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.