Days 318-348: Don’t Look Back In Anger

Days 318-348: Don’t Look Back In Anger

14.11.09-14.12.09:

Oh Graham, you tease, what’s the meaning of this, compressing an entire MONTH of gallivanting into just one blog entry? Well, truth be told if there was something of any note to tell, I would give you the Full Monty and no mistake. But as is the way of things in The Odyssey, stuff has a disgraceful habit of not going according to plan. It took me just 10 days to get from Dar es Salaam to Mauritius. It took me SEVEN WEEKS to get back.

I ran down to the port in Mahajanga bright and early on the morning of the 14th November eager to jump on the boat that was apparently leaving for Comoros. Ah yes… the boat. Try again tomorrow.

So I checked back into Chez Karon and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

The excuses were plentiful (although the one about the cyclone seems true if a little far away), but in the end I didn’t leave until the following Saturday. I’ll spare you the details, but when you think there is a chance that the boat might leave ‘tomorrow’ you end up doing nothing waiting for the damn thing, lest you’re out of town when the boat finally leaves..

Yeah, waiting for boats REALLY sucks. What else do you want to know? Although if you do find yourself stuck in Mahajanga for a few days, I seriously recommend Chez Karon. They can even organise wild-boar hunts for you, sadly for me the boar-hunting season finished at the end of October…! I’ll have to live out my Lord of the Flies fantasies some other time.

So one week to the day after I arrived in Mahajanga we set sail on the Liege (the sister ship of the good Mojangaya that brought me to Madagascar last month) and within a couple of days I had arrived back in Comoros.

Incidentally, (when it finally left) the little Liege was a treat (especially compared to that utter disgrace The Shissiwani) I had a desk with a powersocket so I could work, I got my own bed (fancy that!) and the sea was calmer than Whispering Bob Harris in a coma.

Once in Moroni, the capital of the three Comoros islands, the good Commissioner Madhi looked downcast when I told him of my plan. There are no boats, he said, not for at least a week. My heart sank. And there was worse news – the only boat going would be that DAMN Shissiwani. Things where not good.

To compliment its utter failure as a state, Comoros not only has no running water (or pubs, ATMs, bins, streetlights, backpackers, camp sites, scuba diving, container ports and international roaming networks) – it also has no CouchSurfers. Well, there is one, a guy called Hugh, but he’s on another of the three islands.

It’s hilarious that the UN even pays lip-service to Comoros’s demands that the French Island of Mayotte be ‘returned’ to them! Could you imagine?! Yeah, well, even though 99% of you want to stay with France (good call guys!), I guess we’ll just have to hand you over to the Chuckle Brothers to run the show – hell, why would you want to be a first-world country when you could be a forth-world country instead?! Those Mayottians must have taken their extra-crazy pills before THAT referendum.

Oo la la! Shall we keep this welfare state, health care provision and free schooling or shall we throw it all out the window (like a Comorian’s Trash) and work our nuts off – not for ourselves but for our disgracefully corrupt politicians to stuff their mattresses with ill-gotten Euros – in the spirit of independence?

[Cough]

Comoros is the first country I’ve been to that doesn’t even take Visa. What a joke. Even Sierra Leone takes Visa… as does Iraq, Afghanistan and even parts of Somalia. Ygads!

The first thing that you’ll notice on your arrival in Moroni (the capital) is the STENCH. There is litter EVERYWHERE. It looks like the end of a music festival, only nobody is busy clearing it up. At one point I saw some people in the back of a low loader and thought for one (idiotic) second that they were cleaning up the trash. Ha, no. They were just shovelling loose garbage off the truck and dumping it onto the side of the road. NICE! Just like London. In the middle ages.

The second thing you’ll notice is the price of everything. Seriously, it’s more expensive than Tokyo. Imagine a dirty, cobweb-filled room with a hard floor and a bed that’s second hand from the local jail (whose sheets never get cleaned unless you ask). The electrical sockets hang dangerously out of the wall as if on comedy go-go-gadget springs and the door handles fall off with gay abandon. Your ‘shower’ (not en suite, don’t be silly) is nothing more than a bucket of cold mosquito-infested water which you must scoop up in a plastic jug and pour over yourself. Of course you can forget about telly, air-con, mini-bar or room service; and breakfast – of course – is not included. The floor is so filthy that when you walk from the bucketroom to your bedroom your feet will end up so dirty you might as well have clambered Gollum-like over a coal pile. The only thing that’s complimentary are the ants. And spiders. And mosquitoes.

The price for such princely lodgings? Three Euro? Five would perhaps be a little much. Ten would be outright extortion. Fifteen would be taking the piss.

It was SIXTEEN Euro. A night. Mand and I have stayed in delightful B&Bs in Wales with a full English brekkie in the morning for less. To make matters even more frustrating, the guy who ran the place was a dick, charging me €5 for washing my t-shirts and laughing as I handed him the money for the first ten days of my incarceration.

Pension Faida is the first place mentioned in the Lonely Planet guide, but if you ever end up in Comoros (unlucky you!) please opt for the much more delightful (and shower-ific) La Grillade on the ocean road or, even better, The Jardin De La Paix nearby (I would nominate Jardin De La Paix as the best place in the whole damn island, for food and lodgings – it’s head and shoulders above the rest). But unfortunately, as well as being the nastiest, Pension Faida is the cheapest place in town.

On top of that, the beer is so expensive you can only drink half a pint a day before you blow your budget, the food is an utter rip, SIM cards are a whopping €15 (everywhere else in Africa they’re €1) and because there are no ATMs, every time you want money it’ll cost you €15 – and it’s not like you can change Comorian Francs into anything useful once you’ve left the country.

The third thing you’ll notice is that the people are rather pleasant. Yes, the service is diabolical (although still not as bad as Cape Verde – phew-eeee!) and if you get your camera out, you’ll meet a lot of angry women (and police – I did), but that aside, there are a lot of good people in Comoros. I never felt conscious about my stuff and was happy to leave my laptop out in the cafe while I went for a burst – it was that kinda place.

I didn’t entirely waste my three weeks on the island from hell. I attempted to climb the volcano – by all accounts the biggest active volcano in the world – but gave up LIKE A BIG FAT WUSS an hour from the summit. After doing bugger-all for the preceding few weeks, clambering up a mighty big volcano at four in the morning had it’s charms, but within an hour I had pulled a muscle in my leg and BLAH BLAH BLAH face it Graham, you wussed out, you wuss. SILENCE INNER DEMON. Ha! You wussed out ‘cos you’re ginger and you’re a quitter.

I AM NOT A QUITTER.

Then why’d yer quit?

MY LEG HURT!! I WALKED FOR FIVE HOURS UPHILL WITH A SORE LEG!!

Anybody else wanna quit?

I ALSO WALKED BACK DOWN FOR FIVE HOURS WITH A BLOODY SORE LEG (AND POSSIBLE SUNSTROKE) YOU BASTARD!

Saddle up people. We’ve got quitters to bury.

OH GET LOST!

After my ordeal on the volcano (I, unlike Sam and Frodo, was not rescued by giant eagles) I spent the proceeding four days picking strips off my sunburnt face, which is strangely satisfying. Like popping bubble wrap. Or bludgeoning Bono to death with his own legs.

After ten days in the BLOODY AWFUL Pension Faida, I took my new-found English buddy Gemma’s advice and checked out the Itsandra Hotel, 4km north of Moroni. The Itsandra Hotel is the best hotel on the island (although that’s a barbed compliment). I found myself a spot at the bar to indulge in my nefarious internet deeds. Ahh, nice views, lovely staff, private beach and free Wi-Fi. Bliss. Two drawbacks – the internet was slower than Steven Hawkins climbing a treacle staircase and the beer was €3 for a half. WHAT THE HELL IS WRONG WITH THIS PLACE??

Finding myself homeless, I was taken in my a friendly local called Yaya, who was learning English. He was a top dude and even let me take his bed while he slept on the floor. But like all Comorians, (except the ones in power, of course) he was dirt poor – the government has not paid his wages for eight months. YOU HEAR THAT MAYOTTE? YOU SEE WHAT YOU’RE MISSING YOU CHEESE EATING SURRENDER MONKEYS?!! Now stop behaving like a spoilt brat and come join the povvo fun.

Yaya’s home was in desperate need of some TLC, but you know these guys are great – they just get on with it. I don’t think I could hack it. But then, what’s the alternative? Oh yeah, right – there is none.

The next day, Fanja, one of the guys who worked at the Itsandra Hotel, took me under his wing and I learnt an important lesson in life: YOU’RE NOT DEAD UNTIL JEAN CLAUDE VAN DAMME KICKS YOU IN THE FACE.

He can shoot you as many times as he likes, you’ll be okay, you’ll still be standing. He can set you on fire, chop your head off, pull your guts out and through them on the floor, but you ain’t going down until he does his roundhouse kick to your FACE! THEN YOU’RE GOING DOWN BITCH!! You hear me? YOU. ARE. GOING. DOWN.

I ended up staying with Fanja for the best part of a week in his one room shack in the ramshackle village/slum next to the Itsandra Hotel. It was a blast and we watched far too many crap action movies and reggae music videos for two guys who weren’t even stoned.

You see, by now I had spent all of the Euros I had taken out when I was in Reunion (canny!) and I was loath to have to go and give Western Union €15 towards an ill-deserved Christmas present just for the pleasure of removing my own money from my own bank account.

Speaking of the festive season… you know how Darth Vader knows what Luke is getting for Christmas?

That’s right! He FELT his presents.

Ah hahahahahaha..

Cracks me up every time.

Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, I was getting around to telling you about Alice, Daniel, Keith and Steph who would keep me entertained for the final week of my incarceration.

These crazies (first two were from North Carolina, Keith was from Florida and Steph was from our very own Cambridge) were all on their way to Mayotte to meet up with the boat they are due to crew on – a replica of a 2,600 year old Phoenician ship that has been built by a crazy British guy (who else?) in order to re-create the first circumnavigation of Africa.

So it’s all wood and oars and one mighty big nine-month sail. Check out their website – www.phoenicia.org.uk (and you thought ‘odyssey’ was hard to spell). Madness. Sheer madness. I love it.

Although I don’t actually know who the Phoenicians were (and neither does my spell checker) but I thought it impertinent to ask.

Alice, Daniel, Keith and I went out on a tour of the island one day, the highlight of which was the discovery that, yes, COMOROS HAS LEMURS TOO!! Woo! I meet one called Rambo. Lovely chap, invited me up his tree for a nice hot brew. The lowlight of the day was our guide, Joseph, who was so hilariously miserable he could have given Victor Meldrew a run for his money.

For the last few days I was there, Alice and Daniel (and once they left, Stephanie) allowed me to sleep on the floor in their hotel room like the dog I am.

My days on Grand Comores generally revolved around getting up bright and early, finding out how long my boat had been delayed (or that it simply wasn’t coming) and then heading up to the Itsandra Hotel to abuse that free internet connection. On the plus side, I managed to get fourteen spanking new Odyssey videos edited (much easier when you’re not sitting on a fifty year old bus with no suspension hurtling along a dirt track).

The US Navy dudes that we befriended at the Itsandra Hotel (this is a new initiative – the US are now sending troops to undeveloping nations to help small community projects, kinda like the Peace Corps, only these guys don’t play chess) treated me to dinner and even let me use their hot showers (after three weeks of cold bucket showers IT WAS BLISS).

Now I’ve made a lot of friends in Comoros, so I don’t want to slag it off too much, but when with eager eyes and undoubtable sincerity they as me if I’ll be coming back to Comoros one day with my girlfriend, I had to let them down gently. There is very little that would bring me back here – but the one thing that would certainly keep me away is the godDAMN police. As always in Africa, they are just out for one thing – to brainlessly destroy any tourism industry that might otherwise emerge. On the night I arrived (on my first visit) I was hassled by a bunch of bastard plain-clothers for my passport and, as I found out later from Gemma, had I (sensibly) left my passport in my hotel, they would have fallen over themselves to lock me up for the night. It’s a CRIME!

And I’m supposed to bring my girlfriend to such a place?!! So she too can enjoy the pleasures of an African jail? Two of Gemma’s British friends had been locked up overnight for this reason. WHAT THE ****? Are there swarms of European migrants swimming over to Comoros to abuse the non-existent welfare state? Is there a small legion of white suicide bombers planning to cause death and mayhem in Cloud Coup-Coup Land? Is it more important that everyone who comes for a visit is made to feel like a criminal than to be made to feel welcome?

It would seem so.. It kills me to say all this because, as always in Africa, it’s not the people’s fault that visiting their country for a ‘holiday’ is about as attractive a proposition as having your brains sucked out through your nose – it’s the fault of the bas***d politicians and the bas***d police who conspire to keep everyone poor and everything wretched. God I HATE them.

One day I was arrested for the crime of – get this – having a camera. Because I didn’t have a photo permit (possibly because they don’t frickin’ well EXIST) a horrible little toad-faced gendarme was trying to take me down to the airport and stick me on the next plane out of his country.. Luckily, the nice port police chaps that I had befriended calmed this nasty piece of work down. But seriously man, WTF??

I’m sorry to say this, but I won’t be back. Strike Comoros down as another nation-that-exists-but-possibly-shouldn’t along with Cape Verde and Sao Tome. Too small, too impoverished, too silly, too . The dream that began with being ‘independent’ has turned into a nightmare of poverty, isolation and a failed state held to the crappy whims of petty-minded politicians who are just out to line their own pockets.

At the end of the day, Comoros has had TWENTY-FIVE Coup d’Etats since 1975. It has no less than FOUR presidents at any one time(!) and as basketcases go, it has to be the basketcase to beat all basketcases. The port isn’t even big enough to take container ships – HOW ELSE ARE YOU SUPPOSE TO SUPPLY AN ISLAND WITH STUFF?? I hope I leave you in no state of confusion as to why 99% of the population of the ‘fourth’ island of Mayotte voted to stay with France.

In fact, rather than the UN putting pressure on France to give Mayotte ‘back’ to Comoros, I think they should be putting pressure on Comoros to return the three islands (Grand Comores, Anjouan and the other one) back to France. I’m serious. Just so you don’t think I’m some half-crazed Imperialist pigdog, can I just point out that Moroni, the capital city of Comoros, has gone without running water now for over a year. OVER A YEAR. If you think that the deranged bandits in charge deserve to get away with that kind of thing and that the people of Comoros deserve to suffer in the name of some false sense of independence, then by all means shoot me down on this one; but given the choice, if it was my country, I would want the schools, hospitals, social security, rule of law, freedom of the press, roads, railways, infrastructure, port facilities, electricity and, oh yeah, the FLOWING WATER SUPPLY that my evil French overlords would provide.

A final point: Malaria has been all but wiped out on Mayotte. On the three ‘independent’ islands it is rampant (moreso since the water was shut off – lots of lovely filthy buckets of water lying around to breed your mosquitoes in). People are dying because their government is about as much use as tits on a crocodile.

What have the Romans ever done for us indeed. Ah, Comoros, I love you to bits but my word your government needs a slap.

Country Count: 124