Sunday, 12 January 2020

Ecuador and its choruses.

I had forgotten what noisy city Quito is. I knew there would be endless traffic, of course: buses belching diesel fumes, taxis, trucks, cars - all nose-to-tail and inching a path through the narrow streets of the old city. And, as Quito is built on a mountainside some of these streets are seriously steep, so there is the obligatory roar as buses and trucks change gear. 

Then there is music, just too loud to be considered ‘background’ - every cafe, restaurant and shop plays music. And if there should be a corner where this music cannot reach there are buskers. There might have been respite in corner cafe in the Plaza de San Sebasti├ín, if it weren’t for the renovations of the building on the corner: machines roar long into the night. Maybe the Plaza Major should be quieter - but even there the chatter is punctuated by whistles from the security guard each time a child begins to climb on the central statue. 

And somehow the street traders make themselves heard: women on street corners selling fruit, or edging through crowds with trays of cigarettes. A man presses me to buy bright shoe-laces. There are hats, necklaces, lottery tickets, knickers, smokey plantain, ice cream, popcorn, cake, pashminas ... each trader’s cry is shriller than the next.

It’s wonderful, but it is noisy. It was time to head for the rainforest. I might find silence there?

Howler monkeys howl when they are upset. They are frequently upset.

Toucans toot. Hoatzin squabble. Parrots squawk (has anyone measured the decibels of a flock of squawking parrots?). Kiskadee chirrup and once started don’t know how to stop. Screech owls - you can guess.

Just as the light is fading and you think the birds might sleep, the cricket and cicadas join in - they’ve been mumbling all day but scream at sunset.

They have stiff competition from this little chap (not a great photo, but hard to photograph in forest light):

This is a small, sleeping tree frog. As the sun sets his one thought is to attract a lady frog. Apparently endless barking - a bark that echoes through the trees and bounces off the water - is attractive to lady frogs. It is a deafening cacophony of frogs. Most have sorted themselves out by about ten; the deed is done and they can enjoy the secondary pleasure of eating bugs. But sometimes one lonely frog is left barking his heart out until sunrise. You’d have thought he’d have got the message by then and gone home to put his feet up with Netflix and a beer ...

I’m back in Quito. I love the rainforest, and I love its orchestras. But on Monday I’m off to the coast. Maybe the shushing of waves will lull me to sleep there.

Sunday, 27 May 2018

And then there was Egg

So, after all the anticipation, all that’s left is a few twigs and one egg. It was hard, that moment when the birds flew off.

I was lucky, in a way, that I was watching. I’d glanced across and noticed there was no bird on the nest - but that happened from time to time, for a minute or few, so I wasn’t particularly worried. 

But then both birds returned together. They perched beside their little egg and did a lot of head-cocking and bobbing, cooed a lot, and then flew off towards the distant hills. I’ve seen one of them since, come back just to check on the egg once or twice, but within hours it was clear that this nest has been abandoned. 

Who knows why? There are a thousand reasons why this egg didn’t hatch - and it’s far from uncommon. Collared doves (I now know) lay just a couple of eggs but have several clutches through the year. Unlike birds that lay many more eggs, they are quick to fly off and try again rather than persist with an egg that hangs around a bit. What this couple haven’t done is relay eggs in this nest.

Which is sensible. For this nest is in full sun for much of the day - and so has been fryingly hot over the past couple of weeks. The bird on the nest has sat with her beak open and a wobble in her throat, presumably the equivalent of a dog panting to keep itself cool. A chick exposed to that sun would risk serious dehydration. And when it rained, there was no protection at all.

I was saddened, of course. After the delight of the nest being built in the first place, I settled into life with Bird and looked forward to a chick. But I also knew that it was a stupid place for a bird to raise a brood.

And so I wish them well with a second clutch, wherever it is.

And I need to clear this gutter (not, of course, on my own - that would involve dangling over my balcony) - and, regrettably, put some sort of spiky thing in the balcony to deter any other birds nesting here. 

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Brief Bird update.

A brief Bird update.

She’s still sitting on her nest - she has coped with teeming rain and frying sun. But hasn’t given up.

I was determined not to give her a name. She is a wild creature, and I won’t treat her like a pet. 

But somehow she has become ‘Bird’. So each morning, as I glance across at her, I find myself saying, ‘Hello, Bird.’ A week ago her little head would pop up, eyes a-sparkle, and watch my every move. Now she barely stirs. We rub along together, she in her wild way and me in the shelter of man-made home. It feels like progress that she isn’t frightened of me.

But no chick yet. The internet tells me it should hatch in the next week or ten days. So what will I name the chick?

Sunday, 13 May 2018

Me and my lodger

As some of you know, I have a lodger. And, while I’m not one to just by appearances, this is what she looks like (she’s a collared dove):

This gutter is at my eye-line when I stand on my balcony. I can watch her from my sitting room. When she first moved in she seemed very aware if I moved around - her little head bobbed up and her eyes seemed more alert. But now she takes very little notice - and I don’t get closer than about eight feet.  
And she’s not alone:

As you can see, this is not the best-constructed nest. Not much more than a haphazard collection of twigs. And I watch as the male arrives with a long twig to add to the collection. There is much grateful head-bobbing as he hands it over. And off he goes.

Leaving her with a twig far to long for her to even turn it round easily so it can sit on top of the others. She shuffles, tries bashing on the wall beside her to break it up, and eventually bits of if fall off. If she had words, she’d be muttering to herself: ‘Bloody bird. Can’t even manage to find a twig the right length. Might has well have gone to IKEA and come home with the box, not opened it to find out which bits were missing ...’

And when he brought her another, she waited until he had flown away and dropped it over the side!

She doesn’t have words, of course. And I’ve watched Springwatch often enough to know that the chances of her clutch surviving is less than fifty per cent. She’s already down to one egg: one has rolled off the end of her gutter onto one below.

But that doesn’t stop me feeling fiercely protective of this little family. I can spend hours watching her, rearranging twigs, shifting on her nest and then poking beneath her chest to make sure the remaining egg is snug beneath her. So if I’m late posting blogs over the nest week or few, I’m probably on bird-duty!

Sunday, 6 May 2018

Once a travel writer, always a travel writer?

You know me as a travel writer. Which is not unreasonable, given that most of my books are about my travels.

Will there be a book about my last trip to Nepal - no. Because it wasn’t a travelly sort of trip. It was a recuperative trip, a trip to take the space I needed to fill my head with something other than my house-move (and failed house-selling efforts) last year. It was the trip I needed. 

And because I don’t have to write a book about a trip if I don’t want to.

But ... surely I’m a travel writer. I travel and write about it - that’s what I do ...

I don’t see it like that - though I’m not sure I’ve challenged it before. I love travelling, and I love writing, and the two have melted together very happily. But that doesn’t mean the reason to travel is to write, nor is writing an excuse to travel. The two activities are independent of each other. If they overlap, that’s fine. And if they don’t, that’s fine too.

I’ve become know for the overlapping - when the writing and travelling come together. And yet the book I’m most proud of, the book that cost the most angst, the book that gave me most pleasure to write - is my novel, The Planter’s Daughter .

Why? Because I had to make it up. I had to do hours of research first, to make sure I got the factual bits right. But the rest of it I made up. (Well, I had the sketchiest outline, as it grew out of a vignette I came across in New Zealand. That gave me about four sentences. The rest I made up.)

Why am I telling you all this? Because my writing focus, at the moment, is firmly turned to fiction. That doesn’t mean I shall stop travelling, nor that I’ll stop blogging about travelling while I’m away. It simply means that I won’t travel with a view to writing a little book about it - unless, of course, something extraordinary happens (like a close encounter with a tiger ...)

So what is this novel I’m writing .. it’s such early days, I’ll keep that to myself for now.

Sunday, 29 April 2018

Shall I Compare Thee to Theresa May?

Shall I compare thee to Theresa May?
She is a ship of self deception, littering
Her promises of wealth and health and no delay
With no more substance than a winter’s glitter.
As winds blow frozen thoughts from Arctic shores,
She’ll force her cheeks into a rictus grin
And wait, assume a pose for rapt applause
From party faithfuls. 
                                 She cannot win
While mothers have no money left for food,
Teachers work until they cannot think
Doctors give their final pints of blood,
Frail and disabled hide, all hope extinct.
You, in this filthy corner, wrapped in rags
With nothing in your life but plastic bags.

With apologies to Shakespeare

Sunday, 22 April 2018

An apology to the young. We have let them down.

It is, surely, part of the human condition for each generation to aim to leave the world in a better shape than they were born into. We want peace, prosperity, and joy for our children and grandchildren.

I was born not long after the War. There was still rationing. Times were tight. But it was also just after the birth of the NHS and the Welfare State. No longer would the poor and the sick need to struggle by themselves. National insurance payments would provide a safety net for everyone.

It was an idealistic response to the deprivation of the 1930s and then the horrors of War. But it was also built on a belief that we can, and should, create a world in which peace, mutual respect and care for the frail and vulnerable is possible without judgement. 

The 1960s built on that. We were the generation who could, and would, make it all happen.

But now I am ashamed of us.

My education was subsidised until I was 24. I emerged without debts, and a qualification that led to a job. I could save for the deposit on a house. I was healthy, and I was educated. Of course, there was still a long way to go - there was still hardship and deprivation. Racism was rife. But we had made a start and pressed on optimistically.

Thatcher did her best to scupper our efforts. Her cult of individualism bred selfishness that hasn’t helped. Blair made a start on turning that tide, and then wrecked it by invading Iraq. 

And from then on ... we have seen all we believed in and fought for eroded. Education is precious - and yet now only the wealthy can take it for granted. Those working in the NHS find their efforts to keep us healthy and care for the sick undermined by a government who can offer nothing but glib, meaningless statements. We had forged peaceful links with Europe, found a way to end the fighting in Ireland - and that’s all being dismantled. We recognised the scourge that is racism and have challenged it in every corner - but only an outcry in the press has made the government pause in its efforts to deport brown people. There is more poverty, more homelessness ... I could go on.

How can we look at our children and grandchildren in the eye? I hope they rise up in a rage and protest. We have let them down.