Shaping 2012 with three little words

This year it has actually been really hard to settle on my three words to guide and inspire me in the coming year.  To be fair, I knew it would be difficult because I have liked my previous choices so much.  Not only have they been the right words for me, they have been the right words for me in that particular year.  When I first saw the idea of selecting three words at the end of 2009, it spoke so clearly to me and the three words came almost instantly.  2010 was indeed a year of recovery, discovery and laughter as I moved through the months of heavy treatment, back to Scotland to see family and friends after so long, returning to work and finally growing those characteristic grey chemo curls as I moved towards the end of the year.

Last year’s words clearly represented a shift in where I was with “harmony, vitality and adventure”.  Harmony in terms balance in my life, professionally, personally, emotionally and physically as well as harmonious musically.  Vitality encouraged me and spurred me on to build on my daily swimming and be even more active, taking up the gym and becoming fitter than I probably have been in decades.  And adventure – well, this has been a favourite and I hav embarked on a number of adventures throughout the year, which have grown in their adventurousness as the year progressed!

So I started thinking about the words for 2012 over a month ago, looking forward to the process of selecting the words as much as I look forward to a new series of the Amazing Race!  As the time approached I would start thinking of the overall areas I want to focus on and pick up on words as I heard them, read them or even as they came to mind as I was ploughing up and down the swimming pool.

I was however, right in my guess that this year’s choice would be much more difficult though.  How could I settle on words which I liked as much and which were as meaningful as the previous years’ words?  How could I pick only three words when there were just so many to choose from?  I veered from extravagant words through to simple words, playing with each in how they balanced each other as well as how they sounded together.  It is interesting too, that the mood of the words changed somewhat as I worked through the recent thorax and Twang Arm pain and associated fears, and that is reflected in my ultimate choice. Finally, after a great deal of polishing, reflection and dictionary searching I have my three words to share:

Resilience, escapade and wonder

Resilience comes first.  This is one which I have leaned increasingly towards as the challenges of the past weeks played out, and the pain I experienced.  It expresses the priority I aim to place on building my strength both physically and mentally so that I am in a better place to deal with whatever might come my way. The past weeks showed me that despite my pretty good health, both the cancer itself, and its treatment (combination of chemo, the radical surgery, radiation and the calcium-stripping Tamoxifen bonus side effect) have led to a fragility which I have to recognise and respect.  So I intend to continue to build my strength physically, with my precious swimming, and the less popular but equally important regular gym visits and other healthy pursuits.  Mentally and emotionally I will continue to prioritise my creative time and take control of what is in my hands.  This year has seen me join a creative writing group and latterly a Book Club which have been lovely ways of connecting with likeminded souls here, as well as an inspiring way to spend free time.  These are ways of building my strength and capacity to make me more able to “bounce back” following whatever unexpecteds and unwelcomes head my way.

The dictionary definition of resilience is 1) the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress and 2) an ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change.  There is also a very interesting discussion on psychological resilience on Wikipedia which tells us that “Resilience has been shown to be more than just the capacity of individuals to cope well under adversity. Resilience is better understood as the opportunity and capacity of individuals to navigate their way to psychological, social, cultural, and physical resources that may sustain their well-being, and their opportunity and capacity individually and collectively to negotiate for these resources to be provided and experienced in culturally meaningful ways”.  How apt.

My second word is escapade.  I toyed with coining my own noun “escapaderie” to describe the broad concept of being involved in escapades but decided that was just a bit too inane!  An important word for in 2011 has been adventure.  I have referred repeatedly to adventures, made field trips and short breaks into adventures and plotted adventures.  These have all represented a shift in strength, confidence and independence.  Two years ago I was unable to walk unaided through Bangkok Airport.  Two days ago I returned from a fairly physically demanding trip to a remote part of the country, involving local flights, side car/trishaw transfers, exploring by cycle, pony and on foot and long boat trips which I had to board by slithery narrow planks!

It was a my Mrauk U adventure and pushed me further than I could have imagined possible at the beginning of even this year.  My 2011 adventures have included remote field trips to North Shan and the Ayerawaddy Delta, a trip to Chiang Mai by overnight train and my somewhat extravagant birthday trip to the temples of Angkor in Cambodia.

In choosing “escapade” I wanted to maintain that sense of making the most of experiences, reaching out for the new and continuing to push myself.  For me though, escapade also has a touch of naughtiness about it which appeals to the rebel in me!  This is confirmed by the definition I found of escapade – “a usually adventurous action that runs counter to approved or conventional conduct”.  What appeals additionally to me is that an escapade (in my world) can be as small as an almost imperceptible gesture through to a grand action which attracts attention.  I can apply escapade to so many actions, even to the way my friend and I behave in the oncology waiting room together, being naughty cancer rebels and giggling about the grief we are going to give our doctors in the form of never ending questions!

And my third word, wonder, came to me in the swimming pool as I was ploughing northwards and southwards, waiting for the sun to rise.  Again this has a variety of meanings.  As a verb it encapsulates the action of questioning and enquiring, descriptive of my inquisitive soul as well as critical to my work.  And there is never a shortage of things to wonder about!  As a noun, it is that almost innocent sense of being in awe of things from the most simple through to the truly breath taking and grand.  Throughout 2012 this will remind me to retain that sense of appreciation in what is around me as well as honing my natural curiosity.

As in the two previous years, I am ridiculously pleased with my words.  They fill me with optimism for the coming year and the sense that I can take control of what is in my own hands.  And that is another reminder that much as we cannot change many things which happen to us, particularly in the land post cancer diagnosis, there are many ways to shape our life and experience which are in our hands.  Only we can grasp those ourselves and we have the capacity to interpret what is around us accordingly.

And that is why I have chosen the image below.  A doorway into an unknown place, dark and frightening.  It is also an image which gives me goosebumps of exhilaration as it reminds me of the emotions and new found confidence I felt when exploring the ancient and mysterious temples of Angkor earlier this year.

I wish you a 2012 which is as kind as it can be, and for continued strength and resilience from within each of us as well as from each other.

Return and reflect

I returned last night from my trip to Mrauk U and Rakhine State, with a few additional treasures which I had not taken with me – including my camera and its 700+ new photos, a travel bag full of muddy, dirty washing, several bruises thanks to a day cycling, a book about the temples and history of the area, a necklace made by women in the Chin villages I visited and a roughly hand carved sandstone Buddha figure.

A week offline is a long time, especially when the connection is so poor, so catching up and posting photos is taking more time than I would wish.

So here is a taste of my Christmas adventure while the details are on their way.

Tinsel and tinternet

I have just over an hour before I head to the airport, to spend a few days out of town over Christmas.  Apparently there is no internet in the place I am going to.  No internet at all.  Hard to imagine when it has become such an integral part of our lives.  So I am not even taking my laptop with me.

There are not so many signs of Christmas here (unsurprisingly) apart from festive lighting on various buildings, Christmas trees on sale in the supermarket and piped Christmas music in a couple of hotels.

I like being able to take the elements which are meaningful to me without the social pressure and commercial aspects of the season.  And without wanting to put a label on my own spirituality I guess that I you could call me a “born again Buddhist” (I found that term irresistible 😉 ), respecting and recognising all faiths.

I don’t want to go into too much detail about my plan here, because the last time I did that Cyclone Giri disrupted that.  However, I can say that I am going to a lesser visited part of the country, to an ancient city of jungle temples, waterways and tribal villages.  I have pens, colouring pencils, a notebook and camera, mosquito repellent, pink toenail varnish and a straw hat.  I also have a packet of festive Jaffa Cakes which my friend brought me.  I plan to spend the days cycling among the temples, reflecting, appreciating and healing.  I expect to have plenty to write about when I am back.  And of course, plenty of photographs to share.

And on the topic of healing, I have good news.  My upper chest is enormously improved.  I still have some residual tenderness but I am back to my usual 800 metre morning swims instead of gentle half hour meanders in the pool.  And this morning, with no need to time watch office hours, I put in a kilometre as the sun rose.  And I can also say that I can see that swimming has a huge impact on my lymphodema.  It was mild, but very painful and in the first few days of returning to swimming Twang Arm was squealing and yelping as I ploughed up and down the pool.  Now I can feel it, but the pain has almost gone and it is much less perceptible.  There is no pool where I am going so I need to keep an eye on it, but it is so good, psychologically as well as physically, to see how quickly a regular swim counteracts Twang Arms tricks.

So I am a much better space now.  I am ready for another adventure, though I will be alert to the effects of adventures on this post chemoed-radiated-scarred and Tamoxifiex body.  And ready for a festive season free of tinsel and tinternet!

I wish you all a special time, whether or not this is a festive season for you, with the things that are important to you.

Leaving you with a sneak preview of where I plan to be……

 

In the Dark

There are not many times when I am silent on this blog and there are usually predictable reasons.  Firstly lack of, or slow, connectivity, which can happen here fairly regularly.  Or being out of town and being caught up with other work and activities.  Or, when something happens to worry me, like the wirple and I retreat into a shell of introspection and fear.  It might even be hidden and disguised underneath a chirpy upbeat post.  But I tend not to open up about whatever it is until after I know what it is about.

I returned from my field trip two weeks ago, tired, in need of a good hot shower, and with a standard issue stomach upset.  But that was insignificant. I felt inspired, motivated and refreshed from my visit to projects and communities.  It is an enormous boost, both personally and professionally.

So when, two days after getting back I suddenly developed severe pain in Twang Am and right across my upper chest, I was not happy. And let’s be honest, I was frightened.  The pain was horrible overnight and I resorted to taking pain meds which is something I tend to avoid for some reason, unless pain becomes really troublesome.

The past two weeks has seen me go through a time of pain, fear and worry and now that it appears to be easing, I feel that I can “come out” about it.

It is not clear what triggered the pain, even though the onset was sudden. I had been rattling about in the field, sitting for protracted lengths of time on floors, travelling for long hours on very bumpy tracks and in and out of boats and when that is coupled with an old lower spinal fracture from many years ago and fragility of upper chest following radiation and surgery trouble arises. I tend to compensate for the old fracture when I am sitting on the floor and find it uncomfortable to sit cross legged for too long.  This means that I often tend to lean on the other side, legs bent underneath me and taking all the weight on the opposite arm.  And that arm happens to be Twang Arm.  It looks as if Twang Arm has decided that it has been a bit on the quiet side for a while and it is time to squeal.

I consulted a different Doctor, Dr O.  Sadly (for me) Dr H has been posted to another country as part of an Asian Doctor shuffle and our new Doctor had not yet arrived.  But I know Dr O well, and he looked after me during the lost pneumonia days.  Whenever I bump into him in town he always comments on how good my hair is looking, considering I was completely bald when I first consulted him.  Appointments with Dr O are always fun, as his office is adorned with a variety of Tin Tin pieces of art. He examined me, and immediately diagnosed a problem with my thorax, probably as a result overcompensation for the older fracture.  He also noted some swelling on Twang Arm and thinks that it could be a touch of lympoedema.

But of course there was a not so hidden agenda item.  We both knew the reason why I was so frightened about this pain.  I told him where my mind had gone and he reassured me that this does not look like bone mets.  There, now I have said it out loud.  Dr O described the pain very accurately to me, and said that it was highly typical of thoracic pain.  I asked in at least three different ways about it being connected to Breast Cancer and in at least as many ways back, be told me he did not believe it to be connected.  He prescribed me a heap of painkilling drugs, including a shot in the rear and told me that it should improve considerably in a few days.  If it did not, then it would need further investigation, ideally through MRI as X Ray would be unlikely to give enough detail.

And of course that was very reassuring.  I left the surgery clutching my bags of meds and a tender rear.  But although it was reassuring at one level, I can’t say that my mind was immediately relieved.  I needed to see if the pain would subside, and if it did not, well it would need to be looked into.  And that took me to another whole swathe of fear.

Having an MRI is fine, but we all know that it would show up any nasties lurking as well as thorax or other problems.  And that is the thing.  It is not just about investigating that particular pain, it is the fact that I would need to prepare myself mentally and get my head in a space to handle whatever results it might show.  And that is what I find so hard.

In the days following the appointment with Dr O I took the pain meds religiously and it is hard to say what happened with the pain because it is hard to know what effect the pain meds were having.  By the weekend, I came to the end of the course and moved onto no pain meds.  The pain was still there, and still painful but it is hard to gauge the level of pain when it had been so severe before.  But it was certainly better than it had been, even if not as dramatically improved as I had wished for.

And now a week later, I am in much less discomfort.  The thorax pain is greatly improved, and tender now rather than take-your-breath-away agony.  However, Twang Arm is not so improved.  The thorax pain made it painful to swim so I rested for a few days until it felt that swimming was not aggravating it.  And it is clear that Twang Arm took full advantage of that time to crank up its discomfort.  There is not a great deal of visible swelling but it is very uncomfortable and I will need to get it checked out and get a plan of action to tackle its attack head on.

But at least my head is in a better, less dark space.  Following diagnosis we have a “two week” rule.  If there is unexplained pain or other potentially worrying symptom, that goes on for two weeks without improvement then it needs to get checked.  I saw Dr O almost right away due to the pain levels, and now I am at the two week point so it seems a good time to test the rule.  There is clearly a great improvement.  And as Dr H told me, a useful bench mark is the fact that “cancer pain and symptoms generally get worse not better”.

This darkness transports me right back to the time soon after diagnosis and the overwhelming feeling that something monumental had shifted in my world. I felt as if the certainty of the daily sunrise was a metaphor for the assurance I had had of my physical health.  Being confrontd with my mortality revealed a fundamental shift in my world.  This new cancer world felt akin to a world where the sunrise and daylight warmth were but memories.

In our world, the sun rises every morning.  It never fails.  We know we can completely rely on it.  We can be absolutely confident that the night sky will lighten and that the sun will appear over the horizon.  We can even be reasonably sure what time it will rise.  And moreso, we know it will do so every day without disappointment.  Some days are sunnier than others and we  can see the sun and that it did rise.  Some days are cloudier and the sun is not itself visible.  However, the very fact that it is daylight tells clearly that the sun did indeed rise.

So just imagine, if one day, unexpectedly the sun doesn’t rise.  The minutes tick towards the due dawn hour and the sky doesn’t lighten.  Can you imagine the disbelief as the sky stays stubbornly dark and realisation sinks in that the sun is not going to rise?  The world shifts into a dark and cold place.  Everything changes.  Everything fundamental which we take for granted suddenly shifts.  There is no daylight, no warmth, no growth and the colours all change.  There is not enough power and energy to illuminate our lives and maintain food sources. Humans are resilient and creative beings, however, with a strong urge and will to survive and with human creativity and incredible technology at our fingertips.  After the initial shock we can imagine that ways are developed of dealing with and adapting to a cold, dark world.  Life somehow continues.  Daylight and sunshine are but memories and we think with regret how much we took them for granted and lament that we did not value them more.  Despite the efforts to adjust and adapt though, life can never be the same again.  It can never go back to the way it was before.

That is obviously an extreme and dramatic analogy, and massively oversimplified.   But there is something about a cancer diagnosis that felt very similar to me, however. Hearing those words “highly suspicious of cancer” shook me to the very core of my existence.  The sun at the centre of my universe had changed and my world suddenly looked very, very different.  Of course I would cope though. I would readjust, I would recalibrate.  But I could never go back literally and figuratively.

This post diagnosis life does have its dark moments, with many prompts such as signs and symptoms which worry us, the fear of recurrence, persistent pain, the discomfort and restricted movement of Twang Arm, friends with metastatic cancer, the physical and visible scars of the treatments.  It is not a case of wallowing in this darkness, but it is important to know it is there and navigate our way through it as best we can.

This is one of the reasons my morning sunrise routine is so important to me.  It helps me to retain that sense of optimism through a very evident physical display of light and warmth.  And while my mind might not be completely freed from these black thoughts, they have been considerably weakened.  If the New Year brings continuation or worsening then I know what I need to do, but for now I am focusing on that improvement and making plans for a Christmas adventure.

Acceptance, acknowledgement and gratitude

Today is our wedding anniversary.  It is without doubt a time to reflect and give thanks for a great deal.

There are a number of Big Things which have happened in my life which have stayed with me and shaped who I am.  Events or experiences which I have not been able easily to lay to rest, and ones which play a prominent role in my conscious.  Breast cancer is obviously one of those things.

Another is our honeymoon experience in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.  We married on 10 December 2004 and travelled to the Andamans 2 days later.  We were due to leave on 26 December.  Yes, 26 December 2004.

We were incredibly protected that day, but we did experience a combination of PTSD and guilt in being part of such an immense disaster.  This is a shortened account of our experience of 26 December, 2004.

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We were sitting in the departure lounge of Kathmandu airport on 12 December 2004, waiting for our flight to Calcutta for our honeymoon trip to the Andaman Islands.  J caught sight of an elderly Ringpoche who was also sitting waiting and went over and gave his respects to him, and asked him about his visit to Calcutta.  Chatral  Rinpoche is a very senior, reclusive and fairly outspoken Rinpoche who has  shunned institutional and political involvement his whole life, choosing instead to live the life of a wandering yogi. To this day, despite his great age, he continues to move about, rarely remaining in one place for more than a few months. He is especially well known for his advocacy of vegetarianism and his yearly practice of ransoming the lives of thousands of animals in India. Chatral Rinpoche also stresses the practice of retreat and has established numerous retreat centers throughout the Himalayas, including in Pharping, Yolmo, and Darjeeling.  He was travelling from the retreat in Pharping, near Kathmandu on that day.  J’s family are very strong followers of the Buddhist faith and to meet such a senior Rinpoche was a special honour and highly auspicous.

Exactly two weeks later, on 26 December we were in Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman Islands, on our final day there.   We had spent two positively idyllic weeks on two islands – Havelock and Neil Islands snorkelling, lazing and really enjoying this magical place.  We had returned to Port Blair on Christmas Eve, to spend Christmas day and our plan had been to travel back to Calcutta and onto Delhi on Boxing day for the final week of our honeymoon in northern India spotting tigers.

I was woken by the first gentle tremors of the just before 6.30 am.  I felt an oddly soothing rocking of the bed and instantly wondered if it was possibly a tremor or whether hubby J was having some action packed Bollywood type dream!  Was hubby causing the bed to rock, or was the bed causing hubby to rock?  I very quickly realised it was an earthquake when as well as the bed, the wardrobe and mirrors started shaking and the tremors quickly got much stronger, seeming to gather speed.  I woke hubby J from his action packed dream, and we rushed out of the room.  I grabbed two strange essentials in automatic pilot – my glasses and my plastic sandals. My earthquake fear had meant that I was prepared and instantly made a judgement about where to take cover.  Having selected my glasses, I could see from the way the building was behaving, that we were safer not trying to leave the building.  We sheltered in the corridor while the quake was at its worst.  We could hardly stand, and it felt as if the hotel had turned to rubber.  The noise of the earth and building moving was the strangest, most difficult noise to describe – a sort of grinding, roaring noise.  Everything was moving, and the other guests were rushing downstairs (we were on the second floor). Glass, light fittings and other debris were smashing down all around, particularly in the stairwell.  My cheap plastic slippers protected my feet from the glass scattered everywhere.  The tremor was so strong that we could hardly stand.  Once the shaking subsided we returned quickly to the room, grabbed a couple of essentials including the nearest clothing and the small handbag with passports and made our way gingerly down the stairs which were littered with debris.  We were very fortunate not to be cut or hurt apart form a few bruises when we were thrown against the wall.

Outside we saw the extent of the damage.  Our new, carefully built hotel was badly damaged with large cracks everywhere.  The lift shaft added onto the front of the building had become separated from the main building and had probably provided some stability to the overall structure of the hotel.  If the building hadn’t been so well constructed our place of shelter could have been our death trap.

We waited and waited outside in the clothes we had slept in with all other guests also mostly in night clothes and shocked.  The owner of the hotel soon arrived and carried out a head count to make sure that all guests were accounted for.  Christmas is the peak season and the hotel was full.

At that stage, we had no idea that the earthquake was so significant and believed it was a local, though very powerful earthquake. We were to remain outside, for a few hours, as snippets of information slowly found their way to our ears, in bits and pieces.  The phone system was down but some people had picked up information from radio sources.  We had no direct way of finding anything out and for us there was an almost complete communication blackout, save these odd snippets.  We heard that the jetty was destroyed and cars and bikes were in the sea, it was more than 8 on the Richter scale, Indonesia was also affected, maybe west Bengal too, that a ship travelling from Tamil Nadu had capsized.  All vague and uncorroborated.

I had an awareness of the possibility of a tsunami and kept looking out towards the sea from our vantage point.  Port Blair is on a hilly area and we were on a road fairly high above Phoenix Bay.  Hubby had never heard of a tsunami and when I asked him why he was looking to the sky, he said that he was looking for the arrival of the Japanese rescue helicopter mission I was talking about.

Soon after the earthquake, I don’t know exactly when as time kind of stood still that morning, we heard people saying “the water’s coming , the water’s coming up”.  I still don’t know for sure if the water had already come up at that point, or if it was seen approaching as the snippets were coming in Hindi and Bengali.  I think it had probably already risen.

Port Blair town was sheltered from much of the anger of the tsunami by the southerly islands which absorbed the full brunt of its force and when it reached us it was more like a rapid flooding than a large wave, as if the ocean was tilting, one way then the other.  We were spared the horror of its brute strength purely by being in the right place at the wrong time.

The morning passed in a surreal daze.  I felt an urgent need for information – but knew there was absolutely no way I could find anything out..  There were further tremors, some pretty strong, but we were outside and felt safe away from buildings.  It was sometimes hard to tell if there was another tremor right away as we both felt a strange sensation of dizziness periodically.  We loitered in the street, sometimes sitting on the seats which the hotel owner had brought for us, then leaving them hurriedly when another tremor came, sometimes wandering down the street.  Sitting on neighbour’s steps further down the street, still in our night clothes, I finally, in increasing discomfort, had to ask the neighbour if I could use their bathroom at one point, and she very warmly welcomed me into her house. “Please don’t look at the mess”, she said.  On the outside, the beautiful Andamanese wooden house looked untouched.  Inside, however, was a very different story.  The beautiful house was wrecked inside – the large aquarium was in the middle of the floor, smashed, surrounded by dead fish, rocks and underwater plants, furniture had fallen over, picture, ornaments, books lying all over the floor.  In the bathroom I saw that the toilet was full of what looked like mud – then I realised the seriousness of the situation facing the islands.  The plumbing system had been completely destroyed – pipes crushed and the sewerage system ruined.  Even the taps refused to produce anything but a trickle of mud.  We were clearly a burden on this island – clean water was desperately needed for the Andamanese and not for us outsiders.  This wonderful woman made tea for us and chatted as we sat on her steps waiting for something, not sure what.

We continued our wait outside the hotel, naively aware that our flight time was approaching and not knowing if flights would still be operating.  Slowly the hotel owner found places to stay for those guests who still had time in the Andamans.  Gradually we were reunited with most of our belongings (the hotel was too damaged to let us back in, so things were slowly recouped for us).  We packed our bags in the street, but had no place to change so headed to the airport still in our night clothes.

On our way to the airport we passed Jungli Ghat which was inundated and damaged, and people standing around dazed.  We heard people saying that some people had died in Port Blair – no one knew whether the earthquake or the water had caused their deaths, all was so uncertain.

On arrival at the airport, many people were outside on the grass.  We had to wait outside as no one was allowed in the airport building so we waited and waited for news of flights.  Gradually we learned that the runway had been damaged at one end.  No one knew what would happen.  It was impossible for the large planes which usually fly to Port Blair to land so eventually all flights were cancelled.  A large queue formed beside the Air India window as people tried to get their tickets altered.  Jet Air passengers were reallocated seats and accommodation found for them and they gradually left the airport.  Nothing was going to happen quickly, that was sure, so hubby left to try and phone again, and to get something to eat.    He brought back some mung beans, crisps and pineapple juice which we consumed with disinterest and mechanically – neither of us were hungry but our bodies told us we had to feed ourselves.  The afternoon progressed and I waited patiently and politely at the end of the Air India queue as the queue in front of me grew and grew and people gradually left as their tickets were endorsed in some way for later travel.  Finally, we were told that the Indian government would put on one relief flight later that day as they recognised that that they had to start lifting people out. An empty, smaller plane would be flown in, and would be able to land on the shorter length of available runway.

We were extremely fortunate to be on that first airlift, and it was purely down to chance, and probably British queuing style.  We had a connection in Calcutta for Delhi which we knew would have long departed so asked about that.  Due to the emergency situation there would be no problem with our tickets – but we were told that our luggage might not go on the flight with us.  As part of the runway was disabled, the plane would not be able to carry all passenger luggage so it could lift abruptly before the damaged part.  The priority was to evacuate people and bags could follow later.

Everything except the one check in desk was eerily deserted in the airport. Shops, phone booths and even the immigration desk for foreigners was empty.  This caused a difficulty for me as the lone foreigner on the flight.  Immigration officials had been released when the flights were cancelled and I had to surrender my permit and have my passport endorsed before I would be able to leave the Andamans.  As the rest of the passengers filed through to the departure area, we were left sitting there until we were almost alone. Cracks were everywhere in the building – supporting walls separated from adjoining walls with gaps of a several inches.  A TV was playing in the corner, showing a cricket match, bizarrely.

We heard the aircraft arrive – safely clearing the damage on the runway.  We were on the point of being lifted out of the emergency situation, but we couldn’t stop thinking of those we had befriended on the islands not knowing how they had been affected.  In particular the warm people on Neil Island where we had extended our stay.  Finally a lone official arrived who was allowed to carry out the exit formalities, he took my permit, and stamped my passport  “Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Port Blair – departure 26 December 2004”.  We joined our fellow passengers in the departure area, all exchanging our stories, a motley crew of travellers, some with injuries from the earthquake and most in various states of dress (we weren’t alone there).

Finally we boarded our flight as daylight was fading – mirroring our abrupt start to the day as the first light was seeping into our room when the quake came.  After our idyllic holiday our departure from the Andamans felt strangely one of relief.

The departure was frightening because we knew that the pilot had to calculate precisely how heavy the plane could be and where exactly to take off – a minuscule error could be disastrous, and there was enormous relief when we took off sharply away from the damaged earth behind us.

Our pilot must have been carefully chosen for this job, not just for his wonderful skill in guiding the aircraft in and out of Port Blair, but also for his gentle, caring attitude which came across during his in-flight announcement.  He told us to relax, that he and his crew would look after us and take us safely to Calcutta after our ordeal.  We didn’t even realise that there had been an ordeal I don’t think at that stage.  We did realise we were pretty hungry too and hubby asked the cabin crew if there was any extra food (we had eaten only those crisps and mung beans all day) and they happily gave us extra portions, seemingly having thought of this already.  We flew towards Calcutta, the sun staying just on the horizon on our western side as we travelled northwards, and the full moon lighting up the sky on our eastern sky, another strange mirror that day.

I remember little of that flight but do remember feeling cold when we arrived in Calcutta, in my short trousers and night shirt.  When we had packed in the street at least we had been able to recover our Kathmandu winter jackets so must have looked really strange – but we didn’t care or realise at the time.  We waited at the luggage carousel – and were reunited with our bags for the second time that day.  We were among a few lucky ones, I think we travelled a lot lighter than many of our fellow travellers.   At the baggage carousel there was a lot of interest in us – “what is the situation like in Port Blair – there is no news, what has happened?”.  I started to realise how cut off we had been and that the world didn’t know how the Andamans had been affected.

I was desperately anxious to call our families, just in case they had heard anything in the news about the earthquake.  We had phoned home on Christmas day to send seasonal wishes, and to gloat about our good fortune spending Christmas in such a wonderful setting, particularly when Scotland had seen blizzards and Christmas dinner had to be postponed as not everyone could make it.  So they knew exactly where we were.  It appeared that the rescheduled Christmas dinner was again heading for cancellation as the news of the earthquake was the news which Scotland woke to on Boxing day.

It was then we really learned the enormity of the disaster.  It was then that slowly news of the tsunami and its devastation across south Asia was appearing.  Our telephone calls were very emotional and shocking.  Our loved ones had been through hell and unable to get any information, partly due to official lines being overloaded, but also because there was no communication with the Andamans and no news. We had been posted missing with the British Embassy consular officials in Delhi.  My mother in law had collapsed, fearing a double cruel blow in a few months as she had only recently been widowed .  Our ordeal was nothing in comparison to what our families and friends went through.

We were put on the last flight to Delhi that night, and at 10 pm were finally called to the departure lounge.  Here there was a TV in the corner and BBC world was broadcasting.  I stood in sheer horror and disbelief, oblivious to the tears rolling down my face, as I listened to the ashen faced newscaster recounting the emerging devastation of the tsunami, seeing the map with Andamans right in the midst of the disaster.  I was totally unable to comprehend this massive tragedy.  I was completely unable to grasp the fact that I had been right in the very place which was so prominent on the world stage.

We flew late that night onto Delhi in a complete daze and decided to drive down to Agra where we collapsed in a freezing hotel room in the early hours of the morning, and finally slept for most of the day.  We decided not to go tiger spotting in Bandavhgargh as we had originally planned as it seemed a bit irresponsible to risk being eaten by tigers after being blessed with protection in the Andamans. Instead we headed to Rajasthan after Agra and spent a very quiet New Year counting our blessings and thinking of those so less fortunate than us. We returned to Kathmandu with, I have to say, an altered perspective on life.

I had nightmares for a long time, occasionally still having one.  I used to wake in a panic, convinced that I could feel the bed rocking again. Sometimes there would be a reason, such as a lorry trundling past in the street causing buildings in the street to shudder, sometimes hubby stirring in his own nightmare, and sometimes it is just the pounding of my heart as I try instantly to assess if it is a tremor.  I am fortunate – at least I wake up.

I cannot ignore the coincidence of meeting Chatral Rinpoche in the departure lounge and what he said.  When hubby asked him about his journey  we were struck by what he told us. He said that something terrible was going to happen and many people would die.  With the conflict in Nepal this did not strike us as particularly unexpected. He told hubby that he was going to the Gaya Ganga fish market near Calcutta where he would buy fish and release them back into Ganga holy river, which goes to the bay of Bengal and of course Andaman islands, from its origin in Kashmir.  He said that releasing the fish and blessing them would save some lives.  We gave him a donation and asked him to get more fish and release them and maybe more lives would be protected.  Chatral Rinpoche thanked us and told us that he would release fish in our name for the long life of others.   It seems too great a coincidence that our lives were somehow protected in the Andamans on 26 December.

*******

When we married seven years ago today we had no idea of the challenges ahead of us.  We have certainly been tested.  We certainly did not sign up for the tsunami, nor the cancer club.  But these things did happen, and sitting here today in peaceful, tropical surroundings it feels almost surreal to reflect back and accept and acknowledge what has happened.  And most of all to appreciate and value how fortunate am I to have been protected, looked after and cared for by hubby during these times.

Thank you, J.  Happy Anniversary 🙂

Bridges

On the day I was leaving to go to the field, the car arrived twenty minutes early.  It was just after 6 am so I quickly closed down my laptop, gently turned off the lights, picked up my bags and closed the door behind me.  I had checked my email in the dark, knowing that I was unlikely to get online again before my return on the Friday, acknowledging the importance of my bridge to the outside world to family, friends and a community of former strangers who are increasingly important in my life

As we drove across Yangon, the sun was just making its way over the horizon and the quiet streets were bathed in a deep pink glow.  By the time we passed Inya Lake the sun was resting gently above the horizon, and the park area on Pyay Road beside the Lake, in contrast to the roads, was filled with people going about their early morning exercise, walking, jogging, tai chi, yoga and working on formation aerobics.  An intense pink light had developed which was throwing red shapes over the city’s buildings.

We continued across town, and turned westward at the 8 mile junction.  Before long we crossed the Ayerawaddy River over the great Bayinnaung bridge, Yangon gently warming behind us and the river busting with activity below us.  My colleague told me with great excitement that we would pass by a massive bridge which was newly constructed and had been opened the day before.  He had watched the opening ceremony on the TV news.

As we continued westwards towards Pathein we continued across a landscape punctuated by a complicated system of waterways from slender streams, to massive swathes of the main Ayerawaddy river, all making their way towards the Andaman Sea.  We eventually turned off the main road to travel southwards, onto a smaller road which soon turned into a stony track.  Our speed dropped right down as we bumped along, my colleague somehow managing to sleep for a good part of the bumpy ride.

I can never doze during these trips, no matter how long they are, as the journey is so fascinating.  Passing everyday life is so interesting, and I realised that I was soon becoming obsessed by the incredible number of small bridges leading to homes, buildings, fields and paths across the small waterways near the road.  There were some tiny bridges, slim and deceptively flimsy looking, which were made of a couple of lengths of bamboo, laid across the water, resting on a V formation and with a kind of “hand rail” to enable people to cross the water safely. 

There were more seemingly sturdy bridges, the bamboo more intricately woven to make an apparently more firm structure.  There were quaint little arches over the water linking roads and homes.  There were groups of men sitting on half bridges, and washing on more sophisticated bridges.

It is clear that in this  landscape where waterways, like veins, criss-cross everywhere, bridges from simple to more complex structures right through to the phenomenal newly opened kilometres long bridge are critical to life in the delta.

As indeed the internet in its role as my bridge to the outside world is critical.  I would feel incredibly isolated and cut off without my bridge.  If that bridge is broken, or damaged, as can happen quite often here, I feel incredibly isolated.

However, as our journey continued and we approached our first destination, I realised that in fact the bridges had an even more powerful association.  Before my diagnosis, I would not think twice about field trips and always looked forward to them.  Being so ill pulled me up short, and being robbed of independent life and a great deal of mobility, field trips were well off my agenda for a good while.  Now, back in the flow, planning adventures and working in remote communities, I feel that this trip represents a real bridge to my other life, the life before cancer.