17 countries from becoming the first person in history to reach every country completely without flying
Day 2,144 since October 10th 2013: 186 countries out of 203. No flight, no return home and min 24 hrs in each country
(The opinions expressed on this site are my own, and do not reflect the position or policies of the Danish Red Cross).
Wow! That was a long title.
We live in a real world. We are real people. We really exists…and yet: We surround ourselves by fake images, items and sources of fakery. Social media is nearly always a lie or at a minimum an alteration of reality. Click bait works. Unreasonable fear sells. Beauty is coveted. What has value?
Yeah, I’ve been on a ferry for a few days and I’ve had too much time on my own. Time to think. I can draw statistics on the Saga’s social media. I can see where the followers are from. I can see how many read the blogs I write and where across the planet they access them from. It is quite the community we have built up together. For the most part I grew up in a small village in Denmark called Bryrup. It’s a beautiful place. The village is partially within a valley and partially on top of it. Bryrup was home to about 1,200 people when I grew up there. I hear they are about 2,000 now. The largest stadium in Denmark holds the capacity of 40,000 spectators. The following of the Saga would be able to fill that stadium and then some…if we all gathered in one place. The Saga’s accounts are not bots and fake accounts. Everyone who follows and supports are real people who do it of their own free will. And the majority are interestingly from the USA. Welcome one and all.
Borneo is very green. Unfortunately much of it is for palmoil production. It does however generate many jobs.
In this entry your will read about a girl on a pink bicycle, rats, a cat being hunted by large monitor lizards, a mountain of hidden bureaucrazy and disappointment, sickness, Indonesia’s national shipping company Pelni, Greenland and the president of the USA, the excellent podcasts of Ric Gazarian, the upcoming Saga Shop, the challenge of solitude and finally life onboard a ferry. So let’s get started. I left Sandakan in eastern Malaysia on the world’s 3rd largest island (Borneo). For a while I’ve been communicating with Titi from Pelni’s office in Jakarta (capital of Indonesia). I was first introduced to Titi when the kind hostel owner, Marta, at Stay Inn Hostel Jakarta, went with me to Pelni’s office to see if we could get a ticket for me from Jakarta to Pontianak on Borneo. Pelni did more than that! They sponsored the ticket and Titi and I stayed in touch. So even before leaving the Philippines I reached out to Titi to hear about their ferry from Nunukan (Indonesia) to Kupang on Timor (Indonesia). I was originally unaware that the connection existed but was tipped off by a good friend I’ve never met. Someone who also assists me with security advise whenever I need to head through a region where the security situation might be a threat to me. Yeah, so Titi was as helpful the second time as she was the first. Weeks in advance before boarding the ferry, arrangements had been made. I only mention this because a great many have expressed that “I was lucky” to board the ferry on August 20th. I know that many use the word luck in kindness. Somehow it just stings when I hear it. Is that crazy? Luck is when something fortunate happens in a situation where you had no say in the outcome. You are hardly lucky if you study for an exam and pass. Or if you receive your pay check after a month of hard work. I have been lucky a great many times throughout the Saga. However we have not reached 186 countries purely based on luck ;)
The one hour ferry from Malaysia to Indonesia.
I was in Sandakan (Malaysia) on August 16th and knew that I had half a days’ worth of travel to cross the border back into Indonesia and reach Nunukan. The ferry was due to leave on the 20th. I chose to go to Nunukan asap in preparation as the ferry only leaves twice a month and I did not want to miss it. On the 17th I got up early, headed to the bus terminal, found my bus, reached the border (ferry to Nunukan), checked out of Malaysia for the last time within the Saga (4th time) and boated across to Nunukan island. It’s a small island. Really small. And Nunukan is a small time village kind of place. I quickly checked in to Hotel Gita near the port which was a REALLY simple place. And cheap! I went for the cheapest room but changed my mind when I saw it had no window. It was basically just a box with a madras on the floor and a tin roof. The second cheapest room ran for $8 USD, was slightly larger, had a plastic chair in the corner, a mirror on the wall, a fan on the wall, a madras on the floor and a window facing some overgrown dump between two buildings. And the window was permanently open. Hotel Gita is kind of built on a swamp so mosquitos and insects where plentiful. My first purchase in Nunukan were some mosquito coils I could light. Rats were running around left and right. Some big ones too! The floorboards were a bit of a gamble to walk on. Home sweet home.
Hotel Gita, Nunukan.
I hoped to find a “Starbucks type” café somewhere in Nunukan but quickly realized that there would be no such thing. I appeared to be the only non-local in town and drew a lot of attention. I couldn’t walk for a few minutes without someone shouting “Hey mister!! What’s your name? Country?” I would reply with “Hello sir, Thor from Denmark”. Mostly they wouldn’t understand my reply. They were just overwhelmed and proud to speak what little English they knew. Some however knew more than others. Some wanted selfies with me. There was a lot of giggling. I try to stay kind as long as possible although it get old really fast. At some point I just want to be left alone or have a real conversation. The cuteness scale however exploded when a very young boy asked me the same questions as everyone else but in perfect English. Shortly after he chased after me down the street with a smartphone bigger than his head and very politely requested a selfies. I got down on one knee and accommodated him. His day was made! Later on a spotted a young handicapped man whose arms were terribly deformed. Once he spotted me, he hid his deformed arms behind his back while passing me, smiling all over his face and greeting me politely. He clearly did not want me to see his deformity. I just smiled back and greeted him in the same fashion. Nunukan felt pure and unspoiled to me. Like a real jungle village with real people living real lives. However my hopes of sitting in an air-conditioned café and working on my laptop were far beyond reach.
Looking down upon Nunukan from ontop of a hill.
At one point I walked up a hill and spotted some young people commanding two groups of equally young people. It could have been scouts but it looked more like a scene from Fight Club. 6-7 boys and girls stood side by side like in the military while someone in charge would let them drink from a cup. But they were not allowed to pour for themselves. The one in charge lifted the cup to their mouths and allowed them to sip. Another group was crawling along the roadside while chanting something. The leaders smiled and greeted me but did not speak English. It was hot. It was humid. I continued. I spotted a chubby boy on a bicycle which was too small for him. I greeted him but he just stared at me and then ignored me. However later on he rolled up behind me and then next to me and said (in broken English) “have you seen a girl on a pink bicycle?”
My room...home for four days...
During my first night in my $8 room I heard a lot of movement below my window as if someone was walking about down there. I did not feel threatened. I just wondered. The next morning I looked outside and spotted a rather large monitor lizard, then another one…and another. In total I spotted four of them. I suspected there might be a lot more. On my second day I spent a lot of time observing the lizards in the morning. In particular because a dumb orange cat had made its way in between them and I wanted to see if they would eat it? A few of the lizards tried to chase it but once the cat was cornered it hissed and scared them off. To my surprize?!? For sure I would have bet on the dinosaur looking creatures! However I noticed that the approach from the lizards were to move slowly and sneak up. Not make any fast movements or aggressive attacks. The cat better not sleep anywhere near them.
Can you spot both monitor lizards in this picture?
Titi arranged for me to go to the Pelni Branch Office and collect my ferry ticket. The staff there were super sweet. Everyone in Nunukan was super sweet! They didn’t speak much English but offered me coffee and wanted to take some selfies. I left the office with the ticket. The ferry was supposed to arrive at 08:00am and leave by 10:00 but King Neptune had other plans. Delays do occur all the time. I was told to go to the port around 3pm. From the moment I approached the port and until I dropped my bags in my cabin only took 30 minutes!! Super-efficient compared to recent experiences with other ferries. Pelni covered my costs but if I had to pay then it would only have been $34 USD for the 3-4 day voyage across 2,444 km (1,519 mi). Pelni (Pelayaran Nasional Indonesia) is among the last large ferry companies which still operate with budget tickets. It is hard for them to compete against the low fare flights which are all too common today. However now airplane fares are getting more expensive within Indonesia which shifts many passengers to go by sea again. Pelni has been around since 1952 and are today a fundamental part of Indonesia’s network. They connect all the main islands and this voyage was the second time I had the pleasure of sailing with them.
This flew in and landed on my bed. I think it's a Callirhipidae Elateridae. Amizing looking antennae!
While still in the $8 room I began to feel sick. Stiffness of the joints, some headache, the left side of my forehead was itching…was I really sick or imagining? The smoke from the mosquito coils which the bugs and I had been inhaling throughout the night was surely not good for me. I had received some insect bites but from which insects? Was the water I drank okay? I had been filtering it with my LifeSaver Water Bottle but was the source okay? I cannot filter salts or chemicals out of the water. The bottle filters virus, bacteria and fungi. Was I really sick or was I bored and imagining? Heck? I could be full of parasites and not know it? Cancer could be eating away at me? I could also be perfectly fine and imagining. Occam’s razor is a principle from philosophy in which when there are two explanations then the one which requires least speculation is thought to be correct. So perhaps I had some headache and stiff joints because I was dehydrating? Perhaps I was itchy because I needed a bath. The water source for my filtered water was likely fine – there was no reason to believe it would be contaminated. Who knows? I looked in the mirror and my eyes seemed red and puffy. It could definitely be the smoke. I made sure to drink a lot of water, eat well and have a bath (with water from a bucket). It could also all just be stress…all the pieces I need to fall into place to make this project work. All the things I want to achieve with the Saga. It could be anything. It could be many things. The mind can play powerful tricks on us. There is truly a mountain of bureacrazy and hard labour going on behind the curtains of this project which I cannot share with you. Not now anyway. And there is a lot of disappointment as well. Overall but also in daily occurrences and dealings with people, companies and organizations. “Don’t bite the hand that feeds you” they say.
I can spend a lot of time wondering why this project does not receive more attention and recognition. I know that it isn’t “sexy” to promote the good, the normal and kindness from our planet. Everything needs to be horrific or “awesome”. However if there ever was a time where we needed proof that people are just people, that we all have so much in common, that the world is not a scary place, that we are connected across countries and that we have common interests…then wouldn’t it be now? But what else can I do other than carry on? 17 more countries to go. It sounds like nothing but it is a heck of a lot considering which ones are missing. The accumulated distance by shortest route between the remaining countries is: 45,097 km (28,022 mi)!! We need to sail to all of them and 15 of them have zero ferry connections. So “you’re nearly there” doesn’t really apply to what comes next.
The kind staff at Pelni's branch in Nunukan :)
What came next was however highly unexpected. People began texting me about President Donald Trump and Greenland. I already knew. I follow the media and try to stay updated on current affairs as much as possible. I’m sure that Trump is good for some things and bad for others. Aren’t most leaders? However the level of bizarreness from that particular President is sometimes baffling. And the hard core supporters seem to say that it’s all a part of a larger plan which will be revealed later. I find that argument amusing. It is like saying “God works in mysterious ways”. When you are shooting a game of billiards you can go about it in two ways: 1) you can announce which pocket you are shooting for and then try to do it. Or 2) you can shoot, hit a pocket and then state that it was your intention all along. It is easy to draw a line between past events and the present. It is far harder to draw a line before everything plays out. Hindsight – you know. If you have no idea what happened then here’s the short version. The Kingdom of Denmark in the high North of Europe is a kingdom of three nations: Faroe Islands, Greenland and Denmark. Each nation has its own government/parliament but all adhere to her majesty Queen Margrethe II. Think about it as England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. Okay, the scene is set. An official state visit had been scheduled in which President Donald Trump would pay a visit to Denmark, meet her majesty the Queen and discuss foreign affairs with our government. So far so good. Preparations were made but then out of the blue, two weeks prior to the meeting, Trump airs ideas on buying Greenland?! However it is quickly put down as a joke. Oh! Ha-ha? The weirdness scale jumped quite a bit on that “joke”. Then suddenly Trump confirmed that it was not a joke, it was serious, he asked his staff to look into a potential purchase, however stated that it was not high priority. At this point a large part of the world was scratching the back of the neck wondering how to make any sense of this? The Danish government announces that Greenland is not for sale and adds that the suggestion is absurd. Before anyone can blink the state visit is called off by Trump who states that the reason to cancel the visit was the refusal of selling Greenland…which was not a priority to him? Looooooooooong pause…more silence…whaaaaaat? Did that just happen? Meanwhile people are saying stuff like “It is classic art of the deal” or “get used to it, we have been dealing with it for a long time” or “this is not so odd, Harry Truman suggested the same thing in the past”. Well, yes, Truman did suggest it. Only his presidency ended in 1953 and nobody has suggested it since then. In the 50s a black man had to give up his seat for a white man in the USA. In the 50s Europe was recovering from a devastating world war. Colonies used to be a normal thing in the past. We used to think that radioactive material had magical properties and added it to tooth paste, watches and condoms. I think it is safe to say that times have changed. Welcome to 2019.
How cute is this passenger terminal? :)
However I cannot help to wonder what goes on while the world is debating an absurd Greenland purchase. What is it a distraction from. It must be a distraction – right? Anyway, moving on: the good ship “KM Bukit Siguntang” from Pelni’s fleet left Nunukan and I had a four bed cabin all to myself. I hadn’t quite escaped the bugs from Nunukan as the ferry had quite a few. I guess it’s really hard to fight them given the hot and humid climate of the region and the habits of the many passengers which routinely board and disembark. On my first morning onboard a man knocked on the door and wanted to fumigate the room. Efforts are taken to combat the little critters. The good ship is not a young lady. She has seen the sands of time flow for many years. However she is quite charming with wooden planks covering the outdoor areas and the karaoke was once again unavoidable. The logistics of the ferry was well organized. Meals were served three times a day and a queue of a hundred men would move along in just five minutes. Meals came in prepared plastic trays and would not be handed out until an announcement was made over the loudspeaker.
This looked like it would take forever. It took less than ten minutes to pass!
Ready to board...
First meal onboard! Actually 80% of my meals looked like this.
My cabin also had a loudspeaker. A really LOUD-speaker! All announcements would be made in Indonesian so I had no idea what was being said most of the time. I figured that I was the only non-native passenger onboard so any announcement in English would have been pointless and strictly for me. I could guess some of the announcements though. I certainly knew when they called out for prayer of which the Morning Prayer was particularly loud within my cabin – and very early! The dial to switch down the volume did nothing. Neither did the dial to switch channel. I ended up pushing my laundry bag and my North Face duffel bag up against the loudspeaker which muffled it somewhat. Any announcement which ended in “Deck Two” would be an announcement on that a meal was ready. These announcements also corresponded with the time of the meals. If an announcement was made after having been at sea for a while, which included a ports name, then it would be something about “…we are now arriving to…”. Ah yes…where there is a will there is a way. Hardly anyone onboard spoke any significant amount of English so there was a lot of “hello mister” going on in which I would respond “hi sir”. My cabin was the only place I could be alone. The only place I could find solitude. I was hungry for a real conversation but had little chance of that. Anytime I moved about on the ship people would stare at me as if I was an alien and many would approach me with big smiles and speak Indonesian, which I did not understand. I found myself lonely in a sea of people.
My cabin! And I ended up having it all to myself for the entire journey across :)
While onboard I listened to several of Ric Gazarians podcasts. He is on to something interesting as he interviews people who have either been to every country or are trying to go to every country. The podcast is called “Counting Countries” and Ric goes as “Global Gaz” across social media. I listened to the one with Sepp Kaiser from Austria who went to every country in a timespan of ten years before the internet was a thing. No smartphones, no internet searches…real travel! Good podcast! Interesting man! I got interested in him as I wanted to know if anyone had ever gone to every country in a single journey (without returning home). Sepp might have but I’m unsure if he did all the countries without returning to Austria at any point? So I have tried reaching out to him. Another good podcast is the one where Ric interviews Lexie Alford for the second time. She is gunning for the Guinness World Record as the youngest to reach every country at the age of 21! She completed that journey earlier this year and is now collecting 10,000+ documents to verify it. Guinness is such a trade mark and a huge business. There are other companies which verify records such as Record Setter but you would never have heard of them. Everyone knows Guinness. I don’t know if I would bother with them? Lexie is however a trooper and while she is very young she speaks with a wisdom and grace of someone well beyond her years. Good podcast.
Queuing up three times a day for food. Fortunately it moved forward fast.
That’s about it. Pelni did well in terms of logistics, efficiency and kindness. We managed to put 2,444 km (1,519 mi) behind us as we left Borneo and reached Sulawesi, left Sulawesi and reached East Nusa Tenggara and finally continued to Kupang on Timor. Just three of Indonesia’s more than 17,000 islands. It’s a mindboggling large country with an incredible diversity and a huge population. We “only” called five ports between Nunukan and Kupang: Balikpapan, Pare-Pare, Makassar, Sikka and Lewoleba, and did it all from Tuesday to Saturday. Lots of passengers embarking and disembarking. I’m grateful to Titi and everyone else involved. It is always a pleasure to collaborate with Pelni. Thanks a lot.
This voyage was the one that brought me into the arms of my one of a kind fiancée for the 21st time since the Saga took off in 2013. Click HERE to see the short video and hear the song by Nelson Can capturing the first twenty visits. 17 countries left. Let’s keep on keeping on.
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Mr. Torbjørn C. Pedersen (Thor) - I have shaved!
"A stranger is a friend you've never met before"
Once Upon A Saga