7.30am. Woke up to find that sand demons had filled my teeth with silica gel and that a brass band had barged its way into my brain and had started to bashing out the 1812 Overture at a volume that would make an Indonesian quiver. Maybe not the ideal start to The Odyssey Expedition. Then again, maybe the ideal start to the Odyssey wasn’t an unbelievably hectic three month run-up, a kamikaze car ride down to London, a bust video camera, a broken tooth and no confirmation (as yet) that all this nonsense is going to be made into a television show.
Add to that the last I’m going to see of my girlfriend Mandy, the love of my life, for a year. Our romantic last night – we booked a fancy hotel in London, a bottle of wine and a take out… and I fell asleep at 9pm from the sheer exhaustion of getting everything ready to travel non-stop for a year.
And let’s not forget the two-day bus journey from Rio to Buenos Aires (following the 20 hour plane journey from Heathrow via Atlanta), complicated somewhat by the fact I missed the bloody bus and had to fly to Sao Paulo in order to catch up with the damn thing!!
I’m Graham Hughes. Welcome to The Odyssey.
Yes, a hangover is JUST what I needed: but I might as well start as I mean to go on. You see, I’m not some millionaire being followed around by two landrovers full of medical supplies, I’m just an ordinary bod. I like getting drunk, laughing at inappropriate jokes, crashing house parties, going to gigs, stuffing my face with pizza, reading the Viz, trawling the internet for porn and downloading American TV off isohunt.
But rather than waste my life on the couch waiting for Lost to finish, I thought it would be a much better idea in inflict my ginger beardy mug on every country in the world. I’ve been wanting to do this for ages, but the world hasn’t been peaceful enough for it to happen… until now.
So I packed up my troubles in my old kit bag and set off on THE FIRST SURFACE JOURNEY TO EVERY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD.
The great thing about this expedition is that since nobody has ever done it before, I’m pretty much guaranteed to bag myself a Guinness World Record: I’m aiming to have to done in a year, but as long as I finish the journey sometime in the next few years I’ll still be a bona-fide record breaker. Which is good news for a slacker like me who is planning to travel the world on a shoestring.
They say that every journey begins with a first step. Mine began with a drunken stumble.
After ignoring the snooze alarm for far too long, I singularly failed to get dressed (I had slept in my clothes) and also failed to brush my teeth, spray on some deodorant or indeed splash my face with cold water – no time for that. The boat left for Uruguay at 8.30. I had less than half an hour and I was still in bed.
Struggling with my stupid bags – car charger for my laptop, but no wet wipes – clever! I ventured downstairs to check out from the Milhouse backpackers, and tried to piece together the memories of the night before.
I had got into Buenos Aires the previous morning after a two-day coach journey from Rio. It was raining, so I headed straight for the backpacker hostel. I rang Mandy for her New Year (she’s now in her home country of Australia) and I realised that I still hadn’t got my head around the fact that I’m not going to see her for the best part of 2009. To be honest, I still haven’t got my head around the fact that this is all happening, and it’s happening now.
After editing my first video (see above), I met with Carlos, the cameraman hired by Lonely Planet to follow my first couple of days on the road. It was about 7pm and I still hadn’t organized anything for New Year. You see, I had assumed that Argentines see in the New Year like the rest of us – they have a party, kiss someone they shouldn’t and fall asleep around 4am after walking for hours in the freezing cold in a frantic hunt for a taxi home.
But it was not to be. My only friend in Buenos Aires, Maia, was, like many Argentines, seeing New Year in by having a meal with her family. Not wanted to gatecrash a family affair, I opted for the Milhouse Backpackers NYE disco which is the sort of thing that makes Lonely Planet executives spit out their lattes in disgust – young westerners having fun in foreign climes without a cultural reference in sight. But, sod it, I wasn’t in the mood for gauchos and mate anyway. I got to chat to a whole bunch of people, having a cameraman follow me round meant I was plyed with free drinks (you should try it!) and I got to dance like only a drunken scouser can.
Around 2am (when the night officially kicks off in Argentina) we left to meet with Maia and drop in to an authentic Argentine house party – which is a bit like a British house party, but full of people what speak funny. Once again, it was great being the centre of attention and the weird herbal concoction I was given to drink signalled the end of my ability to string together a coherent sentence in English, never mind my appalling attempts at Spanish.
A half-remembered lift back to the backpackers – thanks Esteban! – and now here I was, less than four hours later, barging my way into the Buquebus Terminal for the ferry over to Uruguay.
Unfortunately, my plan to get the Odyssey underway was scuppered by the fact that Uruguay was, for all intents and purposes, closed.
We cut a path across the River Plate, arriving in Colonia at about 9.30am. But upon disembarkation it became rampantly clear that starting the Odyssey in Uruguay was a silly idea. The first bus out of the Uruguayan ferry terminal was at 11pm that night.
So a quick revision of The Odyssey route was required. I’m going to have to overland it through Brazil later on in order to get into Guyana, so I decided the best course of action was to return to Buenos Aires and head to the border with Paraguay. Which is what we did. We got back on the boat and headed across the Rio Del Plata and thundered towards the start line.
Sorry I didn’t get to spend more time in Uruguay, but here’s a little vid of my time there back in 2002:
A short walk to the bus terminal and Carlos and I were on the first bus to a place called Posadas on the border of Argentina and Paraguay. I can’t say it right, so I keep calling it ‘Potatoes’. After I tick Paraguay off the list, I’ll only have another 197 countries to visit, including the likes of Congo, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan and North Korea.
What have I let myself in for?!
Arriving at some ungodly hour in Posadas, we took a taxi over the Paraguayan border. And back. I would love to tell you how much fun and how interesting Paraguay is, but I can’t. It isn’t. They may as well put posters in travel agencies that say ‘Paraguay: Forget it’.
So as soon as possible we headed out of Posadas on another coach, arriving at Resistencia a few hours later. Only when I got off the coach, I forget to pick up my GPS tracker which I need to keep you all informed where I am each day! Horrified by my rampant stupidity, Carlos came to my rescue and got the coach company to ring the driver (now on his way back to a place called Corrientes) and retrieve the GPS. Which they did, and had it driven back to Resistencia on the next bus.
I love Argentina.
So with a new spring in my step I checked out the town of Resistencia – not much to write anywhere about (never mind home) and all it did was solidify my belief that nothing even halfway decent has been built by anyone, anywhere in the last fifty years. Way to go, human race – losers!! Maybe in centuries to come, this period of time will be known as the era of concrete and piss.
The next bus we needed to Salta was an overnighter, arriving at 4am in the morning. Carlos was doing well, but after a couple of days on the road I could tell he’d had enough. I’ve got another 300 days of this…
Another very early morning and after joining me on the bus to San Salvador De Jujuy (pronounced HooHoy, which is something I’d expect Mr Burns to say when he answers the phone) Carlos disembarked to get on with his life. I, meanwhile, trooped on to the border with Bolivia.
The queue to get across the border was eye watering. There must have been at least 700 people in the queue and ONE, yes ONE, guy with the rubber exit stamp. Okay – so I pushed in. Don’t blame me – this is for charity! At least that’s my excuse. But somewhere in the back of my mind is an unshakable belief that queuing is for chumps.
An Argentine girl got a little ratty with me, so I pretended (somewhat unconvincingly) to be Russian. While waiting for my Bolivian entry stamp, I got chatting with a guy from England who asked me if I had been to Bolivia before. Err, yeah – as it happens – how did he know? Then he tapped his girlfriend on the shoulder and said this is the guy off that YouTube video!
Way to go, YouTube! I’ll be a minor celebrity yet!!
Once in Bolivia, I rapidly learnt that the train to Oruro was completely sold out and that my only choice was to bus it.
Oh sweet Jesus, no.
As nightmare coach journeys go, this one was a corker. A bus held together with sellotape. An unsealed road. The frickin’ ANDES. Windows that don’t shut. Overnight.
Arrived, shaken but not stirred, in Oruro, Bolivia. I felt the best course of action was to find out when the first bus for Chile left – 11.30am – and find a place to sleep for a couple of hours. Did that, but it’s hard to sleep when the hotel you’ve chosen (Copacabana, pop pickers) is overrun by noisy children in the courtyard playing at being pneumatic drills.
So I gave up trying to sleep and headed over to an Internet café to try and make contact with the outside world. After I had wasted enough time trying to get youporn to work, I grabbed a taxi back to the bus station.
I thought I’d check how many pounds there are to the Chilean whatever, so I reached for my copy of Lonely Planet…
Left it in the goddamn Internet café. And how to get there when the only map you’ve got of the area is in the Lonely Planet?
I grabbed another cab – I had half an hour before the bus left – plenty of time. However, I wasn’t banking on the driver being the Bolivian equivalent of Dougal from Father Ted. Internet Café, Via Bolivar – cerce la estation de tren. Not hard eh? Not only did he seem to have no idea how the roads worked in his home town, he seemed in a state of constant bewilderment that he was driving a car, not a milkfloat. Maybe with the altitude his nose would start to bleed if he drove at more than five miles per hour.
In any case, despite my constant mas rapidos! and waving twenty US dollars under his nose, we didn’t make it to the Internet café and now I am officially guideless. Yep, I feel like Arthur Dent after he threw The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy in a river. Although he was stuck on prehistoric Earth whereas I’m trying to make my way across an entire continent for which English is about as useful as Anne Frank’s drum kit.
I got on the bus to Arica in Chile. Scheduled to get in at 8pm. Ha! Fat chance – this is Bolivia, Sundance, not Switzerland. Suffering from Altitude Sickness – 0 to 4000 meters above sea level in a day will do that to you. I sat in the back of the bus curled up like Gollum wishing that I had a book so I could ask someone for an aspirin without coming across as a cold-turkeying junkie in the land that supplies a vast chunk of the world’s cocaine.
Speaking of cocaine, Bolivia is poor, horribly poor. The kind of grinding poverty in which people unhappily sh*t in the streets and their homes are little more than concrete hovels, which offer little or no shelter from the cold mountain air. Only we could have produced such a dystopian vision in 2009 – and we have. On paper, Bolivia should be one of the richest countries in the Americas. But most of its international profit-making businesses pay no tax. That’s why there is no road from the Argentine border to Potosi. That’s why there’s only one guy with a stamp to get in or out. That’s why the guy sitting next to me on the bus smells like Rip Van Winkle’s gusset.
Because there has been a world-wide prohibition on the sale of cocaine for the last few decades – and therefore everything is under-the-radar, billions of dollars of unpaid tax, which could go to help Bolivia dig itself out of the mud, gets gobbled up by the crime lords who’ll quite happily shoot a child in the face in order to get penniless farmers to grow your favourite nose candy.
And the problem is twofold – those who use the damn stuff and couldn’t give a damn about a bunch of smelly povos on the other side of the world and those who don’t and are very vocal about it remaining illegal for obscure moral reasons. You really want to help the plight of the poor in Bolivia, or Columbia? Have a word with your MP. A change in the law of just one country could break the UN mandate and release hundreds of thousands of rural workers across South America from wretched poverty.
Fair trade cocaine? One day, me amigo, one day.
So, anyway – back on topic… the worst coach journey EVER. Well, yet. So there I was – not taking incoming calls if you get my meaning, and they make me queue for TWO HOURS in the freezing cold to get my passport stamped out. Imagine a thousand elephants dancing the flamenco on your bounce while the freezing cold and dusty Andean air whips your face like a sandblasting machine.
Then we drive to the other border, to get into Chile. I wasn’t going to make the obligatory Chile joke, but yes, it was. I finally managed to wangle a blanket off the driver and curled up at the back of the coach, trying to ignore the stench of the baby that just has it’s nappy changed across the way, trying to ignore the fact that people had the goddamn windows open when it was clearly minus five degrees and trying to ignore my overwhelming urge to go and drive the chemical toilet like a bus.
The coach stopped at 9pm. Oh great – we’re here! And only an hour late! I opened my eyes a peered out into the dark night sky. No – not Arica, but a rest stop. We didn’t get into Arica until midnight. I hastily found out the exchange rate, and found a guesthouse over the road from the bus station and tried to crash. Only Chile is two hours ahead of Bolivia – it was really 2am and I had to be up for my bus into Peru for 7am.
Seeing my distress, the owner of the guesthouse gave me something to drink – a Christmas drink – cold coffee with vodka. It was all I could do not to vomit it back up all over the table.
I thanked her profusely and went to bed.
The maid was supposed to wake me at 6.30, but didn’t. Luckily, by some miracle I woke up myself at 7am after clocking up a whole 3 hours of sleep. The maid was happily sorting out the washing downstairs, so I chose not to kick her in the shins. A shared taxi with some random locals and a lovely girl from America called Gillian across the border. What a breeze after yesterday’s shenanigans! Thank you Chile, thank you Peru!
So now I’m on the bus to Lima. Everyone seems a little sketchy as to when I will arrive, but you know, 6 countries, 5 days. It’s all good. And there may be the possibly of a bus straight through from Lima to Caracas – but I’d have to be very, very lucky to get my timings right. If only I could check in my Lonely Planet…
To the left of me is the Pacific Ocean; to the right is inhospitable desert that reaches the foothills of the Andes. Once again I’m the only English speaker on board, the bus is too hot, I’m really cramped, I’ve got pins and needles in my right foot and the driver is crazy like Bo Diddily crazy. But the road is good; it’s got yellow lines like in Mad Max and fine sand dances across it in waves. From my seat at the front I’m seeing the Pan-American Highway stretch out in front of me in a straight line all the way to the horizon.
I love the desert. I couldn’t be happier.
Got into Lima at 8am this morning. It was a rollercoaster ride last night, if you tried to stay awake it was just a non-stop cavalcade of terror as the crazy bus driver drove at break-neck speed while overtaking on blind corners on narrow mountain roads with a sheer drop just metres away. Not a single vehicle overtook up through the whole 18-hour journey – our driver managed to overtake over 200. Best just to shut your eyes and hope for the best.
Now in Lima city centre, spent the morning trying without much luck to find a new copy of Lonely Planet South America. There are tons of riot police in the central square standing about, at least four armed vehicles with machine guns sitting… waiting… don’t know what for. Maybe I don’t want to know. My bus leaves for the border with Ecuador at 12:45.
Turns out that the machine gun toting military lot were there to police the crowd of axe-welding lunatic mothers and their terrorist-like children with sharpened teeth who had turned out to celebrate the festival of the arrival of the three kings with their Gold, Frankenstein and Grrr (la fiesta des tres reios I think). Overkill perhaps? Hmm…
Anyway, before long I was back on the bus and heading north to Ecuador. The sunset into the pacific to the left of me, and the foothills of the Andes rose to the right. This job ain’t so bad.
Got to the border bright and early this morning, and tried to find a bus to Quito, the capital of Ecuador. There was no central bus station, each coach operative had their own depot scattered around the small town of Tumbes.
Don’t forget – I’ve got no guidebook so I was completely winging it. In the first bus depot I found an Irish lad called Alan who assured me that this was the bus to get if I wanted to go to Quito.
Unfortunately for me, it wasn’t. I thought the bus was just going to take me over the border, but it was taking me to a place called Guayaquil some seven hours away. Alan said it was on the way to Quito, but I couldn’t check in his guidebook as some French girl was reading it. All I needed was to look at the map!!
By the time I wrestled the book off the Frenchie (two hours later) I made a horrific discovery. Guayaquil was not on the way to Quito. It was a good few hours out of my way.
Cursing my own stupidity at having lost my guidebook and then trusted somebody instead of checking the facts first; I got off at Guayaquil, waited an hour for another bus to Quito, which was supposed to get me in at 10pm.
It got me in at midnight.
Once a week, there is a direct bus from Quito to Caracas in Venezuela. No hopping on and off buses, no changing money every day, just lie back and let the bus take you up through Ecuador, through Colombia and all the way to the Caribbean coast.
It left at 11pm.
I retired to the nearest hotel to bang my head against the wall and have a little cry.
I flaked it. I should have been up with the lark and on a bus to the border, but I decided to have a day off. This decision is no doubt going to haunt the rest of my trip around the Americas.
Actually, it wasn’t much of a day off – I had loads of stuff to do and putting together the first podcast took ages.
I’ve got to say Quito is magnificent, though. Unlike every other South American city I’ve visited (and every city in poor old England), they haven’t tried to integrate Modernist concrete and breezeblock municipal shopping mall/offices/discotheque/multi-story car park hell (come, come, see effendi, all under one roof like some kind of Djinn magic!) into the nice bit of the city. They’ve shoved that to one side like an unwanted Brussels sprout and left the ‘old city’ to its own devices.
Add to that a recent restoration project has resulted in the most beautiful city centre in South America. Ecuador is not a particularly rich country, but it really has a Sunday Best to keep lovers of the golden era of architecture like me happy. Thank you Ecuador. I will make a mental note to buy more coffee and bananas off you in the future.
Actually, can I take back calling this stuff Modernist? That implies that there is some kind of design, thought, layout, plan, or – dare I say it – soul about the staggeringly ugly concrete crap we humans have been throwing up all over the planet over the last half-century. We ought to be ashamed of ourselves. Back of the class, humanity – you’ve got detention after school.
Ahem, sorry, rant over. So anyway, Quito. Wasted day. Interesting fact – even though Quito is just a few kilometres from the Equator – it’s not that hot. In fact, it was positively brass monkeys at night, and during the day I needed a jumper. Another interesting fact – I crossed the Tropic of Capricorn just north of San Salvador de Jujuy in Argentina on Day 2. Five days is all it took to get from the Capricorn to the Equator. On a bus!! Odyssey a go-go!!
Oh – some good news as well – Vodafone YES THAT’S VODAFONE, are giving me free mobile broadband for the year, so I’ll be able to do loads more stuff online (like respond to all your emails and get these blogs up daily!)
Thank you Vodafone, have a gold star and a jellybaby. You’re much better than all those other LOSERS at those other telecommunication companies I could mention!!
Okay, that’s your lot. Get your mates to give some money to WaterAid. Cheers.
Here’s my vid from the first week on the road…
Okay – day of ACTION! Got up at some ungodly hour and rendered the podcast, got to the Internet café at 7.30am and uploaded it. Got to bookshop at 9am and bought new Lovely Plant guidebook (PHEW!)
Jumped on the first bus to the border (11am) and CROSSED THE EQUATOR!! So I’m now back in the Northern Hemisphere.
Got to the border in good time, 4pm.
Then…. Waited, and waited, and WAITED to get my exit stamp.
It was 7.30pm before I got across. And I pushed in. I bribed a Canadian guy called Matt who was in the middle of the queue (rather than the end) with a Coca-Cola and he let me in. Thanks Matt!!
It was the old South American trick of employing just one guy with a stamp to process 500 people. Urgh! Entertainingly enough though, there were actually real monks in the queue. Monks! With bare feet and brown robes, rope belts and tonsures and everything!! I realised I had never seen a real, live monk before. I was so excited I think I did a little wee. Bet they were wearing hair vests as well. I should have asked them.
So I’m now in Colombia. The direct bus to Bogotá was sold out (typical!) so I had to get the bus to Cali instead. Which is actually on the way – I know – I checked the map! Although they didn’t let me get on the 8pm bus, they said that was full (in the time it took me to pay by Visa) so I was stuck until 9pm, but once the bus was on the way I was absolutely gutted that I had lost so much time at the border. The views of the valleys and mountains on the right hand side of the bus during the day would have been spectacular. Hell – they were pretty impressive in almost complete darkness.
Every half hour, our bus got stopped and searched by police/army types with big guns and no smiles. Everyone on the bus seemed quite resigned to this as the way of life here, I stayed awake for the first four searches, but then went beddy-bo-bos and missed the rest.
I think I’m about 3 days behind schedule now; I really need to make up some time in the Caribbean. Don’t know how easy that is going to be, absolutely NOTHING has been arranged. I feel quite sick just thinking about it. There are hardly any ferry services in the Caribbean, cruise ships flat refuse to take on casual travellers and the chances of working my passage on a private yacht are probably less than 50:50. In short, I could be stuck in the Caribbean for quite some time.
If any of you know anyone who is in the Caribbean at the moment and has a boat (preferably a speed boat!) PLEASE let me know. It’s getting to the 11th hour here and I don’t want this whole thing to fall apart at the first hurdle. Thanks.
At the moment I’m on the bus to Bogotá. Colombia is beautiful, so green and mountainy and Romancing The Stone. The people are friendly as hell as well, offering me snacks and chatting to me a lot more than the folks from down south. Northerners eh? We rock. Oh, and the chicks are much better lucking. Seriously – everyone in Bolivia looks like Dwayne Dibbly. And that includes the girls.
There is still massive poverty here in Colombia though and a large portion of the country is not even under the control of the government as hard left and hard right paramilitaries rule the roost over vast swathes of the nation, and I’m going to give you three guesses how they fund their daft little insurgency. But on the bright side, Colombia is no longer the kidnap capital of the world – that honour has gone to Iraq.
In 1999, the US gave the Colombian government 3.3 billion dollars to institute ‘Plan Colombia’, a grand scheme that involves US planes spraying coca fields with Herbicide, with the intention of killing the cocaine trade at root, so to speak.
Idiots. A child could have pointed out that it wasn’t going to work, and saved the US taxpayer a fair old hunk of cash. Surprisingly(!), the gangsters who produce cocaine didn’t just up sticks from the $6,000,000,000 industry with which they had grown so fond, so when a farmer’s field was ruined by spraying, they would simply go and intimidate some other poor toothless farmer into growing stuff for them somewhere else – like in the delicate ecosystem of the Amazon rainforest.
So what’s the upshot of all this? Well, in the last ten years, there hasn’t been a single percentage drop in cocaine supply from Colombia to the US or Europe, but a lot of rainforest has been trashed. Well done America, next time you’ve got 3.3 billion dollars to waste, how’s about letting me shovel it into a burning well in front of a bunch of starving African AIDS orphans instead? It would be just as productive and much more fun.
I said it in the earlier blog: fair trade cocaine. It’s the only way out of this mess, and the only way Colombia is ever going to get its country’s lush green mountains back. Let’s hope admitted ex-cokehead Barack (replacing admitted ex-cokehead George W – weren’t the 80s great?) can see it in his wisdom to finally bring this ludicrous situation under control and make that unpopular but morally correct decision.
Right, I’m running out of batteries, so just time to say THANK YOU for all your messages of support and for the kind donations to WaterAid. It’s really giving me a lift to know that there are so many people who are willing me to succeed. Can’t wait to see you all again when I pass through the UK at the end of February – keep your diaries free!
Lots of you have been asking how you can get in touch with me on the road. The best way is via email to my yahoo account, or via the ‘Contact’ page, but if you want you can always send me a text on my usual number, but don’t ring it as I haven’t got enough credit.