Ross Jennings, the traveling bagpipe player, on how to feel at home while on the road, his personal packing tips and which airport to avoid
We are kicking off our Frequent Traveller series with an interview with Ross OC Jennings – The First Piper. He has been travelling the last 4 years in order to become the first bagpipe player to play in every country in the world. We interviewed him while he was in Malawi – his 77th country. Brimming with enthusiasm for travel, and with a tonne of experiences and tips to share – here is our conversation with him.
Can you tell us about some of the experiences that came with playing the bagpipes around the world?
It’s such an amazing catalyst for cultural interactions. For example, there’s a historical link between Malawi and Scotland, they recognised the bagpipes and the tartan was a great conversation starter. In Tunisia, also, everywhere I went everyone loved the bagpipes, it was so heart-warming - it’s their national instrument too. The first time I was stopped by the police in Tunisia, I had to unpack all my bags and when I opened my bagpipe bag they started pointing at it angrily. In the end I realised they wanted me to play, so I put them together and then started to play. They lost it, they went nuts. They were dancing on the spot, singing. It totally changed everything. They helped me pack up and go on my way.
How do you pack them?
In my carry-on. I actually use the Gate8 Cabin Mate – it’s the best thing, the bagpipes fit perfectly, which means I can keep them with me. It also has the detachable backpack which means I can have my laptop and work with me at my seat. The bagpipes weigh a tonne so also being able to wheel it is really useful.
What annoys you most about traveling?
The lack of water fountains in airports! This really gripes me. There’s so much plastic being wasted… When airports do have them, they’re tucked behind the corner next to the toilets, which smell of piss… this puts people off. One way to get around it (I grew up in China so I like to drink boiled water) is to go to any café like Starbucks and ask for a cup of hot water, for which they don’t usually charge you.
Best city for a weekend break?
Lisbon. It is the sunniest city in Europe. I think it is also most cost-effective European capital as well. Where else could you buy an espresso for 60p? There’s just so much stuff to see… Beautiful waterfront, lots of trendy areas, each district gas a different vibe, great food scene, culture… You can also do weekend trips from Lisbon for a whole year and not be bored.
What travel advice would you give to your less travelled self?
Don’t pack so much underwear. I travel with four pairs max. It's a bit grim, but I don’t have the time and I don’t want to pay for washing so what I do is just hop into the shower, wash them while I’m in there and it will be ready the next day. And it’s not just underwear, it’s everything. Less is more, you don’t need so many clothes.
Also another one – you know the button underneath the isle seat’s arm? If you press it hard it allows you to lift the arm. I wish I’d known that as a child. Great when you have free seats next to you and you want to lie down.
How do you make yourself feel at home while traveling?
If I’m staying longer than one night I unpack my bag. Everything. I put my toiletries in the bathroom, clothes in the wardrobe. Then I feel like “this is my place”, I feel relaxed. Besides that, just having space and natural light.
Another thing – I always carry my own tea and coffee. Being able to wake up and have that is really nice.
How do you stay productive while traveling?
Creating mini routines and habits you can replicate when moving about. For me it’s coffee, a comfortable work space, natural lighting and I’m good to go.
Best airport you’ve been to?
Changi airport in Singapore, hands down. It has a butterfly garden, free cinema, high speed internet. And there’s one restaurant I always go to that serves Singaporean laksa, and I love a good laksa.
Monrovia airport in Liberia. Absolutely terrifying. The runway is so bad it is almost dangerous to land. Once your plane lands people run to the track to pick up the bits of tarmac that have flown about.
Any other packing tips?
I roll. Shoes in first.
What item from your carry-on would you take to a dessert island?
What will you do when you finish the world tour?
I joke that I’ll just go back to the countries I really enjoyed. But I think I’ll carry on working in education and travel. I haven’t yet quite worked it out, but it will come.