SOTM World Tour – Ten Top Travel Photos

July 3rd, 2014

1660320_10153786052195241_1554794481_n“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough,” Robert Capa once said.

Unfortunately for the poor bugger, he got too close to a landmine one day. Still, this is one of my favourite ever quotes.

While he was clearly talking about getting close to your subjects – he was on one of the barges which landed on the Normandy beaches for D-Day – I also like to think that to get closer to the world is also to improve your photography.

And that’s what the SOTM World Tour did for me. It took me out into places I’d never heard of, to busy, neon-stained alleyways, across African plains with skies that last forever and fighting arenas stacked with sweating, shrieking, betting-slip brandishing crowds.

These are ten of my favourite images from my year-long trip around the world, from the many thousands that I took with my Nikon D5100, my iPhone 4S and then, toward the end, my Nikon D7100 after my 5100 fell apart. It was only a few months old but I guess world travel was just too much for it.

I’ve only ever self-taught myself how to take pictures, and being out in the world was the best lesson of all.

The top image shows pupils from Sekolah Rendah Batu Marang school, in Jalan Batu Marang water village, Brunei. The charming Kathy Wharton is their English teacher and she kindly took us around, showing us her school and the water village, perched on top of perilous-looking stilts, where her charges come from.

After I posted some of these images on Facebook my friend Helen, with whom I stayed, told me I’d “captured the real Brunei”. Which pleased me greatly.

999168_10153125055170241_2082429276_nThe throbbing Shibuya Crossing, in the heart of Tokyo, has many smaller roads and alleyways running away from its busyness.

The gentleman above was the waiter in a noodle place, cheap and very tasty, in one of these veins. I fully intended to return, so good was the food, but was distracted by Tokyo’s many other shiny attractions and never made it back.

So it’s fortunate that I did ask him for a photo upon my only visit. He didn’t speak English but when I smiled and pointed at my camera, posed with great confidence and grace. And I liked his white wellies.

1379715_10153361940225241_114641734_nWhen in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, I was taken to the remarkable Shamwari Game Reserve by my friend Kimberley. There I went on three safari rides and was overwhelmed with the beauty of the place.

One time we spotted a serval hiding in the bushes. I saw it twitch through my viewfinder and instinctively pressed the shutter. When I looked at the screen afterwards, this shot is what I saw. It’s my best action photo, I think.

1025647_10152945200410241_220286925_oThere isn’t that much to do in Geneva. It’s pretty enough and very clean, but a bit too sanitised for my liking.

But at least Lake Geneva has public pianos for people to tinkle. I saw this young woman sat at one while delving into her bag. My camera was completely the wrong exposure levels so I was rapidly adjusting dials, willing her to hold her position for a few seconds longer – when she looked up.

I knew my exposure was wrong, but took the shot as I liked what I saw in my viewfinder. The moment then passed.

I looked at the image I’d taken and it was virtually black, totally underexposed. But as I was shooting in RAW I had hope. When I got it onto my computer, I was able to change the exposure – and was thrilled with how it turned out.

So if you’re not shooting in RAW, you should consider doing so. There may come a time when it will save you.

1377245_10153328471465241_1474946143_nI have always wanted to visit Uluru, fairly in the centre of Australia’s outback. When I was a boy it was more commonly known as Ayers Rock.

But even though I was enthusiastic about it, I was still hugely surprised about just how hypnotic it is. Enormous, red, hugely different to the landscape around it, a monstrous pimple squeezed up from the earth, back when the planet was still being formed.

Looking at the rock during sunrise and sunset is to experience kaleidoscopic colours and shapeshifting shadows. You might think staring at a large rock can’t be that exciting, but somehow, it is. You’ll never feel old again when you consider how what stands before you came into being more than 600 million years ago.

Also, about 2.5km of Uluru is buried below the desert soil. Mind. Boggled.

I chose the shot above because I got Kata Tjuta in the background, once known as the Olgas. They’re a collection of 36 domes and in many ways are even more remarkable than their neighbour.

She’s the flashy one, who puts out with her russet looks, getting most of the attention, hogs all the postcards, while Kata Tjuta is visited as something of an afterthought, an added extra for tourists who’ve come to see the hot girl in the neighbourhood. But I loved them both.

1497771_10153699331050241_17606286_nThe Lumpinee stadium is beautiful because it’s fragile. It’s about to be knocked down and relocated, which makes the sweating, kicking, yelling all that more intense.

Like the last time you make love to someone you’re soon to part from, you savour everything because you know it won’t happen again. Their imperfections become adorable because it’s about to be all over.

Built in Bangkok in 1956, the stadium looks like it might not last too much longer. Look away from the shiny ring, where respectful Muay Thai fighter knee and punch and kick one another.

The apparently leaky ceiling is made of corrugated sheets, with many long-stemmed fans shivering like leaves on a trembling pond. The cheap seats aren’t even seats, they’re benches and people just stand anyway.

And the VIP seats are just part-plastic chairs, although they do afford an excellent view of the action. Despite this, I really wanted to move into better positions but was restricted to shooting where I was perched.

As a result, my 18-200mm Sigma lens came in handy, and of all the shots I got that night, this was my favourite. I turned it grayscale to add a bit more mood to the young man’s determined glare.

1656396_10153863531660241_1299583810_nI was on a food tour in Hong Kong and was taken to a dim sum place for breakfast by the smashing Laura, who runs Hello Hong Kong Tours. 

It was a local place for local people, and I loved it immediately. It’s one of the places in Hong Kong that still has people pushing food carts round, which supply you with your choice of dishes.

While there I spotted this chap walking around with a big metal kettle, topping up the ubiquitous Chinese tea that sloshes around in eateries all over the city. I was desperate to photograph him, he looked fantastic.

I grabbed some half decent shots of him at the next table, and then suddenly, out of nowhere he shimmered and appeared at our table, directly opposite me. I managed to take this photo, and then another.

I preferred the second image, but it’s not pin sharp because the focal point was over his shoulder. So after suffering that slight disappointment, I decided to have my camera on autofocus sometimes, especially in an unpredictable environment, to ensure that focus isn’t an issue at least.

After my shutter had flickered a couple of times, he spoke in Chinese and apparently said: “You have to pay me now, because everyone wants my photo, because I look like Buddha.”

We all laughed, and he said: “No, seriously, you have to pay me.” But he was joking, and when we left I shook his hand. It was like a lobster with a grudge.

1521421_10153707330765241_2000555735_nThere’s nothing so good for the soul as seeing a happy elephant.

There are plenty of these at the Elephant Nature Park near Chiang Mai, Thailand. These remarkable, beautiful creatures have been abused at some point, often by some of those in Thailand’s logging industry. The guilty ones must have black souls.

Eye-gouging, beatings, pelvises broken by forced matings, the stories run a chill though your blood. And if you ever want to ride an elephant, do bear in mind that they are beaten and broken as babies, treated horribly, in order to get them to allow humans to ride them – so don’t.

At least they are happy here in this sanctuary. This chap was having a damn good scratch of his nads on this concrete pole. Or it might be a female. I was too polite to ask.

photoWe were out of Kampot, at the very bottom of Cambodia, when a tremendous storm shattered overhead.

After making it back via a slightly traumatic tuk tuk journey, we found the town flooded. This is a common occurrence in these parts, and the population were clicking into gear, chucking out buckets of floodwater from shops and restaurants, using squeegees to push back the tides in a well-practiced fashion.

The local children seemed to delight in all the fuss. These two characters were going up and down the flooded road, so I got several shots of them with my camera. But this one was the first that I got, grabbed with my iPhone as they rode past and run through an Instagram filter.

It’s not totally sharp but captures their spirit best of all the ones that I took.

993629_10153064585165241_104983892_nThis lady lives in a shack in Missionvale township in Port Elizabeth, South Africa.

She lives alone and says she is lonely. Someone told me later that her husband had died in a fire after they lit a stove indoors, which also destroyed all her possessions. She is also HIV positive and washes clothes for her neighbours, in exchange for food so she can go on living.

She has had her room tidied up by Missionvale Care Centre, a charity which does incredible work in the community. The floor is mud, so they’ve put mats down, but when it rains the ground is still soggy beneath her feet. The roof leaks also.

The light was perfect as she sat near the doorway, so I took her photo with her permission. I’m very fond of it, and yet it upsets me whenever I look at it.

The world is both a beautiful canvas to work with and a terrible sight to see. Thank you for looking at my pictures.

SOTM World Tour – Malta Part II

June 23rd, 2014

10171692_10154119375280241_8221091916035131426_nSo the last stop on the SOTM World Tour saw me pop back to Malta, quite fittingly. And as always, it was great to be back home.

I was there through an invitation to join the Blog Island project, run by the blogger group iambassador and the Malta Tourism Authority. Personally I’ve long thought Malta would be ripe for an organised blogger campaign so was delighted to learn of this one being put together.

Kate and I stayed in the excellent Palazzo Prince D’Orange in Valletta, a beautiful and enormous building restored to a very nice standard. It captures much of the charm that traditional Maltese houses have, while being a fancy place to stay at the same time. Here’s the flag outside the building.

10314520_10154119403100241_2529624660625187409_nThe top image shows part of the view that you get from the roof of the palazzo, and this meant that we got a grandstand view for the firework show put on to mark the 10th anniversary of Malta entering the European Union.

I used my MeFoto tripod for this (I have a sponsored Backpacker model – it’s light and robust – and am genuinely very happy with it) and have never photographed fireworks before. I got some decent results but was using a 2.5 second shutter speed, but think I would have done better with 2 seconds. Still, here’s a couple of examples.

10401980_10154212613930241_3317899970187105190_nAs you can see, the Maltese do fireworks very well, often winning awards for their pyrotechnics. I must confess that during some local festas, which happen every year, the health and safety standards are sometimes lacking, but the ones shown here were fired safely from barges floating in Valletta’s Grand Harbour.

10414900_10154212615700241_5146955438409375623_nThe Maltese are very keen on their cars and often soup up older models. This one had quite eye-catching patterns.

10259862_10154129477745241_6333107387073139194_nStaying in Valletta gave us plenty of opportunity to wander its charming back streets, which are hugely photogenic. This city, a World Heritage Centre, is a capital like no other.

1549315_10154129477245241_5972706450121067518_nSpeaking of Valletta’s streets, I chose one of them as the location for my very own SOTM. I have never done one, and as SOTM will probably end in the autumn, I needed to have my image ready to use because it’s going to be the last ever new one that I post.

Thereafter, all the images, roughly all seven years’ worth, will then rotate forever, turning over every day like they currently do, just in a giant circle instead of having a new photo and story each day.

So here’s a sneak peek at mine. I had always intended upon another Maltese location for my SOTM, but the night before the picture was to be taken, I changed my mind. I chose a certain place in Valletta instead – Upper Barrakka Gardens – but when Kate and I went there it was clear that wouldn’t work either.

St Ursula’s Street  is parallel to the palazzo, and I love Valletta’s streets, so it suddenly became clear that it should be my place.

10273405_633903930012093_4464690629398676696_oAnd here I am in my happy place – a cracking little cafe in Valletta called Gambrinus. It serves super coffee and pastizzi, which are a ricotta-filled baked Maltese savoury delicacy that you simply must try if ever you go (but make sure they’re oval, like the ones you see here, as any round/triangular ones are poor imitations).

10339577_10154119374440241_3919495774707907156_nAnd here’s a great view of Valletta, from across the water in Sliema’s Tigne Point.

10258341_10154119830675241_9145648304846680904_nKate and I were on our way to the Chop House, a superb steak house which I thoroughly recommend. We were guests of the owner and the food was really delicious, including Scottona beef which I’d never heard of before but was lovely. It comes from young virgin cows and is a meat eater’s treat.

The Chop House in a glass-fronted building so you keep that same view of Valletta as you eat. Go there one evening and watch the dying light change quite dramatically on those famous, aged stones.

Speaking of food, as part of Blog Island we visited the Tal-Petut restaurant in one of the Three Cities, Birgu. When we arrived it turned out, in typical Malta-is-so-tiny-you-know-everyone fashion, that I knew the owner, Donald.

This excellent chap is hugely charismatic, idiosyncratic and unforgettable. I met him once 14 years ago and he could still remember that I’m originally from Gzira in Malta.

10271513_10154119377155241_799767897720853726_nWhen I met him Donald was head of Reuters financial services on the island, but these days he’s cooking up a storm in a building whose youngest stones are about 400 years old.

We all helped out in the kitchen, just a little bit of gentle preparation as Donald has most things stewing or marinading or whatever, and when we put it all together it looked like this. Near the middle you’ll see a basket of Maltese bread which I cut, despite Donald telling me: “Mario, you’re murdering that bread.”

10365855_10154212598715241_2939016647507528595_nHere’s a shot of Sliema as seen from St Julian’s, just because such a lovely day deserves to be photographed.

10276991_10154119374640241_6997257470705082864_nDuring our stay it was the feast of St Publius, the saint for Floriana, a small area literally right outside of Valletta with a population of just 2,300.

Festi are always worth visiting, and this one was very charming, with St Publius’ statue begin carried slowly through this tiny town’s narrow streets.

10414601_10154212616565241_6334267315783779311_n

10262003_10154212625000241_1941420696708924452_nThe lighting wasn’t great for capturing street shots, and I forgot my flash – although I don’t think I wanted to be running around throwing a flash in people’s faces. Most of those in attendance were local or certainly Maltese, and I wanted to let the magic of their festa unravel without any brash intrusion.

So I pushed up the ISO to quite dizzy levels – this one was taken at 5000 – but it still worked well enough for shots to go on a blog post.

10257233_10154212625750241_7064935386085505485_nI like the light on this one. I’m not sure this lady was in a bad mood, but the light thrown up from the bulbs make her look rather stern.

10407240_10154212624630241_489990735771083525_nThere’s always a band at a festa and while the poor light made capturing them difficult, there were a couple of good shots to be had. I managed to get this guy while he was full of puff.

10338314_10154212626030241_6198469507898538752_nI spotted this little chap with presumably his dad. He was very cute and looked dapper in his mini-suit.

10383091_10154212623230241_8095151132649527162_nI was tickled by this angle which made St Publius looks like he was checking out the local bar’s latest offer…

In Malta it’s very common to have bars, shops, businesses, cars and houses named after things you’ll find in other parts of the world. You can be sure the owner of that bar has either been to Oklahoma, has possibly lived there, or just really likes the musical.

10375106_10154212627915241_6254884868321219607_nWhile at the festa Kate and I got talking to this sweet couple, whose daughter was playing in the band. They weren’t from Floriana but said they travel around to watch their daughter play, presumably in small towns that don’t have enough of a population to have their own band.

I don’t know what their names are, but the dog was called George. He had a party trick where he licked the lady’s lips full on. It was endearing and horrifying at the same time.

10262082_10154212628345241_7315609396467083452_nAt one point we hired a car, a bright yellow Peugeot with a missing T that Kate christened as “The Buttercup”. It was certainly easy to spot in car parks, at least. We took it to Gozo one day, the second smallest island in the Maltese archipelago, and had a good old tootle around.

This shot shows Malta in the distance with the tiny Comino, which I was told now has three permanent residents, in the middle.

10277238_10154212630595241_585393757806561575_nThere are some well-known salt pans on Gozo, which you can only enter if you’re harvesting salt, despite them being right next to a coast road open to the public.

10410472_10154212634225241_8329725536685980134_n

10173715_10154212633785241_3948623281138560903_nOne of Gozo’s best beaches is the lovely Ramla Bay, blessed with reddish sand. Having dug our tootsies in it, we then drove up to a lofty viewpoint to take a look around from there. The resulting vista doesn’t disappoint.

10390299_10154212632775241_6213159041685874041_n Incidentally, to whomever drew out a large penis in rocks on Ramla Bay – I salute you.

10369728_10154212633315241_3678383624214016940_nWe also had a tip off from a Gozitan, the charming TV celebrity chef and cookbook author George Borg who cooked us a tasty local meal at the palazzo one night.

He told us how there was another Azure Window-style natural site to be seen in Gozo, at Wied il-Mielah. We went to check it out and it was a quite stunning view.

It was quite difficult to photograph because of the proximity of the surrounding coastline, but by twisting and pressing myself into the adjacent rock face, I managed to capture this.

10177293_10154212634920241_1143008338798032797_nFinally, when driving through a sleepy little village in Gozo, I spotted this sign and liked it so much I stopped The Buttercup to go back and photograph it.

Must be a rather aged sign as that format of phone numbers don’t exist any more, so I wonder if the lion’s still alive. I didn’t want to find out, though.

10313737_10154144462810241_57508472525108271_nAnd that, ladies and gentlemen, was the end of the SOTM World Tour.

Thank you so much for reading my posts. I hope you enjoyed hearing of my adventures and looking at my photography as much as I have enjoyed sharing it with you all.

Going around the world was a lifelong ambition for me, from the time when, as a boy growing up in Malta, I used to pin up maps on my bedroom walls and wonder what those places were really like. And almost right from the start of SOTM’s conception back in September 2006, I wanted to take it around the world at some point.

Now I’ve done both.

Much love to you all – and remember. If you have an ambition, just like I did, make it happen. It’ll be all right.  You’ll do it, and will be better for it.

What are you waiting for?

This post was brought to you by the Blog Island Malta campaign, created and managed by iambassador in partnership with the Malta Tourism Authority and the support of Air Malta

SOTMario maintains full editorial control of the content published on this site.

SOTM World Tour – Germany

June 19th, 2014

10277739_10154060419590241_7878184959117140364_nOnce upon a time I was stood on a platform on the London Underground, looking at a poster advertising Germany as a holiday destination.

“Hmm,” I thought. “Not really bothered about going there. Rest of Europe is far more interesting.”

Years later, having eventually visited Germany several times, I’m now a firm fan of the place and list it as one of my favourite countries. It’s a crisp-looking country, has bombastic but impressive architecture, a suitably swish transport system (although the trains are frequently a bit late) and the friendly people widely speak English.

So I was very pleased to be invited back there to speak at the Social Travel Summit in Leipzig in April. This was a conference for top travel bloggers and I was asked to speak about how bloggers can introduce a bit of the same robustness that journalists employ in their work. It was a great event and I enjoyed it very much.

While in town, I came across Cafe Cantona, which excited me greatly as ex-footballer Eric Cantona is my all-time hero of all time. It was started by a few football fans in the city as a venue to watch televised football matches and then grew into a full bar.

Well worth a visit, even if you’re not into football, and aside from this poster it looks like a cute bar with tasty food.

10258858_10154060507820241_2344094764292259520_nJust before I left Leipzig I spotted this street scene, which responded wonderfully to the receding light.

1398_10154060666065241_2399875087192641495_nAfter Leipzig I went on a short trip to the remarkable Völklingen Hütte Ironworks in Saarbrücken, right next to the French border. It was a post-conference trip and I went with Matt, an American chap better known as the Expert Vagabond and Simon, who’s an Italian blogger who writes at Wild About Travel.

10172778_10154067818045241_5491935785216144979_n This former industrial behemoth closed in the mid-1980s after nearly a century of melting down iron ore and is now a gently rusting monument to hard, searingly hot but essential work. It’s also a Unesco World Heritage Site.

10257113_10154080453110241_7009583069189400754_n

10245281_10154080458285241_3187196577066848813_nAll its many pipes and tubes make it look like a giant, gutted monster with its entrails spilled out.

10013756_10154080452395241_7707971156805254342_n

1926826_10154080464855241_75239245994079663_n

10295701_10154080471765241_7007538660572448863_nHere I am with the excellent Simon and Matt. We called ourselves #TeamIron.

10155333_10154067192740241_7477261486545691994_nAfter that I moved on to Hamburg, which was a cracking city to hang out in for a while. One part of the town centre was quite reminiscent of Venice.

1911890_10154084038345241_7369723408690065822_nSpeaking of Venice, Hamburg has more bridges than London, Amsterdam and Venice combined, and more canals than Amsterdam and Venice. They are quite lovely to look at, also.

10264274_10154084201410241_7439549552095854468_n

10177937_10154084005795241_2906061209921530629_nIt’s not all beautiful brick in Hamburg, though. This is an eye-catching glass and steel contraption.

10153827_10154084038530241_445904242664083692_nThis is a model of Hamburg, to be seen in the city’s main square next to the town hall. Is it me, or does it look like the Millennium Falcon from Star Wars?

1979712_10154084048825241_6039500707344710101_nThen it was on to Berlin for my third trip to the German capital, and the occasion when I really began to fall in love with the place. I’d always liked it, but am now firmly under its spell. Here’s a shot of the Reichstag, the German parliament building. If those walls could talk…

10313430_10154096795165241_3595285417464828359_nAnd here’s the Brandenburg Gate.

10150678_10154096792465241_3421786651580850536_nFinally  we came across this chap taking part in some sort of product promotion. Not sure what it was all about, but it might be the only time I’m able to photograph a man inside a giant egg timer.

10310112_10154096793455241_4530964957756648354_n While in Berlin I grabbed a couple of SOTMs. Here’s Sofia with something she was told by nuns. Click on both images to see their page on SOTM.

14062014And here’s Victoria with the story of a random encounter at a street parade.

16062014After my Germany escapades, I headed for the final destination on the SOTM World Tour – back to Malta. More on that next time.

SOTM World Tour – East Coast USA

June 8th, 2014

The planning for the SOTM World Tour had always been done with chasing the sun in mind.

Kate and I had therefore enjoyed months of sun in many countries, including a record heat wave in Japan of more than 100 degrees Fahrenheit. But ever since we entered the US, over on the west coast, we’d been seeing reports of this year’s lingering winter storms hitting the very places we were eventually going to reach.

And so we braced ourselves for an Arctic blast when we headed to Washington D.C. We weren’t disappointed.

We were staying with my excellent chums, the gorgeous Chelsey and dashing John, who are soon to tie the knot themselves. I was delighted to learn that they had a dog, a rather large hound called Tallulah.

You can see John and me shivering in this photo along with The Goat, as I affectionately named Tallulah. This is on account of how she likes to eat most things, including laptops.

Incidentally we got to DC via a very comfortable Amtrak train ride. I rather liked the shot I grabbed of our chop-choo with my iPhone as it pulled into the station.

And when we were in DC, I was reminded of how awesome its subway train stations are. Unless you’re Zoe Barnes (for those who’ve seen House of Cards).

Seeing as the weather was so freezing, we decided to hit up some of the remarkable museums that DC has to offer. In the National Museum of American History you can see Miss Piggy herself. Kermit is also on the premises but he wasn’t on display during our visit, sadly.

Also on show were Bert and Ernie from Sesame Street. Confusing everyone with the nature of their friendship since 1969.

A personal favourite of mine – the Cookie Monster. He too dated from 1969 and looked a bit worse for wear. All those cookies play havoc with your fur, clearly.

Is there anyone who doesn’t like the Swedish chef? I met two charming Swedish sisters in Koh Chang earlier on this trip, and asked if they knew the Swedish chef personally. They didn’t find it as funny as I thought they would.

Now then, this simply blew me away. This is the original Wright Brothers flying machine, which made the first controlled, powered and sustained heavier-than-air human flight in 1903.

The canopy was replaced in 1985, but otherwise this is the actual aircraft that changed the world, forever. It was an overwhelming sight.

This is another jaw-dropping exhibit at the museum – a section of the diner counter from Woolworth in Greensboro, North Carolina where black diners sat at a whites-only section.

This, and many other protests like it, led to the store dropping its policy of segregation. Amazing and terrifying to think America had this policy within living memory, when almost all of the rest of the world had long since dropped apartheid-style policies in their governments. As for their societies, that’s another matter.

But reminders like the Greensboro counter makes Obama’s election as president even more welcome.

Speaking of Barack, we popped round to the White House to find, to my delight, that it was living up to its name on account of all the wintry weather. Last time I was here, in 2009, it was sunny and hot, so this was a great contrast for my photographs.

1965019_10154005278715241_324059401_nHere’s a photo from my previous visit to DC. Don’t ask.

During that last trip I was lucky enough to meet Chelsey (seen on the far right) and take her SOTM. She invited Kate and me to stay with her and her fiancé John (on the far left).

We had a fruitful SOTM meet up in Acre 121, the bar that John runs, and met smashing types like Glinda and Maynard who run the Travelationship website.

1982046_10153977085495241_1369452790_nHere’s a couple of SOTMs that I took at this splendid gathering. As always, click on the SOTM images to see their pages on the main website.

28052014-2

12052014And this is Kate’s childhood friend Alexa, who now does political stuff in the capital.

12042014I also enjoyed a couple of slices at Dangerously Delicious Pies while in town. The guy who served us looked like the bloke off LMFAO, amusingly.

We also popped into Ben’s Chili Bowl, one of DC’s most famous culinary spots.

I enjoyed one of the establishment’s half smokes, a hotdog with a blend of pork and beef. Named after Bill Cosby, who’s quite partial to them, apparently.

There’s a sign up in the joint that says only he and President Obama can eat there for free. I realised at one point that when Obama won his first election, he came here for a meet and greet, and I was sat right where he stood to shake hands with the staff. Also, I was photobombed by some bird who looks familiar.

So after bidding DC a fond farewell, we headed for an overnight stop off in Baltimore, where my excellent friend Elissa, a long-time supporter of SOTM, offered to put us up and gather a few friends for me to photograph.

Turns out her apartment overlooks Greenmount Cemetery, which has a number of notable eternal residents. None more notorious, though, than John Wilkes Booth, the man who shot Abraham Lincoln.

1185283_10153972686245241_456779371_nThis is the Booth family plot. Wilkes’s grave appears to be the headstone closest to the camera. It’s the only one that’s unmarked.

Elissa explained that people leave a one cent coin, known as a penny, on Wilkes’s grave because it has Lincoln’s head on it. So that’s exactly what Kate and I did.

Thanks once again, thanks to Elissa’s efforts, a few people were rounded up for a SOTM meetup that night. I got several smashing shots from smashing people. Here’s a couple of them.

01052014Also during the meet up bar, Club Charles, I bumped into movie director John Waters, who I interviewed in 2010 for the BBC.

I asked if he remembered me from the interview, and he said: “Gosh, I’ve done a million of those.” But he chatted briefly and was still as nice as when I met him the first time.

Early the next morning we took a bus to Philadelphia, somewhere I’ve always wanted to go because I’m a huge fan of Rocky, which is set in this city.

We were staying with Kate’s friends this time, Kelly and Dave, who were superb hosts and much fun. Kelly patiently drove us around to see a few sites from the Rocky movies.

First stop, the area where Rocky jumped benches in front of Independence Hall. The hall itself is hugely interesting inside, for it’s where a few disgruntled types decided to sever the Colonies from Britain over a few misunderstandings. Or something like that…

Not-so-fun fact: it was freezing cold and I was quite stiff, but after posing briefly for this photo, the back of my left leg ached all day. When I get back to London life, I’m hitting the yoga again. Hard.

These are the famous steps that Rocky runs up several times in the series of films. They officially belong to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, but I’m glad that they’re widely known as the Rocky Steps.

In fact, several people I met in Philly told me, in all sincerity, how the Italian Stallion is regarded as a god, as almost a real person in the city. He’s much loved and clips from the movies are played at major sporting events for Philadelphia’s teams.

This makes me very happy.

The view from the top of the Rocky Steps.

Kate, Kelly and I ran up the steps. Had to be done. It really did.

Also, this is something that I’ve really always wanted to do – pose with the statue of Rocky, which featured in Rocky III. A real highlight of my life, let me tell you.

This is Pat’s King of Steaks, famous for its cheesesteaks, and also where Rocky stood in the first movie. He was given $500 by his loan shark boss to help with training expenses.

1976987_10154005258470241_1891352800_nA plaque marks the spot where Rocky stood in that scene, demonstrating again how important a figure he is to the people of this city.

And if they’re good enough for Rocky…

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Dave and I were stunned to learn that neither Kelly nor Kate had ever seen Rocky. So that night Dave put the movie on, and it seemed to go down well with the ladies. One day, only five more to go.

Finally, Kelly took us to Elfreth’s Alley. This sounds like a euphemism from an episode of Blackadder, but actually it’s the oldest residential street in America. To my glee, I noted the old school Union Flag hanging up there.

It’s probably for educational purposes, but I secretly hoped someone British had bought the property and hung the flag to irk the locals.

10153682_10154005261420241_1314690556_nIt was a great spot for Kelly’s own SOTM.

02062014That’s it for this time – after Philly, Kate and I travelled to New York and Boston for a low-key period on the trip, staying with Kate’s family. I’ll pick up our travels again when back in Europe, starting with a travel conference in Germany.

SOTM World Tour – Deep South

May 27th, 2014

10001357_10153958967535241_686955898_nThe Southern belle-style accents of the Deep South have always been my favourite manner of speaking in all of North America (much to the bemusement of the other Americans I meet).

It’s what Europeans would consider to be the classic US tone, along with the more aggressive, nasally New Yoik way of hailing a taxi cab. My Muvver has a story about American GIs giving her cocoa powder during WWII and whenever she recounts what they said, it’s in a Southern accent.

So getting to yomp across the Deep South on a road trip was terribly exciting for me. On the plus side I ate the oysters and key lime pie of my LIFE, saw some beautiful beaches and discovered magical, incomparable Savannah.

On the minus side I realised I don’t like iced tea and didn’t hear anyone say: “Well, I do declare!” But it worked out well overall.

Kate and I visited Pensacola beach, and were utterly bewitched by it. The beach houses were like movie stars, waiting to emerge on the hallowed carpet – only one that was pure white, not red.

And I mean white – this sand was the brightest I’ve ever seen anywhere in the world.

This shot has an Instagram filter on it, as do the others, but while they remain pretty accurate, this one darkens the sand.

Still, I like the photo and it got retweeted by the @VisitPensacola twitter account. Which was nice.

Spotted this truck in traffic. I liked the slogan at the bottom (if you pardon the pun).

While in our Ocean Springs hotel, just one of those available through the excellent Country Inns and Suites chain, we were advised by the manager to visit the Half Shell Oyster House, a joint in Biloxi. This turned out to be a brilliant bit of advice, as they were the oysters of my LIFE.

This is the platter that Adventurous Kate and I fought ove… I mean, shared lovingly.

One of the most beautiful parts of this trip was one we visited at the very start, at the Oak Alley plantation in Vacherie, Louisiana. The main house, built in 1837 through slave labour, famously appears through the tunnel of oaks that you can see in this post’s top image and which were planted in the early 18th Century.

It is unclear who planted the oaks, and they were rooted in the earth long before a house was there to complete the picture, but they do so magnificently now. Here’s another look at them.

However, the beauty of the Deep South is always tainted by the horrors of slavery and it was reassuring to see that this plantation does face its horrible past head on and with dignity for those who suffered here.

This charming spot was built and its fields tended by slaves, humans who were dehumanised by – at best – uncaring owners and quite likely violent ones. A museum area reminds everyone of this and shows the names of those who worked here. Names are important, it points out, because they show that each of these individuals was a human being after all.

To further demonstrate the point, some of the chains and shackles used to restrict the slaves are on show. These were used to restrict a child when they were being transported to or from a plantation.

There were lots of people inside the plantation house, so it was difficult to get clean shots of the main living areas, but I went to the back of the group and grabbed this one.

This was a roped-off area and is half of a bedroom. The furniture is of the relevant era, but not original to the house.

This item was inside the house, and caught my eye. It’s a courting candle, and when a young man wanted to spend time with a young lady from the household, her father would twirl the candle to a certain height.

When it burned down to the top level the courting period was over, so the higher Big Daddy wound the candle, the longer he wanted the two spending time together. And if he wasn’t particularly keen on the young man in question, the candle wouldn’t get wound up much at all.

Elsewhere on the trip we stopped off for a couple of hours on Jekyll Island, once the playground of the uber-rich of America. JP Morgan, Rockefeller, Pulitzer and their like were members of this exclusive club, the main house of which can be seen here.

It was at this spot that the first transcontinental phone call took place in North America, in 1915, organised by AT&T. Ironically my AT&T sim card didn’t have a signal on the island, but picked one up just as we drove off it.

Elsewhere on this little island are some lovely stretches of sand, and while leaving footprints in one of them Kate and I spotted a dolphin gambolling among the waves. This is actually the second time we’ve seen wild dolphins, having spotted some in the Bosphorus in Istanbul.

This one in Florida was much closer, and with my long lens I got a bit of a look at him. Or her, I was too polite to ask.

1976956_10153958981670241_869412230_nElsewhere in Florida we found Seaside, a gorgeous if manufactured little town which looks idyllic, because it fairly is. There’s not a leaf out of place and its eerily perfect looks are perhaps the reasons why it was used for the Jim Carey film, The Truman Show.

Incidentally this blog post claims that TV executives are developing the film for a TV series. Wonder if they’ll return to Seaside for the filming, should it get off the ground?

Here’s a shot of the beach at Seaside.

And this is the key lime pie of my LIFE, available in one of the town’s many eateries. So many reasons to visit Seaside, and Kate and I later decided that one day we’d like to come back for a holiday, with a hired car, to stay and enjoy the beach and explore the areas nearby.

It was at this Very Important Moment in our lives that Kate and I decided we were Florida People.

Now then, let me tell you about Savannah, Georgia. It’s an incredible place.

There are many squares in a particular area, all within walking distance. These are a most splendid way of spending many an afternoon, because they’re covered in beauty, dripping with Spanish Moss, drizzled in sunlight and awash with history.

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The history of Savannah is remarkable. Sadly a lot of it involves them fighting the British, marked by many monuments dedicated to heroes from the American War of Independence, who were eventually shot by the British (sorry about that, chaps).

There’s so many remarkable events to recount in this city, not least about witches and murders and ghost hauntings, but let me just give you this snippet.

This is Savannah’s Unitarian church, and was once where a certain John Pierpont Jr was organist and musical director in the 19th Century. Among his accomplishments was a composition (possibly before he came to this church) of a little tune you might have heard of, at least during certain times of the year. It’s called Jingle Bells.

This building is one of those in the film Forrest Gump from which a feather is seen to fall. That film was partly shot here.

Speaking of Forrest Gump, here I am sat at the site of his famous bench, upon which he spoke those famous words about boxes of chocolates.

A tour guide told us that there really did used to be a bench here, where there’s now just earth and a low wall, but then people used to turn up with trucks and power tools and try to nick it. So eventually the city authorities removed it, and it’s now at the Savannah History Museum.

This is the site, to the right of this sign.

While I was taking pictures of the square, these characters pedalled round the corner. If they were British or Australian, they would have been drinking booze while they went round.

Elsewhere in Savannah we found Vinny Van Go Go’s, a pizzeria we’d been recommended. Kate and I duly chose a pizza, with half and half toppings to please us both. We asked for a large size.

Waitress: “The pizzas here are pretty big. You sure you want a large one?”

Me, confidently: “Oh we’re hungry, we’ll be OK with a large.”

This is what happened next (Adventurous Kate supplied for scale).

We did manage to eat all but a couple of slices, so we didn’t do too badly.

Finally on our trip, we had a sunny afternoon round Charlestown. It wasn’t quite as captivating as Savannah, but still quite charming.

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1458536_10153959007950241_157542505_nThe best thing I saw, however, was this furry fellow taking a drink, which resulted in a crowd of onlookers squeaking their adoration of the moment. He carried on lapping, regardless.

So those are the highlights of my time in the Deep South, a marvellous place that I look forward to returning to.

Next time, a roundup of my journey up the east coast of America, which included a reunion with old friends, meeting new ones and realising a life-long dream to visit Rocky Balboa’s stomping ground in Philadelphia.

SOTM – New Orleans

May 13th, 2014

New Orleans is like Manchester United. Wherever you go in the world, someone’s heard of it and people are talking about it.

Difference is, everyone seems to love New Orleans, but you can’t have everything.

So it was with much excitement that Kate and I arrived in the Big Easy, just ahead of Mardi Gras.

I’d forgotten this rumbustious, anything-goes city had been given this nickname, but at one point a big SUV stopped to let us walk across the street.

As we scuttled on our way, the SUV drove past and through the open side window a sizeable, smiling African American chap yelled out: “This is the Big Easy. Y’all take your time.”

New Orleans’s French Quarter is undoubtedly the best part of the city. It’s iconic and instantly recognisable from so much screen time.

Other parts, it must be said, are poorer, rougher, like they haven’t recovered from Hurricane Katrina and maybe weren’t in mid-season form even before the winds and floods came.

These areas, neighbourhoods like Crescent City and Treme, have wild chickens and feral cats roaming around. The pretty but down-at-heel houses have a lot of their residents sat out front who are hugely friendly. Almost makes you forget that this is one of the most murderous cities in the United States.

“Y’all come from LONDON?!” an incredulous elderly chap yelled out as we got out a taxi. And as we walked through the streets, people lounging about on their porches wished us a happy carnival.

1488021_10153944585785241_667523191_nThe architecture all over New Orleans is remarkable, one way or another, and no more so than in the French Quarter.

And if you ever want to buy a place in this part of town, always check to see if it’s occupied by someone else first. Especially if they might be dead.

Speaking of the supernatural, that was the theme for plenty of people during the annual Mardi Gras festivities.

This city’s heartbeat is its population, both the locals and those it adopts with a warm embrace and cocktails that’ll make you forget your mother’s name.

The costumes on display were pretty cool. At the top of the page you’ll see me with a couple of guys in full on Breaking Bad meth lab gear. And I came across giant green soldiers, just like the ones I had when I was a boy, which I really enjoyed seeing. If only I’d met these chaps when I was eight…

I told this young lady I liked her sling, and she told me she liked my accent in return. At that point her boyfriend, seen here in the top left, interjected  and hurried her along.

Just in case you didn’t realise these are a New Orleans voodoo couple, they carry a sign.

Now here’s a collector’s item – the Naked Cowboy, usually seen in New York’s Time Square, but clearly on his holidays along with his wife, seen below.

I spotted her having her picture taken with a number of guys who were fondling her bottom while their friend photographed the moment. She seemed to be quite enjoying it and stuck her bottom out even further. Clearly a good sport.

This city was built not only on a swamp (it’s the only American city below sea level) but also on music. And when it comes to Mardi Gras, there’s music in most places, even the middle of the street.

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This bass player was big on orgasmic facial expressions. He could play, too.

And this guy could be the human version of Animal from the Muppets.

1795494_10153944655225241_902536361_nBut it’s not just the musicians who claim the streets. This is Cubs the Poet who sits on Royal Street, across from the Court of Two Sisters, and bashes out bespoke poems on a 1912 typewriter.

He did one for Kate and me called Two Nikons after he spotted the cameras around our necks.

Food is as much a fingerprint of New Orleans as its architecture, music and copious vampire stories. That would warrant an entire, meaty blog post of its own, so I’ll just choose one – beignets.

I’d never heard of them before but soon Adventurous Kate was sternly forbidding me from having two sessions a day at Cafe Du Monde, a staple of this magnificent part of the city since 1862 and which sells the best beignets and coffee in town.

They taste like a little bit of heaven, being a sort of fried dough, and the coffee served with is lovely, a mild, smooth blend, very pleasing to my pipes.

Beignets are also served covered in a liberal explosion of icing sugar, which amusingly gets everywhere – across the floor, all over the tables, over the staff and you too, no matter what precautions you take. Be aware that you may emerge from the premises looking like a drug lord who’s sneezed into a bag of his latest shipment.

Now then. Let’s talk beads. At this time of year, they’re the lifeblood of the city. Money, sex, food and drink take a back seat. When it’s Mardi Gras, it’s all about the beads.

This is how it works. People stand on balconies and throw beads to the crowds below.

The aforementioned crowds then go nuts when the beads are thrown down to them, as this lady is doing above. This moment you see below actually captures a feather boa being chucked down, just for a change.

Once safely in their clutches, the party people then proudly display all the beads they’ve collected. They get pretty heavy, let me tell you, but these lads didn’t seem to mind.

1185125_10153944649505241_1082909453_nBut there just aren’t enough necks to hang all those thousands of beads around. So they also get draped around the front of houses…

…or end up on the floor.

Go home, Mardi Gras bear. You’re drunk.

There’s so much mess, child labour has to be employed to keep on top with the cleaning effort.

282985_10153944647435241_1680710128_nWhile in town I managed to rattle off a few SOTMs. This one was a highlight – the excellent Israel told me a fascinating story about an elderly, long-standing customer at his bank who gave him this advice one time. Israel told the story brilliantly too, and you can hear it via his audio clip – click on his photo to go to his page on the SOTM site.

And I also attended a burlesque night in New Orleans, something every man should do at least once in life. I got the lovely Tallulah to share a story about her beloved grandmother.

16042014Finally, here’s a bit of trivia from a city teeming with remarkable facts. This is the house that Richard Simmons grew up in.

If you’re not American and don’t know who he is, go ahead and click that link. He’s like a camper Leo Sayer, only a fitness instructor for those who aren’t good at exercise. Simmons, incidentally, went to the same New Orleans school as Lenny Kravitz and Lee Harvey Oswald. Not all at the same time.

Next time, I take off on a Deep South road trip. Oysters and grits ahoy!

SOTM World Tour – California

April 21st, 2014

988390_10153894918885241_911696053_nSan Francisco is like New York, because you’ve seen so much of it that when you arrive for the first time, it seems perfectly familiar.

It’s like perving over lots of someone’s photos on Facebook and then suddenly being with them in person. You’ve never met them before, but they don’t seem like a stranger.

That’s not to say San Francisco is dull, far from it. The up-and-down streets, trams, and stunning architecture will thrill you as you walk around.

The top image, for example, shows the Painted Ladies in Alamo Square, a famous landmark of several beautiful Victorian houses. I wondered if the people living there ever got sick of tourists gawping at their homes.

Here’s a shot across the city, one of many that you’ll see as you climb one of the peaks that ripple through San Fran.

1978857_10153894921635241_954399159_nThis is Lombard Street, one of the twistiest in the world, if not the most. I recall seeing photos of it in a Guinness Book of Records when I was a boy – I used to love reading them – and was thrilled to suddenly spot it when Kate and I were walking around one day.

1920357_10153894888990241_1824522469_nThis building is in Haight-Ashbury and Jimmy Hendrix once lived in one of the flats you see on top of the shop below.

Kate had told me that Haight-Ashbury was a hippiesh kinda place, “where the Sixties never ended, man”. This chap seemed to be embracing this ethos. I love how he thought to wear a hat.

I’m actually pleased with how I took this shot, because I used my iPhone from a distance, while walking along and trying to appear as though I was generally using it and not taking a photo. Came out well after all that. Be thankful I didn’t use my zoom lens.

Any trip to San Fran isn’t complete without a trip to The Rock – or Alcatraz, as it’s officially known. I’ve always wanted to go here, and the skies were kind on the day we visited.

1922377_10153894922470241_421954954_nThe trip was well stocked with tourists and usually that means it’s a bit hard to get into the mindset of how morose the human history of the place really is.

But it’s such a grim looking place physically that with a dash of imagination, seeking out a quiet corner and with the help of the excellent audio guide, the pain and hopelessness of life on Alcatraz seeps into you.

I was quite taken by the prison yard, because it was one place where you could be sure everyone ever imprisoned here would have been at some point. Also, the fact that there was a small baseball field at the far end amused me. What happened if the ball got hit over the wall?

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1655934_10153894927435241_374170866_nThis was the dining hall, another quite depressing place. There were once tear gas canisters suspended from the roof in case it ever kicked off, which it never did (in here at least).

1530315_10153894934725241_924783736_nThis is just one of the many rows of cells, based on the ground floor (first floor if you’re American).

One cell was open and when I went inside it, I could pretty much touch both walls when I outstretched my arms.

1958381_10153894926805241_1076153444_nOne thing I was amazed by was how visible San Francisco is from the inside of the prison.  This is a viewing hatch in one corner of the main cell block, and apparently on New Year’s Eve, prisoners could hear the sounds of revelry floating across from the city.

Torturous, but they were hardened criminals after all.

1939924_10153894931565241_418500405_nThis is one of the cells that featured in a famous escape attempt by prisoners Clarence Anglin, John Anglin and Frank Morris. Their story was featured in the Clint Eastwood movie Escape from Alcatraz.

It’s a good film and I remember seeing it years ago, so to stand where it all happened was quite incredible.  

1779348_10153894933445241_1879464166_nSo after getting out early thanks to our good behaviour, Kate and I needed a change from all that prison food – and happily found an In ‘n’ Out burger joint, featuring some of the finest burgers ever to be fashioned from a cow.

While we didn’t manage to visit the Golden Gate Bridge, we got a good look at it on the journey to and from Alcatraz.

1656323_10153894921810241_1942471091_nAs for the SOTM action I got this great story from Brian, who was a charming chap.

Also, I bumped into Madison in our hostel and she took part. I made a feature of the hill next to where we were.

After all that, it was back to Los Angeles where my dear friends Crystal and Cathy live. Crystal once invited me over to LA back in 2009 for SOTM purposes, and we’ve all been firm friends ever since.

Here I am with Kate and Crystal and to my left is Mara Marini, an actress who I photographed when I was last in town. She plays Brandi Maxxxx in the Parks and Recreation TV show.

1912281_10153887459080241_1808558402_nWhile walking around Santa Monica I spotted this classic 57 Chevy. I had a toy one as a boy and it was one of my favourites.

1897958_10153936719555241_387077679_nThis is a shot of Santa Monica pier, from on the pier itself.

397527_10153936710545241_230745998_nOver the other side is the Arlington West Memorial, a tribute to fallen US soldiers. It has lots of facts and figures posted up about American military deaths and asks people to debate the issues surrounding the deployment of soldiers in foreign conflicts.

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1962843_10153936714940241_2131940709_nElsewhere in the city, I spotted these abandoned shoes on a street near to Chinatown.

On our last night we held a SOTM meet up and it was a lot of fun. I took a number of shots, including this moody one of the lovely Meg.

After this, Kate and I headed to New Orleans for Mardi Gras and a road trip across the Deep South. Now, where did I put my banjo…

SOTM World Tour – Hong Kong and Macau

April 11th, 2014

Whenever I’ve heard of a particular faraway place, teeming with lives spent on top of one another and fused with Eastern traditions yet chock full of familiar features, I’ve wanted to go there.

Hong Kong is that place for me.

I’ve heard many good things about this city of high rises with its hugely crowded population, a fusion of British values and the best of Chinese enterprise. Technically Hong Kong is a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, but it seems apt to call it a city, also.

I recall watching the United Kingdom hand over this territory live on TV in 1997, another moment when the crumbs from the British Empire, once mighty but long past its sell-by-date, were brushed from its table.

Then-governor Chris Patten clearly held back tears as he sailed out of Victoria Harbour, seen today in the picture above. He’s now Lord Patten and chairman of the BBC Trust, so will be one of my top bosses when I return to the BBC.

The architecture of Hong Kong is remarkable. Although I was fascinated by it, and loved wondering its streets which are a photographer’s playground, I couldn’t help but think of chicken coops, so packed in were some of the flats and living spaces.

1780629_10153863561005241_688454580_nWherever you walk in Hong Kong, it’s vital that you often look up. Please don’t trip over anything, though, as I’m not insured to be giving you that advice.

1656204_10153863561685241_213855116_nI bought a puffer body warmer on this street for about £15. Makes me look like a trainee rapper, but it’s pretty toasty.

aapicPeople would joke to me about how small their rooms where, and at a comedy night a couple of the acts used gags about the tiny stage being the same size as their flats.

I saw lots of washing outside of windows, so clearly there’s no room for a dryer in these apartments.

While the signs in Hong Kong serve a functional purpose for Chinese speakers, for everyone else they’re a beautiful enigma, a code that we’ll never crack but won’t stop being hypnotised by.

The transport in HK includes these trams, some of which are new and others restored from decades ago. They’re a lot of fun to hop on and off.

If you’ve read my posts on Japan you’ll know that I had a thing for the yellow taxis in Toyko. Here they have similar cars that are all red, and I think I liked them even more.

Although they’re beasts of burden they had an elegance about them, like a cleaner who goes home, puts on a sparkly dress and dances her heart out at a late-night salsa club.

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Here’s the view from inside a taxi, which I grabbed as we drove from the airport to our lodging. The driver was a little, beaming lady of a certain age.

1508998_10153814937330241_2115206492_nNow then, this is my clever and beautiful friend, Laura. I had met her only once before, photographing her for SOTM back in 2009.

She runs a tour company in HK which also specialises in food tours, one of which we went on. It was very chucklesome time and we ate superb local grub while learning about the history of the city’s cuisine, so it was a few hours very well spent in her charming company.

Laura runs Hello Hong Kong Tours and I strongly suggest you contact her for something fun to do if you’re ever in her town.

To begin our tour we went to a dim sum place, a real old school joint with trolleys being wheeled around from which you chose your dish of choice.

We were the only foreigners in there at the time, and it was a terrific way to start the day.

Here’s one of the trolley ladies in action.

While in there I was desperate to photograph this chap, who calmly walked around with a giant silver pot, replenishing people’s teapots. Happily, he came to our table, spotted me clicking away, and paused for one of my favourite ever photographs.

Afterwards he spoke in Chinese and apparently said: “Now you have to pay me, because everyone wants my photo, because I look like Buddha.” We all laughed, and he said: “No, seriously you have to pay me.”

But he was joking. I shook his hand and he had a grip like an affronted lobster.

Then Laura took us to a place where apparently the service is grumpy but the noodles are tasty. Didn’t experience the former, but the bowl we were served contained amazing brisket and noodles.

1743730_10153863547465241_190397671_nThis eaterie was once commended by Anthony Bourdain, no less. I won’t name any of the places Laura took us so you’ll have to contact her to uncover them yourselves.

1688302_10153863547925241_1220730327_nWhile we walked through a part of the city where much food is sold in bulk quantities, Laura pointed out such delicacies as dried seahorse…

…dried gecko, which you re-inflate with water to eat…

…and that old classic, starfish. You name it, the Chinese will eat it, or at least it seemed that way in this fascinating district.

We also ate in another place where the chefs tried to hide behind big chunks of swinging meat. That’s not a euphemism.

1947787_10153863554360241_541859882_nI liked this shot because I took it blind, firing off from chest height, over to my left as soon as I saw that chap stretch his arms out. I often use 800 ISO even in bright daylight while on the streets, as it means I can use a fast shutter speed.

Finally Laura took us for scrumptious egg tarts. Apparently these were a favourite of Chris Patten’s, so if I bump into him in the lifts at New Broadcasting House I’ll ask him about them.

Near to our lodging was an area nicknamed Goldfish Street, for reasons obvious to anyone walking down it. I spotted this little chap just waiting for a new home.

And although these fellas were labelled as sharks, they’re actually catfish.

One day I came across this small red book in an antique shop. It’s an English edition of quotations by Chairman Mao. It’s quite readable and plenty of what he wrote makes sense. However, as ever, there’s a big gap between theory and implementation.

And speaking of memorable literature – I spotted this sign with its stern warning.

1654122_10153863541590241_1753963287_nAnd while in Victoria Harbour I saw the statue of Bruce Lee standing guard – iPhone photo at night, so not the best quality – and later we visited the Heritage Museum where an exhibition on this remarkable man is being held until 2018. It’s well worth a visit.

aaaaapicAfter a quite successful SOTM World Tour meet up one particular Saturday, some of us went to a comedy club. It was good and compered by a big, tall man, an American called Peter, who teaches English outside of Hong Kong but does comedy in his spare time.

He was funny, held the show of 10 comedians together well and was in control of the evening the whole time.

When the show ended some of the comedians and some of the crowd, including us, went to a nearby bar. I got talking to Peter there – he approached me as he saw me dancing in my chair to Y.M.C.A before the show started, and told me he was going to single me out in his warm-up, but didn’t get around to it.

I told him about Someone Once Told Me, and he said he’d take part, but wanted to think about it. I approached him a while later, having photographed two other comedians and a Russian woman who’d also been in the audience, and asked Peter if he was ready.

“Yes,” he replied. “It’s not a happy one, though.”

So he wrote down: “You Need To Get Home… Mom’s Not Doing Well.”

I took his photo outside the bar and then it came to him explaining the story behind his phrase, which I captured on my phone, as usual. He said how these were words he never wanted to hear, especially from his sister, “when you’re half a world away”.

He carried on, his voice breaking, and I then saw tears run down his face, catching on his nose. He just about managed to finish talking and wiped them away.

I ended the recording and then gave a hug to this bear of a man, who I didn’t know, and who only a short time before had been making me and a room full of people laugh. I hugged him as he wept for his dead mother.

It’s one of the most unbelievable experiences I’ve ever had, and one of, if not the most, powerful SOTM moment for me.

Afterwards he dried his tears, we made happier small talk and we said goodbye. But I’ll never forget Peter or his story.

Here’s a shot of me taking Peter’s photograph.

1622706_10153840644670241_184937307_nHere’s some of the other SOTMs I got while in Hong Kong. Click on any image to see them on the SOTM website.

This is the smashing Bernice Chan, a journalist from the South China Morning Post who wrote an article on me and the SOTM World Tour.

And here’s our brilliant Hong Kong host – Richard Lai, who’s senior editor for Engadget.

I met him a few years ago at his leaving do in London, a result of us having a mutual friend. He handed me his card, told me to look him up if ever I came to HK during the SOTM World Tour – which was firmly at the would-love-to-do-this-some-day stage – and that was it. Whole meeting was about eight minutes.

Years later I wrote to him, told him we were coming at long last and he kindly invited us to stay at his family home. I could just about remember what he looked like.

What lay in store for us was nothing short of sensational. Richard’s whole family, and his parents in particular, welcomed us warmly, fed us well and his dad also took us out for food a few times. Kate and I were stunned at how kind and hospitable the whole Lai family were. Richard himself couldn’t do enough for us and took us round to some great spots, and to some superb places to eat.

Here we all are at a dinner in their lovely home.

1655948_10100128315623485_1649446407_nAnd here’s Richard’s SOTM. A gregarious and fun chap, he nevertheless chose a thoughtful and moving story about his uncle.

And here’s a quick selfie that we took as we were heading out the door to the airport – a lovely memento of an incredible time in an unforgettable city.

I’ll just give a brief mention to our day trip to nearby Macau, another Special Administrative Region accessed by a comfortable ferry ride and which was a charming spot to see.

It contains a really unusual blend of the glass/steel buildings expected from modern-day China, and the beautiful architecture that betrays Macau’s brush with Portuguese rule, which began in the 16th Century and didn’t fully loosen its grip until the end of 1999.

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1959363_10153870601770241_1569522372_nDid I mention the casinos? You simply can’t miss them and are largely what Macau is known for. When awaiting the ferry in Hong Kong, a stern voice recording was warning the passengers about how “gambling can mean you losing EVERYthing”.

Don’t be so hasty as to describe Macau as a Chinese Vegas, for it’s known as the “Monte Carlo of the Orient”. A far classier title (even though I love Vegas).

Macau actually overtook Vegas in gaming revenues in 2007, so it’s a major player on the world gambling stage.

1964829_10153870635475241_488400291_n So after our unforgettable time in Asia it was back to the good old US of A and San Francisco to begin with, where I was determined to make it on to Alcatraz, and just as determined to make it off again the same day. More of that next time.

SOTM World Tour – Philippines

March 31st, 2014

Manila is a tough city. That’s not to say I didn’t find it interesting, and it actually worked out as a very fruitful stop on the SOTM World Tour.

But it’s an ugly place. Very congested, poverty in many places, grubby kids and their folks sleeping on some streets, and endless, fume-spewing traffic.

You know those science fiction movies where Earth is so choked and polluted that the human race has pushed off into outer space? Well, that’s Manila – Earth in 300 years’ time, probably.

There are some swish spots. This is the beautiful Manila Cathedral that I spotted in Intramuros.

1016544_10153846009405241_670491987_nElsewhere in the city, the Greenbelt mall is very nice, with designer stores, a modern cinema and some nice eateries which are also cheap.

But even here, the legacy of Manila’s over-population is evident. While sitting in a nice pizza/pasta place, freshly decorated with smart, polite staff, eating a good pizza for a cheap price, I saw a large rat scurry between the seductively curved legs of the tables.

It was running frantically about, as it was very much incongruous with the surroundings. I suspect it knew it was in the wrong place, but still, it was there.

But what actually made Manila a successful city for SOTM is the people. Hugely warm and friendly, I got 24 pictures and some cracking stories.

Here’s one I particularly liked:

And I managed to get on to the local Wave 89.1 FM radio station to talk about the SOTM World Tour, thanks to the excellent Tony, an American chap who lives in Manila and was hugely helpful to me. The whole radio visit was a lot of fun and you can listen to the interview here.

I got a SOTM from KC Montero, the DJ, too.

Also while in Manila, I visited the city’s North Cemetery, where people live. There are several cemeteries in the city which have other homeless people living in the tombs, among the dead. This one was quite organised, with little kiosks – sometimes based in a tomb – dotted about.

1011205_10153846012895241_62353581_nThe trappings of a functioning community were simply woven in between the memorials of the deceased.

1920443_10153846019955241_1617959129_nAs you can see here, washing lines are strung up next to sarcophagi.

1900099_10153846012435241_748118025_nI looked through one window and saw these neatly-packed personal possessions tucked in next to several sarcophagi.

1012070_10153846025725241_1173488283_nWhile wandering around I came across a karaoke session in one area. I couldn’t persuade anyone there to take part in SOTM but did get a few shots of those there. They were hugely friendly and it was a great atmosphere.

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But I did get some SOTM success. This is the brilliantly-named Boy, who lives in the tomb you can see in the background.

And I also met the very sweet Angeline and Elmira, two girls who live in the cemetery.

This is Angeline’s SOTM.

I met the woman who lives in this tomb.

1743563_10153846025535241_1007002913_nThese are her possessions, and her bed. The woman wearing red in the photo on the right, at the altar, is her late mother-in-law.

1798395_10153846026735241_688722889_nAnd here’s the SOTM for the lady who lives here.

I spotted this little chap while walking around.

1898257_10153846020395241_1842396434_nAnd this is another SOTM participant from the cemetery. Tony asked me to get a close up shot of her eyes, as he said that when some Filipinos get older, their eyes get bluer. This lady certainly had striking peepers.

1001415_10153846024755241_1263528504_nJust one more – I loved this woman’s SOTM, and her baby was incredibly comfortable with the camera, peeping over the top of the sketchbook for both versions.

My visit to the cemetery, and the things I saw, were unforgettable. Another highlight on the SOTM World Tour, if a sobering one.

After the heaving Manila, we flew to the island of Boracay, and I saw why people rave about the Philippines.

While there, Kate and I witnessed the sunset of our lives. Seriously. The most amazing one I’ve ever seen. This shot has been run through Instagram, but it’s quite close to what I actually saw.

Apologies if this puts you off your dinner, but here I am, happy as a sand boy, wearing my new £4 trunks. Boom.

1622132_10153789433150241_693106254_nBoracay was a busy spot as well – it was Chinese New Year during our stay – but still the waters were clear and the sand was pretty clean.

As it was so busy we did struggle for accommodation and stayed in a couple of crap places, with complimentary cockroaches and damp, but in between had five days in a decent hostel room.

Still, this place is a superb beach destination, and would be even better if it had not been peak season.

While there, I met the delightful Sunshine, a journalist and restaurant owner who treated us to a meal at her fabulous Greek joint, Cyma.

16022014So, after a bit of beach time and plenty of walking along the sand, I packed up and headed to a place I was very excited about – Hong Kong.

Check in next time to see how I got on in the city of skyscrapers, which still retains much of its old-world charm and is also home to one of the world’s most famous harbours.

SOTM World Tour – Brunei

March 4th, 2014

1660320_10153786052195241_1554794481_nI confess that when my old friend Helen invited me to Brunei, I had to look it up on a map as I wasn’t exactly sure where it was.

My blushes were spared when I was told by some of the folk living in this part of Borneo that it’s a common problem. People seem to get sultans and sheiks mixed up, it seems.

So, not knowing what to expect, Kate and I packed up, bid a fond farewell to marvellous Thailand, and flew smoothly into Brunei.

What we found was absolutely fascinating, but before you run off and book your flights there, bear in mind that having insider knowledge of the place, courtesy of meeting locals and expats, really made our short trip a very enjoyable one.

If you didn’t know anyone there, and wandered around on your own, it would be a different experience altogether.

It’s the people of this oil-rich, tropical nation that makes it a unique destination. I was tickled to know that while it’s much, much bigger than Malta, Brunei has the same population size.

An example of the warmth and charm of that population can be found in the top photo, where our new friend Kathy is seen with the pupils she teaches.

But let me begin with Brunei’s more ostentatious side. The Sultan of Brunei was once the world’s richest man, known as a playboy in his younger days (he’s now 67) and educated at Sandhurst.

He is supreme leader, overlord and demigod among the populous. His word is law, and that word has also decreed that Shariah law is going to start being enforced onto this Islamic nation. It’s already been technically in place, but not widely employed, for a while now.

The trappings of his fantastic, oil-derivied wealth are commonly seen. This is Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien mosque, which dominates the centre of the nation’s petite capital, Bandar Seri Begawan.

1654136_10153786110345241_1188310171_nSee the gold bits? They’re actual gold. Not solid, but the paint has real gold in it.

This beautiful building is apparently rather sumptuous inside also, but is only fully functional for two weeks of the year when the Sultan and his ministers debate the forthcoming budget. Aside from those two weeks, its use is quite limited, I was told.

1514290_10153786050385241_1982378209_nThis is the Sultan’s polo club. A high quality hospital was built right next to this, ensuring that should His Majesty ever fall off his steed, he’d be able to receive medical treatment very promptly.

1497448_10153786045140241_1677519658_nThis is a roundabout decoration. Yes, it is a giant diamond ring replica. No, I don’t know why it was built, either.

1779241_10153786042695241_1793821859_nThere are other impressively structured, but rather soulless buildings to be seen in Bandar, but this isn’t really giving you the full picture.

Brunei is a smashing, interesting destination because of the people who live there, both locals and expats.

When Kathy, who is a top-notch and highly qualified English teacher, learned Kate and I were in town, she invited us to her school, on the edge of a water village. She teaches the children English, and kindly agreed to tell them all about Someone Once Told Me. 

994106_10153786073420241_2106784417_nThe kids were brilliant – a little excitable but I like to see kids with a bit of life in them. And Kathy had them firmly under control.

1601248_10153786070455241_1922540329_nSo, they listened attentively as Kathy got across the mechanics of how SOTM worked.

1480632_10153786068980241_1696050172_nThen Kate and I set about taking their photos for SOTM. It was a lot of fun and the children tried very hard in their best English.

After taking their shots individually, we gathered them for a group shot.

1514960_10153786074445241_285881954_nHere’s one of the chaps, the mischievous Nasrul, whose photo I took.

And I was pleased to see how neatly the children kept their shoes. This is what my shoe cupboard looks like generally (at last count, I had 33 pairs of shoes pre-yomping around the globe).

Soon it was time to say goodbye, so Kate and I gave Kathy the bag of notebooks, pens and colouring pencils that we’d brought along. Kathy said she gives out prizes for those pupils who achieve certain academic goals, and assured us that our gifts would be used in this manner.

After all that fun, it was time to meet the school’s headmistress, the charming Hjh Noraini Binti Hj Timbang who insisted on having her photo taken with us.

1011982_10153745661870241_216549647_nIncidentally, Kathy’s air conditioning unit wasn’t working in her classroom, meaning it was quite stuffy in there. But the day after our visit, her headmistress arrived with the repair man, who skills must surely be regarded as essential in this tropical nation, where temperatures can be fixed in the 30s Centigrade (80-90s Fahrenheit), both day and night.

After all that excitement, Kathy took us on a tour of one part of the nearby Water Village, also known as Kampong Ayer, guiding us around the section where most of the children she teaches live.

This is a remarkable place. It is what it sounds like, a group of 42 villages located a few feet above the murky, crocodile inhabited water. The structures spread along the banks of the bay that has burrowed its way into the heart of the capital. Apparently some 10% of Brunei’s population, or 39,000 people, live in the Water Village.

What you see here is only one part of the entire village. The buildings I saw were quite sturdy-looking, and generously sized.

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1013855_10153786056565241_1985442986_nHowever, they are perched on a series of concrete or wooden stilts, and these supports don’t look all that steady to my untrained eye.

1656257_10153786080445241_1243085560_nThis is one property that had collapsed, possibly done on purpose as sometimes families break down shaky parts of their dwellings when they can afford to replace it with better quality living space.

1000224_10153786066320241_999046251_n The entire village is connected by a series of wooden walkways which spread more than 95,600 feet (29,140 meters).  They don’t have sides to them, are slippery when wet and the odd one is loose, so you do have to watch your step somewhat.

1607077_10153786061905241_1960550207_nThe people living there were very friendly, and we got lots of waves and posing for photos. It was a brilliant spot to visit, although it must be said that the people living here are doing so in poverty.

When you hear so many stories of how wealthy the Sultan is, the question arises as to why more of that wealth hasn’t been funnelled this way.

1017358_10153786093145241_1101384797_n I was trying to get this guy with my long lens, but then he spotted me and wouldn’t stop waving until I’d definitely taken his shot.

The place is a normal, working village, filled with people going about their daily lives, which are a far cry from the opulence of the nation’s ruling family.

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But here’s another building that had fallen into the river, demonstrating that life here isn’t always that secure.

1554337_10153786062840241_990448216_n This is a new structure that was going up at the time of our visit.

1554541_10153786089165241_819633475_nI spotted something that I really liked – not only do a lot of these houses have (apparently illegal) satellite dishes, but they often have their own little islands built to house them, too.

Now, at one point Helen took us to a supermarket called Supersave, which is known among the locals as Monkeysave. This is because monkeys congregate there and loiter in hope of getting food.

I actually spotted a couple of women throwing food to the critters, which might not be the best move. They are cute, but can become aggressive and giving them food will make them see all humans as a definite food source.

They’re certainly smart. I saw this one test the roof of the light, making sure it could take his weight before he clambered on top of it.

1625752_10153786048795241_975333473_nWhile Kate and I were there, we also spoke to pupils at Jerudong International School. I jabbered on about journalism, the importance of a free press (Brunei doesn’t have one, its media is controlled by the state) and naturally, Someone Once Told Me.

photo 4Kate talked about the joys and perils of travel blogging, and shared a few tips with how to get started in blogging.

photo 5The kids were great and we had a smashing time talking to them, both this (unexpectedly) large group, and a smaller set we chatted to in the school library afterwards.

Once again, thanks to Helen and her fine efforts, Kate and I both ended up in the local newspapers, the Borneo Bulletin and, seen here, the Brunei Times, who both covered our time spent at the JIS school.

1507370_10153763001400241_774863366_oAnd as if all that wasn’t enough, Helen managed to secure a chat for us with the British High Commissioner, a fine chap called David Campbell. He was very interesting to talk to about the past and future of Brunei.

Here’s the girl of the hour herself – the brilliant Helen with an inspiring story from her youth.

Finally, I also got to get a little time in the jungle, courtesy of Helen’s excellent husband Kris (closest to the camera) and his friend Neale, who do a regular walk on a trail at Bukit Shabander and invited me along. It was a hot, sweaty, green and pleasant afternoon.

This was the view at one point, and it was sumptuous. Welcome to the tropics.

1654398_10153786118635241_52814837_nKris advised me not to lean against this tree. Upon closer inspection, I could see why. Mother Nature was clearly having a bad day when she came up with this design.

1689032_10153786137050241_1590580866_nBrunei is a place to pop into for sure, as there are many fascinating sides to it. But it would be a difficult place to visit on your own, without any help.

Alcohol and cigarettes are banned, for those who care about such things, although foreigners can bring in a small amount for personal, discreet use. There is no nightlife at all, but if you’re hanging around with friendly locals/expats then that can make for a perfectly entertaining stay. Shariah law will tighten behaviour still further, but no-one is quite sure how, as yet.

Many of the folk I met, such as Kathy for example, are keen to show off their part of the world in that kingdom, so if you’re going to Brunei for any reason let me know and I’ll see if I can put you in touch.

They’re hugely friendly types there and are always pleased when visitors pop in, because not too many do. I understand that tourism in Brunei is shrinking and recently stood at around 200,000 people in a year.

Considering the nation’s natural beauty, this seems a low number – but then again, the Sultan is keen to preserve that very natural environment, so perhaps they don’t want too many people trampling all over their tropical forests.

So I recommend securing a contact prior to your arrival, someone who can show you around a little – public transport isn’t great and a car is fairly necessary – and give you an insight into life there, because that will unlock some of this nation’s secrets.

Next stop on the SOTM World Tour? The Philippines, where I find Manila to be a happy hunting ground, whether it’s among the middle classes or people living in one of the city’s cemeteries.