Day 661: The People’s Republic of Spock

23.10.10:

I had purchased a AC ticket for the ferry to The Philippines.  I didn’t really know what the difference would be, but after sleeping in cockroach central on the way from Jakarta to Pontianak, I had no intention of repeating the experience.  Happily, the Tim Marine ship from Sandakan to Zamboanga was nowhere near as bad and at least a million times more fun.

As on the ferry from Pulau Batam to Jakarta, I shared a large-ish cabin (only this one had bunk beds) with about forty or fifty other people.  It was a nice communal atmosphere and everyone who spoke a bit of English was happy to sit and have a chat with me, amongst them was a guy called Zakaria who was the Secretary General of the Foreign Relation Office of the Sultanate of Sulu.

Where’s that eh?  Next to the Kingdom of Kirk and the People’s Republic of Spock?

Ah yes – I should explain, the Sultanate of Sulu hasn’t been invented yet.

Zakaria was keen for me to read the declaration document which will be presented on November 17th 2010 in which the islands of Sulu (the currently Filipino-owned islands which stretch from Borneo to Mindanao) stake their case for becoming a new and independent nation.  Yup, if Kosovo or South Sudan doesn’t get there first, the islands of Sulu are hoping to be the 193rd member of the UN.

Should I worry?  Should I head out to the Sulu islands just in case it becomes a nation before I finish The Odyssey?

Nah.  First up – MUCH too dangerous.  Secondly, if it is going to happen, it won’t for a long time.  A few reasons (which Zakaria and I discussed)…

1. The Philippines are unlikely to give up an oil-rich region of their sovereign territory without a fight.

2. The document that Zakaria gave me says they want to set up a Sultanate, not a democracy: a tough sell, even to the UN.

3. The document also says that they want to enforce sharia law over the inhabitants of the Sulu islands.  As a sizeable minority of Sulu islanders are Christian or animists, another tough sell.

4. The separatist rebels of Mindanao and Sulu have been committing terrorist acts for decades now.  This will not warm any civilised nation to their cause.  The fact that The Philippines government can (somewhat justifiably) argue that they are fighting ‘terrorism’, the ball will be in their court.

The Sulu separatists are, sensibly, dropping the rest of Mindanao from their vision, as Mindanao has been ‘colonised’ by too many Filipino Christians for it to make sense as a Muslim state (I love the assumption that the Christians are the usurpers and the Muslims have been there since the beginning of time… I think there are some animist tribes that may well have a chuckle at that one).

Independence struggles that involve the protagonists murdering innocent civilians hardly (if ever) work in this day and age: just ask Hamas, Eta or the IRA – the national governments tend to just dig their heels in.  Yes, some African nations think they bought their freedom in blood, but in the general sweep of history I would have been amazed if after Portugal had gotten rid of the tyrant Salazar and then kept hold of their colonies, especially since by 1975 pretty much every other European power had already given theirs up: India, the jewel of the British Empire, was granted independence because of a elderly lawyer in a nappy who explicitly preached non-violence.

Generally speaking, your best bet is to reign in the hot-heads, deliver a compelling case for independence (which I do think Sulu has – historically and since The Philippines government is riddled with corruption) and – as I suggested to Zakaria – add the word ‘peace’ to their movement’s name – AND MEAN IT.

Zakaria told me that he was hopeful that Sulu would be a full independent state within two years.  Given that it takes a good seven years for a western nation to prepare for the Olympics, and that the UN have been pottering around Western Sahara for the past nineteen years doing a hell of a lot of nothing, my thinking is that it’ll take a heap big longer time than that.

But, you know, Zakaria wasn’t a loony, he handled my difficult questions well, and he was obviously sincere in his belief in a better future for Sulu.  I just wish that he wasn’t doing it for all the wrong reasons: the last thing this world needs is yet another nation in which the church and state are inseparably and inexorably entwined.  Any church, for that matter – but particularly the one which Zakaria is a member of: one in which unfairness, sexual discrimination and intolerance of beer, dancing, kissing, pre-marital sex, homosexuality and apostates (not to mention brutal penalties for offenders) is coded in a seventh-century law that can never be amended.

Not exactly propelling the human race forwards to utopia is it?  Well, not one that I fancy being part of.

Anyway, after all that dry politics I was in the mood for some nice wet beer.  I entered the canteen/karaoke bar and the Filipinos on board (and pretty much everybody was Filipino) just wanted to do what Filipinos do best: attempt to get me drunk.  And hurrah for that!

The San Miguel following like warm frothy waterfalls, I soon joined in with the spirit of things (my collective noun for Filipinos is a ‘Karaoke’) and began warbling some half-remembered tune.  The microphone had broken by this point, but that wasn’t going to stop me.  The afternoon was given over to Bacchus as we sung to the sirens, drifting imperceptibly towards the forbidden island of Mindanao, borne on Neptune’s wake.  Or, in other words, beer and karaoke, yeah!

By the time we arrived in Zamboanga at 11pm, I had lost all apprehension of Mindanao, lousy reputation notwithstanding, and the concept of spending the next two days cowering in my hotel room seemed not just cowardly but a trifle bizarre.  Off the boat I was shepherded by a group of passengers who were working doing PR for a soap company, and one of their brood, a transsexual called Jenn, chaperoned me to my hotel ($7 a night and a room the size of a shoebox) and then we went out for a drink in one of the marvellous tuk-tuks they have here, which are a motorbike and sidecar-type that I’ve never seen before.  Unfortunately, a government imposed rule that nobody could drink alcohol the next day (there’s a local election on Monday) meant that from midnight all drinkies were off.

I didn’t mind so much – after all that San Miguel and karaoke this afternoon, I was having trouble keeping my eyes open.  I headed back to my hotel and got my head down for the night, happy in the knowledge that I was now in NATION NUMBER 182: THE PHILIPPINES!!

And to think… THREE WEEKS AGO TODAY I WAS IN SHANGHAI…!

In just three weeks, the time I was stuck in Gabon, the time I was stuck in Comoros and less than half the time I was stuck in Cape Verde or Kuwait I have made it over land and sea to Taiwan, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, Burma, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei and The Philippines.  No wonder I was so tired.

That’s 182 countries down, 18 to go – but every single one of them is an island which I can only attack from the sea.  If I get to the next 11 countries in less than three MONTHS, I’ll be doing well.  Here goes nuthin’…

Day 662: Surviving Zamboanga

24.10.10:

After a (much needed) lie-in I head out to the park ‘Jardin Maria Clare Lobregat’ with Jenn, safe in the knowledge that ladyboys to Muslim fundamentalists are like garlic to vampires.  Maria Clare Lobregat was the previous and (seemingly very popular) mayor of Zamboanga and this delightful park, filled with birds and butterflies, was built in her memory.

Funny – here’s me expecting Beirut in the 1980s.  However, all is not sweetness and light – there are parts of Zamboanga that I was told – in no uncertain terms – I was ill-advised to visit, but we stayed away from them in the same way that you’d stay away from Scunthorpe if you ever visited Britain.  Easy.

Jenn’s dream is to move to Thailand.  She currently works in Malaysia and gets on with most people there, except for the few who call her haram and ask her to leave the house.  I asked if she’d ever pulled a Crying Game on someone, but she said that she’s too honest.

Later we headed down to the waterfront where there are loads of cafes and bars (sadly none serving alcohol today).  There’s a stage for concerts and a large outdoor cinema screen for films.  Cool!  There we met up with some of Jenn’s mates.  I’ve met loads of Filipinos already on my travels, especially on the many boat journeys I’ve been on and they have to be some of my favourite people in the world – always ready to smile and laugh and everybody just seems so damn happy to see me.

Later on that evening, we were having a coffee when Jenn told me that the current mayor of Zamboanga – Marie Clare Lobregat’s son, Celso, was sitting on the table behind us.  Jenn introduced us and Celso and I had a good chat about Zam and he introduced me to most of the top brass of the local government who he was having coffee with.  Can’t be too bad of a place if here are all the city councillors out having a drink in the open.  I somehow couldn’t imagine the top brass of Detroit doing the same.

So to sum up my weekend: Friday: Orang-Utans, Saturday: Muslim fundamentalists, Sunday: Ladyboys.  Shame we didn’t all meet up in the same place, it would have made one hell of a tea-party.

Day 663: And The World Will Be Better For This

25.10.10:

I was woken by Jenn knocking on my hotel room door at 7.25am.  It was time to go.  We grabbed some breakie in the Chowking restaurant downstairs and then headed out to the ferry office to buy my return ticket to Borneo – this time I thought I’d splash out and get a berth in a four-person cabin.  The ship was due to leave at midday, so we had time to go to the supermarket and grab some supplies (wet-wipes, mainly) and then it was down to the docks through the surprisingly cheerful mean-streets of Zamboanga.

I said my fond farewells to Jenn and thanked her for looking after me all weekend (although do I shake her hand or give her a kiss?).  I wished her the best of luck getting to Thailand and promised to give her a shout next time I’m in town.

Leaving Philippines I was more than a little miffed that I didn’t have the time nor resources to make it to Manilla.  Cramped into that tiny Zamboanga hotel ‘room’ (‘slot’ would be a more accurate noun) and having to suffer a trickle of cold water on my head as some lame excuse for a shower whilst staring forlornly at the seatless, broken communal toilet mere inches away from my bare feet, I couldn’t help but kick myself: a very very nice person who works for a major casino company here in The Philippines had offered me a free couch if I stayed in the capital… only I could have stood up from this particular couch, glided across my massive room in my complimentary bathrobe, sipping a G&T from the minibar, and flung my weary body onto the KING-SIZE BED that awaited me in a FIVE-STAR HOTEL… had I been able to take her up on the offer.

Ack!  But The Quest, The Glorious Quest…

These windmills aren’t going to tilt at themselves, you know.

If I’m getting a little bit of Don Quixote complex, it’s because these last eighteen countries I need to visit are going to be nigh on impossible: borders drawn across continents by man are much easier to traverse than ones drawn across the ocean by nature: all of the final eighteen countries are islands or parts of islands, and since day sixteen, islands (together with visas) have proven the bane of The Odyssey.

With the lure of cheap plane rides knocking out any chance of a ferry service, attempting to get around this planet on ships has been a nightmare: the Caribbean took two months longer to complete than it should have, my infamous trip to Cape Verde ended in disaster and me being stuck there for over six weeks.  Getting to Sao Tome and back cost me three weeks and I left Mauritius on 1st November 2009 and didn’t arrive back in Africa until 17th December.

And I still haven’t been to the infernal Seychelles!

This year I was trapped in Dubai for a month waiting for a ship, I tried to get to Sri Lanka from India, but after wasting two weeks India was having none of it, and that scuppered my plans for getting to the Maldives as well.

I’ve timed my entrance into Oceania perfectly to coincide with the summer cyclone season which runs until next May, so that even if I do find a well-meaning skipper he or she wouldn’t be able to take me to any of the TWELVE Pacific Island States even if they wanted to.

My only choices at this point are cargo ships and cruise liners.  It’s going to take a lot of time and a helluva lot of patience.  If you think I might get this finished this year, you’re sadly mistaken.  If I make it to the Solomon Islands by Christmas I’ll be doing well.

Look at the stats for this year:

Countries visited per month (2010)

Jan: 9

Feb: 1

Mar: 7

Apr: 5

May: 4

Jun: 2

Jul: 0

Aug: 6

Sept: 4

Oct: 11

Total: 49

And most of that was OVERLAND.  Even if I somehow keep up this rather dismal average of five countries a month (last year it was eleven), it’s still going to take four more months to do this: but I’m steeling myself for it to take much longer than that.  At this rate I’ll be hitting country 200 around the time the last Harry Potter film gets released.

Then you’ll have to find somebody else’s tedious blog to read 😉

The ship back to Borneo was the same one I arrived on, but going back it was all but empty.  It turns out that the people on the top deck who were sectioned off from the rest of us (I regrettably made a joke about them being the Irish third class passengers on The Titanic) were all being deported back to The Philippines after being caught working illegally in Malaysia.

Disturbingly, some of them had spent up to a year in jail before being sent home.

But the lack of return passengers did have one positive outcome: I didn’t have to share my cabin with anyone.

The karaoke machine fixed I spent the evening drinking, singing and laughing with the zany and oh-so-Filipino crew.  What a great bunch of lads and girls.  Although after this weekend, I’m having trouble deciding which is which…

Day 664: Return To Sanda

26.10.10:

It was early afternoon before the ship pulled into Sandakan.  I’m now going to be backtracking over the exact route I took last week, so if you like you can just read those blogs again but backwards.

At the taxi rank outside the port a woman overheard me asking the cab drivers how much it would be to the bus station and, since she was going the same way, suggested that we share a taxi.  This unfortunately required a short fight with the drivers.  Not only do the taxis in Malaysia not have meters (SO annoying) these guys were insisting that we took separate cabs.  Seriously – what is this?  Saudi?

Eventually they relented.  It was about half three by the time I got to the bus station and I was left with two options:

I could get on the 4.30pm bus back to Kota Kinabalu and arrive at 11pm tonight, or I could head into Sandakan town, sit in a café for a few hours and get the overnight bus later on.  The lure of a hot shower and a cool bed in KK drew me to take the four thirty option.

Annoyingly The bus didn’t leave until about 6pm and the driver must have been a cousin of the one I had last week across Sarawak – he drove like an utter t—, gunning it around the winding jungle roads (dark, no streetlights) and overtaking trucks on blind turns.

Frazzled and weary, it wasn’t until 1am before I checked into the KK backpackers and it was 2am before I had updated the website and uploaded a blog or two.  Since I had to be up at half six, I thought it best that this point to hit the hay.  You’ll just have to wait.

Day 665: The Battle of Brunei II

27.10.10:

Urgh, I thought as my mobile blipped my alarm: not again.  Today’s mission – very much like last Wednesday’s, was to make it through bloody great boring Brunei.  By 7.30am I was down at the port for the ferry to Palau Labuan.  By 11.30am it had arrived.  The next boat to Brunei was at 12 noon, so I just had time to rush out, fill my boots with Nasi Goreng (spicy fried rice with chicken and eggs – it’s the best food around these parts).

By 1.30pm I was back in Brunei getting stamped back in.  A taxi driver outside the port told me that the last bus for Miri in Sarawak, Malaysia left at 2.30pm, which gave me an hour to get from port Muara to the capital.

Ha!

The bus to BSB took AGES to get there: it was 2.50pm before I arrived.  But not to worry too much – the taxi driver was lying (presumably to be me into his cab).  This being Brunei, the last bus to Miri left at 1pm.  The fact that the corresponding bus from Miri leaves at 4pm left me completely bewildered.

So let me get this straight: if you want to leave Brunei for the neighbouring state of Sarawak on any given day (the border is TWO HOURS AWAY), and it’s after 1pm and you don’t have a car YOU HAVE TO FLY??

Seriously?

I mean, come on, for Christ’s sake, this is one of the richest countries in the world, and it’s got the transport infrastructure of the Democratic Republic of Congo.  Actually: I’m beginning to see a pattern emerge here.  It would explain why public transport in America and the UK is so lousy.  Chart the per capita GDP against the quality of public transportation and something funny happens: you get a bell curve. That makes sense: Liechtenstein’s public transport sucks.  So does Andorra’s.  And San Marino’s.

I staggered into the Tourist Information bureau to ask about buses.  As Brunei was a British Protectorate until it (reluctantly) gained independence in 1984, I kinda expected a) the girl behind the counter to speak English and b) know something about the one or two public transport buses that leave the city each day.

Both assumptions were hopelessly over-optimistic and I was left badgering the surly public bus centre staff to help me out.  There was a bus leaving for Seria in the west of Brunei at 3.05pm: it was going in the right direction, so I go on it.

After another ponderous journey filled with U-turns, diversions, ‘scenic routes’ past the oil refineries etc, I arrived at Seria and changed for a even-more bus to the next town along Kuala Belait (known as KB to its friends).  I just had time to grab a Coke and have a quick chat with the shop keeper (from Kollam in Kerala, as it happens) before the bus pulled out of the station.  It was now 5pm.

I arrived in KB and it was getting dark, the journey had again taken me all around the houses.  Even though the border was just a few miles away, there was no public transport whatsoever.  In a mirror of last weeks shenanigans from Miri to the border, the taxi driver wanted twenty-five quid.  I managed to haggle him down to fifteen, but still, fifteen bloody quid to go less than ten miles in a country where petrol costs 20 pence a litre??

Daylight robbery.  But as the cheapest hotel in KB was fifty quid a night, I didn’t have much of a choice.  We raced towards the setting sun and about fifteen minutes later I was at the border.

And so was a coach.

“Where’s that going?”

“Pontianak.”

“WHAT??!”

“Pontianak.  It leaves Bandar every day at 4pm.”

“There’s a direct bus to Pontianak, the place I need to get to on the Indonesian side of the island, from BSB?”

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARGH!!!!!

This is exactly the moment where, if I had the power, I would rip my Lonely Planet in two and feed it to the dogs.

WHY DIDN’T YOU TELL ME?????????????????

I asked the bus driver how much it would be to climb aboard.  Forty quid.  WHY I JUST PAID FIFTEEN TO GO A COUPLE OF MILES DOWN THE ROAD I’LL NEVER KNOW.

I paid my dues in mixture of Brunei dollars, Malaysian Ringgit and Indonesian Rupiah.

“Get me the hell out of here.”

Day 666: Such a Chill

28.10.10:

I awoke with my teeth chattering like I was camping naked under the stars in Svalbard: my jumper, jeans, waistcoat, sleeping-bag AND blanket were not enough to shield me from the searing frigidity of the air conditioning on this bus.  I mean, I’ve been on buses where the driver has had the same homeostatic malfunction that allows fat orange girls from Newcastle to go out in a blizzard wearing little more than a piece of dental floss, but this was just nuts.

I tried to get him to turn it down, but he just laughed and ignored me.  Was I the only one suffering?  Would I be the first person to die of hypothermia in the history of Borneo?  Everyone else looked just as frozen to death as me, but they seemed to be taking it in their stride.  One guy was wearing a woolly hat.

Imagine: A WOOLLY HAT.  In BORNEO.  A place that hasn’t known winter for MILLIONS OF YEARS.  Where did he buy it?  On the top of Mount Kinabalu?  More unpleasant journeys I have had on this adventure for a smorgasbord of reasons, but generally the unpleasantness ends once I reach my destination.

But it wasn’t all bad: the bus got me through Malaysian Sarawak and into the Kalimantan state of Indonesia.  The rumours were true: you CAN buy a visa on the border (which is what I did eight years ago and what I did again today) By about 2pm we were pulling into Pontianak.  I hoped there was a ferry leaving tonight for Jakarta, Pontianak isn’t the most pleasant place in the world to spend a lonely evening.

I went to the Prima Vista ferry agents.  They had nothing for Jakarta until Saturday.  This was a kick in the balls as my good chum Anna is now waiting for me in Bali and I hate to leave a lady waiting.  However, there was another option: a ferry to Semarang, which is also on the island of Java, left tomorrow at noon.  A lonely night in Pontianak then.

I was a bit short on readies for the ticket, so I walked down the block to find a money changer.  I asked in a travel agents but they didn’t change money.  Then I spotted on their departure schedule a ship leaving for Jakarta today at 8pm

“Jakarta?”

“Jakarta.”

“Eight o’clock?”

“Eight o’clock.”

And in my best Mr. Burns impression: “Ex-cellent.”

My wish granted, I bought my ticket and headed back to the main strip.  I returned to the Meck World café I had drank a copious number of smoothies last week, logged onto their wifi, rang Mandy via Skype and started throwing more blogs at the website.  That’s the problem with blogs: you can never get them done in time.  At 6.30 I thought it was high time to head to the port when Mand reminded me about something: East frickin’ Timor.

Last December in the minibus up to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, I was with a lovely Spanish couple called Asier and Silvia.  They, like me and like Chiefy, the Oz-Buses people and PRETTY MUCH EVERYONE I MEET were trying to get around as much of the world as they can without flying (travel agents and ferry companies take note: this seems to be a trend).  Asier wrote to me the other day warning me that a couple of months ago, East Timor had changed its visa regulations.  You couldn’t just get a visa on arrival anymore, unless you arrived on a ship.

Must be all the British refugees clogging up the streets.

So, anyway, get this: in a fit of red-tapery that would make India blush, if you want a visa on arrival you have to ask for it ten days before you get there.  All being well, I should be arriving there on 8th November, so I need to get my application in.

The procedure is the most retarded system imaginable.  You have to fill out a three-page fillable pdf, print it where you are (you can’t save it for later), staple a picture of yourself to the first page, sign the third page and then scan the pages and email the scans to them using the contact form on their website.

Only you can’t upload more than two files with your application.  And the document is three pages.  And no, you can’t zip it – unaccepted format.  So when I was in The Philippines I emailed the form to them using their ‘alternative’ email address.  That was on Sunday.  It was now Thursday and I hadn’t heard anything back from them and was beginning to worry: the last part of this journey is going to take long enough with me faffing about for two weeks in West Timor.

So quickly – or as quickly as this CRAPPY SONY LAPTOP will allow – I attempted to resubmit the pdf scans, this time using their forms.  I tried to put the three pages together using Word, but it didn’t like that format either, so I made a pdf document and uploaded that.  Watching the little grey percentage rise on Google Chrome was like watching the hour hand of a broken clock.

Eventually the file was uploaded, but FILE SIZE EXCEEDED.

No, seriously, the file was like 2Mb, and on the ‘attach file’ bit of the East FRICKIN’ Timor it said (in Comic Sans as if to add insult to injury) ‘5Mb limit’.  So then I fired up Photoshop, put two scans on one A4 page and one on a second A4 page, saved them as the lowest quality jpeg possible and uploaded the two files together.

I think.

I hope.

By this time it was 7.30pm, my boat left in half an hour and I needed a poo.

This was not good.  I used the loo in Meck World, but to my horror it was a squatter.  I had no choice.  Given the quality of the toilet facilities on every boat I’ve been on in this region so far, this was my best bet.  So I squatted.  Damn these nasty nasty things.  Wetwipes usually minimise the time it takes to go the bog, but in this case it made no difference.  I made the fatal mistake of nipping off the last log a fraction of a second too early, the result of which a bit like having a big brown Crayola crayon hiding up your bum, no matter how much you wipe, you can never draw the ace.  GOD I HATE SQUATTERS.  DAMN THEM.  DAMN THEM ALL TO HELL.  It took me a good five minutes and an entire pack of wetwipes to get my nipsy up to my up to my exacting standards, hunched down in that unholy position, my legs killing me and my balance askew.

By now it was 7.40pm.  I legged it out of Meck World and tried to find a moto-taxi, but there was none – there were HUNDREDS of motorbikes, but none of them were taxis.  I ended up having to run to the port, cursing East frickin’ Timor, cursing the stupid French f— who invented squatters and cursing Pontianak for not having enough moto-taxis.

I got to the port at 7.55pm.  By now I’m sure you already know the punchline:

The ship didn’t leave…

Until FIVE IN THE MORNING…!!

WAKKA-WAKKA-Bum-diddly-um-pum-dum-DAAAAAAAAR!!!!!

I awoke with my teeth chattering like I was camping naked under the stars in Svalbard: my jumper, jeans, waistcoat, sleeping-bag AND blanket were not enough to shield me from the searing frigidity of the air conditioning on this bus. I mean, I’ve been on buses where the driver has had the same homeostatic malfunction that allows fat orange girls from Newcastle to go out in a blizzard wearing little more than a piece of dental floss, but this was just nuts.

I tried to get him to turn it down, but he just laughed and ignored me. Was I the only one suffering? Would I be the first person to die of hypothermia in the history of Borneo? Everyone else looked just as frozen to death as me, but they seemed to be taking it in their stride. One guy was wearing a woolly hat.

Imagine: A WOOLLY HAT. In BORNEO. A place that hasn’t known winter for MILLIONS OF YEARS. Where did he buy it? On the top of Mount Kinabalu? More unpleasant journeys I have had on this adventure for a smorgasbord of reasons, but generally the unpleasantness ends once I reach my destination.

But it wasn’t all bad: the bus got me through Malaysian Sarawak and into the Kalimantan state of Indonesia. The rumours were true: you CAN buy a visa on the border (which is what I did eight years ago and what I did again today) By about 2pm we were pulling into Pontianak. I hoped there was a ferry leaving tonight for Jakarta, Pontianak isn’t the most pleasant place in the world to spend a lonely evening.

I went to the Prima Vista ferry agents. They had nothing for Jakarta until Saturday. This was a kick in the balls as my good chum Anna is now waiting for me in Bali and I hate to leave a lady waiting. However, there was another option: a ferry to Semarang, which is also on the island of Java, left tomorrow at noon. A lonely night in Pontianak then.

I was a bit short on readies for the ticket, so I walked down the block to find a money changer. I asked in a travel agents but they didn’t change money. Then I spotted on their departure schedule a ship leaving for Jakarta today at 8pm

“Jakarta?”

“Jakarta.”

“Eight o’clock?”

“Eight o’clock.”

And in my best Mr. Burns impression: “Ex-cellent.”

My wish granted, I bought my ticket and headed back to the main strip. I returned to the Meck World café I had drank a copious number of smoothies last week, logged onto their wifi, rang Mandy via Skype and started throwing more blogs at the website. That’s the problem with blogs: you can never get them done in time. At 6.30 I thought it was high time to head to the port when Mand reminded me about something: East frickin’ Timor.

Last December in the minibus up to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, I was with a lovely Spanish couple called Asier and Silvia. They, like me and like Chiefy, the Oz-Buses people and PRETTY MUCH EVERYONE I MEET were trying to get around as much of the world as they can without flying (travel agents and ferry companies take note: this seems to be a trend). Asier wrote to me the other day warning me that a couple of months ago, East Timor had changed its visa regulations. You couldn’t just get a visa on arrival anymore, unless you arrived on a ship.

Must be all the British refugees clogging up the streets.

So, anyway, get this: in a fit of red-tapery that would make India blush, if you want a visa on arrival you have to ask for it ten days before you get there. All being well, I should be arriving there on 8th November, so I need to get my application in.

The procedure is the most retarded system imaginable. You have to fill out a three-page fillable pdf, print it where you are (you can’t save it for later), staple a picture of yourself to the first page, sign the third page and then scan the pages and email the scans to them using the contact form on their website.

Only you can’t upload more than two files with your application. And the document is three pages. And no, you can’t zip it – unaccepted format. So when I was in The Philippines I emailed the form to them using their ‘alternative’ email address. That was on Sunday. It was now Thursday and I hadn’t heard anything back from them and was beginning to worry: the last part of this journey is going to take long enough with me faffing about for two weeks in West Timor.

So quickly – or as quickly as this CRAPPY SONY LAPTOP will allow – I attempted to resubmit the pdf scans, this time using their forms. I tried to put the three pages together using Word, but it didn’t like that format either, so I made a pdf document and uploaded that. Watching the little grey percentage rise on Google Chrome was like watching the hour hand of a broken clock.

Eventually the file was uploaded, but FILE SIZE EXCEEDED.

No, seriously, the file was like 2Mb, and on the ‘attach file’ bit of the East FRICKIN’ Timor it said (in Comic Sans as if to add insult to injury) ‘5Mb limit’. So then I fired up Photoshop, put two scans on one A4 page and one on a second A4 page, saved them as the lowest quality jpeg possible and uploaded the two files together.

I think.

I hope.

By this time it was 7.30pm, my boat left in half an hour and I needed a poo.

This was not good. I used the loo in Meck World, but to my horror it was a squatter. I had no choice. Given the quality of the toilet facilities on every boat I’ve been on in this region so far, this was my best bet. So I squatted. Damn these nasty nasty things. Wetwipes usually minimise the time it takes to go the bog, but in this case it made no difference. I made the fatal mistake of nipping off the last log a fraction of a second too early, the result of which a bit like having a big brown Crayola crayon hiding up your bum, no matter how much you wipe, you can never draw the ace. GOD I HATE SQUATTERS. DAMN THEM. DAMN THEM ALL TO HELL. It took me a good five minutes and an entire pack of wetwipes to get my nipsy up to my up to my exacting standards, hunched down in that unholy position, my legs killing me and my balance askew.

By now it was 7.40pm. I legged it out of Meck World and tried to find a moto-taxi, but there was none – there were HUNDREDS of motorbikes, but none of them were taxis. I ended up having to run to the port, cursing East frickin’ Timor, cursing the stupid French f— who invented squatters and cursing Pontianak for not having enough moto-taxis.

I got to the port at 7.55pm. By now I’m sure you already know the punchline:

The ship didn’t leave…

Until FIVE IN THE MORNING…!!

WAKKA-WAKKA-Bum-diddly-um-pum-dum-DAAAAAAAAR!!!!!

Day 667: Captain Bob

29.10.10:

So last night I arrived onboard the ferry from Pontianak on Borneo to Jakarta on Java.  As I entered the passenger area, what could adequately be described as a floating refugee camp, I started to worry – I really didn’t want to sleep on the dirty metal floor – I mean, I didn’t even have a flattened cardboard box to lie on.

Er… can I get out of here?

I was kindly shepherded into the crew’s quarters by one of the guys and offered a bunk in a grotty (but eminently serviceable) cabin for about $25. All or nothin’, I haggled it down to $12 and we shook on it.  But when push came to shove, I ended up spending the first night not in that bunk but in the crew’s recreation room sleeping on the incredibly uncomfortable couch.  This morning I was asked if I wanted to move into a cabin of my own, since the crew didn’t want to use the room with a whopping great ranga sprawled out all over the couch.  Hell yeah!

I dumped my things in ‘my’ room and crossed over the corridor onto the bridge.

Mind if I have a look around?

No probs, welcome onboard said the captain.  Captain Natalie.  Yup, for the first time in 22 months and over ninety boat trips*, the captain was a chick; and so was her first officer, Christina.  You know, we think we’re so lightyears ahead when it comes to sexual equality of opportunity in Europe, male-dominated professions like commercial sailing (and taxi driving for that matter) remind me just how far we still have to go.

Sadly, Natalie wasn’t up for doing a filmed interview, but I did get to chat with her about her life on the ocean wave – she was never in the navy and didn’t even come from a sea-faring background – it was just something she wanted to do.  Before taking this job on the ferry from Borneo to Java, she was working on a survey ship for many years up in the waters around Taiwan and Japan.

I spent the day pottering about on and off the bridge, we wouldn’t be arriving in Jakarta until tomorrow.  Really nothing out of the ordinary to report, other than I had a nosebleed.  Mandy’s going to be shocked at that one – in the whole eight years we’ve been together, I’ve never once had a nosebleed.  In fact, I can’t remember when I last had one, but it can’t have been in the last twenty years.

When I mentioned yesterday that most unpleasant journeys end when I get off the bus, I was eluding to the fact the fridge freezer adventure from Brunei to Pontianak may be over, but its effects were most certainly not.  My throat is still killing me (feels like somebody went at it with a cheese grater), my nose is running like a dripping tap – and now to top it all I had a nosebleed, all from that bloody aircon being set to zero degrees Kelvin.  Urgh – hopefully I’ll feel better tomorrow.

*my 93rd (if you’re keeping count!)

Day 668: Back in Jak Jak

30.10.10:

So I was expecting the ferry to arrive in Jakarta this morning.

HA!

Considering the boat was eight hours late getting out of port, I adjusted my expectations accordingly.  But no, we wouldn’t be disembarking til way after 10pm.

Day 669: One Hell of a Halloween

31.10.10:

I left the Mariott with a spring in my step.  I had my book back and I had plenty of time to get to the train station, even considering the gridlock nightmare that is driving in Jakarta.  But there was a problem.  Two weeks ago when I was last here in Jakarta, Barclay’s bank, in their infinite wisdom cancelled my debit card (it would seem I’ve been abroad too long).  After much kerfuffle, I managed to get it unblocked and told them in my best Monty Python voice to never do it again.

So I need to take out money for the train fare this morning, and what happens?  Seven different ATM machines turn me down.  Oh you’ve GOT to be kidding me.  I get to the station and try to pay on Visa, but (of course) they don’t take Visa because THE ONLY PLACES THAT TAKE VISA OUTSIDE THE WEST ARE GOLF COURSES.

So I want to get on wi-fi to call Barclay’s via Skype, but the owners of the station café make me buy a can of Coke before they let me have the password.  They look bemused when I leave the can on the counter as I frantically call up telephone banking.

Here’s the conversation:

Just a couple of security questions, sir… what’s your date of birth?

I gave it.

And what’s your mother’s maiden name?

I gave that too.

I’m sorry, sir, but that information is incorrect.

I roll my eyes – here we go.

No it’s not.  I share the account with my dad – you must be looking at his details.  Seriously – do I sound seventy years old??

I’m sorry sir, but you did not answer the questions correctly.

Yes I did.  You asked for MY date of birth and MY mother’s maiden name.

I then gave them my dad’s DOB and my grandmother’s maiden name for good measure.

I’m sorry sir I can’t help you.

I’m just about to have a nervous breakdown… the train leaves in less than five minutes and this bitch is seriously wrecking my Sunday morning head.  I grow angry and tell her, in no uncertain terms, that it is a joint account and I have every right to conduct telephone banking especially when I’m on the other side of the bleedin’ planet and I need the frickin’ ATM to frickin’ well work.  It’s not my fault if she’s looking at the wrong information screen.

What’s your card number again?

I give it. Again.

Oh.  Sorry, yeah, you’re right.

I hold my tongue, fighting an overwhelming desire to make a childish noise in the manner of the professors from History Today.

What seems to be the problem?

The ATMs here in Jakarta won’t give me any money.

Oh, that’s because all international ATMs are down for servicing. They’ll be back up in an hour.

The train leaves in three minutes.

FOR. F**KS. SAKE.

I run about the station asking if anyone will change my emergency dollars.  A guy in a little phone shop agrees and gives me a lousy rate, but sod it, the seconds are ticking down, I’ve got a date in Bali and I don’t want to keep her waiting another day.  I thrust my newly-acquired Rupiahs at the counter lady and I jump on the train as it is moving out of the station.

Phew!

Big shake on the box-car moving…

The wonderful train journey across the northern coast of Java took me from Jakarta to the eastern port town of Surabaya, but it simply wasn’t eastern enough for my liking – I needed to get to the wonderfully named port town of Banyuwangi for the ferry to Bali.  But by the time I reached Surabaya it was already getting dark.  I clambered aboard a clapped-out old coach and paid my dues: could I get there today?  No chance… how does 4am suit you?  Ah, sod it, I knew the ferries ran all night, so I was happy to give it a red hot go.  It would have been a slightly more pleasant trip if I didn’t have to change coaches in some random down in the middle of the night (I was half asleep).  At 5pm the bus, an hour late, pulled into the Banyuwangi ferry terminal.

Hee hee.

Banyuwangi.

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