Again we were up at the crack, I said my farewells to Laura and shoved her on a Louage back up to Tunis (or at least I thought I did). I got a Taxi to the Libyan border, and in a damn near carbon copy of what happened yesterday, the Tunisian border guards turned me back.
Leo – the Webmaster – doesn’t like me swearing on my blogs, but you can probably hazard a guess at the string of expletives that I launched at the desert. But they said I could get a visa from Sfax, a city halfway back to Tunis, and that the embassy was open today. I made a beeline, passing up my change to go and visit Tatouine (oh yes it exists!) and the Star Wars film sets.
Upon arrival in Sfax, I headed to the Libyan embassy, which was (surprisingly) open. But there was no chance. Since Colonel Saunders, sorry, Qaddafi decided in 2000 that westerners were coming over to Libya and stealing their precious things, they won’t let you in without an invite.
Like one of those bloody clubs in London that you wouldn’t want to go to anyway because they charge 16 quid for a pint of shandy…
So I hit the streets of Sfax to shake things up, see if I could make something work.
If I had known that there was no way of getting a visa to Algeria on Monday, I would have jumped on the train to Tunis and met Laura, got on the boat to Sicily with her and headed over to Barcelona where my parents and the Producer of The Odyssey television show, Matt, were waiting.
IF I HAD KNOWN.
But at this point I still believed that I could get a visa for Algeria on Monday and the alternative was going to be too much of a nightmare to even contemplate. Maybe I could convince somebody to take me over the Libyan border tomorrow in a 4×4 or something, anything.
I got chatting to a few guys who spoke English – Semi, Anis, Wahleed and their friends. At first they were full of ideas, but then after making a few phone calls, they seemed to come down on the ‘it’s impossible’ side of the debate. I then started walking back to the hotel where I had dumped my bags, which is when I ran into Raouf. Having introduced himself as a poet, Raouf and WAS the illegitimate child of Chris Morris and my mate Chris Pye, not just in looks, but in mannerisms; I almost expected him to force me to eat Cake or draw a cartoon willy on the question paper.
He said he could get me a journalist visa, and, out of options, I thought I’d give it a punt.
In hindsight, I should have headed up to Tunis and met Laura. I really wish I had done. The Louage I put her on ended up going nowhere and she had a total ordeal with the bloody Tunisian men in Ben Guerdane, dragging her around various places before (thankfully) some women came and told them to do one, and put her on the right bus.
I thought Tunisia was one of the safest Muslim countries for women. Obviously being the ‘safest’ in a league that includes rampant female genital mutilation (99% in Somalia!), rape victims being stoned to death and woman being routinely beaten to death by their own family in ‘honour(!)’ killings, THAT AIN’T SAYING MUCH.
Quite what is honourable about a gang of men murdering a female relative in cold blood is anyone’s guess.
And don’t give me that moral relativism bulls**t; wrong is wrong, period – I’m sick of people hiding their personal darkness behind their rotten religion. We don’t stand for people eating each other in the Solomon Islands, but more catholic priests have been excused by the Vatican for raping children than have been ex-communicated.
Anyway, I messed – let’s give them the benefit of the doubt shall we? In future, no. I’m just going to assume that everyone I meet in this part of the world is a rotter, and let them prove me wrong!
I’m sorry Laura. You shouldn’t have had to put up with that. Nobody should.
Anyway, I decided to stay in Sfax for the night, and try again for the border with Raouf in the morning. Raouf and I went out for a meal and a few drinks (which I ended up paying for, of course!), but I had a good night – the food was excellent and I got to dance to some Arabic music until the wee small hours, so I’m not complaining.
My spidey-sense started tingling when on the way back to my hotel, Raouf started asking for an insane amount of money for the visa. I told him to leave it and I’d see him in the morning.
This time last year, I had visited every country in South America. This year, I’ve been to one new country, Sudan. Pathetic! Well, I was soon to make amends… within a few hours, I would hopefully be hot-footing it into Libya and I’d be able to tick country number 135 off my list.
I arrived in Siwa at about 6am and headed straight over to the Yousef hostel to meet Mana, the guy that the guys in Aswan put me onto. He offered me a room so that I could get a couple of hours shut-eye, and after my less-than-marvellous night’s sleep on the coach over here, I was all too happy to say yes. It wasn’t until after I had got up and had a shower that he told me that the room was gratis. What a legend! I tried to give him ten Egyptian pounds, but he wouldn’t take it.
When people ask me what my favourite country other than my home is, some have been a bit perplexed when I’ve said Egypt. I guess those people don’t know Egypt like I know Egypt. Maybe they’ve only seen the annoying parts of Egypt – the touts, the taxi-drivers and the rip-off merchants. Maybe they’re just looking at the polluted urban sprawl of Cairo, or the dictator that has been in power since 1981. Maybe they mistake genuine hospitality for the rogues and carpet-baggers who lure you into their perfume factory under false pretences. Maybe they actually give the baksheesh (backhanders) to every Tom, Dick and Hamza that asks for it.
But if you can see beyond that at all the magical things Egypt has to offer, it truly is an awesome place. I love it.
I asked about getting a ride over the border, but from the word go, it wasn’t looking very good. Mana didn’t know anyone who would take me and suggested that I asked around the town. So I did, and the word that I received back was not good. There had been a recent clampdown by the Libyan authorities to try to stem the flow of hashish into the Colonel’s personal fiefdom, these guys had guns and, well, it wasn’t worth the risk. My trip to Siwa had been a wasted one, but it wasn’t entirely a fruitless expedition because Siwa was just wonderful. I liked it even more than chips. Relaxed, friendly, hospitable… it has all the best qualities of Egypt and none of the worst.
The only thing that was a bit weird was that you hardly see any women here – those you do see are invariably covered up. There are a couple of reasons for this, one is your usual Bedouin traditions, another is that Siwa was the last oasis in Egypt to get a paved road going to it. But the main reason is this… Siwa is the San Francisco of Egypt. Oh yes people, before they made it illegal in the 1950s (the bores!), this was where your crafty butchers, flashboys and chromatically adept types hung out. Well, they still do, they just don’t hold love parades. It would be a little risky.
Anyway, after exhausting all possibilities for a quick border-hop, I jumped on the 3pm bus back to Alex. Bah! My second attempt to crack fortress Libya had failed… but don’t forget – I’ve still got to backtrack all the way to Tunisia in order to visit Algeria, so I’ll have at least one more crack at it.
I got into Alex at around 11pm and I toyed with the idea of staying the night but instead opted to press on in a minibus to Cairo and kip at Kendra’s place. When I say she’s a nighthawk, I mean, this girl just does not sleep, so I didn’t feel to guilty about rucking up at three in the morning. She acted like it was three in the afternoon – we even ordered twenty-four hour pizza. Try doing that in Liverpool, ya loooosers!
The next week passed in a kind of blur. I don’t think I got anything productive done at all. I didn’t write up my blog nor edit any more YouTube vids, I dropped into a bit of a funk. One that affects me whenever the flow of my adventure is disrupted, either by ships that refuse to leave or by visas that require the most acrobatic of bureaucratic trickery to acquire.
But wheels had been set in motion… dangerous wobbly wheels made of poo that threatened to derail The Odyssey entire. Don’t forget – it will only take ONE country out of the 58 I have left to go to ban British Passport holders from entering and that’s it, Game Over – EPIC FAIL – the mission here is to visit EVERY sovereign state.
Now a couple of months ago, the lovely nutcase what dictates Libya, you know, Colonel Sanders, was given pause for thought when one of his (many) offspring went and did something rather silly. He beat up his housemaid. Now while I’m sure that kind of thing is (occasionally) frowned upon in the delightful pluralist democracies of the Middle East, but the Colonel’s son had the misfortune to commit the act in a country where beating up another human being, especially one of the fairer sex, is actually against the law. D’oh!
The crime took place in Switzerland.
Now as we all know, the Swiss are famous for their neutrality, even in the face of the wholesale slaughter of millions of innocents. But holocausts are one thing and beating up a woman is another beast entirely, and for once, Switzerland had the courage of its convictions and BLOOMIN’ NORA! actually stood up and said that something that a mad bloke from another latitude had done was wrong.
To say this travesty of justice pissed the Colonel off somewhat would be an understatement (whatever happened to good old fashioned dictators (and their unruly offspring) doing what the hell they wanted, eh?). And so he did what any other grown man would do and chucked his toys out of the pram. Or to be more precise, took the billions that he has spent the last forty-one years stealing from his own people out of them Swizzy Banks and chucked them into the similarly See-No-Evil banks of the KY Jelly Islands instead. And then, just to be extra mean, he banned all Swiss people from his vast desert dictatorship.
He then folded his arms and blew a raspberry. I expect.
The Swiss responded by drawing up a list of 188 people that could now no longer come skiing or enjoy Toblerone in the land of the Milka Cow. And that 188 consisted pretty much of everyone in the Colonel’s family and government (one of the same, ain’t they?). Outraged, the fried-chicken magnate of North Africa today banned ALL Europeans from within the von Schlieffen Plan Zone from visiting his magical realm of his oil-rich ancien regime.
Now (off the top of my head) that’s everyone in France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, Luxembourg, Belgium, The Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Poland, Hungary, The Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, Slovenia, Italy, Malta, San Marino, Monaco, Andorra, Liechtenstein and Switzerland. Probably one or two others.
Wow. That’s a LOT of tourists that Libya neither wants nor (apparently) needs. I’m sure the hundreds of suddenly unemployed Libyan tour operators are being compensated with all the fried chicken they can eat.
Luckily for me, and the Odyssey, the UK does not lie within the von Schlieffen Plan Zone. Things could have gone from bad to worse, but having to wait two weeks to get into country 143 (a country I’ve tried to enter twice before) now seemed like the least of my worries. The only annoying thing was that I could have – should have – left my passport with the Uzbek embassy and picked up my visa on Friday. Oh well, of Mice and Men and all that jazz.
So I was going to tell you how my unexpected second week in the UK went. Hang on, let me rack my brains… well, I, er, crikey… wha the hell did I do? I’m sure I got some things sorted… I got my bags cleaned, for one. Oh, and my gorgeous girlfriend Mandy and her utterly delightful sister Tam sent me a new Kanga Hat (the old one had shrunk in the wash and was now looking more like something you’d wear at a hen party) and I reupholstered the toilet seat strapped to my backpack.
Erm… that’s about it, I’m afraid. Went out in Liverpool, got nice and drunk with my friends, saw Avatar in 3D, downloaded Lost – crikey, it was like I’d never been away. It was like I had walked through a magic door that had transported me a year into the future. Everything was as it was when I left, only slightly different. Boys had got with girls and girls had split with boys, I sighed as I noted another tree had been felled from the grove outside my parent’s house but the old haunts still smelt like the old haunts and the fly-by-night bars had thankfully flown south for the winter.
Change is not always progress. Gone were the inflation-busting £1 Stellas that had make The Jac our drinking pit of choice for the last fifteen years, replaced by Carlsbergs with a little less alcohol by volume. I love this epigram: you can’t step in the same river twice, fresh water is always running past you. I nicked it from Stephen Fry. He probably nicked it too.
There’s an old anecdote about Oscar Wilde at a dinner party once: after somebody said something tremendously witty, Oscar mused that he wish he had said it. Lady such-and-such patted him on the hand and said ‘Don’t worry Oscar, you will.’
I have to say, my home town of Liverpool was looking rather spanking. Have you seen her lately? It’s like an ex-girlfriend who you never really had the hots for and she had kind of let herself go and that’s why you dumped her (although I’m sure you were at pains to point out that it’s not her, it’s you) and then you see her again at a party years later and she looks hot to trot and you’re like d’oh I knew that girl had potential.
Although what the hell is with that cacophony of cack down by the Pier Head? Jesus wept… did someone let little Tarquin play with his crayons on daddy’s blueprints? What goes through these people’s heads? Leave it, Graham… leave it.
Well, if Mandy has her wicked way with me (she will), I’ll be hauling up sticks and moving to Melbourne when this hootenanny is over. But, damnit, what is it about that durty auld town that keeps drawing me back? Ack, you can spread your x-wings all over the universe, but Jabba will see to it that you’ll be back to Tattooine someday.
Well, one thing led to another (as things invariably do) and soon enough it was Sunday. I said goodbye to Mum and Dad, those wonderful people who never think to say STOP THIS YOU’RE AN IDIOT, and it was therefore time to trundle down to London ready to start my rather bonkers trip down to New Zealand (via Libya, Algeria, The Seychelles and Eritrea, of course).
I met with Stan, Helen, SJM Sarah and my old flame Michelle in the pub by Finsbury Park station for one last pint, one last hurrah, before heading back to the front.
Shore leave was over.
Rising at 6am to crack on to the border, it is with tremendous chagrin that I must report the minibus to Ben Guerdane did not leave until just after 8am. But to cheer me up on the way to the ‘Gare Routiere’, a gentlemen who was setting up his market stall at the side of the road came running over to me saying that he knew me. This is a typical ploy in this part of the world (especially Egypt), but no, he did actually recognise me – “you’re the guy who’s been to 142 countries!” he said as he shook my hand.
But, er, how….?
“You were on television yesterday, on the news, I saw you!” The interview I did for the French news agency last Monday must have got around. Well, that put a spring in my step. I sat waiting for the damn minibus to leave (only when it’s full!) and woke myself up with a coffee. I eventually got to the Libyan border at 11am, two hours late – a little embarrassing for Mr. Time-And-Motion over here as I was to meet my guide and, I was later to discover, he had been waiting for hours.
Now I explained in the blog entry “Groundhog Day” about Colonel Gaddafi banning all Europeans from entering his pleasant little dictatorship, but did I also mention that even if you’re British, American or Australian and you get a visa, you still have to have a ‘guide’ to accompany you everywhere? Why? Because apparently otherwise us Westerners will steal stuff.
I mean, what?
Where does Gaddafi get off accusing me of being a thief? The fact that he’s been systematically stealing BILLIONS of dollars from his own country since 1969 doesn’t seem to phase him. Oh well, I guess only God can judge him and all that crap. Well, I’m quite judgemental myself and I (like most Libyans) will be more than happy to see the nasty old tyrant drop dead. However, since the guy is an absolutist monarch (quick note to fascist dictatorships around the world – adding the worlds ‘democratic’ and ‘people’s’ to the name of your country isn’t fooling anybody, you know) his son is probably going to succeed him – the usual case with long-serving Nazis such as Fidel Castro (succeeded by his billionaire brother) and Omar Bongo (succeeded by his billionaire son) – in elections which nobody in their right minds would regard as ‘free’ or ‘fair’.
Luckily for me, my guide was a really nice chap. I’m not going to tell you his name, as this blog entry is going to be tremendously critical of Gaddafi and I don’t want my guide getting into trouble.
With my Arabic Translation in my passport, and the promise I was going to pick up my visa on the other side, the Tunisian border guards (them who had given me a flat ‘interdit!’ last May) stamped me out and waved me through. Made me think I should have pretended I was meeting a guide last year and got over the border line, just a few meters away…
In… into Fortress Libya. I had finally, FINALLY, made it into country 143 (it should have been country 67)
It had taken me a month to get here, but here I was in Libya, on my third attempt. I met my guide on the Libyan side and he got me through the formalities amazingly quick. He then took me for a drive inside Libya. Since I was already over the border and it would not be helping me along the way, I was happy to explore the place that had cost me hundreds of pounds to step foot in.
And what is there to report? Libya is remarkably similar to every other North African/Middle Eastern country; you don’t see too many women out and about, the food isn’t great and it’s not exactly a land flowing with milk and honey (that would be Britain, if you think about it), it’s more of a big fat desert with a bunch of concrete hovels lining the road. Nice! I would desperately like to visit Leptus Magna and see the Roman ruins, but there’s no time on this trip, so I had to make do with a little kebab and (yes it IS everywhere!) a bottle of Coke in the town of Zuara.
Once inside the borders, the security was not too strict, and I didn’t feel the oppressive hand of the so-called security services that one encounters far too often in West and Central Africa. Green flags fluttered everywhere (great design guys!) the irony of this being one of the least ‘green’ states on the planet is, I’m sure not lost on you.
My guide was sad that I wasn’t staying longer. With the embargo against European travellers, thousands of people involved in the nascent tourist industry here are now out of work. But does Gaddafi give a damn? Nah, he’s too busy playing goofy political games. The Libyan people are stuck in a 1984-esque nightmare in which they are constantly told that they are in power, that they have a say in the future of their country, only to be beaten down by that iron boot if they – shock horror – dare question the wisdom of their crazy unelected leader.
Of course, Gaddafi has always been as mad a bottle of badgers. In the 1970s, he spent a few days in the desert and wrote his infamous ‘Little Green Book’, possibly a companion piece to Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ and Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’. You think that a little unfair? Well it’s not. They were all mad fascist dictators with a messiah complex and all wrote a book saying how they think people should act. Self-help books written by psychotic nutcases! Great! What next? Cooking with Stalin? Dog Grooming by Pol Pot? Flower Arranging by Idi Amin?
Hold me back.
Why the hell are people like this still in power? Is it just me that thinks that a seat in the UN should be aspirational, not a catch-all for every government on Earth, be it a fascist hellhole, a narco-state, a kleptocracy or (in the case of Somalia) a figment of someone’s overactive imagination. Membership of the UN shouldn’t be an automatic given, it should be earned, through peace, democracy, freedom of the press and free and fair elections.
Or if you want every damn sovereign state in the UN, lets have a points system in which truly democratic states are rewarded with greater voting power (ie. Britain gets 100 points, Guinea gets 1) on resolutions – this would do away with the need for the security council, as no nutbag dictatorships would get much of a say in anything anyway.
This would help the domestic opposition’s cause… at the moment, what incentive is there for your typical camouflage-clad Aviator-wearing African Fascist to clean up his act? NONE WHATSOEVER. They have oil, or gold, or coltan, or diamonds. As long as the rest of the world needs the commodities that they control, the rest of the world can go to hell. As a matter of fact, so can their own tiresome populations. UN sanctions? Bring them on! They only end up killing the hoi polloi and 99% of those loooosers are not needed for the extraction of commodity A or B anyway, so wot me worry?
Sadly, this is the case in more countries than I care to mention, Libya just being one of them. Imagine an entire population – Zimbabwe is a good example – waiting for one man to die so they can be free. You think they’ll erect statues to Mugabe? They’ll be queuing up to spit on his corpse. You want to be great? You want to go down in history as a hero? A leader of men? Stop looking at your own bank balance and look to the happiness of the people you claim to represent. If you’re in charge of a sullen land (Mr. Brown) you might – just might – be doing something wrong.
After lunch, we drove back to Tunisia, past the lagoon and out of Gaddafi’s sandbox adventure. My guide was good enough to take me back to Ben Guerdane, leaving me at the shared-minibus station. I said my goodbyes and if I ever return to Libya (if they let me after I post this entry!) I’ll be giving him a bell. If anyone reading this fancies a bit of a desert safari through the realm of Tripolitania, get in touch with me – this guy will get you through the border quick smart and he won’t rip you off.
Did I mention it’s my birthday today? Maybe I should’ve. I was hoping to get back to Tunis for about 10pm, and have a few celebratory drinks with Dja, Claire and their mates. But hope doesn’t set you free, carving a hole behind your poster of Rita Heyworth with a rock hammer will set you free and today my rock hammer was out of order.
It was midnight before I returned, too late for Dja and Claire’s mates to be out on a school night. But we made the most of it, I had a few beers and settled down for bed at around 2am. I had conquered one of the forbidden kingdoms, I had to be up early in the morning for Fortress Algeria…
Interestingly, I’ve now spent a birthday in Europe (25), America (1), Asia (2), Australia (2) and Africa (1). Do I win a fiver?