Day 517: Salalalalalalalalalalalah!

01.06.10:

OMAN: Last night I travelled through The Empty Quarter – the rather large swathe of the Arabian Peninsular that is, as the name suggests, emptier than Paris Hilton’s noggin.  I could try to remark about how unremarkable it was, but that would do it a disservice.  Let’s just say I’m glad I wasn’t driving the bus.

This morning I arrived bright and early (7am on the DOT!) in the wonderful city of Salalalalalalalalalalah (to be henceforth sung like Trolololololololololo) in Oman.  I had myself a usual Hughesy mooch which involves marvelling that my compass watch actually works, then heading off in the cardinal direction that will validate my Lonely Planet map.  Soon enough I was touching the Indian Ocean for the first time since I arrived in Tanzania ALMOST SIX MONTHS AGO.  Damn – this Odyssey is taking a quite frankly rude amount of time.

I got chatting with a local guy called Salaam and discussed my upcoming mission: Eritrea.

I have a few options and it might be fun to run through them with you here, see what you think is best.

Option 1: Hitch-hike onto a container boat from Salalah which is bound for Europe and stopping at Eritrea along the way.  Get off the ship when it gets to Saudi or Egypt.

Option 2: Wait here until the next flotilla of yachts do the run from here to the Red Sea.  Yachties tend to meet up here and then go in a group to minimise the chance of piracy.   Persuade one of them to a) take me b) stop for fuel in Eritrea.  Again, get off in Saudi or Egypt.

Option 3: Head through Yemen, the tourist kidnap capital of the world, and take a local boat from one of the Red Sea ports over to Eritrea (and back) through pirate infested waters.  The local boats will no doubt be filled to the brim with guns or drugs or both.

Option 4: Take the semi-mythical ferry from Jeddah in Saudi over to Masawa in Eritrea.  Would be the best option if the ferry wasn’t semi-mythical.

Salaam advised me against going to Yemen and suggested I head to the port, which I duly did.  My taxi driver, Ahmed, was a total legend and stayed with me all morning while I dug around trying to find/sort stuff out.  I spoke to a couple of guys from the Al-Majal shipping company who suggested I talk to their managing director, who is wonderfully enough from Wales.  He was out of town today, but would be back tomorrow.

It was suggested I head up to the Oasis Club and get fact-finding from the locals.  The Oasis Club is situated here in Salalah port and is the only bar in town that serves alcohol.  In fact, I think it’s the only bar in town full stop.

The place was packed – the are two warships in port – one from Sweden and the other from Britain (HMS Chatham) as well as a group of pirate hunting mercenaries who I certainly wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of.  Nobody could help me on my way, but I got the feeling that the owner, a South African fella, would be able to point me in the right direction.  Unfortunately for me, he seemed rushed off his feet with all the Navy guys and I never got the chance.

Later in the day I met up with Valentyna from Ukraine who is my CouchSurf host here in Salalah.  She joined me in the Oasis Club and we drank away the night swapping stories with the lads from the Chatham.  One of them was from Knotty Ash – literally five minutes walk from my house.  Small world eh?  Let’s hope it’s small enough to get me safely to Eritrea.

Day 617: Raise The Red Lantern

09.09.10:

Arriving groggy-eyed in the big Chinese Cheese that is Beijing, I had work to do.  First up, I needed to pick my second passport up from Fed-Ex. This may seem like a bit of a pedestrian thing to tell you, but if anyone is wanting to know the inner-workings of The Odyssey and perhaps one day replicate them this is the kind of thing you need to know.  Getting a Chinese visa in Nepal cancels any other Chinese visas in your passport.  To get around this (since I’m going to have to leave and re-enter China a bunch of times to get to Mongolia, Korea etc), I had hatched a cunning plan which involved my mum and dad getting me a double entry visa for China in my second passport and sending it over to me.  Well, actually – they sent it to Chris and Debbie, my buddies from Liverpool who live in Shanghai.  Chris and the Debster were supposed to come up to Beijing to meet me, but you know the best laid plans blah blah blah – with visa difficulties of their own, they couldn’t make it over to the capital.  Chris, the good egg that he is, posted the passport and it was my job to pick it up.

Annoyingly, Fed-Ex have a habit of situating their warehouses on a industrial park on the edge of town. Yes gone are the days of the choo-chooing mail train bringing yonder wares into the city centre to be deposited in vast houses of brick and stone.  Now it’s a big metal shed on the outskirts of the A1325.  Wouldn’t be too bad if that was just the situation in Croydon, but when it’s the situation in Houston, Dubai, Rome, Melbourne and – yes – Beijing it all gets a little depressing.  I suppose the rent is cheaper and it’s easier to truck the stuff in from the nearby airport.  Again profit trumps romance.  Isn’t that bizarre when the most profitable commodity on Earth – diamonds – only retain their value because of a misguided (but evidently manipulated) sense of romance – go figure.

It took me a good couple of hours to track down the ever elusive Fed-Ex warehouse (the utterly useless Beijing address system didn’t help), but then there was a problem as I didn’t have the full tracking number.  I do have a passport with my name on it – are the more than one package there addressed to ‘Graham Hughes’?  Hmm… right…

So a couple of calls to Chris in Shanghai… I got the number and then I got my package – happily included (thanks mum!) was my SE Asia Lonely Planet, some more Odyssey business cards and a bunch of new passport photos.  But the big prize – my other passport – was all I needed for phase II of today’s operation.  It was time to head FULL PELT to the Mongolian Embassy.  Fearing the time, I took a taxi, but on Thursdays the embassy doesn’t open until 2pm so I needn’t have worried.

After queuing for an hour and a half I finally put my passport in for the Mongolian visa (which would be delivered tomorrow YEY!) I jumped in a taxi back to Beijing West railway station to pick up my backpack which I had left in left luggage.  After being stuck in the most epic traffic jam I’d ever seen for ten minutes I jumped out and scooted down into the Beijing metro.  For getting to Fed-Ex, Chris had suggested I take the bus as the Beijing underground ‘wasn’t as good as Shanghai’s’, which is a bit like saying that the escalators in Liverpool aren’t as good so I might as well take the stairs.  On the contrary, the Beijing metro was great – cheap as chips and it could whizz me from one end of town to the other in half an hour.  Given the gargantuan traffic jams on the surface, I cannot hesitate to recommend.

The train line to Beijing West isn’t finished yet so I had to walk from the Military Museum metro stop.  Getting back to the train station I cursed myself for being so groggy this morning – I had NO idea where the left luggage place was.  To make things worse, there were several left luggage offices in the one station (what is that? Privatisation?).  Consequently, it took me an hour to find my damn bag.  This wouldn’t have been so embarrassing if my CouchSurf host, Carl, wasn’t waiting for me to turn up at his gaff on the other side of town.  I hate being late.

Looking at the map, Beijing is unbelievable symmetrical – it’s rather amazing in a town so old, every other city dating back centuries – London, Paris, Cairo, Rome… is a higgledy-piggledy mess of spun by a gigantic and possibly inebriated spider.  This kind of North-South-East-West grid is something out of a 1980s text adventure game.

You are in Beijing. Exits lead North, South, East, West.

>West

You are in Beijing. Exits lead North, South, East, West.

>North

You are in Beijing. Exits lead North, South, East, West.

>West

You are in Beijing. Exits lead North, South, East, West.

>South

You are in Beijing. Exits lead North, South, East, West.

>Pick up Beijing

Syntax Error.

You are in Beijing. Exits lead North, South, East, West.

But it fitted in nicely with both the concept of Feng Shui and the architecture of communism (in which anything organic is seen as decadent and dishonest: for more information, look at EVERYTHING BUILT IN THE LAST FIFTY YEARS ANYWHERE IN THE WORLD) so I guess that makes it crazy double total Chinese, and that’s what Beijing is, in a nutshell: crazy double total Chinese and it’s actually more fun than you would ever give it credit for.

So I (eventually – soz Carl!) reached Carl’s place and laid down my weary bag.  That night Carl took me out around the Qianhai Lake area – mucho destructo by ol’ Chairman Mao-o, but now lovingly restored to some assemblance of disorder.  This is where you’ll find your old Beijing, but also (as is the yin and yang of it all) where you’ll find the most expensive beers in town.  We grabbed some street-eats outside the Bell Tower and the Drum Tower (home of the fabled whisky and rolling tobacco of Master Kong) and then settled in for a beer or two in the tiny Twenty Square bar (called so because it’s 20 square foot).

There I spun a disbelieving Carl, who hailed from Perth, that most suspicious of places, a story of a hapless ranga from Merseyside who had single-handedly conquered 84% of the world without once taking to the air.  My tall and improbable tale might have remained just that: tall and improbable, if it wasn’t for the fact that the only other people in the bar, a couple of scousers from a little place I know called West Derby (what are the chances?!), happened to recognise me off the telly – they had been living in Qatar and following my adventures on Nat Geo Adventure.

Look Mum, Fans!!

‘Alright, I believe you mate’ said Carl and threw me a bottle of Tsingtao.

Day 659: Gods And Monsters

21.10.10:

Up at 8am and onto the bus to Sandakan – the port town where the boat leaves for  country 182: The Philippines.  Happily, the bus left on time, but unhappily the onboard film was the most turgid, rotten waste of photons I’ve seen since Dreaming of Joseph Lees.  It was like the worst bits of Star Wars Episode I (i.e. all of it) mixed with the soggy turd that was The Matrix Revolutions sprinkled from the leftover crud from the backstreet abortion that was The Golden Compass.

The only funny thing about the film is that it was about -finarr finarr- BENDERS.  Christ WHY DID NOBODY TELL THEM??  I was seriously perplexed.  Was there not a single person from the UK on the crew who could tap M. Night Shallaballadingdong on the shoulder and say “M, we need to talk…”.  Did nobody suggest that since there were these people with magic eastern powers, maybe their power could utilise an eastern sounding word, like ‘xi’ (pronounced ‘chi’ – and mentioned in the film), ‘tan’ or ‘jedi’.  Rather than –woop woop guffaw!- ‘BENDER’.  So you’d have something like the water-xi’tan, the earth-xi’tan, the fire-xi’tan and the air-xi’tan.  The Last Air-Xi’tan.  There you go, sounds better already.

The script was so so bad it made my toes curl – many of the lines seemingly ripped straight out of Star Wars Episode I (and delivered with the same po-faced green-screen emotion).  And the acting, and the pacing and the… oh god everything really.  I can’t WAIT until RedLetterMedia tears this one a new a-hole.  Luckily for me, also onboard was a delightfully chatty Aussie couple, Riki and her boyfriend Liam;  nattering always makes the journey go quicker, and before 4pm I had forgotten all about the BENDERS -snoot snoot!- was in town checking into the Sandakan Backpackers.

No time to waste, I jumped a taxi to the ticket agents for tomorrow’s ferry to Zamboanga in Mindanao.

WHAT?  MINDANAO?  Are you CRAZY??! I hear you scream.  Well, those of you that have heard of Mindanao are screaming that I’m sure.

Mindanao is not the happiest of Filipino islands – yes more religious fundamentalism and yes you can probably guess that the gruesome and disturbed hooligans running around murdering innocent woman and children are not Jains or Buddhists or Zoroastrians.  They happen to be the same religion of ‘peace’ that you might be familiar with: over the past turbulent decade of world history, its rather over-passionate clientele have been known to run about murdering innocent bystanders in Indonesia, Thailand, China, India, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Morocco, Turkey, Spain, the UK, Sudan, Algeria, Mauritania, Nigeria, Lebanon, Palestine, Israel, Egypt, Somalia, Uganda, Kenya, Tanzania, Yemen, Chad, Niger, Cote D’Ivoire, Senegal, Tajikistan and the USA, so there’s a good chance you may have heard of them.  Of course by ‘peace’ I mean ‘all out war’ but then I’m guessing you understood the comedic tone of my apostrophes.

The only funny thing about this horror show that’s been rumbling on in Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago for decades is that one of the main terrorist groups is called ’MILF’. Seriously!  Maybe I’m just having one of those days.  Reminds me of Rimmer’s Committee for the Liberation and Integration of Terrifying Organisms and their Rehabilitation Into Society…

I think the Filipino government should fight back with an elite army commando brigade called ‘Cougar Force’.  MILFs versus Cougars! Who wouldn’t pay to watch that?!

So anyway, getting back to the point, Mindanao is a heap big dangerous place of whose midday sun only mad dogs and Englishmen would venture out into.  In fact, it’s probably going to be the most dangerous place I’ve been to this entire journey: Colombia is safe enough as long as you stay away from the rebel-held areas, the DRC is cool as long as you don’t venture too far towards the borders with Uganda and Rwanda, Somalia is laughing as long as you stay in Somaliland, Iraq is not just safe but also a wholelottafun as long as you stay in the Kurdish north and Afghanistan is only really a danger if you venture down to Helmand or travel at night.

Actually, Mindanao itself would present little to raise the blood pressure if I was going to be kicking around the north and east of the island, but I’m not.  There is  only ONE international ferry service to The Phils and, unfortunately for me it only goes to Zamboanga in western Mindanao: right into the eye of the storm.

So it’s going to be a case of keeping my big ginger bounce down and cowering in my hotel room until the ferry returns to Sandakan two days later.

But after all that, the shipping offices were closed for the day.  I was told to come back the next morning at 8am and the ship would be leaving later that day.  So returning to the backpackers I updated the website and then ventured out into the night for some din-dins.  I was invited to come and sit with the nice couple that were sharing my room, a bloke called Adam and his girlfriend.  As the night went on our discussion turned into a kick-ass debate, the kind I love to have (yes the world would be a boring place if we all agreed on everything) about environmentalism, cultural relativism and scientific fundamentalism.  Like I say, it was a kick-ass debate.

Adam accused me of being a scientific fundamentalist, and as nobody likes being called a fundamentalist I tried to make out that I wasn’t – I just really, really love science in the same way I love the works of Rembrandt, Verdi, Wren, Hemmingway, Hitchcock and Johnny Rotten and think that YOU SHOULD TOO!!  But, upon reflection (and the here’s-what-I-should-have-said thing that hits you the next day) in the grand tradition of the Socratic method I’ve had my brain expanded by debate and I’m proud to say that yes, yes I AM a scientific fundamentalist and you know what?  I strongly believe that you are too.

Warning – rant ahead! Feel free to skip to the next blog…!

It would help if I explained what I mean by fundamentalist: someone with absolute blind faith in what they believe.  Fair enough?  When this blind faith is in a unproveable but ultimately silly bronze age creation myth invented by some illiterate goat herders in the Middle East back when us silly humans thought the world was flat, the stars wheeled around it for our delight and epilepsy was caused by demonic possession, my heart sinks and I may well invite you into my kitchen for a cup of tea and a dose of reality.

But it comes down to this: blind faith = I don’t know how it works, but I’m willing to stake my life on the fact it will.

Now the funny thing is that many people infected with the mind-virus of religion like to talk the talk, but when it comes down to brass tacks, the only ones who walk the walk are the fundamentalists who 100% honestly believe that if they accidentally fell off a cliff that their chosen god would reach down with his big invisible hand and save them – you know, the exceptionally rare ‘oh goodie gumdrops, I’ve got cancer’ people.  Or, in the case of the 9/11 hijackers, they believe that whatever they do, no matter how disgusting, depraved, sick and twisted (murdering 3,000 people is all these things and more) if they do it in the name of God, Allah, Zeus, Gandalf, Santa Claus whatever, then it’ll all work out in the wash, because it’s what THE EASTER BUNNY would have wanted.

No evidence required!

However, science is all about the evidence and the evidence is all around us because we can see it works – chemotherapy, television, the internet, X-rays, digital photos, video games, 100% accurate predictions of future events such as eclipses or cicada plagues.  The mad thing is that very very few of us knows how it works: and therein lies the fundamentalist part – the part that requires faith.  Which is why I just accused you of being a scientific fundamentalist.

Two reasons:

The first reason is that you owe your life to science.  You are reading this, which means you are alive and (presumably) you have reached adulthood (it also infers that you are highly intelligent, good looking, are dynamite in bed and have great taste in fashion, music and art, but that’s not important right now).  The only way you could have made it this far is because of modern western science.  There are no two ways about this – Queen Anne had what?  Eighteen pregnancies?  And how many of them made it out alive?  Five.  How many of them made it to adulthood?  NONE.

And she was the goddamn QUEEN OF ENGLAND.  She had the wealth, the riches, the access to all the best medicines of the day…  But you’re talking about the days before germ theory, sterilisation techniques, ultrasound, incubators, saline drips, safe caesarean procedures etc.

Robert Hooke, Isaac Newton, Leonardo Da Vinci, James Watt, Joseph Bazelgette, Edward Jenner, Alexander Fleming, Watson and Crick, Marie Curie, Christiaan Barnard… there is a good chance that you owe these one or all of these scientists your life.

And if you want to come at me with evidence that you were born without any medical assistance, that you were never inoculated or vaccinated, never used antibiotics, you’ve never had a broken bone, a major operation or a life threatening disease, you have no allergies, you don’t have asthma and you don’t wear glasses, I have just one word for you: Nitrates.

You know, grim old Malthus was almost right: by the end of the nineteenth century the world was beginning to contain too many people to feed itself.  Having to leave a field fallow every few years to regenerate was not a very economic way of farming, plus over the years the quality of the soil would diminish to such a point that you might as well rake gravel over it and give it to the pikeys.  But why was this so?  What was the magic ingredient in cow dung that brought a dead field back to life?  By the turn of the last century, scientists had cracked it: Nitrates.  Now you could buy nitrates in the form of liquid fertiliser, spread it all over your fields, never have to let them go fallow and (weather permitting) enjoy a bountiful harvest every single year: year in, year out.

Before the discovery of nitrates, the world could barely cope with one billion people.  Now there are six and a half billion people, five and a half billion of which I would argue owe their very existence to science: and chances are you’re one of them.

In short, the entire human race was heading towards an abyss and science swooped in at the last minute to save us all (as I sadly believe most people think it will do over the rather pressing issue of climate change – save us lazy bastards from having to do anything about it ourselves eh?).

The second reason is that you have undoubted blind faith in science.  I know this for a few reasons, the main one being that you’ve all probably been on a plane at least once in your life.  Now if doing something as unnatural as being shot through the sky at 700mph doesn’t scare the willies out of you, there’s a good chance you either a) have drank to many JD miniatures to care or b) you have 100% blind faith in the principles of aerodynamics, jet engines, electrical circuitry, radio communication, radar, air pressurisation etc.: ie. a bunch of stuff you (or I) know little or nothing about.  I say blind faith because even if you’re an aeronautical engineer it’s doubtful that you know how every little bit of an aeroplane works: some things you’re just taking as red that they will work, work, work and work again: because if one of those things fail (as they occasionally do), you’re going to be a whole new shade of dead.  Every time you get on a plane, you are staking your life on a whole bunch of science – science you don’t even understand.

Sadly, even the most mental of religious fundamentalists who really believe that what their invisible sky wizard wanted more than anything was for them to fly a plane into a building would use a plane engineered by science, rather than the one engineered via magic, prayer, superstition or dumb luck.  Although the latter option obviously would be better for the unfortunates in the building.

I would also wager that you are absolutely and inseparably hooked into the world of Information Technology.  You probably own a mobile phone and you obviously have access to the internet or you wouldn’t be reading this.  Now I’m sure you could go for a while without these wondrous things that science has bestowed upon us at a reasonable price, but for how long?  In fact, without science, how would you last the day?  Unless you’re a religious studies teacher, how would you do you job without a constant and steady flow of new information?  How would you get to your job?  Could you seriously live without your creature comforts: your car, the train, central heating, air conditioning, television, radio, iPods, DVDs, telephones, the internet…?

It’s the same argument that says nobody in the right mind would call out for a homeopath after being hit by a car: no matter how hippy-dippy and ‘sceptical’ about science we pretend to be, we begrudgingly owe our very existence to science and we use the fruits of scientific wisdom every single day of our lives.  We are all, in a very real sense and although it’s uncomfortable to say it, scientific fundamentalists.  But don’t worry: science asks nothing of you: it doesn’t want your prayers, your thanks or even your appreciation (it would be nice, I guess, but I don’t think the Royal Society is waiting on a thank-you card from us spoilt, ungrateful post-modernist brats), and more importantly, your faith in science will never compel you to strap a bomb to yourself.  Because that would be SILLY.

I’m no scientist, I don’t shave with Occam’s razor nor eat Fermat’s Last Theorem for breakfast.  But I know my protactinium from my protractor, my polyethylene from my buckminsterfullerene, my DNA from my RNA, my quasars from my pulsars and my neutrons from my neutrinos: all from the comfort of my armchair.  Since when did you have to be a musician to enjoy music, a filmmaker to enjoy movies or a sportsman to enjoy the footy?

I don’t just love science for the sake of knowledge, beauty or entertainment (although I’m convinced it delivers all three), I love science because I understand how much I owe it, and how much I’m going to rely on it day-in and day-out until my time on this great little (slightly) pear-shaped planet comes to an end.  Yes, I admit it – as unfashionable, culturally insensitive and as disrespectful as it sounds, I’m a scientific fundamentalist through and through.  I’ve won Pascal’s wager and the bastard owes me a fiver.

A final thought: you know those western chicks sitting cross-legged going ommmmm with the multi-coloured beads in their dreads in an ashram in India; their heads full of magic pink unicorns dancing in the moonlight on a distant crystal planet vibrating with pure positive lifeforce energy?

You can bet your bottom dollar that they flew there 😉

Day 691: The Authorisation

22.11.10:

It was a 9am showdown at the East Timor Consulate in Kupang.  Luckily for me, Simon and Chesa where there, and Chesa, being Indonesian, could explain my predicament to the lady a damn site better than I could.  I had applied for my visa authorisation FOUR WEEKS ago, and heard nothing in reply.  The lady made a phone call and said that the authorisation had been sent last month.  No it hadn’t.  I had flashbacks to when I had to explain to my mum back in 1997 yes it did matter if you spelt the email address incorrectly.

The lady said to go and wait for the email confirmation, they would resend it.  So I did.  I went back to Edwin’s joint and twiddled my thumbs, refreshing my email every now and again.  I knew that if I didn’t get the authorisation today, when I finally got to Dili, I would be spending the entire next week there waiting for my visa BACK INTO INDONESIA to come through (you can’t get one on the border).  If I got the confirmation for East Timor today, left here tomorrow morning, I could be at the Indonesian embassy for Wednesday morning, I could have my visa on Friday and be out of there on Saturday.  Otherwise I would be leaving on the following Tuesday at the earliest.

By 3pm the email hadn’t arrived.  I actually went back to the consulate.  Seriously?  WTF?  The lady made another call.  They had sent the email again.  Again it hadn’t arrived.  Okay, okay – here’s my email address, get them to send it to you, then forward it on to me, okay?

I can’t fault the lady – she was very helpful.  Her name was Jen.  She was sincerely sorry for all this nonsense.  You could tell by her demeanour that she knew she worked with morons and was doing her level best to make my life easier.  One problem: her email wasn’t working.

Will it be working before the end of the day?

Maybe.

Urgh!  I headed back to Edwin’s and kept on hitting F5.

At 4.55pm, the Authorisation arrived.

Edwin booked me on the 5am bus to Dili.  It’s high time to tick my 183rd nation off the list.

A note to anyone wanting a East Timor visa to enter the country overland: DON’T BOTHER with the online registration malarkey.  Just go to the new consulate in Kupang and get your visa there.  If you’re REALLY nice to Jen, she might even sort you out with one the same day 😉