Woke up at Stan’s gaff at some monstrously early hour, but Stan was good enough to not only make me a cup of tea, but to drive me to the nearest Tube Station. I’ve had mates in London now for years, negating the need to ever stay in a hotel or backpackers. But now I’ve got mates from Buenos Aires to New York City, Nova Scotia to Brazzaville, Pretoria to Iraq, Sierra Leone to Cairo, Reunion to Antigua and Tunis to Melbourne; this is possibly the most exciting thing to come of The Odyssey – I’ve left a trail of mischief from one end of the planet to the other, and I’ve always got somewhere to stay. Hooray for CouchSurfing.org!! I might have gone a few weeks without singing its praises, but by-eck, it’s BLOOMIN’ MARVELLOUS!
The plan was simple: Get to Rome. Go to port of Civitavecchia. Get boat to Tunisia. Visit Libya and Algeria. Back to Italy. Boat to Greece. Bus to Istanbul. Continue with The Odyssey. How long is that going to take? Two weeks? Okay…you’re on.
I got a little worried that I was supposed to check in for my coach to Rome an hour before departure and in typical Odyssey style, I was checking in ten minutes before departure, but there was no problemo, and before long, we found our bus clambering onto the train (which was a little weird if you think about it) that shuttles you through the Channel Tunnel. Well beat my breeches and call me Mary, having never gone through the unfortunately-named Chunnel before in my life, here’s me going through it twice in one month. Bizarre!
Arriving in Paris, I had a couple of hours stopover and had made arrangements to meet with Michelle Hoffman, a journalist from the Associated French Press, who were interested in doing a piece on little old me. So I had to walk about with all my bags (looking quite hilariously chubb after all that damn fine home cookin’ of the past fortnight) while she filmed me…and I wittered on about African jails and visa formalities and the general flotsam and jetsam that has a tendency to drop out of my clanging manhole every time I open it.
It was a fun way to pass the time, but time, tide and buses wait for no man. Soon, I was back on a coach thundering through the night towards Italy. The lethargy of the past couple of weeks was infectious and I have to admit to sleeping pretty much all the way.
At some disastrously early hour, I was roused from my slumber by our rather impertinent arrival in Milan, which necessitated a change of buses. Didn’t get to see too much of the place, but there’s something about just the name of these places – Verona, Genoa, Venice, Napoli that gets my pulse racing… old school, you know? It’s the same thing that affects me exhausted, bladdered and half-awake watching the sun rise after the last night of Glastonbury – a sense of history, that damned feeling of belonging to a world that’s gone that’s nagged me for years now.
All these countries I visit, most of them are shiny and new (comparatively), they don’t have the weight of millennia baring down on them, there are no layers to dig down through. Yes, I find the Kingdom of Benin interesting, Manchu Picchu is sweet-as, and you could keep me happy for weeks teaching me the ways of a tribe of Aussie Aboriginals or Native Americans, but compared with the achievements of Athens and Rome, the mysteries of ancient India and the technological prowess of Confucius-era China, I can’t help but see them as a bunch of Johnny-Come-Latelies.
Yes yes, I’m sure you have some interesting bits of broken pottery and maybe a beady necklace or two, but you’re really not going to drag me away from playing Bioshock 2 to look at them. Yes, you new-worlders will see this as old-Europe snobbery, but I can’t help it, I like the old stuff. It will outlive us all.
After a few hours I had arrived in Florence. There wasn’t much of a chance to grab something to eat (and for some reason, once in Italy the bus driver decided not to stop at any service stations) before the bus pressed on towards Rome. However, by now there were just three people on the bus, which kind of negated the point of, you know, us being in a bus. We would have fitted in a mini. The driver must have noticed this as he proceeded to drive us to a depot somewhere in the middle of nowhere and make us wait for an hour while they decided what to do with us. In the end, we were put on another bus and taken to Rome. It was all a little odd, but don’t ask me, I only work here.
Arriving at Rome at sunset, I headed over to the hostel where I stayed last May when all of this Odyssey stuff was relatively still shiny and new, the Pop Inn by the station. I checked in for a whopping €21 (bit pricey for a dorm bed, but when in Rome, bring a tent) and set off to find internet and cheap food. I was directed to a restaurant that had ‘good, cheap pizza’ only to find (once I had sat down and ordered a beer) that it had no pizza, good nor cheap. So I (reluctantly) ordered a lasagne (big Garfield fan as a kid) only to be given the measliest portion since Oliver asked Scrooge for more pudding.
Damnit. I headed back to the station and got a decent slice of pizza for a couple of Euro and headed back to the hostel. The last time I was in Rome, I was awestruck and spent most of the night wandering around. This time a black cloak of tiredness overcame me like a tidal wave and I found myself crashing out early.
I thought I would have a few hours to mooch around Rome in the morning, but I found myself unable to prise my worthless body from my bed until after 10am. By the time I had breakfast and tried (and failed) to find a free wi-fi zone, it was time for me to take the train to Civitavecchia, Rome’s port and the place where the boat to Tunisia left from.
The boat to and from Tunisia was horrifically horrific last time, and this time it was no better. Same boat, same company, same unholy rip-off. For a start, the boat was two hours late boarding, which meant that I was left standing in the car-park like an unsuccessful prostitute for longer than would otherwise be sensible. Once (finally) on board, the horribly familiar interior of the Sorrento loomed into view.
I had a ‘deck’ ticket, which basically means you sleep in the restaurant. If you know of a comfortable way to sleep in a restaurant chair, I’d love to hear it. Luckily for me, I was one of the first on board (I ran) so I snagged one of the exclusive couch seats that run along the parameter of the room.
There are only three toilets between all the men on board (usually 100+) and none of them are urinals. Oh, and for some reason, the crew don’t clean them for the full length of the ‘cruise’. Which means within an hour, they are disgusting, within a day they are capable of making a grown man vomit at 50 paces. Nice.
The food is an utter rip-off (just a can of coke will set you back €2.50) and the company on board was less than illuminating. I couldn’t find anyone who spoke a word of English and so spent my time watching the entire first season of Lie To Me rather than do anything, you know, sociable. Ya boo.
This infernal continent. If I was following the original plan, I would have picked up my visas in Istanbul and continued on to Central Asia a month ago. But there were two nagging countries, two of the largest in Africa in fact, that had barred my entry, even by an inch. They were Libya and Algeria. I had tried to get into Algeria once before and Libya twice, only to find that they were not to be trifled with. And so it would add an extra month onto The Odyssey and cost me over £1000, but I had to do it their way, and (putting it mildly) neither of them like tourists very much.
Why would they? They have OIL! And the oil will last forever and ever and ever and there will never be a day when it runs out. And while the governments make all their money through the backhanders which the oil provides! Huzzah! And the commoners? Sod ’em. They can make do. They don’t need the millions of tourists dollars that flood into Egypt, Tunisia or Morocco every year. They’d only spend it on fizzy cola bottles and sherbet flying saucers. By the way – check out my new palace! Nice innit?
Well to cut a short story even shorter, I arrived in Tunisia a few hours late (naturally) and by 9pm, I was outside the Africa Hotel in Tunis waiting for my CouchSurf contact to pick me up. After a few worried moments in which I thought he wasn’t going to show up (sorry for waking you up Mand!) Djamel, or Dja (pronounced ‘Jar’) collared me on the street and took me back to his gaff. There I met his American girlfriend, the delectable Claire from California.
Dja is originally from Algeria, but he grew up in France and has been working here in Tunis for the last ten years. Claire on the other hand was one of those American Peace Corp LUNATICS who throw themselves head-first into Africa and expect to come out a stable and adjusted person. NOTE TO PEACE CORPS-WANNABES: Go to South America, India or SE Asia. Trust me. Africa will chew you up and suck you dry. You have been warned.
Anyway, while Claire and I compared travel scars, Dja fed us all beers and rounded off an unpleasant day on a horrid boat with a tremendously pleasant evening in the company of new-found friends.
I’ve made some big boo-boos in The Odyssey so far. Going to Cape Verde with a bunch of Senegalese fishermen, for one. Not just taking the DAL Madagscar on its route around the Indian Ocean for another. Of course, turning up in Tunisia without visas for Algeria and Libya last May cost me massively in terms of time and money, but the boos just keep coming. Today, I was planning to head to Algeria for the day, cross the border, tick the place off the list. Easy.
But instead, I spent the entire morning fighting with my damn iPod Touch in a vain attempt to get my Lonely Planet pdfs onto the damn thing so I wouldn’t have to take my laptop with me. In the end (and after losing all of my other apps that I had on there), I gave up and e-mailed them to myself (how staggeringly retarded, but let’s not go on about it here) and that seemed to work.
By 1pm, Dja suggested it was too late for me to head to the border today. I’m still tremendously (and uncharacteristically) tired and so I elected to head to Algeria on Monday instead. The ferry didn’t go back to Italy until Tuesday anyway… so what difference would it make?
Ah, well, we’ll come to that on Sunday, shall we?
That night Dja and Claire invited a bunch of their friends around and we all celebrated Mohammed’s birthday (fellow Piscean, I guess) like the Pagans we are by getting really quite fantastically drunk. So much so that I very nearly wound up getting myself arrested again by running into Dja’s flat and attempting to hide under the sofa when a policeman shouted at us in the street. Hee.
Tunisia is undoubtedly the most accessible Muslim country in the world. Morocco’s borders with Algeria are closed, and there’s a checkpoint every ten minutes through Western Sahara. Egypt requires a visa (humph) and although the Jordanian visa is free for Brits on arrival from Egypt, good luck with trying to near its borders with Saudi or Iraq. Even Turkey’s borders aren’t all open, the Armenian one has been shut to Westerners since forever. Meanwhile, plucky little Tunisia, sandwiched between unhappy giants Libya and Algeria offers a window on the culture of the area that could lead people to believe that it was almost liberal or permissive, which I’m sorry to report it isn’t. Human rights here are a joke, and women (especially western women) are still regarded as nasty little creatures which only exist to torment the otherwise pious and pure minds of the menfolk. Free and fair elections are as in the hazy, ill-defined future as the hydrogen fuel cell engine i.e., it’s never going to happen. Even YouTube is banned lest people slag off el presidente (who – AS USUAL – is beyond all worldly criticism).
Burned into my memory of Africa is a bumper sticker that I saw in Nigeria saying ‘Only God Can Judge Me’. Oh great, well do what you like then, you arrogant sod – murder, steal, rape, lie, cheat and scandalise because our human courts are obviously a figment of your stupid, religion-addled imagination.
Welcome to Africa, peeps. Checking the Islamic calendar, it says that it’s 1431. That’d be around right… absolutism, the ancien regime, the divine right of kings, the putting to death of ‘witches’ etc etc. The fifteenth century is alive and well and living in this, the crossroads of Africa and the Middle East. No wonder Algeria and Libya make it so hard for us plucky adventurers to pay them a visit. But I’ll talk more about Libya (it is, I’m sorry to say, a pitifully hilarious place) tomorrow.
Today’s mission was to shake the hangover from my head and get as close to the Libyan border as humanly possible. After managing to lose one of my phones (damnit), Dja and I headed over to the train station and I nabbed a ticket for Gabès, the railhead not too far from the border with Libya. The journey was uneventful and lonely, I settled in with a copy of Sherlock Holmes and around 9pm we had arrived.
I could have pressed on to Ben Guerdane, closer to the border, but I decided to stop for the night. After being ripped off by a taxi driver who drove me around the block, I found a hotel that my brother Mike had texted me the address of (Gabès is too insignificant to merit a mention in the Lonely Planet), but it was full. I ambled down the road to the next one on the list, and it seemed decent enough for the price (£4). After checking in, I headed out to find something to eat. No such luck – everything was closed. Not a café, not an inn, not a sausage.
Alone, in a grotty bedroom in the middle of nowhere the seconds counted down to my 31st birthday. I tried calling Mandy in Australia again and again. She didn’t answer. Eventually I gave up, curled up into a ball and wished myself Happy Birthday.
Rising at 6am to crack on to the border, it is with tremendous chagrin that I must report the minibus to Ben Guerdane did not leave until just after 8am. But to cheer me up on the way to the ‘Gare Routiere’, a gentlemen who was setting up his market stall at the side of the road came running over to me saying that he knew me. This is a typical ploy in this part of the world (especially Egypt), but no, he did actually recognise me – “you’re the guy who’s been to 142 countries!” he said as he shook my hand.
But, er, how….?
“You were on television yesterday, on the news, I saw you!” The interview I did for the French news agency last Monday must have got around. Well, that put a spring in my step. I sat waiting for the damn minibus to leave (only when it’s full!) and woke myself up with a coffee. I eventually got to the Libyan border at 11am, two hours late – a little embarrassing for Mr. Time-And-Motion over here as I was to meet my guide and, I was later to discover, he had been waiting for hours.
Now I explained in the blog entry “Groundhog Day” about Colonel Gaddafi banning all Europeans from entering his pleasant little dictatorship, but did I also mention that even if you’re British, American or Australian and you get a visa, you still have to have a ‘guide’ to accompany you everywhere? Why? Because apparently otherwise us Westerners will steal stuff.
I mean, what?
Where does Gaddafi get off accusing me of being a thief? The fact that he’s been systematically stealing BILLIONS of dollars from his own country since 1969 doesn’t seem to phase him. Oh well, I guess only God can judge him and all that crap. Well, I’m quite judgemental myself and I (like most Libyans) will be more than happy to see the nasty old tyrant drop dead. However, since the guy is an absolutist monarch (quick note to fascist dictatorships around the world – adding the worlds ‘democratic’ and ‘people’s’ to the name of your country isn’t fooling anybody, you know) his son is probably going to succeed him – the usual case with long-serving Nazis such as Fidel Castro (succeeded by his billionaire brother) and Omar Bongo (succeeded by his billionaire son) – in elections which nobody in their right minds would regard as ‘free’ or ‘fair’.
Luckily for me, my guide was a really nice chap. I’m not going to tell you his name, as this blog entry is going to be tremendously critical of Gaddafi and I don’t want my guide getting into trouble.
With my Arabic Translation in my passport, and the promise I was going to pick up my visa on the other side, the Tunisian border guards (them who had given me a flat ‘interdit!’ last May) stamped me out and waved me through. Made me think I should have pretended I was meeting a guide last year and got over the border line, just a few meters away…
In… into Fortress Libya. I had finally, FINALLY, made it into country 143 (it should have been country 67)
It had taken me a month to get here, but here I was in Libya, on my third attempt. I met my guide on the Libyan side and he got me through the formalities amazingly quick. He then took me for a drive inside Libya. Since I was already over the border and it would not be helping me along the way, I was happy to explore the place that had cost me hundreds of pounds to step foot in.
And what is there to report? Libya is remarkably similar to every other North African/Middle Eastern country; you don’t see too many women out and about, the food isn’t great and it’s not exactly a land flowing with milk and honey (that would be Britain, if you think about it), it’s more of a big fat desert with a bunch of concrete hovels lining the road. Nice! I would desperately like to visit Leptus Magna and see the Roman ruins, but there’s no time on this trip, so I had to make do with a little kebab and (yes it IS everywhere!) a bottle of Coke in the town of Zuara.
Once inside the borders, the security was not too strict, and I didn’t feel the oppressive hand of the so-called security services that one encounters far too often in West and Central Africa. Green flags fluttered everywhere (great design guys!) the irony of this being one of the least ‘green’ states on the planet is, I’m sure not lost on you.
My guide was sad that I wasn’t staying longer. With the embargo against European travellers, thousands of people involved in the nascent tourist industry here are now out of work. But does Gaddafi give a damn? Nah, he’s too busy playing goofy political games. The Libyan people are stuck in a 1984-esque nightmare in which they are constantly told that they are in power, that they have a say in the future of their country, only to be beaten down by that iron boot if they – shock horror – dare question the wisdom of their crazy unelected leader.
Of course, Gaddafi has always been as mad a bottle of badgers. In the 1970s, he spent a few days in the desert and wrote his infamous ‘Little Green Book’, possibly a companion piece to Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ and Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’. You think that a little unfair? Well it’s not. They were all mad fascist dictators with a messiah complex and all wrote a book saying how they think people should act. Self-help books written by psychotic nutcases! Great! What next? Cooking with Stalin? Dog Grooming by Pol Pot? Flower Arranging by Idi Amin?
Hold me back.
Why the hell are people like this still in power? Is it just me that thinks that a seat in the UN should be aspirational, not a catch-all for every government on Earth, be it a fascist hellhole, a narco-state, a kleptocracy or (in the case of Somalia) a figment of someone’s overactive imagination. Membership of the UN shouldn’t be an automatic given, it should be earned, through peace, democracy, freedom of the press and free and fair elections.
Or if you want every damn sovereign state in the UN, lets have a points system in which truly democratic states are rewarded with greater voting power (ie. Britain gets 100 points, Guinea gets 1) on resolutions – this would do away with the need for the security council, as no nutbag dictatorships would get much of a say in anything anyway.
This would help the domestic opposition’s cause… at the moment, what incentive is there for your typical camouflage-clad Aviator-wearing African Fascist to clean up his act? NONE WHATSOEVER. They have oil, or gold, or coltan, or diamonds. As long as the rest of the world needs the commodities that they control, the rest of the world can go to hell. As a matter of fact, so can their own tiresome populations. UN sanctions? Bring them on! They only end up killing the hoi polloi and 99% of those loooosers are not needed for the extraction of commodity A or B anyway, so wot me worry?
Sadly, this is the case in more countries than I care to mention, Libya just being one of them. Imagine an entire population – Zimbabwe is a good example – waiting for one man to die so they can be free. You think they’ll erect statues to Mugabe? They’ll be queuing up to spit on his corpse. You want to be great? You want to go down in history as a hero? A leader of men? Stop looking at your own bank balance and look to the happiness of the people you claim to represent. If you’re in charge of a sullen land (Mr. Brown) you might – just might – be doing something wrong.
After lunch, we drove back to Tunisia, past the lagoon and out of Gaddafi’s sandbox adventure. My guide was good enough to take me back to Ben Guerdane, leaving me at the shared-minibus station. I said my goodbyes and if I ever return to Libya (if they let me after I post this entry!) I’ll be giving him a bell. If anyone reading this fancies a bit of a desert safari through the realm of Tripolitania, get in touch with me – this guy will get you through the border quick smart and he won’t rip you off.
Did I mention it’s my birthday today? Maybe I should’ve. I was hoping to get back to Tunis for about 10pm, and have a few celebratory drinks with Dja, Claire and their mates. But hope doesn’t set you free, carving a hole behind your poster of Rita Heyworth with a rock hammer will set you free and today my rock hammer was out of order.
It was midnight before I returned, too late for Dja and Claire’s mates to be out on a school night. But we made the most of it, I had a few beers and settled down for bed at around 2am. I had conquered one of the forbidden kingdoms, I had to be up early in the morning for Fortress Algeria…
Interestingly, I’ve now spent a birthday in Europe (25), America (1), Asia (2), Australia (2) and Africa (1). Do I win a fiver?