500 days on the road and a good 200 of them have been wasted waiting for either visas or boats. In situations like this you can’t help but acquiesce and go with the flow. The other plans you could have gone for – maybe a new visa for Iran would have been quicker (and cheaper) – will only serve to taunt you. I’ve made my bed and one way or another I’ll have to lie in it. The maddening thing is that I know once I reach the UAE and Oman I’m going to be stuck there, perhaps for a comparable time, waiting for a way to get to Eritrea.
On Thursday this week my dad returned to London for a third time. The visa was ready. We looked into getting my Eritrea and Indian visas, but they would both take too long to come through, so we looked at just getting the passport back to me asap. As Friday and Saturday are the weekend here, sending it DHL would not get here until Sunday. That being the case I roped in the magnificent Stan Standryt into helping me get the passport back the next day.
How do you do that Graham? Well, you do what Bono did when he forget his stupid hat – put it on a plane. Only I’d be using a scheduled service – not a charter job BECAUSE I’M NOT A SMUG MULTI-MILLIONAIRE TAX-DODGING CREEP. Sorry – Bono. Hate him. Can’t help it. So ANYWAYS… Stan picked the passport up off my dad went all the way to Heathrow. BA were happy to put it on tonight’s flight – that was until they discovered it was a passport. Can’t send passports – use DHL.
I understand why courier services are reluctant to take passports – they could lead to all kinds of trouble. But this wasn’t a stack of dubious passports on their way to Nigeria – this was a single passport that would be picked up by the guy whose passport it was. After wasting £47 in taxis getting shunted from pillar to post around the Heathrow site, Stan was forced to give up and send it DHL the next day anyway. BA – you just posted another massive loss. I was willing to pay you twice the cost of an average easyjet flight (for a person) just to put a document on your damn aeroplane.
You fools. Your airline is made of poo and FAIL!
Well, one way or another this was my final weekend in Kuwait. I have been here for SIX WEEKS waiting for this damn stamp in my passport. On Friday I was desperate for a party, so I met up with a cute CSer from South Africa called Janine. On discovering she was being put up by her company all expenses paid in the five-star Marriot Courtyard Hotel, I suggested we invade the buffet. Yes I have no shame and nothing cheers me up more than turning up to a posh do in my scuffs looking like I’ve just stumbled out of a particularly gritty western onto the dancefloor of the Ritz.
Later, Ruban got everyone around the pool at Jannie’s place for some final soft drinks and Pringles. Awesomely enough, there was another party happening down the road later on. We crashed it with aplomb and – joy of joys – they had a cooler filled with REAL ice-cold beer!!
So so happy! We shimmy shake-shaked the night away with our chums from the four corners of the planet. If nothing else, Kuwait is one hell of a melting pot. And you want to know something cool? I had been to everybody’s country (with the notable exception of the Philippines – why didn’t I hit that gaff in ’02, I’ll never know).
It cracks me up that so much positive emphasis is put on stuff that is ‘natural’. Talk to your average punter in the street and they’ll invariably make the assertion that the more natural something is, the better. The fact that arsenic, earthquakes and cancer are 100% natural and that most things human beings do is pretty goddamn unnatural seems to idly pass them by. We should be getting back to nature, they say, whereas I say – much in the manner of Kate Hepburn in The African Queen – that ‘nature’ is what we are here to rise above.
Nearly everything you do in your waking life is magnificently unnatural, and rightly so. You get up and eat cereal covered in cow’s milk (eek!) – which is rather unnatural. You then brush your teeth with unnatural fibres, put on clothes woven with unnatural materials, get in your unbelievably unnatural car, drive on an unnatural road, go to work in a completely and utterly unnatural building and sit on your unnatural computer all day unnaturally communicating with similarly unnaturally-inclined people all over the world.
You come home, pet your unnatural dog, eat your unnaturally heated dinner off a plate that I’m fairly sure didn’t grow on a tree and watch stuff on your comprehensively unnatural widescreen TV before – if you’re lucky – doing some devilishly natural things in the bedroom.
Let me break this scenario down: we shouldn’t be able to drink cow’s milk. Most people in the world are lactose intolerant beyond the age of around four. No mature animal in the natural world drinks milk squirted out of another species. Your toothbrush is made from oil found up to a mile below the surface of the Earth and I have to say I haven’t seen too many cats drilling for oil recently (despite what Eddie Izzard says). The same is true of the nylon and polyester in our clothes and the fact we wear clothes in the first place – do chimps wear pyjamas? Only when they’re selling PG Tips.
As for cars, roads, buildings, computers, the internet: hells bells! How much more unnatural do you want to be??
As I said yesterday, your dog is not natural, it’s a genetically modified wolf. You think that in the natural world bees make a ridiculous amount of honey for FUN? More than they would ever possibly need? Of course not: we did that, dicking around in our apiaries, poking around with their queens and generally meddling with powers we cannot possibly comprehend.
What other animals own Playstations, fly aeroplanes, race each other on the backs of other animals, play sports, read books, brew beer, trade money, go skydiving, undergo chemotherapy, use contraception, launch telescopes into space, pay taxes, look after the disabled, produce Mars bars or go Scuba diving?
Are any of these things natural? No. Are any of these things good? Hell Yes.
But for some reason (marketing, I’d say) the world ‘natural’ has become synonymous with ‘good’. Funny how when things are perceived as good they are called ‘natural ingredients’, whereas they when they are perceived as bad they are ‘harmful chemicals’. What’s the hell is this NaCl doing on my chips…?! Grr…
The most unnatural things we do are associated with medicine. In the natural world, an impoverished family has a child, it dies. In the natural world, if a child is born blind, it dies. In the natural world 1 in 3 human births result in the death of the child or the mother. We don’t live in a goddamn natural world. And thank f—k for that!
The horrible truth is that the ‘natural’ reaction to the news that your wife has been unfaithful is to kill the other guy and give your wife a damn good raping. Civilised? No – not by a long chalk, but at least it would be ‘natural’.
I can’t state this enough: civilisation is not natural. You want nature? Check out the warring tribes of Papua New Guinea, the thousands of Indian children who die every year from diarrhoea or the systematic rape of woman in Darfur. I’m sorry, says the scorpion as he sinks to his death, it’s my nature…
Isn’t it interesting that while the Catholic Church is happy to condemn the unnatural-ness of contraception, they have little to say about how incredibly unnatural welfare states are. The very same welfare states that ensure the survival of unwanted or poverty-stricken children produced as a indirect consequence of the Church’s unwarranted annexation of the reproductive systems of half the human race. Half, mind you, and – of course – it’s never their half, is it?
While the Pope is content to live his life steeped in unnatural trimmings – and I’m not just talking about his hat – and go so far as to profess SUPER-natural abilities, he (and many religious and prejudiced people of his ilk) see the completely 100% NATURAL fact that a good number of us humans are attracted to members of the same sex (as are a good proportion of dogs, sheep, penguins, fruit flies, etc…) as ‘unnatural’ and therefore ‘immoral’.
Just in case you really believe that humans invented homosexuality for a laugh (possibly with the intent of making Baby Jesus cry), I would really like you to read up about our closest cousin, the Bonobo: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bonobo. I think you’ll find the information under the heading ‘Social Sexual Behaviour’ most illuminating.
And if that’s not enough for you, the good people at Wikipedia have put together a marvellous list of all the gay animals it can get its grubby little hands on: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homosexual_behavior_in_animals. Be warned, it’s not a comprehensive list: there are at least 1,500 species – mammals, insects, birds, lizards – you name it – that, for one reason or another, sometimes prefer to bowl from the pavilion end.
This bumbling adherence to the mantra of “natural = good, unnatural = bad” is overly-simplistic, morally abhorrent and intellectually bankrupt. It needs to be stopped, forthwith! If people find the idea of two men going at it hammer and tongs distasteful or are haunted by the fact that given a certain angle and a certain light they themselves might be ‘turned’, they should just admit it – to hide behind the old lie of ‘it’s not natural’ is not just cowardly – it’s demonstrably wrong.
But in this world we live in, so desperate are we to condemn others for the choices made for them by Mother Nature, so pathetic our need to one-up each other, that we have made the word ‘unnatural’ synonymous with the monstrous, the perverted, the subversion of civilisation… when it should mean anything but. As Hobbes pointed out a long time ago, life for humans in our natural state is brutish, nasty and short.
We live in a world of pernicious memes: viruses of the mind. And while ad men conning us with their ‘100% natural ingredients’ is just a bit of fun, the flip side of that way of thinking takes us to some very dark places indeed. In short, some natural things are great, others are not so great. The same goes for unnatural things. You can’t, and shouldn’t, use something being ‘unnatural’ as an reason to espouse fear or hatred – especially when the activity in question occurs all over the natural world.
The maddest thing about all this is that when you think about it long enough, nothing we do is really that unnatural: everything on this planet is made of naturally-occurring elements and isotopes. We just find new combinations and uses for them… using our highly evolved brains and opposable thumbs.
In fact, the only thing we can talk of as being 100% unnatural isn’t to be found here in this old plane of reality. The only truly unnatural thing is the supernatural. And as such – thankfully – it only exists as a quirk of the human imagination. But (naturally!) that’s another story…
WOW. No, seriously, WOW. Talk about saving the best for last. PALAU YOU ROCK MY WORLD!! Straight into my top five countries, methinks. My number one pick in the ‘Tropical Island Paradise’ category. And I should know, I’ve been to a truck load of ’em.
I don’t know, you wait ages to visit a Pacific Island nation, and then two come along in as many days. We arrived in the port on the island of Malakal (a short distance from the main island of Koror) at around 10am. The first bit of good news was that the ship would be staying overnight, not leaving at 4pm as originally intended. This meant there was an outside chance of me seeing Jellyfish Lake while I’m here.
Jellyfish Lake in the Rock Islands of Palau is a true natural wonder of the world – a lake teeming with a unique species of jellyfish – a species that only exists in one place on the planet: Jellyfish Lake. Since these jellies have no natural predators, over thousands of years they have lost their sting – so it’s perfectly safe to go swimming with them.
I did not want to come all the way to Palau and miss out. After clearing customs I met with Perry, the ship’s agent. He told me that to go to the island of jellyfish lake would cost a small fortune – perhaps as much as $500. This is because all the tours leave at 8am in the morning – to leave now would mean chartering my own speedboat for the day. Expensive stuff.
There was an outside chance that a half-day tour might be leaving around 1pm, so Perry put his two best men – RJ and Bong – on the job. But first I had to walk down the gangway into my ONE HUNDRED AND NINETY-SEVENTH COUNTRY of The Odyssey Expedition – and the LAST of the Pacific Nations.
As you can imagine, I danced a goddamn jig.
RJ and Bong (great name!) ran me around to Fish n’ Fins, but they wouldn’t bite. Then we went to IMPAC, but again we left with nothing. Finally, we tried SAM’S TOURS, not far from the port. Maybe they’d be willing to take me to the Island of the Jolly Jellies.
Happily, my TV programme ‘Graham’s World’ is showing here in Palau and so I played the card. I may have been paid, well, nothing for my hard work on the show (after all, I did only work on the project every day for 14 months devising, shooting, presenting and organising all the travel so I guess it’s fair enough that I made a massive loss on the deal), but the fact it gets repeated ad nauseum on the Nat Geo Adventure Channel does come in rather handy in situations like this when I need a special favour (although royalties… why don’t I even get royalties??!).
The nice lady in the shop went to get one of the managers, Mark from America, and after a bit of bob’s-your-uncle he offered me a deal – I could go out on a speedboat of my own with a local driver called Ray and spend as long as I liked swimming around with the jellyfish. YEY!!
As a consequence, this blog entry is brought to you by the good folk at SAM’S TOURS. If you’re in Palau, look no further than SAM’S TOURS – the best tour guys in the nation. They even supplied me with a free hat – it’s no magic kanga hide, but when you’re 10 degrees north of the equator and that noonday sun is beaming down on your balding crown, you do not look such a splendiferous gift-horse in the mouth. It has SAM’S TOURS written across it in big friendly letters.
As we were pulling out of the dock of SAM’S TOURS, a couple were walking along the jetty. I was filming our getaway so I shouted over to them to wave for the camera. ‘Graham?!’ was the reply… it was Martin and Corinna – the yacht couple I met in Tuvalu back in December. WHAT ARE THE CHANCES?!
‘MEET ME HERE AT SIX!’ I shouted across the water. ‘CAN WE MAKE IT SEVEN?!’ Martin shouted back. ‘NO PROBLEM! SEE YOU THEN!’. And we were on our way.
It takes about 40 minutes to get to the island of Jellyfish Lake – 40 minutes through some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen – Palau’s Rock Islands.
Now I want you to imagine Monument Valley in the US. Got it? Okay, now imagine all of those rocks are covered in dense green foliage, the deepest, most vibrant green you’ve ever seen. Now set the rocks out in the clear blue waters of the Pacific Ocean and erode the lower few feet of the rocks so they not only look like giant stone mushrooms, they also make it next to impossible for humans to climb up them.
And there you have Palau’s Rock Islands: mother nature at her finest, untouched and unspoilt by man. Believe me, there are few places left in the world with such a boast.
One of the rocks looks like Homer Simpson lying down, another looks like an elephant. A spectacular natural rock bridge marks the ‘entrance’ to the Rock Islands, and once you’re in the national park, there are hundreds of these islands to feast your eyes on.
We arrived at Jellyfish Lake island around 1pm. To get to the lake, you have to climb up and over a rocky ridge – something that you have to undertake in these crazy little diving booties they give me at SAM’S TOURS. A word of warning – avoid the sharp rocks… ouch! Before you set off over the ridge, you have to show your pass and dip your feet in disinfectant to prevent any parasites or foreign invaders such as algae getting into the lake and killing all the jellyfish.
At the moment, the pass to visit the lake is $35. I’m one of the lucky ones. After June, the price is going to go up to $100. That’s just for the pass, not transport and stuff. The reason being is that too many people are visiting the lake, and it’s not good for the jellies. In fact, when I arrived, there must have been about 50 people in the lake – mostly Japanese tourists.
But they were on a schedule. I wasn’t. So I bided my time. Eventually everybody left and for a moment I was the only human being in the world in this magical lake teeming with jellyfish.
I had been kitted out with a snorkel and flippers, courtesy of the good folk at SAM’S TOURS. And a-snorkling I did go.
Beneath the surface, it was jellyfish as far as the eye could see. Thousands of translucent pulsating boobs gently drifting through the clear waters. Most had an X in the middle of their bells and eight broccoli-like tentacles coming out of their rear. I found one with a Y who only had six tentacles and wondered if that was like finding the Jellyfish Lake equivalent of a four-leafed clover.
The lake is salt water, so you can float without much effort. Lying face down on the surface, staring into this alien world… it was like floating in space, only surrounded by hundreds of friendly jellyfish. One of the more remarkable things about these creatures is that they are solar-powered – seriously, they live off photosynthesis!
After an hour or so with my wibbly wobbly chums, I gently made my way back towards the path on the far side of the lake. The water got noticeably warmer as I got nearer the exit and the large jellyfish were now few and far between, but what’s this? At first it was just one tiny polyp, a perfect tiny version of the big ’uns elsewhere. And then there were ten, then fifty, then a hundred… and then POW! MILLIONS of them! Please don’t think I’m exaggerating. To swim in a swarm of countless tiny jellyfish was just magical – an experience I’m going to treasure for the rest of my life.
If you want some idea of how frikkin’ awesome Jellyfish Lake is (and just how many jellies there are!), check out this clip from the BBC’s South Pacific documentary:
Epic eh? How do you top THAT?! On our way back to Malakal, Ray stopped off at Clam City – a coral reef that is home to dozens of the BIGGEST GODDAMN CLAMS you have ever seen. Seriously – you could hide in these things. Some tourists were there and somebody must have asked the question if these crusty old behemoths were actually alive. In order to answer that question, their local guide swam down to the ocean floor and gently stroked one. It responded by snapping shut with some angry bubbles thrown in for good measure. Cool!
After Clam City, we dropped by Cemetery Reef – so called because it’s shaped like a giant tomb. By now it was way after 4pm, so all the other tour groups had returned to Koror. Once again, I got the place to myself. Ray moored up alongside a buoy and off I went for a paddle. Bear in mind that I only saw 1% of what Palau has to offer. There are dive sites extraordinaire, there are ancient cities, stone faces reminiscent of Easter Island, there are WWII wrecks and hundreds of islands to explore. Once you pay for your $35 pass to enter the Rock Islands, your pass is valid for 10 days and you may camp on the accessible islands (those with beaches) FOR FREE. I can’t stress this enough: PALAU IS FRIKKIN’ AWESOME, PEOPLE!
And I haven’t even got to the best bit yet: the local beer, Red Rooster, is feckin’ SUPERB. Even the Germans I met were raving about it.
Palau seems to have the perfect balance of amenities (mostly on Koror Island – outside Koror and you are seeing some real Pacifika), areas of outstanding natural beauty, tropical climate, white sand beaches, ancient ruins, hiking trails, dive sites, turquoise lagooooooons, mango trees, multicoloured fish, giant clams, great local beer and lakes filled with magic jellyfish. It’s taken three years, three months and twenty six days, but I’ve finally found my heaven, and as Belinda Carlisle once tried to inform us, it is indeed a place on Earth.
Give me ten days laying on a hammock in the shade of the coconut trees in the Rock Islands, a cold beer and a good book: it would be the sum of all bliss.
After Cemetery Rock, Ray ran me back to SAM’S TOURS. SAM’S TOURS also doubles as the yacht club and there’s a bar there that’s open until 9pm. I had a good chat with Mark, met a load of yachties on their way to or from their boats and sat down and had a good old chin-wag with Martin and Corinna. I had last seen them in December in Tuvalu. Since then I’ve been to Wallis, Futuna, Tuvalu (again), Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Samoa, American Samoa, Tonga, New Zealand, Australia, Solomon Islands, Kiribati (again), Nauru, Australia (again), Taiwan, Okinawa, Saipan, Guam and The Federated States of Micronesia.
So it was probably a good thing I didn’t jump ship from the Southern Pearl and join them on their yacht: in fact, they didn’t visit Kiribati on the way over here (the current was too strong for their yacht coming into Tawara), so if I had been with them, we would now be in Palau and I’d still have five more Pacific Nations to get to.
A single graceful arc around the Pacific would have been nice, my current GPS map looks like it’s been scribbled on by a five-year old, but judging by how long it’s taken Martin and Corinna to get this far, I dodged a bullet by not getting on that magic yacht (which probably never existed anyway) that was promised me back in Australia last year.
Well, we’re done, that’s the Pacific leg over. Only took me 16 months…!
After plenty of Red Rooster lager, Martin and Corinna, as well as our new American chums were ready to call it a night. Of course, I wasn’t, so I said goodbye to SAM’S TOURS, rambled back over to the port, grabbed a quick shower and change of clothes and headed out to meet with Perry, the local port agent from this morning. We headed over to Kramers, a German bar, where they were watching the Champion’s League Semi-Final of Bayern Munich vs. Real Madrid.
Of course the bearded Germans at the bar were supporting Munich, but after being told by the owner René that I was on for free drinks for the rest of the night on account of my fantastical adventures (I’m seriously considering knocking England off the top of my League of Nations in favour of Palau), I was supporting Munich all the way.
After far too much to drink, Perry and I teamed up with a few of the young guns from Kramers and headed out into the night. We ended up at some club, at which point the night becomes something of a blur.
By the time I woke up the next afternoon, the Mell Sembawang was well underway; the nation of Palau now a distant, but perfect, memory.