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The birth of the Vagaband

NCH Student Blog | October 5, 2016

“Hope for Sunshine, Prepare for Rain” – How a bareknuckle boxing match sponsored by a Cambodian beer company made me think a bit about safety.

I remember very clearly the moment that I decided that the Vagaband was something that the world needed… more specifically, something that I needed. It was pouring with rain at about half past midnight and my friend and co-director Eddie and myself were careening down a communist-era Cambodian highway in the back of a motorised rickshaw piloted by the drunkest man we’d ever met. He had directed us, earlier that day, to the International Khmer Boxing Championships, which were being held outside the city limits in an echoing utilitarian, cinderblock stadium… he had told us it was the event of the year, that the drinks were cheap and that the atmosphere was quintessentially Cambodian. All three of those things were true… the savagery of the fight was easily outweighed by the congeniality of the atmosphere, the laughs and cheers of the families in the crowd belied the brutalism of the setting, and the monsoon rains outside did nothing to dampen the spirits. The commute back, however, was nothing short of harrowing.
Our rickshaw driver, in his enthusiasm to promote the fight, had neglected to tell us that he had been planning to meet up with a few of his own friends ringside… and saw no reason to dispel our preconceptions that drink-driving laws are a universal phenomenon. Eddie and myself were both vaguely concerned as we watched our only way home sway gently from side to side as he tried to find the ignition slot on the modified moped with a one eyed squint; but we shelved our worries and assured one another that this guy probably knew more or less what he was doing.

The real worry didn’t kick in until the rear axle broke while our man behind the wheel opened another beer with one hand. He almost spilt his drink as he turned around and gave us a sheepish, chagrined “Oh well” kind of smile. He laughed so hard that he swerved when we told him that, where we come from, this would land you in prison. The rain was lashing the road, coming in at a forty-five-degree angle and battering the pot-holed blacktop, the loose rear axle beat a rhythmic tattoo against the ground and the man who was in charge of navigating the entire scenario removed his helmet in the interests of comfort.
“So this is how we die”, I thought to myself… I don’t think I really believed we would, but – as we traversed a swamp-straddling bridge with no side-railing – I could certainly see potential for misfortune. In a flash, I remembered this great idea my mum had been talking to me about for a while – something about an indestructible wristband for travellers who wind up in unpredictable situations abroad. Something which would contain their medical and personal details just in case… well, I guess in case they wound up lost in Pnomh-Penh with a hammered guide and zero grasp of the local language or geography. “I could really use one of those right about now,” I thought as we briefly hydroplaned and the driver chucked his newly-empty tin off the side of the bridge, “Y’know… just in case this somehow goes wrong…”
Granted, our situation may have been slightly out of the ordinary, but to anyone who’s gone travelling it will almost certainly ring a bell. Whether it’s the drunk rickshaw driver, the crooked hostel owner, the language barrier at the pharmacy, the disastrous festival experience or the mistranslated map, no adventure is complete without a few scrapes with the unforeseen. It doesn’t have to be a near-death experience, it doesn’t even have to be far afield – when you step out of your comfort zone, you accept, embrace and anticipate the dangerous, unfamiliar and downright bizarre. Personally, that’s my favourite part of travel – and it’s why when we finally disembarked from that hellbound rickshaw we decided that we should do whatever we could to help the travellers of the world feel confident that their misadventures wouldn’t collapse into tragedy.

Three years later a lot has changed – that wristband, the one which had dwelled in my mother’s mind as a concept for years, is now on thousands of wrists around the world. With nothing but a few friends, two laptops and an incredibly resilient coffee machine we managed to create something that is already helping people on four continents set off on their adventures safe in the knowledge that their needs will never go unheard. We registered as a company, protected our invention with a patent, successfully convinced the denizens of the internet to invest in a successful Kickstarter… and now we’re moving forward faster than ever – though not quite as fast as a wasted Cambodian on a moped.