Day 461: The Forbidden Stan

06.04.10:

Groggy and grumpy I awoke from my nightborn passage through Uzbekistan. Like Alexander The Great so many years before (and Michael Caine and Sean Connery more recently), I was in Samarkand – the legendary and (arguably) most famous city of Central Asia. Stumbling bleary-eyed out of the taxi I lost my phone and before I knew what the hell was going on I had slept-walked into another taxi and was hurling out of town.

Sacrilege, I know. I’m sorry. I’ll tell you a little story: About eight years ago I was travelling through the Andes with an old flame of mine (she’d hate me saying that, but watchagonnado?) and I got increasingly ratty with what I saw as her lack of interest in the soaring grandeur of one of the most spectacular mountain ranges in the world.

I couldn’t believe somebody would come all this way and then not relish the moment. And here I was, in Gramarkand – a place where history, politics and religion smash together like quarks in a Large Hadron Collider – a place that couldn’t be more – you know, me – and I buzz through it like it’s the suburbs of Milton Keynes.

If I was Tyler Durdan, I’ll so be giving myself a slap around now.

But like the Cylons have a plan, I have an excuse.

It’s not a good one, it’s not even a great one, but an excuse nonetheless. I don’t want to go everywhere… yet. What’s that quote from Die Hard? – “And when Alexander saw the breadth of his domain, he wept, for there were no more worlds to conquer”.

Ah, the benefits of a pop-cultured education.

I don’t want there to be no more worlds to conquer. I’ve already been to far too many places for my tender years and I don’t want to ruin the thrill of the new for my future self – I’ve got to leave some stone unturned and Samarkand is going to have to be one of them – hell, it just gives me one more excuse to come back!! And when I do come back I’ll give Samarkand and Khiva a real run for their money. I promise!! But not today.

Today I’ve got Turkmenistan to cross – one of the last great Forbidden Kingdoms of the world, up there with North Korea, Bhutan and Eritrea (still to go, kids!).

I got to the border early enough to make it exceptionally painless. The guys at the border (on both sides) were as jolly as their counterparts on the other side Uzbekistan and I got through with no headaches at all. It goes to show – if you’ve got your paperwork in order, Central Asia is a cinch.

And then I was in Turkmenistan. By the afternoon I had cut through Merv (yes it’s called Merv) on the way to Mary (yes it’s called Mary) and after a rather interesting lunch of Turkmen pie I pressed on to the border with Afghanistan.

I arrived at the tiny little bordertown of Kushka at around 10pm. My friendly taxi driver dropped me off at an unmarked hotel and I tentatively knocked on the door as the taxi sped off into the night. A little old lady answered and explained in her best Turkmen that the hotel was full. I tried to get directions for another hotel, but all she could do was wave her arms in the vague direction from whence I had just come.

Considering her hotel didn’t feel it necessary to put up a sign saying ‘hotel’, I guessed nobody else would bother putting up a sign either and that at this point I was pretty much stuffed. So I drudged off back down the dark deserted road keeping my eye out for anything that even gave the vague impression that I could stay there for the night.

Don’t forget: it’s late, it’s dark, I’m on my own in one of the most isolationist countries in the world, in a town that nobody has ever heard of.

And less than one mile down the road is a sleepy little place called Afghanistan.

Everything was quiet – too damn quiet. There was literally NOBODY around. No cars, no people, no pubs, restaurants, cafes, NOTHING. Not even a street dog barking in the distance. Nada. My buttocks were clenched so tightly it’s a miracle that I could actually walk. As I passed the deserted lock-ups, picking my way over the twisted concrete that blocked the road, a group of three youths swung into view. Now if this was anywhere else, my natural reaction would be to run like a sissy – YES I’VE SEEN HOSTEL.

But if there is one thing I’ve learnt on the road it’s that sometimes you gotta swallow your pride and ask for directions, especially if you have no map, no bearings and utterly no idea where you’re going to sleep.

Luckily one of the lads spoke enough English to understand what I was bleating on about. He said there were no other hotels. Yep, a one horse town alright – and somebody had shot the horse. But then he said it was no worries – I could kip at his. Ah, Central Asians – why can’t the rest of the world be more like you?

So what’s Turkmenistan like? Well I’ll tell you and I’ll be blunt. It’s boring. Possibly the most boring place on the planet – at least Cape Verde has a vibrant crime scene and the odd paedophile to liven things up.

You see this will always be a problem in places in which a bunch of faceless bureaucrats decide what’s good for ya. Top down cities – think of the rampant joylessness of Canberra, Brasilia or Milton Keynes. A place with no nooks and even fewer crannies, a place that people have not built for themselves but has been built for them, the result of which is a characterless vacuum of convenience. Yummy.

Now I know what I’m saying flies in the face of my warm regard for Uzbekistan, Tashkent being about as charming as a flaming bag of poo that’s been left on your doorstep by mischievous scallywags. But that was my point – the people of Uzbekistan won me over despite their country’s charmless architecture and diabolical government.

The only thing Turkmenistan has got going for it is as a curio; like a traffic warden with six fingers. What makes it worth a visit is to clamp eyes on one of the (many) hilarious statues of Saparmurat Niyazov, aka ‘Turkmenbashi’, the first president of independent Turkmenistan (1991-2006); and by all accounts, an UTTER NUTCASE.

Seriously – he renamed the month of April after his mum, demanded that an ice palace be built in Ashgabat, the capital city (even though Ashgabat is pretty much in the middle of a desert) and in 2004 he banned long hair and beards (I would have been stuffed) along with gold teeth (which are incredibly and terrifyingly popular around these parts). He also changed the words of the national anthem so it was all about him, banned news reporters from wearing make up and instituted a bank holiday called Melon Day. NO I’M NOT MAKING THIS STUFF UP.

One good thing he did was make lip syncing at public concerts illegal. Seriously.

But his biggest and most lasting legacy was his fondness for unveiling golden statues of himself. Having seen some up close, I’m happy to report that they look like oversized Kenner toys dipped in gold. My only regret is that I didn’t get to see the big daddy of the golden Turkmenbashis – the one atop the ‘Arch of Neutrality’ in Ashgabat. Arms aloft, it rotates to follow the sun. Or rather, the sun rotates to follow Turkmenbashi.

Day 463: Iran ROCKS MY WORLD!

08.04.10:

The train pulled into Tehran central at around 9am.  I fannied about for a while trying to find somewhere that would change my US dollars before heading off to the Indian embassy.

Some of you might remember a few months ago we ran the story about Mr. Samaddar, the chap from India who holds the current world record for visiting every country in the world.  He did it flying, though, so I’m not treading on his toes with my record attempt.  Mr. Samaddar got in touch with me not long afterwards and invited me for dinner when I arrive in Dubai were he lives, and asked if I needed any help with visas and stuff.  I asked him if there was any way to get an Indian visa double-quick smart while on the road (it usually takes 10 working days).  He suggested I talk to the embassy’s consul, so that’s what I attempted to do.

While in the queue attempting to make an appointment to speak with the consul I got chatting with a wonderfully friendly Iranian guy called Arash.  I told him about my travels and he offered to show me where I could get some wi-fi action.  After I had made my appointment, we headed out on the streets of Tehran – a remarkably cool city with a cracking backdrop of soaring mountains in the distance – reminded me of Santiago in Chile.

Eventually we found an internet café and we made arrangements to meet up later.  While online I learnt two things – one was that I was now the OFFICIAL GUINNESS WORLD RECORD HOLDER for the most countries visited in one year without flying….

Kudos to Mandy and Lorna from Lonely Planet for sifting through all the evidence on my behalf.

The second thing I learnt was that this cruise from India to Sri Lanka and the Maldives was nothing but a mere apparition.  It didn’t actually exist.  Panic over, I could get my Indian visa all in good time.  But still I headed back to the Indian embassy – no harm in at least trying – if I could pick up the visa on Sunday, it would be worth the wait.  Otherwise, I’d press on to Kuwait and do the Arabian peninsular countries that I still had to visit.

But alas, it was a big no-no.  The consul was friendly enough, but it was the old no exceptions rule (yes, we all know there are exceptions, but be nice).  It looked like I’d be getting the overnight coach down south.  I headed out of the embassy and met up with Arash again, who introduced me to his mate Arsi – a big fan of Radiohead and Maggie Gyllenhaal (who isn’t?).  Arash then invited me back to his place for a bit of an impromptu party.  Awesome!

First we went out for the obligatory kebab, walking back in the rain through the streets of Tehran with us all belting out a rendition of ‘Creep’ at the top of our lungs.  We could have been walking back from the Krazy House.  When we got back to Arash’s flat he copied all 3,000 of my kick-ass iPod tracks off my hard-drive along with my copy of Secretary, which Arsi was incredibly excited about – he had never seen it thanks to Iran’s draconian censorship laws.  Then Arash pulled out the piece de resistance – a bottle of wine that he’d smuggled into the country and was saving for a good excuse.

After Arash invited a couple of his female friends around I marvelled at just how many of the stupid Iranian laws we were currently breaking.  But, you know, we’re not children in a 1950s boarding school.  Rules against alcohol, having girls round for dinner, covering your hair, all that kind of jazz… I mean, seriously… every chick in Iran (and, I’ve got to say, Persian chicks have GOT IT GOING ON!!) wears the little back hoodie uniform prescribed by the gruesome bearded old virgins who run the show, but they’re damned if they’re going to wear an inch of it more than they have to.  As a consequence, the skirts are wonderfully short (jeans and sneakers underneath) and the hoods are worn as far back as they can get away with – what’s the point of going to the hairdressers if nobody can see your damn hair?

I hear you sister!

At first Arash was planning to join me on my trip down to Shiraz, but he changed his mind after the girls turned up (I don’t blame him) and so at 11pm I was bundled into a taxi and sent on my merry way.  What top chaps!  I’m beginning to really, really like Iran… I wonder what other treats it has in store?

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 541: Africa’s Final Fortress

25.06.10:

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.

Ha!

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.

Cheers x

Day 599: Chai Chai Chai

24.08.10:

Bright and early for the 27 hour train journey to Calcutta and it was indeed sweet to be back on a train again after the horror that is an Indian night bus. I had gone for Air Conditioned class this time, the ticket cost twice as much (something like a tenner) but even though it’s not hot enough at the moment to make AC class strictly necessary, the prospect of a working plug socket next to my seat/berth filled me with glee.

The train was, predictably, a monster: at least 35 carriages long, it stretched for over a kilometre.  I made a bunch of friends onboard including a nice Indian kid named Sonu, who not only worked out why my mousepad wasn’t working (110v is not enough!) and was mad keen on helping me get to Bangladesh tomorrow.  I could do with some local assistance, so it seemed like a good idea.

Now being a wily chap, I have no intention of jumping through all the hoops required to get a visa just to step foot in Bangladesh.  And before you start piping up the old mantra of ‘you’re not really seeing these countries’, let me explain I’ve already been to Bangladesh and spent a few days in the capital, Dhaka.  It was poo.  Heart-breakingly impoverished, hideously polluted and someone tried to snatch my bag – although the long distance buses were a billion times better than any you’d find in India, Nepal or Pakistan.  However, let’s face it, Bangladesh is not high on anyone’s list of tourist destinations so you and I are not going to miss much by giving it a cursory hop, skip and a jump.

The train journey took me up alongside the Bay of Bengal, but unfortunately I never got a glimpse of the Indian Ocean from the window (or hanging out of the open door).  I had done this journey in reverse eight years ago, only that time, Maoist rebels blew up a train station further down the line, so the one day journey became a three day journey.  Thankfully, there were no such hi-jinks on this trip and by lights-out we were bang on schedule to arrive in Calcutta tomorrow morning.

Day 666: Such a Chill

28.10.10:

I awoke with my teeth chattering like I was camping naked under the stars in Svalbard: my jumper, jeans, waistcoat, sleeping-bag AND blanket were not enough to shield me from the searing frigidity of the air conditioning on this bus.  I mean, I’ve been on buses where the driver has had the same homeostatic malfunction that allows fat orange girls from Newcastle to go out in a blizzard wearing little more than a piece of dental floss, but this was just nuts.

I tried to get him to turn it down, but he just laughed and ignored me.  Was I the only one suffering?  Would I be the first person to die of hypothermia in the history of Borneo?  Everyone else looked just as frozen to death as me, but they seemed to be taking it in their stride.  One guy was wearing a woolly hat.

Imagine: A WOOLLY HAT.  In BORNEO.  A place that hasn’t known winter for MILLIONS OF YEARS.  Where did he buy it?  On the top of Mount Kinabalu?  More unpleasant journeys I have had on this adventure for a smorgasbord of reasons, but generally the unpleasantness ends once I reach my destination.

But it wasn’t all bad: the bus got me through Malaysian Sarawak and into the Kalimantan state of Indonesia.  The rumours were true: you CAN buy a visa on the border (which is what I did eight years ago and what I did again today) By about 2pm we were pulling into Pontianak.  I hoped there was a ferry leaving tonight for Jakarta, Pontianak isn’t the most pleasant place in the world to spend a lonely evening.

I went to the Prima Vista ferry agents.  They had nothing for Jakarta until Saturday.  This was a kick in the balls as my good chum Anna is now waiting for me in Bali and I hate to leave a lady waiting.  However, there was another option: a ferry to Semarang, which is also on the island of Java, left tomorrow at noon.  A lonely night in Pontianak then.

I was a bit short on readies for the ticket, so I walked down the block to find a money changer.  I asked in a travel agents but they didn’t change money.  Then I spotted on their departure schedule a ship leaving for Jakarta today at 8pm

“Jakarta?”

“Jakarta.”

“Eight o’clock?”

“Eight o’clock.”

And in my best Mr. Burns impression: “Ex-cellent.”

My wish granted, I bought my ticket and headed back to the main strip.  I returned to the Meck World café I had drank a copious number of smoothies last week, logged onto their wifi, rang Mandy via Skype and started throwing more blogs at the website.  That’s the problem with blogs: you can never get them done in time.  At 6.30 I thought it was high time to head to the port when Mand reminded me about something: East frickin’ Timor.

Last December in the minibus up to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, I was with a lovely Spanish couple called Asier and Silvia.  They, like me and like Chiefy, the Oz-Buses people and PRETTY MUCH EVERYONE I MEET were trying to get around as much of the world as they can without flying (travel agents and ferry companies take note: this seems to be a trend).  Asier wrote to me the other day warning me that a couple of months ago, East Timor had changed its visa regulations.  You couldn’t just get a visa on arrival anymore, unless you arrived on a ship.

Must be all the British refugees clogging up the streets.

So, anyway, get this: in a fit of red-tapery that would make India blush, if you want a visa on arrival you have to ask for it ten days before you get there.  All being well, I should be arriving there on 8th November, so I need to get my application in.

The procedure is the most retarded system imaginable.  You have to fill out a three-page fillable pdf, print it where you are (you can’t save it for later), staple a picture of yourself to the first page, sign the third page and then scan the pages and email the scans to them using the contact form on their website.

Only you can’t upload more than two files with your application.  And the document is three pages.  And no, you can’t zip it – unaccepted format.  So when I was in The Philippines I emailed the form to them using their ‘alternative’ email address.  That was on Sunday.  It was now Thursday and I hadn’t heard anything back from them and was beginning to worry: the last part of this journey is going to take long enough with me faffing about for two weeks in West Timor.

So quickly – or as quickly as this CRAPPY SONY LAPTOP will allow – I attempted to resubmit the pdf scans, this time using their forms.  I tried to put the three pages together using Word, but it didn’t like that format either, so I made a pdf document and uploaded that.  Watching the little grey percentage rise on Google Chrome was like watching the hour hand of a broken clock.

Eventually the file was uploaded, but FILE SIZE EXCEEDED.

No, seriously, the file was like 2Mb, and on the ‘attach file’ bit of the East FRICKIN’ Timor it said (in Comic Sans as if to add insult to injury) ‘5Mb limit’.  So then I fired up Photoshop, put two scans on one A4 page and one on a second A4 page, saved them as the lowest quality jpeg possible and uploaded the two files together.

I think.

I hope.

By this time it was 7.30pm, my boat left in half an hour and I needed a poo.

This was not good.  I used the loo in Meck World, but to my horror it was a squatter.  I had no choice.  Given the quality of the toilet facilities on every boat I’ve been on in this region so far, this was my best bet.  So I squatted.  Damn these nasty nasty things.  Wetwipes usually minimise the time it takes to go the bog, but in this case it made no difference.  I made the fatal mistake of nipping off the last log a fraction of a second too early, the result of which a bit like having a big brown Crayola crayon hiding up your bum, no matter how much you wipe, you can never draw the ace.  GOD I HATE SQUATTERS.  DAMN THEM.  DAMN THEM ALL TO HELL.  It took me a good five minutes and an entire pack of wetwipes to get my nipsy up to my up to my exacting standards, hunched down in that unholy position, my legs killing me and my balance askew.

By now it was 7.40pm.  I legged it out of Meck World and tried to find a moto-taxi, but there was none – there were HUNDREDS of motorbikes, but none of them were taxis.  I ended up having to run to the port, cursing East frickin’ Timor, cursing the stupid French f— who invented squatters and cursing Pontianak for not having enough moto-taxis.

I got to the port at 7.55pm.  By now I’m sure you already know the punchline:

The ship didn’t leave…

Until FIVE IN THE MORNING…!!

WAKKA-WAKKA-Bum-diddly-um-pum-dum-DAAAAAAAAR!!!!!

I awoke with my teeth chattering like I was camping naked under the stars in Svalbard: my jumper, jeans, waistcoat, sleeping-bag AND blanket were not enough to shield me from the searing frigidity of the air conditioning on this bus. I mean, I’ve been on buses where the driver has had the same homeostatic malfunction that allows fat orange girls from Newcastle to go out in a blizzard wearing little more than a piece of dental floss, but this was just nuts.

I tried to get him to turn it down, but he just laughed and ignored me. Was I the only one suffering? Would I be the first person to die of hypothermia in the history of Borneo? Everyone else looked just as frozen to death as me, but they seemed to be taking it in their stride. One guy was wearing a woolly hat.

Imagine: A WOOLLY HAT. In BORNEO. A place that hasn’t known winter for MILLIONS OF YEARS. Where did he buy it? On the top of Mount Kinabalu? More unpleasant journeys I have had on this adventure for a smorgasbord of reasons, but generally the unpleasantness ends once I reach my destination.

But it wasn’t all bad: the bus got me through Malaysian Sarawak and into the Kalimantan state of Indonesia. The rumours were true: you CAN buy a visa on the border (which is what I did eight years ago and what I did again today) By about 2pm we were pulling into Pontianak. I hoped there was a ferry leaving tonight for Jakarta, Pontianak isn’t the most pleasant place in the world to spend a lonely evening.

I went to the Prima Vista ferry agents. They had nothing for Jakarta until Saturday. This was a kick in the balls as my good chum Anna is now waiting for me in Bali and I hate to leave a lady waiting. However, there was another option: a ferry to Semarang, which is also on the island of Java, left tomorrow at noon. A lonely night in Pontianak then.

I was a bit short on readies for the ticket, so I walked down the block to find a money changer. I asked in a travel agents but they didn’t change money. Then I spotted on their departure schedule a ship leaving for Jakarta today at 8pm

“Jakarta?”

“Jakarta.”

“Eight o’clock?”

“Eight o’clock.”

And in my best Mr. Burns impression: “Ex-cellent.”

My wish granted, I bought my ticket and headed back to the main strip. I returned to the Meck World café I had drank a copious number of smoothies last week, logged onto their wifi, rang Mandy via Skype and started throwing more blogs at the website. That’s the problem with blogs: you can never get them done in time. At 6.30 I thought it was high time to head to the port when Mand reminded me about something: East frickin’ Timor.

Last December in the minibus up to Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, I was with a lovely Spanish couple called Asier and Silvia. They, like me and like Chiefy, the Oz-Buses people and PRETTY MUCH EVERYONE I MEET were trying to get around as much of the world as they can without flying (travel agents and ferry companies take note: this seems to be a trend). Asier wrote to me the other day warning me that a couple of months ago, East Timor had changed its visa regulations. You couldn’t just get a visa on arrival anymore, unless you arrived on a ship.

Must be all the British refugees clogging up the streets.

So, anyway, get this: in a fit of red-tapery that would make India blush, if you want a visa on arrival you have to ask for it ten days before you get there. All being well, I should be arriving there on 8th November, so I need to get my application in.

The procedure is the most retarded system imaginable. You have to fill out a three-page fillable pdf, print it where you are (you can’t save it for later), staple a picture of yourself to the first page, sign the third page and then scan the pages and email the scans to them using the contact form on their website.

Only you can’t upload more than two files with your application. And the document is three pages. And no, you can’t zip it – unaccepted format. So when I was in The Philippines I emailed the form to them using their ‘alternative’ email address. That was on Sunday. It was now Thursday and I hadn’t heard anything back from them and was beginning to worry: the last part of this journey is going to take long enough with me faffing about for two weeks in West Timor.

So quickly – or as quickly as this CRAPPY SONY LAPTOP will allow – I attempted to resubmit the pdf scans, this time using their forms. I tried to put the three pages together using Word, but it didn’t like that format either, so I made a pdf document and uploaded that. Watching the little grey percentage rise on Google Chrome was like watching the hour hand of a broken clock.

Eventually the file was uploaded, but FILE SIZE EXCEEDED.

No, seriously, the file was like 2Mb, and on the ‘attach file’ bit of the East FRICKIN’ Timor it said (in Comic Sans as if to add insult to injury) ‘5Mb limit’. So then I fired up Photoshop, put two scans on one A4 page and one on a second A4 page, saved them as the lowest quality jpeg possible and uploaded the two files together.

I think.

I hope.

By this time it was 7.30pm, my boat left in half an hour and I needed a poo.

This was not good. I used the loo in Meck World, but to my horror it was a squatter. I had no choice. Given the quality of the toilet facilities on every boat I’ve been on in this region so far, this was my best bet. So I squatted. Damn these nasty nasty things. Wetwipes usually minimise the time it takes to go the bog, but in this case it made no difference. I made the fatal mistake of nipping off the last log a fraction of a second too early, the result of which a bit like having a big brown Crayola crayon hiding up your bum, no matter how much you wipe, you can never draw the ace. GOD I HATE SQUATTERS. DAMN THEM. DAMN THEM ALL TO HELL. It took me a good five minutes and an entire pack of wetwipes to get my nipsy up to my up to my exacting standards, hunched down in that unholy position, my legs killing me and my balance askew.

By now it was 7.40pm. I legged it out of Meck World and tried to find a moto-taxi, but there was none – there were HUNDREDS of motorbikes, but none of them were taxis. I ended up having to run to the port, cursing East frickin’ Timor, cursing the stupid French f— who invented squatters and cursing Pontianak for not having enough moto-taxis.

I got to the port at 7.55pm. By now I’m sure you already know the punchline:

The ship didn’t leave…

Until FIVE IN THE MORNING…!!

WAKKA-WAKKA-Bum-diddly-um-pum-dum-DAAAAAAAAR!!!!!