Monday, 23 July 2012

How to use a squat toilet

How lovely to discover that I am apparentlythe Buddha of Bowel Motions according to this; an old e-interview was picked up again....and again here too

What interest and excitinment talking poo creates!

Some of the on-line comments and responses to these posts made me smile so I should mention that various of the quotes have been taken out of their Asian / resource-poor context. The idea is to use loads of water.... there is no scooping involved.....

If unsure of the correct technique take advice straight from the horse's mouth, so to speak, through consulting

Ladies' loo sign in Budapest

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Friendship or elitism?

I was chatting this week with a lass who had returned to England after a stint in California. She described her excellent interesting well-paid job and her superb huge house opening onto the beach, but something was missing. She described the superficiality of her relationships – like she inhabited the embodiment of Facebook... she had lots of ‘friends’ but no real relationships or deep warmth and commitment. No-one was there for her.

That got me thinking about friends. I am not as sociable as I used to be, but I guess that is a side effect of working as a General Practitioner. My job is a privilege but my weeks are full of others’ crises so it can be a real luxury to have alone time. But I do need my friends, even if I don’t spend hours together every week. Every so often, I look forward to evenings with the right people. Those I feel most affinity to are friends I’ve ‘done stuff’ with. As an undergraduate I spent much of my leisure time caving or in various watery activities including white-water canoeing. Then with a change of location I tried rowing and hill walking. These outdoor activities can have you feeling quite miserable and you wonder why you choose put yourself into such situations. But they also stretch you – show what you’re made of.

Completing some journey under challenging conditions induces a good feeling, and if the weather is foul or I end up cold, wet and hungry, the cleaning up and the first hot chocolate tastes so unbelievably luxurious. How can anyone appreciate luxury except through the contrast of not having it?

The real jewel to treasure from working or exploring together in difficult circumstances is that you really get to know people. Particularly if you’ve shared miserable times, you discover what they’re made of, whether they’re really there for you, whether they still care for you when the cold, cold rain is dribbling down to soak the underwear. And you know who has the psychological strength to keep on going when the physical strength is spent. If that's elitism, then it gets my vote.
When George Mallory considered who would accompany him on his attempt on the summit of Everest in 1924, one of Sandy Irvine’s qualifications for the honour was his rowing prowess: he rowed for Oxford in the Boat Races of 1922 and 1923. Mallory knew that an oarsman of this calibre would have the unstinting determination to succeed.
Last night I spent the evening with the squad of women I’ve been rowing with for the last few years. We've learned that when the boat's unbalanced we each take our share of the blame. We’ve worked hard, got fit, been beaten often but each month we improve just a little. Most importantly though we are there for each other. We’ve rowed together, timed our strokes so we move the water together, our quads have burned together and we’ve struggled for breath together. This is true camaraderie and friendship. Thanks girls.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Scope for Improvement

The trouble with any writing project is that there's always scope for improvements. I shouldn't look at my work any more because every time I go back to it I come up with more requests for changes. I'm probably driving various people mad at Bradt, making suggestions to avoid word repetitions or adding the odd extra word to explain some exotic concept. And this is as we strive to get the book ready to go off to the printer this month, well next week actually. It is almost ready to go, although I'm not sure the back cover blurb is settled quite yet.

The new cover is vibrant and I feel it will attract quite a different readership to the towering mountains on the Australian edition, and my lovely editor, Caroline Taggart who is an author herself, has done a brilliant job of tightening up the prose. This has allowed me to sneak in new material, and even so end up with a book of a mere 390 pages, compared to the orginal 432. The colour section and new maps also add to what promises to be a really pleasing memoir. launch date is mid October.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

Furious Rivers in Fluted Gorges

It had rained heavily overnight, water poured off the crags and mist lurked over a river that looked furious at being constrained by its gorge walls. Towards the end of our guide’s spiel about rafting, he got to the bit about capsizing. ‘Conditions are difficult today’ [it was too dangerous for hydrospeed] ‘and we will go straight into the rapid. We’ll have no time to practise. You must pay attention and paddle strongly if I tell you. If we capsize I cannot save you all. I will save the children and perhaps the women....’

We – our family of four – had to paddle furiously through each of the rapids as the river tried to throw itself at us, spun us and up-end the inflatable but in the calmer stretches we gazed up to the mountain tops and marvelled at the Boka waterfall that seems to just issue directly from the living rock.
This was our second day based in Kobarid. The previous day we’d donned wetsuits and followed the amiable Dejan (from up a long scramble through cyclamen-dotted beech forest, our feet disturbing fallen leaves and brought the rich smell of moulder to our nostrils. We were breathing hard by the time we reached the spot where we could begin our first taste of canyoning. Much of Slovenia is carved out of limestone, and although the rocks seem immovable, they are slowly dissolving. There are chutes and slides where the limestone is water-smoothed which are better than any swimming pool flume.

The idea of the activity is to slide, slither and scramble along in the course of a river, down at the level of dippers and pond-skaters. In places there are cliffs to leap off. The delight is that the guide knows the terrain intimately so he knows which inviting green pools are deep enough for a high-dive and which you can slide headfirst into. Wetsuits kept us warm as well as buoyant so often family members bobbed to the surface feet first after some head-first plunges or dare-devil jumps. Our descent – which was said to be a good one for cannoning virgins – ended in a 5m drop through a little waterfall. Alarmingly a guide just ahead of us kissed the rock goodbye before he launched himself over the edge. My confidence was further undermined by a comment from the guide that people sometimes break their backs on these long plunges. I decided not to look before my turn. At the bottom – invigorated as I waded out of a puddle that was barely waist-deep – Dejan said, ‘Even Mummy did it!’

Lake Bled, a centre for tourism and rowing
The landscape is superb throughout the country with the meadows peppered with cornflowers and other lovely plants; even the steepest ravines are covered in trees. There are plenty of castles and other signs of the country’s tumultuous past. The extreme north-west of Slovenia and in particular the upper Soča Valley is spectacular and varied. There’s scope for kayaking, hydrospeed, paragliding, horse-riding and fine forest walks. More sedate canoeing is possible on the tranquil Bohinj Lake where mountain bikes are also on offer and there are views of the country’s highest peak – Triglav. Or you can chill in one of many excellent open air restaurants overlooking Lake Bled, where the turquoise water is so clear you feel you could reach in and touch the fish. Menus were interesting. It took us a while to work out that Malice = Snacks in Slovene and we’re still unsure whether we should have tried the young horse cheek or morels and eggs. ‘Waiter, do you have morels?’
Slovenia is small but diverse and there is plenty to do while based in the capital. Ljubljana itself is a beautiful open city with excellent dining and a lively nightlife. We did a day trip to board the underground train (at 27) that goes deep into the Postojnska Cave system (; this is home to the unique blind white cave salamander that lives to 100 and can fast for several years. It never really grows up but its whole life looks like an overgrown bleached newt tadpole. My sons concluded that these creatures needed to get out more.

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Something Massive

I suspected something was happening. There were notices on the cycle racks outside the Co-op on Mill Road saying that bicycle parking was been suspended for the day. Something massive about to happen in Cambridge...

Mill Road, Cambridge

Cambridge can feel like one big cosmopolitan village sometimes, and today – perched out on the rim of the bay window of my surgery – it certainly felt friendly and comfortable. The police on motorbikes fired up their sirens mainly to delight the children and offered high-fives to the little-‘uns lining the street. And it was unbelievable just how many people I recognised amongst the throng.  

The Wilds of East Anglia

Driving ESE from Cambridge last night, heading through that corner of East Anglia where you randomly pass in and out and in again of three counties, I glimpsed something ahead on the dark horizon. It radiated a warm glow. The skies were almost clear after the day’s terrific rainstorms. The only clouds were misty streaks.

Cottages, trees and hedgerows obscured the glow, and I wondered if it had been some trick of reflected light from within my car. Then I caught another glimpse. This time I could see it was an orb, easily three times the size of the full moon.

I thought of nuclear powerplants, early warning installations or even some ghastly illuminated erection to celebrate the Olympics. The next time I saw it, I made out the mottling of craters of a not-quite full moon glowing a gorgeous orange as it rose with astonishing beauty to light up the night.
Then on the River Cam this morning, the rain that we’ve all cursed so long and loud has given life to the creatures we share this planet with. It’s cleared the water so that terns come spear-fishing, plunging down from on high. Damsel-flies of jewel-brilliant emerald and sapphire cavorted and dipped along the luxuriant grassy banks doing amazing nuptial dances, in-flight insemination, while a humourless sentinel heron batted not an eye.

Live shows are always more atmospheric than anything recorded but am I alone in thinking that nature in all its glory still surpasses anything that TV or the film industry can show us?

Sunset over the Fens at Welney