Sunday, 28 July 2013

I may be a little while ...

Yes, this is still me - with a new blog title and a picture (I worked out how to do it, at last!), the same address - what do you think? Better? Or shall I go back to the old look?

This will be my only blogpost this week. For today my grandson is coming to stay.

This week I shall eat a lot of baked beans and chips. And probably ice cream. I might pretend vegetables come from Mars and are essential for anyone who hopes to be an astronaut; or I might give in and eat more baked beans.

When the sun shines I shall play in the river and when it rains there will be games and maybe there will be cheating but it doesn't matter, for he is my grandson and can do no wrong. I shall polish my goalkeeping skills, but be forever useless (dive, grandma, dive ...). I shall be woken at daybreak and maybe he will tell me that his clock is broken, though in truth he has taken the battery out, but it doesn't matter for he is my grandson and can do no wrong.

I shall sit in the front seat on the top deck of the bus and pretend to drive. And if he sings about the wheels on the bus very loudly that is fine for he is my grandson and can do no wrong. We shall arrive very early to catch a train; but I'll not let him run around on the platform for that is dangerous, even for little boys who can do no wrong.

This week I shall do no writing.

And when there is reading it will be stories for six-year olds.

Wednesday, 24 July 2013

In a corner of Lille ...

It was hot - goodness it was hot. And, given that it was Monday and most of the shops were closed, I had the streets almost to myself.

Which meant I could notice all the quirky things that might normally be hidden in the bustle of city life. For instance, I found a wonderful yellow door, covered in writing. I'm sure it was something to do with the theatre, as there were other theatrical shops around and a sign of a woman with a splendid feather in her hat hanging above the door.

But it was the door that intrigued me, its very yellowness, and all its words.

The problem is: my French is dreadful. So here I need your help. I have here a random four extracts, all scattered in various places on the door - and since I don't know what they mean I have no idea if I've selected nothing but trivia and ignored the deep and meaningful. I suspect these are quotations from plays? If any are truly rude, then I apologise. And, as you will see, the writing crosses lines in the door as if they aren't there, so some bits are quite difficult to see.

Is this something about an outrage? An assassin?

I think I get this - a cousin has said something bizarre - I wonder what? There must be a story there.

Is someone arriving during a quarrel? Why do I need to know that?

This is possibly the most difficult to see - but please tell me it doesn't mean I love your fat bum?

Sunday, 21 July 2013

When this is posted, I'll be in France masquerading as a travel writer!

This feels a bit unlikely - given that I'm writing this in my kitchen, with the radio on and traffic trundling by and children running fingers along my railings.

But I was approached by Ceri Wheeldon, who runs the great site for older women - Fab After 50. What -  you don't know it? She's committed to raising the profile of older women, to challenging beliefs of invisibility, question the conviction that the ups and downs of the menopause make us into wild things and the myth that our brains and usefulness disappears with our fertility. There's money stuff there, and relationship stuff there, and general looking-after-yourself stuff there, and if you haven't seen it before go and have a look now (but please come back!!).

Anyway, Ceri sent me an email - she's offered trips from time to time, from companies wanting her to comment on this place or that place from the point of view of an older woman. She's a busy woman, and can rarely do them. Was I interested ............

I was astonished! Me - being asked to do proper travel writerly things! Packing the passport because someone has asked me to write something specifically for her! So I danced round the kitchen, and then replied to Ceri without too many whoops betraying just how amazing it all is.

So here I am, in Lille (well, I will be when you read this), being a travel writer, with a coach trip to write up for the Fab After 50 site when I get home.

I'm not one for labels. They rarely fit comfortably - generally I try to shrug them off. I'm a woman, with children and grandchildren; I travel and I write, and I sit in my garden and read.

But, today - and who knows, this might happen again one day - I am a travel writer. And it feels wonderful!!

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

About the brothels ...

I've been asked about the brothels, so I'll tell you.

The first was in Morocco, so many years ago I can remember nothing but the madam sitting on the stairs - a huge woman smothered in sickly perfume, and an expression fierce enough to terrify any punter without money in his pocket. But she was kind to us.

The second was in Venezuela. I was with a friend, following an itinerary one of my daughters - then working in Caracas - had organised. We were late leave Canaima - the 'town' where we'd returned to after the trip up river to Angel Falls - because the pilot of the tiny plane taking us back to real towns was enjoying himself watching skydivers.

Which meant we were late catching the first of two buses to take us to Tucupita, where a hotel was booked and the next morning a guide would collect us and take us in a boat to the Orinoco delta.

We made it to a small town where the second bus should have been waiting.

It wasn't. There was no bus till the morning. And no taxi would take us to Tucupita as there was no hope of a fare to bring back, because ... the town was full of hoodlums and prostitutes. The manager at the bus station was as helpful as he could be (he offered us red plastic chairs in the forecourt of the bus station for the night), so we took a taxi and asked the driver to take us to a hotel ...

I doubt if there was a single conventional hotel in the town. The woman at reception looked a little surprised to see us, but gave us a key and we lugged our rucksacks upstairs. Why she gave us a key, goodness knows, as the door didn't lock. The pictures on the walls made it clear what this room was generally used for. There was a hole in the bathroom door where someone had put a fist through. And brown marks swiped across the walls - I didn't look too closely. Do I need to describe the smell?

We must eat, I said. So down we went to ask the woman at reception. No restaurants, she said. And not safe. Not even safe to walk five yards to the phone booth outside the front of the hotel to ring for a taxi.

We returned to the room and feasted on biscuits, catching crumbs in plastic and wrapping them up over and over to deter cockroaches. Then we turned the light off, and from the safety of darkness watched the street. Guns, knives, floozies, the trade of the city only too obvious.

We slept with rucksacks against the door and walking poles at the ready. And left at daybreak. From the bus station I phoned my daughter - I needed her to get hold of the guide to tell him we were on our way.

We were delayed, I said, and spent the night in a brothel. By then it was gloriously funny.

I won't tell you what she said - but what would you have said?

Sunday, 14 July 2013

What do you look for in a hotel?

I bought the flight to Havana, so it's time to find a hotel.

What matters most to you, when you're looking for a hotel?

I've stayed in some interesting places. The room in Kuala Lumpur, as small as a cupboard. The hut in the rainforest where the bathroom smelled of germolene. The beautiful bungalow in Laos, with resident rat. The cabin in a national park in a remote corner of Nepal with instructions on the door about what to do if elephants came into the village.

So, where to begin looking for somewhere in Havana? There are a lot of high-end hotels, but I don't have an unlimited budget. There are a few hostels, but - given that I've not been there before - I decided to give hostels a miss until I know what to expect. For I do have a rough idea what I'm looking for:

  • I need to be safe - I've ended up in brothels twice, and, while it has its funny side, I'd rather not spend too many nights with my rucksack against the door and walking pole on the table beside the bed.
  • If the streets outside aren't safe, then I need a hotel with a restaurant.
  • I need to be clean - the rat, I confess, was a low point. It's impossible to tell, in advance, if the shower is going to dribble so slowly that washing your hair takes an hour, or if there will be any warm water. But I do need the bathroom to be clean, and sheets washed between guests.
  • I need a towel, but not necessarily a big fluffy towel - for if the laundry is done by women in the river it's impossible to keep anything fluffy. Nor do I need fancy shampoo, body lotion, shoe-cleaning equipment, shower cap. A bar of soap - that's all.
  • It is impossible for hotels to get the mattress right for everyone. Some of us like to sleep on boards, while others would prefer to sink into feathers. But I'd like a mattress without lumps.
  • Mosquito nets - in my experience, hotels always provide these for tourists if there's any risk of malaria. But often they are full of holes: I carry sellotape to deal with that.
  • And I like walls thick enough to muffle conversations in the room next door. It's rare to find walls sufficiently sound-proofed to limit the noises of a little hanky-panky, so that never bothers me - unless it goes on for so long you want to bang on the wall and offer them a vibrator, it's quicker.
That's my list? What would you add?

Wednesday, 10 July 2013

I've bought a ticket to Havana!

When the nights are long again and the east wind blows - that's when I'll be heading for the airport again.

Why Cuba? Well, why not? 

Am I suggesting that this decision is entirely arbitrary? No, of course not. I've mulled over destinations for a while. I'd like to explore a new continent - I love the Far East, but feel I'm ready to tread on different soil. Africa? I almost booked a flight to Madagascar, and then discovered that there are cyclones there in the winter (I've done cyclones; fun to write about ... not much fun at the time) and elections this September. I need to do more research before trying most African countries on my own - I know tour groups run successful trips in the National Parks, but I can't get a feel for what it would be like for a western woman wandering about on her own.

South America? I've been to Venezuela, and wonderful it was too. But I've no Spanish and it would have been impossible had I been alone and unable to say more than 'please' and 'thank you'. And it's not so safe at the moment. 

Which leads me into the whole safety-thing. I know some of you think me utterly reckless, but I try to take my safety seriously. Which, these days, excludes more and more countries that women once visited without concern. I know we only have television and newspaper reports to go on, and I'm sure that there are peaceful corners of Iraq and Syria, but I'm not convinced I could wander from a hotel with nothing but optimism and a headscarf to keep me safe. Yemen? Saudi? Qatar? How easy is it for women to visit these countries when those who live there are not allowed to drive? I long to visit some of the cities on the Silk Road - has anyone been to Uzbekistan, and can let me know how life is like for single women there?

It hasn't always been like this. The Hippy Trail of the late 1960s saw scores of young people driving through the Middle East, camping on the Khyber Pass, exploring the markets of Kabul. 

It saddens me, this narrowing of our world, these divisions into safe and unsafe places. I grieve when the things that divide us - the colour of our skins or the gods we worship - take precedence over all we have in common - the need for food and shelter, to love and be loved, and to tell our stories.

I shall have a wonderful time in Cuba - I've no doubt of that. I am already practising a salsa. And one day I want to go to Samarkand, on my own, to smell the incense in her markets and feel the slither of her silks, like women and men have done since the dawn of trade.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

LinkedIn - Is it really useful? And if so, how?

Forgive the ignorance - I'm sure I should know this stuff.

But please, do you use LinkedIn - and, if you do - what for? I joined ages ago, filled in the profile-thingy, because someone said it might be a good idea. I even update that from time to time, when a new book comes out, that sort of thing. Apart from that I more or less ignore it.

I few people invited me to join their networks - well, there seemed no harm in that. It was only a technical link, after all - I wasn't inviting them into my house for cake. Then more people invited me to join their networks, and more ... and now every day brings an invitation. Today it was from someone in Turin, which is no doubt a lovely city - but he doesn't know me (even virtually - I've not seen him twittering, and there've been no Italian visitors to the blog). Still, he claims to be in publishing ... though I could claim the be the Queen of Sheba and no one would be any the wiser. (Does everyone tell the truth on LinkedIn? That seems unlikely.)

I can't work out what it's for. What am I missing? It seems to me like a web of people with tenuous onlineconnections that mean very little. I've had the occasional 'please buy my book' message, but apart from that - nothing. Is there a useful forum that's hiding in the shadows? If you're searching for an editor, or a short story writer, or even a travel writer, do you start by checking out your connections on LinkedIn?

Or is it just another site wanting to suck time out of us?

Wednesday, 3 July 2013

You've got me thinking ...

In my last post, I wittered about my general uselessness on the DIY front - and how kind you all were. It's fine, you said, to have ten thumbs disease (thank you, Jennie, for that phrase). You're just good at other stuff.

Then I was listening to the Radio the other day, and someone was telling me how I need to be confident, and celebrate my wonderfulness, and that we all have the right to get to the top (she didn't say what top) - all we need is to believe in ourselves. She didn't seem to realise that if we all make it to the top, then it will be a very crowded place and the underlings will have to work like ants to keep the high and mighty in the style they believe they deserve.

Surely (and correct me if I'm wrong here) it must be possible for us all to enjoy the stuff we're good at without needing to be better, or superior, or richer than other people? Side by side with this idea - surely it's fine to say there is stuff we're not good at, and that doesn't make us failures?

Aren't most of us doing the best we can - to feed and protect ourselves and those we love, to have some fun, to experience enough intellectual fulfilment to keep ourselves stimulated? Yet the media would have us believe that such humble aspirations are worthless, that if we aren't longing to look like the rich and famous (or at least share their riches) then we are Missing Out.

So - I'm Missing Out. But I'm happy. And I refuse to kowtow to those who would have me believe that my contentment is out of place in our western culture. Am I really in a minority of one?