Off the train and then over to the High Dam port. Back in the god-knows-when, the British built a dam at the First Cataract. The First (and subsequent) Cataracts are a series of rapids that are impossible to navigate a boat over. Since you couldn’t sail a ship over the Cataract, it seemed like a good place to plonk a dam – it would allow the Egyptians to better control the yearly floods and provide nice green energy for the nearby homes.
In the 1950s the President of the newly independent Egypt, Mr. Nasser, decided to go one better – he would build The High Dam.. So large that it would wind up creating the largest artificial lake in the world, the High Dam was an impressive feat of engineering. However, by flooding the land south of the First Cataract and thereby creating this massive lake (which Nasser humbly named after himself) many archaeological treasures were lost – some temples (including that of Abu Simbel, the famous four-seated Pharaohs in a row all with the face of Ramses II) had to be moved, a painstaking (and risky) operation.
Entire towns were flooded (as was Halfa, the town that is now relocated and renamed Wadi Halfa) and Nubian communities were torn apart. Another problem is that the all-important silt that the river carried (and deposited during the annual floods) was now being prevented from getting to the farmlands that desperately need the nutrient-rich top soil that only the old floodwater could supply.
But as a source of clean, renewable energy, you can’t knock it.
So this lake was what I had to traverse in order to gain access to Sudan, country 134. The road to Sudan had been closed for donkey’s years and this was the only way in or out. Sudan isn’t known for getting on too well with its neighbours. You would think the biggest country in Africa would have bigger fish to fry, but that hasn’t stopped it engaging in border disputes with, well, pretty much all of its neighbours (of which it has many). In fact, the only safe way in or out of Northern Sudan is via Egypt or Ethiopia – you can forget about Uganda, Chad, CAR, Eritrea, DR Congo, Kenya, Libya or Eritrea.
So why didn’t I go via Ethiopia? Good question, well asked. For two reasons: one is that it would have taken me too long to get to Mandy and two is that it can take up to SIX WEEKS to get a Sudanese visa from Addis Ababa. As we discovered yesterday, in Cairo it’s a same-day service. Oh yeah!
The High Dam port was a fit of disorganisation that Egypt is famous for. The whole rigmarole of getting from the ticket booth to the ship took a good hour while my bags were checked on about seven different occasions, and perhaps forty-plus officials who had looked at my passport. Eventually I was on board. The ship was a larger version of many of the little cargo ships that I’ve taken around Africa… benches to sleep on, dirty floors, everything dirty and yucky.
Got chatting with a bloke named Alister Caldicott (www.alitravelstheworld.com), a guy from England who had also done more than his fair share of globe trotting. Having notched up an impressive 90 countries, he had hung out in Palestine, toured through Afghanistan, been everywhere in Burma and was now travelling down through East Africa. He was awesome, very knowledgeable and it was great to actually get some first-hand info on what it is like to travel through places like the ‘Stans.
Ali slept up on the deck, but I had cadged a space down below. Although sleeping under the starry, starry night appealed, I wasn’t too enamoured with the idea of freezing my behind off at five in the morning once the day’s heat had evaporated. I was lucky – I got a bench all to myself. They’re supposed to hold four people each. Good job it’s low season.
Another fit of African bureaucracy before we could disembark saw us waiting for over an hour after we arrived, before we could get off the damn ship, but eventually, in drips and drabs, we all made it off the good ship and into the little town of Wadi Halfa.
The only thing I know about Wadi Halfa is that it’s where Michael Palin took the train to Khartoum – and, well, apart from that not much to report I’m afraid.. The ship would be going back tomorrow so I thought it only fair that I stay the night. I joined a gang of Aussie lads in the local guesthouse, a simple affair of single room buildings clustered around a central courtyard.
Sudan isn’t big on tourism. An intractable civil war between north and south (the Darfur crisis being a completely separate atrocity) has been rumbling on for about 20 years now, and the only hope for a lasting peace is a referendum in 2011 to split into two separate entities. Does that mean that I should have visited South Sudan while I was here? Well, only if I don’t get finished before this completely new nation is created. If it does and I’m pottering around the South Pacific, I’ll have a bloody long backtrack to make. But without a clearly defined border between the two new countries and oil fields to scrap over, the good people of the Sudan may be in for another 20 years of scrapping.
And what are they scrapping over? Have a guess, go on, have a guess. Yeah, as always – which colour hat God wears on a Thursday evening when the moon is in the eighth house of ware. It’s been the same since forever. And you wonder why I hate it so much.
When tourists do arrive, they have to register with the police within three days (at a cost of another fistful of fivers), but the group of tourists fresh off the ferry weren’t allowed to register today, so everybody had to stay the night in Wadi Halfa. Also, many of them had cars or motorbikes that they were hilariously going to drive down through Africa (good luck with that, matey!) – they came on a separate ferry that would arrive on Thursday, so they too were trapped in Wadi Halfa – which was good for me, as I had good stack of nutters to spend a rather pleasant evening with (you don’t have to be mad to visit Sudan, but it helps).
There was Mick the Aussie and his mates, a British girl named Bun who was with her boyfriend, a guy from Iceland whose name was completely unpronounceable and a bunch of other wonderful randoms all stuck in this one-horse town. We spent the night chatting, drinking tea and smoking sheesha (I just stuck with the tea), it was great and made me appreciate how much I’ve missed the company of my fellow travellers during my sojourn in Africa (most of the westerners I would meet would be aid workers). Ah well, no time to monkey about – the boat goes back to Egypt tomorrow.
I’ve got to say that getting back on the boat was a lot easier than getting off it, although you really have to admire the jaw-dropping amount of bureaucracy that these guys think is acceptable. What could have been achieved very quickly with a team of three officials, took over fifty officials an hour. Oh Africa, I shall miss you…
Back on the boat, I met a bloke named Marc, who was from Barcelona (one of my favourite cities in the world), who had been living up in Alexandria for a couple of years. Chatting to him made me resolve two things – one was that I would attempt to get a visa on the border for Syria (something I’ve been told you can no longer do) and the other was that I would head out to Siwa Oasis in Egypt, near the border with Libya and take a desert safari over the dunes into Colonel Gadaffi’s back yard. Marc reckoned it wouldn’t just be possible – it would be easy. I hoped so.
That night, up on the deck, we crossed the invisible line that separates Sudan from Egypt as we passed Abu Simbel, that monumental wreck near which, nothing else remains… I looked on Ramses II’s works and despaired. Why? Because we will never make anything that cool ever again. Too busy building tinfoil warehouses and concrete eyesores these days. Modern Art has been a joke for many years now, and one that gets less funny as the decades go by. I couldn’t build Abu Simbel, I wouldn’t know where to start, but I could faithfully reproduce pretty much anything that Tate Modern has to offer, making a mockery of the centuries of artistic skill and dexterity that came before it.
But then, I guess we’re living in a new artistic dark age. After all, the technical skill and refined artistic splendour of the Greeks and Romans was lost for over a thousand years until the renaissance came along – I mean, have you seen the state of the Bayeux Tapestry? It looks like it was drawn (well, sewn) by a child. Or a moron. Or Lowry.
Anyway, what do you want to know? Egypt is great and modern art is crap and I’ll kung-fu your ass if you don’t agree with me.
After an interrupted night’s sleep (I foolishly slept under the plug socket that everybody wanted to use to charge their mobiles) we crossed the Tropic of Cancer and came into port in Aswan. It would be a good four hours before they would let us off the boat, as the bureaucratic nightmare that is involved in letting a large group of people over an international border in Africa kicked into slow mode.
While we were waiting, we got chatting to a young couple from Liechtenstein, who had been travelling all over Africa and the traumas they had crossing borders with passports for a country that few people have ever heard of. The night before, Barcelona Marc and I had befriended a couple of Egyptian guys, Rumor and Shabi – and once again, I was bowled over by the hospitality of people when they ain’t looking to sell you something. False hospitality syndrome is something Egypt suffers from greatly and I guess it’s one of the reasons people look at me funny when I tell them that Egypt is the bee’s knees. But after we (finally!) disembarked Rumor and Shabi treated Marc and I to some excellent kushari and sorted me out with a cheap ‘local’ ticket up to Alexandria on the overnight train (it was less than US$10, much cheaper than my journey down here).
After thanking them profusely, Marc and I left to grab a coffee on the banks of the Nile. Aswan is a beautiful little town and, I don’t want to sound too flowery about this, but it’s where I fell for my girlfriend Mandy. As I said in my earlier blogs, Mand and I met in Egypt, but for the first couple of days we were always in a bigger group and she seemed attached at the hip to her (admittedly rather fetching) sister Tam. But when we were in Aswan, we finally had a moment alone with each other walking through Lord Kitchener’s Island, a botanic garden in the middle of the Nile.
I should stress at this point that Mandy had utterly no interest in me at all. Aside from me being a ginger specky-four-eyes, she thought my idea of shipping all the people I deem cool to another planet where morons and uggos would not admitted was somehow elitist. It would be years later before I wore down her defences enough for her to let me kiss her, but I still look back on that walk through the botanic garden with affection, especially as it shoehorns neatly into our Will n’ Lyra complex. If you don’t know what that means, you really should read the same books that I do.
Anyway, Marc knew the guys in a local hotel that had links with Siwa Oasis. They gave me the number of a guy in Siwa called Mana and said that hopping over to Libya should be no problem – so long as we didn’t get caught. Libyan border guards are not known for their sense of humour.
Later that evening, I clambered aboard the train back up North. I’ve got to say that the public transport in Egypt is awesome – better than England, in fact (although that’s not too difficult). Generally speaking, you can go anywhere in the country at any time you fancy, really cheaply; none of this buses-don’t-run-at-night lark that happens in East Africa and none of the extortionate prices that they charge in the UK. British transport chiefs seem to think that our public transport equates to our ‘public’ schools, i.e. they’re just for the richest 1% of the country and no-one else.
Anyway, the train was pleasant enough, I had a ton of legroom and after typing up a bit of bloggage, I fell asleep in my chair.
This morning we arrived in Nuweiba, the Egyptian border town from where the boat for Jordan departs. You see if you tried to go overland through Israel, which would be much quicker, it would mean you couldn’t visit Syria, Lebanon, Saudi, Kuwait, Iraq, Iran… do I need to go on? An Israeli stamp in your passport renders it completely useless when it comes to travelling around the Middle East, so your best bet is to take the boat.
Unfortunately for me, the ferry was very late departing and it was dark before I arrived in Jordan. Ahh, Jordan… Wadi Rum, the Dead Sea and – best of all – Petra. Petra is the rose-red city of legend, set amongst sandstone chasms were beautiful buildings were carved out of the solid rock. You would have seen a little bit of it at the end of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – the city’s treasury doubled as the temple in the Valley of the Crescent Moon.
But alas, I would not be partaking in these delights – I’ve procrastinated enough! I should be in Turkey by now!! I arrived in Amman at about 2am, too late to politely meet up with my couchsurf contact Simon, and so checked into the hostel that the Lonely Planet told me to and got my head down for the night.
It was one of those mornings upon which it’s far too cold, gravity seems to conspire against you and the snooze alarm makes it far, far too tempting… all too easy… to fall… back zzzzzzzzzzzz.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEEEEEEP BEEP BE BEEP!!
Okay okay! I’m getting up! After a decent shower, I headed out to get the daily fast ferry to Cyprus, Nation 142 on my list. Suddenly stuck by a crisis of confidence – the boat didn’t leave from Silifke itself, it left from the nearby town of Tasucu. How nearby? Well, I had absolutely no idea, did I? So instead of doing the sensible thing and taking the bus, I did the stupid thing and took a taxi.
In the event, it was only ten minutes down the road, but in my not-quite-wiped-the-sleep-from-my-eyes state, I forgot to remember the golden rule: all taxi drivers are swines. Having not turned on the meter, I really should have refused to pay him anything – the law would be on my side, but in the event, he managed (by following me into the ticket place and causing a scene) to wangle a tenner out of me. It wouldn’t have been that much in London. What an idiot.
Anyways, I bought my ticket and ran the daily gauntlet of passport control, customs, more passport control, more customs blah blah blah, found myself a seat near a nice Cypriot family from Britain and settled in for the journey. But, oh cruel fate, remember the big storm in Lebanon? The one that downed the aircraft? It was still raging in the Med and they didn’t want to risk it. So after an hour of sitting on the boat like a lemon, I got off the boat having gone precisely nowhere.
The good news (for me) was that the boats had not run for four days now, so my extended stay in Iraq made no difference to my country tally – I would have just been waiting in this one horse town instead not having half as good a time. The other bit of good news (kinda) was that the slow ferry to Cyprus would definitely be leaving at midnight. It looked like I had a day to waste.
I befriended a French musician from Lyon named Sylvan, who had been living in India for the past four years. I hoped he wouldn’t be one of those western nutcases who think that India is the be-all and end-all, and to my great relief, he wasn’t. He was just as cynical about that wonderful-but-utterly-bananas sub-continent as I am. We headed to the local kebab cafe, I hooked myself up to the internet and before I knew it, I was enjoying download speeds of 361kbps – that’s 361 times faster than I’ve had since I left Europe. Needless to say, I downloaded all the 24s that I still had to watch, as well as the leaked cam copy of Lost.
Hurrah for the internet! Although did you know YouTube is banned in Turkey…? But YouPorn isn’t. Go figure.
So I whiled away the day, getting a lot less done than I should have done and eating far too many kebabs (although I did have to show them how to make them – when I suggested the addition of chips, chilli peppers and mayo they thought I had dropped in from Mars). It was raining off and on all day, so my lack of umbrellage meant gallivanting was not on the agenda. Eventually, night fell and I met a bunch of Dutch students who were also making their own TV show – one in which they were trying to see how far they could get around Turkey without spending any money. It was their third day and they had been doing quite well until they reached Tasucu… which, given the state of the weather was not good news. Although, when the cute girl who was presenting explained that there were nine of them doing this thing, I wished them luck – they were going to need it.
Minibuses whizzed us around to the other side of the dock from where the slow boat departed and once again, the seemingly endless process of queuing, bag checks, stamp outs, more bag checks, more queues became a blur that didn’t snap into focus until I was on board the ship, the appropriately-named Calypso. I found a power socket, plugged in my laptop and settled in for the night.
When they say slow boat, they mean it! It was 11am before we reached port in Girne in the northern half of Cyprus. Northern half? What, like in St. Martin/Sint Maarten? Well, kind of, but in a much less hilarious fashion…
Warning – history lesson alert!!
You can skip this bit if you like…
Back in the mists of time, Cyprus was ruled by a succession of all the usual suspects in the area – Assyria, then Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome and eventually the Byzantines… that was up until Richard The Lionheart turned up like a great big flowery nonce and gave the island to his ‘friend’ Guy de Lusignan. That was good for Cyprus for a while, having a ‘guy’ in charge who was good with colours helped with the aesthetics no end and before long, Cyprus was enjoying a golden age. That golden age was damaged by the meddling of the Venetians and then completely blown out of the water in 1570 by an invasion by the Ottoman Empire. The Ottomans were a bunch of ne’er-do-wells and didn’t really care for their new possession, which languished in a state of entropy until BRR-PAP-PAAAAAH!! The British returned to the island in the late 1800s to get the place ship-shape, Bristol fashion and more than a little camp once again.
Anyway, after 300 years of not liking the Turks much, the original inhabitants now decided they were all Greek (this was news to anyone who had bothered reading a history book). This led to the concept of ‘enosis’, which is the reunification of the island with Greece. The fact that the place had only been (kinda) Greek for a few years under Alexander (who was a Macedonian) and then had been ruled from Egypt by the Ptolemaic Dynasty (the one that ended with Queen Cleopatra, pop-pickers!) didn’t seem to phase them – you know what people are like when they get a foolish idea in their heads… and something to moan about.
A victim complex is something that’s a bit alien to me, being white, British and middle-class, sorry I know that sounds terrifyingly blunt, but there you go, at least I’m honest about it. I supposed I get a bit miffed that America steals all our best ideas and makes loads of money out of them and I wish Everton would win a few more football matches, but if I started portraying myself as some sort of victim, I would (quite rightly) be shouted down by people who have far bigger grievances than I. However, it seemed to the ‘Turkish’ Cypriots that playing the victim card had done the ‘Greek’ Cypriots well and so they played it themselves. Although when the Turkey army invaded in 1974, they may have played it a bit too well.
In situations like this, I draw a cartoon in my head of women and children in trenches throwing bombs at each other, the caption being “No- WE’RE more persecuted!”
But once you start down this road, where does it end? That’s right! IN A ROADBLOCK! One slapped down in the middle of Belfast, Jerusalem or Cyprus, it doesn’t matter – in a situation in which both sides see themselves as the victims, neither will be interested in seizing the moral high-ground, nor organising a big music festival and getting stoned together.
So here we have a divided island. One half of which is an independent state and a member of the EU and the other half is controlled by Turkey, and single-handedly thwarts their own ambitions to join the EU at every turn. This is one of the last (and daftest) conflict-zones in the world and that’s possibly why Banksy Moon, the graffiti artist from Bristol who is currently Secretary General of the UN, is here at the moment attempting to thrash out a deal which will ensure sovereignty and peace for a re-unified island. It’s a nice dream – let’s call it Cynosis, the reunification of Cyprus with itself.
In the meantime, though, to cross from one side of the capital city Lefkosia (Nicosia to us Anglophones) you need to get your passport stamped. Seriously. Imagine a roadblock running the length of Hanover Street in Liverpool and you needing to bring your passport along in case you want to walk from the Cavern to the Jac. It’s that silly. But that’s exactly what I did when entering the ‘European side’ of the city with Sylvan, the French musician guy from yesterday.
Having said all that, it was nice to feel I was back in the EU, and I guess another passport stamp isn’t going to hurt. I went to a cash machine and got out some real money for a change and then blew it all on an outrageously expensive pint of beer. Wow, Cyprus is expensive. Beautiful, but expensive.
The city walls of Nicosia are amazing – a perfect circle surrounding the old town, how they pulled it off, got it so precise, blows my mind. And walking about, you really do get a sense of ancient history that is sadly missing from other capital cities. Sylvan had bigger fish to fry, so we said our farewells and I headed off to meet with Zafer, my CouchSurf contact for the evening.
He met me on the Turkish side of the ‘border’, being a Turkish citizen he’s not allowed in the south of the city. If he’s desperate to go to the Nicosia branch of Debenhams, he must first fly back to Turkey, then apply for a visa to Greece, fly to Greece, apply for a visa for Cyprus and fly back to Cyprus, you know – the country where he lives.
Madness, sheer madness.
Zafer was a really interesting guy, a Christian Turk of mixed Turk/Armenian heritage… and you thought the Armenians and Turks hated each other! There must have been some proper West Side Story going on there with his grandparents – ah, the power of love. Zafer has travelled all over the Middle East and while I envied his Turkish passport for allowing him to travel to all these places without having to wait weeks for approval, he envied my British passport more. I suggested we swap, but I doubted we could pull it off (although I have to say I’ve seen a good few ginger Turks…!)
After a traditional Turkish dinner, we headed out to Girne to see if anything was happening in town, but the answer was a resounding no. Out of season and a Monday night? Forget about it! But that’s not to say we didn’t have a good time, Girne waterfront is really quite picturesque and hell with it – I couldn’t afford the beer anyway.
The best bit? Not only did I find a kebab shop called Kebabistan (love it!), I also managed to find the perfect kebab – not in Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Lebanon (although they were really good) Iraq or Turkey… they’re in Cyprus. Adbul would be proud.
I thought I would have a few hours to mooch around Rome in the morning, but I found myself unable to prise my worthless body from my bed until after 10am. By the time I had breakfast and tried (and failed) to find a free wi-fi zone, it was time for me to take the train to Civitavecchia, Rome’s port and the place where the boat to Tunisia left from.
The boat to and from Tunisia was horrifically horrific last time, and this time it was no better. Same boat, same company, same unholy rip-off. For a start, the boat was two hours late boarding, which meant that I was left standing in the car-park like an unsuccessful prostitute for longer than would otherwise be sensible. Once (finally) on board, the horribly familiar interior of the Sorrento loomed into view.
I had a ‘deck’ ticket, which basically means you sleep in the restaurant. If you know of a comfortable way to sleep in a restaurant chair, I’d love to hear it. Luckily for me, I was one of the first on board (I ran) so I snagged one of the exclusive couch seats that run along the parameter of the room.
There are only three toilets between all the men on board (usually 100+) and none of them are urinals. Oh, and for some reason, the crew don’t clean them for the full length of the ‘cruise’. Which means within an hour, they are disgusting, within a day they are capable of making a grown man vomit at 50 paces. Nice.
The food is an utter rip-off (just a can of coke will set you back €2.50) and the company on board was less than illuminating. I couldn’t find anyone who spoke a word of English and so spent my time watching the entire first season of Lie To Me rather than do anything, you know, sociable. Ya boo.
In what has to be the most touching thing that’s happened to me in the last 16 months of traversing the globe, last night on the bus from Shiraz, the little old lady (she must have been in her nineties) sitting in front of me who didn’t speak a word of English, turned around and offered me her phone, gesturing for me to listen to it. I put the phone to my ear and the voice on the other end introduced himself as Hossein. He explained that he was an English teacher in Khorramshahr and that I was sitting behind his grandmother.
“She’s concerned that the bus is going to get into Khorramshahr very early – at 5am, and that you’re not going to have any breakfast. She wants you to come to her home so she can make you something to eat. Would that be okay?”
If you want any more proof that the Iranians are the most beautiful people on the planet, I humbly suggest you visit the place yourself. Iran has gone straight into my top ten countries in the world, above Australia and above the US. I gratefully accepted Granny’s offer and after a short night’s kip on the bus we were picked up from the drop-off point by Hossein himself.
Hossein took his grandmother and me to her place where she laid out a Persian breakfast fit for a king – bread, eggs, jam, honey, yummy stuff I didn’t catch the name of, and more sweet sweet tea than even I could drink. Granny’s gaff was perfect for a energetic little old lady – filled to the brim with souvenirs, nick-nacks, ornaments, flowers, photographs and memories.
After breakfast, I said my heartfelt goodbyes to Granny – she said that I should come back to see her as soon as I’m able and that I should bring my mum because she really wanted to meet my mum. A dearer old lady I doubt I’ll ever meet. Hossein then took me to the port so I could buy my ticket to Nation 155 – Kuwait. After Hossein sorted out all my passport formalities, and while we were waiting for the ferry to arrive, we went for a walk along the Shat-al-Arab waterway.
This narrow river forms the southern border between Iran and Iraq. In 1980 Saddam Hussein (of Saddam Hussein fame) decided that Iraq should have full control of the waterway and began one of the longest, bloodiest and most pointless wars of the 20th century (and, let’s face it, there are many to choose from). Over one million people died in a ten year war that saw trench warfare and gas attacks used for the first time since World War I.
The West, which was still pissed at Iran over the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when the Shah (the King) was deposed by a bunch of religious zealots seemingly hell-bent on dragging Iran back to the 14th century, officially supported Iraq in this patently unfair landgrab. Unofficially, the West supplied both sides with weapons, prolonging the war and keeping the Islamic forces fighting amongst themselves in good old fashioned divide-and-conquer style.
So did Hossein hold any ill-will towards the Iraqis? Surprisingly, no. He has friends and family in Basra. Again, I’m reminded of what my Algerian friend said to me – that politicians are very good at making enemies of people. Houssein remembers the war, though – being evacuated from his home in the night and the fear of not knowing what (or why) these things where happening. As a consequence of the war, taking pictures of the port or of the waterway is strictly forbidden and I was made to erase some footage that Hossein and I shot in the parking lot.
By 10am, the boat was ready to leave. I said my goodbyes and great thanks to Hossein and shuffled onto the ferry that would take me to my next nation.
The journey was fun – it was a mega-fast catamaran. I was given free cups of tea (of course!) and once we were out of the Shat-al-Arab I went out on deck and felt the wind on my face as the hazy grey skyscrapers of Kuwait loomed in the far distance.
I was so happy. I had come so far in the last month – through some of the trickiest countries in the world to get into overland with a British passport – Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Iran… and now, at last, I would be stepping into the Arabian peninsular. I have already been to Saudi, and in my mind, getting around the six other nations – Kuwait, Bahrain, Qatar, UAE, Oman and Yemen, would be a piece of cake with no advance visa required for any of them.
By 2pm, we were in dock in Kuwait City. Being the only westerner on board I had to go through a bit of a rigmarole to get my visa (they weren’t expecting me!) but sure enough it came through and – even better – it was free! The customs guy welcomed me with a cup of tea (It’s as though cups of tea are mandatory for all crazy travelling guys) and then asked if I was a tourist. I said I was, and he disagreed. “No, you are not a tourist… you are a traveller!”
This worried me a bit – did I need a traveller visa? Would he pop me back on the boat to Iran for being – you know – scruffy-lookin’?
“Tourists wear fancy clothes and stay at fancy hotels and do not see the world – you, my friend, you see the world.”
Phew – it was okay.
“Of course it is okay – you are British – you are most most welcome in Kuwait. You know Margaret Thatcher?”
I smiled and gave an uncertain nod. Maggie Thatcher ain’t too popular a character around my neck of the woods. I didn’t know where he was going with this…
“She is the Mother of Kuwait! – when Iraq invaded, she was the first to say no and the first to come to our defence. We in Kuwait will always be very grateful!”
I should explain that the invasion of Kuwait in 1990 by the Iraqis is still a bitter subject around here. During the aforementioned Iran-Iraq war, Kuwait (and Saudi) supported Iraq on the grounds that Iraq was mostly made up of Sunni Muslims whereas Iran was overwhelming Shi’ite. And what thanks did Kuwait get for this assistance? No sooner had the war against Iran finished, Saddam turned on little old Kuwait and attacked it with such venom, such ferocity it still has the power to shock twenty years on – men were dragged out into the streets and beaten to death, women were raped, the Kuwaiti towers used for target practice, millions of tons of oil were dumped into the Gulf and over seven hundred oil-wells were set on fire, turning day into night.
Whatever you may feel about the 2003 invasion of Iraq, know two things – first up that the first Gulf War was completely justified (and legal) as the international community has a duty to step in when one sovereign nation is invaded by another (which is why civil conflicts are so difficult to tackle) and secondly, Saddam was an utter ba****d – and don’t let any snivelling apologists like the ghastly George Galloway persuade you otherwise.
If the UN had any teeth (or balls for that matter) then leaders like Saddam, Mugabe, Kaddafi, Kim Jong-Il, Idi Amin, Pol Pot and Pinochet would have been arrested the minute they stepped foot outside their own country and thrown in jail where they belong. But no, they get given diplomatic immunity like Josh Ackland in Lethal Weapon II. A very warm welcome to the United Nations, don’t forget to pick up your freedom to murder with impunity card on the way out…
I jumped a taxi (which ripped me off) to the Kuwaiti towers. There I met with Michael, my couchsurf host from the Philippines. After dropping my bags off at his place we set off to the marina to scout out boats going to Bahrain.
To my dismay, there weren’t any. The guidebook was wrong. The ferry had stopped two years ago and nobody – really, nobody – was interested in going to Bahrain for a myriad of reasons. This was the start of my downfall. As the ground began to give way beneath my feet, a neon sign flashed up EPIC FAIL in my head.
We arrived in Massawa Port, Eritrea just after noon. As I sauntered down the gangplank my head, usually filled with logistics and gibberish, felt surprisingly clear: all I could imagine was the little strip of white running down the right of Africa finally being coloured in. The final sticker in my collection, my last Pokémon, the Kenner toy that completes the set. When I finally touched down it was as good as landing on the moon.
Africa. Done. At last.
Arriving in Tunisia at the start of May 2009, I would have never envisaged it taking so long and I guess I can say that I’ve been to all the countries in the Middle East as well, but thirteen months is a long, long time to spend cracking one (albeit vast) continent. South America took me two weeks, Europe just 21 days. I honestly thought Africa would take about three months.
But as I strode out of the port into the charming little town of Massawa, the sense of achievement was incredible. I had found a way in. A secret entrance into Fortress Eritrea and in doing became (I think) the first person to visit every country in Africa without taking a single flight.
Mandy really wants me to hang up my boots at this point. Who can blame her? I’m already six months overdue. But with just 39 more countries to visit, it would be insane to give up now. In another world, my friends are tramping it across the Glastonbury festival in England right this moment. They’re probably sitting near the Brother’s Bar watching the Jazz World Stage and wondering if they should go and cadge some free food off the Hari Krishnas beside the Glade. Damn I miss them. I miss my life. I don’t want off, I just want this damn rollercoaster to hurry the hell up.
People keep asking me if I get tired of all this travelling. The truth is I only get tired (and grumpy!) when I’m sitting still, waiting for the train that never comes. If I’m moving, I’m happy, I’m energised, I’m gung-ho for victory: the final footfall in the final country. If I do nothing else worthwhile in my life, I’ll always have this. I hope I can persuade readers of this blog to go see for themselves the truth of at the heart of humanity: that contrary to popular opinion, the good outweighs the bad. Don’t believe the doomsayers: we’re almost there, all of us.
Eritrea is an old country but a young nation, having gained independence in 1993 after a long and brutal marriage with Ethiopia. An unholy union stitched together in 1950 by the hopelessly idiotic United Nations and propped up by the iron fist of the Soviet Union. For thirty years Eritrea fought to be a nation again, against almost impossible odds. The town of Massawa, as you can see, still bears the scars from this long and most uncivil of wars, tucked away in a corner of Africa that nobody seemed to give a damn about.
Twenty years ago, Massawa was carpet bombed by the Ethiopians, using planes and bombs supplied by the Russians. Over 90% of the town was wiped out. Thousands died.
Much of the promised reconstruction has failed to materialise, and so many of the beautiful coral-stone buildings are crumbling apart. Twenty years ago Dubai was a desert. Twenty years is a long time.
The government of Eritrea must shoulder the lion’s share of the blame for the lack of reconstruction. Too busy picking fights with its neighbours (as you well know, the borders with Sudan, Ethiopia and Djibouti are all closed, and Eritrea went to war with Yemen not so long ago over some uninhabited islands). As North Korea and Burma can no doubt testify, true ‘independence’ is a bit of a lie – no country can prosper without the help of its neighbours and friends from around the world. There are some projects, such as the causeways that link the mainland to the two islands of Taulud and Massawa, that have been completed with help from the Italian government – and rightly so, Eritrea historically being one of Italy’s two colonies in Africa (the other being Libya).
But there is plenty more to be done. And I’d be more than happy to come back and help out – seriously, despite the headaches I experienced getting in here, it really is love at first sight. If Massawa is in any way representative of the rest of the nation, then Eritrea is far and away my favourite bit of Sub-Saharan Africa.
It is simply stunning – the island of Massawa oozes with atmosphere, a sleepy little port town since the year dot, with all the trimmings that entails. The people are wonderful, really wonderful – inquisitive and generous, and always ready to have a laugh.
There’s a decent beach up the coast, the diving is said to be magnificent and, best of all, the beer is cheap (40p for a bottle of Asmara!). The icing on the cake is that the architecture is just sublime – local materials with an Italian influence, but 100% Eritrean.
Even the broken down palaces tell a story and there is something strangely beautiful about their sullen decay.
Light years from the prim n’ proper fakery of Qatar’s ‘old souk’, this is the real thing, the genuine article. No robotic clean straight lines, no need for inane mutterings about light and space, no fancy 3D walkthrough, just buildings with a real sense of humanity, culture, art and history about them.
Kicking back in the afternoon in the shade of a tree with a cold Asmara beer, chatting to the locals, not a car on the road to disturb the spell… I could happily spend a long, long time here, taking in the chill that I found curiously absent from The Caribbean.
I can see myself here in a few years time, maybe writing the great American novel or helping the locals restore one of these great buildings. And as the sun set over the broken dome of the Imperial Palace, I set off into the night, finding friendship and laughter wherever I looked.
The crew of the Ibn Al Waleed were spread out all over town. After catching up with the chief I found the Filipinos from the ship, who were grateful to be somewhere that not only had cold beer, but a place where it is almost as cheap as it is in the Philippines. After many beers and more than a few whiskeys, I lost track of what we were celebrating.
And then I remembered. Africa, you put up a good fight old girl, all credit to you.
But I won.
It IS possible to visit every single country in Africa without taking to the air.