I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in the Omani town of Salalah trying to find a way to catch a lift on a container ship to The Seychelles. Three ships, the MV DAL Mauritius, the MV San Cristobal and the MV Maersk Wiesbaden have all come and gone (to The Seychelles) in this time and none could take me on board.
The problem is this: The boats plying the shipping lines around here have special anti-piracy insurance. Part of the policy demands that the ship run with the minimum number of crew possible. As the captain of the MV San Cristobal explained, my mere presence on the ship invalidates the insurance.
And you know how insurance companies just love to wiggle out of paying out.
So the chances of a carrier taking me from Salalah are between slim and none.
Now, here’s my Plan B. Let me know what you think…
I skip Eritrea and The Seychelles and thunder onwards to India, China and eventually to The Philippines (via Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei). All being well, I could be there in September. Then I hurtle around the Pacific islands (first Palau, then the rest) as quickly as I can, getting to Australia (from New Zealand) for around December (when the yachting season ends in the Pacific Ocean).
Then I’ll cross Oz on the Ghan and take a yacht from Darwin to East Timor and back. Maybe. Then I’ll hitch a ride on a cargo ship from Oz that is going to (this may require me going back to Malaysia first) South Africa and stopping at The Seychelles on the way. THEN I’ll arrive in South Africa and charge up Africa (again, but it’ll only take a couple of weeks) and FINGERS CROSSED that Djibouti and Eritrea have reopened their land border.
Or even if the border isn’t open I’ll just make a run for it.
Then, job done, we’ll hop on the next CMA CGM ship from Djibouti that is heading for Blighty, arriving to a hero’s welcome a couple of weeks later.
Yes, it’s a mad roundabout way of doing it, but I can’t see any other way at the moment. It would have been so cool to finish the journey in New Zealand, but that simply ain’t going to happen.
If any of you have any better ideas of how I should do the Final Forty, please, comment away!!
Today started with a bit of a disaster when I awoke to find that my new laptop, Sony Jim, that I had cunningly placed between me and the wall the night before, was a lot more delicate than my old laptop, Dell Boy. The screen had cracked in the night (I must have rolled over against it). This was not a good start to the day and I was determined to not let it overshadow the rest of today’s shenanigans. I had two – maybe three – countries to reach before the end of the day and a cracked laptop screen was the least of my worries – I had no visa for any of the countries I wished to visit.
The train pulled into New Jalpaguri station in Northern West Bengal at 8am. After throwing my bag into the station cloakroom and a bit of negotiation, I managed to score a taxi to the Bangladeshi border at Chengrabandha. It’s not that far away – perhaps thirty-five miles – but This Is India, so the trip took over SIX HOURS. No, really.
The road to Bangladesh was the worst I’ve experienced in India so far, and was so chock-a-block full of gaily painted trucks there was no chance of escape. And by ‘gaily’ I mean it in all senses of the word – happy, homosexual, a bit naff. Come to think of it, India has to be the gayest country this side of Saudi Arabia (which is by far the gayest country in the world). Funnily enough, being gay was illegal here until very recently, but let’s look at the evidence:
1) You often see men holding hands but never men and women holding hands.
2) Have you watched a Bollywood film? They’re all musicals! With song and dance routines! The only people who like musicals are a) middle-aged women b) gay men. There have been over 64,000 Bollywood films made since the thirties. And all but three of them have been musicals.
3) The brightly coloured floral designs adorning each and every truck and look like something from a Gay Pride parade.
4) LOTS of men have moustaches. Which are gay.
5) Everyone is gay or NOTHING MAKES ANY SENSE AT ALL.
A-hem. So, er… yeah, Bangladesh. Eventually my driver took me on the back road to the border and after a quick natter with the Indian border guards they let me go and have a chat with the Bangladeshi border guard who was literally three metres away – no big fence, gates, barbed wire etc. here – in fact the only thing that gave away that I was now in another country was the flag and the large ‘welcome to Bangladesh’ sign.
So I got to cross the border, touch Bangladesh soil and ask if I could take a photo (my request was denied). Ack! But the GPS showed I had crossed the border so at this point (and over 600 days on the road) I’m beyond caring. After a good five minutes of jumping up and down going ‘whoop whoop whoop’ I came back to India and got back in the taxi.
“Back to NJP (New Jalpaguri) sir?”
“Nope. Let’s go to Bhutan.”
“We won’t make it before dark. The roads are very bad”
“It took us six hours to get here. Whatever happens, it will be quicker to go to Bhutan.”
After a bit of haggling, my driver relented and off I jolly well popped. Again, the border was around 30 miles away, but it still took us three hours to get there. The roads were indeed, very bad.
But the Indian countryside was magnificent. So so green and yes there were ladies in saris picking leaves from tea bushes; paddy fields and cotton plantations: the rural idyll Indian-style. Farms and farmers, villages and villagers, I guess what hacks would call the ‘real’ India. Luckily for you, I’m not a hack so I won’t go down that road, but let’s just say that although the rural poor are the poorest of the poor, there was a measure of contentment that I found lacking in the big cities round these parts. Isn’t that always the way?
Oh, I almost forgot – Bhutan – yeah, file it under the same heading as Sao Tome, Comoros, Djibouti and Kiribati – under “countries you didn’t even know existed.” It’s a tiny, secretive kingdom in the Himalayas that has (successfully) shunned modernity for a long, long time. I think they only got televisions a few weeks ago. Lucky them – imagine wondering all your life what it would be like to own a television set, you finally get one and the only thing to watch is ‘India’s Got Talent’. Urk. Unlike Bangladesh, I would quite like to visit Bhutan, go for a tour, that kind of thing. However, in this trip it’s just going to be a border hop I’m afraid, but for a very different reason than my Bangladesh innie/outie – like St. Petersburg, Samarkand and San Francisco, there are places that I don’t want to ‘do’ just yet and I certainly don’t want to ‘do’ them alone.
I need someone to nudge and say “wow – look at that!” Yeah – sad but true.
So it was getting dark as I hit the Bhutanese border. There was no Indian ‘side’, just a big Chinese-like gate announcing ‘Welcome to Bhutan!’ Fantastic! I walked up to the gate, chatted with the border guard (a kid dressed in jeans and a t-shirt), showed him the article about me from The Hindu and he smiled, nodded and let me through!
Unbelievable! It was so so easy!
So I found the first sign I could find that said ‘Bhutan’ and filmed as much as I could on the other side, ensured my GPS was getting a good signal and after about five minutes headed back.
Then I got into trouble.
The guard on the way back was wearing a uniform and he wasn’t happy about my little bit of international subterfuge. I tried to explain, but he didn’t speak much English. Luckily, at that very moment the kid in jeans came through to the Bhutanese side of the gate.
“He told me I could!” I said, much in the manner of a schoolkid ratting on his mate. The kid in jeans smiled, explained something in Bhutanese to the uniformed chap, and then it was all smiles and handshakes and don’t do it agains.
But by then it didn’t matter. I had done it. Two nations knocked off the list in one day; 165 down, only 35 more countries to go – and I’d be hitting nation 166 tomorrow morning. I walked triumphant back into India.
The taxi ride back to NJP was just as terrifying as the night before with Sonu, but with the added terror of the monsoon rains belting down so hard I’m amazed we weren’t washed away. It was around ten o’clock by the time we got back. I paid my long-suffering (and, hell with it, long complaining) driver, checked into a hotel and crashed out for the night.
For the first time in a long time I felt as if I was moving again.
By 11am we had arrived in Kathmandu. The bus ride had tested my X-Men power to the extreme (that power with which I can sleep anyplace, anywhere, anytime) but I had still managed a decent amount of shut-eye and was raring to go. Dawshan had arranged for me to be picked up by the hotel I was staying with – by the brother of the owner, no less. But on arrival at the Khangsar Guest House, I met up with the owner himself, Raj. But, alas, he had bad news – because my bus was late getting in, he doubted if I could get the Chinese visa I needed quick enough to get on the tour for Tuesday.
But Raj wasn’t giving up hope just yet. After a few phone calls, he asked for my passport and said he’d see what he can do. It was going to be expensive, but in a country where money trumps bureaucracy, anything is possible. Raj and I chatted about my travels and what I had learnt on the road and he treated me to lunch. By early afternoon the signs were good – Raj gave me a 80% probability that I’d be leaving for Tibet on Tuesday (the next tour wouldn’t be for a week).
My only worry was the fact that I have a Chinese visa in my other passport (I need to leave and re-enter the country for Mongolia and Korea), which is currently winging its way to Shanghai, and that a bit of cross-checking could result in a headache.
I headed out to reacquaint myself with Kathmandu, returning at 6pm to meet with Raj and the Danish ladies to watch some Salsa dancing (Yup! Got a problem with that?!) at Raj’s new restaurant-bar called the Tantra. As in Sting having sex. Actually best not think about that, especially if you’ve just eaten. I had a cracking meal and afterwards headed out to see my old haunt, The Tom and Jerry pub, to see if my signature was still on the wall from 2002.
Sadly, the place had been painted over since then. The owner, Tom (funnily enough) told me that it had to be done – it was all getting too much – but they did keep the signed T-shirts that expedition-types like myself had put up on the wall. As thousands of people have climbed Everest, but so far NOBODY has visited every country in the world without flying, I felt my expedition deserved a place on the wall – so if you’re ever in Tom and Jerry’s in Kathmandu, look out for this historical relic:
Met some people, drank a little too much Everest beer, ended up going to Platinum, but to be honest I remember very little. I blame the altitude. Don’t look at me like that! This time last week I was in Kerala by the sea!
The next day I had some errands to run. First up – see if I could fix Javier, my damn camcorder – the screen of which hasn’t been working probably since I attempted to sail around the world with Fajer on the fourth of July. Kamal, the nice guy in the camera shop on JP School Road said he could fix it for fifty quid, which is what I’d pay in the UK for someone to look at it, so I said yes. This was turning into an expensive weekend. I also looked for somewhere that could fix Sony Jim, my laptop YES I SPEND A LOT OF TIME ON MY OWN SO I ANTHROPOMORPHISE MY THINGS STOP PULLING THAT FACE but it looked like I’d be better off getting it sorted in Beijing.
I then met Cirrus, the most awesome tailor in the whole of Nepal, who agreed to fix my shoulder bag, make me a new slip for my laptop, embroider The Odyssey logo onto a polo shirt (something I should have done ages ago) and supply me with badges of the flags of pretty much every country in the world (I wrote the list out from memory). Those badges that they didn’t have they would make for me. Hell yeah!
Another night in Tom and Jerry’s, but one that was spent pretty much all on the phone to my mum in a vain attempt to get a video file I needed emailed over to me. You know people bitch about the way that Ewan MacGregor and Charlie Boarman have this huge logistical team helping them out, but I can’t help but envy them. Later I returned to Platinum only for the place to be raided by the fun police about five minutes later. I have no intention of spending another minute in a foreign police station I DON’T CARE IF IT MAKES GOOD TELEVISION so I made like a tree and got out of there.
The riot van waiting outside informed me that I had made a good choice.
On Monday, it was all about getting my camera back (Fixed! Woo!) and taking it on a walking tour of Kathmandu. It’s really quite amazing the way that statues carved over a millennia ago, which in any other country would be in a museum, are to be found on the streets of Nepal being used as a child’s plaything or as something to tie the washing line to – but it makes the whole place a living museum – and one that has many Easter Eggs to find!
One thing that’s been a bit -urk- during my stay here has been the fact that the bin men are on strike. The rubbish is piling up on the streets in a way that not even India would stomach (well, maybe it would, who knows) and the stench is quite unbearable. But that’s just one black mark against an otherwise perfect scoresheet for old Nepal. I like this place, I really like it a lot.
That night I headed over to Cirrus’s tailor shop (it’s just to the right of the stairs leading to Tom and Jerry’s, by the way) and picked up my personalised polo shirt, laptop slip and badges, badges, badges (haven’t decided what I’m going to do with them all yet!). One thing I had to get done was to transfer all my camcorder tapes to my hard-drives before I attempted to enter Tibet – I have a feeling that the Chinese authorities are not going to be too pleased to see them. Unfortunately, my battery charger had blown (my fault – didn’t switch it back to 240v after using it on 110v setting on the train) and I didn’t have the battery life to do it. I would be taking one hell of a risk trying to get these tapes into Tibet – they could easily be confiscated – and if the Chinese decide I look like a journalist, they can always turn me back at the border. But by now it was too late – I was leaving for Tibet at 6am.
Arrived Saigon at about 9am and scooted over to District 1 to meet up with me auld mucka Stan, here in South East Asia on holiday with his soon-to-be better half, Helen. My backpack which I left in the luggage storage under the bus had got soaked on the way down here (apparently the middle of Vietnam is currently flooded), and I was in desperate need of the three ‘s’s: a shower a shave and a s—. Stan and Helen graciously allowed me to abuse their hotel bathroom and before you could say ‘doesn’t he smell nice’, I was fresh-faced, bright-eyed and bushy tailed.
Also here in Saigon (having lived here for the past three years) was an old friend of Mandy’s and mine from Australia, Thro. Thro (pronounced ‘throw) is here working as a teacher, has got himself a tasty young Vietnamese girlfriend and has (understandably) fallen in love with the place. Well, how could you not? It’s just brilliant: tons to see and do, the traffic is manic, the nightlife is electric and joy-of-joys, beer is 30p. A pint. WHY AREN’T YOU HERE?
Thro was putting me up for the night, negating the need for me to CouchSurf, and at lunchtime I went downstairs from Stan n’ Helen’s guesthouse to meet him. As we said our hearty hellos, a British guy said ‘It’s Graham, isn’t it?’ and shook my hand. ‘Hi. Are you Thro’s mate?’ I asked.
‘No I just randomly saw you – I’ve been following your blog.’
Holy monkey guts! I thought the only people who read this drivel was Mandy and my mum. I better stop being mean to awful places like Cape Verde (and find a way of checking the webstats), just in case, you know somebody takes offence and then meets me in a dark deserted alleyway in Timbuktu…!
So me, Stan, Helen, Thro and this guy Sam set off to find some lunch, which we did at a smashing bakery around the corner. While I was stuffing my face with pies, Stan and Helen organised an afternoon’s trip down the Cu-Chi tunnels – the secret network of underground burrows that kept the Vietcong one step ahead of the yanks during that episode of madness we call the Vietnam war.
Thro couldn’t come, he was working in at four: but he did take my soaking wet clothes to chuck in his washing machine (Thanks Thro!!) and after saying goodbye to Sam, I set off with Stan & Helen (and their Italian friend Emilio) to go for a jog down the tunnels of doom.
I’ve been down these tunnels before, but I wanted to get some fun footage to make up for the two weeks I missed out on when Javier the camcorder was up on blocks. So we watched the hilarious 1967 propaganda film, squeezed into a hole in the ground the size of a postage stamp, breathed in sharply through our teeth as the various deadly booby traps that the VC used were shown to us, I got to shoot a M-30 (LOUD!) and then Stan and I legged it through 200 metres of tunnels not wide enough to swing a kitten.
After we got back to Saigon, the Cu-Chi four grabbed a (superb) meal at the Indian restaurant over the road from their guesthouse, I then dropped my gear off at Thro’s and the five of us headed out for drinkies, drinkies and more drinkies. We popped into the Apocalypse Now bar (the Heart of Darkness is sadly no longer with us), but a surprising hatred of dancepop amongst the troops (I hate it too, but tolerate it on the grounds that I haven’t been to too many Heebie-Jeebies in the last two years) led us back to District 1. We stayed up drinking and talking bollocks so late that I was thankful that the battery in my watch is dead – old friends aside, I had a bus to catch in the morning.
Borneo. The second biggest island in the world, home of the mighty orang-utan and some of the last virgin rainforest left on Earth. It’s divided between three countries – Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei, and I was here for two reasons – Brunei (country 181) and The Philippines (country 182). There’s a ferry service that leaves Sandakan in the (Malaysian) north-east of the island for the troubled Filipino island of Mindanao, Hobson’s choice I’m afraid – there’s no other sensible way of getting there without flying.
When I left school, because I had only been taught completely useless things in geography like about the formation of ox-bow lakes, I thought Borneo was in South America, because I had heard word of there being a rainforest and the only rainforest I knew was in South America. I also thought Brunei was in the Middle East, because I had heard of the Sultan of Brunei and naturally assumed that Sultans were a Middle-Easty thing.
Ho-ho-how wrong I was!
I hope on my jaunt around the world I’ve taught you I little more about where places are, who is next door to who etc. I’ve got to the point now where I could feasibly draw a map of the world and correctly label each and every country from memory – in your face, Mr Schofield!! And here’s me without so much as a GCSE in geography. You see, we were given the ‘choice’ of history OR geography – we couldn’t do both. So I could possibly tell you what happened, but I couldn’t for the life of me tell you where it happened.
Ah yes, The Battle of Trafalgar! And, so, er… where exactly is Trafalgar? Waterloo? Marathon? El Alamein? Midway?
Buggered if I knew. Modern schooling – not exactly holistic if you know what I mean.
It was early afternoon before we pulled into port in Pontianak in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan. It was too late for the morning buses to Kuching in the Malaysian state of Sarawak to the north, and since the border closed at night, it was a more sensible idea to take an overnight bus, saving on accommodation etc, and cross the border first thing in the morning; although after that boat ride I could have really done with a shower.
Pontianak is just as fugly as any other Indonesian city. I know I’m a little obsessed with the aesthetical quality of towns and cities, but goddamnit I hate concrete in a clear and quantifiable inverse proportion to the love and affection shown it by all the lazy talentless hack architects and town planners out there. The fact that it was teeming down with rain didn’t help the gloomy ambiance. I decided to spend my time there wisely by heading over to the equator monument – oh yes, did I mention I that on the boat down to Jakarta I crossed the equator? Yup, for I little while there I was in the sparse old Southern Hemisphere again.
Cracks me up whenever I see Australia or New Zealand try and snag a superlative by claiming to have the highest/longest/fastest/deepest/oldest/weirdest whatever “in the Southern Hemisphere.” Yeah – it’s a bit of a cheat when you’re competing with Malawi, Tonga and Paraguay innit? As opposed to India, China, Russia, the USA, Canada, every country in Europe…
The North Pole being a rather arbitrary designation (in terms of being the top of the world as opposed to the bottom, not in terms of its undoubted location), it seems strange that all the great landmasses of our planet had a tendency to tectonically meander ‘up’, but then for the lifetime of civilisation all of our compass needles have pointed North and I guess it makes sense for us to position our maps with a little arrow pointing up rather than down. But as an aficionado of all things map-like, I do get rather excited when I’m in Australia and I see an upside-down map of the world, or even better an upside down globe. I mean, why not eh? It really makes you appreciate just how much of the Southern Hemisphere is given over to the ocean and just a handful of countries, the majority of them small islands.
But this trip into the lower half of the globe was just a blip: if there had been a ferry service from Peninsular Malaysia to Malaysian Borneo I wouldn’t have cross that line yet – Brunei and The Philippines are in the North. But I will need to cross it next week when I return this way: the next fifteen countries I need to reach after Brunei and The Phils are all in the great SH.
The monument was (as expected) rendered in quite revolting concrete, but it was nice to know I was at 0 degrees, 0 minutes and 0 seconds Latitude – I last crossed the equator without much (if any) fanfare when I was in Kenya. Heading back to town I encountered a guy selling magic tricks outside a department store – I took the opportunity to purchase a brand new pack of Bicycles (which are decidedly NOT going to used for playing cards – just for playing with people’s minds) and the guy showed me a couple more tricks to add to my (albeit limited) repertoire.
After quickly stuffing my face with food and attempting (and failing) to answer all my emails (I humbly apologise for all you who have been kept waiting – I’ll get to you as soon as I can!) I headed over to the bus shop (not a typo) and clambered onboard the 9pm to Kuching in Malaysian Borneo – man o man I’m MOVING!!
The bus drove through the night, arriving in the eastern port town of Sape at 8am, just in time for the ferry to Labuanbajo in Flores. The helpful tout dude from Maluk yesterday ripped me off good an’ proper. I paid 150,000 Indonesian Rupiah for a ferry ticket that was worth 40,000. 150,000 is about US$17: enough for three nights accommodation in a Indonesian flea pit hotel. I may have to return to Maluk and kill him.
He also lied about the speed of the boat: this was NO ‘fast boat’, it was slower than a West African internet connection and didn’t get me to Labuanbajo until it was almost dark. This a merry man did me not make. I checked into the cheapest joint in town and headed out to find out the times of the ferries leaving Flores for Kupang in West Timor. Easier said than done. According to the Lonely Planet there was a boat leaving Larantuka on Wednesday which sounded good, but nobody could give me confirmation and Larantuka is one the far, far east of the long skinny island of Flores – two days drive from here. It was doubtful I could make it in time without spending a ridiculous amount ($200!!) on a taxi. Like in Splash.
Unfortunately for me there was no confirmation, timetable, inkling nor educated guess on offer with regards to if, when and where the next ferry to Timor would be leaving FROM ANYWHERE ON THE ISLAND. I would have to visit the port first thing in the morning and see if they could help me.
I settled in for the night in a great little bar called The Lounge which (if I had arrived earlier) would have been a great place to watch the sun set.
The next boat that would sensibly get me to the island of Timor is leaving the southern port town of Aimere on Friday morning. It’ll take me all of Thursday to get there, but hey-ho LET’S GO. I also found out that the Wednesday ferry from Larantuka may well be a myth. I had found this all out by about 8am after a bunch of phone calls and frantic arm-waving.
My work here done, I went to the Lounge Bar for breakfast and ended up staying there all day, abusing the Wi-Fi, updating my website, researching the South Pacific and working on this damn promo video for series 2 of ‘Graham’s World’. With over 100 hours of video to sift through, we could be here for some time… I kind of wish that the first season was good enough to sell the second one, I think that the problem is that this year things have gone spectacularly wrong, but not in a particularly sensational way – ie. me getting chucked in a jail cell in Africa. You’ll notice (if you’ve seen the show), my utterly successful jaunt around Europe (45 countries in three weeks) was reduced to a one-minute montage.
You see, since Michael Palin shat his pants on the dhow to India, it’s all been about the hardship hasn’t it? You sick little puppies.
Anyway, if you live in the UK you could really help my cause by writing to the Head of Program Acquisition at the BBC (try [email protected] ) and asking her when “Graham’s World aka Lonely Planet’s The Odyssey” will be shown on British TV – the imdb link is http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1669770/. Say you saw an episode on holiday in the Middle East, India, SE Asia or South America on Nat Geo Adventure. And don’t the BBC own Lonely Planet anyway? Yeah, say that too.
Okay, stop nodding and GO DO IT.
C’mon, I’m not going to write anything more until you do it.
Now yesterday (all my troubles seemed so far away) on the way to Flores from the island of Sumbawa I passed two islands: Rinca and Komodo. And you know what’s on Komodo don’t you? DRAGONS! Komodo Dragons, to be precise – the world’s largest monitor lizard (and the world’s largest venomous creature). I booked myself on a trip to go and see ’em tomorrow.
But only because Dan woke me up. Groggy and sleep deprived I clambered onto the minibus that would be speeding me back to Kupang. Bye bye Dili! The minibus ride to the border was brilliant – there were only two of us onboard so I could sit where I wanted and the seats went all the way back. I lay down and gazed at the stunning scenery whizzing by: turquoise tinted bays dotted with wooden fishing boats, islands of green rolling hills stretching off into the horizon and fluffy white clouds idly drifting by against a sky of azure blue.
The bus wound its way around the narrow S bends and switchbacks and before long we had arrived at the frontier with Indonesia. After formalities I WAS BACK in West Timor. Huzzah!
As soon as I had Indonesian phone coverage, I texted Edwin to let him know I was coming back. He let me know that the next ferry back to Flores left tomorrow at 4pm. This was good news (the next ferry didn’t leave until Friday, that would have been a bitch of a wait).
The trip from the border to Kupang wasn’t quite as good as this morning’s – they stopped to pick up loads of people along the way and then when we finally arrived in Kupang they painstakingly dropped everyone off at their houses, even if it meant driving backwards a dirt track for an hour. I got to Edwin’s around 8pm and pottered around on the internet for a bit, but by 9pm I got the feeling that Edwin wanted to go to bed (Saturdays are pretty sleepy in Kupang, let me tell you).
So I considered going for a walk around town to see if anything was ‘going down’, but instead I thought better of it and headed back to the Lavalon Backpackers and got my head down for the night.