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Month: January 2013

Only Connect: Atlantic to Pacific

We’ve now been at sea for nearly a week. From Miami we took a southerly course past Cuba to Jamaica, then west to Cartagena, Columbia, spending a day in each. On the way, there were sightings of dolphins and flying fish, and the excitement of watching a pod of turtles swim by, the sun reflecting brightly off their heads and shells.

Approaching Cartagena, 500Cartagena is a smart modern city that is working hard, with apparent success, to overcome its bad reputation for drugs and crime. Education is held in high regard, with sessions of schooling in the morning and afternoon to accommodate all the children and also in the evening for older people who want to make up for what they missed when they were young.

Simon Bolivar statue 500
Simon Bolivar, who liberated Columbia in 1821, is the national hero and there is a statue of him in the old town, where much of the colonial architecture survives, and most of the old buildings have been well preserved.

Colonial architecture 500

From there, accompanied by pelicans and frigate birds, we proceeded to the Panama Canal.

Frigate birds 500

We had looked forward eagerly to this day, and were certainly not disappointed. We rose at 5.30 to be up on deck as we approached the first lock and finally cleared Panama City on the Pacific side at about 4.30pm.  Approaching before 6.00am 500I hope some of you were able to watch our progress and see a few of the views on the web camera. In case you haven’t discovered the webcam, for future reference there’s a link to the appropriate website at the top of this page.

The Canal, finished in 1914, is a huge enterprise that must have transformed international shipping. Mechanical mules on the banks pull the ship through the locks, though when the new, larger locks are completed in a couple of years’ time, tugs will guide the ships through.
Mule ascending 500

It struck me that, apart from finance and politics, which were obviously involved in the endeavour, the project was the child of Vision, Engineering and Poetry. The Vision was perceiving the potential and believing that it could be realised. The Engineering was, in some ways, simple once the vision began to take effect – but took years of very hard work. The Poetry is in the way it works so smoothly, and also in the sheer beauty of parts of the canal – particularly the Gatun Lake which stretches for many miles and is stunning. Not wanting to squeeze too much of a moral out of a highly enjoyable day, I could not help reflecting that for those of us who write, this trio of Vision, Engineering (including hard work) and poetry was familiar territory.

The locks, of course, depend on Lake Gatun’s immense body of fresh water to replenish the supply as water is locked down to the sea. As the rainy season can bring nine feet of water, the system is sustainable as long as climate change doesn’t alter the rain pattern too much. Presumably most of this beautiful lake was formerly rain forest, and the peaks of the hills are now exotic islands, deserted except for the one that houses a Smithsonian biodiversity research station.
Gatun Lake 500

As we passed through the canal it was fun to have a huge crocodile to add to our list of wildlife. It must have been at least 14 feet long, and was lazing at the waterside just feet from the boat as we passed. I wouldn’t have been quite so pleased if I’d been walking.

So, passing from NE to SW, we traced the magnificent connection between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. As we travel we also connect, fleetingly, with those we pass on the shore or in other boats. We receive enthusiastic waves from people on balconies, workers on the undersides of bridges, passengers in other cruise liners or in passing speedboats.

A on balcony 500And here am I, thousands of miles away,
reaching out to connect to those of you at home through this blog.

Next stop Huatulco, Mexico.


Flight from the deep freeze

Snowy garden 3

 It was a bit touch and go whether we would get out of Heathrow on Sunday morning, as so many flights were cancelled because of the snow; but we were fortunate enough to take off only a little over half an hour late. First the plane had to be de-iced: I imagined that we would taxi through some giant warm warehouse rather like the railway sheds we went through when the train bogies had to be changed as we passed from Mongolia to China on the trans-Siberian railway many years ago; but in fact two lorries with cranes on top came to attend to us, dowsing us with appropriate liquids from long arms. They looked like maternal animals gently stroking us in preparation for flight. We left Heathrow in minus 1 degrees, and arrived in Miami to enjoy a very pleasant plus 27 degrees.

Hyatt pools 300

blackbird & bird table 600

We spent the night in an excellent hotel. I dislike smart pretentious hotels, but this one somehow managed not to be a all pretentious – though we were somewhat surprised to be put into an executive suite with two double beds. The next morning we did a tour of inspection of the boats in the harbour (always essential as one member of the family is a member of the Harbour Board!), then had a long leisurely swim to cool down a little. It was a change to be seeing lizards, dragonflies and parakeets instead of our friendly robin and blackbird who have been grateful for our bird table recently. I hope someone else is looking after them now.

The US is a country of dizzying contrasts. At Miami airport a long floral wall display assuring us that ‘All you need is love” welcomed us to the country that prefers to put an armed guard in every school rather than to ban the lethal weapons. Then, although the population is multicoloured, the society appears to be astonishingly stratified, with blacks and latinos doing the work while whites enjoy the party; yet the US has now twice pulled off the miracle of electing a black president. Barack Obama started his second term the day we arrived, and was sworn in the next day which happened, by happy coincidence, to be Martin Luther King Day.

Having flown four and a half thousand miles at around 500 mph to get here, we are now chugging along happily at about 25 knots. I’ve often wondered about the word ‘knots’ for speeds over water, and I’ve now discovered that it comes from the days when a rope attached to a log was knotted at intervals of 47 feet 3 inches and paid out over the stern of a boat. The number of knots that ran out while a 28 second sand-glass emptied itself gave the speed of the ship in nautical miles per hour. As with most knowledge, however, that fact leads to more questions, such as ‘why 47 feet 3 inches between knots?’ and ‘why 28 seconds?’ Discussing this at breakfast, Hugh reckoned that the 28 seconds was to measure a half minute, allowing for turning the sandglass over, and the 47 feet 3 inches is probably the same fraction of a nautical mile as 28 seconds is of an hour. Does anyone know if this is correct?

Anyway, just in case you didn’t know, a knot equals 1.15 mph over land.

It’s quite difficult doing this blog on a very slow connection. However, I was told firmly that I had to include photos of us, so here we are setting sail yesterday.

Setting sail 600

Next stop Montego Bay, Jamacia.

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Good news

Benjamin ZephaniahFeed people enough misery and, not very surprisingly, they’ll end up being miserable and thinking that everything is bad; so it’s worth listening to the prophets who urge us to a more balanced view.  When
I turned the radio on, some time between Christmas and New Year,
I discovered that Benjamin Zephaniah was guest editor on the Today programme, and he was discussing the relative merits of good and bad news with the arch-cynic, John Humphrys. Benjamin was urging the radio presenter to report more good news, instead of giving us an undiluted diet of bad news.

In the interview, Humphrys claimed that no one finds good news interesting, which is patently not true. He gave the example of ten aircraft setting out from LHR to the US, and all ten arriving safely. ‘There’ he declared triumphantly, ‘no one will be interested unless one of them crashes.’ What he failed to understand, of course, was that the item wasn’t news because it wasn’t new. Its lack of newsworthiness had nothing to do with whether it was a catastrophe or not; it failed to be news simply because there was nothing new about it. A similar number of aircraft make that journey every day.

Another example Humphrys put forward to support his view that good news isn’t worth reporting was of a powerful earthquake in which there was no loss of life. As the earthquake was new, this did constitute news – good news; and it’s possible that most people would be more interested in an earthquake that didn’t kill people than in one that caused massive casualties. A third story with which Humphrys taunted Zephaniah was of an elderly couple who were sharing their 100th birthday, and who had been married for something like 72 years. Fantastic. That really should be on the news: it’s happy, unusual and encouraging. Cynicism and depression are self-perpetuating, Taizé meeting in Romeso we need to share some of the good things that happen in the world instead. I’ve just received an email from someone who was in Rome for the Taizé meeting of young adults over the New Year. The fact that 40,000 young people from many different traditions made the journey and spent several days talking and praying together somehow didn’t make it onto the radar of journalists who are always so quick to report the many failings and scandals of the Church and the waywardness of the young.

There’s an old expression sometimes bandied around by writers to the effect that ‘Happiness writes white’. In other words, great writing is more likely to come out of an unhappy state of mind than a happy one. I can never decide whether this is true or not, especially as I have personally produced decent work both when I’ve been heart-broken and when I’ve been euphoric. Zephaniah’s poetry encompasses the good and the bad, anger and celebration, and I think that’s the sort of diet that reflects the real world in which most of us live. There are also exceptions to the misery-mongering of the media. For example, there’s a newspaper called Positive News, which one can sometimes pick up in whacky places like Dartington, which redresses the imbalance in the rest of the media by reporting on good things that have happened.

JyotiMalalaTwo young women have, tragically, been in the news recently: Malala Yousafzai and Jyoti Singh Pandey. Sadly, the young Indian medical student will slip into the mire of crime history and be forgotten by most of us within a few months – though not by those who loved her. Malala is ongoing news and we’ll continue to watch her with interest. Let’s hope that journalists, too, will continue to find her interesting as she returns to full health and continues with her courageous campaigning. But underlying both these appalling cases is a sub-text of gender inequality. We have achieved so much in the last century, but these stories remind us that there is still a long way to go before everyone accepts that girls have as much right to education as boys do, and that attractive young women are people of dignity and worth, whose bodies belong to themselves and no one else. If and when that equality and dignity are accepted as normal everywhere, that will certainly be good news worth sharing.

2013 is still a fairly new year, so I leave you with a snippet of one of the poems from my recent collection, festo:  ‘Hope at year’s turning’:
hope springs eternal
leaps and bounds,
believes in bud and leaf and flower,
and puppy-like joyfully welcomes friend and foe.
Against all recent evidence I throw
myself into the arms of hope
for the new year.

Happy new year. My next blog (good news) will be from far across the sea.

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