The ferry to Tunisia was supposed to leave at 8am, so Laura and I dragged our asses to the port for 7am. The ferry didn’t arrive until 8am. By 10.30am, we were still in port.
Welcome to Africa. We haven’t even left Sicily yet. Better get used to it.
The ferry took all day – it was supposed to get into Tunis at 4pm.
We got in around 8pm. The first guy I spoke to (well, he spoke to me) claimed to be a taxi driver (he wasn’t) and would charge us 20 diner (about a tenner) to take us to the bus station. I haggled him down to 15 diner and we jumped in his ‘taxi’ (’twas a car). Upon arriving at the bus station, he demanded 20, which considering we had made some unscheduled stops along the way, I thought was fair enough, until he started demanding 20 EURO.
Welcome to Africa.
Unfortunately for Mr. Taxi, I haven’t just stepped off the banana boat (this was not Barbados and Captain Ainsley Adams hadn’t made me sleep on the floor). I made it quite clear that he was getting paid in his own currency (he was already getting twice the going rate in a metered cab). We had a bit of a standoff, but what was he going to do? Wasn’t even a real taxi driver. The silly sausage – he’s lucky I chose to pay him at all.
I HATE it when people have NOTHING BETTER TO DO than to confirm the bloody stereotype of a nation, and when that person is the first person you meet, it really makes my blood boil. British Footy Hooligans, Loudmouth Yanks, Arrogant Israelis, misogynistic Middle-East rip off merchants, take note – you’re doing what everyone expects you to do. Stop it you great galloping galoots.
In Tunisia, there are mini-buses called Louages that head off wherever you want to go once they’re full. Laura and I hopped the one to Tabarka on the Algerian border. The driver drove LIKE A MAN POSSESSED. Laura, unbelievably, managed to sleep (she has similar Jedi powers to me…!) and we arrived not in three hours (as scheduled) but in two. It was too late for the old border hop, though. That would have to wait until morning.
Laura and I hauled ourselves out of bed as early as we could and jumped a taxi for the short ride to the Algerian border. Now, if this was anything like the border into Panama, Ukraine or Belarus, it would be possible to get through the first set of border guards (the ‘home nation’ if you will) and talk to the second set (the country you wish to enter) and by doing so step foot over the border, which invariably runs half-way between the two.
That’s not the case in Tunisia, though, as I was about to discover…
We arrived at the border around 7am. Laura stayed in the cab (best not filming stuff on borders – gets you into trouble!) and I went to speak to the guard – would he let me pass to go and speak to the Algerian guards?
Would he hell!
‘Interdit’, he kept saying, and no amount of pointing at my pocket and offering to pay a ‘fee’ would sway his stance. This was the start of my fortnight of disaster, and why it has taken so long for these blogs to go up online (sorry!).
There was no arguing with him, so I just had to turn tail and get back in the taxi. This is a very, very bad thing.
Algeria is as remote as remote can be, it’s one of those nations that nobody, not even its jolly Muslim neighbours, likes (brotherhood of Islam – ha!). You can’t get in there from Morocco (the border is closed) and you would be hard pressed to find a way in from Mauritania, Mali, Niger or Libya. The only easiest way in is through Tunisia or by getting a boat from Spain or France. Back in Tabarka (Chewbacca), Laura and I grabbed the next Louage to Tunis while I tried to work out how on Earth I was going to get in to Algeria.
We arrived in Tunis around midday, and made a beeline for the Algerian Embassy, to see if I could get a visa. Thanks to a combination of Lonely Planet marking down the Algerian Embassy, when what we needed was the Algerian Consulate (Embassy, Consulate, High Commission – what’s the difference?) and two different taxi drivers who didn’t know where they were going, by the time we got there it was past 1pm and the Consulate was closed. We spoke to the guard and he assured us that I could get a visa on Monday.
This put me in a pickle – do I stay in Tunisia until Monday and try to get a visa then, or leave with Laura tomorrow on the ferry back to Sicily? Working it out logically, it would put an extra week on my journey to return to Algeria after finishing Africa. Two more days in Tunisia seemed like a better bet.
I just hope that the guard wasn’t lying to us…
So now for the Libyan border hop, through the Medina (market) in central Tunis and into another Louage (we got to sit in the front of this one) and the rest the day spent travelling south to Ben (Obi-Wan) Guerdane on the Libyan border. Laura and I ran down the batteries in my ipod and fought over who was being DJ (me, obviously – it was my ipod!).
We got in very late and headed over so some nasty, nasty border hotel and bedded down for the night.
Again we were up at the crack, I said my farewells to Laura and shoved her on a Louage back up to Tunis (or at least I thought I did). I got a Taxi to the Libyan border, and in a damn near carbon copy of what happened yesterday, the Tunisian border guards turned me back.
Leo – the Webmaster – doesn’t like me swearing on my blogs, but you can probably hazard a guess at the string of expletives that I launched at the desert. But they said I could get a visa from Sfax, a city halfway back to Tunis, and that the embassy was open today. I made a beeline, passing up my change to go and visit Tatouine (oh yes it exists!) and the Star Wars film sets.
Upon arrival in Sfax, I headed to the Libyan embassy, which was (surprisingly) open. But there was no chance. Since Colonel Saunders, sorry, Qaddafi decided in 2000 that westerners were coming over to Libya and stealing their precious things, they won’t let you in without an invite.
Like one of those bloody clubs in London that you wouldn’t want to go to anyway because they charge 16 quid for a pint of shandy…
So I hit the streets of Sfax to shake things up, see if I could make something work.
If I had known that there was no way of getting a visa to Algeria on Monday, I would have jumped on the train to Tunis and met Laura, got on the boat to Sicily with her and headed over to Barcelona where my parents and the Producer of The Odyssey television show, Matt, were waiting.
IF I HAD KNOWN.
But at this point I still believed that I could get a visa for Algeria on Monday and the alternative was going to be too much of a nightmare to even contemplate. Maybe I could convince somebody to take me over the Libyan border tomorrow in a 4×4 or something, anything.
I got chatting to a few guys who spoke English – Semi, Anis, Wahleed and their friends. At first they were full of ideas, but then after making a few phone calls, they seemed to come down on the ‘it’s impossible’ side of the debate. I then started walking back to the hotel where I had dumped my bags, which is when I ran into Raouf. Having introduced himself as a poet, Raouf and WAS the illegitimate child of Chris Morris and my mate Chris Pye, not just in looks, but in mannerisms; I almost expected him to force me to eat Cake or draw a cartoon willy on the question paper.
He said he could get me a journalist visa, and, out of options, I thought I’d give it a punt.
In hindsight, I should have headed up to Tunis and met Laura. I really wish I had done. The Louage I put her on ended up going nowhere and she had a total ordeal with the bloody Tunisian men in Ben Guerdane, dragging her around various places before (thankfully) some women came and told them to do one, and put her on the right bus.
I thought Tunisia was one of the safest Muslim countries for women. Obviously being the ‘safest’ in a league that includes rampant female genital mutilation (99% in Somalia!), rape victims being stoned to death and woman being routinely beaten to death by their own family in ‘honour(!)’ killings, THAT AIN’T SAYING MUCH.
Quite what is honourable about a gang of men murdering a female relative in cold blood is anyone’s guess.
And don’t give me that moral relativism bulls**t; wrong is wrong, period – I’m sick of people hiding their personal darkness behind their rotten religion. We don’t stand for people eating each other in the Solomon Islands, but more catholic priests have been excused by the Vatican for raping children than have been ex-communicated.
Anyway, I messed – let’s give them the benefit of the doubt shall we? In future, no. I’m just going to assume that everyone I meet in this part of the world is a rotter, and let them prove me wrong!
I’m sorry Laura. You shouldn’t have had to put up with that. Nobody should.
Anyway, I decided to stay in Sfax for the night, and try again for the border with Raouf in the morning. Raouf and I went out for a meal and a few drinks (which I ended up paying for, of course!), but I had a good night – the food was excellent and I got to dance to some Arabic music until the wee small hours, so I’m not complaining.
My spidey-sense started tingling when on the way back to my hotel, Raouf started asking for an insane amount of money for the visa. I told him to leave it and I’d see him in the morning.
So I missed the ferry back with Laura, I had shelled out for a cabin and everything. Having a relaxing night on the boat before saying our farewells over an ice cream in Sicily would have been perfect. But the world is not a perfect place and Africa is not my friend – it doesn’t want me here, I can tell.
I met Raouf that morning, and we went for something to eat (not such a great idea, I was hungover to hell). There he pulled out a letter, written in Arabic, with only the words ‘visa’ and ‘BBC’ in Roman font. It had a stamp at the bottom and all looked quite official.
But when Raouf wouldn’t let me film it, that ol’ spidey-sense turned into full on alarm bells. Something wasn’t right. We then walked around the town to where the louages leave for the border. There Roauf asked me for £250 for the visa. I asked him what he was going to do with it, and he said he was going to take it to the guy who had sorted it for me. I had to wait here and he’d be back in half an hour. I asked to come with him, but he said it was ‘too dangerous’.
Alarm bells? Full on KLAXON HORNS!! Arooooooga! Aroooooga! Get your behind out of there, Graham!
Sorry Raouf, if you’re reading this, but you have to admit, it did look a little odd…
I headed back to the market to met Wahleed, Anis and Semi. They had made some more phone calls, but still couldn’t help, so I hopped on the train to Tunis. Anis, bless him, took me to the station and bought me some food and water for the trip. Legend! Within a few hours, I was back in Tunis, ready to hit the Algerian Embassy in the morning. Libya I can get in through Egypt after finishing Africa, Algeria is Tunisia or nothing.
I stayed at the AMAZING youth hostel (heartily recommended) in the heart of the Tunis Labyrinth (they call it the ‘Medina’), and there I met top blokes Randeep (aerospace engineer) and Chris (gap year) from England. The hostel was a grand old Tunisian villa and not only was breakfast included, so was dinner – and the dinner was great! I intended to hit the streets that night, but Morpheus would not allow it. I watched the penultimate episode of Lost and flaked out at about 9pm dreaming of all the Star Wars sets that I hadn’t visited.
You can probably tell by the title of this day that things did not go according to plan. I got to the Algerian embassy for 8am, waited for it to open, waited to be let inside and then waited to find out if I could get a visa. By 10am, I had my answer. No. You can’t get a visa for Algeria unless you apply for it in your home nation.
This was not good news. Kicking myself AGAIN that I didn’t take the boat with Laura on Saturday night, I rang Grimaldi ferries (they put the GRIM in Grimaldi) and they said they couldn’t alter the ticket – I had lost it. Seventy Euro down the drain.
CHINNNNG!! [the sound of Sonic the Hedgehog landing on a spike and losing all of his rings].
After a cheap and cheerful sojourn around Europe, Africa was going to start taking it out of my backside, and wasn’t going to stop.
So I booked on the next boat out of there (not until tomorrow afternoon, mores the pity) and had to ring my parents and Matt the Producer in Barcelona and explain that I would be three days late getting there.
My mum and dad had to re-arrange their flight home.
Africa – you are beginning to SUCK. And I’ve only been here a weekend.
The rest of the day was wasted in fine Odyssey form – I mooched (er, got lost) around the Labyrinth/Medina, DON’T GO INTO THE LABYRINTH, SARAH…!, had lunch with young Chris from the hostel and in the evening met two new hostel recruits, Arthur and Juliet – gap year, Oxford, classics, terribly posh but sweet as hell; and what are they calling their trip around the classical sites of the Mediterranean Carthage-Alexandria-Petra-Palmyra-Troy-Athens-Rome?
You guessed it – The Odyssey. How cool is that?
We tried to go and grab a drink, but it was a little more difficult than we thought it would be: Chris led us somewhere nuts and then promptly vanished in a poof of ‘gotta-girl, gotta-go’; and when we finally did find a fridge full of bottles of Becks, it was past serving o’clock so we had to make do with Coca-Cola.
Not much to say really. Said my goodbyes to the chaps in the hostel, jumped in a taxi and headed on over to the port, stopping at various banks on the way out… er, can I change this wad of YOUR JOKE MONOPOLY MONEY to Euros please?
No, sorry, interdit.
What? Your currency is so rubbish that I can’t even change it back to Euros in YOUR country?
Yep, it’s against the law. You can only rid yourself of your rotten Dinars in the airport.
Fingers crossed, I could change the money in the sea port, I arrived in good time for my ferry which was (supposed to be) leaving at 1pm.
I asked at information if I could change my Tunisian Dinarse here, they said I could but I’d have to wait for the bureau du change(s) to re-open.
Er… they are closed? There is only ONE ferry leaving here today and they have closed for LUNCH?
So, will I be able to change my money before getting on the ferry?
Er, probably not, no, they’ll be closed for a couple of hours.
FOR THE LOVE OF GOD………
You’ll have to go to the bank, it’s downstairs.
‘Downstairs’ in Tunisian means ‘down the ramp, and walk around the entire dock for half an hour in the baking heat with all your bags until the sweat is dripping from your brow’.
By the time money was changed (phew!) and I had got back to the terminal, the customs guy was shouting at me for ‘being late’. I explained about the bureau du change being closed and…
It’s not my problem.
Welcome to sodding Africa, Graham baby. Don’t let the door hit your ass on the way out.
The ferry didn’t leave for another two hours.
Time for bed. Well, cushioned bench seat.
Here’s the vid of my (rather pointless) trip to Tunisia!!
I guess now is a good time to look back over what was the year that was, the highs and lows of life on the road. If you can’t be bothered reading my blogs for the whole year (and who could blame you?) here’s 2009: An Earth Odyssey in a nutshell…
January 2009 Ah, January – the whizzbangshebang through South America… for the first two weeks I was on target and on schedule. But then The Caribbean reared it’s ugly head and well and truly stuffed me up for the next couple of months.
Countries Visited: 19
Running Total: 19
February 2009 February was a difficult month – just getting from St Vincent to Mexico required all my skill and dexterity, of which I have neither, which is probably why it took me a month, not the week I expected it to.
Countries Visited: 10
Running Total: 29
It’s crazy to think that I spent the first few days of March visiting every country in Central America, and then spent pretty much the rest of the month trying to get to one – Cuba.. Made a HUGE mistake in trying to get there from Key West, should have gone from Cancun in Mexico, would have saved a s— load of time.
Countries Visited: 6
Running Total: 35
A fond month of 2009 as I wrapped up warm in Halifax, Nova Scotia before taking a phenomenally fast trip across the Atlantic Ocean to meet up with my friends and family in Liverpool. Managed to get all the way to Greece before the month was out. Nice!
Countries Visited: 28
Running Total: 63
The start of my downfall. Within just a few days I had polished off Europe and attempted to take a huge bite out of North Africa, a bite which ended up as a pathetic little nibble. The month ended in start-as-you-mean-to-go-on style with me being knocked back from Mauritania and failing to find any sensible way of getting to Cape Verde.
Countries Visited: 25
Running Total: 88
The month from hell. It kicked off with six days in a Cape Verde jail cell and went downhill from there as I found myself trapped in the worst place in the world.
Countries Visited: 1
Running Total: 89
Desperate to leave the damned island of Cape Verde, I was eventually rescued by a lovely chap in a sail boat who managed to deliver me safe and sound (despite Poseidon’s protestations) to Dakar in Senegal. Before the month was out I had managed to wing it all the way to Cote D’Ivoire.
Countries Visited: 7
Running Total: 96
A good month on the road through West Africa, interrupted by a unexpected sojourn in Libreville waiting (once again) for a cargo boat that just refused to leave.
Countries Visited: 11
Running Total: 107
I hadn’t been illegally detained for three months now, so the powers that be organised a surprise incarceration upon my arrival in the capital of Congo.. After I finally escaped I was bogged down attempting to renew my Angolan visa, but once I made it to Namibia, I was FLYING. Well, not really flying… I’m not allowed to.
Countries Visited: 6
Running Total: 113
Possibly the most enjoyable month of travel, as I thundered pell-mell throughout Southern and Eastern Africa, fell in love with Madagascar and reached Mauritius in record-fast time.
Countries Visited: 11
Running Total: 124
A silly and depressing month spent attempting to return to Africa from Mauritius and failing at every turn. The fact I missed out on visiting Seychelles particularly stung. Not a single new country to add my tally for the whole stinkin’ month.
Countries Visited: 0
Running Total: 124
After a slow beginning in stuck in Comoros, December leapt into action when I had just two weeks to get from Dar-es-Salaam to Cairo via Rwanda and Somalia and, against all odds, I pulled it off. I also made it to Cairo.
I thought I would have a few hours to mooch around Rome in the morning, but I found myself unable to prise my worthless body from my bed until after 10am. By the time I had breakfast and tried (and failed) to find a free wi-fi zone, it was time for me to take the train to Civitavecchia, Rome’s port and the place where the boat to Tunisia left from.
The boat to and from Tunisia was horrifically horrific last time, and this time it was no better. Same boat, same company, same unholy rip-off. For a start, the boat was two hours late boarding, which meant that I was left standing in the car-park like an unsuccessful prostitute for longer than would otherwise be sensible. Once (finally) on board, the horribly familiar interior of the Sorrento loomed into view.
I had a ‘deck’ ticket, which basically means you sleep in the restaurant. If you know of a comfortable way to sleep in a restaurant chair, I’d love to hear it. Luckily for me, I was one of the first on board (I ran) so I snagged one of the exclusive couch seats that run along the parameter of the room.
There are only three toilets between all the men on board (usually 100+) and none of them are urinals. Oh, and for some reason, the crew don’t clean them for the full length of the ‘cruise’. Which means within an hour, they are disgusting, within a day they are capable of making a grown man vomit at 50 paces. Nice.
The food is an utter rip-off (just a can of coke will set you back €2.50) and the company on board was less than illuminating. I couldn’t find anyone who spoke a word of English and so spent my time watching the entire first season of Lie To Me rather than do anything, you know, sociable. Ya boo.
This infernal continent. If I was following the original plan, I would have picked up my visas in Istanbul and continued on to Central Asia a month ago. But there were two nagging countries, two of the largest in Africa in fact, that had barred my entry, even by an inch. They were Libya and Algeria. I had tried to get into Algeria once before and Libya twice, only to find that they were not to be trifled with. And so it would add an extra month onto The Odyssey and cost me over £1000, but I had to do it their way, and (putting it mildly) neither of them like tourists very much.
Why would they? They have OIL! And the oil will last forever and ever and ever and there will never be a day when it runs out. And while the governments make all their money through the backhanders which the oil provides! Huzzah! And the commoners? Sod ’em. They can make do. They don’t need the millions of tourists dollars that flood into Egypt, Tunisia or Morocco every year. They’d only spend it on fizzy cola bottles and sherbet flying saucers. By the way – check out my new palace! Nice innit?
Well to cut a short story even shorter, I arrived in Tunisia a few hours late (naturally) and by 9pm, I was outside the Africa Hotel in Tunis waiting for my CouchSurf contact to pick me up. After a few worried moments in which I thought he wasn’t going to show up (sorry for waking you up Mand!) Djamel, or Dja (pronounced ‘Jar’) collared me on the street and took me back to his gaff. There I met his American girlfriend, the delectable Claire from California.
Dja is originally from Algeria, but he grew up in France and has been working here in Tunis for the last ten years. Claire on the other hand was one of those American Peace Corp LUNATICS who throw themselves head-first into Africa and expect to come out a stable and adjusted person. NOTE TO PEACE CORPS-WANNABES: Go to South America, India or SE Asia. Trust me. Africa will chew you up and suck you dry. You have been warned.
Anyway, while Claire and I compared travel scars, Dja fed us all beers and rounded off an unpleasant day on a horrid boat with a tremendously pleasant evening in the company of new-found friends.
I’ve made some big boo-boos in The Odyssey so far. Going to Cape Verde with a bunch of Senegalese fishermen, for one. Not just taking the DAL Madagscar on its route around the Indian Ocean for another. Of course, turning up in Tunisia without visas for Algeria and Libya last May cost me massively in terms of time and money, but the boos just keep coming. Today, I was planning to head to Algeria for the day, cross the border, tick the place off the list. Easy.
But instead, I spent the entire morning fighting with my damn iPod Touch in a vain attempt to get my Lonely Planet pdfs onto the damn thing so I wouldn’t have to take my laptop with me. In the end (and after losing all of my other apps that I had on there), I gave up and e-mailed them to myself (how staggeringly retarded, but let’s not go on about it here) and that seemed to work.
By 1pm, Dja suggested it was too late for me to head to the border today. I’m still tremendously (and uncharacteristically) tired and so I elected to head to Algeria on Monday instead. The ferry didn’t go back to Italy until Tuesday anyway… so what difference would it make?
Ah, well, we’ll come to that on Sunday, shall we?
That night Dja and Claire invited a bunch of their friends around and we all celebrated Mohammed’s birthday (fellow Piscean, I guess) like the Pagans we are by getting really quite fantastically drunk. So much so that I very nearly wound up getting myself arrested again by running into Dja’s flat and attempting to hide under the sofa when a policeman shouted at us in the street. Hee.