A Winter’s Tale

This is the last day of November, very shortly we will slip gently into December. We are truly in winter now, in Scotland.EFCE0354-D83E-43AC-AEC5-383012B4A0CD

My transition is progressing, if slowly, from tropical climes and times, to the Scotland of my roots. Reflection is helpful in this process. The other day soft, tiny flakelets of snow floated in the air. This was a teasing little  flurry, a promise of blizzards and heavy snow which will surely come soon. I realised that the last time I actually lived in a country where it snows, there was no such thing as Facebook to share the news.

The days have been shortening rapidly, and this feels like quite a trick to my senses. I cannot rationalise the fact that it is not yet 4 pm and the sun has already set below the horizon. I cannot relate the time on my watch to the colours of the sky. The sun barely rises above the rooftops all day, and my shadow is long even at midday.

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The trees are now bare, leaves on the ground slowly decaying and the birds gathering the berries on the bushes and branches.

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Temperatures have been dropping and these past nights have been well below zero. There is a daytime covering of ice on the nearby pond. A little robin has been chittering around in the branches, as I try to capture his picture on my phone. I feel too cold to attempt to take my camera out with me, my fingers too chilled to function.

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The bus drivers are wearing woolly bunnets, and on the street folks are wrapped up in cosy jackets, woollen hats and soft scarves. Still their faces are pinched in the sharp wind, as they quip about the weather and that “the nights are fair drawing in”.

While I have been adjusting to these shortening days, I have become fascinated by the variation in days up and down the lines of latitude. Long ago learned facts about polar winter and memories of St Petersburg’s white nights of midsummer encourage me to delve deeper into what this looks like. My trusted weather app has told me that the days in Tromsø (northern Norway) have been shortening speedily through autumn. I learned that the sun rose for a fleeting 2 minutes on 26 November, before it sank below the horizon, not to rise again until the middle of January, when it will peep over the horizon briefly, starting its path towards constant daylight just after the middle of May.

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It is hard to imagine two months of darkness and this makes me thankful for the few hours of daylight that we have in Scotland. My body clock has become so used to the equinox days on or near the equator that no matter how much I rationalise and understand the behaviour of  natural light, it still puzzles me daily. I am still childishly surprised that when the daylight fades, it is only mid-afternoon.

Here, in central Scotland the days will continue to shorten for the next three weeks, and we will have daylight from just before 9 am until after 3 pm. It will be a number of weeks, a couple of months before we feel the day stretching again as we edge towards the long, light days of midsummer. I cannot remember the last time I saw the tiny green shoots of spring, snowdrops, crocus and daffodils peeping up through the snow and grass. I know that they will greet me once the days begin to lengthen. I wonder if they have forgotten me too?

Scotland is a contradiction in many ways. Achingly beautiful landscapes at times hidden in a gloom of rain and damp mist, other times glowing in magical sunlight. I am constantly surprised by forgotten tiny details of many-coloured berries and the beauty of a leaf dusted with frost, as well as the iconic images of castles, lochs and highland wildlife.

I am being generously, gently and kindly welcomed back.

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Back in Time

This weekend the clocks went back, and we moved from Summer Time to Greenwich Mean Time.

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This clock changing phenomenon happens twice a year in many parts of the world, but it doesn’t happen at all in many others. In fact, this is the first time in over a decade I have changed my clock whilst in the same country. No borders, no flights or travel to another time zone, but the time zone change comes to me in the middle of the night, and I wake up with a bonus hour.

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Clocks change between 1 am and 2 am

When I left Scotland in June 2000, we were in Summer Time which took us an hour closer to the places where I would subsequently live, without this clock changing twice a year. Only once in that 17 years did we have to change our clocks – and that was in Mongolia which was further north and therefore would benefit from this minor rearrangement of the daylight hours. Interestingly, though it did prompt some puzzled conversations in Ulaan Baatar amongst my South Asian friends who had come from lands where there was only an hour so difference between winter and summer months. It was only as the daylight hours started to stretch that the purpose of the clock changing became clearer. I realise that I have taken the rationale for Daylight Saving Time (DST) granted, and tried to explain to those nearer the equator that this is the practice of setting the clocks forward by an hour from standard time during the summer months, and back again in the autumn. This is in order to make better use of natural daylight and align it with the working, farming and school day.

My last year, in Rwanda, saw me living in a land of almost perfect equinox as Kigali nestles just south of the Equator. The daylight variation throughout the year was around 15 minutes and on a neat 6 am to 6 pm divide.

It is always lovely to return to Scotland in those midsummer days, when the light stretches throughout the late evening, and never quite disappears. The sky takes on a deep luminescent blue for the three hours of almost darkness. Of course, this means that in winter the opposite is the case, and the days are short, with full daylight coming through after the start of the working day and disappearing before home time. In those months, we feel that we live in darkness. My annual visits were almost always in summer, and it is a strange step back in time to see the days shorten. And we are only just stepping out of October, and much as I try and prepare myself for the short days I know that it will take some adjustment.

These short days can bring a soft winter light and a changing landscape with different colours and many more berries bushes that I remembered. These bushes and now bare trees are inhabited by birds which I can be reacquainted with as I walk along pathways, all wrapped up, listening out for their chirrups. I have already seen grebes, finches and even that symbol of the British winter – the red-breasted robin.

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This means that I need to keep my eyes and mind open and make the most of my step back in time.

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Change of Scene

The past weeks have seen me on a journey of the mind, body and spirit. One journey has been a physical one. I have long yearned to visit Ireland, and previous visits have been short and never far out of Dublin or Belfast. I have also long hankered after a writing retreat and kept returning to the details of a memoir retreat in rural, western Ireland. My return to Europe provided the time and space to take that opportunity. And so, at the start of September I travelled to Dublin on a one way ticket, clutching my notebooks and writing, a train ticket to Galway and a booking for Bed and Breakfast on the way. That journey deserves its own story, and space and will be told here very soon. My story today is one closer to home.

I returned from Ireland a few days ago, to a realisation. As I had travelled northwards through the counties of Clare, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Donegal I was taken aback at how quickly the trees were changing colour. Of course, I knew in my head that it has been many years since I have been in this part of the world as autumn takes hold, but I clearly had not absorbed this. Every corner we turned, brought a vision of yellowing and crimson leaves against evergreen and slower-to-turn green leaves. The colours continued to surprise me as I travelled Scotland-ward through Derry and Belfast and across the water to Cairnryan. The last time I experienced autumn was in 1999, and here we are 18 years later. And how I continue to be taken by surprise!

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The seasons in my years overseas have been centred around rains and the mirror dry seasons, pre-rains and cooler months. My returns to Scotland have generally been in the UK summer months, and so I have become conditioned to seeing green grass, leafy trees, heather and even bluebells while here. In Asia and Africa my only experience of a similar change of seasons was in Mongolia, where the flowers and leaves died in a matter of days as the temperatures plummeted with the first snows. This was the rapid transition into the long wintry period which would see -25C considered to be warm. Furthermore, the arid climate in Mongolia meant that the landscape was less forested and the steppe vast in its expanse of grassland. Not so many leaves to fall. While the season was called autumn, it was not visibly autumnal in my memory.

Now back in Scotland, as my being readjusts to the flora around me, I also realise that I need to become reacquainted with bird and animal life which was once very familiar. Gone are the sounds of sunbirds, mysterious singing warblers, chirruping geckoes and noisy frogs. Now I hear seagulls, starlings and other new sounds in the morning.

As I was walking through a nearby woodland park the other day, my friend pointed out a few of the Scottish birds around us. She is a bird and nature lover and able to identify the sounds and sights around easily. A little robin hid just from view on a tree above, his tutting call the only giveaway to his presence. My friend then spotted a pair of little grebes, the smallest diving grebe I learned. They seemed to be a couple, the male with his russet neck and the female in her more muted blackish grey plumage. From what I could see, he would dive while she bobbed on the surface. When he surfaced, often a little distance from where he had disappeared, they would speed towards each other and he would gently feed her, before diving once more.

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We continued to walk around the small loch, observing and trying not to intrude on life going on all around us as I learned and relearned about my Scottish surroundings.

No matter what the setting is, in which part of the world and whatever the climate might be I am humbly reminded of one important message. It is so important to pause, and to take in what is happening around us. We might think we have become used to our surroundings, but we can always look with new eyes, and listen with newly tuned ears. It is not physically what we see and hear, but how we look, listen and interpret what is around us that brings appreciation.

I must keep reminding myself of this as this period of adjustment leads to gradual settling.

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Navigating new waters …

This space has been quiet for a long time. The longer there is silence, the more difficult it is to re-emerge into the daylight.

Silence is not usually golden here, and the past months have been enormously challenging. We live in a troubled world and one of uncertainty. This has affected me directly and my work in Africa came to an unexpected and early end. I will not pretend I was ready to wrap up nearly two decades of life and work overseas, but that is life.

To complicate and intensify an already difficult situation, I was also tussling with scary health issues. Happily, it is not all bad news and it appears that this has NOT been cancer related. I am in much better shape than I was in the earlier months of the year, but still striving to fully regain health and have greater clarity and management of the situation I now find myself in.

So I find myself in a very strange space and with very little remaining of the life I was so used to. I am in totally new waters, and I feel poorly equipped to move forward or even to know in which direction forward lies.

I will be honest. I usually thrive on change and new challenges. This time however, the changes have affected all areas of life, and been painfully deep. I crave stability and find that there is little to grasp onto, to enable me to clamber onto solid ground and work out my direction ahead. I know I will work it out, but I have had to dig deeper than ever before into reserves which feel exhausted.

While there are major life decisions to make, there are also implications on the essence of this blog. I am no longer a Scottish woman overseas. I am a Scottish woman in Scotland, cherishing and reflecting on the best part of two decades of life and work overseas. And still dealing with the aftermath and sides of breast cancer. Constants amidst the change.

I am floundering somewhat as I try to get used to life back in a Scotland which is enormously different to the one I left with a suitcase and rucksack, bound for Kathmandu 17 years ago. I guess I am now a “repat” and no longer an “expat”. I have a great deal to learn, re-learn and become familiar with. Such as Scottish wild flowers, covering the hedgerows and gardens where I have become used to frangipani, hibiscus and bougainvillea. Such as very different bird and critter noises. Seagulls instead of geckos and frogs. Such as, bewildering choices in the cavernous supermarkets. Exhilarating options for cultural and creative engagement. Understanding the words, but not not the essence of conversations on the train and in the street. Such different perspectives in the news and media. So many directions to look towards.

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Scottish wild flowers in a Glasgow garden

While I am firmly physically re-grounded in Scotland, my heart and soul are feeling scattered. I still have many tales to tell from my overseas times. One of my words for the year has been explore. While circumstances have not been conducive to great exploring, there have nonetheless been a number of gentle adventures and experiences. I plan to tell those stories and share the images in the coming weeks and months. Tales of Rwandan weddings, African sunsets and safaris, lakeside resting, and exotic Zanzibar to highlight but a few.

Telling these tales will support a gecko which is striving to swim, and not sink, in these new waters.

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Agama Lizard at Lake Kivu (Photograph © Feisty Blue Gecko)

Revisioning

My hummingbird obsession is not news. However, it has recently taken a little bit of an unexpected turn. One which has led me to revise something which I thought was certain.

Outside our office, there are a number of trees where those beautiful little birds nest. I will always pause on my way in and out of the gate, to peer into the leaves and see what is happening in those nests. A couple of weeks ago, I was told that there were eggs in the nest and that the mother was keeping them warm. They would hatch in a few days, I was informed assuredly. Indeed, after a few days I saw eggshell on the ground and was told that I could very gently peep inside the leaves. Two wide open beaks stared back at me. Indeed, beaks can stare!

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Over the following days, I would very gently peek in through the gaps in the leaves, making sure that my human eyes did not distress the rapidly growing birds. In no time, I learned that the little birds were almost ready to fly. They would fly on the Monday, in fact.

When I arrived at work the following Monday, I could see that the nest was indeed empty. The little birds had flown.

But the tale has taken an unexpected twist. In those few days while watching from a safe distance, I learned something new. I had been visiting friends, and they had bright flowers on their porch. The little hummingbirds, perched and manoeuvred to draw in the nectar of the brightly coloured flowers. I was enthralled by those “hummingbirds”. My friend showed me photographs she had taken of the same little birds, which she called “sunbirds”. I knew they were hummingbirds. She was equally certain they were sunbirds. Of course, I was right. So was she! Stalemate!

At such times, and in such times we are drawn to Professor Google. And my goodness, was I in for a surprise!

I have been completely wrong! In Ecuador, these little hovering birds were indeed hummingbirds and they have become iconic across the country. In Africa, however, despite the fact that they look remarkably similar, they are not hummingbirds. These little beauties are indeed sunbirds.

In appearance, they are incredibly alike.The males have metallic blue plumage which shimmers in the sun.

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In Ecuador and in Africa. They both hover.

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This little soul is hovering with all his might. So hard, that you can hardly see the blur that represents his little wings.

It seems that I am not the only one to become so confused between the hummingbird and the sunbird. From what I understand, the key difference (apart from the biological family differences) is that the hummingbird always hovers while it feeds. It can hover for a seeming eternity while drawing nectar fro the inside of a bloom. However the little sunbird, while it can and does hover, usually has to perch to gather its food.

However, that is what I truly learned from this. I was reminded that no matter how sure I think I am about something, I must be open to correction or rethinking. This is not about the sunbird. This is about how I view the world and my life. While I had been convinced that the birds I saw were hummingbirds, and my friend was equally certain that they were sunbirds, we both needed to be open.In my case, I also need to be corrected, because I was wrong!

The world around me is not as set and uncertain as I necessarily think. The universe is again shaking and shifting the ground underneath my feet. I need to revise and reset my vision of what I thought was my world. And that does not only apply to me. It is for each and every one of us. We just do not know what is certain and true.

Dreams etched in pages of ice, conversations captured in frozen crystals.

Like many others, I face my news feeds with a sense of foreboding and angst these days, so it is such a pleasure to read find a hidden gem of news such as the ice library of dreams on the shores of Lake Baikal.

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This delighted me with a variety of whispers from many places in my own library of memories.

I remember, late July in 1999, dithering at the shore, dipping my toes into the clear, icy waters of Lake Baikal near the village of Listvyanka in Siberia. I was determined to get into the water. Legend has it that Baikal’s water has special powers and I was not going to miss the opportunity to take advantage of these. Just in case. It is believed that if you dip your hands into the lake, you will be rewarded with an extra year of life. The bonus for slipping your feet into the water is an extra 2 years. If you swim in the lake, you gain an irresistible additional 25 years of life. The challenge comes from the fact that Lake Baikal is the largest body of fresh water in the world, it is the deepest lake on the planet and it contains one fifth of all fresh water in the world.

In winter it freezes over completely and even in the height of summer when the air was hot enough to burn my skin, the water remains shockingly cold. My toes curled around the pebbles, the skin already turning red with the cold. Slowly, I ventured in, inch after inch. When it was just deep enough, I lowered myself into the water, splashing briefly, a bear like roar involuntarily escaping from deep inside my lungs before I decided that my immersion qualified for the 25 year bonus. As I stepped back to the shore, dripping and shivering, I locked eyes with a puzzled brown cow before it veered away from the shore and the strange, drenched human.

The ice library on Lake Baikal speaks with a voice which is unusual in its simplicity and complexity. The library is carved from blocks of ice, designed to resemble open books. On each page, there is a wish or dream, sent from people all over the world. Some dreams are personal, some further reaching. All are etched into the ice, preserved until the warmer spring air comes. Then the dreams will slowly melt into the deep waters of the lake. An exquisitely modest concept, yet so powerful.

This is chiming with another page from my personal memory book. I remember arriving in Mongolia in November 2005. It was a warm autumn seemingly, at a gentle -20°C. Yes, that reads minus. I would need to prepare for winter which was approaching rapidly. I knew that the temperatures would settle around -35C in the afternoon sun, and sink to -45C at night. Knowing this is one thing, but these temperatures are unimaginable if you have never experienced them. They are also dangerously cold as described in an earlier post about the Mongolian cold and snow.

The air is so cold and arid that your breath freezes instantly in a cloud around you when you speak.

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The Mongolians say that the words you utter are captured in tiny ice crystals, and preserved in the air until the warmer air comes and they thaw. This was such a beautiful image, that it inspired the first poem which I have ever had published. This was called “December Conversations” and appeared in the summer edition of Ulaanbaatar City Guide of 2006, and I share an extract here.

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December Conversations

So cold the river is fully frozen,

unable to thaw for many months

not until the summer sun

is strong enough to permeate each icy layer.

So cold my eyelashes trap

tiny invisible particles

fusing, bonding lash to lash

a mesh barrier filtering my vision.

So cold that every breath and word

tumbles in clouds out of our mouths

instantly freezing in formations of frosted

whispers, words and conversations.

Our every word is preserved

suspended in the air

in frozen animation

through all the winter months.

A mother soothes her crying child

her loving words softly resting

in the air between her lips

and her son’s smarting bright red cheeks.

The two young lovers hugging as they walk

whisper messages of eternal love and endless devotion ……..

All throughout the winter months

the city air is crammed and filled

with captured, suspended conversations

secrets, disagreements and private messages…

The city smiles knowingly

as it releases its melted secrets

into the streets

unnoticed.

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In Africa the skies are not cold, there is no ice or frost on the grass. Yet the thought of a library of ice, and of words preserved in frozen crystals have embedded firmly in my spirit for the day. I have sent my own dream in the hope that it might be etched on the walls of the ice library, and eventually join the waters of Lake Baikal.

Our words are powerful and precious, let us use them with care, consideration and tenderness.

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