Three words for 2018

Good evening” I nodded as I passed a well wrapped up couple walking their dog on the shorefront.

Evening,” they responded, kindly faces pinched in the chill wind.

I glanced at my watch a few steps onwards, and realised it was only a few minutes after 3 o’clock. In northern Scotland the days are short and in those twilight days between Christmas and New Year the sun nudges above the hills just for a short while before resting again below the horizon. It would soon be dark, another cosy night ahead.

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Such evenings are perfect to reflect back on the year. Long evenings to review what the year brought, as well as preparing for the New Year. This time last year, I was in Ecuador. To be precise, I had been in the Galapagos Islands on those very twixtmas days, absorbing the unique setting I was in and oblivious to the surprises which 2017 was to bring. I was crafting my 2017 words: “Emerge, explore and intend”. I was ready for what the year would bring.

Or so I thought.

My process of identifying my 3 words combines a foundation of “givens” for the year with the direction, strength and tools to absorb “unexpecteds”. The words were tested to their limit by the past year as the “givens” almost all disappeared.

As I stepped into 2017, I had been living in Africa just a few months and was settling in to this new and inspiring place. A whole new continent and world away from the Asia I had lived and worked in for the previous decade and a half. My 3 word mantra was in place to guide me move forward. Emerge, explore and intend. I was all set to build my confidence and establish my place in my new environment. I was eager to explore my new surroundings. And I set out to approach life intentionally. However, 2017 had a few surprises to put in my path. Serious ill health from early in the year, a long recovery time and a change in the world of work saw me return to Scotland in the middle of the year, ill prepared for the adjustment which repatriation and professional redirection requires. It is not yet timely to detail those changes as there is still work to do to find my feet in a world which has changed significantly since I left in 2000. Writing an article for CABLE, Scotland’s new online international affairs magazine about my return to Scotland, provided a useful opportunity for me to think more deeply on the scale and depth of this readjustment.

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This is a transition at all levels, professional, personal and physical. And a transition which was not planned or chosen, but necessitated by a set of external factors beyond my control. To move forward, I need 3 words which are strong and which will guide me to keep moving forward, ensuring I do not flag.

This is the first time in my life when I have not been working (or studying full time). I have been taken aback to realise that I feel stripped of my sense of purpose without the role which work provided. I am still the same person, with the same beliefs and values yet the vehicle to challenge inequity and inspire change was very much bound up in my professional role. This has led me to my first word – search. I need to search to find my place, to find a way to play my part in the world. I want to define and refine my sense of purpose. Searching is also a very practical need. I need to search to find where I can play a role in the Scottish workforce, in a country which has changed so much in the time I was away. I must search for a long term place to call “home”, as my circumstances now are very different. These are important individually, and almost overwhelming when put together. And there is no shortcut, searching and researching are processes in themselves and need time, energy and careful consideration.

And that leads me to my second word. After such change and turbulence, I yearn to “settle”. I have revelled in the variety of places I have lived, without doubt. I had no idea that I would spend so many years overseas and in so many different countries when I left Scotland 17 years ago. Yet, no matter how much I felt “at home” and enjoyed the homes I settled in, I always knew that no matter how long I would stay in a country, it would not be permanent and that leaves a psychological niggle deep down. After so many years of different, long term yet temporary homes, I am warmed by the prospect of a home where I can finally unpack all the elements of my life and truly settle. Indeed, I have experienced uncertainty and upheaval in all areas of my life these past months and I want to focus on seeing that all settle in 2018. These are also not quick or simple processes, but I would like to see at least clarity and stability. I want the dust to settle, and to see the way ahead in my longer term future.

My final word is one which leans on and follows on from the previous two. The various threads of my life are currently loose and straggled. These need to be sorted and brought to some kind of order. I want to begin to “weave” my new life from these various dimensions. Threads are thin, fragile and quick to be blown away when they are single, but when they are brought together, with ideas and direction, they can be woven into a fabric of meaning, strength and beauty. These strands woven together can form stability, clarity and can grow and evolve as time moves forward. Having so many loose strands may be daunting, but this is also liberating. I have enormous freedom to weave the life and future which is right for me. I am eager to for that to take shape and to see what the picture will look like.

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As we move through January, these northern days will slowly lengthen alongside the promise of spring and regrowth as nature’s cycles move forward. I have my first Scottish spring in almost 2 decades to look forward to. I welcome a reacquaintance with snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils, as the trees begin to bud and the evenings become lighter.

This is the nurturing backdrop for my 2018 mantra “Search, settle and weave”

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‘Twas the night before Christmas…

I spent most of yesterday on buses, heading out of town to a west coast haven to escape the bustle of the season. I stepped off the third and final bus into the blustery darkness to the sense that it was late in the evening, whereas in fact it was barely 5pm. It had already been dark for almost 2 hours. However, I had departed before sunrise.

00DB69B2-41A2-4281-9EE9-1EC0C11D75BCA chance conversation has led me here. A “you wouldn’t happen to know of..” question which brought the perfect answer. A little place to pause, reflect, walk, gently explore, read, write and exercise my rested camera.

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And the most apt place to rest my head. This is a place where the rooms have no TV, but have a bookshelf with selection of carefully chosen books, and a radio beside the bed. There is a lounge with a writing desk, views of the hills and loch, kindred spirits and plenty of space to be.

In the lounge yesterday evening, I overheard a short conversation between two of the other guests. Both seemed to be visiting alone, but to know each other a little. Each seemed to be a seasonal visitor here and they exchanged pleasantries about their travel, the weather and such like. This took me unexpectedly and rapidly back a decade and a half, to a Christmas in the distant past and in a far away land, in the hills of Darjeeling, north eastern India.

It was a Christmas break, back then, during the time I was working in Nepal, and my leave included a week or so in the Darjeeling hills. There were a few nights in a modest hotel, with a heater in the middle of the room attempting to defrost the chilly air, a bucket of hot water delivered in the morning for showering and views of the Himal and Kanchenjunga at sunrise if you peeked out the window on tippie toe.

Darjeeling had surprised me. I had imagined a hamlet, nestling on top of the middle hills. The Darjeeling I arrived in was much greater, a large town perched precariously on a number of hills, buildings constructed in layers on top of each other defying gravity and challenging the hills to hold them.

Travel plans changed however, and with an extra day to spend in the town, I needed to find a room for the additional night. Preferably a room which was a little warmer and more comfortable. It just so happened that the night was Christmas Eve.

Although many places were booked up, I discovered that there was space in a lovely, quaint old place. However, they would not allow a Christmas Eve booking for one night only. You had to stay two nights, and check out on Boxing Day. Conversations ensued and eventually, the booking for two nights was confirmed.

The Windamere was not any old hotel, it had a standing which it worked hard to maintain. This was a place full of character and charm, with a music room, afternoon teas served in a drawing room, a labyrinth of rooms crammed with antiques and period pieces of furniture, kept warm by heavy brocade curtains and with walls filled with old photographs and artworks. I later learned that part of its reputation was due to its Christmas festivities. As I checked in, I began an experience which combined Christmas with a quirky Himalayan colonial character.

There was an atmosphere of building excitement and anticipation as guests greeted each other that Christmas Eve – familiar faces from many Christmases past. Not only did guests come from afar, but they seemingly came year after year. This was like a family get together. I had also not known that the reputation of the Windamere went far beyond Darjeeling. Guests of many nationalities arrived from near and far, including Hong Kong and Europe and were welcomed by an elderly Jackie Chan lookalike with a clipped English accent and his charismatic wife, to the Christmas festivities.

As the sun set over Mount Kanchenjunga on that Christmas Eve, the programme of entertainment and activities began. There were class cabaret acts from London, Sydney and even a dancer who had regularly performed can-can at the Moulin Rouge. We would sit in one of the drawing rooms in upright seats only a few feet away as the performers went through their repertoires. Conversations between the guests compared previous years entertainment, always favourably, and congratulated the hosts on putting together another excellent programme. I learned that many of the guests had been living overseas and no matter where they were now based, they would always travel back to the Windamere for Christmas. I imagine it would feel a bit like “home” without returning to the weather and frenzy of Christmas in the UK or elsewhere. Apparently the Windamere has been hosting a Christmas programme since 1939.

That Christmas Eve evening packed with entertainment, chit chat and a mix of Indian, Nepali and western cuisine ended at a respectable hour and everyone retired for the night. Darjeeling is cold in the winter, and there were real fires in hearths of the rooms, lit by the staff while guests were at dinner choosing between their preferred options. It was important to get to sleep while the embers were still glowing, so that you would not be too cold.

I was wakened on Christmas morning, abruptly by loud banging on a nearby bedroom door. Disoriented, I could not work out what was happening. Seconds later, it all became clear as hearty voices began belting out the carol “Silent Night” as loudly as they possibly could in the cold pre-dawn air, destroying the previously silence of the night. Wonderful irony! The hammering came to the next door, and then a few minutes later, to my own. A wrapped Christmas gift was thrust into my arms by one of the chorists with a cheery “Merry Christmas!” in freezing chilly air,  before she quickly moved to the next room. My chilled fingers opened the parcel to find a hand-knitted scarf inside. How apt.

A series of activities ran through Christmas Day, managed and led by our hosts, with adults and children being taken through each. I have a vague recollection of the hostess leading a line of children for their encounter with Santa Claus to receive their gifts, through the dank winter air.

That Windamere Christmas experience has rested in my memory, slightly hidden as it did not match with much of my experience of Nepali and Indian life. I would always shy away from colonial and western activities and so to engage with this had been incongruous, yet intriguing. Not forgotten but slightly out of view. Until now.

My current experience is very different. It is one of choice and while there are similarities, there are more differences. I do see that we seek out certain experiences. In the same way as it seemed that my fellow Windamere guests sought out a particular Christmas experience, I find that the same is the case here, many years and more than a continent away. However, it seems that visitors here are similarly seeking to find an escape from the frenzy and pressures of a modern Christmas, and are looking to find a place to disengage. And perhaps engage with like minds and similar souls. I have enjoyed gentle conversations this past day where although strangers, we have a great deal in common.

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It is warming that the landscape of north western Scotland reminds me of days in the hills of Darjeeling where in both places people seek out like minds. It is a powerful reminder that we are fortunate to be able to do this in the most humbling and inspiring of natural surroundings and company.

A Winter’s Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I am being generously, gently and kindly welcomed back.

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Back in Time

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

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

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Clocks change between 1 am and 2 am

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

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

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

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

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

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Change of Scene

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Navigating new waters …

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Scottish wild flowers in a Glasgow garden

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

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

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