Only forty more countries to go!! But as you can no doubt see, I wasn’t joking when I said that the leaps were going to get harder! This time last year I had been to a whopping 89 countries. So far this year I’ve been to just 27… and there is no sign that things are going to speed up any time soon.
With the impenetrable African fortress of Eritrea still to visit, not to mention The Seychelles, Maldives, Bhutan, North Korea (if it still exists by the time I get there) and – heaven forefend – the dozen nations of Oceania, I still got a looooooong way to go before I’m safe and warm back in the arms of the woman I love.
But that’s no reason to get despondent. It took Odysseus ten years to get back to Penelope and it took the current Guinness World Record™ holder, Mr. Kashi Samaddar, six and half years to do what I’m doing. I’ve only got 28 more countries to visit before I hit Australia and if you add up everywhere I’ve been in my life (on and off The Odyssey) I’ve been to 175 countries… in other words, there are only 25 nations in the world on whose soil I haven’t stood.
If I can get this done before the end of 2010, I’ll be over the moon. Once I get Eritrea out of the way, things should speed up – SE Asia is my old stomping ground and shouldn’t present too many problems. But then again, I’m not counting any chickens before they’re hatched – I thought Africa would take no longer than three months(!).
If you want to help me on my way, please talk to the marketing department of your company (or any company for that matter) and see if they fancy sponsoring the rest of my travels. Seriously – I won’t give up because of African jails, shipping forecasts or visa difficulties, but if I have to sack this all off because I’ve ran out of readies I would have just wasted the last two years of mine and Mandy’s lives on a FAIL of epic proportions.
OMAN: Last night I travelled through The Empty Quarter – the rather large swathe of the Arabian Peninsular that is, as the name suggests, emptier than Paris Hilton’s noggin. I could try to remark about how unremarkable it was, but that would do it a disservice. Let’s just say I’m glad I wasn’t driving the bus.
This morning I arrived bright and early (7am on the DOT!) in the wonderful city of Salalalalalalalalalalah (to be henceforth sung like Trolololololololololo) in Oman. I had myself a usual Hughesy mooch which involves marvelling that my compass watch actually works, then heading off in the cardinal direction that will validate my Lonely Planet map. Soon enough I was touching the Indian Ocean for the first time since I arrived in Tanzania ALMOST SIX MONTHS AGO. Damn – this Odyssey is taking a quite frankly rude amount of time.
I got chatting with a local guy called Salaam and discussed my upcoming mission: Eritrea.
I have a few options and it might be fun to run through them with you here, see what you think is best.
Option 1: Hitch-hike onto a container boat from Salalah which is bound for Europe and stopping at Eritrea along the way. Get off the ship when it gets to Saudi or Egypt.
Option 2: Wait here until the next flotilla of yachts do the run from here to the Red Sea. Yachties tend to meet up here and then go in a group to minimise the chance of piracy. Persuade one of them to a) take me b) stop for fuel in Eritrea. Again, get off in Saudi or Egypt.
Option 3: Head through Yemen, the tourist kidnap capital of the world, and take a local boat from one of the Red Sea ports over to Eritrea (and back) through pirate infested waters. The local boats will no doubt be filled to the brim with guns or drugs or both.
Option 4: Take the semi-mythical ferry from Jeddah in Saudi over to Masawa in Eritrea. Would be the best option if the ferry wasn’t semi-mythical.
Salaam advised me against going to Yemen and suggested I head to the port, which I duly did. My taxi driver, Ahmed, was a total legend and stayed with me all morning while I dug around trying to find/sort stuff out. I spoke to a couple of guys from the Al-Majal shipping company who suggested I talk to their managing director, who is wonderfully enough from Wales. He was out of town today, but would be back tomorrow.
It was suggested I head up to the Oasis Club and get fact-finding from the locals. The Oasis Club is situated here in Salalah port and is the only bar in town that serves alcohol. In fact, I think it’s the only bar in town full stop.
The place was packed – the are two warships in port – one from Sweden and the other from Britain (HMS Chatham) as well as a group of pirate hunting mercenaries who I certainly wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of. Nobody could help me on my way, but I got the feeling that the owner, a South African fella, would be able to point me in the right direction. Unfortunately for me, he seemed rushed off his feet with all the Navy guys and I never got the chance.
Later in the day I met up with Valentyna from Ukraine who is my CouchSurf host here in Salalah. She joined me in the Oasis Club and we drank away the night swapping stories with the lads from the Chatham. One of them was from Knotty Ash – literally five minutes walk from my house. Small world eh? Let’s hope it’s small enough to get me safely to Eritrea.
After again saying my farewells to Luke and Dave, our mate Alasdair gave me a lift to the bus depot. After AGAIN being told the bus to Dubai was full by the grumpy man behind the counter, Alasdair got a little suss. Is there another bus?
Oh yeah – the bus company down the road, behind the fish market. D’oh! Why didn’t I ask that yesterday?!
And so after heartily shaking Alasdair’s hand and jumping on the (pretty empty) 3pm bus to Dubai I found myself gazing out of the window over the flat barren flatness of Arabia’s empty quarter, full of djinns and demons and things that go bump in the night.
As I mulled over the situation in my head and the wonderful suggestions made by contributors to this website (gavinmac and Socleman, take a bow) a cunning plan began to take form from the desert sands…
All is not lost. Okay, so I can’t get into the Red Sea area from this side of the Arabian Peninsular as it would mean sailing through the pirate zone. My back-up plan of going through Yemen is now impossible as I can’t even get in to Yemen itself.
But, what’s this? The thing that kept me in Kuwait for six weeks… my multiple entry Saudi visa, still valid for another couple of months…!
Maybe my sojourn in Kuwait wasn’t a big waste of time after all – I mean, not that Kuwait wasn’t fun, it just that to wait six weeks to skip through a country a couple of times on your way somewhere else is a bit mad.
But what if…..
There used to be a passenger service running from Jeddah in Saudi to Massawa in Eritrea. It doesn’t exist any more, but there must – there must – be cargo ships doing that route. Jeddah is a huge feeder port for ships coming to and from Europe and the Far East. If I can somehow get a Eritrean visa (although it’s unlikely I’d be able to get one in Saudi) I could attempt to get to Eritrea as a passenger on one of these ships.
Failing that, I could head down to the southern port of Jizan and maybe talk a fisherman or dive company into taking me out to one of the uninhabited islands off the coast of Eritrea. As long as it’s within the contiguous boundary and I step on dry land, it counts.
This would be dodgy as hell though, as they could well take advantage of me and use the trip as an excuse to smuggle drugs or weapons across the Red Sea. If caught this could result in my beheading. Seriously. I’d rather not take the risk.
Okay, okay, Plan C: There are ferries that go three times a week from Jeddah to Port Sudan in Sudan. If I could get a new Sudanese visa (tremendously unlikely in Saudi) I could take the ferry and travel from Port Sudan down to the border with Eritrea and bribe my way across. This would be both dodgy and dangerous.
Of course, the first plan is the best, but that doesn’t mean the others are completely out of the question. A new plan: head to Jeddah and see what happens. If there is one thing that doing The Odyssey has taught me is that where there is a will, there’s a way. I only have FORTY more countries to visit. Forty. To give up now would be a nonsense. There’s always a way. You just have to suss out all the options. And sometimes it helps to think outside the box. And that way of thinking brings me to our second dilemma…
Blimey. This is going to be TOUGH. With no yachts this time of year, no cruise ships until October and no cargo ships able to take passengers because of the pirates, the only way I’m going to get there is to continue on my journey and then massively backtrack at the very end from Australia into the Indian Ocean. This could honestly add months to my journey time.
But thanks to Socleman’s suggestion, I’ve got an idea. It’s fair to say that I’m a pretty competent filmmaker and my knowledge of marine affairs is probably substantially greater than most land-lubbers, what with all the boat trips I’ve been on in the course of this adventure. Given that I’ve met loads of guys who ply their trade in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, I’ve also got a decent grasp of the pirate situation in these parts. Put all that together and I could realistically put together a half-hour documentary for one of the big shipping companies about piracy.
The budget? One free passage to The Seychelles. Given that it would be a good idea for me to actually be on board a ship in order to make the doco, it may as well be one that goes from Salalah around the Indian Ocean Islands, and this time of year is when most pirates take a summer vacation – the weather is too rough and unpredictable to risk going out too far in a little motor boat.
It’s a long shot, and it may not work, but at the moment, it’s the only shot we’ve got. For The Seychelles there is no plan B.
The sun disappeared long before it hit the horizon, obscured by dust and sand. It’s interesting that we all crave what we don’t have – white girls in the UK are desperate to be browner, brown girls in Malaysia are desperate to be whiter. Urbanites hunger for the country idyll and villagers lust for the anonymousness of the big city. The Bedu of Arabia dream of gardens and here I am dreaming of deserts. As the stars begin to light up in the night sky, I’m reminded why. The desert puts us all in our place.
So after a good night’s kip I had a the best part of a day to shake off my hangover. The bus for Riyadh, the Saudi capital, left at 5pm. I spent the day shuffling about, wondering why the sun had to be so bright and skimming all the superfluous items out of my bag. At 3pm I left my coat behind in the The Greens as I departed for the Saudi Arabia Public Transport Company (SAPTCO) bus ‘station’ in Deira, but returning ten minutes later as I had also left my mobile phone. Which I needed. Damien rolled his eyes.
When I finally got to the SAPTCO office they told me to come back in half an hour. I used this time to go out in the baking heat and check my pores were still working properly. As my soaking wet t-shirt could no doubt attest, they were. Eventually, they issued me a ticket and I was on the bus heading back into Saudi, my mind whirring through all the things that could go horribly wrong.
The plan is this: From Riyadh, head to Jeddah on the Red Sea and see if I can catch a lift on a cargo ship going to Eritrea. Failing that, I’ll head south to Jizan and try to find a more enterprising way of getting there. I’d rather not have to do that. The downside was that taking the bus today meant missing the England vs. Algeria match in the World Cup. But as Damien pointed out, it should be an easy win, and if it isn’t, he’d rather not watch it!
I managed to cadge the back seats on the bus, which was great for the first couple of hours as the bus wasn’t very full. Unfortunately for me, as we approached the Saudi border I was joined by a giant Saudi who muscled in on my patch and promptly took up 4 of the 5 back seats as if I wasn’t there. So much for a good night’s kip.
As it transpired, a good night’s kip was the last thing I was going to get. As England completely stuffed up their ‘easy’ game against Algeria (thanks for the text updates, mum), we crossed the border at some ungodly hour of the night and while the Saudi sniffer dog sniffed our bus for drugs, all us passengers had to stand outside, our bags opened for inspection, which was thankfully curt. We then stopped for a bite to eat and then there was a faff (I still don’t know quite why) about something to do with somebody’s papers, the border guys made a guest appearance and after a remarkably long discussion for three o’ clock in the morning, we were allowed back on the bus. Which arrived in Riyadh five hours later.
I had just missed the 8am bus, so I bought a ticket for the 10am one to Jeddah. It arrived at 12. While we hurtled through the desert, my CouchSurfing host for Jeddah, a Saudi guy named Turki, rang me up to arrange stuff for when I arrived. Turki grew up in the States (which explains his perfect North American diction) but has now lived in Saudi for many years. We ended up chatting for over an hour during which discussion he told me he was good friends with an English guy called Bob who works in the shipping industry in Jeddah. It’s fair to say I liked Turki from the start.
As the desert swept past and the sun went to bed, we stopped for prayer time. I sat and quaffed a nice hot cup of tea while the guys off the bus genuflected to their god. The Middle East, moreso than other places on the planet, is a place dominated by two themes – materialism and spirituality. It’s odd that these things go together so well, but then again, look at the gold statues in the Vatican or the burgeoning middle classes of India. I look on all these goings on, the praying, the bead-thumbing, the sports cars and the palaces and feel completely distanced from this facet of the world. Truth be told I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body, and as for materialism, everything I need is in my backpack and I haven’t desperately wanted the latest thingymajig since I was a kid.
For this reason, even though I know the Middle East exceptionally well, I always feel like an alien here, not just from another country, but from another planet. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy myself when I’m here, it’s just that it’s not my scene baby, and it will never be.
The bus rolled into Jeddah around midnight, but Turki stayed up to pick me up which was great. We will learn more of Turki’s wisdom tomorrow.
Turki’s apartment in the north of Jeddah was as sweet as sweet can be. Not only did I get my own room (and bathroom), his fridge was stocked and there was a nice hot cup of tea with real milk whenever I fancied it. Turki himself is a remarkably interesting chap – a jack of many trades – a building planner/surveyor in his day job, in his spare time he has just put together the first of his ‘Arabic Trails’ guidebooks, a full colour 4×4 guide with the amazing stuff you can find in the desert, if you know where to look. The pdf version on his computer looked seven shades of awesome – even more awesome when you realised he did most of the research, took the photos, created the maps and set the design.
This guide just covered the Hijaz area, which is this part of Arabia, the stuff around Mecca, but Turki is planning many more, including one for Oman. It’s really excellent stuff. I take my hat off to him.
Turki totally took on the challenge of getting me to Eritrea and had taken the day off work to help. He arranged for us to meet with his friend Bob Moss for lunch and soon enough we were setting off to the excellent Pakistani restaurant downtown for the awesome lunchtime buffet.
Bob is the managing director of one of the biggest shipping companies in Jeddah. If there was a more awesome place to start our quest, I couldn’t imagine. Over some tasty tasty tucker I explained my situation, the ‘mad plan’ and the difficulties I’ve faced getting over to Eritrea (all the land borders being closed, ships from The Gulf being a no-no and Yemen being shut). Bob advised me to do two things: first, get myself an Eritrean visa. Second, go and see his colleague Abdullah who is a very important guy in the ship business and a bit of a port Yoda, he’ll be able to direct us where to go next.
All sounded fairly straightforward, but to be honest with you, the idea of getting an Eritrean visa fills me with dread. After my adventures across Central Asia, not to mention my nightmare Saudi and Indian visas, I fully expect them to demand I get my visa from the UK, a process which would take at least two weeks.
But you gotta do what you gotta do, and after lunch Turki and I said our thanks and goodbyes to Bob and headed back to the flat. Turki called the Eritrean embassy to find out what the SP was, and the answer we got back was the most unexpected thing I’ve heard in the last six months.
Yeah, tell him to bring his passport and a photo, we’ll do it for him tomorrow.
One photo? Tomorrow?
What about the letter from my employer? My bank statements? My birth certificate? My letter of invitation? Residency papers? My flight in and out? My hotel booking? Seventeen photos? My fingerprints? My iris scan? My Arabic translation? My shoe-size? My star-sign? My first memory? The colour of my underwear….?
Nah, just bring a photo.
Ahh… Eritrea you surprisingly un-paranoid hunka hunk of burnin’ love. I could just kiss you!
Just to put this marvel into perspective, we also called up the Sudanese embassy as back-up in case I couldn’t get a ship to Eritrea. Ha! No chance! You have to get your Sudanese visa from London, ginger boy. That’ll take about a month, won’t it? Woohahahahahahaha etc.
Later that day Turki took me out to the old town of Jeddah, a place he is as enthusiastic about as I am over the old bits of my Liverpool. The city fathers are in the middle of replacing the yucky asphalt with cobblestones, which is going to look great, but unfortunately on the day that I arrive they have merely dug up all the roads (and I mean ALL the roads!) without actually getting cracking with the cobbles. Then again, maybe the undulating dirt paths make it even more authentic…!
The old buildings here are really wonderful, made of local coral stone with wooden latticed windows to let the cool air in. There isn’t a single straight line to be found, an Arabic rendering of Diagon Alley from Harry Potter. The marketplace is still here after hundreds of years and unlike Qatar’s old quarter there is a real sense of authenticity.
Although I have to say my favourite souk market in the world is in Tunis. It beats Jeddah, Jerusalem, Cairo, Istanbul and even Marrakech hands down.
After taking in the old town, Turki and I head back to the flat in order to suss something out – how to copy pdfs and videos onto my little hard drive. On any other hard drive this would be a cinch, but this hard drive is made by a dreadful group of American capitalist pigdog businessmen who tuck their t-shirts into their high-hitched jeans and so their overpriced toys are more fussy than an OCD Lord Snooty when it comes to whether it will, you know, allow crazy space-aged stuff like pdf files onboard, especially if it’s wearing trainers.
It’s fair to say that my hard drive has ideas above its station.
It took Turki and I, who are both more computer literate than the average Joe, FOUR HOURS to crack the secret alchemy involved in the seemingly simple task of putting pdfs onto my iPod. FOUR HOURS which neither of us are going to get back. But at least Turki now knows how to put pdfs on his new hilariously named iPad as well. This means he can now put up to TEN of his own books on the thing, before he has to pay(!) for a application that allows him to put another one on. Ka-ching!!
The annoying thing is that to copy pdfs across you have to have your computer and your iPod wirelessly attached to the internet. Difficulties arise here because often I do not have a free wireless connection (for instance, my connection in Kuwait was wired and my Vodafone mobile internet dongle only worked on my laptop), and when I go to a café to use the ‘free’ internet, they invariably give me one code, and only one, so I can’t connect both my laptop and my iPod to the net at the same time. And if it’s a paying internet place, I have to pay double.
Why the info can’t just, you know, GO DOWN THE FRICKIN’ LITTLE WHITE USB CABLE ATTACHED TO MY LAPTOP I do not (and fear will never) know.
Meanwhile, I can finally put my own Odyssey vids on my iPod to show people. You see, rendering them in Quicktime is not enough, there is a secret video setting that you have to use, but this setting is so secret, nobody actually knows what it is. I mean, we all know that iPods can play ordinary mp4 files (as demonstrated when you go onto YouTube). We also know that they can understand pdf files – after all, you can email them to yourself from a real computer if necessary. But try an copy these things across and your iPod looks at you like you’re the biggest idiot since George W Bush.
No no no, what you need is an iPod video converter, because the £750 you spent on Adobe Premiere ain’t enough! So if you buy this converter, it will (in seconds!) add the little bit of code that says you just gave Steve Jobs another fistful of dollars and allow you to put your video that you made onto your hard drive.
The sad thing is that Apple, though rotten to the core, have a cult. A cult that actually gets offended if you say that their products are monopolistic, awkwardly programmed, overly-judgemental toys. And their ranks are growing. It’s heart-breaking that even in this day and age people still think that these mega-corporations still have their best interests at heart. Just like the banking industry, eh?
Turki gets up at some horrendously early hour of the morning, but I was allowed to sleep in until 8am, and then we both headed over to the Eritrean Consulate. Again, Turki took a day off work to help me out (miles above and light years beyond the call of duty). A little man dressed in red with horns, a pointy tail and a pitchfork hovered over my left shoulder whispering it can’t be this easy, it can’t be this easy…
But it was.
I didn’t even need to fill out a form, they did it for me. And when they told me I could pick the visa up later that day, I almost broke into cartwheels. So can I pay for it in Saudi money? Of course! Do I have to pay it into a bank that’s on the other side of town? Don’t be silly, just pay it over there at the window marked ‘cashier’. Then I did break into cartwheels.
Our meeting with Abdullah was in the afternoon, so there was a good chance we’d actually have the visa to show him. Things were going well. I have decided that Turki is my lucky charm (even though I don’t believe in luck) and that I should definitely stuff him in my backpack and take him with me for the final forty.
Over lunch, Turki and I had a good natter about Saudi Arabia and it’s perception in the wider world. Growing up in the US, Turki has a good outsider’s perspective and now after living here for so many years he also has inside knowledge that a tourist like me will often lack.
Now first up, do they still stone women to death for adultery (or being raped)? Turki says no, the only capital offenses here are murder, rape and drug-dealing and the only state sanctioned method of execution is beheading. Er… okay, what about chopping off thieves hands? Again, the answer is no (and to be fair I didn’t see any handless vagrants wandering about). So the old British right wing why-don’t-we-just-chop-their-hands-off-like-the-Saudis is balderdash then? Yup.
Okay then. We will continue this discussion later.
At 3pm we were back at the Eritrean consulate and there it was – my Eritrean visa. Unbelievable! So, so easy! We rushed over to meet Bob and Abdullah, passport in hand. Abdullah was a really nice guy, Turki and I explained my mission, showed him some videos on Turki’s iPad and he gave us his support.
He told us that we have to visit a place called Baaboud Shipping down by the docks. They run the one and only cargo operation between Jeddah and Eritrea. He gave us the name and number of the guy we needed to speak to, Ahmed Ibn-Ishaq, and told us to tell them that Abdullah sent us. Things were going well. Yes I am playing a real-life game of Monkey Island.
That night, Turki and I chatted about that great big elephant in the corner. Women’s rights in Saudi. As far as I am concerned, they don’t have any. They’re not allowed to drive, (and it’s too hot to walk) they are forced to wear a big black cotton bag over their entire body (in the desert – nice!) and their view of the world is obscured by the fact they have their faces completely covered whenever they are outside. They can’t go anywhere, do anything, speak to anybody without the permission of a man, be it their father or their husband.
The blacked-out ‘Family’ rooms of every restaurant along the road to Jeddah are testament to how divided the world of men is from the world of women here in Saudi. This is all based on little more than an incredibly childish sense of jealousy. Put simply, the men here do not want other men even looking at their wives. This may be because many marriages here are arranged and therefore loveless. Lacking this bond that (by and large) stops normal, free women from having affairs, the Bedu men’s paranoia is understandable (kinda) but the system here stops just short of locking the fairer half of the population up in the basement.
The maddening thing is that there is NOTHING in the Koran about women having live as little more than slaves to their menfolk. It is a Bedu thing, and despite the mealy-mouthed apologists saying it is about ‘respect’ (do me a quaver), it’s about nothing more than male power, domination, jealousy and paranoia – things that a good Muslim should be fighting a personal jihad against.
I have to say that here in the Hijaz part of the country things are a lot more easy going. However, the capital Riyadh is slap bang in the middle of Bedu country and so things are unlikely to change at a national level anytime soon. But Turki is optimistic. He reckons that the Hijazis are a lot more cosmopolitan and there is an unstoppable rise in the numbers of young people using Facebook and mixed coffee shops to meet members of the opposite sex. Maybe a healthy dose of real love will be what’s needed to finally break the back of the green-eyed monster.
Turki had tried in vain all yesterday to get in touch with Baaboud Shipping and arrange a meeting with Ahmed. But this morning we had better luck. By 9.01am we had a meeting arranged. Turki donned his traditional Saudi garp (to enhance his already consummate Jedi skills) and by 10am we were in Ahmed Ibn-Ishaq’s office drinking green coffee and talking ships to Eritrea.
After Turki introduced me and explained that we had been told to come here by Abdullah, I explained my mission. Turki then smoothly fought my corner in Arabic, I can’t tell you how important the power of introduction is to The Odyssey: whenever I just ruck up and tell people what I’m doing they generally a) don’t believe me or b) think I’m a nut. It’s kinda embarrassing. Once that obstacle is out of the way, it makes things SO much easy to get the help I desperately need.
As the conversation continued it slowly dawned on me that things might finally be going my way. Ahmed was a cheerful chap (with a look of Clancy Brown about him) and he loved the idea that I was travelling all over the world without flying. I showed him my passport (avec visa) and he asked me if I was ready to leave tomorrow.
TOMORROW!!!?!?!? HELL YEAH!!
I couldn’t believe it. After two months of pretty much everything going wrong, it was now all going so right. And what’s more is that Baaboud Shipping’s cargo ship only goes to Eritrea two or three times a month: our timing was magnificent – the ship was in port and leaving tomorrow.
I think I danced a little jig.
Turki and I spent a good hour and a half with Ahmed and when we left it was jubilation all around. THIS is when I’m reminded of why I’m doing The Odyssey. The dizzying highs. The days when everything comes together with a perfection that could not be predicted. They make the days of frustration and loneliness all worth it.
Over a tasty lunch at the Lebanese place down the road Turki and I celebrated the travel smackdown of the season.
We’d done it.
That evening we headed to Jeddah’s posh date shop (think Thornton’s meets Tiffany’s, but with dates – the type you eat!) and bought a beautiful wooden box packed full of dates for Ahmed – a nice Arabic way of saying thank you.
Later we went out to a coffee place down by the water. Turki and I had a jolly old fight about modern architecture and I had a good chuckle at this big concrete block with the cars sticking out of it. Eek!
We had to be at Baaboud Shipping for 7.30am, and, once again, Turki took time away from the office to take me there. The level of hospitality and sheer generosity I’ve received from Turki has really knocked me for six. I owe this guy BIG. Like many other Odyssey Heroes I really have no idea how I can possibly repay him short of declaring a Wookiee Life-Debt. The only thing I can do is spread the love and do everything in my power to help my fellow wayfarers along the way after I finish this adventure. And you can hold me to that.
We presented Ahmed with his dates and he responded with a pot of authentic Sudanese green bean coffee. The ship would be leaving this afternoon and we had to be at the port for 10am. Ahmed gave Turki the phone number of the port agent and gave me his best wishes. One last traditional Saudi breaky (flat bread and yummy beans followed by a yoghurt and honey desert… yum!) and Turki dropped me at the port.
I was shepherded through the massive passenger terminal nice and quick (I was the only one there!) and after being picked up by the port bus, I alighted at the quayside where the Ibn Al Waleed, the cargo ship that would be taking me to Eritrea, lay in wait. The last time I was here at this port was on the 29th December 2009 upon the MV Turquoise racing on my way to meet Mandy at the pyramids before New Year – Almost a full six months ago.
I clambered aboard and introduced myself to Captain Mohamed Mousa Mohamed, Chief Nay Myo and Babikir Yahya the cook before settling down in the mess with my laptop to write this blog and to count down the minutes to the England vs. Slovenia game.
Yup, luckily for me, the Ibn Al Waleed has satellite TV!
The ship is an old one – it must be from the 1970s. It reminds me of my dad’s old carburetter shop in Liverpool – a mucky, working vessel that does its job but you wouldn’t want to eat your dinner off the floor. It’s nowhere near as big as some of the mega container ships I’ve been on board, but it manages to pack a lot of containers and a ton of new cars on the deck.
The crew from Sudan, Sri Lanka, Burma and the Philippines are a lively bunch and they all look forward to kicking back and having a day off work in Eritrea where they can get hold of chicks and booze – things that in Saudi are in short supply!
This evening England scraped through to the final 16 of the World Cup, but are facing Germany on their next outing so that should be fun. But with the universally glum expressions of the English players (most notably Wayne Rooney) I’m not holding my breath for victory. Everyone is wondering what the secret of the South American teams is. I’ll tell you what it is – they look like they’re enjoying themselves!
So… the schedule is that we arrive in Eritrea Friday afternoon, spend a day or two in Massawa before returning to Saudi for Monday or Tuesday next week.
It would be 3am before we were finally loaded and set sail for the 161st nation of The Odyssey Expedition. To be able to tick Eritrea off my list would a huge huge weight off my shoulders… to think only last week I was considering heading to Eritrea last after visiting every other country in the world, in the hope that the border with Djibouti would be reopened some time this year.
Thursday on board ship passed like a dream. Out on the high sea I felt the exhilaration of things finally going to plan. I spent the day in the mess as the crew drifted in and out throughout the day, waiting for the football to start. Today we got to watch Italy get unceremoniously dumped out of the group round (bottom of their table) and sadly bid farewell to the Danish contingent as they got their bottoms well and truly spanked by the Japanese.
With any luck tomorrow I’ll be downing a cool pint and watching the footy in a bar in Massawa knowing that I am the first person to visit every single nation of South America, The Caribbean, Central and North America, Europe, The Middle East and Africa in one rather epic surface journey. I look forward to it.
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.
This morning I was invited around to a local girl’s place for some traditional Eritrean breakfast. Saba and I sat in the back yard of her single room shack as her mum expertly roasted and ground coffee beans before funnelling them into a traditional spherical pot, added water and then placed on the fire. Breakfast was a yummy meat, potato and onion stew that wasn’t far from being scouse, served with bread and the freshest coffee I’ve ever tasted.
You just can’t beat home cooking, can you? Eritrea pretty much closes down from noon until 5pm, so after thanking Saba and her mum, I headed back to the ship for a little siesta. As you can no doubt guess, it gets rather hot here in the afternoon. After grabbing forty winks I headed out of the port to try and hunt down some wild internets – I needed to send out a message saying that I had arrived!!
There is no international roaming set up here, so my British Sim card (and my Saudi one, mind you) had no signal, and to buy an Eritrean Sim is a mission that (I’m told) could take six weeks. Seriously. Six weeks! Oh yeah, and even if I get an Eritrean Sim, I can’t make international calls anyhoo! So I needed to get online and let Mandy and my family know I was safe and well and to ask Leo to change the country count to 161.
Not so fast, Poindexter! The one and only internet place on Massawa Island was closed, as was the one on Taulud Island. I walked all the way over the long causeway to the mainland, and on finding the internet place open, thought I had caught myself a break. But it was not be! They had no connection, that’s why the other two places were closed – it seemed the whole of Massawa was cut off from the wibbly wobbly worldy widey web.
I dropped into the neighbouring bar to knock back a few cold sodas and got chatting to a group of ex-pats from Germany, Spain and South Africa who were working on a project for the Eritrean government. Lots of red tape? Surprisingly not. They had been in Massawa for a week now and would be popping in and out of the country for the next few months rolling out the venture. I wished them well and suggested they visit Massawa Island sometime – the mainland was nowhere near as pleasant.
So a quick bus ride back to the port (I’ve walked enough today) and it wasn’t long before I bumped into the chief again – Nay is from Burma and has sailed all over South East Asia, the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea. After his twelve-month contract expires he is hoping that maybe he could be captain of his next vessel. He’s also far enough away from the military junta that is running Burma to be able to speak freely about the situation there. Let hope over the coming years that more Burmese people are given that freedom.
Later on we watched the Ghana vs USA match together on a TV set up on the street outside a bar. When Ghana won the place erupted in jubilation – nice to see Africa united for a change. I finished off the night with the Filipino crew from our ship, but managed to moderate my drinking this time and even headed back to my cabin at a (kinda) reasonable time. Tomorrow we set sail back to Saudi. All systems a-go-go.