7.30am. Woke up to find that sand demons had filled my teeth with silica gel and that a brass band had barged its way into my brain and had started to bashing out the 1812 Overture at a volume that would make an Indonesian quiver. Maybe not the ideal start to The Odyssey Expedition. Then again, maybe the ideal start to the Odyssey wasn’t an unbelievably hectic three month run-up, a kamikaze car ride down to London, a bust video camera, a broken tooth and no confirmation (as yet) that all this nonsense is going to be made into a television show.
Add to that the last I’m going to see of my girlfriend Mandy, the love of my life, for a year. Our romantic last night – we booked a fancy hotel in London, a bottle of wine and a take out… and I fell asleep at 9pm from the sheer exhaustion of getting everything ready to travel non-stop for a year.
And let’s not forget the two-day bus journey from Rio to Buenos Aires (following the 20 hour plane journey from Heathrow via Atlanta), complicated somewhat by the fact I missed the bloody bus and had to fly to Sao Paulo in order to catch up with the damn thing!!
I’m Graham Hughes. Welcome to The Odyssey.
Yes, a hangover is JUST what I needed: but I might as well start as I mean to go on. You see, I’m not some millionaire being followed around by two landrovers full of medical supplies, I’m just an ordinary bod. I like getting drunk, laughing at inappropriate jokes, crashing house parties, going to gigs, stuffing my face with pizza, reading the Viz, trawling the internet for porn and downloading American TV off isohunt.
But rather than waste my life on the couch waiting for Lost to finish, I thought it would be a much better idea in inflict my ginger beardy mug on every country in the world. I’ve been wanting to do this for ages, but the world hasn’t been peaceful enough for it to happen… until now.
So I packed up my troubles in my old kit bag and set off on THE FIRST SURFACE JOURNEY TO EVERY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD.
The great thing about this expedition is that since nobody has ever done it before, I’m pretty much guaranteed to bag myself a Guinness World Record: I’m aiming to have to done in a year, but as long as I finish the journey sometime in the next few years I’ll still be a bona-fide record breaker. Which is good news for a slacker like me who is planning to travel the world on a shoestring.
They say that every journey begins with a first step. Mine began with a drunken stumble.
After ignoring the snooze alarm for far too long, I singularly failed to get dressed (I had slept in my clothes) and also failed to brush my teeth, spray on some deodorant or indeed splash my face with cold water – no time for that. The boat left for Uruguay at 8.30. I had less than half an hour and I was still in bed.
Struggling with my stupid bags – car charger for my laptop, but no wet wipes – clever! I ventured downstairs to check out from the Milhouse backpackers, and tried to piece together the memories of the night before.
I had got into Buenos Aires the previous morning after a two-day coach journey from Rio. It was raining, so I headed straight for the backpacker hostel. I rang Mandy for her New Year (she’s now in her home country of Australia) and I realised that I still hadn’t got my head around the fact that I’m not going to see her for the best part of 2009. To be honest, I still haven’t got my head around the fact that this is all happening, and it’s happening now.
After editing my first video (see above), I met with Carlos, the cameraman hired by Lonely Planet to follow my first couple of days on the road. It was about 7pm and I still hadn’t organized anything for New Year. You see, I had assumed that Argentines see in the New Year like the rest of us – they have a party, kiss someone they shouldn’t and fall asleep around 4am after walking for hours in the freezing cold in a frantic hunt for a taxi home.
But it was not to be. My only friend in Buenos Aires, Maia, was, like many Argentines, seeing New Year in by having a meal with her family. Not wanted to gatecrash a family affair, I opted for the Milhouse Backpackers NYE disco which is the sort of thing that makes Lonely Planet executives spit out their lattes in disgust – young westerners having fun in foreign climes without a cultural reference in sight. But, sod it, I wasn’t in the mood for gauchos and mate anyway. I got to chat to a whole bunch of people, having a cameraman follow me round meant I was plyed with free drinks (you should try it!) and I got to dance like only a drunken scouser can.
Around 2am (when the night officially kicks off in Argentina) we left to meet with Maia and drop in to an authentic Argentine house party – which is a bit like a British house party, but full of people what speak funny. Once again, it was great being the centre of attention and the weird herbal concoction I was given to drink signalled the end of my ability to string together a coherent sentence in English, never mind my appalling attempts at Spanish.
A half-remembered lift back to the backpackers – thanks Esteban! – and now here I was, less than four hours later, barging my way into the Buquebus Terminal for the ferry over to Uruguay.
Unfortunately, my plan to get the Odyssey underway was scuppered by the fact that Uruguay was, for all intents and purposes, closed.
We cut a path across the River Plate, arriving in Colonia at about 9.30am. But upon disembarkation it became rampantly clear that starting the Odyssey in Uruguay was a silly idea. The first bus out of the Uruguayan ferry terminal was at 11pm that night.
So a quick revision of The Odyssey route was required. I’m going to have to overland it through Brazil later on in order to get into Guyana, so I decided the best course of action was to return to Buenos Aires and head to the border with Paraguay. Which is what we did. We got back on the boat and headed across the Rio Del Plata and thundered towards the start line.
Sorry I didn’t get to spend more time in Uruguay, but here’s a little vid of my time there back in 2002:
A short walk to the bus terminal and Carlos and I were on the first bus to a place called Posadas on the border of Argentina and Paraguay. I can’t say it right, so I keep calling it ‘Potatoes’. After I tick Paraguay off the list, I’ll only have another 197 countries to visit, including the likes of Congo, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea.
What have I let myself in for?!
Arriving at some ungodly hour in Posadas, we took a taxi over the Paraguayan border. And back. I would love to tell you how much fun and how interesting Paraguay is, but I can’t. It isn’t. They may as well put posters in travel agencies that say ‘Paraguay: Forget it’.
So as soon as possible we headed out of Posadas on another coach, arriving at Resistencia a few hours later. Only when I got off the coach, I forget to pick up my GPS tracker which I need to keep you all informed where I am each day! Horrified by my rampant stupidity, Carlos came to my rescue and got the coach company to ring the driver (now on his way back to a place called Corrientes) and retrieve the GPS. Which they did, and had it driven back to Resistencia on the next bus.
I love Argentina.
So with a new spring in my step I checked out the town of Resistencia – not much to write anywhere about (never mind home) and all it did was solidify my belief that nothing even halfway decent has been built by anyone, anywhere in the last fifty years. Way to go, human race – losers!! Maybe in centuries to come, this period of time will be known as the era of concrete and piss.
The next bus we needed to Salta was an overnighter, arriving at 4am in the morning. Carlos was doing well, but after a couple of days on the road I could tell he’d had enough. I’ve got another 300 days of this…
Another very early morning and after joining me on the bus to San Salvador De Jujuy (pronounced HooHoy, which is something I’d expect Mr Burns to say when he answers the phone) Carlos disembarked to get on with his life. I, meanwhile, trooped on to the border with Bolivia.
The queue to get across the border was eye watering. There must have been at least 700 people in the queue and ONE, yes ONE, guy with the rubber exit stamp. Okay – so I pushed in. Don’t blame me – this is for charity! At least that’s my excuse. But somewhere in the back of my mind is an unshakable belief that queuing is for chumps.
An Argentine girl got a little ratty with me, so I pretended (somewhat unconvincingly) to be Russian. While waiting for my Bolivian entry stamp, I got chatting with a guy from England who asked me if I had been to Bolivia before. Err, yeah – as it happens – how did he know? Then he tapped his girlfriend on the shoulder and said this is the guy off that YouTube video!
Way to go, YouTube! I’ll be a minor celebrity yet!!
Once in Bolivia, I rapidly learnt that the train to Oruro was completely sold out and that my only choice was to bus it.
Oh sweet Jesus, no.
As nightmare coach journeys go, this one was a corker. A bus held together with sellotape. An unsealed road. The frickin’ ANDES. Windows that don’t shut. Overnight.
In this eight part series, I take THE GRINGO TRAIL through South America.
Starting in BUENOS AIRES, I have a quick look around URUGUAY and CHILE before heading up to BRAZIL just in time to miss the 2002 World Cup Final. But I didn’t miss the party afterwards!! Then I head over to Bolivia, the most BRILLIANT country in the WORLD (and I should know, I’ve been to a few!).
From the salt plains of UYUNI to the rivers of the AMAZON RAINFOREST via the Health and Safety-baiting Silver Mines of POTOSI and the CAMINO DE LA MUERTE (the Road of Death), Bolivia is just a powerhouse of nutty hilarity from beginning to end.
After hitting the INCA TRAIL to MACHU PICCHU, I head up through PERU and ECUADOR and end my journey in Bogota, COLUMBIA, one of the most dangerous capital cities in the world. Although I’m still here to tell the tale, so it probably isn’t that bad…! Finally, I find myself racing to get back to the UK for my cousin’s wedding in Dublin, Ireland: I’m cutting it pretty fine, you’ll have to watch the video to see if I make it or not! Enjoy!
Don’t get me wrong, I really love Réunion – it’s fun, the weather is like perpetual spring, the food is great and my French has improved in the last week beyond measure. And I’m doing quite well, all things considered, you know, 200 countries visited, just one to go, I get to live out my Manny Calavera fantasies and say I’ve been on a four-year journey of the soul (the joke being that I’m ginger and therefore have no soul) and one way or another I should be home in a couple of months.
But every silver lining has a cloud, and what with Neptune blocking my passage to the island of Madagascar and depositing me on the French Island of Réunion like some latter-day Papillon, I’ve got to figure a cunning way out of this fix. To the instant rescue comes splendid shipping company PIL, who have a ship leaving from Madagascar for Mozambique at the end of the month. Perfect. Only one problem. To enter Mozambique at the port, I need a visa. There is no Mozambique embassy in Madagascar, so my mum and my top mate Lindsey got on the case, procured me a Mozzy visa in London, had it slapped into my second passport and then sent the whole kit and caboodle via DHL for me to pick up this week in Antananarivo, the unpronounceable capital city of Madagascar.
Now obviously I’m not in Madagascar, but that’s no biggie, as I’ve got plenty of time to hop the Trochetia ferryboat over there sometime in the next few weeks. What would be a biggie is if, I dunno… DHL misplaced my passport…?
You’ve got to be kidding me, right?
Nope. That is exactly what happened. Frantic emails went back and forth to no avail. I was surprisingly zen-like about the whole affair, considering this not only meant there would be no way (short of a miracle) that I’d make it back to the UK for Christmas, but also I might have lost a critical piece of evidence that I’ve done what I claim to have done. My mum – bless her – had to deal with the mess over in the UK. Not the best of timing as my dad was due to go in for his rescheduled heart operation on the Thursday.
When Thursday came around, we were obviously on tenterhooks about my dad’s op. I had relocated from Michael’s place near Saint-Denis to CouchSurf with Lucie, Jean-Baptist and Luc in a lovely old place up the hill from St Paul. For lunch, Michael took me to see his friends and we ate lasagne and salad and drank champagne. Réunion being part of France and Thursday being a national holiday (for All Saints Day), our lunch lasted a good few hours, after which Michael and I headed to the port. The plan was this: with my passport stuck in limbo and the PIL ship not getting to Madagascar until Nov 24, I figured I’d head over to the nearby island of Mauritius to look for a ship – perhaps run by CMA-CGM or Maersk – that would be running to Durban in South Africa, thereby circumventing the need to possess a Mozambique visa in order to make landfall in Africa. This would also mean I could tear up to South Sudan through Zimbabwe and Zambia: two places I didn’t really get the chance to explore when I checked them off The Odyssey Expedition list.
Only one problem: the ferry – although in port – wasn’t selling tickets because it was a holiday. It’s not like it was full or anything, but despite Michael’s incredulity at the situation, they said I couldn’t buy a ticket online, pay with a credit card (or a cheque) and I couldn’t even purchase the ticket once we reached Mauritius. Un-be-lievable. So it was back to good ol’ Lucie’s gaff with my tail between my legs asking if I could stay a few more nights. Lucie, being awesome, said it would be okay and I set about on my next challenge: devising a detailed budget plan for my next project as my producer friend in the UK was having a pitch meeting for it with a rather famous TV channel the next day. Meanwhile, back in Liverpool, my dad’s triple heart-bypass was going well and he was out of surgery that afternoon.
Friday was spent frantically finishing off my pitches (why just the one? Oh, yeah… monkey tennis… thanks a bunch, Partridge) and then waiting for the response. Don’t get your hopes up, because let’s face it, these TV stations are practically drowning in talented, committed, articulate, amusing, intelligent, energetic, confident people who can write, direct, film, edit and present and have visited every country in the world without flying. Oh, and that are willing to work for free, obviously. The inevitable ‘thanks, but no thanks’ was, well, inevitable, although when told of my current expedition they said ‘Really? Now THAT would make a great TV show!’. Yes, yes it would
Crushed. On the wrong island in the wrong hemisphere, my passport lost to the vagaries of an international courier network, my best chance of having a job next year cast to the wandering rocks, my chances of getting home for Christmas slowly ebbing away and then I find out that Ethiopia is no longer issuing visas to tourists in Nairobi, or anywhere else for that matter: you have to now get it in your home country.
But, you know, I just don’t care anymore. I’ve grown so accustomed to things going tits-up on this journey that I’ve ceased to be either amused or upset by them. I just hope my sudden run of bad luck doesn’t rub off onto Barack Obama next week… he’s up for re-election and the alternative, holy crap, it doesn’t bear thinking about…