Days 466-472: A Dead End

11.04.10 – 17.04.10:

So there’s always plan B, right? Well, it all seemed simple enough. According to the Lonely Planet I could get a transit visa for Saudi as long as I had a Bahraini visa and a valid ticket from the bus station. So first thing I was up and at ‘em heading over to the Bahrain embassy. The weekend here runs Friday and Saturday, so it was open and pretty soon I had my visa and was heading over to the Saudi visa agents to try and get that transit visa. I was a bit worried it would take a few days, but the awful truth was that it wouldn’t take any time at all – they only give out transit visas for residents. As I’m not a resident, I can’t get one.

I had painted myself into a corner.

The next day I tried at the Iranian embassy to get a transit visa (plan C – head back to Iran, take ferry to Bahrain from Bushehr), but again there was no chance. In fact, the guy in the embassy was so rude that I considered dropping Iran a few places in my League of Nations, but that would have been petty.

Plan D was to get on a cargo boat, but nobody would take me without some kind of certificate of seamanship. Plan E was to take an oil tanker, but it was deemed to dangerous. Plan F was to hire a boat but it would cost £12,000. Plan G was to go with a bunch of fishermen, but that didn’t work out so well last time, plus they didn’t want to take me anyway. Plan H was to get a lift with somebody going to the Bahrain boat show next week, but nobody was going and so my last throw of the die – Plan I – was put into operation: get a full, multiple entry Saudi visa.

A transit would be no good, even if it came from London it would only get me as far as Bahrain before I had to send my passport back to London for another transit visa to get me to Qatar and then ANOTHER transit visa to the UAE. And the chances where they wouldn’t even issue the transit visa in London on the grounds that, well, why didn’t I just fly?

It would take a minimum of two, maybe three weeks. I had charged full-pelt through the amazing Central Asia and now I would be stuck in Kuwait for the best part of a month. The driest spot on Earth. No booze, no bacon, no bars, no pubs, no clubs, no dancing, no kissing, no holding hands, no old buildings, no live music, no bohemia and certainly no cavaliers.

Hugh’s dad’s company in Liverpool agreed to sponsor my visa application (there are no real tourist visas, it’s a business visa or nothing) and so I knew I’d have at least a fortnight of twiddling my thumbs until my letter of invitation came through.

But as always it was CouchSurfing to the rescue. Through Michael, my CouchSurfing host, I met the admiral Heitham (from Kuwait but living in Preston) and Josie (from California), and then through them I met the Kuwaiti CSers – a German guy called Dominic (whose place I moved to after a few days at Michael’s so as to not outstay my welcome), a Dutch girl called Jannie (whose place I moved into after Dominic’s) and a top guy from the Philippines called Ruban who was also staying with Jannie.

But first things first, I had to sort my computer out. No sooner had I bought myself a new hard-drive (anxious to rid myself of these troublesome tapes that keep getting me into trouble) than my computer went the way of the Norwegian Blue Parrot – it was in desperate need of one of those wipe-everything-and-install-everything-again malarkey moments. Well, what do you expect after 16 months on the road slutting it about with whatever naughty little wi-fi connection was swanning around at the side of the road?

On hand to resuscitate old Dell-Boy was a guy who spotted me looking lost with a computer under my arm and invited me into his workshop. His name was Abbas and he ran Tip-Top computers in the IT district of town. A Tip-Top chap too – he not only bought me lunch and dropped me at the Aquarium while my computer was being fixed, he also waved the fix-it fee and loaded my laptop up with all my favourite programmes. Hats off to ya, Abbas!!

Meanwhile, Heitham (the coolest Kuwaiti in the world) and I hung out over the week. He busted a gut trying to get me onto some kind of maritime transport to Bahrain, but without success. On the Friday he invited all of us CouchSurfers up to his family farm near the border with Iraq. We all piled into a convoy of 4x4s and headed out onto the large but deserted highway north of Kuwait City, stopping on the way to mess about in the sand-dunes and to take this picture:

Once we got to Heitham’s farm, we broke out the barbecue and I had myself a cracking night with my new CouchSurfing buddies from all over the world. See? Even in a place as dull as Kuwait you can still have a good good crazy time if you know where to look.

Days 480-486: Boiling Point

25.04.10–01.05.10:

This week I’ve been staying with a guy from Austria called Martin.  His flat is spanking – it’s in a brand new apartment complex and the apartment is so neat and tidy just my mere presence is enough to destabilise the Xi.  It’s warming up here in Kuwait – the rains of last week are but a distant memory and it’s hard not to be enchanted by the thought of running from one air-conditioned building to another.

There was still no sign of my Saudi Letter of Invitation coming through and so I cracked on with website updates.  On Friday I met with Ruban and we crashed a rooftop party held by a cool British guy called Wes.  There I met a ton of tip-top people.  First up, there was Kassie from Australia, who offered me a place to crash now that I was in serious danger of outstaying my welcome at Martin’s.

Secondly, I met Andrea and Eric from Canada who gave me a ton of advice about getting the Saudi visa – telling me I was best going to a little copy shop in Salmiya which is tasked with processing the Saudi visas.  Yeah, a copy shop – go figure.  Andrea would also be instrumental in introducing me to the British Ladies Society and thereafter the British Embassy.  Thirdly, I met Bernie, an Aussie living in Dubai who put me in touch with Colin, an intellectual copyright lawyer from Sydney who might be interested in helping out my poor impoverished ass to, you know, make some money out of this whole hilarious adventure thing because I sure as hell made no money out of that television show I made.

After Wes’s we crashed another party – I don’t know how to spell her name, but it was pronounced ‘E’, so maybe I’ll just call her E until somebody corrects me.  This party was even better than the last and – oh yes – there was alcohol!  Homebrew and ethanol, but hell, it did the trick!  It was like the goddamn United Nations (only more use) with not two people from the same country at the entire shindig.  As my friends can no doubt attest, I’m a huge fan of house parties (it’s the Gatsby in me) and if I could attend a couple of these things a week I can see why Kuwait has its appeals.

But the moonshine will no doubt break your head in the morning, as I found the following day.  It was the evening before I shook off my hangover, gathered up my things and moved my stuff to Kassie’s flat, just over the road from Martin’s.  Something you should know – staying with (or even visiting) a member of the opposite sex is against the law here (as is Skype!) and they think nothing of throwing people in jail for six months without charge for even lesser misdemeanours – so I’ve got to keep my head down.

Yes, we are children in a 1950s all-boys boarding school.  Females are dangerous creatures who must be avoided at all costs lest you – you know – fall in love.  Love is not a big thing in the Middle East.  Sex and money – that’s all marriages are about here – children and dowries.  I can’t be the only one who finds the whole set up (arranged marriages and the like) dripping with sin and depravity.  To remove the whole love thing from getting hitched removes the only wholesome aspect of this marriage business, leaving only a seedy transaction that might as well be sorted out with a prostitute.  My dad gives you money, you lie back and think of England.  Deal?

Cheer up love, it’s your wedding day!

Days 487-493: Quiz Night

02.05.10-08.05.10:

On Sunday morning came the news I was waiting for – my Saudi invitation was in the bag!  Within just a few days I’d be finally buzzing through to Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE.  I headed like a bonanza bongo bang bang buckaroo over to the Saudi embassy.  Only I found myself stopping along the way in a copy shop to get the letter of invitation printed out.  But this wasn’t just any old copy shop – this was the copy shop that Eric was talking about the other night!  I could get the visa here!  Of all the copy shops in all the Kuwait Cities…  Awesome.  I printed out my letter of invitation (which was all in Arabic) but it was up to Captain Hugh back in the UK to rush back to his office in Liverpool and write me a letter of introduction  (HUGH……. You are an Odyssey GOD!) that afternoon I handed in my application – stamped, sealed and signed on the dotted line.  All was good.  Five days, they said, Ishallah – meaning god willing.  Hmm… I guess that means seven.

Either way, this should be my last week here in Kuwait.

The next day I was invited by Andrea, Eric’s wife, to give a talk at the British Ladies Society of Kuwait.  I was promised tea and cake, how could I say no?!  The Ladies were wonderful, taking a keen interest in my mad adventures and even having a whip-around to help me and WaterAid on our way.  From that talk, many doors were opened to me…

I was invited to give talks to the girl guides, the boy scouts and various English schools around Kuwait.  Kids ask the best questions – out of all the people you’ve met, who had the best name?  What’s the weirdest thing you’ve eaten?  Do Somali pirates look like pirates? But best of all I was invited to come and watch the British election at my embassy – something which made some of my other British chums a little uppity… we’ve been here six years and we’ve never been invited to the embassy!

Something you should know about the British Embassy in Kuwait… they have booze.  And my surname doesn’t rhyme with ‘booze’ by chance.  After four weeks of 7up and ethanol, drinking an ice-cold Stella is like a little taste of heaven.  I think there was an ulterior motive in inviting me to the embassy… there was a politics quiz on.  My reputation must precede me.

Of course my team won (could there have been any doubt?) and since we won by one point, my firm belief is that it was me getting Rebel Rebel by David Bowie in the lyrics round that made all the difference.  I miss quizzes, it’s one of the few competitive events that I kick ass at – seriously, if you’re ever on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire you want me as your phone-a-friend!!  As the night went on I sat with the British ambassador in the Embassy garden watching the election results come in.  I remember discussing the cons and cons of PR, getting more and more sozzled and demanding to know where on Earth he was hiding his tray of  Ferrero Rocher.

Before I knew what was going on, Gordon Brown was squatting in number 10 and Nick Clegg was umming and arring about who to team up with.  I was just looking forward to Sunday – my Saudi visa…

Days 494-500: No Dice

09.05.10-15.05.10:

Well then, it should all be over, shouldn’t it?  First thing Sunday morning I hurried down to the copy place to pick up my shiny happy visa, only for the guy to pull it out of the drawer with a despondent look on his face.

You need to get the visa in London.

I took a deep breath, nodded, smiled, exited and screamed an obscenity to the sky that would have woken Rip Van Winkle.

No visa.  No dice.  What now?

I rang Eric who has become my unofficial Kuwaiti Yoda, he said he could get my passport DHLed back in the UK for just a fiver through his company.  Thus began my week of visa madness.

On the Monday morning I was invited back to the British Embassy to see if they could musta some ‘wusta’, the word for influence around these parts (and my collective noun for Kuwaitis).  They tried their best, but as the guy in the Embassy said, he could help me get me a visa for anywhere in the world – except Saudi.  They are more awkward than a spoilt child designed by Apple.

So Andrea picked me up (THANK YOU!!) and took me over to Eric’s workplace.  The passport was dispatched to London.  I sent it to my friend Lindsey for her to give to my dad.  So the frickin’ Saudis essentially forced my 73 year old father to go all the way down to London because my letter of invitation had ‘London’ written on it – in Arabic I might add.

The answer is no, now what’s the question?

But even all that did not suffice, in London they wanted the passport to be submitted by an agency, not a individual.  So my gallant father had to come all the way back to Liverpool, gather even more forms and crap and nonsense and then return to London the next day.  And would it take three days (as advertised on the Saudi website) for the visa to come through?  Would it buggery.  It would take a week, now sod off we tire of you.

I sat in Kassie’s flat, incapacitated with a firmament of fury towards the bureaucrats of the world.  I hate you all, why don’t you climb aboard the B-Ark and go torment somebody somebody else’s planet?  At this rate, I’ll be in Kuwait longer than anywhere else so far on The Odyssey – even Cape Verde.

Day 509: The Last Lost

24.05.10:

I could tell you I got up bright and early and rang the bus company only to discover that there was no bus to Bahrain today (there wasn’t), but to be honest, even if there had of been a bus, I would have missed it on purpose.  I had bigger fish to fry.  A fish called Lost.

Last January, Mandy and I made a pact to watch the last episode of Lost together, just like we watched the first episode together back in January 2005.  She was planning to fly out to meet me in India or China or wherever I was.  Well my enforced sojourn in Kuwait threw that idea out of the window.  Plus there’s the fact that we haven’t got enough money left to fly Mandy to Bali, never mind Bahrain.  So we did what we always do and muddled through – if we couldn’t physically be together to watch it, then we could certainly be together through the wonderful power of Skype.

I tell you what though, I have no idea why it took so long to download… there must have been a a few zillion people seeding it.  But eventually Mand and I had it.  I wore my special DON’T TELL ME WHAT I CAN’T DO t-shirt and we counted down to when we had to PUSH THE BUTTON (to start the video) with an 4 8 15 16 23 42 for old times sake.

Damn, I can’t believe it’s over.  I need to think of a good replacement…

How about a mystery TV show called ‘Nightingale’ which is set in the outback of Australia – Mad Max meets Twin Peaks.  After the inhabitants of the small mining town of Nightingale (pop. 108) awake to find their children missing, and in trying to discover where they have gone find themselves activating an ancient evil – one that might just destroy the world.

Two words for you – Aboriginals and Aliens.

Anyone want to option it?

JJ?  Hello?

Day 510: Singin’ In The Bahrain

25.05.10:

Oh yes, I’m back ON THE ROAD!  After saying my final farewell to the delectable Kassie I bundled myself on the 9am bus to Bahrain via Dammam in Saudi Arabia.  Panicking over all the horror stories I’ve been told about Saudi customs, I wiped all the TV shows and Hollywood movies off my hard drives (lest they contain kisses, witchcraft or a picture of a cross) and made sure I didn’t have a single used videotape on me (remembering Iran and Congo).

In the event, they didn’t even open my bag.  Hilarious.

I had my photo taken and my fingerprints scanned and that was it.  Easy as pie.  I arrived in the wholly unremarkable town of Dammam in the early afternoon and it wasn’t long before I was excitedly crossing the MASSIVE causeway to Nation 156, Bahrain – the Las Vegas of the Middle East.

Oh yes, Bahrain – Bands, Broads and Booze on tap and the parties don’t even get started until after midnight.  I met with Tim, my CS host and one US Navy Lieutenant.  His apartment was so kick ass it made me wonder why I never went to officer school.  Oh yeah and then there was the fridge – stocked to the gills with beer, lovely cold refreshing beer.

After a few we hit the streets, grabbing some authentic Bahraini KFC on the way to the Irish pub (there’s always an Irish pub).  There we watched a band that were so-so before pushing on to a Pilipino joint with a much better band who actually put some pizzazz into their cover versions.  From that point on my recollection of the night kind of falls apart.  I remember meeting some girls from Ethiopia and asking why they wouldn’t let me open the windows on the bus.  I don’t think I did any Karaoke, but it’s a possibility.

How on Earth Tim dragged himself into work in the morning is a mystery I’ll probably never fathom.

Day 512: There’s Always An Irish Pub…

27.05.11:

As if Qatar hadn’t done enough to upset me, today it well and truly rained on my parade.  I was planning to meet up with friends I had met in Kuwait tomorrow in Dubai, and when I rang the SAPTCO bus office they told me that the bus left at 6pm.

Good stuff!  I packed up my things and headed into Doha city centre, there to meet Tracy who I should have been CouchSurfing with last night.  We grabbed some lunch in a Thai restaurant and nattered about living in Qatar.  Originally from Vancouver in Canada, Tracy’s been here for two years.  It seems that Qatar suffers from many of the same problems as Kuwait – spoilt, lazy rich kids, dangerous drivers and an almost unbelievably stratified society.

But, you know, in the greater scheme of things these are minor quibbles.  The governments here really do look after their people very, very well – in a way that African governments just wouldn’t understand.  Free hospitals, schools, roads, sewers, street lights, development, enterprise grants, allowances, pensions, unemployment benefits… go try to explain what these things are to Ali Bongo of Gabon and he’ll probably chase you up a tree and set fire to it.

But the guys in charge here could, if they wanted to, pull an Ali Bongo.  Or a Nigeria.  Or an Angola – rich rich rich oil states, but 100% of the money that could go to building a better society and a brighter future for their citizens is stolen and squirreled away in Swiss bank accounts.  Here, things are very different, and I for one salute the Gulf’s governments for looking after their own people.

Of course, it’s not a rosy garden – at any one time there are about 400 Filipino housemaids in the Filipino embassy in Kuwait desperate to go home after being abused or raped or locked in the house for months while the family goes on holiday (seriously).  The attitude of the locals towards the ‘lower’ immigrants (Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis etc) would make Nick Griffin blush.

But, you know, you live in hope.  Maybe one day attitudes will change and the little Princes and Princesses of the Gulf will learn a little bit of humility and the fact that what goes around, comes around.

After lunch I thanked Tracy and apologised for last night’s cock-up.  I then darted over to the bus office (next to the Guest Palace Hotel, pop-pickers!) to get my ticket for tonights bus… only to discover that tonight’s bus back into Saudi (you have to dip in and out of Saudi to get to the UAE) was last night’s bus that’s still stuck at the border.

Again, I wasn’t going anywhere.

Damnit.

Tracy graciously allowed me to stay at her’s for the night and that evening we made a beeline for the Irish Pub – yes, there’s ALWAYS an Irish Pub! I’ve got to say I never thought I’d be dancing to YMCA in Arabia with a pint of Stella in my grubby mitts.

Day 517: Salalalalalalalalalalalah!

01.06.10:

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.

Day 518: Midnight At The Oasis

02.06.10:

I was planning to do my hop over to Yemen today, but looking at the bus schedules I thought better of it.  I could get the 9:30am bus there, but getting back would be a nightmare… there very well might not be a bus back until Friday.  So I figure I’ll stay in Salalah and keep scouting around for ships going to Eritrea… or The Seychelles.

I headed off to the Port to speak to the contact I had made yesterday, Robert Phillips.  Unfortunately he was stuck in meetings, but he suggested I speak to the wonderful Cyril Van Der Merwe, the owner of the Oasis Club and Salalah Port’s own resident Yoda.

The Club was just closing after lunch, so I went up on the rocky bluff that overlooks the port and enjoyed the cooling sea breeze that is heralding the start of the Indian Monsoon season.  I spoke to the lovely Lorna Brookes, as always eager to help when and wherever shipping is concerned.  Afterwards I chatted to Mandy, an ocean away in Australia, just 12 hours flight away, but 6 months (at least) via the now extraordinarily round-about route of The Odyssey.

It wasn’t meant to go down like this.  I should have got to The Seychelles from Madagascar and I should have entered Eritrea from Djibouti, but world events that were outside my control stepped in and barred my way.  And so I sat there looking out to sea wondering where the next stage of the journey will take me and if the pieces of the puzzle will ever fall into place.

Later I returned to The Oasis and managed to speak to Cyril.  He was awesomely helpful and arranged for one of his guys to pick me up tomorrow morning from the town and take me to see the port agents.  Later on in the evening I was just about to leave when I got chatting to a group of Brits – one of them, Luke, looked at me funny and asked me if I had sent him a CouchSurf request – which I had.  Well – the couch is there if you want it.  Marvellous!  Saves Luke an email and me a trip back into town… another round chaps?

After closing time me and my newfound buddies, Luke, Dave and Pat (a world-weary American with a kickass yankie drawl) headed out to their apartment by the beach.  There we sat until the wee small hours on the balcony enjoying drinks and banter as the tide which waits for no man ebbed and flowed on the Arabian sands below.

Day 519: Left of Port

03.06.10:

One thing that’s great about Salalah is that all of the Port Agents are in the one place, which makes it a little easier to get hold of shipping schedules and contacts.  After a little bit of digging I discovered two things: that no ships stop here en route to Eritrea, but there are plenty of ships going to the Seychelles.

Annoyingly, all do a massive four week voyage around the Indian Ocean which encompasses Reunion, Mauritius and Madagascar, places where I have been not just once, but twice before on the Odyssey.  But beggars can’t be Hughes’s and so I have to take whatever I can get – there simply are no other options – the yachting/cruise ship season doesn’t start until October.

The most intriguing thing I learnt today was that the DAL Madagascar (the cargo ship I took last year from Reunion to Madagascar) had now gone and had been replaced by the DAL Mauritius.  But, best of all, it was currently in port… and due to leave on Saturday.  My timing couldn’t be better – DAL only come to Salalah once a month.  Lorna ‘Logistics’ Brookes and I took to the phones and emailios and did everything in our powers to get me aboard.

By the end of the day I had the support of the first mate, the shipping agents, the DAL representatives… but we were waiting on approval from the ship owners – DAL were just the charterers, they didn’t own the ship.  Fingers crossed the approval will come tomorrow.