Saturday 25 May 2019

Hector hits the road again: From Kathmandu to Kung Fu nuns

Hector Ó hEochagáin’s latest series following his travels across Asia has proved a hit — and he’s now working on his next trip, he tells Mark Evans

Hector with the kung fun nuns in Nepal
Hector with the kung fun nuns in Nepal
Hector leading a St Patrick's Day parade in Kathmandu
Hector on the road...

Mark Evans

Running a taxi firm in Bangladesh, practising martial arts with the Kung Fu nuns of Nepal, helping the homeless of Burma along with local punk band members — life is never dull if you’re Hector Ó hEochagáin travelling abroad.

He’s journeyed across Australia and Canada over the years for TG4, and recently traversed the length of Central America in some of the world’s most troubled spots. His latest show — currently running on the channel — is arguably his most arduous yet: more than 8,000km from the frozen wilderness of Siberia to the sweltering streets of Saigon.

Not your typical holiday.

And like all grand ideas, it started off at a pub.

“I was filling in for Ian Dempsey two years ago on the breakfast show on Today FM, staying in the Drury Court Hotel in room 27 above P Mac’s, a great pub,” Hector recalls.

Along with long-time cameraman Ross ‘Rosco’ O’Callaghan and producer Evan Chamberlain, they ordered their drinks — “a large pot of tea” — and laid out a map of the world.

Hector leading a St Patrick's Day parade in Kathmandu
Hector leading a St Patrick's Day parade in Kathmandu
Hector with the kung fun nuns in Nepal
Hector on the road...

“We looked at it for two hours, at the 70 destinations we’ve been to,” he says. “Siberia always fascinated Rosco because it’s such a remote place and he’d just come back off SAS, Who Dares Wins on Channel 4 and said we’ve never done anything in the snow.”

And so, Hector — Ó Siberia go Saigon was born.

From the snowy wastes of Russia’s bleakest province, the trip would take them through many other countries — China, Bangladesh, Nepal, Burma and Thailand — before arriving at their final destination, Vietnam, which will feature on our screens next Thursday.

Beautiful people

One country, Nepal, still recovering from the devastating earthquake of 2015, stood out among them all. Hector loves “the humility and the friendliness and the karma and the Buddhism; the strength of their affection for life, even though everything is against them; the nature, the topography, the surroundings, the mountains, the earthquake... they’re such beautiful people.”

A trip to the devastated capital, Kathmandu, produced what is probably the highlight of the series: Hector and a local Cork woman, who owns an Irish bar, organising the city’s first ever Patrick’s Day parade on the spot, marching a large leprechaun through the streets, watched by jaw-dropped locals and tourists alike.

“Did you ever see the likes of it? I had a beef with Evan and Cóilín [Ó Cearbhaill], the editor. There was so much stuff that we can’t fit in because we’re trying to turn five hours’ footage into one hour: I met two lads from Navan, who were about to go to base camp [at Everest] in their Meath jerseys. There were so many people we couldn’t fit in the procession — from Cork, from Kilkenny — and that night, we watched England getting hammered by Ireland for the Grand Slam.

“The beer was called Everest — Christ almighty, it was strong. We were searching for the Solpadeine the next day!”

Hector on the road...
Hector on the road...
Hector with the kung fun nuns in Nepal
Hector leading a St Patrick's Day parade in Kathmandu

Other antics included him dressing as a panda at a refuge for the creatures outside the city of Chengdu, with Chinese visitors to the centre lining up for selfies with the Panda Paddy.

Now, 18 years after his first travel show with the team, Hector admits it’s not all craic agus ceol on the road.

“Before we had children, when we went to South America or Africa or any of those, we’d go for three months. It’s totally different now with the dynamics of having kids. When we started off, we were all young, free and single. Now, there’s five children — five teenagers — involved.

A more mature show

“When I first started off 18 years ago, it was three lads packing their bags and heading off. It’s now a more mature show I think — a better show.

“Of course, I’m the same Hector that jumped around the streets in Bangkok 20 years ago, but it’s a different type of show... We want to be informative, yet irreverent, yet respectful.”

Another highlight of his trip to Nepal came when he spent a “magnificent” morning in a monastery with the kung fu nuns: “There’s a lovely thread of female gender balance and trying to empower young Nepalese women, and we have some serious bits in each show and I think people are responding to that.”

If you have trouble organising next year’s holiday, spare a thought for the show’s team: although there are seven to 10 people involved in the production, on the trip, it’s a different matter: “When me and Evan and Rosco are on the road, there’s just three of us.”

It involves dragging luggage and equipment, crossing remote borders with reams of paperwork to hand, and meeting local contacts. 

“You’ve only met through email or Skype, you’re hoping they’re there,” says Hector. “Even though we’re in the middle of nowhere, 10,000 miles away in extreme conditions, it just all clicks together — and in the harshest of places, memories are made.”

Hector has put his heart into the show itself, choosing the music and titles, adding: “Rosco won a Bafta with Grand Designs and he’s a brilliant cameraman. Having all these talented people on the show makes it a pleasure for me to do it.”

It’s interesting that while we at home view it as a refreshing novelty to see the world through our own language, it’s no big deal for foreign folk.

“No one’s ever come up to me and said, ‘Is that Irish you’re speaking there? I heard it’s hard to learn it in school. I heard you’re still learning Peig in Ireland...’ They would normally associate an Irish person with speaking Irish, because they’re so far away, they wouldn’t know the trials and tribulations of the language and the history of this country.”

Hector says he hopes that the show, as well as educating us about far-off places, makes Irish accessible for all ages: “If I can bring someone closer, with a bit more affection, towards the Irish language through the show, then isn’t that a great thing?”

With the current series on its final leg, Hector will be packing his suitcase again in the new year; the team will plan their next adventure in the coming weeks.

“I’m passionate about making a great TV show — it’s all I want to do.” 

Show notes:

The last episode of Hector — Ó Siberia go Saigon airs on TG4 this Thursday at 9.30pm, as Hector visits Cambodia before arriving in Saigon. All episodes are available to watch on tg4.ie.

Read more:

The Travel Bucket List: 30 things to do before you die

Hector with the kung fu nuns; left, dressed as a panda in China; below, at the St Patrick’s Day parade in Kathmandu

 

‘The beer was called Everest. Christ almighty, it was strong’

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