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Big Brother Mouse

2 Jun

Playing the Shopping List game at Big Brother Mouse

Laos is one of the poorest countries in the world, officially, I didn’t just make it up.  Which means that books of any kind are in pretty short supply.  Children’s books are even rarer and children’s picture books in the Lao language are like hen’s teeth.  Many children have never even held a book, let alone discovered the magic of reading.

Which is why Big Brother Mouse is such a wonderful organisation.  They are a charity which publishes books espcially for Lao children.  Colourful books, fun books, the kind of books my lucky children have shelves full of at home.  And they make sure that their books are enjoyed by as many children as possible.  Children who may never have seen a book before.  They do all kinds of lovely things like setting up lending libraries in rural villages and holding book parties, at which every guest receives their own book, pencil and paper.  It’s hard to imagine not owning a pencil, isn’t it?

They do lots of other things too, in an education vein.  At their office in Luang Prabang, they run English language lessons every morning.  It’s a brilliantly simple idea.  Tourists, of which there are many in this stunning World Heritage city, are asked to donate two hours of their time, to talk to local young people.  You can help them with their college work, or to decipher instructions given to them by their boss, play word games, read books aloud, or just chat.  We been three times now, and not only do we get a warm glow from hopefully helping someone to improve their employment prospects and therefore their future, but it’s also fascinating.

How many times when you’re a tourist do you get to have a properly in depth conversation with a local, with no agenda other than using words?  Some of them speak limited English and we’ll just help translate specific words or with pronounciation, but most of them have an impressive command of it, and have worked incredibly hard, to become so proficient.  We’ve spoken about all sorts of things including central banks, agriculture, wedding customs and how many people live in a Lao house (lots in case you were wondering).

I’m sure we’d have had a wonderful time in Luang Prabang, whatever we did, it’s a stunning place with friendly people and impossibly grand guest houses, so it would be hard not to.  But having a chance to meet its lovely people too has made it really special.


If you want to donate to Big Brother Mouse, I can confirm that your money will be very well spent.

Red Dog

30 Mar

Bungy jumping Granny McGarvey, little convict Grace, transported for stealing apples, Tahi the one legged kiwi.  We’ve had a few travelling companions since we left home, but none as memorable as Red Dog.

Everywhere we go, we keep an eye out for local books to read the children.  Often they’re really helpful to explain the new things we see around us, whether it’s bush tucker or volcanoes, and the adults usually learn something too.  So when we discovered that there was a famous Pilbara dog, who’d had a book written about him by Louis de Bernieres, we had to get it.

Red Dog, so called because of the local red dust in his fur, belonged to no one and everyone in Karratha, at a time when the North West Australian mining town was little more than a collection of caravans.  He’d turn up at people’s front doors expecting to be fed and watered, and they’d always oblige.  He got the best seat on the mine buses and travelled the length and breadth of Western Australia, hitching lifts with his friends.  In this impossibly remote, rocky, arid, place, largely populated by men far far away from their families, the lovely dog found it easy to make friends.

Although Red Dog is not a strictly a children’s book, there’s plenty in it to keep them interested.  Red Dog’s famously stinky farts feature heavily, as do stories of his battles with local cats, and gun wielding caravan park caretakers.  Like all the best books, it’s funny and sad in equal measure, with beautifully drawn characters and atmospheric descriptions of the otherworldly landscape of the Pilbara.  Apparently it’s being made into a film, I hope they do it justice.

Our book, with its own covering of red dust, is now in an Australia Post box on a cargo ship, making it’s slow way home to London.  One day, we’ll be able to read it again and remember our big adventure in the ancient red desert on the edge of nowhere.

Of shimmering ice and coral caves

20 Jul

One of the deepest and most unexpected joys of parenthood has been reading aloud.  I’ve always loved books, so was looking forward to sharing them with my future children, but I’d never considered how wonderful it would be to say beautiful words out loud with a small, warm, child curled on my lap.  We’ve shared old favourites like Eloise, Ferdinand and Ballet Shoes, and I’ve discovered new favourites like the Gruffalo.  I think it would be fair to say that I worship Julia Donaldson and Axel Scheffler.  Her words and his pictures combine to make some of the most gorgeous books I have ever read, and I have read a lot. Continue reading

On Origami, Skippy the Bush Kangaroo and Origin of Species

17 Dec

What’s the point in taking such young children travelling around the world?  They won’t understand what they are seeing and they won’t really remember it when they’re older.  Why don’t you just stay at home?

Mostly, when we tell people about our travel plans they are overwhelmingly positive, Eve’s teacher’s initial reaction was “What an education!”.  But occasionally someone will not understand.

So what is the point? And what can we do to prepare them for such a big change in their little lives?

Because they are so young, I think they have trouble differentiating between countries, so we are doing all we can to teach them about our destinations before we go.  The older two frequently confuse, India, China and Japan for instance, so we look at picture atlases, read National Geographic and talk about our experiences of visiting some of these places before they were born.

We are trying to find out what children in our destination countries like to read, play and watch, and remembering books and programmes from our childhood set in foreign lands.  So ‘Skippy the Bush Kangaroo’ and ‘My Neighbour Totoro’ are on order and the picture book ‘I live in Tokyo’ by Mari Takabayashi is studied with great concentration as we learn about the Doll’s Festival and how to write fish in Japanese.  Playdough sessions are interspered with origami making and Thai kick boxing.  Although I’m now regretting suggesting the latter.

We are planning to see volcanos, coral reefs, glaciers, deserts and jungles on our travels, so we’ve been mining the library for reference books.  I would love it if we went on a walk through the Malaysian jungle and one of the children said “Look there’s a …”  Then I would know that we were doing the right thing.  Having a geologist Daddy is helping.  I’m confident that we’ll all know a lot more about glaciers and volcanos by the end of our trip.  Whether we want to or not.

Learning about animals is easy, with Battersea Park Zoo down the road and a well-used season ticket to London Zoo last year.  We’ve adopted a Cambodian otter and an orangutan called Sen, who lives at Sepilok Sanctuary in Borneo, a place we intend to visit.  He’s the same age as Dickon, likes splashing in the bath, throwing food and playing with his toy train.  Apparently, Charles Darwin’s visit with his infant daughter to the orangutans at London zoo was one of the catalysts for the Origin of Species.  Hmm.

One of the great joys of travel is trying new foods, particularly somewhere like Thailand or Vietnam.  But if you are four years old, trying new food  can be something akin to being made to walk across hot coals, and if you add chili to the food, well you might as well be throwing your four year old to the lions.  I don’t want to have lots of battles about food, so I’m quite prepared to let them survive on a diet of rice, fruit and cartons of chocolate milk for three months.  But I’d love it if they could enjoy eating in Asia, so to that end, and also because we are greedy, we eat out as much as possible, and almost always Thai, Vietnamese or any cuisine involving chillies, noodles or raw fish.  We have also persuaded them that seaweed makes a yummy snack.

I do realise that a four year old will have a limited memory of a trip like this as an adult, but I also think he will get things from it that are not all about remembering.  He will have a year away from formal schooling, a year spent with his family, a year of learning to adapt to new places and new experiences, a year of learning to amuse himself on long bus journeys, all things which I hope will have a lasting impact.

As for not remembering, we’ll have blog posts and photos coming out of our ears by the end of the trip.  Forgetting about it won’t be an option.

Lose yourself in a good book

1 Dec

I didn’t really ‘get’ reading until the day when I finished the reading scheme at school (which I’ve just realised was THIRTY YEARS AGO.  How did I get to be so old?).  I can clearly remember sitting at my desk in 2nd Form, wading my way through the very dull ‘gold’ book and finally getting to the last page.  Stern-but-fair Miss Clark,  told me to go to the 3rd Form classroom and choose my next book.  Actually choose a book, I’d never done that before.  The book I selected from the small shelf was called ‘Famous Five’ by Enid Blyton.  I hadn’t heard of the author, but the cover looked exciting, with four children and a dog frolicking on the beach in the foreground with a ruined castle on an island in the distance.  By the end of the first page I was hooked and reading was no longer school work but a magical world of adventure and enchantment.  Like a Toys R Us advert, if Toys R Us advertised reading.

Before long, I was the proud owner of a library card and had worked my way through Ms Blyton’s oeuvre before moving onto Judy Blume, Arthur Ransome, E Nesbit and Noel Stratfield.  Reading was my entry into another world, entertainment during boring times, comfort when things weren’t going well and my place to hide.  It still is and although my tastes have matured somewhat, I often revisit my old friends.  I’ve yet to read anything as truly exciting as Swallows and Amazons.

When you are away from home reading almost becomes more important.  I can’t imagine a long plane journey without a good book to shut out the constant drone, stale smells and uncomfortable proximity of strangers.  There’s also nothing like a familiar book to comfort you in an uncomfortable situation and Jane Austen and PG Wodehouse have made quite a few dimly lit, manky hotel rooms, with alarming noises stage left, seem a little bit less grim and made it a little bit easier to get to sleep.

But what to do when you have a small backpack that’s already full of shoes and clothes and first aid kids?  I think an ebook may be the, rather expensive, answer.  I’m not yet sure whether I’m happy about swapping my beloved papery paperbacks with yet another piece of electronics but if it means I can carry a whole library of books with me, there’s no contest.  They’re still words, written by some of my favourite people, with the power to move, delight, distract, comfort and carry me away.


This post was inspired by Josie at Sleep is for the Weak who this week asked: What do you do or where do you go to escape the stresses of every-day life?

Globe Girdling

13 Nov

My great grandfather had an extraordinary life.  He was born Meshe Osinsky in a small town in the Kovno province of Russia, which became Lithuania after WWI.  The large Jewish community was severely restricted, being confined to the area known as the Pale, prevented from practising most professions and denied both the vote and access to secondary school.  As a scholarly child, Meshe’s only option for further education was to become a Rabbi.  During the latter part of the nineteenth century, a new wave of anti-Semitism sparked pogroms in towns throughout the Pale resulting in the widespread destruction of property, infliction of injury and murder on a largely helpless Jewish population.  My great grandfather talked little about why he left his home, but it is not difficult to guess.  It is estimated that despite severe restrictions on travel, over 2 million Jews left Russia between 1880 and 1925.

In 1900, aged 15, Meshe arrived in Hull on the East Coast of England.  The family story goes that he wanted to go to New York, and ended up in England by mistake.  It was often the case that immigrants speaking no English were easily fooled, with the boat crews pocketing the difference in their fares.  Whether this is true for Meshe or not, we don’t know, but we do know that he ended up living with a family in Chesterfield, working by day as a tailor and teaching himself English by night using the school books of his host’s daughter.  People who remembered him from this time later talked about how hard he worked.  Within four years he had set up his own small tailoring shop and changed his name to Maurice Burton, which was later to become Montague Burton.

He continued to work hard and by the time he died in 1952, his empire covered 600 shops and 14 factories and he was clothing an incredible one in four men in Britain.  After World War II,  he was a major supplier of de-mob suits to returning soldiers.  The expression “the full Monty” is believed to refer to the fact that they were given one of his three piece suits.

He was a generous employer, making every effort to keep his staff happy.  His factory in Leeds had the largest works canteen in the world, along with a comprehensive pre-welfare state health and pension scheme and Christmas parties for workers’ children which are still remembered today.

As well as working hard, he also enjoyed his success, being an enthusiastic and frequent traveller.  In the 1930’s letters written to his daughter, my grandmother, were published in two volumes called ‘Globe Girdling’, giving a detailed record of his trips, often with hour by hour descriptions of his itinerary.  The list of countries he visited is impressive, including almost every single country we are planning to visit on our round the world trip and many, many more in Africa, South and Central America and Europe.  It makes fascinating reading, and not just because he’s my great grandfather, although it is a wonderful insight into the character of a man I never knew.  He obviously took great delight in his family, reporting word for word conversations he had with my infant aunt, and he clearly had a close and loving relationship with my grandmother, a woman I remember as being rather distant and strict when I visited her grand, gloomy house.  He had a very dry sense of humour, saying that a Broadway show “would have been tolerable had it only lasted an hour” instead of the two and a half he sat through.  He enjoyed meeting fellow industrialists around the world, but took just as much, if not more pleasure, from meeting their children and grandchildren.

He is naturally interested in manufacturing and shops in other countries, and visits establishments of all sizes, describing what they sell and how they are managed, from the department stores of Ginza, the main shopping street in Tokyo, to Army and Navy shops  in Delhi and Hong Kong and a Gastronomic Centre in Russia.  He’s a keen observer of all he sees, writing detailed descriptions of amongst other things, the burning ghats in India, the Yanggona Ceremony in Fiji, the outfits of US Customs Officers and schooling in Sierra Leone.  He visited Palestine a number of times, where he met with many Jews who were instrumental in founding Israel.  He also revisited the country of his birth, then part of the USSR, searching for evidence of the region’s Jewish history and visiting the Yiddish University in Odessa.  He also enjoyed doing typically touristy things like a ‘Houses of the Stars’ tour in Hollywood and visiting the Waitomo glow worm caves in New Zealand, which he thought magnificent.  I like the thought of using his books when planning our itinerary, I’ll have plenty of ideas to choose from.

The two volumes together total about 1,000 pages and I am working my way slowly through them.  Some of the letters are perhaps most useful to historians of industry, with comparisons of wool prices in each country and detail about American department store leases.  But I am determined to do the whole book justice.  At it’s best, it is a wonderful snapshot of the world in the 1930’s with its growing political tensions, rampant modernisation and traditional cultures and religions.  As he said, “While I am interested in historic buildings, ancient monuments and beautiful things and scenes created by man and nature, I am still more interested in living people, their circumstances and manner of life, their efforts and achievements, their striving and struggles, their frequent defeats and occasional triumphs.”  I have a lot to thank Montague Burton for, not least that he is part funding our big trip.  I like to think that our plans would have met with his approval.


This post is part of Photo Friday at Delicious Baby. For more lovely travel pictures, click here

A whole lot of nothing

9 Nov

This post was inspired by Mara at The Mother of All Trips ‘Mondays are for dreaming’ posts.  Expect to see a lot more of these over the coming year…


Stanfords, probably the best travel bookshop in the world, had a 3 for 2 offer on Lonely Planets the other day.  Well it would have been rude not to partake, so I came home with, amongst other things, the Lonely Planet for Western Australia.

I first visited Western Australia on my last round the world trip, aged 19 and quickly fell in love with the vast, empty, red land.  Most backpackers head to the East coast for surfing, partying and recovering from hangovers on the beach.  Being the dweeby teenager that I was, I preferred to camp under the stars and marvel at the ginormous distances between towns, in a place where a town is often little more than a petrol station with a campsite attached.  Growing up in London, the idea of all this remote nothingness was deeply and appealingly different.

I’ve dreamt of going back to Western Australia ever since and it’s been a fixture on next year’s itinerary from day one.  In quiet moments this weekend I’ve been escaping to my new Lonely Planet guide,  basking in the imagined warmth of the sun beating down on the red earth as I’ve plotted our route up the coast.  I’ve read about incongruous Baroque Cathedrals in small outback towns; snorkelling with dolphins in turquoise waters; open cast mines where the dumper trucks are as big as houses; cooking crayfish on the barbie at the beach; watching turtle eggs hatch by moonlight; hunting for dinosaur footprints at low tide; watching films at open air cinemas with the Southern Cross twinkling overhead; abandoned, ghostly, gold rush towns in the heart of nowhere; tours of the mangrove swamps with Aboriginal guides demonstrating how to spear fish; national parks with deep gorges and thundering waterfalls; and about driving the best part of 3,000 kilometres, hour upon hour upon hour of red dirt, brassy blue skies and kangaroos.

Can’t wait.