Day 1,396: Neptune Strikes Back!

Mon 29.10.12:

I knew it. I knew it was unwise to mock Neptune, that most capricious of Olympian Gods. Odysseus’s punishment for a perceived slight is what caused him to take 10 years to get back to his Penelope. All I had to do was to get off the Costa neoRomantica in Diego Suarez, Madagascar and I would almost definitely be in South Sudan in November and home for Christmas.

But then I had to be funny, didn’t I? Had to dress up like Neptune, yeah? Pose with his trident, play Gods and Monsters. You smart-assed sceptic, MONKEY MAN WILL MAKE YOU BELIEVE!!!

Neptune, Poseidon-self with anger (see what I did there?), did what he always does when he’s pissed and sent an unseasonable storm our way. The ship pitched and rocked and after the Costa Concordia disaster, you can understand the captain’s decision not to risk taking a high-sided ship in high winds into the Madagascan port of Diego Suarez.

Yep you read that right: THE SHIP DID *NOT* STOP IN MADAGASCAR!!

Oh Neptune, will this grim fandango of ours never end? The horrible truth is this: in the first year of The Odyssey Expedition, I visited 133 countries. By the end of the second year of The Odyssey Expedition, I had been to 184 countries. In the last TWO YEARS I have been to (wait for it, wait for it…) 16 new countries. SIXTEEN!! Battling King Neptune, shipping schedules and Somali pirates every step of the way. Of course I’ve been to many more countries than that (most of SE Asia and India in fact), but only virgin soil counts towards the goal.

And so I found myself heading to the French island of Réunion, a place I had already been to TWICE on this journey… and it’s not even a country!!!

Darn and blast. A few hurried text messages to Mandy (who’s still helping me out behind the scenes cos she’s the best) and she had organised for me to stay with Michael Obrenovich, the French graphic designer and artist that I stayed with here EXACTLY THREE YEARS AGO TO THE GODDAMN DAY.

If you had told me three years ago that I would be here, in Réunion, and have STILL not finished my quest I would have laughed you out of the pub. But, dear reader, here I am! Réunion!!

Maldives, Seychelles: IN DA BAG!! Thank you Costa Cruises!!!

My thanks goes out to all the people at Rooster PR and Costa Cruise that made this trip possible. A huge shout out to Steve and Amy, Ramone and Kelly, John, the Welsh massive, Josie the hostess with the mostess and everybody else who went out of their way to make the journey a happy and pleasant one.

You’ll be glad to hear my team won the grand trivia competition (by a golden mile) despite one of the questions being ‘which film won the most Oscars in 1975?’ and me answering CORRECTLY “The Godfather: Part II” and them saying “no, it was Star Wars“.

Now, there are two things YOU *DO NOT*ARGUE WITH ME about.

One is geography. Seriously, don’t go there, I will wipe the floor with you.

The second is Star Wars. Seriously, I’m the type of (incredibly handsome and well travelled) geek that knows my B’omarr monks from my Corellian Bloodstripes. Again, don’t mess with me on this.

The WTF? factor was ramped up to overload when you consider the following: Star Wars *did* win 6 Oscars (the most that year)… in 1978. You know, since in 1975 THEY HADN’T EVEN STARTED FILMING THE DAMN THING!!!

*Tears hair out*

Let it go, Graham, you won anyway. Let it go…….

The ship got to Le Port in Réunion on the Monday morning. It was a grey and overcast day, which is sad for the people on the ship, because the following days it was blue skies like you would not believe. Off the ship I met an Irish girl called Chloe who was volunteering with a group encouraging tourism in Réunion. One of the things you need to know about Réunion is that when I say it’s a French Island, I mean *IT’S A FRENCH ISLAND*. I’d wager that out of the 839,500 people who live here, Chloe and I might just be the only native English speakers. Time to brush up my bon mots, methinks!

That afternoon I headed to the main town of Saint-Denis, found the Saint Hubert pub (which I remembered from last time had free why-fhy (or ‘weefee’ as the French adorably say)) and set about trying to organise my way off this rock. In the evening as the good ship Costa neoRomantica pulled out of port I met with Michael and headed off to his gaff for a good old-fashioned reunion in Réunion.

It was bound to happen sooner or later…

Nice! Now, where did I put those shipping timetables…?

Day 1,400: The Wandering Rocks

Fri 02.11.12:

Don’t get me wrong, I really love Réunion – it’s fun, the weather is like perpetual spring, the food is great and my French has improved in the last week beyond measure. And I’m doing quite well, all things considered, you know, 200 countries visited, just one to go, I get to live out my Manny Calavera fantasies and say I’ve been on a four-year journey of the soul (the joke being that I’m ginger and therefore have no soul) and one way or another I should be home in a couple of months.

But every silver lining has a cloud, and what with Neptune blocking my passage to the island of Madagascar and depositing me on the French Island of Réunion like some latter-day Papillon, I’ve got to figure a cunning way out of this fix. To the instant rescue comes splendid shipping company PIL, who have a ship leaving from Madagascar for Mozambique at the end of the month. Perfect. Only one problem. To enter Mozambique at the port, I need a visa. There is no Mozambique embassy in Madagascar, so my mum and my top mate Lindsey got on the case, procured me a Mozzy visa in London, had it slapped into my second passport and then sent the whole kit and caboodle via DHL for me to pick up this week in Antananarivo, the unpronounceable capital city of Madagascar.

Now obviously I’m not in Madagascar, but that’s no biggie, as I’ve got plenty of time to hop the Trochetia ferryboat over there sometime in the next few weeks. What would be a biggie is if, I dunno… DHL misplaced my passport…?

You’ve got to be kidding me, right?

Nope. That is exactly what happened. Frantic emails went back and forth to no avail. I was surprisingly zen-like about the whole affair, considering this not only meant there would be no way (short of a miracle) that I’d make it back to the UK for Christmas, but also I might have lost a critical piece of evidence that I’ve done what I claim to have done. My mum – bless her – had to deal with the mess over in the UK. Not the best of timing as my dad was due to go in for his rescheduled heart operation on the Thursday.

When Thursday came around, we were obviously on tenterhooks about my dad’s op. I had relocated from Michael’s place near Saint-Denis to CouchSurf with Lucie, Jean-Baptist and Luc in a lovely old place up the hill from St Paul. For lunch, Michael took me to see his friends and we ate lasagne and salad and drank champagne. Réunion being part of France and Thursday being a national holiday (for All Saints Day), our lunch lasted a good few hours, after which Michael and I headed to the port. The plan was this: with my passport stuck in limbo and the PIL ship not getting to Madagascar until Nov 24, I figured I’d head over to the nearby island of Mauritius to look for a ship – perhaps run by CMA-CGM or Maersk – that would be running to Durban in South Africa, thereby circumventing the need to possess a Mozambique visa in order to make landfall in Africa. This would also mean I could tear up to South Sudan through Zimbabwe and Zambia: two places I didn’t really get the chance to explore when I checked them off The Odyssey Expedition list.

Only one problem: the ferry – although in port – wasn’t selling tickets because it was a holiday. It’s not like it was full or anything, but despite Michael’s incredulity at the situation, they said I couldn’t buy a ticket online, pay with a credit card (or a cheque) and I couldn’t even purchase the ticket once we reached Mauritius. Un-be-lievable. So it was back to good ol’ Lucie’s gaff with my tail between my legs asking if I could stay a few more nights. Lucie, being awesome, said it would be okay and I set about on my next challenge: devising a detailed budget plan for my next project as my producer friend in the UK was having a pitch meeting for it with a rather famous TV channel the next day. Meanwhile, back in Liverpool, my dad’s triple heart-bypass was going well and he was out of surgery that afternoon.

Friday was spent frantically finishing off my pitches (why just the one? Oh, yeah… monkey tennis… thanks a bunch, Partridge) and then waiting for the response. Don’t get your hopes up, because let’s face it, these TV stations are practically drowning in talented, committed, articulate, amusing, intelligent, energetic, confident people who can write, direct, film, edit and present and have visited every country in the world without flying. Oh, and that are willing to work for free, obviously. The inevitable ‘thanks, but no thanks’ was, well, inevitable, although when told of my current expedition they said ‘Really? Now THAT would make a great TV show!’. Yes, yes it would 🙁

Crushed. On the wrong island in the wrong hemisphere, my passport lost to the vagaries of an international courier network, my best chance of having a job next year cast to the wandering rocks, my chances of getting home for Christmas slowly ebbing away and then I find out that Ethiopia is no longer issuing visas to tourists in Nairobi, or anywhere else for that matter: you have to now get it in your home country.

But, you know, I just don’t care anymore. I’ve grown so accustomed to things going tits-up on this journey that I’ve ceased to be either amused or upset by them. I just hope my sudden run of bad luck doesn’t rub off onto Barack Obama next week… he’s up for re-election and the alternative, holy crap, it doesn’t bear thinking about…

Day 1,405: Four More Years

Wed 07.11.12:

Rubbing eyes, blinking, stumbling into the light the week began. What the hell am I going to do now? With no second passport, my passage to the African Mainland looked bleak. I could, if I really wanted to, try and get back to the mainland on those crappy African trampers via Madagascar and Comoros. But last time I tried that it was DECEMBER 17 when I finally made it back to Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania. Bear in mind it is *EXACTLY* three years ago since I was last here. I want, no, I *need* to be back home for Christmas. There’s just too much at stake.

But there is a Plan C. Don’t worry, wily old Odysseus here never goes anywhere without an entire alphabet worth of plans. Maersk, the Danish shipping company – and the largest in the world – have a shipping line that runs from Mauritius to South Africa once a week. What’s more, if I can get on next Sunday’s (the 11st) ship, I could be back in Aff on the following Wednesday. Unlike the basketcases, South Africa requires no visa bullshit to enter the country, so I don’t have to worry about all that crap: although it means that my visas for both Madagascar and Mozambique were a HUGE waste of time and money (sorry mum, sorry Lindsey!).

I had sent emails out to all and sundry, stuff along the lines of “C’mon pleeeeeease, it’s the last bit of the journey!”, but as yet had no response.

I went to sleep on Monday night feeling like the world was pressing down on my shoulders, making my head spin and my fingers numb. Hundreds of ships go to Africa from here. Hundreds! And it’s not in the pirate zone… why is this proving so difficult? AND WHY DID DHL HAVE TO LOSE MY BLEEDIN’ PASSPORT??!

I was woken at half-midnight by my Mum calling on Skype. DHL had found the passport. It was in Madagascar. It just hadn’t been scanned upon arrival.

PHEW.

A million times over, PHEW.

My mum sounded frazzled. My dad was recuperating well after his triple heart bypass and would hopefully be sent home the next day. The ability of the human body to repair itself is nothing short of stunning and I’m very glad to have inherited my father’s hardly-ever-get-ill genes. His don’t-really-get-hangovers genes I probably could have done without (as my beer belly can no doubt attest).

SPEAKING of beer-bellies, can I just point out that the whole concept of beer swelling your gizzards is utter hogwash. And I can prove it. Since I returned to Sri Lanka I’ve been making a concerted effort to just drink beer (no cola) and avoid eating anything whenever possible (and not too uncomfortable). I call it the Graham Hughes Beer Diet. And it works. Lost half a stone in a month, that’s 7 pounds or just over 3 kilos. Easy. Don’t know what everyone’s moaning about. Well, it was either this, the heroin diet or the anaemic dysentery diet. If there’s a cheat code for life, then I’m all over it like white on rice.

Muttering something about having to climb a mountain the next day, I said goodbye to my mum and fell back asleep.

My insanely accurate internal alarm clock woke me up at 4am. The day before I had agreed to accompany the French girls up La Grand Bernare, a volcanic ridge that rises to the second highest point in Réunion, a good 2900 metres above sea level. They wanted to be at the top before the afternoon clouds rolled in, which would mean setting off at 5am as it takes an hour to drive to base camp and it’s a good four hours to reach the summit. Réunion is a very large little island.

The four French girls, sensibly, wore hiking boots. I, on the other hand, don’t own any hiking boots. As a matter of fact, I don’t own any shoes whatsoever aside from my trainers that wouldn’t look out of place being sprayed with disinfectant at the local bowling alley. Not great for climbing mountains. We arrived at Maido, the beginning of the trail, just before 6am. The girls hardly spoke a word of English, so I had no idea what I was in for. To be honest, with the proper equipment, it would have been nothing more than a slightly strenuous stroll, but when the path is made up entire of random jaggedly rocks which helpfully cut holes in the soles of your shoes, and every time you stub your toe it feels like you might as well not be wearing shoes at all, it soon becomes a living hell. But, you know, in for a penny in for a pound and in the end I reached the summit… about half an hour after the infernal clouds had rolled in, thus making my triumph summitting summit of a damp squib. Oh well, at least I got a photo at the top.

The path back down was nothing short of cruel and unusual punishment as my shoes (patched up in Sri Lanka) fell apart at the seams on the stony ground, but I refused to give up (a fitting allegory for this entire expedition eh?). By 1.30pm, Anlou and I were back down at the car and I was downing my first can of coke in two months like a (fat) man possessed. The five of us then went to a café for some lunch before returning to Lucie’s gaff. One of the nice things about being time shifted forwards by 4 hours is that your afternoon is everybody else’s morning. I texted my cousin Christian in Denmark to ask if he could give Maersk a call and find out if they got last week’s email. Turns out the guy I wrote to is no longer there. So the email got forwarded to Michael Storsgaard, who has always been very helpful towards The Odyssey Expedition in the past.

Fingers crossed.

That night was the night of the US Election. Under normal operating conditions, I would be watching it with my friend Jonny Reynolds, with whom I watched the 2000, 2004 and 2008 vote. Jonny and I ran for Student Union positions together back in the day, and he’s now the MP for Stalybridge. I once told an American that I have stayed up to watch every Presidential Election since 1992. He asked me, in all earnestness, why I was so interested in who wins the Presidency of the United States. This is one of those things that a good proportion of Americans, bless their cotton socks, just do NOT understand. They can whinge and whine about their massive farming subsidies, having to, you know, pay tax, being given free health care AGAINST THEIR WILL, not being able to keep slaves anymore… but that’s all domestic. When we talk international politics, who leads the United States is of critical and almost mind-blowing importance. Thanks to the economic policies of that gobshite Bush, THE WORLD IS IN RECESSION. Tens of millions of people all over the developed world are now unemployed. Thanks to his foreign policy of ‘invade first, ask questions later’, The Middle East has become even more destabilised than it already was and HUNDREDS of British troops are now six feet under after giving their lives fighting two unpopular and unwinnable wars.

So, yeah, I watch the US Presidential election, because it affects me, you and everyone we know. If Romney wins, he wants to make abortion ILLEGAL and he wants to repeal the regulations put in place to stop the banks, financial institutions and Wall Street behaving like unrestricted coke-hoovering clowns that have proved adept at trashing the economies of entire continents. Romney wants to stop the poor and needy getting the free health care provided by Obama’s health reforms (how VERY Christian of him) and wants to invade Iran at the first opportunity. Unless you’ve had your head in a bucket of cowshit for the last fifty years, NONE OF THESE ARE GOOD THINGS. In fact, they are all the opposite of good, they are all quite blatantly evil. Bleedin’ Christers. I guess you actually have to believe in the devil in order to work for him eh?

So there’s me, on my Billy Lonesome in Lucie’s lounge watching the rolling coverage of the election on the BBC website (Frenchies don’t really go in for what’s going on in the outside world). I knew I wouldn’t hear the final result until 8am, but that’s okay, it’s not like I had climbed a mountain earlier in the day. I was accompanied for a while by Casey via the wonder that is Skype, but even she flaked out by about 2am her time. So that just left me and my twitter account. But hey, you do whatcha gotta do, right?

Anyway, to cut a long story short, OBAMA WON!!!

Which is super, great, magnificent, awesome and, well, THANK —- FOR THAT!!

I’m sure I heard a collective sigh of relief from around the world at 4am GMT when the Ohio result came in and World War III was narrowly averted.

Well, at least the invasion of Iran. For now.

So, four more years of the best president America has pretty much ever had. He was handed a poison chalice from his bunkum numbskull of a predecessor, but damn did he drink it down never losing eye contact, wipe his chin, burp and scream “IS THAT ALL YOU GOT?!!!!!!” while imitating the facial expression of Samuel L Jackson doing the Haka.

GOOD ON YA, BARACK!!!

Day 1,406: The Lava Meets The Sea

Thu 08.11.12:

In many ways, Thursday was (yet another) D-Day for this phase of The Odyssey Expedition. I had a choice to make: I could stick here on Réunion and wait for the PIL ship, but that would mean once I got to Madagascar racing to Antananarivo and back (at least a 15 hour round trip) to pick up my passport with the visa in it for Mozambique. There would be a chance I wouldn’t make it there and back before the ship left port and in any case, it would also mean there would be no chance of getting back to the UK for Christmas. Or I could twist: take the Trochetia ferry tomorrow over to Mauritius and hope that Maersk come through for me.

But going to Mauritius would be a big risk. Not only would it mean spending a fortune on the Trochetia (it’s €124 one way), it could also mean being stranded there UNTIL DECEMBER. Yes – the Trochetia is scheduled to go in for repairs next week and won’t be running to back to Réunion or Madagascar again until next month. So, what to do? Well, it’s like a card trick: you just have to stack everything correctly for all eventualities.

There would be no point in moping around La Maison all day, so I joined Luc and Anlor for a daytrip to Réunion’s famous lava flows.

Piton de la Fournais (literally ‘Peak of the Furance’) is an unruly and angry volcano that blows its stack more often than Mel Gibson on gin and meth amphetamine. It’s one of the most active volcanoes in the world, along with Etna in Sicily, Erebus in Antarctica and Kīlauea in Hawaii. It erupted in August 2006 (and continued to erupt until January 2007) and again in February 2007, and again on 21 September 2008 and AGAIN on 9 December 2010. Luckily for the Réunionnaise, the volcano usually spews its molten hot mag-ma (to be said like Dr. Evil, always) directly into the sea. Okay, so once a year the N2 road up the east coast gets thousands of tons of hot melty rock deposited on top of it, but look on the bright side, when the lava trails cool down, they become a huge tourist attraction.

Oh, and it can take MONTHS for the lava to cool down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In the afternoon, Luc and Anlor went for a swim in a natural rock pool on the south coast while I devoured a tasty tuna baguette whilst frantically texted my cousin Christian in Denmark, Mickael here in Réunion and my CS host for the night, Geraldine. It wasn’t until later I realised that while Christian, my mum and Casey were getting my texts loud and clear, they were not coming through to anyone in Réunion. Borrowing Luc’s phone, I managed to get in touch with Mickael to find out the SP on the Trochetia. My heart sank as he told me that last week when they wouldn’t let me buy a ticket wasn’t just because it was a public holiday on November 1. It was also because THEY DON’T SELL TICKETS ON THE DAY FOR THE FERRY TO MAURITIUS, EVER. You always have to buy at least a day before.

Bollocks.

If Maersk say no, I’ve just wasted €124 that I simply don’t have. If they say yes, but not until after 5pm our time today, I’ve missed my chance.

Mickael to the rescue!! He managed to *reserve* me a ticket, at no cost, so long as I paid for it before 10am the next day. Then Christian got back to me saying that Maersk were ‘confident’ that there should be no problems with me getting on the ship from Mauritius to South Africa on Sunday. Okay, don’t lose it Graham – you’ve been here before – just… relax.

Luc, Anlor and I returned to Saint Paul at about 6pm and we waited at the café opposite the city’s Multiplex Cinema for Geraldine to arrive. Why? Oh because Geraldine, being the awesome CS host that she no doubt is, had a spare ticket to the Réunion Film Festival that was taking place that night and had invited me along. Must have known I was a cinefile! Geraldine also speaks incredibly good English, which I have to say is a rarity on the island. Probably because she’s not French, she’s Belgian. After saying farewell to Luc and Anlor, I attempted to straighten my shirt (the equivalent of putting the cushions back on the what’s left of the couch after the tornado has hit) and Geraldine and I set off down the red carpet.

There were two movies, the first – Marriage in Mendoza – was a great little roadtrip movie about two French guys driving across Argentina for a wedding. As it was in French, Spanish and a little English I found it easy to follow with my spattering of knowledge of those three languages. As the credits started rolling, my phone, set to silent, vibrated in my pocket.

It was Christian.

“Yehaa! It’s a big 10-4 as in GO! from the good guys at Maersk.”

I leapt up, punched the air and whooped like I’d won the pools. THIS GINGER TRAVELLING MONKEY IS COMING HOME!! As icing on the cake, in the intermission between the films there was free champagne, beer and vol-au-vents. Oh what measure of bliss is this!

The second film wasn’t as good, best described as a French Before Sunrise, it was just a guy and a girl talking all night. In French. With no subtitles. Argh! Afterwards, Geraldine drove me back to Lucie’s house to pick up my gear. Sadly, Lucie and Anlor were asleep, so I didn’t get to say goodbye, but Luc was still up and he wished me well.

That night I didn’t get any sleep at all as I quietly plotted my path through Africa while Casey kept me company on Skype. I’ve broken too many promises on this journey. I won’t break this one:

THROUGH HELL AND HIGH WATER…

THROUGH AFRICA AND THE MIDDLE EAST…

THROUGH FRONTIERS AND BADLANDS…

I ***WILL*** BE HOME FOR CHRISTMAS

I will see you then.