The Travel Bug bit me – part 1

Travelling! My first inclination to travel to remote regions came from my Grandmother, when I was probably six or seven years old, despite the fact that she had never travelled very far at all in her whole life. In fact, I don’t think that she even left England.

But she would tell me stories of China, inducing images of Emperors and pig-tailed mandarins, peasants and bandits, and this was coupled with a children’s book; an encyclopaedia I presume, with grainy, black and white pictures of strange scenery. It was extremely evocative, although at the time I did not understand that. I was just excited by the mysterious, the strange and the unknown.  I was hooked, and wanted to go there! Ever since then, the places where I’ve most wanted to travel, other than Britain and Europe, have almost all been in Asia. The list of places that I have at the moment that I would like to visit, are almost exclusively Asian.

Yes, she has a lot to answer for, that sweet old lady.

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When I was a teenager, I began to use maps, although in rather an ad hoc, hit and miss manner.

They were there for me when I was really stuck, or I just wanted to know in which general direction something lay. It would be a very long time before I began to use them in a skillful way, able to predict the exact lie of the land, navigate in the fog or the dark, or find my way through complicated landscapes with the map and compass. And, do you know, since I’ve learned to do that, I often feel as though I’ve actually lost something rather magical, although I don’t suppose that I can blame it all on that. The maps that I was using as a teenager would tend to be the Bartholomew’s Touring Maps, small scale with little detail. I would feel, as I headed along a Cornish footpath, that I only knew roughly where I was going. It always felt like an adventure; an exploration.

Now, I need to be more and more remote before I can get that feeling, and even then it does not always work. Some ten years ago, I spent a couple of weeks in Ladakh, in the Himalaya in the far north of India, and I was surprised at just how easy all of my walking was. Setting off with map and compass, I always knew exactly where I was, only confused at times by the multiplicity of tracks criss-crossing the landscape. Even then, reference to mountains and villages with map and compass would invariably allow me to set my position.

It doesn’t mean that I wanted to get lost, just that there was a small part of me that said ‘even this is all tame!’ Equally, I can be put off, when using a map, by the knowledge that over the interesting looking ridge that I am heading for, there lies a motorway or building estate, and so I then spend ages trying to plot a route that I try to get perfect, rather than simply heading off in the direction that I want to go and exploring as I go, correcting my course as I travel.

Nothing can tempt me more than a track leading tantalisingly into the distance, perhaps meandering through Mediterranean scrub towards a notch in the skyline, perhaps leading through a glowing archway of trees. Even now, when using map and compass to navigate, I often have to resist the temptation to ignore the map and head off to follow an interesting looking track. I think that this must be a part of my ‘I wonder what’s over the other side of the hill?’ nature. It’s another reason why I’ve never been able to lie on a beach – apart from the fact that this seems a particularly pointless pastime in any case. Any time that I’ve tried it, it never seems to be more than a couple of minutes before I begin to think ‘What’s round that cliff, I wonder?’ or ‘If I head back up the river, I think I might find a way through those hills.’ And then I just have to go to find out.

There are plenty of other things that can destroy a sense of adventure in travelling, other than over-familiarity with maps, of course. I remember the shock and the sense of let-down I received in Germany about 35 years ago, when I spent the best part of a morning struggling up an ill-defined track through thick woodland to the top of a berg in the Black Forest (I was using a tiny touring map at the time, which showed main roads at best). My elation at arriving at the top and surveying the panorama of hills and mountains around me was completely destroyed within a minute, as a coach roared up the other side of the hill, came to a halt a few feet away from me, and then disgorged about 30 Japanese tourists. They spent about two minutes firing off photographs of everything in sight, including myself, before leaping back on board the coach, roaring off down the hill and leaving me gob-smacked in the sudden silence and slowly settling dust.

 

Writer’s something or other

I began work on a new story, but it hit the buffers very quickly. I suspect that there were several reasons for this, but probably the primary reason is that it was the wrong story at the wrong time. Having published ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’ and feeling a little flat afterwards, I took the conventional advice to get stuck into writing again immediately and, thinking that I knew exactly which story I wanted to write (out of my lists of ideas, notes and vague drafts), and exactly how the opening chapters of said story should go, just jumped straight in and started writing.

Thud.

After the first, long, chapter I read it back and just thought ‘Oh good grief, this is so turgid!’

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I didn’t feel like re-writing it, though. And I certainly didn’t feel like ploughing on and editing an even long clump of turgidity later. It just wasn’t working for me.

It simply wasn’t the story that I wanted to tell at the moment. It wasn’t the setting that I wanted to use, and I didn’t feel any empathy with the protagonist. Not a good start, really.

So I kicked the cat* and drank a few beers and went for a long walk.

As a result of doing all of that and clearing my head somewhat,  I am now trying out something that is almost alien for me, and that is planning a novel.

I have a setting that I have been meaning to use in a novel, and which I have used occasionally in short stories, which I enjoy writing about. I have characters with whom I can empathise. I even have a plot that I’m rather pleased with. All in all, it feels a lot more hopeful.

And something else that is rather fun: in ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’ I had to create a fictitious town and village, but because of the story line I did not need to concern myself too much with the geography of either. For the new Work In Progress, I need much more. I need careful and elaborate maps of a fictitious town in the foothills of northern India (yup, India again!), which is all part of the plan. I need to map its roads and houses, shops and hotels. I need to decide where to put the forests and rivers and lakes and fields.

I’ve even started a brand new notebook for this!

It will probably be difficult for me to resist the temptation to just start writing, but at the moment I intend to wait until I have a finished plan that I think covers everything.

Naturally, I’ll let you know how it goes.

*Not actually true. No cats were harmed in the writing of this blog post.

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Bodhgaya (1)

I spent a total of 2 months in Bodhgaya, Bihar, but I seemed to end up with surprisingly few photographs of the town and surrounding countryside. Here are a selection of them, though, and I may put a few more up sometime soon. Hence the somewhat tentative ‘part one’ in the title.

mahabodhi temple

 Bodhgaya is a world heritage site, because the Mahabodhi Temple was built at the site where the Buddha is supposed to have achieved enlightenment, some 2500 years ago. The original temple was built by the emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BC. The current temple dates from the 11th century AD, and was restored in 1882 by the Burmese. Surrounded by the usual frenetic Northern Indian crowds, and visited by a huge number of pilgrims and visitors, the temple and grounds still manage to somehow achieve an unbelievably peaceful ambience.

 

The Bhodi tree at the Mahabodhi Temple. It is a third generation descendant of the tree under which the Buddha is supposed to have achieved enlightenment.

 

Thai temple, Bodhgaya. As well as the Mahabodhi Temple, Bodhgaya also has temples built by virtually every country with a sizeable Buddhist population. As befits the place where the Buddha originally achieved enlightenment, it is an active Buddhist centre with many charitable projects set up and running.

 

Dawn over Sujata Village, Bodhgaya. This was often the view that greeted me when I walked across the dry bed of the River Phalgu from Bodhgaya to the village of Sujata, in the cool of the morning. A rich reward for getting up early!


Hindu temples on the edge of Sujata Village.

Fields in Sujata Village. In the vast majority of Indian villages, fields are still worked by hand or with animal labour. here is no exception.

Farms at the edge of Bodhgaya. Although Bihar is the most corrupt, poverty-ridden state in India, sitting at the bottom of the table in almost any set of statistics that you may care to consult, the land appears lush and fertile, supporting a strong agriculture.

And whilst we’re on a rural theme…a street corner in Bodhgaya.

 

Monks heading for morning puja (ceremony) in Sujata.

Temple door in Bodhgaya.

Dawn in Bodhgaya. The moslems are heading for the mosque, whilst most of the others are heading for work, for puja at Hindu or Buddhist temples, or to find breakfast.

I was after breakfast.

Pause for thought…

I think that a bit of an apology is in order here, sort of in advance.

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August looks like being a ridiculously busy time for me, in various ways, so I suspect that I will be a bit tardy in posting blogs, and even tardier in following everyone else’s.

I have a couple of projects that I must finish, quite a lot of work, and a few people to visit and entertain.

I shall do my best to catch up with them all, but for all those bloggers who I regularly visit and who I might now and again not get around to visiting in the next few weeks, my sincerest apologies. I will turn up now and again, unexpectedly, and then nip off again after sprinkling a few random likes and comments here and there. Well, not random; that’s not my style.

Sporadic.

Yes, sporadic.

But don’t write me off, I’LL BE BACK!

Another Creative Art Post

I’ve had a go at woodcarving, too. Would you like to see a few? You would? That’s marvellous.

As if I ever needed an excuse to blow my own trumpet!

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The first one is my version of a Sri Lankan carving. This piece consists of two panels; the first one depicting a garuda (a mythical bird who carried the god Vishnu) and the second depicting a lion. It is 10 in x 20 in, and carved in sycamore wood.

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The second one is also a copy of a Sri Lankan carving, this time an elephant attacked by an eagle. My version is in Ash, and measures roughly 6 in x 3 in.

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The third piece is a totally different subject; my interpretation of a painting by the American artist Georgia O’Keeffe of oak leaves. I have carved it in -appropriately enough – oak wood, and it measures 7 in by 3 in.

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Finally, this is my interpretation of a medieval piece from a church in England – I forget which one – depicting the crucifixion of Christ, with Christ flanked by Saint John the Baptist and the Virgin Mary. Again, it is carved in oak wood and measures approximately 8 ins x 13 ins.

Every now and again I think that I would like to work on another carving (possibly one of those two or three unfinished ones I still have hanging around the house!), but we are rather short on space. If I ever manage to get hold of a studio again, I promise myself that I will.

The Past is Another Country…

…they do things differently there (L.P.Hartley )

Almost 20 years ago I was a care-worker, paying visits to support elderly folk who were, for various reasons, unable to cope on their own. I would provide support in a number of ways – cooking, washing and dressing,and cleaning, for example.

One man I visited quite often would talk a lot about his younger days – as is natural. He had a wealth of stories, and I always told him he should get someone to write them down. It is the ordinary person’s stories that are frequently the most interesting, and the ones that we usually don’t hear. Famous politicians, sports stars, movie stars…well, they write autobiographies, or have them written for them, and we hear all about the other famous people they knew and the hotels they stayed in…yawn, yawn, yawn.

But we hear far less about the family in the village 80 years ago, their day to day life and how the outside world impacted upon them.

Below, there is a photo of London Road, just outside of Tunbridge Wells, taken earlier today.

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My client told me that during his youth, he would walk back along this road after an evening out in town, describing how there was nothing but open fields on both sides for much of the walk. Looking at it now, it is hard to picture that, since I have never known it any way other than how it looks now.

But prior to this, in his childhood, he lived in the village of Groombridge, on the other side of Tunbridge Wells, and he told me how, as a schoolboy during the First World War, he and his classmates ran out of the class one day and across a field, to see a German Zeppelin airship that had just been shot down.

It is stories like this, that are the genuinely interesting stories that come out of the past.

And for my large Work In Progress, the past really is a foreign country. Much of it is set in Persia and India, in a time frame that covers some 300 years up until the late 19th century.

Now, I was about to write that if it is difficult for me to picture the main road near where I live as it was some 50 to 75 years ago, then it is far more difficult for me to picture the places in India and Persia where and when I have set my novel, but then I realised that this is not actually true.

And so this post is now taking a turn that I had not expected when I sat down to write it.

The Indian capital at the time was at Fatehpur Sikri, which today is just the remains of those buildings – it was only occupied for some 22 years, and then abandoned. I have visited the site and walked around it, and it is quite easy to imagine it occupied by Akhbar, his court, and the general population.

I have never been to Persia (modern day Iran), so my impressions are formed only at second hand. And much of what I have read consists of works about the 1500’s, and I am familiar with many of the paintings of the period, so again it seems almost natural to imagine it as it was then.

And then when I have travelled in India, as well as in the Middle East, I have spent a lot of time visiting the old parts of the towns and cities, and many rural areas where life follows the same patterns that it has for hundreds of years, and so, again, it seems more natural to picture the settings for my book in those time periods that concern me.

Finally, researching these areas, I often come across old black and white photos of places of interest to me, and since I have not been there, they are the only impression of these places that I have.

Of course, Tunbridge Wells in the Victorian era is much harder for me to visualise. All of the modern buildings get in the way of my imagination. All of the roads are surfaced with tarmac, the open spaces have largely gone, and many parts of the common that used to be open and windswept are now covered in trees.

On a slightly different note….

As a project, I occasionally take photos in sepia of the area around where I live, as though they might have been taken about 80 years ago – around the time that my elderly client was walking along the London Road, winds blowing across the fields either side of him, and the only light from the moon. Each photo that I take has something in it to show that it was taken recently though, rather than a long time ago, such as a modern vehicle, a modern street lamp, road markings, or modern windows. The shot below is an example.

Holden Pond

Easy to feel that it might be taken in 1930.

Print on Demand in India

I have a question for my Indian friends.

Have you published any books as print-on-demand in India? And if so, which company did you use, and were you happy with the experience?

When I published ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’, I was hoping that because of the subject matter and the setting of the book, it would be of interest to Indian readers. Unfortunately, though, I created the paperback version through CreateSpace and whilst I am very happy with the book produced, it is one of the quirks of Amazon that they do not sell these through Amazon India.

Making Friends with the Crocodile cover

And so I need another source.

I have learned that there are a few fairly new print-on demand companies in India, and looking at a few sites and reading some comments here and there, I quite like the look of Pothi.com.

Has anybody used them?

I would really appreciate any feedback or advice that anyone has to offer me on this.

Nepal – Everest Region

Everybody knows the statistics; Everest, also known as Sagarmatha by the Nepalese and Chomolungma by the Tibetans, is the highest mountain on Earth, at 29,028ft or 8848m. First successfully climbed in 1953 by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay from the British Expedition led by John Hunt, it has now been climbed by around 2,500 climbers. There have also been some 210 deaths on the mountain, or slightly more than one death for every 12 summiteers. A grim reminder that whilst nowadays if you have the money you can virtually buy your way to the top, it is still an extremely hazardous venture.

Everest from the summit of Mount Kala Pattar (5545m).  In the foreground is the Khumbu Glacier, the summit of Everest is the dark peak against the central skyline, with Everest West Shoulder directly in front and Nuptse (7879m), apparently the tallest peak in the picture, because of the perspective, to the right of them. Changtse (7550m) across the border in Tibet, is to the left. Lhotse (8501m) can be glimpsed to the right of Everest, behind Nuptse.

 

Cairns to climbers who have died on Everest, near Dhugla (Thokla). And a very sobering sight they are, too. Some have plaques, some simple inscriptions, many are anonymous. As you walk further up the Thokla Pass, you look back to this line of cairns on the ridge.

 

Local transport. A caravan of dzo – a cross between cattle and yaks – pass stone seats provided for travellers. Dzo tend to be both larger and stronger than yaks, an obvious advantage in an animal used for carrying heavy cargoes! They can also go down to lower altitudes than yaks, who are adapted for life at high altitudes.

 

Traditional door in old house, Khumjung village, near Namche Bazaar.

 

Inside The temple of Tengboche monastery. Although the temple is beautiful both inside and out, my dominant memories are of sounds – the chanting of the monks at puja, when I sat in the temple one afternoon, completely unable to meditate, since I could not focus on anything except my freezing feet. Also the sounds of the bells, drums and horns that woke me at 7 o’clock in the morning – beats an alarm clock any time!

Entrance to Tengboche Monastery and Temple.

 

Khumbu Glacier at Lobuche.

 

Ama Dablam from Khumjung village. In the foreground is one of the schools built by Sir Edmund Hillary, rightly revered throughout the Sherpa community for the huge amount of work that he and his Foundation put into improving the lives of the poor in this area.

 

Traditional house in Khumjung.

 

Himalayan Accentor on top of a cairn on Nagartsang Peak . This is a 5083m ‘Trekking’ Peak, ie one that can be ascended without having to use climbing skills. Apparently in America cairns are referred to as ‘ducks’, due to their shapes. So, for American bloggers: Bird on Duck.

Looking down onto the Khumbu Glacier . Although looking rather like a rubble-strewn pathway, in places one can see the bluey-green ice. Here it shows clearly around a glacial lake. As I watched, I could hear the sounds of cracking and splitting as the glacier ground it’s way incredibly slowly downhill.

 

Yak skull on mani stone with katas (silk scarves) and prayer flags. Cairns are not always simple piles of stones.

 

Yak train crossing new bridge near Phunki Drengka. The old bridge was washed away.

 

The old bridge. Testament to the tremendous power of floodwater. 

 

Khumjung Gompa, where a yeti skull is kept.

 

The yeti skull.

 

Sunset, and Ama Dablam appears through the clouds.

 



Looking south from Dengboche.

 

The Spirit of the Himalaya.

 

Moody autumn shot just outside Lukla.

 

Nuptse (on left) and Everest (on right) at sunset, from Tengboche. In February 2008, when I visited, I saw nothing but clouds and mist. When I returned in October we were treated to the most marvellous sunset and sunrise.

 


Monks blowing conch shells at morning puja, Tengboche monastery. The monks at the top left hand window are blowing the shells that make a hoarse, trumpet-like sound, during the sunrise puja.

 

Autumn colours.

 

Prayer wheels.

 

Ploughing a field with a wooden, dzo-drawn plough.

 

Namche Bazaar from above.

 

Carved Mani stone near Tengboche.

Coffee; my drug of choice!

At least, the first thing in the morning, it is.

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I just don’t understand why it is that having a perfectly average 7 or 8 hours of sleep each night should turn me from a (relatively) normal and functioning human being, into an extra from ‘Return of the Neanderthal’ – and a non-speaking extra at that, other than the occasional ‘ug’ or snarl.

Of course, if I get less than 7 or 8 hours, then I resemble something that hasn’t even made it as far up the evolutionary ladder as the Neanderthals; some sort of fairly large and irritable beast with too many pointed teeth and a lamentable lack of patience, perhaps.

Just left to my own devices, this would not auger well for my marriage, my blood pressure, or even for the local society and environment.

But if modern medicine can work wonders in curing all sorts of previously fatal diseases, then caffeine of just the right dose seems to be the medicinal panacea for morning.

And being just a layman when it comes to the world of caffeine, I have a childlike wonder at its effects.

I am especially impressed by the strength of the espresso that you get served in cafes in Spain or France, and hence at its effectiveness. The customer crawls in and somehow climbs up onto a bar stool, using their final reserves of energy, croaks out a request for ‘espresso!’, then uses the last of their strength to lift the tiny cup to their lips…they drink…and Bingo! They leap suddenly into the air as if energised by a bolt of electricity, and then rush out of the cafe, singing lustily, to do a 16 hour day’s work.

And proper Turkish coffee, an extremely effective if much tastier substitute for asphalt, just has me in awe. Are there really people who are able to drink this each day? Every day?

Superhuman.

I doff my cap to them.

I take mine a little weaker than that, I admit, but I do like it relatively strong, and without milk or sugar – exactly the way that nature intended it.

Naturally, instant coffee just does not cut it, although I do admit than it can be effective at combating fatigue; many years ago when I worked in the Middle East, I noticed that one or two of the men who worked shifts at our company would eat the occasional mouthful of instant coffee powder when they were tired, presumably to help them get through the following few hours.

But despite that, I just have not found an instant coffee that seems drinkable. Nothing can match the real thing, for me.

And lest you fear that I am doing myself irreparable damage by flooding my system with strong coffee throughout the day, let me just say here that for me it is an early morning ritual only, and after that I drink tea (a good Darjeeling, naturally!).

But now it is lunchtime. I have got through another morning.

Thank you, coffee. Thank you.

Where’s that damned kettle?

Oh, I really can’t be bothered…

Having published ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’, I do feel that I have succumbed to the temptation of sitting back and resting on my laurels. It seems to be quite difficult to motivate myself to write anything, and, strangely, it also seems quite difficult to motivate myself to do anything about publicising said novel.

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I have tried to galvanise the other Work In Progress; my long novel ‘The Assassin’s Garden’, which already weighs in at some 110,000 words, but I seem to be very dissatisfied with anything that I write. I get too easily sidetracked from the research that I need to do, and everything that I read back seems to be somehow trite and uninteresting.

There are some short stories that I need to edit, one of them almost 15,000 words long. But do I feel like doing it? Nope.

Then there is a poem cycle that was going well…nope.

Even blogging seems to be much harder work than usual.

Is this some sort of reaction from finishing the other novel, I wonder?

But what about publicising ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’? Surely there is plenty of incentive to do that?

Well, I have had a few reviews, and they are all very kind and generous with their praise, and I have the strangest feeling that I am so pleased with them, that they seem of more importance to me than sales.

Obviously, no sales would mean no reviews, so this doesn’t really make too much sense, but I do wonder if other writers feel this way after publishing a book.

Or could it just be because it is my first?

But, something clearly needs to be done.

I had decided to enter NaNoWriMo this year. This is National (Na) Novel (No) Writing (Wri) Month (Mo), which happens in November (No again?) and is internet based (So how come National? Search me…) and is a challenge to write 50,000 words of a novel (Gosh) in the month of November (Phew!). This is generally in the form of a first draft, to be edited later at leisure. I thought it would be fun to try, and I had begun to make a few notes in readiness.

But in a similar way to the way that my idea for ‘Making Friends with the Crocodile’ hijacked my writing last year, held a gun to my head and forced me to write it, so my ideas for this other novel have rapidly snowballed until I knew that I had to make a start on it.

And so, I now have a new work in progress.

Again it is set in India, but this time there are two main protagonists; one Westerner and one Indian, and the story will be written alternately from their Points Of View. I have pretty well worked out the details of the plot, but let’s just say at the moment that they both change a lot as a result of their meeting (I don’t do spoilers, but I do try to do teasers!).

Hopefully, this will goad me into rather more activity than I have managed in the last few weeks, including now thinking up a new idea for NaNoWriMo.