Archives for the month of: August, 2012

Recently a good friend of mine invited me to a special event celebrating the culture of Bengal in the north-east of India. (It was being held in Glasgow by the Bengali Cultural Association, so I didn’t need to go too far afield!) I knew it would be a colourful and exotic event full of beautiful costumes and dancing, so my daughter came with me to take these photos.

The two largest cities in Bengal are Kolkata (formerly spelled “Calcutta”) and Dhaka. The majority of people in Kolkata (the capital of Bengal) are Hindu, and this festival was primarily to celebrate the arts and crafts, music, literature and food of the Hindu people of Bengal.

Around the room were tables laden with beautiful displays on different themes. The first one we looked at showed the foods and spices that are typical of Bengali cuisine. I was most impressed by the butterfly made of whole spices that my friend had created!

She had also worked very hard to put together the Bengali Wedding display, which showed an amazingly sumptuous wedding sari, stunning gold jewellery and an official wedding certificate.

At many of the tables we looked at, charming little dolls highlighted the theme of the display. Two newlyweds sat on top of the wedding table, looking very formal in their traditional costumes.

Apparently the groom on the left should have been wearing a tall, pointed white hat, but it had gone astray!

 Another table was covered in musical instruments, and two musician dolls wearing bright orange robes looked as if they were about to play a tune. There were many beautiful Bengali crafts, including wood carvings, jewellery and batik paintings, and a display about famous actors, musicians, writers and film directors who had come from Bengal.

The highlight of the festival was Dances of India, an evening performance of a wide range of dancing styles from traditional temple dances to contemporary Bollywood! Before that we were treated to a lovely dance display by the children. The first dance represented a wedding celebration in a small village. You can see the bride and groom are very small, and I think they really enjoyed being the centre of attention for this dance!

The boy with the microphone on the right is setting the scene for the audience, and you can see a brilliant backdrop behind them which shows a river running past the little village and women carrying baskets on their heads.

We tried very hard to get some pictures of the children in motion, but they were too fast for us! Every one turned out totally blurry! So you will have to believe me when I say they did a brilliant job, and in my last picture you can see how beautiful they looked.

When I was a kid growing up, the only big waterfall I had ever heard of was Niagara Falls on the Canada/USA border. It wasn’t too far from where I lived, so we went there a few times with visiting friends and relatives. You can get quite close to the Horseshoe Falls on the Canadian side, and it really is quite a sight! All that water rushing endlessly over a cliff and pounding downwards in clouds of mist was deafening and pretty scary for me when I was little.

Iguaçu Falls (photo: Reinhard Jahn)

It wasn’t until quite recently that I discovered there is an even bigger waterfall in Brazil. Since we were planning our trip-of-a-lifetime, we decided this was something we couldn’t miss! The Iguaçu Falls are in fact shared by three neighbouring countries: Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. You can look at them up close from both the Brazilian and the Argentinian sides, and in each case there are elevated walkways and viewpoints where you can get rather wet!

The falls are created where the broad and winding Iguaçu River drops off a long cliff at the edge of the Parana Plateau. Along this cliff-edge, which is 2.7 kilometres long, there are 275 separate waterfalls divided by islands, so it looks pretty spectacular! The river then takes a U-turn to the north and joins the Parana River, and that is the point where the three countries meet. There are three cities at this juncture. Foz do Iguaçu is in Brazil, Puerto Iguazu is in Argentina and Ciudad del Este is in Paraguay.

The word Iguaçu (also spelled Iguassu) comes from an ancient language spoken by the native Tupi indians who lived in this area long before any European settlers arrived. Y means “water” and uasu means “big” so you can see why they chose this name!

We flew into the Cataratas International Airport on the Brazilian side. Inside the Parque Nationale do Iguaçu there is an amazing bird sanctuary where you can see toucans, parrots, vultures, flamingos and a host of other exotic birds. Before going to the falls, we stopped off at this sanctuary.

Cameron discovered that toucans are completely tame and actually a little bit cheeky! This one clearly enjoyed having his picture taken. Their beaks look terribly heavy for them to hold up, and their feet are a pale blue colour. We also saw some brightly coloured parrots who were rather noisy!

Next we hopped onto a special tour bus which took us right into the heart of the park. On the Brazilian side of the falls you walk along an elevated pathway on the edge of the canyon, and the view across to the Argentinian side is breathtaking!

You really are in the middle of a rich, green jungle that stretches for miles (just look at the green section on that map above). There are wild animals wandering in the park as well, though one type of creature has unfortunately become quite tame because of the presence of tourists. We are warned not to feed the coatis (a type of raccoon), but not enough people heed this warning because they are so cute!

We saw these animals everywhere in the park, and the males were quite big! They are bold and curious, and climb up on chairs and tables if you encourage them with food. I got very nervous because they had such sharp-looking claws! Imagine a wild animal the size of a dog hopping up onto the chair next to you!

The next day we decided to venture over to the Argentinian side and see what Puerto Iguazu looked like. It had the feel of a wild west town, with stray dogs wandering about and lots of shops selling handicrafts. We stopped in a nice little cafe for lunch, and then walked along the main road to a park where you could see all three countries at once.

In this picture you can see Paraguay on the left with Ciudad del Este in the distance. We are standing on Argentinian soil, and the river stretching into the distance behind us is the Parana River. Behind me if you look closely you will see the Iguaçu River where it joins the Parana. The land on the far side of that river (behind my head) is Brazil. To get a sense of the scale here, that little boat you see on the water is a small car ferry!

We had to wait quite a while in a queue of tourists to get this final picture, but it was worth it! What a brilliant way to round off our Iguaçu experience!

There are many good reasons for living in Scotland. One of the best is the Edinburgh International Book Festival which happens every summer in the last three weeks of August. At this time the city of Edinburgh comes alive with street performers, outdoor concerts and thousands of comedy, theatre, music and dance shows to choose from.

The Book Festival hosts over 800 author events, including almost every children’s author you’ve ever heard of! It’s always a thrill for me to be invited to perform at the festival alongside some of my absolute idols! This year was my third appearance, and I took my daughter and her friend along so we could enjoy some other authors’ events as well.

For many years now my daughter Anna has been a big Jacqueline Wilson fan. We ALWAYS go to see Jacqueline at the Edinburgh Book Festival, and this summer was no exception. This time Jacqueline was talking about her latest book, Four Children and It, which is based on the classic story written in 1902 by Edith Nesbit, Five Children and It. The ‘It’ in both books is a funny little alien, and Jacqueline has written an updated story with modern-day children who have new adventures with the alien.

Some years ago we were lucky enough to get to know Jacqueline Wilson, and I can tell you for certain that she is a lovely person! Despite being incredibly busy signing books and doing interviews, she took a bit of time out for a quick visit with us, and my daughter and her friend Mashal got this brilliant picture!

But that wasn’t all. Next we went to hear author Meg Rosoff talk about her new book, There is No Dog. Anna had read and enjoyed it, as well as How I Live Now, and I was curious to learn more about this writer whose work I had dipped into and been very impressed by. Listening to her talk, I was struck by how much we had in common (as North American writers of about the same age living in the UK). She was funny and clever and instantly likeable, so it was a great pleasure to meet her in the book-signing tent after her event. I am definitely going to read as much Meg Rosoff as I can get hold of now!

But then it was time for my own event. This summer I was reading my latest book, Lewis Clowns Around. I had a good crowd of children on pillows on the floor, and their parents all sat on chairs behind them. It was great fun reading the story with them, and one little boy (who is wearing a stripy shirt and dungarees in the photo below) kept climbing up on the stage to be part of the show! Later the children all got paper and coloured pencils to do their own puffin drawings. I set up the big book on the floor so they could look at the pictures for inspiration.

Some of the children gave their drawings to me at the end of our session, and I have two particularly good ones to show you. In the first one you can see Lewis the puffin in a special train to go to the circus. Can you see his carriage is covered with little fish? Perhaps that’s his lunch.

The second drawing is a very handsome puffin by a boy called Ruari. For some reason he decided to colour Lewis’s tummy green instead of white. Maybe he’d been sliding down a grassy hill…

After my event I got to chat with lots of kids and their parents in the book-signing tent. While I was there, Anna decided to take some photographs around the book festival. She is a great help to me when I need photos for my blog!

You can see in this one how many people come to the book festival every summer. I was very lucky to have warm sunshine on the weekend I was there. The tents are set up all around Charlotte Square Gardens, and when it’s rainy the grass in the middle is a sea of mud!

Most of the tents are venues for author events, but one or two are cafes like the Spiegeltent above. There is also a special tent called the Authors’ Yurt, where we authors can relax before or after an event. The picture below was taken by Book Festival staff.

The Yurt is a bit like Dr Who’s Tardis because it looks quite small on the outside but inside it has several rooms with exotic rugs on the floor and colourful cushions all around. The lines you see on the ceiling are wooden slats holding up the tent roof!

All around the walkways that link the tents are big poster-size portraits of the many writers who come to the festival. This photo Anna took shows Ryan Van Winkle, my friend Vivian French and Jenny Colgan. In most cases the authors are making funny faces for the camera, and it’s great fun to go round and see how many you can recognise.

Anna took this last photo in the bookshop, where hundreds of books are on display. She liked the colours and the funny titles of these Scots books. The Edinburgh Book Festival continues until 27 August so there’s still plenty of time to check out your favourite authors. I have a new puffin book coming out next spring, so I’m hoping I’ll be invited back to the festival in 2013. See you there!

The port city of Belém (which in English means Bethlehem) was founded in 1616 by the Portuguese at the mouth of the Amazon River in Brazil. (You can see the city marked with a red square on the map below.) The earliest buildings were built in the same style as those in Lisbon, Portugal, and painted the same pastel colours. As you can see in the photo above, there are still some lovely examples of colonial architecture left in the city.

Belém began as a small river port where small boats brought fish, shellfish and all sorts of exotic fruits, nuts, vegetables and herbs gathered from the Amazon forest to sell at the market. Although the city has grown into a giant metropolis full of skyscrapers and highrise apartment blocks, the market at the port continues exactly as it has for hundreds of years.

During Victorian times (about 120 years ago) a complete market building made of cast iron was brought over from Britain. It was sent by boat in pieces and then put together in the port of Belém. As you can see above, it is very distinctive with pointy towers at each corner and decorative arches around all four sides.

The market is called Ver-o-Peso, which means “see the weight.” This name comes from the tradition of selling goods by weight in balancing scales. That way the customer could check to make sure there was no cheating!

The day we visited Ver-o-Peso was very hot. We wandered around looking at many different types of fish inside that cast iron building. It was as smelly as you’d expect a giant fish shop to be!

Outside the market building there were hundreds of other stalls where people were selling fruit, vegetables, crafts, jewellery, and even live animals! My son was particularly taken by the ducklings, but sadly there was no way we could get one of those on a plane home.

In the port we looked at all the fishing boats, and Anna spotted a beautiful heron standing on the dockside. Another type of bird we saw at the market was not so pretty – it was a vulture. There were quite a number of vultures hovering around, just waiting to snatch up a fish or two.

If you want to read more about the city of Belém and see more pictures, click HERE.

Anna has just reminded me of a fantastic book by Eva Ibbotson which is set in the Amazon. It’s called Journey to the River Sea, and it’s all about a 13-year-old orphan girl called Maia who has to go and live with some distant relatives who live in Manaus. (That is a city just a few hundred miles along the Amazon River from Belém.) If you’d like to read an excellent story all about life in the Amazon jungle, that is one I can recommend. I loved it!

Another book about a journey up the Amazon River is called Lizzie: A Victorian Lady’s Amazon Adventure. This one is for older readers, and is made up of letters written by a young woman who went with her husband to run a rubber plantation in Bolivia in the 1890s. She describes her long journey along the river from Belém, during which floods and rapids nearly capsized her boat. The book is full of photographs, including one that shows the Ver-o-Peso market in 1898! It’s fascinating to read a true account of someone who travelled in the Amazon jungle over 100 years ago with none of the conveniences we have today. They didn’t even have mosquito repellent! Imagine!

When my family and I visited some friends in Belem in Brazil, we were not expecting to be whisked off to all sorts of remote locations to take part in musical events – but that is exactly what happened! Our friend Diego Carneiro is a talented musician who plays the cello. He is also the founder of AmaZonArt, a special charity which brings music and support to the poorest and most isolated people in the Amazon region.

I have already written about the school his charity helped to build on the island of Combu. We felt very lucky to be able to help bring water filters and mosquito nets (not to mention toothbrushes) to people who needed them. While we were there, Diego gave a little cello concert and we all took part, making the sounds of wind and rain to accompany his playing. For some of the children it was the first time they had ever seen such a musical instrument, and they were amazed at the sounds Diego could make with it!

The next day Diego and his friends took us inland to a small ecological farm where all the food is grown organically and waste is recycled into compost to be used on the crops. The buildings are made from local wood and dried grasses, and everyone works together to make the farm run smoothly.

First we had a delicious meal made from fruits and vegetables grown on the farm, including pineapples, papayas, rice and black beans in a rich sauce (called feijoada). Normally this traditional bean stew is made with lots of meat, but the eco farm serves only vegetarian meals.

After lunch we took a tour of the farm to see all the crops being grown, the composting area and the special dry toilet where instead of being flushed away, the waste is collected and turned into compost as well. Amazingly, it wasn’t even smelly!

Something else I learned while we were there was how a pineapple grows. I took a picture of one to show you the little bush which sprouts a single pineapple at the top. Most of the pineapples we buy in the UK come from Brazil, so the next time you see one in a supermarket you can imagine it growing just like this one in the Amazon jungle!

Another plant they showed us was citronella, which is a big bush that smells lemony. This plant is used to make natural insect repellent, something that is very useful in the Amazon. Luckily there weren’t too many mosquitos at the farm. Perhaps they don’t like the citronella bushes either!

While some of us were learning about sustainable farming, others were just relaxing in the lovely atmosphere of this peaceful place. Anna took this picture of a little boy swinging gently under a tree.

After our tour of the farm, we all got chairs and benches set up for a little open air concert. Diego got out his cello and a friend set up her keyboard to accompany him. Lots of children from the area gathered to listen, and they were very entertained by a clever story told with an oboe by another musician friend of Diego’s, Paulinho Maia. Diego then played lots of beautiful classical pieces which we all loved.

To top off the day, we all piled into a collection of cars and motorbikes and rode down a tangled forest track to the local water hole, where some of us went for a swim. I stayed safely on the shore taking pictures. Well, someone had to take care of the clothes!