2012: a year in review

End of the world weather

“It occurred to me the other day the Age of Aquarius is supposed to have begun. Everyone thinks it’s going to be this new age — I hope it is! It would be nice if people were more interested in spiritual things, instead of…buying settees. But maybe what it really means is we’re all going to live under water.” – Jarvis Cocker, Glastonbury 1998

Another doomsday has come and gone without event. After Harold Camping’s failed prophecies of the rapture last year, attention turned to the Mayan 2012 prophecies. Or lack or prophecy, since the Mayans didn’t ever really predict anything for 2012, it was the end of the thirteenth b’aktun’, a cycle of 5,125 years which marked the end of one age and the beginning of another. According to some, each b’aktun’ ends with great cataclysm, or great upheaval from one age to the next. And a lot of people hoped it would mark the start of a new age: just like people did when 1999 turned into 2000.

I remember 1999 — I was an 18-year old undergraduate in the first year of my degree. I remember one night in a pub a friend was evangelising about how in Egyptian philosophy the 20th century represented an adolescent male, while the 21st century was symbolised by a 20-something female. What he was saying was that the 20th century was immature and tumultuous, while the 21st was going to be wiser and more mature — things would get put into perspective better. I suspect he made the whole thing up, but it was a comforting thought: that we could be entering a new, more mature age. Unfortunately, Dave also believed there was vampires living in the catacombs under Paris, and there was a secret UFO in the Millennium Dome and at midnight on the turn of the century, the Prime Minister was going to reveal the existence of extra-terrestrial life.

One year turned into the next, and like the hopes for the 20th century once were, the 21st century has turned out to be more of the same. Like the dawning of the Age of Aquarius, nothing happened. No spiritual awakening, no great tribulation. In the UK, it’s pouring with rain and after an unusually wet year, there is widespread flooding — but the dolphins are still here, and we’re all a long way from living under water.

I should really have written this post earlier in the week, just in case the world did end yesterday. There’s no point writing “A Year in Review” post if the world has already ended and there’s nobody left to read it, so it’s lucky for me that there was no massive solar flare or gamma-ray burst obliterating life on earth.

2012 started with “A new year for adventure“. The Arctic Adventure was rapidly approaching, and people were looking me up and down, asking if I had done any training because it was surely going to be hard work. I was increasingly terrified by what I was letting myself in for. It’s a good way to start the new year: with the terror of a looming adventure. I bet Ranulph Fiennes never starts the new year feeling that way.

The adventure was in March, and you can read about every day of it in this blog so I won’t summarise it now: other than to say it was exhilarating and awful and inspiring and tremendous all at the same time. I fell in love with a beautiful Norwegian in the Arctic. Her name was Anneka, she had the most soulful brown eyes and she was crazy about me too. She also had a wet nose and a very waggy tail, and of all the dogs in my dog sled team, she was my favourite — I wanted to take her home with me, but I expect she was just one of those very affectionate dogs who was like that with everyone she met.

In 2012, I had the opportunity to see my favourite band Our Lady Peace for the first time: and a day later, for the second time. We’ve been celebrating Canada Day, my friends and I, for years now: even after our token Canadian friend returned to the great frozen North. And for years, we’ve joked about how wouldn’t it be good if Our Lady Peace were to perform at the celebrations. We didn’t expect it to ever happen, but this year it did: the band were every bit as good as I hoped they would be. When we saw them again the next night in a small venue in Islington, they were even better. Once or twice, I have tweeted about listening to them while I’m at work and one day they even replied.

Other highlights of 2012 undoubtedly include the change of job for me: from one job to another might not sound that interesting to me, but my work has taken me to new cities including Munich, Dublin, Lisbon, Paris and Antwerp in the last 6 months, and next year it promises Brussels, Miami, Stockholm, Berlin, Frankfurt and Tel Aviv on the immediate horizon. I’ve taken planes and trains, I’ve stayed with a Portuguese family in Lisbon, taken a walking tour of Paris, lost myself in Antwerp and enjoyed trying to work out if I had amnesia whether I would be able to work out what country I was in.

July had me try dragon boat racing for the first time — and enjoyed it so much, I promptly went out and joined a local team, the Thames Dragons: and set myself a challenge to take part in an international competition with the team within one year. I already have taken part in a regatta in the UK, so I’m part of the way there: unfortunately, the first two races of the Henley Winter Series have both been cancelled due to dangerous water levels, but there’s more races and adventures to be had with the team in 2013.

The Olympics came to East London this year, and the whole world was surprised when everything went well. London included. The rain that we’d had all year long so far stopped just long enough for the games, nobody needed to use the rooftop-mounted surface to air missiles, the transport network managed to hold itself together, and Boris Johnson continued to act like anything good that has ever happened in London (including winning the bid for the Olympics) was entirely his doing and that we’d all been living in caves before he came along. So, nothing new year. I didn’t get to any Olympic events — not being a huge fan of just watching sport, but I did try and get tickets occasionally, without success. For the most part, I was unmoved by the Olympics: it was nice and all, but not really my scene, I was just happy enough that it went well and London didn’t erupt into rioting, like the summer of 2011.

According to Facebook, I’ve made 40-something new friends in the last year — so I might wonder why it is always such a struggle to get more three or four people to come over if I have a birthday party. But there has been lots of new people to call a “friend”: from colleagues who then became friends — either because we parted ways professionally, or because we met for the first time at got along — to Calvin’s, one of my very best friends, wedding — that brought with it a heap of new people to meet and like in Canada, as well as the opportunity to visit Canada for the first time and discover that Canadians are probably the nicest people on the planet.

As well as raising £6,000 with the Arctic Adventure, in November I was part of my work’s Movember team I also helped to raise over £1,000 for mens health, and could possibly have raised even more had I been able to grow a moustache that was visible in photographs.

There’s more than a week of 2012 left to go, and a lot can happen in a week. In a week you can trek the whole of the Inca Trail, or sled some 200km across the frozen Arctic with a pack of huskies. You can spend the time at a conference in Belgium, before realising the day before you leave that this part of Belgium isn’t really French-speaking. Or, more likely at this time of year, you can eat and drink a lot, see family, see friends, and in the midst of it all try and get some work done because 2013 is going to be a busy year: even without any apocalypses planned, that I’m aware of.

What drives the world’s greatest living explorer?

Sir Ranulph Fiennes

Sir Ranulph FiennesI was up and out of bed early this morning (*cough*forasunday*cough*) because — of course — Sunday mornings means training with the Dragon Boat team. Yesterday, there had been a message that it was possible training would get cancelled today because of weather conditions. We can’t go out on the dock if it’s too windy. But this morning my alarm went off at 8.45 and there was no word to say training was cancelled, so I showered, dressed, layered up, packed my rucksack with clean, dry clothes to change into, and headed out to the dock which is about a 10 minute walk from my flat, if that.

Yes, it’s December, and yes a lot of the time at the moment it is bloody freezing out: but that’s no excuse not to go out in a Dragon Boat on a cold Sunday morning when you have been out the night before, drinking and bowling. When I stepped outside into the Sunday morning air my first thought was that it actually wasn’t all that cold. That could have had something to do with the long thermal underwear, two t-shirts, a hoody, jacket, and hat I was wearing — but it was a nice morning, and when you’re paddling in the boat, you tend to stay quite warm anyway. There was also not a very strong wind, so I could see why the training was still on.

Except on the way to the dock, I began to have doubts: crossing a small footbridge between Royal Victoria Dock and Royal Albert Dock, the wind was quite strong and the water on the docks looked rough. And I was right: when I arrived I was told we might not be able to go out, and we were waiting for the final word: it didn’t take long for us to be told “No”.

While we were waiting, I picked up a copy of the Docklands newspaper “The Wharf”, and read an interview with Sir Ranulph Fiennes, wherein he talked about how he will lead a team across Antartica during the winter. I’ve mentioned before how this expedition is being described as the last adventure open to be had (which I disagree with).

It was interesting to read Sir Ranulph Fiennes’ own words, since I describe myself as an aspiring or freelance adventurer. What struck me most was where he was asked if he was “excited or scared” by the prospect of his winter adventure in the Antarctic. Apparently, Sir Ranulph’s teams for his adventures are chosen on the basis of the individuals being “someone who hasn’t got much emotion”. Being a former British Army officer, Sir Ranulph is described as “emotionally detached”, which is something I can imagine is important in the Armed Forces (and probably one of many reasons I didn’t get very far when I once tried to join the Royal Air Force).

I can’t imagine contrasting with Sir Ranulph much more than I do. Adventures both excite and scare me, and I think emotion is important to my adventures. I don’t do things just because they’re there, I don’t do them to beat someone else (like wanting to beat the Norwegians to a trans-Antartcic winter adventure), I do them because they excite me, I do them for the people in my life I care about, I do them because I get to a point where I can no longer imagine not doing them.

There were times during the Inca Trail I was scared: the morning of Dead Woman’s Pass I remember feeling very confronted by what lay ahead, since not everyone is able to make it — often due to altitude sickness, a lack of fitness, or under-estimating the mountain and trying to do it too quickly. There was times during the Arctic Adventure that I was unhappy: I was hurting from falling off the sled and being dragged behind it, I was cold, and I felt I just wasn’t good enough. I would never make it onto one of Sir Ranulph’s teams: finding something exciting would immediately preclude me. A history of depression would also not count in my favour. Being sometimes so excited and inspired by everything there is in the world to see and do and experience and share and wanting to do it all now, at once, without delay, all of it certainly are not the qualities of the man the Guinness Book of World Records describes as “the world’s greatest living explorer”.

I wonder what motivates Sir Ranulph, if these adventures don’t excite him? Does he get that same wanderlust that I do, that it’s been a while since a big adventure and there’s a siren call just outside of hearing? Does he unexpectedly one day think “I want to travel the entire distance of North and South America in one trip and by any means necessary“? Or does he approach everything with a detached, scientific outlook? “This has not yet been done, and so I should do it before someone else does”.

I write about my adventures because I write compulsively, and I like to share my adventures: I hope that they will inspire people to have adventures of their own, in the same way I am inspired by adventures I read, and for people who prefer to read than adventure I hope to give a vicarious adventure. What drives Sir Ranulph? I’d like to ask him myself, but I don’t think he’d approve of me.

By Any Means Necessary (the adventure dream)

The Americas

The Americas
Image source: http://fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fichier:Americas_satellite_map.jpg
For some time, in my head I’ve an idea for an adventure.

It’s been there, in some dark corner, getting kicked about occasionally like a half-deflated football.  I’ve been wondering about a trek covering the entire length, top to bottom, through Central and South America — taking in the Aztecs, Mayans, and Incas along the way, as well as the cities, towns and scenery.  I have no idea how long such an adventure would take,or  how possible it could be — let alone how to even begin funding something like that.  So it’s stayed as the half-deflated football — it comes out occasionally when I’m bored, and I try to kick around for a while, but give up before too long.

Then, last week, the idea evolved.

I read a BBC News report about Sir Ranulph Fiennes and his upcoming record-breaking attempt at an Antarctic expedition.  The story asked if there are any real adventures left: now the highest peaks have been climbed, the oceans explored (apart from their depths), and everything available to view on Google Earth.  As a side note, I remember one day at an early age telling my Dad that I when I grew up I wanted to be an explorer.  He let me down gently, but told me there wasn’t anything left to explore: all the lands were discovered, and the maps published.  I guess the Queen of Spain will never give me a fleet of ships to seek out new lands.  The BBC article also asked people to respond with what they thought, what adventures could be left — I wondered myself if adventures couldn’t be had (or records broken) with time constraints.

Oh, sure, you can circumnavigate the globe — but how quickly can you do it?

Then that old half-forgotten idea of the Americas adventure resurfaced, but this time I had another thought relating to it.  Thankfully, not about how quickly such an adventure could be completed (which with my flat feet and no sense of direction couldn’t ever be quickly) but since at the time I was enjoying Canada so much I thought “Why not include North America?”.  And I came up with the adventure I am calling “By Any Means Necessary”.  Like the Arctic Adventure (or “Jay and the Great Arctic Fundraising Challenge” to give it the full title) and “The Year of the Dragon”, it’s important to start an idea for an adventure with an interesting title: it saves time when you commission a book deal later on.

The adventure involves a journey through North and South America, from Alaska to the southern most tip of Argentina, by any means necessary.  It could involve hiking, dog sledding, snow mobiling, travel by motorbike and perhaps even kayaking — pretty much whatever options were open, so long as there’s no cheating and taking a bus or train for several days.  At some points, I recognise, it might occasionally be necessary to include something more robust — since it isn’t meant to be a survival challenge, but as I say it would be cheating to take a bus through a whole country.

Right now this is just a silly dream.  I have no idea how long something like that would take, or if it would even be remotely possible for a number of reasons: like how would I ever fund or equip such a journey, what employer would ever give me the time off from a job to pursue it, let alone who could possibly want to stick around in my life while I disappear for however-long chasing such a crazy adventure. And most of all: is it even physically possible to do it at all?

I really really don’t want to go ‘back to sleep’ and forget about this idea, or have it be a story I tell, or a dream I have that’s never realised (“Oh, have you heard about Jay’s crazy dream of an adventure?  Tell them about it, Jay, it’s really funny, he’s been talking about this for years…”) but right now I see no way to even approach getting it started.

The Niagara Adventure

Horseshoe Falls

Niagara Falls: the Horseshoe FallsNiagara Falls is apparently the biggest tourist attraction in North America, and one of the world’s most popular honeymoon destinations.  We were in town for a friend’s wedding, where I had been asked to be best man.  Last year, when Calvin told me about the upcoming wedding he asked if it would be possible for me to make it out to stand by his side.  It’s not often I can claim the title of “best” anything — so I readily accepted and told him he could count on me being there. I would make it happen, somehow, some way.

The Canadian adventure began in Toronto last week, and after three days in a spacious downtown apartment in the city the girl and I braved Ontario’s public transport to get to Niagara Falls, where we were booked for a week in a motel.  We arrived early evening, and just after my friend Calvin had finished work, so he was able to pick us up at the bus stop and ferry us to the motel.  As he dropped us off, he made clear we were invited over to his house for dinner as soon as we were unpacked and left us with directions to get there.

I was asked yesterday what — aside from being best man at my friend’s wedding — my “favourite part” of my time in Niagara Falls had been.

As a tourist, there is lots to keep you enthralled and I think the girl and I must have seen the Horseshoe falls (the most famous of the three waterfalls) about every way it was possible to do so, short of going over it in a barrel.  We saw “Niagara’s Fury” a 4D experience exploring (largely in cartoon form) the creation of the falls, we rode the Maid of the Mist boat into the spray of the Horseshoe Falls, we explored the tunnels and saw the the thundering water from behind the falls, we got alongside the raging (and sometimes deadly) rapids downstream on the white water walk, and even saw the falls and rapids from above on a helicopter flight and the Whirlpool Aerocar.

There was a lot to choose from.  They were probably expecting me to answer with one of these amazing things you can do, but really the best part for me in Niagara Falls was the people.

The Whirlpool Aero car, designed by Spanish engineer Leonardo Torres QuevedoAlmost without exception, everyone we have met and spoken to in Canada has been amazingly friendly and nice — but in Niagara Falls our friends and their families made us feel so incredibly welcome, and loved.  The people took hospitality and friendliness to whole new levels, to the point of telling us to consider ourselves as their family.  More than any memorable flight in a helicopter, or leisurely walk alongside raging river rapids, long after my pictures have faded or lost the anecdotes attached to them, we will remember the warmth and kindness of the people we met on this trip.

One of the most common threads in my travels and adventures is that people the world over are generally nice.  Watching the news or reading the papers, you can get a distorted of the world and think that people are angry and selfish and fearful — but everywhere I go, people along the way are kind and welcoming, and nowhere has been more so than in Niagara Falls.  This morning, checking out of our motel, the girl and I were sad to be leaving — if we could, we’d have loved to stay among these people, but more adventures await, and no doubt there are yet more lovely people waiting out there.  But for now, there has been a heap more added to our Christmas card list.

On Toronto (it rains down so damn hard in this city)

ImageToronto feels almost a little strange, in a way, because it feels so familiar.

This is my third new city in the space of a about a month — though this isn’t a work trip, this is a real holiday.  The first “real” holiday in a while, since I don’t count the Arctic Adventure as a holiday — adventure, yes, and an experience I’d gladly have more of in my life, but it was a year of hard work, training, fundraising and — at times — worry.

But back to Toronto.

Toronto stirs up those familiar feelings of wanderlust, that feeling you get when you visit a new city and you think “Yes. I could live here. I could love this city”.

Munich was fine, but I didn’t feel like I could make it a home.  Dublin was grand, Barcelona definitely makes the list, and there are many more places, too — places that remind me that life is too short and the world too small to stay in London forever. Toronto joins the list.

We’ve only been here two full days (and sadly leave the city already tomorrow) and yesterday was spent dodging torrential rain showers, but as I say, it feels familiar.

My first impressions of Melbourne when I visited a few years ago were that it reminded me of a mix of New York and Manchester (among other places) and Toronto reminds me of Australian cities like Perth and Melbourne, as well as some US cities, but always with its own unique charm.   Toronto feels like being introduced to a mutual friend, and seeing immediately why you have friends in common.

After Munich, it feels funny to be in a city where I speak the language — and I could probably even understand most of the French, if it came to that — although I am self conscious about my accent, just like I used to be when I lived in Utah.  In a restaurant yesterday I had a dilemma ordering: I thought about ordering my second-choice, because my first would have involved having to tell the waitress “no tomato” and I didn’t want to have to say the word “to-mah-to”.

The city feels like it is proud to be Canadian — maybe I am just noticing these things because I’m seeing the city with fresh eyes, but I see the Maple Leaf flying almost everywhere I look.  Is it the same in London with the Union flag or the St George Cross?  I don’t think it is.  At the Royal Ontario Museum yesterday, I read about the war of 1812, and learned how the US war hawks at the time thought invading Canada would be a pushover — and were very wrong.  I get the feeling here that the Canadian identity is all the stronger for having such an influential neighbour to the south.

Toronto seems to be a city of dog-lovers (never have I seen a city with so many dogs, I swear), of skateboards (insert here, if I had one, a picture of all the people I saw yesterday skatebording while wearing white shirts and ties), and a city of coffee-drinkers.  Maybe that’s just the North American continent, but I’m sure that you don’t see so many people with coffees in London.

Unlike London, Toronto just doesn’t feel so crowded — crowded with buildings or with people. Although London only ranks #21 on the list of most populous cities in the world, it is way above any other European city, and Toronto by comparison comes in at #101.

Our next stop is the Niagara Falls area, let’s see how the adventure continues.

(more pictures from Toronto can be seen here)