Oh Heavens, Why On Earth Did I Follow That Blog? – 2

Some while ago I wrote a post explaining some of the reasons why I might occasionally choose to un-follow a blog. Surprisingly, it seemed to strike a chord with a great many readers, and has been my most popular post so far. The link is here if you wish to have a look.

Untitled-Grayscale-02

I thought I’d write a follow up post today, outlining a couple more reasons I might choose to un-follow a blog, or why I might decline to follow it in the first place.

Several times I have been sent invitations to follow a site I have never heard of. The owners of these sites have never had the manners to visit mine, or if they have they have not had the courtesy to acknowledge this in any way. The first I have known of their existence is a WordPress email inviting me to follow them. I will not be visiting their sites, never mind following them.

I have a couple of followers who have followed me, but only ever leave comments that invite me to follow their sites. Again, I shall not visit, for that is just bad manners.

This happens on other antisocial media sites, of course. I get terribly annoyed when someone I’ve barely come across messages me and says ‘I’ve just liked your page, come and like mine’. Er, no. Not until you learn some manners.

Then there are those bloggers who follow me, but only visit me after I have been on their site and left a ‘like’ or a comment. Instantly, they then visit for the first time in a month and ‘like’ three or four (or even more!) posts in the space of a few seconds. There is no way they could have read these posts in that time, of course. It is possible they think they are being polite by doing this, but I’m afraid it feels they only care about getting traffic to their sites.

I would imagine most people blog because they want their posts to be seen and read. Some ‘collect’ likes and followers, but most of us don’t (I do admit I am chuffed when I get a visitor from a fresh country, though, and therefore get a ‘new’ flag on my list!).

And I am extra double chuffed with fresh cream on top and little sprinkles of pure chocolate with the dozens of fantastic bloggers I have got to know since I first joined in with this lunacy a couple of years ago!

Despite the moaning, it was a great decision.

Advertisements

Remembrance Day 2017

This is the post I put up for Remembrance day two years ago. It seems as pertinent now as it did then.

Remembrance Day, and the wearing of poppies, seems to be something that divides opinions and causes a certain amount of friction, especially in Britain.

0006

On one side, there are those who say that simply wearing a red poppy is a glorification of militarism, whilst on the other are those who argue that it is all about respect; about honouring the dead.

Are we remembering the First World War, one hundred years ago, or are we celebrating it? There would seem to be quite a few people, judging from conversations that I have heard and threads that I have seen, who are happy to confuse the two and seem unwilling to listen to what is really being said.

A lot of nonsense, of course, is spoken by both sides:

‘Every soldier is/was a hero’

‘Anyone who objects to them is a traitor’

‘It is all about glorifying war and militarism’

Unfortunately, as soon as a debate becomes in any way emotional, then there is a tendency both for people’s opinions to become polarised, and for their perceptions of the opinions of others to also become polarised.

And then anything that your ‘opponent’ says is jumped upon as furiously as if they had just advocated the torture and murder of all children and little furry animals.

But they haven’t, so calm down.

Now then, the facts.

It may come as a surprise to some people, but the poppy was not chosen because the red colour of its petals symbolised bloodshed, but because of its ability to bloom where the ground has been smashed and churned up, such as at the Somme, where it was noticed by a Canadian soldier, Col. John McCrae, a physician, who wrote a poem about it, and through this it was adopted later by the Royal British Legion as a symbol for their poppy appeal. It is intended to symbolise how someone whose life has been in dreadful turmoil may come later to peace and normality.

The white poppy was first used in 1933, to remember those who had died, but also as a determination to work for peace. It was mildly controversial at the time, and some women lost their jobs for wearing it, but in more recent times Margaret Thatcher expressed her distaste for it and there are many now who follow her lead.

The Royal British Legion point out that they have no objection to the white poppy or, as some people like to do, it being worn alongside the red poppy.

To return to the controversy, then.

Why does it only commemorate the military? What about the civilians who died? What about the conscientious objectors who died for their beliefs? When it was first used by the Royal British Legion, it was to raise funds for disabled servicemen and the families of those who had been killed, so this wasn’t an issue then. When the white poppy was introduced, in many people’s minds it came to represent those others.

Does it glorify war? In some people’s minds, no doubt, it does, but this is not its purpose. Even the military will say that part of the purpose of Remembrance Day is to help to ensure that a war like WW1 never happens again. It is important to remember the horrors to avoid sleepwalking into them again.

There are also many people who feel it terribly important that it should be worn the ‘right way’, but there is no agreement over what this ‘right way’ is. Some say it should be worn on the left side, some that men should wear it on the left and women the right. Many argue over when it should be first worn – from October 31st? The eleven days leading up to Remembrance Day? After Guy Fawkes Night? Some argue that it should be worn with the leaf pointing to eleven o’clock. There are no ‘official’ guidelines on this.

The poppy, and Remembrance Day, are used also as propaganda by hate groups like ‘Britain First’ (if you have never heard of them, they describe themselves as a patriotic political party and street defence organisation’ – I think that tells you everything that you need to know), who choose to ignore facts such as that 400,000 Muslim and 1.2 million Indian troops fought alongside the allies in World War 1, many giving their lives, and like to think of it as a symbol of white Britishness. This, of course, is not a reason to object to the poppy, but only to the hate groups, especially as this only helps to further polarise opinions.

I do not see, then, any reason why pacifists should object to the red poppy and the Remembrance Day tradition, or why servicemen should object to the white poppy. If they all take the time to understand what each one represents, then they should understand that there is no real conflict in their views, and that both represent remembrance and respect.

The Enduring Lie of a Golden Age – Part 2…This is Personal

Two weeks ago I wrote of the idea so many people have that somewhere in the past there was a ‘Golden Age’ when everything was so much better than today.

I am now going to post what might seem a bit of a contradiction to what I wrote then.

121a

More and more, we are losing our connection with the natural world.

Everyone would have a different opinion on what is meant by the phrase ‘quality of life’, but for me if I am surrounded by concrete structures, with a lack of trees and flowers and birds, animals and insects, if the building I am in consists of electronic devices, plastic, steel, and artificial floor coverings, if my engagement with the day to day tasks of this building consists of pressing buttons, then I feel my own quality of life is much diminished.

A common post appearing on Facebook is of a picture of a cabin or cottage in the wilderness somewhere, with the caption ‘Could you live here for a month without TV or phone signal or internet for $25,000?’

Could I do it? I’d bite your hand off for the chance to do it. And I wouldn’t even need the money as an incentive.

No press-the-button entertainment. Setting and lighting a log fire instead of switching on the heating. No dishwasher. No constant barrage of emails, texts and phone calls. No street lights – or streets.

I’d bite yer hand off.

Whether I am at home, working, or walking in the country, always there seems to be the sound of aircraft passing overhead. Day and night. Constantly.

And unless you’re in the middle of a national park, there always seems to be traffic noise. Even when I’m walking in the midst of woodland, or through fields, it’s always present as a background noise.

And anywhere near a road or street, it is just constant. And I find that extremely stressful.

This is one reason why I love being amongst mountains. Usually, they are remote enough that the traffic noise is finally silenced. Frequently, they are away from air routes. And, of course, there are far fewer people around. And those that are there don’t usually seem to be glued to mobile phones or playing music.

And I’m nostalgic. Well, I’m in my sixties now, I’m allowed to be. And that brings us back to the post about a supposed golden age. Nostalgia is a yearning for the past, with the inference that it was better than the present day. There are, of course, many things about today that are much less than perfect – I’ve called out a few of the things I don’t like earlier in this post – but only a fool would deny that huge medical advances have improved all our lives for the better, social security has largely alleviated the horrors of abject poverty and, at least in the affluent west, our lives are not subject to the whims of despots.

But although I can expect to live to a greater age than my forebears – at least in theory – I would be willing to trade some of that for a time when life was less complicated, a life where I didn’t feel constantly bombarded by social media and advertising. A life that was lived more slowly.

Not a Golden Age, certainly, but one I would happily live in.

The Enduring Lie of A Golden Age

It seems that huge numbers of people have an impression that there was a ‘Golden Age’ at some previous point of their, or some other, society.

They may not define it in those words, or even acknowledge it as such, but it seems to be very common for people to yearn for another time. Sometimes, this is nostalgia – for the days of their youth – but frequently it is for some far-off time that they feel to be somehow better than the time they live in.

Untitled-Grayscale-01

Fantasy books frequently encourage this sort of thinking. Regardless of the actual storyline, the heroes and villains and cast of other odd characters tend to run around and fight and go on quests and sit around in quaint thatched inns quaffing head-splitting alcoholic drinks and everyone is jolly and no one ever dies of dysentery or bubonic plague in misery and agony and squalor.

The Lord of the Rings is a fine example of this. It is a favourite of mine, but it is very noticeable how no one dies of disease, but mostly lives to an exceedingly old age unless chopped into pieces by Orcs.

Hollywood, too, plays its part in this. To take a film at (almost) random, an old version of ‘Robin Hood’ (set in medieval England, remember) depicts a group of merry men dressed in very strange attire living in the depths of a forest and merrily ambushing the Bad King’s men, merrily dining at long tables out beneath the spreading branches of merry oak trees under starry skies and everyone looks clean and clean shaven and everyone is merry, and it never rains.

Pah!

This is meant to be medieval England. Life expectancy at the time was around 30 years. Huge numbers of people died of dysentery, mainly because there was no concept of hygiene. Occasional plagues carried off massive numbers of people, emptying entire towns and villages. There were no antibiotics or anaesthetics. Disease was sent by God and the only way to cure it was considered to be prayer. Or witchcraft. Women routinely died in childbirth, in great pain. The majority of children never reached their teens. Every peasant in every village was effectively a slave under the command of the local lord, who held the power of life and death over them, and might exercise this on a whim at any moment. The threat of famine was ever present.

Pain and misery was a given.

The majority of people lived, too, in a very real terror of the Devil and the threat of eternal damnation.

The list of horrors is almost endless. The phrase ‘life was nasty, brutish and short’ is an apt description of those times. Certainly, I would not wish to live under those conditions.

There are plenty of other ‘Golden Ages’, of course. Almost any time in history can exercise a fascination on us, if certain aspects of it appeal to us and there are things we dislike about the society we live in. And it is natural to yearn for something better; something more than we have.

And this is not to suggest that every age was a living hell for everyone in that society, but that life in most of these times was reasonably decent for the very few on top of the pile, and pretty miserable for the rest. In fact, the measure of how ‘Golden’ an age was, tends to be the conditions of the upper echelons of that society, and perhaps those of a middle class, if such existed.

There is much wrong with our world today. But the huge advances seen over the last hundred years or so, especially in medicine, have meant that our lives have been improved out of all recognition. No longer does surgery equate to filling the patient with a quart of whisky and then sawing off a leg or an arm. No longer do those patients routinely die of infections after surgery, thanks to antibiotics. High blood pressure is controlled, rather than routinely killing. Children usually survive all the diseases of childhood, rather than being most likely to die. Women rarely die in childbirth, and the pain can be somewhat controlled.

Women and children are no longer the legal chattels of men.

Work conditions are hugely improved. Children do not go down mines or work at dangerous looms 14 hours a day. Instead, most receive a proper education. Adults, too, work fewer hours and under far better conditions than previously. When they are too old or frail to work, the state provides a certain amount of dignified support. People do not as a rule die these days of starvation. We do not execute children for stealing sixpence, or poaching rabbits on the Lord’s estate.

In most cases, for most people, today is the Golden Age.

Bob on Holiday

Just in case you were wondering where he was, Bob has been on holiday. He’s back now, though.

And actually, he’s rather cross.

Now, lot’s of people return from holiday having had a wonderful time and feeling a bit tetchy that they have to come back to the daily grind, but it’s not like that.

No, Bob thinks we’ve all been lied to.

He went away to a holiday enclave in a West African country – or so he says. Bob’s sense of geography being what it is, I wouldn’t be too certain of the destination without checking his passport stamps first. And I wouldn’t do that. So I’ll take his word for it for now.

‘Now, I’m no fool,’ he said, looking at me.

‘No, of course not, Bob,’ I replied. ‘Absolutely not. Anything but. In fact, anyone who says…’ My words died away as I heard Bob’s wife, Gina, laughing somewhere behind me. ‘Go on,’ I ended, lamely.

‘Well, we read all the time that this is one of the poorest countries in the world,’ he continued, ‘yet I’ve never been to a nicer place! The hotel was really luxurious! Food was brilliant. All the staff were wonderful – they were smartly dressed and they couldn’t do enough for you! There were masses of security men all around the perimeter, mind you, but I don’t know what they were there for. And the beach was fantastic!’

IMG

‘Was it just you on the beach?’

‘No, there were dozens of us.’

‘Any local people?’

‘No, they don’t go there, apparently. They don’t like sitting around on the beach like we do.

‘Did you go outside the hotel grounds at all, Bob?’

‘Yeah, we went to a village to see local artists at work. I loved the village. It’s such a minimalist lifestyle. They don’t waste time or money on all those pointless things that we think are so essential in the west.’

‘Like what?’

‘All that rubbish we don’t need!’ he said, heatedly. ‘They live a simple, healthy, lifestyle, and what matters to them are the things that are really important.’

‘Like what?’ I repeated.

‘Well, simple food, for example. It’s much healthier, you know. You don’t come across any of the locals there who are overweight.’

‘What is this diet, then? Do you know?’

‘Well, mostly they make a sort of porridge out of some local grain, apparently.’

‘Is that it?’

‘Oh, no. Of course not! They usually have it with, er beans. And onions.’

‘It doesn’t sound very exciting.’

‘Food doesn’t need to be exciting! It’s there to keep you alive!

It was a side of Bob I’d never seen before, and, to be honest, it was a bit scary. I never realised he could be so evangelical. At least, not about things like that. I’m used to him banging on about how wonderful a new beer is that he has discovered, or about his favourite pizza topping (which I’m not going to talk about here, but…pineapple on pizza…how could you?), but now he had all the fervour of a fresh convert to some extreme religion.

‘And then there are the houses they live in,’ he continued.

‘The houses?’

‘Yes. Gloriously simple and uncomplicated!’

‘As in small and built of odd pieces of driftwood and plastic sheeting?’

‘Exactly!’ He smiled warmly. ‘I love the way they make use of what’s locally available to build with. It keeps the costs down, and reduces the environmental impact of transporting thinks like bricks from far away. Simple.’

‘But would you want to live in one of those?’

‘I wouldn’t mind. I mean, what else do you need? Just some sort of bed in there and, oh, a table, I suppose. And a couple of chairs.’

‘But you just told me how luxurious the hotel was, and how much you enjoyed it.’

‘Well, I wasn’t going to turn it down, was I? But apparently it’s because us Westerners are all just so soft and pampered. The native people don’t live like that at all.’

‘So you say. Does this mean you’re going to change how you live, then, Bob?’

‘Well, I don’t think it’s particularly practical in the West.

‘I suppose not. Tell me about the artists you went to visit, then.’

‘Ah, yes. Mainly carvers. Lovely wood; mainly animals and masks. I bought a couple. Look, that’s one of them.’ He pointed to a beautifully carved and polished elephant in black wood, standing on the mantelpiece. ‘It cost the equivalent of about two pounds in our money.’

‘That seems very cheap.’

‘I know, but it’s a lot to them. And it’s putting money into the local economy.’

‘Who did you give the money to? The chap who carved it?’

‘No, there was a bloke who showed us round. Nice guy in a suit. Looked very smart. We paid him.’

‘I don’t suppose the carver was in a suit.’

‘Of course not! You wouldn’t wear one of those while you were working, would you?’

‘Describe him, then.’

‘Well, he was wearing a pair of shorts.’

‘What else?’

‘Nothing else. That was it. they could have done with a wash, though, I must admit.’ He put his head to one side and stared into the distance. ‘And a bit of sewing.’ He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ‘Really, he could have done with a new pair of shorts. They were pretty ghastly.’

‘Maybe the nice man in the suit will buy him a pair.’ Bob smiled happily.

‘I’m sure he will!’

The Path Less Travelled. Or More Travelled. Or Whatever. The Point is, it’s a Path.

Last week, I posted that it was important to take journeys.

177

For the last nine weeks, I have been unable to get around a great deal, having had an operation on my foot to correct a few bits that were, sort of, pointing in the wrong direction, and painful when I put my foot down, and, er, lumpy where they shouldn’t be lumpy…

I’m sure you get the picture.

163

What it means is that I have been desperate to get out of the house and do a decent walk. I have managed to walk an average of a mile or so a day, just to try and keep reasonably fit and, I guess, supple, but it’s been quite hard work with the plaster and bandage on my foot and a stick to help me get around. Going uphill especially.

105

But the plaster comes off in a couple of days, and then I am going to do some walking. Boy, am I going to do some walking! Because I’ve been so frustrated at being unable to just get out there and walk the way that I’m used to doing.

011

I’m gonna walk!

110

And I’m so grateful that I’m still able to. God knows what I’ll do if I ever lose that. It really doesn’t bear thinking about.

Go On A Journey!

Everyone should go on a journey; a journey of discovery.

Even if they only do it once.

The journey will be different for everyone. No two journeys will be the same. But what they will have in common is that they will all be journeys where the traveller discovers something about themselves, as well as the environment where they have chosen to journey. The essence of the journey is that it gives the traveller both time and space to think; that on the journey they allow themselves to be open to new sights and thoughts and people.

boat

For some, it will be a carefully curated tour to a country with a different culture to their own. Perhaps a Westerner travelling to Nepal or Cambodia, or an Indian visiting Spain or Iceland, with a carefully prepared itinerary designed to help them get the most out of their journey.

For some, it could be much the same, but as an independent traveller. They would have the flexibility to either keep to a strict itinerary, or to go off somewhere new as the whim takes them. Because everyone’s sense of adventure is different.

For some, it will be a long, long trek through difficult terrain, pushing themselves physically and mentally every step of the way.

img_0010

For some, it might also be a long journey, but under easier conditions, where the aim is more one of contemplation, perhaps a pilgrimage of sorts.

For others, the difficult terrain might be that of their prejudices and fears – the terrain of the mind.

006-2

What starts as a pilgrimage might end up in your discovering that you do not believe in God; well, that is fine. Remember, it is perfectly possible to be a spiritual person without believing in any god.

Although what ‘spiritual’ actually means is not so easy to nail down. I think of it as pertaining to the spirit, rather than to material things. In that sense, I would associate altruism with the spiritual, and greed with the material. A sense of calm and peace with the spiritual, a rowdy hedonism with the material.

For some, the journey might be from their house to a town or village a few miles away, and the journey might take no longer than a day.

034a

It is essential, though, that the journey is undertaken for the sake of the journey. The destination is, in some ways, unimportant. It is what happens on that journey that matters.

Many, perhaps, will journey without realising that they have done so, or arrive at their destination not realising that is what it is. They might only realise later.

Some will arrive at a totally unexpected destination, and perhaps that is the best destination of all.

Go on, then, off you go!

A Limo in Lima…

…something that ought to be a cautionary tale.

It was a long time ago, now, but I am sure these things still happen. I was sent by the company I then worked for, to Lima, Peru. My role there was to carry out some training of half a dozen local men who had been recruited to operate the computers in our branch office.

Now, I have never been what could be described as a ‘snappy dresser’. I incline towards what can best be described as a ‘casual’ look, although I have at times been unfairly described as a ‘scruffy bugger’, and no one looks their best after a journey of over 24 hours, with a couple of flight changes and a certain amount of time spent hanging around in airports.

And thus it was I emerged into South America haggard and unshaven, sporting a pair of old jeans and a tee shirt, picked up my battered rucksack from the carousel, then looked around for whoever was meeting me.

IMG_0001

We’ll blend in. No one will us notice us in our big, clean, shiny black limo.

I was accosted by a smart suit and tie which was housing a short man who looked like a mafia boss, but who was affable and friendly and directed me to my transport.

A huge, black, limousine.

Now, in some other circumstances I might have quite enjoyed the ride, since it was an experience I had never had before (or since, as it happens), but we then proceeded to drive through massive slum areas where most of the ‘housing’ appeared to lack even a roof. The road was pitted with potholes, most of the traffic consisted of battered buses, lorries and cars, and poverty seeped out of everything that could be seen.

I have never been so embarrassed.

Every time the car stopped, I wondered whether we would get attacked and robbed – we certainly attracted a lot of attention, all of it the wrong kind as far as I was concerned. And after I was dropped off at the hotel where I would be staying, I was left wondering just who the hell that was meant to impress?

Me? If so it failed abysmally. My (already somewhat low) opinion of the company I worked for simply plummeted further.

The locals? If that was the case, then God forgive the b*stards that thought of it.

Can anyone enlighten me as to the thinking behind that?

Danger! Natural Selection at Work!

Bob has a new mobile phone.

Do you remember Bob?

Some of you may remember him from when he and I went on a mighty expedition together. The report can be found here. And, as an update to that report, I can now reveal that Bob eventually found his way back home, much to his wife’s chagrin as she had already cashed in his life insurance and taken up with a new man.

But that’s another story.

Anyway, Bob has a new mobile phone. And, being Bob, he was insistent that it be the latest, most up-to-date, all-singing and all-dancing mobile phone, with more apps (whatever they are) than…something that has lots of apps.

He has an app for everything; an app for navigation when he is out in the countryside (naturally!), an app to help him choose whatever he is going to buy if he needs to go shopping, an app that gives him a weather forecast. He even has an app that tells him when he needs to eat or go to the toilet.

Heaven only knows how he managed to cope with life before the phone.

But, there is a downside to all this.

We went for a walk and, sure, we didn’t get lost. This was because Bob had his head over the phone the whole time. We didn’t get lost, but Bob bumped into twenty seven trees, fell in two streams, had an altercation with a herd of cows, tripped over almost fifty tree roots and finally walked into the bus stop.

And he had no idea of where we had been or what sort of countryside we had passed through. Rather a waste of time, really.

Now, Bob is not unique in this, oh, God, no.

The sidewalks in our town have become dangerous places since these phones became popular. I’m beginning to get seriously cross with the number of pedestrians who march towards me, head over their phones, and not even walking in a straight line, so it becomes quite difficult to avoid them. And should I have the temerity to perhaps cough discretely to let them know I’m there, or even to feebly call ‘look out!’ or ‘excuse me!’ I invariably get a glare and perhaps a few muttered words about not looking where I’m going.

And it appears to be an almost universal phenomenon now.

We get more and more news items about these people walking into the paths of vehicles, or off the edge of cliffs, or finding other similarly stupid ways to get killed.

Perhaps it’s a modern form of natural selection? I don’t know. Large numbers of idiots seem to kill themselves the same way taking ‘selfies’ (what a f*cking irritating word that is!), so perhaps there is something in that.

137a

Jaipur – a random photo. Don’t try it here! 

I first became aware of the truly frightening potential for these sort of incidents a few years ago in India. Some of the driving on the switchback roads in the Himalaya is notoriously terrifying in any case, but to then see these fellows also using their phones while driving just made it even more frightening.

And then there was the girl I saw with a mobile phone ‘doing a Bob’ across an extremely busy Calcutta street.

Yet, she survived.

If there is anything in the theory of natural selection, then the future belongs to her!

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.

dawn panorama

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.

twenty one

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.