Features

Surviving a Shitstorm

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“I had planned to go easy on you, but there’s this fierce warrior-goddess inside you, fighting with all her strength, calling out for a deeper treatment”. That was my reflexologist, mapping the soles of my feet exactly five days after my world imploded. I wanted to believe her, but not even head-to-toe chainmail could have made me feel warrior-like. A shitstorm had hit me, and I didn’t have a clue how to survive it.

You don’t need the hyperventilating, tears-and-snot detail of it all; suffice it to say, 2016 tore me apart. It dealt me one blow after another throughout the year, culminating in pure heartbreak. It unstitched me at the seams and didn’t stop until it had sunk its beastly claws into the very core of me. It catapulted me into a reality I could never have imagined and that I couldn’t stomach; anything I ate rose back up my throat choking me like the words I couldn’t say out loud. For a while, I’d had the only thing that mattered to me – LOVE – and in the slam of a door it went up in flames.  

Just like the two fishes symbolic of his zodiac sign, my lover’s heart began to swim in two opposing directions: one half chased something he didn’t even know existed, while the other half clutched at the shadows of the happiness he was throwing away. He became the epitome of Piscean indecision; a dark, deep, watery, enchanting and soulful mystery, whose penchant for living in a fantasy world ultimately demolished the reality we’d built down here on earth. Bags were packed, contracts were broken, memories were stuffed into boxes, keys were returned. The sky went black.  

In the first waves of shock, I sank. I reeled from the agony of it all, barely breathing. I knew that existing solely on wine and toast wasn’t sustainable, and that crying all day at my desk would wear thin with my boss, so I gave myself permission to do whatever was necessary to feel human again. If this involved letting people down, changing plans on a whim, over-indulging and over-spending, so be it. Anything to make me feel safe. Anything to make me feel loved. Anything to replace the weight of mourning with the lightness of joy. I asked myself: where do you want to be while you feel like this? Bali. The answer arrived like Usain Bolt. Just like that, I gave myself permission to escape.  

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I clung to this decision like a liferaft in the Drake Passage, with resounding approval from loved ones. “Put an ocean between it all and it might look a little funnier”, a text message read as I departed Heathrow ashen and depleted of strength. I dragged the shell of my former self 7,760 miles from the source of my pain, and touched down in The Land of a Thousand Temples, desperate to be healed.

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I never thought I’d be grown up enough to take a sabbatical. That was a word you heard whispered amongst your parents’ friends, referring in hushed tones to an acquaintance whose life had fallen apart to such an extent she couldn’t get through a dinner party without laying her mascara-streaked face down on the crockery and going to sleep in front of seven strangers. Yet here I was, amongst the hippies and the Hindus, beginning my own sabbatical. “I just need Bali to throw as much weird healing at me as possible”, I declared, and the island dutifully delivered.

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Legend has it that the magic of Bali – the very essence of why it’s such a healing haven – lies in its volcanic soil. This magic crept under my skin, whispering reassuringly, and I had no choice but to listen. I dug my feet into the earth. I howled at the moon and drank the stars. I climbed peaks in the blackness of night to watch the sunrise. I ceremonially released the past and beckoned the future with the help of the wildly crashing ocean. I covered myself in glitter and danced to reggae with strangers. I formed a coven with two amazing merwitches (a word we hope The OED will officially recognise someday).

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I skinny-dipped and delved into life’s big questions with a beautiful Alaskan kindred spirit. I poured my sweat and tears onto the yoga mat at every opportunity. I confronted my fears. I ate my weight in tropical fruit. I found a 95-year-old medicine man who healed me in mysterious ways I am not meant to understand. I bathed in waterfalls and monsoon downpours. I received massages and heart-melting smiles from locals. I gained a Balinese family. I met a guy at the public cremation of a princess. I met a guy whilst rescuing a litter of kittens from certain death. I drank coconuts and cocktails, watched sunsets and let turquoise waters kiss my skin.

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I practiced gratitude and spent time alone, absorbed in the chaos of my inner world, trying to make sense of it all.

I SURVIVED.

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After months of suffocating anxiety, finally I was able to just sit – with no distractions or support – and contemplate my life without the overwhelming sense of panic, anger, grief and fear I’d been consumed with. Where once I’d been rigid with tension, my body now relaxed and the waterfall of tears slowed to a trickle, rising up only in moments of healthy release. I gave myself permission to trust my instincts again, without which I would never have washed up on the shores of Bali.

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“Find closure”, people say. Closure. When your heart is still fully engaged in a situation, closure is the kind of word that makes you want to tell everyone to kindly fuck off. But the truth is, whichever word you use – peace, acceptance, forgiveness – you will eventually find a way of not being consumed by the issue every breathing second. And when you realise you’ve reached that point, it’s a Margaritas-all-round kind of milestone.

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Sometimes I still crumble – actually, let’s go with often. I’m a work in progress. Because I handed over my heart to a boy with blue eyes, for what I understood to be a lifetime. Because his face makes me weep with love, familiarity, confusion and loss. Because we shared private jokes nobody else gets. Because of memories and landmark dates. Because when he danced my sides split with laughter. Because he was my home. Because I can’t switch the love off. Because the world we created together was demolished one Wednesday night. Because trust was replaced with betrayal. Because my mind takes me to dark places when I imagine him smiling with someone who has thinner legs than me, a nose piercing, and the kind of forehead that can pull off a fringe. When my brain lures me there, I tumble through deep portals, into galaxies of the unthinkable, unsure if I’ll make it back alive. But I always do, somehow.

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Living without the person you love to the depths of your soul feels like shit, guys. There’s no sugar-coating it. But somehow we must rise. Somehow we must find a way to steer our ships calmly and authentically through stormy waters. Somehow we must hold the shards of our shattered hearts in our palms, and ever-so-slowly place the pieces back into our chests. Unlike a jigsaw puzzle, the pieces will never fit together the same way again, but a new shape will form, which we must grow to love. Above all, we must remember that scars are beautiful; they’re the tapestry of our existence.

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Every day during my two months in Bali, I’ve embraced fire; to cleanse, to feel strong. I’ve breathed volcanic air, fired up my muscles in Vinyasa Flow, lit candles and incense at bedtime and burned the toxicity of 2016 on the beach at midnight. I’ve worshipped that majestic fireball that’s born in the sky each morning and that dies on the horizon each night. Fire has become everything to me; it has attempted to evaporate the water of his Piscean energy and to dry the tears that have drowned me. There’s a burning determination within me to turn my pain into productivity. He may have written the ending to our story, but I’m in charge of the narrative from here on.

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Will I write a tale in which I transform the turmoil of 2016’s shitstorm into progression, personal growth and flourishing creativity? Yes.

Will I continue to heal, slowly and delicately unfurling like a leaf in a slow-motion nature documentary until I’m vibrant and whole again? Yes.

Will I remain steadfast in my pursuit of a life that sets my soul on fire? Yes.

And will the warrior-goddess that my reflexologist saw within me rise triumphant in the end? Absofuckinglutely.  

Latitude vs Attitude

Legend has it, there exists in this world a curious type of person who proclaims winter to be their favourite season.  I’ve never encountered such a person and doubt that we’d share more than passing pleasantries if we did meet.  Certainly, we could never hold down a genuine friendship, on account of how I tend to leave the country once the north wind begins to blow and the agonising countdown to Christmas commences.  We could be pen pals, at most.

I blame my parents for my barefoot ways and my insatiable need for vitamin D.  My Australian father is a legitimate sufferer of S.A.D. and a genuine candidate for light therapy.  My mother was a Sagittarian sun-chaser who believed that if she did not travel physically then her mind would travel – in other words, she would go completely and irrevocably mad.  Neither parent demonstrated much tolerance for the winter months.  My father would frequently pepper conversations with the following fun fact: “The weeks between your mother’s birthday on 24th November and my birthday on 17th January are the darkest six weeks of the year”.  Their solution to winter was to escape it, whenever possible.  I never stood a chance, did I?

photo 2I accept that I am a fairweather Brit, that I love my country but only when its skies are smiling at me.  I can take the abuse thrown at me by friends when I mention a flight booked, or a foreign adventure fantasised.  I am a lizard who soaks up the sun, a seasonal escape artist who misses the X-Factor final because I’m usually ankle deep in sand.  It’s simply who I am, and it has never concerned me.  Until now.

Now, life has taken a different shape.  No longer the drifter, I am now the nine-to-five-er, the post-work-grocery-shopper.  I made a choice to be here, beside my man while he carves out a beautiful creative existence and puts his stamp on the thespian world.  Currently, he is the artist, the drifter, the dreamer, the freelancer, and I’m OK with that for a while  But here’s the crux of the matter: I am not in the least bit mentally or physically equipped to endure the impending winter.  I can’t change my latitude this year, so I need a plan.  Pronto.

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I’ve often entertained the idea of becoming one of those “man up and knuckle down” types, but could never grasp the key ingredients of turning that concept into reality.  However two events occurred, not so long ago, which confirmed that it’s time I try: I purchased my first onesie and subsequently declined an invitation to a fun social engagement in order to stay home and suffocate in the hot, fleecy heaven of said onesie.  I literally hid, and felt guilty for being a social let-down.  It was Saturday night, people, Saturday night.  But with perfect cosmic timing, a game-changing article came to my attention, outlining the practice of hygge; the Danish notion of cramming as much guilt-free, feel-good, fun-loving, family-centred, book-reading, duvet-swaddling, dog-walking, pastry-indulging, cinnamon-scented cosiness into life as is humanly possible.  I don’t believe I need guidance on how to enjoy life in general, but as I believe we have established I could do with a few pointers between the dark months of October and February, and finally I discovered something of great impact.  

These clever, inspiring Danes allow themselves – without apology – to indulge in whatever makes them feel positive.  They don’t deny themselves experiences which will increase their happiness, nor do they force upon themselves experiences which will induce stress.  Hygge has no literal translation in English, but my understanding of the sentiment goes something like this: however simple, if it feels/smells/tastes/sounds/appears lovely in any way to you personally, seize that little bit of magic and glide with it all the way to Spring.  If lighting a few candles makes you feel snug and peaceful, knock yourself out. If your idea of rock and roll is cooking quesadillas in your slippers for a bunch of friends who are also wearing their slippers, then rock on.    

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I’m now officially obsessed with hygge.  Each day I evaluate activities, emotions, invitations, ideas, items and sensory experiences by how hygge they are.  If they’re not hitting at least an 8/10, forget about it.  My wardrobe door even displays a list I’ve compiled – mostly red wine and open fires – as a daily reminder of Nice Things About Winter.  And, quite crucially, I’m curbing the guilt feelings of my inner social butterfly – the one who hates cancelling plans – because if I don’t nourish myself during this testing period, my loved ones won’t want to spend time looking at my miserable face anyway.  I’m fairly certain that somewhere over the waters, there was a Danish version of me wearing a similarly ridiculous onesie on that very same Saturday night, ignoring calls from her trendy, vodka-sipping friends, and she didn’t feel a shred of guilt for having taken the quiet, cosy option.  She is now my heroine.

So I may not love rain, or illness, or frozen windscreens, or dressing in layers, and I may never give up dreaming of warmer climes, but I do love the concept of hygge with all it can teach me –  and by conjuring all the cosy optimism I possess, I will make it out the other side.   

Deluxe in Lux

It’s a pleasing moment when a journalist receives an invitation to eat something delicious, sleep somewhere beautiful or participate in something fun (often we are chained to writing articles of our editor’s choosing) because it provides us with a blank page on which to run with any narrative theme.  For me, on this occasion, the theme is LUXURY; pure, indulgent, gratifying luxury.

As a shoe-string-backpacker at heart, the prospect of some occasional luxury remains a delightful treat.  When travelling, I’m more likely to be heard asking “Would it be possible to get some sheets on this bed?” than “Are these sheets 100-count Egyptian cotton?” but make no mistake: I know 5 Star.  I have stayed in some of the best hotels around the world, received some of the best service and gorged myself on the best pillow mints in existence, so when I give somewhere the thumbs up, I do not do so lightly.

The fairytale town of Clervaux, Luxembourg

I was pondering the concept of luxury as the chauffeur-driven car (a shiny black Jaguar, to be accurate) wound its way through dense forest, circling the basin in which lies the picturesque town of Clervaux, Luxembourg, where I was about to spend two nights reviewing the boutique and design hotel, Le Clervaux. Through small gaps in the trees I caught frequent glimpses of steeples and spires, of turrets and 12th Century architectural detail; the town appeared to be the setting of a medieval fairytale.  It also appeared to be a well-kept secret, quietly nestled into a beautiful valley, typical of the Ardennes region, and I wondered how long it would remain so undiscovered.

A hidden gem

Arriving at the hotel stirred a mixture of awe and childlike excitement within me.  The design was instantly striking; both sensitive to the building’s history and in keeping with modern aesthetics.  Architecturally, the façades of the conjoined buildings demonstrated perfect union between old and new, and woven into the strong interior design was a dynamic fusion of masculine and feminine.

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Moody greys and sultry blacks were accented by blocks of bold, fiery red.  Here, a touch of elegance in the wallpaper print; there, robust angles and clean lines.  The design spoke of glamour, of European chic and of smoldering beauty, with a distinct fashionista edge.  It was the most remarkable hotel interior I’d seen.

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Best described as deluxe, my suite was no less impressive, with picture-perfect views of the castle.  The attention to detail within the design and layout was notable, and the amenities were superb.  It seems the thrill of the miniature kettle is a thing of travel past; Le Clervaux has raised the bar with individual Nespresso coffee machines.  Inside the undeniably sexy en-suite, an assortment of divine-smelling Fairtrade toiletries prompted me to let out an involuntary squeal, which echoed against the high ceiling and sounded at odds with the peaceful silence of my surroundings.

Interiors by JOI-Design

Interiors by JOI-Design

Despite the enormous bed luring me into the embrace of an afternoon nap, the wellness centre was calling me louder.  With a comprehensive spa menu and therapists of the highest quality, it was clear these facilities were one of Le Clervaux’s key assets.  I experienced head-to-toe treatments: a whole-body sea salt scrub (which left me with cashmere-soft skin), a deep cleansing facial and all manner of massage techniques. Forget Hot Stone Massage; at Le Clervaux it’s all about the Hot Ball – a heated balloon which is rolled at just the right pressure over your body, accessing every inch to loosen the muscles and lull you into a helpless state of relaxation.  As someone with sensitive skin and a strong environmental conscience, it is also crucial that I mention the wellness centre’s important choice of beauty products: Thalgo.  Created from naturally occurring minerals and nutrients found in the sea, these marine-based beauty products left neither a blemish on my skin, nor unnecessary impact on the environment, thanks to the brand’s core commitment to minimising its ecological footprint.

New levels of luxurious relaxation

Outside of the treatment rooms, there was an abundance of facilities to profit from – mood-enhancing, colour-changing lights in the pool, a decent sized jacuzzi and a relaxation room of ample comfort – but it was the hot zone I found the most enthralling, with its dark, enigmatic design and unusual variations on the classic sauna and steam experience.  Acutely aware of European spa protocol (namely the insistence of complete nudity) I let go of my inhibitions and de-robed into my own unashamed nakedness.  Admittedly, it did enhance the experience somewhat, allowing the skin to fully benefit from the steam, salt vapour and other glow-inducing atmospheric conditions.  But a friendly warning: if you’re averse to witnessing the unclothed form of the opposite sex in close proximity, some prior mental preparation is in order.

Post-pampering, it felt a shame to spoil my newly cleansed skin with unnecessary cosmetics, so I was relieved to note at dinner that whilst the hotel itself oozed glamour, there was no pressure on its guests to follow suit.  As a pescetarian, the hotel’s most prestigious restaurant Rhino’s Steakhouse was sadly wasted on me, however I can highly commend them on their extraordinarily generous crayfish salad and wood-fired pizzas, and with regards to the meat, let me say this: as someone who once was a carnivore, the steak menu was something to behold.  Meat lovers, eat your heart out because the choice of quality cuts, sauces and sides is extensive.  The hotel’s other restaurant Da Lonati served me the most tender, flavour-rich melanzane parmagiana of my life – which is saying something given how many times I’ve eaten this dish in Italy.  If you can resist the temptation of sinking into the world’s most comfortable bed for just a little longer, it’s worth pausing in the Cabana Lounge for a nightcap.

A wonderful welcome at bedtime…

In my humble opinion, the mark of excellence at any hotel is the standard of the breakfast – I’m looking for quality, creativity, variation and abundance – so I was delighted to discover Le Clervaux excelled on every point.  Each morning I was greeted with “Voulez-vous du Champagne?” (note: never in life is the answer to that question anything but “Oui, merci”) and a mouth-watering buffet so broad I deemed it necessary to wear stretchy pants to allow for my inevitable over-indulgence.  It was a breakfast-lover’s paradise; farm-fresh, locally-sourced, hot from the oven, freshly-squeezed, decadent, vitamin-rich and always beautifully presented.

How could I resist?

It intrigued me as to who would visit this wonderful little gem, so discreetly tucked away in the Luxembourgish forest, but as the Marketing & Communications Manager, Nicole, explained during a tour of the facilities, the town of Clervaux is situated amongst some of Europe’s best rural hiking routes, and is especially blessed in historical buildings and landmarks.  It is also a town of unique character (exhibit A: the mayor recently “handed over the keys” to the town and red carpets were laid along the small streets surrounding the hotel, upon which were held a delightful little festival for all to enjoy).  Add to that the superb business and conference facilities of the hotel itself and the aforementioned spa heaven and you’ll start to understand, as I did, why this well-kept secret is quickly gaining recognition as a travel destination.

The Family of Man photographic exhibition at Clervaux Castle

Go for business, go for golf, go for the cuisine and the fine wines, go for history, go for hiking, go for your physical wellbeing, or simply go for your sanity – because at Le Clervaux the stresses of your daily life will simply melt away, and in my experience that’s the greatest luxury of all.

The best views in town

I departed the charming streets of Clervaux the same way I had arrived – in that shiny black Jaguar – sad to leave behind the romanticism of the Rapunzel-esque town, but sure of one thing: if you are somebody well accustomed to luxury of the highest order, Le Clervaux will more than meet your expectations, and if you are somebody for whom luxury is a rare treat, it will simply blow your mind.

Visit www.le-clervaux.com to book your own blissful break

 

The Big Green Apple

First published by Responsible Travel

If nature in New York sounds like an oxymoron, it’s time to take a broader look at what The Empire State offers beyond Manhattan’s urban jungle.  The excitement of NYC is not to be missed, but when you’ve had your fill of skyscrapers and shopping sprees, head to the iconic Grand Central Terminal and board a train away from the city’s buzz and bright lights.  You might just discover that the Big Apple is bigger and greener than you thought.

If you’re tight for time, a one hour train journey from Downtown will take you to the seaside shores of Long Island, where South Oyster Bay and the Amityville River offer tranquil waters for kayaking, and the many small, car-free islands reward hikers with spectacular city and ocean views. Native marine life is abundant, and aboard the numerous boats departing Riverhead and Montauk you can discover the thrill of spotting whales, seals and porpoises in the wild.  You can easily spend a day on Long Island connecting with nature, enjoying fresh seafood and still make it back to Manhattan by cocktail hour!

It may not seem conceivable amidst the hustle and bustle of Times Square, but drive 90 minutes away from the traffic-filled city and you’ll find a winter wonderland of snowy mountain peaks, frozen ponds and waterfalls.  Their close proximity to Manhattan makes The Catskills a popular winter sports destination; snowmobiling, snowshoeing, tubing and ice fishing are just a few ways to enjoy all that beautiful white fluffy stuff. Cosy lodges dot the land, beckoning you in with log fires, locally brewed ales and eclectic menus featuring local farm produce.

Further Upstate lie the vast Adirondack Mountains, where hiking and trekking opportunities are inexhaustible.  Local guides offer insider knowledge of the landscape and with over one hundred summits, it’s a paradise for hiking enthusiasts.  Advanced climbers skilled in self-navigation can try bushwhacking but you don’t have to tackle “The 46” to appreciate nature’s splendour – Adirondack Park is home to many easier walking trails.  Cascade Mountain’s easy-to-reach peak is a favourite amongst locals, and Lake Placid (two-time Winter Olympic venue) welcomes walkers of all levels.  For an alternative endorphin-kick, try white water rafting in this stunning wilderness.  The region is also blessed with the fiery colours of Fall, as the deciduous forest bursts into colour each September and October.  The Lake Placid community marks this annual natural phenomenon with the Flaming Leaves Festival, and the area comes alive with hot air balloon rides, live music, craft stalls and ski-jumping competitions.

While Manhattanites speed through life in a “New York minute”, a few hours from the throng of yellow taxis and pretzel stalls is a community of people for whom time passes more gently.  As a non-commercialised society, the Amish are known for living without modern conveniences, believing them unnecessary distractions from their simpler way of life.  The Amish Trail, leading through Cattaraugus County’s Enchanted Mountains, is a rewarding way to learn about their fascinating culture and history, and glimpse the world through Amish eyes.  Follow the trail and you’ll see communities going about their daily lives, practicing traditional farming methods, travelling by buggy and dressing in characteristic plain clothes.  Business is done from people’s homes, advertised by hand-painted signs inviting you to venture inside and sample diverse goods ranging from individually stitched quilts to homegrown vegetables.  Their shops are worlds away from Bloomingdales and Macy’s; you’ll receive a personal, friendly welcome and come away with locally produced goods that you won’t find elsewhere, as well as a better understanding of their approach to life.  From here, culture vultures can take a scenic drive north west to Victor, Ontario County, where the culture of the Native American Seneca people is preserved and celebrated at the Ganondagan Historic Center.  Visiting the reconstructed bark longhouse is akin to stepping into a time machine, where Seneca life and heritage dating back to the 17th century is depicted through historical artefacts, educational videos, dance, food and nature walking trails.

Back in NYC the action continues 24/7, but peace and quiet can be enjoyed by escaping the city within the city.  An early morning meander through Central Park reveals the urban hub at its least chaotic, with only pre-breakfast meeting joggers to keep you company.  Well marked routes lead you through the most photographed spots, including the “Imagine” mosaic; a tribute to the late John Lennon.  Outside the park, bikes are a great mode of exploration, with free route maps and dedicated Greenways separating cyclists from traffic.  When you reach the Hudson River Greenway, park your bike and switch to a stand-up paddle board – you’ll experience unexpected tranquility and views of the metropolis you’ll never forget.  It might even prompt you to shout “I heart New York” at the top of your lungs!

60 Minutes with Bethan Roberts

Interview with author Bethan Roberts (first published in the Fiveways Directory)

It’s the morning after the launch party of her new book, and local author Bethan Roberts confesses to being a little fatigued (not that you’d know it from looking at her; she’s fresh-faced, smiley and impeccably dressed. I like her instantly).  When she presents me with a hardback copy of Mother Island I’m so thrilled I almost crack the spine and begin reading on the spot.  Remembering my manners, and the point of our meeting, we begin to discuss her source of inspiration.

Mother Island

The story is set in isolated Anglesey, a ruggedly beautiful island where Roberts spent time as a child, but rather than focusing on the island’s history, this story observes a more contemporary, domestic issue.  “When I started writing it I’d had a baby about a year earlier and I didn’t have time for the research a historical novel requires, so I decided to bite the bullet and write about what I knew: babies.  I’d employed a part time childminder and I started considering what it was like to be a nanny, to love those children and every night give them back.”  Pondering this whilst navigating her own fears as a mother lead her to write an utterly engaging tale which explores a darker side to childcare, and deals with what happens if the nanny doesn’t give the baby back.

“The experience of putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is really what writing novels is about,” explains Roberts, as we discuss the main character, Maggie, who abducts two-year-old Samuel from his family in a misguided quest to rebuild her shattered life.  Through opposing character perspectives, the novel dives into the fragile dynamics between parent and childminder; a delicate balance of authority, understanding, power and, most crucially, trust.

BETHAN ROBERTS, PHOTOGRAPHED BY CHARLIE HOPKINSON.

With Mother Island firmly on store bookshelves, Roberts must shift her focus to her next creation.  But she says she’s unlikely to complete anything in local coffee shops, joking that whilst she loves “feeling connected” to the area and having a sense of belonging, bumping into friends and neighbours is a slippery slope towards every writer’s worst enemy: procrastination.

Full of endearing modesty, Roberts leaves me with a list of “must-reads” by other authors, including her recent favourite, The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt, hailing it a “wonderful” and “generous” book.  But it’s Mother Island I’m most keen to devour, and moments after her departure I’m immersed in the first chapter.  Perhaps it’s her ability to tackle uncomfortable subjects with effortless empathy, or the suspense she generates from page one, but for the next hour I’m unable to answer the phone or do anything besides let my imagination wander to that mysterious island and all the secrets it promises to reveal.

The Root of All Evil

When I travel in developing countries I’m reminded of the pitiful state of the global economy, and of our sad attitudes surrounding money.  We live in a world of financial abundance – there is enough for all humanity if only we learned to resist greed – yet somehow man has created dramatic inequality.  The monetary system is such that whilst the elite minority thrive on their riches, millions of others languish in life-threatening poverty.  We have all the tools to fix the problems of the world’s poorest countries but we, the rich countries, choose to keep them in debt, eternally dependant on us.

On the global wealth scale, Indonesia does not rank high.  Within minutes of your plane landing or your boat docking you will see financial scarcity in evidence all around.  I’m not talking about “poverty” we see in the West which somehow still allows for the purchase of expensive electronics, designer trainers and cigarettes.  I’m referring to an extreme level of destitution, where malnutrition is commonplace and starvation is a threat.  Millions of Indonesians, of all ages, work long hours in physically demanding, dirty or undesirable jobs for little remuneration, simply to survive.

Anyone with an ounce of compassion would recoil at the sobering statistics of third world hunger and disease, yet it’s often wrongly assumed that one person alone cannot help the gravity of the situation.  One of the many reasons I travel in Asia is to spread my relative wealth amongst poorer communities; perhaps on a subconscious level it eases my guilt over being born to more fortunate circumstances, but primarily it is because I believe with great conviction that whilst governments continue doing little to help the world’s poorest nations, we should each do what we can.

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And yes, from my perspective we are talking about very little money.  Think about thirty pence or the equivalent in your currency: what can that buy you in the western world?  In England it won’t even buy chewing gum, but in Asia it equals lunch from a street cart or half a tank of petrol for a moped.  Add an extra thirty pence to your accommodation budget and you get a swimming pool.  Leaving my pocket that amount is unnoticeable but, for the Indonesian whose pocket it lands in, thirty pence can mean the difference between a full belly and an empty one.

A recent encounter in Bali reaffirmed my belief that individuals can make a difference.  At the end of a hot day exploring rice paddies and villages we passed a roadside display of colourful hammocks.  Buying a double hammock had been high on our agenda, although we had not yet agreed our budget or considered whether we had space within our backpacks.  The hammocks were perfect – recycled from vibrant parachute silk, thus also ticking the eco box – but our tiredness, hunger and thirst felt more of a priority at that particular time and we began to walk away.  So what turned us on our heels?  Compassion and guilt; the shopkeeper begged us for the sale.  She clasped her hands together, and she simply pleaded.  She expressed her own tiredness, hunger and thirst, and it put ours to shame.  Her face conveyed years of struggle.  She did not need to labour the point about feeding her many children, because when we looked into her eyes we saw genuine fear.  How many family members relied on that sale for food, health, education?  In that moment, our deliberation ceased and the hammock was sold.  The relief that rushed through her was visible, and a lump formed in my throat as she hurriedly wrapped our purchase, including extra rope to show her gratitude.

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DSCF2445Lying in that parachute silk I always think of that woman and it comforts me that, if only for one day, we made a difference in her world.

Of course, not all of our monetary exchanges were as heart-warming.  We frequently got ripped off by Rupiah-hungry locals using underhand tactics to scrounge profit, and I admit some situations bothered me.  I have noticed that in Asian countries capitalist values are taken to extremes and, sadly, somewhere in the rat-race to wealth the original value and meaning of life, of honesty and connection to other human beings is getting lost.  Poverty is debilitating and stifles the progression of developing nations, but it’s a shame when lives become utterly consumed by the constant drive to increase material wealth.

Yet it’s worth remembering that it is the Western world that has bred this commercial ideology of aspiring to greater wealth.  If we ourselves demonstrate that “more” is never “enough”, how can we feign surprise when greed, dishonesty and ruthlessness become commonplace in poorer countries which are simply trying to better themselves financially, just as we have done?  If a Hollywood sit-com actor can demand six-figure-sums per episode, what example does that set to the rest of the world?  What if, instead of indulging our selfish appetites in a continual quest for more money than we could possibly know what to do with, we found a happy medium where nobody had too little, nobody had too much?

One afternoon in the Gili Islands, sitting on a cushioned bamboo beruga, we watched as a local man knelt down on a board and paddled out to sea with his fishing rod, where he remained for some time, patiently awaiting his catch.  Seeing this, we recalled a story which epitomises the message the West sends the rest of the world about money.  In the interests of my word-count I’ll condense this tale, but you’ll get the idea:

A wealthy American businessman meets a fisherman in a small Mexican fishing village.  The businessman learns that the fisherman leads a simple life, catching only enough tuna to feed his family, and spending his spare time laughing with his children, playing the guitar and drinking wine with friends.  The businessman scoffs: “Why don’t you spend longer fishing, sell your catch and with the revenue buy several boats.  As your business grows you could open a cannery, and eventually a global enterprise.  You could move to New York City and sell your company shares on the stock market.  In 15 years you could become a rich man!  Then you could retire and move to a small Mexican fishing village where you would spend your days fishing, laughing with your children, playing the guitar and drinking wine with your friends”.  The fisherman simply smiles and asks, “Isn’t that what I’m already doing?”

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I’m certain most financiers would recoil at my suggestion that we – the rich West – do more to help struggling nations free themselves from deprivation, and whilst I don’t claim to have the answers to the world’s economic problems, I do believe this: as inhabitants of this extraordinary planet we have a responsibility towards each other.  If we are to see any improvement to poverty, we must first see a change in attitudes.  What if the current emphasis on personal wealth gave way to the importance of sharing?  What if the message we teach our children became this: “It’s not about what you own; it’s about who you are”.  What could that wealthy businessman learn from the poor fisherman about life’s true riches?

As a wise man in my life recently said, “I would pay any amount of money to see the monetary system fall” but until then I’ll continue to turn my Sterling into Rupiah, Ringgit and Rufiyaa in the knowledge that individually I can make a difference, however small.