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

01.01.10:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 367: Brookes Was Here

02.01.10:

To say that our hotel in Hurghada was a bit lousy would probably do insult to lousy hotels. My general dislike for large-scale tourist hotels was not helped by the unhelpful staff, the twin room we were lumbered with or the remarkably bad breakfasts they doled out, much in the manner of an African prison… and I should know! But we made the most of it, fighting our way through the throng of German and Russian holiday makers and out into the bright light of Hurghada.

I was in Hurghada about ten years ago, and I found it a dusty, unfinished mess of litter and concrete and I’m sorry to say nothing has changed. One of the first Red Sea holiday destinations, insensitive planning and an unbridled frenzy of concrete tat means that of all Egypts cities, it is possibly the most unattractive. Plus it’s got no groovy pyramids, temples, obelisks or statues to check out. If you like your Scuba diving, then it’s a haven, but otherwise it’s a great place to haul up in your hotel room, build a little fort and watch 24 on your laptop.

The reason we’re here is because that most marvellous lady, Lorna Brookes, is holidaying here a little down the coast. Aside from wishing to thank her for all her help this year (many of my shipping jaunts would have been impossible without her persistence) she also had a bunch of stuff from the UK that I would need to continue on this stupid mission – a new leather jacket (thanks Mum!) to replace the one the police stole off me in Cape Verde, a shiny new Lonely Planet for the Middle East and a brand new stock of Doxycycline pills to ward off any malarious plagues of mozzies.

So we grabbed a taxi and headed up to Lorna’s resort. Blimey – it was like Fort Knox. We were told to wait at the gate for a car to come and pick us up and once in reception they did their best to get us to leave as soon as possible. I can see why – it was an all-expenses-paid type of place with a private beach and free drinks. They wouldn’t want riff-raff like the Hughes/Newland duo turning up and cadging a bunch of whiskeys without permission. Luckily for us, Lorna was there to turn a threat into an opportunity (something she is marvellously equipped to do. She explained to the staff the nature of my quest, they had words with the manager and before long we were given free passes to indulge in a spot of lunch and enjoy a couple of drinks on the house.

Yey for Lorna!

The hotel complex was actually quite attractive – they had done their best to ape the Arabian-Nights style of architecture in a way that, while not authentic, wasn’t particularly offensive either. Lorna was staying with a mate of hers from London, Shelly, who was a hoot, and we took turns babysitting Lorna’s baby daughter Matilda, who had a habit of zooming off in any direction she was facing, much in the manner of a turbo-charged Big Trax.

We spent the afternoon chilling out on the beach and taking full advantage of the free booze. That evening Mand and I chucked some Egyptian pounds at the staff so we could stay for din-dins and after musing over just how far we have come we scuttled back to our dowdy hotel (after a few more drinks in the Peanuts Bar) and, for the first time in this whole daffy adventure, I felt as if I was on holiday.

Days 368-371: The Whirling Dervishes

03.01.10-06.01.10:

So Mand and I had a few days kicking around Hurghada. Our hotel had been pre-booked up until the Tuesday night, so we thought we might as well make the most of it. We didn’t do much (there ain’t much to do!) but we managed to keep ourselves occupied. God it’s nice to be back in the arms of the one I love.

I don’t want to get too mushy about all this, but I seriously appreciate just how bloody marvellous Mandy has been all year putting up with all of this. It’s one thing disappearing off into the wild blue yonder for twelve months, but when you leave behind the one you love, it really makes the whole thing that much more of an ordeal – for both of us. When I was locked up in Cape Verde and the Congo, it wasn’t what I was going through that really hacked me off, it was that I knew Mandy would be thousands of miles away worrying her pants off.

Having just one week together seemed unfair, a trick of some capricious god teasing us with what could have been. If all had gone according to plan, I’d be home in Australia by now, putting my feet up and stuffing my face with Anzac biscuits and Arnott’s Pizza Shapes. If I had more money (or if I had played my cards right last year), Mandy could be travelling with me. But as it is, I’m skint, Mand has to work every hour god sends to pay her rent and after this week, I won’t be seeing her for a very long time – hopefully not a year though, that would be too much to do again. Fortune and glory, eh?! At least Indy could afford to have Marion tag along.

On the Tuesday, we bought coach tickets to get back to Cairo the following morning and our last evening in Hurghada was spent nattering to a girl named Rosa in the Peanuts Bar. Wednesday, bright and early, we were bussing our way back to Cairo, Mand seriously not appreciating my lethargic attitude toward bus timetables. I didn’t miss a single connection for the entire year of 2009 and I wasn’t excessively fussed about getting up mega-early just to hang around for half an hour in a bus station that looked as though it had only been half-built by half-blind lunatics before a bomb hit it.

But by the time we arrived in Cairo, we were friends again and we checked back into the wonderfully friendly Sara Inn, the place we had spent New Year after we returned from the Pyramids. After checking in, we were torn between seeing the Sufi Dancing show or going to see Sherlock Holmes. There was a French lady called Dominique who overheard our conversation and told us that she wanted to go and see the Sufi show too.

Sufi Dancing is better known as the Whirling Dervishes in the West, it’s a form of dance which involves a bunch of guys hammering the hell out of various musical instruments, getting faster and faster and more frantic every minute as your dancer spins himself around and around, multi-coloured robes flowing until he looks like a spinning top. Sufi has its roots in Islamic (or rather Arab) mysticism – so it’s kinda like what Kabbalah is to Judaism (only less of a fad for drug-addled celebrity goons). It was invented as a way of communing with god, and is therefore frowned upon in certain Arabic countries, but not in Egypt where the show is put on a few times a week for free by the government. We ended up going to see the Sufi dancing with Dominique. Sherlock would have to wait.

Dominique was hilarious. It was if she had dropped in from another planet, had only 24 hours to learn everything about the world but had unfortunately landed in the middle of a bunch of extremely stoned hippies talking what can only be described as the biggest load of crap since Otto the Giant dropped his trousers and single-arsedly suffocated an entire Welsh village.

From guardian angels to memory crystals in water to the world ending in 2012, there wasn’t a scrap of an urban legend that this woman didn’t believe and believe whole-heartedly. She had done her stint in an Indian ashram, thought astrology was more accurate than an atomic clock and could no doubt find water on the moon with a couple of metal sticks. It was kind of a shame that I didn’t have more time with her – I would have bought some tat from a junk shop, stuck it together with sellotape, made up some nonsense about laylines and reiki and pocketed five hundred quid for my troubles. There’s one born every minute, I guess…

The Sufi dancing was held at a venue near Cairo’s biggest market, so Mand and I went for a mooch before the performance. Night-time was a good time to go – the touts and hasslers were exhausted from spending the day annoying the pants off everybody who had the misfortune to walk past, so we had the run of the market at our own pace and in our own time. We found a wonderful little shop that sold hand-bound notebooks – no hard-sell, no perfume/carpet/cuppa tea – the books even had price stickers, so we didn’t even have to play the massively un-entertaining game in which you’re quoted 500 Egyptian Pounds, you get it for 100 pounds after a ton of haggling and then you go to another shop and they tell you that whatever it is, is worth 10 pounds. Fun!

We bought a journal for Dino (he should write in the entry for 1st January “Graham & Mandy meet at 00:06 at KFC by the Pyramids, thanks to me”) and then scooted off to watch the Sufi show, which I’ve got to admit was pretty damn awesome. How these guys don’t wobble off the stage like a drunken badger I’ll never know. Afterwards, Dominique, Mand and I went for a coffee in a sheesha bar – the owner trying to dupe us for a ton of cash. After an hour-and-a-half of quality entertainment for gratis, it just reminded me how frustrating my second-favourite country in the world can be – if you don’t keep your wits about you at all time, you’ll soon lose your shirt.

Day 372: It Belongs In A Museum

07.01.10:

Thursday started with a very early morning trip to the Sudanese Embassy – I missed out Sudan and Eritrea on the way up here, so Sudan was next on my list (Eritrea will have to wait, all of its land borders are currently closed). There, I was told to come back at 10, which I did (Mandy slept in, the lazy bugger) only to find they meant the 10th of January. It was closed until Sunday. A bit annoying, but no big deal – so long as I could get a visa on Sunday – Sudanese visas can take up to six weeks in Ethiopia.

So I roused the Mandster and we headed over to the greatest/worst museum in the world – the Egyptian museum in Cairo.

It’s the greatest because it’s stuffed to the gills with more Egypticana than you could ever want. It’s the worst because, oh my god, the place is a TIP. You know the final scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark? That’s the Egyptian museum, except the crates are open. Stuff lays about higgledy-piggledy, jumping from one dynasty to another with reckless abandon, the labels (if you’re luck enough to find one) are the same ones that were typed out 107 years ago on a typewriter when the museum first opened. Many of the artefacts haven’t moved in all that time – this museum belongs in a museum.

Hilariously, the most important artefact in the whole damn warehouse is unlabelled and if you didn’t know where to look you’d miss it – it’s in glass box number 16 and it’s looks like a small shield. On one side is Narmer, the first Pharaoh (discounting the Scorpion King, no, really, he existed) wearing the crown of Upper (Southern) Egypt and on the other side it’s Narmer again, this time wearing the crown of Lower (Northern) Egypt. It’s possibly the oldest thing in this most antique of lands – you’d think they’d make a bit more of a fanfare about it.

Not so funny was the Tutankhamen room. I get a bit ratty with how people refer to King Tut as an ‘insignificant’ king – he deserves a bit more respect than that, after all, he did bring the country back from the brink of civil war following his nutty predecessor’s pronouncement that there was only one god (fancy that!).

You know that between King Tut and Ramses II (he of Abu Simbel and plagues-of-Egypt fame) there was only about 150 years? Long enough for a cult faithful to this one-god malarkey to emerge? Long enough for it to start causing trouble and be banished into the east? Hmm…

The mind boggles.

Anyway, whether or not you fancy debating the significance of Tut as a Pharaoh, there is NO debating the HOLY MOTHER OF GOD! that is his funerary treasure. The most priceless heap of riches in the goddamn world. And the state of the room they are kept in? Dear god. Not only is the bright bleaching sunlight allowed to flop itself all over the place like an uninvited fatty, the windows out to Cairo, that most sprawling and polluted of cities, are wide open. The dust in the corners of the room sits an inch thick and the walls, which I suppose were at one time white, now resemble the colour of crème brûlée.

No climate control, no double-glazed bullet-proof glass, no attempt to stop people taking piccies with a flash (except a guard who sits idly by muttering ‘no photo’ every time one goes off). And they want the Rosetta Stone back? Are they nuts? They’d probably dump it in a bin in the darkened corner of the basement. Madness.

I once asked my brother Mike why he had never visited Egypt, interested as he is in history of the place. His reason? He had seen a programme years ago in which an Egyptian woman was attempting to ‘restore’ an ancient artefact. A small crack became a bigger crack, which became an even bigger crack and before the ordeal was over, she had pretty much destroyed the damn thing. It would have been better off had she not even bothered picking it up. I can see his point – some of the ‘restored’ pieces here are just appalling – a broken statue is better off being held together with wirework than with cement which shifts and cracks. The grubby hands of countless generations of tourists have left their mark on nearly everything that is not kept behind glass – is velvet rope selling at a premium these days?

Luckily, a new museum is being built as we speak – it’s scheduled to open in the far-flung year of 2009. Oh, hang on…

This would be Mandy’s and my last night together for another good few months, so we thought we’d spend it doing what we both like doing best – going to the cinema. With me being a Sherlock Holmes nut (well, actually just a nut, period) and the Sufi dancing taking up our previous night’s shenanigan-ing, we decided to take in the new Sherlock Holmes movie. It was bloody marvellous. If you’ve read the books you’ll know that Holmes is more Dr. House than Basil Rathbone and his brain is just one of his many facets, the others being his interest in amateur boxing, his addiction to cocaine and his love of chemical experimentation.

Watson is finally elevated from the bumbling assistant for-the-sake-of-exposition to his rightful role as Sundance to Holmes’ Butch. And although I detest Jude Law (who has an annoying habit of cropping up in films I actually quite like) the whole thing was a delight from beginning to end – especially for any old farts (such as I) who can remember watching Young Sherlock Holmes at the cinema as a child.

Only, yeah, this is Egypt, so we had a big scrum getting into the cinema (even though the seats were allocated) and people talked loudly and answered their mobiles all through the film. And the sound was awful – THX this was not – making a mockery of a stack of anti-piracy campaigns. Afterwards, we took a midnight stroll back to our hotel, Cairo being the safe-as-houses city that it is… you know, Mandy and I have been together since 2002, you would think that she would have got used to my extraordinarily good sense of direction by now, but when our hotel came into focus she was still bamboozled. Have faith, my dear, I did make it all the way from Uruguay to Egypt by myself.

Day 373: Goodbyeee

08.01.10:

It was a restless night – I had to upload the last of my 2009 tapes to my computer so Mand could drop them off in Lonely Planet HQ next week. Uploading tapes to my computer is not a fun job – it means setting your alarm every hour to get up and change the tape. Mandy slept through it all, but when the 6am snooze went off, it was time to get up-up – I wanted to finally get inside the Great Pyramid of Giza.

I’ve been to the Giza Pyramids a bunch of times – but as only 150 people per morning are allowed in the big one, I’ve never made it inside. But this time would be different. If we left now, we could make it for 7am, be first in the queue for Pyramid tickets and Bob’s-Your-Uncle, Fanny’s-Your-Aunt and Who-Killed-Cousin-Monty?

I woke Mandy up, but she just went back to sleep. Sod it – the pyramids aren’t going anywhere. I’ll spend our last morning together in bed with the woman I love. Mand would be hopping the 19:15 plane home later today. Well the day went far too fast, we filmed some stuff for the new YouTube videos and grabbed a bite to eat, nothing too heavy, but by half-four it was time to get in the taxi and head off to the airport.

Cairo airport doesn’t let you into the check-in desks before you go through security, so we sat outside until the queue died down and then said our goodbyes. Would it have been better not to have seen Mandy until I finished this whole trip? No – I don’t think so, this was shore leave, a chance to live a few normal days before I clamber back on Rocinante and continue this impossible quest. It was a chance to re-fuel the batteries, take stock of just how far I’ve come and gaze fervently at how far I have still to go. A chance for me to see, if only for a few short days, what I’d be doing if it wasn’t for the difficulties of traversing The Caribbean and Africa cropping up and ruining all my grand plans.

I miss her already and it’s only been an hour since I kissed her goodbye. There’s an added vibrancy to our relationship that comes from the many partings and reunions that are the natural consequence of a long-distance relationship such as ours. That vibrancy comes from one salient fact – although we often live apart, we are never that far away. Mobile phones, the Internet and Skype have seen to that.

I returned to the Sara Hotel, watched an episode of 24 and fell asleep. So long, Amanda my love. I’ll go to the pyramids in the morning.

Day 374: Globe Alone

09.01.10:

Again I woke up at 6am with every intention of visiting the pyramids, and again I looked to Mandy for moral support on this desire, and once again it was not forthcoming, not because she fell asleep again, but because she wasn’t there. Deeply saddened by this revelation, I fell back asleep. It was one of those days during which, I just couldn’t be bothered – not with The Odyssey, not with writing up my blog, not with those damn YouTube videos that the powers that be might just let you all watch sometime this decade.

Well, then I wasted the day away in the Sara Hotel. There I met Veronica, a girl from Canada who had toured throughout the Middle East and had a ton of wisdom to dispense about Iran – she actually made me look forward to going there. Once I sort out the bloody visa…

A few weeks ago when I put my mobile number up on the site, I received a text from a rather lovely Canadian girl named Jesse, who was living in Cairo. I had promised to drop in if I was here, and Saturday night seemed like a good a time as ever. But she had recently returned to Canada and so, put me in touch with a friend of hers from Boston who was living up in Heliopolis in the north-east of Cairo’s urban sprawl. Jesse said that she’d be up for a big night out. Her name was Kendra.

So I got in touch with our American cousin and made plans to go and grab some drinkies. I invited a German guy named Martin, who was also staying at the Sara Inn (from Konstanz – the same place as Patricia, whom I met in Halifax) to tag along and later, we were all in the Stella bar around the corner enjoying some much-needed beers.

Kendra was hilarious – your typical cynical-as-hell east coast type, as aware as anybody about Egypt’s shortcomings, but in love with the place anyway (as am I). Later on as the bar shut up for the night, we were lumbered with an impossibly drunk Russian woman who had been sitting across the room from us. All but passed out, wee’d and pukey, we felt obliged to take her back to her hotel. What a bloody moron – imagine getting that hammered out on your own in a foreign bar.

And before you say it – I’m not a girl – and even if I’m so drunk that I can’t see, I can always find my way home!

Kendra was ace – she got the mad devotchka to bed (after having to fish through the Russian woman’s wee-soaked handbag to find the room key) and then we set off for a little Odyssey around the streets of Cairo.

One of the ace things about Cairo is that it’s truly a 24-hour city – so much so that you can order KFC or McDonalds to your door, any time of the night or day. There’s always a bar open all night or a kushari joint there for your gastronomic pleasure in the wee small hours. Cairo is also a remarkably safe city – you’re more likely to get mugged on Sesame Street.

So we set off for a stroll along the banks of the River Nile – the lifeblood of this entire country, without which all would be nothing but desert (it hardly ever rains) and I found out that Kendra is just as much of a sad Star Wars geek as I am – yes she was one of the happy few who camped outside Mann’s Chinese Theatre in LA for three weeks for the opening of The Great Disappointment, or to give it its proper title Star Wars Episode I. Yeah, the film was crap, but the experience was awesome, she said – I feel the same way (I blew my student loan flying to New York to see it).

By the time we had done a lap of downtown and stopped in a pizza place to stuff our faces, it was almost 6am. I had to get some shut-eye…I had to be at the Sudanese Embassy for nine.

Day 375: Odyssey Again

10.01.10:

Here’s what you need to do to get a visa for Sudan:

  • Have two hours sleep
  • Taxi to Sudanese Embassy
  • Queue up at the window
  • Be told to get a letter from own embassy
  • Go to British Embassy
  • Pay $50 for a photocopy of a letter explaining why the British Embassy will not write a letter
  • Back to Sudanese Embassy
  • Queue up again
  • Give them letter explaining why the British Embassy will not write a letter
  • Take application form
  • Fill out application form
  • Panic that you’ve given your Africa Lonely Planet to Mandy and consequently don’t know what to put down on the form for where you’re going to stay.
  • Queue up again
  • Be told that you have to photocopy the filled out application form
  • Go down the road and get application form photocopied
  • Queue up again
  • Be given slip to take to Window 2
  • Queue up again, this time at Window 2
  • Be told that you can’t pay in Egyptian pounds – must be in US dollars
  • Go find a bank
  • Queue up in the bank
  • Change your Egyptian pounds into US dollars
  • Back to Sudanese Embassy
  • Queue up again at Window 2
  • Hand over the extortionate $105 visa fee
  • Be given receipt
  • Queue up again at Window 1
  • Hand over passport, application form, photocopy of application form, 4 photocopies of passport and 4 photographs, letter from British Embassy explaining why they will not write a letter and receipt for payment
  • Be told to come back tomorrow
  • Say you need it today
  • Hold your breath
  • Be told to come back at 3pm
  • Breathe a sigh of relief.

That was my morning, but there was still much stuff to do. You see, I needed my visa today because the only way to get into Sudan from Egypt is on the ferry across Lake Nasser from Aswan to Wadi Halfa and the ferry only goes once a week – and it leaves on Monday, which is tomorrow. I needed to get the night-train to Aswan, so I headed over to Ramses train station and MORE BUREAUCRACY!

  • So I go to the Information Desk
  • Walk all the way to the far platform of the station
  • Queue up in the wrong queue
  • Queue up in the right queue
  • Be told that the train is fully booked
  • Asked for a ticket for the train which leaves from Giza station instead
  • Be told can only buy that ticket from Giza station
  • Head back to the information desk
  • They suggest I take the expensive sleeper train
  • I visit the sleeper train office
  • That will be $60 please
  • Attempt to pay with Egyptian pounds
  • No, you have to pay in dollars
  • Walk half an hour to the nearest bank in the blazing noontime sun
  • Queue up in bank
  • Change more Egyptian pounds into US dollars
  • Back to station
  • Be told that the sleeper train is now sold out
  • Threaten to kill everyone in the room with a staple gun
  • Be told that they have one ticket left
  • Buy ticket

The whole process took about two hours.

Then I (foolishly) took a cab back to the Sudanese Embassy (I should have taken the subway). We got caught in traffic more jammed than Bob Marley jamming in a jar of jam. I got back to the Sudanese embassy at 3.10pm, worried that I was ten minutes late. An hour and a half later, they gave me my passport back. I was glad I rushed.

So… back to the Sara Inn to pick up my bags and to eat some kushari. Said my goodbyes and headed off to the station for my train. Despite all the hoops that I had to jump through, today went rather well, I thought. The train was less hilarious than I thought it would be, there was no booze and the fresh-faced young Kontiki tour groups were happy to crash out at 11pm, what with kids these days? Bunch of wusses.

I shared a cabin with a guy from New York named John, who (let’s not beat around the bush here) was Forrest Gump – how anyone let him go to Egypt on his own is beyond me. Perhaps his mum was in the next room. I mean, he was a nice enough guy, but give an Egyptian an inch and they’ll take a mile – this time tomorrow, I’d be surprised if he had any money left. I did my best to answer his questions about whether the train conductors were nice in the UK (the answer is no), whether they had trains in Australia and why the Giza touts were so mean.

Our train conductor, Aladdin, not being one to miss a trick (yes, they did the old ‘would you like a cup of tea with your dinner?’ lark without telling you it wasn’t complimentary) offered me a different cabin for a few Egyptian pounds, but I turned the offer down – John was harmless; I got the impression they don’t quite understand mental illness in Egypt. Then again, the way people with mental illnesses are treated in the US (and the UK for that matter) is still pretty damn awful. Funny that, isn’t it? If somebody has a dodgy heart or breaks their arm, they get sympathy and all the help they need, if someone’s brain isn’t functioning at 100%, we tend to shun them lest they turn around in the night and go postal on our asses.

With nowt much else to do, I clambered up onto my bunk bed, tied my GPS logger to my leg and fell asleep.

Day 376: The First Cataract

11.01.10:

Off the train and then over to the High Dam port. Back in the god-knows-when, the British built a dam at the First Cataract. The First (and subsequent) Cataracts are a series of rapids that are impossible to navigate a boat over. Since you couldn’t sail a ship over the Cataract, it seemed like a good place to plonk a dam – it would allow the Egyptians to better control the yearly floods and provide nice green energy for the nearby homes.

In the 1950s the President of the newly independent Egypt, Mr. Nasser, decided to go one better – he would build The High Dam.. So large that it would wind up creating the largest artificial lake in the world, the High Dam was an impressive feat of engineering. However, by flooding the land south of the First Cataract and thereby creating this massive lake (which Nasser humbly named after himself) many archaeological treasures were lost – some temples (including that of Abu Simbel, the famous four-seated Pharaohs in a row all with the face of Ramses II) had to be moved, a painstaking (and risky) operation.

Entire towns were flooded (as was Halfa, the town that is now relocated and renamed Wadi Halfa) and Nubian communities were torn apart. Another problem is that the all-important silt that the river carried (and deposited during the annual floods) was now being prevented from getting to the farmlands that desperately need the nutrient-rich top soil that only the old floodwater could supply.

But as a source of clean, renewable energy, you can’t knock it.

So this lake was what I had to traverse in order to gain access to Sudan, country 134. The road to Sudan had been closed for donkey’s years and this was the only way in or out. Sudan isn’t known for getting on too well with its neighbours. You would think the biggest country in Africa would have bigger fish to fry, but that hasn’t stopped it engaging in border disputes with, well, pretty much all of its neighbours (of which it has many). In fact, the only safe way in or out of Northern Sudan is via Egypt or Ethiopia – you can forget about Uganda, Chad, CAR, Eritrea, DR Congo, Kenya, Libya or Eritrea.

So why didn’t I go via Ethiopia? Good question, well asked. For two reasons: one is that it would have taken me too long to get to Mandy and two is that it can take up to SIX WEEKS to get a Sudanese visa from Addis Ababa. As we discovered yesterday, in Cairo it’s a same-day service. Oh yeah!

The High Dam port was a fit of disorganisation that Egypt is famous for. The whole rigmarole of getting from the ticket booth to the ship took a good hour while my bags were checked on about seven different occasions, and perhaps forty-plus officials who had looked at my passport. Eventually I was on board. The ship was a larger version of many of the little cargo ships that I’ve taken around Africa… benches to sleep on, dirty floors, everything dirty and yucky.

Got chatting with a bloke named Alister Caldicott (www.alitravelstheworld.com), a guy from England who had also done more than his fair share of globe trotting. Having notched up an impressive 90 countries, he had hung out in Palestine, toured through Afghanistan, been everywhere in Burma and was now travelling down through East Africa. He was awesome, very knowledgeable and it was great to actually get some first-hand info on what it is like to travel through places like the ‘Stans.

Ali slept up on the deck, but I had cadged a space down below. Although sleeping under the starry, starry night appealed, I wasn’t too enamoured with the idea of freezing my behind off at five in the morning once the day’s heat had evaporated. I was lucky – I got a bench all to myself. They’re supposed to hold four people each. Good job it’s low season.

Day 377: The Second Cataract

12.01.10:

Another fit of African bureaucracy before we could disembark saw us waiting for over an hour after we arrived, before we could get off the damn ship, but eventually, in drips and drabs, we all made it off the good ship and into the little town of Wadi Halfa.

The only thing I know about Wadi Halfa is that it’s where Michael Palin took the train to Khartoum – and, well, apart from that not much to report I’m afraid.. The ship would be going back tomorrow so I thought it only fair that I stay the night. I joined a gang of Aussie lads in the local guesthouse, a simple affair of single room buildings clustered around a central courtyard.

Sudan isn’t big on tourism. An intractable civil war between north and south (the Darfur crisis being a completely separate atrocity) has been rumbling on for about 20 years now, and the only hope for a lasting peace is a referendum in 2011 to split into two separate entities. Does that mean that I should have visited South Sudan while I was here? Well, only if I don’t get finished before this completely new nation is created. If it does and I’m pottering around the South Pacific, I’ll have a bloody long backtrack to make. But without a clearly defined border between the two new countries and oil fields to scrap over, the good people of the Sudan may be in for another 20 years of scrapping.

And what are they scrapping over? Have a guess, go on, have a guess. Yeah, as always – which colour hat God wears on a Thursday evening when the moon is in the eighth house of ware. It’s been the same since forever. And you wonder why I hate it so much.

When tourists do arrive, they have to register with the police within three days (at a cost of another fistful of fivers), but the group of tourists fresh off the ferry weren’t allowed to register today, so everybody had to stay the night in Wadi Halfa. Also, many of them had cars or motorbikes that they were hilariously going to drive down through Africa (good luck with that, matey!) – they came on a separate ferry that would arrive on Thursday, so they too were trapped in Wadi Halfa – which was good for me, as I had good stack of nutters to spend a rather pleasant evening with (you don’t have to be mad to visit Sudan, but it helps).

There was Mick the Aussie and his mates, a British girl named Bun who was with her boyfriend, a guy from Iceland whose name was completely unpronounceable and a bunch of other wonderful randoms all stuck in this one-horse town. We spent the night chatting, drinking tea and smoking sheesha (I just stuck with the tea), it was great and made me appreciate how much I’ve missed the company of my fellow travellers during my sojourn in Africa (most of the westerners I would meet would be aid workers). Ah well, no time to monkey about – the boat goes back to Egypt tomorrow.

Day 378: A Change of Plan

13.01.10:

I’ve got to say that getting back on the boat was a lot easier than getting off it, although you really have to admire the jaw-dropping amount of bureaucracy that these guys think is acceptable. What could have been achieved very quickly with a team of three officials, took over fifty officials an hour. Oh Africa, I shall miss you…

Back on the boat, I met a bloke named Marc, who was from Barcelona (one of my favourite cities in the world), who had been living up in Alexandria for a couple of years. Chatting to him made me resolve two things – one was that I would attempt to get a visa on the border for Syria (something I’ve been told you can no longer do) and the other was that I would head out to Siwa Oasis in Egypt, near the border with Libya and take a desert safari over the dunes into Colonel Gadaffi’s back yard. Marc reckoned it wouldn’t just be possible – it would be easy. I hoped so.

That night, up on the deck, we crossed the invisible line that separates Sudan from Egypt as we passed Abu Simbel, that monumental wreck near which, nothing else remains… I looked on Ramses II’s works and despaired. Why? Because we will never make anything that cool ever again. Too busy building tinfoil warehouses and concrete eyesores these days. Modern Art has been a joke for many years now, and one that gets less funny as the decades go by. I couldn’t build Abu Simbel, I wouldn’t know where to start, but I could faithfully reproduce pretty much anything that Tate Modern has to offer, making a mockery of the centuries of artistic skill and dexterity that came before it.

But then, I guess we’re living in a new artistic dark age. After all, the technical skill and refined artistic splendour of the Greeks and Romans was lost for over a thousand years until the renaissance came along – I mean, have you seen the state of the Bayeux Tapestry? It looks like it was drawn (well, sewn) by a child. Or a moron. Or Lowry.

Anyway, what do you want to know? Egypt is great and modern art is crap and I’ll kung-fu your ass if you don’t agree with me.