Ad-venturing across the river – Carpe Sundiem

We settle too easily into habits and routine.  That is welcome in many ways, but sometimes I find myself a little frustrated that I don’t push the boundaries a little more and venture into new or different ground.

The weekend is the perfect time for this, but too often – and even with the five sticky plan to give me a shove – I find myself going to the same places, and doing the same things almost on default.  In Yangon, of course that always has an edge of the fascinating and unusual, but sometimes we crave a little bit more.

So a couple of weekends ago, two Yangon friends and I decided to be proactive, carpe the Sundiem and do something a little different. That involved getting up earlier than usual on a Sunday and heading into new territory – across the river!

I remember, not long after we had arrived in Yangon, our housemates had headed to catch this ferry across the river.  They had returned disappointed.  They needed a Travel Authorisation to head across the river to Dala and did not have one.  It was not difficult to obtain, but you did need to know where to go and how to get the TA.  They made a plan for another day.  Nowadays the TA requirement has been lifted for the past couple of years or so now. So we knew it would be much more straightforware. Our plan was to head to Dala and then pick up a taxi over to Twante, a town known especially for its pottery and generally explore some new territory.

The day started very gently with a rendez vous and breakfast at the new Rangoon Tea House, which I had not previously visited and a plush version of the Myanmar breakfast staple – Mohinga.  Yum!

mohingaMohinga is usually described as a rice noodle and fish soup dish, but it is so much more.  The soup is bursting with flavours of garlic, onions, lemongrass, banana tree stem, ginger, fish paste, fish sauce and catfish and it is topped with crispy fried chick pea fritters, fresh coriander, onions, dried chilli and a squeeze of lemon. This is served usually in little mohinga stalls, as well as by mohinga sellers with all of the ingredients balanced on a cart or even a pole carried on his shoulders. On my way back from morning swims I pass many folks with a set of little plastic bags, full of the various mohinga components as well as a nearby mohinga shop, bustling with folks eating and chatting, perched on tiny plastic stools at low tables.

Mohinga on the move

Mohinga on the move

The tea shop on our lane

The tea shop on our lane

The Rangoon Tea House experience combines the flavours and essence of a tea house, with a well designed and stylish setting.

rangoon tea houseA great start to the day!  It was a short walk down to the jetty after breakfast, to the bustle of the ticket office for the Dala ferry.  We were directed away from the ticket window, into a small room where foreigners buy their tickets. We parted with our equivalent of 4 US Dollars in return for our tickets and settled to wait for the next boat, which was on its way over towards our side of the river.

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The ferry approaches

The ferry approaches

Regular river traffic

Regular river traffic

In no time, the ferry had docked and people were thronging onto dry land and the port area.  The “entry” gate opened and we joined men, women, children, bicycles, …piling onto the ferry, which was already milling with folks selling quail eggs, newspapers, water melon, plastic gadgets, cigarettes, betel and tobacco, nail clippers with valentine hearts on them and even bubble blowing water pistols.

Fellow passengers

Fellow passengers

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An assortment of goods

across the river 9across the river 11across the river 12The ferry crossing is less than ten minutes but it feels much longer because of the buzz of activity and action.  As soon as we emerge on the other side of the river, we are in a different kind of throng.  Saiqua (Myanmar pedal trishaws), taxis, bike hire and all manner of transfer options.

across the river 14We quickly negotiated an car to take us to Twante and into new space for the three of us.  We agreed a price and a rough schedule.  Drive to Twante, visit the temples, market area and pottery, and on the way back call into the scary sounding “snake temple”.  A great Sunday adventure!

First stop was the Shwe Sandaw pagoda – and a circumambulation in scorching sunshine and a bit of a slither (thanks to post chemo peripheral neuropathy numb toes) on a wet path, around the quiet temple.

across the river 16across the river 19across the river 18across the river 17across the river 15across the river 20across the river 21We then headed into the main town, for an explore.  No visit is complete without a wander around the market.

An apothecary stall at the market

An apothecary stall at the market

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Sachets of detergent alongside potatoes and chillies

Sachets of detergent alongside potatoes and chillies

Spicy yummy varieties of dried chillies

Spicy yummy varieties of dried chillies

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Flowers caught in the sunlight

Flowers caught in the sunlight

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Creativity - old tins refashioned into savings banks.  Even though we have no coins in use!

Creativity – old tins refashioned into savings banks. Even though we have no coins in use!

Even though it was only mid-February, it was hot.  The cool winter days do not last long, and even if it is fresh in the mornings, the days very quickly heat up and after our meander through the market, we were in great need of a refreshing cold drink and we stopped at a teashop for quick rehydration.

Next in the plan was to visit the pottery.  I had no real expectation of this, other than that Twante was home to production of local pottery ware.  The driver did not seem to clear about where to go, but after a few conversations at strategic points along the way, we drew up at a fairly large bamboo hut.  Outside were a number of pots.  A good sign.

The pottery factory

The pottery factory

We tentatively asked if we could enter, and were welcomed in with smiles. I rapidly realised that this was a true cottage industry.

The pottery wheel is kept in motion by one worker pushing the wheel with her right foot.  A small rope from the roof helps her to keep her equilibrium

The pottery wheel is kept in motion by one worker pushing the wheel with her right foot. A small rope from the roof helps her to keep her equilibrium

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The kiln

The kiln

across the river 38across the river 39across the river 40I bought a small vase, and the woman who seemed to be in charge grasped my hand.  Before I knew what was happening, she had added several more little dishes, usually used to place buttermilk wicks in the shrine rooms.  “A present“, she gesticulated. Humbling. A warm and genuine connection.

We left Twante for the drive back to Dala, via the renown “snake temple”.  Fortunately I had heard of this temple already.  I knew that there were pythons everywhere but that they were not venomous.  I did not, however, really know what to expect.

A pause before venturing across the bridge towards the snake temple

A pause before venturing across the bridge towards the snake temple

Did we really want to face these scary snakes?? Moreover, would I actually be able to venture into the temple alongside them?

across the river 42The pythons were indeed EVERYWHERE!  They did, however, look extremely sleepy. I still kept one foot at the door as I watched, terrified yet somewhat fascinated.  The more I looked, the more pythons appeared in front of me, like some kind of optical illusion.  Not only were they everywhere –  they were huge.

A knotted, very large python sleeping on the window

Knotted, very large pythons sleeping on the window

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Shh - behind you.....

Shh – behind you…..

across the river 46across the river 50across the river 43snake temple 2snake temple 1snake temple 6snake temple 5snake temple 4snake temple 3snake temple 1I was glad to head back, barefoot, to the car and the return drive to Dala.

In no time, we were heading back onto the ferry, through the gates which were about to close as we passed through. The buzz of the ferry itself was waiting for us as we sought out seats.

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snake temple 10snake temple 7snake temple 9We disembarked a few minutes later, tired, dusty and full of tales to tell of our venture across the river.

It really takes so little effort, more the nudge to make an earlier start and seek out new wonders which really are on our doorstep.

Flowers in the market caught by sunlight

Flowers in the market caught by sunlight

Promise

There is an unusual breeze in Yangon today.  The leaves are whispering, throwing decayed leaves, which had been sleeping undisturbed for months, down to the ground. There they gather in little bundles, stirring as each new gusts sweeps over them.  Little blossoms on the tree  promise mangoes in the coming weeks. New frangipani buds reach up towards the sun, gently watched over by sibling petals new to the world. The air feels heavier, as moisture gathers and the afternoon heat builds.

IMG_2028And we are reminded that time marches on. Seasons shift. Life goes on. And these little signs of promise are there to help us move forward too. Sometimes we need to search more than other times, but they are there.

Scunnered

Sometimes we can take on a sense of weariness, of being jaded. Of tiredness. Sometimes it goes a bit deeper. World weary, downtrodden and bereft of that lust for life. Usually it is fleeting or at least transient.  Sometimes it takes a greater grip.  We have a great Scottish expression for that feeling – we say we are scunnered.

I have been scunnered this week.  Physical tiredness plays a part but only a small part. The rest is a great deal more profound.

Back in November last year my grandson, David had his head shaved to raise awareness and funds  for Gammadelta T-cell lymphoma, a rare and aggressive form of blood cancer. It was an enormously generous act and it was prompted to show support to a pupil at his school who had just been diagnosed.  Yes, a pupil at his school. Jak Trueman, a boy aged 15 years old. It was cruel enough that my grandchildren were confronted with cancer in their grandparent, but to be plunged into the harsh reality of cancer in a peer at such a tender age is truly cruel.

headshave for Jak

David – before and after his headshave

Jak’s story or journey has been well documented and shared since his diagnosis, thanks especially to a wide support network and of course social media.

jak trueman

Following chemotherapy, Jak was preparing for a stem cell transplant late in January when the preparatory bloodwork threw up some concerning results.  Subsequent scans showed that the disease had progressed into his organs and bones and it was clear that his time was limited when his family shared the devastating news on 24 January.

In the following days, there was a flurry of activity, realising many of Jak’s wishes and dreams but also using the gathering attention to raise awareness and funds.  I will not go into detail as that is well documented online in numerous places, including his Facebook page.

I woke in Yangon on Tuesday morning to a Facebook feed filled with news updates relating to Jak.  I didn’t need to open those links to know that this could only mean one thing, Jak had died only days after learning of the spread of the disease.

He leaves an incredible legacy for one so young, yet enormously mature and generous.  He  leaves a family, school and community, united in grief and coming to terms with the privilege and grief of knowing such an incredible young man.  At the same time, galvanised and inspired to fulfil a series of plans which he had been shaping in his final days. The fundraising towards research into Gammadelta T-cell lymphoma has had a major boost as has awareness into childhood and blood cancers.  He leaves a phenomenal legacy in his name and memory.  Jak, his family and supporters (Team Jak) developed the concept of “Jak’s Den” which will be a space incorporating a number of features:

  • Counselling/quiet rooms and fully qualified counsellors for siblings/ families and any other child/ teen requiring counselling
  • A LOUD room for anyone wanting to go in if they want to make some noise
  • A cafe for cancer sufferers and neutropenic folks who can’t eat out in public for fear of infection – this  will be sterile and all freshly cooked food as this was a huge loss for Jak he couldn’t get out or easily socialise
  • An outdoor area with space for sports and games
  • A music sensory area
  • halls for singing dance and drama, connected with Jaks’ family business, which will also provide a space for sports parties and indoor kids football.

This is personal.  Both of my grandchildren were in the school band with him, and in particular my grandson, David really looked up to him.  David was proud to shave his head and show support.  We know how important image is to young people and a head shave at that age is a big deal.

The morning after Jak’s death, pupils at school wore gold ties or hairbands to remember Jak. My daughter had a crack of dawn run to the shops to find a gold tie for David. An extraordinary movement has been kindled from the grief and loss of one of their friends.

Only one day later, we were reminded that World Cancer Day was again upon us. And that is when I realised just how scunnered I was with cancer.

inya lake sunsetAs the sun sets, so too does it rise.  I am fortunate in that whilst I have that all pervading feeling of being scunnered, I am confident that it will pass and that the new day will help to lift the spirits. I am even more fortunate that through my grandchildren I have a connection, albeit tenuous, with an extraordinary young person who shone a light into a very dark space and leaves pride and inspiration alongside grief.