When I was very young our family lived in a little house which was called “Sanctuary”. We were there for only around two or three years. I had no idea what sanctuary meant but it was a familiar word with associations of comfort, safety and the warmth which a child associates with home.  Even today, decades later “sanctuary” is a word which wraps me in a feeling of comfort and transports me to my early childhood.

As well as being a place of safety, refuge or a haven Sanctuary is also a term for a reserve or area for wildlife and is often protected.  In Borneo, there are sanctuaries where endangered species have a safe space, often to recover from capture or ill treatment or if they have been orphaned.  The Sanctuary provides a safe space, in their natural habitat but under the watch of naturalists to ensure their safety.

Most well known is the orang utan and the facilities and spaces for their protection from a variety of dangers and risks.  Funnily the name orang utan is another term which instantly takes me back decades, to my earlier school years.  As an only child in a remote Scottish area, I spent a great deal of time outdoors, but weather would often curtail outdoor time.  The other thing I which took up much of my time was reading, and I would spend hours reading all manner of reading material – books, stories, poems and what I would probably call “discovery” books.  These were any books which could absorb me completely.  They could be encyclopaedias (yes, I could spend hours being led on a journey in an encyclopaedia), books about space and the planets, natural history books, books about other far away countries, or long ago people.

Reading is, of course, a solitary experience although I was far from lonely or bored. (Of course my parents may have had a very different recollection!) The thing about solitariness however, is that there is not a cross reference for many things and I would often find that the pronunciation of a number of words which my mind devised from the written word, sounded very different when I heard them pronounced.  It could be quite unsettling finding out that I had not emphasised the right syllable or had lengthened an ‘a’ or ‘i’ incorrectly.  I am not sure how old I was when I discovered that my inner pronunciation of orang utan was completely wrong. What others called “arangatangs” was to my astonishment that very animal which I called an “orange oootang” (with emphasis on the first syllable of utan). Try saying it aloud, it is really rather different!  My childish mind had associated the colour of the primate with its similarly sounding name. it all made sense to me! In fact,  the word “orang” is Malay for “person” whilst “utan” is derived from “hutan” meaning forest. Thus, orang utan literally translates as “person of the forest”. And absolutely nothing to do with its auburn colouring!

Sarawak is very proud of its wildlife and especially of the orang utan. One of the most popular trips for a visitor is to see the orang utan and generally we crave seeing the animal is as natural a surrounding as possible. Although my research was not extensive I knew that I did not want to see a caged animal and that the setting I would be most comfortable with, would be a Wildlife Sanctuary, such as the Semenggoh Wildlife Centre and Nature Reserve.  However, I also learned that luck is a major factor if you go to the sanctuary where the animals live in the semi wild. There is no guarantee that they will come down to the feeding platforms where bananas and other seasonal goodies are left out for them.  This is especially the case in fruiting season when they do not have to forage so much with an abundance of fresh “still on the branch” food. When I made arrangements to visit the Sanctuary, it was made clear to me that a combination of rain and abundant food made sightings very rare at this time of year.

However, I rose very early, and swallowed a few mouthfuls of rushed omelette before  waiting for the transport to arrive.  I was all set with a small backpack, no visible food or water, and plenty of mosquito discourageant. And of course my camera and a heap of naive optimism.

The morning was unusually clear, the clouds had parted although there were still wisps threaded across the peaks.

Early morning

Early morning

The drive was pleasant, and my mood one of enthusiasm with a tinge of that guarded optimism. No matter whether I saw an orang utan or not, I was heading on an adventure and somewhere new.

Driving towards the Sanctuary, across the Santubong bridge

Driving towards the Sanctuary, across the Santubong bridge

As we walked through the forest towards the first feeding platform, the guide touched my elbow and pointed through the trees.  There, hanging like an acrobat was a hulky orang utan tucking into a banana feast.  I was spell bound.

These bananas are MINE!

These bananas are MINE!

We were given a very detailed and clear briefing.  There are strict rules in the sanctuary, and for good reason:

  • Do not hold, feed, touch, play with or in any way disturb the orang utan, and always move at least six metres away from an animal that is on the ground. There are three very good reasons for this. Firstly, the animals may become too attached to humans, making it harder for them to survive in the wild. Secondly humans are able to communicate certain diseases to orang utan, and vice-versa. By eliminating contact the possibility of disease transfer is reduced. Thirdly, an orang utan may feel threatened and attempt to attack you – some of the Semenggoh wardens carry ugly scars from protecting thoughtless visitors from injury.

  • Do not bring any food or drinks into the Centre. The orang utan and other animals at the centre already receive a balanced diet, and the smell of food may encourage an animal to approach too closely.

  • Do not smoke in the feeding area or any other part of the Forest Reserve.

  • Do follow the warden’s instructions and advice at all times.

  • Do not collect, or pick plants or animals in Semenggoh Nature Reserve, or in any other Totally Protected Area.

  • Do not litter. Please use the litter bins provided.

We were also told that the flash should be disabled while taking photographs.  The orang utan thinks it is lightning and could become alarmed and unpredictable. We were also told that the orang utans become distressed if they hear children crying or shouting.

We then spotted a mother and her young.  Apparently there is not a specific term for the young, so they are called babies or infants. This mum and wee one were hanging around in the trees, seemingly listening to our briefing!

mum and infant in the trees

mum and infant in the trees

borneo orang utan 2They soon joined by the large male as he swung over to help himself to some more fruit.

The male on his way through the jungle canopy

The male on his way through the jungle canopy

I have no idea why, but we were extremely fortunate. For whatever reason, that morning a number of orang utans had decided to hang around near the feeding platforms, and the nearby jungle where we could see them.

borneo 6I watched from a distance, as they carried on with their own day. Watching them quietly, listening to the sounds of the rainforest and soaking in a very special atmosphere.

borneo 4Returning afterwards, people were surprised that we had such a fortunate morning. I had been advised that I should not be disappointed if I saw no orang utans, I  have no idea why of all mornings, that morning they were out and about.  And really, the why does not matter. It just was what it was, and I am really very thankful.

Sunlight on fur, watching through the trees

Sunlight on fur, watching through the trees

The memories are still so vivid. If I close my eyes I can hear the rainforest sounds, and see the orang utans peering through the jungle canopy, the sun lighting up their bright fur. A true sanctuary in many senses.


Return from the rainforest

I returned to Yangon just over a week ago, from Borneo. From rainy season in the rainforest to our too short cool, dry season.

There has been a slight shiver, a hint of chill which has been resting over Yangon the past few weeks. A crispness in the morning air, as a slow sun lifts heavily, slipping its fingers gently through the trees, dabbing slivers of colour and soft light.  I feel the cool air on my skin as I cycle through the morning lanes, just before sunrise.  I can see the cold in the woollen hats and scrunched up faces on the few people in the lanes, in their scarves, long sleeves and warmer wraps and  even in the occasional t-shirt wrapped round street dogs to keep them warm.  I admire the elderly man cycling with his arms crossed, tightly hugging his chest and wonder how on earth he will tackle the bend a few yards ahead in the road. These days are precious and they do not last long. Already they are losing their grip as the sun gathers strength and the cooler air dissipates more quickly.  I cherish these days, clasping them to my heart and holding onto them as long as possible because they will soon be only a memory. Our dry season is indeed short, and the days soon become hot, humid and heavy and we look to the long rainy season for relief.

So I have to confess that I was a little surprised when I was planning my visit to Borneo and discovered it was the midst of rainy season there.  I really had not given it any thought and vaguely assumed that as it was not so far away, the season must be similar.  However, that is not the case and I arrived to glorious and spectacular rains.  And my goodness, do the rainforests love rains!Borneo 8My plan for the ten days in Borneo was simple. Rest, swimming, wandering, contemplation, writing but most of all,  just being.  I can easily spend hours just listening to the rains, gazing at the iconic Borneo peaks from afar with a sense of awe, watching the trees and letting the stresses which build up be washed away. Of course I took many photos, and in addition to a small selection here, there will be a wider set on the sister blog.

Borneo 6I had another plan though.  One which combines the modernity of 21st century communication, the experience of breast cancer and the most fundamental human essence of friendship, trust and connection.

Through the blog, I have connected with total strangers and shared the most personal of details.  That is the subject of great discussion elsewhere on the blogosphere this week.

Through this technological wizardry, I had connected with a woman in Borneo some time back through a comment she made on the blog. We have a lot in common. We have both been living in Asia for a number of years, settled with family and with husbands from this part of the world and been living in very different cultures to that of our early years. We both originally hail from the UK.  And we were both diagnosed with breast cancer and experienced treatment in our adopted regions.

I spent New Year’s Eve with her family, generously included in their plans, as well as an afternoon being guided through the craft shops of her city picking up treats to take back and learning the bahasa word for gecko.  And of course sharing our experiences of living with breast cancer diagnosis and its impact. It was especially interesting to share insights of the cancer journey while in a culture very different to the one of our origin. Until diagnosis, we do not know or understand the very deep held beliefs around the disease and it brings unexpected moments and experiences which can be heart warming and challenging.

Borneo 12

There is more to tell of my Borneo visit, and as I settle back into the intensity of life and work in Yangon I will tell more of my time there.  In the meantime, I hold onto the freshness of the memories of the experience and the simplicity and complexity of life today.

Three little words, five years running

Rainy season is in full force in Borneo just now, so I was surprised to waken this morning to bright sunshine streaming in the window, New Year rays of sunshine. A sign of the coming year, perhaps. I cling to that hope.

borneo 3

There is no set plan for the first day of 2014, but there are some things to be done.  A swim of course, and a wander through the rainforest to the beach, some gazing at the jungle covered, dramatic peaks surrounding us.  Iconic Borneo view.  And the three words to share.

One swim has been swum, as gentle, drizzley raindrops were falling and wispy clouds gathered on the nearby peaks. There is something refreshing and life giving about these rains, and swimming under raindrops is special. Until the rains become too heavy.  I was able to swim for nearly half an hour before a rumble of thunder and the rain in my eyes prompted me to leave the pool.

Which makes it time to share the words.  The words have been selected for a little while now, tested here and there, and now they just need to be wrapped in more words to give the background.

Just as 2009 was drawing to a close, with two rounds of surgery, and three cycles of chemo, oh  and a stage 3 cancer diagnosis in the last weeks of the year, I saw an unusual prompt or suggestion for the coming year. Instead of making a New Year’s resolution, this suggested selecting three words to guide and inspire for the coming year. The rest is history. I identified three words which spoke clearly to me of how I wanted 2010 to be shaped.  These were to stay closely with me over the following year and without doubt kept me focused on what I felt to be important. This resonated so soundly with me it has truly been a practice which has been alive and meaningful for me. This has become an integral part of my life, and yes I do know how trite that sounds!  I spend a good amount of time, thinking about the coming year and how I want to guide it as far as I can.  I play with different words, until the right mantra takes shape and I have my three words.

2010               Recovery        Discovery       Laughter

2011               Harmony        Vitality            Adventure

2012               Resilience       Escapade        Wonder

2013               Focus              Treasure        Design

I am astonished that as I have been crafting the mantra for the coming year, that this will be my fifth selection of words.  Five years! In October, I will reach the five year mark from diagnosis. In these years, I have lived and breathed the words which I have chosen. My words whisper to me as they guide and inspire me, and I look to them if I feel I am drifting or struggling.  I love my words.

Early this year, I also developed the five sticky plan which further embedded the three words in my life. This has been another practice which sounds a bit zany, but again it has been a mainstay for me and worked incredibly well with this year’s words.

The year has been a hard one in many ways.  The words have been a support and guide which have been needed.  I confess that I will be glad to say goodbye to 2013.

This has been a year which has brought intense times, and more than its fair share of loss and heartache. It has been a year where the side and after effects of cancer and its treatment have more than impinged on my life with pain and discomfort. It has been a year of professional and personal intensity in an exciting and demanding context and place in history. It has been an exhausting year and often hard to find that sweet spot where the balance in life is hiding.  There has been more than ever a need for inner and outer strength and the patience to navigate through the grieving process. I still find it hard to believe that my father is really no longer with us.  How can he be gone, when he was always there, all of my life up to this year? We knew his time was limited and precious, but that does not make his loss any less painful. There have been shocking losses too, people who have been taken this year, horribly before their time. How can my brother in law be gone, just days after we had been planning to meet up? How can a young man be taken long before his 30th birthday, leaving his family and friends utterly bereft, bewildered and shocked?  How can life be there one day, and not the next?

Yet amidst the shock and grief we have been living in 2013, there have of course been moments and times to treasure, achievements, times we are proud of, times when challenges bring a refreshed closeness with our loved ones.

So what role did my three words play in this memorable year?  How did they work?  Were they lost amid life’s intensity?

My first word for 2013 was focus. This was my rationale for the choice:

I am a bit of a butterfly and flit from task to task, from idea to new idea and am easily drawn away in unplanned directions. I remember thinking that I needed to focus, to see projects through after the novelty wears off and to set clear goals and objectives as well as commit to seeing a task through.  I particularly like the fact that focus exists as a verb as well as a noun and thus expresses deliberate action as well as something tangible to aim for.

This has been a really important guiding word for the year. It has indeed served to remind me that I must tackle those tasks which I love to put off, and to spend deliberate time working on planning and organising.  The five sticky plan with its weekend reminders to spend some time on “focus” has been a useful technique.  Sometimes I have spent time organising my immense photo library (not quite finished yet though…) and others I have put aside an hour or two to write to friends and family.

When I revisited the words a few months ago, this is what I wrote then, and this most definitely still applies.

I feel as if I have been floundering a bit, especially with my writing.  I also see the need to bring a bit more order into most areas of my life.  I am a bit of a butterfly – I flit about from one thing to another.  My attention is easily drawn by something new and interesting.  Ideas are not a problem.  Or perhaps they are.  I have so many that I tend to move onto an exciting new though as the inspiration strikes. I love ideas and where they take me.  I like far less the graft of shaping and working with them through to fruition.  And that is why I need to focus. I have a number of embryonic writing projects.  Some more embryonic than others, and I recognised to need to prioritise and organise these projects if I want to see anything realised!  Hence “focus”.  And not surprisingly this has been the hardest one to work on.  The five stickie plan really helps, as one or two of the five of each weekend’s stickies must relate to “focus”.  I have taken time to better organise my electronic filing and writing work, spent time sorting and binning papers and junk which I am incredibly skilled at amassing and I have taken time to plan and prioritise my main projects”.  A friend also introduced me to the Pomidoro time management tool and I find it works incredibly well for me both personally and professionally. I am much more focused when I know I have 25 minute chunks of time, and then 5 minutes to stand up, check email, make a cup of tea or even just to go to the window and look at the clouds!  Perhaps there has been progress then, I realise.

What I realise, is that focus is not something purely for 2013, but a practice which I need to incorporate systematically.  I must keep my eye on the future, and in the direction I want to travel, I must focus to get there. And I must often work on some tasks which I would rather put off till another day,

Treasure was a bittersweet word for 2013. I had wanted to convey a number of elements including the sense of holding things close and valuing them.  Seeing the special elements in the everyday, and appreciating what we have. It spoke of cherishing and nurturing to me, its essence of encouraging growth and creation through care. ts, as well as a beautiful sense of when caring for the most precious things to us, protecting and treasuring them.

I also love the fact that it is also a both a verb and a noun, and that symmetry really calls to me.  In its verbal form, it is very close to cherish, with the added sense that it is something very special. I love treasure as a noun too, because we are surrounded by treasure, in even the most ordinary, everyday entity.  I love to pick fallen frangipani blossom in the morning, and call it morning treasure.  It is so important to notice the simplest elements in our surroundings and value them.  As modern life becomes more sophisticated and complex, maintaining a sense of naivety and wonder is refreshing if not essential to our emotional wellbeing.  I also apply this concept to my physical wellbeing and know that I must continue to focus on health and activity.  My wonderful morning swim and cycle routine is a treasure indeed.

Treasure has been a massive word for me through 2013, but the most difficult to articulate. In one sense I have been guided by treasure to ensure that I take care of myself, that I care for my physical, emotional and creative sides and devote time and energy to this. Moreover, though treasure has been bittersweet. In March I spent the last week I ever would with my father and that time and those memories and the time we spent together as a family on his loss are beyond treasure.  I hold them close, remember and relive those times with a mix of sorrow, grief and gratitude.

My third word of 2014 was design. I selected it with its abundance of meanings which spoke to me.

It represents the importance of creativity in my life and serves to remind me to prioritise those creative activities which I so enjoy. I need to ensure that there is space for art, reading, writing and imagining, and that I must ensure balance in my life. Design also conveys a sense of deliberate action, as in the phrase “by design”.  This chimes with me so much.  No matter what challenges are thrown in my way, I must retain control and make wise decisions as I follow the path I choose.  I must ensure that I invest effort and due consideration and don’t just allow myself to be swept along.  Life is not about what happens to us, but how we deal with what happens to us, we must remember.

This year I have in some ways felt as if life is a return to High School with all its extra curricular activities – in a good way! I have Writing Group, Book Club and a Film Night most of which require preparation in either writing, reading or remembering to bring a snack or bottle of wine!  In January, a Photography Club started up and I didn’t hesitate to join. I discovered that I was the only photographer using a point-and-shoot which promptly broke irreparably in some sense of inferiority!  I have bought an entry level SLR camera which has led to me learning so much and taking some appallingly bad photographs (another sense of focus). Add that to the daily swim and cycle routine, and design has in all of its sense been prominent in 2013 and I continue to enjoy learning and experimenting, making the effort and continuing to push boundaries.

Even before this review, I knew that the words were doing their work. They will not be retiring as we move into 2014 as their essence will continue in the practices which have become integral in my daily life.

As the year end approaches, I have a flutter of excitement as I begin the process which will lead to the selection of three words for the coming year.  Firstly, I take time to think of the priorities which I want to focus on and the emphasis for the coming year.  For 2014, I want to build on the work of these previous years while moving forward deliberately. The past year has been a difficult one, and I know there will be particular challenges in 2014.  I cannot control many external factors but I can be deliberate in how I deal with these.

With this in mind, the words I have chosen for 2014 are:

Dedication, integrity and flair.

I LOVE them, as individual words, but also as my guiding mantra.


This builds on focus. It encapsulates a sense of devoting both time and attention on those things which matter most. I need to dedicate time to being organised and taking care of even the tasks which I don’t enjoy as well as the ones I do. I need to take care of myself, physically and emotionally, I need to set aside time and attention for people and not be swept up in the pressing things which tend to swamp us. I need to be dedicated to taking those writing and creative projects forward.


“Do the right thing when no one is looking” is a (para) phrase which I read somewhere and I quietly lean on. I have seen it attributed as a definition of integrity but to me it means more than that. It speaks of quietly doing the right thing, without calling attention to what you are doing, so for the “right” reasons. It conveys the importance of being true to yourself and your values no matter how invisible or inconsequential that act may seem.  We live in challenging times, where priorities and demands conflict and by selecting integrity, I am setting out the importance of ensuring that in everything I do, I must remain true and loyal to my values and principles.  Integrity is the middle word for a reason.  It must be at the core of everything I do. No matter what challenges come my way, I must be proactive and faithful to what is right.  This will be tough for me. I know that the path of least resistance is one which I favour.  I don’t like confrontation or conflict, and yet sometimes it is necessary to face up to difficult times and not allow wrong things to happen, by doing nothing.  Integrity is like a beam of light which I must focus on and work towards.


My third word is flair.  This combines my creative side with individuality. I love being a little different and seeing things in new ways.  At the photography club, we provide feedback on the images we share on a given theme, and one piece of feedback this year hit the spot and made  gave me a swell of pride.  The theme was “rainy season” and I had shared a photograph of a line of monks walking through a flooded street, seemingly oblivious to the rains and the water levels.  I was told that of the thousands of photographs of monks in their alm-gathering lines, and rains in Myanmar, my photograph was unique and an image which no one had seen before.  The photograph was not technically great, but the essence I had captured was one of uniqueness and that is what delighted me.  I like seeing things through new, fresh eyes and from angles which others do not see.  A touch of flair.  Something creative to aim for, letting inspiration take me on a journey.


So these are my words for the coming year.  2014, I do not know what you have in store for us, but with my words – I am ready!