In what has to be the most touching thing that’s happened to me in the last 16 months of traversing the globe, last night on the bus from Shiraz, the little old lady (she must have been in her nineties) sitting in front of me who didn’t speak a word of English, turned around and offered me her phone, gesturing for me to listen to it. I put the phone to my ear and the voice on the other end introduced himself as Hossein. He explained that he was an English teacher in Khorramshahr and that I was sitting behind his grandmother.
“She’s concerned that the bus is going to get into Khorramshahr very early – at 5am, and that you’re not going to have any breakfast. She wants you to come to her home so she can make you something to eat. Would that be okay?”
If you want any more proof that the Iranians are the most beautiful people on the planet, I humbly suggest you visit the place yourself. Iran has gone straight into my top ten countries in the world, above Australia and above the US. I gratefully accepted Granny’s offer and after a short night’s kip on the bus we were picked up from the drop-off point by Hossein himself.
Hossein took his grandmother and me to her place where she laid out a Persian breakfast fit for a king – bread, eggs, jam, honey, yummy stuff I didn’t catch the name of, and more sweet sweet tea than even I could drink. Granny’s gaff was perfect for a energetic little old lady – filled to the brim with souvenirs, nick-nacks, ornaments, flowers, photographs and memories.
After breakfast, I said my heartfelt goodbyes to Granny – she said that I should come back to see her as soon as I’m able and that I should bring my mum because she really wanted to meet my mum. A dearer old lady I doubt I’ll ever meet. Hossein then took me to the port so I could buy my ticket to Nation 155 – Kuwait. After Hossein sorted out all my passport formalities, and while we were waiting for the ferry to arrive, we went for a walk along the Shat-al-Arab waterway.
This narrow river forms the southern border between Iran and Iraq. In 1980 Saddam Hussein (of Saddam Hussein fame) decided that Iraq should have full control of the waterway and began one of the longest, bloodiest and most pointless wars of the 20th century (and, let’s face it, there are many to choose from). Over one million people died in a ten year war that saw trench warfare and gas attacks used for the first time since World War I.
The West, which was still pissed at Iran over the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when the Shah (the King) was deposed by a bunch of religious zealots seemingly hell-bent on dragging Iran back to the 14th century, officially supported Iraq in this patently unfair landgrab. Unofficially, the West supplied both sides with weapons, prolonging the war and keeping the Islamic forces fighting amongst themselves in good old fashioned divide-and-conquer style.
So did Hossein hold any ill-will towards the Iraqis? Surprisingly, no. He has friends and family in Basra. Again, I’m reminded of what my Algerian friend said to me – that politicians are very good at making enemies of people. Houssein remembers the war, though – being evacuated from his home in the night and the fear of not knowing what (or why) these things where happening. As a consequence of the war, taking pictures of the port or of the waterway is strictly forbidden and I was made to erase some footage that Hossein and I shot in the parking lot.
By 10am, the boat was ready to leave. I said my goodbyes and great thanks to Hossein and shuffled onto the ferry that would take me to my next nation.
The journey was fun – it was a mega-fast catamaran. I was given free cups of tea (of course!) and once we were out of the Shat-al-Arab I went out on deck and felt the wind on my face as the hazy grey skyscrapers of Kuwait loomed in the far distance.
I was so happy. I had come so far in the last month – through some of the trickiest countries in the world to get into overland with a British passport – Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Iran… and now, at last, I would be stepping into the Arabian peninsular. I have already been to Saudi, and in my mind, getting around the six other nations – Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Oman and Yemen, would be a piece of cake with no advance visa required for any of them.
By 2pm, we were in dock in Kuwait City. Being the only westerner on board I had to go through a bit of a rigmarole to get my visa (they weren’t expecting me!) but sure enough it came through and – even better – it was free! The customs guy welcomed me with a cup of tea (It’s as though cups of tea are mandatory for all crazy travelling guys) and then asked if I was a tourist. I said I was, and he disagreed. “No, you are not a tourist… you are a traveller!”
This worried me a bit – did I need a traveller visa? Would he pop me back on the boat to Iran for being – you know – scruffy-lookin’?
“Tourists wear fancy clothes and stay at fancy hotels and do not see the world – you, my friend, you see the world.”
Phew – it was okay.
“Of course it is okay – you are British – you are most most welcome in Kuwait. You know Margaret Thatcher?”
I smiled and gave an uncertain nod. Maggie Thatcher ain’t too popular a character around my neck of the woods. I didn’t know where he was going with this…
“She is the Mother of Kuwait! – when Iraq invaded, she was the first to say no and the first to come to our defence. We in Kuwait will always be very grateful!”
I should explain that the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 by the Iraqis is still a bitter subject around here. During the aforementioned Iran-Iraq war, Kuwait (and Saudi) supported Iraq on the grounds that Iraq was mostly made up of Sunni Muslims whereas Iran was overwhelming Shi’ite. And what thanks did Kuwait get for this assistance? No sooner had the war against Iran finished, Saddam turned on little old Kuwait and attacked it with such venom, such ferocity it still has the power to shock twenty years on – men were dragged out into the streets and beaten to death, women were raped, the Kuwaiti towers used for target practice, millions of tons of oil were dumped into the Gulf and over seven hundred oil-wells were set on fire, turning day into night.
Whatever you may feel about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, know two things – first up that the first Gulf War was completely justified (and legal) as the international community has a duty to step in when one sovereign nation is invaded by another (which is why civil conflicts are so difficult to tackle) and secondly, Saddam was an utter ba****d – and don’t let any snivelling apologists like the ghastly George Galloway persuade you otherwise.
If the UN had any teeth (or balls for that matter) then leaders like Saddam, Mugabe, Kaddafi, Kim Jong-Il, Idi Amin, Pol Pot and Pinochet would have been arrested the minute they stepped foot outside their own country and thrown in jail where they belong. But no, they get given diplomatic immunity like Josh Ackland in Lethal Weapon II. A very warm welcome to the United Nations, don’t forget to pick up your freedom to murder with impunity card on the way out…
I jumped a taxi (which ripped me off) to the Kuwaiti towers. There I met with Michael, my couchsurf host from the Philippines. After dropping my bags off at his place we set off to the marina to scout out boats going to Bahrain.
To my dismay, there weren’t any. The guidebook was wrong. The ferry had stopped two years ago and nobody – really, nobody – was interested in going to Bahrain for a myriad of reasons. This was the start of my downfall. As the ground began to give way beneath my feet, a neon sign flashed up EPIC FAIL in my head.
So I disembarked (hilariously described on the ferry’s website as ‘dismemberment’)…
…onto the native soil of country number 169, South Korea – a place at pains to remind you that it’s the only divided country in the world. Which it is. If you ignore Cyprus/Northern Cyprus. And Ireland/Northern Ireland. And Israel/Palestine. And North Sudan/South Sudan. And Somalia/Somaliland. And China/Taiwan. And Pakistan/Bangladesh. And Mongolia/Inner Mongolia. And Macedonia/Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia. And Georgia/South Ossetia/Abkhazia. And Azerbaijan/Nagorno-Karabakh. And…
But pedantry aside, North and South Korea have been officially at war for over fifty years now (there was only a ceasefire, not a peace treaty) and now we have a crazy situation in which the southern half of the country is one of the richest and most progressive in the world, while the northern half is a basketcase and something akin to George Orwell’s 1984, if 1984 had been even more weird and depressing than it already is.
In 1980, South Korea had an economic output on a par with Afghanistan. Now it’s in the G20. Meanwhile, North Korea hasn’t just gone backwards, it has regressed to the point where it is needs to have its nappy changed by China every two hours. With a short-arsed madman in charge (and his freakishly similar-looking son poised to take over as soon as he croaks), the future is not bright for the poor bastards living in one of the last strongholds of (a-hem) ‘communism’. Or as I like to call it, ‘autocratic fasci-commie-nutty-meanie-bollocks’.
But the big question (that I hoped to answer this week) was this: How The Hell Are You Going To Visit North Korea?
I get asked this a lot, just as I used to get asked about Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq (why does nobody ask me how I’m going to get to the Marshall Islands eh? Now for that question I have NO answer). My usual response would be ‘er… by stepping over the border…?’, but I guess I owe something of a more detailed explanation. In my research (yes, I did research this odyssey, believe it or not), I sussed out two ways of doing it.
There is a company called Young Pioneers Tour which runs trips from Beijing that enter North Korea on the train and spend three days shepherding you around Pyongyang before taking the train back to China. This trip would take five days in total and cost up to $1000.
I could visit the ‘Peace Village’ set up in the middle of the Demilitarised Zone (the DMZ) and enter one of the five white huts that literally straddle the border between the North and South Korea. Half the hut is in the sovereign territory of North Korea, so as long as I manage to walk to the far side of the hut, I can quite legitimately cross North Korea off my list. As I was going to be in Seoul anyway, this trip would take less than a day and cost $50.
For reasons that are glaringly obvious, I went for Plan B. Anyone who has a problem with this can meet me behind the bikesheds after school for a damn good kicking. Be the first person to visit every capital city without flying why dontcha? At the moment I’m a year over schedule and stupidly over budget: I’ve got bigger fish to fry.
So before this fish frying could begin in earnest, I had some housekeeping to do. Taiwan was giving me headaches as I had originally planned to take the ferry from Japan to Taiwan and then take a cargo ship or something back to China (probably Hong Kong). The bad news is that the Japan-Taiwan ferry stopped in 2007, yet another victim of low-priced flights. The good news is… well, I’ll tell you next week, but it meant that I needed yet ANOTHER Chinese visa (why oh why didn’t I just get a multiple entry one I’ll never know).
So I accompanied Dane off the ferry and onto the Seoul metro (nice!) to his backpackers (Inside Backpackers, would recommend) and there I booked a trip to the DMZ for the next day. The nice lady on reception found a visa agent for me to use – the Chinese Embassy in South Korea no longer accepts visa applications by real people. I headed over to the office and gave in my passport. But there was a problem. In order to get the visa by the earliest date (which would be next Monday) I would have to give proof that I had already been granted a Chinese visa.
And my Chinese visa was in my other passport. The group visa I got in Nepal was on a separate piece of paper, not in my passport. This meant I would have to hand in both passports. As I wanted to visit Japan this weekend, this was something of an arse. Eventually I got the guy to agree to give me one passport back tomorrow so I could still do the Japanese thing. Yet another bit of unforeseeable Odyssey madness.
To add a little flavour to proceedings, next Tuesday is a big public holiday in South Korea, so if I didn’t pick up my visa then, I would be waiting until the end of the month.
I headed back to the nice backpackers to pick up my stuff, but I would not be staying there: once a CouchSurfer, always a CouchSurfer. My host in Korea was a guy called John from Atlanta, Georgia who quite possibly qualifies as the coolest CouchSurf host of all time (up there with Gui in Mozambique), I mean, this guy WAS the Big Lebowski. He will be henceforth referred to as The Dude.
He had a tiny flat which managed to cram in at least five CouchSurfers Tardis-style, at any one time. When I arrived he was already hosting a couple who had been biking it from France all the way here to Seoul, which was mighty impressive. I mapped out a spot on the floor and cast out my worries.
The Dude wanted to go out on the raz, something I cannot for the life of me fathom why anyone would think was a bad idea, aside from the fact I had to be at the backpackers for 7.15am to do the DMZ tour. I’ve made tighter deadlines than that, and so The Dude and I hit the streets of Seoul looking for Seoul food and a place to eat.
We didn’t have to look very far. The Dude treated me to some authentic Korean barbecue (where you cook the meat yourself on a circular hotplate in the middle of the table) and then we hit the city.
Seoul is flashy, it’s lively, it’s neon, it’s welcoming, it’s loud – and, best of all, it’s pretty cheap (compared with other capital cities). We went to a string of different places, meeting up with The Dude’s rather large set of ex-pat mates from all over the world and getting progressively more and more intoxicated until at 3am I decided it might be time to come home for at least a couple of hours kip.
DAY 625: You Don’t Need To See His Identification
So after a literal 40 winks I was up again at 6am and heading across town on the excellent metro system (Liverpool, goddamn it, when I get back, you and me are having WORDS) to get to the backpackers. With nothing else to read, I was perusing the DMZ tour brochure when something rather ugly and red on the back page caught my eye: the words YOU MUST CARRY YOUR PASSPORT AT ALL TIMES.
I ran to the backpackers, but it was not going to happen. No chance. Forget it. Goddamn it – this is one of the reasons I have two passports, so I can go places while one is in an embassy – and both of them where with the bloody visa agent.
But I can go tomorrow, right?
Wrong. The tour was full tomorrow. There was no tour on Sunday or Monday and Tuesday was the beginning of this holiday – there wouldn’t be another tour for the next ten days.
So after a fit of swearing that would make Roger Mellie blush, I stormed back to The Dude’s flat with my tail between my legs. When the going gets tough, the tough get onto Google. They couldn’t be the only tour company in town, they couldn’t…
Thank the maker, I found another tour company and this one was nowhere near as unreasonable when it came to what time I had to get up in the morning: the tour left at 10.40am. I booked the trip, headed over to the visa agents, picked up my passport and Happy Days.
Friday night was a bit of a repeat of last night. It involved Seoul, a city I now love, some tasty goddamn food and something to do with beer. And possibly some dancing. We stayed out way past your bedtime, but I can do that because, contrary to what my teachers would have had you believe, I am big and I am clever.
What wasn’t clever was the fact that, on the eve of what would be a great victory (and great television) my camera, Javier, threw another of it’s periodic spazzes and this wasn’t a simple fix or even a cunning workaround: the cartridge that holds the video tape had completely gone la-la. Even if I did make it to North Korea tomorrow, there would be no High-Definition evidence. I bet on the TV show they say ‘Graham was told not to film, so he captured the experience on his phone’ or something. That’d work.
DAY 626: Through Early Morning Fog I See
This morning was infinitely more pleasant. I had time for a shower and everything.
I was even early getting to the hotel from which the tour departed: an unusual occurrence for me as I generally like to show up 30 seconds before anything departs, much in the manner of Sherlock Holmes. Just to put the willies up me, somebody had written something on my website along the lines of “they sometimes don’t let you walk to the far end of the peace hut”. That weighed heavy on my mind, but hey-ho, whatcha gonna do? If all else failed, there was always Plan A.
My bus buddy on the trip was a British guy called Mark Who worked in the video games industry. At LAST! Somebody with an interesting job! And if you don’t think working in the video games industry is interesting, then you are a fool and a bigot, you smell of turnips and your dog thinks you’re an idiot. The video games industry is bigger than Hollywood and, unlike Britain’s (ha!) television industry and our (oh dear god no!) film ‘industry’, our video game makers are some of the best (and most successful) in the world. Did I mention that the Grand Theft Auto series is Scottish? I probably should have. It’s made more money than the Lord of the Rings films, although you won’t hear anyone from the Scottish Tourist Board harping on about it, sadly enough.
Anyway, me and Mark got on like the proverbial house on fire as we chatted about Zero Punctuation and the upcoming Goldeneye remake. We were taken to places called things like The Bridge of No Return and then deep into the DMZ itself, a place where you can be refused entry for looking too scruffy or even – eek! – having long hair.
Luckily for me, the guy with the shotgun from Easy Rider wasn’t on duty today.
So before long we were in the ‘Peace Village’ where negotiations take place between representatives of the two Koreas. A line runs down the middle of the village, much in the manner of Felix Unger’s line in The Odd Couple. This is the line that may not be crossed: to do so would be an act of War. However, there are five small huts that straddle this line. During meetings between the north and south, the representatives sit on their respective side of a table which is positioned right in the middle of the room: the line of demarcation runs down the middle of it. I guess they have to be careful not to stretch out their feet: North Korea is, after all, a nuclear power (a fact that is truly terrifying).
We entered the middle hut and before anyone could tell me not to, I ran around the table and to the far side: Kim Jong-Il be damned, I was in North Korea!! Here’s a secret video I shot whilst in the Peace Hut:
A massive ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY countries now officially visited and just THIRTY to go (fifteen of which should be a cakewalk), I felt like cracking open the champagne, but the guards in this area looked a little stern for some reason, so I thought I’d best leave it until later. All too easy…
On the way back from the village I bought my ‘I went to North Korea and all I got was this lousy T-shirt’ T-shirt while Mark got himself some North Korean money. You could buy DMZ teddy bears and everything: I wonder if they have them on the North side?
When I got back to The Dude’s, my fellow CouchSurfers had been replaced by a couple of Turkish girls called Asli and Selma and a guy from Germany called Paul. Baffled at the prospect of why anyone would willingly stay in on a Saturday night, we headed out, drawn like moths to a flame to the flashy neon lights and scrummy scran that the streets had to offer.
Along the way we met drifters, strangers, vagabonds, rapscallions, ne’er-do-wells, scallywags, ruffians, thieves, princesses, courtesans, belly-dancers, disco-dancers, crusties, greebos, sex-kittens, pie-eyed galoots, slack-jawed gawkers and flannel-footed mugwumps.
Needless to say, we had a blast. I LOVE COUCHSURFING!!!
Day 627: The South of The South
Shaking a hangover off is an undisputed talent of mine, but making up for lost hours of sleep is another matter entire. This being the case I refrained from picking myself up off the floor (as was the plan) for a very, very long time. But now I needed to head to country number 171 – Japan – post haste. Now I had one of my passports I needed to get there and back before end of play tomorrow or else I would be more stuffed than a stuffed toy that’s just eaten a seven-course meal which consisted entirely of stuffing.
The plan was to head down to Busan the south of South Korea, get the last ferry over to the Japanese city of Fukuoka (please don’t ask me how that is pronounced, I’m told it’s Fu-Coke-Ah, but the way I say it would have me banished from the dinner table), spend the night and then return in the morning. However, by the time I got to the train station something happened that I hadn’t considered – the trains were sold out for the next few hours. Ah. As it only took a few hours to get to Busan (excellent, excellent trains BTW Korea – give yourself a pat on the back), I hadn’t really considered that possibility. As it was, and given the best laid plans of mice and men, I didn’t get to Busan until 9pm – too late for the ferry (or so I thought… I think they actually run until eleven).
So I checked into the nearest backpackers (the Indy hostel – seemed appropriate somehow) and resolved to get up at the crack of dawn the next morning. This resolve was slightly compromised by the other resolution I had set myself – find a KFC. After 4 days of nothing but Korean food, I was hankering for something that wasn’t weird or slimy or alive. I walked until well past midnight, but the flashy neon-lit streets of Busan hummed only one tune: my way or the highway. I made do with a burger from a street stall.
Day 628: Nonsense On Stilts
Would you believe that I not only managed to haul myself out of bed at 6am, but that I also managed to get a ticket for the first crazy ferry over to Japan – and man, was it a crazy ferry. Like nothing I’ve EVER seen before, the Beetle is a boat that does away with the age-old problem of the hull having to part all that water by simply (and seemingly impossibly) driving through the water ON STILTS.
Whoever invented this abomination of aquadynamics should be lauded and feared in equal measure. I take my hat off to you sir.
The journey was smoother than a silk cigar and before I really knew what was going on I was in Country 171, or Japan as people who aren’t on The Odyssey like to call it.
Because I needed to get back for my passport, Fukuoka only got a cursory glance, I’m afraid. But there wasn’t much to see. My friend Stringer tells me this is a big Yakuza city – the mayor was recently assassinated – but from where I was standing, it looked like a big Ya-loser city: all concrete and overpasses and dull. I had an hour before the return journey, so I thought I’d give the place the benefit of the doubt and go for a walk – I also needed to find an ATM – my departure tax could only be paid in yen.
I didn’t find much. Just some streets and some buildings and a 7-Eleven. Maybe the port area is just poo and the rest of the town is ‘happening’, as the kids say. Had I more time and more money, I would have loved to head up to Tokyo on the bullet train and hang out with Stringer, but not this trip, I’m afraid. I took my Yen and headed back to the ferry terminal.
Biff bash bosh I was back in Busan (man that Beetle is FAST) and within an hour I was hurtling north on a train. I guess because I’ve never been to Japan before, and it’s one of the few countries that I hadn’t been to before The Odyssey began that I really really wanted to see, I felt like I owed Japan an explanation.
The yachting season around the Pacific ends in December. If I don’t get to The Marshall Islands before then, there is little chance of me getting there before NEXT MAY. Sorry Japan, I really, really need to get them there skates on. But don’t worry: I’ll be back.
I arrived in Seoul just before 6pm and I ran like the wind to the passport agency, praying to Bacchus that it was still open. I knocked on the door. No answer. I knocked again and opened the door… thank the god of wine… it was still open. But my passport wasn’t there. It had been picked up by the German guy and the Turkish girls that were CouchSurfing at The Dudes.
You fookin’ LEGENDS!
I headed back to The Dudes he took me out on his motorbike (did I mention he was a DUDE?) razzing it about town like we weren’t made of squishy human bodyparts. Weeeeeee!
Day 629: Octopussy Galore
With my passport in hand and North Korea and Japan in the bag, there was nothing keeping me in Korea save the craic. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, today was the start of a big festival here in Korea, so I was worried that I might not get a space on tonight’s ferry back to Qingdao in China.
Luckily for me, Asli and Selma, the Turkish girls, had got the very same ferry as me a couple of days ago and had befriended the captain and the first mate (very resourceful – I should have brought them with me). Selma gave the first mate a call on The Dude’s phone and he said he’d meet me at the terminal at 4pm and sort me out with a ticket.
What a guy!
So we headed out for lunch, and since this was going to be my last Korean meal, The Dude wanted it to be special: so, inspired by Oldboy, we headed out to eat some traditional Korean LIVE OCTOPUS. Stupidly, I took all my bags with me, which was a BAD CALL as no sooner had we left the flat but the heavens opened and it rained down so much it made the Niagara Falls look like a light shower. Everything (especially my shoes) got SOAKED. Rats!
But eventually we made it to the fish market, bought the –ahem- merchandise and headed over to a nearby restaurant (accessed by wading through a torrent of hooky overflowing drain water) and sat down for the coolest meal I’ve ever partaken in, if only because I felt like I was Captain Kirk having to eat the crazy alien food on some crazy alien planet and – let’s face it – octopuses look like crazy alien beings.
The tentacles squirmed around in my plate. You have to dip them in oil so the suckers don’t fix themselves to your oesophagus on the way down. Then chew it well (you don’t want it attaching itself to your stomach lining) and it’s down the hatch. GULP!
As somebody once said; you should try everything in life at least once, with the exception of incest and country dancing.
I got to the ferry terminal in Incheon bang on time (thanks to The Dude paying my fare – we were all out of working cash machines) and to my surprise there were still tickets available for the ferry so I didn’t have to bother the first mate. I got stamped out and clambered aboard: back to China, for the third time.
So then, South Korea: you’re a great little place ain’t yah? Not as autocratic as China and not as expensive as Japan. Gastronomically and culturally a nice mix of the two. Could do with a few more cash machines that take foreign cards, but other than that, you’re doing a great job, carry on.
You know, when I stepped out of the Vietnamese Consulate back in September I honestly thought that my days of being trapped like a cog in the bureaucratic nightmare that is VISAHELL was over.
But then came East Timor, deciding just a few months ago to stop issuing visas for the trickle of western tourists that bother to visit their country overland from Indonesia. But even after that was all sorted out, like the mythological hydra, more bloody visas were called for, most hilariously for Indonesia as described in my blog entry entitled A Red Background.
And now with just 17 countries left to visit and all of them being as far-flung as you can fling a flang, I’m trapped on the border of Papua New Guinea almost having a nervous breakdown brought upon by yet another impenetrable layer of bureaucracy that makes the world of Terry Gilliam’s Brazil look streamlined and sensible.
WHAT’S WRONG WITH THESE DAMN PLACES? I’m not a criminal, I’m not a terrorist, I’m not a international superspy. Are they really doing that well that they can afford to turn back tourists?? PAPUA NEW GUINEA, in the short time I was in Jayapura I met SIX people who gave up trying to get into your country. I’m not bigging myself up, I’m just a wannabe TV presenter on just one of Rupert Murdock’s myriad cable channels. But one of the guys you shooed away was a millionaire.
I’ll say that again, just in case ANYONE from Papua New Guinea is reading this.
YOUR COUNTRY, WHOSE PER CAPITA GDP IS LESS THAN THE GAZA STRIP’S, TOLD A MILLIONAIRE THAT THEY DID NOT WANT HIS CUSTOM.
Are you guys INSANE? Like, really really insane??
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let’s start at the beginning. Stepping off the Pelni ferry at 4am on Thursday 16th December was a little like trying to get out of the front row of an Oasis gig just as the band is about to start but loaded down with backpacks and teetering on a watery precipice. There were people EVERYWHERE. It was all I could do to prevent myself falling into the breathtakingly polluted water of Jayapura’s port.
Groggy, sleepy and unhappy I began to trudge towards the few hotels listed in the Lonely Planet. The few CouchSurfers here had buggered off for the Christmas hols and so the choice was either hotel or a notel. The first place I tried was full.
So was the second.
And the third.
And the fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh.
After TWO AND A HALF HOURS of trudging around with my backpack and my bags, I finally found somewhere for the night, but at $22 for a single room, I could feel my already stretched budget kicking me in the balls. But I justified it to myself because I could have a couple of hours kip this morning, so I was effectively getting two nights for the price of one.
It wasn’t much of a justification, but at least there was air conditioning, a hot shower, a western-style toilet and a TV (that I didn’t use). I fell asleep and woke up a couple of hours later, gathered my ‘visa kit’ and raced off to the Papuan New Guinea Consulate for when it opened at 10am.
Now it says in the Lonely Planet that you can get a PNG visa at the Consulate in Jayapura the next day, or if you ask really nicely, the same day.
Good one, LP. Did you actually get a visa at this consulate, or did you just go in and ask them how long they take? Because I can tell you it’s much MUCH more of a headache than that.
I filled out the form enquiring after my collar size and father’s maiden name only to be told that I couldn’t make a visa application without a valid airline ticket out of the country.
TOP TIP for developing nation: If a western tourist ludicrously outstays his or her visa and you can’t afford to deport them, just sentence them to five years in jail. THEIR OWN COUNTRY will soon pay for their repatriation!!
Anyway, twattily enough, I also had to write another daft letter explaining why I wanted to go to Papua New Guinea.
The temptation to write TO RAPE AND STEAL AND DESTROY was almost overwhelming, but I managed to stifle that baser instinct. So I went to the internet place over the road, bought a ticket from Port Moresby to Brisbane, wrote a silly letter and returned… to be told to come back after 1pm.
So I waited outside in the baking heat of northern New Guinea, within a skerrick’s pube of the equator, sweating and fuming. If only I’d know this would just be the beginning of my VISAHELL, I probably would have gone off to shoot liquid crack into my eyeballs. But instead I waited patiently (and sweatily) and at 1pm I walked in and handed over my papers, tickets, photocopies, photos and application forms only to be told I needed to get a photocopy of my Indonesian visa.
Wha? Uh? Bu…?
I stormed off down the road, got page 23 of my passport photocopied in a roadside shack and returned within the half-hour.
Thanks. Will it be ready tomorrow.
The lady said she would try.
I jumped onboard the next ‘bemo’ (minibus) back to town. Happy days.
I found a place just up the road from my hotel that had free internet but where the coffee was TWO POUNDS a cup (blimey! – so much for travelling on the cheap!) and managed to pad two coffees out to last me the whole day. The coffee place closed at 10pm and I retired to my hotel. Things were going well – at this rate I should be in Papua New Guinea by the weekend.
The next day I checked out of my hotel and hop, skipped and jumped down to the Consulate, five miles away.
Here’s a video recreation of my conversation with the woman on the front desk.
I stepped outside and emitted a silent scream. Looks like I’ll be in hideously expensive (well, let’s just say ‘hideous’) town of Jayapura for the weekend. If this visa isn’t ready by Monday morning, I am quite frankly going to have a bit of a meltdown. After scoping out the competition (and finding them all full for the weekend) I checked back into my hotel only to be told that the only rooms they now had left were ‘luxury’ rooms.
I stepped outside and emitted a very LOUD scream.
So the weekend slobbered by with me attempting to minimise my expenses as much as possible. I generally hung out in the café with internet and actually managed to stretch the purchase of one coffee cover a mammoth twelve hour internet binge in which I managed to download this video off my good chum Leo and convert it for YouTube:
No mean feat at 56 kbits a sec I tell you!
So what do you want to know about Jayapura? Well it’s a wild west town on the far eastern edge of Indonesia. It’s unattractive, unremarkable and, well, about as much fun as sticking broken glass up your nostrils.
But here’s something to make you laugh. Or cry, I dunno. In the middle of the town there is a excruciatingly tasteless concrete statue of an Indonesian soldier standing with a flag and gun – and this soldier is being held up on a pedestal by obviously Papuan natives. Anyone who has seen the latest Harry Potter film might spot the similarities with the ‘Magic Is Might’ statue ordered by a certain He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.
Anyway, before I knew what was what it was Monday. The weekend was over (not that Jayapura has much in the way of ‘weekends’ but hey-ho. So I hailed a bemo and headed off to the PNG consulate for the fourth time.
Here’s a video recreation of my conversation with the woman on the front desk.
I returned THREE TIMES that day. The first time she told me to come back at 1. The second time she told me to come back at 4. The last time she told me that it wasn’t ready, but would DEFINITELY be ready for tomorrow.
It’s not just the inconvenience here, it’s the fact that Jayapura is ugly, smelly and EXPENSIVE. I returned to my hotel sweaty, hot, exhausted (the consulate is five miles away) and ready to kill, kill and kill again. Luckily for me I ran into a couple of Bules in the same position. One was a South African surf/wave detective (yes!) called Harald, and the other was a top chap from Hawaii called Mike. Harald and Mike are travelling the world in pursuit of the perfect wave. It’s all very cool indeed.
So we had a few drinkies together. They were going to try and get visas for PNG but decided (based on what they had been told by fellow Bules) that they were going to skip their trip to Papua New Guinea BECAUSE IT WAS TOO DIFFICULT TO GET A VISA. You hear that, PNG?? So they were going to stay in Indonesia instead AND SPEND ALL THEIR MONEY IN INDONESIA INSTEAD. Yeah – go for it, guys, PNG obviously has bigger fish to fry.
The next day I (again) packed all my things together and checked out of my hotel. I travelled over to the PNG consulate and… hey! Guess What…?
So that’s a no then is it? A NO. EVEN THOUGH YOU TEXTED ME THIS MORNING SAYING THAT MY VISA WAS READY AND I COULD COME PICK IT UP.
If somebody had handed me a tank of petrol and a match at this point I would have not been responsible for my actions.
So I returned to my hotel as quickly as I could an – would you Adam n’ Eve it – the damn place was FULL. Utterly utterly full.
That was it, I thought. Death must reign down from above. While I know it’s not Indonesia’s fault per se, I must regretfully report that I’m really starting to despise Indonesia. While India will always be home to the most irritating people in the world, Indonesia (appropriate name) comes a very close second. As I walk down the street there is an excruciating meeeeee-ster every few seconds. If I ignore it, it will continue meeeeeee-ster! MEEEEEEEEE-STER!!! MEEEEEEEEEE-STER!!!!!!! MEEEEEEEEEEEE-STER!!!!!!!!!!!, but if I turn I know I’ll get the old howareyou? followed by the usual, predictable peel of howling laughter that leaves you wondering whether you remembered to put on your trousers this morning.
No, I don’t want to shake your hand wizened old man – mainly because I was having a slash the other day and I saw the man next to me SCOOP PISSY WATER OUT OF THE URINAL WITH HIS HAND and ‘wash’ his dick with it. As with many developing nations, germ theory and basic hygiene are undiscovered countries here – people do all kinds of disgusting crap with their hands and then expect me to shake on it. Ha! No! Bugger off.
And for heaven’s sake: maybe, like one day, I might, you know, want to go 24 hours without eating luke-warm white rice with a GODDAMN COLD FISHHEAD ON TOP. I saw a sign for Pizza Hut yesterday. I got very excited about it and all day I was fantasising about getting a nice HOT pepperoni pizza… Actual Bread! Melty Cheese! Spicy Sausage!!
I walked back to my hotel and asked the girl on reception to order me a pizza. Then I found out that Jayapura does not have a Pizza Hut. It’s in another town, 15km away.
Okay: is there anywhere in this large sprawling town where I can get… chips? No. Steak? No. Pasta? No. Potatoes? No. A Sarnie? No. A Sausage? No. Mexican? No. Indian? No. Thai? No. Malaysian? No. Chinese… come on, there MUST be a Chinese place…? No. A kebab?
What’s a kebab?
DEAR GOD PLEASE HELP ME.
There are a hundred food stalls and shops here in Jayapura, and EVERY SINGLE ONE just sells white steamed rice and fish-heads. You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. In the Middle East I get it, IT’S A DESERT: a lump of gritty meat wrapped in sandy bread is the best you can hope for. But in Indonesia you could throw a stick into the ground and it would grow into a tree. These were THE SPICE ISLANDS for heaven’s sake. What’s with the monoculture? What’s with the little plastic packets of ‘spicy sauce’ I get with my rice and fish heads?? Maybe Indonesia isn’t such an appropriate name – if there’s one thing I’ll always forgive India all her sins for, it’s the corkin’ nosh. Here you’re best bringing a packed lunch – those fish heads have been sitting in that hot, sweaty, fly-infested window for hours… or maybe days…
And is anything open after 9pm? I know going to bed early is the Asian disease (and quite possibly why there are so many Asians in the first place) but please, I just want a bottle of water. Or maybe a pack of Handie Andies.
And are sidewalks without massive deadly holes in them too much to ask? Do Indonesian town planners sit around with diagrams and schematics working out the optimum way to turn a simple task like walking down the street into a live-action version of Super Mario Brothers? And does all this litter bother anybody but me? On the boat to see the Komodo Dragons last month there was so much crap in the water I was convinced that a ship hauling rubbish to the dump had recently sunk – it brought to mind the trash-compactor scene from Star Wars: oh no, all in a day’s work for this dianoga-friendly UNESCO World Heritage site. Illegal logging? That’s no problem – just give me a bung and I’ll look the other way… after all, there’s plenty more virgin rain forest where that came from.
AND WHAT is with this whole thing of making it impossible to see out of the windows of minibuses? How the hell am I supposed to know when to get out? Now I understand some people (drug-dealers mostly) don’t want people seeing into their vehicle, but purposefully making only 10% of your windscreen see-through is just f—ing NUTS. Is it to stop tall people stealing your minibus?
And no, I DON’T SMOKE. But thanks for walking all the way over here so you can sit right next to me in this big empty room and blow smoke in my face. And, since you’re here, why not crane your neck over so you can read what I’m typing? Go ahead, I find it easier to write with a goddamn audience. Yes, I prefer friendly people to the cold indifference of Eastern Europeans, but c’mon, this is just… irritating. Really, really irritating. Like that noise they make in Dumb and Dumber.
AND YES your music is shite it keeps me up all night. Well, it would do if I wasn’t such a heavy sleeper. And no, I don’t want it amplified so loud that it shakes the poo out of my bottom. There’s a passive-aggressive notion from middle-class dinner tables that western (well, UK, US and Jamaican) music is somehow inferior to what we like to condescendingly describe as ‘World Music’. To that I say PFFFFFFFFT. Local music is AWFUL pretty much everywhere: in Latin America the best you can hope for is Me Gustas Tu, in Africa everyone is too busy listening to African-American homosexual jingle-pop (or R&B as it’s also known), continental Europe is all um-pah-pah, accordions, the Spinal-Tap of Death Metal or 80s pop that would have seemed dated in the 80s, the Middle East just sounds like Tarzan falling down a very deep well, India is some shrieking harridan singing through her nose whilst wobbling about behind a pillar, SE Asia is even more obsessed with Celine Dion and Bryan Adams than even the Middle East (the more I travel, the more I become convinced that heterosexuality is the one that’s ‘not natural’) and Indonesia? Jesus wept. Possibly because people kept playing Indonesian music at him.
Oh Graham, you big meanie… you’re such a music nazi. Yes, yes I am and this music ist not gut! From a population of 250 million with its thousands of islands, hundreds of languages and mosaic of cultures, I expect at least one song that makes me tap my foot instead of sticking my fingers in my ears and going LALALALALALALALALALALALALALALA.
In short, Indonesia: you irritate the crap out of me, you don’t wash your hands, your cuisine is as dull and your music is poo. And too loud. It’s not me, darling, it’s you. You’re too plain Jane, the spice has gone out of our relationship and I would rather spend my time with other countries – ones that like to stay up late and dance until the break of dawn. Let’s get divorced so I never have to see you again, but I can look back on my time spent with you with fondness as my memories of your bloody awful cooking fade with time. Welcome to Dumpsville, Population: You.
BUT WAIT…! What’s this?
Indonesia… come back!!
I didn’t mean it! I was just – you know – venting!
Yes, I will forgive a country of pretty much anything if it manages to send my tastebuds on a spine-tingling roller-coaster ride of texture, flavour and outright yumminess. And tonight, Indonesia you have surpassed yourself.
Maybe the fact that I had to eat crap for two months was a conspiracy to make me lower my standards, lower my defences before… WHAM!!!
The tastiest dish I have EVER EVER eaten.
A little bit of backstory: after getting kicked out of my hotel, I headed over to the hotel that Mike and Harald were staying at and tried to check in there, but (lords-a-lordy) it was also full. Harald and Mike, being the top blokes that they are, agreed to let me sleep on their floor and the hotel kindly supplied me with a mattress.
So once I was settled in, Mike and Harald had some good news… unlike me they wouldn’t be spending a lonely Christmas in this shithole, they had just scored the last couple of seats on the last plane out of here on Thursday morning. Lucky buggers.
Mike was (understandably) ecstatic at this news and wanted nothing more than some decent tucker to celebrate, so we headed towards the seafood shacks laid out along the road beside the harbour. But not just to any seafood shack, we went to THE seafood shack. Possibly the finest seafood shack in South East Asia.
THIS is what I’m talkin’ about! For just six quid each, we got a deliciousfreshly-caught blue grenadier cooked to perfection of the barbie:
We also got a plateful of delicious deep-fried king prawns:
But that was a mere trifle compared to the gastronomic perfection that was to come. I ordered fresh calamari out of the cooler box and Harald, being fluent in Indonesian (and an able fisherman himself) was able to explain exactly what we wanted. And what we wanted was heaven on a plate. And that’s exactly what we got.
She may not look like much kid, but she’s got it where it counts.
Lightly tempura’d calamari, served up with long-cut stir-fried veggies in a sweet and sour sauce. Man, my mouth is watering just thinking of it. Usually calamari can be a bit chewy – this stuff was so fresh it literally melted in your mouth.
So yes, Indonesia, you have won me over. Unlike the BLOODY PAPUA NEW GUINEA which well and truly HASN’T. That night I stayed up drinking with the other Bules staying at our hotel, all of whom were waiting for visas. This guy, Quentin, was from France and had been waiting TWO WEEKS for a visa.
Please be aware that at this point it was the wee small hours of Wednesday morning: Christmas day is NEXT SATURDAY.
If we didn’t get our visas for PNG today, we’d be stuck in Jayapura until 2011.
And all the wonderful calamari in the world wouldn’t make it worth staying. I wanted out. I wanted to reach my 51st country before the year’s end – and, more than that, I wanted to USE the damn plane ticket to Australia they made me buy.
I wanted to see Mandy again. It’s been too long.
So after a few hours kip, Quentin and I descended on the FRIKKIN’ PNG Consulate for the twentieth time. And this time we were not leaving until we got our visas. I had been told yesterday that my visa was ready and IN MY PASSPORT. Arriving at 10am, we were told to wait.
The visa is in my passport! Give me the damn thing!!
It needs to be signed.
By the man who signs the visas.
And is this man in work today?
And is this man coming into work today?
I don’t know.
ARE YOU ON CRACK?
Okay, give me my passport now, I’ll sign it myself and take my chances.
I have never wanted to beat another human being to death with their own shoes before, but this bloody woman was seriously moments away from joining the choir invisible. I told her I wasn’t leaving without my visa and she put up the ‘closed’ sign and tottered off.
If they had just told me in the first place that it would take a week to put a bloody stamp in my bloody passport it wouldn’t be so bad. If they hadn’t made me come back TIME AND TIME AGAIN IN THE SWELTERING HEAT with false promises that my visa was ready it wouldn’t be so bad. If they where rushed off their feet and had thousands of applications to get through, it still wouldn’t be acceptable, but it wouldn’t be so bad.
But we are talking here about a stamp in a passport and a couple of lines of writing. Even if you were an illiterate slug it would only take a minute to do. And it wasn’t as though there was a queue of Bules waiting outside every morning – and Indonesians don’t need visas for Papua New Guinea. They probably had about ten visa applications to process A WEEK. If that. Well, me and Quentin waited. And waited.
The first few hours were painful. It was hot, it was sweaty and I’m sure my hair was beginning to fall out. At 1pm they wanted to close for lunch so we go chucked out, but we were back again at 2pm sharp. My bloody mindedness was now thinking along the lines of ‘if I create a bloody nuisance of myself, they’ll give me the visa just to get shut of me’.
Well, it wasn’t the most elegant of plans, but (eventually) it worked. But not early enough for me to be able to get to PNG today. The last taxis apparently left at 1pm. It was 3.30pm before I got my visa. Another exasperated Bule, a German guy called Jan, came into the consulate and got his visa at the same time – he, like me, had been waiting a week.
Quentin, on the other hand, who had been waiting for TWO WEEKS for his visa, came away empty handed. Unbelievable. Utterly unbelievable.
Oh, and our ordeal didn’t end there. Jan and I headed over to the immigration office in Jayapura to get stamped out of the country when we were hit with the most baffling piece of red-tape in the history of dick-headed bureaucracy. If you got a visa on entry to Indonesia, you aren’t allowed to leave via Jayapura. As Jayapura is the ONLY border post between PNG and Indonesia, this somewhat leaves your options limited.
Luckily for me, I had gone through the frigmarole of getting a ‘proper’ visa for Indonesia in East Timor (as they weren’t being issued on the border). Jan wasn’t as lucky. Of course, the c—s at immigration would be willing to accommodate his predicament (for a $60 ‘fee’), the alternative being for him to FLY BACK TO JAKARTA.
This is just quite mind-boggling and a new one on me – an international border that you cannot LEAVE a country from without the correct ENTRY visa. How f—-ing stupid do you want to be?
Oh, Indonesia, you had me for a moment with that sublime calamari, but you’ve just blown all that good will. Sickeningly corrupt and loaded with ill-gotten blood money, you can go to hell, Indonesia. You SUCK! And, while you’re at it, get the hell out of West Papua. It’s not yours and you’re only there for the gold. The profits from which go on WHAT EXACTLY? Health care? Schools? Roads?!
Ha. HA! HAHAHAHAHA!! Don’t make me laugh!
They go straight into the back packets of the slimy politicians that live on an island a thousand miles away, literally and metaphorically. Bluuuuuurgh to the lot of ya!!
Happily, Mike and Harald weren’t leaving Jayapura until the morning, so they (being top chaps) again allowed me to kip on their floor. Thanks, guys!!
Tomorrow there will be nothing to stop me getting into Papua New Guinea. I booked a taxi to the border. It will be the Eve of Christmas Eve. Looks like I’ll be spending another Christmas without the girl I love. PNG is not a happy place and while I’m quite happy to risk my safety doing this crazy stuff, I’m not willing to put Mandy in that situation, so I’ve told her not to fly to me this time around.