I have a dream …

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Romanian border, 2 am, awaiting passport checks

I have many dreams, I have to confess. Not a bucket list, but a wish bucket which I can dip into and draw out a wish. Not always something extravagant or sophisticated, but often something quite minuscule.

I have previously written about a cute little pot I bought while visiting Poland. It was a deep blue colour, about the size of a miniature scone and had stars and a cat painted on the side alongside some writing. I was not in the slightest troubled by the fact that I had no idea what the wise words said but later learned that they described the little pot as “a place to keep your dreams”. How very perfect. This little pot has travelled far, and suffered some breaks, but it is still mostly there and held together with glue. And happily the dreams do not slip through the gaps. They do form my metaphorical wish bucket.

My wish bucket contains a number of dreams, those which I still hold on to experiencing, and those which I treasure now as memories or precious items. And there is always space for more dreams …

Some of the dreams which have been realised from my wish bucket are:

  • Meet a blogging friend in a new place
  • Buy a picture/piece of artwork at a gallery opening and watch them put the red sticker on it.
  • See a kangaroo in the wild. I saw many during my visit to Australia over Christmas and New Year 2015/16.
  • Visit a country with the letter ‘Z’ in it. Tanzania, and its magical island of Zanzibar
  • Sail through the Norwegian Fiords
  • See some of my writing in print.  In a book, with real paper pages!
  • Get funky, colourful nail art on my finger and toenails just for fun, just for once.

There are still more dreams which I hold on to:

  • See the Aurora Borealis (northern lights)
  • See the rings on Saturn through an astronomy telescope
  • See an iceberg
  • Book into the Oriental Bangkok for a weekend.  Or maybe a night.  Or maybe just have afternoon tea there given the price! (So far I have managed an afternoon tea and a decadent dinner).
  • See a starfish in the sea

There are also dreams which I am wary to articulate. When I was diagnosed in October 2009, the very obvious wish was to hang around beyond the treatment and return to a reasonable level of health. Reaching the five year mark a few years ago was an emotional milestone, and one I marked with thankfulness.

Now, my diagnosis came at a time of a personal Milestone Birthday those years ago. It was my 50th birthday, and plans to do something memorable were thwarted by visa constraints. My milestone birthday dream had been to travel to Bhutan, and indeed that is still to be met. But as I reached those 50 years back in 2009, I had recently moved to Myanmar and our visa was still in process. We were not able to leave the country, and not even able to leave Yangon. I had a beautifully memorable evening, with friends and colleagues in a wonderful space in Yangon, but travel plans were put on hold. For a very long time, it turned out.

Ten years earlier than that, as the arithmetic demonstrates, I marked my 40th birthday. With a great deal of dream nurturing,  and then planning, my wish to travel on the Trans Siberian railway became a reality. I had the most amazing trip, across the Siberian taiga, alongside awe-inspiring Lake Baikal and through the Mongolian steppe before the train descended dramatically, as it snaked past the Great Wall of China into Beijing. That had been intended to cure me of my debilitating wanderlust. It was not exactly successful, as a few months later, I found myself at Edinburgh airport with a one way ticket to Kathmandu, and a three year contract to work in Nepal. The rest is history, and seventeen years later, I returned to Scotland (now two years ago) with the petulance of a spoiled child whose trip to the seaside had come to an end.

That trip for my 40th birthday, all those years ago remains ingrained in my memory. It was a truly pivotal, and I find that even though health and energy are not what they were, the dreams are just as vivid.

Why am I dreaming so much at the moment? There is a swirling of memories and moments in the atmosphere. I realise that I am on the brink of two important milestones. One is the Next Milestone Birthday – the Voldemort Birthday. The age which must-not-be-spoken-out-loud. This is the year I receive my free Bus Pass and can qualify for some senior citizen discounts. The other life marker 10 years later was equally memorable, but was not in the slightest planned or even anticipated. That was when I heard those life altering words “this is highly suspicious of cancer”.

Just over a couple of weeks ago, late in July I a glance at the date showed that it was exactly 20 years since I embarked on that railway trip from Europe to Asia. I realised that 20 years ago to the day, I had been in Russia, watching the kilometre markers pass, one by one, telling me exactly how many kilometres I had travelled from Moscow. Every marker I passed told me that I was a kilometre further east than I had ever been before. I remember looking at the map unfolded constantly beside me, and marvelling that immediately due south, if many miles, from that point of the journey lay India! India. I could see it clearly on the map, but my mind was utterly incapable of absorbing that fact.

Twenty years later, I have found that as I was approaching this Voldemort birthday, I was increasingly compelled to embark on another journey. A gentler journey than that odyssey across Siberia and exploring Asia. A journey which I had long yearned to do, one which whispered temptations in my ear. One which I have not been able to resist.

So, I have just returned to Scotland from what has been almost a mirror image of the Siberian journey. Just a few weeks ago, one Thursday afternoon late in July, in less than five hours, I flew from Edinburgh to Istanbul, that mystical city where Europe meets Asia on the banks of the Bosphorus. I spent a few days exploring this new city, embracing Asia briefly with promises of a return. Then, inspired by the tales and legend of the Orient Express, I embarked on a journey which traced its route back to London (and on to Edinburgh) on the “other Orient Express”, as Paul Theroux calls it, by train all the way. Keeping true to the spirit of the journey, I stayed in the hotel originally built for passengers disembarking from the original Orient Express. This is where Agatha Christie reputedly wrote Murder on the Orient Express in Room 411, where I had panoramic views across the Golden Horn, of the Blue Mosque and where I was captivated by the melodic prayer calls and Turkish delight coloured sunsets.

Now safely back in Edinburgh, having travelled on six trains, through ten countries, spending 92 train hours and covering over 2500 miles, I have treasured memories and many photographs of this journey which helped me to step into this new decade. And stories to tell …

Here is the opportunity to relive the past weeks, as I begin to put this whole experience into words, to share.

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How does one dress for a Dragonfruit Reunion?

As I was eating my breakfast quietly this morning, in this peaceful retreat, I was joined at the table by another couple. We started chatting a little, enthusiastic about the day ahead and our various plans for exploring, relaxing and creating. And that’s when I saw the plate of dragonfruit in front of them! I hadn’t seen dragonfruit since leaving Asia, I did not even know it grew here. We all know that dragonfruit hold a special place in my creative heart, but there was a striking coincidence in the sight of the fruit in front of me. And therein lies the whole reason behind my choice to come here for this retreat. A dragonfruit reunion and retreat.

Something unexpected, and very special came from the publication of the Dragonfruit Anthology in 2014. Not only was this the first time I had my writing published in a proper book, but furthermore the process of refining the writing in preparation for publication, and the connection with the Editor and other contributing writers provided a real sense of team and shared achievement.

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We were a team of 27 women, including and guided by our Editor towards the result of producing a collection of our stories from our lives as women in Asia. Stories of our lives in a country where we were essentially guests, for a shorter or longer term. Our nationalities, situations and stories varied enormously, but we were tied together by the fact that we were all, or had been, women living in Asia as expatriates. It was fascinating to get to know each other through our stories and through email connection as we were kept up to date on the decision of the title, the reveal of the cover art and the lead up to the publication.

Just after we received our writer’s copies of the anthology, I received an email from one of the other writers. She had read my account of moving to Myanmar and being diagnosed with cancer. And indeed, I had read her tale of hurtling through the streets of Hanoi in the throes of labor on the back of a motorbike towards the hospital, and the (safe) arrival of her daughter. She had reached out to me because she and her family were moving to Yangon! “Once we’re settled in, if you have time, I would love to meet with you for tea one day” she emailed. And indeed we did. Yet, had it not been for our Dragonfruit connection, it is highly unlikely that our paths would have crossed in Myanmar over the two years of their stay. We would probably not have enjoyed those cuppas and chats, writing together or being part of the same book club. A wonderful connection, thanks to our Dragonfruit Anthology.

Fast forward by two years, to May this year. As it turned out we were both preparing to leave Myanmar as changes approached. I was packing to leave Asia for Africa, and I learned that she was leaving Asia for South America. For Ecuador. Along with her husband, she was embracing the opportunity to take on a new challenge. They would be running an eco lodge in Ecuador, something close to their hearts, values and beliefs. They were filled with enthusiasm and zest for their new adventure as she told me about it.

“You should come to the lodge,” she said to me. “It would be the perfect place for a writing retreat. Do come”.

What a fascinating thought, but hardly a likely venture. Ecuador is not close. It is further west than I have ever travelled. It is more than a day’s travel from Africa. Would it be rash to travel such a distance when the year has already seen such intensity, change and indeed long distance travel? Would it not be wasteful given that there is so much to explore on my new African doorstep?

These are sensible questions, but my mind is not so wise. The thought kept returning, that  this is an opportunity which might not arise again. That it is probably better to travel when health is reasonable as nothing can be taken for granted. And the sneaking reminder, that if I did visit Ecuador, then incredibly, this would be a year which would see me on no less than 5 continents. (I do believe that I have not travelled to more than 2 continents in any year in the past). How many grandmothers are able to do that? What a temptation…

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So here I am, in a beautiful lodge, nestling in the hills of Ecuador, sitting on the balcony of what is now being called “The Writing Room”, tapping away at the keyboard with the steep green hills right in front of me, the sound of a donkey braying in the distance, the trees swaying in the breeze and in the company of blue grey tanagers. The creative silence of the past months is being lifted gently in these inspiring hills.

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I could not resist the temptation of visiting such a new part of the world to me, and of bringing 2016 to a close in a peaceful and inspiring place.

If it had not been for our Dragonfruit connection, I simply would not be here now in this fascinating new land. Serendipity and the friendship of a kindred spirit have enabled this retreat to happen.

Like so many journeys, the one to get here was not an easy one, but  I am powerfully reminded of the importance of making that effort and seizing the day. These opportunities are  to be embraced and treasured. And will surely be long remembered.

Thank you, dragonfruit!

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Hippo Bird-day!

I always approach birthdays with trepidation. Not because I am uncomfortable about adding another year to my age, but because our family has a strange relationship with birthdays and deathdays as I have written before, and birthdays make me nervous. So it was with great relief that I awoke on 2 August, the day after my birthday, fit and well.

Since my diagnosis, I have also begun a practice of doing something memorable for my birthday, and preferably in a country I have not previously been in. The foundation was set when I spent my 40th birthday in China and following years in Nepal, Thailand, India, Mongolia and Sri Lanka. In recent years, I have celebrated my aging in Myanmar, Cambodia, Malaysia, Luxembourg and Portugal. Given my new arrival on African soil, I decided to celebrate this year’s birthday by visiting a nearby national park and hoping for close encounters with African wildlife.

This post will be one of images and memories, with a sprinkling of narrative and description. Fortune smiled warmly on me, and I was able to see many animals and birds. For some reason, the hippos were out in force and I saw too many to count! Some were peeping out of the water, some were wallowing and chatting in groups, and some were wandering. Most were in the company of a white egret. The perfect hippo bird combo to wish me a corny hippo-bird day!

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I stayed in a Game Lodge, on the border with Tanzania and in the park, and was greeted by baboons as we drove in at sunset.

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The Lodge’s printed information provided valuable guidance on “How to behave around baboons”.  Just as well as they were very active around the grounds.

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On the first morning, I was wide awake, clutching my packed lunch and prepared for a game drive as the sun was rising across the savannah, reflecting on the lake. You just never know what the day will hold and whether the birds and animals will be shy or sociable.

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There is a small population of elephants, and these are rarely seen so we were lucky to encounter a lone elephant feeding in the trees. We knew he was not alone as we could hear crashing in the undergrowth, trees snapping and shifting of the vegetation. The rest of the herd was shy though, and it was not long before our friend turned and headed towards his friends and out of visibility. A highly promising start to the day.

We continued along the dusty track, pausing to watch velvet monkeys, a group of baboons, fish eagles, impala, bush bucks and we even spotted a very large crocodile hiding in the brush.

Having lived in Asia for so long, I find the African wildlife fascinating, in particular, zebra and giraffe which are so different. We were only a couple of hours into the drive, when we saw a group of zebra in the distance and soon afterwards we spotted a small group of giraffe.

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As we headed northwards, we encountered more groups of zebra, an increasing number of hippos and

It was nearly lunchtime, when we reached flatter plains and numerous herds of animals – zebra, giraffe, impala and bush bucks. And in the midst of the plains, nestling under a tree in the distance was the king! Watching quietly as zebra grazed nearby, the unmistakable shape of a lion.

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I could not believe our good fortune. It had been a full morning, driving, watching and taking photographs while counting my blessings and I had not realised that it was well into what would be lunchtime and I was feeling decidedly hungry. There is a designated space for picnicking, under the watch of kingfishers, hippos and supersized thorns so we ate quickly and were soon back on the track.

There was no pressure to spot wildlife on the drive back, and we continued to see a variety of birds and beasts. I was especially drawn by a little rainbow bird, and spellbound when he decided to fly off displaying bright blue plumage.

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We are in the midst of dry season, and the grasslands are clearly parched. There are large areas which are smouldering. A strange place to see herds of zebra, but apparently they feed on the burnt vegetation which provides essential minerals for their diet.

The following day, I decided to take a boat trip onto the lake for a different perspective on the life in the park. As the sun sank in the sky, I joined two other tourists on a small boat and took the waters. We were again gifted by sightings of various birds – snake bird, fish eagle, cormorant and their friends.

The larger creatures too, watched from their comfortable places, including a baby crocodile.

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And just as the boat drew back towards the jetty, two hippos decided to peep out of the water very close to us, apparently smiling warmly. Our boatman was less convinced of their friendliness, and gently moved back into deeper water. Hippos are the second killers of people in Africa, and he clearly wanted to ensure they were not disturbed or aggravated.

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As dusk was falling, I returned to the Lodge with a warm glow of happiness. I had been gifted with so many sightings and encounters and was extremely happy with my safari birthday. But my lucky streak was still not over. Through the trees, the driver spotted a group of rare blue monkeys in the trees. They are shy and elusive beings, and did not pause for their portraits to be taken, but I was able to capture their sighting briefly.

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As I complete another journey around the sun, I again have to pause and reflect on the good things in life, and especially in my life. It has been a truly hippo bird-day!

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An egret prepares to land on his hippo, creating that hippo bird combination!

And a strong remind to Carpe diem. We just never know what is ahead. For now, a peaceful iconic sunset is the best way to mark that appreciation.

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Before…….

I woke before the alarm this morning.  Pre-dawn hints of daylight promised a clearer start to the day, a pause in the continuous monsoon downpours. As I dressed, streaks of pink formed and disappeared. An ordinary late September day.

As the morning wore on, gathering clouds brought the pause to an end as more rains hammered down, the grey sky giving its clear message that rainy season is not ready to retire quite yet. A typical late September day.

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By this time in the rainy season, there is a musty heaviness in the air.  A constant dampness. The relief of a refreshing shower before sleeping cleanses the clamminess we gather during these days.  A unremarkable late September day.

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It was such an ordinary late September day four years ago today. So ordinary I can’t remember how the day started, or what time it might have rained. I have no recollection what I ate for supper that evening.  What I do remember is the chill of fear in my gut during when showering before sleeping.  I can remember exactly how it felt when I felt the lump that should not have been there.  I clearly remember exactly where it was.  And that it was still there when I prodded after a few moments, praying I might have imagined it, or it might have disappeared.

At that very moment, that particular late September day became suddenly extraordinary.  Memorable.  For all the wrong reasons.

Four years ago, in the evening of 23 September 2009 I discovered the lump which was to challenge everything I thought was sure. How sweet the air must have felt that unremarkable morning in late September four years ago as I went about my ordinary daily journey.  Oblivious to what was ahead of me only a few hours away.

We have no idea what is ahead of us, what unpleasantness might be on our horizon. We must not forget to pause and drink in the little details around us and the precious moment we sometimes miss.  Tomorrow may look very different.

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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.

Carpe diem

It has been a strange few days since the checks on Thursday and port flush on Friday.  To say I have been up and down, lurching between ridiculously irrational to calm and rational (well, not so often for the latter) would perhaps begin to capture what it has been like.  Remember that I am in a strange, unexpected place.  This goes far to shed light on what it is like.

In the space of the past few days, I have been angry with the tumour marker – for being raised.  Pure and simple, if it had not been raised I would have had a really good check so I am cross with the marker.  I am pleased at how my body has been recovering, despite what it has had thrown at it (major surgery, minor surgery, chemo x 8, 5 weeks radiation, pneumonia and shingles in case I had forgotten).  I have been taking control and had a lovely one to one Pilates session (long overdue from a block booked during chemo and which I was subsequently too sick to take up) and a lovely long swim in our apartment pool.  I have been scooting round Bangkok doing errands, chores and hardly been inside a taxi for a change.  I can manage the stairs on the Skytrain without thinking twice – and to remember back to the awful taxotere days when I could hardly stand, and thought I was going to collapse when I did try and go up the Skytrain stairs.  I have had a scare that the horrible shingles had returned, when my skin erupted under the elastoplast following the port flush.  I was horrified when spots re-appeared in the exact same place and formation as one of the shingles set.  I was relieved when these dreaded spots died down quickly and think that my poor skin which had been battered by chemo sensitivity, radiation burn and then shingles reacted quickly and angrily when the port was flushed and an innocent plaster pasted over the needle area.  If you add the stress of the check up and the marker result then it is probably not surprising that my skin flared up.  I was delighted and then rapidly disappointed when the prosthesis I had ordered for swimming turned was not exactly right.  I really liked it, it was comfortable and far less visibly assymetrical than Prosthesis 1, 2  and 3.  I have ordered the better size and childishly cannot wait until it arrives from Europe. Until then it will be jacuzzi swimming and misaligned headlights  😉 .

Most of all though, I have been fighting the anxiety of the wretched raised tumour marker and have been overwhelmed by messages of support, suggestion and encouragement.  I have been trying hard to rationalise it and find that as much as I do, the irrational, anxious side of me cannot absorb sensible logic. I can get the marker angst under control easily in daylight hours, but at night when Tamoxifen (is it a conspiracy??) is keeping me awake, it is hard to shake off the worries.

Then a simple sentence cut through all of that angst and shrivelled the worry.  The magic trick was when I was reminded how quickly and thoroughly the medical team had acted since I was diagnosed. (Mastectomy 3 days after diagnosis, first chemo 18 days after surgery, radiation 2 weeks after last chemo)  All in all it is probably a world speed record!  So if the Doctors had been seriously concerned, then they would at least have ordered further tests and would not be sending me away for 3 months.  In fact I remember that Dr W was concerned that 10 days had passed since my discovery of the lump in September 2009, which in itself is an impressive timescale between GP consultation and specialist appointment (one week) and his readiness to operate the following morning after diagnosis  bears that out for sure.  So let’s be honest, if these guys are happy to see me in 3 months, and they really know their stuff, then this marker must indeed be a very minor concern.

So why waste a good day today, worrying about a possible bad day in the future (to steal a quote from my pal Chemobabe’s blog) for what is, in balance, not a good enough reason.  We will head back to Yangon tomorrow, and make the most of recovery and healing time. 

Thanks so much for keeping me moving forwards, onwards and upwards – and let’s focus on carpe diem!