17,296km of adventure

The road ahead

Australia compared to EuropeIt’s a brand new year once again. And while every month and every day is, obviously, a new day for starting an adventure, I think we can’t help but consider each January as a clean sheet of paper.

A chance to write a new adventure.

In a little under a month’s time, I will be making the 17,296km journey from London, England to Perth, Australia — an indefinite relocation. All my life has been packed into boxes and sent across the seas, and now it’s time for me to go and join my girlfriend in her home country.

Making the decision to leave London wasn’t easy for either of us. The girl first came to the UK 6 years ago on a working holiday visa, before being sponsored by a company that could find no equal for her talents. Together, we made the city of London our home. We will both leave friends and co-workers behind, and have both resigned our jobs with nothing to replace them on the other side of the world: but no one gets remembered for the things they didn’t go.

We’ve asked ourselves, and each other, “Is this the right thing to do?” but there is no easy answer. Sometimes, you just have to take the chance. It’s an adventure. The same as hiking the Inca trail, or dog sledding in the Arctic, you have to make the best possible decision — and right now this is it.

It’s a different kind of adventure for me from the usual — there’s not one big challenge, but there’s lots of new things. Australia: The road aheadAside from a new country, and a new city, there will be a new job, new friends, and what amounts to a whole new life. There will also be opportunities for lots of new adventures.

This is it: a new adventure on the other side of the world. I hope you’ll join me for the journey.

The World is a Book

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”
Image Credit: wekosh.com

I met a man once who didn’t have a passport. He was middle aged, a respectable businessman. You know the sort.

I don’t know if there were complicated reasons behind his inability to travel outside of the United Kingdom, but he said that when people ask him about it he tells them that he is too busy working to go on holiday. Whose work is so important that it relies on them to be at home 365 days of the year?

Living in the UK, I can’t imagine not wanting to travel.

To me not having a passport says “This is good enough”, and that the rest of the world doesn’t measure up. What about the pyramids in the deserts of Egypt and the jungles of Central and South America? Not that interesting.

The Colosseum in Rome? Boring.

The canals of Venice? Second best to the Droitwich Junction canal.

Tokyo is waiting in the night, lit up like Piccadilly Circus on crack.

Or there’s rain forests where you can stop, and listen, and hear no signs of civilisation.
When you’ve seen how big the world is, how can you make do with this?

There are various lists of the “7 Wonders of the World”, and you can compare and contrast them all day, but at best in the UK the only real “Wonder” you are going to see without a passport is Stonehenge — even if you wanted to count the Channel Tunnel (as the American Society of Civil Engineers do with their list) you’d still need a passport.

Don’t get me wrong, Stonehenge is an amazing place in its own right — but is it so good that once you’ve seen it you don’t have to think about the Great Wall of China, Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal…?

You can see most of Europe by car if you are so inclined — the channel tunnel takes no time at all, and before you know it the rest of the continent opens up before you.  Distinct and individual countries and people, side by side with their own private ways, old alliances and rivalries, rich varieties of languages and food.

Take in the view of Paris from the hills of Monmartre. Walk the streets of Madrid or Barcelona, and savour the smell of orange blossoms on the trees. Feel humbled among the orange tiled rooftops and green shutters of Dubrovnik, a city that has withstood centuries of earthquakes, fires and mortars to remain one of the closest places you will come to paradise on earth. Parts of the Berlin wall still stand, and even the city as a whole is like a living testament to some of the most important events of twentieth century.

But without a passport, they might as well be on Mars.

Even if you don’t like cities, you can find peace and solitude among the Alps, the Rockies, the Andes, the Himalayas. When you wake up one morning in the mountains and you are above the cloud layer, you know that even when you go back to your daily routine you won’t be the same again.

You can see giraffes grazing by the side of the road like cows on the African savannah, or travel the 1,100 kilometres of the Nullarbor plain through the Australian outback. Or you can stay where you are, at home, and these things will stay where they are, because there’s always work to be done.

You can take a pack of huskies across frozen lakes and hills between red painted barns and not see another living soul.

If the world’s a book and you’re on page one, who’s to say you will even like page two? You may not. You may hate it. But what about page three, or page 33? You could visit somewhere else every month for the rest of your life and never need to return to the same place twice.

Arguably, one of the greatest things about travel is returning home. Maybe nowhere will ever be as good or measure up to home, but not to travel is the equivalent of never reading more than one book because you already have a favourite, or refusing to listen to another song again because of there being one you like so much.

Sometimes I like to list all the cities whose rain I’ve known. Dublin where the locals shout across the street to comment about the weather and Lisbon, whose mosaic-tiled hills turn deadly in a storm.

Rainy cities where rivulets carry traffic cones down the road and sultry cities where middle-aged women pause with their cigarettes to offer sex when you’d rather an umbrella and cities where the dark clouds roll in over the surfers, bobbing in the water like seals. Cities where the rain is salty from the great lake. Cities where the rain fills the fountains and smooths the stone streets and cities where the rain has become part of the architecture and part of the soul of the people.

What you experience and what you learn when you explore gives richer depth and meaning to where you call home.

Originally published on Under30CEO 

A challenge in review, and a new adventure ahead

Thames Dragon Boat Club

Thames Dragon Boat ClubThe Year of the Dragon hasn’t been entirely a success. I have raced with the team. Trained with the team in the winter with the freezing water. Worn bandanas in the summer when training with the team to stop stinging sweat from getting in my eyes. Dressed as Spiderman for a party with the team. Felt disappointed not to win an award for being the best newbie. Drunk bottles of supermarket beers with the team in a Regatta centre car park.

But I said I would compete in an international competition. That was my self-imposed goal, that was the challenge. That was the adventure. It didn’t happen. Sometimes it can be hard enough to get a team together to race anywhere outside of London, I lacked the courage or confidence in myself to go alone.

I lost my job a few months back, and the black dog came padding back almost unnoticed. Unnoticed except for a loss of interest in doing things. My original motivation to get up and go swimming every morning fell by the wayside, and when one week a training was missed and another week training was missed, I find myself having missed more trainings than attended.

Next month I leave London, and have made the decision to leave the team when I go. It’s hardly worth the round trip car journey to and from London on a Sunday morning, likewise commuting into London when my current job has me working from home.

We can’t call the Year of the Dragon a challenge bested, but a challenge attempted is better than one not taken up.

Next month I leave London. Early next year I leave the UK, and probably for good. That’s rock climbingan adventure all of its own, and I will find a new dragon boat team in Australia to join and train and paddle with.

This week, after a delay of far-too-many years, I am getting back into rock climbing. It’s hard to believe it’s now been a few years since I last climbed. I climbed, I passed my safety test, then I broke my collarbone snowboarding and haven’t climbed since. But this week I will again.

And although I have nobody to join me climbing, I will go anyway, and find my peace on the wall once again.

Guest blog post from Anna Shields: The London Marathon for Mind

Anna, triumphant after her first London Marathon

Today’s blog post comes from the very talented and inspirational Anna Shields. Anna is co-founder and musical director of Starling Arts. This month, Anna ran the London Marathon for the first time. This is her story.

Anna, triumphant after her first London MarathonThis time two years ago I had just started therapy for my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD). There are so many misconceptions about OCD and what it is, and I won’t delve into mine too much. However, I will say that the term OCD is thrown around incorrectly by a lot of people when they’re talking about being organised or a bit ‘anal’ about things – this is not OCD. OCD is actually ‘a serious anxiety-related condition where a person experiences frequent intrusive and unwelcome obsessional thoughts, often followed by repetitive compulsions, impulses or urges’. Many describe it as ‘the hidden illness’ and I think that’s a good description.

My treatment took the form of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) in which I would wean myself off the ‘compulsions’ I carried out as a result of my obsessive thoughts. It was a tough and gruelling process, but ultimately helped me understand my condition and, thankfully, get a hold of it.

But alongside my OCD, I had a bit of a meltdown. I didn’t ‘do’ sadness up ‘til then, so I hated the fact that I was suddenly miserable and in tears all the time as result of having OCD. However, every cloud has a silver lining, and this thunderous smog taught me to understand the mind. One of my best friend’s, Amy, has suffered from depression and agoraphobia for several years, and once I got to grips with my own mental health problems, I realised I suddenly got to grips with hers too. For years I’d thought, ‘I don’t know why she can’t just beat this?’, but I then realised that the mind doesn’t always work that way. However, with the right help we can make it work that way, and my CBT, along with the incredible support of my family and friends, helped me beat my demons.

In taking stock of my life, it dawned on me that my favourite thing in the world, singing, was now my profession and that I had no other hobby with which to escape. Having been a good middle-distance runner at school, I decided I would re-try my hand at running. It was a struggle at first, but ultimately it worked.

A few months later, I went to Canada to visit one of my best friends. She’s a ‘fitness guru’ and set me on the path to really enjoying the sport. She kitted me out with some decent trainers, inspired me to pursue races and I was away.

I entered the Silverstone Half Marathon in March 2012, followed by a 10k race and another half later in the year, then one cold November afternoon, I got a call from Mind offering me a place on their London Marathon 2013 team. I’d entered the public ballot for the marathon earlier in the year, but was unsuccessful and had rather written off dreams of the race this time round. However, I’d forgotten I’d also submitted a charity entry to Mind so, following a quick call to my folks and my best girls to reassure me I could do this challenge, I had myself a place to run the London Marathon 2013. Gulp!

Mind is ‘the mental health charity’ with the brilliant tagline, ‘for better mental health.’ As I have often said, we all have mental health – it peaks and troughs throughout our lives, but it’s always there, whether good or bad. What frustrates me is that so many people feel scared to talk about something everyone on this planet has! People are scared of what they can’t see, so my ambition in completing the marathon, aside from running 26.2 miles (!), was to raise awareness of mental health problems and encourage people to talk openly about them.

Training through the longest, coldest winter we’ve had for years was a struggle, but having a charitable goal at the end of it all helped me plough through and I loved ticking off longer and longer runs as the weeks went by, conquering great distances and having a good excuse to eat copious amounts of pasta and even more Mars bars than usual.

Everyone seems to be doing something sponsored these days, and in a tough economic climate it can be hard to sponsor everyone. To that end, I thought a bit outside the box when it came to fundraising and, with my housemate Cat, devised a plan to combine my old and new hobby, singing and running, and produce a concert in just 26.2 hours. With an hour of rehearsal for every mile in the marathon and a handful of talented friends and family, The Marathon Show was born.

This concert raised just under £1,000 of my £1,700 target for Mind. Just as importantly, it provided a platform for me to talk publicly about my OCD and mental health to an audience of around 80 people and, having heard their feedback, inspired many of them to confront mental health issues in their own lives, whether personal to them or their friends, family and colleagues. I couldn’t have asked for a better response.

On April 21st, I completed the London Marathon in 4hrs 19 mins. It was undoubtedly one of the proudest moments of my life and I sobbed with glee on crossing the finish line.

I ran the race with a card on my back which read:

‘I’m doing it for…
My mind
Amy’s mind
Your mind’

While running has saved my mind, given me a focus aside from singing, and helped me to complete one of the greatest sporting achievements in the world, it has also given me the opportunity to contribute towards your mental well-being in running in aid of Mind.

To date, I have raised over £2,700 for Mind, far-exceeding all expectations when I took on this challenge. It is overwhelming, wonderful, and something I am so thankful to all my supporters for contributing to.

Adversity is bitch, but beating it is the greatest thrill in the world. We all have the right to better mental health, so let’s have it.

Looking back: in the snow

The flat-footed adventurer

The Arctic AdventureLondon — like most of Britain this week — is being blanketed by snow.

It occurred to me today that I haven’t seen snow since I left Arctic Norway last March. On the day we left, everything was thawing and melting and dripping. It seemed fitting, like it really marked the end of the Great Arctic Adventure.

Today the snow brings back memories of that week in the frozen wilderness.

I didn’t write a lot at the time about anything other than the adventure itself: the events of that day, how I was feeling, what lay ahead. I remember it all now: the way the huskies would thirstily lick the snow banks by the sides of the trail whenever we stopped, or the way they would bury themselves in little bowls in the snow at the end of the day. If it snowed overnight, you’d hardly be able to see them at all in the morning. But however much some of those dogs loved and craved attention, they were tough, at peace with the cold, and they loved few things more than being able to just run.

It’s true what they say about the tundra, it can get to you after a while. I guess it’s like the desert, or being on the ocean for long stretches of time: the lack of stimulation can start to get to you. In the Arctic, it was white. Just white. All the time. You’d struggle to distinguish the sky from the ground, and anywhere you looked was just the same: snowy white hills against a white sky.

Sometimes, there’d be snow storms and we had to zip everything up. Up went the hoods, down came the balaclava, firmly placed goggles — on and on, through a whirling blizzard of flakes, where even the dogs, oblivious to the cold, struggled to run against the headwind. Other times, it would be sunny and warm. Your jacket would be unzipped, the balaclava rolled up so you could breathe more easily, and the dogs were in their element. Everyone was happy and smiling and laughing, and if you were crossing one of the vast frozen lakes, there was plenty of time to relax and look around you.

Occasionally, I’d encourage my dogs to race another sled across the ice, shouting encouragement to them, just shouting with the sheer exhilaration, and the dogs felt it too: pushing themselves harder and faster at my command, wanting only to run and to race, on and on and on.

I really grew to love those dogs, I appreciated we were one team: it wasn’t them and me, it was us together. If I was pushing the sled up the hill, or just helping to scoot it along on a flat part for the joy of it and to help us get a speed advantage over the team we were racing. There were one or two times when I yelled at them, if I fell off the sled and they kept running with it, or if I fell off and got dragged behind it, face down in the snow. Just the same, I’d rub their heads and apologise later — like they cared.

The unusual thing about the snow was none of us on that adventure did things like build snowmen or throw snowballs. There was plenty of time to have done these things in the evenings, or if we stopped for lunch and had our sleds anchored — but it seemed like a different life. It wasn’t like we had some hokey “respect” for the snow, it just didn’t ever seem the same as it does at home when it snows.

I look out the window now at the falling snow and people playing outside, and I remember how it would feel when we’d cross a hill and see an immense white plain before us: it was difficult to tell what was ground and what was a frozen lake, except that on the lakes there would obviously be no vegetation, but then again, we don’t see proper trees until the final day in the forest.

Not unlike in Peru when I’d been worried by the thought of the formidable “Dead Woman’s Pass”, I’d been slightly anxious all week about the idea of sledding through a dense forest, along narrow, winding trails. But in the end, you just throw yourself into it: whatever happens, happens — and the odds are high that you’ll survive, whatever does happen. That day the green trees were refreshing like a drink of water — and when we waited by the side of the trail and watched the racers go fast it was more people than we had seen all week. We cheered and shouted encouragement to these strangers, whose race we knew nothing about, just for the human contact.

Sometimes now I’ll just stop what I’m doing for a minute, for no reason. I’ll remember how sometimes in the evenings we’d be sat eating dinner or just talking, and then we’d stop as we heard all our huskies out in the snow and the dark howling at something together. It was unnerving the first time you heard it, but after that you’d smile, and quietly try to work out if you could pick out the sound of your own favourite dog from the chaos.

I think now, wherever I am, the snow will always remind me of those huskies barking like they are saying “run! run! run!”. It reminds me of kneeling in the snow to put on or take off their harnesses, of shouting “mush!” at the huskies just for the fun of, and hugging my favourite dog at the end of a hard day, and trying to justify why she needed an extra bowl of food.

The flat-footed adventurerBefore I went on my adventure, I had a romantic dream of sitting in the snow, next to my huskies, and looking up at the Northern Lights. It didn’t happen that way at all, but in a way the memories I do have are better.

A new year begins

New Year ResolutionsIt’s turned biting cold in London this week. It’s funny. It’s winter, it’s England, and yet we’re surprised that it’s cold. England has a way of doing this to you — it gives you unseasonable weather, and then when you’re not expecting it, hits you with reality.

Take last week on the dock, Dragon Boat paddling, as an example. I wore nothing more than a pair of trousers, a t-shirt, a bouyancy aid (it’s the requirements of the docks n the winter) and a pair of non-slip gloves for paddling. Though I started out wearing a hat, I got too warm and kept slipping over my eyes. Yesterday, there were several reports on the radio of weather warnings — and I sarcastically commented how important it was to warn people that it’s winter and it might be cold. Yet, I ignored these warnings, went out without wearing a hat — and sorely regretted it.

Today, I wasn’t going to make that mistake on the dock — and upgraded my t-shirt to a long-sleeved thermal baselayer (last worn in the Arctic wilds of Norway), and kept my hat on. It did the job, although even with gloves my hands would get painfully cold at times — particularly the one that kept dipping in the water.

But here we are, 2013. The new year is well underway, and I don’t have those back-to-work blues because I didn’t really stop working over Christmas and New Year, apart from weekends and the bank holidays.

There’s not much to report. Along with seemingly the rest of the population, I’ve returned to the gym, some old faces that I haven’t seen since last summer have returned to the docks on a Sunday morning to join us in a dragon boat. I can only imagine it’s a new year inspiration, nobody would think “Gee, it’s bloody freezing out today, I should get back out in a dragon boat”.

Even if it’s not actually a resolution, the new year prompts new adventures. For me, returning to the gym wasn’t done because it was January: it was because I have a membership, enjoy going, and need the exercise. December was just a lousy month for that kind of thing. The fact that I am also planning on getting back into rock climbing (yeah, just like I was this time last year) may have more to do with a new year: it inspires you to do the things you’ve been putting off, and unlike in the past I actually have two or three friends who want to climb as well, which will help to motivate me.

We had several new people paddling with our dragon boat team this morning; I’m not sure where they came from or how they found out about us, but we managed to get two boats on the water which hasn’t happened in a long time. After our training session, we were sitting around in the pub talking, when one of the newbies asked about competitions. She was told that we compete nationally — and she laughed. Not, apparently, at the thought that we “as a team” compete nationally, but that she could. If she stays with the team, she’ll realise quickly this is not nearly as absurd as it sounds: after all, I competed with the team in a national competition last summer, and hope to compete in an international competition this year.

The Year of the Dragon is still the adventure of the moment, and in between getting fitter and rock climbing, it looks like this year will be a big one for sports and fitness. But I don’t make resolutions.

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.

Help save the docks for public use

Save the docks for public use

Save the docks for public use
Image source: http://flic.kr/p/7cVg6E
East London became the focus of the world’s attention this summer with the Olympics in Stratford.  Many people hoped that the inspiring spirit of the Olympics would long continue.

It seems that for Newham council the future of sport isn’t quite so important: as they consider a planning application to permanently berth a cruise ship at the London Regatta Centre in the Royal Docks as a floating hotel.

There are dozens of other hotels in the immediate area — with some having only very recently opened — but this floating hotel at the London Regatta Centre will mean losing several lanes worth of water permanently.   All kinds of water users would be affected by this and be forced to relocate, including three Dragon Boat teams and various rowing teams.

We only have until 19 December 2012 to get as many people as possible to object to the application and save the docks for public use.  Please help by objecting to the application yourself here: http://pa.newham.gov.uk/online-applications/ and searching for application no: 12/01956/FUL

You can also help by spreading the word and sharing this as widely as possible!

Sweden-town in London

Sweden-town in London

Sweden-town in London
Sweden-town in London
I’ve written before about my love of London, or more specifically the love I have for London’s diversity and especially my particular part of east London.

Until fairly recently, I had no idea there was an active Swedish community in London — not until one of the girl‘s friends from her show choir invited us to celebrate Swedish Midsummer at the end of June.  Rotherhithe park was filled with Swedes in white dresses and green leaf headdresses picnicking, drinking schnaps (complete with the obligatory drinking song and toast with each glass), and celebrating the midsummer in a traditional sort of way.  Even though the event was organised by the Swedish church, it was still very traditionally pagan.

It’s one of the things I love about London at this time of year: all the different Christmas markets popping up in the various parts of London — who knew there was a small part of the city around Marylebone referred to as “Sweden town”?  Almost six months later, we were back in the Swedish community this weekend with a Swedish Christmas market.

We found the Swedish church without trouble and were amused that the sign outside specified “English spoken”.  Apparently it’s been the centre of the Swedish community in London for several hundred years. The girl had opted to wear her red-and-white knitted Christmas poncho and a matching woolen hat: as we entered the church, the rector admired her knitwear and commented how she looked very Norwegian — our Swedish friend Linda later explained that this kind of chunky knitwear is very common in Norway.

Off-topic, I didn’t see a whole lot of people when I was in Norway (other than the adventurers I was with) but one place where we were staying was a popular spot for snowmobilers to stop and eat before moving on.  These people all wore the kind of ugly Christmas jumpers that are becoming very fashionable in the UK in recent years.

Inside the Swedish church, the market was largely being held in the basement — each stall had a handmade wooden sign, indicating in Swedish what they were offering, and the place was packed.  Better yet, you’d occasionally hear snatches of conversation like “It actually gets busier than this” and “I had no idea it would be this crowded, is it always like this?”.  While at some stalls you practically had to push your way to the front or push your way through the crowd, it was a good kind of crowded — with a positive atmosphere, rather than one of impatience or stress (unlike a busy shop around Christmastime).

The market wasn’t very big, and after I saw it as a prize on the tombola I probably spent almost as much time searching for a particular wooden decoration (a wooden heart with a picture of a black cat inside it) for sale than I had walking around and exploring the market originally.  Nobody seemed to be able to tell me for sure where I could buy this ornament from — the stall especially for Christmas ornaments (like the traditional Gävle goat) almost laughed at the idea they had anything with cats and pointed me to a different part to try, who in turn pointed me back to where I started.  Just the same, I came away with a Swedish “jultomte”, a Father Christmas made of felt for our tree — a man consisting of just a hat, nose and white beard.  Some had grey beards instead of white; this is something I should look up.

I don’t know where my work will take me next on my travels, though I am tempted to try and contrive a visit to somewhere with a good Christmas market — but even if I don’t make it out of England again before the end of 2012, I know there will be more interesting Christmas markets to be found in London.

The Strokes know when you drop your pace

Royal Albert Dock

Royal Albert Dock
Image source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/31505964@N08/3602629469
On Sunday morning, the water in the Royal Albert Dock was calm and flat, and reflected the sky like a mirror.

Sunday mornings in Docklands are unusually peaceful.  London City airport doesn’t begin operating until midday, and the only other people on the water was another dragon boat team — there was plenty of room for our team and theirs to be far apart from each other, so far a while out there the only sound was the splashing of our paddles, and the shouts of our respective team helms.

It’s been a while since I updated about The Year of the Dragon.  Since I last wrote about it, I have raced with my team in the London Regatta — technically, we had two teams: our premier team, and our scratch team.  No prizes for guessing I was in the scratch team — but we also had some Olympic-level athletes in the premier team.  Overall, Thames Dragons came 5th place in all 3 race distances (100m, 200m and 500m) — and most importantly came in above the other London teams.

Now the BDA League is finished and the days are becoming shorter — we have already stopped training on Tuesday nights, since the London Regatta Centre requires us to be off the water at sunset, and sunset is rapidly approaching 6pm in London.  Sunday mornings have stopped requiring sun block, a hat, and a bandana to stop me from getting stinging sweat and sunblock in my eyes.  This Sunday morning, the air was cold when I left the house in a hoody and a jacket and I wondered if I was going to be able to stay warm enough out on the dock.

With the Henley Winter Series coming up,  Sundays have a focus on technique (especially for newer members, like myself) and distance paddling.  I was in the second row in the boat, which was unusual for me — but it’s a good place to be, since you take your timing from the front. It makes it much easier to see what the people at the front are doing if you are sat right behind them, and I could also look more closely to try and emulate their technique.  I don’t know if your position in the boat, other than the front row, is any kind of comment on your ability or just a matter of weight distribution.  Undoubtedly, there were better paddlers sat behind me — this is without question, the man directly behind me would occasionally tell me when my timing was slightly off, but also it wasn’t possible that out of a boatful of people I was even among the best.  That isn’t really important.

Sunday was just a beautiful morning to be out paddling; the sun was shining and the sky was clear.  When I’m on the water I enjoy the very short breaks we have, just for a minute or two to look around me and enjoy the surroundings — there’s no opportunity to look around when you paddle, even if your technique is perfect — you need to be watching the front of the boat.  Although, as a training technique we did try paddling with eyes shut occasionally.  It sounds crazy, but sometimes when you’re racing the water can be rough or there might be so much spray you won’t be able to see — so it’s important to be able to use other senses.  We’d start off with eyes open as normal, get into our rhythm and make sure everyone was in time: then it was eyes shut and keep paddling.  It’s surprising how quickly I’d lose timing: I’d be counting to myself and thinking I was still doing fine, then there’s be a whack as my paddle hit the paddle of the person behind me.

The distances are also a new experience.  In the London Regatta there was a 500m race, which was a distance some of us (myself included) had never covered before — and it was surprisingly difficult.  This Sunday we trained over distances of 1000 and 2000m.  The important thing is to focus on power and pace.

When I was at school, a long time ago now, there was a short time when I was a decent runner: but I was a sprinter.  I got pretty good, but not amazing, times for 100m, but preferred 200m. I performed well in 400m, and got a Gold award for my time, but I still preferred running 200m.  My trouble with 400m was I didn’t understand how to pace myself — I didn’t know how to start the race. With 100 and 200m, all I had to do was just run as fast as I could.  I wonder now if there is something in the power and pace techniques I am learning in dragon boating that could have been applied back then.

1000m was tough and 2000m was even harder — around me in the boat I could hear people breathing hard and panting. The Henley Winter Series involves continuous paddling for half an hour, with occasional short bursts of extra power, and for the newer paddlers like myself this is a new experience: with the short races, you are finished in under a minute.

In a campaign to be a better person, I’ve started going to the gym recently: and after only a week of activity, this week I could already feel the benefit an increase in strength and fitness has on my paddling.  With my adventures in Peru and Norway, I had reasons to train — a reason that I was missing after the challenges.  Now I am finding reasons once again: the year of the dragon isn’t just about the international race I want to build up to, it’s the fitness and training to be a better paddler, and overall being a better person.