Mon 28.05.12 – Fri 01.06.12:
There’s a war going on. Did anyone tell you? Bet they didn’t. The UN wouldn’t tell you, because then they may be called upon to do something about it. The IMO (International Maritime Organisation) wouldn’t tell you, because then they’d perhaps feel a tad silly for issuing advice akin to the hilarious ‘Duck and Cover’ leaflets distributed in case of a nuclear strike. Your local retailer won’t tell you, because even if there is now a 20% shipping surcharge slapped onto every product you purchase, they still make the same amount of profit. The insurance companies won’t tell you, because they can now charge a hefty premium on any ships crossing the Indian Ocean. The only ones really losing out are the mariners, the people of an already war-ravaged East African country and YOU.
I’m talking, of course, about the Somali pirate situation. Whereas the pirates in the Straits of Malacca are essentially thieves who come on board to see what they can nick, Somali pirates take a more novel (and much more profitable) approach: they hijack entire ships and hold their crews hostage for weeks or even months. There are currently 30 ships and over 500 mariners being held hostage RIGHT THIS MOMENT by pirates in the Indian Ocean. The money they can command from a single vessel is staggering: some are ransomed for over $10 million.
How did we get into this mess? While we should all share some collective responsibly for the UN’s and NATO’s inaction in supporting what little government exists in Somalia, it’s a badly kept secret that many pirates were originally fishermen who had their livelihoods literally STOLEN from them by irresponsible Chinese fishing practices. Technically Somalia has got a navy, it just doesn’t own any ships – so it can’t patrol its territorial waters. Knowing this, large-scale trawlers came over from China in the early noughties and half-inched all the bloomin’ fish from the coast of Puntland in the North-East of Somalia – and by ALL the fish, yes, I mean ALL THE FISH. As in ‘So Long, And Thanks For…’
With nothing more than a wooden speedboat, a few AK-47s and the steely desperation borne of knowing your family will starve to death if you fail, the Somali fisherman began launching attacks on a few big cargo ships. Piracy in the Indian Ocean has now grown into an industry that ‘employs’ over 10,000 people. It’s gone from being from a headache for mariners passing through the Gulf of Aden to a full scale armed conflict zone that encompasses a vast chuck of the Indian Ocean, to 77° East of Greenwich to 10° South of The Equator.
Why am I telling you all this? It’s because the next and final stage of my journey will involve me travelling through the heart of the Somali Pirates’ sphere of operations. Today I said my goodbyes to Kuni and the gang (see what I did there?) and set off to the port in order to join the good ship Kota Wirawan, the PIL freighter that would be taking me to Country 198 of The Odyssey Expedition: SRI LANKA.
Wirawan. God that’s hard for me to say. WI-RA-WAN… nah, just comes out as ‘Wiwawan’. I’ll get it in the end.
I quickly familiarised myself with the ship and the crew. It was an amazing assortment of nationalities on board. Usually you get three or four different nationalities on board: this ship had 12. Captain Heri was from Indonesia, the Chief Mate was from Russia, the Second was from India and the Third was from Pakistan. Then we had Sri Lankans, Malaysians, Burmese, Bangladeshis… and the two guys running ship security were from Singapore.
Ship security? Yep, in order to travel safely across the Indian Ocean, many of the larger container firms are turning to putting armed guards on board their ships. On this voyage I learnt a LOT about ship security. Bobby Teng, the guy in charge of the operation is ex-Singapore army, and he’ll be leading a team of four armed guards on the trip from Sri Lanka to Kenya and back.
So far, no cargo ship with armed guards on board has been taken by pirates, and the escalation of violence that many feared would happen has not (as yet) occurred. Bobby took me on a tour of the ship, showing me the preventative measures they use to stop the pirates coming anywhere near them. First up: a HUGE banner with ‘STAY BACK – THIS SHIP IS ARMED’ written in Somali, with a silhouette of an armed guard to back up the point.
Then there are two scarecrows (I called them Butch and Sundance) who stand guard on the wings either side of the bridge.
There’s also eight different firing positions, four on the wings, two on the aft, two on the foredeck give the guards vantage points which allow them to pick off any would-be pirates (after firing a warning shot) with an accuracy that the pirates, bobbing up and down in their speedboat, couldn’t hope to achieve.
Bobby explained to me that the are trained not to shoot the pirates themselves, but to shoot the engine, thereby disabling the pirate’s boat. However, if the pirates get too close, the armed guards are, in theory, free to kill the would-be hijackers. This, so far, has never happened. The pirates, like most people, would rather go for the low-hanging fruit: unguarded oil tankers with a low freeboard (the distance from the water to the deck). But when all ships have armed guards on board, this situation might change drastically.
The armed guards, the patrols by British, American, French, Chinese and Russian navies… all this is made necessary by ONE THING: The United Nations inaction in Somalia. Now we’ve all grown up knowing that the United Nations is the most wretched hive of scum and villainy this side of Mos Eisley Spaceport. We remember the horrific Rwandan Genocide of 1994 in which 800,000 people were hacked to death with machetes in the space of just a few weeks. We remember the UN spokesperson – that mealy-mouth wench – saying it wasn’t genocide, it was ‘ethnic cleansing’. We remember the UN’s inaction in Bosnia, as Sarajevo was put under siege for months on end, or when they turned a blind eye to Ratko’s goons slaughtering hundreds of innocent teenagers. We remember the mass-murder in Kosovo, something that was only stopped by NATO (tellingly not the UN). We remember the dreadful civil war that would have engulfed the whole of Sierra Leone had one British commander not said ‘no more’. We’ve seen the tragic lack of balls when it came to the Lebanese civil war of the 80s, the Afghan civil war of the 90s or, coming up to do date with the failure to tackle Mugabe, Gaddafi, Al-Assad, Al-Bashir, Kim Jong-Il… instead allowing them to murder their own people with impunity (until their own people or old age despatch them off this mortal coil).
Since Somalia has no police, no judiciary and no prisons, it has not the capability to deal with its pirates. Kenya don’t want them, and neither do Yemen or Seychelles. The Royal Navy can’t keep hundreds of pirates locked up on board the RFA Fort Victoria for a six month tour.
I’m not calling in some wanky ‘Get Kony’ kind of way for something to be done by somebody, somehow. There is a simple roadmap that I could dash out on Microsoft Word in a few minutes. It would go something like this…
• From now on, anyone caught committing acts of piracy or attempting to commit acts of piracy in the Indian Ocean will be taken to a floating prison ship (a decommissioned and converted cruise liner) off the coast of The Seychelles. There they will be given a fair trail (streamed on the internet) and, if found guilty, sentenced. They will remain on the ship until their sentence is over. This will all be conducted (and paid for) under the auspices of the United Nations.
• Secondly, the United Nations will do what it does in East Timor: provide the army, navy, air force and police force for the Somali government. We’re not taking regime change here, we’re talking about keeping what little government Somalia has and giving that government a mechanism to do the job that they can’t do themselves – root out the war lords and bring peace. Working with African Union forces (already in control of vast swathes of the west of Somalia), this could end the reign of terror that has been in effect since the warlords took over in 1991.
• Thirdly, the de-facto state of Somaliland would be recognised as an independent state. They deserve it.
Fair? Undoubtedly. Do-able? Indubitably. Would it stop the pirates in their tracks? YES. YES IT WOULD.
My journey on the MV Kota Wirawan would take me up to the tip of northern Sumatra and then due west to the southern tip of Sri Lanka. We’d get phone reception on the first day of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Let me tell you why I’m not a republican…
Today marked the start of the 4-day Diamond Jubilee celebrating Queen Elizabeth II’s 60th year as Head of State of The United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and numerous Commonwealth realms.
It’s given the British people a couple of days off work, a free concert and injected some much-needed joy into a otherwise perpetually depressed nation. There are some that argue that the royal family is an anachronism, that it’s irrelevant, that it’s out-of-touch. So would I! But then, let’s face it, those adjectives could be used to describe every political institution in the world, not least the United Nations.
I’m not swayed by arguments wrung out by Daily Mail-types who believe that to criticise the monarchy is akin to collaborating with The Nazis. Nor am I swayed by arguments wrung out by tub-thumbing Trots screaming off with her head – these are arguments borne out of emotion, of jealousy, hatred, fear, misguided patriotism and xenophobia. These do not interest me.
As a graduate of History and Politics and well-travelled absorber of all things groovy and novel, what does interest me is political systems: ones that work and ones that don’t.
I want to convince you in the course of this essay that republics – democracies with an elected head of state – are a deeply flawed political system, and that constitutional monarchies – democracies with a un-elected head of state – are (perverse as it may sound) a fairer, more sensible and more democratic way of doing things.
When you’ve finished picking your jaw up off the floor, I’d like to refer you to the Democracy Index. A list of the most democratic nations in the world. Notice how 7 of the top ten most democratic states in the world are constitutional monarchies. In fact, 4 out of the top 5 most democratic states in the world are constitutional monarchies. Weirded out yet? I hope so.
This goes against all common sense – how can having an un-elected head of state be more democratic that having an elected one?
The answer, as with most things in life, is politics. In a constitutional monarchy, the monarch has no political power. Nor should they have – after all, they are just one man or one woman, who are they to frustrate the will of hundreds of elected politicians? Who are they to frustrate the will of the millions of people who didn’t vote for them? Who are they to steal the country’s natural resources or unilaterally declare war on another country?
The system that works the best is when the Head of State and Head of Government are two clear and distinct roles, the former having no political power and the latter not being in direct control of the army.
A presidential system naturally cedes far too much power into the hands of one man.
In the USA, which I believe has one of the worst political systems this side of North Korea, you have a situation in which the Head of State, Head of Government AND Head of the Armed Services is one man. ONE MAN. Let’s think about this for a moment.
ONE MAN can veto each and every bill that has spent months – maybe even years – passing through both houses of Congress. A bill that would have been carefully formulated, gone through committees, sub-committees, debates, re-writes, collective bargaining and been voted on by a majority in both the House of Representatives and The Senate. ONE MAN has the power to say ‘bollocks to that for a game of soldiers’ and throw the bill in his drawer and forget about it. You might presume that this amazing and unbelievable power would be something that happens maybe once or twice in an entire presidency.
Not so. George W Bush vetoed 12 bills.
That’s nothing: Clinton vetoed 37. George Bush Senior 44… and Ronald Reagan? 78.
Still, pales in comparison with Franklin Roosevelt’s kinda depressingly magnificent 635 vetoes.
In contrast, the Queen of Britain has vetoed exactly 0 bills. In 60 years. In fact, the last time the British Head of State vetoed a bill that had passed through both houses of parliament WAS in 1708. OVER 300 years ago. The power of veto is there in case of emergency, say if we get a loony Hitler-type in charge of parliament who wants to kill all the Welsh, but that’s never happened… and is rather unlikely to happen because the armed services of the UK do not swear alliance to the Prime Minister, they swear allegiance to the Queen. They have a right to say no. Unlike in the USA where…
ONE MAN can order the armed services to invade a foreign country FOR SIX WEEKS before having to seek permission from Congress for his actions.
You might want to rub your eyes and read that sentence again. SIX WEEKS!! Of course this rule was invented when it took six weeks to cross the Atlantic, and the British were running around burning down the president’s residence (according to scuttlebutt, the Yanks painted it white to cover the scorch marks). NOT when the USA had the capacity to WIPE OUT ALL HUMANS ON THE PLANET in the same given time frame.
Don’t forget: ONE MAN HAS THIS POWER. This is a presidential system. It is the reason the USA scores below the UK – which still doesn’t have an elected upper house, AND has a monarchy – in the Democracy Index.
It is the reason why France and Italy aren’t even down as ‘full democracies’, but rather ‘flawed democracies’ along with Cape ‘frikkin’ Verde. You look at the monumental corruption of Berlusconi, Mitterand, Chirac et al and then you look at how remarkably incorruptible the Queens of Britain or the Netherlands or Denmark are. Incorruptible because they aren’t greedy career politicians in it for the money, or the power, or both.
The line that sticks with me is in Gladiator when Marcus Aurelius Says to Maximus that he wants him to lead Rome back to democracy. Maximus says he doesn’t want the job. That, says Marcus, is why it must be you.
You see a job like that of Head of State naturally attracts the wrong sort of people. So does Head of Government, but at least in a parliamentary system the Head of Government can be over-ruled by cabinet or their own party… and can be gotten rid of as soon as they cock-up big style. Contrast the axing of Maggie Thatcher over the Poll Tax compared to the unbearable unpopularity of that dickwick George W Bush in his second term. Could the US voters get rid of Bush before the end of his term of office? NO. Not unless they could prove he broke the law. Being excruciatingly BAD AT YOUR JOB isn’t enough to fire a president – after all, he’s Head of State.
So let’s lay my cards on the table. In my humble opinion, the USA elects a dictator every four years. A dictator that has a phenomenal (and grossly un-democratic) amount of power. But the US isn’t alone in this madness. Look around the world – presidents are almost universally bad news (note that NONE of the top ten democracies are presidental systems).
In most countries in Africa, where a tribal-cum-parliamentary system would be best, you have a guy who is a member of one particular tribe – usually the biggest tribe – and he’s president. And he will look after his tribe to the detriment of all others. The corruption that stifles development in the third world is almost always linked to a presidential system. One man. Head of State. Head of Government. Head of the Armed Services. Let’s have a coup d’etat! Let’s kill the opposition! Let’s change the constitution so I’m president for life! This is not the way we should be conducting matters and running countries in the 21st century.
Yes a monarchy is anachronistic, yes it’s probably out-of-touch and yes I quite frankly hate Prince Charles. Maybe other political models work better, but that’s not the purpose of this piece. I’m merely telling you why I’m not a republican. It is because I find republics IN PRACTICE to be a one-way ticket to tyranny. Give me the checks and balances ensured by Constitutional Monarchies around the world anyday.
In closing, I’d just like to say that I once met a Jewish guy from the lower east side of Manhattan. This was in 2005, a few months after George W Bush was re-elected president. I suggested that he must be rather miffed that that walking disaster for the world had got back in.
“No”, he says, “I voted for him”.
My years of political study about voting patterns, demographics and political loyalty went flying out the window.
“WTF???” I scream, half in horror, half in sheer disbelief.
Well, says my Jewish friend, “you have to rally around your leader at a time of war.”
The prosecution rests.
Mon 04.06.12 – Sun 10.06.12:
AT LAST! COUNTRY NUMBER 198! And in the grand tradition of saving the best till last, it is my duty to report that Sri Lanka is officially several shades of AWESOME.
After sitting at anchor for a couple of days, the MV Kota Wirawan finally pulled into Colombo port on Monday afternoon. It would be 9pm before I was off and cleared. I said a fond farewell to Captain Heri and the crew and set off to find my CouchSurf host, the enigmatic Sachal Mir, owner of Sachal Mir’s Bed and Breakfast in Negombo, a beach town an hour and a half up the coast from the capital.
It was about 11pm when I arrived and if first impressions are anything to go by, I’m going to have a fantastic time here. Sachal greeted me like an old friend and introduced me to the Negombo massive. It’s low season here (on account of the monsoon, although it’s been remarkably dry) and so I’ve really got the run of the town. The beer is eye-wateringly cheap (£1.50 for a 600ml bottle of Lion at a bar, 75p in the shop), the food is magnificent, the people are hilarious and the transport costs are ridiculously inexpensive (three hour peak-time train ride in Sri Lanka: 95p, three hour peak-time train ride in the UK: £270.95).
Sachal put me in a room of my own, with air conditioning AND a hot shower. GRATIS. This me likey. To the Arabic Traders crossing the Indian Ocean a thousand years ago, Sri Lanka was Serendib, the ‘Island of Jewels’. It’s from where we get the word ‘serendipity’ from, meaning a happy stroke of luck. I see why they gave Sri Lanka this name.
Your parents probably know Sri Lanka as Ceylon, but ‘Ceylon’ was a bastardisation of the Dutch and subsequent Portuguese name for the island. This place was always Lanka. That name was restored in 1972 and to sweeten the deal they added the prefix ‘Sri’ – a respectful title, the Sinhalese equivalent of the ‘Great’ in ‘Great Britain’.
I’ve often mused about how cool it is that Britain has a ‘Great’ in its official title (although yes I’m aware that it was originally to differentiate from Brittany in France), and wondered why other countries don’t do the same. Groovy Super Happy Funtime Rocket Japan or Mega Supersized Skyscraper With Fries USA. It would be brilliant! Much better than ‘The People’s Democratic Republic of BLUGH’.
Anyways, this week my task was clear: to get on a ship to The Maldives. There are three shipping companies that could help. They are Hayley shipping, operators of the Morning Viship which plies between Colombo and Male’ on a weekly basis, there’s Lily Marine Shipping, who also operate a weekly ship there and back, and then there’s our old friends at CMA-CGM. Unfortunately, their ship is one-way – I don’t mind being stranded in Sri Lanka where it’s cheap and cheerful, but if I get stranded in The Maldives for more than a week, the buttons that are left for me to spend off my credit cards are going to evaporate in less time than it takes to say ‘HOW MUCH?!!’
So Hayley was my first port of call, so to speak, and on Wednesday I headed over to Colombo for a meeting with Captains Mahendra Ranatunga and Lasitha Cumaratunga. They were spectacularly helpful, but alas the Morning Viship has a full complement of crew and since there would be no space for me on the life-boat if A Perfect Storm came along to ruin our game of cricket.
They put me in touch with the agents for Lily Marine, in the hope they would let me on their ship that was leaving on Saturday.
Before any meetings on Thursday, I got up extra early in order to watch THE TRANSIT OF VENUS: an astrological event that will not happen again in my lifetime. I had invested in a pair of welding glasses and at 6am I was standing outside Sachal’s B&B waiting for a gap in the clouds. A gap that never came.
Oh well, I’ll see if I can catch it again in 105 years…
Later that morning I met with Ikram Ghazali of CMA-CGM, the plan being that if I could get to The Maldives and back to Sri Lanka on the Lily Marine ship, I could then hop on a CMA-CGM ship to The Seychelles and onto Kenya: next door to South Sudan: the final country of The Odyssey Expedition.
Ikram was a lovely guy and said he would do everything in his power to get me on that ship – it’s a tall order: it would take me straight through the High Risk area of The Pirate Ocean. DANGER WILL ROBINSON!! MY ARMS ARE FLAILING WILDLY!!
On Friday had a meeting with Mr Raja from Neon Shipping, the guys who work with Lily Marine. He hoped to get me on the next available ship to The Maldives: however, the one leaving the next day would not be possible as there wasn’t enough time to organise everything. So it would be the weekend after. No worries say I, and begin to look forward to an easy week in Sri Lanka watching the Euro 2012 tournament which was due to kick off this weekend. Little did I know at the time, it would be a little longer than a week…
Mon 11.06.12 – Sun 17.06.12:
After a quiet weekend in Negombo, I found myself in a bit of a rut. I wanted to go and explore the island, but also I didn’t want to leave the free internet/cheap beer convenience of Negombo: especially if I was to have more meetings with shipping-types this week. Sachal, being the hero that he is, invited me down to Galle, a fortress town in the south of the country. He was going down for the day with his business partner to look at a possible site for another hotel.
We hopped in the car and sped down there. The first part of the journey – from Negombo to Colombo – was EXCRUCIATINGLY slow and the driving around these parts make Maureen from Driving School seem like Ayrton Senna. The second part, battling through Colombo itself, took up most of the morning. But once we were on the brand-spankingly new freeway from south of Colombo down to Galle, we were laughing. We reached Galle at about 2pm. I went off to do my own thing while Sachal went to see this building.
Galle is a lovely place, but today it reminded me of Salalah in Oman, that same grey tropical mist that makes it feel like the end of the world. Galle Fort was started by the Dutch, continued by the Portuguese and completed by the British. It’s a remarkable structure, big enough to fit a decent sized village inside. The ramparts and bastions have stood up against invaders and ne’er-do-wells for over 500 years and when the devastating Boxing Day tsunami hit, inside Galle Fort was the safest place on the south coast to be.
Inside the fortifications you find a Dubrovnik-esque walled town, a Unesco World Heritage site that oozes old-worldly charm as the Dutch, Portuguese, British and Sri Lankan influences fuse together like a decent blended scotch. The sort of place you could wile away your days working on the Great American Novel.
In the evening, we met up for the return journey. Much quicker this time, although we did get a puncture – unsurprisingly as the tyres made Duncan Goodhew’s bonce look remarkably hirsute. As Sachal and his business partner berated the driver for driving at 70mph in such an unroadworthy car, I set about changing the tyre. And yes if you lose your keys I can get your car open for you with a wire coat hanger. And yes I know how to hot-wire your motor an’ all. But only because I used to work in my dad’s garage, alright? It’s not like you get taught this stuff in scouse school.
On Thursday I had a double blow: the ship owners had said no. I wouldn’t be leaving on the Lily Marine ship this weekend. There would be one next weekend with different owners, which pretty much looked like a done deal. Oh well, another weekend in Sri Lanka, can’t complain. The second blow was that Kevin, a French guy I met in Singapore, had invited me on a ten-day road trip around Sri Lanka. Since I wouldn’t be going anywhere, my answer was yes. However, a series of unfortunate events led to me being left behind while the party bus rolled through town.
The lack of forward transport, the missing of the transit of Venus and the aborted road-trip conspired to make me feel like a ton of crap. Luckily last week I met a British girl called Natalie on the bus to Colombo. This wasn’t difficult as there are so few tourists knocking around, everyone who isn’t a local invariably ends up talking to each other. Natalie works here doing marketing for a safari company and we had bonded over feminism. I hope you all know what a radical feminist I am, while still retaining my fondness for boobs and pornography.
Anyway, on the Friday afternoon while I was making a little fort out of my bed and snarling at the mosquitoes that taunted me, Natalie suggested we pop down to Unawatuna for the weekend. As I’m physically incapable of saying no (except to touts and beggars), the next thing I knew we were barrelling down south at a great rate of knots.
Unawatuna is a beach town on the south coast, not far from Galle. It was completely destroyed in the Boxing Day Tsunami and hundreds of people died. Since then, it’s bounced back and pretty much all physical trace of that tragic event has been expunged, save for the memories of the survivors and those bereaved.
We arrived around 10pm and it didn’t take long to find a place to stay and a place that was showing the football. Sweden vs England. Natalie drank so much arrack (coconut spirit – if you ever played a brass instrument, it tastes like valve oil) that she puked before half-time. I tried to pace myself, but I have to admit that by 2am when England won I was howling at the moon with the best of them.
After spending Saturday sobering up, Nat and I hit the beach bars a second time on the Saturday night. We met friends from the night before (whose faces – never mind names – I had difficulty remembering). I met a scouse guy from Huyton who was working ship security and an Aussie fan of my TV show who insisted on buying me a beer (well, if you insist…). We found Christoph, Julian, James and Will from the night before and I was introduced to Lily and Olivia, two outrageously hot British girls in their fourth year of medicine.
Arrack, drinking games, dancing under the stars… some nights defy description and it’s left to the photos you find on your camera the next day (that you can’t even remember taking) to tell the story.
“A weekend wasted is not a wasted weekend.”
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I woke up on the beach at 11am. I had fallen asleep on a sun-lounger next to a gigantic speaker array that was pumping out some tragic Sri Lankan Rn’B. Hat? Check. Wallet? Check. Video camera? Check. Laptop? Check.
I love Sri Lanka.
Mon 18.06.12 – Sun 24.06.12:
After returning to Negombo late on Sunday night, things were looking good. The ship leaving this weekend was going to take me to The Maldives, and then I’d be coming back here to Sri Lanka, so the ‘cultural triangle’ stuff could wait until my triumphant return from country number 199 (being The Maldives).
On the Wednesday I got a message from my Unawatuna chums asking if I was up for a night out in Colombo. I had fancied going to the Irish pub there for the weekly pub quiz, but when I called up asking about it, the guy who answered the phone had no idea what I was on about. So around 8pm I met with Lily, Olivia, James, Christoph and Jules at the rather posh Galle Face hotel. They had a rather posh all-you-can-eat buffet for the incredible price of just £9, but even that’s a little out of my budget so I stuck with the (shared) bottle o’ wine.
After that we all headed over to the Dutch Hospital – now a swanky courtyard of bars and restaurants (think the Albert Dock without the actual dock). After a couple mojitos (I rather dislike mojitos, but he who pays the piper and all that jazz), we headed off to Skyy Bar for more alcoholic treats.
Now a little three-sheeties-to-the-windies, we attempted to get into the nightclub next door to Skyy Bar. However there was a dress code. A dress code that for the first time in my life, didn’t affect me (I’m the guy who got told off for wearing A SUIT in Melbourne!). However, it did affect James (who was wearing shorts) and Christoph and Jules (both of whom were wearing flip-flops).
But when I’ve had a few nothing will stop me from continuing down the spiral of hilarity and destruction. So we formulated a plan. I’d give James my jeans in return for his shorts, then set off with the two Germans to their hotel to grab some shoes for them and a pair of trousers for me.
Just one problem: the German lads only had one pair of spare trousers. And they were bright yellow ski-pants.
Yes, they let me in.
The next day I woke up on James’s floor wondering if anybody got the number of that bus that hit me. I stumbled onto the beach and hooked myself up to the internets to find out if there was any more news about the ship leaving for Maldives this weekend. There was.
The ship would be omitting Colombo. I couldn’t get on board no matter what I did.
I felt like somebody had just punched me in the stomach. I’ve GOT to get home as soon as possible. My dad is going in for major heart surgery in August. My best mate (and Odyssey Hero) Dino is getting married in August, as is fellow Odyssey Hero Hugh and my old schoolchum Danny. I’ve known these guys for over 22 years. And to top it off, Mandy, my girlfriend, partner in crime and putter-up-with more than her fair share of grief on this journey is flying to the UK on August 16. If I don’t see her then I won’t see her until 2013.
THINK THINK THINK!!
Okay, there’s a CMA-CGM ship leaving Colombo on July 4. It’s a one way ticket to The Maldives, but it would mean I could at least knock The Maldives off the list and – who knows – I might just find a ship coming back this way – or, even better, to The Seychelles.
Putting my best foot forward, I spent 3 hours writing THE BEST EMAIL EVER to the nice chaps and chapesses at CMA-CGM in France. Quite simply, if this doesn’t work I’m more stuffed than a Thanksgiving turkey.
That night I returned to Colombo feeling like a ton of crap. Happily, Sachal, feeling my discontent did his level best to cheer me up by inviting Natalie and the German girls, Elena and Marina, over for a slap-up feast at his place on the Friday night. Dinner party host par excellence, Sachal almost had me fall off my seat with amusement at his thoroughly hilarious anecdotes. At one point he took his shirt off to share with us all THE HAIRIEST BACK IN THE WORLD. Natalie’s face says it all…
So as Friday merged into Saturday I found myself out in Negombo town, meeting with people from all over the world, including girls from Britain, America and Canada who were volunteering at a local orphanage. This is beginning to remind me of the Café Sophia in Praia, Cape Verde, a place where I became somewhat of a permanent fixture. My feet begin to itch. How can I justify being in a place as awesome as Sri Lanka for three weeks and not actually go anywhere?
The time had come for ACTION! But, before then, the nice Chinese lady staying at Sachal’s B&B offered to make everyone dinner on the Sunday night. After the most outrageous drinking games courtesy of the Sach, we all headed over to the Rodeo bar at midnight to watch England get kicked out of Euro 2012.
By now, Jannika, the owner of Rodeo had finally recognised me off the telly and so he (wonderfully) kept the bar open until 2.30am so I could watch the extra time and penalties. Good on ya, Jannika! England: YOU SUCK!!!
Mon 25.06.12 – Fri 29.06.12:
And so it came to pass that Monday morning involved waking up with a monster can’t-believe-we-lost-on-penalties-AGAIN!!! hangover and as I rubbed the sleep out of my eyes, I hoped that nobody had taken any photos from the previous night’s drinking games, lest they appear on Facebook and ruin my future political ambitions.
On Tuesday, a couple of backpackers – Marcia and Manisha – arrived at Sachal’s B&B. Marcia is a Canadian girl, looks like Starbuck from Battlestar Galactica. Manisha is from India but lives in Germany. Sachal, being Sachal, decided that we should all have another big dinner so I let it be known that biriyani and beer was on the cards to anyone foolish enough to turn up. Happily, we got a good turnout, with Marcia, Manisha, Natalie, Luisa, Elena, Marina, Tony, Subarji, a couple of randoms we picked up at the liquor store and the delectable Lily and Olivia coming all the way up from Colombo. Good night had by all.
Marcia and Manisha couldn’t have arrived at a more opportune time – they were planning to head off to the ancient city of Anuradhapura the next day: perfect for pinging me out of my rut and getting me to travel around Sri Lanka a little. And so the following afternoon the three of us teamed up and hit the road. It was a good few hours on the bus to Kurunegala, halfway to Anuradhapura (we gave up trying to pronounce ‘Anuradhapura’, instead referring to it as ‘Anna Kournikova’ or ‘Anna Made A Porno’).
From Kurnunegala we took the train the rest of the distance. After my great train journeys across Europe, Africa, India and China, it had been a while since I had been on anything but a local train. I must be getting rusty: we all managed to bundle on the train back to Colombo. I realised just in the nick of time and jumped off (the train had started moving). Manisha also managed to get off but poor old Starbuck was jammed in by a crazy old cat lady.
Luckily, the episode ended in hilarity rather than disaster as the Colombo train stopped a little down the tracks as points were switched and then returned to the station. Sorry about that, Starbuck, must have been those dastardly C(e)ylons…
We arrived in Anna Kournikova after dark and headed over to the cheap and cheerful Lake View Guest House. After grabbing a late supper, we all crashed out for the night, ready to take on the ancients sites early the next day.
Because the sites are so spread out, the best way to see Anna Made A Porno is by bicycle. I’m not one to stand on ceremony, so by 8am we were well on our way to go see our first sight… the oldest historically authenticated tree in the world: a 2,000-year-old Bodhi tree. According to popular myth, it was grown from a cutting of the sacred Bodhi tree under which Buddha himself received enlightenment. The people of Sri Lanka, it being a majority Buddhist country, have painstakingly looked after this mighty wonder of the arboreal world for longer than Christianity has existed. True!
Sadly, it’s quite hard to actually see the tree as they’ve built a temple around the damn thing. But I suppose it’s a bit like The Jacaranda in Liverpool would have looked when it had a jacaranda tree in the middle of it. That one only lasted a few years. Goes to show: if you’re going to build something around a tree, don’t make it a pub.
After that, we went to see a giant stupa. For those of your not versed in eastern religion (and Word spellcheck), a stupa is kinda like a large white dome that serves as a place of worship for Buddhists. In Sri Lanka, stupas are called ‘dagobas’, a word Word similarly dislikes and possibly where you might go to find Yoda, the Jedi Master who instructed me (only it wasn’t, was it? It was Liam Neeson). This particular dagoba was over a thousand years old and was brimmed by 100 elephant reliefs.
Next up was the Twin (Amy) Ponds.
Then off to see the monster brick degoba. For the best part of two millennia this was the third tallest building in the world, after the great pyramids of Cheops and Chephren. Bloody impressive stuff, Sri Lanka.
That afternoon we headed over to Sigiriya for more tomb-raiding the next day.
Sigiriya is a monastery (or a fortress) built out of a huge rock (a volcanic ‘plug’, no less) and is a well-deserved Unesco World Heritage site. It’s kinda like Meteora meets Petra via Machu Picchu with a couple of awesome lion’s feet added to Sphinx the place up a bit. LOVELY!
There’s some debate over whether this place was indeed a monastery or a fortress, since people figured that the monks wouldn’t have tolerated the marvellous Hustler-like art that adorns one of the caves.
Yes that’s right, mankind’s love affair with big boobs has been around since time immemorial.
Then it was off to the rock caves of Dambulla. Loaded with goodies from the last few hundred years, paintings, sculptures, magic water buckets, you name it baby they got it on display. Only one problem. You see, in Sri Lankan Buddhism, the statue of Buddha IS a god (one the eyes are finished) and therefore, like when you visit the Queen, you’re not supposed to turn you back on them. However, in the caves of Dambulla, there are Buddhas EVERYWHERE! You’re surrounded! Spin on a sixpence and you’re seriously not going to be currying favour with the Gods. Show some respect!
After the caves, Manisha, Starbuck and I hopped the bus up to Kandy. It was a hellish journey – the bus was packed, nowhere to sit (until I totally stole somebody else’s seat – snooze you lose baby!) and Starbuck ended up standing for about two hours (she could have had my seat but was down the wrong end of the bus).
Considering it’s the second biggest city in Sri Lanka, Kandy is a quiet little place, even on a Friday evening. After a stroll around the lake, we headed up to the Stag’s Head bar on the top floor of Hotel Casamara for some liquid refreshment. The nice folks at CMA-CGM shipping wrote back to me saying they hoped to have an answer by the end of next week. An answer to the question “can I take one of your ships across the Indian Ocean and thereby have me FINALLY complete The Odyssey Expedition?”.
Fingers and toes, baby, fingers and toes…
“It was high time to say goodbye to Negombo and hit the road…”
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Sat 30.06.12 – Sun 01.07.12:
You know that the dates and the time I’ve spent in Sri Lanka tally pretty much exactly with that of Cape Verde three years ago? I remember giving serious consideration to packing all this in there and then, but my stubbornness and my inability to leave a puzzle half-solved led me to plod on regardless, and I’ve been plodding on ever since.
I CAN’T LET CAPE VERDE WIN!!!!!!
This morning, rose and shone, looking forward to see the Temple of the Tooth, the sacred place in Kandy where one of Buddhism’s most sacred relic can be found: a tooth of the Buddha himself.
Now: there is some debate about this matter, not least because the Portuguese, being the miserable culturally insensitive sods that they were (and you thought the British were bad) took the tooth in the 1500s and burnt it on a big pyre of religious intolerance (and they wonder why the Filipinos killed Magellan…). Now the wily monks will tell you they hid the real tooth and gave Christian Ronaldo’s great-great-great-great grandfather a fake one to destroy. But there are a few problems with this whole tooth (and nothing but the tooth) business. First up, it very well might not have been one of Buddha’s teeth to begin with. Secondly, suppose the Portuguese did destroy the one they thought was the real tooth? Thirdly, people reckon the tooth in the temple of the tooth is just a replica anyway (this would make sense since the Tamil Tigers, in a streak of cultural insensitivity that would make the Taliban blush (actually it wouldn’t) exploded a truck bomb outside the temple a few years ago, so keeping the real tooth safely hidden away somewhere secret under lock and key would be the most sensible way of doing things.
IN ANY CASE, the tooth – real or fake – is hidden from view within a mini dagoba which is nestled in a slightly bigger dagoba which is nestled in a slightly bigger dagoba, much in the manner of Russian Dolls.
So, let’s be Frank (can I still be Elaine?), I was not overly fussed about not-even seeing the incisor of a long-dead Bronze Age deity, which may or may not be actually the incisor of a long-dead Bronze Age deity. In any case, “Evangeline” Lily texted and invited me to the cricket in Colombo. Sri Lanka v Pakistan, first day of the five day test. Three and a half hours away on the train. But you see the thing is that I REALLY LOVE cricket and like Sri Lanka are totally my favourite team OKAY?
So I said my fond farewells to Manisha and Starbuck and before you could say “oh for heaven’s sake Graham, have you no shame?” I was on my way back to Colombo. Picked up some Arrack and Cola on the way, and by 2pm I was sitting in the sun with enjoying the old familiar sound of cork-on-willow with Lily, Olivia and Natalie. Getting gingerly inebriated, pacing myself ready for what would be our biggest night out in Sri Lanka so far.
Met a British chap called Henry who we invited along on our rollercoaster of destruction. By 6pm we were at the exuberantly posh Galle Face Hotel doing the sunset thing. After a short downpour (everybody running for cover in their suits and dresses – it was all very cinematic), we headed over to the Dutch Hospital for some Ministry of Crab. Bit out of my budget, and I honestly don’t need any more food, I’m turning into Hurley over here. So I just did my best to entertain the troops ready for some more drinkies in the courtyard before we headed out to the ‘High Voltage’ gig for more splendiferous hilarity.
Lily was an early casualty, struck down by Montezuma or something. But we powered on regardless, going to the Skky Bar and then back to Henry’s and then off to Kama, the nightclub I wore the silly pants in last week. Met Anita, a Croatian journo here reporting for the Japan Times (oo! I’ve been in that paper), who had also attended the gig. I found myself invited to Galle in the morning. I think. By this point my blood-alcohol level would have been high enough to knock out a King Elephant. (For it to be a King Elephant – the one you see most often in temples – seven things must touch the floor: it’s four legs, it’s truck, it’s tail and it’s penis.)
I reasonably remember going back to Henry’s, losing the girls on the way (turns out they went to a house party next door and Natalie got into a fight with the crazy blonde). There were definitely some shenanigans involving a tuk-tuk being overloaded (by us) and getting stopped by the police. Me and Olivia did the honourable thing and legged it. Wily Northerners, see? (Livi is Scottish.)
“It all started innocently enough…”
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By the time I knew what the hell was going on, I was 107.5km south of Colombo in Galle with Anita taking pictures of the splendid fort and wondering where my hangover had gone. Now THAT’S one awesome night out.
Mon 02.07.12 – Wed 04.07.12:
Anita offered me her couch to crash out on, but by couch I mean ‘one of the three bedrooms in her amazing apartment on the 27th floor of the Colombo Hilton’. I’d have happily stayed there all week, but I had a nagging angel on my shoulder telling me to go go go back to the Central Highlands and see Adam’s Peak and ‘Little England’. So Monday morning I said my tatty-byes and jumped the train over to Hatton, as in Derek ‘the c—t’ Hatton. My original intent was to press onto Nuwara Eliya, but I met some backpackers on the train from Spain, Uruguay and Venezuela, all young filmmakers attending film school in Florida. They were all set to scale Adam’s Peak tonight.
Adam’s Peak is important to almost all the religions in Sri Lanka, for various reasons, and during the non-monsoon season, you can see thousands of pilgrims making the climb of 5000+ stairs. However, it should be stressed that we are in the MIDDLE OF THE MONSOON SEASON here. Not the best time for going up, but in for a penny, in for a pound. We took a shared minibus over to the nearby town of Hatton and settled in to get a few hours kip before we set off around 2am. Like Mount Sinai in Egypt, the idea is that you go up the mountain in the dark then watch the majestic sunrise (which may or may not be spoilt by a bunch of Israeli girls jangling like it’s the damn hairdressers).
But when 2am came around, I didn’t even get out of bed. It was TEAMING down outside. My three filmmaking compadres set off regardless, but it wasn’t long before they returned, beaten back by the inclement weather. Seriously not the right time of year. The next day we all set off to Nuwara Eliya, affectionately known by the locals as ‘Little England’, up in the famed tea-plantations of Sri Lanka. It took an age to get there and although I was planning to press on and meet with Manisha and Starbuck in Ella a little further along the way, it was too late to be practical. I bought a ticket for the overnight train as I had to be back in Colombo tomorrow: my visa was about to run out.
Little England was sweet, but perhaps being there on a ‘poya’ day (full moon when alcohol disappears under the table and all the pubs are shut) wasn’t the best of ideas. Soon enough I was backtracking very slowly on the train back to Colombo, snatching sleep on the chug-chug whenever the brakes weren’t squealing or we weren’t being shunted like a starlet on YouTube. We left at 11pm and arrived at 7am. I headed over to Anita’s to drop off my gear and go get my visa extension.
This was a massive undertaking, not least because the Sri Lankans use the good old fashioned ‘five queues’ system. You queue for a application form, you queue to submit it, you queue to pick up your receipt, you queue to pay and then you queue to pick up your visa. The whole process takes about three hours and involves a shit-load of standing. A more efficient process could be conjured up by a five-year-old, but if there’s one thing I’ve learnt over the last three and a half years, it’s that efficiency and countries like Sri Lanka make queer bedfellows.
Returning to Anita’s, I thought about having a kip before the inevitable night on the razz that would no doubt result from what would begin with the pub quiz at the Inn On The Green. Never got around to it though, and in any case, bollocks to it: I’m still the first up and last to bed if needs be. Teenage dreams so hard to beat.
Strategy was the name of the game at the quiz, and although our team was in the lead for a couple of rounds, we played our joker (double points) too early and came a respectable fifth instead of my usual second place. Well, second place unless we’re in an environment (such as on a cruise ship in the middle of the Pacific Ocean) where the sad mooks who cheat at pub quizzes have no access to the internet. The buggers.
After the quiz, Anita and I headed over to the Dutch Hospital to meet with Lily and Olivia. Livi’s BF had just flown over from the UK for holidays and this would be his first night out in Colombo, it would be remiss of us not to show him a good time. So after Lily raided my hard drive to load up her ailing iPod with oodles of lovely indie rock n’ roll, it was drinkies and Skky Bar and Kama and the usual nonsense that’s becoming startlingly familiar for a night out in Sri Lanka…
The morning after the night before I jumped on the internet to find THE EMAIL. The email I had been waiting for, the email I had been dreading. CMA-CGM writing back to me with a decision.
Will The Odyssey Expedition be over in August? Will the last three FINAL FRONTIERS tumble like dominoes?
Or will I have to waste more time, more effort and take a completely unsuitable, dangerous and expensive method of getting to Fortress Maldives and Fortress Seychelles??
The news wasn’t good.
The email was pleasant enough, but the answer is NO.
I will have to waste more time, more effort and take a completely unsuitable, dangerous and expensive method of getting to Fortress Maldives and Fortress Seychelles.
So that’s three no’s in a row. With no marinas in this country and a general lack of cruise ships, fishing boats and rubber dinghies around here, it looks like the 411nm journey to the Maldives is going to elude me yet.
Anita got the call from her editor telling her she would be leaving on tonight’s 4am flight to Barcelona. That’s pretty gonzo. She left at 1am, leaving me in a three bedroom luxury hotel apartment by myself, everything’s paid for, check out by noon. HOW DID I GET HERE?! Under normal circumstances, this would result in a flat party of epic proportions. But with Lily and Livi ensconced to the left of the country, Natalie back in Negombo and the other usual suspects otherwise disposed I stood out on the balcony alone in the cool night air.
And so I look out from the 27th floor of the Colombo Hilton Residence across the city sprawled out below. The gantry cranes of the port are lit by yellow sodium-vapour lights. It almost looks romantic. In a cruel, industrialised way. They’re loading ships with rice and tea and grain. Everything but Graham. Stand by. Await further instructions. It’s a long way down.
Out of ideas, out of options, out of time.
The dizzying highs and the crushing lows. I’m amazed any of you are still reading this crap.
Snaps from the excellent two-page spread I was given in the CEYLON TODAY newspaper here in Sri Lanka. Big awesome thanks to Radhieka Peeris, Manisha Yuuki and Anita Matic. You rock my world!