Wednesday, November 23 (Day 84)
Auckland, New Zealand – Seoul, South Korea
If you’d told me this time last year that on November 23, 2011 I’d be getting up from bed in an Auckland airport motel at 1am and driving to New Zealand’s main airport to meet a bloke called Michael, arriving on a flight from Tonga, I just wouldn’t have been able to work out how and why this would come to pass.
Back at the hostel we swap war stories about Tonga, Fiji and Samoa. Tonga sounds like it is very far removed from the modern world, with plenty of seemingly strange idiosyncrasies that make this Pacific kingdom just as special as Samoa when it comes to being ‘different’. Michael tells me he was evacuated from one remote island on a small speedboat after a hurricane warning was issued. I think that was the same storm that came through Samoa around a week ago. He is due to fly back to London on Friday but might change his flight and hang around to see if he can find a job in New Zealand. I’m laughing because a month of lying on beaches and having a silly amount of time to think has clearly left Michael with more questions than answers about what he wants to do and where he wants to be in life. We crash at around 4am and get three hours sleep before it’s time for me to head back to the airport.
Leg two of my journey back to Europe from the Pacific is a 12-hour flight from New Zealand to South Korea, which over-flies the east coast of Australia, the misty and mysterious mountains of Papua New Guinea and the vast open sea between the Philippines and Guam. It’s daylight all day and I don’t sleep a wink, but Korean Airlines is a quality airline. The stewardesses are absolutely charming and when it comes to politeness it is pretty difficult to beat the Koreans. The food is great, the drinks keep flowing and I manage to catch up with three movies that were released after I first left Europe for Argentina in June. Black Brown White (a road trip movie set in Morocco and Spain), and Wer Wenn Nicht Wir (a political drama set in 1970s Germany) are both well worth seeing.
I am spending the night in Incheon. My Korean Airlines ticket includes a complimentary stopover and hotel here tonight. After leaving South Korean customs and immigration and picking up my free hotel and meal vouchers I step out of the airport and into the open air. You’ve got to laugh. I’m wearing my beach flip flops, a T-shirt still caked in sand, three-quarter length jeans and the temperature is two degrees Celsius. I can’t tell you how cold 2C feels after weeks of it being 23-28 degrees at night in the Pacific. I spot a couple of Koreans, kitted out in long winter coats, scarves and gloves, pointing and giggling at me. You can hardly blame them.
I have to give a big shout to Korean Airlines. Basically, it is 24 hours of flying between New Zealand and London but instead of doing the journey in one long drag, with three or four hours between flights in Korea, I have a 20-hour stopover in Seoul. Not only does the airline provide complimentary dinner and breakfast during this lay-over, but they’ve also put me up at the 5-star Hyatt Regency Incheon.
I’ve got a gorgeous room with a huge double bed that I may well get lost in during the night. Time for my first hot bath in three months. Dinner is absolutely superb – a four-course buffet. I am extremely tired and struggling with jet lag but I’m going to try and stay awake so I can enjoy this luxury for a couple of hours.
Watching the huge LG TV from the comfort of my equally huge bed, I discover that the Occupy movement spread throughout the US and around the world during October and November. The press though are vilifying the movement as being a bunch of Trotskyite and Anarchist type individuals who just want to kick off with the police. They have no clear message apparently. It is convenient for the TV and newspaper morons to paint popular protest with this brush of one-dimensional negativity. Most of society is being depleted by the movement of capital from the bottom to the rich at the top. The capitalism model is clearly broken and democracy doesn’t really exist anymore. In my view the reason this movement looks like it doesn’t have a clear message is because, in some senses, it is not a group of people with one clear set of political ideals. Inequality and political nepotism are two of the many reasons ‘the 99 per cent’ are out on the streets. I think there is some similarity between ‘Occupy’ and Solidarnosc, the 1980s anti-Communism movement that helped topple the communist regime in Eastern Europe.
After sleeping on the ground for much of the past six weeks I’m almost inclined to leave the comfort of my huge bed and lie on the floor.
Sunday, November 20 (Day 82)
I might have got home by 1.30am but that still means I was out for 7 hours last night. The hangover isn’t pleasant in this humid little room with the fan churning my sweaty, smelly alcohol breath around and around and around. You spin me right round, baby, right round.
It is noon before I emerge from my bat cave. Outside, a German and an Austrian lad are enjoying a Pall Mall each on the veranda, peering out at the stormy clouds threatening to break the humidity. I really laugh when I discover that they have come all the way to Samoa to watch the 2014 FIFA World Cup first round playoff between four of the world’s worst teams: The Cook Islands, Tonga, Samoa and American Samoa. The winners of this four-team round robin are rewarded with a berth in the Oceania World Cup group. I seem to recall that American Samoa lost 36-0 to Australia some years ago, the biggest defeat in world cup history. Damn! This mini tournament starts the day after I leave. I am gutted. Watching the world’s worst football teams take each other on is like its own mini World Cup finals. Respect to David and his Austrian friend for coming all the way here to experience this highlight of the world football calendar.
(Update 28th November: Samoa have narrowly made it through to Round Two of Oceania qualifying for Brazil 2014 after a tight 1-0 win to deny close neighbours American Samoa. Tonga finished second, on goals scored, after they defeated the Cook Islands 2-1)
Sundays in Apia really are a write off. It’s like the majority of the world’s population has been wiped out by a killer virus (perhaps they have been) and there are only 50 of us left, aimlessly strolling around the capital city of Samoa along with several hundred dogs. There’s only one supermarket open and all that seems to stock is tinned corned beef, tinned tuna and a vast array of sugary biscuits.
I find myself singing Ghost Town by the Specials as I stroll up the peninsula, but abandon my walk after a couple of kilometres in fear of two mischievous-looking dogs that seem to be following me. Despite my Samoan dog fear, I haven’t experienced a single dodgy incident with the local hounds.
More aimless wandering takes me in the opposite direction to the wharf, where I watch the ferry slip lazily into port from American Samoa. Close to the wharf is the famous Aggie Grey’s. This is a delightful colonial hotel that has seen guests including the British Royal Family overnight. I hang around the cocktail bar for a quick Vailima, pretending to be rich enough to stay here and imagining former guests that include Marlon Brando drinking in this charming pastiche of yesteryear.
Back at the motel I meet the lovely Montse from Spain. She’s just arrived in Samoa and asks me to give her a few pointers about Savaii. Damn, I wish I was leaving for that island tomorrow with her instead of flying back to New Zealand. By the way, Robert Louis Stevenson, the man who wrote Treasure Island, chose to spend his last years on Upolu. I am starting to see what the attraction was.
Monday, October 31 (Day 61)
Mango Bay, Fiji
The Solomon Islands, Tuvalu, New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Wallis & Futuna, Tokelau, American Samoa, Niue, Tonga, Cook Islands, French Polynesia, Easter Island…last night’s conversation with Scunny Mark has got me thinking and projecting ideas on to the infinite possibilities white board of life. The South Pacific has always been the most far away, unlikely-to-ever visit place on my personal world map of travel but, now I am here in Fiji, the world, as I visualise it, has shrunk once again. Why not do a trip that starts in say Papua New Guinea or the eastern islands of Indonesia or the Philippines and then moves eastwards, taking in all of the Pacific island states listed above? I have never in my entire life heard of anybody who has set out on a full tour of the Pacific, but now I am here I realise it is well doable. Where the flights don’t really connect up there are twice monthly container ship routes and you could always jump on a yacht and offer your services (God knows what services I could offer) in return for passage to the next island state. You could do it in three or four months, I reckon. Surely this could rate as one of the world’s lesser travelled great adventure routes? A 2013 South Pacific extravaganza anybody?
Funny I should be building castles in the sky when I am struggling to move my arse from Mango Bay, two hours up the road to Suva. A hangover and a free overnight stay were my excuse yesterday. God knows what my excuse is today. Feeling far too chilled to put a rucksack on my shoulder maybe. Actually, the main reason I was planning to stay in Suva was so I could catch what I assumed would be an early morning bus from there to my next port-of-call, Levuka. It turns out I can leave here after breakfast tomorrow and catch a connecting bus from the big smoke (Suva is the biggest city in the Pacific) to Levuka at 1.30, so I’m laughing.
“So, you got lucky last night! Did you bang her in the dorm?” Tashkent asks me.
I knew it. I knew they were all going to think we’d hooked up. I’m not sure what Jenna would think if she knew that half of the punters at Mango Bay think she had banana flambé for dessert last night.
There’s a new arrival. A British-Iranian girl has just flown in from LA on her way back to Australia. She’s got real class. This place seems to be sucking in some nice women. Maybe that’s another of my excuses for not leaving gorgeous Mango Bay.
You know that you truly have too much time on your hands and life is easy when the highlight of your day is international crab racing. Yes, I celebrate this Halloween by buying the temporary rights to a Fijian crab (going by the name of ‘Rose’) and racing it against nine other crabs. The race is at 9pm local time so that’s 9am in the UK. I am thinking, as a crowd of us are gathered in a circle with beer bottles and cocktails in hand, cheering and shouting at the crabs, that some of my mates have just arrived at the office in London, Leicester and Birmingham. What would they think if they knew that at the same time I’m on the other side of the planet, half cut, racing and betting on crabs, which have got numbers painted on their shells? Or have they all long since given up on my ability to live what might be considered a normal, balanced life?
I’m happy to announce that my luck is obviously changing as Rose romps home and I win the contents of the kitty, thus making this another free night at Mango Bay. You’ve got to feel sorry for the Australian crab, Skippy, though. As the master of ceremonies picks up the winning crab and takes her to the winners rostrum, he manages to step on the Australian crab and send him to an untimely death. RIP Skippy.
Thursday, June 9 2011
Just three months today left until the 2011 Rugby World Cup kicks off in Auckland on September 9, with the match between the hosts and Tonga. England start their campaign the following day on the South Island in Dunedin, against Argentina.