Thursday, April 02, 2015

Emirates Literature Festival - Day 2

 Extreme Adventures: Ted Simon, Mark Evans, Julie Lewis & Richard Parks

It’s been exactly 7 years since I summited one of the world’s highest peaks, Mt. Kilimanjaro, 6 years since I ran a Half-Marathon and, probably, 5 years since I even went camping in the desert. My life, which once read like an adventure handbook filled with solo travels and thrilling escapades, was now a regular domestic chronicle featuring bedtime stories and play dates in between endless chores. No complaints there, but lately I’d begun to question whether I’d erred in jettisoning adventure so completely from my life.

Naturally, I was looking forward to the ‘Extreme Adventures’ session, which featured four hardy travellers, including one woman! I was hoping to vicariously enjoy their adventures, and perhaps, even be inspired again.  

The panelists included Mark Evans, who’d led expeditions in the Arctic, and had kayaked around Oman in 55 days, Julie Lewis, who’d led expeditions in 20 countries, including the Arctic and Antartica, Richard Parks, who’d done the Seven Summits and the three Poles in seven months, and finally, Ted Simon.

Ted Simon - 'Jupiter's Travels'
How do I begin to describe Ted Simon? He set off in the 1970s on a 4-year-long motorbike ride across the world. He did it again 40 years later when he was a septuagenarian. In between those years, he’d kept himself busy walking across Eastern Europe, journeying across the British Isles and pioneering organic agriculture in California! And here he was at a Lit Fest in Dubai, well into his 70s, curiosity, wanderlust and energy still intact. Even before he started speaking, I was impressed.

Simon started out by pointing out that since it was a literary festival, we should examine the words related to travel that are dreadfully misused. “What is travel?” he asked, “Can we term what business people or pilots do as travel? For me, travel is setting out into a world you don’t know.”

He continued, “Another word is adventure. Nowadays it has come to mean any kind of exploit. Whereas I feel the only real adventure is when you set out into the unknown.” He added that there had to be a mental element to adventure, something ‘illuminating’.

Each of the panelists was asked about what drove them to set out on their adventures. Parks shared that the insecurity and uncertainty he felt after an injury forced him out of a promising rugby career drove him to test his limits of his endurance. Lewis shared that as a child she received a globe as a present, and by spinning it and pointing to a place, she would transport herself there. That was what set off the wanderlust in her. “Every child should be gifted a globe,” she remarked, with a laugh. 

All of the panelists were unequivocal about the importance of adventure in life. As Lewis said, “It’s paramount to have an adventurous spirit. In today’s world, there are so many constraints, it’s important to set out. With experiences, come deeper self-understanding and with that comes growth.”

Simon added, “It’s really important to travel, otherwise we’re slaves to media information. People who are really wonderful, but you wouldn’t think so reading the newspapers.”

Speaking of the abundance of travel literature, most panelists agreed that books were a catalyst but couldn’t be considered a substitute for adventure. “The more travel literature there is, there’s less of real experience,” said Simon, adding, “You can’t get lost in the world nowadays,” complained Simon. “It’s all digital. One click of a button and you know exactly where you are.”

Lewis felt that the anxiety that people experience in modern times is because of a disconnect with nature. She urged that people disconnect from their smart devices and go outdoors to discover themselves.

For a couple of the panelists, writing about their exploits proved as equally revelatory as the adventure. As Simon shared, “I’m a writer, not a motorcyclist. I write to explain things to myself.” He also pointed out that there was a difference between exploits that are turned into books and exploits that are undertaken with the hope of them being turned into a bestselling novel.

What’s the most crucial item to have on an extreme adventure? Zips, apparently! Both Evans and Parks put this down on their must-have list, while Simon also added elastic bands.

On the importance of proper planning and preparation, there were two opposing views. Parks, the extreme adventure athlete, believed in extreme planning and manic attention to details. “In my sports career, I was constantly insecure. And at that time, I regarded it as a character flaw. But now, I’ve come to appreciate that it’s the insecurity that drives me to plan every little detail.”

Simon felt that too much preparation was unnecessary. “You have deliver yourself to the world and let it look after you,” he said. He also added that since he didn’t have to return to an office or answer to anyone, he was free to become a part of wherever he was.

Evans had a more moderate view. “The degree of planning depends on whether you’re doing a solo trip or guiding an expedition. For instance, when I led an Arctic expedition with 40 people, we had to all be prepared for the extreme conditions,” he said. The extreme conditions he shared about included four months of darkness, nocturnal visits by polar bears and battles with frostbite. He held up a finger with a blackened tip saying, “Oh, that’s a frostbitten finger, by the way.”

All the panelists were unanimous about the single most important trait to have on an adventure, “Humility,” said Simon, while Evans and Lewis nodded. “And zips,” added Parks. Parks also underlined the importance of living in the moment, saying, “You break records not by brute force, but by living in the moment.”

The hour-long session ended way too soon, and it seemed almost unfair to have four hugely interesting people share a stage, when you could listen to each of them for hours. Still, I left the hall feeling invigorated and open to the possibility of adventure. I might not be found atop a mountain anytime soon, but maybe I’ll make my way up a sand dune, with the little cub in tow.

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Wonderland: Emirates Literature Festival 2015

The last time I attended the Emirates Literature Festivalit was 2010. I was a happy singleton, sashaying from one session to the next, drinking in the wit and wisdom of some very talented and accomplished authors.

Since that event, I acquired a husband, a baby, a home and a whole new to-do list that made attending the annual lit fest impossible. But this year, I decided I would carve out time for myself and attend a few sessions. It was tough choosing from among some very good authors and sessions, but I zeroed in on four sessions over three days. Sessions by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie and Alexander McCall Smith topped the list. There was a session called ‘Extreme Adventures’ about authors who’ve been on thrilling expeditions and lived to write the tale. I also signed up for a session called ‘Illustrating Wonderland’ which featured children’s books illustrators, because of my new interest in kids’ books.

Here are some of the highlights from those sessions:

From Baker-Smith's book, 'Farther'

Day 1: Illustrating Wonderland

·      The theme of the Emirates Lit Fest this year was ‘Wonderland’. I have no idea how it translated across sessions, but it seemed to have a pretty good link to children’s books. The three authors – Grahame Baker-Smith, Satoshi Kitamura and David Tazzyman – were all well-known authors that I hadn’t yet encountered in my toddler's bedtime reading, and I was keen to know more about them and also browse through their books.

·      * There was a muted murmur of approval when Baker-Smith announced in a voice tinged with awe, ‘This is wonderland. Dubai is wonderland. I’ve never been to this part before, but I’m very impressed.’

·      * There’s something subversive about putting three illustrators in a podium and asking them which is more important, words or images. Tazzyman denounced words in favor of images. Zen-like Kitamura appeared to think for a bit before shrugging and saying that he preferred images. The best answer came from Baker-Smith, who said, “I love words, the way they do same and different things.” He also insisted that there was no need to choose between the two, and that both had their own place and purpose.

From Kitamura's book, 'In the Attic'

On hearing his eloquent answer, Tazzyman shot out, “I’d like to change my reply. I think words are important in that they allow a reader to create their own world, a wonderland of sorts, in their mind, whereas images offer the artist’s view of the world.”

Previously, Tazzyman had railed against writers who couldn’t ‘visualise’ the page, who only thought in terms of words and expected the illustrator to create around the words.

·      * ‘Artists think in terms of images. Writers think in terms of words. Poets think in terms of sound.” A beautiful insight from Kitamura, when sharing about how the creative process works for different people.

·      * When asked about their journey towards becoming illustrators, both Tazzyman and Baker-Smith shared that they were thoroughly dissuaded by teachers and authority figures from pursuing their art. “There’s no money in it,” was a common refrain they heard.

·      * On being asked what advice they would give struggling artists, their advice was an unequivocal, “Never, never, never, never give up.”

From the book, 'Eleanor's Eyebrows' by Tazzyman

·      * Mid-way through the session, the moderator thrust a marker at Baker-Smith and asked him to do an illustration on an easel propped on the podium. Although he was taken aback at first, and attempted to joke his way out of the task, he gamely took the marker and made some hesitant strokes. ‘Do a camel,’ said the unabashed moderator. Baker-Smith did a horse instead. A horse leaping over the skyline of Dubai.

He’d illustrated wonderland, after all.