Deeply personal

I have no wish to add to the commentary on the disaster in Nepal caused by a major earthquake yesterday, and followed by numerous aftershocks and at least two other significant quakes of well over 6 magnitude on the Richter Scale.

There is a wealth of information, distressing and tragic images and news updates as casualty figures rise. It is an overwhelming tragedy and the coming days critical as a picture emerges of the extent of the situation, including the remoter areas nearer the epicentre. Information is aplenty and I do not plan to add to it.

My words are about how deeply personal this tragedy is, and that is for me at a distance, physically removed from the situation. However, I am strongly connected having lived in Nepal for approaching six years. Nepal, and especially Kathmandu hold a very precious place in my heart. I am struggling to process this.

This earthquake is not unexpected. We have long known that a major earthquake is due, or even overdue. Nepal sits on a highly seismic line, which give us the spectacular Himalayas as a result of the tectonic plates shifting through history. We have long feared an earthquake of this scale but we have always hoped that it would not happen.

When I first arrived in Kathmandu in July 2000, fresh off an overnight flight from Scotland, to take up a new job in a country I had never been to, I was spellbound by the city. But even in my first few days, I started hearing about “the earthquake”. I quickly learned that Nepal is highly vulnerable, and that Kathmandu particularly was in a highly precarious position. The population density, fragility of many buildings and concentrated construction on top of a ground which used to be the floor of a lake and now prone to liquefaction all being factors which would intensify the impact of an earthquake. I soon became very aware of earthquake risk, but did not know what to do in the event of a tremor. I did not have to wait long before I was pushed into action. The deep Gujurat earthquake in January 2001 caused swaying of buildings and dizziness in beings even as far as Nepal. Not long after, in July we had a rattling 5.9 earthquake while I was lying in my bed dozing off one Monday night. As the shaking intensified, I realised I had no clue what to do and I was lying there thinking”what-do-I-do-I-need-to-shelter-in-a-doorway-or-is-it-under-the-bed-or-should-I-run-outside?” when I realised that the shaking had stopped. Nothing had been damaged, but there were shouts of “bhuichalo” (earthquake in Nepali) outside, dogs were frantic, people gathering outside and I settled on my rooftop balcony feeling safer on top of a building than in it, and unwilling go to back to bed in case a bigger one came.

That night there was no further seismic action, nor was there much sleep. My paralysis when the earthquake started galvanised me to learn more and without doubt prepared me for future earthquake experiences, and in particular the 2004 quake which caused the massive tsunami. We were in Port Blair in the Andaman Islands on that day and returned to Kathmandu a few days later, with an intensified dread of the anticipated “big one” which we knew was already overdue.

There have been a number of deadly quakes in Nepal in recent decades, but the last massive one was in 1934 measuring 8.4. Seismology experts have calculated that a quake above 7 on the Richter scale is likely every 60 – 80 years. Hence the sense that a “big one” was overdue or imminent. Returning from a major earthquake, into a vulnerable area caused incredible stress. This was not an irrational fear, but a very real likelihood. We just had no idea when it might happen. We developed a plan of action for when such an earthquake came including a rendez vous point and communication back up. One particular friend and I worked through which supplies to hold, and which necessities to stock and a plan of action.  When she visited me in Yangon, she told me how that had now become a plan which she had jointly developed with a small number of friends in Kathmandu. They would join forces, each with different supplies if needed.

We left Nepal in November 2005, and a major reason was the vulnerability to earthquake. We had moved house to a safer place, but still felt that the risk was high and when the opportunity arose for work in Mongolia this was welcome. But I am still highly aware, and have written of earthquakes and mentioned more than once, that one of the reasons we are so taken with our home here is because it is small and likely to be safer in the event of a quake.

I was in a car heading home yesterday lunchtime, when hubby phoned and broke the news of the earthquake. As soon as I got home, I spent most of my time checking up online, seeking news of family and friends in the affected area. Having lived there for so long, and with family across the whole affected region, it was an overwhelming task trying to seek reassurance about so many people. There were so many updates from friends, family and former colleagues all over the world, desperately looking for information and sharing any updates they found. Thank heavens for social media. Although phone lines were mostly down, internet was more functional and soon messages came through from those who were safe and knew of others on Twitter and Facebook. In no time, #nepal and #earthquake were trending on Twitter. This morning we continued to receive news that loved ones are mostly unhurt. After the initial relief, we realise that many are homeless. Most spent the night outside, either under tents or on the roadside either because homes are destroyed or unsafe, or due to fear because of the aftershocks.

A great deal has been done in terms of preparedness in recent years, but the geography of the Kathmandu valley and population density are fundamental features which intensify the impact of the earthquake.  Hospital patients are being treated outside as there is no more space inside. Water and food will urgently become limited. One piece of welcome information was that although Kathmandu airport was closed to regular traffic, it was still able to function and late last night the first relief supplies arrived from India. The national and international communities have mobilised and a humanitarian effort underway with emergency coordination mechanisms already activated. A State of Emergency has been declared.

However, we still do not know the scale of the situation. The coming days are indeed critical, particularly given the strength and number of aftershocks on the weakened and fragile structures. Gradually we are learning more, and each new piece of information cuts deeper.

While I am protected from the immediacy of this catastrophe being at a distance, I cannot say that I am not affected.  This post is a personal, selfish catharsis from an individual trying to process and deal with the scale of this disaster. It is deeply personal.

We are holding the people of this Himalayan region close in our hearts at this time and holding out hope for a rapid, effective response reaching and treating casualties quickly and for a strong recovery.


Living and dying across cultures

There’s one thing about cancer that is undeniable. And that is that it abruptly confronts you with your mortality. Which is interesting, because many cultures, have so many taboos around death. We don’t talk about it. We remain in denial, about our own deaths, and of those close to us. We use euphemisms when a person dies. We too often avoid the topic. We even hide it from our own minds.

However, when you step over the line in the sand when we learn we have cancer, or if someone close to us is diagnosed, that taboo seems to melt away. Being part of a close cancerhood which includes too many with metastatic cancer, means that the subject of death is always there.

I learned a great deal about death and grieving when my father in law died nine years ago in north eastern India where my husband’s family is from. The family belongs to the “Tamang” ethnic Himalayan hill people and are very devout Buddhists. As a foreigner (and new daughter in law) in such an intense situation there was the potential for a very difficult time. I had no understanding of the rituals, or what would happen and my own cultural block prevented me from asking. This was eased enormously for me, when one of my husband’s aunts took me to one side and passed me “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” and pointed me to the chapters on ritual and belief around death.

As well as being enormously helpful and enabling me to understand and engage as appropriate in the rituals, I learned a great deal from that book as well as from being with the family throughout these rituals. I recount this from my memory of that time and what I have retained from the explanations from family and the book which accompanied me throughout. This is my own understanding and I trust that it is accurate, and am happy to be corrected if I err at all.

I am a complete novice in the teachings of Buddhism, so please be gentle with me if I either over-simplify or misconstrue. It is well known that Buddhism is based on the principle of reincarnation. This is where the way we have acted in this life influences and shapes where we head in the next one. As such the process of death is one of the soul passing to the next life and very important. It is critical that the process is carried out properly.

I felt humbled and privileged to be part of this when my father in law died. I found this process enormously respectful and helpful in that it guides the bereaved through a process where they focus on the transition of their loved on in stages and helped me to understand how differently we deal with death in different contexts.

The time of death is believed to be very traumatic for the soul of the one who has died and there is a transition stage known as “bardo” which the soul passes through. It is very important that Buddhist monks guide the departing soul through this process, with rituals known as the “phowa”. This is intended to help the soul understand that they have died and to support them to gradually come to terms with this. Over these early hours and first days following death there is chanting to comfort the soul, and the family say kind things about their lost one, leaving out their favourite foods and drinks to make sure they feel loved and not distressed. The funeral takes place very soon after death, at a place and time identified by the monks.

The 49 days following death are very important in the Buddhist rituals and beliefs, representing seven periods of seven days each. At each seven day point, rituals will be held in the home, Buddhist monks chanting and carrying out the appropriate “puja” to support the soul on their journey towards their next incarnation or next life. At the third seven day period, that is on the 21st day, an important “puja” is held. At this point the soul moves from the stage where they are newly passed, to that where they are preparing for their next incarnation. While in the first 21 days, the soul is believed to be nearby and moving through this “adjustment” phase, after that it is believed that on one of the next seven day points, the soul will pass to the next life, therefore either at the 28th, 35th or the 42nd day.

When the 49th day comes, it is known that the soul has moved on and there is a major day of rituals and puja, with family and friends coming from far and wide to pay respects and to grieve. It is a painful and highly emotional day, for it is on the 49th day, the family and close ones know that their loved one has moved on and they grieve their loss.


Today marks the 49th day since my father’s death.

Post Script

Strangely I dreamed of my father last night, after I had written this.  Strangely, because this is unusual.  I do not dream often of my father, I never have.  I think of him frequently but rarely dream.  Last night, in my dream, he came to visit us in our home.  He was looking so well, was dressed in his usual everyday “countryside smart but casual” clothes and standing in the garden near our door.  I was pleased to see him standing and walking unaided, and out and about as he had been so frail when I last saw him. Memory was clearly blurring with reality.

He didn’t come into the house, but we stood outside and chatted.  Small talk.  Chit chat.  Nothing of substance, but pleasant and lighthearted.

Writing this post and thoughts of the 49 days perhaps prompted my subconscious to form this dream. Or perhaps not?

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow………

One of the things I missed most when I moved from Scotland to Asia, was snow.  I really missed it. When I was buried in the newness of breast cancer life, and burying myself in bloggery as a way of keeping a focus on moving forward and playing around with settings, I vaguely remember finding some function or gimmick which offered a special “snowing” feature for the month of December.  This gifts me the illusion of snowflakes falling on the blog page throughout the whole month of December.  How sweet.  Or how annoying.  And how northern-hemisphere-centric! Ever since then I am reminded of my rash “click here for December snow” action as it returns every year without fail and people ask me what is wrong with my screen!  I think I believed that this might be a nice way of remembering snow.  Now that I am in Myanmar, snow is even more distant with our hotter climate, usually dry winters and lush tropical vegetation.  Not a snowflake in sight, and no prospects of snow sighting.  So perhaps I felt that this would be a good way of maintaining my relationship with snow!

After leaving Scotland, and moving to Nepal I was particularly surprised at just how much I missed snow.  Of course, parts of Nepal do see snow, those famous Himalayas for example, but snow rarely fell in  the Kathmandu valley and certainly not while I was there.  One year there was a dusting of snow on the hills around the valley, and there was great excitement, cars driving up to the hills and then slithering around the roads as the drivers were not used to these conditions.  From the winter of 2000 right until after I left Nepal at the end of 2005 I only saw snow from a distance, picture postcard-like views of the Himal and their snow capped peaks.


Beautiful, snowy snow.  But too far away to seem real.  No crunch of snow underfoot, no hypnotically mesmerising kaleidoscope of snow falling in front of my eyes, no smell of snow as it headed towards us, no sepia sky brimming with snowflakes, no trees with branches laden with heavy snow coverings.  No snow to touch or kick up as I walked. And I really missed it.

I missed it to the extent that I used to dream of snow.  Sweet nostalgia dreams, from which I would wake in a warm fuzzy mood, bathed in childhood like sentiment.  One dream has stayed with me very clearly.  I was standing at the edge of a field, covered in snow.  The snow was untouched, and I ran into the field revelling in the sensation of snow underfoot, and ridiculously excited at the fun I  was having.  I was aware, in my dream, of people watching me, with critical eyes as I stirred up the snow.  Clearly I was breaking some “don’t run in the field and  spoil the snow” rule. I remember clearly justifying my actions, and explaining that I had not seen snow for many years, and feeling a level of frustration that I was not understood.

It was to be the end of 2005 before I would experience snow again…………..

on horseback

Nepal has cold winters, and of course Scotland is not short of cold weather, but our transfer to Mongolia brought a new league of cold.  We arrived in mid November when temperatures were around -20C.  Phenomenally cold. Colder than I had ever experienced, although some very severe winters in Scotland had seen minus 10 – 15C.  However, the paralysing -20C was consistently labelled “pleasant autumn weather”.  A real signal of what we knew was ahead.

The temperatures drop rapidly as the short summer turns to winter, and for months sit well under freezing point. In December and January daytime temperatures would rise to around a balmy minus 35C with night time temperatures dropping to the high minus 40s.

in the afternoon sun -37C

Way beyond the experience of so many of us.  Read hard core cold.The rivers start to freeze over in October and by November you can safely walk across them. By December they are the winter roads.  By April, they are thawing again, a slow process melting layers of ice which can be metres thick, the sound of the ice cracking and creaking for weeks as slowly, gradually it melts.


springtime thaw

My walk to work was less than ten minutes, but in the early days in Mongolia, I found I would be running late every day because I drastically underestimated how long it would take to get dressed with all the needed layers.  My feet started hurting, and blisters appeared on my heels because I was not used to wearing closed shoes.  And even in the short walk to work, I discovered previously unknown fine hairs on my face thanks to them freezing rapidly when I stepped into the cold air.  Even though I was covered head to toe with only my eyes and upper face exposed.

We did not have to wait long for snow!  However, I soon realised that Mongolian snow is very different to Scottish snow. The climate is incredibly arid in Mongolia, and the cold accompanied by blue skies. Therefore, the Mongolian snow is powdery and fine, and tends to be a thin dusting more often than deep drifts. It is very difficult to make snowballs from dry, powdery snow, and this made me realise just how wet and slushy our Scottish snow tends to be!  But I could still smell it approaching, that unmistakeable scent of damp and cold all rolled into that unique snow smell.

We lived in Mongolia for just over a year, which meant we in effect experienced two winters.  The last snow of the outgoing winter fell in June on Ulaan Baatar, a light dusting and a respite until the first snow of the new winter which fell the last week of August. After five years of now snow, I truly caught up with my snow deficit. The pictures on this post are a tiny selection of images and memories of Mongolian winter.  I bought my first digital camera just before we left Nepal, and took around 4000 photos in Mongolia!  (The only photograph which is not my own is the first picture (above) of the Nepali Himalaya.)

Mongolia is rightly known as a land of horsemen and herders.


And children learn to ride almost as soon as they can walk.

a winter ride

a winter ride3a winter ride 5

a winter ride 2

a winter ride4

The herders live in tough conditions, in mobile homes (gers) which move according to the season for the right grazing and shelter conditions for the animals.


missing something interesting

favourite lamb

fetching water

traditional functional herder attire

Life in the countryside revolves around the livestock which includes camels, yak and goats as well as horses.

out for a wander

bactrian camel

As I sit here in the the only weeks of year which are vaguely cool in Yangon, surrounded by lush vegatation and unable to recall what that deep cold really feels like, it is nice to wallow a little in the memories of such a different place, with its wonderful snowy associations.

a winter ride3

And appreciate again the truly amazing experiences I have been fortunate to have.  And that is something that cancer can never steal from me.