Sunday, 21 January 2018

Surviving an earthquake

I thought I understood the impact of an earthquake. My last visit here was three months after the devastating earthquake in 2015 - and I saw for myself the fields of tents in Kathmandu, where families had nothing but a flimsy tarpaulin between them and the monsoon. I saw the crumpled temples in Durbur Square, the sacred Boudnath held up by scaffolding. I met one of my guides, with a brave smile failing to hide his worries about the cracks that made his home uninhabitable for him and his young family. (Many of you will have contributed to help him rebuild it - more of that another time).

But last week, in the middle of celebrations in a school in Thulaswara, a small village in the hills north of Pokhara, I got the glimpse of how shallow my understanding had been. Even now I understand no more than a nanodrop.

For one minute we were asked to stand and remember those who died. There we stood, the might of the snow-capped Himalayas behind us and the sky a deep summer-blue, to remember. That’s where I saw it - etched on the lined faces of the old women, in the old man leaning on his stick, even the children stunned into silence as they remembered the events of that day. And their faces showed, not memories of buildings collapsed into dust and rubble - but fear. 

The very ground beneath their feet is no longer reliable. In a few terrifying minutes they learned that the  foundation on which they build homes and schools and small farms and temples, on which they teach their children to walk, can rumble and heave and reduce their lives to nothing.

Yes, temples and homes still need to be rebuilt. But that feeling, that fear, was stamped on every face, that day, in the sweet January sunshine. And what I noticed, what I felt, is nothing compared with the feelings these brave people live with every day.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

A welcome in Kathmandu

The plan, in coming to Nepal, was to spend some quiet time recuperating from the events of last year. Maybe I should know better than to think life here could be quiet. So much has happened in this first week I can’t condense it into one post, and so I’ll give you snippets, and then more snippets when I get home.

The airport in Kathmandu no longer alarms me. To be fair, the airport itself has never alarmed me, and the computerised visa system now makes the arrivals process significantly easier and quicker. No, it is the landing, in the mountains, which had been a bit breath-holding. One minute you think you are several hundred feet above the ground and then, a quick circle with mountains crowding on all sides, and you’re down. (It’s still alarming if it’s windy!)

But I hadn’t expected all the Nepalis on the plane to stand up and put coats on. I’ve been here in January before, and know it can be chilly in the evening, but this time it was actually cold. Not England-cold, not the raw, bone-eating cold of home, but still cold. And cold enough for poor people without warm clothes to die in Nepal this winter. So, I tell myself, put your fleece back on and stop grumbling.

Besides, after the usual preliminaries at the hotel I was invited to join the group of young men cooking potatoes on a fire in the courtyard. We sat close enough to get hot knees. The flames fizzed and crackled, smoke wafted into the night sky, and the potatoes were delicious. Welcome, I thought, to Nepal.

I had just one full day in Kathmandu. I wandered out in the morning, armed with a map and the sun in the south. So how did I get so lost, so often? Yet each time I ended up on a street corner, clearly bewildered, someone took my trusty map and relocated me. Each time I’d set off again, with confidence, only to get lost again. (Once a lad was sent to run after me, as I’d taken the wrong turning within half a minute of leaving the man who had sorted me out!). 

I’m rarely fazed by being lost. And it matters not one jot in Kathmandu - the streets are teeming with people and motorbikes and cars, small shops spill their wares onto the pavements, the air is so thick with diesel you can taste it, icons at the roadside exude wafts of incense, there are potholes and storm drains and the occasional dog - but the Nepalese are unfailingly kind and generous. If I had to choose one city in the world to get lost in, it would be Kathmandu!

Sunday, 7 January 2018

By the time I get to Kathmandu ...

By the time I get to Kathmandu you’ll be having your Tuesday lunch ... yes, it’s that time of year again.

I’m packing. As a process it doesn’t faze me - I just gather everything I need and tuck it into my suitcase. (What? No rucksack? Sadly my knees have, finally, rebelled at being asked to carry a quarter of my body weight on my back. And so I’ve found a lovely wheelie suitcase with plenty of pockets and I am beginning to forgive it for not being a rucksack.)

But packing is so much more than just shoving things into a suitcase. It comes with that tingly feeling that precedes every trip. Even returning to somewhere I know and love, like Nepal, it is impossible to predict what might happen. 

Last time I visited just after the earthquake. There was devastation everywhere, but almost no tourists. How much has been rebuilt? Have the tourists returned? What has been built to lure them? I know that Pokhara now boasts the longest zip line in the world (a drop of 600m over 1.8km) ... shall I?

Last time I had too close an encounter with a crocodile. The time before that it was a tiger. Is it time to settle by the riverside and steer clear of the wildlife?

Last time Tika’s children were aged 6 and 14. Is the little boy too big for balloons now?

I know I need some recuperative time after the challenges of last year. And I know the country well enough to be sure I can find some restful places. I also know that it is full of the unexpected - and  to go with too many plans means I miss the opportunities that might leap out at me (metaphorically - I don’t need leaping tigers!)

These are the sort of mumblings that accompany my packing. It is a glorious dialogue between the familiarity of last-minute preparations and possibilities that lie ahead. 

Enjoy your Tuesday lunch. While I unpack in Kathmandu.

Sunday, 17 December 2017

Happy Christmas, and here’s to 2018.

It’s time to draw a blog-breath for a week or two. At this time of year I seem to lunge between hibernating and manic festivities. There are wonderful family days when I’m overrun with grandchildren (oh joy) and then quiet, reflective days when I can catch up with myself (oh joy).

I’ve not had the easiest year. But they happen, and I’m fine and those I love are fine, so I can look back and be proud of that. Not that I spend too long looking back - I’m more likely to spend my reflective days with my Lonely Planets wondering where next year will take me.

And where might it take you? With an orange toad in the White House and a bunch of squabbling toffs in government in the UK we have good reason to be pessimistic. But I refuse to embrace a world in which the tossers always win. I will stand up and be counted, as often as I need to. We live in a beautiful world, full of beautiful people - many of whom have a much worse time of it than you and I. It is a world we must treasure, even if those with ‘power’ seem intent on destroying it. So if my next year takes me to the barricades, so be it.

Maybe you see it differently. Whatever your view of the world, I hope we can find a way to carry on caring about each other.

So this is my Happy Christmas to you all, and may we all have a peaceful new year. I’ll be back in 2018. 

Sunday, 10 December 2017

Not sure what Masefield would make of this?

‘Tis the season, and all that. And, having started playing with poems I can’t quite stop. So, given that most people are beyond thinking straight in the middle of this seasonal chaos, here’s another poetic effort, not to be taken seriously.

And sorry, Masefield.

I must go down to the shops again or I’ll run out of mince pies,
And all I ask is an empty aisle, and a trolley to steer it by,
And a sausage roll and chocolate log, I can’t be arsed for making
All this stuff at Christmas time when everyone else is sleeping.

I must go down to the shops again or I’ll run out of Christmas cards
For Auntie Nell and Uncle Jack, both need our kind regards
And Jim and Jill and Great Aunt Joan who cannot be forgotten
And all the kids because, you know, we have to spoil them rotten.

I must go down to the shops again, to the hectic Christmas mayhem
For stamps and sprouts and nuts and spuds and puds, but then ...
See, all I ask is a good book and a quiet night on the sofa

And a box of wine for me to drink when the whole thing’s over.

Sunday, 3 December 2017

I wandered lonely as a shroud - sorry Wordsworth!

Now I’ve started playing with poems I find ideas all over the place.

So here is A Host of Tinkling, with apologies to Wordsworth.

I wandered lonely as a shroud
That floats through salmon, chocs and cheese
When all at once I saw a crowd 
Of tinkling tinsel Christmas trees
Beside the gin, far from the peas
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle in the coffee shops
They stretch in never-ending line
From Marks and Spencer’s down to Boots
Ten thousand saw I at a glance
Tossing their heads in festive trance.

The box of wine beside them shone
Out-did the tinsel strands in glee
A shopper could not help be glum
Beside the tinkling Christmas trees
They seemed to say, with little thought
Look at all the tat you’ve bought.

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood 
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude 
Oh joy, I can lie back with ease

For I escaped the Christmas trees.

Sunday, 26 November 2017

Playing with poetry

I had such fun playing with 'The Naming of Parts' a few weeks ago (you can scroll down or find it here) that I thought I'd share my reworking of Roger McGough's Let me Die a Youngman's Death. For those of you who don't recall the original, it's here.

It was written in the 1960s - when men didn't notice that they might not be speaking for women (I know, many are still like that) so I wanted to give it a feminist perspective. (Some of you may recognise it - it's been on my website for a while).
Let me die a young woman's death;
not an old, dribbling-in-my-tea death,
not a leaking-in-the-sheets death
not a hold-my-hand
and longing-for-the-end death.
But when I'm 73,
and with dicky ticker,
may I climb Kanchenjunga and
gasp my last in thin
Himalayan air.
Or when I'm 94,
in Soho, may I fall
and break my neck when dressed
in mini skirt and sparkly sandals with six inch heels
and fuck-me painted on my nails.
Or when I'm 104,
and banned from travelling
may I stow away with Queen Elizabeth
and be caught stealing
champagne and last night's canap├ęs
and made to walk the plank.
Let me die a young woman's death;
a let-us-dance-into-the-long-goodnight death;
a hey-hey, you-you
get-off-of-my-cloud death.