Time to breathe

I was only home for 6 days, and hadn’t really fully unpacked when I set off again.  That was over a week ago.  Finally, after the best part of 24 hours travelling homeward, I reached home again late this morning.

So there has not been a lot of time for blogging, even there has been a great deal of new experience, reflection and enormous appreciation.

I have plenty to say, but limited opportunity to process and refine my thoughts for sharing.  So in the meantime,  here is an image from my latest travels.  This is one of my favourite blossoms, frangipani, illuminated by candlelight at my dinner table.  I might not have had much time to pause for breath, but I sure have a great deal to be thankful for.


Macanese escapade

You do indeed learn something new every day.   And how many of would be able to say what the currency of Macau is,without having to look it up?  Me for one!    And when I was hatching a brief escapade last weekend following my meet up with Terri , I realised that I had no idea what the Macanese currency is, and in fact if it has its own currency!

Terri headed to the airport for the next part of her adventure early in the afternoon, and I found myself standing on my own at the Airport Express station, clutching the memories of an amazing weekend,  the added warmth of our friendship and the inspiration of our ideas – and the sneaky idea that I was about to embark on an escapade for the remainder of the day!  What better way to keep myself occupied following such a wonderful meet up.

I have always been curious to visit Macau, and it is an easy hour away from Hong Kong – so what was I waiting for?  Carpe the diem, girl!  So off I trundled, looking for the signs that I had seen somewhere for the Macau Ferry.  Before long, I was in the queue for tickets and Macau-bound.  The water was choppy but the crossing straightforward and by late afternoon I was standing in the immigration queue at Macau.

I knew I didn’t have long there, so after three unsuccessful attempts to get into town by bus, I jumped into a taxi.  I passed the old Portuguese quarter which I had really wanted to explore, but time was not on my side and I did not want to get stranded somewhere as it was starting to get dark.  So instead I explored the town centre.  The city is a fascinating mix of Portuguese influence alongside an overwhelming casino landscape.  Surreal architecture (a casino the shape of a pineapple, towering above), neon lights and disney-esque structures.

After a good old wander around, it was easy to jump on a bus back to the Ferry terminal, so that I could return to Hong Kong for a Saturday evening dinner.

It was a perfect afternoon escapade.  I settled back into the ferry, and as we left the lights of Macau on our return to Hong Kong, my fingers were clasped around a new treasure – two crisp “dez patacas” notes! A tangible memento of Macau and it currency – Patacas.

All over the place

It has been an unforgettable week, for reasons which are painful and upsetting, as well as ones which are inspiring and affirming. And a week which has seen me all over the place.  In every sense – geographically, physically and emotionally.

The Breast Cancer community around the globe is still reeling from loss which made it a particularly poignant and meaningful time for a rendez vous which I, for  one, had been scheming for some time.

It was a crazy kind of idea really, to meet up with someone I knew very well but only from our online connection.  Someone who I was sure was a kindred spirit – Terri of A Fresh Chapter who is volunteering around the world.  It was all the more crazy because my schedule meant that I had not been able to connect with Terri when she was in Vietnam, nearer to my neck of the woods, and reachable by a direct flight. No, I would head from Yangon early in the morning, transiting Bangkok and travel to Hong Kong for our meet up.  Travel which would take the best part of a day, and would take me to a city over 1000 kilometres from Yangon, to a place which was home for neither of us.  And this arrangement was made totally on trust.  Absolutely, completely and utterly on trust.  If someone had told me 3 years ago, that I would travel to another country, at a fair distance, to meet up with someone I had in fact never met before, and who I knew only from their online profile, I would simply not have believed it. What would have happened if it was all an elaborate hoax (spot the paranoia!)?  What would have happened if she had not turned up?  On the face of it, this was an extremely risky undertaking.  Yet, I had complete conviction that Terri would be there, and that we would have heaps to talk about.

My journey was a bit rushed.  I had been very busy at work, had been all over the place emotionally with my father’s ill health, Rachel and Susan’s loss and the diagnosis of my friend.  I threw a few things in my small case, gathered my travel papers and cash card, and after a cup of tea on Thursday morning I caught a taxi to the airport.  I even packed an umbrella to keep the sun off me while walking.

The morning was hazy, leaving our part of town, and Inya Lake looked mysterious in the early light.  When we reached the “Eight mile” junction, just over a mile from the airport, the mist thickened and by the time we reached the airport there was a thick blanket of fog.  The taxi driver was highly bemused by this, and told me he had never seen anything like it.  He told me that this must be like England.  Little did he know that a Scot would of course find that most amusing!

Unsurprisingly, my flight was delayed by an hour as the fog slowly cleared and enabled the incoming flight to land.  This cut my connection time considerably in Bangkok, but a smart sprint took me back to the same gate as I had arrived, and entirely coincidentally back on the same plane now with a different number, captain and crew in time for departure to Hong Kong.

The early evening sky was heavy as we approached Hong Kong and I could just make out the skyline and several boats in the bay as we landed.  As the plane doors were opened and we disembarked I was somewhat alarmed to see the staff wearing heavy winter jackets and warm clothing.  A skim of the in flight magazine and my usual study of the flight paths and route information had already informed me that Hong Kong was considerably further north in the physical world than it had been in my mind.  These two facts combined to remind me of the importance of rather more pre departure research than I had actually carried out – I had been far too blase about this trip, and had assumed it would not be much cooler than Yangon.  I was evidently wrong and that renown Meterology expert, Professor Google was clearly having fun at my expense.

I had taken all of my bags as carry on because of the tight connection so was able to head quickly through immigration and customs, and onto the Airport Express train and towards my hotel, sweeping up a sim card, local currency and a few maps on my way through.  I had another episode of “oh dear, I should have done my research” when I put my card into the ATM machine (the poor card has been on holiday since I was last travelling out of the country) and realised I had absolutely no idea of the exchange rate and how much cash to withdraw!

My concern about the temperature continued to grow as I saw that people were generally wearing quilted jackets, fur-lined boots and thick scarves covering the lower half of their faces.  They were most definitely feeling the cold.  And in a light cotton blouse, open sandals and cotton trousers I was too.  My only concession had been to bring a pashmina shawl in case I felt cool in air conditioned buildings!  Perhaps I have learned my lesson now!

With the early delay and the time differences, the journey had taken most of the day and I had a quiet evening, emailing Terri to let her know that the first part of Operation Meet up had been successfully accomplished and that I was in the right place and very much looking forward to her arrival the next day.  I received a similarly squealy excited email in response advising me that the second part of the Operation was proceeding to plan and she was similarly anticipating our meet up.

I had a quiet morning on the Saturday, getting my bearings and fretting a bit about the weather.  One of the advantages though of life on the hoof, is that you tend to have friends scattered across the region and I had arranged to meet a friend who is based in Hong Kong.  This was wonderful from many angles.  Firstly it was just lovely to see her again and chat.  Secondly, it meant that my mind was distracted during the day, as Terri was due to arrive in the later afternoon.  And thirdly, and this was entirely fortuitous – my friend had generously looked out some sensible garments for me to keep me cosy.

All too soon lunchtime disappeared behind us, and the afternoon progressed.  It was time to head back to the hotel in time for Terri’s arrival!  I went back to my room, my stomach knotted with anticipation and immediately saw that there was a flashing light on the phone in my room.  I dialled the voicemail recall and there it was – my first “real life” connection with Terri with the sound of her voice.  Operation “Meet a Fellow Blogging Sister in Hong Kong” had been accomplished.

And we did have heaps to talk about.  We talked all through drinks and dinner, picking up again the following morning, and chatted about all sorts of life/career/cancer details as we wove our way around the many obstacles of “Dried Seafood Street”, climbed the many steps between lanes, explored the winding streets of Hong Kong’s central district and power-shopped for essentials in the shiny new mall.  It was wonderful to be able to follow through discussions, talk through ideas, share our experiences, hopes and fears.  Terri has met up with a number of blogging and Twitter connections so was perhaps less bug-eyed than I was at this wild idea of meeting up. It was so interesting to hear her talking of her other meetings and hear more about the people I have become close to without having seen them in “real life”.

All too soon, it was time for Terri to pick up her bag, and keep moving forwards on her Adventure of Hope as she had a flight to catch to Delhi on the Saturday evening.  I am in awe of her undertaking and believe that we are indeed kindred spirits, both of us having experienced some of the challenges for people with cancer in developing contexts.  Terri’s posts from Vietnam tell of the disparity in access to information, care and treatment and my heart stopped as she talks about  “over-crowded hospitals, diagnoses that happen way too late, and the unthinkable travesty of children suffering from metastatic cancer with no access to morphine “. We cannot fail to be spurred into action.  There is a huge job to do, and through Terri’s work I have also connected with the Global Focus on Cancer organisation.   After less than a day sharing ideas and thoughts I remain convinced we share a common mission.

So any underlying thoughts of this being a rather reckless jaunt did not materialise.  The weekend affirmed my place in the breast cancer community and my beliefs in the changes that I want to work towards.  And I very aim for it to be the first of many meet ups………

However, I think that the most incredible aspect to our meeting was in the timing, just days after Rachel and Susan were taken by breast cancer and we were all hurting so badly.  To be able to spend time with someone who was similarly touched, and who understood the depth of emotion involved in our friendships, would have been utterly inconceivable for me, usually so geographically distant from most of the community.   So although I have indeed been all over the place, physically and emotionally this week, my meet up with Terri was clearly meant to be.

What a difference a week makes

This week is shaping up to be monumental.

Firstly, the encouraging news.  My father is doing well considering all things.  It’s still early days, but he is recovering from this specific episode and we are holding on to the hope that it is not followed up by another.  Thank you so much for messages of support, concern and wishes for his recovery.

I was already in a rather fragile frame of mind at the start of this week,when I opened a message from a friend, expecting that she was contracting me because she might be heading over here.  Sadly not.  She was contacting because she has just been diagnosed.  The initial delight in seeing a message from her was swept away with anger and sadness that breast cancer is continuing in its destructive path.

Nothing could have prepared me for the news later that day, of the shocking loss of friend and smart, spirited and feisty fellow blogger Rachel to metastatic breast cancer.   After an unsettled night, I opened my laptop window to the world on Tuesday morning to find that cancer has also stolen Susan, another articulate, highly intelligent and amazing woman.   I knew both Susan and Rachel were very ill, but how could this happen when their voices were so strong and full of vitality? The blogosphere is teeming with messages, tributes and outpourings to these women, I am privileged to have known but not known.  My thoughts and feelings are too messy to be able to express right here, right now but will follow at a later date.

So now I find myself in a strange frame of mind, drained of energy and my emotions raw.  But in the midst there is a flutter of nervousness and anticipation.  Now that there is a little more clarity around my father’s situation, I have been able to confirm a plan which has been bubbling away for a while.  In fact it makes a lot of sense because it means communication will be easier, as would travel if things deteriorated suddenly.  And that plan is to head to Hong Kong, to meet Terri of A Fresh Chapter while she is in Asia on her Adventure of Hope.  So, in the whirlwind that has swept this week into our lives, I find myself on the brink of an experience which I believe will be inspiring, warming and humbling.   In addition to sharing our own experiences, plans and ideas, we will be able to share the grief of losing Rachel and Susan. I am sure that we will talk about the subject of her blog posting about being united in grief and the strength of our online community.

In such a stormy week, which I will remember for painful reasons, this is a real glimmer of sunshine .

Stuff Expat Aid Workers Don’t Like

There is a site called Stuff Expat Aid Workers Like (SEAWL) which is popular amongst overseas-based workers because it pokes fun at our profession a bit.   Although my work is generally more in development than aid, many characteristics are shared. For instance, there can be a need to establish your street cred and an inverted snobbery can develop.  Having a lengthy tropical disease CV, a history of curfew experiences in different countries,  photos taken with visiting celebrities, passports bulging with rare and “sought after” stamps and visas, a diversity of experience spanning conflict zones, social unrest, remoteness and climatic extremes all give bonus points for your credibility.  There are all sorts of things which expat workers like and this is one example.

However, there is one thing which we all dread.  That is the phone call, text message or email from family which tells us that all is not well back home.  The news of accident or illness of a loved one.  It sends us into a spin of helplessness, making decisions about when and whether to jump on that plane and hurry back, making three way skype calls in the middle of the night to try and get details.  In my 12 years overseas receiving difficult and unwelcome news has happened three times, twice resulting in that long and painful journey, bracing for an emotional and sad family reunion.

I received a dreaded email on Saturday morning, and learned that my father has been hospitalised.  My world has again been shaken violently.  We are working hard to get details and work out if a visit now, or later is the best course of action.  Turning up from the other side of the world can give an unhelpful message in those first days when things are unclear.  Timing is critical, and also depends on his condition over the coming days.

So at the moment, all the pieces of my life have been thrown up in the air again and I am not sure how they are going to be assembled when they fall. This might be one of those events which turn out to be less serious than feared.  Or it might not.   I will keep you posted.

Mrauk U adventure – the complete picture

As I have told the story in three  parts, along with photos on the sister blog, I thought it useful to put these together so that it is possible to see the complete picture.

The Story

Part 1 of the Story – Pushing myself to my limits. Journey to Mrauk U

Part 2 of the Story – A Christmas exploring Mrauk U

Part 3 of the Story – A day to remember in the Chin villages


Exploring Mrauk U

Ancient temples of Mrauk U

Remote villages and traditions

Leaving you with another favourite image – a chameleon sitting on the shoulder of Buddha.  Trying to be just like Buddha?