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 379: Our Botanic Garden

14.01.10:

After an interrupted night’s sleep (I foolishly slept under the plug socket that everybody wanted to use to charge their mobiles) we crossed the Tropic of Cancer and came into port in Aswan. It would be a good four hours before they would let us off the boat, as the bureaucratic nightmare that is involved in letting a large group of people over an international border in Africa kicked into slow mode.

While we were waiting, we got chatting to a young couple from Liechtenstein, who had been travelling all over Africa and the traumas they had crossing borders with passports for a country that few people have ever heard of. The night before, Barcelona Marc and I had befriended a couple of Egyptian guys, Rumor and Shabi – and once again, I was bowled over by the hospitality of people when they ain’t looking to sell you something. False hospitality syndrome is something Egypt suffers from greatly and I guess it’s one of the reasons people look at me funny when I tell them that Egypt is the bee’s knees. But after we (finally!) disembarked Rumor and Shabi treated Marc and I to some excellent kushari and sorted me out with a cheap ‘local’ ticket up to Alexandria on the overnight train (it was less than US$10, much cheaper than my journey down here).

After thanking them profusely, Marc and I left to grab a coffee on the banks of the Nile. Aswan is a beautiful little town and, I don’t want to sound too flowery about this, but it’s where I fell for my girlfriend Mandy. As I said in my earlier blogs, Mand and I met in Egypt, but for the first couple of days we were always in a bigger group and she seemed attached at the hip to her (admittedly rather fetching) sister Tam. But when we were in Aswan, we finally had a moment alone with each other walking through Lord Kitchener’s Island, a botanic garden in the middle of the Nile.

I should stress at this point that Mandy had utterly no interest in me at all. Aside from me being a ginger specky-four-eyes, she thought my idea of shipping all the people I deem cool to another planet where morons and uggos would not admitted was somehow elitist. It would be years later before I wore down her defences enough for her to let me kiss her, but I still look back on that walk through the botanic garden with affection, especially as it shoehorns neatly into our Will n’ Lyra complex. If you don’t know what that means, you really should read the same books that I do.

Anyway, Marc knew the guys in a local hotel that had links with Siwa Oasis. They gave me the number of a guy in Siwa called Mana and said that hopping over to Libya should be no problem – so long as we didn’t get caught. Libyan border guards are not known for their sense of humour.

Later that evening, I clambered aboard the train back up North. I’ve got to say that the public transport in Egypt is awesome – better than England, in fact (although that’s not too difficult). Generally speaking, you can go anywhere in the country at any time you fancy, really cheaply; none of this buses-don’t-run-at-night lark that happens in East Africa and none of the extortionate prices that they charge in the UK. British transport chiefs seem to think that our public transport equates to our ‘public’ schools, i.e. they’re just for the richest 1% of the country and no-one else.

Anyway, the train was pleasant enough, I had a ton of legroom and after typing up a bit of bloggage, I fell asleep in my chair.

Day 380: Luke Warm In Alex

15.01.10:

After me waxing lyrical about the Egyptian transport system yesterday, our train arrived in Alexandria three hours late (typical!), meaning that I was too late to get today’s bus to Siwa, so I had to wait until 10pm and get the night bus. But Alex ain’t such a bad place to be stuck-in for a few hours. Apart from the crime against architecture that is the new library, the city is much more pleasant than Cairo and has a wonderful coffee-house tradition.

Maybe those tolerant Christian-types who burnt down the original library (and, in one swift move destroyed more irreplaceable literature and historical information than in a crazed Chinese Cultural Revolutionist’s wet dream) could come back and go to town on this one. Although they might have to invest in an X-Wing, the damn thing looks like the Death Star.

After a pleasant stroll along the prom, I fancied downing a nice cold Carlsberg like John Mills and Anthony Quinn, but Carlsberg is obviously rarer here now than it was in the war. In the end, I opted for a cappuccino in one of the many coffee shops… not exactly an Ice Cold lager, and it wouldn’t have kept me going in the blazing heat of the Qattara Depression, but it was better than a slap in the face with a wet kipper.

If you don’t know what I’m on about, you really should watch the same films that I do.

I tried to meet up with Marc’s friend Sofia, but she was in Cairo for the weekend, so I had to make my own fun, which meant spending the evening abusing my coffee house’s free wi-fi and annoying my friends on Skype before boarding the night-bus towards Siwa – and my second attempt to crack open Libya LIKE A NUT.

Day 382: The Pyramid Scheme

17.01.10:

I was planning to be at the Jordanian Embassy first thing in the morning, but you know what I’m like by now and after going to sleep around 5am, I had no real intentions of being up with the lark. I got there about 11am-ish only to discover that you can’t get a multiple-entry visa from the embassy. Why I need a multiple-entry visa is a story for another day, but it was a bit of a blow for the smooth running of The Odyssey.

So then I headed over towards The Pyramids. I was supposed to go last week, but laziness and procrastination got the better of me. There would be tickets on sale at 1pm to go inside the Great Pyramid, something that has always been a dream of mine. Whenever I’ve been to the Pyramids in the past, the Great Pyramid has always been closed for one reason or another. Along with seeing a shuttle launch and attending a full-moon party, it has been something I wanted to not miss out on this time around.

The journey there was a bit of a nightmare. I took the glorious Metro across town to Giza station, but the taxi that I took from the station was driven by a fool. He drove me to the wrong entrance to the complex (because he wanted to drop me off at his friend’s stable and also buy a ‘ticket’ somewhere I know you can’t) and by the time we got there, it was already past 1pm. If I missed out on my one and only chance to get inside that damn pile of rocks because of a bloomin’ corrupt taxi driver, I’d be spitting blood for a week.

But it was okay – although I had to trek all the way up the Giza plateau to the proper entrance in order to buy a ticket, I got one. I GOT ONE!!

Utterly made up, I made my way into the last great wonder of the world, the tallest building in the world for four thousand years, the resting place of the 4th dynasty king Cheops and the riddle wrapped in a puzzle wrapped inside an enigma that has focussed the great minds since antiquity – The Great Pyramid of Giza.

I get a lot of flack for not hanging around places long enough to experience them, but what people who don’t know me don’t get, is that I’ve already been to a ton of places and fully experienced them before The Odyssey began – from the Taj Mahal to Machu Picchu to Angkor Watt to Petra to the Parthenon, I’ve been there, done it and got the T-shirt. Even ones that are sadly no longer with us, New York’s twin towers and the Sari Club in Bali to name but two. But if there was one place I always kinda had my eye on for hanging around, it’s Egypt. I know I’ve been here before, I know that things haven’t changed much in the last ten years, but there’s something magical about this place – a link to the distant past that cannot be replicated anywhere in the world.

I always thought I would descend into Cheops’ tomb, but you actually go up to it (good pop quiz question there methinks) along a series of low ceilinged slopes. Once inside, others might begrudge the E£100 entry price (about 15 quid) because it’s just a room. But when you’re in there it’s just so much more, it is a haven of solace in which the greatest kings the world has ever seen would continue their adventures towards the afterlife.

Because of the plethora of tombs and pyramids and catacombs in Egypt, I guess it’s only natural that you might think that the Egyptians were obsessed with death. Nothing could be further from the truth – they were obsessed with life. Death scared the bejesus out of them and they went to great lengths to try and survive it. And when I say great lengths, they don’t come much greater than the Great Pyramid. Over one million massive blocks, over 100,000 labourers and over 20 years to build the damn thing… all so one guy can have a nice easy transition into the afterlife.

Nice!

Once in the tomb chamber, I monkeyed about (as I have a habit of doing), getting a photo of me in the sarcophagus, jumping out and going RAH! at hapless tourists, sticking my hand into a hole in the wall and pretending it was stuck. Ahahahaha GOD I’M FUNNY.

I then thought I’d have a nice sit down and quietly drink my water. At this point, there was only one other guy in the tomb room and he sat down too. It was all nice and quiet and calm.

After a few minutes some noisy tourists rolled in. But upon seeing me and the American guy sitting quietly against the wall, they assumed that that’s what you’re supposed to do inside the Great Pyramid of Cheops, so they sat down too.

This is only natural – whenever you’re put into a situation that you’ve never experienced before (like entering a the tomb chamber of the Great Pyramid), your best bet is to copy what others are doing. But then more tourists came in, looked about, and sat down too. Before too long there were over FIFTY people in the chamber, all sitting quietly – some praying, some meditating, some daydreaming – all in complete silence. I was giggling. Derren Brown would be proud.

I sat with interest to see what would happen when a bunch of rather loud Japanese tourists entered the (now full of sitting people) chamber. Lacking the social etiquette that their civilisation is usually famed for, they made a complete racket (one would be tempted to wear shoes in their home just to see how they’d like it) and my cult of quiet sitters grew annoyed. Shhhhhh! Fired a French lady sitting with her back against Cheops’ empty sarcophagus. Shhhhhh! Shot an American man by the entrance. Before long the Shhhh’s drowned out the Japanese tourists enthusiasm and they quietly (and respectfully) left the chamber. My cult of quiet sitters had successfully won it’s first tribal conflict.

I was proud of how far we had come in just half an hour of not saying anything. But it was now time for me to do what all good messiahs should do and I made a timely exit… always leave them wanting more, that’s what I say.

Crikey, could you imagine if I had resumed my earlier shenanigans and jumped into the sarcophagus again? They probably would have eaten me.

Upon exiting the Pyramid, I was seriously made up. Not only had I achieved another of my hidden goals of The Odyssey, I had also had a moment in there that I’d never forget – although by now, I’m sure my cult would have fractured into various denominations, each convinced a different seated posture is the orthodox one.

I spent an hour or so ambling around the Pyramid complex (I could never get bored of these things) and passed by ol’ Sphinxy on the way out and answered her riddle (the answer is me with a hangover). I grabbed a bite to eat in the fabled KFC and jumped a taxi back towards Heliopolis to see what Kendra had planned for the evening.

As things came to pass, Kendra had no plans so we ended up staying in and watching vids. Yes I should really leave tonight, but I can’t be bothered. I’d much rather put my feet up, upload some tapes to my laptop and watch The Wrestler. What’s one more day? I’ll leave for Jordan tomorrow.

All Inclusive Holidays to Egypt

Day 399: Istanbulldozin’

03.02.10:

The bus arrived bang on time in good ol’ Istanbul – the only city in the world that straddles two continents. I wandered down to the Metro to find out what the SP was with the old trains to Belgrade. Why are you going to Belgrade, Graham? I hear you ask. Well, good question! It’s really just because the fletchlugginer boats from Greece to Italy don’t seem to be running, so I’m going to have to go the long way round back to Sicily in order to visit countries 143 and 144, or as they like to call themselves, Algeria and Libya… two of the most difficult countries to enter in the world. And I should know, I’ve already tried once. Well, in the case of Libya, twice.

That means I can either go the way I went last time, via Thessaloniki in Greece up through Macedonia, Kosovo, Montenegro, Croatia and (a little bit of) Bosnia to Slovenia, or I could simply go through Bulgaria, Serbia, Croatia and Slovenia. Option 2 seems a little more straight forward, although the really straight forward way would be to get a boat from Patras in Greece, but you can’t always get what you want, can you Mick?

So I booked myself upon the 22:00 night train to the pleasantly-named Sofia, the capital of Bulgaria and thought I might spend the day having a little adventure – you know, Tokapi palace, the Blue Mosque, all that kinda stuff. However the howling wind and freezing temperatures soon put those fanciful notions to sleep like Old Yella. Instead I found a lovely little sheesha cafe, sat nice and warm under the heater and enjoyed some tomato soup.

Mmm… tomato soup. I could stay here all day, I thought to myself. So I did.

The train ride was spooky as hell – it was an overnight sleeper, but I had an entire compartment to myself – 6 bunks to choose from! In fact, I had pretty much the whole carriage to myself – a proper ghost train, perfect for making up horror stories. I couldn’t understand a word the conductor said, but I figured it had something to do with him giving me €31 so I could buy him more than his allocated amount at duty free. Hell, who am I to argue and out of the deal I would get all the free tea I could drink. Sweet. Nighty night.

Day 400: I Say Sir, Beer!

04.02.10:

I could have done without the 3am border crossing, it was unnecessarily cold outside – why couldn’t they come to us? There was only about ten people on the whole bloomin’ train. Well soon enough we were moving again and I fell fast asleep. In the morning, I had a couple of hours to kill in Sofia before getting on the next train to Belgrade so I sat down at a bakery and ate as many sausage rolls as I could stuff in my face… sausage rolls being somewhat of a rarity in Africa and the Middle East so smoke ’em, smoke ’em, smoke ’em, if you’ve got ’em.

The train to Belgrade was, again, fairly empty, and so I had no company for the day. Soon my laptop batteries were dead and I was left twiddling my thumbs, not wanting to read the only real book I’ve got – Huckleberry Finn – as it just wasn’t grabbing me. But the snow-covered scenery was beautiful to look at and sunset seemed to take an eternity, leaving the landscape frozen in the magic hour far longer than usual.

I arrived in Belgrade hoping to get the night train to Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia, but connecting train services don’t seem to be the ‘in’ thing in Europe any more (not like in Sherlock Holmes’ day) and so I found myself kicking my heels in Belgrade for the night. So I checked into the Belgrade Eye backpackers, wandered the streets aimlessly for a little while before turning in for the night.

More bad news: the Algerian embassy in London is REALLY dragging its heels over my visa request. Eddie Spinks, my reputable visa agent, was supposed to be picking up my passport yesterday, now it may be tomorrow. What’s the problem if I’m not anywhere near Sicily/Tunisia yet anyway? The problem is this: from the moment we get the passport back from the Algerians, it will take TWO WEEKS (at the very least) for my Libya visa to come through. You see, I need that passport back desperately and the Algerians seem keen to keep hold of it for as long as they can. Oh, and I STILL don’t have my Iranian visa sorted. What The Caribbean did with water, these guys are doing with visas. I’ve already told Stan there’s no way I’ll be finished in time for Glasto. Ho hum.

It looks like February may well turn out to be one of those months like June and November were I don’t end up going anywhere.

Day 401: Ljuvly Ljubblies

05.02.10:

The train to the delightfully-named Ljubljana was a typically ramshackle affair (man I miss them Turkish buses) but it did the job and by the evening, I was sitting enjoying a solitary beer in the Death Bar on the banks of the Ljunljanica river. They say this place was founded by Jason of the Argonauts, which would be awesome if only it were true.

Ljubljana is quite possibly my favourite European city, I don’t know why, there’s just a feeling it gives me, it radiates from the architecture, the statues, the bridges… a feeling like I belong. Of course, for a journeyman such as myself anywhere I hang my hat is home for the night, but – oh I don’t know – Ljubljana is just the right size and the right shape and the right look for me… it’s a Goldilocks thing and I’m not explaining it too well, but scratch this place down alongside Liverpool, New York and Melbourne as a place I could quite happily hang up my backpack for a few years.

I could press on to Italy tonight, but I think I’m going to kick back for the next few days… I’ve just heard from my mum that Algeria won’t be giving me my passport back until WEDNESDAY at the earliest. This is not good news by any means. I’m stuck, I’m really stuck and the only thing I can think to do is just to head down to Tunisia anyway and hang about like a bad smell until I find a Lost-style loophole that will allow me to enter fortress Algeria or Libya for five minutes without the mountain of paperwork and months of waiting usually required….

I just want to step over the border, for heavens sake! The messing about getting back to Tunisia and all the visa malarky is going to cost me well in excess of 500 quid. Just to go to two countries out of two hundred. I’ve got a few buttons and a piece of string left in my bank account and (very) soon I’ll be breaking into my overdraft… and then my credit cards…

Overtime and overbudget, my only hope for having enough cash or exposure to finish this adventure is if the powers that be allow me to release my bulging sack of YouTube videos… something they don’t seem willing (or able) to do. Now I know how Terry Gilliam feels. I like New York in June, how about you…?

Day 402: Don’t Stop Believin’

06.02.10:

The last two blogs aren’t true. I just made them up.

Sorry, it would have ruined the surprise.

Here’s what really happened…

When I was in Cyprus last Tuesday, I discovered that it would take two weeks from the date of application for my visa for my next country (Libya) to come through. I had not been made aware of this earlier (annoyingly enough) – I thought I was just going to pick it up at the border. This meant that no matter what I did in the next couple of weeks, I couldn’t continue with my journey. I might as well pick up the visas for Libya, Algeria and Central Asia from London myself.

I might as well…

Why the hell not, eh? It’s still part of the journey, it’s still in the spirit of The Odyssey; I can’t enter the kingdom of the nightwatchers without first gaining the magic amulet of visa. If I’m going to live my life as though I’m in a 1980s text adventure game, I might as well go the whole hog.

Home… a hot bath, fresh new clothes, a Full English and a roast meal… my family, my friends. It’s just too tempting.

Sod it.

Let’s go!

I cooked up a scheme which would see a bunch of my mates teaming up at the Fact cinema in Liverpool on Saturday night and my family gathering around the table for a Sunday roast – I told nobody I was coming home – and hit the road.

I did honestly go to Istanbul on the overnight coach on Tuesday night, but that’s about as far I went without telling fibs. From there, I went to Bucharest, the capital of Romania (€50), and on Thursday night I headed over to Budapest, Hungary on another night train (€50).

Budapest was a bit of a headache, I arrived yesterday morning to find that the Eurolines bus to London was full and so I had to concoct some kind of plan B that wasn’t going to cost the Earth. If I got the train to Paris via Munich and Metz it would cost me in excess of €250, which is way out of my budget. Damnit – the days of buying a through-ticket from Istanbul to London are OVER. Nice to know that Europe had a better grasp of logistics back when Victoria was sitting on the throne and we all hated each other.

I headed over to the bus station to see if I could blag my way onto the London bus… no way, Jose. But there was a Paris bus that had a few seats left. That’d do – as long as I got to London before 6pm, I could get back to Liverpool in time. I got online and tried to buy myself a ticket on the Eurostar from Paris to London. Simple, eh?

No.

It took me longer to buy the ticket than it takes to actually get from Paris to London on the damn train. Sitting on the floor of the skanky Budapest bus terminal, I came close to HULK SMASH levels of frustration. WHY DOES IT TAKE 10 DIFFERENT SCREENS TO GET YOUR DAMN TICKETS? Not everybody in the world has super-duper, fast fibre-optic asymmetrical data lines. Is there a low data-rate version for us poor souls hacking into someone else’s lousy wi-fi? Is there buggery.

Grrrrrrr!!

I got to the final payment screen on 4 separate occasions only to be told there was a problem with the blah blah blah. I was in Budapest, it was covered in snow – I wanted to go out for a walk, see the place, do some filming, but no, the Eurostar website wouldn’t let me. It’s easier to get Glastonbury tickets.

In the end, I had to call the man of the hour, Stan Standryt, in London, blow my cover and get him to book my ticket for me (what a guy!). Eurostar, YOU SUCK. Hope you go bankrupt and the Channel Tunnel gets turned into a very long art gallery with moving walkways. Or, even better, a ROAD.

Well, my day in Budapest well and truly wasted. I scampered onto the bus to Paris and shut my eyes, hoping to open them in the land of red and white stripy shirts, black berets, old bicycles and garlic necklaces.

But the bus driver had other ideas… is it an EU regulation that buses have to stop every two hours and wake everybody up? Ha! Man, the buses in Turkey ROCK MY WORLD and the buses in the world’s two biggest economic superpowers – the US and the EU – SUCK! It’s a sad fact that public transport in Europe, while not as bad as Africa, is not much better. Having said that, at least in Africa you get what you pay for. Why does it seem to cost more to operate a European train or coach than it does an airplane?

So we stopped and started all the way through Austria, Germany and then through Strasbourg into France. By 9am on Saturday, we were passing Metz and well on our way to Paris.

The coach got in a whopping 20 minutes early (nice!) and so I had time to do a couple of things… one of which was to get a shot of me standing in front of the Eiffel Tower. It took a good hour negotiating the Metropolitan to get there, and once I did the top was covered in cloud! Bah!

Oh well, I got the shot I wanted and then legged it to Gare du Nord, the railway station for the Eurostar, hoping against hope that they would have a shower there – after 6 days on the road and no shower, I was beginning to smell worse than a Gregg’s pasty that’s been in a tramp’s pocket for three weeks. Nice!

Luckily for me, indeed there is a shower in Gare du Nord, unluckily for me it cost €7 and (being French) it smells of effluent. What’s that joke about French plumbers again? But any port in a storm – I don’t want to be turning up in Liverpool after all these months (and two spells in jail) smelling anything less than utterly delightful..

Attention Eurostar trains: not only is your website PAINFULLY difficult to use, your trains are dirty. Clean them. If they can keep my Merseyrail carriages sparkly clean when I’m only paying £1.50 to use them for an hour, then you can totally afford to scrub your rolling stock down once in a while? Got that? Good. I wanted to film out of the window, but it would look murkier than a Mike Leigh movie and I don’t want to depress the hell out of anyone today, thanks.

Soon enough, I was whisked through the Chunnel and arrived at the rather spankingly refurbished St. Pancras station although once again was impressed that the Victorians (bless their cotton socks) saw fit to use beautiful arching cast iron and plate glass to constitute a roof whereas the lazy drunken hacks that pass for architects these days opted for what looks a lot like plastic.

At St Pancras, I met up with Dan Martin, an old chum of mine from back in the day.. He writes for the NME and has been blagging me into gigs and festivals for free for most of the past decade, the top bloke that he is. After a couple of beers and catch-ups, I went to the Euston Station concourse to play the Euston Station Concourse Game. This is where a bunch of hapless commuters stand for the best part of an hour looking up at the information board which will… at any given moment… tell them what platform to run to with all their bags.

The platform used is allocated by ERNIE, the random number generating computer from the 1950s that they used for the football pools. The platform will be allocated 5-10 minutes after the train is due to depart and will only be valid for approximately 90 seconds, after which time the train will depart leaving behind the less athletic members of the great unwashed and anyone who got bored waiting and stupidly went to WHSmith to buy a paper.

This is the Euston Station Concourse Game and it gets even more fun EVERY TIME YOU PLAY IT!

Being somewhat of a public transportation expert these days, I did manage to cadge a place on the big empty train (well, with 99% of the population priced out of this glorious British institution, what do you expect?) and in just a jiff and a jaff, I was back in my beloved Liverpool. Cyprus to Liverpool in four days – without flying. In your FACE, Palin!!

I hurried through the crisp scouse night to the Fact cinema, a architectural carbunkle in the centre of my hometown, but the wi-fi is free and the bar is always empty (perhaps because it is about as aesthetically pleasing as a concrete box) so it was a good place to spring the surprise.

I took the lift to the top floor, took out my laptop and hooked myself up to Skype. There, I got in touch with Anna, my top mate who teaches girls how to pole dance (I only hang in Bohemian circles, darling). I had told everyone that I was in Italy, but we were going to have a virtual night out with me via the internet and Anna’s webcam – the idea being that a bunch of my mates would take the laptop out with them to the streets and bars of Liverpool. Of course, I was really in Liverpool – one floor above them… giggidy…

About thirty of my wonderful mates had turned up, but Anna’s tinny little Mac speakers were not up to the task of broadcasting to so many people, so I suggested they might hear me better if I came down stairs..

It was awesome. HELLO LIVERPOOL!!

So after many, many hugs and beers, we all set out into the night in search of magic and adventure. The Merseyside Derby (that’s when Everton plays Liverpool to you Johnny Foreigners) had taken place that afternoon and so the town centre was more jam-packed than usual with drunken scousers and by Jove, I had forgotten how much I missed this place. We managed to get chucked out of the Heebie-Jeebies, went to the swanky new Studio 2 in Parr Street, got into a fight with the bouncers at Magnet and ended up in a utter dive called Ko Samui wondering where the hell we were.

Well, the answer was simple – I was home.

Day 418: Paris When It Drizzles

22.02.10:

Woke up at Stan’s gaff at some monstrously early hour, but Stan was good enough to not only make me a cup of tea, but to drive me to the nearest Tube Station. I’ve had mates in London now for years, negating the need to ever stay in a hotel or backpackers. But now I’ve got mates from Buenos Aires to New York City, Nova Scotia to Brazzaville, Pretoria to Iraq, Sierra Leone to Cairo, Reunion to Antigua and Tunis to Melbourne; this is possibly the most exciting thing to come of The Odyssey – I’ve left a trail of mischief from one end of the planet to the other, and I’ve always got somewhere to stay. Hooray for CouchSurfing.org!! I might have gone a few weeks without singing its praises, but by-eck, it’s BLOOMIN’ MARVELLOUS!

The plan was simple: Get to Rome. Go to port of Civitavecchia. Get boat to Tunisia. Visit Libya and Algeria. Back to Italy. Boat to Greece. Bus to Istanbul. Continue with The Odyssey. How long is that going to take? Two weeks? Okay…you’re on.

I got a little worried that I was supposed to check in for my coach to Rome an hour before departure and in typical Odyssey style, I was checking in ten minutes before departure, but there was no problemo, and before long, we found our bus clambering onto the train (which was a little weird if you think about it) that shuttles you through the Channel Tunnel. Well beat my breeches and call me Mary, having never gone through the unfortunately-named Chunnel before in my life, here’s me going through it twice in one month. Bizarre!

Arriving in Paris, I had a couple of hours stopover and had made arrangements to meet with Michelle Hoffman, a journalist from the Associated French Press, who were interested in doing a piece on little old me. So I had to walk about with all my bags (looking quite hilariously chubb after all that damn fine home cookin’ of the past fortnight) while she filmed me…and I wittered on about African jails and visa formalities and the general flotsam and jetsam that has a tendency to drop out of my clanging manhole every time I open it.

It was a fun way to pass the time, but time, tide and buses wait for no man. Soon, I was back on a coach thundering through the night towards Italy. The lethargy of the past couple of weeks was infectious and I have to admit to sleeping pretty much all the way.