Days 466-472: A Dead End

11.04.10 – 17.04.10:

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

I had painted myself into a corner.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Day 511: Qatar On A Hot Tin Roof

26.05.10:

Urgh me drinkie too muchie.  I’ve seriously put on a stone in the last six weeks, what with all my Dominos pizzas and KFC.  I need to get moving and get grooving before I turn into a big fat Jabba slug.  I found out that the bus for Qatar (only 40km across the sea from the island of Bahrain) would be leaving from Dammam in Saudi at 5pm.  As the next bus to Dammam was leaving at 3pm, this was going to make things awkward – Dammam is only an hour away, but it’s a bit of a risk as if the Saudi border guys wanted to make the bus wait, there wasn’t a lot I could have done about it – I could very well miss the bus to Qatar.  I therefore elected to take a taxi (at great expense – fifty quid’s worth of expense) because I was damned if I was going to spend the night in Dammam.

Getting back into Saudi was even easier the second time.  Seriously – they didn’t even look at my bags and in I went.  I was in Dammam within the hour and had my ticket for Nation 157 – Qatar.

The bus was supposed to get in at 10pm.  I had arranged with Tracy, my CS host in Qatar, to meet here when I arrived, although the fact it was now pushing midnight and we were still not at the border compounded my discontent.  But what I was not expecting was for it to take TWO HOURS to cross the border into Qatar.  What the hell would you smuggle OUT of Saudi?  A camel?

But then I discovered the root of the problem.  The border guards were denying access not to us passengers, but to the bus driver.  They had changed the rules TODAY (seriously!) and he needed a letter of employment of SAPTCO to say he worked for them.  His uniform and the fact HE WAS DRIVING THE DAMN BUS wasn’t enough proof for them.

I guess in their twisted little heads this was all an elaborate plan for the driver to sneak into Qatar (with a busload of passengers) and stay there illegally.  The hundreds of Qatar entry and EXIT stamps in his passport were similarly not seen as proof that he didn’t intent Qatar several layers of harm.

I’ll get you Butler!

So the bus was stuck, it was now 2am.  Oh, and to cap it all, my phone had stopped working.  I didn’t know this at the time, it seemed that my texts were going through, but then I sent a test text to my mum and since a reply didn’t come back I knew trouble was afoot.  There was no way I was going to be able to stay at Tracey’s tonight.  I teamed up with Saleh and we trekked across the border together on foot.  Once in Qatar, we flagged down a passing car and hitched a ride to Doha from a fantastically friendly chap called Mohammed.

And so I wound up in the cheapest, nastiest little hotel in town.  Filthy dirty, luke warm shower, a broken television… the price?  Fifty quid.  Straight up.  Take it or leave it.

Damn you Qatar.

Day M371: Icarus, Not Daedalus

Tue 02.10.12

My incredible plan for Sunday night was stay up all night drinking and partying at Chili’s Bar in Unawatuna. Then I was to take first express bus back to Colombo at 6am AS I HAD WORK TO DO!!

I had to take my passport, photos, application form, cruise tickets, air-tickets, bank statements, itinerary, inside trouser measurement and father’s maiden name to the Madagascan Consulate in order to get my Madagascan visa (third time lucky!). Then I had to go to the Indian High Commission and ask them (very nicely) if they would be so kind as to give me my visa a little bit quicker.

All went surprisingly swimmingly. I got the Madagascan visa there and then. The lady at the Indian High Commission told me to come back in the afternoon. I headed over to the shopping mall’s foodcourt and hooked myself up to the free internets. Thanks to the magnificent Dino Deasha, the confirmation of the ship to India came through from Dioryx in the early afternoon, as did the green light from CMA-CGM headquarters in France. I couldn’t believe it. This is it. The final piece of the puzzle. The pathway home is there, confirmed, I’ve finally done it. Sri Lanka to India, India to Maldives, Seychelles, Madagascar, Madagascar to Africa.

It’s over. I won.

After promising Dino I would commission a golden statue of him riding Battlecat from He-Man (he would be sporting a golden mullet and clutching the Sword of Omens in one fist and the World Cup in the other) I called the local shipping agent here in Colombo to sort out the nitty-gritty. He asked me to bring my passport over to the CMA-CGM offices once I had the Indian visa in hand, which would hopefully be at around 4.30pm that afternoon.

In the event, I was made to wait around for a bit in the High Commission and thanks to traffic being a bit of a nightmare, it was 5.45pm by the time I got to the office. Thankfully the shipping agent was still there. My visa was scanned and I was made to write out a declaration of what equipment I would be taking on board. Done this kind of thing a zillion times before, no big deal thinks I.

CMA-CGM have been nothing short of amazing on this adventure, stepping in to help me out of some of the most trickiest fixes that I’ve encountered along the way, and for that I am eternally grateful. What happened next was by no means their fault, or Dioryx’s for that matter. I’m going to give as balanced as an account as I can, bearing in mind I’m still in Sri Lanka now writing this and, as I learnt in Cape Verde, you don’t cut off the branch while you’re still sitting on the damn thing.

So, just as I was leaving the office, the shipping agent told me that he wanted to send my Indian visa – the one that stated ‘ENTRY: COCHIN – BY SHIP’ quite clearly on the visa itself – to the Immigration people in Cochin to ensure that I’d be allowed to get off the ship. This seemed a bit of overkill to me as a) my unusual form of entry was clearly stated on my entry visa and b) I’ve entered India by ship before, on a CMA-CGM ship from Pakistan.

Even *if* the authorities in India decided, weirdly, to not allow me into the country, no harm done: the cruise ship is living from the very same port. I could – and would – quite literally sleep in the port until it was time to go. The idea that I’d be forced to stay on the ship to its next port of call, Egypt, which would require me to pass through the High Risk Area for piracy, is quite frankly ludicrous and something the good people at Dioryx in Greece and CMA-CGM in France did not even consider… well that is until the local agent here pointed out this one in a million possibility.

But, that’s okay, we’ve got a day to play with, right? The ship isn’t even coming in until 1400 tomorrow. We’d be able to get the green light from India in the morning and be on the ship by tea-time. Splendid.

Or so I thought…

It was now getting dark and I didn’t feel like there was anything more to be done today, so I thanked the local agent and jumped in a taxi to go meet up with Carl the Friendly Yank from last week at the pub for a celebratory beer. My friend Daniel Zainulbhai who I played backgammon with in Dubai is in Colombo for the Twenty-20 Cricket World Cup and so he came along as well. It was good to catch up over a brew, have to say though, my earlier confidence that THE REST OF MY LIFE (because that’s what this is) was back on track had taken a bit of a knock. I mean, come on, surely the port authority guys in Cochin would say yes. Of course they would.

But that nagging doubt was creeping up my spine… I’ve been here before, I’ve been here before, I’ve been here before…

So, so many times it’s not funny.

I’ve been here before.

At 9pm, I figured it was time for me to head back up to Negombo. I said what I hoped to be my last goodbye to Daniel and Carl and by 10.30pm I was back at my old friend Sachal’s place. Unfortunately, Sachal is still away. I was good to stay there and everything, but I was gutted I was going to miss the geezer who without a shadow of a doubt is the greatest dinner party host of all time. Ho-hum. I headed over to Rodeo for one final bottle of Lion Lager and that night I slept rather fitfully. Which is damn unusual for me.

I’ve been here before.

At 7am I was up an’ at ’em, gathering my things together and getting on the bus to Colombo.

Here it was, the day of days. The day that would define the rest of my life. I can’t stress this enough: if I don’t get on this ship, chances are I’m going to miss the ONE cruise that goes ONCE A YEAR from India to Maldives to Seychelles to Madagascar.

I cannot take a cargo ship to The Maldives or Seychelles because of piracy and I there are so few yachts (and cruises) in the area I could be waiting until Kingdom Come before I see dear old Blighty again.

If I don’t get on this ship, I can’t begin to explain how f—ed I am. I can’t start my next project until this is over. I cannot earn any money until this is over. I cannot continue my life until this is over. Mandy waited as long as she could, she waited 3 and a half years, but she could wait no longer. I’m breaking up here, I’m honestly struggling to keep it together. This journey has cost me too much. Too much money, too much heartache, too many missed opportunities, too little achieved: check out how little I’ve raised for WaterAid, how few people read this blog, how I got right royally screwed over by the TV people, how I SOMEHOW still don’t have a publisher for my book. It gets to me, it really does. I’m sure that I’m fairly good at what I’m doing, but now and again I get a crisis of confidence when all I want to do is howl at the moon, admit defeat and return to Britain a heroic failure who came so close, so so close, but gave up seeking that one yes after too many noes.

Don’t forget – it was the start of JUNE that I arrived in Sri Lanka. It’s now the start of OCTOBER. This is getting beyond a joke.

By 9am I was in the old foodcourt with the free internet hitting REFRESH REFRESH REFRESH like a crazy badger. They couldn’t say no, they wouldn’t say no.

Would they?

Well, as it transpired we would never get a chance to find out. Today is a public holiday in India and so (as odd as this sounds), the immigration people in Cochin were off work. Dino (in the UK) and I started sending some frantic emails back and forth to Dioryx and CMA-CGM: I’d sign a special Letter of Indemnity which would see me sued to death and quite possibly jailed should I not be allowed off the ship. I have the visa – signed by the attaché – that specifies that I may enter India through just one port, Cochin, and that entry must be made on a ship. I have press contacts in India who would be very interested in hearing how I was not allowed into India with an official Indian visa. Everything, anything, just PLEASE let me on this ship.

And then, just after 1pm, it happened.

I got a call from the Port Agent. Where are you? I’m coming to pick you up to take you to the ship..

OH MY GOD.

I’ve done it!

I’ve f—ing well done it! I’m going to the ship. The Odyssey Expedition is FINALLY FINALLY GOING TO END!! After 1,371 days on the road for the first time EVER I know, I KNOW I’m going to make it. I’m going to do it. I’m going to be the FIRST PERSON IN THE WORLD TO GO TO EVERY COUNTRY WITHOUT FLYING!!!

WOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!

I’ll admit I danced a f—ing jig.

Then, just as I was putting my video camera back in my bag, I got a call off the local shipping agent, the one who was a bit funny with me the day before.

We have no word from India.

Yes, I know, but Dioryx have said it doesn’t matter, the Port Agent is coming…

That is what I am trying to tell you sir, you will not be getting on the ship.

But the Port Agent is coming…

I have told him to come back. We have informed France that you will not be boarding the vessel.

I tried to reason with him, but he wasn’t having any of it.

I checked my emails, texts off Dino went back and forth, one last round of begging, but no, the die had been cast.

*I failed.*

Dino’s golden statue of him riding Battlecat from He-Man would have to wait. And so will you, my loyal Odysseans, we’ve come this far together, through hell and high water, you’ve been taken around the world by one of the most ridiculous people on one of the most ridiculously idiotic and underfunded adventures of all time. Don’t worry, I’ll get there. IF I HAVE TO SWIM I WILL GET THERE.

198 of 201. I did not come this far to be beaten by Sri Lanka, of all places.

I will fight. And I will win.