Highlights of 2016 Adventure – Half the World Away

‘What was the best part of your trip?’ – since returning from my ten month trip around the world, I’ve heard this question more than any other.
As once would expect after spending the best part of ten months in 15 different countries from Nepal to Brazil, I’m often left pondering the question for longer than the asker is prepared to sit around and wait for an answer.

The truth is it’s probably easier for me to pick out the worst bits of my trip and accepting that the rest of it was on an equally incredible level.

Getting sick in Myanmar, crashing on a moped in Thailand and having chronic insomnia on a 16 hour night bus in South America stand out as the main low points. The rest of the time, I was in an either an awe-inspired or giddy mood due to the differing surroundings and experiences.

But, if I had to pick out five highlights of the past ten months, here they are in no particular order:

1 – Watching the sunrise over the Himalayas. After trekking for four days in the Annapurna region of the Himalayas in Nepal, my guide and I woke up at 4am to hike up for an hour and a half to a vantage point called Poonhill, where we were able to watch in clear glory the sunrise lighting up the Annapurna mountain range.

It was as if the sun was setting Annapurna Three on fire, and by far and away the most rewarding sunrise I have ever seen.

2 – Trekking to the Tiger’s Nest Monastery in Bhutan. The first time I read about the Paro Taktsang temple I was enthralled by mere pictures of it and upon seeing it with my own eyes, early on a crisp Bhutanese morning I was astounded even more than I thought I would be. It looked surreal, I couldn’t quite believe I was seeing it for real.

Inside, the whole building just reverberated with serenity, even more so when I joined some monks in meditation. I cannot accurately explain why I was drawn so much to this place but I’m happy to let that mystery be between me and the monastery on that cliff edge.

3 – Cycling down ‘The Death Road’ in Bolivia. Also known as the Yungas Road outside of La Paz, this 56km mountainous road infamously sees at least one tourist death a year. Many stories of those who came off one of the sheer and extremely close drops were told to our group as we made our way down the road from more than 15,000 feet up.

Still, while taking care not to cut my trip short, the adrenaline rush of racing down the windy and rocky mountain pass is undoubtedly one of the most thrilling experiences of my life, reminding me at the same time just how human and therefore vulnerable I am. I fell twice, but luckily that was only at the end safely on to some rocks.

4 – Travelling the ruins of Angkor Wat temple complex. Not just the famous building itself but the surrounding area, which is full of secret temples secreted away in the thick Cambodian jungles. Riding on a bike made it easier to get around and had I had more time, I wish to have spent more time simply going off the beaten track even more and dare I say it, living the Tomb Raider experience for real.

The mix of Hindu and Buddhist structures were so ornate and different to what we in the predominantly Christian world know, that every building seemed to be altogether strange yet wondrous work of art in my eyes. Not quite intrepid exploring but made even more fulfilling by the friendly nature of the local Cambodians.

5 – The Inca Trail to Machu Picchu. This for me was one of the key reasons I went to South America. Something I had read about for many years and fantasised of seeing with my own eyes.

Every day as we climbed higher and higher on the trail, the struggle became more arduous but I couldn’t hold back the excitement from visiting the Inca site that is still so shrouded in mystery. We still don’t even know what happened to the Incas that were there. In that way, it helps preserve the aura of the place which just seems to be something from a different planet.

Beautiful architecture, stunning mountainous backdrops and a fascinating technology used by the Incas made the journey a true jewel in my travelling crown.

The Incas worshiped the sun as if it were a god – and watching as the sunrise lit the mountain just behind the famous citadel it’s easy to understand why. The light streaming down draped the landscape as if you were looking at paradise. Suffice to say it exceeded all my expectations, as I walked around grinning inanely like a six-year-old.  

BONUS – Visiting Graceland. On many occasions have I been awe-struck this year, and none more so than when I visited the home of Elvis Presley last month. I was shaking with anticipation while making my way to downtown Memphis and walking through the doors of the home of an icon who has transcended music and pop culture.

For me, it was a personal pilgrimage as Elvis’ music and performances have been a big aspect of my creative and appreciative mind. The house itself is frozen in time, with the rooms exactly as they where when the King lived there, even though Elvis has definitely left the building. I kept having to pinch myself walking around. Glory, glory hallelujah.

A perfect way to close my adventure – for now…


Rio report card…High marks for Paralympics but IOC has questions to answer over the Olympics

After making my way through Uruguay and Argentina, from July to September I reported on the Rio 2016 Olympics and Paralympics. Here is my evaluation of the Games:

RIO DE JANEIRO, September 29, 2016 – To misquote Mark Twain, the rumours of Rio’s Olympic catastrophe have been greatly exaggerated.

As the city resumes ‘normal service’ after hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games, one can reflect on how the world’s biggest multi-sport event has left its mark.

The Paralympics were undoubtedly a remarkable success. Even with the challenges of late budget restrictions and slow ticket sales, the event turned around and captured the imagination of the spirited locals.

They did not pack out all venues as in London but the Cariocas who did turn out cheered on the Paralympians in the traditional manner Brazilian – deafeningly and melodically.

The Paralympics were also broadcast to many more people around the world, with the IPC not even able to show all the action live to all countries because of various new rights holders.

The Paralympics were a success, and a vindication of striving against adversity.

The Olympics? Not so straightforward.

Transport delays

On the organisational side, for all the scaremongering, the Games played out with no major incidents. Sure, there were a few grumbles here and there about transport delays, the odd stray bullet or two (!) and a green diving pool, but they happened. People competed, won medals, and ensured their place in Olympic history.

Contrary to the buildup to these Games, the body that emerged facing the most questions was the IOC.

After one year in the role of president after succeeding Jacques Rogge in 2013, journalists summarised that Thomas Bach had enjoyed a relatively easy start to his term.

How times change.

The German’s handling of the Russian doping allegation scandal saw him lambasted by the media, for “passing the buck” by allowing Olympic participation to be decided by the international federations and not the IOC.

His decision was in stark contrast to that of Sir Philip Craven, president of the IPC, who sanctioned a blanket ban of all Russian athletes at the Paralympics to absolutely ensure a “clean Games”.

Then, the IOC suffered the FIFA treatment. A hotel arrest of senior executive board member Patrick Hickey threw into the spotlight the shady area surrounding ticket selling at the Games. Brazilian police say the system under investigation was also targeted at Pyeongchang 2018 and Games beyond. No wonder they wanted to question Bach, the head of all things Olympic.

No return

Hence eyebrows were raised when he chose not to return to Brazil for the Paralympic Games. His absence at the opening ceremony was explained away by his attendance at the state funeral of former German President Walter Scheel, of whom Bach was a friend.

No one could begrudge someone attending a funeral but Bach’s office then confirmed he was too busy to attend any Paralympic competition at all. Be that as it may, the inability to show solidarity with the Olympics’ partner event did not look good.

Bach will be back in South America next September for the IOC general session in Lima to choose the 2024 Olympic host from among the remaining three candidates. This past week’s thumbs-down from Rome Mayor Virginia Raggi left Budapest, Los Angeles and Paris to fight it out.

More and more, people are questioning whether the Games are worth the money and investment. Public referendums, such as the one held in Hamburg in 2015, have illustrated widespread concern over whether major disruption and expenditure benefits a city and its residents.

Rio’s struggle to cope with the demands of infrastructure development are well documented. Targets and deadlines were missed and IOC members voiced their frustrations on many occasions.

Political turmoil

But Brazil is a country that, while it was booming at the time of winning the bid in 2009, has seen political and economical turmoil sweep the nation like a tidal wave.

Brazil’s currency falls by the day while unemployment rises. President Dilma Rousseff was impeached even during the break between the Olympics and Paralympics. Michel Temer is officially her successor, much to the dismay of a large majority of the nation who make themselves heard in daily protests. Rio’s Presidente Vargas road is a near-constant scene of political protest still.

So while some may criticise Cariocas for not filling the venues at the Games, and certainly sports bodies angrily sought answers from organisers about empty seats, the bigger picture remains significant. There were more pressing issues on many people’s minds than checking out the action at modern pentathlon.

Sport can be a wonderful escape and distraction but it is not an excuse or catalyst for social change which so many profess.

Talk of legacy has dominated sports bids over the past two decades and it is an important aspect but do not forget it is also a tactic to win votes.

Currently the two front-runners for 2024, Los Angeles and Paris, base their appeal on having most of the venues and infrastructure in place. For it is too early to judge if London’s Olympic village project is a success. Beijing’s is not looking hopeful.

Rio survived scrutiny by the rest of the world and can now return to focusing all its attention inwardly on its own citizens.

But it is the IOC which also needs to take a good hard look at itself.

Bolivian Salt Flats in PICTURES: South America’s Hidden Jewel

Travelling across the salt flats in Bolivia, the first impression one gets is that it is a cold and desolate place. 
Indeed that is true, but on further exploration it offers so much more than the initial impression gives. 

The horizon stretches ever beyond the 4×4’s reach, despite the miles and miles we covered. 

In many instances the fun is had making amusing perspective pictures on the salt flats. 

But it was on the second day of my journey when I felt that the vast expanse revealed its secrets. 

From the shimmering lagoons, festooned with flamingos, to the multicoloured rocks rising up imperiously, the Salar de Uyuni showed more shades than a Jackson Pollock painting.

Indeed, one part of the desert is named after Salvador Dali as its landscapes resemble the surrealists’ artwork. 

Unfortunately my visit coincided with a snowstorm so the Dali desert looked more like Van Gogh’s “Landscape in the snow”. 

But the pictures I took on a basic automatic setting still came out with some naturally wonderful shots – and they still don’t come close to doing justice to the real thing.

Here I felt was the true heart of Bolivia. All this beauty, misunderstood, hiding in plain sight. This country and this part in particular really is South America’s hidden jewel. 

Here are a few of my favourite pictures from my visit: 

Machu Picchu: Escaping Back in Time on the Inca Trail

For centuries, a gem left over from the South American Inca Empire lay hidden from the world in Peru.

The 15th century city of Machu Picchu lay in the Andean mountains just sitting there in perfect harmony with mother earth – or Pacha Mama as it is referred to in Peru – until 1911 when US professor Hiram Bingham discovered it by accident.

Now, the Inca city is one of the top destinations in the world for tourists and intrepid explorers who take on the Inca trail hike.

For me, it was the jewel in the crown of a self-appointed sabbatical from the normal working life back home in Europe.

To me, the mystery surrounding it absolutely added to its appeal. Not much is known of Machu Picchu. It is presumed by some historians that it was a city for the Inca emperor Pachacuti. 

But then it is not known why it was suddenly abandoned. Spanish colonialization is given as a reason, but the invading forces destroyed much of what they saw as native heresy. Yet much of Machu Picchu is startlingly well preserved.

Usually, such enigmatic questions would confound and infuriate my naturally curious mind. Here though it was not the case. For the mystery compliments the mysticism of this other-worldly site.

When I used to day dream of escaping from my seat in front of a computer, it was usually an image of Machu Picchu that sprang to mind. Something so far removed from what we regard as western civilization held an immeasurable appeal.

So it continued to be every step of the way on the four day hike to the site, starting from near Aguas Calientes.

The inclines were steep, no more so than on day two on the passage up to Dead Woman’s Pass. Such was my determination that my resistance to having a break on the first hour and a half of the day’s expedition came back to haunt me when my thighs started to spasm on the final incline.

I made it to the top though, an elevation of 4,200m above sea level, with two other members of my group in a time of 2 hours and 8 minutes. We were told the average time to reach the summit from our campsite was around 6 hours.

So it came to pass that it was as much about the journey to Machu Picchu than the site itself. I reveled in the times I found myself alone on the trail, occasionally being overtaken by the ridiculously fast and superhuman-like porters. The escape I had craved was all around me, just the Peruvian mountains as my guide.

Why do we crave escape? Sometimes it is the banality of our working lives, or frustrations at home, or just a desire to feast our eyes on something completely different.

For me, I can’t quite put it down to a single reason. A number of situations came to a head in 2015 where I found myself walking down a street in central London thinking, I need to get away from this for a while.

People have different motivations for travelling and come away with different experiences. The old cliché of ‘finding oneself’ has become a bit of a joke nowadays but it is not without its truth.

When escaping to whatever sanctuary one may find, whether that is in Peru, Asia, or Cornwall or a football match, or a piece of music, it reminds us of who we are, giving us the validation of being a human being.

So much of that is taken away in our daily quest for money and status. For some, that may be who they are and good luck to them. But with that comes stress and anxiety, mental health issues, negative qualities that may in turn hurt people who we hold dear.

The Incas may not have been perfect. But they were so content as a civilization they could live on a small mountain top hundreds of miles away from the nearest city.

The perfect structures dotted in and around around Machu Picchu when I eagerly arrived on the fourth day astounded me, as did the news about how they made use of aquaducts they had constructed and used their high ascent to their agricultural advantage. It’s not that we know more nowadays, we simply have found easier ways of doing things.

Leaving the site I never wanted to take my eyes off it, fearing that once I did it would simply become just a memory in my head. But it is a memory I will treasure for reasons beyond words I could describe on this page.

Welcome to the Jungle – Exploring the Amazon Rainforest

I can recall that period in the late 90s when saving the rainforest was one of the major charitable causes. It was popular among celebrities and the growing climate concerned populous. 
Not that it is no longer as worthy a cause, but recent studies have shown that the Amazon rainforest’s regrowth is increasing rapidly, and that is important for capturing carbon in the atmosphere. 

The UN has aims of halving global deforestation by 2020, and halting it altogether by 2030. 

Upon entering the Amazon rainforest last week though, I was immediately struck by the size of it. I had already anticipated to be awestruck by its scale, having entered it in Ecuador and not in the popular Brazilian route. 

But to see hundreds of miles of rainforest stretching out in front of you, there was a tiny thought that couldn’t believe this majestic sight was in danger of being eradicated. 

The ecological importance of rainforests the world over are now widely documented and respected. Indeed it seems they are an integral part of our fight to reduce the carbon dioxide present in our atmosphere.

But on a more humble note the rainforest simply provides shelter for millions of animals as well as humans. 

I was staying with a local shaman and his adopted family near the entrance to the Amazon, already in deep thick forest. 

On a morning walk we were given an initiation ceremony into jungle life, like many communities would do based on ancient principles and traditions. 

On my face was painted the ancient symbol meaning monkey or “jungle boy”, apparently down to my active attributes (I’ll happily take that). 

Without being too deep in the jungle it was still part of the experience to see spiders slightly too large for comfort and frogs that looked like they had been dabbed with radioactive paint.

The sounds of the Amazon river flowing in the distance and the rainforest chorus of animals provided a soothing soundtrack after a day of exploring. Just like those “sounds of the rainforest CDs” but in real life, obviously.

It’s no coincidence to my mind that communities that are far away from large clusters of civilisation live such peaceful lives. Although this is not always the case, it helps refresh the perspective of one who is used to constant distractions such as TV, the Internet, and constant money concerns.

So too does it help having vegetation around you that is beneficial to leading a long and healthy life. Either that or it could kill you. If you like a dangerous gamble go to the rainforest, pick a leaf off a tree and eat it. (*This is not serious advice). 

On a nature walk the shaman explained what he uses various plants for and how they regrow, showing the ultimate way of living off the earth. He also showed how he hunted monkeys with a homemade two-metre long dart gun. Probably not a sport that will take off around the world. 

While clambering up waterfalls to delve deeper into the enigmatic jungle, I found myself startled at just how colourful the surroundings were. I’ve seen some amazing landscapes before, but here it was as if someone had turned up the saturation on real life. 

Like a living art gallery, the rainforest didn’t intimidate; it invigorated. Before you ask this was not due to drinking some of the special Ayahuasca tea which is said to induce hallucinations and even death omens. 

Fortunately I was not deep enough to ever feel the fear of a venomous frog or snake or puma lurking behind me. Though admittedly that would have been exciting…

What I did feel though was a sense of wonderment and great affinity for Mother Earth. 

I also felt a pang of familiarity when the rain started and didn’t stop, flooding the rivers and enriching the ground. At least England and the Amazon have something in common. Rainforest – clue is in the name, I suppose…

Oi Choi Oi – Favourite Phrases From Asia Expedition 

After almost five months of travel, I now find myself saying farewell to Asia – for now at least. 
My adventure has taken in so many sights, sounds, and indeed smells, that I cannot begin to describe them all. 

Suffice to say it has been a truly magnificent experience, and has more than justified that first thought I had last summer when I said to myself in central London; “I just want to disappear to a temple somewhere in the east.”

I’ve come across so many wonderful people. But here follows a few of my favourite sayings from the various languages I tried – and miserably failed – to pick up. 

– Namaste: the traditional form of greeting in Nepal. Saying this just evokes strong feelings of peacefulness. It is genuinely very calming to say. 

– Oi Choi Oi: what we were told was the equivalent of Oh My God in Vietnam. It fits very well as an expression of astonishment, and found it to be a useful phrase to roll out when bargaining in the local markets. 

– Bong: apparently, the polite term to refer to anyone older than you in Cambodia. Fun to (over) pronounce – I had to say it a few times to myself after I had already used it in my sentence to someone. 

– Mot, hai, ba, Yo!: what is shouted in Vietnam before downing a drink. Careful when using this, as it’s fun at first but could make the night go down a slippery rice wine slope… 

– Khi Mao – a Thai noodle dish. It also means drunkard. A common theme in Thailand…

My absolute favourite though has to be how you say hello in Bhutan. Are you ready for this? Kuzoozangpa La. 

How great is that? I got so much enjoyment from saying that to every single person I came across in Bhutan. Makes you smile automatically when uttering it and therefore makes your greeting even more pleasing. No wonder the people of Bhutan are so happy. 

The Horror – Face to Face With the Tragic Chapter of Cambodia’s Recent History 

“One evening, I saw a 16-year-old guard walk in my room. He then approached an old man who was sleeping opposite me. He stamped on the chest of that old man again and again. I did not know why he did so or what was wrong with that old man. I heard that old man groaning as his mouth bled. No one was able to help anyone else.”
This is, believe it or not, one of the tamer excepts from the memoir of Buo Meng, a survivor of the Khmer Rouge S-21 torture prison in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

For four years, 1975-1979, Pol Pot and his Khmer Rouge regime inflicted one of the worst genocides ever seen on this planet in the small Asian nation of Cambodia.

The horror described by Buo Meng of what he saw from his time in prison is just a small part of the widespread human devastation. 

At the Chong Euk killing fields just outside the capital, a memorial stupa stands in the middle filled with human skulls piled high – a fraction of the victims who died at the whim of the regime. 

Walking around the fields and listening to stories of what occurred there brought on severe anguish and nausea. “Why, why, why” I kept repeating my head, getting more exasperated. 

I was reminded of my similar feelings when I visited Auschwitz more than ten years ago now. There I thought I would never come close to seeing such a grim stage for man’s inhumanity to man. 

But history repeats itself around the world at an alarming rate. 

The Soviet Union, China, Burundi, Bosnia, the Congo et al. 

Bone fragments can still be seen in the mud as one walks around Chong Euk. Bits of clothes stick out of the ground where once hundreds and thousands of bodies were dumped on top of one another, left to rot. 

The foul stench lingered for miles. 

It’s something that one cannot comprehend from reading about it in a history book at school. It almost seems other worldly, as if in a distant universe where lives don’t matter as much. 

But they do. And you only have to speak to almost any Cambodian to hear how the genocide affected their family. Indeed, most of the population is under 40, such was the scale of the horror. 

Blood still stains the floor of the Tuol Sleng S-21 torture prison. Thousands were held captive there, forced in tight cells with many others with a communal bucket and bottle as their bathroom. If they didn’t die there, most inmates were sent to the killing fields to meet their fate. As soon as they were arrested they were photographed, and their pictures are on the walls of the prison now like ghosts frozen in stone. 

Their crimes? What crimes. This was not a purge of enemies of the state, this was simply a purge of the people. Crimes were fabricated and people signed fake confessions in the vain hope that the brutality would come to an end. Beatings, water torture, electrical shocks, hangings and so on. 

What hope then that history will not come round again in such horrifying fashion? Justice still evades most of those responsible. Pol Pot never answered for his crimes, dying in 1998 before he could trial. 

Even those who are in court now at the UN assisted Extraordinary Chambers in the Courts of Cambodia (Khmer Rouge tribunal) are using every bit of red tape their lawyers can muster to essentially see out their lives before ever facing a sentence. 

Some still stand by their actions. In what world I cannot fathom. Just as I could not and still cannot comprehend the willingness of the Nazi’s to enforce such hatred, so I despair at the inability to understand what warped mind would be capable of inflicting gruesome pain and suffering on another human being. 

Buo Meng sits in the S-21 museum now selling his book and smiling with foreign visitors. He is one of seven survivors of the prison, and he has continued his life. To have half his strength, would make many very resilient individuals. 

In his book, he recalls how he and his wife worked for the revolution believing they were fighting for a brighter future. On the day they were both arrested, Buo and his wife were separated. He never saw her again. 

“There was no single day that I did not shed tears. I endured much pain. I wished I would die soon so that I would not continue to suffer. My life was so miserable.”

The most haunting part of the visit at Chong Euk was when we came to a large and distorted tree. It was then we were told this tree was used for smashing babies and children against. 

No words can express the feelings I experienced upon learning that ghastly fact and staring at that very tree. It is something that will haunt me forever.

But something I did feel was a strong sense of hate. I was raging inside at the memory of those perpetrators. Clenching my fists I screamed silently in anger at them, wishing their end was infinitely more painful than those of the innocent. 

And then I realised – that was part of the problem.