Outside Context travel writing has been featured on some of the world’s top websites. Articles have been purchased by Airlines, featured in iPhone Apps, published as questions in degree level English examinations and comments have been posted by everyone from Lonely Planet writers to US Special Forces Lieutenant Colonels!

Endings and Beginnings – Basho and Cesca return home from their adventures

Endings are actually beginnings too. This is what I told myself as I sat in the tiny, oh so tiny, room in Osaka. It’s one of those glass half empty or half full sort of things.

The reality of what we had done was before me and it came in […]

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Kyoto, Nara, Himeji, green tea and finding inner peace

I have written before about travellers wanting a point to it all, to travelling. In part this is perhaps seen as them wanting to justify the vast cost of travel; to have a point for spending all that money, or – as commonly happens – someone else’s money. But, […]

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The Zen Gardens, Our First Days in Kyoto

The bullet train pulled smoothly and serenely into the station, totally belying the speed it had demonstrated when blistering through the Japanese countryside.

As I stepped down into the shiny and neat Kyoto station the entire history of Zen Buddhism flashed through my mind. In short: this city was the […]

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Chan Buddhism, Daoism and Zen – Journey through the East

Writing an article about Zen is almost a contradiction in terms. That is unless I simply leave the rest of it blank…

Just a finger, pointing to the moon… But, I don’t want to do that!

At its basic level, Zen is an exotic a form of Buddhism. The Buddha lived approximately […]

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Mount Fuji, Tokyo and the 200 mph Bullet Train

I wallowed comfortably in the exceedingly warm waters, the balmy mountain air was cool and smelled of the rich wood my surroundings were constructed from. I was butt-naked and in my first real Japanese onsen, the famous hot bath houses of these islands. The small courtyard contained a number […]

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Tsukiji Fish Market, Adventures in Sushi and the Edo-Tokyo Museum

4am in Tokyo, Japan trickled around and we were ready to go. We skipped breakfast and headed down to the famous Tsukiji Fish Market.

It opened at 5:30am and back then you could wander in free. Now, you have to pay and cannot arrive before 9am, but we were one […]

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Tokyo: Akihabara, Asakusa and Shibuya

Tokyo, like Beijing and especially like Delhi, is a city that one could spend a lifetime in and never feel a sense of completion. The Japanese way of doing things enhances this feeling with wards (districts) dedicated to different aspects of the culture.

How these districts come about is fascinating. […]

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Arriving in Japan

I have always looked at maps of the world and wondered if they skew perspective. America appears massive while Australia and India are diminished and Japan… well, miniscule. Even when I was young, I knew somehow that reality didn’t concord with this portrayal. I know now, for example, that […]

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The Purpose of Travel

We often take arriving at the destination to be the purpose of travel. Taken in this way the journey itself is not the point, rather it is the serious business of transporting our bodies from one place to another. Getting to the end location as quickly as possible is […]

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Beijing and the Great Wall – Our final days in China

“So,” said Cesca loudly and clearly, just as I was drinking from a water bottle, “What’s all this about China and Tiananmen Square?”

I almost did a spit take.

“Quiet!” I said and I looked around, wiping water running down my chin. Yes, we were standing bang in the middle of […]

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China’s National Treasures – Pandas and the Terracotta Warriors

Everyone loves Pandas and at the Panda Conservation Centre near Chengdu, China is probably the best place to see them in the world.

Watching them reminded me of the Douglas Adams quote:
“…On the planet Earth, man had always assumed that he was more intelligent than [Pandas] because he had achieved […]

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Mount Wudang and the Meaning of Life

In China, Daoist temples atop mountains are so numerous that there must be something about these high places that answers a longing for cliff edges and being above the clouds. A simplistic analysis of this, one using that most ignoble of human faculties; the so-called common sense, would say that […]

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Tiger Leaping Gorge & Lijiang

Flanked by several enormous mountains, Tiger Leaping Gorge is top contender for the deepest gorge in the world. The upper road of the gorge makes for some breath-taking hiking and winds slowly up the edge of the left side ridge, through villages, past the odd farm and eventually, after […]

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Yaks for tea and Tibetan Temples. Living the high life in Shangri-la

“You have to imagine,” said the man in broken English, “that this…” he gestured his hands at the view in front of us, “big lake… flood wide and deep… great water!” He broke into a wide toothy smile.

There was a pause as we considered this.

“But… not at the moment,” Cesca eventually prompted.

“No!” the man said vehemently, still smiling and shaking his head.

“At the moment it is just a dry field full of Yaks”.

The closest Yak stopped chewing and looked up at us, as if responding to the sound of its name.

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China: Li River to Shangri-La

At one point in our journey I actually advocated to Cesca that we skip China. That she didn’t listen, and talked me round, proves clearly that I don’t know everything and Cesca has some great ideas herself.

Oh, boy were my eyes going to be opened!

Entering the country via a large bus with lay down seats was fun. It rattled through the night towards the modern city of Guilin and the Li River.

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Hong Kong : The Most Photogenic City in the world

Certain cities in the world are instantly recognisable from hundreds of classic movies that have been set there. No one could mistake Paris, New York or London on film, but for me the most recognisable city of them all is the great bay of Hong Kong. I grew up on a strict diet of Hong Kong movies: from Jackie Chan cop thrillers to John Woo gangster flicks. The Hong Kong cinema actor Chow Yun Fat was considered by my friends and I as the coolest guy in the universe, bar none, thanks to his incredible performances as Ken Gor and The God of Gamblers. With these memories, I felt like I knew the city off by heart even before I visited there. I had a mental map already in my head that included combinations of scenes from Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon and the, unintentionally, hilarious Jean Claude Van Dam 90’s action fest Double Impact. It was no doubt the sort of distorted mental map that everyone has when they have watched too many movies: all warped distances and colours. Larger than life could ever be.

I knew, of course, that reality would bring me down with a bump. Surely, no city could be exactly as it is portrayed in the movies?

I prepared to be disappointed.

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Gandhi

Very little survives a man’s death. I have commented before that most of the “Great’s” from history did not write much down for themselves and Gandhi is no different. For while he did write many letters (all available online) he did this not because he wanted to leave lessons for you and I to follow or to build a movement around, but simply because he didn’t have a telephone. If you are looking for published books then you only have one to find; his autobiography “The Story of My Experiments with Truth”.

I have a copy of it, I picked up in Mumbai, and it is not what you might expect.

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The day I met the Buddha, and killed him

Delhi. Many people say they have “done” Delhi, but in all honesty they haven’t. They have perhaps done the tourist parts of New Delhi, or maybe spent some time in an Ashram there – which amounts to the same thing: a tourist experience. Delhi is so large to be beyond being “done” should you spend a lifetime there.

For one thing there are 16 million people living in Delhi and 249 thousand in New Delhi (the capital of the capital). This makes Delhi the 8th largest metropolis in the world (we will visit the largest towards the end of these journals), and once something gets that big you know that no two stories of visiting it will be the same. Each will be a “slice of life”, a “moment in time” and a “vision” of the city. Also, like other gigantic cities, it is more than possible to leave with a very un-favourable impression. Walk down the wrong street or pass by the wrong district in any major city and you may not come out the other side alive, but perhaps in Delhi of all these places are you risking coming out a different colour.

That is because coming here during the Hindu festival of Holi, white and vulnerable, must make you a serious paint target as if you are running the gauntlet of 16 million amateur Jackson Pollacks’. That’s what first went through my mind when we arrived on the train, our last train journey in India.

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Shimla mountains and a happy meeting

Breaking out of the Backpacker Bubble in India

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Jaipur, the Kalka–Shimla Railway and onto Shimla

I sat on the balcony and considered the view. The remote 7800ft high mountain town of Shimla flowed over the hills in front of our hotel. The roofs were the playgrounds of large collections of violent monkeys that tumbled and swung over the closely knitted but strangely British architecture.

That […]

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Hong Kong City Blues – Special Edition

This is a “Special Edition” of my Hong Kong at night film.

The beautiful skyline of Hong Kong at night! Come with us through the brightly lit, and empty of people, Business District and then over the river to Kowloon Bay to look back. The buildings all come to life with colours and lights embedded in their structure that forms a fantastic light show. Finally we visit the vibrant and busy center of town and see some of the amazing flashing neon screens and lights around the streets thronged with people.

Hong Kong is one of the cities that inspired the look of the film Blade Runner and so I have set the film to the score- hope you like it!

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Jaisalmer, sandcastle of India

Jaisalmer is a town located 575 m west from the state capital Jaipur. It lies in the heart of the Thar Desert

On the road, and neatly tucked into our bus seats, we were also well placed for scamming. A guy came up to Wendy and handed her a phone. […]

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Jodhpur

Cesca left me snoozing in our room and went out to the roof top café/restaurant to take some photos of the city.

The city is blue, blue of the Brahmin caste we were told, but I can’t help wondering if there is another reason for its popular -nay ubiquitous-shade. I heard one rumour that it was due to the blue paint putting off the mosquitos. However, I am more inclined to believe it is to challenge the other brightly-coloured-city it is most often confused with (Jaipur, which is bright pink!) I leaned back on the bed and spied out of the window at the huge cliff-wall behind the hotel, and then up, up and eventually to the turrets of the Mehrangarh Fort high above.

It towered over the entire city of a million people, ever watching like a sleeping dragon turned to stone by some mighty magic, frozen with one eye open and brooding over its faded dominance.

The city’s name? Where else but Jodhpur: the blue city of India set amongst the stark landscape of the Thar Desert.

 

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It Shouldn’t Happen to a Backpacker: The Moth Story

As a traveller you know, and even expect, the unknown to occur. You want this; for some it’s the whole point of leaving their home in the first place. It’s usually to do with the fun stuff like walking the Great Wall, eating Sushi in Tokyo Fish Market or jumping off a bridge in New Zealand with only an elastic band to prevent your death.

Those are the known unknown things that you decide to do only when faced with the opportunity. You know you might do them, but you perhaps only have the haziest plan about them. What this story highlights are the complete unknowns; those strange twists of fate and chance that dog everyone’s lives from one end to the other. Perhaps that is being unfair to them as they are the same class of occurrence that led to me meeting my wife, my friends and finding my job.

But, they can also lead to what is to follow…

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Udaipur

Udaipur is famous for many reasons. To those in the west it is mostly known for its gleaming white Jag Niwas hotel found in the middle of one of its many lakes. To the Indians themselves is it known as a home of the great Maharana family. To the travellers, who could never afford a night in such a famous hotel and are relegated to simply looking at it, Udaipur is mainly known for a very special ceremony involving unmarried women and coloured hats.

Udaipur was the first stop for us into Rajasthan. We had heard so much about this part of India and were looking forwards to our visit with relish. The historic capital of the former kingdom of Mewar in Rajputana Agency, Udaipur’s fierce independence had successfully led it into the modern world almost untouched. This is in part due to its mountainous region being unsuitable for heavily armoured Mughal horses; Udaipur remained unmolested from Mughal influence in spite of much pressure.

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Agra and the Taj Mahal

Ask a hundred people where in the world they would like to visit most of all and a significant percentage of them will say Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Indeed there are tours (and we met a few people on such) that fly into Delhi, drive to Agra for a day and then drive back to fly out. That these people can claim to have experienced India is to some laughable.

But then they are probably not trying to, instead they are after a unique chance of visiting the worlds greatest monument to romantic love ever constructed. For that is what this strange tomb is; one man’s attempt to express his love and loss. Seen in that sense, flying half way across the world just to see the sun rise here is perhaps not so crazy after all.

Cesca and I arrived a different way, a much more down to earth way; by train. Agra was one of the few places that we had phoned ahead and booked. This is because Agra has quite a different reputation amongst backpackers; a deadly reputation.

Surrounding the great tomb is, what some might call, a shanty town. In the past it probably was, just a place for the Mountebanks, snake charmers and con artists to live when they weren’t begging outside the tomb proper. Then came the era of international tourism and the arrival of backpackers. I can hardly imagine what courage it took to backpack India in those first days. I get some of the stories from fifteen years ago when my sister-in-law was in the north of India. Back then, the population was tiny compared to now and everyone much poorer. Staying in the area around the Taj, called the Ganj, was probably taking your life in your hands even just from the point of view of the water quality (drawn directly from the great river flowing behind the Taj and very polluted). You may consider this an exaggeration, but even in our more modern times there has been deaths here. The story I was told was that there was a con being played, which went like this:

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Varanasi – City of the Hindus

Many Indian cities are a jumble, a mix of the ancient and modern, but nowhere I have ever been compares in this regard to Varanasi. I come from a country, and from a city, which has a long history and many ancient sites of worship, but even the 1000 year old site of Saint Pauls in London pails next to the 3000 years of worship maintained here by the Vedic priesthood. Its mythical history goes even further back than this. The legend is that Varanasi was founded by none other than the Hindu deity Lord Shiva himself.

It is that this point that the average Westerner or British’er should try to forget everything that they have ever been taught in school regarding Hinduism.

When I was at school, Hinduism was brought up in Religious Education classes. Unfortunately, these classes forced all religions into the structure of Christianity in order to compare them. So, where in Christianity you have God, you had Shiva and under that you had, in place of Jesus, Krishna, and so on and so forth through the angels (the Deva), the priests (the Brahmans), the Bible (the Vedas) and the Kingdom of Heaven (Rebirth). The one thing is that it is clear from such a muddle is that the people who wrote the RE syllabus had little-to-no idea of Hinduism either. Placed into this twisted context it all looks a little crazy and no wonder as the Hindu faith isn’t like Christianity in almost every way possible. It is a totally different beast. In the first instance it is vital to realise that “Hinduism” is an umbrella term for a whole host of beliefs all interlocked only by their founding geography – that is they all come from India. Then you must realise that when we discuss the Hindu Cosmology we are not talking about a Celestial Hierarchy in the same way that we do in Christianity at all. I.E. with God at the top and you near the bottom just above the animals.

No, in Hinduism you are God.

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Tuk Tuk in the dark – A journey into Varanasi

There was only one time in our journey around India that I didn’t feel entirely safe, one moment where I thought to myself, “Ah, this is potentially a dangerous situation” and took measures accordingly. That was in my first hour in Varanasi.

We arrived on the train from Bodh Gaya relaxed and ready for more adventure.

It was a dark night and, unlike the Buddhist Centre, the large city of Varanasi was busy even at this time of year, so we joined the hordes at the station exit trying to find transport. The Tuk Tuk drivers descended on us travellers like raptors and the experience soon became a walk amongst shouting voices all vying for our attention. Over the top of the throng I could make out a government taxi ticket booth. These large booths sell fixed price tickets to people wanting transport into the city proper and are the only way to avoid being totally fleeced by the touts. It was only when I approached the counter and saw two policemen armed with sub machineguns standing behind the ticket seller that I started to get a feeling that this might not be the safest place. Indeed in my time in Varanasi I was to see more armed policemen than in all the other cities put together and I don’t mean with pistols, I mean with large rifles, assault rifles and Stirling sub machineguns. We bought a fare to our hotel at the far end of the strip running along the Ganges. It was a good price, slightly higher than one would want, but fixed – and that is worth paying a premium for. We jumped in the first Tuk Tuk, which had two men in the front, one driving and another along for the ride, and handed him our ticket. He immediately pulled off onto the road and started pootling along.

“Where do you want to go?” He asked with a thick accent placing a heavy emphasis on the ‘o’ in ‘go’ so it sounded like ‘Gohhh’

To the “Anami Lodge please.”

He shook his head, “No sir, that not good hotel.”

“Just take us there please.”

“Yes sir, but please this not a good hotel, very bad. I can show you a better hotel. It’s on the way no problem. You need a guide to the city?”

“No, we’re fine thanks.”

“Sir, please let me tell you, I am a government sponsored guide, I can show you the whole city for a fixed price.”

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Bodh Gaya Part 2 and onwards to Sarnath

Eating food in India is no joke.

On one hand there are high-end coffee cafes that have prices that could only make sense to the gainfully employed. High-end coffee needs to be carefully metered out as it is too comforting and familiar a western experience to eat in such a cafe. Not only does it take you away from your local-encounters in this mighty country, but also takes a large amount of Indian coin from your purse and that directly affects how much you have to spend on the fun things.

On the other hand there are the types of restaurants that Indians eat in themselves. Entering one of these is the classic story of India – the locals stare at you, the menu is in Hindu script, you have no idea what the food is and your loud shouting for Poppadum’s doesn’t go over well. For these places, the average (read lowest common denominator) English person might make the classic mistake that acting like one would act in an Indian restaurant in one’s own country (where Indian immigrants are very supplicating to asshole western dinners) is perhaps not the best idea when there are a million people in the surrounding two miles all of the same culture. Basically, I wonder if the English causal racism played out abroad is not the cause of many of the poisonings you hear about (just wait until this blog gets to Agra for a story of tourist poisoning that will make your hair stand on end). However, treated with respect, and a little bit of savvy regarding the menu, these “true” Indian restaurants serve generally fine if basic fair.

No, the really bad places to eat – the places where one should just walk on – are the for-tourists cafes. This isn’t because they are all bad – some are great and should be cherished like diamonds in the rough – it’s because when they are bad… they try to kill you.
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Bodh Gaya and the Tree of Enlightenment

“Who are your inspirational hero’s?” I asked a friend.

“Dunno. King David, I guess, would be one.”

“Awesome answer,” I said impressed that he hadn’t picked a modern actor or, worse, a footballer.

“How about you?”

“My grandfather, Ghandi and the Buddha,” I said quickly.

“You’ve obviously thought about this!”

“Lots. My grandfather is easy; fighter-bomber pilot in the Second World War, boxing champion, and gentile but courageous Welshman. He died before I became old enough to truly know him, but I carry one of his service uniform buttons with me everywhere.”

“How about Ghandi? A bit pacifist for you?”

“Ghandi was anything but a pacifist. He was very strong and he used his strength, not of his body, but of his mind; his soul. His belief was in the Indian people and of leading by example. Not using violence was far more effective than using it.”

“And the Buddha?”

“I became a real fan of him when I visited Bodh Gaya and the ‘Tree of Enlightenment’…” I began.

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Kolkata (Calcutta) – the black hole of India

There are two questions I am most asked about travelling the world. The first is, “What was our favourite place?” This is by far the harder of the two. There is so many wonderful places and so many moving times to be had when travelling that cutting them down to just one place is impossible. Cutting them down to one country is just as hard, but on the other hand rattling off a list of the worlds top destinations tends to only make one sound like you are boasting. So, I try to match the place to the audience. Outdoors types focussed, or less generously ‘mired’, in Western thinking get “New Zealand”. People of martial bent, or interested in the East, get “China” or perhaps, “Bodh Gaya” (which is coming in the very next article!). The second question I am most asked is the opposite of the first, “What is your least favourite place?” That one is easy:

Kolkata (Calcutta).

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Varkala & Holi : Kerala part two

Varkala is a very popular tourist destination with western travellers. Similar to Goa in many respects, it is a large beach front collection of Happy Bars and cheap hostels. Our taxi from the bus station tried ever so hard to force us to chose the hotel he wanted us to go to, to the point of demanding more money and following us to a cafe. As unsettling as that was, I felt safe in the western environment and only kept him in view as he sat menacingly opposite us. After he got bored and left, we ventured out and found some rooms.

Cesca and I chose a nice beach-hut style hostel, which was very pleasant. Gwenny found a room further along the cliff edge.

Varkala beachfront is sat atop a quite high cliff overlooking the beach itself. A narrow, and in some places, dangerous path runs along this cliff with the hordes of tourist shops, cafes and hostels all along one side.

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Kerala, the heat and the wonder of Southern India: part one

Kerala the beautiful; the green of a million palm trees, the blue of warm waters. Kerala the red of the sun at set; its light rays refracted to a ruby colour that captivates the mind. Kerala the advanced; an Indian state with amazing reading levels, excellent English, vibrant and – for India – safe roads. Where people duck into little cafés to sample the regions amazing ice-creams. A maze of river inlets and quiet backwaters and small settlements filled to the brim with interesting people. Kerala that is an example to us all, showing that Indians can find a way of peace with East and West and that not all change has to leave people behind. Kerala the only state in the world that has elected a Marxist government; Kerala the communist.

Kerala the heat wave.

As we came down from the cool of the mountains of Ooty, on the famous Nilgiris – Mountain Railway, I couldn’t help but notice the creeping rise of the ambient temperature. It rose and continued to rise. Just when I thought it must surely stop, it didn’t. A few of the European people in the carriage exchanged looks and nervous laughter. One girl sitting near us had befriended us on the way down. This was Gwenny from Holland. I have remarked before that it is the people we have met that really matter in our travels, for they give you a chance to share your experiences, to laugh with someone who has been there and done it too – quite a different feeling than talking to someone back home about the journey. There it is “to”, on the road it is “with”. We had met many: Franco in Australia, Lenin and Bobbits in South East Asia and now Gwenny. We all hit it off immediately, not that we had much choice in talking to her as she talked incessantly to anyone who would listen and could keep it up for hours. As people with the same skills and the same open attitudes, I don’t think we stopped talking for the entire day. Or week.

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This Is India Podcast 2

Welcome back!

This is the second podcast in the This Is India collection. It tells of Cesca and my journey high above the sweltering plains of India to the mountain retreat of Ooty. We recorded it last night and both really enjoyed revisiting what was one of the most pleasant […]

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Mysore

“Can you take us to this hotel please?” I asked the tuk tuk driver.

He shook his head, “No, that hotel burned down.”

“Burned down? I just spoke to them on the phone…”

He held his hands apart and looked slightly hurt that I was doubting him, “Hotel closed,” he insisted, “I take you to one much better.”

Time for the Bad Cop.

In India, catching a tuk tuk and negotiating the fare – or even the simple existence of the destination – is a national pastime. Not one driver, in three months, took us where we wanted to go without comment, argument or an all out fight. At first, this grates on the nerves and then you cant help but be brought down by it. Then you feel victimised for being western and (relatively) rich. You start to think that they are all out to get you personally. However, it is none of these; it is an official sport. Take it as a sport, a sparring match, and you suddenly find it fun.

And you develop tactics.

Our tactic is to use the old Good Cop, Bad Cop routine, but with a twist. The twist being that I, the large white man in slightly military clothing, am not the bad cop. Cesca is. There is something about confident English women that is like Kryptonite to a tuk tuk driver. We sometimes really played it up. Cesca would fake anger at the guy and then I would step in and take his side.

“But Darling,” I would plead, “he has to earn a living, I am sure he is not ripping us off.” I would then give the driver a look, one I practiced, which said ‘Hey buddy, look at this, I have an angry white women here. I know you need to rip us off, you know I know, but please let’s just defuse this bomb before it goes off and we both look embarrassed’. It was a kind of shared-trauma pleading look.

Worked 90% of the time. The 10% is a story for later…

It was very easy to feel a little guilty about such behaviour, but honestly this is just part of the game as well. There is no White Man’s Burden, I didn’t owe anyone being “gouged” (the travelers term for rip off rides).

Cesca looked the guy in the eye and scowled – something she is very good at, “We want to go to this one please?” She said proffering the Lonely Planet aloft.

This guy was not cracking, “I not take you to that one,” he said.

Time for Phase Two. […]

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Basho and Cesca visit Bangalore, and kind of wish they hadn’t

Bangalore is a strange place because it is just like cities at home. Almost slap bang in the middle of India, it sits like a jigsaw piece put in the wrong box. To some, it is the epitome of the “two tier” society outsiders see when they look this country. But that is just in mean economic terms, and when you actually get here you soon realise that Western ideas of how society structures itself into two halves down purely how much cash is in your account is the worst of models. It just doesn’t work in India; there is another dimension to the whole thing, a special dimension of multi-layered religious and social tiers laying next to each other for a thousand years. Most of the time, India provides a refreshing change for visitors. How much money you have does not define you and your world.

And then you come to Bangalore…

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This Is India Podcast

Hello and welcome to an experiment!

Cecsa and I have sat down and recorded a podcast of our time in Anegundi in India. This is a total-first for us and so please strap yourself in as we try and capture our feelings about the amazing Hampi area without really knowing […]

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Outside Context New Zealand articles now on iPhone

The most common question I have been asked by people after returning home is, “which was your favourite country to visit?” For Cesca and I it has to be the majestic New Zealand. Not because it is terribly exotic. as everything is familiar (especially the road names), but rather because it is so much like you wish England could be. The lakes, the mountains, the rivers, the beaches. New Zealand has everything. The people have a real “get up and go” attitude that is infectious. They love their country, they also appear to know who they are and what they want. Living in such a culture is, and I hesitate to write this, idyllic.

Shame I don’t live there then!

Cesca and I have written many articles on the subject of New Zealand and also made a “love letter” of a short-film celebrating the country (found under “films” in the navigation bar). However, I have always wanted to do more to speak of our time driving around these islands.

Well, our wish has come true.

About a two weeks ago I was approached by a company working for Air New Zealand. They wanted to license all our content on New Zealand for use in the official Air New Zealand iPhone app!

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Goa: The Beach Life

I lay on my back and tried to relax. The sound of rolling waves crashed back and forth in the distance, which helped. However, the sun was beating down, heating the air and leaving me gasping like I had my head in an oven. It was also making the sand hot to the touch and the use of sandals more of a necessity than just a fashion statement.

Sandals.

I hadn’t worn shoes for 2 months. A new adult first, meaning that my feet were always dusty; the ever present Indian dirt and sand sticked to my toes. Every night I showered and a torrent of black washed off my feet. I turned onto my side and spied Cesca on the next sun lounger, she was taking in the sun by laying on her front, her bikini open at the back to allow a tan, but – since I had rubbed in some cream for her – no white line or burning. I reached to the table between us and took down my beer and my book. It was called The Master of Go, by Nobel Prize winning author Yasunari Kawabata.

Then my phone rang. It was my best friend Mark.

I thumbed the screen and the call connected, “Mark!” I exclaimed, genuinely please to hear from him, “It’s great to hear your voice. Where are you?” From over the connection I could hear what sounded like traffic and men talking; the sounds of London. The sounds of home.

“Heyya, I thought I would give you a call,” his voice was raised like he could not really hear me and was compensating by shouting; he must be at work on a building site, “I’m in a man hole at the moment sorting out foundations for a new tube station.”

“Wow,” I said, interested.

“Yeah, it’s for the Olympics and all that. Anyway, it’s cold, wet and horrible and I am down this smelly hole and I thought I could do with cheering up. Where are you?”

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The Ellora Caves

One of the unique things about India, and one that you never quite come to terms with, is the trains. I would even go as far as to say that if you could understand Indian trains, then you might well lay claim to being truly at home in India. For almost everything that there is to experience in this wild and beautiful country is capable of being experienced by rail.

You see all sorts of things just by walking into a station. They are often grand buildings left over from the British age of iron and function as hotel for thousands of homeless travelers of all types. They have some of the best and very worst toilets in the world, and for some over the edge of the platform is preferred. They are often smelly, frequently dirty and occasionally horrid. But, for every bad thing there exists a good to balance it out. Stations are packed with families playing together, sleeping and eating together. There is the bustle and fizz of people meeting, people departing from loved ones and people wishing they were on their way. The best bookshops I found in India were operated out of mobile stores. Almost anything you could want is for sale on these strips of concrete, and after hours on a train you will eat almost anything (no matter where it has been). They are amazing places, a sort of nexus point and a melting pot of cultures. The gaps between the high and low fade away on these platforms. They are to India what blackcabs are to London. Almost, but not quite, romantic.

People sleeping at a Station.

India has invested heavily in its trains, a trick they learned from the Victorians, and something we back home should consider carefully. Short of flying, trains remain the quintessential method of transport around India. The tracks are everywhere. All the major cities are linked, and most of the minor ones. In fact, we never struggled to find a train going anywhere we wanted to go, from the high tech city of Bengaluru (Bangalore) to the deep desert city of Jaisalmer.

We just struggled to get on one or two.

They are not slow either. For while a journey, say from Varanasi to Agra, takes place over one night, a simple look out of the window shows how the train is hammering out the miles at mind-meltingly fast speeds. It’s just the country is massive. Eventually, train transport became a welcome break for us. We would even plan our journey around it and use it as a “free nights’ accommodation”. For seeing into a heart of India, trains are your choice.

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Sunset in Mumbai

The November terrorist attacks on Mumbai was something we had worried about before landing in the city, but to look at the place it was as though they had never happened. In any city with such a varied and ethnic population, it had probably not fully been disseminated. Sometimes, I have wondered about the quick dissemination of news. Does it actually help or hinder? Is, in a very real sense, ignorance bliss? In India, of course, they are as used to terrorism as any Londoner. Terror was in at the birth of this nation, it was in the separation from Pakistan, it never leaves. I think perhaps that they have become numb to it.

This is what I thought as I sat at the table. Leopold’s cafe is a travellers legend. Not least of all because of the famous gangster novel, supposedly mostly true, called “Shantaram”. In that book, which I read in two days (a sure sign that I didn’t enjoy it), the main character is taken here by a local guide and it is here that he meets his friends for the first time. In my mind, I imagined something grander. Something with a “old empire” feel, like some of the journalist bars we had visited in places such as Cambodia. In fact, it is nothing of the sort. It is a cafe like a greasy spoon.

Albeit one with machine gun marks on the walls.

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Wudang Mountain: A Basho Film

In 2009 Cesca and I visited the amazing slopes of Wudang Mountain. The mountain is located roughly in northwestern part of Hubei Province of China.  This peak is part of the larger Wudang Shan mountain range that runs through the area, but it is this particular peak that is the most famous. This is due […]

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This is India

I flipped out my phone and called the hotel. We were waiting outside the Mumbai airport, it was late, dark and the pickup area was badly lit by the low lightbulbs common all over the country. There was a long line of waiting taxi drivers all holding placards, but none with my name on. They stood all silent, like the crowd in a Greek tragedy, watching our every move. As if, suddenly, we were about to remember who we really were and claim the name on one of their boards.

The phone connected and rang.

“Hello?” Came a voice, its strong India accent being the very first I had heard since landing.

“Hello, there. Basho here, I booked a pickup. Tell me, has our driver arrived at the airport?”

“Yes, he is there,” assured the voice.

“Great,” I looked around at the horde of drivers. “Whereabouts? I can’t see him.”

“15 minutes he will get there, he’s leaving now.”

15 minutes? I asked myself, “You said he was already here. Is he here?”

“Yes. He is there.”

“Where?”

“15 minutes, he will leave in a moment.”

I was beginning to get confused. “Leave? The hotel? But, is here actually here or not?”

“Yes, he is there.”

I must admit that a little incredulity crept into my voice, “So, you say he is here already, but he hasn’t left yet and will be here in 15 minutes?”

“Yes I call him and tell him to leave to come pick you up.”

“Thank you,” I said and I hung up.

Cesca came up to me, saw the confusion in my face and said, “Where is the driver?”

“He has yet to collapse as a waveform. He is both right here and yet also 15 minutes away.”

She furrowed her brow, Quantum jokes being lost on her, “What?”

“He has not yet achieved a Quantum state of 1.”

“Look, I’m tired, please make sense.”

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Our Pilgrimage to Gandhi

**UPDATE – LOTS OF NEW IMAGES!*

Welcome back to the travel blogging. Our amazing, 12 month, around the world journey had so far taken us to the far side of the world, the jungles of South East Asia and now was to come our most incredible experience yet.

Now we had arrived in India.

Over the next few weeks, I will be presenting a number of article on the subject of our travels in this most exotic of countries. We explored almost every inch of it, from the cities, beaches, mountains, deserts, jungles and wet lands. Along the way we took in some of the most holy sights in the entire world, including Elora, The great Taj Mahal, Varanasi, Sarnath, the Bodhi Tree and even stood in the presence of the remains of the Great Lord Buddha himself.

It was 3 months to remember.

To kick us off, I have this article by none other than Cesca herself. This was her experience trying to find the Gandhi Museum hidden somewhere in Mumbai. This was our pilgrimage to Gandhi:

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Bangkok and the Railway of Death

Many people speak of trekking in the north of Thailand, but such over-popular options are not the flavour we go for. Instead, we had read of tours starting from Bangkok that would combine the amazing jungles around the Burmese border with a trip to the Bridge on the River Kwai and the Death Railway.

Our trip started out with a small bus full of people. What would this be like? The trips we had been on in Vietnam had essentially disappointed.

No so this one!

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Bangkok, city of a thousand names

Thailand, again we arrived in Thailand, but this time by air.

The siege of Bangkok airport, which had messed us about so much the last time, was over. The president was back in country (he sneaked in via Chiang Mai) and the king was appealing for calm. In fact, the situation in Thailand was no longer bothering us. Rather, the emerging details of the heinous Mumbai massacre had us a little worried. We were due to fly to the city in four days, but the government was counselling that all but essential travel be cancelled.

Cesca and I logged into the web to find an update.

“The government site says don’t go,” she said.

“Then we cannot,” I replied crestfallen.

Cesca looked very disappointed. “But, India is the reason I wanted to come away to travel!” I looked at her, and I knew that we must face the possibility of not going, of shunting the entire trip forwards three months. It was a daunting prospect.

“Let’s look around the web, I will try on the Thorntree.”

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Hanoi, Halong Bay and Tet New Year – Part Three!

The travel blogging is back!

Note: This is the third part of a complete three part article that completes our time in Vietnam. This entry continues our adventures in Halong Bay and the wonder that is Tet in Hanoi.

The next day we were taken to a large island and dropped off. There we were given a bike each. These were frankly terrible bikes and I got the distinct impression that that staff did not expect us to ride them. They expected us to pay for a moped instead. An older couple from our group did so, but Cesca and I insisted on riding and so set off. The chain fell off immediately, so Cesca changed her bike and we set off. The wheels locked immediately, so Cesca changed her bike again and we set off. The seat fell off immediately, so Cesca took my bike, I got another one, and we set off.

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Basho’s 5 Amazing Spider Encounters From Around The World

Introduction and warning
Travelling in the hotter parts of the world brings you mano a monster with all sorts of creatures that you’re not used to. I am an Englishman and normally to be found in the company of nothing more exciting than a fox or a cow. On my travels, I was suddenly in contact with everything from camels to snakes to sharks, which threatened to knock me right out of my comfort zone. However, nothing prepared me to face the creature I am normally highly adverse to…

You see, I left England with one particular animal dislike: that of spiders.

I’m not sure what they have done to deserve it, but it seems almost instinctive. I just cant stand them. They give me the impression of being unhappy, of being mean, of being violent. Spiders in the UK may not be able to envenomate a human, but that doesn’t stop them from trying. I have been bitten by an English spider, and it was a little shocking to actually feel it. I hoped I wouldn’t be bitten by any on my travels. I traced this fear back to my early teens where a nest of the little blighters was on the wall in my room and I awoke to find myself crawling with them. But, if I am honest with myself, it goes back even further than that. I vividly recall, at the age of 6, bursting into tears when my mother gave me a wind-up spider as a Christmas present. It is amazing that a childhood memory can trigger a certain response; in I find myself killing them when they are present. In England this usually amounts to a fencing lunge while wearing shoes, or the services of a cat, but then English spiders are generally small – what is to be done when the spider is bigger?

The correct way to conquer a fear is to face it down. This worked with my childhood fear of the dark (cured by locking myself in the airing cupboard) and with my fear of heights (by my jumping off the highest bungee in New Zealand). Sitting here now, can I say the following tales have cured me of a fear of spiders? I will leave that to the end of the article, after my memory has disgorged these scuttling 8-legged tales.

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Hanoi, Halong Bay and Tet New Year – Part Two

Note: This is the second part of a complete three part article that completes our time in Vietnam. We continue with our trip into Halong Bay

 

The trip cost us $85, and we were lucky, others on our boat later told us what they had paid anything from $80 to $160 each for exactly the same experience.

The bus arrived at the dock’s edge (having visited the ubiquitous tourist-shucking-shop on the way) and we joined the scrum waiting for their boats. It was there that I started to come up with a theory:

What appears to happen, to my sceptical mind, is that the tour guide from the hotel is actually an agent from one of these travel cafes. He arrives with busload of suckers, all who have been sold “luxury” cruises and generally up-sold as much as possible, and then goes into the dock office and passes you off into that system for a commission.

Then he buggers off.

Now you are in another system, which has bought you all at the same price. This is why paying more makes no difference to the client. To the agent, paying more goes straight into his pocket. So now, you are randomly’ishly assigned a boat by block and shuffled aboard. The boat crew have paid the office a small amount for membership of the boat club and they then earn all their money, beyond a cut of the price, in the reselling of extras. This explains why a beer is £4 and they hate you bringing your own water.

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Hanoi, Halong Bay & Tet New Year – Part One

The travel blogging is back!

Note: This is the first part of a final three part article that completes our time in Vietnam. The next part will be auto posted in 4 days and the third part 4 days after that.

This was the last stop on our tour of Vietnam and almost the last stop in the whole of South East Asia. It had been a long winding road up this thin and sunny country. A long winding road inside us too; as the further we travelled around SEA the more we felt changed by our time here. We wanted it to be an ending to remember. Luckily, the Vietnamese were only too willing to provide one hell of a party to see us off.

This was because in a few days it was Tet. To the Vietnamese this is Xmas, New Year’s Eve and everyone’s birthday all on the same day.

We arrived in Hanoi by, the now commonality, of a “Crush Bus” and were dumped unceremoniously on the outskirts of the city by the corner of a set of turnpikes. Traffic ran seemingly in all directions around us as we negotiated our bags off the bus.

Sitting on the sidewalk for a few moments, we almost fell prey to the taxi drivers who descended on the arriving tourists like fisherman who have just spotted a large shoal of fish. Cesca and I watched as the newer tourists were netted, gutted for cash, placed in small packed tins and driven off into the city. Clearly the bus company had dropped us here as a way of supporting outrageous taxi fees, probably for some sort of kick back. I looked around; the Hotel was probably only 30 meters away as the crow flies, but from here, well most would pay anything to get away from all this traffic. Cesca waved away all prowling taxi drivers and we sat on our bags and waited. After a while, we were the only tourists left and indeed the bus moved on as well. Only a few unlucky taxi drivers remained.

Good. We were ready.

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Rohan pillow talk: Guest Post 3 for Rohan Clothing

This is a cross post written by Basho, originally posted on www.rohantime.com

Why this train?

This night on this train? The Calcutta to Delhi train is one of the classic overnight Indian journeys. In India the train service is split into multiple classes. You have the scrum and battle of unreserved third, and frankly that class scares me. Then you have reserved third that is not much better, but at least you don’t need to fight for your seat, not that you would particularly want it when you get it. Then you have 3rd sleeper, which requires a career in Olympic gymnastics to use as each birth has beds stacked in triplicate up the wall. Next comes 2nd AC, which is where we aim for. It is like 3rd, but the beds are in the much more reasonable double bunks and you get a pillow. Or at least you should. It is a very late train tonight when we join at Agra, and the rest of the hundred person carriage is fast a sleep, something that I will not be able to join them in as, (a) the snorers have started in earnest and (b) I don’t have a pillow.

Trying to be as quiet as possible I search the small berth for the missing item. The white sheets are folded in place at the end of the bed, as is the rough and itchy looking blanket, but there is no sign of the pillow.

It was at this point that my Rohan Cloudbase Jacket came to my rescue. […]

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Rohan Anywear Always – Guest Post 2 for Rohan Clothing

This is a cross post written by Basho, originally posted on www.rohantime.com

Shimla, Himachal Pradesh, Northern India. Escaping to the cool of the mountains was essential after the 40 degree heat of the deserts of Rajasthan. Up here the bright sun is tempered with the breeze blowing off the snow covered mountains of Tibet, visible in the distance but over 80 miles away.

Trying to plan for the unexpected, when limited to 25kg of weight in your pack, can be daunting. Warm clothes usually take up lots of space and weigh you down. Wet weather clothes often won’t pack down tight and can stay wet for days after use. Not to mention breakages. When you are doing all sort of activities from brush-cutting in the Australian Outback, crossing the sering deserts of Jaisalmer on a camel, bungee jumping off the bridges of New Zealand or hiking through the jungles of the Thai/Burma border, you need clothes that can stand up to abuse and yet still be smart enough to wear in a top Singapore Restaurant.

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Varanasi City of Gods – Special Edition

How does it make one feel to be in one of the most “holy” cities in the world?

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The Buddhist Wallpaper Collection

Donate to orphans and download now!

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Hoi An and Hue

The gems of Vietnam?

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Vietnam: Cu Chi, the Mekong and Nha Trang

We meet with the crazy Cao Dai!

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Hong Kong City Blues : A Basho Film

The magical night skyline of Hong Kong

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Vietnam – Cambodia to Ho Chi Minh city

Our mental historical maps get changed forever

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Laos, the gem of Indochina – a cultural connection

The missing Laos post by Cesca is found

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Guest post for Rohan clothing

A few weeks ago the CEO of Rohan clothing emailed me and asked if I would write them a guest post about for their new website Rohantime.com.

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Cambodia – devils and angels

Despair and hope in the Cambodian capital

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Khmer Temple Photo Special

Khmer temple images from our collection

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Cambodia – Journey to Angkor

Spiderville stands between us and the wats, can we escape the 8 legged freaks?

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Temples of Angkor : A Basho Film

We visit the amazing Angkor Wat, Cambodia

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Laos P.D.R. – Mekong meanderings

“Life is a musical thing and you’re supposed to sing or dance along the way"

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Tracking the Predator : A Basho Film

Get up close with a wild Tiger!

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Laos PDR – history & heart

Our Journey continues into the Heart of South East Asia: Laos!

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The American War

The after effects of the war in South East Asia

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An Island Nation

Existence by virtue of land and sea

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Lets go tubing! A Basho Film

"Lets go tubing!" This video highlights the crazy day my friends and I had while tubing the legendary Mekong river in Vang Veng, Laos, South East Asia in November 2008.

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Malaysia: Highlands to Langkawi

Heaven is but a boat journey away...

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Malaysia: Melaka to Kuala Lumpur

"Tuk Tuk, sir?"

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Singapore: Gateway to SE Asia

The hottest cold city in the world!

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New Zealand WWOOFing at Furneaux Lodge

Will the second time be any better than the first?

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New Zealand : A Basho Film

A short (10 minute) film highlighting New Zealand. Includes whales in Kaikoura, Fjords, Glaciers by Helicopter, The far north, the Volcanic heart, the sounds and a trip through the forests of this magical country!

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The Volcanic Heart

Central North Island simmers and steams, bubbles and spews...

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Mountains of New Zealand

Bilbo: "I want to see mountains again, mountains Gandalf!

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Northland: Part Two

Basho and Cesca meet Tane Mahuta - The God of the Forest

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North to Cape Reinga

We visit New Zealand's great beach - 90 miles of freedom!

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Fear is the mind killer

Cesca skydives 15,000ft and Basho jumps the 134m highwire Nevis bungy!

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Auckland

Basho and Cesca visit the largest city in New Zealand

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Welcome to New Zealand

We fall in love in the real MiddleEarth!

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Travel Blogging Kit List

A writers guide to what to take!

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Melbourne

Victoria's mighty city of lights!

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The Great Ocean Road

A driving journey of great beauty

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The Ghan train, finding Franco and Adelaide

A train ride to remember!

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A Basho Film : Australia

A short fun film highlighting our trip to Australia, showing some of the fantastic things we saw in this wonderful country. A tribute to the nation before we move on to New Zealand…

Oh! comments about the new intro welcome!

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Kangaroo Island WWOOFing

WWOOFing for the 1st time on KI

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A Basho Film: Colours of Uluru

Welcome,

Here is the latest short film for your enjoyment.  This one shows our amazing time at Uluru over sunset and sunrise.  See how the colours of the rock change in response to the light!

As always comments are most welcome,

Regards,

Basho

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The Sanctuary

We find bliss in the rain forests of Australia

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Uluru and The Outback

Beating about the bush! AKA: "A dingo stole my marshmallows!"

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Byron Bay

The wonder of Byron Bay!

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A Basho Film: Blue Hunter

Here is the next in the line of Basho Films.

I am working hard on the next one and have something a little special in mind from then on.  I love creating them and hope to show some vastly improved technique over the coming months!  I have some simply amazing […]

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The Great Barrier Reef

Diving on the PADI Advanced course!

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Australia Zoo

We visit the home of The Crocodile Hunter, Crikey!

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The Hunter Valley

All praise the god of wine!

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A Basho Film: Sydney Harbour!

Thanks for all the fantastic feedback on the last Basho Film! 

Here is the latest, I present Sydney Harbour!

There is already another to upload and many more to come including Australia Zoo!

If you like it please either leave a comment or digg/stumble it.

Regards,

Basho

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A Basho Film: San Francisco!

I finally found enough bandwidth to upload my first travel film; San Francisco! I hope you like it and all comments are very welcome.  This is the first of a ongoing set of films outlining our travels over the next year.  Next to come is Sydney (complete) and Hunter […]

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The Blue Mountains

I can see my house from here!

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Sydney

Fantastic! Yeah, that'll be right!

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San Francisco

24 hours in "The City!"

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James’ Travel Packing

What do you need for a year long adventure?  Don’t ask me, it’s my first time!  Nevertheless, I am taking all this:

Shown here is:

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Leaving on a Jet Plane – don’t know when I’ll be back again!

The flat is empty – everything is in storage.

I leave work tomorrow for good – can’t wait!

The bags are packed – full to the brim for a year’s worth of travel!
Basho is going global.
On the 22nd of June, Cesca and I are leaving these shores to go on […]

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