Are those blasted kittens still there?

Having posted a few days ago about my inability to finish one project before starting three others, I’ve attempted to organise myself a little to try to deal with that.

And not too long ago, I also posted about my inability – fear almost – to promote myself effectively.

Coincidentally, several days ago I took part in a Webinar aimed at small businesses (theoretically, that includes writers trying to sell books), about using social media effectively, and whilst I was pleased to discover that I seem to be doing a fair bit right already, there are several things that I should definitely change, which I will do shortly.

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Not kittens.

The first thing I’ll do, will be launch my own Author page on Facebook; something I really should have done before now. And to promote it, I plan to serialise a new short-ish story on this blog, over several posts. It’s something slightly different, for me, in that it is a spoof/satire ‘gritty urban detective drama’, but set in Elizabethan England. So, cue daggers, bawdiness, vomit and lots of mud and sour beer.

This will probably be during the second week of next month.

I have also learned a little more about publishing, from the company Wet Zebra at our local writers’ group, and from a few other independent sources, which might possibly lead to my attempting to publish my next book a little differently.

That next book will, I’m now reasonably certain, be The Assassin’s Garden, which has picked up momentum again. If all goes according to plan (!), it will be the first book of a series, stretching in time from the sixteenth century to the late twentieth century, and set variously in Persia, India, Europe and England.

So, what’s it about? I’m so glad you asked. A secret, something stolen, a pursuit, crossing time and continents. Revenge. It has elements of detective story, a bit of classic Gothic horror, a touch of fantasy, a soupcon of sex and violence, some ‘straight’ historical drama, and kittens. Yes, really.

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Not a kitten either.

I’m nothing if not ambitious.

And, bearing in mind how easily distracted I am, the research will give me huge opportunities to prevaricate and wander off at tangents to all sorts of odd corners of the internet.

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Buy it, read it, make me happy!

And for Making Friends with the Crocodile, my published novel, I am going to re-write the promotional blurb and have another attempt to push it out further into the big, wide, novel-reading world.

Let’s Rid the Internet of Kittens

What is it about the internet and kittens, for goodness’ sake? There are far too many pictures of them.

Okay, that’s too provocative. Let’s move on.

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She Who Dislikes Being Referred To This Way has been away for a few days. I had presumed that I would sleep better without the snoring, and the duvet being constantly pulled off me, but I was wrong.

For some reason, I’ve not slept particularly well at all.

Perhaps it was the wild parties I’ve no idea why not.

I had intended to begin a painting, maybe even get it finished, but although I carefully planned said painting, even finding a few resource pictures to use, once I sat down in front of the paper, it just refused to happen. My mind went completely blank and my enthusiasm kicked the wall sulkily for a few moments and then ran out of the house sobbing.

Oh well, back to the writing.

I did have a few ideas for short stories and, because I know how to use my time both productively and wisely, immediately started writing two of them, as well as continuing with both the novels I’m writing. That’s what you’re meant to do, right? Isn’t it?

Oh, and a poem.

And, of course, I need to do research for all the various Tales In Process. Isn’t it amazing what a little bit of research throws up?

Here are just a couple of little snippets, a few gobbets of curiosity, that I have come across recently while researching topics in medieval Persia and India, for use in my #1 Novel In Progress, The Assassin’s Garden.

All of the prostitutes in Fatephur Sikri, India, during the short time that it was Akhbar’s capital, were kept in an area just outside the city called ‘The Devil’s Quarter’.

You do get sidetracked, of course, but perhaps that will be an integral part of the plot? Possible spoiler alert?

I wouldn’t like to say.

And at one point, there is a long journey undertaken in my book, by caravan.

‘Caravan’ is a Persian word, I discover. That seems appropriate. In some parts of Persia they would travel by day and rest by night.

In others, the reverse was true. Something to do with the temperature, I expect.

In the nineteenth century, there were caravans that existed just to transfer corpses to holy cities for burial. These disappeared in the early twentieth century, largely due to better understanding of how diseases spread!

And, obviously, I mean the caravans that are chock full of camels and traders and an ill-assorted collection of ne’er-do-wells, not the wretched giant metal boxes blocking ninety percent of our roads as soon as the weather shows even the faintest promise of a few hours of sunshine.

But enough of caravans, for now, I’ve got some words to beat into shape.

Oh, and there are still people who would prefer pictures of kittens?

Time, Gentlemen, Please!

When I go out, I will frequently leave my phone at home. If I have no particular reason to take it with me, such as for work or awaiting an urgent call, then it is a real pleasure to be able to leave it behind.

I feel a release, not being in constant contact with everyone. I also rely upon it for the time, not possessing a wristwatch, so again, without it, I am freed from this small tyranny. Interestingly, I often know the time if I am asked, as long as I reply spontaneously, without thinking, but then, if I give it more thought, the gift disappears. I wonder if this is an instinct that we have largely lost. If so, and I ponder this train of thought, how did older, ancient peoples view the time? Presumably not as ‘nine’ or ‘three o’clock’ – morning, noon and afternoon? A time of waxing and waning light? Those more sedentary no doubt were as much tied to the sundial as we are to the clock.

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At court, or in monasteries, or other relatively affluent places, they relied on candles, marked with hours, to tell the time, but the common people would have had no such thing. Here in England, the church might have possessed a clock that chimed the hour, so that those who lived near enough might have an idea of the time, but apparently these could be notoriously inaccurate, sometimes being wrong by perhaps several hours or more.

But this probably did not matter, for the rural worker would not need to know the time. The farm labourers would rise at dawn, eat something for breakfast, then make their way to the fields. Around noon they would eat lunch, and at dusk they would return home.

They had no need of timekeeping any more accurate than that.

Contrast that to today, when it almost seems necessary to justify every minute of the day. I think this is one of the attractions of taking a holiday; it seems such a treat to spend each day doing as much or as little as is desired, and not to have to justify it to anyone. And, by extension, perhaps it is vitally important that we take holidays now. Hundreds of years ago in those semi-mythical non time-dominated days, workers did not get holidays. They just had Sundays off. It is easy to suggest that we are softer now, but I think the fixation of time has contributed to lives vastly more dominated by stress, and overwork, and that holidays are essential for us all.

I know I damn well need one!

Older Pictures – Nainital

I have to begin this post with a caveat; it is quite possible that one or more of these photographs are not actually of Nainital, but perhaps of somewhere else. They are certainly of India, but there is nothing written on the back of the photographs. The majority were my father’s, taken by him on leave during the 1940’s, and since he died a long time ago I can no longer question him.

Nainital means the ‘eye lake’, and refers to the goddess Parvati. According to legend, her eye fell into the lake when Lord Shiva, her husband, carried her body back to their home on Mount Kailash.

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This first one is a postcard I bought on my visit to Nainital in 2005. Normally, you expect a postcard today to be a picture of as good a quality as possible, so I was delighted to find this one. I have no idea how old the original would have been, but I would guess that it dates from the inter-war period.

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This one was taken by my father (or so I assume – another caveat, I suppose!) since it was amongst the ones I inherited from him.

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This one I believe is of Nainital, although I cannot work out any details of either the direction it was shot, or the buildings down the hillside. Someone who knows Nainital (Rajiv?) might be able to help me with this one.

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Snow View, Nainital. The back of the postcard is blank, and so again I have no idea how old it would be. Google is no help, either. I found two other copies of the postcard, but neither told me anything about the picture.

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A view across the lake.

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And a view of some pretty serious recreational boating.

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My father indulging in some of this recreational boating.

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Finally, a photograph of one of his army mates. Although I have no idea who the subject is, I really like the photograph.

Abusive Relationships

It was International Women’s Day last week.

Large numbers of people all over the world live in abusive relationships. This is not a phenomenon of the East or the West, it is not something that is confined to those who live in poverty, or are relatively uneducated. It is something that can be found in all layers of all societies.

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Many do not even recognise that they are in such a relationship.

The most obvious indicator of such a relationship is physical violence, but it is not always the only abusive behaviour present and, sometimes, may not be present at all. Sometimes there is just the implied threat of physical abuse. Sometimes just emotional abuse.

If you are belittled all the time, made to feel inadequate, you are in such a relationship.

If you are not allowed to make your own decisions, you are in such a relationship.

If you are not allowed to control your own money, have your own friends, see your own family, decide what you wear, have a job or go out when and where you wish, then you are in an abusive relationship.

One barrier in the way of reducing the incidence of abusive relationships is society itself. By declaring that men were superior to women, our society used to effectively sanction such a relationship and, in many societies today, it still does. This takes the form of making the victim feel that it is ‘okay’ to be treated that way, or even ‘right’. It also puts barriers in the way of reporting abusive behaviour to authority or to helping the victim. Religions have also sanctioned these behaviours, since they are reflecting the societies that created them in the first place.

Female genital mutilation is a good example of a societal abusive relationship. It is a tool used by a male-dominated society to keep a woman subjugated to males. The victim is mutilated in such a way that sexual intercourse becomes painful and undesirable, with the intention that she will not ‘stray’. Of course, there is nothing to stop the male from straying and, anyway, it is still convenient to blame the woman even if she is the victim of rape.

And it goes by different names; bullying, controlling behaviour, amongst others. But does it sound any less serious if we use these terms? Could it almost be trivialising it?

(It is also important to recognise that a surprisingly large number of victims are male.)

How do we tackle it?

First, we need to call it out. Call it by its proper name. Abuse is abuse. Victims need support, perpetrators need to be exposed and prosecuted.

Nobody has the ‘right’ to act that way within a relationship.

FGM is NOT acceptable. It is NOT a ‘tradition’ that we have no right to interfere in – by education, and by legislation, it needs to be totally eradicated. Those sorts of ‘tradition’, like forced marriages and beating children, have no place in today’s world.

We can all offer support if someone needs it.

One or Two Haiku

I have another of those ridiculously busy weeks, this week, and will hardly be online until the weekend. So my apologies for missing lots of your posts, and I’ll also post my own one a little earlier than I would have otherwise.

As I have mentioned before, I don’t write a lot of poetry, mainly because it never seems to work out as well as I would like. But, in defiance of that, here are a few haiku from my notebooks, ones that seem a little better than most.

Be gentle with me, kind reader.

chestnut-leaves

September sunshine.

Lazily picking apples;

A hint of autumn.

 

Yellow chestnut leaves

Rattling wildly in the wind –

– Autumn’s prayer flags

 

A sycamore leaf,

Caught midair in this cobweb

Is frozen in time.

 

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Lime tree’s final leaf

Hangs yellow in the lamp glow

Waiting for the wind.

 

Fat, white snowberries

Clustered upon bare branches;

Pale moons in the dusk.

A Week in McLeod Ganj – part 2

Apologies for the weird changes of tense – it was how I wrote the journal (in fits and starts), and I’ve not altered anything, merely missed out a couple of extremely uninteresting entries.

Sunday 29th November 2009

I didn’t get off to sleep for a few hours last night. There was lots of noise outside; lots of revellers going past. And then when I felt that I was almost off, a couple of vehicles crashed into each other just outside the gate. Lots more shouting. Then every time that a vehicle went past after that, I was waiting for another crash.

And the monastery across the road has its first puja at around 4am – the crashing of cymbals and the sounding of foghorns – that always wakes me, too.

So, I’m not entirely refreshed, but back in the restaurant at Green Hotel awaiting breakfast and just perking up with the first coffee.

I think I’m going to put off the visit to Dal Lake until tomorrow, and sit and write this morning. I’m tired and still feeling a little unwell. And read. It’s easier than having to think. I bought a big, thick, book yesterday, which should keep me going for a while.

Then in the afternoon, I mooched. Partly wandering the roads and hills around McLeod Ganj, and partly going for tea and coffee here and there. I have planned to go to the Tibetan music concert at the nearby school at 6pm, and after a shave and shower I head off there, find it, and take a seat along with about a dozen other westerners.

We sit and wait, and about a quarter of an hour or so after the scheduled start time, a chap comes in and announces that he’s sorry, but the musician isn’t coming. He has phoned to say that he couldn’t make it. He apologises to us again, and we get up to go. Because it was organised by a recognised NGO, and was intended to raise funds for the needy, I go and offer the guy RS 100/- towards the costs. In return, he gives me a long, meandering talk about volunteering and costs that I can’t really follow. It’s obvious that he’s been on the whisky and he presses me to meet him tomorrow to talk about the project. I waver, and then agree in a cowardly sort of way.

Once I have escaped, I go up to the Tibetan restaurant where I ate last night, since I rather liked the ambience of it. Unfortunately, tonight it proves to be full of a bunch of hard-drinking Tibetans, which I hadn’t really realised when I sat down to order. I get a beer and a thukpa, and am surrounded by whisky-swilling, chain-smoking Tibetans. This does nothing for my appetite, so I drink up, eat up and go.

I then wander up to the main part of McLeod Ganj and go to ‘Excite’ – the bar looks quite inviting from the outside.

Inside, though, it proves to be otherwise. I get a beer and order some masala peanuts, but don’t think much of them when they arrive. They are simply fried with a few bits of onion and tomato and seemingly no spices at all. I am offered a hookah which I decline. There are no other customers, and no music, in a plain, tatty room. I drink up and go.

Monday 30th November 2009

I cannot find the place that I agreed to meet the Tibetan chap and so, relieved, I go off to Dal Lake instead. It is a very pleasant walk of three kilometres or so each way, mainly through wooded hills, becoming quite autumnal in places. Magnificent birdlife – as well as the familiar ones, I see one with a very long tail that I take to be a Lyre Bird, and a very large eagle passes overhead, quite white underneath.

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I pass the church of Saint John in the Wilderness and go in to have a look. It says that it is the largest ‘cathedral’ in the Himalaya, in the diocese of Amritsar. It is big, and nice inside. There is a monument to Lord Elgin outside, but I am more interested in one of the plates inside, to a Thomas Knowles, who met his end at Dharamsala, courtesy of a bear.

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I rather like the ambience both inside and outside of the church. It is very peaceful and I linger. I think it is very hard to shake off the spiritual part of you that was formed when you were young, and I felt that I wanted to just stay there all day.

But I didn’t. I walked on to Dal lake, passing through the army training area, full of army personnel training, and along to the lake. It is a lovely spot, surrounded by deodars, and probably even more beautiful when the lake is full of water rather than full of bulldozers and mud.

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So I return to McLeod Ganj and go to lunch and, oh dear, food is beginning to taste a little rank, again. Not a good sign.

It is McClouding over, now. So far the pattern of weather each day has been the same – morning warm and sunny, with clouds beginning to come over at lunchtime. By late afternoon it is quite cool.

Later, I go down to visit the Tsuglagkhang Complex; the temples and the residence of the Dalai Lama (he’s out, at the moment). Outside the main temple, there is a puja going on involving a fire. I watch for a while, wander around the temples and then wander out.

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Tuesday 1st December 2009

Another visit to the Tsuglagkhang Complex, where I wander round and sit for a while, finishing with a visit to the sobering museum, telling the story of the rape of Tibet.

It is now evening. I am sitting in McLlo’s, looking out of the window down onto Main Square. There are a couple of liquor stores, with plenty of people, especially Tibetans, patronising them and milling around. But there is no trouble. People are peaceful, gentle. One would have to put this down to the influence of Buddhism. People have a code of behaviour that is based not on fear, but on an understanding of what is the right thing to do, for respect for others. There are no rowdy crowds; people don’t feel threatened. That is just one of the wholly benign influences of religion here.

It’s a gorgeous full moon, tonight.

 Wednesday 2nd December 2009

After breakfast I decide to sit up on the roof with my book for the morning. Some hours later, I am interrupted when two troupes of monkeys leap onto the roof and begin fighting each other. Honestly, how is one meant to concentrate? I give up and go down.

The cold develops. I spend most of the rest of the day in my room reading.

Saturday 5th December 2009

I still have a bit of a cold/sore throat/headache, but am feeling better in myself. Indeed, walking around the town this morning, I feel that I shall really miss McLeod Ganj. I love the ambience; the only place in India that I have visited that that felt more laid back than here was Ladakh, and this runs it close. The Tibetans are brilliant, and the Buddhist attitude to all things tends to come through all of the time – even the stray dogs get fed and petted and seem much better off than elsewhere, although I suppose that might be because they chase off the monkeys!

And having ranted about westerners enough times, last night the chap at the next table to me called the waiter over to say that he wanted to pay for the supper of the two monks on a nearby table, and I’ve been in conversation this morning with a great group of Americans who are working with the refugees here.

Grumble Mutter Whinge

It is the first of March, today.

Meteorologically, it is the first day of spring. So, that virtually guarantees what weather we will have today; the sky is overcast and grey, there is a bitterly chill wind blowing and a spiteful, thin drizzle.

Spring! Oh, humour!

Arf!

Admittedly, the astronomical calendar tells us spring doesn’t arrive until around the 20th March, so winter still has cate blanchett to do whatever it will.

So that’s fine; it sort of reflects my mood at the moment, anyway. But at least going out for a walk always lifts my mood a little, and today is no exception. I’ve been working on my new novel quite intensely for a while, and I suddenly need to step back from it for a week or two.

Come up for air, as it were.

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Not this one!

And so I go for a walk in the miserably wintery springy weather. Ten minutes or so through the streets brings me to the common – a wooded area on the edge of the town which, on good days, is a pleasant enough place to walk, even if it doesn’t have any convenient mountains or long distance trails.

On bad days, though, it is full of dog walkers.

That sounds a bit mean, you may say. And, okay, you’re right. It is. But in my defence, when I say full of dog walkers (and dogs), I mean full!

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This one!

It is not unusual to be surrounded by dozens of dogs running madly around, the air filled with strident shouts of ‘Gawain! Guinevere! Come here at once!’ ‘Will you come here!’ ‘Put that down!’ ‘Keep still and he won’t hurt you!’ and then some wretched little tyke suddenly tugging at your trouser leg with a mouthful of razor-sharp teeth, to be followed by another shout of ‘Keep still, I said!’ from a voice that could etch glass.

But not today, fortunately.

And having had my walk, I can sort out a couple of other things on my writing list.

Once I got back, I edited a short story I promised for a project for our writing group. Job done – tick.

Next, I’ll begin the edit of a very long short story that has been hanging around for ages. So long, in fact, that I mentioned it in the ‘My Writing’ section on this blog when I first set it up, a year and a half ago. Tut. It’ll be good to get that finished, anyway. It’s my first attempt at a traditional murder mystery, and I rather got lost in my own convolutions.

If I get it to the point where I’m happy with it, I might put it out as an e-book, just to see what people think of it.

Ahem…if anyone buys it, of course.

And, as a bonus, I had an idea for another short story while I was out walking, so hooray!

Now to barricade the door against all the angry dog walkers.

A Week in McLeod Ganj – part 1

2009. Blimey, that’s almost 8 years ago, now! Doesn’t seem that long! So here’s a couple of extracts from my journal, plus apologies for only taking a few photos.

Friday 27th November 2009

(I’d not been well, and couldn’t face a 12 hour bus journey, so I took a flight to Dharamsala) It all goes smoothly, and we get away just about on time. The plane is a twin engine prop; lovely, and the flight is marvellous. We are crossing the North Indian plains for a while, then all of a sudden the Himalaya jag up like freshly whitened teeth, from side to side across the horizon. We slowly approach, the ground beginning to rise up into hills and the towns disappearing. We pass Shimla atop a ridge, with its airport running along a second ridge, looking for all the world as though the top has been sliced off – and perhaps it has.

Eventually we come into land – another tiny airport where the aircraft taxis up to the small building, switches off, and then when we get out all is quiet, the mountains staring down at us and the air clear and cool. Pick up baggage, out to get a taxi to McLeod Ganj (or Gunj).

At first, the roadsides are crowded with troops of monkeys – I quickly lose all idea of how many. We pass hundreds. But as we gain height, they disappear and we are surrounded by forest.

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In about half an hour, we get to McLeod Ganj and I check into my room at Hotel Ladies Venture. It is basic, but is clean, has hot water, a bed with lots of blankets, a table and a chair. For RS 200/- a night I’m in no position to complain.

So the first thing that I do is go off to explore. I am surrounded by a busy little town full, largely, of Tibetans. Lots of shops and cafes, monks, monasteries, gompas and chortens. No hard sell. In my mind, I turn cartwheels. At the moment I am sitting up on the terrace at Village Meeting Point café, finishing apple pie and Darjeeling tea, watching the sunset amongst the mountains.

This is better.

Later, it gets colder.

Saturday 28th November 2009

I slept pretty well – it didn’t get as cold as I thought that it might. The shower was good, although the hot water didn’t last for too long. This morning I have wandered up through the town to Green Hotel for breakfast. Probably like most places here, it is filled mainly with westerners, discussing Tibetan politics. Most of the more upmarket places, that is. The Tibetans will be in the cheap eateries, since most are not exactly well off.

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There is a large ex-pat community of all sorts here, and one of the consequences of this is that such things as real coffee are served all over the place. Also Italian food, etc., etc. It is certainly no hardship for westerners, here. Everywhere offers yoga classes, meditation classes, massage, cookery lessons – you name it. Opportunities of all sorts for volunteering, too.

Today I am just going to wander around and get to know the place a bit. Try to feel the pulse of it, as it were. Like other, similar, places (Bodhgaya) it seems like several separate communities living side by side, interacting occasionally, but still separate. Or should that be different layers?

A sudden commotion beside me, as a monkey nips in through the window and nicks a bowl of porridge off of an adjacent table, making its escape out of the same window. No one seems too bothered.

After breakfast, I change some money and then stroll the kilometre or so uphill to Dharamkot village. The track goes through forest and I pass first through a troop of Macaque monkeys, who chunter a bit at me, but keep out of my way, and then pass lots of birdlife, including a small flock of birds that look a little like tits, with a mainly black head with a small black crest, and one beautiful bird, a little larger, an iridescent turquoise (mainly) like a kingfisher or a roller.

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Teashop, this way!

At the top of the hill is a little teashop where I get a lemon tea and join the other few people sitting there in silence. It is perfectly peaceful, a good place to watch the world go by, except that the world decides not to pass that way for the moment.

Back into McLeod Ganj, past the chuntering macaques, to Jimmy’s Italian restaurant for lunch. The rooftop has fantastic views over the town and across the mountains, and I watch a couple of kites slowly circling and calling nearby. If it wasn’t for the fact that I want to explore this fascinating place, I think that I could just sit here for the whole afternoon with a book.

In the event, I don’t do anything much more constructive than that. I read, I wander around; I go for tea and cake. After all, I’m here for ten days or so, so there is no rush to do anything.

I plan to walk to Dal Lake tomorrow, which is no more than half a day there and back.

 

Responsible Travelling – Part 2

Volunteering

Many travellers who are spending some time away from home end up volunteering their services at a project that claims to be a Good Cause, or offering to help to sponsor it. And many are, although a goodly number turn out to be money-making scams, some set up very elaborately indeed.

I have seen many sides of charity work – I have worked as a volunteer in UK and in India, worked as a paid employee of a charity and I have been both a trustee and a committee member of charities. I have also watched one go to bad, with various warning signs unheeded and a number of heads buried in the sand.

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So how do you tell a good project from a bad one? There are no hard and fast rules, mainly because projects differ so much. Some are huge, multi-million dollar constructs involving hundreds of volunteers and paid staff whilst others run on a shoestring with one or two staff. Some are run entirely by local people, others may be foreign led or almost entirely staffed by foreigners. They set up and run schools, leprosy or aids centres, save donkeys, teach alternative ways to cook and heat to reduce deforestation, rescue fallen women and street children, restore old temples, and so on and so on. And it is often very difficult to tell a scam from a genuine project.

Firstly, please do not just leap in and offer money. There are several good ways to get a feel for the project. Local knowledge is often a good start – talk to people. If you are spending a while in a place, you will get to know people and you can chat about your chosen project to them. If it is dodgy, someone is very likely to warn you. Or spend a while there as a volunteer before offering any money. Watching how it is run at first hand should give you a feel for it. Other than that, look at its website, if it has one. The project should have a board of trustees, or a committee, to oversee it. Contact them. Ask to see how the money is used and accounted for. This should all be open and in the public domain. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. If the people concerned are reluctant to give answers, or resent your asking, be suspicious. Look for obvious signs and use common sense. A large, flashy building with a few children inside and a big new landcruiser parked out in front, in the midst of a squalid village is going to be locally devisive and should also set your alarm bells ringing. If the trustees and committee all live in Europe or US, then it may be very difficult for them to carry out their duties effectively and again you should be wary.

Naturally, all this is unnecessary if you volunteer through a well-known and reputable agency such as Oxfam or VSO – you can be sure that all has been checked out thoroughly. If you can arrange a placement before you travel, using a reputable charity, you are unlikely to encounter problems. Do a little research.

Photography

Just a bit of common sense here, really. Be aware that in some societies taking photos, especially of people or religious objects and buildings, may not be accepted as easily as it is in the west. Often it is best to ask first. Be aware of people’s sensitivities. Years ago as I waited at Dubai airport, an elderly local gentleman in local costume sat drinking coffee in a cafe. He was approached by a western couple; he taking a number of photos of said local gentleman from intrusively close range, whilst she posed beside him. After a while she virtually sat on his knee as her partner continued to snap. The local gentleman sat impassive and stony faced through this whilst I (and I am sure almost everyone else in the room) cringed and wanted to creep away (or hit them!). I hope that just the thought of it makes you cringe, too! I have virtually stopped taking candid shots in places like markets, largely because I feel quite uncomfortable doing so. I feel as though I am both being intrusive, and treating people insensitively. I have found, though, that I have been rewarded with a lot of great photographs by simply asking people if they minded me photographing them. Very few refuse, and quite a few will pose proudly.

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Should you take photos of people and offer to send them copies, please make sure that you honour this. Many people that you meet will want their photo taken – in India I have been frequently approached when taking photos by people who wanted me to photograph them. In more remote areas, you may come across people who have never seen their photograph before.

You should also be aware that in many countries airports, bridges, hydro-electric power stations and many other buildings are regarded as military installations and the authorities take a dim view of attempts to photograph them. It is possible to end up facing years in prison for taking that innocent photograph of a nice-looking bridge! Find out before you travel whether this applies to the country you are visiting.

To go or not to go –

The ethics of visiting an oppressed country.

For visiting – to see it as it really is (you probably won’t. The Army/State/Police will ensure that you don’t get to particularly sensitive areas.), to support the local people (you may or may not be. You can choose to spend your money in little stalls or shops but you may have little choice when it comes to hotels. You may be forced to stay in State-run set-ups. You certainly won’t be allowed to show any political support.).

Against visiting – You would be tacitly supporting the State. You would invariably be financially supporting the state. If the State encourages foreign tourism, it is because it wants the tourists’ dollars. Again, this is another dilemma that you will have to solve for yourself. There are several things that you can do, however, if you want to support the people of an oppressed country.

Campaigning – groups such as Amnesty International (www.amnesty.org.uk) or Avaaz (www.avaaz.org) campaign actively in support of prisoners of conscience or oppressed groups or minorities. Join them, sign their petitions, give money, write letters to governments. Add your voice to those demanding change.

Boycotts – Boycotting the goods of an oppressive regime denies them foreign cash.

There and back again

You might want to think about offsetting your carbon emissions when you travel to and from your holiday (and do not forget about any internal flights that you might take). There are a few companies that use carbon offset payments to either plant trees, or work in the area of low carbon technology with the aim of reducing the effects of global warming – for example developing cheap and easy to produce but highly efficient cooking stoves for use in areas such as Nepal where erosion has become a huge problem due to deforestation for cooking fires.

Climate Care are the company I have contributed to, who do a lot of work in this field. Obviously it is better if you take alternative public transport, but not always possible or convenient. There is a limit to how many 30 hour bus rides in ramshackle vehicles it is possible to put up with! It is not possible to be precise, but usually trains are the least polluting option. When island hopping, ferries rather than planes.

It is far more interesting to travel slowly and be part of the environment than to get into a hermetically sealed container and just emerge at the other end. Surely, that is what travel is all about.