Today we hit land in fortress Saudi, possibly the most difficult country in the world to pop in for a quick visit. It was a great sunset as we came into dock, and as I stood on the side of the ship filming our arrival it felt as if, just this once, the gods had conspired to make my reunion with Mandy run as smoothly as Africa would ever allow.
However, once we pulled into Jeddah port, it was a different story. After watching a movie in the ship’s mess, I stood out on deck for a bit watching operations from above. Loads of chaps in hard hats where scurrying about, and the cargo was being unloaded at record pace (remarkable when compared to the slug-slow hi-jinks that goes on in most typical African ports) but then I remembered – I’m not in Africa any more! Woo! My first tentative step into Asia! I ambled down the gangplank, touched solid ground and before you could say ‘hey you!’, an irate-looking chap was marching me back up again. Why? Ah yes – that camcorder that was dangling menacingly off my shoulder. Nobody had seen fit to inform me that Saudi takes its port security very seriously – it wasn’t that I was filming anything (I wasn’t) but just having a camera in port can land you a fine of $50,000 or six months in jail. The man, the port agent, saved me just in time – if a copper had spotted me, I could have been up poo creek without a paddle.
Is it too much to ask for just one week in which I am not threatened with (nor, indeed actually met with) imprisonment, fines, deportation, GBH or cannibalism? Well, maybe not cannibalism, but you get my point, I’m getting rather sick of it, you see. And my usual happy-go-lucky demeanour keeps taking a nosedive into places demons fear to tread. My infeasibly fertile imagination has taken a habit this year of inventing new rungs of hell for these buggers! I guess I’ve always had a problem with authority…
I headed up to the officer’s mess and sat for the rest of the night watching DVDs and pretending to be invisible.
Oh yes, I’m back ON THE ROAD! After saying my final farewell to the delectable Kassie I bundled myself on the 9am bus to Bahrain via Dammam in Saudi Arabia. Panicking over all the horror stories I’ve been told about Saudi customs, I wiped all the TV shows and Hollywood movies off my hard drives (lest they contain kisses, witchcraft or a picture of a cross) and made sure I didn’t have a single used videotape on me (remembering Iran and Congo).
In the event, they didn’t even open my bag. Hilarious.
I had my photo taken and my fingerprints scanned and that was it. Easy as pie. I arrived in the wholly unremarkable town of Dammam in the early afternoon and it wasn’t long before I was excitedly crossing the MASSIVE causeway to Nation 156, Bahrain – the Las Vegas of the Middle East.
Oh yes, Bahrain – Bands, Broads and Booze on tap and the parties don’t even get started until after midnight. I met with Tim, my CS host and one US Navy Lieutenant. His apartment was so kick ass it made me wonder why I never went to officer school. Oh yeah and then there was the fridge – stocked to the gills with beer, lovely cold refreshing beer.
After a few we hit the streets, grabbing some authentic Bahraini KFC on the way to the Irish pub (there’s always an Irish pub). There we watched a band that were so-so before pushing on to a Pilipino joint with a much better band who actually put some pizzazz into their cover versions. From that point on my recollection of the night kind of falls apart. I remember meeting some girls from Ethiopia and asking why they wouldn’t let me open the windows on the bus. I don’t think I did any Karaoke, but it’s a possibility.
How on Earth Tim dragged himself into work in the morning is a mystery I’ll probably never fathom.
As if Qatar hadn’t done enough to upset me, today it well and truly rained on my parade. I was planning to meet up with friends I had met in Kuwait tomorrow in Dubai, and when I rang the SAPTCO bus office they told me that the bus left at 6pm.
Good stuff! I packed up my things and headed into Doha city centre, there to meet Tracy who I should have been CouchSurfing with last night. We grabbed some lunch in a Thai restaurant and nattered about living in Qatar. Originally from Vancouver in Canada, Tracy’s been here for two years. It seems that Qatar suffers from many of the same problems as Kuwait – spoilt, lazy rich kids, dangerous drivers and an almost unbelievably stratified society.
But, you know, in the greater scheme of things these are minor quibbles. The governments here really do look after their people very, very well – in a way that African governments just wouldn’t understand. Free hospitals, schools, roads, sewers, street lights, development, enterprise grants, allowances, pensions, unemployment benefits… go try to explain what these things are to Ali Bongo of Gabon and he’ll probably chase you up a tree and set fire to it.
But the guys in charge here could, if they wanted to, pull an Ali Bongo. Or a Nigeria. Or an Angola – rich rich rich oil states, but 100% of the money that could go to building a better society and a brighter future for their citizens is stolen and squirreled away in Swiss bank accounts. Here, things are very different, and I for one salute the Gulf’s governments for looking after their own people.
Of course, it’s not a rosy garden – at any one time there are about 400 Filipino housemaids in the Filipino embassy in Kuwait desperate to go home after being abused or raped or locked in the house for months while the family goes on holiday (seriously). The attitude of the locals towards the ‘lower’ immigrants (Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis etc) would make Nick Griffin blush.
But, you know, you live in hope. Maybe one day attitudes will change and the little Princes and Princesses of the Gulf will learn a little bit of humility and the fact that what goes around, comes around.
After lunch I thanked Tracy and apologised for last night’s cock-up. I then darted over to the bus office (next to the Guest Palace Hotel, pop-pickers!) to get my ticket for tonights bus… only to discover that tonight’s bus back into Saudi (you have to dip in and out of Saudi to get to the UAE) was last night’s bus that’s still stuck at the border.
Again, I wasn’t going anywhere.
Tracy graciously allowed me to stay at her’s for the night and that evening we made a beeline for the Irish Pub – yes, there’s ALWAYS an Irish Pub! I’ve got to say I never thought I’d be dancing to YMCA in Arabia with a pint of Stella in my grubby mitts.
So with a day to kill, Tracy and I headed out to the museum of Islamic Art. As I’ve mentioned before, with a pretty much outright ban in place over depicting any living thing in a picture or a statue, Islamic art is concentrated around two disciplines – calligraphy and complex geometric shapes. When these two disciplines come together to create something as spellbinding and complex as the Taj Mahal, it truly is a joy to behold.
What was particularly cool about the museum (certainly not the architecture I have to say, typical boring brutalist crap by I.M. Not-Very-Good-At-This-Am-I?) was the Pearl exhibition that was on. Before they found oil in the 1930s, the Gulf states paid their way through the pearl trade. A trade that had pretty much dried up over the preceding decades as cultured pearls for Japan had begun to dominate the market. In fact, it’s a good bet that had oil not been found there would only be three gulf states – Saudi, Yemen and Oman. I seriously doubt that Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE would exist as separate nations.
But they did find oil and the rest, as they say, is history. But that’s not to detract from the importance of the pearl trade throughout the 19th century and what a shame that the new commodity is – unlike pearls – dirty, polluting, and contributing to an impeding global catastrophe that no politicians in the world today seem willing or able to do anything about. A necessary evil some might say, but then they probably haven’t watched the documentary ‘Who Killed The Electric Car?’.
A least pearls are fairly innocent trinkets and treasures – the idea of snorkelling down to the bottom of the sea with a knife and looking for riches hidden in shells is a lot more romantic than the poor wretched life of a diamond miner in Sierra Leone or a silver miner in Bolivia (life expectancy 40 years).
So after soaking in the history and the art of Qatar and the surrounding regions, Tracy and I grabbed one last coffee and at 6pm I was on the bus that was supposed to leave yesterday.
Again, the border crossing into Saudi was painless, but I wasn’t too happy when I got to my transit stop only to find that the bus to Dubai didn’t leave at 10pm (as it said on my ticket) but it would be leaving at 12pm. Three hours spent literally in the middle of nowhere on the edge of The Empty Quarter. This also meant we had an incredibly ill-timed border crossing in the middle of the night which wasn’t completed until well after 3am.
Needless to day, I didn’t get a whole lot of sleep.
So after a good night’s kip I had a the best part of a day to shake off my hangover. The bus for Riyadh, the Saudi capital, left at 5pm. I spent the day shuffling about, wondering why the sun had to be so bright and skimming all the superfluous items out of my bag. At 3pm I left my coat behind in the The Greens as I departed for the Saudi Arabia Public Transport Company (SAPTCO) bus ‘station’ in Deira, but returning ten minutes later as I had also left my mobile phone. Which I needed. Damien rolled his eyes.
When I finally got to the SAPTCO office they told me to come back in half an hour. I used this time to go out in the baking heat and check my pores were still working properly. As my soaking wet t-shirt could no doubt attest, they were. Eventually, they issued me a ticket and I was on the bus heading back into Saudi, my mind whirring through all the things that could go horribly wrong.
The plan is this: From Riyadh, head to Jeddah on the Red Sea and see if I can catch a lift on a cargo ship going to Eritrea. Failing that, I’ll head south to Jizan and try to find a more enterprising way of getting there. I’d rather not have to do that. The downside was that taking the bus today meant missing the England vs. Algeria match in the World Cup. But as Damien pointed out, it should be an easy win, and if it isn’t, he’d rather not watch it!
I managed to cadge the back seats on the bus, which was great for the first couple of hours as the bus wasn’t very full. Unfortunately for me, as we approached the Saudi border I was joined by a giant Saudi who muscled in on my patch and promptly took up 4 of the 5 back seats as if I wasn’t there. So much for a good night’s kip.
As it transpired, a good night’s kip was the last thing I was going to get. As England completely stuffed up their ‘easy’ game against Algeria (thanks for the text updates, mum), we crossed the border at some ungodly hour of the night and while the Saudi sniffer dog sniffed our bus for drugs, all us passengers had to stand outside, our bags opened for inspection, which was thankfully curt. We then stopped for a bite to eat and then there was a faff (I still don’t know quite why) about something to do with somebody’s papers, the border guys made a guest appearance and after a remarkably long discussion for three o’ clock in the morning, we were allowed back on the bus. Which arrived in Riyadh five hours later.
I had just missed the 8am bus, so I bought a ticket for the 10am one to Jeddah. It arrived at 12. While we hurtled through the desert, my CouchSurfing host for Jeddah, a Saudi guy named Turki, rang me up to arrange stuff for when I arrived. Turki grew up in the States (which explains his perfect North American diction) but has now lived in Saudi for many years. We ended up chatting for over an hour during which discussion he told me he was good friends with an English guy called Bob who works in the shipping industry in Jeddah. It’s fair to say I liked Turki from the start.
As the desert swept past and the sun went to bed, we stopped for prayer time. I sat and quaffed a nice hot cup of tea while the guys off the bus genuflected to their god. The Middle East, moreso than other places on the planet, is a place dominated by two themes – materialism and spirituality. It’s odd that these things go together so well, but then again, look at the gold statues in the Vatican or the burgeoning middle classes of India. I look on all these goings on, the praying, the bead-thumbing, the sports cars and the palaces and feel completely distanced from this facet of the world. Truth be told I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body, and as for materialism, everything I need is in my backpack and I haven’t desperately wanted the latest thingymajig since I was a kid.
For this reason, even though I know the Middle East exceptionally well, I always feel like an alien here, not just from another country, but from another planet. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy myself when I’m here, it’s just that it’s not my scene baby, and it will never be.
The bus rolled into Jeddah around midnight, but Turki stayed up to pick me up which was great. We will learn more of Turki’s wisdom tomorrow.
Turki’s apartment in the north of Jeddah was as sweet as sweet can be. Not only did I get my own room (and bathroom), his fridge was stocked and there was a nice hot cup of tea with real milk whenever I fancied it. Turki himself is a remarkably interesting chap – a jack of many trades – a building planner/surveyor in his day job, in his spare time he has just put together the first of his ‘Arabic Trails’ guidebooks, a full colour 4×4 guide with the amazing stuff you can find in the desert, if you know where to look. The pdf version on his computer looked seven shades of awesome – even more awesome when you realised he did most of the research, took the photos, created the maps and set the design.
This guide just covered the Hijaz area, which is this part of Arabia, the stuff around Mecca, but Turki is planning many more, including one for Oman. It’s really excellent stuff. I take my hat off to him.
Turki totally took on the challenge of getting me to Eritrea and had taken the day off work to help. He arranged for us to meet with his friend Bob Moss for lunch and soon enough we were setting off to the excellent Pakistani restaurant downtown for the awesome lunchtime buffet.
Bob is the managing director of one of the biggest shipping companies in Jeddah. If there was a more awesome place to start our quest, I couldn’t imagine. Over some tasty tasty tucker I explained my situation, the ‘mad plan’ and the difficulties I’ve faced getting over to Eritrea (all the land borders being closed, ships from The Gulf being a no-no and Yemen being shut). Bob advised me to do two things: first, get myself an Eritrean visa. Second, go and see his colleague Abdullah who is a very important guy in the ship business and a bit of a port Yoda, he’ll be able to direct us where to go next.
All sounded fairly straightforward, but to be honest with you, the idea of getting an Eritrean visa fills me with dread. After my adventures across Central Asia, not to mention my nightmare Saudi and Indian visas, I fully expect them to demand I get my visa from the UK, a process which would take at least two weeks.
But you gotta do what you gotta do, and after lunch Turki and I said our thanks and goodbyes to Bob and headed back to the flat. Turki called the Eritrean embassy to find out what the SP was, and the answer we got back was the most unexpected thing I’ve heard in the last six months.
Yeah, tell him to bring his passport and a photo, we’ll do it for him tomorrow.
One photo? Tomorrow?
What about the letter from my employer? My bank statements? My birth certificate? My letter of invitation? Residency papers? My flight in and out? My hotel booking? Seventeen photos? My fingerprints? My iris scan? My Arabic translation? My shoe-size? My star-sign? My first memory? The colour of my underwear….?
Nah, just bring a photo.
Ahh… Eritrea you surprisingly un-paranoid hunka hunk of burnin’ love. I could just kiss you!
Just to put this marvel into perspective, we also called up the Sudanese embassy as back-up in case I couldn’t get a ship to Eritrea. Ha! No chance! You have to get your Sudanese visa from London, ginger boy. That’ll take about a month, won’t it? Woohahahahahahaha etc.
Later that day Turki took me out to the old town of Jeddah, a place he is as enthusiastic about as I am over the old bits of my Liverpool. The city fathers are in the middle of replacing the yucky asphalt with cobblestones, which is going to look great, but unfortunately on the day that I arrive they have merely dug up all the roads (and I mean ALL the roads!) without actually getting cracking with the cobbles. Then again, maybe the undulating dirt paths make it even more authentic…!
The old buildings here are really wonderful, made of local coral stone with wooden latticed windows to let the cool air in. There isn’t a single straight line to be found, an Arabic rendering of Diagon Alley from Harry Potter. The marketplace is still here after hundreds of years and unlike Qatar’s old quarter there is a real sense of authenticity.
Although I have to say my favourite souk market in the world is in Tunis. It beats Jeddah, Jerusalem, Cairo, Istanbul and even Marrakech hands down.
After taking in the old town, Turki and I head back to the flat in order to suss something out – how to copy pdfs and videos onto my little hard drive. On any other hard drive this would be a cinch, but this hard drive is made by a dreadful group of American capitalist pigdog businessmen who tuck their t-shirts into their high-hitched jeans and so their overpriced toys are more fussy than an OCD Lord Snooty when it comes to whether it will, you know, allow crazy space-aged stuff like pdf files onboard, especially if it’s wearing trainers.
It’s fair to say that my hard drive has ideas above its station.
It took Turki and I, who are both more computer literate than the average Joe, FOUR HOURS to crack the secret alchemy involved in the seemingly simple task of putting pdfs onto my iPod. FOUR HOURS which neither of us are going to get back. But at least Turki now knows how to put pdfs on his new hilariously named iPad as well. This means he can now put up to TEN of his own books on the thing, before he has to pay(!) for a application that allows him to put another one on. Ka-ching!!
The annoying thing is that to copy pdfs across you have to have your computer and your iPod wirelessly attached to the internet. Difficulties arise here because often I do not have a free wireless connection (for instance, my connection in Kuwait was wired and my Vodafone mobile internet dongle only worked on my laptop), and when I go to a café to use the ‘free’ internet, they invariably give me one code, and only one, so I can’t connect both my laptop and my iPod to the net at the same time. And if it’s a paying internet place, I have to pay double.
Why the info can’t just, you know, GO DOWN THE FRICKIN’ LITTLE WHITE USB CABLE ATTACHED TO MY LAPTOP I do not (and fear will never) know.
Meanwhile, I can finally put my own Odyssey vids on my iPod to show people. You see, rendering them in Quicktime is not enough, there is a secret video setting that you have to use, but this setting is so secret, nobody actually knows what it is. I mean, we all know that iPods can play ordinary mp4 files (as demonstrated when you go onto YouTube). We also know that they can understand pdf files – after all, you can email them to yourself from a real computer if necessary. But try an copy these things across and your iPod looks at you like you’re the biggest idiot since George W Bush.
No no no, what you need is an iPod video converter, because the £750 you spent on Adobe Premiere ain’t enough! So if you buy this converter, it will (in seconds!) add the little bit of code that says you just gave Steve Jobs another fistful of dollars and allow you to put your video that you made onto your hard drive.
The sad thing is that Apple, though rotten to the core, have a cult. A cult that actually gets offended if you say that their products are monopolistic, awkwardly programmed, overly-judgemental toys. And their ranks are growing. It’s heart-breaking that even in this day and age people still think that these mega-corporations still have their best interests at heart. Just like the banking industry, eh?
Turki gets up at some horrendously early hour of the morning, but I was allowed to sleep in until 8am, and then we both headed over to the Eritrean Consulate. Again, Turki took a day off work to help me out (miles above and light years beyond the call of duty). A little man dressed in red with horns, a pointy tail and a pitchfork hovered over my left shoulder whispering it can’t be this easy, it can’t be this easy…
But it was.
I didn’t even need to fill out a form, they did it for me. And when they told me I could pick the visa up later that day, I almost broke into cartwheels. So can I pay for it in Saudi money? Of course! Do I have to pay it into a bank that’s on the other side of town? Don’t be silly, just pay it over there at the window marked ‘cashier’. Then I did break into cartwheels.
Our meeting with Abdullah was in the afternoon, so there was a good chance we’d actually have the visa to show him. Things were going well. I have decided that Turki is my lucky charm (even though I don’t believe in luck) and that I should definitely stuff him in my backpack and take him with me for the final forty.
Over lunch, Turki and I had a good natter about Saudi Arabia and it’s perception in the wider world. Growing up in the US, Turki has a good outsider’s perspective and now after living here for so many years he also has inside knowledge that a tourist like me will often lack.
Now first up, do they still stone women to death for adultery (or being raped)? Turki says no, the only capital offenses here are murder, rape and drug-dealing and the only state sanctioned method of execution is beheading. Er… okay, what about chopping off thieves hands? Again, the answer is no (and to be fair I didn’t see any handless vagrants wandering about). So the old British right wing why-don’t-we-just-chop-their-hands-off-like-the-Saudis is balderdash then? Yup.
Okay then. We will continue this discussion later.
At 3pm we were back at the Eritrean consulate and there it was – my Eritrean visa. Unbelievable! So, so easy! We rushed over to meet Bob and Abdullah, passport in hand. Abdullah was a really nice guy, Turki and I explained my mission, showed him some videos on Turki’s iPad and he gave us his support.
He told us that we have to visit a place called Baaboud Shipping down by the docks. They run the one and only cargo operation between Jeddah and Eritrea. He gave us the name and number of the guy we needed to speak to, Ahmed Ibn-Ishaq, and told us to tell them that Abdullah sent us. Things were going well. Yes I am playing a real-life game of Monkey Island.
That night, Turki and I chatted about that great big elephant in the corner. Women’s rights in Saudi. As far as I am concerned, they don’t have any. They’re not allowed to drive, (and it’s too hot to walk) they are forced to wear a big black cotton bag over their entire body (in the desert – nice!) and their view of the world is obscured by the fact they have their faces completely covered whenever they are outside. They can’t go anywhere, do anything, speak to anybody without the permission of a man, be it their father or their husband.
The blacked-out ‘Family’ rooms of every restaurant along the road to Jeddah are testament to how divided the world of men is from the world of women here in Saudi. This is all based on little more than an incredibly childish sense of jealousy. Put simply, the men here do not want other men even looking at their wives. This may be because many marriages here are arranged and therefore loveless. Lacking this bond that (by and large) stops normal, free women from having affairs, the Bedu men’s paranoia is understandable (kinda) but the system here stops just short of locking the fairer half of the population up in the basement.
The maddening thing is that there is NOTHING in the Koran about women having live as little more than slaves to their menfolk. It is a Bedu thing, and despite the mealy-mouthed apologists saying it is about ‘respect’ (do me a quaver), it’s about nothing more than male power, domination, jealousy and paranoia – things that a good Muslim should be fighting a personal jihad against.
I have to say that here in the Hijaz part of the country things are a lot more easy going. However, the capital Riyadh is slap bang in the middle of Bedu country and so things are unlikely to change at a national level anytime soon. But Turki is optimistic. He reckons that the Hijazis are a lot more cosmopolitan and there is an unstoppable rise in the numbers of young people using Facebook and mixed coffee shops to meet members of the opposite sex. Maybe a healthy dose of real love will be what’s needed to finally break the back of the green-eyed monster.
Turki had tried in vain all yesterday to get in touch with Baaboud Shipping and arrange a meeting with Ahmed. But this morning we had better luck. By 9.01am we had a meeting arranged. Turki donned his traditional Saudi garp (to enhance his already consummate Jedi skills) and by 10am we were in Ahmed Ibn-Ishaq’s office drinking green coffee and talking ships to Eritrea.
After Turki introduced me and explained that we had been told to come here by Abdullah, I explained my mission. Turki then smoothly fought my corner in Arabic, I can’t tell you how important the power of introduction is to The Odyssey: whenever I just ruck up and tell people what I’m doing they generally a) don’t believe me or b) think I’m a nut. It’s kinda embarrassing. Once that obstacle is out of the way, it makes things SO much easy to get the help I desperately need.
As the conversation continued it slowly dawned on me that things might finally be going my way. Ahmed was a cheerful chap (with a look of Clancy Brown about him) and he loved the idea that I was travelling all over the world without flying. I showed him my passport (avec visa) and he asked me if I was ready to leave tomorrow.
TOMORROW!!!?!?!? HELL YEAH!!
I couldn’t believe it. After two months of pretty much everything going wrong, it was now all going so right. And what’s more is that Baaboud Shipping’s cargo ship only goes to Eritrea two or three times a month: our timing was magnificent – the ship was in port and leaving tomorrow.
I think I danced a little jig.
Turki and I spent a good hour and a half with Ahmed and when we left it was jubilation all around. THIS is when I’m reminded of why I’m doing The Odyssey. The dizzying highs. The days when everything comes together with a perfection that could not be predicted. They make the days of frustration and loneliness all worth it.
Over a tasty lunch at the Lebanese place down the road Turki and I celebrated the travel smackdown of the season.
We’d done it.
That evening we headed to Jeddah’s posh date shop (think Thornton’s meets Tiffany’s, but with dates – the type you eat!) and bought a beautiful wooden box packed full of dates for Ahmed – a nice Arabic way of saying thank you.
Later we went out to a coffee place down by the water. Turki and I had a jolly old fight about modern architecture and I had a good chuckle at this big concrete block with the cars sticking out of it. Eek!
We had to be at Baaboud Shipping for 7.30am, and, once again, Turki took time away from the office to take me there. The level of hospitality and sheer generosity I’ve received from Turki has really knocked me for six. I owe this guy BIG. Like many other Odyssey Heroes I really have no idea how I can possibly repay him short of declaring a Wookiee Life-Debt. The only thing I can do is spread the love and do everything in my power to help my fellow wayfarers along the way after I finish this adventure. And you can hold me to that.
We presented Ahmed with his dates and he responded with a pot of authentic Sudanese green bean coffee. The ship would be leaving this afternoon and we had to be at the port for 10am. Ahmed gave Turki the phone number of the port agent and gave me his best wishes. One last traditional Saudi breaky (flat bread and yummy beans followed by a yoghurt and honey desert… yum!) and Turki dropped me at the port.
I was shepherded through the massive passenger terminal nice and quick (I was the only one there!) and after being picked up by the port bus, I alighted at the quayside where the Ibn Al Waleed, the cargo ship that would be taking me to Eritrea, lay in wait. The last time I was here at this port was on the 29th December 2009 upon the MV Turquoise racing on my way to meet Mandy at the pyramids before New Year – Almost a full six months ago.
I clambered aboard and introduced myself to Captain Mohamed Mousa Mohamed, Chief Nay Myo and Babikir Yahya the cook before settling down in the mess with my laptop to write this blog and to count down the minutes to the England vs. Slovenia game.
Yup, luckily for me, the Ibn Al Waleed has satellite TV!
The ship is an old one – it must be from the 1970s. It reminds me of my dad’s old carburetter shop in Liverpool – a mucky, working vessel that does its job but you wouldn’t want to eat your dinner off the floor. It’s nowhere near as big as some of the mega container ships I’ve been on board, but it manages to pack a lot of containers and a ton of new cars on the deck.
The crew from Sudan, Sri Lanka, Burma and the Philippines are a lively bunch and they all look forward to kicking back and having a day off work in Eritrea where they can get hold of chicks and booze – things that in Saudi are in short supply!
This evening England scraped through to the final 16 of the World Cup, but are facing Germany on their next outing so that should be fun. But with the universally glum expressions of the English players (most notably Wayne Rooney) I’m not holding my breath for victory. Everyone is wondering what the secret of the South American teams is. I’ll tell you what it is – they look like they’re enjoying themselves!
So… the schedule is that we arrive in Eritrea Friday afternoon, spend a day or two in Massawa before returning to Saudi for Monday or Tuesday next week.
It would be 3am before we were finally loaded and set sail for the 161st nation of The Odyssey Expedition. To be able to tick Eritrea off my list would a huge huge weight off my shoulders… to think only last week I was considering heading to Eritrea last after visiting every other country in the world, in the hope that the border with Djibouti would be reopened some time this year.
Thursday on board ship passed like a dream. Out on the high sea I felt the exhilaration of things finally going to plan. I spent the day in the mess as the crew drifted in and out throughout the day, waiting for the football to start. Today we got to watch Italy get unceremoniously dumped out of the group round (bottom of their table) and sadly bid farewell to the Danish contingent as they got their bottoms well and truly spanked by the Japanese.
With any luck tomorrow I’ll be downing a cool pint and watching the footy in a bar in Massawa knowing that I am the first person to visit every single nation of South America, The Caribbean, Central and North America, Europe, The Middle East and Africa in one rather epic surface journey. I look forward to it.
I was a little iniquitous last time I left Africa, and for that I am truly sorry. Africa is many things, but it’s definitely not rubbish. Infuriating perhaps, but not crap. Eritrea, or rather Massawa, really warmed the cockles of my heart, and it’s hard to stay mad at an entire continent, even if it did throw you in jail twice. So for the good bits – Tunisia, Morocco, Mali, Sierra Leone, Ghana, Burkina Faso, Gabon, Namibia, South Africa, Swaziland, Rwanda, Egypt and Eritrea – Africa I salute you and hereby take back all the nasty things I may have said. Africa – you’re all right. You just need leaders who aren’t more evil than Dr. Evil’s Evil Petting Zoo.
Monday passed as Mondays on cargo ships on the Red Sea often do, without incident or report. I worked hard on my scribblings and watched Brazil kick Chile’s bottoms (a foregone conclusion if ever there was one). On Tuesday 29th June we entered the port of Jeddah and I was left with the gobsmacking notion that I was here, at this very port at this very time on Tuesday 29th December aboard the MV Turquoise, on my way to meet Mandy in Egypt.
Six months to come full circle. Six months to visit just 28 countries. And I’ve got 39 more to go, and I can’t press on to India until I blag myself a multi-entry business visa, and that could take weeks.
The task ahead is not a straight-forward one.
Happily, my phones were now working again, so it was no problem to text a tweet to let Mandy and my mum (who I think were beginning to panic a little) know that I was safe and well. Thinking about it, if I had gotten into Congoesque trouble in Eritrea, I would have been well and truly stuffed as there would have been no way on Earth to tell anyone what had happened to me. Eek!
After thanking the captain and the chief and disembarking, the shipping agent escorted me through Saudi customs (which again were surprisingly cursory), I was stamped back into the country and released back into the wild. It’s worth pointing out that the Saudi government only really started issuing multiple entry business visas a few months ago. Considering I’ve now been in and out of Saudi a passport-bending FIVE times, I simply wouldn’t have been able to do this last year. God knows how I would have got to Dubai and Eritrea would have gone unconquered.
Huge Kudos and thanks to Ahmed from Babood Shipping for helping me get to Eritrea! You, sir, are a true Odyssey Hero.
Talking of logistics (cos I know you LOVE hearing about them), after I popped in to see Ahmed to say thanks and my bestest chum in the whole world Turki had come to pick me up and drop me off at his house, I got on the internet to hear the news I didn’t want to hear. Maersk have said that they are happy to help with any other ship I need to clamber upon, EXCEPT the ones that operate anywhere near Somalia – they just can’t risk it. The second half of my cunning plan has fallen flat. It’s a NO for the Seychelles.
It’s time to get even more creative…
Okay, so how does this sound… the captain of the MV San Cristobal gave me a lead that so far I haven’t chased up. He said that there is a route from Malaysia to Seychelles. Hmm…
After a little bit of internetic research, I found that yes indeed there are ships that ply that route… taking about 10 days to get there. A lot shorter than the four-week round trip that I’d otherwise have to take if I left from Salalalalalalalalalah.
The cogs in my head started turning…
I take a cargo ship to India via Pakistan, then head to Sri Lanka from Cochin, then hop to the Maldives and back, Sri Lanka to Bangladesh, up to Bhutan, border hop, then into Nepal.
Special permission to cross into Tibet from Nepal then the sky train down to Beijing. A border hop to Mongolia, a trip to North Korea and back, then on the ferry to South Korea, Japan and cargo to Taiwan. Taiwan to Vietnam, through Cambodia to Thailand, up to the golden triangle to Laos and Burma, then down through peninsular Malaysia to Singapore, over to Borneo to pass through Brunei, then ferry to Philippines and then… then… start on the Pacific Islands, taking this approximate route: Palau, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Kiribati, Nauru, Solomons, Tuvalu, Vanuatu, Fiji, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand.
Then, instead of ending in New Zealand as I head originally planned, I take a ship heading for northern Australia, do a hop into Papua New Guinea, then press on to Darwin, get over to East Timor, fight my way up the islands of Indonesia to Sumatra, take the ferry over to Malaysia and grab that cargo ride to The Seychelles, coming in from the Eastern, none-piratey side.
Thinking about it some more, it actually makes a lot more sense to do it that way. This way, I can be sure that there will be yachts to cadge a lift on in the Pacific as unless something goes dreadfully wrong, I could be there by September, and have at least a couple of months before the Cyclone Season begins.
The only sad thing is that there’ll be nobody waiting to congratulate me when I finish in The Seychelles. Oh well, you can’t have everything.
So… last week in Dubai I met a top bloke called Barry who works for CMA-CGM – there are ships leaving every Monday for Pakistan then India. So the only thing to wait for now is my Indian visa. After going almost a week without a decent shower, I was more than happy to crash out at Turki’s for the night – there’s no rush getting to Dubai as there’s no way I’ll be getting on next Monday’s ship.
Turki has just been done over on a business deal and is justifiably upset (I know how he feels) and so we went out for a scrummy Indian meal to cheer him up, but he’s really not himself this week. Which is a shame, as karma dictates that after helping me, the universe should help him. I guess it only works for Earl.