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.