Day 375: Odyssey Again

10.01.10:

Here’s what you need to do to get a visa for Sudan:

  • Have two hours sleep
  • Taxi to Sudanese Embassy
  • Queue up at the window
  • Be told to get a letter from own embassy
  • Go to British Embassy
  • Pay $50 for a photocopy of a letter explaining why the British Embassy will not write a letter
  • Back to Sudanese Embassy
  • Queue up again
  • Give them letter explaining why the British Embassy will not write a letter
  • Take application form
  • Fill out application form
  • Panic that you’ve given your Africa Lonely Planet to Mandy and consequently don’t know what to put down on the form for where you’re going to stay.
  • Queue up again
  • Be told that you have to photocopy the filled out application form
  • Go down the road and get application form photocopied
  • Queue up again
  • Be given slip to take to Window 2
  • Queue up again, this time at Window 2
  • Be told that you can’t pay in Egyptian pounds – must be in US dollars
  • Go find a bank
  • Queue up in the bank
  • Change your Egyptian pounds into US dollars
  • Back to Sudanese Embassy
  • Queue up again at Window 2
  • Hand over the extortionate $105 visa fee
  • Be given receipt
  • Queue up again at Window 1
  • Hand over passport, application form, photocopy of application form, 4 photocopies of passport and 4 photographs, letter from British Embassy explaining why they will not write a letter and receipt for payment
  • Be told to come back tomorrow
  • Say you need it today
  • Hold your breath
  • Be told to come back at 3pm
  • Breathe a sigh of relief.

That was my morning, but there was still much stuff to do. You see, I needed my visa today because the only way to get into Sudan from Egypt is on the ferry across Lake Nasser from Aswan to Wadi Halfa and the ferry only goes once a week – and it leaves on Monday, which is tomorrow. I needed to get the night-train to Aswan, so I headed over to Ramses train station and MORE BUREAUCRACY!

  • So I go to the Information Desk
  • Walk all the way to the far platform of the station
  • Queue up in the wrong queue
  • Queue up in the right queue
  • Be told that the train is fully booked
  • Asked for a ticket for the train which leaves from Giza station instead
  • Be told can only buy that ticket from Giza station
  • Head back to the information desk
  • They suggest I take the expensive sleeper train
  • I visit the sleeper train office
  • That will be $60 please
  • Attempt to pay with Egyptian pounds
  • No, you have to pay in dollars
  • Walk half an hour to the nearest bank in the blazing noontime sun
  • Queue up in bank
  • Change more Egyptian pounds into US dollars
  • Back to station
  • Be told that the sleeper train is now sold out
  • Threaten to kill everyone in the room with a staple gun
  • Be told that they have one ticket left
  • Buy ticket

The whole process took about two hours.

Then I (foolishly) took a cab back to the Sudanese Embassy (I should have taken the subway). We got caught in traffic more jammed than Bob Marley jamming in a jar of jam. I got back to the Sudanese embassy at 3.10pm, worried that I was ten minutes late. An hour and a half later, they gave me my passport back. I was glad I rushed.

So… back to the Sara Inn to pick up my bags and to eat some kushari. Said my goodbyes and headed off to the station for my train. Despite all the hoops that I had to jump through, today went rather well, I thought. The train was less hilarious than I thought it would be, there was no booze and the fresh-faced young Kontiki tour groups were happy to crash out at 11pm, what with kids these days? Bunch of wusses.

I shared a cabin with a guy from New York named John, who (let’s not beat around the bush here) was Forrest Gump – how anyone let him go to Egypt on his own is beyond me. Perhaps his mum was in the next room. I mean, he was a nice enough guy, but give an Egyptian an inch and they’ll take a mile – this time tomorrow, I’d be surprised if he had any money left. I did my best to answer his questions about whether the train conductors were nice in the UK (the answer is no), whether they had trains in Australia and why the Giza touts were so mean.

Our train conductor, Aladdin, not being one to miss a trick (yes, they did the old ‘would you like a cup of tea with your dinner?’ lark without telling you it wasn’t complimentary) offered me a different cabin for a few Egyptian pounds, but I turned the offer down – John was harmless; I got the impression they don’t quite understand mental illness in Egypt. Then again, the way people with mental illnesses are treated in the US (and the UK for that matter) is still pretty damn awful. Funny that, isn’t it? If somebody has a dodgy heart or breaks their arm, they get sympathy and all the help they need, if someone’s brain isn’t functioning at 100%, we tend to shun them lest they turn around in the night and go postal on our asses.

With nowt much else to do, I clambered up onto my bunk bed, tied my GPS logger to my leg and fell asleep.

Day 376: The First Cataract

11.01.10:

Off the train and then over to the High Dam port. Back in the god-knows-when, the British built a dam at the First Cataract. The First (and subsequent) Cataracts are a series of rapids that are impossible to navigate a boat over. Since you couldn’t sail a ship over the Cataract, it seemed like a good place to plonk a dam – it would allow the Egyptians to better control the yearly floods and provide nice green energy for the nearby homes.

In the 1950s the President of the newly independent Egypt, Mr. Nasser, decided to go one better – he would build The High Dam.. So large that it would wind up creating the largest artificial lake in the world, the High Dam was an impressive feat of engineering. However, by flooding the land south of the First Cataract and thereby creating this massive lake (which Nasser humbly named after himself) many archaeological treasures were lost – some temples (including that of Abu Simbel, the famous four-seated Pharaohs in a row all with the face of Ramses II) had to be moved, a painstaking (and risky) operation.

Entire towns were flooded (as was Halfa, the town that is now relocated and renamed Wadi Halfa) and Nubian communities were torn apart. Another problem is that the all-important silt that the river carried (and deposited during the annual floods) was now being prevented from getting to the farmlands that desperately need the nutrient-rich top soil that only the old floodwater could supply.

But as a source of clean, renewable energy, you can’t knock it.

So this lake was what I had to traverse in order to gain access to Sudan, country 134. The road to Sudan had been closed for donkey’s years and this was the only way in or out. Sudan isn’t known for getting on too well with its neighbours. You would think the biggest country in Africa would have bigger fish to fry, but that hasn’t stopped it engaging in border disputes with, well, pretty much all of its neighbours (of which it has many). In fact, the only safe way in or out of Northern Sudan is via Egypt or Ethiopia – you can forget about Uganda, Chad, CAR, Eritrea, DR Congo, Kenya, Libya or Eritrea.

So why didn’t I go via Ethiopia? Good question, well asked. For two reasons: one is that it would have taken me too long to get to Mandy and two is that it can take up to SIX WEEKS to get a Sudanese visa from Addis Ababa. As we discovered yesterday, in Cairo it’s a same-day service. Oh yeah!

The High Dam port was a fit of disorganisation that Egypt is famous for. The whole rigmarole of getting from the ticket booth to the ship took a good hour while my bags were checked on about seven different occasions, and perhaps forty-plus officials who had looked at my passport. Eventually I was on board. The ship was a larger version of many of the little cargo ships that I’ve taken around Africa… benches to sleep on, dirty floors, everything dirty and yucky.

Got chatting with a bloke named Alister Caldicott (www.alitravelstheworld.com), a guy from England who had also done more than his fair share of globe trotting. Having notched up an impressive 90 countries, he had hung out in Palestine, toured through Afghanistan, been everywhere in Burma and was now travelling down through East Africa. He was awesome, very knowledgeable and it was great to actually get some first-hand info on what it is like to travel through places like the ‘Stans.

Ali slept up on the deck, but I had cadged a space down below. Although sleeping under the starry, starry night appealed, I wasn’t too enamoured with the idea of freezing my behind off at five in the morning once the day’s heat had evaporated. I was lucky – I got a bench all to myself. They’re supposed to hold four people each. Good job it’s low season.

Day 377: The Second Cataract

12.01.10:

Another fit of African bureaucracy before we could disembark saw us waiting for over an hour after we arrived, before we could get off the damn ship, but eventually, in drips and drabs, we all made it off the good ship and into the little town of Wadi Halfa.

The only thing I know about Wadi Halfa is that it’s where Michael Palin took the train to Khartoum – and, well, apart from that not much to report I’m afraid.. The ship would be going back tomorrow so I thought it only fair that I stay the night. I joined a gang of Aussie lads in the local guesthouse, a simple affair of single room buildings clustered around a central courtyard.

Sudan isn’t big on tourism. An intractable civil war between north and south (the Darfur crisis being a completely separate atrocity) has been rumbling on for about 20 years now, and the only hope for a lasting peace is a referendum in 2011 to split into two separate entities. Does that mean that I should have visited South Sudan while I was here? Well, only if I don’t get finished before this completely new nation is created. If it does and I’m pottering around the South Pacific, I’ll have a bloody long backtrack to make. But without a clearly defined border between the two new countries and oil fields to scrap over, the good people of the Sudan may be in for another 20 years of scrapping.

And what are they scrapping over? Have a guess, go on, have a guess. Yeah, as always – which colour hat God wears on a Thursday evening when the moon is in the eighth house of ware. It’s been the same since forever. And you wonder why I hate it so much.

When tourists do arrive, they have to register with the police within three days (at a cost of another fistful of fivers), but the group of tourists fresh off the ferry weren’t allowed to register today, so everybody had to stay the night in Wadi Halfa. Also, many of them had cars or motorbikes that they were hilariously going to drive down through Africa (good luck with that, matey!) – they came on a separate ferry that would arrive on Thursday, so they too were trapped in Wadi Halfa – which was good for me, as I had good stack of nutters to spend a rather pleasant evening with (you don’t have to be mad to visit Sudan, but it helps).

There was Mick the Aussie and his mates, a British girl named Bun who was with her boyfriend, a guy from Iceland whose name was completely unpronounceable and a bunch of other wonderful randoms all stuck in this one-horse town. We spent the night chatting, drinking tea and smoking sheesha (I just stuck with the tea), it was great and made me appreciate how much I’ve missed the company of my fellow travellers during my sojourn in Africa (most of the westerners I would meet would be aid workers). Ah well, no time to monkey about – the boat goes back to Egypt tomorrow.

Day 378: A Change of Plan

13.01.10:

I’ve got to say that getting back on the boat was a lot easier than getting off it, although you really have to admire the jaw-dropping amount of bureaucracy that these guys think is acceptable. What could have been achieved very quickly with a team of three officials, took over fifty officials an hour. Oh Africa, I shall miss you…

Back on the boat, I met a bloke named Marc, who was from Barcelona (one of my favourite cities in the world), who had been living up in Alexandria for a couple of years. Chatting to him made me resolve two things – one was that I would attempt to get a visa on the border for Syria (something I’ve been told you can no longer do) and the other was that I would head out to Siwa Oasis in Egypt, near the border with Libya and take a desert safari over the dunes into Colonel Gadaffi’s back yard. Marc reckoned it wouldn’t just be possible – it would be easy. I hoped so.

That night, up on the deck, we crossed the invisible line that separates Sudan from Egypt as we passed Abu Simbel, that monumental wreck near which, nothing else remains… I looked on Ramses II’s works and despaired. Why? Because we will never make anything that cool ever again. Too busy building tinfoil warehouses and concrete eyesores these days. Modern Art has been a joke for many years now, and one that gets less funny as the decades go by. I couldn’t build Abu Simbel, I wouldn’t know where to start, but I could faithfully reproduce pretty much anything that Tate Modern has to offer, making a mockery of the centuries of artistic skill and dexterity that came before it.

But then, I guess we’re living in a new artistic dark age. After all, the technical skill and refined artistic splendour of the Greeks and Romans was lost for over a thousand years until the renaissance came along – I mean, have you seen the state of the Bayeux Tapestry? It looks like it was drawn (well, sewn) by a child. Or a moron. Or Lowry.

Anyway, what do you want to know? Egypt is great and modern art is crap and I’ll kung-fu your ass if you don’t agree with me.

THE ODYSSEY WORLD VISA GUIDE

One of the things that holds back many people from travelling is the prospect of wasting time and effort attempting to get into countries that would quite prefer it if you didn’t bother.  However, it is a false presumption.  In more than 150 countries worldwide you can turn up without shelling out $$$ for an invitation first.

So here’s a comprehensive list of the visa requirements for British Passport Holders for every country in the world, although it may come in useful for other nationalities as well.

I’ve split the world into four main categories: No Visa Required, Visa On Arrival, Prior Visa Required and Letter of Invitation (LOI) Required.

No Visa Required: You beauties!! Note the (very) high prevalence of prosperous, confident and democratic countries in this list.

Visa on Arrival: Not quite as good as no visa at all, but much, much less hassle than:

Prior Visa/LOI required: Crikey. What a bitch. Don’t turn up without a visa to any of the countries on this (mercifully short) list of grubby and inhospitable nations.  They will fly you straight back home again at your expense because you didn’t ask their f—ing permission first.  So go queue outside their ostentatious embassies in the pouring rain for hours, pay them a bundle of fivers and then wait and wait and wait for the privilege of visiting their stupid godforsaken country.

I find the whole process quite demeaning – it’s like having to write to someone to ask if you can attend their wedding – take the hint man, take the hint – these countries are obviously not much interested in you, or tourism in general.

Many of these countries hilariously require an onward ticket, some want you to write a begging letter to come in, others want a letter off your employer or even copies of your bank statements… remember this is not to LIVE THERE, this is just to VISIT FOR A FEW DAYS.

The worst of the worst require a Letter of Invitation (LOI) – I’ve cast these down into the very lowest rungs of hell.  Not only do you have to pay extortionate amounts of money to Ambassador Ratbag for the stamp, you also have to pay someone in the country to ‘vouch’ for you.

I would actually like a list of all of the illegal refugees and economic migrants pouring out of our rich democratic nations and claiming asylum in… Nigeria? Papua New Guinea? TURKMENISTAN?? Seriously? WHAT?

I hold Australia in particular contempt for this policy – it is the ONLY rich westernised power on an otherwise quite hellish list of paranoid basketcases.

Oh, and by the way, Aussie tourists are granted a SIX MONTH stay in the UK, upon arrival, for free.  So, Australia, when you ask me in your rasping nasal tones where the bloody hell am I – I guess I’m in a country that welcomes me with open arms rather than a punch in the face and a bill of sale.

But look on the bright side, there are 150 (other, better) countries which don’t make you beg for permission to pop in for a visit…

Here’s your at-a-glance VISA MAP OF THE WORLD:

World Visa Requirement Map
World Visa Requirement Map For British Passport Holders

NO VISA REQUIRED (WOO!)

AMERICAS
Antigua & Barbuda
Argentina
Bahamas
Barbados
Belize
Bolivia
Brazil
Canada
Chile
Colombia
Costa Rica
Dominica
Dominican Republic
Ecuador
El Salvador
Grenada
Guatemala
Guyana
Haiti
Honduras
Mexico
Nicaragua
Panama
Paraguay
Peru
St. Kitts & Nevis
St. Lucia
St. Vincent and The Grenadines
Trinidad & Tobago
Uruguay
USA (but you do need a prior visa if you arrive on private boat or plane)
Venezuela

EUROPE
Albania
Andorra
Austria
Belgium
Bosnia & Herzegovina
Bulgaria
Croatia
Cyprus
Czech Republic
Denmark
Estonia
Finland
France
Georgia
Germany
Greece
Hungary
Iceland
Ireland
Italy
Kosovo
Latvia
Liechtenstein
Lithuania
Luxembourg
Malta
Moldova
Monaco
Montenegro
Netherlands
Norway
Poland
Portugal
Romania
San Marino
Serbia
Slovakia
Slovenia
Spain
Sweden
Switzerland
UK
Ukraine
Vatican City

AFRICA
Botswana
Burkina Faso
Lesotho
Malawi
Mali
Mauritius
Namibia
Rwanda
Senegal
Seychelles
South Africa
Swaziland
The Gambia
Tunisia
Morocco

THE MIDDLE EAST/ASIA
Bahrain
Iraq (Kurdistan only, entered from Turkey)
Israel
Japan
Jordan (if you enter on the ferry from Egypt)
Kuwait
Oman
Palestine
Qatar
South Korea
Taiwan
The Maldives
UAE
Yemen

SE ASIA/OCEANIA
Brunei
Fiji
Kiribati
Malaysia
Marshall Islands
Micronesia
New Zealand
Palau
Samoa
Singapore
Solomon Islands
Thailand
The Philippines
Tonga
Tuvalu
Vanuatu

VISA ON ARRIVAL

AMERICAS
Cuba (well, I got a visa on arrival, but I came on a yacht…)

EUROPE
Armenia
Turkey

AFRICA
Benin
Burundi
Cape Verde
Comoros
Egypt
Kenya
Mauritania
Mozambique
Sierra Leone
Tanzania
Togo
Uganda
Zambia
Zimbabwe

THE MIDDLE EAST/ASIA
Jordan
Lebanon
Nepal
Sri Lanka
Syria

SE ASIA/OCEANIA
Burma (but only valid for border regions)
Cambodia
East Timor (though no longer available on land border with Indonesia)
Indonesia (though not available on land borders with East Timor and PNG)
Laos

That’s over 150 countries where you can get in without asking prior permission.  Now here’s the naughty list:

PRIOR VISA REQUIRED

AMERICAS
Suriname (letting the side down there somewhat)
Cuba (but I doubt they’d turn you back)

EUROPE
Belarus (no surprise there – they still have the KGB)

AFRICA
Cameroon
Central African Republic
Chad
Congo
Cote D’Ivoire
Democratic Republic of Congo
Djibouti
Eritrea (best obtained in Jeddah – next day delivery)
Ethiopia (best obtained in Nairobi – same day delivery)
Gabon
Ghana
Guinea
Guinea-Bissau
Liberia
Madagascar (but it’s free, so can’t complain)
Niger
Sao Tome & Principe
Sudan (best obtained in Cairo – same day delivery)

ASIA
Afghanistan
Bangladesh
Bhutan
Burma (for travel into interior)
China
India (AND now requires you to leave for 60 days between visits!)
Iraq (for travel beyond Kurdistan)
Kyrgyzstan
Mongolia
Tajikistan

SE ASIA/OCEANIA
Australia*
Papua New Guinea
Vietnam*

*visa obtainable on arrival at airport with prior permission over internet

LETTER OF INVITATION (+ PRIOR VISA) REQUIRED

AMERICAS
N/A

EUROPE
Azerbaijan (no LOI required if visa bought in Georgia)
Russia

AFRICA
Algeria*
Angola*
Equatorial Guinea*
Libya (AND you must pay for a ‘guide’)
Nigeria*
Somalia*

THE MIDDLE EAST/ASIA
Iran
Kazakhstan
North Korea
Pakistan
Saudi Arabia*
Turkmenistan
Uzbekistan

SE ASIA/OCEANIA
Nauru

*To make matters worse, these visas can only be obtained in your country of origin (although it is possible to get a Nigerian visa from Ghana and an Algerian visa from Mali if you’re lucky).

Right.  That’s it.  If there are any mistakes/updates/excuses you’d like to make (this is pretty much all off the top of my head), please comment below.

The South Sudanese Timebomb

As many of you worldly-types are no doubt aware, it’s very likely that very soon a new nation will be born.  South Sudan is coming. Back in 2008 when I was planning The Odyssey Expedition, I was aware of Sudan’s potential to split into two nations, but assumed (wrongly!) that I would be finished travelling by now.

And while I fully support South Sudan rising up and breaking free of the shackles imposed on them by the brutal dictators of Khartoum, it doesn’t half put my quest to visit every country in the world into quite a bit of turmoil.  I didn’t visit South Sudan when I was in Africa, I just visited the town of Wadi Halfa in the north of the country.

If the result of last week’s referendum is in favour of self-determination (as I’m sure it will be), then South Sudan will become Africa’s newest nation on 9 July 2011.

So here’s the deal.  If I finish my Odyssey before 9 July 2011, I can comfortably say that I’ve been to every country in the world.  If I reach The Seychelles (the current final country of the expedition) after 9 July, I will have to find a way of getting back to Africa to end my journey in South Sudan.  No mean feat: my ticket to The Seychelles will no doubt be a one-way trip (which is why I’ve left it till last).

So… the race is on: I have to get to all of the Pacific Island Nations, New Zealand, Australia, Sri Lanka, The Maldives and The Seychelles before my list of 200 nations becomes 201.