How does one dress for a Dragonfruit Reunion?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank you, dragonfruit!

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El Niño and the Gecko

Yes, it has been quiet.But the gecko is still here and life trundling along.

We are hearing a lot about El Nino this year. And we are most certainly feeling its effects. The heat. Oppressive and relentless. In contradiction, a massive hailstorm further north with hailstones the size of golf balls. Tropical hailstones? The talk of the town, as you can imagine. Drought and drinking water shortages. Frequent power outages. When the power is on, it is weak and unstable as it struggles to deal with the needs of the city. The fridge stops working and the food grows a small garden overnight. The fan turns slowly, when it turns. And the internet? At home it just does not have the energy to maintain  a link to the masterweb in the cybersphere.

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So I have been quiet on here. But there are tales to tell, and updates to bring. I have recently returned from that wonderful place in the Laos hills, where I escaped from the Water Festivals and rested, swam, wrote, watched the butterflies and listened to the crickets and beetles singing and calling in the trees.

Today I have escaped to another favourite space, where there is internet which seems to be a little stronger than mine. A special place for more than that reason. When I called here the other day to meet my visiting friend, she was enormously excited to show me what was waiting on the tree for my arrival.

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One very lively and feisty blue gecko. A wonderful reminder and prompt to seek out moments to share those tales and updates.

Morning Walks

This is a beautiful time of year – the start of the dry season, relatively cooler and drier air and disappearance of the thick clouds. Mostly. This year the rains have been teasing us with frequent reappearances, and some very heavy rainstorms. Every time we think we have seen the last of the rains, we are surprised by another downpour. Now we have had a few days with blue skies and slightly cooling mornings and evenings for a little longer. We quietly whisper to ourselves that the rains have now finally departed. The mornings are cool and dry. Perfect for early morning walking.

I have frequently said that I am not a natural “morning person” in that I always want to turn over and have a while longer in the comfort of my bed. But I know that once, I am up and especially once I am out of the door, then I have a sense of something akin to pride and appreciation that I have made the effort.

This is also a special time of year in that it is in between the full moon festivals of Thadingyut and Tazaungmon in Myanmar, which I wrote about last year here:

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.

During the daytime, the streets are nowadays a-buzz with post election smiles and purple-inked fingers, with the trucks with money frames and thumping music, daily bustle and most folks holding umbrellas to shield them from the sun.

Yangon days

However, the early mornings are completely different in nature. The streets and lanes are misty, there are few cars but more than a few people with early morning purposes. Before the sun rises too high in the sky, the air is cool and the light is mellow. It is a very special time. I have been able to re-establish an early morning routine which replaces swimming for now, with a morning walk.

imageDuring my walk the other morning, I passed a group of young nuns, collecting alms as usual on certain days of the lunar month. In their pink robes, lit gently by the soft sunlight and with shy smiles we each walked on towards the coming day.

imageI hardly noticed the man on the bike, until I was alongside him. I did smile to myself when I spotted his wallet sticking out of the back of his lyongyi, reminding me of how many things have not changed here. It is not so easy to hold on to your wallet if it is on display in most other places.

So what did surprise me, was  seeing the reason that he had paused on his bike. He had a smartphone pressed to his ear and was in deep conversation. And that is something which is very different. When I arrived in Myanmar in 2009, mobile phones were few and far between, incredibly expensive ($1500 when I arrived) and not easy to obtain. I had no mobile phone for my first 3 years in country. We used to write phone numbers in little notebooks and use landlines. Now almost everyone (in urban areas at least) has a smartphone.

imageSo this image captures much of what I love here. My morning walk would have been very similar 6 years ago. However, while we are indeed surrounded by change, there is much which beautifully preserved.

Sometimes the richest of experiences are simple,  free and quite literally on our doorstep.

Ad-venturing across the river – Carpe Sundiem

We settle too easily into habits and routine.  That is welcome in many ways, but sometimes I find myself a little frustrated that I don’t push the boundaries a little more and venture into new or different ground.

The weekend is the perfect time for this, but too often – and even with the five sticky plan to give me a shove – I find myself going to the same places, and doing the same things almost on default.  In Yangon, of course that always has an edge of the fascinating and unusual, but sometimes we crave a little bit more.

So a couple of weekends ago, two Yangon friends and I decided to be proactive, carpe the Sundiem and do something a little different. That involved getting up earlier than usual on a Sunday and heading into new territory – across the river!

I remember, not long after we had arrived in Yangon, our housemates had headed to catch this ferry across the river.  They had returned disappointed.  They needed a Travel Authorisation to head across the river to Dala and did not have one.  It was not difficult to obtain, but you did need to know where to go and how to get the TA.  They made a plan for another day.  Nowadays the TA requirement has been lifted for the past couple of years or so now. So we knew it would be much more straightforware. Our plan was to head to Dala and then pick up a taxi over to Twante, a town known especially for its pottery and generally explore some new territory.

The day started very gently with a rendez vous and breakfast at the new Rangoon Tea House, which I had not previously visited and a plush version of the Myanmar breakfast staple – Mohinga.  Yum!

mohingaMohinga is usually described as a rice noodle and fish soup dish, but it is so much more.  The soup is bursting with flavours of garlic, onions, lemongrass, banana tree stem, ginger, fish paste, fish sauce and catfish and it is topped with crispy fried chick pea fritters, fresh coriander, onions, dried chilli and a squeeze of lemon. This is served usually in little mohinga stalls, as well as by mohinga sellers with all of the ingredients balanced on a cart or even a pole carried on his shoulders. On my way back from morning swims I pass many folks with a set of little plastic bags, full of the various mohinga components as well as a nearby mohinga shop, bustling with folks eating and chatting, perched on tiny plastic stools at low tables.

Mohinga on the move

Mohinga on the move

The tea shop on our lane

The tea shop on our lane

The Rangoon Tea House experience combines the flavours and essence of a tea house, with a well designed and stylish setting.

rangoon tea houseA great start to the day!  It was a short walk down to the jetty after breakfast, to the bustle of the ticket office for the Dala ferry.  We were directed away from the ticket window, into a small room where foreigners buy their tickets. We parted with our equivalent of 4 US Dollars in return for our tickets and settled to wait for the next boat, which was on its way over towards our side of the river.

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The ferry approaches

The ferry approaches

Regular river traffic

Regular river traffic

In no time, the ferry had docked and people were thronging onto dry land and the port area.  The “entry” gate opened and we joined men, women, children, bicycles, …piling onto the ferry, which was already milling with folks selling quail eggs, newspapers, water melon, plastic gadgets, cigarettes, betel and tobacco, nail clippers with valentine hearts on them and even bubble blowing water pistols.

Fellow passengers

Fellow passengers

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An assortment of goods

across the river 9across the river 11across the river 12The ferry crossing is less than ten minutes but it feels much longer because of the buzz of activity and action.  As soon as we emerge on the other side of the river, we are in a different kind of throng.  Saiqua (Myanmar pedal trishaws), taxis, bike hire and all manner of transfer options.

across the river 14We quickly negotiated an car to take us to Twante and into new space for the three of us.  We agreed a price and a rough schedule.  Drive to Twante, visit the temples, market area and pottery, and on the way back call into the scary sounding “snake temple”.  A great Sunday adventure!

First stop was the Shwe Sandaw pagoda – and a circumambulation in scorching sunshine and a bit of a slither (thanks to post chemo peripheral neuropathy numb toes) on a wet path, around the quiet temple.

across the river 16across the river 19across the river 18across the river 17across the river 15across the river 20across the river 21We then headed into the main town, for an explore.  No visit is complete without a wander around the market.

An apothecary stall at the market

An apothecary stall at the market

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Sachets of detergent alongside potatoes and chillies

Sachets of detergent alongside potatoes and chillies

Spicy yummy varieties of dried chillies

Spicy yummy varieties of dried chillies

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Flowers caught in the sunlight

Flowers caught in the sunlight

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Creativity - old tins refashioned into savings banks.  Even though we have no coins in use!

Creativity – old tins refashioned into savings banks. Even though we have no coins in use!

Even though it was only mid-February, it was hot.  The cool winter days do not last long, and even if it is fresh in the mornings, the days very quickly heat up and after our meander through the market, we were in great need of a refreshing cold drink and we stopped at a teashop for quick rehydration.

Next in the plan was to visit the pottery.  I had no real expectation of this, other than that Twante was home to production of local pottery ware.  The driver did not seem to clear about where to go, but after a few conversations at strategic points along the way, we drew up at a fairly large bamboo hut.  Outside were a number of pots.  A good sign.

The pottery factory

The pottery factory

We tentatively asked if we could enter, and were welcomed in with smiles. I rapidly realised that this was a true cottage industry.

The pottery wheel is kept in motion by one worker pushing the wheel with her right foot.  A small rope from the roof helps her to keep her equilibrium

The pottery wheel is kept in motion by one worker pushing the wheel with her right foot. A small rope from the roof helps her to keep her equilibrium

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The kiln

The kiln

across the river 38across the river 39across the river 40I bought a small vase, and the woman who seemed to be in charge grasped my hand.  Before I knew what was happening, she had added several more little dishes, usually used to place buttermilk wicks in the shrine rooms.  “A present“, she gesticulated. Humbling. A warm and genuine connection.

We left Twante for the drive back to Dala, via the renown “snake temple”.  Fortunately I had heard of this temple already.  I knew that there were pythons everywhere but that they were not venomous.  I did not, however, really know what to expect.

A pause before venturing across the bridge towards the snake temple

A pause before venturing across the bridge towards the snake temple

Did we really want to face these scary snakes?? Moreover, would I actually be able to venture into the temple alongside them?

across the river 42The pythons were indeed EVERYWHERE!  They did, however, look extremely sleepy. I still kept one foot at the door as I watched, terrified yet somewhat fascinated.  The more I looked, the more pythons appeared in front of me, like some kind of optical illusion.  Not only were they everywhere –  they were huge.

A knotted, very large python sleeping on the window

Knotted, very large pythons sleeping on the window

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Shh - behind you.....

Shh – behind you…..

across the river 46across the river 50across the river 43snake temple 2snake temple 1snake temple 6snake temple 5snake temple 4snake temple 3snake temple 1I was glad to head back, barefoot, to the car and the return drive to Dala.

In no time, we were heading back onto the ferry, through the gates which were about to close as we passed through. The buzz of the ferry itself was waiting for us as we sought out seats.

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snake temple 10snake temple 7snake temple 9We disembarked a few minutes later, tired, dusty and full of tales to tell of our venture across the river.

It really takes so little effort, more the nudge to make an earlier start and seek out new wonders which really are on our doorstep.

Flowers in the market caught by sunlight

Flowers in the market caught by sunlight

A glimpse of Borneo

It is not so far from Bangkok to Borneo.  Two short flights, each just under 2 hours and then a drive or less than an hour.  Not so far at all.

Yet it took a whole day!  My mid-morning flight from Bangkok was delayed by nearly 2 hours which meant  a mid afternoon arrival in Kuala Lumpur.  This also meant that my incoming plane was barely touching down, as my connection was soaring into the clouds towards Borneo. I had no idea when the next flight to Kuching might be, and what I would do if there was not a connection available.  But somehow, I had already let go of the stresses of the roundabout and did not really see this as either my problem or something which I actually needed to resolve.  I just placed myself in the care of the airline and hoped for the best.

And the best actually happened.  I was drooping by the time I reached the front of the queue at the transfer desk (I was far from alone as a number of us had missed onward connections) and slumped over the counter as the rep took my old boarding pass.  He made several phone calls, and I could hear my surname being spelled out so I knew something was happening, but I also knew it was not straightforward.  However, it did not worry me and eventually he passed me a new boarding pass, telling me to hurry.  He had got me on the flight leaving in a few minutes but I had to run immediately to the gate.  Another few minutes were needed to try and ensure that my luggage knew which flight I was on and withing minutes I was inelegantly rushing through immigration and towards the gate.

And a quick look at my boarding pass, to see which gate I had to go to gave a nice surprise.  There must have been no economy seats, so I had been upgraded and was sitting at the front of the plane!

So I did indeed arrive yesterday evening, landing in Borneo just as the light was fading. I had another immigration stamp for Sarawak and a welcome reunion with my bags which had to my delight and surprise, travelled with me.  By the time I exited the airport terminal it was completely dark and the drive to the village where I was staying told me very little of Borneo.  The island was keeping its secrets for another day. It took around an hour finally before I arrived at an oasis of peace, tranquility and tropical paradise.  The end of a very long but strangely perfect day.

Arrival finally

Now, in the light of day it is time for some gentle exploring…………….

Rains in the rainforest

Rains in the rainforest – view from the haven I am staying in

Dreaming of Borneo

There are some magical places on our planet which conjure up a real sense of mystery and enigma.  Some are real and some are mythical – Zanzibar, Shangri-La, Machu Pichu, Inca Trail, Kathmandu, Timbuktu,  Silk Road, Mandalay and Borneo are a few which spring to mind.

I lived in Kathmandu for many years, and when I left even for a few days,  I used to love sitting in the departure lounge of whatever airport I was in when on my way back to Nepal.  I used to get a quiver of excitement tinged with disbelief seeing “Kathmandu” on the flight departures board, and a greater twinge at the thought that not only I was heading right there, but that I was actually living there!  That shiver of excitement was evoked without fail every time I returned to Kathmandu.  I remember one friend being surprised that Kathmandu was real – they thought it was one of those mysterious, mythical made up places – perhaps like “Atlantis”.

That suggestion of mystery and romance is contained in so many places.

Borneo for me, is one of those places.  Now I have to confess that until very recently I actually believed that Borneo was a country. I only recently learned that it is in fact an island, part Malaysian, part Indonesian and with Brunei nestling on its northern shores.  I have long dreamed of visiting mystical Borneo with images of rainforest, volcanic peaks and possibly even Tarzan having featured in my imagination and dreams. How unfortunate that I knew so little of the island.

???????????????????????????????So, in the spirit of carpe diem, the wish bucket and not squandering time while I am well, I have decided to spend some of my leave in Borneo.  (Thank you AirAsia and Agoda for making dreams affordable 🙂 ).  Tomorrow I will travel to Malaysian Borneo.  I know that there has been major deforestation and that my expectations of the island will be different to the reality.  But the other purpose of the trip is about removing myself even further from the roundabout and putting myself in a space where I can disengage, relax and focus on my emotional and physical wellbeing.  I imagine it will also provide rich material for the creative side.

borneo rainforestIn fact, I am not sure at all what to expect.  That is part of the mystery and enigma. I promise that whatever I do find, I will share here very soon.

Sweet dreams……….

Pondering

This is a time of year for reflection.  As yet another year comes to an end we tend to find ourselves looking back over the past months.

Can it be almost a year ago I wrote a long trailing ponder prompted by my morning encounters with my kingfisher friend? And can it be a whole year since I was working through mazes of words as I moved towards my three words for 2013 – (focus, treasure and design)?  How did those words fit my year?  That is also the subject of great pondering.

It is indeed a whole since the three wordly ponderings. And I have again been pondering, reflecting on what has been a tough year, thinking of how I want to guide the coming year and playing with words which might be a fitting mantra for 2014.

A shape is forming.  There is one word at the core of my coming year which draws from some of this year’s challenges and which I want to be at the heart of my mantra.  There are two other words which feel right.  Let’s see if they feature in the final choice.

As always, a great deal of my pondering takes place in what we often call a “pond” during my morning swim.  Recently my kingfisher friend returned after a long rainy season absence and it feels to me as if we have spent companionable pondering time.  He watches patiently as I plough up and down the pool, and I watch him as he calls out and now and then swoops and plucks a wriggling worm from the grass. The perfect fodder for my friend’s breakfast and for my mind!

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My Kingfisher friend watching my daily swim

There are many things I love about this time of year.  The cooling weather, the sunshine and blue skies.  And the draw towards reflection.

Soon my “three word” pondering will work through its natural course, and soon I will have three wonderful new words to guide and inspire me, and to share with you.