former palace. Ras Tafari… sound familiar? Yes, that’s right: it’s where we get the name ‘Rastafarian’ from. Now put down the bong and listen to Uncle Graham. Back in the 1950s, some (presumably) dreadlocked black dudes in Jamaica were (understandably) bummed out at the concept of preying to the White Man’s God who almost definitely doesn’t exist. As the late great Christopher Hitchens once said: anything that can be stated without evidence can be dismissed without evidence. Now at the time there was a (Godspeed You) Black Emperor walking the Earth: Haile Selassie the Once and Future King of Abyssinia. Born Ras Tafari, Selassie had ruled Abyssinia since 1930. And, possibly because he abolished the Ethiopian slave trade, got Ethiopia admitted to the League of Nations in 1923 and ruled over a country that was the only one in the whole of Africa to survive Europe’s colonial scramble intact, he become a cult figure amongst the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora, soon being elevated to the status of a god.
The Ethiopians were a bit nonplussed by this turn of events. Many Ethiopians didn’t even like Selassie, never mind think he was some kind of god. In the wake of the 1972-74 famine, Selassie was deposed, thrown into the back of a Volkswagen and driven away to prison where he died under ‘mysterious circumstances’ a few years later (nah… he was murdered by his successor, Colonel Mengistu Haile Mariam). Some Rastas saw Ethiopia’s woes in the 1980s as divine retribution for killing their god. You know what though? At least Haile Selassie actually damn well existed, which is more than I can say for at least the 100 gods I can name and the millions that us foolish mortals pray to every day…
Not that he exists any more, you know, since he’s dead. But he definitely *did* exist at some point in history, and in my book that’s one up on Jesus…
Selassie’s palace grounds are now the location of the University of Ethiopia, and his former royal chambers, sitting rooms and the like have been converted into libraries, laboratories and lecture halls. The museum was a dimly lit (actually, there was a power cut, so it was pretty much unlit, good job I brought my video light eh?) collection of Ethiopian stuff: clothing, musical instruments, rather cartoonish murals depicting heart-warming stories from the Bible. Like this one: http://www.thebricktestament.com/judges/gang_rape_and_dismemberment/jg19_01.html. Well, maybe not.
All cultured out, we headed to the Piazza side of town (it’s amazing considering they were only here for a few years, how much legacy the Italians left here – honestly, best place in Africa for a decent pizza) and went for a coffee at the Tomoca Café. Ethiopia is the home of coffee, your daily cup of Joe was discovered here a good few eons ago, possibly by a goat farmer, nobody knows. One thing is for sure: when coffee was introduced to Europe in the Middle Ages, we went crazy for it – so much so that Pope Clement VIII’s minions tried to ban it, saying it tasted too good and therefore it must be the work of the Satan himself.
Yes, even in the Middle Ages, the devil had all the best tunes.
Tomoca is a bit of an Addis institution and while we were quaffing our quoffee, Doctor Dan and I got chatting with the owner who invited us to the grand opening of a second Tomoca tomorrow night – there’d be music, dancing, talks… and free coffee! I grabbed as many invites as I could. With any luck, by tomorrow morning I should have my visa for Egypt and by the afternoon I should be set to leave for Sudan early the next morning. An evening of coffee heaven to top it off? Just what the Doctor (Dan) ordered…