Day 6: Kayaks and black bears #KentuckyTour2014

Two things I remember about this day.

The first was Kayaking towards Cumberland Falls.

The second was the bear.

Joe and Kate had left shortly after dinner, as Joe wanted to get back to Lexington for some pre-wedding Best Man duties. Whilst having a few drinks on the balcony and reviewing the great day we’d had, came the call from Kev.

“We’ve got company” Kev shouted from the kitchen.

black bear, cumberland, daniel boone, kentuckyAnd right we did. Right outside the kitchen window, a giant black bear was going through the bin. He quickly scrambled and raced across to one of the other cabins when he heard us fumbling around for our cameras.

To be honest, bears are nothing but scavengers. And the state of California decided to put one on their flag. Bloody liberals.

We rang Du Pont lodge, as instructed, and they sent out a Ranger to track the bear’s movements. It’s actually quite mad how wild they actually are; they’re not electronically tagged, and only manually recorded when sighted.

One regular visitor said there could be as many as 11,000 bears in the region (Kentucky and surrounding states). That’s mental. That’s the equivalent of the population of Henley-on-Thames. This same visitor had never actually seen a bear in the 30 years they’d been coming here.

The population is actually believed to be much lower, at around 500 black bears in Kentucky. That’s like a whole Lenwade in Norfolk populated by bears. Or a decent turn out for an early FA Cup preliminary round.

We later headed into the nearest town for some dinner. On our return, driving through the darkness towards our cabin we noticed what assumedly was a stray dog lurking around in the trees. It looked scared, as if it was hiding out.

We parked up and that’s when we saw the bin had been smashed to bits. The bear had ripped off the thick wooden slates, removed the metal container from inside and flattened it. Needless to say we didn’t waste any time getting in.

Nothing was going to beat that. So we watched a documentary about the life of Pat Tillman, a former NFL footballer who retired to enlist in the US army following the 9/11 attacks. He was killed in friendly fire. The programme sought to reunite the man who may’ve been responsible with one of Tillman’s fellow soldiers.

If you don’t particular appreciate the wit of Bill Hicks you may still be aware of his stance on advertising and marketing. Essentially, if you work in advertising, kill yourself. That’s literally it. Like too many things, his style of comedy is applied to our stages via your ‘alternative comedians’ and others who grew up with Hicks as an inspiration. But having sat through my 8th or 9th TV commercial break in one sitting, I can kind of empathize. If they’re not manipulative (Quick Buck Solutions Ltd) they’re undignified (Place4Mum.com).

We all awoke at different stages of the night by the apparent movement lurking outside our bedrooms. If the bear could smash that bin, there was no reason he couldn’t break the wooden bannister and kick through the glass sliding door of our rooms. We knew he wasn’t too happy with us.

Day 5: Nashville to Cumberland Falls #KentuckyTour2014

cumberland falls, black bears, kentucky,  Daniel Boone, Despite being the last one back, I’m the first up and make use of my time by having a coffee on the little veranda that overlooks Downtown. Again it’s a beautiful day and amongst the chirpy birdsong I can make out the light and dissipating thunder of a rolling freight train somewhere in the distance.

Right about now, Luke’s friends and family from London are beginning to touch down at various US ports for the wedding; Atlanta, New York, Chicago. Myself and cousin Elizabeth had been uploading photos to Instagram using #Colliver to track each others whereabouts (a rare justification for the hashtag). She was travelling with my other cousins, Simone and George, and had just picked up their hire car after a night at the baseball watching the Atlanta Braves.

Once the others were up, and we’d made a half decent effort of drying our laundry on the outside porch, we headed to where Joe and Kate were staying. A bowl of granola later at the Sky Blue Café and we were on the road to Cumberland Falls.

I jumped back in with Joe and Kate, whose trusty yet exhausted playlist via USB stick provided ample respite from the world of tin riffs and questionable innuendo’s that come with a life of solid country music. The radio was on repeat with the new Keith Urban song Cop Car. Quite fitting, as I wasn’t the only one who’d had a brush with the law last night. Joe and Kate had accidentally set off the alarm of their house and the cops were round in a shot.

There’s something quite unenviable about Keith Urban. For a guy who makes million of pounds doing what he loves and is married to a Hollywood superstar, I just couldn’t imagine anyone actually wanting to trade places with him. It’s no indicator of my contentment with life. Offer me the life of a semi-professional footballer, a bit part in Eastenders or a place on the next series of Castaway in lieu of my own existence and I’d bite your hand off. But Keith Urban? Nah, you’re alright mate.

I dropped Jim from last night an email, just to send him my best wishes. He managed to get back in the flat but isn’t speaking to his flatmate.

Once we’re about 10miles from Cumberland Falls National Park, we notice several houses displaying campaign posters championing those seeking election for a number of roles.

“Jerry Hoake for Mayor”

“Susan Knoxville for Magistrate”

“Bob Yardley for Jailer”

One can only assume these are for positions of power, and not simply for roles in a play put on by the local amateur dramatics society.

Our log cabin is huge, and about a 5 minute walk from the central Du Pont Lodge where Joe and Kate will be staying. There are 6 other log cabins in our area. With two king-size twin rooms down below and a huge kitchen and lounge area up above. We have two balconies that overlook the forest below. Though obscured by the thick woodland, the roar of the river down in the valley can be heard easily enough.

There’s been a number of bear sightings in the area recently. At Du Pont we were given some tips on what to do if we came face to face with one. From Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods I know that black bears can be dealt with using techniques such as making yourself big while not looking threatening. Running only makes you look like prey and odds are they’re better at running, climbing and swimming than you.

Whereas if a brown bear wants to rip your throat out, he’s going to rip your throat out.

“So, the bloke at reception said if you see a bear, you need to walk backwards, keep calm and clap your hands” I called out to the group up ahead, as we walked through the woods and down towards Cumberland Falls.

“Clap? What if he isn’t any good” came Dad’s sharp reply as he listened out for laughter, paying no attention to my safety advice.

We continued down into woods towards the falls, where instead of the breathtaking scenery, we took in some good puns and bear-related material.

The falls themselves were incredibly impressive. The weight and power running through them could be felt from our viewpoint. Like most able-bodied men, Joe and myself couldn’t resist the urge of jumping over the viewpoint to climb a large rock below for a better view. Never, ever be content with the safety of a viewpoint.

We stayed for a good 20 minutes taking in the powerful medium of nature, before making our way back through the woods.

“Rob, I just seen saw paw prints” Kev called up ahead, “then I saw some good prints and then I saw some excellent prints”.

Back on the balcony of our log cabin the champagne was popped and the jokes continued. The trees were occasionally lit up by the inhabitant glowworms, which reminded Kev of his last trip to the US back in 1974. While visiting cousins in Pennsylvania, they were introduced to some kids who’d go into the woods to crunch up glowworms to give the impression they had fluorescent rings on their fingers. But the glowworms were okay though, right?

“Nah, they were fucked”

kev, oliver, tuxedo, cumberland fallsKev goes out to the car to surprise us with one of his many new outfits for the wedding, returning in a T-Shirt with a Tuxedo printed on the front of it.

“I must be the only person in the country with a Tuxedo folded up in the glove compartment”.

Day 4: More film quotes and cop car escorts #KentuckyTour2014

nashville, jackson paddleboat, victoria memorial bridge, broadwayIt’s a sunny morning in Nashville, noticeably warmer than the slightly more northern mornings we’ve had. After breaking my Grits duck at a café in Germantown we walked through the Bicentennial Mall State Park before catching the free bus service to where the Cumberland River dissects Downtown. It’s our meeting point with Joe and Kate and also a great place to catch the great General Jackson Showboat paddle and puff down the river.

From here, headed to the Goulch area to sit outside and plan our day. Then back up to Broadway to Printer’s Alley, the former burlesque district. Colorfully decorated and cleverly named rubbish bins, such as Dolly Carton and Johnny Trash, line the small narrow street while music plays out of every door. Wheelie bins and puns, this was definitely a town built for us.

Ryman Auditorium, a 3,200-seat live performance venue. Originally built by Thomas Ryman, a riverboat captain and local businessman, in 1892 it was intended to serve as a venue for the charismatic revivalist Samuel James Porter.

From 1943 to 1974 it housed all the greatest musical acts as home of the Grand Ole Oprey and aired The Johnny Cash show from 1969 to 1971. After falling into disrepair following the Oprey moving out, it was renovated in 1994 and continues to house the world’s biggest acts. Lana Del Ray was due to play here the following week.Printer's alley, nashville, dolly carton, johnny trash

Our highlight however was jumping up on the same stage as Johnny Cash for our photo, complete with microphone and guitar. While he played hour-long sets, I’ll be content with the repetitive riff from The Exorcist that I managed to pull off on the perpetually out of tune acoustic provided.

Then on to Tootsie’s rooftop bar for some live music followed by a lazy walk to Whiskey Kitchen for dinner, where ribs, fried chicken and chili dogs made sure we’d struggle replicating last nights fun on Broadway. The oldies called it a night, while me Joe and Kate continued the façade that we could stomach yet more beer and country music.
But not full enough to hit up Savannah Candy Kitchen on Broadway to load up on nostalgia through the medium of sweets. All the big names, and the old ones too. As if me and Joe hadn’t been quoting films enough (neither of us are films buffs, we just had a small pool of easily applicable films to rely on), himself and Kate found a kindred spirit.
“The snozberries taste like snozberriers” said Joe, overcome with emotion whilst quoting the 1971 film Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.

Just when he was settling for appreciation amongst our group, a woman turned round.

Snozzberries? Who ever heard of a Snozzberry?” she replied, playing the role of Veruca Salt to perfection before disappearing into the crowd forever.

Cabs were a nightmare to get hold of. Not necessarily to flag down, but just difficult to deal with once inside.

We parted ways and I decided to walk back as it didn’t seem that far. Plus I had a load of taffy and Nerds to munch on for the walk.

I went on a detour and ended up by Public Square Park. A bit of navigation took me back to the Musicians Hall of Fame and Museum building, instantly recognisable by its domed shape roof. Cutting through a empty pedestrian path that ran alongside it, just thinking how it should be littered with kids on skateboards smoking their dads cigarettes, when I saw some guy lurking in the shadows on his phone.

I knew that I was back on track when I saw the Tennessee State Capitol building. Nevertheless I was intrigued, so asked the guy if he knew the best route.

He took his phone out and asked for my address, fumbling his way on his mobile internet.

“Sorry, just give me a sec” his Google Maps giving him grief.

“Oh don’t worry, it’s really not a problem mate, don’t put yourself out” I said, already regretting my attempt at making friends.

“No, it’s all good” he replies, “It’s good to be able to talk to somebody, is all”.

He tells me only last night he’d been kicked out of his flat by the one person he considered his friend. He’d moved down from Michigan where he lived with his Mum, having spent the last 30 of his 55 years washing dishes in whatever restaurant would take him on. He was taking yarn lessons with the dream of one day owning his own shop here in Nashville. There’s apparently a market for bespoke crochet and weave down here. He showed me some photos of his work; Christmas tree dresses and pillowcases.

He’d almost given up on his dream altogether only a few hours ago. Not far from here, where Victory Memorial Bridge crosses the Cumberland River, Jim stood ready to jump over into the murky water below. I told him it was crazy. Not least because suicide is never the way out, but if he really was suicidal, jumping from a bridge only 30yards above water would surely be ineffective solution. If he thought he was depressed before, he’d be even more so walking around town all night in damp clothes.

Though I later learn that last year a 19-year old boy jumped in from the very same spot and never resurfaced, until being found dead some days later.

Jim was more than happy to escort me all the way home. Once we walked over the grassy banks and back down through Victory Park, we were presented with a great view of the twinkling street lamps of North Nashville and Germantown. From here my next point of reference was the Farmer’s Market, from which I knew my house was not too far.

However this meant crossing through Bicentennial Mall State Park as this was the way I’d come earlier. Jim was nice, but I guess so is every successful murderer who manages to lure their victims into a dimly lit park at night.

“Okay Jim, I think I got it from here mate” I said.

“No, it’s okay. You might get lost” He replied, “besides I enjoy talking to ‘ya, it’s not often I get to do it with someone”.

We made it through safe enough and once I spotted the back of my house from the street I stopped and thanked Jim for the company. We talked a bit more over the cinnamon taffy I’d bought in Savannah’s.

Minutes later, a police car slowly pulled up on the corner where me and Jim were winding down our midnight walk ‘n’ talk. The sole police officer pulled up across the street and came over.

“Where you guys from?” The young ginger copper asked.

He was definitely more concerned about Jim than an English tourist with a bag full of sweets. He probed Jim further. What was he doing having a conversation under a street lamp in a residential area?

“There’s been a series of robberies around here recently” the cop confided in us “a gang going around in cars, jumping out beating up people walking home alone”.

“Well that’s why I was walking him home, Officer” Jim said, pointing at me.

“You want a lift home, Sir” the officer asked me.

“No, he lives right over there” Jim said pointing over the house where I told him I lived (I actually lived two down from it). Though the copper never took his eyes off me.

It was getting late, and realistically this was my only chance of avoiding having to wake up my Dad, Auntie and Uncle with an explanation as to why I’d brought back some homeless man.

“Sure”.

I invested the $20 I’d saved from walking (and risking a good buggering for) into Jim’s latest yarn projects. We swapped emails to keep in contact. Then I jumped in the cop car.

Day 3: Sinking holes and heading South #KentuckyTour14

The Caves

At the door to the cave entrance, our dry-witted Ranger announced a few do’s and don’ts.

“And finally, guns are forbidden inside the cave. So if you’ve brought your gun with you, you can’t come in” came John’s sardonic precaution.

mammoth cave, kentucky, bowling greenIt tickled the three of us to great length. But looking around the 60-strong tour group it appears we were the only ones who’d consider bringing a gun to a tourist attraction rather inappropriate.

The caves were pretty goddamn cool, but still as a source of written coverage they can prove hard as inspiration. But it’s more the grand size of these caves that provide the most wonder.

It’s estimated that these caves could stretch in total (i.e. not in a liner direction) to around 200 miles, but in reality they have absolutely no idea how big this range of cave is. One of the park rangers back at the hotel told us that she was on an expedition a few years ago when she stumbled into a large cave that appeared to be lit up with diamond and crystal coated stalagmites. However after going back with the rest of her group, she was unable to relocate it. They’ve been looking for it ever since.

They’re no better placed in finding out the reach of these caves. The soft rock means new caves could be opening up all the time.

About 30 miles down the road in Bowling Green (our next destination) a 40ft wide and 25ft deep sinkhole opened up at the National Corvette Museum, swallowing 8 models. This was just last February, with the last one being fished out only last week.

Bowling Green

As often the case with the human psyche, the day is broken up by food stops. We get to Bowling Green by 3pm to have some lunch. It’s perfectly placed between our starting position this morning and our final destination of Nashville where we’ll be reuniting with Dad, Auntie Mary and Uncle Kev who’ve been travelling south from Washington DC since last Saturday.

Dad (who did this trip last year on the way to Luke and Ellen’s engagement party) describes Bowling Green as “just like the town from Back to the Future”.

He’s got a point. The central square and clock tower could easily have been where we’d expect Marty to come whizzing past us on a hover board. And just like the film, you’d be just as likely to see somebody still using a fax machines in some of the older looking office buildings. The place seems to range very much from the past to the future, with nothing in between.bowling green, back to the future, chaney's ice cream, kentucky

We find a pizzeria called Mellow Mushroom (est. 1974) not too far from the central green. We’re drawn by the pink and turquoise exterior and its psychedelic interior. You can’t move on the backpacking trails of South-East Asia without stumbling on a pizzeria with the words ‘mellow’ and ‘mushroom’ in the title. And often the case you leave unable to walk, coming to terms with the possibility your mind will never return to normal service again.

Though this place was actually more committed to a puritan existence, just with individuals pizzas the size of car tyres and a drinks list dominated by 12-15% alcoholic lagers.

Then on to Cheney’s Ice Cream dairy barn before cracking on to Nashville.

Nashville

Joe and Kate have joined the AirBnB movement and have a nice little house sorted near the Five Points for the weekend. I’m sharing with Dad, Auntie Mary and Uncle Kev. After helping to get Joe and Kate settled, Dad and Kev pull up outside the front lawn and after getting an executive summary of their trip, I jump in to dump my stuff off at the ground floor flat we’ve got over near the German Quarter.

nashville, peace love little donutsThe city skyline gives you the butterflies that only a famous one can seeing for the first time. As I listen, Dad speculates that the dominant AT&T building was used for several Batman films.

I’m not too sure. I mean he’s got a point in that the design certainly does resemble Batman’s helmet. It’s just I don’t ever recall the covert superhero ever needing 33-stories of office space in the middle of a Southern city.

We meet Joe and Kate at Jimmy Buffet’s Margaritaville, an aptly suited country music bar on Broadway. Reunited at last!

The next few hours are spent doing exactly what we were advised; let Broadway guide you, and don’t stay in any one place too long.

The older three of our sextet have picked up some new buzzwords since hitting the road last weekend. Dad has been guilty of adopting buzzwords into everyday parlance before, albeit a good solid decade after they’ve first entered the public’s lexicon. But him, Kev and Mary are all at it. It appears with social media, adoption of such language has been exacerbated, as they’ve skipped all the way to ‘Selfie’ and more disturbingly ‘Twerking’. Strange, as neither of them know who and what Miley Cyrus and Instagram are.

Anyways, as long as they remain words and not actions, I’ll be happy this holiday…

Day 2: Ticking all the right boxes #KentuckyTour2014

Breakfast with Mrs C.
lexington, bardstown, waffle house, kentucky, all-americanMrs C is Ellen’s mum. Ellen is the soon to be married fiancé of my soon to be married Brother. Luke and Ellen have yet to arrive from New York, but we get up early to catch Mrs C for breakfast before hitting the road.

She’s already with Joe and Kate in the hotel lobby, who both met her when they visited New York last Christmas.
“Robert, Robert, Robert” she welcomes me in with her cheery southern lilt.

We head to the nearby Waffle House for the all-American breakfast. Even this early in the trip I know the phrase “all-American” will be used as a lazy expression to describe anything that we’re familiar with solely from the world of Hollywood films.

Breakfast with Mrs C is just what we’re after, as she fills us in on the wedding plans and what to expect at the upcoming event of the year.

Given we’ve got suit and shirts which would have little chance of surviving a pre-wedding weekend tour in a suitcase, she’s kindly offered to look after our wedding get-up until we’re back in Lexington in a weeks time.

We head out to Bardstown, a town where time has stopped. Very much like the fictional Castle Rock from Stand By Me. In fact we’ve been overcome with comparing everything to films on this short drive from Lexington. Every passing farm barn is the one from Jeepers Creepers, every white picket fence is from a range of US suburban films. Even the option for “grits” at breakfast stokes memories of My Cousin Vinnie.

We also make an effort to see Fort Knox. It’s an inaccessible security vault, famous for barbed wire fencing and “no photo” signs. Kind of surprising why it’s a tourist attraction at all really? But still we did the 50mile detour, as it apparently featured in a James Bond film none of us had ever seen.

Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace memorial

Next on the hitlist was the birthplace of Abraham Lincoln, which is just south of Fort Knox and accessible via Elizbethtown. Here you’ll find a beautiful woodland area centered around a memorial building that encases a hut similar to the one Lincoln was born in.

In 1894, a New Yorker purchased Sinking Spring Farm and moved the log cabin that he believed to be Abraham Lincolns here. He believed that former landowners had initially moved it, and this was the original spot. In the late 1800s it was dismantled and taken on tour by a travelling road show, before ending up in New York where it was deconstructed and left in somebody’s basement. It was then bought back by the Lincoln Farm Association after a huge fundraising mission, with the cabin being scaled down to fit inside the memorial building.

In the latter years, tests proved that it was highly unlikely to be the actual hut of Lincoln, but sod it, don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.

Kentucky produces the world’s bourbon, the finest racehorses and the most unique countryside. But so far we’ve mainly concentrated on a few old barns, a giant safety deposit box and a reconstruction of a mud hut from a travelling circus.

I just hope that one day somebody will reconstruct a suitably sized version of Edgware Maternity Ward to mark by early beginnings.

Cave City

White picket fences. Rolling green hills. Clock towers. What’s not to love about crazy golf? And where better than Cave City to satisfy this need. It’s home to several courses. People may say “but you can do crazy golf anywhere”. But really, when was the last time you played?

Cave City is a tourism town that sits just outside of the Mammoth Cave National Park. It’s mainly one long road that is flanked by fun-for-all-the-family institutions and fast-food joints. For a bright and sunny day the strip is extremely quiet. There’s supposed to be a Cowboy shoot-out when we arrive but eerily there’s no sign of any existence. Why aren’t the crazy golf courses open? I know it’s a Thursday afternoon, but where else can you play 9-holes with your Grandma in under an hour? And so we look for alternatives, though unsure we really want to step out of the car into this town.

At one end of the road sits Dinosaur World. The other, atop a slight hill, the Haunted House amusement ride. Not sure what 150 life-sized dinosaur models would bring to our trip, we decide to head up towards the house.

Despite the ‘open’ sign, The Haunted House is obviously closed for business. Though perhaps looks scarier than the original designers had ever imagined it, laying here in the afternoon sunshine.

Cave City Kentucky alpine slide Next to it is a chairlift, which has evidently succumbed to rust and a lack of interest. The sign suggests visitors can take this up the mountain where they can then slide back down via a ¼ mile alpine slide. However, while most of the chairlift is in place, there’s no evidence to suggest any fun as been had here in years. The last recorded evidence can be found on this family video footage (c.2008).

After a closer inspection of the Haunted House, I notice a truck from a parking lot further down the hill creeping up towards our car below, the sunlight reflected from his front grill catching my attention. Not keen to get blocked in, we head back down to the car. The drivers keen to know what the hell we’re playing at, but is okay when he sees we’re tourists.

According to him, the main attractions have been through hardship of late. The last owners went bankrupt following dwindling visitor numbers, however he’s optimistic that when summer comes, so will the paying public. He’s owns a small convenience store on the main strip.

Mammoth Cave National Park

Having given up on good organized fun, we pulled out of Cave City and delved into the Mammoth Cave National Park to check-in to our hotel, the Mammoth Cave Hotel. After dumping our bags off just after 6pm, we head to one of the entrances of the nearby caves to do a bit of bat spotting, but are a tad too early.

After dinner at the hotel we head back out to Cave City where we’ve been told, according to one of the local rangers, sit a few decent hotspots for a nightcap. We’d anticipated an all-American tavern complete with pool table, neon Budweiser signs and a big hairy biker grinding his younger biker chick. But what we got was El Mazatlan, a Mexican restaurant chain, one of only two restaurants/bars in Cave City with a liqueur license. Though actually this is no huge surprise given local voters only passed a referendum allowing bars and restaurants to serve alcohol in November 2005. Providing they meet certain criteria, restaurants were able to serve alcohol for the first time in 50 years.

So we decided best to head back and get an early night for the cave tour tomorrow.

Day 1: The deltas between an Airline and an Airway #KentuckyTour14

carole disalvo, american airlinesThere’s been a mix up and it turns out that my flight to Lexington (KY) has been moved to just after 12noon, whereas brother Joe and girlfriend Kate will be on the later one. Not a particular major problem. However being switched from a British Airways plane to an American Airlines one is.

We’re heading out for my Brothers wedding in Kentucky.

I was instantly startled by the dated interior of the aircraft. It appeared to be near identical to that of a film set inside a long-haul flight. The seats were well worn with an ever-present gloss of dandruff to them. There was no inflight magazine detailing the film listings, nor was it even possible to select and be in control of the few films that were present. That really threw out my flight entertainment schedule (a Frat Pack comedy sandwiched between the year’s cult film and an episode of Curb). And not even a Super Nintendo controller wedged in the recess of the armrest!

I was a bit annoyed, but not enough to cause a scene. But then again with Twitter, even the lazy and apathetic can get in on the action. And so, I tweeted both airlines for an explanation whilst still sitting on the tarmac at Heathrow.

“Our cabin staff will do all they can to make your trip an enjoyable one” came the quick reply from AA.

Problem being that the staff weren’t actually the problem. In fact they were the one redeeming feature. An incredibly attentive fleet of airborne dinner ladies who made sure our glasses never remained dry for too long.

My personal favorite was Glenna, as stated by the stitching on her apron. Though could’ve been a random apron she picked out of the lost property box given all the staff had various apron designs, from London Buses to Disneyland Paris. She told me I looked like a young Tom Cruise and then called me Tom for the rest of the flight. I’ve still got it. But still no cocktail.

I watched American Hustle and had a little nap (sod your inflight films and poor sound system) using the pillows that resemble little puffs of air coated in that flimsy material that line your pockets. And drifted away.

big book of british smiles, bad teeth, british teeth, american smileThe Comfort Suite hotel wasn’t too far from the airport, on the outskirts of Lexington. There wasn’t much to see or do amongst the neighboring retail units in the adjoining power center of big box retailers and strip plazas, but I did visit an impressive pet shop and paid homage to a Liquor Barn. Here I was given a one-on-one wine tasting session by Kathleen, the all-American sweetheart with good chat and an even better smile. Her flawless row of pearly whites reminded me of a seamless row of Georgian town houses. A stark contrast to mine, that bore the same characteristics of dilapidated council terracing in need of a lick of paint and change in energy supplier.

She was studying at the University and had the whole Amanda Knox look going on, minus the euro-murderer edge.

Then back across the highway to the hotel for a few laps of the indoor pool and an accidental piss in the Jacuzzi.

I’ve always thought the travelling salesman and roadside hotel life would suit me down to the ground. But I’m pretty bored come 6pm, eagerly awaiting Joe and Kate in my hotel room when they arrive just after 9pm.

Tomorrow we set off for our Kentucky Tour, with Mammoth Caves National Park the next stop. Before meeting up with more family in Nashville. From here we’ll take the long route back up to Lexington for the wedding in 10 days time.

On this day in 2011….Mud baths and shit in Nha Trang #Otdi2011

24/01/2011

Mud bathsNha Trang, and the cold and rainy weather puts us off swimming in the sea, although we do make the effort to inspect the beach. Ben went off to get his haircut while I made a start of Alex Garland’s novel The Beach. Ben’s haircut was pretty good actually, although he told me he had to fully utilise all 3 of his strikes in asking the barber to make altercations.

Went off to a health spa on the outskirts of town where in addition to the mud baths and Jacuzzis, we had unlimited access to the mini golf. Problem being there was no golf when we got there so we just settled for the mud bath package. A wooden bath filled with clay and hot water. Some people really will pay for anything.

We were not sure how long to stay, after all it was supposed to be a whole day thing, but found ourselves bored after 30 minutes. How long we have to stay here to warrant the entrance fee we paid, Ben questioned. I explained the law of diminishing returns to Ben, in which the optimum amount of time to leave would be when the cost/burden of each additional unit of time spent begins to outweigh the additional unit of enjoyment derived. What else would we do with our day?  We could solve the conundrum by devising ways to get kicked out of the complex via the swimming poo? At least that way we would be pushed rather than having to jump. There was a sign saying ‘No Diving’ so we could try that, although that’s there for our own safety. I would rather be kicked out for being a nuisance and so suggested a bomb, proper Macaulay Culkin style in Home Alone 2. Ben opted for the dead body look as he floated on the surface, head down motionless. I say body, it was so realistic that a ‘torso’ would perhaps be more appropriate; as such a word is normally only reserved to describe dead bodies found in your local canal on the News at Ten.

Just like I did in the days of friends birthday parties when we were kids, I began to crave a Mc. Donalds and/or a Slush Puppy. Like Pavlov’s Dogs, the swimming pool vibe was telling me that Leisure Centre food was appropriate.

A few beers at the backpacker hotspot Red Apple, we met a few Finnish guys who we headed to the Sailing Club with on the seafront via a few games of pool with some Aussies.

On this day in 2011….Boat tour of Ha Long Bay day 2 #Otdi2011

18/01/2011

Spent breakfast on the boat discussing last night’s wild behaviour and the part Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry played in it all. He had really let his hair down. So what is the style of comedy here in Vietnam we pondered? Along with Andrew Price and Benny T, we discussed what we’d do if given 5 minutes to devise a short sketch for an audience consisting mainly of the Vietnamese elderly. What would they find funny? Burning an effigy of Richard Nixon or Lyndon B Johnson? Or is that just baiting the general taste for populism? A bit patronizing perhaps? Like throwing t-shirts out at a student union, exposing our desperation to be liked. Maybe if we burned JFK that would solve both problems as it would go against the popular and ill-informed opinion that JFK was some fair play, all-American hero while also highlighting that not every Westerner has forgot that the guy was a main component of the war. We could crack jokes about how he was the first to benefit from the Kurt Cobain/John Lennon effect; Die before your time and you’ll be eternally adored by the masses. Even if it’s in the shape of hooded jumpers, pin badges and black and white portrait posters sold at Wembley Market.

The boat started to move again and we headed to Cat Ba Island for our next activity: Jungle Trek. Along with the Aussies we forced ourselves to climb through the jungle, up to the look out tower that provided a 360 view of the Island. Getting off the boat, knowing exactly what we were in for was made worse by our unsatisfactory breakfast, consisting of one swamp fish and a bowl of rice between four men. Who do you think I am? Warren Fellows?

DSCF1948_Fotor_Collage

More and more stories from the night emerged during our climb and as we remembered the night’s events, I couldn’t help but feel a little bad that we might be ruining the walk for the two honeymooners who were trying to ignore our silly stories and concentrate on their trip of a lifetime. To be honest though, it’s hardly a great trip into the unknown. Forest Gump’s mother always said that “life is like a box of chocolates. You never know what you’re going to get”. Well that’s true, but with these kind of organized, well beaten-path trips, the box of chocolates in question is a big box of Quality Streets that comes complete with individually wrapped pieces of chocolate in colour coded wrappers which you can cross-reference with the little guide provided to see what they contain. And those that contain nuts, are legally obliged to tell you so. Take the danger out, and you take the fun with it. No surprises, you know exactly what your getting. Just like here. Safety galore except for the rusty old viewpoint on the summit, which is only accessed via 6 flights of rusty ladders.

I was a little nervous climbing those creaky rusting stairs and the joy of the view was slightly offset by the fact that the structure could collapse any minute and send us all rolling down the hill. I’m not scared of heights, but I am scared of falling from them to a horrible painful death.

tumblr_lhztpeyJcL1qdtk9ro1_500On the way back down, me and Benny T rattled off our favourite quotes from film and TV simultaneously, him at the front of the group and me at the back. This wasn’t planned or engineered. This just happened, and what was even better was we loved and appreciated all the same quotes from all the same shows. He knew that the best episode in The Simpson is Lemon of Troy. He also agreed that Comic Book Guy had some of the best one-liners outside the main cast. He was also prone to shouting out “HEEEEYYYYY YOOOOU GGGGUUUYSSS” which I begrudgingly appreciated. I think it’s possible to really bond with somebody in a very short space of time over a mutual appreciation for the same quotes from the television/films that you both love. And to think this was the same guy who was quoting Little Britain when we first got on the coach yesterday. How my opinion of him has changed, though I still suspect him of being one of the kids at school to save his lunch money to buy that Jack Daniel’s zippo lighter on the way home. He did start talking about Xena: Warrior Princess, and that’s when I had to tell him I wasn’t “interested in all that to be honest mate”.

We all went back to childishly complaining about the long hike, like school children on a mundane field trip to a local post-sorting warehouse. Fair to say I went up that hill a man, and came down a petulant child.

We all jumped in the coaches that we had arrived in from the port. We all jumped on the one with Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry-or-Len (yeah the addition of Len came from somebody else on the boat, who’d completely misheard our tour guides name), who was know back to his communist self, ordering us on. The other coaches were all heading to the same hotel, so we weren’t fussed if we got on the wrong one, as it was only supposed to be a short trip to the Hotel. Obviously Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry-or-Len, did not have such a liberal approach to coach travel. He spotted an elderly French couple on his coach who shouldn’t have been. It was one of the Melbourne Girls who was sitting on her mate’s lap that gave away the fact that we had stowaways on board.

Me and Ben were discussing how much we thought Andrew Price sounded like the name of a General Manager of an Asda store when, Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry-or-Len started to demand the French couple get off, so the Melbourne Girl could sit down, despite her protests that it was “okay” and that she “didn’t mind” sitting on her friends lap.

Unfortunately Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry-or-Len didn’t give a shit, and went mental. Absolutely mental at this French couple, who were not causing anybody any discomfort with their presence. He had lost the argument that “one of my customers, have no seat, you get off coach”, as the Melbourne girl was know trying to show just how comfy she was nestled on Benny T’s chunky legs.

But now he’d lost the coach as he stepped up a gear and ordered the couple, who were both pushing 70, off the coach ignoring the fact we were in the middle of the dry countryside, up a uninhabited mountain in the baking sun. Where would they go? He didn’t care and ordered them off, foaming at the mouth as he did so. Horrible man. The whole coach would not back down and it was the same solidarity that has fought off countless dictators and tyrants over the years, and he was never going to win this. It was settled for the exchange of about $5. But we had seen just what was behind this man’s Jackie Chan grin, and what he was really capable of.

Ben’s Account

With many of the native people we have met in Vietnam, there appears to be a thin veil of geniality and chivalry while beneath they could all potentially be hard face, unscrupulous, mirthless and stolid bastards working behind a pain of glass at a border control checkpoint.

We checked in our bags and had a look at our hotel room, which consisted of me, Ben and Andrew Price before heading down to dinner. Exact same as we had for last night’s dinner, today’s breakfast and lunch earlier. Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry-or-Len came over and wanted to know if we wanted to party with him like we did last night because “last night, real good fun, you guys the best”. Andrew Price and Ben weren’t so keen and Benny T and the Melbourne girls were quick to leave the table on grounds they were going to sleep. Truth is they were going to sneak out and head into town. They would give us a shout when they were going. After seeing Ryan-or-Bryan-or-Terry-or-Len in action today on the coach made me feel uneasy around him now. I had already seen the sudden change from when he had picked me and Ben up from our Guesthouse in Hanoi, and did not trust the instability of the man. I passed, and headed for a walk down to the harbour by myself as it was a lovely evening. The sun had set and left a beautiful pink sky. It was peaceful enough for a group of kids to be playing a game of Shuttlecock in the middle of the road that ran parallel to the sea, using the zebra crossing as the net. They invited me along and I played with them for a while. I needed to see a bit of good human nature from these guys following that prick on the coach earlier and thought I had found it as I walked down the harbour chatting with one of the young lads. He had a cool flat, apparently, with an Xbox, a music system and a fridge full of beer. That’s where we were going now. Than came the question about how many girls I wanted and what I wanted to do with them. I called it a day with him and headed back feeling like the rich man who could never find anybody for genuine love or friendship. I don’t know which rich man in particular, but I’m sure there’s loads out there who feel like that. There’s more ways to feel like a millionaire out here than just your high spending power.

After a beer on my balcony looking out at floating nightclub in the harbour, I went to where I could actually hang out with genuine people. The Good Bar, where the Aussies were hiding.

On this day in 2011…Heading to Vientiane: Early warnings of what was to come #Otdi2011

14/01/2011

Johnny 23

Johnny 23

After breakfast, we were ready with our bags and looking forward to boarding the bus to the capital city of Vientiane in the South. Here we would sit on a bus through the night to the border, to carry on the rest our journey through Vietnam up to Hanoi.

Once in Vientiane we swapped over to our sleeper coach, which was kind of like a normal coach but with the seats fully reclined to an almost perfect horizontal position. Ben got a bed at the back, nicely nestled between two nice clean honeymooners. I on the other was perhaps not so lucky, with my sleeping partner a dead ringer for the rapist from Con Air.

We set off into the night, and I eagerly counted down the hours until I could safely be in the company of others, far away from this bloke’s twitching feet and foul breath.

Virgin Atlantic’s onboard apocalypse in 7 films

Where's WallyThere’s a number of inconsistencies with the Virgin brand, in particular Virgin Atlantic. From the Rockstar Service USP, to jokes about Richard Branson’s beard to the Where’s Wally graphic adorning its US-bound Boeing 707s, it’s all quite confusing.

In addition to the helpful red stewards and stewardesses, the only other consistency I could define on a recent Virgin Atlantic flight (the service of which was brilliant) was the selection of inflight films.

Amongst the single episode of Phoneshop and the most recent Will Ferrell movie, the collection predominantly catered for the apocalypse savvy Frequent Flyer. Film upon film chartering the end of the world and its dystopian future.

To be fair, I don’t think Virgin’s Book of Revelation is premeditated. They’ve not scoured the past for this selection (i.e. Deep Impact, 2012), but relied on the current crop of latest releases, which perhaps says more about the state of current cinema and the general consensus that the world is shit. However, don’t let that get in the way of a good list for the Buzzfeed generation…

1. This Is The End

This is The End

It’s everything you’d want and expect from a Seth Rogan film; a house party, various strains of marijuana, excessive use of ‘Fuck’, a Dr. Dre soundtracked montage etc, but with the added incentive of the apocalypse. So sit back and enjoy Rogan and friends try to define themselves as the next Rat Pack.

2. The World’s End

World's End

After finding out Nick Frost used to work in my local Chiquitos back in the 90’s, I’ve found myself having quite the renaissance of his work. Here finds him partnering up with Pegg again in the same vain as Hot Fuzz and Shaun of the Dead, so if you enjoyed those you’ll probably enjoy this. Or you won’t, because you’ve probably moved on.

3. After Earth

After Earth

Described in the onboard magazine, Vera, as “set 1000 years after cataclysmic events have forced humanity to abandon earth…” I nearly gave up altogether until I noticed that Will and son Jaden Smith starred. I can do 100 minutes of unaccountable Sci-Fi but nepotism I can’t do.

4. Elysium

Elysium

“Sci-Fi thriller set in the year 2154…” bore off. I preferred Matt Damon when he starred in his own scripted films.

5. Oblivion

Oblivion

Oblivion by name, Oblivion by nature. This one from 2077, features a wandering Tom Cruise looking lost in a post-apocalyptical planet earth.

6. World War Z

World War Z

“Zombies take over the world”. Nope, not another one from Frost and Pegg but a multimillion dollar production of Max Brooks best-selling novel starring Brad Pitt.

7. Pacific Rim

Pacific Rim

Undoubtedly the title of this film means it will enjoy an extended legacy as a parody in the title of a homoerotic adult movie, and so some solace for the producers of this multimillion dollar production.

And so there we have it, a comprehensive list of Virgins films, carefully curated to inspire a peaceful and relaxing long-haul flight, while also reminding us that the world is really is in for a shock.