UAE: I arrived in Dubai at precisely three hours later than the bus company promised, but that just meant three hours more kip… which is never to be sniffed at. Dubai is pretty hot, especially when you have a backpack and a leather jacket tied around your waist – I was just asking for trouble… I frantically texted Damien, Helen Power’s mate in Dubai who had generously offered his couch for me to sully for a couple of days. Incidentally, I am thoroughly convinced that Helen should change the name of her house to Greyskull, for reasons to obvious to document here.
Damien (I would find out later) was nursing the mother of all hangovers and therefore in no fit state to text back, so I spotted a nearby Subway and thought sod it and sat there for a couple of hours finally polishing off these blogs I keep forgetting I have to write (least I incur the wrath of a particularly sexy pole dance teacher).
I know it’s no excuse, but I just can’t seem to write my blogs when I’m stuck somewhere… I need to be moving to get the creative juices flowing…
So anyways, I got my scribblings and musings up to date and headed out into the midday sun like all mad dogs and Englishmen have a habit of doing. Walking around ‘old’ Dubai was a treat – I thought that Dubai was this sterile Las Vegas nightmare of Demolition Man proportions, but head to the Deira district and you’re slapbang in the Middle East, mate – no messing about. Okay, the wooden boats that cross the nearby creek are I little kitchy, but as far as the sights and sounds and smells are concerned, this place dumps from a great height on the neat-n-tidy (and therefore humourless) Souk in Kuwait or the Disneyfied ‘old’ Souk in Qatar (hilariously demolished, reconstructed out of concrete then demolished again and rebuilt to look like the old one).
I keep telling you this, but I don’t think the message is getting through to the Powers That Be™ – you can’t impose a fun and interesting community down from above… these things have to grow organically… life isn’t Sim City.
As for the rest of Dubai, well, we might as well be living in a bubble on Mars. A city of the future imagined by a sci-fi addled child of the 70s. Most of the buildings look like toys, the twentieth century love affair with all things concrete shows no signs of abating and, well, it just doesn’t have the grit and determination that marks the cities of the world that I love. Can things be too clean?
That’s not to underplay Dubai’s achievements, such as the Burj Khalifa, which is by far the tallest building in the world and thankfully understands its purpose as a TOWER (ie, it tapers towards the sky, unlike the Twin Towers (unimaginative boxes that they were), any high rise ever built in Blighty (urgh) or that utter abomination in Manchester that actually gets THICKER towards the top. Jesus wept.
So Dubai, first impressions… I kinda like you. I’d like you more if you were a bit grubbier, but I guess that’s just me. At least you have the Deira district to remind me I’m still in the Middle East and at least you are prepared to gamble on crazy projects (such as The Palm and The World). We need more filthy rich people who are up for doing crazy stuff. Britain tries to be wacky, innovative and novel and what do we get? The ****ing Olympics logo…
And, even worse, the Olympic mascots…
Oh my giddy aunt.
Designed, no doubt, by a team of cretinous cretins from the planet Kretin exiled to Earth by the galactic warlord Kretinus the Cretin for being too cretinous for even the great Kretin empire to contain.
So for the restrained stupidity of Dubai, I salute you. Mid-afternoon, after mooching around the kooks and souks for a couple of hours, Damien finally raised himself from the dead and texted me back. I grabbed a taxi to his gaff, cutting through the business district on the way and making up my mind that the Burj Khalifa gets the thumbs up from me… does this mean I’m losing my pithy hatred of all things concrete? Not on your nelly. The Liver Buildings in Liverpool are made (internally) of concrete and I love them. As I opined in Azerbaijan, I don’t care what rotten slop you construct your building out of, as long as I don’t have to see the damn stuff.
Concrete is a little like your innards. I’m sure they are critical to your prolonged success at staying alive, but I’d be more than a little miffed if you flopped them out at the dinner table.
So I found myself meeting up with the fabled Damien of Dubai and within a couple of hours we found ourselves where all northerners are bound to end up given half the chance… the pub. Damo originally hails from the Yorkists, but spent many years in Manchester so I guess in the Battle of Bosworth, he’d be that guy who sat on the sidelines, scoped out who was winning and joined them. Which (perhaps) explains why he supports Liverpool.
Even though the only ship never to dock in Liverpool is the Premiership etc.
We went to some beachy-drinky affair, but Saturday night might as well be Sunday night round these parts (the weekend in Arabia is Fri/Sat, not Sat/Sun) and the place was pretty much dead. Which didn’t give the Kiwis who were remarkably rude to me an excuse – if you’d care to peruse my League of Nations, you’ll see that New Zealand is now rubbing shoulders with the likes of Congo and Cape Verde. Be warned you natives – when you talk to an outlander, you speak for your nation. Be nice.
UAE: The big task of the day was getting my bumper to bumper passport back to the UK so I can get a new one – if you’re keeping up, it’ll be my fourth. Mission accomplished (thank you DHL, you’re THIS much better than British Airways) I arranged to meet up with a certain Mr. Kashi Samaddar. Yep, the bloke whose Guinness World Record™ I’m attempting to beat.
It took him six and a half years to visit every country in the world. Me? I’m up to country 158 out of 200 and it’s only been 17 months.
(Although I am STILL firmly convinced it could be done in a year… if only I had a yacht…!)
Oh yeah, and I’m not flying…! Sometimes I fail to see how monumental the task I’ve set myself really is – I mean, what other world record can you set whilst still going to the pub?! But here I am, only 42 countries left to go. I just need a boost in terms of funding and I’ll be laughing.
Talking of funding, crikey I’m down to my brass tacks now. Like a Hollywood blockbuster that’s over schedule and over budget, the good ship Odyssey is in desperate need of an injection of cash.
This being the case, if any of you reading this knows a company that wants me to big them up in return for some readies (marketing is tax deductable chaps!) I’m happy to endorse anything (much in the manner of Krusty the Klown) for a fiver. Incidentally, the companies I’ve relied on most (and who haven’t let me down) to travel to these 158 countries have been Visa, Dell, HSBC, Sony, Vodafone, Vans, Levis, Coca-Cola and Lowe Alpine. Just saying…
Kashi’s colleague, Sanjeep, came to pick me up from Damien’s flat and I was driven to the Far East Seafood Restaurant in one of the swankier hotels in town. There I met up with the legend himself – Mr. Samaddar – the first guy in the history of the world to visit every country on an Indian passport. And I think I’ve had visa traumas…
You can read more about our meeting on my special featured blog entry.
UAE: Damien kicked me awake at the marvellous hour of 6:30am (5:30am in my still-in-Kuwait time zone) and after stuffing my stuff in my bag I headed out into the big dirty world. Damien dropped me at the swanky new metro station (looks like a big silvery sand worm from Dune) and we said our fond farewells (although there’s a good chance I’ll be back here in a couple of weeks – I honestly don’t know what is going to happen next, but I’ll explain more tomorrow.
My mission for today? Ascend the Burj Khalifa (nee Dubai) – at 828 metres high by FAR the tallest building in the world. I was told that tickets had to be booked in advance and that if you turned up on the day they would want £100 off you. I got there at 8am (the eager beaver that I am), only to discover that the building didn’t open until 10am.
Which, in my opinion, is a bit silly. At 8am the heat haze isn’t so bad and so you should be able to see further, but I guess you can’t get the staff these days. The good news was that none of the trips up the tower were full today, so I could quite happily book myself a trip to the top without having to shell out a month’s wages. Excited at the prospect I rose 124 floors to the viewing platform – the Burj is so high that the 124th floor is only two thirds of the way up.
The view was, well, impressive more than inspirational as I didn’t have a clue what I was supposed to be looking out for. One side looked out over to pure desert whereas the other side looked out over Las Vegas. I guess that’s what you’d see if they built a ridiculously tall tower in Las Vegas (and why don’t they?!). But as a feat of engineering and human ingenuity I take my hat off to it. Do you think in 4,000 years time, annoying stoned morons will be of the opinion that it was built by aliens?
You can’t see The Palm from here, but you can see The World, although it’s at such a funny angle I guess you could be forgiven for pointing out it looks like the Koopa Beach level off Super Mario Kart.
So back down to Earth and over to the bus station – nice and early, just in case (and lucky I did – the bus left an hour earlier than advertised!) and before long I was whispering too-de-loo to Dubai. One thing I like about the UAE, Qatar, Bahrain and Kuwait is that (much in the manner of The Kray twins) they look after their own. Immigrants might get the short end of the stick (good luck getting a passport, matey!!), but if you’re a national you are given the golden ticket and no mistake. Now you compare that with other decidedly (and grotesquely) oil-rich nations such as Nigeria, Angola and Gabon and you see how much the leaders of these basketcases happily shaft their own people in a way that only African leaders, shielded from WHATEVER THEY ATROCITIES THEY WISH TO COMMIT by Go-Go-Gadget-Historic-Guilt, can.
Anyway, when you hear that Emiratis (OH I LOVE THAT WORD – sounds like a secret cult of magicians who fly about on magic carpets) are given £2,000,000 on their 21st birthday and an extra £2,000,000 if they marry a fellow Emirati (sorry, just had to use that word again) – you only have to wonder what magic and miracles could be achieved in Africa if just someone – someone – would have the brains and the balls to call the thieving scumbags who run Africa into the ground up on the great disservice they commit to the good good people Africa.
And so onto the border with my 159th nation state of The Odyssey – Oman. I’ve been told good things about this place, although all I have to report today is that there is a good 50km between the border posts of the UAE and Oman (seriously – who OWNS those mountains???!) and that the Omani guys on the bus (as well as sporting nifty hats) were of a friendliness level that I last experienced in Iran. Oman – you’re doing well.
After again saying my farewells to Luke and Dave, our mate Alasdair gave me a lift to the bus depot. After AGAIN being told the bus to Dubai was full by the grumpy man behind the counter, Alasdair got a little suss. Is there another bus?
Oh yeah – the bus company down the road, behind the fish market. D’oh! Why didn’t I ask that yesterday?!
And so after heartily shaking Alasdair’s hand and jumping on the (pretty empty) 3pm bus to Dubai I found myself gazing out of the window over the flat barren flatness of Arabia’s empty quarter, full of djinns and demons and things that go bump in the night.
As I mulled over the situation in my head and the wonderful suggestions made by contributors to this website (gavinmac and Socleman, take a bow) a cunning plan began to take form from the desert sands…
All is not lost. Okay, so I can’t get into the Red Sea area from this side of the Arabian Peninsular as it would mean sailing through the pirate zone. My back-up plan of going through Yemen is now impossible as I can’t even get in to Yemen itself.
But, what’s this? The thing that kept me in Kuwait for six weeks… my multiple entry Saudi visa, still valid for another couple of months…!
Maybe my sojourn in Kuwait wasn’t a big waste of time after all – I mean, not that Kuwait wasn’t fun, it just that to wait six weeks to skip through a country a couple of times on your way somewhere else is a bit mad.
But what if…..
There used to be a passenger service running from Jeddah in Saudi to Massawa in Eritrea. It doesn’t exist any more, but there must – there must – be cargo ships doing that route. Jeddah is a huge feeder port for ships coming to and from Europe and the Far East. If I can somehow get a Eritrean visa (although it’s unlikely I’d be able to get one in Saudi) I could attempt to get to Eritrea as a passenger on one of these ships.
Failing that, I could head down to the southern port of Jizan and maybe talk a fisherman or dive company into taking me out to one of the uninhabited islands off the coast of Eritrea. As long as it’s within the contiguous boundary and I step on dry land, it counts.
This would be dodgy as hell though, as they could well take advantage of me and use the trip as an excuse to smuggle drugs or weapons across the Red Sea. If caught this could result in my beheading. Seriously. I’d rather not take the risk.
Okay, okay, Plan C: There are ferries that go three times a week from Jeddah to Port Sudan in Sudan. If I could get a new Sudanese visa (tremendously unlikely in Saudi) I could take the ferry and travel from Port Sudan down to the border with Eritrea and bribe my way across. This would be both dodgy and dangerous.
Of course, the first plan is the best, but that doesn’t mean the others are completely out of the question. A new plan: head to Jeddah and see what happens. If there is one thing that doing The Odyssey has taught me is that where there is a will, there’s a way. I only have FORTY more countries to visit. Forty. To give up now would be a nonsense. There’s always a way. You just have to suss out all the options. And sometimes it helps to think outside the box. And that way of thinking brings me to our second dilemma…
Blimey. This is going to be TOUGH. With no yachts this time of year, no cruise ships until October and no cargo ships able to take passengers because of the pirates, the only way I’m going to get there is to continue on my journey and then massively backtrack at the very end from Australia into the Indian Ocean. This could honestly add months to my journey time.
But thanks to Socleman’s suggestion, I’ve got an idea. It’s fair to say that I’m a pretty competent filmmaker and my knowledge of marine affairs is probably substantially greater than most land-lubbers, what with all the boat trips I’ve been on in the course of this adventure. Given that I’ve met loads of guys who ply their trade in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, I’ve also got a decent grasp of the pirate situation in these parts. Put all that together and I could realistically put together a half-hour documentary for one of the big shipping companies about piracy.
The budget? One free passage to The Seychelles. Given that it would be a good idea for me to actually be on board a ship in order to make the doco, it may as well be one that goes from Salalah around the Indian Ocean Islands, and this time of year is when most pirates take a summer vacation – the weather is too rough and unpredictable to risk going out too far in a little motor boat.
It’s a long shot, and it may not work, but at the moment, it’s the only shot we’ve got. For The Seychelles there is no plan B.
The sun disappeared long before it hit the horizon, obscured by dust and sand. It’s interesting that we all crave what we don’t have – white girls in the UK are desperate to be browner, brown girls in Malaysia are desperate to be whiter. Urbanites hunger for the country idyll and villagers lust for the anonymousness of the big city. The Bedu of Arabia dream of gardens and here I am dreaming of deserts. As the stars begin to light up in the night sky, I’m reminded why. The desert puts us all in our place.
Next stop: Dubai (again!)
The bus rolled into jolly old Dubai at around six in the morning. If there is a time of day I dislike more I am yet to meet it. The Deira district looked as wonderfully shabby and dysfunctional as ever, and I slunk into a little Indian workers café and ordered an omelette and bread breaky washed down with a nice hot cup of chai.
At 7.30am, I headed over to the Indian Consulate to get the ball rolling with my Indian visa – the idea being that the time wasted waiting for the damn thing could be constructively used attempting to get to Eritrea from Saudi. After queuing for over an hour with all my stuff in the hot hot morning air of urban desert Dubai, I got knocked back at the front door by a friendly guard who explained I couldn’t get the visa from here, I had to go to the nearby post office.
Another taxi ride and I found myself wandering about the post office area. After a couple of misses, I finally found the right building and the right counter. I asked for a multiple entry application form as I’m going to need to go in and out of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan.
Sorry – you can’t get a multiple entry visa from here, only in your home country.
I explained my mission and the nice lady looked despondent. You won’t be able to do that, even if you get the visa in England.
Because they have changed the rules about re-entry. If you leave the country, you can’t return for 30 days.
WHAT? Sorry, WHAT?
Now they do this sometimes in countries that issue visas on the border to stop people doing the old Thai border hop at the end of every month and staying in the country for years on end. But if I purchase a multiple entry visa, once it expires, it’s over – I couldn’t stay for years no matter how many times I hopped over the border to Nepal.
Now the Indian government has a reputation for pulling down it’s pants and doing a great big poo on the memory of the greatest freedom fighter of all time, Mahatma Ghandi – what with the wars with Pakistan, the fighting over Kashmir, the forced sterilisation drive of the 1970s and the acquisition of nuclear weapons (paid for, one presumes, with money with Ghandi’s face printed on it). It’s also got a reputation for hating all of its neighbours. The borders with Burma and China are barred, the last ferry to Sri Lanka left sometime around 1973 and the one official border it maintains with Pakistan closes every day with an ceremony of animosity between the two which is as elaborate as it is childish.
I guess it’s in this vein that the Indian government seeks to destroy the nascent tourist industry of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan as well as scalping the dreams of any backpacker wishing to head over to Kathmandu for a week before heading back into India.
You see, if you want to travel overland to any of the countries I’ve mentioned, you have to return back into India – there is simply no other way out (unless you fly). The overland cross-India trip I took in 2002 in which I popped into Nepal and spent a few days in Bangladesh would now be impossible.
Mean? Vindictive? I have no doubt.
The sad thing about this is that India is one of my favourite countries in the world, so I’m not just sickened, I’m also heart-broken. I would like to see how the Indian government justifies this unjust legislation, because it’s not only tourism in Nepal and Bangladesh that is going to suffer, India will suffer too. Well-heeled western types don’t go on holiday in countries where over half the population are forced to go to the toilet on the street – they go somewhere nice.
India remains a destination for the adventurous: hippies, backpackers, fat chicks with too many cats. By essentially denying these people who are prepared to put up with the heat and dust and stink the opportunity of to visit the surrounding India-encompassed nations, all the Indian government is doing is ensuring that thousands of tourists stay on the plane all the way to Thailand.
‘But the UK makes it difficult for Indians to visit’. Yes. Yes we do, we have no choice in the matter. Supply and demand. But there aren’t 1.2 billion Brits, and I can tell you now NONE of us dream of growing up to be a rickshaw walla in Calcutta. In fact, most Brits wouldn’t go to India even if it was all expenses paid. If we want to be stared at and hassled every waking hour of the day we’d dress up like a monkey and go sit in the zoo.
Don’t worry, I’ll find a way around these ludicrous regulations, but I’m not going to be shy calling the Indian government out on this one.
As gutted as I was disgusted, I needed to go hunting for internets so I headed over the hideously tactless Wafi Mall, a shopping mall so ridiculous it makes that tacky low-rent glass pyramid in the middle of the Louvre look aesthetically pleasing. Yup, the architects went to Egypt on holiday and thought to themselves mmm… if only the peerless pyramids, the timeless temples and colossal colossi of the Pharaohs were constructed out of concrete and glass…
Oh deary me.
But it had free internets roaming its innards, so I plunged inside. Still, at around four quid for a cup o’ tea it all balanced itself out. With Lorna working today, Odyssey fan and Sydneysider Alex Zelenjak stepped up to help me with the Eritrean part of my cunning plan. While Alex researched the Red Sea options I cracked on with my pirate doco proposal for the shipping companies. Alex got back to me with the news that there was indeed a ship that hopped back and forth between Jeddah in Saudi and Massawa in Eritrea.
With nothing yet set in stone, I resolved to head to Jeddah and scout out the shipping company. Technically speaking, I could have continued on towards Jeddah today, but since I’d be returning to Dubai whatever happens, it would be sensible to meet with good ol’ Damo and drop off anything that might give the Saudi authorities an excuse to detain me (tapes, hard drives etc).
And a Thursday night out in Dubai wouldn’t hurt matters too much either.
So a jaunt on the brand spankingly new overhead train service down through the business district (wave to the Burj Khalifa) to The Greens delivered me into Damien’s evil clutches and after a quick face-stuffing trip to KFC we headed out into the night. After meeting up with a couple of Damo’s chums to watch the footy, we ventured off to a club on the other side of town. I attempted in vain to fend off the booze that kept coming my way (Damien you LEGEND!), but soon enough I was dancing the funky chicken to Three Lions.
So after a good night’s kip I had a the best part of a day to shake off my hangover. The bus for Riyadh, the Saudi capital, left at 5pm. I spent the day shuffling about, wondering why the sun had to be so bright and skimming all the superfluous items out of my bag. At 3pm I left my coat behind in the The Greens as I departed for the Saudi Arabia Public Transport Company (SAPTCO) bus ‘station’ in Deira, but returning ten minutes later as I had also left my mobile phone. Which I needed. Damien rolled his eyes.
When I finally got to the SAPTCO office they told me to come back in half an hour. I used this time to go out in the baking heat and check my pores were still working properly. As my soaking wet t-shirt could no doubt attest, they were. Eventually, they issued me a ticket and I was on the bus heading back into Saudi, my mind whirring through all the things that could go horribly wrong.
The plan is this: From Riyadh, head to Jeddah on the Red Sea and see if I can catch a lift on a cargo ship going to Eritrea. Failing that, I’ll head south to Jizan and try to find a more enterprising way of getting there. I’d rather not have to do that. The downside was that taking the bus today meant missing the England vs. Algeria match in the World Cup. But as Damien pointed out, it should be an easy win, and if it isn’t, he’d rather not watch it!
I managed to cadge the back seats on the bus, which was great for the first couple of hours as the bus wasn’t very full. Unfortunately for me, as we approached the Saudi border I was joined by a giant Saudi who muscled in on my patch and promptly took up 4 of the 5 back seats as if I wasn’t there. So much for a good night’s kip.
As it transpired, a good night’s kip was the last thing I was going to get. As England completely stuffed up their ‘easy’ game against Algeria (thanks for the text updates, mum), we crossed the border at some ungodly hour of the night and while the Saudi sniffer dog sniffed our bus for drugs, all us passengers had to stand outside, our bags opened for inspection, which was thankfully curt. We then stopped for a bite to eat and then there was a faff (I still don’t know quite why) about something to do with somebody’s papers, the border guys made a guest appearance and after a remarkably long discussion for three o’ clock in the morning, we were allowed back on the bus. Which arrived in Riyadh five hours later.
I had just missed the 8am bus, so I bought a ticket for the 10am one to Jeddah. It arrived at 12. While we hurtled through the desert, my CouchSurfing host for Jeddah, a Saudi guy named Turki, rang me up to arrange stuff for when I arrived. Turki grew up in the States (which explains his perfect North American diction) but has now lived in Saudi for many years. We ended up chatting for over an hour during which discussion he told me he was good friends with an English guy called Bob who works in the shipping industry in Jeddah. It’s fair to say I liked Turki from the start.
As the desert swept past and the sun went to bed, we stopped for prayer time. I sat and quaffed a nice hot cup of tea while the guys off the bus genuflected to their god. The Middle East, moreso than other places on the planet, is a place dominated by two themes – materialism and spirituality. It’s odd that these things go together so well, but then again, look at the gold statues in the Vatican or the burgeoning middle classes of India. I look on all these goings on, the praying, the bead-thumbing, the sports cars and the palaces and feel completely distanced from this facet of the world. Truth be told I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body, and as for materialism, everything I need is in my backpack and I haven’t desperately wanted the latest thingymajig since I was a kid.
For this reason, even though I know the Middle East exceptionally well, I always feel like an alien here, not just from another country, but from another planet. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy myself when I’m here, it’s just that it’s not my scene baby, and it will never be.
The bus rolled into Jeddah around midnight, but Turki stayed up to pick me up which was great. We will learn more of Turki’s wisdom tomorrow.
I arrived in Riyadh around 12 noon and thought about heading out to the town as I had a few hours until the bus to Dubai departed. Well I went outside the bus station and changed my mind. Town is 15km away from the bus station, it’s hot as hell (midsummer in the middle of the Arabian desert, what do you expect!) and I’ve got all my bags with me… nah. Not going to happen.
So I retreated, much in the manner of a hermit crab, back into the bus station and waited it out. When I eventually got on board the bus, I was first on (again) and again (for the third time) some chancer tried to weasel me out of my seats. Again, the bus wasn’t even nearly full so it’s not like he was going to have to sleep on the floor. This time I was having none of it. I cut off access to the back seats by sitting on the middle one with my feet firmly wedged against the backs of the seats in front, opened my laptop on my knee and stuff my iPod headphones into my ears and turned them up to max.
Damnit, if you want to lie down on the back seats you gotta be first in the queue, and I was.
He tried every which way to persuade me to move so he could take back seats, (and he was a BIG guy) but I stood (or rather sat) my ground. And I WON! He took one of the several empty seats ahead of me. But then later in the journey after I had to get off because we were crossing the border into the UAE, and when I got back on the bus I found him sitting on my seats.
This would not do.
I’m sorry mate, but you’re going to have to move. Bear in mind this guy was much bigger than me and had loads of his little Arab mates on board. But seriously, NOTHING comes between me and my kip, DAGNAMIT. He smiled.
Defying logic and breaking every rule of the playground, the guy gave up and went back to his seat. It kinda made me want to stand on the back seats and do a Tarzan wail, you know – confirm my position as the Alpha Male amongst my fellow commuters, but I doubt they would have got the joke.
I stretched out on my well-defended turf and fell asleep, happy in the knowledge that the border guy hadn’t really looked through my passport and therefore didn’t pull the old you have to wait 30 days before you can return to the UAE rule on me. It was a worry, but I’d made it through. Happy days!
So I rolled back into Dubai for the third time of asking. After a delightful chat with the Filipino women who worked in the Burger King by the Saptco bus station (she told me which bits to avoid in The Philippines) I jumped in a cab and headed off to see me auld mucka Damien.
As you may recall, Friday 2nd July 2010 was the day of the jaw-dropping Brazil-Germany and the heart-breaking Uruguay-Ghana matches, so feeling the atmos in the air, Damo and I slinked off to the Atlantis Resort on the Palm thingy (an artificial peninsular built to look like a cartoon drawing on a palm tree when viewed from Google Earth – wonderfully nutty in it’s conceit) for a World Cup Pool Party.
And yes, it was as awesome as it sounds!!
Bikinis, Booze, Brazil – over one thousand people from every single corner of the planet. Damo’s mates did their best to get me so drunk I could barely see. A group of lads recognised me off the telly (Nat Geo Adventure have been hammering the Graham’s World trailers like you wouldn’t believe) and came over for a chat to see how the journey was going. Yey! Fame at last! When you start getting recognised by random people it’s time to buck up your ideas, level up and fly straight. I mean, I guess I’m kinda like a worldwide ambassador for National Geographic now – and Lonely Planet and even the BBC. I can no longer revel in the joy of complete anonymity and must never again make a fool of myself in public.
Ahahahaha – sod that. I’ll start being sensible tomorrow.
So I wound up stuck in Dubai for four weeks. Tons of stuff happened, but not much of it relevant to the ongoing quest that is The Odyssey. I’ll divulge the whole sordid affair once I have more battery power on my laptop.
Here’s what you need to know:
It took two weeks to get a visa for India and then shipping myself off to the Sub-Continent proved amazingly difficult.
I was helped (immensely) by the following people: Mr. Kashi Samadder, Damien (Damo!!), Fajer, Ben, Dan, Alena, Pamela, Sarah, Martin, Youhan and Barry from CMA-CGM.
Mandy, my beloved, came up with the goods in the end, securing me passage onboard a ship bound for Bombay via Karachi. Hurrah for the Mandster!!
Whilst in Dubai, I sailed around The World, won at Laser Quest, watched the World Cup final in the Barasti Soccer Dome, learned to play backgammon again, attended a 4th of July party dressed as a communist, watched myself on telly, got recognised off the telly by a guy standing next to me in the urinals who was dressed as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (eek!) and generally staggered about the place much in the manner of Barney from The Simpsons doing an impression of Keith Richards.
One sad piece of news for you, though – my kick-ass old laptop, Dell Boy, has finally gone to silicon heaven. His screen is cracked and he’s been shipped back to England for a formal burial. He’s been replaced by Sony Jim who seems a lot more delicate and has a nasty habit of ignoring the keys I press when writing stuff. Don’t know how long this guy is going to last out in the big bad world, but at least he’s got the processing power to play Psychonauts. Hurrah!
In the end it was Rickmers Group Shipping who came to my aid, they stuffed me on board the magnificent MV CMA-CGM Jade bound for Bombay via Karachi in Pakistan (two birds with one stone, so to speak). I’m eternally grateful to them and will be adding their name to my lists of helpers very soon.
Monday morning bright and early, the wonderful Pamela drove me to the Bur Dubai area of town and I headed over to the CMA-CGM offices to meet Barry Dinnadge, the fine chap I had met over a game of pool in Rock Bottom all those weeks ago. As luck would have it, he’s the CMA-CGM agent who was responsible for chucking my ass on the CMA-CGM Jade.
After a cup of tea and a natter, I headed out for my last two errands of Dubai – post my tapes and old Dell Boy back to the UK and buy myself a spare battery for Sony Jim here. Tasks done, I waved goodbye to the old place (whose culture stretches back decades) and was whisked, courtesy of Mr. Dinnadge, over to Jebel Ali port for boarding. Of course The Odyssey wouldn’t be The Odyssey without some shenaniganing at border control.
I had gone one day over my visa. I knew this and had called up immigration a few days ago and asked what I should do. The nice Indian lady explained that I had a “10 day period of grace” that comes with having a UK passport. Of course, the guys at the border control had never heard of such a thing. Neither had they heard of an English guy coming from Saudi Arabia overland only to leave on a ship. Unfortunately for me, neither had their computer. As I was obviously a deranged serial killer intent on sneaking into countries with my repertoire of cleverly-faked visas, I was made to wait for an hour or so. Wouldn’t have been so bad if the other security guards hadn’t recognised me off the telly and spent most of the time posing for photos with me. If you know who I am, then surely you know…?
Oh —- it. Let’s just wait, shall we?
So (eventually) I clambered aboard the good ship Jade and after introducing myself to the captain and crew, all of whom (save Vladimir the Russian) hailed from Burma, I decided to nurse my monumental headache (self imposed, I’m sure) in my cabin.
A couple of days later and we had arrived in Pakistan. My 162nd nation of The Odyssey Grand Tour Du Monde, and one that I thought would never come. But here I was on an overcast Wednesday in port in the Land of the Pure.
Little note about Lands of the Pures: they NEVER work. Never in a month of Sundays. Of course there have been many attempts in history: the British expulsion of the Jews in the 14th century, the crackdown on the Huguenots under Louis XIV, the burning of Protestants at the stake by the good queen Mary, the Nazi’s nightmarish dream of world dominated by the so-called ‘Aryan’ race, and here in Pakistan we have the case study to blow all the other case studies out of the water.
A demented dream formulated in an Oxford Common Room in the 1930s (the decade of demented dreams) of a land where Muslims can live in peace and harmony and… HA! Yeah. Right. To wit: The Partition of India: 1,000,000 dead. Two wars with India (both lost). Hundreds of thousands dead. A war with East Pakistan (lost!) resulting in the birth of Bangladesh. Al Qaeda, The Taliban, suicide bombers blowing up mosques, the Massacre in Mumbai, the Kashmir conflict, nuclear proliferation, a billion coup d’etats, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto… damnit, Pakistan. You FAIL. You FAIL on a grand scale. You even fail on an African scale.
You see what the problem is? Any Land of the Pure™ will by its very nature activate and encourage the crazies. Look at those weirdos with the curly sideburns running around Palestinian territory clutching a gun and a copy of the Bible, building settlements and, (one would assume) howling at the moon. No other country would tolerate such nonsense from the loony fringe, but a Land of the Pure™ must, because although these are seriously unhinged individuals (who are about as in touch with reality as a coma patient with a Napoleon complex) they are members of the ‘Pure’. Oh joy.
Anyway, I’m with Ghandi on this one (actually I’m with Ghandi on a LOT of stuff, moreso than the Indians, although to be fair, it was them who shot him), Partition was a bad, bad, bad idea.
INT. CONGRESS PARTY HQ, CLOUD CITY, 1947 – DAY
Old friends JAWALHARLAL NERHU and MOHANDAS GHANDI walk down a corridor towards a conference room, deep in conversation.
NERHU: …but I’ve just cut a deal that will keep The Empire out of here for good.
Nerhu activates a door. It slides open to reveal… DARTH JINNAH!!
Ghandi SHOOTS his PASSIVE RESISTANCE at Jinnah, who just crumples it IN HIS FIST!
JINNAH: I would be honoured if you would join us.
NERHU (to Ghandi): He arrived just before you did. I’m sorry.
GHANDI: I bet you are. Friend.
But here we are. We can’t change the past, we’re kinda stuck with it. I just don’t like places founded on religious principles – Pakistan, Israel, Vatican City, Saudi Arabia – they are all deeply silly regions which only encourage deeply silly children who have not (and will never) grow up. I prefer places founded because people lived there and they all got along and decided it would all be in their best interests if they didn’t run about (usually, might I add, in a dress) screaming about what an invisible man who lives in the sky may or may not have said. And blowing stuff up.
Oh, it’s nice to have got the Middle East out of the way so I can say stuff like that without fear of having my head chopped off. No, seriously.
Anyway, as we were hitting Pakistan, it was a Security Level 2 situation on board, which pretty much meant lockdown for us passengers (that would be just me, then). The crew did allow me to scoot down the gangplank at run about in circles in the port going w00t w00t, but only for about 30 seconds and then I had to run back onboard and hide in my cabin LIKE A COWARDLY FISH.
And that was my ‘visit’ to Pakistan. I’m glad. It would have been a LOT of messing to get a visa for the place and, lets face it, it’s one of the seven active warzones left on the planet (according to Wikipedia) and ginger boys with neat hats are high on the list of know-your-enemy silhouettes.
We were in Karachi Port for about a day. On Thursday we set off towards the swirling monsoon storms that heralded our passage towards India, the great sub-continent. One of the crew was getting promoted, so I was invited to join the chaps on a barbecue on deck. It was like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and I was the only one wearing a hat. Sheltered from the wind on the port side of the ship, the vessel leered menacingly in the choppy waters and the containers (hundreds of ‘em) creaked and moaned like somebody was going a little overboard on the old ghost ship sound effects.
Meanwhile we stuffed our faces with beef and chicken and pork (YES!), drank copious amounts of Becks beer and Johnnie Walker and sang to the sirens with a yo-ho-ho and a (literal) bottle of rum. Before long I was DJing the crew aftershow and rocking out with my air guitar while the officers sung Burmese karaoke on the deck below.
The next day the combination of the booze and the waves made me a little worse for wear, but on the Saturday we had arrived.
I had made it to India. Country 163. At bloomin’ last. It’s frickkin’ AUGUST!! I better get my skates on.