Updated: Oct 15
It was 2010, and I'd been invited to teach a class in Sri Lanka. It looked beautiful, and the wonderful thing was I could bring the family.
I'm not great at flying; I find it terrifying, and it's worse to fly with all of the family because if anything happened, we would all go together, and as it was my decision to fly, it would all be my fault.
Putting my terrors behind me and gripping the plane seat the whole way, we arrived safely. A wall of heat and humidity hit us as we waited for the minibus. Straight away, I thought, 'what have I done? I can't teach in this heat.'
Our accommodation was a 5-hour drive south along roads where the biggest vehicle wins the road, mopeds, cows, and people held the least power, and though it was an interesting drive, it was hairraising. I would have been more scared if we hadn't just been on a terrifying ten and a 1/2 hour flight. The road journey was, I think, part of our acclimatisation. By the time we arrived at the venue, we were actually very excited, exhausted but feeling the thrill of travelling so far from what to us was familiar.
I won't go into the class and venue here, but I will say that my students were excellent and the accommodation was not, it was nothing like the advertisement brochure. It was a private house, and the owners had invited me to run the class to paint some of the 60 plus native orchids that grew in Sri Lanka, so we had all expected to have at least four or so exquisite orchids to study and paint. One sad-looking specimen sat on an outside table. The owners told us they were so expensive that only one orchid would be available. At this moment, I also discovered that we would be sitting outside to paint!
We managed, but the days were hot and sticky, and I felt the students deserved air conditioning and decent mosquito nets at the minimum.
We had all thought it would be glamorous, but it wasn't.
There is a lot more to this story, but the main event for me outside of the class was the day trip to the rain forest.
We were supposed to be there for two weeks, and every Wednesday was a day off for a trip somewhere. All four of my family were excited about the journey to the forest. It would be a walk to a forest lake and waterfall. I was barely coping with the heat, but we set off early for a 2-hour drive, and I thought, "I can cope. It will be cool in the forest.'
By the time we arrived, the sun was in full force, and there was a 1-hour walk with no shade to the start of the trail. We soon forget the comforting relief of the shade, as our guide took a moment to inform us about the leeches. Back at the house, we had been told to wear long trousers and perhaps sport some leach leggings, which we didn't own.
I hate leeches. I didn't know this at the start of the walk.
It was the Sinharaja forest reserve and truly beautiful. I saw trees that I had only seen in books and seeds the size of your fist and huge moss-covered vines that were the size and width of oak trees! Sadly we didn't see any wild orchids, as they are stolen from their habitat for their monetary value, and of course, they are slow to recover. It was an honour to see such a variety of plants so uncommon to our experience. We saw wild pepper and giant endemic liana, as well as plenty of spiders and snakes, none of which bothered me.
I fell behind our small group to look closely at some leaves.
Then a slight tickle inside the top of my trainers led me to realise that the fine pin holes in the top of the shoe were, in fact, big enough for leeches to find their way inside.
I screamed and jumped and yelped, then pleaded for help.
'They are in my shoes! In my shoes, help, get them out, GET THEM OUT!'
In a mess of sweaty, hot panic, I jumped about in tears of fear.
To say I was panicking is an understatement.
Our excellent and patient guide tipped salt on my sneakers and helped me calm down while my husband and two boys fell about laughing.
It was not funny.
I hate leeches. It is the way they wave about and then flick themselves at you. UGhhh.
We eventually made it to the pool and swam in delightful bliss until crowds of Sri Lankans on a national holiday picnic gathered around to watch these funny pale Brits floating about in the water.
Then the hot walk back and this time through the tea plantations where the foul leeches set upon the boys, somehow they didn't find it funny anymore. It was another hour's walk from the forest to the visitor centre, where we ate the most delicious curry, and then the 2-hour drive back to the villa. Sitting on the bus, I said to Simon and the boys, "I had an idea that I could be an artist who sets out to find the moon orchid; this I could do, but for the leeches.'
Sadly, all my scanned photographs of this holiday disappeared in a computer crash. I keep hoping to find them on a random memory card someday. Below is the one painting that remains from my trip and one which I have used to make into and envelope
Orchid envelope Ⓒ Billy Showell
Our trip concluded, the volcanic ash from Iceland grounded all flights, and we were stranded there for another week. We could, at the time, ill-afford a week of lost income, but with time passing, it all remains a good, if exhausting, memory. It taught me an important lesson that I am not naturally intrepid.
I think the recent and possibly continuing heatwave has brought forward memories of uncomfortable situations. Being pale and a bit useless in the heat, I find it hard to pick up the brush and find it awe-inspiring to imagine the various explorers through history, travelling in peril to discover new species and recording their findings.
It seems ironic that the very nature of plotting the planet's hidden plant treasures has led to much of its exploitation. Though we like to think our knowledge will save it, I feel slightly pessimistic when so of it much can be monetised.
Botanical illustration is one way of recording, bringing attention, and focusing on all the earth's botanical treasures. Many botanists and action groups have raised awareness and managed to protect some areas. It may seem futile when many forests worldwide are threatened by destruction and fire. We can but try to reduce our footprint and put back what we can, we can try; I always live in hope.
So here, back at mine, we try not to fly if we can avoid it; we try to plant to encourage wildlife and try very hard to fit all our weekly errands onto one or two car trips. I pack my parcels in recycled card and try to limit the plastic in all my packaging for my little store.
Being aware is one thing but acting on it daily is complex and unfamiliar in modern ways of living.
It is funny how events can be more memorable when things go wrong on a trip. If you put me in charge of organising any event, you may end up anywhere and on the wrong day and wearing the wrong shoes. My planning does lead to some strange happenings, ask my kids.
I am the worst at arranging or booking anything. Ask my poor ever-patient husband and friends, they will tell you I am a notoriously useless secretary. It is why I refuse to book anything on my own. I cajoul my nearest and dearest to book for me, that way I know I will arrive on the right day and be at the right place.
I would love another funny travel story to add to my list, but I can i deal with the stress?
All the above is why I love my painting, tutorial school.
It is because I can be anywhere in the world and share the fun and techniques of watercolour and nobody has to fly anywhere, we don't even need to drive, it is not without footprint, but it at least stops me thinking which of my shoes are the most leech-proof to pack.
Newsflash, I have added a new brush to my range of fine pointed brushes, a size 1, any day now, and yes I wish I could give you a specific date, the green handled brushes will be available to buy from another store, as i am still unable to sell to EU countries.
the tools have been available everywhere for ages but this will be the only second outlet for the green handled fine pointed range. I hope it works out.
I will wish you rain in the northern hemisphere and sun in the south but only just enough to make everything perfect again. Billy xx