Sunday, 24 July 2016

Summer holidays - yippee!

The schools are quiet. Children and young people stroll along the High Street in my market town - often with a supervising grandparent in tow.

So it's time for a blog-break till the Autumn. I shall still be reading and writing. But I shall also use the long days to flop about in the sun:

To watch cricket:

And to play with grandchildren:

All of this add up, in my corner of the world, to the best sort of summer holidays! What about you?

Sunday, 17 July 2016

What's so special about Ecuador?

It's time to try to unpick what I loved about Ecuador. I'm accustomed to coming home and waxing lyrical about wherever I've been, and have forged some special relationships in some of the countries I visit (Nepal springs to mind).

So what was so magical about Ecuador?

Firstly, I think it was because I felt healthier there than in any other place I've stayed - and that includes at home in England. The climate in the mountains is comfortable - warm with occasional tropical showers. (So no chilly damp days that make my knees complain.) It's much hotter by the coast - it does lie on the equator - but there are plenty to palm trees to provide shade during the middle of the day.

Then, the food. They can grow fruit and vegetables from the tropical flatlands (rice, pineapples, mangoes) to high in the mountains (apples, pears, potatoes). Which means a wonderful variety and everything. And they make the best soup in the world: the locra de papa, which is a potato soup with cheese and avocado, and filling enough to satisfy me at lunchtime.

I had not realised, before I went, just how varied and exciting the scenery is - and, with it, the complexity of birds, animals, insects and reptiles. I was woken by howler monkeys in the rainforest and frigate birds on the coast. Raptors soar over the mountains. Iguanas have made themselves at home in a small garden plaza in Guayaquil.

And then there's the Galápagos Islands. It's humbling to visit somewhere so unique and so precious. These islands raise countless environmental issues. They are beautiful and the animals extraordinary. I look at my photographs and I'm still astonished at some of the things I saw.

All of which is very interesting - but would be nothing but 'woman has fun in South America' if it weren't for the people I met. Those of you who have read about some of my other travels will expect me to write about the people. I met extraordinary kindness. Susi - quiet, gentle, and observant, is now a friend. Marco, not the most knowledgeable of guides but he worked so hard to make me happy, even in the market.

Does that begin to get to grips with what was so special? I've tried to fill in the details in Frogs and Frigate Birds.

Sunday, 10 July 2016

Frogs and Frigate Birds.

At last - as promised - I'm going to tell you about Frogs and Frigate birds: Over the Hill (me) and my exploits in Ecuador.

I had such fun writing this book. I'd had such a wonderful time that reliving it so the writing was sheer joy. From the busy streets of Quito to the steam of the rainforest to the volcanoes in the mountains to the smiles on the faces of the turtles in the Galápagos Islands - writing this book was like doing it all over again.

I also had several challenges. Firstly: how to unpick why I loved Ecuador so much. After all, woman has nice time in South America is hardly a story. You'll have to judge for yourselves if I got to grips with that.

And then I wanted to explore the efforts Ecuador has made to address environmental issues, some of which are starkly played out here. But I had to do so without sending the reader to sleep - after all, is there anything original still to be said about the need to protect our planet? We don't need more preaching. I hope this extract shows you how I managed that one:

The forest is a metropolis of insects at night. We step over the leaf-cutter ants that carve a highway across our path. Moths and crickets fill the air with chirruping. Spiders build webs. Jhon (our guide) asks us to turn our torches off for a whole minute. In that time the dark grows thick, as if it has texture and we must cut our way through it. Even with time for my eyes to adjust I can see nothing. Yet the sound of every croaking frog or cracked twig is magnified in the darkness, a crescendo of jungle choruses.

We turn our torches on again and amble on. Jhon knows where to look to find the tarantula spider. It is, of course, as big and hairy as I’d expect. The Swiss woman is intrigued and peers closely at it. I am happy to stand behind her. A little further on he finds a banana spider, a small, grey innocuous-looking creature that I am happy to inspect in detail until he tells me that it is even more venomous than a tarantula urine.
Within a week of returning to England I will learn that agreement has been reached between the Ecuadorian government and a Chinese oil company, giving them permission to build one small dirt track into the National Park and to drill for oil. I cannot find a map, and so have no idea exactly where this oil well will be located. Nor if this agreement takes account of the giant otters. Or the howler monkeys. Or the tiny red frogs with baby-blue underparts.
I can’t help hoping that the oil men fall foul of the banana spiders and drown in a waterfall of poisonous wee.

So, there you have it. Now all you have to do is hop across to Amazon. Readers in the UK can click this link. It is also available on Amazon all over the world for those living elsewhere.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Thinking in Paris

I said I'd tell you more about Frogs and Frigate birds - which is it already hopping about on Amazon (you can find it here). But it's going to have to wait, again, as I've been in Paris for a few days.

It is, of course, a beautiful city, with its boulevards and cafes and wonderful art galleries. I've gazed at paintings and sculptures, riffled through stalls on the Left Bank. And I've been to Versailles - a reminder, should I need it, of what happens when the rich and powerful make assumptions about the downtrodden. (It's also, with the weakened pound, an expensive city - so anyone thinking of bringing a family over at the moment might need to raid the kids' piggy banks).

And, while I've been wandering around contemplating the river and the wine, things at home haven't quietened down. Our politicians, it seems, are intent on eating each other. The situation is degenerating into farce.

I've not avoided the questions here - from the woman in the tourist information, the young waiter, the couple in the queue at Versailles. And I've been honest: I'm still saddened by recent events and appalled by headless-chicken behaviour of our politicians.

The response: unequivocal kindness and support. They love us, and want us to stay in the EU. Just because our leaders are failing us doesn't mean we can't continue to join hands across La Manche. We will not allow the duplicity and hubris of those in power to get in the way of our day-to-day determination to rub along together. It has been humbling - don't apologise for the behaviour of others, I've been told. Just continue with my efforts to sustain respect and mutual understanding and all will be well.

I'll do my best, I tell them. I can't speak for anyone else, but, like Rodin, I have a lot to think about.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

So, what Remains now?

Given that I made my 'Remain' views clear before the referendum, I shall use this space to reflect on my reaction to the whole process and result.

Disappointment doesn't get close to how I felt on Friday morning. I am deeply fearful for our future. My generation will probably suffer nothing worse than a few unpleasant ripples. I only hope that, by the time my grandchildren are adult, new bridges have been built with Europe and a commitment to peace is sustained. History would suggest I'm a hopeless optimist.

Meanwhile, we all have to pick up the threads of our lives.

But it's not true that we can do nothing. We can continue to live with integrity and dignity and uphold the principles underpinning the European Union even when we've left: opposition to racism, sexism and homophobia in all its forms, upholding the dignity of working people and disabled people and protecting their rights, compassion for those in need or fleeing persecution. We can challenge xenophobia. We can hold our representatives accountable, especially when they fail to keep promises.

Many of us can do this because we have the education that has enabled us to think in this way, and are well-enough paid to meet our own immediate needs and still have energy to engage with political processes. We have social opportunities that are denied to millions. For what this referendum has exposed is the depth of the disaffection felt by those who have felt excluded - socially, economically and politically - for decades, and the failure of Westminster to begin to understand that. Unfortunately, I can't see that changing in the short term. Whatever happens next it seems likely that the government will be run by rich white men from posh schools and Oxford - men who would feel an urgent need to wash their hands if they ever entered the house of an unemployed steel worker. And it might be worth reflecting, as we try to get to grips with our own feelings of alienation when faced with Brexiteers, that many may have felt like this for decades and no one has listened.

What can we do? Not a lot? It would, surely, be arrogant for anyone outside disaffected communities to begin to speak for them. But we can listen. We can try to understand. We can join movements that seek to bring the powerful to account when they ride roughshod, yet again, over the powerless. After all, right now we know how they feel.

And it is fine to want to smack Farage. It's just not okay to do it.

And, for those who have space to even notice anything else going on in the world at the moment, Frogs and Frigate Birds is out!!! Give me a week or two and I'll tell you more about it. Here is the link for readers in the UK.

Sunday, 19 June 2016

Read the question!

I've written one post about the referendum, so might as well write another. This time next week it will be over and we'll be licking our wounds.

So this is a plea for all those voting on Thursday to read the question. How many times did they tell us that before exams? It's equally valid now.

The question is not: are you fed up with powerful white men ruining the country, not giving a monkey's toss about anyone else? I think a lot of us would love to give them a kick up the bum, but that's not what we're being asked to vote on.

The question is not: who, if anyone, might be telling the truth and who is making things up as they do along? You might think all them are guessing and have been trained to sound convincing, but that's not the point.

The question is not: are there too many people of colour or with European accents living in this country? The leavers might tell you it's a simple as that, but it's not. Immigration is complicated - it brings huge economic and cultural benefits as well as challenges.

The question is not: do all rubbish laws come from Brussels and good laws come from London? All institutions are capable of making crap laws - that's why they have arrangements to review them in the lights of any difficulties in their implementation or changing circumstances.

The question is not: what is in it for you? Or for me? Although, as a traveller, I understand the value of free access to health care across Europe that shouldn't be the tipping point in my decision. Rather, I need to think about the implications for my grandchildren - will the decision we make now make the world safer and more comfortable for them?

For the question is: do we want a place at the European table, where differences can be talked about and resolved, or do we want to sit on the sidelines without being able to contribute or influence anything?

If this were an 'A' level essay question you might include discussing some of the above. You might also explore the fact that, since the creation of the EU, we have experienced the longest period of peace in Western Europe since ... *goes off to check history books* ... forever. That's what happens when people are committed to sitting around the same table, however tough it is at times.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

I wasn't going to blog about the referendum, but ...

I hadn't planned to write about the referendum. (I've no idea if readers outside the UK know what's going on here - if you're interested, please google it. The antecedents of this referendum are too tedious for a blog post).

The process of both parties remind me of the school playground. I'm right, no I'm right ... and what's more my brother is bigger than yours and that proves it ...

The analogy not so silly. When I was working I had to learn about the behaviour of small children: it is instinctive to attach to adults who look like you and be suspicious of those who look and sound different. It's an essential process in keeping children close to those who should keep them safe. But these are primitive feelings; as adults we can think about them and construct our ideas in the light of evidence.

And yet the 'leave' campaign is tapping into the childish feelings of millions. Let's blame immigrants, they tell us. Without them, we will have more homes, jobs, school places, beds in hospitals ... and they produce a mumbo-jumbo of promises they cannot fulfil with which to prove it.

Which means the 'in' campaign - which relies on people engaging on a more mature level - are finding it hard to remind us of the need to grow up and think about this as adults. They remind us of European history, that it is essential to have forum in which differences can be talked about and understood. They remind us of our geography: we are a small island and risk isolation if we leave the EU. They remind us of the economics: we stand to loose decades of goodwill within Europe, with all the trade advantages, and protection of workers' rights, that come with it.

No one suggests that the EU is perfect. It's like a large family, that straggles a bit and isn't too sure where it begins and ends, but will always keep the kettle on for anyone who needs a cup of tea and a chat. There is a commitment to talking about our differences and never resorting to fisticuffs.

And the alternative? At best, we would be foot-stamping in the corner, and no one willing to be the first to speak to us. At worst, the EU begins to fall apart and we return to the playground politics that were so destructive a hundred years ago.