Day 460: The Wizard of Uz

05.04.10:

Today was yet another D-Day in terms of getting visas and getting going.  Within minutes of me wiping the sleep from my eyes I arrived at the Turkmenistan embassy to meet no other than Atabek, my friend from last week who had helped me out with the whole getting-my-Stanistan-visas shenanigans.  Again, the system for getting the visa required me to put my name down on a list and then wait my turn.  While Atabek held my place in the queue I darted over to the Afghan embassy to throw in my second passport for my second Afghan visa (another time-consuming trip to the bank required).  Upon my return, it looked like if I got my passport in this morning, I’d have the visa this afternoon.  Atabek and I waited for a good three hours, but finally – finally – they opened the gate and let us in.

Now there was something I didn’t quite understand about all this: I was told in no uncertain terms that it took up to three weeks to get my Turkmenistan transit visa, and yet, here I was after just one week after my application went in about to be given this coveted sticker in my passport.  I didn’t quite understand why, but hell, I’m not going to start complaining anytime soon.

It was the usual drop off the passport in the morning, pick it up in the afternoon shenanigans and so Atabek and I scooted to get some lunch. While I was stuffing my face with plov or lagman or whatever I asked Atabek what’s with the ultra-fast visa turn around malarkey. Oh that… yeah, I got my family in Turkmenistan to put in a letter of invitation for you.

Just to explain, I had tried to get a Letter of Invitation from the various visa agencies and they all said no, and they all said no for the same reason – Turkmenistan law has it that if you commit a crime in Turkmenistan while you’re there on a transit visa, you AND your ‘sponsor’ go down for it.  Not only had Atabek jumped me into the queue last week, he sped up the application process by a fortnight, placing his family in jeopardy should anything go horribly wrong – all this for a guy he barely knows just so he can get on with his utterly bananas quest to visit every country in the world.  When I said that the people of Central Asia are the most generous, hospitable and earnest on the planet, I wasn’t kidding!

I owe this guy SO MUCH!

After lunch, I picked up my Afghan visa in passport two and then grabbed my Turkmenistan visa in passport one.  Incidentally, they put my visa on the last page of my passport – covering a tiny let’s-waste-an-entire-blank-page-for-no-good-reason code stamp that was put in there when I entered Morocco all those moons ago.  I had done my best Donald-Pleasance-in-The-Great-Escape on it and tried to rub it out with a pencil eraser, thus freeing up a (much needed) extra page of my passport.  I now only have one page that is still blank.

Atabek and I then made plans for getting my ass out of Dodge.  He came with me to the carpool and we sorted me a place in a shared taxi that would be heading out overnight towards the Turkmen border.  Then I had the evening to play with.  I went out for a bite to eat with my French chums, Younne and Cloe, and had one last mosey around the centre of this city whose architecture leave me nonplussed, but whose citizens blow me away.  Later, I managed to say thanks and ta-ra to Rafa before I slunk off into the great beyond.

Back at the carpool, I said my hearty farewells to Atabek, thanking him profusely for all his help.  I clambered into the taxi and headed off into the night, south by south west and straight on till morning.

Days 473-479: Kuwaiting For Godot

18.04.10-24.04.10:

My second week in Kuwait was a little more sedate than the first.  I managed to pull some awesome shapes on the website… check out all the new features – GPS, playlists, passport photos, updated heroes, new forum, at-a-glance diaries, a checklist and a brand new forum.  Phew.

Kuwait is… well, how can I put this…?  Not the most Graham Hughes of cities. There’s no old stuff, the buildings are ALL concrete (as if there was a build-one-get-several-hundred-free offer on), there’s no booze (legally at any rate), you can’t kiss/dance/hold hands with the opposite sex (you can do all three with the same sex, that’s fine and not a bit gay in the slightest) and it seems that the only god worshipped around these parts is mammon – hanging around the shopping malls are literally the ONLY thing to do.

Ah, well, no – there is something else you can do, and that’s to drive like a maniac for no apparent reason other than you want to get yourself and everyone in the local vicinity killed.  In souped-up sports cars, boy racers and spoilt rich kids race up and down the dual carriageways at arse clenching speeds, attempting to outdo each other as to who can produce the most mangled corpse.

The sad thing is that given the lack of sex, booze and rock n’ roll, this is the only way these kids (and they are all kids – not many make it to the age of 21) can blow off steam, strut their stuff and make their mark in the world.  Death by channelled testosterone.  Whoopee.  But even the adults seem to be all to willing to join the choir invisible – you’ll see them cut you up – they’ll have no safety belt on, they’ll have their four year old kid on their lap and they’ll invariably be on the phone.

Oh, and those who aren’t driving sports cars are driving SUVs – you know those horrifically ugly Chelsea Tractor pollution-mobiles favoured by the lower orders that are 27 times more likely to kill you if they smash into you at speed?  Yeah, them.  Wonderful.  The driving here is (in my humble estimation) the second worst in the world after Nigeria.  The sad thing is that everybody tells me it’s the same story all over the peninsular.

The big news of the week was that the admiral Heitham went home to Preston and left me in the capable hands of Jannie and Ruban.  On the Friday we went to Dominic’s for a house party were I met a guy from Chile who had lived in Nigeria for a few years and explained the way of thinking there in one clear sentence.  Every day IS the last day of the world.  Put like that, I get it – the corruption, the madness, the religiosity, the suicidal driving… it all kind of makes sense.

Now what’s Kuwait’s excuse?

Next Month >>>

Days 480-486: Boiling Point

25.04.10–01.05.10:

This week I’ve been staying with a guy from Austria called Martin.  His flat is spanking – it’s in a brand new apartment complex and the apartment is so neat and tidy just my mere presence is enough to destabilise the Xi.  It’s warming up here in Kuwait – the rains of last week are but a distant memory and it’s hard not to be enchanted by the thought of running from one air-conditioned building to another.

There was still no sign of my Saudi Letter of Invitation coming through and so I cracked on with website updates.  On Friday I met with Ruban and we crashed a rooftop party held by a cool British guy called Wes.  There I met a ton of tip-top people.  First up, there was Kassie from Australia, who offered me a place to crash now that I was in serious danger of outstaying my welcome at Martin’s.

Secondly, I met Andrea and Eric from Canada who gave me a ton of advice about getting the Saudi visa – telling me I was best going to a little copy shop in Salmiya which is tasked with processing the Saudi visas.  Yeah, a copy shop – go figure.  Andrea would also be instrumental in introducing me to the British Ladies Society and thereafter the British Embassy.  Thirdly, I met Bernie, an Aussie living in Dubai who put me in touch with Colin, an intellectual copyright lawyer from Sydney who might be interested in helping out my poor impoverished ass to, you know, make some money out of this whole hilarious adventure thing because I sure as hell made no money out of that television show I made.

After Wes’s we crashed another party – I don’t know how to spell her name, but it was pronounced ‘E’, so maybe I’ll just call her E until somebody corrects me.  This party was even better than the last and – oh yes – there was alcohol!  Homebrew and ethanol, but hell, it did the trick!  It was like the goddamn United Nations (only more use) with not two people from the same country at the entire shindig.  As my friends can no doubt attest, I’m a huge fan of house parties (it’s the Gatsby in me) and if I could attend a couple of these things a week I can see why Kuwait has its appeals.

But the moonshine will no doubt break your head in the morning, as I found the following day.  It was the evening before I shook off my hangover, gathered up my things and moved my stuff to Kassie’s flat, just over the road from Martin’s.  Something you should know – staying with (or even visiting) a member of the opposite sex is against the law here (as is Skype!) and they think nothing of throwing people in jail for six months without charge for even lesser misdemeanours – so I’ve got to keep my head down.

Yes, we are children in a 1950s all-boys boarding school.  Females are dangerous creatures who must be avoided at all costs lest you – you know – fall in love.  Love is not a big thing in the Middle East.  Sex and money – that’s all marriages are about here – children and dowries.  I can’t be the only one who finds the whole set up (arranged marriages and the like) dripping with sin and depravity.  To remove the whole love thing from getting hitched removes the only wholesome aspect of this marriage business, leaving only a seedy transaction that might as well be sorted out with a prostitute.  My dad gives you money, you lie back and think of England.  Deal?

Cheer up love, it’s your wedding day!

Days 487-493: Quiz Night

02.05.10-08.05.10:

On Sunday morning came the news I was waiting for – my Saudi invitation was in the bag!  Within just a few days I’d be finally buzzing through to Bahrain, Qatar and the UAE.  I headed like a bonanza bongo bang bang buckaroo over to the Saudi embassy.  Only I found myself stopping along the way in a copy shop to get the letter of invitation printed out.  But this wasn’t just any old copy shop – this was the copy shop that Eric was talking about the other night!  I could get the visa here!  Of all the copy shops in all the Kuwait Cities…  Awesome.  I printed out my letter of invitation (which was all in Arabic) but it was up to Captain Hugh back in the UK to rush back to his office in Liverpool and write me a letter of introduction  (HUGH……. You are an Odyssey GOD!) that afternoon I handed in my application – stamped, sealed and signed on the dotted line.  All was good.  Five days, they said, Ishallah – meaning god willing.  Hmm… I guess that means seven.

Either way, this should be my last week here in Kuwait.

The next day I was invited by Andrea, Eric’s wife, to give a talk at the British Ladies Society of Kuwait.  I was promised tea and cake, how could I say no?!  The Ladies were wonderful, taking a keen interest in my mad adventures and even having a whip-around to help me and WaterAid on our way.  From that talk, many doors were opened to me…

I was invited to give talks to the girl guides, the boy scouts and various English schools around Kuwait.  Kids ask the best questions – out of all the people you’ve met, who had the best name?  What’s the weirdest thing you’ve eaten?  Do Somali pirates look like pirates? But best of all I was invited to come and watch the British election at my embassy – something which made some of my other British chums a little uppity… we’ve been here six years and we’ve never been invited to the embassy!

Something you should know about the British Embassy in Kuwait… they have booze.  And my surname doesn’t rhyme with ‘booze’ by chance.  After four weeks of 7up and ethanol, drinking an ice-cold Stella is like a little taste of heaven.  I think there was an ulterior motive in inviting me to the embassy… there was a politics quiz on.  My reputation must precede me.

Of course my team won (could there have been any doubt?) and since we won by one point, my firm belief is that it was me getting Rebel Rebel by David Bowie in the lyrics round that made all the difference.  I miss quizzes, it’s one of the few competitive events that I kick ass at – seriously, if you’re ever on Who Wants To Be A Millionaire you want me as your phone-a-friend!!  As the night went on I sat with the British ambassador in the Embassy garden watching the election results come in.  I remember discussing the cons and cons of PR, getting more and more sozzled and demanding to know where on Earth he was hiding his tray of  Ferrero Rocher.

Before I knew what was going on, Gordon Brown was squatting in number 10 and Nick Clegg was umming and arring about who to team up with.  I was just looking forward to Sunday – my Saudi visa…

Days 494-500: No Dice

09.05.10-15.05.10:

Well then, it should all be over, shouldn’t it?  First thing Sunday morning I hurried down to the copy place to pick up my shiny happy visa, only for the guy to pull it out of the drawer with a despondent look on his face.

You need to get the visa in London.

I took a deep breath, nodded, smiled, exited and screamed an obscenity to the sky that would have woken Rip Van Winkle.

No visa.  No dice.  What now?

I rang Eric who has become my unofficial Kuwaiti Yoda, he said he could get my passport DHLed back in the UK for just a fiver through his company.  Thus began my week of visa madness.

On the Monday morning I was invited back to the British Embassy to see if they could musta some ‘wusta’, the word for influence around these parts (and my collective noun for Kuwaitis).  They tried their best, but as the guy in the Embassy said, he could help me get me a visa for anywhere in the world – except Saudi.  They are more awkward than a spoilt child designed by Apple.

So Andrea picked me up (THANK YOU!!) and took me over to Eric’s workplace.  The passport was dispatched to London.  I sent it to my friend Lindsey for her to give to my dad.  So the frickin’ Saudis essentially forced my 73 year old father to go all the way down to London because my letter of invitation had ‘London’ written on it – in Arabic I might add.

The answer is no, now what’s the question?

But even all that did not suffice, in London they wanted the passport to be submitted by an agency, not a individual.  So my gallant father had to come all the way back to Liverpool, gather even more forms and crap and nonsense and then return to London the next day.  And would it take three days (as advertised on the Saudi website) for the visa to come through?  Would it buggery.  It would take a week, now sod off we tire of you.

I sat in Kassie’s flat, incapacitated with a firmament of fury towards the bureaucrats of the world.  I hate you all, why don’t you climb aboard the B-Ark and go torment somebody somebody else’s planet?  At this rate, I’ll be in Kuwait longer than anywhere else so far on The Odyssey – even Cape Verde.

Day 509: The Last Lost

24.05.10:

I could tell you I got up bright and early and rang the bus company only to discover that there was no bus to Bahrain today (there wasn’t), but to be honest, even if there had of been a bus, I would have missed it on purpose.  I had bigger fish to fry.  A fish called Lost.

Last January, Mandy and I made a pact to watch the last episode of Lost together, just like we watched the first episode together back in January 2005.  She was planning to fly out to meet me in India or China or wherever I was.  Well my enforced sojourn in Kuwait threw that idea out of the window.  Plus there’s the fact that we haven’t got enough money left to fly Mandy to Bali, never mind Bahrain.  So we did what we always do and muddled through – if we couldn’t physically be together to watch it, then we could certainly be together through the wonderful power of Skype.

I tell you what though, I have no idea why it took so long to download… there must have been a a few zillion people seeding it.  But eventually Mand and I had it.  I wore my special DON’T TELL ME WHAT I CAN’T DO t-shirt and we counted down to when we had to PUSH THE BUTTON (to start the video) with an 4 8 15 16 23 42 for old times sake.

Damn, I can’t believe it’s over.  I need to think of a good replacement…

How about a mystery TV show called ‘Nightingale’ which is set in the outback of Australia – Mad Max meets Twin Peaks.  After the inhabitants of the small mining town of Nightingale (pop. 108) awake to find their children missing, and in trying to discover where they have gone find themselves activating an ancient evil – one that might just destroy the world.

Two words for you – Aboriginals and Aliens.

Anyone want to option it?

JJ?  Hello?

Day 510: Singin’ In The Bahrain

25.05.10:

Oh yes, I’m back ON THE ROAD!  After saying my final farewell to the delectable Kassie I bundled myself on the 9am bus to Bahrain via Dammam in Saudi Arabia.  Panicking over all the horror stories I’ve been told about Saudi customs, I wiped all the TV shows and Hollywood movies off my hard drives (lest they contain kisses, witchcraft or a picture of a cross) and made sure I didn’t have a single used videotape on me (remembering Iran and Congo).

In the event, they didn’t even open my bag.  Hilarious.

I had my photo taken and my fingerprints scanned and that was it.  Easy as pie.  I arrived in the wholly unremarkable town of Dammam in the early afternoon and it wasn’t long before I was excitedly crossing the MASSIVE causeway to Nation 156, Bahrain – the Las Vegas of the Middle East.

Oh yes, Bahrain – Bands, Broads and Booze on tap and the parties don’t even get started until after midnight.  I met with Tim, my CS host and one US Navy Lieutenant.  His apartment was so kick ass it made me wonder why I never went to officer school.  Oh yeah and then there was the fridge – stocked to the gills with beer, lovely cold refreshing beer.

After a few we hit the streets, grabbing some authentic Bahraini KFC on the way to the Irish pub (there’s always an Irish pub).  There we watched a band that were so-so before pushing on to a Pilipino joint with a much better band who actually put some pizzazz into their cover versions.  From that point on my recollection of the night kind of falls apart.  I remember meeting some girls from Ethiopia and asking why they wouldn’t let me open the windows on the bus.  I don’t think I did any Karaoke, but it’s a possibility.

How on Earth Tim dragged himself into work in the morning is a mystery I’ll probably never fathom.

The Final Forty

Only forty more countries to go!!  But as you can no doubt see, I wasn’t joking when I said that the leaps were going to get harder!  This time last year I had been to a whopping 89 countries.  So far this year I’ve been to just 27… and there is no sign that things are going to speed up any time soon.

With the impenetrable African fortress of Eritrea still to visit, not to mention The Seychelles, Maldives, Bhutan, North Korea (if it still exists by the time I get there) and – heaven forefend – the dozen nations of Oceania, I still got a looooooong way to go before I’m safe and warm back in the arms of the woman I love.

But that’s no reason to get despondent.  It took Odysseus ten years to get back to Penelope and it took the current Guinness World Record™ holder, Mr. Kashi Samaddar, six and half years to do what I’m doing.  I’ve only got 28 more countries to visit before I hit Australia and if you add up everywhere I’ve been in my life (on and off The Odyssey) I’ve been to 175 countries… in other words, there are only 25 nations in the world on whose soil I haven’t stood.

If I can get this done before the end of 2010, I’ll be over the moon.  Once I get Eritrea out of the way, things should speed up – SE Asia is my old stomping ground and shouldn’t present too many problems.  But then again, I’m not counting any chickens before they’re hatched – I thought Africa would take no longer than three months(!).

If you want to help me on my way, please talk to the marketing department of your company (or any company for that matter) and see if they fancy sponsoring the rest of my travels.  Seriously – I won’t give up because of African jails, shipping forecasts or visa difficulties, but if I have to sack this all off because I’ve ran out of readies I would have just wasted the last two years of mine and Mandy’s lives on a FAIL of epic proportions.

And we wouldn’t want that now, would we?!

Day 517: Salalalalalalalalalalalah!

01.06.10:

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.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I’ve spent the last couple of weeks in the Omani town of Salalah trying to find a way to catch a lift on a container ship to The Seychelles.  Three ships, the MV DAL Mauritius, the MV San Cristobal and the MV Maersk Wiesbaden have all come and gone (to The Seychelles) in this time and none could take me on board.

On Sunday I visited the captain of the MV San Cristobal onboard his ship.  The coils of razorwire encircling the deck were just a hint of what was to come… in fact, if you really want to see what I’m up against, have a gander on Wikipedia… http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_ships_attacked_by_Somali_pirates.

The problem is this: The boats plying the shipping lines around here have special anti-piracy insurance.  Part of the policy demands that the ship run with the minimum number of crew possible.  As the captain of the MV San Cristobal explained, my mere presence on the ship invalidates the insurance.

And you know how insurance companies just love to wiggle out of paying out.

So the chances of a carrier taking me from Salalah are between slim and none.

Now, here’s my Plan B.  Let me know what you think…

I skip Eritrea and The Seychelles and thunder onwards to India, China and eventually to The Philippines (via Singapore, Indonesia and Brunei).  All being well, I could be there in September.  Then I hurtle around the Pacific islands (first Palau, then the rest) as quickly as I can, getting to Australia (from New Zealand) for around December (when the yachting season ends in the Pacific Ocean).

Then I’ll cross Oz on the Ghan and take a yacht from Darwin to East Timor and back.  Maybe.  Then I’ll hitch a ride on a cargo ship from Oz that is going to (this may require me going back to Malaysia first) South Africa and stopping at The Seychelles on the way.  THEN I’ll arrive in South Africa and charge up Africa (again, but it’ll only take a couple of weeks) and FINGERS CROSSED that Djibouti and Eritrea have reopened their land border.

Or even if the border isn’t open I’ll just make a run for it.

Then, job done, we’ll hop on the next CMA CGM ship from Djibouti that is heading for Blighty, arriving to a hero’s welcome a couple of weeks later.

Yes, it’s a mad roundabout way of doing it, but I can’t see any other way at the moment.  It would have been so cool to finish the journey in New Zealand, but that simply ain’t going to happen.

If any of you have any better ideas of how I should do the Final Forty, please, comment away!!