NCS: Teaching the next generation some skills

Born from David Cameron’s strong statement in his 2010 manifesto: “there is a tragic waste of potential that shames the
nation”, NCS was introduced.

As part of the cabinet’s ‘Big Society’ project to bring together communities, National Citizen Service, was established under the Coalition government in 2010 to inspire 15-17 year olds to challenge themselves by taking on out of the ordinary activities and learn some new skills in the process.

Cameron set out in his manifesto to create a “programme which encourages young people and gives them a sense of purpose, optimism and belonging.” The ethos is set out with six main objectives aimed to encourage teamwork, communication, and independence in a social and challenging environment; and “above all, is going to help a generation of young people appreciate what they achieve, for themselves, and by themselves.”

NCS inspires young people to challenge themselves both physically and mentally through a variety of outdoor activities such as expeditions, wild camping, kayaking, and high rope activities. It allows them to increase their responsibility and independence through tasks such as budgeting, planning and organising, and cooking for a whole team; in addition to mixing with other team members, and socialising with new people in a new environment.

One of the main parts of NCS is to give something back to the community. Participants must undertake a social action project which encourages community engagement through volunteering, raising awareness or fundraising; all while reflecting on the experience to take their new honed skills into their future.

During the planning phase for the programme, Cameron anticipated something like National Service but without the military regime (hence the name), as “too many young people seem lost. Their lives lack shape or any kind of direction, so they take their frustrations out on the world around them.” But what the government did not anticipate while creating the programme is that the young people who take part are in fact already incredibly talented and intelligent people.

Young people get a lot of bad press, stereo-typically for being lazy, unenthusiastic and wasting opportunities offered to them. This stereotype continues into their early twenties as students. However, it is the young people of this country who are passionate and idealistic, they are talented and skilled, and NCS allows them to unlock their potential and enable them to demonstrate those skills, as well as learn new ones in the process.

The programme is truly remarkable to see the difference in participants from the beginning to the end, and to see them persevere with challenges no matter how big or small they may be. Participants are from all kinds of backgrounds regardless of medical issues and disabilities, poor or affluent, as well as different ethnic minorities. It challenges everyone in a different way; whether it is reaching the summit of a mountain on the expedition and wild camping in a remote place, conquering a fear of water, or even staying away from home for the first time. One of the main parts of NCS is social mixing which is about coming together as a team. Beginning on day one with a group of 11 other strangers, undertake physical outdoor challenges together, cook together, eat together, live together and by the end of three weeks, be carrying out a community project together.

Government funding for the programme is mandatory to “sow the seeds of the Big Society, and see them thrive in years to come” according to Cameron. The Big Society project has been welcomed across parties in the government, and by youth organisations to have a secure investment into the future of society. NCS is starting to take shape to transform a generation into the new society, with hope of setting the bar for engagement with teenagers and young people for generations to come.

However, with every government led scheme comes a host of problems.

In 2016, 93,000 people around the country took part which is an encouraging amount of people who have graduated with employability and life skills. The growth rate is a steady a 23 percent, with the aim of 360,000 participants by 2021 – which is a staggering number of young people to get through a programme each year.

This means the current larger waves of 72 people, broken down into teams of 12 with one member of staff will become teams of 20-30 people with hundreds of participants in any one place at a time.

But as teachers know very well, for every self-sufficient young person, is one who needs some extra support, and when the participant rate is growing so quickly, there are only so many 16 year olds one member of staff can handle for 24 hours a day before problems start arising. One of those problems is spreading their time to thinly across each member of the group, and the people who need the most support slip through the net.

The government has invested £1.26 billion of funding from 2016-2021, however, there is also a target to reduce the cost per person by 29 percent to meet these funding requirements.

In my experience of working on NCS as a team leader, it is a very intense yet rewarding job. The intensity comes from two weeks of residentials in which one takes part in most of the activities to ensure each person fulfils the ethos, in addition to the responsibility for the pastoral care of each person. If the group was any bigger than 12, this role would be extremely difficult to manage, not to mention the social dynamic within the group would alter as groups tend to divide with more people.

 

At the end of the programme, I left with the desire to become a youth worker and be able to work with young people 1:1, as for some people there was so much more potential they could tap into with NCS just being the start of their future – with some extra support this could be achieved for certain people. I was not the only member of staff who felt this way at the end of the programme, and it felt almost like a waste of skills and resources for a young person to be so close to reaching their potential when the programme ends. Just like the feeling of having worked hard to master a particular skill, yet not knowing what to do with it afterwards.

The job satisfaction comes through the presentations towards the end of the programme to see these young people socialising with their new friends, discussing the things they achieved, and presenting their experience to the other NCS participants.

For most members of staff, it brings a tear to their eye to see the impact they have made on 12 young lives through the NCS programme. To see the instant development these young people have made: from starting the programme shy and reserved, and leaving joyful, taking away new skills and the confidence to be able to interact with people they meet for the first time in the future.

However, there isn’t the facility to work with these young people afterwards, unless one happens to be a youth worker in their school, sixth form or college. And, for some of these youngsters, they slip through the net and don’t receive the guidance they need. Which brings me to my conclusion that the government’s targets of having 360,000 participants per year by 2021 is an impractical and overstretched aim. Shepherding as many people to get through the programme as possible is the goal, but there are more favourable ways of doing so without compromising on the quality of the programme and the time spent between staff and young people.

Unfortunately, government schemes are a numbers game and more funding allocation includes the aim of more participants. However, as it is the case on many occasions, quality of over quantity should be considered, particularly on the basis on the education and success of the next generation.

In the same way that university degrees have become the norm, the idea is the skills and personal development learned on NCS should be the standard for generations to come. We should be teaching our youth to be confident, to be able to socially interact with one another, to be able to give something back to the local community, and to be independent and take responsibility for their own lives.

We want to set our standard for British youth to be high achievers which is a bold vision to have for the future, but one which is achievable through the right means and one which we should have already had in place.

However, the target of 360,000 participants by 2021 in this standard can be dangerous if not managed in the right way. Firstly, it not only sets the bar, but raises it in making it more difficult to stand out, and difficult for people to succeed through the programme with so many people taking part.

Secondly, to reach over 300,000 people by 2021 there needs to be a 40 percent increase in numbers. Currently, not every place on the course is being filled – of the 93,000 who took part last year, there were 124,000 places available. Although, there is a steady drop-out rate before the course has started, which is a disappointing waste of money.

And finally, for those numbers to be achieved, there still needs to be a 23 percent reduction in programme costs bringing the average number down to £1,319 per person. There needs to be a significant increase in staff to be able to coordinate such a programme, and more opportunities to secure the future for those few who fall through the net, and never quite reach their potential.

After implementation, our youth may not appear so “lost” as if their “lives lack shape or any sense of direction” according to Cameron, but he has hope:

“The young of this country are as passionate and idealistic as any generation before. Perhaps more passionate. They march against poverty, they set up online campaigns, they push their parents to recycle and they care deeply about climate change.”

I have been lucky enough to work with some young people who are inspired and motivated to do good in the world and take every opportunity given. After my time as an NCS team leader, I celebrate the achievement, and have high aspirations for the successes of these young people to come, and the standard they set for the next generation.

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Back to basics in the anti-cycling war

The country has gone mad on taking a side in the cycling vs drivers war. Since the death of Kim Briggs, the pedestrian who was tragically killed by the cyclist Charlie Alliston last year.

In 2016, there were 400 pedestrians killed in traffic related accidents – one of which was due to a cyclist.

Alliston has been cleared of charges of manslaughter, and charged with “wanton or furious driving”. An offence which many people have never heard of. The archaic conviction was common in the nineteenth century with causing bodily harm by wanton and furious driving of non-motorised vehicles such as carriages, and bicycles.

Vehicles of course, follow different rules. Bikes aren’t vehicles, and as cases of cyclists killing pedestrians are extremely rare, the law has never been updated to include cycling in the Road Traffic Act. That is a point to remember, that these cases are extremely rare, unfortunate and could have been prevented.

The tragic accident began with a collision which happens daily in London. Foolhardy cyclists senseless enough to weave in and out of moving traffic in a busy city, and pedestrians crossing the road while looking at their phones. Yet, on this occasion the unsuccessful efforts of both parties to avert a collision, led to Mrs Briggs dying of a brain injury in hospital.

 

Both parties are at fault in this situation. However Alliston is undoubtedly more so, as even without the intention of causing an accident, he was knowingly: riding a fixed gear bike without a front brake on the roads in a busy city, endangering himself and others, and not obeying the highway code.

To do that on any road is a recipe for disaster, let alone in the busiest city in the country.

Fixed-gear bikes are becoming more popular on the road. However, they belong on the track and not in busy city centres where as long as the wheels are moving, so are the pedals and the legs attached to them. Which makes it extremely difficult to brake, without considering braking to prevent a collision.

In his campaign to introduce new legislation into the Road Traffic Act, the husband of Mrs Briggs’ says: “With the fixed-wheel bike without the front brake the only means of braking is reverse pedalling… That’s totally inadequate and we’ve seen that with my wife’s death.”

The problem with this story is how much media attention it has drawn and how many opinions it has attracted. The cyclist vs driver war has been fuelled by hateful comments towards cyclists as a result of this story. But why?

Mrs Briggs’ husband is campaigning for a change in the law so it is fair for everybody. Allowing for: cycling to be incorporated into the Road Traffic Act, death by dangerous cycling, and death by careless cycling to be included.  The simple fact the crown prosecution service have charged Alliston with an archaic offence shows there is a gap in what can be charged for these rare situations; and as Briggs’ says: “It’s not so much a new law as just bringing the current law up to date”.

I can confidently say that many cyclists would agree to this legislation to be introduced. As most of cyclists climb aboard their bikes with the intention of keeping themselves and others safe.

Briggs, a London cyclist himself said his campaign for a change in the law was not “witch-hunt against cyclists”, but dealing with the specific issue of “reckless cyclists and those people who choose to ride fixed-wheel bikes without the additional front brake” he added.

When I saw this video of a cycling courier in London, I was horrified that anybody could ride that dangerously. Not only endangering themselves but everybody else on the road with no second thought.

On the one hand, videos like this can be found all over the internet. With reckless cyclists happily riding dangerously, cutting up other road users, riding through red lights and on the wrong side of the road, simply without following any of the highway code.

On the other hand, so can videos with footage shaming drivers by passing too close, cutting up cyclists, overtaking on corners and double white lines. Yet, as I have written before, cyclists will never win the collision war because the only people defending cyclists, are cyclists.

The only media outlets I have seen offering a balanced argument is the cycling publications. The Sunday Times, mocked the government for investing money in cycling. Journalist Adam Boulton, led his column last Sunday with the headline: “At last the wheels are coming off our senseless worship of bicycles” and accused Cycling UK of “cherry picking their facts” in relation to statistics of cycling related injuries; despite claiming on Twitter he is a cyclist himself.

 

 

The London Standard used the insensitive phrase of “Dangerous cyclist mowed down pedestrian”. The Guardian, accused of double standards, went with the unbalanced view that cyclists can get away with such an offence but a motorist would not. In other stories, the newspaper led with ‘cyclist accused of killing woman shouted at her after collision’.

While Cycling Weekly attempted to neutralise the debate and explain to the anti-cyclist media, that no cyclist is applauding or condoning what happened. There are cyclists who are just as horrified at the videos like the one above; and who immediately said Alliston was in the wrong for riding a fixie without brakes – the facts remain the same.

Lets go back to basics here.  Statistics by the Department for Transport show that over 3,000 cyclists were killed or seriously injured in the year up to June 2016.

How many were reported on the same level as the Alliston case by the national media?

In regards to these reported cases involving drivers at fault: how many drivers have sided with the dead or injured cyclist?

In situations more locally, how many drivers have apologised to a cyclist for passing too close, overtaking in unsafe places, or pulling out of/ pulling into junctions without consideration for anyone on the road?

The irritation throughout this case comes from the anti-cycling supporters firing up the flame balls ready to toss at the cyclists, after one accident. It says a lot about the attitudes of road users in the UK and the reforms which need to be made.

 

“Hanoi Hanoi”

When I finally arrived in the centre of Hanoi, I found it one of the prettiest and most vibrant capitals in Southeast Asia, and aside from the capital city prices, (with another increase due to Vietnamese new year) it felt completely different to anywhere else I had been on my travels so far–the polar opposite of Bangkok.


Bangkok is a love-it-or-hate-it place. In my opinion, it was an unforgiving place for many reasons. It has its quirks, the main touristy sights and the parks were pleasant, there are plenty of chic cafes, and the most known place among travellers are the the bars of Khao San Road if partying is on the agenda. But if you can stand not being clean for the whole time, the smell getting into your clothes, eating some questionable food (whether on the street or in a restaurant), the noise, the pollution, the hassle from dodgy locals, and finally the worst thing of all is the unescapable smell of open sewers which the local restaurants and businesses freely add to in the street, domestic waste sites, air pollution and polluted waterways, then you will love Bangkok.

Whether you think you may love it or hate it, it is a must-see in Asia. To experience the thrill of almost being hit on the pavement by a motorcycle, trying with all your might to cross a road without having to read through your travel insurance’s medical policy before doing so; and to keep up with the pace of life in the capital city of Thailand, it is a once in a lifetime experience–but just once will do. 

Back streets in Hanoi’s Old Town full of chic cafes, bars and the best Luxury Hostel

In Vietnam I spent the vast majority of my time outdoors. Safety is everything. Little things like knowing your handbag will be safe by your feet in a cafe, to eating the street food without analysing the thing you are going to eat, the person who cooked it and the state of their hands. This showed as the only time I got ill was in Thailand, and most of my meal times were spent looking for an alternative, more hygienic place to go, until my appetite was lost completely.

In Kanchanaburi (Thailand) the only vegetarian food I could find was a banana pancake. Although this is was a delicious start to travelling the banana pancake trail, it doesn’t quite make it as an evening meal.

However, it wasn’t all bad. Thipsami was one of my frequently visited restaurants in Bangkok which coincidentally was next door to my hostel. Renowned all over the world as the best restaurant in Bangkok with their famous pad Thai wrapped in egg, it was excellent and certainly something worth instagramming.

The Thai food in Chiang Mai was also excellent. Street food was less common out of market times and it often felt like there were more eateries than people so there was a huge variety. In Green Tiger Hostel, I had the best curry I have ever had!

Outside of food safety there is personal safety, and I didn’t feel much of that in Thailand. Which is odd because according to the Mekong Regions 2015 figures, Thailand has more visitors every year than Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia have put together. Thailand is more popular for visitors but the other countries seem more set up to accept them into the communities.

Thailand was not all bad. I have some fantastic memories which just about outweigh the bad. I learned a huge amount about the culture and history that it leaves me with more questions, but satisfied that I have been there and done it. I just thought it was overrated. The mountainous scenery in Northern thailand is beautiful, and to wake up to that every day would be comparable to living in parts of the Lake District. Feeding a baby tiger, and riding around the outer Chiang Mai countryside on a motorcycle to some remote areas and finding quiet unnamed waterfalls were some of the highlights. But I cannot understand what the attraction is. Everwhere is populated by tourists, so much so that it feels like there is no authenticity left. I feel my time spent in some of the more untapped countries like Laos, was much more rewarding. 

Throughout Vietnam there was not one moment when I felt unsafe even during the time I hired a motorcycle to ride the Hai Van Pass. (See Top Gear Vietnam Special). The taxi scam moment was more a head-in-hands-and-sigh moment than feeling unsafe. Whereas in Thailand, from the moment I arrived in Bangkok airport until the moment I departed for Laos, the only place I felt safe was Chiang Mai, and it was so westernised I might as well have been in Europe.

Down the little streets of the old town in Hanoi, it has the cosy small city atmosphere. But when you explore outside of the old town, particularly during Tet (Vietnamese New Year) the hustle and bustle of the outer city screams busy city centre, with anything you could want from a city centre. Stick with which ever feels the most comfortable and it is easy to extend your time in Hanoi just to soak up the at atmosphere, eat some delicious cinnamon buns the size of your head, and drink some excellent Vietnamese iced coconut coffee in some artsy fartsy cafe by the lake.

Clearly, with the amount of development in Vietnam, the figures for tourism in the next few years will increase dramatically. In Phong Nha, a national park in the centre of the country hotels have filled up and extended the main street in the last 12 months, let alone last few years with so many shells of hotels being built at the time of writing. Not even 10 years ago this sleepy town was no bigger than an English country village, mostly with only women because all the men were out in the jungle for weeks at a time and the nearest hotel was a 40 minute drive away in the next city.

As we would recognise it in the UK, it is an area of outstanding natural beauty, and a UNESCO world heritage site which is ranked on three levels. Only 10 percent of all UNESCO sites are registered for three levels: biodiversity, cultural history, and geology and caves. 

The best part about all this information is that it is run by local people so the money is put straight back into the local economy. From getting a cup of coffee at one of the cafes, to being led of a three day tour in the jungle. This is eco-tourism at its best. It is about having a circular loop of funding that does not leave the place it should. Sustainable development, and moving on without leaving a footprint. When you see exactly what your money is being spent on in the jungle, in the conservation areas, and it goes to local people who work hard for it, it would be rare if you said it is not worth it.

The only downside is that as this area becomes more popular it attracts bigger businesses, and big city companies to invest. Which eventually means the money from a big hotel chain is taken away from the area, and the locals wonder how long it will be before that happens.


A similar thing has happened with Hoi An. Once a little ancient market town, now expanded to a bigger area full of hotels and tour companies. Even ‘Hidden Beach’ is one of the most popular places in the pretty town discussed on Trip Advisor, which kind of loses its charm.

Tourism is not all bad though. Although more tourists usually means a place loses its authenticity, it means the locals get a taste of the rest of the world. It is common practice for Vietnamese children to learn English either at school or with a private tutor. If you sit still in a public place for long enough you will find multiple Vietnamese kids politely asking to practice their English with you. Although it is a little weird at first, it is a great way to learn a slice of what the Vietnamese life is like. 

Travelling is a luxury that westerners have at their disposal. There are a variety of reasons why Asian people do not travel. The first is that with the exchange rate to the Euro, Dollar or the British pound, it means it is ridiculously cheap for us but for them to travel would require their life savings. Then there is the language barrier. Learning English is a relatively new thing in comparison to the rest of the world, and if you cannot speak the world language that makes the simplest of tasks more difficult. 

Strangely enough it is not even common to travel in their own country. The two teenagers I spoke to had never been 100km out of Hanoi. In the 15 days I was in Vietnam, I had travelled more of the country than they had in 18 years! They had never even been to Laos or Cambodia the neighbouring countries, which is comparable to never visiting Scotland or Wales for an English person. The reason is that for Vietnamese people (and possibly same for the rest of the region) aside from living costs the money earned is spent on and spent with their families. Family time is highly regarded in Vietnam, and because of the two reasons above there are no family holidays. Which makes travelling not very highly regarded overall, as very few people do it anyway.

In addition to this flying is the quickest but most expensive way to get around the Mekong region. An hours flight at £150 can take up to 26 hours on a bus or train costing anywhere from £10-30. They are influratingly slow and stop for unknown reasons for long periods of time, so even travelling down to the next city is a big time commitment, and forget it if you need to go anywhere fast. 

For Vietnamese people, tourism is one way of finding out what the rest of world is like. Engaging with foreigners, learning English and talking to people in the street. Tourism brings new cuisines to their world. One girl I spoke to said her favourite food was pizza! As tourism grows in Vietnam, more young people feel more engaged with the world, they read and research about other countries, so much so that they can have a conversation about conservation projects in Germany or ask why Britain are leaving the EU. They are clued up on what is happening in the rest of the world, but they have just never been. The same girl who favours pizza said she wants to travel, just like me, and see the world as well.

All part of the experience

Experiencing Asia will leave a mark on you forever. That was the conclusion I came to after drawing a mental image from researching and hearing stories from fellow travellers, and so it has.

There are some things you cannot unsee, and there are others you may never have the opportunity to see again. Asia is the biggest traveller hotspot in the world. With the cheap lifestyle (for westerners), and something to tickle or destroy all five of your senses, it has an attraction. 

Hanoi has become one of my favourite cities in Southeast Asia. After analysis I feel it is because Vietnam resembles much more of a civilised country than its more popular next door-but-one neighbour, Thailand. But, there are a lot of similarities, like transport.  

The experience of getting to Hanoi was unforgettable and certainly was not one I would like to ever re-live. 
The sleeper bus from Vientiane (Laos) was not the most uncomfortable bus I have ever been on from my time in Vietnam; however, the dodgy service stations, the questionable borders, and the areas en route to Hanoi were enough to make even seasoned travellers feel uncomfortable.

In the western world, our borders (land, air or sea) have high security and are regulated to the highest standards. Generally the process goes: wait in a queue at the border. When it is your turn hand your passport over to a moody looking officer. Make a facial expression similar to the one on your passport. Maybe pay some money for a visa if required (and always the same amount it says on a plaque or information form) or show a pre-arranged visa, get a stamp and off you go.

Over here, air borders are the most secure, but certain land borders are known to let people through with a monetary bribe. Following discussion, everyone seems to have a difference experiences of different borders, each story worse than the previous. So it really depends what day you arrive on and with which company what experience will be had!

In my experience at this particular border, if you are white and non-Asian your passport is put to the bottom of the pile straight away. That is after the westerners and yourself have attempted to form an orderly queue, but generally Asians only know how to queue when they have a ticket with a number on it. This was not available at this particular border, so climbing over each other to the desk whilst shouting at each other in the process is the only way.

Once you have waited an age for your departure stamp, you must proceed to the next unnamed building to find out what is next.

It is 07:00, raining and cold like a normal British day and once again the westerners have to wait until the end to get their passport checked by a rude, sexist and obnoctious young boy who feels the need to comment on every females appearance before letting them through the gate anyway. The European women and I were pretty disgruntled, but as it is unknown whether you will be allowed to proceed, and you could be denied entry ‘just because’ the person with the stamp is in a fouler mood than normal, you have to take what you get.

Meanwhile his colleague performs the obligatory yelling in Vietnamese at you before you can continue to the visa desk–whoever said German was a harsh language has not been to Asia.

With the same process as the departure desk, no orderly queue, arms and sharp words flying everywhere, the western passports are put at the bottom. But the Europeans are the lucky ones. If you are from the USA yours gets put on a separate desk to look at after everyone has passed the border, and after the guards have all had their morning fag breaks. If you are a lucky American, you might not even have to pay a second time for your visa.

Three hours later all but two on the bus managed to cross the border. While we continued the journey to Hanoi, in which it became obvious the only rule of the road over here is to use your horn, two were left stranded at the border in the rain and cold.

Leave voters: what do you think about our borders now?

If you are not interested in how our borders then scroll down a bit.

The UK does not enter into the Schengen Agreement. Which means it retains control of its borders and every single person who passes through them, whether British, European or any other nationality has to be checked for the appropriate documents. For European countries who have entered into the Schengen Agreement it means citizens can freely pass through the borders without having their passports checked.

The advantage is that it is easier for the free movement of EU citizens, however it also means it creates a small loophole for immigrants or migrants to enter Europe. It is not the sole reason for migration in Europe, but it is one of the contributing factors. However, to get to the UK every single person still needs to have their identity checked, which makes immigrating to UK difficult without official documents.

Back to Hanoi. The worst part about Asia is the constant harassment. Any country, any place, any time. Trying to adjust to your surroundings while you depart from the bus is impossible when you have five different blokes screaming “TAXI TAXI”, “MOTORBIKE MOTORBIKE”, “WHERE YOU GO? WHERE YOU GO?” at you. Asia might have a poor rating on the poverty and human rights scale, but they are world-class at the sport of harassment, bargaining and making westerners feel uncomfortable in such situations.

But it is not just taxis, it can be anything from toilet roll, to them forcing you to take a photo of them and make you pay for it. Even the children are in on it. The very young ones learn two words of English and anytime they see a white person they put on the cute face, hold out their hand and say: “Hello, money?”

In Bangkok it is fairly easy to work out which taxis are safe. Choose pink or the green and yellow ones, and ones with a meter. In Hanoi, the fraudsters are a bit more intelligent and there is no way to tell if you are being scammed or not until you get into the taxi and watch the meter crank up twice as fast. As you are in a new foreign place, they can happily drive you around the streets for an extra 10-15 minutes, until you realise: “This is the second time around this lake.” They have ‘fast-meters’, so just when you think you are safe by getting in a taxi with a meter, they hit you with a 600,000VD fee. (About £21). As I had read about this, realised what was happening about half way through the journey, but yet could do nothing about it, the guys I shared the cab with bartered him down a few 100,000VD and gave him less than he was asking for but unfortunately more than the journey was worth. 

The most free I felt was in Chiang Mai, a richer and more westernised area in Northern Thailand. Poverty was almost non-existent, or at least nearly invisible so there were less people to harass you by saying a noun twice. Here the taxis are pre-booked through a company, any stalls or street food almost always belongs to a market, and less people have to nag for business.

In Sapa, (Northern Vietnam) after ambushing us from the bus, one woman stood and watched a friend and I have breakfast and drink coffee, meanwhile she tried to persuade us to go to her homestay–I lost count how many times we said no. On another occasion in Sapa while the same friend and I were in a coffee shop, a young girl no older than 11 stood next to me for over half an hour trying to sell me a bracelet. After I bought one, she continued to stand there and I suddenly felt responsible for the kid as her mother had vanished.

Whether it is taxis, tuk tuks, random strangers in the street pointing you in the direction of something then requesting money for it, dodgy blackjack games you get invited to, or weirdo locals saying the temples are closed today and to go with them for an “alternative city tour”, being scammed is all part of the Asian experience, but the skill is trying to keep it to a minimum.

There are however many enjoyable parts of Vietnam…

Bizarre days are the best travelling days

English rain. Is it called that because it follows English people all around the world? Rain was never something I associated Thailand with, at least not the typical British fat, sideways, soaked-to-your-skin rain, which had me ringing out my t-shirt and wiping the end of my nose. But it brought a smile and a sense of ‘home’ to my trip.

Outside of the monsoon season it does not often rain in Kanchanaburi in the west of Thailand. A normal day is blue sky with a few clouds and the humidity is a lot less than the big cities like Bangkok where it averages 80 percent most days. 

Riding around on that motorcycle through the greasy roads of Kanchanaburi in the pouring English rain brought a smile to my face I remembered the similar times I had on my Vespa four years ago. But at home it wasn’t such a pleasant experience… the rain was not warm.

Departing Bangkok was an interesting experience. The train to Kanchanaburi departs from Thonburi Station in the west district of Bangkok over the river. But many taxi drivers do not know about this station, and as most do not speak English, they hear “train” and take the passenger to the main train station. After that they hear the intelligently named Thonburi metro station (or equivalent rail network) and drive there. I understand this is a common misconception amongst foreigners traveling to Kanchanaburi and in the second station they have the name of the correct station written down in Thai. The third taxi driver asks another driver for directions, and eventually arrives at the right train station, by this time the second and final train of the day has already left.

As day turned to night, the rain came in and upon arriving in my new destination it just got worse. This is when things became frightening. I could not contact my Airbnb host to change my arrival time and destination after the fiasco with the train, nor did I know where the family lived. I had no 3G for Google Maps, no map of the city, and no idea. Just an address on a piece of paper slowly turning soggy.
A pathetic fallacy I thought? Trying to bring back the memory of the little blue spot on Google Maps of my destination, I walked in the direction I vaguely remember it being in to try and find a house which resembled the one I was due to stay in.

While waiting at the bus station I saw a sign which detailed the frequent kidnapping of people which happens in Thailand. Where somebody will stop in a car of van, grab a person and drive away. Brilliant I thought. What a fantastic way to shorten this trip. 

Walking around in the rain, Thai men asked where I was going and I showed them the address, the bewildered look on their faces gave me all the information I needed to see that nobody did anything by street names and house numbers around here.

Why couldn’t I have just booked a hostel or guest house like a normal person, I cursed in my head.

But one man brought his umbrella and walked with me, in silence because neither of us could communicate with each other without using hand signals. In the moments when we walked around the streets I wondered if this was going to be the ending to my trip, when a van pulls up and snatches a lone female traveller. If it really was a pathetic fallacy it would certainly create the best atmosphere for a kidnapping. 

But actually, he took me to a guest house around the corner where the lady spoke a fraction of English. She understood my situation and called my host. As it turns out the house I was supposed to be at was around the next bend a few doors down. According to the lady, the man with the umbrella is like the grandad of the neighbourhood–always looking after people.

What started out as an expensive, bizarre head-in-hands experience, turned out to be a fantastic Thai meal cooked by one of the hosts, my first double bed in over a fortnight to sleep in, and a great family I got to spend the next few days with. 

This is why I booked an airbnb. The best way to find out about the places one stays in is to talk to the people around you. Guidebooks only take you so far, and internet searches are handy tools to find information about the tourist attractions; but to learn about real life in the destination you have to engage with local people.

Why would you ever want to leave Europe? 

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A memorial in Denmark to remember those who fought and went to war. “One moment, one person, one place.”

Here’s a question for a British citizen:

“When was the last time you visited another European country on the continent?”

Because I can hedge my bets on if the answer is: “in the last year or so” one may have been more likely to have voted “remain” in the EU referendum.

As a pro-European, I sit here in a European country surrounded by people I have met from all over Europe to read an article on the progress of Brexit so far, and I still cannot understand why just over half of the voting population would vote to leave Europe, and nor can they.

Our location in the UK, coupled with our British values make us actually quite far removed from Europe already. We have our own currency, we predominantly govern ourselves, and we make our own laws; yet we are part of something bigger.

Think of the company Virgin. The parent conglomerate is Virgin, and the branches are Virgin Media, Virgin Airlines, Virgin Trains and so on. Each is almost an independent company which sets it own rules, and is each directed by a different person, but it it is overseen by the vision of the founders of Virgin.

So the UK is its own company, and we look after ourselves like we are our own company. But ultimately we are a branch of Europe.

When Virgin Airlines was in decline, Branson sold Virgin Records to invest the money back in the Airline. When Britain was in recession in 2008, we were bailed out by our fellow branches from the same tree (as well as other non-EU countries). And when Greece suffered financial problems throughout the last few years, they were bailed out by other European Union members.

We have European laws. However, the vast majority of our laws did not change whenever we joined the euro zone in 1973. European laws do not have to be implemented in every country. If a country decides it does not want to comply with a law, it doesn’t have to, but it has to show that it has something put in place instead. Just like in the UK when a bill is passed through the Parliament: it has to be voted on in the cabinet in the commons and in the House of Lords, if it is not then it is  passed backwards and forwards until it is.

This is why in the UK we drive on the other side of the road and the other side of the car to other European countries–and the rest of the world for that matter.

It is unclear what the percentage of EU laws are implemented in the UK, as there is no distinct definition of what is an EU law. However, in research conducted by the BBC in the referendum campaign: of “945 acts of parliament implemented between 1993-2014, 231 implemented were of EU obligation.” And of over 33,000 statutory instruments implemented in the same period, 4,283 were of EU obligations.

But why is it important to show the number of EU laws the UK has opposed? The EU are the not the enemy, and the whole point of an EU law is so countries in the union can operate on the same level.

To apply for EU membership is difficult, and the country in question has to show that it respects the common values of the member states. Article two of the Lisbon Treaty outlines these values as: “Respect for human dignity, freedom, democracy, equality, the rule of law and respect for human rights”.

For example, Turkey is geographically in Europe, yet it has never been recognised as European by its neighbours. To quote the Author Tim Marshall: “Istanbul was European City of Culture 2010, it competes in the Eurovision Song Contest and the UEFA European Championship”; but it is not part of the European Union despite applying for membership in the 1970’s, it has been continually rejected. Factors include its record on human rights, its economy, and the disparity of living conditions.

Here in the EU there are so many opportunities for people of different nationalities within Europe to have free movement, to live, work and retire in a different country while still receiving all of the benefits of their country like pensions.

Being in the EU has given us cheaper and safer holidays without having visas, as so much security is invested in EU airports and online for things like buying a ticket abroad. We have European health insurance, free trade deals, access to the single market, and access to one of the biggest economies in the world.

We pay a hefty membership to be part of this member state, as one does for a club. But just like in your local athletics, darts, or Harry Potter club you receive something in return: a cape, a club house, weekly training sessions, equipment, subsidised entry fees, insurance, and membership to the worldwide Harry Potter alliance.

EU money pays for our roads in areas like Cornwall as part of the regeneration scheme, bridges and infrastructure in some British cities, investment to the NHS, renewable energy infracstrure, and some government schemes are partially funded by the EU. Wales is the biggest benefitter of EU funding (in terms of UK countries) as it goes through regeneration.

Why wouldn’t a tiny island in the sea want to be part of that?

The EU was set up after the Second World War as a peace organisation between member states. In the 1970’s the UK became a member of the ECC (now the EU) and a few years later had a referendum vote. The British public voted to stay in the EU, so what has happened since?

The nonesense debate about taking control of our borders has been going on since the 1960’s and it will continue to go on forever more. But if we have free movement to places like Spain, Germany, France and Portugal, why should those citizens not have free movement to the UK?

Let’s not forget our country is surrounded by the sea. There are exceptions to the rule on how people enter illegally, (such as the immigration crisis in Calais last year) but that happens in every country, and yes changes need to be made to prevent this but the numbers are minuscule in terms of the bigger picture. For anyone to get in, unless they arrive by swimming they have to go through a border.

To obtain a UK visa for non-EU citizens is now extremely difficult. First of all it is not a simple as just getting a visa, there are so many different types. Which cost different amounts and the individual receives different benefits, such as receiving NHS care the same as a UK tax payer.

In Germany I met an Australian girl who applied for a visa, it her cost $1,000 AUS dollars, (the price has recently gone up) and she has to sit a test. This is not a girl who is coming in the country to “take our jobs” she has a profession and is looking for a place in Europe to settle in, and to simply pass through the UK to visit some friends in Edinburgh, she still has to go through this process.

An EU source told the BBC: Everyone in EU parliament think “the Brits have lost it.”

Back to Brexit, the leave campaign did make some good points, and there are so many things that need to be improved in the EU, such as all of the problems surrounded by the migrant crisis last year, trade deals, and so on. But look at the way the referendum ended…

The Leave campaign was taken to court over “knowingly misleading” voters over the figure of £350bn paid to Europe every week, which was found to be purely mythical. In addition to this, take a look at the politicians who were heading the campaign: one is the former and current, and former and current leader of the UK Independence Party. Another is a former cabinet minister who was sacked after the by-election. And the final is Boris Johnson: a once good Mayor of London who stood for two terms, but since failed on his dream to become Prime Minister. Instead settled for a role too far out of his depth as foreign secretary, as a result the international reaction was “overwhelmingly negative”. After the news of Johnson as foreign secretary, an EU source told the BBC: Everyone in EU parliament think “the Brits have lost it.”

This is not to say the referendum was a waste of time (and money–whose money?). The Brexit campaign posed some good arguments and the EU is by no means a model union. If it were, the UK would have implemented a lot more of EU laws, right? And we might drive on the wrong side of the road and the wrong side of the car.

The Switzerland model works well for the EU and Switzerland. But Switzerland have products and an industry to trade. Much of the British industry has been sold off to foreign companies either in Europe or the rest of the world such as the French energy company EDF who own many UK power stations. The outstanding Chinese trade deal for nuclear power stations, the steel works in the North East is now owned outside of the UK. We have our British farming industry to trade because the produce we consume in this country is imported, yet farmers subsidiaries come from the EU. Where will it end?

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A quote from a prisoner at Sachsenhausen Concentration Camp in Berlin.

On my travels in Europe, I have so far met people from Germany, Portugal, Denmark, France, and Brazil, and I have been in three cities for less than a week overall. We learn by meeting people from all over the world, seeing how different counties operate, and how people communicate. A cosmopolitan Europe is a good thing, but in the UK we seem to be scared of growth, and regeneration. Of Brits under 24, 75 percent voted to remain in the EU. That means a variety of things, that people under 24 want a diverse Britain, they want access to other European countries, because that means more opportunities.

In Copenhagen I made friends with a Portuguese guy, I asked why he settled in Denmark and he said because the wages are much higher and the living conditions are much better. In a medium scale job (not a manager or a supervisor) in one day he earns a the equivalent of a week’s wage in Portugal.

One day I would hope to do the same, to move to a different country for a while, work in a different industry and experience life in a different country. Being part of the EU makes that much easier.

As I discuss the brexit situation with these people from all over Europe, I feel embarrassed to say that nearly 52 percent of the UK voters voted to leave the EU.

 

And so the adventure begins…

 

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Photo by: flamingotoes.com

Travelling is (so far) an experience I feel like I have done before. Perhaps it is familiar from the expedition around Romania and Bulgaria I did back in 2012; that was a proper experience of travelling: communicating with new people, completing the project and challenges we were set as a team, and trying not to get mugged in the process.

Or maybe it is the cluster of exotic holidays I experienced growing up? As I always reiterate, I am grateful for being able to see the world. Trips with my parents blurred the lines between ‘holiday’ and ‘travelling’ as we have never been the sit-on-a-beach type, but always the explored the places in the world with history and culture–much to the dissapointment of my brother and I who always longed to fit in with every other family and lie on the beach. But instead, every day was and still is a school day. So mum and dad for all those churches and museums you made us look at, you can say: “I told you so.”

Speaking of parents, it was an odd experience departing from the airport to set off on my travels.

Never have I seen my mother look so concerned. Even after the time I got hypothermia in Scotland during a triathlon, and leaving the country for other trips on my own, this one seemed to worry her more. The look sheYou  gave me was the one every parent gives their child when they realise they have grown up and wonder where the time went. But I couldn’t hover around for too long, as all my energy was spent trying to appear enthusiastic and confident which at 05:00 with no sleep or caffeine is difficult, and is a skill I am learning to perfect.

Life begins at the end of your comfort zone

Ever since, I’ve had texts asking how I am and what I’m up to. But challenge no.1 of the trip is to think of more creative ways to reply to those messages to test the old ticker. But for now: yes mother, it has been less than a week, I’m fine.

Saying goodbye to my dad included the normal exchange of insults and bickering, not to mention the similarity of what I can only describe as hugging a bear with the furry jacket he was wearing. A bear who has always encouraged my brother and I to travel and live a bit closer to the edge. Although concerned in his own way, I think he is quietly confident I will thrive. Knowing I inherited his ‘fun’ and nonchalant side, I’m sure he is convinced I won’t do anything he wouldn’t… or is he?

Out of all of the airport trips I’ve had, this one was the most anesthetized. What I expected to be a rollercoaster of excitement, nerves, worry and tears, was mainly just numbness as I watched my bag disappear on the conveyor belt, along with the blood from my face as I went numb and thought: “Shit. There is no going back now.”

I waved goodbye and went through airport security, drank a cup of coffee with a shaky hand (although a whisky would have better calmed the nerves) as I contemplated my awaiting adventure, and boarded my flight.

I woke up in Hamburg and during my first few steps in the city I thought: “There actually is no going back now… I also wondered why I decided to leave the cossiness of my bed at 03:00 to start this cliche of a few months. Then, I saw a quote in the window of a yoga shop which said: “Life begins at the end of your comfort zone” that seemed to give me all the motivation I needed.

The worry disappeared and the excitement began. Hamburg is a beautiful and lively city!

Concrete means investment

The Bay Gateway: the new road connecting Heysham port and power station to the M6, as well as links to the city centre and surrounding areas.

Opening in October 2016, the road took over 72 weeks to build. Acquiring land, and applying for licenses to remove animal habitats was the hardest part of the project to plough through the Lancastrian countryside to create better connections to the city centre, the port, and industrial sites.

Not only has it turned out to be a huge convenience to the local people, it has become an opportunity for more investment in the area. For Heysham port, it means a shorter journey time to the M6, ultimately appealing to businesses and creating improved connections to Belfast, Dublin, and The Isle of Man. Also increased freight traffic through to the M6, could make the small province of Heysham a bigger and better haulage hotspot for the North-West.

The plan for the road has been in the pipeline since 1948. Over the years progressions were made to the get the project started. Heysham bypass was built over moss-land in 1994 to increase transport links to Lancaster, and in 2009 the project was initially approved funding of £111m by the Department for Transport; in 2014, the construction process began.

 

 

 

As Lancaster is situated on the main line of the railway network between Scotland, London and Manchester, and with the M6 running parallel, it is the perfect historic commuting city to the bigger business districts of the North; with an hours journey to Manchester, slightly longer to Liverpool, and only two-and-a-half hours to London.

Lancaster has the perfect balance of a small market town atmosphere coupled with areas of outstanding natural beauty in the local countryside, and beautiful views across Morecambe Bay.

Now with the new road, it takes about nine minutes to get from Heysham to the M6, instead of the 40-50 minutes it could take being stuck in traffic to get to the city centre and the M6.

Five years between the government approving the funding and the construction beginning was a long time to iron out the issues it came across. At the beginning there were initially three proposed routes for the road, all of which came with their individual problems with biodiversity, European laws and a licence from DEFRA (Department of Environment, Food & Rural Affairs) to remove animal habitats (in this case bats and great crested newts) and acquisition of the land.

At the same time, it became clear to the Department for Transport the road was only predicted to be between 0-10 percent successful, which meant a huge gamble of £111m of tax payers money.

However, the government had to the spend the money (the budget eventually rose to £140m) on either building a M6 link road, or improving air quality in congested areas, and transport links in the city centre.

For local people it means almost no time being stuck in traffic going to, and leaving Lancaster in everyday’s rush hour. Not to mention, the improved air quality in the city centre and Carnforth, by taking more vehicles out of the more densely populated areas.

For businesses it means improved access to industrial and development sites, regeneration for the region, (construction of the road alone employed 3,000 people), and a park and ride scheme meaning better access to the city centre, in addition to the walking, and cycle paths on the road.

With these points considered, ploughing through the countryside with concrete has its positives. Improving air quality in congested areas, and encouraging investment to boost the local economy. According to a study by Lancashire County Council, for every £1.00 invested in the road, the community will get £4.00 back in long-term investment.

Travelling, there is a world outside of your box

14355010_10210122666240354_4246429569703938970_nThere has been a long list of countries to visit and visit again on my bucket list. After graduation I had a hierarchy of things I wanted to achieve within the next five years. In no particular order these are: go travelling, study for a masters, buy a house, and get a good job on the career ladder. Four simple goals to work towards, but my problem was I didn’t know which order to put them in.

At university it seemed the logical thing to go straight into a masters, but I was tired of 17 years of non-stop education from primary school to university. I needed a break and to get some money behind me. I went full time at work to earn a living and start paying the bills which suddenly appear when you graduate. I thought about travelling post-university but it seemed cliche, and I didn’t want to spend my life savings on what is essentially a long holiday and come back without a job, a home and a penny to scratch my arse with.

So I started looking for my own place. I had a full-time job, a degree and I started applying for jobs in my industry at the same time. A couple of months went by, no houses were particularly interesting, and I kept getting rejected for jobs. Perhaps my ambitions were too high I thought.

Meanwhile my year started off bad, and it was getting worse. From being stressed and overworked to being physically injured I needed some down time so I went on holiday. A week away in the sun to relax, train, reflect on what a terrible year it was turning out to be (and only six months into it) and generally escape from life at home– Gran Canaria was paradise.

I came home and returned to the mundane work-life balance. I was injured which meant I couldn’t train and all races for the rest of the year were cancelled as I went through the rehab process, so I had nothing to aim towards, and nothing to focus on.

It didn’t seem like I was getting anywhere with the job or the house hunt, and one Monday morning I said to myself while stuck in traffic and late for work, there must be more to life than this boring little box of going to work, going to the gym, and going home.

Later on that day, I printed off the “time away from work” policy and went to see my manager.

One other thing which dawned on me on why I am going travelling is the trail of baloney that is going on with Brexit, the US presidential election, the British pound being most effective yoyo, Scotland’s pathetic second fight for independence, and the extremely bewildering war between Russia and the rest of the world.

In the western world, wealth and power are the two most important things amongst governments and the power elite. Normal people work to pay bills and taxes, which get spent on some things we don’t all agree with, decided by MP’s who buy a duck house and gold toilet seat and expense it through the tax payers as if their £74,962 salary can’t quite cover those ridiculous items, and who have their fingers in all sorts of corrupt pies. A Prime Minister nobody seemed to vote for in a by-election (who even voted for Theresa May?) and non-elected lords whom nobody knows how they got into the House of Lords in the first place.

There is so much more going on in the world, and before I get caught up in paying a mortgage, council tax, bills, my student loan, get trapped into the ugly thirst for a healthy income, and read one more story how ‘remain’ voters are creating a conspiracy to overturn Brexit, or how the certain Lords in parliament have had some dodgy engagements with EU dealings, I wanted to take a step back from the western world and see what the rest of the world has to offer (before Trump sets of a nuclear bomb and destroys it). Because something tells me that while visiting rice fields in Vietnam, and Baobab trees in Madagascar, these things aren’t important to the people who live out there.

I had no idea where I was going to get the money from to go travelling, but it was raised to the top of the list in my four goals in five years and seemed like the most spontaneous thing to do, so I started planning.

Four months away, eight countries, three long haul flights and one rucksack. The earliest I could leave was mid-December, so I decided to go straight after Christmas.

I bought a huge map of the world and pinned it to my bedroom wall, as I moved in with my parents temporarily at the beginning of the year to get back on my feet, I hid it from them until I had a plan, I didn’t want anyone else’s dreams or ideas to interfere with mine.

Route planning was the hardest but the most fun of all. I threw a pin in every place in the world I wanted to visit, and plotted it with a piece of string to find the best route; looked for corresponding flights around the dates I wanted, had to trim off a couple of places because it was either too far out of the way or over budget and I went from there. I bought guide books and travel insurance, had my vaccinations and then told everyone what I was doing. Now all I have to do is wait for December 27 to come around and I’m off; leaving this dull bubble of work, train, eat, socialise, sleep, repeat behind–for a while at least.

There is even time and a budget to turn up at a major European airport and buy a ticket for which ever place my finger lands on first.

Internet dating: my final word

14264026_10209967840129798_8605017307366831890_nMy final word on internet dating is that for those who do it, it has turned us into shallow human beings.

Using apps where you can scroll left or right if someones photo is flattering enough without even knowing their name or where they come from.

Many of times when I scrolled through the “meet me” section on Plenty of Fish, I knew I wouldn’t actually meet any of the guys, mostly because I had no interest in doing so; besides even if I did, they all lived too far away anyway. (There is also always that one person who looks nothing like they do in photos.)
However, while I was there scrolling, there was always this one thought at the back of my mind that it was morally wrong to say “yes” or “no” to somebody by the way they look and how attractive their profile picture is.

Of course physical attraction is necessary when going on a date, we all want to stare into their dreamy eyes over dinner and not take in anything they are saying but you can’t start a relationship based on looks.

You can look for the person of your dreams by attraction but it doesn’t mean you will hit it off instantly.

Only responding to the attractive people is not going to make your dating life any easier. Once you filter through the ones you thought were your type–none of it works out. You then parade around in misery to say there are no lids left in the world for your pan because they are all gay or married.

Look outside of the box and see what you find–maybe a lovely personality, similar interests, and a little firework in the pit of your stomach.

14225415_10209967836449706_3706916714159533772_nMany of my ‘spark-less’ dates did turn out to be a fun evening: lots of laughter and the hours flew by; before you know it you’re the last ones in the restaurant, or you drank the bar dry. Just because it doesn’t work out does not make it a bad date, at the very least we became acquaintances. Facebook friends who speak occasionally, send a happy birthday message and say hello when passing in the street. As long as it is mutual and honest agreement that it is not going to work, there is no harm done, just another friend made, and you will never know if you don’t try.

I would also like to point out that some of the drop-dead-gorgeous people I came across on my internet dating quest were the weirdest people I have ever corresponded with in my life. It works both ways, a lot of creepy people look creepy too, but don’t be fooled by the ones with those handsome looks. Some of my closest friends are people I never thought I would associate with, whether it is friends I met at work, at the triathlon and cycling clubs, in the gym, or on social media. Everyday is a networking day, sometimes the best people take you by surprise and catch you off-guard.

14184294_10209967835409680_2996600504898086203_nAside from it being shallow to judge a book by its cover, and filter through the internet dating sphere for your new mate, 21st century technology did create a way for people who live miles apart to connect: social media.

The best dates I had were with people I met first face to face, friends of friends, or people locally. None of this swipe left, flirt for a bit and then go on a date, just real humans meeting, talking and arranging a date. Nothing can beat the feeling of being asked out face-to-face, and the look on your face when you say: “ERRRRRMMMMMM” and look at your best friend.

The cliche that the good people turn up when you least expect it could be true… sometimes when what you are looking for doesn’t show up, something shall we say “different” appears instead.

I14225437_10209967837369729_7393168869670784601_nnternet dating can never beat a spontaneous real meeting with someone. Meeting face-to-face, no Instagram filters to hide behind, and no fantasy created in your head based on the things you text about.

Someone who is always at the end of the phone or the end of a text, who you weren’t quite sure what kind of category they fit into, whether there is physical attraction or not, and what their views of you are… and you made a huge gamble on whether or not it was a good idea to travel 300 odd miles to see them.

There are some things internet dating will never confirm: whether those feelings are mutual, whether the person you are talking to is a real human being and who they say they are, and whatever the ‘thing’ is between you, will it be the same when you meet for real?

The one person I did meet who has become important in my life I didn’t meet through internet dating. In fact he was the one at the end of the phone when I had a terrible date, or when I paraded around in misery claiming all the good guys were gay or married. And when we did eventually meet, I had a fairy tale few days of staring into someones eyes, meanwhile discussing mutual interests. Now I think about it, it was around bonfire night and there were fireworks exploding in the sky.

Just don’t do it: part four

14202704_10209967835009670_9054107651854029870_nAfter all of the spectacular chat-up lines, comments on my body and the disturbing things some blokes say they would like to do to it, as well as thanking me for having a profile on Plenty of Fish and allowing them to send a message–what even?–I decided to remove myself from the internet dating world and try things the old fashioned way.

And that didn’t work either.

 

 

Cyclists will never win the collision war

Whether it is an accident with a car, a bus, or a pedestrian, cyclists will never win the collision war, even if it is not their fault.

Recently, while out riding with my cyclist friend–who works as a collision investigator for the police–we were discussing collisions with buses and bikes. He had reported three incidents to our local Stagecoach branch about near misses between the drivers and himself.

The first happened in winter while riding at night: “lit up like a Christmas tree” (in the words of the Stagecoach boss after seeing the CCTV footage), the driver did not see my fellow cyclist, and even after the Stagecoach boss described to the driver where the accident occurred, worryingly the driver does not recall seeing a cyclist.

The second occasion involved going through the one-way system in Lancaster when a bus driver didn’t look in his mirror before pulling out in front of him. And during the final incident, he was a spectator watching a similar thing happen to another cyclist in front of him. On this occasion, if it wasn’t for the way the pavement split into a verge, the cyclist in front would have been squashed by the bus, and the driver of the big metal box would probably have been none the wiser.

On the final occasion, which happened minutes before I met him for a bike ride, we began with a trip to the bus station to report the incident, which was subsequently dealt with and passed on appropriately. On the other occasions, the bus drivers were sent on a driving course and apparently have since changed their attitude towards cyclists and of course, will thoroughly check their mirrors before pulling out.

Later on that week, I recalled the incident to my grandfather who is a retired bus driver for Stagecoach, and before I had even finished the description of the incident he replied with: “bloody cyclists, it is their own fault.”

Which brought me to the conclusion that despite having many cyclists in the family, the said person still has that attitude. If I can’t change his opinion on cyclists (I asked him if he would still have that attitude if it was me and my bike that was nearly squashed by a bus), then no amount of campaigning for cycle safety is going to change attitudes towards cyclists.

A few days after the ride when we discussed the incidents, I had my own bike accident.

Setting off on a sunny Saturday afternoon, I was riding down Morecambe promenade on my own when, without looking, two young children ran across the path and straight into me. I flew straight over the handlebars and hit the floor hard without really knowing how I got there.

I could hear the screams of two young children crying their eyes out as they lay on the floor next to me, and then the pain of my possible broken elbow hit me. The mother of the children ran over to them, while another lady ran over to help my bike and I up off the floor and rang an ambulance.

At first, I was calm as I inspected myself to see if my limbs were all in the places they should be; then the shock set in of what just happened. Meanwhile, I received a tirade of abuse from the kid’s family and a group of people on the prom, who did not see the accident but decided to divulge all of their hatred towards cyclists towards me.

According to them: I did it on purpose, I should know better because they are children. Cyclists are stupid. Cyclists shouldn’t be on the cycle path. I’m delusional. I was going too fast, and I deserve to have died because I purposely rode into the children.

Shaking and furious with emotions running high, I turned the abuse back on them and almost started a fight to stand up for myself. I couldn’t believe they had just said I deserve to have died in that incident, and in-case they didn’t notice, I came out worse than the children with my arm beginning to swell and a broken bike–while the kids escaped with little more than a bump on the head and some grazes. Two women came over to offer some help, and told me to ignore the idiots who just launched a fireball of verbal abuse towards me, because they did not see what just happened, and automatically took the attitude it was the cyclists fault. They gave me their details and said they would act as a witness to prove it was not my fault if anything ever came of it.

As I explained to the mother, of course I didn’t hit them on bloody purpose, as soon as I saw them running I swerved to try and miss them and shouted “woah watch out!” Also, after looking at my ride data afterwards up until the point of the collision, there is no proof I was riding “too fast” as my speed on that particular segment was low.

The ambulance crew arrived, and called for back-up to assist me. After being checked over they took me to hospital for an X-ray on my arm; and after things calmed down they discussed with the family that I had every right to be riding on the path. As kids will be kids and not look where they are going, it was an accident, nothing more.

The paramedic crew were exceptional, and of course understood the whole situation. An accident is an accident whether it is a pedestrian or a bus or a car, and nobody can ever say straight away it was the cyclists fault without looking at the whole incident first.

I don’t endeavour to defend all cyclists. I could name a collection of times when people have been cycling drunk, and veered into the path of a fast moving car, or hit a lamp post, tree, and other non-moving objects while under the influence.

I can even name the times when cyclists have gone through red lights, not stopped at crossings, or descending down windy roads dangerously. There are times when cyclists are the cause of the incident; in the same way drivers using their phones cause incidents, or driving under the influence of drugs and alcohol. As well as pedestrians not looking where they are going–again the list goes on and neither party is exempt from blame.

But what has been proved is that cyclists make better motorists, because we are weary of what is going on around us, as well as the correct distance for overtaking: which is another cars width.

My point here is that despite the legacies created by the Olympics, the Tour de France (in Yorkshire), and British Cycling’s success, it has not altered the negative attitude towards the people on two wheels.

Cyclists are seen as the villains, but actually we are the vulnerable ones. We are only protected by a thin piece of stretchy clothing and a polystyrene and plastic helmet which absorbs shock if your head hits the floor, it does not prevent deaths or serious brain injuries. Unlike drivers we are not protected by a huge metal box around us, we are not wrapped in bubble wrap and we do not bounce when we hit the ground.

Cities in the UK are designed for cars only. The cycling revolution was an afterthought poorly implemented with a section of the already small roads taken away and covered with coloured tarmac to indicate a cycle lane. That does not stop people driving in the cycle lane through city centres, and it does not encourage them to look in the mirrors and check their blind spot before turning or manoeuvring.

Cycle tracks were a good investment, but they are limited as many come from disused railway lines, and of course you can’t have a cycle track leading in every direction. In addition to this, a separate war has broken out between pedestrians and cyclists on cycle paths more recently; as both tend to stray from the designated pedestrian-cyclist lane, or take up the whole of the path.

What will it take for the general public’s attitude to change towards cyclists? The bus drivers discussed above had to redo their driving course for their attitude to change. When I learned to drive four years ago, courses were only then being adapted to include cycle safety. All of these adults who have been driving for years haven’t adapted to drive in areas with an increased amount of cyclists.

According to a 2014 figure by Cycling UK only 18 percent of registered AA drivers are cyclists. Which means many don’t understand what it is like to be passed by a car so close you can feel it brush past your skin, or accelerate so quickly to overtake you that it is unsafe for all other drivers on the road let alone the cyclist in question. But also, they have no idea what it is like to be involved in an accident and hit the ground so hard and so fast you injure yourself and you don’t understand what just happened.

All of my cyclist friends have been involved in an incident at any one time. And every time the driver has said the rider was “going too fast”. It is a poor excuse used when firstly, the driver hasn’t taken any responsibility for their actions. Secondly, most of the time it is a 30mph zone and the rider is doing around 20mph. And finally: how did they possibly measure the cyclists speed? The police and paramedics question how can somebody on a bike be going “too fast” compared to somebody in a car?

Thankfully, most of them came out with little more than a battered and bruised body. But some of them recall waking up in an ambulance not knowing how they got there. One friend, despite wearing a helmet, suffered a serious brain injury which he will have for the rest of his life as a result of the collision.

The sporting legacies from our cycling success has encouraged a new wave of people to get on a bike which is a positive result. But what it hasn’t done is changed the view of cyclists from a motorists point of view. It also has not adapted our roads, and cities to be cycling friendly, and it takes a sharp increase in cyclist deaths for something to change.

In 2013 the Department for Transport reported that there are an average of two cycling related deaths every week and 60 serious injuries. That is a worrying increase of 40 percent in the last five years.

Yet, what these figures don’t encourage is more funding and better implementation of cycling in the UK. Many other countries, and most affluent countries in Europe have less incidents with cyclists, because their motorists have different attitudes. This is due to the roads being wider, less potholes, less congested roads, and most importantly more rules in EU law which allow every party involved to take road collisions seriously.

Until roads and city centres in the UK are properly adapted, the attitude towards cyclists will never change.

Bad dates make the good ones look good: part three

At this point, aside from being amused by some ridiculous yet entertaining chat up lines, I’ve been on dates with three guys from Plenty of Fish. The first date was terrible, although on reflection it probably wasn’t a good idea anyway. The sort of date when you know it is going to be bad but you ponder well… I have nothing to lose.

Continue reading “Bad dates make the good ones look good: part three”

Searching for patience and humour: part two

Dating is a huge learning curve. Especially internet dating. After a while you have an eye out for the freaks. The ones who have little more than a few brain cells and stand you up for “banter” (I speak from other people’s experiences), and the ones who have an extremely good-looking profile picture, but don’t seem like a real human being.

Of course there are a few people genuinely looking for a date, to find a relationship. Yet with the amount of messages asking for casual sex, these people seem few and far between. Then there are the ones you chat to for a while; get on with really well, have a few things in common, next you are wondering if this person could be your future partner… and then one day later they disappear off the face of the earth and you never hear from them again–those are the ones to watch out for. Continue reading “Searching for patience and humour: part two”

What makes our greatest athletes?

Photo by: Jaguar Mena_Flickr
Chris Froome became the first person to ride through the channel tunnel. Photo by: Jaguar Mena_Flickr

Where does the grit come from at the very beginning of an athletes career? The grit which is the very reason they have won a gold medal at the Olympics, became a world champion, and won the yellow jersey.

The same grit, that shoehorned them into the sport, to put their focus into something positive. Channel the energy into something constructive; causes blood, sweat, tears and shows where they have come from, and where they are going.

Teams at the Olympics are handpicked. With a vast amount of reasons for competing in their chosen sport. Many, because they were told they would never be good enough, they don’t have the mental capacity, their body is not the body of an Olympian, or they fear the very sport they compete in.

Continue reading “What makes our greatest athletes?”

The worrying and entertaining world of internet dating: part one

imageIf you are single, enjoy being single, have a sense of humour and some time on your hands download a dating app.

Do it now, Tinder or Plenty of Fish.

First, I’ll confess that I joined POF as a bit of a joke to see what the free dating app world was like, and I was met with, well… Some interesting chat up lines to start with.

I was recently single, and loved (still do) the freedom of being single and my also single friend said: “Come on join it, it will be a laugh!”

So I thought: “alright, why not.”

Continue reading “The worrying and entertaining world of internet dating: part one”

The Olympics has lost it’s spark

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The build up to Rio 2016 has been like no other in the history of the Olympics. London 2012 was the start of the ancient sporting event steadily going downhill. With questionable funding statements, confusing and ugly artwork surrounding the Olympic park, and an sporting legacy left in tatters after little longer than six positive months post-Olympics, which didn’t last in the UK, nor did we have the funding for.

Rio 2016 has been surrounded by far too many drugs tests, and missed drugs tests in the press. A country being eliminated from competing, then allowed back into compete. Along with the stadium barely being finished, water unsafe to swim in and a body washing up. Athletes kit going missing, an athlete being held on sexual assault, protests, and the athletes village being half built: it will certainly be an Olympics to remember–but not for the right reasons.

Continue reading “The Olympics has lost it’s spark”

Everything happens for a reason: what’s the reason?

Week five of having a broken foot.

I got in my car for the first time today in 33 days. Despite everybody telling me not to drive, I just wanted to see if it was painful or not, and to have some sort of grasp of ‘normal’ life before the injury. I only drove to the doctors to get my sick note…

But for that 15 minute drive I felt free, the way I did before the injury. Going about my business in the car as usual. I rely on my car so much and I appreciate having it because of course others do not have that luxury.

Continue reading “Everything happens for a reason: what’s the reason?”

The dark side of athlete injury

Day 25 of having a broken foot. I wondered how long it would take for me to feel like this. Personally, I thought it would happen sooner, so I’m impressed I made it this far, that’s a sign of improvement, right? But this is where I feel it all spiralling downhill…

All athletes go through this with injuries, and only other athletes can sympathise. It becomes less about not being able to do your sport and more about turning your life upside down. Exercise is not just my hobby and interest, it is my escape from the world, my focus, my coping mechanism, the thing that makes me feel happy and it keeps me the person I am.

Continue reading “The dark side of athlete injury”