Why I Travel

“You like punk music, right?”

I looked up mildly confused from my pint of cider, mid conversation with some new people who had just moved to my city. It was a grey concrete kind of a place, and so the tradition was to take new folk out and show them that the people make it worth living in.

“I was just speaking to your friend and he said you liked punk. So do I. Do you wanna talk about it?”

I paused, fully confused, and looked harder at the guy who opens conversations like a brick to the face. He was tall, grinning widely, and had laughter lines at the crinkles of his eyes. He was probably the only person I’d seen all week who didn’t have a drink in their hand.

“Sure,” I said eventually, “pull up a chair”

And from then on, Matt and I were friends.

Matt was a geologist. He was loud, full of energy (caffeine induced or otherwise), and relentlessly positive. Over the years we knew one another it became apparent that we shared a lot of other interests rather than punk music alone. But of all of those interests, my favourite was our shared sense of humour that often left us having to stifle laughs in serious public situations, or choking on giggles trying to get to sleep.

It was a wet and windy winter when Matt died. The rain seemed to start on the first day of November and didn’t let up until Spring. I was at the beginning of my PhD, and frankly, struggling with more things than just that. The news found me with a pint of cider, mid conversation with some colleagues; but devoid of his grin. It’s strange how the patterns of life play out like a worn record sometimes.

My positive rock had gone. (He would have grinned at that because he loved puns. Particularly geology puns.)

And with him, a lot of other things went too. I lost the air in my lungs for a long time, as did everyone who was left behind in his wake. We lost the sound of laughter and of music. We lost who we were for a long time, each in our own different ways. And we were left to cope in whatever ways we could. For me, that catalyst became traveling.

The hardest part of his loss was the realisation of just how much positive impact he had had on my life. I knew it when he was around, and I thanked him for it – but I never realised the true measure, and I was never able to truly express my gratitude. How much he cared, how much he believed in me, how much he encouraged me to be the best person I could be. He believed in me when I didn’t believe in myself, and that is a very powerful thing.

These realisations swelled like storm waters in my mind for a while, before eventually I decided to swim through them and seek sunnier skies.

I didn’t need much reason to travel more, having already been bitten by the wanderlust bug many, many years before. Travel already felt like an old friend. Certainly, breaking up with your partner of five years while neither of you has the money to bail out of the housing contract added to the drive of wanting to leave. A house is a small space when it’s filled with two broken hearts and a pile of unpaid bills.

I had to get out of that house, out of the city, and out of my life. I needed to convince myself that there was still some good left in this world. So, I took whatever little money I had and threw myself at every opportunity that arose. Conferences, mainly, were a great way to get around the globe. I’d write a research paper and institutions would publish it, which meant that my university would pay some of the fees for my travels.

In between conferences I would seek other places and other adventures. Sometimes friends would come with me, and other times I’d travel solo. Sometimes I’d make a bunch of friends along the way. This is where a lot of my real travel experiences came from: the crazy ups and downs of life and adventure, that, looking back, saved my mental health and probably my life in general.

Each time I’d live through something, or be floored by an experience, I’d want to tell Matt. I’d want to share this insane beautiful thing that happened in this vast unfathomable universe, because I knew he’d care. And I knew he’d see the wonder in it. And I knew he’d see things about it that I couldn’t. Sometimes in my head I would still try to articulate it to him – it made the void seem less painful that way.

The more traveling I did, the more I enjoyed it. I’d impulsively come up with goals for each year that would test me. This year I would see if I can see all of the European countries. Next year all my trips will be long haul. Then after that I’ll see if I can spend more time abroad than living in my own country. The list went on… and still does, really.

Each year I’d pick places that would challenge me, and my perspectives, and everything I thought that I’d known. Every time I would make a mistake, I taught myself how to learn from it. It ended up being this unhinged learning curve I don’t think I could have experienced through anything else. It taught me to believe in myself the way that Matt did.

I sat on the top of snow-capped mountains and watched the flickering stars and northern lights veil impossibly vast feats of nature. I ran through deserts that seemed older than time itself, where land and sky merge in shimmering golden blurs. I floated in the crystal clear shallows of tropical island beaches, and watched countless blood-orange suns drop behind the horizon in a blazes of fire.

I saw creatures and ecosystems and the intricate balance of life. I walked in places I’d dreamed of going as a kid. I followed paths as they unfolded in front of me without ever needing to think. I learnt to let go and just be. And, in a comforting and ironic kind of a way, I saw that truly it is people that make a place worth living in. Human nature has always had its positives and negatives, but I started to the see the good more than the bad.

Traveling didn’t allow me to breathe again; it just showed me that the air was in my lungs the whole time. It held me close, and gently let me see on my own that I no longer ran because I was trapped. It allowed me to keep a part of my friend with me wherever I went, knowing that he would have loved to be adventuring alongside me, and remembering our old travel plans we made back when we were giggling kids with wanderlust on the mind, adventure in our hearts, and our futures laid at our feet.

Matt isn’t here anymore – but his legacy is. Even absent he still managed to spark a change in me that will keep burning. And, that spark is in you too.

Set your life on fire. Seek others who fan the flames. Never stop traveling.

 

matt believes

 

World on Fire: Safety Tips during the California Wildfires

The images pouring out of California this week have been shocking. If you’re in the area there are several key ways you can lower your risk. If you’re not, there are important ways that you can help others.

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For those in California, here are some tips on how to lower risk:

First of all, be smart. Make sure you have an evacuation plan mapped out before you go – both online and offline. Prepare basic emergency supplies, which should include water. It should also include clothing to cover your skin from hot ash and durable footwear. If an authority tells you to evacuate, you must do so calmly and immediately. Remember, they have your best interests at heart too. If an authority hasn’t been in contact but you feel that you are in real imminent danger, trust your instincts and evacuate.

Secondly, be prepared. Wildfires spread voraciously by nature, and this is faster when there is more fuel readily available. Before you evacuate, make sure to remove combustibles like firewood and gas from your property. Close all windows and doors to prevent drafts which can help stoke a fire. Shut off any gas or oil supplies, and if there is enough time fill large bodies (such as bath tubs) with water. Doing these can help to stop the spread of the fire and reduce property damages for others, too.

Finally, be aware. If for some reason you are unfortunately caught in a wildfire you should be aware of how best to lower the risk you’re exposed to. Be aware that you should not attempt to outrun the blaze: instead, find a closer body of water such as a lake or river. If possible kneel or crouch in the water, making sure to cover your mouth and nose with wet material to avoid breathing smoke and ash. If there is no nearby water, try to find a dip in the ground with little vegetation. Stay as close as you can to the ground, and breath through wet material. If possible, cover your body with wet material also.

cali2If you’re not in the area affected by wildfires there are still some things to do that can help. If you’re not immediately affected:

Firstly, support your community. Make sure to keep communication channels clear in case vital information needs to get through the networks – the more people using a mobile network, the more chance it has of becoming congested, and in the worse case scenario collapsing entirely. Offer your home or other facilities to those who have evacuated, and keep an eye on the progress of the fire – be aware that even if you aren’t immediately at risk, this can change extremely quickly.

Secondly, help constructively. If you want to share information online to help others, you must double check that this information comes from a trusted source (such as a government or authority managing the fire). Go back and look at the data, and when you share is make sure to link to the original source. Be aware that a lot of information shared can actually be out-dated, and passing it on can actually increase someones risk – especially in a fire that moves so quickly. Before sharing something, double check the time of publication, and if it doesn’t have one source more reliable information yourself.

Finally, be aware that online information can be different from offline. Even online information on different social media sites can different. Filter bubbles, networks, and online algorithms change what you see and when. This means that you need to think critically, and evaluate how reliable these can be. If you’re not sure that something is correct, its better to not share it and leave that to the authorities.

Stay smart and lower your risks. 

cali

 

Spain: How not to Hike (Travel Tips)

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When I was about 5 years old, I wanted to be an adventurer. Twenty years later, I stumbled upon some old kids books that I used to read and occasionally scribble in. One was about a donkey living in Spain, and, clearly, five-year-old Bri thought that was the best shit ever.

I braced myself to read further. I wondered if I’d now managed to achieve some of the things I used to dream about depicted in the books. Maybe I’d even been to some of the places in real life, or had the kind of adventures that I aspired to.

Upon reflection, I realise that I had no fucking clue what being an ‘adventurer’ meant.

In this book I had scribbled across the pictures of the mountains where the donkey, Morro, would hang out using multi-coloured scented gel pens (remember those?!). I’d managed to identify that the mountains were probably hot, so I’d written a note to ‘water’. Nothing about bringing it or storing it, or how much – just ‘water’.

I’d also managed to identify that mountains were probably big. Bigger than me at least. I’d drawn me next to one of them, some 1/10th of the size (lets not even unpack how wrong that scale is). In my self-portrait I had one much longer and more wibbly leg than the other, so I can only assume this was a warning not to go climbing with unstable footwear.

I was also wearing a tutu.

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Stable footwear, neither leg wibbly.

Fighting uneasiness, I bravely continued to the end of the book. Right after the happy ending – where Morro rescues some kids from the top of the mountain – I’d written some further notes for myself. These seemed to be directly addressed to me in the future, as if I fully intended on finding these mountains and doing a better job than those other idiot kids who were fucking around at the summit and needed to be rescued.

My notes go as follows:

  • Water [I felt the need to write this again]
  • How hot? [a little more specific than last time, at least]
  • Trall trawl trayal trayel tril trail left of the big rock [fucking got there in the end]
  • Tell Sooty at the top [Sooty was my cat at the time]
  • Leave tutu at the bottom

These notes made me feel a lot of weird things, but I suppose at least I didn’t find out I was some sort of psychotic kid: simply one who liked mountains and donkeys, and later on in some other books a bunch of cool mice that hung out in a forest. And this magical rainbow fish in a tropical sea. In hindsight, there was a clear theme throughout my childhood.

Anyway, I did actually go on some mountain adventures in Spain. I did a lot of hiking and kayaking, as well as drinking a lot of gin. So, I figured for all you fellow adventurers I’d add twenty years of wisdom to my original case notes – not that they need improving, but you know – it’s nice to perfect things sometimes.

  • [original note] Water

Yep. That’s still a thing you’re going to need. Yep, you’re going to need a lot of it whether you’re hiking or kayaking. More water equals more adventure.

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“Look at all this water.”
  • [original note] How hot?

Fucking hot. On one of the days in the mountains I made the mistake of hiking to the top of the Zahara (citadel in the mountains) in 45 degree heat, because as my original note suggests, I still didn’t know how hot it would be. Never has the saying ‘only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun’ been more true. It definitely was worth it worth it, though.

  • [original note] trail to the left of the big rock

There are many trails on many mountains, and many to the left of big rocks. Fortunately for five-year-old Bri, older Bri has a degree in geography and much better situational awareness.

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  • [original note] tell Sooty at the top

Sooty is dead, mate. Also how were you ever planning on telling your cat back in England while you were on the summit of a Spanish mountain? Either way, she was never going to know of your Spanish mountain prowess.

  • [original note] leave tutu at the bottom

This is honestly one of the smartest things that five-year-old Bri has ever written. I’m happy to confirm that you should not under any circumstances hike or kayak in the southern Spanish mountains wearing a tutu. They are cumbersome and hot, and those are two things that you could do without in an environment that is hotter than the surface of the sun. Good job.

 

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After I returned from Spain and later found this book I couldn’t help but think of all of the other things that I learnt twenty years later. So, in keeping with the tradition of trying to help my future self, and other fellow adventurers, here are some of my newly tried and tested tips on both surviving and enjoying the Spanish mountains.

  • Don’t hire a smart car as your mode of transport around the mountains. Sure, its the cheapest option, and it seems absolutely fucking hilarious when your friend can’t even fit his head in it. But, trust me, your equipment is more important.
  • Don’t have a hangover and hike. Yeah, I know, usually this is fine and the exercise makes you feel better. But trust me, in 45 degree heat while you’re already dehydrated this is a really stupid idea, and you’re going to make really stupid mistakes. Save your idiocy for a colder, safer hike.

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  • There’s going to be a lot of haze and dust in the summer, and often this can appear to be cloud cover: it is not, and you are still going to get sunburnt. You’re also going to get sunburnt when there is no dust. You’re also going to get sunburnt when you think you’re in the shade. The Spanish mountains are going to teach you a lot about sunburn and the simple solution is to take sunscreen with you wherever you go, no matter how much you don’t want to hike with extra weight.
  • You’re going to want to give yourself as much opportunity to watch the sunsets over the mountains as possible. Trust me, they are unlike anywhere else on earth.

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  • If you go kayaking on a lake that has a petrified forest half submerged in the water, the trees are going to be covered with spiders. There were probably some other insects on it too, but honestly as soon as I touched a branch and 95% of the country’s spider population fell onto my arm I did not stick around to find out what the other bugs were.
  • Don’t kayak with a lot of spiders in your craft.

Spain, I’m glad I finally got to visit your mountains, even if it wasn’t the first time I’ve gotten to see your beautiful country. I think five-year-old me would be satisfied. 10/10 would recommend – and if you do go on an adventure there be sure to let me know, and I will come along for the sunburn. 

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Macedonia: The Godfather of Lake Ohrid

 

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More photos on Instagram @travels_of_bri

Macedonia is a country that most folk don’t know about, let alone can locate on a world map. It’s the kind of destination that Barry from the pub down the road once claimed he visited on a 1980s football world tour, back when he had hair and an entirely misplaced sense of patriotism (cunningly disguised as racism).

And, in fairness, visiting Macedonia is a little like going back in time several decades; especially when it comes to the more rural parts of the country. Driving from the capital city of Skopje to the lakeside tourist destination of Lake Ohrid was certainly an experience*. Despite taking a holiday on the set from ‘Life on Mars’, myself, level-headed Molly, international spokesman Angus and trusted navigator Gord, all rapidly fell in love with the place. The scenery was stunningly beautiful, the way of life was relaxed and exceptionally tolerant, and the people… well the people were the most interesting part**.

To get around the country we had hired a rental car, and had been parking said car in the carpark of a local supermarket***. Each day we’d pick it up in the morning and go off on some adventures, parking it back up in the evening or late afternoon when we returned back to the lakeside settlement. One day, when we attempted to get the car we found that it was totally blocked in by other cars – one in particular. This had put a rather large spanner in the works as our plan for the day was to drive around the lake to a place that we could go scuba diving at.

Cocksparger.

We had a quick conference in front of the blocked car and decided that we would call our airbnb host, Vladimiro. He’d been very helpful in directing us to both the airbnb flat and the parking space, so we figured he may know the locals at the supermarket and be able to do some translations. To our surprise not only was he very helpful, he dropped everything to come over to the carpark himself and stage an intervention.

Vlad rocked up in a full grey tracksuit, sporting a man-bag, some worn out trainers, and stare that said “if you fuck with me your body might not ever be found”.

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Yes, Macedonia really looks like this. Photo by Fabio Dario.

Having never met him face to face before we impolitely stared at him, worrying about the consequences of our call. In a deep and rasping voice, with a thick and heavy accent he asked us about our plans and how long we had been waiting. Politely we replied, and made it very clear that it really wasn’t much bother, we could go diving another day. He nodded thoughtfully with a 1000 yard stare before wandering off into the supermarket to recruit some of the staff to his head-hunting team without saying a word to us. We remained by the blocked car, awkwardly waiting like stereotypical British colonials waiting for a  goddamn tea shipment.

A short while later Vlad came out of the supermarket and informed us that he had not been able to find the car owners. He pulled out an ancient nokia phone and got to work ringing apparently everyone he knew in the city****. We stood and waited for a while before trying to politely reiterate that we were happy to wait and go on an adventure another day instead. He silenced our protests with a slow shake of his head, and explained that he was going “get some contacts in”.

At this point we felt that we were officially in a mafia film.

Our patient and ever so slightly nervous waiting shifted into anxious pacing, occasionally throwing one another uneasy glances. At any point we were expecting to be thrown into the midst of an interrogation. And, being British, we were not well equipped for that level of directness with a stranger. After a few intense minutes Vlad hung up the phone and fixed us with a penetrating stare. Expressionless, he told us that “it was being taken care of”. Fucking hell.

…And then the police show up.

This was a little too much for us and before we knew it we were spouting clear and forceful protests such as “well, you know…”, and “honestly, it’s not a big deal…” to Vlad and the police, hoping that the sheer passive strength of our protests – that had as much structural integrity as a damp piece of toilet paper – would somehow convince them to take pity on us and let us go home for a sit down and a cup of tea. But, they were having none of it. Vlad told us to wait, and so in fear of waking up to a horse’s head in the back of the car the next day we feebly agreed to stay put.

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More pictures on Instagram @travels_of_bri

Five or so minutes later a black car rolls up with tinted windows and specialised hub caps. The carpark becomes deadly silent. The supermarket staff pause their tasks and watch the car. Vlad waits in silence with a jaw that would make a setsquare jealous. Two huge, tattooed tracksuited-up guys get out of the car and slowly begin swaggering up to our car in a motion that put john wayne to shame. We look up at them like rabbits caught in headlights.

They speak in Macedonian. We reply in English, telling them that we’re sorry, we don’t know the language.

They pause, frown. A scowl appears across their colossal brows. Fuck, we think collectively.

Vlad stares on in silence. The tension in the carpark could be cut with a knife…

And then one of them blurts out “We are SO sorry! Goodness, you must think so badly of us!”

We briefly exchange looks with one another, baffled. What on earth was going on…

The Macedonian man continued flamboyantly “Idiot here (camply gesturing to his partner) wasn’t supposed to park the car like this. We are so SO sorry to ruin your day!”

We immediately apologise as well, being British. Honestly, it wasn’t a big deal. No day ruined. Projecting big smiles around the carpark and especially at Vlad in a desperate effort to make the situation end quickly and with no bad blood.

“No, no no. I will not hear it.” The man continues, “We have ruined your day. Stupid is as stupid does, eh?” He playfully punched Angus in the shoulder, knocking him back several feet across the carpark.

We profusely agree. Honestly, we’ll get out of your way now. Vlad slowly nods towards them. They notice Vlad’s signal and one of the men gets into the car and removes it from blocking ours, while the other leaves the car park in the other pimped up car that they arrived in. Vlad remains motionless by the side, expressionless. We leap into the car and start up the engine, Angus manoeuvres us out more quickly than I’ve ever seen him drive before. As we leave the carpark we wind one window down to say thank you to Vlad on our way out. He nods and says, “When you get to the lake, you find a man called Yohan.” –

Fuck. Were we expected to do him a favour now that he had done one for us? Were we officially in the mafia too? How were we going to tell our mothers that we had ended up murdering someone on holiday because we couldn’t leave a carpark?

-“You tell him that Vladimiro of the lake police sent you. He will give you a good price for scuba diving.”

Utterly dumbfounded we couldn’t even muster a response. The police? This is the Macedonian police? Molly took the initiative and leaned out of the window and said a final thank you before whispering to Angus to “start fucking driving”. And so, after the carpark saga and the plot twist of the century we rocked up to the scuba diving centre in the nick of time and had an utterly amazing, adventure-filled day.

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Me, needing to have a break after much adventures. More photos on Instagram @travels_of_bri

*The kind of experience where you wonder if you kept on driving to the other side of the country would you eventually end up in the dark ages, foraging for berries while your family died of the plague.

**The people were unbelievably friendly and welcoming. Unfortunately this did mean that upon meeting one of our airbnb hosts we were unable to get her to stop talking about her cat – Zorro – for several hours while she made us continual rounds of thick, black coffee.

**We had been assured by our airbnb hosts that this was in fact the allocated parking spot that was included with the flat. It was definitely just a supermarket car park.

*** Although Ohrid is technically counted as a city, it is definitely the size of a small town in the UK.

Wales: A Camping Calamity

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With or without rain Wales is stunning. Image by @condenasttraveller.

Wales is a country where it rains roughly 98.73% of the time. I know this not only because I have a bachelor’s degree in geography, but also because I have attempted to go camping there on several different occasions throughout my life.

I’ve chosen the word ‘attempt’ for a reason.

While the country is stunningly beautiful, there really is little variation in the weather. It’s not one of those adventuring experiences where a few minor things go wrong and you’re forced to band together, talk about ‘Band of Brothers’, and ramble on through despite it all. Maybe break out the fire-lighters instead of the hand crafted ‘bow and string’ method. No amount of ‘stiff upper lip’ positivity is going to dry your socks out for the 17th time when you are essentially sat in a lake the size of a country. That you paid to get into.

Despite this wealth of knowledge, a group of friends and I decided to go back and attempt to camp there again. Pat and Pete – the punk liberal intelligentcia – were always up for some sort of foray into, or with, nature. They were the sort who, in the words of Stewart Lee, would go anarcho-punk orienteering: they had the boundaries marked out on the maps but they would cross them out and make a spud cannon instead. Then there was Kim, the rational and calm cornerstone to our quartet. She’d seen every antic we could pull, and was somehow both positive and caring when we’d come back to base camp having lost a fight with a pine tree.

If we were playing a role playing game you would have sighed at the dungeon master and asked for a better party.

So why did you bother go back then, you ask?

Did we want to practice our survival skills? Perhaps overcome previous barriers and become more developed individuals? No…

We went back because they had built a trampoline.

…A really big one.

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I told you it was big. ‘Bounce Below’ image by @alamy

Not only was it a really big trampoline, it was also built in a giant abandoned mineshaft underground*. This gave the impression of bouncing up and down several hundred feet in the air while in an eerily-lit cavern. As we were (and still are) dirt poor we decided that we would have to brave camping again. We would also drive because a majority of the countryside is inaccessible to anything other than small cars, bikes, or putting saddles on the local sheep**.  We would backpack between campsites over several days and have some hiking adventures along the way***.

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One of the places we hiked to during our trip, looking suspiciously dry and serene. Photo by @bluestonewales.

The road trip began well. We set off from a sunny Southampton in high spirits. Driving to Wales took several enjoyable hours where we passed the time by singing along to music and joking around. Once in Wales there was another couple of hours of driving to do before reaching our first campsite…And then another couple of hours…After yet another hour we were beginning to distrust the SatNav. It didn’t matter which celebrity voice actor read out the directions, they all translated to ‘fucking lost’. It was especially disappointing in the voice of beloved and mild mannered TV personality and doctor of physics, Brian Cox.

By now the light was fading, and the weather was getting worse. The rain had intensified and the single track roads we were carving down in Pete’s tiny car were beginning to fill with mud. Still, the SatNav insisted we were going the right way****. We pressed on into the night, each looking up different routes and attempting to locate ourselves. Meanwhile, it had become apparent that the thrashing rain wasn’t the usual, totally normal thrashing Welsh rain we were used to: it was definitely part of a storm. Still, we kept trundling through the countryside, listening to the wind whistling against the dinky car and the distant rumble of thunder on the horizon.

Eventually we stumbled across a few blurry buildings in some fields far away. These had to be the basis of the campsite we theorised, because fuck all else would be built out here (unless, of course, you have seen the film ‘Dog Soldiers’). We carefully made our way to the buildings… but there was no sign of any other tents. Or indeed, anything you would even vaguely associate with camping. Just some empty fields and some outhouses.

Polite SatNav Brian Cox was in the back of our minds, meekly chiming in ‘fucking lost’.

But, the old wooden sign on the way down the track had definitely mentioned the name of the campsite. By now it was late and the storm was raging around us. We made the choice to pick a spot in a field where it was relatively protected from the worst of the weather. In gale force winds we tried – and failed – to pitch the tent several times. We had to use the car beams as our only source of light in the pitch black fields of rural Wales, which meant that every task had to be done in front of the blinding, retina-searing headlights. Add to this the maelstrom of noise from shouting survival instructions at one another and  the storm itself, drenched clothing and freezing hands and you have an episode of Ray Mears ‘Extreme Survival’ right there.

Finally, we made a camp.Soaked and utterly exhausted after our saga we crashed with the tent billowing wildly around us. But it didn’t matter. We had somewhere relatively warm and out of the rain that was big enough for all four of us to sleep in. The question of where we were faded to the back of our minds as sleep enveloped us in a cosy embrace.

We awoke to the sound of clicking.

But, at least that meant that the storm had blown out. For a while we listened, wondering what it could be. Wildlife perhaps, a woodpecker? Before we could get any real grasp of it it stopped, and countryside became silent once again.

That was.. Odd.

Fairly quickly the previous night’s ordeal came back to us. Storm. Rain. Lost. Tent… where were we?

Our trail of thought was shattered by the impact of something hard and round to the side of the tent – BOING! – it rolled off back into the field.

We jumped up, confused and alarmed. Rushing to pull some boots on we were targeted again – BLAM!

The fuck!?

We signalled at one another to, one by one, get out of the tent entrance and investigate. SatNav Brian Cox calmly chimed in the back of our thoughts ‘probably fucking dog soldiers’.

Patrick darted out first, with Pete close on his heels. Kim and I paused, listening to what was happening. To our alarm we heard nothing. What had they seen? Why hadn’t they shouted back that it was something ordinary? Was SatNav Brian Cox right?

Then we heard a whistle. The pounding of many feet on the sodden ground. The noise of something… coming.

We looked at one another and raced out of the tent entrance after Patrick and Pete…

… and found them stood motionless several metres in front of the tent… where they began laughing.

It turned out that we were in fact mostly correct about our location. The collection of outhouses and buildings were indeed part of the campsite where the information cabin was located. It also transpired that the reason we couldn’t actually see any other evidence of the other campers was because the allocated fields, you know where people actually fucking camp, were on the other side of the buildings and clearly marked by a fuck-off-large sign that said ‘CAMPING THIS WAY’. So where on earth did we manage to camp, then?

We had instead managed to pitch our tent slap bang in the middle of a goddamn football pitch.

A football pitch in which there were various groups of youths running around and pelting footballs at one another as part of an adventure weekend for teenagers.

We sheepishly looked around at one another observing a muddy remake of the ‘Battle of Britain: Football Edition’ unfold around us. After one of the ricochet balls set off the car alarm we decided that we didn’t have the troops to hold position and so we rapidly packed up camp and stopped by the information cabin to apologise. When we entered we found an elderly Welsh chap with a rue smile, who winked at us and said ‘Nice spot you found there, I hope you slept well’. Being British we immediately apologised profusely and offered to pay him extra for causing disruption to the youths planned activities. He chuckled, and said “Don’t worry ‘bout it, I’ve gotten my payment in another way!”

We stared back at him, puzzled.

He showed us the series of pictures he had click-click-clicked of our tent in the middle of the pitch, surrounded by excited and energetic youths hurling footballs at one another, with our half-damp and utterly confused selves pondering how on earth we had gotten there.

“Don’t you youngun’s worry, I’ll print this out and put it right on the wall here, so any camper can look at you lot and learn a valuable lesson”.

And so in this mis-adventure we learnt that camping in Wales has many layers. You must be hardy, seasoned to damp weather, and have back up map-reading resources once it becomes obvious that SatNa Brian Cox is a fucking liar even if he does sound politely and genuinely concerned about your welfare. In Wales the least of your problems is the weather, the biggest? Well, that would be yourselves.

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While this is what we had hoped to look like gallantly striding around the Welsh landscape, we definitely looked drenched, cold and tired of standing in rabbit droppings. A better photo from @welshrarebit

 

*Honestly, as soon as we saw the advert for this place we knew we were willing to brave any and all weather to go there, like the giant adult children we are.

** While this prepollent approach appealed to the punk brothers, level-head Kim reminded them of the last time they tried to ‘harness nature’ and were left wrapped around a tree in several inches of mud after underestimating a mountain-bike route.

***Topped off by the adventure where we went to the British equivalent of the Blue Lagoon – a place on the coast where an ancient mine shaft had collapsed and so the sea had filled it, protecting it from the tides and creating a serene pool. Pete dived into this with his GoPro and lost it at the bottom of the lagoon. So, if you ever want a free GoPro feel free to try and dive to the bottom: there is a buttload of stuff down there.

****In fairness, SatNav Brian Cox was right. But, a good rule of thumb is only ever to trust it to an accuracy of about 1 square mile, lest ye repeat the infamous stuck-in-the-marsh incident of 2014.

France: The Conference Wine Conundrum

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The stunning medieval cathedral in the sleepy, quiet city of Albi in southern France. For more photos see my Instagram @travels_of_bri

I am a current PhD researcher, and so on a semi-regular basis I am expected to be some sort of functioning adult (not fueled entirely by caffeine) and to present my research at various conferences around the world. While this is a fabulous excuse to travel more, it does involve nearly twice the amount of effort that vacationing or backpacking alone does. I’m not sure if you’ve ever had to program a graph in an airport lounge trying to keep hold of your bag with one hand, wildly waving your phone around for signal in the other, with 3% battery remaining on your laptop and a chorus of screaming children voicing their concern about the upcoming flight in the only way that they know how. But, if you haven’t, I can assure you that it’s stressful.

Most conferences I attend generally gift me USB drives, poor quality plastic pens or generic mugs with the conference logo printed on them*. The calibre of the “conference haul” is rarely high, but it performs a basic function. It says to the attendees “We value you being here. We value it so much that we ordered in several thousand shitty miscellaneous office supplies – even though we know that the only human contact they will receive thereinafter will be in the emergency case of a colleague you don’t particularly like asking to borrow a pen –  just to say that we appreciate your presence”.

So, when I turned up at a particular conference this year in the city of Albi, southern France, I was rather surprised to find that my conference haul was actually.. Well, it was actually a haul. Within a large canvas bag I not only had copies of the programme and some information about the local area but also an entire freshly baked baguette no less than 3ft long, a hand crafted blue beret with the conference logo sewn onto the front, and a bottle of rather expensive red wine from a local vineyard.

This was pretty fucking exciting. It was especially fucking exciting because I had presented at the same conference the year before in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil,  and was gifted a half-broken gym bag and a leaflet on how to avoid contracting the Zika virus**. Later on during the day it transpired that wafting your baguette while wearing the beret around absolute strangers at the conference was, instead of being obnoxiously rude, in fact a great way to get a conversation going:

“Can you believe this?” ((wangles baguette around))

“It’s crazy isn’t it? Guess we’ll all have to drink our wine together!” ((flounces off in beret))

After the initial buzz most people’s attention naturally turned back to the conference at hand. Conferences tend to last between 3 – 5 days and feature a series of presentations, panel discussions and keynote speakers. In the evenings there are often group activities or meals where you get to know other academics better***. As one of the conference evening activities was to visit a local vineyard and sample some (all) of the wines, our personal bottles escaped our attention until the night before or morning of our departure from France.

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Just one of the beautiful vineyards of the region. For more photos see my Instagram @travels_of_bri

And so, a number of tactics suddenly became apparent to make the most of the expensive free wine before our looming departure. These were needed as the wine was corked: I admit that that doesn’t sound like a big obstacle in fairness, most wine bottles have corks. The problem was that we, the attendees, were staying in a French University halls of residence, that (a.) did not have any sort of cutlery or crockery available other than a single plastic cup****, and (b.) was a good 40 minute walk from the nearest civilization that didn’t have a single supermarket or place to buy a bottle opener.  

The rural picturesque countryside of Southern France was not prepared for what happened next as every academic confined to the halls of residence put their qualifications to good use. Only in the case of expensive free conference wine has the phrase “Adapt. Improvise. Overcome.” been put into such effective play.  A number of methodologies emerged:  

The group of Dutch practitioners staying on the level below me had opted for a collaboration strategy. Together they had used a divide and conquer tactic to scour the entire campus for any pens and office equipment that they could get hold of*****. They then lined up all of their personal bottles and used a different implement to try and open each with varying levels of success. They had essentially created an impromptu drinking research collaboration group, and by god they were determined to be the ones getting the research grant at the end of the day.

In stark contrast, two elderly British professors had converged on the floor above, shouting animatedly about possible solutions to the wine conundrum. As they had no tools or ways to implement said solutions they simply became louder and more enthusiastic, repeating each hypothesis with increasing gusto and conviction the more it was speculated. It didn’t matter whether the Dutch group opened the wine successfully first, the Brit’s had thought of the right thing, so as far as they were concerned they were the first authors.

The Americans had gone for a “fuck it” approach. It was simple but effective. They were aware of the commotion across the halls and by extent Albi itself, but had no interest in sharing intel nor getting their names on a paper. Several of them had gone off to nearby hotels where they had politely – and in complete isolation – opened the wine. Eventually some had returned after blearily wandering the picturesque city back to the halls irrespective of one another, and very clearly looking like they had possibly maybe drunk an entire bottle of wine each.

My own method took a little while to come into play; I thought I was being clever by observing the advances of the others and waiting to attempt to open my own bottle the next morning. As far as I was concerned I was conducting a drinking ethnography for the sake of science.

But, I was not clever. Not at all.

The next day you see, as everyone else was due to return home, I had instead decided to stay for another week or so travelling around Southern France on my own solo adventures. This meant that I needed to get to the fairly nearby city of Toulouse on my own, in a region where English was not common, and my high school French was… a bit merde… The best method I’d seen so far was devised by my American friend Rob, who had essentially dismembered the cork of the wine using a conference pencil. But Rob’s methodology was not perfect. By dismembering the cork you pushed it back into the liquid where it sat staring back at you every time you took a swig.

Silently judging you and your poorly thought-out travel plans.

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The conference haul of southern France in all of it’s glory.

But, it was the best method so far and I’ll be damned if I left a good conference haul go to waste – for the sake of academia! I ended up drinking the entire bottle of wine between the hour of 8am and 9am straight from the bottle and on an empty stomach, while being silently judged by floating bits of cork, sitting on the floor of the halls of residence where the decor could only be described as ‘1984-esque’.

I’m not going to talk you through the entire ordeal that I put myself through that morning. The only things that you need to know are (a) about half way through the bottle I had to call some friends back home in England to question my life choices, (b) I definitely missed my bus despite standing outside for almost an hour before it was supposed to depart, and (c.) I have no idea how I got to Toulouse safely, let alone found my airbnb apartment*****.

My mis-adventure in Southern France taught me to beware of academics bearing free conference wine. But more importantly it taught me to beware of my own drinking standards when it comes to free alcohol, especially when you are a lone idiot abroad. A lesson well learnt.

*Sometimes I steal triple the quantity of pain au chocolat that any mere mortal can manage at breakfast, so really it’s all swings and roundabouts. I’ve become quite inventive with smuggling them out of the food hall, actually. I’ve also become exceptionally good at understanding “You there! Miss! Put the pain au chocolat down!” in a range of languages.

** As someone who can attract all 7 of the mosquitoes that inhabit England I spent my entire time in Brazil basted head to toe insect repellent. I was still bitten.

*** You get drunk together. You all get very, very drunk together.

****I saw a blunt knife at breakfast one morning but it was taken away by the staff before I could pilfer it to add to my pain au chocolat collection.

*****Ironically, all found supplies were branded by long dead conferences, covered in layers of dust and stored at the back of shelves.

******I actually had a fractured foot at this point in time also, which I’d managed to do while running a month or two earlier and not letting it rest while I was travelling around Italy and Malta. If there is one thing that I can fully endorse, it’s that you need to work out exactly where your airbnb place if BEFORE turning up in the city thinking that you can just “wing it”.

Iceland: A Whale-Watching Epiphany

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Reykjavik Harbour. Find more on my Instagram @travels_of_bri

Iceland is small. As such, most of its economy is geared towards tourism.

They see what other countries do with their adventure-marketing, and they blow it out of the water like a land-mine strapped to a shark. Who has also rented a quadbike. On the side of an active volcano.

Of that tourism, a decent chunk is targeted towards whale watching. I’m pretty fond of whales. They’re large, chilled out and share my passion for seafood. So, I thought, obviously I’m going to enjoy whale watching. After all, who can resist the wonder of glimpsing a rare creature in its natural environment? Moving alongside its majestic body, hearing its delightful and chilling song. Namaste. Taekwondo. #blessed.

What I actually experienced was Brenda from the Isle of Mann loudly shouting to David, her long term partner, that “if you don’t move your fat head out of the way I won’t be able to get a picture to show Allison. You know how much she likes whales, David!”

I sympathised with David. If Allison liked whales so much I’m sure she would be doing something more productive than asking an office co-worker to take sodden, blurred images of distant lumps on the horizon. Similar conversations it transpired were also taking place in varying different languages across the deck of the boat. They were interspersed by a clearly unenthusiastic deckhand who was tasked with shouting the current location of the whales in a clock format. Only, his coordinates didn’t marry up with where the whales actually were.

Or you know, the grey lumps that I had assumed to be whales. Maybe they were rocks, or giant floating marshmallows, who knew.

In response to the deck-hand’s shouting, the entire boatload of tourists would charge at the newest location with formula one-like reaction speeds, hoping to see a different type of grey thing, in an environment made up of 99% grey things. And so, after much jostling amid the eager throng of tourists, I decided that I was going to sod off and sit below deck*. It was warm, had chairs, and more importantly still had windows to be able to see however much grey I wanted.

Below deck I encountered David sulkily staring into the depths of a cup of coffee. I assumed that he was having some sort of whale-watching epiphany, and so I left him to it. But, at least I didn’t seem to be the only one having entirely mixed feelings about the experience, I mused to myself. I wondered how many whale-watching instagram hashtags I could think of until the boat made it back to the docks***.

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One of the snaps I took of Reykjavik Harbour, you can find this and similar on my Instagram account @travels_of_bri

Later on that evening I still hadn’t been able to pull apart my feelings about the whales and so I went for a walk around the harbour**. Sitting by the water in Reykjavik harbour, I shit you not, a small pod of whales glided by in pursuit of a school of fish. I stared after them disbelievingly for a while, and then glanced about me.

But, no-one else was around. Not even Brenda with her 6th sense for grey lumpy objects.

I want to tell you that it was magical and awe-inspiring… but it wasn’t. It was some creatures doing the everyday things that they do, unaware of anything else going on in this vast world. It was ordinary. And it made me feel a bit sad that our expectations for encountering and engaging with wildlife were extraordinary and ungenuine, even without the giant stick-up-the arse that is tourist-marketing.

Later on, as I was walking back to my hotel, I came across some folk campaigning against whale hunting. An enthusiastic man called Bjorn approached me and explained his sales pitch. I wanted to tell Bjorn about the experience that I had just had. But, as I looked at his pile of cartoon whale stickers and his thoughtfully chosen green-brand shirt, I realised that I didn’t have the words. Instead, I responded with “I tried to whale watch earlier…”

He looked at me quizzically, probably trying to work out whether I was having language problems or was simply an idiot.

I followed up with, “No, I mean. I like whales.”

His expression was quickly shifting towards the “simply an idiot” explanation. I hastily signed, pocketed a cartoon sticker, and pootled off as fast as my sea-legs would take me. That was the last I thought of the encounter until I returned back home to England and I put the sticker on my world map. I crossed out the speech bubble that said “Please don’t eat me!” and wrote on it in sharpy “I tried!”. I also drew a stick figure of Brenda with a camera in the background, but that kind of ruined the sombre tone of my mis-adventure, and why I wanted to keep the sticker on my wall.

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Clouds over the city, more on my insta.

It wasn’t until much, much later on that I even realised what I wanted to tell Bjorn, man of whales, back in Iceland. On the one hand I wanted to support the whales. By throwing my money at the tourism industry, so long as it was protecting local ecosystems, I was playing a small part in maintaining endangered species. On the other hand I wanted to tell people to sod off. And, ideally, to stop being quite as much of an asshole. Not just when it comes to marine life, but in almost every aspect of daily life.

I didn’t really know what to do about that conundrum, so I decided to design some PRO and CON whale shirts. I simultaneously wanted people to experience David’s grumpy whale epiphany AND Brenda’s inane MDMA excitement. Both are needed. And so I concluded in my head to Bjorn – man of whales –  that humans, being a part of the natural world as well as being a shaping force of it, have a responsibility to learn before acting. To be aware of issues, and to tell ourselves that ‘it does matter’ in the grand scheme of things.

Fucking obvious, right?

I’m a little disappointed that it took so long for that conclusion to really hit home for me in an explainable moment, but nevertheless “better late than never” or [insert some other cliche here]. It marked the beginning of my wanderlust and the beginning of my being more aware: where this travel diary really begins.

So, welcome to this blog about all of my mis-adventures. I like to think of them as a shitty, majestically uninformed guidebook featuring an almost spectacular lack of narrative. I’m sure you will come to think of them in the same light, too.

Eventually I emailed Bjorn some of my shirt designs but he never replied. Asshole.

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Featured on my world map, “I tried”.

*Even at the best of times I dislike crowds, and loud one’s at that. I might just dislike most people in general, really.

**There were a lot. I even got a little bit carried away with the puns. #overwhaleming.

***I told myself it was for exercise, but probably it was to get some instagrammable pictures of #sunsetporn.