A super blood wolf moon passes silently over still waters

At the start of the year I came across a fascinating little calendar, made up of snippets of Eastern wisdom wisdom and spirituality. One leaf of paper for each day of the year, each one with its own insight or wisdom for the day. As I peel off a new one at the start of the day, I take a few moments to reflect upon the words there. I pause and let the saying sink into my thoughts and promise myself I will remember it. Of course, I never do. The words are soon forgotten, shredded by my feeble short term memory. Until, that is, one saying comes along which resonates so powerfully that it takes a hold and whispers in my ear at moments when it brings meaning.

moon saying

It is so true that we wait for important things to happen to us – the perfect job, a relationship, even a lottery win. We focus on looking out for the thing we seek rather than making sure that we are in the right place to embrace what we are looking for. Or sometimes we are looking so hard, it passes us by without us even realising it. But we are like stars or planets, and alignment has to be right for both elements. If we want to be in the right space to engage with what we are seeking, we must be ready. We must focus on digging that pond, because otherwise the moon will pass overhead repeatedly and the pond contains no water. We will see no reflection or evidence of the moon. If we forget about the moon, and make sure the pond is ready, then the moon will come on its own. We have to be ready, and we have to be patient.

I have long been enthralled by the stars, the planets and the infinite cosmos. A young child, I remember hiding under the bedclothes one night almost fifty years ago now, with a torch, a notebook and listening intently to the radio. I noted down each magical detail and update, including those words which would forever capture the moment which made history “That’s one small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Even at my young age, I knew that this was momentous.

We had no television in the remote part of Scotland where I was brought up, there was no signal or reception. More significantly, we had no electricity as the power line had been laid along the other side of the loch, where the old railway had run. We relied on our old battery powered radio, for news and information, and I grew up on a diet of the Archers, Desert Island Discs, Just a Minute with its rule of talking on a topic without hesitation, repetition or deviation”. The voices of Roy Plomley, Clement Freud, Derek Nimmo and many other household names were as familiar as family. Thus, on that memorable night, while it felt as if the rest of the world was watching the moon landing live on TV as it was beamed around the world, I could only imagine what it looked like as I strained to listen through the crackling and hissing to each incredible development. A little research this evening thanks to Professor Google advises me that, surprisingly, these events took place late in the evening US time, and in the middle of the night in the UK. I remember the thrill of knowing that this was a truly historical moment, and this added to the knowledge that I would be in huge trouble if my parents had any idea that I was wide awake under the bedcovers in my bedroom. Somehow, my misdemeanour was either not properly noticed or there was a recognition that my witnessing the first steps on the moon was not in fact a serious transgression. I kept that notebook with all of my scribbles, largely illegible, for many years.

Just a couple of years earlier I had visited the Planetarium in London. This was an important moment in my childhood as it brought the night skies to life in a way that sparked a fierce interest in the planets. I stared at the dome of the Planetarium during the whole performance as wonder after wonder was revealed. I was intrigued by the spectacle, unclear as to whether this was the actual sky or some impossibly sophisticated sleight of theatre which brought the skies to life. It was largely immaterial as it turned out. The main result was that I came out of the Planetarium impatient to explore the night sky for myself, an interest which I was to maitain. One major advantage of living in a remote rural location during my childhood, was the lack of light pollution right outside our door. On a clear night I would gaze upwards identifying Orion’s Belt, the North Star and waiting patiently for shooting stars. I always yearned to have a proper telescope so that I could see the stars and planets more clearly, but that dream has not yet come true.

It was many years later, almost three decades to the day after the lunar landing, that I was travelling by train from Moscow to Beijing to mark my own journey of forty years around the earth. We stopped in Mongolia for a few days and spent time out of the city in a national park, sleeping in a traditional ger. One night I had to get up to for a bathroom visit. The wash facilities were a short walk from the steps of the ger, in the dark, out in the massive expanse of the steppe. I opened the door and stepped nervously outside, ready to navigate my way slowly with a small pen torch. To my astonishment, I could see clearly across the landscape, the sweeping hills silhouetted against a sky opaque not with clouds, but with stars. The torch shone needlessly towards my feet. The arid climate of Mongolia and its label of land of eternal blue sky means that the night sky there is very special. The sky was overflowing with stars, the Milky Way distinct as it trailed lazily across the sky. Those stars were fascinating in their variety, some were little silver pinpoints, others were chubbier and of a more yellowish colour. Some clustered in families and others seemed to be jostling to join in an infinite number of groups and gatherings. That image stays with me to this day, and although I have since occasionally witnessed night skies of almost equal spectacle, that night was spellbinding.

Despite this fascination in the skies it was only four years ago that I saw my first eclipse. I had tried on various occasions to witness one, but been sabotaged scuppered by either cloud cover or timezones. Even a promising total solar eclipse scheduled for my birthday the year I lived in Sri Lanka failed to produce any sight of the magic, as unseasonal thick cloud hid the sun hiding behind our shadow. I hadn’t realised that an eclipse was happening as I was on my home from work in Yangon, in 2015 when I was spooked by what looked like a new moon only a day after an almost full moon. That was my first proper eclipse and I watched it until the light brought the moon back to its proper waxing status.

Just a few weeks ago, there was a great deal more anticipation about the bizarrely named “super blood wolf moon” which would be totally eclipsed, AND visible in Scotland. My expectations were not high. The totality would last for some time, but with Scottish weather and no idea where in the sky the moon might be and whether I would have the wherewithal to remember to open my shutters and eyes in the middle of the night, I did not expect to see much more than everyone else’s photos in the morning. I was however, impressed by the number of friends announcing on social media that they were wishing for clear skies and setting their alarm clocks for the wee small hours. I decided to just wait and see. I would undoubtedly be up a couple of times for my regular night time backroom visits, so would just see what time those happened and whether the sky might be clear or not.

As it turned out, my first awakening was just before 3 am and my reliable friend “timeanddate.com” informed me that this just happened to be at the start of the penumbral eclipse. This is when Earth’s penumbra starts touching the Moon’s face. penumbra. All that was visible was a glowing full moon, in a clear sky. I sensed a promise of a sighting of this rare lunar eclipse.

lunar eclipse 1

It was over an hour later when I woke again, and roused myself enough to head again to the window. The promise held good, and I was treated to a clear view of our terrestrial shadow creeping across the surface of the moon.

lunar eclipse 2

lunar eclipse 3

I gradually removed myself from the window, shivering in the cold and snuggled again to doze a little while. This eclipse was making the most of the clear sky and its performance would last. Even totality would last for an hour. I must have had some kind of lunar sleeping sense programmed as the next time I roused from my light sleep it was ten minutes into totality. The shutters were open, the bright glow of the full moon had dimmed and there was that supernatural deep red light. The super blood wolf moon was hanging in the distance, a rich, warm red colour. In the January cold it resisted the advances of my camera even through the open window and this was the typical of the images I captured.

lunar eclipse 4

However, my memory has much clearer images, consistent with the numerous far better photographs online such as this one  on Wiki Blogs

Blood-Moon-wikiblog

Photo credit – WikiBlog

As the clock moved slowly towards 6 am, the red colour had darkened and a tiny sliver of light appeared at the very edge of the moon as totality slipped away. My camera was more comfortable with this and the following images captured the transition from full eclipse to the full moon.

lunar eclipse 5

lunar eclipse 6

lunar eclipse 7

I returned to my bed as the light spilled in through the open shutters, my heart warmed with gratitude that the skies were so clear, and that my sleep patterns had allowed such a perfect viewing of the path of the eclipse. I was less thankful when the alarm’s shrill call woke me soon after as the working day was not prepared to wait until I was better rested.

I have now seen two lunar eclipses, and each time been enthralled. Apart from being completely in awe of the amazing calculations that are done to work out when these celestial events happen – and get it right, I feel such a sense of my own, and indeed mankind’s insignificance.

And moreover, I am keenly aware that throughout this fascination in astronomy from an early age, I have waited until these relatively advanced years to be able to watch this marvel. It seems that many years have been spent digging that pond, and now I am able to enjoy the moments when the moon indeed comes along by itself and shines brightly on those still waters.

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Thanks, but no thanks, cancer.

There are so many different ways of handling a cancer diagnosis.  There are more ways than there are people who have or have had cancer, in my view.  As each one of is individual, each approach is unique.  It might be similar to many others, but it is essentially unique.  Why more ways than people?  Because this varies even within ourselves.  Much depends on where we are in the cancer experience.  In the three years eight months and 22 days since I learned I had cancer, I have veered between the “WTF – Cancer??” to “warrior” to “cancer rebel” to “advocate and activist” to “inspiration” and many more.  Each is valid to the individual and to where they are in the experience.  What is not valid is suggesting that one approach is right and another wrong – each must be respected even if it very different to our own approach.

One approach is to see cancer as a gift. Diagnosis of a critical disease does often bring a sense of gratitude and an accompanying “carpe diem” pair of spectacles.  And that is fine, but the carpe diem is as far as it goes for me personally.  Thanks, but no thanks, cancer.

I was in a sound sleep the other night. I must have stirred a little, as I was pulled abruptly to my senses by a familiar tugging and tightening in my calf. Yet another leg cramp was forming. Much as I try to relax the muscles before it spasms, I can rarely prevent the cramp from taking hold.  I know that if I can get out of bed and straighten my leg with the floor underneath then it will help, but lifting my leg off the bed makes the cramp worse.  Sometimes I can put up with it, but other times the pain is so excruciating that I hear animal like noises coming deep from my gut.  It is agonising for me and distressing for hubby J as he is disturbed from his sleep and tries to help me relax the muscle. The cramp the other night was one of the worse I have ever had.  My calf was in a complete spasm and even my foot was locked like Barbie’s, – my toes splayed in different directions.  I tried to move off the bed but was completely unable.  It seemed like an eternity and took a horribly painful manoeuvre to get onto the floor and start to ease the cramp. I was finally able to hobble and the cramp slowly abated.

The spasm had been so severe though, that the pain stayed for several days.  These cramps are a likely side effect of Femara (Letrozole) which I have been on now for nearly a year, following the switch from Tamoxifen.

Throughout that following day, I walked as if I had just celebrated my 95th birthday and was both immobile and incontinent.  My right leg was tender and painful from the cramping and it struck me just now much the Femara side effects have been getting progressively worse too.  I am increasingly stiff, move awkwardly and have pains in my elbows, fingers and both knees.  I yearn to be able to move freely and resent this debilitating impact on my wellbeing and the constraints on my mobility.  The days following this particular cramp session saw me walking very gingerly and awkwardly indeed.

Thanks, but no thanks, cancer.

There have been a number of unwanted “gains” from cancer – we are too familiar with Twang Arm, Captain Paranoia and of course the gaping void and long scar which is where my left breast used to be.  But there are many more.  Some are side effects of current medication, some are the after effects of the various treatments.  They are all unwelcome, but part of life.

Thanks, but no thanks, cancer.

I have a host of unexpected after effects – brittle and constantly breaking nails, highly sensitive soles of my feet, skin which reacts angrily to as much as a wrong look, or sticking plaster or stray hair, a digestive tract which remains sensitive following the ghastly gastric effects of chemo.  I still have the remnants of peripheral neuropathy in my finger tips (barely noticeable but just there) and my numb toes.  The numb toes which were the likely cause of my recent fall in March.  I often trip just walking around the house.  One of my colleagues recently remarked that I was now walking more clumsily.  I have difficulties with memory too, my personal memory card seems a little stale and has particular difficulty with numbers.  Finally “chemobrain”- a level of cognitive impairment “thanks” to chemotherapy which is now more recognised and understood to be very real.

Thanks, but no thanks, cancer.

One post diagnosis gain is the regime of daily meds I have to take.  Before cancer I used to pop one little blood pressure pill daily, to counter the family trait of high blood pressure which hit me suddenly when I hit the age of 40.  Now I have a whole colourful smorgasbord of meds throughout the day, some of which interact with each other, some which have side effects and which require another med.  Sigh.

The Smorgasbord

The Smorgasbord

As soon as I wake, usually around 5.30 am I have to reach for med No 1.  I have to take a synthetic thyroid because I have zero thyroid function.  I have no thyroid function because chemo zapped it into non-existence.  I have to take two small tablets and then I usually get ready to head out for my swim and cycle. Around an hour and a half later, after breakfast I have the next round of treats.  I now take a combination of 2 meds to keep my blood pressure stable.  One of these interacts with the thyroid med so I need to leave at least an hour between the doses.  Very handy if my morning routine has to change for any reason, like travelling, working away or if I were to have a longer sleep at the weekend.  Fine.  In the evening, I have a supper and bedtime cocktail blend of warfarin and Femara.  The Femara has replaced Tamoxifen which tried to do away with me by clotting my lungs with a sprinkling of clottettes.   The warfarin is the other gift from that little embolic episode. And my nightcap is a massive horse-tablet sized calcium supplement to counteract the effects of Femara which likes to deplete calcium from my bones.

Thanks, but no thanks, cancer.

I did not exactly enjoy being on Tamoxifen.  Would anyone? I felt a general weariness and also had terrible leg cramps as well as the legendary hot flushes.  I was glad to wave good-bye to it though and had hoped that Femara might be a little gentler.  After all, Femara and even Letrozol sound like more pleasant names than Tamoxifen, surely?  Unfortunately not.  As I approach my first anniversary since the Femara – Gecko union, I have had to face up to the fact that I am gradually feeling worse and not better.  I have been putting up with joint pain and stiffness which has been gradually but clearly increasing.

Thanks, but no thanks, cancer.

I was due my regular blood draw for monitoring warfarin effectiveness and clottery levels this week, and finally decided just to ask Dr O about the worsening pain and stiffness.  As soon as I mentioned and gestured about the pain he sighed and said he was pretty sure it was Femara.  He said that he has a few patients on Femara and even the way we describe the pains is pretty much the same. He asked me how long I have been on it, and when I told him that I have had 3 years now on either Tamoxifen or Femara he screwed up his face and said that they were truly horrible meds and that he could not wait for me to get to the five year point and have “freedom”!  Which was incredibly encouraging to hear.  Partly the validation that he recognised how draining and debilitating these side effects are, but even more so, that perhaps even after a couple of years, that I might actually start to feel better.  I had not realised that I have been taking this misery for granted and had pretty much accepted subconsciously that it would continue and just get worse.  For ever.  He ran a few extra blood tests – just to make sure that he was not missing anything, so calcium levels, potassium and liver function were all checked.  And very happily, all came back nicely within the regular ranges.

However, he has recommended a Fish Oil supplement to help ease the joint pains.  Another colourful addition to the smorgasbord.  And that brings with it another consideration.  So many of the meds interact with each other they have to be carefully timed and it starts to get really complicated. The meds do not just interact with each other, but also with certain foods.  Warfarin is less effective when you take wonderful cancer-busting greens and other Vitamin K rich foods.  And other healthy foods like cranberry can cause haemorrhaging – all of which curtails nutrition options and takes so much control away from me in ensuring I have as healthy diet as possible.  So contradictory and counter-intuitive.

fish oil

I also ranted on my Feisty Blue Gecko Facebook page that evening, just to see if I was alone and how others dealt with this.  I was again reassured that I am far from alone, and my weariness with the side effects was valid.

So I have to confess to being grumpy and crabbit at the moment.  I am so over this cancer crap, and the fact that I cannot sweep it to the side as if it had never happened.  And that is not beginning to take into the account the whole “No Evidence of Disease is not the same as Evidence of No Disease and this beast will continue to haunt and taunt me”,  but purely dealing with the realities of the here and now of life following diagnosis.

Don’t get me wrong.  I know I have a great deal to be thankful for and I AM truly thankful.  I know I make more effort to value time and carpe the diem.  I still make a “five sticky plan” for weekends, aim to maintain a work life balance as far as possible in this incredibly demanding context of change and more change, and play (subtly I hope 😉 ) the cancer card if that is too threatened.  I have a beautiful morning routine which is largely “thanks” to cancer in that I know that exercise is known to be a factor which can play a part in reducing recurrence.  I have my Wish Bucket full of starfish,  kangaroos and funky nail art, and an update on that is coming very soon too.

I am also planning an escapade.  The year has been one of my toughest, so a little escape for creative and healing time is planned next month.

And of course, cancer gives me HEAPS of material and thought which makes its way into blog posts!

So there are a number of things from the cancer experience which I acknowledge have had a positive influence. And apart from cancer, I have a great deal to be thankful for – living and working in this part of the world being just a starter.

thank you starfish

But cancer?  No, I do not think the day will ever come when I could ever say “thank you” to cancer.

Acceptance, acknowledgement and gratitude

Today is our wedding anniversary.  It is without doubt a time to reflect and give thanks for a great deal.

There are a number of Big Things which have happened in my life which have stayed with me and shaped who I am.  Events or experiences which I have not been able easily to lay to rest, and ones which play a prominent role in my conscious.  Breast cancer is obviously one of those things.

Another is our honeymoon experience in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands.  We married on 10 December 2004 and travelled to the Andamans 2 days later.  We were due to leave on 26 December.  Yes, 26 December 2004.

We were incredibly protected that day, but we did experience a combination of PTSD and guilt in being part of such an immense disaster.  This is a shortened account of our experience of 26 December, 2004.

***************

We were sitting in the departure lounge of Kathmandu airport on 12 December 2004, waiting for our flight to Calcutta for our honeymoon trip to the Andaman Islands.  J caught sight of an elderly Ringpoche who was also sitting waiting and went over and gave his respects to him, and asked him about his visit to Calcutta.  Chatral  Rinpoche is a very senior, reclusive and fairly outspoken Rinpoche who has  shunned institutional and political involvement his whole life, choosing instead to live the life of a wandering yogi. To this day, despite his great age, he continues to move about, rarely remaining in one place for more than a few months. He is especially well known for his advocacy of vegetarianism and his yearly practice of ransoming the lives of thousands of animals in India. Chatral Rinpoche also stresses the practice of retreat and has established numerous retreat centers throughout the Himalayas, including in Pharping, Yolmo, and Darjeeling.  He was travelling from the retreat in Pharping, near Kathmandu on that day.  J’s family are very strong followers of the Buddhist faith and to meet such a senior Rinpoche was a special honour and highly auspicous.

Exactly two weeks later, on 26 December we were in Port Blair, the capital of the Andaman Islands, on our final day there.   We had spent two positively idyllic weeks on two islands – Havelock and Neil Islands snorkelling, lazing and really enjoying this magical place.  We had returned to Port Blair on Christmas Eve, to spend Christmas day and our plan had been to travel back to Calcutta and onto Delhi on Boxing day for the final week of our honeymoon in northern India spotting tigers.

I was woken by the first gentle tremors of the just before 6.30 am.  I felt an oddly soothing rocking of the bed and instantly wondered if it was possibly a tremor or whether hubby J was having some action packed Bollywood type dream!  Was hubby causing the bed to rock, or was the bed causing hubby to rock?  I very quickly realised it was an earthquake when as well as the bed, the wardrobe and mirrors started shaking and the tremors quickly got much stronger, seeming to gather speed.  I woke hubby J from his action packed dream, and we rushed out of the room.  I grabbed two strange essentials in automatic pilot – my glasses and my plastic sandals. My earthquake fear had meant that I was prepared and instantly made a judgement about where to take cover.  Having selected my glasses, I could see from the way the building was behaving, that we were safer not trying to leave the building.  We sheltered in the corridor while the quake was at its worst.  We could hardly stand, and it felt as if the hotel had turned to rubber.  The noise of the earth and building moving was the strangest, most difficult noise to describe – a sort of grinding, roaring noise.  Everything was moving, and the other guests were rushing downstairs (we were on the second floor). Glass, light fittings and other debris were smashing down all around, particularly in the stairwell.  My cheap plastic slippers protected my feet from the glass scattered everywhere.  The tremor was so strong that we could hardly stand.  Once the shaking subsided we returned quickly to the room, grabbed a couple of essentials including the nearest clothing and the small handbag with passports and made our way gingerly down the stairs which were littered with debris.  We were very fortunate not to be cut or hurt apart form a few bruises when we were thrown against the wall.

Outside we saw the extent of the damage.  Our new, carefully built hotel was badly damaged with large cracks everywhere.  The lift shaft added onto the front of the building had become separated from the main building and had probably provided some stability to the overall structure of the hotel.  If the building hadn’t been so well constructed our place of shelter could have been our death trap.

We waited and waited outside in the clothes we had slept in with all other guests also mostly in night clothes and shocked.  The owner of the hotel soon arrived and carried out a head count to make sure that all guests were accounted for.  Christmas is the peak season and the hotel was full.

At that stage, we had no idea that the earthquake was so significant and believed it was a local, though very powerful earthquake. We were to remain outside, for a few hours, as snippets of information slowly found their way to our ears, in bits and pieces.  The phone system was down but some people had picked up information from radio sources.  We had no direct way of finding anything out and for us there was an almost complete communication blackout, save these odd snippets.  We heard that the jetty was destroyed and cars and bikes were in the sea, it was more than 8 on the Richter scale, Indonesia was also affected, maybe west Bengal too, that a ship travelling from Tamil Nadu had capsized.  All vague and uncorroborated.

I had an awareness of the possibility of a tsunami and kept looking out towards the sea from our vantage point.  Port Blair is on a hilly area and we were on a road fairly high above Phoenix Bay.  Hubby had never heard of a tsunami and when I asked him why he was looking to the sky, he said that he was looking for the arrival of the Japanese rescue helicopter mission I was talking about.

Soon after the earthquake, I don’t know exactly when as time kind of stood still that morning, we heard people saying “the water’s coming , the water’s coming up”.  I still don’t know for sure if the water had already come up at that point, or if it was seen approaching as the snippets were coming in Hindi and Bengali.  I think it had probably already risen.

Port Blair town was sheltered from much of the anger of the tsunami by the southerly islands which absorbed the full brunt of its force and when it reached us it was more like a rapid flooding than a large wave, as if the ocean was tilting, one way then the other.  We were spared the horror of its brute strength purely by being in the right place at the wrong time.

The morning passed in a surreal daze.  I felt an urgent need for information – but knew there was absolutely no way I could find anything out..  There were further tremors, some pretty strong, but we were outside and felt safe away from buildings.  It was sometimes hard to tell if there was another tremor right away as we both felt a strange sensation of dizziness periodically.  We loitered in the street, sometimes sitting on the seats which the hotel owner had brought for us, then leaving them hurriedly when another tremor came, sometimes wandering down the street.  Sitting on neighbour’s steps further down the street, still in our night clothes, I finally, in increasing discomfort, had to ask the neighbour if I could use their bathroom at one point, and she very warmly welcomed me into her house. “Please don’t look at the mess”, she said.  On the outside, the beautiful Andamanese wooden house looked untouched.  Inside, however, was a very different story.  The beautiful house was wrecked inside – the large aquarium was in the middle of the floor, smashed, surrounded by dead fish, rocks and underwater plants, furniture had fallen over, picture, ornaments, books lying all over the floor.  In the bathroom I saw that the toilet was full of what looked like mud – then I realised the seriousness of the situation facing the islands.  The plumbing system had been completely destroyed – pipes crushed and the sewerage system ruined.  Even the taps refused to produce anything but a trickle of mud.  We were clearly a burden on this island – clean water was desperately needed for the Andamanese and not for us outsiders.  This wonderful woman made tea for us and chatted as we sat on her steps waiting for something, not sure what.

We continued our wait outside the hotel, naively aware that our flight time was approaching and not knowing if flights would still be operating.  Slowly the hotel owner found places to stay for those guests who still had time in the Andamans.  Gradually we were reunited with most of our belongings (the hotel was too damaged to let us back in, so things were slowly recouped for us).  We packed our bags in the street, but had no place to change so headed to the airport still in our night clothes.

On our way to the airport we passed Jungli Ghat which was inundated and damaged, and people standing around dazed.  We heard people saying that some people had died in Port Blair – no one knew whether the earthquake or the water had caused their deaths, all was so uncertain.

On arrival at the airport, many people were outside on the grass.  We had to wait outside as no one was allowed in the airport building so we waited and waited for news of flights.  Gradually we learned that the runway had been damaged at one end.  No one knew what would happen.  It was impossible for the large planes which usually fly to Port Blair to land so eventually all flights were cancelled.  A large queue formed beside the Air India window as people tried to get their tickets altered.  Jet Air passengers were reallocated seats and accommodation found for them and they gradually left the airport.  Nothing was going to happen quickly, that was sure, so hubby left to try and phone again, and to get something to eat.    He brought back some mung beans, crisps and pineapple juice which we consumed with disinterest and mechanically – neither of us were hungry but our bodies told us we had to feed ourselves.  The afternoon progressed and I waited patiently and politely at the end of the Air India queue as the queue in front of me grew and grew and people gradually left as their tickets were endorsed in some way for later travel.  Finally, we were told that the Indian government would put on one relief flight later that day as they recognised that that they had to start lifting people out. An empty, smaller plane would be flown in, and would be able to land on the shorter length of available runway.

We were extremely fortunate to be on that first airlift, and it was purely down to chance, and probably British queuing style.  We had a connection in Calcutta for Delhi which we knew would have long departed so asked about that.  Due to the emergency situation there would be no problem with our tickets – but we were told that our luggage might not go on the flight with us.  As part of the runway was disabled, the plane would not be able to carry all passenger luggage so it could lift abruptly before the damaged part.  The priority was to evacuate people and bags could follow later.

Everything except the one check in desk was eerily deserted in the airport. Shops, phone booths and even the immigration desk for foreigners was empty.  This caused a difficulty for me as the lone foreigner on the flight.  Immigration officials had been released when the flights were cancelled and I had to surrender my permit and have my passport endorsed before I would be able to leave the Andamans.  As the rest of the passengers filed through to the departure area, we were left sitting there until we were almost alone. Cracks were everywhere in the building – supporting walls separated from adjoining walls with gaps of a several inches.  A TV was playing in the corner, showing a cricket match, bizarrely.

We heard the aircraft arrive – safely clearing the damage on the runway.  We were on the point of being lifted out of the emergency situation, but we couldn’t stop thinking of those we had befriended on the islands not knowing how they had been affected.  In particular the warm people on Neil Island where we had extended our stay.  Finally a lone official arrived who was allowed to carry out the exit formalities, he took my permit, and stamped my passport  “Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Port Blair – departure 26 December 2004”.  We joined our fellow passengers in the departure area, all exchanging our stories, a motley crew of travellers, some with injuries from the earthquake and most in various states of dress (we weren’t alone there).

Finally we boarded our flight as daylight was fading – mirroring our abrupt start to the day as the first light was seeping into our room when the quake came.  After our idyllic holiday our departure from the Andamans felt strangely one of relief.

The departure was frightening because we knew that the pilot had to calculate precisely how heavy the plane could be and where exactly to take off – a minuscule error could be disastrous, and there was enormous relief when we took off sharply away from the damaged earth behind us.

Our pilot must have been carefully chosen for this job, not just for his wonderful skill in guiding the aircraft in and out of Port Blair, but also for his gentle, caring attitude which came across during his in-flight announcement.  He told us to relax, that he and his crew would look after us and take us safely to Calcutta after our ordeal.  We didn’t even realise that there had been an ordeal I don’t think at that stage.  We did realise we were pretty hungry too and hubby asked the cabin crew if there was any extra food (we had eaten only those crisps and mung beans all day) and they happily gave us extra portions, seemingly having thought of this already.  We flew towards Calcutta, the sun staying just on the horizon on our western side as we travelled northwards, and the full moon lighting up the sky on our eastern sky, another strange mirror that day.

I remember little of that flight but do remember feeling cold when we arrived in Calcutta, in my short trousers and night shirt.  When we had packed in the street at least we had been able to recover our Kathmandu winter jackets so must have looked really strange – but we didn’t care or realise at the time.  We waited at the luggage carousel – and were reunited with our bags for the second time that day.  We were among a few lucky ones, I think we travelled a lot lighter than many of our fellow travellers.   At the baggage carousel there was a lot of interest in us – “what is the situation like in Port Blair – there is no news, what has happened?”.  I started to realise how cut off we had been and that the world didn’t know how the Andamans had been affected.

I was desperately anxious to call our families, just in case they had heard anything in the news about the earthquake.  We had phoned home on Christmas day to send seasonal wishes, and to gloat about our good fortune spending Christmas in such a wonderful setting, particularly when Scotland had seen blizzards and Christmas dinner had to be postponed as not everyone could make it.  So they knew exactly where we were.  It appeared that the rescheduled Christmas dinner was again heading for cancellation as the news of the earthquake was the news which Scotland woke to on Boxing day.

It was then we really learned the enormity of the disaster.  It was then that slowly news of the tsunami and its devastation across south Asia was appearing.  Our telephone calls were very emotional and shocking.  Our loved ones had been through hell and unable to get any information, partly due to official lines being overloaded, but also because there was no communication with the Andamans and no news. We had been posted missing with the British Embassy consular officials in Delhi.  My mother in law had collapsed, fearing a double cruel blow in a few months as she had only recently been widowed .  Our ordeal was nothing in comparison to what our families and friends went through.

We were put on the last flight to Delhi that night, and at 10 pm were finally called to the departure lounge.  Here there was a TV in the corner and BBC world was broadcasting.  I stood in sheer horror and disbelief, oblivious to the tears rolling down my face, as I listened to the ashen faced newscaster recounting the emerging devastation of the tsunami, seeing the map with Andamans right in the midst of the disaster.  I was totally unable to comprehend this massive tragedy.  I was completely unable to grasp the fact that I had been right in the very place which was so prominent on the world stage.

We flew late that night onto Delhi in a complete daze and decided to drive down to Agra where we collapsed in a freezing hotel room in the early hours of the morning, and finally slept for most of the day.  We decided not to go tiger spotting in Bandavhgargh as we had originally planned as it seemed a bit irresponsible to risk being eaten by tigers after being blessed with protection in the Andamans. Instead we headed to Rajasthan after Agra and spent a very quiet New Year counting our blessings and thinking of those so less fortunate than us. We returned to Kathmandu with, I have to say, an altered perspective on life.

I had nightmares for a long time, occasionally still having one.  I used to wake in a panic, convinced that I could feel the bed rocking again. Sometimes there would be a reason, such as a lorry trundling past in the street causing buildings in the street to shudder, sometimes hubby stirring in his own nightmare, and sometimes it is just the pounding of my heart as I try instantly to assess if it is a tremor.  I am fortunate – at least I wake up.

I cannot ignore the coincidence of meeting Chatral Rinpoche in the departure lounge and what he said.  When hubby asked him about his journey  we were struck by what he told us. He said that something terrible was going to happen and many people would die.  With the conflict in Nepal this did not strike us as particularly unexpected. He told hubby that he was going to the Gaya Ganga fish market near Calcutta where he would buy fish and release them back into Ganga holy river, which goes to the bay of Bengal and of course Andaman islands, from its origin in Kashmir.  He said that releasing the fish and blessing them would save some lives.  We gave him a donation and asked him to get more fish and release them and maybe more lives would be protected.  Chatral Rinpoche thanked us and told us that he would release fish in our name for the long life of others.   It seems too great a coincidence that our lives were somehow protected in the Andamans on 26 December.

*******

When we married seven years ago today we had no idea of the challenges ahead of us.  We have certainly been tested.  We certainly did not sign up for the tsunami, nor the cancer club.  But these things did happen, and sitting here today in peaceful, tropical surroundings it feels almost surreal to reflect back and accept and acknowledge what has happened.  And most of all to appreciate and value how fortunate am I to have been protected, looked after and cared for by hubby during these times.

Thank you, J.  Happy Anniversary 🙂

Race for Life

Today sees a number of women taking part in Cancer Research UK’s Race for Life.

The Race for Life is the largest women-only fundraising event in the UK.  The Race for Life website tells us that “Since 1994, women of all ages and fitness levels across the UK have come together at these inspiring events to walk, jog or run 5k to help beat cancer.

Some take part in celebration of surviving a cancer experience. Others take part in memory of a loved one or to give hope to a cancer-free future. But all of them share a common goal: to raise money Cancer Research UK’s groundbreaking work to beat cancer”.

I had vaguely heard of Race for Life in my Pre Breast Cancer life, but who would have imagined it would have the meaning it does now?   The  Races take place throughout May, June and July across the UK, but today’s one is particularly poignant for me.

Today H and E are running as part of a team in the event in Queensferry near Edinburgh and my friend, M is running with her niece in Inverness.  Many friends and family members are running in other Race for Life events across the country in the coming weeks, as well as in the Loch Ness marathon in October.

It is a strange and emotional experience, and particularly humbling.  This time last year I was completely unaware about cancer.  It was not something that had touched us closely.  Furthermore, no one in our near family (blood relatives) had been diagnosed with cancer, as far as I am aware.  I think I overestimated the importance of hereditary factors in cancer, I had a belief that cancer was not something that would affect us.  This made the shock of my diagnosis in October all the more acute.

That situation has turned right round now.  I have made friends with other women with breast cancer and who are also undergoing treatment here. I have had incredible support and innumerable valuable hints and insights from family, friends and colleagues who have also been affected by breast cancer.  I have also connected with other women around the world through the Breast Cancer sites and other blogs.

And recently, women close to me and my family have been diagnosed.  Life at the moment seems to revolve around breast cancer.

So the Race for Life events which are underway around the UK have a powerful significance.  I am humbled by the efforts of so many to support the raising of funds and awareness towards cancer research, screening and treatments.  I am indebted to those of you doing many different things to raise this awareness and funding.

Breast cancer has changed my life irrevocably but thanks to the advances in treatment my prognosis is much more optimistic.

But there is still a very long way to go.

THANK YOU!