A quick story… Discrimen on 1000Words

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thai decoration gardens

This is how happy I’ll be when I finish my book edits :)

I’m currently editing my book, so things are quiet on the blog front. I hope to get back to my Thailand adventures soon – especially with a Cambodian adventure booked for January – but as I’m sure you’ll understand, these edits have to take priority.

After having read through my editors comments, I should also copy Mel Sheratt and expose a few of my blunders via the blog – there are some corkers in there! What do you think? Would you like to hear some of the most embarrassing ones?

In the meantime, here’s a piece of flash fiction that I wrote, ‘Discrimen‘, kindly published by 1000Words. If you’re a reader, they have lots of really good, bite-sized fiction for you to read. If you’re a writer, why not consider submitting?

I hope you enjoy the story – thanks for reading if you get round to it – & I’ll be back with more blog posts soon.

More on Thai food culture…

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The food adventures continued as we moved around Thailand, with each area taking particular pride in its local dishes and specialities. And at all times, there was a clear fusion between Thai food and Thai life.

thai style picnic, hot springs

Boiling eggs in baskets at the hot springs

For instance, the owner of the homestay we chose in Suphan Buri took fruit to be blessed at the temple daily, and then put it out for her guests to bring them good luck – a very important element of Thai culture. The spirit houses were always bursting with food and drink for the ancestors, and there were edible holy fish fatted in the pond. We didn’t quite manage to decipher whether they would or would not be eaten.

When we stayed with a family in Chiang Mai, they were so hospitable that they took us to the San Khamphaeng hot springs on their day off, so we could boil eggs in the sulphurous water and make a picnic. We were the only westerners there and it was a real honour to sit with our feet in the springs alongside the locals. There were some rather odd-looking offerings also available and we weren’t even sure whether they were on sale for boiling – but we later found out they were definitely there as food (see beetle photo).

unusual foods Chiang mai

Beetle picnic, anyone? Delicious boiled, apparently.

Afterwards, our Chiang Mai hosts took us to a local restaurant famed for its Isaan-style food. We would never have found this on our own and we got to try new spicy fruit salads, sticky sun-dried meats, and delicious fresh fruit smoothies made with ice we could actually drink. (Most people don’t realise but the biggest cause of upset stomachs is from the ice in drinks made from tap water so just in case, avoid, avoid, avoid!)

One of the clearest examples of how lifestyle and belief influenced food was during our stay at the Elephant Nature Park in the Mae Taeng valley, Chiang Mai province. A wonderful conservation centre focused on rescuing and rehabilitating abused elephants – as well as over 400 dogs, a herd of water buffalo and some humpy-looking cattle – the flavoursome food they offered was completely vegetarian, reflecting the animal-centric ethos of the park. (I love tofu but didn’t realise it could be presented in so many ways!)

The park also welcomed us with an intriguing good luck ceremony, led by the local village shaman. The food, flower and candle offerings were placed on a small, decorative float and the ceremony consisted of all our bad luck being drawn out by the shaman’s song. This was deposited on the float, which was then sent away down the river. We were all given white blessed wristbands, just to make sure the luck stayed, with strict instruction on which wrist they were to be worn (left for female, right for male), how long they could be worn (between 3-7 days), as well as how to remove (untie, not cut – and then keep).

elephant conservation volunteering thailand

Not edible – but I had to post a pachyderm.

The Elephant Nature Park also bade us a lucky farewell with a traditional Khantoke dinner. I’d hoped to experience one of these while in the North of the country, but had trouble finding one in Chiang Mai that wasn’t solely catering for tourists. These dinners consist of small, low tables, where you sit with others on the floor and share food. The village presents the food, with traditional entertainment while you eat – such as local music, candle dances, and mask dances. The spirit is one of celebration and the aim is – you guessed it – to guarantee good luck from the spirits when you leave.

It didn’t matter where we travelled in Thailand, the quality of the food was impeccable and food was central to everyday life. Everyone liked to show off and share, and it was clear that you lived for food, rather than ate food to live. Food was ritualistic and an important event, not something to shovel down quickly.

Just try wolfing down the special BBQ served in Khanom without doing yourself an injury: the hot, domed griddle in the centre of the BBQ is kept fizzing with a wedge of meat fat, while the coals inside the dome keep the soup bubbling. You dip your fish, meat and seafood in raw egg and BBQ it while adding vegetables and noodles to the moat of soup around the outside. Move too fast and you find yourself cooking as you try to keep things turning, but too slow and the meat fat starts spitting. It’s all part of the experience and after our fifth (yes, we liked it!) attempt, I think we got the hang of it.

There were many more food adventures we could have engaged in, but we had to leave some for next time. We didn’t try any of the deep fried tarantulas or crickets, but we did have the rich boat noodles (flavoured with pigs blood) and the gloopy chicken rice soup for breakfast, which is definitely an acquired taste.

seafood street food in thailand

Just one of the many delicious street-food seafood BBQs

Our favourite meals in Thailand were barbecued squid with spicy lime sauce (Chiang Mai), sticky deep fried sun-dried beef (Isaan style), sticky rice with mango (Bangkok), spicy papaya and mango salads, Thai BBQ (Khanom), red snapper in Tamarind sauce (Suphan Buri), chargrilled swordfish (Chumpon) chicken laab (Koh Yao Noi), molasses and yellow bean cakes (Koh Yao Noi) and any of the lemongrass-based soups such as Tom Yum Goong.

But I think the best thing about the food in Thailand was the overall experience and seeing the pride people had in their dishes. I’ve cooked many Thai dishes since returning home, but without the buzz of hungry queues, the hum of traffic, the glorious sun and a person peering over the counter from behind a wok, curious to know whether you’re enjoying it, it just doesn’t taste the same.

Thailand adventures – let’s start with the food in Bangkok!

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Thai food, Khao Yai

Soup noodles anyone?

It’s taken me a while to figure out how to structure these blog posts about travelling in Thailand. My diaries are hardly insightful – they’re more like excessive to-do lists with descriptive snapshots – and I don’t really want to create a chronological account of what we did and why. Rather, I want to try and convey a feel for the country, as we encountered it.

So the obvious place for me to start is with the food. The first thing we noticed as we landed in Bangkok and hurtled towards our city apartment was that the pavements overflowed with food stalls. A moment’s wait at any traffic light and you’re either watching someone set up a stall, ogling someone’s tasty takeaway, or cringing as a food seller crosses the intersection on foot, laden with a food cart bulging with wares and apparently oblivious to the flow of traffic.

Step outside the car and the streets smell of a heady mix of food, litter and petrol fumes. We chose an apartment in the Lumphini Park area, and were amazed to see that even our small road turned into an incredible food street throughout day. There seems to be a system as certain stalls are there in the morning, then packed up and removed for the lunchtime sellers, which are likewise dismantled and replaced by the evening sellers. Very few stayed in one spot all day, which seemed like an awful lot of effort – but I guess that’s what’s required to feed millions of people around the clock.

The stalls are put up with ridiculous speed and ease. You can literally walk down a quiet street one minute, admiring the gnarled trees blessed with holy scarves, and walk back down it the next, unable to find the trees at all. Instead, you dodge queues of hungry workers, and buckets of water thrown over the plastic tables for cleaning (if nothing else, it’s a very efficient way of removing the cats).

In some areas of Bangkok, if you’re unlucky, the usual smells are joined by the odour of durian fruit. The stench is as bad as legend decrees, but we couldn’t resist trying it. We bought our durian freshly peeled from a stallholder in a random part of the city we stumbled upon by foot – and we were so excited, decided to keep it until we arrived home. Half an hour later and we’re being removed from the Metro station by security – on account of the smell – and we try our first bite of this foul-smelling fruit, leaning over a bin.

David Attenborough once described durian as ‘pretty good’ like ‘slimy caramel creme’. Well, he is either very taste bud challenged or he lied. It was like eating a fart. The durian was quickly binned and we spent the next ten minutes trying not to breathe too deeply on the other SkyTrain passengers (true story).

It’s easy to spot which stalls to eat at – you choose the busiest, or the ones that look most inviting. You choose the ones that cook the food from scratch (which is most). And you forget very quickly about the surroundings, and soon sit slurping Tom Yam Goong (spicy prawn soup) or munching on Tom Sam (papaya salad) by the traffic-clogged roadside, in car parks, under flyovers, next to rubbish tips. The food’s that good, you honestly don’t care. And you’d be surprised also how quickly you adapt to eating everything off a spoon.

Thai food travel adventure

Fresh, unripe papyaya for spicy salads

Breakfast is the one meal in Thailand that we struggled with as there is no specific breakfast food, and we spent a bit of time searching for something we enjoyed at that time of day. In the end, there were lots of roasted eggs and fruit involved, so we managed. And if you’re thinking – why didn’t you just make something at home? – the answer is, most apartments do not have kitchens. The food is so cheap that everyone eats out on the street.

When I say cheap, I mean on average €1 for a plate of Chicken and Prawn Pad Thai or Prawn Fried Rice. Whole barbecued squid and giant prawns came in at around €1.50 a plate, so you can feast on seafood, salads, noodles and rice for around €3-5 euro per night (for two people). But the cost in no way reflects the quality – everywhere we went, the food was incredible; tasty, healthy, and with well-balanced flavours. A pure delight.

I was surprised to see that many stalls used msg in their cooking, as I’d never equated that ingredient with Thai food. But the ones that didn’t use msg were easy to find, thanks to their huge signs. It’s also worth knowing that if you’re vegetarian, fish sauce is a staple ingredient in almost every meal. So you really need to learn how to say ‘no fish sauce’ in Thai – ‘mai sai nam phla’ if you don’t want it in your food. (Here’s a good page on useful Thai vocabulary for vegetarians).

Another useful phrase is ‘mai phet’ which means ‘not too spicy’. Personally, the hotter the better where I’m concerned, but my husband doesn’t quite like it as volcanic. We’d been warned that it would be way too spicy but we didn’t find that the case at all – and the cooks were always willing to tone it down. The most important thing to the vendor was that you enjoyed the food.

thai travel food

One of the spirit houses, complete with food & drink for the ancestors

From the very start, it was obvious that Thai people have a real respect for food that borders on reverence. Indeed, it is an important part of Buddhist worship. In mornings across the city, you see monks heading out with bowls, looking for alms. And in the temples, there are always food parcels left at the altar.

Food and drink is even provided for the ancestors on shrines and spirit houses. On the pavements you have to be careful where you step so you don’t upturn an open bottle of Fanta Orange or Yakult, complete with straw, that has been left out next to the shop shutters for good luck.

Food is also important to family and community life. The food business is definitely a family affair, and you often see several people and their wares bundled onto a single motorbike, or pick-up trucks piled to the last, with the kids and kittens wedged in, ready to set up for the night. The parents cook, the older siblings serve, and the younger children play on their iPhones or tablets in the driving seat, taking a snooze when needed.

Although we did see many sights in Bangkok (some of which will be covered in a later post), we found that the street food and was the real city experience. We spent our days walking and observing, jumping on local transport to see different areas, searching out recommended three-seat stalls and delicacies, and basically eating our way round the city.

It was very easy to see why Bangkok is dubbed the food capital of the world. The buzz, the noise, the smells – and of course, the taste – we loved it all. And it gave a wonderful introduction to Thai culture.

Thai travel street food

Another happy chef…

 

Thai night markets

Waiting for the night to end

It’s official… a three-book deal!

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green fingered writer

Even when the power cuts out, keep going!

I’m going to keep this brief because I’m still letting it sink in, and it’s hard to type when you’re giddy. I can finally say the words I’ve been longing to say for so long…

I’ve signed a book deal!

I’m delighted to announce that I’ve signed with Mercier Press for my middle grade fantasy trilogy, the Order of Nine Lives, with the first book due for publication in summer 2015.

This means an extraordinary amount to me, so much that I can’t put it into words. So I’d just like to say thank you so much to everyone who has taken an interest and supported me so far – your belief has been invaluable.

I’ll keep most of my writing news to this blog or my Author page on Facebook, so that’s where you need to look for updates.

It’s early days and there’s work to be done, but for now, it’s time to celebrate.

And for those of you chasing dreams – keep going. I’m no different to anyone else – with hard work, determination and courage, you’ll get there.

And, we’re back!

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For the last six weeks, the only thing I’ve eaten with a fork is some pineapple at breakfast. In Thailand, everything is eaten on a spoon, with the fork used merely for directing the food onto the spoon, ready for consumption. You also don’t mix your food; you have your plate of rice and take a small amount from one of the dishes on offer at a time, only choosing another option once your selection is eaten.

thailand travel tuk tuk

One of the many questionable modes of transport you forget to question after a while…

For the last six weeks, the temperature has stayed around 36 degrees, and even when thunder and lightning suddenly explodes onto the scene, it’s still hot and humid and I’ve been able to sit outside. Storms are beautiful to watch when your teeth aren’t chattering and it’s amazing what you can record when the ink is not running down the page (because you’re swaying in a covered hammock).

For the last six weeks, I’ve only used social media to upload photos on Facebook because our camera broke and my iPhone is nearly out of storage so it was the quickest way to record our holiday and not lose the images. And the only thing I’ve written is (a rather terrible) diary (more like a to-do list than a gripping read) – no short stories, no freelance articles, no novels.

Oh yes… and the dolphins were pink, it was perfectly acceptable to fit three adults and two rucksacks onto a motorbike (powered by a hairdryer motor) and call it a taxi ride, and I discovered that even when you’re surrounded by people who don’t speak the same language, Rod Stewart and Simon & Garfunkel become your best communication tools.

I’m dying to tell you more, but for now, I’m adjusting. I’m trying to fit back into my own life after living in another one for a while.

thailand travel hill tribe

Receiving a buddhist blessing from a hill tribe welcome ceremony (complete with local shaman).

I’ve lived in other countries and have travelled quite a bit (though, may I add, not enough – never enough!), so you’d think I’d be used to this bittersweet tug that I always experience after travel. But, it seems, I’m not – and it never gets easier!

Perhaps it’s my father’s Romany roots, or my love of stories that makes me crave different experiences? I don’t know. But I do know it’s not a bad thing – and I also know that it passes. Fades, is probably a better description. It never really leaves. I think my lovely friend, (and incredible writer) Kirstin Zhang, is the one person I know who would truly understand…

Please note: this is not a complaint. You only have to read my Twitter feed or blog posts to know how much I love this place. It’s great to be home. We’ve had the warmest of welcomes – from our friends, neighbours, the local community, and of course, our cats and Franklyn (who fell over with excitement).

There are some exciting changes and opportunities on the horizon, and stories to be shared about our recent adventure (I’ll blog about Thailand over the next few weeks). But, one step at a time…

For now, I’d simply like to say hello, I’m back… And how are you?

A short farewell…I’ll be back!

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Gonna miss the sea dog (not so much the barking at seagulls or fish we’ve caught, but hey, he’s cute!)

I’ve been mad busy these past few weeks as I’ve been completing my YA book as well as finishing up my last days in the bookshop, tying up all my freelance work and making sure the last module of my Inkwell Blogging and Beyond course was delivered to my current (brilliant) pupil (you know who you are).

Well, I’ve done it. I’ve delivered my YA manuscript to my wonderful agent, all the bits and pieces are wrapped up and I’m about to shut down. It’s meant lots of long hours and neglecting the blog – sorry guys and gals – but it has all been worth it and I’m looking forward to the exciting changes that lie ahead.

Now for the bad news… I’m going to have to neglect you for a little bit longer because I’m heading off to Thailand with my husband for SIX WEEKS!!!

Yes, I feel lucky – but I also feel so ready for this break, I can tell you. It’s been a long time coming. The last long haul flight we took was almost three years ago when we went to Australia to get married. and for me, there’s nothing like a long haul flight to make you feel grounded.

Lately, I’ve been getting a few neck and shoulder problems because of all the typing – my freelancing requires prolonged time at the computer as well as my writing – and I’m looking forward to stepping away from the computer and getting some time to be in the moment and breathe.

And when I get back I’m going to try some preventative measures with fellow West Cork writer Louise O’Neill that include yoga, talking books & just hanging out. I’ve decided I need more of that in my life.

There are lots of exciting things on the horizon that I can’t wait to share – including a week working with rescued elephants just outside of Chang Mai (in a few weeks time), and a future trip to Cambodia with the Singing Kites charity where I’ll be spending some time teaching and some time writing.

But for now, I just want to say goodbye to my dog before he goes to the kennels and get a bit of sleep. Six weeks will fly and if I can resist dipping into social media when I’m away (which I very much doubt), I’ll be back to the blog within a week of my return.

So in my absence, take care, have fun and make sure you make time to relax. See you in a few weeks. Happy writing!

Are you Custer or Crazy Horse?

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Green fingered writer

What’s his secret?

I’ve recently been watching a series of documentaries on the Wild West. I don’t have TV but I’ll watch pretty much any documentary on DVD. This particular series is one that my husband taped on video – I’m showing my age here but, remember those days? Trying to pause the recording before the adverts came on, and then start it up again without missing anything? How you couldn’t switch channels as otherwise the recording would switch too? Ha! Alien concepts in this day and age. Anyway, I digress…

These documentaries are brilliantly done. Well researched and lots of original footage, from photos to letter to diary entries to film – and the reportage is really balanced. Apart from the on-screen wobbles, you wouldn’t think my husband recorded these 14 years ago and we’ve only just had them converted to modern technology!

Why am I telling you all this? Basically, because of a point that was highlighted in Episode 3 that set me thinking. An historian pointed out that the main difference between Crazy Horse and general Custer was that Crazy Horse already thought he had the perfect life; he was in a state of being and wanted to be allowed to continue. On the other hand, Custer was in a perpetual state of trying to improve - he lived in a permanent state of becoming.

I think this Custer reference is a great description for artists and writers. As far as I’m aware, the creative mind constantly demands improvement and change, so there’s always movement. This movement is as unpredictable and unruly as the rolling seas, but it creates the driving force behind old ideas in fresh voices, adds the necessary passion and magic that takes something good and makes it incredible.

But is there another way to be? A less frantic and unsettling approach? My husband is definitely a Crazy Horse – he approaches life in a calm and steady manner, and has more energy and staying power than anyone I’ve ever met. He’s an incredibly creative and talented singer/songwriter, but isn’t driven to the peaks and troughs of emotion that charge in unannounced to my days. Instead, he meanders his way and eventually gets there.

We’ve discussed this and he seems to think it’s the length of the work involved and the fact that when you perform, you get an instant response from the crowd – hopefully a positive one. Although singer/songwriters suffer from nerves and stage fright, the catharsis comes much quicker. Writers, on the other hand, spend long periods of time in solitude and the work requires more input, a different approach. And there’s no guarantee anyone will actually read what you write.

So is this the key to being Custer, or does it just come down to personality? What do you think?

As writers, can we ever mirror Crazy Horse and just be?