Chapter 12

Maintaining My Body and Mind

I have always believed in maintaining a healthy body for a healthy mind, and have kept myself fit, be that through karate or a morning exercise routine. For several years in the 1970s, I practiced karate a couple of times a week and got quite involved with it. I obtained my brown belt and was aiming to go on for my black belt, however, unfortunately, the change in circumstances with me having to go to London prevented me from putting in the commitment that was needed in order to do that. My involvement, however, did bring me a few injuries, including two fractured knuckles picked up in a karate tournament. I wouldn’t have minded, but I didn’t even win my fight! On the positive side, karate probably saved me from a couple of beatings over the years.
Something else that has kept me fit is a morning exercise routine which I still do each day. For much of my life, this routine included a run. When I was with the Auxiliary Air Force, I thought it would be nice to enter a team in the Lincoln Half Marathon to raise some money for charity. I hadn’t run a half-marathon before, but I felt that, as I was reasonably fit and as I went running each day, I wouldn’t have any problems. Fortunately, I was right, and I enjoyed it - so much so in fact, that the half-marathon became an annual event for me. We even made it a Squadron event by submitting a team to raise money for charity. We even made the local newspaper when I went along to the charity we had run in aid of, in order to present a cheque for the money that we raised for them.
Me visiting the charity we raised the money for.

As I had enjoyed the half-marathon, I decided that I wanted to do a full marathon, but not just anyone: I wanted to do the London Marathon. It is not easy to get a place as an individual and I tried for several years but kept getting rejected. In 2002, I was complaining to my stepson, Mark that I had once again been rejected. Mark was at the time working for BBC Radio 5 as a sports programme producer, and he said he would see what he could do. It wasn’t long before I received a guaranteed acceptance form, so at last, I had a place.
While I could do the half marathon without too much training, I knew that completing the full 26.2 miles of the London Marathon would require some real work. If I take something on, I put in one hundred percent effort and dedication, so I set about doing just that. My training went well but, three weeks before the event, one of my knees started to hurt. I reined back a bit and even took a few days off in the hope that it would heal. Unfortunately, when I started running again, the knee played up. I decided, therefore, that I would curtail my training in the hope that it would be okay for the actual event. As it had taken me so many attempts to get a place, I was going to do it even if I had to crawl around on my hands and knees. The other thing was that I had obtained a fair amount of sponsorship and didn’t want to let my sponsors down. 

The organisation I ran for was the Osteoporosis Society. Val had just been diagnosed with osteoporosis so I wrote to them saying that I had obtained a place in the London Marathon and that I would like to run in aid of them. They were delighted and sent me a ‘bag of goodies’ which included a T-shirt with my name on it, something that proved to be a real asset for me during the race.

The day before the race, Val and I drove down to London and stayed with Mark. The next morning, I took the tube to the start line, registered, and changed into my running kit. With the exception of the elite runners, competitors join the start line according to how long they expect to take to complete the course. One thing I had decided was that I wasn’t going to push myself, just ensure that I completed the race. I would run my own race and not get forced into running faster than I felt I could do. That is exactly what I did and despite the niggle in my knee, I didn’t feel too bad. 

They talk about ‘Hitting the Wall’ when you become extremely fatigued, which is caused by the depletion of glycogen stores in the liver and muscles. I kept expecting to reach that point, but fortunately never did. That might have been because I was reasonably well prepared, and I wasn’t pushing myself too much. The key goals for me were not the time it would take me but completing the race and enjoying it. 
Enjoy it I did. The atmosphere was terrific, as the crowd provided so much encouragement. Most of the other competitors were there to enjoy it also. After the race, I was asked if I met any interesting people and I could say that I ran along a bit with a gorilla and a chicken who certainly were, and most people were quite happy to chat while running along. 

Periodically I would drop into a walk, and I found that beneficial. The crowd was brilliant with their clapping and encouragement and having my name on my T-shirt frequently generated shouts of “Come on Ron”, which buoyed me up.

One problem was stopping at the porta-loos, as that meant waiting in a long queue and, although you could have a bit of a rest, it also added considerably to your time. On one occasion, I noticed a continuous stream of people running down a track someway in front of me and thought that indicated a loo break, so I also took the turn and went down to what was a rough courtyard surrounded by bushes. As I entered, I noticed a couple of ladies squatting to my right and a group of men lined up against the bushes in front of me as though they were lined up for a firing squad. I joined them and very quickly I was back out on the road and on my way.

Val and Mark had decided to watch for me at a spot along the route and then, once I’d passed by, go to the finish line. Mark had access to the VIP stand so they were able to sit and wait for me there. In due course, I reached the Mall where the race ended. They were surprised at how fit I looked as I ran past them and across the finish line. Receiving my medal gave me a feeling of great relief and satisfaction, although it never occurred to me that I wouldn’t finish. If I set my mind to something I will do it, regardless of the obstacles, be they physical or mental. 

It took me over five hours, but my knee held out and I really enjoyed it. Following the race, I was fine except that most of my body ached for the next few days. After I sent the money that I had received to the Osteoporosis Society, they asked if I would like to run for them again the following year. I declined. While I had wanted to do the London Marathon for a long time, now that I had done it and really enjoyed it, I didn’t want to go back again and possibly not enjoy it the second time around.

Crossing the finishing line having completed the London Marathon 2002.

I’ve always challenged myself, not only physically, but mentally as well. I have done educational courses on whatever captured my interest for many years, and I love sharing my interests with others. 

Like many things in my life, I got into guest speaking for cruise lines purely by accident. Most cruises have guest speakers and, on one that Val and I went on, the speaker was terrible. I thought “I could do better than that”. Since I was a visiting lecturer at Nottingham Trent University, I had some credibility. I wrote to the cruise line P&O asking if they would be interested in me. They responded by asking for my CV and what I could offer by way of talks. 

Later, a woman from P&O telephoned, asking if I could call down to Southampton to see her, which I duly did. We got on very well and at the end of the meeting, she asked if I could do a cruise for her in two weeks’ time in the Caribbean. Unfortunately, it was during term time so I had to turn it down. She said that she would get back to me with something else. In a few weeks, she contacted me again but that too was in term time so I couldn’t do it either. The next time she contacted me I was also unavailable. I really thought I had blown it, refusing three times, but a month or so later, she asked me again and that time I was free. I have been working for that company now for many years. 

My cruise talks are on the history and architecture of the places that people can visit during the cruise, although I also speak on other iconic buildings and sites around the world. I am passionate about history and architecture and love to share that passion with others. I believe that, if people are aware of an historical site’s background, the individuals connected to it, and the significant events that shaped its history, it makes visiting the site that much more interesting for them. My talks always strive to give the listeners a complete picture of each place.

I will only do talks on places that I’ve been to, although I did make one exception and that was the Panama Canal.  I had always wanted to go through the Panama Canal and one day I had a phone call from one of P&O’s bookers to offer me another cruise.  We were talking and I mentioned that one place that I really wanted to go was through the Panama Canal, adding that I could do a talk on it.  She said that she had a cruise going through it later in the year and could pencil me in if I liked, which I jumped at. A couple of months later I received the offer.

Subsequently, I have been through the Panama Canal on six occasions, and I still marvel at its engineering achievement.  On one of those cruises, a couple approached me and said that I was the reason they were there. They had been on a different cruise and heard me give a talk on the Canal. They found it so interesting that they decided to schedule a future cruise to experience it for themselves.

My first working cruise was for two weeks to the Norwegian fjords in 2005 and I had seven talks to give. In those days, you would have to give each talk twice, once in the morning, then again in the afternoon. Now you just give the talk once and it is recorded so that guests can watch it on the television in their stateroom at any time until your next talk, which replaces your previous one. 

That first cruise really was hard work. I had the talk and photographs prepared on PowerPoint, but it was necessary to run through each one ahead of time to ensure that everything was in the right order and that I was happy with what I planned to say. PowerPoint works well for these presentations, as each slide acts as a prompt for what you want to say. My goal was that each talk be entertaining as well as educational; “edutainment” is the word that describes this type of delivery. Each talk needed to flow and be interesting. I understood the advantage of using humour to keep people’s interest and attention. It was essential that my introduction grab the audience from the start because, if it didn’t, it is difficult to retrieve their interest, and on cruises, they are free to get up and walk out.  

I was aware that a report would be written about me at the end of the cruise. Each guest received a feedback form to write their opinions of all aspects of the cruise, including the individual guest speakers, scoring them from one to five. If you fell below a certain score, you would not be engaged for any future cruises. Happily, my talks went well, with many people coming up afterward to say how much they had enjoyed them. I also received incredibly positive feedback from the Cruise Director, who oversees all entertainment. On my return home, I heard from the lady who had booked me, and she informed me that my score was well above what was required. Consequently, I was offered more cruises. 

If you had told me when I was young that, when I grew up, I would get paid for travelling around the world speaking on luxury cruise ships, I would not have believed it, yet that is exactly what happened. P&O started offering me cruises on a regular basis, although my acceptance was somewhat governed by my work situation. Most of my cruises have been one to two weeks long, although I have done three-week cruises if the destination was somewhere I really wanted to go. 

Over the years, I began working for other cruise lines, often because they heard about me from other sources and contacted me to do talks for them, or I met other guest speakers on cruises who suggested additional companies for me to approach. So, my client base spread, and besides P&O, I’ve been a guest speaker for Fred Olsen, Saga, Holland America, Voyages of Discovery, and Viking Cruises.  

After Val and I divorced, I was able to increase the number of cruises that I took and, at one stage, I was doing them quite frequently, as much as every three months. Most of the time the cruise line would approach me to do a specific cruise, as they knew that I could talk about sites on its itinerary, although, by that time, P&O were sending me their schedule of cruises and letting me decide which ones I wanted to do. 

Generally, people that cruise are really nice and they are not afraid to approach you.  I am always open for people to do that in my role as a guest speaker. I am, after all, a representative of the cruise line, and should behave in a way that represents them well. I remember, however, on one “history and architecture-themed” cruise, a well-known British TV personality was a fellow speaker. Early on, I saw him sitting on the deck with his laptop and a cup of coffee. We hadn’t met yet, so I went across to introduce myself. Before I could get out more than a few words, he interrupted me, abruptly informing me that he was working, and then looked back down at his laptop, effectively ending the conversation. Several people remarked to me about his unsociability during the cruise. With that sort of attitude, I doubt that he was asked to do any more cruises, at least not for that cruise line! 

On another cruise, when I had finished my talk, a woman came up and said how much she had enjoyed it. We chatted for some time. My wife was standing a few meters away waiting for me and, when the lady had gone, she asked if I knew who the lady was. I didn’t but she did. It was Jean Alexander, one of the stars of the popular TV show “Coronation Street.”

Apart from getting taken around the world to some wonderful destinations, I was also free to go on any of the ship’s excursions that interested me, as the cruise line requires that each tour have, not only a local guide but also a ship’s representative to act as an escort. I enjoyed doing the excursions, as it enabled me to meet more of the passengers. I used to joke that I was the ship’s “male escort”. The job simply involves being a point of contact if anyone has a problem which, with a good local guide, is very rare. 

In all of my excursions, I only encountered a problem once.  During a walking tour through the crush of a very crowded bazaar in Algeria, we discovered that we were one gentleman short. We retraced our steps, looking everywhere for him, but he was nowhere to be found. Unbeknownst to us, he had taken a taxi back to the ship. Thankfully, when he got to the ship, he told the crew that he was supposed to be with our tour, and they were able to reach us by phone with that news. But he caused us some very anxious moments! 

Cruising has enabled me to visit a great many historic sites and so increase the number of talks in my repertoire. 

After my divorce, in addition to cruising, I also spent a lot more time travelling under my own steam, visiting places throughout the world that held a special interest for me.

A couple of the places that were on my “must-see” list needed to be done while I was in an excellent state of health due to the physical challenges required to reach those particular sites.  They were Machu Picchu in Peru and Lhasa in Tibet. I went to both within six months of each other.  

First, I went to Lhasa.  I had wanted to go there since reading the books of Lobsang Rampa when I was in Aden. Lhasa is at an altitude of over 3,700 metres (12,000 ft), so if anyone has problems at altitude, it is not a place to visit. I travelled in a small group of ten people and all but one of those ten were adversely affected by altitude sickness to some extent. For me it was a constant headache and I found it difficult to sleep.  In fact, I could only sleep sitting up. If I lay down, I had problems. It would have been better if we had had some time to adjust to the altitude, but our arrival to the area launched us into a hectic round of site-seeing. The very first place we visited was the Potala Palace, which is situated on the top of the Red Hill in central Lhasa and required a climb of over 100 metres. 

From 1648 until 1959 the Potala Palace was the residence of the Dalai Lama until he escaped to India during the Tibetan uprising. Although it was converted into a museum by the Chinese government, it is still a place of pilgrimage for many Tibetans, and, during our visit, there were long queues. We, however, being foreign tourists, were exempt from the queuing and were taken right to the front of the line. I would have thought that that would have caused some resentment, but not at all. Everyone smiled at us as if we were VIPs being led into the holy places.

Machu Picchu, the lost city of the Inca, is one of the most important archaeological sites in South America and the most visited tourist attraction in Peru. It was constructed in the middle of the 15th century under Sapa Inca Pachacuti.  It was never discovered by the Spanish but was deserted by the Inca within 100 years of its foundation due to the Spanish invasion. It contains some beautiful architecture and building work and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Located at an altitude of 2,430 metres (7,972 ft) above sea level, the altitude is quite manageable. However, prior to visiting Machu Picchu, travellers visit Cusco, which is 3,400 metres (11,154 ft) and that altitude can cause problems for people. I had reasoned that, as I could cope with the altitude at Lhasa, I wouldn’t have too many problems in Cusco, and I didn’t.  I do know of someone who had so much trouble in Cusco that they gave up going on to Machu Picchu. That was a shame, as if they had gone on, they would have found their situation improve due to the reduction in altitude.

There are several ways to get from Cusco to Machu Picchu.  If you are adventurous and fit, you can take the Inca Trail, which can be done as a 2, 3, or 4-day hike. These days you can go by road, but when I was there the only other option was to take a train part way and then up to the site by bus. I went by train and bus. Certainly, it was well worth the effort.

My travels inspired me to create the “Famous Historic Buildings” website, on which I provide information and photographs of many of the world’s most famous historic buildings and archaeological sites. The website brought me an invitation from Encyclopaedia Britannica to become a publishing partner with them and a contributor on historic sites and buildings.


Chapter 13 - Spending More Time Abroad

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