After two hours kip (I actually didn’t bother using my bunk – the communal area of the backpackers did just as well), by 7.30am I was shovelling breakfast into my fat ginger gob and by 9 o’clock I was on the bus to Bangkok. The wheels on the bus went round and round, round and round, round and round as I tore south through the country like some kind of angry Scotsman. Only without the girly skirt.
Arriving at Bangkok in the evening, I once again skirted the manic city I know and love and snapped up a ticket on the last bus to Singapore – country 179 – which if you’d care to glance at a map of the area (or, even better, work from memory) is on the other end of country 178 (Malaysia) and just a short ferry ride away from country 180 (Indonesia).
Buying a thru-ticket from one country into another via a third country is a pleasure I haven’t experienced since I was in Europe, and the concept of ticking off not just Malaysia, but Singapore AND Indonesia before breakfast on Wednesday was a treat like no other – especially given it would knock my countries-to-go total down to a seemingly manageable TWENTY.
I might – whisper it softly – I MIGHT FINISH THIS INFERNAL CHALLENGE YET!!!
I awoke on the Tuesday morning after a fairly pleasant night’s kip to find that we were still in Thailand. My, it’s a tall and thin country, and I was truly going from top to bottom. Around lunchtime the coach breached the frontier into Malaysia, me holding up proceedings by spending the last of my Thai Baht on some KFC at the border.
Malaysia passed in a daze: we sped through the Cameron Highlands without even stopping for a cup of tea and a scone; we even bypassed the capital, the wonderfully named Kuala Lumpur, and by the evening we were on course to hit Singapore before sunrise the next day.
Don’t feel jibbed that I didn’t take in more of Malaysia, I’ll be back in a few days… well, I’ll be back in Malaysian Borneo… countries 181 and 182 lay that way.
Singapore! World’s End! You can get here all the way across the mega-continent of Eurasia from John O’Groats to Raffles via the Channel Tunnel, the Urals and the causeway without ever stepping foot on a plane or a boat. But this is the end of the line I’m afraid. From now on it’s going to be ship-this ship-that and ship’s-your-uncle. Ticking a magnificent 179 countries off my list: a daunting and unsettling task lay ahead: the final 21 countries are all islands, parts of islands or full-on archipelagos and (as if I haven’t been at pains to point this out already) I’M NOT ALLOWED TO FLY.
Nature’s borders prove much more troublesome to me than man’s invisible lines.
I am more than happy to pay lip-service to Singapore, with it’s miles and miles of docks and smug (and lucrative) placement right in the middle of things: you know, where Liverpool was 100 years ago. I’ve always found it a bit too clean, a bit too sterile, a bit too Demolition Man (an under-rated film if ever there was one). Considering it’s the death penalty for drug smuggling and Blueberry Hubba Bubba Bubblegum is against the law, it’s the kind of place Britain could be if everyone who writes into the letters page of the Daily Mail were in charge.
And wouldn’t THAT be fun!
Although, I must point out that there is a lovely underground (possibly run by a Chinese Dennis Leary) vibe going on in Singapore, IF you know where to look, but unfortunately I don’t. Bah!
But Singapore’s purpose (not porpoise) today is to serve as LAUNCHPAD OCEANIA: and I’m including all of the final 21 nations in that ‘Oceania’ tag (even though some are in the Indian Ocean) cos I have to take a boat to get there. The first boat of the day leaves for the island of Pulau Batam at 7.50am. Pulau Batam is just a few miles off the coast of Singapore, but it’s one of the forty THOUSAND (count ’em!) islands that make up Nation 180, INDONESIA.
I got to the Harbour Front straight off the bus, at around 5am. It was still dark, but the shopping complex (that including the ferry terminal) was open – well, bits of it were – the ferry terminal didn’t open till seven. According to the Yellow Bible, the first ferry to Pulau Batam leaves Singapore at 6am, but as you will find if you ever come to South East Asia, the Yellow Bible (like the real Bible) is paved with good intentions but there are many glaring inaccuracies, omissions, half-truths and downright lies told; and the older the copy the more inaccurate things become. Mine was from 2008 so it was filled with more bloopers than an Ed Wood movie. Then again, look at the real Bible – it’s from, what, the bronze age? Good luck with that!
The first boat left at 7.50am. This more than scuppered my plans for the day, it kinda torpedoed them. It meant that the ferry got in at 7.40am Indonesian Time (I’m nothing if not a Timelord) and – get this – the THREE FERRIES to the big Indonesian island of Sumatra ALL LEAVE at 7.30am Indonesian Time. Yes, it would take a lobotomised aphid with learning difficulties to come up with a more IDIOTIC system, but there you go, it looked a lot like I’d be spending the night in this, lets be fair, shithole called Pulau Batam.
But IN YOUR FACE KENOBI, in my experience there IS such thing as luck: the daddy ship direct to Jakarta that leaves once a week was leaving today(!) at 3pm. No poncing about fighting the Sumatran road system down to the island of Java: I was going straight to the Big Smoke.
Oh… something I should point out at this point while you’re flapping your map of the world about and screaming that Jakarta is 100% in the wrong direction if I want to head to Brunei and The Philippines next, I KNOW. But for some unfathomable reason there is no domestic ferry link between Peninsular Malaysia (that bit what attaches to Thailand and Singapore) and Malaysian Borneo (that bit what attaches to Indonesian Borneo and, more importantly, has Brunei sitting in the middle of it). So my only option is to take a ship to Jakarta, then another to Pontianak in Indonesian Borneo and then fight my way overland from there.
Which is what I plan to do.
So, completely fortuitously, by 2.45pm I was in a taxi heading for the domestic ferry port – oh yeah, when they said the ship was leaving at 3pm, they MEANT IT. Crikey – I raced through an empty terminal, threw my bags through the X-ray scanner, headed out onto the quayside and hurled myself up the gangplank (as it was rising). Sweating and out of breath, I was welcomed on board by a young Indonesian guy called Rangga.
“You’re that guy off National Geographic aren’t you? Are you STILL going?!”
Sweating and panting like Michael Moore running the London Marathon, I dropped my bags on the deck, nod and shook the guy’s hand. By 3.09pm we were under sail. Result!
On board the ship I met up with Chiefy – a top Aussie guy who I had met earlier that day on Pulau Batam who was trying to travel the world without flying, but not for any kind of time record – he was happy to spend the next ten years doing it. In a wonderful bit of synergy I also met a bunch of Brits who were making their way down to Australia on a kinda-Oz bus affair and so we got to share our overland adventure stories. Most – like John and Matt – were a little older than me, but some, including a scouser from Aigburth called Claire, were around the same age (we scousers either have scouse-dar or we’re just the friendliest people in the whole of the UK… I have a suspicion it’s the latter, AND BILL BRYSON AGREES WITH ME).
It would appear that I’m not the only one who regards flying as cheating. The weird thing was that while we were enjoying the fresh air and camaraderie out on deck, their comrades on this monumental trek across Eurasia hid in the bowels of the ship, content to miss the cracking sunset and the late night Karaoke (and secret whisky stash on an otherwise dry voyage – thanks Rangga!) which – of course – us scousers found and took advantage of. Anti-social buggers. But then, after hearing some of the stuff that had been going on since they started their adventures five months ago, I was glad to be travelling alone: would YOU want to be travelling with your ex-girlfriend who had now got with somebody else from the same expedition? Thought not…!
It was a BIG ship – over 1000 passengers. But by midnight Claire and I had the run of the place, everyone else being a bunch of sissies going to bed early. I was looking out for the Southern Cross – I haven’t seen it since Rwanda last December, but cloud cover dashed that hope. The sleeping situation was a set of large cabins, each containing over 100 beds in rows separated by wooden dividers. I slept between a nursing mother and a girl in her early twenties.
Indonesia: Muslim it may be, Saudi Arabia it is not.
One day, a British gent called Tom sat down before a map of the world. At the very tip of the Malay peninsular he noticed a small, jungle-covered island. Being a genius (a British syndrome if ever there was one), he figured that if he put a settlement there, one day it would be the shipping capital of the world. All ships travelling to and from The Far East and Europe would have to stop there to trade goods or pick up supplies. Tommy Boy convinced the British East India Company to get onboard with his crazy brilliant scheme and thus Singapore was born.
I left the bus (a wave and a glad-to-never-see-you-again smile to Wolfgang the old Nazi, who responded with a ‘Sieg Heil’ as if it was funny… he’s probably at home now putting his cat in the oven) and headed over to Kuni’s place, a short walk from The Golden Mile shopping complex. Hailing from Japan and one of the most well-travelled people I’ve ever met, Kuni has been to a whopping 110 countries and has hosted over 950 CouchSurfers here in Singapore. I would be surfer number 959. What a guy! He should have been in work, but was home waiting for the aircon repair man to come. Good call as a lack of aircon is a killer in a place that is just 1° north of the Equator.
You don’t reach the heady heights of CouchSurf stardom by just hosting one person at a time, and in true CS style, Kuni was simultaneously hosting two other people – both of whom were from Germany. I decided it best to keep my experience with Wolfgang to myself. Ira was from a town south of Stuttgart and was lovely. Christoph was from Hamburg and still asleep. As Ira was heading over to the nearby Singapore museum I decided to tag along.
It was a good walk over to the old colonial quarter. The museum, from the front, was magnificent, built in 1887 for Queen Victoria’s golden jubilee. There was some modern garbage around the back, terrible glass cubes of that lazy, unimaginative, internationalist school of architecture clinging onto the side of this otherwise beautiful edifice in a fashion that is tantamount to building rape. It’s re-engineering The White Album so it now features Little Jimmy Krankie on the kazoo. It’s having Han shoot first. How The Powers That Be allow such monumental acts of vandalism is beyond me, but then all modern architecture is beyond me. Everything built in the past 50 years is the structural design equivalent of cheap, nasty, talentless, saccharine, materialistic, autotuned, modern RnB crap – or even worse, the utter bobbins that passes for art these days.
Sometimes I do despair that I’m the only one pointing out that The Emperor actually, really, honestly, truly, I’ve-Googled-It-And-Everything HAS NO FRIKKIN’ CLOTHES ON!!!
Ira and I took the free tour, hosted by a nice British lady, which took us around the museum and gave us the low down on Singapore’s history, from its founding by Sir Thomas Raffles, through to the Japanese occupation (in which thousands of Singaporeans were tortured and put to death), to independence and beyond. Singapore today is, like Dubai, a benevolent dictatorship very much in the vein of Hobbes’ Leviathan. There are fines for jaywalking, chewing gum and drinking water on the Underground. There is no minimum wage, no legislative elections and no real political debate.
This is not necessarily a good thing, yet Singaporeans (on the whole) are doing rather well at the moment and so are unlikely to start demanding free and fair elections any time soon.
In any case, after Greece’s disastrous elections (WHO ON EARTH HOLDS ELECTIONS IN THE MIDDLE OF A NATIONAL CRISIS?!!) resulting in wins for the utter dickheads on the far right and far left, I can’t help but feel a little torn between my love of democracy (and jaywalking) and my desire to see things actually get done. Travel for a day on Singapore’s cheap, clean, efficient public transport system and you’ll be questioning the wisdom of asking Joe Bloggs what he wants (when you know damn well the answer will be ‘to pay no tax, bring back the death penalty and get rid of them bleedin’ immigrants’).
Eek! But, all in all, Singapore is a definite success story, the biggest port in the world with more than 75% of world trade passing through on the way to China and back.
Ira and I grabbed a cheap bite to eat (£1.50 for a HUGE bowl of spicy noodly soupy stuff) and then she pushed off to the airport to continue her journey into the wild blue yonder. Meanwhile, I set about arranging to meet up with my friends in the shipping industry, with a view to continuing my journey back home.
Come evening and it was definitely time to go out for a mooch. Being just north of the equator, Singapore is hot. Bloody hot. I keep saying it would be nice to have a day in which I don’t sweat, but I don’t think it’s coming anytime soon. The night-time brings a slight relief and, well, at least there’s no chance of me getting sunburnt. Michael, the guy I stayed with in Hong Kong, had put me onto his mate Gary would be doing stand-up tonight on Northern Circular Road on the south bank of the river. Christoph, my fellow CouchSurfer, and I set off from Kuni HQ on Beach Road and walked down towards the imaginatively-titled Singapore River.
Singapore is currently holding an arts festival, so there’s lots of zany goings on at night. A rather bizarre dance-routine to The Village People’s YMCA in a fake American-style diner over one way, a grid of women slowly thrashing about in water-filled barrels at the other. Nice! We arrived at the comedy night a little late, but at least my new student card got me a discount on the entry price.
One thing that is interesting about Singapore is its ethnic makeup. It’s mostly Chinese (over 75% of the population), and then Malay (about 15%) and then Indian (around 8%). Technically, the Malays are the indigenous people and the Chinese and Indians were enticed (or forcibly brought over) here by the British. There is admittedly a marked segregation between Chinatown and Little India areas of Singapore, so it was great to see comedians of all ethnicities come on stage and well and truly take the piss out of all things Singapore. Some of the joke went over our heads (I don’t know Singapore that well) but for the main part it was frikkin’ hilarious. Especially when Gary put his large comedy glasses on and became the spitting image of Kim Jong-Il.
Gary’s an interesting guy, not just for his stand-up work: he’s also the director of Singapore’s first zombie movie (a step in the right direction if you ask me). Unfortunately, filming has wrapped so I can’t fulfil my life’s ambition of playing a angry, salivating member of the undead. I’ll just have to leave that to the Newt Gingrich’s of the world. After comedy, Christoph and I headed back to Kuni’s, grabbing some fantastic tucker on the way home. Seriously – if you love Chinese and Indian food, Singapore is the place to be.
I had arranged to meet with Captain Paneer of PIL, the shipping company responsible for my crucial forays to Tuvalu, Marshall Islands, Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand and Taiwan. I wanted to thank him and the company for being so incredibly generous and helping me to over half of my final 17 countries. And so I headed over to the PIL offices in the business district of Singapore clutching a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label. About 45 minutes later I walked out with a spring in my step. Captain Paneer had offered me a spot on a ship going to Sri Lanka. A few more days in Singapore and I’d be on my way. It was a huge weight off my mind. Country 198 effectively in the bag, I turned my attention to countries 199, 200 and 201.
My current plan for The Maldives is to pound the streets of Colombo until I find a small independent cargo operation that runs over to Male’, the capital of Maldives and back. By the way, that hanging apostrophe isn’t a typo, it really is spelt Male’. After The Maldives I’d just have to find a way of getting to The Seychelles.
A few months ago, Odyssey fan Jason Budzinski from the US brought a CMA-CGM shipping route to my attention. Every other week it goes from Sri Lanka to The Seychelles and then to Mombasa in Kenya. This would be perfect, but as it goes right through the middle of the High Risk Pirate Zone, I’m not expecting they’ll let me onboard. But back at PIL, Captain Paneer told me something interesting: I’ve been saying all this time that I would invalidate the anti-piracy insurance of any cargo ship I took through the Red Zone. This simply isn’t true. So long as I sign a witnessed Letter of Indemnity, there will be no effect on the insurance. This gave me hope. If I can get on this CMA-CGM ship I could honestly be back in the UK before the end of JULY.
In the afternoon I met with Desmond Aw, one of the top blokes from Mariana Shipping who helped me onboard the Mell Sembawang, the ship that allowed me to tick Micronesia and Palau off the list. Again, I brought a gift – no good deed should go unrewarded. Afterwards I went to the main post office in Eunos to pick up one of my old hard-drives that Mandy had sent over for me. I back up all my video tapes as I go, and now, thanks to the Powers That Be releasing me from any obligations to them, it’s time for me to stitch together a rough cut of series 2, episode 1 of Graham’s World (don’t worry – I’m changing the title!). Hurrah!
It was after 9pm before I returned to Kuni’s place and it seemed we were having a party! A new CouchSurfer, Nate from the USA, had turned up, and Kuni’s CS mates had popped around. Christoph and Nate were preparing din-dins. Some of Kuni’s friends were even more well-travelled than him: one had been to 170 countries. I think between every person in the room there wasn’t a single country in the world that at least two of us hadn’t sullied with our presence.
After the party, Nate and I embarked on the task of getting the dishes done. We were almost finished when we noticed a pool of water forming beneath our feet. A pool that soon became a flood. After getting the night security guy up to turn the water off, we did what we could to mop up the mess. Kuni took it all with good grace, and since I had only got a few hours sleep last night, once we were sure the leak had stopped, I crashed out.
PIL you are the BEST!! Not only did I awake to find an email granting me passage on board the MV Kota Wirawan, which leaves next Monday for Colombo, I have also been offered a place onboard a ship leaving Sri Lanka to come back to Singapore and then a third ship to Madagascar. Now I have just TWO more shipping jaunts to organise and I’m done: The Maldives and The Seychelles.
Behind the scenes while I was on board the Mell Sembawang last month, Dino, Mandy and my Mum were working tirelessly to try to get me on a ship from Hong Kong to Colombo. Once it became clear that Hong Kong was a dead end and that I intended to head down to Singapore, Dino put me onto a mate of a mate of his, Philip. He had been looking for a ship that could help me out. This week he was out of Singapore, but he had asked his friend Marcus who worked for the Baltic Exchange (kinda like Bloomsburg, but for ships) to continue to keep an eye out for anything going me way.
I met Marcus for a liquid lunch. Since my travel to Sri Lanka was now in the bag, instead of talking shipping timetables we talked life, the universe and everything. Marcus had put me onto an acquaintance of his from Australia, Justin, who is working in ship security and might a good brain to pick about safely getting around the Indian Ocean. After an incredibly long lunch (Thanks Marcus!!), I headed down to Little India to meet with Justin for a couple of drinks on his balcony with his kiwi mate. Since I had already had a few, instead of talking ship security we talked life, the universe and everything. Around 7pm, I jumped the MRT down to Clarke Quay – a swanky bar area of downtown Singapore – there I would meet John, a British guy Justin described as ‘an old pirate’ who might be good for giving me the latest on the old Somali pirate situation. However, by this point I was three sheets to the wind and so instead we talked… oh you know the rest.
Around 11pm (a think) John needed to get going and I was left jabbering away to some poor souls who had the misfortune to sit opposite me. About ten minutes later, John returned with a gift. ‘You must be missing this’ he said before slapping a portion of chips down on the table. Proper British fish n’ chips and a carton of curry sauce. Apparently, there was a British guy living here in Singapore who missed his old chippy so much he set up his own – and DAMN it was good. Thanks, John!!
I lost my debit card last week in Bangkok. Foolish I know, but it’s only the second time I’ve lost my card since Dominican Republic back in February 2009, so don’t be too harsh. In fact, I lost both cards to the same lousy trick. Some cash machines have this bastard habit of giving you your money and THEN your card, rather than the eminently more sensible other way around – card then money. Because of the increased likelihood of you taking your money then wandering off with your card still in the ATM, there are very few countries that have this system. Dominican Republic is one, and Thailand is another. There is a circle of hell reserved for ATM designers who do this. Anyway, fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice; Dude, Where’s My Card?
So today I had to trek all the way over to the airport to pick up my replacement card from the good folks at DHL. Irritatingly enough, my Barclays back-up card, which I hardly ever use, expired last month. Haven’t used the damn thing for about two years and when I need it, it’s expired! Bloody typical! So my mum (Gawd bless ’er) sent off my replacement HSBC and Barclaycards here to Singapore so I could get some money out of a hole in the wall without having to resort to using my cash-advance?-that’ll-be-a-fiver-you-little-cretin credit card.
The whole process of getting to and from the airport took about two hours, which would have been worth it had my new Barclaycard not been instantly swallowed by the first machine I tried to use it in. Grr…
Oh, the joys of travel.
Anyways… after last night’s shenanigans I wasn’t sure if I wanted to go out again, but it was Nate’s last night, so we headed over the road to the Arab Street quarter with Christoph and Kuni in tow. The Blu Jaz Café was our base for the night. We sat out on the pavement enjoying the live music and drinking overpriced beer. Around 11pm, Nate hit the road and soon after Kuni called it a night. Christoph lasted until maybe 2am and then flaked out. Once again I was the last man standing, or rather stumbling. I was chatting with a group of musicians from Spain, Mexico and Cuba – a conversation that spilled out onto the street, late night kebabs and then ended with me and a Spanish guy called Matheus having a rather animated discussion about the rather dubious merits of moral relativism. Who am I to say what’s right and wrong? I’m the good guy, that’s who.
Gangsters. I hate them. I hate their pathetic lust for money, their shocking insensitivity to the misery of others, their child-like desire for trinkets and weaponry. But I especially hate their taste – yes I may sound like a rambling old lord bemoaning the trashy habits of the nouveau riche, but sod it: these people are not just morally bankrupt, but creatively bankrupt as well. The kind of goons who would erect a tasteless golden statue of themselves as though it’s not going to be melted down the minute they shuffle off this mortal coil they’ve done so much to ruin for others. The kind of goons that buy cars that look like glorified roller-skates, spend more on sound-systems than looking after their kids, hang out with women more plastic than Barbie and wear shirts louder than Krakatau.
One of the reasons I want drugs legalised is to strangle the main income stream of these lowdown lowbrow lowlifes, but in some cases the damage has already been done. Las Vegas, that trashy Blackpoolzilla of the desert, founded by gangsters who had their goodtastebuds removed at birth, with its shitty bastardised versions of some of the greatest buildings in the world, the air-conned epitome of what the daily exploitation of human greed and a shoddy grasp of statistics can buy. If Las Vegas’ effect on the world was restricted to that wretched hell-on-Earth where dithery old fogeys go to waste the money they’ve wasted a lifetime working for, I honestly wouldn’t give a fat flying crap. But unfortunately for humanity, Las Vegas, the world epicentre of gold-plated kitsch and a lifestyle that only cretins could possibly find aspirational, has spread its pernicious tendrils from Macau to Melbourne to Manila.
Yes I know that Las Vegas is now run by Disney and Halliburton (probably), but the form of modern casinos originates in the grotesque pipe-dreams of gangsters. Look at Tony Montana’s gay nightclub of a house, the gold chains and cheap shell suits of Tony Soprano’s goons or the hang-glider-like collars of Fredo Corleone. What these (admittedly fictional, but art does imitate life) people think is attractive, beautiful or necessary should never, NEVER, be allowed to sully the landscape of Hoggart’s Farm, never mind the skyline of a great city like Singapore.
Yup. It’s a Sands Casino/Hotel/THING.
Three ugly-as-f— domino-shaped towers. With a surfboard plonked on top of them that’s supposed – get this – to look like a SHIP. Oh my giddy aunt. Is this a joke? Because, seriously, if it is, it’s about as amusing as cancer.
But should I be surprised that some moron thought this was a good idea? Should I be gobsmacked that some spawn-of-Satan architect designed it? Should I be shocked that the morons in the government gave it the green light? Should I be bewildered that men toiled for thousands of man-hours with a budget that could have pulled an African country out of the shite to build something akin to a fanciful folly of a fat spoiled rich kid, what happens when Homer’s brother puts him in charge of design, the architectural equivalent of an episode of that nightmarish MTV show My Super Sweet 16?
FOR HEAVEN’S SAKE, IT’S THREE TOWERS WITH A SURFBOARD DUMPED ON TOP!! LORD, GIMME STRENGTH.
No. No, I’m not surprised. And I’m sure there are people willing to sacrifice all dignity, any shred of perceived integrity, manners or decency by saying ‘well I think it looks nice’. If that’s your opinion, you seriously don’t deserve opinions. Or, for that matter, oxygen. Put the crayon down and please stop designing buildings or I’ll have to put you on the naughty step.
It’s crass, it’s tacky, it’s pathetic, it’s moronic, but most of all… it’s just f—ing ugly.
Ugly like a British soap opera. Ugly like a civil war. Ugly like a car accident. Ugly like a divorce. Ugly like a heroin overdose. Ugly like the lecture hall of a 60s polytechnic. Ugly like disease. Ugly like a the mind of a gangster.
But is this a huge shock to me? That in the 21st century people are still willing to build such monumental crap? No. No it’s not.
I’ll tell you what was a shock to me. THIS:
Often in my travels, often to defenders of modern architecture, concrete and “clean straight lines”, I have thrown down The Graham Hughes Modern Architecture Challenge. It is simply this: name me one building, anywhere in the world, built (not restored) in the last fifty years that is beautiful?
And nobody, NOBODY has ever come up with an answer. A single one! ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD!! Seriously! A single building built by any of the 7,000,000,000 souls on the good ship Earth. NOT ONE!
Well butter my balls and call me Bongo. It’s taken three and a half years, 197 countries, 18 territories and 250,000 miles but I think I may have found it.
I give you ParkView Square, Singapore:
What’s this? Well-wrought statues adorning the courtyard? Dali, Beethoven and Churchill immortalised in bronze? Why the hell not eh?
Chinese motifs on the façade? Awesome. Let’s go inside.
Oh sweet bliss. Hand-made brass frescos, art-deco styling, the highest wine-rack in the world – one that comes with ‘wine angels’, barmaids who don a harness and bungee and float up like fairies to get your bottle of plonk?
And this is an OFFICE BUILDING? Are you kidding? No?!
Okay, okay, Graham – we get it, it’s a very nice building, but why are you so excited about all this?
Because ParkView Square, known affectionately as ‘Gotham City’ by the locals, was built FROM SCRATCH less than ten years ago.
You see, I don’t care that the internal structure of ParkView Square is made of concrete in the same way I don’t care that Scarlett Johansson’s internal structure is made of blood and guts. The Liverpool Liver Building and the Liverpool Gothic Cathedral also have concrete rattling around in their bones, but you’d never know unless you cut them open – and that’s the point.
Of course, mealy-mouthed modern architects will talk this place down in the same way that literary critics will dismiss Lord of the Rings (the third best selling book ON THE PLANET – fact!), but that’s to be expected isn’t it? However, from where I’m standing, all I can see is a building that inspires joy and wonder, a soaring monument to human endeavour and ingenuity.
I walked through this building every day on the way from the Bugis train station to Kuni’s place, and each time I noticed something new; a detail I had missed, a facet I had overlooked, something that put a smile on my face. Like a what the chaps at Weta did for the Roxy cinema in Wellington but on a truly epic scale, the Chinese owners and New York architects (who, I feel, are in desperate need of some serious high-fivin’) of ParkView Square deserve nothing but respect for showing the world what I’ve been banging on about in all of my many rants about modern architecture: THERE IS NO GOOD REASON THAT MODERN BUILDINGS HAVE TO LOOK UGLY.
We have to put up with ugliness every day of our lives: bombs going off, child murders, internecine strife, car accidents, war, famine, disease, EastEnders… must we ALSO live in a world whose buildings are dictated by the obscene fetishes and peccadilloes of architects and politicians? Gibbering morons happy to dress like this:
This is the world of gangsters, bling, marketing, lies, and cocaine. This is what happens when people with no taste or decency are permitted to build things. These are the diseased brainspunk of our parent’s generation and it’s high time we ripped down this garbage and built something beautiful in its place. Give me the neo-Gothic, give me the Baroque, the Romanic, the Spanish Mission, the Country Cottage, the Florentine, the Art-Nouveau, the Tudor villa, give me Gotham City… just, for heaven’s sake, give me something that looks BEAUTIFUL!!
Today, Kuni, Christoph and I went for a mooch around town. At the end of a long hot day, Christoph and I ended up in the famous Long Bar of The Inimitable Raffles Hotel. Peanut shells cover the floor and automatic fans waft cool air gently down onto the patrons. It’s a whopping $26 (£13) for a Singapore Sling, but when in Rome…
Today I met up with Maryanne, the CouchSurfer who shared Mike’s flat with me in Hong Kong. Together with Kuni and our new CouchSurfer Callum we headed over the Haw Par Villa Theme Park to go see the TEN COURTS OF HELL!!
Hell isn’t an exclusively western concept. What happens to you after die has obsessed the upright ape since it first climbed out of the trees, touched the monolith and killed off all the Neanderthals. In some instances the fanciful fables of the hereafter have assumed the status of myth (that place religions go when they die), but for many people on this planet hell is as alive and as real as Disneyland. So why not make a theme park out of it?
That was the idea of brothers Aw Boon Haw and Aw Boon Par, the developers of Tiger Balm, who came up with the idea of Haw Par Villa in Singapore in the 1937 – a venue for “teaching traditional Chinese values”, or in other words, a venue for “scaring the shit out of children”.
The English translation said ‘Ten Courts of Hell’, and I only counted ten, but I was assured by our Chinese-speaking friends that there are indeed 18. And how wonderfully gruesome they are. Saw meets Hostel meets Hellraiser via the Texas Chainsaw Massacre but all done out with delightful little mannequins. Guts being pulled out, tongues being cut off, heads being sawn in half down the middle… and the place was full of KIDS! Seriously! Man, there’s some sweet-assed nightmares right there. I guess this is where you take little Timmy if you want him to wet the bed.
Personally I hate the idea of hell, I find it an insult to the forward march of science and logic. I hate that kids all over the world are lied to by their lazy hack parents – is ‘doing good makes you feel good’ not a better line? No, kids are told (pretty much) ‘do as I say or you’ll burn in hell’. F—ing lovely.
“BLAH BLAH BLAH you don’t have kids, Graham, you don’t know what it’s like.”
Yeah I don’t have a million dollars and a coke addiction but I’m still happy to point and laugh at celebrities who do. Teaching kids not run into the road by slapping the backs of their legs is one thing, having some asexual freak in a frock tell kids that the universal punishment for ‘being naughty’ is TO BURN FOR TRILLIONS OF YEARS IN A FIERY LAKE OF POO is another entirely. What the hell is wrong with these people?
There are a vast number of chumps who seriously believe that all ‘non-believers’ will burn for billions of years in a boiling reservoir of excrement. Thanks a bunch, pal. I don’t go home and fantasise about Fred Phelps falling into a super-sized Glastonbury portaloo that’s just been set ablaze, I just kinda hope one day someone lobs a grenade at him. While he’s having sex with a rent boy. In Sweden. Oh and don’t forget, the list of ‘non-believers’ doesn’t just include atheists like myself, it also includes people of the ‘wrong’ faith and people of exactly the same faith (but a different denomination).
So the guys who think this God character wears a blue hat are firmly convinced that those LUNATICS(!) who believe God wears a red hat will, for the ‘crime’ of Christ-Knows-What, be tortured for ETERNITY. That’s a jolly long time. I know your brain ain’t too good with large numbers (I’m assuming you’re human) but have you ever stopped to consider how many human lifetimes actually go into an eternity? Ever heard of a ‘googol’? It’s a big number. A one with a hundred zeroes after it – and therefore a bigger number than the number of molecules in the universe. A bit abstract for you? Here:
That’s a googol. Now that’s a long time expressed in Earth years. But most religious people don’t just desire MORE THAN A googol of years extra bonus post-death life. Yes, they are that greedy, that bizarre, that full of themselves that they believe they will not only magically survive their own deaths, but they will also live for ETERNITY. Which is a hell of a lot longer than a googol of years.
A ‘googolplex’ is a one with a googol of zeroes after it. I can write it like this: 10googol (ie 10 to the power of a googol), but if I tried to write it out in long form it would take me more time than the universe has left to exist. Just to give you an example, here is a one followed by a 1,000 noughts:
Now copy and paste all of these zeros out 999 more times. Then you’d have a one followed by a million noughts, a number that doesn’t have an official name so I’m going to call it a Moogol. A Moogol is quite hard to conceptualise, so I’ve written it out in long form for you:
The crazy thing is that a Moogol is nowhere NEAR an googolplex. Seriously, if you clicked on that link just to see what a one with a million zeroes after it looked like, you could times that big long number by A MILLION and still you’d only have a one with 1,000,000,000,000 zeroes after it – nowhere near the 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,
zeroes you’d need to make a googolplex.
Considering the UNIVERSE has only existed for 13,700,000,000 years, it would seem that people who believe they will continue to exist for eternity are living in cloud-cuckoo land. A googolplex of googolplexes and you’ve still not reached 0.00000000000000000001% of an eternity.
If I was a Christian, I’d honestly spend every waking moment praying that Christianity wasn’t true, since I have no vested interest in the continuous torture of dead people and I really, honestly, don’t want to magically survive my own death and then to continue to exist – EVEN IN HEAVEN – for 101000000000000000000000+ years. If you do, you’re either a dimwit or a whack-job. I hate to sound so harsh, but COME ON BE REASONABLE!! If you grant me that there is no tooth fairy and there is no Santa Claus (sorry to break it to you!), then death absolutely, totally and utterly IS the end. All that will survive of you are your deeds and, if you’ve managed to breed, some of your genetic material. Deal with it, kiddywinks!!
But like I say, hell isn’t just as Christian idea, the notion of post-mortal justice has entertained the minds of the twisted and deranged for millennia. In ancient Greece, poor old King Tantalus (whose only ‘crime’ was to murder his own son, cut him into bits, cook him in a pot and, erm, serve him to the gods for dinner) was thrown into Tartarus – the nastiest bit of the Underworld, and there he was forced to spend eternity hungry and thirsty while the most sumptuous food and drink would float agonisingly just out of reach above his head (that be where we get the term ‘tantalise’ from!). There’s Hindu hell, Buddhist hell – hell, there was even a Viking hell – for warriors who died dishonourably (presumably while having a poo).
The Chinese hell is more logical than the Christian concept, but to be honest that’s like saying 2012 (the film) is more logical than The Core. It’s still a terrible movie, but at least in Chinese hell you get judged, horribly tortured for a limited time and then you get reincarnated – no googolplexes for the maths-savvy Chinese. The mad thing is that before your re-incarnation you get your memory wiped, which kinda makes the whole torture bit rather redundant. Can we skip the judgement/torture/memory wipe/reincarnation shenanigans and just have bad people in the world, you know, just die? I don’t want to live in a world where Hitler is still alive as a squirrel.
That evening, Christoph and I headed off to Singapore Zoo for the Night Safari. As 80% of tropical animals are nocturnal, it makes a lot more sense to go and see them after dark. As flash photography isn’t permitted, my night-vision function on my camcorder came in incredibly handy.
There’s a war going on. Did anyone tell you? Bet they didn’t. The UN wouldn’t tell you, because then they may be called upon to do something about it. The IMO (International Maritime Organisation) wouldn’t tell you, because then they’d perhaps feel a tad silly for issuing advice akin to the hilarious ‘Duck and Cover’ leaflets distributed in case of a nuclear strike. Your local retailer won’t tell you, because even if there is now a 20% shipping surcharge slapped onto every product you purchase, they still make the same amount of profit. The insurance companies won’t tell you, because they can now charge a hefty premium on any ships crossing the Indian Ocean. The only ones really losing out are the mariners, the people of an already war-ravaged East African country and YOU.
I’m talking, of course, about the Somali pirate situation. Whereas the pirates in the Straits of Malacca are essentially thieves who come on board to see what they can nick, Somali pirates take a more novel (and much more profitable) approach: they hijack entire ships and hold their crews hostage for weeks or even months. There are currently 30 ships and over 500 mariners being held hostage RIGHT THIS MOMENT by pirates in the Indian Ocean. The money they can command from a single vessel is staggering: some are ransomed for over $10 million.
How did we get into this mess? While we should all share some collective responsibly for the UN’s and NATO’s inaction in supporting what little government exists in Somalia, it’s a badly kept secret that many pirates were originally fishermen who had their livelihoods literally STOLEN from them by irresponsible Chinese fishing practices. Technically Somalia has got a navy, it just doesn’t own any ships – so it can’t patrol its territorial waters. Knowing this, large-scale trawlers came over from China in the early noughties and half-inched all the bloomin’ fish from the coast of Puntland in the North-East of Somalia – and by ALL the fish, yes, I mean ALL THE FISH. As in ‘So Long, And Thanks For…’
With nothing more than a wooden speedboat, a few AK-47s and the steely desperation borne of knowing your family will starve to death if you fail, the Somali fisherman began launching attacks on a few big cargo ships. Piracy in the Indian Ocean has now grown into an industry that ‘employs’ over 10,000 people. It’s gone from being from a headache for mariners passing through the Gulf of Aden to a full scale armed conflict zone that encompasses a vast chuck of the Indian Ocean, to 77° East of Greenwich to 10° South of The Equator.
Why am I telling you all this? It’s because the next and final stage of my journey will involve me travelling through the heart of the Somali Pirates’ sphere of operations. Today I said my goodbyes to Kuni and the gang (see what I did there?) and set off to the port in order to join the good ship Kota Wirawan, the PIL freighter that would be taking me to Country 198 of The Odyssey Expedition: SRI LANKA.
Wirawan. God that’s hard for me to say. WI-RA-WAN… nah, just comes out as ‘Wiwawan’. I’ll get it in the end.
I quickly familiarised myself with the ship and the crew. It was an amazing assortment of nationalities on board. Usually you get three or four different nationalities on board: this ship had 12. Captain Heri was from Indonesia, the Chief Mate was from Russia, the Second was from India and the Third was from Pakistan. Then we had Sri Lankans, Malaysians, Burmese, Bangladeshis… and the two guys running ship security were from Singapore.
Ship security? Yep, in order to travel safely across the Indian Ocean, many of the larger container firms are turning to putting armed guards on board their ships. On this voyage I learnt a LOT about ship security. Bobby Teng, the guy in charge of the operation is ex-Singapore army, and he’ll be leading a team of four armed guards on the trip from Sri Lanka to Kenya and back.
So far, no cargo ship with armed guards on board has been taken by pirates, and the escalation of violence that many feared would happen has not (as yet) occurred. Bobby took me on a tour of the ship, showing me the preventative measures they use to stop the pirates coming anywhere near them. First up: a HUGE banner with ‘STAY BACK – THIS SHIP IS ARMED’ written in Somali, with a silhouette of an armed guard to back up the point.
Then there are two scarecrows (I called them Butch and Sundance) who stand guard on the wings either side of the bridge.
There’s also eight different firing positions, four on the wings, two on the aft, two on the foredeck give the guards vantage points which allow them to pick off any would-be pirates (after firing a warning shot) with an accuracy that the pirates, bobbing up and down in their speedboat, couldn’t hope to achieve.
Bobby explained to me that the are trained not to shoot the pirates themselves, but to shoot the engine, thereby disabling the pirate’s boat. However, if the pirates get too close, the armed guards are, in theory, free to kill the would-be hijackers. This, so far, has never happened. The pirates, like most people, would rather go for the low-hanging fruit: unguarded oil tankers with a low freeboard (the distance from the water to the deck). But when all ships have armed guards on board, this situation might change drastically.
The armed guards, the patrols by British, American, French, Chinese and Russian navies… all this is made necessary by ONE THING: The United Nations inaction in Somalia. Now we’ve all grown up knowing that the United Nations is the most wretched hive of scum and villainy this side of Mos Eisley Spaceport. We remember the horrific Rwandan Genocide of 1994 in which 800,000 people were hacked to death with machetes in the space of just a few weeks. We remember the UN spokesperson – that mealy-mouth wench – saying it wasn’t genocide, it was ‘ethnic cleansing’. We remember the UN’s inaction in Bosnia, as Sarajevo was put under siege for months on end, or when they turned a blind eye to Ratko’s goons slaughtering hundreds of innocent teenagers. We remember the mass-murder in Kosovo, something that was only stopped by NATO (tellingly not the UN). We remember the dreadful civil war that would have engulfed the whole of Sierra Leone had one British commander not said ‘no more’. We’ve seen the tragic lack of balls when it came to the Lebanese civil war of the 80s, the Afghan civil war of the 90s or, coming up to do date with the failure to tackle Mugabe, Gaddafi, Al-Assad, Al-Bashir, Kim Jong-Il… instead allowing them to murder their own people with impunity (until their own people or old age despatch them off this mortal coil).
Since Somalia has no police, no judiciary and no prisons, it has not the capability to deal with its pirates. Kenya don’t want them, and neither do Yemen or Seychelles. The Royal Navy can’t keep hundreds of pirates locked up on board the RFA Fort Victoria for a six month tour.
I’m not calling in some wanky ‘Get Kony’ kind of way for something to be done by somebody, somehow. There is a simple roadmap that I could dash out on Microsoft Word in a few minutes. It would go something like this…
• From now on, anyone caught committing acts of piracy or attempting to commit acts of piracy in the Indian Ocean will be taken to a floating prison ship (a decommissioned and converted cruise liner) off the coast of The Seychelles. There they will be given a fair trail (streamed on the internet) and, if found guilty, sentenced. They will remain on the ship until their sentence is over. This will all be conducted (and paid for) under the auspices of the United Nations.
• Secondly, the United Nations will do what it does in East Timor: provide the army, navy, air force and police force for the Somali government. We’re not taking regime change here, we’re talking about keeping what little government Somalia has and giving that government a mechanism to do the job that they can’t do themselves – root out the war lords and bring peace. Working with African Union forces (already in control of vast swathes of the west of Somalia), this could end the reign of terror that has been in effect since the warlords took over in 1991.
• Thirdly, the de-facto state of Somaliland would be recognised as an independent state. They deserve it.
Fair? Undoubtedly. Do-able? Indubitably. Would it stop the pirates in their tracks? YES. YES IT WOULD.
My journey on the MV Kota Wirawan would take me up to the tip of northern Sumatra and then due west to the southern tip of Sri Lanka. We’d get phone reception on the first day of the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Let me tell you why I’m not a republican…