Since leaving Bali in search of more thrills I'd found myself climbing mountains for sunrise, gazing into toxic turquoise lakes and sitting on the fringes of volcanic craters, but it could be argued the best was saved until last. Although I was never allowed any pets, my childhood bedroom walls were filled with dinosaur posters and my bookshelves filled with animal books. I eventually moved away from the Jurassic era and a little closer to modern day, falling into complete fascination with monkeys and apes in particular (only boosted by King Ceaser and the Planet Of The Apes franchise) so, when I learnt of a place in Western Indonesia that serves as home to one of the worlds largest remaining Orangutan populations, I jumped feverishly at the opportunity.
After flying from Yogjakarta through to Medan, we set off on a five hour drive across the torturously bumpy terrain beside the banks of the Bahorok River, into Bukit Lawang - a small tourist village in North Sumatra where our adventure would begin. The following morning, we packed a small day pack each consisting of essentials, and set off in to the heart of Gunung Leuser National Park. En route, the amazing guides Helmi and Bunglah proclaimed that orangutans are currently classified as critically endangered, and a large part of this is due to rainforest deforestation from palm oil plantations. Within the UNESCO site we were currently hiking in, however, they were protected and monitored, whilst remaining wild and in their natural habitat.
Within our first hour our guides brought us to a stop, patiently assessing our environment before pointing high up into the canopy. Soon enough, we noticed a huge nest within the trees and a broad dark face peering through the leaves at us. Our first orangutan, a huge male! From that point onwards, we encountered a handful of these incredible animals from the trees down to the ground during our trek, close enough at times to hold eye contact. Connecting with them in this way was truly an indescribable feeling. We also spotted the famously rare animals that call this jungle home, such as the Thomas Leaf Monkeys, White Tail Macaques, large Monitor Lizards and colourful Hawksbill birds.
Nearing the close of our first day of trekking, a nervous whispering spread across the five or six guides within the jungle, and their once playful demeanours very quickly became quite serious. Our guide, Helmi motioned for us to stop before approaching the next flatland, turning to us to explain the situation in a bit more detail. He told us that just around the next corner there lay a female Orangutan, feeding on the flat. Her name was Meena and she was known for being extremely volatile and at times aggressive. Upon asking why, he explained that she is a grandmother in this jungle, and not too long ago she birthed a stillborn child. She couldn’t accept this tragedy, however, and refused to part ways with her infant, which is not uncommon in these situations with apes. Traditionally, they carry the body with them everywhere, on their backs through the trees and across the ground when walking, and only once the head eventually removes from the body they bury and grieve. Helmi continued, telling us that in these instances, the corpse can inherit diseases and viruses very quickly, which could spread to other life in the jungle and create a chain of illness within the protected environment. So, in order to prevent this, Meena was put under with tranquillisers, and the corpse of her stillborn child was taken from her, treated and then buried. Apparently, since waking up without her child, she has been grieving heavily and acting very aggressively towards the guides.
This provoked some apprehension within the group, but as we approached, I found a composure and profundity in Meena that I wasn’t expecting, something far from the character I had drawn in my head. For me, one of my most memorable encounters was experienced in this brief moment. Time stood still as we slowly found open space around her as she ate. Her posture was so human; one hand stretched out behind her to support her, the other casually bent across her raised knee. She ate with her mouth closed, chewing slowly, watching each of us patiently, as if she was trying to gauge us and get a feel for our character, just like we do as humans in our first meetings. I remember her eyes falling on me. She sat still, holding her gaze collectedly. There was no anger, fear or an ounce of aggression behind her eyes. Just patient curiosity. She took a bite of her orange, without breaking stare. This utterly sincere moment, that felt as though it stretched over half an hour, was disturbed by a Macaque who had jumped onto the scene looking to steal some of Meena’s food, stirring up some of the passion we had heard so much about. As a confrontation began, we were ushered away to safety and forced to continue our travels. Until we reached our camp that night, I kept thinking of Meena. The closeness of our species, our mannerisms. Her ability to judge and identify the nature of our visit without animalistic emotion. Her composure.
We camped that night in the jungle beside a river, which offered us the perfect bathing spot that evening, after seven hours of trekking in the thick, humid rainforest. We heard brilliant stories from some of the other groups who told us of their own experiences - close encounters with local monkeys and orangutans who interrupted their lunch to steal all the fruit. The footage was massively entertaining.
Overall, the two days we spent within the jungle in search of these wonderful animals was incredibly satisfying. Not only to be so close to such majestic creatures whom share so much of our DNA, but to feel unrushed and able to observe them in their natural habitat, climbing, eating, nurturing their young, and playing, was an incredible honour - something I will never forget.
If travelling to Indonesia, make time to visit Sumatra, the sixth largest island in the world. Join Sumatra Orangutan Trek group and experience it for yourself!
This past weekend, during a dinner with some friends on Nusa Penida island, off the east coast of Bali, I felt the full force of a 7.0 magnitude earthquake erupt beneath my feet. Like something out of a movie, locals and backpackers fled into the streets in panic, glasses crashing off shelves onto the floor, with screams and cries surrounding us. Within the hour, a tsunami warning was issued, and we grabbed backpacks full of essentials and immediately set off on our motorbikes to higher ground in search of safety. There was fear, panic and genuine anxiety amongst us, as we huddled in the mountains discussing the potential natural hazards coming our way. Unfortunately for our neighbouring islands, the experience was far beyond just fear, and for some, it was fatal. After some deliberation, I made the decision to head West, in an attempt to distance myself from the potential danger, heading towards Java, home of Indonesia's most reputable sulphuric volcano crater, Kawah Ijen.
Famous for it's unique electric blue flames, sun-coloured sulphur and gorgeous, highly toxic turquoise lake, Ijen is popular amongst many travellers and I was told by friends that it was a must do. They were one hundred percent right. We started our experience at midnight, travelling by jeep into the foot of the mountain. Surrounded by headlamps, we made our ascent in the darkness. Within an hour or so, the strong stench of sulphur spills in to your senses and the gas masks you've been provided are put to use. The huge, thick smog clouds make their way through and above the mountains around you and you're instructed now, at 2389 meters up, to start your climb down into the volcanic crater, towards the flickering blue flames and golden rock. Even with the mask, my lungs felt congested with thick, warm air within minutes, and my eyes started to water. After ten minutes, half-choking, half-mesmerised by the electric flames, I needed to make my way back up, desperate for fresh mountain air again.
Venturing into the crater was an amazing experience, but the real highlight for me came with the sunrise. Huge, thick clouds floated across the earth below us, with the sky filling with colour as we sat on the edge of the cliff. On the other side, the famed turquoise lake slowly came to light. Once the sun finally showed itself, the view from the mountain top was truly baffling - the sky was filled with deep shades of blue and purple, and the crater formations around us felt so vast, stretching across the landscape. We walked along the crater edge, peering over the edges at the deep drop into smoke and water, suddenly feeling very, very small, surrounded by nature's grace. For anyone visiting Indonesia, I would highly recommend the climb. Suk Sumah, Kawah Ijen.
Over the past year, I've visited over 10 different countries, slept in countless hostels and met so many incredible people on a daily basis. Every single day was something new and exciting - and then my money ran out. It had lasted me longer than expected and it was always going to happen sooner or later. Lucky enough for me, it happened as soon as I arrived in Melbourne - a vibrant, energetic city in the South East of Australia. Melbourne is full of life and there's plenty of fun to be had here, but three months of week-to-week work and city life had suddenly felt suffocating, after a year of living completely free. Lucky for us, its outskirts are full of adventure. All we needed was a car.
Without much thought or planning at all, four friends and I decided we all needed an immediate escape from the city. That night we organised a car rental and the morning after we were meeting at the airport, cramping our bags into our Toyota and setting off on one of the worlds most travelled roads, with barely any knowledge of what we were going to experience on the way. In the earliest hours of the drive, I really didn't care where we went. It felt so refreshing to be on the move again, driving alongside the ocean, the salty ocean breeze crashing in through the open windows while the world passed us by. Soon enough though, we decided we should think of a few stops to fill our day and after a quick surf online we'd mapped out some stops for our two days on the road. Here are my top three spots from the Great Ocean Road...
1. Erksine Falls
A short drive inland from the beach town of Lorne, you'll find one of the most popular falls in the Otways. On a good day, a strong stream cascades down 30 meters into the fern gully, surrounded by lush overgrow and wildlife. You can take a cool dip in the water or just enjoy some downtime within the cool, jungle like enclosure.
2. LoCH Ard Gorge
Just 8km east of Port Campbell, make sure you stop at this incredible viewpoint and beach cove. From the top, you can work your way round a variety of viewpoints exhibiting a plethora of natural rock formations, and incredible views that stretch out for miles and miles. But the real attraction is the pristine gold-sand beach, with crystal clear, cool waters and an cave you can walk in and explore.
3. The Twelve Apostles
I'd seen so many photos of the Apostles on brochures and postcards, but still, when we arrived I was blown away. Somehow, we had timed it perfectly. The dipping sun set a pink and orange glow throughout the sky, that sunk into the sand and sea, decorating the string of limestone cliff that stretched across the coastline. Every minute that passed, it just got better and better. We'd bought pizza and beers on the way and they were the perfect accompaniment to the experience. After a long day of driving and after a fair few photos were out of the way, we found the perfect spot to sit and really take in this view that was so, so worth the journey.
I spent this weekend hiring a car with some friends and driving up to Grampians National Park in South Australia. We arrived just before sunset and climbed out onto the cliff's edge for the perfect view. Sandstone mountains, wildflowers and forestry stretched across the world, illuminated by the glow of the sun. I inhaled the cool, fresh air, appreciating the sense of freedom and the perfect calm within the moment. We would spend that night camping on the mountain-top, and it wasn't long before the black sky was filled with stars. The four of us feeling completely isolated in the wonderful calm of the top of the mountain, I started thinking about the march that was taking place 10,000 miles away from me.
Since the shooting on February 14th at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, in Parkland, Florida, I've been so inspired and captivated by the students who have sought change, lifted their voices and stood their ground for a safer future. In the days that followed the shooting, I'd had countless conversations on U.S. gun laws, scrolled through videos, reports and statistics, until I came across something on Facebook that stole all of my attention. Emma Gonzales' incredible 'We Call BS' speech just a few days after the shooting at her school. Her voice cracked as she shared impassioned words and spoke for her fellow victims as she began:
"Every single person up here today, all these people, should be at home grieving. But instead, we are up here, standing together because if all our government and President can do is send 'thoughts and prayers', then it's time for victims to be the change that we need to see."
I felt so moved by her passion and emotion as she addressed thousands with a speech filled with strength and change. She talks about how it feels like this is the first time victims are actually being listened to on this topic, that has arisen over 1000 times over the past four years alone in America. She goes on to inform the audience of the gun-violence histories of Australia, Japan, Canada and the U.K., for instance, discussing how Australia had one shooting, changed its gun laws and have never experienced a mass shooting since.
I was involved in a pretty intense conversation on a Facebook status posted by a relative in the U.S., filled with essay-style comments going back and forth about the approach to gun-laws in the States. My brother and I chimed in with our opinions and were met with mixed responses. Many American's disagreed with our collective view, expressing that the guns aren't to blame, but the people using them, and in a recent interview with NRA spokeswomen, Dana Loesch, she labels the shooter involved in the incident in question as an 'insane monster'. This argument is a short-cut response I've heard and read too many times, to a much bigger problem. The individual that she is so quick to label 'insane' is in essence a young, unstable kid, who has grown up surrounded by a culture wherein the ownership of firearms is considered normal and at times, condoned (consider, for a moment, that Trump's solution was to arm teachers).
So many are quick to stamp these shooters with mental health problems after these tragedies, whilst leaving the slow development of this twisted and violent mentality so frequently overlooked. Surely some consideration should be focused on the ways in which one's mindset is altered by this society. A society where thousands of shootings occur every year, yet so quickly become yesterdays news. Just another headline, or statistic. In an environment such as high school where those who are different or suffering can so often be ostracized and ignored, leading to mental instability, it is alarming to think that a hormonal and emotional young person would be completely aware of their ability to obtain a powerful and deadly weapon, made purely to kill, en masse. And is it only the shooters in these instances who are affected by gun-culture? Many good people I know so strongly believe that they need a gun in their homes to protect. Protect how? By killing? What needs to be realised is that this is a vicious and violent cycle that should have been changed a long, long time ago.
The March For Our Lives was so important because of its resilience and perseverance. Despite there being numerous shootings in the past, this is the first time that we have been forced to listen and continue to listen and think about the problem. Despite so recently going through a tragedy, the students, victims and spokespeople who have created this incredible movement, have fought through a time of grieving to create change and fight for a future so that their generation doesn't have to continue to live with this problem. The strength in their young voices is the most important thing because they speak for a generation and they speak for the future. Despite still being in high school, they have worked tirelessly since the shooting to spread their passionate voice, to speak to organizations and press, to show up at every talk and to take every opportunity to spread their message, and it all led to this day. Miley Cyrus, Ariana Grande, Common and Jennifer Hudson (who has lost her mother, brother and nephew to gun-violence) were a handful of the artists to perform and speak at the event, whilst the likes of Kanye West, Paul McCartney, Will Smith, Jimmy Fallon, Lady Gaga and Zendaya supported from the crowds, amongst many other big names. Additionally, more than 800 cities took part in the March.
This weekend, whilst myself and a small handful of friends gazed into the star-filled night sky, completely alone atop a mountain in South Australia, over a million citizens of the U.S. marched for change 10,000 miles away. A change sparked by a group of friends, students, victims of another mass shooting. Gandhi said 'Be the change you wish to see in the world', and this weekend, they were. They made and will continue to make history, and I will continue to watch in awe and to support. To these incredible students, and to everyone who marched, I stand with you.
Here are some of the pictures, tweets and moments from the event.
Emma Gonzalez names the murdered Parkland victims and observes several minutes of silence in a 6-minute, 20-second speech that covered the same time it took the gunman to kill 17 people in her high school, then states: "Fight for your lives before it's someone else's job."
Edna Chavez, a student at Manual Arts High, south of Downtown Los Angeles, blows a kiss as she speaks about the shooting death of her 14-year-old brother at a shooting earlier this year.
Sat in my new office, five floors up in the centre of Melbourne's energetic business district, I'm staring out the window at the world below; gravel and pavement, cars, trams, people, every one of them with somewhere to get to and a place to be. It feels so bittersweet to be back in this world, swapping tangled sandy streets and tropical coastlines for the bustling city-life. On the one hand, it feels so good to be back in business, creating again around like-minded people. To be able to go to cool independent bars and cafe's and have new clothes - no need to recycle the same three t-shirts I've lived off of over the past eight months. On the other hand, I miss adventure terribly. I miss not knowing where I'm going to wake up and where I'm going to sleep. I miss the feeling of meeting new people every time I arrive in a city I'd only ever read about, exploring a new world and sharing that experience with alluring strangers who are suddenly my best friends.
Most days, I couldn't be happier to be here in this incredible city, somewhere I've always dreamed of visiting, and Melbourne really is amazing. But days like today, coffee in hand, peering out the window into this concrete jungle, I do find my mind tracing over faces, places and moments I shared and loved over my travels so far. One day in particular springs to mind.
I'd been in Arugam Bay for two hours, and the coach journey from Newara Eliyah was one hell of a ride. Predicted to be four and half hours long, I decided not to book a hostel and find something once I arrived. It would be the early evening and the strip would be coming to life, so I would get a good sense of where to stay. Alas, the heavens decided to open up a mere hour into the journey, sending bolts of lighting down to the Earth along with the thundering rain that smashed against the windshield. It's bad enough that Sri Lanka's drivers persist at driving 100mph regardless of terrain and traffic, ours was now driving almost blind against a thunderstorm.
I arrived four hours later than expected to the town I'd heard so much about from other travellers. Night had already fallen and I had no idea where I was going to sleep, with my clothes drenched through. I found the closest place to stay and dropped my bags before venturing out into the street, which was regaining some life after the storm and it wasn't long before I bumped in to a few familiar faces who I'd end up spending my whole time here with. A few days in, we decided to take a trip to Elephant Point, rumoured to be a great surf spot out of the town. There were 12 of us in total, so we hired some boards and crammed into three tuk-tuks, haggling down to a good price for the ride there and back.
We built a quick rapport with our charismatic driver who let us take it in turns to ride the auto to the beach, which didn't disappoint - elephant-shaped cliffs that sink into gorgeous turquoise swells. The light breeze delivered the salty scent of the ocean into my lungs and from that point all I wanted to do was get in the water. A handful of us grabbed our boards and head straight in.
There was a real freedom that lived within every second of this day. A spontaneity that reminded me why I loved to travel so much. From riding the tuk-tuks, to surfing at the beach, to climbing to the top of the cliff all together, the day was full of freedom and laughter, and it was beautiful.
Once we'd had our fill of Elephant Point, we jumped back into our tuk-tuks and head back towards the Arugam Bay strip. The setting sun draped deep pinks and oranges across the sky, serving as the ultimate backdrop as we raced each other across the open roads, hanging out of our auto's, laughing and joking, until our drivers told us to park up.
We lined up at the side of the road and looked out as the sun made it's decent into the Earth, highlighting the scattered clouds with colour. It was a great moment, but apparently this wasn't why we'd stopped. As the sun disappeared and we climbed back into our auto's, our drivers laughed and told us to wait a bit longer. We talked amongst ourselves, becoming frustrated at our drivers idleness. In the space of twenty odd minutes, it had grown really dark. That's when our drivers called out to us, pointing to the opposite side of the road where thick forest bordered the plain. A huge shape emerged from the woodland, then another, and another. Wild Elephants. The drivers flicked on their headlights, but it was only as they made it to the road you could really see them properly. We were all completely silent, in awe, as these magnificent creatures crossed the road in front of us, pausing only for the briefest moment to register our presence. And then they were gone.
As our engines roared back to life in succession, we all talked about how incredible these animals were and how great the day had been. When we finally reached home we all head out for drinks at Hideaway, our favourite bar, then a beach party, and the night went on. All in all, it was a perfect day - sun and surf, freedom and laughter, incredible nature and unforgettable encounters, all in great company. Not only one of my favourite days in Sri Lanka, but one of my favourites of this whole trip.
The alarm rang at 3:30am. It was dark, and cold enough that the windows were frosted over. I wiped the sleep from my eyes and stretched out my aching legs. This is how day ten of our Everest adventure began.
The previous day we'd finally made it to Everest Base Camp, a journey that lasted over nine hours from Lobuche. The day was long and hard but so well rewarded with such a memorable feeling - arriving at the camp with your friends to hugs, kisses and hi-fives, and lots of photos. By the time we got back to our teahouse we were all exhausted and ready for rest, and in the evening we were given a choice; wake up at 3:30am for a cold, hard sunrise trek, or enjoy a nice lie in, the first we'd have had in ten days. Every single person in the group sleepily made it into the lobby for our 4:00am meet time the next day, everyone was ready for the challenge.
The morning that followed turned out to be one of my favourite experiences of this adventure so far. Once our coffee cups were empty, we made our way outside one by one, leaving the warm indoors to a harsh cold wind, and a black sky filled with stars. We've never been out at this time before to see them and we were all in awe. Trailing from the tiny town of Gorak Shep was a bee-line of tiny headlamp lights making their tangled ascent up Kala Patthar, one of the tallest mountains in the Everest Himalayan Range. Everything around us was dark except these tiny lights and the surrounding white glaciers that towered like giants beside us. We began our ascent.
The climb was taking us from around 5100m to 5600m and the sudden increase in altitude was very, very noticeable. A quick climb suddenly became slow, fifteen successive steps suddenly became three. Just a tiny exertion of energy and your body felt like it was sprinting. Three quarters of the way up my friend Lucy and I were ready to settle, give up on the climb and just stop and enjoy the view, but a few of the team who had made it to the summit turned up the noise and encouraged us to keep going. We forced our way up to chants and songs and eventually found ourselves at the feet of our friends, met by big embraces. Then it was our turn to cheer on the rest of the group. They found their way one by one, until we were all at the top.
Once the climbing was finished, the cold hit. Our bags were frosted over and we were all hugging our bodies trying to keep warm as the world around us slowly lit up and came to life. Then, finally, just as we started talking about heading down early, the sun emerged. Rays of light cut through the sky to huge cheers from everyone at the summit. At this moment, you could fully appreciate the panoramic view of the Everest Range that Kala Patthar offered, including the Everest peak itself that never looked so close and so captivating. For me, this was easily one of the most enamouring views I'd ever, ever seen. I couldn't help but put my camera down and just take it all in, not just the views but the moment, the people, the atmosphere amongst us all at the top of that mountain. Electric and unforgattable.
Besides the world-famous temples of Angkor, I arrived in Siem Reap without much knowledge of the city at all. I hadn't had much chance to research things to do before arriving and it was the first time I'd really been travelling completely solo since starting this journey. Luckily for me, a woman overheard a conversation between myself and some new friends about things to do off the beaten track here. I was beckoned over and handed a wrinkled paper card which read 'SIEM REAP MOTOR MYSTERY TOUR'. "If you're looking for something different, this is it," she told me, and I was immediately intrigued.
With two days set aside for the Angkor temples and just three days in the city, the following day was the only chance to get on this tour. I arrived home at midnight and eagerly sent an email to the only point of communication on the card, worried that I'd missed my chance. 1:00am I received a reply from Bun, the creator of this weird and wonderful mystery tour, "Thanks Alex! I'll pick you up at 2pm tomorrow!". That was it. Still a complete mystery, but that was absolutely fine with me.
At 2pm I was greeted outside my hostel by Bun, a friendly 30-something local, full of laughter and animation. As we started our journey I asked him about the mystery tour and how it got its name and his reply left me feeling both apprehensive and excited. He said, "I call it a mystery tour because neither you or I have any idea what we're going to do in the next four hours." He explained to me that he had grown up around the jungle and the slums, and in turn the outskirts of the city. He had practiced locally as a monk for two years before educating himself and studying at university. He knows this place better than anyone and when people visit his home, he wants their experience to be as authentic and as real as possible. It was at that point I realised today could either be a disaster or it could be magnificent.
On scooters, we travelled outside the busy centre of Siem Reap and within a couple minutes, Bun had us speeding away from the city and into the vast open countryside. We stopped at a small farm area and he proceeded to tell me the story of the family that were working around the crops. The mother had been married twenty years ago and had children, but during the Khmer Rouge regime, her husband was murdered. He pointed to a tall palm tree and told me that he had been hung from this exact tree. The smile left my face instantly. He told me that she had eventually re-married and had three more children and before I knew it, I was being introduced. The youngest girl grabbed me by the hand as I helped her harvest the field and led me through the farm she had worked on since she could walk. All of my apprehensions about the day vanished and I was certain that in four hours time I would have experienced things no regular tour could have offered me.
We set off once more through the neighbouring villages, following the dirt roads that connected these small communities. We passed by a group of women cooking and after a few words from Bun they beckoned us in to join them, laying down bowls of rice soup before us as soon as we sat down. I asked Bun how he knew them and he told me he didn't, and that this was simply the Khmer way. After eating I walked into the garden and found an elderly lady hanging her washed clothes up on a line. She was so famished and thin. The lines of her face spoke a thousand words, but her lips were tightly sealed in a knowing smile. Bun joined me and worked as translator, explaining to me that she was a survivor of the Khmer Rouge regime and had lost many family members to harsh terrors of this genocidal campaign. We shared a moment watching each other as Bun spoke, and I suddenly felt so small. So greedy. So lucky, and ungrateful for everything I've had at my feet back home.
We worked our way through the villages, heading further and further away from the centre of the city and out into the country side. We passed by temples and pagoda's, families and workers. One man was chopping up a snake he'd come across in the fields to make snake soup for his family while his son walked around wearing the most incredible Mickey Mouse one-piece. The best thing was, we never just passed by. Bun, as intrigued as I was, stopped everywhere to talk to these people and share their stories and experiences with me.
Eventually, we left the villages behind us and entered the slums of Siem Reap. A bleak and impoverished part of the countryside, covered in dry sand and half-destroyed houses. As soon as we arrived into the open stretch of the seemingly empty slums, kids started to run towards us from out of nowhere, smiles stretched across their cheeks. Guests meant food. I reached into my bag and pulled out the huge bag of Oreo's I had bought in anticipation for a moment like this and started to fill the empty outstretched hands of these children who looked up at Bun and I as saints. One of the older boys donning a Argentina kit told us of a football match about to commence. I gave Bun a nod and the kid jumped on his scooter to show us the way. Soon enough we arrived a bumpy, open lay of land. A collection of teenage boys stood in the sun, topless and sweaty with a football in the centre, waving at the foreigner to join them. I took of my t-shirt and shoes and head onto the 'pitch', but after half an hour of intense football under the raging sun, Bun and I admitted defeat and left the game to continue our adventure.
We rode fast through the bumpy serpentine roads of the slums until we reached a long stretch, bracketed by tiny wooden houses with vast lakes and fields behind them. Bun sped ahead as I took my time on this road, watching either side of me as families greeted this unfamiliar outsider. The kids yelled hello's at me with great teethy smiles as their elders nodded in welcome. Almost every single family stood out to watch me ride by on my bike and I shared smiles with all of them. It felt so surreal. I've been through places similar to this, not quite as real. The difference was, I'd always gone with a group, or on a tour, most often to places that tourists have passed through many times before. This time around I was completely on my own, and the way the people looked at me, I couldn't help but feel like visitors didn't come this way very often.
I finally caught up with Bun at the top of this stretch. He'd settled at a small area in the middle of this road, the perfect sunset spot. We stopped and watched and talked about the day as I took photos of the landscape as Bun meditated. As we made our way back home against a deep amber sky, I felt really happy to have met Bun. A single Dad, he didn't have the time or money to travel, although it was his biggest passion. Instead, he spent every day sharing his world with people from all over the globe. I would recommend his tour to anyone visiting Siem Reap, but don't expect the same experiences as I had. It will still be one big mystery for the both of you.
Since writing this blog post, Bunny, with the help of some travelling friends, has been able to create a website for his business,. This trip was one of my biggest highlights from my time in Cambodia and I would recommend it to anyone. Thinking of going off the beaten track in Siem Reap? Check out Bunny's Mystery Tour here.
During our time in Myanmar we passed through Inle Lake, a wonderful destination located in the Nyaung Shwe township of Shan state. 3.5 miles long and seven miles wide, the lake is famous for its unique fishing techniques and floating markets, something I had to see when passing through.
We set out early, travelling through the town in the black of morning at 5:30am to the docks. Once we boarded, we set off into the lake in complete darkness, the only sounds were of the motor and the water breaking at the bow. Soon enough, the world was slowly brought to light. Wonderful colours of blue, pink and purple filled the sky and the lake, bracketed by silhouettes of mountains, banana trees and fishermen setting off for the catch of the day.
We spent the day in the floating villages that exist on the lake, passing through the fresh-food market, learning how to canoe on the narrow, unbalanced wooden boats the locals use daily, trying local foods and delicacies and learning how this incredible community works.
I put together a really rough capture of our morning, shot with my GoPro Hero 4+, hope you enjoy! (Please excuse my cheesy selfie moment half way through!)
Pai was most likely my favourite spot on my journey around Thailand, a small town north of Chiang Mai. It was the place that the Pai Panther Biker Club (as I called us) was born, a collection of 16-20 backpackers who instantaneously came together on the road in search of amber skies, winding highways, caves, waterfalls and springs. Here's how it went down...
Ben and I had been travelling north of Thailand since my earliest days in Bangkok. We hopped off the bus that had brought us from Chiang Mai, our heads spinning from the bumpy, serpentine route across the mountains to this small hippie town we had caught wind of. Online we had found a relaxed looking hostel to stay at over the coming days and followed our maps around the corner and down a seemingly empty alley... surely, the maps have got it wrong? Soon enough, the strumming of a guitar caught our ears and the hostel logo came into view. We turned into the hostel and were greeted by a long-haired dude at the bar and then the barman - John - an image of John Lennon if ever I've seen one. "Welcome to Common Ground fellas!". Liverpudlian too, amazing. Two guys we're singing and playing guitar from the comfort of a string of hammocks, while another guy painted the wall behind them, a psychedelic tree of life made of fluorescent greens and blues. I loved this place already.
We were introduced to Jordan, an Australian whose welcoming and laid-back attitude made it feel as though we'd been here for weeks already. "Need anything guys, just give me a shout," he said. Having come from two busy cities, full of vibrant energy and life, we happily welcomed this new environment, this perfect hub of calm, cool bohemian culture. We immediately went to fetch some scooters for hire. No questions, no license enquiries, just payment. In under twenty minutes we were driving back up our alley to our hostel, greeted by quite a few more bikes outside than before. As we walked back inside, we noticed a collection of backpackers, some checking in, some introducing themselves to others - the last bus of the day had just brought a fresh batch of backpackers to our new home. After some short introductions, the group were eager to get on the road. We all hopped on our bikes and head to the top of the alley, ready to head to Tham Lod Cave. I looked over my shoulder and smiled back at the 16 strong congregation of scooters, revving and ready... the light went green and we were off.
This was my first time riding a scooter, ever. Before I knew it I was on the open road hitting 60mph and it felt amazing. The wind beat against my chest as I rode past other members of the group, looking out onto the most fantastic landscapes. Pure and complete freedom, that was what it felt like.
We extended our time in Pai from three days to seven and in that time, the Pai Panthers shared many great rides together, often riding back on winding highways, beside a blanket of deep orange sky and a vast green bed of forest and jungle. We shared some of the best days and nights with this group of people in Common Ground hostel, my favourite home in my journey so far. If you get a chance, go to Pai. Stay at Common Ground. You won't regret it.
Whilst staying in Chiang Mai, it won't take long to realise there is much adventure to be had here. Entering your hostel, you'll be met by hundreds of glossy folded leaflets full of excursions, tours and activities - colourful and visual, before you know it you'll be making the tough decision of weather to zip-line through the jungle or go cliff jumping in the Canyon. We chose to spend a day with elephants. And then we chose to spend two days hiking and living in the jungle.
We chose to go for the more pricey trip with 8Adventures as it included water rafting and we're so glad we did. We were introduced to Sak and Not, our guides, at basecamp and they really made the excursion what it was with their knowledge of jungle and how to survive off raw materials, as well as their humour and character. Here's a little inside peak into our two days in the jungle...
After two hours of trekking uphill through a maze of thick, tangled bamboo we finally reached our first checkpoint - a clearing in a rice field offering views of the village in the distance. From the muggy and humid interior of the bamboo jungle to the clean and crisp air of this open space, we quickly realised how difficult this hike could become.
We came across some local villages harvesting their rice in front of a glorious mountainous backdrop. They laid down a wide blue mat, bound together their rice stems with string and smashed them down on steel barrels, forcing all the rice to come loose, discarding the stems. I asked the eldest of the group if I could help and as soon as I finished one band of rice stems I was immediately handed another, and then another, much to the amusement of our guides!
After about six hours of gruelling trekking uphill, we finally reached our base for the evening at around 1600m. Constructed with wood and bamboo, with a small room full of thin mattresses and mosquito nests, we found our home for the night fascinating. Reaching 6:00pm we realised we needed to find our spot for sunset, so we set out about the village, coming across a set of bamboo houses mid-construction; floors, roofs, but no walls - perfect. We set up our camera's and took in the view before a curious young Thai boy found his way to our spot, immediately reaching for the camera's, turning our village sunset into a welcomed photography lesson.
After sunset, the skies colour disappeared pretty quickly until we were left with torches and a fire as our only sources of light. We had an amazing home cooked meal around our fire, with soups, pork belly, sticky rice and more, all cooked over a fire and with bamboo sticks. After food we asked Sak questions which were greeted by many stories of his life living in and around the jungle and these remote villages that function here.
At around 9:00pm, in the pitch black of night we were given a question: bed time, or night hike? Sak, excited as ever, grabbed his essentials and we head to the ATV. Five people in one quad was far from comfortable, so i had to sit on the front hood as we climbed the steep hill, also far from comfortable! After a short drive and an hour and a half hike upwards, we reached the 5500 ft summit in pitch black. You couldn't see where you stepped on this tiny base without a torch, all you could see was the stars.
Coming to Chiang Mai, I knew that spending some time with the incredible Thai elephants was something I had to do. I've become very aware of the cruelty that goes on in a lot of zoos and parks in Asia and was reluctant to throw money at an organisation that advocated these customs, so I was so happy to come across the Elephant Jungle Sanctuary. Here, we were able to join the team of Karen village-people, helping feed and bathe these wonderful animals, getting a bit muddy in the process...
The day began with an hour journey to the sanctuary, meeting all the other backpackers and getting changed into the swaggy hippie attire provided by the Karen hosts. And then came the elephants...
We fed and played with the amazing elephants, which were so lovable, friendly and active, from the eldest to the youngest, a 1 month old called Lady Gaga. Before we knew it, it was time for a bath. Here's a little video of the day...
After we got all cleaned up, we had some amazing pad thai and rice, courtesy of the Karen village people. This also gave us a great opportunity to speak to them, learning a little more about their lives and the lives of the elephants. For example, did you know that elephants fall pregnant for 22 months?! Yikes.
What a day! I had the best time meeting these wonderful animals amongst loads of other travellers, talking to the village people who run the camp and spending some time in the great outdoors. To anyone visiting Chiang Mai, i'd definitely recommend a day of mud baths and banana feasts with Thai elephants, best experienced at Elephant Jungle Sanctuary!
During the weeks that led up to this journey, every day would pass in similar fashion. My dreams would be distrubed by the unavoidable pitch of my alarm at 8:00am and I would reach for the post-it note sticking to my bedside table, featuring a list of things that I needed to accomplish in that day. Constructing this the previous night had become a staple part of my bedtime ritual, and this would be the first thing I’d address as I wipe the sleep from my swollen eyes. My days would be fleeting, a messy rush and a failed mission as four or five things would be added to the next days list before bed, and new ‘must do’s’ would be grumpily made note of.
November 23rd was very different. There were no more lists, no more notes to reach for. No more time to prepare and no more time to worry. Every day leading to this one had a plan and a strategy, but as my sleepy fingers trailed over the snooze button on my all-to-familiar 8:00am alarm, my stomach was met with something very unfamiliar. Nerves. Panic. Anxiety. How much hadn’t I done? How many failed ‘to-do’s’ would come back to haunt me after this day? There wasn’t much time to dwell on it - it was time to pack. 23kg. 19kg. 12kg. I strike out the unnessessary items I once deemed essential one by one as I aim for the lightest possible backpack. Still full to the brim, but 12kg will do.
Dad makes it to mine early and again, the reality of the situation dawns on me a little bit all over again, but that’s nothing compared to how I felt saying my goodbyes at the gate. Mum and Dad are in tears. Luke is smiling at me, for me, excited for what he knows I’m soon to experience. I hug Mum and she says “If anything happens, if anything happens to you, if you get hurt you come straight back home to me!” This cuts through me. It does all over again as I write it down. I felt myself shiver, and I feel my eyes squeeze back any tears - I don’t want to show my parents the slightest trace of fear. Then there’s Dad, so overcome with sudden emotion I can’t make out his muffled words as he buried his face into my sweater. I feel a wave of emotion rush through me once more. My eyes squeeze shut again. One more hug. One more glance. One more look over my shoulder as I head inside alone. Solo. That’s me from now on and for the foreseeable future. My hands tremble slightly and my eyes are damp as this wave follows me around the corner, but I stop. Inhale. Look up from my feet to straight ahead. And then there is a new wave, one filled with confidence, positivity and excitement. One that is screaming for adventure, knowledge and life. I take my first couple steps with this new wave to make sure it fits. It does.
Fast forward from the twenty minute run through the enormous Dubai airport to my final call, to the seat-belt sign flickering on, followed by an announcement from the captain. Time to land. The twelve-hour journey is over and now I face the challenge of navigating through Thailand’s infamous capital. Passport control and baggage claim take mere minutes and I’m out in the Bangkok air, it’s thirty degrees and humid as hell. I head back inside and hop on the city link to the center, my eyes are met by every new person who arrives through the doors nearest to me. They’ve seen thousands of me, I’m sure, but a smile is still met by a smile and that’s always a good omen. I see trickles of rain appear on the windows. Before I can finish my negotions with the Gods, the sky opens and unleashes a thunderstorm that would have Londoners scrambling like ants. Thunder, lighting and the thundering drum of rain against the steel barrel we speed into the city in. Jacket on. Raincover on. The locals laugh at me as they pull out their umbrella’s, all too prepared.
I reach my stop and laugh to myself as I head out into the unforgiving conditions that arrived to greet me. I follow my map from memory for ten minutes with my head down before realising it was the opposite direction. Twenty minutes back and my shoes, shorts and front-pack are drenched. My face is soaking, it’s still 30 degrees. I turn a corner and there it is. Bed Station Hostel, the only light on the corner of the street and I follow it. I feel like Colin from Love Actually as I burst into the door and pull off my hood. Just swap the snow for rain and the horny american girls for frat guys. I’m shown my room and 15 minutes later, I’ve showered, unpacked and am ordering my first beer. I sit down at a table full of backpackers, but no one turns their head so I simply listen to shared stories of travel and sex, for now that’s fine with me. Eventually, I get talking to a guy from Croatia. Then a girl from US and a guy from London who’s lived in Thailand for five years. Then some locals. Then some Germans. Before I know it, drinking games are in full flow and we’re heading to Khao San road – the amazing, trashy, glorious, alcohol-ridden elite home of the drunk backpacker. There is no better place to start, so it seems.
I wake up at 1:30pm, sleepy, groggy and filling in the blanks. This isn’t my usual style, to waste a day of travel and of exploring so I drag myself to the showers, and eventually out of the front door. The hostel is a complete contrast of the night before, maybe I wasn’t the only one having a much-needed recovery sleep. I head straight to the famous Bangkok temples to start, Wat Phom and Wat Arun, but it begins to rain again. With the temples covered in grey and my head still banging from the night before, I can’t help but feel a bit deflated. I take refuge in a nice looking restauarant close by to have my first meal of the day, Pad Thai it is. The food is great, but as a stare out to the stormy streets with a sore head and tired eyes, I feel loneliness creep in. These are the days travel companions are essential. Raincoat back on I trudge out once more, telling myself that the first days are always like this and that it’s nothing to go by. And I was right, I head home and have shower number two, getting into my comfiest clothes ready to relax and plan my trip to Chiang Mai for the following day when I see a familiar face. A german girl I met the night before called Laura. She was very sweet, reading to me from her Bangkok travel guide as I sat next to her and opened my laptop, which closed just as quickly at the mention of a rooftop bar. She was going with two other German guys and a girl, and now me.
I head back to my room to change clothes and we set on our way. Benjamin, Laura, Hannes, Suzie and Me. They were nice, probably the nicest people I’d met so far. I asked questions and learnt about them, who they were and what they did and the places they’ve been, one by one. Then we reached Cloud47, the rooftop bar on the 47th floor that opens up to incredible views of the whole city, its towering skyscrapers sinking down into brightly coloured steets. We ordered our Chang’s and enjoyed the atmopshere of the rooftop, all well aware of the gem we had stumbled on. After we’d finally had our fill of the mesmirising views, we head to a market for some food, passing down countless offers for ping-pong shows as we went. Food down, goodnights said, I crept into my bed at 1:30am. I felt like I’d made my first friends and things were taking shape. I felt good. I felt excited for the next day and all I wanted was for sleep to disappear and to wake up to a sunny sky instead of grey.
My alarm went off at 9:00am and I felt the rays of the sun squeezing through the gaps of the blinds. Sun.
I MISS THE OLD KANYE, STRAIGHT FROM THE 'GO KANYE
CHOP UP THE SOUL KANYE, SET ON HIS GOALS KANYE
Travelling into London this morning, my brother and I fell into discussion. We talked about Kanye West, an artist which we've both grown up adoring. Sharing one headphone each, we journeyed into central from zone 6, shuffling through Ye classics, Last Call, Never Let Me Down, Homecoming and Family Business, to name a few. We exchanged opinions on his influence on music, the hip-hop genre specifically, and the impact his catalogue of work has had on some of the most talked about artists to grace headlines in the music industry today.
Let me start by saying this piece is no dig at Kanye, despite what its title may imply. Some great artists you are introduced to late. You're given a taste of something and you either bite or you don't, and if you do, you often crave more. I've listened to the likes of Queen and Michael Jackson for as long as my memory stretches, but late greats like Bowie I fell into much later, encouraging almost a sonic journey through an extensive catalogue of albums, songs and styles. Along with so many of my friends who appreciate Kanye like I do, I grew up with his music and fell in love with it all on my own, it was never introduced to me later or force fed. For a kid that grew up on rock and pop, I had never ventured deep into the realms of hip-hop. I didn't know who N.W.A were, I hadn't even heard any of Hov's early stuff. I'd listened to some Tupac and Biggie that I'd liked, but the genre was barely existent in my every day listening, especially in comparison to now, with my iTunes library full of its most influential and distinguished records, from Illmatic, to Stankonia, to Straight Outta Compton. It was Kanye's The College Dropout that created that bridge for me, leading me into a long-term relationship with hip-hop that has since never wavered and probably never will.
This early work was a perfect intro into the genre. Along with Late Registration a year later in 2005, The College Dropout showcased Ye's natural mastery at chopping up soul beats to make a more widely accessible, jocular breed of hip-hop. Since his earliest days on the scene, before he may have even known it himself, Kanye has been a futurist, never a conformist. Fast-forward to present day and look over his catalogue of music, eight albums spanning twelve years, all showcasing Kanye's huge influence on the transforming trends of the genre and it's place in pop culture. Think back. Hip hop wasn't relatable to the everyday fandom, Kanye made The College Dropout. He predicts the imminent wave of EDM culture and samples Daft Punk on Stronger. He sees a need for love and melody in rap and creates 808s and Heartbreak. Hip-hop isn't experimental enough, he introduces Yeezus. Kanye has always been the first. Whilst his first three records we're instantly adored, 808s was something new and entirely unique. A hip-hop artist exploring themes of loss, heartache and a disaffected fame through love songs and electronic beats? It took a bit more time, but it wasn't long before it seeped through the cracks of street-rap, influencing emerging artists and thus, transforming a part of the genre in a massive way. Would we even have hits like Hold On We're Going Home without 808s? Kanye has been a constant pioneer of change in the genre and today, the hip-hop world thanks him for it, often.
How many contemporary artists do you think could achieve what he has done with The Life of Pablo? The album was completely self-marketed, regularly prolonged, name-changed (four times!), and had successfully caught the attention of the world within its first whispers. The pop-culture juggernaut, who once upon a time rapped about his desperate efforts to sign a deal, now has the world at his feet, selling out Madison Square Gardens in mere minutes, along with cinema tickets all over the world to premier his new album.
But what about the music? Whilst listening to tracks spanning Kanye's twelve years of music, this became the sole focus of my conversation with my brother on our journey into London. Listening to the bracketing albums, you'll certainly hear the difference. The College Dropout emblazons a hungry, talented, meticulous artist striving for success at all costs, and as you would imagine over a decade later, The Life of Pablo showcases something completely different. This is not to say that it's bad, or that I didn't or don't enjoy the album. I do. Most of it, anyway. I remember starting my first listen chronologically with Ultralight Beam and feeling chills at its opening gospel sonics, as well as pure elation when Chance's genius verse drops. I was immediately sold. But as I reached the end of the album, whilst I enjoyed it greatly for what it was, something was missing for me. Straight up rap. Many may disagree, but as much as I hugely enjoyed the album for many things, including its production value, style and synth-heavy electronics, I desperately longed for quality lyrical content and good old fashioned rap that I don't feel existed. The elite verses found on tracks like Made In America, No Church In The Wild, Runaway or All Falls Down were replaced with forgettable features from Ty Dolla Sign, Young Thug and even drooly verses from Ye himself.
For as long as i've been a fan, i've been able to quote Kanye. I quoted Graduation endlessly, and I still rap along to so much of My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy. When tracks from Watch The Throne came on in clubs I could rap a whole verse along with my friends with ease and confidence. Did that exist on this album? There was no Family Business flow, no brilliant metaphors like that in Homecoming, or anything like the genius construction of Lost In The World, featuring one of my favourite Kanye verses. Kanye had brought together over ninety contributors on this album, is that perhaps why his own light, as a rapper, didn't quite shine as bright? As a producer trying to make it as a rapper, Kanye worked tremendously hard early on to show his worth, but his knack for clever wordplay, fluid rhyme patterns and vivid imagery were still hugely present in later works like MBTDF and Watch The Throne, so why couldn't I find it in The Life of Pablo?
Personally, I enjoy music for its sound and its melody, but I love it for its words and meaning. As far as rap goes, delivery and lyrical content are what appeal to me. That's why I love J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, two artists that have such a raw talent when it comes to telling a story, vividly and intelligently. Kanye has always had that. It's one of my favourite things about his music, but I didn't find it here. The Life of Pablo is a great album, and yeah, I love the new Kanye. But sometimes, I miss the old Kanye.
We've been waiting for it for five years, persisting through countless delays, endless trolling and false drop dates. But late last night, it came.
My little bro and I were heading home from a family dinner, blasting Nikes in the car while we discussed his latest visual album Endless and the style of new music he'd been putting out. We got in, still talking about Ocean and about the provocative Nikes video that dropped earlier that day.
11:37pm, we're watching Community on Netflix, both unwinding whilst scanning twitter and blogs we follow. That's when I stumbled upon something peculiar. A twitter post by Pigeons and Planes, one of the music blogs I love reading up on.
'Frank Ocean announces pop up stores on the eve of BoysDontCry release'
Since Endless dropped, every blog I followed said the album was coming this weekend. I didn't get my hopes up. But, did this mean...? I scour the rest of my feed with absolutely no other signs of a pop-up in existence. Is it real?I opened the tweet to the promotional image for the magazine, the material being released at these pop-ups, the zine promised by Ocean at the albums earliest announcement years ago. At the bottom of the image were cities. Los Angeles, New York, Chicago... London.
I'm shouting at Luke now and he's getting equally as hyped. An exclusive pop-up store in our city! I'm racing through the web in search of more clues that don't come. No-one else is even tweeting about it yet, this can't be right. We can't be the only ones. It's 11:59, 12:00. I right click. boysdontcry.co, loading. It opens. Blonde. Album cover. No text. Luke and I say nothing, we just stare at my screen. I tell him to jump onto iTunes NOW. And it's there. The album is real, it's here. This is not a drill.
We become hysterical and over-excited. We feel like the only ones in the world who know, and we have to spread the news. So we do. As much as we can anyway before curiosity trumps sheer excitement and we decide the time has come, we need to listen. So we do. The lights turn off, the only existing glow exuding from our laptop screens. Nikes plays out loud through our speakers. We spend the next hour almost in complete silence, interrupted only by the occasional outbursts of appreciation of what we were hearing. After the album plays out we sit back and discuss for a brief moment, before remembering the pop-up. We need to get there!
1:23am, we jump back onto Twitter searching for anything. An hour and a half's passed since our first glimpse of Blond on Frank's website, all the blogs are reporting about it now, everyone is talking about the album. Everyone. But still, nothing about this London pop-up to prove it exists; no pictures, no tweets. Fuck it, we'll have to go and see for ourselves, we decide, and we'll camp out if we have to. And then it comes. The first tweet, with a video touring the inside of the London pop-up. It's real. Only 400 copies, we hear someone say. We quickly learn it opened at midnight. Shit. What the fuck have we been doing the past hour!? We grab our jackets, my keys and head out.
Laptop plugged in, we're streaming the entire album all over again as we race from Harrow to Soho. Street lights fly by, as we drive to the epic tones of Self-Control blasting through the speakers. We're digesting Ocean's unbelievable voice and poetry as we near our destination. Ivy is an immediate favourite, Solo, Skyline To, Andre 3000's wild contribution on the Solo (Reprise), the black depths of Ocean's mind that Seigfried ventures into and the heaven-sent melodies on Godspeed. This album is masterful. Before we know it we're just a couple of roads away. It's 2:12am and we get our first glimmer of the scene, as a young guy races past us down an empty street holding a shiny, thick packet across his chest. As we park and start to run closer to 66 Charlotte Street, we start to see more of them. Trendy-as-fuck kids running with these packets in the opposite direction to us. It's surreal. The closer we get, the more there are, until we're there. We see a glow from the only store open on the street in the early hours of the morning.
As I walk passed the opening, I glance inside at empty shelves. Are we too late? These glossy packets are staring at me, I need one. What treasures are held inside? Stories, secrets, insights into the worlds most popular enigma. The line is about 100 people long, tiny in consideration to what is actually happening right now. The queue moves fast as we converse in depth with strangers.
"Two versions! We got two versions...."
We hear a phrase that has come to be a staple throughout the albums tangled promotion, exclaimed from around the corner. People who have already picked up their issue cling to it tightly, almost as if in fear it would vanish somehow. We're so close now, we're almost in touching distance. That's when the announcement comes. The final packet is handed over. 400 free copies. 405th in line. We didn't make it.
Reluctantly, after lingering among our other brokenhearted, but still admirably hopeful, peers in the queue, we find our way back to our car. Miserable, distraught. We were given the chance to be a part of this album's history. 400 limited edition copies released, with a brand new CD inside. We could have been part of 400 out of 8.6 billion Londoners to get the physical insight into one of the world's most talked about contemporary artists. Something we would hold onto for years, once this album breaks records, knowing we were part of 'the in crowd'. But we missed out by five people, by our foolishness and desperation to hear the album before we left. Regardless, it's here and from what I can tell from my many listens so far, it's special.
We get lost on the way home and find ourselves at a dead end, in the middle of nowhere. Our silent misery is deafening, so we decide to get out and celebrate the release of a beautiful album thats been five years in waiting, listening and talking in depth, one more time, before heading home.
I’m gonna take you back to last Thursday evening. I was driving late and had around fifteen minutes ahead of me before I made it home. I’d been listening to the recently released James Blake collaboration with Bon Iver. An amazing, somber, soul-searching track that leaves you pondering where you are in life and all other kinds of deep shit. Anyway, the sun was setting around this time, filling the skies with deep pink hues which led my mind straight to Chance 3, the third studio project by my favourite Chicagoan, Chance the Rapper.
In anticipation for the upcoming tape and appreciation of Chance’s unrivalled artistry, I immediately traded Blake’s dulcet tones to the gospel-great, I’m-ready-to-take-on-the-world pin-ultimate track from Surf, the masterful free album from The Social Experiment. I had Sunday Candy on repeat until I reached my house, belting out the lyrics through a smile and feeling that nervous excitement for the following day. It had been three years since the release of Acid Rap, the free mixtape that granted Chance a worldwide stage and huge respect and acclaim amongst the many aficionados of the hip-hop world. And tomorrow, its follow up was due to drop.
Fast-forward about twelve hours and I’m sitting at my desk at work, waiting for the last of the “good-mornings” to pass so I could comfortably hit play without any predictable distractions. It was time.
The all-too familiar trumpet work of Donnie sets us off and immediately gets me gassed up, followed by Chance’s distinguishable yelps. There’s something so familiar and yet so disparate about this opening. I put it down to Chance’s noticeable development over the past three years. Since the release of his sophomore album, Chance has performed all over the world, collaborated with his greatest idols and become a father, an experience that has already had generous references in his latest songs. As his album artworks exemplify, Chance has definitely gone on a journey and it really shows in the opening moments of Coloring Book. He enters the track with his trademark quips, but with a gratified, relaxed tone instead of his usual hyper-energetic style. Chance is at the peak of his career, unchallenged by the shackles of a corporate label, free to take his music in any direction he wants to and distribute it however he likes. The opening moments to this album embody this sense of freedom perfectly.
I follow through the whole album, undisturbed and completely engrossed. I find myself falling in-love with songs like Summer Friends, Blessings, Same Drugs, Juke Jam, How Great and Finish Lines. They represent all that Chance has become. Amongst these songs, Chance shows off his versatile style, bouncing from that slow-tempo, thought-out spoken word to energetic verses over-flowing with effervescent whips and wordplays. He illustrates the blissful summers running around Chathem as a kid on Summer Friends but somehow manages to balance it with the dark tone of violent life in Chicago. He has mastered rapping along side brass and gospel choir backdrops and switching up his styles to compliment whatever shape or form the production has taken. Tracks like Angels leave me wondering whether there is any other rapper in history that can convey the feeling of joy like Chance does. This album often feels like the ultimate jam session with close friends, probably going on in a church after service has long ended. This is the style of Chance’s music that I love so much.
But there are definitely moments on this album where my frown burrowed and I had to really listen to shit closely. I couldn’t simply ride the euphoric wave of Chance’s sounds that I’ve become so accustomed to. For me, my initial feeling was that the bigger artist names, such as Kanye, Wayne, 2Chainz, Young Thung, and Future completely changed the tone and feeling of a sound I’ve grown to love so much. Chance’s music is full of versatility, but it remains within a distinct style that sets him apart from almost every other rapper I know of that are big right now. For me, no-one quite comes close to replicating what Chance does in his music, making his style entirely unique in that sense. To hear him mimic the low-tone and lethargic sound of Young Thug on Mixtape really killed my vibe. As did the moment 2Chainz featured on a Chance the Rapper song. I just didn’t think it would ever happen. These were the moments during my first listen where I felt a little bit like Obi-Wan in Revenge of the Sith – “You were the chosen one, Anakin! You we’re meant to bring balance to the force, not destroy it!”
So, I listened again. And again. And I definitely found the beauty in those tracks. I began to understand Smoke Break and started to feel the party vibes of No Problem, regardless of 2Chainz unsurprisingly dead verse. However, I still feel like spots on this album for a Favourite Song, a Sunday Candy or a Juice were replaced or wasted on large-name collaborations that were simply Chance paying homage to music he likes. And there is nothing wrong with that. Who am I to say he can’t play with music he enjoys, or artists he admires? I can’t. But as a fan, they certainly changed the album experience for me and not exactly for the better.
Regardless, Coloring Book still feels like an incredible gift to the music world and is undoubtedly a project I’m going to be listening to for a long time. It is a great addition to Chance’s immaculate catalogue of work. My only plea is that he never loses his uniqueness and his talent to the mainstream trends that have, in my eyes, distorted the genre. The final harmonies of the album softly croon the question “Are you ready?” leaving me once again eager and impatient for more from hip-hop's new crowned prince.
Listen to Chance The Rapper's new album, Coloring Book, here...
Its been a while since I last shared what I've been watching... I've been stumbling across some great content, but here is a little snippet of some of my favourites!
Remember to comment if you have any videos to recommend! :)
1. GOPRO 360 DEGREE SURF BY GOPRO X FACEBOOK
One of the coolest things I've ever seen in the video world. GoPro 360 and Facebook have collaborated with a Facebook page that allows viewers to experience completely 360 degree footage. Find yourself captivated by the Manhattan skyline from a helicopter or travel through Alaska's melting ice mountains. But my favourite, and the first I watched, is this amazing surf video filmed in Tahiti!
2. MEXICO 4K BY JOSH COWAN
Young JacksGap videographer Josh Cowen recently released a stunning 4k video of his trip to Mexico. Up until this point sombreros and desperados where all I associated with Mexico, and this video has opened my eyes to how rich in natural beauty the country actually is. Lush green landscapes, caves, coves, beautiful culture. Thanks to Cowan's video, Mexico is now officially on my travel bucket list.
3. WE ARE #WOMENNOTOBJECTS BY WOMEN NOT OBJECTS
Having studied gender and identity in my media and comms course at uni, I had written about representations of women in the media quite a bit, touching on exploitation, sexualisation and the male gaze. With exploitative photographers like Terry Richardson still in business, it frustrates me to see how often women are over sexualised within the media. This was a great visual campaign, which is still on going on twitter and instagram!
4. WOODS BY TIM KELLNER
Similarly to Cowan, Kellner is part of a young elite group of filmmakers that run in the youtube circle that. He curates short and unique films with original music and posts them online. This particular one caught my eye recently. I love how its imagination and how it's framed and composed. To think that one dude with an idea just went out into a snowy forrest and shot this whole thing alone is incredible to me.
5. DAVID FINCHER'S EXTREME CLOSEUPS BY JACOB SWINNEY
David Fincher. Director of Fight Club, one of my absolute favourite films of all time. Undoubtedly one of my generations most recognised auteurs and a creative whose work can be immediately identified through style and composition. His notorious close-ups are known for making the audience feel completely overwhelmed with discomfort. Director and film buff Jacob Swinney has skilfully created a compilation in homage to Fincher's unique work. Check his vimeo out for similar videos - the Spike Jonze compilation is especially good!
6. TOKYO, IPHONE 6 PLUS BY JOSH COWAN
ANOTHER Josh Cowan video, but i just love the diversity in this guys work! So the last video was a gorgeous introduction to Mexico filmed in 4K with aerial shots and glorious landscape footage. This piece however, presents the emergence of mobile videography. The work was featured on FStoppers online magazine, commended for its style and vision, regardless of being filmed on an iPhone. I think its pretty amazing, and if it wasnt in the title I wouldnt have guessed this was filmed on such a basic peice of kit. To see more of Josh's work, check out his website at www.joshuacowan.com
I can't believe it's a week into March already, 2016 is breezing by with plenty of fresh new faces on the music scene. The last three months have seen artists fairly unknown make some big waves in the music world, with Annie Mac debuting Nao's newest single as her Hottest Record and Honne earning some regular radio exposure. If you ain't heard of these guys yet, who you been sleepin' on?!
This London duo are finally, finally getting the exposure they deserve. Releasing their first single on iTunes last summer, their unique electro-soul sound simmered through East London, swiftly reaching the ears of some of the city's best DJ's. Since then, they have released three EP's, all laced with the flawless combination of deep, distinct vocals and complex, skin-tingling synth beats.
Described as 'neo soul' combined with '90s RnB', the arresting sounds of Nao have successfully leaked all across London. Two years separate her two bodies of work, with February dropping in the summer of 2015 to critical acclaim. With obvious 90s influences, her production is nostalgic and diaphanous, but it is her distinct vocals that make her music tick. With effortless instinct, Nao can charm with you with melodic, dulcet tones, then in an instant show off a powerful range that takes you back to the sounds of 90s greats.
3. THE JAPANESE HOUSE
I first heard about The Japanese House through The 1975s effervescent frontman and Dirty Hit label-mate, Matty Healy, parading her music on twitter. I was instantly hooked. My first listen to the Clean EP put me on a natural high, feeling every beat, note and tiny detail of the masterful production. Amber Bain, the genius behind the music, has remained somewhat of an enigma until Zane Lowe showed her to the world, choosing her track Still as his last ever Hottest Record In The World.
4. MURA MASA
Only 19 years of age, Alex Crossan is already considered as one of the front-runners of electro-pops next gen. Producer, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, his career as Mura Masa began on soundcloud, with an ever-growing audience latching onto his exotic, echoing beats. Two years later his page has 20m followers, with his sound becoming more addictive with every new release - definitely one to watch this year!
Still fairly unknown, this North-London duo reached my ears through the dulcet acoustics of Mahogany Sessions youtube channel. With a rough, barely rehearsed track titled Roads, Kawala completely sold me. Jim Higson's addictive, sedative vocals are so well complimented by the acoustic melodies of Daniel McCarthy on guitar. So far, they have about four tracks on youtube, leaving my desperately waiting for more. Until then, Roads will continue to grow in play-count on my iTunes...
It's The New Sound - Soundcloud Playlist:
Here's me, Sharing The View, for the second time. I hope you enjoy it!
Just click on the image to go straight through the video, and please don't hesitate to share if you like the collection, and to comment if you have any cool videos for me to watch! :)
1. KAWALA - ROADS BY THE MAHOGANY SESSIONS
I'm a subscriber to the Mahogany Sessions channel on Youtube which features regular updates of young, relatively unknown artists performing their music in beautiful, tranquil nature settings. Recently, they posted a video of a London based band titled Kawala, who don't seem to have any music online elsewhere as of yet, but this song is really great! So give it a listen :)
2. WHAT DO YOU BELIEVE IN? BY JACKSGAP
As you may already know, I'm a big fan of what JacksGap and what Jack and his unit represent and attempt to achieve. Two days ago they posted this video titled 'What Do You Believe In?'. It features a crop of beautiful, incredible human beings from our generation, openly speaking about what they believe in. This video is a positive video, that hopefully will help our generation realise what we can achieve and what kind of difference we can make.
3. #PROUDTOLOVE BY YOUTUBE
This is a video that Youtube presented through a #ProudToLove campaign celebrating the acceptance of gay marriage in all 50 states of America. Despite all the negative events that have happened this year, I feel overwhelmingly proud to live at a time when the world has taken such a huge step closer to equality, and acceptance. This is such an incredible collection of videos by YouTube to celebrate this achievement and all the people that are now able to feel enlightened and liberated! #ProudToLove
4. MOVE BY STA TRAVEL AUSTRALIA
STA introduced a trilogy of videos way, way back by a trio of travellers and filmmakers. They were each titled with a different verb; MOVE, EAT, LEARN. Within the short time of the video you're taken through a journey that takes place in so many different cities, all decorated in wonderful, colourful and fruitful cultures. I stumbled upon this video again recently and loved it even more as my wanderlust is so strong at the moment, and the editing is just so perfect. I'd definitely recommend watching all three films in the short trilogy.
5. STATE OF MIND BY ADY SULEIMAN
Ady Suleiman is a Nottingham native who is slowly breaking through to the mainstream. With a unique soulful and tongue and cheek sound, it's easy to find yourself nodding a long to a quick spoken word verse and then suddenly vibing to some crazy melodies in the chorus. I first saw him at Dot to Dot this year, and then a couple weekends ago supporting Chance The Rapper in Brixton Electric. Definitely go check him out. This is his latest single - State of Mind.