Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Post from Pokhara

I’ve made it to Pokhara – after a brief stopover in Kathmandu (I’ll spend a few days there on the way home). The lake is as peaceful, and the mountains as huge as I remember. I still can’t work out why a town that is buzzing with restaurant, hotels, and small shops selling everything from trekking kit to tiny Buddhas can feel quite so calm.

It has changed since I was last here. There are more hotels, more massage invitations (not the seedy kind – and often necessary for anyone spending nine days walking in the mountains). And there are still more opportunities to kill oneself. Walking at altitude can be risky, although it ought to include nothing more demanding than placing one foot in front of another. Bungee jumping is, apparently, now on offer near Kathmandu. I could go white water rafting – though I have heard tales of small boats with nothing to hold on to.

But – worse this – I could go paragliding.

I can understand paragliding in Wiltshire. I doubt if the most enthusiastic glider could make it to more than 300 feet from the ground there, and I can see that would be exhilarating. Plus it should be possible to steer the parachute and land somewhere grassy.

There the comparison ends. The Himalayas are seriously huge. Jump off one of those and you are competing with eagles. You could float for miles from the mountain-top, land in a rocky valley somewhere, with nothing but a passing yeti for company. Or – you might land in the lake. (No crocodiles.)

Not exciting enough? Then you must try ‘parahawking’ – following a raptor that has been trained to lead you and your parachute up to the highest thermals. Just as you reach the height where the air is thinnest, and lack of oxygen deprives you of all sense of reality, you can hold out a piece of meat for the hawk – all beak and talons – to help himself to, hopefully leaving behind the requisite number of fingers and thumb. After that – you still have to find somewhere safe to land.

I think I’ll stick to putting one foot in front of another. I’m off into the mountains at the weekend.

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

While I'm away.

I'm off again - for a month, this time. To the mountains of Nepal.

I could have written blogs to cover my absence, organised them to come out regularly, so you'd barely notice I was away. Twice a week you could read my passing thoughts on writing, and reading, and general observations about plumbers.

But I haven't. Why - because it seems a bit disingenuous to be blogging as if I were here when I fact I'm up a mountain somewhere. The reality is - I will not here. I will not even pretend to be here. I've gone walkabout, because that's what I want to do.

Plus - I hope to connect from time to time. Tell you what I'm up to. Remind you how beautiful Nepal is, how wonderful her people. After all, blogging is my way of keeping in touch with everyone at home.

So there will be unreliable posts, from expected places. I understand from my Lonely Planet that wi-fi is easily available in Kathmandu and Pokhara now, but I suspect I shall still be at the mercy of power cuts. And I might just creep off the beaten track occasionally and be out of wi-fi range.

So - I'll blog when I can. Though probably without photographs - those will wait until I get home and I can organise them on the website. So you'll have to take my word for it that the Himalayas are huge - and stunningly beautiful. With snow on the top that turns purple at sunset. That the lake in Pokhara shimmers in the slightest breeze. That the temples of Lumbini are mysteriously peaceful. And the elephants ...

My head is already there. It's time for my body to follow.

Sunday, 18 March 2012

Mothers Day.

I'll put my cards on the table - I have mixed feelings about Mothers' Day.

It's not just the commercialisation. Of  course I like getting presents - who doesn't? Though I'm not so sure about the rows of cards, the inflated price of flowers, the restaurants offering special puddings. Nor the glittery offerings that children bring home from schools and playgroups (actually, those are rather sweet).

No - what I struggle with is the idea that, just once a year, we can notice how special mothers are.

They are special not just because they cook and clean and bottle-wash, nor because they get up in the night to nurse teething babies, or sit with the recalcitrant teenager struggling with her maths homework. Nor just because many of them work their socks off earning money as well as doing all these motherly things at home.

Do we really need a day to say thank you for all that? The implication being that mothers can be generally ignored, left to get on with being motherly, for the rest of the year. Without a thank you, or an occasional bunch of flowers, or chocolate treat.

We are all special, in our way. Every passing act of generosity needs a thank you - every day. Not just once a year.

And now I'll duck behind the sofa, as I expect a lot of you will disagree with me.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012


So - just one week to go, and then I'm off again. A few people have asked what I take with me - so this is for them.

Remember - this lot is not going in a wheely case, but in a rucksack that I have to carry. And I'm no muscle man. So I have to travel light.


  • I must take is a comprehensive the first aid kit, plus medications (as those of you who've read the book might guess, I need to pop a pill regularly). Immodium and rehydration sachets - you know why. Antibiotics - I know these are often easily available, but if you have them with you, then you can be sure what you are taking. And being ill up a mountain is no fun. I know, it's a pain, lugging plasters and antiseptic wipes everywhere. But it's not fun, stuck up a mountain with a blood running down your leg and only and old tissue to mop it up with.
  • Things I need to keep clean. Forget fancy shower gels and bubble baths. You need soap - most places provide it, but if there's any chance you'll be somewhere obscure it's worth having a small soap with you. Plus whatever you need to keep your teeth and hair clean. Travel wash? possibly - though I have found walking on my washing in the shower when I wash my hair is generally effective.
  • Miscellaneous bits - like water purifiers; universal plug; swiss army knife. And a small fleece blanket, that is probably designed for a dog bed; it's very light to carry and has kept me warm on many a chilly night. Sarong - to cover sheets when you aren't too sure ...
  • Clothes. My idea of minimum is probably not the same as yours. Almost everyone I met when I was travelling left home with too much and left some in hotel rooms. So even though I can tell you that three pairs of jeans and three skirts is quite unnecessary some people will still need to learn the hard way. So be it - and those who find your leavings probably need them much more than you do. Clothes take up less than half of the space in my rucksack.
  • Mobile phone.
  • Insurance, passport, tickets, money - all that stuff. And again I'll say insurance - I know it's boring, and expensive, and you hope you'll never need it. But if you do, then you'll know why it's worth every penny.
Then there are extras, if I have room.
  • For the long trip, I took a short-wave radio, to listen to the World Service. Reception was often crackly, but I wanted the connection with home.
  • For this trip, I'll take a small laptop. It is a luxury - I can live without it and use internet cafes. But it will be useful if I'm anywhere it's unsafe for a woman to go out in the evenings. (I'm not expecting that in Nepal these days.)
  • Books - I have one book of Nepali short stories (not available as an ebook) and my loaded Kindle. Plus a Lonely Planet (actually that is probably essential).
  • Camera, notebooks and pens (these are probably essential too!)
And that is all. Does it look a lot? Probably, listed like that. But once you unpick it, there's not much here. And this is all I need. And one of the biggest lessons of the long trip was just how little clobber I really need.

What do you think I've left out?

Sunday, 11 March 2012

Random acts of kindness.

Last week I dropped my purse on a pavement in North Swindon - it must have been twenty minutes later that I realised, retraced my steps, where did I last have it, maybe it was in the car, had I left it with daughter and the baby, had the baby eaten it ... you know the drill. I asked in Marks and Spencer's - more in desperation than hope. And there it was, handed in, with all my credit cards, bus pass, driving license, money - every penny was there.

Last time I was in Nepal I left a memory card from my camera in an internet cafe - and it was almost three hours before I realised. I raced back, trying to persuade myself that these were only photographs and I had my diary so would never forget the places I had been. As soon as she saw me the woman who ran the cafe reached behind her for the card and passed it to me. Then she did a most un-Nepali thing - she put a comforting arm around my shoulder.

I don't make a habit of losing things. (This is said to reassure daughters, as I shall soon be going walkabout again.)

But I just want to highlight the kindness of two people - both of whom have probably forgotten these incidents entirely - who made such a difference to me. (Not forgetting those who rescued me in Cambodia - but I'll say no more about that, in case those of you with the book haven't read that far!)

They have confirmed a belief that most people are fundamentally kind. That, in our ineffectual and often clumsy way, we look out for each other.

Do we all have tales of strangers who may never know the impact of their random acts of kindness?

Wednesday, 7 March 2012

Let's talk about plumbers.

Last week I rang my plumber - the boiler needs a service, and the Rayburn, so please would he visit while I'm away? It's easy to sort a key for him, and I won't have to potter about wondering what to do and getting in his way.

But, he said, I'd like to see you. I want to talk about your book.

I have misjudged him - I knew he loved reading, as we've talked books before. I just hadn't expected him to have bought my book. He's coming next week.

And so I thought a bit. Realised how I fail to appreciate him - and all the other traders who support me in my little house. (You already know how useless I am in the DIY, even the little-bit-of-mending, department.)

I live in a market town - and know things may be different in the cities. We have a number of sole traders, who have set up independent businesses, to call on. Want someone to fix a sash window? Chop down a dead tree? Clean your carpet? Just ask around, chat in the market, and a name will crop up. And - because we all know who they are - word of mouth soon weeds out those whose work is shoddy, or who don't turn up.

Who needs the big companies? British Gas insurance? Dino-rod? Independent traders are working their socks off, earning a living, keeping the incompetent among us (me) safe and warm. Too often I hear complaints about waiting in for that technician, that engineer, the washing-machine delivery. And when they do turn up they don't have the right part.

Just a minute - how often does that actually happen? We moan (rightly) when it goes wrong, but do not stop the notice the countless times when such things are sorted without a hitch. Never do we raise a glass to unsung heroes and heoines who keep the show on the road.

Andy, it will be good to see you. I'll make you coffee; we can talk about my book; and you will ensure my boiler keeps me warm for another year. I'd be up a creek without you.

Sunday, 4 March 2012

A few thoughts about elephants.

I've had so many comments about the elephant on the cover of my book, it seemed like a good idea to blog about them.

I'm talking Indian elephants here. The African variety are bigger, and wilder, and generally best seen from the safety of a safari truck.

But Indian elephants are different altogether. I know there are those who frown at seeing them put to work - in the forests, transporting tourists, even racing! They are so majestic, is there indignity in making them 'work'?

I can see both sides. They are, indeed, magnificent - gentle, trusting creatures. They gather in families which seem as affectionate as our own (well, among the females. The males fend for themselves.) They play with their young and they care for their dying.

Yet an elephant is able to form as close a relationship with a mahout as and shepherd does with his or her dog. I know, just because we can make those relationships doesn't mean we should, but in a country with difficult terrain it is surely understandable to utilise the strength of elephants in the same way that those of us in the West use horses and dogs.

It is also misleading to think that elephants have no choice in behaving as compliantly as they do. Do you really think that an animal as big as that would haul tree-trunks if it didn't want to? If there weren't a reward - free food, affection - at the end of it. And yes - they even race, and appear to do so willingly.  I was in Chitwan, in Nepal, just after their elephant races. We were heading back from a trek through the jungle when two elephants shuffled beside each other, appeared to exchange glances, and then run back to their shelters with tourists clinging on for dear life and the mahouts cheering. (Sorry, I don't have a photo; I was too busy hanging on.)

Having said all that, I know there are places where elephants are used to carry tourists around and not given the care they need. They need not only food and water, but also frequent hosing down to keep their skin clean. As you'll have gathered, I'll take any opportunity to ride one - but not if they work all day in the Indian heat traipsing round forts and palaces with tourists on their backs (though maybe things have improved since I was in Agra).

So, what animals press your buttons? And can you, too, admit to mixed feelings about the way we live, or don't live, alongside them?