Sunday, 21 December 2014

A future for Cuba.

I might be expected to join in all the Happy Christmas shenanigans, but I can't let the Cuba news slip by without a thought or two.

Do I really have the qualifications to give an opinion on the thawing of relations between Cuba and America, based on just one month on the island last winter?

Of course not. But I can make an observation or two. Besides, I've read a couple of newspaper pieces that seem to be based on internet research. I have, at least, been there - and very recently.

Feelings, on both sides, run deep. There are misunderstandings, fantasies, projections - all feeding beliefs that have their origins in history. And that is surely the point - the fallout between the two countries began over fifty years ago. At last, it's time to talk.

In my opinion, what is most encouraging is not the announcement by President Obama that diplomacy will be resumed; rather it is the acknowledgement that there have - behind the scenes, in the bars of Havana and the corridors of Washington - been talks. Men and women from both countries have sat together, out of sight of newsmen and photographers, and settled on a discourse. There will be upsets and foot-stamping before an understanding can be reached. But the doors are now opened. There is the opportunity of listening.

And, from my position of ignorance, I can tell you what I wish for Cuba. I wish investment - in her buildings, in her health service, in her infrastructure. There is much to be done. But I hope it can be done thoughtfully - Cuba is a vibrant, wonderful country with a unique culture. Her music (ah the music) is compulsive. Her people are welcoming. She needs antibiotics and better transport.

Does she need MacDonalds? New cars? - Who are we, with our western luxuries, to go all gooey-eyed over the old cars, the shortage of french fries? Cuba should be free to make her own choices.

I rarely mention my books on this blog, but for once I reckon I'm allowed. In Vultures Overhead I wrote about my experiences in Cuba last winter. I found a Cuba that might not be recognised for much longer. Turkey vultures circled everywhere. I just hope that the Americans visit with the humility of puppies and not the avarice of vultures.

(There's a link to the book to the right of this blog.)

And - Happy Christmas. May it be whatever it need to be for you.

Sunday, 14 December 2014

My winter travelling plans

It's that time again. The days are long; the nights are cold; I'm grumpy. No, I'm not depressed - I have no seasonal illness. I can get out of bed and join in the razzmatazz. But I'd rather be somewhere warm.

And so, just as the baubles come off the trees and tinsel is packed into the cupboards for another year, I'll be again. I have a flight booked to Bangkok, and six weeks later I come back from Singapore. I shall probably spend most of that time in Malaysia.

Why Malaysia? I was there on my long trip and loved it. I love its multicultural soupiness. There are indigenous Malays, many of whom are Muslim. There are Chinese with their temples and wonderful food. There are Thais, of course, with their Buddhism. And plenty of Indians with their Hindu stories and curries. There is tension - much of which is not immediately obvious to the tourist - but there are also some wonderful celebrations of cultural difference. (For instance, each tradition seems to have a different date on which to mark the New Year - and they all celebrate with wonderful processions and dancing. How I'd love it if the tiny Chinese population in my little market town took over the High Street with dragons one year ...)

I love its scenic differences. I shall brave the leeches and go into the rainforest. I might try a little snorkelling off the coast of an island. I shall admire the patchwork hills of the tea plantations.

I shall see if some of the people I met last time are still there: Farouk, the waiter who gave me bigger and bigger breakfasts every day in Penang; Rusty - a landlady in Mersing who knew I needed a cup of tea before I even opened my mouth; Miss Jo - who took me to a Sikh ceremony and then to lunch. They may not be there, of course - it's nine years since I was last in Malaysia and much will have changed. But I'll look for them. And spend time with anyone else who might wander across my path.

Will I write about it when I get home?

I don't know. If there are adventures - then I probably will. But I'm not looking for adventures. In spite of all the dramas in Nepal I don't go looking for cyclones and tigers. I'm returning to a place that I love, because I can, because it's winter, because it is so gloriously different.

But I will blog it. (And I don't go till January, so no need to wave me off quite yet!)

Sunday, 7 December 2014

Time to Think.

What is life if, full of care, we have no time to ...  I've no time to finish the quotation now.

After all, there are cards to buy cards to write presents to buy presents to wrap don't forget Aunt Vera this year remember that sour look she gave you last year and then the children ah the children we must do our bit to give Santa a hand he'll need carrots and mince pies - not supermarket ones that's cheating - no you must make the mince pies and the sausage rolls and the stuffing get it all in the freezer and your cake will be made by now and the puddings so you've time to make costumes for little Nellie is a shepherd and Joss is a dog and the tree don't forget the tree and the decorations make some with the kids you know how they love it and a wreath for the front door ...


Who says we have to do all this?

I'm all for a midwinter festival - with or without any religious overtones. But does it really have to be such a struggle?

Speaking for myself, I want to hibernate at this time of year. I want to snuggle by the fire, watch the flames and let the winter blow itself out. I want to read. Write.

Most of all I want to think.

Some years ago I heard an interview with Germaine Greer in which she was asked her favourite pastime - and she said, 'Thinking.' Wise woman.

Where is the thinking in all the December mayhem? For without it we are simply automata, lurching from one must-do to another. There is no time for anything to touch us. To let the fun and laughter echo as we fall asleep.

If we cannot stop to think, we are purely reactive. We consider neither history nor consequence nor meaning. And we're all the poorer for it. We allow the marketing gurus to lure us into all the razzmatazz, sweeping us away from the glorious temptations of independent thought. From those quiet reflections that remind us of those we love.

It doesn't have to be like this. We can choose what we get swept up in, and what we allow to pass us by. But that means we must make the time to take that decision. And maybe it also means taking time to stand and stare.

Sunday, 30 November 2014

Black Friday - what was that all about?

Black Friday, we were told, is a tradition.

No it's not. A tradition, according to my trusty dictionary, is a transmission of customs or beliefs passed from generation to generation. I know they all have to begin somewhere, but I still don't see something that has happened for a couple of years warrants the title 'tradition.'

On top of that, it has no relevance in the UK. Just because Americans have enjoyed their Thanksgiving feasts and feel a need to go shopping doesn't mean it must be mirrored over here. We can shop when (and if) we want to shop.

But the marketeers have got hold of the idea and convinced millions of people believe that this is the one day they must go shopping. A hint of a discount and there they all are, fighting for this and that, for fear they might be missing out.

I recognise that our economic system depends on people becoming so dissatisfied with their old stuff that they have to go out and buy new stuff. Then the people that make and sell the new stuff have an income and pay taxes that fund our schools and hospitals (and pay our politicians). I struggle with the implication that the system must be underpinned by greed, but so far no one has come up with anything better. (I know, we could all downsize. But the money for health care has to come from somewhere.)

So you could argue that Black Friday was a good thing. All those people rushing out to spend money with no insight into the fact that their 'need' was manufactured by the marketing men and women.

But let's cut the twaddle. It is not a tradition. It has no relevance in the UK. It is simply the ad-people manipulating the buying public into believing something that has no basis in our reality.

What depresses me most is the millions that believed the hype and went shopping. Do they really keep their brains in their wallets?

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Triumph from Adversity? Or just bonkers?

You don't know Sam and Andy, so let me introduce you:

They look happy enough, don't they? And that logo on their t-shirts - hiding behind the medals - I can tell you that it reads 'Madness 4 Mike'.

Here's what Sam writes about the project: Since losing my Dad to Bowel Cancer on 28th March 2012, I've been thinking of ways to raise money for the charity that helped my Dad. I can see you like them already, turning a family tragedy into something positive.

And then one of them suggested they set out to complete (walking, running, but always in a recognised event) 2014Km in 2014. Do you have any idea how far that is? It's like running all the way from London to Reykjavik (that's assuming you can run on water - given what they've achieved I've sometimes wondered if they've done just that).

They've had to work, of course. Not easy-peasy jobs that give them time for training. They are both vets, so they spend much of their time with their hands in sundry animal orifices. They sit up with sick creatures and will them to keep breathing. They rejoice in the pooch that trots away with her well-being restored; they comfort grieving owners. Not work for the faint-hearted.

But, once they'd started this project, nothing would stop them. And friends and family joined in. Anyone with legs and energy was welcome to contribute. Andy's mother trekked across Vietnam for them. Even my grandson ran 5Km (and had green paint thrown at him), his mother puffing alongside him, as a contribution.

Between them and their supporters they finished a total of 43 events - and Sam and Andy did most of them. The total distance: 3279Km. So far they have raised over £14,300.

So next time you're weeping into your pillow and everything feels like the end of the world, it's worth remembering what can be done. It's your party and you cry if you want to. But maybe, when you've dried your tears, you can transform that energy into something worthwhile. Though you don't have to do something quite as bonkers as this.

If you want to know more, have a look at their website here.

And, in the hope it doesn't put you off, here's what they looked like at the end of the New York Marathon:

Sunday, 16 November 2014

The unkindness of burglary.

Our local independent toyshop was burgled last week.

The owners arrived to find the police stand by the remains of the door. Inside, toys were scattered all over the floor - all except the lego and playmobile. These burglars knew what they wanted - toys that were popular, and easy to sell for a reasonable price in a car boot sale on a Sunday afternoon, and difficult to trace.

The town has rallied round. We love this shop. It's all nooks and crannies, small spaces that are fine for children but adults have to squeeze through. It's owned by a family - and they love children almost as much as they love selling toys. There's a small train set just inside the door. Even a table outside with toys for children to play with as they pass. My granddaughter can spend half an hour playing with the toy food, leave the shop in disarray and depart with nothing more than a bottle of bubbles; and still she's welcomed back.

It took a few hours to clear up the mess. Meanwhile children came to the door and cried. But by early afternoon the front door was open and they were trading again.

Oh how heartless those burglars! Have they not been children?

Burglary is burglary - right? There's no defending it, just the urgency of punishment, retribution.

But is this burglary better or worse than breaking into a house and stealing personal treasures? Cameras? Laptops? Passports?

Is it better or worse than holding up a jewellers, terrifying staff and making off with rings and necklaces that will sell to the rich and careless?

Is it better or worse than bankers stealing millions of pounds of public money, then sitting back and insisting they still deserve bonuses?

It's all theft, and nobody is physically hurt. Does the motivation of poverty make one burglary more acceptable than one driven by greed?

I don't have any answers. I'm hugely proud of the way my town has responded to this one - the shop owners can have no doubt as to our affection for them. There is a cry for our burglars to by hung, drawn and quartered. But maybe, in the depths of our Wiltshire countryside, spitting feathers about those who steal lego, is a banker or two who cannot see that they, too, might have done more than their share of stealing.

Sunday, 9 November 2014

Operation Kindness Worldwide.

Sounds a bit wacky, doesn't it. A bit hippy-dippy, 1960s, make love not war, all that stuff.

But hang on a minute.

Last week I pointed out that the government in the UK is fostering a climate of fear. (The link is here, if you missed it.) They would like us to creep into corners while they drop bombs on the 'bad guys'. While I suggested that there are millions of kind, wonderful, fascinating people in the world and we will only make progress if we get out there, understand and celebrate our differences.

There is, I think, a parallel in this Kindness Initiative. We can either pull up our metaphorical drawbridges, look after ourselves and those closest to us, let the rest of the world sink or swim. Or we can open our doors and our thinking and do our bit - however small - to oil the global wheels. (I know, too many metaphors.)

So the Mandala Trust (I'll come back to them in a minute) have defined November 13th as World Kindness Day. Just one day to make a point of thinking of someone else - from the half-forgotten man down the road with just his dog for company to the women walking miles in crippling heat to collect water - and doing something small. Take the old man to the library. Buy your neighbour a cake. Help the mother in the supermarket with two small children and a week's worth of shopping to pack.

Kindness can be infectious. I help the woman up the road. She offers her neighbour a lift to the station. The neighbour gives up his seat on the train for the woman with more shopping bags than hands ... and so it goes on. There's no reason for the wave to end. And if it should peter out because someone is having a bad day, then start another.

Does that seem so wacky now? So hippy-dippy? So 1960s? So here's the link for Operation Kindness Worldwide. Drop by and like them. And spend a minute or two thinking - what can you do on the 13th?

(And the Mandala Trust? The man behind it happened to be there when I was taken, suddenly and dramatically, ill on a beach in Cambodia. He held my world together when I was unable to do it for myself. He is a good, decent, honest man. And he runs the Mandala Trust - a small organisation that helps fund projects across the world that are set up and run by local people. For instance, I met a man in Cambodia who has a project to enable the children of parents who work on the dumpsite go to school - he has set it up himself, in response to a local need. All the Mandala Trust does is help pay rent, wages for a cook etc, just to keep the show in the road. They don't wade in with Western ideas about right and wrong, but prop up tiny projects run by local people that might collapse without them. So if all you can manage on the 13th is to put your hand in your pocket for a penny or two, here is their website: The Mandala Trust.)