This time last year, I had visited every country in South America. This year, I’ve been to one new country, Sudan. Pathetic! Well, I was soon to make amends… within a few hours, I would hopefully be hot-footing it into Libya and I’d be able to tick country number 135 off my list.
I arrived in Siwa at about 6am and headed straight over to the Yousef hostel to meet Mana, the guy that the guys in Aswan put me onto. He offered me a room so that I could get a couple of hours shut-eye, and after my less-than-marvellous night’s sleep on the coach over here, I was all too happy to say yes. It wasn’t until after I had got up and had a shower that he told me that the room was gratis. What a legend! I tried to give him ten Egyptian pounds, but he wouldn’t take it.
When people ask me what my favourite country other than my home is, some have been a bit perplexed when I’ve said Egypt. I guess those people don’t know Egypt like I know Egypt. Maybe they’ve only seen the annoying parts of Egypt – the touts, the taxi-drivers and the rip-off merchants. Maybe they’re just looking at the polluted urban sprawl of Cairo, or the dictator that has been in power since 1981. Maybe they mistake genuine hospitality for the rogues and carpet-baggers who lure you into their perfume factory under false pretences. Maybe they actually give the baksheesh (backhanders) to every Tom, Dick and Hamza that asks for it.
But if you can see beyond that at all the magical things Egypt has to offer, it truly is an awesome place. I love it.
I asked about getting a ride over the border, but from the word go, it wasn’t looking very good. Mana didn’t know anyone who would take me and suggested that I asked around the town. So I did, and the word that I received back was not good. There had been a recent clampdown by the Libyan authorities to try to stem the flow of hashish into the Colonel’s personal fiefdom, these guys had guns and, well, it wasn’t worth the risk. My trip to Siwa had been a wasted one, but it wasn’t entirely a fruitless expedition because Siwa was just wonderful. I liked it even more than chips. Relaxed, friendly, hospitable… it has all the best qualities of Egypt and none of the worst.
The only thing that was a bit weird was that you hardly see any women here – those you do see are invariably covered up. There are a couple of reasons for this, one is your usual Bedouin traditions, another is that Siwa was the last oasis in Egypt to get a paved road going to it. But the main reason is this… Siwa is the San Francisco of Egypt. Oh yes people, before they made it illegal in the 1950s (the bores!), this was where your crafty butchers, flashboys and chromatically adept types hung out. Well, they still do, they just don’t hold love parades. It would be a little risky.
Anyway, after exhausting all possibilities for a quick border-hop, I jumped on the 3pm bus back to Alex. Bah! My second attempt to crack fortress Libya had failed… but don’t forget – I’ve still got to backtrack all the way to Tunisia in order to visit Algeria, so I’ll have at least one more crack at it.
I got into Alex at around 11pm and I toyed with the idea of staying the night but instead opted to press on in a minibus to Cairo and kip at Kendra’s place. When I say she’s a nighthawk, I mean, this girl just does not sleep, so I didn’t feel to guilty about rucking up at three in the morning. She acted like it was three in the afternoon – we even ordered twenty-four hour pizza. Try doing that in Liverpool, ya loooosers!
I blame Lonely Planet. The nearest town to the border of Iraq according to my guide book is a place called Sirnak, the real closest town is called Silopi. If I had known this in advance, I could have got off my bus in Silopi instead of foolishly staying on it until Sirnak. This meant I had to backtrack somewhat.
Yesterday when I asked for a ticket to Sirnak, a Turkish man said to me “why do you want to go there? It’s very dangerous… [gestures firing a machine gun] Best you go to Cappadocia.” Cappadocia’s fairy-chimney charms aside, this remark annoyed me more than scared me – it’s no secret that the Turks aren’t particularly enamoured with the Kurdish people that live in the border regions of Turkey, Iraq and Iran. Irritating buggers who have their own fancy language and customs – how dare they? Given the recent history of the Middle East, I think it’s fair to say that these guys ain’t too big on multi-culturalism. Which is a shame because if they would stop acting like brain-dead morons for just five minutes, they might discover that they have more in common with each other than they might think.
But while people are so obsessed with building up walls to keep other humans out (stuff like this always reminds me of Jonathan Swift and his big- and little-enders) we’re going to have what we call, er, a breakdown of communication, Doc. But being an outsider I’m happy to give people the benefit of the doubt, and I have to say that the Kurds did not let themselves down. Polite, courteous, helpful, generous… a friendlier bunch I couldn’t hope to meet. For instance, I get off the bus in Sirnak and I ask to go to the border with Iraq. A guy smiles and tells me in Kurdish to come with him and he gives me a lift to where the local minibuses stop. I get to the minibus stop and am invited into a nearby office to drink tea with the people there. It’s freezing cold, I’m up in the mountains and a glass of hot, hot tea with far too much sugar is exactly what I need. I offer to pay but they refuse to take a penny, instead they help me with my bags and soon I’m on a minibus heading back the way I came, it slowly dawning on me that I could have simply got off my coach two hours earlier and been in the same place.
Oh well, it only cost me a couple of quid to go back and at least I got a cup of tea into the bargain. When I finally got (back) to Silopi, I waited with a Kurdish lady who was also going to the border, before getting into a taxi and running the gauntlet.
Brace yourselves people… I was about to invade Iraq.
As things turned out, it couldn’t be easier… apart from the fact the border closed for lunch as soon as we got there. But once it was open, I didn’t have to queue – I got stamped out of Turkey in double-quick time and before I could say what-what, I was on the Iraqi side of the frontier. This was tremendously exciting. When I was planning The Odyssey, getting into Iraq was a bit of a grey science. My Middle East Lonely Planet pretty much said that all the borders were closed to tourists and under the ‘Solo Travellers’ heading it simply stated ‘You’d have to be mad’. But my LP is a little out of date now and anyway, I wasn’t going to Iraq proper – I was going to Kurdistan.
The Kurdish region of northern Iraq was a UN protectorate for years, even before the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, but that’s not to suggest that they weren’t jumping for joy when Saddam was finally toppled. The Kurds were Saddam’s favourite whipping boys and suffered a ton of abuse at his command. Yesterday, ‘Chemical Ali’, the mastermind of the gassing of the Kurds in the town of Halabja, was hanged. To say the Kurds were quite pleased about this is an understatement – they were congratulating each other in the streets.
I don’t personally believe that people should be sentenced to death (it makes lawyers far too rich) but I could never imagine what it must be like to lose all your friends and all your family because some psychopathic nutter in power wants the world to know how much of a psychopathic nutter he really is, and gasses a entire town. I mean, how messed up do you have to be??
From the moment I crossed the border, the Kurds went out of their way to make me feel welcome. I was herded to the front of the queue and invited into the office for a cup of tea with the border guards. When they asked me who I was and what I was doing, for the first time in this entire ridiculous journey, I wasn’t made to feel like I was intruding. I felt like they were actually interested – not just for their own gratification, but for my safety.
The chief explained that I was not to go to Mosul or Kirkuk, but anywhere north of there was fine. I nodded. “They will kill you, understand?” I understood. “Good. Welcome to Kurdistan!” and with that they stamped me in – NO VISA, NO FEE, NO PAYMENT, NO BACKHANDER… in I went.
If you want to butter me up (and who wouldn’t?) make sure I don’t need a visa to pop into your country for a visit, or if I do, make it free. Take a bow South Africa, Rwanda and Madagascar, you rock my world.
I had a quick mooch around the town of Z???, I could have turned around and headed back to Turkey, got my head down for the night and taken the 0800 bus towards Cyprus in the morning, but I was intrigued – here I was in the most dangerous country in the world and it was amazingly pleasant. Zarko was neat and tidy, good roads, trees, fountains, pavements… Londa, a friend of the irrepressible Kendra (Cairo), had offered me her couch to surf – but it was in Suleymania, on the other side of the region.
With no news about my visas for the continuation of The Odyssey after this, I figured what the hell. I texted Londa and said I was on my way.
There’s no public transport from Zarko to Erbil, the administrative capital of Kurdistan, so I had to share a taxi with three other people, but it only cost me $10, so I thought what the hell. On the way, we went uncomfortably close to Mosul – I could feel my buttocks clench as the milestones counted down. But then we swung a left and headed away and I breathed a sigh of relief. I doubt I would have got through the roadblocks anyway… my entry stamp is only valid for the Kurdish region.
I have to say though, there were a lot fewer roadblocks than I was expecting.. this is not West Africa by any means. Also, the roadblocks here actually made me feel safer, rather than made me feel like an escaped prisoner of war. And the guys manning the roadblocks seemed to be there for a reason… like our protection, rather than a protection racket – again, unlike West Africa. I can’t put this bluntly enough: the police in over half the states of Africa are just there to line their own pockets while stopping any intra-national or international trade going on, because the most effective way to keep a country on its knees is to keep everybody poor and everything wretched.
Although I have to say, when a guy came out of his little office sporting an AK-47 and wearing a balaclava, I did my best to stay calm… I had just heard about an attack in Afghanistan carried out by insurgents posing as soldiers, but I needn’t have worried, he looked at my passport, flashed me a smile and said “welcome”. It was bitterly cold, so the balaclava was necessary, but it still freaked me out.
When I got to Erbil, I had missed the last bus onwards, so it was another service taxi for the rest of the journey to Suleymania. I arrived at Londa’s around 11pm. She lived in a big new apartment complex, one of those where the block letter is written in neon light on the top (like the cover of The Killer’s Hot Fuss album) in a place called (somewhat bizarrely) German Village. In the distance, the snow-covered hills surrounded me like sentinels.
My word – I was in Iraq. At 11 o’clock at night, walking through a city I had never been to before that isn’t even mentioned in my Lonely Planet.
I had checked in to a local hotel in Silopi, sharing a room with a few other guys to get the price down to $10 (which was pretty extortionate if I stopped to think about it). I worried that I had mucked up the time difference between Iraq and Turkey and would find that my bus to Silifke had left half an hour ago, but that didn’t entice me to rush and I squeezed every last bit of sleep out of the situation that Chronos would allow. The bus station was just across the road.
I wanted a seat on the 8pm bus to Silifke, the town from which I could get the boat to Cyprus and therefore tick off that last remaining country on my list of European Nations. However, the bus was sold out and so I found myself hanging around for a couple of hours for the next one and what followed was a day so mired in confusion and conflicting information, I don’t know where to begin.
It was as though nobody knew how the hell I was to get to Silifke, least of all me. I therefore ended up getting off the bus no less than four times before clambering back on board the same bus again and again. It wasn’t until late afternoon when I finally got on a separate bus, assured that this was the right one. Funnily enough, when we stopped for dinner, my fellow diners were my friends that I had made on the first bus… weird.
After a minibus ride, another bus and finally another minibus, I arrived in Sillifke in the wee small hours feeling very much like a pinball with a ticket to go somewhere. I checked into the first hotel that would accept my $10 and got my head down for the night. Tomorrow: Cyprus.
It was one of those mornings upon which it’s far too cold, gravity seems to conspire against you and the snooze alarm makes it far, far too tempting… all too easy… to fall… back zzzzzzzzzzzz.
BEEP BEEP BEEP BEEEEEEEP BEEP BE BEEP!!
Okay okay! I’m getting up! After a decent shower, I headed out to get the daily fast ferry to Cyprus, Nation 142 on my list. Suddenly stuck by a crisis of confidence – the boat didn’t leave from Silifke itself, it left from the nearby town of Tasucu. How nearby? Well, I had absolutely no idea, did I? So instead of doing the sensible thing and taking the bus, I did the stupid thing and took a taxi.
In the event, it was only ten minutes down the road, but in my not-quite-wiped-the-sleep-from-my-eyes state, I forgot to remember the golden rule: all taxi drivers are swines. Having not turned on the meter, I really should have refused to pay him anything – the law would be on my side, but in the event, he managed (by following me into the ticket place and causing a scene) to wangle a tenner out of me. It wouldn’t have been that much in London. What an idiot.
Anyways, I bought my ticket and ran the daily gauntlet of passport control, customs, more passport control, more customs blah blah blah, found myself a seat near a nice Cypriot family from Britain and settled in for the journey. But, oh cruel fate, remember the big storm in Lebanon? The one that downed the aircraft? It was still raging in the Med and they didn’t want to risk it. So after an hour of sitting on the boat like a lemon, I got off the boat having gone precisely nowhere.
The good news (for me) was that the boats had not run for four days now, so my extended stay in Iraq made no difference to my country tally – I would have just been waiting in this one horse town instead not having half as good a time. The other bit of good news (kinda) was that the slow ferry to Cyprus would definitely be leaving at midnight. It looked like I had a day to waste.
I befriended a French musician from Lyon named Sylvan, who had been living in India for the past four years. I hoped he wouldn’t be one of those western nutcases who think that India is the be-all and end-all, and to my great relief, he wasn’t. He was just as cynical about that wonderful-but-utterly-bananas sub-continent as I am. We headed to the local kebab cafe, I hooked myself up to the internet and before I knew it, I was enjoying download speeds of 361kbps – that’s 361 times faster than I’ve had since I left Europe. Needless to say, I downloaded all the 24s that I still had to watch, as well as the leaked cam copy of Lost.
Hurrah for the internet! Although did you know YouTube is banned in Turkey…? But YouPorn isn’t. Go figure.
So I whiled away the day, getting a lot less done than I should have done and eating far too many kebabs (although I did have to show them how to make them – when I suggested the addition of chips, chilli peppers and mayo they thought I had dropped in from Mars). It was raining off and on all day, so my lack of umbrellage meant gallivanting was not on the agenda. Eventually, night fell and I met a bunch of Dutch students who were also making their own TV show – one in which they were trying to see how far they could get around Turkey without spending any money. It was their third day and they had been doing quite well until they reached Tasucu… which, given the state of the weather was not good news. Although, when the cute girl who was presenting explained that there were nine of them doing this thing, I wished them luck – they were going to need it.
Minibuses whizzed us around to the other side of the dock from where the slow boat departed and once again, the seemingly endless process of queuing, bag checks, stamp outs, more bag checks, more queues became a blur that didn’t snap into focus until I was on board the ship, the appropriately-named Calypso. I found a power socket, plugged in my laptop and settled in for the night.
Rising at 6am to crack on to the border, it is with tremendous chagrin that I must report the minibus to Ben Guerdane did not leave until just after 8am. But to cheer me up on the way to the ‘Gare Routiere’, a gentlemen who was setting up his market stall at the side of the road came running over to me saying that he knew me. This is a typical ploy in this part of the world (especially Egypt), but no, he did actually recognise me – “you’re the guy who’s been to 142 countries!” he said as he shook my hand.
But, er, how….?
“You were on television yesterday, on the news, I saw you!” The interview I did for the French news agency last Monday must have got around. Well, that put a spring in my step. I sat waiting for the damn minibus to leave (only when it’s full!) and woke myself up with a coffee. I eventually got to the Libyan border at 11am, two hours late – a little embarrassing for Mr. Time-And-Motion over here as I was to meet my guide and, I was later to discover, he had been waiting for hours.
Now I explained in the blog entry “Groundhog Day” about Colonel Gaddafi banning all Europeans from entering his pleasant little dictatorship, but did I also mention that even if you’re British, American or Australian and you get a visa, you still have to have a ‘guide’ to accompany you everywhere? Why? Because apparently otherwise us Westerners will steal stuff.
I mean, what?
Where does Gaddafi get off accusing me of being a thief? The fact that he’s been systematically stealing BILLIONS of dollars from his own country since 1969 doesn’t seem to phase him. Oh well, I guess only God can judge him and all that crap. Well, I’m quite judgemental myself and I (like most Libyans) will be more than happy to see the nasty old tyrant drop dead. However, since the guy is an absolutist monarch (quick note to fascist dictatorships around the world – adding the worlds ‘democratic’ and ‘people’s’ to the name of your country isn’t fooling anybody, you know) his son is probably going to succeed him – the usual case with long-serving Nazis such as Fidel Castro (succeeded by his billionaire brother) and Omar Bongo (succeeded by his billionaire son) – in elections which nobody in their right minds would regard as ‘free’ or ‘fair’.
Luckily for me, my guide was a really nice chap. I’m not going to tell you his name, as this blog entry is going to be tremendously critical of Gaddafi and I don’t want my guide getting into trouble.
With my Arabic Translation in my passport, and the promise I was going to pick up my visa on the other side, the Tunisian border guards (them who had given me a flat ‘interdit!’ last May) stamped me out and waved me through. Made me think I should have pretended I was meeting a guide last year and got over the border line, just a few meters away…
In… into Fortress Libya. I had finally, FINALLY, made it into country 143 (it should have been country 67)
It had taken me a month to get here, but here I was in Libya, on my third attempt. I met my guide on the Libyan side and he got me through the formalities amazingly quick. He then took me for a drive inside Libya. Since I was already over the border and it would not be helping me along the way, I was happy to explore the place that had cost me hundreds of pounds to step foot in.
And what is there to report? Libya is remarkably similar to every other North African/Middle Eastern country; you don’t see too many women out and about, the food isn’t great and it’s not exactly a land flowing with milk and honey (that would be Britain, if you think about it), it’s more of a big fat desert with a bunch of concrete hovels lining the road. Nice! I would desperately like to visit Leptus Magna and see the Roman ruins, but there’s no time on this trip, so I had to make do with a little kebab and (yes it IS everywhere!) a bottle of Coke in the town of Zuara.
Once inside the borders, the security was not too strict, and I didn’t feel the oppressive hand of the so-called security services that one encounters far too often in West and Central Africa. Green flags fluttered everywhere (great design guys!) the irony of this being one of the least ‘green’ states on the planet is, I’m sure not lost on you.
My guide was sad that I wasn’t staying longer. With the embargo against European travellers, thousands of people involved in the nascent tourist industry here are now out of work. But does Gaddafi give a damn? Nah, he’s too busy playing goofy political games. The Libyan people are stuck in a 1984-esque nightmare in which they are constantly told that they are in power, that they have a say in the future of their country, only to be beaten down by that iron boot if they – shock horror – dare question the wisdom of their crazy unelected leader.
Of course, Gaddafi has always been as mad a bottle of badgers. In the 1970s, he spent a few days in the desert and wrote his infamous ‘Little Green Book’, possibly a companion piece to Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’ and Hitler’s ‘Mein Kampf’. You think that a little unfair? Well it’s not. They were all mad fascist dictators with a messiah complex and all wrote a book saying how they think people should act. Self-help books written by psychotic nutcases! Great! What next? Cooking with Stalin? Dog Grooming by Pol Pot? Flower Arranging by Idi Amin?
Hold me back.
Why the hell are people like this still in power? Is it just me that thinks that a seat in the UN should be aspirational, not a catch-all for every government on Earth, be it a fascist hellhole, a narco-state, a kleptocracy or (in the case of Somalia) a figment of someone’s overactive imagination. Membership of the UN shouldn’t be an automatic given, it should be earned, through peace, democracy, freedom of the press and free and fair elections.
Or if you want every damn sovereign state in the UN, lets have a points system in which truly democratic states are rewarded with greater voting power (ie. Britain gets 100 points, Guinea gets 1) on resolutions – this would do away with the need for the security council, as no nutbag dictatorships would get much of a say in anything anyway.
This would help the domestic opposition’s cause… at the moment, what incentive is there for your typical camouflage-clad Aviator-wearing African Fascist to clean up his act? NONE WHATSOEVER. They have oil, or gold, or coltan, or diamonds. As long as the rest of the world needs the commodities that they control, the rest of the world can go to hell. As a matter of fact, so can their own tiresome populations. UN sanctions? Bring them on! They only end up killing the hoi polloi and 99% of those loooosers are not needed for the extraction of commodity A or B anyway, so wot me worry?
Sadly, this is the case in more countries than I care to mention, Libya just being one of them. Imagine an entire population – Zimbabwe is a good example – waiting for one man to die so they can be free. You think they’ll erect statues to Mugabe? They’ll be queuing up to spit on his corpse. You want to be great? You want to go down in history as a hero? A leader of men? Stop looking at your own bank balance and look to the happiness of the people you claim to represent. If you’re in charge of a sullen land (Mr. Brown) you might – just might – be doing something wrong.
After lunch, we drove back to Tunisia, past the lagoon and out of Gaddafi’s sandbox adventure. My guide was good enough to take me back to Ben Guerdane, leaving me at the shared-minibus station. I said my goodbyes and if I ever return to Libya (if they let me after I post this entry!) I’ll be giving him a bell. If anyone reading this fancies a bit of a desert safari through the realm of Tripolitania, get in touch with me – this guy will get you through the border quick smart and he won’t rip you off.
Did I mention it’s my birthday today? Maybe I should’ve. I was hoping to get back to Tunis for about 10pm, and have a few celebratory drinks with Dja, Claire and their mates. But hope doesn’t set you free, carving a hole behind your poster of Rita Heyworth with a rock hammer will set you free and today my rock hammer was out of order.
It was midnight before I returned, too late for Dja and Claire’s mates to be out on a school night. But we made the most of it, I had a few beers and settled down for bed at around 2am. I had conquered one of the forbidden kingdoms, I had to be up early in the morning for Fortress Algeria…
Interestingly, I’ve now spent a birthday in Europe (25), America (1), Asia (2), Australia (2) and Africa (1). Do I win a fiver?
You know those moments when you realise you’ve made a MASSIVE mistake and your stomach drops away? Like when you text someone that the text message was about, or you find you missed two pages of the exam as they were stuck together, or discover that she’s actually a ladyboy? I had one of those moments yesterday. When I was stamped into Libya, I flicked excitedly through my passport only to discover the awful truth – my visa for Algeria expired that day, 28th February, yesterday.
I have never had a visa where the validity period lasted less than a month before – this one lasted just two and a half weeks. It never even occurred to me to look. I slapped my forehead like a Keystone Cop and muttered that this was another fine mess I’ve got me into.
WHY DIDN’T I GO TO ALGERIA ON FRIDAY?!?!?
Crikey – it didn’t seem like too big of a deal then, I could go on Monday – the ferry back to Italy didn’t leave until Tuesday anyway, it made no difference, right?
Wrong. It made ALL the difference.
Damn you Algeria. Damn you to hell. As I found out last time I was here, you can’t get an Algerian visa in Tunisia unless you are resident here, otherwise it’s back to London for you, young man.
Back to London?!
I would really, really like to get this whole silly adventure finished some time this year, I really would. I can’t afford to be making cock-ups like this, Graham you looooosertic.
Despairing for what else to do, I set off for the border anyway. Perhaps they won’t notice, maybe they’ll let me in anyway (they did in Nigeria and Cameroon), perhaps they’ll agree with me that it still is 28th February. In Hawaii.
Perhaps not. After a four-hour journey to the border I was to find that no, the visa was invalid and they weren’t going to let me in for love, nor money (I offered both).
Drat and double drat.
The border guys were friendly enough though. The guy I gave my passport to, his eyes lit up when he saw I was from Liverpool and he instantly wanted to talk to me about football. There was another guy who looked a little like Peter Sellers who spoke very good English and he was chatting to me about how welcome I was in Algeria, and how good it was to have tourists again, especially ones from England… things were looking hopeful… but then the boss came out, said an emphatic NO and I was sent packing.
All that time and effort for nothing. Nothing!! The Tunisians invalidated my exit stamp and back I came. I hopped a taxi back to Tabarka, the first town after the border, and then plunged back into a louage (shared minibus) for the disheartening trip back to Tunis.
03.10.11: In the morning Mums Singin was good enough to pick me up from Katherine’s flat for a quick tour of the museum that she curated before I left for Lae. I said my goodbyes to Katherine, awesome CouchSurf host that she was, and promised that I’d be back here one day – a promise I fully intend to honour. The Madang Museum was a quaint little affair with some awesome cultural artefacts housed within. Damn these PNG guys can carve some awesome stuff.
Mums gave me a guided tour and (unlike your average tourist) I was allowed to take photos and film as we went around. Hence:
After the museum, Mums gave me a lift to the bus ‘station’ (a piece of wasteland opposite the main market) and I boarded a PMV to Lae – the city from whence I intend on hitching a ride to The Solomon Islands. Now, like in Africa (New Guinea is so like Africa it’s freaky) the minibuses only leave when they are full. But unlike in Africa, there is no sensible way this is done. Yes, even Africa can be remarkably sensible sometimes: they run a first-in-first-out system of buses/taxis/whatever. Taxi number 1 fills up and leaves then taxi number 2 fills up and leaves etc. This goes on all day. In Madang they do it in the maddest, most inefficient, most frustrating, most time-consuming, most expensive way I can imagine. In fact, I’m trying to think of a more idiotic process and I’m having serious difficulty.
Instead of having an ordered system of buses filling up, they all fill up, all at the same time. Only they don’t fill up. Nobody wants to be the last on board any given minibus, as it’ll mean they’ll invariably get the worst seat. So most of the buses are short of the seat or two required to commence the journey. Also, it seems that they’re not allowed to (or they don’t want to) wait in the bus station. As a consequence, they drive around the town’s potholed streets FOR HOURS ON END looking for that one last passenger. I promise I’m not making this up. In a country like Venezuela where you can fill your swimming pool with petrol for less than a dollar, this behaviour would be merely time-consuming and bad for the environment… but in a country like PNG where the majority of the population survive on less than a dollar a day and petrol is incredibly expensive – it’s almost a quid per litre – Jesus Christ, it’s like watching lemmings throwing themselves of the proverbial cliff. I felt like slapping my head and screaming WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU’RE DOING??!
But who am I to introduce common sense into anybody’s public transport policies, never mind Papua New Guinea’s? And so we drove around town for FOUR HOURS, non stop, looking for THREE more customers. Imagine taking that business plan into the bank manager. And the toll taken on the minibuses slowly grinding their way around the most pot-holed streets this side of Mogadishu, you’re taking hundreds of dollars on new tyres, broken diffs, knackered suspension…
Indeed, once we had wasted four hours finding those last three customers, our first stop was back into town to get over 200 kina (60 quid) worth of petrol. Then we went to the Bridgestone garage. One tyre was replaced and another was pumped up. Cha-CHING! And then, just I was under the delusion we were actually getting somewhere, we stop at the local market for another half hour so the driver could buy betel nut, the local narcotic of choice, the same thing they chew (and spit out) in India. You get a bag of what looks like a small plastic bag of cocaine and a cigarette-sized stick (which is apparently the nut). You lick the stick, dip it in the bag (like Sherbet Dib-Dabs) and then bite off the end of the stick that covered in the white stuff and chew it. It turns a beautiful colour of red in your mouth, so most of the locals around here look like they’ve got some kind of serious gum disease going on. And when they smile it’s about as sexy as menstruation. Quite why people from different cultures around the world chose to do this to their only face is another thing I’m not going to waste too much of your time talking about because the quick answer is that I haven’t got a frikkin’ clue.
Some time after 2pm we started our journey in earnest. Do you remember what I said about the flight from Lae to Madang last weekend? That we went up and over the mountains? Well the road goes through those very same mountains, and as we crossed the highlands, the weather went proper mental. It was like somebody had set a giant automatic carwash to SUPER DELUXE CLEAN PLUS. The rain didn’t so much come down in buckets as it did in Niagara Falls.
As a consequence of the lack of highway maintenance (and, more specifically, the lack of DRRRRRAINAGE!!) the road quite literally turned into a river. And not a pleasant meandering Huck Finn type of river. More like the thundering torrent you’d experience going down a log flume. The PMV driver, not a) wanting to slow down and b) wanting to acknowledge that his PMV was not, in fact, a kayak, decided his best course of action would be to ride the river down the hill. “WHAT COULD POSSIBLY GO WRONG??!” I hear you scream. I drove my fingernails into the dashboard, fretted at my lack of safety belt (the bloody driver had one – not me!) and held on for dear life.
Of course I’m still here to tell the tale, so I have to say that my impromptu Papuan Log Flume Ride worked out alright, although the poor buggers in the back did get their luggage soaked and the bottom of the minibus suffered the kind of grating one would normally associate with cheese. Once back in the lowlands, the weather and road changed simultaneously from absolutely diabolically bad to not bad for Papua New Guinea (which is still bad). The rain eased off and the road allowed for short but frighteningly fast 100mph+ sprints in between slamming on the brakes in order to cross the skinny single lane metal-plated bridges which no doubt pre-dated the Charge of the Light Brigade. Think Super Mario Kart meets Mad Max and you’re halfway there.
Somehow I arrived in Lae (still in one piece) at around 6pm. It was getting dark, and as the town of Lae has a lousier reputation than Mel Gibson’s drinking habit, I was (understandably) getting a little bit edgy. The only CouchSurf host in Lae is a guy called Stan. Unfortunately, Stan is out of town this week, but being a good egg he put me onto his mate Ben, who gallantly stepped up to the mantle and agreed to take me under his wing instead. I called Ben on Friday to ensure that everything was groovy and he apologised profusely and said he was going to be away this week as well. Ah. But he did offer to find me another home like the adorable lost kitten I no doubt am.
Ben was true to his word (yes he’s British) and he put me onto Alex, who greeted my phone call with the words “There’s nay way I’m letting a bleedin’ scoouser into ma hoose”. Typical bloody Glaswegian. So I told him that I’d go halves on the wedge I made from flogging them car radios and wheel-trims I acquired in Madang so he could buy some deep-fried Mars Bars and skag. He soon changed his tune.
Alex agreed to meet me at the Lae Golf Club (which he lives opposite and is the captain of) and so I asked Wesley the PMV driver really nicely if he would drop me off there on the way into town. No probs, says Wesley. We pull into the Golf Club car park just as the sun disappears over the western horizon. After all that bloody nonsense this morning, the timing couldn’t have been better.
Alex and his colleagues were enjoying post-work beverages and after introductions, the Scottish man in Papua New Guinea took me for a Chinese. Over dinner, I got to learn a little bit more about Alex’s job here in Lae.
The company that has agreed to help me get to Australia is called Swire Shipping, a division of Swire, one of the biggest companies currently floated on the Hong Kong stock exchange (as well as shipping, they’re a majority shareholder in Cathy Pacific and own the exclusive Coca-Cola bottling rights for the WHOLE OF CHINA… jeepers!). Alex works for Swire Shipping. This is incredibly fortuitous. I may need Swire’s help again if I’m to get around the Pacific region on cargo ships.
What’s more, Alex is friends with one of the directors of Reef Shipping – the New Zealand based shipping agency that runs cargo from Fiji to Samoa, Tonga, Tuvalu, Kiribati, Marshall Islands, Nauru and New Zealand. That’s over half the countries I’ll have left. Seriously, this could be HUGE for the Odyssey Expedition.
All this year I’ve desperately needed a lucky break. I should have known I’d have to get back on the road to get one. Who dares wins, Rodney, who dares wins…