I guess now is a good time to look back over what was the year that was, the highs and lows of life on the road. If you can’t be bothered reading my blogs for the whole year (and who could blame you?) here’s 2009: An Earth Odyssey in a nutshell…
January 2009 Ah, January – the whizzbangshebang through South America… for the first two weeks I was on target and on schedule. But then The Caribbean reared it’s ugly head and well and truly stuffed me up for the next couple of months.
Countries Visited: 19
Running Total: 19
February 2009 February was a difficult month – just getting from St Vincent to Mexico required all my skill and dexterity, of which I have neither, which is probably why it took me a month, not the week I expected it to.
Countries Visited: 10
Running Total: 29
It’s crazy to think that I spent the first few days of March visiting every country in Central America, and then spent pretty much the rest of the month trying to get to one – Cuba.. Made a HUGE mistake in trying to get there from Key West, should have gone from Cancun in Mexico, would have saved a s— load of time.
Countries Visited: 6
Running Total: 35
A fond month of 2009 as I wrapped up warm in Halifax, Nova Scotia before taking a phenomenally fast trip across the Atlantic Ocean to meet up with my friends and family in Liverpool. Managed to get all the way to Greece before the month was out. Nice!
Countries Visited: 28
Running Total: 63
The start of my downfall. Within just a few days I had polished off Europe and attempted to take a huge bite out of North Africa, a bite which ended up as a pathetic little nibble. The month ended in start-as-you-mean-to-go-on style with me being knocked back from Mauritania and failing to find any sensible way of getting to Cape Verde.
Countries Visited: 25
Running Total: 88
The month from hell. It kicked off with six days in a Cape Verde jail cell and went downhill from there as I found myself trapped in the worst place in the world.
Countries Visited: 1
Running Total: 89
Desperate to leave the damned island of Cape Verde, I was eventually rescued by a lovely chap in a sail boat who managed to deliver me safe and sound (despite Poseidon’s protestations) to Dakar in Senegal. Before the month was out I had managed to wing it all the way to Cote D’Ivoire.
Countries Visited: 7
Running Total: 96
A good month on the road through West Africa, interrupted by a unexpected sojourn in Libreville waiting (once again) for a cargo boat that just refused to leave.
Countries Visited: 11
Running Total: 107
I hadn’t been illegally detained for three months now, so the powers that be organised a surprise incarceration upon my arrival in the capital of Congo.. After I finally escaped I was bogged down attempting to renew my Angolan visa, but once I made it to Namibia, I was FLYING. Well, not really flying… I’m not allowed to.
Countries Visited: 6
Running Total: 113
Possibly the most enjoyable month of travel, as I thundered pell-mell throughout Southern and Eastern Africa, fell in love with Madagascar and reached Mauritius in record-fast time.
Countries Visited: 11
Running Total: 124
A silly and depressing month spent attempting to return to Africa from Mauritius and failing at every turn. The fact I missed out on visiting Seychelles particularly stung. Not a single new country to add my tally for the whole stinkin’ month.
Countries Visited: 0
Running Total: 124
After a slow beginning in stuck in Comoros, December leapt into action when I had just two weeks to get from Dar-es-Salaam to Cairo via Rwanda and Somalia and, against all odds, I pulled it off. I also made it to Cairo.
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.
Back in November 2009 when I was trying to sail the 166nm from Diego Suarez in Madagascar to the lower Seychelles islands, the threat of piracy stopped me in my tracks. Now here I am seven months later facing the same problem from the other end.
There was no reply from Maersk, not that I was expecting one. It was all a bit too short notice for it to work out. I said my fond farewells to Luke and Dave and planned to take the overnight bus back to Dubai. I had decided to cut my loses and head on to India. Since there was no chance of a ship to The Seychelles, the chances of getting on a ship from the UAE that goes to Eritrea (through the Gulf of Aden) and then turns around and goes to Pakistan and India (even though it does exist!) are going to be less than zero.
I would try to attack The Seychelles and Eritrea after I’ve been everywhere else. Maybe. Truth be told, I haven’t got a clue what I’m going to do. Up till now I had a plan. Now I’m just making it up as I go along.
The bus to Dubai was full. I’d have to get the next one, tomorrow. I like overnight buses. That’s when the ideas come.
Okay, Odyssey fans… this is it, the television show documenting my travels is being shown every TUESDAY at on the Nat Geo Adventure Channel, which is available in 40 countries across Asia and South America. If you can get it, great. If you can’t, you’re stuck with my YouTube videos until it gets broadcast on the BBC (fingers crossed) early next year!!
The eight episodes of season one cover the first 133 countries of The Odyssey Expedition – my journey from Uruguay to Egypt, starting on 1st January 2009 and finishing on 31st December 2009.
1. From Argentina to Guyana
2. Caribbean Castaway
3. From Cuba to Tunisia
4. Arrested In Africa
5. African Rough Road
6. Congo Chaos
7. Africa Island Hop
8. Pyramids Or Bust
As for the final 67 countries… (including Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran and North Korea) Lonely Planet TV have just bagged first refusal on the second series… WATCH THIS SPACE!!!
So I rolled back into Dubai for the third time of asking. After a delightful chat with the Filipino women who worked in the Burger King by the Saptco bus station (she told me which bits to avoid in The Philippines) I jumped in a cab and headed off to see me auld mucka Damien.
As you may recall, Friday 2nd July 2010 was the day of the jaw-dropping Brazil-Germany and the heart-breaking Uruguay-Ghana matches, so feeling the atmos in the air, Damo and I slinked off to the Atlantis Resort on the Palm thingy (an artificial peninsular built to look like a cartoon drawing on a palm tree when viewed from Google Earth – wonderfully nutty in it’s conceit) for a World Cup Pool Party.
And yes, it was as awesome as it sounds!!
Bikinis, Booze, Brazil – over one thousand people from every single corner of the planet. Damo’s mates did their best to get me so drunk I could barely see. A group of lads recognised me off the telly (Nat Geo Adventure have been hammering the Graham’s World trailers like you wouldn’t believe) and came over for a chat to see how the journey was going. Yey! Fame at last! When you start getting recognised by random people it’s time to buck up your ideas, level up and fly straight. I mean, I guess I’m kinda like a worldwide ambassador for National Geographic now – and Lonely Planet and even the BBC. I can no longer revel in the joy of complete anonymity and must never again make a fool of myself in public.
Ahahahaha – sod that. I’ll start being sensible tomorrow.
So I wound up stuck in Dubai for four weeks. Tons of stuff happened, but not much of it relevant to the ongoing quest that is The Odyssey. I’ll divulge the whole sordid affair once I have more battery power on my laptop.
Here’s what you need to know:
It took two weeks to get a visa for India and then shipping myself off to the Sub-Continent proved amazingly difficult.
I was helped (immensely) by the following people: Mr. Kashi Samadder, Damien (Damo!!), Fajer, Ben, Dan, Alena, Pamela, Sarah, Martin, Youhan and Barry from CMA-CGM.
Mandy, my beloved, came up with the goods in the end, securing me passage onboard a ship bound for Bombay via Karachi. Hurrah for the Mandster!!
Whilst in Dubai, I sailed around The World, won at Laser Quest, watched the World Cup final in the Barasti Soccer Dome, learned to play backgammon again, attended a 4th of July party dressed as a communist, watched myself on telly, got recognised off the telly by a guy standing next to me in the urinals who was dressed as Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer (eek!) and generally staggered about the place much in the manner of Barney from The Simpsons doing an impression of Keith Richards.
One sad piece of news for you, though – my kick-ass old laptop, Dell Boy, has finally gone to silicon heaven. His screen is cracked and he’s been shipped back to England for a formal burial. He’s been replaced by Sony Jim who seems a lot more delicate and has a nasty habit of ignoring the keys I press when writing stuff. Don’t know how long this guy is going to last out in the big bad world, but at least he’s got the processing power to play Psychonauts. Hurrah!
In the end it was Rickmers Group Shipping who came to my aid, they stuffed me on board the magnificent MV CMA-CGM Jade bound for Bombay via Karachi in Pakistan (two birds with one stone, so to speak). I’m eternally grateful to them and will be adding their name to my lists of helpers very soon.
Monday morning bright and early, the wonderful Pamela drove me to the Bur Dubai area of town and I headed over to the CMA-CGM offices to meet Barry Dinnadge, the fine chap I had met over a game of pool in Rock Bottom all those weeks ago. As luck would have it, he’s the CMA-CGM agent who was responsible for chucking my ass on the CMA-CGM Jade.
After a cup of tea and a natter, I headed out for my last two errands of Dubai – post my tapes and old Dell Boy back to the UK and buy myself a spare battery for Sony Jim here. Tasks done, I waved goodbye to the old place (whose culture stretches back decades) and was whisked, courtesy of Mr. Dinnadge, over to Jebel Ali port for boarding. Of course The Odyssey wouldn’t be The Odyssey without some shenaniganing at border control.
I had gone one day over my visa. I knew this and had called up immigration a few days ago and asked what I should do. The nice Indian lady explained that I had a “10 day period of grace” that comes with having a UK passport. Of course, the guys at the border control had never heard of such a thing. Neither had they heard of an English guy coming from Saudi Arabia overland only to leave on a ship. Unfortunately for me, neither had their computer. As I was obviously a deranged serial killer intent on sneaking into countries with my repertoire of cleverly-faked visas, I was made to wait for an hour or so. Wouldn’t have been so bad if the other security guards hadn’t recognised me off the telly and spent most of the time posing for photos with me. If you know who I am, then surely you know…?
Oh —- it. Let’s just wait, shall we?
So (eventually) I clambered aboard the good ship Jade and after introducing myself to the captain and crew, all of whom (save Vladimir the Russian) hailed from Burma, I decided to nurse my monumental headache (self imposed, I’m sure) in my cabin.
A couple of days later and we had arrived in Pakistan. My 162nd nation of The Odyssey Grand Tour Du Monde, and one that I thought would never come. But here I was on an overcast Wednesday in port in the Land of the Pure.
Little note about Lands of the Pures: they NEVER work. Never in a month of Sundays. Of course there have been many attempts in history: the British expulsion of the Jews in the 14th century, the crackdown on the Huguenots under Louis XIV, the burning of Protestants at the stake by the good queen Mary, the Nazi’s nightmarish dream of world dominated by the so-called ‘Aryan’ race, and here in Pakistan we have the case study to blow all the other case studies out of the water.
A demented dream formulated in an Oxford Common Room in the 1930s (the decade of demented dreams) of a land where Muslims can live in peace and harmony and… HA! Yeah. Right. To wit: The Partition of India: 1,000,000 dead. Two wars with India (both lost). Hundreds of thousands dead. A war with East Pakistan (lost!) resulting in the birth of Bangladesh. Al Qaeda, The Taliban, suicide bombers blowing up mosques, the Massacre in Mumbai, the Kashmir conflict, nuclear proliferation, a billion coup d’etats, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto… damnit, Pakistan. You FAIL. You FAIL on a grand scale. You even fail on an African scale.
You see what the problem is? Any Land of the Pure™ will by its very nature activate and encourage the crazies. Look at those weirdos with the curly sideburns running around Palestinian territory clutching a gun and a copy of the Bible, building settlements and, (one would assume) howling at the moon. No other country would tolerate such nonsense from the loony fringe, but a Land of the Pure™ must, because although these are seriously unhinged individuals (who are about as in touch with reality as a coma patient with a Napoleon complex) they are members of the ‘Pure’. Oh joy.
Anyway, I’m with Ghandi on this one (actually I’m with Ghandi on a LOT of stuff, moreso than the Indians, although to be fair, it was them who shot him), Partition was a bad, bad, bad idea.
INT. CONGRESS PARTY HQ, CLOUD CITY, 1947 – DAY
Old friends JAWALHARLAL NERHU and MOHANDAS GHANDI walk down a corridor towards a conference room, deep in conversation.
NERHU: …but I’ve just cut a deal that will keep The Empire out of here for good.
Nerhu activates a door. It slides open to reveal… DARTH JINNAH!!
Ghandi SHOOTS his PASSIVE RESISTANCE at Jinnah, who just crumples it IN HIS FIST!
JINNAH: I would be honoured if you would join us.
NERHU (to Ghandi): He arrived just before you did. I’m sorry.
GHANDI: I bet you are. Friend.
But here we are. We can’t change the past, we’re kinda stuck with it. I just don’t like places founded on religious principles – Pakistan, Israel, Vatican City, Saudi Arabia – they are all deeply silly regions which only encourage deeply silly children who have not (and will never) grow up. I prefer places founded because people lived there and they all got along and decided it would all be in their best interests if they didn’t run about (usually, might I add, in a dress) screaming about what an invisible man who lives in the sky may or may not have said. And blowing stuff up.
Oh, it’s nice to have got the Middle East out of the way so I can say stuff like that without fear of having my head chopped off. No, seriously.
Anyway, as we were hitting Pakistan, it was a Security Level 2 situation on board, which pretty much meant lockdown for us passengers (that would be just me, then). The crew did allow me to scoot down the gangplank at run about in circles in the port going w00t w00t, but only for about 30 seconds and then I had to run back onboard and hide in my cabin LIKE A COWARDLY FISH.
And that was my ‘visit’ to Pakistan. I’m glad. It would have been a LOT of messing to get a visa for the place and, lets face it, it’s one of the seven active warzones left on the planet (according to Wikipedia) and ginger boys with neat hats are high on the list of know-your-enemy silhouettes.
We were in Karachi Port for about a day. On Thursday we set off towards the swirling monsoon storms that heralded our passage towards India, the great sub-continent. One of the crew was getting promoted, so I was invited to join the chaps on a barbecue on deck. It was like the Mad Hatter’s Tea Party and I was the only one wearing a hat. Sheltered from the wind on the port side of the ship, the vessel leered menacingly in the choppy waters and the containers (hundreds of ‘em) creaked and moaned like somebody was going a little overboard on the old ghost ship sound effects.
Meanwhile we stuffed our faces with beef and chicken and pork (YES!), drank copious amounts of Becks beer and Johnnie Walker and sang to the sirens with a yo-ho-ho and a (literal) bottle of rum. Before long I was DJing the crew aftershow and rocking out with my air guitar while the officers sung Burmese karaoke on the deck below.
The next day the combination of the booze and the waves made me a little worse for wear, but on the Saturday we had arrived.
I had made it to India. Country 163. At bloomin’ last. It’s frickkin’ AUGUST!! I better get my skates on.
So it was a cloudy, overcast day on which I returned to India after an absence of eight years. Not much has changed since then, but then I didn’t really expect it to: India is India is India and will be until the end of the world. A frustrating, intoxicating, bewildering blend of noise and nonsense with a few increasingly perplexed cows thrown in for good measure.
But I can’t help liking the place, possibly more than India likes me.
I said my goodbyes to the captain and the crew of the CMA-CGM Jade (a few times, as it transpired) and just six and a half hours after we arrived I was finally allowed to leave the ship with a couple of the crew who were leaving for Burma after a good ten months at sea. Customs took its time, and my bags were sealed with wax (seriously!) until I left the port. Which took another couple of hours.
It was when I found myself in a dank and dismal police station on the edge of the middle of nowhere waiting for the port police to come that I really started to worry. My stomach started to sink and I got that feeling I got in Cape Verde and the Congo… something was about to go horribly, horribly wrong.
I dived into my backpack (without breaking the wax seal, funnily enough) and pulled out my old, broken mobile phone. I then used my working phone to text “Help I’ve been arrested at Nerhu port, Bombay – inform the embassy!” and saved it to drafts ready to tweet at a second’s notice before stuffing the phone in my sock and placing the broken phone in my pocket to give to the police should the inevitable occur.
It wasn’t until much later that I realised my twitter account wasn’t updating from my mobile phone.
The port agent sat and waited with me, which was magnificent of him, but the feeling of dread was growing by the second. I had already paid the required bribe money and got my entry stamp and been checked over (thoroughly!) by customs. I had broken the golden rule of travelling in developing countries – don’t make a nuisance of yourself – and now I could see the next six days spent at the Maharaja’s pleasure, if you know what I mean.
It was now dark and it was starting to rain. To pass the time I pulled some card tricks on the port agent, but it was well after 8pm before the police chief finally arrived.
My arrival from Dubai on a ship clutching a multiple entry business visa had prompted the Indian bureaucratic nightmare into crisis mode. THEY DIDN’T KNOW WHAT LEDGER TO PUT ME IN! Terrified at the prospect of me not being entered into a ledger, I think the police chief had gone out and bought a brand new ledger for ‘Passengers on Container Ships’. I like to think that during the hour he kept us waiting he was drawing nice neat columns in the ledger with a ruler.
So, eventually, I was asked where I was going. It’s all a little complicated so I just stuck with Bombay-Kochi-Calcutta then out via Nepal, just to keep things neat and tidy. If I said I was planning to come in and out of the country a few times they would have probably chased me up the nearest flagpole and then cut it down with an axe.
So… I didn’t go to jail. Phew!
After thanking the port agent profusely, I took a taxi to the nearest train station and boarded the choo choo to Bombay.
The train was brilliant – no doors, no windows, chugging along at 100mph and only stopping for ten seconds in each station (seriously!). Ahh… this callous and foolhardy disregard for Health and Safety could only mean one thing… I was back in India, all right. And hurrah for that! On the Dubai Metro you could be fined for running in the station. In India running is compulsory.
Returning to Bombay I felt a tremendous sense of homecoming, back on the native backpacker trail. In fact, I had been off the trail ever since I left Central America, save for the trip from Cairo to Istanbul. There were so few backpackers in The Caribbean, Africa, Central Asia and the Arabian Peninsular I felt like an endangered species. But from hereon in it should be sandals and saris and dreads all the way to the Pacific. I might even meet some vegetarians!
Bombay was just as bombastic as ever as I flung myself through a flurry of tooting taxis towards the Colaba area of town, eager to find a place for the night. I had arrived at 11pm and the train to Kochi, my next destination, left at 11.40pm – there was no way I would be getting a ticket for that one, so I resigned myself to a night and a day in Bollywood.
I checked into the first place listed in the Lonely Planet (the size of a shoebox, but the price of a shoebox, so no worries) and got my head down for the night.
“I always like going south – it feels like walking downhill” – Treebeard
India, being the awkward bugger that she is, flips the usual northern charm/southern coldness idiom on it’s head and gives us a country in which, in no uncertain terms, lures wayfarers down south to the states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu and then refuses to give them back. After the frantic, pestering, unrelenting hustle and bustle of Delhi, Jaipur, Agra and Varanasi, the soothing backwaters of India’s most laidback state are more welcoming than a home-cooked meal and a cuddle on the sofa.
It’s tidy too – for India!
All of Monday was spent on the train heading down south, not much to report except that the train was remarkably cheap (less than a tenner), it was comfortable and (most importantly) fun. One of the joys of Indian trains are the chai wallahs: guys wandering up and down the train with a large canteen full of delicious cinnamon tea droning “Chai Chai” much in the manner of a Dalek (never have found out why).
I arrived in Kochi very early on Tuesday morning, waited for the hotels to open, threw my bag in my hotel room (en suite with fan: 4 pounds a night) and headed over to the port which is on Willington Island. Kochi is made up of a bunch of islands and the best way to get around is on the ferry boat which honestly costs LESS THAN A PENNY. Seriously, I’ve got a whole CAN of whup-ass for the next backpacker I see haggling over 10 rupee (that’s about 12 pence).
Over on Willington Island I got speaking to the Kochi port agents and found out a few things: there are only four ships that go from here to Colombo: ones run by the Indian State Shipping Company (no chance), Maersk (would be a chance, but I fear their Indian-Ocean-no-passenger policy) and OEL. OEL seem my best bet and they’re affiliated with the good folks at CMA-CGM who helped me get to Bombay in the first place.
So back to Fort Kochi and onto the internet, begging emails and phone calls ahoy! But bigger news was when I logged onto my email and discovered from Barry at CMA-CGM that on the morning I arrived in Bombay there was a major collision between two ships, spilling containers and tons of heavy oil into the bay. Check this out:
Can’t believe I missed it – I could have got a fortune for that footage!!
So onward, ever onward…
Throughout the week Mandy and I worked on the shipping options. One of my biggest problems here is that there are no yachts in India – since the Mumbai Massacre private vessels have been banned. This is heartbreaking as Sri Lanka (visa on arrival THANKYOU CEYLON!) is only about 17km away from India at the shortest point. I usually make a joke about it being possible to swim to my next destination, but in this case, I think it’s true.
The practical upshot of which is that the only way to Sri Lanka is on a cargo boat and as I discovered upon my arrival last Saturday, the Indian authorities frown up British chaps with nice hats mooching around the ports here.
But Kochi is a wonderful, wonderful place to be stuck for a few days, so I’m not complaining – it kicks Cape Verde, Gabon, Comoros, Kuwait and Dubai into touch, I tells ya! It’s sleepy, it’s shady, the weather has been great (there’s been the odd downpour, but that’s what makes everything so GREEN!). Many of the colonial relics have been restored, revealing the layers of history behind this old old port – evidence of Portuguese (including the tomb of one Vasco De Gama), Dutch, French, Persian, Jewish, Arabian, Indo-Chinese and some moustachioed chaps in top hats clutching a funky flag they called The British.
There was also the opportunity of a nice surprise: my auld mucka from Liverpool, Hugh Sheridan (who you can watch singing about The Odyssey here) is here in India on a business trip which included a day here in Kochi. After catching him at the airport attempting to leave for Bombay, I convinced him to stay for a night on the tiles.
Although Fort Kochi (being a sleepy place at the best of times) didn’t have much to offer us in terms of the traditional Graham n’ Hugh’s Boozy Rampage, Hugh did find an amazing hotel to stay in, a beautiful 300 year old Dutch villa boutique hotel. The price? Well that will be thirty quid please sir. Same as you’d pay for a Travel Lodge on the A4095.
Guys, please – stop asking me how I can afford to travel to all these places or I’ll start asking you the same questions… WHAT? You live in London/New York/Rome/Toyko…? How do you afford it?? Did you sell a kidney? Have you won the Lotto…?
Hugh left early on Saturday morning, taking with him the realisation that I can never go back to Liverpool. Of course I can go back to the place Liverpool, but not the time Liverpool. Not the Liverpool of my twenties. Everybody is moving on, moving out, getting married, dropping sprogs – it’s as if Mandy and I were the glue holding it all together and now we’re gone a wave of middle age has swept over the land we once knew. Bah!
Maybe I’m being overly-dramatic, I don’t know 😉
Saturday was also the day of the grand Alleppey Snake Boat Race. Now in it’s 68th year, this venerable institution is like the Oxford/Cambridge Boat Race only with two minor differences:
There are 16 teams.
Each boat has over 100 rowers.
I took a bus with a large bunch of fellow backpackers from Fort Kochi to a few km north of Alleppey. From there we took a ferry boat for a grandstand seat in the middle of the river. Once we moored up, there were a load of other boats alongside us, so many of us mutinied for another boat that had cold beers and less French people on board.
Dunno what it is with the Frenchies here; everywhere else I’ve been in the world, they’ve been great – I CouchSurfed with a ton of them in Africa and had some really great nights out. But here, man, they’re just plain weird. You smile at them and they frown and look the other way. You try to speak to them (in French!) and they’ll blissfully ignore you and continue their conversation with their French friend. I was speaking to a girl from Montreal and she told me that when the British guys hear another British accent (or American, Oz, South Africa, whatever) they’ll go over and talk to each other, whereas the French will actively ignore their fellow countrymen and hope they go away.
Don’t know what that’s all about, but I thought it worth a note in case some nice friendly Frenchies are reading this – come to Kochi! You country needs you!!
Anyway, getting back to the INSANE RACE, hey – the President of India was there! And she’s a CHICK! Fancy that! The weather was superb and the beer (for the main part) was cold. I met a crowd of really lovely backpackers and even got recognised off the telly by a couple of people (including a guy from Iran – boy did we bond!!) so my tale didn’t seem quite as tall as it usually does.
The boats were amazing – they were so long and had so many people on board I’m still wondering how on Earth they didn’t sink. Each boat had a number of coxes, but no loudhailer for these guys, they beat a rhythm by banging a wooden pole down vertically on the deck so hard I’m surprised they didn’t smash a hole in the boat.
I still have no idea who won, or indeed what the hell was going on, but damn it was entertaining!!
Sunday was India’s Independence Day, surprisingly not much was happening and everything was closed, which is a shame as a waterpistol fight between the Limeys and the Natives would have been awesome. I enjoyed breakfast with some of the backpackers I met the day before and had evening drinkies with a gang from Manchester and watched Liverpool v Arsenal live. Yes, the spit and sawdust places here in India have better coverage of the Premiership than you. Ha!
Today (being Monday 16th August) all I have to report is that we still haven’t got a yay or nay from the shipping guys in Sri Lanka, but the ship which was supposed to be leaving today has been delayed for a couple of days, which gives us a bit of breathing space. But I’m running out of time, man – I’m nearly up to 600 days on the road.
Well it was another frustrating (but remarkably pleasant) week in Kochi spent contacting shipping firms, tour companies, even the head of the Sri Lanka tourist board in the UK, but it looks like hopping over the 15 miles from India to Sri Lanka is going to be more difficult than balancing an elephant on your head. While on a unicycle. In a hurricane.
The mad thing is that it will probably be easier to take a ship from Malaysia – 1000s of miles away. It’s like the only way you can get to France from the UK is via America. But I didn’t waste my time in Kerala, I made a lot of new friends (including three different people all called Anthony) and I got my story published in The Hindu newspaper.
On the Wednesday, me and my new chums Anthony, Anthony and Louise (all hailing from Manchester) got up bright and early to watch a family of Elephants getting a bath. This was 100% awesome.
I also got chatting with a guy named Joseph Sham who was tremendously excited to have me visit as part of my expedition. He treated me to dinner at the Tea Bungalow, lunch at the Brunton Boatyard Hall, a show at David Hall and a tour of Kochi with the newly named Odyssey Kochi Rickshaws. What a guy!!
I’m particularly impressed with how Kochi is restoring its heritage buildings. In Bombay I commented ‘where is Griff Rhys Jones when we need him?’, well, it appears he’s in Kochi painstakingly restoring these amazing old buildings – some Dutch, some Portuguese, some British, but all unmistakably Indian. David Hall (400 years old, still using it’s original Jewish name) has been turned into a wonderful art and exhibition centre – just two years ago it was just about ready to collapse.
It warms my heart that the daft Modernist mantra ‘new for the sake of new’ is slowly but surely being put to death – and a trip around the brand-new, but old fashioned, Brunton Boatyard hotel just added more fuel to the fire I’m helping to raise – light-years away from your awful Marriots, your soulless Hiltons and your more-depressing-than-Radiohead-on-a-rainy-day Holiday Inns: boutique hotels are growing in popularity all over the world – and even though I never stay in hotels I can say quite frankly, thank —- for that.
As I said in my last blog, Kochi isn’t exactly a party town. Beer is delivered in tea-pots (ask for ‘special tea’) and everything closes at 11pm. The bored policemen then scoot around the town telling anyone they meet that it’s time for bed. No, it’s not a curfew, it’s… er… well, it’s a curfew. And while I wouldn’t want my favorite bit of India to turn into some kind of horrible party town, a late license in a nice quiet bar wouldn’t go amiss.
Joseph and my new friend Vipin (who tracked me down after reading about me in the Mumbai Mirror) did their level best to find me a passage to Sri Lanka, but it was sadly in vain and by Friday I realized that it was time to move on. Like The Seychelles, Sri Lanka and The Maldives will have to wait until the end of the Odyssey – I guess if I’m going to attempt the Seychelles from Malaysia then Sri Lanka and The Maldives are on the way.
If anyone is thinking of crewing a yacht from SE Asia or Australia to Europe early next year, give me a shout and you’ll have yourself a able-bodied shipmate with a nifty kanga hat who you don’t even need to pay.
So the new plan is to high-tail it towards Nepal, hitting Bangladesh and Bhutan on the way. There’s no other way across to China (the border with Pakistan is impassible, the border with India is closed, and I can’t escape through the ‘back door’ into Burma – it’s mined!) so I’m going to have to do the run from Kathmandu to Lhasa and then take the Sky Train from Tibet down to Beijing. Easy!
On the Sunday it was the Kerala Harvest Festival and the place was nuts with people (India’s nuts with people at the best of times, but this was moreso) and it made me observe something that I’ve never picked up on before, and obviously this doesn’t cover all 1.2 billion Indians, but I rarely see an Indian looking like they are having a good time. It’s like everything – even parties – are treated with po-faced seriousness. For a good example of this, check out an Indian’s wedding album – it’s hard to match the words ‘the happiest day of my life’ with an image of a glum groom and a bride with tears streaming down her face.
So I say to you, India – chill out, kick back and enjoy yourself a little! I loved the bus campaign started by the delightful (and let’s face it, hot) Ariane Sherine last year “There’s probably no God, so stop worrying and enjoy your life” – when you consider that India has over a thousand deities ranging from elephant-headed boys, black goddess with human head necklaces to blue chaps with a flute and a penchant for cows – you might just see that the anxiety caused by that feeling that EVERYTHING YOU DO IS BEING WATCHED causes the average Joe.
In fact, doing even the simplest thing becomes incredibly difficult when you have someone hovering over your shoulder, doesn’t it? I much prefer Ms Sherine’s take on the matter. But this is India and never the twain etc., so getting transport out of Dodge was more tricky than it really needed to be, but I eventually found myself on a night bus heading to the town of Salem, halfway to Madras, (which has now been renamed Chennai but you won’t catch me ordering a Chicken Chennai in Rusholme). Moving on, I felt a little sad – I could have stayed in lovely little Fort Kochi for a long time, drinking Masala Chai in the Tea Pot Café, enjoying a bottle of Kingfisher in the XL bar, helping restore the cracking old buildings and attempting to outwit the fun police.
One can only hope that Kerala state is the future for India – after all it has the highest literacy level of anywhere in India (99%!) and the people there live, on average, TEN YEARS longer than their fellow Indians. Its defiant communist heritage (Kerala had the first – and possibly only – elected communist party back in 1967) probably didn’t help Kerala succeed in creating a Marxist utopia (because such a thing is impossible!) but what it did do was just as important – it got people into politics because they wanted to make the world a better place, not because they wanted to line their greasy pockets. I may not agree with their politics, but I certainly agree with their motives. If only I could say the same about the rest of India’s political elites…