Change of Scene

The past weeks have seen me on a journey of the mind, body and spirit. One journey has been a physical one. I have long yearned to visit Ireland, and previous visits have been short and never far out of Dublin or Belfast. I have also long hankered after a writing retreat and kept returning to the details of a memoir retreat in rural, western Ireland. My return to Europe provided the time and space to take that opportunity. And so, at the start of September I travelled to Dublin on a one way ticket, clutching my notebooks and writing, a train ticket to Galway and a booking for Bed and Breakfast on the way. That journey deserves its own story, and space and will be told here very soon. My story today is one closer to home.

I returned from Ireland a few days ago, to a realisation. As I had travelled northwards through the counties of Clare, Galway, Mayo, Sligo and Donegal I was taken aback at how quickly the trees were changing colour. Of course, I knew in my head that it has been many years since I have been in this part of the world as autumn takes hold, but I clearly had not absorbed this. Every corner we turned, brought a vision of yellowing and crimson leaves against evergreen and slower-to-turn green leaves. The colours continued to surprise me as I travelled Scotland-ward through Derry and Belfast and across the water to Cairnryan. The last time I experienced autumn was in 1999, and here we are 18 years later. And how I continue to be taken by surprise!

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The seasons in my years overseas have been centred around rains and the mirror dry seasons, pre-rains and cooler months. My returns to Scotland have generally been in the UK summer months, and so I have become conditioned to seeing green grass, leafy trees, heather and even bluebells while here. In Asia and Africa my only experience of a similar change of seasons was in Mongolia, where the flowers and leaves died in a matter of days as the temperatures plummeted with the first snows. This was the rapid transition into the long wintry period which would see -25C considered to be warm. Furthermore, the arid climate in Mongolia meant that the landscape was less forested and the steppe vast in its expanse of grassland. Not so many leaves to fall. While the season was called autumn, it was not visibly autumnal in my memory.

Now back in Scotland, as my being readjusts to the flora around me, I also realise that I need to become reacquainted with bird and animal life which was once very familiar. Gone are the sounds of sunbirds, mysterious singing warblers, chirruping geckoes and noisy frogs. Now I hear seagulls, starlings and other new sounds in the morning.

As I was walking through a nearby woodland park the other day, my friend pointed out a few of the Scottish birds around us. She is a bird and nature lover and able to identify the sounds and sights around easily. A little robin hid just from view on a tree above, his tutting call the only giveaway to his presence. My friend then spotted a pair of little grebes, the smallest diving grebe I learned. They seemed to be a couple, the male with his russet neck and the female in her more muted blackish grey plumage. From what I could see, he would dive while she bobbed on the surface. When he surfaced, often a little distance from where he had disappeared, they would speed towards each other and he would gently feed her, before diving once more.

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We continued to walk around the small loch, observing and trying not to intrude on life going on all around us as I learned and relearned about my Scottish surroundings.

No matter what the setting is, in which part of the world and whatever the climate might be I am humbly reminded of one important message. It is so important to pause, and to take in what is happening around us. We might think we have become used to our surroundings, but we can always look with new eyes, and listen with newly tuned ears. It is not physically what we see and hear, but how we look, listen and interpret what is around us that brings appreciation.

I must keep reminding myself of this as this period of adjustment leads to gradual settling.

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Navigating new waters …

This space has been quiet for a long time. The longer there is silence, the more difficult it is to re-emerge into the daylight.

Silence is not usually golden here, and the past months have been enormously challenging. We live in a troubled world and one of uncertainty. This has affected me directly and my work in Africa came to an unexpected and early end. I will not pretend I was ready to wrap up nearly two decades of life and work overseas, but that is life.

To complicate and intensify an already difficult situation, I was also tussling with scary health issues. Happily, it is not all bad news and it appears that this has NOT been cancer related. I am in much better shape than I was in the earlier months of the year, but still striving to fully regain health and have greater clarity and management of the situation I now find myself in.

So I find myself in a very strange space and with very little remaining of the life I was so used to. I am in totally new waters, and I feel poorly equipped to move forward or even to know in which direction forward lies.

I will be honest. I usually thrive on change and new challenges. This time however, the changes have affected all areas of life, and been painfully deep. I crave stability and find that there is little to grasp onto, to enable me to clamber onto solid ground and work out my direction ahead. I know I will work it out, but I have had to dig deeper than ever before into reserves which feel exhausted.

While there are major life decisions to make, there are also implications on the essence of this blog. I am no longer a Scottish woman overseas. I am a Scottish woman in Scotland, cherishing and reflecting on the best part of two decades of life and work overseas. And still dealing with the aftermath and sides of breast cancer. Constants amidst the change.

I am floundering somewhat as I try to get used to life back in a Scotland which is enormously different to the one I left with a suitcase and rucksack, bound for Kathmandu 17 years ago. I guess I am now a “repat” and no longer an “expat”. I have a great deal to learn, re-learn and become familiar with. Such as Scottish wild flowers, covering the hedgerows and gardens where I have become used to frangipani, hibiscus and bougainvillea. Such as very different bird and critter noises. Seagulls instead of geckos and frogs. Such as, bewildering choices in the cavernous supermarkets. Exhilarating options for cultural and creative engagement. Understanding the words, but not not the essence of conversations on the train and in the street. Such different perspectives in the news and media. So many directions to look towards.

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Scottish wild flowers in a Glasgow garden

While I am firmly physically re-grounded in Scotland, my heart and soul are feeling scattered. I still have many tales to tell from my overseas times. One of my words for the year has been explore. While circumstances have not been conducive to great exploring, there have nonetheless been a number of gentle adventures and experiences. I plan to tell those stories and share the images in the coming weeks and months. Tales of Rwandan weddings, African sunsets and safaris, lakeside resting, and exotic Zanzibar to highlight but a few.

Telling these tales will support a gecko which is striving to swim, and not sink, in these new waters.

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Agama Lizard at Lake Kivu (Photograph © Feisty Blue Gecko)

Many farewells, great confusions and a case full of Dragonfruit!

I think I am back in Yangon! Physically. Probably. I hope the head follows later. I left four weeks ago on home leave, and returned late yesterday afternoon. With the bonus extra flight into Scotland the travel takes over 24 hours without stopovers of more than a couple of hours, much longer if the layover is longer.

So I arrived home yesterday after a highly eventful flight (details coming) exhausted, disoriented and disconnected with reality. I struggled to stay awake until bedtime, in order to get back into Yangon time as soon as possible and especially to avoid that awful first day back, when you have to get up at what is late evening back in the UK. By 7 pm I was losing the battle, and I must have dropped off while reading around 7.30 pm. I woke with a start, from a vivid dream that I was in someone’s garden, by an electronic beep and found myself in total darkness. With absolutely no idea where I was. Not a clue. Eventually I heard an engine noise, which is our generator, the lights came back on and I realised that the beep was the UPS (Uninterupted Power Supply) and that I was home, woken by a power cut.

I am back indeed, with a great deal to tell and a massive backlog of correspondence and bloggery.

The past four weeks have flown in, with more gadding around the planet than I had sought and the greatest time and energy on special time with family. In particular, The Wedding. Suffice to say that my daughter was the most beautiful, radiant, stunning bride in the universe.

After the wedding, the goodbyes began. Farewells to friends and relatives who had travelled from near, far and very far. Some whom I had not seen for many years, and some who I had not previously met. At the beginning of the week, a sad farewell to my grandchildren, and to the bride and groom as they headed off on honeymoon. A staggered farewell, not making it any less painful but for once less abrupt.

And then I was faced with the daunting task of packing and preparing for my own journey. It is always a challenge to cram all of the bits and pieces I have collected on leave, to add to my existing luggage. Those little things I cannot get in Yangon, or papers, letters and the like. (Shhh – and books). Shopping for weddingry, however, means rather more to pack than usual and delights which are not so easy to transport back.A fascinator, glittery shoes with heels, fancy flat glittery shoes, fabric (for the mother of the bride creation), a shawl and those little items which are small on their own (favourite tea bags, nail varnish, moisturiser, gifts from the bride and groom, wedding favours and even a piece of wedding cake) but which sure add bulk and weight when you start packing them.

And this time, I had a number of copies of the Dragonfruit Anthology to bring back with me – most precious cargo! I had discovered when posting copies the day before, that they weigh 0.44 kilo each. I had soon added around 4 kilos of baggage and found that they take up a fair bit of space in the one check-in bag I am allowed.

Finally, I packed everything I needed (having left the usual warm weather woollies and essentials at my daughter’s place) and made my first attempt to close the case. That attempt failed. Failed by a mile, there was no way my poor suitcase was going to come anywhere near closing. The jettison had to start. Out came the glitter high heels, followed by the pretty blue flats. It still wouldn’t close. Then the shampoo and a few more things I can live without were extracted and eventually, with enormous complaint, the case was persuaded to close. The cabin bag was prepared carefully and as I put the last items into that other groaning bag, I found trouble! The previous day I had treated myself to some goodies from “Lush” and they were in my little carrying bag (having survived a drenching rainstorm in Edinburgh without turning into a fizzing mess). They were most certainly not allowed in cabin baggage, nor was I sacrificing them so I had to spend another twenty minutes trying to squeeze them into the corners of the case, crumbling as they were forced into a tiny space.

 

I was finally ready to leave for the airport, for the first leg on the 24 hour journey, with a head full of memories, many stories to tell in the coming days, great confusion and a case full of dragonfruit! Is it any wonder I arrived in this disoriented condition?

A shift in the seasons

The season is shifting. The daytime warmth is now an uncomfortable, sticky heat and we start to yearn for the rains.  The cool mornings have started to warm a little, but not as much as the seasonal usual.  And not enough to nurture the budding mangoes.  I fear a poor mango season is ahead.

On my way to work the other morning, I stopped near the traffic lights as usual to buy strings of threaded jasmine blossom.  The regular seller handed me my strings, and as I moved forward I lifted them to my face without thinking, breathing in the sweet scent. He ran back towards me, proffering a small blossom of the newly flowering tree, known as the university blossoms, the Myanmar word sounding to me like “gangkaw”. “It smells good” he told me in Myanmar, and gave me the stem to take with me before disappearing into the traffic again to sell his flowers.  These moments warm my soul, and brighten my outlook.  Especially when my personal outlook is clouded by the next rounds of scans and checks, which will be upon me before the month is out. I try and put these thoughts to the side, hiding them in the heady, heavy sweetness of the flowers watching over me.

yangon gangkohThe sight of the flower on my desk throughout the day brought many remarks and smiles. I learned that there are many of these blossoms on trees flowering at the university. The flower is associated with students, learning, summer, graduation and the forthcoming Thingyan Water Festival. As the season shifts, there are signs all around. The first glimpses of jacaranda, plastic padauk flowers for sale and the proliferation of the Gangkaw flowers with their sweet, heavy scent.

The shadow of the Gangaw flower falling on the girl's face

The shadow of the Gangaw flower falling on the girl’s face

It is hard to imagine that on this day a year ago, I arrived in Scotland and was greeted by perishing temperatures and snow. But as the season shifts here, those signs are visible across the globe too.  The stretching of the daylight hours in Scotland, and the appearance of snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils all heralding the coming spring.

Therefore, I have chosen to change my background image, to one of the Island of Lismore, Scotland which was actually taken a a few years ago when I spent a number of weeks there in my father’s home early that year.

Lismore, Scotland as spring approaches

Lismore, Scotland as spring approaches

No matter where we are on the planet, time moves forward and we should choose carefully those precious images and memories which we want to take with us.

Re-entry. Accomplished? Kind of……….

Re-entry back into the spheres of life and work has been accomplished.  I guess. At least physically.

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Re-entry into Asia, Myanmar and Yangon took place on Sunday.  I travelled on the overnight flight from Amsterdam to Bangkok and for once the flight was smooth with minimal turbulence. Towards the end of the flight, and as we were flying over Myanmar (ironically) the pilot advised us that we would be starting our descent into Bangkok shortly.  Almost as an aside he mentioned that there were thunderstorms in the vicinity of Suvarnibhumi Airport so there could be some turbulence. Now thunderstorms and flying as a combination freak me out a little, so I decided to instantly file the information in the large “denial” folder in my mind.

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That worked initially as we started the descent, and I even managed to stay detached when we had a few pretty bumpy encounters with soupy clouds.  Then – BANG! There was a huge ”THWOOOOMP” kind of noise at the window and the cabin lit up as we air-kissed a bolt of lightning.  Inside the cabin there a lot of squeals and exclamations (although I didn’t understand the words as they were mostly in Dutch, I clearly understood what they meant), and great gripping of the arm rests.  The stewardess did not seem as alarmed as we were, and told us that we were safer in the sky than on the ground.  To say that this seemed counter-intuitive is an understatement, as we all know that lightning seeks out the highest point.  Plane.  Sky.  High…………  (I have since consulted Prof Google about this and it seems correct, would you believe?) The following fifteen minutes as we approached the runway lasted at least three hours, but finally we landed safely to an audible and collective exhale of breath. Re-entry into Asia?  Accomplished.

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I had over three hours in the airport before my onward flight to Yangon, so collapsed into the secret comfy armchairs near the departure gates for a bit and concentrated on staying awake and not thinking about the stormy sky outside. Finally we departed, the skies had cleared and our short flight was uneventful and pleasant. In no time, I was through arrivals and heading homewards to a waiting cup of tea!  Sunday afternoon was heading into Sunday evening. Re-entry into Myanmar and Yangon?  Accomplished.

The time difference between Yangon and the UK is 5.5 hours at the moment, thanks to British Summer Time. Returning to Asia, I usually find more difficult to adjust to than the travel to Europe as you lose several hours and morning in my corner of the world is late night in the place I have just left.  Thanks to the overnight flight and the intensity of the overall visit, I was physically and emotionally exhausted, so managed to sleep fairly early on the Sunday evening.  Which was fortunate as most folks in the UK would just have gone to bed when it was time for me to get up for work on the Monday morning!  Which I did manage to do.  Although it did require a very deep breath to face my desk which had been abandoned so hurriedly when I left for Scotland a lifetime earlier. Re-entry into work?  Accomplished.  Pretty much.

Overnight on Sunday and Monday, my sleep was broken however, by a sound which I did not recognise.  It was certainly some kind of animal, emitting a noise a bit like a throaty bray of a donkey crossed with a deep quack of a duck.  It was so strange and I was so disoriented that I disturbed hubby to ask what it was!  He was naturally not so amused to be quizzed on wildlife in the small hours but was able to tell me that it was a kind of bullfrog.  This is not the usual “happy party” frog noises I hear during monsoon, and I learned the following day that this is the noise which the Big Frogs make to call for the rains because they have had enough of the oppressive heat and want their monsoon parties to begin.

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This seemed to work.  I was not long home on Tuesday evening and had realised that the frogs were silent.  However, in the distance I could hear thunder rattling around and before long it was clear it was heading towards us.  I could feel the air cool and thicken and a wind picked up, agitating the trees as the thunder became louder and the flashes of lightning more persistent.  The rain started abruptly, pounding through the trees and beating against the windows as the storm passed overhead, thunder and lightning simultaneously crashing around.  And then, with no surprise at all, the lights all went out.  The power was gone and I was in the midst of a quadrophonic water symphony, orchestrated by a group of actors including the rain, wind, thunder and of course the lightning conductor.  (ouch!)

Now sometimes power comes back quickly, and other times it doesn’t.  It is just a case of get hold of the torches, blackout bits and pieces and wait and see.  After about an hour the lights flickered back on.  You could hear the collective sigh of relief and blowing out of candles across the neighbourhood, followed by another collective “oh no” as they flickered off again less than a minute later.  Usually that is a good sign.  It means that the power is almost fixed and should come on again soon. All the while, the mugginess and humidity seemed to intensify and the lights stayed off.  And, all the while, the power stayed stubbornly off.  In fact it stayed off all night.  Which meant very little sleep.  Hardly great when combined with jetlag.  Especially unhelpful for productivity or energy throughout a demanding working day.  The power was still off when I headed out to work and was still off late in the afternoon when I phoned home.

Wednesday evening saw writing group, so I was later home than usual that evening. And to be honest, the thought of another night in that discomfort was not pulling me home.  When I did arrive home the lights were on and I could hear music playing!  What a great welcome!  Short-lived unfortunately. Hubby gently broke the news to me that the lock mechanism in the bedroom door had broken and the bedroom (and small attached bathroom were inaccessible)!  My first thought was that my swimming stuff was in there and the morning swim now sabotaged.  Next thought was for my toothbrush!  Then for everything I needed for the next morning to be able to turn up at work.  Isn’t it just typical that the day you can’t access your everything, is the day you have an Important Meeting and need to be looking the part! There was no way that door could be opened though, at that time in the evening and the only choice was to sleep in the spare room, wearing random pieces of laundry and breaking into the spare toothbrush supply from our last visit to Bangkok.  Another sticky and uncomfortable night, though slightly more sleep than the eve. The lack of morning swim though, really did make an impact – it is always amazing just how much more energy it gives getting up an hour and a half earlier for the swim and cycle.

Happily the locksmith arrived early and had removed the whole mechanism and opened the door within minutes.  With a whoop of happiness, I was able to access my appropriate attire for the day and make a start not too much later than usual.  Re-entry into sleep patterns and acclimatisation?  In progress.

So now, thank goodness it is the weekend and the chance to regroup a little.  Saturday morning saw me draw up a very quick five sticky plan to guide the weekend, the first one in a while as this has not been relevant the past few weeks.

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So re-entry has at least physically been accomplished, though it is remarkable how different the landscape looks following our bereavement.  I guess it just takes time for our senses and emotions to readjust.

On the move again

Packing, sorting, binning, reminiscing, unpacking, retrieving, remembering.  And re-packing with a view to eventually being able to close the lid on my suitcase but not the substance of the past weeks, the elements of which are strewn in all directions.

Walking near Morar

 

And preparing to leave Scotland, family and a whole Great Chapter and returning to pick up the pieces of everyday life again in Yangon.

 

A breath of fresh air

Words are still few, as I absorb the past days and weeks.  My break was just what the body and soul had craved.

I walked for miles in sleet, hail, sunshine and blustery wind, dined on freshly caught west of Scotland seafood in “Local Hero” style settings, found myself stranded “over the sea to Skye” when the ferry broke down, wandered along the silver sands of Morar, spotted seals bobbing around in the choppy waves in the bay and got lost on the highly straightforward circular walk around Mallaig.  And weirdly Twang Arm behaved, usually it squeals when I walk any distance, yet it seemed to understand that now was not the time to cause grief.  There was enough already.

Stranded on Skye

Of course there are many photographs.  Many dreadful images as I failed to master the sophisticated functions of my fancy new camera.  Many images, ready for the delete button as I experimented with my new acquisition.  Being surrounded by such incredible natural beauty though, has ensured that there are some memorable images which I will organise and share these in the coming days.

Most significantly though, I was repeatedly made aware that I was surrounded by regrowth and renewal.  Tiny buds on the trees,  little shoots of grasses pushing through the ground, delighted white fluffy lambs appearing freshly laundered as they scampered around the hillsides, prolific spring daffodil bulbs and new wild flowers shivering in the winds.

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Reminding me of the precarious balance that is life and death.