All posts by neilboss

Blood, Sweat and English Teachers

Published in Shoestring Issue #6

From behind I may have looked composed and professional, but had I been facing a mirror rather than a whiteboard, the truth would have been apparent. What on earth was the passive voice used for? My mind had gone blank with the pressure and the whole lesson was rapidly evaporating. This whole TEFL-course lark was a lot harder than I’d imagined.

In similar circumstances, a trainee in a previous year had apparently sat down and got out their lunch, leaving the pupils wondering if it was part of the lesson. Talk about unprepared – I didn’t even have a packed lunch.

One of eighteen trainees of varying ages on an intensive four-week Cambridge CELTA course in England, I was paying for my lack of work the previous evening. I’d only done four hours of preparation and had sloped off to bed at midnight (slacker). We’d been pre-warned that the course would leave no room to work part-time or socialise, but most of us had mentally appended the word ‘much’. I mean, they were exaggerating, right?

That’ll teach you

The average day started in that most terrifying of environments for the untrained – the classroom. For this we were split into smaller peer groups, with half of us teaching on any given day. Those not teaching sat at the back observing or, if they were up next, wondering if anyone would notice if they shrieked and ran out the room.

Later, after the fears of those teaching had proved to be unfounded (or entirely justified), we came together to get feedback from the assessor and to exchange it with our peers.

This could be a strangely deflating experience after the adrenaline of the classroom: Your concept-checking is okay but you’re not eliciting enough; don’t ask if they understand – they might think they do, even if they don’t; and try not to weep so openly.

Afternoons brought with them a role-reversal as we became the students, learning the theory and practice of TEFL plus some key tenets of the English language. We were expected to incorporate these newly learnt classroom skills into our next lessons, like a juggler being thrown another couple more balls every day, and maybe the odd chainsaw.

Teaching English doesn’t require you to speak a single word of the students’ language. In fact, you’re encouraged to ban all talk in any other languages and make the classroom an English enclave. “Just imagine you’re in Torremolinos,” you might tell your class.

The meaning of new words can be conveyed by charades, pictures and using words with which the students are already familiar, the latter being particularly useful if you want to avoid play-acting ‘genetic engineering’.

Easy like Monday evening

By evening the course was over for the day, but the work wasn’t. It was taking me upwards of four hours to prepare an assessed lesson; researching the subject matter, creating the materials and drafting a to-the-minute lesson plan. Even our intended use of blackboard space had to be pre-determined.

Thankfully, in the real world, the ratio of preparation time to teaching time is far more reasonable. And you wouldn’t be required to do the four written assignments that we had to produce in our spare time (ha!).

The hours soon took their toll, and it became the norm for me to have eyes sagging off my face at night and a caffeinated stare in the morning. Meanwhile, my anti-social working hours and trail of unwashed crockery was putting a strain on my relationship with my housemate.

I could have gone to sleep early, of course – the failure rate on such courses is only about 4% globally. And then I’d have felt bright and fresh as I humiliated myself in the classroom due to under-preparation.

Rewarding behaviour

I was aware of the more obvious benefits of the course before I started: the ability to speak English is in demand in many countries, making the ability to teach it a useful skill the world over. It can help fund trips to exotic places, can be a fun job in itself and makes for a much more immersed travel experience than just excitedly pointing at stuff and taking photos.

But it was the unexpected aspects that had the greatest impact on me. Firstly there was the growth in belief and self-confidence that came from having to repeatedly stand up in front of a group and perform. Then there was the sense of satisfaction that came exactly because the course was so demanding without being unrealistic.

Finally, there was the solidarity that came from sharing a difficult situation with others: hearing a colleague say they were thinking about quitting was a daily occurrence, but so was the inevitable chorus of reassurance that came in response.

But as I stood facing the whiteboard, it wasn’t the warm glow of comradeship that I felt but the icy grip of pressure. Come on, you’ve got this far – you can do this.

“Okay,” I said with a cheery smile and a gently perspiring forehead, “this is what I want you to do.”

My tutor looked quizzically down at the lesson plan as I lopped off an exercise, handed out homework as an activity and generally squeezed my way out from the tight spot.

No packed lunch required.

 

Riding Latin America’s Five Greatest Railways

Shoestring Issue #3 [link]

No-one talks about great coach journeys of the world.

Whether it’s due to the technical feats involved, the fact you can get up and wander around or simply the sight of beautiful scenery jerking rhythmically about, train travel has something uniquely special about it. Perhaps it’s just the inherent fun of accidentally scalding your loved one when you return to your seat with hot drinks – train travel is romantic, too.

Whilst many of Latin America’s railways have gone the way of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance kid, the region can still proudly call itself home to some of the world’s greatest train journeys.

Here are five excellent opportunities to see tortuous mountain passes, wide open plains and the various creatures that inhabit these places all jerking about rhythmically for your entertainment.

Ferrocarril Chihuahua al Pacifico (Chihuahua-Pacific Railway) (Mexico)

Also referred to as the Copper Canyon railway, this treasure of northern Mexico links the country’s mountainous spine with its Pacific coast.

In tracing a path through the rugged folds of green and copper, the track enlists the help of 86 tunnels and 36 bridges, and takes at least 16 hours.

A real highlight is the station at Divisidero from where you can see three awe-inspiring canyons converge with each other. You can also see succulent ears of corn caramelising on grills, for sale by enterprising locals. Which sight you find more breathtaking probably says a lot about you.

The area is inhabited by the Tarahumara, a people famed for their long-distance running ability, though they probably just take the train like everybody else when there are no anthropologists around.

www.chepe.com.mx

Riobamba-Sibambe-Alausí (Ecuador)

When this train isn’t clinging to Andean mountainsides or rattling through orchards, it’s hustling its way down the streets of pastel-shaded settlements as though it has jumped the tracks. Which it’s also prone to doing for real occasionally.

The most famous section traverses the monstrous rocky obstacle known as the Devil’s Nose (El Nariz del Diablo) – it wouldn’t be Latin America without a casual reference to the devil’s anatomy.

Said appendage is dealt with by doings lots of advancing and reversing, which would just look indecisive if there weren’t also sets of points and zig-zags of track (‘switchbacks’) involved.

Thankfully there’s no Devil’s Adam’s apple to negotiate: if the technical issues don’t sound bad enough, just imagine the theological ones.

www.efe.gov.ec

La Trochita (‘The Little Narrow Gauge’) (Argentina)

Immortalised in Paul Theroux’s 1978 book The Old Patagonian Express, this railway is not just a journey through the wild treeless scrub of Patagonia: it’s a trip back in time. Fortunately, it’s only back to the era of steam travel, rather than that of armed railway banditry.

Enjoy the view from your tiny carriage as the train rattles past dotted masses of sheep and the occasional guanaco. Ostrich-like rheas are even known to run alongside the train at times, although they’re not usually packing guns.

The diminutive trains are made up of rolling stock from the 1920s with a wood-fired stove in each carriage for warmth. These are passenger-fed, so the temperature depends entirely on the whim of those sat near the stove. Thankfully, the driving of this vintage train isn’t done by the same system.

www.latrochita.org.ar

Tren a las Nubes (Train to the Clouds) (Argentina)

Do people accuse you of having your head in the clouds? Well here’s your chance to prove them right. Strictly speaking, you’ll only prove you’ve got your train in the clouds, but no matter.

This is a high-altitude romp through the gorges, dried-up riverbeds and bunchgrasses of northwest Argentina. The train starts high and goes higher, gaining over 3,000 metres in altitude in its ascent to the Andean altiplano (high plain), ending at a breathless 4,200 metres above sea-level near to the Chilean border.

As with other routes in Latin America, the train has to trick its way across difficult terrain using sleight-of-hand like switchbacks, viaducts and even 360 degree spirals. There are no loop-the-loops, but you can’t have everything.

www.trenalasnubes.com.ar

Panama Railway (Panama)

If you’re not satisfied unless your train journey was founded on a legacy of death and misery, then the Panama Railway is the one for you.

Construction of the original route claimed thousands of lives, many of which were to diseases such as malaria and yellow fever at a time when mosquitoes had yet to be identified as the cause.

The railway, completed 60 years before the canal, suddenly transformed crossing the Americas into a feasible proposition, it being quicker than sailing round Cape Horn and safer than hydrogen-filled trousers.

Though the journey takes less than an hour it effectively spans the entire continent, giving great views of the canal as well as the jungle and swamps that made the project so horrendous. For added realism, pretend to swat things on your skin whilst affecting liver pains.

www.panarail.com

Happy New Beers

HEALTH FOR MEN – JANUARY 2009

10 GREAT REASONS NOT TO OVERDO IT

It’s the boozy season again, but don’t let it go to your head. We’ve got 10 reasons not to overindulge without guilt.

KEEP YOUR ORGANS UNPICKLED
‘Livers are important,’ says Hugh Laurie’s character in the medical drama series House. ‘You can’t live without them, hence the name.’ By drinking sensibly, you’ll reduce the impact on your body’s organs.

WATCH THE POUNDS FALL OFF
Ever heard anybody bemoaning the size of their ‘water gut’? Us neither. Be prepared to explore undiscovered realms in the notch region of your belt.

WATCH THE POUNDS PILE UP
A tenner will barely get you three pints in some parts of the UK, and drinking wine can more than double the cost of a meal. Okay, so the cost of soft drinks and bottled water can also cause a minor choking incident, but tap water is free.

DRIVE Look who’s Mr Popular! Okay, so this perk has its downsides if you don’t enjoy being a chauffeur. Still, no more waking up on your mate’s sofa, doing the morning-after walk of shame or queuing in the cold for three hours to bolster a taxi-driver’s retirement fund.

RECLAIM YOUR MEMORY Blackouts are best left for wars. But if you really miss reliving a series of harrowing events via cliff-hanger instalments, hire an old series of 24.

MAINTAIN YOUR DECORUM We’ve all seen the footage of red-faced drunkards with sick down their fronts. No self-respecting man wants to end up looking like that. (On the downside, bruises will never have the same sense of mystery!)

BE THE SHARPEST TOOL IN THE BOX Alcohol is a depressant. It slows down the speed you think and move — and can motivate you to tell vague acquaintances you love them. If you’re the only non-drinker in a crowd of drinkers, you’re at an advantage.

RECLAIM THE DAY AFTER Studies show that alcohol reduces the quality of your sleep. Personal experience has shown that hangovers are bloody awful and that a heavy night can wipe out the next day. If you want to live a little, get plastered. But if you want to live a lot, stick to the Cherryade.

RAISE YOUR STANDARDS Ever heard of lemonade goggles? Neither have we. Too much the night before and you might need another stiff drink when you see who you’ve woken up next to. And that’s without mentioning your performance. Ouch.

BE YOURSELF Mr Clever becomes Mr Arrogant Know-all, Gentle Ben is like a bear with a sore head and even Snoopy has been known to develop an ugly sneer. Reducing the amount you drink can also reduce the next day’s levels of personal shame.

The Wild One

The Weekend Post weekender, Saturday, January 3, 2009
Unlike many temples of Angkor, Beng Melea is an untouched wonder waiting to be discovered, writes NEIL BENNION

It’s all a bit tame, isn’t it? The temples of Angkor might once have been buried in the -V Cambodian jungle, but these days, the only thing you have to scythe your way through is other tourists.

Granted, Angkor can still offer the elegant decay of Ta Prohm, where nature and civilisation huddle together in a dark embrace. But its restored state and central location mean the only real risk is that of getting in the way of someone’s photo.

Fortunately, there is a part of Angkor where you can still test out your explorer credentials.

Beng Melea temple is largely unrestored and its distance from the main temple area – about 60km – deters many from visiting. Until fairly recently, the threat of landmines kept even locals away.

As we head from the tourist epicentre of Siem Reap, motorcycles weave past with so many people crammed on board they resemble acrobatic display teams. But the traffic gradually thins and soon the roadside is adorned with vegetation or houses on stilts with lazy hammocks slung between the posts.

“Guide?” asks an old man in a cowboy hat as I near the temple proper.

Even from here the ruinous state of the complex is apparent. Though the external walls are largely intact, all about them lie piles of scattered stone blocks. It’s as though parts of the place have been blasted asunder by a vengeful deity.

If I were this close to one of the main temples, clusters of cute yet persistent children would be following me round playing flutes, like some strange subversion of the Pied Piper. Yet here they seem far more interested in playing games with each other.

My guide explains that his name is Mr Chuan and he is 72, but even this is stretching his English to its limits. Clearly, we aren’t going to be discussing 12th century Khmer politics.

He quickly proves his worth, however. A rather tame wooden gangway leads into the ruins, but he ignores it. Instead, he skips youthfully along a building’s stone apron and gestures through a wood-reinforced doorway.

Suddenly, we’re adrift in a turbulent sea of lintels, blocks and friezes, cast in a dappled light by the encroaching jungle. Huge pieces of debris fill the chamber to half the height of the doorway.

Mr Chuan leads me over the enormous mass of stone, my hands wrestling with their smooth, dry corners. It’s just like Tomb Raider, except without the precious gems. Or unearthly bosom, for that matter.

I’m hooked already. This is no looking-and-pointing experience. I have to physically get to grips with the place, clambering about and propelling myself with all four limbs.

“Hello, mind your head!” warns my guide as he slips nimbly through an obstructed doorway. We emerge in an arcaded chamber where incense smoulders in a small shrine.

“Elephant!” Mr Chuan says, as though deliberately playing with my head.

He’s pointing through a stone window with vertical bars composed of beautiful lathe-turned balusters. There amid the churned-up plinths and columns is a delicately-carved frieze of elephant heads.

It’s just one of many hidden charms he picks out along the way, with monkeys, Buddha images and apsaras (celestial female dancers) also making plenty of appearances.

Beng Melea was built from sandstone in the middle of the 12th century during the reign of Survayaman II and is similar in architectural style to Angkor Wat. The shape roughly describes a rectangle with inner enclosures. Not that you could tell from the ground.

Emerging from the rubble, we briefly negotiate open ground for a change. The undergrowth thrums with the sound of birds and grasshoppers and the air is rich with jungle scent.

Despite having been assured that the temple has been cleared of landmines, part of me can’t help but feel wary – this is Cambodia, after all – and I tread gingerly. Like it would make a difference.

Mr Chuan knows the place like the back of his well-worn hand and the lines on his face echo the weathered distemper of the ruins.

“See the library,” he notes, making effortless sense of the mess.

‘Library’ is just the traditional name for this sort of isolated annexe. It is unlikely to have stored books. Which is just as well as the place is enough of a mess as it is.

Eventually, we pop out of the chaos and emerge onto a later part of the gangway, and the rare sight of a couple of other tourists.

The gangway takes a far-less ambitious path through the temple, like an archeologist with a Zimmer frame. The concept of tameness, however, is still a relative one: I watch a snake shuttling along a stone crease, fire ants scurrying about on an apsara and a hugy, bony spider wrestling a  leaf from its web.

Soon I’m back at the point where I started and this navigation thing suddenly all seems rather easy.

A worldly-wise explorer doesn’t need a guide anyway, so I bid farewell to Mr Chuan and head confidently back in.

I’m lost within minutes.

For once in my life I’m grateful for the sound of other tourists as they give me something to quietly backtrack towards: pleas for help tend to be at odds with the whole bullwhip-and-fedora getup.

Beng Melea is not the biggest temple, nor is it the most spectacular. But it has something to offer that deserts temples the moment the hands of restoration go near them. And it’s this that makes it hard to beat.

A helping hand for those who can’t COPE

A helping hand for those who can’t COPE
By NEIL BENNION
(Latest Update June 28, 2008)

A cascade of khaki-green baubles hangs from the ceiling, suspended on transparent plastic.

At first I’m confused as to what it is I’m looking at but, on closer inspection, it becomes clearer. Above is a split-open bomb-casing, and this is its payload of cluster bomblets, or ‘bombies’, whistling downwards towards the ground.

It’s the signature exhibit that greets you as you enter the Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) visitor centre, which opened in February of this year. The significance is that unexploded ordnance (UXO) – bombs or bomblets that failed to detonate when they were
dropped during the Indochina War – is the main reason that people in Laos need prosthetic limbs

Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita anywhere in the world. The Indochina War ended in 1975 but millions of pieces of UXO still litter the country and new casualties from UXO-related accidents continue to occur. In rural communities it is tempting for families to hunt
for and attempt to disarm UXO in order to sell the metal for scrap.

“There was an accident in January when one ‘bombie’ killed four children and injured five others,” says COPE Project Coordinator Jo Pereira. “And that’s just one. There were maybe 80 million left on the ground after the war – the numbers are just mind-boggling.

There are other exhibits besides the cluster-bomb piece, and you are greeted by the newest installation as you arrive at the centre – a 400 kilo mother and child sculpture, made almost entirely of UXO.

Excellent photography is another major component of the visitor centre and highlights how deeply UXO has become embedded in the lives of rural Lao people. Acid bombs are seen to adorn the shelve s of a home as ornaments. Other rem nants have found new uses as rice cookers, oil lamps, ladders, belt buckles and plant beds. They even form part of the artificial legs that those a ffected have crafted for themselves to try and fashion some kind of normality in their lives.

The largest exhibit is the re-creation of a typical village house, which dominates the centre of the exhibition space.

“What we wanted to do was set up the kind of house that a scrap collector might live in just to see how some of these items are used in people’s daily lives,” says Jo

She says that in the same way that people go into the forest to collect bamboo and wood to make their homes, the other resources they find around them also get incorporated.

The fact the house is on stilts is a poignant reminder that ladders and disabilities don’t really mix.

The really striking part of the exhibition, however, is the human element; the centre is littered with the remnants of personal tragedies, such as the tearful parents who recount their son’s death from UXO in one of numerous video exhibits.

Whilst UXO is the most common reason for needing a prosthetic limb, it’s not the only one. As the narrative on the walls in both English and Lao explains, road traffic accidents are second and leprosy is third.

It’s not all despair though. The wall of photos telling the stories of polio, clubfoot and other tragedies also tells of repair, renewal and rehabilitation. We see the patients with their new limbs, growing in confidence as they learn how to use them. Jo explains that the main aim of the centre is to showcase the work of the rehabilitation staff.

One man spent four years eating ‘like a dog’, as he describes it, after losing two arms and an eye to a UXO accident. With the help of COPE he now has prosthetic arms and is able to cook for his family.

COPE deals with victim assistance rather than clearance and education. They work with the adjoining National Rehabilitation Centre to provide artificial limbs, limb support devices and mobility aids.

A prosthetic leg imported from a developed country such as New Zealand costs upwards of US$2,000. But here they make them on site using the same technology for a fraction of the cost – about US$50 – and they certainly appear to be of comparable quality.

These are not off-the-peg items, either. In order to create a prosthesis that fits comfortably, each one has to be made to measure from scratch. The step-by-step process from plaster-cast to finished prosthesis is outlined in an exhibit.

The items may be relatively cheap but they still don’t pay for themselves, and this is where COPE comes in.

“The vast majority of people in Laos with disabilities wouldn’t be able to afford to pay for something like this,” says Jo.

She explains the government pays for the buildings and salaries, and that COPE supports with staff training and puts up the money for patients who can’t afford treatment. They currently serve around 1,500 patients a year.

The visitor’s centre is on Khou Vieng Road , 500 metres east of the morning market. It’s open from 9am-4pm Monday to Friday and entrance is free. There is a small attached cafe, and a shop where you can purchase items in support of COPE or make donations.

Jo is keen to stress that people who donate are directly helping patients acc ess the centre’s services.

“Because we are a local organisation – we’re only in Laos – and we have a grant for things like our salaries and for the training, 100 percent of your donation actually goes to what you want it to go towards. You’re not paying for a head office in the UK or anything like that.”

The visitor centre’s main audience is both people living locally and tourists.

“If you’re travelling in Laos , it’s one of the things I think you should really be aware of – the UXO issue,” Jo said.

She adds that one of the aims of the centre is to make people more aware of what cluster bombs are and how they still affect people’s lives 40 years on.

“I think it’s really important. Isn’t that what travelling’s all about?”

UXO Sculpture Completes Rehab Visitor Centre (News)

21 Monday June 16, 2008
Home news
UXO sculpture completes rehab visitor centre
NEIL BENNION
Jo Pereira and Anousone ‘Ford’ pose with the new statue.

The Cooperative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise (COPE) visitor centre in Vientiane received a sculpture made almost entirely of unexploded ordnance (UXO) on Tuesday.

The artwork weighs nearly half a tonne and features a mother and child running in terror. It cost about US$2000 to make and was paid for entirely by an individual benefactor.

Located at the entrance to the centre, the sculpture will have a platform built around the base to finish it off.

“It’s a very powerful statement,” said COPE Project Coordinator Jo Pereira. “The platform will rise from rubble and bombs, showing the resilience of people and how they’ve rebuilt the country after all those years of war.

” The sculpture was designed by COPE staff and officials, and was created by Anousone ‘Ford’, an artist who works with metal.

“He’s very talented,” said Ms Pereira.

She explained they had also worked with him on the centre’s signature exhibit of a cluster bomb crater, which features on the organisation’s flyers, as well as the ‘prosthetic-leg furniture’ in their office.

The COPE visitor centre has been open to the public since February, but has yet to be opened officially.

Ms Pereira said they had been waiting for the anival of the sculpture. She added that she expected the centre’s official opening ceremony to take place in the next few weeks. Visitors wouldn’t have to wait until then to see the piece, however.

“It’s here to be looked at,” she said.

The centre features numerous exhibits, such as a typical villager’s house, as well as photography and video documentaries. Together they explain the effects of UXO on the lives of individuals, how artificial limbs are manufactured and the rehabilitation process.

Ms Pereira explained that the main aim of the centre was to showcase the work of the rehabilitation staff.

COPE deals with victim assistance rather than clearance and education. They work with the National Rehabilitation Centre in Vientiane to provide artificial limbs, limb support devices, walking aids and wheelchairs.

The limbs are made on site, an approach which is many times cheaper than importing them from developed countries. Artificial limbs and mobility devices are provided free of charge for those who cannot afford to pay for them. COPE currently serves around 1,500 patients a year.

The visitor centre is on Khou Vieng Road, 500 metres from the morning market, and is part of the National Rehabilitation Centre. The centre is open 9am-4pm Monday to Friday and entrance is free. There is a small attached cafe, and a shop where you can purchase items in support of COPE or make donations.

UXO injury is currently the most common reason people in Laos need an artificial limb. Road accidents are second and leprosy third. In rural communities it is tempting for families to hunt for and disarm UXO in order to sell the metal for scrap, which can lead to injury or death.

Laos is the most heavily bombed country per capita anywhere in the world. The Indochina War ended in 1975 but millions of pieces (4 UXO still litter the country and new casualties arising from UX0- related accidents continue to occur.

Blooming Dales

APRIL 2007
Blooming Dales: Harrogate is an English Gem
By Neil Bennion

When Agatha Christie went missing in 1926, people must have feared the worst, especially when her car was found abandoned. She was discovered alive and well in Harrogate 10 days later.

The true reason for her flight is still the subject of some discussion, but there’s no such mystery about her choice of refuge – Harrogate has long been a choice place to recharge, and it still is.
During Victorian times it gained international renowned as an elegant spa town and was a favored retreat for royalty and high society. The waters from its mineral springs, high in iron and sulfur, were prescribed for all manner of ailments, and people would come from far and wide to this corner of the Yorkshire Dales to take them.

In modern times, Harrogate has grown into an important conference town but its charm remains intact. In recent years, it has won prestigious awards for its horticulture, and to stroll around the quaint Montpellier quarter, with its wrought iron facades and plentiful antique shops, is to take a step back in time.

The history of Harrogate’s dalliance with medicinal waters is preserved in the Royal Pump Room Museum on Crown Place. It showcases numerous examples of contraptions designed to marry bodies of people to bodies of water, such as the ‘massage bath’, the ‘peat bath’ and a shower cage that attacked clients from all sides.

Although you no longer have to the option to strap yourself into bizarre contraptions, some traditional therapies are still available to the public. The Turkish Baths on Parliament Street have been refurbished to their Victorian glory, and are resplendent with glazed brickwork and Moorish arches. After passing through a steam room, plunge pool and chambers of varying temperature, you’ll be invigorated and ready to face the world, or even the queue at Betty’s Café Tearooms.

Sulfurous spa waters may have gone the way of the horse and carriage, but if there’s one traditional preparation that the English are still obsessed with, it’s tea. There are many tearooms in Harroagate, but Betty’s is the quintessential choice – fabulous cream cakes, biscuits and chocolates wink at you through the window, defying you to forget your health after all.

For those who want something a bit stronger, Hales is a wonderful example of a traditional English pub. Once a coaching inn, it retains its Victorian fittings: a splendid array of gas-lit lamps and bar-mounted gas lighters.

Outside, meanwhile, it’s as though someone build Harrogate on a giant bed of steroidal vegetation that bursts through every crevasse. The expanses of The Stray wrap three sides of the centre in a green blanket, whilst the paths of the Valley Gardens wan-der between acres of trees and flowerbeds. But the true monarch of this floral world is definitely Harlow Carr, one of the Royal Horticultural Society’s four UK flagship gardens. It even has its own branch of Betty’s for those who can’t bear to choose between pointing at flowers and daintily working on tea and cake.

For those who prefer their flora a little more wild, Harrogate is on the edge of the prime hill-walking country known as the Yorkshire Dales; a world of open moorland and valleys coveting unspoiled villages.

There’s no shortage of cultural sites in the area, too: Knaresborough with its precariously-positioned castle ruins; the peaceful Pateley Bridge, home of the oldest sweetshop in England; and the Cistercian Abbey at Fountains Abbey, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. And that’s without even mentioning York.

And if you’re exhausted after all that, tuck yourself into bed at the ivy-clad Old Sawn Hotel, just like Agatha did.

WHEN TO GO:

June to August is the most colorful time florally, but there is something to see all year round, including flower shows in April and September. July is a good time for events such as the Theakston’s Old Peculiar Harrogate Crime Writing Festival and the countryside showpiece of the Great Yorkshire Show.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Harrogate: www.harrogate.gov.uk
Yorkshire Dales: www.yorkshiredales.org
Harrogate flower shows: www.flowershow.org.uk

Lost and Found in the Galapagos Islands

Red March 2005
Travel-writing competition:Runner-Up
Lost and found in… The Galapagos Islands by Neil Bennion, 31, library assistant

Eric should have known better than to tangle with the 41 big one. The male sea lion defending its harem was unimpressed by the attention of the snorkeller. Eric got off lightly with a playful warning – a bite on the backside.

The Galapagos Islands are an archipelago formed entirely from volcanic activity above a tectonic hot spot 1,000 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador. Popularised by Darwin’s expedition, which led to his book The Origin of the Species, the peculiar geology and the complex ocean currents have created a paradise of biodiversity. In the rainforest, armed with a great deal of time and patience, you may just catch a glimpse of a jaguar Or maybe you won’t. But there is nothing hit-and-miss about the Galapagos wildlife. It’s there, you will see it, and it will be closer than you might imagine.

On the first morning of my week-long boat tour, I opened the curtains and was confused to see nothing but red. We were moored by a sheer lava cliff It was the kind of visual surprise my fellow travellers and I would get used to over the next few days: barren cactus-punctured landscapes; lush mangroves dipping their toes into the welcoming ocean; vast aprons of lava trapping sandy shores, and countless menacing volcano silhouettes.

The Galapagos are famous for finches; examples of their ‘adaptive radiation’ helped Darwin to draw his ground-breaking conclusions back in 1835. But the real crowd-pleasers are the species with unique quirkiness – the superstars of the Galapagos. Red and blue-footed boobies are large diving seabirds, and they perform a hilarious courtship ritual involving strutting and beak-pointing. The world’s only marine iguana plays straight-man to the antics of the bright red Sally Lightfoot crab. While the iguanas bask in clusters on the black lava, the crabs comically scamper sideways right over them. I wouldn’t have been at all surprised to hear the crabs start whistling in feigned innocence.

Not to be outdone, however, the magnificent male frigate birds inflate their blood-red chests with air, to the size of Hollywood egos, in order to attract a mate, no doubt desperately hoping their love-rivals aren’t armed with drawing pins.

Whilst these might be the star turns – in fact it would have been easy to get blasé about it all: “Oh look, some more flamingos; another sea-lion body surfing” – it would be only half a trip to these islands if you didn’t take advantage of their underwater world. The most thrilling sight, for me, was when snorkelling through a part-submerged crate called the Devil’s Crown. Two hammerhead sharks were serenely patrolling the waters, oblivious to the gasps of delight from the people floating above.

It was going to be hard to leave the Galapagos Islands, and not just because the airport was temporarily closed for resurfacing. Eric must have been kicking himself for not taking on that sea lion. Had he won he’d have taken over the harem. He could still be there now…