A personal review of 2016 through the lens of the 3 word mantra

As I sit in these emerald hills, on retreat, I have much to occupy my mind and my body in the coming days. This is a time of replenishment, to build energy and health after a year of immense change. This is a time for reflection over the past months, and a time to focus on the coming year. It is a time to open my eyes to see what is new and extraordinary around me, and a time to close my eyes in rest and meditative thought. It is a time to pick up the pen and notebook and shake off months of silence. A time to pause and lift up my camera when I see a new type of bird or flower. These are days to walk in the hills, listen to the roar of the waterfall and marvel at the lava rocks. To sit in a hammock and doze. There is much to do on retreat.

This is a fitting time to look back over the year and where it has taken me, through the lens of my 2016 three word mantra “reorient, nurture and crystalize”. I have, in past years, reflected back on the mantra from which I am moving on, and shared the new set of three words at the same time. This year, I find that I am separating these and as the days of 2016 draw to a close I share a review of the words while still refining the words I will choose for 2017. They will be revealed when they are ready, as early into the new year as possible.

Reorient

At the end of 2015, I had already experienced a great shift but I knew that there would have to be even more significant change ahead. I knew that this was likely to involve a new job and possibly a relocation. Furthermore, I knew that I had to recalibrate my inner compass. This was apparent in the choice of my first word “reorient”. I had no idea of the massive changes ahead, ones which have been needed and exciting, but demanding physically, mentally and emotionally. I had no idea that as the mid point of the year approached, I would be leaving Myanmar, my home, my colleagues and friends and my familiar surroundings. It did not for a moment occur to me that I would also leave the continent which had been my home for the past 16 years. Leave Asia? Impossible! But that is what happened. In the early hours of a June morning, just before daylight, I was on my way to Yangon airport with too much luggage and a little dog, with a ticket to Africa in my hand, a yellow fever certificate, a thick folder full of canine export/import documentation and a contract for a new and inspiring position a day’s travel away. The transition has been rapid, with little time for adjustment or recuperation before launching into the new life where I have had so much to learn.

Reorientation has been such an apt word. I have truly been going through a process of reorientation mentally, physically and professionally. I had not realised how “Asia-centric” I had become. My compass has been firmly set in Asia. I know how far it is to Europe, to Australia and other parts of Asia. I know how much the time differences are, and I know how long it takes to get to these places. Living in Africa has shaken my compass. I cannot get my mind to understand that I am only one or two hours ahead of UK time now, depending on the time of year, yet the journey is so long. How can it be that the flight to Amsterdam takes seven or eight hours, yet I do not need to change my watch? This is reorientation I could not have imagined. It has been challenging, but revitalising to realise that such a shift is underway.

Nurture

My second word has been “nurture”. This has been important, because with such great change comes mental and physical exhaustion in a new and unfamiliar place. It is important to nurture the soul and find like minds, to nurture my professional and personal growth, and to nurture my health. I feel as if I have been transplanted, and need to be nurtured and looked after in order to thrive. This has been more difficult, and I have work still to do here. The journeys of the year have been demanding, and in a post cancer and “not getting any younger” life, there have been health blips. I also need to nurture my creative side, which has been neglected. In that, there could be a suggestion for the coming three word mantra.

Crystalize

The final word of 2016 has been “crystalize”, a beautiful word which mirrors “reorient”. After change and tumult, there needs to be a settling into the new. All aspects of my new life must take shape and crystalize into a firm shape so that I can truly settle. This has also complemented “thrive” in that it is important to be deliberate and intentional as I settle. I brought few, but a few possessions from my Asian, and especially Burmese life into Africa. Now I have a little creative writing corner in my African home which is distinctly Burmese in character.

image

I am working on finding creative spaces, similar to the writing group, the book club, and photography group which were important aspects to my life in Myanmar. This process of crystallization will take time, but is underway.

This year has been one of journey. I have travelled a greater distance than ever before, in every sense. I have tales to tell of these journeys and stepping foot on new continents. But for now, through the lens of my three words, this is my personal review of 2016.

This has been a tumultuous year globally, and I cannot begin to relate this to the changes in my own world. While the year has been kinder to me than most of recent years, this has not been the case for many close to me, and certainly not a global trend. I am thankful for 2016, yet appreciate and understand that this is not the case more broadly. I wish for kindness and humility across the world in the coming year.

image.jpeg

As the sun sets on the outgoing year, let us all pledge to do what each of us can to make 2017 a good year.

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.

dragonfruit-front-cover.jpg

dragonfruit arrival 2

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…

image

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.

image

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!

image

Retreat

If there is something I have learned over the past years, it is this. I thrive in retreat. I embrace being in nature and far from crowds, madding or otherwise. I don’t need entertainment or sophisticated surroundings. I can sit and listen to the river flowing, the breeze in the trees and the sounds of critters and birds about their daily work. I have learned that this is important for my wellbeing and in fact is the most effective way to replenish energy and refresh my body and soul.

This year has been intense. Globally, we have seen and felt shockwaves we could never have believed, and we have heard the anguish of those affected by hate and conflict. The year has been one of enormous change for me personally, and one which has been healthy in many ways but its intensity has left me drained and spent. I need to face the coming year with energy and renewed enthusiasm. And for that I have again retreated, and ventured far to do so.

image

This means that the silence of the past weeks on this space is being gently lifted as I put together reflections and share with you some details of this retreat. I am working on the three words for the coming year and catching up with the past months. The Feisty Blue Gecko has been but resting and is ready to emerge refreshed.

To set the tone and provide a taste of what is to come, I share now a picture of my new neighbour, a sweet little blueish bird the likes of which I have never seen before, who was busy eyeing up this avocado while managing to pose for me.

ecuador-1

My eyes are open, my ears are listening and my mind is letting go of the intensity of the past months. Let the revitalisation begin.

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.

image

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.

image

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

Winding down

I really don’t wander around Yangon’s downtown nearly enough. When I do, I remember how much I love it and how much it is worth braving the standstill traffic, the slithery pavements in rainy season, the burning heat in dry season and the uneven pavement traps after sunset. So the perfect time for a wander is late afternoon in the dry, slightly cooler season. Two days before Christmas………. and before I retreat into a much quieter space.

escape 2Last year I compared the thought of a break with jumping off a speeding roundabout.  The same still holds true, possibly even more so with building intensity through the year. Last year I retreated to Borneo for a quiet reflective New Year.

I spent a lovely, quiet, quirky Christmas in Yangon.  Starting the day with a long, luxurious swim and then Christmas Dinner in the company of friends, followed by a film shown on the hosts’ outdoor terrace under the stars.

A wonderful way of slowly winding down.

scape 3Boxing Day, 26 December saw me coaxing my long suffering travel bag to close, and heading yet again to Yangon Airport for a Bangkok flight. My next round of medical checks will be on 8 January so now I have some time to step right off that roundabout and wind right down.  I will fly this afternoon to Laos and spend the days before and after the New Year in a quiet, secluded place in the hills surrounded by jungle, waterfalls, butterflies and long walks.  This year I am truly stepping away from the 21st century for a little while as there is no internet, no distractions.

I trust that I will be in a relaxing and inspiring place physically as well as emotionally.  Perfect for walking, swimming if it is not too cold, reading, writing and thinking. And I am well equipped.

escapeI will refine my three words and share them when connectivity permits. They are nearly in place, but need those few days of quiet reflection before I fine tune and share.  Soon.

As 2015 approaches, I send wishes for the coming year and beyond, to be filled with light, sunshine, laughter, music and kindness for all.

Hiding from watery mayhem on the banks of the River Kwai

Much as I enjoy the lead up to the Water Festivals, and the sense of building enthusiasm and unbridled delight which surrounds us, I have to confess that I tend to retreat from the festivities themselves. In this part of the world there are a number of Water Festivals.  Our Thingyan in Myanmar and Songkran in Thailand are two which I am familiar with.

It is a wonderful release in so many ways, and the water throwing all around brings such relief from the rising temperatures and humidity. And for a day it is great fun. However, my challenge is that the Festivals last for several days. In Yangon, we celebrate four full days of Thingyan and the Myanmar New Year is the following day. So there are five days when everything stops and closes. If you do need to venture out, you absolutely must be prepared to be soaked. Every stitching of clothing and possession utterly drenched. I find that after a couple of days, we inevitably start to run out of fresh food and everything is shut. You have to be completely prepared as nipping out for supplies is just not possible. Firstly because of the drenchings, and secondly because the shops are shut anyway. Everyone is having FUN!

It is a wonderful time of exuberance, and I am glad I have experienced this. But I recognise that for the best part of a week (more if we count the weekend days) that I get a bit antsy if I am not able to venture out, especially for a long cooling swim. In a pool and not at the roadside!

kanchanaburi 1

So my strategy is to find a quiet spot and hide from the watery mayhem. This is not always as easy as it sounds because the other part of the strategy is not to have to venture to far afield. Only one flight if possible, and somewhere where I can find a sheltered haven from the excitement where the essentials are on hand. Essentials being a restful space, food and water and ideally a swimming space. Now, living in a part of the world where we are surrounded by water festivals, this is less easy than it sounds.

Eventually I settled on the notion of visiting Kanchanaburi. It is the town immortalised by the Bridge of the River Kwai film for its place in the notorious “Death Railway”. Coincidentally, I have read a few books recently which are either set in the period of the Railway or actually about it, such as The Railway Man by Eric Lomax. I also realise that I really should have visited the area having lived on the doorstep for so many years. My other reasoning, however, is that I could find a restful space amidst a setting of historical significance and natural beauty and hide from the water mayhem going on all around.

kanchanaburi sceneAnd that is what I did. Kanchanaburi is only a couple of hours out of Bangkok so very easy to get to. I found a pleasant little guesthouse on the banks of the river, where I could relax, read, write, swim and generally decompress in the peaceful, natural setting surrounding me. I was keenly aware of the mayhem outside, with the staff of the guesthouse returning drenched and high-spirited from their forays and the distant thumping of music from further afield. I think they probably found me a little strange in my reluctance to join in, but it was just perfect for my needs. I would have a long swim first thing in the morning before a leisurely breakfast which would stretch into reading and writing time beside the river. I would be distracted by the mynah birds which would play in pairs on the river bank, sneaking over to the tables if they had a chance and dancing around in the frangipani trees.

kanchanaburi 16

As the temperatures rose in the afternoon, I found I had the occasional nap back in my room before an evening swim and dinner again at the riverside. I had absolutely no need nor desire to leave. It is a little strange not to head out and explore but I was not even slightly tempted to head out into the surrounding lanes.

Riverside retreat

Riverside retreat

An advantage of being on the riverside was that I was, however, easily able to venture onto the river and spent an afternoon exploring “safe” dry spaces along the river. How ironic!

 

On the River Kwai

On the River Kwai

 

kanchanaburi 2

And this was where I came nearest to encountering the full Songkran experience. One of the stops on the river took me over the Death Railway tracks and up a hill towards a temple and caves.

Death Railway and River Kwai

Death Railway and River Kwai

kanchanaburi 9

 

Death Railway and River Kwai

Death Railway and River Kwai

It was a hot and sticky walk and I had mixed feelings when I happened upon the clearing near the caves, and saw that there was major watery mayhem underway but there was also tantalising cold coconut for sale. Coconut water is in my view the single most healing drink in the world, the best rehydration solution ever. I have heard that people who had no access to drinking water, on the Andaman Islands following the tsunami, survived for days on coconut water. Besides it is delicious! I decided not to go into the cave as it meant broaching the boundary into watery mayhem, and instead plonked myself down on a miniature plastic stool clutching a hefty coconut while I drained it of its entire contents of the refreshing water.

Watery Mayhem!

Watery Mayhem!

 

kanchanaburi 6

I returned to the little boat after this interlude, and headed then to the Bridge for a period of reflection and respect.

Under the Bridge over the River Kwai

Under the Bridge over the River Kwai

 

On the Bridge over the River Kwai

On the Bridge over the River Kwai

 

kanchanaburi 12

 

Kanchanaburi River Kwai bridge

On my final full day in Kanchanaburi, Songkran was officially over and I ventured out and explored the surroundings before returning to Bangkok the following day and homewards to Yangon.kanchanaburi 5

I was properly able to relax and very comfortable with my decision to avoid the watery mayhem. After all, there are times when we need fun and excitement and there times when we need to just be.

Sunset over the River Kwai

Sunset over the River Kwai

Escapism

Frangipani blossom, just landedI knew that this break needed to be a healing and restful one, so with that in mind, stocked up on electronic reading.  Keeps the luggage light and the mind very light too. With this in mind, I loaded up my Kindle with some “light” reading. I am not a reading snob, but my choices for holiday reading might veer towards the “trashy” side.  Nothing like a bit of escape reading when you when you really mean and need  to have a break.

I have mentioned before that I am more of a paper person than electronic in many senses.  I love funky little notebooks, the smell of a new book, the feel of good old-fashioned writing paper (gosh I had so many kinds back in the day), all manner of pens and pencils and the luxury of an old hardback book. I have little libraries of books all over the place.  Many in the loft back in Scotland, a hoard in India and a large overflowing book case with many more stashed all over our home in Yangon.

Wherever I go, I have to have books with me.  And an extra emergency stock, just in case I have a book emergency.  You never know when these things might happen, and must be prepared.

So Kindles are, in theory, a great thing.  I never cease to be amazed at how many books the thing can carry.  And it does not weigh any more and takes up just the same amount of space. Some kind of electronic black magic, I guess.  The best thing about the Kindle however, is that it hides just how many books I have bought, and how “light” some of them might be.  I also particularly love being able to buy books while lounging at home.  More magic.  But I still love real books.  And for Book Club and books I love and cherish, I always have to have a real copy and not an electronic version.  For one thing, the Kindle looks weird with stickies to mark a page, and bookmarks fall out 😉

So here I am, in the jungle, with a great stock of electronic reading and what do you know?  I am still ploughing through book number one.  After more than a week?  This is almost unheard of! I go through at least one book most weeks, when I am working full time and devour book after book at times of leisure.  It is true that this particular “light” book I am working my way through slowly is not a completely engaging read.  I guess it does not help that I have just finished reading “On Writing” by Stephen King so I am picking up on all sorts of distracting flaws in the writing of my holiday read.  As if I have a right to critique – it is always easier to criticise than to create, after all)

No, that is not the main reason for this slow down.  I realise that it is all about escape.  Usually one reason for, or certainly effect of, reading is to escape.  To disengage from the everyday.  To visit different places and experience new things.  As well as following a story, in most cases.

However, I find that the Kindle keeps nodding off, as it realises no virtual pages have been turned. My attention has been taken by a sound from the jungle undergrowth, a different birdsong, the crashing of branches telling that something is on the move nearby, perhaps the langur monkeys or maybe those cheeky wild boars foraging. A leaf tumbling from the tree catches my eye as it is held on some wisp of air and dances to the ground.  Little birds playing above the pool, dipping in as they buzz past again and again.  I am surrounded by such exquisite micro events in a jungle which is teeming with life and activity.  How could I possibly miss any of this by disappearing into a book? SighI am living my own escape at the moment.  It does not mean that I love reading or books any the less, but just that I realise that I have come to this place and must cherish these moments.  I must soak in every tiny detail and hold it tight. I  need to be in the here and now to get the most from this.

Jungle walk from room to brekkie

Jungle walk to breakfastThe books will wait.  I can read these words any time. (Thank heavens Kindles do not go off or perish!)

For now though, my mind will remain focused, yet distracted, here and now in this perfect escape.

Frangipani blossoms floating in the pool

Frangipani blossoms floating in the pool