Excess baggage, more about starfish and dreams of chicken

There are many things on my mind as I pack, now at the end of an intense  week in Cambodia, ranging from intense strategic discussions, inspiring and humbling accounts from our programmes and a harrowing backdrop of the all too recent genocide in the Khmer Rouge years. Captain Paranoia is still with me constantly, but the events of the week have meant that he has had to compete for my attention.

At the outset of this week, I was present at an address by the Minister of Education here in Cambodia.  He gave a very powerful speech, apologising for veering away from the prepared words and sharing his own history about the Khmer years and their impact on education in the country.  He brought the realities of the genocide to life and I was riveted by his account.  Then he told an anecdote which struck an incredible chord with me.  He told us of one day when his wife had woken him urgently.  He was very upset, and told his wife she should have left him sleeping.  He recounted that he had been dreaming that he had been eating a chicken and it was so delicious, and he had been so hungry.  He said to his wife that she should have let him sleep until he had finished eating the chicken!  What an incredibly visual account of the horror they were living through.  His point was that, in the midst of that hell, he was able to escape in his dreams and no one could intrude on his dreams no matter how little control people were able to have in their lives.  It reminded me of my own starfish dream and how that had lifted my spirits and given me an escape from the preoccupation of the upcoming hospital checks.  It is indeed testament to the strength of the human mind.

However, despite that inspiring example of the chicken and my own private starfish collection in my mind, I am being mysteriously, or not so mysteriously, blocked from planning beyond these upcoming checks.  This is not unusual it happens every time.  Usually though, I only have to book a return ticket home afterwards so there is no great issue about that.  This time however, I should (if all goes well, fingers and toes tied in knots, touching any chunks of anything resembling wood and many other gestures of hope) head straight to India after the checks to see my family in law for the first time since I was diagnosed.  But despite several attempts to book my ticket to travel after the appointments, I have been completely unable to complete the task.  I don’t even have a reservation due to difficulties in booking online and the prospect of having a useless ticket if there is anything other than NED ahead.

After our meetings finished, I managed to fit in a visit to the popular Russian Market, initially to pick up some Cambodia silk which a friend had asked me to bring back.  I found myself drawn in to the glorious colours and somehow left the shop with silk sets for my close in laws too.  As I carted the heavy bags out of the market, I was wondering how many kilos I had purchased and whether it would be less than the 3 kilos which I think I had “spare” on the way over.  Then it suddenly dawned on me that I subconsciously broken through this block and managed to project myself into the “after the checks” unknown.  I will probably have excess baggage but at least I have been able to look ahead.  Now I just need to book that ticket!

And in a further coincidence, as I walked along the quayside yesterday evening in Phnom Penh, I passed the Tourist Information Office and there in front of me was a promotional poster for visiting Cambodia.  And the image on that poster, with its starfish and pristine ocean was incredibly similar to the image which I am recalling regularly from my dream!

What a funny old world we live in, with surprises and connections all around us.

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The birthday present

I’m afraid it is time for another small confession.

One of the prompts for my visit to Cambodia was to continue a strange practice which started on my trans-siberian epic journey 12 years ago.  Wait a minute, how many years ago?  Impossible!  Well, however many years ago it was, it sparked the practice of spending my birthdays in Asia.  Over the past 12 years I have spent my birthdays in Nepal (several), Thailand, Mongolia, India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar and of course the one where it started – China.  I have a strange pull to spend the day in a different Asian country each year if possible.  Hence the Cambodia visit.

When I revisit my thoughts from this time last year, I realise how far I really have come.  Last year I spent a quiet and reflective day, and I can see just how much I was still wrapped up in a cancery space emotionally and physically.  I had only just started going “topless” a couple of weeks previously, braving my scalp stubble to the world, and was still suffering from the later stages of shingles.

For the first time since starting to blog, I am going to do something really radical just to highlight how far I have come indeed……..

This is a photo.  Of me.  Last year.  On my birthday.

I am becoming less precious about being anonymous, and while I do not like photos of myself (especially the ones where I have “cancer” stamped clearly on my forehead), I do feel more able to come out from behind my protective barrier.  And one big reason is that I feel able to share a picture from my birthday this year, here in Cambodia.

My day was firmly about living in the present.  None of know what is ahead and with the cancer lens in front of our eyes, fear and anxiety are never far away.  So I grasped the mettle and decided to do something I have long wanted to do and not think of the distant future and what might or might not happen.  I booked myself an “off the beaten track” trip for the day and despite torrential monsoon rain, I had an incredible day, slithering around villages and clambering over temples like an aging, bespectacled female Indiana Jones!

I still have my anxieties, and I still fear the return of cancer.  I know that won’t change and will intensify and fluctuate with scares and checks.  But for today I have discovered that I can live in the immediate, here-and-now present.  And that is the best birthday present possible.

Anticipation and reflection

“Harmony, Vitality and Adventure”

When I chose these as my guiding words for the year, I didn’t realise how often I would refer to them.  And here I go again!

My visit to the UK was over in a flash, and although I managed to get around the country and see my family, there was little time for reflection or relaxation.  I know that is the deal though, I have been overseas long enough to know that home leave is home leave and not a holiday. The special time with family and friends is accompanied by a crazy logistics-fest to get around the country and spend time with people.  I also find that the backlog of various tasks such as bank stuff, correspondence, immunisations, hair colouring (note how I just slipped that in there – oh yes, that is a subject for its own post), phone conversations and stocking up on various essentials and goodies which I can’t get my hands on is always takes far more time consuming than I realise.  Every year!

This time my visit was shorter, and I was sad that I was not able to connect with many special people.  However, this year was different to the general home leave schedule.  Two years ago I did not manage to get back on home leave, for a number of reasons.  The biggest one being the unplanned encounter with Breast Cancer.  Nuff said!  Last year, my visit was at the end of the treatment  and for the first time I did not even attempt to get around the country as much as I usually do and spent a good bit of time on a remote Scottish island.  Looking back, I realise how frail I was and how “cancery” I probably looked.  Being bald helped that image.

So this year has been very different.  Having my checks just before the visit gave me a wonderful peace of mind before travelling.  I also felt confident about travelling on my own.  In fact the main challenges I have found have been relatively minor.  There is the continual “faulty thermostat” issue – being too hot, then too cold, then too hot again (repeat ad infinitum….) and the yucky crumbly nails.  The faulty thermostat is no different in cooler climes I have discovered.  I just have more layers to remove and replace and often in more crowded spaces! I think the nails have probably been affected by the travelling – carrying bags, and putting my hands into handbags for passport, purse etc has resulted in 8 of my nails being quite badly damaged.  That is 8 of my fingernails, and not including toenails, so quite a high proportion!  One thumbnail has been particularly damaged and tore off eventually far enough down to cause bleeding.  Not nice.  I am not sure whether this is still the after effects of chemo, effects from Tamoxifen or both.  In any case, when you add the travelling factor, it has resulted in quite a combo.

So I flew back to Bangkok on Friday/Saturday and when I woke up this morning I had absolutely no idea where I was, what day of the week it was and what time of night or day it might be.  Slowly it came to me that I am in Siem Reap, Cambodia, for the first time in my life.  Despite living in the region for many years, and having had a fascination to come here, I have never quite got here.  Till now.

I am in that beautiful phase of “anticipation” now with a new place to explore and discover.  Planning for and anticipating the coming days for jungles and rainforest temples.  Enjoying the harmony of these surroundings and the break.  Feeling so much healthier and with a sense of real vitality.  And embarking on another adventure!