VIP (Very Insignificant Person)

30 05 2008


I’ve always thought it would be cool to be a celebrity. To have people mobbing the sidewalk as you buy a hamburger; to have Perez Hilton beseeching your friends for juicy tidbits or to be surrounded by an earpiece-wearing, sunglass-sporting phalanx of Amazonian Bond girls for protection.


Some years ago I was mistaken for an unknown and unidentified up-and-coming movie star while dining at a restaurant near my home. The mistake was an easy one to make: a yellow Lamborghini was parked in front of the eatery and a group of kids on their way home from a Bar Mitzvah asked my friend whose car it was. He helpfully pointed to me, and said I was extremely famous in Europe. The fact that they’d neither heard of me nor recognised me was irrelevant: the siege was on.  The mob grew impatient as they watched my every move through the window – and I dined very self-consciously, trying not to make eye content with either my fans or the other patrons.  When the time came to leave, I slipped through the back door with my dignity in tatters but my anonymity intact. My brief and fallacious flirtation with fame was uncomfortable to say the least.


Adventure travel often makes you feel like a celebrity even when you’re on a budget. A meet-and-greet at Cairo airport escorted me through the Diplomat and VIP queue at immigration while hundreds of ‘normal’ people withered in the heat and humidity.  In Bangkok, I emerged into the arrivals hall at the same time as Liverpool Football Club and faced a wall of video cameras, flashes and hording fans. Their interest quickly waned when they realised I was actually absolutely no one. Elsewhere, I was so thrilled to find that my hotel room came with its own butler, I spent a sleepless night wondering what task I could hand him so that the luxury wouldn’t go wasted!


I confess that I enjoy having doors held open for me, finding my bed turned down and a sculpted towel swan on my pillow as much as the next guy…although I always feel a bit of a fraud in the knowledge that my luggage is full of hiking boots, laundry detergent, insect repellent, ‘liberated’ hotel soap, purloined toilet paper and copies of “Begging on a Budget”!


Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008





Travel Words of Wisdom – No. 5

29 05 2008

Iceland 9mw
Life on the edge, Iceland

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I –

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference


– Robert Frost



Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 96

28 05 2008

Never assume that having your name called by the gate staff just prior to boarding is a good thing.


I was in the lounge about to board a very long flight and watching with venomous hatred as fellow passengers were called forth and upgraded from economy to business…or beyond. Each turned and waved to the little people left behind, then headed down the walkway towards the aircraft with a sickening spring in their step and a jaunty smirk on their face.


Suddenly, my name was echoing through the hall as if sung by angels playing golden harps.


Hurriedly, I gathered my things and headed to the desk like an actor accepting an Oscar. As I stepped around over-sized carry-on bags and dipsy-do’ed through a minefield of teething babies, I rehearsed my acceptance speech: “I would like to thank all the people who made this possible…”


As bidden, I surrendered my boarding pass to a quizzical gate agent who fed it into the machine. I was already mentally in my newly-acquired reclining throne, glass of champagne in my hand, attendants fanning me gently while peeling grapes.


“Not quite sure why that change was made”, she said, curiously, surveying my new boarding pass.


I thanked her profusely and bounded down the gangway, assuming that my new seat – 99G – must be upstairs in the bubble and affording utter luxury in more intimate surroundings. It was only when I was directed towards the rear that my heart began to sink. After a demoralising trek past row upon row of seats that seemed to get smaller and smaller like Alice’s doors, I reached the very back where the interior narrows to a constricting stub – not to be confused with the opulent pointy end found at the front.


And my seat was by the toilet.


Fighting back the tears before I sat down, I tucked my book and water bottle into the pocket before me, and strapped myself in for the 13 hour odyssey ahead. After take-off, I plugged in the headset and settled down to watch the screen at the front of the cabin, only to realise that I was three inches too short to see it without sitting on a telephone directory. Something I had foolishly not brought along. With resignation, I took out my book and flicked on the reading light…only to find it unresponsive. I desperately beckoned a flight attendant and explained my dilemma.


“Don’t worry,” she said, “I’ll check the fuse” and headed for the galley.  A few moments later she returned with a perky smile on her face.


“Well, it’s not the fuse”, she bubbled, with a radiant smile. “So it must be the bulb. Unfortunately, we don’t carry extra bulbs but we’ll have it repaired at our next stop.”


Before I could point out that was 7500 miles away, she was gone. With movies and reading out of the question, I opted to recline my seat…the one inch it would move before colliding with the toilet wall. Without any empty seats available, I took two anti-nausea pills and sought the refuge of the defeated: sleep. Alas, to complete a perfect trifecta, each time I was on the brink of the velvet embrace of Hypnos, my seat was emphatically thumped by someone visiting the toilets, my brain rattled by the incessant bang of the cubicle door and my nostrils mauled by noxious scents.


Eventually, emotionally battered, spiritually spent and utterly exhausted, I drifted into a comfortless and fitful sleep, haunted by visions of the luxury of a normal economy class seat like the one I had briefly possessed but had willed away in hope of something better.


Who ever said “A bird in the hand…” had likely been sitting in the malfunctioning last-row of a trans-Pacific flight in the pitch-dark, devoid of entertainment and constantly jostled and harangued by the flatulent and be-bladdered masses.



Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Bubble Boy Goes Snorkelling

27 05 2008

Red Sea 1

Self portrait with fingers

It’s not that I’d describe myself as particularly accident prone or especially susceptible to illness, but if there’s a good dose of drama on show, chances are I will be the star attraction.


My life at home is rather dull, ordinary and uneventful. But when I travel I tend to attract rare and exotic ailments or have encounters that cause friends to hire me to entertain dinner parties with tales of my international misfortune. Thankfully, nothing major has happened that hasn’t been cured with an IV, a few days in isolation or some indelicate and rather embarrassing questions from a Tropical Disease specialist. But I certainly do provide a source of amusement for my less sensitive friends…and a few doctors.


The Red Sea is one of the world’s best snorkelling spots and I just couldn’t resist the opportunity to slap on flippers and goggles for the first time ever…even though I can’t swim and am generally afraid of anything deeper than a saucer of milk. The sky was a flawless blue, the water was warm and crystal clear and the mountains of the arid Sinai Peninsula loomed over us to provide a glorious setting for my first aquatic adventure.


After strapping on my gear, I waddled over the jagged rocks and slipped into the water. A lifejacket ensured that I neither drowned nor was mistaken for anyone brave or naturally buoyant, and I rolled onto my stomach and kicked my legs with all the grace of a flailing octopus in a bowl of Jello. If the slap-slapping of my flippers on the top of the water wasn’t enough to scare all the fish onto land to begin evolution all over again, I’m sure my hyperventilation through the narrow plastic breathing tube certainly was.


I gradually swam further away from the shore. Bit by bit I gained some degree of coordination and confidence and actually began to enjoy myself – until the seabed suddenly dropped away beneath me into a bottomless abyss of murky blue perpetual darkness. My breathing went into overdrive, the rasping sound of panic became deafening and I desperately splattered back towards shore.


Despite my abject terror, the scenery was nothing short of spectacular. I drifted in the tide just off great cliffs of coral and marvelled at magnificently coloured sealife. It was a world I had never seen before and I was absolutely rapt. My confidence soon returned and I began to really enjoy myself.


Red Sea 2

With time almost up, I headed back to the wooden ladder and walkway that led to the shore. I bobbed in the water while others descended to the sea, awaiting my chance to climb out. As the lapping waves pushed me towards the sheer rock, I extended my hands to keep the jagged edges at bay…and suddenly felt the most searing pain in the index finger of my right hand. I yanked back instantly and clambered ashore.


Blood streamed from the tip of my finger. I wiped it clear and saw two pin-prick holes, each surrounded by perfect white circles and then angry red circles that grew before my eyes. My efforts at maintaining a steely calm evaporated when an Australian colleague screamed, in utter terror, “It’s a sea snake bite!!! A sea snake…you’re gonna di….”


…or something along those lines.


Someone ran off to get the divemaster and I was hurriedly raced to a tented shelter and plopped down on a floor of carpets and cushions. Our ebullient tour guide had turned ashen white and knew he’d lost at least one tip.


“It’s a sea snake…” the Australian wailed. “They’re the most deadly of al…” she added before I heard a muffled thump and she disappeared.


The divemaster poked and prodded my finger before removing a very big and very sharp knife from his dive belt…and thankfully placing it on the carpet. He stepped away and returned with a glass of boiling water and oil, grabbed my finger and plunged it into the glass. He pulled it out and squeezed and pressed and poked, before plunging it in again and again. I couldn’t quite determine which was more painful: the poison making its way up my hand, the utter mangling he was giving my finger or the third degree burn I was getting from the treatment.


“It’s a sea urchin,” he said. “two spines. I got the poison out. You’ll be okay.”


He sheathed his knife, and swaggered away.


I glanced at my mutilated and throbbing finger, removed my lifejacket and headed towards the jeep that had brought us to the dive site. The sun was low and casting long shadows over the sea. There was a cooling breeze and all was tranquil…until I felt the searing pain on the back of my left hand.


I spun around just in time to see the driver move his glowing cigarette tip away from my hand.


“Sorry” he said sheepishly.



Photos and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Lessons Learned The Hard Way – No. 13

26 05 2008

When checking into a hotel, always ensure you know which floor you’re on.


It was a dark and stormy night…


We were racing through the darkness with low clouds obliterating the overhead lights, rain driving into the headlamps, and enormous airborne rooster-tails of water battering the windscreen. Just after 10pm, with white knuckles wrapped around the steering wheel, we turned off the autobahn and into an enormous truck stop. After a bite in the restaurant we headed to the motel in search of a room.


The building was two floors high and dissolved into the wet gloom in either direction. We sprinted through the rain, received a key from reception and proceeded to the elevators. Much to my surprise, the floors were in descending order with 5th being the first floor, 4th being the ground floor reception and 1st being the sub- sub- sub-basement lowest. We dropped several floors before arriving at the usual windowless anonymous hotel/motel corridor. The room was compact, neat and completely functional. Although four floors beneath ground, there were faux windows with metal shutters on them to at least provide the illusion of being above ground.


I’m not claustrophobic, but lying there in the dark knowing there was 40 feet of concrete, steel and earth pressed on the ceiling and separating me from the fresh air above was a rather odd and disconcerting feeling. Although it beat being outside in the pouring rain, it was still, well, a little bit too much like being buried alive for my liking.


After a restless night, when the wake-up call sounded I initially didn’t know where I was. I rubbed my eyes before remembering that I was in a subterranean burial chamber. From across the room I discerned what appeared to be slivers of light seeping through the edges of the metal shutters. I walked over and as I got closer could see light streaming through every crack and edge. I also noticed a small handle and opened the window and shutter.


There before me lay a valley, rolling away as far as the eyes could see, hills and little woods of trees beyond, all in damp and verdant green. I stuck my head out to discover that my subterranean world was not subterranean at all…it was actually located on the edge of a steep hillside: two floors on the highway-side, and six floors on the valley side. I breathed in the fresh air.  In the daylight, the room was instantly transformed from a tomb-raided pharaoh’s burial vault into a regular sun-soaked hotel room.


I happily headed for the bathroom with the weight of the world – and 40 feet of soil – eased from my shoulders.


Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Photography 101½

23 05 2008

Ice photographer

Please note cutting-edge high-tech camera bag that resembles simple ziplock 

I embrace new technology with all the speed and élan of a grapefruit. Until I became The Adventure Blogger, I thought a blog was the mark of ink left behind by an excited fountain pen, and I’m still not quite sure what RSS, meta tags and Web 2.0 are. But I must confess that for all my Luddite tendencies, I rather do like digital photography.


My first camera was a spiffy 110 cartridge. As the viewfinder didn’t actually look through the lens and I therefore couldn’t see precisely what I was snapping, I invariably ended up with at least one close-up photo of a very blurred finger on every roll. Nevertheless, I was still utterly devastated when it was ruined by a large tub of egg salad during a picnic. It valiantly tried to recover, but never worked - or smelled - the same again. From there, it was onward and upward. My next camera was a 126 cartridge. This one came in a spy kit, along with a pair of plastic handcuffs, a magnifying glass and a pen with invisible ink - which wasn’t invisible at all (just pale yellow) and which dried out as soon as I removed the cap for the first time.


Eventually, I graduated to 35mm. Bit by bit I added lenses, teleconverters and motordrives, most second-hand and often lovingly scratched and dented.  All that glass and metal weighed a ton, but I could never imagine travelling without it. In fact, somewhat masochistically, I was never happy unless my bag of goodies was dislocating my shoulder, twisting my spine and leaving me in general discomfort.

After all, one must suffer for one’s art, mustn’t one?!

As if all that gear wasn’t enough, I also carried stacks of AA batteries and an enormous ziplock bag stuffed with more than 40 rolls of film for a long trip, each one meticulously colour-coded to indicate its speed.


There was a huge excitement after every trip when I went to collect my photos from the lab. Opening the envelopes was akin to Christmas and a chance to re-live those travels. It was a highlight almost as eagerly anticipated as the journey itself although usually tinged with disappointment as inevitably some photos - and perhaps entire rolls - were blurred, under/overexposed or had been foiled by camera failure.


Generally though, I was a very happy boy.


Until a darkness loomed on the horizon and threatened my comfort zone. A great cloud known as ‘modern technology’ and the encroachment of digital imaging, which required - heaven forbid - a computer to properly use and enjoy. Images could be manipulated and adjusted afterwards far more easily and efficiently than in a darkroom, and who needed filters or knowledge of f-stops and shutter speeds when you could just play with it on your laptop at your leisure? It was like Michelangelo painting the ceiling of the Cistine Chapel with an air brush and stencils, or the Bayeux tapestry decorated with iron-on transfers.  I viewed digital photography as blasphemy and crawled back into my cave vowing never to surrender.


Just as I was dragged kicking and screaming from counting on my fingers and toes to a using a cutting-edge abacus, so I eventually moved onto digital photography, groping and feeling my way through pixels and megabites. Even with an extra battery pack, my new camera weighs considerably less and I still enjoy all the fun of a manual SLR camera. There’s also the added bonus of instantly knowing whether I have photographed a great landmark, or the tip of my index finger. I have traded in all my old gear for a lens…yes, one lens, and love my new travel companion almost as much as my 110 cartridge.


This one, however, is kept well away from the egg salad.




Photo and post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008

Lessons Learned the Hard Way – No. 66

22 05 2008

Before you have that first drink of the day, always check the time.


It was still dark when my alarm rang. I stumbled out of bed and made my way to the bathroom in the desperate hope that the shower would wake me up. In semi-consciousness I boarded the bus to the airport and walked into the bustling terminal the requisite three hours prior to departure. After checking in, handing over my luggage and squeezing through security, I wandered aimlessly through the duty free shop before finding a quiet corner and awaiting the call to board.


Once onboard, I fastened my seat belt and paid polite attention to the safety briefing. We taxied down the runway, lifted off and climbed through the clouds. I plugged in the headset, pulled out my book and settled down for the four hour flight.


A short while later there was a tap on my shoulder and a flight attendant asked if I wanted something to drink. I glanced at the trolley arrayed with liquids of all colours and shades in bottles and cartons of all sizes and shapes. In a rare foray into airborne alcohol, I requested a single malt scotch, neat: no water, no ice. She poured two fingers of the warm amber liquid.


I raised the plastic glass to my mouth, the rich peaty scent tickling at my nostrils. The initial contact burned my lips but warmed my insides as it glided down my throat.


“Do you know what time it is?” my travelling companion asked reproachfully.


“Yes, it’s…” I replied, putting down my cup and reaching for my arm to pull back the sleeve and look at my watch.


I was calculating the time in my head as I reached for my wrist. It had been at least 6 hours since my alarm had rung so therefore it must be…


“…it’s 7am” she answered coolly, before I could provide her with the same information. “Don’t you think it’s a little early for hard liquor?” she added, turning away from me to look out the window.


I glanced around the cabin at a sea of orange juices, apple juices and pineapple juices and quickly finished my drink and hid the evidence in the seat pocket in front of me.



Post by: Simon Vaughan © 2008