Sunday, 24 May 2015

When pictures say more than words.

I've been to Madrid. A spur of the moment thing and I've only been home for a couple of days so there has been little time for thought-collecting.

But, amid the Rioja and the flamenco and the general jollity I saw a picture than will - and should - haunt me for ever.

I saw Guernica:

The huge painting by Picasso painted after the Luftwaffe bombed the Spanish town during the Spanish Civil War.

It is an image we all know - reprinted whenever Picasso or Spanish history creeps into the frame. Yet it is about so much more than Picasso, or Spain. But printed images, or reproduced online can never reproduce the impact of seeing this painting on a wall.

It is a brutal depiction of what war does to people - people like you and me, and to our children. It's savagery goes far beyond words.

I don't usually step on political toes but this time I shall. For all those who would leave refugees at sea in the Mediterranean or the Andaman Ocean should stand in front of this picture for an hour. All those who drop bombs on those who worship a different god or have a different skin colour should stand in front of this picture for an hour. All those who would condemn the many to punish the terrible behaviour of the few.

I'm not saying that there are never times when we should stand our ground. But we should never do so without knowing - really knowing - that this is what war feels like.

Sunday, 17 May 2015


Two weeks ago I took a diversion from posting my photos from the Far East to discuss the tragedy in Nepal. Here are my final set of photos - from Singapore - not because Nepal is mended or I have given up writing about her, but because I promised I'd do this ages ago!

It has taken me three visits to work out why I struggle in Singapore, but I think I've got it now. It's a city in which it almost impossible to find somewhere to think. There are museums, and parks, but still it feels as if the city wants me to spend money and if I'm not doing that I'm wasting my time. It wants me to be reactive - while I want to be reflective. Which is why we don't do well together.

Having said that, Singapore does what it does very well. For instance, there's not one broken light bulb on this bridge:

And not all the shopping is in air-conditioned shopping malls - I love the markets in Chinatown, with their sacks of nuts and spices, traders calling their wares, street food wafting tantalising smells on the corners.

Can you guess what these are? (The answer is at the bottom of this blog)

In my efforts to escape from the razzmatazz, I went to the Gardens by the Bay. They are accessed through a shopping mall and a swish hotel, but once you are there the grounds are lovely and there are some reclusive corners that are free!!

And there are two main 'domes' - the construction recognisable to anyone who has been to the Eden Project in Cornwall. The Flower Dome weaves flowers from the Mediterranean, deserts and the Far East with Chinese decorations - it is all a bit over the top but the colours are lovely.

The Cloud Dome replicates the flora of a Cloud Forest. Visitors are whisked up 100 feet, and then wander down a walkway that winds down a central structure covered with plants from high in the South American mountains. It's impossible to capture the size of it all - but this will give you an idea. And it finished with a film about climate change and how we all need to conserve resources, which felt a bit contradictory to me in the light of Singapore's commitment to consumerism.

And hidden among all the greenery are wooden statues and totems. I'm afraid these two made me laugh as I had a sudden image of them peeing in the bushes. Oh well, there are worse ways to misbehave.

(And on the stall in the Chinese market - they are jams!)

Sunday, 10 May 2015

Putting Nepal together again.

I can hear you sighing already. I'm not going on about Nepal again, am I - well yes, I am.

From some of the news coverage you might assume that everyone in Nepal is sitting about waiting for rescue. And indeed there are thousands - probably tens of thousands or more - in huge need. They are traumatised by the loss of homes, of family members, of everything they had dreamed of for their futures.

And then there are those who still have homes, who aren't waiting for the government or aid agencies, who are buying up what food and water and supplies they can, packing it into trucks and sending it as far into the mountains as they can.

Those of you who have read Over the Hill or Hidden Tiger will know of Tika. He was my guide in Nepal and North India. Whenever I think of him I smile - for his giggles saw me through some alarming times. When a man with a gun in Lucknow patted the ground and invited me to sit beside him and I lied and lied and lied about a husband waiting in the hotel for me, Tika was convulsed with laughter beside me. When I had spent hours in a taxi coming down the Siddhartha Highway after a cyclone, he was beside himself.

He was in Kathmandu when the earthquake struck. Within a day or two he had made it home to Pokhara, and had begun to organise relief efforts. He helped to mobilise anyone fit enough to help. Food, blankets, medicines - trucks were loaded and dispatched. While waiting for their return they continued to gather goods from local people.

Friends of mine can see a picture or two on Facebook here - scroll down and you'll find more about what he's been up to.

And for those who can't do that, here's a picture showing a fraction of the goodies he's gathered, to send up to Gorkha:

This is a glimpse of things the Nepalis are doing for themselves. It's not enough, of course. The rest, surely, is up to the rest of us.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Just another earthquake.

It's over a week since Nepal was rocked to its foundations. That first flush of horror has passed. The journalists are beginning to pack their bags. It is no longer 'new'.

I will not claim that this disaster is worse than any other. Hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, landslides: they all leave people - real people like you and me - living in tents and begging for water. But I can talk about Nepal because it is a country I know and love.

A bit about the history - Nepal has never been invaded, because it has no resources that anyone else is interested in plundering. No oil. No gold no diamonds no uranium. (Or if it has, it is hidden so deep inside the mountains that no one knows). But this means no investment. Few foreign governments help impoverished countries unless there is something in it for them. In addition, the administration is still practising democracy after years of Maoist insurgency and the end of the monarchy so all organisations are a bit hit and miss.

On top of that they have welcomed refugees from Tibet and Kashmir - without making a performance of it. So there's no Farage-equivalent bleating about foreigners.

The lack of rural employment means that many men from the countryside have left to work in Kathmandu or the cities of north India or the Middle East, leaving the women to run small farms. Many villages are largely comprised of women, children and older people, all working their socks off to get by. They live in tiny cottages that cling to the mountainside:

The only way to reach some of these villages is paths like this:

And some are so remote that it takes several days trekking to reach them.

Meanwhile, in Kathmandu, the young men are crowded in tiny, often insanitary, apartments. If there are regulations regarding construction they don't reach streets like this one:

In the middle of all this Nepali chaos is the wonderful Durbur Square, with its temples and palaces and space for people to wander. It is Kathmandu's Trafalgar Square and Westminster Abbey and St Paul's and  Borough Market all rolled into one. There are small shops set into the walls:

And magnificent temples where the faithful go to pray.

I cannot bear to use the past tense for all this. I know so much of it is rubble. That these brave, generous, impoverished people are still living in the streets, dependent on the generosity of you and I.

The men will rebuilt their homes and their temples. The women in the villages will till their misshapen fields. They will send their children to school.

While we can only sit back and feel helpless.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Sentosa - it's best bit!

I didn't plan to visit Sentosa - a small island off the south coast of Singapore. But a combination of factors left me with little alternative but to take my default option and head for a resort. And - since I was heading south - Sentosa was the obvious option.

I've no doubt it's a great island for families. The disembodied voice on the skytrain, whisking me across from the mainland, assured me that it is the Island of Fun. Passengers on the return journey are reminding what Fun they have had, and how much more Fun they will have when they return. Notices all over the island remind you to have Fun. There's a music loop that tinkles tunes from hidden speakers, interspersed with suggestions of where you might find this Fun - from and Aquarium to a Go-cart track to a Madame Tussauds. Every attraction includes a photographer, so you can record what Fun you had, just in case you need reminding when you get home.

OK, so it's not quite my thing. Children loved these dragons - built to keep them entertained as they stroll from one attraction to the other.

If you don't fancy at attraction, there is always the beach:

That photo was taken in the late afternoon. Even so, it seems surprisingly quiet.

A view from my hotel window might explain that:

Would you want to swim in a sea filled with all the effluent etc pumped by all these ships? No, nor did I.

So what was I doing there?

I found an eco-resort. I know, it sounds all tree-huggy, but for once they not only practised what they preached but enjoyed themselves in the process. Vegetables grow on the flat roof, fertilised from the wormery - fed by scraps from the kitchens. Trees flourish in every possible corner, helping to keep the temperature down - and with it the need for air conditioning. All the water comes from an underground spring: this is a view of the pool with a waterfall hiding behind the foliage to the left. I sat on a lounger and not once did anyone mention Fun!

On top of that, the hotel welcomed visitors, including wildlife, that might be rejected elsewhere. This peahen and her chicks were making their way back to the poolside, having somehow shut themselves in the laundry.

This tolerance included staff. The welcome pack included a note that the resort employs a number of young people with special needs; they can be identified by a badge and visitors are asked to make allowances for them.

I chatted to one of the managers about this - applauding the idea but I wasn't sure about the badges. But, he explained, the young people tell us it helps. For they had introduced ten autistic young people to the staff group at the same time. Ten autistic young people! It was, he admitted, something of a challenge for the first six months. You could describe that as ambitious, or brave, or simply bonkers. But they stuck with it. Now it's fine.

And it is - I watched the young people at work and they are productive and happy, even if they do have a tendency to clear the tables a bit promptly. 

So, in the middle of all the manufactured Fun of Sentosa is the Siloso Beach Resort - where they have created something different from all the surrounding consumerism. A wonderful reminder of what can be done.

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Malacca, in all its finery.

I love Malacca for the same reasons I love Penang - both are like multicultural soup!

But when I showed you pictures of Penang is was not architecture but street art that filled the blogpost. (If you missed it, you can find it here.)

Not to be left out, Malacca has also painted some of its buildings - though not with similar images to that  decorate Penang but with big, bold, wonderful sweeps of colour. These buildings were once the backs of small homes. People hung their washing here, and threw slops into the river. Now tourism has brought a different look to the riverside, and in place of washing and the stink of effluent, we have painting!! (This picture is taken from a boat, hence the odd shapes in the corners, and the pole!)

Those homes were once shacks for the poor. At the other end of the income scale, wealthy Chinese traders build mansions like this:

It's lovely from the front - and inside it stretches back with internal courtyards, one of which - right at the back - is full of small palm trees and green shrubs, and a fountain playing in the corner. Tables and chairs nestle among all the greenery. It's where I lingered so long over breakfast it morphed into coffee time.

In contrast, the Portuguese build solid colonial buildings like this:

Many of these buildings are now museums - some more interesting than others. I have no idea what a museum of beauty is doing in Malacca, but the display of Chinese foot-binding placed next to a display of modern women's shoes asked an interesting question.

And then I hit the streets. It was coming up to the Chinese New Year - well, I could hardly miss that, could I, with streets dressed up like this:

I'm not a shopper, but needed to do my bit to support the local economy. What better way than take a trishaw ride. A trishaw- for those who've not met one - is a bicycle with a seat beside it. I don't know when Malacca's trishaw riders began to decorate their contraptions. Last time I was here most had a few flowers and streamers. Over the years these decorations have become more elaborate (or maybe ridiculous, depending on your point of view) until they look like this. And what's more they come with music - and so one can ride through Malacca's streets to the theme from Frozen, or Justin Bieber ... and yes, you do feel a bit of a wally. But there are worse things to feel.

Sunday, 12 April 2015

Some pictures from KL that aren't shops.

Kuala Lumpur is not my favourite city. As Asian cities go, it's a baby - founded by the British in the nineteenth century. It has no stories of derring-do, nor ancient artefacts.

There are solid colonial buildings to remind me of its past, but even so it feels to me as if it struggles to find an identify as a capital city.

And, like so many cities, it looks for that identity in commerce. From the tourists' point of view this presents as shopping. I wonder if KL has looked over her shoulder at the success of Singapore and noticed that the proliferation of shopping malls appears to have brought prosperity. So, why not try follow the same path?

As a non-shopper, it all feels a bit pointless. There's little that I can't buy at home. Besides, what has shopping to do with cultural identity - and that's the bit I'm interested in.

Having said all that, I spent my few days in KL seeking out the most non-commercial corners. Beginning with the Islamic Arts Museum - which I love. It's light, and spacious, and cool. It is a place of reflection. I could meander among its quiet beauty and think. I began to understand why Islamic art is a genre in its own right - and what makes it different, and special. The Koran discourages any representation of a living form: the result is a sequence of exotic shapes and patterns.

For instance, I looked through a window to see this dome:

And this is what it looked like from the inside:

There's also a lovely bird park, where I could wander, and marvel, and not be pressured into buying anything other than bird food. I'm sorry I don't have pictures - I gave up, as it was a Saturday when I was there and it was impossible to take a picture that didn't have someone else's selfie stick in it! (Grrrrr!)

Not all the streets are lined with shops. However, I found it impossible to take pictures of some of the more impressive buildings without a skyscraper in the background. For me, this beautiful mosque is marred by that phallic construction perched behind the central dome.

And this row of colonial buildings doesn't need an apartment block behind it.

And not all the shopping opportunities were dull. This is the covered way beside the Central Market (full of tourist trinkets but better than most), with the Chinese lanterns all ready for the New Year celebrations. It must have been riotous in that passageway that night!