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.

Days 466-472: A Dead End

11.04.10 – 17.04.10:

So there’s always plan B, right? Well, it all seemed simple enough. According to the Lonely Planet I could get a transit visa for Saudi as long as I had a Bahraini visa and a valid ticket from the bus station. So first thing I was up and at ‘em heading over to the Bahrain embassy. The weekend here runs Friday and Saturday, so it was open and pretty soon I had my visa and was heading over to the Saudi visa agents to try and get that transit visa. I was a bit worried it would take a few days, but the awful truth was that it wouldn’t take any time at all – they only give out transit visas for residents. As I’m not a resident, I can’t get one.

I had painted myself into a corner.

The next day I tried at the Iranian embassy to get a transit visa (plan C – head back to Iran, take ferry to Bahrain from Bushehr), but again there was no chance. In fact, the guy in the embassy was so rude that I considered dropping Iran a few places in my League of Nations, but that would have been petty.

Plan D was to get on a cargo boat, but nobody would take me without some kind of certificate of seamanship. Plan E was to take an oil tanker, but it was deemed to dangerous. Plan F was to hire a boat but it would cost £12,000. Plan G was to go with a bunch of fishermen, but that didn’t work out so well last time, plus they didn’t want to take me anyway. Plan H was to get a lift with somebody going to the Bahrain boat show next week, but nobody was going and so my last throw of the die – Plan I – was put into operation: get a full, multiple entry Saudi visa.

A transit would be no good, even if it came from London it would only get me as far as Bahrain before I had to send my passport back to London for another transit visa to get me to Qatar and then ANOTHER transit visa to the UAE. And the chances where they wouldn’t even issue the transit visa in London on the grounds that, well, why didn’t I just fly?

It would take a minimum of two, maybe three weeks. I had charged full-pelt through the amazing Central Asia and now I would be stuck in Kuwait for the best part of a month. The driest spot on Earth. No booze, no bacon, no bars, no pubs, no clubs, no dancing, no kissing, no holding hands, no old buildings, no live music, no bohemia and certainly no cavaliers.

Hugh’s dad’s company in Liverpool agreed to sponsor my visa application (there are no real tourist visas, it’s a business visa or nothing) and so I knew I’d have at least a fortnight of twiddling my thumbs until my letter of invitation came through.

But as always it was CouchSurfing to the rescue. Through Michael, my CouchSurfing host, I met the admiral Heitham (from Kuwait but living in Preston) and Josie (from California), and then through them I met the Kuwaiti CSers – a German guy called Dominic (whose place I moved to after a few days at Michael’s so as to not outstay my welcome), a Dutch girl called Jannie (whose place I moved into after Dominic’s) and a top guy from the Philippines called Ruban who was also staying with Jannie.

But first things first, I had to sort my computer out. No sooner had I bought myself a new hard-drive (anxious to rid myself of these troublesome tapes that keep getting me into trouble) than my computer went the way of the Norwegian Blue Parrot – it was in desperate need of one of those wipe-everything-and-install-everything-again malarkey moments. Well, what do you expect after 16 months on the road slutting it about with whatever naughty little wi-fi connection was swanning around at the side of the road?

On hand to resuscitate old Dell-Boy was a guy who spotted me looking lost with a computer under my arm and invited me into his workshop. His name was Abbas and he ran Tip-Top computers in the IT district of town. A Tip-Top chap too – he not only bought me lunch and dropped me at the Aquarium while my computer was being fixed, he also waved the fix-it fee and loaded my laptop up with all my favourite programmes. Hats off to ya, Abbas!!

Meanwhile, Heitham (the coolest Kuwaiti in the world) and I hung out over the week. He busted a gut trying to get me onto some kind of maritime transport to Bahrain, but without success. On the Friday he invited all of us CouchSurfers up to his family farm near the border with Iraq. We all piled into a convoy of 4x4s and headed out onto the large but deserted highway north of Kuwait City, stopping on the way to mess about in the sand-dunes and to take this picture:

Once we got to Heitham’s farm, we broke out the barbecue and I had myself a cracking night with my new CouchSurfing buddies from all over the world. See? Even in a place as dull as Kuwait you can still have a good good crazy time if you know where to look.

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.

Days 501-507: What Happened, Happened

16.05.10-22.05.10:

500 days on the road and a good 200 of them have been wasted waiting for either visas or boats.  In situations like this you can’t help but acquiesce and go with the flow.  The other plans you could have gone for – maybe a new visa for Iran would have been quicker (and cheaper) – will only serve to taunt you.  I’ve made my bed and one way or another I’ll have to lie in it.  The maddening thing is that I know once I reach the UAE and Oman I’m going to be stuck there, perhaps for a comparable time, waiting for a way to get to Eritrea.

On Thursday this week my dad returned to London for a third time.  The visa was ready.  We looked into getting my Eritrea and Indian visas, but they would both take too long to come through, so we looked at just getting the passport back to me asap.  As Friday and Saturday are the weekend here, sending it DHL would not get here until Sunday.  That being the case I roped in the magnificent Stan Standryt into helping me get the passport back the next day.

How do you do that Graham?  Well, you do what Bono did when he forget his stupid hat – put it on a plane.  Only I’d be using a scheduled service – not a charter job BECAUSE I’M NOT A SMUG MULTI-MILLIONAIRE TAX-DODGING CREEP. Sorry – Bono.  Hate him.  Can’t help it.  So ANYWAYS… Stan picked the passport up off my dad went all the way to Heathrow.  BA were happy to put it on tonight’s flight – that was until they discovered it was a passport.  Can’t send passports – use DHL.

I understand why courier services are reluctant to take passports – they could lead to all kinds of trouble.  But this wasn’t a stack of dubious passports on their way to Nigeria – this was a single passport that would be picked up by the guy whose passport it was.  After wasting £47 in taxis getting shunted from pillar to post around the Heathrow site, Stan was forced to give up and send it DHL the next day anyway.  BA – you just posted another massive loss.  I was willing to pay you twice the cost of an average easyjet flight (for a person) just to put a document on your damn aeroplane.

You fools.  Your airline is made of poo and FAIL!

Well, one way or another this was my final weekend in Kuwait.  I have been here for SIX WEEKS waiting for this damn stamp in my passport.  On Friday I was desperate for a party, so I met up with a cute CSer from South Africa called Janine.  On discovering she was being put up by her company all expenses paid in the five-star Marriot Courtyard Hotel, I suggested we invade the buffet.  Yes I have no shame and nothing cheers me up more than turning up to a posh do in my scuffs looking like I’ve just stumbled out of a particularly gritty western onto the dancefloor of the Ritz.

Later, Ruban got everyone around the pool at Jannie’s place for some final soft drinks and Pringles.  Awesomely enough, there was another party happening down the road later on.  We crashed it with aplomb and – joy of joys – they had a cooler filled with REAL ice-cold beer!!

So so happy!  We shimmy shake-shaked the night away with our chums from the four corners of the planet.  If nothing else, Kuwait is one hell of a melting pot.  And you want to know something cool?  I had been to everybody’s country (with the notable exception of the Philippines – why didn’t I hit that gaff in ’02, I’ll never know).

No worries – I’ll remedy that soon enough…

Day 508: Deliverance

23.05.10:

Tracking numbers are so cool.  I got to watch online as my passport arrived in Bahrain yesterday and then arrived here just after 8am today.  The DHL guys even called me and explained where I had to go to pick up my maroon booklet of doom.  As always, Andrea was on hand to help me out.  She picked me up and we grabbed the passport.  I checked it over and all was good.

I had my ticket to ride.

After picking Eric up from work, we headed into town to visit Andrea’s mate who fed us the yummiest sausage salad (chicken sausage of course, but whatchagonnado?) before Eric and I braved the bus station to find out times of buses to Bahrain.  Oh dear.  You would think that given all it’s immense riches Kuwait could afford a bus station that wouldn’t have looked fitting in 1980s Beirut.  The hilarious thing was that it adjoined the police lock-up – so, so many cars impounded (I don’t think Kuwaitis are capable of driving more than a few meters without breaking several international driving laws).  Eventually we found a guy to ask – nah, these were all local buses – we wanted the SAPTCO place out by the United Nations roundabout.  No worries.  I’d give them a call in the morning and find out the SP.

Afterwards I met up with Janine – we well and truly abused the Marriot’s roomservice together and since she had already ruined the end of Prison Break for me, it did no harm to watch The Final Break which I guess was all the stuff that was meant to happen in Season 5, but then the damn thing got cancelled on the grounds that it wasn’t Lost.

But then what is?

Day 511: Qatar On A Hot Tin Roof

26.05.10:

Urgh me drinkie too muchie.  I’ve seriously put on a stone in the last six weeks, what with all my Dominos pizzas and KFC.  I need to get moving and get grooving before I turn into a big fat Jabba slug.  I found out that the bus for Qatar (only 40km across the sea from the island of Bahrain) would be leaving from Dammam in Saudi at 5pm.  As the next bus to Dammam was leaving at 3pm, this was going to make things awkward – Dammam is only an hour away, but it’s a bit of a risk as if the Saudi border guys wanted to make the bus wait, there wasn’t a lot I could have done about it – I could very well miss the bus to Qatar.  I therefore elected to take a taxi (at great expense – fifty quid’s worth of expense) because I was damned if I was going to spend the night in Dammam.

Getting back into Saudi was even easier the second time.  Seriously – they didn’t even look at my bags and in I went.  I was in Dammam within the hour and had my ticket for Nation 157 – Qatar.

The bus was supposed to get in at 10pm.  I had arranged with Tracy, my CS host in Qatar, to meet here when I arrived, although the fact it was now pushing midnight and we were still not at the border compounded my discontent.  But what I was not expecting was for it to take TWO HOURS to cross the border into Qatar.  What the hell would you smuggle OUT of Saudi?  A camel?

But then I discovered the root of the problem.  The border guards were denying access not to us passengers, but to the bus driver.  They had changed the rules TODAY (seriously!) and he needed a letter of employment of SAPTCO to say he worked for them.  His uniform and the fact HE WAS DRIVING THE DAMN BUS wasn’t enough proof for them.

I guess in their twisted little heads this was all an elaborate plan for the driver to sneak into Qatar (with a busload of passengers) and stay there illegally.  The hundreds of Qatar entry and EXIT stamps in his passport were similarly not seen as proof that he didn’t intent Qatar several layers of harm.

I’ll get you Butler!

So the bus was stuck, it was now 2am.  Oh, and to cap it all, my phone had stopped working.  I didn’t know this at the time, it seemed that my texts were going through, but then I sent a test text to my mum and since a reply didn’t come back I knew trouble was afoot.  There was no way I was going to be able to stay at Tracey’s tonight.  I teamed up with Saleh and we trekked across the border together on foot.  Once in Qatar, we flagged down a passing car and hitched a ride to Doha from a fantastically friendly chap called Mohammed.

And so I wound up in the cheapest, nastiest little hotel in town.  Filthy dirty, luke warm shower, a broken television… the price?  Fifty quid.  Straight up.  Take it or leave it.

Damn you Qatar.

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.

Day 537: OK, Where’s The Catch?

21.06.10:

Turki gets up at some horrendously early hour of the morning, but I was allowed to sleep in until 8am, and then we both headed over to the Eritrean Consulate. Again, Turki took a day off work to help me out (miles above and light years beyond the call of duty). A little man dressed in red with horns, a pointy tail and a pitchfork hovered over my left shoulder whispering it can’t be this easy, it can’t be this easy…

But it was.

I didn’t even need to fill out a form, they did it for me. And when they told me I could pick the visa up later that day, I almost broke into cartwheels. So can I pay for it in Saudi money? Of course! Do I have to pay it into a bank that’s on the other side of town? Don’t be silly, just pay it over there at the window marked ‘cashier’. Then I did break into cartwheels.

Our meeting with Abdullah was in the afternoon, so there was a good chance we’d actually have the visa to show him. Things were going well. I have decided that Turki is my lucky charm (even though I don’t believe in luck) and that I should definitely stuff him in my backpack and take him with me for the final forty.

Over lunch, Turki and I had a good natter about Saudi Arabia and it’s perception in the wider world. Growing up in the US, Turki has a good outsider’s perspective and now after living here for so many years he also has inside knowledge that a tourist like me will often lack.

Now first up, do they still stone women to death for adultery (or being raped)? Turki says no, the only capital offenses here are murder, rape and drug-dealing and the only state sanctioned method of execution is beheading. Er… okay, what about chopping off thieves hands? Again, the answer is no (and to be fair I didn’t see any handless vagrants wandering about). So the old British right wing why-don’t-we-just-chop-their-hands-off-like-the-Saudis is balderdash then? Yup.

Okay then. We will continue this discussion later.

At 3pm we were back at the Eritrean consulate and there it was – my Eritrean visa. Unbelievable! So, so easy! We rushed over to meet Bob and Abdullah, passport in hand. Abdullah was a really nice guy, Turki and I explained my mission, showed him some videos on Turki’s iPad and he gave us his support.

He told us that we have to visit a place called Baaboud Shipping down by the docks. They run the one and only cargo operation between Jeddah and Eritrea. He gave us the name and number of the guy we needed to speak to, Ahmed Ibn-Ishaq, and told us to tell them that Abdullah sent us. Things were going well. Yes I am playing a real-life game of Monkey Island.

That night, Turki and I chatted about that great big elephant in the corner. Women’s rights in Saudi. As far as I am concerned, they don’t have any. They’re not allowed to drive, (and it’s too hot to walk) they are forced to wear a big black cotton bag over their entire body (in the desert – nice!) and their view of the world is obscured by the fact they have their faces completely covered whenever they are outside. They can’t go anywhere, do anything, speak to anybody without the permission of a man, be it their father or their husband.

The blacked-out ‘Family’ rooms of every restaurant along the road to Jeddah are testament to how divided the world of men is from the world of women here in Saudi. This is all based on little more than an incredibly childish sense of jealousy. Put simply, the men here do not want other men even looking at their wives. This may be because many marriages here are arranged and therefore loveless. Lacking this bond that (by and large) stops normal, free women from having affairs, the Bedu men’s paranoia is understandable (kinda) but the system here stops just short of locking the fairer half of the population up in the basement.

The maddening thing is that there is NOTHING in the Koran about women having live as little more than slaves to their menfolk. It is a Bedu thing, and despite the mealy-mouthed apologists saying it is about ‘respect’ (do me a quaver), it’s about nothing more than male power, domination, jealousy and paranoia – things that a good Muslim should be fighting a personal jihad against.

I have to say that here in the Hijaz part of the country things are a lot more easy going. However, the capital Riyadh is slap bang in the middle of Bedu country and so things are unlikely to change at a national level anytime soon. But Turki is optimistic. He reckons that the Hijazis are a lot more cosmopolitan and there is an unstoppable rise in the numbers of young people using Facebook and mixed coffee shops to meet members of the opposite sex. Maybe a healthy dose of real love will be what’s needed to finally break the back of the green-eyed monster.