Interview with Adventurer/Photographer Chris Bray

Chris Bray grew up sailing around the world and then leading world-first cart-hauling expeditions across the arctic before becoming an award-winning Australian Geographic photographer, Lowepro ambassador and Canon’s Australian ambassador for five years. Chris’s work has appeared in National Geographic (along with Australian and Canadian Geographic) as well as TIME Magazine and Discovery Channel. He’s written a successful book ‘The 1000 Hour Day’ (now an award-winning documentary ‘The Crossing’), sits on the advisory committee for The Australian Geographic Society and is also founder and CEO of Conservation United, crowd-funding the world’s critical conservation projects. Besides running 1-day photography courses and photo safaris to the world’s most wonderful places, Chris and his wife Jess recently became the first people to sail a junk-rig boat through the Northwest Passage over the arctic.

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  1. What’s your main motivation for what you do, what are you seeking? Fitness, adrenaline, freedom..?

 I am basically just driven by a need to experience new things, to be challenged, to fulfill my potential, to feel like I am getting the most out of this one life that I have. You mention freedom, adventure, health etc – I think these are just factors that need to be in place for me to achieve my broader goal of maximising my life. No one can experience new things without freedom, or be challenged without some adrenaline, or be at their best without being healthy. I certainly don’t go looking for adrenaline though – that’s a common misconception. I always do my best to identify risks and plan how to mitigate them, so as to be as safe as possible. I enjoy life too much to take irresponsible risks.

 2. Are there a few key pieces of gear you take with you on every expedition?

I’ve almost always got some kind of camera with me – because I enjoy sharing the experiences almost as much as having them. Anything from a little GoPro right up to my beast of a Canon EOS 1DX DSLR. I usually have a Leatherman handy too, and if I’m in the middle of nowhere, you can’t beat having an Iridium satellite phone just in case things go wrong.

3. Have you ever experienced fear on an expedition? If so, how did you overcome it?

Oh yeah, often! If you’re not at least a little scared every now and again, then it’s not really an adventure – you’re not pushing yourself far enough! Hopefully though, you’ve done all your research and planning, and are properly equipped mentally and physically to deal with any of the possible outcomes. Then, even though you might be scared that X is going to happen, at least you know what you’re going to do if/when it does so that it’s not Game Over. I’ve been in situations (for example in a nasty storm in our little wooden sailboat half way between Canada and Greenland) that have rapidly escalated beyond what I expected to need to prepare for, and in a scenario like that, I think the best thing to do is just constantly think ahead to visualize all the various disasters that could be about to happen, think them through, plan what you’ll do and how to react, and identify things that you could do right now to either prevent them, or if unavoidable, to maximize your chance of survival if it does. This way not only do you keep yourself busy which helps you not to worry, but all this mental and physical preparation will help prevent disaster.

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4. You have an engineering degree, yet you are a photographer, a public speaker, an author and you run your own company, where did you pick up all these skills?

I grew up sailing around the world with my family for 5 years so I was always taught to be practical and independent, but to be honest, I was quite a shy, nerdy little kid. At school I feared public speaking more than death, generally had very little self-confidence, especially around other people. It was the effect of going on my first major adventure that started to transform me. Finding myself way outside my comfort zone, learning how to make decisions and live with the consequences, having to be responsible, learning to overcome fear and hardship, the importance of determination and enthusiasm, learning how to break seemingly impossible challenges down into more manageable portions and tackling each in turn until at the end, you come out having seemingly achieved the impossible. The self-confidence & problem solving abilities I gained through my adventures has really opened up all my horizons. I think all skills come slowly though, with practice & patience – and I’m always still improving. Every time I speak in public I feel more comfortable with it, every year I feel like my photography improves, my business skills get better etc.

5. You are a busy man, do you ever have free time to just relax, or are your hobbies now your job so you don’t need time off?

I’m very lucky to be working for myself, in a job that’s my passion. I love it. However that does also mean there’s no escape from it – when you own your own company, especially one where you’re so completely absorbed inside it (eg: away overseas running photo safaris) for 10 months/yr, the brief times when my wife and I are ‘home’ is the only chance we get to work ‘on’ the business instead of ‘in’ it. There’s no such thing as ‘after hours’ or ‘weekends’, it’s just non-stop from when you open your eyes until well after dinner at night. Of course we schedule in time to catch up with friends or go somewhere, but our calendar is usually pretty crammed about 18 months out, so life is a little bit too hectic all the time. To be honest, at the moment, no, I don’t get enough time to even catch up on the backlog of emails, opportunities and chores, let alone catch my breath and take-stock, or plan properly for the future. Jess and I are working on trying to re-shape the business to allow a bit more me and us-time though!

6.Whats the most difficult thing you’ve ever done?

There’s been various physically challenging moments on some of my adventures, but actually, the trickiest thing I’ve ever done was having just graduated as an electrical engineer with a first class honors, awards and great job offers, to decide to turn my back on all that and instead try to follow my passion of adventure and photography and attempt to make a career doing that instead. 

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7. Have you experienced Type 2 fun? The idea that expeditions/challenges are miserable while enduring them but the fun and the pleasure comes in hindsight, once completed, perhaps in recounting the adventure afterwards?

Oh absolutely, all the time – that’s one of the great benefits of always having a camera with me, so I can laugh about terrible moments later on, and share the experience. It’s the same with wildlife photography, there’s a lot of Type 2 Fun going on there – often I have to endure a lot of annoying waiting, or miserable conditions etc but I do endure them, because I know that the end result, a beautiful photograph of some amazing animal that I can admire later in all it’s fine detail and share with everyone, will be worth it. If you need instant gratification, I would avoid both expeditions and wildlife photography!

8. If you could make money solely out of adventures alone would you give up running the photography courses?

It was a conscious decision I made to stop earning a living from adventure alone. I did live off sponsorship and adventure related incomes like speaking, selling articles etc for years. But after my second arctic expedition, completing the Victoria Island traverse which was a fairly epic, five year project costing more than $250,000, I realized that for adventure to be a career, in order not to go backwards, I’d have to keep somehow doing bigger, bolder, more dangerous expeditions, and eventually I’d either end up totally burnt-out, or more likely dead. Also, it’s very hard to raise enough money to even embark on an expedition, let alone make enough on the side for a decent living – it’s a lot of hard work.

Instead, I decided to devise a business model that would still let me travel to the world’s most wonderful places, get paid for it, and still be able to take chunks of time off to go on personal, more hard-core adventures, such as over the last five northern summers where my wife Jess and I rebuilt the little wooden sailboat and sailed it in stages up over the top of Canada and Alaska through the Northwest Passage. We took four months off work each year for a while there. I do enjoy good friendships with many of the interesting photo safari guests we meet, and I also love the challenge of running a successful business, and expanding it. Even if I won lotto, I’d still keep running my business – I might just employ more people so I could take longer holidays and more of them.

9.Would you say it’s a harder path you have chosen rather than an easier one, by choosing lets say an office job over your lifestyle? 

Harder in that it’s required some difficult decisions, hard work, dedication and risk yes, but personally, I’d find it way harder – too hard in fact – to spend my life sitting at a desk with an office job. So it depends what you define as being ‘hard’. I should point out though, that despite seeming from the outside like a glamorous, perpetual-holiday lifestyle that Jess and I enjoy, it is a HUGE amount of work, and without meaning to sound arrogant, I really don’t know anyone who works as hard, or as long as Jess and I do.

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10. Do you think having partner changes things, makes you have to reconsider the risk factor involved in some of the things you take on, perhaps say no to something you would have otherwise said yes to? 

Yes, and of course your choice of partner has a huge bearing on how much influence it has on your ideal lifestyle I’m super lucky in that Jess is very adventurous also, she’s always up for anything, and together I think we achieve more than we could apart, that’s why I married her. But still, it’s true that when you’re going on (or considering going on) a trip with someone you care for and genuinely feel responsible for, it does affect your decisions but probably for the better. There are things I’d probably have risked myself, but with Jess onboard, who’s depending on me to make the right decision for both of us, I’d opt for the safer one. I don’t see that as a bad thing in the end. Sure, there may be times when I’d like to be able to just set off solo, or do a trip that Jess wouldn’t be keen on, but I actually think if I was keen enough, she’d let me go anyway, and the fact is I’d probably just end up missing her, or making the wrong decision without her input.

11. Do you have any advice for people wanting to break out of their comfort zones?

Just go on an adventure somewhere, anywhere! It doesn’t have to be epic, lengthy or expensive – it’s just gotta be further along some path than you’ve ever been before. Grab some friends, think of something you like doing, and then come up with some crazy exaggeration of that same undertaking. If you like kayaking, pick somewhere on a map and work out how to kayak from A to B. Whatever.

 12. Can you tell me more about your conservation work and why you do it?

I’ve always loved nature, wildlife and the outdoors. Initially as a kid watching David Attenborough documentaries while growing up sailing the world, then going on my own adventures to so many beautiful, remote and unspoilt corners of the world, and now every month on my photography safaris it’s the same. It’s all so wonderful, so perfect and often so delicate, and it crushes me to see how quickly so much of it is being damaged or lost, forever. It’s true that on a personal level my business profits from the beauty of the natural world and so I feel it’s only fair that I give back, but more than that, I feel that humans as a whole are being grossly unfair to the natural world, and I feel it’s important to at least do my best to come up with a way to mitigate the losses. So having come up with an idea to attempt to re-structure the rather erratic way the world tends to donate to countless charities, I hope that ‘Conservation United’ will soon be able to start channeling funding to actually start solving some the world’s most critical conservation projects. If I can help prevent just one species from slipping into extinction, then I’ll feel like my effort, my life, was worthwhile, and meant something – made a difference. 

13. I hate asking people this question but alas it has to be done, what’s next for you?

More photography courses around Australia and photo safaris all around the world! This year we have a few new destinations too, including Iceland and Greenland, so that’ll be fun! Check out www.ChrisBraynet – I’m also looking into starting up a little eco-lodge, hopefully finally launching Conservation United, trying to sell our sailboat so we can start thinking about upgrading to a bigger, metal one so that we can go back into the arctic, perhaps with kids even! A family might be the next really big adventure I suspect, but we’ve got a bit of re-organizing to do of our current lifestyle before that would work!

Find out more about Chris Bray’s adventures via his website.

 

 

New Year, New Me?

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I try this ‘new year, new me’ bullshit annually…it never works. Already just a few weeks in and all my vows and promises have spiralled out of control once more. Life got in the way.

When you watch from your window as billowing smoke comes barreling your way from a bushfire started by fork lighting. Hear the drones of the voice from the television tell of the devastation of the town next door, completely flattened by the wicked orange embers. While you wait your turn, waiting for the call to evacuate, to flee… but the call never comes. You are safe. But you never go next door to help them pick up the pieces.

When you read a post on Facebook about a city in Syria that is under siege by its own countrymen, seeing photos of sallow skinned children starving to death before your very eyes and you blink and scroll on by to giggle at the next dumb viral video…

When you laugh nervously at the alarming thought that Donald Trump could become the next President of the US but then you are hungry so your thoughts turn to what to have for lunch instead…

Forever desensitized to the horror unfolding on the news, when finally something seeps in, something clicks. Your eyes absorb what you have always glanced over and for once you really see the horror in all its gritty glory.

Here I sit, albeit a bit dirty and worn having been bitten and head butted by horses, living amongst frogs, cockroaches and ants as I grind my way through my regional work. A little tougher and bedraggled then when I first landed but safe and fortunate all the same.

I ‘like’ these Facebook posts and share them, I frown and shake my fist at the TV and groan about what a horrible world it is, and “I always wondered why somebody didn’t do something about that… then I realized I am somebody.” A quote I read by Lily Tomlin. This realization is so stupidly simple; I cannot fathom how it never occurred to me before. Finally though, it has struck a chord, and it is resonating through me.

New Year, new me… by the end of week one I’d already managed to lock myself out of the apartment and had to walk barefoot to my cousin’s house at 5am, wake him and his pregnant girlfriend up and plea for refuge.

I get so impatient with myself, and my many faults… I am too weak, watch too much television, waste too much time, spend too much money, care too much what others think of me, think myself too fat, too ugly. I always blamed society for putting this pressure on me but I have realized it is me, I am my own worst enemy.

I must stop beating myself up, berating myself for all my flaws. I am only human; I will never be perfect and this year I really hope to stop trying. For too long, I’ve ignored the problems of the world, fretted about my failings instead, about all I don’t have when I have plenty. It is time for me to turn the spotlight off myself and shine it outwards, onto others. Why do I spend my days writing and documenting my own life when others have more important things to say, stories to tell, and issues to be brought to light. It is my turn to give back, to put my hands up, step up and to help. I will turn the lens on the people of the world, learn about their lives, let them tell their stories, help people that really need it and perhaps in doing so I will finally be convinced of my worth.

What do I really want to spend my life doing… not just travelling or doing extreme sports and having a good time but rather in conservation and activism, assisting real change in the world. Therefore anything I do from here on in will have more of a reason behind it then my own selfish delight.

My guilt is foreboding and at times overwhelming. I volunteered for one day this year to help collect clothes for the refugees in Calais, one fucking day out of 365 days this year. Is that really all I could spare? What bullshit have I fed myself? I didn’t donate one drop of blood this year… I was in Vietnam I tell myself, that gets me off the hook. I got a tattoo the year before, so I couldn’t? I spent hundreds of euros and dollars and Vietnamese dong on sculling beers and spirits on the weekends and then told myself I’m too broke to drop a coin in a homeless mans cup or to spare a fiver for that charity. The guilt literally riddles inside me.

This year, things need to change… I need to change. We’re off to a rocky start, but lets face it amn’t I always? Such is life. All the things in this world I don’t agree with, I have not earned the right to complain about unless I try and do something about it. There are so many undocumented tales out there about great cruelty and injustice, of weeping deforestation, of starving children, of slain animals, of racism, of homophobia, of corrupt politics, of bribes and favours, of debt and death, of a crumbling world… but also of magic, of passion, of freedom, of human beings rising up in the face of adversity. This year, I vow to give back. I have had my moment, now its time for others to have theirs…

Happy Belated New Year to you all.

 

Being a Grown Up

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I have worked hard my whole life, slogged away at it quietly behind closed doors; the junior cert, the leaving cert, my degree, countless unpaid internships, countless shitty part time jobs. All on the basis that once I came out the end of that tunnel, my efforts would be rewarded. I would have the offer of a job, not just any job, but the dream job.

Alas, here I sit, a year on and not only do I not have the offer of thee job, I have no offers for any jobs, not even the ones I once thought beneath me to apply for. What has happened, where have I gone wrong?

I have followed societies orders, I have studied hard, never smoked or taken drugs, been nice to people, rarely fought with my parents, never had ‘issues’, never was demanding, or attention seeking, never built up a credit card debt, never gambled, never did anything illegal, never did anything too reckless. I’ve been a good little girl. Yet it seems, none of that plays a part, none of that counts…

I mustn’t be good enough?

Ouch. Saying it out loud is like getting punched in the gut.

So what do I do, I emigrate of course, like countless Irish before me. So here I sit in Perth, Australia crashing in a cousin’s house. Taking up space. I have announced to the world that I am here, you can employ me now, and once again I am met with stony silence. Moving was meant to solve the problem, a bigger marketplace, a better chance… instead just more people to reject my resume.

It has been suggested to me that I should think about retraining? One year after graduating, I should admit defeat and choose a more sensible option. To give up on Journalism, to give up on the dream before I’ve even given it a chance to take off.

No, I can’t do that, not yet. Shall I slug away once more, working bar jobs, scraping by, living the student life, waiting for the opportunity that might never arrive?

Or do I take the less sensible option and gather together the scrapings of my bank account to explore Australia, in the hope that while I shuffle through the outback, someone will reach out and take a chance on me? With the knowledge ever weighing on my shoulders that if they don’t, I’ll have to crawl back home with my tail between my legs, my confidence in shatters, and ask Mammy and Daddy to support their failing 24 year old once more.

Do I gamble in the hope that this may actually happen for me, or do I settle down to a reality that I’ve never wanted?

The time has come to make a decison.

Go on, roll the dice. Decide my fate.

Interview with a Solo Female Hitchhiker

There’s something very appealing about hitchhiking.

What’s not to love? It’s free, it’s spontaneous, you will see and experience incredible things and meet people from all walks of life.

It is a little reckless however,  and while we love a little recklessness from time to time, its important that anyone who does want to try hitchhiking is prepared and as safe as possible.

I recently got to chat to Jade Braden, a regular solo hitchhiker…here are her thoughts on it all.

Found on parisapartment.wordpress.com

Found on parisapartment.wordpress.com

1.Tell me about one of your hitchhiking experiences?

My second hitchhiking experience comprised of 21 hitchhikes in a single trip. I wanted to get out of my town to escape monotony and go on an adventure – the thought of traveling alone was initially quite scary to me but also felt necessary so I followed through with my plan to travel towards the West Coast.

The length I traveled varied from a mile to as much as 8 and a half hours of driving with a single person. On average, I would travel about 30-45 minutes before transferring to another rider. Waiting time for a ride was 15 minutes on average with as short as 3 minutes (two cars nearly collided into each other in California trying to pick me up) and as long as 2 hours.

The reasons for why drivers picked me up varied from “It’s not safe for a girl to be hitchhiking alone,” “You remind me of my kid/niece,” to “I once was a hitchhiker too.”

2. Best experience?

I had a great number of experiences – it’s difficult to narrow them down! My overall favourite thing about hitchhiking is trading stories by talking about traveling experiences, personal stories and overall learning about the other person.

For instance, I heard about a man’s hitchhiking experience during the Polish riots in Europe and how he evaded soldiers with machine guns at the border who claimed that his passport picture was not him, causing the driver and other hitchhikers anxiety while he sat confused, not understanding the language. Thankfully, that was cleared up by showing another picture of himself to adjust the claim and shortly afterward, getting kicked out by the driver after crossing the border.

Otherwise, a favourite driving experience was when I got a 6 and a half hour ride from Green River Utah to Nevada with a cool guy who pulled over to call a relative, only to see me running to his car. He was kind enough to offer the ride, provide food along the way, and even offered a place for me to stay after playing a few billiard games with him and his friend.

Another favourite experience was during my last day in Phoenix in which I had met another hitchhiker who traveled alongside me for the past 3 days from California. I was invited to a burning man meet and greet event by a group of people at a firehouse shelter and impulsively said yes to come along. I was driven to Tempe, had great conversations with them, and experienced a new culture. I even got to try out fire breathing, which was exciting.

Lastly, I became a traveling therapist in a way with a young veteran who experienced PTSD following his deployment out in Afghanistan. We were able to resolve some difficulties he had without getting too in depth and he seemed more relaxed once he dropped me off in Green River Utah.

3. Worst experience?

I had my fair share of uncomfortable experiences as well as pleasant experiences, two of which involved boundary issues with people. I had an uncomfortable driving experience with a couch surfer host in Carson City, Nevada. Although in general, I found no fault with the site and their list of hosts, the host who offered a ride along the Northern part of California back to San Francisco gave off an uncomfortable vibe while conversing with me about his broken relationship (and his interest in me) as he understood myself as a therapist. It was a long drive to tolerate before I arrived at my next couchsurfing host. If the situation became any more intolerable, I would have asked to be dropped off, then receive another ride with someone else.

Another uncomfortable experience was when I agreed to stay over with two people (a young woman and her uncle) at a house in Vale, Colorado who saw that I was hitchhiking and offered their place for me to stay. I enjoyed spending time with the woman however the uncle was being too physically touchy before going to bed. I set my boundaries firmly, stated that there was no relationship between us, and he backed off for the rest of the night. Thankfully, he respected my wishes, although he complained a bit beforehand, then let me be. If that situation continued, I would have left the house promptly and went camping instead.

4. What do you think of the taboo that exists, that as a female solo traveler you shouldn’t hitchhike?

There is some truth to the idea in which females may have more dangers to face when hitchhiking. However, I challenge that idea in which you need to be smart and aware of any red flags before you accept a ride from anyone. If you get a bad feeling from someone when offered a ride, say no or state that you are not heading the same direction as they are while making your intentions clear that you do not wish to inconvenience them anyway. If you feel uncomfortable during a car ride, you have a few ways to approach the situation – you can ask to be dropped off if you feel that they will let you or you can pretend to be sick or need to use the restroom, forcing them to pull over. Watch how you are dressed and be clear with your boundaries and expectations. Truly though, in my experience, I met far more amazing people on the road than anything else since most people who stopped by to pick me up wanted to help.

5. Top tip you would give to a female trying hitchhiking for the first time?

Again, there are many tips I can offer but the biggest one is do your research on hitchhiking before taking the journey and trust your instincts. I went through several sites, looking up ways to stay safe, where to stand on the road, how to interact with others, and what supplies to bring.

For more hitchhiking stories from female travellers and for some top tips on how to do it safely, have a read of this story I did recently for Cooler Magazine…

“The trouble is you think you have enough time.” – Buddha

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Man, real life is tougher than I thought it would be. Trying to make me sit down and stare at a screen for hours a day is fruitless. I will fidget, I will moan, I will become grumpy. I will rebel.

I try to get up but society puts its hand on my shoulders and pushes me back down. Like a dog, I am told to sit, stay, as they slowly back away, hands outstretched in an attempt to placate me, so I don’t make a run for it.

I really thought I was done this time, that I’d be happy to settle, to begin to build a life for myself. It wasn’t lies, but now I know, it’s not the way I was built. I can’t make you all happy. I can’t sit still. I must return to the open road again even if it destroys me. I must try, before time escapes my grasp.

Bicycle Adventure #2: Mizen to Malin Head (length of Ireland) by bike | camping at night | alone (unless I can convince my lovely Aunty Ann to accompany me, hint hint!)

Cycling Vietnam: Logistics and Kit List.

If anyone is considering doing something similar (Hanoi to Ho Chi Min), here is our route, distance travelled each day and our kit list. If you need any more help or information, feel free to get in touch.

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Route:

Ho Chi Min Highway & A1 Highway

Distance:

Day 1: 92km – Destination: Hang Tram, maybe Hoa Binh?

Day 2: 69.5km – Destination: Roughly Lam Son

Day 3: 83km – Destination: somewhere near Thai Hoa

Day 4: 113km – Destination: near Phou Chau

Day 5: 83km – Destination: Huong Khe

Day 6: 132km – Destination: somewhere after Phuc Trach

Day 7: 59.5km – Destination: near Cam Lo

Day 8: 82km – Destination: Dong Ha

Day 9: 70km – Destination: Hue

Day 10: 100+km – Destination: Da Nang

Day 11: Rest Day

Day 12: 68km – Destination: Tam Ky

Day 13: Day off (sick)

Day 14: 98km – Destination: near Quang Nga

Day 15: 89km – somewhere on the highway

Day 16: 93km – Destination: Song Cau

Day 17: 132km – Destination: Dai Lan

Day 18: – Destination: Nha Trang

Day 19: Rest Day

Day 20: 92km – Destination: Phang Rang

Day 21: 82km – Destination: Phang Rang/Phang Thiet

Day 22: 77km – Destination: Phan Thien

Day 23: 75km – Destination: Long Khan

Day 24: 84km – Destination: near Bien Hoa

Day 25: – Destination: Ho Chi Min City

Kit List:

  • Unlocked IPhone with Vietnamese sim-card.
  • 2x panniers – (Oxford Low Rider Rear Panniers 36L)
  • 2x pairs of cycling shorts
  • 2x cycling t-shirts
  • 5x knickers/5x socks
  • Baseball cap
  • T-shirt and light pants for evening wear
  • Cycling boots with cleats (Shimano Gore-Tex Mountain bike boots & pedals)
  • Lightweight rain jacket
  • Canon 700D camera & Tripod
  • GoPro camera
  • 2x Waterbottles
  • Phone/camera chargers
  • Small towl
  • Shampoo/conditioner/hairbrush/suncream
  • Garmin Sat Nav
  • 4x bungee cords
  • Small pack of cable ties
  • 2x Touring bikes (bought on Ba Trieu Street, Hanoi)
  • 2x Buffs
  • 2x standard bike lights
  • Pump
  • 2x spare tubes
  • Chain link
  • Allen keys
  • Mileage clock
  • Water bottles
  • Medication: Immodium, parcetemol, motillium, insect repellent, amoxicillan, dioralyte, bandages, plasters, antiseptic cream.
  • 2x Helmets
  • Map of the entire country
  • Sunglasses

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The Big One: Cycling Vietnam

Vietnam is a country of contradictions. A stranger can hold my face between their hands, rub the hair on my arms, braid my blonde locks. Two minutes later another is shoving against me flogging their goods: “Madame smell the coffee, taste the pho, feel the texture, see the colours of the spices, buy from me, buy from me, Madame…”

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I thread softly through the markets to pick up supplies. Sweaty bodies push against me, pungent air caresses my nostrils, humidity sticks my hair to the back of my neck. Smoke rises in the alleys, plastic kids chairs and tables consume the pathways, a cacophony of horns intertwined with the high pitched natter of the Vietnamese language drown out the peace, the dust churns and settles, churns and settles, the flies hover over the raw meat spread out across cardboard on the ground, the final flick of a live fish before the machete drops to behead it and life seeps out.

The Vietnamese crouch, the sweet iced coffee with condensed milk as it touches your lips, the tacky flashing lights over every shop front, the Buddha and mini pagoda statues adorned with fruit and cigarettes and cans of booze, the heaving flem filled hack of the locals whose lives play out in a world of putrid air pollution, the smoke and inhale of the thuoc lao pipe and the fifteen second blissful high that follows.

The tanned creases of the old women’s skin, the stereotypical straw farmers hat, the kindness colliding with the meanness, closing your eyes, crossing your fingers and stepping out on the road to cross, the cruelty to animals, the resonating sound of a slap of a child across the face, the red flag and yellow star, the fat white tourists licking ice-creams, the ao xao, the sauces, the lizards darting across the walls surrounding you. Every town has its product; aloe vera land, tile land, corn on the cob land, duck land…

Millions of mopeds zoom past. The squeak of the overloaded battered bikes with no gears. The crisp linen shirts and red chiffon bow of the school kids. The terrible roads, the contrast of stunning limestone eroded mountains with the polluted dirty cities. Like Ireland eighty years ago.

This is my Vietnam.

It is a dangerous world we live in. Or so everyone keeps telling me.

But fear is a terrible thing. Fear traps you, restricts you, and confines your mind. Fear makes you settle for average, when you were destined for so much more.

I decided I would not let fear of the unknown dictate my path, so I moved to Vietnam alone. Six months later my fifty-four year old Da flew out to Vietnam’s capital city to cycle the country with me. North to South, 2000km, from Hanoi to Ho Chi Min City.

My foot presses down, the pedal begins its rotation, and we are off, Hanoi to Ho Chi Min by bicycle. Instant chaos in the city’s streets, we push our way slowly out of Hanoi while trying to find our balance with our overstuffed panniers. Finally we break out of the cities confines and into pure countryside, to the town made of sludge. With no compact ground to stabilise ourselves, we struggle in vain through a road of ankle high muck, we fight to keep the momentum going because if you stop, you’re stuck and you will sink. The locals on the side of the street look on laughing their asses off at us. Dad makes it through the fifteen minute mud bath. I stutter and fall and have to drag my way out on foot, giggling in disbelief. The madness has commenced, we have reached the Ho Chi Min highway, our home for the next two weeks.

We cycle against a backdrop of limestone cut mountains, patterned paddy fields, farming women bent over their crops, while a constant dribble of kids emerge from their homes and chase us down the road to scream their hellos. We aim for 70km but end up doing 92km because there is no place to rest our weary heads. The series of hills gnaw away at our energy and leave us replete. Day one and already a routine, one we will fine tune over the coming weeks. A shitty motel tonight, with cigarette butts, squat toilets, no sheets to line the rank mattresses, and only an uncased fan to cool us in the hazy heat. A full chicken carcass, beak, bones, feet, organs intact and some leaves and rice thrown in front of us to dine on. But what magic, we are here, we are finally doing it. What a wonderful life it is.

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The days roll by; I quickly learn the Vietnamese words for father and daughter because everyone thinks we are married, creepy. Da’s gears won’t change cogs, so he’s having a rough time trying to get up the hills of which there are many. Low mileage forces us to ride on through peak sunshine, ebbing away at our battery, stopping every few miles to force water down our throats and slather on sun cream over the sweat. We push on, making a note of what not to do; there will be no lie in tomorrow, up early to get the miles under our belt before the heat hits. Surreal beauty surrounds us, blue skies, water buffaloes bathing in the lakes, the beautiful people waving, we have to fight the urge to stop every minute and take a photo or we will never get there.

A sense of easiness settles between us as I plague Da with questions about his life, about the world, which at twenty-three I still have so much to learn about. He entertains me with tales about the life he has led until now, about work, about my brilliant mother. It distracts us both from the heat and the pain. We keep commenting that maybe it is us westerners that have it the wrong way round, these people in all their poverty seem happier than us. Labouring in the farms or chilling in a hammock in the shop/restaurant/house they own until a customer rocks up to be served. Taking a siesta between twelve and two each day, cruising through the rolling landscape on a motorbike,  spreading seed in a paddy field knee high in mud underneath the sweltering sun. Meanwhile we burst our balls to build a career, to get another promotion to make more money to buy more crap that we do not need. Are we really the developed country or is the joke on us?

We are both tired, needing a place to stay and not finding any, there is nothing worse than having to push on when you’ve already given up. Da grabs on to the back of a bamboo truck, to hitch a ride up the hill.  Tonight is another cheap motel, another hand held shower, washing out our gear with soap in the sink. I treat myself to a fresh pair of knickers after three days. This is the life. The days start to morph together. We stop to help an unconscious drunken man out of a dike. We despair at the miles and miles of deforestation in process around us. It saddens me to witness a world ‘develop’, Vietnam will soon mourn the loss of a simpler lifestyle without machines and technology. I want to shout at them to stop, to look at the western world and see that they are making a mistake. They should be preserving their way of life, not destroying it. We ride past a dead man on the road, after been knocked down, a sheet covering a part of him, blood pouring out of his head onto the tarmac. Tragedy, and yet somehow the world continues on as if nothing has happened. I have a rash and blistered backside and heel, and an infected ant bite on top of the foot. I am punishing my body, forcing it to adjust rapidly. But in all this pain, there must be some light, some beauty.

I push my bike up the side of a mountain in tears; a frightening descent follows as darkness closes in. Our bodies hurt; we need to rest if we are going to have a chance at making this. The Vietnamese point and laugh at us, overcharging us because we are white, therefore assumed to be wealthy. Sometimes I hate it all, the people, what we are doing. Pushing eighty to a hundred and thirty kilometres a day, every day on a motorway consumed by road works in the pissing rain. I’m in misery, questioning everything, this trip is going to change who I am. We pass war memorials every few miles, reminding us of this countrys bloody past. I snap at Da because he’s left handed and if we sit beside each other and share one plate, his elbow constantly hits off me because I’m right handed. A car hits a motorbike who hits me, knocks my panniers off and nearly topples me. Rashes, ant bites, dark rims under my eyes, a bad cycling tan, knotted dreadlocks… I look a mess. Why do we choose to suffer? But every time we reach those lows, a moment will follow that lifts us right back up. Always such simple things; a pea and grain flavoured ice-pop for breakfast, a nap under a tree at noon, the blast of a shower, calling home, a cool beer, a pineapple. And voila, day saved.

1000km later, we crawl into Da Nang, head to toe in muck, the dirty rain filling and corrupting our lungs. We have reached our half way point. We gorge ourselves on glorious western food, satisfied for the first time since we started. We take a moment to appreciate what it is we are doing. To appreciate life, kindness, beauty, fun, calmness, the freedom of choice, the freedom to change things, to evolve, to change myself and the path I walk on. To suffer in order to appreciate what I have, the luxuries of my world.

The rest is short lived and we return to the road, this time on the A1 motorway in the lashing rain. A series of wrong turns, added miles, a puncture and more rain follows. Hardship. Maybe there is something after all to the 9-5 job, the mortgage, the husband, the babies, the log fire, the cable TV? Day thirteen becomes an unplanned rest day, after I submit to fever through the night. Da fusses around me worrying that they are malaria symptoms.  We ride to the hospital to do the test. There we witness real suffering; a young man after a motorbike accident, bleeding out, with broken legs. In another corner two old men writhe in pain on their deathbeds. We perch awkwardly on the edge of a trolley. The test comes back clear, but a high white blood cell count suggests a viral infection. Rolling with the punches.

We trudge on. Miles of road works; dredging up so much dust it’s dangerous. The buses and lorries beep and barrel on through, if you don’t make a swift jerk of the handlebars towards the ditch then you’re a goner. We bellow profanities after them after the near misses, but they just wave, carting their busloads of fat white tourists from scenic spot to scenic spot, missing all the culture, the actual food and lifestyle of the Vietnamese people, content to be blindfolded to reality as they holiday. Some days I think, wow look at what we are doing with the time we have been given, what badasses we are but sometimes for a second I think, I wish I was on that bus that nearly barrelled me over into a paddy field. How great it would be to be reclining, eating a can of Pringles, and looking out the window at the lovely scenery, but not looking close enough to see the wrinkles on the locals faces, the bend of their spines after years of being hunched over labouring in a field. Not close enough to see the poverty, to see suffering. To see their lean, sinewy figures in motion. not from dieting but from manual labour. No notion of what indulgence or McDonalds or spare cash is. I pull my baseball cap down, my buff up around my nose and mouth, and through squinted eyes I push on through the dust cascading down around us.

I can feel myself growing stronger. I am starting to enjoy the burn; I don’t dread the hills as much. There is something about earning it; it’s a good kind of suffering. Around us the world chugs on, a migration of yellow butterflies surrounds us like snow falling. The hammering of the stone breakers clinking out a tune, chimes around us. After a tidy descent, we stuff our faces with mangoes; bananas and cans of coke at a quaint little food stall, enjoying the evenings heat on the back of our necks. The Vietnamese talk to Dad, he replies in Gaelic and they both pretend they are having an actual conversation. I stand back and laugh.

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Day 18 and we roll into the resorts of Nha Trang to feast on Mexican food and large pints of golden San Miguel. The sheer enjoyment we get from the taste, from understanding the conversations around us, and from simply being anonymous again. Six beers and we are blotto, like giddy school girls. We discuss life, make plans, and marvel at the wonder of it all, and the realisation that we are actually here and in the midst of doing it. We stumble back to the hotel, and call home to tell them all how much we love them in slurred words. What a hand we’ve been dealt.

Day twenty-one and we are somewhere between Phang Rang and Phan Thiet. A miserable start, a man on a motorbike drives up and grabs my breast, Dad chases him but in a case of bicycle versus motorbike, the motorbike is going to win. What is wrong with this world that makes people think it is alright for men to do that? If I am to survive, I must toughen up. Sparse desert surrounds us, there is nothing to entertain our irises, but you can’t put your head down and focus solely on pedalling because a truck will devour you. Every day we guzzle litres of hot water and butter biscuits, undercooked eggs, coriander, chilli and soya sauce thrown on a bread roll, or if we are lucky a banana sandwich. My stomach is curdling and Da’s lost so much weight he’s now got a pair of moobs.  I’ll never again take a fridge for granted.

Morals are low, my body is starting to give up, I’m sick of trying. Da is the only thing keeping my legs rotating. Four days left, we must push on. The heat presses down as we push up an exposed hill, we find a cluster of trees, lay out the sleeping bag, and lay down to ponder it all. These are the moments we crave. I cannot describe the pleasure derived from a cold can of coke pressed to your lips, when your tongue is dry and the sweat is gathering in beads on your forehead. Somehow, time passes; more crazy heat, another crusty motel with squat toilets, bum guns and no sink. I break down; Da rubs my back and tells me not to be so hard on myself. This better get better in hindsight! I swear if I ever see a bike tourer or backpacker walking past my house, I’m going to chase them down to smother them with tea, cake, dinner, a bed to sleep in and nourish the shit out of them.

And then suddenly in the blink of an eye, it is day twenty-five. The final day. We stumble into Ho Chi Min city among a traffic jam of motorbikes. I cannot believe it. Finally after all of that, it’s actually over. We make a beeline for McDonalds, sup cans of Saigon in bed, it’s all sinking in. We really did it. What an extraordinary thing for a father and daughter to do together. And although at times, I wanted to kill him, he’s my Dad, he’s my hero. He’d never been to a developing country before and at fifty four, with a year to go to retirement after years psychiatric nursing; he jumps on a plane and cycles the length of Vietnam.

I’ve realised that your life doesn’t have to be the stereotypical idea of perfect, the Facebook perfect; the far flung lands, the backpack, the tan, the Raybans, the bleach blonde hair, the figure, the boy, the parties, the selfies, the Instagrams. None of that is real. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone, you don’t have to impress anyone or make them jealous. How about striving for your own version of perfect? It can be on a much smaller scale. Having a family, living in your home town, having a group of friends who you can laugh with, a Friday night beer, a little job that you love, your own idea of perfect. We are so privileged here in Ireland, and we have no idea. But I suppose I never would have known I could be happy with this, unless I did what I did, have done what I’ve done.

Two weeks later, my blisters have healed. My muscles stopped aching. The hardships suffered are but a hazy memory. I am home. I am free and I am already bored… the next adventure awaits.

Cambodia – a brief respite from my life in Vietnam

We stepped foot into Cambodia. Five of us, the original five, all such different people forced together through circumstance and found that we fit together. Three Canadians, one South African and me. The first night we partied hard, free of Vietnam, of work. We were young and reckless once more. In the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh, here for one night only to gulp long island ice teas and one dollar beers. To sway to the music underneath a canopy of fairy lights on a roof top bar.

A six hour bus to Sihanoukville, to the beach. I gazed out the dusty pane with heavy eyelids… and it was there that I fell in love with a country for the first time since my own beloved Eire. Head resting against the window I watched the world go by, watching the landscape morph from flat plains to towering hills, from dessert to jungle, from turquoise bath water to open sewers. I saw the blood orange moon, the houses built on stilts, the red dirt paths, the kids running and laughing, playing barefoot soccer… young and wild and free.

Such a simple life. A hard but happy life.

I am jealous of them , they are jealous of me.

How can such polar opposite worlds exist simultaneously? The Western world and the developing world, seemingly oblivious to one another’s woes.

Could I live this life, after growing up on the privileged side? Could I really be poor, not the kind of poor that we already say we are, but real poverty. Could I give up all my possessions, relinquish the internet and work as a labourer?  Eat slower, live slower, appreciate the little things in life once more. Family, the beauty of a sunrise, the texture of the ground beneath your bare feet.  Laugh sporadically and cathartically, work with my hands, draw sweat. Find joy in the feeling of a shower after a hard day’s work, the feeling of calluses forming on your hands and feet, in the satisfying but relentless itch of a mosquito bite, the peel of a sunburn. Every second playing out as if in slow motion.

We escaped to the island of Koh Rong, to Long Beach a forty-five minute climb over a vertical collage of rocks and then a straight drop back down the other side. Sweat pumping and heart pulsing between my ears I progressed slowly, the effort cleansing me of my over indulgent past few days… to emerge onto paradise. No postcards, no film, no tourist advertisement could do this justice. It was like being high, all your senses attuned to the magic unfolding around you, high on life. The sand like fluffy flour sifting between our toes, the water rippling clear and turquoise. We wrapped hammocks around spare trees to camp for the night. Another first for me, but encompassing everything I have ever dreamed up of for myself. Only other youthful hippies to share its floured shores for the night, all packing for one night, but staying forever.

Watching the magic of bioluminescence explode around me during a late night swim, sparkling plankton lighting up the dark waters beneath my hands. Gathering wood, lighting a campfire and dozing off beside it. Fleeing to our hammocks when the buckets of rain and lighting start hailing down upon us. Rising and stretching in the morning air, gathering our belongings swiftly and power walking back along the beach to catch a boat to reality in a typhoon. Laughing out loud at my luck, it hasn’t rained in four months here, but the day I come, typically the tarp is yanked free and the water unleashed. Wading out to the old wooden boat, body fully submerged in the rocking tide, bags held high over our heads. Tossing them carelessly on board and scrambling awkwardly in after them for a bumpy ride back to the central hub.

The days blurring together, a mash up of bed bugs and insect bites, we looked like we had chicken pox. Chronic diarrhoea and vomiting for three days in squat toilets with no flush and no toilet roll, “character building” my Ma and Da would say.  I can’t shave my legs because it’s like a cacophony of sores  kissing my skin. I can’t shower too often because the communal ones are usually covered in shit and when I do its under cold spurts of water that I have to psych myself up to put my head under. Highs and lows. Cambodia you have not been kind to my body but you have freed my mind. I think if I shimmy a few steps left of paradise I could find an oasis of real life that is more my style and while away my days here contently.

But I can’t stay in paradise forever. A trip to The Killing Fields see’s to that, pulling us back to reality, shaking us into the present after one by one we succumbed to tiredness and grumpiness with the passing days, with the constant company. Opening our eyes to real suffering, real problems. What Cambodia went through, genocide and now poverty and my utter inadequacy or inability to do something about it. Am I who I want to be yet? Still I disappoint myself. It’s all so fake, white people’s paradise, the white’s working the easy jobs in the bars etc, while the local people unclog the booze and drug induced puke smeared toilets, clean the rooms, man the boats, collect the rubbish left behind by the white partiers as they continue to blaze a trail of destruction though their chosen holiday destinations.

The world is a funny place. It both baffles  and awes me frequently.

So much still to do. So much still to learn.

But I’m starting to grow weary, I’m starting to miss home. My family, my old friends. I have turned the final corner in my journey, but I can’t pack it in yet, I’m so close. Home is in sight, three more months, three months brimming with so much potential. The preparations are under way, two more weeks of work, of selling the last of my possessions, of having a routine, of lie ins and a steady income.

Da is coming… two more weeks until we cycle the length of Vietnam…

“You can’t fall if you don’t climb, but there’s no joy in living your whole life on the ground.” – Unknown.

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