Sunday, 18 March 2018

Moving on

As some of you know, I moved last year; and had to tackle the challenge of finding my feet in a town where I knew no one. Time after time I had to be the ‘new girl’. 

I travel. I’m used to meeting new people - fellow travellers take little encouragement to talk about the places they’ve visited and where they might go next. There’s even a standard introductory phrase: ‘Where are you from?’ It’s a phrase that invites someone to talk about him or herself, and it’s easy to develop a conversation from there.

There is no such standard introduction when meeting new people who are already established in their own social groups. I’ve tried: ‘How long have you lived in ...’ and received polite answers but it’s hard to move on from there, even when I try to pick up on something in their reply that I can ask about. It’s a salutary lesson.

For most people already have established friendship groups. Unlike travellers, they aren’t looking for new people to chat to. And so I have needed to be, if you like, pushier. I’ve made a point of giving people my phone number, asking for their’s, ringing and inviting them for coffee. I’ve knocked on doors of the flats where I live and offered tea. I’ve joined - what haven’t I joined! And it has paid off.

It’s not been easy - and it will take time to develop the sort of friendships that sustained me over the years I lived in my old house.

But ... or maybe that should be ‘and’ ... it takes effort, and sometimes more than a little bravado. I don’t always enjoy it, but I can do it. What is it like for someone with less confidence than I have? Someone with a disability who can’t get out there and edge into conversations? Working parents who have no time to chatter at the school gates? Working parents who spend ridiculous hours commuting and barely have energy for the children, let alone getting to know their neighbours?

I can do this - but many people find it difficult. Maybe that’s the lesson for us all - to make more space to welcome strangers, wherever they come from.

Sunday, 11 March 2018

Dear Spring

Dear Spring,

Winter has had its time - really, it’s done its worst. We’ve had the complete repertoire - dark, wind, rain, snow, frost, blizzards, storms - and many of us have come out the other side a little chastened. Sometimes, here in the comfortable western economies, we assume we can control more or less everything. This winter was a brutal reminder that we can’t. People were stuck for hours in their cars. Pipes burst and left families without water. Electricity failed and the vulnerable were freezing. 

We’ve learned our lesson, honestly we have. Weather is a serious issue and we will respect it in the future. Promise. 

And so, Spring, don’t you think it’s time you turned up and cheered us all up a bit? I know you’ve provided a few carpets of snowdrops, but they’re looking a bit sorry for themselves after being deluged with snow. Surely it’s time for a daffodil or two? A splash of yellow to remind us what sunshine looks like? Fresh green leaves on the beech trees? Birds a-twittering and gathering bits of stuff to build nests? Enough warmth in the sun for us to take some of our woollies off?

In a couple of weeks the clocks will go forward. It is a structured reminder that longer days are coming - a device dreamed up by men and women to trick us into believing winter is behind us. We need the Weather to catch up.

Please, Spring, do the decent thing and bring us some sunny days. With daffodils.

Sunday, 4 March 2018

Life in the open air.

Hopefully, by the time you read this, it will be a bit warmer. But goodness, hasn’t it been cold! Like almost everyone else, I’ve stayed indoors. Not only because that is the official advice (I’m not one for official advice, but not putting my life and the lives of those who might have to rescue me at risk seems common sense to me.). There was an eerie hush outside. Even the birds stopped twittering. My lovely town seemed to be holding its breath waiting for warmer weather. 

We in the UK make a fuss about weather. I’ve just come back from Nepal (as many of you know) where people respond more pragmatically. It’s hot ... wear something light and flimsy that keeps your skin covered from the burning fire. It’s chilly ... wear more clothes (I learned to wear a blanket while I was there), and join your neighbours round a fire.

And maybe it’s the neighbours that make such a difference. For most of life in rural Nepal is lived outside. Rooms are for cooking or sleeping in. Everything else happens in the open air. Lives are lived in public. Women sit in their doorways to pick over the rice to find stones.  Children flit from family to family. Young people do their homework on the kerbside. 

Which means that if anyone has a problem the street or the village knows - not via any gossipy grapevine, but simply by concerned word of mouth. The ups and downs of family life spill out into the street and become everyone’s concern. And everyone chips in to help find a solution.

The Nepali don’t need official advice when the weather is challenging. They don’t need a government to remind them to look in on vulnerable neighbours to make sure they are warm enough and haven’t run out of bread. It is simply second nature to take care of each other.

I know our climate, in the UK, makes outdoor living impossible for much of the year. But, as we hide behind our locked doors, or even grow huge hedges to ensure the privacy of our gardens, we also shut ourselves off from the possibility of communal nurturing that keeps the show on the road in so many developing countries. It is, I think, our loss.

Sunday, 25 February 2018

In praise of small charities.

There’s been a lot of less-than-charitable hoo-ha in the press recently, much of it justified. The behaviour of some aid workers and their managers is indefensible. It is hardly surprising that their donors are withdrawing support. It will raise huge questions next time there is a disaster - we need the organisational know-how of the big agencies to deal with floods and earthquakes.

But I’ve observed, in my travels in some of the world’s most impoverished countries, that many of the big changes in people’s lives are made by the tiny charities. 

For instance, the Chitepani Trust, begun about twenty years ago to help the residents of a small village in the Himalayas, has - in that time - given every home a toilet and biogas for cooking, made sure the small health centre is stocked with basic medications and provided additional support for villagers with special health needs, and supported students and teachers in the village school. It is a small project - and has changed lives.

The Mandala Trust, slightly bigger, seeks out small projects that have grown from local efforts to meet local needs: it helps with funds and occasionally with expertise, but its basic tenet is to enable people to manage their own project.

In Malawi I came across a school, reliant on tourist money, but it has grown from a ‘classroom’ under a tree to an institution with buildings and a uniform and children who can learn to read and count who might otherwise be illiterate.

But we don’t need to look to the developing world to find small projects that make a significant contribution to people’s lives. With councils unable to meet even their basic obligations it is now down to the likes of you and me to keep the social show on the road.

Is there a community centre near you? Who runs it? And how is it funded? My guess - it’s a small charity, and is run by a small group of overworked volunteers who manage to provide everything from yoga-for-young-mums to support groups for the elderly. 

What about an environmental group, cleaning up local waste ground or keeping the footpaths clear? 

Do your children play football? Go swimming? Go to Woodcraft? Attend a project for children with specific needs? None of them are free, but almost all are run by volunteers - and many of them are charities and rely on donations.

And so - while the behaviour is a few in the big charities is abhorrent (and I don’t suppose the small ones are all whiter than white) - it’s essential that we don’t let that colour our view of the charitable world in general. The vast majority are run by committed, hard-working people and they need our support. It’s the least we can do, given the lives that they change.

And if you help run a small charity, please feel free to put all possible links in a comment.

Sunday, 18 February 2018

The House that Buddhi Built

This is the house that Buddhi built.

 As some of you know, I went to Nepal soon after the earthquake in 2015 - invited by friends who wanted me to see that the country was still up and running and open for business. And it was - hotels were still open; guides were ready with their kit to take trekkers up the mountains; restaurant kitchens still smelled of oil and chillies. There was damage - and an urgent need to get on with the rebuilding - but more than anything the country needed its economy to get back on its feet. And that meant the return of tourism.

But I couldn’t avoid seeing the damage, the families living in tents in Kathmandu, the homes propped up by poles or bits of corrugated tin. And among these damaged home was Buddhi’s.

Let me tell you a bit about him. Some years ago he took me into the mountains. I hufffed and puffed up the slightest incline and he was beside me for every step. He phoned ahead to find me the best rooms in the tea houses. And when I flagged he took my rucksack and carried it. He is funny and kind and he kept me safe.

And he has a hearing problem. He was born with only one ear, and his hearing in that ear is beginning to fade. Life as a guide is becoming impossible. He cannot take a big group (and get the big tips), and has to rely on single trekkers or couples. It is barely enough to keep his family - and certainly not enough to rebuild his broken house. It would cost £1500.00 to replace it.

And so I wrote After the Earthquake and all proceeds went towards a new house for him, and appealed to anyone who had a penny or two spare, and we raised the money. I thank you all. 

But really, we did the easy bit. We didn’t carry bricks up the mountain. We didn’t work in the blazing sun, nor in the monsoon, to build the walls and put on a roof to keep the family dry. We didn’t wield a paintbrush go make this new home look beautiful. Buddhi did all that himself.

I won’t show you a picture of Buddhi’s old house, nor the drawn look on his face when I saw him just after the earthquake. But this is how happy he is now.

Sunday, 11 February 2018

A walk by the lake

Nepal, as you know, is home to the Himalaya. I can gaze at their snow-capped enormity from the rooftop in my apartment in Pokhara. It is also home to tigers, rhinos and leopards, to drongos and vultures and soaring golden eagles.

And it has beautiful lakes and rivers. It is an easy drive from Pokhara to visit Begnas or Rupa lakes, to sit by the still waters with a plate of mo-mos and watch men fishing from low-lying canoes. But, closer to home, Pokhara has a lake of its own - Fewa Lake - and I’ve spent many happy hours wandering beside it. 
I take the dusty path into the park, pause to watch an indeterminate number of young men playing cricket on the football pitch, and then turn to stroll beside the lake. The water is murky - and I know there are problems with weed and falling water levels, but from the path it looks unruffled and peaceful. I reach for my camera ... making sure that the picture doesn’t include the young woman who must wash her hair in this lake. 


I stroll on, with an detour round an army base, to rejoin the lakeside path beside the ghat where pilgrims gather to take boats across to the little temple on an island.    

Buses turn round here; hawkers sit beside white clothes filled with trinkets: necklaces, earrrings. Women sell oranges (it is the orange season here and they are wonderful); a man offered fresh-cut coconut. One man, his limbs grossly distorted, begs beneath a holy tree. There is even a public toilet, 5 rupees for a ‘short stay’ and 10 if you need longer, and a little whiffy, so I’ve not investigated.

I leave the general mayhem behind and wander on north. When I first visited Nepal this was nothing but a narrow path. Now it is paved, with plenty of garden cafes to sit with a lemon soda or mango juice (and maybe cake) and watch the world go by. Local families walk here, stopping to buy juice or nuts or water from the Tibetan women who trade beside the water. 

There is a fish farm - the water in the concrete pools is stagnant and surely unused, but there are nets in the lake and local restaurants offer ‘Fewa Lake’ fish. I shudder to think what else might be in this water. For, looking closely, there are still makeshift shacks here where people live. Women do their laundry in the lake, and drape shirts and trousers and blankets over fences and hedges to dry. What water must they use for washing themselves? And for cooking? I pass a couple of outflows but don’t investigate them.

It is a conundrum. I love this lake, and walk beside it almost  every day. I love its ripples and its green reflections and the crowds heading for the temple. But, although I will not photograph them, I cannot ignore those who eek out an existence on its shores.

But I do love its little boats. Shall I go boating? ... maybe not today.

Sunday, 4 February 2018

The Day I Jumped off a Mountain.

For young people who spend their holidays looking for adventures on white water or leaping off bridges attached to an elastic band, my jumping off a mountain will seem tame. But, in general, I prefer to keep my adrenalin under control. The most alarming thing I do deliberately, here in Nepal, is cross the road in Kathmandu. That is enough excitement for one day.

Do why did I jump off the mountain on a zip line?   It looked fun ... is that good enough?

Nerves began to breed as I filled in the disclaimer form. Who is my emergency contact? (Oh Emergency Contact people, do you need to know I’m doing this?) Provide the details of your travel insurance. (Does my ‘no dangerous sports’ exclude a zip line?). 

Then, please, sit, the jeep will come for you soon. Watch the video ... of people launching into nothingness ... But still I didn’t say, I’m sorry, I’ve changed my mind. Even though my stomach was so full of butterflies by then it had clearly decided that this was a Bad Idea.

The jeep to the top of Sarangkot takes about 45 minutes. The driver knew every bend and pothole, and paid only fleeting attention to anything coming the other way. With every metre we climbed, I knew I was going to come down it much, much faster.  

We stopped,, eventually, and I had a five minute climb up sandy steps, stopping twice along the way to ‘look at the view’ (catch my breath). Everything was getting a bit surreal. The cloud was thin up here; the valley looked slightly muffled. Paragliders circled the mountaintop. Kites flew high on the thermals. An eagle flew across the hillside just below me.  

I was led to a metal platform and strapped into a canvas seat, my feet pressed against a metal gate. I was beyond thinking by then. A man with a huge smile gave me the same instructions five times, presumably in the hope that they would, at some point, go in. Pull this rope if you see a yellow flag and that rope if you get stuck. Neither of which was reassuring.

And then, the gate had gone and I was on my way down the mountain. 


For two minutes I dropped 600m over 1.8km. But the statistics don’t tell you how it feels. There is little sensation of speed - rather the sense of rushing through a resistant wind (the wind did make me sway a bit). My eyes watered but I didn’t care. The forest drifted by beneath me, thick and green. Beyond the forest, the river - with its sandy shoreline and women washing in the glacial water - and on I flew till, oh no, I could see the landing site. I wanted this to go on forever. 

But there was a man waving a yellow flag and, miraculously, I yanked the right rope and my hurtling journey eased to a stop and I was pulled in to a small concrete platform where I was unbuckled and bounced off to greet the friend who had taken pictures. 

So here I am, swinging high across the valley. I know it’s not elegant, but believe me - this was magic.