Sunday, 18 December 2016

'Twas the week before Christmas ...

... and all through the house,
Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse ...

I don't know about your house, but most I know are rather noisy this week. Children are suffering from a toxic mix of exhaustion after a long term at school and pre-festive excitement. (I know one daughter has secret supply of chocolate for times like these - not for the children, but for herself! Good for her.) Adults are tackling the lists, of presents, and food ... and enough booze to get everyone through. Some are working and donning the Christmas jumpers to run the gauntlet of office parties. Some people love them ...

But for some this turning of the year is also a time of reflection. Politically it has been a turbulent year and many of us are deeply troubled at what might be coming. And it is impossible to ignore the millions who are suffering in wars and natural disasters - the world looks very unsafe at the moment and it can feel as if we have forgotten how to look after each other.

This dance between the frivolity of Christmas and the misery of our fellow men and women feels particularly poignant this year.

Which puts those of us who are writers in an impossible position. It is easy to join in the festive fun and pretend that the rest of the world is pottering along without a problem for a week or so. It is equally easy to drown in heartbreaking events taking place far away and ignore the joy of playing with those we love. We cannot, of course, get it right.

Maybe that's fine. These are times of great change and we cannot turn our heads in several directions at once without getting a serious headache.

And so I wish you all a peaceful holiday. I shall raise a glass to those who are near, and those who are far away. I'll be back in the New Year.

(It is also, possibly, a crazy time to launch The Planter's Daughter. Hey ho, that's when she was ready to fly.)

Sunday, 11 December 2016

The Planter's Daughter.

'Tis done. I know Lady Macbeth said t'were well it was done quickly, but this has taken forever. It's ten years since I first heard her story. And now - here she is. My Planter's Daughter.

So, as I've hung onto this story for so long, why publish it now? Because, at its roots, it is a story about emigration: a young woman who has to leave Ireland during the potato famine, in the hope of making a better life for herself elsewhere. She leaves with dreams, and believes that she will be welcomed. Nothing, of course (as this is fiction) works out like that.

But I've watched recent footage of refugees, with their meagre luggage and asking only for food and shelter, being turned away. I fictionalised such a journey, almost 200 years ago. But it feels heartbreakingly relevant to today.

And now, here she is. Here is the blurb, for those who haven't seen it:

It's 1848. And Sara, aged fourteen, must leave her family in the stinking potato fields of Ireland to seek a better life with her wealthy aunt in Liverpool. But her uncle has different ideas. 

Will she find solace among the dockers? She finds love, but becomes embroiled in the unrest of the Irish men and women who live in squalor in the Liverpool slums. Yet her efforts to help them only enrage her uncle further. 

Her escape takes her to the other side of the world. But there is no comfort in the dusty outback of Australia nor the gold fields of New Zealand. For she has left behind something more precious to her than life itself.
And here is the link. (Just an ebook at the moment. I'm working on a print edition, but that probably won't be out until I'm home from Malawi.)

Sunday, 4 December 2016

In defence of Good Blokes

I don't often write about the work I used to do: the challenges and heartaches of Child Protection. But I have been prompted to do so by the recent disclosures of abuse by hundreds of footballers.

We are, rightly, horrified. It is the only possible response to the realisation that all those children have trotted off to football every week, with their boots and their dreams of Wembley, have been exploited by men (almost always men) who used those children for their own gratification. How could this happen? How did we not know? How could nobody stop it?

To begin - I'm not surprised. All organisations - churches, residential schools, sports clubs - close ranks when they feel under attack. It takes extraordinary courage from whistleblowers to stand up and shout loud enough to be heard. We also know that offenders are adept at wheedling their way into any institution that gives them easy access to children. Not just one child - but scores of them.

Does this mean that most coaches are abusers? No, definitely not. What these men have done is unforgivable. But most men are decent, honest, and want only to support their own children. We must not react to this by pointing a finger at every man who supports his son or daughter by spending hours with them at a football club. Offenders must be identified and punished. But we must not conduct a witch-hunt that could catch the vast majority of kind, decent men who are doing their best for their kids.

And this is where the courage of those now speaking out comes in. At last there is a climate in which their voices can be heard. They have names, times, dates, and are pointing fingers. They deserve all our support. For in disclosing what has happened to them, they are provide the foundation which can ensure we keep all our children safer in the future.

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Truth and Fiction

Us fiction writers - we make stuff up. Sometimes we wallow in research for long enough to ground our made-up stuff in enough real-stuff to make it credible. And sometimes we just make it all up.

Readers know this. It's part of our contract with them - we do our best to make it believable and they do their best to suspect disbelief until the end of the book. But nobody really believes that David Copperfield or Anna Karenina or Middle Earth really existed.

Recently, it seems, some politicians have been taking a leaf or few out of our books. Here in the UK, the Leave campaign sprawled a slogan on the side of buses, insisting that they could give £350,000,000 a week to the NHS if we left the EU. And enough people suspended disbelief for long enough vote for it - though now the Leave leaders seem astonished that anyone might have taken them seriously. Across the pond, Donald Trump convinced voters that as soon as he was inaugurated as President of the US he would instigate criminal proceedings against Hillary Clinton - but now he's been elected this has been withdrawn. He claims, magnanimously, that he will give her time to heal.

Does this matter?

I would argue that it does. If it becomes acceptable for our politicians to abandon a semblance of truth - where will it end? Can teachers make up history, forgetting things like slavery or reframing it as 'development'? Or social scientist 'massage' the population figures, discounting anyone over eighty and thus meaning they have no need of social care? Let's not begin to think what the climatologists might come out with.

At times like this - times of great upheaval - we need clear thinkers. Men and women able and willing to cut through the claptrap and show us a truth. Men and women able and willing to stand up to the politicians and their wheeling and dealing.

Which will leave us fiction writers happily making stuff up, without worrying that anyone might actually believe us. Having said that, I think it's time Harry Potter challenged Trump to a game of Quiddich.

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Book groups - and the writer.

My Planter's Daughter has been delayed, slightly, as my editor has been poorly. These things happen. We are slaving away over the words again now, so the end - phew - is in sight. When I have a date I'll give it you.

Last time I saw her, my editor said something that really set me thinking. (Actually, she said many things to set me thinking. This is just one of them.)

'This book,' she said, 'would make for a great discussion in a book group.'

Well, who wouldn't be flattered when someone who is there to be constructively critical says that! So I huffed for a minute or two - and have put time aside since then to think about it. I haven't written this book with groups in mind. In fact, I've been so absorbed in the narrative that I've had to make a big effort to consider one reader, let alone a group.

And - at the same time - I've attended a book group. I've read countless books and engaged in numerous conversations about them. Book groups are one of life's essential pleasures.

So how come I've made no real connection between my writing a novel and talking about novels in the book group? Like they are distint, unrelated activities? 

What a plonker! (I've said it - I'm sure it's what you're thinking.) But, having admitted that, I can't help wondering if other writers have a corner of their mind on a possible critique from a book group when they are sitting down to graft out sentences. 

Sunday, 13 November 2016

We can do more than lick our wounds.

It's a few days, now, since That Election. And there has been twaddle spoken, and written, from both sides. There has been plenty of 'it might not be so bad' reflections, which seem to have forgotten what a racist, sexist bigot American has elected.

On the morning after the election my daughter, Anna, wrote one of the most eloquent pieces I have read. She wrote when feelings were at their most raw - and I certainly couldn't have put sentences together like this. (I make no apologies to anyone who has already seen this - it bears repeating.) She has agreed that I can copy it here:

"For the second time in six months I have woken up to a darker, more terrifying world than the one I went to sleep in.
"For the second time in six months I am reading a feed full of anger, despair and fear for the future of the world.
"For the second time in six months I have a sick feeling in my stomach as I think about the future that we all face.
"For the second time in six months I am facing the realisation that the way I view the world is not the view of the majority of people.
"Well no more. We can't change the past but we can take responsibility for our own future. Those in charge may not agree, and we cannot stop the way they are behaving but they are not in our houses. They are not on our street. They are not part of our community - in those places we have the power.
"So, starting today, we need to be the change we want to see in the world. To help those who are suffering, talk to those who are lonely, stand in solidarity with those who are abused. To be welcoming to those who are new to our community, and to help others understand that new people are nothing to fear. To celebrate both those things that make us different and those that make us the same.
"And above all to spread the word of hope for a brighter future, and to do everything we can to ensure that the next time we get to vote, the voices that are loudest are those of hope, tolerance and inclusivity, and not those of fear and hatred. We won't get to vote again tomorrow, or next week, and probably not even next year. But we will - and we will be ready."

She is also part of a group putting her words into action: she is supporter of 'Swindon: a city of sanctuary'. It is a movement to seeks to ensure that anyone who needs a place of safely, for whatever reason, can find it there. And they aren't alone - follow the link on the site and you'll see that these groups are active all over the country. You can find out more about them here.

Here is that the change she is pleading for in action. Good things can grow from all the rage and helplessness of Wednesday morning. We must - we do - believe that. 

Sunday, 6 November 2016

The Planter's Daughter and her publishing journey.

This novel I've been banging on about - you might have gathered by now that I'm self-publishing. Why wouldn't I? I've learned enough about the technology and marketing pitfalls through the travel writing, so that bit doesn't daunt me.

But I did make a brief foray into traditional publishing - mainly in the hope that someone else would fund the editing. It was, mostly, a grim business. Not because there was no enthusiasm - on the contrary. Out of eight submissions (one agent, seven independent publishers) I was asked for six full manuscripts. Which is enough to tell me this can't be total twaddle.

It also took forever. With one exception, it disappeared into a publishing abyss for months. I'd send gentle reminders (that balance between not wanting to be pushy and suggesting that they treat me with respect). And each time, eventually, that 'we love it, but we just don't love it enough' arrived.

But I do want to highlight the exception: The Linen Press. I sent it to them because I'd read in an interview with the main editor in Mslexia, and she came across as kind and funny and honest. She responded to my query within days, asking for a full manuscript. And the rejection came within two weeks - and with it a comment about my complex sentences.

Pah, I thought. What does she know? Besides, no one had ever said that to me before, and so it was no doubt her way of being kind.

And then I looked again at the opening paragraph of the novel - and there, right in the middle of it, was a dog's dinner of a sentence.

It was one of many back-to-the-beginning moments. I went back to the manuscript, and unpicked it line after line. I knew what I was trying to say - but would anyone else? So I owe them a huge thank you.

It has, since, been through a number of readers (and countless rewrites) and then I bit the bullet and found an editor. That has been another learning curve, as she asked about lost characters (I knew where they were, but had to admit that maybe they weren't on the page). Plus one character who, she felt, needed active retribution that went far beyond feeling a bit miserable.

And now I am on the home straight. My editor has been poorly recently, which has set things back a little. But, give me a week or several, and The Planter's Daughter will be ready to go!

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Off to Australia (not me, this time!)

This is my final post about the research that has gone into the new novel. (Yes, a novel - a bit of a change from the travel writing, but no less of a journey.)

The previous posts have seen my protagonist escape the famine in Ireland and sink into the squalor of Liverpool's Irish slums. And we know she died in New Zealand. In between, she spent time in Australia.

So here I had a problem. I've spent just three weeks in Eastern Australia, and - at the time - was more interested in learning about aboriginal history than the early European settlers. Which left me no choice but to wallow in books.

I learned about the challenges faced by the early deportees - and what impressed me most was the way they soon established a rule of law. At home they were labelled at criminals, but most were  driven to theft by poverty. With the opportunity to co-operate, in order to provide a safe space to provide for their basic needs, they flourished. There was the odd vagabond, of course, and some (like Ned Kelly) have achieved cult status; but most settled into respectability.

However, I know we cannot ignore their deplorable treatment of indigenous peoples. The ripples of these early years still ruffle Australia today. History provides reasons (ignorance, the tendency of one group to look down on another) but that can never make it right.

Then came the gold rush. Which brought a whole new influx of people, driven by the lure of adventure and the prospect of riches. And it transformed the lives of many of those early settlers.

So, that, I thought, gave me all the background I needed. Until I checked the dates of the deportations ... And discovered that by the time my protagonist must have left Liverpool the only place in Australia that still accepted felons was on the west coast - thousands of miles across the desert. I've not been there, nor had I read about it. It was the biggest of my 'oh shit' moments. Could I wing it, and hope nobody checked the dates? Or go back to my storyline and rework it completely?

What would you have done?

Sunday, 23 October 2016

Refugees, and how Liverpool could teach us a thing or two.

Research - is there no end to it? I knew that Barbara Weldon died in New Zealand but was born in Ireland - and for some reason she travelled via Liverpool and Australia. (If you're wondering who Barbara Weldon is - I came across her in a bleak gold town on New Zealand. You'll have to scroll back a post of few to find out why she intrigues me!)

Once I understood the misery of the Irish famine, it was reasonable to assume that starvation had driven her across the Irish Sea. So it was time to turn my attention to life in Liverpool for those who escaped the stinking potato fields in Ireland and crossed the Irish Sea to look for work, and food, and shelter - just enough to fulfil their basic needs.

Maybe I shouldn't be surprised that the residents of Liverpool didn't welcome them with open arms. There was a conviction that they came to take jobs, to demand homes and so deprive local people, and they brought diseases associated with poverty - plague and cholera. (Sound familiar? Let's not allow needy people anywhere near our own doorsteps ...)

I struggled, trying to fill in the details of life of the Irish refugees in Liverpool. I suspect that, in retrospect, the city is ashamed of the squalor in which they were forced to live. However - to the credit of the powers that be (and prompted by a growing union movement pressing for change) -they did eventually realise that the solution lay in improved public health and better housing; Liverpool introduced some of the earliest public health provision in the country.

However, there is nothing left of the streets where the Irish were ghettoed; not even a blue plaque on a wall. I found only passing mentions in museums and one small reconstruction (without what must have been terrible smells).

But then I had some luck. I went to visit the city for a few days, staying in a B&B away from the centre. I got to chatting to the landlord (as I do) and discovered that he was researching his family history and knew all about nineteenth century Liverpool. He drove me round those streets that still survive, and gave me two laminated maps of the city, with the old road systems and docks - so very different from the layout of Liverpool today. (Bill, I owe you!) And from that I could find enough photographs online to give me the details I needed.

So, I knew that Barbara Weldon spent time in Liverpool, and she went from there to Australia. Why Australia? And was there a warmer welcome the other side of the world than she'd found here?

Sunday, 16 October 2016

What happens when people are starving?

So, I now knew a bit about life in nineteenth century New Zealand. But I also knew that Barbara Weldon came from Ireland, so it was time to find out about where she came from and why she might have left.

I knew she was born in Ireland in the 1830s ... and in the 1840s Ireland suffered three years of potato famine. So - that gave ma a context. And it wasn't difficult to find out plenty of details about the famine - from the stink of rotten potatoes to the mass migration of starving people.

But ... it was the Catholics, as tenant farmers, who were hit hardest by the famine, and I knew that Weldon was a Protestant name. As landowners, they farmed huge estates, growing a variety of crops and thus protected from the ravages of the famine. What's more, many grew grain, which they exported to England and America - while their tenants starved. (Imagine that happening today:  rich people with tables taken with food while people are starving on their doorsteps ...)

Not all, of course, were quite so hard-hearted. There were Poor Houses (often over full, with people banging on the doors waiting for people inside to die so that they could come in. I can think of a nursing home like that.). There were soup kitchens, with bowls of broth for those who would give up their Catholicism and pray to a Protestant God. (Imagine that happening now ... When I was in Nepal I heard of missionaries giving rice to starving Buddhists on condition they prayed to Jesus).

And in the middle of all this was a mass migration, hundreds of thousands of hungry people looking for work and safety and enough food for their families. The more I read about this migration the more familiar the difficulties seemed - and the more I learned about the commonality of migrations. Many of the challenge faced by the Irish in the nineteenth century are mirrored by those leaving war-torn zones in the Middle East and Africa today.

But what of the welcome awaiting them? Have we learned anything from the mass migrations of the nineteenth century that might help us provide for those in need with compassion or generosity? (Maybe you know the answer to that.)

Those Irishmen and women with enough funds went to America. But many could only make it as far as Liverpool. Which was my next stop.

Sunday, 9 October 2016

Research ... well, you asked for it!

I have, at last, introduced you to the novel. And  I've been asked to write about how I researched it.

Oh Val, do you have any idea what you've asked for? I love research, the general digging about and discovering all sorts of unnecessary detail. It's one reason this book has taken forever.

I had four different settings to uncover, and so kept them in very distinct folders. I shall tell you about each one in the order I worked on them. (And have no doubt this will spread over several blogs - that's how much fun I had!) What I'm not going to tell you is how much of this is in the novel!

I began with New Zealand - because that's where I 'found' her. (If you've no idea what I'm talking about, scroll down to the last post.) I had the notes from my own stay there, and so know just how the wind blows from the mountains, and how cold the sea is (the current flows up from the Antarctic - I paddled for three whole waves before retreating to the beach with blue feet). And I'd seen pictures and stories from the gold rush days, and so had some idea of the chaos - and how difficult life was for the few women who lived there.

Once back in the UK I contacted the curator of the museum in Hokitika, to see if she could tell me any more about Barbara Weldon than I already knew. She couldn't, but she was kind and encouraging, which was good enough for me. Next, I accessed court records from the time (available online) - and could see just how often my heroine had been before the magistrates, and - given that these were rough times - the efforts that were made to support her. Her fines were often significantly lower than other offenders, and her prison terms shorter. Her offences - pilfering, drunkenness, and trying to kill herself by walking into the sea. (Some poor policeman had to wade in after her and pull her out, then bring her to court as attempting suicide was illegal. Prostitution, however, was not.)

From there, it was a question of reading as much background stuff as I could and piecing together details about transport, dress, etc to give me enough to make fill in the blanks.

And then I wrote the chapter set in New Zealand. But she died there - where did she come from? My next blog will take us to Ireland.

Sunday, 2 October 2016

I've written a novel!!

I've written a novel.

There, I've admitted it. I've not talked about it here before - partly because the whole process has been so tortuous that only someone mildly obsessed with it (as I have been) could have stuck with it. But - as it won't be long before it sees the light of day - I'll tell you a bit of its story.

Some of you may have read Over the Hill. Some of you may recall me driving round New Zealand in a campervan as big as a bungalow with good-to-know-Cath. We spent one night in Hokitika - which is one of the bleakest places I've ever been. Once a gold town, the streets are still lined with banks and jewellers, but there's almost nobody there. I can't blame them: the wind blows from the Antarctic and the sea is wild and dangerous.

We went to the museum to get out of the cold, and found memorabilia from the gold rush days. There, among the vignettes (almost all about burly men who had come to find treasure) was the story of Barbara Weldon. She had been born in Ireland in the 1830s, made her way to Liverpool and from there to Australia. She was deported from Melbourne to New Zealand for 'obscene language in a public place' and ended up here. She was, from all accounts, quite a character - well known in the Courts (she had countless fines and short terms of imprisonment) but was also hugely popular. She died tragically (I've not fictionalises the way she died so I'll not give you details).

She intrigued me. I had chosen to come to the other side of the world. I'd already had an adventure or two, even though I had the privileges of modern transport and communications. What had brought her here, on her own, to the (being brutal about it) arse end of nowhere - in the nineteenth century? What adventures had she had along the way? Did she have lovers? Children?

I couldn't let go of her. And so, slowly, I have made up her story. This novel is fiction: so little is known about her that her biography would be little more than two hundred words. I've changed her first name (but kept the Weldon - it's a Protestant name, which gave me clues as to her origins in Ireland). I've wallowed in research, and in writing, and editing, and rewriting - and it has taken forever. But the time has come to send her on her way.

Watch this space. The Planter's Daughter is almost ready for take off.

Sunday, 25 September 2016

The rhythm of life is a wonderful thing, possibly.

For those of you curious about the photos in my previous post: the boats are Dartmouth, but taken from the castle and looking upriver. The second picture, taken into the sun, is Prawle Point, and the last is Start Point - from the west (so taking the footpath that takes you away from the path to the car park).

Here we go again - September. No more reading in the garden till gone nine in the evening. No more waking to the song of the mistle thrush. No more playing in the river or hunting for wild strawberries. Soon it will be crumpets for tea and the shops full of sparkles.

I'm not, as you know, good at winter. And I'm not good at picking up the rhythm of life in the autumn. I love the anarchy of summer, the feeling that anything can happen any time - just because it's light and the sun is shining (some of the time). Now the schools are back the term-time routines have resumed and I am, unwillingly, picking up the threads again. The writing group, the book group, the choir.

I know I need these rhythms. However much I love the freedoms of summer life can't be like that all the time. I need to wake up and know that, just because it's Tuesday, I need to get up and get out on time. I don't have to like the discipline of it. But I know that, if months stretched ahead of me without any sort of routine, I might slip into complete lethargy and become the doddery old soul in the corner drooling into my tea long before the years dictate.

Which is why, reluctantly, I am embracing September. It is an opportunity - I know that - to be more purposeful. And I do my best to see it like that. Even so, I can't help feeling as I did at the beginning of every school year as a child: do I really have to do this just because it's good for me.

Yes, I do. (At least until January, when I can go AWOL again!)

Sunday, 18 September 2016

So, how was Devon?

So, what did I do on my holiday, then? Given what I get up to in the winter, surely there was a tiger or two?

It was - as Devon is - all very peaceful and uneventful. The weather was scorching one minute and stormy the next (one morning I woke to thunderbolt and lightning, very very frightening ... which was quite exciting, as it rolled in off the sea) - and so I had a couple of days when I wandered about between the showers, and more days when I wandered along cliff tops and stared at the ocean. No tigers; no crocodiles; though I did see a seal.

And, when I wasn't wandering, I was reading.

Not a holiday to live forever in the memory, but an undemanding sort of holiday and exactly what I needed. And so here are some photographs taken as I strolled along the cliff paths - brownie points to anyone who knows exactly where they are.

Sunday, 11 September 2016

On needing a holiday to recover from the holidays!

What sort of summer have you had? I've had a great time - so, for those who are weeping into their beer and don't need to read of other people having fun - here's a spoiler: mine has been so wonderful I have to retreat to Devon for a week to recover.

It's not that I've had adventures. There have been no tigers or crocodiles or blue-footed-boobies. I've not even caught a flight to somewhere exotic (though I have bought one). If I unpick my summer busyness there's not been much that was exceptional about it.

Though, to be fair, the visit from Tika and Shobha was exceptional. It's not every week friends from Nepal are able to fly over to see me! So there was plenty of preliminary planning and general excitement and numerous changes of plan and finally some lovely days sharing the delights of Wiltshire!

I've also spent countless wonderful days with grandchildren. I remember, when my children were small, I had no idea why my parents should be quite so besotted and able to drop everything as soon as a small person appeared. Now - I get it. I don't have to worry about work and school and if they need new shoes or how I must remember to ring the plumber. Grandparents have the luxury of time - we can pick up the rest of our lives when they go home (after wine and a good sleep to recover).

But the summer has been even more than grandchildren and visitors from Nepal. I've spent four days at cricket matches - which doesn't sound much, but, when you include the planning, the analysis, and general exchange of views about Buttler vs Bairstow, it has consumed days.

Nothing truly significant? - grandchildren and visitors and cricket. But I've loved every minute of it. But now I'm knackered and need a holiday to recover from the holidays.

So I've escaped to Devon, to wander about by the sea and read books. If I had remembered to bring the thingy that connects my phone to my iPad I'd be able to give you a photo - you will have to wait till next week for pictures.

I do know how lucky I am, being able to take off like this. What do you do, when you need a holiday to recover from the holidays?

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.

Sunday, 5 June 2016

Look who has come to stay!

Guess who this is, come to stay?

Those of you who have read about my travelling in Nepal will have 'met' Tika and Shobha. This post is for those who have no idea who they are!

I met Tika over fifteen years ago, when I first went to Nepal with a tour group. Then, in 2005, when I embarked on a year-long trip around the world, I contacted him to help me get the hang of travelling independently in Nepal and north India. He took me up mountains and down valleys. Before one such expedition he mentioned that his wife (Shobha) was joining us for the day. We trekked up a mountain (she strode up in flip-flops and I plodded up in walking boots). I seem to have passed some sort of test, because she invited me to join them for supper - cooked on a small fire on their rooftop.

It was the beginning of a wonderful friendship. Every time I return to Nepal Tika organises my travels. If he's not actually with me he is at the end of the phone. He has the rare capacity to see the funny side of everything, even close encounters with tigers and crocodiles.

Meanwhile Shobha looks after me. When you are in Nepal, she says, I will be like your daughter. I will cook for you, and do your washing. (I eat like a queen, but do my own washing when she's not looking.)

And now it's my turn to look after them. I'm pretty useless in the cooking department, but will do my best. The washing can be thrown in the machine.

But most of all I want them to feel at home. They have shared their home and their country with me several times, and now it's my turn. This visit will be less about what we do, and more about making sure they know how much I appreciate everything they have done to me. And, because this it Tika and Shobha, I am sure there will be plenty of laughter.

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Another Bank Holiday!!

Another Bank Holiday! Yippee!! Well, that's how it looks from my little corner of Wiltshire. I know the sun may not shine and buses will be as rare as harebells in Piccadilly - but it's still a holiday. Wrap up warm if you need to, but let's go out to play.

Okay, not everyone sees it like that. All these short weeks, they disrupt important things like work, and school, and family routines. We need to shape our days, our weeks, so we know where we are, what time to get up and go out and come home again.

The economists bleat about productivity. We need to work to make stuff or provide stuff so that other people can buy stuff or do stuff - and this generates money which goes towards taxes that pay for schools and hospitals ... blah blah blah.

I understand that, for some people, the world feels very unsafe without routines. And I also get that, if we had holidays every day, the economy would be a bit of a mess.

But me - well this is a short post because I'm in the 'throwing-my-hat-in-the-air, it's a holiday' corner. I'm out to do something wonderful - no idea what, but I'll love it when I get there.

And you? Those of you to have time to read blogs today - do you enjoy the time off or are you filling in the hours until life returns to normal?

Sunday, 22 May 2016

We have a title, thanks to you!!

Many thanks to all those lovely people who joined in my quest for a title for the ebook about Ecuador - both here and in my writing group. (If you've no idea what I'm talking about, scroll down to the previous post.)

It just shows (as if we didn't know) how impossible it is to please all the people all of the time. So I'm just going to run with the title that feels right to me. And, for those who disagree with me, here is my thinking:

I'm not going to use a title that includes 'boobies' - I floated that with tongue in cheek, knowing I'd never use it. I'm a feminist; I've signed the 'No More Page Three' petition; so I won't use female body parts just to make people titter. (And those who read this book will realise that I don't shrink from writing about hanky-panky. I'm no prude. And the birds and animals of Ecuador were having a lovely spring time while I was there!)

Which takes us on to Frogs and Frigate Birds - and the suggestion that I should drop the 'birds'. I can hear the poetry in Frogs and Frigates. But there are no warships in sight in this book. Not even one lurking in a harbour somewhere, nor creeping along the horizon. And so it feels, to me, misleading if I cut the 'birds'. I love poetry in titles as much as the next man or woman, but it also needs to give clues as to the contents of the book.

The next suggestion that needed much thinking: to add a third element. I recognise the strength of threes. But, to keep the rhythm of this, it needs a single-syllable word between the frogs and the frigate birds - making it Frogs, Fr?gs and Frigate Birds. Which, if I had met a frug or a frig or a frag would work - but I didn't. (Though wish I had ... What do you think a frug looks like ...)

So there we have it. Frogs and Frigate Birds it is.

Next stop - a cover.

Sunday, 15 May 2016

What's in a name?

I read a post the other day about about boobies - the anatomical kind. (No, I wasn't getting kinky: the post raised questions about how to name body parts and most of us, when we're writing, have to wrestle with that sometimes.)

When I was in the Galápagos Islands I saw hundreds of blue-footed boobies, and before you get to too excited, this is what they look like:

I bring this up now as I'm wrestling with a title for my new book about my trip to Ecuador and the Galápagos Islands. And here is now my thinking goes:

I saw so many birds and animals, I'm sure I can find something alliterative to make a good title. Something like Frogs and Frigate Birds - except most people don't know what frigate birds are. If you curious, they look like this:

Or maybe Bats and Boobies ... I've nothing against erotica in its place, and although I witnessed a little springtime hanky-panky I don't want mislead anyone.

Monkeys and Mocking birds ... Frogs and Finches ... Toucans and Tortoises ... Monkeys and Manta Rays ...

(The subtitle, predictably, will be Over the Hill goes to Ecuador.)

So if anyone has a great idea, or an opinion - now is the time to share it!

Sunday, 8 May 2016

Ecuador, the book?

For all the lovely people who commented and followed the three old gits and a fat bloke as they canoed down the Thames (see previous post) - they did it!  One serious stormy day, the rest hot and sweaty. They have interesting tans. And sore bums from sitting on planks of wood and paddling for hours on end. And they've raised over £2000 for MS, which is totally amazing.

So, to change tack, what have I been doing since I got back from Ecuador? Sitting about, drooling over photographs, generally eating cake and grumbling about the weather?

Well, I've done some of that (especially the weather-grumbling). And I have been writing. As usual, I've trawled through my diaries. Then came the big question of finding the narrative. It felt a bit like hacking my way through the rainforest. There were scents of story and then - puff - gone again.

So I decided to just write it and then see what I'd got. If nothing else it's a great way to relive the whole experience (I take little encouragement to do that.)

Then, half way through the writing, came the earthquake in Ecuador. Suddenly I felt a need to publish this book - mainly so people can see that there is so much more to the country than fallen-down buildings and traumatised people. There are mountains and jungles and glorious beaches. Generous, welcoming people. It was time to press on with the writing with a bit more purpose.

Phew, first draft done. But I was still unsure. Was there more to it than 'woman has great time in Ecuador' (which, let's face it, is pretty boring as stories go)? So I gave it to a hyper-critical friend, knowing that if it was truly rubbish she would tell me.

Phew - again - she loves it. There are bits that need thinking about, and she hates my working title, but I've now got a framework and can tell you that there WILL be a book. I can't give you a timescale, as it needs a serious spit-and-polish, and there's all the usual preliminaries that seem to take ages before it sees the light of day on Amazon.

Here, just to keep you going, is a photograph of a hypnotised frog. Not something you'll bump into in the supermarket.

So, don't hold your breath. But it would be good if you kept a bit of space free on your e-readers!

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Three old gits and a fat bloke.

This week three old gits and a fat bloke are canoeing down the Thames. Their words - not mine. As a feminist I know better than to comment on age or weight. (And one of them is my son-in-law; but I'm not saying which!)

But there's no getting away from it - these are not streamlined young men. They are ordinary men who have worked and drunk pints and played with their children and talked from time to time about getting fitter but let's have another beer first. So why canoe down the Thames? To raise money for people suffering from Multiple Sclerosis.

Just over a week ago thousands of men and women, of all shapes and sizes, pounded the streets of London. Some just did it for fun (not my idea of fun, but hey ho!), and many did it to raise money - for huge appeals and for small local charities. A daughter and grandson are running the Race for Life this year (she is fit, and he is nine and even fitter), contributing to Breast Cancer charities.

If they can ... can't we all?

Actually, no - we can't all run marathons or row down the Thames. Some because we will never be fit or well enough. Some because we have commitments which make it impossible to leave those we care for long enough to do the training. Some because the idea of all that effort is enough to make us reach for the smelling salts.

Most of us do our best. We put the occasional tin or packet of something in the food bank bin at the supermarket. We stop to help the old person who has dropped his shopping. We help in charity shops or do our bit for small charities that keep our rivers clean or help young families. We dip into our pockets to sponsor friends and family doing wacky things.

Today I propose that we raise a glass to all those who go that extra mile (so to speak) and actually put their effort into doing arduous physical challenges to raise money to help people they don't know. They cope with wind, rain, and bodies aching in places where they didn't know they had muscles. I couldn't do it - and I suspect a few of you who drop by here couldn't do it either?

So cheers to you, three old gits and a fat bloke. I'll cheer your exploits from the safety of my sofa this week. And if you, too, want to see how they get on, you can find out more here: And if you live near the Thames, maybe you can work out when they pass you and stand on a bridge to cheer them on.

Sunday, 24 April 2016

Earthquakes, and yet more earthquakes.

I can't believe I'm blogging about earthquakes again.

It feels as if the earth is very unsettled at the moment. Volcanoes are erupting. There are tremors all round the Pacific rim. And now the huge quakes in Japan and Ecuador.

I'm sure we've all seen the pictures. Sometimes I wonder if we don't see so many pictures that they  lose their capacity to shock. The collapsed buildings. Men and women, their heads thick with dust, weeping in the streets or scrabbling in the rubble with their bare hands searching for missing children.

One of the things I've learned, in all my travelling, is the universality of human needs. All over the world, men and women need people around them to love. We all need enough to eat and a safe roof over our heads at night. We all celebrate our rites of passage (births, deaths and marriages) by eating together, and often with dancing. We all punctuate the year with festivals (more eating and dancing).

Our differences - of skin colour, of gods, of the stories we tell to explain our existence - are insignificant beside the fundamentals of our samenesses.

So these people, hurt and frightened, have the same needs and feelings as you and me.

But what can we do? Weeping into our own beer isn't going to help. Not many of us can leap into a plane and fly across the world to help dig people out or help in the rebuilding.

Some of us can dip into our pockets, spare a pound or two. The house-build project had proved what can be achieved if we all work together.

And some of us can travel to places that - at first glance - would seem uninviting after such a disaster. One of the big lessons from my last trip to Nepal was the need for tourists to carry on visiting - these countries need foreign money now more than ever. So next time you've got the atlas out and are wondering where to go next, maybe it's worth thinking about countries that need you. For the money you spend while you are there all goes into rebuilding an economy - and therefore the lives of families with needs and feelings just like ours.

Sunday, 17 April 2016

Shit happens

I've no idea what if those of you living outside the UK are being bombarded with health advice at the moment. It feels as if our government, our broadcasters, our newspapers are conspiring to remind us that our bodies are temples and we should treasure them.

Or maybe they've only just realised than an aging populating means an increasingly frail population which could strain our health service beyond its ability to deliver adequate care. And so those us of us with bus passes must be reminded how to look after ourselves for as long as possible and thus reduce the strain on the public purse. Or am I being too cynical here?

I've no problem with the occasional reminder to eat well and maybe move about a bit. There may be people who don't realise that a diet of cake and chips and alcohol isn't the best. They may spend their lives flopping about on the sofa and not realise that walking upstairs occasionally, even if it makes them puff, is a Good Thing.

But I've had such advice rammed down my throat a bit recently - and some has even come with the implication that 'keeping myself young' (whatever that means) is a protection from the disease of aging.

Which diseases of aging did they reference particularly? Arthritis and cancer.

And that's where my hackles rise. I have arthritis - not because I don't eat my greens, but because my grandmother had arthritis and I climb mountains. One day I'll need expensive new knees, though I'll  keep myself going for as long as possible.

But the implications for cancer sufferers makes me even crosser. I know people with cancer, who have had cancer, or are half-expecting a diagnosis. Are the health-advisers seriously suggesting that this is their fault?

As I understand it, there is a statistical connection between living in an affluent society and cancer rates. That's a statistic - not a cause. We understand the origins of some cancers (like skin), but others need much more research before we can pin-point causes. And yet some bod on the telly feels we need reminding us to eat our broccoli and skip about a bit because if we don't we'll get cancer and it might (note that 'might' - enough to make the implication but not enough to be sued if they've got it wrong) be our own fault.

Shit happens. It can happen to anyone. The least constructive response to the cancer-shit is to make someone feel guilty.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

They tell us we're a highly developed country. Really?

As you know, I've travelled a bit - and often in countries that are defined as 'developing'. As I understand it, the word refers to these countries efforts to modernise their economic systems, thus involving as many people as possible in the commercial life of the country and bringing prosperity to as many as possible.

It's a complex process, underpinned by education. There is a drive to ensure that children all over the world learn to read and write, and that even the most disadvantaged have access to books. When I first visited Nepal books were scarce - often only tattered copies left behind by trekkers or printed on such thin paper you could put your thumb through it. There is now a library in Pokhara, a facility well-used by both children and their parents, with no regard for income nor social status.

But countries can't wait for this generation to mature. They need their economies to grow now. For many, this means providing transport for as many as possible to reach markets - where they can sell their own produce and buy goods from their neighbours. It is a basic means of exchange and can be the prelude to more ambitious trading. Rickety buses trundle up dirt tracks and ford streams in order to make such trading possible. I have shared a bus seat with a woman with a chicken on her knee and another where someone hoped to buy her fare with cucumbers.

This is what I understand by development: the inclusion of as many people as possible in social and economic life, in order to promote the prosperity of the many.

Or am I missing something? For here in the UK, with what we are told is the fifth biggest economy in the world, we are closing libraries (excluding the disadvantaged from access to books) and - here in rural Wiltshire - we are cutting buses (excluding the disadvantaged from access to markets and social interaction).

Or does 'development' only apply to the 'haves' and the 'have-nots' don't matter any more?

Sunday, 3 April 2016

What's happening with this house then?

What with all the fun I had in Ecuador and the Galapagos, you might have thought I'd forgotten about that house we're building in Nepal.

What house? Well, for those of you who weren't around last year: I went to Nepal last September, to visit friends and to see how things were after the earthquake. To be honest, they were tough. Not only had stuff fallen down, but no tourists were visiting - so there was no money to get on with the rebuilding. The mountains still glorious, hotels and restaurants empty, and the Nepali struggling to make ends meet.

I ummed and ahed about how to help. And then I met a family, in the mountains, whose house had fallen down - and it was going to cost just £1500 to rebuild it. Not quite peanuts, but surely I could raise that? We can't rebuild a city, or even a town - but we can rebuild a house.

Not any old house. This is a family I know - the top storey had collapsed and they were living on the ground floor, in the rubble, and hoping that aftershocks wouldn't dump the whole thing on their heads while they slept.

So I launched a project, which you can find here. And I wrote a book, After the Earthquake, and every penny of profit from that is going towards building this house. (If you live outside the UK, or don't use Amazon, I'm sure you can find it if you go hunting. Do contact me if you can't find it.)

And how has it gone? Well, the appeal site is misleading, as I've been given much more than that. And the book is selling well.

And (drum roll) ... we have a house!!!! Well, have the money for the house, the foundations are down and the walls are on their way up. One family can sleep peacefully again.

What's more - we have begun a second house. This is an older couple, from a village high in the mountains, who spent the monsoon in a tent.

I'm proud of us all - we did what we set out to do. But if anyone is new to this appeal, and (like me) can't imagine just how dreadful it must be to be old and in a tent with the monsoon battering down, then then please follow the links.

Sunday, 27 March 2016

Happy Spring!

It's Easter. And so I doubt if many will be dropping into blogland this week. You will be too busy with chocolate eggs and hot cross buns. Maybe even trimming a bonnet or two. Celebrating the end of winter, greeting the possibilities of spring. It is time to put away the winter woollies and thermal undies, to think about cutting the grass, to plant early potatoes. Climb a hill and savour the view in the fragile spring sunshine; wander in woods and marvel - as we do each year - as trees sprout tiny green buds. The grim days of snow and storms are behind us ...

I know that here in the west we link all this razzmatazz to a Christian festival. Other cultures with comparable climates also have stories to underpin a bit of a knees-up and this time of year. I choose not to comment on any of that, other than to offer good wishes to anyone celebrating as spring arrives, with or without a god to justify a party.

Me - I looking forward to greeting the arrival of spring. Well, that was the plan...

I don't know how it was where you are, but, where I am, anyone strutting down the High Street in an Easter bonnet would have had a hard time hanging onto it. But they'd have hung on if they could, if only to protect their heads from the hail. The days might be a bit longer, but it was so dark around lunchtime I needed lights on just to make a cup of tea. As for abandoning the winter woollies - I lit my wood-burning stove and settled down with a book, just like I do the depths of winter.

I'm certainly not going to abandon my fleeces and waterproofs. Nor venture out to cut my grass just because the calendar tells me it should be spring. Had I even thought about walking I might have been blown off a hillside

So someone clearly forget to tell the weather-fairies that it's time to cheer up. Me - I'll huddle by my fire for a bit longer, till those fairies finally to come out to play. How about you - did you brave the weather and slosh through mud on an Easter egg hunt? Or maybe the weather was kinder where you are.

Happy spring!

Sunday, 20 March 2016

Tour groups, and why I'm not a good groupie.

As you know, I generally travel on my own. But from time to time I join a group - on this trip it was impossible to visit the rainforest or take a boat round the Galapagos Islands without joining a group. And since I've been home a few people have asked how I managed the group-thing.

I'll not, here, write about those groups in particular. Rather I'll think about travelling groups in general. From which it might become evident that I'm really not a groupy sort of person.

I know all groups are different. But some attract a set of participants who slot into predictable roles. Firstly, the person who irritates me more than anything is the one who doesn't listen. Not only do they not listen, they make a point of making sure everyone knows they've not listened by asking, loudly, just as we are returning to our rooms, 'WHAT TIME DID SHE SAY BREAKFAST IS TOMORROW.' Someone will reply, of course, as most of us are polite, only to get the follow-on question, 'SO WHEN ARE WE LEAVING ... DO I NEED WALKING BOOTS OR SANDALS.' By which time I've slipped away.

But, you say, I am being uncharitable. Maybe this person has a hearing problem. Then why, should his or her name pass your lips when you are half a table away and facing the other way and  everyone is drinking and laughing, do they call out, 'HEY, DID I HEAR MY NAME ...' No, this is a person who makes a profession of not listening.

Secondly, there's the smoker. I do understand that some people are addicted, need to light up, etc etc. But this is the person who, every time we stop, steps away front the group, puffs away for five minutes and then rejoins us, whiffs of smoke still seeping from his or her nostrils, only to say, 'What have I missed?'

Thirdly, the people who never stop talking. Ever. As if they can only justify their own existence by hearing the sound of their own voices. In my limited experience the people with the most interesting stories are those who say the least.

On a walk, there are those who must be first, and those who are always last.

Me - you can see that I'm the grumbly one in the corner. Actually, it's not quite like that. I'm the grumbly one in the corner with the notebook. And the most interesting people often ask what I'm writing about, and some give me permission to tell their stories. The others find their way into blogs like this!

Sunday, 13 March 2016

Why travel?

When I was working, a lifetime ago now (or so it feels), if a young person absconded the first question we asked ourselves was: had he or she run away from something, or run towards something. It is a crude distinction and masks complexities, but it was a start - we needed to begin to understand the behaviour if we were to find the young person and keep him or her safe.

Now, as a traveller, I'm asked a comparable question. Why do I do it? Why launch into the unknown when I could sit about comfortably at home.

And the answer, honestly, is that I don't care why I do it - I just love it. But, as that isn't enough for some people, I will try to unpick it a little.

I do run away from British winters. Those living in the north will think I'm utterly wimpish, complaining about southern winters. And they are fully justified to do so - our rain and wind and snow is feeble compared with the weathers they have to go out it. But I just hate the cold and the dark and the endless grey days. If I can escape them, then I will.

But I am also running towards the new and the different. When I get there, I don't just lie around in the sun. I explore city streets. I puff up mountains. I elbow my way through crowds in markets just to smell the cinnamon, run my fingers along silk scarves. I stare at animals that I thought only existed on the telly. I eat food I can't identify. I talk to people with new stories to tell.

And then I come home. Friends and family - who have kept the show on the road at home, looked after my house, trudged to school or work through wind and rain with barely a grumble - welcome me back and if they are envious they show it only fleetingly. Some even manage to look at my photographs without glazing over.

Does that begin to explain it? And you - what is it about the things you love doing that gets under your skin?

Sunday, 6 March 2016

When coming home is hard.

It's not easy, coming home after a long trip.

For a few days I felt like this:

Then, when I looked at the list of all this things I needed to do, I felt like this:

And now? I'm picking up the pieces, reconnecting with friends and family, running my fingers along my (dusty) bookshelves, deciding what to cook for supper. Within days the Galapagos feels a million miles away.

Except I can't stop talking about it. About being somewhere so geologically new. About being so close to birds and animals that I'd expect to run away from me. About swimming in a sea that really is turquoise. About being so close to a snake constricting and eating an iguana. About seeing two huge tortoises squaring up for a fight. About watching a baby frigate bird feed from its mother - putting its entire head down the mother's gullet. About watching sea turtles have sex (which has its comic side as she has to come up for air from time to time, and then he falls off ...). 

It is as astonishing as everyone says it is. But, as each island is different, it's hard to write about it as a unified experience.

So will there be a book? 

I'm thinking about it. I need to find the story. Woman has great time Ecuador and the Galapagos isn't a story. Let's preserve the fragile environments isn't anything new. 

And while I'm thinking I'll leave you one last picture: this is the boat was on, travelling round the islands.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

The Galapagos.

I made it back to Quito yesterday, and can't - yet - find the right words to tell you about the Galapagos.

But I have 250 photographs, all taken on a small point-and-shoot camera. And so, while I let the experience simmer and try to find a way to write about it, I'll give you some pictures:

Monday, 15 February 2016

Wild seas and markets.

I had a lovely time at the beach. I flopped about a lot, and sometimes I went in the sea - I didn't actually swim, as it was impossible to get out beyond the breaking waves before one of them picked me up and tossed me about and landed me on the beach with sand in my pants. I suspect it would have been a red flag beach at home - but it was such fun!

And I couldn't miss the carnival - I've no idea what's being celebrated, but who cares! There's no dressing up here - quite the reverse. Because it's a time for throwing water and foam over each other, and smearing blue or green or red paint on people's faces. So it's a very messy affair (I managed to avoid the paint bit, but got caught in the crossfire of a squirty-foam fight!).

But it was time to move on - back into the mountains, and to Otavalo, which is where a huge market has been held on Saturdays since ... well, forever. Local people selling local crafts. It's noisy and crowded and wonderful. I'm not a natural shopper, but faced with a table looking like this, it was wonderfully tempting.

There were hammocks and bags and ponchos and blankets; hats and jewellery and pan pipes. There's a food section, with a sudden smell of cinnamon. Stalls piled high with mangoes and melons and avocados and custard apples. Broccoli and carrots and sacks of potatoes. Women in corners shelling peas. More women cooking, wiping their eyes from the smoke. I might not be a shopper but I do love markets. And yes, I've bought some stuff.

I've had a guide with me for three days. Poor man. He's not into markets. He had been told to look after me, and trailed behind me round the market with all the enthusiasm of a scolded dog. He carried bags for me, haggled for me when I couldn't keep track of the numbers (I'm fine up to about 15), but didn't manage a smile till we were back in the car.

And now - the Galapagos. I leave very early tomorrow morning. I'll have no phone or Internet for eight days! So if any of you are kind enough to comment, you'll have to wait for a reply. (I feel I ought to apologise, but I won't - because actually going to the Galapagos will be fab!)

Friday, 5 February 2016

From the Andes to the sea, via Cuenca

First, I must give you a picture from the mountains. For 360 days of the year, the high Andes - 3,900m - are covered in cloud. So how lucky was I to be there when it was like this:

The air is thin and clear, and the lakes mirror the sky or the mountains or - occasionally - one of the brave trees that manage to cling on this high up. Walking is a challenge, especially if, like me, you live somewhere low-lying, but I puffed my way along a lovely path (stopping to admire the view at every opportunity) and it was wonderful.

I was on my way from Cuenca to Guayaquil. I spent five days trying to work out why I love Cuenca. Is it the architecture in the city centre? The churches and museums, celebrating everything from the towns indigenous beginnings through the ravages of Spanish occupation to the delights and challenges of independence? Is it the plazas and restaurants? It's certainly not the black smoke belching from the back of buses.

And then I decided it didn't matter why I love Cuenca. I just do. I love the lazy streets - it's too hot for anyone to hurry, but there's a breeze from the mountains (and it's high) so nobody fries. It's easy to walk from one side of the old city to the other along busy streets and quiet streets and forgotten streets. And it's full of very kind people.

And Guayaquil? It's the biggest city in Ecuador, and - until I went to the museum and discovered its history - it seemed to be just a big, working city. But when I learned of its past, all those rebellions, the yellow fever epidemics, a huge fire that devastated almost everything, and the way it succumbed to corruption and general mayhem until just twenty years ago, it's astonishing to see it now. Serious money has been spent - on roads, a theatre, cinema and museum complex, an international airport, a state-of-the-art football stadium. The Malecon, a walkway beside the river, is now full of children's playgrounds, a garden, shops - and plenty of security people. It don't think I can love Guayaquil like I love Cuenca, but I admire what they have achieved in such a short time.

Now - I'm in Puerto Lopez. Small children play on the beach. The ocean rolls in, and rolls in, and rolls in. And I have a hut and a hammock.

Friday, 29 January 2016

When the earth moves

Where do I start? Last time I blogged I'd just crept out of the jungle. I've done so much since then that feels a long time ago!

I spent a couple of days in Quito, and then went to Cotopaxi - a volcano which erupted last year, so no one can climb it at the moment. But I plodded up its neighbour, as high as 4000m (it's a bit thin on oxygen up there, I don't think I could have gone any higher), and spent the night in an ancient hacienda that so was full of extraordinary, ancient stuff the I felt like a bit of an artefact myself after a couple of hours.

From there to Banos, which is in the valley at the foot of a live volcano. This volcano:

I'm afraid that's the best I can do as far as pictures go. I had to trudge up a road a long way to find a vantage point, and and was very lucky the summit wasn't covered in cloud. You thought that was cloud on the top? No, that's steam ... and my resort was on a ridge, about 100 metres below this.

Who, in their right minds, builds a resort on the side of a volcano? Or a whole town at the foot of it? But in the past, when this volcano erupted, ash and lava flowed down the other side. There are established trees here, buildings decades old. There are emergency routes everywhere, 'just in case', but sometimes you just have to chance it - because all this volcanic activity means there are wonderful thermal spas to flop about in (and bridges to bungee jump off, for the truly intrepid).

If you wanted to stay out of reach of any seismic activity in Ecuador's mountains, you'd never build anywhere. If it's not volcanoes, it's tremors. The road from Banos to Cuenca (where I am now) could be one of the great road trips of the world - seven hours through the Andes and some of the most stunning scenery I've ever seen. And it's a good road, most of the way, except where tremors have caused cracks and potholes. It's hard to keep the show on the road when the earth keeps moving.

So there you have it, from jungle to volcanos to thermal spas and earthquakes. And it's wonderful!

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

A view from the jungle

I've been in the jungle. Not any old jungle - and with no convenient walkway to effect an escape if it all got a bit much. No, this jungle was deep inside the Yasuni National Park. This is what it looks like at daybreak:

I know we can be bombarded with demands to protect the environment, treasure its diversity, make sure we keep enough trees to keep us all breathing. But, having spend a few days somewhere that, at the moment, is truly remote, I begin to understand some of the challenges. 

It is surprisingly noisy. At night the frogs croak you to sleep. In the morning the parrots and the howler monkeys make sure you wake with the sunrise. I stayed close to a lake: at first glance the tea-black water is still and mysterious. Then the hump of a turtle appears, the plop of a fish, the beady eyes of a caiman. (These are the black caiman, the big ones, and aggressive). 

Down a small creek we saw a pair of giant otters - so rare they are now classified as endangered. A metropolis of insect life, including a tarantula and a small beetle that squirts poisonous wee. We saw tiny flycatchers, multi-colours parakeets, toucans (how do they not fall over, with beak that big), vultures and a harpy eagle.

Any old jungle? Possibly, except this corner of the rainforest escaped an ice age and so has some of the greatest diversity of plants, trees, insects, birds and mammals in the world.  

And, deep under the ground, is oil. Already the oil companies and circling. 

I stayed in an eco-project, deep inside the National Park. The only way to get there is by boat (for hours) and - at this time of year when the water levels are low - by walking for over an hour. Not even a track for a 4x4 to pollute the air. Water is purified on site. Waste is filtered. We had to use soap and shampoo provided so that no unwelcome chemical could pollute the place.

It has been set up by the local indigenous community, and is run entirely by them, thus providing employment for one group of people - and making sure that they will continue to treasure the forest, not only for the benefit of those of us privileged enough to visit, but also to protect these precious trees and birds and mammals. And surely they are the best people to run it, for they know one toxic tree from a tame one, can spot a tiny monkey from 150 metres, and know exactly which log to sit on and which is home to fire ants.

And it's stunningly beautiful. Please, big oil men, put your greed to one side, just for once.