Singapore! World’s End! You can get here all the way across the mega-continent of Eurasia from John O’Groats to Raffles via the Channel Tunnel, the Urals and the causeway without ever stepping foot on a plane or a boat. But this is the end of the line I’m afraid. From now on it’s going to be ship-this ship-that and ship’s-your-uncle. Ticking a magnificent 179 countries off my list: a daunting and unsettling task lay ahead: the final 21 countries are all islands, parts of islands or full-on archipelagos and (as if I haven’t been at pains to point this out already) I’M NOT ALLOWED TO FLY.
Nature’s borders prove much more troublesome to me than man’s invisible lines.
I am more than happy to pay lip-service to Singapore, with it’s miles and miles of docks and smug (and lucrative) placement right in the middle of things: you know, where Liverpool was 100 years ago. I’ve always found it a bit too clean, a bit too sterile, a bit too Demolition Man (an under-rated film if ever there was one). Considering it’s the death penalty for drug smuggling and Blueberry Hubba Bubba Bubblegum is against the law, it’s the kind of place Britain could be if everyone who writes into the letters page of the Daily Mail were in charge.
And wouldn’t THAT be fun!
Although, I must point out that there is a lovely underground (possibly run by a Chinese Dennis Leary) vibe going on in Singapore, IF you know where to look, but unfortunately I don’t. Bah!
But Singapore’s purpose (not porpoise) today is to serve as LAUNCHPAD OCEANIA: and I’m including all of the final 21 nations in that ‘Oceania’ tag (even though some are in the Indian Ocean) cos I have to take a boat to get there. The first boat of the day leaves for the island of Pulau Batam at 7.50am. Pulau Batam is just a few miles off the coast of Singapore, but it’s one of the forty THOUSAND (count ’em!) islands that make up Nation 180, INDONESIA.
I got to the Harbour Front straight off the bus, at around 5am. It was still dark, but the shopping complex (that including the ferry terminal) was open – well, bits of it were – the ferry terminal didn’t open till seven. According to the Yellow Bible, the first ferry to Pulau Batam leaves Singapore at 6am, but as you will find if you ever come to South East Asia, the Yellow Bible (like the real Bible) is paved with good intentions but there are many glaring inaccuracies, omissions, half-truths and downright lies told; and the older the copy the more inaccurate things become. Mine was from 2008 so it was filled with more bloopers than an Ed Wood movie. Then again, look at the real Bible – it’s from, what, the bronze age? Good luck with that!
The first boat left at 7.50am. This more than scuppered my plans for the day, it kinda torpedoed them. It meant that the ferry got in at 7.40am Indonesian Time (I’m nothing if not a Timelord) and – get this – the THREE FERRIES to the big Indonesian island of Sumatra ALL LEAVE at 7.30am Indonesian Time. Yes, it would take a lobotomised aphid with learning difficulties to come up with a more IDIOTIC system, but there you go, it looked a lot like I’d be spending the night in this, lets be fair, shithole called Pulau Batam.
But IN YOUR FACE KENOBI, in my experience there IS such thing as luck: the daddy ship direct to Jakarta that leaves once a week was leaving today(!) at 3pm. No poncing about fighting the Sumatran road system down to the island of Java: I was going straight to the Big Smoke.
Oh… something I should point out at this point while you’re flapping your map of the world about and screaming that Jakarta is 100% in the wrong direction if I want to head to Brunei and The Philippines next, I KNOW. But for some unfathomable reason there is no domestic ferry link between Peninsular Malaysia (that bit what attaches to Thailand and Singapore) and Malaysian Borneo (that bit what attaches to Indonesian Borneo and, more importantly, has Brunei sitting in the middle of it). So my only option is to take a ship to Jakarta, then another to Pontianak in Indonesian Borneo and then fight my way overland from there.
Which is what I plan to do.
So, completely fortuitously, by 2.45pm I was in a taxi heading for the domestic ferry port – oh yeah, when they said the ship was leaving at 3pm, they MEANT IT. Crikey – I raced through an empty terminal, threw my bags through the X-ray scanner, headed out onto the quayside and hurled myself up the gangplank (as it was rising). Sweating and out of breath, I was welcomed on board by a young Indonesian guy called Rangga.
“You’re that guy off National Geographic aren’t you? Are you STILL going?!”
Sweating and panting like Michael Moore running the London Marathon, I dropped my bags on the deck, nod and shook the guy’s hand. By 3.09pm we were under sail. Result!
On board the ship I met up with Chiefy – a top Aussie guy who I had met earlier that day on Pulau Batam who was trying to travel the world without flying, but not for any kind of time record – he was happy to spend the next ten years doing it. In a wonderful bit of synergy I also met a bunch of Brits who were making their way down to Australia on a kinda-Oz bus affair and so we got to share our overland adventure stories. Most – like John and Matt – were a little older than me, but some, including a scouser from Aigburth called Claire, were around the same age (we scousers either have scouse-dar or we’re just the friendliest people in the whole of the UK… I have a suspicion it’s the latter, AND BILL BRYSON AGREES WITH ME).
It would appear that I’m not the only one who regards flying as cheating. The weird thing was that while we were enjoying the fresh air and camaraderie out on deck, their comrades on this monumental trek across Eurasia hid in the bowels of the ship, content to miss the cracking sunset and the late night Karaoke (and secret whisky stash on an otherwise dry voyage – thanks Rangga!) which – of course – us scousers found and took advantage of. Anti-social buggers. But then, after hearing some of the stuff that had been going on since they started their adventures five months ago, I was glad to be travelling alone: would YOU want to be travelling with your ex-girlfriend who had now got with somebody else from the same expedition? Thought not…!
It was a BIG ship – over 1000 passengers. But by midnight Claire and I had the run of the place, everyone else being a bunch of sissies going to bed early. I was looking out for the Southern Cross – I haven’t seen it since Rwanda last December, but cloud cover dashed that hope. The sleeping situation was a set of large cabins, each containing over 100 beds in rows separated by wooden dividers. I slept between a nursing mother and a girl in her early twenties.
Indonesia: Muslim it may be, Saudi Arabia it is not.
Thursday took a while to get going. While my fellow travellers (in another cabin and arguably less full of Johnnie Walker) were rudely awoken at the crack of dawn by the call to prayer (which – don’t tell Osama – the vast majority ignored) I happily slept right through it – I also slept through the screaming babies, the over-amped cellphone jingles and the locals chatting at a volume that can only be described as ‘11’.
Hooray for whisky.
Incidentally, if I made an independently intelligent robot butler out of paperclips and Bovril I would not require him to worship me at 4am for two reasons. One is that it would wake me up. The other is that I’M NOT A TOTAL WEIRDO.
Anyway, a day mostly spent at sea. There were some games of le tete merde and maybe I did some card tricks (but alas, no beer was available to win) and some good old fashioned banter and self-righteous putting the world to rights. It was a bit of a surprise that given our very timely departure that by late afternoon we still weren’t in port in Jakarta. It came as more of a surprise at 8pm when Rangga texted me from his vantage point somewhere on board and told me that the port was full(!) and the anchor had gone down.
Luckily, we didn’t have to stay a second night on the ferry and before too long Chiefy and I were heading through Jakarta in a taxi on our way to Jaksa Road – the backpacker hub. Chiefy was happy to stay in the usual cheapo hostel, and usually I would have been too, but I decided after this delightfully successful week of Odysseying I deserved a hot shower and a colour TV, so I checked into the more expensive place next door. I think it cost about a tenner – really pushing the boat out, eh?
I did find out some exciting news, though: in the Lonely Planet it tells of a Pelni ship heading over to Borneo one a week (or even a fortnight). Bad timing could have me stuck in Jakarta until the end of the month. But wonderfully enough there was now a ferry run by another company that went to Pontianak in Borneo FIVE TIMES a week, and the odds were good that there would be one leaving tomorrow.
Smoke me a kipper, I’ll be back for breakfast…
First things first, I called the ferry company and found out when the next ship to Borneo was departing – not today but tomorrow, but that’s better than a slap in the face with a wet kipper.
After ‘moving out’ of my hotel to the fleapit next door (come on – it had an en suite shower – it was totally out of my league!) I set out with John from the UK-Oz overland expedition to do two things: 1. buy a ferry ticket to Pontianak – which would get me to the island of Borneo and 2. find out what date the next Pelni ship left Bali for West Timor (East Timor will be country number 183).
After we walked for a good half an hour we eventually found where the office for the ferry company used to be, back in 2008 when my Lonely Planet was written.
Jakarta is a truly unfortunate city: dirty, grimy, polluted, dull, filled with monumentally ugly buildings, gridlocked, over-populated – it’s a very difficult place to love. It took John and I a good hour just to get to the new ferry ticket office near the port. I got my ticket for tomorrow’s ferry then we headed over to the port proper to find out about the ship from Bali to Timor (same horse, different jockey), but to our despair the port seemed to be closed. Grumbling, we took a taxi to the other side of the city (a good hour and a half) to the main Pelni offices. Which had closed at 3pm. By now it was 4pm. All we wanted were the damn sailing dates.
We had tried to get them from the numerous Pelni agents scattered around the city, but they would only tell us the date of the next ship from Jakarta to Timor. It was a bit like going into a travel agent in London and trying to book a flight out of Manchester and have them say ‘sorry, we can only book flights that depart from London’. And the Pelni website? Not updated since 2006. Gr-r-r-r-reat!
(I’ve since found the ‘real’ Pelni website – the next ship leaves Bali on November 5th – thanks Alex Z.)
So after that hot, sweaty, dispiriting trek around glumtown we were none the wiser and I was ready to kill, kill and kill again. Luckily for the surrounding population and innocent bystanders, I tempered my murderous desire with mankind’s second greatest invention, beer.
Chiefy was out on the razz and in high spirits and before long I fell into conversation with a wonderfully mad girl from Sweden called Lisa and a top British bloke from Leicester called Shane. As closing time wheeled around (as it invariably does), Lisa, Shane and I decided to break onto the roof of a nearby hotel to use the swimming pool, which (sadly) didn’t exist. Then it all becomes a bit of a blur. You know I mentioned the other day that if I’m going to be recognised by my backpacking peers I should possibly not drink so much? Well yeah, what can I say?
Whiter Shade of Pale.
Bad David Bowie impression.
As the day broke, Lisa and I (we had mislaid Shane somewhere) were still drinking, talking nonsense with a big scary guy from Cameroon, a crazy woman from Malaysia and making fun of the local guy fast asleep on the chair next to us.
The most irritating thing in the world – aside from Russell Brand – is when your infernal debit card gets declined at a foreign ATM because the bank assumes it’s been stolen. Still waiting for my HSBC card to arrive c/o the delectable Anna (whom we shall be meeting in Bali), I had no choice but to call Barclays and ask them why the hell do they pull this kind of nonsense when a simple phone call to my dad (the joint account holder) could have informed them that yes I was on holiday in Jakarta and yes money would be nice THANK YOU VERY MUCH.
After leaving me on hold for TEN MINUTES (yeah, calling from abroad is yer? Well, just hang on at one pound a minute) it took a further twenty to jump through all the mental hooperage designed to weed out the fraudsters intent on stealing my wonga. Anything else I can help you with sir? Yes – DON’T DO IT AGAIN. And I hang up.
Surveying the current situation, things did not look good. For some unfathomable reason I hadn’t crawled out of bed until well after 1pm and after walking for OVER AN HOUR to find a goddamn money changer to convert my emergency US dollarage into Indonesian Rupiah, and after wasting half an hour Skyping the sausage knotters at Barclays Fraud Department, it was now 3.30pm.
The ship was due to sail at 5pm. It didn’t give me a lot of time, but it gave me enough. I clambered into a taxi and barked instructions for the driver to take me port-wards. Then I took out my ticket and double checked the time.
And the ship was due to leave at 4pm. I looked at my watch. 3.35pm.
Usually, this would not be a bother, ships rarely (if ever) run to schedule, but after the boat from Pulau Batam left just a few minutes after it was meant to, I was beginning to worry. With no air-con in the cab and sweat literally dripping from under my hat, my driver plodded along like it was a Sunday promenade in the park.
Why is it that when I’m in a hurry I get some idiotic slowpoke driving me and when I’m not in any particular rush I get Ayrton Senna?
Anyway, this guy seemed to take some kind of sick delight in watching me squirm. It was bad enough that he joined the longest queue whenever there was a choice, it was bad enough that he kept stopping on yellow lights, but when he drove IN A CIRCLE FOR TWENTY MINUTES I completely lost my rag, which, as anybody who has been to South-East Asia will tell you, is 100% counter-productive.
We reached the port at 4.55pm. It would have been quicker to walk.
Then he couldn’t even find the goddamn terminal building. He – I swear I’m not making this up – asked FOUR DIFFERENT PORT WORKERS where to go and STILL couldn’t find it. In the end I demanded he stop the car, flung the fare in his general direction and stormed out of the cab so highly agitated I felt an overwhelming urge to throw my hat on the floor and jump up and down on it a la Yosemite Sam.
I quickly located the terminal building (by asking someone) and ran as fast as I could in the sweltering heat with a backpack and a couple of bags dangling from my shoulders on a 500m dash from hell. Maybe the boarding was delayed, maybe… By now the sweat streaming from my forehead was stinging my eyes and making it hard to see. Flustered, out of breath and cursing the world, I waved my ticket at the first uniformed person I saw.
In the end, the damn thing didn’t leave until 9pm.
ROLL UP! ROLL UP! For one day only: the magnificent, the hilarious, the intrinsically fascinating BLOKE WHO’S NOT FROM AROUND HERE!
Yes, I get stared at a lot. Usually because I’m walking down the street babbling inanely to my camera, but mostly because I’m as whiter than a late-era Michael Jackson and I have the most unusual mutation on my 16th chromosome that makes my hair a most ridiculous shade of red.
I guess there’s a point (usually when you reach India) when you stop seeing it as rude, but you know like, sometimes, you just really want to – you know – scratch your arse? Or maybe adjust yourself after a night’s kip? What if doing so resulted in gales of laughter from the stalls? I better explain.
Yesterday, after fighting Jakarta and losing miserably (and then winning by default) I was in no mood for caring nor indeed sharing. The first on board the ship, I monopolised an entire cushioned pew designed for four to myself. Knowing there were no beds on board and also knowing I was going to spent the next two nights sweating like Shergar on this floating cockroach farm there was no way on God’s Green Earth I was going to be scrunched up in a ball and then spending the following day attempting to get the crick out of my neck. So I spread myself and my bags out across the bench, stuck my earphones into my lugholes and proceeded to ignore anybody and everybody who may or may not have some kind of objection to my selfish behaviour.
For its excellent position by the window and the telly, I had picked the bench on the very front row of the ship, which was great for keeping an eye on my stuff, not so good if I was hoping not to be gawked at by the 100+ other passengers for the subsequent 36 hours. Yup, I was the only Johnny Foreigner onboard and boy did they let me know it. I sat up, everybody laughed. I laid down, everybody laughed. I got up to go to the toilet, everybody laughed. I reckon I could have told a couple of mother-in-law jokes in Yiddish and everyone would have laughed.
I took this all in good humour, I guess it’s all part of the experience, but there is a difference between people laughing with you and people laughing at you, is there not?
I should possibly tell you something about the ferry itself. Man I thought I had been transported back to Africa. No air-con (just an open window to keep things cool), plastic on the benches which was marvellously attuned to stick to sweaty human skin like superglue, people sleeping on the floor on bits of cardboard (I could have been back on the Sissiwani) and the aforementioned cockroach infestation. BIG ONES. Like, really big.
I managed to kill about 17 of the little feckers (much to the delight of my captive audience) but did wake up a few times in the night and have to pick one off my face or out of my hair.
But unlike the Sissiwani (almost exactly one year ago, pop-pickers!) at least there was a telly on board, which meant I got to watch half of The Gods Must Be Crazy and nearly all of The Frighteners. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to watch the Merseyside Derby and see Everton well and truly trounce – going down! – Liverpool 2-0.
But you can’t have everything. I just enjoyed the fact despite everything that the red half of the city had a much worse day than me.
Borneo. The second biggest island in the world, home of the mighty orang-utan and some of the last virgin rainforest left on Earth. It’s divided between three countries – Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, and I was here for two reasons – Brunei (country 181) and The Philippines (country 182). There’s a ferry service that leaves Sandakan in the (Malaysian) north-east of the island for the troubled Filipino island of Mindanao, Hobson’s choice I’m afraid – there’s no other sensible way of getting there without flying.
When I left school, because I had only been taught completely useless things in geography like about the formation of ox-bow lakes, I thought Borneo was in South America, because I had heard word of there being a rainforest and the only rainforest I knew was in South America. I also thought Brunei was in the Middle East, because I had heard of the Sultan of Brunei and naturally assumed that Sultans were a Middle-Easty thing.
Ho-ho-how wrong I was!
I hope on my jaunt around the world I’ve taught you I little more about where places are, who is next door to who etc. I’ve got to the point now where I could feasibly draw a map of the world and correctly label each and every country from memory – in your face, Mr Schofield!! And here’s me without so much as a GCSE in geography. You see, we were given the ‘choice’ of history OR geography – we couldn’t do both. So I could possibly tell you what happened, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you where it happened.
Ah yes, The Battle of Trafalgar! And, so, er… where exactly is Trafalgar? Waterloo? Marathon? El Alamein? Midway?
Buggered if I knew. Modern schooling – not exactly holistic if you know what I mean.
It was early afternoon before we pulled into port in Pontianak in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan. It was too late for the morning buses to Kuching in the Malaysian state of Sarawak to the north, and since the border closed at night, it was a more sensible idea to take an overnight bus, saving on accommodation etc, and cross the border first thing in the morning; although after that boat ride I could have really done with a shower.
Pontianak is just as fugly as any other Indonesian city. I know I’m a little obsessed with the aesthetical quality of towns and cities, but goddamnit I hate concrete in a clear and quantifiable inverse proportion to the love and affection shown it by all the lazy talentless hack architects and town planners out there. The fact that it was teeming down with rain didn’t help the gloomy ambiance. I decided to spend my time there wisely by heading over to the equator monument – oh yes, did I mention I that on the boat down to Jakarta I crossed the equator? Yup, for I little while there I was in the sparse old Southern Hemisphere again.
Cracks me up whenever I see Australia or New Zealand try and snag a superlative by claiming to have the highest/longest/fastest/deepest/oldest/weirdest whatever “in the Southern Hemisphere.” Yeah – it’s a bit of a cheat when you’re competing with Malawi, Tonga and Paraguay innit? As opposed to India, China, Russia, the USA, Canada, every country in Europe…
The North Pole being a rather arbitrary designation (in terms of being the top of the world as opposed to the bottom, not in terms of its undoubted location), it seems strange that all the great landmasses of our planet had a tendency to tectonically meander ‘up’, but then for the lifetime of civilisation all of our compass needles have pointed North and I guess it makes sense for us to position our maps with a little arrow pointing up rather than down. But as an aficionado of all things map-like, I do get rather excited when I’m in Australia and I see an upside-down map of the world, or even better an upside down globe. I mean, why not eh? It really makes you appreciate just how much of the Southern Hemisphere is given over to the ocean and just a handful of countries, the majority of them small islands.
But this trip into the lower half of the globe was just a blip: if there had been a ferry service from Peninsular Malaysia to Malaysian Borneo I wouldn’t have cross that line yet – Brunei and The Philippines are in the North. But I will need to cross it next week when I return this way: the next fifteen countries I need to reach after Brunei and The Phils are all in the great SH.
The monument was (as expected) rendered in quite revolting concrete, but it was nice to know I was at 0 degrees, 0 minutes and 0 seconds Latitude – I last crossed the equator without much (if any) fanfare when I was in Kenya. Heading back to town I encountered a guy selling magic tricks outside a department store – I took the opportunity to purchase a brand new pack of Bicycles (which are decidedly NOT going to used for playing cards – just for playing with people’s minds) and the guy showed me a couple more tricks to add to my (albeit limited) repertoire.
After quickly stuffing my face with food and attempting (and failing) to answer all my emails (I humbly apologise for all you who have been kept waiting – I’ll get to you as soon as I can!) I headed over to the bus shop (not a typo) and clambered onboard the 9pm to Kuching in Malaysian Borneo – man o man I’m MOVING!!
Before dawn could shift her crack off my face we were at the border that separates Indonesian Borneo (Kalimantan) from Malaysian Borneo (in this case, Sarawak).
Malaysian Borneo made up of two states: Sarawak (the old kingdom of a potty Englishman who called himself Rajah Brookes – read ‘Lord Jim’ by Joseph Conrad for more details) and the north-eastern state of Sabah. The road between these two states are broken (twice!) by the two bits of the Kingdom of Brunei that bite their way down in the middle of the north coast.
After blurrily getting myself stamped out of Indonesia and into Malaysia I returned to sleep, waking upon our arrival in the remarkably pleasant town of Kuching, the capital of Sarawak state. Sadly, there was no time on this trip to chill out eating street food down by the river as the bus to my next destination – Miri, a town on the border with Brunei, was living within the hour and I had to sort out getting my visa for getting back into Indonesia sorted. When I did this trip in reverse eight years ago, I could get a visa for Indonesia on the border, but according to the Yellow Bible, those days are long gone and now you have to get a visa in advance.
Yup, ignore that bit of disinformation boys and girls. I called the consulate in Kuching and asked – you can definitely get a visa on that border, no prior meffing about required. And HOORAY for that. So then I just needed to get on the bus. Irritatingly there was no ATM anywhere near the bus station, but luckily I found a bus company that took my Visa Debit card. Unluckily, the bus company had obviously not taught its drivers not to drive like wild animals. Yeah, I know we’re in the jungle an’ all, but ple-ease: you’ve got precious cargo on board matey: namely ME.
I asked the driver to slow down. Then I told him to slow down. Then I screamed at him to slow down: we’re in a bloody big bus, not a rally car. It didn’t really do much good, but it made me feel better. I sat on the back row bracing for the impact that thankfully didn’t (but will someday) come.
As I got off the bus in Miri I gave the driver the filthiest look. What a dick. I looked at my watch – it was 1am. Guessing the border with Brunei would be closed for the night, I checked into the Miri Backpackers and treated myself to a much-needed western toilet and shower.
It was 2am before I silently crawled into my dorm bed. I had set my alarm for seven.
I awoke with my teeth chattering like I was camping naked under the stars in Svalbard: my jumper, jeans, waistcoat, sleeping-bag AND blanket were not enough to shield me from the searing frigidity of the air conditioning on this bus. I mean, I’ve been on buses where the driver has had the same homeostatic malfunction that allows fat orange girls from Newcastle to go out in a blizzard wearing little more than a piece of dental floss, but this was just nuts.
I tried to get him to turn it down, but he just laughed and ignored me. Was I the only one suffering? Would I be the first person to die of hypothermia in the history of Borneo? Everyone else looked just as frozen to death as me, but they seemed to be taking it in their stride. One guy was wearing a woolly hat.
Imagine: A WOOLLY HAT. In BORNEO. A place that hasn’t known winter for MILLIONS OF YEARS. Where did he buy it? On the top of Mount Kinabalu? More unpleasant journeys I have had on this adventure for a smorgasbord of reasons, but generally the unpleasantness ends once I reach my destination.
But it wasn’t all bad: the bus got me through Malaysian Sarawak and into the Kalimantan state of Indonesia. The rumours were true: you CAN buy a visa on the border (which is what I did eight years ago and what I did again today) By about 2pm we were pulling into Pontianak. I hoped there was a ferry leaving tonight for Jakarta, Pontianak isn’t the most pleasant place in the world to spend a lonely evening.
I went to the Prima Vista ferry agents. They had nothing for Jakarta until Saturday. This was a kick in the balls as my good chum Anna is now waiting for me in Bali and I hate to leave a lady waiting. However, there was another option: a ferry to Semarang, which is also on the island of Java, left tomorrow at noon. A lonely night in Pontianak then.
I was a bit short on readies for the ticket, so I walked down the block to find a money changer. I asked in a travel agents but they didn’t change money. Then I spotted on their departure schedule a ship leaving for Jakarta today at 8pm
And in my best Mr. Burns impression: “Ex-cellent.”
My wish granted, I bought my ticket and headed back to the main strip. I returned to the Meck World café I had drank a copious number of smoothies last week, logged onto their wifi, rang Mandy via Skype and started throwing more blogs at the website. That’s the problem with blogs: you can never get them done in time. At 6.30 I thought it was high time to head to the port when Mand reminded me about something: East frickin’ Timor.
Last December in the minibus up to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, I was with a lovely Spanish couple called Asier and Silvia. They, like me and like Chiefy, the Oz-Buses people and PRETTY MUCH EVERYONE I MEET were trying to get around as much of the world as they can without flying (travel agents and ferry companies take note: this seems to be a trend). Asier wrote to me the other day warning me that a couple of months ago, East Timor had changed its visa regulations. You couldn’t just get a visa on arrival anymore, unless you arrived on a ship.
Must be all the British refugees clogging up the streets.
So, anyway, get this: in a fit of red-tapery that would make India blush, if you want a visa on arrival you have to ask for it ten days before you get there. All being well, I should be arriving there on 8th November, so I need to get my application in.
The procedure is the most retarded system imaginable. You have to fill out a three-page fillable pdf, print it where you are (you can’t save it for later), staple a picture of yourself to the first page, sign the third page and then scan the pages and email the scans to them using the contact form on their website.
Only you can’t upload more than two files with your application. And the document is three pages. And no, you can’t zip it – unaccepted format. So when I was in The Philippines I emailed the form to them using their ‘alternative’ email address. That was on Sunday. It was now Thursday and I hadn’t heard anything back from them and was beginning to worry: the last part of this journey is going to take long enough with me faffing about for two weeks in West Timor.
So quickly – or as quickly as this CRAPPY SONY LAPTOP will allow – I attempted to resubmit the pdf scans, this time using their forms. I tried to put the three pages together using Word, but it didn’t like that format either, so I made a pdf document and uploaded that. Watching the little grey percentage rise on Google Chrome was like watching the hour hand of a broken clock.
Eventually the file was uploaded, but FILE SIZE EXCEEDED.
No, seriously, the file was like 2Mb, and on the ‘attach file’ bit of the East FRICKIN’ Timor it said (in Comic Sans as if to add insult to injury) ‘5Mb limit’. So then I fired up Photoshop, put two scans on one A4 page and one on a second A4 page, saved them as the lowest quality jpeg possible and uploaded the two files together.
By this time it was 7.30pm, my boat left in half an hour and I needed a poo.
This was not good. I used the loo in Meck World, but to my horror it was a squatter. I had no choice. Given the quality of the toilet facilities on every boat I’ve been on in this region so far, this was my best bet. So I squatted. Damn these nasty nasty things. Wetwipes usually minimise the time it takes to go the bog, but in this case it made no difference. I made the fatal mistake of nipping off the last log a fraction of a second too early, the result of which a bit like having a big brown Crayola crayon hiding up your bum, no matter how much you wipe, you can never draw the ace. GOD I HATE SQUATTERS. DAMN THEM. DAMN THEM ALL TO HELL. It took me a good five minutes and an entire pack of wetwipes to get my nipsy up to my up to my exacting standards, hunched down in that unholy position, my legs killing me and my balance askew.
By now it was 7.40pm. I legged it out of Meck World and tried to find a moto-taxi, but there was none – there were HUNDREDS of motorbikes, but none of them were taxis. I ended up having to run to the port, cursing East frickin’ Timor, cursing the stupid French f— who invented squatters and cursing Pontianak for not having enough moto-taxis.
I got to the port at 7.55pm. By now I’m sure you already know the punchline:
The ship didn’t leave…
Until FIVE IN THE MORNING…!!
So last night I arrived onboard the ferry from Pontianak on Borneo to Jakarta on Java. As I entered the passenger area, what could adequately be described as a floating refugee camp, I started to worry – I really didn’t want to sleep on the dirty metal floor – I mean, I didn’t even have a flattened cardboard box to lie on.
Er… can I get out of here?
I was kindly shepherded into the crew’s quarters by one of the guys and offered a bunk in a grotty (but eminently serviceable) cabin for about $25. All or nothin’, I haggled it down to $12 and we shook on it. But when push came to shove, I ended up spending the first night not in that bunk but in the crew’s recreation room sleeping on the incredibly uncomfortable couch. This morning I was asked if I wanted to move into a cabin of my own, since the crew didn’t want to use the room with a whopping great ranga sprawled out all over the couch. Hell yeah!
I dumped my things in ‘my’ room and crossed over the corridor onto the bridge.
Mind if I have a look around?
No probs, welcome onboard said the captain. Captain Natalie. Yup, for the first time in 22 months and over ninety boat trips*, the captain was a chick; and so was her first officer, Christina. You know, we think we’re so lightyears ahead when it comes to sexual equality of opportunity in Europe, male-dominated professions like commercial sailing (and taxi driving for that matter) remind me just how far we still have to go.
Sadly, Natalie wasn’t up for doing a filmed interview, but I did get to chat with her about her life on the ocean wave – she was never in the navy and didn’t even come from a sea-faring background – it was just something she wanted to do. Before taking this job on the ferry from Borneo to Java, she was working on a survey ship for many years up in the waters around Taiwan and Japan.
I spent the day pottering about on and off the bridge, we wouldn’t be arriving in Jakarta until tomorrow. Really nothing out of the ordinary to report, other than I had a nosebleed. Mandy’s going to be shocked at that one – in the whole eight years we’ve been together, I’ve never once had a nosebleed. In fact, I can’t remember when I last had one, but it can’t have been in the last twenty years.
When I mentioned yesterday that most unpleasant journeys end when I get off the bus, I was eluding to the fact the fridge freezer adventure from Brunei to Pontianak may be over, but its effects were most certainly not. My throat is still killing me (feels like somebody went at it with a cheese grater), my nose is running like a dripping tap – and now to top it all I had a nosebleed, all from that bloody aircon being set to zero degrees Kelvin. Urgh – hopefully I’ll feel better tomorrow.
*my 93rd (if you’re keeping count!)
So I was expecting the ferry to arrive in Jakarta this morning.
Considering the boat was eight hours late getting out of port, I adjusted my expectations accordingly. But no, we wouldn’t be disembarking til way after 10pm.