Day 690: Oh Dear

21.11.10:

Kupang is a little dull.  Here’s a list of my ten favourite place names in the world:

Azerbaijan – Sounds like something a magician would say before pulling a rabbit out of a hat.

Galapagos – It just sounds lovely. Lovely lovely lovely.

Timbuktu, Mali – The name alone sounds like a promise of being miles from anywhere.

Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso – Pronounced ‘Waggadoogoo’ it’s the capital of Burkina Faso, TAKE THE TRAIN!!!!… yes, it’s called the Ouagadougou Choo-Choo. BRILLIANT!

Shit, Iran – Exists! Try typing it into Google Earth!

Kumbag, Turkey – See above.

Wetwang, England – the town of which the late great Richard Whitely was mayor.

Lake Disappointment, Australia – Does exactly what it says on the tin.

Truth Or Consequences, USA – Awesome.  I wish I had the job of renaming towns.  Hull, Grimsby, Scunthorpe, Skegness and Milton Keynes would be first for the chop-chop.

And the best ever, ever name for a place?

In my book, nothing beats…

Oh Dear, Pitcairn Island – really, really exists.  It makes me giggle whenever I think about it.

Oh My God That Is So AWESOME!!

Actually, Pitcairn Island is full of awesome monikers: Timiti’s Crack, Where Dan Fell, Tom Off, John Catch-a-Cow, Johnny Fall, Bitey Bitey, Little George Coc’nuts, Bop Bop, and my second favourite name on Pitcairn, Down The God.  Sounds like something Richard Dawkins would use as a book title.

A Cavalcade of Titular Hilarity!

So what are your favourite placenames?  Come on, don’t be shy…!  Let me know!!

TALKING OF PITCAIRN ISLAND… do you know Kupang’s claim to fame?

Here’s a clue: What historic character has been played by Charles Laughton, Trevor Howard & Anthony Hopkins?

Aye… it’s got something to do with Mutiny on the Bounty…

That’s right!  They all played Captain Bligh.  Well done.  Hurrah for imdb!

If you have ever seen or read Mutiny on the Bounty, you’ll know that the mutineers of the titular taste of paradise cast Captain Bligh and his loyal officers adrift in a 7-metre open launch in the middle of (what is now) French Polynesia.  Eek!

But thanks to some KICK ASS bit of navigation (a feat that has not been repeated since) he and all of his crew made it here to Kupang… some 6,710 kilometres away.  With just a sextant and a pocket watch.  Seriously.  3,618 nautical miles in a little wooden boat in the Pacific?  With no charts?  In 1789?  Wow.  And he did it in just 47 days.  Puts my daredevil boat trip to Cape Verde to shame.

Edwin, the owner of the Lavalon Bar is (understandably) proud of this fact and does his best to promote Kupang’s Bounty heritage.  And, hell, it’s easier to get to than Pitcairn Island.  A crew from Britain and Australia tried to copy Bligh’s achievement earlier this year: cast adrift in French Polynesia with no maps and no navigational aids.

They did, however, have an emergency GPS.  One day, with a storm closing in and deadly reefs all around them, they (sensibly) chose to smash the glass and use it.  After 221 years, Bligh’s kick-ass record, armed with just a sextant and a pocket watch, still stands.

Considering there have been so many film versions made of Mutiny on the Bounty, I’m amazed that nobody has had a punt on the second book of the trilogy, Men Against The Sea, which recounts Bligh’s epic 47 day journey to Kupang.

In fact, bringing this (admittedly one-sided) discussion full circle, I’m even more flabbergasted that nobody has made the final book, Pitcairn’s Island, into a movie… a real-life Lord of the Flies extravaganza: of the 15 men (mutineers and Tahitians) who settled on the island, after a decade of madness and bloodshed, only one remained.

Somebody fly me to Hollywood!!  Stat!

I was trying to write some blogs up on the trip from Labuanbajo to Aimere the other day, but the windy mountain roads made that job a little – urk – difficult, especially as my drivers seemed to take a sick delight in fanging it around blind corners.  My attempt to get up to date on the ferry was doomed by a lack of electrical sockets and my battery not being charged the night before thanks to the fact that my plugs don’t actually stay in any given socket.

Okay, I’m going to blow off a little steam here, but just bear with me, okay?

Something I would like to take issue with YOU WORLD is the matter of electrical sockets.  Like seriously, can you ALL JUST F**K OFF with your limp, dangling plugs?  Euro round 2-pin: YOU SUCK.  America flat 2-pin: you SUCK.  Australia flat angled 2-pin: YOU SUCK.

I am SICK TO DEATH of wasting hours of my life trying to get you little bastards to actually STAY IN THE FRICKIN’ SOCKET!  Gaffer tape, sellotape, medical tape, packing tape, I’ve tried the lot; and yet as Radiohead once sang, GRAVITY ALWAYS WINS.

Can we have some kind of international standard PLEASE?  And like the international standards of time, longitude and language can that standard be British?  Yeah, say what you like about my crazy little country, AT LEAST OUR PLUGS STAY IN THE FRICKIN’ SOCKET!!

Nice solid plugs and sockets.  That’s what I want.

And world peace.  Of course.

Oh Dear!  Ahahahahahahahaha!!!  Love it!

Day 691: The Authorisation

22.11.10:

It was a 9am showdown at the East Timor Consulate in Kupang.  Luckily for me, Simon and Chesa where there, and Chesa, being Indonesian, could explain my predicament to the lady a damn site better than I could.  I had applied for my visa authorisation FOUR WEEKS ago, and heard nothing in reply.  The lady made a phone call and said that the authorisation had been sent last month.  No it hadn’t.  I had flashbacks to when I had to explain to my mum back in 1997 yes it did matter if you spelt the email address incorrectly.

The lady said to go and wait for the email confirmation, they would resend it.  So I did.  I went back to Edwin’s joint and twiddled my thumbs, refreshing my email every now and again.  I knew that if I didn’t get the authorisation today, when I finally got to Dili, I would be spending the entire next week there waiting for my visa BACK INTO INDONESIA to come through (you can’t get one on the border).  If I got the confirmation for East Timor today, left here tomorrow morning, I could be at the Indonesian embassy for Wednesday morning, I could have my visa on Friday and be out of there on Saturday.  Otherwise I would be leaving on the following Tuesday at the earliest.

By 3pm the email hadn’t arrived.  I actually went back to the consulate.  Seriously?  WTF?  The lady made another call.  They had sent the email again.  Again it hadn’t arrived.  Okay, okay – here’s my email address, get them to send it to you, then forward it on to me, okay?

I can’t fault the lady – she was very helpful.  Her name was Jen.  She was sincerely sorry for all this nonsense.  You could tell by her demeanour that she knew she worked with morons and was doing her level best to make my life easier.  One problem: her email wasn’t working.

Will it be working before the end of the day?

Maybe.

Urgh!  I headed back to Edwin’s and kept on hitting F5.

At 4.55pm, the Authorisation arrived.

Edwin booked me on the 5am bus to Dili.  It’s high time to tick my 183rd nation off the list.

A note to anyone wanting a East Timor visa to enter the country overland: DON’T BOTHER with the online registration malarkey.  Just go to the new consulate in Kupang and get your visa there.  If you’re REALLY nice to Jen, she might even sort you out with one the same day 😉

Day 692: The Moral Landscape

23.11.10:

What’s worse than having to get up at 5am for a bus?  The bus turning up at your hotel twenty minutes early!  And then beeping REALLY LOUDLY, waking everybody in the neighbourhood up.  Well, possibly not, the people of Indonesia have such an amazingly high tolerance of noise, you’d swear they must be deaf.  It might be an idea to ship all those whiney tossers who buy houses on the Heathrow flight path or apartments above city centre nightclubs (and then, predictably, moan about the noise) to one of these 17,000 islands and fill Britain’s noisiest homes with Indonesians.

Completely unprepared, I sleepily threw all my stuff in my bags like Winona Rider looting a Chinese laundry.  I fell back asleep as soon as I clambered onboard and didn’t really wake up until we reached the border at noon – all I can tell you is that my driver drove too frickin’ fast.  The next Brit who moans to me about speed cameras might well get a slap.  Rogering my watch one hour forward, I got stamped out of Indonesia and marched triumphant over the border.

And thus I was in EAST TIMOR: my 50th country of this year.  By jingo, this time last year I had done 124.  Rubbish, Graham – must try harder.  But at least I only have 17 more countries to go.  Shame they are all in THE MIDDLE OF FRICKIN’ NOWHERE.

The trip to from the border to Dili was uneventful, but spectacular.  These windy little roads would be so awesome… if I was driving.  Getting thrown about in the back of a minibus isn’t much fun and makes it impossible to read or write – you just end up thrusting your headphones into your lugholes and staring out of the window, dreaming up amazing stories which would make great films.  Or TV shows.  Or stageplays.  Or books.  Or musicals.

Once this mad trip is over, I’m probably going to disappear off into the outback for a few months with just Mandy, my laptop and a pirate copy of Final Draft.

Arriving in Dili at sunset, I was greeted by Dan, the owner of the East Timor Backpackers.  He had been expecting me since John (who I met on the Batam to Jakarta ferry last month) had arrived and told him what I was up to.  I was exactly two weeks later than I really should have been.  I’m really kicking myself now for procrastinating in Bali – this bungee jump thing in Liverpool had better happen!!

Dan’s a great chap, he’s from Chorley in Lancashire (not far from my neck of the woods) and travelled all over the world before taking on the only Backpackers in Dili last year.  Nice place: bit pricey, but then so is all of East Timor.  They use the US dollar, so conversion is easy (and great for holidaying Aussies at the moment: the Oz/US exchange rate is 1 to 1).  Anyway, it was $12 a night for a dorm room, which is comparable with hostels in Europe. But for that you got the use of western toilets and hot showers, so it was more worth it than, say, Comoros or Angola.

The reason for the inflated prices is clear as soon as you step out on the street: the UN are here.  And when I say here, I mean WOW THEY ARE HERE.  I’ve seen more white UN trucks floating around Dili than I saw in Kinshasa, Monrovia and Freetown put together.  I’m not sure they really need such a massive presence here – yes, East Timor is a very young nation and there has been some political instability in the last few years (culminating in 2008 with an assassination attempt on the Noble-Peace Prize winning President – luckily, he survived), but it smacks of overkill – I guess compared with Kabul or Baghdad this is a quite a cushy posting.  I just wish that this amount of equipment and manpower was being put to better use: Somalia, anyone?

Actually, can I get serious for a moment?  Somalia has not had an effective government for 19 years now.  The levels of lawlessness and barbarity are as sickening as they are unreported.

A crowd of teenage boys gang rape, beat and dismember a young woman in Mogadishu in broad daylight.  What happens to them?  There are no police officers, no jails, no courtrooms, no judges.  I’ll tell you what happens to them: nothing.

A gang of Somali pirates hijack a charity ship carrying medical supplies to some of the poorest people in sub-Saharan Africa.  By the time the Royal Navy recapture the ship (or the insurance company has paid the ransom) it’s too late: most of the supplies have gone past their use by date.  Thousands of people will die as a result.  The pirates, even caught red handed, have their weapons taken from them and are free to go.  Why?  Cos there’s is no Somali Navy (well, there is, but it doesn’t have any ships),  Kenya and Tanzania can’t afford to take them, neither can Yemen.  The Royal Navy can’t keep them in the brig for the duration of their tour nor take them back to Britain.

A nine-year old girl has her vagina painfully mutilated by her uncle.  While she is held down by her mother, he slices off her labia and her clitoris with a septic blade, and then, his hands covered in blood, he takes a needle and thread and stitches her up, leaving just a small hole to allow menstruation.  It sounds like something from American Psycho, but the numbing fact is that this has happened to 99% of women in Somalia.  It’s not even frowned upon.  This most inhumane of acts is part of their culture.  When a culture is that f–ked up, it ceases to be culture and becomes institutionalised criminality.  By the same token, could we argue that it is the ‘culture’ of the Catholic Church to rape children?

Team America has seriously f–ked up in Afghanistan and Iraq, so any intervention from them is out of the question.  No other nation state really cares about daft military adventurism – their politicians are too busy trying to win the next election, and I’m sorry to say that helping out the less fortune members of our species is something that is frowned upon, not just by the right who don’t want to have to pay for it (more yachts and pies to shove into their fat faces), but even by the left who seem, in the last few years, to have sacrificed their morality on the altar of cultural relativism and a misguided sense of ‘respect’.

There is nothing respectable about what is going on in Somalia.  If you have a shred of feeling for your fellow humans, you’ll agree that this unnecessary suffering  – suffering on a vast scale – must be stopped.  The Somali government can’t stop it, the AU won’t, the Arab league couldn’t give a monkeys, NATO is too tied up in other business and the EU was to lazy to stop genocide on its doorstep in Bosnia and Kosovo, what makes you think it’s going to do anything for some impoverished nation full of religious nutcases?

The depressing but salient truth is that Somalia’s ONLY hope is the UN.  Isn’t that sad?

Because we all know that the UN is about as much use as a KFC on the moon.

The ONLY way out of this mess is if a massive UN force is invited into Somalia by the Somali government (whose jurisdiction currently expends to Mogadishu Airport and Seaport.  That’s it), and operates as Somalia’s army and police force, in a spirit of transparency and accountability (I would embed independent journalists, reps from Human Rights Watch and Amnesty with the soldiers) that was horribly missing from the Iraqi Disaster.  They would have to implement a clear and precise twenty-five year plan to turn around the world’s most failed of failed states.

And anyone who allows human rights abuses, crimes against humanity or genocide happen on their watch GETS THROWN IN JAIL.  Something that should have damn well happened in Bosnia, Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Liberia, Darfur and Rwanda, to name a few.  Listen you twat in the blue helmet, you’re not here to observe, you’re here to keep the peace.  And if that means shooting the crazed maniac with a machete before he butchers a baby to death SO BE IT.

I firmly believe that the UN troops that stood by and watched the last few genocides happen and did nothing about it are just as morally culpable as the Israeli troops that allowed the massacres in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps happen in Beirut in the 80s.

In the meantime: we need UN prison ships, set up with the blessing of the Somali government and floating in international waters.  I’m serious.  Catch the pirates, they get a fair trial onboard a UN prison ship and are sentenced, contained and not free to go pirating again.

Or we can ignore the problem and hope it goes away, change the channel and watch X-Factor instead.  I mean, Somalia is a long way away from here isn’t it?

I hear they just caught a 19 year old Somali boy attempting to blow up a Christmas tree lighting event in the USA.  Failed states affect us all.  It’s time we stopped feathering our nests for the fictional ‘next life’ and deal with the real issues are impeding people’s well-being in this one.  Nobody deserves to be born into a life that is nasty, brutish and short.  Nobody.

I’m going off on one here because I just read Dr. Sam Harris’ new book The Moral Landscape and it’s made me very angry about the moral bankruptcy of our national and international institutions.  Read the book, it’s very good.

Day 693: A Red Background

24.11.10:

Today’s adventures centre around my efforts to get a new Indonesian visa.

Indonesia, being a bit of an awkward sod, only allows you to pick up visas at certain border crossings, and the one from East Timor ain’t one of them.  So in order to get on with the next stage of the journey – overland and overseas to West Papua – I need to totter off to the Indonesian Embassy here in Dili, fill out MORE BLOODY VISA FORMS and wait a few days for my application to be approved.  Ho Hum.

So I get to the Indonesian Embassy bright and early.  I took a visa form and was very careful to fill it out in BLACK INK (blue ink is NOT allowed – they take this very seriously) and then handed it over with a passport-sized photo of my mug – you know, the same one I’ve used to get visas for over one hundred countries and I’ve used for my last two passports.

But no!  Haven’t you heard?  You photo needs a red background.

Seriously?

No, SERIOUSLY??

Yup.

So it was an expensive taxi ride across town in the scorching morning sun to the photo shop.  There they used my camera to take a shot of me against a bit of red card that had been gaffered to the wall (I guess other bules had gone through the same such nonsense).  The guys photoshop skills were sadly lacking, so I had to step in and crop my own photo.  Soon enough I had a A5 printout of about twenty little pics of yours truly against the damn red background, nineteen of which would be COMPLETELY USELESS as every other embassy in the world demands a WHITE background.

As my History and Politics teacher once said to me: Don’t try to be different lad, you’re not smart enough to be different.*

This process took the best part of the morning and by the time I got back to the embassy it was nearly lunchtime.  I handed in my form (in BLACK ink) and my photo (with the RED background).

Are you living in Dili?

No, I’m a tourist.

Oh, sorry – you have to write a letter.

A letter?

Yes.  A letter explaining why you want to come to Indonesia.

Seriously?

Yes.

SERIOUSLY??

Wow, in 183 countries and 23 months of travel, this was a new one on me.  Not only do you have to be on no terrorist watch-lists and not be wanted by Interpol to visit Indonesia, you have to write them a pretty letter saying how great their country is.  The template they gave me to copy from was hilarious, it just kept on banging on about how great Indonesia is.

I considered writing…

Dear Knob,

I wish to come to your daft country because I’m trying to get around the world without flying and by a quirk of geography your crappy little nation (which has utterly no taste in music, food or fashion, by the way) happens to be in the way of me getting to Palau and Papua New Guinea.

Up Yours,

Graham

PS. You smell.

But what I really wrote was…

To Whom It May Concern

I wish to visit Indonesia on holiday.  I intend to travel overland to Kupang in West Timor and from there travel to Flores and visit the world famous Komodo dragons.  I then wish to travel to Sulawesi and enjoy the unique culture and way of life that I’ve heard so much about.

After that I will be travelling to West Papua to visit the Raja Ampat area, which I hear is the best diving destination in the world.

I come as a tourist in peace, love and mutual respect for your people and culture.

Yours sincerely,

Graham

And handed it in.  The best thing about a letter is that you can’t hear the sarcastic tone.**

What a mad procedure!!

After that bureaucratic ordeal, it was time for bed.  It was a real dog day afternoon and – maybe I should have said earlier, but I have a couple of REALLY NASTY insect bites on the crook of my elbow which I got a couple of days ago in Kupang.  They could have been done by a spider or, given the way they are spaced out, I could make out that I was bitten by a snake.  Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.  It was a snake!  A big one!!  But at least I got a nice new belt.  I bought some cortisone cream from the pharmacy across the way last night, but it seemed to make it worse.  The skin was broken and looked necrotic and they had produced a large bruise which made moving my left arm excessively painful.

Bitey Bitey

The best thing for all concerned (which was admittedly just me) would be to go to sleep and hope for some magic to occur in the dreamtime.

I woke up in the evening and had a Tiger beer with Dan.  East Timor has no national brewery.  Maybe that could be Dan’s next business venture.

One thing that utterly sucked about my timing in arriving in Dili was that no one but two people I knew were here last weekend and I missed them.  One was a guy called Matthew Lumby who has been following my progress online and fancied meeting up for a swift half.  The other was Rocco, my cameraman and comrade in arms from Ghana to Gabon last year.  Rocco shares the same puerile and inappropriate sense of humour as me and we got on like a house on fire.  Rocco had been working on a film over here.

Happily, though, some of Rocco’s mates were still here, and one of them, Nick, agreed to meet up for a few jars and a natter.  We grabbed some food in a decent (and, more importantly, fairly cheap) Chinese joint and then headed over to the Castaway Bar on the waterfront, carefully avoiding the massive number of UN vehicles parked outside.  The Castaway was teaming with UN staff.  You know, once they leave, the economy here is going to crash like a drunken chauffeur in Paris being chased by the Paparazzi.

*Said by Mr. Caulfield, simultaneously the best and the worst teacher of all time, after I handed in an essay in which my written ‘a’s looked like printed ‘a’s, ie. with the tail on top.  He was right, I wasn’t smart enough to be different.  But that was then…

**Talking of school, I was once given a dressing-down by Mr. Ling for saying the daily assembly bible reading in a sarcastic tone of voice.  True!

Day 694: El Presidente

25.11.10:

So what do you know about East Timor?  Not much?  Good.  You must be British.  Or American.  Aussies will have heard of the place for reasons I’ll come to later.  The first I heard of the place was about ten years ago on the Mark Thomas Comedy Product TV Show (Mark Thomas is the Michael Moore of the UK only much less fat) when he was going on about British arms companies supplying the weapons that the Indonesian army were using to kill civilians in East Timor.

So what follows is a potted history of this little nation.  Like most of the islands that make up Indonesia, Timor was fought over by the Dutch, the Portuguese, the Spanish and god knows who else for a few centuries until the island was split down the middle (with a little odd enclave) between the Portuguese and the Dutch.

Poor old East Timor, it was doomed from the start.  In the league of Nations It Really Sucked To Be Colonised By, Portugal has to come joint top with Belgium.  Look at the ex-Portuguese colonies around the world: Mozambique, Angola, Guinea-Bissau, Sao Tome and –urk – Cape Verde.  Basketcases one and all.  Portugal really quite spectacularly neglected pretty much all of it colonies, failed to build any decent infrastructure, educate the native population, or even prepare them for the transition into statehood.

Instead the Portuguese (under the universally loathed Salazar regime) just raped the land of its resources, orchestrated a devastatingly successful divide-and-rule policy, and then once day in 1975 pulled out without a thank you, goodbye, kiss-my-elbow NOTHING.  In Mozambique they trashed the place on the way out – setting fire to buildings, sabotaging vehicles and – sickeningly – pouring concrete down wells.  In Angola just ONE university graduate was left in a country the size of Western Europe.  A country with a population of fourteen million.  It doesn’t take a genius to figure out what happened next.  The civil war in Angola rumbled on for almost THIRTY years.

East Timor was spared the inevitable civil war only because Indonesia (at the behest of the US and Australia, by the way) invaded and annexed the country.  Predictably, people fought back, some with arms, others (more sensibly and more successfully) through diplomacy.  Step forward, Jose Ramos-Horta, current President and Nobel Laureate (he won the Peace Prize in 1996).  We shall learn more about him later.

Anyway, after 23 years of violent repression of the East Timorese independence movement, something weird happened.  President Habibie of Indonesia announced a referendum.  I guess it kinda made sense at the time – there was a lot of international pressure to lay off East Timor – once the results showed that the overwhelming majority of East Timorese wanted to stay with Jakarta, they would have the UN off their back.  Votes can be rigged right?

Wrong.

The canny East Timorese, in the face of intimidation and death threats, announced their intention to stay a part of Indonesian in public.  When it came to the private ballot though, HA!  Fooled ya!  They voted for independence.  By a landslide.

Indonesia’s army didn’t know what to do, so it did what tin-pot third-world armies do best: they trashed the place.  Massacres, arson and looting were rife.  Half a million people were displaced.  This brought East Timor’s plight to the attention of Australia.  Unfortunately, the East Timorese possibly didn’t realise they were on the doorstep of the Most Racist Country In The World™ and the only way they were going to get any help – humanitarian or otherwise – was if they handed over their future oil rights to the Howard administration for a song.  But the plucky ETs held their ground (despite the fact their countrymen were being slaughtered in the streets) and (eventually) got themselves a halfway decent deal.  That fat bastard Alexander Downer would have been happy for the massacres to go on (in his own words) “10, 20, 30 years… we can wait”.

What a nice chap.  I sure hope you didn’t vote for him.

Anyway, the UN came in too late, left too early, came back looking sheepish and are still here now.  The Indonesian army has gone and since 2001 East Timor (or Timor-Leste to be precise) has had a seat on the UN.

President Ramos-Horta survived an assassination attempt in 2008 (he was shot twice in the stomach) and is still going strong and still wanders about with a minimum of security.  Which was my good fortune today as he was speaking at a school down the road.  I turned up in my scruffs, clutching a couple of bags (perhaps full of AK-47s and rocket launchers) and was waved through the crowd peering through the school gates to take up a position just a few feet away from the man himself.  Good job I’m not The Jackal eh?

Jose Ramos Horta
Lovin' the shades...

After the speech he cut some cake, popped some champagne and declared the new tech wing of the San Miguel school (donated by the Rotary Club of Australia, by the way) open.  Just as the tape in my camcorder ran out I managed to shake his hand and say hello.  He was then whisked away much in the manner of Dungeon Master from Dungeons and Dragons.

Friends In High Places...

Heads of states eh?  I’m finally going places!

Afterwards I met up with my auld muckas Chesa and Simon, them wot’s tryin’ to get from Italy to Oz in a Fiat 500.  They had to wait a couple of days longer than me in Kupang for Simon’s East Timor visa, but they got it in the end and now here they were in Dili.  We met at the Castaway bar for a bit of grub and a natter.  I stuck to the soft drinks – no, I’m not on the wagon (as if!), it’s just that the price of the booze here makes me pull a sad face.

Day 695: Gadzooks!

26.11.10

When I’m done with all this, I plan to turn The Odyssey Expedition into a board game. The ‘Chance’ and ‘Community Chest’ cards are going to renamed ‘Shipping’ and ‘Visas’.  I can plan for all other eventuality, but when it comes to shipping and visas, I keep getting dealt wild cards.  Take today for instance, instead of just turning up at 2pm and picking up my visa, there was a problem: I had no East Timor visa in my passport.

I roll my eyes.

YES THAT’S BECAUSE I’M AN ILLEGAL IMMIGRANT COME HALFWAY ACROSS THE WORLD FROM MY OWN FREE AND FAIR COUNTRY TO SEEK ASYLUM IN YOUR COUNTRY WHICH HAS NO FREE HEALTH CARE, NO WELFARE STATE AND THE FRAKKIN’ DEATH PENALTY. WOOP WOOP WOOP!!

Or I could – could – have two passports.  Maybe.

Oh.  We need both passports.

I didn’t read this in the small print – I thought as long as I used a black pen, wrote a nice letter and had a red background (sounds like I used to be in the communist party) things would be PEACHY.

But no.  For one ugly moment I thought I’d have to spend the entire weekend here while they sorted this out, but after making me wait a mere hour, they told me to come back at 4pm.  I did as commanded and LO AND BEHOLD! I was given the visa that you get immediately most land borders (for half the price!) without all this monkeying about.  But they had, rather bizarrely, stapled my two passports together, so now I was the only Englishman with a bumper 96 page passport. Kinda defeats the object of having two passports in the first place, but ho-hum.

Now free to flee this burg, Dan’s girlfriend Rita booked me on the bus back to Kupang in the morning.  I grabbed the two Americans who were sharing my dorm at the backpackers and we headed off into the night.  It was one of East Timor’s Independence Days (I think they have three) on Sunday and things were gearing up for a big party, but, sadly, tonight there was nothing much going on.

Something that I’ve found all over Asia is that these guys aren’t big on staying up late.  It’s like we hit 9pm and everyone goes home (presumably to make more Asians).  In a way, it’s the polar opposite of Latin America (where it needs to be 2am before anyone even thinks about leaving the house to go out on the lash).  So places like Dili, Jakarta and, yes, even Bangkok sort of fizzle out before I’m quite wherever I want to be (usually in a gutter looking up at the stars).

But as I had to be up early in the morning, an early night might be a good thing.  So anyways the two yanks, Eric and Greg, and I headed over to Castaway to shoot some pool at the free pool table.  I ended up teamed with the tallest Dutchman in the world and we won one and lost one.  He was pretty plastered.  At some time that was a little too sensible for me, the Americans headed back to the backpackers.  I stayed out playing pool with the locals before being invited out to another bar that was open dead late.  I remember there was an American guy from Hawaii who did actually think Obama may be a cactus and I’m fairly sure I met a least one lesbian and possibly a pirate.  Although he may not have been a pirate.  Maybe he was a greengrocer.

Day 696: Yes I Awoke

27.11.10:

But only because Dan woke me up.  Groggy and sleep deprived I clambered onto the minibus that would be speeding me back to Kupang.  Bye bye Dili!  The minibus ride to the border was brilliant – there were only two of us onboard so I could sit where I wanted and the seats went all the way back.  I lay down and gazed at the stunning scenery whizzing by: turquoise tinted bays dotted with wooden fishing boats, islands of green rolling hills stretching off into the horizon and fluffy white clouds idly drifting by against a sky of azure blue.

The bus wound its way around the narrow S bends and switchbacks and before long we had arrived at the frontier with Indonesia.  After formalities I WAS BACK in West Timor.  Huzzah!

As soon as I had Indonesian phone coverage, I texted Edwin to let him know I was coming back.  He let me know that the next ferry back to Flores left tomorrow at 4pm.  This was good news (the next ferry didn’t leave until Friday, that would have been a bitch of a wait).

The trip from the border to Kupang wasn’t quite as good as this morning’s – they stopped to pick up loads of people along the way and then when we finally arrived in Kupang they painstakingly dropped everyone off at their houses, even if it meant driving backwards a dirt track for an hour.  I got to Edwin’s around 8pm and pottered around on the internet for a bit, but by 9pm I got the feeling that Edwin wanted to go to bed (Saturdays are pretty sleepy in Kupang, let me tell you).

So I considered going for a walk around town to see if anything was ‘going down’, but instead I thought better of it and headed back to the Lavalon Backpackers and got my head down for the night.

Day 697: The Game Is Afoot!

28.11.10:

Is The Odyssey possible?  It’s been a question that has been bugging me for some time.  Okay, I’ve made it this far, on the surface it looks like I’m doing quite well: with 183 countries in the bag and just 17 left to go, you would think I’d be relaxing in to the final stretch of this mad quest.  But I can’t emphasise this enough: I still have NO idea how on Earth I’m going to get to the twelve Pacific Island states that lay ahead.  They are all thousands of miles from each other and the Pacific, despite the name, is anything but Magellan’s ‘calm sea’: storm surges created off the coast of Russia roll on for days uninterrupted until they create waves in the South Seas that would make short work of that wooden Pirogue that took me to Cape Verde.  A lift on a yacht would cost more than I’ve spent getting to every country so far (seriously).  Cargo ships service the northern South Pacific islands once every couple of months and Cruise ships only ply the ‘lower’ islands: Vanuatu, Fiji, Tonga and Samoa.

Nauru, Micronesia, Marshall Islands, Kiribati and Tuvalu look as inaccessible as Facebook in China.

Now into this quantum uncertainty has stumbled forth two unlikely heroes: the first of which is good ol’ Alex Zelenjak, an Aussie Odyssey fan since the beginning and the guy who (amongst other things) discovered the ‘back door’ into Taiwan from China as well as the WORKING PELNI FERRY WEBSITE (yes folks, IGNORE YOUR LONELY PLANET – if you want to find out Indonesian Ferry times, go to http://www.pelni.co.id – NOT http://www.pelni.com which hasn’t been working since 2006).

The other hero is a chap originally from Blighty but relocated to Oz, no it’s not Yahtzee Crowshaw, it’s Damian Pallett, a mate of Lorna Brookes (she of Odyssey logistics fame).  He’s taken on the challenge of getting me around the Pacific in one piece and before the world ends on December 20th 2012 (if John Cusack is to be believed).  And, by Jove I think he’s come up with a solution that in the finest bolt-n-build-your-own-adventure style might just be the golden ticket.

I can’t give to much away at this point, but suffice to say that between myself, Alex and Damian things are beginning to crystallise into what I can only describe as a kick-ass plan that is more cunning than a silver-tongued fox that’s just been appointed professor of cunning linguistics at the University of East Anglia.

BUT FIRST I need to get to Palau and Papua New Guinea (PNG), on my own, unsupported and on a shoestring.  This is not going to be easy.  Here’s how I’m going to spend my December of 2010:

TODAY: Commence operation HATI-HATI.  I need to get the next boat to Sorong in West Papua.  This ship will leave the Island of Sulawesi a week tomorrow.  I have two options:

1. Wait here in Kupang until Friday, get to Sulawesi on Sunday, get the West Papua ferry on Money

2. Bugger this for a game of soldiers, race back to Bali, GET MY REPLACMENT HAT, take the Pelni ferry leaving Surabaya (Java) a week today.  I will arrive at the same time as I would by staying in Kupang.

I opt for…

Option 2!!

Ready?

Set?

GO!!!

Map of Nusa Tenggara
For the love of HAT!!

Right… I have to get down to Kupang port and board the ferry back to the island of Flores.  It leaves in a couple of hours.  I better get my skates on.

TOMORROW: I have to race as fast as I can across Flores, from West to East.  It may take a few days.

WEDNESDAY: Hopefully arrive in Labuanbajo in the East of Flores.

THURSDAY: Morning boat to Sumbawa, overnight bus across the island.

FRIDAY: Ferry to Lombok, Ferry to Bali, bus to Seminyak, meet with Neil, pick up NEW HAT.

SATURDAY: Ferry and bus to Surabaya in Java.

SUNDAY: Pelni Ferry to Makassar in Sulawesi island.  Like this:

Pelni shipping route from Java to West Papua
Go East, Young Man!

A WEEK ON WEDNESDAY: Arrive in Sorong, West Papua. Beg the local ex-pats to join me on a (fun!) sailing trip to Helen Reef in Palau.  Don’t know how long this will take, could conceivably take the rest of December.  Or my life.

GOD KNOWS WHEN: Leave Sorong on the fortnightly Pelni ferry to Jayapura on the border with PNG.  This will take two days.  Then I have to get from Jayapura to Port Moresby, the capital of PNG – right on the other side of the second-largest island in the world, and one with all the infrastructure of the moon.  As always, I will have to do this without flying.  Oh, and just to make things doubly impossible, it’ll be the height of the rainy season when I get there, what ‘roads’ exist in the dry will be nothing but a swamp.  Here’s what I’ll have to do:

Take a banana boat from VANIMO to AITAPE on the north coast.  From there it’s a bus (a PMV) to WEWAK.  From there it’s the weekly ferry to MADANG.  Then I’ll have to take the Highlands Highway to MENDI (if that’s even possible in the wet season) and from there I’ve just got to hope that the new road from MENDI to KIKORI actually frickin’ well EXISTS (my Lonely Planet informs me it ‘should’ be opening in 2008).  From KIKORI I’ll be taking a motor dingy along the south coast to KEREMA and there I’ll be somehow bodge my way to PORT MORESBY, because the road is usually impassable in the dry, god knows what it’s going to be like in the wet.

PNG
Oh Lordy!!

The alternative is to take a boat from MADANG to POPENDETTA on the north coast and then travel to the KOKODA TRACK and HIKE the 90km to where the road starts again at MEDITOGO VILLAGE.  This track is a real slog over mountainous jungle terrain (rising to over 3000 metres) and takes between six and eleven days IN THE DRY SEASON.  In the wet season I would probably not even be able to find a guide who’d be up for it, even if the track was passable, which I’m guessing it wouldn’t be.  It’s not really an alternative, but I just want you to understand how difficult it’s going to be to just get to Port Moresby: it may take me to the end of January JUST TO GET TO TWO COUNTRIES.

Ygads!

Well, that’s what I’m doing for Christmas – and as PNG is a very dangerous place where life is cheap, I may well find myself watching the Queen’s speech from the discomfort of a large cooking pot.  Today I sat in Edwin’s gaff organising the next twelve countries after Palau and PNG with Damian and Alex, hopefully they won’t be as arduous.  I would have liked to speak to Dino, the Odyssey’s very own Mr. Bojangles, however he would have been fast asleep: I’m seven hours ahead of GMT here.  Soz Dino.

Interestingly, I have now (in my life) been to every country in the world beginning with the letters A, B, C, D and E.  I haven’t been to Fiji yet so F doesn’t get a tick, but I have been everywhere beginning with the letters G, H, I, J, L, O (which is just Oman), Q (which is just Qatar), R, U, W, Y (just Yemen!) and Z.

The only letters I still need for the set are F, K, P, N, M, S and T.

Sadly, no country begins with the letter ‘X’.  I will rectify this some day when I buy an island in the Pacific and Christen it ‘XXX’.  It would look great on my country slide at the UN – people would think I was a spy.  Or the owner of a porn site.  Either is good.

By 3.30pm it was time for me to launch OPERATION HATI-HATI.

After cheerios to Edwin I set off to the port for the 4 o’clock ferry to Larantuka in Flores.  Only it was more like the 3.25pm ferry to Larantuka, so I was damn lucky to get on board in time.  Something I was less fortunate about was the seating arrangement.  The ‘Executive’ Class did mean I wouldn’t have to sleep with the cattle (no, really) but it didn’t exactly guarantee me a bed.  Or a seat for that matter.  This is going to be one uncomfortable night.

One thing that was quite cool though: they have Indosat on this ship and they showed my TV program.  Quite a surreal experience being on TV in the midst of the madness that is an Indonesian ferry crossing.  There’s mothers and children strung out all over every available bit of floor, much in the manner of the end of Radiohead’s video for ‘Just’.  I’m currently sitting on the wing of the ship, just outside the bridge.  It’s cooler out here and I feel less sea sick.

I shudder to think that when THE PACIFIC LEG begins in earnest next year, I may be at sea for two months solid.  Groan.  But as Roy Castle once said, if you wanna be a record breaker, dedication’s what you need.

Day 698: The Ende of All Things

29.11.10:

So the ferry pulled into Larantuka port nice and early, around 7am.  Now I just had the small matter of the entirety of Flores to get across.  Cast from your mind any concept of nice straight Roman roads – this is a volcanic jungle baby, and these roads are longer and windier than you would believe.  But, damn what AMAZING scenery.  Vast forests cladding soaring hillsides, valleys of greenest green far below, and when we scoot along the coast the silhouettes of ancient fishing boats rendered by the golden sunbeams glittering in the deep blue waters.

Even better, the stereo on my minibus wasn’t working, so I didn’t have to suffer that dreadful Indonesian musak!  I was also lucky to have a sensible driver – one that didn’t fang it around blind corners whilst overtaking a convoy of trucks.  On top of all that, I managed to bag a front seat so I could plug my laptop into the cigarette socket and write all these lovely diary entries you’ve just wasted a couple of hours reading.  Hee hee.  So it was a extremely pleasant ride to the northern coast town of Maumere and by early afternoon we had arrived.  Wishing to continue stabbing westward, I boarded another minibus down to the south coast, to Ende.

Ende, like all towns in Flores, is a one-horse affair.  It’s claim to fame is that it is Indonesia’s Elba – the (eventual) first president of Indonesia, Soekarno, was exiled here by the Dutch in the 1930s.  It has a handful of pensions and even fewer restaurants.  I ended up walking for an hour just to find some grub, and the place I found (a Chinese gaff – great seafood!) closed at 9pm: I had barely finished my meal.

Day 699: The Ruteng Clan

30.11.10:

After dragging myself out of bed at 6.30am, I wasn’t too chuffed when I was told that the minibus to the next waypoint, Ruteng, didn’t leave until 8am.  But no sooner had I settled down under a bamboo bivouac at the side of the road to drink coffee with the locals (the coffee in Flores and Timor has an amazing spicy taste to it) than the bus driver started tooting his horn. The bus was already full and therefore what was the point of hanging around?

I wish bus companies in the UK could be as damn sensible.  By 7.30am we were whizzing past Ende’s city limits and back into the jungle.  Timetables be damned!!

I could wax lyrical about the drive, but suffice to say that it was incredible and a whole lot of fun.  I just wished I was driving.  Damn, I miss driving.  It would me nice to be in control of my own destiny in the near future.  Another nice thing is the fact that everybody smiles and waves as we drive by.  When I was bitching about being stared at in India, I justified my position by explaining that when the look is accompanied by a smile and a wave (as in Africa), it generates a warm, positive feeling… when it’s a dead-eyed stare (as in India), it raises your anxiety levels considerably – you start thinking that there’s something wrong with you, maybe you’ve got something on your face, maybe the guy thinks you’re someone you’re not and is about to launch a violent and frenzied attack.  Who knows?

But, yeah, Flores – all smiles and waves.  I like that.

The minibus arrived in Ruteng in the afternoon and I was told that I would have to stay here for the night and get another bus early tomorrow morning.  No way, Jose… I’m going all the way with LBJ.  All the minibuses that buzz around the island tend to leave in the morning, but as I learned on the way to Aimere last week, there’s more than one way to skin a cat.  Shared taxis (Toyota People Carriers) ply across the island and in the manner of African Bush Taxis, they go when they’re full.  Lucky for me there was one waiting as I got off the minibus.  I barely had time to grab some Nasi Goreng (egg fried rice) to go before we set off towards Labuanbajo.

It was dark when the rains came – and boy, did it rain.  The kid driving the Toyota might have had better luck seeing if he hadn’t covered the windscreen with stickers and dangly love hearts (Indonesians are nothing if not a little effeminate in their decorative tastes: a facet they share with Indians).  He might have also been better off listening to me when I was trying to explain that cool air fan didn’t make the windows mist up, that was the internal/external temperature difference and our sweat.  In fact, the cool air fan would make the visibility better, because we’d be sweating less.  But no, he trundled on regardless.  Imagine the last run of the Bluesmobile but on mountainous, jungly, unlit switch-backs with very bad Indonesian hip-hop (“The Ruteng Clan”) playing at full volume.

In his defence, at least he took it easy and we did get to Labuanbajo in one piece.  We arrived just before 9pm.  I slung my bags in the Bajo Beach hotel (hello again!) and then raced down to the camera shop, catching it just before it closed and stocking up on video tapes.  A miscalculation on my behalf led me to paying way over the going rate, but I was tired and hungry and we all make mistakes.  I trundled back to the Lounge Bar where I simultaneously inhaled a pizza (mmm… something that’s not rice… lovely!) and attempted to upload as many of these blogs as possible using their wi-fi before they chucked me out.

The boat for Sumbawa was due to leave at 8am.  This is great – I should be in Bali a day earlier than I expected.

Next Month >>>