Seriously Struggling to Describe the Sambadrome

As you can imagine, finishing our world trip has been pretty hard for us; strangely, I feel I have been avoiding finishing the blog because this will mean that Lucy and my journey of a lifetime is finally over.

We are now back in the UK and spring is now finally springing after bland weeks of snow, sleet, estate agents and personal admin. Everyone asks what it is like for us to be back “home” (as well as every single time asking us to name the best and the worst experiences of the trip – don’t worry, it doesn’t get dull, we just give different answers to everybody). In particular I remember a specific conversation from just after we got back: “Well, two weeks ago we were performing at Carnaval in Rio. And now we are in Ikea. In the rain. And to be honest it kinda sucks”.

Emotional aftermath aside, we can think of no better way to finish a Round the World trip than this: it is midnight in Rio de Janeiro, you are standing in a performing school of thousands of crazy excited strangers, surrounded by MASSIVE animated floats, troupes of dancers, glitter, costumes and more marabou feathers than you can shake a stick at (and that is a LOT). The monumental drum section starts, the overamped Samba music cranks up, haphazard but huge fireworks go off announcing the entrance of your school (fireworks!), and you shuffle forwards as part of this good-sized army, receiving frantic shouted instructions in incomprehensible Portuguese from marshals and coaches alike, before turning the corner into the Sambadrome and seeing … banks upon banks of people, crowds of 90,000 cheering, screaming spectators all hyped up on cachaca and adrenaline. They are all looking at you expectantly. And off you go.

  • Yes, we formally joined a Rio Samba School for the performance (the Uniao da Ilha school for completists among you). Yes, this is actually possible.
  • Yes, we learned a two verse, two chorus Samba song about the life and times of the Poet Vincius. In Portuguese. Which neither of us speak. Syllable by phonetic syllable. Bloody hell.
  • Yes, we picked up two monstrously awesome costumes from the samba school headquarters, and ended up looking like the picture below:
  • Yes we fought our way through Rio samba rush hour on the subway to find the marshalling point on a random side street in an unfamiliar Rio suburb.
  • Yes, we may have had a few drinks by this point.
Lucy, looking pretty damned fabulous in her costume. No, we didn't take the good camera with us!

Lucy, looking pretty damned fabulous in her costume. No, we didn’t take the good camera with us!

On our travels I have sadly discovered that I am no Patrick Leigh-Fermor. My prose may be pretty purple at times, but trying to describe utterly overwhelming experiences head on is well beyond my meager writing talents. Hence I tend to default to a series of vignettes to try to convey the thrust of the thing:

  • Struggling through the Rio subway crowds at night in a wildly impractical costume made of marabou feathers, glitter and flimsy golden plastic. Finding your place in a morass of people looking like amped up burning man cast offs. The waiting. The confusion. The navigating your way to and from the toilets by the temporary landmarks – turn left at the 20 foot tall seafood platter, head past the greek amphora mime artist troupe and aim for the back of the cinema on wheels
  • The heat, the noise, the shuffling, shambolic, dazzling nature of it all. The mass hysteria sweeping you along. The jury-rigged / jerry-built costumes gradually starting to fall apart as the glue from the heat guns begins to give way. The trails of beads, glitter, feathers and fabric left in our wake to be cleared up by samba-dancing crews of street sweepers
  • Wild dancing at midnight in a heavy plastic suit of armour in the crippling steamy humidity. The cold and clinical calculation that you run through, wondering whether you can physically make it to the end of the Sambadrome without passing out from dehydration, exhaustion and heatstroke. The second wind (and the third, and the fourth, and now the fifth!) as the gargantuan crowd screamingly urges you on
  • Wiping my streaming brow with my sleeve, before coming to a belated realization that I had used someone else’s sleeve (he was in the audience; he was leaning kinda close; I thought it was funny at the time)
  • Water, blessed water, at the end of the run. Handed out in these individual cup-sized, hermetically sealed packets. Lucy struggling to open hers – her fingers had given out rather after the effort of lugging the weight of her costume all the way across town. I ended up grabbing a gold plastic helmet-full of them, and opening them for her like Popeye opening cans of spinach – fist, crush, crunch, swallow. Fist, crush, crunch, swallow…
  • Delighted, exhausted collapse in a hotel room afterwards, huge piles of sweaty nylon costumes, bloody chafe marks on your shoulders from the weight of the headdress support frame, eating the world’s largest ham sandwiches and drinking pints and pints of mineral water while you watch your competing samba schools on national TV
  • Seeing the judge’s scores go up afterwards, and being proud of your adopted school for acquitting itself well after a recent promotion to the top flight (a little like the premier league). On reflection, it is the closest I can imagine to being in an army in battle – your massive effort and heartfelt contribution made almost no difference to the overall performance, yet what would it have been without thousands of you?
  • Lunch at tea time on the waterfront the next day after eight hours of sleep and a very late rise. Trying to listen to your body and order appropriately while it sends out a kaleidoscopic series of cravings – salt, sugar, water, caffeine, chips, mayonnaise, cachaca, savoury, water, salt…

And the end result? Well, this is our school’s section of video, taken from Brazilian national TV (our little golden group appears behind the oversized greek amphora / moving cinema around the 37 minute & 53 second mark)…

And the samba song? Ah, the samba song. Uniao Da Ilha, 2013. Thirty lines of random Portuguese regarding the life and times of the poet Vincius (the theme for the school that year). Heavily crammed into our heads during a succession of flights, in a succession of hotel rooms and, memorably, in one Rio beachfront bar where our song came on the radio and the two crazy foreigners stood up and sang it all the way through to a deeply bemused collection of waiters and other early diners. And no, neither of us particularly likes samba music. Those of you familiar with the concept of an “earworm” will therefore sympathize with our mood after a few days of having this bloody song going round and round our heads. Lucy in particular had one particularly bad experience after an unfortunate bout of undercooked-fish-inspired food poisoning, where she was up all night in the bathroom with the song on constant, unavoidable repeat in her brain. The only way I could think of to get the bloody tune out of our consciousnesses was to replace it with something even more catchy – cue wall to wall youtube repeats of Taylor Swift’s We are Never Ever Ever Getting Back Together and a relatively swift descent into teenage singalong insanity. God help us both.

I don’t know how many of you will have made it this far – this post seems to have rambled on a little. Would we do Carnaval again? Would we take friends next year? Well:

  • Flights to Rio? Not too pricey given we were already in South America, and we airmilesed most of the rest of the trip home via Bogota and New York
  • Hotel for carnaval? Expensive – prices shoot up for that week and there are sometimes five day minimum stays
  • Joining a samba school? Again, expensive at about $500 a head, but actually surprisingly easy if you know how and plan ahead
  • Learning a Samba song? Costly in terms of sanity, but fundamentally something that you can just throw time and effort at
  • The overall experience? Well, we have had a fair few, but this… This was utterly, utterly priceless


Fish fish fish, fishy fishy fish!


Tokyo baby, yeah!

Yup, it’s early morning and we are at Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo. A huge warren of stalls piled high with every conceivable kind of seafood, and a few others besides. Squat men in wellington boots stride around with single-bladed sashimi knives as tall as they are, committing astonishing acts of butchery on the vast swarms of equally vast tuna fish that flood through here every day. Cabinets full of wildly expensive sea urchin roe, banks and banks of humming aquariums, crab claws, crab sticks, live crabs by the dozen dozen. Red fish, silver fish, black fish, grey fish, white fish and their eggs besides. Whelks, clams, oysters, octopuses (-pi?) and squid of every size and colour. Seaweed, dried and fresh. If it comes out of the sea, it’s here. And it’s probably still alive.

And we’re hungry.

It’s our last morning in Japan. The coffee man (er, that’s me) went out to Starbucks for a seasonal gingerbread latte first thing, but otherwise we are empty (by the way, apparently having the whipped cream topping “on the side” is Against The Rules in Japan. But I needed to separate it from the hot coffee to stop it melting away before I could carry it up 24 floors to a snoozing Lucy. So I had to resort to sleight of hand, trickery (and, er, cup thievery) – result! Anyway, I digress.) We are looking for our favorite sushi restaurant, possibly in the world. And we found it. Of course we couldn’t remember the name, but we remembered the eel grilling station (complete with mini portable flamethrowers) from our last trip, and we found our seats with serious anticipation.

Breakfast. As much sushi as you can possibly eat (and we were trying very, very hard). Include multiple rounds of the most expensive top quality sea eel and the extraordinary fatty tuna. Also Uni (sea urchin) which is so expensive and hard to get right that we had previously thought we were only going to bother with it when we were physically in Hokkaido where the best stuff comes from. All this, plus the usual soups and salads and two big beers. We rolled out of there stuffed to the gills and walking on air. My god it was SO good.

And the damage? £30 a head.

Incidentally, the three tier sushi restaurant test I mentioned a while ago? Try the standard tuna (which is safe and not too expensive) and if it’s really good have the mackerel (which is harder to get right, is horrible when poor quality but when done well is extremely good) and if this is really good try the uni (which is expensive, almost impossible to find done well and frequently disgusting, but a real delicacy when good). So there you are. Happy eating!

Short Runs in Strange Places – Kyboshed in Kyoto

I find one of the more enjoyable aspects of growing older is getting to know yourself better. And for me as an engineer manqué, this covers not just how I react to situations but also getting a proper understanding of how I work. For example: how I learn best (I have to understand the underlying mechanics of anything, then it sticks for ever), how I respond to jet lag (badly – the free booze and music documentaries on the planes get me every time), how  much sleep I really, really need per night (below two I tend to hallucinate a little after lunchtime, more than four if I want to make sense without adrenaline, a regular six if I want to perform properly – so now you know!).

One thing I worked out when I was at university was a basic universal cure-all. Whenever I was feeling low or stressed out I prescribed myself the following: lots of water, some reasonably strenuous exercise, two pints of bitter, light comfort food, an early night and everything will be better in the morning. It worked surprisingly well, right up to the time I hit the City, at which point exercise and early nights went straight out the window. The basic cure-all was then replaced by a more complex structure suggested by a savvy girlfriend of mine involving fresh night air, brown bread and running up and down the street (she had been a junior doctor, and sleep deprivation was a common factor in both our lives).

So when we got to Kyoto I was feeling a little low. Kyoto is beautiful (if you have never been to Kyoto, go to Kyoto (hi Jason!)). But to be honest, nearly six months of travel had been taking their toll. There comes a point at which constantly trying to work out where you are, how you are going to get there, how to read the strange script on the menu, what to eat and how to order it in mime / pidgin English become a little dull. On one level these difficulties are an intrinsic part of the cultural experience of travel, but their enjoyment very much depends on your mood. Standing in front of a queue of Japanese commuters trying to work out why the ticket barrier is steadfastly refusing to let you through can be either an interesting challenge or a bit of a chore (the answer is to insert all of your tickets for your complete journey at once, even if they are issued by different train companies – the machine will riffle through them and spit back out the ones you still need. Dead easy once you know, but deeply counterintuitive anywhere other than Japan).

No matter, thought I – just break out the classic cure-all: drink lots of water, head off for a run round Kyoto, eat a nice seasonal Kaiseki dinner in a good restaurant and spend a long night in a Western bed in our hotel.

I also tend to play myself my all-time favourite tune. The Cinematic Orchestra at their very finest.

And the run was lovely: seven miles round Kyoto, through the imperial park, out to the Eastern suburbs where the wooded hills come right down to the city’s edge, meander down the ancient Philosophers’ Path along one of the charming streams that are a feature of Japanese towns, navigate around a few gorgeous temples fringed by bright autumn foliage then cut back across the river through the shopping district and home. Well, back to the hotel anyway.

Part one complete, we then went out to a modern Kaiseki restaurant for ten courses of exquisitely sculpted seasonal cuisine, an elegant sufficiency of sake and a cab ride home, being honorifically bowed out of the restaurant not only by our own personal waitress but by the receptionist as well. It was, I think, our best meal in Japan and as such I am slightly hesitant to attribute the next 24 hours’ experiences to crushingly overwhelming food poisoning.

It was terrible. I haven’t felt so bad since a bruising introduction to chicken a la banana a few years ago (hello mate!). I won’t go into the fine details, other than to say that Lucy was utterly lovely, looked after me extremely well and I don’t know what I would have done without her.

One other (minor) upside: Japanese toilets truly are world beaters. If you are ever in the situation where you are deciding between going to the loo; being violently, noisily sick; or passing out on the floor I can heartily recommend the self-deodorizing Toto model with the heated seat. That said I would counsel against the interesting water spray features, particularly if you are staying in a hotel with wildly superheated hot water. Ouch.

36 hours later (most of which I spent asleep) I was largely mended and we were on our way. Next stop sumo wrestling and blowfish

At a Loss in Lhasa

Ah, Lhasa. It’s difficult to know what to say about Lhasa. When Lucy and I originally worked out where in the world we wanted to travel, one of the key criteria was “places that we will never be able to go again”, either because they are too difficult to reach with a family or, perhaps more pertinently, because they may not exist in future. We don’t mean literally not exist (although North Korea may end up nuked off the face of the earth before we – and they – know it) but rather that the places and cultures are changing at such a rate that it may not be possible to experience them as they are meant to be seen.

Ce Pays, qui n'est pas le mien...


And in Lhasa, I fear that we turned up too late. Don’t get me wrong – Lhasa still has some amazing highlights. Although the phrase is a Lonely Planet cliché, the first sight of the Potala Palace really does take your breath away (and not just because of the altitude – boom boom). The interior of the Potala is then a maze of exquisite art and sculpture, blended with esoteric beliefs and an ancient yet still living culture. The Jokhang Temple is utterly amazing, as much for the building itself as for the extreme devotion of the pilgrims waiting for hours to get in, then filing around the various side chapels assiduously chanting, praying and filling butter lamps. And the old town is still Tibetan-charming, although struggling slightly to assert itself in the face of the rapidly expanding construction site that is Chinese Lhasa, all slab sided concrete buildings and general stores.

And the security. More police than you can shake a stick at, although I wouldn’t want to try doing something so provocative. Airport-style x-ray machines scanning anyone going anywhere near any of the monuments and confiscating anything flammable. Permits, multiple passport checks, metal detectors, police, army, you name it. All Han Chinese, and all perfectly civil to us Westerners. As an example of how pervasive it all is, we were posting a painting home: the lady behind the counter was inspecting our box and suddenly demanded whether we had used any newspaper as packaging material. It took us a while to realize, but you see newspapers are tightly controlled out here and must not be sent abroad on pain of God knows what. It boggles the mind rather.

And yet the Tibetans still go about their pious business, walking around the holy pilgrimages, praying at the temples, burning their incense and putting up with it all. Who knows how it will end, although I fear that the nice, gentle guys may not finish first.

Incidentally, Lucy came up with a new concept while we were in Lhasa: the “Buddhist Shopping Experience”. It is a state of mind you reach after a period of strolling past dozens of identical Buddhist tat shops all of whom are calling out to you to buy their prayer flags, rosaries etc.. If you concentrate hard enough at this point then all desires and all worldly attachments (in particular any desire to purchase anything ever again) magically vanishes. Om!


Kazakhstan is Best Country in the World!
Well, we are in Kazakhstan at last. For avid students of our route, we have left Uzbekistan, are avoiding risky Tajikistan, are heading to Turkistan (a town in Kazakhstan – keep up) and are then off to Kyrgyzstan, skirting Pakistan and Afghanistan. Phew!

We crossed the Uzbek / Kazakh border in our usual post-engagement style – symbolically walking hand in hand into no mans’ land and the future. Incidentally, the first time we did this we made it about ten yards before we were told that walking was banned in no mans’ land and we were shoved into a minibus, both of us jammed into the honorific front seat with all our luggage. We were then driven off at speed with our faces squashed into the backboard by our huge rucksacks. I’m not sure what this signifies but I’m sure it’s very romantic, right?

So, Kazakhstan eh? It’s an odd place. Not Borat odd, but…

A simple borderland misunderstanding over a bus fare and a $5 bill led to us being rescued by a deeply helpful Kazakh mother and son duo. They changed our dollars into Tenge, paid our bus fare, invited us to stay in their home and, when we politely refused a bed for the night from perfect strangers, tried to give us money for our travels. One life story later “I was once married to a Kyrgyz girl; the Krygyz are all very ugly people” they arranged for a tiny babushka with few teeth and less English to guide us on the next stage of our journey. We were headed to the town of Turkistan (two hours bus ride away), and after ten minutes of wandering back and forth she safely delivered us to the Turkistan Guest House, gave us a gold toothed grin and ambled on.

Finally arriving in Turkistan we headed to the local fort / mausoleum complex to be set upon by … a teenage bride and groom, a videographer with two cameras and about forty shouting men in armour with spears. The language barrier is a wonderfully permeable thing, but it took us some time to work out that (i) the couple were shooting their wedding video separate from the date of their wedding (ii) their mate with the video camera thought it would be hilarious if Lucy and I were to pretend to be foreign news correspondents reporting on the wedding of the century and (iii) the men with spears were separately rehearsing for a feature film and of course we were welcome – what was it about the weapons and shouting that made us think otherwise?

We retired hurt with our brains melting to a hotel room complete with soothing bottles of beer and Game of Thrones on iTunes. Next stop, the vowel-challenged republic of Kyrgyzstan!

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...

Mount Hagen Show – The Video!

I am no writer, and I don’t feel particularly proud of my previous, halting attempts to describe the Mount Hagen show. I am certainly not a videographer, but I am strangely proud of this:

By the way, the “less respectful” part of the video is due to the choice of the music. The chanting, singing, stamping and drum beating was utterly mesmeric but nigh on impossible to capture cleanly with my little Olympus. As a result I wrestled long and hard with the choice of soundtrack – something appropriately tribal but geographically incorrect? Something vaguely electronic but appropriately rhythmic? Cop out with something abstract? Lucy finally came to the rescue (as she so often does) by suggesting the song we used. So wrong, it’s right. Right?

Bats and Coconuts – Welcome to Papua New Guinea

This song is actually called 'Papua New Guinea', although I have absolutely no idea why. It sounds exactly like nothing you hear in PNG


When we set off from NYC back at the end of May, one of our observations was that there was no hard start to our trip. We drifted away from the very familiar surroundings of the East Coast into gradually more unusual places. Regular subscribers (all 27 of you! Hurray!) may remember this post from back then describing how it felt. Had we started in PNG, all of that pseudo-intellectual musing would have been moot. PNG is different – very different. We are actually writing these posts in the Solomon Islands, having left PNG (we always stagger our posts a little behind time to allow a buffer for inevitable internet blackouts) and we have now had at least some time and distance to digest the trip. What will follow is a mix of the usual frivolous nonsense and at least a couple of relatively thoughtful notes on our impressions of the country. PNG certainly makes you think. We had an amazing time there, and would recommend it whole-heartedly to some of our friends.

Anyway, back to the good stuff:

We arrived in Port Moresby on a flight from Cairns and (following good advice from people we trust) immediately left town without setting foot outside the airport. The best hotel in Port Moresby is actually situated just beside the airport, and is designed to allow travelers to pay a hefty premium have absolutely nothing to do with the capital city of PNG (we will post on our return journey another time). We had selected the sleepy seaside town of Madang as our first stop, based on which flights had the shortest connection in Port Moresby, and arrived later that afternoon wide eyed.

Bats, sir. Thaasands of them. Where you might normally expect gulls in a town by the sea, Madang has bloody great fruit bats. They roost hundreds at a time in bloody great trees when they aren’t flocking around in dark, ominous-looking, bloody great clouds. (Interesting Galapagos-type factoid: there seemed to be no bat poop under the roosting trees, perhaps because they roost upside down?). Apparently they taste pretty good, but we didn’t find anywhere which served them. Instead we ate at one of the best-rated restaurants in PNG (no joke) – a walled-off part of corrugated iron shed called “Eden”, which couldn’t have looked less pre-possessing if it tried but which served a mighty fine rendang.

We are trying hard to avoid “been-there-done-that-itis” where our blog is simply a teenage diary-style list of things we have done. It is going to be hard for PNG, given the amazing s*** we got up to. Let’s just say, after a day of walking around town, sipping beer and eating coconut flesh, we decided that Madang wasn’t sufficiently intrepid. Next stop the Sepik River!

Leaves on the Line

A short post this one, bit of an apology really.  Dedicated followers of the blog may have noticed that if late there hasn’t been much to…well….follow.

For which apologies.  Basically, by the end of our jaunt round South America we were pretty tired out, and also rather lacking in high speed internet access so we’ve been lazy in putting new posts up.  However, a few days recovery in Easter Island and Australia and we’re all fired up and ready to start again.

You’ll see a couple of blogs going up today and the rest will follow over the next few days.  Internet allowing, of course.

Normal service is being restored!