E-Bow The Letter to Elvis Presley Blues

TRAVEL took centre stage this weekend, although not to the extent the man in the wheelchair who did his best to run me off the pavement on Sunday morning would have liked.

Not quite sure what led him to his conclusion a long journey was in order as fast as possible.

Perhaps it was the slightly scruffy hoody in the rather salubrious surroundings of Kensington High Street, the lingering outside a branch of a well-known electrical goods shop to discover it didn’t open for another hour or my reaction to the cyclist who had  shot out in front of a bus, vociferously (and less than politely) haranguing the driver for daring to prove his horn was in as good a working order as he had just proved his reflexes and brakes were.

The hand gesture from the cyclist to my passing comment was predictable, the sudden appearance of the guy in the wheelchair from a shop doorway was not.

Have done my best to avoid being run in front of another bus, my efforts were rewarded by his request – tidied up considerably for a family audience – for me to get out of the country and return rapidly to my point of origin.

Back where I come from…

Not sure he was expecting to be answered in English and that Gloucester was only about 100 miles away, but some bee had got in his bonnet and not sure any response would have convinced him of my right to be setting foot in his country.

All rather bizarre and out of keeping with the rest of an enjoyable weekend, catching up with friends, being a bit of a tourist, getting some travel inspiration and firming up a few ideas for further trips and the future of this website.

The event that drew me and huge crowds – must have been about a million and a half of them, huge crowds, massive, whatever any pictures or official figures may suggest – was the Adventure Travel Show at Olympia.

It is, for the travel geek, a chance to discuss future travel plans and form a few new ones with a wide array of exhibitors – particularly my old friends at Oasis Overland, who managed the not inconsiderable task of getting me round Africa in (almost) one piece – and to listen to a few talks from people who have been there, done that, written the book to prove it.

And it was sat in one of those talks that something struck me.

Why do I miss it?

Most of the talks were hugely entertaining, inspiring and were almost enough to have me scurrying for the nearest tour operator and getting the credit card out.

But one struggled to keep my attention and as my mind began to wander, something became clear.

That million and half people who had crowded in (or some alternative, slightly smaller, number if you are really after facts) to some of the more popular talks heard about any number of unusual journeys.

And all of them had a  passion for travel and exploration – they wouldn’t have been there otherwise (unless somebody had brought them in just to clap, laugh and cheer at the appropriate moments… maybe too much time spent watching the news).

Unicyclist and chipmunks not pictured

But how many of them are really going to walk solo across the Kalahari, ride a chipmunk the length of Route 66 or unicycle up Everest? Not too many. Otherwise it would get a bit crowded with a million and half people crowding into a desert, never mind the centre of a major capital city.

There is nothing wrong with wanting to do something adventurous, hitting the route less travelled or doing it in an unusual manner. Nor is there anything wrong with writing about it, be  it a blog or a book – if they are as entertaining as some of the speakers at the weekend, sign me up for a copy.

But having ignored that request to return rapidly to where my kind came from, a hunt around the travel section of a large book store revealed two main kinds of books – guide books to specific places and the tales of those very specific adventures.

Which leaves a middle ground – a place worth heading to rather rapidly for the future of this website.

The vast majority of those few hundred in the audience (sorry, facts are facts, no alternative, regardless of who won a vote) and those outside at the show visiting the stalls will head off with a guide book and explore new horizons. The top shelf of my bookcase will testify for my willingness to do just that (or just to read about these places).

But a good number of them will sign up with one of those exhibitors for something in between, an adventure and a journey of a different kind – breaking fresh ground for them, but organised to varying degrees by whichever firm comes nearest to their needs.

And where is the stuff for them to read? What is available is usually on those firm’s websites, some of which are better written and better presented than others. It provides the facts, but does it really provide the colour? The truth beyond the itinerary, what to pack and what excursions you can do along the way?

That’s the gap in the market which this blog is going to attempt to fill in some small way – the stories, the colour, the (sometimes harsh) realities and, yes, the smells of overlanding.

Like the crowds for Trump’s inauguration (and unlike the following Women’s March), my experiences will not come close to filling every available gap.

But over the coming weeks and months, this blog will share some tips, advice and stories about overlanding – hopefully with contributions from people with far more experience and any readers, please feel free to leave a comment or get in touch.

We’ll see where it takes us.

And for those of you here for the A-Z iPod Challenge, don’t worry that will continue alongside the travel articles (which, after all, was the initial point of this website).

There’s still a long way to go on that one after reaching a couple more landmarks in the latest section from REM’s E-Bow The Letter at 2,900 to Elvis Presley Blues by Gillian Welch.

It took us past the 10,000 to go mark (possibly not for the first time with the fairly regular additions to the collections) with Each to Each by The Gutter Twins at 2,907 and beyond 3,000 with The Stone Roses’ Elizabeth My Dear.

Along the way there’s been old favourites – Ease Your Feet In The Sea by Belle & Sebastien, Eat Yourself Fitter by The Fall – and a pair of triple appearances from The Beatles, Eight Days A Week and Eleanor Rigby, while Godspeed You! Black Emperor soundtracked most of a journey home from work, although at 17.58, East Hastings clocks in at one of their shorter contributions.

The picks of a not particularly inspiring selection were Elephant by Jason Isbell, Elevator Operator by Courtney Barnett and, maybe slightly surprisingly, one of last year’s best tracks, Eat Shiitake Mushrooms by Let’s Eat Grandma.

But hey, nothing should be counted as a surprise from the last 12 months.

  • No playlist on this entry – technical issue that’s beyond my understanding. Normal service as soon as possible.
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Ablaze to Drunk And On A Star

IT has become something of a tradition in the relatively short life of this blog to write a state of the nation-style post, assessing the world around me and my place in it as we enter a new year.

And it is rapidly becoming another tradition that the good intentions to have that piece written on New Year’s Day are derailed and delayed.

Two years ago was spot on, written in a candlelit bar on the Ghanaian coast on a quiet first night of the year, albeit not posted for another two weeks due to the lack of wi-fi.

But last year, it took until January 23 before what became the penultimate entry for 2016 to see the light of day, so writing this nine days into 2017 is positively punctual. And a form of rebirth.

That entry 12 months ago announced the break this blog was going on which was supposed to last a few weeks, months at the most – not, one brief return aside, a year – and an overhaul of the design of the site.

Finally that prediction has come true – the new look you have hopefully spotted, albeit with a few minor tweaks still to come, and a return to regular articles both in the A-Z Challenge and working my way through the travel pieces (this is the Travel Marmot after all) which have been on the must-write list for who knows how long.

Travel remains close to my heart, even if there is none on the horizon – something that does not sit easy and there is a real itch to do so something about it.

My bed for the night, right, on New Year’s Day 2015 in Elmina, Ghana

So how did we get to that point?

That post on 2015 was written sat in the power-free, darkened bar at a small eco beach resort with the camp pets curled up on my feet or alongside me. Away to my right, the occasional sounds of some of my fellow travellers mixed with the sound of the Atlantic with a night in my one-man tent at the side of the volleyball court awaiting me.

This post is written sat at the desk in the corner of the front room of my flat. To my right, the sound of American college football is coming out of the TV with workmen outside dismantling the ice rink which has taken over the square  at Gloucester Docks for the past few weeks.

Food will not be cooked over a fire from the (newly) well-stocked fridge and bed will be, well, a bed. A proper bed. And between now and heading under the duvet, there’s all the modern conveniences to enjoy.

Not to be underestimated or taken for granted. Especially now, probably for the first time in six years, my life is firmly settled and fully unpacked.

If this new-year post tradition was in place in 2010 – round about the time the earliest entries in this blog were written, albeit initially, on a different website – it would have recorded a similar story.

It was about 50 miles away across the border in Cardiff, but there was a steady, responsible job on a newspaper and my own house (well, mine and the mortgage company’s). Everything was pretty much sorted, running smoothly and normal.

Sunset over Elmina – almost time to start writing

Right up to the decision to jack it all in and go travelling.

And since then, my life has been in a sort of limbo, living out of bags, on the road, with large chunks of my clothes or belongings in storage and even when back to what seemed like normality and even running a small company in my spare time, there was never that feeling of being settled. Of putting down roots. Of permanence.

There was always another big trip somewhere down the line, even before it was decided on what it was going to be.

But sat here now, everything is out of storage. There aren’t even things in bags, clothes are hanging up (unironed and wrinkled, but hanging up) or folded in drawers – now the Ikea packages have finally been put together –  books are in strict order on the bookshelves, furniture from my rented-out house in Cardiff surrounds me (the new tenants did not want it) and this week marks a year back on the payroll and in the office across the Golden Valley in Cheltenham.

Life is settled. Life is, pretty much, good. Life is not in a state of limbo.

Well, sort of. And that sort of is why there is no travel planned. Bar a couple of ideas and one plan made over a few drinks at a Trans Africa reunion which are being suppressed until that state of limbo is totally over.

Many of you will know the new year brings not only a delayed Travel Marmot blog post but also a tax deadline and that is what is largely delaying any plans for the future.

That end of January deadline is pretty much taken care of, all the relevant paperwork shipped off to the accountants. It is another tax issue which has everything on hold and explains me actually having an accountant.

That decision in 2010 to leave Cardiff was not meant to last this long. Always thought my future involved me returning there and moving back into my house.

But no, bar a couple of months between tenants, that house has been rented and there is outstanding tax to be paid. No attempt to dodge tax, just a breakdown in communication and, in my case, organisation.

So while the wait goes on for the final amount payable, there is no spending and until there is a clear idea of the budget, travel plans are on hold.

The moment the payment is made, the planning starts ( and if my boss reads this, don’t worry. That’s travelling little and often, not another lengthy, quit-my-job option. Probably).

So that’s me, what about the A-Z Challenge which forms the centrepiece of this blog at the moment.

That last, solitary post which popped up a few months ago wrapped up the end of the Ds, so to set things up neatly for the new year and the regular return of this blog, it has been a case of mopping up the A-Ds which arrived on my iPod over the last 12 months.

It was a fairly lengthy list from Ablaze by School of Seven Bells to Drunk And On A Star by Kevin Morby from 2016 albums, a few older ones missed while on the road  and any others picked up over the year (a flurry of catching up on Teenage Fanclub’s back catalogue for starters).

The normal, slightly longer than normal, playlist which accompanies each A-Z entry is below but what were my picks for 2016’s best albums?

Was going to do a proper top 10, but opted against that. Plenty of good albums last year, just not much verging on the great as most struggled to keep the quality throughout (sorry guys,  Bowie’s Blackstar is good, but would people really be raving about it the way they do if it wasn’t for the circumstances?).

So, in no particular order, my pick for 2016 are:

  • Skeleton Tree – Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds (not an easy listen, especially in light of his son’s death, but worth investing time in)
  • American Band – Drive-By Truckers (my current obsession and next band on the gig list)
  • A Moon Shaped Pool – Radiohead (who had the great idea of a track listing running from A-Z)
  • Going, Going… – The Wedding Present (surprisingly good from a band largely overlooked in recent years)
  • Teens of Denial – Car Seat Headrest (the type of band this A-Z Challenge was designed for as could well have slipped through the net, but kept popping up and catching my attention)
  • Schmilco – Wilco (not all Wilco fans liked it, but fine by me)

And bubbling under or worth more of my time in the weeks to come are:

  • Blackstar – David Bowie
  • 22, A Million – Bon Iver (Really need to spend more time on it)
  • Here – Teenage Fanclub (What prompted that re-examination)
  • case/lang/veirs – case/lang/veirs (Bit hit and miss, but the good bits are well worth it)
  • Chaleur Humaine – Christine And The Queens (Surprised my self with this one. Tilted one of the songs of the years)
  • A Sailor’s Guide To Earth – Sturgill Simpson (A bit more time with this one and could well be bumped into the top list)
  • Head Carrier – Pixies (Jury still out, last addition to the iPod. Could go either way)
  • Meet The Humans – Steve Mason (Slipped by me a bit, another that needs further examination)
  • Babes Never Die – Honeyblood (Some great songs but does tail away)
  • I, Gemini – Let’s Eat Grandma (We hit the Es next time – we’ll see more of them then)
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