Sunday, 17 September 2017

Anyone for hospital food?

One day, when I was in Malawi, we drove past a hospital. On the opposite side of the road, among the trees and mud banks, was a village of tents and shacks and makeshift food stalls.

‘For the relatives,’ Everlasting explained. (If you don't know who Everlasting is, click here!) ‘They know what people like to eat - so they can bring tasty food to the sick people in the hospital, good food that will help them get better.’

I don't know how many of you have sampled hospital food recently. But I've come across it twice in the past few months - and in two very different hospitals. Even so, the experience was similar.

Breakfast - cereal, and toast and tea - if you're lucky. You need to be awake when the nurse has five minutes to get it for you. Miss that window, and you have to wait till lunchtime. 

Most hospitals give you a lunch menu the day before. But there is no guarantee that they will have whatever is it you have asked for - or if it will be palatable. (Meals are cooked in a central factory, up to three months in advance.) Which is just tough for anyone with a special diet - or even a vegetarian (hardly a ‘special diet’ these days).

Tea - is a tired sandwich or soup that began life in a tin.

It's the cuts, of course - diets reduced to a bare minimum. No thought of offering something tasty and tempting to encourage sick people to eat. Which is why, if you should be visiting a hospital at lunchtime, you will see so many people arriving with plastic boxes full of something truly tasty. ‘They know what people like to eat - so they can bring tasty food to the sick people in the hospital, good food that will help them get better,’ as Everlasting said.

80% of the population of Malawi live in poverty. So it's not surprising that it's a challenge for hospitals to provide adequate nutrition to patients as well as treatments and medication. 


But in a wealthy economy like ours? There may be a conversation to be had about whether patients should make a contribution towards their food. But, as things are, patients with relatives nearby who have the time and energy to provide good nutrition will fare better than those with no one. Yet another division between those who have family to fight for them and those who are alone and abandoned.

Sunday, 10 September 2017

Rationing the news.

I have to make myself watch the news at the moment. The political shenanigans in the UK and America are painful enough (the bungling might be comic if the potential consequences weren't so catastrophic) - but they pale into insignificance in the light of the recent onslaught of ‘natural disasters’. (The ‘..’ indicates a recognition that some of these may be the result of man-made climate change.) 

As one storm followed another - have we forgotten those who died in the mudslide in Sierra Leone? The floods in Asia that I wrote about last week, and those in China? Hot on their heels came the storms and hurricanes currently battering the Caribbean and America. A huge earthquake in Mexico has been relegated to the inside pages of the newspapers. 

Everywhere, or so it seems, people are homeless. Refugees from Africa and the Middle East brave the waves of the Mediterranean. Bangladesh - those areas not under water - are flooded with Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar.

It’s overwhelming - all this need and trauma. But we still have to deal with the realities of life. Domestic stuff has to go on - we need to decide what to have for supper and if we have enough milk. Lawns need mowing. Children need kisses before heading off to school.

I can only speak for myself here - I have to ration the news. If I catch every bulletin I risk being paralysed by the sheer extent of it all. But that way madness lies. And failure to look after the daily trivia helps no one. But there are times, when I musing over which book to choose in the library or picking over apples in the market, that I find myself reflecting on the insignificance of such choices. 


It's a dissonance that I find deeply uncomfortable. I don't have a solution - and maybe that's fine. We should not turn our backs - nor our feelings - on the millions of people in such terrible need. But there is no point on wallowing in their reflected misery - we have lives to lead. Few of us are able to  up sticks and do anything practical to help (though we can contribute to appeals). All we can do, it seems, is notice the enormity of it all and then keep the show on the road in our own small corners of the world.

Sunday, 3 September 2017

Why are some floods more floody than others?


You can't have missed the pictures of floods in America. The impact of the storm in Texas and Louisiana has been truly shocking - and the heroism of those working to help those in need cannot be underestimated. Thousands have lost everything, and are now homeless. The water is now receding in places but the clear-up has yet to begin.

You might have missed the extent of the floods in India, Bangladesh, Nepal and now Pakistan. I've seen the occasional bulletin on the news programmes and passing pictures in the papers, but nothing like the coverage we've seen (here in the U.K.) from America.

So, just in case you think this is nothing more than a heavy monsoon, here are some figures. These floods have gone on for weeks - and there is more to come. Thousands have died. And (according to The Guardian) forty million people are affected. 

That's right - forty million people. 40,000,000 people - people just like you and me.

Now I don't wish to minimise the distress of those caught in the floods in America. Their trauma runs deep and their need for help is urgent. Already the relief effort is predicted to cost billions of dollars and Congress is being asked to help.

But I've no idea what it will cost to clean up the devastation in Asia. I know one of the most urgent needs is clean water (available in bottles in America) to forestall a cholera epidemic. I know they need mosquito nets to prevent malaria running wild. Local people are doing what they can. Friends of mine in Nepal have given blood and blankets. 

So where is the international relief effort? I am certain it's there. Volunteers will be working their socks off trying to provide shelter, food and health care. But who will pay?

Where is the disaster relief appeal? 

We've grown accustomed to disasters such as this prompting international appeals for money. It's the only way to raise the sums needed to scrape the surface of such huge need. So why not this time?

Or are we so focused on those wading through water in America that those in Asia somehow don't matter quite so much?


(When I raised this on Facebook I ruffled a few feathers. How dare I accuse anyone of racism, that sort of thing. But sometimes feathers need a bit of ruffling, don't they?)

Sunday, 27 August 2017

The sky is no limit

I'm not sure why I find big skies so exciting. But here, in my new flat, I can stand on my balcony and have a view around 240 degrees - and it changes all the time. And so, given that describing skies is so difficult I'm going to just give you some pictures.

These are all taken from the same place, all looking more or less to the west. And they will begin to show you why I love my new flat!







Sunday, 20 August 2017

Why I have no right to whinge.

Last week I had a bit of a whinge about the challenges of being the ‘new girl’.

Many years ago, I did a training placement in a refugee camp for Asian people expelled from Idi  Amin’s Uganda. For those too young to know what I'm talking about, Idi Amin - the then president - got it into his head that all Uganda’s problems could be sorted if the country were not home to so many Asian people. I know, yes, he was bonkers.

Many had British passports (a throw-back to the Empire) and arrived here in their thousands. Makeshift camps were set up, and bit by bit they were helped to find somewhere to live and many established their families here. But the initial phase was chaotic.

I worked in an old army camp, where families were housed in the barracks, divided from each other by flimsy walls or curtains. Most had left behind comfortable homes and flourishing businesses - and they arrived here with nothing. Adults seemed to spend a lot of time wandering around looking lost. The children - with their parents apparently so out of control - were all over the place. I spent a lot of time playing football, trying to run off a bit of the children's energy before they went back to the few square yards allotted to each family. 

But it soon became clear that many of our residents were mothers with children, their husbands apparently stateless and somewhere in Europe. And so the bulk of my work was in accumulating information about all these families - in order to show the government that it would be cheaper to allow the men in (as they would work and support their families) than to provide social assistance for the women and children. 

I spent hours and hours interviewing - often with an interpreter. These women, many of whom had never had to manage alone before, were frightened - and some were ashamed of the circumstances in which they were living. I discovered disabled children who had not been registered - their mothers had assumed having a disabled child meant they would be at the back of the housing queue. I found lone children, managing as best they could - not knowing even if their parents were still alive. 

I have never - before or since - worked as hard. But my efforts were a drop in the ocean, given the numbers and the need. These were families who had been forced to flee with almost nothing, arrive in a country with no idea what to expect and some with no English, and somehow they were expected to ‘make the best of it.’

And there must be thousands more refugees in similar circumstances today.


So when I complain about the challenge of walking into a new book group for the first time, you may - metaphorically of course - smack me.

Sunday, 13 August 2017

Starting again.

Well, here I am. All sorted (well, unpacked) in my new flat. My books are on shelves. I've worked out how the washing machine works, and the cooker. My mind is beginning to settle - I can read again! (For me, an inability to read anything longer than a thousand words or so is indicative of Serious Stress.)

And now what? I've moved to a town where I know nobody. I have very good reasons to be here - there is a station, and theatres, and creative things for children in the middle of town. But I can't make friends with a station. Nor can I spend all my time using the station to see friends who live elsewhere. I have to do the brave thing - find book groups and writing groups, and walk in as the new girl.

I should, surely, be used to this? When travelling, I meet new people all the time. I can strike conversations easily. Can this be so very different?

Somehow it is. I've met some extraordinary people when I've been travelling. But most of them I'll never see again. In my experience, most travellers take very little prompting to talk about themselves and their travelling - and I'm more than happy to chip in with a reminisce or two. We might have a beer together, watch the sun go down, pass on information about bus or train times and great places to stay, and then it's farewell and on to the next town. (Tika and Everlasting, of course, are exceptions!)

But here - I feel a need to tread more warily. My interest in those I meet is as sharp as ever - but now it matters what they think of me. Where is the balance between being interested, and being nosey? I don't want to look pushy, or - like Nellie-no-mates - desperate for people to talk to. On the other hand, though I'm not unhappy on my own, I know that my life will be richer if I become part of this community.

It's over thirty-five years since I last moved to a new town. At the moment all this newness is an adventure. But sometimes I have to grit my teeth and be brave.


And if it's like this for me, when I know the language and systems and how to navigate the transport system … what is it like for refugees? My nanodrops of courage are nothing besides the reserves that they need.

Sunday, 23 July 2017

Time for a moving-break.

Home-moving takes over the world.

And other peoples' moves really aren't that interesting. There's nothing original to say about packing and unpacking and forgetting the kettle (or the wine).

And so I'm shutting the blog-shop for a couple of weeks till it's all over. Hopefully I'll have my brain back by then.

Sunday, 16 July 2017

On having the concentration span of a gnat.

Stress comes in many shapes and sizes. Right now mine is in the shape of a house. People move house all the time. There's nothing original about mine, but it is taking over my world at the moment.

But it has, for me, highlighted the side-effect of this level of stress - having a concentration span reduced to that of a gnat. I do have a rudimentary understand of the neuroscience: I know that all the thinking bits of my brain are firing at the same time and finding it confusing trying to talk to each other. But does that help me live with it? Does it, hell!

I know I could be more constructive if only I could complete one task before beginning another.  But there I am sorting out a cupboard, when I remember I need to give my new address on my travel insurance people. So off I go to find the list (which list? I now have several, some of which - like my brain - fail to talk to each other). While I'm there I notice I still haven't found anyone who might like my garden tools. So I settle with the phone … and when it's bedtime I wonder - why there is stuff all over the bedroom floor? 

How am I meant to complete anything? How am I meant to remember where I left the wretched lists in the first place? 

Then - I manage to sit down for five minutes. This, I tell myself, is the moment I shall arrange the transfer of my Internet. I phone the provider … I am in a queue. I'll try tomorrow. Tomorrow comes. I try again, and this time wait in the queue … and wait … and then, oh joy, I am speaking to a person and I've come through to technical support and not home-moving … but I'm transferred … why didn't I make myself a coffee before I began this? Fortified, I might have stood a chance of concentrating in through a process that somehow took over half an hour. 


But at least it's one thing I can tick off the list. If only I could find the right list …

Sunday, 9 July 2017

On laughing through the bad times

There’s no escaping the news at the moment. A buffoon is in the White House (a man who thinks climate change is just ‘weather’ has his finger on the nuclear button). Here in the UK the referendum has exposed deep divisions which are exploited by extremists on both sides. Years of austerity have left those who look out for us impoverished and demoralised; the horror of Grenfell Tower is a testament to the powerless of the poor.

It is enough to make anyone wants to retreat into a corner and chew their own arms off. How can we feel anything but useless when those who are meant to take decisions on our behalf continue to disregard the needs and feelings of the disadvantaged? In the U.K. David Cameron’s suggestion that those who wanted nurses and firemen and women paid reasonably were ‘selfish’ (when he is paid however many thousands for one after-dinner speech) seems to sum up how little politicians care about those who elected them.

Most of us are totally powerless to change anything - other than being kind to those around us. And we must never underestimate kindness. It is, surely, evidence of our continued humanity in spite of everything. Small kindnesses can make a huge difference. 

But I think we need more than that - we need fun. How, you might ask, can we be frivolous when we are surrounded by misery and uncertainty? Isn't it somehow insulting to those in abject need if we take time out from breast-beating to have a good party? Doesn't spending time in unnecessary jollity imply a lack of concern for the general political and social mayhem?

But I think it's essential to take time out occasionally. Laughter is, in itself, restorative. Good food, especially eaten with those we love, nourishes far more than our stomachs. Even a dance round the kitchen is oddly energising.

It's probably not possible to manage a precise balance between frivolity and general angst. While it might be tempting to ignore the dreadfulness and live hedonistically, such a view is an abdication of any responsibility to hold our politicians to account. But spending every minute fighting injustice, in the light of apparent indifference from those in power, must be hugely demoralising. 


Somewhere there must be a balance - and maybe that changes from day to day. But I think it's worth striving for, even if we get it wrong most of the time.

Sunday, 2 July 2017

Everlasting, the ebook!

Well, 'tis done. It's been hard to find the headspace to disentangle my Malawian exploits and reorganise them into a coherent narrative. Only time will tell if I've managed it.




On top of the writing challenge - and without going into too much ‘poor me’ detail - I'm moving. 
People move all the time. They get stressed and they get over it. Well, that's the plan. But it's been the unfortunate context in which I've tried to unscramble my Malawian diaries.

But this book felt important - more than some of the others. This is much more than ‘woman has a great time in Malawi.’ It was a trip that challenged me physically - for the first time I wondered if I really need to spend hours bouncing around in a truck while being driven up a dirt track in the rainy season. I also had an interesting encounter with termites (well, interesting in retrospect. At the time I was busy picking them out of my ears, and my nose, and from by shirt-front …)

However, the real challenge of this trip lay in its questioning all my ethical assumptions about the role of aid agencies in tackling apparently intractable poverty. From the day I arrived I met people with strong opinions - everyone had ideas, but no one had solutions. What I found most upsetting was nobody seemed to see the purpose of a career in overseas aid as working themselves out of a job. 

Given that I met almost as many opinions as people, it was difficult to unpick them all and write about them with any sense of narrative. My solution was simply to provide accounts of many of my conversations, to show how one idea built on another in my own thinking, and then leave it to you, dear reader, to reach your own conclusions.

Behind all this travelling and thinking - was Everlasting. He has agreed I can put his picture on the cover of the ebook, and to use his name in the title. He is an extraordinary man, and it was a privilege to spend six weeks with him. And something pretty special happened for him, too - so he won't forget this trip either. So, more than anything else, this little ebook is a tribute to him. 


Readers in the UK can find it here. And if anyone wants a copy to review, please let me know.

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

Grumbling

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?