Michael’s Molvellous travels
TV Personality and medical doctor Michael Mol has traversed the globe and has many tales to tell. He shares some of his memorable experiences globetrotter
How many places (cities or countries) have you visited? I’ve had the humbling and aweinspiring privilege of visiting more places than I can accurately recall, and having those stories captured in Technicolor lest I forget. Where was your favourite holiday or time spent abroad? My favourite holiday is always with my wife and children – and our fondest memories are of Disneyworld. Best time spent abroad was in Russia, largely because of the unique experiences. There’s little that can top the adventure of getting into the cockpit of a Russian Mig, pointing its nose upwards and flying to the edge of space at twice the speed of sound. The pilot, Nikolai, spoke little English, but enough to give me a preflight briefing that went something like: “We go up. Fast. We come down. Fast. Okay?” It took about 20 minutes to get to the edge of the stratosphere – to a point where there’s no more thrust left in the plane’s jet engines, and for a moment we were weightless. Above us the night sky – space – and below us the luminescent curve of the earth. We were at the highest point anyone on Earth could get to before being called an astronaut – and then in a flash it was nose down and gunning it back to terra firma. Your worst experience on a holiday? In Vietnam, we went for dinner at one of the many snake restaurants. At one venue, the owner put on a bit of a song and dance for the camera with a cobra that flared its hood, hissed and struck at the lens. Then, to our shock and horror, the owner grabbed the cobra’s head, stretched it out and gutted it in front of us, cutting out its still beating heart, dropping it into a glass of snake’s blood and bile, and offering it to me as the guest of honour. I wanted to reject the vile entrée, but then realised a gesture like this was considered a huge honour in their culture, so I graciously accepted the concoction, tilted my head back and swallowed the snake’s heart whole. Needless to say, I lost my appetite and couldn’t eat any of the other delicacies that were served up that night. I tossed and turned most of the night, feeling like I’d done a great evil – until I read a verse in my Bible that said: “It’s not what goes into your mouth that dishonours you, but what comes out of it.” Your funniest experience? We headed up to Pamplona for the festival of St Fermin and the running of the bulls. My cameraman and I had smuggled a small camera into the bustling group of wannabe matadors gathered in the narrow road stretching from the bull pen to the bull ring, so that we could capture the action first hand. The night before, my wife had just informed me that we were going to be parents, so as I stood waiting for the charging brigade, I seriously questioned my reasons for being there – should a soon-to-be-father really be putting his life at risk… for the fun of it? The sound of a rocket, which signalled that the bulls had been set loose, jolted me back to reality. They were starting to gather terrifying momentum as they headed our way. At this point, I just wanted to get out of the crowd, but any attempt to do so is met with police pushing you back into the street. So I ran for my life. A few torturous minutes later, gasping for breath, the bullring came into view. I turned to glance at my cameraman, only to see a group of angry bulls stampeding right towards us. I fought my way forward through the terrified marauders desperate to save my life – and then the unthinkable happened: a runner fell down in front of me. What do I do? My heart said stop and help, my brain said save yourself. My survival instinct kicked in and I stepped on and over him and made a sharp left dive as we entered the bull ring to get out of the way of the bulls. There were shrieks as we rolled over in the dust only to catch a glimpse of the bulls charge by and into the ring. But what of the fallen soldier? I looked back and saw him standing to his feet, grinning and beating his fist in the air, yelping ”Bravo!” As it turned out, I helped save his life, because the rule when running with the bulls is: if you go down, you stay down – better to be trampled by hooves than skewered by horns. We flipped open the camera and watched three seconds of out-of-focus shots. A bump from a fellow runner had stopped the recording at the outset and we had nothing to show for our death-defying stunt. It meant only one thing: we’d have to do it all again tomorrow, which we did. What do you avoid during a holiday? Uncooked food, local water, tour groups, tour buses and tourist hot spots – the heart of a city and a country is found in its people, and you find them on local transport, at public parks and in restaurants that don’t feature on tourist maps. Your favourite restaurant and food during your travels? With vast cultural differences between countries and cities, it’s impossible to have a favourite restaurant (unless you call Starbucks an eatery), so I opt for restaurants on the clean side of town that offer dishes uniquely different to what I’m accustomed to. We visited an eatery in Bangkok that was famous for its bird’s nest soup. I anticipated a spicy broth-infused weaver’s nest floating around in a shallow bowl. What came out of the kitchen was an opaque jelly-like liquid that tasted like watery sago pudding – definitely not worth the price tag of a month’s wage that came on the bill. I researched the delicacy, only to discover that the cost was related to the huge amount of effort required to harvest these nests – found in caves where swallows cough up saliva over the weeks to create small pockets of hardened gob to house their offspring. Once again, my appetite vanished, and I declined the offer of a birdie-bag. Your favourite place to drink a glass of wine or to have sundowners? One of the most memorable sundowners would have to be on the island of Zanzibar, watching the dhows drift across burning waters while catching the first wafts of the cool evening breeze, and hearing the shrieks of kids splashing around on the beach. The wine was absolute plonk, but it couldn’t spoil a perfect sundowner. As a seasoned traveller and flyer can you share some tips? Get as much sleep as you can on the plane (I often eat at the airport and not during the flight, so that I’m way ahead on digestion by take-off time). You don’t want to start your holiday with sleep deprivation.
Day one of your holiday: get up really early and go for a run around the neighbourhood. It’s a great way to beat jetlag and to get energised for the days ahead.
Use local transport. Buses are a great option; cabs can be a little pricey. Underground tubes might get you places quicker, but you miss out on the sights and sounds of a city. Local transport also gets you into contact with local people.
Don’t only ask the concierge for advice, speak to the bellboy – they’re not usually asked for their opinion, but when questioned they offer a wealth of information.
Takes lots of photos, mostly of people, and not buildings or monuments – you can get better pictures of architecture from postcards.
Keep a travel journal. Pictures will only trigger a portion of your memory, but a journal captures the moments, your thoughts and your feelings about the experience.
Travel with someone. Alone, you can enjoy an experience; with someone else you create a memory. I’d choose memories over experiences every time.
A MORE TRANQUIL EXPERIENCE: Michael Mol in Egypt.