If I’m to stand any chance of completing this quest, there are two things that must happen. One is that I am given permission to travel on the Mell Sembawang, a cargo ship out of Taiwan that calls in to both Micronesia and Palau – two of the final six countries I need to visit. The other is that a kind-hearted yachtie takes pity on me and agrees to ferry me up to The Seychelles from Madagascar.
For the other countries, there are other options, other routes, other shipping companies, but for these two critical legs of The Odyssey Expedition, I have no other alternatives, no aces up my sleeve, no Plan-B if things go tits-up. It’s Hobson’s choice, and if Hobson says no, then I’m screwed.
I had sent an email off to the owners of the Mell Sembawang as soon as I found out I would be travelling on the Kota Juta to Taiwan, now that was a week ago. However, the inconsiderate timing of Easter (movable feasts… grr…) meant that there was a good chance that my request hadn’t even been picked up by the powers that be. I had asked my cousin Christian (who speaks a little more German than me) to call them last Monday (the 2nd) and confirm they got the email, but after some crossed wires (and Easter looming), it wasn’t until Tuesday (the 10th) that he had a chance to get in touch.
At first, the news was good. Relayed to the ship’s email system via my mum, things ‘looked positive’ and I could feel a huge weight lifting off my shoulders. I went to bed happy. But then the next night, in the wee small hours of Thursday morning, I checked the ship’s emails. There was one from my mum.
The news… was not good.
Hartmann reckon they won’t be able to accommodate me on the Mell Sembawang.
This is a crushing blow. It’s halfway through April and I’ve only been to 4 countries this year. It may well take the rest of my life to get to the final 6. My friends Dino, Hugh and Danny are getting married at the end of August/beginning of September (not to each other, sadly) and I’m going to feel a right chump if I miss their weddings, especially as they’ve all been so supportive throughout this ridiculous mission and since I’ve already missed so many of my other friend’s weddings while off gallivanting around the world.
The Kota Juta arrived in the northern port city of Keelung on the afternoon of April 12. After saying goodbye to Captain De Silva and the crew, I picked up my tattered old backpack and the port agent ran me to the train station. Taipei here I come!
I’m actually quite glad to be visiting Taiwan proper for the first time. My original “Odyssey” trip to Taiwan took me to just the Matsu islands in the far north-west, which is technically closer to Mainland China than it is to Taiwan (don’t tell George Galloway that, he’ll demand they give it back), and I’d hate for people to think I wasn’t getting a full cultural experience of all the 201 countries and 14 overseas territories I’m visiting on this journey, as that tends to fill right-on hippy backpackers with a rage usually reserved for animal testing labs, Japanese whalers and people who wear fur coats.
So in order to imbibe the vibe, upon arrival in Taipei, I proceeded to walk around for three hours with all my kit, in the sweltering night heat, attempting to find a youth hostel that was a) listed in the Lonely Planet and b) actually existed. These two things would be asking a bit too much of the fabric of space and time, so instead I ended up in a rather pleasant backpackers hidden away on the 15th floor of an apartment building that would have remained a enigma hidden inside a mystery hidden inside a secret level of Super Mario Brothers had it not been for a sign written in blue felt-tip pen on a torn piece of paper stuck to the wall with sticky-tape.
The guy who ran the hostel was as surprised to see me as I was to find the place: this was, generally speaking, a Japanese hostel, and flannel-footed mugwumps like myself were very few and far between (no wonder given the lack of signage). But I can’t complain, the dorm room was clean and pleasant enough (although there was one snorer onboard who I was forced to strangle to death in his sleep – it was the most humane thing to do) and the free wi-fi was a sheer joy.
Now – to business! Here’s what I’m thinking: Hartmann (the owners of the Mell Sembawang) have said they can’t accommodate me, so maybe if I speak to the charterers and the captain of the ship, and there’s a spare cabin, then Hartmann would be able to take me.
In my over-optimistic appraisal of the situation, I hadn’t realised that saying ‘they couldn’t accommodate me’ was nothing to do with cabins or accommodation, it was just a polite was of saying ‘Nein’.