Day M77: It’s Tuesday, It Must Be Kiribati

13.12.11: The first and most important thing you should know about Kiribati is that the people of Kiribati, the I-Kiribati, pronounce ‘ti’ as ‘s’. Therefore, the correct pronunciation of ‘Kiribati’ is ‘Kiribas’. The correct pronunciation of Betio, the port area of Kiribati’s capital atoll Tarawa, is Beso. And ‘Christmas’ is spelt ‘Kiritimati’. And ‘I-Kiribati’ is pronounced ‘E-Kiribas’. DEAL WITH IT PEOPLE!!

Incidentally, Laos is pronounced ‘Lao’, not ‘louse’, Suriname is pronounced ‘Surinam’ and St. Kitts and Nevis is pronounced ‘St. Kitts and Neevis’. Get it right my dear reader: lives may depend on this knowledge, although perhaps not.

And while I’m at it: America, listen up you Shatner-Stealing Mexico-Touchers: Van Gogh is pronounced ‘Van Hoghckkk’ like you’re hacking up a docker’s omelette… NOT ‘VAN GO’. EVER. DUTCH GUY, NOT FRENCH. DUTCH. DIFFERENT COUNTRY, DIFFERENT LANGUAGE (it’s also ‘Mo-wett and Chandon’).

And another thing: ‘niche’ is pronounced ‘neesh’, not ‘nitch’, you do not find nitches in the goddamn market. And it’s ‘Budd-ah’, not ‘Boo-dah’ you lemonheads: take it from the only guy you know who’s actually been to Tibet.

And Australia, ‘debut’ is pronounced ‘dayb-you’ and rhymes with ‘view’. Stop saying ‘day-boo’. You sound like idiots. And so do you moronic cockneys who say ‘caff’ instead of ‘café’. Nobody, not even the French, bother putting accents on silent letters.

And a PEDophile could only mean somebody with an unhealthy fetish for FEET. PEDestrian, PEDal, PEDestal… learn your etymology or invent your own damn language you lazy nerks. Or why don’t you ask somebody who works in paediatrics, like a paediatrician… or look it up on Wiki-peeeeeedia.

Also, can everyone on the internet PLEASE STOP MIXING UP ‘lose’ and ‘loose’. It’s getting beyond a joke now.

Another important thing you should know about Kiribati is that it is simultaneously one of the smallest and biggest countries in the world, depending on how you look at it. Although it’s made up of just 33 equator-straddling islands, all of which you could probably walk around in a day, from Banaba (Ocean Island) in the west to Millennium Island in the east there is over 2,500 nautical miles of that salty brine we like to call the Pacific Ocean… so technically Kiribati is wider than Australia: with an area of over 3.5 million square kilometres to play with, nearly all of which is water.

You may scoff, but once I invent my go-go-gills and shark-repellent deodorant then Kiribati will rise to TAKE OVER THE WORLD!

Well, actually, probably not. 32 of the islands are low-lying coral atolls and, like Tuvalu, are trembling under the same sword of Damocles: rising sea levels. Have we had enough rants about global warming yet? Maybe not… I’d just like to add one thing. WHY THE HELL did Julia Gillard (that’s the Prime Minister of Australia, pop-pickers) choose to call her excellent new carbon tax the ‘Carbon Tax’. What kind of blithering dunderheads work in her marketing department? Call it a ‘Multinational Corporate Pollution Levy’ or a ‘Conglomerate Fat-Cat Poison Air Toll’. Something, anything, just so long as it doesn’t have the word ‘tax’ in the name! Oh, and given that us humans are carbon-based life-forms, they should probably drop the word ‘carbon’ too.

I’m not saying that a good proportion of the Australian voting public are too stupid to understand the difference between ‘Income Tax’ which they have to pay and a ‘Carbon Tax’ which only Multinational Corporate Conglomerate Fat-Cat Air Polluters have to pay, but, well, er…

Oh yes, where was I? Ahh… Kiribati! Kiribati is the only country in the world to straddle all four hemispheres and so at 7am there was a bump as we crossed over the equator back into my native Northern Hemisphere. Around 3pm, we found a gap in the coral ring that makes up Tarawa Atoll, and ploughed straight through it without a care in the world. We then picked our way between the many shallows and sunken ships that populate Tarawa’s large lagoooooon. There was a major battle here in World War II and both the Japanese and American forces left a number of souvenirs behind. And dead bodies.

I know it’s not popular or cool to support Truman’s decision to drop the nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but it’s worth bearing in mind that US military chiefs, who had no idea what the top-secret Manhattan Project was about to unleash on the world, had ordered half a million Purple Hearts to be made in preparation for the invasion of Japan. Is it right to kill a hundred thousand people if you believe it will save millions of lives in the long run?

Pray you never have to make that kind of decision. Or have to live with yourself afterwards.

Here in Tarawa the detritus of war has been co-opted into everyday life. Concrete bunkers now used as squash courts, 75mm guns used to tie clotheslines, rusting hulks that once ferried marines to their doom now used as diving platforms for the local kids. The remains of a mighty Sherman Tank sits out in the water, visible at low tide: slowly being eaten away by the sea, soon to be destroyed not by overwhelming firepower, but by nothing more than time, tide and the second law of thermodynamics.

The Southern Pearl is too big a beast (sorry, old girl) to enter the port without scraping along the floor of the lagoooooon, so we sat out at anchor and had tugboats bring barges over for unloading and loading the containers. Getting to shore therefore required a bit of gymnastics as I’d invariably have to hop, skip or jump onto one of these barges, or even one of the rusty old tugs, one of which was a good 70 years old: it had been left behind by the Japanese. You could tell.

Once on dry land and after having officially ticked Kiribati off my list of nations (that’s 190 down, 11 to gooooo!), I was given a lift by the port agent, Mattsu, along the one road that runs all the way to the airport to the east of the atoll. Most coral atolls are circular, but in the case of Tarawa the atoll is shaped like a triangle with the left side missing. The southern islets are linked by causeways. At the bottom left corner you find our seaport at Batio (pronounced ‘Baso’) and in the bottom right corner sits Tawara’s international airport. Going up along the right hand side you’ll need a canoe as there are plenty more islets but no causeway.

We stopped off at the parliament house, set out in the lagoooooon on an artificial island. It’s a rather pedestrian affair. Outside sits a chunky concrete rendering of the Kiribati flag: a frigate bird flying over a sun rising from the waves. The rising sun is particularly apt here, as each day Kiribati is the first country to see the dawn. They achieved this by a bit of a cheat: on January 1st 1995, they pushed the date line, which used to cut the country in two (when it was Saturday in the west it was Friday in the east), all the way over to the east… making it all the same day all over the country. This also gave the eastern Line Islands a novel new time zone of GMT+14: something that is so far in the future it doesn’t even appear as an option on your iPhone or your clever little TARDIS, Doctor.

That means that when it’s noon Saturday on Christmas Island (east Kiribati), it’s simultaneously noon Friday in Hawaii. Even more bananas, when it’s half past midnight on Monday morning on Christmas Island, it’s half past eleven on Saturday night in American Samoa.

One other glorious fact I learned at the parliament house is that Kiribati declared its independence in July 1979, so I would have been in the same year as it in school. I would be a year below Garfield, in the year above Harry Potter and two years above Lisbeth Salander. True story.

In the evening I headed over to the Captain’s Bar, seemingly the only pub in town. I met with lots of friendly I-Kiribati and learnt that the Kiribati word for ‘cheers’ is ‘tiggeroy’. Although, knowing the I-Kiribati, they probably spell it ‘poohay’. We played darts and then I was coerced into puncturing everybody’s eardrums with the worst karaoke you’ll (hopefully) never have to hear.

Waltzing back home at 1am presented its own difficulties. Mattsu picked me up from the bar, and the barges were running out to the Southern Pearl all night, but they took their sweet time to be ready to go. I had to take a running jump off the quayside onto the roof of the tug boat, which was fun in a kind of suicidal way. The trip over to the ship, although it doesn’t look much from the shore, takes an age and this is no peaceful little lagoooooon: the tugs get knocked around a fair bit. There was nothing for it but to lie on my back until we reached the mothership, look up at the encircling stars and hope for the best.

Day M78: Kiss My Rusty Kiribati

14.12.11: My second day on Kiribati’s main atoll of Tawara started slowly. After having to wait an hour or so for the barge to be ready to go ashore, I (literally) jumped aboard the tug boat and set off for another day of action and adventure.

The war relics here are quite fascinating in a morbid sort of way. When this Japanese command HQ was taken by the Yanks, they found over 300 Japanese soldiers inside, all dead.

A New Selfridges! Dead soldiers optional.

I would, at this juncture, like to point out that reinforced concrete is pretty good for building cheap lousy ugly bunkers, but not good for building anything that you don’t want to look like a cheap lousy ugly bunker. Modern architects would do well to bear this fact in mind.

There’s tanks and guns and possibly unexploded ordinance still knocking around the place. In a way, you’d think the Americans would tidy up after themselves, but then again, it makes for a great little treasure hunt.

Red Beach, on the western tip of the islet, looks like the battle took place last year: I guess since the war, more ships have come here to die. I counted rusting hulks washed up on the sand and many more out in the water. The local kids don’t seem to mind.

It beats talking to a volleyball.

That evening I met with Sara, a CouchSurfer from Montreal. She was hanging out with another CouchSurfer, Martin from Graz in Austria. We all jumped on board one of the many minibuses that run along the east-west road from Batio to the airport and back and headed to the new Chinese Restaurant near Bairiki. Martin is here on holiday but Sara is working with the Kiribati government as part of her post-grad in international development. She’s been here quite long enough now, thank you very much, and is looking forward to moving on before she ends up tearing her hair out. Ah, island life! It’s fun for a few weeks, but I can see how one can get cabin fever after a while.

After dinner, we hopped another bus to the Captain’s Bar. Compared with last night, the place was hopping. We enjoyed a good few beers and FYI, the Aussie beer here is A$3 a can (they use the Aussie Dollar in Kiribati), as opposed to A$7 in Australia, where the beer is made and not shipped 1000 miles over the Pacific Ocean. Go figure.

Martin, like me, is an aficionado of old buildings, and has actually set up a wiki site for endangered edifices in Austria: which is difficult to say with a mouthful of marshmallows. He’s about the same age as me, which is consoling as our generation has a embarrassing knee-jerk habit of celebrating ugly modern buildings, (what do you expect from people who grew up in the 80s? Taste?) instead of protecting the beautiful old ones.

Sara and Martin caught the last drunk home (I hope they put their safety belts on) and I joined Mattsu, the port agent, who was celebrating with his colleagues in the I-Kiribati shipping industry. Apparently, Swire Shipping (oh they of PNG to Australia fame) have got themselves involved with the Scarlett Lucy, the very ship I hope to take to the island nation of Nauru (it’ll be country number 195) next February. This was cause for celebration, not least because of my good relations with Swire (as well as Neptune, Pacific Direct Line, PIL and Reef, who I think are also involved in one way or another), but also because there was a slab of Castlemaine XXXX on the table.

Plus I got to tell my joke: Why do Australians call their beer ‘XXXX’? Because they can’t spell ‘beer’. Wakka Wakka Wakka!

Next stop: The Marshall Islands!!!

Day M80: A Hitch In Time

16.12.11: Christopher Hitchens died yesterday. Bugger.

Unlike the deaths of John Peel or Douglas Adams, it didn’t come as a shock: it was no secret that Hitchens had cancer and that it was terminal, but it’s a kick in the bollocks all the same. Militant atheists like myself have lost our most persuasive, eloquent and impassioned voice.

Richard Dawkins is a great author and a great explainer of science (The Ancestor’s Tale is one of the best books I’ve ever read), but I can see how he rubs people up the wrong way. He often loses his patience with his opponents and gets frustrated far too easily in debates. Dawkins is a clever man, I sure he’s aware of these shortcomings, so it’s no wonder that he said he regarded Hitchens as a (sort of) mentor.

With a glass of whiskey in one hand and cigarette in the other, Hitchens always came across as measured and diplomatic: even when coming out with the least measured and least diplomatic Hitch-Slap against his opponents. His genius was not necessary what he said, but like a great cricketer, it was all in the delivery. With a calm demeanour and a clever turn of phrase he could steamroller his adversaries into a corner and tie their argument in knots.

And, lets face it: he was cool. Given the choice of Dawkins, Sam Harris, Daniel Dennett, Pat Condell or Christopher Hitchens, I know which one I would rather spend a night out on the lash with.

I’ve been flicking through the obituaries and its difficult to come up with something original to say about Hitchens, other than he was a one off. One thing that is relative to this blog is that Hitchens had travelled extensively in his lifetime, usually to places reserved for peace-keeping troops and journalists in bullet-proof vests. This was something about Hitchens that was picked up by the travel section of the LA Times, whose otherwise gossamer-light article threw in a couple of pieces Hitchens had written about England and Bombay. They ended the article with the words ‘There’s much more, of course, to be gleaned from his works for those who don’t mind their travel writing spiked with plenty of outrage and opinion.’ This made me chuckle.

Most people hate it when travel writers actually have an solid opinion on a place or go off on some mad rant about the abuses they encounter while in countries other than their own. Seems to be the way of the world these days: don’t ruffle feathers, don’t speak your mind (unless you do it anonymously on a Yahoo news page), please keep off the grass, thank you. When Lonely Planet dropped a link to this site on their Facebook page earlier this year, after the first few positive comments, I got a some shock horror reactions from people who were mighty offended by negative things I’d written during The Odyssey Expedition about their countries (which was one of the reasons I wrote “10 Things I Hate About U(K)”).

Apparently what I should have said about Pakistan is that it’s a wonderful place, very neat and tidy. A place where they treat people with dignity and respect, human life is sacrosanct and has really, when you think about it, been nothing but a gift to the world. But if I wrote that I’d be a sycophant or worse, a liar. If you want goofy ‘OMG! Everywhere is just, like, you know, so AMAZING!’ then you’ve come to the wrong place. If you want travel writing spiked with plenty of outrage and opinion, then I’m more than happy to pick up where Hitchens left off.

Sadly, picking up where Hitchens left off in terms of his militant (yet eloquent) atheism is going to be somewhat more of a challenge. Getting atheists together is often (accurately) described as being a lot like herding cats. We lack the charismatic charlatans that are part and parcel of religion (there’s little money to be made out of them thar atheists), and now more than ever we need competent public speakers who can show in word and deed that it’s possible to be a good person without believing in the sky fairies of yore. We need more brave souls willing to publicly rage against the injustices perpetrated by the tyrannical (or tragically misguided) followers of fanciful, not to mention moralistically flawed, Bronze-Age texts.

The death of Christopher Hitchens is undoubtedly a huge blow to the forces massing against the monolithic and despotic religions that afflict our otherwise beautiful little planet. But the good news is that the damage is done. Over the last ten years, atheists, sick and tired of the atrocities perpetrated by the True Believers of the world, have started coming out of the closet like never before. On this journey, I’ve met atheists from Panama to Palestine, from South Africa to Saudi Arabia, from Kerala to Kentucky.

Atheist books sit on the New York Times bestseller list for months. The Irish government has openly criticised the Vatican. The Church of England is tearing itself apart over the issue of gay priests. The revolutions in the Middle East this year were overwhelmingly secular. People are turning to atheism in record numbers: which is why the Pope has been so vocal against us in the last couple of years (more vocal than he’s been about the paedophile priests he willingly enabled). Perhaps he fears the coffers that line his palace (and his clothes) with gold are going to start to dry up.

But that shows we’re winning. The dam has been breached and no amount of Polyfilla is going to plug the gap. In a recent study in the USA, it was found that atheists knew more about religion than people who regarded themselves as religious. This is no co-incidence. Like a vampire dining on the blood of the poor, religion feeds off ignorance, fear and poverty. The more educated we become, the more empowered we become. We’re sick and tired of the undeserved privileges afforded religions, the barefaced hypocrisy of so-called ‘holy men’ and the arcane and barbaric laws that they support.

Of course, 9/11 was a major catalyst for this sea change in attitudes. On that day the world was slapped awake and many saw for the first time the ugly vomit speckled face of religion at its most murderous and vile. Religion has survived several onslaughts over the years, but this was different: in one masterstroke, the architects of 9/11 proved beyond a shadow of a doubt what atheists like myself had been saying for years: that the world would be better off without religion.

And what would a world without religion look like? Well, we have a case study: at the end of World War II, in order to achieve a peace with Japan, the USA forced Emperor Hirohito (after a nuclear bomb or two) to renounce his divinity. Do you see what they did there? They robbed every mad-as-a-bag-of-cut-snakes Kamikaze pilot and every Japanese soldier willing to fight to the death… of their religion.

What happened? Did the world end? Did the sky fall in? No. The Japanese put down their weapons and started making cars and PlayStations instead. Today, Japan is one of the least religious countries on Earth… thanks to the USA, one of the most religious countries on Earth. I wonder if Alanis Morrissette would think that ironic.

Compare Japan and the USA over murder rates, crime rates, poverty statistics, productivity, happiness, longevity, infant mortality, education… you name it, Japan comes out on the good side, usually by quite a long way. Hell of a case study eh?

If Sam Harris started the fire with his book The End of Faith and Richard Dawkins fanned the flames with The God Delusion, Christopher Hitchens turned up to the party with a billycan full of petrol. Hitch may be gone, but the fire he helped set is going to blaze for decades yet.

One day, the last stone from the last church will fall on the last priest, that vast hollow musical brocade of lies, subterfuge, hypocrisy and corruption will wither and die, the relentless pounding of the boot of religion on the face of humanity will cease and desist. It’s as inevitable as the tide.

It’s a shame that Christopher Hitchens won’t be around to see it.

But if you want to be around to see it yourself, for the sake of all that’s unholy, pack in those bastard cigarettes.

VIDEO: The Gringo (2002)

In this eight part series, I take THE GRINGO TRAIL through South America.

Starting in BUENOS AIRES, I have a quick look around URUGUAY and CHILE before heading up to BRAZIL just in time to miss the 2002 World Cup Final. But I didn’t miss the party afterwards!! Then I head over to Bolivia, the most BRILLIANT country in the WORLD (and I should know, I’ve been to a few!).

From the salt plains of UYUNI to the rivers of the AMAZON RAINFOREST via the Health and Safety-baiting Silver Mines of POTOSI and the CAMINO DE LA MUERTE (the Road of Death), Bolivia is just a powerhouse of nutty hilarity from beginning to end.

After hitting the INCA TRAIL to MACHU PICCHU, I head up through PERU and ECUADOR and end my journey in Bogota, COLUMBIA, one of the most dangerous capital cities in the world. Although I’m still here to tell the tale, so it probably isn’t that bad…! Finally, I find myself racing to get back to the UK for my cousin’s wedding in Dublin, Ireland: I’m cutting it pretty fine, you’ll have to watch the video to see if I make it or not! Enjoy!

VIDEO: Graham and Mandy Down Under (2002)

Back in the heady halcyon days of 2002, I travelled to Australia to meet up with Mandy, an Aussie girl I had met 3 years earlier while backpacking around Egypt.

We teamed up and took a beaten-up 1982 Holden panel van called MONTY on an epic drive across the red heart of AUSTRALIA.

From MELBOURNE we drove along the GREAT OCEAN ROAD, popped into ADELAIDE to feed the koalas, visited LAKE EYRE and COOBER PEDY on the way up to ULURU (AYRE’S ROCK), THE OLGAS and KING’S CANYON.

After a little, erm, car trouble we found ourselves in ALICE SPRINGS, went UFO hunting at the DEVIL’S MARBLES and swimming in the crystal clear waters of KATHERINE.

Up to DARWIN to search for the mangroves and then across to KAKADU NATIONAL PARK in search of crocodiles and cave paintings. After a near-fatal collision on the way to HUGHENDEN we limped along to TOWNSVILLE where we both decided to leap out of a plane at 10,000 feet up in the air.

Heading south down the East Coast of The Land Down Under, we took a sea-plane out into the middle of the GREAT BARRIER REEF and then high-tailed it to BRISBANE to watch the midnight screening of Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones. Cos we is geeks like that.

Then down, down, down all the way to SYDNEY and CANBERRA before scaling MT KOSCIUSKO, the highest mountain in Australia. After adjusting to the altitude we drove down to the coast to visit EDEN on the way back to MELBOURNE.

What’s really sweet about this video is that Mandy and I only got together the day before we started filming it: and we’re still together to this very day. Hell, good travel buddies are hard to find…!!

VIDEO: Graham and Mandy’s Greek Odyssey (2004)

In the spring of 2004, when The Odyssey Expedition was still a pipe-dream, my girlfriend Mandy and I took a trip to the mainland of Greece. We visited the Oracle at Delphi, the monasteries of Meteora, the walled city of Ioannina, the slate villages of Zagoria, the Perama Caves, the forts of Corfu and the Acropolis and old Olympic stadium in Athens.

These two videos are not really ‘travel’ vids as I usually make them, they’re more like personal photo albums (ones that move!), but I hope in these two short videos we managed to capture a taste of mainland Greece that is all too often ignored for the beaches of the islands.

VIDEO: Last Exit To Serbia! (2007)

In the summer of 2007, myself and Stanley “Stan” Stanrydt, two grown men with the mentality of 13 year olds, set out on an epic journey across the heart of Europe in search of music, beer, broads and a decent sausage.

In a Mazda sportscar we christened ‘Traci Lords’ (she was underage but could still squeeze us both in), we shot through France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Slovenia and Croatia in order to arrive in Novi Sad, Serbia, for the rather epic Exit Music Festival, held in an ancient fort on the Danube river. There we watched the likes of the Beastie Boys and many other bands that I vaguely don’t remember.

After four days of drunken debauchery, we sobered up and decided to take the long way round back to the UK. So we went to Sarajevo and Mostar in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Dubrovnik in Croatia, rattled through Montenegro, got scared by the scary road in Albania, opted to take Traci out for a spin around the streets of Pristina, the capital of Kosovo, before dripping our toes in Macedonia, skirting the city of Sofia in Bulgaria and crossed back over the Danube into Romania.

After a spooky trip around Bran castle in Transylvania (where Dracula was supposed to have lived), we thundered hell for leather back to Liverpool via Hungary, Germany, The Netherlands, Belgium and France. A music festival and about twenty countries visited for no good reason other than we could? Now that’s MY idea of a holiday!!

Day M81: BOOM! The Marshalls!

17.12.11:

When standing for election in for Manchester University Student’s Union back in the late 90s, you were not allowed to have your name appear in the student newspaper in the run-up to polling day, even if you had written an article, supplied a photo or even edited the damn thing: you’d have to use an alias.

It may have been perfectly acceptable to send an email to every Muslim student on campus implying that your opponents were both gay and Jewish, (two things I’m told will not speed up your visa application for Saudi Arabia) but having your name credit in the student paper was a big no-no.

To get around this silly no-name rule, Mr. Julian Marshall (now chief newshound at the NME) added the question “Pacific Island Nation (3,8,7)” while compiling the weekly crossword so that he could get his surname into the paper. The wily old fox got away with it too, and went on to win the election… but more importantly, I had my first introduction to The Marshall Islands.

In terms of being miles from anywhere, the Marshall Islands are pretty much up there with Pitcairn Island. Closer to Hawaii than they are to Fiji, they sit slap-bang in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Your closest continental landmass in any direction is one hell of a swim.

The capital atoll, Majuro, is famous amongst the elite group of weirdos like myself who travel on freighters: it’s the third most popular place to register ships, after Panama and Monrovia (Liberia). This has something to do with the law on board a ship being the law of the country in which it is registered, which is probably why ships registered in Jeddah are as rare as chicken’s teeth.

But there’s another reason why The Marshall Islands is famous and if I say the name ‘Bikini Atoll’ I hope your ears prick up, because that was Ground Zero for the US nuclear weapons testing programme after World War II. The vast number and incredible power of the 67 bombs exploded in the Marshalls from 1946 to 1958 equated to 1.6 Hiroshima bombs being detonated every day for 12 years.

Might want to bear that in mind next time you hear somebody saying you shouldn’t eat fish because it might contain radiation from Fukushima. Put your Geiger Counters away: that tuna is many, many times more likely to be contaminated with poo from India.

Needless to say, you’d still be ill-advised to eat vegetables from any of the atolls used for the bomb tests. But if the US got its ass in gear, it could clean up the mess it left behind over fifty years ago by using imported topsoil. But, like the landmines they left in Laos while fighting the Vietnam war, the US government has better things to spend money on. Like beer, prostitutes and unwinnable wars.

We arrived off the coast of Majuro on the Friday evening, but like the other islands we’ve visited on this journey, you’re ill-advised to enter the lagoon after dark. We therefore came alongside on Saturday morning. I skipped ashore, happy that I had now stepped foot on dry land in 191 countries.

Majuro, in keeping with fellow atolls Tarawa and Funafuti, is a big fancy coral ring in the ocean, the landmass measuring just a few hundred metres wide at any given point. Again, there’s one main road that leads from the top of the main islet to the bottom. The other islets are less built-up, and more what you’d have in mind when you think of a tropical island paradise.

Sadly, I only had a few hours to enjoy myself, as The Southern Pearl wouldn’t be staying the night. First up, I got online. Working in the small park outside the Telecommunications Agency’s two massive satellite dishes, I started hurriedly answering critical emails and updating my blog. I had only bought an hour online, so it was a real race to get everything done… a time frame made even more pressing 45 minutes later when it started to rain.

Ground Control To Major Tom.

But all done, I wandered up the road towards Uliga, the main part of the Delap-Uliga-Darrit Municipality that is The Marshall Islands’ actual capital (fact fans!). Police sirens (a sound I’ve not heard in a long, long time) up ahead, I thought maybe I would see the Marshall Islands president. But, even better, it was a procession of Marshallese people, dressed as Santas, travelling on pick-up trucks and throwing candy to the kids.

And they say size matters not!

After filling my pockets full of sweets (and kicking any remaining small children out of my way) I checked in with Jess, my CouchSurf contact for Majuro.

Both lamenting the death of Christopher Hitchens, Jess and I elected to meet up for a liquid lunch in his honour. Jess is originally from Florida, but we won’t hold the result of the 2000 Presidential Election against her. Although even the most rabid gun-toting Republican would have to admit (quietly, to themselves) that the world would be a much better place had Gore won. After doing a two year stint in Ethiopia for the Peace Corps, Jess did her MA in International Security at St. Andrews and is now working in the Marshall Islands (her second choice after Afghanistan). She’s a fellow card-holder of the anti-religion brigade and has very good taste in music. And, as it happens, whisky.

The restaurant we chose for lunch, above the RRE hotel, had no Johnnie Walker Black Label, so we opted for the only single-malt on offer, The Glenlivet, instead. I was delighted to see that Jess, like all true Scotsman, drinks her whisky neat and without the inconvenience of ice.

To Hitch!

After lunch, Jess and I headed to the highest point of the island (possibly of the entire country): a raised bridge between Delap and Long Island. Rising all of 10 metres into the air, it just reinforced how much trouble these nations are going to face as sea-levels rise.

But the all-aboard for the ship was at 2pm so we headed back to the port. Jess and I said our fond farewells (I’m sure I’ll run into her again somewhere along the line) and I clambered back on board the good ship Southern Pearl, its run (and mine) to Wallis and Futuna, Tuvalu, Kiribati and the Marshall Islands completed. Next we head back to Fiji, where after Christmas and New Year I’ll be embarking on The Southern Lily to Samoa, Tonga and New Zealand.

Much better than the Northern Apple.

I have just TEN countries left to go. This time next month when I’m in New Zealand the figure will be SEVEN. For the first time in a long time, I’m seeing light at the end of The Odyssey Expedition’s tunnel.

Day M82: There And Back Again

18.12.11: The hard part done, the crew of The Southern Pearl could now afford to let their hair down for the five day sail back down the Pacific Ocean to Fiji. It was time to fire up the barbecue!

With pork, steak, lamb, chicken, fish and sausages on offer, it was not a time for going hungry. Unless you’re a vegan or something.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Day M83: How To Write A Blockbuster – Part I

19.12.11:

I’ve been spending my days and nights (mostly nights) on board the good ship Southern Pearl practicing the ancient art of writing. I’ve been writing my blog (of course) which will one day become my book (it’s now pushing 750,000 words, so it’ll have to be edited down somewhat – James Joyce’s Ulysses is only 250,000 words). I’ve been writing Programme Bibles for TV shows you may never see and writing film scripts the names of which you may never see in backlit marquees. I don’t mind, I just enjoy writing. And then inflicting said writing on my family and friends.

Writing, especially fiction writing, appeals to my love of two things: puzzles and logistics. Since I was a kid I’ve loved puzzles. It’ll come as no great shock to anyone that my favourite video games when I was growing up were the point n’ click adventures of Golden-Era LucasArts.

When writing a screenplay, the puzzle revolves around how you get your characters from the set-up to the dénouement without invalidating the title. This is were logistics come in, and why writing fiction seems to me very closely related with what I’m doing with The Odyssey Expedition: I’ve got to think of clever, speedy, interesting, but overall logical ways of getting from point A to point B to point C and so on.

For most of my stories I have a series of hooks, which, while they are awesome ideas for individual scenes, have to lead naturally from one to the other. You give a lousy reason for going from big scene to the next, you find yourself in the territory of Episode 1, Transformers 2, Pirates of the Caribbean 3 or Indy 4: you just end up pissing off the audience.

Figuring out these links, for me, the most fun part of writing. They might come in the middle of the night or sitting on the toilet or while riding on the top of a lorry through the badlands of Northern Kenya. The thing is that once you make the connection, once you run through all the usual pitfalls in your head and it still makes sense, it just seems so bloody obvious in hindsight. Of course that’s how they escape! Of course that’s what makes the plane crash! Of course that’s why the baddie left that clue! D’oh!

It’s like a whodunit in which only you can work out the solution.

Sadly, Hollywood seems stuck in an ultra-conservative glut at the moment, with all the remakes, reboots, sequels, adaptations floating around I’m amazed when we get a single original concept for a film squeezing through each year. The only big one from last year was Inception.

Some of the greatest films of all time: Citizen Kane, Casablanca, North By Northwest, All About Eve, The Apartment, Midnight Cowboy, Star Wars, Alien, Indiana Jones, The Terminator, Back to the Future, Pulp Fiction, The Matrix, Memento and Crank were NOT adapted from something else, they were original ideas specifically created for a specific medium: film. Original ideas seem in short supply in Hollywood today, which is why American Television is running rings around the silver screen.

So I reckon there’s no better time for you to have a crack at writing a blockbuster. I’m sure you’ve got ideas floating around your noggin and you’ve got time in your life to read my ramblings so you can’t be that busy! There’s no reason why, with a bit of help, you can’t knock out something resembling a Hollywood film from back when they were good (ie. the Twentieth Century).

The thing about film scripts, and why writing them is a much better idea than writing a book (if you’re a lazy procrastinating sod like me), is that you don’t ever really sell a script, you only option it. If it’s a smokin’ hot script, you could get, say $200,000 just for the option rights. But here’s the best bit: if the studio doesn’t make the film within two years (say) the option rights revert back to you.

So then you can option the same script again for another $200,000 to another studio. There are millionaires living in Hollywood who have had no script of theirs ever made into a movie. Seriously.

Because I’m such a great chum, here are some tips and strategy that I’ve gleaned from reading various books on scriptwriting, attending scriptwriting courses and watching thousands of films. You’d pay $500 to go to a seminar to be told exactly what I’m going to tell you now, for free. Think of it as a Christmas present for sticking with The Odyssey Expedition blog over all these years.

If I manage to inspire you to write a film that makes a billion at the box office, don’t forget to mention me in your Oscar acceptance speech.