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!!

Day 519: Left of Port

03.06.10:

One thing that’s great about Salalah is that all of the Port Agents are in the one place, which makes it a little easier to get hold of shipping schedules and contacts.  After a little bit of digging I discovered two things: that no ships stop here en route to Eritrea, but there are plenty of ships going to the Seychelles.

Annoyingly, all do a massive four week voyage around the Indian Ocean which encompasses Reunion, Mauritius and Madagascar, places where I have been not just once, but twice before on the Odyssey.  But beggars can’t be Hughes’s and so I have to take whatever I can get – there simply are no other options – the yachting/cruise ship season doesn’t start until October.

The most intriguing thing I learnt today was that the DAL Madagascar (the cargo ship I took last year from Reunion to Madagascar) had now gone and had been replaced by the DAL Mauritius.  But, best of all, it was currently in port… and due to leave on Saturday.  My timing couldn’t be better – DAL only come to Salalah once a month.  Lorna ‘Logistics’ Brookes and I took to the phones and emailios and did everything in our powers to get me aboard.

By the end of the day I had the support of the first mate, the shipping agents, the DAL representatives… but we were waiting on approval from the ship owners – DAL were just the charterers, they didn’t own the ship.  Fingers crossed the approval will come tomorrow.

Day 520: Yemen Jelly

04.06.10:

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.

Day 521: At World’s End

05.06.10:

So everyone was keen on taking me on board the DAL Mauritius except for the owners, and they didn’t give a reason for their decision.  Well, let’s scratch that one down to experience and get to work on the next ship to be visiting The Seychelles – the CMA-CGM ship the MV San Cristobal which is scheduled to leave a week tomorrow.

CMA-CGM have been really good to us in the past, helping get me on the DAL Madagascar as well as allowing me on board the MV Turquoise, an absolutely critical passage that allowed me to be reunited with my girlfriend at six minutes past midnight at the Pyramids on the 1st January.

Again, they were more than helpful.  I met the shipping agent, Mr. James Joseph and we had a natter about shipping times and things.  The San Cristobal would be departing the following Sunday, so I had a week to kick my heels and get to know Salalah like the back of my hand.

So what’s to say?  Salalah is much greener and more authentically ‘Arabic’ than anywhere else in the peninsular.  Lacking the outrageous oil wealth of other GCC countries, it’s common to see ordinary Omanis (distinguished by their nifty pork-pie hats) driving taxis, cutting hair, selling stuff at the market – stuff you’d never see a Kuwaiti or Emirati do.

The ‘weekend’ in Kuwait and the other gulf states is Friday and Saturday, but in Oman it’s Thursday and Friday, so the weekend was effectively over: but since a storm had hit the capital Muscat (1000km north east of us, don’t worry mum) Dave and Luke had a day off work today (as did all the teachers in Oman the lazy gud fer nuthin’s).  We tried to make the most of it, but man it’s hot.  And unbelievably humid.  Everything sweats here – you sweat, the walls sweat, the tables sweat.  Electronic equipment lasts six months (if you’re lucky) before the damp salty air turns any circuitry into flaky brown gibberish.  Needless to say, I didn’t see many slugs.

At Luke’s place, right on the sea front, the humidity was much worse than elsewhere in town, but the constant fog of briny air gave the place a really cool post-apocalyptic feel. Looking out over the Indian Ocean, it really does feel like the end of the world.  But if it wasn’t for the mountains and the humidity the area wouldn’t be so marvellously green, so out of all the GCC countries, Oman is still winning.

Days 522-529: Frankincensed

06.06.10-13.06.10:

The mission this week was to clamber on board the MV San Cristobal bound for The Seychelles.  As emails and phone calls went back and forth behind the scenes, I found time to head out into the mountains with Robert, a British businessman who I had met through my dealings down in the port.  He was taking me to see the Frankincense trees and the land he was planning to turn into a Frankincense farm – not just for sweet smelling sap to chuck into your thurible and wobble about before your congregation, but for the essential oil you can collect while the sap dries out.  A handful of experiments have shown that this oil may have an effect on cancer cells.  It just might be the thing we’re looking for – something 100% natural that targets and destroys cancer cells while ignoring healthy cells.

I said MAY.  Don’t get your knickers in a twist.

Unfortunately, the great work that is being done in the field of cancer research is being constantly undermined by the hysterical ravings of the Daily Mail, who as Dr. Ben Goldacre has pointed out, seem to be on a crusade to catalogue each and every inanimate object in the universe into two boxes – one marked ‘causes cancer’ and the other marked ‘cures cancer’.  This disinformation is then dissimilated amongst the hoi polloi in 72pt block capitals every time they have a bit of space left over from wittering on about immigrants and Princess Diana.

As a consequence, the idea that frankincense oil might target and destroy cancer cells simply sounds too good to be true.  Now I’m the ultimate sceptic – I don’t believe anything I read, anything I’m told or anything I see unless I’ve got good, sensible, independently verified evidence (preferably published in a peer-reviewed journal) to back it up.  And I’m sorry, but your word is not good enough: as Radiohead once sang, just cos you feel it, doesn’t mean it’s there.  As a consequence I don’t believe in fate, luck, guardian angels, horoscopes, ghosts, tarot cards, tea leaves, the apocalypse, demons in the closet, karma, conspiracy theories or the galactic warlord Xenu.

But if it is true, the Robert is going to be on to a winner.  Frankincense trees only grow in Oman, Yemen and parts of Ethiopia and Somalia.  They take seven years to mature to the size when you can start farming the sap, which is about the time they’ll need to get the cancer-killing properties verified without a shadow of a doubt.  And hell, if it turns out to be a false positive, so what?  The world needs more trees.  And I’m sure Robert can tap into the Bible Belt market for Epiphany presents consisting of a packet of Gold, Frankenstein and Grr.  I’m in for a punt on the old Frankie Goes To Hollywood, so I sponsored a tree.  Hell, I’m sure I can fob the essential oil I’ll get from it in seven years time onto some daft old hippy lady with too many cats.  I’ll tell her it’s good for her chakras.  Whatever they are.

Robert also took me to the nursery where they grew the trees from seedlings and I even got to have a chat with the doctor who is pioneering the cancer research.  I’ve got to say, I now know at least 1529% more about Frank-N-Furter than I did last week.

As the week dragged on as two things stood tall on the horizon – the imminent departure of the San Cristobal and a little thing called the World Cup.

My efforts to board the San Cristobal were a little tinged with reticence, though: not because of the ever-present threat of piracy, but because getting on this ship would mean spending pretty much the entirety of the World Cup at sea.  I’ve already missed my girlfriend for 18 months, my 30th birthday party and Glastonbury for two years running, missing the World Cup as well would be a wrench.  But then again, I guess it goes to show how dedicated I am.  I WILL do this, one way or another GRRR!!

By Friday night, I still hadn’t heard an answer from the owners of the ship.  Once again, I had the nod from the shipping company and the shipping agents, but that does not suffice.  Luke, Dave and their mates crowded around at Dave’s gaff to watch the opening match of the 2010 World Cup – South Africa vs. Mexico.  The pundits pundited, the adverts advertised and the fans blew their stupid plastic vuvuzelas as the tension mounted towards kick off.  The ref blew the whistle and the game began…

And the signal was lost.

Was it just us?  No – we checked next door, and they were having the same problem, as was the café downstairs.  We called Club Oasis and their feed had been cut as well.  Al-Jezeera sport, hang your head in shame… it would later transpire that the signal was cut for the whole of Arabia, devastating football fans throughout the peninsular and beyond – especially given that, unlike in the UK, they had to pay through the nose for a viewing card to watch the damn thing.

While the others watched the black screen willing the game to come back on, I hopped by Luke’s place to check on my emails.  By this point it was way past working hours, the ship would be leaving for The Seychelles this weekend and I still hadn’t got word from the ship owners.

But there was a new message in my inbox.

It’s a no.

I returned to Dave’s and we sat around watching a black screen with snippets of top international football randomly popping up every few minutes to tease us with what we were missing.

As if to add insult to injury, the exact same thing happened the next day during the England match.  You could hear the ex-pats from here to Kuwait collectively groan and curse Al-Jezeera Sports like a gypsy hag whose lucky heather is rebuffed by a man in a top hat.

Stick to the news, Al-Jez, stick to the news.

On the Sunday, Khalid the senior boarding officer for the San Cristobal took me into the port so I could have a natter with the captain.  I knew there was no chance of me getting my passage, but what I wanted to know was why.  As I boarded the ship the coils of razor-wire surrounding the deck kinda gave the game away – PIRATES.  The captain was a great guy and said he would be happy to have me, the problem is this:

To sail in these waters, these cargo ships have special anti-piracy insurance.  Part of the deal is that they have to sail with the minimum number of crew possible.  So even if I paid for my own super-duper kick-ass insurance I’d still be putting the insurance of the entire ship (and cargo) in jeopardy.  If the worst happened and we were boarded by pirates the insurance company would have an excuse to say sorry see you later mashed potato and dump the costs of dealing with the release of the vessel in the hands of the ship owners.

The chances of me getting on one of these boats slipped down from slight to snowball-in-hell.  Where do we go from here?

Day 530: Somali Piracy: Q&A

14.06.10:

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.

WHAT?!

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.

Day 531: Less Than Zero

15.06.10:

Back in November 2009 when I was trying to sail the 166nm from Diego Suarez in Madagascar to the lower Seychelles islands, the threat of piracy stopped me in my tracks. Now here I am seven months later facing the same problem from the other end.

There was no reply from Maersk, not that I was expecting one. It was all a bit too short notice for it to work out. I said my fond farewells to Luke and Dave and planned to take the overnight bus back to Dubai. I had decided to cut my loses and head on to India. Since there was no chance of a ship to The Seychelles, the chances of getting on a ship from the UAE that goes to Eritrea (through the Gulf of Aden) and then turns around and goes to Pakistan and India (even though it does exist!) are going to be less than zero.

I would try to attack The Seychelles and Eritrea after I’ve been everywhere else. Maybe. Truth be told, I haven’t got a clue what I’m going to do. Up till now I had a plan. Now I’m just making it up as I go along.

The bus to Dubai was full. I’d have to get the next one, tomorrow. I like overnight buses. That’s when the ideas come.

Day 532: The Cunning Plan

16.06.10:

After again saying my farewells to Luke and Dave, our mate Alasdair gave me a lift to the bus depot. After AGAIN being told the bus to Dubai was full by the grumpy man behind the counter, Alasdair got a little suss. Is there another bus?

Oh yeah – the bus company down the road, behind the fish market. D’oh! Why didn’t I ask that yesterday?!

And so after heartily shaking Alasdair’s hand and jumping on the (pretty empty) 3pm bus to Dubai I found myself gazing out of the window over the flat barren flatness of Arabia’s empty quarter, full of djinns and demons and things that go bump in the night.

As I mulled over the situation in my head and the wonderful suggestions made by contributors to this website (gavinmac and Socleman, take a bow) a cunning plan began to take form from the desert sands…

Eritrea

All is not lost. Okay, so I can’t get into the Red Sea area from this side of the Arabian Peninsular as it would mean sailing through the pirate zone. My back-up plan of going through Yemen is now impossible as I can’t even get in to Yemen itself.

But, what’s this? The thing that kept me in Kuwait for six weeks… my multiple entry Saudi visa, still valid for another couple of months…!

Maybe my sojourn in Kuwait wasn’t a big waste of time after all – I mean, not that Kuwait wasn’t fun, it just that to wait six weeks to skip through a country a couple of times on your way somewhere else is a bit mad.

But what if…..

There used to be a passenger service running from Jeddah in Saudi to Massawa in Eritrea. It doesn’t exist any more, but there must – there must – be cargo ships doing that route. Jeddah is a huge feeder port for ships coming to and from Europe and the Far East. If I can somehow get a Eritrean visa (although it’s unlikely I’d be able to get one in Saudi) I could attempt to get to Eritrea as a passenger on one of these ships.

Failing that, I could head down to the southern port of Jizan and maybe talk a fisherman or dive company into taking me out to one of the uninhabited islands off the coast of Eritrea. As long as it’s within the contiguous boundary and I step on dry land, it counts.

This would be dodgy as hell though, as they could well take advantage of me and use the trip as an excuse to smuggle drugs or weapons across the Red Sea. If caught this could result in my beheading. Seriously. I’d rather not take the risk.

Okay, okay, Plan C: There are ferries that go three times a week from Jeddah to Port Sudan in Sudan. If I could get a new Sudanese visa (tremendously unlikely in Saudi) I could take the ferry and travel from Port Sudan down to the border with Eritrea and bribe my way across. This would be both dodgy and dangerous.

Of course, the first plan is the best, but that doesn’t mean the others are completely out of the question. A new plan: head to Jeddah and see what happens. If there is one thing that doing The Odyssey has taught me is that where there is a will, there’s a way. I only have FORTY more countries to visit. Forty. To give up now would be a nonsense. There’s always a way. You just have to suss out all the options. And sometimes it helps to think outside the box. And that way of thinking brings me to our second dilemma…

The Seychelles

Blimey. This is going to be TOUGH. With no yachts this time of year, no cruise ships until October and no cargo ships able to take passengers because of the pirates, the only way I’m going to get there is to continue on my journey and then massively backtrack at the very end from Australia into the Indian Ocean. This could honestly add months to my journey time.

But thanks to Socleman’s suggestion, I’ve got an idea. It’s fair to say that I’m a pretty competent filmmaker and my knowledge of marine affairs is probably substantially greater than most land-lubbers, what with all the boat trips I’ve been on in the course of this adventure. Given that I’ve met loads of guys who ply their trade in the Indian Ocean and the Red Sea, I’ve also got a decent grasp of the pirate situation in these parts. Put all that together and I could realistically put together a half-hour documentary for one of the big shipping companies about piracy.

The budget? One free passage to The Seychelles. Given that it would be a good idea for me to actually be on board a ship in order to make the doco, it may as well be one that goes from Salalah around the Indian Ocean Islands, and this time of year is when most pirates take a summer vacation – the weather is too rough and unpredictable to risk going out too far in a little motor boat.

It’s a long shot, and it may not work, but at the moment, it’s the only shot we’ve got. For The Seychelles there is no plan B.

The sun disappeared long before it hit the horizon, obscured by dust and sand. It’s interesting that we all crave what we don’t have – white girls in the UK are desperate to be browner, brown girls in Malaysia are desperate to be whiter. Urbanites hunger for the country idyll and villagers lust for the anonymousness of the big city. The Bedu of Arabia dream of gardens and here I am dreaming of deserts. As the stars begin to light up in the night sky, I’m reminded why. The desert puts us all in our place.

Next stop: Dubai (again!)

Day 533: Burning Up On Re-Entry

17.06.10:

The bus rolled into jolly old Dubai at around six in the morning.  If there is a time of day I dislike more I am yet to meet it.  The Deira district looked as wonderfully shabby and dysfunctional as ever, and I slunk into a little Indian workers café and ordered an omelette and bread breaky washed down with a nice hot cup of chai.

At 7.30am, I headed over to the Indian Consulate to get the ball rolling with my Indian visa – the idea being that the time wasted waiting for the damn thing could be constructively used attempting to get to Eritrea from Saudi.  After queuing for over an hour with all my stuff in the hot hot morning air of urban desert Dubai, I got knocked back at the front door by a friendly guard who explained I couldn’t get the visa from here, I had to go to the nearby post office.

Another taxi ride and I found myself wandering about the post office area.  After a couple of misses, I finally found the right building and the right counter.  I asked for a multiple entry application form as I’m going to need to go in and out of Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal and Pakistan.

Sorry – you can’t get a multiple entry visa from here, only in your home country.

Damnit.

I explained my mission and the nice lady looked despondent.  You won’t be able to do that, even if you get the visa in England.

Why’s that?

Because they have changed the rules about re-entry.  If you leave the country, you can’t return for 30 days.

WHAT?  Sorry, WHAT?

Now they do this sometimes in countries that issue visas on the border to stop people doing the old Thai border hop at the end of every month and staying in the country for years on end.  But if I purchase a multiple entry visa, once it expires, it’s over – I couldn’t stay for years no matter how many times I hopped over the border to Nepal.

Now the Indian government has a reputation for pulling down it’s pants and doing a great big poo on the memory of the greatest freedom fighter of all time, Mahatma Ghandi – what with the wars with Pakistan, the fighting over Kashmir, the forced sterilisation drive of the 1970s and the acquisition of nuclear weapons (paid for, one presumes, with money with Ghandi’s face printed on it).  It’s also got a reputation for hating all of its neighbours.  The borders with Burma and China are barred, the last ferry to Sri Lanka left sometime around 1973 and the one official border it maintains with Pakistan closes every day with an ceremony of animosity between the two which is as elaborate as it is childish.

I guess it’s in this vein that the Indian government seeks to destroy the nascent tourist industry of Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Bhutan as well as scalping the dreams of any backpacker wishing to head over to Kathmandu for a week before heading back into India.

You see, if you want to travel overland to any of the countries I’ve mentioned, you have to return back into India – there is simply no other way out (unless you fly).  The overland cross-India trip I took in 2002 in which I popped into Nepal and spent a few days in Bangladesh would now be impossible.

Mean?  Vindictive?  I have no doubt.

The sad thing about this is that India is one of my favourite countries in the world, so I’m not just sickened, I’m also heart-broken.  I would like to see how the Indian government justifies this unjust legislation, because it’s not only tourism in Nepal and Bangladesh that is going to suffer, India will suffer too.  Well-heeled western types don’t go on holiday in countries where over half the population are forced to go to the toilet on the street – they go somewhere nice.

India remains a destination for the adventurous: hippies, backpackers, fat chicks with too many cats.  By essentially denying these people who are prepared to put up with the heat and dust and stink the opportunity of to visit the surrounding India-encompassed nations, all the Indian government is doing is ensuring that thousands of tourists stay on the plane all the way to Thailand.

‘But the UK makes it difficult for Indians to visit’.  Yes.  Yes we do, we have no choice in the matter.  Supply and demand.  But there aren’t 1.2 billion Brits, and I can tell you now NONE of us dream of growing up to be a rickshaw walla in Calcutta.  In fact, most Brits wouldn’t go to India even if it was all expenses paid.  If we want to be stared at and hassled every waking hour of the day we’d dress up like a monkey and go sit in the zoo.

Don’t worry, I’ll find a way around these ludicrous regulations, but I’m not going to be shy calling the Indian government out on this one.

As gutted as I was disgusted, I needed to go hunting for internets so I headed over the hideously tactless Wafi Mall, a shopping mall so ridiculous it makes that tacky low-rent glass pyramid in the middle of the Louvre look aesthetically pleasing.  Yup, the architects went to Egypt on holiday and thought to themselves mmm… if only the peerless pyramids, the timeless temples and colossal colossi of the Pharaohs were constructed out of concrete and glass…

Oh deary me.

But it had free internets roaming its innards, so I plunged inside.  Still, at around four quid for a cup o’ tea it all balanced itself out.  With Lorna working today, Odyssey fan and Sydneysider Alex Zelenjak stepped up to help me with the Eritrean part of my cunning plan.  While Alex researched the Red Sea options I cracked on with my pirate doco proposal for the shipping companies.  Alex got back to me with the news that there was indeed a ship that hopped back and forth between Jeddah in Saudi and Massawa in Eritrea.

With nothing yet set in stone, I resolved to head to Jeddah and scout out the shipping company.  Technically speaking, I could have continued on towards Jeddah today, but since I’d be returning to Dubai whatever happens, it would be sensible to meet with good ol’ Damo and drop off anything that might give the Saudi authorities an excuse to detain me (tapes, hard drives etc).

And a Thursday night out in Dubai wouldn’t hurt matters too much either.

So a jaunt on the brand spankingly new overhead train service down through the business district (wave to the Burj Khalifa) to The Greens delivered me into Damien’s evil clutches and after a quick face-stuffing trip to KFC we headed out into the night.  After meeting up with a couple of Damo’s chums to watch the footy, we ventured off to a club on the other side of town.  I attempted in vain to fend off the booze that kept coming my way (Damien you LEGEND!), but soon enough I was dancing the funky chicken to Three Lions.

Days 534 & 535: The Sands Of Time

18.06.10-19.06.10:

So after a good night’s kip I had a the best part of a day to shake off my hangover.  The bus for Riyadh, the Saudi capital, left at 5pm.  I spent the day shuffling about, wondering why the sun had to be so bright and skimming all the superfluous items out of my bag.  At 3pm I left my coat behind in the The Greens as I departed for the Saudi Arabia Public Transport Company (SAPTCO) bus ‘station’ in Deira, but returning ten minutes later as I had also left my mobile phone.  Which I needed. Damien rolled his eyes.

When I finally got to the SAPTCO office they told me to come back in half an hour.  I used this time to go out in the baking heat and check my pores were still working properly.  As my soaking wet t-shirt could no doubt attest, they were.  Eventually, they issued me a ticket and I was on the bus heading back into Saudi, my mind whirring through all the things that could go horribly wrong.

The plan is this: From Riyadh, head to Jeddah on the Red Sea and see if I can catch a lift on a cargo ship going to Eritrea.  Failing that, I’ll head south to Jizan and try to find a more enterprising way of getting there.  I’d rather not have to do that.  The downside was that taking the bus today meant missing the England vs. Algeria match in the World Cup.  But as Damien pointed out, it should be an easy win, and if it isn’t, he’d rather not watch it!

I managed to cadge the back seats on the bus, which was great for the first couple of hours as the bus wasn’t very full.  Unfortunately for me, as we approached the Saudi border I was joined by a giant Saudi who muscled in on my patch and promptly took up 4 of the 5 back seats as if I wasn’t there.  So much for a good night’s kip.

As it transpired, a good night’s kip was the last thing I was going to get.  As England completely stuffed up their ‘easy’ game against Algeria (thanks for the text updates, mum), we crossed the border at some ungodly hour of the night and while the Saudi sniffer dog sniffed our bus for drugs, all us passengers had to stand outside, our bags opened for inspection, which was thankfully curt.  We then stopped for a bite to eat and then there was a faff (I still don’t know quite why) about something to do with somebody’s papers, the border guys made a guest appearance and after a remarkably long discussion for three o’ clock in the morning, we were allowed back on the bus.  Which arrived in Riyadh five hours later.

Sweet!

I had just missed the 8am bus, so I bought a ticket for the 10am one to Jeddah.  It arrived at 12.  While we hurtled through the desert, my CouchSurfing host for Jeddah, a Saudi guy named Turki, rang me up to arrange stuff for when I arrived.  Turki grew up in the States (which explains his perfect North American diction) but has now lived in Saudi for many years.  We ended up chatting for over an hour during which discussion he told me he was good friends with an English guy called Bob who works in the shipping industry in Jeddah.  It’s fair to say I liked Turki from the start.

As the desert swept past and the sun went to bed, we stopped for prayer time.  I sat and quaffed a nice hot cup of tea while the guys off the bus genuflected to their god.  The Middle East, moreso than other places on the planet, is a place dominated by two themes – materialism and spirituality.  It’s odd that these things go together so well, but then again, look at the gold statues in the Vatican or the burgeoning middle classes of India.  I look on all these goings on, the praying, the bead-thumbing, the sports cars and the palaces and feel completely distanced from this facet of the world.  Truth be told I don’t have a spiritual bone in my body, and as for materialism, everything I need is in my backpack and I haven’t desperately wanted the latest thingymajig since I was a kid.

For this reason, even though I know the Middle East exceptionally well, I always feel like an alien here, not just from another country, but from another planet.  That’s not to say I don’t enjoy myself when I’m here, it’s just that it’s not my scene baby, and it will never be.

The bus rolled into Jeddah around midnight, but Turki stayed up to pick me up which was great.  We will learn more of Turki’s wisdom tomorrow.