Day 366: That Was The Decade That Was… A Bit Crap, Actually

01.01.10:

Welcome, friends, to our newest, shiniest decade in years. And, might I say, good riddance to the old one, the rotten turnip that it was.

The decade in which being clever was a bigger faux pas than turning up at a Jewish wedding decked out in full Nazi regalia. The decade in which people BRAGGED, yes, BRAGGED about how stupid they were – and, what’s even worse, made a skip load of money doing it. The decade in which it was deemed sensible to believe in anything as long as one other nutter on the internet agreed with you. At the first point in human history when all the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the ages are available to everyone, everywhere at the touch of a button – a great leap forward in a world where knowledge is supposed to be power – we find ourselves mired in crap from the stone age about mystical vibrations, ghosts and magic. You might find this current trend towards conspiracy theories and woo! slightly incongruous, but there it is… baffling and utterly, utterly frustrating. It makes me want to puke.

Was it the worst decade ever? Nah, nowhere near as dark as the 1910s or the 1940s, but yeah it was pretty bad. It started with a damp fart as the poor old Queen lit a torch with ‘British Gas’ emblazoned all over it and it went downhill from there. From September 11th to the Boxing Day Tsunami to the Credit Crunch, the last ten years have been several shades of awful. Russell Brand, Pete Doherty, Amy Whitehouse (amongst others) did their level best to make me want to vomit up my own legs in disgust.

Big Brother proved that all you needed to do to make a fortune was to have no discernible talent and the X-Factor showed us just how little discernible talent many people have. The decade that gave us Heat magazine, ‘showbiz’ news shoehorning itself into real current affairs programming and a manic obsession with celebrity bordering on chasing them through the park wearing night-vision goggles. The decade that allowed a bumpkin like George W. Bush run the most powerful nation on Earth (and run it into the ground!). The decade that saw our human rights curtailed because of terrorists whose M.O. is… to curtail human rights. And the decade in which we lost Douglas Adams, John Peel, Tony Wilson, Richard Harris and Arthur C. Clarke. Humph.

Musically, after a slow start (Travis and Stereophonics, urgh) we had a high in the mid-noughties with the likes of Arcade Fire, Arctic Monkeys, Futureheads, Sigur Ros, Bloc Party, We Are Scientists and Guillemots rucking up and showing the kids how to have fun. Although while it’s not illegal to tout gig tickets, the chances of your average 14-year old being able to afford to see his or her favourite band is slim to none. Thanks a lot, eBay.

Cinematically, the noughties were dreadful. Apart from a few bright shiny stars (The Lord of the Rings Trilogy for one) all we had to chose from were a procession of terrible Star Wars films, painfully bad Matrix films, naff Harry Potter clones and a disgraceful number of comic-book adaptations. No Pulp Fiction, no Shawshank, no Being John Malkovich, no Fight Club… Quentin Tarantino disappointed us all with his lackluster Kill Bill movies and his utterly cack Death Proof before finishing off the decade with the meh-fest that was Inglorious Basterds. Martin Scorscese finally won an Oscar, not for Taxi Driver, Raging Bull or Goodfellas, but for a mediocre adaptation of Infernal Affairs that could have been shot by Tony Scott whilst recovering from a particularly rampant hangover.

Indeed, the sheer cacophony of cack that was spewed forth by the likes of Brett ‘I’ll do it!’ Ratner, Michael ‘Boom!’ Bay and McG (his name alone makes me want to punch him) was an insult to the English-speaking world. The Coens finally fumbled the ball with Intolerable Cruelty and the desperately pointless remake of the Ladykillers (although No Country was a cracking return to form) and Harrison ‘can do no wrong’ Ford didn’t have a single quality film in ten years. And in possibly the low point in the decade, the job of adapting the first part of His Dark Materials was given to the guy who co-directed American Pie. I kid you not.

But there was a redeeming feature of the noughties (and it certainly wasn’t its moniker) – American television. Wow. Like, seriously, wow. Let me just prostrate myself on the altar of America’s golden age of the goggle box: E.R., Friends and Buffy laid the groundwork, but it was the likes of Lost, Six Feet Under, The West Wing, The Sopranos, The Wire, House, 24, Deadwood, Mad Men, Weeds, Carnivale, Heroes, Curb Your Enthusiasm, My Name Is Earl, Family Guy, Futurama, Prison Break and Battlestar Galactica that smacked the ball out of the stadium.

If you didn’t sob rivers in the closing scenes of Six Feet Under, scream at the telly as Tony Soprano blinked out of our lives, lose control of your lower jaw when the island disappeared in Lost or squirt beer out of your nose when Peter Griffin ended up sleeping with Bill Clinton you should go see a doctor – I think you might well be dead.

And yes, credit where credit is due – I personally have one thing to thank the noughties for: Ten years ago, I would have had difficulty entering the following countries: Colombia, Ukraine, Moldova, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Cote d’Ivoire, Niger, Congo, DR Congo, Angola, Uganda, Rwanda, Burundi, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka and East Timor. But although war is by no means over, many individual wars are. I can now travel though nearly every country on the planet in complete safety, although I have to admit Eritrea is giving me a bit of a headache.

I don’t think anyone is going to look back on the opening decade of the 21st century as a glorious age, from Bush stealing the presidency in Florida to our scientifically illiterate representatives stealing our futures in Copenhagen, but that is the past. Obama is now president of the US, Gordon Brown will be out on his ear come May and Big Brother has been axed. The future’s bright my friends – welcome to 2010.

After a lazy morning and a delightful lunch I wrapped up my television contract with some hilariously terrible taglines (I had real trouble saying them with a straight face) outside Cairo coach station. Mand and I said our goodbyes to Matt the cameraman and soon we were on our way to Hurghada. In typically Egyptian fashion, they handed out food on the coach (as they do on many coaches from DR Congo to El Salvador) but unlike every other coach I have ever taken, failed to inform us that we would have to pay for the food once we arrived at our destination. Ha!

It was a bit late to visit Lorna when we got to Hurghada, so we elected to check into our hotel (urgh, I hate hotels, but they sometimes have their uses), grab a bite to eat and settle down for an early night. The weird thing was that it really didn’t feel like a year since I last saw the Mandster – it felt as if I saw her last week. Last year did not fly by for me by any means, but I guess it was such a surreal experience that my brain has decided it was all a fanciful dream and twisted my temporal perception accordingly. I don’t want to have another year of this though, I better get this nonsense finished quick smart – but first I’m going to have a week off. Odyssey Two starts Sunday January 10th 2010.

Day 426: Floods and Ruins

02.03.10:

Dja recommended that I try at the Algerian Embassy here in Tunis. I wasn’t optimistic, but any port in a storm and all that. The guys on the border reckoned I could ‘easily’ extend the visa for free. I believed that as far as I could spit. I spent a good hour in a taxi fighting through the traffic going to the wrong place (the Algerian consulate moved last month!) and eventually, at 10.30am, I was at the embassy waving my passport about and pleading for an extension. It expired on my birthday, for heaven’s sake… my birthday!!

I was left waiting for an hour or so, and then I was told I needed a hotel booking, so I headed over to the café across the road and prayed that they had wireless. To my immense relief, they did. Lindsey Bennett, my most excellent chum from my schooldays, was conveniently visiting Mandy in Oz, and she speaks much better French than I, so I found the hotels on the internet and set her loose on them. It took an absolute AGE, but eventually, we had email confirmation from a hotel in Annaba, the first big city after the Algerian border. By this point, Claire, who was only working half day, had finished work and had come to meet me (work just being around the corner – you see, sometimes the island conspires to help me out) and so we rushed over to her school and got the hotel reservation printed out (god knows how I would have done that without Claire).

I presented my reservation, passport size photos and photocopies. The lady in the embassy told me to come back tomorrow and ‘a decision will be made’. It sounded ominous.

I knew from bitter experience that the Algerians will not dole out visas unless you’re a resident here. I hoped against hope that they would make an exception for me, since my visa only expired 48 hours ago. I did not like the idea of a decision being made any more than Doug likes the cone of shame.

So Claire and I had an afternoon in Tunis with nought-else to do and so I suggested a little trip to Carthage, the third great city state of the Med, forming a trading/fighting partnership with Ancient Rome and Athens. It was a fairly short trip on the train, but I (sadly) must report that, just like the Temple of Artimus at Ephesus, there ain’t much left to see. But squint your eyes, use a bit of imagination and maybe you’ll see it as it was before the Romans razed the place to the ground and then (for good measure) sew salt into the Earth so nothing would grow.

We were on top of a large hill overlooking the harbour, which was once housed a circular colonnaded dock with a smaller covered boat depot in the centre, also circular, with long thin wooden vessels sticking out the middle like bicycle spokes. The city would have risen up via shops, dwellings, bath-houses and amphitheatres until it reached the now-ruined palace in which we now stood and as perhaps Hannibal once stood before setting out with his army of elephants to cross the Alps and eating a census-takers liver.

Just imagine for a moment what it must have been like for the hapless Romans when this brilliant nutter turned up on the Northern Frontier with a load of elephants looking for a fight and you’d never seen an elephant before. I don’t know about you, but the last thing I’d do is get all Legolas on Dumbo’s ass – I’d run for the hills and hope they couldn’t climb trees.

So after a quick scan around the museum (as always I love the sculpture, hate the broken bits of pottery) we headed back to Tunis. Claire had to go teach her night-class, but as she had a hot shower in her gaff (Dja didn’t) she let me use the facilities while she was away. Bad move! The place was a one-room dwelling and as such I managed to flood her entire flat! You see when you take your glasses off to have a shower, you can’t see too well and you really can’t see that the water is leaking out all place, and when you notice that the water isn’t draining as it should, it’s already too late. Nightmare!

So I did my best to mop the mess up and sheepishly opened up my laptop to check my emails and read the news.

What THE HELL?

“BBC to Axe 6music.”

What? Seriously, WHAT?

A few months ago, I was invited to a facebook group called “help save 6music!” or something. I dismissed it out of hand, wary of the far too many daffy emails saying that hotmail/Wikipedia/the child abuse section of the South African police force/the UN was being shut down and that only my digital Hancock at the bottom of the list could save it from oblivion.

But there it was on the BBC website: my favourite radio station, BBC 6music is to close. At first I thought I was seeing things. Maybe my brain was just aching from all the Algerian nonsense, I don’t know. But there it was, unarguable… the BBC were going to close down 6music.

ARE THEY MAD?!

It would seem so. The thing is this: there is no alternative radio station to 6music. There are awful local commercial stations that provide a decent alternative to the chundering ego-fest of bad DJs and worse music that is Radio 1. There are local BBC stations, such as Radio Merseyside, that might as well be called Radio 2 and a bit. Radio 3 is in direct competition with Classic FM and Radio 5live covers the same ground as every talk radio station in the realm.

But what of BBC 6music – the ‘alternative’ music station? The truth is that there is no alternative, I guess that’s why we call it the alternative station. I suppose Xfm or MTV2 back in the 90s could have held a torch to it, but these days, forget it – the only British radio station that plays the music I like (and I like a lot of music) is Radio 6.

Apparently, this is to save money, all the £8,000,000 a year that is spent to keep things up and running. Don’t forget – the BBC pays a blanket fee each year to PPS and PRS so they can use all the copyrighted music they want, that money just goes on wages and production costs. A bargain if you ask me – it breaks down to less than £1,000 an hour of broadcast. Compare that to, say, EastEnders, and you’re easily looking at £1,000,000 for each hour of broadcast.

Go figure.

Anyway, the BBC are now going to have one hell of a fight on their hands, on the day of the announcement 100,000 people joined the facebook group to get this dumb decision overturned.

What’s funny is that if the beeb suddenly announced it was closing the BBC3 television channel, I reckon the facebook protest group would consist of about ten people and a lost dog. I can’t see too many people having their nose put out of joint at the loss of such must-see TV as “Snog, Marry, Avoid?”, “Three Non-Blondes”, “My Penis and Me” and an utterly superfluous repeat of that night’s Eastenders.

Anyway, if you’re not from the UK, I guess you won’t have a clue what I’m on about, but if you head over to bbc.co.uk/6music, you might get a hint at how much this plucky little radio station has become a national institution in less than a decade. If you are from the UK, please join the facebook group.

Whilst I was still Raging against the Machine, Claire returned to the flat with a young student who was getting some extra English tuition as I walked over to the front door to let them in my foot went SPLOSH into a rather large puddle of water that I had somehow missed when I was cleaning up earlier. God, how embarrassing. I apologised profusely to Claire and then got out while the going was good.

Day 441: Politics & Modern History

17.03.10:

So after yesterday’s half-crazied shenanigans, I found myself kicked off the bus at 6am in the MIDDLE OF NOWHERE somewhere in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. The sky was firing sleet down and the wind chill was making my face freeze. There was a large concrete roundabout under a large concrete overpass. I tried to hide under the shelter of the nearby tumbledown fleamarket while I consulted my iPod Touch to find my barings, but since it takes a good minute and a half to refresh a quarter of a page of a pdf (and I thought my ZX81 was slow) I got moved on by the gruff security guard before I could find them. Hapless and out of ideas, I jumped in a taxi and headed to the main train station. Hopefully I’d find a 24 hour cafe, and I did.

Shivering, wet and cold, the pot of tea that I bought was a total lifesaver. I got out my laptop and sussed out where the hell I had to be next.

VISAS, SCHMIZERS!!

So, having gained entry to the mythical land of Azerbaijan I was now faced with the challenge of getting into Central Asia. The land of hellish visa regulations – letters of invitation, registration dockets, GBOA permits (whatever the hell they are), you name it, they want it and, if you’re unlucky, they’ll take their merry time about it too.

Yes, I’ve got an Iranian visa, but it’s a one-entry affair and I need to cross Iran to get to Kuwait next month. So the only option is to take a ferry across the Caspian Sea, one to Turkmenistan and one to Kazakhstan. The Turkmenistan one goes pretty much every day whereas the one to Kazakhstan goes when it feels like – and that’s usually once every 10 days or so. Obviously, it would be better for me to go to Turkmenistan, but it is the HARDEST place in the world (or at least joint equal to Saudi Arabia and North Korea) to get into. Just getting a transit visa takes at least two weeks, maybe three. A tourist visa requires a guide (that you have to pay for) and a set itinerary, which would mean private transportation – not something that lies within The Odyssey guidelines.

So my best bet is to get a Kazakhstan visa and wait for the ferry. I could be in Baku a loooooong time.

So as soon as it opened, I arrived at the Kazakhstani embassy having just about sussed out the Baku underground system. As with most embassies around the world (and the staircases in Harry Potter) it had moved for no apparent reason other than to MESS WITH MY HEAD, so I ended up taking a taxi, but the lady inside was nice and spoke good English. My guidebook said that I should be able to get the visa same day. My guidebook was wrong. It would be Friday at 4pm. Two days away.

That REALLY stuffs things up for me. I also need to pick up my visa for Uzbekistan, which I’ve organised through the wonderful folk at Stantours. Considering the Kazakhstani embassy is only open for a couple of hours in the morning, I’m not holding my breath for the Uzbek embassy holding the hours I require to make a quick exit. In short, I could be in Baku a loooooong time.

Having left my passport at the embassy, I walked back to the nearest metro station – and just happened to find myself EXACTLY where the bus has dropped me off several hours earlier when things were much darker and colder. Now it was just about bareably freezing. I found a dirty little cafe and settled in for a few hours updating my blog and attempting to organise my GPS logs into something usable (I may have failed).

Unfortunately, the cafe was monster cold as some workmen were fixing the door (and making a hell of a racket about it) so it wasn’t the most pleasent of introductions to Baku, especially not when they charged me a good seven quid for a crappy kebab and a cup of tea. But it was good as a base of operations until I sussed out what I was going to do next.

The two people that had offered to allow me to CouchSurf in their gaffs could now no longer host me – Jamil, the hero of the Istanbul Letter of Invitation, was leaving for a holiday in Russia on Friday and Nick the Aussie guy had invited somebody else to CouchSurf (he thought I was staying at Jamil’s). Luckily enough, Nick’s Surfer couldn’t make it, so ol’ Dead Man’s Hughes strikes again and biff bash boff I had a place to stay.

Damn good news – the cheapest hostel here is a whopping $25 a night.

So I arranged to meet Nick at the huuuuuuge statue of Nariman Narimanov (a famous Azeri poet, apparently) in the west of Central Baku. It was a hell of a hike up the hill from the Metro station, but bloomin’ eck it was worth it – don’t let the skanky suburbs fool you, the centre of Baku is stunning. More sandstone building than you can shake a stick at and they’ve all been recently renovated (Baku was the epicentre of the world first oil boom), I was in love. If only it wasn’t so damn expensive. Or difficult to get into. Or so far away.

I met Nick at 4pm and we went to his flat. I had decided to hold off finding out which day the ferry to Kazakhstan left until the next day, the weather was just too beastly. Nick works for BP and he used to go to the same uni as Mandy’s sister. He also has an AMAZING flat. He’s off to Pakistan in a few days and his girlfriend wants to see him as much as possible before he goes, so I was left to make my own kind of music tonight. It wasn’t until I logged on the internet that I realised it was St. Patricks Day. Completely forgot! This time last year I was in Key West, Florida. You’ve come a long way baby.

So I made plans with Jamil and we headed to Finnigans, the Irish pub (THERE’S ALWAYS AN IRISH PUB). Luckily for all of us who like our booze, the Azeris, while nominally muslim, don’t seem to give two hoots about the usual prohibition that makes Libya and Saudi such dull places. I had only just got to the bar before a guy from Florida bought me a Guinness, followed quickly by another courtesy of Jamil.

Soon enough I was sitting with a couple of Azeris, Alex and Lala, and a top Irish bloke called Don was getting them in. Jamil had to leave early as he had work in the morning, but Alex, Lala, Don and I stayed until chucking out time. Now Azerbaijan, being an oil state, follows many of the rules of a typical oil state. First up, it’s far too expensive (see: Norway, Angola, Libya), secondly, the government is not renowned for tolerating opposition (see: Angola, Equatorial Guinea, Saudi, Venezuela Libya etc.) and thirdly, the son of the last guy is now in charge (see: Gabon, Brunei, and just about everywhere in the Middle East). This, understandably pisses the good people of Azerbaijan off (especially if they side with the opposition). So what happens if you oppose the government here? Well, you get thrown in jail or shot. End of.

See my blog entry ‘George Lucas Syndrome’ to see where you end up if you stifle all opposition to your ideas. Jar Jar frickin Binks.

Anyways, we ended up walking Don back to his hotel, Lala back to her flat and me back to Nick’s. I found myself torn – I really love the architecture here, but why does this sort of stuff alway have to go hand in hand with oppression damnit?

You know, I almost let myself believe that Azerbaijan was one place in the world in which the incessant political meddling and game-playing could be for once be landed squarely at the door of the Russians and Persians – not the British (whose political machinations effectively invented over half the world’s nation states) for once, but no – I love the line from the history of Baku section in the Lonely Planet “…[in 1918] a secret British force sailed in from Iran to help them ‘defend’ the city (well, OK, the oilfields) against the Turks (Britain’s WWI enemies).”

Ah, nice to see some things never change…

“Britain has no perpetual enemies, only perpetual interests” – Lord Palmerstone.

But aside from that doomed military adventure (them plucky Brits ended up shipping back out under cover of darkness!) Britain tended to keep its sticky beak out of the Caucasus – no frickin’ wonder – the regional politics of this area are madder than a hatter in a hat factory.

So you’ve got your three main countries – Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. After that it gets complicated, so pay attention.

There’s three more quasi-independent nations within the Caucasus – Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh. Yeah, “Nagorno-Karabakh”: it just rolls of the tongue, doesn’t it? In short, they have been the source of a metric ton of tension and violence in the region. Russia, still bristling from the recognition by the US of Kosovo as a independent nation decided to back Abkhazia and South Ossetia’s claims for independence from Georgia resulting in the brief war (more Mini-Me vs. Goliath than David) that dominated the news in 2008. What’s the problem? In short, the Abkhazians speak Welsh instead of Georgian while the South Ossentians are dominated by ethnic Russians moved there by (guess who?) The Russians!

You see the dexterously sinister symmetry played out here? Kosovo was once part of Serbia. Lots of ethnic Albanians settled there, but while that area was all Yugoslavia it didn’t seem to matter, but once Tito’s commie adventure drew to it’s inevitable (and bloody) conclusion (did nobody suss that the term ‘Balkanisation’ came from – er – the Balkans BEFORE the Balkans Balkanised in the 1990s) things had changed. Slobberdown Melon-Chavic and his cronies saw that the population of the Kosovo region of Serbia was overwhelmingly ethnic Albanian or, to put it more succinctly, Muslim. This didn’t make him happy, so he devised a cunning scheme to rid Kosovo of its burgeoning Islamic population – it was called operation ‘KILL THEM ALL’.

The morally-bankrupt organisation of international gangsters and bastards we call the UN had turned two blind eyes to this kind of thing in Rwanda in 1994 and Melon-Chavic was counting on them doing the same again. AND THEY DID!

Whoop-whoop, another own goal for the UN, methinks. I can’t stress this to strongly enough – as yet undiscovered phosphorescent life living off the sulphur deposits of thermal vents two kilometres below the surface of the ocean have a better grasp of morality and ethics than the United Nations.

Luckily for the Kosovans, there’s a little club called NATO that doesn’t have to do what the UN thinks is best for the world (which, generally speaking, is to do nothing about anything ever) and so NATO set about bombing bridges in Novi Sad, which made it really difficult for all the people at Serbia’s Exit Festival to get back to their tents on the other side of the Danube. Justifiably angered by this, the festival-goers marched into the capital and hung Mr. Melon-Chavic from a lamppost. Kinda.

Now Russia has been getting upset about anybody (but them) diddling about with the Balkans since Archie Duke got shot by someone with a black hand in 1914, and the notion of having to stand by while the bruised and battered Kosovo (somewhat justifiably) asserted its independence from bullyboy Serbia was all a bit much for them and in classic Great Game style, they turned their attention to Abkhazia and South Ossetia. If they could prise them from Georgia, it would be Russia 2, NATO 1.

Look, if there’s a good reason for it, I’m all for countries going their own way – Somaliland and East Timor are a damn fine examples, as is Kosovo (they were being massacred!) but in some cases, such as Scotland, the Basque country, Quebec, you’ve really got to wonder… what the hell is wrong with these people? Are their children being stolen in the night by their evil overlords? Are they being forced to dress up in chicken costumes and parade around on the streets making cluck-cluck noises? Nope. They just happen to speak a different language to other people in their country. In Scotland, it’s not even a different language – it’s just a different bleedin’ accent.

We might as well call for independence for all people with a lisp. Or give deaf people their own country – I mean, after all, are they not speaking (signing) another language?

And what’s so great about independence eh? Cape Verde, Sao Tome and Comoros have been independent since the 1970s and they still so completely dependent on the condescension of others it’s almost silly. Like a beggar waxing lyrical about how great it is to pay no taxes before huddling from the icy winter gales in a shop doorway, independence is not all it’s cracked up to be. You have to pay for your own president(s), army, police force, customs, postal service, embassies in every other bleedin’ country in the world, politicians, UN reps, fire service, hospitals, schools, roads, drains, sewage systems, ports, coast guards, bureaucrats, judges, district attorneys, electrical grid, power stations… it all seems too much like hard work to me. Hence you should have a damn good reason for breaking from the motherland like eek! It’s Somalia! – and I’m sorry, but having another language does not cut the mustard.

Now, where was I? Oh yeah, Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Yeah, they’re now being run by Russia. Lucky them. I’d take tattooed mobsters, hilariously miserable prostitutes and soulless oligarchs over the laid-back Georgians any day.

My advice to Georgia? Let it go. You’re not going to get Russia to back down. Rehouse your refugees and join the EU. Soon you’ll be easyjetting it off to Paris every weekend to buy stilettos while your daffy former countrymen languish in the third world and have to pay protection fees to whatever Russian racket is currently terrorising their community. They’ve made their bed, let them lie in it (and then watch with glee when Abkhazia grows tired of its humourless masters and breaks Russia’s heart by attempting to join the EU as well) – Peter The Great was Great because he turned to the West, not the East. For all our foibles we must be doing something right.

As for that firm of Central Asian lawyers, Nagorno-Karabakh (did you forget about them?!), it was once a region of Azerbaijan but in fit of patriotic fervour back in the late eighties Armenia decided that they wanted it on the grounds that Armenians lived there (Brothers! Let’s take New England back!) and launched an incredibly brutal offensive to annex it off their Azerbaijani neighbours while the international community (as usual) was busy filing its nails.

Now I’m not saying that Armenia didn’t have a decent argument. Nagorno-Karabakh was (and is even moreso now) overwhelmingly Christian, and Azerbaijan, for all its beer-guzzling ways is nominally Muslim. This being the case, and the fact that the majority of Nagorno-Karabakh people regard themselves as Armenian (unsurprising considering it was part of Armenia until Stalin decided to hand it to Azerbaijan in the 1920s), you can (kinda) see their point, even if (like me) you can’t understand why people of faith can’t just – you know, get along. But what the Armenians did was out of order. When Nagorno-Karabakh declared its independence from Azerbaijan, Armenia’s army waded in and used it as an excuse to chuck out all the native Azeri people living in both Nagorno-Karabakh AND Armenia – a not insignificant figure – 200,000 people. The resultant war (1989-1994) killed a further 30,000 people. As for the future, I can’t see Nagorno-Karabakh ever being independent, it’s more likely to be officially integrated into Armenia – Nagorno-Karabakh does have a ‘president’, but he’s little more than a regional governor – a puppet for the Armenian government in Yerevan.

Phew!

The upshot of all this is that you can’t get into Armenia from Turkey or Azerbaijan, you can’t get into Georgia from Russia and you can’t get into Azerbaijan from Armenia or Russia. Nagorno-Karabakh can only be accessed from Armenia, but if you have a Nagorno-Karabakh stamp in your passport you can’t get into Azerbaijan. Despite still being regarded as laying within Georgia by the international community (save Russia and a couple of oddballs), Abkhazia and South Ossetia can now only be accessed from Russia. Like I said, it’s all very complicated and I hope this goes some way to explain why I’m not bothering with Nagorno-Karabakh, Abkhazia or South Ossetia on this journey – I honestly can’t see any of them becoming independent nations any time soon, and personally doubt whether any of them really could. Nagorno-Karabakh will (eventually) be absorbed into Armenia and the likelihood of Russia really allowing Abkhazia or South Ossetia true autonomy is, in my opinion, a pipe dream – see nearby Chechnya for details.

Day 514: Cyclic Redundancy Check

29.05.10:

UAE: I arrived in Dubai at precisely three hours later than the bus company promised, but that just meant three hours more kip… which is never to be sniffed at. Dubai is pretty hot, especially when you have a backpack and a leather jacket tied around your waist – I was just asking for trouble… I frantically texted Damien, Helen Power’s mate in Dubai who had generously offered his couch for me to sully for a couple of days. Incidentally, I am thoroughly convinced that Helen should change the name of her house to Greyskull, for reasons to obvious to document here.

Damien (I would find out later) was nursing the mother of all hangovers and therefore in no fit state to text back, so I spotted a nearby Subway and thought sod it and sat there for a couple of hours finally polishing off these blogs I keep forgetting I have to write (least I incur the wrath of a particularly sexy pole dance teacher).

I know it’s no excuse, but I just can’t seem to write my blogs when I’m stuck somewhere… I need to be moving to get the creative juices flowing…

So anyways, I got my scribblings and musings up to date and headed out into the midday sun like all mad dogs and Englishmen have a habit of doing. Walking around ‘old’ Dubai was a treat – I thought that Dubai was this sterile Las Vegas nightmare of Demolition Man proportions, but head to the Deira district and you’re slapbang in the Middle East, mate – no messing about. Okay, the wooden boats that cross the nearby creek are I little kitchy, but as far as the sights and sounds and smells are concerned, this place dumps from a great height on the neat-n-tidy (and therefore humourless) Souk in Kuwait or the Disneyfied ‘old’ Souk in Qatar (hilariously demolished, reconstructed out of concrete then demolished again and rebuilt to look like the old one).

I keep telling you this, but I don’t think the message is getting through to the Powers That Be™ – you can’t impose a fun and interesting community down from above… these things have to grow organically… life isn’t Sim City.

As for the rest of Dubai, well, we might as well be living in a bubble on Mars. A city of the future imagined by a sci-fi addled child of the 70s. Most of the buildings look like toys, the twentieth century love affair with all things concrete shows no signs of abating and, well, it just doesn’t have the grit and determination that marks the cities of the world that I love. Can things be too clean?

That’s not to underplay Dubai’s achievements, such as the Burj Khalifa, which is by far the tallest building in the world and thankfully understands its purpose as a TOWER (ie, it tapers towards the sky, unlike the Twin Towers (unimaginative boxes that they were), any high rise ever built in Blighty (urgh) or that utter abomination in Manchester that actually gets THICKER towards the top. Jesus wept.

So Dubai, first impressions… I kinda like you. I’d like you more if you were a bit grubbier, but I guess that’s just me. At least you have the Deira district to remind me I’m still in the Middle East and at least you are prepared to gamble on crazy projects (such as The Palm and The World). We need more filthy rich people who are up for doing crazy stuff. Britain tries to be wacky, innovative and novel and what do we get? The ****ing Olympics logo…

And, even worse, the Olympic mascots…

Oh my giddy aunt.

Designed, no doubt, by a team of cretinous cretins from the planet Kretin exiled to Earth by the galactic warlord Kretinus the Cretin for being too cretinous for even the great Kretin empire to contain.

So for the restrained stupidity of Dubai, I salute you. Mid-afternoon, after mooching around the kooks and souks for a couple of hours, Damien finally raised himself from the dead and texted me back. I grabbed a taxi to his gaff, cutting through the business district on the way and making up my mind that the Burj Khalifa gets the thumbs up from me… does this mean I’m losing my pithy hatred of all things concrete? Not on your nelly. The Liver Buildings in Liverpool are made (internally) of concrete and I love them. As I opined in Azerbaijan, I don’t care what rotten slop you construct your building out of, as long as I don’t have to see the damn stuff.

Concrete is a little like your innards.  I’m sure they are critical to your prolonged success at staying alive, but I’d be more than a little miffed if you flopped them out at the dinner table.

So I found myself meeting up with the fabled Damien of Dubai and within a couple of hours we found ourselves where all northerners are bound to end up given half the chance… the pub. Damo originally hails from the Yorkists, but spent many years in Manchester so I guess in the Battle of Bosworth, he’d be that guy who sat on the sidelines, scoped out who was winning and joined them. Which (perhaps) explains why he supports Liverpool.

Even though the only ship never to dock in Liverpool is the Premiership etc.

We went to some beachy-drinky affair, but Saturday night might as well be Sunday night round these parts (the weekend in Arabia is Fri/Sat, not Sat/Sun) and the place was pretty much dead. Which didn’t give the Kiwis who were remarkably rude to me an excuse – if you’d care to peruse my League of Nations, you’ll see that New Zealand is now rubbing shoulders with the likes of Congo and Cape Verde. Be warned you natives – when you talk to an outlander, you speak for your nation. Be nice.

Day 584: The Bombay Boo-Boo

08.08.10:

Grr.  Sometimes your Lonely Planet can literally save your life, other times it can make your life a misery.  Today it was a case of the latter.  I got up, it was a nice quiet Sunday – well, quiet for Bombay – and I thought I’d have a nice little meander around Colaba, down to The Gateway of India and then up to Churchgate station – the place I needed to buy my train ticket for tonight’s train.

Da Gateway

It would be midday before I got to Churchgate, but there was no hurry – according to the Lonely Planet, the train I wanted left at 11.40pm.

According to Indian Railways, however, the train I wanted left at 11.40AM.

I looked at my watch.  Half an hour ago?  You HAVE to be kidding.

Luckily there was another train heading down to Kerala state (the very south west of the nation) at 3.50pm, so I bought my ticket for that instead.  Indian trains are like easyjet – they are so remarkably cheap, you really have nothing to complain about.  Take this for instance – my journey down to Kerala would take 37 hours and cover over 1000 miles.  It cost less than a tenner.

Less than a tenner!

Whoosh!  After being stuck in the most expensive city in the world for a month, India is a real breath of fresh air.  I may be forced to smack the first backpacker I see haggling over a 10rupee taxi fare.

So it was off to the grand Victoria Terminus train station, a testament to the utter brilliance of architects and engineers from back in the day.  To say that India hasn’t managed to build a single building of note since independence would be a tangible fact, but it has nothing to do with the departure of the British and everything to do with timing – let’s face it, since 1947 no country ON EARTH has built a single thing that I would dive in front of a wrecking ball to protect.

When you look at this:

Lovely.

And then you look at your bog-standard bargain basement could-be-anywhere international airport:

Loveless.

No excuses can possibly suffice.  It would be like trying to explain why this tasteless Vegas tack:

Love-a-duck!

(which wouldn’t look out of place outside a municipal shopping mall in Scunthorpe)

Is in the courtyard of the greatest art gallery in the world.  Go on – explain it to me, I dares yer.  And you’re not going to win by saying it stimulates debate.  The holocaust stimulates debate, it does not make it an intrinsically ‘good’ thing.  When I gaze on a building I don’t want to start a debating society, I want to see beauty, love, emotion and happiness rendered in locally-sourced wood, brick and stone.

Anyway, most people aren’t really up for a debate on the street when they’re already late for work.

Don’t forget, India is the home of the Taj – the building that ruined me.  Up to the day I visited the Taj I was prepared to give the soulless concrete holes the benefit of the doubt (I guess we need to keep counting them pennies… so we can spend them on the important stuff – you know, oil and war…), but since looking on that monument of human imagination, dexterity and endeavour… what can I say?  Everything the human race has built in the last 60 years has been awful, just simply, completely, utterly and irredeemably awful.

Bombay has some absolutely cracking colonial architecture, though – the art-deco stuff is particularly worth checking out.  Sadly, much of it is in desperate need of restoration.  Where’s Griff Rhys Jones when you need him??

Deco'd out to the nines.

I clambered on board the S3 sleeper class carriage of the 6381 service to Kanyakumari, the Land’s End of India.  I thought it was to arrive tomorrow morning…  I didn’t check the small print.  It was due to arrive the day after tomorrow morning.

Eek!

All aboard!!

Peeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep!!

Chugchugchugchugchugchugchug…

Day 659: Gods And Monsters

21.10.10:

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.

Two reasons:

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 😉

Day 692: The Moral Landscape

23.11.10:

What’s worse than having to get up at 5am for a bus?  The bus turning up at your hotel twenty minutes early!  And then beeping REALLY LOUDLY, waking everybody in the neighbourhood up.  Well, possibly not, the people of Indonesia have such an amazingly high tolerance of noise, you’d swear they must be deaf.  It might be an idea to ship all those whiney tossers who buy houses on the Heathrow flight path or apartments above city centre nightclubs (and then, predictably, moan about the noise) to one of these 17,000 islands and fill Britain’s noisiest homes with Indonesians.

Completely unprepared, I sleepily threw all my stuff in my bags like Winona Rider looting a Chinese laundry.  I fell back asleep as soon as I clambered onboard and didn’t really wake up until we reached the border at noon – all I can tell you is that my driver drove too frickin’ fast.  The next Brit who moans to me about speed cameras might well get a slap.  Rogering my watch one hour forward, I got stamped out of Indonesia and marched triumphant over the border.

And thus I was in EAST TIMOR: my 50th country of this year.  By jingo, this time last year I had done 124.  Rubbish, Graham – must try harder.  But at least I only have 17 more countries to go.  Shame they are all in THE MIDDLE OF FRICKIN’ NOWHERE.

The trip to from the border to Dili was uneventful, but spectacular.  These windy little roads would be so awesome… if I was driving.  Getting thrown about in the back of a minibus isn’t much fun and makes it impossible to read or write – you just end up thrusting your headphones into your lugholes and staring out of the window, dreaming up amazing stories which would make great films.  Or TV shows.  Or stageplays.  Or books.  Or musicals.

Once this mad trip is over, I’m probably going to disappear off into the outback for a few months with just Mandy, my laptop and a pirate copy of Final Draft.

Arriving in Dili at sunset, I was greeted by Dan, the owner of the East Timor Backpackers.  He had been expecting me since John (who I met on the Batam to Jakarta ferry last month) had arrived and told him what I was up to.  I was exactly two weeks later than I really should have been.  I’m really kicking myself now for procrastinating in Bali – this bungee jump thing in Liverpool had better happen!!

Dan’s a great chap, he’s from Chorley in Lancashire (not far from my neck of the woods) and travelled all over the world before taking on the only Backpackers in Dili last year.  Nice place: bit pricey, but then so is all of East Timor.  They use the US dollar, so conversion is easy (and great for holidaying Aussies at the moment: the Oz/US exchange rate is 1 to 1).  Anyway, it was $12 a night for a dorm room, which is comparable with hostels in Europe. But for that you got the use of western toilets and hot showers, so it was more worth it than, say, Comoros or Angola.

The reason for the inflated prices is clear as soon as you step out on the street: the UN are here.  And when I say here, I mean WOW THEY ARE HERE.  I’ve seen more white UN trucks floating around Dili than I saw in Kinshasa, Monrovia and Freetown put together.  I’m not sure they really need such a massive presence here – yes, East Timor is a very young nation and there has been some political instability in the last few years (culminating in 2008 with an assassination attempt on the Noble-Peace Prize winning President – luckily, he survived), but it smacks of overkill – I guess compared with Kabul or Baghdad this is a quite a cushy posting.  I just wish that this amount of equipment and manpower was being put to better use: Somalia, anyone?

Actually, can I get serious for a moment?  Somalia has not had an effective government for 19 years now.  The levels of lawlessness and barbarity are as sickening as they are unreported.

A crowd of teenage boys gang rape, beat and dismember a young woman in Mogadishu in broad daylight.  What happens to them?  There are no police officers, no jails, no courtrooms, no judges.  I’ll tell you what happens to them: nothing.

A gang of Somali pirates hijack a charity ship carrying medical supplies to some of the poorest people in sub-Saharan Africa.  By the time the Royal Navy recapture the ship (or the insurance company has paid the ransom) it’s too late: most of the supplies have gone past their use by date.  Thousands of people will die as a result.  The pirates, even caught red handed, have their weapons taken from them and are free to go.  Why?  Cos there’s is no Somali Navy (well, there is, but it doesn’t have any ships),  Kenya and Tanzania can’t afford to take them, neither can Yemen.  The Royal Navy can’t keep them in the brig for the duration of their tour nor take them back to Britain.

A nine-year old girl has her vagina painfully mutilated by her uncle.  While she is held down by her mother, he slices off her labia and her clitoris with a septic blade, and then, his hands covered in blood, he takes a needle and thread and stitches her up, leaving just a small hole to allow menstruation.  It sounds like something from American Psycho, but the numbing fact is that this has happened to 99% of women in Somalia.  It’s not even frowned upon.  This most inhumane of acts is part of their culture.  When a culture is that f–ked up, it ceases to be culture and becomes institutionalised criminality.  By the same token, could we argue that it is the ‘culture’ of the Catholic Church to rape children?

Team America has seriously f–ked up in Afghanistan and Iraq, so any intervention from them is out of the question.  No other nation state really cares about daft military adventurism – their politicians are too busy trying to win the next election, and I’m sorry to say that helping out the less fortune members of our species is something that is frowned upon, not just by the right who don’t want to have to pay for it (more yachts and pies to shove into their fat faces), but even by the left who seem, in the last few years, to have sacrificed their morality on the altar of cultural relativism and a misguided sense of ‘respect’.

There is nothing respectable about what is going on in Somalia.  If you have a shred of feeling for your fellow humans, you’ll agree that this unnecessary suffering  – suffering on a vast scale – must be stopped.  The Somali government can’t stop it, the AU won’t, the Arab league couldn’t give a monkeys, NATO is too tied up in other business and the EU was to lazy to stop genocide on its doorstep in Bosnia and Kosovo, what makes you think it’s going to do anything for some impoverished nation full of religious nutcases?

The depressing but salient truth is that Somalia’s ONLY hope is the UN.  Isn’t that sad?

Because we all know that the UN is about as much use as a KFC on the moon.

The ONLY way out of this mess is if a massive UN force is invited into Somalia by the Somali government (whose jurisdiction currently expends to Mogadishu Airport and Seaport.  That’s it), and operates as Somalia’s army and police force, in a spirit of transparency and accountability (I would embed independent journalists, reps from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty with the soldiers) that was horribly missing from the Iraqi Disaster.  They would have to implement a clear and precise twenty-five year plan to turn around the world’s most failed of failed states.

And anyone who allows human rights abuses, crimes against humanity or genocide happen on their watch GETS THROWN IN JAIL.  Something that should have damn well happened in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Darfur and Rwanda, to name a few.  Listen you twat in the blue helmet, you’re not here to observe, you’re here to keep the peace.  And if that means shooting the crazed maniac with a machete before he butchers a baby to death SO BE IT.

I firmly believe that the UN troops that stood by and watched the last few genocides happen and did nothing about it are just as morally culpable as the Israeli troops that allowed the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps happen in Beirut in the 80s.

In the meantime: we need UN prison ships, set up with the blessing of the Somali government and floating in international waters.  I’m serious.  Catch the pirates, they get a fair trial onboard a UN prison ship and are sentenced, contained and not free to go pirating again.

Or we can ignore the problem and hope it goes away, change the channel and watch X-Factor instead.  I mean, Somalia is a long way away from here isn’t it?

I hear they just caught a 19 year old Somali boy attempting to blow up a Christmas tree lighting event in the USA.  Failed states affect us all.  It’s time we stopped feathering our nests for the fictional ‘next life’ and deal with the real issues are impeding people’s well-being in this one.  Nobody deserves to be born into a life that is nasty, brutish and short.  Nobody.

I’m going off on one here because I just read Dr. Sam Harris’ new book The Moral Landscape and it’s made me very angry about the moral bankruptcy of our national and international institutions.  Read the book, it’s very good.

Days 715-721: My Papua Visa Hell

16.12.10-22.12.10:

You know, when I stepped out of the Vietnamese Consulate back in September I honestly thought that my days of being trapped like a cog in the bureaucratic nightmare that is VISAHELL was over.

But then came East Timor, deciding just a few months ago to stop issuing visas for the trickle of western tourists that bother to visit their country overland from Indonesia.  But even after that was all sorted out, like the mythological hydra, more bloody visas were called for, most hilariously for Indonesia as described in my blog entry entitled A Red Background.

And now with just 17 countries left to visit and all of them being as far-flung as you can fling a flang, I’m trapped on the border of Papua New Guinea almost having a nervous breakdown brought upon by yet another impenetrable layer of bureaucracy that makes the world of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil look streamlined and sensible.

WHAT’S WRONG WITH THESE DAMN PLACES?  I’m not a criminal, I’m not a terrorist, I’m not a international superspy.  Are they really doing that well that they can afford to turn back tourists??  PAPUA NEW GUINEA, in the short time I was in Jayapura I met SIX people who gave up trying to get into your country.  I’m not bigging myself up, I’m just a wannabe TV presenter on just one of Rupert Murdock’s myriad cable channels.  But one of the guys you shooed away was a millionaire.

I’ll say that again, just in case ANYONE from Papua New Guinea is reading this.

YOUR COUNTRY, WHOSE PER CAPITA GDP IS LESS THAN THE GAZA STRIP’S, TOLD A MILLIONAIRE THAT THEY DID NOT WANT HIS CUSTOM.

Are you guys INSANE?  Like, really really insane??

But I’m getting ahead of myself here.  Let’s start at the beginning.  Stepping off the Pelni ferry at 4am on Thursday 16th December was a little like trying to get out of the front row of an Oasis gig just as the band is about to start but loaded down with backpacks and teetering on a watery precipice.  There were people EVERYWHERE.  It was all I could do to prevent myself falling into the breathtakingly polluted water of Jayapura’s port.

Groggy, sleepy and unhappy I began to trudge towards the few hotels listed in the Lonely Planet.  The few CouchSurfers here had buggered off for the Christmas hols and so the choice was either hotel or a notel.  The first place I tried was full.

So was the second.

And the third.

And the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh.

After TWO AND A HALF HOURS of trudging around with my backpack and my bags, I finally found somewhere for the night, but at $22 for a single room, I could feel my already stretched budget kicking me in the balls.  But I justified it to myself because I could have a couple of hours kip this morning, so I was effectively getting two nights for the price of one.

It wasn’t much of a justification, but at least there was air conditioning, a hot shower, a western-style toilet and a TV (that I didn’t use).  I fell asleep and woke up a couple of hours later, gathered my ‘visa kit’ and raced off to the Papuan New Guinea Consulate for when it opened at 10am.

Now it says in the Lonely Planet that you can get a PNG visa at the Consulate in Jayapura the next day, or if you ask really nicely, the same day.

HA!

Good one, LP.  Did you actually get a visa at this consulate, or did you just go in and ask them how long they take?  Because I can tell you it’s much MUCH more of a headache than that.

I filled out the form enquiring after my collar size and father’s maiden name only to be told that I couldn’t make a visa application without a valid airline ticket out of the country.

Oh, right…

TOP TIP for developing nation: If a western tourist ludicrously outstays his or her visa and you can’t afford to deport them, just sentence them to five years in jail.  THEIR OWN COUNTRY will soon pay for their repatriation!!

Anyway, twattily enough, I also had to write another daft letter explaining why I wanted to go to Papua New Guinea.

The temptation to write TO RAPE AND STEAL AND DESTROY was almost overwhelming, but I managed to stifle that baser instinct.  So I went to the internet place over the road, bought a ticket from Port Moresby to Brisbane, wrote a silly letter and returned… to be told to come back after 1pm.

Fine.

So I waited outside in the baking heat of northern New Guinea, within a skerrick’s pube of the equator, sweating and fuming.  If only I’d know this would just be the beginning of my VISAHELL, I probably would have gone off to shoot liquid crack into my eyeballs.  But instead I waited patiently (and sweatily) and at 1pm I walked in and handed over my papers, tickets, photocopies, photos and application forms only to be told I needed to get a photocopy of my Indonesian visa.

Wha?  Uh?  Bu…?

FINE.

I stormed off down the road, got page 23 of my passport photocopied in a roadside shack and returned within the half-hour.

Thanks.  Will it be ready tomorrow.

The lady said she would try.

Okay. Great.

I jumped onboard the next ‘bemo’ (minibus) back to town.  Happy days.

I found a place just up the road from my hotel that had free internet but where the coffee was TWO POUNDS a cup  (blimey! – so much for travelling on the cheap!) and managed to pad two coffees out to last me the whole day.  The coffee place closed at 10pm and I retired to my hotel.  Things were going well – at this rate I should be in Papua New Guinea by the weekend.

Ha.

Ha.

Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha.

No.

The next day I checked out of my hotel and hop, skipped and jumped down to the Consulate, five miles away.

Here’s a video recreation of my conversation with the woman on the front desk.

I stepped outside and emitted a silent scream.  Looks like I’ll be in hideously expensive (well, let’s just say ‘hideous’) town of Jayapura for the weekend.  If this visa isn’t ready by Monday morning, I am quite frankly going to have a bit of a meltdown.  After scoping out the competition (and finding them all full for the weekend) I checked back into my hotel only to be told that the only rooms they now had left were ‘luxury’ rooms.

I stepped outside and emitted a very LOUD scream.

So the weekend slobbered by with me attempting to minimise my expenses as much as possible.  I generally hung out in the café with internet and actually managed to stretch the purchase of one coffee cover a mammoth twelve hour internet binge in which I managed to download this video off my good chum Leo and convert it for YouTube:

No mean feat at 56 kbits a sec I tell you!

So what do you want to know about Jayapura?  Well it’s a wild west town on the far eastern edge of Indonesia.  It’s unattractive, unremarkable and, well, about as much fun as sticking broken glass up your nostrils.

But here’s something to make you laugh.  Or cry,  I dunno.  In the middle of the town there is a excruciatingly tasteless concrete statue of an Indonesian soldier standing with a flag and gun – and this soldier is being held up on a pedestal by obviously Papuan natives.  Anyone who has seen the latest Harry Potter film might spot the similarities with the ‘Magic Is Might’ statue ordered by a certain He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.

Indonesia Puts Papua In Its Place
Indonesia Puts Papua In Its Place

Anyway, before I knew what was what it was Monday.  The weekend was over (not that Jayapura has much in the way of ‘weekends’ but hey-ho.  So I hailed a bemo and headed off to the PNG consulate for the fourth time.

Here’s a video recreation of my conversation with the woman on the front desk.

I returned THREE TIMES that day.  The first time she told me to come back at 1.  The second time she told me to come back at 4.  The last time she told me that it wasn’t ready, but would DEFINITELY be ready for tomorrow.

It’s not just the inconvenience here, it’s the fact that Jayapura is ugly, smelly and EXPENSIVE.  I returned to my hotel sweaty, hot, exhausted (the consulate is five miles away) and ready to kill, kill and kill again.  Luckily for me I ran into a couple of Bules in the same position.  One was a South African surf/wave detective (yes!) called Harald, and the other was a top chap from Hawaii called Mike.  Harald and Mike are travelling the world in pursuit of the perfect wave.  It’s all very cool indeed.

Harald and Mike
Harald and Mike. Surf Detectives!

So we had a few drinkies together.  They were going to try and get visas for PNG but decided (based on what they had been told by fellow Bules) that they were going to skip their trip to Papua New Guinea BECAUSE IT WAS TOO DIFFICULT TO GET A VISA.  You hear that, PNG??  So they were going to stay in Indonesia instead AND SPEND ALL THEIR MONEY IN INDONESIA INSTEAD.  Yeah – go for it, guys, PNG obviously has bigger fish to fry.

The next day I (again) packed all my things together and checked out of my hotel.  I travelled over to the PNG consulate and… hey! Guess What…?

So that’s a no then is it?  A NO.  EVEN THOUGH YOU TEXTED ME THIS MORNING SAYING THAT MY VISA WAS READY AND I COULD COME PICK IT UP.

Noooooooooooo

If somebody had handed me a tank of petrol and a match at this point I would have not been responsible for my actions.

So I returned to my hotel as quickly as I could an – would you Adam n’ Eve it – the damn place was FULL.  Utterly utterly full.

That was it, I thought.  Death must reign down from above.  While I know it’s not Indonesia’s fault per se, I must regretfully report that I’m really starting to despise Indonesia.  While India will always be home to the most irritating people in the world, Indonesia (appropriate name) comes a very close second.  As I walk down the street there is an excruciating meeeeee-ster every few seconds.  If I ignore it, it will continue meeeeeee-ster!  MEEEEEEEEE-STER!!!  MEEEEEEEEEE-STER!!!!!!!   MEEEEEEEEEEEE-STER!!!!!!!!!!!, but if I turn I know I’ll get the old howareyou? followed by the usual, predictable peel of howling laughter that leaves you wondering whether you remembered to put on your trousers this morning.

No, I don’t want to shake your hand wizened old man – mainly because I was having a slash the other day and I saw the man next to me SCOOP PISSY WATER OUT OF THE URINAL WITH HIS HAND and ‘wash’ his dick with it.  As with many developing nations, germ theory and basic hygiene are undiscovered countries here – people do all kinds of disgusting crap with their hands and then expect me to shake on it.  Ha!  No!  Bugger off.

And for heaven’s sake: maybe, like one day, I might, you know, want to go 24 hours without eating luke-warm white rice with a GODDAMN COLD FISHHEAD ON TOP.  I saw a sign for Pizza Hut yesterday.  I got very excited about it and all day I was fantasising about getting a nice HOT pepperoni pizza… Actual Bread! Melty Cheese! Spicy Sausage!!

I walked back to my hotel and asked the girl on reception to order me a pizza.  Then I found out that Jayapura does not have a Pizza Hut.  It’s in another town, 15km away.

Okay: is there anywhere in this large sprawling town where I can get… chips? No. Steak? No. Pasta? No. Potatoes? No. A Sarnie? No. A Sausage? No. Mexican? No. Indian? No. Thai? No. Malaysian? No. Chinese… come on, there MUST be a Chinese place…? No. A kebab?

What’s a kebab?

DEAR GOD PLEASE HELP ME.

There are a hundred food stalls and shops here in Jayapura, and EVERY SINGLE ONE just sells white steamed rice and fish-heads.  You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not.  In the Middle East I get it, IT’S A DESERT: a lump of gritty meat wrapped in sandy bread is the best you can hope for.  But in Indonesia you could throw a stick into the ground and it would grow into a tree.  These were THE SPICE ISLANDS for heaven’s sake.  What’s with the monoculture?  What’s with the little plastic packets of ‘spicy sauce’ I get with my rice and fish heads??  Maybe Indonesia isn’t such an appropriate name – if there’s one thing I’ll always forgive India all her sins for, it’s the corkin’ nosh.  Here you’re best bringing a packed lunch – those fish heads have been sitting in that hot, sweaty, fly-infested window for hours… or maybe days…

And is anything open after 9pm?  I know going to bed early is the Asian disease (and quite possibly why there are so many Asians in the first place) but please, I just want a bottle of water.  Or maybe a pack of Handie Andies.

And are sidewalks without massive deadly holes in them too much to ask?  Do Indonesian town planners sit around with diagrams and schematics working out the optimum way to turn a simple task like walking down the street into a live-action version of Super Mario Brothers?  And does all this litter bother anybody but me?  On the boat to see the Komodo Dragons last month there was so much crap in the water I was convinced that a ship hauling rubbish to the dump had recently sunk – it brought to mind the trash-compactor scene from Star Wars: oh no, all in a day’s work for this dianoga-friendly UNESCO World Heritage site.  Illegal logging?  That’s no problem – just give me a bung and I’ll look the other way… after all, there’s plenty more virgin rain forest where that came from.

AND WHAT is with this whole thing of making it impossible to see out of the windows of minibuses?  How the hell am I supposed to know when to get out?  Now I understand some people (drug-dealers mostly) don’t want people seeing into their vehicle, but purposefully making only 10% of your windscreen see-through is just f—ing NUTS.  Is it to stop tall people stealing your minibus?

And no, I DON’T SMOKE.  But thanks for walking all the way over here so you can sit right next to me in this big empty room and blow smoke in my face.  And, since you’re here, why not crane your neck over so you can read what I’m typing?  Go ahead, I find it easier to write with a goddamn audience.  Yes, I prefer friendly people to the cold indifference of Eastern Europeans, but c’mon, this is just… irritating.  Really, really irritating.  Like that noise they make in Dumb and Dumber.

AND YES your music is shite it keeps me up all night.  Well, it would do if I wasn’t such a heavy sleeper.  And no, I don’t want it amplified so loud that it shakes the poo out of my bottom.  There’s a passive-aggressive notion from middle-class dinner tables that western (well, UK, US and Jamaican) music is somehow inferior to what we like to condescendingly describe as ‘World Music’.  To that I say PFFFFFFFFT.  Local music is AWFUL pretty much everywhere: in Latin America the best you can hope for is Me Gustas Tu, in Africa everyone is too busy listening to African-American homosexual jingle-pop (or R&B as it’s also known), continental Europe is all um-pah-pah, accordions, the Spinal-Tap of Death Metal or 80s pop that would have seemed dated in the 80s, the Middle East just sounds like Tarzan falling down a very deep well, India is some shrieking harridan singing through her nose whilst wobbling about behind a pillar, SE Asia is even more obsessed with Celine Dion and Bryan Adams than even the Middle East (the more I travel, the more I become convinced that heterosexuality is the one that’s ‘not natural’) and Indonesia?  Jesus wept.  Possibly because people kept playing Indonesian music at him.

Oh Graham, you big meanie… you’re such a music nazi.  Yes, yes I am and this music ist not gut!  From a population of 250 million with its thousands of islands, hundreds of languages and mosaic of cultures, I expect at least one song that makes me tap my foot instead of sticking my fingers in my ears and going LALALALALALALALALALALALALALALA.

In short, Indonesia: you irritate the crap out of me, you don’t wash your hands, your cuisine is as dull and your music is poo.  And too loud.  It’s not me, darling, it’s you.  You’re too plain Jane, the spice has gone out of our relationship and I would rather spend my time with other countries – ones that like to stay up late and dance until the break of dawn.  Let’s get divorced so I never have to see you again, but I can look back on my time spent with you with fondness as my memories of your bloody awful cooking fade with time.  Welcome to Dumpsville, Population: You.

BUT WAIT…!  What’s this?

Indonesia?

Indonesia… come back!!

I didn’t mean it!  I was just – you know – venting!

Yes, I will forgive a country of pretty much anything if it manages to send my tastebuds on a spine-tingling roller-coaster ride of texture, flavour and outright  yumminess.  And tonight, Indonesia you have surpassed yourself.

Maybe the fact that I had to eat crap for two months was a conspiracy to make me lower my standards, lower my defences before… WHAM!!!

The tastiest dish I have EVER EVER eaten.

A little bit of backstory: after getting kicked out of my hotel, I headed over to the hotel that Mike and Harald were staying at and tried to check in there, but (lords-a-lordy) it was also full.  Harald and Mike, being the top blokes that they are, agreed to let me sleep on their floor and the hotel kindly supplied me with a mattress.

So once I was settled in, Mike and Harald had some good news… unlike me they wouldn’t be spending a lonely Christmas in this shithole, they had just scored the last couple of seats on the last plane out of here on Thursday morning.  Lucky buggers.

Mike was (understandably) ecstatic at this news and wanted nothing more than some decent tucker to celebrate, so we headed towards the seafood shacks laid out along the road beside the harbour.  But not just to any seafood shack, we went to THE seafood shack.  Possibly the finest seafood shack in South East Asia.

The Fish Place
The Duta Cafe, Jayapura. Remember that name.

THIS is what I’m talkin’ about!  For just six quid each, we got a deliciousfreshly-caught blue grenadier cooked to perfection of the barbie:

Fishy Fishy
I’m gonna eat you little fishy!

We also got a plateful of delicious deep-fried king prawns:

Harald and The Seafood
Harald and The Seafood

But that was a mere trifle compared to the gastronomic perfection that was to come.  I ordered fresh calamari out of the cooler box and Harald, being fluent in Indonesian (and an able fisherman himself) was able to explain exactly what we wanted.  And what we wanted was heaven on a plate.  And that’s exactly what we got.

Yummy Yummy Yummy
Yummy Yummy Yummy

She may not look like much kid, but she’s got it where it counts.

Lightly tempura’d calamari, served up with long-cut stir-fried veggies in a sweet and sour sauce.  Man, my mouth is watering just thinking of it. Usually calamari can be a bit chewy – this stuff was so fresh it literally melted in your mouth.

Eat me!
Eat me!

YUM!

YUMYUMYUM!!

So yes, Indonesia, you have won me over.  Unlike the BLOODY PAPUA NEW GUINEA which well and truly HASN’T.  That night I stayed up drinking with the other Bules staying at our hotel, all of whom were waiting for visas.  This guy, Quentin, was from France and had been waiting TWO WEEKS for a visa.

Quentin
Quentin damns PNG to HELL!!

Please be aware that at this point it was the wee small hours of Wednesday morning: Christmas day is NEXT SATURDAY.

If we didn’t get our visas for PNG today, we’d be stuck in Jayapura until 2011.

And all the wonderful calamari in the world wouldn’t make it worth staying.  I wanted out.  I wanted to reach my 51st country before the year’s end – and, more than that, I wanted to USE the damn plane ticket to Australia they made me buy.

I wanted to see Mandy again.  It’s been too long.

So after a few hours kip, Quentin and I descended on the FRIKKIN’ PNG Consulate for the twentieth time.  And this time we were not leaving until we got our visas.  I had been told yesterday that my visa was ready and IN MY PASSPORT.  Arriving at 10am, we were told to wait.

Why?

The visa is in my passport!  Give me the damn thing!!

Sorry…

What?  Why?

It needs to be signed.

By who?

By the man who signs the visas.

And is this man in work today?

No.

And is this man coming into work today?

I don’t know.

ARE YOU ON CRACK?

No… Sorry…

Okay, give me my passport now, I’ll sign it myself and take my chances.

No… Sorry…

I have never wanted to beat another human being to death with their own shoes before, but this bloody woman was seriously moments away from joining the choir invisible.  I told her I wasn’t leaving without my visa and she put up the ‘closed’ sign and tottered off.

...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead
…And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead

If they had just told me in the first place that it would take a week to put a bloody stamp in my bloody passport it wouldn’t be so bad.  If they hadn’t made me come back TIME AND TIME AGAIN IN THE SWELTERING HEAT with false promises that my visa was ready it wouldn’t be so bad.  If they where rushed off their feet and had thousands of applications to get through, it still wouldn’t be acceptable, but it wouldn’t be so bad.

But we are talking here about a stamp in a passport and a couple of lines of writing.  Even if you were an illiterate slug it would only take a minute to do.  And it wasn’t as though there was a queue of Bules waiting outside every morning – and Indonesians don’t need visas for Papua New Guinea.  They probably had about ten visa applications to process A WEEK.  If that.  Well, me and Quentin waited.  And waited.

The first few hours were painful.  It was hot, it was sweaty and I’m sure my hair was beginning to fall out. At 1pm they wanted to close for lunch so we go chucked out, but we were back again at 2pm sharp.  My bloody mindedness was now thinking along the lines of ‘if I create a bloody nuisance of myself, they’ll give me the visa just to get shut of me’.

Well, it wasn’t the most elegant of plans, but (eventually) it worked.  But not early enough for me to be able to get to PNG today.  The last taxis apparently left at 1pm.  It was 3.30pm before I got my visa.  Another exasperated Bule, a German guy called Jan, came into the consulate and got his visa at the same time – he, like me, had been waiting a week.

Quentin, on the other hand, who had been waiting for TWO WEEKS for his visa, came away empty handed.  Unbelievable.  Utterly unbelievable.

Oh, and our ordeal didn’t end there.  Jan and I headed over to the immigration office in Jayapura to get stamped out of the country when we were hit with the most baffling piece of red-tape in the history of dick-headed bureaucracy.  If you got a visa on entry to Indonesia, you aren’t allowed to leave via Jayapura.  As Jayapura is the ONLY border post between PNG and Indonesia, this somewhat leaves your options limited.

Luckily for me, I had gone through the frigmarole of getting a ‘proper’ visa for Indonesia in East Timor (as they weren’t being issued on the border).  Jan wasn’t as lucky.  Of course, the c—s at immigration would be willing to accommodate his predicament (for a $60 ‘fee’), the alternative being for him to FLY BACK TO JAKARTA.

Seriously.

SERIOUSLY.

This is just quite mind-boggling and a new one on me – an international border that you cannot LEAVE a country from without the correct ENTRY visa.  How f—-ing stupid do you want to be?

Oh, Indonesia, you had me for a moment with that sublime calamari, but you’ve just blown all that good will.  Sickeningly corrupt and loaded with ill-gotten blood money, you can go to hell, Indonesia.  You SUCK!  And, while you’re at it, get the hell out of West Papua.  It’s not yours and you’re only there for the gold.  The profits from which go on WHAT EXACTLY?  Health care?  Schools?  Roads?!

 

Ha.  HA!  HAHAHAHAHA!!  Don’t make me laugh!

They go straight into the back packets of the slimy politicians that live on an island a thousand miles away, literally and metaphorically. Bluuuuuurgh to the lot of ya!!

Happily, Mike and Harald weren’t leaving Jayapura until the morning, so they (being top chaps) again allowed me to kip on their floor.  Thanks, guys!!

Tomorrow there will be nothing to stop me getting into Papua New Guinea.  I booked a taxi to the border.  It will be the Eve of Christmas Eve.  Looks like I’ll be spending another Christmas without the girl I love.  PNG is not a happy place and while I’m quite happy to risk my safety doing this crazy stuff, I’m not willing to put Mandy in that situation, so I’ve told her not to fly to me this time around.

For Those In Climate Change Denial…

Regular readers of my blog will know that I have a tendency to go off on tangents occasionally, usually something to do with my deep-seated animosity towards politicians or modernist architecture.

Well today is no exception and I think I’m going to blow a gasket on this one, so if you’re easily offended, please look at this picture of a nice fluffy bunny instead.

Still here?

Okay: Climate Change Deniers.  WHAT THE F— IS WRONG WITH THESE PEOPLE??  I’m quite a verbose chap, but I’m honestly stuck for words when it comes to these pitiful loons.

Conspiracy Theorists

So I’ll take it slowly and start with Conspiracy Theorists in general.  Conspiracy Theorists used to be mainly confined to their homes – fearful to go outside, jumping at shadows, boring their mum with their crackpot theories about lizards taking over the world (who then, bizarrely, make TV shows about lizards taking over the world).  Irritating, but mostly harmless.

Sadly for the rest of us, the internet then came along – and suddenly these Conspiracy Theorists had a platform for communicating with the real world (something they seem to know very little about) from the comfort of their parent’s basement and disseminating their quite mind-bogglingly stupid and ill-informed claptrap around the planet to their fellow barking-mad nutcases.

Psychologists have shown that there is a distinct personality type that consistently goes in for this garbage: idiots.

I’m distrustful of authority because I think everyone in charge of this planet is a complete and utter moron (something for which I have a mountain of evidence).  Conspiracy Theorists, on the other hand, unswervingly believe that The Powers That Be are vastly more intelligent than themselves.  The funny thing is that this is true – they are.  But only as much as Forrest Gump is smarter than Dougal from Father Ted.  But then Conspiracy Theorists, by their very nature, believe that anyone who doesn’t mindlessly go along with their pet theory is an idiot (or part of the conspiracy!) so you can’t win.

Now I don’t know what it’s like to be intimidated by a person of superior intelligence (I find them a sheer delight), but I know what it’s like to be intimidated by somebody physically bigger than me, so I can understand the root of the fear and feeling of helplessness that drives these Conspiracy Theorists to grope and squeeze their pet theory much in the manner of Pepé le Pew attempting to romance an rather unlucky cat.

Yes, I get angry that people besmirch the achievements of our species by claiming that aliens built the pyramids or that Neil Armstrong didn’t walk on the moon.  But the thing that really gets my goat is way these lone nuts and their bizarre cacophony of recycled, unresearched bulls—t is seen as harmless.  It may have been before the internet, but now they have a platform.

Homebrew Conspiracy Theories are no longer harmless.  Here’s a few historical examples of the kind of thing that happens when ill-informed lunatics are given a platform:

  • Hitler and his cronies start a CONSPIRACY THEORY that World War I was ‘caused by Jews’.
  • Senator McCarthy starts a CONSPIRACY THEORY that there are Communist spies hiding in Congress, universities and the film industry.
  • A mad imam from Nigeria starts a CONSPIRACY THEORY that polio vaccines are actually poisonous.
  • The government of South Africa propagate a CONSPIRACY THEORY that HIV doesn’t lead to Aids.
  • George W. Bush starts a CONSPIRACY THEORY that Saddam Hussein has Weapons of Mass Destruction.

What do these five case studies have in common?  They all sounded reasonable enough to a fearful and credulous mind, and they were all used to scapegoat, spread disease and/or slaughter.  No, I don’t think Conspiracy Theorism is harmless – it’s a religion, taken on faith, with cherry-picked evidence as its holy text and a pre-selected sector of society to demonise.

I don’t want them on my jury unless I’m guilty

And so I come to the Climate Change Deniers.  A quick and dirty dig first of all: a demented twittering posh Climate Change Denier of the ‘it’ll all turn out alright in the end what what’ (think George from Blackadder Goes Forth) appeared on the BBC’s Horizon this week attempting to justify his bonkers position to Sir Paul Nurse, Nobel Science Laureate and Chair of The Royal Society.

I didn’t get his name, but I gathered from the interview he worked for The Telegraph and (by his own admission) knew nothing about science.  It was actually uncomfortable to watch – like Mohammed Ali in his prime punching seven shades of s— out of a seven year old schoolgirl whose arms are tied behind her back.

But here’s what this ghoulish, cringing cretin of the Telegraph with his “quotation fingers” believes he is up against (I swear I’m not making this up)…

“…the Warmist faith so fervently held and promulgated by the Met Office is exactly the same faith so passionately, unswervingly followed by David Cameron, Chris Huhne, Greg Barker, the Coalition’s energy spokesman in the Lords Lord Marland, and all but five members of the last parliament. And also by the BBC, the Prince of Wales, almost every national newspaper, the European Union, the Royal Society, the New York Times, CNBC, the Obama administration, the Australian and New Zealand governments, your children’s schools, our major universities, our minor universities, the University of East Anglia, your local council… Truly there just aren’t enough bullets!”

Hang on a minute… so ALL of these people and institutions are wrong and a hack journalist with no scientific background is right?? What on Earth am I missing here?  Has the world gone completely mad?

When you’re fighting THE MET OFFICE, THE ROYAL SOCIETY and ‘OUR MAJOR (AND MINOR!) UNIVERSITIES’, over their peer-reviewed scientific research you really are punching above your weight.

If Johnnie’s mum really thinks that the entire parade is out of step with her Johnnie, it doesn’t take a genius to see where the error lies.

The Two Possibilities

But their outright stupidity is not what bothers me so much about Climate Change Deniers, it’s the sheer lack of mental capacity to take a breath and think… what if I’m wrong?

There are two possibilities here:

THE CLIMATE SCIENTISTS ARE LYING

or

THE CLIMATE CHANGE DENIERS ARE WRONG

Okay, so FOR THE SAKE OF ARGUMENT let’s say the possibly of these two outcomes is 50/50.  We have two choices: to act on, or ignore, the scientific evidence.  Let’s go through what the results will probably be of each action and each possibility.

CHOICE ONE: ACT ON THE SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE

What happens if we do what the scientists of the world keep pleading with us to do – massively cut our carbon emissions?  It would mean electric cars, renewable energy, recycling and remembering to turn the lights off.  It would mean energy companies would have to invest in wind turbines, solar, tidal, hydroelectric and nuclear power.  It would mean humans would no longer suffer the indignity (and reduced lifespan) caused by having to work in a coal mine.  It would mean oil leaks and spills would be a thing of the past – the Niger delta will come back to life.  Pristine wildernesses will be preserved for future generations.  Rates of asthma and allergies would decrease.  The smog would be lifted from LA, Dhaka and Shanghai.  It would also greatly reduce the West’s dependence on the autocratic regimes of the Middle East for energy.

THE SCIENTISTS ARE LYING: If we do all this stuff and then find out we didn’t need to, SO WHAT?  Is it not still a step in the right direction?  Is not chasing clean INFINITE energy not a worthy goal to set for the sake of our children?

THE CLIMATE CHANGE DENIERS ARE WRONG: Well done, we just SAVED THE HUMAN RACE.

What if you're wrong?

CHOICE TWO: IGNORE THE SCIENTIFIC EVIDENCE

Now what if we do what the Climate Change Deniers keep pleading with us to do and ignore the Met Office, ignore The Royal Society, ignore NASA and ignore the climate scientists of the world’s top universities?  We carry on, business as usual, pumping millions of tonnes of carbon into the atmosphere year on year until all the oil runs out.

THE SCIENTISTS ARE LYING: The Climate Change Deniers are vindicated.  They were right all along!  Maybe they’ll have a party or something.  They can rest happy in their beds safe in the knowledge that they protected the profits of the major oil companies they don’t even work for and that they saved people from the tyranny of having to recycle stuff.  WOOYAY!  Meanwhile, hundreds of scientists from all over the world are thrown in jail for being part of a worldwide conspiracy to, er, DO WHAT YOU F—ING MORON?  ASK US NICELY TO TURN THE SODDING LIGHTS OFF??

THE CLIMATE CHANGE DENIERS ARE WRONG: WE’RE F–KED. London and New York find themselves 5 metres below sea-level; the Gulf Stream moves north, plunging the UK into arctic-like winters, bankrupting the nation; dozens of island states are wiped off the map along with Bangladesh and the Netherlands.  Fish die, cattle drown, food supplies are disrupted, famine, pestilence, war, death, etc.

Putting it out there

So, um, just putting it out there, but since there’s a good chance that not doing anything to reduce our carbon output will cause a thoroughly miserable future for everyone and everything on this planet, and that doing something will be a net benefit even if the scientists are lying… can we, you know, err on the side of caution?  What are the scientists asking us to do again?  Sacrifice our firstborn?

Oh no, that’s right… they want us to turn the lights off.

I’m not the first person to say this, but WE DON’T HAVE ANOTHER PLANET TO GO TO IF THE CLIMATE CHANGE DENIERS ARE WRONG.  Even if you are so naïve, so blitheringly stupid, so horrifically misguided that you truly believe that pretty much every scientist in the world is a corrupt thieving liar (and that politicians, right-wing newspaper columnists and the oil companies are on the straight and narrow!) then surely you can at least concede to me on this one.  Where else are you planning to go?  Mars?

Actually, I don’t know why I’m bothering being so conciliatory, if you are a Climate Change Denier you probably haven’t bothered to read down this far.  But, on the off-chance that you have, please be aware that if you’re wrong and if the governments of the world continue to do sod all to tackle climate change (since it’s not really in their interests IS IT?) then you are part of the greatest crime against humanity since The Holocaust.

In fact, you’re worse than a Holocaust Denier – they had no hand in actually causing the Holocaust, but you have a (very bloodsoaked) hand in causing this one.  In short, you are a very very bad person.  I cannot fathom how you can sleep soundly at night, I can only imagine that you’re too pig ignorant to understand ramifications of your strange and untenable beliefs.

What if you’re wrong?

You’re not being smart, you’re not being funny, you’re not ‘just playing devil’s advocate’.  This isn’t a game – you are gambling with the future of the human race – for WHAT?  So climate scientists don’t get any more hand-outs from the government?  Does it bother you THAT MUCH?  Are you really willing to make that bet?  A bet that, if you lose, will spell a lifetime of misery and disaster for your children and grand-children?

But maybe you don’t have kids, or don’t want them.  Maybe you think that humans are a virus and we need to cull the numbers.  Maybe you would be glad to see nations and cities washed away, refugees starving in camps for the crime of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  But please, don’t dress up your genocidal mania as ‘healthy debate’, it’s not.

All Climate Change Deniers are doing is playing into the hands of the massive energy companies and lazy politicians.  They are Neville Chamberlains appeasing the Nazis, waving a piece of paper declaring ‘peace in our time’ when all the evidence is to the contrary.  They’re playing with the future of our children and that’s a right that they simply do not have.

So next time you run into a Climate Change Denier, I wouldn’t try to reason with them or even get them to agree with your point of view.  Just ask them this one pertinent question:

What if you’re wrong…?

Day 883: A Breath of Fresh Air

02.06.11:

For somebody with my fun-seeking personality traits it may come as a shock to some of you that I’ve never knowingly taken an illegal drug.

The closest I’ve got was haplessly sharing a ‘Happy Pizza’ in Cambodia back in 2002: coming from the country that also has a ‘Happy Rifle Range’ I (rather naively) thought it would be the Cambodian equivalent of a McDonald’s Happy Meal.  Well it wasn’t for kids and I didn’t get a toy, but do I have to concede: it did make me happy.

So despite all the travel, all the gigs, the random house parties and music festivals I’ve attended over the years, nobody has ever seen me smoke a joint, snort a line of cocaine or declare I can fly after taking acid.  I don’t need acid to fly, I have Ryanair.

Okay, some people may have seen me in a nightclub sweating like a madman and hugging random strangers while simultaneously attempting to chew my own face off, but that’s just how I dance.

If I get a little agitated when some narcotic is being passed around in my presence, it is not because of the existence of said narcotic, but because of the looks I get from my peers when I politely decline.  A kind of ‘do you think you’re better than us?’ look which I don’t really deserve.  Of course, I do think I’m better than them, but that’s only because my healthy arrogance leads me to believe I’m better than everyone… it has little or nothing to do with what they choose to suck into their own bodies.

So it may come as a further shock when I say that I am 100% in favour of the ending of prohibition and the legalisation of ALL drugs.  As soon as possible.  Obviously not to make my life easier, I don’t grow them, deal them or take them: but to make this world – the only planet we’ll ever know – a more peaceful place for everyone.  Everyone.

And, guess what?  There’s a whole bunch of powerful people who FINALLY agree with me…

BBC NEWS: GLOBAL WAR ON DRUGS HAS ‘FAILED’ SAY FORMER LEADERS

But (I hear you scream) drugs ruin people’s lives!!  Yes.  Yes they do.  But then so does falling in love with the wrong person, getting pregnant at 16, your boss being an utter bastard, eating too much, not eating enough, bad tattoos, plastic surgery, adultery, modern architecture, World of Warcraft, RELIGION!!! …but none of these things are illegal in the Free West.

Although Modern Architecture possibly should be.

I hope you don’t think I’m being unduly flippant here comparing drug addiction to adultery.  Look at the suicide statistics: drugs (if involved at all) are almost always a secondary factor after relationship breakdowns, mental illness or peer group isolation.  ‘They ruin people’s lives’ is an inept an excuse for keeping the status quo as when people say ‘There’s no point in getting rid of Hitler / Stalin / Pol Pot / Idi Amin / Trujillo / Pinochet / Milošević / Saddam Hussein / Colonel Gaddafi / Mugabe / Bono – because somebody else will just replace him.’  Don’t get me started on that one.

Humans do tremendously dangerous things in their everyday lives – they drive cars, climb ladders, breathe in all kinds of germs on The Underground, get drunk, change lightbulbs, eat undercooked meat, climb aboard a jet plane or take leaky wooden boats over high seas with no radio.  We can’t (and shouldn’t) stop them doing these things, but we can all work together to make these risky propositions a little less fraught – health and safety guidelines, for example.  The same should be true of drugs.

Mentally competent adults living in a free society should be able to claim 100% ownership of one thing: their own bodies.

Your own body should be the one thing that is inherently YOURS.  Whatever bonkers thing an educated, mentally competent adult wants to do to their own body – so long as it harms no others – should be the alpha and omega of human rights.  If we can’t claim ownership of our own faces, arms, legs, hearts and livers then we are nothing.  Your body is the one thing that every human – from the shoeless orphans of Kinshasa to the privileged toffs of Cambridge – has dominion over from birth, and that’s an authority that no other human should be able to take away.

We can’t get away with saying that everyone who has ever taken drugs is insane.  If that were the case, over a QUARTER of the British population would be certifiable.  And that’s just the people who didn’t lie on the survey.  There are millions of functioning cocaine users all over the UK.  Chances are you’re sitting less than 50 metres away from one RIGHT NOW.

Of course there is plenty of “well, I should be allowed to do what I want with my body, but other people – you know, stupid people – shouldn’t” being bandied around, but even with a monster ego like mine I couldn’t even think something as arrogant, well, not with a straight face.

But I come now to the crux of the argument: making something legal does not make it ‘right.  There are enough people out there who disagree with abortion – fair enough, nobody is going to force them to have one.  People don’t like horror films, fine – don’t watch them.  I can’t stand Russell Brand: happily I have a remote control.  When drugs are legalised – and I’m confident this is something that will happen in my lifetime – I will continue to pass on the joint to the next person.  I don’t smoke, I have never smoked, I hate smoking and I’m not going to take up something I detest just because it’s legal.  Did legalising homosexuality make otherwise completely heterosexual people gay?  Of course not.  I’m never going to degrade myself my snorting a line of legal cocaine any more than a holiday to Spain is going to make me want to fight a bull.

‘But we need to protect the children!’ and on that point, Mr. and Mrs. Knee-Jerk Reaction and I heartily agree.  But do the maths.  Governments around the world waste TRILLIONS of dollars trying to stop drugs entering their countries and locking up dealers.  Turn that around.  With legalisation, regulation and taxation governments would not only make billions in tax, they would save billions by cutting the prison population by up to THREE-QUARTERS, all but eradicating drug-related crime, as well as the massive savings that would be made on things like policing, customs and legal aid.

All that extra wonga could be spent on IMPORTANT THINGS like education, health care, and stopping terrorists blowing stuff up.  It could be spent not on protecting a 21 year old accountant from himself, but on educating kids on the real dangers of drugs (like the problems cannabis can cause to a developing brain) and on severely punishing people who give or sell drugs to minors.  Hell: there’d be enough empty cells to throw them in.

At the moment the only people befitting from the status quo are the drug dealers.  If anyone can suggest to me a criminal activity that is as profitable or as easy as dealing drugs I’m all ears.  A note to would-be jewel thieves: you’re in the wrong business, mate.

And don’t give me that hackneyed old crap about some drugs being ‘better’ or ‘worse’ than others.  The ongoing Mexican Drug war last year resulted in the cold blooded MURDER of more people than ANY OTHER WAR CURRENTLY BEING FOUGHT IN THE WORLD TODAY.

And where does most of the cannabis – soft lovely squishy friendly hippy cannabis – that’s in the United States at the very moment come from??

Mexico, of course!!  Hey stoners!  That’s a f–k load of blood you’ve got on your hands!  Well done you!

The time has come for us all to band together for the good of ourselves, our communities, our civilisation… and support this movement to rid the world not of drugs (because that is proving impossible) but of drug lords. And the only way to do that is by legalising the whole stinkin’ lot of them.

Yes, I agree that drugs are not the best of ideas, but all we are doing with this daft prohibition business is making a bad situation worse.  Drugs exist.  They always have and they always will.  While vast numbers of humans on this planet want to try them, we’re never going to stop them.

If I want to dick around with the chemical composition of my own brain, (MY brain, not yours) no farmer in Colombia, mother in Mexico, kid from Moss Side or policeman in Baltimore should have to sacrifice their lives to the process that makes that possible.

I decided at a young age to never take drugs – not for religious reasons, not for health reasons, not because I’m a party pooper, but because the whole dirty business – and it’s nothing but a business – made me feel profoundly uncomfortable.

Perhaps I saw a future in which I could stand up against hypocritical politicians such as Barack Obama and David Cameron and point out just how much blood they have on both hands.

Their left hand for giving money to drug dealers when they were younger – something they both admit – and their right hand for supporting the profits and business practices of today’s drug lords by keeping drugs illegal.  Whose interests are these bastards representing?  Us?  Or the drug lords… and the global trail of death and misery that they leave in their wake?

BBC NEWS: THE PRICE OF MEXICO’S ‘DRUG WAR’

Even as the war on drugs continues to pile up the casualties, drug rehab program options for addicts everywhere continue to increase.

One thing is for sure: my hands are clean. I’m putting them up in the air and surrendering. The war against drugs has been lost. It’s time to declare war against the drug lords: a war we can win without firing a single shot.