Another Sunrise

This morning saw a light frost, miniature ice shardlets glistening in the first rays of sunlight. I closed the door behind me, leaving a flower shadow painted on the wall by the morning light.
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Under a keen, blue sky, I passed cropped fields of sandy coloured stubble with their scatterings of hay bales, punctuated by deepening reds and rusts of the changing leaves. A Scottish autumn at its very best.
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It was not like this ten years ago today. I was half a world away, if not a whole world. It was the end of a long and especially heavy monsoon and the Yangon I left behind was lush as the late afternoon flight lifted into the sky. An hour later, the sun was glowing red as it rested on the Bangkok horizon, pausing before it slipped out of view. Silently marking the end of another day, and another era.

It was late that evening when I heard the words that were to take life in an unexpected and unwanted direction. “This is highly suspicious of cancer” Dr W gently told me.

Ten years ago, this very day. Those words have echoed in my ears ever since.

There have been numerous sunsets and sunrises since that day, each one different and each one heralding an unknown day or night ahead. Some cloudier days when the sun has been hidden, and some bright skies like this morning when the sunlight throws promise and optimism on the coming day. This chimes somewhat with the path that life has taken since, and of course, before then. Some sunnier, promising sunrises and gentle, rosy sunsets. Other days, a stormy sky, hiding the sun or gloomy, troubled clouds shaping the mood of the day ahead and the challenges and surprises that arrive in our path.

On this significant Landmark Day, I am thankful to be here, and thankful to see the sun rise and set on an ordinary, extraordinary day.

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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.

I wonder…

I wonder…



Do the trees sing in Africa

at the tail end of the day,

as the sun drifts to the west,

dragging the light,

the colour bleeding from the sky in its wake,

causing such rejoicing from the branches?



Does the African kingfisher

wear a smart, shiny cobalt jacket,

slung over his shoulders,

catching the early morning light,

just like his cousin in Yangon?



Does the frangipani blossom

peep shyly up

towards the African sky,

pleading for just a few drops of rain,

in return

promising to release their scent

into the surrounding air?


Does the water lean to the right

when it slips downwards

from an emptying washbowl

just like it does further north

on the other side of the equator ?



Does it rain

at four in the afternoon

in Africa,

flooding lanes,

prompting laughter and annoyance

in equal mix?



I wonder…

What language

do the frogs speak in Africa?

Would they understand

their Burmese friends

as they revel and splash in the mud?



I wonder

so much

about this continent

that I have yet to properly meet.



And soon I will wonder no more.

 

Yangon, June 2016

Skygazing

I never tire of gazing upwards. Every sight is different. Stars may be set in well known families and formations, documented on parchment,  yet each viewing of the night sky is different. Clouds and moodily lit skies tell new stories with each breath of air.

The skies remind me that despite our belief otherwise, individually we are tiny and insignificant. Despite what we are doing to the planet as a race, we are almost non existent in the face of the elements.

Recently I was returning from Bangkok from my last round of medical checks, and as always opted to sit in a aisle seat. Those monsoon flights may be short but the rain and attitude-filled skies can be alarming to fly through. Better not to look at those clouds too closely as we fly through them.

My late afternoon flight was approaching Yangon, and I could see that the the cabin was taking on a golden hue.  Appropriate for arrival in the Golden Land.  I glanced across the empty seat beside me past my fellow passenger at the window seat and was immediately captivated by the skyscape outside. There were layers of cloud, and the setting sun reflecting on the waters far below of the Gulf of Martaban, the northern part of the Andaman Sea.

Automatically, my hand was reaching into my bag for my camera to capture the magic in front of my eyes.

Whereupon I came face to face, quite literally, with a bit of a challenge. In the form of the passenger across the empty seat, who was comfortably eating her spicy Thai in flight meal in her window seat. It is impossible to be unobtrusive in these situations, but I did try, leaning over and angling the camera so that I did not capture her shoulders and noodles. She also looked up and snapped some pictures on her phone.

Within a few moments, the scene had changed. The light had altered, the reflection dimmed and the other-wordly scene outside taken on a much more familiar look. By happy coincidence, and the good nature of my fellow passenger, however, I had been able to capture and preserve the sight.

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It has been a while since I have changed my background image here, and photograph of that moment provides just the right opportunity to change that right now, and share that moment right now.

In these days when we stare into our phones and devices oblivious to our surroundings, there is a stronger reminder than ever to pause, look upwards and drink in the free, ever changing moving pictures in the skies above us.

Realise – a review and a commitment

I have written in recent weeks, about my three words for the year. That has surprised me a little, as I usually revisit them later in the year to take the pulse on how they are working. But this year, there has been an unexpected nudge to check in early in the year.

Perhaps there is a greater need than ever for me to be guided by my words, and this is why prompts have come my way. And a lunar eclipse is a pretty impressive prompt!

It is especially timely for me to talk about my third word, realise. And I need to muster a little courage for this.

I have been writing this in my hideaway in the Laos hills, in the space where I found peace, inspiration and healing over the New Year. We have a week of leave over the Thingyan Water Festival and New Year, in Myannar, and I knew that I needed an escape from the intensity of recent weeks and months, and from the watery mayhem which takes over much of the region. As soon as the medical checks were over and Dr W2 and his flowery Songkran shirt had given me welcome news, I moved to firm up arrangements for a break I eagerly sought back in the hills near Luang Prabang.

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The perfect creative space.

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This is a very special space, not for everyone. If you are seeking entertainment and sophistication, gala dinners and spectacle then this is probably not for you. Entertainment is largely self made – there are treks to nearby villages, waterfalls and hillsides, a swimming pool and surroundings which draw serious numbers of butterflies which need to be watched as they go about their butterfly work. There are games such as scrabble, and puzzles. The food menu does not span a large number of pages, but the food is fresh, delicious and the vegetables grown in the organisc farm which is part of the project. Here there is no television, but there is a small library with books in a number of languages. Here there are no selfie sticks and gadgets are rare. People chat instead of gazing into smartphones while their thumbs do aerobics. In fact there is not even any wifi here so it is truly disconnected from the buzz of the outside and online world. And I find that enormously refreshing.

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This is a truly tranquil space, and I occupy my time by walking, swimming (the temperatures are much warmer now and the water welcoming), photographing butterflies, reading and writing. I have especially been writing, and writing in such an inspiring place, where the distractions are mainly in the form of butterflies.

And that is where realise comes in. I have promised to myself that I will deliver on my main writing project by the end of the year. This is where I need courage because if I share here what my plan is, then I have an additional responsibility to make it real and deliver.

So here goes. Deep breath………

I have alluded in passing to my writing goal. Publication of Dragonfruit last year was a major life achievement for me, in having some of my writing appear in a proper book. This has pushed me to take this a stage further and produce a book with my name on the front and that is what I have been working on in the Laos hills, in tea shops in Yangon and green and inspiring spaces such as Bago.

Now I want to share a little more detail as the work takes shape.

There are two key aspects to this memoir. Firstly, insights and accounts of life and work in the 2009/10 Myanmar when none of us had any inkling of the changes ahead are told through my first year there and accounts of ways of life which have evaporated and disappeared. And of course, the diagnosis and treatment of breast cancer in this setting.

My aim is to produce a memoir of (a little over) my first year in Myanmar. It will span from June 2009 when we were waiting for our paperwork, through settling in Myanmar when things were very different, travelling extensively through the country in my first three months before being diagnosed with breast cancer. The work then charts the experience of single-breasted, bald, wheelchair-using, frequent flier commuting between Yangon and Bangkok for treatment, in an environment where I did not speak the language, and there were considerable practical, logistical and paperwork challenges. The memoir takes us through to November 2010 and my first visit to Bangkok following treatment which is not for medical reasons, as the world watches the Lady, Aung San Suu Kyi being released from house arrest following the first elections in two decades in Myanmar.

Back when I was diagnosed in October 2009, I don’t think that anyone had any idea of the changes ahead either personally or contextually. This is a combined account of a country facing unexpected and enormous change, and that of an individual woman facing an unexpected journey. In addition to sharing the detail of the disease and the treatment, this memoir will delve into the emotional and psychological facets of a cancer diagnosis and the unexpected elements – special friendships formed through a common cancer experience, the world of internet cancer and social media and its role in 21st century cancer yet in an environment which was closed and enigmatic to the outside world. A real example of tropical cancer, and in fact cancer in the unknown and mysterious Myanmar/Burma.

Living in Myanmar (Burma) and being treated in Bangkok provided a background ranging from the amusing – (such as trying to find a prosthesis when the market is focused on perky boobs which are perhaps more targeted for Thai Lady Boys, or a wig when the colour options are black or black making a chemo pale foreigner look like a Goth or aging rock star) – to the heart rending (being on the other side of the planet from family, the shock and disbelief upon hearing the cancer word), and to the bizarre (undergoing radiation therapy while Bangkok was on the international stage during the “Red Shirt” protests in May 2010) when Bangkok erupted in violence and flames which caused additional stress and uncertainty and added an unexpected perspective to those days.

I have a working title for the memoir, which needs a little refining before I can share, but here is a clue…

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The commitment I have made to myself to realise, is to produce a draft manuscript for the end of the year. To be a maor step forward in making this real. 

LP butterflies 2The Laos hills and their butterflies have provided a particularly inspirational space to take this forward considerably away from the distractions of the outside world.

Default Getaway

Just over a week ago, we celebrated the full moon festival of Tazaungmon in Myanmar. Throughout the wettest days of the monsoon, between the July and the October full moons of Waso and Thadingyut, there is a period which is often called  “Buddhist Lent” in Myanmar. During this period, it is usual not to begin new ventures – not to start a new job or move house and not to get married. At the Thadingyut Full Moon (usually in October) there is a great sense of festivity and the city is bathed in lights and candles. The temples are packed and shops full of gift packs of monk robes and appropriate gifts.  The night sky is punctuated with lanterns floating upwards.

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The Tazaungmon full moon, framed by traditional shades

The whole month following Thadindgyut has a festive air, and as the next full moon, Tazaungmon approaches we see preparations for this festival. At the end of our lane a stall appears, with wooden frames where people pin brand new 1000 Kyat notes and other donations.

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tazaungmon blog 1tazaungmon blog 3At various times, these are wheeled around the lanes and streets. I looked up one Sunday morning when I heard some lively music blaring from a megaphone, and saw a line of money trees and umbrellas passing along above the hedge outside. Quite surreal.

tazaungmon 4Last year I even saw a car with money pasted all over it, on its way to the temple to offer its donation.

tazaungmon blog 4This year Tazaungmon fell on a Thursday. Which brought the opportunity of taking a day’s leave on the Friday and making a long weekend of it. Rainy season is usually behind us by this time which makes flying less of an ordeal for me and I could feel a relaxing weekend at the beach calling to me. A booking was quickly made and I continued to work flat out, secure in the knowledge that a peaceful break was ahead.

However, rainy season had decided to continue a little mischief and on the Tuesday we had some torrential downpours. By Wednesday morning, there was no break in the rains and the sky heavy and grey. This was far more like a Scottish November day than a Myanmar one! I had to visit the Clinic for my regular blood check and the streets were again waterlogged. I was glad I was not flying that day and relieved that there were 24 hours before my flight.

When I returned from the clinic things took a turn for the unexpected and unwelcome. Firstly I received a text message alerting me that a friend was considering cancelling their seaside break due to a weather system developing in the Bay of Bengal. At almost the same time, I received an email alert about the possibility of a tropical storm or cyclone developing. My stomach flipped. Partly out of fear (flying in stormy weather, danger if the system were to develop and were to head in our direction) and partly from anger at the injustice of my badly needed break being in jeopardy.

I desperately tried to get any information and advice, but it was consistently inconsistent! The storm was expected to weaken, or strengthen. It might head towards Myanmar or it might decide to tootle off towards India. Some folks were cancelling and others were pushing ahead with plans. I was utterly incapacitated and had less than 24 hours to make a decision.

Now I am not the world’s most decisive person at the best of times, and in this instance I excelled myself. I did not want to make myself miserable and anxious by going ahead, but nor did I want to make myself miserable and resentful by cancelling. And the crystal ball continued to taunt me with its lack of information.

Hence, on the Thursday morning, with the torrential rain continued to batter down outside, and a sky promising plenty more, I was perched on the end of my bed only two hours from the flight’s departure. I had hardly slept, had not yet showered, breakfasted or even dressed and was still nowhere near making that decision. The fact that everywhere was closed for the holiday did not help, and the only information I could glean suggested that the while the storm was strengthening it was predicted to head westwards, India-bound. Ironically I had persuaded a friend to join me at the beach, and now the situation was reversed as she encouraged me not to cancel.

I had nothing to lose and no further information, so within half an hour had finished packing my little bag (no point in packing the sunscreen or sunhat though), showered, dressed, breakfasted and was putting my umbrella in my bag and throwing on my raincoat to head to the airport and see if the flights were running.

The streets were quieter than I had expected, in terms of traffic,  apart from a few Tazaungmon trucks with Gangnam Style belting out from massive speakers draped with plastic sheeting and filled with young folks drenched and dancing, seemingly oblivious to the rains and their dripping clothing.

tazaungmon blog 6There was mayhem at the airport, the floors were slippery and there were crowds of people. I headed towards the check-in desk, pleading to the invisible that the flight would be cancelled. I had seen a forecast of rains and thunderstorms and hate flying in these conditions.

The fates had decided otherwise and when I approached the desk, I was asked where I was flying to. When I replied I was escorted immediately to the front and my bag taken to be weighed.

But will the flight be all right?” I asked.

Oh yes, it’s a new aircraft” was the reply.

But the weather………”

Fine in Thandwe. The bad weather is here in Yangon only

And I realised I had a boarding card in my hand and my bag was being wheeled off on its own through security.

And so, it happened that I was on my way by default. The departures area was packed and many flights delayed, which did nothing to calm my agitated state. The ground staff from the airline I was travelling wore purple t-shirts so it was clear that one of the two flights they were running would be departing soon and sure enough, only a few minutes late, our flight was called. Getting up and moving to the departure gate reminded me of going to chemo. There was no way I wanted to be heading, but when bidden I would follow like a puppy. The rains were showing no sign of abating, and as the bus pulled up beside the aircraft we were met by a guard of honour formed by a line of airline-branded umbrellas. And then I was on the plane, questioning my lack of gall.

Take-off was predictably slithery but soon we were levelling off at 16,000 feet and travelling through a thick sky, surreally reminiscent of the frothy top of a cappuccino. Happily I had requested a direct flight (there is another long story in there – suffice to say that many flights in Myanmar fly on a kind of circular route and might have two or even three stops before you reach your destination). A forty minute flight with no extra landings and take-offs was about as much as I could handle.

As we descended into Thandwe, the light suddenly brightened in the cabin and I realised we were no longer in thick cloud. Vibrant green paddy fields, and thick jungle punctuated by winding brown rivers were immediately below and in minutes we were touching down on a dry runway.

tazaungmon blog 5The sky was still angry and the usually azure sea was more grey than usual, but I had arrived and if truth be told, the flight had actually been fine. I did not need to worry about flying again for three whole days, by which time the storm would have decided what it was doing and where it was heading.

tazaungmon blog 7As it turned out, the storm did form into a cyclone and turned towards India, but weakened and fortunately did not cause as much damage and harm as it might have. Although the Friday at the beach continued to be cloudy, Saturday saw a dramatic transformation to blue skies and continuous sunshine matched with the realisation that it is never wise to make a decision about what to pack without being that bit flexible. I am happy in the shade, but still it would have been wise to have had sunscreen, and throughout the whole break my raincoat stayed in the room! The rest of the break passed uneventfully, which was exactly what I had been seeking, quietly reading, people watching, walking and swimming.

People watching people watching......

Watching people watching  ……

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New beach behaviours - selfie snapping in the waves!

New beach behaviours – selfie snapping in the waves!

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Traditional beach decorum - sea-bathing fully clad - these women were squealing with delight every time a wave washed over them!

Traditional beach decorum – sea-bathing fully clad – these women were squealing with delight every time a wave washed over them!

tazaungmon blog 9And of course, in no time I was on an equally calm return flight to Yangon and breathing in the sea air and holding on to the peacefulness of the previous days as I prepared for the week ahead.

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Serenity and tranquility

On the move yet again……

It has been another week of packing, unpacking, checking in, checking out, locking and unlocking the little travel bag which drew such a short straw when it was selected by me, and flying through soupy clouds.  I have been offline most of the past three days while participating in a conference in Bangkok.  I am returning to Yangon with a head full of ideas, a file full of papers and a wallet bulging with visiting cards.  I have connected and re-connected with like minds and am wrapped in a blanket of enthusiasm and motivation.

As I move along, feet hardly touching the ground I realise that it is many weeks since I have changed my background picture.  That says such a great deal about how much the image from the Malaysian jungle resonated with me and how long I wanted to continue to soak in those healing images and memories.  But now it is time for a change, and the image I am drawn to is one I took some time ago, in fact probably around the time that I attended the first conference on this topic, weeks after finishing my heavy treatment and when I connected with Kirsty for the first time.

I love wandering around downtown Yangon amidst the living heritage architecture. I remember seeing this building, where the Bombay Burma Press was housed and being fascinated by it and taking many photographs. It just has to be shared.

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It is a glorious building and conveys the sentiment I want to share for the coming days and weeks as a background.

Welcome again to my world. 🙂