The first night before my departure was celebrated with a small party at my usual Mumbai haunt, the Parsi-run Universal Café (which I flatter myself still misses me), coupled inversely with the discovery that a local foreign bike shop had once again destroyed my bike's bottom bracket. The following morning began with my last skirmishes against Indian bureaucracy as I had a US$50 traveller's cheque converted to Omani riels at a bank advertising a good rate, but had to have the money transformed into first US dollars and then Indian rupees to get there, incurring large commissions and dodgy rates at every metamorphosis until I had barely anything left (and that's ignoring what I had to go through to get the traveller's cheques in the first place!). It was worse than transmitting electricity to Tasmania under Bass Strait.
But soon I had gathered my gear and was creaking and grinding (that bottom bracket again) my way to the Mumbai ferry terminal from whence I would be ferried to the mainland port of Nhava Sheva.
The rest of the day was spent waiting for hours in car parks and container fields, presumably because those were what I was supposed to be during each successive stage of the administrative process. But suddenly, at sunset, I was clambering up the gangplank, and then I was on board. A passenger of the CMA CGM Coral.
I immediately met the disembarking group: two other cycle tourists. In the frantic minutes of our brief encounter we exchanged maps, currency, tips and itinerates: we were riding almost identical trips but in reverse directions. I later discovered that the 'small change' UAE dirhams they handed me (they'd boarded at Dubai) were worth almost $50. I love cycle tourists.
For the next six days life on board was like living in the hotel from 'The Shining' (halls of blood not-withstanding), or on the mining ship Red Dwarf. The few people on board weren't enough to even half-fill the massive floating office-block and they were pretty much always working on far-flung regions of the 280 metre long ship anyway. In fact, at times I worried that I was actually on board the spaceship from '2001: A Space Odyssey' and that some computer was about to switch off the life-support system.
In other respects it was like living in a Soviet submarine. While the crew was mostly Filipino, the officers were all Croatian and Ukrainian and they spent most of the rare periods in which they succumbed to my polite attempts to engage them in conversation reminiscing about the good ol' days under the Communists when the crews were large and the workloads small – plenty of scope for games, music and vodka.
Today, sadly, these cargo ships slide silently through the sea like ghosts. My entire floor, 'E Deck', was empty. I was the ship's 'Spare Officer (A)' according to the sign on my door, and fit somewhere in the hierarchical limbo between superfluous officer and steam-pipe mould. In one telling encounter I'd just finished putting on a wash when I turned and saw the captain standing in the laundry doorway. He looked at me, then at the washing machine.
"Err… do you want to go first?" I asked. He stared at me blankly.
"I'll get my stuff out. You go first."
The ship could also be quite spooky at times. The constant movement and vibrations of the vessel at sea seemed almost human. I often got the sense that someone had just sat down next to me or even gotten into bed with me. Objects placed on tables would march slowly but resolutely towards the edge, finally hitting the floor with a bang that invariably ejected me from my skin. Another concern, only slightly more legitimate, was of pirates. The first mate took me on a guided tour of the rest of the ship one day and pointed out all the anti-piracy apparati: riot hoses, rope ladder axes and even dummy security men equipped with fake rifles. The mate even related some stories of work colleagues who'd been taken hostage in these waters, sometimes for months.
Otherwise I spent my time reading, listening to podcasts, stuffing my face full of the excellent food prepared especially for me and watching movies from the 'Ship's Library'. They had the rather pointless but somewhat interesting 'Darjeeling Limited' about a train journey in a fictional country bearing no resemblance to India, and the much more excellent film 'Chopper', which toyed with my Melbournian homesickness. I filled in the gaps gazing at the hypnotic immensity of the ocean – a desert in flux. One night I saw swirling bioluminescent fireworks being churned up in our wake, mirroring the brilliant starfield above. I often watched leaping schools of fish shadowing our slow progress but I never saw the dolphins diving in the waves that the preceding passengers reported.
Well, I hear you ask, how much did this crazy sea voyage end up costing me? First, think of the carbon footprint: a back-of-the-envelope calculation puts my personal CO2 contribution at an additional 500 mils of fuel for the whole journey (although that's enough for over 2,000 kilometres of chain cleaning). Beyond that, let's just say that if I'd chosen instead to fly it would have required one fifth the money and one fiftieth the time. But stuff that. This was totally worth it.
After six days at sea I was at last disembarked at an Omani port half-way up the end of the Arabian Peninsula. It was 4:30 in the morning and I was thirty kilometres out of town. Miraculously, my ailing bike got me into the city. This was not helped by multiple shells of port security refusing to believe either that passengers could travel on cargo ships or that I could just ride on my bike into the country – but that's fine, by now I'm used to people not believing that what I'm doing is possible. Shortly after arriving in the delightfully named city of Salalah my bottom bracket actually disintegrated on me, flinging my left crank to the ground and grounding me where I stood.
I looked around at this strange new country. Oman is pretty much the opposite of India, the Indian underclass here even ride their bikes on the opposite side of the road (still the wrong side). Another contrast was the distinct impression I got that Salalah had just been hit by a neutron bomb and I was among the few survivors: loose sand blew across the streets; traffic lights flicked red and green unheeded; beige blocky buildings stood silently defiant in the centres of unnecessarily large urban properties.
In other respects Oman is like America. Everyone drives big American cars, there's fast food and enormous freeways all over the place and the materialistic yet deeply religious people are brash and loud while at the same time generous and helpful. They also practice polygamy, just like in America, as I found out from the young Arab civil engineering student sitting next to me on the night bus taking me to Musqat. He boasted that he would one day surpass his brother's acquisition of three simultaneous wives once he graduated and became rich.
The morning after the night's interminable drift through the vast Arabian Desert left me wandering the streets of Oman's capital for six hours, burdened by my unridable bike, looking for a reasonably priced hotel and a decent bike shop and being briefly stopped by the police while the Sultan of Oman drove past (he must never discover that there are other road users). The highlight of this depressing trudge was meeting three independent pairs of cycle tourists within a few minutes of each other. This highlight was soon surpassed when my bike was completely repaired by a Dutch-run cycling shop across town. I was now ready to head to Dubai.
Along the way I had pretty much all of the stereotypes I'd accumulated of Arabia confirmed. All except one: it was raining. For a solo cycle tourist with no tent, no sleeping bag and no sign of any hotels this was a problem. My brain seems to have exorcised the memories of trying to sleep under these conditions, often on freeway construction sites or by a drift of sand beneath a date palm, but I can still feel the occasional crisp sensation of the cold creeping under my skin. One night, just after crossing the UAE border, I awoke to a large motionless dog staring belligerently at me from the darkness. I won't even begin to describe the tenor of my dreams after that experience.
One afternoon in Oman as I was sitting on the coast of the Persian Gulf snacking away at a two kilo mass of date ooze (I was feeling a lot like I was part of an old Arabian caravan, riding through the desert on a diet of dates) I was accosted by a large local family eagerly inviting me into their home. After a long lunch they extended the invitation to the wedding of my English-speaking host's brother the following evening and, as the rain had yet to let up, I readily accepted. In the intervening time I was given the customary Arab tour: I met the family's prized camels, was taken four-wheel-driving on the nearby dunes (with my bike in the ute's tray, nerve-wrackingly) and was encouraged to fire a rifle into the air in preparation for the ceremonies (I never found out where the bullets landed).
Apart from receiving the traditional Arab garb as a gift I found the actual wedding to be a let-down. After the six grooms were simultaneously married without their brides on a football field crowded exclusively with men I stood outside a women-only reception hall with all the males waiting for their womenfolk to get bored and need a lift home (they can't be seen at all by a non-family member). Part of this waiting involved being driven up and down the freeway, whose speed limit of 140 kilometres per hour was universally ignored, doing the odd doughie. These Arabs also have a pathological need to spend ninety percent of their driving time talking on their phones. My old formula, cheap petrol equals bogans, has been proved correct – petrol here costs 40 cents a litre.
However, I had an excellent time with these generous people, learning the Arab culture and language, although the patriarch tried hard to convert me to Islam. One topic often came up though: people kept pointing out that Australia was 'against Iraq'. At the time I tried to explain to them the divergent public opinion on this issue but they all pulled perplexed expressions. It's only now that I realise they were talking about the soccer.
And it seems that love was in the air: as I was departing my host told me he'd just proposed to his uncle's family for their daughter. I later learnt he'd been accepted – his first of perhaps many wives.
The final four days of the tour had me riding over the rugged mountains separating the real Arabian Desert from its kinder coastal cousin and then heading into the most appalling headwind I'd ever encountered. At one point during this muscle-liquefying slog I looked up to see another solo cycle tourist gliding along in the other direction. Immediately we stopped each other to express great relief at finding company in this desolate landscape (although I can tell you there was more relief on the downwind side).
My companion's name was Lukas, a young Austrian riding to Kathmandu (or so he thought). He'd just come through Iran and gave me all his maps and guidebooks, his now superfluous second sleeping bag and many excellent tips of how to survive the Islamic Republic (leaving out one important piece of advice I will get to shortly). In meager exchange I donated the Indian SIM I'd fought so hard to retain. We ended up camping together in an old riverbed far from the obscenely brightly lit highway, staying up to all hours over an ebullient bonfire – an excellent night before my descent into Dubai.
For fifty kilometres I scrutinised the dune-strewn horizon for signs of civilisation. It took a long time before I realised that the ever-receding electricity pylon perpetually obscuring my view was no short pole… it was the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building. As I approached, this structure's true scale emerged. I kept on having to remind myself that it was human beings who built this thing (specifically Indians).
Now, rather than stay in the vastly overpriced city of Dubai itself I instead made for a hostel in the neighbouring Emirate of Sharjah, spending the afternoon searching for the place amongst the many and varied normal-sized skyscrapers of the sister-city. But at last I was walking through the doorway. To my left a couple of zombies stared at the TV while they mumbled Koranic verses. On the TV was a live feed from the Kaaba in Mecca which, I can now inform you as a true connoisseur of this cable channel, is really not that interesting. One of these devout pilgrims, a non-English-speaking Shiite Algerian, was sharing my dorm and would not only wake me up each night at three a.m. when his alarm went off for his morning prayer (which I could tolerate out of religious freedom) but kept hitting the snooze for an hour afterwards (which I couldn't). When I at last expressed my annoyance by threatening to throw his phone out the window all our communications were channeled solely through death stares. At least this stopped his constant disapproving gestures during each romantic comedy I put on to feed my unhealthy addiction of that genre that he thought the characters should be married (which would defeat the whole point of the movie).
During the day I made the long bike commute to Dubai – a distance of almost 100 kilometres both ways – along freeway shoulders, failed road-construction projects and floating bridges. It was only while returning to Sharjah on the second day, into another headwind, that I decided that, actually, this journey was too uncomfortably dangerous to do again (although I hasten to add that UAE drivers are surprisingly gregarious on the roads).
Dubai is still the desert. The traffic and bustle at street level don't seem to match the vast forest of empty-looking skyscrapers above. The city is a vertically exaggerated Arab village. Wherever there isn't an army of Indians to sweep the sand away the dunes shift and grow under flyovers and against buildings: it's a desert in the sky.
I spent my two days here checking out the local sites of the Dubai Mall with its huge shark aquarium, the luxurious Burj al Arab (from the outside sadly), the deceptively enormous Palm Jumeirah and the base of the Burj Khalifa. Interspersed amongst these activities I frantically organised for the rest of my trip. At the Iranian Consulate I almost lost my cool on discovery of their visa cost: $210. I inexpertly stifled an outburst while spitefully wishing John McCain had won the 2008 US federal election and had fulfilled his promise to bomb the country. Awkwardly I had to return the next day to collect my passport, but by then they'd already forgotten me. I then had a new pannier rack installed on my bike. When the South African bike mechanic discovered my rear brake pads had suddenly clamped shut during the installation he threatened, oddly, to make a scene in the shop before I even got the chance to accuse him of causing the problem. What an emotionally fraught day! At least my brakes mysteriously realigned themselves on the ride home.
But it wasn't long before all my troubles were forgotten and I was crossing the Persian Gulf to the Iranian port of Bandar-e Lengeh.
Unfortunately a new set of troubles are about to kick me in the teeth when I realise that economic sanctions against Iran mean I cannot access my bank account. I now have to survive the next few weeks on the small amount of cash I happened to have on me during the crossing.
In the next post learn how I have had to hurl myself on the hospitality of the Iranian people. See you then!