After two hours kip (I actually didn’t bother using my bunk – the communal area of the backpackers did just as well), by 7.30am I was shovelling breakfast into my fat ginger gob and by 9 o’clock I was on the bus to Bangkok. The wheels on the bus went round and round, round and round, round and round as I tore south through the country like some kind of angry Scotsman. Only without the girly skirt.
Arriving at Bangkok in the evening, I once again skirted the manic city I know and love and snapped up a ticket on the last bus to Singapore – country 179 – which if you’d care to glance at a map of the area (or, even better, work from memory) is on the other end of country 178 (Malaysia) and just a short ferry ride away from country 180 (Indonesia).
Buying a thru-ticket from one country into another via a third country is a pleasure I haven’t experienced since I was in Europe, and the concept of ticking off not just Malaysia, but Singapore AND Indonesia before breakfast on Wednesday was a treat like no other – especially given it would knock my countries-to-go total down to a seemingly manageable TWENTY.
I might – whisper it softly – I MIGHT FINISH THIS INFERNAL CHALLENGE YET!!!
I awoke on the Tuesday morning after a fairly pleasant night’s kip to find that we were still in Thailand. My, it’s a tall and thin country, and I was truly going from top to bottom. Around lunchtime the coach breached the frontier into Malaysia, me holding up proceedings by spending the last of my Thai Baht on some KFC at the border.
Malaysia passed in a daze: we sped through the Cameron Highlands without even stopping for a cup of tea and a scone; we even bypassed the capital, the wonderfully named Kuala Lumpur, and by the evening we were on course to hit Singapore before sunrise the next day.
Don’t feel jibbed that I didn’t take in more of Malaysia, I’ll be back in a few days… well, I’ll be back in Malaysian Borneo… countries 181 and 182 lay that way.
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.
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!!
Although when seven o’clock wheeled around with alarming speed I thought sod it and hit the snooze button. Today I needed to fight my way through Brunei to the other half of Malaysian Borneo and a place known as Kota Kinabalu or KK. I already knew what a frustrating and expensive experience this would be, but the 8am bus to the capital, Bandar Seri Begawan (BSB), would be just as good as the 9am bus and damn I was tired.
By 8.20am I was at the bus station, bright and eager to get the next bus to BSB.
Which wasn’t until 4pm.
Two buses a day. One at 8am and one at 4pm.
For. Heaven’s. Sake.
Taxi it is then. Miri is just a few km from the border, but the taxi driver managed to rip me off to the tune of FIFTY US dollars. This is in a state in which oil is cheaper than water, the rotten bastard. Arriving at the border twenty minutes later my plan was to cross over, hitch a lift to the first city along the coast and take the local bus from there to BSB.
And that’s exactly what happened: I hadn’t even stuck my thumb out when a car stopped and a the guy inside offered me a lift. Brunei, the 181st country of The Odyssey Expedition, is like that. He was Malaysian Chinese guy called Johnny and he worked for a satellite company fixing the transmitters in the jungle here. Sometimes it would take him 12 hours just to get to ‘work’! Now THAT’S a commute.
By the time I got to the capital it was around twelve noon. I headed over to Muara port on a local ‘express’ bus which took half an hour to get there and then pushed everyone out a couple of Ks from the actual port. Annoyingly. Brunei is just NOT set up for independent travel, as anyone who has struggled through this part of the world will happily testify. I waited a good half hour for the ‘connecting’ bus, and then when it arrived the driver walked to the back of the bus and promptly fell asleep. I rubbed my eyes – what the hell was going on? The driver told me that the bus would leave in half-an-hour now would I mind buggering off while he got some shut eye.
Only in Brunei would a ‘connecting’ bus leave an hour after the first one. In fact, only in Brunei would you be dropped five minutes drive from the port on a bit of wasteland in the middle of nowhere. But then again only in Brunei would I have to stick my thumb out for 30 seconds in order to get a lift off someone. The someone turned out to be a local guy called Vic, who agreed that the public transport in this country was a joke.
So, Brunei: good for hitch-hiking, awful for public transport. I arrived at the port just in time for the 1pm ferry to Pulau Labuan in the Malaysian state of Sabah (“Pulau” means island, by the way) only to find there was no 1pm ferry – the next would not be until 3.30pm, effectively stranding me in Pulau Labuan for the night.
Why did I need to get a boat in the first place? Good question! The answer is that Brunei is split into two sections which both form irregular ‘bites’ down from the coast. The interior of this area is dense impenetrable rainforest, but there is one road that runs from Sarawak state in Malaysia, through the BSB region of Brunei, into the Limbang area of Sarawak, through the Temburong District of Brunei and then finally into Sabah. There is no public transport along this way and you have to get stamped in or out of the respective countries a ridiculous EIGHT times. Needless to say, taking the one hour ferry ride to Pulau Labuan makes infinitely more sense.
But that’s not to say I wanted to stay there for the night, ’cos I didn’t.
Arriving at 4.30pm, my only hope was that the speedboat to Menumbok was still running, since I knew the last boat to Kota Kinabalu would have long gone. There is a SERIOUS lack of joined-up thinking when it comes to Brunei and I was glad to be shut of the place. That and the fact it is remarkably dull. Yup, it’s up there with Luxembourg, Liechtenstein and Andorra as the kind of place where the most interesting thing to happen is that some dull businessmen might indulge in a dull round of golf. No rock n’ roll, no poetry, no spine-tinglingly good films, no amazing books, no mesmerising art, no world-changing inventions, no scientific breakthroughs, no alarms and no surprises, please. Yawn.
In a stroke of luck, the little speedboat to Menumbok (halfway to Kota Kinabalu) was still running – I may well make it to KK yet!! Me and a couple of girls (one from Penn state and the other from Orkney) who also didn’t want to be stuck here for the night bought our tickets and waited the thing to fill up. Soon we were thundering out of the port towards the mainland, as the sun set over Pulau Labuan far behind. I stood out on the deck loving every second of it: the wind in my hair, the little boat skipping over the sea (which was a calm as a lake, by the way) and the last rays from the sun scattering golden upon the water.
At Menumbok we were back in the world of joined-up thinking and there was a shared taxi waiting to whisk us away to Kota Kinabalu. I checked into the Step-In Lodge backpackers and went out for a celebratory drink with the girls. Take THAT! Brunei, I’ve defeated you again. Woohahaha!!
I tried to put out of my mind the fact that this time next week I’ve got to come back the same way…
Up at 8am and onto the bus to Sandakan – the port town where the boat leaves for country 182: The Philippines. Happily, the bus left on time, but unhappily the onboard film was the most turgid, rotten waste of photons I’ve seen since Dreaming of Joseph Lees. It was like the worst bits of Star Wars Episode I (i.e. all of it) mixed with the soggy turd that was The Matrix Revolutions sprinkled from the leftover crud from the backstreet abortion that was The Golden Compass.
The only funny thing about the film is that it was about -finarr finarr- BENDERS. Christ WHY DID NOBODY TELL THEM?? I was seriously perplexed. Was there not a single person from the UK on the crew who could tap M. Night Shallaballadingdong on the shoulder and say “M, we need to talk…”. Did nobody suggest that since there were these people with magic eastern powers, maybe their power could utilise an eastern sounding word, like ‘xi’ (pronounced ‘chi’ – and mentioned in the film), ‘tan’ or ‘jedi’. Rather than –woop woop guffaw!- ‘BENDER’. So you’d have something like the water-xi’tan, the earth-xi’tan, the fire-xi’tan and the air-xi’tan. The Last Air-Xi’tan. There you go, sounds better already.
The script was so so bad it made my toes curl – many of the lines seemingly ripped straight out of Star Wars Episode I (and delivered with the same po-faced green-screen emotion). And the acting, and the pacing and the… oh god everything really. I can’t WAIT until RedLetterMedia tears this one a new a-hole. Luckily for me, also onboard was a delightfully chatty Aussie couple, Riki and her boyfriend Liam; nattering always makes the journey go quicker, and before 4pm I had forgotten all about the BENDERS -snoot snoot!- was in town checking into the Sandakan Backpackers.
No time to waste, I jumped a taxi to the ticket agents for tomorrow’s ferry to Zamboanga in Mindanao.
WHAT? MINDANAO? Are you CRAZY??! I hear you scream. Well, those of you that have heard of Mindanao are screaming that I’m sure.
Mindanao is not the happiest of Filipino islands – yes more religious fundamentalism and yes you can probably guess that the gruesome and disturbed hooligans running around murdering innocent woman and children are not Jains or Buddhists or Zoroastrians. They happen to be the same religion of ‘peace’ that you might be familiar with: over the past turbulent decade of world history, its rather over-passionate clientele have been known to run about murdering innocent bystanders in Indonesia, Thailand, China, India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Morocco, Turkey, Spain, the UK, Sudan, Algeria, Mauritania, Nigeria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Somalia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Yemen, Chad, Niger, Cote D’Ivoire, Senegal, Tajikistan and the USA, so there’s a good chance you may have heard of them. Of course by ‘peace’ I mean ‘all out war’ but then I’m guessing you understood the comedic tone of my apostrophes.
The only funny thing about this horror show that’s been rumbling on in Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago for decades is that one of the main terrorist groups is called ’MILF’. Seriously! Maybe I’m just having one of those days. Reminds me of Rimmer’s Committee for the Liberation and Integration of Terrifying Organisms and their Rehabilitation Into Society…
I think the Filipino government should fight back with an elite army commando brigade called ‘Cougar Force’. MILFs versus Cougars! Who wouldn’t pay to watch that?!
So anyway, getting back to the point, Mindanao is a heap big dangerous place of whose midday sun only mad dogs and Englishmen would venture out into. In fact, it’s probably going to be the most dangerous place I’ve been to this entire journey: Colombia is safe enough as long as you stay away from the rebel-held areas, the DRC is cool as long as you don’t venture too far towards the borders with Uganda and Rwanda, Somalia is laughing as long as you stay in Somaliland, Iraq is not just safe but also a wholelottafun as long as you stay in the Kurdish north and Afghanistan is only really a danger if you venture down to Helmand or travel at night.
Actually, Mindanao itself would present little to raise the blood pressure if I was going to be kicking around the north and east of the island, but I’m not. There is only ONE international ferry service to The Phils and, unfortunately for me it only goes to Zamboanga in western Mindanao: right into the eye of the storm.
So it’s going to be a case of keeping my big ginger bounce down and cowering in my hotel room until the ferry returns to Sandakan two days later.
But after all that, the shipping offices were closed for the day. I was told to come back the next morning at 8am and the ship would be leaving later that day. So returning to the backpackers I updated the website and then ventured out into the night for some din-dins. I was invited to come and sit with the nice couple that were sharing my room, a bloke called Adam and his girlfriend. As the night went on our discussion turned into a kick-ass debate, the kind I love to have (yes the world would be a boring place if we all agreed on everything) about environmentalism, cultural relativism and scientific fundamentalism. Like I say, it was a kick-ass debate.
Adam accused me of being a scientific fundamentalist, and as nobody likes being called a fundamentalist I tried to make out that I wasn’t – I just really, really love science in the same way I love the works of Rembrandt, Verdi, Wren, Hemmingway, Hitchcock and Johnny Rotten and think that YOU SHOULD TOO!! But, upon reflection (and the here’s-what-I-should-have-said thing that hits you the next day) in the grand tradition of the Socratic method I’ve had my brain expanded by debate and I’m proud to say that yes, yes I AM a scientific fundamentalist and you know what? I strongly believe that you are too.
Warning – rant ahead! Feel free to skip to the next blog…!
It would help if I explained what I mean by fundamentalist: someone with absolute blind faith in what they believe. Fair enough? When this blind faith is in a unproveable but ultimately silly bronze age creation myth invented by some illiterate goat herders in the Middle East back when us silly humans thought the world was flat, the stars wheeled around it for our delight and epilepsy was caused by demonic possession, my heart sinks and I may well invite you into my kitchen for a cup of tea and a dose of reality.
But it comes down to this: blind faith = I don’t know how it works, but I’m willing to stake my life on the fact it will.
Now the funny thing is that many people infected with the mind-virus of religion like to talk the talk, but when it comes down to brass tacks, the only ones who walk the walk are the fundamentalists who 100% honestly believe that if they accidentally fell off a cliff that their chosen god would reach down with his big invisible hand and save them – you know, the exceptionally rare ‘oh goodie gumdrops, I’ve got cancer’ people. Or, in the case of the 9/11 hijackers, they believe that whatever they do, no matter how disgusting, depraved, sick and twisted (murdering 3,000 people is all these things and more) if they do it in the name of God, Allah, Zeus, Gandalf, Santa Claus whatever, then it’ll all work out in the wash, because it’s what THE EASTER BUNNY would have wanted.
No evidence required!
However, science is all about the evidence and the evidence is all around us because we can see it works – chemotherapy, television, the internet, X-rays, digital photos, video games, 100% accurate predictions of future events such as eclipses or cicada plagues. The mad thing is that very very few of us knows how it works: and therein lies the fundamentalist part – the part that requires faith. Which is why I just accused you of being a scientific fundamentalist.
The first reason is that you owe your life to science. You are reading this, which means you are alive and (presumably) you have reached adulthood (it also infers that you are highly intelligent, good looking, are dynamite in bed and have great taste in fashion, music and art, but that’s not important right now). The only way you could have made it this far is because of modern western science. There are no two ways about this – Queen Anne had what? Eighteen pregnancies? And how many of them made it out alive? Five. How many of them made it to adulthood? NONE.
And she was the goddamn QUEEN OF ENGLAND. She had the wealth, the riches, the access to all the best medicines of the day… But you’re talking about the days before germ theory, sterilisation techniques, ultrasound, incubators, saline drips, safe caesarean procedures etc.
Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, Leonardo Da Vinci, James Watt, Joseph Bazelgette, Edward Jenner, Alexander Fleming, Watson and Crick, Marie Curie, Christiaan Barnard… there is a good chance that you owe these one or all of these scientists your life.
And if you want to come at me with evidence that you were born without any medical assistance, that you were never inoculated or vaccinated, never used antibiotics, you’ve never had a broken bone, a major operation or a life threatening disease, you have no allergies, you don’t have asthma and you don’t wear glasses, I have just one word for you: Nitrates.
You know, grim old Malthus was almost right: by the end of the nineteenth century the world was beginning to contain too many people to feed itself. Having to leave a field fallow every few years to regenerate was not a very economic way of farming, plus over the years the quality of the soil would diminish to such a point that you might as well rake gravel over it and give it to the pikeys. But why was this so? What was the magic ingredient in cow dung that brought a dead field back to life? By the turn of the last century, scientists had cracked it: Nitrates. Now you could buy nitrates in the form of liquid fertiliser, spread it all over your fields, never have to let them go fallow and (weather permitting) enjoy a bountiful harvest every single year: year in, year out.
Before the discovery of nitrates, the world could barely cope with one billion people. Now there are six and a half billion people, five and a half billion of which I would argue owe their very existence to science: and chances are you’re one of them.
In short, the entire human race was heading towards an abyss and science swooped in at the last minute to save us all (as I sadly believe most people think it will do over the rather pressing issue of climate change – save us lazy bastards from having to do anything about it ourselves eh?).
The second reason is that you have undoubted blind faith in science. I know this for a few reasons, the main one being that you’ve all probably been on a plane at least once in your life. Now if doing something as unnatural as being shot through the sky at 700mph doesn’t scare the willies out of you, there’s a good chance you either a) have drank to many JD miniatures to care or b) you have 100% blind faith in the principles of aerodynamics, jet engines, electrical circuitry, radio communication, radar, air pressurisation etc.: ie. a bunch of stuff you (or I) know little or nothing about. I say blind faith because even if you’re an aeronautical engineer it’s doubtful that you know how every little bit of an aeroplane works: some things you’re just taking as red that they will work, work, work and work again: because if one of those things fail (as they occasionally do), you’re going to be a whole new shade of dead. Every time you get on a plane, you are staking your life on a whole bunch of science – science you don’t even understand.
Sadly, even the most mental of religious fundamentalists who really believe that what their invisible sky wizard wanted more than anything was for them to fly a plane into a building would use a plane engineered by science, rather than the one engineered via magic, prayer, superstition or dumb luck. Although the latter option obviously would be better for the unfortunates in the building.
I would also wager that you are absolutely and inseparably hooked into the world of Information Technology. You probably own a mobile phone and you obviously have access to the internet or you wouldn’t be reading this. Now I’m sure you could go for a while without these wondrous things that science has bestowed upon us at a reasonable price, but for how long? In fact, without science, how would you last the day? Unless you’re a religious studies teacher, how would you do you job without a constant and steady flow of new information? How would you get to your job? Could you seriously live without your creature comforts: your car, the train, central heating, air conditioning, television, radio, iPods, DVDs, telephones, the internet…?
It’s the same argument that says nobody in the right mind would call out for a homeopath after being hit by a car: no matter how hippy-dippy and ‘sceptical’ about science we pretend to be, we begrudgingly owe our very existence to science and we use the fruits of scientific wisdom every single day of our lives. We are all, in a very real sense and although it’s uncomfortable to say it, scientific fundamentalists. But don’t worry: science asks nothing of you: it doesn’t want your prayers, your thanks or even your appreciation (it would be nice, I guess, but I don’t think the Royal Society is waiting on a thank-you card from us spoilt, ungrateful post-modernist brats), and more importantly, your faith in science will never compel you to strap a bomb to yourself. Because that would be SILLY.
I’m no scientist, I don’t shave with Occam’s razor nor eat Fermat’s Last Theorem for breakfast. But I know my protactinium from my protractor, my polyethylene from my buckminsterfullerene, my DNA from my RNA, my quasars from my pulsars and my neutrons from my neutrinos: all from the comfort of my armchair. Since when did you have to be a musician to enjoy music, a filmmaker to enjoy movies or a sportsman to enjoy the footy?
I don’t just love science for the sake of knowledge, beauty or entertainment (although I’m convinced it delivers all three), I love science because I understand how much I owe it, and how much I’m going to rely on it day-in and day-out until my time on this great little (slightly) pear-shaped planet comes to an end. Yes, I admit it – as unfashionable, culturally insensitive and as disrespectful as it sounds, I’m a scientific fundamentalist through and through. I’ve won Pascal’s wager and the bastard owes me a fiver.
A final thought: you know those western chicks sitting cross-legged going ommmmm with the multi-coloured beads in their dreads in an ashram in India; their heads full of magic pink unicorns dancing in the moonlight on a distant crystal planet vibrating with pure positive lifeforce energy?
You can bet your bottom dollar that they flew there
Another late night followed by another early morning: I ejected myself from by bunk at 7am and was already at the seaport for 8am, not that it made any difference, the very same woman who told me to come back this morning told me that they don’t sell tickets for the ferry to The Philippines: I had to go an agency halfway back to town. Which I grumpily did, and eventually I got my ticket. Damnit: I could have had a lie in; the boat wouldn’t be leaving until 7pm. Bah!
Well there was nothing for it but to return to the backpackers, eat some breakie and head out to the nearby Sepilok Orang-Utan Rehabilitation Centre. I arrived about 11.30am only to discover that the park shut down between 12 and 2, but a ticket was good all day, so I bought one and headed out into the jungle for a quick recce before I was kicked out for lunch.
A wooden decked path ran in a circular route from the gatehouse and back again. There were some monkeys hanging around (literally) near the Orang-Utan feeding platform out in the jungle, but no Great Apes. After waiting a few minutes I resigned myself to just seeing my close cousins at afternoon feeding time and started back for the gatehouse.
On the way back I was ambling along, squinting up at the tall trees all around just in case a ranga leapt into my line of vision. Just then I happened upon a juvenile ranga happily sitting on the wooden fence to the left of the walkway – literally yards away. He looked at me, I looked at him: jingo, a close encounter! There was nobody else around, just me and my little man of the forest.
He ambled over to me, and I stood there like a lemon holding my video camera thinking whatdoIdo? whatdoIdo? when suddenly he reached for my jacket pocket, seemingly to steal my iPod.
Oi! I shouted (hilariously enough) and pushed his hand away. Naughty little tyke. I then realised he’d been attracted by the yellow pen sticking out the top of my pocket. Boris (I as decided to christen him) then casually turned away and started to walk on all fours back towards the gatehouse. I needed to go that way anyway, so I followed him. We walked together for ten minutes before we reached the fork in the walkway. Another couple were walking back the other way and I motioned them over to us.
There Boris, possibly loving the attention he was getting, lounged about like Hugh Hefner, posing for photographs until the park warden came out of the gatehouse. Quick as a flash, Boris was back on his feet and making a beeline back to the jungle – he obviously didn’t want to get into trouble. There was definitely a special connection between us, one that transcends yellow pens and ginger beards: Boris and I walked down the exact same evolutionary path for over a billion years before our distant ancestors branched out and took our chimpanzee cousins with us. And you only need to look into the eyes of one of these magnificent creatures to realise that maybe, for all our achievements, it would have been better for us – and the planet – had we stayed in the forests were we belonged.
After lunch I returned for feeding time, and got some nice shots, but it was nothing to compare with my one-to-one with Boris. Riki and Liam off yesterday’s bus turned up and we ended up returning to Sandakan town together for din-dins and beers. By 6.30pm I sensed it was time to exit stage left (stage right, even), and very soon I was down at the docks, clutching my bags and climbing up the gangplank of the ship that would be taking me to the one hundred and eighty second country of The Odyssey Expedition: The Philippines.
I had purchased a AC ticket for the ferry to The Philippines. I didn’t really know what the difference would be, but after sleeping in cockroach central on the way from Jakarta to Pontianak, I had no intention of repeating the experience. Happily, the Tim Marine ship from Sandakan to Zamboanga was nowhere near as bad and at least a million times more fun.
As on the ferry from Pulau Batam to Jakarta, I shared a large-ish cabin (only this one had bunk beds) with about forty or fifty other people. It was a nice communal atmosphere and everyone who spoke a bit of English was happy to sit and have a chat with me, amongst them was a guy called Zakaria who was the Secretary General of the Foreign Relation Office of the Sultanate of Sulu.
Where’s that eh? Next to the Kingdom of Kirk and the People’s Republic of Spock?
Ah yes – I should explain, the Sultanate of Sulu hasn’t been invented yet.
Zakaria was keen for me to read the declaration document which will be presented on November 17th 2010 in which the islands of Sulu (the currently Filipino-owned islands which stretch from Borneo to Mindanao) stake their case for becoming a new and independent nation. Yup, if Kosovo or South Sudan doesn’t get there first, the islands of Sulu are hoping to be the 193rd member of the UN.
Should I worry? Should I head out to the Sulu islands just in case it becomes a nation before I finish The Odyssey?
Nah. First up – MUCH too dangerous. Secondly, if it is going to happen, it won’t for a long time. A few reasons (which Zakaria and I discussed)…
1. The Philippines are unlikely to give up an oil-rich region of their sovereign territory without a fight.
2. The document that Zakaria gave me says they want to set up a Sultanate, not a democracy: a tough sell, even to the UN.
3. The document also says that they want to enforce sharia law over the inhabitants of the Sulu islands. As a sizeable minority of Sulu islanders are Christian or animists, another tough sell.
4. The separatist rebels of Mindanao and Sulu have been committing terrorist acts for decades now. This will not warm any civilised nation to their cause. The fact that The Philippines government can (somewhat justifiably) argue that they are fighting ‘terrorism’, the ball will be in their court.
The Sulu separatists are, sensibly, dropping the rest of Mindanao from their vision, as Mindanao has been ‘colonised’ by too many Filipino Christians for it to make sense as a Muslim state (I love the assumption that the Christians are the usurpers and the Muslims have been there since the beginning of time… I think there are some animist tribes that may well have a chuckle at that one).
Independence struggles that involve the protagonists murdering innocent civilians hardly (if ever) work in this day and age: just ask Hamas, Eta or the IRA – the national governments tend to just dig their heels in. Yes, some African nations think they bought their freedom in blood, but in the general sweep of history I would have been amazed if after Portugal had gotten rid of the tyrant Salazar and then kept hold of their colonies, especially since by 1975 pretty much every other European power had already given theirs up: India, the jewel of the British Empire, was granted independence because of a elderly lawyer in a nappy who explicitly preached non-violence.
Generally speaking, your best bet is to reign in the hot-heads, deliver a compelling case for independence (which I do think Sulu has – historically and since The Philippines government is riddled with corruption) and – as I suggested to Zakaria – add the word ‘peace’ to their movement’s name – AND MEAN IT.
Zakaria told me that he was hopeful that Sulu would be a full independent state within two years. Given that it takes a good seven years for a western nation to prepare for the Olympics, and that the UN have been pottering around Western Sahara for the past nineteen years doing a hell of a lot of nothing, my thinking is that it’ll take a heap big longer time than that.
But, you know, Zakaria wasn’t a loony, he handled my difficult questions well, and he was obviously sincere in his belief in a better future for Sulu. I just wish that he wasn’t doing it for all the wrong reasons: the last thing this world needs is yet another nation in which the church and state are inseparably and inexorably entwined. Any church, for that matter – but particularly the one which Zakaria is a member of: one in which unfairness, sexual discrimination and intolerance of beer, dancing, kissing, pre-marital sex, homosexuality and apostates (not to mention brutal penalties for offenders) is coded in a seventh-century law that can never be amended.
Not exactly propelling the human race forwards to utopia is it? Well, not one that I fancy being part of.
Anyway, after all that dry politics I was in the mood for some nice wet beer. I entered the canteen/karaoke bar and the Filipinos on board (and pretty much everybody was Filipino) just wanted to do what Filipinos do best: attempt to get me drunk. And hurrah for that!
The San Miguel following like warm frothy waterfalls, I soon joined in with the spirit of things (my collective noun for Filipinos is a ‘Karaoke’) and began warbling some half-remembered tune. The microphone had broken by this point, but that wasn’t going to stop me. The afternoon was given over to Bacchus as we sung to the sirens, drifting imperceptibly towards the forbidden island of Mindanao, borne on Neptune’s wake. Or, in other words, beer and karaoke, yeah!
By the time we arrived in Zamboanga at 11pm, I had lost all apprehension of Mindanao, lousy reputation notwithstanding, and the concept of spending the next two days cowering in my hotel room seemed not just cowardly but a trifle bizarre. Off the boat I was shepherded by a group of passengers who were working doing PR for a soap company, and one of their brood, a transsexual called Jenn, chaperoned me to my hotel ($7 a night and a room the size of a shoebox) and then we went out for a drink in one of the marvellous tuk-tuks they have here, which are a motorbike and sidecar-type that I’ve never seen before. Unfortunately, a government imposed rule that nobody could drink alcohol the next day (there’s a local election on Monday) meant that from midnight all drinkies were off.
I didn’t mind so much – after all that San Miguel and karaoke this afternoon, I was having trouble keeping my eyes open. I headed back to my hotel and got my head down for the night, happy in the knowledge that I was now in NATION NUMBER 182: THE PHILIPPINES!!
And to think… THREE WEEKS AGO TODAY I WAS IN SHANGHAI…!
In just three weeks, the time I was stuck in Gabon, the time I was stuck in Comoros and less than half the time I was stuck in Cape Verde or Kuwait I have made it over land and sea to Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and The Philippines. No wonder I was so tired.
That’s 182 countries down, 18 to go – but every single one of them is an island which I can only attack from the sea. If I get to the next 11 countries in less than three MONTHS, I’ll be doing well. Here goes nuthin’…
It was early afternoon before the ship pulled into Sandakan. I’m now going to be backtracking over the exact route I took last week, so if you like you can just read those blogs again but backwards.
At the taxi rank outside the port a woman overheard me asking the cab drivers how much it would be to the bus station and, since she was going the same way, suggested that we share a taxi. This unfortunately required a short fight with the drivers. Not only do the taxis in Malaysia not have meters (SO annoying) these guys were insisting that we took separate cabs. Seriously – what is this? Saudi?
Eventually they relented. It was about half three by the time I got to the bus station and I was left with two options:
I could get on the 4.30pm bus back to Kota Kinabalu and arrive at 11pm tonight, or I could head into Sandakan town, sit in a café for a few hours and get the overnight bus later on. The lure of a hot shower and a cool bed in KK drew me to take the four thirty option.
Annoyingly The bus didn’t leave until about 6pm and the driver must have been a cousin of the one I had last week across Sarawak – he drove like an utter t—, gunning it around the winding jungle roads (dark, no streetlights) and overtaking trucks on blind turns.
Frazzled and weary, it wasn’t until 1am before I checked into the KK backpackers and it was 2am before I had updated the website and uploaded a blog or two. Since I had to be up at half six, I thought it best that this point to hit the hay. You’ll just have to wait.
Urgh, I thought as my mobile blipped my alarm: not again. Today’s mission – very much like last Wednesday’s, was to make it through bloody great boring Brunei. By 7.30am I was down at the port for the ferry to Palau Labuan. By 11.30am it had arrived. The next boat to Brunei was at 12 noon, so I just had time to rush out, fill my boots with Nasi Goreng (spicy fried rice with chicken and eggs – it’s the best food around these parts).
By 1.30pm I was back in Brunei getting stamped back in. A taxi driver outside the port told me that the last bus for Miri in Sarawak, Malaysia left at 2.30pm, which gave me an hour to get from port Muara to the capital.
The bus to BSB took AGES to get there: it was 2.50pm before I arrived. But not to worry too much – the taxi driver was lying (presumably to be me into his cab). This being Brunei, the last bus to Miri left at 1pm. The fact that the corresponding bus from Miri leaves at 4pm left me completely bewildered.
So let me get this straight: if you want to leave Brunei for the neighbouring state of Sarawak on any given day (the border is TWO HOURS AWAY), and it’s after 1pm and you don’t have a car YOU HAVE TO FLY??
I mean, come on, for Christ’s sake, this is one of the richest countries in the world, and it’s got the transport infrastructure of the Democratic Republic of Congo. Actually: I’m beginning to see a pattern emerge here. It would explain why public transport in America and the UK is so lousy. Chart the per capita GDP against the quality of public transportation and something funny happens: you get a bell curve. That makes sense: Liechtenstein’s public transport sucks. So does Andorra’s. And San Marino’s.
I staggered into the Tourist Information bureau to ask about buses. As Brunei was a British Protectorate until it (reluctantly) gained independence in 1984, I kinda expected a) the girl behind the counter to speak English and b) know something about the one or two public transport buses that leave the city each day.
Both assumptions were hopelessly over-optimistic and I was left badgering the surly public bus centre staff to help me out. There was a bus leaving for Seria in the west of Brunei at 3.05pm: it was going in the right direction, so I go on it.
After another ponderous journey filled with U-turns, diversions, ‘scenic routes’ past the oil refineries etc, I arrived at Seria and changed for a even-more bus to the next town along Kuala Belait (known as KB to its friends). I just had time to grab a Coke and have a quick chat with the shop keeper (from Kollam in Kerala, as it happens) before the bus pulled out of the station. It was now 5pm.
I arrived in KB and it was getting dark, the journey had again taken me all around the houses. Even though the border was just a few miles away, there was no public transport whatsoever. In a mirror of last weeks shenanigans from Miri to the border, the taxi driver wanted twenty-five quid. I managed to haggle him down to fifteen, but still, fifteen bloody quid to go less than ten miles in a country where petrol costs 20 pence a litre??
Daylight robbery. But as the cheapest hotel in KB was fifty quid a night, I didn’t have much of a choice. We raced towards the setting sun and about fifteen minutes later I was at the border.
And so was a coach.
“Where’s that going?”
“Pontianak. It leaves Bandar every day at 4pm.”
“There’s a direct bus to Pontianak, the place I need to get to on the Indonesian side of the island, from BSB?”
This is exactly the moment where, if I had the power, I would rip my Lonely Planet in two and feed it to the dogs.
WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME?????????????????
I asked the bus driver how much it would be to climb aboard. Forty quid. WHY I JUST PAID FIFTEEN TO GO A COUPLE OF MILES DOWN THE ROAD I’LL NEVER KNOW.
I paid my dues in mixture of Brunei dollars, Malaysian Ringgit and Indonesian Rupiah.
“Get me the hell out of here.”
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…!!