Gecko by Gaslight

It might be Bus Pass Year, but I am not that old. Not really. Not in today’s terms. However, a passing reference in my last post about the lunar eclipse prompted surprise from a reader, that there was no electricity supply to the house I was brought up in. The reader herself was a school friend and therefore she was familiar with both the location and the era. And her surprise in turn opened a whole area of memories of my own, of times not so long ago in a place not far away, but incredibly distant and hazy.

This was not a century ago. This was only the 70s, the time of David Bowie, Slade and the distant strains of the pirate Radio stations – Radio Caroline and Radio Luxembourg – beaming out the latest chart hits on tiny, tinny transistor radios. The time of bell bottom trousers, platform shoes and flowery patches on our jeans. A wonderful time to be a teenager.

My childhood and teenage home was in idyllic setting, nestling on the shores of a Perthshire loch, two miles from the nearest village where the primary school, three hotels, a garage and the sole shop were located. The main road ran outside the front door, the village two miles to the north and the town with the secondary school seven miles to the south. In front of the house sat the loch, with a forested mountain behind the dark waters and another tree lined hill behind the house.

The bus route and main road with the twice daily buses passed right outside our door, but the electricity line did not. At the northern mouth of the loch the electricity cables veered off on the other side of the loch, only to re-join the main road at the southern end of the loch, just as the first cottages of the approaching town appeared. We were on the ‘inhabited’ side of the loch – we had two neighbours to the south as the road wound its way to the town. But the electricity supply had been laid on the uninhabited side of the loch. There was a dirt road alongside the electricity poles and the stone track which had once held the Callander and Oban Railway Line. The line had opened in 1870 and ran between Callander and Glen Ogle/Killin closing in 1965 – a couple of years before we moved into that house.

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Old postcard of Strathyre Station

The house had no access to electricity, but it was “piped” for gas and for the first few years that we lived there, the house was solely powered by gas.

There was a gaslight in every room, suspended from the ceiling. A fragile mantle set in a plaster frame would be placed into the setting housed within a bell shaped glass. This glass was like a shade, and served to shelter the delicate flame from any breeze as this would make the light flutter. Within the glass bulb, the protected lit mantle would glow brightly, lighting the whole room, until weeks of daily use would render it too fragile to continue and a new mantle would be placed in its socket.

Lighting these mantles required enormous care. We would use a long match, or more frequently a wood shaving spill. We would have to hold the flame close enough for the gas to ignite, but not so close that it poked into the mantle and damaged it, causing the bright light to dim and the wrath of my parents at wasting a precious mantle. It was equally important to ensure that the spill was not too far from the mantle, or the smell of gas would quickly fill the room. This was an exact science that I seemingly became expert in during those years.

One mystery to me was our fridge. We had a calor gas fridge. Initially that made no sense to me at all. How could gas, which created warmth, go on to produce a chill? I never did totally understand the precise science behind it but had a simplified explanation that the ignited gas caused a chemical reaction, which eventually produced a finely regulated coolness which kept the fridge interior at the right temperature. (If you are interested in some of the science it is explained on how stuff works.

After a number of years fiddling around with mantles, and candlelight if the gas supply ran out unexpectedly, and with no prospect of mains electricity in the near or distant future my father decided to install electricity into the house. The only way to do this involved procuring a generator. As an engineer, there began a long research and discussion phase which brought us to the point of deciding to move forward with this plan. Next came a similarly long, and meticulous process of wiring the house. In fact, this was made easier by using the lines of the existing gas piping to install electrical wiring.

I was intrigued by the thought of a generator and surprised to see when it arrived, that it was rather a small beast. It would be housed in an old out building beside the house and this also involved a period of setting up a suitable home for this wonder. It sat on a kind of platform in the middle of the concrete floor.

I could not imagine how this unassuming machine could possibly conjure up enough electricity to light and power the house. But eventually, everything was in place, and the first light was switched on to great excitement and celebration. And it did manage to produce an electricity supply, but it had its limitations and quirks. The generator would be silent until it was woken by switching on one of the electrical switches. When it was running it would hum away in the distance, like a car idling on the roadside. Which is not surprising really, because the generator was just that. A small engine, We became used to the noise quickly.

When the last light was switched off at night, the generator would slow down and be silent in a few minutes. Switching on a light would start up the generator, so there were certain unwritten rules. No turning on lights for night time trips to the bathroom. A flick of the light switch would start up the generator engine, sending thundering reverberations into the silence of the night. The fluorescent light in the bathroom was not “heavy” enough to fire the generator up properly though, and it would struggle to gather a steady speed, sounding like a car revving and then slowing. Only a regular light bulb would start the thrum of the engine in a nice orderly manner. Similarly, a kettle required too much energy and would upset the generator by demanding too much power as it started. We continued to use the gas fridge because an electric fridge with its thermostat and need to switch on and off to maintain the right temperature would mean the generator being woken up at all times of the day and night and that was not acceptable. To this day I have a keen, and accurate sense, of the amount of power which the various appliances use which is rather useful.

It was also important not to allow the generator to run out of fuel as that meant that the fuel tank would have to be drained and that was a Big Job which could only be carried out by my father. That meant regular trips to the outhouse to check on the level of fuel, and alerting my father to a need to refill in plenty of time. If he was out, then we would be very cautious with our electricity consumption if the level dropped to near the minimum level.

Coincidentally, in addition to the lack of electricity, there was also no television signal at the lochside so my childhood and teenage years were devoid of TV. It was many years later that I realised that I grew up without many of those cultural references, or conversation topics which TV provided.

The house is still there today, with a few more neighbours than there were all those years ago. I visited the village a few years ago and was able to stop off briefly at the house and chat with the new owners. I believe that there is now mains electricity but I didn’t think to ask.

The setting is just as idyllic as my childhood memories suggest with pine forests, the hills and the loch on the doorstep. But I do wonder if the walls remember the days of gaslight and generator with the same fondness as I do.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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