Stumpy vs Stompie

This is not an equal comparison as there is absolutely no correlation between the two – with Stumpy being the tame-ish deer that frequents Kylesku and Stompie is the South African term for a fag butt ….. or is there?  The old adage – man vs nature!

IMG_4034

This is Stumpy – quite shy

There is always a lot of controversy surrounding the culling of wild animals and none more so than here in Scotland where it is deemed to be a necessity, with numbers multiplying to levels too many for the natural resources to sustain them all.  These numbers are attributed to the fact that wolves – their natural predators – have disappeared.  On doing a little research I read that if undisturbed a herd of 300 deers can grow to 3000 in a space of 13 years (The guardian.co.uk).

With the lack of sufficient grazing, the health and well being of these animals will deteriorate. So, in order to keep the herds happy and healthy the culling is necessary.  The estate owners determine annually which of the herd are in poor health, or getting too old to be able to nourish themselves and will target these animals when “hunting” season opens – speeding up the natural circle of their lives.  Now as everyone who knows me knows, I am an avid anti-gun champion and deplore the “sport” of hunting, but understand the reasoning behind this.  But if man had not in their supposed wisdom, killed off the wolves in order to protect themselves, this conundrum would not exist.

Man 1 – Nature 0

The north west of Scotland is opening up massively to tourism, which is welcomed by the locals with the much needed injection of cash into the economy, which also unfortunately brings with it, its own problems, not only for the deer but other wildlife too.  You would think with the easy access to internet, the trend to go green, the massive international anti-pollution drive and just common sense, people would be respectful of the unspoilt places still left on this planet of ours.  Out running in the perfect solitude that this place offers, I came across a Starbucks coffee cup discarded on the road side.  The closest Starbucks is many many miles away, so why would someone wait till they are in the middle of this pristine environment to chuck this out their window! But my biggest dismay was, watching two women, needing to step outside the restaurant to have a cigarette, standing chatting and admiring the spectacular vista that they have come to witness, then casually turning away and both flicking their stompies into the loch! Is it lack of education, stupidity or just total lack of soul?

So why the comparison between Stumpy and stompies? This is Stumpy’s natural hunting ground, he is an old man, who appears to prefer his own company to that of a herd and hangs around the Kylesku Hotel and has become somewhat of a feature and sighting him brings much excitement. His horns are stumpy and are no longer as majestic as they used to be in his prime, with his teeth deteriorating and wearing down so he is not able to get as much nourishment as he needs. But he belongs! He fits! Those human visitors with their gas guzzling 4×4’s, cameras at the ready to show they were here, whilst not truly appreciating the beauty that surrounds them, flicking their stompies which take more than 10 years to decompose, contaminate waterways and soil and harm wildlife – do not!

Stumpy 0 – Stompies 1 – a sad state of affairs.

IMG_4107

Working in the Scottish Highlands

There is a strong easterly, icy wind blowing, I am outdoors, washing windows, my hands are frozen, the salt residue blown by this icy wind off the loch, is encrusted and a little stubborn on the window panes requiring a little more energy to be expended, my favorite song is playing through my ear phones resting snugly in my ears, my body is warm from the repetitive motion of dip, wash, swipe dry, next time I will wear gloves, because there will be a next time and a next …… this place has an energy that has snuck into my soul. I turn and stop – the incredible vista in front of me is enough to take my breath away each time. There is not a soul in sight – they have gone indoors to savour the delicious fare served up by the hotel, warm and cozy next to the ever burning woodfires. I remove my ear phones, a few seagulls are battling against the upward draft and their cries can be heard above the whistling of the wind.  The normally crystal clear water of the loch is a little churned up and is lapping around the slipway as the tide steadily rises.  A cheeky seal does what appears to be a somersault and emerges with a large fish, which the seagulls then investigate to see if he would be willing to share, not this time, he dives back under the deep blue choppy waters with his lunch in tow.  And this is work.

IMG_3348

Fast forward a few hours – I am now indoors – getting ready for the dinner rush.  Silver cutlery is all polished. No need for gloves here as it is lovely and toasty and with the candles now lit on each table, the soft atmosphere is warm and inviting.  The sun has set, but there is still a gentle light outside.  The wind has abated and the loch is like a mirror with it almost impossible to tell where the sky starts and where it ends with the perfect reflections of the surroundings in these still waters.  The seagulls have retired to bed and the only sound which can be heard above the crackle of the fires and the mellow background music playing in the restaurant is the low hum of the local fishing boat coming back after a day out at sea, lights glowing brightly in the early evening, bearing their catch of the day. Dinner guests start arriving and there is the hum of conversations as tales of their adventures of the day unfold. Inside the kitchen as the night progresses, tables are being called, food orders being served in an almost regimental fashion where the customer’s needs are catered for diligently, the movement of the swing doors in and out of the kitchen could create enough energy on their own to power the entire village. On really busy nights my fitbit step counter feels like it goes into overdrive tallying up more than 20000 steps in a day, and that’s not including my magical morning runs. And this is work.

IMG_3815

Other days, doing a housekeeping shift, may not be as picturesque, but the environment somehow still carries the magic with it. Music in my ears, my body being worked hard physically, which in itself is an added bonus, almost like being paid to go to gym without the mundaneness, repetitiveness and sterility of a gym workout, where I can stop in between “repeats” and just absorb my surroundings.  And this is work.

It amazes me daily how in this remote location, everything works and runs like a well-oiled engine. Yes, there are hiccups, but nothing is insurmountable.  Maybe it is coming to work here in the Scottish Highlands, far away from my own beautiful, vibrant, but rather chaotic non law-abiding home country that I see how different life can be. The weekly refuse collectors, arrive in spotless vehicles, at the same time each week, and get invited in for breakfast and coffee before moving onto the next village. Post is collected and delivered daily, with a parcel taking only 2 days to get to its destination. Being so remote, the Royal Bank of Scotland, also make a weekly trip out for anyone needing to do some banking.  The public toilets get cleaned daily by the local council. And so much more.

All I can say is that I must have done something right in my life to have the opportunity to be able to work in this amazing environment, which feeds my soul daily and at the same time be able to make the rather long hop, skip and jump back home to get my family and chaos fix.

When am I going to start writing that book?!

“Creativity takes courage. ”
― Henri Matisse

I have been very remiss in my writing later and feel all the worse for it.  But made a conscious decision this morning to stop procrastinating and get started.

A couple of months back I attended a memoir writing workshop and left all fired up to start and then this fizzled out like a damp squid.  Life seemed to get in the way and motivation went out the window.

I am now fortunate to find myself in what can only be described as a writers dream location, working in the remote Scottish Highlands, where beauty abounds at every turn and which gets the creative juices flowing in abundance. I have all the stories doing their eternal rounds in my head and are crying out to be put down on paper. – But where to start ……  as Julie Andrews sang in the Sound of Music – “Let’s start at the very beginning”.

 

Here in this remote little corner of the globe, where, when you step outside, there are the cries of the seagulls, the occasional local fisherman pulling up at the slipway to offload his precious catch of the day, seals playfully surfing the incoming and outgoing tide as it pushes into the loch, the vista over the loch that one minute displays almost luminous rainbows and the next torrential downpours with side lashing winds and then the gentle sun lights up the hills into a magical soft glow, visitors driving down the dead end lane who can only but fall in love with the peacefulness and tranquility that is now my home.

IMG_2589

So it is here in this perfect location that I intend to start “that” book. And the purpose of this blog today is to put it out there. To commit. I have learnt over the years, that if there is something you are yearning to do and just cant seem to get started – broadcast it. Give yourself that kickstart!

“If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
― Toni Morrison

So what next …….?

I recently read a post on social media where a mother of a tween was asking for advice for the said tween’s next birthday party.  She had run out of ideas of how to entertain her child and their friends and listed all the parties that she had arranged every year thus far. And this got me thinking – what do these youngsters have to look forward to in life, if by the age of 10 they have already experienced what most people take a lifetime to enjoy.

This past weekend was my granddaughters 7th birthday and they all had a wonderful time at a tree top adventure venue with obstacle courses through trees, zip-lining and big swings. Enough to make the faint-hearted weak at the knees.  Some of the children took to it like ducks to water and others were paralyzed by fear, with parents (and grandparents) egging them on and telling them how brave they were.  The first time I went zip lining was at the ripe old age of 40.  This is not envy and it is great that the youngsters of today have so much more readily available for them to explore, but where to from here – what do they have to look forward to – to challenge themselves later in life.  Won’t this make them all that little more jaded and searching for the next adrenaline rush.

Next weekend, she will be joining her friend (also turning 7) at the local spa, where they will be pampered with mud face masks, manicures and other spa treatments – sorry, but has the world gone mad. What has happened to hide and seek, pass the parcel and pin the tail on the donkey.  Birthday cakes made proudly at home – albeit a bit lopsided – but not having to take out an extra mortgage just to have the perfect cake, which ultimately gets discarded on soggy paper plates. Children of today, in my opinion, are growing up way too fast.  They are exposed daily to indiscriminate propaganda and peer pressure.  I also feel for young parents of today who are pressured into this competitive rat race, where they are judged on their parenting skills, with eyebrows raised if it is perceived that they are not bowing to societies norms, with school report cards compared and social media adding fuel to the fire.

As a parent (in the good old days) you would worry about the cost of a 21st birthday, and not have to max out the credit card for little Johnny from year 1.  From what I have seen, birthday parties now not only entail making sure that the children’s entertainment outdoes the previous occasion and catering for the children, as no longer do children get dropped off with a sigh of relief for a couple of hours on a Saturday afternoon, as mom and dad (plus siblings) stay for the entirety of the party and have to be catered for as well.

To go back to my original question – “So what next …..?” How is society going to keep the younger generation entertained if they have already done it all before they turn 13?  How can we slow the world down and let them enjoy a simple childhood?  I am really glad I didn’t even know the word “facial” until I was older enough to appreciate it.  Will there be anything left for them to be in awe of, to strive to achieve…… I wish I knew the answer!

Vintage-Donkey-Party-Pin-The-Tail-On-The

Photo courtesy – Piclick.com

 

Volunteering – Voluntourism

“You are so brave”, “I couldn’t do what you have done/are doing”, “But aren’t you scared?”.  Just a few of comments that I have heard in this vein over the past 5 years.  And it is almost 5 years to the day since I embarked on my first volunteer placement with GVI.

Here I was, at the ripe age of 55, off to travel solo for the first time, to the other side of the world, to a different culture, different language and the anticipation of communal living. (Maybe I was at an advantage here after having survived bringing up 5 children, which in itself is a bit like communal living). Brave – yes, stupid – maybe, spontaneous – yes, getting out of my comfort zone – a big YES.  In the brief from GVI they advise to be flexible when it comes to the living conditions, which they warn in advance will not be to the standard accustomed to in western culture.  I was going with an open mind and advice from a young friend “Cath, just say yes (or “si”) to everything.”  The best advice I have had!

Step so far outside your comfort zone, you forget how to go back.

My first foray into the world of volunteering was to Costa Rica and arriving was exciting, liberating, and a little scary. The back up and support from GVI was excellent and I have subsequently volunteered with them again, twice in Laos and just back from Nepal.  The experience in each of these hubs has each been so different but all life changing and unforgettable.

In Quepos. Costa Rica, with tourism being one of their biggest cash earners, the need for supported English lessons is one area where GVI are able to help, especially in the poorer communities.  Here I got to work in the local communities, to see and experience how Costa Ricans live their daily lives, how they survive and always with a smile on their faces.  On arrival on the capital San Jose, the sign as you enter the arrival hall is “Welcome to the happiest country on earth” and they really live up to this.

IMG_3222

Luang Prabang in Laos, stole my heart. I had the privilege to meet and teach the young novice Buddhist monks, whose humility and thirst for knowledge knew no bounds. This experience has had a huge impact on my life as was being involved in the women’s empowerment project.

12047137_10205923157851057_7716421043186231790_n

My latest experience in Pokhara, Nepal where I was involved in the childcare programme, has to have been my most challenging to date, and at the same time extremely rewarding.  Seeing the little differences in the attitudes and behaviours of the little ones over the duration, you can only know that you have had a positive impact in their little lives.

IMG_9431

 

There is a lot of debate about the impact of volunteering and as some say voluntourism.  As with anything in life, what you put in is what you get out.  I have gone to each project with an open, flexible mind and willing to do what ever is asked and the rewards both personally and to the communities I have worked in, I feel are split both ways.  I have grown as a person, pushed my boundaries and made that difference to others.  Yes, I have white water rafted, paraglided, visited far flung temples, jumped off waterfalls and swum in oceans I never would have had a chance to do, so yes I have done all the touristy things, but at the same time, because I lived with the communities, never once did I feel like a tourist, and can say that as discussed with many of the other volunteers, we tended to get annoyed with the average “tourist” who appeared to disregard the cultural differences of the country, which as a volunteer you come to respect.

With all this in mind, you do not need to be brave to volunteer or travel solo, but need to have an open, spontaneous heart and mind and be willing to endure a few discomforts and learn some amazing valuable life lessons whilst having the time of your life.  There are a few disreputable volunteer organisations out there, so do your homework before embarking on an adventure that will change you for ever.  I personally highly recommend Global Vision International (GVI) who offer projects focused on marine and wildlife conservation, child care, animal care, health care and teaching.  Here you will make friends for life, of all ages and nationalities  – all you have to do is say yes.

My virgin trail run – at night!

The muted sound of early evening Johannesburg traffic in the background is the only sound, apart from my own heavy breathing and the footfall of my feet as they make their way around the dusty paths of Emmarentia Dam.  It is dark in the park and somehow even with the street and car lights passing by behind the palisade fence, there is a surreal rather magical atmosphere.  Up ahead the faster runners are making their way through the tree lined ridge and their individual headlamps blinking through the foliage bring back memories of fireflies on a summers evening.  Following behind them, dipping down to the dam water’s edge, where somehow your senses are more alert in the darkness, you can smell the freshness of damp undergrowth and the temperature drops significantly. It is almost impossible to imagine that you are in the middle of one of the biggest, busiest cities in South Africa.

After being a road runner for the best part of 30 years, this is my first foray into trail running and what a wonderful experience it turned out to be.  To take the road less travelled, and instead of having to dodge cars, taxis and trucks, you become one with nature. There are other hazards and you need to be quite sure footed, especially at night when your slowly dimming headlamp fails to pick out a hidden gnarly tree root. I found my running style change to fit in with the hazards and often uneven gradient and was very grateful for my newly purchased trail running shoes.

Trail running has to be one of the fastest growing sports, with more and more people looking for new challenges.  Dave Funnell, a passionate and seasoned trail runner, felt he needed to give back a little something to a sport that had given him so much, and has invited people to join him in the sport he loves every Tuesday evening at 17:45, for an informal run with nature.  Two distances are on offer +- 5km and 8km, with a team leader for both groups.  The runners stay together in groups which cater for all levels of runners. There is no cost involved but a request for a R 10 donation towards the refreshments provided at the finish, which is at The Craft Beer Library in Roosevelt Park, where an ice cold beer and delicious meals are on offer.

This week I will be buying new batteries for my headlamp (a must have to avoid those pesky tree roots) and will be lining up once again on a Tuesday evening for my next trail run – I am hooked.

10171714_1527653100814850_7921178134692682036_n

Photo courtesy – http://www.runcoedybrenin.com 

 

 

 

Snapshot of daily life in Pokhara – 1

The cry of “Howzat!” echoes off the walls of the surrounding buildings, with shouts of dissenting voices following hot on hits heels.  Friendly arguments then ensue, with the final decision being “Not out” and the game continues.

This all takes place in a central park, commonly known as Cow Park because of the cows and water buffalo that amble over the stony ground to graze on any little blade that might have managed to push its way up through the hardened ground.  It is dominated by three enormous ancient trees, the canopies of which cover the entire area in shade.

image_123923953

The fielders, whose footwear range from bare feet to plastic slip on sandals in all states of disrepair, scurry and slide across the dusty, stony terrain, trying to field the ball that often ricochets at obtuse angles off the gnarled twisted trunks of the trees. Another unusual aspect of this gentlemen’s game of cricket being played in downtown Pokhara, is that the wickets are comprised of a pile of broken concrete bricks, which ultimately would make it almost impossible for a wicket to fall when bowled at by the threadbare tennis ball that tends to bounce off without removing a single “bale”. Two male water buffalo go head to head at deep square leg in an effort to assert their dominance, but nothing distracts or dampens the passion with which these boys play their match. They can be seen out in the park till the sun sets and the street lights turn on, which is a sign for them to call it a day.

These children may not have much materially, but their lives are far richer for it and the good sportsmanship in their general behaviour is a testament to this fact. No one is excluded from this match – that is not a 1 day or 5 day, but a life series.

image_6483441

1, 2, 3 ….. run and jump…!

I have been trying to decide how best to describe the young Nepalese men who issue this instruction at least twice daily – 365 days a year. They are young, adrenaline junkies and even though they say the activity is 99,9% safe, there is definitely an element of danger.  For South Africans out there, imagine the mix of the rugged Camel cigarette macho man (from the adverts of a bygone era),  combined with the coolness of a surfer on Durban’s North Beach with finely tuned bodies and salty sea soaked hair – and there will have it. A Nepalese paragliding pilot, walking around with a natural swagger and are coolness personified with their reflective sunglasses, some with sultry designer stubble, others sporting full mountain men beards with dreadlocks – but all carrying themselves with ease and confidence, which is exactly what you need when you are strapped to one of them and they issue this instruction to jump off the edge of a cliff.

Then it’s “wriggle back – wriggle back” and you will then find yourself secure in your harness with your back snuggly against said mans chest. I am sure however that this has nothing to do with the euphoric magical feeling that I felt the minute my feet left terra firma.  Never in a thousand years did I expect to feel like this.  I was expecting abject terror and maybe a scream or two, I did scream, but it was not from fear, but from pure exhilaration. I was soaring with the eagles.  I am sure everyone has dreamt at some time or other of flying and that feeling of freedom is multiplied ten fold when you are actually surfing the thermals.

Three days later I am still on a high thinking about the whole experience. The build up to the eventual jump was a gradual one.  Nepalese time is very much akin to African time of hurry up and wait and as we say in South Africa ‘just now’. There is no rush – there is a weigh in, indemnity forms are signed, the pilots are all lounging around and we await the transport to the launch site. The nerves are kicking in and the butterflies are doing somersaults in the stomach. Parachutes are loaded into the back and then unloaded again, we wait – no explanation given. Climb into another vehicle, parachutes loaded again and we are off and the anticipation as the vehicle climbs and climbs and climbs up a narrow mountain road, reaches a peak.  The launch site is just an incredibly steep hill which ends at the cliff edge. Pilots are casual, each take a nervous victim and I wonder how many times they have heard “Please look after me I am very scared”.  Conversations and banter between them all continue in Nepalese and we make our way cautiously across the step side.  My pilot – Ramit says in broken English.  “Stand still – look that way – and when I say 1,2,3  … run and jump – then run and jump”

IMG_9458

A short conversation en route back down to earth I find he has been doing this for 10 years. After performing what I consider the most perfect landing, I turn to him and say “I would like your job”.  Just imagine being able to fly with the eagles everyday and get paid for it. I am already planning where I will jump next.

IMG_9471

Would you like some Marijuana?

“Excuse me miss, you want to buy some hash? Marijuana?” A polite “no thank you” is the reply. I wonder have I changed so much that I now look like someone who would be interested? It almost feels like I have arrived – I now fit in with the “hippy” crowd. This is the first time I have ever been approached with an offer – something I can cross off my life to do list.

It is a lazy, quiet Sunday afternoon. Not a breath of moving air, the lake in Pokhara looks like a mirror, without a single ripple, a light mist hangs low over the water, making everything around slightly muted with a rather eeriness which is quite relaxing.  Children splash in the shallows and their laughter is soft music to the ears. Even the squawking of the crows is not jarring or intrusive.

IMG_9338

After navigating the muddy puddles along the promenade, a quiet seat in a lakeside restaurant is perfect for a bit of people watching. Conversations in foreign languages and accents, combined with the gentle background music, create a form of white noise.  A voice can be heard from the kitchen – “I told you – mix sugar and cornflour together. I have shown you. Write it in your book. Then add the water.”  It is a gravely mans voice, maybe a smoker with an American accent, which immediately piques an interest and on looking up, I see it is not a man, but a woman. Or maybe a man dressed like a woman, with the body of a woman, but the jaw is masculine as is the protruding adams apple. He-she has worked wonders with teaching the staff as the service is impeccable and the food combined with a glass of perfectly chilled glass wine just seems to fit the whole afternoon like a glove.

IMG_9339

Looking out again over the small slightly overgrown garden that separates the eatery from the lake frontage, white butterflies flit around, also seemingly enjoying the laziness of the day. A young boy, sporting a black headband with matching arm bands, hair up in a man bun, saunters onto the raggedy grass and unpacks what looks like a fire stick and he proceeds to practice his flowing moves – I think he could put on quite a show later in the evening after sunset with the end of the stick alight with flames. The local who approached me with the offer of some local weed, strolls past, lifts his hand in acknowledgement and then makes a beeline to a young girl sitting by herself on the park bench.  I see her shaking her head, but he is not deterred and continues to badger her.  I am grateful for my age where a “no thank you” meant a “no”.

A large water buffalo labours past, with the pedestrians giving him a wide berth. An elderly Nepalese lady, taking tiny steps, by passes him with such ease, even though she is carrying a huge basket on her back, the weight of which is being borne by straps around her forehead.  The basket is laden with beautiful ripe pineapples. Next up is a rather large tourist (not meant in a derogatory sense as I too am a tourist), he wears a yellow t-shirt stretched tight over his portend stomach, socks and sandals.  His breathing is laboured and takes a seat next to the young girl on the bench, with that the dealer moves off to find another target.  It is also my signal to move on which I do but in the opposite direction.

Out of sight out of mind!

This is not meant in terms of relationships, where it is either this or absence makes the heart grow fonder, and for me it is definitely the later, where as a solo traveler I find my heart yearning more and more for my family and friends, but I digress.

I found this thought running through my mind this morning visiting a local sight in one of the villages that make up Pokhara, the long suspension bridge.

Arriving after walking through narrow walkways with only one solitary sign indicating the direction, the last thing you would expect to find at the end of this concrete walkway, lined with the ever welcome open doors of simple homes, freshly swept daily of any dust and debris, glistening after the early morning shower, is one of the longest suspension bridges in Nepal. No grand entrance, it is just there.  As westerners, this a novelty, but to the locals it just forms part of everyday life.  A means of getting across the deep gorge, to work, to school, to visit friends, a playground for the young children of the village.

IMG_9297

Two inch steel cables bolted into the surrounding rock secures this swaying structure, adorned with tattered prayer flags, over a rock strewn valley, with a small winding river waiting for the soon to come monsoon season to swell its banks. Looking down at first you just see the beauty of the surrounds, but on looking just a little further up the sides of this gorge, jars me to the core.  The cliffs are not decorated with foliage and undergrowth but are feet deep in refuse, which when the rains do come, will be swept down into the river polluting the water supply flowing into the picturesque Fewa Lake in Pokahara (which is very inviting, but you dare not swim). There are signs all around the city warning if there is no lake, there is no lakeside and therefore no Pokhara, with pleas to protect the lake.

IMG_9336

I mentioned the cleanly swept doorways and entrances to all the homes, so the local populace takes pride in their personal homes, and with that a woman walks to the start of the bridge and calmly tosses a plastic bag full of household debris over the bridge onto the cliffs below, turns on her heel and returned to her immaculately swept home.  I am trying hard not to let this mar my experience.  Is this laziness, lack of education or out of sight out of mind? I am assuming this is lack of education and that she is oblivious to the fact that she is slowly destroying the environment she lives in.  If she can’t see the rubbish in her home, then it doesn’t exist.

IMG_9298

I walked away feeling really angry at the devil may care attitude she appeared to have, and there was nothing I could do about it.  It was not possible to call her out on this as I would have if I had been back at home.  On typing this now, I have managed to quiet my mind with the decision that for the rest of my time in Pokhara, I can only lead by example and try and teach the youngsters I have the privilege to interact with on a daily basis, some sort of understanding of what long lasting damage this behaviour can have on the country that the passionately love.  I will make sure that when I leave it will not be out of sight out of mind – I will do my best to make a difference.