The experts will tell you there are three kinds of island in The Maldives: inhabited, uninhabited and resort. We’ve just spent six days on a fourth kind, one for which a label has yet to be invented.
One of the joys of the Itinerant Writers Club is the glimpses one gets into other writers’ lives. Our monthly assignment 11, “A family holiday” produced some emotive and characterful writing. With instructions for this exercise to “pare down” the prose, to keep it tight, we were asked to remove all adjectives and adverbs then replace only those which were essential. Two of the essays struck me as particularly good, so I am sharing them here.
If you would like to see the rest of the essays, click Itinerant Writers Club or use the tab at the top of this page and scroll through to assignment 11. While you are there, you might like to wander through some of the other exercises.
Geordie Torr is editor of Geographical Magazine. He is also a gentleman. When the Itinerant Writers Club became disillusioned with the finalists chosen in the Pure Travel Writing Competition 2012 (in conjunction with Geographical Magazine), I wrote to him with our complaints. I admit now that I could have been more diplomatic. With great patience he explained the rationale and system that was used to come up with the top essays. I was so impressed with his professionalism I cheekily asked him if he would be happy to be interviewed. To my surprise and delight, he agreed to answer some questions put to him by the club.
I was delighted and surprised to receive the message from Wanderlust‘s editorial team that I had just made it into their most important, useful and entertaining blogs…
Thanks, Wanderlust, for the vote of confidence. And, more importantly, thanks to my Itinerant Writers Club cohorts for turning a small idea into an enjoyable, instructive and challenging experience. And for keeping me on my toes.
Do you enjoy travelling? Do you enjoy writing? Do you want to meet like-minded people on the net to practise and talk about the art of travel writing? Pop over to the ITINERANT WRITERS CLUB forum to see what we’re up to. If you’d like to join the club, drop me a line with a link to your blog or examples of your writing.
A rare easterly blowing through Cochin this morning has freshened things, brightening colours and tempering Kerala’s humidity. It has lured me from the air-conditioned saloon up into our boat’s cockpit. The breeze brings with it snatches of a lone voice chanting a Malayalam Christmas prayer across the water.
Dylan Martorell’s installation is in a small, dark room. Hanging from the ceiling are colourful objects, the kinds of everyday bits and pieces you see all over India: copper pots, empty bottles, plastic bags, temple dishes. Thin electric cables and fairy lights are woven between them. A hand written note by the door says: “Take off your shoes, go in and touch the objects. Only four people at a time.” So I went into the makeshift grotto and patted a hanging bottle; it played a musical note. I tapped a pot next to it and a peel of bells rang out. Then I was off, touching everything I could reach, composing my own symphony as I went. A group gathered round the small entrance, as interested in me as the exhibit.
Julia Hammond, one of our Itinerant Writers over at the club, won a trip to America’s deep south with the Daily Mail. (I made the final, but Julia got the most votes in the “write-off”, so very well done, Julia!) Part of the “prize” was to have the story of your journey published in the Mail’s travel supplement. Strangely, this being the good old Daily Hate, they didn’t want to hear about the devastation left behind in New Orleans by Katrina, so Julia had to edit and re-write until the piece fitted the editorial requirements. I like realism and honesty on Lizcleere.com, so here’s the story the Mail didn’t publish.
Nola Palooza! New Orleans is indeed an extraordinary place, oozing a sultry, sassy attitude from every wrought iron balcony and garden square. On the surface, every day is a party, with an open invitation extended to anyone who wanders onto Bourbon Street. Jazz musicians compete with rock bands creating a mongrel sound in the neutral ground of the street. Voodoo shops sell lucky charms for all occasions and curious talismen for when luck isn’t enough. Revellers with Hurricane cocktails in plastic cups dodge falling beads and hustlers for girlie bars. Everything is good natured, as befits a city with a name like the Big Easy.
But delve a little, and since Hurricane Katrina, there is a sadness that refuses to go away completely. As with a comedian, the city’s jovial persona turns out to be a public facade. Underneath, its private face cannot disguise the tragedy that it has had to endure. Sandi Smith, working for Gray Line as a tour guide, summed it up perfectly. “We were ostriches. We thought that we would be safe, have a party and ride out the storm. We were wrong. I watched my friends go crazy afterwards, getting angry, saying crazy things. I thought I was alright, but they said I was crazy too.” At 64, she said that opting to stay in the city was one of the decisions she most regretted in her life. Her eyes were distant, even as she talked to us. These are the effects no one talks about. Sandi had thought long and hard about whether to put together this tour, but had decided to as a way of showing outsiders what her beloved city was going through. Even so, after two years, emotionally exhausted, she told her boss that someone else had to deliver it, and took a break for a while.
At the time of the disaster, Sandi resided in Old Algiers, a charming neighbourhood chock-full of historic homes with a villagey atmosphere a five minute ferry ride across the Mississippi from the centre of New Orleans. She was evacuated to the Convention Centre, a huge structure with large glass windows right by the river, where she waited for four days for supplies to come. The MREs (meals ready to eat) were not quite what she had in mind. She chuckled as she reminisced. “I was on a high protein diet at the time, she mused, but when those packs of food came they were full of carbs. 4000 calories in one meal! I went into carb shock right there and then!” In the news at the time, I remember hearing bland facts about the number of dead, we saw pictures of devastated houses and poignant rescues, we learnt about how the evacuees in the Superdome struggled. But the human cost of losing friends, the lasting emotional damage that it caused, goes under the radar. I never knew.
Katrina struck on August 29th, 2005. It was November 2012 when I took the Katrina tour, fully expecting to see locations fully repaired and merely now the sites of prior damage.
I was wrong. It is hard to process how, such a long time later in a place as wealthy as the United States, damage is still clearly visible and lives are still adversely affected by the tragedy on a day-to-day basis. New Orleans still bears horrific scars like a war veteran. Some of them are physical. Sandi took us down “Chop-out Street”, so nicknamed because its residents had no alternative as the floodwaters surged in but to hack their way out of their attics with an axe. After seven years, a house still stood abandoned, overtaken by weeds and snakes and stinking mould.
Its inhabitants fled the city and never returned. Their next-door neighbours, powerless to do anything, couldn’t sell up even if they wanted to. The population is a little over half what it was before. The city’s easterly districts, including the Lower Ninth Ward and Lakeview, are full of empty lots and derelict properties. Some have been able to afford to repair, to raise their wooden bungalows onto new foundations. Others, let down by insurance companies that refused to pay out, still have blue tarpaulin patches on the roof and boarded up windows.
The reason or excuse the insurance companies gave, the word you choose dependent of course on where your sympathies lie, is that the hurricane’s damage in swamping homes with the flood surge was down to the fact that the city authorities didn’t act appropriately. They didn’t maintain effective levees; they didn’t act decisively and order a mandatory evacuation. (Amazingly, the year after, Mayor Ray Nagin managed to get re-elected to office and served another four years; there were issues with absentee voters as many of the population were stranded in Houston and such places, but even so, it is hard to comprehend that about a man whose indecision and incompetence led to hundreds of deaths.) But, officially, as the problem stemmed not from the hurricane but from human error, that definitely was not covered. Compounding the problem was the issue of the specific type of insurance purchased; many residents, living below sea level as New Orleans had subsided, had been unable to gain insurance for anything flood-related, so the wind damage was covered but that done by the storm surge wasn’t. It was quite easy to reject a claim by stating that the damage was done by the surge – if you had done as you were told and evacuated, you wouldn’t have been there to witness events and prove them wrong.
We passed homes with the tell-tale crosses from the emergency search and rescue teams still visible on walls. Some have left them there as kinds of memorial, but others remain because the owners never came back. Many are at first floor level. That was the level of the water; the ground floor was totally swamped. Rescue crews in boats marked the part of the house that remained visible. The number at the bottom of the cross is the number of dead found at the property. For me, the most distressing sight was a garage door, recovered to form part of the Hurricane Katrina exhibit at the Louisiana State Museum back in the French Quarter. The owner had scribbled, in red paint, that the garage contained their dead dog, with a warning not to remove it because they would return to bury it. Sandi tells us that she was lucky; she was able to return to her home in Old Algiers and collect her cats. Almost half a million pets weren’t so lucky.
The city is still trying to move on. Demolition orders are finally being agreed, removing the snake-infested mouldy rotten dwellings and leaving empty lots. The Make It Right organisation, set up by Brad Pitt, offers new properties for people who can prove a previous ten year residency in areas such as the Lower Ninth Ward. It’s not without controversy, but it’s a start. In August 2012, on the seventh anniversary of the disaster, a ceremony was held for the three hundred or so bodies left unclaimed in the city’s morgues and they were finally laid to rest. Part of New Orleans’ charm is its transitory characters: the tarot card readers, the drifters, the musicians existing hand to mouth. But without family or close friends, there was no one to miss them. New Orleans was indeed extraordinary. It got under my skin, for sure. But not for the reason I expected.
Every month I select one of the stories from the Itinerant Writers Club assignments to highlight on lizcleere.com. Each story must be written to a deadline and to a maximum word count. In October, members were asked to write about somewhere they had never been, in up to 350 words. Here Jean Ashbury tells us why she wants to go to Cuba.