Aruna

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Last week, I was in Nepal and I met a girl – she looked about 13, but I think she was much older. From what I could piece together, this is her story:

Aruna* was born in a village near Kathmandu. When she was four or five, tragically both her parents died. She was an only child – and now an orphan. Her relatives were supposed to take care of her, but they didn’t. They thought that if Aruna was gone, all of her parents’ meagre possessions were theirs. So they neglected her. They left her to fend for herself. I was told that these relatives mentally ‘tortured her’. A child, barely old enough to go to school.

Eventually an uncle ‘rescued’ her from the abuse by leaving her at an orphanage in Kathmandu. By that time, Aruna had developed a mental illness that has stayed with her ever since.

Now she’s in a safe place, living with Christians. And when I meet her she is smiling. We speak different languages, but she strokes my arm and stands close by me as I take some photographs looking over Kathmandu. She seems happy, but as I smile at her I keep picturing that little girl, who must have wondered why she was loved and then suddenly wasn’t. That child who must have felt so lost and alone as she watched her family and her home just disappear.

Her story is like something you would read in a Dickens’ novel – so much hardship and sadness and eventually hope, but a hope that, to an onlooker at least, is shadowed by the past. And I find it hard to understand why such a story would be allowed to happen. Not on paper, but lived and breathed and felt.

During my ten days in Nepal I heard a lot of stories that I can’t understand or explain away. Ones that I’ve thought about over and over again, and still struggle to see where God was or what his plan was in those darkest moments. And I’ve found lots of happy endings that aren’t the happy endings I would have written. Endings that, to me, don’t really seem that happy at all.

NepalI want to write something upbeat, something joyful, something that reflects the beauty, hospitality and amazing grace I encountered in Nepal. But I also want to write something true. And the truth is, I think there must be stories as tragic as Aruna’s in every village and town in Nepal – and in the world. And most of them are never heard.

There is hope. I can see it in the face of Aruna, as she smiles and laughs with the people who really love her.

But I can’t fully understand how she can look so free, or comprehend how anyone could be so cruel, or ever know why it happened to her at all.

 

*name changed

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Dancing on stage: what I didn’t expect to do as a reviewer

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TicketsWhen I agreed to review at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe I hadn’t planned on making my performing debut. I thought if I didn’t sit on the front row in stand ups, if I kept my notebook firmly in bag until the end of every show, and if I sat near other people to look like I had friends I’d be safe.

I wasn’t.

Not once, but twice during my week reviewing for Fringebiscuit I found myself ungracefully floundering around in front of an audience… most definitely against my will.

The first time it happened was during This Is Brasil. I wasn’t alone, but I am fairly sure that I was the only audience member who was picked up by one of the (admittedly admirably strong) performers and lifted over a row of chairs to join the party. The others volunteered.

The show itself was an explosion of talent – guys flipping and cartwheeling across the floor, two freestyle footballers doing some very impressive acrobatics, plus dancers, singers, live bands. It was actually quite stunning, taking the energised audience on a journey through some of Brazil’s best-loved music and dance styles.

But, at the end of the show it all went wrong. They got everyone on their feet clapping and dancing, and asked volunteers to come and join them at the front. I’d seated myself in the middle of the second row behind a child – perfect view, no chance of being called to the front. Except, of course, the ten year old in front thought dancing on stage would be a delight. They were gone in a shot. Next thing, I am being pointed out, picked up and placed in the middle of the increasingly large group on stage. Embarrassing.

And that was not the end of my ordeal. Two days later, the opportunity to attend Musical Bingo arose. Now come on, Bingo, that’s musical – that’s not the kind of offer you turn down is it? Although I probably would have done had I had known that, to win a multi-pack of Haribo – seriously, what type of prize is that? – I’d have to beat three other contestants… in a twerk-off.

Ediburgh 2014I didn’t win. Thankfully it was clear pretty early on that this was not the contest for me. The competition was tough, and surprisingly enthusiastic. But it seemed that there was no way for me to leave without at least a little shoulder shimmying on stage, and it’s really not what I signed up for. My heart was thumping, I could see my friends looking at me (one rather despairingly, knowing there was no way we were winning those Haribo), cheering me on, and waiting for me to just die of embarrassment right there on the stage.

Surprisingly, I actually came away from the night smiling, but only because my fellow reviewer was tricked into giving a rendition Summer Nights (from Grease) on stage shortly after my humiliation.

I thought there was nothing I found more embarrassing than public speaking. It looks like the Fringe has proved me wrong, there is at least one thing that I find even worse.

Two weeks in Central America

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Last month I flew to the murder capital of the world. I almost didn’t. Partly because of the danger, but mainly because (though I love to travel) I don’t enjoy flying and so the prospect of flying alone for over a day to land in said capital was rather daunting.

But I went, and wow am I glad I did.

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My two weeks in Central America had that perfect blend of breathtaking scenery, precious friendship, sunshine, sleep, laughter, new places to explore, and new cultures to encounter.

Sometimes you visit a place and you totally get why God thought it was good when he made the earth. Places which make you hold your breath and marvel at the masterpiece that is our planet. I found a few of those places in Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. And I feel like now I have come back to the UK I’ve only meagre snapshots left in my mind – words that can’t quite articulate where I went or how I felt while I was there, photos that show something of what I saw, but at the same time seem to say nothing at all.

SAM_2090 (2)And it’s funny, because I toy with the idea of being a travel writer all the time (as pretty much everyone I meet can probably confirm) but whenever I travel I find so many things at my destination so amazing that I am left without words to properly describe it. Left really with no idea what to say.

Except, I suppose, to say I’m thankful that I survived the murder capital of the world and lived to row across (or more accurately, be rowed across) Lake Yojoa, the largest lake in Honduras, with its vast stretching waters, the island sat in its centre and the lush greenery surrounding it. I’m glad I got to swim in the Pacific Ocean at El Sunzal in El Salvador, get the biggest and most consistent pummelling by waves I have ever experienced, and watch the sun set over the dazzlingly clear blue waters. I’m happy I got to visit Antigua, Guatemala, a city nestled between volcanoes, and watch the locals spend hours crafting beautiful artwork out of colourful sawdust on the cobbled streets. To witness their commitment, through the early hours of the morning, to craft something stunning despite knowing that in a few short hours it would be trampled over by the massive Easter processions taking place.

But mostly I’m grateful that for two weeks I got to meet new people who made me smile and visit new places which made me hold my breath in wonder every day.

I had the best time in Central America! I think that is what I am trying to say.

Central America for blog

Reflections from India

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Walking home through soggy yellow leaves, drizzle hitting my face and my right hand freezing as it clutched a Sainsbury’s bag of cereal and squash made me wish I was back in India. It’s hard to believe that just ten days ago I was there, interviewing Christians who have faced extreme persecution, meeting women who were trafficked into prostitution and have now found freedom, and singing with street children on a yellow bus.

Exchange the whooshing of passing cars for a slower but noisier selection of traffic, the rain for sunshine, and dark winter coats for colourful saris and your part way there. I’ve been trying to describe it – what I saw and felt while in West Bengal, India – but it’s difficult to do it justice…

contrast between Sundarbans and cityImagine going to a village so rural you can only reach it by boat. In a place where roads, paths and dwellings are surrounded and intersected by water – an intricate, elaborate network, land and water, stretching for miles. Men stand knee-deep in it, throwing their nets out, reeling in fish. The fields are green, full of crops ripe for harvest after the monsoon rains.

People stare. A pale white girl in a salwar kameez is an unusual sight here. This is the Sundarbans, one of the many amazing places I got to visit in West Bengal.

We travel that night to our guest house, located along the river bordering Bangladesh, by cycle rickshaw. Three of us sit on a flat wooden plank secured above the wheels, our luggage balancing between us, as a man pedals us along. It’s a heavy load, so we move slowly. Out here it’s peaceful, so unlike Kolkata; no cars hooting or auto rickshaws overtaking, just us and the very occasional passing bike. Then a power cut. The lights from surrounding buildings go out and in the darkness thousands of stars sparkle in the night sky. I hold my torch in an attempt to light our path, but to the left and the right is blackness.

Without really being able to see anything, I know I am seeing something utterly beautiful.

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That was just one of ten days. Days in which I got to experience a different type of travelling: one where I had permission ask questions, to look deeply, to see things I would never ordinarily get to see and to wonder why the world is the way it is. To see myself in a harsher light and to see greater possibilities. It gave me the opportunity to meet people who made me ashamed of my flitting, fleeting character, my lack of ambition or direction – people who inspired me to be better.

I’ve loved India ever since I first went there five years ago. The hospitality and kindness, the warmth (of the people and the sun), the colours, sounds, sights, chai. I’m so glad I got to return and see something else of this huge, varied country. But, at the same time, it’s hard to see such glaringly obvious poverty: family upon family living in the dirt on the streets, women and girls sold so their relatives have something to eat, disabled people abandoned alone outside to beg. And it’s hard to come back to cold, rainy England, with my friends and my things – my phone, money, food, luxuries – and not forget the bigger picture. To remember not to get caught up in the unimportant things, the silly irritations that I know don’t matter but still wind me up, and instead to look around at the world as it is and try to do something. Something, however small, that makes a difference to someone.

So, though I guess for now there’s no escaping winter and reality, I’ll hold onto what I saw and the lessons I learnt while I was away.

In defence of Ipswich

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Something strange is happening: I can’t stop sticking up for my childhood town.

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I was born and bred in Ipswich. Yet, until this year, I’d never felt the urge to defend it. While I lived there I spent most of my time complaining about it, and once I got to uni no one had ever heard of ‘sorry, where?’ so it didn’t come up much. But now I live in Oxfordshire and everything’s changed.

Perhaps it’s because an inordinate number of people I work with seem to hold Suffolk’s greatest town with some disdain, or perhaps the rose-tinted glasses have come out now that I’ve been away for longer. But, for whatever reason, it seems I can’t help myself. So, while society isn’t really helping me out with this one – focusing on Ipswich in documentaries about benefits and heavy drinking (cheers BBC) – I’ve decided that Ipswich is actually pretty nice.

When people criticise Ipswich with flyaway comments about it being impossible to get to, I retort with an ‘at least it’s scenic and near the sea.’ And when they ask what on earth is good about Ipswich, I find myself advertising the wonderful visitor centre, shops, waterfront, theatre, parks and open space.

What has happened to me? Don’t I remember that it’s me, struggling across London with a massive suitcase, that should be complaining about Ipswich’s ridiculous location. And I used to work in the visitor centre, for goodness sake, and in that time I never once used it as a selling point for my town.

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Maybe it’s my previous negativity that’s given me this new passion to defend Ipswich against any criticism? Perhaps I am aware that I myself was once unjust? I don’t know how it’s happened, but it’s happened. If there’s going to be a fight, I’m in Ipswich’s corner.

Yes, it’s had some bad press (most of it quite probably fair); but Ipswich has, without a doubt, produced some of my favourite people on earth – and according to Wikipedia also (purportedly) Geoffrey Chaucer and Ralph Fiennes.

So, that’s it… a perfectly comprehensive and well-reasoned argument? Ipswich is great.

Bucket lists

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Yesterday, I decided to write a bucket list. I did this mainly because I’d had the laziest weekend ever (lounging, watching films and looking like I was about to go on a run without any intention of exercising) and I felt I should do something to prove that this was, in fact, a treat and not a sign that I have become a daytime pj wearing recluse.

So, in an effort to prove I have ambitions, I wrote down some ambitions. Seemed the logical thing to do. It was easy at first as I did the standard ‘write down cool things that you’ve already done so you can tick them off’ thing. Travel in India, tick, get a degree, tick, swim with dolphins, tick (well, technically I swam near dolphins, but who’s judging).

But then it got tricky. Yeah, I’d like to skydive, surf, ski – I jotted them down –but I don’t think my last regret is going to be ‘man, I really wish I’d skydived’. So I decided to go more long-term ambitious. Become fluent in a foreign language, write a book etc. I got into quite a good flow towards the end, I even concluded by Googling other people’s bucket lists to check I hadn’t missed off any good dreams.

I think my list currently stands at about 30, some trivial, some important. I enjoy a good list, so I’m glad I took a few minutes to think about some things I want to do with my life. But I also realised that I’m probably OK to not live my life according to a check-list. Ticking one thing off after another. Judging myself on how many things I’ve done, not on why or how well I’ve done them.

I mean, if I’m honest, I didn’t even enjoy swimming near dolphins – jumping out of a rickety old boat into a stormy Indian Ocean and feeling (/being) very sick. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad I did it, it’s provided me with a great comedy anecdote, but it hasn’t added a second to my life or made me a better person. It doesn’t sit that well alongside my more noble aspirations.

Some of my friends have great lists of things they want to achieve, so I think maybe I just got my first attempt at bucket-listing a bit muddled. They must be good if so many people have one, right? In any event, I’ve neatly tucked mine away in my notebook and I am going to keep it safe, add to it, tick things off, see what happens.

I’m not going to beat myself up if I never skydive or run a half-marathon (high goals for a girl who’s scared of heights and can’t run), but my first foray into the world of bucket lists has inspired me to be more adventurous and to think about what I want to do with my life. That has to be a good thing!

Evidence that I really did go to India, graduate and almost swim with dolphins

One challenge over, another just beginning

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A couple of weeks ago I completed my Charity Shop Challenge – two months of only shopping in charity shops for all my clothes and accessories. It turns out it really wasn’t that bad. A few friends agreed to embark on the challenge with me for an article I was writing for work, so together we had some fun browsing for bargains in the best charity shops our small town has to offer.

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My biggest struggle was finding things that were worth buying because I’d actually wear them. I think I could have pretty much not shopped at all for the two months quite happily, but it would have been a bit boring. So I did get some good buys. I found some wedges and a bag, as well as a couple of tops and a dress that I haven’t worn (and was, to be honest, probably a mistake).

It was slightly irritating that my holiday collided with these two months as I had no comfy flip flops to wear and no sunglasses! I managed to get by with the footwear I had but the sunglasses were kind of essential so I am afraid I failed on that part. They were only sunglasses, come on…

IMG_20130530_205703Now the challenge is over, and I’m left wondering what it was really all about. I started out wanting to be a little better, and I do believe that once you decide to do something good you shouldn’t go back. So my Charity Shop Challenge is over, but the task of becoming a more ethical shopper has only just begun.

Mahatma Ghandi is meant to have said, “Live simply so that others may simply live”. I think that that’s a pretty great ambition. I hope that as the weeks, months and years pass I will discover what it really means to live simply. I definitely have some way to go.