Sunday, 20 December 2015

And so it's Christmas ...

I'm astonished any of you have time to drop into blogland at the moment.

And I'm certainly not going to expect you to reflect on anything deep and meaningful. Nor regale you with a list of all the wonderful things I've done this year; that my beautiful, clever children and grandchildren have done; nor add - as an afterthought - good wishes for your Christmas and New Year.

Instead I shall simply suggest that we all take a deep breath, notice the winter solstice and breathe a prayer to whatever god makes sense to you, light candles for ourselves and for all those who might need a little help along the way, and then open a bottle of whatever takes your fancy.

Cheers ... I'll be back in the New Year.

Tuesday, 15 December 2015

After the Earthquake - Over the Hill Goes Back to Nepal!!

'Tis done - thanks to some wonderfully supportive people who have read, edited, made me coffee etc along the way. Without them I'd still be at the head-scratching stage. You all know who you are - I am deeply grateful to every one of you.

Here, for those who have no idea what this book is about, is the blurb:

JO CARROLL hesitated before returning to Nepal after the earthquake. Arriving as a tourist when local people were in such need felt an intrusion.

Not at all, Tika told her. We want you to come. We need you to come.
Within hours of arriving she saw just how right he was. Nepal, it seems, has been forgotten since the journalists left with their pictures of destruction. But the welcome is as warm as it has ever been.
Even from the crocodiles …
All profits from this book are contributing to rebuilding one house. We can’t rebuild a city – but we can, and will, provide for one family.

Thank you all for your patience and support.

And here (hurrah) is the link to buy the book.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

After the Earthquake - the first bit.

It's almost here - After the Earthquake - my little ebook about Nepal. I know I said that last week, but now it's nail-biting time. The copy edits should be back any day now.

So, while we're waiting, here is the beginning:

It was a Saturday morning in April. I rolled over, half asleep, to turn on my radio and listen to the News.
Early accounts were disorganised. An earthquake had rocked Kathmandu. In the foolish light of dawn I believed it was nothing more than the earth grumbling, far beneath the city. But, as I carried on listening, the full devastation became clearer. I made tea and turned on the television. All those glorious temples, reduced to rubble. Families wept in the streets, for themselves, and for the thousands who had died. Villages flattened. Avalanches crashing down the mountains, taking tents and trekkers with them.
I felt as if I were drowning in helplessness. It was hard to eat, to sleep in my warm bed, knowing so many shivered in tents in the parks of Kathmandu, and who knew how many were searching for shelter in the mountains.
What of my friends? Where was Tika? Shobha? Bhadra? Ajay and Upama? Those who had kept me safe and laughing since my first visit to Nepal nearly fifteen years ago. It was a few days before I knew that they were all safe, but they were frightened. The ground hadn’t stopped quivering. My feeble efforts to support them were not enough.

Now, five months later, I’m going back to Nepal. I can’t abandon them, these friends of mine, considering all they’ve been through.
We’ve all seen those after-the-earthquake pictures: the ruins in Durbar Square, temples where the faithful once rubbed shoulders with tourists wielding selfie-sticks; where incense wafted across crowded streets and made my eyes water. We’ve read of villages flattened; of families facing the ravages of the monsoon with nothing but a bit of borrowed tin above their heads. We’ve read of avalanches and death in the mountains.
Yet – I confess – I’ve been reluctant to go back. Even now, in the sterility of the Departure Lounge at Heathrow Airport, I have misgivings. I will not exploit the needy, nor gawp at their misfortune. I’ll not gaze at people living in wretched tents. There is something uncomfortable about travelling from the comfort and safety of my western home to a country where the needs are so huge. Might I be seen as patronising? What use could I be? I can’t rebuild a home. I can’t even cook something edible over a fire. I can play with children – surely scant consolation for people who have lost everything.
But Tika has invited me. I’ve known him since my first visit here. He has guided me through an adventure or two in the past. We want to see you, he said. Stay in our home, he said. It is enough to stifle my qualms. Besides, there is no resisting Tika.

Sunday, 29 November 2015

After the Earthquake

Yes, the ebook is nearly ready. Mark has designed this lovely cover:

And where there is a cover - the book can't be far behind!!

A copy editor is doing the necessary nit-picking and once that is done all that's left is my final read-through and then a battle with the technology to get this onto Kindle.

I've never written anything as quickly as I've done this. Generally, when I get back from my journeys, I spend time going through my notebooks, reminding myself of sundry adventures and the wonderful people I've met. Only then can I begin to tease out the story of a trip and shape it to make an interesting story.

This time has been different. This little book is to raise money for the house in Nepal (if you've no idea what I'm talking about, check it out here) - and so the sooner it comes out the better. At least - with travel writing - I'm not making anything up. I know what happened - but the task of framing it and making it interesting can be a challenge.

I've had some wonderful readers - and the reactions have been encouraging. With so little time to reflect these readers have been essential. And now the copy editor is checking for seriously wobbly sentences and spelling (to my shame my spelling of place-names is notoriously careless - I scribble them in my notebook, copy the scribbles onto the computer and then believe myself).

So - the end is in sight. And then, dear readers, I'll need sales, and reviews. Not because I want wonderful Amazon statistics. Not because I get a warm fuzzy feeling when people say nice things about my writing. But because there is a family in Nepal that needs a roof to their new house.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Trying to do everything at once.

It's that time of year again. So you've probably only got time to skim-read this. But what choice do we have?

Well, I'd argue that we do have choices. We don't have to be swept along by the Christmas greed-feast that is promised in the media. We can stand back and notice the hype and select the aspects of the whole performance that matters to us as individuals.

On top of all the seasonal mayhem, I'm working hard to get After the Earthquake (my little ebook about my last trip, to raise money for the house) ready for the off - I've never written anything quite so quickly. I knew the story, of course - I've not had to make anything up. Even so, it's been a challenge to make sure I unpicked the drivel from my notebooks and found the core of what I really needed to say.

It's been through readers and an editor, and is now with a copy editor who is nit-picking anything that still doesn't make sense. I'm stocking up on coffee for the day I have to play with the Kindle site and get it on Amazon. 

At the same time, of course, I'm still in touch with friends in Nepal who struggle with the impact of the blockade. They survive from day to day. But what else can they do?

Plus - early in the New Year - I'm off to Ecuador. (Did you really think I might spend the winter in front of my own fire?) So there are the unavoidable hours curled up with guidebooks working out where I might go, and how I might get there. And trying to learn Spanish so I don't get into the pickles that I landed myself in in Cuba.

It's almost too busy. I feel as if I'm wearing too many hats - the writing hats, the travelling hats, the getting-ready-for-Christmas hats (which involves the annual pondering about what the season actually means to me and to those I love.)

I feel a bit like a duck - appearing to swim with the tide but paddling like mad under the water. And you? You sailing serenely into the Christmas mayhem?

Sunday, 15 November 2015

The blockade of Nepal.

I wrote this before the horrors of last Friday night in Paris. I've wondered several times whether to postpone posting it. But my point - that there are struggles in forgotten corners of the world we know almost nothing about - still stands. And so here it is. It doesn't mean I don't grieve for Paris too.

I wonder how many of you know about the blockade of Nepal's southern borders?

Why would you - it's relegated to footnotes in the western press. For two reasons, I think: Nepal has no resources, no oil or gold or uranium, and so the developed world forgets about her. Plus - we do not readily upset India: they are important trade partners, and losing their goodwill is unthinkable.

So let me tell you what has been happening.

As you may know, Nepal has a new Constitution, reached democratically after lengthy negotiations, and welcomed with fanfares and parties.

India was one of the few countries that didn't immediately welcome the changes. Why? Well, it's not quite clear. My friends in Nepal believe that India feels put out because Nepal has dared to make these decisions all by herself without asking permission from her bigger and more powerful neighbour. They also point out to significant unrest in India at the moment, to Modi's unpopularity, and diverting Indian attention away from internal difficulties suits the government right now.

But why blockade the border?

There is an ethnic group that straddles the Indian - Nepali border that has protested against the boundaries of provinces in the new Constitution. It is a common problem for minority groups around the world. Sometimes not everyone can get their own way - and those in power need to work to understand and ameliorate the worries of those who feel marginalised. Nepal has done her best to build in as many checks and balances as possible - and talks continue.

But there has been significant unrest in the south in the past. Demonstrations have got out of hand, and strikes have gone on for weeks.

India has claimed that this unrest - which is far less violent now than it has been at times in the past - makes life so dangerous for her lorries that they can no longer travel north.

But - this group doesn't occupy the whole southern border, yet India has closed all the border posts. This is illegal - there is an international agreement that land-locked countries have free access to the ports. But Nepal has no money to take this to an international Court.

China has opened border posts in the north - but cannot provide for everything Nepal needs, and roads through the mountains are treacherous.

So what is the international community doing? Not a lot. The level of hardship is such that UNICEF has talked of a humanitarian crisis. But the eyes of the world are elsewhere. And the people of Nepal are surviving, just, without fuel or cooking gas. (People are gathering wood from the forests and cooking on open fires in the street.) Medical supplies are running short. Only time will tell if China can stop the people starving.

This will end, of course, as these things do. India will find a way of climbing down without losing face. Fuel and cooking gas will reach the cities and villages. And few people in the west will have the faintest idea that this has ever happened.

Sunday, 8 November 2015

So, tell me about the crocodile, you said.

The appeal - for those who are following my efforts - is doing very well. In addition to the GoFundMe site, I have been given significant sums to add to our efforts. We need a few more bricks for the walls, and then all we have to do is keep them dry!

Maybe the ebook will raise the roof (so to speak!) And so here is an excerpt from the ebook - one I've been asked to blog here. (It comes with an apology to my daughters. After the tiger I promised I'd never walk in the jungle again. Foolishly, I forgot about crocodiles in the rivers!).

So - here is what happened:

I have to hurry back, for Mahendra is taking me out in a canoe this afternoon.
I find out exactly what this involves when we reach the river bank. First – life jackets. Then a boatman leads us down to the water, where dugout canoes, about three metres long, each with a heap of little wooden seats, are lined up along the shoreline. Wood is unforgiving to sit on. But at least this canoe won’t jolt me like the elephant did. The canoe sitting so low in the river I am tempted to dangle my fingers. The water is dark, mysterious. And some of it is in a hurry after recent rains.
Once settled, we push off into the river. We are heading downstream, and so the boatman has to do little more than steer us towards the clearer water. Scrubland reaches far beyond the river banks, rough grasses and small trees, the arch of vast afternoon skies. It is blissfully quiet, just the shush of the water and regular plash of the paddle. Mahendra points out ibis, and egrets, and tiny plain martins diving in and out of little holes in the mudbanks. He speaks quietly, as if not wanting to disturb the river.
Or the crocodiles. Some are barely visible, just snouts peering above the surface of the water. Others lie in the sun on the banks. None of them move. It is hot, and sluggish; not a time for anyone to be hurrying. How wrong I am.
‘They eat people,’ Mahendra reminds me. Not these crocodiles, I think. They are having too much fun lying in the sun to think of eating anyone.
We pass one, about two metres long, sunning himself about three metres away from the canoe. He is a fine crocodile, eyes barely open, flopped full length on the sandbank. An egret hops beside him.
A sudden splash. A spurt of water.
The biggest croc I’ve even seen. Leaping from the river beside us and launching himself at the neck of the one on the bank. All those teeth. The scaly skin. Terrifying eyes. A terrible snapping of terrible teeth. A thrashing of tails and teeth and the flash of glittering eyes.
Within seconds both crocodiles are in the water. Fighting.
Then, as suddenly as it all began, the splashing is over and they are gone. They could be anywhere. The water is quiet. It is like nothing happened. Except we know it did. Somewhere in these depths are two crocodiles with a score to settle.
It takes a moment or two for me to realise what has just happened. That one huge crocodile materialised from this deceptive river and attacked another. That they can’t simply have disappeared.
Mahendra’s hands are tucked under his legs, well away from the side. He talks to the boatman in Nepali, his voice unusually high, and I suspect he says something along the lines of, ‘oh shit.’ That’s when I know for sure that this isn’t part of the usual itinerary.
I follow his example and keep my hands well away from the sides. I dare not rock the canoe to turn my head and gauge the boatman’s reaction. I only know that he continues with his peaceful rowing, splish splash, as if there could never be a gigantic crocodile swimming somewhere under the boat.
I’m not sure what else we see on our trip down the river. I seem to have lost the capacity to think. I know it’s hot, but my palms are unnecessarily sweaty. We climb out downstream, and I tip the boatman well, for now he has to row back upstream, past the egrets and the ibis. Past the crocodiles.
Mahendra and I sit with a drink to recover. By the time we have finished talking, it has become a funny story and both crocodiles are as big as dinosaurs.

And this is what the river looked like when it was all over:

Sunday, 1 November 2015

This house-build - How it's going to work.

This is a post for anyone who is wondering how the money we're collecting for the house in Nepal is going to get where it needs to be. Maybe you're convinced some of it will line a pocket or two along the way.

I understand your concerns. We've all heard tales of backhanders, of men and women siphoning off a little bit here and a little bit there, leaving the families in need - still in need.

So - here are the logistics.

I'm not going to give you any identifying information - because the family at the end of all this don't know I'm doing it. They don't need to know - all they need is a new house. It doesn't matter where the money comes from.

I am paying the money into a small charity, based in the UK, that pays for the health centre in the village and contributes to the school. Anyone in specific need in the village can ask for help. So if someone needs to get to hospital in Kathmandu, or a disabled child needs equipment, then the charity is there to help.

But someone has to administer that? There must be pockets that could be lined along the way?

The charity is founded by a woman I know - I met her on my first visit to Nepal. She has her own reasons to be grateful to the people who live here, and has been unstinting in her efforts to raise money for them, to get to know everyone in the village, and to help identify needs. She visits regularly - she loves them and they love her. I have no doubt that every penny donated in this country ends up in Nepal.

But she doesn't have the final say. There is a small committee, in Nepal, which oversees the distribution of the fund. Another pocket-lining opportunity? Well, it might be, if the faithful Tika weren't on that committee. But he is - and anyone who has read my little books, or recalls the way I've talked about him here on the blog, will know that he is totally trustworthy. If he tells me the money will go where we want it to go - then it will.

So there you have it. I hope those who needed reassurance are comforted. And if there is anyone who has no idea what I'm talking about, you can find the appeal page here.

Sunday, 25 October 2015

A house in Nepal - the story so far.

It's been quite a week. Last week I posted this idea with some trepidation - it seemed a slightly bonkers. But, I reasoned, the worst that could happen was nothing.

For anyone who missed the blog last week, I'm funding a house-build in Nepal. Not a city, not a village - but just one house. We need only £1500. (You can read the whole post here.)

When it's finished, it will probably look something like this, but with a tin roof.:

You can find the appeal site here.

I have been humbled by all your support. I do understand that we all have our own favourite charities. Many of us are scrabbling around trying to make ends meet. And, of course, Christmas is coming. Which makes all contributions so very precious.

On top of that - there is the publicity. I've lost count of the people who have shared this on social media. I hope I've managed to thank you all - but if I've missed anyone out, then I'm sorry. I am deeply grateful for everything you have done.

Anne suggested at 'blog blitz' - a week when as many people as possible mention this appeal on their blogs. She has agreed to post something next Monday, and I've a couple of other people with drafts in the pipeline. I'm not in a position to manage organising a blog post every day, but if anyone can drop in a word or two, next week, that would be utterly wonderful. Do give me a nudge, and I'll make sure any posts are tweeted and facebooked.

Ros has also offered a blog post when the ebook comes out, which is equally wonderful - I can't give you a timescale, Ros, but I'm getting on with this as quickly as I can.

The other prong to this appeal is the ebook. I asked for help with copy editing; I've had a number of wonderful offers. Juliet Ashwell - you can see her website here - was the first out of the blocks to offer to help. She is reducing her fee, and has been both kind and completely professional. What a star!

So there we are - and now I must rush off, I have an ebook to write. And more people to thank.

Sunday, 18 October 2015

So, Nepal - what comes next?

I've been home a couple of weeks - surely I've had time to think?

There's never an end to thinking (that's part of the fun of it) but a few ideas are beginning to take clearer shapes.

The first - I'm going to fund rebuilding one house in Nepal. I've seen the devastation and it would be easy to throw up ones hands in helplessness in the face of such need. How can one person make a difference in the middle of all that? I can't rebuild a town - I can't even rebuild a village.

But I can - and will - raise enough money to rebuild one house.

I happen to know which house this is - but I'm not going to tell you anything about the family who live there, nor post a picture of their temporary home, nor go on about the struggle to keep going in one room under a tin roof. I'll not exploit individual misery like that. You'll simply have to believe that the hope we can give to this family will ripple out to others.

How? For starters, I've set up a GoFundMe page - for anyone who is able to spare a pound or two. You can the link here.

But - I hear you spluttering - I'm only aiming for £1500.00!! Because that is all it will cost. The man can rebuild his home himself, so what is really needed is materials. Again, you will have to believe that I've checked this with those in the know.

As well as GoFundMe I'm writing a little ebook about my visit, and all proceeds will go towards the house-build (I know one person who will be pleased, as she has been nagging me - in a kindly way - to write this).

And here I have a very big ask: because this will be a small ebook I cannot sell it for more than about 99p which gives me about 34p. In the past I've always paid full price for a copy editor - but this can easily swallow over £300 - and I'll leave you to work out how many books I need to sell before I make a penny. And so if anyone knows a copy editor who can reduce his or her fees, and work fairly quickly (I'm well into a first draft and want this out as soon as possible), I'd be deeply grateful. I am, of course, aware that copy editors - like the rest of us - have to earn a living, and so will understand if they are all, to a man and woman, struggling to make their own ends meet as Christmas approaches.

So - that's where things stand at the moment. I'll be indebted to anyone can share/tweet/generally publicise the GoFundMe page, or who feels able to support this in any other way. If I could I'd send everyone cake.

Sunday, 11 October 2015

Nepal - you asked for photos!

And photos you shall have. (The post I'd planned, with ideas for those who are more adventurous than I, can wait till next week.)

But there will be no photos of the earthquake. No photos of fallen-down temples nor fallen down houses nor the temporary shelters that have contained families during the monsoon. I've seen them, and yes, I have photos. But I refuse to join in the catastrophising of Nepal and insist on celebrating all things wonderful.

To prove that most of Kathmandu is still standing: here is a view from the rooftop of the hotel I stayed in during my first couple of days in the city:

I went to markets. I love markets, the noise and the smell and the general mayhem of them. Buying a packet of beans in our sterile supermarkets can't compare with scooping them out of sacks like these:

Away from the pandemonium of Kathmandu, I spent some time in Bandipur. It's a quiet hill station, beautifully restored. The intrepid can go paragliding from here (jumping off a mountains strapped to a parachute). Those who have a fit of the heeby-jeebies at the mere thought of it can sit in one of the lovely cafes here and watch the world go by.

Back in Pokhara, I did a lot of sitting by the lake and watching the world go by. These boats, of course, should have been full of tourists. I did my bit - not that I rowed. I let someone else to the rowing, and simply relished the quiet of the water and looming green of the hills.

I know I gave you Annapurna South in my last post - and here is it again. This picture was taken soon after six in the morning. I sat on my balcony, watching the mountains wake up, with the snow sparkling and the birds singing. (I know there are many who see the dawn every day. For me, it is an event.)

In contrast, a sunset, over the river in Chitwan.

Rhinos - again at Chitwan. And yes, they are roaming free, and I was on an elephant. (They have been known to rampage through the village - or so I was told. But maybe that's just a tale to excite the tourists. I've certainly had one-too-many close encounters with animals in the wild to risk a jungle walk.)

And finally - prayer flags, flying high over rooftops in Kathmandu. Nepal needs her gods to look kindly on her now.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Just one story from Nepal, to show why tourism matters so much.

I was wandering along Lakeside, in Pokhara, birds a-twitter in the holy trees and Om Mani Padme Hum drifting from one of the small stores that line the street.

A man called out, 'Hello, where are you from?' It is a familiar cry. I turned to wave, saw he was wearing the baggy green of the Australian cricket team and than was enough to lure me into a conversation.

He rents bikes to tourists. His bikes - sturdy mountain bikes with polished metalwork and healthy tyres - were lined up by the side of the road. He hoped I'd hire a bike.

'I don't think so,' I tell him.

'Then maybe I can take you around on my motorbike?' His voice is higher now, and I can hear his desperation. I explain that I am meeting Tika in half an hour.

His face falls. 'I used to have a proper shop,' he explains. 'But with no tourists, I cannot afford the rent. So now I am at the side of the road.'

He has no shelter from the rain, nor scorching sun. And can only try to grab the attention of the few tourists who pass his way and hope that one of them - one would be a start - will hire one of his bikes. Then he can take just a little money home to his family.

It's a story repeated over and over and over. It's why the devastation of tourism has been at least as traumatic as as the earthquake.

And here is a picture, of Annapurna South, taken at about seven in the morning. This is the sort of view you can wake up to.

Saturday, 26 September 2015

My last blog from Nepal, and the crocodile.

It's time to think about coming home. This has been a brief trip, with the main aim of finding out about tourism here and what I might do to help its revival. I have learned so much, and it will take a while to absorb it all. But I ideas, which I shall share when they are less flimsy.

We left Pokhara (Tika and I) and spent a night in Bandipur. It was, once, a trading post with as great a significance as any city on the Silk Road. Now, with real roads constructed in the valley, it now longer bustles with market traders and is little more than a big village. But it has been beautifully restored. There is a lovely street, lined with small cafes and hotels and little shops selling snacks or tourist paraphernalia, each with carved wooden doors and shutters. The intrepid can go paragliding, but I preferred to keep my feet on the ground and sit with a fresh lemon soda to write.

There are many such small towns in Nepal: Tansen, on a ridge south of Pokhara; Gorkha, which will soon be restored to its former glory. Any tourist needing a break from the bustle of Pokhara or Kathmandu would find quieter corners in these half-forgotten towns.

And then I came to Chitwan, to the National Park. There are a few tourists here - not enough, for this is on the main tour-group route. Although it's busy, you can never forget just how close you are to the jungle. I did the elephant ride, of course, and saw a mother rhino bumbling along with her baby. I did a wonderful canoe trip down the river, with nothing but the burble of the river and cries of the birds. And a sudden crocodile fight to shatter the peace (a bit of an 'oh shit' moment as we were close by, but it will be fun to write about when I get back).

Quiet will be harder to find here when the tourists return, although the animals will still lurk in the jungle waiting to have their photographs taken. There are plenty of great hotels and restaurants, so you can be well cared for here. The brave can always walk though the jungle and risk facing a rhino when on foot (escape by climbing a tree, I'm told).

For those wanting be away from the crowds, there are more remote National Parks in the south-west. They take an effort to get there, but well worth it for the quiet and tranquility. And the tigers.

So now - I come home on Wednesday. I will have much thinking to do. For Nepal needs more tourists, and I have promised to do all I can to encourage people to visit. Please, if you have promotional ideas, share them.

Sunday, 20 September 2015

What a privilege, being here as Nepal celebrated being Nepal!

What an astonishing country this is. I've made it from Kathmandu to Pokhara, and from there up into the mountains. (Those of us from the UK or flatlands of Europe and America know that I went up a mountain. Tika insists that mountains must have snow on the top. We agreed to differ.)

Anyway, after a couple of days pottering about the nooks and crannies of Pokhara, seduced by whiffs of incense in odd corners and the rhythms of 'om mani padme hum' drifting from every music shop, we took ourselves off to high places. To a little eco-village, sustained by solar power, with   safe, sand-filtered water and all vegetables home-grown. And at six in the morning (one of the very few times I acknowledge such an hour exists) I woke to watch the sunrise over Annapurna. With the valley still shrouded in night the mountain top appears, stark against the lightening sky, and the snow crisp and clear and sparkling. There can be few better ways to start the day. (I shall blog about this place another time - it deserves a post all to itself.)

Could I have stayed there forever? Possibly. But I am here with a job to do, to remind you all how wonderful this place is. So down we can - on the day that Nepal herself was celebrating her wonderfulness.

For this was Constitution Day! After five years of wrangling, of infighting and outfighting and sometimes sheer unpleasantness, the country has agreed a new, federal constitution. And we returned to Pokhara on the day the President added his signature.

At last. Although there is bound to be a little residual unhappiness, it looks as if Nepal can now put years of unrest behind her.

What better way to celebrate than to ride motorbikes up and down the street waving flags and cheering. Or filling the pavement outside your shop with candles? Or marching down the street with flags and music?

This was a day of uncomplicated joy! As a tourist, it was a privilege to be here. And, for those wondering whether to come here or not, I can promise you that the Nepali know how to celebrate!

Sunday, 13 September 2015

Ah Nepal - and why tourism matters so much.

I beginning to be daunted by the task I seem to have set myself. I've never believed my contribution would be any more than a drop in the ocean; but I didn't realise, till I arrived, just how huge that ocean is.

Some months ago I blogged about the ethics of returning so soon to a country devastated by an earthquake in the way Nepal as been. Gawping at people with no homes is exploitation, not tourism. It cannot be right, I suggested, to come here at a time when local people needed all their energy to rebuild their own homes - they had neither the time nor energy for tourists.

On the other hand, I posited, the country needs tourists to help the economy recover. Tourists bring foreign currency - needed here much more than sympathy and kind words.

And so I umm'ed and ah'ed about how soon I should come back. Now I'm here I can see for myself the impact that the lack of tourists has on the country itself.

I'm sure there are those, like me, who had ethical qualms about coming here.

But it seems that most visitors are put off by the thought of another earthquake. Tour groups - the life blood of tourism here - have cancelled. Chinese visitors, who are likely to spend the most, are staying away. Indian visitors are heading east, and not North this year. Australians, Europeans, everyone, or so it feels, are giving Nepal a wide berth.

An earthquake has happened once -  it can happen again. Of course it can. Yet earthquakes can happen almost anywhere. So can floods and getting run over by a bus. I understand the risk-averse sticking to places they know and love. But in previous years this country has welcomed anyone looking for the drama of the mountains or the peace of the temples.

And this year? The hotels are almost empty. Restaurants pipe music hopefully into lonely streets. Shopkeepers prop themselves against doorframes but are too dispirited to hassle anyone passing. No cries of 'I give you very good price'. Mountain guides meet by the lake and sit over tea for three hours.

Nepal can, and will, rebuild after the earthquake. But the impact on tourism runs far deeper. It is fundamental to the economy - and without it families will go hungry. Hotels and restaurants will close and those working there will return to their villages in the mountains, where they can farm enough last to be self-sufficient. Young men will leave in droves to work in India or the Middle East. The economy will implode - and who knows how long it will take to rebuild.

Right now the building blocks of tourism are here. The hotels and restaurants. The mountain guides. The scenery is not going to go away. Nor are the temples (though some need rebuilding). Nor is the kindness of the Nepali. What the country needs now is visitors.

Sunday, 6 September 2015

In four days ...

I'm heading back to Nepal.

No, I've not packed. But I have done a lot of thinking.

As you know, I have friends there and have been asked to help promote Nepal's tourism industry. It has been floundering since the earthquake. Bookings are down. Too many hotels are empty; too many restaurants quiet. Mountain guides stand around and look at maps. Yet these are hardworking people, trying to rebuild a country. For that they need money - the sort of money that tourists can bring.

I've had several people ask what they can do to help. I've had a generous donation (Tika will help find a home for that) but not everyone has money to spare. I've been given goodies to squash in my suitcase to take up to villages in the mountains (Tika will help carry them).

But the thing I really need help with is the promoting-tourism bit. I've no training in marketing. Efforts to sell my own books are a bit hit and miss. But this time the marketing matters - and I haven't the faintest idea how to do it.

At the moment, I don't even know exactly where I'll be going (Tika will ...). All I know is that I shall write about what I find - and that the writing will be slanted towards encouraging other people to visit. No doubt I'll spend time with friends, but that will not be the story. No doubt I'll sit by the lake in Pokhara and ponder, but that will not be the story. I hope I climb to the tiny coffee plantation, on the path towards Begnas Lake, to drink some of the best coffee in the world - that will only be part of the story if the lack of tourists is affecting the family.

And so please, my loyal blog-followers, can you help with the promoting-thing. If you think I'm missing something, or should emphasise something else, tell me. Ask questions (I'll have internet connections, at least some of the time). Bang on about it on Twitter and Facebook. If people get irritated that's fine - as long as they get the message.

Nepal is open for business. And it's still beautiful.

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


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:

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!

Sunday, 12 July 2015

A time to reflect.

No pictures from Barcelona - they will have to wait a week.

For a woman I've known since I was a small child died while I was away.  She was very old, and frail, and had made no secret of her wish to put living behind her.

I would love to write about her. But she believed that the internet was the sperm of the devil and if she is looking down (or up) from wherever she is now she would curse me forever. (Actually, I have no belief in an afterlife. But I shall respect her feelings after her death as I did when she was alive.)

Nevertheless, it has rocked me. Her death was expected. Dying is what happens when people are old and frail. It's as much part of life as birth. The whole cycle of existence is predicated on people dying, to make room for all the new people being born. That's how it works.

And yet - in spite of all that common sense - it's hard to adjust to the loss of someone who has been a part of life for so long. One minute she's here and then - poof - no more. A shocking not-being. Just the detritus of her living (she was a frugal woman, I'll tell you that much), and memories.

But then I reflect. These adjustment times are necessary. However much this was expected, it is right that I take time to hold her in mind - she was part of me for so long I can't just close a door on her. I must let her linger in my thinking - in an absorbing, almost obsessive way - until this feeling of dislocation passes and I can rethink my world without her.

Somewhere, as she slipped away, a baby was born. His or her family will be equally obsessed - babies take up far more thinking space than one can possibly envisage. Family stories are founded here. For babies, too, need to be held in mind - the prerequisite for the love they need to flourish. Gradually the obsessions lessen and family life takes shape.

And so, at the end - as at the beginning - of life, when we are unable to care for, or even think about, ourselves, we need others to do it for us.

In the meantime, S, I shall miss you.

Sunday, 28 June 2015

Nepal - a thank you.

I can't begin to describe how it has felt being on the receiving end of so much support following my decision to visit Nepal in the autumn.

There have been comments here, and on Facebook and Twitter, that anyone can see. But that is the tip of the iceberg (forgive the cliche) - it's private messages from people I've never met that are particularly touching. People who have neighbours who are Gurkhas, returning to the country to find out if their families are alive and their homes still standing. People with sons and daughters who were in the country at the time and have listened to terrifying tales every since they came home - the guilt of survivors. People who have asked what I need to take with me - offers of help to buy goodies.

It's been humbling. I feel as if I'm carrying many hopes and expectations with me - and yet you know I can promise nothing in return and that doesn't seem to trouble you. I carry your love as well as my own with me on this journey.

I have no idea what I shall find there - apart from a generous and resourceful people who are busy putting their lives back together again.

I can only tell you that I will write about it. I can't promise an ebook (I'll take that decision when I get home), but there will certainly be plenty of blogging (though maybe unreliable blogging, as internet connections might be interesting). There will be photographs - though I'll keep images of devastation to a minimum.

Ps - not blog next Monday. I'll be in Barcelona ... cue Freddie Mercury impressions ...

Sunday, 21 June 2015

Nepal - I'm going back.

Firstly, many thanks to everyone who commented on my quandary about returning to Nepal . If you missed it, you can find it here.

I don't suppose any of you will be surprised to know that I'm going - though not until September.

Why? Because I have friends in Nepal who want me to. They don't share my concern that visitors might exploit their poverty, or see their destitution as some sort of tourist attraction. Such first world angst means nothing to them - they simply want visitors, in any shape or form, to help give their tourist industry the kick-start it so badly needs.

I'm not clear, yet, what I'll do while I'm there - Tika will take care of the details. (Oh, where would I be without Tika!!)

The biggest decision will be whether to visit a project supporting those affected by the earthquake. My instinct - at this point - is to play that by ear. I'll only go if I can be useful - and I do, given my working history, have the skills to help traumatised children. I'll not engage directly in any therapeutic play with them - such interventions need the context of a relationship with someone who can be alongside them for weeks or months and not a fleeting visitor, but I can talk with those helping such children and pass on some of the ideas and techniques that I used in the past.

(Having said that, I shall - of course - have balloons in my pocket. Sometimes having fun is just the best thing that could happen, even if it is all over in half an hour.)

I do hope to visit some of the beautiful places that have nourished me in the past - I know elephants still tramp through the jungle in Chitwan and all the temples in Lumbini are undamaged. No trip to Nepal would be complete without a beer by the Lakeside in Pokhara or stroll around the Boudhanath Stupa in Kathmandu.

And the rest of the time - I shall wait for the Nepali to tell me what they need. This may or may not reflect the appeals from Aid Agencies - but I feel strongly that we infantalise local people if we make assumptions about what they need and what help we should provide.

So there we are. I have accepted an invitation to visit. There can, surely, be no better reason for going.

Sunday, 14 June 2015

Setting a bad example to the children?

Thank you for your lovely thoughtful comments on my returning-to-Nepal quandary, outlined in my last post. While I'm thinking about that - here is another, far less serious, dilemma.

Some years ago we lived in a little house with parking spaces in a courtyard at the front. It was a lovely little house, with lovely neighbours ...

... Except for the couple who lived at the end of the row. Well, they didn't actually live there. They visited some weekends, but much of the time the house stayed empty. Even so they seemed to think that they owned their parking spaces - so if they should turn up and find anyone with visitors had allowed them to park in their space they had a hissy fit.

To be fair, they had a hissy fit at everything. A child in the front garden with a ball was enough to screw their faces up till they looked like dogs' bottoms.

We never knew their names. We knew them as 'the Miseries.' Even when they were here, surrounded by these wonderful Wiltshire Downs, they grumbled. I'm afraid we laughed at them behind their backs, they made themselves look so ridiculous. 

There was a little passageway beside their garden - leading to the back of the row of houses. There was nothing but a little wire fence between the gardens, so it was easy to see the rather bland, pristine arrangement of their little plot.

Now one year we had a surfeit of sunflower seeds ... I can't remember why ... nor whose idea it was to plant them in the Miseries' garden ... though it was easy enough to slink round there at sundown. The planting involved a lot of rather childish giggling and possibly wasn't a great example to my children (who must have been in their early teens at the time). Or was it? Surely it's okay to respond to people who are terminally grumpy by planting sunflowers in their garden?

So - it is vandalism? Or a justifiable response to people who had a serious deficit in the humour department?

Sunday, 7 June 2015

When it is okay to go back to Nepal?

Here's the dilemma ...

I'll not repeat myself - you know my thoughts about the earthquake in Nepal. But what can we do - from the comfort of our sofas - to help?

We can give aid, of course - and millions have. The international agencies are all there, with their relief supplies and expertise. And they are needed - families are still living in tents and the monsoon looms. Yet the Nepali don't want to rely on handouts to sustain them for a generation or three. They are an independent people who need to reboot their own economy. Once that is up and running many of those currently rebuilding the schools and temples can go home.

Much of the Nepalese economy relies on tourists. Tourists bring money enabling people to sustain their lives for themselves. And for tourism to reclaim its place in the economy the walkers and climbers and temple-visitors and those who, like me, just love the place, must go back.

For those wondering - the sun still rises over Everest. It stains the snow pink and slides warm fingers into the dark Himalayan valleys. The air at daybreak is sweet and clear. Everest base camp is still closed, but Annapurna is waiting. Machhapuchhare (the Fish Tail Mountain) stands guard over Pokhara.

Buddhas still watch from their stupas. Kali enfolds the faithful in her many arms. Prayer wheels rattle on their axes. Monks wander in their flowing robes. Children always ready to play.

The monsoon will make things more difficult - and Nepal does not expect visitors when torrential rain brings floods and landslides. But by the autumn the sun will shine again - and the hotels and restaurants will be waiting.

But ... is it really that easy? Temples have crumbled. Some families will still be in tents. This was a poor country before the earthquake - many will be destitute now. Might tourists be seen as 'cashing in' on their trauma?

I have a problem with 'poverty porn.' I flinch at such a pejorative term, but I am deeply discomforted by those who visit developing countries and gawp at the poor. I've seen tourists taking photographs of women washing themselves at communal taps, ignoring the reality that these women would choose privacy if they could. Others smile at barefooted children, as if they are cute, as if the lack of shoes might be appealing and not evidence that the family cannot afford shoes. Destitution should never be a tourist attraction.

It will be impossible to visit Nepal and turn blind eyes to the destruction of the earthquake. Some people have lost everything. I cannot build their homes. I'm not qualified to teach the children nor administer medical help. I will not take their photographs, but if I do nothing is that no more than passing by on the other side?

I have friends in Nepal. I know they need visitors. But do I go soon, and remind you what a wonderful place this is, tempt anyone with time to buy a flight to Kathmandu and discover the place for themselves? Or do I wait until the tents are back in storage and families all have somewhere dry to live?

Sunday, 31 May 2015

Do you take your kids to art galleries?

As you know, I've been in Madrid - and I spent much of the time in the art galleries. Some of the world's most precious paintings were there - so I spent hours gazing at some magnificent pieces.

I shared much of the space with other tourists, of course. And with children.

I've been to the National Gallery and watched families try to introduce children to paintings. Some looked obediently; a minority actually stared for a couple of minutes and then needed a wee. I recall taking my own children - we didn't last long. Within minutes one was hungry, another hit her sister, while a fourth asked loudly why that lady has no clothes on ... it was my idea of dreadful and I rarely tried again.

But here, in Madrid, I saw groups of schoolchildren and they were enthralled. Even little ones - they can't have been much more than four - were sitting and listening as a curator talked about the picture and asked what they could see, and then helped them to look again and look again until every brush-stroke had been thought about. And then they were off to another painting.

I suspect that the tinies only looked at three or four pictures, and the more difficult pieces were left for older children. But even adolescents (except for a couple of lads who wanted only to gawp at the nudes) were engrossed - and able to engage with pieces that I found difficult to look at or understand. Having been taken to art galleries since they were small they understood the discipline needed to look, and think, and notice what an artist was trying to achieve and how he or she did it.

And so I have thought again. Maybe my failure to engage my children with art was due to my own incompetence at talking about the pictures and helping them to look closely at them. I can no longer blame their immaturity.

Shall I try again, with grandchildren? And you - do you take children to art galleries?

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.