Bright and early Luke’s mate Dave dropped me at the bus station for the bus to Yemen, but there was trouble in paradise. Al-Qaeda has a large presence in the rather unstable Gulf State of Yemen and the local banditos have a penchant for kidnapping foreigners.
But by all accounts if you take care and avoid certain areas you’ll be okay, I guess it’s similar to Iraq and Afghanistan in that regard. However, when I reached the border I learnt that the border had just been closed to all Europeans in response to the increase of kidnappings in resent weeks. I couldn’t pass through Yemen even if I wanted to, and this blew my back-up plan for getting to Eritrea out of the water.
After a conversation with the incredibly friendly Omani border guards (who, for just about the first time out of over 150 border crosses I explained my mad plan to) they agreed to let me through to ‘ask’ when the border will be reopening. I know you’re probably imagining a dusty desert outpost here, after all I am in Arabia, but just to offer you a little bit of a surprise the border is up in cool green mountains, shrouded in fog and mystery. As the large ‘Welcome To Yemen’ sign loomed up before me through the mist, I had to give this the most atmospheric border crossing award.
On the Yemeni side, the guy didn’t speak much English, but he understood what I was after – a cool look of ‘stamp collector eh?’ flashed across his face. He asked for fifty quid off me, which was a bit steep but I wasn’t really in any position to turn him down, on my own in the fog on the border with the most wobbly country in the region. I handed over the greenbacks and he took my passport and stamped me in and out in quick succession. I could now tick Yemen off the list.
Walking back over the border I conjured up the image in my head of the world map of all the places I’ve been coloured in. I had travelled extensively before I embarked on the Odyssey, and while Yemen was my 160th country of this expedition, it was my 175th nation whose soil I had set foot on, meaning that there are only 25 countries in the world that I still haven’t visited, and 12 of them are tiny islands in the South Pacific…
But in my mind there were two gaping gaps on my map – Eritrea and The Seychelles. Both of which I missed out on when I passed them earlier in the journey, intending to come back to them later. The ride back from the border was pretty spectacular (if a little foggy), a heady mixture of mountains, beaches, cliffs and desert.
That night I eagerly awaited the reply from the owners of the DAL Mauritius. It finally arrived at around 11pm. It was a no.
Yesterday I discovered that the chances of anybody taking me onboard a ship bound for The Seychelles was about one in a million. I also found out that another shipping company, Maersk, had a freighter leaving on Tuesday to those infernal islands. So after spending the day trying to get a message to the right people, I headed over to the Oasis Club for the last time, knowing that if it wasn’t to be I would cut my losses and get the hell out of dodge.
The club was packed. HMS Chatham had just come into port, escorting the container ship Asian Glory back to safety. The Asian Glory had been captured last January and had been held in the Puntland region of Somalia for almost six months. Eventually after lengthy negotiations the owners shelled out $7,000,000 for the release of the vessel and the luxury cars it was shipping.
I got chatting to the good chaps of the Chatham (including the captain) and tried to get my head around this whole pirate problem. Here’s what I’ve learnt this week, amalgamated from my meetings with the Royal Navy, the US Navy, the Swedish Navy, the Dutch Navy, the crew of the Maersk Alabama, the captain of the San Cristobal and various mariners who have frequented Club Oasis over the last ten days…
How did all this get started?
Because Somalia has lacked an effective government since 1991, it has no navy (well, it has a navy, they just don’t have any ships). This means that for almost twenty years the waters around Somalia have been a free-for-all in terms of fishing rights. Anyone with a ship, a huge net and on-board freezing capabilities could sail around to the waters off Somalia and fill their boots. And they did. By 2005, fish stocks in the area had got dangerously low and the local fishermen turned to piracy to make ends meet. By 2007, the pirates had grown more and more audacious and started targeting large international cargo freighters and even oil tankers.
Joint task forces from NATO and other inter-governmental navies have been patrolling the waters since then, but rather than result in less pirate attacks, there has been a steady escalation as the pirate zone now covers a vast swathe of the Indian Ocean and ‘employs’ over 1,000 people.
Why can’t you just blow the feckers out of the water?
We’d like to! But that would risk escalating the situation. At the moment, very few of the hostages they take are killed, but if we start shooting first and asking questions later, then it could result unnecessary and unacceptable civilian deaths. Although that doesn’t stop the Russians….!
What about putting armed guards on the container ships?
Again, it risks escalation and these pirates have got rocket-propelled grenades. It’s too risky.
What about doing convoys?
Yachties are increasingly meeting up and doing the Gulf of Aden run in flotillas, but for big cargo ships, it’s just not economically viable to have them sitting around a port for a week waiting for other ships to turn up, plus once the pirates are on board there’s little use another ship in the area can do – even fully armed naval ships are powerless to stop the situation.
Are the kidnapped British yachting couple Paul and Rachel Chandler still alive?
We believe so. But Rachel is not well.
What do you do when you catch the pirates?
We take their weapons off them, put them all on one boat (pirates usually hunt in packs), give them enough fuel, food and water to get back to Somalia and then set them free.
Yeah, we set them free, there’s nothing else we can do. We can’t take them back to Somalia to stand trial – there’s no government, judges, juries or prisons! Tanzania, Yemen and The Seychelles don’t want them and maybe can’t afford a ton of court cases and to pay for their incarceration. We don’t have the space to keep them in the brig for six months until we go back to the UK. So we disarm them and send them on their way.
So how on Earth do you think we’re ever going to get rid of these pirates?
The only way we can get rid of the pirates is to support the Somalia government in taking back their country, that way they’d have a navy to stop foreign fishing boats coming in and stealing all the fish. Also, they’d have a judicial system so we’d have somewhere to take the pirates when we catch them.
Unfortunately after the disastrous interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq, no government has the stomach to take on the madness that is modern Somalia. In short, there is no end in sight.
Turki’s apartment in the north of Jeddah was as sweet as sweet can be. Not only did I get my own room (and bathroom), his fridge was stocked and there was a nice hot cup of tea with real milk whenever I fancied it. Turki himself is a remarkably interesting chap – a jack of many trades – a building planner/surveyor in his day job, in his spare time he has just put together the first of his ‘Arabic Trails’ guidebooks, a full colour 4×4 guide with the amazing stuff you can find in the desert, if you know where to look. The pdf version on his computer looked seven shades of awesome – even more awesome when you realised he did most of the research, took the photos, created the maps and set the design.
This guide just covered the Hijaz area, which is this part of Arabia, the stuff around Mecca, but Turki is planning many more, including one for Oman. It’s really excellent stuff. I take my hat off to him.
Turki totally took on the challenge of getting me to Eritrea and had taken the day off work to help. He arranged for us to meet with his friend Bob Moss for lunch and soon enough we were setting off to the excellent Pakistani restaurant downtown for the awesome lunchtime buffet.
Bob is the managing director of one of the biggest shipping companies in Jeddah. If there was a more awesome place to start our quest, I couldn’t imagine. Over some tasty tasty tucker I explained my situation, the ‘mad plan’ and the difficulties I’ve faced getting over to Eritrea (all the land borders being closed, ships from The Gulf being a no-no and Yemen being shut). Bob advised me to do two things: first, get myself an Eritrean visa. Second, go and see his colleague Abdullah who is a very important guy in the ship business and a bit of a port Yoda, he’ll be able to direct us where to go next.
All sounded fairly straightforward, but to be honest with you, the idea of getting an Eritrean visa fills me with dread. After my adventures across Central Asia, not to mention my nightmare Saudi and Indian visas, I fully expect them to demand I get my visa from the UK, a process which would take at least two weeks.
But you gotta do what you gotta do, and after lunch Turki and I said our thanks and goodbyes to Bob and headed back to the flat. Turki called the Eritrean embassy to find out what the SP was, and the answer we got back was the most unexpected thing I’ve heard in the last six months.
Yeah, tell him to bring his passport and a photo, we’ll do it for him tomorrow.
One photo? Tomorrow?
What about the letter from my employer? My bank statements? My birth certificate? My letter of invitation? Residency papers? My flight in and out? My hotel booking? Seventeen photos? My fingerprints? My iris scan? My Arabic translation? My shoe-size? My star-sign? My first memory? The colour of my underwear….?
Nah, just bring a photo.
Ahh… Eritrea you surprisingly un-paranoid hunka hunk of burnin’ love. I could just kiss you!
Just to put this marvel into perspective, we also called up the Sudanese embassy as back-up in case I couldn’t get a ship to Eritrea. Ha! No chance! You have to get your Sudanese visa from London, ginger boy. That’ll take about a month, won’t it? Woohahahahahahaha etc.
Later that day Turki took me out to the old town of Jeddah, a place he is as enthusiastic about as I am over the old bits of my Liverpool. The city fathers are in the middle of replacing the yucky asphalt with cobblestones, which is going to look great, but unfortunately on the day that I arrive they have merely dug up all the roads (and I mean ALL the roads!) without actually getting cracking with the cobbles. Then again, maybe the undulating dirt paths make it even more authentic…!
The old buildings here are really wonderful, made of local coral stone with wooden latticed windows to let the cool air in. There isn’t a single straight line to be found, an Arabic rendering of Diagon Alley from Harry Potter. The marketplace is still here after hundreds of years and unlike Qatar’s old quarter there is a real sense of authenticity.
Although I have to say my favourite souk market in the world is in Tunis. It beats Jeddah, Jerusalem, Cairo, Istanbul and even Marrakech hands down.
After taking in the old town, Turki and I head back to the flat in order to suss something out – how to copy pdfs and videos onto my little hard drive. On any other hard drive this would be a cinch, but this hard drive is made by a dreadful group of American capitalist pigdog businessmen who tuck their t-shirts into their high-hitched jeans and so their overpriced toys are more fussy than an OCD Lord Snooty when it comes to whether it will, you know, allow crazy space-aged stuff like pdf files onboard, especially if it’s wearing trainers.
It’s fair to say that my hard drive has ideas above its station.
It took Turki and I, who are both more computer literate than the average Joe, FOUR HOURS to crack the secret alchemy involved in the seemingly simple task of putting pdfs onto my iPod. FOUR HOURS which neither of us are going to get back. But at least Turki now knows how to put pdfs on his new hilariously named iPad as well. This means he can now put up to TEN of his own books on the thing, before he has to pay(!) for a application that allows him to put another one on. Ka-ching!!
The annoying thing is that to copy pdfs across you have to have your computer and your iPod wirelessly attached to the internet. Difficulties arise here because often I do not have a free wireless connection (for instance, my connection in Kuwait was wired and my Vodafone mobile internet dongle only worked on my laptop), and when I go to a café to use the ‘free’ internet, they invariably give me one code, and only one, so I can’t connect both my laptop and my iPod to the net at the same time. And if it’s a paying internet place, I have to pay double.
Why the info can’t just, you know, GO DOWN THE FRICKIN’ LITTLE WHITE USB CABLE ATTACHED TO MY LAPTOP I do not (and fear will never) know.
Meanwhile, I can finally put my own Odyssey vids on my iPod to show people. You see, rendering them in Quicktime is not enough, there is a secret video setting that you have to use, but this setting is so secret, nobody actually knows what it is. I mean, we all know that iPods can play ordinary mp4 files (as demonstrated when you go onto YouTube). We also know that they can understand pdf files – after all, you can email them to yourself from a real computer if necessary. But try an copy these things across and your iPod looks at you like you’re the biggest idiot since George W Bush.
No no no, what you need is an iPod video converter, because the £750 you spent on Adobe Premiere ain’t enough! So if you buy this converter, it will (in seconds!) add the little bit of code that says you just gave Steve Jobs another fistful of dollars and allow you to put your video that you made onto your hard drive.
The sad thing is that Apple, though rotten to the core, have a cult. A cult that actually gets offended if you say that their products are monopolistic, awkwardly programmed, overly-judgemental toys. And their ranks are growing. It’s heart-breaking that even in this day and age people still think that these mega-corporations still have their best interests at heart. Just like the banking industry, eh?
Turki gets up at some horrendously early hour of the morning, but I was allowed to sleep in until 8am, and then we both headed over to the Eritrean Consulate. Again, Turki took a day off work to help me out (miles above and light years beyond the call of duty). A little man dressed in red with horns, a pointy tail and a pitchfork hovered over my left shoulder whispering it can’t be this easy, it can’t be this easy…
But it was.
I didn’t even need to fill out a form, they did it for me. And when they told me I could pick the visa up later that day, I almost broke into cartwheels. So can I pay for it in Saudi money? Of course! Do I have to pay it into a bank that’s on the other side of town? Don’t be silly, just pay it over there at the window marked ‘cashier’. Then I did break into cartwheels.
Our meeting with Abdullah was in the afternoon, so there was a good chance we’d actually have the visa to show him. Things were going well. I have decided that Turki is my lucky charm (even though I don’t believe in luck) and that I should definitely stuff him in my backpack and take him with me for the final forty.
Over lunch, Turki and I had a good natter about Saudi Arabia and it’s perception in the wider world. Growing up in the US, Turki has a good outsider’s perspective and now after living here for so many years he also has inside knowledge that a tourist like me will often lack.
Now first up, do they still stone women to death for adultery (or being raped)? Turki says no, the only capital offenses here are murder, rape and drug-dealing and the only state sanctioned method of execution is beheading. Er… okay, what about chopping off thieves hands? Again, the answer is no (and to be fair I didn’t see any handless vagrants wandering about). So the old British right wing why-don’t-we-just-chop-their-hands-off-like-the-Saudis is balderdash then? Yup.
Okay then. We will continue this discussion later.
At 3pm we were back at the Eritrean consulate and there it was – my Eritrean visa. Unbelievable! So, so easy! We rushed over to meet Bob and Abdullah, passport in hand. Abdullah was a really nice guy, Turki and I explained my mission, showed him some videos on Turki’s iPad and he gave us his support.
He told us that we have to visit a place called Baaboud Shipping down by the docks. They run the one and only cargo operation between Jeddah and Eritrea. He gave us the name and number of the guy we needed to speak to, Ahmed Ibn-Ishaq, and told us to tell them that Abdullah sent us. Things were going well. Yes I am playing a real-life game of Monkey Island.
That night, Turki and I chatted about that great big elephant in the corner. Women’s rights in Saudi. As far as I am concerned, they don’t have any. They’re not allowed to drive, (and it’s too hot to walk) they are forced to wear a big black cotton bag over their entire body (in the desert – nice!) and their view of the world is obscured by the fact they have their faces completely covered whenever they are outside. They can’t go anywhere, do anything, speak to anybody without the permission of a man, be it their father or their husband.
The blacked-out ‘Family’ rooms of every restaurant along the road to Jeddah are testament to how divided the world of men is from the world of women here in Saudi. This is all based on little more than an incredibly childish sense of jealousy. Put simply, the men here do not want other men even looking at their wives. This may be because many marriages here are arranged and therefore loveless. Lacking this bond that (by and large) stops normal, free women from having affairs, the Bedu men’s paranoia is understandable (kinda) but the system here stops just short of locking the fairer half of the population up in the basement.
The maddening thing is that there is NOTHING in the Koran about women having live as little more than slaves to their menfolk. It is a Bedu thing, and despite the mealy-mouthed apologists saying it is about ‘respect’ (do me a quaver), it’s about nothing more than male power, domination, jealousy and paranoia – things that a good Muslim should be fighting a personal jihad against.
I have to say that here in the Hijaz part of the country things are a lot more easy going. However, the capital Riyadh is slap bang in the middle of Bedu country and so things are unlikely to change at a national level anytime soon. But Turki is optimistic. He reckons that the Hijazis are a lot more cosmopolitan and there is an unstoppable rise in the numbers of young people using Facebook and mixed coffee shops to meet members of the opposite sex. Maybe a healthy dose of real love will be what’s needed to finally break the back of the green-eyed monster.
Turki had tried in vain all yesterday to get in touch with Baaboud Shipping and arrange a meeting with Ahmed. But this morning we had better luck. By 9.01am we had a meeting arranged. Turki donned his traditional Saudi garp (to enhance his already consummate Jedi skills) and by 10am we were in Ahmed Ibn-Ishaq’s office drinking green coffee and talking ships to Eritrea.
After Turki introduced me and explained that we had been told to come here by Abdullah, I explained my mission. Turki then smoothly fought my corner in Arabic, I can’t tell you how important the power of introduction is to The Odyssey: whenever I just ruck up and tell people what I’m doing they generally a) don’t believe me or b) think I’m a nut. It’s kinda embarrassing. Once that obstacle is out of the way, it makes things SO much easy to get the help I desperately need.
As the conversation continued it slowly dawned on me that things might finally be going my way. Ahmed was a cheerful chap (with a look of Clancy Brown about him) and he loved the idea that I was travelling all over the world without flying. I showed him my passport (avec visa) and he asked me if I was ready to leave tomorrow.
TOMORROW!!!?!?!? HELL YEAH!!
I couldn’t believe it. After two months of pretty much everything going wrong, it was now all going so right. And what’s more is that Baaboud Shipping’s cargo ship only goes to Eritrea two or three times a month: our timing was magnificent – the ship was in port and leaving tomorrow.
I think I danced a little jig.
Turki and I spent a good hour and a half with Ahmed and when we left it was jubilation all around. THIS is when I’m reminded of why I’m doing The Odyssey. The dizzying highs. The days when everything comes together with a perfection that could not be predicted. They make the days of frustration and loneliness all worth it.
Over a tasty lunch at the Lebanese place down the road Turki and I celebrated the travel smackdown of the season.
We’d done it.
That evening we headed to Jeddah’s posh date shop (think Thornton’s meets Tiffany’s, but with dates – the type you eat!) and bought a beautiful wooden box packed full of dates for Ahmed – a nice Arabic way of saying thank you.
Later we went out to a coffee place down by the water. Turki and I had a jolly old fight about modern architecture and I had a good chuckle at this big concrete block with the cars sticking out of it. Eek!
We had to be at Baaboud Shipping for 7.30am, and, once again, Turki took time away from the office to take me there. The level of hospitality and sheer generosity I’ve received from Turki has really knocked me for six. I owe this guy BIG. Like many other Odyssey Heroes I really have no idea how I can possibly repay him short of declaring a Wookiee Life-Debt. The only thing I can do is spread the love and do everything in my power to help my fellow wayfarers along the way after I finish this adventure. And you can hold me to that.
We presented Ahmed with his dates and he responded with a pot of authentic Sudanese green bean coffee. The ship would be leaving this afternoon and we had to be at the port for 10am. Ahmed gave Turki the phone number of the port agent and gave me his best wishes. One last traditional Saudi breaky (flat bread and yummy beans followed by a yoghurt and honey desert… yum!) and Turki dropped me at the port.
I was shepherded through the massive passenger terminal nice and quick (I was the only one there!) and after being picked up by the port bus, I alighted at the quayside where the Ibn Al Waleed, the cargo ship that would be taking me to Eritrea, lay in wait. The last time I was here at this port was on the 29th December 2009 upon the MV Turquoise racing on my way to meet Mandy at the pyramids before New Year – Almost a full six months ago.
I clambered aboard and introduced myself to Captain Mohamed Mousa Mohamed, Chief Nay Myo and Babikir Yahya the cook before settling down in the mess with my laptop to write this blog and to count down the minutes to the England vs. Slovenia game.
Yup, luckily for me, the Ibn Al Waleed has satellite TV!
The ship is an old one – it must be from the 1970s. It reminds me of my dad’s old carburetter shop in Liverpool – a mucky, working vessel that does its job but you wouldn’t want to eat your dinner off the floor. It’s nowhere near as big as some of the mega container ships I’ve been on board, but it manages to pack a lot of containers and a ton of new cars on the deck.
The crew from Sudan, Sri Lanka, Burma and the Philippines are a lively bunch and they all look forward to kicking back and having a day off work in Eritrea where they can get hold of chicks and booze – things that in Saudi are in short supply!
This evening England scraped through to the final 16 of the World Cup, but are facing Germany on their next outing so that should be fun. But with the universally glum expressions of the English players (most notably Wayne Rooney) I’m not holding my breath for victory. Everyone is wondering what the secret of the South American teams is. I’ll tell you what it is – they look like they’re enjoying themselves!
So… the schedule is that we arrive in Eritrea Friday afternoon, spend a day or two in Massawa before returning to Saudi for Monday or Tuesday next week.
It would be 3am before we were finally loaded and set sail for the 161st nation of The Odyssey Expedition. To be able to tick Eritrea off my list would a huge huge weight off my shoulders… to think only last week I was considering heading to Eritrea last after visiting every other country in the world, in the hope that the border with Djibouti would be reopened some time this year.
Thursday on board ship passed like a dream. Out on the high sea I felt the exhilaration of things finally going to plan. I spent the day in the mess as the crew drifted in and out throughout the day, waiting for the football to start. Today we got to watch Italy get unceremoniously dumped out of the group round (bottom of their table) and sadly bid farewell to the Danish contingent as they got their bottoms well and truly spanked by the Japanese.
With any luck tomorrow I’ll be downing a cool pint and watching the footy in a bar in Massawa knowing that I am the first person to visit every single nation of South America, The Caribbean, Central and North America, Europe, The Middle East and Africa in one rather epic surface journey. I look forward to it.
We were supposed to cast off at 8am, or is that knitting? Might be getting my lingo muddled. Either way, the cargo operation wasn’t completed until the afternoon. The thought of setting out again into town and finding a working internet connection did cross my mind, but after yesterday’s three hour marathon fail, I had little intention of repeating the feat in the blazing sunshine with no way of knowing what time the ship will actually leave.
The engines kicked into life at about 4pm, but it wasn’t until about 45 minutes later that I realised we had actually left port – that’s how smooth the sea is around here, shielded by the Dhalek Islands. A more pressing concern was the loss of our television signal. The England v Germany was to start in 15 minutes. The crew tried their best to adjust the clapped out old satellite dish lashed to the gangway behind the mess, but it was ten minutes into the game before we got any picture – then, to add insult to injury, the picture kept conking out at critical moments of the game. I didn’t get to see Frank Lampard’s goal, but then neither did the linesman. Or the ref.
But I saw enough to see England get well and truly dumped out of the World Cup. Again.
When I was seven I remember going into school the day after Maradona’s Hand of God, absolutely distraught and refusing to finish my Panini sticker album as a result. When I was eleven I remember sitting on the stairs watching that excruciating penalty shoot-out against Germany from between the bars of the banister. When I was fifteen there wasn’t a World Cup (was there?). At nineteen I watched Beckham getting sent off and England crash out to Argentina at Ben Murray’s house. At twenty-three I was in a backpackers in Chile with Fleur as Brazil kicked England to one side. It was the middle of the night and just one other England fan watched the match with me. At the age of twenty-seven I was at the Roskilde festival in Denmark with Mandy and Stan and watched England lose it on the big screen, accompanied by thousands of braying Nordics.
And here I am at thirty-one and I’m still seeing England crash and burn, this time on a cargo ship off the coast of Eritrea. I wonder where I’ll be to watch England fail when I’m thirty-five… the moon would be nice – through the vacuum of space, I wouldn’t be able to hear the collective resigned groans of 50 million Brits echo around the world.
Oh well, I guess I won’t be the only Englishman leaving Africa today.
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.