Day M290: Odysseus Amongst The Sirens

Fri 13.07.12:

In Homer’s Odyssey, our wily hero Odysseus had his men tie him to the ship’s mast so he could hear the Siren’s song without dashing himself on the rocks. I’m fairly sure that the cruel and capricious Gods of Olympus are cooking up a similar ordeal for me here on the Isle of Serendipity. I meet a lot of people on the road and some are obviously better looking than others. Yes I’ve got a girlfriend, but even so, you can’t help but notice. Call it window shopping, whatever, we all do it, don’t look at me like that. But what’s making my head spin is the way that almost every female tourist I meet (Sri Lankan women being eerily absent from this country’s nightlife) is not just hot, but outrageously take-off-your-shoe-and-bang-it-on-the-table-whilst-howling-at-the-moon-hot.

If it was one or two of these magnificent (but ultimately deadly) creatures, I would give it the hey-ho, no big deal, not worth commenting on in my blog. But there’s been a staggering number of remarkably attractive women I’ve met here that, if I was footloose and fancy free, I’d totally be inviting for a picnic, if you know what I mean.

Is this beer goggles talking? No: I check my photos the next day and there they are, The Sirens, singing to me with their eyes. I guess it’s just one more string to Sri Lanka’s bow, a country that is rapidly solidifying its position in my Top Ten of the World. But why here? Why now? Is this some kind of test? I have no ship, my mast is my candour, the rope is my general bolshie disposition. Are we seeing the coming together of two classic Odyssean moments: that of the Saga of the Sirens and that of Calypso’s Isle?

Odysseus spent 7 years trapped on Calypso’s island.

Odysseus Amongst The Sirens
Birds, eh? I don’t know…

Ah, sod it: I’m asking the wrong questions. I don’t believe in fate any more than I believe in the invisible dragon that lives in my garage.

Although I really wish he’d stop setting fire to my invisible car.

Day M300: Okay, Time Out!

Mon 23.07.12:

There is no chance of me getting on board a cargo ship from Sri Lanka to Maldives. This is a rather unique situation and it’s taken 42 months and 198 countries to get to this point. In all other cases I’ve got permission to sail or there has been an alternative shipping company. But, please, my wonderful Odysseans DO NOT DESPAIR!

Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so dismissive of fate in my last post. I’ve often equated The Odyssey Expedition to a real-life video game: elements of Pokémon (gotta catch ’em all!), Lemmings (avoid the traps, get these poor buggers home) and, more than anything, Monkey Island (I’ve got to get me a ship – by solving puzzles!).

My favourite video game of all time (because it’s the best video game of all time) is, of course, Grim Fandango. If you’ve never heard of it, you might as well tell me you haven’t heard of Sullivan’s Travels or the country Djibouti. I can only assume you haven’t been paying enough attention. Back of the class!

Grim Fandango tells the story of Manny Calavera, a travel agent in the Land of the Dead, who finds (by exploring an incredibly rendered art-deco Aztec/Mayan otherworld) that the place is riddled with corruption. Thus begins his Four Year Journey of the Soul, through the Petrified Forest, Across the Sea of Lament, Around the Waterfall At The End of the World and then finally high up into the Snow-capped Mountains and The Entrance to the Ninth Underworld – the place of eternal rest.

It looks like my journey is going to mirror Manny’s in many ways, not least the ‘Four Year Journey of the Soul’ bit. After starting this Earth Odyssey in January 2009, I’m not going to be finished and home again until December 2012. The irony being that I’m ginger! I have no soul!! (Don’t tell the Devil – heh! What a sucker!)

Was this fated from the start, or is it just how things have turned out? In any case, Plan B (yes yes yes there’s always a Plan B) requires me to hang around here until October, then hitch a ride on a cruise ship which will be leaving Cochin in India on October 18. This ship will take me to THE MALDIVES, SEYCHELLES and Madagascar, allowing me to hop a ride on a passing PIL ship that will, hopefully, take me to Africa, from where I can trundle up to SOUTH SUDAN and put a nail the size of Michigan in this planet  and say IT’S DONE.

Then it will be the small case of getting back to Liverpool overland from South Sudan. I hope, like the chaps in World War I, to be home for Christmas.

So now you know my plan, what on Earth am I going to do in Sri Lanka for another 3 months? Good question. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I could really do with putting The Odyssey on hold and going home for a while. When I say I, I really mean my mum and dad need me around right now, my three friends who are getting married need me to attend, and it goes without saying that sweet Mandy, the love of my life, needs to see me.

Only one problem. It’s brutal, it’s rude, it makes everyone blush and you should never ask about it in polite conversation: it’s money. Here in Negombo I’m spending (on average) less than £5 a day. I have enough cash to stay here until October, and I have (just) enough left on my credit cards to finish this thing (presuming I can ride for free on the next three ships). But no more. And since I really need to go home for August, I decided to smash the emergency glass and ask my awesome amazing friends to have a whip-around to help me pay for my flight home.

I was given the money I needed within 24 hours. All I can say is THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart.

I’m flying via Kuwait and will arrive in London at 1700 on Saturday August 11, I’ll be seeing my London friends that night and then I’ll be returning to Liverpool for the afternoon of Sunday August 12. And a roast meal at my mum’s. I cannot wait to see everyone again.

I will return to Sri Lanka (and re-start The Odyssey Expedition) on September 26. Hop on a ship to India and then horizon, thar me bring.

However, while me and my friends were having our epic love-in, others were less than impressed. I got some serious flak for asking for a bunch of Baron Greenbacks off my buddies, for example:

Even without the hate mail and the virtual daggers, doing this made me feel like a bit of a twot, of course nobody wants to go cap-in-hand to their peers. But I want you to understand: these are my friends. My good friends, friends who I’ve known for years, in some cases decades. Friends who I’d do anything for, and friends that know I will pay back as soon as I have the money to do so. Others, readers of this blog, feel that I’ve given them enough entertainment over the last three years for it to be fair enough chuck in a few quid for my labours.

If I was rich like Ewan McGregor or getting paid like the guys at Vice, asking your hard-working mates for money would be completely beyond the pale. But I’m not. I write these blog entries that thousands of you read every day and once in every 12 months Google puts £60 in my account. Since my TV show started airing in July 2010, I’ve received a single royalty cheque for £600 from the BBC. I don’t mean to bang on about this, but I got seriously screwed by the powers that be.

The killing joke is that if I was a session musician turning up to play the triangle on a track that is then put on heavy rotation on MTV, I’d earn thousands in royalties – the video director, who put in weeks of hard work, creativity and genius into his or her creation, would get NO ROYALTIES WHATSOEVER. TV is not a fair business.

So yes, it’s shit having to beg for money, but while I’m not swimming around in vats of gold coins like Scrooge McDuck, and while the only things I own in the world are this laptop, my camcorder and the clothes in my backpack, you do what you’ve got to do. Sorry if I offended anyone. I guess you don’t know me very well.

And the email? This was my response:

I don’t travel for free, I travel on a shoestring budget in which three things were not factored in:
1. That it would take me 3 and a half years to get this far
2. That I would be given no support whatsoever by the production company of my TV show
3. That I would get paid less than £11,000 by the producers of the TV show
I had to fly home last year because my sister died. I used my ’emergency get-home fund’ then. And you know what? I only keep going because I know it annoys the hell out of people like you.
Love n’ hugs,
Graham Hughes
NEGOMBO, SRI LANKA (198 of 201)

Day M302: So Then…

Wed 25.07.12:

Another hiatus. I hope you don’t see this as cheating. As I did in Wewak, Papua New Guinea, I will be returning to exactly the spot where I left off before continuing The Odyssey Expedition. This cruise ship in October that will go INDIA > MALDIVES > SEYCHELLES > MADAGASCAR is a damn good plan: the best plan, and the safest. The ships that the Somali pirates go after these days have a) no armed guards and b) a low freeboard. I don’t know if a cruise ship will have armed guards on board, but as for the freeboard (the distance from the sea to the deck), on most cruise ships you’re talking something like 40 metres. Try scaling THAT, Fatbeard!

 

In the meantime, yes, I’m going home. And although I’m going back for a serious reason, it already sounds like it’s going to be (as with everything I do) utterly epic. Already my top mate Lindsey (see: awesome) has sorted with a free ticket to see the Blur concert in Hyde Park that’ll end the London Olympics, then I’ve got two back-to-back weddings of Odyssey Heroes Dino and Hugh (Hugh can be seen here singing The Odyssey Blues) respectively before the Mathew Street Festival kicks off in Liverpool.

Weddings: I scrub up well!

Come September, Stan of ‘Last Exit To Serbia’ fame and I will be heading down to the Isle of Wight in an old camper van for Bestival (THANKS STAN! YOU ROCK!!).

Bestival 2008. Best Bestival EVER.

Then there’s yet another wedding a couple of weeks after that when Danny (if you’ve seen my TV show, he’s the one who says that ‘I’m a difficult man to love’ in the first episode) ties the knot with the lovely Penny.

While that’s going on, I’m hoping to DO SOME GODDAMN WORK to help pay for the last few months of travel at the end of the year, not to mention paying back everyone who helped me come home. And (with any luck) there’ll be something brilliant FINALLY happening on my YouTube channel around that time.

So that’s how I’ll be spending my sabbatical from The Odyssey Expedition. If any of you reading this are going to be in London, Liverpool, Manchester, Leeds, Newcastle OR ANYWHERE IN THE UK between August 11 and September 25, or you’re going to Bestival, please get in touch and we’ll go grab a cheeky brew.

All the best,

G

Day M365: Now, Voyager…

Wed 26.09.12:

And so back to Sri Lanka. Exactly one year TO THE DAY that I rebooted The Odyssey Expedition in Wewak, Papua New Guinea. That was Day 1,000. Now I’m on Day 1,365. I added the ‘M’ prefix in an effort not to scare away new subscribers, but I really need not have bothered: it now takes up more space than a simple ‘1’ would have done. Humph!

I flew Kuwait Airlines again, on the return ticket. Kuwait airlines cannot be given a good review by any objective commentator. The TVs don’t work, the babies scream and there’s no bleedin’ alcohol on board to smooth off the edges. Ygads. But, you know, airplanes do get you where you need to go, and FAST! Blimey, in the time it took me on a coach to go from one city in Turkey to another, I flew across five and a half time zones. The mad thing is that even though my principles are dead against air travel for all the pollution it causes, the ‘chemtrails’ of planes are actually responsible for keeping the temperature of the planet artificially low. Yes it sounds counter-intuitive, but that’s the way our climate rolls. In the days after 9/11, the average temperature of the US, where all air traffic was grounded, increased by 2°. TWO DEGREES!! Man, that’s some crazy heat-tide death that our planes are fending off. A bit like the sulphur (before the clean air acts) that kept us unnaturally cool from the industrial revolution to the 1960s. This is all true. As is global warming. I’m only interested in facts, and (I’ll say again), if you don’t understand that global warming is a FACT (and a very scary one that urgently needs address by, um, someone… somewhere…), can you PLEASE stop reading this blog. You don’t deserve entertainment. You don’t deserve to have things to read. To be quite frank, you don’t deserve oxygen. And if you have kids you’re even worse. You’re worse than the Archbishop of Canterbury standing on a stage next to the chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, and going on about what great mates you are AND KNOWING THAT IF YOU’RE RIGHT ABOUT YOUR PARTICULAR SPACE WIZARD AND WHAT HE WANTS that your so-called ‘mate’ WILL BE TORTURED. For eternity. Which, as I keep stressing, is a metric f—- ton of time. Cognitive Dissidence  DISSONANCE (cheers Dino!) they call it, the ability some humans have to hold two completely conflicting concepts in their head at the same time…

Tangents, Graham… stick to the story.

So I have the Costa Cruise to country #199: Maldives, and country #200: Seychelles. In the bag. Sorted. It leaves Cochin on October 18. BUT… I still need to get to India. Easier said than done. So, first things first, no rest for the wicked, I got into Colombo airport at 4am, dropped my stuff off at Sachal’s gaff in Negombo and took the two hour bus journey to Colombo city. Sachal’s away in Pakistan at the moment, which is a crying shame. I went for a quick morning meeting with the representative of my old friends CMA-CGM here in Sri Lanka. They have a ship leaving on October 16 for Cochin. Needless to say, this would be cutting it mighty fine considering Colombo port is well known for its delays. The MV Kota Wiriwan, the ship I originally came here on, was delayed for three days, so this would be my very last ditch option… that’s assuming they agree to take me.

Then it was off to the Madagascan consulate to start the visa process rolling. I’ll be getting off the Costa Cruise in Madagascar and then taking a PIL cargo ship (I hope!) to mainland Africa for country #201: South Sudan. Unfortunately, I fell at the first hurdle… they wanted three month’s worth of bank statements. I should point out that the last TWO Madagascan visas I got only required a photo and were free. Now you have to pay and jump through a series of hoops that wouldn’t look out of place at Crufts. Cursing my luck, and knowing that the mini-calculator thing that allows me to access my bank accounts online was hidden away back in my backpack two hours north of here, I elected to try again another day. Next it was to the Indian High Commission, to make damn sure that they would actually let me in their damn country with this damn visa, you know: the one I just shelled out over $100 for in London.

And the answer is………

NOPE!!!

You see, India is quite possibly the most paranoid country in the world. You think the USA is bad for irrational fear and jumping at shadows, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. India is the only country in the world that you cannot enter on a ship even with a valid visa. Yep, even though it says ‘ALL PORTS’ on the visa application forms, let me tell you THIS IS A LIE. They mean ‘all AIR ports’. Maybe. Who knows? It’s India! Urgh.

So what to do, what to do? I may have had a bit of a mini-breakdown in the High Commission, prompting a measured amount of sympathy which lead me to a meeting with the visa department attaché. He wanted to see the documents pertaining to the ship I was planning to take to India. I explained to him that I couldn’t tell him which ship I was taking to India until I had specific permission from the High Commission to enter India on a ship because nobody will offer me a place until I get this specific permission (Catch-22). Then, either out of pity or just wanting to get the scruffy ginge out of his office, he told me that he would sort it out for me. All I’d have to do would be to apply again FOR A WHOLE NEW VISA (at a cost of £30) and – oh my giddy aunt, does this never end – they’re going to invalidate my London one EVEN THOUGH IT’S STILL VALID UNTIL MARCH 2013.

The visa department had just closed for the day, so I left, went to the nearby foodcourt, got on the internet and tried phoning OEL Shipping. No response. I got on Twitter and typed “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRGH!!!!”

And then I thought, f— this s—, I’m off down the pub.

It was the best move I had made all day. I was ace-ing the weekly quiz until the sports round, where my dismally dismal knowledge of the world of world sport came to bite me on the ass. Ten pictures of famous teams: from AFL to NFL to footy to Canadian Ice Hockey. I didn’t have a bleedin’ clue. I got one out of ten. If I had got seven I would have won the quiz – playing just me on my own is splendidly arrogant, but it isn’t always a good strategy for world domination.

But what is always a good idea is going to the pub, since, once again, I met somebody who is well positioned to help me get to India. This is the way the world works, wonderfully enough. You can send as many emails and make as many phone calls as you like, but nine times out of ten, the guy you need to speak to is in the pub. So, my advice: when the going gets tough, go the pub. Carl from New Jersey (capital: Trenton!) works for an Oil and Gas company who have a shipping division, the head of which is Carl’s good friend. They have ships going to Colombo to Tuticorin and Mumbai. I was about to leave and get the bus back to Negombo when Carl offered me his couch for the night on the proviso that we continue drinking until the wee small hours. Which is exactly what we did.

We’re getting there, slowly but surely, we’re getting there…

Day M367: Throw Yourself At The Tide

Fri 28.10.12:

Shaking off the inevitable hangover, much like a dog shaking itself dry after a paddle in the stream, I headed back over to the visa department of the Indian High Commission. Got all my forms filled out, new photos taken (I lost the ones I got in London somehow – since they require oversized 2” x 2” pics and they cost me £1.75 EACH, this annoyed me no end). Then I headed over to Carl’s place of work to meet Nilan Jayawardana, the General Manager of McLarens Shipping Ltd. After a chat and a cup of tea, we resolved to find a clever way of getting me to India without me having to swim. Only, as always, it’s not up to Nilan, it’s up to the parent company in Taiwan who don’t know me from Adam. But hope springs eternal.

There’s ship that leaves a week on Friday which goes to Mumbai which looks promising. But then I realised: Mumbai! Oh s—, I didn’t specify Mumbai as a possible port of entry. Jeepers! Chennai, Cochin, Tuticorin yeah, but not Mumbai!

QUICK!! SHREDDER! TAKE ME TO THE TECHNODROME!!!

I raced back to the Indian High Commission and begged them to give me my application form back. They said I’d have to re-apply tomorrow AND PAY THE FEE AGAIN.

NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!

But, hang on, it’s not part of the form, it’s just handwritten, on a piece of paper, a note for the attaché.

Okay – what’s your reference number, have you got your receipt?

Yeah, it’s just here in my copy of Lonely Planet… THAT I’VE JUST REALISED I’VE LEFT IN CARL’S OFFICE ON THE OTHER SIDE OF TOWN. Erm… when do you close?

In ten minutes, sir.

AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRGH!!!

Oh, hang on: we found it anyway. Don’t get too many applications from flame-haired wonders from Liverpool, you know (he didn’t really say that last bit).

Gimme gimme gimme [I scrawl “AND MUMBAI” on my list of possible ports of entry].

PHEW.

I headed back to Carl’s office, sneaked in (he had gone home for the day) and retrieved my Sri Lanka Lonely Planet and that infernal visa receipt. Another tuk-tuk to the bus station and then the slow bus back to Negombo. That night I returned to the Rodeo Pub for the first time in six weeks (it feels like longer) reclaimed my old spot at the bar and watched the West Indies fight an epic Twenty-20 battle against England, with the Windies the deserved winners. It’s the Twenty-20 World Cup here in Sri Lanka at the mo, a fun time to be around. Lots of people gathered around TV sets in shop windows. It’s nice, I like it.

Friday started butt-crack-of-dawn-early with me taking the bus back to Colombo. Newly furnished with my bank statements I rucked up to the Madagascan Consulate for take two. Only one problem: they now wanted proof of an onward flight. I walked out of the consulate and screamed at the sky. The consulate would be closed by the time I booked a flight, printed out the eticket and then cancelled it (hoping for a full refund). Groan. So I headed over to the shopping mall next to the Cinnamon Grand hotel to sponge off the free wifi. I spent the afternoon sending out a copious number of emails to all and sundry, pretty much begging to be allowed on a ship going to India in the next week. By the end of the day I had no replies, so I gathered my stuff together and set off on the 2 hour journey to Unawatuna. It took 5 hours.

Being an idiot, I forgot where I was supposed to get off the local bus in order to catch the express bus down to Una, the one that takes the brand spanking new motorway. So instead I found myself getting thrown around like a rag doll (these drivers are MANIACS) crammed into the slow bus along the old coast road. With it being Friday night and tomorrow being a full moon ‘Poya’ day, everyone was keen to get home and the buses were full to the brim. If I said it was a slog it would be an understatement, but hey – it just makes the beer taste better once you get there.

Day M369: Amelia’s Final Farewell

Sun 30.09.12:

“Raggedy Man: Goodbye.” So there’s me, on the beach in Unawatuna, watching Doctor Who on my laptop and sobbing LIKE A LITTLE GIRL. It’s over. She’s gone, the Doctor’s assistant, Amy Pond, the girl of my dreams.

When this expedition is over, I’m going to have a Pond of my own. We will raise a ginger army, travel through time and space AND TAKE OVER THE WORLD.

You’ve been warned.

So then, a relaxing weekend in Unawatuna, THE beach destination of Sri Lanka. Sat in the shade of the trees outside Happy Banana, yammering away to all and sundry on the internets and trying not to worry too much about the impending DOOM that awaits my attempts to get to India on a ship. But then on Saturday night I get a call from my man Dino in the UK.

You want a ship to India?

Dino, being the wily fox that he is, had written to Dioryx, the Greek shipping company that helped me get on board the CMA-CGM Turquoise all them many moons ago. So while my numerous emails to Sri Lankan shipping companies hadn’t even got me a one-way ticket to Palookaville, Dino’s email to these guys had scored a direct hit. There was a ship leaving next Tuesday with my name on it, Bound for Cochin: the very port I need to be to catch the next ship *finally* to The Maldives and The Seychelles.

DINO YOU LEGEND!!

Hallelujah. Just one sight hitch: I’d need to have my new Indian visa in hand before I got on board. I’m supposed to get it on Tuesday, so if the visa isn’t ready until the afternoon and the ship leaves in the morning, I’m screwed. But let’s worry about that tomorrow. Tonight I’m living it up and drinking to the memory of the late, great Amelia Pond. She rocked my goddamn universe.

I don’t care what the question is, the answer is YES.

Day M371: Icarus, Not Daedalus

Tue 02.10.12

My incredible plan for Sunday night was stay up all night drinking and partying at Chili’s Bar in Unawatuna. Then I was to take first express bus back to Colombo at 6am AS I HAD WORK TO DO!!

I had to take my passport, photos, application form, cruise tickets, air-tickets, bank statements, itinerary, inside trouser measurement and father’s maiden name to the Madagascan Consulate in order to get my Madagascan visa (third time lucky!). Then I had to go to the Indian High Commission and ask them (very nicely) if they would be so kind as to give me my visa a little bit quicker.

All went surprisingly swimmingly. I got the Madagascan visa there and then. The lady at the Indian High Commission told me to come back in the afternoon. I headed over to the shopping mall’s foodcourt and hooked myself up to the free internets. Thanks to the magnificent Dino Deasha, the confirmation of the ship to India came through from Dioryx in the early afternoon, as did the green light from CMA-CGM headquarters in France. I couldn’t believe it. This is it. The final piece of the puzzle. The pathway home is there, confirmed, I’ve finally done it. Sri Lanka to India, India to Maldives, Seychelles, Madagascar, Madagascar to Africa.

It’s over. I won.

After promising Dino I would commission a golden statue of him riding Battlecat from He-Man (he would be sporting a golden mullet and clutching the Sword of Omens in one fist and the World Cup in the other) I called the local shipping agent here in Colombo to sort out the nitty-gritty. He asked me to bring my passport over to the CMA-CGM offices once I had the Indian visa in hand, which would hopefully be at around 4.30pm that afternoon.

In the event, I was made to wait around for a bit in the High Commission and thanks to traffic being a bit of a nightmare, it was 5.45pm by the time I got to the office. Thankfully the shipping agent was still there. My visa was scanned and I was made to write out a declaration of what equipment I would be taking on board. Done this kind of thing a zillion times before, no big deal thinks I.

CMA-CGM have been nothing short of amazing on this adventure, stepping in to help me out of some of the most trickiest fixes that I’ve encountered along the way, and for that I am eternally grateful. What happened next was by no means their fault, or Dioryx’s for that matter. I’m going to give as balanced as an account as I can, bearing in mind I’m still in Sri Lanka now writing this and, as I learnt in Cape Verde, you don’t cut off the branch while you’re still sitting on the damn thing.

So, just as I was leaving the office, the shipping agent told me that he wanted to send my Indian visa – the one that stated ‘ENTRY: COCHIN – BY SHIP’ quite clearly on the visa itself – to the Immigration people in Cochin to ensure that I’d be allowed to get off the ship. This seemed a bit of overkill to me as a) my unusual form of entry was clearly stated on my entry visa and b) I’ve entered India by ship before, on a CMA-CGM ship from Pakistan.

Even *if* the authorities in India decided, weirdly, to not allow me into the country, no harm done: the cruise ship is living from the very same port. I could – and would – quite literally sleep in the port until it was time to go. The idea that I’d be forced to stay on the ship to its next port of call, Egypt, which would require me to pass through the High Risk Area for piracy, is quite frankly ludicrous and something the good people at Dioryx in Greece and CMA-CGM in France did not even consider… well that is until the local agent here pointed out this one in a million possibility.

But, that’s okay, we’ve got a day to play with, right? The ship isn’t even coming in until 1400 tomorrow. We’d be able to get the green light from India in the morning and be on the ship by tea-time. Splendid.

Or so I thought…

It was now getting dark and I didn’t feel like there was anything more to be done today, so I thanked the local agent and jumped in a taxi to go meet up with Carl the Friendly Yank from last week at the pub for a celebratory beer. My friend Daniel Zainulbhai who I played backgammon with in Dubai is in Colombo for the Twenty-20 Cricket World Cup and so he came along as well. It was good to catch up over a brew, have to say though, my earlier confidence that THE REST OF MY LIFE (because that’s what this is) was back on track had taken a bit of a knock. I mean, come on, surely the port authority guys in Cochin would say yes. Of course they would.

But that nagging doubt was creeping up my spine… I’ve been here before, I’ve been here before, I’ve been here before…

So, so many times it’s not funny.

I’ve been here before.

At 9pm, I figured it was time for me to head back up to Negombo. I said what I hoped to be my last goodbye to Daniel and Carl and by 10.30pm I was back at my old friend Sachal’s place. Unfortunately, Sachal is still away. I was good to stay there and everything, but I was gutted I was going to miss the geezer who without a shadow of a doubt is the greatest dinner party host of all time. Ho-hum. I headed over to Rodeo for one final bottle of Lion Lager and that night I slept rather fitfully. Which is damn unusual for me.

I’ve been here before.

At 7am I was up an’ at ’em, gathering my things together and getting on the bus to Colombo.

Here it was, the day of days. The day that would define the rest of my life. I can’t stress this enough: if I don’t get on this ship, chances are I’m going to miss the ONE cruise that goes ONCE A YEAR from India to Maldives to Seychelles to Madagascar.

I cannot take a cargo ship to The Maldives or Seychelles because of piracy and I there are so few yachts (and cruises) in the area I could be waiting until Kingdom Come before I see dear old Blighty again.

If I don’t get on this ship, I can’t begin to explain how f—ed I am. I can’t start my next project until this is over. I cannot earn any money until this is over. I cannot continue my life until this is over. Mandy waited as long as she could, she waited 3 and a half years, but she could wait no longer. I’m breaking up here, I’m honestly struggling to keep it together. This journey has cost me too much. Too much money, too much heartache, too many missed opportunities, too little achieved: check out how little I’ve raised for WaterAid, how few people read this blog, how I got right royally screwed over by the TV people, how I SOMEHOW still don’t have a publisher for my book. It gets to me, it really does. I’m sure that I’m fairly good at what I’m doing, but now and again I get a crisis of confidence when all I want to do is howl at the moon, admit defeat and return to Britain a heroic failure who came so close, so so close, but gave up seeking that one yes after too many noes.

Don’t forget – it was the start of JUNE that I arrived in Sri Lanka. It’s now the start of OCTOBER. This is getting beyond a joke.

By 9am I was in the old foodcourt with the free internet hitting REFRESH REFRESH REFRESH like a crazy badger. They couldn’t say no, they wouldn’t say no.

Would they?

Well, as it transpired we would never get a chance to find out. Today is a public holiday in India and so (as odd as this sounds), the immigration people in Cochin were off work. Dino (in the UK) and I started sending some frantic emails back and forth to Dioryx and CMA-CGM: I’d sign a special Letter of Indemnity which would see me sued to death and quite possibly jailed should I not be allowed off the ship. I have the visa – signed by the attaché – that specifies that I may enter India through just one port, Cochin, and that entry must be made on a ship. I have press contacts in India who would be very interested in hearing how I was not allowed into India with an official Indian visa. Everything, anything, just PLEASE let me on this ship.

And then, just after 1pm, it happened.

I got a call from the Port Agent. Where are you? I’m coming to pick you up to take you to the ship..

OH MY GOD.

I’ve done it!

I’ve f—ing well done it! I’m going to the ship. The Odyssey Expedition is FINALLY FINALLY GOING TO END!! After 1,371 days on the road for the first time EVER I know, I KNOW I’m going to make it. I’m going to do it. I’m going to be the FIRST PERSON IN THE WORLD TO GO TO EVERY COUNTRY WITHOUT FLYING!!!

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!

I’ll admit I danced a f—ing jig.

Then, just as I was putting my video camera back in my bag, I got a call off the local shipping agent, the one who was a bit funny with me the day before.

We have no word from India.

Yes, I know, but Dioryx have said it doesn’t matter, the Port Agent is coming…

That is what I am trying to tell you sir, you will not be getting on the ship.

But the Port Agent is coming…

I have told him to come back. We have informed France that you will not be boarding the vessel.

I tried to reason with him, but he wasn’t having any of it.

I checked my emails, texts off Dino went back and forth, one last round of begging, but no, the die had been cast.

*I failed.*

Dino’s golden statue of him riding Battlecat from He-Man would have to wait. And so will you, my loyal Odysseans, we’ve come this far together, through hell and high water, you’ve been taken around the world by one of the most ridiculous people on one of the most ridiculously idiotic and underfunded adventures of all time. Don’t worry, I’ll get there. IF I HAVE TO SWIM I WILL GET THERE.

198 of 201. I did not come this far to be beaten by Sri Lanka, of all places.

I will fight. And I will win.

Day M374: The Last Roll of the Die

Fri 05.10.12:

Steam shooting out my ears, I spent the remainder of the afternoon writing passive (aggressive) emails to every shipping company operating out of Sri Lanka pleading (demanding) to be put on the next ship outta Dodge. I’ve never typed so furiously or passionately in my life. I don’t care what I have to do, what I have to pay, just somebody – somewhere – pleeeeeease put me on a ship!!

Last weekend in Unawatuna, I met a lovely British couple, Shaun and Debs, who recognised me off the telly and told me that if I was ever in Colombo I was welcome to stay at their gaff. Rather not looking forward to the cramped 2 hour bus journey up to Negombo with all my bags after a day like today, I called to take them up on the offer. Be warned, Graham Hughes: terrible tenancy to turn-up. Shaun and Deborah were incredibly hospitable and we ended up drinking till the wee small hours, putting the world to rights and discussing why we can’t make electricity by harnessing the Earth’s magnetic core (for the answer, see Mythbusters).

The next day began with even more emails of sheer desperation, going through the dozens of shipping types who have helped me out in the past, from all over the world. I figured if I cast the net out far enough, somebody, somewhere might be able to help. There was a Maersk ship leaving in a few days and they seemed a possibility, and after speaking to the guys from Hayley’s Advantis, it looked like perhaps the old Morning Viship – the ship I was originally hoping would take me to The Maldives when I first arrived in Sri Lanka back in June, might (*might*) be able to fit now me on board. This would cut India out of the equation and make my GPS line home look a little less like it was drawn by a spider on ecstasy.

But the best option on the table came courtesy of Captain Paneer of Emirates Shipping in Singapore. He and I had spoken when I was attempting to get to Sri Lanka from Singapore (feels like a lifetime ago) and he suggested a ship called the Vira Bhum run by feeder outfit Regional Container Lines (RCL). It was scheduled to leave a week on Friday (October 12) and arrive in Bombay, India the Monday after (October 15), which would give me a few days in which to hurry back down to Cochin and jump the Costa neoRomantica (which I have a ticket for) before it departs the following Thursday (October 18). This would be at one tight schedule – a few days out one way or another and I’d be knee-deep in donkey do.

Captain Paneer was brilliant. After yesterday’s shenanigans I was (understandably) a bit paranoia that something might go wrong at the last minute, but he responded in the best possible way: telling me it was ‘a million to one chance’ that the ship would omit Colombo and that the berthing date for Bombay (October 15) was set in stone. This allayed my fears like you wouldn’t believe.

The next day, confirmation came through from the good folks at RCL.

HELL. YEAH!!!!!!!!!!

I printed it out. My passage to India (and therefore Maldives and Seychelles) all now hinged on me being able to amend my Indian visa to say I was entering via Bombay, not Cochin. On Friday morning I marched down to the Indian High Commission for what I swore would be the last time. I had THE FEAR that they would tell me I needed a whole new visa. Not only would this be infuriating (if you recall I already had to cancel the visa I got in London) and costly, it would also rob me of one of the last 7 blank pages remaining in my passport. As I have at least 8 more countries to visit before I reach South Sudan, this would be one hell of a pain in the arse.

The nice lady behind the counter couldn’t believe I was still here in Sri Lanka. Neither could I. I told her what had happened and she took my passport and told me to wait. So I waited. After what seemed like an eternity (might have been half an hour) she called me back over. She had amended the visa! It had been re-stamped and re-signed by the attaché and it was ALL SYSTEMS GO GO GO!!!

I headed back to Shaun and Debs and announced that I would be spending the weekend celebrating on the beach in Unawatuna. Which is exactly what I did.

Day 1,379: No Surprises, Please

Thu 11.10.12:

With confirmation from the owners, charterers, agents, customs, immigration, the international war-crimes tribunal in The Hague and the ghost of Jimmy Stewart, the stage was set for what would be the final leg of The Odyssey Expedition. Sri Lanka to South Sudan, over land and over sea, without flying. However, after last week’s emotional roller-coaster I tried my best to put it out of my head as far as was possible: I didn’t want to get crazy excited that I was set up to finish this adventure JUST IN CASE my hopes and dreams were once again crushed by a Vogon sitting behind a desk who doesn’t like the look of me.

But first… Unawatuna beach!! Lovely place, gorgeous clean sand, turquoise waters, great tunes, cheap beer and, most importantly, TURTLES!!

This weekend I decided to be a bona fide beach bum. Last weekend in Una I stayed at the Village Inn where I usually hang my hat as rooms are only four quid a night. However, my run in with THE BIGGEST SPIDER, LIKE, EVER last Sunday morning put me off staying there again. I was brushing my teeth, just a towel around my waist when BOOM! This Shelob motherf—er springs out from the gap between the basin and the wall. I remember backing away and saying in a calm, collected voice ‘this is most disconcerting’, although others in the vicinity may have heard a girly scream.

But why do I need a room when I can just sleep on the beach? There’s the ocean to bathe in and free showers to get the sand out from between your butt-cheeks. And no spiders! I assume. Friday night gave way to Saturday, when I visited the nearby turtle farm and sanctuary.

Saturday night was raucous as ever, I think I may have upset a Canadian by constantly referring to her country as ‘Canadia’ and berating her for allowing Justin Bieber to happen. I really need to work on my chat-up lines. Sunday day was spent on the great Glasto 2013 ticket stampede, with Stan once again stepping up to the challenge and securing your humble narrator here with a ticket for what will be my TENTH Glastonbury festival – the biggest and best music festival IN THE WORLD. OH YEAH!!

Sunday evening was all about the cricket. Hosts Sri Lanka had made it to the final of the World Twenty-20 where they would face the West Indies. I tried my best to get tickets for the match in Colombo, but it was not to be, so I had to make do with watching it on the big screen on the beach at Happy Banana. The Sri Lankans – bless ’em – had set up bonfires on the beach and firework displays for when they won.

But as much as it pains me to say this, they didn’t win. After a strong bowling performance, they collapsed in battling and the West Indies ended up taking the gong. Ah well, they set off the fireworks anyway, danced on the beach and lit the bonfires. Not surprisingly, the Sri Lankans didn’t stay out late, and by 2am there were only a handful of people left on the beach, sitting around the embers. There were two lovely French girls, Frederique and Delphine, a handful of Aussies, a Sri Lankan guy who worked in the Full Moon pub and a guy from South Korea who teamed up with me to try and teach everyone how to dance… (wait for it… wait for it) …………Gangnam Style!!

Yey! Bandwagons!!

But eventually everybody retired and I was left on my own, looking out over the Indian Ocean, plotting my escape like Steve McQueen in Papillion.

The next day I was kindly given a free lift back up to Negombo with Frederique and Delphine who were heading up to catch their flight back to Shanghai. One of the good things to come of my extended detention on the Isle of Serendipity was that I would be able to see Sachal again as he had now returned from his trip to Malaysia and Pakistan. I wrote to him telling him I was on my way up – with a couple of lovely French girls in tow, and he immediately promised (in ultimate Sachal-style) to rustle up a feast complete with beer, wine and good cheer to see them on their way.

I arrived to find an American couple, a guy from Mexico, a girl from Germany and a guy from Croatia all staying at the B&B, eating and drinking with good ol’ Sachal holding court. It was classic night in at Sachal Mir’s, and a good time was had by all. It’s great when you have friends that, like you, always say yes no matter what and then worry about how they’re going to do it later. My friends back home Lindsey and Anna are prime examples of this attitude, and it’s what makes them THE MOST AWESOME PEOPLE IN THE WORLD.

The following Wednesday I had my meeting with RCL – the shipping company that would (hopefully!) be taking me to India just in the nick of time for me to make my Costa cruise ship connection to The Maldives and The Seychelles. Wanting to put on a good show, I got my broken shoes fixed (thanks Sachal!), put on a shirt and turned up with a package of tea for the office and a bottle of arrack for Shamindra Wickremesooriya, the director of Delmege Forsyth & Co. (Shipping) Ltd. (the owners of RCL) here in Sri Lanka and Sajith Salagadu, the Head of Operations. But this was a mile away from the frosty reception of last week. I was taken down to the board room, given a cup of tea and given the opportunity to have a damn good natter with Sajith and Shamindra about my adventures, about travelling on cargo ships and about how much I really, really want to finish this thing and go home.

They were wonderfully reassuring, there didn’t seem to be any doubt that I would be allowed on the ship and that no last-minute obstacles would come my way.

RCL… YEY!!

Afterwards, I headed over to the In… On The Green pub for some red hot quiz action. I did this quiz on my own a couple of weeks ago (the day I arrived back), but only managed fourth place – won’t be making that mistake again! I met with Jacqui, who I had met at the first quiz, and joined her team. Later we’d be joined by Hannah, a mate of Gemma’s from back home. I’m happy to say that we won the quiz (by one point) and the 3000 rupees behind the bar went down a treat. I was intending to head back to Negombo after the quiz, but Hannah told me she had a twin room at the Colombo Hilton, paid for by her company. Now I’m not going to pass up an offer like that, so after a few last Colombo cocktails at the Kama nightclub, we went back to her gaff and started abusing the free room service. Mmm… 4am jerk chicken. Lovely.

The next morning I staggered back to Negombo. Over in Liverpool, my dad was having his heart surgery today. A triple-heart bypass and one of his aortic valves replacing. As much as you get told that such a thing is routine these days, and that Broad Green Hospital is one of the best places in the country to have it done, it’s still a massive worry. How could it not be?

Imagine my surprise then to get a phone call that afternoon off my mum which came from their home number. ‘Here’s your dad’, she said as she passed the phone over. ‘Hell-looo’ comes the usual cheery Colonel Blimp of a voice. ‘Eh? What happened? Why are you at home?’

‘Well, they had a patient who was having complications in the ICU and there would be no bed for me after the op, so they postponed it for another day.’

It’s one of those weird things isn’t it? While being annoyed that my dad was sent home (half an hour before he was due to go under the knife), there was some sense of relief that the op had been put on hold – after all, the word ‘complications’ is something that floats like a menacing cloud above all surgical operations, whether we wish to think about it or not.

So then Thursday evening saw me say my fond farewells to Sachal and headed down to stay with Shaun in Colombo. We went out for a beer on Mount Lavinia beach to the south of the city and drank a toast to Sri Lanka, the place that just didn’t want to let me go.

Major major thanks to everyone who helped make my stay in Sri Lanka a fun and hilarious one over the last few months: Natalie, Anita, Marina, Elena, Subajee, Asanka, Lily, Olivia, Will, Chistoph, Julian, Luisa, Stephan, Marcia, Manisha, Emer, Ruth, Sashka, Stasha, Peter, Harry, Heather, Gary, Killer, Henry, Carl, Shaun, Deborah, Jacqui, Willem, George, Sam, Nancy, Frederique, Delphine, all the lads in Una working ship security, everyone at RCL, Delmege Forsyth, Emirates, BTL and Hayley’s Advantis, Janaka and the Rodeo staff, and an extra special shout out to Mr. Sachal Mir: CoachSurf host, B&B manager, dinner party maestro, teller of tales, spinner of yarns, maker of mischief, prince of Negombo, king of the Sufis and all round good egg.

HEY SRI LANKA! Good morning…! And, if I don’t see ya, good afternoon, good evening and goodnight x

Days 1,380-3: The Beginning of the End

Fri 12.10.12 – Mon 15.10.12:

I said thank you and goodbye to Shaun and was at the RCL offices for noon. After more photos with the staff and Sajith, I was put in the company minibus and sent off towards the port. In the Sri Lankan immigration office I tried to act as cool as cucumber, when really I was freaking out inside. The moment the guy stamped my passport out I felt like punching the air and going WOOOOOOOO!!!, but I didn’t think it would go down so well. The immigration guy might think I’m really happy to be leaving Sri Lanka, when in reality I’m just REALLY HAPPY TO BE LEAVING SRI LANKA!!

I have to be honest, I didn’t breathe easily until I was not just onboard the Vira Bhum but we were exiting Colombo seaport, following the setting sun west towards my next goal: The Maldives. Somewhat inconveniently, I would have to get there via Bombay, 1000 miles to the north. It’s a bit like getting to France from the UK via America, but I’m not complaining. So long as I get there, so long as I get home for December. I’ve broken too many promises on this journey, I’ll be damned if I break this one too.

The Vira Bhum is a Thai-registered ship and, fittingly, most of the officers and crew are from Thailand (including the Captain) and the remainder is made up of guys from Burma. Captain Buntheam is a top guy. I thought he was a bit young to be a captain, turns out he’s been a captain for 19 years. He definitely enjoys that Thai blessing of looking way younger than he actually is. Everybody has been really friendly, the cook is obsessed with feeding me, which is no bad thing: the food onboard is excellent. Imagine being at a top Thai restaurant for breakfast, lunch and dinner and you might understand my enthusiasm.

At 0000h on Friday night we crossed 78° East of Greenwich, hitting the Somali pirate High Risk Area (HRA) which will be my playground until I reach Diego Suarez in Madagascar at the end of the month. We’re at security level 2 now, which isn’t the lock-down freak-out state of Level 3, but there must be three crewmembers on watch at any one time, we have a couple of dummies on the back of the ship pretending to be look-outs and I’m not allowed to go out on deck without a chaperone. This is no great inconvenience as it’s much nicer too look out over the azure Indian Ocean from the starboard wing of the bridge.

Saturday and Sunday passed without incident. I watched Drive on DVD. Excellent film, bit miffed they used *that* title. I wanted to make a film called Drive. It was going to be a road movie, but instead of American kids crossing America in a Ford Thunderbird, it would be British kids crossing America in a Ford Thunderbird. Kinda like The Inbetweeners meets Fear and Loathing. It would have been THAT good. Never mind, I’ll just focus on my other named-after-a-song-on-REM’s-Automatic-For-The-People film script, Monty Got A Raw Deal. We’ve done systematic tests and you can never have enough films named after songs from that particular album.

Talking of film scripts, over the weekend I did a massive re-write of my period adventure film, The Amazon. It’s now looking shiner than an Italian businessman’s suit. It’s one of the great things about being on board a cargo ship, it really gives you time and space to disconnect from the outside world and focus on something whole-heartedly. Next I think I’ll concentrate on polishing off my Indiana Jones fan script, Indiana Jones and the Heart of Darkness. I know it’ll never get made, but goddamn it, how many other Indiana Jones scripts were dreamt up in a Congolese jail cell? None. That’s how many. NONE.

We arrived at the Bombay anchorage at around 0100 on Monday morning, several hours early (this ship is like the Millennium Falcon, I tells ya!). We weren’t supposed to be getting our pilot until around 1500 and not come alongside until 1800. However, as if the gods of Mount Olympus are finally somewhat impressed by my tenacity after all these years, the pilot was on board for 1100 and we were making our way into Mumbai Harbour before lunch. And what’s this to port? Is it a cruise ship I see before me? I get on our ship’s AIS (Automatic Identity System) and there it is: the Costa neoRomantica. Sitting in port here in Bombay, waiting to take me away-ha-ha.

However. TII. THIS IS INDIA. My visa states that I may only exit the country from Cochin. But, if you think about it, I wouldn’t be leaving the country, would I? I’d be hitching a ride on the cruise down to Cochin, and then yes, exiting from Cochin when the time comes. Hmm… watch this space.

We pulled into port around 1300. By 1600 I was still on the ship, still sitting waiting. I had to write out a letter explaining why I was here. So did the captain. After all the hoops these damn Vogons made me jump through to get my “special” visa, “Because f— you” was my initial response.

OKAY OKAY INDIA, I get it, YOU DON’T LIKE VISITORS. I understand that, which is why I keep telling anyone who’ll listen to go somewhere – anywhere – else instead. I know tourists and travellers are a constant headache for you, that we wear out your rubber stamps and make unnecessary paperwork for you. We know that we are vermin and not fit to walk on the hallowed shit-covered streets of your beautiful caste-ridden nation. But please, India, I’m just passing through, I won’t leave a mess, I promise. Just give me 3 days, that’s all I ask. In return I will double my efforts to shout far and wide – to anybody who is in earshot – to not upset the Indians by actually visiting India and spending money. Heaven knows India has more than enough wealth to go around as it is, it’s not like millions of people are living in slums or anything.

Oh for the love of……

At 1900 I was finally on the ferry across Mumbai Harbour heading towards the Gateway of India. Would have been nice to see it in the day immigration guys!! I met with my CouchSurf host for the evening, the awesome Sandeep, for drinkies at the (in)famous Leopold Café. I was here last time…

My great and eternal thanks to Sanjith and the guys and gals at RCL and Delmage Forsyth Colombo, Captain Panneer at Emirates Shipping in Singapore and to Captain Buntheam, Chief Inthachod, 2nd Yarungsee, 3rd Somsuay, Chief Engineer Tosakul and the crew of the MV Vita Bhum for being *quite literally* the saviours of The Odyssey Expedition. I can’t thank you all enough. I can see my pathway home illuminated before me – I’ve never felt confident enough to say this before, but this truly is The Beginning of The End of The Odyssey Expedition.

You’ve come with me this far with me, now pray come a wee bit farther…