Day 1,447: Africa Has The Last Laugh

Sun 16.12.12:

Kendra, Mohammed, Mohammed, Mohammed and I jumped into the car and headed back to Cairo. Tahrir Square was having some kind of meltdown, so we had to get back to Kendra’s via Timbuktu, not arriving until 8am. As I wished to be on the bus to Port Said by 8am, this was not the best of all possible worlds. The ferry over to Turkey was due to leave at 1pm, so I’d be cutting this finer than Parma Ham. As the others went to get breakfast I hurtled into Kendra’s flat, had a quick shower (my last until next Friday), gathered my things together and we headed back out. What I really needed was a café with good, fast internet.

Kendra said there was a place around the corner, letting her gender down by failing at special distances by a factor of 10. It was around several corners and by the time we got there it was 9am. And the internet wasn’t working. And the staff were unbelievably rude and unhelpful. And there was no food. Five people, wired from a night of no sleep and pyramid climbing, all we wanted was some TLC, but it was not exactly forthcoming.

I had attempted to call the Turkish shipping company yesterday to confirm dates and times and prices, but it was to no avail. The automated answering system instructed me to press 9 for English, I pressed 9 and got through to a woman who just said ‘I do not speak English’ and hung up.

This morning Mohammed had a go, calling the Egyptian agency that the internets told us were in charge of operations in Port Said. The guy who picked up was about as helpful as a flaming bag of Hitler-AIDS left on your doorstep. He told us that they didn’t operate any ferries and he didn’t know of any ferries leaving from Port Said for Turkey.

It took us an hour to suss that he was lying. Another agency – United Shipping – had taken over the ferry route, and the old operators were doing their level best to scare customers away, not that they’re bitter or nothing. Mohammed got through to United Shipping. The ship was leaving today, but not until 7pm at the earliest. This gave me plenty of time to head over to Port Said. I just needed to get there before 3pm to buy the ferry ticket. All was good.

We chilled out and had another coffee (I had given up trying to explain tea with milk to them) before heading over to the bus station. Mohammed sorted out my ticket and the bus was leaving in about 45 minutes. I grabbed some quick kushery for breakfast (by now I was starvin’ Marvin’) and soon I was saying my fond farewells to my Pyramid-scaling chums who I have no doubt I will one day be seeing again. Cairo, you horrible litter-strewn concrete-hovelled wench of a city, I’ll miss you. I always do.

The bus was late getting into Port Said and by the time I found the shipping office (the 8th floor of a building you would swear was derelict until somebody pointed out that this is Egypt and, like India, everything must be dirty and dysfunctional. They seem to take a weird sense of pride in the fact.) it was 3:30pm.

Not to worry, the woman said it was okay to get the ticket, even if I was a bit late. That’ll be $170 please. *Jesus – How much?!!* ‘Okay, what’s that in Egyptian pounds?’

‘Sorry – must be in US dollars.’

*What??? Is that even legal?* ‘Where can I change money on a Sunday?’

‘There is a Credit Suisse Just down the road, you can change your money there.’

And so I start to walk. And walk. AND WALK.

An hour later and I have asked over 40 people where the f—ing Credit Suisse is. Everyone either tries to get me to change money with them, points me in the wrong direction or lies to me. I remember how frustrating Egypt can be when you’ve had no sleep, it’s getting dark and you need something doing, NOW.

It was 4:50pm before I found a money changer (I never did find the mythical Credit Suisse). A first he said he had no dollars, but that was a lie, an so he just gave me a lousy rate instead. It was too late in the day to argue. I had to take a taxi back to the shipping offices and once again climb all 8 flights of stairs (you need a key to use the lift). I arrived, out of breath, furious with the world, only to be told that the ship wouldn’t be leaving until 7am. But it could be any time before 7am, so I had to be ready to go. They would give me a call.

Sod a hotel for the night, yes I had slept for just two hours last night and four hours the night before that, but I’ll sleep when I’m dead. I found a 24 hour café with internet and settled in for the night.

At 11:30pm my phone rang. It was the woman from the shipping agency telling me to get to the office. I finished off whatever I was doing and headed back over. There were a group of people, mostly Syrians, milling about outside the office. The piles of luggage told me that were waiting for the ferry too. So I found a speck on the step and began to wait. It was a cold night, as nights tend to be in Egypt in winter, and after two hours of sitting there, I thought sod this for a game of soldiers and hiked all the way upstairs to the office. There they told me that they would be leaving ‘shortly’. Given the rather lasses-faire attitude most Egyptians have towards the concept of time, this could mean in a few minutes or a few days.

So I plonked myself down on one of the armchairs in the boss’s office and got myself a good half-hour’s sleep before being woken up and told that the minibus was waiting. I went down and yes there was a minibus, bus it was us having to wait, you see they didn’t have a driver. So we waited for another good half-an-hour before getting on the damn bus.

It was no 3.30am and I was in the rattiest mood you could imagine. The bus drove us all of 100 metres down the road before being stopped at the port gates by the port police who wouldn’t let us in without our passports. We had given our passports to the shipping company. When will the passports get here? ‘Shortly’.

TWO HOURS LATER we were finally in the port, but Africa wasn’t *quite* done with me yet. I had to go through customs. My bags were scanned for 476th time of The Odyssey Expedition and the scanner guy excitedly pointed out that I had a Swiss Army Knife in my backpack. Of course I did, I’m a backpacker. It was not a problem crossing any other border – including that of the USA, China and Saudi Arabia, but it’s a problem now. Well, not really: the guy just wanted to steal it from me.

F— it. Fine.

I was through arguing. I took out the knife and slammed it down on his shitty plywood table, called him a gobshite and got back on the minibus. He grinned broadly and popped the knife into his top pocket. A nice Christmas present for his horrifically obese eldest son methinks.

We arrived at the ship after just before 7am. Why the woman at the shipping office felt the need to call us 7 and a half hours ago is quite beyond me. I hurried onto the ship. It was quite nice, surprisingly, a Greek passenger ferry all kitted out like a proper ship. I found a couch and FINALLY fell asleep.

When I woke up a few hours later I found that I could barely walk. My legs ached to Billy-O. It took me about an hour to figure out that it was probably because I climbed The Great Pyramid yesterday.

I half expected to be well on the way across the Mediterranean by now, but by lunchtime we still hadn’t budged. It was 1pm before we left port, 24 hours after the advertised time of departure. If this had been a one-off freak occurrence I might have had a little sympathy, but according to other travel bloggers who have taken this journey, this sort of thing happens every week. You might call it Africa’s Last Laugh.

The day passed in a daze. I wrote a little, read a little, watched some old episodes of Black Books on my laptop. Breakfast, lunch and dinner was provided free of charge (that’s one up on those godawful GRIMaldi ferries between Italy and Tunisia) and I found myself torn between getting my money’s worth and not wishing to come back home to my new girlfriend a big fat fatty fat fat.

We would be arriving in Iskenderun, Turkey, at 11am the next day. The helpful guy working ship’s reception told me to expect to be clear of customs etc. by 1pm.

That would be 1pm Tuesday December 18. I intend to be back in my hometown of Liverpool for the weekend. Ladies and Gentlemen, you don’t need a Mayan calendar to tell you that The End Is Nigh.

Day 1,448: Asia, One Last Time

Tue 18.12.12:

It was teeming down with rain when the ship arrived in Iskenderun. I was feeling rather intolerant of any hanging about, but that’s what we did. First of all we waited to get or passports back, then we waited to get off the ship, then we waited in the customs building for the minibus to come and pick us up. Then it took us to the wrong gate so we waited – in the rain – for the minibus to come back. Then it took us to the correct gate. Then they wanted to check our bags. Again. In the rain.

I should point out that since climbing the volcano in Réunion and consequently climbing the pyramid in Egypt that my shoes have quite literally fallen apart. The upper has come away from the soul around the front of both shoes, they both have holes where the ball of my feet go and the rubber on the left soul has completely split around the edges. I only need to walk on slightly moist pavement for my socks to become wet through.

Here I am in the port, it’s freezing cold, my feet are soaking and I just want to get on a nice warm bus to Istanbul. Can I, can I please just do that?

Eventually I escaped and jumped on a minibus which kindly drove me to the next junction and then told me the bus station was just “a kilometre away.” In the rain, with wet broken shoes and no brolly. WHY DO I DO THIS TO MYSELF?? WHY DIDN’T I JUST FLY?! It would have worked out a LOT cheaper.

Luckily, the bus station was only 100 meters away. There was a bus leaving at 5.45pm for Istanbul, getting in at 8am the next day. This was good news. My current plan is to hit Istanbul, race over to Igoumenitsa in Greece, overnight ferry over to Bari in Italy, train to Milan, overnighter to Paris, London then Liverpool by the weekend.

Although there are a zillion options for getting across Europe, so this plan may – and probably will – change.

I clambered on the bus that would be taking me back to my jolly old sub-continent of Europe* and instantly remembered why Turkish buses are the best in the world. And I can say that because I used public transport in every country in the world. Maybe it was the free coffee, maybe it was the huge comfy reclining seats, maybe it was the TV screens provided for each and every passenger, placed aircraft-style in the back of the seat in front, maybe it was the free internet access.

Maybe it was the fact that Turkey’s buses are the diametric opposite of the infernal Greyhound bus ‘service’ of the poor old United States of America: hands down the WORST buses in the world. And I can say that because I used public transport in every country in the world. Way to go Greyhound! Don’t think you’re going to be able to use me as a brand ambassador any time soon.

So I used my laptop until it ran out of power and then spent the evening playing electronic Sudoku on my TV screen. And the cost? About twenty quid. That’ll do nicely, Turkey, THANK YOU.

*Many people regard Europe as a continent. It’s not really though is it? It’s a peninsular of Asia.

Day 1,450: All The Old Turks

Thu 20.12.12:

So arrived at Istanbul international bus station bang on 8am and then started the usually fun (but not fun today because it was cold, damp and my feet still hadn’t dried off from the day before) process of finding me a bus goin’ en-eeee-where. Turkey has dozens of bus companies going to every corner of the country and much of Europe. Greece was quickly struck from the list as the buses only seemed to leave at night and it would take 10 hours just to get to Thessaloniki, not even half way to Igoumenitsa. The other option then was to take a bus to Germany. As I didn’t have a map with me (and there wasn’t one on the wall in the office) I figured that Düsseldorf might be a good option. The bus would take 40 hours and arrive around 7am on Friday morning. I could walk back to Liverpool by then and still make it by 2.45pm on Saturday.

I bought my ticket (an extortionate €150, but this is no time for bartering… HSBC can pay for the damn thing) and then headed over to the shopping arcade for internet and kebab. Damn Turkey does good kebabs. I sussed out by using the excellent DB Bahn website that I could easily get from Düsseldorf to Brussels and from there take the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel to London. Sweet!!

So then, onto the bus which was for some reason populated only by the Turkish version of the elderly tearaways from Sigur Ros’s video for Hoppípola.

They played crap repetitive music (all featuring a non-stop kazooage… this is Turkey you know) via their tinny mobile speakers. They wanted to stop every five minutes to smoke cigarettes. They were incapable at conducting a conversation as any volume level that wasn’t set to ‘ear-splitting.’ AND they snored REALLY LOUDLY.

Grr…

When you start being the grumpiest old man on a bus full of grumpy old men, it’s totally time to come the hell home. It can’t come quickly enough.

We passed into Bulgaria, having to get off the bus in the night and stand in the bitter cold (it was -1°) waiting to get stamped out of Turkey, then again waiting to get stamped into Bulgaria. Only I don’t get a stamp because Bulgaria is in the EU.

For some reason (possibly forgetting the frigmarole that Stan and I had getting from Bulgaria to Romania in our little Mazda back in 2007) I assumed that the bus would be heading up into Romania and then across to Hungary and into Germany through Austria. This would mean no more freezing cold border jaunts and it would also mean that my Turkish exit stamp would be the last stamp in my passport. Stick a fork in me, I’m done.

I was wrong.

We took the more direct, but ultimately more waking-up-and-waiting-at-the-border-in-the-freezing-cold way of getting to Germany: via Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. So then out of Bulgaria (freezing), stamped into Serbia (freezing), out of Serbia (freezing), stamped into Croatia (freezing), out of Croatia (freezing) and into Slovenia (freezing).

It was a long couple of days. Every time we stopped at a service station I would charge my crap-top as the battery on this one only lasts 30 minutes before it dies a death (I miss my old HP – on a full charge it kept going for 6 hours straight, like a rather enthusiastic whore). I couldn’t afford the extortionate prices for meals so I stuck to eating extortionately priced sandwiches instead. Luckily, we hit the Alps in the daytime, so I got to enjoy some eye candy out of the window (I like mountains, okay?) before we hit Austria and then Germany, getting into Munich around 9pm and – yay! – all the oldies got off and left the entire back-end of the bus free for me to stretch my legs and enjoy the quiet.

It was then that I thought of something. Wouldn’t it be a lot more sensibler (yes that’s a word, Word) to get off in Cologne? The bus hits there before Düsseldorf and there’s a direct train from Cologne to Brussels. The word ‘Cologne’ doesn’t translate very well as in German the place is called ‘Köln’ and Christ knows how it’s pronounced. But I somehow got my point across and the conductor said he’d wake me up when we got there. I settled in for a decent night’s kip, exceptionally excited about tomorrow: I told Casey I’d see her again at The End of the World and it looks like I’m going to make good on my promise.

The End of the World in more ways than one.

Day 1,452: Well, I’m Back

Sat 22.12.12:

I had planned a long time ago to return to my hometown of Liverpool on the ferry. Originally it was to be the ferry from Ireland, but it would have been dark by the time I arrived, so instead I opted to hurtle around to Birkenhead and take the Ferry Cross The Mersey made famous by Gerry and the Pacemakers. Either way, I wanted to finish The Odyssey Expedition by ship, pulling up alongside the iconic Liver Buildings.

The ferry was all but empty, not surprising considering it was a wet and windy Saturday afternoon – as well as the last major shopping day before Christmas. The Pier Head loomed into view and up at the terminal building I could see my friends and family waiting for me. I was met off the gangplank by some press photographers and a camera crew. While I was posing for photos, the captain of the ferry disembarked and introduced himself to me – turns out he’s my second cousin on my mum’s side of the family. Meanwhile, one of the photographers turned out to be the brother-in-law of one of my mum’s colleagues from work. This is Liverpool. This is my home. And this is why, however far I travel, I will always return. I LOVE THIS TOWN!!!

I made my way up the walkway to the terminal building to be met with cheers and champagne in the rain. My mum and dad, my brother Alex, my mates and Odyssey fans. And here in that moment of triumph it’s all worth it; the joys, the frustrations, the heartbreak, the days of discomfort, the long nights of the soul, the horrors, the losses, the wins, the delights, the highs, the lows… here, now, the impossible dream, I’m home I’m home I’m home.

Day 1,455: Let’s Hear It

Tue 25.12.12:

Merry Christmas everyone! I started this THANK YOU list over 6 weeks ago, and it’s still hopelessly incomplete. These are just SOME of the people who made The Odyssey Expedition possible. There are many, many more I still have to add, you’re best viewing this as a work in progress:

Mum & Dad, Mandy Newland, Lorna Brookes, Dino Deasha, Simon Barber, Anna Rosser, Lindsey Bennett, Christian Olsen Alex Zelenjak, Rocco Fasano, Scott Jones, Leo Skelly, Alex Hughes, Laura McGann, Grethe Børsum, Matt Eland, Thierry Klinklin, Colm Broaders, John Howell, Hugh Sheridan, Maia, Carlos, Mario and his family, Francisco, Cedric, The Officers and Crew of the MV Miriam, Annette Callander, Linda, John & Ted of The September Song, Kim, Rochelle, Martin & Fabio, Seamus, Wayne, Captain Grant, Christal and her parents, Joanne, Kerri and Andrew of The Mariposa, Sarah, Rosa, Mehrdad, Ken, TJ & Esperanza, Lu, Roman, The Crew of the MV Linge Trader, Jorge & Memo, Sofia, Wallander, John Curryman, Midge, Admiral Finbar, Captain Seth, Mike Bellows, Captain Johnny Younger, Monica, Patricia, Seppe, James, Guðbjörg at Eimskip, The Crew of the MV Reykjafoss, Captain Magnusson and the Crew of the MV Dettifoss, Michelle Samson, Matt Eland, Stuart Lanceley, Mary Dowrick, Paul Gibbs, Steve Clarke, Stan Standryt, Lucy & Tim, Jewles, Denise, Helen Raghu, Helen Power, Kjell, Tom Dowrick, Danny Alexander, Lynn Robinson, Ivy, John from Romania, Fatima, Michel, Captain Mbeye of the Mustapha Sy, Piran, Maria, Tomic, Gary, Callee, Yuri, Milan & Sebastian, Jared, Isaac, Helga & Paul, Shadi, Aya, Tanko Hamza, Fred, Tony, Roland, Vivian & Kamikaze, Estelle, Tatayo, Mobengo, Justin, Steve, Marc, The Sao Tome Boat Guys, Christophe, Dominique Picard and his Family, Michael, Laure & Alex, Emilio, Tashia, Eileen, Nenien, David Sandler, Dr Daniel, Liliana, Flore & Family, Gui, Dylan, Mickael, The Captain and Crew of the MV DAL Madagascar, Yaya, Fanja, Alice & Daniel, Keith, Sevene & Thomas, Aengus Stanley, Silvia & Asier, Abdourahman, Deyan, The Captain & Crew of the MV Turquoise, Kendra, Londa, Sam & Jenny, Tara, Sylvan, Dja, Claire, Shukri, Atheer, Rati, Nick, Jamil, Fred, Atabek, Rafael, Cloe & Younne, Alla & Oybek, Seyed and his family, Arash & Arsi, Houssein & His Grandmother, Mike, Haitham, Dominik, Abbas, Damian, Turki, Luke & Dave, Vipin Es…………

Day 1,461: And So, In Closing…

Mon 31.12.12:

If you’re lucky, very lucky, you might live 30,000 days, about 82 years. You won’t remember much of the first 4,000: you’re just a kid. The following 1,800 you’re not old enough to take on the world. The final 8,000, well, they’re kinda sucky and you won’t look so good. That leaves just 16,200 days for you to really live your life. And that counter is ticking down with every sunset. I’m 33, almost 34. I’ve already used up more than 12,000 of my overall days and 6,200 of my decent ones.

But I spent 1,461 of those days, those precious days, doing something no other human being in history has ever done. I didn’t quit when things got tough, I didn’t accept no for an answer. Some may follow and do it faster, others might scoff and find this whole thing ridiculous, but nobody can ever, *ever* take this achievement away from me.

My name is Graham Hughes and I am and always will be the first person to visit every sovereign state of Planet Earth without flying.

I travelled from Uruguay to New Zealand via Iceland, South Africa, Kazakhstan and Kiribati… and returned home to Liverpool… all on ships, trains and buses. I did it on my own with no professional support. It took four years and cost me everything I own: my long-term girlfriend, my career and possibly my sanity, but I made it.

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-20869883

Thank you for following my adventures over the past four years, I hope I’ve kept you entertained, amused, politicised and enthralled. I hope I improved your geography and possibly inspired you to pick up a backpack and go see the world for yourself. But most of all, I hope I’ve given you sufficient notice that one day, possibly sooner than you think, your days are going to run out. So use what remain of them well. Let your family and friends know how much they mean to you, give your children the best start in life, laugh and dance and drink and sing and love. Leave this world, our world, a better place than how you found it.

All that’s left for me to say is goodbye, good luck, and I’ll leave you with the wise words of Manny Calavera at the end of his rather similar four-year journey of the soul:

This is the story of The Odyssey Expedition. And this is how it ends.