Category Archives: Travel

Review of James A Michener’s book: Caravans

CaravansCaravans by James A. Michener

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I very much enjoyed this book – many quotable quotes and a real sense that the author had a grasp of the Afghan temperament. He did at least travel and live in the country for quite some months before attempting this book.
Others here havegiven a good synopsis and critique of the book. I just want to emphasize, in my opinion, that the value of this book lies really in the narrative surrounding the central feminine character, Ellen Jasper. Although we only meet her some 100+ pages into the book, she is talked of and analysed at some length prior to this. The reason: she is a young American woman from an influential family who marries and Afghan engineer, returns to his homeland and then goes awol. Concerned parents bring pressure to bear at home -> senator pressures American consulate in Kabul -> young American seconded to that office assigned the task of locating young woman.
The plot may be a bit tenuous it’s true but the character of Ellen Jasper isn’t. She’s a beautiful, worldly, intelligent, high-spirited girl who is liked and loved by almost everyone she meets, men and women alike. As it transpires she leaves her engineer for a group of nomadic Kochis and takes young Mark the diplomat along with her. Much thought-provoking dialogue follows as they venture inland though some magnificent scenery.
Ellen Jasper embodies the restless energy of youth and its disillusionment with the status quo. She claims to have married her Afghan engineer simply to spite her father and to pour scorn on his ‘petty scale of judgement’, but one feels there is more to her than just rebellion. Michener’s portrayal of her is quite prescient. In many ways her character forstalled the sandal-wearing hippies, 3rd word groupies and volunteers of the latter half of the 20th century who have foregone the comforts and certainties of their working-class lives for the adventure and altruism of traveling, living and working in the so-called developing world.
One other thing worth contemplating today as much as yesterday, in the words of the leading male character of the book:
“He’s right,” I [Mark Miller] told Moheb. “You’d both better get used to Ellen Jasper,” I warned. “Because once you let your women out of the chaderi, Afganistan’s going to have a lot of girls like her.”

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My Workaway and Other Stories

Well my time in France has come to an end. Should I be philosophical about it and conclude proceedings with a sigh and a “c’est la vie”? Certainly not! I have had a wonderful 6 or 7 weeks here. As you can tell I’ve managed to lose track of time. 

What can I say about the Workaway experience? It’s a great model providing you understand what it’s all about. You’re not going to earn any money working as a volunteer unless of course you have an established business operating independently of you (really, and you’re a travelling volunteer?); are dealing elicit substances from your backpack en route (not advised when crossing borders); or are adept at online gambling or trading (aren’t there better things to do with your time?).

Workaway is all about the experiencing things whether they be cultural, cuisine, landscape, urban, rural, musical.. whatever. If you are the sort to sign up for the scheme chances are you are open to new experiences and are actively seeking them.

From what I understand (it’s probably stated in the Ts and Cs), the host can engage you for a maximum of 5 hours a day in gainful employment, around which you can do as you please. There were days I worked more and days I worked less. The work was never dull and the time I had to myself was ample to explore my immediate surrounds and here and there go a little further.

I was fortunate that during both my Workaway placements I had reasonable hosts. Gérard, who runs his permaculture project on his smallholding near Poitiers was a lovely man and I say that without any subtext. If he could be accused of anything I suppose it could be that he is perhaps a little over-enthusiastic at times. I remember wandering into the barn-cum-workshop in the late afternoon or a Sunday morning to find him busy chopping metal bars or assembling something he had been imagining in his head.

However, he never made me feel obligated. Whatever he intended us to do was by invitation and suggestion. It was never a directive. It was also an exercise in communication across the language divide as neither of us had a firm grasp of the other’s language. Arguably my French was a lot better than his English but it still left much to be desired. Gérard’s talent lay in speaking slowly with ample gestures so that the essence of what he was trying to explain was conveyed despite my diminished vocabulary.

Hector, a Mexican man, with whom I worked at my next assignment had a different style. He was certainly more authoritative. I suspect it was partly a personality trait and partly cultural. I often felt as though he would have preferred to shout when I misunderstood him (quite often) but somehow managed to force himself not to. I was never really able to relax fully with ol’ Hector but I could appreciate that he was a very practically-minded individual. Everything he knew about building and wiring and insulating and so forth he had learnt ‘empirically’ as he put it. I certainly learnt a few things in this regard.

Hector liked his grub and every other lunchtime we would head off to the local Chinese restaurant in the neighbouring village, or occasionally a kebab for the sake of variety. His wife Ann was a nice lady, a very busy lady, who somehow found time to cook around doing homework with Hugo, the housework, as well as laundry, ironing and periodic nursing shifts. So far as food went I was well taken care of at both places.

The contrast was in the style of dining. Gérard and his wife, Mireille, took their time over a meal. It was more intimate, never rushed. We chatted and laughed and savoured each morsel whether it be a helping of cherry tomatoes from the garden or a piece of home-baked quiche. There was also the obligatory glass of wine with the afternoon meal, usually a rosé. For me this was the essence of simple, pleasurable French dining.

Hector and Anne’s boys (fraternal twins) were polite but I sensed that mealtimes were more an obligatory exercise which they would rather conclude as fast as possible so that they could get back to whatever they were doing before i.e. computing.

Spending time with the Gayón family also gave me an insight into living with an autistic child. Raphael was or all intents a normal boy of 15 whilst his brother Hugo was afflicted by autism. It manifest itself in the way he spoke (quite matter of factly without much intonation) and in his particularities. For instance, he obsessively played the same 1st person computer game the entire two weeks I was there outside of homework and mealtimes.

He hated loud noises or situations that might permit them. Therefore whenever the sliding door to the patio was opened he would block his ears. Even things like music emanating from my tablet would make him uncomfortable and I was asked to turn it off.

Seeing how the family had to adapt to Hugo’s particular set of needs was educational for me. Not something I had actively sought out but which I’ve benefitted from nonetheless. It couldn’t have been easy for the rest of the family yet they undoubtedly loved him. One evening he unexpectedly smothered his parents in kisses and hugs much more demonstrably than a normal boy of that age would do. I could see this amused, perhaps even pleased his father and lthough he maintained his cool demeanour I detected the hint of a smile on his lips.

He ate prodigious amounts of chocolate, waffles and yoghurt – too much as far as I was concerned – but I assume his parents permitted it in compensation for the things he would not get a chance to enjoy, unlike his brother Raphael.

Raphael was a very smart child, that much was evident. He spent most of his time on his computer either programming or reprogramming games (‘mods’), composing music or networking with friends remotely. He had a state of the art digital SLR which he brought along on an outing to an old castle/chateau on a hill overlooking the village. I told him of my interest in photography and he had quite unselfishly handed the camera over to me and told me to ‘shoot away’.

I sensed that he wanted to please me, to be liked. Did he feel the burden of being the ‘normal’ child and the expectations that must come with it? I had reason to ponder this on several occasions.

On a lighter note I would like to share a few anecdotes from my trip which illustrates some of the lighter moments traveling abroad.

1. Over lunch Gérard informs me that the next day he and I are going to Katia’s house. Katia is another Workaway host who is active in Gerard’s permaculture project. Mireille has not taken to Katia probably because she comes across as very assertive. Katia tells me this is because she came from a big family of boys. Her dad died early in her life as well. Personally I liked Katia. Beneath her matter-of-fact, let’s-get-down-to-business approach she was actually a very kind and thoughtful person.

Mireille fixes Gérard with a stare and states simply that is not going to happen because she has an appointment scheduled with her hairdresser in Vasles and he is supposed to drive her there. Gérard protests but her gaze is unyielding. Wisely he diverts his eyes to the fruit bowl, furrows his brow as if deep in thought, and after a few moments contemplation nods his head and proclaims that yes, he remembers now. The rendezvous at chez-Katia can wait till the weekend.

2. After Gérard’s project and a few days cycling along the Loire Valley I head down to the city of Toulouse where a friend of mine, Rui, lives. From the train station I catch the Metro to meet him near his house. I am seated in one of the carriages and, having nothing better to do, pick up a newspaper at my feet. It’s in French but with pictures of some local celbs on one side and an assortment of swimsuit models on the other including the South African model, Candice Swanepoel, stretched out in a two piece number.

Being a bit self-conscious I drop the paper back on the floor.
A few moments later an elderly Muslim woman dressed in traditional attire enters the carriage. A young girl kindly gives up her seat opposite me. The woman smiles and nods appreciatively. She sits down and picks up the same piece of newsprint, fixing her eyes on the page with the models.

Her eyes narrow and with a disapproving mumble she proceeds to tear the paper into little shreds! I catch the eye of the girl who gave up her seat a moment earlier. She is struggling to stifle a laugh. Most of the people around me are grinning in amusement although the elderly woman takes no notice.

3. Working alongside Hector one morning I turn on the digital radio app on my tablet. I is tuned to Smooth FM, UK. Annie Lennox is singing Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).

Me to Hector: Hector, do you like Annie Lennox? (I am a fan)
Hector (busy installing an electrical cable) : Yes, I like Red Hat
Me: Mmmm, not sure I know that number.
Hector: Yes it is a good operating system.
Me: I mean Annie Lennox. Of the Eurythmics….ya know?
Hector (still busy with said cable): Listen, I would use it more but my clients require Windows Software.

Get it? Lennox/Linux. One sings, the other is an open source operating system. (LOL)

PS I still don’t know whether Hector likes Annie Lennox. Or the Eurythmics. Being a jazz player I personally think he’d like her Medusa album. Just a guess.

Le Jardin de Verrines: a lovely little place in Deux-Sevres, Poitou-Charentes, not far from Poitiers.

I arrived at le Jardin de Verrines on a pleasantly mild Saturday afternoon, the week before last. I have been here for 8 nights now. Le Jardin de Verrines is a small-holding belonging to an unassuming gent by the name of Gerard Deremetz. Gerard originates from Paris but it is hard to picture him in an urban environment, so at ease is he in the activities which preoccupy him on the property. But what exactly is LJDV?

In a nutshell it’s a permaculture project. If you, like me, are new to the idea think sustainability, harmony, recycling and all those compellingly ‘green’ concepts people like to talk up but which few actually take the time to fully implement. You can read about it on Wiki – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permaculture – or look at Gerard’s excellent site – http://lejardindeverrines.ning.com. The idea is essentially one of living harmoniously within the local environment taking into account ecology, climate, soil as well as social elements. The idea is to minimise the impact on the ecosystem of the site through raising and harvesting food plants – trees, shrubs and vegetables – alongside wild plants: no artificial chemicals or pesticides employed; All waste products recycled (that includes human waste as well).

Reading that induced a reflex recoil perhaps? Isn’t that unsanitary? After a week of using the 3 natural compost toilets allocated to me near my caravan home I can tell you that it is not the case. You do your business and afterward cover it with a few jar-fulls of sawdust. It is not immediately evident the effect the sawdust will have but after 24 hours or so it absorbs all the moisture from the excrement and the result is remarkably odourless. If necessary you can add a bit more if there is any hint of an odour and it soon vanishes.

I will be here until the weekend. This week Gerard will be showing me how to construct a rocket stove. I’ve already seen one in use this last Saturday when a few volunteers came over and helped in the garden. One of them, Katia, brought her rocket stove along and cooked up some sausages. This was achieved with a minimal amount of fuel: a few twigs and softwood off-cuts. Last week I learnt how to arc-weld. Along with another helper, Paul, a young chap employed at the town hall of neighbouring Vasles (le Mairie), we manufactured a frame to support a bicycle.

On Thursday we went to the town of Saint Fraigne in the department of Charente, about an hour’s drive away. We delivered the frame to a group whom I assumed to be in part municipal employees and in part volunteers. Gerard demonstrated the principal and after our bike was mounted on the frame and attached to an old Siemens washing machine they provided. This all took place over the course of the day. Photos of the manufucature and demonstation are shown in the gallery below in addition to an uploaded clip from my phone.

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A link to the project on Gerard’s website: Step-by-step guide to creating the ultimate green washing machine

I don’t imagine that many of you watching this will feel enthused enough to go and dismantle your washing machine at this stage! But if and when it packs up and a new appliance is beyond your reach you will at least have an idea of an alternative solution, especially if you want to enhance your green credentials and want to boost your exercise regimen!

Here is another gallery on Google Photos which shows some snaps of the garden:

https://goo.gl/photos/GjPfdo1pnAWhFRza8

The Taizé Mission and the Trouble Next Door

The second part of my recent trip to Antakya, the Hatay, Turkey.

These Archived Memories

When I questioned Barbara on her source of funding for the renovations she revealed that she was solely dependent on income derived from visitors to her guesthouses. She had originally come to Antakya in the mid-1970s to establish a Catholic church, now presided over by Fth Domenico, a Carmelite priest.

The church backed onto the Taizé guesthouse which she had established subsequently. She’d rented the various rooms and courtyards for several decades. She was by no means assured of keeping them indefinitely. In recent years wealthier individuals and families had begun to buy the older houses for restoration. She worried that her landlord/s might be enticed to sell one or other of the accommodation she rented were an attractive offer made by a prospective re-developer.

She worried that her landlord/s might be enticed to sell one or other of the accommodation she rented were an attractive offer made by a prospective re-developer.

On…

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Ode to Algiers

I had a sense of deja vu
when old Algiers hove into view.
Tho’ cast about by suburban sprawl
at La Grande Post d’Alger I felt the call.

‘Time out of mind’ I think it’s said,
an echo of a place once tread.
Ancestor or kindred soul perhaps,
linear constructs of time collapse.

A gentle breeze caressed my face
from Port Said and the Med’s embrace.
A subtle mix of many sorts,
Alger beckoned within my thoughts.

Chic young women with well-coiffed hair
amidst shawl-clad ladies not from there,
tho’ a hijab scarf is sometimes worn
by those who Western dress adorn.

If mother France had long vacated
still her influence permeated:
les avenues, les boulevards, les places,
les jardins public dans l’espace.

And such stately apartments row on row,
whose balconies such sights did know.
The ebb and flow of urban life
now as then, both joy and strife.

Embrace the fusion, the Arab cry!
aspirations no different from you nor I.
And even if recollection fades,
now to fair Algiers these accolades.

Travel Blogging (again)

Yes I have been at it again. But where are the posts you say? Well the truth is that I have been unfaithful to the cause and used a very friendly little site called travelblog.org, no better than WP, but exclusively for those of a wandering disposition…

My latest trip was to South Africa, a place I have frequented numerous times. In fact I am often mistakenly assumed to be a Saffer here in the UK which I am not. The truth is I have claim to many things – Englishman, Zimbabwean, Greek, Irish at a stretch – but not to that land on the southern edge of the African continent. Anyway, it is there I went to see family and friends for a breezy 10 days (of which some 36 hrs were spent in the air when all flights are accounted for, and not including transit times which would take it up to 40).

I wish it were as easy as re-blogging but I fear I am going to have to provide the links and then copy and paste the stuff across as well, but for any aspiring blogger this shouldn’t be a chore so I will stop my whining. Herewith the posts:

Touchdown Johannesburg

Onwards to Durban

From the Highveld to the Cape

Hout Bay and Surrounds

 

 

 

 

 

A memoir of 3 years in the UK

So I’ve written a memoir and not, I hasten to add, an autobiography! As a friend of mine remarked, “isn’t it a bit early for that sort of thing?” Well quite. All the same it has been quite an interesting couple of years, primarily in England, but punctuated by two trips back to Africa. This is the main narrative time-frame, although I talk of events further back where they tie into present experience.

What inspired me to write this memoir? Several different strands of thought really. Firstly, I am predisposed towards writing anecdotes and commentary, but that hardly makes me stand out now does it?! Still, it wasn’t a huge extrapolation to start joining the blogs, commentary and photographic record into a coherent whole. I would like to call myself a travel writer. Perhaps not in the conventional understanding of the title, but all the same someone who qualifies by virtue of having traveled beyond their sphere of familiarity. But the essence of it is that I have had a great desire to seek an understanding of the world at large, more for my peace of mind than any other reason.

Like many first time writers I imagine, I suffered from a premature dose of enthusiasm and imagined that to get published was just a matter of finding the right publisher and selling my story to them. With any luck they would take charge of the nitty-gritty bits: proof-reading and editorial stuff, typesetting, marketing etc. I ran the usual gamut of publishers recommended by the Artists and Writers Yearbook, emailing sample chapters, synopses and cover-letters in the main but also printing off a few copies and physically mailing them to literary agents of a more traditional inclination. As the weeks and months dragged out I was to come to realise two things. Firstly, traditional publishing pf the sort I have just outlined is difficult. Secondly, memoirs are not half as enticing to the majority of publishers as other forms of literature, fiction being the biggest seller and crime fiction in particular. Actually, a perusal of the shelves of one of the established bookstores – Waterstones or WH Smith – will suggest that life-stories do sell. The only prerequisite is that one has to be famous in some regard: a man or woman of considerable sporting prowess or a pop-star being two obvious ones. I am neither. Thus I did not find myself a publisher but I did discover the world of self-publishing.

The accessibility of the platforms for self-publishing online through the likes of  Lulu.com and Amazon’s KDP have transformed the market by making publishing accessible to everyone. Although this might result in a lowering of editorial standards at least it gives people like me a channel to print and distribute our tales. The print-on-demand facility offered by online publishers like Lulu is a boon, but digital publishing is probably the biggest innovation. Still, one can’t do everything from writing to publishing completely independently and without outside review. I was lucky to have had the editorial input of Judy Brown, a competent proof-reader, who accepted my ridiculously low project tender through the site Freelancer.co.uk. I wasn’t in a position to offer any more than I offered but she did a thorough job all the same. To any aspiring author out there I say this: make it your first and foremost objective to find a good and honest proof-reader to assess your manuscript once you have finished writing it. He or she will do it the world of good not just through correcting grammar and punctuation, but by suggesting where you could say things more concisely, explore a particular idea further or simply to suggest what might be a bias on your part that needs to be reappraised.

That said I will return to the matter of the memoir itself. Once complete, or nearly so, there was the need to decide on a title. After some consideration I decided on one – A Fairly Honest Account of a White African’s Life Abroad. When I first published in July 2012 this was the title of my book. In part I was inspired by the fairly recent TV documentary on the plight of a white Zimbabwean farmer and his family, Mugabe and the White African. Something about the stoic struggles of the White African appealed to my vanity. All the same I was dogged by a sense of doubt. Did something really mark me out as a White African? Did I have a particular identity by virtue of having been brought up in Africa of ethnically European parents? I was after all born in the UK and actually of mixed Western and Mediterranean European ethnicity. I decided that the term was too divisive and ambiguous, with echoes of the past, and I therefore decided to change it several months later. The revised title I decided upon was Between Two Worlds: The Account of a Jet-Setting Vagrant. I won’t elaborate any further without pasting in my synopsis, as I wrote it for my book in the Amazon bookstore. As follows:

This is a personal, insightful and sometimes entertaining recollection of the author’s adventures and nomadic life in the UK as well as two periods in that other world of his upbringing, Southern Africa. 

Born in Britain to Rhodesian parents at the end of that country’s tumultuous civil war he was raised in a fairly peaceful and prosperous Zimbabwe. The narrative journey encompasses not only the present but the past. He does his best to make an objective assessment of modern Britain whilst elaborating on just what Zimbabwe (and South Africa) means to him, and the conflicting senses of identity and purpose in the homeland of his heart of which he is no longer a citizen.

In his quest for answers on his travels through the UK he surveys the cultural and political landscape of England today, revisits his birthplace in Ealing, and traverses the southwest of England in search of work. Circumstance draws him to his estranged uncle’s abode in the coastal city of Plymouth where the past and present collide unexpectedly.

http://www.amazon.co.uk/Fairly-Honest-Account-Africans-ebook/dp/B008NAU7VG/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1353331975&sr=1-1

I will endeavour to publish my introduction and a sample chapter or two on this blog to give the potential reader a taste of the book. I hasten to add that the book is most likely to appeal to those of a similar background to me: raised in Zimbabwe, although not necessarily white, and living or having lived in the UK and/or South Africa for a period of time. Furthermore, if I have to be honest I would say that the overall tone of the book is reflective rather than jocular or entertaining. I wouldn’t recommend you reading it if you don’t have an interest in history or delving into the human predicament. If this sounds too deep and introspective, fear not. Most of the book is about anecdotal experience and there is some humour too… I think!

A paperback version is also available though Lulu self-publishing (I am currently reviewing  a hard copy in order to approve it for affiliate distribution i.e. Apple bookstore, B&N) and another ebook (in EPUB format). See my author spotlight for links to the book: http://www.lulu.com/spotlight/leopassi

Here is preview of the revised cover, as designed by Kamil Pawlik, an independent Polish designer I crowd-sourced:

Between Two Worlds: The Account of a Jet-Setting Vagrant
Between Two Worlds: The Account of a Jet-Setting Vagrant