Saturday, 10 February 2007

About This Website

Once upon a time, my website genius brother Stuart (who, despite a penchant for Thumper-like procreation, is still available for all manner of freelance internet work) created a website for me as a 40th birthday gift. The website was called www.neilwritestheworld.com (which, if you click on it now will take you to my other blog… confused yet?) and it housed all the rambling emails I sent back to friends and family during my round the world travels in 2003 and 2004.

When the big dot-com crash exposed the internet as a mere flash in the pan, Stuart (that's him on the left of this picture... cute huh?) and I decided not to keep paying some geeky Blackberry dude to continue hosting the website so it disappeared. But recently, I’ve received a couple of queries from friends as to its whereabouts because they have colleagues about to undertake extended trips abroad and wanted to direct them to tales of my experiences.

So now, due to their overwhelming public demand, the travelogues are back on this site permanently, or until the twelfth of never… whichever is longest.

If you want to read the stories in chronological order, you’ll have to scroll right down to the bottom and work upwards. They begin with four emails from a two-month trip I undertook to realise a long-held ambition to drive from one side of the United States to the other during the summer of 2003. There are then a dozen or so more from a seven-month round the world jaunt beginning in November 2003.

Enjoy (I hope) at your leisure.

Oh, and if anyone can tell me how to get the graphic at the very bottom of the page into the header at the top (without the need for an advanced degree in programming or Klingon), I’d be much obliged.

Thursday, 27 May 2004

Elvis Has Left The Building

Myrtle Beach, Memphis, New Orleans

As I'm sure you all know, when the last ever episode of Star Trek - The Next Generation (Season 7, Episode 176) was aired back in 1994, it's title was "All Good Things...". And so it is for me. Tomorrow, I'm travelling to Houston and then leaving on a jet plane, as John Denver used to like to say... before he was killed in a plane crash. (Irony is such a fickle fellow with a hell of a sarcastic laugh.) Exactly a year to the day since I left for my 2003 USA trip and I'll be back in the UK to pick up my glittering financial services career from where I left off or perhaps finally answer the call from Parkhead to step in to Henrik's shoes.

Since I wrote last, I've won some golf games and lost some golf games, said hello to some old friends and goodbye to another, visited the homes of both Country & Western Music, the Blues, Jazz and the King and still had time left to play football on the grassy knoll in Dallas. And I... eh... had a birthday, which could have been traumatic seeing as it involved a "0" and a "4" but it turned out to be the best since I got the full Ajax football strip all neatly packaged in a little, cardboard Gola suitcase back in the 70's.

Long before I gave up work, responsibility and all semblance of a secure financial future, some friends and I from the Bank planned a week long excursion to Myrtle Beach in South Carolina to battle out a Ryder Cup style team competition. The courses were all in pristine condition, the weather was favourable and my team was fortunate enough to walk away with the spoils but better than all of that was simply the camaraderie. A night spent playing cards, drinking beer, eating pizza and talking absolute bullsh#t may sound ordinary enough but when it’s intensified by a shared history, a common vocabulary and a collective love of the most surreal cultural reference points, it is without equal. I haven’t laughed as loud or as long since Hearts lost the league title back in the 80s. Safe to say that I was happy in the haze of a drunken hour or ten! And when that was all over I got to play even more golf with my brother Keith and his pals, narrowly losing that competition, but enjoying the occasion equally as much.


1,500 odd miles from Myrtle Beach back to Austin offers up plenty to see and do and after a short ride on a Greyhound bus (well, I had to make at least one such journey), I met up with my friend Meredith in North Carolina for the road trip back.

At first we followed part of a route that I'd driven last year, over the Appalachian Mountains through Great Smoky Mountain National Park and down the other side to Tennessee. This time, I really did have a strong notion to go to Dollywood (if only to be able to rip the absolute piss out of it) and I got as far as the parking lot but at a prohibitive $38 per person to enter, I discovered quickly that it was Dolly that was taking the piss.

Tennessee is fortunate to contain not one, but two great centres of American popular music. First up was Nashville which, unsurprisingly, houses the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the legendary performing venue, The Grand Old Opry. The Museum turned out to be far less cheesy and over the top than I expected, a pattern that would be repeated throughout the week. It explained in fascinating detail the history of the genre, celebrating reverently all manner of different artists and their equally varied and different styles.

A couple of hundred miles to the west lies Memphis, home and final resting place (or is it?) of the King. Elvis's house, Graceland, is actually a relatively small residence and the tour started off slowly as we got herded from room to room with the rest of the tourist sheep. My initial excitement got the better of me when I blurted out the hope that perhaps we would see the actual toilet where he died with his pants at his ankles. Nearby, a security guard whispered into his sleeve and followed me round for the rest of the morning.

But the tour got better and better as it moved into the grounds to some of the out buildings housing collections of his recordings, awards, stage costumes and photographs galore. Then you come to the tranquility garden where the entire Presley family was laid to rest and it just doesn't feel right. Okay for the beloved family hamster maybe, but not the king of rock 'n roll.

As good as Graceland was as an attraction, even better was a visit to the original Sun Studios where Elvis began his recording career. It's virtually unchanged since the day back in 1953 when he walked through the front door for the first time, paid his three dollars and recorded a little ballad for his Momma's birthday. Aaawww, nice boy. I could have stayed there for hours just standing where he stood or playing the piano that Jerry Lee played or holding the microphone that Bono held when U2 visited in 1987. Brilliant, emotive stuff.

Travelling south out of Memphis, I was keen to visit a quaint little town called Vicksburg located on the banks of the Mississippi in the south west corner of the State of... eh... Mississippi. A few Christmas's ago, the BBC showed a fantastic documentary about the American Civil War and Vicksburg has a vast National Military Park to commemorate the many battles and long siege that happened there in 1863. It was late afternoon as we toured around and it was eerie and slightly haunting to see thousands and thousands of unmarked graves and ornate memorials in such a quiet, peaceful and serene place. Well worth a visit though. And sunset on the hilltop overlooking the mighty, muddy and awesome (yes, awesome) Mississippi? Gorgeous.

Generally, everywhere you go in the southern States, the people are very, very polite, falling over themselves to call you "sir" (or "ma'm" if they see your long hair before noticing your beard!) at every opportunity. Even when confronted with an inane question or two from a tourist, they seldom allow the veneer of cordiality to drop, always charming with a warm, lyrical accent.

Desperate to reacquaint myself with a triple venti caramel macciato, I asked a waitress in Vicksburg if she could direct me to the nearest Starbucks. Initially, I think she thought I'd asked directions to the local Klan gathering as she took on the horrified look and shocked manner of the recently lynched but quickly recovered to reply,

"I'm terribly sorry, sir. We don't have any Starbucks here in this small corner of Mississippi."

Actually, her exact words were more like,

"Yawl 'n Miz-zip now honey. Ain't no such faincy kaffee hee."

See, sheer poetry.

And yesterday I returned to Austin after a short jaunt to New Orleans, (or 'Nawlins' to be colloquially accurate) one of the biggest party towns in the country. It wasn't Mardi Gras or Spring Break time but there was no shortage of enthusiastic drunks swaying up and down Bourbon Street in the French Quarter to the ever present sounds of jazz and Cajun music.

It was good to see that this most famous part of Nawlins had not succumbed to the recent nationalistic fervor of renaming all things connected with the peace loving French otherwise I would have been strolling round the Freedom Quarter munching Freedom Toast for breakfast and Freedom Fries for lunch... and who knows what Freedom Kissin' must be like. Instead, I was able to sit peacefully in the famous Café du Monde sipping café au lait and wolfing down a few tasty beignets, pronounced 'ben-yays' if you're French and/or sophisticated (it is possible to be both) and 'French Donuts' if you're not!

And now my bags are packed, I'm ready to go. I bought a ticket to the world and now I've come back again. I've travelled the world and the seven seas, through villages and towns and, may I say, not in a shy way. But you know I won't be travelling forever and because home is a love that I miss very much, (and the Homeland Security people are on my tail) it's time to go.

Finally, the lyrics game. By now, you should have accumulated the names of (at least!) 14 different artists and 14 corresponding song titles, culled from the eloquent prose of these e-mails over the last seven months. If, however you've casually deleted the e-mails after (or perhaps even before) consumption, then fear not. Thanks to the genius, creativity and generosity of my young brother Stuart, you can now access them all (plus some special bonus features) on a brand new website, www.neilwritestheworld.com, the perfect 40th birthday gift.

So if you're interested in submitting your answers (complete or not), you have until Friday June 12th to send them in to me. The person with the most correct answers will win a truly stunning first prize acquired in a mysterious and far away land. (20/02/07: This competition is now closed.)

And there you have it. I can't put it any more eloquently than Bugs Bunny when I say, that's all folks!

Love, Neil x

P.S. Anyone know of any interesting job vacancies???

Wednesday, 21 April 2004

If The Phone Don't Ring, You'll Know It's Me

Texas

...yet another Country & Western classic! Hungry for more? Avoid the babbling and scroll to the end.

Okay, lets first of all clear up an issue from last time that sent hundreds of you rushing to your keyboards to respond... okay, it was just a few of you... okay, it was only the one. Susan! You'll be astonished to learn that I did NOT, in fact, appear on the David Letterman show when I was in New York last month. Ha, ha, gotcha! April Fool? Perhaps not.

I'm still in Austin, Texas enjoying all the delights that this very laidback city has to offer. To be honest, I haven't really done much lately except sharpen up my golf game and lie outside on the sun-drenched porch. Bummer, eh?

However, I've managed to reacquaint myself with a pleasure I've been denied during five months of travelling. Watching television. I’m totally confused with what season of "Friends" it is I'm watching although I'm fairly sure I haven't seen "The One With Joey's Sex Change". Has that been on at home?

While we're on the subject of all things surgical, reality television seems to have reached the bottom of its unfeasibly deep barrel but is continuing to dig downwards with a spate of shows featuring ordinary folks going through extraordinary changes.

"Extreme Makeover" does not just offer a pretty new frock or a touch of flattering eyeliner. The nation's top plastic surgeons, eye surgeons and cosmetic dentists are on hand to ensure that the makeover is indeed extreme. "The Swan" takes this premise a step further so that every week, two so-called 'ugly ducklings' are transformed and then a team of judges decide which one will go forward to "the most amazing beauty pageant ever seen" at the end of the series.

Best of all though is "I Want A Famous Face" on MTV. Here, "ordinary" members of the public write in to declare what famous celebrity they would like to resemble and then receive the necessary surgery. Safe to say the results are somewhat dubious. Two, 20 year-old twin brothers from Arizona wanted to pass for Brad Pitt but ended up looking like a patchwork version of Liza Minelli's ex-husband, David whatsisname. If you've seen Gary Oldman in "Hannibal", you'll know what I mean. At least their permanent, fixed smiles hide any disappointment.

If all that wasn't entertaining enough, there're always the non-stop commercials to keep me amused. I love the fact that companies here are allowed to mercilessly slag off the attributes of their competitors whilst telling you about why you should buy their particular product. The possible usages for this strategy seem to be endless.

“Victoria’s Secret? They’re pants! Slip into Thongs R Us for all your lingerie needs.”

Actually, adverts for Victoria's Secret have been very much in the news recently since they now feature anti-big business, "I'll never sell out", 60's protest singer Bob Dylan. I've been watching them avidly (for research purposes, you understand) and it's slightly confusing as to why on earth he's there. There's a mumbling song droning away in the background certainly and he seems to be ambling through Venice wearing a big overcoat with his hands stuffed firmly in the pockets. Every now and again he'll peek round a pillar, stalker-like, as a model comes into shot and then it all just fades away. I'd love to give you a more detailed insight into all their ads that I've taped but the pause button's broke on my video.

With obesity threatening to overtake smoking as the leading cause of lifestyle related death and illness in America it’s not surprising that over 15 million copies of books related to the Atkins diet have been sold here. Never one to miss jumping aboard a crowded bandwagon, food companies now swamp their ads with references to the ‘carb count’ or whether or not their product is ‘Atkins friendly’.

Even beer producers are at pains to stress that their particular “light” beer has 0.02 grams of carbohydrates less than their arch rival. What they fail to mention is the lack of actual taste or flavour in "light” beer. You might as well drink coloured, gassy water.

I’ve been over-indulging quite a bit since I came to the States so I was almost persuaded to research this topic further. Then I came across a story which reported that Dr. Atkins was grossly overweight to the point of being obese at the time of his death earlier this year so I got up and made myself another super-sandwich instead.

The best commercials though are the ones for drugs and pills that don’t actually articulate what it is they help with or cure. They’ll say something like...

“Will you be ready when the time is right? Get back in the game! Ask your doctor if Libidodrill is right for you!”

...and will be accompanied by some suggestive footage of an American footballer throwing a ball through a target hoop some distance away. Because if they actually explained that this was a Viagra-type drug, they’d also have to waste valuable airtime, as some do, telling you about the possible side effects.

“Erections of four hours or more, while rare, should be referred to your doctor without delay.” No sh#t Sherlock!

However, my favourite television event by far happened last week when President George Bush held a live, prime time news conference. It's only the 3rd time he's participated in such a forum since he was "elected" almost four years ago and it was gripping to watch in that tortuous, car crash type of way. I was mightily impressed that he got the names of the journalists correct and you expect politicians to avoid the questions being asked but this was on another scale altogether.

Journalist: "Mr President, what do you think is the biggest mistake you've made since coming to office?"

Bush: "Gee, I really wish I'd known you was gonna ask that." VERY long pause. "I guess there mighta been some..." another long pause combined with a nervous smile and a fixed, glaiket stare "...but nuddin seems to be poppin inna ma head right now. Guess I'm not quick enough to think on ma feet. Next question." Aaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaarrrggghhh!!!

Anyway, tomorrow I'll be in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for a week-long golf extravaganza. Now, how many carbs in a Hooters bun, I wonder?

Till next time (which'll probably be the last time), here're some additional Country and Western song titles to mull over - their power overwhelms me at times; it's almost like Confucius or Socrates walk among us once again, innit? Enjoy.

Love, Neil x

1. I Wouldn't Take Her To A Dog Fight, Cause I'm Afraid She'd Win
2. I'll Marry You Tomorrow But Let's Honeymoon Tonight
3. I'm So Miserable Without You, It's Like Having You Here
4. I've Got Tears In My Ears From Lyin' On My Back and Cryin' Over You
5. If I Can't Be Number One In Your Life, Then Number Two On You
6. My Head Hurts, My Feet Stink, And I Don't Love You
7. Please Bypass This Heart
8. She Got The Ring And I Got The Finger
9. You Done Tore Out My Heart And Stomped That Sucker Flat
10. You're The Reason Our Kids Are So Ugly
11. If The Phone Don't Ring, You'll Know It's Me
12. She's Actin' Single and I'm Drinkin' Doubles
13. She's Looking Better After Every Beer
14. I Ain't Gone To Bed With Any Ugly Women But I've Sure Woken Up With A Few
15. My John Deere Was Breaking Your Field, While Your Dear John Was Breaking My Heart
16. Tennis Must Be Your Racket, 'Cause Love Means Nothin' to You
17. I've Got Red Eyes From Your White Lies and I'm Blue All the Time
18. I Wish I Were in Dixie Tonight, But She's Out of Town
19. I Changed Her Oil, She Changed My Life
20. I Been Roped And Thrown By Jesus In The Holy Ghost Corral
21. I Fell In A Pile Of You And Got Love All Over Me
22. I'd Rather Have A Bottle In Front Of Me Than A Frontal Lobotomy
23. I'm The Only Hell Mama Ever Raised
24. I've Got The Hungries For Your Love And I'm Waiting In Your Welfare Line
25. She Got The Gold Mine And I Got The Shaft
26. She's Got Freckles On Her, But She's Pretty
27. Thank God And Greyhound She's Gone
28. Velcro Arms, Teflon Heart
29. When You Leave Walk Out Backwards, So I'll Think You're Walking In
30. You Can't Have Your Kate And Edith Too

Thursday, 1 April 2004

I Still Miss You Baby, But My Aim's Gettin' Better

New York to Seattle to Austin

...just one of the many great country and western songs that should have been a hit!

So, did you miss me while I was away in the badlands of the USA over the last four weeks? Hmmnn, maybe not. I can't quite believe I've been in the States for nearly a month now and have managed to see both coasts AND drive half way across the country to Texas.

I arrived in New York from Rio at the beginning of March to find that winter still had a fierce grip on this part of the world. It quickly took a fierce grip on me as I realised that flying in just my vest and Speedos wasn't the best travel fashion choice ever.

I'd been to New York a couple of times before (both times in the winter) but that couldn't detract from the exhilaration of being back once again. I stayed for six nights but you could spend a month there and still only scratch the surface of things to do and see. Imagine my excitement though when I discovered that Sting was playing three gigs at a relatively small theatre during the time I was planning to stay. The shows were all advertised as being sold out but I was supremely confident of getting a ticket from somewhere, especially since I'd missed him doing an impromptu show at a hotel in Hong Kong during the first week of this trip. This time there would be no hiccups!

New York is the best walking city in the world, I think. Around every corner lies some iconic landmark, whether it's the famous skyscrapers, the Fifth Avenue department stores or the neon lights of Times Square. For me though, it's all the smaller, simpler nuances that makes it so appealing and real; the steam leaking out of the pavements from the subway, the yellow taxi cabs, the hot dog sellers, the madness of trying to order a lunchtime sandwich in a deli (now THAT'S pressure), strolling through Central Park on a weekday when it's quiet and deserted or just encountering some normal guy walking along singing Frank Sinatra tunes loudly to himself and everyone else. I really saw that happen and no, it wasn't me.

Before arriving, I was fascinated to find out whether America would embrace the backpacking community in the same way that the rest of the world does so easily. On a hostels website, I found a very attractive looking place situated in a historical brownstone building on the Upper West Side, just two blocks from Central Park. See, just saying a sentence like that makes you feel like you should be in the middle of a Woody Allen movie or fighting crime on NYPD Blue.

The only problem with the hostel though was the fact that it's the International Student Centre and they have a MAXIMUM age limit of 30! I'd lost a bit of weight in South America and I considered lying and saying I was a (very) mature student but the lines and bags around my eyes would have given me away in a second. Thankfully, a begging e-mail got me through the door. Where else in New York can you stay for twenty bucks a night!

I was keen to see some of the sights I hadn't seen before so was very pleased when Helen flew over to join me for a few days and agreed that shoe shopping would not be on the agenda. We took a trip to Ellis Island, a fascinating place located close to the Statue of Liberty, which has been turned into a museum showing what immigrants had to go through when arriving in America during the first half of the last century.

We also saw a fantastic Broadway show, "Moving Out" featuring the songs of Billy Joel and gained some intriguing cultural insights about the city during an evening at a comedy club. For example, there's a popular chain of restaurants in America called "Hooters" (isn't there Bruce?), famous for it's scantily clad waitresses who all have big... eh.... well, take a wild guess. Anyway, apparently Hooters now do Take Out food - who the hell is that for? Can you picture a potential customer thinking, "Yeah, I really love the sh#tty fried food but I don't care much for the service"? No, me neither.

Despite the mainly freezing weather, New York was a delight. It's big, bustling, safe and easy to get around and judging by the number of British accents in evidence, has become a real Mecca for those looking for a reasonably inexpensive long weekend break. Must come back and see it in the sunshine sometime though.

When I originally booked my round the world ticket, I had a romantic notion that I'd just be handed a bunch of airline tickets and I'd make up my itinerary as I went along. Unfortunately, I had to identify all my destinations at the outset, which was a bit of a problem because having been to the States last year, I had no real plan as to what to do or where to go this year.

"So after New York, where next?" said the nice girl in Trailfinders in Sauchiehall Street last October. I scanned the map on her desk aimlessly and just pointed to the other coast. "Might as well go to Seattle; never been there before."

Everyone told me that Seattle gets the highest rainfall in America and that I would definitely get wet but it ended up being five days of unbroken sunshine. The biggest city in the evergreen state of Washington was just gorgeous... however, my hostel, the interestingly named 'Green Tortoise', was not.

Despite being smack in the centre of downtown Seattle, it wasn't in the most pleasant of areas. The local needle exchange was right next door and just a block down the street at the Lusty Lady cinema, Tolkien fans could enjoy "The Return Of The Schwing". Have to say that I thought the plot in the book was a lot better - nice scenery though!

The city itself is a curious mixture of Conservative affluence, liberal minded rock and roll culture and some quite stark poverty. I'd never seen so many homeless people begging in the streets of any other Western city. It's the home of Microsoft and mega airline builder Boeing and you get the feeling that it's striving to be like San Francisco but just can't loosen up enough. However, it does have the most coffee shops I've ever seen and it's the home of Starbucks so I felt like I'd finally found the mother ship and I gorged the stuff copiously... and nearly made myself sick!

Seattle is surrounded by some dazzling scenery including mountainous Olympic National Park across the bay to the west, active, snow capped volcanoes to the south and the beautiful Cascade Mountains to the east. If you ever watched "Twin Peaks" or "Northern Exposure" (two of my all time favourite shows) back in the early 90's then this is where they were filmed and it was a big thrill to be able to visit a couple of the actual locations.

The one striking landmark in Seattle is the Space Needle, a sort of needle-shaped tower with a space ship shaped restaurant thingy on the top. It took centre stage at the 1962 World's Fair and to get to it, you take a thrilling 90-second ride on a monorail from downtown which is really quite something... if you're making the ride in 1962! Now it's just quaint.

Luckily nearby is the Experience Music Project a marvellous museum showing excellent exhibitions of The Beatles, Jimi Hendrix and Bruce Springsteen among others, and displaying memorabilia from the last fifty plus years of popular music. There's even a whole floor of interactive instruments where you can batter drums or unleash some face-melting guitar solos to your heart's content. You can even turn the bass up to 11 Donald! Disappointingly, it was packed with hundreds of pesky, would-be Kurt Cobains so I didn't get a shot, the wee b#stards!

I didn't have a flight booked out of Seattle and my next destination was over 2,000 miles away in Austin, Texas where Keith lives. I decided I would try and drive there using the same driveaway company I discovered last summer. Basically, they're a company who transport cars around the country for people who have moved house and they're always looking for prospective drivers to deliver the vehicles. It's rare that they actually have a car available for the exact place you want to go but the Seattle office had one that needed to go to Phoenix in Arizona so I snapped it up right away.

Accompanying me again was my friend Meredith who was along to make up for her woeful lack of driving support in New Zealand but in truth, it was great to sit back in the passenger seat at times and soak up all the road trip Americana that the journey had to offer. Titanic, 18 wheel trucks thundering by, tumbleweeds tumbling, roadrunners running, skunk smells wafting, motel signs flashing, all very Thelma & Louise.

Our route took us southeast from Seattle through the Cascade Mountains and then the barren fields of east Washington, Oregon and Idaho. Crossing south into Utah, the landscape picked up again and the views close to Salt Lake City were splendid with the mountains on one side and the... eh... Great Salt Lake on the other.

I was keen to stop for a meal here to see if I could see any Mormon men dining with one, or preferably all of their wives. There's a great debate raging at the moment around the issue of same sex marriages and George Bush is pushing for the Constitution to be amended to define marriage as the union of "a man and a woman". Where that leaves the Mormons, I don't know but it would be amusing if some two million of the Republican votes disappeared because the marriages here were declared illegal.

Anyway, enough politics. Utah's big appeal is that it contains some of the best National Parks in the country. I'd been to Zion in the south last summer so this time I went to Arches in the east, a great sprawl of rocks and cliffs that have been eroded by the elements over the centuries to form huge, natural stone archways.

Very impressive. South from there, I got to revisit my favourite National Park, Monument Valley, again arriving at sunset and it was every bit as awesome as last year. Didn't have time though to stay over for the "traditional Navajo St. Patrick's day dance"! And you thought he was Irish!

After driving 1,589 miles of the 1,590 mile trip I narrowly avoided wrecking the car at one of the stupid four-way intersections they have everywhere here and managed to deliver it safely round the corner in one piece whilst fighting to conceal my quivering, after-shock limbs.

From Phoenix, we rented a jeep for the two-day, 1,000 mile trip to Austin. Driving almost directly east on one, endless straight road is a surreal experience. I finally worked out how to operate the cruise control but was a bit let down when I was told that this meant I couldn't then just crawl into the back seat for a snooze and let the car cruise along by itself. I don't see why not. It's not like there're any bends in the road. Actually there were one or two bends in the road and it became the source of frenzied excitement when I realised that I would get to move my arms slightly left or slightly right.

On the way, we stopped in at Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the bottom corner of New Mexico. My admiration for the people who first crossed this country in horse drawn wagons grew by the minute because how this place was discovered is beyond me. It's hundreds of miles from anywhere. How on earth did the pioneers survive without diners and tacky souvenir stores selling stripper shot glasses and 'real' rattlesnake jawbones?

The caverns were deep and dark and a bit spooky with thousands of bats sleeping close by in the imaginatively named 'Bat Cave'. The huge stalactites and stalagmites are striking though, subtly lit and mutli-coloured.

Finally, we rolled into Austin, groovy state capital of Texas and for the last week or so I've been doing pretty much nothing but playing golf, putting back on all the weight I lost in the last four months and then playing some more golf. Long may it continue.

And finally, did I get a ticket to see Sting in New York? Well, yes I did. Paid an embarrassing amount of money to a large, African/American gentleman outside the venue and ran excitedly to the theatre door only to be turned away because the ticket was fake. I guess Sting and me are just not meant to be. By way of consolation, I did appear in front of millions of people a few nights later on David Letterman's Late Show when he picked me out of the audience to take part in his weekly quiz so I suppose that made up for it!

Anyway, now that I'm in Texas, I've turned to the sweet, poignant comfort of country music so here in full are the rest of those classic tunes that should have been hits.

Till next time (whenever that may be), have a real nice day now y'all.

Love, Neil x

1. Drop Kick Me, Jesus, Through The Goalposts Of Life
2. Get Your Biscuits In The Oven And Your Buns In The Bed
3. Get Your Tongue Outta My Mouth 'Cause I'm Kissing You Goodbye
4. Her Teeth Were Stained, But Her Heart Was Pure
5. How Can I Miss You If You Won't Go Away?
6. How Can You Believe Me When I Say I Love You When You Know I've Been A Liar All My Life?
7. I Don't Know Whether To Kill Myself Or Go Bowling
8. I Flushed You From The Toilets Of My Heart.
9. I Would Have Wrote You A Letter, But I Couldn't Spell Yuck!
10. If I Had Shot You When I Wanted To, I'd Be Out By Now
11. I've Been Flushed From The Bathroom Of Your Heart
12. If My Nose Were Full of Nickels, I'd Blow It All On You
13. If You Leave Me, Can I Come Too?
14. Mama Get The Hammer (There's A Fly On Papa's Head)
15. My Wife Ran Off With My Best Friend, And I Sure Do Miss Him
16. I Still Miss You Baby, But My Aim's Gettin' Better
17. Oh, I've Got Hair Oil On My Ears And My Glasses Are Slipping Down, But Baby I Can See Through You
18. You Were Only A Splinter As I Slid Down The Bannister Of Life
19. I Hate Every Bone In Your Body Except For Mine
20. I Want A Beer As Cold As My Lover's Heart

Tuesday, 2 March 2004

The Boy From Ipanema

Cusco to Rio

First, an apology. For those of you who have not yet slipped into a coma over the lyrics game (remember that?) and who scoured the last e-mail looking for something familiar, I have to admit that I... eh... forgot to put one in! However, after reading it over, I found a few words near the start that I'm going to pretend were put there on purpose. By way of compensation, this week's is an absolute doddle and in a spooky way, has a link back to the last one. Clever, eh?

"Yeah, very good Neil," I hear you say. "Now shut the f#ck up and tell us about the rest of South America." Okay okay, no need to be so pushy! Jeez!

I'm a little reluctant to leave Cusco, but I've got a week to travel overland in a sort of u-shaped route around the Andes to get back to Lima before I move on elsewhere. Little do I know that this journey is going to encompass some of the best and worst bus journeys I've ever experienced in my life.

Bus No.1 - Cusco to Puno
For fifteen pounds, I enjoy a pleasant eight-hour trip through the mountains which stops off at various points of historical and cultural significance. The bus is only about a quarter full so there's plenty of time to stretch out and doze on and off.

I've come to Puno because it's the main Peruvian port on Lake Titicaca, one of the highest lakes in the world. For you stats fans, it sits at 12,500 feet, almost three times the height of Ben Nevis and covers an area about a fifth the size of Scotland. It's a gorgeous day when I undertake the day trip on the slowest motorised boat in Christendom.

The boat trip makes two stops on the lake. First up are the floating Uros islands, islands made out of reeds by the locals that literally float. I'm impressed with this rustic way of life and the need to constantly maintain and repair their living space until someone tells me that most of the people live on the mainland and come over every day to sell their tourist bits and pieces. They've also got solar panels to power their coloured televisions so they're not roughing it too much.

The second island stop is at Taquile, a lovely, small island that looks like it would be right at home in the Mediterranean housing Captain Corelli. We get to hike around and over it, stopping for lunch in a little village whilst being told of the unchanged way of life the islanders have led for hundreds of years. It's interesting to note that the men wear different coloured hats here depending on whether they're married or single which makes things a lot more straightforward down the dancing on a Friday night.

Bus No.2 - Puno to Arequipa
The receptionist at my hostel in Puno promises me a fast and trouble free journey to Arequipa as I hand over my 30 soles (around a fiver) for the ticket. These terms are obviously relative in Peru because the five hour journey lasts six and a half but seems twice as long as that. Every inch of the seats and floor space is packed with people, bags, screaming babies and barking dogs. At every stop, the hawkers get on to try and sell their food, water and toilet rolls(!) and there seems to be border patrols every time we cross from one region or county to another. It's warm and stuffy throughout until the passenger door breaks and swings open when we round a particularly sharp bend. I'm gripping the arm rests too tightly to join in the spontaneous applause.

In the Inca language of Quechuan, Arequipa apparently means "okay, let's stop here" and it has exactly that kind of feel to it - a place to stop and recover from long, arduous journeys, but no more. It's redeeming feature is that it sits at the foot of five dormant volcanos which dominate the skyline at every turn. On that first, frazzled evening, I can't recall why I wanted to come here in the first place. I wander aimlessly looking for the central plaza, get lost in the back streets and fail to spot another 'western' face. Am I the only visitor here? Sprint back to the hotel before finding out the hard way.

Next day is great though. It's the Sunday before Lent and all over the Americas, festivals, carnivals and fiestas are in full swing. I eventually find the central plaza, a stunning architectural success made of beautiful white stone with a massive cathedral at one end and balcony restaurants galore. I wile away the afternoon watching gangs of kids pounce on each other and unsuspecting tourists with buckets of water and cans of spray cream or wooshy, wooshy cream as my pal Bruce would say!

Bus No.3 - Arequipa to Nazca
Despite my experience in Puno, I believe the hotel manager in Arequipa when he tells me it’s a twelve-hour bus ride to Nazca near the coast and best to book the overnight service. When it leaves at six in the evening I am lounging in luxury. The seats are huge, comfortable and reclining and would make Captain Kirk or Jimmy Saville proud. There's a meal service, a television and video and I discover that the secret of enjoying a Steven Seagal movie is to watch it in a language you don't understand. It makes perfect sense.

Imagine my surprise then when I get woken out of my peaceful slumber by the bus hostess at two in the morning to be told that we're pulling into Nazca. WHAT THE F…?!? I've no accommodation booked and the 'bus terminal' is just a wall with the bus company name painted on it. The rubble strewn street is full of half completed (half demolished?) buildings and wouldn't look out of place in a CNN report from Iraq.

Fortunately, a local amigo comes running up with a tattered hotel brochure in his hand and says he'll take me to "nice place". I've little option but to trust him so I get in the back of a car with him and his pal and head off. From my recollection of the town map I studied earlier I think he's heading in the right direction... but then he does a U-turn. F#CK!!! In the back seat, my heart is thumping and my mind is racing with questions. Where can I hide my money? Can I use this pen as a weapon? Who'll play me in the Crimewatch re-enactment? Have I got clean pants on? Did I leave the iron on at home? Thankfully, it works out okay. I get a very basic room for the night, prop my backpack under the door handle, sleep with the light on and then move to a nicer place first thing in the morning.

I've come to this place to see the "world famous" Nazca Lines. (Hands up if you've heard of them?) They're essentially a collection of large drawings and geometrical shapes that somebody, somehow, sometime scratched into the desert sands and rocks for some reason. There're lots of theories as to why they're there, my favourite being the "greeting and landing strip for aliens" hypothesis.

Best way to see them is from the air so I take a bumpy, early morning flight in a four-seater plane (I was in the co-pilot seat!) and they are impressive, I suppose. Can't shake the nagging feeling though that they could be touched up and redesigned every evening when the tourists go home.

Bus No.'s 4, 5 & 6 - Nazca to Lima
THIS is the day from hell!

The first thing I did when I arrived in Nazca was reserve a seat with the same luxury bus company to take me to Lima on the day that I'm due to fly to Brazil. I turn up in the morning on time to pay for my ticket with the secret hope that a couple of Jean-Claude Van Damme movies might be part of the package. And that's when I get the news...

Shrug! No bus today! Tomorrow? Maybe, who knows! Blah, blah! Politicia situationa! Etc.! Adios!

Standing in the rundown street I'm stunned. Shocked and stunned. I've got ten hours to travel 450 kilometres before I have to check in for my flight to Brazil. At first I consider the possibility of chartering the four-seater plane all the way to Lima. Then I discard that and decide that I'll just buy the plane and fly/drive it myself. Then I decide to ask someone what my options are.

A travel/tour company tells me that there is a major transport workers strike all over the country today (I know what they gave up for Lent. B#stards!) and my only option is to get on one of the local minibuses to the next town, Ica, and then see if I can pick up a connection from there. And so it goes.

Get a seat on a packed little bus to Ica and then stand in the aisle for over an hour on the next bus to Pisco. Just miss a connection there to Lima but get a seat on the next one for the painfully slow last leg to Lima. All of this hopping on and and off would be bearable if the view along the way was worth seeing. However, it's just an endless, scrubby, parched, desert wilderness with little signs of life anywhere.

But guess what. I made it through the wilderness, somehow I made it through and nine and a half hours later, I tumble out of a taxi at Lima airport, exhausted, dehydrated and absolutely filthy... but overwhelmingly happy and relieved. And on my way to Brazil.

Arriving in Rio de Janeiro, I warm to the place immediately. Perhaps it's the cloudless sky that allows uncluttered views of the city, mountains and beaches on the approach to landing. Or perhaps it's the three gorgeous girls who fight over themselves to offer me their taxi service as soon as I emerge from the airport baggage hall.

"We take you anywhere you wanna go sir," they all cluck at once.

"Really," I reply with a raised, Roger Moore eyebrow. "Anywhere?"

My hotel is a mere two blocks from Copacabana Beach and after getting settled and unpacked (a rare luxury) I go out exploring. After weeks of talking Spanish, it takes me a moment to adjust before slipping effortlessly into fluent Portugese.

Neil: "De onde eu Starbucks por favor?"
Local: "No Starbucks aqui, senor."
Neil: "EH? Brazil! All that coffee! And no f#cking Starbucks? Christ!"
Local: "You wanna go Christ the Redeemer statue?"
Neil: "Forget it."

I'd love to tell you that I've been to see all the sights; wandering through the downtown museums, driving around the poorer favella areas and dancing in a backstreet, underground samba club till four in the morning (I was back at the hotel by 3.30) but did I mention that I'm only two blocks from the beach? And the beach at Ipanema is only five minutes down the road. Before I go a-walking there, I consult the necessary checklist to see if I fit the bill.

Tall? - from a certain point of view, I suppose.
Tanned? - Definitely!
Young? - Still in my thirties, does that count?
Lovely? - Too modest to say.

I did take the cable car ride up to the top of Sugar Loaf Mountain for the view of the city and on Sunday night I saw a local football match (soccer to you Americans) at the famous Maracana stadium. The game was between two teams I'd never heard of, Botafogo and Fluminense, and at first I think it's a contest between a couple of Amazonian diseases. ("Yeah, I had a wee touch of the botafogos but a bout of penicillin cleared it right up!") It ends in a no scoring draw but the atmosphere is fantastic, just a goal or a sending off short of riot police, tear gas and a referee with a price on his head!

I've really enjoyed being in Rio. It's far more modern than anything I encountered in Peru, can be noisy and quiet in the space of a few minutes and is a place I'd love to revisit in the future with a bunch of friends. And the coffee they DO have is very good.

So next stop is New York, the big apple, 'A' number one, top of the list, king if the hill etc. I wonder if they have Starbucks there?

Till then.

Love, Neil x

Wednesday, 18 February 2004

Q: Where Are The Andes?

Lima to Cusco

A: On the end of your wristees! Always liked that joke.

Anyway, a long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, I received a letter from a novel sounding man called Tom Champagne. On the envelope it said,

"Congratulations! Inside is a cheque payable to you for one million pounds."

Sure enough, inside was a mock-up of what a cheque for one million pounds payable to me would look like. Without even lifting a finger, I had somehow made it through to the final stages of a Readers Digest prize draw and if I just returned my lucky draw numbers I would be in the final, final stages and that much closer to the magical, mystical one million pounds. I was overwhelmed at my good fortune!

Tom was so convincing in his prose that for the next six months or so I continued to return different sets of lucky draw numbers in the sure and unwavering certainty that the cheque would appear through my letter box any day. Along the way I received a number of free gifts as a thank you for all the hard effort I was putting into this process. I also had to sign up for some "no obligation" book purchases. No problem, I thought, because with my million pounds I'd soon be able to buy a library in which to store the rapidly growing pile of literature.

Imagine my disappointment then when one day the letters with the lucky draw numbers stopped appearing but the packages with the books did not. Tom had rejected me as quickly as I seem to have digressed from insightful travelogues to incoherent rambling. (Honest, there's a point to this story any second now.) The days dragged on (a bit like this story) but Tom would not return my pleading letters or phone calls. I was heartbroken. Meanwhile, the stacks of books in the living room towered over me menacingly.

One day I decided to pick up one of the books to see what it was I was ordering. The title was something like "Unexplained Mysteries Of The World" and on the front cover was a picture of an ancient city sitting high in the mountains. It was Machu Picchu in the Peruvian Andes and I was captivated by its striking aura not least because I was going through an Indiana Jones phase at the time. I already had the leather hat and whip but that's another story. Sitting there among the heaps of books as high as the Andes themselves I said to myself, "One day..." Well that day was yesterday and it was absolutely awesome! And I don't EVER use that term lightly.

Twenty six and a half hours after leaving Auckland in New Zealand, my plane touched down in Lima, capital city of Peru. I only spend two full days in Lima and although it's warm and fairly relaxing during the weekend daylight hours, there's something unsettling about the place. I'm not sure if it's the armed police everywhere or the burly security guards fronting every sizeable store. Perhaps it's the high steel gates in front of most residences but it doesn't encourage me to venture out into the streets much after dark.

Even my efforts to ingratiate myself with the local population through demonstration of my fluent Spanish seem to fall flat.

Neil: "Donde esta Starbucks por pavor?"

Local: "No Starbucks aqui, you greengo peeeg!" (He was more polite than that, but only just.)

I stay in the more modern, westernised suburb of Miraflores and it's a lovely place to wander around or just linger in the street side cafes. The parks are full of artists selling their work and young bands of musicians tour the cafes playing their traditional guitars, drums and pan pipes. It's pleasant to listen to but honestly, there are only so many times you can hear "El Condor Pasa", the melody from the Andes popularised by Simon & Garfunkel. One more rendition and I know who's going to be the hammer and who's going be the nail!!

Leaving Lima, I take the short, one-hour flight over the Andes to Cusco. It's a bit hairy flying through the clouds with the mountains on either side but I get there in one piece. And then feel like I'm crumbling into different pieces as the effects of the altitude kick in immediately. I haven't been this high since... well, let's not go there just now.

Cusco sits 3,400 metres (about 2.1 miles) above sea level and the head rush feelings are not unlike those I experienced on the bungy jump or underwater on the scuba dive. At the hostel I'm given the local coco tea to help combat the symptoms but climbing the stairs to my first floor room is a real effort, struggling for breath and feeling dizzy.

Walking around the town the next day, I have a dull headache similar to a mild hangover. Recklessly, I decide that the best cure for this is to get an actual, stinking hangover so I indulge in a night of heavy drinking and card playing in an Irish Bar with some youthful travellers from the hostel and then repeat the event two nights later.

I really feel my age though when none of the youngsters recognise the 80s soundtrack that's playing in the bar. "Duran who?"

One of the girls is wearing a pair of those woolly ankle sock things (it gets cold here at night) and I helpfully and enthusiastically observe,

"Hey, you look just like Leroy from the Kids from Fame!"

She looks at me blankly as if my unquestionable Alzheimers has just taken a turn for the worse. At least they were polite enough not to comment on my pipe and slippers.

It's the rainy season here in the Andes and it has rained every day I've been here but it can't spoil the bewitching character of Cusco. It's quite a large town but feels small with much of the activity centred around the central plaza. Heavily influenced in style by the long term occupation of the Spanish, there are colonial churches and museums everywhere and markets seemingly on every corner. The cobbled backstreets often reveal cool, airy courtyards filled with flowers and fountains just down an alley or two.

Most of the photographs I've taken seem to be filled with this Catholic imagery, an exhibition of which will take place at Uncle David's in Dollar when I return! Ho, ho, ho!

Every single vehicle in this town seems to be a taxi of some sort and the bigger ones all have Starsky & Hutch type stripes down the side. Very cool! The air is constantly filled with the noise of horns abusing other road users or trying to get the attention of tourists.

On the streets, my most used phrase quickly becomes "No, gracias" as a constant barrage of locals young and old try and sell their wares. Postcards, chocolate, toilet roll(!), tin openers, blankets, jumpers, the list is endless. The kids in particular work the same charm offensive as those I met in Asia, asking me where I come from and then reeling off the capital city and population count of Scotland. Apparently though it's grown to some 500 million since I left. Where on earth do you all live?

To visit Machu Picchu, I really wanted to undertake the four-day, Inca Trail hike, a walk of some 32 kilometres rising to over 4,000 metres at it's highest point. Unfortunately most of the trail is closed during February for cleaning and repairs so I sign up for a two-day trip instead.

To get in to the mood, I first of all undertake the one-day tour of the Sacred Valley which visits various Inca sites in the region and offers spectacular scenery and lunatic driving along the way. I also visit the local ruins around Cusco including Sacsayhuaman (pronounced 'sexywoman') which sits proudly at the top of a hill overlooking the town. Mounting her is an exhausting exercise.

My two-day trip to Machu Picchu starts early with an alarm call at 05.00 and a train departure at 06.15. In our party is a girl from Ireland, a geezer from Norf Laandon and a young Japanese American family with two twin boys aged 6. They're all mischief and Gameboys on the three and a half hour ride to our dropping off point.

It's a warm day and Victor, our guide, explains that we're going to be undertaking a gradual climb for the first few hours until we join the main Inca Trail for the last trek down towards Machu Picchu. If his definition of 'gradual' means lung bursting ascent, then he's spot on! I've never had the greatest knees in the world (disagree at your leisure, girls) and they're soon creaking with the big steps up and down, but mainly up. All of us in the party find any excuse to stop, drink and breathe... all, that is, except the twins who are running and sprinting up the trail with unlimited energy. This would be annoying as hell if they weren't so cute.

The views are tremendous at all times but some of the sheer drops off the side of the mountain have my already sore knees growing even weaker. After lunch the trail flattens out and we're sheltered from the heat of the day by some lush rainforest foliage. I really do feel like Indiana Jones at the beginning of 'Raiders of The Lost Ark'.

Turning a corner, we come across some steep stone steps carved into the mountainside. There's a walled building of some sort at the top and as I struggle upwards the excitement grows within. At the top, however, there's only the remnants of a guard house or some type of watch tower and more of the trail beyond. A little further on, more steep step upwards and another building at the top. I'm all ready to be disappointed again but this turns out to be Inti Punku, the Sun Gate, with the most astounding view down across the valley to Machu Picchu saddled serenely between two sharply peaked mountains. It is the definition of breathtaking as what little breath I have left is sucked out in an astonished gasp. It's four in the afternoon and the sun is drowning the entire scene with a beautiful light. We all drink it in silently for what seems like an age.

By the time we get to the site, most of the day trippers have gone and the whole place is very quiet and still. We only stop at the highest point to take a few photos because we're coming back the next morning to explore it at length. Again, we're lucky to arrive early before the hordes turn up and get a very informative tour from Victor. Machu Picchu is only some 500 years old so it's not the age that makes it so special. The unparalleled setting and the fact that it was only 'discovered' less than a hundred years ago gives it its magic quality. Machu Picchu was once a legend, a fabled place and it's exhilarating to note that there are still legends about other cities and places, perhaps yet to be discovered.

I would unreservedly recommend that you visit this place if you get the chance. Yes, it's growing more and more popular but seeing it for the first time as I climbed over the mountain is a sight that I will never forget for as long as I live. Unless, of course, the Alzheimers continues diminish my already faltering faculties. Now where was I? Oh yeah... "Can I just play outside for another ten minutes Mum?"

And finally, a public information announcement. If you've inadvertently deleted any of the e-mails I've sent and are now kicking yourself at this bewildering lack of judgement, fear not. As well as being published in the Daily Record, I've just signed a staggering two figure deal with multi media colossus Tacky Worldwide Inc. to have the original e-mails posted on their fantastic website in all their original and unedited glory.

This organisation is a bastion of independent thinking, constantly championing the underdog and vigorously resisting the takeover efforts of the Murdochs of this world. Their website is fresh, original and always entertaining so tell all your friends and log on today to be transported to another dimension. It's a different kind of experience altogether.

http://www.tackyprod.pwp.blueyonder.co.uk (2007 Update: The emails have gone but the site is still brilliant.)

Well, time to saddle up and move on because the posse are on my tail so me and Sundance are heading south for the highest lake in the world and possibly Bolivia.

Till then amigos.

Love, Neil x

Thursday, 5 February 2004

Tin Cup

Wellington to Auckland

A couple of days after crossing the Cook Straits by ferry and arriving in Wellington, New Zealand's capital, I'm at a bit of a loss. I've got no rental car, no travelling companion and no idea what I want to do next. And I've got two weeks to get from Wellington to Auckland, roughly the same distance as London to Glasgow.

Time then to fall back on the staple ingredients of the backpacker's life. My backpack(!), an open bus ticket, a map, a big pin to stick in the map, a blindfold to wear while I'm sticking the big pin in the map and a couple of band aids to patch up my bloody fingers after all the pin-sticking! Here's what happened next...

Wellington
A relatively small capital city and during all but one of my five days there, it gets lashed and battered by violent storms. Luckily, it has one of the best museums you could find, Te Papa Tongarewa or Museum of New Zealand. Apart from all the cultural stuff (and The Lord Of The Rings merchandise store) it has some virtual, simulator rides to take you through New Zealand's past and future.

Wellington was the centre of operations during the filming of the LOTR trilogy but disappointingly, there's not a lot of evidence around to underline this fact. You can't visit the film studios and the larger fortress and city sets have all been dismantled. I do get to see "The Return Of The King" though in the beautifully restored Embassy Cinema, the venue for the world premiere back in December.

Just before leaving Wellington however, my world is rocked to the core after reading a headline that says that J-Lo has split up from Ben!!! How the hell did that happen? They just seemed so, you know, so solid, so together. I for one, didn't see that coming - fair took the wind out of my sails. Please, somebody, say it ain't so?

Turangi
It's a four and a half hour bus trip from Wellington to Turangi, "Trout Fishing capital of the world" and on the way, I pass through Taihape, "Gum Boot capital of the world". Thankfully, I pass through quickly.

Travelling by bus around New Zealand is markedly different from similar journeys in Australia or America or the UK for that matter. There's no real motorways to speak of; very few straight roads at all actually and it turns out to be a rather uncomfortable mode of transport. The drivers cruise way too fast round some of the mountain bends but more alarming than that is the way they dress.

The light blue, short-sleeved shirt with matching shoulder epaulets isn't too bad I suppose (not clubbing gear obviously) but the navy blue shorts are WAY too short in every manner possible. A couple of sizes too small around the waist certainly but also riding too high up the thighs like every footballer you can think of from the 80s. I'm not sure I should really be dwelling on this subject matter as much as I am but it doesn't stop there. Add in some long woolly socks, usually white, and some shiny black shoes and you have the whole eclectic ensemble. I'm dying to ask if they have a spare pair of lederhosen in the back of the bus for special occasions but don't have the nerve.

Anyway, I've come to Turnagi because I've read about something called the Tongariro Crossing, advertised as the finest one-day tramp (hike) in New Zealand. For ten miles, it climbs up between two active volcanoes, traversing a barren landscape full of lava flows, craters and emerald lakes.

I sign up as soon as I arrive in town and wake early the next morning in anticipation of a memorable day. When I step outside, the summertime's in bloom but ninety minutes later at the foot of the volcanoes it's a very different story. For one thing, the cloud and mist have swallowed the volcanoes and the wind is howling at a dangerous rate of knots.

Looking around, only a few of the trampers seem up for the challenge. They're the ones with the proper hiking boots, goggles, woolly hats, ski poles(!) and teams of huskies. Okay, so there're no dogs but they do look like they could survive in the wilderness for months on end. In stark contrast, my flimsy rain poncho and floppy golf hat don't really cut it. Plus I've left my homemade sandwiches back at the hostel.

It's an easy decision then to get back on the bus and go visit the little golf course I noticed back in Turangi. There, it's sunny and warm and it ends up just being my floppy hat and me on a deserted course - I did have other clothes on as well. Or did I?

Napier
A three-hour journey from Turangi brings me to Napier on the east coast, "art deco capital of the world". This seems an unlikely claim but it really is a pretty town. Completely demolished in two and a half minutes by an earthquake in 1931, it was rebuilt in the dominant style of the times and still retains a lot of charm. (God, I'm sounding more like Judith Chalmers every day!) I half expect to see Gatsby driving along in a big car with white wall tyres and the weather's so warm when I'm there that I stay longer than I intended. Don't do much except drink the local wine, sit in the sun and then drink more of the local wine.

Gisborne
Four hours up the east coast from Napier, the sign at the edge of town says "Gisborne - Chardonnay Capital" but doesn't offer any further geographical clarification. I reckon that they're just too scared of the French to add "...of the world" on to it. New Zealand, remember, is the place where French agents sank Greenpeace's Rainbow Warrior back in the 80s. More recently, the French conducted nuclear tests in the South Pacific which unleashed Godzilla on to an unsuspecting New York public. "Another glash of chardonnay over here pleesh!"

More impressive about Gisborne though is their claim to be the first city in the world to see the light of any new day. They certainly have the perfect setting to witness this, a wonderful beach, long and wide like the West Sands in St. Andrews. I thought about setting my alarm early to behold this natural wonder but then forced myself to think about something else. Sharks, for example.

For around seventy pounds, you can be taken ten miles offshore and then have the pleasure of being partially lowered into the sea in a metal cage while the local shark population circle menacingly around you. This almost seems like an expedition worth undertaking until I discover that for around twenty pounds, I can play a nationally acclaimed, links style golf course, all equipment and a free drink included. Hmmnn? Sharks? Golf? Sharks? Golf? Tough one that. Yet again, it's a scorching day when I roll in the last putt for a round of 63... all right, 83!

Rotorua
On the four and a half hour bus ride to Rotorua I get quite excited when I read in my guidebook, "everywhere you look, there're signs of vulcanism".

"Ooo, maybe there'll be a Star Trek convention there," I say in a voice a little louder than I intended.

All around me on the bus, the other passengers begin to shift uncomfortably in their seats and pretend they're looking out the window.

Rotorua is "sulphur capital of the world", in other words, "stinking, rotten-egg smelling capital of the world". It sits slap bang on the Pacific Ring of Fire (no curry jokes please) and the "signs" referred to in the guidebook pertain to boiling mud pools, hot springs and geysers.

It's very touristy with Maori music and dance shows every night and a multitude of places offering spa treatments but it has some of the best restaurants I've seen for a while. And it has two golf courses. I choose the cheaper, public one for a couple of rounds, managing to avoid the regular thunderstorms on both occasions. (Do you think this photo looks like J-Lo?)

Hamilton
I don't play golf in Hamilton but I spend an extra day here, primarily so I can watch the Superbowl at a reasonable, lunchtime hour and so I can visit the nearby small town of Te Awamutu. A detached, unruffled farming community, Te Awamutu holds a greater significance for me as the birthplace of two of my musical heroes, brothers Neil & Tim Finn. They don't live there any more of course, but the local museum has an interesting exhibition of their life and times through bands such as Split Enz and Crowded House and their solo work.

Auckland
And now I'm in Auckland, the biggest and busiest city in New Zealand. They've got galleries, museums, markets, a tall sky tower, ferry rides and beaches, none of which I've visited. I've been more content with the bars, restaurants and coffee shops although I travelled a bit out of town yesterday to visit One Tree Hill, a place made famous in a U2 song. Nice view, shame they cut down the tree.

The other night I went to see hot-rockin', blues-singin', guitar-pickin', ass-kickin', finger-lickin, lip-smackin', thrist-quenchin' Bonnie Raitt in concert - me and a couple of thousand other middle age rockers. I was one of the youngest there! I'd never seen her before; don't have any of her albums (why is that?) but her performance was compelling. She has a voice that just soars. And Neil & Tim Finn were in the audience! Would have asked them for their autographs but they haven't dropped the restraining order yet.

So, all in all, it's been a fairly leisurely tour around the North Island, grooming my golf swing for the challenges to come later in the year. I haven't had much motivation to do anything more energetic over the last couple of weeks, no real strength of will to push the envelope. That may be down to the fact that I tried the "extreme" activities on the South Island or it may be because I got drunk last week and shaved off all my hair. Who knows?

Anyway, later this afternoon, I get on a plane for a twelve-hour journey to Los Angeles. I'm there for all of five hours before I get on another plane for an eight-hour flight to Lima in Peru. And I'll arrive there on the same day that I left New Zealand. Mental!

Till then.

Love, Neil x

Wednesday, 28 January 2004

Dude! Where's My Balls? Volume 2

Queenstown to Wellington

Having struggled to find the balls to do a bungy jump, I get to know the feeling of liberation and relief when I discover that they were attached to me all the time. Curious then that I do my best to batter, bruise and sever them for good on a gruelling jetboat ride and a horse called Wilson.

If you only do one thing in Queenstown then you really aren't getting out enough. Seriously, the one thing that everyone of all ages and sizes seems to sign up for in Queenstown is jetboating. There's an endless queue at the dockside for the hourly jaunts along the Kawarau and Shotover Rivers and the happy, chirpy people in the promotional literature look like they're having non-stop fun in the sun. As I pull on my heavy, wax, rain jacket, the thunder is rumbling overhead and I'm not smiling.

The next hour is a jarring roller coaster ride. Imagine though that the roller coaster cars actually leave the track for a few seconds and then come crashing back down without any consideration for the delicate parts of the passengers, especially the male passengers, none of whom are strapped in incidentally.

I'm sitting up front beside the driver, the best seat to occupy I'm told. It's only when we get going that I realise why everyone else is cowering in the back and why the driver himself is wearing something akin to an industrial welder's mask. The spray and rain pierce my eyes like daggers and the frequent 360 degree turns - the 'extreme' element of jetboating - have my head and stomach going in opposite directions. The Japanese girls in the back row love it though and scream for more. Crazy kamikaze chicks! By the end, I'm longing to be back in the warm, comforting bosom of the bungy community.

Now a word of warning. The next few paragraphs talk a bit about various film locations sites used for the Lord Of The Rings (LOTR) trilogy and make reference to miscellaneous Tolkien trivia. If you're not a big fan, I won't be offended if you scroll down past this point. Join us again at the paragraph that begins "After the arrest..." Just kidding. Or am I?

Queenstown is situated about half way along the right hand side of a large, s-shaped lake called Lake Wakatipu It's not difficult to see why the LOTR crew spent a considerable amount of time here shooting footage for all three films. Everywhere you look, the scenery is breathtaking and you only have to travel a few miles in any direction before stumbling across a multitude of film locations.

Directly opposite the town the skyline is dominated by a range of sharp peaked, craggy mountains called The Remarkables, surely the most aptly named mountain range in the world. This backdrop was used for various scenes including long shots of Mordor (where the bad guys live), the people of Rohan (some of the good guys) fleeing to Helm's Deep and Dimrill Dale, the bit in the first movie after Gandalf The Grey (good wizard) dies. Hope that didn't spoil the plot for anyone?

Nearby, in a lovely little gold mining town called Arrowtown, I saw The Gladden Fields, the place where the Ring goes missing for a number of years and also the Ford of Bruinen where the Nazgul (bad guys on horses) get washed away.

My favourite location though is the road that wanders 45 kilometres out of Queenstown, running north along the lakeside to a place called Glenorchy. The lake is hemmed in by steep mountains on both sides and along the way we pass Amon Hen (where Sean Bean gets killed - more plot spoiling, sorry) and Ilithien (getting bored with these LOTR names yet?), finally ending up at Isengard (big tower, bad wizard). High above all of this in the far distance is the permanently snow covered Mount Earnslaw which doubled as the Caradhras Pass (Fellowship's ill fated skiing trip).

We've come to Glenorchy because I've somehow been talked into doing an all day horse riding adventure that will visit Lothlorien, the magical forest where weird, telepathic elf, Cate Blanchett lives. Thing is, I've never been on a horse before.

On arrival at the stables, we get the news that the day trip has been shortened to a two-hour ride because the rivers are too high to cross due to recent rain. I'm pretty sure this wouldn't have stopped Aragon or Legolas but for a novice like me it's not too disappointing.

I was hoping for a horse with a gutsy or mystical name like Brutus or Champion or Shadowfax but up plods a nag called Wilson who, like me, has clearly not had his breakfast yet. I'm also a bit disgruntled to be made to wear a frankly, unstylish white riding helmet with a tight chin strap. I had been hoping to ride wild and free with the wind blowing my long flowing blond mullet behind me! Mullets are still all the rage back home, right?

Mounting the horse (no giggling please, Russell) is a chore in itself. As soon as I get on to the saddle from a platform on one side, I'm sliding off the other because it hasn't been tied tightly enough. What is it about people in this country miscalculating my weight? Once secure though, I'm a picture of man and beast in perfect harmony. I get an overwhelming feeling that I was just born to be in the saddle - this is where I belong. Not actually out riding you understand, just sitting there slightly slouched looking cool like Steve McQueen recruiting potential gunslingers.

Finally, it's time to head out on to the plains of Rohan but not before we're given a seemingly endless list of instructions.

"Keep your heels down, knees in, back straight, hands up, reins short, do the hokey cokey and oh, did I mention, KEEP YOUR HEELS DOWN!"

My ankles joints are creaking at a tortuous angle and we still haven't left the stables. Just as I'm about to utter the macho, cowboy command, "Giddy up there boy" to get us going, Wilson takes off on his own accord, following the horse in front of him at a slow walk. I guess the novelty of carting tourists around all day wears off quickly. The sooner he leaves, the sooner he gets home to eat. My kind of animal.

Once we're out in the fields it's time to change gear and accelerate into a trot. More instructions.

"Heels down, stand slightly out of the saddle, grab the mane, a quick snap of the reins and Neil, will you keep those heel downs. PLEASE!"

As the pace of the horse quickens, I finally understand why more girls go horse riding than boys. This is absolute murder on the balls, the nuts, the precious ones, whatever your descriptive preference might be. No wonder John Wayne walks like he does. I pull Wilson up quickly and tell him either we walk the rest of the way home or we visit the glue factory, his choice.

After the arresting (see what I did there?) views around Queenstown, the road east towards Dunedin is no less interesting. Every few miles the landscape changes throwing up scenes and views reminiscent of other parts of the world.

The goldtowns of the Otago region with its scorched rocky mountains could be wild west Arizona or California. The perfectly ordered rows of vines at the nearby wineries bordered by tall poplar trees evoke images of Tuscany. And approaching the coast, the Scottish borders come to mind with their rolling green hills crammed with sheep. Talking of which, if you get a bit lonely in New Zealand... eh, never mind!

Dunedin ("Edinburgh of the South" is the Gaelic translation) was established as a Scottish settlement back in the 19th century. It's full of familiar names like Princes Street, the Canongate and Corstorphine and I was hoping to get a bit of a Scottish 'fix' by coming here. Unfortunately, it's shut. Well not shut exactly but a bit drab and lifeless and it's principal claim to fame seems to be that it has the steepest street in the world. Spend all of two minutes looking at this on the road out of the city.

Two days, and a lot of miles later, we're at the top of the South Island. We had intended visiting Abel Tasman National Park, "sea kayaking capital of the world" but in the end, we just can't be arsed! It's reputedly very busy and very difficult to access and we end up doing a relaxing sea kayaking day out around the beautiful Marlborough Sounds. Top tip for sea kayaking - always take the rear seat in a two-person kayak - you can have far more sly wee rests while your partner does all the hard work at the front! "Honest, I'm paddling!"

Next up, the North Island, where every town, big or small, has some kind of bizarre, international claim to fame. Gum Boot capital of the world anyone?

Till then.

Love, Neil x

Tuesday, 20 January 2004

Dude! Where's My Balls? Volume 1

Christchurch to Queenstown

True story. A few years ago, I was in a taxi in Las Vegas trying to escape from a seedy hotel in order to check in to an ordinary, gaudy one instead. The cab driver, in between shouting obscenities at well endowed women, asked me where I was from. When I told him, he replied,

"Aw yeah, Scotland. That's, eh, over da sea, beside Noo Zealand, right?"

Now this may say more about the fact that only around 20% of Americans are thought to own passports but from a certain point of view, he's not too far off the mark. In terms of spectacular scenery, changeable weather and friendly people, New Zealand is indeed a very close relation to Scotland.

The adventure starts before I even land as my plane from Brisbane glides perilously close to the majestic Southern Alps and then crosses the flat Canterbury plains to touch down safely in Christchurch, the biggest city on the South Island. For the first time on this trip I have a travelling companion, my friend Meredith from the States, who's flown in to tour around, see the sights and share some of the driving. However, when we're presented with a crappy looking, pale green, manual transmission Hyundai, she quickly books the passenger seat and stays there for two weeks.

Christchurch is a slice of middle England. Driving in from the airport through tree lined suburbs, we could easily be in Chester or York and the central, pedestrianised square is dominated by a huge cathedral. We're only here for one night because the quest is on to find Middle Earth and as many recognisable Lord Of The Rings location sites as possible. What a geek!

Decide on an anti-clockwise sweep of the South Island and begin with a crossing to the west coast, up and through Arthur's Pass. Arthur doesn't seem to mind too much. Immediately, this is stunning stuff. The road weaves through mountains draped in cloud and rises and falls through steep, rainforest valleys. It's high summer and the east of the island is suffering its worst drought since records began but you wouldn't know it here when the rain thuds off the Hyundai with a violent intensity bordering on assault.

Turning south to drive down the west coast, the Alps are ever present, squeezing the road towards the sea. Spend a couple of days near Mount Cook, New Zealand's highest mountain, which reaches 12,300 feet into the sky, three times the height of Ben Nevis. Nearby, two massive glaciers, Fox and Franz Josef, wind their way down and through the mountain valleys for nearly twelve kilometres each. I'd never seen a glacier before and when we hike up to the foot of Fox Glacier, it really is an awesome sight, an ice wall of 100 feet or more towering above us.

From the glaciers, the road south continues to hug the coastline and then turns inland through beautiful, sublime Mount Aspiring National Park. I know it's beautiful and sublime because my guidebook tells me so but the day we pass through, it's been swallowed whole by a dark, brooding thunder storm that's come straight from the land of Mordor.

Finally, we reach Queenstown, self proclaimed adventure capital of the world. It's a relatively small tourist town, a bit like Aviemore except nice! The number and diversity of extreme sports on offer here is exceeded only by the amount of adrenaline-fuelled idiots willing to sign up for them all - horse riding, jetboating, white-water rafting, white-water sledging, river surfing, canyoning, skydiving, paragliding, hang-gliding, off road driving, mountain biking and of course, bungy jumping.

Up until now, my idea of an adrenaline rush has been asking for an extra shot of espresso at Starbucks or scrambling about looking for the remote control when The X-Files is due to start on another channel. However, knowing that I would eventually reach New Zealand during this trip, I've had quite a committed notion in the back of my head that I would definitely attempt a bungy jump while I was here. For people who know me well, this may come as quite as a shock, especially since I announced my official retirement from rollercoasters a couple of years ago after a rumoured throwing up incident on the Indiana Jones ride at Disneyland Paris. Must have been a dodgy Pernod!

Despite feeling nauseous in my 23rd floor hotel room in Hong Kong and dizzy in a cable car ride in Singapore, the notion to bungy jump hadn't left me. That all changes however when I go and visit the Kawarau River jump site near Queenstown, the place where bungy jumping originated in New Zealand and one of many such places now dotted around the country. The notion disappears as fast as a Rangers fan at 4.15 every Saturday and it's an effort just to stand on the viewing platform and fight a losing battle with my buckling knees.

HOLY SH#T, what was I thinking? People actually throw themselves, WILLINGLY throw themselves off a bridge secured only by a strong(?) and flexible latex rubber rope, the same material incidentally that goes into your average condom... unless you order those 'special' ones from Amsterdam over the internet at www....., but I digress. Talk about ultimate protection! After recovering from my hyperventilation with a cup of coffee indoors, I decide that there's just too much of a chill in the air to even think about signing up for this madness today.

The next day I'm back, feeling pretty psyched. Slept fitfully during the night weighing up the possible outcomes and ramifications of jumping. Thirty seconds of heart pumping excitement if I do? Regret and permanently damaged self-esteem if I don't? Agonising, horrible death if they calculate my weight wrong? Hmmnn, interesting dilemma. It's blowing a gale as I get out the car and make my way down to the bridge and this time it takes me all of 3.6 seconds to decide that I'm definitely not jumping today. No way, not in that hurricane. Think how bad the hair would look in all those action photos.

After leaving Queenstown for 'extreme' adventure elsewhere (see Volume 2), it's a couple of days before I'm back in the area for a last chance to tame the bungy beast. If I'm ever going to do this, I have to turn up as soon as it opens and get it over and done with so I can enjoy the reward of a massive cooked breakfast, free from regret and feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing. Step out of the car at 9.05am with the feeling that there's no turning back.

9.06am
Get an overwhelming feeling to turn back, start the car and the find the first flight home.

9.09am
Stagger nonchalantly (yes, it is possible to do both) up to the booking desk.

"I'd like the combined jump and video package please," I squeak in a pitch that only dogs can hear.

"I'm sorry, did you squeak something sir?" replies the nice girl behind the counter, smiling sympathetically.

I point to the relevant part of the promotional leaflet with a grunt and she gets busy on her pc.

"Leet's see," she muses. "We're eectually preetty fully booked thees morning" (Kiwis use the 'ee' vowel sound A LOT!)

My heart leaps. I don't have the time to wait around all day and Nice Girl is going to deny me my dream of jumping. I'm going to be able to say that I really wanted to jump but it was full up and a third party just wouldn't let me. YES! Virtual triumph snatched from virtual disaster!

"No, heeng on. We can eectually feet you een streeght eeweey sir. Just steep on the scales please."

"Great," I whimper. "That's really... great news."

9.12am
After wrestling the credit card from my cold, paralysed hand, nice girl writes my weight on my left wrist, giggling to herself quietly as she does so.

9.15am
Remove my jacket and make my way out to the bridge, resplendent in my new Falkirk away strip. I had thought about wearing my Celtic strip to delight all you Rangers fans but I don't want to spoil it in the event of any accidental bowel movements.

9.18am
The walk to the centre of the bridge is actually quite relaxing. The weather is sunny and calm and it's not easy to see down through the railings to the river below. When I get to the ledge, the p.a. system is pumping out "Pride" by U2. "Is that what I'll really feel when this thing is over?" I ponder to myself.

9.20am
"Over here mate. Leet's see that wreest of yours," shouts the jump guide. I get a little concerned when he makes a double take of my weight and then starts to test the latex rope by pulling and tugging it vigorously with his fists. With a kind of resigned shrug (did he cross himself as well?) he starts to bind my legs together and tells me everything's going to be just fine.

9.22am
The construction of the ledge means that I still can't see down but when he gets me to my feet and tells me to shuffle to the edge, the river comes into view. At least I think it's a river. From this height it looks like a mountain stream! The music has changed to U2's "Angel of Harlem" and I struggle hard to hold on to the hope that this prophetically means that they're watching over me rather than I'm about to join them.

9.23am
For a split second, my knees are weak and I feel like I'm going to cave and take the long walk of shame back along the bridge. Before I have time to deliberate though, my guide is shouting out the countdown with my rapid, panicky, breathy swearing punctuating every number.

"5" Oh f#ck! "4" Oh f#cking f#ck! "3" Oh f#ckity, f#cking f#ck! "2, 1, GO!"

And I do. Arms stretched out before me like Christopher Reeve (well, not these days obviously), diving furiously for a hill in the distance trying to replicate the action that I've practiced from the safe height of 18 inches on to my bed for the last few nights. I try to yell but I've stopped breathing and then a remarkable thing happens. After the initial rush of the first two seconds with the river accelerating up to meet me, time seems to almost stop and everything happens in a quiet, peaceful slow motion. There's no sound, no rush of wind or shouts from the onlookers that I can hear. There's no violent jerking of the rope or strain on any part of my body. I come to a very smooth stop just a few feet above the water and then immediately fire upwards, repeating this cycle three or four times. If I didn't know better, I'd describe the whole 30 seconds as one of the most relaxing experiences of my life.

9.25am
I don't feel overly excited or energised as I lie quietly in the boat that's come out to retrieve me but I do feel that overwhelming sense of pride... or is it just merciful relief that the whole thing is over and I'm still in one piece? The Kawarau River jump, at 141 feet, is by no means the highest bungy jump in New Zealand but as we say in the bungy game, the only distance that matters is the first twelve inches.

The whole bungy operation is very slick indeed and two or three other jumpers have dived off the bridge by the time I make my way back to the top. It doesn't take much to persuade me to add the three commemorative photos to the video package I've already bought and I carry the whole lot around with me for the rest of the day in my special, jumpers-only, carrier bag. I'm dying to wave it in the faces of everyone I meet like a VIP back stage pass but think better of it.

Finally for Volume 1, a quick update on the lyrics game, remember that? Some of you might know that the Daily Record have just started publishing abridged versions of my e-mails in their Saturday magazine and I was surprised but delighted that they decided to include the lyrics game. Because I drone for so long when I write, I had to edit my previous e-mails into smaller, more palatable chunks which meant, in turn, that I had to think up some new song lyrics for the newspaper articles.

Rest assured however that the original lyrics game will continue in these e-mails and a separate, stunning prize will be available to all of you who so wisely subscribed to this service some months ago. Your are, and will remain always, my first and most important priority. You are the wind beneath my bungy wings. (NOT this week's lyric!)

In Volume 2, I'll have a full Lord Of The Rings location round up for all you fellow geeks including a thrilling journey with the Riders of Rohan and a river adventure to the Pillars of the Argonath.

Till then.

Love, Neil x