Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Writing in Cambodia, land of tuk tuks

I once wrote an article for an online arts journal about the writer's retreats I run, and instead of using my title, Holidays That Inspire, the editor changed it to something like How Rich Writers Travel.  Horrified, I asked her to change it back, which she did, not before remarking - but it got lots of hits!

Temple Writing in Burma 2013

The inference that you had to be rich to join an international writers retreat; that it is somehow a luxury, even an indulgence to spend your time in such a pursuit, disturbed me. Nothing could be further than the truth. Some people who come do have what I call 'spare money' it's true, usually well earned super or savings, and most who come have more money than me. Although I do remember one person getting a Centrelink loan to come to Morocco which I thought was brilliant.

Part of the inference too is that - as only the rich can afford to travel, we would stay in luxury villas and view our surroundings from afar, taking what we need for our writing and leaving nothing in return. This idea is also abhorrent for as much as possible I always try find a way to not only meet local writers and artists but invite them to join our workshops and events.

Bayon Temple

In March this year Writer's Journey heads to Angkor Wat for seven days temple wandering,  writing, jotting, sketching, painting, meditating, brainstorming, photographing, filming, while learning how to tell a good story.

Open to creative artists of all modalities: painters, poets, photographers,filmsters, performers, writers, doodlers, journalers, we travel into the heart and spirit of our creativity as we explore the ancient temples of Angkor Wat and its surrounds for the purpose making a creative work — collection of poems, sketches, paintings, a creative journal, a short story, notes for a novel, exhibition of photos, short film to be presented at a showing/presentation on our final evening.

Filipino and Cambodian poets at Angkor Wat for Northern Kingdoms Festival

Already the word has gone out to expats and Cambodian nationals that there are sponsored and semi sponsored positions available if they would like to join. Last time I ran workshops in Cambodia we had a great turn out in Sihanoukville, Battambang, Siem Reap and Phnom Penh. Money raised from the workshops was donated to the Ponheary Ly Foundation to buy bicycles for children living in villages around Angkor Wat, who can't afford to get to school.

On that visit I invited Ponheary (I think she is in her sixties now) to our Siem Reap workshop. She said she wasn't much of a writer but she had many stories to tell.

Ponheary Ly, teacher, tour guide, social activist.

During the Khmer Rouge genocide Ponheary's father, a teacher, was killed along with thirteen family members. Those remaining suffered extreme poverty, but knowing the value of education, when Khmer Rouge were deposed, Ponheary became a teacher. She began by supporting one student  from her own earnings, then another and another. After she became a tour guide, tourists would donate to her cause until she met a woman from Austin, Texas, who was so moved by her work she set up a foundation to help. Together with the hard work of numerous volunteers they look after 2500 students. Knowing herself what it means to live only on leaves and sticks for months on end, Ponheary says she can tell just from one look, what level of poverty children are suffering: extreme, moderate, low level.

I'm hoping Ponheary will be our guide on our first day in the temples of Angkor Wat and that some of her staff will attend our workshops as they did before. There is no better way to get to know a country than through the stories of its people. You can read all the tourist books, brochures and blogs about a place, but meet one person and hear their story and your life is changed forever.

Workshop with local writers at Mata Air Festival, Salatiga.

The reverse is also true: we share the stories we are working on, our hosts also get to know us; our strengths, our weaknesses, our vulnerabilities. In this exchange we have chance to reflect not only on our commonalites and our differences but what kind of future we can write together.

I wonder if this was the richness that editor had in mind.

Read more about the artists, writers and communities Writer's Journey supports.

Book now for Temple Dreaming in Angkor Wat, March 9 - 16.

Friday, January 2, 2015

A Moroccan seaside residency

At the end of our Moroccan Caravan adventure, I headed to Essaouira, a coastal town three hours west of Marrakech for my own weeklong writers retreat. This charming fort town is heritage listed by Unesco and you can easily see why.

 From its fortified battlements, its old medina buildings and romantic fishing port, the lick of salt is all over as the sound of the Altantic Ocean follows you wherever you go. It is a windy town in summer I'm told, a factor that brings many visitors here to escape the inland heat. It was autumn when I visited with sunny days struggling to break through the uncharacteristic rain clouds, perfect for writing.

My writer's garrett was a rooftop airbnb room close to the daily market and not far from the port and Scala, the old Portugese fort. My Swedish host Martin was most hospitable and he and his friend Youssef showed me around on my first day and provided plenty of entertainment and diversion at the end of my writing day.

To the south of the town is village called Diabat where Jimi Hendrix once visited in 1969. You can walk there along the beach only you have to find a way to cross the river.

There's an old ruined castle which is said to have given Jimi inspiration for the song Castles Made of Sand, (except for the fact he wrote it two years earlier).

The chorus line goes "And so castles made of sand, fall in the sea, eventually." Seems it was rather prophetic as Jimi himself may have noticed when he walked the beach near the old Portugese battlement which is typically surrounded by waves at high tide.

If you get thirsty after your walk, Diabat village boasts five Jimi Hendrix cafes which seemed pretty much deserted but must get a good run when the local Gnawa Music Festival is on.

 After a few days of solid writing when Sunday came around I decided to take the day off and head to the second hand souk. I had a wonderful time fossicking around rows and rows of Steptoe and Son shacks manned by old men who looked like they slept on fabulous old carpets and armchairs they were selling for a song.

I've decided fossicking is good for writing.. ferreting around in junk and seeing what turns up is a lot like what we do each day at our desks. Picking things up, turning them over this way and that, rummaging through a pile of stuff that looks like garbage but yields a fabulous find at the bottom of the pile. So familiar! Taking yourself away from your desk for a bit and physically rummaging is a lot like the ruminating benefits of cleaning. Scrubbing the floors or the bath, having a big clean out in your office or garage is all good for ordering the mind. A lot of writers fear they may be procrastinating (and they may well be if they keep it up day after day) but I find after such a break, I bounce back to my desk with renewed energy as if I had been at the same time putting the broom through my writing.

Later in the day, sticking to my day off rule, I was randomly googling and came across a residency in Turkey, which is next on my list of countries to visit. I filled out an online application for mau mau residency program and within a few days had my acceptance letter.  You see what a day of fossicking  can turn up. Oh, and I finished my draft of My Mother Duras. Now for the rewrites!

Before Turkey I plan to be back in Essaouira for our Sacred Song Sacred Story retreat in May. I hope you can join us!

Check out this year's creative adventures: Angkor Wat, Bali, Bhutan at