Day M365: Now, Voyager…

Wed 26.09.12:

And so back to Sri Lanka. Exactly one year TO THE DAY that I rebooted The Odyssey Expedition in Wewak, Papua New Guinea. That was Day 1,000. Now I’m on Day 1,365. I added the ‘M’ prefix in an effort not to scare away new subscribers, but I really need not have bothered: it now takes up more space than a simple ‘1’ would have done. Humph!

I flew Kuwait Airlines again, on the return ticket. Kuwait airlines cannot be given a good review by any objective commentator. The TVs don’t work, the babies scream and there’s no bleedin’ alcohol on board to smooth off the edges. Ygads. But, you know, airplanes do get you where you need to go, and FAST! Blimey, in the time it took me on a coach to go from one city in Turkey to another, I flew across five and a half time zones. The mad thing is that even though my principles are dead against air travel for all the pollution it causes, the ‘chemtrails’ of planes are actually responsible for keeping the temperature of the planet artificially low. Yes it sounds counter-intuitive, but that’s the way our climate rolls. In the days after 9/11, the average temperature of the US, where all air traffic was grounded, increased by 2°. TWO DEGREES!! Man, that’s some crazy heat-tide death that our planes are fending off. A bit like the sulphur (before the clean air acts) that kept us unnaturally cool from the industrial revolution to the 1960s. This is all true. As is global warming. I’m only interested in facts, and (I’ll say again), if you don’t understand that global warming is a FACT (and a very scary one that urgently needs address by, um, someone… somewhere…), can you PLEASE stop reading this blog. You don’t deserve entertainment. You don’t deserve to have things to read. To be quite frank, you don’t deserve oxygen. And if you have kids you’re even worse. You’re worse than the Archbishop of Canterbury standing on a stage next to the chief rabbi, Jonathan Sacks, and going on about what great mates you are AND KNOWING THAT IF YOU’RE RIGHT ABOUT YOUR PARTICULAR SPACE WIZARD AND WHAT HE WANTS that your so-called ‘mate’ WILL BE TORTURED. For eternity. Which, as I keep stressing, is a metric f—- ton of time. Cognitive Dissidence  DISSONANCE (cheers Dino!) they call it, the ability some humans have to hold two completely conflicting concepts in their head at the same time…

Tangents, Graham… stick to the story.

So I have the Costa Cruise to country #199: Maldives, and country #200: Seychelles. In the bag. Sorted. It leaves Cochin on October 18. BUT… I still need to get to India. Easier said than done. So, first things first, no rest for the wicked, I got into Colombo airport at 4am, dropped my stuff off at Sachal’s gaff in Negombo and took the two hour bus journey to Colombo city. Sachal’s away in Pakistan at the moment, which is a crying shame. I went for a quick morning meeting with the representative of my old friends CMA-CGM here in Sri Lanka. They have a ship leaving on October 16 for Cochin. Needless to say, this would be cutting it mighty fine considering Colombo port is well known for its delays. The MV Kota Wiriwan, the ship I originally came here on, was delayed for three days, so this would be my very last ditch option… that’s assuming they agree to take me.

Then it was off to the Madagascan consulate to start the visa process rolling. I’ll be getting off the Costa Cruise in Madagascar and then taking a PIL cargo ship (I hope!) to mainland Africa for country #201: South Sudan. Unfortunately, I fell at the first hurdle… they wanted three month’s worth of bank statements. I should point out that the last TWO Madagascan visas I got only required a photo and were free. Now you have to pay and jump through a series of hoops that wouldn’t look out of place at Crufts. Cursing my luck, and knowing that the mini-calculator thing that allows me to access my bank accounts online was hidden away back in my backpack two hours north of here, I elected to try again another day. Next it was to the Indian High Commission, to make damn sure that they would actually let me in their damn country with this damn visa, you know: the one I just shelled out over $100 for in London.

And the answer is………

NOPE!!!

You see, India is quite possibly the most paranoid country in the world. You think the USA is bad for irrational fear and jumping at shadows, you ain’t seen nuthin’ yet. India is the only country in the world that you cannot enter on a ship even with a valid visa. Yep, even though it says ‘ALL PORTS’ on the visa application forms, let me tell you THIS IS A LIE. They mean ‘all AIR ports’. Maybe. Who knows? It’s India! Urgh.

So what to do, what to do? I may have had a bit of a mini-breakdown in the High Commission, prompting a measured amount of sympathy which lead me to a meeting with the visa department attaché. He wanted to see the documents pertaining to the ship I was planning to take to India. I explained to him that I couldn’t tell him which ship I was taking to India until I had specific permission from the High Commission to enter India on a ship because nobody will offer me a place until I get this specific permission (Catch-22). Then, either out of pity or just wanting to get the scruffy ginge out of his office, he told me that he would sort it out for me. All I’d have to do would be to apply again FOR A WHOLE NEW VISA (at a cost of £30) and – oh my giddy aunt, does this never end – they’re going to invalidate my London one EVEN THOUGH IT’S STILL VALID UNTIL MARCH 2013.

The visa department had just closed for the day, so I left, went to the nearby foodcourt, got on the internet and tried phoning OEL Shipping. No response. I got on Twitter and typed “AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRGH!!!!”

And then I thought, f— this s—, I’m off down the pub.

It was the best move I had made all day. I was ace-ing the weekly quiz until the sports round, where my dismally dismal knowledge of the world of world sport came to bite me on the ass. Ten pictures of famous teams: from AFL to NFL to footy to Canadian Ice Hockey. I didn’t have a bleedin’ clue. I got one out of ten. If I had got seven I would have won the quiz – playing just me on my own is splendidly arrogant, but it isn’t always a good strategy for world domination.

But what is always a good idea is going to the pub, since, once again, I met somebody who is well positioned to help me get to India. This is the way the world works, wonderfully enough. You can send as many emails and make as many phone calls as you like, but nine times out of ten, the guy you need to speak to is in the pub. So, my advice: when the going gets tough, go the pub. Carl from New Jersey (capital: Trenton!) works for an Oil and Gas company who have a shipping division, the head of which is Carl’s good friend. They have ships going to Colombo to Tuticorin and Mumbai. I was about to leave and get the bus back to Negombo when Carl offered me his couch for the night on the proviso that we continue drinking until the wee small hours. Which is exactly what we did.

We’re getting there, slowly but surely, we’re getting there…

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.