Writing and the Art of Failure

Writing and the Art of Failure

Every act of writing is a declaration of failure. A surrender to the words not written, the thoughts not shaped.


Every act of writing is a statement of defiance. Sundering words from the silence, naming a thing into existence.


As writers, we understand that creation and failure are indelibly intertwined. Every story drags behind it the shadow of the tale not told. It’s an inherent part of the craft and, without failure, there cannot be success.


We need to try. To fail. To fail again. And, in Samuel Beckett’s words, fail better. We need to shape worlds. Name things. Select words. Even the shaven ones that pare a sentence down to silence. And then, we need to try and find a reader to complete the creative circle.


It’s a daunting prospect. For many, it becomes the immovable boulder faced with the impossible hill. But the impetus to keep going, despite the setbacks and the failures, is what distinguishes the authors whose books are delivered into the world.


These are the writers who start again on the completion of every draft. The ones who bin a rejection letter, and write another submission. The ones who don’t give up on their work when it does not fit into publishing trends. The ones who whittle and defend and aspire. These are the authors who have a vision, even when they do not have a plan.


It’s wholly illogical. But to be a writer is to be unhinged. Seeing things that no one else can; and giving voice to the jumble in the head. That messy tangle of words that blurt their way onto the page in a spasm of joy and pain. Whole days, years can be lost to it. Appointments are missed and hours bend to this devotion to crazy. But oh, the fun of putting manners on a sentence!


What follows is another matter: the self-doubt and the void of approbation. The difficulty of sustaining one’s vision in the darkness. Yet, the successful author does not give in when their work does not fit the expectations of an industry that is focused on the bottom line, and not always on the well-crafted one.


Without this tenacity, language, and indeed, thought itself, would not evolve. The writer needs to keep finding fresh ways to pull newness into being. And something Other is not, by its nature, a trend. It’s not in fashion. No one’s reading it. Yet.


Nor will the work find its audience if the writer bows the head and retreats to a safer space, where the world doesn’t judge, and nothing is ventured.


Then there’s the gain. When the leap of faith is taken, and the book is read. Sometimes only by a few people. But, it’s a beginning. An idea taking shape. A new way of engaging with the world.


As a reader, I’m always trying to catch up with the ephemeral thought. Even if it is not fully understood. The one that takes me by surprise; the one that makes me think. It’s the one I want to snatch and examine before it becomes something else.


I have no doubt that many authors, particularly the ones who didn’t slot into a defined genre, or word count, or reader profile and marketing strategy, finally found their niche by simply not giving up. They failed. Repeatedly. And they kept on going.


I’m equally certain there are many great books that remain unread and uncelebrated. Belief was irredeemably shaken; and the drawer was closed on the manuscript. And we are all the poorer for it.


Anna Burns, after winning The Man Booker prize for Milkman in 2018, famously spoke about an invitation she received from a large publishing house she had submitted her manuscript to. She had some talent, they said, and might benefit from one of their writing workshops.


Of course, it was clear she could write. They just didn’t know where she could fit.


The thing is, she didn’t. And that is the beauty of her work. It’s what makes it so special, and what we, as readers, have gained, as a result.


Samuel Beckett, who was crippled by bouts of depression and whose work, at the outset, challenged even the avant garde coterie of the time, developed a philosophy of failure: “Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.”


Murphy, his first novel, accrued dozens of rejections. Simon and Schuster, while recognizing Beckett’s talent, attributed it with “5% appeal.”


Where Joyce was a linguistic projectile, Beckett swallowed back words and sculpted silence. Who, it was argued, would sit through a play in which nothing happened, and the main protagonist never arrived? Still, he kept writing. Even when his audience, as well as his subject, was the void.


My debut novel, Time and the Tree, was deemed to have a magical quality, but was unquestionably odd. It was an accurate assessment, and it didn’t find a home easily. Declan Kiberd described it as, “A genre-busting masterpiece.” A reader on Goodreads.com recently named it “genreless.”


I was delighted with its evasion of a label; and “genreless” struck me as the perfect depiction. It doesn’t fit a publishing category. But it is wholly attuned to this confusing and challenging moment.  Its Otherness allows the reader to approach it with fluidity and imprint their own experiences, memories, failures and aspirations, and find their own meaning from it. The reader creates it in their own image, according to their need and belief, every single time.


The most often given advice to writers is the very sensible and simple one: write. Put words on the page. Hone the skill. Keep crafting and finding one’s voice. What’s omitted is the next step: work through the doubt and the rejection. As you recognize your work’s flaws, be equally aware of its value and celebrate its Otherness. The same book has never been written twice.


Writers don’t wither for want of words, or dearth of readers. They dissolve when they fail to pick themselves up and keep going. This doesn’t require confidence. But it demands some bravery. When the rejection slips pile up, thicken the hide, and go on. Revise. Re-write. Re-submit. Fail better.


(c) Róisín Sorahan


Original publication can be found on Writing.ie

I Can Has Books’ Blog: Review, Giveaway

I Can Has Books’ Blog: Review, Giveaway



For a chance to win a copy of Time and the Tree and to read a review with book reviewer and blogger…


“Time and the Tree is a beautifully written debut. Making the reader reflect on one’s own live and what it means to be alive. We all seek happiness and for many they are chasing after tomorrow without living in the present.”



CelticLady’s Reviews: Guest Review, Giveaway

Celtic Lady’s Reviews



For a chance to win a copy of Time and the Tree and to read a guest review…


‘Time and the Tree,’ by Róisín Sorahan is a book unlike anything I’ve ever read before. This book is somehow both familiar and entirely new. Part fairy tale, part parable, everything about this story glimmers with that keen magical touch that only few such tales possess.


Read the full review at: 


Time and the Tree by Róisín Sorahan: Interview, Giveaway

Time and the Tree by Róisín Sorahan: Interview, Giveaway

For a chance to win a copy of Time and the Tree and to read my interview with book reviewer and blogger, Teddy Rose… 

Read my answers to questions likes: ‘How long did it take you to write this book from concept to fruition?’ or ‘In ‘Time and the Tree’, life and relationships are pondered. Do you have a specific message you would like readers to come away with?’


‘There is no feeling of humanity. People are sick of their lives’

'There is no feeling of humanity. People are sick of their lives'

For the 25,000 living in a square kilometre, the Balata refugee camp is a place of despair and death.

“WHAT MAKES A 16-year-old boy want to kill himself?” asks Mahmoud Subuh, a refugee at Balata camp in the Palestinian West Bank. Subuh is in charge of international relations at the Yafa Cultural Centre, which is run by refugees and works to improve the lives of people in the camp through education.


Balata is notorious for the number of suicide bombers it has spawned since it was first established in 1951 as a temporary refuge for those fleeing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is also one of the most densely populated places on earth.


Some 25,000 people live on 1sq km behind a walled enclosure which was originally a tented site for 5,000 displaced victims. But a solution was not found and no one got to go home.

Mural on the exterior wall that confines Balata refugee camp in the Palestinian West Bank Photographer: Will Chin

I visited the camp, which is run by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) established to carry out relief programmes for Palestinian refugees.


Conditions are grim. The population in Balata has grown 400% in 58 years. As the site could not expand, it shot up. Stark concrete towers have grown like lego block buildings, giving the camp an air of permanence which adds to the sense of hopelessness.


The biggest issue in Balata is lack of space. Between each square tower there’s a narrow passageway – the distance between two tents – that an average sized person could barely squeeze through.


Psychological problems are endemic. Symptoms include bed-wetting and depression. Talking of what it is like to live in Balata, Subuh said: “There is no feeling of humanity. No space to breathe. No moment of truth, quietness or peace. It does not exist in the home, the street, the school. People are sick of themselves. Sick of their lives.”

Buildings in Balata Refugee Camp. Photographer: Will Chin

There’s nowhere for children to play and fights in the home spill onto the street. Facilities are desperately stretched. The school accommodates 6,000 children with class sizes of between 50 and 55 pupils. The clinic has two doctors, yet about 500 people attend every day.


Subuh reckoned 30,000 children have been born in Balata. However, no one belonged there, he said. “People do not consider Balata to be their home. They never lose their sense of origin.”


The children I saw had pale and bruised faces. Violence and tension are daily diets and the boys’ role models are terrorists. Walls are studded with faded posters of young men in military fatigues posing with AK47s, advertising mayhem.


Faded white wreaths hang over doorways of the homes of suicide bombers, some no older than 16 and described by Subuh as “martyrs”.


Balata is located on the outskirts of Nablus, a town which has known some of the fiercest fighting since the start of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The second intifada, which was the second Palestinian uprising under the leadership of Yasser Arafat, broke out towards the end of September 2000 and lasted until 2006. Subuh said it was a brutal time in Balata. Memories of the hardships, deaths and humiliations are sharp in the minds of the camp’s residents. “Two hundred and thirty five people were lost in this intifada alone. Everyone knows everyone so every death impacts the whole camp.”

The camp was also subjected to long-term military curfew, the longest of which lasted for 100 days. Subuh said children could not go to school and families had an allowance of under two hours a day to get supplies and conduct business. Most families in the camp experienced night raids by the Israel Defence Forces (IDF). Subuh estimated 90% of the men in the camp spent time in prison.


While security in the Nablus region has been reduced over the past three years, the threat has not disappeared and the IDF presence is strong. So while the curfew has been lifted, the town of Nablus re­mains locked down. A metal barrier blocks all commuter traffic. Cars and buses deposit travellers at turn-styles, where identification is scrutinised by young, tense soldiers. Connecting transport waits on the other side.

One man said a journey to Ramallah, a one-hour bus ride away from Nablus, had to be planned a week in advance. It involved waiting hours at the check-point both leaving and re-entering.


When asked what he wanted for Balata, Subuh said: “I am hoping for Balata to disappear. For that to happen Israel needs to recognise the ref­ugees’ right to return.” This fundamental right needs political recognition and international support, he says. “Talks may take 100 years, but it needs to start. You start with a corner and start building that, even though there’s an earthquake about you.”


In the meantime and in the absence of a solution for Palestinian refugees, of whom 4.6 million are now registered in the Middle East, the United Nations Assembly has repeatedly renewed UNRWA’s mandate. It was most recently extended until 30 June 2011. For now, Balata camp’s existence is secured and its inhabitants continue to wait.


Article originally published by Sunday Tribune

Mural on the exterior wall that confines the camp. Photographer: Will Chin

Why quitting my job and moving to China was the best thing I ever did

Why quitting my job and moving to China was the best thing I ever did

RÓISÍN SORAHAN packed her bags, dusted off her ‘Teaching English’ cert and headed to the Far East – and hasn’t looked back since.  

WE WERE directed under an ornate red arch which straddled a narrow street that heaved with motor-bikes of all shapes and sizes.


As we wandered the length of the strip, the traders’ faces transformed from dour boredom to full-beam excitement. We weren’t just potential customers; we were the foreigners in town.


Eventually we hovered around one bike long enough to signal the start of negotiations. Our attempts at crash-course Chinese were met by a mixture of emotions. “I’m Irish”, I stumbled in Mandarin. The owner frowned. “I’m an English teacher,” I added. Cue, nodding and laughter. Eventually conversation collapsed into more reliable forms of communication: pointing and gestures.

Róisín, pictured with her students. Photographer: Will Chin

The bike’s loveliness was paraded in front of us as the owner lovingly ran his hands over its body. After a suitable courting period, a price was suggested. We chortled and named our counter-offer. It was clear that we weren’t just making a deal. We were making a connection, and this could not be rushed.


We were in no hurry. Life as an English teacher in China is not a harried affair. We made small talk, drew a crowd and eventually sealed the deal.


For 3,300CNY (€370) we bought ourselves a 100cc bike and two construction worker hats. It was a steal. And, as the engine size fell outside government regulations, we didn’t need to tax it, insure it, or possess a licence to drive it. Ah, China. I had been here just a week, and already I was smitten.


I hadn’t planned to come to China. I had been a fully functioning member of the Irish workforce for 10 years before I did the unthinkable. In 2008, as Ireland teetered on the edge of economic atrophy, I quit a perfectly good job to squander my fortune and travel the world.


Two years later, curtailed by the necessity of having to stand still long enough to earn more money, I dusted off the Teaching English as a Foreign Language (TEFL) cert I had acquired on a whim back in 1998, and headed to China with my partner, an American IT programmer.

The Great Wall, at Jinshanling. Photographer: Will Chin

But I was entranced by the idea of travelling in China and considered the opportunity to learn its language and culture an added enticement.


Hénán wasn’t an obvious choice. While it’s home to the Shaolin Temple and four of the eight ancient capitals, its political and cultural influence has long since diminished. It’s considered a backward, rural centre and its contemporary claim to notoriety is that it recently passed the 100 million inhabitant mark, making it China’s most populated region. Where better place, we figured, to peep behind the curtain and see what was really going on?


We arrived in Hénán, the central province, four months ago with contracts to teach English at a private university. I hadn’t set foot in a classroom since my college days and I had never envisaged myself standing at the top of one.

The university that hired us is located on the outskirts of a small town of 800,000 people in this region. A mere hamlet, by Chinese standards, it’s unaccustomed to tourists and its primary contact with Westerners is through its tiny community of foreign teachers.


Most people we meet make the default assumption that every Westerner is American and mere mention of Ireland can be cause for head-scratching. Though one 10-year-old recently leaned across the table, “Can I tell you a sad story?” he asked. I nodded. “Ireland is in big trouble.”


All the students and most of the employees live on the university’s campus. There’s no drinking and no smoking in the college. No religion and no politics in the class-room. There’s no Facebook and there’s no nonsense.


The students are drilled with a strong work and reward ethos, most pronounced in the children of farmers who have scraped together their life’s savings to send their off-spring to college. “Having fun would be a waste of time,” one student assures me.


They also have a strongly cultivated sense of national pride. Both the students and college authorities are anxious that our experience of China is positive. We are given every assistance and great latitude. Our two-bed apartment is palatial in comparison with those of our Chinese colleagues and we’ve just 18 teaching hours per week.

This ethos is mirrored outside the compound walls. People’s overwhelming curiosity about us is tempered by a sense of responsibility towards us. We are constantly stared at and wondered about. However, stand still for a moment and someone will step up to welcome us to China. And if assistance can be given, it is willingly offered.


Without the key to the language and the culture of China, there’s no way to navigate the country without the kindness of strangers. It’s humbling, it’s exciting but, for many, the culture shock can be unnerving. One English teacher wearily explained: “As a foreigner you’re always stared at. You can never blend in. You can’t have a quiet meal anywhere. People always come up and talk to you.”

Entrance to the ancient walled city of Luoyang. Photographer: Will Chin

What’s more, the simplest tasks can become mammoth undertakings. My first attempt to buy train tickets was demoralising. I was faced with an empress doling tickets like favours. She pointed to the time schedule. I couldn’t crack the code. She rattled off something. I couldn’t catch a word. She started to shout at me, though hearing wasn’t my issue. The queue jostled and the guillotine fell. With a wave of her hand, I was dismissed.


It’s confusing, certainly, but it’s the differences that make living in China so interesting. While guilty Western pleasures are abundant in big cities, in small towns they’re in short supply. I’m daily wooed by foods I’m sampling for the first time. Some, granted, are an acquired taste, but I can now brandish chopsticks, spear dumplings and slurp a bowl of 4CNY (€0.5) noodles like a local.


Food is washed down with tea or Báijiu — a gut-warming, 60% steel-proof liquor. Báijiu is the centre-piece of every party and the lead singer at KTV karaoke clubs.


It’s a necessary blow-out to the sobriety of daily life. China means business, literally. Cranes dot the sky-line and buildings are flung up with astonishing speed.


Everywhere I look, people are moving out of their rut. The middle-classes are expanding and black sedan cars speeding towards the province capital have become the new symbols of an aspiring nation. Without the language, I can still read the signals. China is on the cusp of another beginning.


These are thrilling times for the People’s Republic. It’s a country on the brink of economic stardom and it’s anxious to prepare the new generation for its role in the world market-place.


With 25 million university students clamouring to learn, this English teacher and traveller is being offered front-row seats to the show.


Article originally published by Irish Independent

The world at my feet

The World at My Feet: Solo Travel in Central and South America

GO SOLO: RÓISÍN SORAHAN had a good job and a comfortable life. Then she decided she could grow old very quickly waiting for the perfect man to show her the world. So she took a break from work – and it has changed her life.  

MY GUT DECIDED that I was going travelling long before my head agreed.


I was in my early 30s. I had a very comfortable life, with a good job in PR and a mortgage on a house. My life was safe and predictable. It would have been so easy not to go.


But you could grow old very quickly sitting on the sofa, waiting for the perfect man to show you the world. This time last year I was single, curious and bored. The only things that would stand in the way of my leaving were my old buddies, fear and self-doubt.


Of course my head put up a good fight. I told myself that I had good friends, a close family and an everlasting mortgage, but my gut was relentless. It became impossible to stay.

Carving a boat from a tree in a coastal village in Honduras. Photographer: Will Chin

Once the decision was made, it was fairly easy. I negotiated a five-month leave of absence from work and booked a flight to Belize. It’s English-speaking, on the Caribbean, and I thought it would be an easy introduction to Latin America.


I had no idea what to expect, and the only plan I made in advance was to book a four-day trek to Machu Picchu, in Peru, to arrive at the hidden city on St Stephen’s Day.


I loaded my backpack with travel guides for Central and South America and left Ireland on a grey October morning with a vague certainty that I would figure it all out when I got there. I was nervous, but I promised myself before I left that I would pour myself into this adventure. I remembered what my aunt, another dreamer, had said to me some years before: “It’s important to live life as well as read about it.”


I figured that I would pick up Spanish along the road and made an unconscious effort not to overthink what I was doing. Had I dwelled on the fact that I was planning to travel solo through a continent that spoke little English, was renowned for its machismo and was a world away from my experiences, I might never have gone at all.


I spent my first few days on Caye Caulker, an island that is no more than an eight-kilometre stretch of white sand off the coast of Belize. There are lots of hostels and small family-run hotels on the island, and transport is on foot, by golf cart or by bike; the dress code is T-shirts, shorts and bare feet.


It is still home to a community of Rastafarians, who idle by the sea, smoking sweet-scented spliffs, or line the main street, tempting girls with soft glances and cajoling lines.


A woman travelling alone is seen as easy prey, but having survived the Leeson Street strip it hardly cost me a thought. My senses blossomed in the sun as I eased myself into a different way of living. I took the earphones out and, instead of walking on grey Dublin pavements, was open to all the rhythms of the Caribbean.


One evening I joined a group of travellers for dinner on the beach. It was a mixed group of nationalities, including the funniest American I had ever met and an English man bloated by his Belize investments. The food was lush, but I wasn’t in the mood for the boozing and dancing that the night was heading towards, so I made my excuses and faced into the elements with the naivety of one who hadn’t yet met a tropical rainstorm.


I was instantly drenched as the sky opened. I took cover under a canopy where I was soon joined by the local barber, whose shop was just across from my shelter. He was beautiful, poised, and he offered me a beer.


Lesley, he told me, was his family name. More importantly, he was the island’s only barber. By this, he had me believe, he was a man of some substance.


Conversation wandered, and I had to weave my way out of an entanglement that included talk of night swims, boat rides and the barber travelling with me to Guatemala. I was alone, in control and in my element. The night ended with his giving me a lift home on the crossbar of his bike as he silently reproached me for refusing to join his escapades.

Róisín pictured on the Inca Trail – just one day from the Hidden City. Photographer: Will Chin

I left the island and made my way inland. As the bus pulled into San Ignacio, a frontier town on the edge of the rainforest, I glimpsed an old man with the longest dreadlocks I had ever seen. They were piled in a nest on his head. For five Belizean dollars, or less than €2, you could have a picture taken with him. Cough up 10 dollars, or about €3.75, and the Rasta Rapunzel would let his locks down.


The town is a tumble of streets, lined with quare hawks. Ramshackle hostels with broken balconies look as if they have been hastily built of Lego; backpackers stroll from one adventure merchant to the next, lured by night-time hikes, horse-riding adventures, white-water rafting and caving explorations. I didn’t linger, preferring to leave the clatter behind. I booked into Black Rock Lodge, in the heart of the wilderness, perched above the Macal River.


My cabin was beautiful. It was hard to tell where the rainforest ended and my retreat began, with its flagstone floors and scattered wild flowers. The lush green canopies had been pushed back just enough to make room for a hammock under my porch.


Next I went to Guatemala, taking a taxi to the border – and, after the relative safety of Belize, emerging in a shock of confusion.

The border crossing was chaotic. My confidence was swamped by a wave of street hawkers, van drivers and money changers, hands thick with notes. I was bombarded by traders, speaking in Spanish and seeking my business. But I made three good decisions. I listened to the youth who I had initially thought was trying to steer me towards his taxi, when in truth he was herding me to a dilapidated hut to get my passport stamped. I responded with a smile when I heard the funniest American I had met in Caye Caulker bellow “Hey, Ireland” as he sat on the side of the street, taking stock in the heat before he found an onward ride. And I wavered for no more than a moment when a Peruvian man who had spotted me stumble bewildered across the line pulled up beside me in his red van and offered me a lift to Flores.


Of course you should never take a lift from strangers. But my world was a stranger, and I had to trust my gut. My gut was perched in the back of the van on a cluster of boxes, laughing its head off with the American and getting its first Spanish lessons from our driver, Mario. After sharing the lift we found our paths moving in the same direction for several weeks.


We went our separate ways again, unsure when, where or even if we would meet again. My journey led me to the strangest and most wonderful of places. I toasted marshmallows in the crater of a volcano in Guatemala. I travelled many kilometres in local chicken buses, with shaven tyres and impossibly heavy loads. I saw the blue- footed booby, a comic-book bird, on the Galapagos Islands and was tempted by the captain of our beautiful boat, who offered marriage and a lifetime of sunsets.


I perched above the freezing clouds at Quilotoa Laguna, a hidden green gem high in the Andes in Ecuador. I slept in a mud hut in an oasis in the mountains and rose at 3am to hike to the peak to see condors soaring at dawn. I encountered magic at the Witches’ Market in La Paz, in Bolivia.


In Bolivia I also travelled on some of the worst routes I have ever encountered; one 320km journey took 31 hours. We took our chances and crossed swollen rivers in a battered bus that smelled of raw meat.


There were no bridges, and it wasn’t uncommon for a bus to flip in a flood or to get wedged in knee-deep muck. When it happened, bags drifted down the river and people waited patiently until they were rescued by passing commuters.


I acquired a broken form of Spanish that helped me to unravel the stories of the people who helped me along my way, showing me that people want to help you to enjoy your travels in their country.


Before I left Ireland I figured I would find places that would seduce me into lingering. But I discovered that I was seldom happier than when my nose was pressed against the window of a bus. Many kilometres were covered in the company of strangers.

But many more were spent with the American, whom I met again in Peru and who become a part of my story, wandering with me through South America and, later, back to Ireland before his travels led him on again to Africa.


I learned more in those five months than I had in years. Some of it was about the sort of life I want to lead and some about the type of person I want to become. I remembered what it was like to be a child, to live in the moment and delight in seeing the new for the first time.


I returned to Ireland with the certainty that I was blessed. I saved hard, quit my job and booked a one-way ticket to the Tanzanian island of Zanzibar, where I will meet the American and continue the adventure.

The Witches Market in La Paz, Bolivia. Photographer: Will Chin

Go There


Delta Airlines (www.delta. com) flies from Dublin and Shannon to Belize with a stopover in Atlanta.


American Airlines (www.americanairlines.ie) flies from Dublin and Shannon to Belize with a stopover in Miami.


Where to start if you’re thinking of making your own trip


Travelling solo


Travel light. You might have to fling your backpack on to the roof of a chicken bus or walk a couple of kilometres before you catch a ride.


Ditch half your toiletries. Shampoo is a great substitute for shower gel, shaving foam and washing powder.


Dress appropriately. As a person travelling alone, you’re sure to get noticed anyway.


Getting from place to place is a big part of the adventure. Aim to arrive early in the day and, if taking a night bus, find a direct one that doesn’t pick up stragglers along the way.


When you arrive in a new district, check out where’s safe to wander before you venture out alone.


Keep a safe stash of emergency cash. With luck you’ll get to spend it at the airport on the way home.


Don’t be a pushover. Find a polite but firm way of saying no.


Be sensible, not suspicious. Most people want you to have a wonderful experience in their country.


Invent an imaginary boyfriend or girlfriend – Jane Austen fans should have no problem there.


Trust your gut. You’ll end up in places you had never planned and avoid those you should never go to.


Where to stay


Tom’s Hotel. Caye Caulker, Belize, 00-501-226-0102, www.toucantrail.com/Toms- Hotel.html. A functional and clean budget hotel with a beat-up dock facing the sea. The basic cement structure is softened by the family-run atmosphere.


Black Rock Lodge. PO Box 121, San Ignacio, Cayo Belize, 00-501-820-4049, www.blackrocklodge.com. Idyllically perched above the Macal River, this eco lodge is situated in the midst of lush rainforest. If you manage to uncurl from your hammock, onsite activities include horse riding, caving, river tubing and night hiking.


La Castellana Hostel. Luis Cordero 10-47 y Gran Colombia, Cuenca, Ecuador 00-593-7-2827293, www.cuenca.com.ec. A pretty hotel with street-facing balconies and brightly lit rooms. Cuenca, known as the Athens of Ecuador, is a great spot for anyone interested in art and music.


Rumi Wilco Eco Lodge and Nature Reserve. Vilcabamba, Ecuador, www.rumiwilco.com. Rumi Wilco is a self-sustaining conservation project run by Orlando and Alicia Falco. In addition to limited accommodation, the reserve offers volunteer opportunities ranging from one week to three months.


Hotel Fuentes. Calle Linares 888, La Paz, Bolivia, www.hostelbookers.com. A comfortable hotel located in the Witches’ Market. Street stalls are lined with potions and charms, as well as odder offerings, such as llama foetuses and preserved frogs.


Where to go


Chichicastenango, in Guatemala, is a centre of Mayan culture and worship. It also hosts one of Latin America’s most colourful weekly markets, where I stumbled on a Mayan ceremony that was presided over by four shamans and included a lot of incense and the blood sacrifice of a chicken.


Ecuador Verde Pais. Calama E6-19 y Reina Victoria, Quito, Ecuador, 00-593-02-2220614, www.cabanasjamu.com. A locally based tour operator providing trips to the Amazon jungle. I visited the Cuyabeno Reserve, in the northeast of Ecuador, where I caught and was bitten by a piranha.


The Galapagos Islands, more than 900km off the coast of Ecuador, are home to a bewildering mix of species. Avoid large cruise liners when visiting the islands for a more rewarding and ecologically friendly experience. Tours can be arranged by Ecuador Verde Pais (see previous entry).


Saquisili, which is located high in the Andes, is as off the beaten track as the most adventurous could wish for. I couldn’t find accommodation with running water, but I did find my way to the Thursday animal market.


The four-day Inca Trail is a magical adventure, where the journey really is as important as the destination. The Peruvian government is limiting the number of people who can hike the trail at any one time, so it’s best to book well in advance. Gap Adventures (www.gadventures.com) provide a good service with knowledgeable guides.


Colca Canyon, in southern Peru, is one of the largest canyons in the world, and visitors flock to the Mirador Cruz del Condor to catch sight of the mythical condor soaring from its depths. Numerous tour companies, operating in Arequipa, organise three-day mountain hikes through the area.


It is estimated that silver mining in Potosi, in Bolivia, has resulted in the deaths of nine million people over three centuries. A tour of the working mine can be organised a day in advance from any of the operators in the town; it will include a trip to the miners’ market to pick up gifts of dynamite, cigarettes and alcohol for the miners.


The landscape of the Salar de Uyuni and the Reserva Eduardo Avaroa, in Bolivia, ranges from salt plains to snow-capped peaks and glacial lakes stained red or green from mineral deposits. Four-day tours can be easily booked in Uyuni. Ask late and the day before for a last-minute deal.


Perito Moreno, in Argentinian Patagonia, is one of the world’s most impressive glaciers. A hike on the glacier is rounded off with a nip of whiskey, served on ice.


Where to eat


El Patio. San Alberto 18, Sucre, Bolivia. Sucre is renowned for its saltenas– lush meats wrapped in filo pastry, best eaten with a spoon to catch the juice. El Patio serves the best I tasted, on a beautiful colonial patio filled with bougainvillea.


Cuy– guinea pig roasted whole, teeth and claws included – is an Ecuadorian speciality that is very popular among the indigenous Indians living in the mountains. I came across the creature in many local huts that served as eateries.


Ecuadorian soup, served typically in the markets in the highlands, is as rich and wholesome as any Irish stew. Ingredients can vary from chicken claws to potato, corn and avocado.


Parilla 1880. Defensa 1665, San Telmo, Buenos Aires, Argentina, 00-54-11-43051746. A meat lovers’ paradise, it’s an extremely good grill with a bohemian feel. The rump steak and chips will keep your mouth watering for days.


Article originally published by The Irish Times

In search of Shangri-La

In Search of Shangri-La

GO FEEDBACK: A townland in southwest China has changed its name from Zhongdiàn to Shangri-La. A shameless marketing ploy? Certainly. Is it working? Absolutely, writes RÓISÍN SORAHAN.

SHANGRI-LA. The name rolls around your tongue like a ripe plum. A fabled destination, described in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, it has been luring travellers to the mountains for almost eight decades.


Some claimed it was located in the KunLun Mountains in Tibet; others touted the Hunza Valley in Pakistan. Then in 2001 a small town in China’s southwest Yúnnán Provence elbowed aside its contenders and changed its name from Zhongdiàn. Shangri-La, it claimed, was found and it re-named its townland accordingly.


A shameless marketing ploy? Certainly. Is it working? Absolutely.

“The Famous Dr Ho” pictured outside his herbal medicine clinic in the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain. Photographer: Will Chin

That Hilton never visited China is irrelevant. It’s believed that he was greatly influenced by the writings of the Austrian-American eccentric scholar, botanist and adventurer Dr Joseph Rock, who lived in southwest China for 27 years and extensively published the findings of his expeditions in National Geographic.


Rock was based in Yúnnán Provence on the outskirts of Lijiang, a town which is now a Unesco site and approximately 170kms from the alleged fabled valley.


I decided to explore this region of China, inhabited by some 25 ethnic minority groups, catalogued by Rock and, if we’re to believe the stories, mythologised by Hilton.


I arrived in Lijiang on a cold January morning. Jade Dragon Snow Mountain towered above the old town’s cobbled lane-ways, which were intersected by canals, arced by stone crescent bridges and canopied by slate-tiled roofs.


It was achingly perfect, until the sun rose and the town chirped into life. Every building was transformed into a shop-front for tourist trinkets. Naxi women, from the local minority group, arrived in traditional garb. Their men, wearing fur capes, wheeled ponies into the centre square for photo opportunities. Excited tourists swarmed the lanes and cameras clicked at breakneck speed.


Escaping the fray I hopped on a mini-bus to the unspoiled village of Báisha, which is located in the folds of the Jade Dragon Mountains.

Róisín overlooking the Yangtze River, which runs through Tiger Leaping Gorge. Photographer: Will Chin

I ambled slowly, over-taking pecking hens and old folk playing mahjong, a traditional Chinese game, before reaching the doorway I had been searching for.


As I hovered at the threshold, a figure peered from behind a desk, bundled in layers, topped by a worn blue pharmacist’s coat. “Welcome, welcome. I am The Most Admired Man.” Rheumy eyes watered above a shredded grey goatee. I stepped forward, hand extended, “Dr Ho, I presume.”


“Ah, you’ve heard of me,” he nodded as he ushered me into his small herbal medicine clinic, walls cluttered with cuttings from travel magazines and scientific journals lauding “The Famous Dr Ho” in circus-style declamations.

The Taoist shaman, who studied with the legendary Rock, was first catapulted to fame by the British writer Bruce Chatwin when he passed this way in 1986. A humble man, his life has changed little for all the attention.


Pre-empting my questions he handed me bundles of e-mails from students, patients and journalists from all over the world. These included offers to translate his biography; pleas from agents to “package” herbal study programmes; and correspondence from patients he had successfully treated in his mountain clinic.


More tourists arrived as I flicked through the pile and he performed like a pro in front of the cameras. “Look at me,” he smiled. “I’m 88 years old. My skin is that of a baby.” He pulled at his cuff to show off a white wrist. His secret to health? “Don’t worry, be happy.”


Armed with his advice I climbed aboard a bus heading to Qiaotao. From there I aimed to hike through Tiger Leaping Gorge, where the Yangtze River flows between Haba Mountain and Jade Dragon Snow Mountain, before following the road a further 50km to the fabled destination.

Hiking along the gorge’s upper trail I passed through Naxi villages, terraced farmland, under waterfalls and along the cliff face with beautiful views of the canyon that rises 2,000m.


Traders dotted the path peddling oranges and donkeys for the weary. For all that, it was a peaceful trek with lovely views that got even better on the second day when the trail levelled and mist drifted through the gorge like a scene from a traditional Chinese painting.


Returning to the lower road, I made my way back to Qiaotao to catch the last bus to Shangri-La, which is located close to the Tibetan border at an altitude of 3,200m.

Naxi women from the local minority group flood Lijiang’s central square where they join in traditional dancing. Photographer: Will Chin

The bus was crowded with travellers from Lijiang. We gained ground slowly and the chatter was relaxed. Then, at a sharp bend, the bus stumbled. Passengers fluttered like birds before a flight.


The driver yelled into his phone and words criss-crossed the bus: the upper passes were blocked with snow. Shangri-La could not be reached. Heads shook slowly as the bus laboured through a painful u-turn.


Shangri-La’s inaccessibility has always been its greatest allure. It hovers on the edge of fantasy and belief – both mythical and potentially attainable. For the wanderer it represents a place so beautiful that there’s no turning back and no going onward.


Whether Shangri-La (or Zhongdiàn) is in fact the end of the road, or a ploy to net the checklist tourist, remains a mystery. The facts dissolve when stirred into a good story.


Get there


Airlines which fly from Dublin to Beijing include klm.com, britishairways.com, airfrance.com, airchina.com, and turkishairlines.com. There are flights from Beijing to Lijiang Airport. See elong.com for discount offers on local airlines.


Article originally published by The Irish Times

What a wonderful world

What a Wonderful World

Following a huge public poll, the seven new wonders of the world were announced, replacing the old list of wonders (of which only one remains). RÓISÍN SORAHAN visited them all.

IN 2001 A CAMPAIGN was launched to update the list to a modern catalogue. The Swiss-based New7Wonders Foundation organised a public poll. It drew, they said, more than 100 million internet and telephone votes worldwide. The new wonders were announced in July 2007. They span cultures and continents. The oldest dates to 6,000 BC; the youngest was erected in 1931.


Over the past few years I have visited each one. They are incredible places, beautiful and unconnected, save for their transformation through the popular imagination into icons of the ages.


The Colosseum


The thing about icons is that your impressions are formed long before you ever meet them.

Machu Picchu, The Lost City of the Incas. Photographer: Will Chin

The Colosseum has graced millions of postcards, hosted luminaries such as Ray Charles and is indelibly tied to the rakish Russell Crowe.


As I turned a corner in the bustling centre of Rome, I thought I knew what to expect. But the incongruity of the cars, touts and tourists teeming around the star of the Roman empire stopped me in my tracks. I was prepared for a remote, standoffish edifice, but it thrummed with modern-day drama.


The structure, 48m high and with seating for 50,000 people, was completed in AD 80 under the reign of Titus. It hosted mock sea battles, exotic animal hunts and gladiatorial displays that trumpeted the empire’s reach and sophistication to a tiered audience that mirrored the stratified nature of Roman society. When the realm collapsed it stood its ground, retaining its status as the empire’s magnum opus.


Machu Picchu


The journey almost eclipsed the destination. I hiked four days along the Inca trail to reach the hidden city of the Incas in the Andes mountains in Peru.


It was a magical adventure along an ancient route, dotted with Inca ruins and heart- stopping views. As I reached the Sun Gate, I was blessed with a clear view of the city.


Macchu Picchu was built in the 15th century in the classic Inca style, with polished dry stone blocks cut and perfectly fitted without the use of mortar. The surrounding slopes leading to the city were steeply terraced, which increased agricultural capacity and strengthened defences.


It was constructed for the Inca emperor, Pachacuti, and was inhabited for just 100 years. Many archaeologists believe it was also a religious site – borne out by its location in mountains held sacred by the Incas.


Chichen Itza


It was a toss-up between culture and cocktails, so it was with a sense of virtue that I peeled myself off a sun lounger in Cancún and on to a bus to Chichen Itza.


My companion had visited the ancient Mayan ruins in 1993, and told tales of scampering over and into the pyramids. However, after a fatal fall in 2006, the barriers came up and visitors have since been kept at a safe distance.


Despite the remove, the experience was fascinating, though the site’s accessibility via Mexico’s main tourist resort has both increased the footfall and diminished the atmosphere.

Al-Kahzneh, known as "The Treasury", in the ancient city of Petra. Photographer: Will Chin

Chichen Itza rose to prominence in about AD 600. Today the compound contains a network of sacred structures that showcase the social and spiritual practices of the Mayan people. Most impressive is the central stepped pyramid that casts a shadow of the plumed god Quetzalcoatl at the spring and autumn equinoxes.




A narrow gorge carved out of sandstone is the only and unlikely entrance to the ancient city of Petra, the capital of the Nabataean people, which was built in 6,000 BC in Jordan’s desert mountains. It was once a thriving commercial hub. The area is susceptible to flash floods, and so the feat was achieved through its ingenious water management system, which created an artificial oasis in its fortress setting.


My first glimpse of the city was through the shaft of the rose-coloured corridor that opened up on Al Khazneh, one of the most elaborate buildings in the ancient city, elaborately carved into the rock face.


The desert basin led to a rock-hewn amphitheatre, carved tombs, cobbled roads and Byzantine mosaics.


It was like stepping into a lost world. Jagged peaks and patterned stones shaped the city along the lines of a Gaudi garden. Beautiful, remote and utterly unreal.

The Taj Mahal


The train journey from Delhi to Agra was a free-for-all pile-up, with people, hot and docile, crammed in like beasts to the slaughter.


Limp from the hustle and heat, I wondered if it could possibly be worth it.


At dawn the next day I passed under the Great Gate and caught my first glimpse of the Taj Mahal: a cool pink pearl lit by the early morning light.


Women in saris clustered like butterflies above the runway of water that reflected the perfectly proportioned, translucent mausoleum.

The Taj Mahal at sunrise. Photographer: Will Chin

This exercise in beauty and balance was built in the 17th century as a love lament to the passing of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died giving birth to their 14th child.


Folly over function, it remains an homage to the skills of the architects, engineers, sculptors, calligraphers and stone masons who laboured for 20 years over this magnificent memorial.


The Great Wall, China


The head and tail of the snake are so far apart that it’s hard to believe they belong to the same beast. The Great Wall stretches 8,852km from China’s east coast to the Gobi desert in the northwest.


Construction began following China’s unification under the first Qin Emperor, Shi Huang Di (221-206 BC). More than 300,000 indentured labourers toiled for 10 years to connect barriers erected by individual kingdoms to keep out invaders.

Over successive dynasties, sections of the wall crumbled while others were enhanced. Ultimately the wall’s function as a line of defence failed against the Mongols, led by Genghis Khan.


While China fell the wall stood, serving as a passageway across the mountains for people and equipment. Increasingly, however, it was plundered in parts until it was rescued by the tourist industry.


I visited the Mùtiányù section of the wall, about 90km northeast of Beijing, which was restored during the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). It is at a strategically important pass, and the wall slithers across steep mountain ridges.

The Great Wall of China. Photographer: Will Chin

Christ the Redeemer


Christ the Redeemer is a little like the Mona Lisa. Wherever you move in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it seems to be watching you. In a city of 16 million people, it was a comfort having something to watch over me.


This symbol of peace was completed in 1931 and erected on Corcodova mountain, overlooking the city.


At just over 39m tall, it’s the second-largest art deco statue in the world. (The largest is in Bolivia.) It is made of concrete, to support the outstretched arms, and coated in soapstone, for its beauty and durability.


I reached the summit on a cog train, then followed the steps to the plinth. Having climbed the beanstalk, it was difficult to get a sense of the neck-craning scale of the statue. It towered over the city, bay, mountains and ocean.


Obligatory picture taken, I couldn’t help but let my own eyes wander.


* Voting is underway until November 11th to decide the New 7 Wonders of Nature.


Cast your vote at new7wonders.com


Seven new wonders


Colosseum (Rome, Italy). Classical period of Ancient Rome, completed AD 80.


Taj Mahal (Agra, India). Mughal empire, 17th Century.


Petra (Jordan). Nabataean kingdom of classical antiquity, 6000 BC.


Machu Picchu (Peru). The Incas, 15th century.


Chichen Itza (Mexico). Mayan civilisation, AD 600.


Christ the Redeemer (Rio de Janeiro, Brazil). Built 1931.


The Great Wall, China. Building began sporadically in the period 403-221 BC; connected under Qin dynasty (221-206 BC); major restoration during Ming dynasty (1368-1644).


Seven ancient wonders


Great Pyramid of Giza (Egypt). About 2560 BC.


Hanging Gardens of Babylon (Iraq), about 604-562 BC.


Statue of Zeus (Olympia, Greece). About 430 BC.


Temple of Artemis (Turkey). About 550 BC.


Mausoleum of Halicarnassus, Turkey. About 351 BC.


Colossus of Rhodes (Greece). From about 280 BC.


Lighthouse of Alexanderia (Egypt). About 280 BC.

The Great Pyramid, flanked by the Sphinx. Photographer: Will Chin

The sole standing ancient wonder


The Great Pyramid of Giza The oldest and sole remaining ancient wonder of the world. Sealed in popular imagination as one of the seven wonders, no one was ready to give it up – least of all the Egyptian government, which lobbied against the new-wonders initiative. In response, the New7Wonders Foundation, which drove the poll, removed it from the voting, declaring it an “honorary candidate”.


Article originally published by The Irish Times