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?