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Journey of a Lifetime
The collaborative travel documentary project
run in conjunction with the Royal Geographical Society (RGS)
Programme Details
29 August 2008
Listen to this programme in full
Emily as the Princes Aurora
This year the joint BBC and RGS prize for the most adventurous and unusual dream travel idea - a Journey of a Lifetime - went to Emily Ainsworth, Oxford English graduate, anthropologist, and circus fanatic.
View the news slideshow of Emily's Adventure

Every year, the Royal Geographical Society joins forces with Radio 4 to award a prize of £4000 to the winner of a competition for a dream adventure journey. This year's winner is Emily Ainsworth, a 22-year-old Oxford graduate in English, who's also an anthropologist, but who'd always harboured a craving to run away to the circus. Emily had long known that Mexico is home to literally hundreds of tiny family-run circuses, as well as some very big enterprises as well. There are at least forty, she was told, in Mexico City alone.

So having succeeded in a hard-fought contest to carry off the award, earlier this year Emily set out for the Mexican capital, sound-recorder safely packed in her rucksack, together with hopes, fears and not a little bravado. After all, she'd still not managed to contact any actual impresarios or performers - they're not too hot on the internet and email in some of the smallest (and thus most interesting) set-ups. On the way from the airport, she spotted the famous Hermanos Vasquez circus in the outskirts and promptly knocked on their tent flap and grabbed a ticket. It completely blew her away. As she emailed back to the BBC: "they had a bizarre act involving a tiger which stood on top of a revolving glitterball, looking like it was praying, whilst a brass band played 'Jesus Christ Super Star'..."

But Emily's sights were set on something smaller, more intimate, more…fun. Encountering Don Humberto, the ringmaster, ex-trapeze artist and maestro of the Circo Padilla, ('I was a member of the famous Flying Padillas') she was promptly engaged as a dancer in the 'Princess Dance', which was temporarily one short. So Emily Ainsworth became Princess Aurora, and her adventures began...

"No tigers here, because Humberto's niece got eaten by one of them, but they do have an elephant which plays the harmonica. She's decided that she doesn't like me. She picked me up with it's trunk, just like they do in cartoons, but instead of putting me on her head, she threw me in the mud and tried to stamp on my face. I was very unimpressed. But I think she's behaving badly because her tamer ran away the other night - everyone's being very cloak and dagger about the whole affair but all I can find out is that either he was mad, or that he was being beaten by his girlfriend with a baseball bat. Anyway, he took his caravan and all of the elephant pedicure equiptment, as well as his girlfriend's six children. Half of them worked in the circus - the little boys took care with the shetland ponies, and so now that they're gone, the ponies keep on running away in the interval, and the elephant escaped two times last night..."

How Emily had endless trouble with her false eyelashes, helped rescue a giraffe in trouble and fell in love with the elephant-trainer is the story of this years… Journey of a Lifetime.

Fancy going on your own journey of a lifetime?

The RGS and the BBC are now inviting applicants for this year's award: it consists of a grant to cover the costs of your expedition and a guaranteed radio documentary to be broadcast next autumn on Radio 4.

This competition was already underway before the current suspension of competitions across the BBC.

Visit the Royal Geographical Society's website for full details of how to apply.

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