Many happy returns – a European birthday for a change

Many happy returns of the day, is the expression. One I like a great deal since my diagnosis. Already this is my fifth “return of the day” since I heard the words which made me think I would not see another Christmas, never mind another birthday.  There is another story in there which I am also picking up, but for now, I am looking at a birthday policy of “no return” which I have stumbled upon in recent years.birthday bean

In 1999, I travelled on a rare adventure to celebrate my 40th birthday. I had never been out of Europe, save to a short holiday in Tunisia so the thought of a train trip to Asia was a huge step into new territory, literally as well as metaphorically.

In mid July 1999, I flew to Moscow and then caught the Trans Siberian Express.  The rest is history, and was a great part in the shaping of my own history. This was the first time I had travelled to Asia, and to make this all the more meaningful, I ventured into Asia one kilometre at a time, as the train moved forward and spent that magical 40th birthday in Southern China, cycling alongside paddy fields. In 2000 I had started work in Nepal and spent my birthday there, and from then on developed a kind of tradition.  Spend the birthday in Asia, if possible in a new country.  And as a result I have spent every single birthday in the intervening birthdays in Nepal, Thailand, Mongolia, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar. Cambodia and Malaysia.

asia map

This year looked a little different.  For a start there are important family events which I have to be here for.  No question.  And now for the trivial, but practical.  My bank card expired on 31 July and the new card would be delivered to a UK address. Hmmm. Of course it is possible to get from Asia to Europe and then back again for a birthday in Asia.  Possible yes.  Realistic, less so and sensible –  almost certainly not. I would definitely be booking a birthday trip from the UK.

The only option which looked viable was to book a few days in Istanbul, the cusp of Asia and Europe, and celebrate my birthday there.  I looked at options, and was particularly encouraged by the fact that I could fly direct from Edinburgh. I could also fly back into London and then see family in the Englandy side of the UK.  It all looked good and feasible.  So I then looked at hotel options, initially highly surprised at the ridiculous costs, but managing to find some reasonable options.  Next step is to do the “side-by’side” crab approach to booking.  First the flights, then the hotel, not confirm one nor the other until both appear to be workable.  Fights were available and so was the hotel, so I moved to the next step.  Booking and Paying! Now, if it takes time to search for options, that is nothing compared to the challenge of paying for them online.  Our weak connectivity always brings a challenge and was true to form when I tried to pay for the flights.  The payment process would almost complete, but a dropped connection for a second would bounce me back to the start of the process. After the third attempt, the inevitable happened.  A message appeared advising me that my bank card was not accepted.  My heart sank, as although I knew it was probably due to the repeated attempts at payment, it always stresses me when the card refuses to work.  By this time it was late in the evening and after an extremely expensive phone call resolving the card I decided to call a halt to the long and tedious proceedings and try again the following day.

The following day was Friday 18 July and we woke to the news of MH17, a commercial flight which had been blown out of the sky on its route from Amsterdam to Kuala Lumpur. Suddenly, selfishly, the thought of booking flights which were strictly speaking “unnecessary” became very unappealing. I did not make a conscious decision not to book, but I made no move to take forward the planning and confirmation of the previous evening.

My appetite for booking the birthday break had disappeared, and conveniently I was buried under the necessary tasks which have to be done generally before depart on leave. Time ticked on and by the time I arrived in Scotland all I had was a great deal of confusion, far too many ideas and wishes and very few days to plan and book. There were a number of options and my criteria were clear.  Firstly, I wanted to go to a country I have not been to before and secondly I did not want to fly. But translating this into a booking was somewhat more difficult. There were so many options – even Istanbul by train, Budapest, Vienna and Prague.  Riverways in Europe were another option and I have also not been to Portugal, Sweden or Finland and they were also accessible over land and sea.  In my mind, an exotic journey on the Orient Express was what I was hankering after, but that is but a dream.

orient express

 

orient express 2

 

steam train 1

Fantasy aside, amongst the many options, the biggest challenge was in pulling all of the information together and making sense of it.  I really just wanted to go into the International Bookings Office which used to exist in mainline railway stations and find out what was possible, and for them to hand me an exciting ticket. Sadly, these facilities no longer exist and a complicated phone call to London would be the only way forward. With only 48 hours before I wanted to leave, though, many of those options were reducing dramatically as was my will and capacity to organise anything at all complicated.

There was one very simple option which emerged and gathered favour, however, and one which did not need a complicated booking or reservation. And – it was to a country I have not been to before………. If I caught Eurostar (easily bookable online) to Brussels, I could then catch an onward train to Luxembourg which would arrive 3 hours later.  These trains departed hourly and did not need advance booking!  I could leave London in the morning and be in Luxembourg in the afternoon!

Luxembourg city 1

I realised that I knew very little about Luxembourg, but from a quick image search I knew that it would be a good fit, even if not near Asia.  Luxembourg city is highly impressive and looked very appealing.  Before I booked it, however, my attention was drawn by one image on the Visit Luxembourg tourism site and before I knew what had happened I was off on another hunt! I had seen images of beautiful woodland and wanted to spend my birthday, right there!

visit luxembourg berdorf

I soon learned that Luxembourg is a very small country and to get to this village very near the eastern border with Germany, it would take less than an hour. Finally, a decision had been made, tickets were rapidly bought and a characterful guest house booked.

And that is how I came to decide how to spend my first non Asia birthday in 16 years! And that is a tale for the blogging morrow!

lux 2

Preview

I am sorry about the silence here – there has been a lot going on.  There is nothing worrisome (that I am aware of ) but rather a sustained push on all things gecko over the past weeks and months.

But I am catching up.  Slowly, but surely.  And so here is a preview…………

Inspiration

Inspiration

This is the kind of space which I have been yearning for. Set in a natural, quiet and inspiration setting.  Over the coming days there will be updates and more images than you would wish for. to make up for the silence over the past couple of weeks.

I promise :)

Homo Sapiens?

These days I often find out more about news commentary or updates through my Facebook feed than the traditional news sources. These can be mundane commentaries on American Idol or the Eurovision Song Contest through to the highest profile of news events, natural disasters and tragedies. I learned of the MH17 crash on a kind of slow reveal on my Facebook feed on Friday morning, the day taking on a suddenly very different tone to the one expected. First was a reference to MH17 and expressions of disbelief which drove me to scroll through a night’s worth of newsfeed to learn of the tragic loss of an airliner making its way routinely across the globe from Amsterdam towards Kuala Lumpur. A route which I will be travelling in a week’s time, though my departure point will be Bangkok.

I know that the investigations and time will tell us what was behind this, but for the moment I am working on what is known.  That some incredibly sophisticated surface to air missile or some such weapon appears to have been launched at a commercial airliner and resulted in its destruction along with the loss of the almost 300 lives on board.  I had no idea that there was such weaponry in existence which had the capacity to reach, never mind destroy an airliner at cruising altitude. How naive am I?

The day was heavy, thoughts of this unimaginable event uppermost in our minds and conversations. News that many on board were travelling to Melbourne for AIDS 2014, the 20th international AIDS Conference in Melbourne came at some point in the day.  This was getting a bit more personal now, as many of my friends and colleagues work in this field.  And more than the personal connection, the loss of people dedicated and specialist where these are so needed.  Any life lost is unacceptable but to lose brilliant minds unnecessarily is even more difficult to absorb.

I arrived home last evening, and stepped back online to catch up with any news or progress.  And my heart stopped when I read a post from a very dear friend, who I will meet in the UK next month. He had arrived in Melbourne for the conference and was utterly distraught to find out about the crash when he had arrived. His distress was all the more as he had been given two options for his travel to Melbourne.  He had opted not to fly on Malaysian, but on the other flight.  I have no idea what the reason would be, and often our choices (after cost) are based on flight timings, connections and routes.  It is a choice which he will never forget, I am sure.  And I simply cannot get my head round this. That by some possibly arbitrary quirk, some have lived and others not.  This is just so close to home and I am having trouble processing it.

And the part which is really troubling me is this.  We are homo sapiens. We are the race which has been gifted with intellect.  We deliberate and think.  We study and write. We are able to design and invent.  We are capable of abstract thought.  Quite how engineers and scientists are able to create what they do is always beyond me.  I cannot comprehend how planners and architects can create plans for bridges and houses and that they actually work.  How do physicists know that their theories will work when they are all on paper? It is a mystery to me.  They have brilliant minds which work in a way very different to my own.  And homo sapiens has created some pretty amazing stuff.  The car, telephone, computers, incredible communication technology and of course changed our world and lives through mass transportation.  Such as aeroplanes. Amazing indeed.

genius 2

But what is it in our race that uses brilliant minds to create things which cause destruction, death, pain and fear?  How is possible that minds of genius can be diverted to such destruction? How can this be possible when we live in a world that is unable to ensure that all have access to clean water, or basic health and education services?

How is this possible in a world where we have been spectacularly unable to find a cure for so many illnesses and diseases?  Lethal illnesses including AIDS and cancer? Are we such a wise race after all?

 

Keeping your eye on the ball

I am a lonesome soul on the planet these days, being utterly disinterested in Football. Yes, even the World Cup! In fact, I am oddly proud of the fact that I have never been to a live football match and never been able to watch a game the whole way through. It is just not for me. Even hubby has not followed games this time as we have been shocked by the loss of lives, homes and livelihoods in the preparation for both Brazil and Doha tournaments. That is another story though. It is rather helpful to live on the opposite side of the world as the games take place at a time when I am usually asleep. It has meant that World Cup life has hardly featured on my radar in terms of the matches, and that is fine by me. (I might confess to some amusement however, when my Facebook feed displayed rather contrasting sentiments following one of the England matches, but that is another story too)

world cup

But while much of the rest of homo sapiens has been absorbed in the World Cup, I have been trying to keep my eye on the ball figuratively, but not terribly successfully. My guide for the year has to be my three word mantra and more than ever, I have needed my words this year. As I revisit them here, I know I have to get my eye back on the ball and stay true to my intentions and values.

kanchanaburi 1

My first word is dedication. This one is proving tough as it aims to ensure that I dedicate time and energy to the things which matter. Those include time to do those tasks which I love to put off, or those which I cannot summon the energy for in the evenings. They include the tasks and work I need to focus on to make sure I keep moving forward. My writing goals especially feature here and there are no quick scores. I want to see results by the end of the year so must dedicate time and effort to realising these. I am struggling to do so. A number of bouts of ill health, not serious but debilitating, more travel than expected and continued intensity in an environment of great change all combine to drain time and energy. But I must keep my eye on the ball if I want to be anywhere near my year end wishes.

My second word is integrity. This was my core word, at the centre of the mantra and intentionally at the heart of everything I do. This has been such an apt choice and I find that I use it and refer to it very often. Even in small decisions or actions I find it such a useful check. Before I act, I think “is this the right thing?” This works well for me, although it often does throw up challenges of what I guess is self interest. If this is the right thing for me, then can I also be sure it is the right thing more broadly? My eye is on the ball with this one, but the ball is one which spins off in unexpected directions.

My third word is flair. This especially reminds me of the importance of giving time and energy to creativity and to ensure that I try and innovate and create something unique and unexpected. My year has been enormously boosted by the publication of the Dragonfruit Anthology and keeps me moving forward to the Next Big Step in my writing. A book with my name on the front cover! But I am under no illusions. This process has been very gentle. As a contributor, I have been guided through the whole period of development of the book and very much protected for the enormous work that is involved. My eye is on the ball, but I have to keep running as well as watching if I want to keep moving this goal forward.

If I am honest, I know I am off track and am striving to get back onside. While I cannot control the external factors which are causing me to keep moving forward, I am very glad that I have my three words. They have a hard job to do this year and are working hard to make sure that the ball is well in sight.

Bonus!

This month has been one filled with surprise extras – a kind of “bonus” month. June started with the second bout of bronchitis, a mean bonus when one bout was already more than enough! I did not realise that “bonus” would be a theme of the month.

bonus

A major bonus of the very welcome kind has of course been the launch of Dragonfruit – that has brought a feast of bonuses in being part of a work which is more than a book. Contributing to the Anthology has resulted in bringing together a number of women from many walks of life and in addition to the stories in the book, there is a tapestry of other connections which I am discovering. I am also really enjoying reading the daily features of each writer on our Facebook page – my own feature was June 20,

Holding the book in my hands has been probably the greatest bonus of the month. Seeing my writing in print, in a proper book, has been a dream since childhood when I churned out some dire stories and dreadful poetry!

A dragonfruit in the hand...

A dragonfruit in the hand…

And while I was gadding off to Bangkok, and picking up my own copy of our Dragonfruit Anthology, there was of course a reason other than that for the visit. Another bonus, and a less welcome one. At my last round of six monthly checks in March, I learned that some of my bloodwork was a bit “off”. Frustratingly, cholesterol levels, which were very healthy since my post treatment monitoring, have recently been rising and are no longer in the “you are a star” limits. Other bloodwork has also been a bit off, including sugar (not unexpected thanks to a strong line of diabetes in my maternal side) and that is one of the push factors in my morning exercise. The cholesterol levels started to rise following my pulmonary embolism when I switched to Femara in July 2012. Dr W confirmed that this is a documented effect of Femara which made me feel vindicated but no less frustrated. So this month I had a bonus review with my endocrinologist (I had no idea that there was such a thing as an endocrinologist before my diagnosis – and I still cannot spell it!) He wanted to review the cholesterol and sugar especially and I was also to revisit the nutritionist who had already told me my diet is better than hers!

The added trip meant another bonus. Two flights which I would rather not take. I am not fond of flying in rainy season as it can be really bumpy and scary and would far rather have stayed cosily at home listening to the rain in the garden rather than feeling the weight of the water in those angry, black clouds which we have to navigate.

My appointments were on Tuesday and I was really not looking forward to them. Recent weeks have seen the double bout of bronchitis and a fair bit of travel. Add in a couple of bonus freak storms at swimming o’clock and we have seen a fair bit of disruption to my morning exercise routine. So the challenge I had been given to lose three kilos, which was already quite an ask with my lost thyroid and Femara sabotage was even more difficult and usual, and any weight los really unlikely. I was really despondent about this and in the waiting room was trying to think of any tricks I could pull out of the hat. Wearing trousers in a lighter fabric, missing out my morning, post-fast cup of tea were tempting tactics. I was even toying with the thought of sneaking my prosthesis from its usual home and stashing it in my handbag. It is pretty heavy and that could perhaps buy a couple of free kilos. In the end, I just gritted my teeth, took of my sandals and dreaded the numbers as they danced around making up their mind about my decided weight. And to my surprise, my weight was down just over a kilo. That is a big deal for me as it is not much but it is in the counter direction to normal, and unexpected because of the dip in exercise.

So I felt a bit better about seeing the nutritionist. Until she went through my results and announced with great excitement that I had lost five kilos! I looked at the slip, and realised that the weight had been noted incorrectly – a 7.3 had been inverted to a 3.7 suggesting that I had ditched four more kilos than I had. I tried to persuade her that I had not lost that much and even offered a re-trial! The same with the endocrinologist – he was delighted and my feeble “no there has been a mistake” was seen as some kind of modesty in my “achievement”. So now they are in for such a disappointment next review, when not only have I not lost another five kilos but will probably have struggled to maintain my real weight!

darn pics - http://the-internet-surfer.blogspot.com/2010/10/gosh-darn-it-photos.html

Otherwise the bloodwork was ok. No further rises in cholesterol though it remains high, and the sugar had reduced a little so my attempts to keep diabetes at bay are still working for now. The monsoon dampness seems to be settling into my Femara joints again, as over the dry months I had been just that little bit better. While it is not so good that the rainy season has an effect, it is encouraging and good to know that the reverse happens in dry season.

So on Wednesday, I headed back to Bangkok’s Suvarnibhumi airport and onwards through angry skies home to Yangon with my book carefully packed in my hand luggage ready to pull out and show any passing stranger who shows any sign of interest!

Back home the travel bag has been emptied of its bonus laundry and rather than unpack, I have re-packed with enough for another couple of nights away. Because the month draws to a close,  mirroring the start of the month and with another bonus. Tomorrow I leave on a short work trip out of town and will be away from home for a couple of nights. A lovely change of scene but I will be so glad to reach next month and have a rest from the many bonuses of June!

grandmother's suitcase

 

A dragonfruit in the hand……..

I have, in my hands, my very own copy of the Dragonfruit Anthology.

I submitted my writing for consideration 484 days ago.  I learned 447 days ago that it had been accepted for inclusion along with the writing of 25 other women.

The days and weeks since then have seen the nurturing of this project through editing, signing agreements, selection of a title and the development of the cover imagery towards the hatching of the book itself in electronic and paper formats.  Now this beautiful book is ready to fly.

Step by step this day has moved tantalisingly closer.  I received the electronic version a few weeks back but still I have had such a longing to hold the paper version in my hands.  That day has finally come.

I knew the book had arrived last week, and was waiting for me in Bangkok.  I knew that I would only be able to collect it during office hours so have waited patiently over the weekend knowing that it was also patiently waiting for me to arrive and claim it.  I just missed a sky train and when I did finally reach the building, the lift unusually stopped at almost every floor, stretching that time impossibly. I tried to tell myself that it might not be there, that the package waiting for me could be something else.  But I stubbornly refused to listen!

When I finally reached the right door and was handed my package, the Hong Kong postage banished any concerns I had that this was not my wished-for copy.

Dragonfruit arrival

This is a day I have dreamed of for decades.  The day I would hold a book with my own writing in it.

A dragonfruit in the hand...

A dragonfruit in the hand…

 

dragonfruit arrival 2

I have learned a great deal as I have been gently accompanied the process to prepare and publish this book, and more than ever I am compelled to strive to realise the writing projects I am currently incubating.

 

dragonfruit in hand

But for today, I am bathing in the satisfaction of leafing through the pages of this beautiful book and I am beyond delighted to see it come to life.

Venturing in Vientiane

We are well overdue an update! With travel to Laos, intense work schedules, the major exciting launch of “How Does on Dress to buy Dragonfruit?” and that double bout of bronchitis has resulted in a gentle lull here. A few shorter posts are in the pipeline, and here is the first.  A few glimpses of my recent visit to Vientiane.

With storm warnings and alerts of likely flight delays, I decided to leave Yangon on an earlier flight than originally planned. Having been held above angry, sparky clouds on my previous flight into Bangkok, I opted to take a flight with a nice long connecting time and marginally less likely to be stormy.  Afternoons tend to see the skies darken dramatically, and I would rather be on the ground for that, thank you!

As luck would have it, the morning flight was blessed with sunny skies and very little turbulence and no delays. We rose up into the clouds over clear view of Yangon including Inya Lake, the winding river and in the distance the sun catching Shwe Dagon.

Leaving Yangon

Leaving Yangon

 

vientiane 21

The sun shining on Shwe Dagon

My waiting time in Suvanibhumi airport was thus maximised. I have no problem killing time there, especially with the peaceful massage room and had a relaxing foot massage.  In the departure lounge there were warm reunions with colleagues from the broader Asia region who were also travelling to Vientiane for the meeting before a late evening arrival in Vientiane.  A long day for what was actually a very short journey.

The meeting took place only a few days after the military took control in Thailand, and as we were just across the Mekong there were clear signs of the situation.

I will not repeat my bronchial woes, but suffice to say that this meant that my planned Lao explorations were seriously limited and so too are my photos, so here are a few:

Street scenes

vientiane 3

Rehydrating and resting with a coconut water rather in sync with the background architecture.

vientiane 5

Evening lights

vientiane 6

Special beauty treatments – face decorating anyone?

Face decorating :)

Face decorating :)

Confusion at the ATM – options to withdraw 100,000 or 500,000 Lao Kip – or a cool million?! Realising that 1,000,000 Kip is just over 120 US Dollars, the temptation to become a millionaire was too great!

ATM confusion

ATM confusion

vientiane 13

There were also a few opportunities to capture a few Laos shadow selfies to immortalise my presence there.

vientiane 11

vientiane 12

vientiane 9

Night market

Night market

And a London taxi beside a Laos tuk-tuk delivering passengers to the airport!

 

vientiane 14

My visit to Vientiane was sadly not enough to really explore, but it just means I need to go back and spend some leisurely and well time there.