I don’t quite know how to start this. I might have had nine months in some of the most incredible parts of the world to give me inspiration, but this is probably the toughest post – if not one of the hardest pieces of writing – I’ll ever have to tap out on the screen in front of me.
I’m sitting in a very comfortable World Traveller Plus seat, looking down as New York disappears below me. Even British Airways must have detected my sombre mood at check-in. Despite expecting to pay anything up to a £250 charge for missing my flight from LA to New York, to enable me to drive from coast to coast, I instead got a complimentary upgrade.
Perhaps our flag carrier sensed from my itinerary it had been something of an epic journey, and that it needed something special to soften the impending hammer blow of returning back to reality
Yet even the extra legroom, wide, extra-padded seats, the three little buttons to control everything from lumber support to the extra recline, and the sumptuous upgraded menu is struggling to put me in a frame of mind where I can accurately put into words how I am feeling right now.
Going home was always going to be a difficult part of my journey, but the strange mixture of emotions flowing through me is different to what I had expected. One minute I am incredibly sad that the adventure I had looked forward to, a once-in-a-lifetime journey, that has brought so many positives, friends and fun to my life, is now over.
Yet there is also a sense that I am now looking ahead, a feeling that I am returning home to a fresh start, a new future, a clean slate to get my life at home back on track, concentrate on my career and plan more adventures in the future with the countless new friends and favourite places I have come across and discovered.
And of course, there is the excitement at seeing my family and friends again, who I left amid tears and beers in October, not knowing really how long it would be before I would be back. Sure, the intended return was May, but deep down I think I always knew it would be longer.
Amid all of this, somehow I need to write a post that sums up how I am feeling knowing I am just hours away from touching down at Heathrow and seeing my parents once again. After all, every good story needs a beginning, a middle and an end. A jaunt across Russia on the trans-Siberian railway provided something extraordinary to write about back then, and in doing so became a perfect starting point for my ongoing journal.
The middle wrote itself, with the Chinese tea scam catching me out and resulting in a ride in a police car; falls off motorbikes and cycles leaving me with lasting scars and memories of this eventful trip; learning to dive, learning to make coffee and learning that Australia is a very, very expensive place to visit.
It was helped along with a good dose of problems – Thailand trains being delayed by six hours, leaving me to sleep rough on a platform for the night; a pain in the backside lodger back home that did a runner on me, leaving
my finances in ruins and putting my whole trip in jeopardy, a couple of Germans who managed to alienate an entire tour group I was on, being kicked out of a hostel in Darwin thanks to a ridiculous stay extension system, and who could forget about the time when I laughed at the spirits of Uluru…resulting in a broken down car and a sky-high outback garage repair bill for a good friend of mine. Who would have thought a fuel pump could cause so many problems?
There have been plenty of highlights too that have given me plenty to write home about – bungy jumps, skydives and icy adventures in New Zealand, some of the best friends I could ever wish for in my ‘Ballarat family’ in Australia, learning to surf on the waves of the Pacific, managing to drive all the way along Route 66 in a week, New Year on Thailand’s beautiful islands, climbing the Great Wall of China, the magnificent insight into history at the Terracotta Warriors and travelling on the fastest public transport in the world in Shanghai. The bone shaking 433km/hr we reached on that Maglev will live long in the memory.
As I look in the British Airways Highlife magazine, I flick through to the map of the world, complete with all the BA destinations, and think back to that dull day in October when I did a similar thing and marvelled at how far I was about to travel. I looked at the maps of Asia, Australia and America and thought about how far away everything seemed. Returning home at the end of it all seemed just a distant thought, yet now on this flight I look at that same map and spot all of the places I have been. Suddenly the world looks and seems very small.
It has certainly been an experience getting around this great planet of ours, and here are a few of the figures involved.
- 304 days
- 26,000 miles (and probably a bit more!)
- 14 flights
- 13 long distance trains
- 7 tuk tuks
- 6 motorbikes
- 6 hired or borrowed cars
- 4 cycles
- 1 helicopter
- 1 campervan (courtesy Matt and Siobhan)
- 1 police car (Chinese tea scam)
- 2 trips to hospital (to visit Dirk)
- 2 crashes (one motorbike, one cycle)
- 1 bout of serious food poisoning (Malaysia, Christmas, great!)
- 300,000 words (and counting) on my blog
- Around 35 packs of two minute noodles
- 3 boxes of souvenirs sent home
So what have I learnt on this journey? After all, so many people were telling me how I will return as a changed person. Its difficult to say whether I am or not – that will perhaps be down to close friends and family to be the judge of that.
What I can say is that I return to British soil a much happier, relaxed, enlightened and clear-thinking person than I was before. I return with a whole load of new mates, too. Whether they are living on the other side of the globe in Australia or New Zealand, or close to home in Nottingham or London, I know I am lucky to have met some fantastic people who I am proud to call friends. Be they Colin and Sarah, who I had so much fun and banter with in southeast Asia, Dan and Laura, who I got to know thanks to an unfortunate chicken-dropping incident in Adelaide, only to go on and spend the next two weeks travelling north together, Russ, Soap and the Magic Bus team in New Zealand, Santi and Galli, my Spanish friends I met on the trans-Siberian railway, Jen from London, but with links to Lincolnshire, who I met in Thailand after she shouted abuse at me for staying too long on Koh Phangan, or Liz, a fellow journalist I met in Chiang Mai who I stopped by to visit at her home in Newcastle, Australia.
There are countless other people too, who nine months ago were complete strangers, yet fate and our paths of travel led us to meet at some of the most interesting parts of the world. As I celebrated my birthday just yesterday, I had one of those moments when I realised just how many new people have become part of my life in such a short space of time. Humbled by some 130+ thoughtful messages and birthday wishes on my Facebook wall, I looked through the list of names. Among them, around a third were from people around the world who, during the last few months, got to know me as I did them, shared memories, travelled together and became part of each others’ lives.
When travelling, background, nationality, gender, sexuality and race do not matter. When you walk into a hostel, step onto a plane or spend four days and four nights on one train, you are simply a traveller, a backpacker, and part of a brilliant community of people all making their way in one direction or another around planet Earth.
And then there are the scores of renewed friendships that this journey has allowed me to refresh. The time spent with Hannah in Thailand, another journalist I once met on a plane returning from New York, but strangely had never met back home. Yet we were both travelling at the same time, met up in Thailand, who introduced me to her friend Laura and who we went on to spend a few brilliant weeks laughing, travelling, learning to dive, drinking far too many beers and buckets together and inventing the whole new game of the 7-Eleven bar crawl.
There was Neil, my old friend from Pizza Hut in Grimsby who I had last seen some 13 years ago and who now lives in Alice Springs, slap bang in the centre of Australia. A great guy who took a leap of faith by lending me his car for a trip to the outback,
only for it to break down on me and land him with a bill for more than $1,000. Yet despite that, not once did he grumble about what had happened. Our conversations continued from where they left off in the Pizza Hut staffroom in the late Nineties, our friendship was renewed, and I know that after losing touch, once again we are good mates again despite the distance.
There is Katrina in Sydney, another close friend who has helped me with accommodation on more than one occasion in her beautiful city since we met in upstate New York while working on the summer camp in 2002.
And of course one of the best renewed friendships was that with Nat, another close friend from Camp Nashopa in 2002 who, without a thought, offered me a place to stay in Ballarat, where I could stay for free, sort out my finances, plan the next part of my trip, and in the process, meet more new friends. Jess and her daughter Liv, who also invited me into their home (along with their pet dog Cleo, whose hairs I am still finding in my luggage and between the keys of my notepad), along with friends James and Jane who welcomed me into their circle of family and friends for three brilliant months.
My time in Ballarat was easily one of the highlights of my nine months away. For a few weeks, I had a bit of routine and a place I could call home. Helping out at the Lake View Hotel, days out on the coast, pizza nights in and so many laughs that my cheeks are still recovering from all the aches.
The term ‘Ballarat family’ I have already mentioned in this post, but it’s a term that quite describes how we became. For those few weeks, those special people in that part of Victoria could not do enough for me, and for that I will forever be indebted. For a few weeks in particular, times grew very hard and difficult, when a lodger in my house back home ran away owing more than £1,000 in rent.
Yet, despite only knowing Jess and James for a few weeks, they were there for me throughout with endless help with internet supply, generous supplies of meals, far too many beers and coffees shouted for me and the brilliant ability to put a smile on my face and give me a much needed hug when things got on top of me.
Nat not only offered me a place to stay, but introduced me to a new band of friends that I am lucky to know, and who, thanks to their love and support, stopped me from returning home when times got particularly hard. With just a couple of hundred pounds in my account back home, and finding it so tempting to just fly back to sort the problems out with my house in person, it was Jess who gave me some all important advice.
“Things will work themselves out. They always do.”
And they did, through some of the most remarkable ways. Not only did I end up tracking my elusive housemate down, claiming some money back from her (and there will be more chased up through court on my return) but I began making contacts within the travel industry
Which brings me on to this very blog, my website, afishoutofgrimsby. I don’t quite know where to start with this, mainly because it snowballed from something that I thought would be a good personal record, and something to keep the parents and friends up to date with what I have been up to, into something that in the end, helped me out with my travels in a way I never thought possible.
I bought the domain name through WordPress after having a laugh with colleagues about how I, one of the most accident prone and clumsy people in the Look North newsroom, would probably struggle to make it around the world on my own. I’d be like a fish out of water, came the call – a man out of his depth.
“It worries me how you’ll ever make it round the world,” said one producer to me after I’d once again lost my car and house keys in some obscure place in the office.
And that was my inspiration for the website name, what with Grimsby being famous for its fishing heritage and all that. My friends laughed and agreed when I came up with it, all promising that they would check in on it from time to time.
It was a steep learning curve to begin with. I’ve never set up a website before, and it was tricky to get my head around the layout and photo placement tools at first. Gradually, however, I got the hang of it, devising my own style and layout that was the most time efficient to upload yet easy to read and follow. It was my personal diary, written in a news story form at times, but for what I thought would be a few dozen close friends.
Now, more than 18,000 hits later, and being picked up and running as a weekly column in the Grimsby Telegraph back home, afishoutofgrimsby became something I just had to keep up. Its been difficult at times – spending so much time on the road, action packed days, nights out and early starts, combined with the pressure to be as sociable as possible, meant that I often spent any spare time I had tapping on a keyboard to keep the blog posts flowing. But poor internet, especially in Australia, New Zealand and Fiji, meant it was hard to keep up to date. Uploading the photos for one post alone would take up to three hours due to the file sizes, while the layout of each post easily takes another two hours, on top of the time it takes to write each one.
Yet I knew that it would be worth it. I already look back at my posts from the first half of my travels and there are reminders of people and events that have already slipped my mind. And then, in Australia, with daily reader number growing, the website helped me down another avenue. I got in touch with Great Southern Rail, who enjoyed my website so much, they offered me travel on the famous Overland and Ghan trains from Melbourne to Darwin – the regular price of which would set me back some $2,500.
I had to put the work in, of course, but that was something I was already doing. In return, I found a way of subsidising my travel, and I know the posts were very well received by the railway company.
Following on from that success, Tourism New Zealand, which promotes the country, along with the Magic Bus, who tours the country, got me onboard with a hefty discount and free-of-charge media scheme when I arrived after my stay in Australia. It was a breakthrough that enabled me to experience New Zealand and all of the exciting activities in a way I never thought possible. My budget would never have stretched to even a quarter of the days out and adrenalin attractions that I actually experienced, yet this once little website that I hoped would prevent me from explaining the same stories over and over again back home had now started helping me with more exciting things to write about.
To that extent, I’ll miss being attached to my netbook and its now polished-smooth keys from my fingertips. I’ll miss looking out for interesting little tit-bits that I come across to tell people about back home. When something goes wrong, it will once again just be something that goes wrong. There will be no more “ah well, its something for the blog” excuses. I’ll miss taking far more photographs than normal, just because the website might need it to explain a story. And I’ll miss all of the kind comments and support from those regular readers back home who have been with me for the ride.
Because that is how it has felt at times. I may have been thousands of miles away from home, off the beaten track, sometimes fed up, hungry or tired in the middle of nowhere, yet it was always so comforting knowing that in some way, everyone was with me. I’d look forward to mum and dad talking to me about something I had written, or the odd email dropping into my inbox from a friend or work contact who I had made laugh, cry or smile with some of my writing. Or a note from a complete stranger, somewhere on Earth, who had somehow stumbled across my website and been inspired to get in touch after reading about my journey.
Every day I would get a breakdown of where my website is being read, and the number of different countries and flags around the world that pop up still continues to stagger me. It was never part of my plan, yet I’m pleased it became part of my travelling experience. The knowledge that people were actually enjoying it – and still enjoying it nine months on, judging by the ever increasing views – was what kept me going, often until two or three o clock in the morning, to make sure that everything was kept up to date as possible.
So where does afishoutofgrimsby go from here? To be honest, I still don’t know. My day to day job and career can limit my personal thoughts going out into the public domain somewhat, but perhaps there can be a way of continuing it through future travels or adventures. There is also a plan to turn it into a book, something mentioned to me by more than a few fellow travellers and friends along the way. Again, that is something I never imagined I would ever accomplish, yet I owe it to myself to at least explore the idea. And there will probably be a couple more updates as I make the transition back from a backpacking traveller into a clean-cut television reporter.
Yes, it will mean the longer hair will probably have to go, the travelling wristbands and cotton bracelets from tubing in Laos will have to be removed, and the shaver will definitely be brought back into daily action. But it has been great to throw myself into ‘traveller mode’ for a few months. It might have been a bit of a bet with a few friends from home not to get my hair cut for the entire duration of my trip, but now I’ve got used to it, I’m not sure it will be an easy day under the scissors. It might be providing Dad with plenty of ‘get your hair cut’ comments, but on the whole, the positive words of support for the longer locks far outweigh the negatives.
Even my closest friend Dan, who uttered ‘you and that horrible hair’ to me on the phone a few days before I arrived at his house in Connecticut, was forced to admit that he actually quite liked it. “I think it actually suits you,” he said. I’m still not too sure whether he meant it.
Aside from getting my barnet cut, there is also a family holiday to look forward to just a matter of hours after I step foot back in the country. Its dads 60th, and his wish is for us all to be together as a family for it, so we’re travelling to Cape Verde to be with my sister who is working out there. It will be the first time in two years that we have all spent quality time together, and its fair to say we’re all looking forward to it.
I’m now halfway over the Atlantic, cruising along at 613mph according to the little screen in front of me, and I’ve realised I have been rattling on for some time. Its probably time I get round to some thankyous.
I have been fortunate enough to meet so many incredible people on this journey, both friends and acquaintances who have made me laugh, shared a pint, offered a bed, cooked me a meal, given advice, lent a hand, loaned me a car, picked me up, taken photos, driven me around and generally been there for me when I have needed it. I have met countless others who have simply been part of the journey, on tours, day trips, on flights or on boats, or who I have just bumped into in a street and enjoyed a conversation with. There are far too many people to name, but for all those I have had the pleasure of meeting, chatting to, passing the time with, travelling with, sharing and helping to make some wonderful memories with, I thank you with all my heart.
I must thank the companies and organisations in Australia and New Zealand, who, thanks to their free of charge offers and schemes, enabled me to do more than I ever dreamed of doing on this trip.
A huge thankyou to my managers and colleagues at the BBC, who have been fully behind my travels and gave my career break and website their full backing, including a lot of behind the scenes work with clearance regarding the Grimsby Telegraph newspaper column and some hastily rearranged return dates, knowing the knock-on effect it can have on contracts and extensions for other staff.
The biggest thankyou has to go to those of you who are reading this, who inspired me to keep going, to keep writing and to keep staying up until all hours, timing uploads and new posts to coincide with the working day in the UK, and who have encouraged me to share my experiences. I really have felt your support as I have made my way around the globe.
And finally, to my family, in particular my dad, Graham, and mum Lynda, who despite questioning my reasons for travelling in those early days when it was just an idea and queried whether I was putting my career at risk, got fully behind me and gave me their full support. When times got hard, it was my parents I turned to despite the miles, who have helped with visits to my house in Hull and subbed me a loan to help me finish my journey when I needed it.
I will miss watching my dad make his Treasure Hunt-esque visits to the huge map of the world they bought and placed behind them so I could see it in our Skype chats. He ran out of pins to stick in it the other day, after I clearly visited far more places than he originally thought. It was mums fault apparently. I’ll also miss watching how the postcards I sent from around the world would, one-by-one, appear on the frame of the map. An ongoing progress chart, but a gesture in itself that showed me how much my parents were behind me. At times, I’d like to think they got almost as much fun out of it all as me, plotting my journey, following my flights and reading my updates from the latest far-flung land.
Their support meant the world to me, and while it was hard missing Christmas and birthdays with them this year, I know I will treasure our family time from now on.
You see, if there is one thing this trip has taught me, it is how I take everything in my life back home for granted. The best friends I could ever wish for, good health and a loving family. Sure, a nice house, car and a bit of disposable income are great, but in the grand scheme of things, and having lived on a tight budget for the last nine months, if there is one thing I have learnt it is indeed the old cliché that money isn’t everything.
I have travelled through some of the poorest areas in the world, where people live on just $1 a day, who just a generation ago lived in fear of their lives under brutal regimes, and who call a tin shed their home.
Yet, however poor, however destitute and however hungry or thirsty they may be, they would always have a smile. A welcoming hand, a thankyou, a look in their eyes that says ‘you’re welcome here’. And that was a huge lesson for me.
And so I get back to my initial train of thought. While I may have had a beginning, and plenty of stories in the middle, this tale of a certain ‘fish out of Grimsby’ needs an end.
For that, I refer to some scribbled words on a hostel wall in my first few days of travelling in China. It was dark, I was on my own, and I was sipping a beer. My eyes wandered through the hutong lanes and upon the messages that had been scrawled by hundreds of travellers before me. My eyes became fixed on one of them, a message that seemed to resonate, and one that helped me sum up my reasons for making such an epic journey in the first place. I will never know the anonymous person who wrote it, but it was a few simple words that I hope inspire others thinking of putting their day to day life on hold for a while, taking a leap of faith from the rat race, and discovering the big beautiful world of ours that we are lucky enough to call home.
“Life is like a book – there’s a beginning, a middle and an end. The story that fills the pages in the middle is entirely down to you.
“But without travel, you can struggle to get past the first page.”
I realise I have been so fortunate to have this incredible opportunity, and its been a pleasure sharing part of my story with you. And who knows – maybe one day, there will be a second chapter.