I Didn’t Mean to Interrupt the Monk

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I didn’t mean to interrupt the monk from his studies, I just asked if he wouldn’t mind taking this photo. He smiled and stopped reading Dalai Lama’s ‘The Art of Happiness’, tucking a banana leaf inside to bookmark his page. Probably a book worth reading once in a lifetime. Dressed in bright orange robes, he had the wide smile of a man insulated from the evils of this world. We looked through the new photos on my phone.

“To show your family?” “Yes.” I hung my head slightly. “And Instagram.”

“What’s Instagram?” He asked. Have you been living under a rock, dude? Then I realised he had. Or at least inside an ornately carved rock. So I asked, “how long have you been for a monk for?”

“I live here for five years,” he smiled, nodding at the temple behind me. How fascinating. So he has no idea about anything that’s happened in the last half a decade.

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“Do you know Amazon?” I asked. “The rainforest?” He replied. “Sure,” I said, although I’d meant the other Amazon. But now was not the time to tell him an internet retailer is roughly halfway through its plan of world domination.

“Uber?” He shook his head. I guess taxis aren’t required when Buddha handles all the transport towards enlightenment.

How about music, I wondered. “Despacito?” A blank smile. “Kanye West? Pitbull?” Still Silence. His smile made sense now. I’d trade Uber for enlightenment and never again hearing Pitbull shouting his net worth over reggaeton. Maybe I should buy that Dalai Lama book.

I thanked him for his time, he shook my hand. It felt too formal so we upgraded to a hug. I realised I had five seconds for a final question. Tick tock.

“Who is the president of America?” His eyes rose skywards then returned. “Barack Obama?”

“I’m buying the Art of Happiness on Amazon right now. And can we swap lives, please?”

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The World’s Biggest Water Fight

You can’t fight back against a child, that’s a rule, isn’t it? I reminded myself as a giggling 7 year old drenched me with a flying bucket of water. Thailand does New Year a little differently. In ancient Siam culture, people would visit their local monastery and pour scented water over monks in a holy cleansing ceremony. Then, they’d collect the blessed water and bring it home to pour over family members for good luck. Today, Thai New Year – Songkran – is unrecognisable from its holistic history. Imagine if Disney bought the rights then outsourced the choreography to Ibiza, Playboy and Heineken.

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I selected my weapon of choice; a neon yellow super soaker and found the beach transformed. It was Baywatch on steroids without the anger issues. There’s an inclusivity about the world’s biggest water fight that reminded me of Gay Pride: I was attacked equally by children, men, women, ladyboys and pensioners. Running for cover, ducking behind sight screens and shooting water at strangers was like simultaneously being transported back to childhood and playing virtual reality as Rambo.

There’s a hint of the carnival vibes in Rio de Janeiro and Notting Hill too. Music blasts from every angle and strangers are connected by an event bigger than any one individual. There really is nothing else like Songkran though: it’s the only place you’re allowed to be Peter Pan and Jack Sparrow. And return fire at children.

A Teardrop on the Cheek of Eternity

Hustlers, homeless bodies, stray dogs, rattling rickshaws and everyone has something to sell me. Agra train station is an ordeal. I battled through the chaos towards symmetry: the Taj Mahal.

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There it stood, a teardrop on the cheek of eternity. Perfect order surrounded by an imperfect world. The problem with the Taj is it’s overphotographed, but nothing prepares you for the rhythmic combination of curves and lines, shadow and light.

Of course, it’s a circus of mass tourism, but a zen-like state of calm permeates. There’s no pushing, just a respectful, orderly queue to get a picture on the Princess Diana bench. I had to wait ten minutes for nine Koreans to make multiple peace signs before I got mine.

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One stupid shot for Instagram and a respectable one for my darling mother.

There’s something comforting about the permanence of Shah Jahan’s masterpiece. We are situated between daily life and the world of true understanding and monuments like this remind us which is more important. The sun never shines all night and no man can live forever but the Taj will always stand.

Am I Getting Kidnapped?

Am I getting kidnapped? I worried, as Abdullah drove my rented car in silence. He’d flagged me down at the side of the road. I offered him a lift. He asked where I was going. I said I was going on an adventure. He told me he knew the most beautiful place in Oman. Let’s go there then, I replied.

“But I drive,” he said.

“I’d prefer to drive, I gave my passport to the man at the rental place and-“

“I drive,” he said again.

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We switched places. His English was only just better than my Arabic, and I don’t speak Arabic. So we sat in silence, driving through increasingly barren desert, slowing only to swerve around camels.

Sometimes we had to stop completely. I’m not sure whether camels are arrogant or simply don’t care if they live or die. I do know, however, that they don’t move out of the road, however much you beep at them. Their boss just laughed when we asked him to make his unruly gang hurry up.

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“How much longer?” I asked.

“We there in half o clock.”

“That’s not a recognised unit of time, Abdullah.”

He shrugged and continued driving. Thirty minutes later, we arrived. I’d been kidnapped and taken to a blue and green paradise. I thanked Abdullah and for the first time, I saw him smile. I’m not sure what the moral of this story is. It would be irresponsible to advise you to start picking up hitchhikers. So let’s say just trust people more, because nice things might happen.

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Twenty Five Pounds I’ll Never Get Back

“£25 please.” Whoever said ‘travel is the only thing we buy that makes us richer’ clearly never rode the London Eye.

I hate feeling like a tourist in my own country but I was trying my best to enjoy the ride. London’s landmarks disappeared beneath our glass chariot: Big Ben, The Shard and Canary Wharf turned into Lego as we entered the sky.

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The lady next to me was convinced I was missing the show. She kept nudging me, pointing and saying things like ‘I’m speechless’, which unfortunately she wasn’t.

Another ten metres higher, another gasp. “Look at that view!” Her smile left dimples in her cheeks. “It’s priceless isn’t it.” I glanced at the guidebook next to me. Actually no, it isn’t. Constructing the London Eye cost £70 million.

She was having a really good time. “It’s just genius isn’t it,” she leant towards me. “Who would have thought of inventing this?” Cavemen probably, I thought, when they invited the wheel 5500 years ago. The London Eye is just a remix. “Yeah they’ve really reinvented the wheel,” I replied. Blank face. Oh come on! That’s good stuff. I wriggled my headphones from my pocket and nodded to the beat of an imaginary song.

We landed back exactly where we started. My new friend was glowing with happiness, she’d really got her money’s worth. She’d taught me something too: act like a kid and you enjoy things more. She looked at me and grinned. “How do you feel?”

I collected my feelings. “Precisely £25 poorer.”

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Why Gay Pride Rocks

Are you gay?” Asked the man with too many tattoos.

“No.”

“Why you wearing that rainbow flag then?”

“Because it’s Gay Pride.”

“Why are you going?” We arrived at Charing Cross tube station before I could answer.

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Pride is a delight. Love, rainbows and unconditional acceptance fill the air. Everyone’s invited no matter how weird you are, the weirder the better actually. There’s a simple formula to having a great Pride. Be nice and accepting, because everybody’s nice here. The last time I got this many compliments was in the red light district of Bangkok.

Pride is also a time for people to raise awareness of other related causes or just try to explain. I particularly liked a sign that read ‘Straight? So is Spaghetti Until You Turn the Heat Up!’ But my favourite was a black dude dressed in a dark jumper with the hood up and pink hot pants. He was holding a home made sign that said #GrimeAndGay4Corbyn

“Are you gay?” The second enquiry of the day was from a man in full leather. He had a whip in one hand and a young Asian man in the other.

“No, I’m just part of the gang.”

“You sure?” He gave me a flyer anyway. It was for a Fist Night in Vauxhall. “You’ve got a pretty face,” he said.

“Thanks, that’s very kind.” A short pause. “But I’m still not going to the fisting night.” We highfived and I was on my way.

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Then I saw the answer to the question from the man on the tube. A dancing policeman, with a Pride t-shirt on top of his police vest, had attracted attention. He was twerking, a piece of pork between a drag queen sandwich. As he disappeared between the bodies of the fabolous queens, I could still see his t-shirt. It read ‘Love Happens Here’.

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On the tube home, I was joined by an oversized drunk whose arms and legs spilled halfway over my seat. She smiled as she ate her kebab. I smiled back.
Then she slurred “So you single or what?”

Sorry,” I said. “I’m afraid I’m gay.”

Shooting For The Moon

The Darien Gap is the most dangerous place on the planet. The border between Colombia and Panama is a thousand square mile area of impassable jungle and swampland, ruled by narcotraffickers, gangsters, wild animals and infectious diseases. There is more chance of getting kidnapped or killed than traversing it safely. So, a new industry has appeared. Sailboats offer a more tranquil way of passing from South to Central America, via the tropical San Blas Islands. This is how I became a passenger on Wild Card, a boat manned by Captain Charlie.

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He slurped straight from a bottle of rum as we bounced over crashing waves. After 36 hours of harsh sailing, he flicked back his long, dark locks, readied his pockmarked face and dropped anchor. We were in the land of the Kuna people. I looked around; hundreds of unspoilt mounds of white sand and palm trees protruded from turquoise waters. We had arrived in Cayos Limones, or Lemon Keys, or paradise. It forms part of the 365 San Blas Islands that lie 12 miles off the Caribbean coast of Panama. Captain Charlie threw me a snorkel and told me to explore. “There are some sunken ships over there,” he said with a flick of his arm, rum bottle still resting by his side.

I dived in the direction that Charlie had pointed. A long, silvery barracuda whished past. I continued towards the bubbly rock of a coral reef. A tuna swerved in front of me, scattering schools of smaller fish. The reason soon became clear: a reef shark burst into view, chasing the tuna through a maze of marine life. I tried to keep up but couldn’t, possibly because I’m not a fish. As I headed towards the shipwreck, I felt a ripple overhead. I came up for air. A battered canoe had narrowly missed me. Three Kuna tribesmen, tanned of skin, were wearing sheepish grins.

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“Sorry. I didn’t see you,” said the taller man, offering a bow in apology. He invited me aboard the boat and introduced himself as the Sahila, or Chief, of Cayos Limones. I clambered up and he insisted I return to the mainland to share lunch with his family. I glanced towards my boat, Captain Charlie was spreadeagled on the deck. I said yes.

On the island, we ate an emperor’s lunch of lobster, grilled plantain and coconut. Indigenous women, decorated in gold nose rings, beaded red leg bands and bowl haircuts, were sewing traditional mola dresses. They sung gentle lullabies as they formed intricate patterns in blue and orange. They were blissfully unaware of politics, mortgages and traffic jams, and it showed.

Kuna Woman

Chief looked at the sky and sighed. “I am afraid you have come at bad time.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Tonight is no moon.”

“An eclipse?”

“Blood moon,” he nodded. “The dragon comes to try and eat the moon.” I nodded, trying not to show my amusement. But, I thought then, it’s no stranger than believing that a virgin gave birth to Jesus or humans should work for fifty hours a week to buy products they don’t need. I looked around; does a better picture of paradise exist?

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“They are preparing now. This is their night.” The Chief pointed inside a conical bamboo hut. Inside, two albino men were carving something out of wood. The Kuna have a very high incidence rate of albinism, a phenomenon that neither scientists nor anthropologists have been able to explain.

“We have shaman coming also,” continued Chief. “But they will defend the moon,” he pointed at the albinos again.

Half an hour later, a dugout canoe arrived on the sand and a shaman in tattered rags stepped ashore. The sun came down as the shaman set up. I watched him form a circle using palm fronds and tree stumps as the sky turned from blue to orange to black in the background. He stood in the middle while Chief and the other islanders sat around the edge. They beckoned me to join. The shaman burnt an incense-like substance, it smelled like hippies and freedom. He started chanting in a language I didn’t understand, then dancing in a style I couldn’t comprehend. When he came back to earth, he passed round a jug of liquid. “Drink this,” he said. “It is chicha. The breast milk of the great mother.” It tasted more like crude rum to me.

“Now, we must go inside. It is only safe for the albinos tonight,” said Chief. The shaman raised an eyebrow, then gestured at me.

“He is white man too, he can join them.” Chief shrugged. The albinos emerged from the bamboo hut, holding the spoils of their days work: two bow and arrows. I asked Chief what the hell was happening.

“They will shoot arrows at the dragon, to protect the moon. You want to join them?”

I paused for thought. “Yes.” An easy decision. “Yes I do.”

The two albinos and I walked down to the shallows of the sea. They stood a metre ahead of me, took aim and fired towards the moon, emitting a howling sound as they did so. I howled too, tentatively at first, then with real gusto. They fired again, the arrows arced towards the dim, red moon then fell into the ocean. One of them passed me his bow and arrow. We still hadn’t spoken to each other, just howled. I stared at the moon, placed the arrow against the cord that connected the two ends of wood and pulled hard. My arm wasn’t straight and I let go at an angle, the arrow veered off to the right, grazing the arm of one of the albinos. My jaw dropped. I raised both hands in apology. The bow dropped to the water too. I felt forced to reorder my opinion. I think the Darien Gap is the second most dangerous place on the planet, after Cayos Limones when I’m brandishing a bow and arrow.

Hippies, Elephants and Luck

I had just two aims for my final evening: buy toothpaste and an Indian souvenir. This is the joy of solo travel: you are your own boss so anything can happen. You could find enlightenment, stumble upon love or you could find Hans waiting in line at the chemist. Hans was a middle-aged, ponytailed hippie, speaking English to the cashier with a strong European accent. My toothpaste purchase was delayed by an impassioned speech; he was trying to convince the pharmacy to recycle their rubbish. He apologised for making me wait and asked if I would like to accompany him to a night market. I nodded.

“Yeah, I want a souvenir. How lucky.” I thought out loud.

“Luck comes in many forms, my friend,” said Hans with a mystical flick of his hair.

I jumped on the back of his red scooter and we whizzed towards the Saturday night market in Arpora, Goa. The blind turns and potholes reminded me that in India you’re seldom more than five seconds away from danger; whether it’s a motorbike crash on a muddy backstreet or a rabid dog crouching in the shade of a shack selling dodgy curries. Traffic snaked down the hill that led to the market for at least a mile. Hans swerved expertly between taxis, rickshaws and other motorbikes until we entered a carnival of fairy lights.

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The night market was a pop-up shanty town of stalls and shacks, buzzing with the energy of New Years Eve. In the midst of the maze of colourful meandering, Hans explained his life’s work to me. He’d left his hometown in Holland twenty years ago for a holiday and never returned. Now, he was on a one man mission to introduce recycling to Northern Goa and spent his days trawling round local businesses, convincing them to sign up to his endeavour. I was listening, captivated, when I felt the urge to find a bathroom; I excused myself.

I have a rudimentary three-pronged list to determine whether a country is first, second or third world. Do they have a functioning public transport system? What is their stance on women’s and gay rights? And can you flush the toilet paper? The restrooms at the night market informed me that despite its burgeoning economy, India is still a third world country. I held my breath whilst I unzipped and scuttled out into a sea of stars as soon as I’d finished.

Night Market

“I converted to Hinduism in the late nineties,” said Hans. “I really identified with Dharma – their code of ethics and duties towards humankind – and Samsara, the continuing cycle of life, birth, death and rebirth.” He paused for a second and looked towards the sky. “I guess when the Indians’ taught me that life recycles itself, I wanted to give something back and teach them to recycle earth.” Then I saw a stall selling swastikas. In the ancient language of Sanskrit, swastika means well-being. It remains a symbol of good luck across India today and this, I decided, was reason enough to purchase some. You never know when you’re going to get another chance to legally purchase a swastika.

Other Indian symbols surrounded the spices, teas, Kashmiri carpets, carvings, jewellery, clothes, cushions and hammocks on sale. Colourful, perfectly concentric mandalas and images of Ganesh, the trunked Hindu deity, were the two most common. Hans and I were wandering through the stalls, talking about how you make your own luck. His greying bob swayed every time he nodded; whenever he agreed with something I could really tell. But I was never quite sure whether he was nodding at what I said or the meditational trance music in the background. Right now, he was staring at murals of India’s holiest animal.

Hans Night Market

“Hindus revere elephants, they’re symbols of luck,” said Hans. “They resemble their god, Ganesh, and represent the attributes of a perfect disciple. The large ears mean he’s a patient listener. His eyes are believed to behold the future. The long trunk allows him to smell good and evil and his big belly shows he can digest all that good and evil as fuel for life.” I want to buy an elephant, I thought. Around the corner, I found a wiry man selling them. He introduced himself as Ravi. Inside a wide shirt collar, his neck rattled around like a turtle’s, lending him the look of a child dressed up in his parents’ clothes. But these parents had taught him how to hustle. He dangled a succession of products in front of me, describing them with phrases like ‘nice gift, nice gift’ or ‘best price for you, my friend’. We began the age-old dance of bartering. He started high, I countered low. He brought down the price, I feigned disgust. He came down a little further, I shook my head and began to walk away. He chased after, shouting smaller prices. We agreed on a fee of 200 rupees, I handed it over and received an elephant in exchange.

I found Hans by the exit, asking a security guard to summon the site manager to speak about being green. He was holding an elephant similar to the one I’d bought.

“How much?” I asked, pointing at its trunk.

“100 rupees,” he said. Then I realised I’d forgotten to buy toothpaste. I do agree with Hans that luck does come in many forms, but this guy is not one of them.

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Five Airlines to Fly With and Five to Avoid

Emirates

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The king of the skies; Emirates are my favourite airline in the world. The staff always go the extra mile (sorry) and their onboard food regularly wins international awards. Their frequent flier programme offers you the chance to trade miles for experiences such as Real Madrid tickets, Miami Open tennis, food festivals or Apple, Swarovski and Montblanc products. If you’re an opulent traveller, you’ll get looked after even more lavishly. The double decker A380 plane seats the business and first class flyers on the luxurious upper deck, separating you from the downstairs passengers like myself; the riffraff in cattle class.

Norwegian Air

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The third largest low cost carrier in Europe, the second largest airline in Scandinavia and my first choice for budget travel. Norwegian offer the cheapest transatlantic fares you’ll ever find, flying from Gatwick to New York, Florida, California and Las Vegas for a fraction of the price of their competitors. So low, in fact, that the group who represent American pilots have written to Donald Trump asking him to ban Norwegian Air because their aggressively low fares will ‘destroy our US airline industry and all the jobs associated with it’. Norwegian aren’t listening, they’ve just announced plans to expand their network to include flights from Manchester and Edinburgh.

British Airways

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Like a faithful butler in a well-worn tuxedo, British Airways remains an emblem of class and reliability. Last year, it ranked lowest on overall delay times and one of the highest on claim processing, so in the unlikely event you are delayed you’ll have a high chance of being financially compensated. Their fleet is ever expanding, and as of this year they’re also flying to New Orleans, Montpellier, Tallinn and Mykonos: time to start planning that holiday. Check out Holiday Pirates for discount business and first class fares and the chance to have your very own butler in the sky.

Viva Colombia

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Viva Colombia is South America’s answer to Ryan Air. If you’re travelling overland from Bogota to Medellin you can expect to spend 9 hours on a bumpy coach if you’re lucky. Book in advance with Viva and for the same price, around £25, you can complete the trip in 55 minutes. They also fly to Cartagena, the epitome of tropical Caribbean splendour, and Leticia, a border town in the Amazon jungle, if it’s adventure you’re after. 2017 marked the start of their expansion across the continent with bargain basement flights to Lima, Peru and more to follow soon. Watch out though, like Ryan Air, if you do contravene weight restrictions, they’ll happily fine you. Weigh that bag beforehand.

Samoa Air

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In 2012, Samoa Air famously introduced a pay-as-you-weigh fare structure. The decision begins to make sense when you learn that Air Samoa’s fleet is comprised of lightweight Cessna’s and Britten-Norman Islander aircraft, coupled with the fact that Samoa suffers from the one of the world’s highest obesity rates. So your gym sessions could end up saving you money and there’s less chance of your neighbour’s stomach spilling over onto your seat. Recent research found that 58% of Britons would not object to airlines introducing weighing machines at departure gates and charging heavier people more to travel, leading me to conclude that 42% of Britain is overweight.

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Saudia

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Saudi Arabia’s national carrier provided an unbridled carousel of disappointment when I flew with them for the first and last time. The staff were rude, the food was terrible and, even worse, there was no alcohol onboard. Inflight entertainment systems aren’t meant to be endured without a miniature bottle of red but Saudia’s would require a box of wine to render it enjoyable. Episodes of The Big Bang Theory were cut to 11 minutes and Gloria from Modern Family was blurred from the neck down. Any scene in every film involving references to sex, alcohol or general fun have been cut, which left all movies apart from Peppa Pig: The Golden Boots at a running time of 45 minutes to an hour.

Bulgaria Air 

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Bulgaria Air should borrow a ‘Mind The Gap’ sign from the London Underground. The space between the hastily assembled stairs and the entrance to the cabin was nearly a metre long. The cabin crew glared at me after I successfully traversed the drop; angry, it seemed, at having to work one person harder. I don’t expect the food to be complimentary on a short haul low-cost flight. But I do expect the £7 damp cheese toastie to be garnished with a smile and placed in front of me instead of being thrown with a grunt. If Bulgaria Air was a chocolate bar, it would be a CurlyWurly. Cheap, holes everywhere, and as the chewy bits linger in your teeth, you wonder if you should have upgraded to a Galaxy.

ExpressJet

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You’ve been waiting for your trip for months. You’re packing and unpacking a couple of times a day because you can’t decide what to bring. Eventually, you manage to squeeze everything into one bag to avoid the exorbitant charges for excess luggage. You board the plane and arrive safely at your destination, but your bag doesn’t. This is statistically most likely to happen if you’re flying with America’s ExpressJet Airlines, who lost 7,713 bags in March 2016 alone, at a rate of 3.97 misplaced bags per 1000 customers. If you have to fly with ExpressJet, maybe pack a smaller bag and take it on as hand luggage.

Lion Air 

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My airfare from Jakarta to Singapore was worryingly cheap. Whilst onboard Indonesia’s largest private carrier, we landed twice. This might sound like value for money but it was the result of navigational incompetence. We approached the ground at too harsh an angle, bounced up many metres in the air and eventually came back into contact with the runway twenty seconds later, leaving everyone onboard with a mild case of whiplash except the pilot, who I imagine was also nursing rather red cheeks.

Batik Air

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If I was going to play fuck, marry, kill with airlines, I’d probably sleep with Emirates, get betrothed to British Airways and murder Batik Air, if they didn’t kill me first. 2016 saw this Indonesian low cost airline bring home the notorious accolade of being the least safe airline in the world. In just 365 days, they managed an impressive array of blunders, including a runway overrun accident, a runway collision, missing a runway altogether and losing a plane’s tail, which does seem rather careless. In fact, flying Batik Air is the only time I would recommend flying with Lion Air. But if at all possible, don’t do either.

What have been your best and worst airline experiences? Let me know if the comments below!

 

The Top Ten Places to Visit in 2017

Toronto, Canada

2016 was a tough year for everyone but 2017 marks the Great White North’s 150th birthday and they’re inviting the world to celebrate with them. Canadians, along with the Dutch, are amongst the friendliest travellers I’ve met on my journeys. This generosity is being extended nationwide with the Discovery Pass that grants all visitors free entrance into any national park in 2017. July 1st is Canada Day and when the festivities really hit their climax. Dynamic Toronto will host street parades, a week of non stop parties, live music and a city full of friendly locals ready to welcome you to the biggest celebration of the year. 2016 will be a distant memory in no time at all.

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Aarhus, Denmark

Aarhus, Denmark’s second city, has long laboured in the shadow cast by Copenhagen. This is all set to change in 2017 as the Viking-founded city becomes the European Capital of Culture. Old meets new in Aarhus: a walk through the city takes you from the 12th century cathedral through cobbled backstreets with multicoloured terraces to the striking, ultramodern Iceberg apartment complex. Summer’s the time to book your flights here, when the sun rises at 4:30am and doesn’t set until after 10pm. Try and plan your visit to coincide with either Aarhus Festuge, a 10 day arts and culture festival in August, or NorthSide, a three day electronic and guitar music extravaganza in June.

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Cienfuegos, Cuba

Any city whose name translates as ‘one hundred fires’ already has a headstart in my book. But 2017 may well be the last year that Cuba retains all of it’s shabby 1950’s charm and splendour. The trade embargo with America has been lifted and foreign investment is beginning to filter through. While Havana, Varadero and Trinidad are well-trodden now, Cienfuegos is a lesser-known crumbling majesty of grand, colonial buildings in all the colours of the rainbow. You won’t find many tourists here, so you can blend in with the locals and discover what the world was like before it was conquered by technology. Horse and carts still traverse the streets alongside classic Chevrolets and Corvettes; Cienfuegos is the closest thing to a time machine you’ll find this year.

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Marseille, France

France’s second-biggest city is in the midst of a renaissance. The Old Port has been renovated, modern museums and galleries are springing up in every corner and the gritty sparkle isn’t going anywhere. Often dismissed as the black sheep of the Provencal coastline, it’s easy to forget that Marseille is part of the Côte d’Azur and paved with 1500 years of history. I don’t class this lowly status as a bad thing though, it translates into cheaper prices and less Arab and Russian oligarchs. Once you’ve drunk enough anise-flavoured Pastis in the roadside bars, make the short drive to Les Calanques. Here, you can sunbathe, cliff jump and hike amongst 20km of limestone rocks rising from the brilliant turquoise Mediterranean waters.

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Tbilisi, Georgia

I can’t speak for you, but I’m going to Tbilisi in 2017. There’s a 17th century fortress, winding lanes, leafy squares, Soviet plazas and funky bars. There’s a burgeoning digital nomad scene too: location independent techsters are arriving in increasing numbers to take advantage of the cheap cost of living, low crime rates and fast internet. Everyone who returns talks of a country that considers eating as important as breathing: think dumplings packed with minced beef and soup, leavened bread stuffed with cheese and pork and all washed down with sparkling wine perfected over 7,000 years of production, making Georgia the birthplace of the fermented grape. In October, Tbilisi hosts  the Jazz Festival and Tbilisoba, which celebrates all things Georgian; pageants, martial arts, music and dancing. I’ll see you in October.

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Medellin, Colombia

1970’s Colombia might have been ruled by narcotraffickers, but today Medellin is the king. The former kidnap capital of the world has been transformed by progressive policies that earned it the crown of Most Innovative City and the World City Prize 2016.  The City of Eternal Spring is majestically situated in a valley of surrounding mountains and things are looking up. Crime has plummeted, tourism is flourishing and the government have finally agreed a peace deal with the FARC rebels. Visit the Museum of Antioquia to explore the works of Fernando Botero, South America’s most famous artist. Wander through the bustling markets of downtown, then take the cable car into the hillside pueblos before bar hopping around Parque Lleras alongside beautiful locals and fellow travellers.

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San Blas, Panama

After Medellin, I headed north to Cartagena and caught a boat to Panama, via the most idyllic tropical islands I’ve ever visited. The San Blas are a group of 365 or so islands, no one’s really sure as banks of sand disappear and reemerge every day. What we do know, though, is the sand is white and fine, the sea is bathwater warm and coconut palms provide welcome shade. I ate lobster, drunk rum and coke and saw reef sharks, stingrays and barracuda whilst snorkelling. The San Blas are inhabited by the indigenous Kuna people. They sing lullabies as they go about their daily duties and rely on the magic of shamans to ward off evil spirits. There were around 20,000 spread across the islands, but thousands leave for the mainland in search of work every year. Sail there soon, before this unique way of life is lost forever.

san-blas

Taipei, Taiwan

Taipei is a curious metropolis; equally ancient and modern, simultaneously traditional and futuristic. In a time where the rest of the world seems to be imploding, Taiwan remains a beacon of peace. Public transport is fast and cheap, there are street food stands on every corner and nature is knitted into the fabric of the city. Every couple of blocks, hundred-year-old trees, riverside paths and wooded hillsides appear as you’re walking. Any country that stands up to China gets my respect, and Taiwan has certainly done that. China still claims Taiwan as its own, referring to the country as Chinese Taipei. Taiwan, though, has established its own government and run its affairs as an autonomous state since 1988, and 2017’s the time to find out why China’s so desperate to keep hold of Taipei.

taipei

Cadiz, Spain

After Barcelona, Cadiz is my favourite city in Spain. It remains off many tourists’ radars due to its poor transport links, the closest airport is in Jerez, a half hour train journey away. However, people are wising up to the charms of Europe’s oldest inhabited city, so now’s the time to beat the crowds. It’s a romantic jumble of Spanish streets where Atlantic waves crash against eroded sea walls. The beaches are decorated with sun worshippers and artisan ice cream while the taverns drown in cold beer and echo with the sounds of flamenco and frying fish. Recently, it’s emerged as one of the cheapest places in Spain to enrol in a language course. And if you need further convincing, accommodation, food and drink are all also half the price you’d pay in Barcelona.

cadiz-3

Chefchaouen, Morocco

Portland, Oregon was originally going to be number ten on the list, but I had to cut it, because Trump. America’s loss is the sparkling blue city of Morocco’s gain. And if you’ve taken my advice and gone to Cadiz, Chefchaouen is just a short ferry ride away. You’ll pass through the ancient port of Tangiers and from there it’s a bus journey to the Blue City. Chefchaouen is an otherworldly escape nestled in the Rif mountains. The distinctive palette of blue and white buildings provide the perfect backdrop for idle strolls or hillside hikes. The cuisine is as good as any you’ll find in the Arab world, which is handy as the world’s best hashish is grown in the surrounding fields, if that happens to be your thing. Get there now, before Trump tries to ban all forms of travel outside of America.

chefchaouen