Serengeti sights

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At the end of my last post, I mentioned that I’d be away for a fortnight. And quite a fortnight it was, as we travelled in Tanzania. But I’ve learnt now that travel and blogging don’t really go together, so I gave up trying to do both. Apologies, then, for my silence, which I now make up for by posting a couple of lovely pictures from our holiday. Naturally, in Tanzania, that included a safari, where we were very fortunate to spot a group of about 70 Spaniards. Our guide, Joseph, assured us this was quite rare. I managed to get close enough to take a picture of them in the early evening, when they gather for a cocktail, the females wearing pretty dresses and the males trying to impress them with witty remarks.

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Spaniards, said Joseph, are of the European genus, which includes a multitude of other members, some of them quite uncommon. You’d have to be lucky, for example, to come across a Finn in Serengeti, and in the few days we were there we didn’t see one. But the group of Spaniards, one of the most endearing members of the European family, more than made up for that. Here they are engaged in behaviour typical of the European species, taking pictures of the sunset.

One country, two words

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Well, back again, folks, and nice to be here – I’ve been missin’ ya! OK, I had plenty to keep me busy in the meantime, just looking at everything that’s Madagascar, which is a lot. The picture above is Madagascar, but then again it’s not. It’s just a place to rest after a hot and dusty week on the RN7 – that’s the road from the capital, Tana (Antananarivo), down to Tuléar in the south. It’s a road many people travel, but even so it was hardly overrun by tourists. More’s the pity, you might say, as the country needs all the foreign currency it can get. I could (and no doubt will) write plenty more, but two words will suffice here to convey the overall impression: poverty and friendliness. I’d been three times before, but only to Diego Suarez in the north, and for work, so I hadn’t seen how well those words sum up the whole country. In the first lies a tragic story of corruption, greed and political incompetence; in the second a moving and magnificent reaction of a whole people in the face of hardship. There’s plenty to see in Madagascar, not least a lesson in life.

Thursday Interview: Left Foot Sandal

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Thank you for receiving me, Left Foot Sandal. And I must say, I’m sorry to see you in that condition. What happened?

Oh, the usual wear and tear. I’m not getting any younger, you know. In fact, I’d say it’s the end of the road for me now. It would only require a few stitches, but when a sandal’s over the hill, cobblers just don’t operate. So it’s curtains for us, I’m afraid. The bin. Euthanasia.

Oh, that’s terrible, Left Foot Sandal! Don’t worry, I won’t throw you away. I’ll keep you as a souvenir. After all, we have all those memories to look back on. Ten years you’ve been my sturdy companion – no other sandals have come close. Why, I remember our very first outing together. The path to Santiago de Compostela. Oh, the blisters you gave me!

Well, yes, but it wasn’t very sensible to walk 200 kms the first time you took me out. And it was bad enough for you, but what about me? Positively sole-destroying. Still, we became very comfortable with each other in the end.

All those countries we’ve visited. Jungles in Malaysia, mountains in Kyrgyzstan… Not to mention the streets, the monuments, the museums.

Well, you can keep your museums. I’m sure you saw some wonderful stuff, but to me it was just skirting boards. Not that I minded much – I’m not that big on culture.

Where’s Right Foot, by the way? I was expecting to see you both.

I’m afraid we’ve fallen out. He thinks it’s my fault we’re being replaced. He says he could carry on for years if it wasn’t for me.

That’s not very nice. I thought you were inseparable.

We are, but it doesn’t stop us fighting. Politically we’re just too different. He’s so far to the right I don’t know you managed to walk straight. And quite snobbish with it. He’s got this chip on his strap about being ordinary. At times he goes off into this fantasy world and pretends he’s some sort of Louboutin. He needs to get a grip, in my opinion.

Well, give him my regards in any case. It was a pleasure to have you with me all these years.

You’re welcome. Good luck with your future travels. Up hill or down dale, just put your best foot forward.

Gazette n° 3: contents

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Gazette number 3 goes out tomorrow – very different from the first two as it’s all about language learning. The first text, A Writhing Mass (2915 words), was originally published in the creative non fiction section of Spilling Ink Review. It’s an account of my attempt to learn Burmese. (I still have hopes of achieving that but it seemed a bit odd to study Burmese in Mayotte, so I’ve started Shimaoré instead. Not that I’ve got very far with that either). Then there are three short stories in both English and French: The Case of the Missing Guide (1895 words), Believe in Yourself (1972 words) and Shopping with Sally (1783 words). These were written for French learners of English, but to a certain extent it should work the other way round as well. The idea was to take a selection of useful words in English (i.e. those which occur frequently) and incorporate them in a story. So in each story there are 80 target words, which originally were presented with translations and pictures as well as in the context of a sentence. On top of that the words are recycled from one story to another, thus increasing the chance of them being learnt.

This is an ongoing project, with 20 stories planned and only five done so far. Making up the stories isn’t so difficult – what’s harder is to include not just the target words but the words from previous stories to recycle. Still, maybe it’ll get finished one day. If anyone wants to participate in this project, give a shout! Or if you want to know more about the research behind it, don’t hesitate to get in touch via the contact page.

There’ll only be one more issue after this, at least for a while. Not that I don’t have more material in preparation, but I’ve started the third draft of Perfume Island, and that requires the sort of concentration that can only come with sustained bouts of work. Sincere thanks to my subscribers!

Ambivalence

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With Black Friday a distant memory, it’s vital now to keep up the momentum with some serious Christmas shopping. Because let’s face it, unless we each continue to consume a few tons of superfluous goods, not only does life have no purpose, but we won’t be able to continue destroying the planet. I’d never heard of Black Friday until a short time ago. Now, from what I gather, it’s hit the UK big time, triggering a small but welcome movement called Buy Nothing Day. France, being France, will resist, and one part of France Black Friday will never reach is Mayotte, where Friday is prayer day and there’s nothing to buy in any case. There’s a tropical lightness of being in Mayotte that works as a positive detox from the hypermarkets in the Metropole.

Being high-minded and all, I take to heart Gandhi’s commandment to ‘live more simply so that others may simply live.’ That’s one way of putting it. Another is to be honest and admit to embracing one of the rare joys of encroaching age, the right to be a curmudgeonly scrooge. A stance I adopt with delight when it comes to clothes, say, or cars – conveniently, they interest me not in the slightest.

Not so long ago, arriving in Mauritius (by plane, having decided, after much debate, against the rowing boat) where we’d booked (iPad) self-catering accommodation, we wanted some stuff for breakfast. “Try the Super-U,” said the man at the petrol station, so we went along, without much hope because Super-U in the Metropole is generally pretty small and never open on a Sunday afternoon. But this one wasn’t just open, it was massive. And as I scurried gleefully round the aisles, stuffing the basket with Muesli, Weetabix, and dragonfruit, I said to Mrs. B. “Wow, if only we had all this in Mayotte!” I’m with you, Mahatma, honestly. But sometimes, you know, it’s not that simple living simply.

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Pic’n’Post n° 12

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Where was the picture taken?

It may be a bit difficult, so here’s a clue: it’s not just because of the view that people pose in that particular spot.

Many thanks to thumbup as well as Matt from the bookblogger2014 and Clara from expatpartnersurvival for providing guesses for the previous picture, below.

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The winner was thumbup, the first to supply the answer, Venice. Congratulations!

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The rules are as follows:

  1. One guess only
  2. I won’t reply to guesses or give any clues
  3. The answer will be given one week from now
  4. If more than one person guesses correctly, the first to answer is the winner.

21st Century Transport

The first time we did a house exchange was with Canada. Shortly after arriving, we got into the car to explore the local supermarket. “Uh-oh,” I said, turning the key. “Battery’s dead.” (As a dodo). So we called a mechanic, who instead of opening the bonnet, said, “Did you have your foot on the brake pedal? No? It’s a Toyota, see? A security measure. $25 please.”

That was a dozen years ago. The Japanese have come on since then. On our recent trip to Mauritius, we hired a Nissan Micra. No ignition key at all, just a remote you toss inside, and then, having put the gear stick in P, trod on the brake and touched the steering wheel three times with your forehead, you press a button. Unfortunately, every time we stopped at a traffic light, the engine stalled, which meant this ritual got a bit stressful after a while. That was until I discovered that it was on purpose, and when you take your foot off the brake, the engine restarts automatically. Brilliant! Perhaps all cars are like this nowadays, I wouldn’t know. Our Citroën Xsara, which entered service at the end of the last century, has a different starting ritual: curse it, kick it, crank it. I get the feeling it’s time we got a new one. I’d love one of those things that zoom around in the sky like Bruce Willis has in The Fifth Element. Failing that, I’d settle for a Nissan Micra.

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Swat That Song!

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The benefits of meditation being well known, and we being in India, what better opportunity to partake? So we hopped on our scooters and after getting a little lost, arrived at the guesthouse where a session was being held from 9 to 12, novices welcome, under the guidance of a Frenchman, Pierre. I thought Pierre would give us a brief tutorial, Meditation for Dummies sort of thing, but he said there was nothing to know. He placed a flower on the floor and about a dozen of us arranged ourselves on small cushions in a circle, cross legged.

Ten minutes in, Mrs. B. had a coughing fit, which she bravely tried to control, but it got the better of her and she left. 14 minutes in, I developed pins and needles. Then my legs went completely numb. Afraid they might drop off altogether, I stretched them out. This was actually OK – you’re allowed to prevent your legs dropping off. In fact, at one point or another, most of the other participants did the same, even Pierre. I know this because I was peeking out from the corner of my eye. Peeking isn’t so good, though, nor is wondering what the others are up to, so I went back to looking at the flower.

23 minutes in, I took a peek at my watch. I should have taken it off before we started. Pierre said we’d have a break at ten. 37 minutes to go. It would be good not to peek at my watch between now and then. It would be good not to think all the time, “I mustn’t peek at my watch.” I stopped thinking about my watch and thought instead about my back. I was slumping. It would actually be quite nice to lie down. I sat up straight. My mind, for a while, was empty of thought. Then it filled up again, not with thought but a song. Specifically, for some reason, a really old hit by the Hollies. I can’t make it if you leave me, I’m sorry Suza-a-anne, believe me… I swatted the song away but it kept coming back like a Top of the Pops mosquito buzzing around in my brain. It could have been worse, I suppose. It could have been Boney M. After about 15 encores the Hollies finally accepted to leave the stage and my mind went blank again. The flower was very pretty.

“Ten o’ clock,” said Pierre. “Time for a break.” I went outside, where Mrs. B. was sitting next to a fountain. She looked very peaceful. “It’s lovely out here,” she said. I thanked Pierre and we got on our scooters and returned to the tumult that was India.

A bit of history

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My good friend Alex in Madagascar looks after the British War Cemetery in Diego Suarez, which unsurprisingly, therefore, is immaculate. Buried there are the soldiers who died liberating Madagascar from the French forces loyal to the Vichy regime in May 1942, an episode I wasn’t even aware of till I visited. You might think this is surprising, since the aircraft carrier HMS Illustrious was anchored nearby to provide support, and on it was my dad. But like many of his generation, he didn’t speak much about the war, and Diego Suarez, though important, was one among several engagements in the Indian Ocean and the Pacific. Nor did he actually land in Diego, as he was a Telegraphist Air Gunner and despite the loss of a couple of aircraft, aerial combat itself was not extensive. Just as well perhaps – instead of hearing me tell his story, Alex might have been looking after his grave. Walking round Diego today, it’s difficult to imagine how strategically important it was back then – but a visit to the cemetery brings a sombre reminder.

Previous operations in Africa involving the Free French forces having not gone well, de Gaulle wasn’t informed of the attack on Diego – a slight which had lasting repercussions on his later dealings with Britain and America.The whole of Madagascar didn’t come under Allied control until November. Administration was then returned to the Free French, but the events of the war loosened their grip over the country, and in 1947 the Malagasy were emboldened to rebel. Their bid for independence was brutally crushed, with an estimated 30,000 dead. While the wars of independence in Algeria and Indo-China have received a lot of attention, the Malagasy uprising has been practically airbrushed out of French History. Strange, n’est-ce pas?

Where The Wild Things Are

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Now, most creatures out in the wild scarper smartish before I get a chance to snap them, but this little fellow was extremely patient, allowing me put my camera right up close and take a dozen rubbishy shots before getting one that was decent. He’s a Mascarene grass frog, quite common, but as he doesn’t appear too often on blogs, he was happy enough to wait, though he did get a bit impatient towards the end.

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He lives in Mauritius, but there was more in the Lokobe Reserve in Madagascar, which we visited with our guide, Ismael.

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  • What I thought it was: A big nasty snake.
  • What Ismael said it was: A boa constrictor, not nasty unless you’re a chicken.

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  • What I thought it was: Nothing because I didn’t see it.
  • What Ismael said it was: The Camouflage King, actually a Henkel’s Leaf-Tailed Gecko.

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  • What I thought it was: Another big nasty snake.
  • What Ismael said it was: Just an ordinary grass snake.

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  • What I thought it was: A big nasty spider.
  • What Ismael said it was: A not very nasty but definitely big spider.

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  • What I thought it was: A nasty creepy-crawly thing.
  • What Ismael said it was: A nonvenomous millipede.

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  • What we both said it was: Time for lunch.