Paradise Falls

We were getting to the end of our trip. But there were still a few things that we just had to do.

The more curious / bored of you may have clicked on the about link at the top of the page. No, it says almost nothing about us or our trip. Yes, it just contains a link to a video of what is ostensibly a children’s film. Yes, this is a little odd. And yet, the cartoon of Carl & Ellie, who had a wonderful life together only to come to a crashing realization when it was just too late that there was a personality-defining life ambition that they had somehow never got around to fulfilling… Well, let’s just say it resonated rather.

We have met dozens, and seen literally hundreds of retirees traveling around the world. Mostly sat in large groups on tour buses and in tour hotels, they are each living out their life’s dreams to travel the world. These tour groups actually make it further than many individual travelers – Uzbekistan, Papua New Guinea, Antarctica and other far-flung places are littered with them. But large tour groups are a deeply drab way to travel, and if I had a cliché for every time I heard someone complain about how their aged knees couldn’t take them to the local viewpoints and how they wished they had traveled when they were younger then, erm, I would write for the Daily Mail.

And this brings us to Paradise Falls. For Carl & Ellie this was the mystical destination that defeated them (cruelly, it is shown in the movie as being in Venezuela, just a few hours flight away). For Lucy and me, I decided that our analogue was Iguazu Falls.

On the border of Argentina and Brazil, Iguazu Falls is a spectacular series of waterfalls set in a national park in the deep jungle. Caimans, Coatis, Pelicans, butterflies and other wildlife abound. There is a long series of paths winding around both sides of the falls – we spent three lazy and wonderful days exploring, getting happily soaked in the spray, oohing, aahing and generally wandering in the jungle. We also drank more than our fair share of good coffee and did more than our fair share of reflecting on the trip.

And what a trip.



So, we have just been reborn from the bosom of the Southern Seas. [shrugs]. Like all true artistes, this trip for us was a performance, a microcosm of humanity. [takes a deep drag from a Gauloise]. Cast adrift in a cowardly steel bubble to find reflections of itself in the Icy Southern Ice. [exhales sulkily]. Only to return willingly to its own detritus after the initial shock has subsided. [Sells soul to Charles Saatchi; starts making formaldehyde sculptures of sliced up penguins].


Yup. You guessed it. Regular followers of the blog (Hello Mum!) will be familiar with our occasional photographic self-indulgences – odd silhouettes, overexposed shots, close ups of random objects. Well, in Antarctica the scenery was so strange that we (ok, actually more like I) allowed my clumsier inner digital artist full rein, taking large numbers of shots at strange angles, odd camera settings etc. All in the name of the “Artistique”. Oh yes. I was going to break deep new ground in terrible self-indulgent photography. It was going to be legendary. And I basically couldn’t resist the bad pun in the blog title.

Well, I didn’t think to tell Lucy. We always edit our photographs – we had so many photographs of Antarctica that we ended up deleting about 60% of them. Somewhat unusually, however, we didn’t sit down and do this together. As a result, Lucy actually applied a base level of actual quality control – so destructive to my artistique creations – and I wasn’t there to protest, to stand up for, say, the beautiful out of focus shots of the sky etc.. Oops.

All artists must suffer, however – perhaps the suffering itself is the art [ahem; slaps self round face; gets over it]

Below are some of my creations which survived…

Ballooning over Bagan

Some experiences, as they say in the Mastercard ad, really are priceless. Although disappointingly often, you need some dough to be able to afford them.

Point in case: ballooning over the temples of Bagan. I mean, there are literally hundreds of temples in the Bagan plains (yeah, I know thousands sounds better but I’m not sure there are actually thousands of the buggers – meaning I wouldn’t be able to use the word “literally” there with any kind of sincerity. And I think the literally added a certain something, y’all feel me? Not to mention the sincerity, which of course goes without question. Anyway. I digress. At this rate you’ll all start thinking this is a James blog post. Hmmm.). One could never see them all on foot. Well, obviously one could, but unless peering into hundreds of near identical temples in the stinking heat of a full Myanmar summer is really your thing, then I’m pulling the “life’s too short” card.


The total wow factor of Bagan, pretty much unlike anywhere I’ve ever been, relies on volume. The temples in themselves are wonderful, but not something you’d necessarily travel out of your way for. The temples, scattered across the plains in their hundreds (thousands? Some literary leeway here??) feel like an absolute testament to the will of man. Or maybe an act of God. Although when you look closer, you realize that the temples themselves are all really badly built – the work of the dodgy eastern European builders of a millennium ago, still standing proud after a fair old passage of time and only a small number of millions of UNESCO funding. So that should make you feel better about your downstairs extension.

And the best way to see this spectacle in all its grandeur is, without a doubt, from the air. We did this from the roofs of some nice tall temples that we spotted along the way, and that was pretty cool. And then we spent $300 each (ouch!!) and went up in some balloons, shortly before sunrise and that was completely, mind-blowingly AWESOME. Worth every penny, and this despite the fact that they made me get up at like 5 am.

Why so amazing? Well, a combination really. First the incredible view of all those temples – for the first time you really get a sense of the scale of the site. Then there’s the light – both the beautiful glow of sunrise and also the early morning river mist providing a sense of uniqueness to everything you lay eyes on. Plus the fact that you drift on by all these amazing sights with almost no noise.

It’s a verging-on-the-spiritual experience. Which is quite something given that the other occupants of our particular balloon were shooting a Digicel (mobile phone company) commercial, so our experience in the clouds was punctuated from time to time with the glorious sounds of “yeah, baby, make like you just got that text from your man”, “talk into that phone buddy” and, of course, amusing ring tones.

Travel. You can’t make this stuff up.

James & Lucy Turn For Home

A slightly out of sequence blog post, seeing as how this happened yesterday, and we normally run a week or more behind. The timing is relevant, however…

The last of the elephants disappeared up the hill in the bright sunshine, dragging a one-ton teak log behind it on long rusty chains. We had been up since before dawn, waking up in a forest rangers’ hut before heading out into the jungle to track down the elephants which had been feeding overnight. There is another blog post coming on the teak logging camp; the relevance of the moment I describe is that logging with elephants is our last must-do in Myanmar, and therefore the end of this activity is the moment that we turn for home. We have been on the road for nearly seven months – the next formal stop on the itinerary is a cruise in Antarctica, but before that we have ten days at home with family for Christmas. Home. Family. Christmas.

To say we are looking forward to it is an understatement. We are loving our travels, but there is something strong to be said for knowing where the light switches are. So we are heading home, even if only for a few days before we fly off again. Our trip’s furthest point from home in terms of absolute remoteness was halfway up a volcano on a remote island in Vanuatu. Myanmar, on the other hand, is relatively well connected so all we need to do to get home is:

  • Back of a truck to Taungoo (mattresses laid out in the open air – sunbathing and snoozing most of the way)
  • Back of a motorbike at dawn to the bus station (actually, the back of two motorbikes, but who’s counting?)
  • Bus to Yangon (stopping for dinner in the best restaurant in Myanmar, obviously)
  • Short flight to Bangkok (picking up various items of tailoring and a cocktail or two on the way)
  • Slightly longer flight to Hong Kong (and an evening with our friends Kean and Nyree in their new apartment)
  • 16 hours of heavy drinking in new pyjamas courtesy of Cathay Pacific on the way to London
  • Lucy is then home (for a long-delayed engagement party with the family – hooray!)
  • For me, there is then a cross channel trip on Eurostar, a taxi across Paris, a further French train ride and 45 minutes in the back of my parents’ car to go.

So, seven full days of travel. It says something about the slightly schizophrenic nature of our trip that getting home includes both riding on the back of a tiny motorbike wearing 20lbs of rucksack and seat 1A on a Cathay 747. We wouldn’t have it any other way!

From Elephants…

From Elephants…

… to Home

… to Home


The Ryokan Experience – A Few Haiku

Beautiful hotel
Surrounds fine sculpted garden
Feels like history.

Strangely empty room;
Ascetic. But where’s my bed?
Fragrant tatami

Japanese ryokan:
Pay much more; sleep on the floor.
Must be high culture.

Public bath, at night
With a women’s football team
James is quite jealous

Tried to navigate
Steep stairs in slippy slippers.
Banged head on beam. Ouch.

I though, am right-sized
That’s less fun with grumpy James
Laughing does not help

Honoured guest; kind host.
Shown how to use my chopsticks.
Perhaps I look dumb?

Breakfast of poached eggs
Soft poached, eaten with chopsticks
I yearn for Starbucks

Fine Yukuta robe.
Worn at dinner after bath.
Dangling free – most strange.

I wear my robe wrong,
Kind hostess tells me (firmly)
“Like a corpse”. Stylish.

Metrics to Live Your Life By

Classic Tom Jones in his pomp. Perhaps a touch random for this post, but a storming tune nonetheless


Everyone measures their lives differently. I have a friend who swears that highest form of human achievement is business; I have another friend who swears that highest form of human achievement is poetry. A question that has been on my mind recently is how to compare experiences and how to measure “success” when you are travelling. (jumping straight to the answer, I think the fact that Lucy and I are able to do it at all is already success enough for me, but let’s not allow that to get in the way of this post, eh?). In the meantime, how’s about this for some travel-appropriate metrics:

First, the classic Boston Consulting Bull*** two-by-two matrix, plotting those two well known orthogonals “Epic” and “Comfortable”.

This splits experiences down quite nicely:

  • Night buses? Long flights? Traipsing round dark towns looking for your hotel? Bottom right!
  • Camping in Tibet in double down sleeping bags? Eagle hunting on horseback in Kyrgyzstan? Cocktails under a huge animatronic singing frog in Las Vegas? Top left, yeah baby!
  • The classic James & Lucy blogtastic “it may have shortened my life by several months, but … holy crap it was amazing!”. Volcano trekking in Vanuatu, boat tripping on the Sepik – top right all the way!

To me, the art of enjoying travel involves balancing interesting and new experiences against the level of perceived discomfort involved. I think this is the reason Lucy and I are traveling reasonably quickly this time around, and why we end up at gentle odds with the gap year students we meet. After all, sleeping on floors palls pretty quickly once you are past 30, and we are familiar enough with the simple mechanics of travel to take the shine off, say, long train journeys. Perhaps we also now need a higher level of stimulation to make all the travel worthwhile – not for us the sitting on a beach for weeks at a time having a nice holiday and, like, finding ourselves man.

It was in contemplating the bottom left sector – the nice holiday – that I came up with the second travel metric: blog density. Now, we don’t live our lives for the blog, although we do greatly enjoy writing it (most of the time!). For the last couple of weeks we have been having a very nice time, but it has felt a little more like a holiday than the type of travel worth taking time out of life for. It has been the hardest, grittiest experiences that have stuck in our minds and ended up making their way onto the page. Recently, a lovely week in Nepal passed by in a single blog post; two active weeks in Japan has been condensed into half a dozen; whereas Papua New Guinea left us feeling pretty battered but with the urgent need to write down what we had witnessed every day and more.

Anyway, it’s a nice theory (even if meta blog posts have less pretty pictures than some of the others). To test it in practice, we have three days in Bangkok sorting out visas, a few days with Lucy’s Mum and Dad at Angkor Wat and after that it’s off to Burma. Stay tuned!

Pilgrims vs. Pragmatists

There’s not many countries that have an entire school of religion named after them. Tibet is one of them (Tibetan Buddhism. Keep up in the back!), and with good reason. The average man on the street Tibetan exhibits an incredible level of piety and devotion which, to a (I’m resigned to my fate on this one) pretty soul-less ex investment banker can seem almost overwhelming. All Tibetans will have in their house various religious artifacts including statues depicting the 3 manifestations of the Buddha (wisdom, compassion and energy) and a depiction of the 4 sacred animals (elephant, monkey, rabbit and bird: this one lost me a bit, but they all eat fruit from the same tree and the elephant carries them all to do so. This translates as the need to respect your elders and the responsibility of the elders to teach the young. Buddhism. It can be pretty esoteric). So far, so normal.

It’s also pretty standard for most Tibetans to, as part of their morning routine, conduct a kora or three of the local monastery. Exercise whilst praying doncha know. Quite some few of them will take this seemingly pretty standard idea a little further, spending 2-3 hours each morning prostrating themselves in front of said monastery. Try this. Stand tall, raise your hands, palms together, above your head; then bring them down to your waist (still palms together); bend your knees and stretch out your arms until you’re lying face down on the ground; get up again; repeat. Repeat for 2-3 hours.

For the really devout, a pilgrimage is in order (obviously with the appropriate prostrating along the way). If you’re really feeling into it, then the recognized best practice here is to prostrate yourself for the entre pilgrimage. So, if you live in Eastern Tibet, for example, and fancy a cheeky little pilgrimage to Lhasa, then you prostrate yourself (see above for instruction), get up, move forward to where your fingers touched the ground, then repeat. For 1,800 kilometres. It takes 3 to 5 years and it’s really not that uncommon – James and I probably saw 5 to 10 people on the road who were mid way through this.

Morning prostration. Like morning coffee, but better for your soul

Morning prostration. Like morning coffee, but better for your soul

Of course, if you really REALLY want to prove your devotion – both to Buddhism as a general idea and to the concept of Tibet as a free nation with free religious practices (yep we’re going there. Complex and subtle issues dealt with in a 500 word blog post. You know you love it) then one sets oneself on fire within the precincts of a well regarded religious centre. This has become a surprisingly popular trend – whilst for obvious reason the stats can be a little hard to track, the sense is that tens or possibly hundreds of Tibetans, in particular monks, have chosen this particular route towards self expression.

So, if you’re the governing Chinese, how the hell do you react to that?? I mean, there’s a whole load of power contained in that there religion and even as an idol-worshipping sort of sometimes Catholic, I can see how the sheer amount of wealth (1,300kg gold stupas) poured into the monasteries would be upsetting for a secular society.

Well, we’re speaking of the Chinese, so……pragmatically.

First off, reduce the number of those pesky trouble-making monks. Monasteries now have a licensed number of monks, typically around 10% of the monastery’s capacity… although the monasteries themselves are still allowed to function – in line, presumably, with China’s stance of total religious freedom.

Second, and most important, fire brigades. Each significant monastery has airport style security to get in – no fluids, matches, or cigarette lighters allowed (at least for local Tibetans. I didn’t put this one to the test, but I suspect a Westerner could take a flamethrower in and not get stopped). Then inside the monastery itself, there’s orange clad firemen inside all major chapels – got to make sure those wooden structures don’t burn down. Lastly, there’s the firemen outside – armed with people-catching hooks, a quad-bike, flame-retardant blankets and multiple buckets of water.

No, I’m not joking. This is one of the most sinister things I have seen in many years of pootling about the globe.

I don’t know what to make of it, and I don’t know what I could do that would be better.

All I really know is that there’s little or possibly nothing on this earth that would make me set myself on fire….and that I’m hopelessly, somewhat (guiltily) gladly, absolutely out of my depth.

One for the Girls

(OK, and maybe Tim. But basically, the girls.)

So I bought some fabric in Uzbekistan – ikat fabric, which is made out of silk and hand woven on a loom which is a little narrower than I am. It’s really beautiful stuff and was cheap as chips – but now I have to work out what to do with it, so that when I get to somewhere with a tailor, they can magic it into something fabulous.

So, by the magic of camera and Powerpoint (all the famous designers use it sweetie), I’ve come up with the below 3 ideas. Need to be different to avoid my re-naming as Ikat girl, and also I don’t have that much of the black fabric so that one probably needs to be a shift.

Any better ideas, girls?

Answers on a postcard.

What Would Michael Palin Do?

I don’t know about you, but when Michael Palin’s first travel TV series came out I scoffed a little. I mean, what qualifications (other than past fame) does Michael Palin have to make a travel show? It took half-watching a few series for me to realize the genius of it: it wasn’t that people followed him round the world doing silly walks and offering him dead parrots (although they did) but the fact that Michael Palin is truly, truly world-class at non-verbal communication. Whether it is in the background of Monty Python sketches or high on the Tibetan plateau non-talking to nomads in a yurt: he gurns, he gurgles, he falls over, he makes funny faces and he is absolutely hilarious. And, whether you are going around the world in 80 days or eight months, unless you are prepared to learn the language of every single country that you visit for a few days at a time, non-verbal communication is where it’s at.

Lucy and I are not complete Alan Whicker-style post-imperialists. Between the two of us we can muster English, conversational Spanish and French, enough German to get around (and, bizarrely, to negotiate with one particular Kyrgyz guest house owner) and enough Japanese to order food and train tickets. We can also handle hello and thank you and the names of common foods, railway stations etc. in just about every country we go to. However, we are currently in China, and we are completely stumped. It’s the tonality of the language, you see – even if you know the words it is damn near impossible to make somebody understand you when you say them. We have a piece of paper from a hotel with “railway station”, “airport” etc. written on them in kanji, but they are no help when the taxi drivers can’t read, and no help at all when the taxi drivers steadfastly refuse to believe you don’t speak the lingo and stop the cab in the middle of nowhere to demand that you renegotiate the fare, in Mandarin. So I regularly find myself asking, when faced with a blankly uncomprehending hotel owner, a taxi driver, a waitress: what would Michael Palin do in this situation?

I have smiled until my face almost fell off; I have mimed buying train tickets; we have pointed at food others are eating; we have taken iphone photos of things and shown them to people; we have drawn diagrams of double and single beds (a Lucy inspiration – it looks less like a toilet sign and more like a double bed when you draw the pillows as well). I once found myself actually mooing loudly at a cabbie to get him to take us to the animal market. I carry a pencil and paper to write place names, draw clocks and write down dates. It doesn’t help that Chinese sign language is actually different too – two crossed fingers meaning ten, anybody? (Also, if you are miming eating, you have to mime using chopsticks, not the traditional knife and fork sawing and chewing – simple once you know how).

As a pop quiz, think how you would mime the following requests, drawn from our day to day interactions:

  • Do you have Wifi?
  • What is the wifi password? (and the IP address, while you are at it)
  • Where is the ticket office?
  • I would like a long enough length of your plastic sewage pipe to pack this Tibetan Thangka painting back to the UK, please (actually quite easy)
  • What time does this office open after lunch? (Also actually quite easy, but try to catch the mimed answer: “No, it’s the Uzbek National Teachers Day bank holiday”)
  • Please would you impersonate a CNN foreign correspondent for my friends’ wedding video?

Michael, if you are reading, you are more than welcome on our next trip, and we promise not to mention the parrot incident.

From Darvaza with Love

A boy, a girl, a Soviet-era industrial accident site

Two drifters, a dream, and a 70 meter diameter hole in the ground, leaking flaming natural gas for the past five decades…

What better place for a man to get down on one knee and ask the love of his life to marry him?

Ladies and Gentlemen, Lucy & James have got engaged.

Dance me to the end...