Play Some Happy Mondays, Guv

PRETTY sure several people (including myself) thought that it would not take as long as the 13th day of May before the bid to write a blog post every day for a month skewed slightly off course.

Had thought it would be lack of time, shortage of ideas or getting totally fed up with it all that would lead to a bit of a shortcut or just giving up.

Not that this is giving up – you wouldn’t be seeing these words if that was the case – just a change of plan for today, a bit of a different take. And nowhere near as many words.

Time constraints are part of the reason, but it is mainly down to the main event of the day – the funeral of inimitable former colleague and good friend Steve Tucker.

After hearing some wonderful tales in a suitably unique send-off (some of which no doubt needed a bit of censoring before retelling) and a few that were hinted at or shared among us, my head is just not in a place to piece together coherent words on the normal topics for this blog.

And that is without his 12-year-old daughter addressing a crowded room which seemed to coincide with a lot of people having something in their eye.

Remember the night she was born, the new father dragging two of us out to wet the baby’s head until far too late on a school night – being the only one left of those three is a sobering thought.

This one’s for you Tucks…


Boston for First Timers

Day 12 of the challenge to write a blog post every day in May and time to head for some familiar ground.

MY first port of call in the US, the place visited most often over the Atlantic and my bolthole if needing an overseas trip with no hassle, a sense of familiarity and the need to relax without any pressure to hit the tourist trail too hard.

In many ways, Boston is my spiritual home away from home outside the UK. And during too many televised baseball matches way too late.

It happened pretty much by chance, my travelling companion on my first US road trip having grown up in the Lincolnshire town which gave its name and we both fell in love with the place. And, for one of us, in the place.

So why head there? And what to do when you get there?

Boston is not New York – around four hours down the coast by coach – with a more limited list of things to do, but there’s is a bit more room to draw breath and take things at your own pace. To say nothing of an awful lot of history (by US standards at least).

Getting there

Boston is about as easy to get to as any US city from the UK – a fair selection of flights which have the added advantage of being shorter than any other transatlantic trips.

Prices reflect that and, even with the demise of the Wow Air budget option via Reykjavik (believe me, it was worth paying extra for non-stop), you can pick up returns for under £300 if far enough in advance.

Can work out cheaper to fly to Boston for a couple of nights and heading down to New York rather than flying direct (if you can get a decent hotel deal, but we’ll get to that).

Boston has the advantage of Logan International Airport being close to downtown – you can sit on the waterfront and watch the planes coming in and out across the harbour.

You can catch a water taxi, but the easiest options are subway (with a free bus to the terminals) or taxi, normally about a 15 minute drive downtown if the traffic is not too bad.

Where to stay

Central Boston is pretty small so you are pretty safe if you stick close to the centre, but what you save on flights you may struggle to hang on to with accommodation.

Unlike New York, Boston is not overrun with hotel rooms and with so many conferences and students heading into town, they can fill up pretty quickly. Book early.

Most of the bigger, newer well-known names are congregated in Back Bay around Copley Square, which will give you easy access to pretty much anywhere you need to be. And there’s a few new swish ones down by the water.

There’s a few more interesting choices – there’s a Hilton tucked away in the Business District which is surprisingly handy, but if you want something with some character, the doyen of Boston hotels the Omni Parker Hotel is right in the heart of Downtown.

JFK proposed there, Malcolm X and Ho Chi Minh worked there and while it can look a bit dated, if you can get a good deal (and they are there to be had), take it.

There is a Hostelling International as a budget option but it has moved since last used it so can’t tell you too much about it.

Getting around

After you have got a taxi from the airport, cars are largely pointless in Boston – its size and traffic make other ways of getting around far easier.

The subway – the T – is the oldest in the States (you will hear that a lot in Boston) and can look it at times, but is perfectly good to get you to outlying places or anywhere in a hurry. Forget it near Fenway when the Red Sox have just finished.

But the city is small enough and (Beacon Hill apart) flat enough that you can walk pretty much everywhere. There’s enough bars for a quick stop if you get tired.

Food and drink

There’s four things you can’t help but notice in Boston – sport (city teams have won all four major sport titles in the US this century and hold two of them), history, the Irish influence and students.

It adds up – now a lot of the leftovers of puritan history have been swept aside – to a distinct nightlife culture.

There’s all the normal American food options with the Boston institution Dunkin Donuts never too far away, but with a distinct Irish tinge to its bars.

Some may be a bit of a tourist trap – most notably Cheers, the original inspiration and the copy at Faneuil Hall, and the row of bars around the Blackstone Block – but pulling up a stool, grabbing a Sam Adams and something to eat while watching the game is a perfect way to while away a few hours. Or more.

It might be a bit further out, but Brendan Behan’s Irish pub in Jamaica Plain will always have a special place in my heart.

Seafood dominates the restaurant scene while Quincy Market offers an array of options in a food court which again falls into tourist trap territory but is perfect for refuelling on a day’s sightseeing.

Things to do for free

  • Freedom Trail – Boston is littered with historic sites battling for space with the modern city, largely based around the early days of a nation and the beginning of the fight for independence.
    Many of the key figures are buried in cemeteries (sheltered escapes if it gets a bit hot) which are among the attractions linked together in this walking tour, handily marked out by a red line or bricks.
    From Boston Common to Charlestown Navy Yard, it takes a few hours but is a great way to find your way around – much of the city is not on a grid like most American cities and roads often do not appear where you think they should – and handily passes by Quincy Market’s food hall and the Italian pastry shops of the North End.
    You can stump up for a guided tour, led by an actor in costume .
  • Walk or bike – Head along the banks of the Charles River, down Charles Street and adjoining, exclusive Beacon Hill (complete with gas lights, secluded squares and steep, narrow, cobbled streets) or window shop in Newbury Street. There’s plenty of cheaper place to actual shop.
  • Public Garden – At some point, your walk will take you to one of the green areas which litter the city. The Public Garden sits across the street from Boston Common, dividing Downtown and Back Bay with the historic swan boats patrolling the lake.
    A cool place to while away some time.

What to pay for

  • Fenway Park – Slightly biased here, but if you are going to shell out for one thing in Boston, head out to “America’s Most Beloved Ball Park”. Certainly the oldest and home to the World Series champions (at least for another five months).
    Head out for a tour, take in a game (book tickets before you go, don’t rely on being able to get them on arrival) or at the very least grab a beer in the Bleacher Bar under the Green Monster and look out across the park.
    After the New York for First Timers piece, somebody tried to argue Fenway could not match Miller Park in Milwaukee. Having not been there, can’t say definitively… no, forget that. Fenway is better.
    History and character in every corner. A bit like the city itself.
  • Harvard – This could be in the free section and the student tours used to be. Take the Red Line T to Harvard Square and while you can wander around on your own, pay the price for a tour from one of the undergrads in the crimson Hahvahd T-shirts for the tour. It’s well worth it (although pointing out your old school is about 100 years older when they rattle on about history does not go down well).
  • John F Kennedy Library & Museum – Add a fifth thing you are pretty much guaranteed to hear about in Boston: the Kennedy family. Anyone with the slightest interest in modern history should head out around the Harbor on the T (and free shuttle bus) for a fascinating insight into the life and legacy of a key figure in the shaping of the modern world.
  • Whale Watching – If you are there at the right time, head out on one of the regular boat trips from the Harbor. It’s a good few hours (and escape from the heat of the city in the summer) even if you do not see whales, which you should if looking in the right direction. And then it’s spectacular. Told the associated New England Aquarium is worth a visit, but a bit pricy.

Sure forgotten a few things, there’s certainly a fair few museums worth a stop, but this is just a beginner’s guide. Feel free to point out what’s been missed.


The Overlanding Cookbook

Day 11 of the attempt to write a blog post a day throughout May. Time for some more overlanding.

The overland kitchen in full flow. In the middle of a road on a mountain in Togo

THERE were many remarkable moments during 10 months on an overland journey around Africa.

You could predict many of them – we pretty much knew Cape Town was stunning and that we would have some extraordinary encounters with wildlife given the itinerary took us to where they hang out.

But there were those things nobody could have predicted – being knocked over by a gorilla, a cheetah eating my flip flop, spending a morning digging a lorry out of a water-filled hole in the Congo.

And anyone relying on my cooking abilities to lead the creation of a day’s meals for around 20 people. Over an open fire with limited facilities.

Cooking is one of the key elements of many overland adventures, each company approaching it in slightly different ways in terms of organising the menu, the rota and how much the crew are involved – some wash their hands of it completely, some take control, some do it for their pampered passengers.

But chances are, you will find yourself involved in creating at least one meal for you and your travelling companions.

“It has to be edible and there has to be enough”

Trans-Africa Cooking Rule

Nobody’s expecting gourmet food, but they will be gathering around the fire in need of something to eat every evening. And there’s a good chance cooking duties will involve breakfast and lunch the next day as well – often largely prepared while conjuring up the evening meal.

Cook Group

How many of you cook and how often depends on the size of your group, but chances are it will be about three people in a group about once a week.

In Africa, it was usually a group of three – once we had the luxury of four, while one lengthy spell saw a two-man Anglo-Japanese team with very little shared language, further complicated by the locals talking a third language in the markets we shopped. And one of the cooks (by far the better one of the group) occasionally wearing little more than a hankie.

Not sure at times either of us knew what the other was cooking until it appeared on the plate. Sometimes not even then.

We bought our food and created three meals a day, wedged in between our days on fire and cleaning duties before making the most of days without a job.

My other experience of overland cooking had two different approaches to cooking from the drivers after the bus had been stocked in two large shops en route across the US – the first left it all up to the cooks, the second took control. Which was nice.

Different trips pick their groups differently, most common would be the leader simply drawing up a rota which changes every so often which is interesting to start with as they have absolutely no idea who can cook and who can’t. Which is why we had a group of three confirmed non-cooks.

A group should also not include tent mates so one can be putting it up or down while the other cooks.

Some might be allowed to pick their own groups while we eventually resorted to picking names out of a hat. Which is how what one of my travelling companions christened Team Opinion was formed.

Chances are, within each larger group there will be a couple of really good cooks, a few who have a reasonable idea, some who are willing helpers and some who… well, one of our truck learned how to fry an egg.

Even looking at that last meal, can still feel my arteries furring up.


Which is best? Supermarket or market?

Supermarkets may make life easier and be far more familiar, but chances are the budget – a share of the kitty money we all paid into at the start of the trip and which can work out around $1 per person for three meals – will not stretch as far.

My Japanese cooking companion was kept away from the kitty after spending pretty much all of it at a Ghanaian supermarket on a giant cabbage.

Planning what to cook was basically decided in one of two ways – decide a plan and then hunt out what you needed or see what was on offer and work it out from there. The choice depended on how organised the best cook in your group was (which was bad news for the group where that was me).

Helping the planning was the stock of non-perishable food kept on the truck to supplement the shopping or for moments when it was the only option .

The middle of a storm on a clifftop in Angola under a giant statue of Christ was the perfect place for tinned ravioli (useful as our group had no coherent plan) while emergency tinned burgers were kept until the very last bush camp. Not the ideal send-off.

The tins of Spam filled the group with delight and dread in equal measure – before and after they were opened.

The choice of what to cook was complicated by how long beforehand you shopped – it could have to live on the truck for two or three days.

And that is before you took the vegetarians into account.


Whatever your cooking abilities, there will be a job for you – avowed non-cooks turned themselves into expert choppers and washer uppers, others became experts at where things were stored around the truck.

We became a well-drilled unit setting up the truck and the kitchen in the middle of nowhere, getting the fire going and helping out where needed with that night’s cook group – treading the fine line between lending a hand and getting in the way (or putting your oar in), being helpful and cashing in on having the night off duties.

One of the advantages of being in cook group is you control the music on the truck’s external speaker – very handy when you are the only one in your group with an iPod.

Not sure which people preferred, my music or my food.

Not cooked at a bush camp


The selection may have got a bit repetitive at times, but this was a rarity for me at the time – cutting out the snacks by not keeping them stashed away on the truck, eating breakfast every day and, God forbid, eating vegetables. Managed to eat a lot and lose weight.

If we had time, breakfast could be quite inventive but was largely pretty simple, if for not other reason it saved on the budget for the other meals.

We had cereals on the truck, toast was a very popular option and porridge was a regular – if not universally well received – choice.

And French toast somehow united people from a variety of nationalities. Spent half of Christmas Day eating it.

Lunch, grabbed when we simply pulled over at the side of the road and set up the kitchen, was cold and revolved largely around salads (think potato, pasta and rice, a lot) cooked up the night before.

Or it was a sandwich production line with whatever we had managed to find in the markets or cook up – a lot of eggs – with the evening meal. Served with a lot of mayonnaise. An awful lot in the case of some people.

Evening meals were based around a few staples – stir fries, something masquerading as curry, spag bol of sorts – and a few more inventive options. The addition of meat (even Spam for those of us in favour) brought a touch of excitement.

And if you could use chicken for a meal and then boil it up for a soup, all the better. Especially in a sweltering rainforest clearing we had had to clear to have room to cook with the tents crammed in and some very interesting noises from the undergrowth.

One of my cook groups became Team Potato, having mastered converting the cooking pots into mini ovens in the embers to create a tasty bake (need to remember that one) and at one point managing spuds for all three meals – mash for the evening meal, fried-up potato cakes for breakfast (we made loads of mash) and potato salad for lunch.

But we were outdone by the cook group who spent their idea budget on 159 eggs.

Emergency Rations

So what happens if you really cannot face what is being cooked?

As tour operators Oasis Overland say, they try to cater for dietary needs and choices, but you can’t cater for fussy eaters (once got asked, in my former life working for an overland company, if they had KFC in Beijing because the passenger did not like Chinese – yes, they do. A lot of them).

And at some point there will be a meal which does not work for you, which is why most of us kept supplies of emergency noodle packets stashed around the truck which could be hastily cooked up using the water in the kettles which were always the first things on the fire.

There are things you will miss – we pretty much all went cheese crazy on arrival in Namibia. And you could pretty much count on finding a queue of us at the hot pie they seem to specialise in at West African supermarkets.

And stumbling across street food could cause a stampede.

But across 10 months, can only remember two meals which really went wrong – one courtesy of being way too spicy for anyone to handle and one because the peanut sauce basically gummed up my entire mouth (that was more of a personal grumble).

And if that is all you’ve got to complain about among all the amazing places living like this gives you access to, think it is a price worth paying.


New York for First Timers

Day 10 of the blog post a day in May and time to get back to the schedule. And return to handing out some travel advice. Just in case anyone needs it.

My first trip to the USA started with a week in Boston, spent four weeks on the road and rolled into New York – my first time in Manhattan was driving through the Lincoln Tunnel and trying to find the car hire garage.

Our first experience was a yellow cab ride uptown, a wander into Central Park, a dive bar (actually called Dive Bar) and a subway which carried us into the madness of Times Square as dark fell.

Thirteen years and a fair few visits since and still remember the feeling of the first day in New York – it felt, after five weeks in the States, like being in a whole new country.

So what should anyone arriving in New York for the first time know?

Not claiming to have ‘done’ New York, think only natives can come close to that and this is almost exclusively Manhattan – despite intentions on every trip to get further afield.

Guidebooks can fill in the gaps and provide exhaustive options, but this is pretty much the advice handed out when asked.

Getting There

Have arrived by car, coach (cheap and pretty comfortable over the four hours from Boston), train (expensive), boat (over the Hudson from Jersey City) and, finally, last time out by the most common arrival method for UK visitors – air.

JFK airport is about an hour away – traffic permitting – from central Manhattan. You can get the subway, but it is not ideal after a long flight and you miss that great moment when you first catch sight of the skyline appearing in the distance.

Best option – for the experience and the budget – is book a shared van or a coach. Both are about $15-20 and can be booked in advance and return.

Personally, prefer the van from the airport as it takes you to your hotel – may have to wait at the booking desk for your van, normally not too long, and hope you are not the last drop off although you do get an added tour of Manhattan – and a coach running to a schedule from near Grand Central Station to head back.

Ellis Island

Where to stay

If you want the highlights on your first trip and to be near the action, any of the numerous options around Times Square are probably the best shot.

The location is pretty much perfect for, well, just about everywhere and the sheer number of available rooms means there’s normally some pretty good deals to be found (because of the competition, New York tends to be cheaper for equivalent accommodation than other US cities such as Boston).

Not stayed there for a while, but the giant Hostelling International (Amsterdam Avenue, near W 104th Street) was comfortable, secure and a good option for first couple of visits.

The quirky Jane Hotel – near the Meatpacking District, West Village and the High Line – with small cabins and shared bathrooms was another reasonable option. If you like that sort of thing.

Getting around

Yes, take a cab ride. Yes, use the subway. But the best way to see New York is walk. And keep walking, you will stumble across something.

Suggest you work out what district you want to see, get there via subway and then take in as much as you can on foot.

Those tourists buses might be designed to grab your dollars but they can also be used to cover a fair amount of space and tick off a lot of things (my niece got one included in a City Pass covering various attractions).

Food and drink

American food does not always have the best reputation and, admittedly, it is pretty easy to eat pretty badly. Or very well, if you have the budget.

But you can also eat perfectly well for not too much.

Fuel up at breakfast in a diner and it will keep you going for much of the day and most bars will do you a perfectly good meal.

There’s always the Golden Arches, any number of local takeaways of any ethnicity and, whatever the appearances, those hot dog stands are fine if you need a quick hit.

Can happily while away hours in New York bars – usually sport on TV, surprisingly good array of beer, perfectly good food and somebody will talk to you when the English accent comes out.

Things to do for free

This is very much a personal list – space and preference dictate that, but if you’ve got a long weekend to see the greatest hits, this is my choice.

Central Park
  • The High Line – Adore this place. Think have walked the entire length three times but want to get back for the latest additions around the northern end at Hudson Yards. Put simply, a city park created from what was a derelict raised railway line, but so much more than that. Supposedly you can walk it in half an hour but take longer, savour it.
  • Central Park – The heart and lungs of Manhattan. There’s a reason why it is so famous and so important to New Yorkers. Wander, get lost if necessary (although not after dark), run if you are that way inclined, sit and take in a softball game.
  • Times Square – Cough up a few bucks for a drink, sit down and watch. The place, the lights, the people, the colour. But then that goes for much of the city.
  • Brooklyn Bridge – There will be a lot of people but take the time to wander over the East River. The bridge is spectacular but plays second fiddle to the views of the skyline from Brooklyn.
  • Staten Island Ferry – The ferry itself is pretty nondescript, a commuter trip to the outlying borough which is not exactly a tourist destination. But the views are pretty special, the skyline and some quite famous statue.
  • Grand Central Station – Yes, sending you to a station. Grab the short subway ride fromTimes Square and emerge from the bowels or, preferably, wander over and enter into the spectacular concourse. Look up at the ceiling, grab a bite to eat in the food court and don’t forget to take a look at the neighbouring Chrysler Building – the best looking skyscraper.
  • Coney Island – It’s a long subway ride out there and chances are you will have to spend something, but a touch of classic Americana is the perfect escape from the heat of the city.

What to pay for

You didn’t go all that way to just do the free stuff and there are endless ways to spend your dollars. These are the best from my experiences.

  • Top of the Rock – Never been up the Empire State Building, which is a spectacular sight in itself, but have headed to the summit of the Rockefeller Building. Amazing views of the city, Central Park and the Empire State (one advantage its rival cannot offer).
  • Ellis Island – You can see the Statue of Liberty for free, but pay out for a trip and you get the added bonus of the Immigration Museum at Ellis Island where endless arrivals to the land of the free first stepped foot on American soil. Made a far greater impression than Lady Liberty.
  • Ground Zero Museum – It is not always easy and you are acutely aware that you are walking through what was the scene of the horrific loss of life on 9/11. But for anyone interested in modern history, current affairs and how today’s world was shaped, it is a fascinating visit. And the memorial pools on the footprints of the Twin Towers are uniquely moving.
  • Yankee Stadium – As a Boston Red Sox fan this is heresy, but watching a game in the Bronx is a must for any baseball fan. It’s no Fenway mind.

There’s far more and feel free to leave your thoughts below, but that’s my choice of where to head on your first trip to New York. Enjoy.

  • Will update this as we go along and try to get a few more of these guides in as the month goes on and even beyond – next one just up the coast in Boston. With a far better baseball team.

Honey and Smoke to Hope We Make It

Day nine of the post a day in May and the schedule has gone out of the window. To such an extent this is the topic that was planned for today before being shuffled around and back again. Just not in this format.

IT is the shortest section of the A-Z iPod Challenge to date.

But within the 28 songs it took to travel from Case/Lang/Veirs to Turin Brakes, we hit a major landmark.

It was not marked in any great fashion, merely the fact that it had just stopped raining and was able to take my jacket hood down but the first strains of Hook, Line, Sinker by Stornoway ushered in the 5,000th track on the journey through my iPod.

Only another 8,703 to go. And rising.

And while drying off on the regular weekly walk to check on the latest weight loss progress, the original idea to write about travel was replaced by one to mark the occasion with a blog post.

So let’s rewind right back to the beginning and explain for any newcomers what this musical odyssey is all about, a few facts and figures and the self-imposed rules which govern it.

Are you sitting comfortably? Well you are one up on me, but let’s start anyway.


Pretty simple, listen to every track on my iPod from A-Z.


Will ‘it seemed a good idea at the time’ suffice as an answer?

Tried it once before (with a much smaller musical collection) but it sort of ran out of steam having reached midway through C.

Think was struggling to find anything to grab my attention and, having planned several times to dig deep into my collection and listen to some stuff that had passed me by or been forgotten, it seemed a way of doing it.

Raised the idea again around the same time this website was created in March 2014 to house blog posts for past trips and the then looming Trans Africa trip.

Looking for something else to write about, some bright spark suggested combining the two and writing about the iPod. That’s the Cornish for you.

The rules

  • My iPod decides the order – It’s in-built alphabetising system is the one which will determine the running order.
    Somehow it has changed, Vampire Weekend’s A-Punk relegated from the opening track on the initial attempt to somewhere in the pack of A songs, letting The Beatles kick things off with A Day in the Life – although a quick check reveals the first song on the list is now (A Belated) Invite To Eternity by Stornoway which had been listed under B.
    Some of the alphabetising is a bit weird, especially with definite and indefinite articles.
  • No skipping – To count, the song must register as having been played in my iTunes library, which means playing it until the end. Long silences at the end of songs push my patience on this one, especially in the gym.
  • It’s the tracks that count, not songs – Multiple versions of the same song all have to be listened to. The most found so far is five – one cover and four of the original in various different guises. That’s five tracks to be listened to all the way through.
  • No revisionism – There’s some rubbish on there, no hiding away from the fact. But nobody put it on there but me (even if the reason is lost in the mists of time), so there’s nobody to blame. It has to be listened to before moving on.
  • New additions count – This remains an evolving collection, so when something is added and drops into the list before the current point, at some point there will be a catch-up session.
    Do this at the end of each letter via a playlist which any new songs from earlier in the journey get dropped into.
  • Breaks are allowed – Let’s be honest, all this time without any new music or being able to choose exactly what to listen to is not really an option.
    This is a challenge to be paused and picked up again from where it was left off. There have been some very long breaks, getting on for a year in a couple of places.

The landmarks

At the time these were the songs sat in the most notable figures:

And the songs sitting in those positions at the moment:

  • 1,000 Birch Tree – Foals
  • 2,000 Coaxed – Avi Buffalo
  • 3,000 Drinking At The Dam – Smog
  • 4,000 The Gator – Will Oldham

The stats

  • Longest track to date: 27.37 Driftin’ Back – Neil Young & Crazy Horse
  • Shortest track to date: 6 seconds Hive Mind – They Might Be Giants (the shortest track in my collection)
  • Longest section: Songs beginning with All which have held the title since occupying tracks 160-267. About to be totally blown out of the water.

The latest section

Apart from Stornoway grabbing the limelight, inevitably at the moment, we had The Beatles – twice in just 28 songs with Honey Don’t and Honey Pie.

There were also two appearances for Billy Bragg, both solo (Honey, I’m A Big Boy Now) and with Wilco (Hoodoo Voodoo) and two versions, one live, of Hope The High Road from Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit. Not his best but still good enough to get on here twice.

More old favourites came in the shape of Leonard Cohen-inspired REM (Hope), The Wedding Present (Hopak, one of their Ukrainian tracks) and Sugar with Hoover Dam – one of the unwritten laws which have evolved says it has to be mentioned as it is from Copper Blue. And still brilliant.

For once, Sugar were not the loudest in this chunk. That goes to Deafheaven, all 11-plus minutes of it – an acquired taste which am starting to come round to.

But that was not the longest track of this section, followed immediately by 13 minutes of Honeymoon’s Great! Wish You Were Her by Josh T Pearson.

It all added up to something a bit different in the gym with those two back to back. Pretty sure was the only one in there listening to that.

But reckon that’s the case most of the time.