All I got to see of Mexico City was the outskirts and the bus station, but I hear it’s not much too look at anyway. Driving close to Tikal in Guatemala without getting to see it, was much more upsetting for me. We arrived at about 7am. A well-timed bus left the capital for Nuevo Laredo (on the US border) about 90 minutes later.
This bus was the best of the lot – cheap, fast and it showed a load of great movies – including Leon (The Professional) and Babel – makes a change from the 1980s action movies that tend to dominate this sector of captive audience entertainment. Although I really don’t understand why Central American bus drivers insist on setting the air conditioning to Hot.
Outside, the landscape was becoming more and more arid and dry – greenery had given way to cacti and dust. This was the Mexico we all know and love, but before I knew it, we had hit the border with the U. S. of A.
I had two hours to get across the border. It was 2am, nobody was there so I figured I had plenty of time. But it took ages. And, annoyingly, the taxi driver who took me over the bridge didn’t stop on the Mexican side to get me stamped out. The yanks didn’t care about that, they just kept me talking for an hour while they searched my bags three – yes three – separate times. Carlos the Jackal here, yeah.
By the time US immigration had finished with me (thankfully no rubber gloves involved), I had to hurry to the Greyhound bus station so didn’t have time to go back to Mexico and get stamped out. Hope I don’t have to go back to Mexico any time soon – they might not let me back in.
USA! USA! Not far to go now. I’ve got to say, the Greyhound buses ARE THE WORST FORM OF TRANSPORT IN THE WORLD – grotty, no films, no snacks, grumpy-as-hell drivers…
My first driver actually got pulled by the police for speeding!
My second driver told me off for filming out of the window. Seriously.
Had I not just come from the CHEAPER air-conned, hosted, free snack giving, European arthouse-film screening Latin American buses, I might consider this behaviour a little odd. As it is, it disgusts me. America deserves better.
I’d love to regale you with stories from the road a-la Dean Moriarty, but seriously – the big American concrete freeways are about as appealing as an afternoon in a wet plastic bag. There’s not much to see. If you ever drive America, keep to the old roads! From the border to Houston, I got chatting with a lovely girl from Nicaragua called Jackie – but from Houston to Baton Rouge in Louisiana, I had nobody who wanted to chat with me. Although my heart goes out to the poor kid in the seat in front of me – the guy sitting next to him was one of those headcases who says things like “I’ve done every drug in the world, but now I’ve found Jesus and I’ve cleaned myself up.”
That’s nice. Very happy for you mate. “Now promise me you’ll never do drugs – you don’t need them – you just need Jesus in your heart”. He made the kid shake on it. If my eyes could have rolled any further in my head, they would have severed my optic nerve!
We rolled through the great big State of Texas and into Louisiana. A traffic jam doomed us to getting into Baton Rouge two hours late. We had missed the connecting bus, but the driver told us ‘Florida-goers’ to stay on the bus – they’ll catch up. So we went on via New Orleans (didn’t see the old town, only the nasty concrete mess around the bus station) and caught up with my connection in Alabama.
Shattered tired by now, I got on my fourteenth long-distance bus of the last nine days.
I slept through to Orlando in Florida and then got on my last bus (for a few days at least) heading for Fort Lauderdale.
This time last week, I was in Panama. That’s Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, El Salvador, Guatemala, Belize, Mexico, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama and Florida in less time than I spent in the Dominican Republic. When there’s no water in the way, I can travel. And I can travel FAST.
But that brings me to the last pieces of the jigsaw – Bahamas and Cuba. Bahamas is easy – there’s a cruise that goes there and back every day from Fort Lauderdale. Cuba however, is a different kettle of fish.
I’m staying in the Bridge II hostel. One of the guys who is sharing an apartment with me is a ex-navy, bomb disposal expert called Robbie. After over two months of travel, I was keen for a bit of normality in my life, so I suggested we go to the flicks to see Watchmen. I’ll sleep when I’m dead.
Afterwards, we went out for a couple of drinks in one of those brilliant American bars where chicks in hot pants actually dance on the bar. Oh yeah, and for the first time in fourteen years, I got I.D.’d! But…but…I’ve got a beard! Well, it worked when I was 16.
Here’s the best bits of the bus trip from Guatemala to Florida:
Spent the day on the phone and on the net trying to sort out, how the hell I’m going to get to Cuba. However, I did win a $10 bet with Robbie that I couldn’t stuff an entire (large) packet of extra strong mints in my mouth and eat them all. In your face Robbie!!
I’ve got to say, Fort Lauderdale is monumentally unappealing – it’s got hundreds of those retail parks you get on the outskirts of every damn city in the world these days, but without a historic centre in the middle of it all to make it better.
It’s Spring Break over here in USA, which is a bit like half-term only with more sex, drugs and rock and roll. There’s a load of rowdy college kids staying in our hostel, drinking, making noise, causing trouble. Brilliant. Needless to say, we hit the bars together and a good night was had by all. Wish I didn’t have to get up at 5am to get the boat to The Bahamas…
As I write this, I’m sitting in a lounge on the day cruise over to The Bahamas. It’s usually about $40 there and back, but because it’s Spring Break, they’ve hiked the price up to $120. But still, it’s cheaper than paying for your own boat.
It’s an old-ish boat. There’s dented plastic panelling on the ceiling and gourdy little golden lights set into it. There are mirrors everywhere that have bent and distorted with time and the seats are various shades of Opal Fruit. There’s a soul-destroying casino, not enough sun-loungers outside, the air-con is set to ‘Arctic Blast’ inside. There’s a television in the corner of the bar showing fuzzy basketball games. There’s a small pool, but it’s too cold for anyone to bother swimming. There’s that constant humming and vibration that makes me wonder why people willingly plonk themselves on cruises like this for weeks on end. All I can think is Hi-De-Hi Campers!
While the engine goes hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm all night long.
It’s really not for me.
The boat’s packed full of college kids (presumably taking advantage of the fact they can actually buy alcohol in The Bahamas), which gives the boat a bit of a youthful, party atmosphere that you don’t really get on the Caribbean Cruisers – which is good – although I wish they would stop whistling the Raiders theme at me.
Back on the boat now…had a good couple of hours in Grand Bahama, nice beach – shame about the soulless development surrounding it. Looks like an outlet village. But now the only countries left to visit in the Americas both begin with ‘C’, and end in ‘A’. But one is going to be MUCH easier to get to than the other. I’m totally bricking it for one of them, that I’m not going to be able to get there. Now…where did I put my beer?
Okay. Here’s the situation. The USA does not like Cuba. It prefers its citizens to spend money in Zimbabwe, Burma or North Korea, obviously, as there are no sanctions against US citizens travelling there. But there are sanctions against Cuba.
1) American cannot spend money in Cuba, to do so would invoke a fine of up to $250,000 and a possible prison sentence.
2) American registered boats cannot go to Cuba, if they do, they are likely to be impounded by the US coastguard on the return journey.
3) American captains can lose their license if they, for instance, took me over there, even if I spent money and they didn’t.
4) If I go to Cuba without permission, the Uncle Sam won’t let me back into the US for 6 months.
So… Fortress Cuba. How to get in?
Well, there is a OFAC (Office of Foreign Asset Control) license that we can apply for off the US Treasury Department. Dispensations are given for journalism and charity. With their permission, I can hire a motor boat and truck there and back in less than a day. The Odyssey is for charity and I guess I’m a journalist now, so there should be no problem.
We put in the application a couple of weeks ago, and my lawyer in the UK, John Howell, has been bugging them ever since for a reply. So far we’ve heard nothing. There was a possibly that, even without the permission, one of the guys in the hostel I was staying in would be up for going on a ‘fishing trip’ with me at the end of the week, one that would result in us jumping over to Marina Hemingway in Cuba for half an hour.
But this morning he got cold feet and changed his mind. The fishing charter people might have trackers on their boats and he could lose his captain’s license. I couldn’t argue with that, and I don’t want to put anyone in the position where they are putting their livelihood on the line just so I can step foot in Fortress Cuba.
So… we play the waiting game.
Already very aware that even at this early stage of The Odyssey that I’m a month behind schedule, I decided that I would at least try to do something constructive with my time in Florida. There was a space shuttle launch scheduled for later today. I asked around at the hostel and a few people were up for going to watch it – Brian, Dorit and Steve-O.
Now I know shuttle launches get delayed all the freakin’ time, so I was refreshing the NASA page all day, until at 2.30pm I decided we were good to go. We got the owner of the hostel, Jorge, to drive us to the car hire place (yep, I know I’m not allowed to drive, but I’m off work today, The Odyssey will continue from Fort Lauderdale as soon as we get word from the US Treasury Department, thankyouandgoodnight). We would have just headed straight up to Cape Canaveral, but instead of giving me the small car I ordered, I ended up with a mini-van.
Being the charitable sort I am, I headed back to the hostel to see if anyone else wanted to, you know, watch the launch since we had three spare seats. But then Robbie came bounding down the stairs waving his arms. It’s been cancelled. We checked online. Yup. The word came through at 2.37pm. Seven minutes after we left for the car hire place.
So… car back to car hire place and grumpy gingery bloke bitterly cursing the US government, the bloody treasury department and it’s damn space programme.
That evening, I headed into Miami with Robbie. I chatted to a few captains down in the marina, yeah they’d take me to Cuba – as soon as I got permission.
Later we met up with a couple of Robbie’s mates, played cards and chewed the fat while a big fat orange moon rose over the charmless concrete metropolis that is Miami.
Another day wasted attempting to get a response from the Treasury. I hung around at the hostel all day, on line and making phone calls to every Tom, Dick and Harry with a boat. John in the UK sent countless faxes and emails. I got in touch with a family up near Cape Canaveral who said I could stay at theirs for the weekend and watch the (rescheduled) shuttle launch on Sunday. I was a bit reluctant in case something turned up here in Fort Lauderdale, but the more captains I spoke to the more I realised it was permission or bust – there was no wriggle room here.
Had a night out in Fort Lauderdale with Robbie and Steve-O. Apparently Brian found me at 4.30am in the dorm kitchen asleep on the sideboard with my feet in the sink. Yeah, sounds like something I’d do…
I gave it until 2pm until it became abundantly clear that the Treasury was not going to get back with an answer this week and asked Robbie (very nicely!) if he would give me a lift to the bus station. That he did, and I made the bus for Titusville (just outside Cape Canaveral) with only seconds to spare.
Now, so far, the Greyhound bus drivers I have experienced have been mean, condescending and stupid, but this driver was something else. After making everyone check their luggage in (even though most of the people’s bags were small and the bus wasn’t even nearly full) this uppity clippered-moustache bureaucratic freak continued to make everybody’s life an utter misery by stopping the bus – on a FREEWAY JUNCTION EXIT(!) – to confiscate the mobile phone of a passenger who was doing no harm to anybody. BECAUSE IT RANG ONCE!!
My jaw hit the ground. It’s not like the Greyhound buses are some exclusive elite fleet of ultra-modern coach. THE LONG DISTANCE BUSES ARE BETTER (AND CLEANER!) IN BANGLADESH. In fact, Greyhound buses are the WORST buses I have ever had the misfortune to travel on IN THE WORLD.
[UPDATE JULY 2010: I've now travelled through 176 countries and can honestly state... THEY ARE!! THEY REALLY ARE!]
At least they have an excuse in Bolivia why their buses are filthy dirty and stink of effluent – it’s one of the poorest countries in the world and you only paid $5 – but at least their drivers don’t act as though they’re a cross between an SS commandant and Mr Bronson from Grange Hill.
Greyhound’s attitude, level of service and customer relations is like something out of a 1970s British Situation Comedy. You get 0/10 Greyhound. Go to hell. I hope this help to emphasise. I hope this helps to clarify: I HOPE YOU DIE.
Sorry, had to get that off my chest. Now – er, were was I? – oh yeah, got a text on the way to Titusville saying there had been a family emergency and they were very sorry but I was going to have to find my own accommodation.
This was not my week.
I checked into the Three Oaks Motel and watched cable TV. It was one of those classic American Motels – like nowhere else in the world, you park outside the door and presumably haul up whilst on the run from the cops. I then went to get something to eat – I walked for ages, but nothing was open so I had to phone for a pizza to be delivered to the car park outside the pizza place. They even charged me $2 for delivery.
Rise and shine, Odysseus. Since you’re stuck in Florida, you may as well indulge your nerdy love of all things NASA. I walked down to the service station and luckily grabbed one (of the three) taxi drivers that service Titusville and got them to drive me to Kennedy Space Centre.
I had lunch with a real-life astronaut (cool!) and took the Close-Up tour of the Launch Platforms. The Shuttle was there and ready to pop off into outer space tomorrow night at 7:34pm. The driver told us if we came early the next day it might be possible to get tickets to watch the launch from the Space Centre Causeway – the closest area Joe Public can get to without incurring the wrath of the US Navy.
It sounded like a plan. I was there, dude.
That night I spent alone in the Motel. I got restless and bored and didn’t want to contemplate eating any more junk food, so I walked to a local seafood restaurant for dinner and had Royal Red Shrimp. Lovely!
Later on, I spoke to Mandy on Skype which helped, but I’m a social creature and I lamented how much I missed CouchSurfing, even if it was just for two nights.
Headed over to the Space Centre first thing and queued up LIKE A BIG NERD for a ticket to view the shuttle launch. These special tickets are usually like golddust, but because the shuttle had been delayed so long (I know how it feels!)I got one!
Spent the day pottering about the Space Centre fearing that the shuttle would be cancelled again, but when the news came through at 2pm that it had been successfully fuelled I began to get rather excited. I may have done a little nerdy dance in the Hubble Space Telescope exhibit.
By 5pm I was on a bus heading for the Space Centre Causeway.
I plonked myself down on the grass behind the yellow rope (like that’s going to protect us!) and set up my camcorder… finally, something was going right for a change! I got chatting with a lovely couple called Judy and John from Phoenix, Arizona, who were watching the big event with their two kids. There are only going to be seven more shuttle launches after this one, before NASA scraps the programme in favour of Ares (the mission to return to the moon and then press on to MARS!) and it was the last of the night-launches, so it was going to be pretty special, no matter what.
At 19.34, there was the BIGGEST explosion I had ever seen with my own eyes. The ground shook and the shuttle blasted off. The sun had just fallen below the horizon, so we got the benefit of viewing a night launch, but when the rocket got high enough, the exhaust plume was lit up by the multi-coloured rays of the evening sun – it looked unreal.
It was so cool.
Judy and John offered to give me a lift back to the bus station in Orlando – only 33 miles away. There where that many people watching the launch (by the looks of it, half of Florida) that the journey took four hours. Thank Zeus for Judy and John, otherwise I would have been stuck in Titusville for another night.
So I made the 1:30am bus back to Miami, and my little Odyssey detour came to a close.
I saw a rocket blast into space! Yeah!!!
Check out the vid: