Blissfully unaware

The other morning, I was smiling at a Facebook memory of my early days in Myanmar as a post from years ago flashed on the screen in front of me. I had apparently been preparing to travel to the field, smugly noting that Grandmother’s suitcase was lying in the corner recovering from a field trip less than ten days earlier.

“poised to pack again – grandmother’s suitcase is, as, yet, blissfully unaware” I had announced to the world.

Wondering idly when that had been, I checked the date. My heart stopped, I had written this on 4 September 2009. The irony hit me hard. Only 19 days later, life had changed dramatically.

Checking back on my diary, I could see that I had left Yangon early on the Monday morning, 7 September. Grandmother’s suitcase and I had left home before dawn, with two of my colleagues to head to the airport for our flight to Mandalay. The flight had been smooth, and I had noted that I was becoming familiar with Mandalay airport, with its cavernous arrivals area, row of empty immigration desks and the one carousel creaking as it revolved with our few bags on it. I had been there only a couple of weeks earlier but it seemed that the landscape was even dustier than it had been then, the bougainvilleas holding on to their colours with effort under undignified layers of dust.

This had been the start of an exhausting but inspiring to Upper Sagaing in the remoter north of Myanmar and where few foreigners were allowed to travel.

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From Mandalay we had travelled by train, arriving not long before midnight and spent the following days visiting project areas and working with our field based colleagues. I learned such a great deal, these early days of my job in Myanmar were such a time of constant learning and growing to understand the context and our work.

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We headed back down to Mandalay several days later, on an overnight train in a crowded compartment. From Mandalay we travelled onwards to another township. This time in the dry zone where we spent more days with colleagues and communities in our project areas.

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We covered a great deal of ground, both in distance and our work. I had travelled by plane, train, car, bus, boat and even bullock cart to remote villages and townships gathering mosquito bites, dust and dirty laundry. Grandmother’s suitcase was clearly disgruntled at the indignity of this treatment – we were both travel weary but I was also inspired and motivated at the end of such a draining field visit. Another very early departure for the return trip to Yangon saw us driving through Nyaung U’s roads, deserted but for a long line of monks collecting alms as the sun start to throw its first light of the plains of Bagan.

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I would be home in Yangon in time for lunch, with many a tale to tell, not enough photographs and a week’s worth of sleep to catch up just a couple of days before my visa would expire. The long awaited renewal had still not come through and I would not be not permitted to travel until it did.

All through that field trip I had been blissfully unaware of that I had been carrying an additional item of baggage with me. An unwelcome addition which had been growing and developing. It was just a few days later, in the shower, that I discovered the lump and life took a completely unexpected turn. I had been blissfully unaware that I had been harbouring three masses, two of them cancerous in my left breast.

It was 23 September 2009 when that blissful lack of awareness was so abruptly ended.

Ten years ago today, I entered a new universe. Ten years have passed, and I am still here. The collateral damage, be it physical, emotional or psychological has been considerable but there is an important message. I am reminded more than ever to carpe that diem. We all go about our days, unaware of what might lie ahead. There are challenges ahead, personal and global yet equally there are moments and people to cherish and treasure. We just need to pause and make sure we don’t miss what matters.

Night Train to Bucharest

As late July approached my plans to undertake this long dreamed of journey finally sat comfortably in place. Tickets and hotels were booked – the various train segments and reservations, one flight, stays in the corresponding nights in cities along the way homewards – all accompanied by carefully selected reading for the journey. But my nervousness was not reduced by the careful planning. I still harboured not inconsiderable disbelief that I would actually travel on this journey, or even that I would arrive in Istanbul.

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The various components would see me travel from Edinburgh, a relatively short flight to Istanbul, stay a few nights there, and then begin my journey back. Firstly I would catch the night train to Bucharest, through Turkey, Bulgaria and southern Romania. After a few nights in Bucharest, I would board the afternoon and overnight train through Transylvania, Hungary and Austria into Vienna, to catch the day train the following day all the way through the Alps down to Venice. After a couple of nights in Venice, I would board my next train for a 36 hour journey through the Italian, Austrian and Swiss Alps, Liechtenstein and France before crossing the channel and heading London-wards. A couple of nights in London then, before the East Coast Train up to Edinburgh.

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Photo credit – https://www.seat61.com

But indeed, the days did pass smartly, and grandmother’s suitcase started to accumulate the necessities of comfortable clothes and books, in its little corner of the bedroom in preparation for the flight to Istanbul and the homecoming journey.

It was early afternoon four Thursdays ago, when the lock was snapped shut, and grandmother’s suitcase was howfed down the Edinburgh stairwell, up the cobbled street and onto the tram for the Airport. I swiped my travel card, for the very last time. Part of this journey would see me transition to the Voldemort age which, in addition to not being permitted to speak out loud, magically provides free travel on Scottish buses and trams. I checked in for my flight, nervously instructing grandmother’s suitcase to go straight to Istanbul, unlike its mysterious adventures at Christmas where it took its own holidays, and refused to accompany me.

The flight to Istanbul was uneventful, if late, and arrival at an almost deserted airport made for a smooth arrival. To my relief, grandmother’s suitcase had decided to catch the same flight and we were happily reunited.

It was well after midnight when I arrived at my first destination, the renowned Pera Palas.  This hotel is an icon of quirkiness and eccentricity, built in 1892 for passengers disembarking from the Orient Express. This was intentionally selected to set the tone of my rail journey back to Edinburgh, all the way by train over the two weeks of my return journey along the route of the Orient Express. The Pera Palas was rich in character and history, and is featured in the Lonely Planet as a sight rather than a hotel. It has a distinguished literary pedigree. Agatha Christie reputedly wrote “Murder on the Orient Express” in room 411. The main character of Ernest Hemingway’s short story “The Snows of Kilimanjaro” stayed there as did the protagonists of Graham Green’s “Travels with my Aunt”. The place was steeped in literary and other history.

Once I had checked in, the night porter took great pride in showing me the drawing room and lounge areas before taking me into the glorious elevator instructing me to sit on the velvet bench as the metal cage took us up to my room.

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To my delight there was a little balcony, and even at that late hour, the views over the Golden Horn with the illuminated mosques took my breath away.

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The Pera Palas is a wonderful institution with a museum, libraries, photographs and the celebrated Agatha Christie Room as well as little display cases dotted around with original Orient Express tickets, and memorabilia as well as many original fittings. The perfect setting to prepare for a memorable train journey.

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Para Palas – original house phone

I planned to stay four nights in Istanbul, exploring and absorbing this magical city, nestled on the cusp of Asia and Europe. While exploring the city, I was accompanied by Orhan Pamuk’s glorious book “The Museum of Innocence” gifted by a friend with the recommendation that I visit the museum itself while I was there. Reading the book, and visiting the museum brought an expected depth to my experience of Istanbul. As well as Pamuk’s sizeable work, I had also brought Paul Theroux’s “The Ghost of the Orient Star” where he recounted the journey he had made by train across Europe, Asia and back on the Trans Siberian in 2006. In this he retraced the very journey he had taken himself thirty years earlier (told in “The Great Railway Bazaar”). These books were the perfect travel companions, grounding me in the right frame of mind for the forthcoming rail journeys, evoking the spirit of the Orient Express and also giving me the sense of being absorbed in Pamuk’s Istanbul life. Both books (one fiction, one non- fiction) had references to and descriptions of the Pera Palas, and on the Saturday evening there was a wedding reception, which could easily have been the very one described in Pamuk’s Museum of Innocence.

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Timeless – Saturday at the Pera Palas

The days passed too quickly and in no time, grandmother’s suitcase was being packed carefully for the first train, and the start of my journey by rail all the way back to Edinburgh.

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My first challenge was to get the right train, from the correct station. Traditionally the train would arrive in and leave from Istanbul’s Sirkeci Station. However, this station in central Istanbul, has been under major renovation for some time, with a completion date of at least two years hence. Long distance trains are currently leaving from the little known Halkali Station out in the suburbs. I had to somehow get myself to this station.

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Sirkeci Station, Istanbul – under long term renovation

I had been told that a bus shuttle ran from Sirkeci to Halkali but getting timings or information about this bus proved to be impossible. Eventually I was told that the bus did not run, as the metro suburban train ran to Halkali. With my bags, arthritic hands and difficulty with stairs, I was not too comfortable with the prospect of howfing grandmother’s suitcase on the metro, so I decided to take a taxi which I was promised would take less than an hour and not be expensive, less than 90 Turkish Lira.

Of course, I was nervous. That is the appeal of such travel. The sense of achievement when you navigate the complexities of unusual travel is more than worth the anxiety. Usually.

My first concern was that the taxi driver would try and take me to the airport, as this would be the normal destination for a departing passenger. I was worried that be would not believe that I really was trying to get the night train to Bucharest. As we passed more and more signs to the airport, I realised that the moment to clarify my destination had passed, and that if I did turn up at the airport the time to raise this would be then. Eventually though, we turned off the main highway, and I was relieved to see a sign for Halkali. I was less reassured when after a few minutes, the taxi driver slowed down, rolled down his window and asked a fellow driver where the “train istaysion” was. This happened several times, as the clocked and meter ticked on, and we headed onwards, with no sign of a train line or station at all.

Finally, the driver spotted a train line in the distance, but in the opposite direction. More directions and a ticking off from a policeman, heading down a very welcome exit route and round a roundabout more than once and we drove past a building that seemed to house train platforms and an escalator. Another few wrong turns later, and both myself and the taxi driver were satisfied that this indeed was the train station, just hiding up an escalator, and I was confident enough to thank my taxi driver and head into this strange building.

Grandmother’s suitcase and I trundled up the escalator to an empty concourse. Clutching my ticket, I headed to find the details of the train’s departure from the information board. There wasn’t one. No departure or arrival information, no information desk, no signs, no clues. Nothing. Only a little ticket office, where I turned to for help and information. I handed my ticket through the window and asked about the Bucharest train. “Ah, Sofia”, responded the railway staff. “No, no, Bucharest”’ I responded. “You go Platform 4 at 9 o’clock”, he responded.

Much relieved, I dragged Grandmother’s suitcase along to the stairways leading to the platforms. All were blocked off by those tape barricades that exist only in airports and railway stations. Peering down the stairs, I realised that not one of the platforms had numbers. Each platform did have a waiting room at the top of the stairs, but absolutely no clue as to the identity of platform or destinations served. As it was not long after 8.30 and my train was not due to actually depart until 9.40, I was comfortable to just wait patiently in one of the waiting areas. Another woman joined me in the waiting room and in broken English we chatted. She was heading in the opposite direction, past Ankara I gathered, at 10 pm. The fact that she had arrived so far in advance of her own train both reassured and troubled me!

She disappeared after a bit, and I took Grandmother’s suitcase to have another look around and see if I could gather any more clues, and also any snacks and water in addition to what I had brought. I could see a few more people now, and overheard one man asking about the Bucharest train. Perfect! I immediately locked onto his path and followed him into another waiting room. By now it was almost 9 pm, and there were probably a dozen folk in the waiting room. Perched on the edge of my seat, and ready to move I kept the fellow Bucharest passenger in my sights at all times. My search for sustenance was completely futile. There was not a single shop, stall or sign of nearby. Just as well I had packed a stock of snacks and enough water. I was fairly sure that there was no catering on the train so wanted to be prepared.

One of the station staff came into the room soon after 9 pm, and announced something in Turkish. I asked another passenger who did not get up to follow the station man, if that was the Sofia train. “No”, he responded but couldn’t remember which train it was. “Bucharest?” I asked hopefully? “Yes, yes!!” he replied. I joined the small line of passengers down to one of the platforms and a rather short train consider it was to take 22 hours, cross 3 countries and arrive in Bucharest. My ticket said that I was in wagon 479 and that was the first carriage as I reached the train. Reassuring except that on the side of the train was the insistent sign –

Istanbul – Sofya Ekspress “Istanbul (Halkali – Kapikule – Svilengrad – Sofia”.

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I walked along to the next carriage, which had a different number so I returned to the one with the matching number of my reservation and attempted to drag myself and grandmother’s suitcase up the steep steps. The conductor was at the top, and helped me with myself and my baggage to clamber properly on board. He took both my ticket and reservation, along with grandmother’s suitcase, and led me to the second compartment where a large man was dragging his own and his wife’s luggage into the compartment. “Your berth”, the conductor told me, pointing to the bottom bunk on one side. I breathed out in relief. I had been silently dreading finding out which berth I would be in, knowing that there was precisely a 50% chance of being on a top bunk and trying not to consider the antics that would entail getting in and out of bed however often that needed to happen.

The couple managed to stow their bags, and settled in the seat opposite me. And to my relief they told me that they were were Romanian and also travelling to Bucharest.

I sat down and relaxed. I now knew that I was safely aboard the Night Train to Bucharest.

To be continued …

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Romanian border, 2 am, awaiting passport checks

A grandmother, a rusty old key, a missing suitcase and the winding lanes and souqs of Marrakech

I am not quite sure what brought me to Marrakech. But somehow, there I was, two nights before Christmas, in a peaceful haven in the the midst of the old medina, sipping mint tea and lamenting the loss of my belongings.

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Escaping the dark and cold of the Scottish winter had been undeniably attractive. Over the previous weeks, I had been harbouring a nasty seasonal lurgey which was refusing to shift, and the thought of a day which provided a full three hours more of daylight than the short days and long nights of Scotland’s winter was irresistible. Add to that mix, a friend who owns a magical riad in the city and a short haul journey it seems that a decision was made without my even knowing it. Christmas in Marrakech. A healing, creative time of retreat and restoration. Indeed, impossible to resist.

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It was only that morning that I had closed the door behind me in Scotland a good three hours before sunrise to head to the airport. The snow capped high Atlas mountains were already turning a deep shade of pink from the sun low in the sky, when I landed much later that day in Morocco. I was eager for this break, and keen to become acquainted with Marrakech and settle in the Riad which would be my home for the coming days.

Immigration was smooth, and I waited patiently for my familiar suitcase at the carousel so that I could step into the Morrocan air and meet a new country. I became less patient as grandmother’s suitcase failed to appear. The minutes ticked past until eventually the carousel emptied. I was alone at the belt, and clearly would remain so as grandmother’s suitcase was nowhere to be seen. As I reported my missing belongings, I found it rather concerning that the baggage handlers were not able to clarify what had happened to the case and there was no indication in the system of where on earth, quite literally, it might be.

Reluctantly, with the “lost baggage” paperwork completed, I moved through into the arrivals halls and out to the night air and the transport to the riad. The Marrakech air was cool, but not cold and I looked out of the window as we drove through the streets, with curiosity for what the daylight sights would be like, while trying to stifle an underlying irritation and concern. My suitcase contained important and less important belongings – in addition to the usual clothes and toiletries I had Christmas gifts, some mince pies and items for my friend, cough and cold remedies for the lingering lurgey and a precious notebook amongst other random bits and pieces.

After a drive of around half an hour, latterly alongside the old wall of the medina, we turned into the medina itself and its narrow streets. It was only a few moments before the car stopped, and the driver opened my door. I stepped into the immediate bustle of the lanes of the old town, and my little backpack and heavy winter jacket were bundled into a handcart and the driver waved me off as the handcart and its owner trundled off into the lanes. I had to weave around people, past stalls and avoid donkeys as I tried to make sure that I kept sight of my handcart and remaining worldly goods as they continued through the lane towards a mystery destination. We soon turned into a quieter, small lane and round another couple of corners before stopping at a door, the handcart porter rattling on the door knocker. A few moments later, the door opened, my belongings handed to me and I was ushered into another world. I was immediately in the courtyard of an exquisite riad, which was welcoming me with twinkling lights, candles, large wooden doors, rose petals, the aroma of mint tea and exotic promise. I had arrived.

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My plan had been to spend a few days replenishing my health and then take a few ventures out of town – to the coast, the mountains to see more of the country as well as soak in the creative atmosphere of the riad and spend time writing and reflecting. But I found that when I arrived, I did not want to venture far. This was partly because I was more exhausted and weakened than I had realised and partly because the food was so fresh and delicious that it was easier to stay close to the riad. And on a practical level, it was also because I had to spend quite a bit of time trekking out to the airport to try and locate the suitcase, heading to the new town to buy some essentials as I had only the clothes I was standing in when I arrived and filling in forms and sending never ending messages about the lost case.

Once it became apparent that the case had no intention of coming to Marrakech and was intent on enjoying itself on its own private holiday, I found myself settling into a gentle routine. Sunrise was fairly late, which meant that breakfast also started gently. Outside my room, in the courtyard the birds would let me know when sunrise was on its way, and when I opened my tall wooden door a little tray of tea would be waiting for me.

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Soon afterwards, I would venture to the rooftop, where the sun would now be warming the terrace and encouraging the bougainvillea to bloom and where my breakfast was being prepared. This was a leisurely process, for me at least as I would feast on finely chopped seasonal fruits – strawberries, apricots, raspberries, figs, oranges and walnuts nestling on fresh yogurt. This would be followed by a Moroccan treat of a lightly spiced tomato, pepper and egg tajine (shakh-shukh), chopped avocado, omelette, or other delight. This whole process should not be rushed and could last until lunchtime as I read, reflected, chatted with and watched the bird families and slipped between shaded and sunny spots sporting a practical straw hat to protect my head and face from the sun.

At some point in the afternoon, I would prepare myself to head out to the souqs and the outside. This world outside of the riad was in complete contrast to the tranquillity of the riad. I soon learned my way through the little lanes to the main souqs, only a few minutes away.

But once I reached the maze of the covered souqs, the landscape would shift and change. Left would become right, straight would become windy and twisted and I would find myself in a completely different place to where I thought I was or planned to be. Lane after lane of little shops selling pointed baboush slippers, lanterns and candle holders, exotic fabrics, nomadic and traditional jewellery, metal signs with your profession painted onto them, carpets and more carpets, spices, tortoises, Manchester United football tops, leather goods and all manner of imaginable wares each in its own little Ali Baba’s cave with a smiling, welcoming merchant.

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When I would eventually emerge onto a wider lane, it was never where I intended to appear or thought I was, and the mystery of where I wanted to head to would appear, requiring to be solved.

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It was in one of these magical little lanes on Christmas Day that I happened upon a tiny shop with a jumble of objects under a glass topped shelf. I spotted a rusty old key and asked the shopkeeper if I could look at it. As he reached into the case, through a little curtain, he drew out a few old keys and invited me to rummage and look for more. There were all manner of random objects, including keys and I scrambled around to see what I could find. I ended up with a selection of very rusty old keys, and began haggling with the owner without looking too keen to own what was essentially a worthless piece of metal. We finally agreed on a price for one of the old keys, and I had my Christmas present to myself. This key was symbolic, and had been an image which I was drawn to a couple of months earlier while on the mindfulness and writing retreat. That key embodies a great deal – hope and promise of a future, unlocking thoughts of optimism and hope, releasing those negative thoughts and feelings which I have found difficult to shed and locking them in the past in order to move forward. The shopkeeper hid any puzzlement he might have had about my interest in such a strange object, but given he had them in his tiny shop there must have been some idea that one day an eccentric grandmother would come along and be taken with his keys.

As the days passed, the daily routine established itself comfortably and I felt my strength return. The lurgey was finally easing, without doubt thanks to the rest, warmth, healing environment and wholesome fresh food.

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As we crossed from the old year into the new, I realised that I would soon need to gather my strange assortment of new belongings, buy a little bag for them, and prepare to return to Scotland. The break had been incredibly gentle, and provided a chance to truly disengage with the stresses and intensity of the previous months, although it would have been nice not to have been caught up in the worry about grandmother’s suitcase and its wellbeing.

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My return to Scotland saw me in a far healthier state, both physically and emotionally and when I close my eyes I can imagine myself back in the riad, sipping tea and reading, or wandering through the souqs in the lengthening shadows of the later afternoon.

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And I remember how, no matter how many times I became lost, and wandered through these lanes seeking to find my way again, I would pass many familiar shops. The merchants would call out to me, remembering my meanderings of another afternoon and try to tempt me to buy their lamps, their spices or pottery. However, I never did happen upon the little shop with the keys again. I still have the key though, so I know it did exist. At least it did on the very day that I was seeking a sign of hope and optimism.