Italians takeover at the helm

Encounters with extraordinary people

By Nigel Wright [email protected]

Nigel Wright, and his wife Sue, moved to Portugal seven years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far East and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s, and although now retired, still continue to travel and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.

In this special article, Nigel Wright writes about a series of memories of people he met on his travels.

The handsome young Frenchman pulled 10 small cuddly toys from his rucksack, and with great precision lined them up on a tree branch before taking their photograph.

We were relaxing on a beach in Thailand and watched bemused as he then carried his little furry friends down to the waves for more photos.

This time his lovely wife posed with them as they were skillfully arranged paddling out of the sea! At the sound of our laughter, the lady explained that the toys, whose team leader was the diminutive ‘Gaston the Hedgehog’, always accompanied them on their travels.

Pulling us to one side, she whispered that her eccentric husband had owned this hedgehog since he was a little boy and had insisted that Gaston share their bed and rest his prickly little head on the pillow between them every night!

This brief but hilarious encounter was a curiously enriching experience and we suspect that wherever this quirky young couple roam, they leave behind a trail of happiness and laughter.

Korean families meet after many years apart.
Korean families meet after many years apart.

The human connection is arguably one of the most powerful elements of travel and spans many different cultures and backgrounds.

We have been fortunate to visit exciting places, experience fascinating cultures, view wonderful scenery and taste exotic food.

However, it’s the people that we have met that have often provided the most satisfying memories. Such encounters may last just a few captivating minutes but sometimes lead to lasting friendships.

We are privileged to enjoy the friendship of Lee Chae Yung, who was our local consultant and Mr ‘Fix It’ when we lived and worked in South Korea.

CY, as he was affectionately known, was the epitome of a Korean gentleman – knowledgeable, courteous, full of good humour and a specialist on his country’s rich heritage.

He was passionate about the potential for the South’s re-unification with the communist North. At the cessation of fighting in the Korean War in 1953, many of CY’s close relatives were trapped on the north side of the Demilitarized Zone and he has had no contact since.

He was always reticent about telling tales of life during the horrific Korean peninsula conflict but in contrast, loved to narrate the story of “The day the sun rose in the West”.

That morning, whilst CY was hiding in the hills near Seoul, General MacArthur’s naval fleet began bombarding the seashore near Inchon prior to a daring amphibious landing. This action brilliantly illuminated the western sky before dawn, heralding the welcome arrival of the allied liberation troops.

CY has now retired, but campaigns vigorously to reunite members of the 100,000 families cruelly divided by the military curtain that still divides North and South.

As tensions have recently softened, this campaign has had some success and a few families have been able to briefly meet their long lost relatives in well-publicised and highly emotional encounters. Immensely proud of his country and home city of Seoul, CY sends us articles describing the successful efforts now being made to ‘green’ the city environment.

He always maintained that through hard work by its people, South Korea would become a dominant trading nation and he was right. Sadly, he is unlikely to live long enough to witness the reunification of his dreams.

Street cafés are great places to meet interesting people and the Zawgyi House in downtown Yangon is no exception.

Asian families now benefit from cleaner water.
Asian families now benefit from cleaner water.

Whilst sipping a cool beer at this celebrated watering hole, we were dumbfounded to see a western couple, nattily clad in lycra cycling shorts, wending their way through the heavy traffic astride what was probably Burma’s only tandem bicycle!

We invited them to join us and had the pleasure of meeting Curt and Cathy Bradner, two effervescent Americans who lived in Yangon.

They work tirelessly for the charity Thirst Aid – providing point-of-use household water treatment in the developing world. “Doing good to the last drop” was their motto!

Thirst-Aid ( promotes the importance of education about water related illnesses and uses available local resources to produce ceramic filters to generate clean water for indigenous populations.

The charity also responds rapidly to emergency situations such as the 2005 Tsunami in Thailand and the 2008 Cyclone Nargis in Burma.

Water flowing through a simple ceramic filter is stripped of harmful bacteria and the energetic Bradners have set up eight factories in the country for the manufacture of these life-saving units from local materials. This fantastic aid organisation has embarked on a safe water programme on a countrywide scale to bring clean water to some 15 million in need.

The project employs 150 Burmese and their thirst education team has trained 300 local health workers in filter use, care and good hygiene practice. It is a perfect example of how focused low-cost charitable aid led by visionary people can produce astonishing results.

Throughout history, river travel along Asia’s great waterways has been an important part of everyday life. Today, tourists can witness villages inaccessible by road, by ‘cruising’ the Mekong, Chao Phraya and Irrawaddy river systems in small wooden boats such as converted rice barges or refurbished paddle steamers.

The boats have only a few cabins so the passengers on each trip soon become well acquainted with each other.

Whilst aboard the steamer Pandaw, that was gently plying the smooth waters of the Irrawaddy, we were surprised and delighted to meet entrepreneurs Tony and Maureen Wheeler. As founders of the world’s largest travel guidebook publisher, Lonely Planet, they were already heroes of ours and we spent the next three days sharing travelers’ tales and learning something of their astonishing success.

The Wheelers’ real story began in 1972 when they decided to travel from London to Australia across Europe and Asia on (then) 6 US dollars per day in an ancient Austin Minivan.

As they told us, it was “to get the travel bug out of our systems and then settle down for good”. They were asked by friends to write an account of their trip and produced a short, hand-collated stapled guidebook on their kitchen table.

The following year they wrote ‘SE Asia on a Shoestring’, which proved to be a bestseller and a new publishing empire was born.

Their philosophy was simple and hugely successful – they chose to publish guides to places that nobody had ever thought of writing about before!

Lonely Planet now publishes more than 500 titles and recently was sold to BBC Worldwide. Apparently the Wheelers feel that the BBC can take Lonely Planet on a new voyage involving the digital media. With their increased amount of spare time, they aim to return to their traveling roots and embark on more intriguing personal journeys.

Through their tireless efforts, this extraordinary couple has helped bring together countless people from different backgrounds to share experiences that have enriched their lives. They have inspired millions to explore, learn about other cultures, have fun and travel as often as possible. What a wonderful legacy!