GRAHAM HUGHES: BANNED IN THE USA

(Caution: this entry is rather angry and sweary)

This week I was planning to come home from Panama to the UK for a few weeks. I want to see my mum and dad, my friends and family, and I might – might! – have a filming gig in Cyprus next month. Also I could do with getting off my island. Going a bit stir crazy over here on my own (still single!).

So I bought a flight home going via the USA, like I’ve done countless times before.

However, my ESTA visa “waiver” was up, so I thought oo eck I better renew. This would be my third ESTA since they brought them in for no good reason whatsoever back in 2011.

Now bear in mind that I’ll only be transiting through the US, a quick change of flights, won’t be leaving the airport.

So I apply… but now there’s all these new questions: Where do you work? Who are your parents? (Disturbing question given Republican frontrunner Trump has pledged to commit war crimes against the families of those who he deems terrorists.) And now… for your hair-pulling pleasure… have you been to the following 4 countries in the last 5 years…?

Iraq
Syria
Iran
Sudan

It’s a matter of public record (breaking) that I’ve been to all of these countries, but all in 2010, which means I’m out of the “5 year exclusion zone.”

HOWEVER…

In 2012 towards the end of my journey I passed back through Sudan on the way from Ethiopia to Egypt. I was there for 3 days. Getting a visa for Sudan from Addis Ababa was a freaking NIGHTMARE and to be honest with you, once in I was happy to get out of there asap – President Al-Bashir is not just a wannabe future war criminal like Trump, he’s a bona fide wanted war criminal.

Graham-Hughes-in-Sudan
Although I did get to snap this sweet-assed pic at the Meroe Pyramids on the way through.

Now… to declare or not to declare? I have a new passport since I finished The Odyssey Expedition. I could have just lied. But I’m an honest fucker and so I got well and truly fucked. Over a thousand dollars worth of fucked.

The decision came up as ‘pending’ and assured me that a decision would be made within 72 hours.

After 48 hours I was beginning to panic. I had already booked and paid for my non-refundable flight with United. I had applied for the ESTA 6 days before I travelled, that should be plenty of time.

And yet they made me wait.

And wait.

72 hours came and went.

Then 96 hours.

By the 120 hour mark I was already on a bus to Panama City, what else could I do?

And there in the back of the chicken bus winding through the mountains, the message finally came.

ESTA-not-authorised

For the love of God.

Now, if I had got an immediate answer, or even one within the first 72 hours, I could have booked in for a visa appointment at the American Embassy in Panama City, jumped on a bus and been there by the next day. But I was now within 24 hours of my flight.

With no way of getting an appointment before take-off I had to cancel my flight. My super-expensive non-refundable flight. Then I had to book a new flight home that didn’t go via the US.

I’m now on a list that includes terrorist sympathisers, criminals, drug dealers and Justin fucking Beiber.

Look, I’m not just an upstanding British Citizen, I am an outstanding British Citizen.*

I’ve set two Guinness World Records, raised thousands of pounds for charity, the TV show I presented was screened on the Travel Channel in the USA last Christmas and I’ve encouraged hundreds – if not thousands – of young people to travel the world. If you’re reading this you might be one of them.

I was accepted into every country in the world, I have no criminal record whatsoever and have never overstayed a visa. There are no points on my driver’s licence (and never has been), I’ve never taken illegal drugs, I’ve never even had a library fine. I’m a total boy scout FFS!

I’ve visited mainland USA dozens of times in the past without incident, and that does not include my travels to the US Virgin Islands, Puerto Rico, Northern Mariana Islands, Guam and American Samoa. My last 2 ESTAs were passed without any issue.

But really, at the end of the day who am I? A cantankerous, (fairly) over-achieving Brit who likes to travel and bang on about stuff.  It’s not like I actually put my life on the line supporting the Yanks in their last two unpopular and unwinnable wars… But friends of mine did. Friends who went on multiple tours to Iraq and Afghanistan. Friends who had their colleagues shot and blown up before their very eyes. For the Gloire of the American Empire.

Many now work doing security in the very countries that America well and truly fucked up. But now, in order to even transit through the USA – the country that they put their lives on the line for (sure as fuck wasn’t ours) – they need to apply for a visa.

I also have friends who work with the Red Cross and Medicine Sans Frontiers. They routinely risk their lives getting medications and vaccinations to some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. But now, no ESTA for them.

The visa process for America is labyrinthine and super expensive. I started filling out the form today but had to stop because it was taking too long. You have to give them your inside leg measurement, the name of your first stuffed toy and the code to the safe in your bedroom. Not only that, you have to log your last five visits to the USA. Including my trips to the US overseas territories (all of ‘em, by the way, I don’t do things by half) I’ve been to the USA more than 20 times in my lifetime… but the time I punch in the times, it kicks me off because I was taking too long!!

And that’s just the fucking form. You then have to book an appointment (which costs a small fortune),  travel to the capital city (Megabus methinks), pay for the visa (again, megabucks) find somewhere to stay for a fortnight (the visa can take up to 10 working days to issue), and then wait until the bastard thing comes through………….. WHICH IT MIGHT NOT!!

No refunds motherfucker!!

“Irony” means “the opposite of what you’d expect”, so the fact that the President of the United States is travelling this weekend to Saudi Arabia – the country that has done more to foster and encourage international terrorism than any other could not be in anyway described as ironic.

Saudi funds the Taliban. And Al-Qaeda. And Isis. And Boko Haram. And every Wahhabist terror group in the word.  Fifteen of the Nineteen 9/11 hijackers were from Saudi, as was Osama bin Laden. Saudi propped up Saddam Hussein before he went mad and invaded Kuwait. They are the ones pushing the anti-Shi’ite agenda around the Middle East. They are the reason, the only goddamn reason that Iran – a country that has not carried out a terror attack against the US in decades – is on the ‘no travel’ list for ESTAs.

Saudi sent tanks over the causeway to crush protests in Bahrain back in 2011, is currently bombing the living shit out of Yemen and has sentenced innocent people to death for even the mildest criticism of their evil little regime.

The clusterfuck that is Iraq and Syria right now has its roots in Saudi meddling (and by Christ they are profiting from it like CRAZY) and do you really think that the situation in Israel wouldn’t have been sorted out years ago if it wasn’t so damn convenient as the Saudi’s ultimate “weapon of mass distraction”… I don’t see you all freaking out on Facebook about the plight of the Yemenis – just replace “Israel” with “Sunni” and “Palestine” with “Shi’ite” and I look from pig to man, and from man to pig again; but already it was impossible to say which was which.

So you know what country I’d be concerned that a British person had visited? Saudi. Ground zero of almost all the horrors the world has seen over the last 15 years. Also, I’d consider nuclear menace North Korea, anarchy-in-chief Somalia and you know what? Andorra. I’ve always had my suspicions about Andorra.

But considering the Saudi government spends untold billions on defence, defence they pay us Brits and dem Yanks are eager to provide, they get a clear run to do whatever the fuck they like. Super eh?

But there’s really nothing I can do… except make a fuss and maybe even start a petition to get the UK government to introduce its own reciprocal arrangement with the Yanks. Because at the moment all they have to do if they’d like to visit the greatest country in the world is show the fuck up – and what do we get in return? The freedom to be financially penalised for the crime of exploring this otherwise wonderful planet of ours? Who do you think you are Uncle Sam? Russia?!

AMERICAN-TOURISTS
Down with this sort of thing. Careful Now.

*modest too

The Ten Hats of Graham David Hughes – Part 1

For those who haven’t noticed, I tend to wear a hat. An Australian kangaroo skin Akubra, which I wear for consistency, recognisability and because I think it looks cool. Also, I’m thinning at the front and I don’t want anybody to know.

Graham Hughes Lifts Hat
#ThePerfectCrime

There are, of course other more practical reasons for my hat – it prevents my nose, ears and neck from getting sunburnt, it shields my eyes from the sun, it comes in handy as a fan, a mini-umbrella or even a pillow.

I tend to reserve the use of my hat for when I’m travelling, attending music festivals or being interviewed on the telly.

 

But what you might not know is that behind the scenes my hat has been played by several different hats – ten in all. However, they’ve always been the same hat. A bit like Doctor Who.

Hat 1 – “The Original”

April 2002 – 21 August 2004 (Lost)

Appropriately, my first hat was bought in Alice Springs, slap-bang in the middle of Australia during my roadtrip around the great Red Continent with my then-girlfriend Mandy, who bought it for me as a gift.

The hat stayed on my head for the rest of the journey around Oz, then after I bade farewell to Mandy and continued on alone (kinda) through New Zealand, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Brazil, Paraguay, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Colombia.

I wore it to my cousin’s wedding in Dublin and then for the next few years of travel and music festivals.

In spring 2004 I left it on a long-distance bus in Greece. Mandy and I had a bit of a panic, but the wonderful bus company got it back for us.

 

But then, in the summer of 2004, I found myself at the V Festival in Staffordshire. More specifically, I found myself backstage of the NME Signing Tent at the V Festival in Staffordshire… with a fridge full of Carling, and The Scissor Sisters.

Ana Matronic and I were in the middle of putting the world to rights when I heard the unmistakeable sound of THE PIXIES blasting from the main stage. I kissed the lovely Ana goodbye and ran as fast as my wobbly drunken legs could carry me.

I vaguely remember the intro to Digging for Fire, and maybe a bit of crowdsurfing.

Some indeterminate time later, I awoke, splayed out on the ground, not far from the madding crowd wondering why The Pixies were covering New York City Cops by The Strokes. Wiping the grass from my sleeves, I stood up and realised it was because Frank n’ Kim had finished an hour ago. We were now halfway through The Strokes.

Also, I had lost my hat.

Hat 2 – “The Sequel”

December 2004 – February 2006 (Lost)

Later that year I returned to Melbourne for the first time since 2002. Mandy and I went to Vic Market and I got my hands on Hat 2. It was nice to have a hat on my head again, although Mandy forbade me from wearing it whilst out and about in Melbourne as apparently that would be a “totally bogan” thing to do.

Yet Hat 2 remained my faithful friend, coming with me to a string of music festivals across 2005 and then to Thailand in February 2006. Bizarrely, I shared the flight over to Bangkok with Ian Brown, Franz Ferdinand (the band, not the Archduke) and Oasis. They were due to appear at a music festival on the outskirts of the capital that weekend… along with Arctic Monkeys, Placebo and Maximo Park.

There was no way I was going to miss this. I met up with my old university chum Stan on Khao San Road and we got ourselves tickets for the gig. Later that same day we would share a round of drinks with 70s comedians Frank Carson (RIP) and Stan Boardman outside a go-go bar in Patpong. It was that kind of trip.

The gig was MENTAL. Brilliantly mental. They ran out of beer in the first hour and so dozens of locals turned up and started selling cold ones out of the back of their cars. When the security guy had his back turned, beer cans flew over the double metal fence one way and balls of scrumpled up bhat flew the other.

The next day security had improved and so the only way of getting a drink was to buy a shot of the ubiquitous 100 Pipers whisky – the sponsors of the event. However, the powers that be decided to set up several games of skill – darts, hoop-la, hook-a-duck etc, the successful completion of which would result in a free shot. Kinda like a brilliant drunken Thai version of The Crystal Maze.

My favourite was the run-the-metal-loop-along-the-wire-without-touching-the-wire challenge. Especially considering while I was doing it (and had already made it buzz 2 of the permitted 3 times) Stan secretly unplugged the apparatus. Ka-ching! Drinks please!!

A few days later and the drunken carnival of ridiculousness that was our Thai holiday peaked at the Ko Pha Ngan half-moon party in the jungle. We had been drinking since lunchtime, and were already off our scones before we arrived at the party. We got ourselves temporary UV tattoos of words that cannot be reprinted in this family periodical and embarked on another round of Buckets.

For the uninitiated, a ‘Bucket of Joy’ is a Thai delicacy involving vodka, whiskey, Red Bull, Coca-Cola and a ton of ice. It comes in a little plastic bucket and it gets you very drunk. If you’re already very drunk then it gets you very trouble.

I was already very drunk.

For some reason I got it into my head that we were being raided by the police so I legged it into the jungle. Now, there’s a reason why they don’t hold the Men’s 100m in the jungle at night. It’s a case of simple mathematics: the chances of a moveable object running through the jungle in the dark hitting a immoveable object, such as a big frikkin’ TREE are roughly 100%.

And hit it I did.

Now, I have a range of super-powers that come in damn handy for travelling and without which I may not have been able to complete The Odyssey Expedition. One is that I can sleep anytime, anyplace, anywhere. Another is that I rarely get ill. A third is that I can wake up whenever I want – so long as I think about it before I go to sleep. Finally, I am the proud owner of an almost supernaturally dependable beer scooter.

A beer scooter is the magical device that somehow gets you home when you’ve had one too many. Mine seems to work no matter where ‘home’ is from one day to the next. One minute I was flat on my back in the jungle, the next I’m on the other side of the island flat on my back in bed in our room back at the Coco Hut in Hat Rin and it’s morning and it’s sunny and Christ my face hurts and…

Bollocks.

Where’s me hat? 🙁

Hat 3 – “The Enigma”

March 2006 – ??? (Missing)

Hat 3

Hat 3 was the Babylon 4 of hats. It had only been online for a short time when it went missing in time and space. Mandy and I bought it out on the Melbourne quayside after the Thai debacle (which also resulted in me contracting conjunctivitis, that most miserable (and infectious) of eye diseases). It came with us on our trip across the Nullabor from Melbourne to Perth and attended the Download Festival with our Stan.

 

One day it was happily sitting in my flat in Liverpool, the next it was gone. Nobody knows when it disappeared or where it went, but disappear it did, which is why I’m not wearing a hat for Stan and I’s insane road trip around Europe in July 2007.

Hat 4 – “The Legend”

December 2007 – February 2010 (Retired)

02_-_TravellerA

Hat 4. You wonderful thing you.

Purchased from Vic Market in Melbourne in the run-up to Christmas 2007, my brain formed more happy memories from inside Hat 4 than any other.

Hat 4 was with me in Barcelona for my birthday in 2008, it was with me in Australia when I got Lonely Planet involved in The Odyssey Expedition that summer, it came with Mandy and I to Paris for our last tango and, yes, this was the hat that accompanied my head for the first 13 months and 142 countries of The Odyssey Expedition.

I wore it through every country in South America, The Caribbean, Central and North America, Europe and North West Africa. Bear in mind that it’s not actually attached to my head and I was travelling alone with nobody to watch my stuff.

It came with me on the boat over to Cape Verde and, together with a copy of Lonely Planet West Africa, helped form my ‘pillow’ whilst I was sleeping on the concrete floor of the jail in Praia.

It made it back to Africa and travelled with me through Mali, Sierra Leone, Cote D’Ivoire, Nigeria, Cameroon and Gabon. Whilst I was allowed to keep it when incarcerated in Cape Verde, in Congo I was not so lucky. Before they bundled me in that jail cell with blood smeared all over the walls, I was relieved of not just my belt and my shoelaces (standard), but also my shoes, socks, t-shirt, glasses (yes really)… and Hat 4.

Upon my release six days later I stopped at the doorway, turned back for one last glance at the sorry state of the police station in which I had been held, then, face forward, slipped on Hat 4 and strode out a free man. It was exceptionally cinematic.

Shame there was nobody around to see it.

Hat 4 stayed on my head all through the rest of Central Africa. It came with me through Southern Africa, East Africa, the Indian Ocean islands, then North-East Africa and the Middle East. I wore it in Sudan, Israel, Syria and Iraq.

 

But all good things…

The road had taken a toll on Hat 4. And as a result of being so often drenched and then dried in the baking hot African sun, Hat 4 had shrunk. And it didn’t smell too good either. I tried stretching it, but there was nothing for it. I would have to get a new hat.

Being a damn good sport, Mandy bought me a new one from Vic Market in Melbourne and sent it over to the UK, where I would be pit-stopping for visas and a mum-cooked roast before hitting Libya and Algeria.

So the legend that is Hat 4 now lives at my parent’s place, hooked on a set of Texan bull horns in the hallway under a sign that reads ‘Mustang Me ’At Up On The Wall’.

The story continues with Hat 5 “The Daredevil”…