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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I wonder…

I wonder…



Do the trees sing in Africa

at the tail end of the day,

as the sun drifts to the west,

dragging the light,

the colour bleeding from the sky in its wake,

causing such rejoicing from the branches?



Does the African kingfisher

wear a smart, shiny cobalt jacket,

slung over his shoulders,

catching the early morning light,

just like his cousin in Yangon?



Does the frangipani blossom

peep shyly up

towards the African sky,

pleading for just a few drops of rain,

in return

promising to release their scent

into the surrounding air?


Does the water lean to the right

when it slips downwards

from an emptying washbowl

just like it does further north

on the other side of the equator ?



Does it rain

at four in the afternoon

in Africa,

flooding lanes,

prompting laughter and annoyance

in equal mix?



I wonder…

What language

do the frogs speak in Africa?

Would they understand

their Burmese friends

as they revel and splash in the mud?



I wonder

so much

about this continent

that I have yet to properly meet.



And soon I will wonder no more.

 

Yangon, June 2016

Collecting the water while it rains

A Plea for the rains

I jolt awake.
A click
echoes
in my ears.
And a sinking knowledge
that the power has gone,
the fan has stopped.
In that very instant
the air curdles,
descends,
smothering me,
stealing
any breathable air.
Sleep now impossible.

Please let the rains come soon

In afternoons
I hesitate
to step outside.
My umbrella
attempts
to shade the piercing sun,
but still
my skin burns.
Any remnant of dignity
evaporates,
and I glow
as if
I have danced a reel
or climbed a peak
or chased a runaway child
for miles
when all I have done
is to pause
at the side of the road.

Please let the rains come soon

The trees
have aged,
their expressions irritable,
their humour dry.
The earth is gasping,
craving moisture,
the grasses scorched.
The blossoms on the trees
are holding onto their colours,
afraid
to release their petals
into the sun’s furnace.

Oh please let the rains come soon

The skies thicken,
containing
threats
and promises
of proper, thundering rain.
Padauk blossoms,
no longer able
to restrain themselves,
spill from their trees overnight
onto the lanes,
casting a carpet of yellow
for but a few hours.
Jacaranda
can wait no longer,
flame trees
burn
and the landscape shivers,
calling, beseeching.

Please, please let the rains come soon

And then,
one Tuesday
halfway through May,
under the Kason moon,
the sky can no longer contain
the might
of the unfallen rain.
Plip!
A few,
tentative
drops.
Smack!
Dime-sized
bulging
trailblazing
fat raindrops.
Plop!
At first so few
I can count each one
splat
on the earth
as it lands.
Then the first
bold heralds
of monsoon
are followed smartly,
hurriedly,
by a rush
of impatient showers,
a gathering rumble
building,
and now
thundering torrents,
a deafening
outpouring,
downpouring
release.

Thank goodness the rains have come!

Brothers, aunties, cousins
rushing outdoors,
faces upturned,
delighting.
Raindrops dripping
from noses,
chins,
grins.
Children
splashing,
dancing,
frolicking,
squealing,
drenching.
Fatigue,
lethargy
all washed away.
The grasses
sigh
with delight
before they disappear
under murky
soupy
rising waters.
The cloudburst washes out
any sleeping scorpions,
calls thick red earthworms
to their seasonal duty.
Eager leeches,
waiting for so long,
slither out from hiding.

Thank goodness the rains have come!

The fruit trees sigh.
Mangoes
appear overnight
after weeks of waiting.
Jackfruit,
large,
distended,
defy gravity,
magically secure
on spindly stalks,
bundles
of jagged temptation
hovering
over pavements
too slippery
to walk on,
too often submerged.

Indeed the rains have come

Irritable, sullen black clouds
sweep insistently,
relentlessly.
Days
stretch into weeks
upon weeks
with the barest
briefest
of pauses.
Frogs
night after night
croaking
exhausted,
voices hoarse
craving rest and sleep.
Plans cancelled,
meet-ups delayed,
conversations diverted
friendships stretched,
all disrupted by pounding rains.
Smart outfits soaked
by sudden squalls
or the wet seat
of a taxi.
Clothes musty,
starting to rot.
Surprise threads of mould
appearing one day
on a pristine surface.
Mosquitoes
fat,
greedy,
thronging,
feeding on exhausted beings.
Glimpses too rare
of blue sky
or sun
overhead,
through impenetrable layers
of determined
grainy
charcoal inkblot
suffocating, shrouding cloud.

Oh, please let the rains end soon!

©PCR – Feisty Blue Gecko

“Collecting the water while it rains”

IFG Anthology

This is the final poem in a collection of fiction, poetry and memoir from Myanmar, entitled “Collecting the water while it rains”.  This book is newly published by the International Friendship Group (IFG) of Yangon. IFG works to promote cross-cultural exchange, education and opportunities for all – all proceeds from the sale of the collection go to support IFG and their work.

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It’s a couple of years since I wrote “A plea for the rains”, but it is apt more than ever this year as we wait impatiently for the rains to start.

The title of the collection refers to a proverb in Myanmar which says “collect the water while it rains. This tells us that there are moments which are auspicious for particular actions, which we should seize when we can. As the blurb on the back of the book says, “what more auspicious time could there be to gather stories of this country..?”

The blurb continues:

“Blending the voices of natives and newcomers, with contributions spanning decades, and representing both professional writers and those simply moved to record a moment of everyday life in an extraordinary place”.

I am honoured to have this poem, one short piece of fiction and a short memoir in the collection. I am especially delighted that the photograph on the front cover is one of my own, taking during my many monsoon wanderings around Yangon’s lanes following a downpour.

The second word of my 2016 mantra is “nurture” and this applies particularly to creativity. I have held on to the news about this anthology for a little while, since the book was launched late in March.

It seems that now is the right time to share this, along with the plea to El Nino to gently release its grip and for the arrival of kind rains.

Discovering the Wood Rose

How often my breath is taken away by the tiniest, sweetest discoveries. Not long ago, I was wandering along the lanes in Yangon, and I stopped to pause at one of those intriguing closed gates with overgrown grounds and greenery clinging around the railings. This is one of my favourite such gates, with its mysterious secret garden.

secret garden

Recently, though, the greenery was stripped back and slowly a few more shoots and flowers have started to peep through the railings. Exposed and alone, I spotted a flower I did not recognise at all. It was a climbing plant, entwined around the railings, but had a flower which when closed, was reminiscent of a lotus. I took some photographs and showed these to some colleagues. No one knew what this unusual plant was.Most noted its similarity to the lotus but this was not a flower anywhere near water, nor behaving like a lotus.

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imageAs the days, passed and on closer inspection, I saw the flowers open to reveal little pearl like casings inside with a dark seed visible through the transparent cover. More photos. I then posted my puzzle online to see if anyone could tell me what this strange little flower was.

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And the answer came.

It’s a Wood Rose. These unusual little flowers also grow in southern India, and when they open the petals dry into fragile little wood sharing petals. People love them because they do not die, they are like little eternal flowers.

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The gate has again been stripped of its greenery as the vegetation inside the secret garden is also cleared to reveal a mango tree and other hidden surprises. But gone are also the little Wood Roses. I have a couple of them at home, reminding me that they do exist even though their presence was so fleeting in the lane.

I love these discoveries. I could not have imagine that the Wood Rose existed. I love seeing new tropical blooms and the lush vegetation which grows so rapidly here and learning about them.

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But the little Wood Rose is an unusual and unexpected gift with which I have become acquainted after almost seven years in Yangon. And I have no idea how long it was, under my nose, waiting to be discovered.

 

Skygazing

I never tire of gazing upwards. Every sight is different. Stars may be set in well known families and formations, documented on parchment,  yet each viewing of the night sky is different. Clouds and moodily lit skies tell new stories with each breath of air.

The skies remind me that despite our belief otherwise, individually we are tiny and insignificant. Despite what we are doing to the planet as a race, we are almost non existent in the face of the elements.

Recently I was returning from Bangkok from my last round of medical checks, and as always opted to sit in a aisle seat. Those monsoon flights may be short but the rain and attitude-filled skies can be alarming to fly through. Better not to look at those clouds too closely as we fly through them.

My late afternoon flight was approaching Yangon, and I could see that the the cabin was taking on a golden hue.  Appropriate for arrival in the Golden Land.  I glanced across the empty seat beside me past my fellow passenger at the window seat and was immediately captivated by the skyscape outside. There were layers of cloud, and the setting sun reflecting on the waters far below of the Gulf of Martaban, the northern part of the Andaman Sea.

Automatically, my hand was reaching into my bag for my camera to capture the magic in front of my eyes.

Whereupon I came face to face, quite literally, with a bit of a challenge. In the form of the passenger across the empty seat, who was comfortably eating her spicy Thai in flight meal in her window seat. It is impossible to be unobtrusive in these situations, but I did try, leaning over and angling the camera so that I did not capture her shoulders and noodles. She also looked up and snapped some pictures on her phone.

Within a few moments, the scene had changed. The light had altered, the reflection dimmed and the other-wordly scene outside taken on a much more familiar look. By happy coincidence, and the good nature of my fellow passenger, however, I had been able to capture and preserve the sight.

aviation sunset oct 2015

It has been a while since I have changed my background image here, and photograph of that moment provides just the right opportunity to change that right now, and share that moment right now.

In these days when we stare into our phones and devices oblivious to our surroundings, there is a stronger reminder than ever to pause, look upwards and drink in the free, ever changing moving pictures in the skies above us.

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

Downtown Yangon

As I boarded my flight to Bangkok last week, my colleague paused as we made our way down the aisle towards our seats.  She had spotted a familiar face, U Thant Myint U, well known author (including The River of Lost Footsteps) and Chairman of the Yangon Heritage Trust. We were able to exchange a few words before taking our seats.

I had already selected the new background image, of the old Burma Bombay Press Building, but nevertheless that encounter probably played a part in my drive to share some of the many images I have of Yangon’s heritage and downtown area. This is an area which infuses energy and delight every time I visit. I have put together a gallery of images on the sister blog.  This is a vivid, chaotic mix reflecting downtown life with its colours and vitality amidst modern and heritage architecture.

The corner of Strand Road

The corner of Strand Road

And a few words from U Thant Myint-U himself

Do call by Feisty Blue Gecko – in images: Glimpses of life and heritage in Yangon’s Downtown for an introduction to this fascinating part of town.