Sunday, 30 October 2011

An Update: A way in to journalism. Part 2.

What a great, mad, exciting and rewarding two weeks. I’m writing this on a Grand Central train from London Kings Cross to York – I endured a nightmare of a wait in Kings Cross after twice arriving at the station to be told there were no trains! Brilliant.  After a three hour slouch on the uncomfortable benches I find I can get a free upgrade to first class, so it’s not all bad.

Anyway, becoming a journalist, that’s the aim and I think I must be a little closer after working, and being published, with the Independent. One journo, on the news desk, gave me the advice of getting some business cards made up – I have a few ideas for some websites and making myself look (and feel) a bit more professional is bound to be a positive, right?

My experiences on the Indy’s Sports desk have given me direction with what I want to do and how I need to begin going about it. Being in London allowed me to expand my contacts book no end compared to being at home. Meeting some great people and being able to ‘network’ through phone calls and face to face interactions has been a massive plus point and emphasises even more about the industry being who you know not what you know. From nowhere I now have the numbers of a handful of top UK journalists, a few football managers, a BBC television presenter and a Formula One driver!

The highlight of my fortnight came when I pitched an idea for a story to Matt Gatward, the sports editor. I am a huge F1 fan and saw the opportunity to take a different angle on the upcoming inaugural Indian grand prix. I will link the article to this blog. Matt liked the idea and let me ‘run with it’, meaning I had the weekend to find some good quotes and put together an Independent worthy standard of words. Exciting!

As well as spending my weekend eating meat, drinking sol and watching sport, I did think about the article a lot. The chance to get a piece in one of the country’s biggest print papers could be just around the corner providing I was up to scratch writing wise – which I don’t think I, or anyone trying to be a journalist with a bit of self belief, should doubt.

Tuesday morning rolled rounds (Matt was off on Monday) and as I walked in he called me over to discuss the article I had sent him the day before. He liked it, very mush so providing I made a few adjustments. Brilliant, I thought he would allow me to run 300 or 400 hundreds words in a side column but instead he said, “beef it out to around 900 words”. Awesome, I’m getting a byline, a ¾ page feature article and a great deal of confidence! I had an hour and a half to touch up the story and file it with Matt. I loved the pressure and made sure I didn’t miss the deadline by a millisecond.

Seeing my piece in mock-up the night before was good but not a scratch on the real thing the next morning. I was very proud to have a 900 word feature article on the first page of the sports section of one of the most popular newspapers in England. I figured around 20,000 people might be reading it.

After having countless conversations with experienced journalists, from sport to news and health, they assured me that breaks do come to people who put the work in. People who want to succeed and have a desire to get published – and be paid for it! Freelance, an article like mine fetches around £150 dependant on who it publishing it and where it’s going in the paper. I think the soundest advice I was given was to keep every number you are ever given, that’s why I already have a number of contacts in the ‘little black book’ I purchased on my first day in London.

From here I am concentrating on applying for jobs, hopefully in sport or travel but to be honest anything that gets you a foot in a door to begin with appears to be a winner. But, again on words of wisdom from someone in the Indy office, you don’t have to have the backing of a big organisation to go out and be a journalist. Get out there, find the stories, write them well and put them in front of as many people as you can. Sounds like a plan........

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Travel Adventures: Going Out With a Bang, its GP and Desert Time!

Pulau Tioman – you’ve probably never heard of it and chances are you won’t know many people who will ever go there. It isn’t that it’s off the tourist radar or even that it is a complete hidden gem. It has more to do with the fact that it isn’t Langkawi and it isn’t Pulau Perhentian. Again, this isn’t a bad thing, but Tioman seems to be an after thought for most tourists after visiting the two big hitters. Key for me though is the shining reviews it gets from the Malaysian people. I always think it is important for a place to be loved by both the travelling community and the natives.

Placed off the South East shore of Malaysia peninsula and nicely situated for a quick getaway to Singapore, Tioman was a great place to charge the batteries in preparation for the fast moving Singapore weekend ahead.

A lot of time was spent relaxing, meeting locals, playing board games in the sun and reading a good book on the beach. It was wonderful to quite literally have nothing to worry about – the remainder of the trip was planned and thought out and all we had to do was enjoy the little time left before being dragged back to reality in the UK.

At this point I was travelling with one companion. We aimed to see Tioman’s wild side, heading  into the lush jungle that suffocates the fringes of the golden beaches surrounding the island. It was hot, sticky and hard work in parts – and that was before we lost the path and ended up face to face with snakes and wild mammals! We’d gone looking for adventure and boy did we get it. After falling off the beaten trail we enjoyed (minus the scratches and snakes) navigating our way back to civilization through the thick undergrowth of a real jungle. We looked a state on our return to the beach. Covered in sweat, mud, scratches and leaves all the locals could do was laugh at how we had lost the trail but for us, it was a real trekking adventure!

The time had come to pack our bags and head to Singapore for Grand prix weekend – excitement could not have been higher.  I think because we had visited Singapore as a City three weeks earlier, it made visiting it as a sporting arena even more memorable. Streets we had walked down before were shut off, replaced by seas of flag bearing F1 fans, mesmerising entertainment venues, food and beverage vendors and an atmosphere befitting one of the greatest spectacles of the sporting year.

Without having seen a Formula One car at full tilt with your own eyes and ears it is difficult to describe the sensation it gives off when roaring round roads designed for public transport links, eco friendly cyclists and open top tour buses. Car’s at the pinnacle of technology, possessing 900 plus horsepower and top speeds of 185mph, smash through the streets of Singapore. Mingling between skyscrapers, rushing past landmarks and screaming down to the waterfront of the Marina Bay – Wow, it makes the hairs on the back of my neck stand up just recollecting it!

Most of the weekend was spent in nocturnal disarray. The action on track, for most of the weekend, didn’t begin until 10pm local time. We would sleep until 5pm and head for some local street food – Singapore chow mien, spring rolls, shredded duck, sweet and sour pork - the food is mouth watering and for Singapore, an absolute bargain! After food downtown Singapore was calling and the buzz of the F1 hub drew us in around 8pm.

Following the action there would be entertainers on every corner, the headline stage provided acts playing into the early hours and only after that did the party really get going in Clarke Quay. We gritted our teeth and paid the extraordinary price Singapore charges for alcohol, managing to keep ourselves entertained until 7 or 8am before returning to the hotel in time for breakfast. It was the most out of sync, jaw dropping, whirlwind of a weekend I could possibly of imagined and an experience that will stay with me forever as one the best.
When I left Singapore it signalled the start of my journey home – I had no idea it would end with me on a camel in the desert! My flight was from Kuala Lumpur, only six hours by bus and a good excuse to see friends I had made during my earlier visit to the Malaysian capital. Arriving at KL airport for my 2am flight to Dubai I instructed the baggage handler to put my battered and beaten backpack all the way through to Newcastle - my final destination. He gave me a look of confusion and so began my unexpected 30 hours in Dubai.

Although somewhat awkward due to my lack of clean clothes, unhealthy bank balance and the need to get home for a job interview, it was another stamp in my passport and ticked off a few more boxes towards becoming a seasoned traveller. Never before had I been to the desert, ridden camels and bounced down sand dunes in 45 degree heat, gotten a stiff neck from looking at the world’s tallest building or in fact, visited an Arab country. It didn’t mask the hardness of the airport floor on which I slept my last night away from home but I ended up being quite thankful to whoever made the mistake with my airline ticket!

 Right now I am back home. Coxwold. In the last 14 weeks I have visited 6 countries, been on 10 planes, 28 buses, rented 2 cars and 4 motorbikes, slept in 30 different accommodations including buses, airports and beaches. I’ve used 26 boats, numerous taxi’s, bicycles, tricycles, even camels and a horse and cart, earned another 20 stamps in my passport and had unforgettable experiences with some of the best people you could hope to enjoy them with. It was all a far cry from a late September evening in Yorkshire, but there must be worse places I could call home.

Travel Adventures: Culture Capital to the Bright Lights Big City.

We have a lot of catching up to do. Since my last article I have covered over 2000km, flown on a plane, driven in a monsoon, crossed a timezone and called three separate countries home.

Sampling the local cuisine of snake in Solo made me realise the beauty of travelling and how unique it is at giving strange, exciting and nerve racking opportunities to people. Snake didn't taste amazing but the whole experience of being in a very Indonesian place, surrounded by locals, watching a man sift through his bag of snakes, really is my idea of a travel experience that is hard to forget.  It is events like that which stick out in your mind once you are home, not necessarily the times you spent doing the same thing as 100 other tourists on an organised tour.

Yogyakarta, or Jogja as the locals say, was a place I had been looking forward to visiting since the start of the trip. We arrived with expectations of seeing fabulous displays of Indonesian culture, food, religion and people and our five nights there suggested it ticked all the boxes. We arrived and an immediate feel of relaxation and friendliness was obviously present. Yogyakarta is surrounded by two of South East Asia's most prominent religious temples. Having mastered the roads in The Philippines and Borneo we rented motorbikes for the 40km drive out of the City to Borobudur - an 8th Century Buddhist monument famed for being one of the largest of its kind.

The grounds of Borobudur are green, tranquil and calming, an atmosphere the insides of the temple more than hold true to. We spent over two hours wandering the six layers and 504 Buddha statues that help comprise the impressive structure, snapping pictures, marveling at ancient stonework and staring at the picturesque views across the Javanese landscape. The sunset was sublime and it made the drive home go too quickly. Winding through valleys and passing between rice paddies made it difficult to dodge the temptation of taking your eyes off the road.

The next day we continued our temple trend. This time heading East to the Hindu temple of Prambanan. Although not quite as well preserved at Borobudur it remains impressive in the sunset light. Had it not been for our getting lost in the City outskirts for a few hours we had planned to spend more time exploring but I think what we did in the evening more than made up for any time lost. The Ramayana Ballet Group perform the Hindu story of Rama and Sita in an open air theater in front of the 9th Century temple. My camera battery painfully died at the wrong moment but fortunately the sight of the performance against the back drop of the spot lit Hindu temple will stick in the mind forever.

With our culture tanks full to the brim and Yogyakarta firmly in our travel memories we moved on, heading West as we slowly made our way to Jakarta. Batu Karas, a sleepy fishing village on the south coast of Java, was positioned nicely to give our journey to the capitol a break. Learning to surf (or not swallow sea water) during the day and reading books at night it was a slow passed village life for a few days, a great way to prepare ourselves for what was coming in Jakarta.

Sharing a taxi with a Swedish traveller I asked him, "Do you like Jakarta?", knowing he had been before. He replied, "Know one likes Jakarta!". Not a great start but I thought I would form my own opinion. Unfortunately, I agree with him. It is boiling hot, pretty dirty and the people are the least friendly we came across in Indonesia. Most people are there for a flight to somewhere else, the city isn't built for tourists and when we were there many attractions were at a stand still for the end of Ramadan - an Islamic month of fasting.

The bright lights and buzz of Singapore were very welcome after Jakarta. Apart from the heat, being in Singapore felt more like home than anywhere we have been so far. I knew I would be returning in a month for the Formula One so it was good to get a bearing on the City. In Marina Bay, The Sands hotel has a rooftop garden equipped with infinite pool, bar, restaurant and panoramic views of the city. The modern buildings, designer shops and EXPENSE weren't hard to adapt to and we spent three days enjoying our cosmopolitan lifestyle. Sipping cocktails with the high fliers in Raffles and wandering the streets in awe of the imaginative architecture involved in creating the unique feel the city holds.

Another day, another boarder crossing and into Malaysia. After much debate we headed to Malaka on the West coast. Filled with history and charm it is easy to get to grips with a place like Malaka and much harder to leave. Kuala Lumpur was next on our hit list. It is a comfortable city with lot to do, most impressive are the iconic Petronas Towers lit up at night and the height of the skyline dominating KL tower.

Malaysia, without holding as unique a place in my heart as The Philippines or Indonesia, does tick a lot of boxes. After KL we spent two weeks sampling the best islands the peninsula has to offer and although the sun gods did not shine on us in Pulau (meaning island) Langkawi - not the best news on an island that boasts so many beaches - we kept ourselves entertained.

With sunbathing off the agenda we did the British thing, braving the rain to head inland on rented motorbikes. Once in the thick of the mountain roads in search of waterfalls the rain turned to a monsoon style downpour - flooding roads and stinging faces as the rain relentlessly lashed down for hours on end. The conditions for car driver's were horrendous but on our bikes it was verging on scary. I think my clothes are still drying off now from our Langkawi adventure but like with most things in the past three months, I wouldn't change a thing.

Luckily the weather on the East coast could not of been more contrasting. 35 degree beaming sunshine for five days! We slotted nicely into the category of 'beach bum' - splashing in the bath like water of the South China Sea during the day and sipping rum from the bottle by the time the moon was out.

Pulau Perhentian was where I spent my birthday and what a place to be! Captained by a 12 year old Malaysian we spent the afternoon island hopping, sunning on perfect beaches and mingling with turtles and sharks. It definitely entered the list of 'best birthdays' near the summit!

With only ten days before I set foot on English soil again I still have the jewel in my travel crown to come - The Singapore Formula One Grand Prix. I'm hoping for a long week and a half because at the moment, sat on a beach looking at the sunset, slipping back into the Yorkshire lifestyle seems pretty far away.

Travel Adventures: Beautiful Borneo to Incredible Indonesia

From our final destination in The Philippines it took 36 hours, a motorbike, a boat, a min-van, 2 buses, a plane and a taxi before we arrived in Kota Kinabalu, Malaysian Borneo.

Our time on the 3rd largest island in the World was frustrating at times. Small budgets and a tight timescale forced us to bypass 'must do' Bornean activities like climb Mount Kinabalu - South East Asia's highest peak, and dive the protected marine life in Sipidan which is hailed as one of the Worlds dive spot spectaculars.

Nevertheless, using Kota Kinabalu (KK) as our base we spent just over a week exploring the Northern state of Sabah - finding day trips, cultural markets and a rough and ready brush with nature expected from a pace like Borneo. First task was securing a mode of transport. Buses on Borneo are slow, hot, not that cheap and very spontaneous to their drivers mood. We hired, for £15 a day, a vehicle that certainly would not be legal for the British roads but had an abundance of Malaysian character.

A six hour journey East of KK is Sepilok. Put on the map due to its successful rehabilitation centre for orphaned orangutans, visiting one of man's closest relative is a highlight of Borneo and could not be missed. We stayed in a basic, eco friendly lodge 5km from Sipalay, set in the midst of thick jungle, buzzing with the sounds of wildlife, it was just the kind of place I had pictured in my head before arriving on Borneo.

Seeing monkeys on riverbanks, socialising in trees or getting in the way of the roads is common place in a lot of South East Asia but seeing an animal with such human like features (Orangutans share over 95% of our DNA) is spine tingling. I smelt an expanse of dried bananas, foisty leaves and matted hair as a 90kg male slouched by on the beams of the feeding area. Tens of people gawped open mouthed and I'm sure I was no different. The Orangutan was less than three feet away but you would not dare to make contact - he was huge and very much in charge! It was a wonderful experience to see such intriguing animals up close and great to know that places like Sepilok are making a heavily positive impact on their futures.

The island of Mamutic is only 15 minutes by boat from KK's Western shore and after our experience with the Orangutans it helped to keep our love for nature burning brightly. Creating one of my lasting memories of any travelling I have done to date, we spent a night in our best accommodation yet. The tent cost £2 and the spot of sand we pitched it on was complimentary.  With only the moon, stars and our expertly made camp fire for light we sipped rum from the bottle and traded stories with a Malaysian tour guide named Arthur. We concluded that he had a pretty enviable job.

From Sabah we used two boats to reach Bander Seri Bagawan, Brunei. In search of our inner sultan the countries capitol was a good host. Home to the outrageously wealthy and lavish Royal family that rule there the people of Brunei adore their Sultans and are proud of their reputation for luxury and expense. Although we weren't in the market for either, Brunei is an obvious stop off between the two Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak.

From bustling street markets to elegant and regal looking Mosques, South East Asia's largest water village, an abandoned theme park and, a staggeringly ludicrous $1.2 Billion hotel, we were never bored and often in awe of the Bruneian culture - the rich and the poor.

Sarawak was the location of our biggest and best physical adventures, oozing the characteristics of Borneo we craved. First came the exploration of Niah Caves - some of the biggest open to mankind. Staggeringly vast in both size and an eary, extraterrestrial feel it is not hard to let your imagination run wild, especially in the wake of 40,000 year old paintings that mark so many of the inner walls.

In our last few days, our final image of Borneo was mustered up of thick jungle. Four hours of sweating, stumbling and at some points climbing through dense vegetation was hard work but justly rewarding. Our efforts no doubt amplified the beauty of the beach we designated the half-way point. Either way it felt like real Borneo and was a fitting way to reflect on our experiences in this part of the World. We had made the most of it and been surprised a number of times with what you can do on a budget.

Indonesia was upon us. 30 days to cover 2000km, dive into a new culture, grasp a bit more local lingo, endure a few bone crunching bus journeys and see what the World's fourth most populated country has to offer.

Our first 10 days were spent scattered between Bali and The Gili Island's. Bali appears to be to Australians what Ibiza is to young European's. Its loud, fast, busy....and fun. Gili is less of a party scene but still offers up ample opportunity to let your hair down and not remember much in the morning. Being fresh out of University and craving a social fling after Borneo, we did what students do best and sampled the local brews.

Besides from recharging on beaches and fending off hordes of tit-tat sellers (I couldn't resist a rather authentic looking blow pipe!), Bali is much more than a party island. Ubud is the epicentre of everything Balinese. Slow paced, the smell of burning incense caresess your nostrils and the rigor of daily life is constant all around. Here, as well as monkeys using us as climbing frames, touring coffee plantations and wandering through impossibly green rice terraces, we were guests at a traditional Balinese dance performance. The passion, skill and beauty displayed was inspiring and seeing the pride in their faces at the obvious levels of enjoyment the crowd possessed was a pleasure.

The final note in this episode of my travels comes from Java - a region West of Bali and Indonesia's most populated. It is in Eastern Java that Mount Bromo is found - a steaming crater found in the desolate 'sea of sands' that brings locals and travellers alike to stare in awe at its beauty. We rose at 4am in time for sunrise and the pilgrimage to the top of a viewing platform in the dark and waited. When 5.32am came around all expectations were blown out of the water. It is difficult to imagine many views of such stunning and powerful natural beauty rivaling what we saw. The crater's of both Bromo and Semeru belched out clouds of sulphurous smoke into the air and the Jurassic looking scene held the attention of everyone watching until, seemingly unnoticed, night had become day.

As we move further into Java our experiences of 'real' Indonesia appear to be intensifying. Currently in Solo, this evening we dinned on satay snake, drinking the blood and all - they say it makes you strong! I don't think it will be making the menu at The Fauconberg anytime soon but they cook up a mean dish out here.

Travel Adventures: The Untouched Philippines

It sounds absurd to go to the other side of the World knowing little about your itinerary but for me that really is half the fun. As I was browsing the travel section of the WHSmiths at Newcastle airport I beamed out a smile at the prospect of the unknown. I was about to embark on a 3 month trip to The Philippines, Borneo, Indonesia, Singapore and Malaysia. The places I was to call home for the next 12 weeks were sure to offer religion, food, landscape, activities and people like that I have never come across before.

Our flight to the Filipino capital took 16 hours. Unfortunately, what our guide book described as 'a mega City with opportunity round every corner' felt far more accustomed to cranes, lorries and industrial work forces than it did to a trio of wide eyed young travelers looking to be 'wowed' upon their arrival to a tropical paradise.

After a sweaty nights sleep in a very cosy hostel room we began to pick at what Manila had to offer. And, surprisingly, it conjured up one of my lasting memories of The Philippines. Our taxi had gotten lost and we found ourselves at the foot of a mountain. 'Smokey mountain' as the locals call it, is constructed entirely of rubbish. The result of years of City waste being dumped in one area is where thousands of people call home. Seeing a 'slum' brings every sense in your body alive. Your nose is doing overtime whilst your ears hear twice the amount of things your eyes see. But, the most notable thing our unplanned City tour showed us was the amount of normality that remains in this vastly different way of life. Women tended to young children and groups of men sawed at wood or worked on tatty machinery, whilst young children smiled and kicked football's in the streets. It felt strange but I was glad the experience left me with a sense of motivation and relief rather than my initial thoughts of pity and sadness.

I began taking notes on my time in The Philippines on the island of Borocay.  The white sand beach hurt my eyes without the shield of sunglasses and the sound of the lapping waves proved far more appealing than any song on my ipod. Escaping the hustle and bustle of mango sellers and dive school enthusiasts I sat on the sand under the shade of some banana trees enjoying the tranquility the lack of activity offered. The previous night, Manny Pacquiao - a Filipino hero and king of World boxing - entertained a crowd of hundreds with a rendition of a 90s love song. Bottles of local 'Tanduay' rum flowed for less than a pound and it was a sobering thought realising how well the small island had the ability to play host to people looking for such contrasting surroundings.

Our journey from Borocay in the North West of the Visayas to the island of Negros took us through Iloilo City and the island of Guimaras. The latter is famed so much for its sweet mangoes that it is local law to only have juicy fruits indigenous of the island allowed through customs. I began to feel as though we were getting off the beaten track here. Becoming aware of how universal a thumbs up is no matter where in the World you are. Riding on the back of a motorbike, sun in my face, bag on my back, I returned a smile back to the tens of locals scrambling to give a wave to the ginger haired European who had come to explore their home.

Our Guimaras base was a cabin resort with stunning views of lush green forests and ocean sunsets. There was even a swimming pool tucked away at the base of a valley but for £4 a night there were draw backs, hence the bed bugs did bite!
We opted for engine power over pedal power to see more of Guimaras, the 30 degree heat proving decisive in our decision. The rugged landscape was just about doing enough to take our eyes off the unpredictable road surface long enough to enjoy the beautiful views of 17th century Spanish churches, swaying palm trees, sparkling blue waters and more smiling faces. Highlights included firing a 44 caliber police pistol and a lunch stop at a local eatery where we sampled 'batchoy' - basically spicy water with stringy noodles and chewy chicken. You could tell we were on a budget and diving into the Filipino way of dining!

Next on our travel hit-list was the University town of Dumaguete - a place where both activity and relaxation mold into one to create a very appealing atmosphere. Keeping in line with our experience's of native Filipino's, the welcome was warm and the sense of pride they hold in knowing their country is keeping you entertained and happy shined through.
Apo island, just a 30 minute boat ride from Negros mainland, was where we had my first encounter with nature. The marine reserve on the east of the island blew my mind with its rainbow coloured corals, abundance of fish life and, most impressively, the opportunity to swim side by side with 3 foot long wild sea turtles - a truly unforgettable experience.

Time was against us as we headed away from the Visayas to the state of  Luzon.Our 5am arrival in the town of Legasbi left my body and head tired from the bumpy 9 hour journey from Manila. So much so that the cloudy view of the Mount Mayon was far less important than the rock hard mattress and grubby pillow that awaited in any guesthouse we could find. However, in the morning, 'Wow!'. Mayon is described as the most perfectly formed volcano on the planet and I cannot argue with that after seeing it first hand. It slopes up symmetrically on all sides, spewing natural gases from its steaming peak and showing signs of why it remains one of the most active and dangerous volcano's in the World.

All too soon we were choosing our final destination to visit within a country that had inspired, entertained, exhausted, impressed and surprised us throughout. Fittingly, I think, we chose the Caramoan Peninsula.  Off the beaten track, not a package holiday in sight, it fitted the quintessential idea of what The Philippines keeps hidden so well.

Paddle in hand, grilled fish and rice in our rucksacks, we headed out to sea in search a castaway style island. I could see the ocean floor 50 meters before the point at which the sandy beach began peering over the surface of the calm waters. We heaved the kayak far enough up the beach to be sure it wouldn't be caught by the tide - we knew immediately this was important because being marooned here was a serious possibility! There was know one else on the tiny island we had landed on. Temporarily, it was all ours!

Spending the day dipping in and out of the warm waters, laying on deserted beaches and gazing at the mountains we had ventured from, our final few days in The Philippines were using up any superlatives we had left to describe our time there.

From cockfighting in Manila, gawping open mouthed at volcano's in Southeast Luzon, being caught in typhoons in the Visayas and standing on desolate beaches in the Caramoan Peninsula, the parts I saw of the 7,000 plus islands that make up The Philippines seemed authentic, real and, refreshing, not yet geared directly towards a rush of demanding Western tourists. I loved it!