London Calling

There is an appreciation of distance, of architecture, of scale when you ride a bike through London’s inner city suburbs. One that is not apparent when you take the tube.

Dean and I ride fast through the streets, across bike paths and down cobbled mews, pausing at sites of significance or at interesting buildings or to make comment of the street life as it occurs to us. Down past Hyde Park, past Marble Arch, through to the back of Westminster Abbey, the cool wind on my face giving my cheeks a ruddy glow and making my nostrils wet.

We stop in front of the Big Ben and I start to think of how many have stood in this place, admiring it’s iconic tower, capturing the sight like a Polaroid to take with them to reflect on. I wonder if this memory will stay with me, not only the vista, but the smells, the feeling of the weather against my skin and the feeling of being privileged to be here. I cast my eyes to the city streetlights who have witnessed a million of me struck by the magic of London but who cannot calculate what a moment like this is worth.

We set off again, gaining a new perspective on the city and a vibration that you can only feel from a place whose history dates back so many hundreds of years. Each monument, each building, wildly atmospheric in the foreground of low steely skies.

Eventually we must head home. Up onto the footpath we dodge the evening traffic. I accept a flyer from a small Asian man as I breeze by. It’s not until our next stop that Dean suggests this man was not actually handing out flyers, that it appears I had snatch the takeaway menu from some guy on his way home. When our laughter finally subsides and the stitch in our sides becomes bearable again, we continue on towards Paddington.

These streets give the city a human side. I feel compelled to learn, to understand the kaleidoscope of humans that have built this place, each with their own story, their own sense of London. I felt it in my bones, the heartbeat, the pulse of the city, it was telling me a story. A story of kings, war, fire, plagues and music. A story of poets ascending the highest heavens of invention, of famous murderers, sportsmen and designers.

On every corner history lives on and each step in the footsteps of those who created the story and made up the fabric of this great city. A woven thatch of culture akin to the underground map and the A to Z combined.

Faraday to Keats, Beckham to Bowie, Hitchcock to Chaplin….. Robbo?

This is not a path!

My family and I were reminiscing over Christmas lunch when the subject of my emails home from my first overseas trip came up. It was 15 years ago now. Thought it might be fun to share an excerpt from back then. Hope you enjoy. Merry Christmas.

This is not a path!

This was the constant cry from Michael John Robinson, intrepid explorer and mountain biker.  We pick up the story of our hero as he is joined by fellow explorers Dean and Gary, setting out to traverse the Isle of Wight on a bike riding expedition.

Our exploration team set down in the port township of Ryde. The tune on all our lips was the Beatles song “He’s got a ticket to ride, he’s got a ticket to ri-i-ide.” We waved to locals as we sang and cruised out of the town. It was the kind of morning that made it important to acknowledge our fellow man. Off we set for the sunny seaside village of Sandown which was a mere 15 clicks away.

Half way to Sandown however the novelty of the song had well and truly lost its shine.  My bicycle was a heavy framed boneshaker from the seventies with a bony seat, tread-less tyres and gears that enjoyed skipping for no apparent reason.

We made it to a cosy Bed and Breakfast in Sandown owned by a likeable English chap named John Robinson. I asked him if I can call him “Robbo” and he replied “you most certainly cannot”. I told him that’s what I am called and he brushed it off, changing the topic to his garden and how we are not to park our bikes on it because he had won the Sandown Garden Competition three years running.

Let me give you a tip. You don’t have to be Don Burke to win the Sandown Garden Competition. The state of the garden is what first drew us to this B&B because it looked like the cheapest place to stay… in the world.

That evening we had a couple of hours until sunset and we could see some big white cliffs in the distance so we figured we would ride over to them, check out the view and return back before dark. Seemed simple enough.

 We took the coastal path.

 It seems though that the English do not know what a path looks like. I know what a path looks like and it doesn’t look anything like a near non-existent trail, crawling with rabbit burrows and diggings with giant saffron thistles thrown in for laughs. My bike was not built for this kind of off-roading. We pressed on however despite my protests to our exploration team and anybody along the way that would listen that this was not a path.

It was a gruelling ride but we finally made it to the top, the boys checked out the view. I checked out the freshly punctured flat back tyre. We found the puncture, repaired it and turned for home. The sun was now dipping distrustfully below the horizon.

The incident happened about 8pm I guess. There was a slight breeze from the ocean. The moonlight looked to have covered the water and surrounding terrain in tinfoil. Any remnants of the goat track we were picking our way across were now not visible at all. We got to a part of the descent that had troubled me….. ever since I struggled getting up it a few hours before. A hill, so steep I initially confused it as the cliffs we had seen from the B&B. The other two boys paused for a brief moment before giving out a “yahoo” and like lightning they were away, disappearing into the half light.

I slid to a gravely halt, alone, pausing in an extended moment of introspection. The fear beading on my forehead and tracking its way down to the corner of my eye.  In that instant I had what I could only describe as a brain explosion and began pedalling madly down into the abyss yahooing also.

It became apparent to me seconds into the downhill run that I was going way, way, way too fast for my skill level to have any semblance of control. I pump the brakes, but since my tyres were slicks, meant for the main roads and proper paths, this just had the effect of sliding my back tyre out and back in a wobbling fishtail effect.

Keeping my cool, I decided to pedal myself out of trouble. Just then the gears popped from first to last, my pedal caught the lip of a rabbit burrow and it was then that I noticed my bike flipping over my head leaving me cartoon style in mid air.

It is never the fall that hurts, only when you hit the ground, and this was no exception. It was an ungraceful fall. A spectacular fall. A fall that was surely similar to the original fall that spawned the word akimbo.

I rolled, bum over head, feet over navel. Through the thistles. Possibly near the path, who could tell. Finally I came to a halt. I lay there for a minute or two, skin itching from the burr patch I was catapulted into. I looked down at my knees they were bloodied, checked my elbows same result. Rubbed the bruises on my back, legs and shoulder. Spat the dust from my mouth and wiped the claret now trickling down the side of my head.

 I once again muttered that this is not a coastal path only this time adding a few expletives. After five to ten minutes it was clear no one was coming to my aid so I picked myself up, pronounced myself alright and continued down the hill. This time walking next to my bike.

Dean laughed so hard when I reached the bottom that I thought he was going to have a heart attack. Little did we know that this was to be my one and only bingle and my jolly friend Deano was on the brim of three.

That night we decided to have an early one because 70 km of mountainous terrain lay waiting early the next morning. Another brain explosion saw us get to bed at about 4am after checking out the local nightlife for “one quiet drink.”

Up at 7am and after a lovely breakfast made by John Robinson, who still wouldn’t let me call him Robbo, we departed.

Not much more to tell you, we saw a lot of amazing scenery, visited a castle and some abbey ruins and arrived back in London completely exhausted. Long gone are the days of jumping on my BMX off the side of gutters, my bike skills are not what they used to be.

 

In summary:

  • Bike riding around the Isle of Wight – very recommended.
  • The coastal trail up to the cliffs at Sandown – not recommended at all.

P.S. I got a full time job that I’m supposed to start tomorrow but I’m too tired so I think I’ll be a no show and sleep in. It was a very dodgy commission based sales job so I think my time will be better served looking for something else.

 

The Bucket List

I finally found my travel bucket list. It was the list that was supposed to remind me to keep living. It consisted of the exotic, the dangerous, and the far off places. It embodied my traveller past and beckoned for me to dust it off, or more to the point to put it to use and get it dusty again.

I shuffled through the list of destinations and experiences. Dive sites. Monuments. Villages. Drawing a line through those I had conquered. Pondering the next secretly, never to be shared. Worried to some a list of this type would seem boastful and privileged, and to others unsophisticated and pedestrian.

To me it was a plan. A purpose. A structured approach to whimsy and spontaneity. An insurance policy to assure myself I wouldn’t lie in my grave wondering if I gave myself completely to using my days on earth well. I lay back, remembering. Perhaps the memory is still an important part of the journey.

But I shouldn’t confuse travelling with the journey. The journey lingers. As I grow from a combination of experiences. The journey lingers through reflection, through a change in perspective. As the past settles and cements, the journey continues. Travelling however can only exist in the today.

I hope my travel bucket list inspires a journey in you and I look forward to your comments and any helpful additions to my journey.

Taj Mahal, India

Everest Base Camp, Nepal

Three Games of Man, Mongolia

Blue Hole, Belize

Chichen Itza, Mexico

Humpback Whales, Niue

Great Wall, China

Machu Picchu, Peru

Great Barrier Reef, Australia

Stonehenge, United Kingdom

Petra, Jordan

Qin Terracotta Soldiers, China

Angkor Wat, Cambodia

Whitewater Rafting on the Zambezi Rapids, Zimbabwe

Deer Cave, Borneo

Foz Du Iguazu, Brazil

Arora Borealis in Tromso, Norway

Tulum, Mexico

Cinque Terra, Italy

Wildebeest Migration, Tanzania

Island Hop in the Caribbean

Captain a sailboat through the South Pacific

Amazon, Bolivia

Galapogas Islands, Equador

Madagascar

Pyramids of Giza, Egypt

Parthenon, Greece

Over Water Bungalow, Bora Bora

Havana, Cuba

Full Moon Party, Thailand

Hogmanay, Scotland

Dive with Great White Sharks, South Africa

Gorilla Trek, Democratic Republic of Congo

Antarctica

Anzac Day, Turkey

Whale Sharks, Ningaloo Reef, Australia

Munich Beer Fest, Germany

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

Cruise Route 66, United States

Dive Sipidan, Borneo

Angel Falls, Venezuela

Sky Dive over the Namib, Namibia

Bungee Jump Bloukraans, South Africa

Running of the Bulls in Pampelona, Spain 

Grand Canyon, United States

Sistine Chapel, Vatican City

Masaii Mara, Kenya

La Tomatina Festival in Bunol, Spain

Easter Island

Okavango Delta, Botswana

Dive the Yucatan Cenotes, Mexico

Wailing Wall, Jerusalem

Milford Sound, New Zealand

House of Cards

I leave the crew at the coffee shop and venture into the square. The market is a buzz, I look around and absorb the vibrancy. An old man is standing near me, his old wrinkled face, worn by the years was inviting and warm looking. He looked at me with a magnetism so I try on my best Italian to ask this lovely old guy if he knew where I can find a good calzone. I refer again to my phrase book, practice a couple of times in my head. Ok, lets give this a go. “Mi scusi signore” I walk over towards him and his expression opens up in reception. “Dove posso trovare un negozio di calzone.”

He looks at me and smiles. “Sorry no” he responds

“Do you… parla… English?”

“Little bit” he holds his hand up with his forefinger and thumb a centimetre or so apart. We stand there for a moment, I look at my phrasebook to attempt to make small talk with this old guy. He turns and looks at a table where a short man was dealing out three card monte. I look over and then nudge the old man, “You know this game?” I ask him. He shakes his head and starts to move towards the makeshift table. He looks at me and says “See this one” pointing at the game.

I walk up beside him, “No I don’t think you want to play this one…. This game is a trick”

He looks back at me a little confused. As we are talking a tall scandanavian looking backpacker approaches the table. “Ello” he says in a cliché sing song manner. The dealer shows the scando three cards on the table, all slightly bent in the middle, one card with a big red star on the underside. I nudge the old guy and whisper “watch this”.

The dealer shows the card with the star on it, turns it face down with the other two cards and then continues to swap the position of each card swiftly. He again shows the red star to the scando, places it face down and again swiftly moves their position. A third time he shows the red star to the scando and shuffles the positions of the cards, this time letting them lie. The dealer looks up, “sceglierlo” telling the scando to choose a card. The old man and I watch as the scando points to the middle card. We both nod to each other in agreement that he has chosen correctly.

The dealer says something to the scando and he looks down to his bum bag strapped to his hip and unzips it. He turns away from the table and the two men looking on and looks down at his bum bag as he rifles through euro notes.

While the scando is looking away, the dealer stealthily switches the middle card with one on the outside. “Hey, he can’t do that?” I say to the old man.

The scando turns around with 50 euro in his hand and places it on the table. ‘Hold on mate” I reach over and grab my fellow traveller on the arm. “He swapped it mate. It’s not the middle one, it’s this one.” I point to the card on the left.

“No, no, this one” the scando points to the middle card.

“Nah mate, this bloke swapped the card on you when you were looking away. The one with the star is this one” I replied in ernest.

“No” he says “Not that one, this one” the scando again points to the middle card.

I point to the card on the left “This….” But it was too late, the dealer turned the card on the left over and as I tried to tell the scando, there was the card with the star.

“Winner” the dealer declares and picks up the 50 euros.

“Told you mate” I shake my head and turn back towards the old man.

“Winner” The dealer says again.

“Nice to meet you” I say to the old man and scan the square for a calzone vendor.

The old man pats my arm “You win” he says.

“What?”

“You win”

“I didn’t win. I wasn’t playing” I look across at the scando, he is standing there all confused trying to ask what happened to one of the men on looking. They were giving him nothing back and were probably both friends of the dealer. The old man was still patting me on the arm. I look at him.

The old man says “You win, your money” and he points back at the table.

“I don’t want anything to do with it, its not my money, I don’t want it” I respond

The dealer calls to me in Italian and holds the 50 euro up in his hand. “What is he saying?” I ask my old friend.

“He say this money is yours, you win, take it” the old man replies. I look at the dejected scando as he turns and walks past me. Shit. “Hey buddy hold on” I grab a bit of the scando’s shirt and capture his attention. “I might be able to get you your money back” He looks at me with eyebrows raised. “Come with me” I turn on my heel as he follows me the 10 feet back to the table.

“This is my money yes?” I reach out for the 50 euro

“You win” the dealer says, he then pulls the note away and says something in Italian rapid fire at me. I look at the scando he raises his shoulders in a shrug, I scan the two Italian men looking on, they were no help, I turn back to my old mate. “My friend, can you help me? What does he say?”

“He says that you need to show you had the 50 euro to bet with before you take the money”

Now I had seen this game of three card monte before in a square in Barcelona. There the hoods let you win and see which pocket you put your winnings and then they rob you as soon as you get around the corner. I look at the men standing next to the pint sized dealer, they were not much bigger, I figured if these guys try and rob me around the corner they will find me in a pack of my 10 travel companions. I look back at the dealer, he stands there shuffling the cards and laying them back down on the table, presumably for the next game. “Ok” I said, I reached into my pocket and pulled out a 50 euro note. The dealer holds his note up and motions it towards me, in one move he has my 50 euro, he puts the two notes together and looks down, with the other hand he flicks the outside left card over. “Your card, you lose”

“What?” the dealer folds the two 50 euro notes and puts them into his shirt pocket.
“Hold up fella” I say to the dealer “I already won that money”

He points back at the overturned card, “You lose” he says again, this time more urgently.

“Back me up scando” He takes a couple of steps back. I furrow and turn back to the dealer “You said I won, I wasn’t playing again, I already won”

“No you lose”

“Look, you listen to me, give me my 50 bucks back” The dealer started to raise his voice at me in Italian. I look at the old man, “Can you please tell this guy to give me my money back”

The old man and the dealer exchange some words, he walks beside me and I turn to look at him. “What did he say?”
“He say, your money is gone”

“No, its not gone, he has it right there” I look over my shoulder at the dealer and point at him in a manner that was as intimidating as I could muster. I turn back to the old man

“My friend, your money is gone”

“Its not gone, this guy has it, tell him I am going to get fucking mad if he doesn’t give me my money back” I glance back over my shoulder and scowl at the dealer.

The old man looks up at me, places a hand on each shoulder and looks me deep in the eyes. He says it slow, deep and clear. “Your money… is … gone”

“You don’t understand, I am getting angry and if this guy doesn’t…” I turn to point to the dealer. He was gone. Where the fuck did he go? The fold up table was gone, the dealer was gone, the dealers two mates were gone.

“Did you see…” I turn to the scando, he was gone too. What the fuck was happening. I scan the crowd.

“where the fuck…” I turn back to the old man. He was gone too. I turn around and turn again. The crowded square was spinning around me. It was movie like. I was in one of the most crowded places on earth and I had never felt more alone. I had been duped, scammed, fooled, swindled.

“Faaark” I stomp my foot like a scorned child and bewildered I make my way back towards the coffee house a mere twenty metres away.

Still seething, I recoil to the coffee shop and explain to my travel buddies how I was totally suckered in the square. I was quite quickly convinced that I did not want to mess with the locals and whilst losing 50 euro was not ideal I could have been hurt or worse if I had have got into a fight with the street swindlers. It looks like I may have literally dodged a bullet. I was so annoyed still though. We finish up in the coffee shop and we walk back into the square. And then I see it, through the crowd. The dealer. He had his stand set up again. Cards out, waiting for his next victim. Around him, his two skiffs. I felt angry. Then I see him, the Scando, backpack on, walking innocently through the crowd up to the card table “Ello”. I feel stupid now. He was a part of it all along. What an idiot I was.
“Oh no” The old man was standing ten feet away, flashing his friendly smile to passing tourists. “Bugger”

Napoli

Naples.

Slummy suburbs, nonnas hanging out washing strewn between shabby buildings above vespas weaving through crowds of people shouting at each other, arms waving. I was looking forward to finding the best Napoli pizza, a quest that sparked great arguments, I assumed, though I couldn’t understand the words, it guessed it to be the conflict amongst the locals.

Ten pm and a rail delay means I had just arrived in at the central train station, Napoli Centrali. The city now had a cavernous threat about it. I somehow felt excited though, as if sometimes through a frightening experience that travelling provides perspective.

Knowing little but following idioms around the city like aeroporto and estacion de tren. I hadn’t the foresight or the inclination really to arrive with accommodation pre-planned and on the advice of a fellow backpacker who did, I wound up on a linea taking me well out of the city. I found a seat across from two Spanish girls who after trying out my newly acquired Spanish phrases informed me they were also heading out to the hostel.

Off the train we head up the platform, I turn and notice another backpacker behind us. He looked Spanish so I call to him “hola hombre, ostel?”

Si” he said

Ven con migo” and he caught up. My event Spanish was working well, if only I could find someone to wipe a table I could use all my words.

This was the first time I laid eyes on Ivan Villanueva. He was tall, slender, dark skin with piercing deep brown eyes and a confident friendly smile. I liked him immediately.

The four of us headed up the hill in the dark, not knowing if the reference in the girls’ dated lonely planet was already redundant. We get to the afterhours counter of the hostel, the man there informing us that there were only two single beds left but given the time of night he was ok if the two couples didn’t mind sharing a single bed.

There we were, four strangers, stranded. I think for the briefest of moments everyone thought about how that might work but it was quickly dismissed. “Well Ivan I guess the only gentlemanly thing to do is let the girls have the beds and we will go and find another hostel.” Ivan agreed and to the gratuous thanks of the girls we walked back out into the warm night air.

It began to seem to me there was a fine line between ignorance and being sufficiently prepared for a city like Naples.

Back in the city and under the guidance of Ivans lonely planet we walked until we arrived at the santa maria plaza.

“Hey Ivan, what does you book there say about this plaza?”

“It say don’t be here after midnight”
“Hey Ivan, what time is it?”
He looked back at me and then around, scanning the same predatory eyes of some locals across the street. “Its after midnight…. We should go”

We walk, quickly up the street, not in any particular direction, just to be away from where we were, but unfortunately the trouble was following us. I turned to see two of the men trailing.

Around the next corner we darted and then hastily up the street but there they were, a block behind us.

“Ivan” I said “I need to know something”

“Yes?”
“If those guys catch up to us are you fighting or running?”

“What do you want to do?” he replied

“I have a bad knee, I can’t run very fast”
“Ok, then we fight” He kept walking, he seemed quietly confident whilst I was hoping to god it didn’t come to that. But the thugs behind us were gaining; we were walking as fast as we could without breaking into a trot under the weight of our backpacks. They were not even half a block away when I called out to Ivan ahead of me. We had been fleeing in circles, my knee was aching and soon we would be too tired to fight off these guys. “Ivan I’m stopping.”

He stopped, turned at me and looked back to see our predators closing. He looks down at his lonely planet again and his eyes light up “pick your bag up Robo, come, ostel!” I grab my bag and we quickly jog across the street, the thugs less than 50 meters behind us. Within half a block we were up a conspicuous stairwell and to the door of a bed and breakfast called Seven Small Rooms to safety.