From Deadhorse to Ushuaia

Image courtesy of http://www.theconstantrambler.com/
Alaska. Image source: http://www.theconstantrambler.com/

I was thinking about, and discussing, earlier By Any Means Necessary and I felt that I should look up some of the details of what such a journey would involve.

It turns out that the northernmost point of Alaska is a place called Barrow. If you look it up on Google Maps, it doesn’t even appear to be on the mainland — and I understand from some brief research that it has restricted access. The furthest north you could actually drive would be to a delightfully-named place called “Deadhorse” in Alaska.

Doesn’t the name alone just fill you with confidence?

The Pan-American highway apparently exists as a loose system of roads connecting North and South America that one could follow to get all the way down to the Southernmost tip: Ushuaia in Argentina. But there is a also a pesky gap in the network of about 60 miles between Panama and Colombia, where it is just rainforest.

Presuming that one was to drive the entire 48,000km (which isn’t really in the spirit of this adventure, but just for argument’s sake), and then hike through the rainforest, the journey would take roughly three months from start to finish.
That’s not so bad.
On the other hand, if one was to try and walk the entire way… At a steady rate of about eight hours a day, the journey would take more like 7 years.

None of this takes into account all the little things like wolves, bears, mountain lions, armed robbers and kidnappers, or any number of things that could kill you in the rainforest.

This isn’t to say that the adventure couldn’t be done — on paper, this shows that in theory

Ushuaia, Argentina
Argentina. Image source: www.exploreargentina.com

it is entirely possible, and not even that long a journey. If we made this a more flexible journey — so not just following the road, but going across country and rivers — I don’t know how much that would to the journey.

But I really should set up a Kickstarter project to fund the adventure.

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.

Sometimes fires don’t go out when you’re done playing with them

The Mongolian Derby

The Mongolian Derby
Source: http://bit.ly/SkQxxb
Adventuring has been quiet of late. For the entire month of October, I didn’t leave the country — and it seems strange that it has become normal for me to be packing up and flying out, dashing from one place to the next, waking up in the night and feeling a sense of panic when I can’t remember where I am.  As I say, October has been quiet.

But November is back to business as usual: this week holds a last minute trip to Paris for a couple of events, and some time digging stuff, then a couple of days at home before I board the Eurostar again to Antwerp  These are a bunch of first times for me: my first trip on the Eurostar, my first trip to Paris (as a disclaimer, I have visited France before, and even driven my car to Lille on one occasion, just never Paris), and my first trip to Belgium. We can expect more blog posts with pictures and journal entries from these new cities: and I should really brush up on my French.

In other news, last month I presented to a crowd of about 500 people at the Hacker News London meetup.  As I had arranged for my company to be a sponsor, I got to have two minutes just to say a few words about us.  I had planned my presentation carefully to be almost exactly two minutes long and cover all the important points I needed: but on the night, I changed my mind. The sponsor before me said only a few words, and I didn’t want to look out of place giving a more prepared and much longer intro — so I followed suit, just explained who I was, who my company are, and told the crowd to come to our next user group meeting.  I regretted this when the two sponsors who followed me did give longer intros.  I have resolved to do better next time, and to somehow make it interesting and if possible slightly funny. It’s not beyond me: I can make people laugh with self deprecating humour when I perform at open mike nights, I just have to work on it.

At this Hacker News I was lucky enough to see a presentation from Linda Sandvik on, in her words, “Making things better”.  Linda was inspirational to me as an adventurer: she takes Mondays as an opportunity to force herself to do things she wouldn’t normally do, from little things like making phone calls to much larger things — such as the longest, toughest horse race in the world, the Mongol Derby.

Linda decided one day to enter the Mongol Derby, despite not being a professional nor having ever competed in anything more strenuous than gymkhanas and openly admitting to not having been fit in several years.  Linda just decided she would enter — and what’s more, she did it, too.  She didn’t just talk about it, she didn’t give it up as a bad idea: she actually went ahead and competed in the Mongol Derby.

Admittedly, she didn’t complete the race and was hospitalised for several days with a collapsed lung, and other injuries, but to me it’s the taking part that’s important. Linda is the kind of person who would enter the Dakar, even if they had never ridden a motorbike before — and even if people said it was crazy and dangerous.  After all, when I first started talking about it people said that my dog sledding challenge was crazy and that I’d freeze to death.

For the minute, I have slightly less lofty goals: as well as the year of the dragon (which is progressing well, even if I think it will take many years to master the art of dragon boat paddling) I’m discussing the idea of presenting at one of my work’s conferences some time next year.  Not being technical, all I could present on would be community management. My boss is fully supportive of the idea, to the extent that with her encouragement I am founding a meetup group for community managers: just a place for people like me to discuss their experiences, and on opportunity for me to learn what I have to offer.  I would also like to present a whole talk to the Hacker News London meetup, rather than just the two minute intro.

These might not seem like big adventures, but they form a part of trying to be a better person: as well as getting fitter (I am now visiting the gym several times a week, as well as dragon boat paddling), and trying to be more positive (to be happier), I am also trying to be the person that does things, and doesn’t just talk about them.  I also have to balance this with trying not to take on too much or risk burning out: so there’s an adventure in trying not to have too many different adventures all at the same time.

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)

5 days in Munich

The sun sets in Munich after the rain has clearedAlternate blog post title: “Hamburger! Der Grundstein eines jeden nahrhaften Frühstücks!”

On Wednesday night in Munich, I was sat outside in a movie-theatre-cum-restaurant.  All of the menu was film-themed, I chose a hamburger and because of my love for Pulp Fiction I chose the Big Kahuna Burger from what was on offer.  Except the waitress corrected me: it was not Big Kahuna it was Big Kahlúa.  I had a feeling the restaurant had confused Pulp Fiction with The Big Lebowski, but ordered the burger anyway.

Fortunately, it did not contain Kahlúa.

I’ve been in Munich since Sunday, for a conference about Drupal — it’s my first time in both Munich and Germany.  I should get extra adventurer points for visiting two new cities in the space of two weeks, and points for visiting a new country.  I deliberately booked a flight out of London early Sunday evening so that I would have time to go to my Dragon Boat training in the morning, and still get home, showered, changed and to the airport.  I’m reluctant to let things get in the way of my Dragon Boat, although it isn’t always easy.

(As a brief aside, the Dragon Boat training is coming along well — I have been to half a dozen training sessions so far, and I will be taking part in a regatta in London at the beginning of September.)

London was in the grip of a heatwave last weekend, and my journey to Heathrow was too hot as I was overdressed as normal, hoping that dressing smartly would possibly get me upgraded.  As with Dublin, there was just enough time between checking in and walking to the gate before boarding, but I should have checked in online earlier in the day — I was stuck in the dreaded middle seat, with no others available to change to.  The plane sat on the tarmac for way too long, it was stuffy and hot and the air blowers overhead seemed to only blow warm air.  The captain made some announcement, but it sounded something like there was engine trouble, which sounded worrying and couldn’t possibly have been right.  Eventually we were on our way, the blowers started blowing cold air, and I went to sleep as usual — though the person next to me woke me up when the cabin crew brought some food or pretzels round.  I refused them and went back to sleep.  It’s quite a talent to be able to sleep when your flight is only an hour.

As we began to descend on Germany, I was looking across past the man in the seat next to me and down onto the fields of Bavaria.  I can’t remember what the man said to me any more, perhaps it was just “Look, it’s Germany” — but I do remember thinking he was right, in his own stating the obvious kind of way.  I enjoy landings more than take offs, just for the view — you seem to be below the clouds for a lot longer, and I like looking at the land.  I get a strange sense of peace looking at the cars with people going about their daily lives, oblivious or indifferent to the plane overhead — just like I am every day.  I also like the contrast of how different countries look from above.  Returning to England, I never fail to be struck at how green it looks.  Germany seemed to be a country of autumnal colours — yellows and oranges and browns.

In Munich airport it occurred to me that this was the first time I had ever been in a non-English speaking country on my own.  While there would be colleagues at the conference, I was on my own until then — and my heart started to beat a little faster when I remembered that I don’t speak a word of German.  My brain would unhelpfully dredge up Italian, Spanish and French phrases I’ve learned when faced with the indecipherable signs.

Dramas were all averted despite this — I bought a drink of water, collected my bag and even got a taxi.  Although my white-haired taxi driver and I had a few minutes of language barriers, as I pronounced “Westin Grand” with a “W” rather than as a “V”.  We drove in silence for the 45 minutes to the hotel, until we had almost arrived when he attempted to tell me in what little English he knew that the Audi he was driving was new, although it was not his own car.  I tried to be polite and tell him it was a very nice car.  He unloaded my luggage, gave me the long bag containing the pop-up banner I’d brought for the conference and attempted to ask me if I was a snooker player.  He also asked if I was American.  He’llA beer garden in Munich be writing in his taxi driver blog about the silent American billiards player that was his fare.

In the days that have followed I’ve spent all of the daytime working — on our conference stand, doing the usual marketing thing.  The evenings have been spent doing things like visiting German beer gardens.  I imagine a beer garden to be like in an English pub: a small garden or just a pub car park with a dew tables outside.  In Munich, the beer garden we went to seemed to be an entire town square just filled with people: sitting, drinking, eating, talking.  I read somewhere it could hold up to 700 people.  The other nights of drinking aren’t worth going into detail about: there was the pub meetup of the UK Drupal people: they said they’d found a British pub. It wasn’t, it was an Irish-themed bar.  But it was fun all the same.  We came in to this post at the outside cinema/restaurant: something London could do with — and we’ll leave there, too.

There had been thunderstorms predicted for days, that never arrived.  Tonight after several days of heat, it finally rained.

36 hours in Dublin

One of the things I enjoy about my job is that it feeds my passion for travel — and with travel comes my passions for writing and photography.  It might not be “adventure” like the Inca Trail was adventure, but it’s an adventure all the same when you’re travelling alone.

Dublin was a very short business trip.  I aim to visit all of the user groups I look after in EMEA, and there is a burgeoning user group in the city.  One of my colleagues was going there to present, and it made sense for me to pay them a visit since my company has an office in Dublin that I could work out of while I was visiting.

I had a flight out of London City Airport early on Wednesday morning.  City Airport is a short walk from where I live, and since European flights only need an hour’s check-in time, it made sense to book a 7am flight.  Until I worked backwards and found that I’d still need to be out of bed at 4.30am.  Just the same, I wanted to have two full days of work in the Dublin office — and I’d just sleep on the plane.

Except from my paper journal:

“As the plane idled on the tarmac, in some deep part of the engine I could hear a singular note. High and clear, for all the world it sounded to me like a jazz musician’s trumpet — like that first note in ‘Stella by Starlight’.

Awake since 4, I quickly fell asleep with the sun shining on my face. A thought passed through a distant part of my brain, “Wasn’t it supposed to rain today?” and I smiled at the idea. It’s always sunny above the clouds.”

After landing and collecting my bag, I checked my wallet to see if I could scrape together enough Euros for the bus, and I was briefly excited when I thought I had 5 Euros more than I’d expected, but on closer inspection found I’d got Australian Dollars mixed in with my currency.  I took a taxi from Dublin airport to the city, instead — it would go on expenses anyway, but I still don’t like spending money where I don’t have to.  On the radio in the cab the DJ was making jokes about how the wind was going to blow, the sky was going to fall and the earth would crack open.  Despite it being quite a bright and sunny morning, apparently there was the tail-end of a hurricane expected to hit Ireland later that day.  “Here I am without an umbrella,” I commented.  My driver laughed at me and told me that an umbrella wasn’t going to help.

I got the office without event, my colleagues made me welcome, and from there it was apparently just business as usual — a normal working day in the office, except in a different office.

By lunchtime the storm had arrived — a short walk to the shops meant battling against gale-force winds and driving rain. It wasn’t really a hurricane, though, more what I was used to from Ireland’s weather (I visited Cork several years ago, and have enduring memories of standing by myself on the top of Blarney castle in the wind and the rain).

Mid-afternoon the rain and wind stopped, so I took the brief window — what could have just been the eye of the storm — to check in at my hotel.  These are the kind of moments I enjoy when I’m travelling alone, just a quiet walk and a chance to enjoy the scenery of the city.  People in Dublin seemed friendly in the way that only drunks and crazy people are in London: as I walked down the street, a lady on the other side of the road, walking in the opposite direction, shouted across the street to me to comment on the weather.  She’d got drenched this morning, she told me, now look at it!  The sun was out and you’d never have known.

I grabbed  a quick shower at the hotel, changed my clothes, and went back to the office.  I walked in just in time — my colleagues were sat around the office “virtual water cooler” because Mayor Bloomberg was visiting our New York office, so everyone was gathering around to join in from their various locations.

The user group on Wednesday night was in a company called Engine Yard, in a part of the city where Google have several offices and a stone’s throw from Facebook’s Dublin office.  Engine Yard was a big, airy loft space — surprisingly large for a small number of people working from the office, so either they are expecting to expand or space is cheap in Dublin.  Either way, it was an impressive place.  The group’s turnout was good — about 45 to 50 people from 60 registrations, and the talks seemed to go well.

I was back at my hotel before midnight, and slept soundly until my normal alarm the next morning.  I considered resetting the alarm and going back to sleep — after all, I was much closer to the office here than I live in London — but in the end just had a slow start to the day, enjoyed my walk to the office and was the first one in that morning.  Another day in the office that was much like any other if you aren’t interested in the minutiae of what I do all day, until it was time to catch a taxi back the other way.  I walked with my colleague from London along the Dublin street as it started to rain again, and we caught a taxi the first time we tried — it was that that time of the evening, when every third car is a cab. We crawled for a while until we were out of the heavy traffic, where I wound down the window so I could smell the air and appreciate the passing sights properly.  Ireland often feels to me just familiar enough to be like home, and just different enough to feel like a foreign country.

Dublin airport was busy, there was scarcely any time between checking in and boarding for me — what little time I did have, I spent searching for something to take home to the girl.  When I was little, my Dad used to travel for work a lot and he always used to bring back European chocolate for my brother and I — I don’t remember how, but it became known as “Pilot’s chocolate”, and we believed that the pilot used to give my Dad the chocolate to bring home for us, which is a bit of a rough deal for my old man.  I wanted to find pilot’s chocolate for the girl, and couldn’t — even if you can buy 5 varieties of Milka chocolate in our local supermarket.  She has also almost accidentally ended up collecting Starbucks mugs from various cities around the world, but I was foiled again when the Starbucks in Dublin airport didn’t have any of that kind.

Then it was the journey home. Safety instructions in English and Irish, I close my eyes and drift in and out of a light sleep, until we are descending over England and London.  Through the low cloud I try to see the flashing light on top of Canary Wharf, but can’t work out where we are or what direction we’re facing — even when I can see a white light flashing above the clouds.  Arriving in England was a little disorientating, we landed, I picked up my bags, walked out the airport…and realised at no point had anyone checked my passport.  I don’t know why, maybe there’d been some kind of extra check in Dublin I hadn’t been aware of.  Either way, I walked out of the airport, snapped a picture of the entrance and labelled it “home”, and was once again back where I belong.Home: London City Airport

Darlin’ won’t you come run away with me?

Darlin' Wont You Come?I’m late to the party with this song, and with Bob Evans in general.  I couldn’t even name you another song by the man — except that my MP3 player tells me that the Spider-Man theme from the 19070s cartoon is also by a man by the name of Bob Evans.

The thing is, this song says to me adventure. Although in general I think it’s more about wanting to be happy, and wanting the person you care most about to leave a place where you’re unhappy — lines like “I don’t feel this place holds a lot for me/
So darlin’ won’t you come run away with me” and “I’m done with this crowd and I’m done with this scene/And you’re the only one who believes in me” both to me reinforce this idea, and suggest an unhappiness.

But as I say, to me it plays into wanting an adventure — the line “I want to belong, but I’d rather be free” says they want to see what is out there in the world. They want to be free, but then again — don’t we all?

Free in this context does not mean alone.  I think it’s incredibly important that the song’s title isn’t “I’m running away” but instead “Darlin’ Won’t You Come” is an invitation to the person he loves, with every verse starting with the same line: “Darlin’ won’t you come run away with me”.

I once met a man, at a conference, who told me he was homeless.  He wasn’t begging for change or living on the street, what he meant was he didn’t own a home and he didn’t have a home he was paying rent on. He literally had no home address, he said because he travelled so much with his work that he lived his life in hotels.

I’m someone that likes to travel, and actively wants adventure — and yet I’m almost horrified by the idea of literally having no home, nowhere to go back to, nowhere that you can close the door and be in your own place.  I want to see the world, I want all the adventures I can have — but I also want that place that is home, and that person to run away with.

The fine balance between belonging and being free.