I come from a small coal-mining village in South Yorkshire. My dad was in the steel game but in the early 80s,he saw things were changing so,in1983, at the height of Thatcher's Britain, Mum and Dad packed up and moved us to West Auckland. I was 7 and I remember my teacher giving me a lift to school on the back of her motorbike. At our first Christmas party at Long Bay, I couldn't believe my eyes when Santa arrived in shorts.
At 21 I went on my OE with a stopover in Bangkok. I experienced cultural overload and, thanks tomovies like Bangkok Hilton, Ibarely slept. I never took my money belt off and when I was in my hotel, I wedged a chair against the door because I was that petrified.
Travelling on my own, In ever went further than about 500mfrom the hotel. I can laugh about it now, but today when I see young people travelling with Contiki, they have an energy and confidence I wish I'd had at that age.
In the UK I didn't hit London, instead, I headed north where I got free bed and board. My grandfather went down the mines at 15, and he came out at60. He died aged 61.
To learn about where I was from, that was a really important part ofmy development.
Nine Villages Valley in the mountains between Western China and Tibet is spectacularly beautiful. In one remote village, I was welcomed like royalty and the interpreter explained that the chief would like to have a beer with me. Chinese beer is very nice so I was happy to oblige.
Everybody gathered around and two minutes later a steaming wooden bowl arrived, and I realised he must've meant tea. I went to take a drink and everyone waved— "No no no."
Then the chief's wife appeared with a wooden bucket of rancid yak butter. She rolled a ball of butter as if it was Tip Top ice cream and put it in my cup. I went to drink and again got the "No no no." The wife came back again and added a handful of salt, the equivalent of a coffee cup. I sat there in this village, with everybody watching, so I had a little taste and it was absolutely revolting. I waited five minutes for it to cool, thendrank it in one to show courtesy.
I was so proud I kept it down—then the chief filled my cup again.
China has close to 56 ethnic minorities, but most people are Chinese Han and they treat tea the way some cultures treat wine. Once, when a dignitary came to New Zealand, as a mark of respect to me, he gave some tea to my father. We later tried to research the tea to find out what made it so special. We discovered it was listed on a website as being worth US$1400 ($2179) a tin. Being a Yorkshire man, my dad said he didn't know whether to drink it or frame it.
I recently went to Northern Ireland with Trafalgar and met a gentleman named Ronan McNamara, who works in Londonderry or Derry, depending which side of the conversation you're on. The name Ronan McNamara conjures up an image of an older man with a lilting Irish accent but, when you turn up, you'll find Ronan is quite young and half Chinese Malay. As a result, he's a threat to no one and friends with everyone and he took me around Derry and helped me understand the history of the place. The home of Bloody Sunday, Derry still bears the scars of the past.
In Northern Ireland I was also hosted by the Lord Mayor of Belfast. His father was killed by paramilitaries and his whole life has been affected by The Troubles. He's a young man, only in his 40s, and when he spoke about where Belfast was going, he said its best days were a head of it, and I really felt that in the warmth of the people. Northern Ireland is such a beautiful place, with amazing restaurants and bars as well as locals who want to share their stories.
It's so much more than just a pint of Guinness at a bar, although it has that element too.
Last year I was travelling through Wyoming in Montana and I met a guy called Stephen Yellow Hawk from the Lakota Nation. Fifteen years ago he asked his grandfather how to make a jacket with all the feathers that would tell the story of his people, and his grandfather told him that wasn't important anymore, as if it was an embarrassment to show pride in their culture.
But Stephen did learn about his heritage, and now he shares the story of his life and his people with our guests, and how he stays in touch with his culture in the modern world. Connecting with people like Stephen and Ronan warms my heart. It's the people I meet who inspire me to see new places.
Scott Cleaveris general manager of sales, The Travel Corporation.trafalgar.com