Recently, I’ve been on the trail of vanilla, the magical spice that flavours our cakes, custards and ice creams. Along the way, the trail took me to Madagascar, where they produce the finest vanilla in the world. It’s called ‘Bourbon vanilla’, after the former name of nearby Reunion Island.
Did you know that vanilla comes from an orchid (vanilla planifolia)? That its flower has to be pollinated by hand in order for the vanilla pod to grow? That the pod must be picked on a particular day of its growth, and then go through various stages of conditioning for almost a year before it is ready to use?
I didn’t know any of this; I didn’t even know what a vanilla pod looked like, but I found out pretty quickly before boarding a plane to Antananarivo (better known as Tana), Madagascar’s crazy capital.
I started tracking down vanilla in the city centre, at the huge Analakely Market, which was teeming with produce, and I went bananas shooting images of the vendors with their artful displays of bell peppers, shredded carrots, shellfish, succulent strawberries and gleaming tangerines. As for vanilla, after a careful look I was able to distinguish top-quality beans (long, slender, dark, glistening) from the cheaper stuff, which was short, stubby, lighter in colour.
I had to be on my toes all the time, because—as just about all Tana’s citizens keep reminding you—this is one dangerous town. Thefts and muggings are regular, which may have something to do with the fact that about half the population have no work or income. Fortunately I emerged unscathed, and was even brave enough to join the crowds at the annual Madagascar Carnival—wow, those Malagasy can dance!
In the kitchens that I visited to see what chefs are doing with vanilla in Tana’s top restaurants these days, it was invariably the top-quality vanilla pods I saw stored in tall glass jars. I got to photograph (and eat!) some amazing dishes, such as chicken escalopes with vanilla sauce and pork and sweet potato with vanilla. And much as I enjoyed these exotic dishes, nothing could beat the vanilla soufflé for its uncompromised vanilla-ness.
Before leaving Tana, I bought a few bunches of vanilla pods to experiment with at home. Now I’m a vanilla addict and each time I head for the kitchen I’m dreaming up new ways of adding it to any dish. Its sweet, creamy and smoky aroma has got me under its spell.
Y'all know Wikipedia, dontcha? That wonderful bastion of philanthropy, the so-called ‘free’ encyclopaedia staffed by selfless sharers of essential information—one of the world’s ten most popular websites, written by the people, for the people?
Well, I got news for you—Wikipedia is wicked, and I don’t mean that in a ‘so bad it’s good’ way. I mean wicked, as in nasty, calculating and, worst of all, corrupt.
How do I know? Well, one of their regular contributors just tried to sell me a page about myself on Wikipedia…for $910, non-negotiable. Ali Khalid tried to hook me in with the tempting thought that…”These days, anyone who is important is on Wikipedia. It shows people that one is popular and credible”.
So, just how credible is Wikipedia? Ali sent me links to the Wikipages of a couple of satisfied customers, who had paid the going rate to be deemed important, popular and credible. Lyn Mikel Brown, it appears, is an American feminist and Nancy Cruickshank retails beauty products.
I’ve no doubt that there are still a few well-intentioned souls writing for Wikipedia who want to warn us of the dangers of fracking (or whatever their obsession is) without receiving a cent for their troubles, but it seems there are richer pickings to be found by dipping into the endless supply of real-life people who want to be considered important or notable.
Fancy a go? Then here’s what to do. Write a few (free) biographies for Wikipedia of little-known but notable dead poets/musicians/artists/etc, in order to establish yourself, then market your talents to the millions of semi-successful people on this planet who would happily part with $910 for a taste of notability. Soon as you know it, you’ll be rolling in clover.
When I was about seven years old, my Dad took me to the cinema to see a film called ‘Dunkirk’ starring John Mills and Richard Attenborough, about the evacuation of hundreds of thousands of British soldiers from the beach at Dunkirk as the Germans overran France in the Second World War. It was one of the first times I had been to the cinema, and the film made a strong impression on me, particularly the scenes of helpless, terrified soldiers trying to take cover in the sand dunes as German planes dropped bombs on them and strafed them with machine-gun fire.
A few days later at my primary school, our teacher asked us to write about a book that we had read or a film that we had seen. I picked up my pen, opened my notebook and started writing about Dunkirk. Somehow the next 40 minutes flashed by and at the end of the class I had written several pages, but still hadn’t got beyond the introductory stages of the film.
The following week, when the rest of the class was given a different task, our teacher suggested that I continue with my story of the film, which I did. Again the time melted away, but at the end of class I still hadn’t finished recounting the events of the film. This process continued for several weeks, until finally I finished my account of the film, using up about 30-40 pages of my notebook. The teacher expressed great pleasure when I was done, and told me she was going to put my ‘book’ into the school library.
I had completely forgotten about this incident until a few days ago, when I was watching a film called ‘Atonement’, based on a book by Ian McEwan, who incidentally is one of my favourite writers. Near the end of the film, there was a scene of the same events at Dunkirk that suddenly unlocked my memory of all those years ago. I remembered bending over my notebook as a young boy and going into a kind of trance as the words tumbled onto the page, sensing a thrill of creating the story anew and feeling great satisfaction as I completed the last sentence.
I can’t say that I made up my mind there and then that I was going to be a writer when I grew up, but some kind of seed was sown, which gradually grew into a love of literature and of writing. I can’t even remember the name of the teacher who set us our writing task on that day so long ago, but I’ll be eternally grateful to her for unleashing a passion that I never knew existed within me.
There’s an element of serendipity to my current job—writing the text for a photo book on Vietnam called Journey through Vietnam. Some years ago when I was working on a souvenir book on Thailand (Portrait of Thailand, published by New Holland, UK), I proposed a similar book on Vietnam, since at the time I had visited all regions of the country and felt I had enough strong images to make a good job of it.
New Holland didn’t go for it, so I dropped the idea. Then, out of the blue, I was contacted recently by Periplus publications in Singapore, asking me if I’d like to write the text for this new publication. “Sure”, I said, “any chance of providing some images too?” “Well, you’re welcome to submit images”, they responded, “but be warned we won’t be paying more than $5 per image as we’re accessing them all from microstock libraries. In fact, in writing the text, you’ll be getting the lion’s share of our expenditure on this project.”
Ironic, isn’t it, that the text for an image-driven book pays more than the images in it? But, as I noted in my previous blog, this is clearly the way things are going, and there’s not much I can do about it. Since I’m already involved in the book, I expect I’ll submit images for any places or activities that they can’t find in image libraries, and might end up making an extra $10 for my efforts. But at least it’s given me an idea for an interesting story, about all the different forms of transport to be found in Vietnam.
Now let’s see, there are planes, trains, rowing boats, longtail boats, hydrofoils, junks, coracles, cable-cars, motorbikes, bicycles, cars, trucks, jeeps, tractors, elephants, buffaloes……….
I’m sure I’m not the only photographer who has watched with dismay as online stock photo (or microstock) libraries have mushroomed over recent years. Why dismay? Well, I used to sell my travel stories to clients as a package of words and images, of which the images would often be worth half or more of the fee. Yet since these image libraries have expanded to cover every destination and topic under the sun, and since their images are available for use at US$1 or less, most publications I work for now want me to provide text only, which means I’ve lost about half my previous income.
To give an idea how fast these sites are growing, Shutterstock (the biggest) has over 70 million images available, and uploads over half a million more each week. This works out to a staggering 50 images uploaded EVERY MINUTE! The downside for contributors to SS is that no sooner have they uploaded new material than it gets pushed off the first page and so has less chance of selling.
Despite these problems, I finally decided to stop grumbling and adopt the attitude of ‘If you can’t beat them, join them’. So I recently submitted a selection which was accepted, and you can see my tiny portfolio at http://www.shutterstock.com/cat.mhtml?gallery_id=3496445. I’ll post a few samples below, and I’ll be submitting images quite frequently. After all, as SS contributors know, this is a numbers game, and only those who are constantly uploading make any money. Even then, at US$0.25 per image, you’ve got to make A LOT of sales to be successful. Nevertheless, I’ve made a steady start and already my earnings stand at US$1.50!
Usually when I travel, I’m updating a guidebook, so I’m rushing around from dawn to late, checking hotels and restaurants for inclusion in the next edition of the guide. But a few weeks ago I lucked out, spending ten days on a Pandaw cruise around Ha Long Bay and the Red River Delta in Vietnam in order to write and photograph a story about it for the company’s magazine, as it was a new route that they wanted to publicise.
Loved it! Sprawled on a sun lounger, taking in the endless change of view, from towering karst outcrops to container cranes, brick kilns, fields of rice and passion fruit, locals waving from the riverbank. Wandering around small villages, watching water puppet shows, seeing conical hats made, listening to traditional songs sung by teenagers. Writing a few notes about the experience and getting to know my fellow passengers, gorging on gourmet food three times a day. Following are a few images from the trip.
If you want to read the full story, take a Pandaw cruise and read it in the Pandaw Magazine while aboard, or sign up as a subscriber on their website—www.pandaw.com.
"Goodbye hello!”…reminds me of an old Beatles song, but the website hola.org is something much more insidious than anything we knew when we used to go round singing “I don’t know why you say goodbye, I say hello”.
A friend recommended it as a useful site that would enable me to watch programmes on the BBC iPlayer, which is generally not available outside the UK, as well as any other websites that are generally blocked in the land where I live—Thailand.
Being a sucker for anything that makes life a bit easier or more fun, I downloaded it and for a couple of weeks enjoyed my new-found freedom—watching the final of Wimbledon tennis and a few insightful documentaries—but then the trouble began.
I love reading. Like many people (though perhaps a dwindling number), I find no greater stimulus for the imagination than reading a good novel. Yet each time I finish a book, I face a problem—what will I read next? The problem stems from the fact that the older I get, the longer the list of books I want to read gets, but the time I have left to read them is inevitably getting shorter. So each time I start a new one, it means that something on my list has to be cut out.
To be a successful guidebook writer, you need not only good research and writing skills, but also a good sense of direction. This is one area of the job in which I normally feel quite confident, as I spent a few years driving minicabs in London as well as driving buses for London Transport, and I reckon if you can find your way around London, you can find your way anywhere.
When I’m on the road researching a guidebook update, I often have a list of 30 or more hotels, restaurants, bars, spas, pharmacies and so on that I need to locate each day in order to decide if they are worth recommending for the new edition of the guide. With the help of maps in the guidebook and online, I usually manage OK, but sometimes things go wildly wrong, and I always get messed up in Mae Sot.
In November 2014 I finally got to visit a country that’s been on my ‘to do’ list for decades—Burma, or if you prefer, Myanmar. Though I’ve lived very close for many years. I’ve not been able to visit as I’m on a press visa in Thailand, and the powers-that-be in Burma don't issue visas to members of the press, but the introduction of e-visas in October 2014 suddenly opened the possibility. Then new flights opened between Chiang Mai (my home town) and Rangoon (Yangon), as well as Mandalay, so I found myself packing my bags and chanting the words of Kipling’s poem:
“No! You won’t ‘eed nothin’ else
But them spicy garlic smells,
An’ the sunshine an’ the palm trees an’ the tinkly temple bells;
On the road to Mandalay…”
I spent two days in Rangoon, two in Bagan, two at Inle Lake and four around Mandalay and had a fine old time, being reminded every day just how different Burma is to everywhere else. And in an effort to capture the diversity of the place, I’m posting the following images from the trip.
is a British writer and photographer based in Chiang Mai, Thailand.