Sunday, 24 April 2016

Earthquakes, and yet more earthquakes.

I can't believe I'm blogging about earthquakes again.

It feels as if the earth is very unsettled at the moment. Volcanoes are erupting. There are tremors all round the Pacific rim. And now the huge quakes in Japan and Ecuador.

I'm sure we've all seen the pictures. Sometimes I wonder if we don't see so many pictures that they  lose their capacity to shock. The collapsed buildings. Men and women, their heads thick with dust, weeping in the streets or scrabbling in the rubble with their bare hands searching for missing children.

One of the things I've learned, in all my travelling, is the universality of human needs. All over the world, men and women need people around them to love. We all need enough to eat and a safe roof over our heads at night. We all celebrate our rites of passage (births, deaths and marriages) by eating together, and often with dancing. We all punctuate the year with festivals (more eating and dancing).

Our differences - of skin colour, of gods, of the stories we tell to explain our existence - are insignificant beside the fundamentals of our samenesses.

So these people, hurt and frightened, have the same needs and feelings as you and me.

But what can we do? Weeping into our own beer isn't going to help. Not many of us can leap into a plane and fly across the world to help dig people out or help in the rebuilding.

Some of us can dip into our pockets, spare a pound or two. The house-build project had proved what can be achieved if we all work together.

And some of us can travel to places that - at first glance - would seem uninviting after such a disaster. One of the big lessons from my last trip to Nepal was the need for tourists to carry on visiting - these countries need foreign money now more than ever. So next time you've got the atlas out and are wondering where to go next, maybe it's worth thinking about countries that need you. For the money you spend while you are there all goes into rebuilding an economy - and therefore the lives of families with needs and feelings just like ours.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Shit happens

I've no idea what if those of you living outside the UK are being bombarded with health advice at the moment. It feels as if our government, our broadcasters, our newspapers are conspiring to remind us that our bodies are temples and we should treasure them.

Or maybe they've only just realised than an aging populating means an increasingly frail population which could strain our health service beyond its ability to deliver adequate care. And so those us of us with bus passes must be reminded how to look after ourselves for as long as possible and thus reduce the strain on the public purse. Or am I being too cynical here?

I've no problem with the occasional reminder to eat well and maybe move about a bit. There may be people who don't realise that a diet of cake and chips and alcohol isn't the best. They may spend their lives flopping about on the sofa and not realise that walking upstairs occasionally, even if it makes them puff, is a Good Thing.

But I've had such advice rammed down my throat a bit recently - and some has even come with the implication that 'keeping myself young' (whatever that means) is a protection from the disease of aging.

Which diseases of aging did they reference particularly? Arthritis and cancer.

And that's where my hackles rise. I have arthritis - not because I don't eat my greens, but because my grandmother had arthritis and I climb mountains. One day I'll need expensive new knees, though I'll  keep myself going for as long as possible.

But the implications for cancer sufferers makes me even crosser. I know people with cancer, who have had cancer, or are half-expecting a diagnosis. Are the health-advisers seriously suggesting that this is their fault?

As I understand it, there is a statistical connection between living in an affluent society and cancer rates. That's a statistic - not a cause. We understand the origins of some cancers (like skin), but others need much more research before we can pin-point causes. And yet some bod on the telly feels we need reminding us to eat our broccoli and skip about a bit because if we don't we'll get cancer and it might (note that 'might' - enough to make the implication but not enough to be sued if they've got it wrong) be our own fault.

Shit happens. It can happen to anyone. The least constructive response to the cancer-shit is to make someone feel guilty.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

They tell us we're a highly developed country. Really?

As you know, I've travelled a bit - and often in countries that are defined as 'developing'. As I understand it, the word refers to these countries efforts to modernise their economic systems, thus involving as many people as possible in the commercial life of the country and bringing prosperity to as many as possible.

It's a complex process, underpinned by education. There is a drive to ensure that children all over the world learn to read and write, and that even the most disadvantaged have access to books. When I first visited Nepal books were scarce - often only tattered copies left behind by trekkers or printed on such thin paper you could put your thumb through it. There is now a library in Pokhara, a facility well-used by both children and their parents, with no regard for income nor social status.

But countries can't wait for this generation to mature. They need their economies to grow now. For many, this means providing transport for as many as possible to reach markets - where they can sell their own produce and buy goods from their neighbours. It is a basic means of exchange and can be the prelude to more ambitious trading. Rickety buses trundle up dirt tracks and ford streams in order to make such trading possible. I have shared a bus seat with a woman with a chicken on her knee and another where someone hoped to buy her fare with cucumbers.

This is what I understand by development: the inclusion of as many people as possible in social and economic life, in order to promote the prosperity of the many.

Or am I missing something? For here in the UK, with what we are told is the fifth biggest economy in the world, we are closing libraries (excluding the disadvantaged from access to books) and - here in rural Wiltshire - we are cutting buses (excluding the disadvantaged from access to markets and social interaction).

Or does 'development' only apply to the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' don't matter any more?

Sunday, 3 April 2016

What's happening with this house then?

What with all the fun I had in Ecuador and the Galapagos, you might have thought I'd forgotten about that house we're building in Nepal.

What house? Well, for those of you who weren't around last year: I went to Nepal last September, to visit friends and to see how things were after the earthquake. To be honest, they were tough. Not only had stuff fallen down, but no tourists were visiting - so there was no money to get on with the rebuilding. The mountains still glorious, hotels and restaurants empty, and the Nepali struggling to make ends meet.

I ummed and ahed about how to help. And then I met a family, in the mountains, whose house had fallen down - and it was going to cost just £1500 to rebuild it. Not quite peanuts, but surely I could raise that? We can't rebuild a city, or even a town - but we can rebuild a house.

Not any old house. This is a family I know - the top storey had collapsed and they were living on the ground floor, in the rubble, and hoping that aftershocks wouldn't dump the whole thing on their heads while they slept.

So I launched a project, which you can find here. And I wrote a book, After the Earthquake, and every penny of profit from that is going towards building this house. (If you live outside the UK, or don't use Amazon, I'm sure you can find it if you go hunting. Do contact me if you can't find it.)

And how has it gone? Well, the appeal site is misleading, as I've been given much more than that. And the book is selling well.

And (drum roll) ... we have a house!!!! Well, have the money for the house, the foundations are down and the walls are on their way up. One family can sleep peacefully again.

What's more - we have begun a second house. This is an older couple, from a village high in the mountains, who spent the monsoon in a tent.

I'm proud of us all - we did what we set out to do. But if anyone is new to this appeal, and (like me) can't imagine just how dreadful it must be to be old and in a tent with the monsoon battering down, then then please follow the links.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Happy Spring!

It's Easter. And so I doubt if many will be dropping into blogland this week. You will be too busy with chocolate eggs and hot cross buns. Maybe even trimming a bonnet or two. Celebrating the end of winter, greeting the possibilities of spring. It is time to put away the winter woollies and thermal undies, to think about cutting the grass, to plant early potatoes. Climb a hill and savour the view in the fragile spring sunshine; wander in woods and marvel - as we do each year - as trees sprout tiny green buds. The grim days of snow and storms are behind us ...

I know that here in the west we link all this razzmatazz to a Christian festival. Other cultures with comparable climates also have stories to underpin a bit of a knees-up and this time of year. I choose not to comment on any of that, other than to offer good wishes to anyone celebrating as spring arrives, with or without a god to justify a party.

Me - I looking forward to greeting the arrival of spring. Well, that was the plan...

I don't know how it was where you are, but, where I am, anyone strutting down the High Street in an Easter bonnet would have had a hard time hanging onto it. But they'd have hung on if they could, if only to protect their heads from the hail. The days might be a bit longer, but it was so dark around lunchtime I needed lights on just to make a cup of tea. As for abandoning the winter woollies - I lit my wood-burning stove and settled down with a book, just like I do the depths of winter.

I'm certainly not going to abandon my fleeces and waterproofs. Nor venture out to cut my grass just because the calendar tells me it should be spring. Had I even thought about walking I might have been blown off a hillside

So someone clearly forget to tell the weather-fairies that it's time to cheer up. Me - I'll huddle by my fire for a bit longer, till those fairies finally to come out to play. How about you - did you brave the weather and slosh through mud on an Easter egg hunt? Or maybe the weather was kinder where you are.

Happy spring!

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Tour groups, and why I'm not a good groupie.

As you know, I generally travel on my own. But from time to time I join a group - on this trip it was impossible to visit the rainforest or take a boat round the Galapagos Islands without joining a group. And since I've been home a few people have asked how I managed the group-thing.

I'll not, here, write about those groups in particular. Rather I'll think about travelling groups in general. From which it might become evident that I'm really not a groupy sort of person.

I know all groups are different. But some attract a set of participants who slot into predictable roles. Firstly, the person who irritates me more than anything is the one who doesn't listen. Not only do they not listen, they make a point of making sure everyone knows they've not listened by asking, loudly, just as we are returning to our rooms, 'WHAT TIME DID SHE SAY BREAKFAST IS TOMORROW.' Someone will reply, of course, as most of us are polite, only to get the follow-on question, 'SO WHEN ARE WE LEAVING ... DO I NEED WALKING BOOTS OR SANDALS.' By which time I've slipped away.

But, you say, I am being uncharitable. Maybe this person has a hearing problem. Then why, should his or her name pass your lips when you are half a table away and facing the other way and  everyone is drinking and laughing, do they call out, 'HEY, DID I HEAR MY NAME ...' No, this is a person who makes a profession of not listening.

Secondly, there's the smoker. I do understand that some people are addicted, need to light up, etc etc. But this is the person who, every time we stop, steps away front the group, puffs away for five minutes and then rejoins us, whiffs of smoke still seeping from his or her nostrils, only to say, 'What have I missed?'

Thirdly, the people who never stop talking. Ever. As if they can only justify their own existence by hearing the sound of their own voices. In my limited experience the people with the most interesting stories are those who say the least.

On a walk, there are those who must be first, and those who are always last.

Me - you can see that I'm the grumbly one in the corner. Actually, it's not quite like that. I'm the grumbly one in the corner with the notebook. And the most interesting people often ask what I'm writing about, and some give me permission to tell their stories. The others find their way into blogs like this!

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Why travel?

When I was working, a lifetime ago now (or so it feels), if a young person absconded the first question we asked ourselves was: had he or she run away from something, or run towards something. It is a crude distinction and masks complexities, but it was a start - we needed to begin to understand the behaviour if we were to find the young person and keep him or her safe.

Now, as a traveller, I'm asked a comparable question. Why do I do it? Why launch into the unknown when I could sit about comfortably at home.

And the answer, honestly, is that I don't care why I do it - I just love it. But, as that isn't enough for some people, I will try to unpick it a little.

I do run away from British winters. Those living in the north will think I'm utterly wimpish, complaining about southern winters. And they are fully justified to do so - our rain and wind and snow is feeble compared with the weathers they have to go out it. But I just hate the cold and the dark and the endless grey days. If I can escape them, then I will.

But I am also running towards the new and the different. When I get there, I don't just lie around in the sun. I explore city streets. I puff up mountains. I elbow my way through crowds in markets just to smell the cinnamon, run my fingers along silk scarves. I stare at animals that I thought only existed on the telly. I eat food I can't identify. I talk to people with new stories to tell.

And then I come home. Friends and family - who have kept the show on the road at home, looked after my house, trudged to school or work through wind and rain with barely a grumble - welcome me back and if they are envious they show it only fleetingly. Some even manage to look at my photographs without glazing over.

Does that begin to explain it? And you - what is it about the things you love doing that gets under your skin?