Lockdown Challenge: 10 Travel Photos

I was nominated by Helen for this ten favourite travel images ‘challenge’ thing on Facebook. Unlike everyone else, I’ve decided not to string it out over 10 days – and I thought I’d compile all ten images on here.

Photo 1: Red Square, Moscow, (then in the Soviet Union) – March 1991.

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In the days when cameras were cameras, you either didn’t take photos or accepted that rubbish ones came along when they did. I managed to get this utterly terrible photo in one of the most amazing places on Earth and it’s my only photographic record that I was ever there. The resolution is shocking, the fashions are highly questionable and I offer no excuse at all for that bum bag. To the right of the picture is Lenin’s mausoleum (I didn’t bother viewing the body), behind me is The Kremlin, specifically the Spassky Tower and just perfectly out of shot to the left of the frame is St. Basil’s Cathedral, one of the most astounding sights in the world.

All things considered, this is a truly awful photo that just happens to remind me of an amazing, unique two-week coming-of-age experience. BTW, I’m stood next to Mike, my Russian exchange student host, whom I still haven’t managed to find on Facebook.

Photo 2: 107th Floor Observation Area, South Tower, World Trade Center, New York City, USA – January 1994

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That’s me with the hair, looking through the binoculars north to mid-town Manhattan, at 1,310 feet. Shockingly, the guy in the baseball cap behind me, who looks like he’s about to mug the lady in the headscarf, is Martin.

I’m not going to lie: it was 1994, still in the pre-digital, pre-social world so, in lieu of an actual photograph, this has been screen-grabbed from a very shonky home video recording, hence the stunningly poor quality (again) of *another* world-famous landmark.

Famously, just over seven and a half years later, the ‘Twin Towers‘ would be no more, making this an especially poignant memory. Hopefully, there are places in eternal Hell for all those involved in that atrocity. I’m tempted to wish for the same fate for all involved in developing the ludicrous ‘white balance’ setting on 1990s video cameras that just loved to reset to default and white out priceless experiences like this. Most of our NYC footage is next to useless because of it. If you thought John Lennon’s house in Berkshire looked eerily white in the video for ‘Imagine’, it’s nothing compared to our footage of his place at the Dakota Building, overlooking Central Park.

Kinda kicking myself that we did’t stop for a photo more. A quick pose on the helipad at the Manhattan helicopter tour would have been a great idea. Good times, though…

Photo 3: The Grand Canyon, Arizona, USA – November 2002
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You may be tempted (again) to mock my sartorial style – who wears a fleece and a Bez hat to the desert? Before you do, you should know that, as a result of some unfortunately-chosen breakfast items in Las Vegas the day before, I’d contracted food poisoning and spent most of the preceding night wondering which way to point in the bathroom. As a result, my internal thermostat was all over the place.

Having cleared out the system, I’d taken nothing but water and Pepto-Bismol for the six hours before having to get into a light aircraft for the short flight over the Hoover Dam and on to the edge of the Canyon. Predictably, it didn’t go well and I can now claim to be one of a select number of people who have sprayed fluorescent pink liquid into 3 or 4 sick bags inside a small plane over the location once voted Number 1 in the list of ’50 Places To See Before You Die’.

I believe we were near Eagle Rock at this point but to be honest, I could just about stand up, let alone remember many details. Even in my highly diminished state, it was still one of the most magical experiences of my life.

Photo 4: The Eiffel Tower, Paris, France – August 2013

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Finally, a photo in which the photographer, the technology and the subject are all fully functional.  I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been to Paris but I’ll never forget my first visit there, on my 18th birthday, in the year of its 100th anniversaire.  This sojourn in 2013 (en route back to Calais from Bordeaux) was an opportunity to go to the top of the famous Parisian landmark for the first time since my very first visit, over twenty years previously.

Once we’d returned to ground level, we decided to take this picture to mark the occasion.  I have loads of pictures of the Eiffel Tower but this unusual angle of its familiar shape illuminated against the night sky is my absolute favourite.

 

Photo 5:  Villa del Balbianello, Lago di Como, Italy – May 2014

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I really can’t say what part of the world makes me happiest but Lake Como has to be in the Top 5.  The food, the pace of life, the scenery and the micro-climate make this such an enchanting place to be.  This picture was taken in our first visit there, in 2014.

We’ve been back twice since then and I can’t imagine ever not wanting to go back again.  It’s an achingly beautiful place and, if you like Italian food and wine, you’ll find it impossible to resist.

Star Wars nerds should recognise the location of this photo as being the place where Anakin and Padmé were married at the end of ‘Episode II: Attack of the Clones’.  The same location was also used in ‘Casino Royale’ for the scene where James Bond is convalescing after rolling his Aston Martin at speed.  In reality Villa del Balbianello is a former holiday home of the Rothschilds which is now a museum with the most manicured gardens you’ve ever seen.

Photo 6:  Slane Castle, Co. Meath, Republic of Ireland – May 2017

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Travel isn’t just about going somewhere, it’s also about what you do when you get there – or why you even go.  This was certainly true of our short 2017 trip to Ireland – to watch Guns ‘N Roses on their ‘Not In This Lifetime’ tour.

I’m sure this might not be for everyone but the chance to combine a one-off experience like this while sampling/becoming re-acquainted with another culture (I mean, who doesn’t love Ireland?) is an intoxicating mix.  The Emerald Isle is doubly special to us as it’s the place where we got engaged, after another concert there.  Find someone or something you want to watch in a part of the world you want to visit and you’ll know just how rewarding it can be.

We also had time to nip in to Dublin, which, if you’ve ever been, you’ll agree is no hardship, either.

Photo 7:  Marina Bay Sands Hotel, Marina Bay, Singapore – December 2017

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We were only there for 36 hours and much of that was spent fighting off jet-lag but Singapore certainly left a lasting impression – not least because it gave us the chance to sample the famous roof-top swimming pool on the 57th floor of the city state’s most recognisable building.

We were also lucky enough to be able to meet some old friends there, to catch up and to gain an insight into this heady fusion of a place that many tourists never get to see.

Photo 8:  Sydney Harbour, Sydney, Australia – December/January 2017/8

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The most expensive night out I’ve ever had – but a pretty good one!  This was pure bucket-list stuff: to be in Sydney on New Year’s Eve and to be among the first in the world to welcome a new year.  With all the flights and hotels booked, there just remained the question of how we’d spend the evening.

Well, one thing led to another and we ended up booking ourselves onto one of the flotilla of boats that take in the famous light show from the middle of the harbour.  Five hours, three courses, lots of wine, twelve solid minutes of midnight fireworks and lasers and one fight later (not us), the whole thing was well and truly ticked off the list.  You know what?  Looking back, it all seems like an incredible bargain.

And then this: an important by-product of any travel experience is the chance to re-live it whenever you see the place on TV, thereafter.  I’m sure I’ll always tune in to the Sydney New Year display, covered in the UK at 1pm on New Year’s Eve.  With every passing year, I’ll continue to receive ever-greater value for money.  How many times can you truthfully say that a night out is really an investment?

Photo 9:  Monterey Bay, California, USA – August 2018

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Increasingly, the chance to see more of the natural world is a major motivation to travel.  For this, I could have chosen any number of birdwatching reserves we’ve been to, or the Penguin Parade on Phillip Island.  Or even the Great Barrier Reef.  In truth, nothing, I repeat, nothing will compare with – or prepare you for – whale-watching.

When in California, we got the chance to see a pod of humpback whales feeding on anchovies, less than a mile from the coast.  The sights, the sound, the smell, the size of these amazing creatures is something so awesome to behold, you’ll find it impossible to compare it to any other experience.  It’s nothing short of an epiphany.

We tend to compartmentalise our travel dreams into simple lists that can be simply chalked off and that’s largely true of mere places.  I’m not sure it’s just as easy to say the same of true experiences like this.  We could have seen blue whales, grey whales or orcas that day.  Given the chance, I’d go back there like a shot – and do it all again.

Photo 10:  San Francisco, California, USA – August 2018

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Travel teaches you the understanding that you will, at some stage, have to reconcile expectation with reality.  Once you’ve arrived, some places will surprise you and others will disappoint you.  Just occasionally, you find a place that is everything you always wanted it to be.  I’ve felt it in Amsterdam, in Melbourne and here, in San Francisco.  And then you’ll always love them and hope they never change.

As in most parts of life, timing is as important as any other factor: your own time of life, your motivations and aspirations – together with the point in the cycle of fortunes that affect the places you see.  I’m sure Moscow has changed hugely in the last 29 years – but then, so have I.  I could easily have listed a completely different list of 10 places I’ve loved to visit: Barcelona, Prague, Gothenburg, Hong Kong, Austin, London, Edinburgh, Los Angeles, Denver, Munich are all fascinating in their own right and no less worthy of a visit than the 10 I did choose.

Currently, with travel restricted, we should treat this time as a reminder not to take our world for granted – and never to stop feeling the need to explore beyond the horizon.  To continue to share the sights it holds and the people and the nature you can find there.  In the end, when your time on Earth is coming to a close, will you regret the amount of stuff you owned – or the number of places you got to see?

Notes On A Shrinking Planet

Travel.  It’s such a short, functional word which has come to represent something far more profound than its brevity implies, like ‘time’, ‘life’ and ‘politics’.  Too often, it’s a word associated only with the mechanics of moving around the world, rather than the effect of doing so.  Perhaps the term ‘transportation’ would better describe the simple relocation that is the very minimum requirement of ‘travel’ in its correct, widest sense.

Still, we’re in something of an etymological mess when it comes to finding the right words for this rather modern phenomenon.  Our default choice in Britain is ‘holiday’, derived from the Victorian practice of visiting a coastal town en masse on a “holy day” – hardly relevant to today’s more secular, less patriarchal society.  Even in America where adopted terms are simplified (‘sidewalk’?) and tend to concentrate on the benefit they provide, the best they can muster to describe the act of leaving home is the effect it has on the home itself – ‘vacation’ – rather than the effect on the person doing the vacating.  It all means that in little more than a few generations, the prevailing notion of travel has grown far beyond the capacity of any pre-existing word adequately to portray it.

Like most normal kids from a normal background, thirty years ago, my ideas of travel were shaped largely by the narrow band of TV shows dedicated to the subject.  While otherworldly figures like Alan Whicker bestrode the globe and sardonically described its most esteemed sights, regular, affordable travel tended to be defined by the more accessible, stereotype-laden clichés of ‘Duty Free’ and ‘Wish You Were Here?’ on millions of screens each week.  The average pre-teen of the early 1980s would have felt destined, almost consigned to a future of sangria-fuelled straw donkey collecting on a diet of burgers and chips while being careful not to order ice in the drinks.

It’s precisely this mindset that Peter Kay channels when he riffs on calling home and telling everyone there that ‘Les Fingres’ abroad taste exactly the same.  We laugh at that routine because we’ve lived it – and we sort of expected that always to be the case.  We knew we were unlikely to become smooth, debonair operators like the aforementioned Whicker, with his unlimited budget and James Bond-like ability to infiltrate the world in which ‘the other half’ lived.  And yet, Whicker was every bit as much a stereotype as the cheap-gag Spanish waiter, albeit a much more alluring one.  Our diet of travel-based entertainment seemed to consist only of hotel paella or QE2 caviar.  In the aspiring Eighties, it soon became clear that such a narrow menu would not be enough.

In the 1990s, various TV chefs became credited with creating a new genre of entertainment by breaking the mould of unnecessarily fussy and unattainable representation of cookery.  Ten years previously, the same thing happened to travel TV.  The year was 1988 and the person was Michael Palin.  It was the “former Python” who reprised Jules Verne’s fictional quest to travel around the world in eighty days – an assignement widely believed to have been previously turned down by Whicker himself.  In doing so, Palin carved a secondary career, arguably redefining the concept of travel for an entire generation.

It was travel television presented by a comedian who was famous for being in a show I didn’t remember, re-tracing the plot of a book I hadn’t read, in places I was sure I’d never visit.  In theory, it should have held no appeal to me at all.  And yet, Palin displayed his trademark avuncular silliness, laced with disarmingly profound observations in often gritty or unlikely surroundings.  He was the very antithesis of the emblazered Whicker or the perma-tanned Chalmers, a refreshing antidote to the established pomposity of most TV travel show presenters.  I was hooked – and found myself counting the hours until next week’s episode.

In Verne’s novel, Phileas Fogg’s eponymous challenge is perfect example of a ‘MacGuffin’, a classic literary device in which a character’s compulsion to do something provides the motivation for a story to develop.  Fogg’s desire to win a ridiculous bar-room bet is therefore little more than a thin excuse for him to visit lots of places and give Verne the makings of a plot.  From a writer’s eye, Fogg – and indeed Palin – seem to reinforce the sense that in travel (or indeed, depending upon your philosophy, in life itself), the destination is not as important as the journey.

Looking back, there was more than met the contemporary eye to commend Palin’s ’80 Days’ – it would take decades for us to realise it.  Before setting off from the Reform Club, Palin had already involved two other Pythons, Terrys Jones and Gilliam, discussing their thoughts on his epic quest, with each setting him a challenge to bring back a specific item (one being a Chinese roof tile).  I’m sure this was simply a blatant attempt to add another couple of ‘star’ names to the billing in an attempt to garner a few more viewers but their mutual regard, unforced humour and Pythonesque (can you use that word when it’s actually used to describe the Pythons themselves?) randomness showed that travel didn’t have to be so very serious and, given a little education and inquisitiveness, could become a source of entertainment in and of itself.

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The second revelation, an altogether more prescient one, came when Palin arrived in Hong Kong.  There, he was met by an old friend, Basil Pao, who showed him the sights of his home town.  Like most people watching, I didn’t imagine I was ever likely to meet an old friend anywhere overseas – any more than I ever thought I would visit Hong Kong.  This was simply something that only famous, jet-set people could ever do.  It seemed like a reminder that Michael, for all his accessible celebrity-next-door persona, was, after all, far more likely to be found in real life flying to New York on Concorde than on the Dover to Calais Townsend Thoresen service.  We still watched and forgave what seemed like a lapse into more conventional, idealised travel programming because we knew it wouldn’t be long before he’d be standing frustratedly at another dockside, worrying about missing his next connection.

If you never saw the series or don’t remember the outcome, our Mike did eventually manage to succeed in his challenge.  While the twist in Fogg’s circumnavigation was the overlooked ‘extra’ day provided by eastward travel that Verne cleverly added, Palin’s last-minute complication was the more prosaic and altogether more dispiriting combination of rudeness from British Rail and intransigence from the Reform Club.  After a wonderful celebration of meeting people from many other countries, once back in Britain he could do no more than rather anti-climactically wrap up the story in front of the closed doors of the spectacularly out-of-touch establishment.  At least he managed to bring back that roof tile.

Fast forward almost thirty years and the whole concept of commercially-available travel has been largely transformed, thanks in no small part to the man upon whom John Cleese once bestowed the title The Nicest Man In England.  Palin then went on to travel from one Pole to the other, circumvent the Pacific, cross the Himalayas and do a plethora of other “boy’s own”-type voyages, building a career as a travelogue presenter that now almost eclipses his status as a member of one of the greatest comedy acts that ever drew laughter.  Looking back at ATWIED (as we must now abbreviate TV programme names), many viewers today may completely fail to understand the relevance of the whole ‘lumberjack’ segment he did in North America.  Philistines.

If Michael Palin opened the door to what travel might become, he didn’t exactly enable it.  Greater levels of aspiration, driven by steadily increasing levels of affordability have led, inevitably you might conclude, to an Experience economy.  Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to simply be somewhere else, you had to do something different and noteworthy while you were there.  As with TV channels, types of car, supermarkets and cuisine, travel options to the masses began to proliferate, with ever-smaller, more specific segments of the market being catered for.  It didn’t matter if you wanted to go wine-tasting, take in a safari, spend a week on the slopes or find an all-inclusive that specialised in entertaining small children, there was a holiday brochure for you.

Another ingredient in the changing face of travel has been the huge increase in interconnectedness we’ve seen in the new millennium.  In years gone by, people had the default and noble option of simply neglecting to stay in touch with their classmates or former colleagues.  There was of course a hand-written alternative to losing contct but it was generally too labour-intensive to sustain for all but the closest friends – and even then usually around Christmas when it was deemed worthwhile and socially acceptable.  I was fortunate to be on the cusp of this change: I discovered email before it became fashionable, while still at University and was therefore able to maintain a digital proto-social network with my friends from Uni after we left – almost a decade before anyone had heard of ‘The Facebook’.  Today, we friend request people we haven’t seen in the analogue world for over a quarter of a century and become, by extension, a small part of each other’s lives again.

In the same time, there’s been an increase in migrant working which means that if you have a hundred Facebook friends, the odds are that at least one of them will be living abroad – or may be someone you met while you were overseas.  Either way, if you ever visit that person’s country, you’re now much more likely to make the effort to meet up ‘IRL’.  What no-one saw, Michael Palin included, I’m sure, was that his rendezvous with an old friend in Hong Kong would in time become less the preserve of well-heeled journalists with impeccable connections but a much more commonplace occurrence in a more connected world.  We truly are a more global species today than we were  in 1988, a year before the end of the Cold War.  Even those of us who have never ventured beyond their own borders have become so, by proxy.

So where does all this cultural and societal progress leave the already ill-defined notion of what travel is, what travel should be?  And what will that word come to represent to the next generation of travellers?

Perhaps part of the reason for the ambiguity is that “travel” has come to mean whatever you want it to – a beach holiday on the Costas or a year’s back-packing around Asia.  The extent of our travels may always be limited by our funds but we will become less and less limited by the availability and therefore opportunity to choose how we travel.  For that reason, we’ve seen a rise in eco-tourism, pilgrimages, be they religious (Mecca), secular (Machu Picchu) or sporting (international tournaments) – as well as innumerable other niches in the market.

Then of course, there’s the effect of the good old internet.  Comparison sites for flights, accommodation, car hire etc. have flattened the many-tiered vertical model of agents, removing margin and lowering end user prices.  The removal of the heavily-formatted product via an intermediary has brought about the seemingly modern (but actually quite old-fashioned) concept of the independent traveller, a return to the days of real-life Phileas Foggs and Doctor Livingstones, you might presume.  Then, as now, travel did not have to be simply a pre-ordained itinerary of critical-mass conveyance and accommodation but, cliché aside, a true voyage of discovery.  Without the one-size-fits-all approach of the traditional agent model, it’s now much easier to travel like a Victorian gentleman – with the assurances of today’s communications as our latter-day Passepartout.

The flexibility of options has also extended to the levels of communality we may prefer – travel with friends, extended family, other like-minded souls.  Nor do we all have to move around together; we may choose to overlap our schedules, make rendezvous plans, even choose to synchronistically exchange the use of our houses.  It’s all a far cry from the group-booked coach tours that communal travel implied in days gone by.

In a world where you can choose from thousands of possible combinations every time you order a coffee, it’s no surprise that travel too has metamorphosed from a curated and prescribed activity to an utterly personalised one.  It’s now not just about where you go or for how long, but with whom, for what reason and in order to take in which experiences.

We may well extend our physical travel horizons even further over the next decade or two, with sub-orbital or even inter-planetary options potentially on offer but it’s difficult to contend that the most profound revolution in travel isn’t already taking place, here on earth, right now.  Phileas Fogg may have become, by a Python’s extension, an inspiration for the travel aspirations of millions today but when he was created, his adventures were just as unlikely, just as much a part of the realm of science fiction as Verne’s other work, including ‘Journey to the Centre of the Earth’.  That Fogg’s grand touring is so widely available today is travel’s ongoing legacy.  Anything else, intra- or extra-terrestrial, is simply a matter of geography.