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Tag: Peru

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Foreign Correspondent

When you turn on the TV or open the international section of the newspaper, it always says that so-and-so is the foreign corespondent. It sounds very grand and prestigious. But i’s actually a lot easier than you think to become a foreign correspondent… depending of course where you live, and for whom. During the long miserable years I lived in London, I had a niche for myself writing weekly columns for several newspapers as their London correspondent. I would write 1200-word pieces every week on (a) culture (b) general life and (c) travel tips, and I’d sell the same piece to publications all over the world. This was all done on the back of making a few phone calls, and quick meetings with local editors when I was visiting new York, Rio de Janeiro or Ulan Batur. OK, I’m not saying I was in the top bracket, but I was making money doing something that was fun and only took a couple of hours every week. And I was giving lesser known publications (like the Ulan Batur Herald or the Nairobi Standard a chance at bragging to their readers that they had a man at the ready in one of the greatest capitals of the world.



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Niche

I wrote about this before, but it’s something that has huge application in the media, and in journalism as a whole. If you can develop a niche of expertise for yourself, then editors in specific departments will call on you again and again. I have a friend who writes for food magazines, and she’s very good at it. But she also gets work writing culinary pieces for inflight magazines, for newspapers, as well as blurbs for food companies. Over the years she’s got pretty well known in her field, and is now invited on press trips, which are free trips (usually to exotic destinations) in the hope that she’ll write about the place later. And, even better in my opinion, she gets asked to write culinary books, cause she’s got a track record in the field. When developing a niche, the thing that’s so important is to follow a subject on which you’re passionate. Ask yourself what you’d write about for free. There must be something, whether it’s travel, or food, or railways or even knitting. Then set about thinking where you could pitch stories, and what angles would be good to cover. With the internet it’s much easier than before, and great because you can start at once by writing a blog.



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Mentors

One of the problems about writing is that you are shut away a lot of the time and you can get the feeling that you’re detached. A bit of being detached is a good thing. Actually, it’s a great thing. But once in a while it’s even better to get a sense of where you are… whether you’re on the right rails. And a way of doing this is, over time, to get to know (preferably personally) a writer who influences you. I have had several great influences, and they have affected me in different ways. Some have touched the way I think, my outlook, and other the way I work. For the kind of life I want to live, Wilfred Thesiger was an enormous influence. I adored his clear reasoning, and the way he never ever ever altered his views depending on the audience. He was consistently politically incorrect, which was so refreshing. He said what he believed and didn’t live a life couched in fear. It was Wilfred who encouraged me to go to Ethiopia, and to go for a walk in the Upper Amazon, where he hinted I would probably meet ‘some interesting fellows’.  Hugh Carless has been another great inspiration to me. He was with Newby on ‘The Short Walk in the Hindu Kush’ (the journey was actually his idea). Carless has the finest conversational delivery I have ever heard, and is quite the most impeccable man I have known. As for writing, my father was an enormous influence. He used to tell me ‘we are basket weavers, Tahir jan, that’s what we do… we weave baskets’. My one memory of childhood is the clicking of a manual typewriter from morning till night. And, as I mentioned the other day, Doris Lessing, who is a writer’s writer. But even more importantly, is her plain-speak. Like Thesiger, she’s not afraid to say what’s on her mind.



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June 12, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

Thursday's child

On some days I sit here alone hour after hour, fingertips striking keys, my mind in a twilight zone far away. When one of the guardians creeps in and stands to attention, or when the phone rings and I have to answer it, I find there’s an abyss between where I am and the real world. It’s something that fills me with awe, and troubles me all the same.

Sometimes I find I am so deep in a story, so detached, that my soul has become separated from my body. Or that’s how it feels. It reminds me of ‘Susto’, the Latin idea that a sharp noise, a jolt, can rip one from the other… with the terrible fear that they can never be rejoined. But with me there’s no jolt, rather a gradual descent, a slow and even deviation. I can hardly explain it, but have come to know it’s something of extreme value… a way of reaching another world, the real world.
My little son, Timur, will be five in less than a month. There’s a quality about him that I wish could always stay there, inside him, without being knocked out. It’s the quality of pure innocence and  a natural human genius — something that the adult world strives to destroy as soon as a child has entered school. Our world regards it — a way of appreciating and processing the fantastic — as a thing of evil, a faculty to be replaced surgically with the ability of  cold, clinical thought. Timur still has it though… only just… a mind that embraces fact and fantasy as one and the same, two inseparable elements.
Ariane is seven and a half and she’s lost it. You can’t tell her a tale, a fairy story, without her having to establish whether it’s fiction or fact. And she insists that we have to make clear, one or the other. ‘It’s a little of both,’ I sometimes say. And when I do, Ariane’s face sours with rage. ‘It can’t be!’ she snaps. ‘Because you can’t have both!’
I have travelled with tribes and so-called ‘primitive’ peoples who are, as you would imagine, far more brilliant than us. Their souls are still attached, their minds screwed on right in their heads. I once spent months with the Machiagenga and the Shuar peoples of Peru, and learned to appreciate an ancient and natural way of thought that is the default setting within us all. The longer I spent with them, and the more I came to know of their customs and ideas, the more I understood how terribly misguided we are.
It sounds like basic criticism, a cliche, the sort of thing that’s fashionable to say. But it’s not. Not really. Instead, it’s something that we can all relearn… a little bit at a time. When Timur makes Lego, something he likes very much indeed, he slams some bricks together and, when asked that stupid adult question ‘what is it?’, he fumbles, then says, ‘an elephant.’ A moment later he adds a red brick to the top, and christens it ‘an aeroplane’, and after that ‘it’s mummy.’ 
Of course it is, and that’s how it should be. And we all — all of us — can learn from that, from the default setting that little Timur and every other four-year-old in our world is desperate danger of losing — his imagination.
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June 11, 2008 Posted by tahir in Travel

My friend Wednesday

There’s something magical about Wednesdays. I really mean it. It means you’re in the middle of the week, a little like a traffic island in the centre of the road — protected between oncoming lanes of traffic by a thin sliver of concrete.

So here we are, perched on the traffic island with a clear view forward and a clear view back. I won’t rant on today. You must have better stuff to be doing than reading this, and I have broken through the procrastination barriers, dozens of them, and am, finally, cranking out some of the work that’s been heavy on my desk for days.

I’m actually still reeling from last week. Spent most of it in Paris, doing publicity for the French edition for The Caliph’s House (La maison du caliphe). The best thing was hanging out at Editions de Fallois, my absolutely amazing and old-fashioned French publisher… and the very very worst thing was being obliged to speak French endlessly on the radio. But then, as I always say, a life without steep learning curves is no life at all.
The middle of the week’s a weird little time, one of those days when you can take solace in strange thoughts, dreams that one might more normally expunge from a well-tuned mind. On Wednesdays I like to think about the village of Llactapampa in the Madre de Dios jungle, where I left Eduardo and his family. And I like, too, to think about a torture cell in Peshawar where I once spent time, and about waffles covered in homemade vanilla ice cream, because it’s one of those things I never quite allow myself to enjoy.
Sometimes on Wednesday I go for a long walk down the beach and watch the gulls swoop and dive over Sidi Abdur Rahman, the glorious enchanted shrine near our home, where seheras cure the needy and the good. In winter the sky is inky and full of dark possibility and, in summer, it’s indigo and pure. From time to time I mount the steps at low tide and walk up to the shrine itself and through until I’m on the apron of land at the back where the chickens are being sacrificed. I like it where because of the smell. It smells of hope, as if a thousand, or a hundred thousand people have pinned their lives to the clefts in the rocks. It’s a place of wishes, a fragment of calm destiny.
Once in a while I pass a Wednesday morning down at Casablanca’s port. I like to watch the fishing boats heaving up to the quay, low in the water, their precious hauls of fish ready for beds of crushed ice. There are cats in abundance and more gulls, and rubber boots moving fast over the stone slabs, and the cries of the fishermen boasting of their skill.
And, sometimes on a Wednesday, when the first days of summer are so near you can taste them, feel them on your skin, I climb up onto the top terrace, and look down. You can see the ocean from up there, and Casablanca’s great mosque in the distance, and the lighthouse at El Hank that’s protected ships for century or more. And you can see the bustle and real life of the shantytown all around: children running to the communal bakeries with loaves of flat bread on great unwieldy trays, women walking out to the hammam with plastic buckets and stools, the school teacher flexing her length of orange plastic hose, shepherding a flock of children into class.
And then, as always, poised on my sliver of concrete in the middle of the week, I say a little prayer, thankful for it all.
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