Bucket List

Teach English in a Foreign Country (Bucket List #118)

Hanoi, Vietnam • June 2017 • Length of Read: 6 Minutes

For a country that seems to be so famed for its condensed milk iced coffees, worldwide distributed premium beans, and infamous weasel poop plantations, it’s surprisingly difficult to find a good cup of Joe in Vietnam. Forget latte art, most of the brews I had the displeasure of drinking during my month spent traversing the country more resembled murky pond water than milky delights, coming complete with sea floor debris in the form of ground beans glued the bottom of the dirty ceramic cups they were usually served in.

Pleasantly greeted with a warm smile by the young barista as I walked through the brightly painted narrow door of the hole-in-the-wall Note Coffee shop in Ho Chi Minh City, therefore, I was over the moon to see her go about operating the shiny new roaster that took its pride of place on the counter in an absolute seamless manner. Finally, a coffee that wasn’t going to be made using frozen instant beans and boiled hose water. Ordering a flat white and banh mi sandwich, I took a look around at the kaleidoscopic walls and ceiling. It was rather evident how the café had got its name. Signed post-it notes had been stuck to every feasible area of white space, words of inspiration and love being spread by Note Coffee customers from all four corners of the globe.

Delighted at having stumbled across this absolute jewel in the heart of Vietnam’s largest city, I followed the girl in the neatly-pressed apron up the winding staircase at the back of the shop to the rooftop seating area. She was a student studying Korean and English language at a local University, and clearly loved any moment that she could get to practice with a native speaker. As she went downstairs to make my order, I nipped into the toilet, which was styled as a British red post box, of course, and soon after she returned back up the steep stairs with my food and drink on a slip-proof tray. “Here you go,” she grinned, placing it down on a table that had views over the window-box flowers of the street below. “Thanks,” I responded, handing over the cash. I don’t think that smile had left her face since I’d arrived.

Complementing her on her English, she then proceeded to ask where I was from and where I was travelling and soon we'd entered into a lengthy conversation about my plans to travel up the entire coastline of the country to the capital city of Hanoi. “You need to visit our sister coffee shop when you get there then,” she said to me excitedly. “That is the original Note Coffee, with this one having only opened a couple of months ago.” On my way out the door a half-hour later I repeated my promise that I would say hello to her colleagues in the North; a note reading ‘love her but leave her wild’ in homage to my favourite poet Atticus left in place of my empty coffee cup.

Two weeks later, I strolled around the pond in the centre of Hanoi’s Old Quarter and spotted the place I was looking for. Well, it wasn’t that hard to find considering there was a youthful staff member stood at the door waving at me from the other side of the street. ‘There must be something in the water,’ I thought as I crossed the road and greeted him, not quite able to comprehend the levels of staff morale and happiness maintained by this small business. In a completely personal opinion, from all my travels I’ve found the Vietnamese vox populi to be the most rude and curt in the whole of South-East Asia. Managing to find this anomaly of love and joy in an otherwise bitter and grumpy country was an absolute revelation.

“What’s your name?” asked the same guy as he placed my coffee down next to my laptop. I’d already decided that this was going to be the perfect place to get my writing done whilst in the city. “Crobs,” I said, shaking his hand. “I’m going to be in Hanoi for the next twelve days before heading back to Europe, so you’ll probably see me a lot over the coming fortnight. I actually came here because of how awesome the staff in your Saigon branch were.” As a side note, Ho Chi Minh City used to be called Saigon until it was officially renamed in 1976 to commemorate the first leader of North Vietnam. Depending on their political standpoints, however, some Vietnamese people are still not too happy with this, so I cautiously ensured to still use the old name when talking to the locals. “We run a weekly English club every Monday night,” responded the guy. “If you’re still going to be here then it would be awesome if you could attend and help out.” How could I not?

Convincing my friends Tilly and Pete to join, the three of us sat down at 8 pm that following Monday in the circle of wooden chairs which had been arranged by the owner of the Note, and English club member, Tien. We introduced ourselves, and soon after the full-house of members had arrived and were ready to start. “Today’s topic of discussion is going to be ‘vacations’,” announced the confident teenage girl in charge of proceedings. She had just passed her final high school exams and was looking forward to having a study-free summer in front of her. I offered to start off and explained the purpose of my world tour trip, detailed some of the countries that I’d visited along the way and my impressions of Hanoi.

After my well-enunciated and deliberately slow monologue, I assumed that the stage would be set for the next person in the circle, but instead, a flurry of questions came my way. What was my favourite place? What did I dislike about Vietnam? How does life differ back in Scotland from Asia? They were all so interested in what life was like for someone from a completely different background, and I was happy to oblige them with detailed answers. They were just so eager to learn and in an informal out-of-classroom setting were all a lot more willing to participate. It also made me realise that learning a new language is not all about grammar and tenses, but in also understanding the culture, lifestyle differences, and unorthodox dialogue. Over the course of the next two hours or so, Pete, Tilly, and I gave them an epic geography lesson which they clearly very much appreciated. I also proudly managed to slip in a few Scottish slang terms along the way which at first baffled, and then very much amused them.

“We will miss you. Always be happy and have a safe flight.” That's what the note that accompanied my coffee and cake the next morning read. ‘I’ll miss you too,’ I thought as I left the Note for a final time. For reasons I’ll not go into it had been an emotionally scarring time for me, and although I always try to come across as happy to people, at times I’m far from it. In that moment, however, for the first time in a long time, I truly believed that happiness was just around the corner.

Visit Auschwitz (Bucket List #42)

Auschwitz, Poland • July 2017 • Length of Read: 3 Minutes

Against my better judgement, the first thing that struck me when crossing the railroad tracks running directly through the heart of Auschwitz-Birkenau was the sheer beauty of the place. As I stopped to take in the 360-degree panorama, not a breath of wind in the air, only the soft chirping of birds broke the silence; hauntingly highlighting the nascent wonder of life in a place where so many were horrifically lost. Rolling fields of green sprawled out as far as my eyes could see beyond three sides of the rectangular-shaped concentration camp and the sun set from a perfectly blue sky behind the giant evergreen trees that lined the fourth. It was nothing but picturesque. A wave of guilt spread through me as a result of these happy thoughts but I was soon snapped out of my trance and back to the paradoxical reality of where I was standing as my guide of thirty years’ experience coughed and continued with his educational tour. The trodden ground under my feet contained the ashes of an estimated 1.1 million souls who were mercilessly killed here before the close of the Second World War.

Named after the nearby Polish town of Oświęcim, Auschwitz is actually a network of three concentration camps that were built by the Nazi’s in this annexed area. It was first constructed as a labour camp in 1940 to hold Polish political prisoners, and throughout the Third Reich regime this lie was upheld despite the extermination of prisoners by gas chamber starting as early as 1941; the unthinkable reality of what was happening behind the barbed wire fences and in the on-site ‘washrooms’ remaining a well-kept secret. Prisoners would initially be told that they were going for a shower, fake faucets even fixed in place to maintain hope whilst they undressed and exposed their frail and broken bodies. Being shuffled into place by a number of the some 7,000 German SS guards who were stationed in Auschwitz throughout WWII, however, the Nazi’s Final Solution to the Jewish Question was them imposed upon them as they were sprayed with Zyklon B pesticide. The ashen corpses were incinerated and carted out by the trainload on a daily basis.

Before taking us to Auschwitz-Birkenau, otherwise called Auschwitz II, our guide had given us a tour around the Holocaust Museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site of the smaller Auschwitz I; the sickly ironic phrase ‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ stamped over the main gate impossible to ignore as we entered. Translating to ‘Work Sets You Free’ in English, this was the Nazi slogan used in concentration camps all around Europe. Nobody was ever set free, of course, but a few prisoners did miraculously manage to survive until the end of the War and live to tell the tales of their almost unimaginable ordeals. Two books I would strongly recommend reading are Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl and If This Is a Man by Primo Levi. Both men were lucky enough to have passed in and out of Auschwitz in the same life, and their accounts of the experiences and emotions felt throughout are invaluable.

Beach Bonfire (Bucket List #24)

Arisaig, Scotland, UK • June 2016 • Length of Read: 7 Minutes


“I know the perfect beach for us to camp on,” smiled Fry as he barreled the car around the single track road that hugs the banks of Loch Lomond; rear-ending other vehicles like he was a white van man driving around a Formula 1 circuit. “My dad and I found this really cool secluded cove once when open-water kayaking. It’s not too far from the little seaside town of Arisaig so should be easy enough for us to find from the land. Man, this weather is a peach. I’m hoping that there will be a host of foreign girls playing topless volleyball there when we arrive.”

Our original idea had been a bit more grandiose. Having walked the length of the West Highland Way from Milngavie to Fort William, we then planned to take the Jabobite steam train across the Glenfinnan Viaduct to its terminus in the port of Malaig, where we would be able to get a well-deserved pint of beer in The Old Forge, Britain’s most remote pub. Unfortunately, with the Jacobite having been used as the Hogwarts Express in the Harry Potter films, ticket prices for that particular route were substantially higher than for your standard Scotrail journey. Being lazy, Wolfy also point-blank refused to waste valuable vacation days from work to simply walk, so we scrapped the idea of re-enacting the famous scene where Ron and Harry catch up with the train in their flying Ford Anglia and opted for a weekend’s camping instead.

Fry’s optimistic delusions kept us entertained for the length of our five-hour journey, and distracted us from the impending death situations he seemed to place us in on every bend in the road. There is a cult novel within the Scottish mountaineering community by Richard Happer called The Hills Are Stuffed With Swedish Girls, which I guessed he might have recently read and mistaken for actual events. In the book, two lads decide that a week in the hills is exactly what their other best mate needs after getting dumped by his girlfriend. Convincing him that mythically hot European girls do actually come to Scotland on outdoors holidays, the three set off with their pet cat on what turns out to be a hilarious journey filled with more ups and downs than the hills they traverse. Being a novel, they do also bump into some rather charming Swedish girls along the way, of course. Only when we arrived in Arisaig and pulled over to pick-up some supplies did Fry eventually snap back into reality.

“We’re going to need matches, kindling, burgers, sausages, rolls, ketchup, marshmallows, and plenty of beer,” said Wolfy, compiling a mental shopping list as we entered the town’s sole convenience store. I wasn’t too optimistic, but with a little searching, we actually managed to tick everything off. The owner of the shop clearly knew his customer demographic and needs.

“Swedish girls, here we come,” yelled Fry as we shoved everything in the boot and continued on our quest. The guy was more excited than a kid waiting for Santa Claus on Christmas Eve and might have left burn marks on the road as the tyres screeched away. Five minutes later we were pulling into a beachside car park.

“Here we go,” he grinned, darting up a nearby sand dune with the nimbleness of a billy goat and leaving Wolfy and I lugging the tents and food behind. It felt more like we were heading to a music festival than on a boy’s camping trip. Reaching the top of the bank and casting his eyes presumably across the beckoning shoreline on the other side, Fry suddenly stopped dead in his tracks. “You won’t believe this,” he exclaimed, turning back to face us and shouting down. “You will not believe this.”

“If there are Swedish girls over this ridge,” I said to Wolfy, “then I’ll eat my hat.”

“You’re not wearing a hat,” he replied as we raced up as fast as the weight we were carrying would let us.

“My hypothetical hat,” I panted, gunning to find out what had excited Fry so much. Reaching the top, out of breath, we too were stopped dead in our tracks. “No fucking way,” I yelled. A couple stood on the otherwise empty beach throwing a Frisbee to one another. And both were stark naked.

“Check out the piece on him,” I said as he dived to catch the plastic disk, his rather well-endowed penis spinning around like a helicopter rotor blade.”

“Should we offer them some wood?” laughed Fry, teeing me up for the joke. “The fire they have going is an embarrassment.”

“I think the last thing you need to offer that guy is some wood,” I chuckled as we made our way down.  "His girlfriend definitely doesn't need any of our marshmallows, either," I added, commented on her  rather rotund physique. Spotting us, the pair absolutely shat the pants that neither of them was at that moment wearing and darted into the seclusion of their one-man tent.

“This looks to be a good a spot as any,” announced Wolfy, dumping the tents he was carrying on the sand about 50m past the naked ramblers. “High enough to avoid the rising tide and a nice grassy knoll over there on which we can build our bonfire.”

"And close enough to cockblock your man over there from getting any action tonight," I smiled.

"Did you see her?" commented Wolfy. "I think we're doing him a favour."

Register as an Organ Donor (Bucket List #14)

Glasgow, Scotland, UK • October 2012 • Length of Read: 2 Minutes

In the UK, we currently use an opt-in policy for organ donation. This means that, in order for a person’s organs to be used medically once they have deceased, they have to have registered and given their consent to be an organ donor during their lifetime. From the current statistics which I could source, this currently stands at 62% of the British population, with as low as a 34% consent rate among potential black, Asian, and minority ethnic donors. In my opinion, with the current rapid advancements in medical science and increased opportunities to save lives, not having the supply of organs available for treatment is preposterous; and it stems from this ludicrously outdated ‘opt-in’ policy.

Let’s take Austria as an example on the other hand; that beautiful central European country with its mountainous terrain, incredible architecture, dynastic history, and a 99.8% organ donation consent rate. What makes the difference between this near perfect registration figure and the measly 12% of the population being registered in bordering Germany? Austria has an ‘opt-out’ policy; meaning that, unless you have specifically refused, there is presumed consent that you intend to donate your organs to medical use when they expire.

Now I get it, people are lazy (sorry, busy). Joining, or removing, themselves some arbitrary list is not exactly top of their priorities list. What happens if we had an ‘opt-out’ policy in the UK and someone’s organs were accidentally donated because they forgot to untick the box? The grieving family would be distraught. Well, tough. If you are too dumb to request to keep your organs when you have the option, then you don’t deserve to have them; especially when they are of zero use to you. I have not yet come across a single rational argument as to why we have not followed Austria in changing to an ‘opt-out’ organ donation policy.

But, ‘just as we should not dictate how other people live, we should not dictate how they die,’ said Victoria from Staffordshire when yougov.co.uk conducted a survey on this very issue. Well, Victoria, first of all, nobody is dictating how a person dies. I’m not standing there with a gun in one hand and a hacksaw in the other, asking them which vital sign I should render useless first. Just opt-out. It’s in the name, it’s an ‘option’.

But, ‘this issue is a very sensitive one and I feel it should be entirely voluntary,’ said Golfy from Lincolnshire. Are you as stupid as your name sounds, Golfy? What part of this entire suggestion is not voluntary? Unless you are illiterate, it takes no more, and no less, effort to untick a box as it does to tick a box.

But, ‘an opt-out system will be costly and complicated to implement- as it is, the system is easy to manage,’ argued Frances from Suffolk. Sorry Frances, let’s not let administration concerns get in the way of saving human lives.

But, ‘giving something as precious as an organ is a deeply personal matter and not something that the medical profession should simply assume as a matter of course. What if my religious beliefs go against this?’


Please, please, please. If you haven’t already done so, then register. It can be done online in less than five minutes, and may well help save one, if not more lives. Take my lungs, take my kidneys, take my heart; God knows girls have in the past and I never gave them permission. New life goal: Be the skeleton hanging at the front of a middle-school biology classroom.

Isn’t is also a rather nice, albeit nihilistic, thought as well that you could still be able to help the world even once you’ve passed?



See A Dead Body (Bucket List #15)

Cambodia/UK • Various Dates • Length of Read: 3 Minutes

“So there’s a great essay written by Sigmund Freud called ‘On Transience’, and in it, he cites a conversation that he had with the poet Rilke as they were walking along this beautiful garden. At one point, Rilke looked like he was about to tear up and Freud said, ‘What’s wrong? It’s a beautiful day. There are beautiful plants around us. This is magnificent.” To which Rilke says, “Well, I can’t get over the fact that one day all of this is going to die. All these trees, all these plants, all this life is going to decay. Everything dissolves into meaninglessness when you think about the fact that impermanence is a really real thing. Perhaps the greatest existential bummer of all is entropy.” I was really struck by this because perhaps that’s why when we’re in love we’re also kind of sad. There’s sadness to the ecstasy. Beautiful things sometimes can make us a little sad. And it’s because what they hint at is the exception, a vision of something more, a vision of a hidden door, a rabbit hole to fall through, but a temporary one. And I think, ultimately, that is kind of the tragedy. That is why love simultaneously fills us with melancholy.” – Jason Silva.

When people look through my bucket list, there are two items which tend to be commented on far more than any others: ‘#52 Fall in Love’ and ‘#15 See a Dead Body’. I think that this is because, as humans, we feel a much greater connection to ideas and events that tug at our heart-strings than we do to adrenaline based activities such as skydiving, relaxing activities such as bathing in the blue lagoon, or adventure activities such as spending the night on a desert island. These other activities are nice added extras, but love and death affect us all. Not in equal measures, but they do affect us all.

My second published book, We Ordered a Panda, which can be purchased through my online bookshop, is my comprehensive answer to the former. My way of feeling better about things is to write them down. Yes, I wish to entertain and inspire, but my writing also doubles as a form of therapy. As an atheist, I am constantly melancholic about love and death. I know that there is no afterlife. I know that I am no phoenix and that when I do eventually die there will be no rebirth from the ashes. By seeing a dead body, I felt that it would provide such a horrific and stark image of the fragility and shortness of life, that I would then be able to further comprehend and understand how I wish to better spend mine.

I have now been unfortunate enough to see multiple dead bodies, and can indeed say that this has been the case. I’m not going to go into the specifics of such incidents. Trust me, as much as you think you want to know, you don’t want to know. And even if you did want to know, I don’t want to share them with you anyway so you won’t know.

What I will say, however, is that crossing this item off my bucket list has strangely led me to be a much happier person. Knowing that I only have a limited time on this Earth, and staring death in the face, has triggered something in me to live much more in the moment; to stop worrying as much; to do even more crazy things, and to eliminate any regret from my actions. Instead of fearing death, I am embracing life.

When I was walking home drunk from the pub one night with my good friend Possum, she got out her phone and started to play Yellow by Coldplay. “This is the song that I want to be played at my funeral,” she said, almost stumbling off the pavement into oncoming traffic, “and everyone in attendance will have to turn up in yellow clothes. I want it to be a celebration of my life and not a mourning.”

How beautiful. How melancholic.