This time last year I had just returned from a road trip across Northern Canada. There had been bears and Ice Pilots, seedy bars and Northern Lights. It had been a proper road trip, just ask my liver…it is still up there! I had gone up there with my good friend and sometime arch nemesis, photographer, Phil Kneen. Many never expected us to return…or at least not both of us. However we managed three weeks in close proximity with hardly a cross word between us and the trip turned out to be an amazing experience.
But that was a year ago and new adventures await. Which is why Phil and myself are now planning another foray, this time in the other direction. We plan to drive from the Isle of Man to the Crimea…And that is about as far as our planning has got so far. We have a van and a road map, and I have a compass. What could possibly go wrong?!…
…To be continued…
My drinking partner had been an American, a lost soul who had arrived here in the service of Uncle Sam and somehow found himself left behind, trapped in a downward spiral of drugs, drink and self inflicted debauchery. I have rarely met a man so paranoid. He spoke in conspiratorial whispers of the CIA and drug running, loudly berated his three ex wives (all prostitutes) and tried to elicit my help in aiding his escape out of Thailand – at the time I met him he had outstayed his visa to the tune of $10,000 and seemed very reluctant to approach the American Embassy to arrange repatriation back to the States!
To say the man was a mess would have been an understatement.
However, during one of his rare lucid moments he told me a tale that piqued my interest, of a man he had heard of who lived up by the Burmese border. This character had a reputation as something of a dealer in rare WWII motorcycles. I say dealer, but less enlightened souls might be more inclined to use the term, smuggler. However you looked at it though, he sounded interesting and, to be honest, I had grown tired of hanging around Chiang Mai getting drunk with paranoid ex special forces rejects.
So, the next morning, armed with little more than the name of a town on the Thai/Burmese border, I headed out of Chiang Mai on an old Yamaha dirt bike, towards the forested highlands and fertile river valleys of the infamous Golden Triangle. Negotiating my way through an incongruous collection of mopeds, handcarts and ruminating cattle I headed west, towards the steep mountain trail that wound its way up to Doi Tung. Until a few years ago you could still see the vast fields of poppies over the border in neighbouring Burma from here, before a shift in government policy saw them moved out of sight. You may not be able to see them anymore, but the opium is still there and it is still jealously guarded. It pays not to pay too much interest in proceedings across the border and, with that thought in mind I hurried on, towards the town of Mai Sai on the Thai/Burmese border.
Following the course of the Sai River I happened upon a sprawling collection of wood and bamboo that clung precariously to the side of a hill. A sign announced it as the rather lavishly titled Mai Sai Plaza Guesthouse, a somewhat grandiose name for little more than a bed, a few cobwebs and a tatty poster of a Harley Davidson. It did however have somewhere to park the bike and a balcony that looked over the river into Burma. So, dumping my bike and my bag, I headed out to explore. This was where my paranoid drinking buddy had told me that the ‘dealer’ lived and, whilst I had little real expectations of finding him, it looked an interesting place to while away a few hours before dinner.
On the outskirts of town I came across a temple, not exactly a rare occurrence in Thailand and the large reclining Buddha did tend to be a bit of a giveaway. The strange collection of grotesque animals next to it though, now they weren’t exactly something you see everyday. I mean, how often do you expect to come face to face with a six-foot rabbit, a huge hooded cobra and a vicious looking monkey with enormous genitalia? This is the sort of thing you would have got if Brueghel had gone in for designing theme parks…This was deeply disturbing! I moved on, but only as far as a haphazard array of rickety bamboo scaffolding that was covering the front of the temple. Scurrying across it, like a collection of saffron robed ants, were an industrious bunch of monks and nuns, robes flowing and heads shining as they laboured away in the late afternoon sun. I was captivated. It was a Buddhist building site, with chanting and singing instead of cat calls and expletives. I wanted to go home immediately and start a construction company called ‘Saffron Scaffolding’, or ‘Mantra Masonry’!
By this point I was seriously beginning to wonder if the close proximity to mind-bending drugs was having an untoward affect on me. I needed food, so heading back into town I found my way to a likely looking spot overlooking the river. That’s where I got talking to Ben. I don’t think his name was really Ben, but who was I to argue. We sat and shared a bowl of rice soup, during which I asked him, just on the off-chance, if he knew of this mysterious dealer in dodgy motorbikes. Seems that he did! In fact, he was the dodgy dealer! It transpired that he had a contact in Burma who smuggled old British bikes across the river, which he then sold on for a profit. My search was over before it had even started and Mai Sai had suddenly turned into the Twilight Zone!
Two days later I found myself sat beside the waters of the Mekong, watching the foreboding and squat form of a patrol boat churning the brown, viscous waters into a foamy scum. In the distance, shimmering in the late afternoon heat, an almost impenetrable wall of jungle rose up from the water’s edge. I was heading back to Chiang Mai; back towards civilisation and the paranoid ramblings of Lieutenant Dan.
The sun was beginning its relentless dip towards the distant horizon as I climbed back on the bike and took a last look at the river. It was time to go…
To be wrenched from your sleep at four in the morning is never a good thing. To be wrenched from your sleep at four in the morning by your Lifeboat pager going off though, that injects a foreboding sense of dread into the proceedings.
This is no time to find yourself in trouble on the Irish Sea, even during one of the best summer’s in years.
In the early hours of Saturday 27 July, the Peel Lifeboat launched into the predawn calm of what was promising to be yet another glorious day on the Isle of Man. For the families of two missing fishermen though it was to prove far from glorious. Over the course of the next 15 hours a massive air and sea search was carried out along the western and northern coasts of the island, covering an area of some 930 square kilometres. Throughout the day, four lifeboats, as well as helicopters from RAF Valley and RNAS Prestwick and a fixed wing aircraft belonging to the Maritime and Coastguard Agency combed the area in search of the two men. Their capsized boat was found relatively early on, but it took us until later that afternoon to come across the first of the bodies. We’d known once we found the boat that there was probably little chance of finding the men alive, but we knew that giving up without finding the bodies was not an option. Families just a few miles away were relying on us to bring them home. And we were determined not to let them down. It came with an almost tragic sense of relief therefore when we found the second of the two friends.
Since its foundation in 1824, the RNLI has saved over 140,000 lives in the seas off Britain and Ireland. This, unfortunately, was not to be one of those times. In spite of the tragic conclusion to the day though it did highlight one thing, that selfless sacrifice is not a thing of the past. Since the founding of the RNLI nearly 200 years ago its volunteer crews have never shirked the call to help. What these events proved though was that it isn’t just the crews that race to the call. Throughout that day the members of the Lifeboat committee also stepped up, keeping the boat and shore crews fed and watered during the day, and for that we were eternally grateful. This island has a long and proud connection with the RNLI. Its founder, Sir William Hilary lived here and it was in the storm tossed waters of the Irish Sea that the service first cut its teeth.
After the events of the past weekend, and in spite of the tragic outcome, I don’t think I have ever felt prouder to be a part of it.
The first wave hit at 0758 that morning. There was no warning, no chance to run, not even a chance to say goodbye. It tore through buildings, trees and lives with equal savagery. The train had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time, ripped from the tracks by a ten-metre wall of water that had hit the coast at some 800 kilometres per hour. Nearly 1500 people lost their lives on the train that day.
Six months later I stood before the mangled wreckage of what had once been the Galle-Colombo express, now a twisted and permanent reminder of the Asian Tsunami that had rocked the world on 26 December 2004. An unstoppable and unquenchable wall of water, it had ripped apart the lives of millions, from the western coast of Thailand, to the shores of Somalia in eastern Africa. The human tragedy had been incalculable. Estimates put the dead at 226,000, around a third of them children, whilst nearly five million people had lost their homes, along with their access to food and drinking water. The spot I stood on, a small fishing village called Peraliya, on Sri Lanka’s south-western coast, had been one of the worst hit areas and the sense of loss and devastation still haunted the scattered remains of the village. The authorities claimed that 1,000 people had died here, but local aid workers and residents put the figure closer to 2,500. They were buried close by, next to a main road along which life continued to hurtle by at breakneck speed.
…That was nearly a decade ago. At the time the United Nations estimated that it could take up to ten years to rebuild what nature’s fury had destroyed in seconds. I often wonder what happened to that ravaged country I left behind…
I had arrived a few days before to help project manage a rebuilding programme, just one of many being set-up throughout the region by a wealth of international aid agencies and charities. In spite of the media circus that had followed in the wave’s destructive wake though, nothing could prepare me for the true scale of the disaster that awaited me. Before the tsunami, Peraliya had been a sizeable community of some 420 homes, within minutes of the first wave hitting it had been reduced to a pitiful collection of just ten forlorn looking houses. Many of its survivors still lived in tents or makeshift shelters and some, like Manjou, were crowded into small wooden shacks, around which were gathered their few remaining possessions.
Manjou could probably be described as one of the lucky ones – he had survived after all – but his story was to become an all too familiar lament during my time there. The first wave had deprived him of his home, his job and, tragically, his younger sister. The second wave hit whilst he and his two brothers were out looking for her. That was the last time he ever saw them. Manjou was swept two kilometres inland by the force of the water and by the time he returned to his village everything he had ever known was gone. He was forced now to spend his days making small wooden boats, which he sold to buy rice to feed what was left of his family.
It was people like Manjou I was out there trying to help. Working in conjunction with groups of volunteers, my job was to try to help the process of recovery and regeneration along. Six months had gone by and the international outpouring of grief, money and support had failed to materialise into anything concrete, in a very literal sense of the word. As I looked around at the job in hand I had to admit to a sense of overwhelming impotence and I wondered just how much I could do in the short time I was due to be out here. I was managing teams of complete strangers, and in some cases complete novices, people, who in the world beyond this tragedy were human resource directors and civil engineers, lawyers and post-room boys. The plan was to build small basic homes, nothing fancy, just four walls and a roof, but something that would restore some dignity back to these people’s lives, something tangible that would show them that the world hadn’t forgotten. Something they could call home.
It was hard and tiring work. The monsoons had arrived a few days before and the normally dry earth was fast becoming a quagmire and, with temperatures breaking 100°C and humidity in the high 90s, we were faced with an almost Herculean task. The resident water buffalos didn’t seem to mind though and, in spite of the heat, we were dragged along by the infectious enthusiasm of the local families, who it seems were made of sterner stuff than us. Their quiet resolve and determination and their cheerful smiles were to become a regular feature of my time there and a constant source of wonder to me. Slowly the impossible began to happen. Foundations were dug and floors laid. Walls were built and rooms began to take shape. Some of the families even took to sleeping inside the houses at night, lying amongst the shovels and trowels as if afraid that the darkness might swallow up their new homes completely.
Over the coming weeks the rains subsided, the ground dried out and the buffalos moved on. Life took on a regular routine and, as the days progressed, the task started to yield tangible results. The heat and the exhaustion were replaced by a will to succeed and the desire to help people who had by now become, if not friends, then at least part of the team. It was no longer us and them, it was now just us! My time came to an end all too quickly though and, in spite of all I had tried to do, I couldn’t help but feel an overwhelming sense of frustration. I couldn’t help but wonder just how long the world would continue to help, before another disaster took centre stage and the politicians moved on to another sound bite.
Sri Lanka has long captivated the hearts and minds of visitors to its shores, from the ancient Greeks and the Romans to the Arab traders and the European colonists. Marco Polo once declared it the finest island in the world and during its turbulent history it has been known by many names – Serendib, Ceylon, The Resplendent Isle, the Pearl of the Orient and, what must surely be its most poignant epithet, the Teardrop of India. The Sri Lankan people are a resilient and resourceful race, but everywhere we went there was the constant reminder of the tsunami. We couldn’t escape it. It was etched into the walls of the buildings and the faces of the people. Ten years on and I wonder how much has changed.
The world has moved on since those tragic events of 2004. The media and the politicians have indeed found new soundbites to regale us with. Hurricane Katrina was followed by devastating earthquakes in Kashmir, China and Haiti, whilst the Japanese tsunami of 2011 brought back, all to vividly, memories of the carnage wrought across the Indian Ocean seven years previously. I never managed to get back out to Sri Lanka, but a couple of years ago I saw first hand the destruction of Port au Prince after the Haiti earthquake and it reminded me of the words of an aid worker that I had spoken to on the day I left Peraliya. She had almost single-handedly been trying to nurse the village back to life and her parting words as I boarded the bus and took one last look back at the wooden shacks and tented villages have always haunted me.
…“I need to sleep. Is there anyone out there that can help us?”
…Four decades later and the gilt-edged glamour of air travel has, I’m sorry to say, lost much of its childhood sparkle. Nowadays I am more likely to have my face pressed up against the back of the seat in front of me than the window and I often find the onset of mid-air turbulence a welcome respite from the interminable monotony. One thing that I have never really worried about though is the risk factor. The current statistics put the chances of me being killed on a flight at around one in 4.7 million, so I figure I probably still have some way to go before the numbers really start stacking up against me. Indeed, given that I invariably have to travel cattle class, the odds are very much in my favour.
If, like me, you usually have to turn right when you reach the cabin door, take comfort in the fact that you have a statistically better chance of surviving a crash than those sipping champagne in First Class. Current data gives them only a 49 percent chance of survival, whereas those languishing in economy have between a 56 and 69 percent chance of walking away from a serious accident. Indeed, the further back you are, the better your chances. Of course, as with most things, it isn’t quite that simple. There are other factors to take into account as well and, if you want to seriously improve your chances, then it is worth giving them some thought before you settle down to your in-flight movie and complimentary gin and tonic.
How many of us really pay sufficient attention to the pre-flight safety briefing? Did you check where the emergency exit was when it was pointed out to you for example, or were you too busy checking in on Facebook? It has been proven that your chances of survival drop significantly the further away from the exit you are and, if your seat is more than five rows away, then your survival rate drops considerably more. Of course, this does presuppose that the flight has not been targeted by terrorists, in which case, you might want to avoid the extra legroom afforded you by the emergency exit seats…It would seem that your average modern hijacker prefers the spacious comfort and all round convenience of these rows. You may also want to pay a little more heed to the seemingly irrelevant information on fastening and unfastening your seatbelt too. Crash investigators have proved that during the panic of an air crash people tend to revert to type, invariably trying to remove their seat belts as if they were in their own car and not aboard a flaming aircraft. This, as you can imagine, often makes the difference between surviving a crash and not. The good news though is that once you are airborne and underway, the chances of a fatal mid-air crash is only around 8%. However, coming into land is another prospect altogether. An aircraft’s final approach and landing accounts for some 36% of fatal accidents so, with that in mind, you might want to consider just how much you are saving by flying via Madrid, Miami and all points west, rather than paying the extra for direct flights and thereby reducing the odds on a traumatic demise.
All said and done though, statistically air travel is still one of the safest forms of transport. Let’s face it, you’ve got more chance of being run over by a pig than dying in a plane crash, so I wouldn’t lose too much sleep over these stats.
However, it doesn’t hurt to hedge your bets…does it…
There can be few places in the British Isles more steeped in myth and legend than the ancient shores of the Isle of Man. Ruled over by a legendary Celtic sea god, our seemingly innocuous island is positively awash with malevolent spirits, faeries, salivating hounds and…vampires. Not for us though the pasty-faced anemics that haunt the world of Twilight. No, our vampires come with chains and spikes!
In the grounds of a whitewashed church on the outskirts of the island’s old capital, Castletown, lies the grave of one Matthew Halsall, vampire of this parish. Now, the unfortunate Mr Halsall died in 1854 and, as is custom in these parts, his passing was commemorated with much drinking by those left behind. During his wake however, legend has it that the corpse emitted a haunting groan from within the coffin. Fearing that they were about to bury poor Matthew somewhat prematurely, the mourners rushed to open the coffin…to find a very dead corpse inside.
Obviously common sense soon prevailed…and Matthew Halsall was declared a vampire, promptly staked through the heart and sealed up again!
Today he lies under a heavy slate slab in Malew Churchyard, in a grave crossed with heavy metal chains and staked on all four corners with iron spikes. No-one really knows the reasons for the chains, although the legends that abound in these parts declare them to be deadly to the fairy-folk and those of a…supernatural persuasion. It is also rumoured that when the spikes were once removed, the ghostly form of Matthew Halsall rose from his grave to haunt the graveyard.
Suffice to say, common sense prevailed once more, the stakes were driven back in and Matthew Halsall has not been seen again to this day.