Are We Nearly There Yet?

Day 30 in the blog post a day in May challenge and something of an unplanned first

IT has taken 30 days but for the first time, sat down to tap away at the laptop without any idea of where today’s post is actually going to take us.

A few have ended up bearing little relation to the plan having sort of wandered off and never came back to the intended route, while several only had a rough outline sketched out before gathering their own momentum and taking shape as they emerged.

Which is sort of the plan for this, if anything fancies popping up…

Nope, got nothing.

It is something of a cliche for column writers to resort to the writer’s block, can’t think of anything to write option as a way of filling space – subbed enough of them over the years to spot exactly what they were doing.

Either it is true and they were just saving themselves the trouble of finding something to write about or they know exactly where they were going and were throwing in the fake humility, ‘hey, look what I’ve come up with’ revelation to round things off.

Always tried to avoid it but this is something of the first option, with a touch of the second while hoping the revelation will appear from somewhere. If it does, there’ll be no fake humility – will let you know all about it.

This monthly plan has been pretty well worked out, mainly steering away from the schedule when something better popped up, had not done the necessary preparation (well, listening to music) or had just run out of time or motivation to do the intended subject justice.

Had the first 20 days pencilled in before the off and when things did change, it was a simple case of shifting them around, stretching those 20 days out towards the full month.

There’s a couple of travel and overlanding pieces which have been hanging around, moved about, never got written – bizarre places to sleep and the things that become second nature on the road – and did not get fitted back in the schedule.

We will see them again one day. Maybe. Together with the very long list of possible travel articles which has been sitting on my laptop for ages, from which a lot of this month’s pieces have been culled.

Biggest problem with a lot of that list was working out what the original idea behind it was when it first went on the list.

Eventually, we got down to just three days left and two of them were inked in from a while back on the only day they could be done – yesterday’s live blog on the A-Z iPad on the only night with enough time to do it and tomorrow’s closing piece, which clearly could not be written any other time.

Which just left the space in between.

Still working on that one.

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I to I Am The Resurrection

Day 29 of the blog post a day in May with something a bit different – the A-Z iPod Challenge written and posted live

I – Cheatahs
Interesting start – 41 seconds of largely fuzzy noise. Not even enough time to think of something interesting to write, let alone write it.

I Ain’t Got No Home – Billy Bragg
As my musical tastes completed their trip from indie guitar jangle to Americana, the Big Nosed Boy from Barking completed the same trip with his Tooth & Nail album.

He’s been pretty much a constant in my life for 30-odd years and (when we get there, possibly in several years) one of his songs will have the rare distinction of a blog post all of its own.

Not his best era but he did coin the best definition of Americana – “Country music for people who like The Smiths.”

I Ain’t Tha 1 – NWA
Added to the collection when Straight Outta Compton was part of a bout of adding supposedly classic albums. Several failed to live up to the billing, but this is always pretty welcome when it pops up. Even with my limited rap knowledge.

I Ain’t The Same – Alabama Shakes
Never really looked ahead to see what was coming on this section of the iPod, just knew it was a load of tracks beginning with I.

One of those bands who got talked up a lot for a while and downloaded this pretty much unheard. Much of it has remained that way. It’s perfectly OK, just….

I Almost Fell – Axxa/Abraxas
Nope, absolutely no idea what this is doing here. But this is pretty good, sort of psychy, vaguely California-type sound (although quick check on Wikipedia reveals he is from near Atlanta.

Ooh, Michael Palin’s on the TV. Sadly, on The One Show, not travelling.

I Almost Killed You – Billy Bragg
Told you he was pretty much a constant. This was when he was emerging from the part of his career when our paths had sort of diverged.

Not among his best, but that’s a pretty long list and what’s on it could make a lengthy debate – The Saturday Boy, Levi Stubbs’ Tears, Tank Park Salute… this could run and run.

I Always Fell Apart – Sharon Van Etten
Had an end-of-year ritual since first really started buying music, scouring the music papers and magazines’ best of lists to see what had been missed.

It inevitably ended in an armful of CDs or a load of downloads, not all of which got as much attention as they deserved, purely due to a lack of time – it’s sort of what this A-Z idea was about to dig out some overlooked stuff.

Sharon Van Etten has made the end-of-year shoppings spree more than once and falls very much in that last paragraph.

I Always Knew – The Vaccines
Yeah, it’s OK but… Am away watching baseball the weekend of Glastonbury so will have limited chance to roll out the phrase indie landfill. Will do it now.

I Am A Rock – Red House Painters
Finally a song long enough to think of something to write… if only wasn’t trying to work out how they have produced a cover about twice as long as the original. That’s Mark Kozelek for you.

Red House Painters are littered through my iPod, courtesy of raiding the music collection of the friend who gave me a home on return from my first bout of travelling.

Perfectly welcome visitors and Kozelek went on to soundtrack much of my Trans Africa trip with his wonderful Benji album (which manages to mention his role as the bassist in the band in Almost Famous).

I Am A Rock – Simon & Garfunkel
A friend once got very upset because none of his colleagues were old enough to know who Simon & Garfunkel were. Which is a sad reflection on both the ageing process and the education system – they should be among the music people are taught about compulsorily.

I Am A Wanderer – Steve Earle
Told you had wandered off into Americana. No idea where picked this one up from but looks like sometime after Earle had been playing a recovering drug addict in The Wire – the greatest TV series of them all (no debate on this one).

Just checked this is actually working and appears some people are actually reading it (or one person is clicking on it a lot). Hi, whoever it is. Not watching the football?

I Am All That I Need/Arroyo Seco/Thumprint Scar – Fleet Foxes
Remember buying this album, no recollection of listening to this but almost certainly did. Prefer their early stuff which is much better, controversial view, than Father John Misty.

I Am Columbus – Guided By Voices
It’s all been a bit gentle up to now, time to crank it up. One of those bands was aware of for ages but was never familiar with. Like it, but does sound rather like a Sugar B side.

I Am Fire – The Afghan Whigs
Have to pick my words carefully, given the high esteem The Afghan Whigs are held in by at least one person who might be reading this. Never quite got them to that extent – one of those bands you enjoy when you hear, but rarely seek out. Ducks for cover…

I Am Gonna Watch You Sleep – Hamell On Trial
Bought this album on the strength of a track on an Uncut magazine sampler which still pops up occasionally when wandering through old playlists. The album not so much.

I Am Goodbye – Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy
The Prince wandered in to my collection in the same raid on a friend’s collection as Red House Painters (we had no TV or internet).

Also one of the subjects of the overheard line: “Want to come back to mine and listen to some miserable music?” Remarkably, she did.

I Am Here – Savages
Sort of shied away from Savages because kept being told would really like them – sort of the musical equivalent of being told to clean your bedroom – so came to them late. This backs up the feeling that should have listened earlier (my bedroom is tidy, but could do with a vacuum, thanks for asking).

I Am Home – Massive Attack
Wow, been doing this an hour and struggling to shake the feeling that really should have looked at what was coming up in the A-Z before trying this.

It does happen sometimes on this journey, you get a load of album tracks, stuff cribbed from compilations or have just not listened to. Other times it is just loads of tracks which bring back a load of memories.

I Am Not A Game – Ty Segall & White Fence
Fits in the much-touted category, bought unheard and largely remains that day. His stuff does pop up from time to time and feel he suffers from Ryan Adams syndrome (not that one), bit too prolific for his own good sometimes.

Got over-excited for a minute then, the comment icon flashed. Just checked it, take it nobody is posting comments in Russian on an old post about travelling?

I Am Still What I Meant To Be – Will Oldham
Refer you to the comment under his Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy moniker. Otherwise going to start repeating myself.

What’s happening in the football?

I Am The Cosmos – Chris Bell
Just had to look him up as had no idea (this one’s another from an Uncut CD when it was my regular source of music reading).

He was in Big Star with Alex Chilton – could probably have worked that out from listening to this -for which we owe him huge thanks. If only for being a huge influence on Teenage Fanclub.

I Am The Mob – Catatonia
Just a couple more – been doing this long enough, getting hungry and, having just checked, not sure can stomach back-to-back Beatles (work it out).

There was a time when living in Cardiff when it seemed illegal for any pub not to go more than 10 minutes without playing Catatonia, the Manics or the Stereophonics. Believe me, we did a lot of research on that.

Used to wander past Cerys Matthews a lot by our house. Chances are one of us was going to Chapter or The Cameo Club (it would have been her going to the Cameo).

I Am The Past – Eleanor Friedberger
Another in the Sharon Van Etten end-of-year list purchases. Sounds a bit like Thea Gilmore.

One more track, just the first outing for it as it’s more than eight minutes long. Gives you some time to work it out.

I Am The Resurrection – The Stone Roses
It has just taken me about four goes to spell resurrection… time to wrap this up.

Am a member of a closed Facebook group which features a load of music fans – some of them music journos and the odd member of bands you might have half heard of -who basically post a load of tracks, sparking debates and sending us off down memory lane and voyages of discovery.

Been quiet in there for a while before indulging my Fontaines DC obsession the other day.

One member ranted against The Stone Roses to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of their debut album. Get where he was coming from and while never a huge fan, still think it was a really good record if sounding a little dated.

And to the last strains of John Squire’s guitar, thanks for following this live effort (just checked, people have actually been reading, remarkably) or catching up later.

Normal service will be resumed next time.

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It’s About Time

Day 28 of the blog post a day in May and a bit of a shortcut – complete with odd turn at the end

TIME has always been the biggest opponent of this ridiculous to spend a chunk of each day for a month writing a blog post.

And today it has seriously bitten hard. Something just had to give, hence why this a relatively short entry.

Tuesdays are always our longest working day of the week – there is only so many news pages we can do earlier than that and only so much we can leave for Wednesdays if we are going to hit deadline without having to rush things too much.

That all adds up to a pretty long slog and a late finish on a Tuesday.

Throw in a bank holiday (after a week off) and things go haywire.

There is generally the advantage of loads of pictures from events over the long weekend – we had a three-day Tall Ships Festival, woolsack racing (standard running, just uphill while carrying a heavy sack) and that epitome of English derring-do and eccentricity, cheese rolling.

Pretty easy to fill a fair few pages of picture coverage.

It’s just filling the words round them that get a bit sketchy, helped by constant requests to provide copy before the bank holiday being largely ignored.

Mainly by people who express total surprise that we work on bank holidays. It’s as if we haven’t had any in the last couple of month.

So excuse me if time and inclination to tap away at a full, more considered blog post has evaporated through a long day sat at my desk. Shame, it was going to be a good one. Trust me on that.

Normal service will be resumed tomorrow – except it sort of isn’t. Time to try something a little bit different.

It is back to music tomorrow, a return to the A-Z journey through my iPod.

And, for one night only, it’s live.

Not sure exactly how – or if – it is going to work, but from 7.30pm tomorrow (May 29), will be blogging about the tracks which pop up on my iPod while listening to them.

Will make the post live just before starting and keep updating for as long as seems necessary or bearable.

If you feel the need to watch as it happens, you may well need to keep refreshing your page for the updates to work and please feel free to add any comments, questions, random thoughts through the link below.

Have not looked too closely at what is to come, bar it being the start of the I section, so not sure if there is much to write about there. Chances are, will veer off on some random tangents.

Hopefully see you then.

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There’s A Hole In My Bucket List

Day 27 on the blog post a day in May. mixing up travel and lists. Should feel right at home

“YEAH, that’s on the bucket list.”

It’s a standard response every time conversation drifts to travel and places which have never been to, but is it any more than a standard reply?

Largely not (sorry if you have been on the receiving end) as simply do not have a bucket list. Unless you count a mental list of pretty much any place, sight, experience, country, bar or whatever else is on offer, wherever it might be in the world.

Why limit yourself to what you can jot down on a list?

Have a love of lists. Find me a Top 100 this or Best Five that on something vaguely interesting and will gobble it up.

And no job, project or travelling is too small not to draw up a things to do list in preparation (the discovery of Google Docs has added a whole new dimension to this obsession – if only did not spend too much time drawing and redrawing to-do lists to actually work my way through them).

But never drawn up a bucket list for travel or anything else.

Any list of things to be done “before you die” drives me nuts – when else are you supposed to do it?

Anything “… Before 30” or any other age is just as bad. Why limit yourself? Do it when it suits you

Yeah, that’ll make the list

As someone who did not start traveling even half seriously until well into his 30s and was pushing 40 with a mortgage before my first major overland trip, would not have made the most of those experiences if they had been done before some arbitrary deadline – probably would not be planning another one either.

Don’t get me started on the phrase trip of a lifetime. What, we only get one?

Have tinkered with trying to get the mass of places on my mental want to see list onto paper (showing my age there – clearly would be tapped into a laptop) but it soon became obvious it would have been ridiculously long, endlessly growing and never fully achievable.

And besides, some of my greatest travel experiences would never have made it on there.

Africa certainly was not on my list. Sure, seeing wildlife up close would be on any list and always wanted to visit South Africa after it became a regular subject of my work life (ditto New Zealand – one day).

An overland trip from London to Sydney was always the likelier plan, but got diverted by a chance email to reading the itinerary of Oasis Overland’s Trans Africa adventure and was in.

Ask me to draw up a retrospective bucket list (if for no other reason then the thrill of crossing things off) and it would be full of places, extraordinary sights and unplanned moments from that trip.

Although not sure you can foresee a cheetah eating your flip-flop.

Flip flop not pictured

The same is true of the upcoming South America journey – was all ready to sign up to London to Singapore overland and then make my own way down to Australia and New Zealand.

And, surprisingly enough, got distracted. Read the itinerary on the website and, hey presto, South America was suddenly at the top of the list.

The prospect of trekking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu – never really considered not that long ago – is exciting and terrifying me in equal measure.

Working through a bucket list also limits the chance to go back, revisit and savour favourite places. A lot of travellers are not so keen, but nothing wrong with mixing up old and new (if time and money was no issue, would happily do the whole Trans Africa again).

But amid that mass of things fighting for attention in my head with any other shiny things which grab my attention,

So here is a very brief bucket list. The elite level of travel wish list to be completed one day.

All 50 States

This one has been kicking around for a while and briefly considered a quest to finish all 50 before 50 – a plan complicated by a friend’s suggestion to try it in one trip, which sent me off on a bit of a diversion for a while.

Time is running out on that one – a year to go, of which about two thirds will be spent in South America – so will do it at my own leisure.

Had been stuck on 39 for a while until ticking off West Virginia last year (somehow managed to go all around it twice) so 10 to go.

For the record, they are Michigan (the only one missing east of the Mississippi), Idaho, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Arizona, New Mexico, Kansas, Nebraska, Colorado and Hawaii.

Mt Rushmore
Route 66

Huge fan of the American road trip and this is the ultimate, as well as ticking off several of those missing states.

London to Sydney

Worked for a company which ran overland trips from the UK to Australia (its demise was not due to my stint selling the trips, he says confidently) and was due to make the trip myself. There are unused Indian and Nepalese visas in an old passport.

And twice been distracted from heading out on this route by other trips. One day.

Singapore/Malaysia

Never been there, but partly responsible for my wanderlust.

Where my father served on National Service and he always talked about going back with my mum when they retired. That they never had the chance is what spurs me on to go now, you never know what is round the corner.

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Borders and Visas

Day 26 of the bid to write a blog post a day in May and time to tackle two things which will get in the way of any long-distance travel plans.

Not the standard border – arriving in Whittier, Alaska

TWO things in life are certain, according to Benjamin Franklin, death and taxes.

And however you choose to do it, two things are certain for travellers – borders and visas.

They are (mainly) more of an inconvenience or necessary evil than any great hurdle, but they can delay you long enough to disrupt plans or force a quick rethink when somebody has changed the rules.

But no amount of complaining or arguing is going to change all that – chances are, it is merely going to extend your wait. That guy with the right to say yea or nay is going to be behind that desk all day, it makes no difference to him if you wait there with him or not.

The majority of borders you travel through will be fairly straightforward, your passport acting as the one piece of official documentation you need and it all comes down to whichever security

Some countries will require a little more while others will always come up with that extra piece of paper you never knew existed and which somebody crossing the same border days before had crossed without.

That’s borders (and chunks of travel in general), just accept it, sit back and wait for someone to let you through – sometimes they will eventually become as keen to send you on your way as you are to get moving again.

But to help you along, here is some totally not comprehensive advice on easing your way through the process of securing visas and crossing borders.

The world’s second biggest country, just in case you missed it

Visas

Visas come in three main types – online registration, physical pieces of paper in your passport (both of which you need in advance) and those you can pick up at the border. Most will cost you something so budget ahead.

Online registration such as an ESTA for the USA can be pretty quick and you will get an answer in hours or a couple of days (had an ESTA granted in minutes after filing it in a checkout queue at the airport after forgetting the old passport with my US visa in).

But if you need an actual visa or stamp in advance, chances are the form will be a bit more complicated and require either an appointment at the embassy, sending your passport off or both.

Some (Russia and China, for example) require a letter of invitation while the different picture requirements add extra variety – India and the USA require very definite sizes, other countries need specific background colours (which made for some interesting trips to photo shops in Ghana).

Visiting an embassy differs hugely.

For an American visa in the UK, it means a trip to London for an appointment and an interview. If granted, you should get your passport back in about a week and make sure you take note of what you can and can’t take in with you for security reasons (pretty much nothing goes in).

In the case of Mongolia, the bloke told us we could have it back the next day until we told him we were only in London for the day. For a small fee, we had it back in half an hour.

All this sending your passport off means you can only have one application going at a time, so plan ahead, starting with finding out how long the visa lasts – no point getting the visa before you go if it runs out before you are in (and, more importantly, out) of the country.

Which means for long trips, chances are you will be chasing visas on the road.

If going with a company, they will know the best places to pick up visas (often grabbing two or three while staying in major cities) but for solo travellers it means a fair amount of research before the off.

The process of securing the visas varies, ranging from a few hours to several days and it can be hard to predict.

Our Mauritanian visa in Rabat was pretty much the quickest in a few hours – having all queued up to basically pay and apply through a hole in the embassy wall – while others took much longer.

General rule of thumb is at least a few hours waiting around the embassy, filling in a form and a quick meeting with whoever is making the decision. It may take a while and a fair amount of paperwork so get comfortable.

Always a good idea to have something reasonably clean and smart (embassy shirts) stashed away rather than rolling up in shorts and flip flops. A good book is not a bad idea either.

Don’t get me started on single or double entry visas or officials who take a rather different view to what an expiry date might actually mean.

Eventually, you get those precious pieces of paper or stamps in your passport and it is time to head to the border…

Feeling at home on the Nigeria-Cameroon border

Border

Any self-respecting traveller will have tales to tell of bizarre or nightmare border crossings – 56 hours camping at a remote Nigerian-Cameroon crossing, the whole train carriage being lifted onto new wheels between Mongolia and China, the unexpected air conditioned cafe at the shiny new Sudan-Egypt border or the US border official at Niagara not believing my night would be spent on the floor of a bus en route to New York.

Modern technology is transforming many borders – that ESTA you applied for will pop up on the border guard’s screen when your passport is scanned and, increasingly, you can do all that yourself at self-service passport desks.

But it is not all time saving, as border crossings away from the tourist trail will quickly prove.

One of the joys of Africa is its ability to make things unnecessarily complicated, so every new piece of technology to deal with border arrivals merely adds a new level of bureaucracy.

Yes, they use computers to deal with the details, logging all the information. As well as entering them into the old-fashioned ledgers by hand which they have always done.

Remember, each crossing involves going through this process twice – into one country and out of another, sometimes yards apart, sometimes miles. They all like to be a bit different.

And there could well be the odd health check or extra paperwork to worry about – we headed through West Africa on the heels of the 2014 ebola outbreak so getting our temperature taken (via the ear) was pretty standard, as well as producing your yellow fever vaccination certificate.

The record for all this, for a group of up to 20-odd people, was inside two hours (they wanted to go home as much as we wanted a beer) but chances are you can box out much of the day for getting through the whole border process.

Simple rule of thumb, more tourists and travellers they get coming through, quicker it will be. They are just more tooled up to deal with it.

Again, it is best to accept it, settle back and await your fate – getting frustrated is not going to help anyone or make the guy who always seems to be waiting for that final clearance to do anything to get it sorted quicker.

Sit back, read a book, change some money (if anyone asks, didn’t tell you that), play cards, relax before you head off on the next leg of your journey. Best to leave the camera alone.

And that piece of paper in your passport is a pretty good memento of the trip.

The border between Zimbabwe and Zambia. The one that’s not a big waterfall
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