Sunday, 30 August 2015

Wot - no blog post today??

I'm sorry ... well, actually I'm not sorry. For I've spent the weekend at a wedding. And sharing in the joy of two young people is far more important than anything I might write here.

Just in case you are wondering - some of you might remember Sam and Andy? And looking very different from how they did then! On top of that, they have now raised £21,500 for the hospice, which makes them very special indeed. It was a privilege to share their day.

Sunday, 23 August 2015

A post for those who don't know why I witter on about Nepal


This is a post for those of you who don't know the history of my interest in Nepal, and wonder why I keep going on about it.

It all began decades ago. In fact I can't recall when I was first intrigued by the mysteries Nepal. But when I was working I did a huge research project and promised myself that a trip to the Himalaya was an appropriate reward for finishing the thing. This was long before my days of independent travel: I joined a tour group and visited many of the most well-known sights. I tramped in the foothills of the mountains, marvelled at temples - and met Tika.

So when I set off on my gap year it made sense, after getting used to being on my own and the mechanics of travelling, to go back to Nepal. But even though I'd been there before the heat and the dust and the chaos of Kathmandu almost had me scuttling back into the airport and heading home. Tika rescued me, led me gently (and with patient good-humour) into the mayhem. We spent five weeks together, travelling through Nepal and south across the border into India. By the time he went home I had learned the essentials of managing on my own in Asia -  how to cross the road, how to buy a train ticket, how to keep clean and safe.

I couldn't leave it there. So when I went back to Nepal a few years ago I strode into Kathmandu with confidence. I understood the country, knew all about travelling, hoped simply to explore unfamiliar places with people I had grown to know and love.

Nepal, of course, doesn't take kindly to such hubris. I had to extricate myself from a scam. Then found myself being driven down the Siddartha Highway in the pitch dark after a cyclone (the most terrifying episode in all my years of travelling) and, shortly after that, I walked unnecessarily close to tiger. That was enough to remind me that, however, often I visit, Nepal will alway present me with the unexpected.

Meanwhile Tika kept the show on the road. He laughed at me whenever I was at my most alarmed, or tired, or bewildered.

And now I owe him - and his friends and family. Shobha, his wife, who has always welcomed me into her family, and cooked meals for me on a small stove on her rooftop. Ajay and Upama in Kathmandu - they have a child now, whom I've never met. Buddhi, who led me into the mountains and was so patient with my puffing. Jeevan, who took me to a small village and was helpless with laughter when (I still don't know how this happened) I ended up on the stage at a school prize giving.

I'm not claiming that Nepal is any more or less deserving than any other country. But it is important to me. In just over three weeks I'll be back - and this time I'll focus on what I can do for them. After all, they done more than they can possibly know for me.

Sunday, 16 August 2015

Where does the aid go?

In my last post I asked what you'd like me to look for during my forthcoming trip to Nepal - and one question recurred: Where is the aid going? Is it reaching the people who really need it? (This elephant-in-the-room word is corruption.)

I think it's impossible to approach such questions without clarifying my own ethical position regarding aid in the Developing World, and where it might end up. So here, for what it's worth, are my views on the whys and wherefores of 'corruption'.

For starters, let's unpick the word. If 50 tents arrive in Kathmandu and only 25 reach the people they're meant for - that is corruption? Or theft? In India, millions of tons of grain - set aside for the poor - goes missing every year, and nothing happens. Corruption? Or theft? In the Congo, poorly paid workers refuse to drive a machine that will haul a huge tractor from a trailer without a back-hander. Bribes? Or a tip that recognises they have so little and can barely feed their families.

In the West, the banks steal millions of pounds of our money, and nothing happens. Corruption? Or commerce? The government sells Royal Mail for next to nothing. Corruption? Or foolishness? The local town council grants planning permission for the mayor to build an extension to his house while refusing it to a neighbour. Corruption? Local politics?

I think we need to be careful before we point fingers at the Developing Countries. We live in a world where there are many who will exploit the miseries of others. This doesn't make it right - but let's not pretend it doesn't happen just as much in the First World.

So - what do to about it? We can, of course, jump up and down, point fingers, complain - and it's right that such abuses are talked about. It is global ethical issue, and needs a global discussion.

And we can refuse to give to aid organisations, for fear that our cash will end up in someone's back pocket and not where we want it to go.

But who does that actually help?

Let's just say you've donated money for two tents for the destitute of Kathmandu. One will get through - so there will be one family who have shelter who were in the rain last night. The other tent 'disappears' - and will be sold - to whom? The aid agency? There may be a few links along the way, a backhander here and there, but eventually your tent will probably make it. Money, of course, 'disappears' more easily than tents. But some will make its way back into the economy.

Personally, I prefer to support small organisations (at home and overseas) - often run by people I know and trust. That doesn't mean there is never a little 'leakage' but many tiny NGOs rely on passing donations just to keep a roof over heads. They are more likely to be run by local people in response to local need - and so not dictated to by First World agencies with western belief systems.

The bit I feel most strongly about is our collective responsibility to do something. If we simply wring our hands about corruption, allowing the knowledge that our entire contribution might not reach its destination to cripple our thinking, we abandon those in real need. We might not like some of the shenanigans between us and them, but that is not their problem - and it is one we can do nothing about.

There is no point in a fight you can't win. It is right to questions, challenge and condemn those who exploit the vulnerable. But we should not let a preoccupation with them paralyse us, nor stand in the way of our compassion. The destitute still need us.


Sunday, 9 August 2015

Nepal - not long now

The summer is creeping by - and before I know it I'll be catching the plane to Nepal. It's hard to believe it's come round so quickly - just one month now, and I'll be on my way.

It's been hard to keep in touch with how things are there - reports are confusing. The British foreign office advice is to avoid most of the mountain treks, although they feel Annapurna is safe. The Nepalis insist that most treks are open (or will be once the monsoon is over) - of the well-known routes only Everest is still closed. There has also been a recent suggestion that the seismic activity has not ended, and the south-west border with India could be a bit wobbly. On top of that, the monsoon has brought storms and landslides this year.

All of which would suggest I'll see nothing but destruction. However, we all know that the media loves a trauma and overlooks the ordinary. It's hard, from this distance, to estimate the extent to which the aftermath of the earthquake and monsoon have left people struggling, or whether they have picked themselves up and I'll recognise the resilience and humour that I've met before.

As you know, I'm going because friends in the county want me to. My own focus will be on reconnecting with those I know and love. But I also know that the country needs tourists: they are essential to kick-start the economy and help get the country back on its feet.

So here's a question. What do you want me to look for?

Are you interested in the state of the temples? The mountain treks? Whether hotels and restaurants are functioning? The state of the roads? Whether people feel defined by disasters or are they resilient enough to feel they are putting it behind them?

I don't know yet if there will be an ebook, but do want to write - here, if nowhere else - about everything that tourists might find when they return to Nepal. It's my small contribution to helping the country get back on its feet. Which is why I need to know what you need me to try to find out.

Monday, 3 August 2015

Children Matter.

This post is late this week.

I'll not apologise, for my days have been full of grandchildren - preparing for their visit, managing the fun while they were here, and collapsing in a heap once they'd gone. But there should never be apologies for children.

You'll have to imagine the wonderfulness of my weekend. You only need to know that I have the most intelligent, beautiful, creative, athletic and loving grandchildren in the world.

Having established that, I want to take it one step further. Because, in spite of the position my own grandchildren have in the general scheme of things, I would suggest that all children should take priority.

For instance, when a family is eating together in a restaurant, children's meals should arrive first. Adults understand waiting, that their turn with come, that they will not be overlooked. They also know that it's easier to chop up a child's sausages when the table isn't laden with their own food, vegetables, and a bottle of wine.

For instance, anyone with a biggish buggy, or a double, has as much right to linger in the aisles of supermarkets, or stroll down the street, as anyone else. How else are parents meant to do their shopping? They shouldn't have to apologise to anyone, simply because they need to bring their children out in public.

Why does it matter so much? I know I worked in Child Protection, and so I spent my working life thinking of the child's point of view. So it's hardly surprising that's a habit I don't want to break.

But it's more than that. It's more than the cliche about children being our future and so we need to invest in them. It's more than recognising that if they aren't educated etc they'll not do the work we need them to do in order to fund our pensions.

It's about children bringing energy, and surprise, and curiosity. They remind us that earwigs, and sunflowers, and bits of stick all have a place in the world. They examine a ladybird with the same attention as a jeweller might give a diamond. They shush (though rarely for long) just to watch a squirrel run up a tree. They ask endless questions, for their world is new and different and wonderful.

Sometimes I watch the men and women in suits and think that what they really need is a dose of children. It is children who remind us that the world need not be driven by money. That the life cycle of the snail can be as absorbing as a need for speed. That rules are fine when they provide a framework but not when followed without question.

In short, I think some adults need a bit of a kick up the bum, and children - given the opportunity - can be so good at that!

Sunday, 26 July 2015

In search of headspace.

Life is a bit full at the moment - and so reflective times have been precious.

Some years ago I saw an interview with Germaine Greer. When asked what her favourite pastime was she replied, 'thinking.'

I get that - thinking is the most wonderful, creative, energising way to spend an hour or two. If only those hours were more easily available.

The problem - for me at least - is that my current thinking is less creative and more like cogitative soup. One thought doesn't lead logically to another, in a way that might disentangle a problem or two. Instead ideas leap on top of each other like mating frogs, without allowing any breathing time.

I tried writing things down. At least the creation of lists gives an appearance of organisation. But when I tried to write my reflections (often a useful way to make sense of muddled feelings) all I could come up with was general angst.

Soon after that, I needed to cut the grass. Hurrah - an hour for thinking, while I trudged up and down the garden with the lawnmower. Surely there would be logical thought in the sanctuary of my garden. I even put a notebook in my pocket, ready to stop and jot down anything inspiring.

So why could I think about nothing more exciting than to wonder why my socks always fall down under my wellies but not in my shoes. Then I contemplated the lack of intelligence of toads: they hop off into the long grass, while if they were truly bright they'd leap over the mown stuff and hide among the weeds. Then I wasted energy on raging about the dog that had jumped over a fence and left poo on my lawn.

I gave up. Decided I needed a shower. Then, when I was at my wettest and soapiest, I had a flash of insight ... if I tackled this task, then that would become easier ... and then everything would unscramble. Hurrah! If only I could remember what that first task was when I got out of the shower ...

I give up. I'll just carry on snatching thinking time when I can. And if anyone knows of a waterproof notebook please let me know.

Sunday, 19 July 2015

Barcelona

Back to my Barcelona thoughts - postponed by last week's news.

Just in case even a mention of the word Barcelona gets you singing, here is the link to accompany you:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0wdxj8-mAU

Right, now we're all humming, I'll add a word or two about the city.

Another time, I wouldn't choose to go in July. I went with a friend, and we were limited by her leave arrangements. We had a wonderful time - but did have to weave our way through crowds. There were stag and hen parties (why they go all that way, spend all that money, just to get drunk I've no idea. But they were having a good time.) Then millions (or so it felt) taking a break before the mayhem of the school holidays. Several of the major sites had so many visitors they were organising timed entrances with three hours to wait - which is not a problem in such a lovely city, but does give you an idea how many people were there.

I have heard that there are local people who are complaining that the city is drowning in tourists. I can see what they mean - it was hard to find any local people going about local things unless they were dealing with tourists. On the other hand, tourists are now the life-blood of the city.

It's the extraordinary Gaudí architecture that draws people there. And it is wonderful - much of it on such a huge scale that photographs cannot possibly do it justice. So here, to give you a flavour of the city, are a few photographs of chimney stacks.

These two were taken from rooftops:



This was taken from the top deck of a bus:


And here's another rooftop:


Finally, a facade taken looking up from street level - to hint at the breadth of Gaudí's extraordinary vision. Not a straight line in sight!!


It's such an unusal city I can only give you a hint of its complexities. Architecturally it's unlike anywhere else - and a worthy city for the wonderful song!