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.

Day 379: Our Botanic Garden

14.01.10:

After an interrupted night’s sleep (I foolishly slept under the plug socket that everybody wanted to use to charge their mobiles) we crossed the Tropic of Cancer and came into port in Aswan. It would be a good four hours before they would let us off the boat, as the bureaucratic nightmare that is involved in letting a large group of people over an international border in Africa kicked into slow mode.

While we were waiting, we got chatting to a young couple from Liechtenstein, who had been travelling all over Africa and the traumas they had crossing borders with passports for a country that few people have ever heard of. The night before, Barcelona Marc and I had befriended a couple of Egyptian guys, Rumor and Shabi – and once again, I was bowled over by the hospitality of people when they ain’t looking to sell you something. False hospitality syndrome is something Egypt suffers from greatly and I guess it’s one of the reasons people look at me funny when I tell them that Egypt is the bee’s knees. But after we (finally!) disembarked Rumor and Shabi treated Marc and I to some excellent kushari and sorted me out with a cheap ‘local’ ticket up to Alexandria on the overnight train (it was less than US$10, much cheaper than my journey down here).

After thanking them profusely, Marc and I left to grab a coffee on the banks of the Nile. Aswan is a beautiful little town and, I don’t want to sound too flowery about this, but it’s where I fell for my girlfriend Mandy. As I said in my earlier blogs, Mand and I met in Egypt, but for the first couple of days we were always in a bigger group and she seemed attached at the hip to her (admittedly rather fetching) sister Tam. But when we were in Aswan, we finally had a moment alone with each other walking through Lord Kitchener’s Island, a botanic garden in the middle of the Nile.

I should stress at this point that Mandy had utterly no interest in me at all. Aside from me being a ginger specky-four-eyes, she thought my idea of shipping all the people I deem cool to another planet where morons and uggos would not admitted was somehow elitist. It would be years later before I wore down her defences enough for her to let me kiss her, but I still look back on that walk through the botanic garden with affection, especially as it shoehorns neatly into our Will n’ Lyra complex. If you don’t know what that means, you really should read the same books that I do.

Anyway, Marc knew the guys in a local hotel that had links with Siwa Oasis. They gave me the number of a guy in Siwa called Mana and said that hopping over to Libya should be no problem – so long as we didn’t get caught. Libyan border guards are not known for their sense of humour.

Later that evening, I clambered aboard the train back up North. I’ve got to say that the public transport in Egypt is awesome – better than England, in fact (although that’s not too difficult). Generally speaking, you can go anywhere in the country at any time you fancy, really cheaply; none of this buses-don’t-run-at-night lark that happens in East Africa and none of the extortionate prices that they charge in the UK. British transport chiefs seem to think that our public transport equates to our ‘public’ schools, i.e. they’re just for the richest 1% of the country and no-one else.

Anyway, the train was pleasant enough, I had a ton of legroom and after typing up a bit of bloggage, I fell asleep in my chair.

Day 380: Luke Warm In Alex

15.01.10:

After me waxing lyrical about the Egyptian transport system yesterday, our train arrived in Alexandria three hours late (typical!), meaning that I was too late to get today’s bus to Siwa, so I had to wait until 10pm and get the night bus. But Alex ain’t such a bad place to be stuck-in for a few hours. Apart from the crime against architecture that is the new library, the city is much more pleasant than Cairo and has a wonderful coffee-house tradition.

Maybe those tolerant Christian-types who burnt down the original library (and, in one swift move destroyed more irreplaceable literature and historical information than in a crazed Chinese Cultural Revolutionist’s wet dream) could come back and go to town on this one. Although they might have to invest in an X-Wing, the damn thing looks like the Death Star.

After a pleasant stroll along the prom, I fancied downing a nice cold Carlsberg like John Mills and Anthony Quinn, but Carlsberg is obviously rarer here now than it was in the war. In the end, I opted for a cappuccino in one of the many coffee shops… not exactly an Ice Cold lager, and it wouldn’t have kept me going in the blazing heat of the Qattara Depression, but it was better than a slap in the face with a wet kipper.

If you don’t know what I’m on about, you really should watch the same films that I do.

I tried to meet up with Marc’s friend Sofia, but she was in Cairo for the weekend, so I had to make my own fun, which meant spending the evening abusing my coffee house’s free wi-fi and annoying my friends on Skype before boarding the night-bus towards Siwa – and my second attempt to crack open Libya LIKE A NUT.

Day 381: You Can’t Be Siwa-ous

16.01.10:

This time last year, I had visited every country in South America. This year, I’ve been to one new country, Sudan. Pathetic! Well, I was soon to make amends… within a few hours, I would hopefully be hot-footing it into Libya and I’d be able to tick country number 135 off my list.

I arrived in Siwa at about 6am and headed straight over to the Yousef hostel to meet Mana, the guy that the guys in Aswan put me onto. He offered me a room so that I could get a couple of hours shut-eye, and after my less-than-marvellous night’s sleep on the coach over here, I was all too happy to say yes. It wasn’t until after I had got up and had a shower that he told me that the room was gratis. What a legend! I tried to give him ten Egyptian pounds, but he wouldn’t take it.

When people ask me what my favourite country other than my home is, some have been a bit perplexed when I’ve said Egypt. I guess those people don’t know Egypt like I know Egypt. Maybe they’ve only seen the annoying parts of Egypt – the touts, the taxi-drivers and the rip-off merchants. Maybe they’re just looking at the polluted urban sprawl of Cairo, or the dictator that has been in power since 1981. Maybe they mistake genuine hospitality for the rogues and carpet-baggers who lure you into their perfume factory under false pretences. Maybe they actually give the baksheesh (backhanders) to every Tom, Dick and Hamza that asks for it.

But if you can see beyond that at all the magical things Egypt has to offer, it truly is an awesome place. I love it.

I asked about getting a ride over the border, but from the word go, it wasn’t looking very good. Mana didn’t know anyone who would take me and suggested that I asked around the town. So I did, and the word that I received back was not good. There had been a recent clampdown by the Libyan authorities to try to stem the flow of hashish into the Colonel’s personal fiefdom, these guys had guns and, well, it wasn’t worth the risk. My trip to Siwa had been a wasted one, but it wasn’t entirely a fruitless expedition because Siwa was just wonderful. I liked it even more than chips. Relaxed, friendly, hospitable… it has all the best qualities of Egypt and none of the worst.

The only thing that was a bit weird was that you hardly see any women here – those you do see are invariably covered up. There are a couple of reasons for this, one is your usual Bedouin traditions, another is that Siwa was the last oasis in Egypt to get a paved road going to it. But the main reason is this… Siwa is the San Francisco of Egypt. Oh yes people, before they made it illegal in the 1950s (the bores!), this was where your crafty butchers, flashboys and chromatically adept types hung out. Well, they still do, they just don’t hold love parades. It would be a little risky.

Anyway, after exhausting all possibilities for a quick border-hop, I jumped on the 3pm bus back to Alex. Bah! My second attempt to crack fortress Libya had failed… but don’t forget – I’ve still got to backtrack all the way to Tunisia in order to visit Algeria, so I’ll have at least one more crack at it.

I got into Alex at around 11pm and I toyed with the idea of staying the night but instead opted to press on in a minibus to Cairo and kip at Kendra’s place. When I say she’s a nighthawk, I mean, this girl just does not sleep, so I didn’t feel to guilty about rucking up at three in the morning. She acted like it was three in the afternoon – we even ordered twenty-four hour pizza. Try doing that in Liverpool, ya loooosers!

Day 382: The Pyramid Scheme

17.01.10:

I was planning to be at the Jordanian Embassy first thing in the morning, but you know what I’m like by now and after going to sleep around 5am, I had no real intentions of being up with the lark. I got there about 11am-ish only to discover that you can’t get a multiple-entry visa from the embassy. Why I need a multiple-entry visa is a story for another day, but it was a bit of a blow for the smooth running of The Odyssey.

So then I headed over towards The Pyramids. I was supposed to go last week, but laziness and procrastination got the better of me. There would be tickets on sale at 1pm to go inside the Great Pyramid, something that has always been a dream of mine. Whenever I’ve been to the Pyramids in the past, the Great Pyramid has always been closed for one reason or another. Along with seeing a shuttle launch and attending a full-moon party, it has been something I wanted to not miss out on this time around.

The journey there was a bit of a nightmare. I took the glorious Metro across town to Giza station, but the taxi that I took from the station was driven by a fool. He drove me to the wrong entrance to the complex (because he wanted to drop me off at his friend’s stable and also buy a ‘ticket’ somewhere I know you can’t) and by the time we got there, it was already past 1pm. If I missed out on my one and only chance to get inside that damn pile of rocks because of a bloomin’ corrupt taxi driver, I’d be spitting blood for a week.

But it was okay – although I had to trek all the way up the Giza plateau to the proper entrance in order to buy a ticket, I got one. I GOT ONE!!

Utterly made up, I made my way into the last great wonder of the world, the tallest building in the world for four thousand years, the resting place of the 4th dynasty king Cheops and the riddle wrapped in a puzzle wrapped inside an enigma that has focussed the great minds since antiquity – The Great Pyramid of Giza.

I get a lot of flack for not hanging around places long enough to experience them, but what people who don’t know me don’t get, is that I’ve already been to a ton of places and fully experienced them before The Odyssey began – from the Taj Mahal to Machu Picchu to Angkor Watt to Petra to the Parthenon, I’ve been there, done it and got the T-shirt. Even ones that are sadly no longer with us, New York’s twin towers and the Sari Club in Bali to name but two. But if there was one place I always kinda had my eye on for hanging around, it’s Egypt. I know I’ve been here before, I know that things haven’t changed much in the last ten years, but there’s something magical about this place – a link to the distant past that cannot be replicated anywhere in the world.

I always thought I would descend into Cheops’ tomb, but you actually go up to it (good pop quiz question there methinks) along a series of low ceilinged slopes. Once inside, others might begrudge the E£100 entry price (about 15 quid) because it’s just a room. But when you’re in there it’s just so much more, it is a haven of solace in which the greatest kings the world has ever seen would continue their adventures towards the afterlife.

Because of the plethora of tombs and pyramids and catacombs in Egypt, I guess it’s only natural that you might think that the Egyptians were obsessed with death. Nothing could be further from the truth – they were obsessed with life. Death scared the bejesus out of them and they went to great lengths to try and survive it. And when I say great lengths, they don’t come much greater than the Great Pyramid. Over one million massive blocks, over 100,000 labourers and over 20 years to build the damn thing… all so one guy can have a nice easy transition into the afterlife.

Nice!

Once in the tomb chamber, I monkeyed about (as I have a habit of doing), getting a photo of me in the sarcophagus, jumping out and going RAH! at hapless tourists, sticking my hand into a hole in the wall and pretending it was stuck. Ahahahaha GOD I’M FUNNY.

I then thought I’d have a nice sit down and quietly drink my water. At this point, there was only one other guy in the tomb room and he sat down too. It was all nice and quiet and calm.

After a few minutes some noisy tourists rolled in. But upon seeing me and the American guy sitting quietly against the wall, they assumed that that’s what you’re supposed to do inside the Great Pyramid of Cheops, so they sat down too.

This is only natural – whenever you’re put into a situation that you’ve never experienced before (like entering a the tomb chamber of the Great Pyramid), your best bet is to copy what others are doing. But then more tourists came in, looked about, and sat down too. Before too long there were over FIFTY people in the chamber, all sitting quietly – some praying, some meditating, some daydreaming – all in complete silence. I was giggling. Derren Brown would be proud.

I sat with interest to see what would happen when a bunch of rather loud Japanese tourists entered the (now full of sitting people) chamber. Lacking the social etiquette that their civilisation is usually famed for, they made a complete racket (one would be tempted to wear shoes in their home just to see how they’d like it) and my cult of quiet sitters grew annoyed. Shhhhhh! Fired a French lady sitting with her back against Cheops’ empty sarcophagus. Shhhhhh! Shot an American man by the entrance. Before long the Shhhh’s drowned out the Japanese tourists enthusiasm and they quietly (and respectfully) left the chamber. My cult of quiet sitters had successfully won it’s first tribal conflict.

I was proud of how far we had come in just half an hour of not saying anything. But it was now time for me to do what all good messiahs should do and I made a timely exit… always leave them wanting more, that’s what I say.

Crikey, could you imagine if I had resumed my earlier shenanigans and jumped into the sarcophagus again? They probably would have eaten me.

Upon exiting the Pyramid, I was seriously made up. Not only had I achieved another of my hidden goals of The Odyssey, I had also had a moment in there that I’d never forget – although by now, I’m sure my cult would have fractured into various denominations, each convinced a different seated posture is the orthodox one.

I spent an hour or so ambling around the Pyramid complex (I could never get bored of these things) and passed by ol’ Sphinxy on the way out and answered her riddle (the answer is me with a hangover). I grabbed a bite to eat in the fabled KFC and jumped a taxi back towards Heliopolis to see what Kendra had planned for the evening.

As things came to pass, Kendra had no plans so we ended up staying in and watching vids. Yes I should really leave tonight, but I can’t be bothered. I’d much rather put my feet up, upload some tapes to my laptop and watch The Wrestler. What’s one more day? I’ll leave for Jordan tomorrow.

All Inclusive Holidays to Egypt

Day 383: Eric The Frenchman

18.01.10:

To say I was being incredibly lazy today would be an understatement. Not being interested in doing, well, anything much. There was a bus that left at 10pm that would take me all the way to Amman in Jordan (via Nuiweba and Aqaba), so Kendra and I conspired to go get the ticket and go for some drinks before we had to leave. Well, that was the plan…

In the event, (not that you’d know, because it wasn’t covered in the news at all) Egypt was suffering from its worst flash flooding in decades. A dozen or so people had been killed by collapsing buildings and a British guy had died down in Aswan when his yacht capsized on the Nile. So the roads were closed and we weren’t going anywhere.

How bloomin’ Biblical.

So Kendra and I slinked off to the Stella bar in downtown Cairo. You know what they say, if you can’t get what you want, you’re best off getting hammered. Or something like that.

The Stella was its usual colourful self – full of ex-pats, backpackers and drunken Egyptian men falling over. We fell into a rather animated conversation with a couple of old British queens, John and Nigel, and their utterly bananas French friend, Eric. You know the French guy who throws the cow at King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail? That’s Eric. Loud, obnoxious and preposterous (and with Roman Polanski’s hair), he kept us entertained all night with his ludicrous pontificating “The World… there is no hope… it will end in fifteen years”, “Global warming… it is all ze fault of ze Anglo-Saxon people”, “The British they did nothing for France! Nothing!”. That final comment was enough to make even the mild mannered John snap and explain in plain English that it was the British who dug the French out of the crap TWICE when Germany gate-crashed the party. The whole thing was hilarious.

 

Graham Hughes and Eric Lang, Egypt January 2010
The best pub banterer of all time finally meets his match

 

Kendra was less than impressed with his announcement that dolphins did not communicate with one another (“Do zey write poetry? No. Zey are feeshh. Feeshh have no language”) and I was on hand to constantly wind him up in a way that has been honed over many, many Sunday lunches at the Hughes household. He was so ridiculous I kind of wanted to take him with me – he’d be great for getting into fights behind the bike sheds.

Your father was a hamster and your mother smelt of elderberries, indeed.

We ended up in some hotel bar, abusing the age-old dictat that hotel bars may not close until the last customer leaves. We left at 6am, by which time Kendra and I had drunk enough to flood a small town. I recall little of our return journey to Kendra’s flat, but suffice to say, it was a damn entertaining night out. I fart in your general direction.

Day 384: Am I Still Here?

19.01.10:

Dammit – I should have left Egypt on Saturday morning. Instead, here I am three days later still in Cairo. I woke up at noon and decided it was far too early and promptly went back to sleep until 3.30pm. Kendra doesn’t seem to sleep and I guess her Oirish-breeding has made her impervious to those hangover things that affect the rest of us so. I was alright until we ordered some kushari and the headache started. That was at 7pm. I REALLY ought to be going now..

I ought to be…

I ought…

Maybe I’ll just fall asleep on this nice comfy couch instead. Mmm….

NO!

Come on, Graham you useless sack of ridiculousness, you’re supposed to be racing around the world! We’re up to 134 out of 200 countries… just the Middle East and we’d be up to 150… that would be three-quarters done.

GET OFF THE DAMN COUCH!!

Okay, inner monologue, okay…

I dragged my hurty head up and off the pillow and made ready to leave. There’s a bus that night at 10:30 for Nuweiba, where the ferry leaves for Aqaba in Jordan. I said my fond farewells to Kendra (you absolute LEGEND!) and jumped into a taxi. When I got to the bus station, I found out that there was a bus going directly to Amman, which would be perfect, so I bought a ticket. Once again, I had to pay in US dollars (what’s with that?) and so had to take a quick trip in a taxi to go to the all-night money changer place. Thank heavens Cairo is such a twenty-four hour city.

I don’t know when it was that we crossed the Suez Canal, but when we did, that was it – I had LEFT AFRICA! Having arrived all fresh-faced an eager last MAY, you might comprehend how utterly frustrating the last eight months have been. I thought it would take me three. Ha!

Sadly, I may be done with Africa, but Africa is not done with me… I still have Algeria, Libya and Eritrea to get to. But overland routes there are too expensive or too impossible to consider – I’ll have to attack them from the sea and this may take some time. But first… Jordan!

Day 385: Crossing Jordan

20.01.10:

This morning we arrived in Nuweiba, the Egyptian border town from where the boat for Jordan departs. You see if you tried to go overland through Israel, which would be much quicker, it would mean you couldn’t visit Syria, Lebanon, Saudi, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran… do I need to go on? An Israeli stamp in your passport renders it completely useless when it comes to travelling around the Middle East, so your best bet is to take the boat.

Unfortunately for me, the ferry was very late departing and it was dark before I arrived in Jordan. Ahh, Jordan… Wadi Rum, the Dead Sea and – best of all – Petra. Petra is the rose-red city of legend, set amongst sandstone chasms were beautiful buildings were carved out of the solid rock. You would have seen a little bit of it at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – the city’s treasury doubled as the temple in the Valley of the Crescent Moon.

But alas, I would not be partaking in these delights – I’ve procrastinated enough! I should be in Turkey by now!! I arrived in Amman at about 2am, too late to politely meet up with my couchsurf contact Simon, and so checked into the hostel that the Lonely Planet told me to and got my head down for the night.

Day 386: Don’t Tell Bin Laden, But…

21.01.10:

Today, I just hung out in Amman, the capital of Jordan. Didn’t do nothin’.. just hung about. Didn’t go anywhere that might jeopardise my entry into other Middle Eastern countries, nope. Erm, how was your day?

LIES!

Yes, as some of you have already sussed out: I went to Israel today.

Sorry, I couldn’t say that until I got out of my last major islamic country (that being Indonesia). Won’t let me in, see?

And before I go off on a mad rant about how ridiculous the policy of most islamic countries who deny entry to people who have an Israeli stamp in their passport is, here’s a quick list of other passport stamps to avoid:

  • Cuba… if you want to get into the US without any hassle, it pays to not have a Cuban stamp in your passport.
  • Nagorno-Karabakh… Where?! Good question! It was part of Azerbaijan until the 90s when it was annexed by neighbouring Armenia. That being the case, a Nagorno-Karabakh stamp in your passport will deny you entry to Azerbaijan.
  • Iraq… rather unhelpful if you’re trying to get into Kuwait.
  • Malawi… bizarrely enough, a Malawi stamp in your passport will present a problem if you want to visit Algeria. Weird eh?

Countries that you would think would be a problem, but bizarrely aren’t:

  • South Korea… you would think a South Korean stamp would prevent later access to North Korea, but no! Come right in!!
  • Taiwan… given the historic animosity between Taiwan and China, you might think it would be a problem to have a Taiwanese stamp in your little travel book, but you’d be wrong: China and Taiwan now actually have a ferry service which runs between the two countries!
  • Pakistan… considering that India and Pakistan have been fighting a cold (and occasionally extremely hot) war for the best part of 63 years now, you might think that a Pakistan stamp would preclude you from entry into India. No so!
  • Kosovo… them Serbs really don’t like them Kosovans do they? But no worries: as long as you don’t try to get into Serbia straight from Kosovo (go to Montenegro first!) you’ll get in with no problems, except you might even get an extra stamp in your passport: one over the top of your Kosovo stamp saying “Annulled”.
Annulled Kosovo Stamp
My Annulled Kosovo Stamp. Hilarious!

Actually, the rant can wait, for now I’m happy just to tell you how I got in and out of Israel without any of the Muslim countries I plan to enter being any the wiser. Woohahaha!

So I was in Amman, the capital of Jordan.  I knew that even though I could ask the Israel border guards (very nicely) not to stamp my passport, the exit stamp from Jordan or Eygpt would always give me away.  There is just one way of getting in and out of Israel overland without leaving a trace: and that’s to enter over the Allenby Bridge just north of the Dead Sea.

You see, the Jordanians still claim sovereignty over the West Bank: they won’t stamp you out at the Allenby Bridge as they don’t consider you to have left their country!  A bit of a weird set up, but there you go!

So it was a short ride on a coach to the ‘border’ and soon enough I was being shepherded on a shuttle bus over to the Israeli side of things.  That is the room with the Israeli guards in the Palestinian Authority not stamping me into what Jordan regards as part of Jordan.

And here’s me thinking that the plot of Lost is pretty complicated.

I crossed over with an American girl. Looking a lot like a great big hippy who was travelling with nothing more than a camera (I left my backpack in Amman), I guess it could have got a ton of stick when crossing the border – especially since I was asking for my passport not to be stamped.

But hurrah for ethnic profiling! (Oh don’t be like that, the last time a scouser blew something up it was a big balloon at the 1954 World Fair) I was stamped in (on a separate piece of paper) and ushered through customs without so much as a sideways glance.

The American girl wasn’t as lucky – they took her off to a side-room and gave her the verbal interrogation procedure I’ve heard so much about. The funny thing was that I had all the things I wanted to say in my head from the many times I’ve been grilled by the border Vogons when I’ve entered Australia.

In the end, they allowed her in and I jumped on the bus to Jerusalem, the Ground Zero of those three peaceful religions that like nothing more than to con, corrupt, enslave or kill as many of their fellow beings as humanly possible.  Now I’m no expert on deities, but I’m pretty sure if I was a huge super-human beardy man with big glowy eyes from beyond the stars, capable of creating the entire universe in a week, Jerusalem is not where I would choose to get my groove on.

It would be a bit like Doctor Who having a box that can go anywhere in time and space and yet spending most of his time in 21st century Croydon. Madness!

Oh, hang on…

I mean there’s a nice old section with the market an’ all, but it’s nothing on Rome.

The bus went past the checkpoint that marked the ‘security fence’ and in doing so crossed over into the Israeli bit of Israel (although the bit I just left is run by Israelis too).  So now I could tick Israel and Palestine off my list.  If this had been 2009, I would have hurried back to Jordan as quickly as I could, but this year I’m taking it easy, collecting stories and learning a little more about the places I visit; so I set off to explore the old city.

The old city is cut into quarters between the Screaming Rug Butters, the Noncy Christ Fanciers, the Wacky Hatted Heebie-Jeebies and the Quite Frankly Miscellaneous.  Not really my kind of town, but the winding stone walkways are quite charming and there’s a nice vibe around the place – I wasn’t as on edge as I thought I would be. Unlike Nicosia, there is a free flow of people around the city, something that I hope stays in place even if and when Palestine is given self-determination.

I made my way to the Wailing Wall as I heard it’s a groovy place to watch people doing mad stuff.  I wasn’t wrong: there were all these people dressed up as Abraham Lincoln stuffing little messages into the wall, much in the manner of a small child posting a letter to Santa.  I imagined them all scribbling down their little prayers asking for Nintendo Wiis and red liquorice, thinking that the neater their handwriting the more Santa God would think they have been a good little boy decent grown man and give them a stocking full of yummy chocolate save their grandmother from cancer.

My mind then shimmied over to the idea that they were praying for world peace, but that annoyed me to: we could have world peace if these loonies would stop doing this sort of crazy stuff like any of it actually mattered.  I’m sorry – but they’re like people who smoke; they make children believe that this sort of behaviour is respectable, or, even worse, normal.

I turned to go when an Lubavitch Jew greeted me with a handshake and a warm smile. He wanted to know where I was from in his oddly-twanged American accent, when I told him Liverpool he said no way – he was from Manchester. There’s a Manchester in America? I thought. Ah, but hang on, I’ve met Pikey kids born and bred in Liverpool who sound Irish, so why not? I asked him if he knew Rabbi YY and he did a double-take: of course I know him! Are you Jewish?

I flashed a cheeky grin, nah: I’m just well travelled.  He was from Manchester in the UK.  We had a good old natter there, me and Dan, my new friend with the curly sideburns.  If I needed a place to stay the night, there was a guy he knew who’d be willing to take me in.  I thanked him for his generosity and went on my way.

I didn’t get very far before I came upon a strange sight: what looked like a jumble sale set up on the square. But this was noordinary jumble sale! The trestle tables, instead of being piled high with broken boardgames  and old Beano annuals, were piled high with brown books and semi-automatic weaponry.

I asked a young girl in uniform what was happening. She told me that it was a falling out ceremony for the new Israeli Defence Force “recruits” (by that I assumed she meant “conscripts”) – and the books weren’t unwanted Encyclopaedia Britannicas; they were Bibles. Oh God: they were giving these young whippersnappers a deadly weapon used to kill more people than smallpox… AND a gun!

I made a beeline for the bus-stop back to Jordan, picking up a sneaky falafel on the way. But, alas: the last bus left at some ridiculously early hour of the afternoon… I would be stuck in Jerusalem for the night, with no luggage and no coat.  Oh well.  I turned back to the old town and sought out a backpackers to lay my weary head for the night.  Well, somewhere I could lay my weary head after a night out on the sauce I mean.

I checked into a little place in the mad maze of the old town and got chatting with the ten-year old Arab kid who seemed to be running the place on behalf of his dad.  He showed me my dorm and gave me a key. Then he pulled a knife on me and held it to my throat.

No, really.

Then he cracked up laughing.  I suppose this is what passes for a giggle in the Middle East.  I had to admit, it was funnier than Russell Brand, but that’s only because Russell Brand isn’t funny.  I considered staying somewhere else for the night, somewhere I didn’t have to worry about a ten year old kid slashing my throat in the night, but it was the cheapest place in town, so I guess you just have to take the rough with the smooth.

I headed out into the night as the old town was packing up for bed.  Good Arabs and curly sided Jews have to be up at the crack of dawn to go wake up the divine creator with some muttered platitudes, but I don’t, so I escaped to the bright lights of the new town.

The night progressed, as they often do, with a little social lubrication and a lot of laughs. I took up position a nearby bar, met people from the four corners of the planet, swapped war stories and chewed the fat.

But not the animal fat, that wouldn’t be kosher 😉

!!======WARNING! RANT APPROACHING======!!

I can’t go to Israel and hide the fact for almost a year without sounding off about the situation. If you like, you can skip this bit and head off to the next blog: http://theodysseyexpedition.com/day-387-couchsurf-united/.

You still here? Right then, just let me roll up my sleeves and I’ll begin…

I am sick and tired of the vitriol and hatred that is levelled against Israel. Not by the usual suspects of right-wing wingnuts or muslim True Believers™, I don’t expect anything less from that lot: I’m talking about the wishy-washy pinko liberal types (the ones I’m more likely to consort with) who jump on the bandwagon and decry the actual concept of Israel.

Now I’m not talking here about the government of Israel, which is responsible for some incredibly dumb decisions (usually wrought by the ultra conversative True Believers™ on their side of the fight), I’m talking about Israel itself: the tacit conceit that Israel shouldn’t exist.

But unlike the gods that cause all the trouble in the first place, Israel does actually exist. Whether or not you want to accept that fact is up to you, but it does and it’s not going away.  If you think it shouldn’t exist, I would point you towards just some of the inventions and discoveries that Israel has given the world in the sixty years since its creation:

  • Solar water heating
  • The Epilator
  • The discovery of Ubiquitin (which led to the Nobel Prize for Chemistry)
  • The Prediction of Quarks
  • Formulation of Black Holes Entropy
  • Copaxone Immunomodulator (a drug for treating multiple sclerosis)
  • Interferon Proteins
  • The “Pillcam” (for videoing your gizzards)
  • The explanation of irrational human economic choices
  • Electricity conducting DNA
  • The DNA computing machine system
  • The USB Flash Drive
  • The Quicktionary Electronic Dictionary
  • The Laser Keyboard
  • ICQ (used in instant messaging software)
  • Drip Irrigation System
  • Cherry Tomatoes
  • The Super Iron Battery
  • The Energy Tower
  • Wall Radar (lets you see through walls! Cool!!)
  • Artificial Gills

There’s more*, but these are the ones I like.

Now I know this is going to generate some catcalls of lack of research/bias/racism/islamophobia but I’m going to just seamlessly shepherd you towards the notable inventions and scientific discoveries made in the last 60 years by some of Israel’s neighbours. No, actually, I’m not: go do your own research.

But the idea of ‘wiping Israel off the map’ is something that I hear banded around all over the Middle East, and one that seems to have gained some kind of tacit acceptance by otherwise intelligent and sensible human beings in the West: as if the crimes of the Israeli government somehow outweigh the country’s right to exist.

Well they don’t.  The world needs Israel as much as the Jews need – and I would say deserve – a homeland.  Why do I think they deserve it? Because of some stupid prophesy from the Bible? No. Because of the holocaust? Not even that.

I think the Jews deserve Israel because of the stunning contribution that the Jews have made to the modern world.  We’re talking Einstein, Freud, Spielberg and Marx (Groucho) here people!  In fact, since we’re already talking about Nobel Laureates, here’s some more stats for you to digest:

  • Since 1901, 168 Jews have won a Nobel Prize.
  • Of them, 123 have won one of the three science awards.
  • There are 13.4 million Jews in the world today.

Simple maths tells me that for every 110,000 Jews over a hundred year period there will be at least one scientific prize winner (they’d be one in every 80,000 if we included all the prizes).

Yes, I understand the issues with Palestine and Israel – I get it okay? All I’m saying is that Israel has much a ‘right to exist’ as Australia, New Zealand or the USA.  If you disagree, then by all means start lobbying all the colonists who ‘weren’t there first’ and treated the natives like second class citizens (or worse): go tell those dastardly Europeans to leave Australia to the Aboriginals, New Zealand to the Maori, the US to the Native Americas, Mexico to the Mayans, The Caribbean to the Caribs**, Peru for the Incas**… the list goes on.

What Israel has going against it is timing: if they had colonised the place and ‘subjugated the natives’ just fifty years earlier, nobody would have batted an eyelid. In 1898, the scramble for Africa was still in full swing, there were no Arab states (a difficult thing to get your head around these days, but the notion of statehood is a pretty modern one) and, let’s face it, nobody would have given a toss.

What Israel has going for it is the people who hate it the most (ie. every Islamic state in the world) are also some of the poorest, most disenfranchised, most wretched people in the world living in some of the most dystopian states on the planet.  And while their tyrannical governments can keep attention away from their own shortcomings (of which there are many) by using rhetoric against Israel that wouldn’t sound out of place at a Nuremberg rally, they will always have a scapegoat for their own crimes.

But don’t let them distract you. Hate the government, not the people: don’t let your disdain for the policies of Nutty-Yahoo and his cronies segue into tacit anti-Semitism.  Statistically, the Jewish race have given you more to improve your life than any group on the planet: in short, they don’t deserve it (not that any group of people ‘deserves’ prejudice).

But look on the bright side: while there will never be a true brotherhood of Islam (just look at the in-fighting in Iraq or Pakistan, never mind across borders), Israel is ‘safe’.  In fact – the Muslim would might have a bit of a Catch-22 thing going on here…

The only way that Arab countries could hope to destroy Israel (barring nuclear weapons) is by working together to force the Jews out of the region. But the only way they are ever going to work together is if they undergo some kind of enlightenment. But then, as a consequence of said enlightenment, they may well find themselves accepting Israel’s right to exist and so refrain from destroying it.

It’s a funny old world innit?

* Mostly weapons (sadly), but that wouldn’t be great for my argument would it?!
** Well, that is if we hadn’t already wiped them all out.