April 30, 2012 § Leave a Comment
A problematic situation for which the only solution is denied by a circumstance inherent in the problem.
Laos’ Cruel Catch 22
Laos is the most heavily bombed country, per capita, in history. Between 1964 and 1973, 270 million cluster bombs were dropped on the country, 80 million of which failed to detonate and remain a real and dire threat to the poor and ordinary people of Laos. Though organizations like the Mines Advisory Group (MAG) are working hard to remove and safely detonate the unexploded ordnance that litters 25% of Lao villages, it is estimated that it will take 150 to 200 years to clear the country of UXO.
In the meantime, as in the past thirty-five years, the people of Laos suffer the cruelest Catch 22 which prevents them from breaking free from the cycle of poverty.
So much potential farmland is littered with unexploded bombs, making families afraid to expand the spaces where they could till and plant. Those who take the chance risk unearthing and detonating buried bombs: hundreds of people – many of them young children – lose lives and limbs every year and every day in simple acts of survival like planting crops and collecting water. Often, families can’t plant enough food to survive the whole year, forcing them to look for alternative – and dangerous – ways to make money. The main ‘alternative’ is the excavation, for sale, of scrap metal from the very same bombs that lie buried in the fields and forests of rural Laos.
This illegal sale and trade of scrap metal is a high-risk business - and only barely lucrative – but a sadly viable option for families who literally have no alternative: which ever choice they make, it is intrinsically tied to the unpredictable treachery hidden within the earth. Survival depends on the same corrupted land that threatens their very existence; it is a terrible situation and it is difficult to see a way out of it.
Heller’s novel is often hilarious in its depiction of the illogical immoralities of war but it would take a writer of strange powers to tell the story of Laos in anything but grave and humorless terms. There is nothing funny about this Catch 22.
There is Hope and You Can Help
We Help War Victims helps to save the lives and limbs of people affected by the consequences of war.
Visit Laos! It’s a wonderful country, we love it here. There is sadness but there is also profound kindness and warmth and a resilience that is as beautiful as its landscape.
April 25, 2012 § 8 Comments
Travel is awesome. Women are awesome. Agreed.
Though it is still rare for women to be mentioned in the the same breath as your James Cooks or your Mark Twains, most of us with an interest in travel writing will have heard of female adventurers like Freya Stark, Alexandra David-Neél and Dervla Murphy.
Not everyone who travels writes to an audience, however, and many extraordinary journeys by ‘ordinary’ folks are largely lost to us.
So I was excited to come across a wonderful resource from Duke University Libraries: a digital collection of Women’s Travel Diaries, conserving more than one hundred journals written by British and American women and detailing journeys to India and Africa, Europe, the West Indies and the Middle East. It’s a great find.
Studies in Travel Writing is another good resource and the generally wonderful ‘Project Gutenburg’ also has a handful of women’s travel journals and books that can be downloaded or read online, including a 19th century voyage to Brazil and an early 20th century journal of a nurse working in the trenches and field hospitals of France in WWI. Fascinating!
Last year the Royal Geographic Society reprinted Hints to Lady Travellers, originally published in 1889 to encourage and advise Victorian women in a time when independent travel was becoming more acceptable but was still quite unknown territory.
It seems a darling little book but with advise such as wearing skirts above your ankles when mountain climbing so as not to sully your petticoats, and the practicalities of having your maid travel in the same carriage as you, it’s not quite in the same realm as David-Neél who travelled across forbidden Tibet disguised as a beggar or Dervla Murphy’s trouser-wearing escapades across India on a bicycle.
April 5, 2012 § 1 Comment
High in the Himalayas, you walk in your clothes as though they were chain mail, an iron dress. We trekked without a guide or a porter so packing was a rigorous, considered process: every item and inclusion was a decision we would carry on our backs for a month.
We had decided to trek up to Lukla – the official beginning of the Everest Base Camp trail – where most people fly, taking us seven days to reach the same place they breeze into in less than forty minutes. For that first week we would be walking in low-altitude midrange mountains or, I should say walking over them: from Shivalaya to Lukla, a rough trail leads you time and again, up and down and up and down, through forest and village to peak and pass and river valley and ascend again.
My dear old knees fretfully recalled different treks in other lands and knew that it was they, not I, who would bear the brunt of every ounce and chocolate bar I crammed into my pack. They were most unimpressed, then, when they saw me with a weighty copy of Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From in my grip. “What?” I pleaded. “It’s not like there’s a lot to do on a mountain once the sun has set. Besides, don’t you know me by now? I’m Deborah. Of course I’ll be taking a book.”
They said nothing but sank into a scowl of wrinkles and furrows and piqued knobliness. I ignored them and propped myself up in bed to read a while before a pre-dawn bus ride from Kathmandu to the small settlement of Shivalaya.
How wonderful to carry Raymond Carver into the Himalayas, I thought: to take the drunks and the downtrodden, the depressed and the defeated, far far away from their small lives in their sad towns – away from the fishing cannery, away from the bar and the pool table, away from the kitchen table and the affairs and the disappointments, the insomnia, another drink and a cigarette. Oh, the romantic irony of it! The small-town son of a waitress; the hospital porter, the dictionary salesman, the petrol pump attendant from Clatskanie Oregon, now in the shadow of Everest!
I was in love with the idea. I get that way.
I suppose it’s because I can see where Carver was calling from. His writing; it’s close to home. And it meant so much to me – the small-town daughter of a bus driver (he was a bus driver then) – to find myself on my way up to the shadow of Everest.
Lying there reading, though, I started to feel so sleepy. Reading about the bars and the kitchen tables and the affairs and the drinking and the disappointments, I started to feel so tired. It was only seven o’ clock but my eyes were closing and my legs felt heavy and my shoulders felt heavy too. I started to wonder did I want to carry Raymond Carver up into the mountains with me? I started to think that maybe, after a long day hiking up and down and up and down through forest and peak and river valley, maybe I’d be too tired for drunks and divorces and dissatisfaction; that maybe they’d bring me down in spite of so much beauty all around; that maybe it was enough that I was carrying myself up into the shadow of Everest.
You can hope and you can wish things for other people, people who maybe want to get away from the kitchen table or the TV, the computer or their whole life; but you can’t carry them all with you; you only have your own knobbly knees and they’ve enough to be doing.
So I packed Carver away in the bag we were storing behind in Kathmandu and in my backpack I tucked a copy of When You Are Engulfed in Flames by the hysterically funny David Sedaris. And every night when the sun had set in the mountains and there was nothing at all to do in the cold and silent Himalaya, I laughed out loud and thought about the day and where I was and where I’ve come from. And, though it was heavy to carry at altitude and my knees groaned and grumbled sometimes – for it weighed, in fact, the same as Carver and I was happy eventually to pass it on to another trekker – it was a good packing decision; it was so very much lighter.