A Winter’s Tale

This is the last day of November, very shortly we will slip gently into December. We are truly in winter now, in Scotland.EFCE0354-D83E-43AC-AEC5-383012B4A0CD

My transition is progressing, if slowly, from tropical climes and times, to the Scotland of my roots. Reflection is helpful in this process. The other day soft, tiny flakelets of snow floated in the air. This was a teasing little  flurry, a promise of blizzards and heavy snow which will surely come soon. I realised that the last time I actually lived in a country where it snows, there was no such thing as Facebook to share the news.

The days have been shortening rapidly, and this feels like quite a trick to my senses. I cannot rationalise the fact that it is not yet 4 pm and the sun has already set below the horizon. I cannot relate the time on my watch to the colours of the sky. The sun barely rises above the rooftops all day, and my shadow is long even at midday.

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The trees are now bare, leaves on the ground slowly decaying and the birds gathering the berries on the bushes and branches.

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Temperatures have been dropping and these past nights have been well below zero. There is a daytime covering of ice on the nearby pond. A little robin has been chittering around in the branches, as I try to capture his picture on my phone. I feel too cold to attempt to take my camera out with me, my fingers too chilled to function.

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The bus drivers are wearing woolly bunnets, and on the street folks are wrapped up in cosy jackets, woollen hats and soft scarves. Still their faces are pinched in the sharp wind, as they quip about the weather and that “the nights are fair drawing in”.

While I have been adjusting to these shortening days, I have become fascinated by the variation in days up and down the lines of latitude. Long ago learned facts about polar winter and memories of St Petersburg’s white nights of midsummer encourage me to delve deeper into what this looks like. My trusted weather app has told me that the days in Tromsø (northern Norway) have been shortening speedily through autumn. I learned that the sun rose for a fleeting 2 minutes on 26 November, before it sank below the horizon, not to rise again until the middle of January, when it will peep over the horizon briefly, starting its path towards constant daylight just after the middle of May.

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It is hard to imagine two months of darkness and this makes me thankful for the few hours of daylight that we have in Scotland. My body clock has become so used to the equinox days on or near the equator that no matter how much I rationalise and understand the behaviour of  natural light, it still puzzles me daily. I am still childishly surprised that when the daylight fades, it is only mid-afternoon.

Here, in central Scotland the days will continue to shorten for the next three weeks, and we will have daylight from just before 9 am until after 3 pm. It will be a number of weeks, a couple of months before we feel the day stretching again as we edge towards the long, light days of midsummer. I cannot remember the last time I saw the tiny green shoots of spring, snowdrops, crocus and daffodils peeping up through the snow and grass. I know that they will greet me once the days begin to lengthen. I wonder if they have forgotten me too?

Scotland is a contradiction in many ways. Achingly beautiful landscapes at times hidden in a gloom of rain and damp mist, other times glowing in magical sunlight. I am constantly surprised by forgotten tiny details of many-coloured berries and the beauty of a leaf dusted with frost, as well as the iconic images of castles, lochs and highland wildlife.

I am being generously, gently and kindly welcomed back.

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Back in Time

This weekend the clocks went back, and we moved from Summer Time to Greenwich Mean Time.

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This clock changing phenomenon happens twice a year in many parts of the world, but it doesn’t happen at all in many others. In fact, this is the first time in over a decade I have changed my clock whilst in the same country. No borders, no flights or travel to another time zone, but the time zone change comes to me in the middle of the night, and I wake up with a bonus hour.

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Clocks change between 1 am and 2 am

When I left Scotland in June 2000, we were in Summer Time which took us an hour closer to the places where I would subsequently live, without this clock changing twice a year. Only once in that 17 years did we have to change our clocks – and that was in Mongolia which was further north and therefore would benefit from this minor rearrangement of the daylight hours. Interestingly, though it did prompt some puzzled conversations in Ulaan Baatar amongst my South Asian friends who had come from lands where there was only an hour so difference between winter and summer months. It was only as the daylight hours started to stretch that the purpose of the clock changing became clearer. I realise that I have taken the rationale for Daylight Saving Time (DST) granted, and tried to explain to those nearer the equator that this is the practice of setting the clocks forward by an hour from standard time during the summer months, and back again in the autumn. This is in order to make better use of natural daylight and align it with the working, farming and school day.

My last year, in Rwanda, saw me living in a land of almost perfect equinox as Kigali nestles just south of the Equator. The daylight variation throughout the year was around 15 minutes and on a neat 6 am to 6 pm divide.

It is always lovely to return to Scotland in those midsummer days, when the light stretches throughout the late evening, and never quite disappears. The sky takes on a deep luminescent blue for the three hours of almost darkness. Of course, this means that in winter the opposite is the case, and the days are short, with full daylight coming through after the start of the working day and disappearing before home time. In those months, we feel that we live in darkness. My annual visits were almost always in summer, and it is a strange step back in time to see the days shorten. And we are only just stepping out of October, and much as I try and prepare myself for the short days I know that it will take some adjustment.

These short days can bring a soft winter light and a changing landscape with different colours and many more berries bushes that I remembered. These bushes and now bare trees are inhabited by birds which I can be reacquainted with as I walk along pathways, all wrapped up, listening out for their chirrups. I have already seen grebes, finches and even that symbol of the British winter – the red-breasted robin.

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This means that I need to keep my eyes and mind open and make the most of my step back in time.

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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.

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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.