Sunday, 25 June 2017

Everlasting - the book!

Everlasting is nearly here - and yes, I have decided to call my ebook about Malawi ‘Everlasting’. Partly because he's such an extraordinary man. And partly because the challenges faced by Malawians feel endless.

This has been a hugely difficult book to write. Not only have I gone through the usual process of unscrambling my diaries and unpicking the story behind them. I have also had to wrestle with some deeply conflicting opinions, and tried to find a way to give them all enough space to be thought about.

I went to Africa with deep convictions about the importance of overseas aid: its role in eradicating poverty and providing people with a dignified standard of living. It is an opinion that was challenged  from the day I arrived. I found stories about the abuse of overseas aid almost everywhere I went. I also encountered numerous small projects, often funded by passing tourists but run by and for local people in their villages, that are making a huge difference to the lives and aspirations of Malawians. I came home with more questions than answers - and I hope the book reflects that. I shall be interested to see what you make of it.

So where is it? Somewhere between here and kdp. I've no idea what the problem is, uploading the manuscript, but apparently there is one. It will be sorted - and then I can give you the link.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Post for those who think Britain is the centre of the world.

I can’t bear to write about Grenfell Tower. Besides, I don't believe anything I wrote could approach the horror that so many families are living through. 

Behind that tragedy, the political shenanigans continue - both here in the U.K. and across the Atlantic in America. And there is a risk, with all the media attention on the comings and goings, that we believe we are the most important people in the world.

Meanwhile, riots continue in Venezuela. The country has one of the richest oil fields in the world, and still people are starving. The western press, at last, are following the riots - but will we ever really know how many people have died there?

Mugabe is still in power in Zimbabwe. It is a beautiful country with brave, resourceful people - who are still living from hand to mouth … if they are lucky. There is no freedom of speech - so can we ever really know how many people are dying of hunger?

Some years ago I went to Laos. It is the most bombed country in the world - there are more unexploded bombs there than people. They can be anywhere: beside the road, behind the villages, in school playgrounds. How do people carry on living with that?

Refugees still flee from Syria and conflicts in Africa. The lucky few are made welcome in new countries. Some find themselves in camps, waiting for some nameless authority to make decisions about them, as if they are no more significant than luggage. Many are wandering and frightened and alone. Nobody chooses to live like that.

As many of you know, I was in Malawi in the winter. It's the first country I've visited which left me pessimistic about the depth of the poverty and the lack of co-ordinated efforts to address it. Over eighty per cent of the population is deemed to be in need. My efforts to highlight the plight of Malawians will soon be published.

While we're busy (and we need to be busy making sure our politicians are accountable) people across the world are suffering. One of the things I've learned from my travels is that we all need the same things: enough to eat, somewhere safe to sleep, and to love and be loved. Surely those of us who can take that for granted can find the energy to think about men and women all over the world, from Grenfell Tower to Caracas to Lilongwe, who wake without knowing when they might eat again.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Democracy is a messy business.

I was, as some of you know, in Malawi in the winter.

In 1964, Malawi emerged from the British Protectorate and became a fully independent country. After years of protests, Dr Banda stepped into the role of President. My guide, Everlasting, worked for him at one stage - I think he was a mechanic looking after the Presidential vehicles and he was in a prime position to observe the machinations  of the system. He told me at length about Dr Banda's diplomatic skills, notably his efforts to bring the apartheid regime in South Africa back into the international fold. Everlasting was, however, reticent if I raised the question of Dr Banda's abuses of power at home.

In 1994, under pressure from within and outside Malawi, Dr Banda agreed to a referendum to introduce a parliamentary democracy and this launched the current multi-party system. There is, now, a proliferation of parties - but rarely a transfer of power. If an election produces a surprising result, ministers simply change parties so they can stay in office. Roads leading to ministerial homes are maintained while others are full of potholes. Ministers' friend and family live in luxury while it is common for teachers and other public servants not to be paid. None of this is hidden; I heard people discuss is openly and read stories of mislaid funds and unpaid teachers in the newspapers.

'So,' I asked, 'was life better under Dr Banda - before the multi-party system?'

Everlasting thought for a long time. 

'Now we have freedom of speech,' he said eventually. 

And that's the point. Now he can complain about his government and its incompetences. Yet even now he can't talk about the atrocities of the Dr Banda years, though he must have known about them.

This is democracy. It's messy and imperfect and can expose deep divisions. But it's precious. So maybe we should celebrate our current chaos - it's what we have the privilege of voting for. 

Sunday, 4 June 2017

Time to write, reluctantly, about the election.

Can I bear to write about the election? My first reaction, when her Mayship announced her change of mind and summonsed us to the polls again, was the same as Brenda from Bristol. (For those who haven't met her, you can see her here)

But, whatever the rights and wrongs of yet another poll, we are where we are. So it will be off to the polling station on Thursday, to put my cross on the ballot paper - and then to prop my eyes open until the small hours, to see the first results come through. (I always remind myself the result will be the same if I wait until the morning to find out who has won - but somehow the anticipation of those early results keep me awake long after I should have snuggled under the duvet).

For six weeks we have been drowning in electioneering. At first there appeared to be clear water between the two main parties; as I write this there is barely half a length between them. I've lost track of the leaflets that have plopped onto my mat. To be honest, I've barely glanced at them. It seems to me that most politicians make promises that they can't possibly keep.

So - how to decide which way to vote? 

I was on a local bus on the day her Mayship announced that her party was thinking about withdrawing universal winter fuel allowances for 'wealthy pensioners' (whatever that means). A group of older women on the bus were vociferous in their condemnation of the policy.

'No fuel allowance, no vote,' said one. Nobody challenged her.

Whatever the rights and wrongs of the policy, what depressed me most about this comment was the implication that the prime motivation in deciding who to vote for was self-interest. Are we really a nation of egoists?

None of us wants to pay more tax. But surely, when we come to vote, our priorities should rise above, 'What's in it for me?' Even if, like Brenda from Bristol, we might like to scribble on the ballot paper to show our irritation with yet another election, we owe it to our families, to the families down the road, to all the families in villages and towns and cities across the country, to mark our ballot paper in the belief that the party we vote for has the welfare of us all at heart

Sunday, 28 May 2017

Can anyone define 'home' for me, please?

What do you mean by 'home'?

I've been pondering this recently - in the context of moving home. I'm having to keep my house unnaturally clean and tidy, just in case I have a viewing at short notice. I look at books and pictures in a different light, now I know I won't have room for them all in my new flat. But a home is much more than clean floors, or books and pictures. For me, it's the place where I can be who I need to be at any given moment. I can be cheerful or crabby or knackered and it's all fine. 

But that's now. When I had small children - home was the place where we lived as a family. It was the container of family life, and my role was to support the fabric of the family in such a way that the children could be cheerful or crabby or knackered at it was all fine. And part of that was providing a building of some sort where we could be safe and warm and secure. These days I live alone. And so 'home' can no longer be defined by family living in it. But it still has a meaning for me in terms of being a refuge from the hurly burly of life outside.

Does 'home' include community? Does it encompass neighbours, villages, towns, cities? Here in the U.K. we shut our front doors behind us. In many developing countries villages people spend most of their time in communal living spaces. Does that impact on their idea of 'home'? Or is the construct meaningless if it's a place where you live all the time, not somewhere you leave and come back to front time to time?

As you know I travel, sometimes for up to six weeks at a time. A few years ago I left for twelve months. So where is 'home' when I'm away for so long? Hotel rooms? If I simply need a place where I can shut the door and be whoever, then some hotel rooms certainly feel like a home. I don't need luxury, but I do need somewhere safe and clean. And I need to know it's there - the anxiety of arriving in a town not knowing where I'm going to sleep defeats me these days. Does this imply that I could include the security of knowing where I'll be spending the night in my definition of 'home'?

Which leads me to speculate on our definition of 'homeless'. On a practical level we think of those who must sleep on the streets as simply having nowhere safe to spend the night. But I think it's much more complicated than that. 'Homes' are not just bricks and mortar. They include an element of predictability and security, a concept of being accepted for who we are.

I'm not quite sure where this thinking is leading. I feel as if I'm scrabbling for a definition but it's too elusive, or too deconstructed, to be really helpful. Maybe you have some better ideas.

Sunday, 21 May 2017

Privacy, and its changing shape in an online world.

I'm trying to sell a house, which has made me a bit obsessional about trying to predict what people might be looking for. I hadn't realised that some people have such strong opinions about wardrobes.

But I did know that many people want privacy, especially in their gardens. Now my garden has a tiny private courtyard-thing by the house, but the rest of it is open to next door - to the extent that we have no fence along one side and my neighbour and I stroll freely in each other's garden. She, too, has a private area at the top - and there is an unwritten agreement that we do not disturb each other if we are sitting in our quiet spaces. It works for us - but we are having to think about how it might not work for everyone.

But I has got me thinking about what we mean by 'privacy'. Speaking personally, I love sharing a garden. I also have no problem if people glance through my front window - if the colour of my curtains or the faded flowers on the window sill is important to them, then that's fine.

What I don't share with the world is aspects of my relationships - it's very rare for me to write about my daughters and grandchildren (even though they are the most wonderful daughters and grandchildren in the world). I don't post pictures of people unless they have given specific permission for me to do so. I'm not into soul-baring. I am keeping my feelings about the move to myself (well, friends and family are getting it in the neck a bit, but I'm not angsting online).

But I suspect I'm out of step with most people. I'm beginning to realise that 'being overlooked' in the garden is a huge downside when trying to sell a house. So there must be thousands of people who want to shut their front door and live unseen. Are these the same people who are baring their souls online? Is it easier to disclose painful feelings or difficulties to the unseen millions on Facebook than it is to sit in the garden with a book where the neighbour might see you?

I don't have any answers, but am interested in what you think.

Sunday, 14 May 2017


Goodness me, we've got a lot to grumble about at the moment. I almost can't bear to watch the news - what with Trump and his trumping, so say nothing of the lies and self-aggrandisement of our election. 

Here in the south of England we're worried about the lack of rain - the gardens are parched. Even closer to home, a recent gas leak brought the town to a complete halt; children were late for school. Closer than that, and I'm embroiled in a house-selling saga that ... I won't go on about that, it's too tedious.

Hang on a minute. I won't be homeless. What's more, my home has electricity and running water and the bricks won't be eaten by ants (not like this home in Malawi):

So, children were late for school. But their teachers waited for them. Their teachers are overworked and resources are limited. But they will be paid. And the libraries won't leak during the rains leaving books and equipment soggy and unusable (not like in Malawi)…

Our gardens are parched. And the farmers are warning of a poor harvest. But most of us will have enough to eat - I know there are hundreds of families who use food banks here (unforgivable in a country as rich as ours) but we aren't dependent on the World Food Programme to feed about eighty per cent of the population.

I can't even think about Trump. But our election: I know it's tedious, but it's important. And I know I've posted this picture before (in connection with our local elections) but it's a mantra (from Malawi) that needs to be sung from the rooftops:

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Travel agents - and why I need them.

From guides, to travel agents. 

Thinking about it, finding a good travel agent is the doorway to a good guide. If you trust the agent, you can be fairly sure that their guides will be kind and reliable. But finding a guide can be a bit like sticking a pin in a list of possibilities. So here is how I do it:

If I'm heading for the Far East I get a flight to Bangkok and a hotel near Koh San Road and then trawl the agents around there. But - a big but - I know there are a lot of scams that have their origins in the travel agents of Koh San Road. So I have a two-pronged approach.

Firstly, I don't go into an agent without some idea of where I want to go. If you wander in and see what's available there's a risk they will sell you anything. With a rough idea I'm less likely to fall for the beautiful pictures of a hotel that hasn't been built yet.

Then - I never buy anything on a first visit, unless I'm in a real hurry to move on (in which case the travel desk in a hotel is a better bet). Instead, I go back to my hotel and google them. Most agents have good and bad reviews, but a trawl through the bad ones generally highlights those who are truly dodgy.

Then - what about countries I've not visited before? In that case I'm entirely dependent on guidebooks and the internet. Most good guidebooks (Lonely Planet, Bradt) will suggest reliable agents, with their website and email addresses. I highlight those they recommended, and then google them - looking for reviews. (Of course I check out their websites, but anyone can have a glossy website and still be unreliable. So I don't take much notice of those.)

My experience is that this process narrows down my options to two or three agents. So I email all of them, and see what happens. If they reply - that's a start. And then it's a question of whether we can work together to sort out an itinerary. 

It's a lengthy process, and one that's worth taking time over. Sometimes they are the only people who know where I am, and who might notice if something goes wrong. Having said that, there is always a heart-stopping moment of transferring money half way across the work to people you've never met.

Here are three agents I'd always recommend:
In Ecuador, Happy Gringo - dreadful name, I know, but a great agency who were very flexible.
In Malawi, Central African Wilderness Safaris will do whatever you need them to do. (And if you're really lucky you'll meet Everlasting!)

And, of course, Tika's company in Nepal: Fujiyama Treks will always make you welcome.

Sunday, 30 April 2017

Finding a guide

I've been asked to write about how I find my guides - and how I decide if I need one in the first place.

If only the decision-making followed a logical sequence! Like some of my travels, it can all be a bit hit and miss. 

I'm going somewhere I've never been before, and have limited time and want to see as much as possible, I always begin by finding an agent in the capital. This is a bit like sticking a pin in a list of agents, but I do check out guidebooks and travel forums to find some that look reliable, email them all, and see who replies. Most ignore me. So assume that anyone who replies really wants to help.

What I'm looking for, at that stage, is advice on the reliability of local transport, suggestions of places to go, that sort of thing. Invariably the agents interpret that as a request for a complete itinerary, transfers, everything. So emails go backwards and forwards, and we eventually reach an agreement and take it from there. 

This is very different from my long trip, or if I'm going somewhere I know well, such as Bangkok or Kathmandu. In that case I book a hotel for the first few nights, and take it from there. If I decide I need a guide (I'd never climb a mountain without a guide, but will explore temples on my own.) there are plenty of local agents to help. (In Nepal, of course, there's always Tika.)

It's the agents who provide the guides. Those who have read this blog, or the books, will know I've met some extraordinary guides - notably, on this last trip to Malawi, the faithful Everlasting. Though I work on the principle that most of us are extraordinary if we are given the chance. So - while I'm fascinated by all historical guff they are telling me, I am equally fascinated by them. And I've yet to meet a guide who didn't give me permission to write about him or her.

So, that's how I find them. I've not, yet, had a guide who was openly dishonest or uncaring - I know that, travelling on my own, I run the risk of being exploited. I check things out as best I can, and then go for it. So far, so wonderful!

How do other people do it?

Sunday, 23 April 2017

Questions, questions ...

There will, as I've said before, be a book about Malawi. A narrative is beginning to emerge from my scribbles. But it will take a while - there's a lot of Life around here at the moment.

In the meantime, is there anything you would like to know about my travels? Like this blue-footed boobie, this is your change to surprise me.

My writing focus is on drawing out a narrative thread that holds a journey together. But my experience when I talk about travelling is people asking about things that I take for granted. Such as: what shoes do I pack? How do I manage money? How do I find hotels? What about food? How do I meet people? How much planning do I do? How do I manage my laundry? What about toilets?

These are the details of travelling that I now take for granted, thing I only think about if I'm asked about them. So this is your chance to ask me - anything. I'll do my best to answer over the next week or few.

Sunday, 9 April 2017

Local elections ... will you vote?

It's not long till the local elections. Yawn. I can only speak for myself, but I find it hard to be interested in who will sit in the town hall and spend hours discussing the whys and wherefores of the public toilets in the supermarket car park. Just fix the wretched things and move on.

But ... would I do it? No. I couldn't face the hours wrangling over toilets, or parking, or whether the shed on Ms B's allotment breaks planning regulations. But just because I'd rather chew my arm off than get embroiled in all this doesn't mean that it isn't important. After all, I pay my Council Tax and these people have to make decisions about how it is spent. They have to decide whether the potholes in the road the outside the school are more important than toilets. Whether to cut a few buses to small villages all week or all buses on Sundays. Whether a meagre charity grant should go to the children's playground or a Christmas lunch for the elderly.

So I shall vote. Which means, under the new system, it's up to me to make sure I'm registered.

After all:


I saw this on a rock by the roadside in Malawi - where there are no newspapers outside the major towns, and very few people have television. Which means that the only way to disseminate information in rural areas is word of mouth, notices on trees - or paintings on rocks, like this.

But surely it's a message that must resonate across the world. For if we don't vote, then we silence our own voices. And we risk being governed by tossers. Those people on the council, spending hours on the toilets (so to speak) - they are, finally, answerable to me and to you and to all of those who made sure we were registered and made it to the polling stations. Let's make sure, at least, that we elect decent people.

I've just checked - I am registered. Are you?

Sunday, 2 April 2017

Where's this Malawi book, then?

Where's this book about Malawi, then? After all, I've been back since the middle of February, and I've not said one word about it. Surely I've got some idea where it's going by now?

To be fair, no one has actually said that to my face. But there has been a hint or two, and so far I've managed to deflect them. However, I can't do that forever, so here is what is going on.

Firstly, I was ill when I came back. I've not written about being ill before, and I'm not going to start now. Suffice it to say that stringing a complete sentence together was an achievement for a few days, and it's taken a while to get back to 'normal' (whatever that means).

Secondly, plans are in place for me to move house. This has been on the agenda for a while, and now the wheels are in motion. It's something else I'm not going to write about - anyone who has moved house knows how brain-consuming it is, but that doesn't mean that anyone else is seriously interested in your dealings with agents or solicitors or your plans for new curtains. To be honest, I bore myself sometimes, thinking about it all. But it's the context in which I'm trying to have a life, so I've just got to run with it.

And then there's Malawi. I can, at the moment, find brief chunks of times to think about it - an essential preamble to trying to unpick the story of my trip. For there is a story - there are several stories - and I shall find a way to knit them together in some sort of coherent narrative. But give me time - it's not a straightforward country to think about and I need to do it justice.

In the meantime, I'll give you a picture, just to be going on with. I only know what animal this comes from because the guide told me - I wonder if anyone can guess?

Sunday, 26 March 2017

Electricity, luxury or necessity?

I don't know about you, but I take electricity for granted. Apart from the obvious fridges, freezer and washing machine, I have a plethora of gizmos and gadgets. Some of them are useful and some are just fun. And they all need plugging in and charging on a regular basis.

I have to think differently about electricity when I'm travelling. If there's none at all, well - I know where I am. Everything is charged in good time, and I'm careful with essentials. In Nepal, the government deals with a shortage of electricity by 'load shedding' - predictable power cuts which mean most people in the towns have electricity some of the time. People know where they are, and plan accordingly.

In Malawi, the supply of electricity seems completely arbitrary. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn't. And many hotel rooms have just the one plug.

I know I could do everything I need to do on my phone - take pictures, go online, read books, as well as sending texts and making phone calls. But I use separate gadgets, because if one goes wrong I still have the others. (A useful policy on this last trip when the charger for my iPad packed up). Which means that I had four things needing charging, and no idea when the power would be on, or for how long.

Some hotels had generators which they turned on in the evening. That helped. On other occasions I simply had to turn the chargers on whenever I could, and hope for the best the rest of the time.

All of which, of course, is a First World problem. Being realistic, what would have happened if my camera or kindle had run out of power and I couldn't recharge them? I'd probably have a bit of a hissy fit, but that's all. I'd still have enough to eat and somewhere safe to sleep. For my gizmos  are basically, toys.

But Malawians, who must live with this all the time - what is this like for them? This erratic electricity provides light to some of the towns and trading centres. (Many villages have none at all). But things like fridges are out of the question. Okay, so talk of fridges seems superfluous when so many don't have enough to eat. But I highlight fridges because of their potential to make lives so much easier for women: if they can store food safely they don't need to go to the market every day, which frees time in which they can look for paid work - which will buy the food to put in the fridge and a bit extra to help with books for the children. An electric cooker would be a complete luxury, and  mean she wouldn't have to collect wood for her fire, nor choke on woodsmoke as she stirs her soup.

Of course, such 'luxuries' are beyond the budget of millions of people in Malawi. Maybe even thinking about them is frivolous. Priorities must be food and shelter. But nothing will change unless people want them to, and believe that can. And there is no point in anyone even aspiring to change without reliable electricity.

Which puts my grumbling about trying to charge my phone into a different perspective.

Sunday, 19 March 2017

My first, sketchy, thoughts on the poverty in Malawi.

I will, in due course, write at length about the poverty in Malawi. I've met poverty before, of course, in India and the Far East, and am beginning to realise that it has a different meaning in different countries. For instance, in India the poverty feels embedded in the caste system; and there is, now, enough money in the economy to tackle its extremes. Conflicts in the Far East have left whole populations with a country to rebuild, and the determination to do just that.

And in Malawi ... I came away feeling that the poverty is so entrenched, with millions of people reliant on food aid and no prospect of earning enough money to support their families, that it will take miracles for anything to change.

For instance, this is a typical roadside market:

Heaps of green vegetables, under tarpaulins, at the roadside. Which is fine in the rainy season, when there are green vegetables to sell.

Or tomatoes:

In contrast, this market stall looks fairly prosperous, with its carrots and beans and peppers:

I was in Malawi in the rainy season, and vegetables were relatively plentiful (though the variety  is still limited). But when the rains stop, and the ground dries and vegetables shrivel, what then? Millions are dependent on what they have grown themselves and stored (which varies from year to year, depending on the rains), or the sacks of maize donated by the World Food Programme. Of course we can't leave people to starve. But as the years go by and people are still dependent on food aid, there is less urgency to tackle the poverty problem themselves.

What about work? There's work for the lucky few, and even then wages are low. Everyone else lives from one rainy season to the next.

The Malawians are kind, generous, welcoming people. They deserve better.

Sunday, 12 March 2017

Cave paintings from Malawi.

Any idea what this is:

I know, it's not instantly obvious. But how much that is created these days is going to survive for 10,000 years?

For this is a cave painting from Malawi. Men and women lived in these caves, hunting and gathering, and painting on the walls. There are spears and hoes - so we know a bit about their tools. There are animals - deer and zebra. There is a wonderful giraffe, which I can't show you as I couldn't get far enough away to get the whole thing in one picture. But the painter must have had some sort of ladder (or there were several people sitting on each other's shoulders!) to reach about 5metres above the ground to paint the head. The guide suggested that it was simply decoration, to make the cave more homely.

What stunned me most was the sheer existence of these paintings. There are eight sites, close together - suggesting that several families lives alongside each other in these caves. They're reached along a dirt road that is often impassable during the rainy season, so I was lucky to get there. They are found in a granite outcrop on the lower slopes of some significant hills - my guide (the faithful Everlasting) believes there must be many more yet to be discovered. There may be a metropolis of paintings in the mountains.

But it's more than that. These paintings gave people pleasure. The same pleasure that I get from the pictures on my walls and photographs of my family. Just like the people who lived here, 10,000 years ago. We're not so very different.

Sunday, 5 March 2017

The Planter's Daughter - in print!

Will I write about Malawi? Yes, but as usual it will take time. I've diaries to reread and think about - the usual preamble to shaping a book. But this post isn't aboit Malawi.

For my Planter's Daughter is, at last, a print book.

For those who have forgotten, this novel has grown from a vignette I came across in New Zealand. Barbara Weldon was born in Ireland, and travelled to the bleakest, coldest corner of New Zealand via England and Australia in the mid-nineteenth century. I'd chosen to go there ... but what about her? What took her across the world? How did she travel? What did she find there? Did she have lovers? Children? Although the vignette implied a very troubled woman, I so wanted her to have lovers.

Research brought only the sketchiest details. But I couldn't let go of her story. So I made it up. Well, most of it. And what fun I had - wallowing in research, wandering round Ireland and Liverpool, wallowing in more research. And finally writing the novel. I've kept the bones of her story and a few unexpected details; but this is definitely fiction. (I've blogged about the publishing decisions somewhere - so won't go over that again.)

The ebook came out before Christmas and has two wonderful reviews, plus some verbal feedback that made me blush - and requests for a print book. There simply wasn't time before I left for Malawi to get that show on the road, but now, at last, I can hold a real book in my real hands.

I know the 'writing journey' is a cliche, but this has felt like an expedition. And I'm relieved - and a      teeny bit proud - of having finally produced the book!

Here  it is, on Amazon.

And, to celebrate, and for one week only, the ebook is down to 99p!

Sunday, 26 February 2017

More pictures from Malawi

As promised, another selection of pictures - this time nothing but creatures, arranged from biggest to tiniest:

I was in a boat, and this elephant was on the bank, so I wasn't as alarmingly close as this looks!

We were also in a boat when we saw these hippos, running into the water. What a splash! And a cry from Everlasting, 'Don't tread on the baby!' (It's very close to its mum, at the front - in case you can't see it.)

The buffalo, taken just before we decided to turn tail!

Do crocodiles really smile? This chap looks absurdly pleased with himself!

A zebra crossing. It's not my best pic of the zebras, but I couldn't resist the corny joke. Sorry.

This is a fish eagle. Isn't it lovely?? Well, I think it's magnificent - they are huge, and fly low across the water, and I thought they were one of the most exciting things I saw!

At the other end of the bird-size scale, this is a tiny kingfisher.

Brownie points to anyone who knows what this is. It's about an inch or so long (I do know the answer - and never thought I'd actually see one, let alone take its picture!)

Sunday, 19 February 2017

Malawi - with photos, as promised

I must begin by introducing Everlasting - he has agreed I can write about him, and use his picture. Which is a good thing, because he is a story in himself. 

This is the M1, heading north. It used to be known as the Great North Road. It's a bit busier in the south, but the major hazards are people on bicycles and potholes.

Over 85% of Malawians live in huts like this, in the villages. This hut has a grass roof; those with a little more money have tin roofs, which last longer but are hot. 

This is a typical market - heaps of vegetables on the ground (it's hard to see all the detail here, but there are heaps of cabbages under tarpaulins, on the ground. It's mostly women who sell fruit at vegetables, on the ground. 

This is a roan antelope, up on the Nyika plateau. He is rather wonderful!

This is a typical dugout canoe, used for fishing.

And this is a Catholic mission house - one of the first built in Malawi. The missions have been hugely important,  providing schools and hospitals, and housing the nuns (most of whom come from overseas) in buildings like this.

Next week - there'll be more!!

Wednesday, 15 February 2017

Looking for Lions!

I've spent the last couple of weeks in the south of Malawi, travelling from Zomba to Mulange to Blantyre and then the remote Reserve of Majete. Although the population is denser here than in the north, most people still live villages, growing food for themselves and a little more to trade in the markets.

At first glance the markets are ramshackle, chaotic affairs. But there is a logic: fruit, vegetables and dried fish are in the shade of the trees. Heaps of second hand clothes are on tarpaulins in the sunshine, divided roughly into men's and women's. Tiny stalls sell pots and pans. There are tailors and cobblers and barbers.

Close by are the trading centres: small shops in brick-built or concrete structures with locking doors. They have names like Jesus Saves Groceries and God is Love Hardware. Though I was a bit flummoxed by Blessed Fanny Investments!

And so to Majete. This is the one reserve, at the moment, that is officially home to a pride of lions. (They occasionally wander across from Mozambique, but are unwelcome in the villages!) But this park is huge and so far there are just eight lions - they were reintroduced five years ago. So finding them was bound to be a challenge.

We saw eagles and vultures, swallows and bulbuls, kingfishers and orioles. A praying mantis hitched a ride on the truck. We saw impalas and water bucks and kudus and elephants. Hippos and crocodiles were at home in the river. We saw fresh lions tracks, and heard them roar. But the bush is dense with in the rainy season. I've no doubt they could see us, but they weren't coming out to play.

But then ... not a lion, but an enormous male buffalo, wallowing in a water hole. We edged closer (in a truck, of course); and closer, till we were about fifteen metres away. For a while he watched us, and then looked away, as if we weren't worth bothering about. Then he looked again. He shuffled his back leg, muscles rippling along the length of his back. Slowly he stood, and gave us a side view, so there was no mistaking the size of him. And then he turned, inch by inch, to face us. He lowered his head, to give us a view of his magnificent shoulders and the length of his horns. It was time for us to leave!

This, it seams, is his Park. I have one more chance to see a lion before returning to Lilongwe. But who needs lions when I've been face to face with a buffalo!

(I'll be home in a couple of days and I promise photos!)

Monday, 6 February 2017

South, among the hippos and crocodiles!

After a couple of days lounging about in Monkey Bay, I carried on southwards to Liwonde National Park - staying in a Lodge in the middle of the park, an hour upriver in a small boat. Though it was big enough to weave in and out of families of hippos and steer clear of the crocodiles.

The park is also home to zebras and impalas and bushbuck - soon to be lion-breakfast, as there are plans to reintroduce the big cats. (Apparently warthog is a favourite food of lions, partly, maybe, as they are relatively easy to catch! Which might leave the impalas for the crocodiles.) It is also home to thousands of migrant birds - tiny yellow weaver birds, swallows, and multi-coloured kingfishers. And magnificent fish eagles. It is the best-building season, so I watched as male weavers construct three hanging nests and then strut their stuff in the hope that a passing female will take a fancy to one of them.

I picked so much useless (in the UK) but unforgettable information! For instance, adolescent male elephants display their manhoods by extending their penises till they are dragging along the ground. And I've seen armies of ants on the ground ...

More worryingly, the local health centre (with no running water) is seeing up to 50 cases of malaria a day at the moment, most of them children under 5.

I tore myself away from Liwonde to spend four days on the Zomba Plateau, where it's lush and green, with unpredictable mountain weather. So I've had serious wind and rain. And no electricity.

Sorry, but I can't give you a photo this time. I've got an iPad-charging problem, and am having to eek out my battery. I promise pictures when I get home.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

I know our teachers work hard, but here in Malawi it's beyond tough!

I made it down from the heights of the Nyika Plateau, to spent a few days on the northern shores of Lake Malawi. I began in Karonga, not far from the border with Tanzania. It's a bustling town, thriving on trade from the north. But - though it's the rainy season - the rivers are dry and fields parched. Maize is brown and wilting. The World Food Programme will need to step on or people will go hungry here.

Further south, around Nkhata Bay, there has been more rain and the maize is flourishing. As are the pineapples, mangoes, cassava, sweet potatoes, sugar cane ... over 80% of Malawis are dependent on the food they can grow for themselves. But there is rarely enough to share, and no structure (that I can see) to share bounty in one part of the country with famine in another.

I was also privileged to visit a secondary school for girls - precious here, as too few girls continue their education into their teens. I spoke with two teachers, comfortable with classes of fifty students, in low brick-built blocks scattered between the trees. There is a library (though a student told me it was not well-stocked), a domestic science room, a computer room (though no internet access), and a full curriculum - including agriculture.

Two students showed me their dormitories. (As secondary schools are few and far between, and populations scattered, boarding is essential for most). The blocks are divided into small sections (when I was working I saw bigger prison cells) each with two bunks and four small storage spaces for suitcases. Mosquito nets are provided - but too few are used as these little spaces get so very hot. Malaria, it seems, is just another African hazard. There is a block with showers, and outside sinks where girls wash their own clothes.

These girls are the lucky ones. Although in theory women have opportunities in Malawi, in reality almost all these girls will go back to their villages and marry. The head girl told me that when she leaves school she will help her mother to run her business - buying second hand clothes by the ton and selling them in the markets. So she will, at least, have her own money to spend. But university ...

However, I did have my picture taken with the teachers and three students - and they've agreed it can appear on the internet. They made me so very welcome.

And, following that, I managed to visit a primary school, where a teacher was doing his best with a class of 130 five-year olds. Somehow he was still smiling.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

North from Lilongwe, into the wild Nyika Plateau.

I knew my provisional itinerary involved taking the road less travelled from time to time. But remote takes on a whole new meaning in Malawi. We (Everlasting and I) left Lilongwe on the M1 - a single track road carrying just us and a bicycle or two. After four hours we turned onto a dirt road into the Viphya Forest Reserve - to drive for another 15Km to reach the Lodge.

This reserve began as a pine forest: the land was given by the government to a company who promised to build paper mills. When the first trees had matured, the company asked for more land. The government refused. Pine is not indigenous to Africa, and they did not agree with further encroachment on the natural forest. There was a stand-off; the government refused to back down and the company walked away leaving acres and acres of land covered in pine. In addition, bush fires and illegal logging have damaged the forest even further.

The Luwawa Environmental Trust is now growing thousands of indigenous trees from seed and beginning to replant the forest. And so my three days in their Lodge, deep in what is left of the natural forest, has contributed to a tree or two.

From there, we headed further north, to the Nyika Plateau. I knew, from my guidebook, that it could be a challenging journey. I'll leave you to imagine 140Km on dirt tracks in the rainy season. Well, most of it was dirt tracks. Sometimes the track had been washed away and we bounced hopefully or swished through muddy water until we found ground the tyres could cling to.

But it was worth the drive. The Nyika plateau, in the wet season, is lush and green. It's mostly sandstone, with granite outcrops. Trees cluster in the valleys. Kites and buzzards soar overhead. Tiny larks and pipits nest in the grasses. Herds of zebra, eland and roan antelope gather on the hillsides. Snakes slither across paths and up trees: grass snakes, pythons and spitting cobra. And, prowling among the trees and creeping through the grasses, the leopards stalk the unwary. One roared outside my chalet door the night before I left (I didn't open the door to take a picture!).

And it is a million miles, or so it feels, from a reliable internet connection. So I've had to wait until I've reached the northern lakeshore to post this. But here, is a glimpse of the coffee time on the Nyika Plateau, with the table set (complete with cloth) on the grass next to the truck, and behind it the rolling uplands of Malawi.

Sunday, 8 January 2017

Introducing ... Everlasting

I have made it to Lilongwe without adventures. Hurrah! And there, to welcome me at the airport was Everlasting. He is my guide, and that really is his name. He has slightly grizzled features and most of his own teeth. His trousers were made for a fatter man. And he laughs.

We will, I realise, be together for the whole six weeks I am here. And so I have set about finding out more about him. His children, all four, are young adults now (though he is not too sure how old they are). One son plays for the Malawi national football team - and Everlasting swells with pride just to think of him.

'How often do you see him play?' I ask.

'Oh I hate to see him play. In case someone kicks him and he is hurt. Nobody can bear to see their child hurt.' I can see from the look on his face that he may need to be restrained from running on the pitch to give the other lad a what-for, and to kiss his son's bruises better.

He has shown me Lilongwe - it is a complicated city, with some magnificent buildings (largely unused, and funded by loans from China), some huge houses behind walls and metal gates. And there are areas of high density housing with markets and African bustle. There are also significant areas which have been set aside for development but not yet been built on. The city is a 'work in progress'.

By the time you read this, I shall be on the road heading north. I may or may not have access to wifi. Please, should you wish to comment, be assured that I shall get back to this blog eventually, even if it takes a week or more.

But I leave you with a picture, not of Everlasting, but of some soapstone hippos - they perch by the pool of my Lodge in Lolingwe.  And I like the smiles on their faces.

Monday, 2 January 2017

Onwards and Southwards

So, the year has turned. All crackers pulled. All puddings eaten. It's time to gather ourselves for whatever 2017 will throw at us. After last year ... surely there will be some wound-licking, some serious reflecting, and maybe a change of heart or two.

However, for a few weeks, I shall leave most of that to you. Because I'm off to Malawi on Thursday. Why Malawi? I've had so many people ask me, so I'll share my somewhat tortuous decision-making with you.

I want to go to Africa, because it's the only continent apart from Antarctica (too cold) where I've not travelled independently. But - where to begin?

I fancied Madagascar - most of the time, I'm sure, it's wonderful, but there were too many reports of marauding gangs with knives for me to feel comfortable. Taxis travel in convoy, because it's safer. I was told I'd be fine if I had a guide with a gun ...

So, where else? The east coast can be very wet at this time of year, so I looked west, and was intrigued by Senegal. It looks fascinating, and not that difficult to get around. I was ready to book when I did my final check - on the UK Foreign Office website. They said that most visitors have no problems, but travellers should remember that it is UK policy not to pay ransoms if anyone is kidnapped ...

So then I went on the Lonely Planet forum. Where, I asked, would you go for a first visit to Africa. The first - and very quick - reply was Ghana or Malawi. There were elections in Ghana last November - largely, as it turned out, trouble-free. But I don't visit any country around election time, as feelings can run very high.

Which left me with Malawi. Which is relatively stable, and safe, and - I have discovered - beautiful. For those unfamiliar with African geography, it's north of Zimbabwe, east of Zambia and south of Tanzania. It's long and narrow, spanning most of the west shore of Lake Nyasa, with a high plateau in the north and mountains in the south. Livingstone, apparently, loved it.

What will I do there? I'm not absolutely sure. It is the wet season, which might make roads a bit too interesting to get to the more remote areas, but will bring plenty of birds. I know they have power cut problems from time to time - and one place I hope to go has no electricity at all. Who knows what I'll find in the way of wifi?

But I'll do my best to blog from time to time.