It’s always tricky, starting again. To leave a career you have held for 19 years, gathering confidence in what you do, earning the respect of your colleagues, sailing through the day and then having to start again.
You arrive at the new job, not sure where to hang your coat or stow your bag. No one shows you where the toilets are, explains what time lunch is or who holds the sacred stationery cupboard key .
One thing you know for sure is that it is definitely you on the coffee run and your turn to buy the Friday doughnuts every Friday for the forseeable future until some other newbie turns up.
I’ve had a few different jobs since leaving my career. I’ve run a warehouse which sold eye-wateringly uncomfortable underwear, coaxed and cosseted 600 plus students through the trauma of living away from home, welcomed “National Treasures” into the building and dealt with the general public in a retail environment for the last few years.
Today I am starting two weeks of training in a medical environment- don’t worry folks, I shall be welcoming them in and shepherding them out. Although I would love to snap on a pair of sterile gloves and say, “Right Mr Brown, I believe you are here for your rectal exam”, but I think they might go elsewhere for that and probably pay far more…..
I’m looking forward to new challenges, new training and generally looking a bit smarter than I have done recently. Dang I might even wear some makeup…….
My daughter is currently living and working in Bangkok, Thailand so will not be coming home for Christmas. As the company she works for has closed its offices for a couple of weeks, leaving a skeleton staff to organise things, ie her and her laptop, she has decided to travel back to the animal sanctuary she once volunteered in a few years back.
Reading her messages, seeing her photos in the sunshine, surrounded by streetdogs and listening to her plans to organise a party for the local children made me think back to when I was travelling at Christmas time in Israel.
Israel was a country I had always wanted to visit. I was at a loose end so decided with a couple of friends to pack the backpack once more and go.
We stayed on a kibbutz for about 4 months and one of my jobs was to work in the communal laundry and also to sort apples in the processing plant. I remember planting a new orchard in the mud, catching chickens at 2am when they were sleeping, to take them to market- I was vegetarian for about two years after that and also making lavender sachet bags with the older ladies of the kibbutz, whilst they all nattered away in Hebrew.
We were a group of “Christian” volunteers in a Jewish country but they made such an effort to respect this special holiday and so we were given the day off and driven to Bethlehem to see the various sites just before Christmas Day itself. Apparently on the 25th December, it becomes a bit hectic and goes into lockdown so we went just before.
Every volunteer was given a present- a pair of socks. Believe me, when you have been walking around in mud-encrusted clothes for months and the “best” clothes you have are the ones you picked out from the donated pile and then customized, you are deeply grateful.
Each volunteer had their name read out, and there were at least twenty of us, then we went up and received our special present. It’s not much- a pair of socks but they had cared enough about us and our beliefs, to show a bit of respect and tolerance towards us.
That to me, is the best present we can give- tolerance, time and respect to others.
The dog and I watched the skies for the most part yesterday and then geared up and took to the streets for the afternoon walk before I headed off to work.
It was great weather. The ominous clouds which had released heavy showers earlier, still loomed overhead but the sun had broken through, turning the sky to a velvety purple. In the distance I could see the faint outline of a watery rainbow. and the dark clouds were outlined in gold.
We did a route I haven’ t done for a while. It takes a little longer but is a walk through a small area of woodland which then opens onto a viewpoint overlooking the local golfcourse and the harbour.
We threaded our way through the muddy sections, admiring the light filtering through the trees and causing the golden pennies dropped by the beech trees overhead to sparkle on the ground and down towards the harbour I could just see, glimmering on the horizon.
On the way is a little tree I have become very fond of over the years. Twice a year someone who planted it, comes to it in an act of remembrance and decorates it.
Now it is bare but if I walk that way in a couple of weeks, there could well be a Christmas bauble or two hanging on the branches and a bunch of flowers with a personalised card tucked inside and laid carefully at its feet.
In the Spring when I go by, it’s frilly blossoms shelter another bunch of flowers and a message on the wrapper. I read it once, intrigued by this little tree and it’s meaning to someone nearby. I came to understand that the tree had been specifically planted there and that it is visited on a birthday and then again at Christmas time.
I stopped, as I always do to look at it. It’s growing well and in a couple of years, will no longer be the “little tree” but I hope it is still visited just as much. Another tree above had dropped some broken twigs onto it so I untangled these carefully, stroked the branches where small bumps of new life were just beginning to form and then walked on.
No matter how little or lost we can sometimes feel in what seems to be a very large wood, we can be assured that someone, somewhere will always be thinking of us.
I have been blessed. My mother is in her nineties now- that is as far as I am allowed to say and yet is still fairly hale and certainly very hearty.
My father passed away at seventy-nine with heart disease- he never smoked and seldom drank but by the time I was born and he was forty, my memory of him is of constant chest pains, breathlessness and the daily medications for angina.
He was a doctor and so I remember him phoning the hospital, asking for an ambulance and then going to lie quietly on the sofa until they arrived and then the paramedics would greet him like old friends, which they probably were. On one occasion, we were visiting him in hospital. He grinned at me, said, “Watch this,” and pulled the monitors off his chest, just so that the machines could shout that number four bed was having another cardiac arrest and for the nurses to come running. They always told him off and he would just laugh.
In their youth, both parents were manically active. We grew up with tales of them both cycling around Lancashire of a weekend and playing endless games of tennis, which is how they met. On their honeymoon, the first thing my father did was to take mum into a boot shop in Kendal and get her some boots so they could go mountain walking every day. She probably still has them somewhere.
When my father passed away, mum sprang into action and became an ardent fan of the Ramblers’ Association. They had emigrated to South Africa years before so every year, she would fly to the UK and then fly with the Ramblers’ to whichever holiday she had booked.
She has walked over most of Europe and the last one we did together was through a hurricane blowing across the Atlantic and arriving smartly and rather suddenly in Portugal. I think we only did twelve kilometers that day and she was about eighty-eight at the time.
So yes, I have been blessed. She has been able to remain in her home, living independently for all this time. Admittedly, my brother and his son have shared the house with her and kept an eye, driving her places if she needs something. She still drives and my brother has told me that the month my mum’s car does’nt appear in the panel beaters is a sad time for the owner.
But things change and we don’t like change. We like the comfort and security of pattern and repetition for the most part. My brother has retired and moved away, to live a life she wouldn’t approve of, I suspect. My nephew is still there but also due to move out, as he should. He too, needs to live his life.
So what to do about mum? All that spirit, determination and energy also has a downside and she is proving to be stubborn and unrealistic. Last week she heated cooking oil (who still does that?) and forgot and the whole thing caught fire. Luckily, my nephew was able to help. She has now forgotten that that happened and heated oil again this week.
Every week I ring her and try to encourage her, very gently to look at retirement villages. She would love one, I am sure. She would join in with all the activities and do her special tinkly laugh at the gentle flirting and banter between residents. I am also trying to encourage her to buy new inventions called ready-roasted potatoes and oven-chips. She’s resisting.
I know how lucky her three children have been- I used to travel 3 hours to see my father-in-law in a home and he would not recognise us. Mum has remained constant- so positive and happy but difficult decisions are ahead so I keep phoning from so far away, persistently asking her to look at retirement villages, getting a smoke alarm fitted, and buying some damn ready-roasted potatoes.
I grew up with two seasons: hot and wet, not- so- hot and dry. This second “season” was more tricky. For school, as the frost lay on the pavements waiting to catch me out, I would layer up. Vest (yes even in secondary school it was a necessity in the morning), flesh-coloured tights, long socks, shirt, tie, cardigan firmly buttoned, blazer and then a beret rammed over my ears. Beautiful.
We were not allowed to wear coloured tights or indeed, tights at all so we would scurry quickly past the prefects in case they noticed our sneaky leg wrappings. It was so cold that some of us were driven to even putting on our special P.E. knickers, which no one in their right minds chose to wore but were kept, shoved down deep in our school bags in case those same perverse and sadistic prefects decided to do “regulation underwear checks”.
“Hot” season was easy. You stuffed your panama summer hat into your bag as otherwise it would melt around your ears in the rain and plod home most days in a summer storm, warm rivers of water dripping down your face and hoping that your Geography project would survive.
I can proudly say that the only positive contribution I made to that school was to write bitter, outraged, pleading and empassioned letters to the school editor, begging for the pupils to be allowed to wear just our cardigans to school when it was a tad too chilly for just the dress and a tad too hot for the blazer. Eventually I won. I think they have a completely different uniform now but, there I was, striking out for the hard done-by masses all those years ago.
Now, I fully embrace the UK seasons, even as I look out of the window and watch the relentless rain, deciding when might be the best time for the dog and I to plod resignedly around the block. It’s quite chummy walking a dog in the rain. You squint up from under your rain hood, nod approvingly at the other’s walking gear, smile at each other in a “we’re all in this together” kind of way and then plod on, trying not to get totally soaked by passing cars.
I love the jewelled colours of the trees and the glow of sunlight when we have a better day, the freshness to the air and the urgency of nature as it scurries about, harvesting and collecting for the months ahead.
I walk down to the garden and touch the roses and honeysuckle, finding myself sending mental messages to them all- hang on, it won’t be long. See you soon. The pavements are scattered with chocolate-brown and scarlet leaves and the most gorgeous of all- horse chestnuts gather in spiky clumps. These green thorny dumplings are such a visual reminder of time and its passing. They drop down, their protective casings splitting open to reveal their soft insides and beautiful brown conkers. To me, they look exactly like little green hedgehogs, clustered under trees and on the paths.
Even in the darkest of gloomy days, relentless rain and overcast skies, I can sense the earth’s turning sending a message: soon, soon. Tiny brave snowdrops and violets begin to shiver their way through the boggy ground, signposts that Spring is coming. Then one day, the Earth seems to suddenly burst open with vibrant greens, its arms flung up to clear skies, showering the land with blossom.
Then we hold our breath through Summer, through those long, long days of sand and sticky ice creams, picnics and wasps. We hold our breath and watch the blue skies- “Will it rain today?” We carry on regardless, the summer fairs with books under plastic sheeting to protect them from a sudden shower. Dogs and raincoats both steaming under the shelter of the tea tent whilst the country waits for the shower to pass.
I love the Seasons- all of them,especially when the green hedgehogs begin to roll.
Our son is the second child, always smiling from the word go and yet, quieter, more observant and now I realise, storing it all up for secret ammunition. Luckily, he had his older sister to speak up for him but as he grew, I made a conscious effort to listen to him and what he eventually had to say. If she went off to play with a friend for the day, he would sit on the doorstep, waiting patiently for her to return until he too, began to venture off with his own friends. I am blessed that they still get on well today.
He decided he would play football and we would faithfully attend the practices and then drive miles, often in pouring rain, only to both stand on the sidelines hoping that the coach would eventually look over and wave him on for 10 minutes of play.
Then it was Karate. He went along with a friend who was already many belts above him but my boy didn’t seem to mind, lost in the precise moves and focused mindset. The first bout he took part in was terrifying for me. My quiet boy, happy to let others push forward, was moving into an arena of possible hurt and grim aggression.
Grandpa was visiting at the time so he came along too and we took our seats as each boy was called forward to battle against another and score points. Around the sides of the arena, were eagle-eyed judges looking for infringements but also Karate Kid-inspired moves of brilliance. I only remember the one bout: the one against his much bigger and far more experienced friend.
This lad was relying on his size and kept pushing forward- the objective being to push your opponent out of the ring. But I suddenly saw my boy lift his head, square his shoulders and switch on all the drills he had been practising. He scored point after point on landed thrusts and calculated blocks whilst his friend blundered away. He would aim a blow and dart back into position whilst the other lad stopped, confused. The bout would halt, my boy would gain a point for body contact and off they would go again.
He won that bout, much to the delight of the other, smaller boys and his friend learnt a lesson that day: remember your technique and don’t underestimate your opposition.
Currently my boy is taking holiday in order to support a cause he feels very strongly about and is attending demonstrations over the next few days in London. Whatever your thoughts on the inconvenience of this are, I am only glad that there are some people giving their time to send an important message to the “Big Pushers”. That people are prepared to stand up, regardless of the consequences for something they believe in.
My boy, now a successful young Scientist, told me recently, don’t let anyone intimidate you. And at over six feet, he is certainly “standing tall”.
Jaipur is also known as “The Pink City”. This is because when Queen Victoria decided to visit all her empire, the ruling mogul of Jaipur at the time decreed that the city be painted a shade of dusky pink, believing it was Queen Vic’s favourite colour or that pink was the colour of hospitality. The guide wasn’t too sure on that one.
Be that as it may, the city is a bustling array of old and new with market streets winding away into the distance with many original buildings and walls painted pink.
The city fort or royal residence was all very charming and beautiful, laid out with courtyards and walkways. The largest courtyard had four doors opening into it, each one representing a season so the day we visited, we walked through Autumn in order to admire the vast open space which would have been covered with silk carpets on which the dancing girls could parade, watched over by the mogul from his balcony, whilst being watched by his concubines.
The current royal family does still live there and coloured flags flew from the mast, advertising that they were “in” but all we got to see of them was a family photo of the royal mother, her daughter and grandchildren.
At the time, the daughter caused a bit of a stir because she fell in love with her driver and married him. This caused the locals to protest at the fort gates but she followed her heart and married him. I imagine when they divorced some years later, she followed her head. Maybe.
Driving past the very beautiful and rather surreal holiday palace,sitting in the middle of a man-made lake and designed so that the two lowest floors of the palace were flooded to keep it cool, we then climbed high up into the surrounding hills and where we could see pinkish sandstone forts on every summit, joined by snaking lines of walls.
We stopped at Tiger Fort where the whole, huge city of Jaipur spread before us, with the man-made lake just twinkling in the distance. Our guide was from the Kshatriyas caste, which meant he was a warrior. He explained that this caste believed that their women had to be as educated and as highly trained as the men, so they stood “shoulder to shoulder” with them. That is why at the fort, there is a magnificent marble-lined swimming pool which the royal ladies used to swim and train in.
The fort has many steps but also many ramps. This was for the royal ladies to move about. They walked only on carpets laid on the ramps and would head down to the pool most days to compete in arduous games of water polo and gymnastics wearing the equilvalent of gymwear- a short, wraparound sarong.
The pool itself is vast, with stepped sides and as I wondered on its design, thinking that perhaps the royal ladies used these for sunbathing, I was told no, it was designed that way “just to make it beautiful”.
I also discovered that this caste allowed, indeed encouraged its women to drink alcohol so that when the men were away fighting, the women, would have the “dutch courage” needed to defend their homes. This practise still goes on today at weddings where a guest cannot enter the wedding ceremony until he or she has had a good few glugs of Indian whisky.
One famous maharajah’s wife was so beautiful that he could not bear to leave her behind for too long to go and fight. She realised he was too distracted and so somehow arranged for someone to cut her head off and send it to him, saying “This is just a body. Go fight for the country.” She is honoured in this part of India.
So it seems to me that beneath the jewels and the silks, beat strong, courageous hearts, prepared to stand and fight for their beliefs and families. Beneath the crowns and heavy headdresses were highly educated minds, able to grasp the problems of a vast sub-continent; the dainty, hennaed feet passing over carpets of silk, could also stop and give you a damn good kicking if you needed it.
It was a pre-dawn start to the day but it already felt warm and sticky- the sauna of senses overload we had come to accept that was India.
We all piled into our coach to see what “one who comes to Agra has to see”- the Taj Mahal. It was built by Shah Jahan for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal when she died giving birth to their fourteenth child. The nurses and midwife in our group muttered darkly amongst themselves when we were told this.
We avoided all the Taj Mahals in their swirling plastic snow globes, the fridge magnets, the fans and the books and began the long walk up a paved road, flanked on either side by tall trees and locals practising their head stands. There was a huge, carved entrance- they do like their entrances in India. We saw many spectacular ones leading onto empty car parks and fields. Then suddenly, out of the swirling early mist the shape of the famous dome and minnarets began to take shape.
It was smaller than I had expected somehow and it was all very ….nice. Lots of tourists composing classic selfies- me holding the dome, me pointing at the dome, me making a heart shape around the dome, me doing the Diana pose. Me, me, me.
A combination of Persian, Islamic and Indian architecture. Inside you could walk around and look at the spot where the two lovers are buried, somewhere deep inside the ground. The place where a local suddenly swam into view and told you facts you had just been told by your guide, whispered your name into the heavens so you could listen to the echo and then hold his hand out for a tip. “Rip off, rip off, rip off” whispered the dome.
Later on that day, much later, possibly breakfast time, we were taken around the fort at Agra where poor old Shah Jahan had been sent by his son who wanted the kingdom. He was able to sit inside his marble bedroom and peer out at the Taj, mourning for his Mumtaz until one day they were united for all eternity. Taj Mahal? Tick.
We had an evening meal at Sheroes restaurant. Unassuming from the outside and battling with regular but still surprising power cuts, we met the remarkable young women who ran this not-for-profit enterprise. They had all been victims of acid attacks in their local villages.
Some had been on their way to school, some were asleep in their parents’ home, some going to their office jobs. All had been targeted because either their family had had some dispute with another local, or they had had the courage to rebuff a man attempting to marry them against their will.
These girls had travelled from all across India to become part of this supportive community which received them with love, trained them in hospitality and handicrafts and encouraged them to believe that they could once more be worthy of love.
We were welcomed in and served a tasty meal, during which we watched a video showing some of the awful circumstances these girls had survived. To then meet the girls in the video was a very humbling privilege, as we listened to them again, tell their story with quiet dignity. Their smiles spoke to our hearts as we exchanged hugs and hope and we were all very much moved by their bravery.
India is changing fast. From tomorrow, it is becoming a plastic-free country, I was informed. I hope so but more than that, it was encouraging to hear that acid attacks are becoming less frequent now, that the girls have a better chance of marriage and a family, if that is what they want and that more and more perpetrators are being arrested and imprisoned.
To learn to love yourself again and to walk through the world with dignity is the greatest testament to love’s enduring nature of all.
The next couple of blogs will be my attempt to put some kind of coherent thoughts together about the swirling, vibrant maestrom that is India.
It does not matter how far we travel and where we find ourselves, I have discovered that we are all connected. My travel group for one thing: we had come from Aus, UK, (not forgetting Wales), N. Ireland and USA but were all united in a desire to explore, to experience and to give back.
We shared stories of families and sorrows, worries and wishes as we are all ultimately, on the same pathway. But more than that were the connections I made with complete strangers.
The first day in Delhi, hubby and I were hurled along the streets in a tuktuk to the Lotus Temple- I had seen the sign and our driver was quite keen to take us there. It is the centre of the Ba’hai faith- one which acknowledges that all paths lead to the same enlightenment, no one faith. It’s all good.
We queued with other devotees to get ourselves thoroughly rubbed down by security, queued to walk around artifacts and then queued for…the queue it seemed. Shoes off, come this way, patter along this path. I kept being bumped by an elderly lady dressed in white. Bump, bump, bump. Eventually I turned around to begin the “I say, would you mind not doing that? it’s hellish hot and I am getting just a little peeved and might have to give you a Hard Stare,” conversation when she gestured sweetly, held up her phone and we both grinned manically as she took a photo of us both.
I managed to establish, using gestures and smiles that she was on a pilgrimage- hell we ALL were, as we bumped our way along. Her and her whole group were bussed in from somewhere and now I am on some woman’s phone as her new besti. But you know what? So what.
Another day we were taken to a Sikh temple. It was all very jolly. We got given a sexy headcovering, shoes off again and in we went. I like the Sikhs- anyone is welcome, as long as they are polite and respectful. Anyone can have a free meal and we all got to wash our feet in the same water of wishes. I did see one lady drinking from it. I’m sure she’ll be fine.
The whole complex is vast- it has to be because it dishes out enough meals for up to 50,000 people a day. That is a lot of rotis- the little flat breads which are used instead of boring old knives and forks. We took our places at the roti-making station and had a go.
I was flanked on both sides by nodding, smiling ladies who showed silly old me how to roll the little breads out and who would regularly chuck balls of dough across to me. Together, we toiled away just happy to be present in the moment.
Down the other end of the table, hubby had managed to strike up a conversation with a chap who told him he had been in a plane crash and had damaged his legs. Neither of them spoke each other’s language. I had a chat with another old boy about cricket and all the while, the rotis rolled out.
For the rest of our trip, regardless of where we went, I looked beyond the person and looked into their eyes, full of the same hopes I have for myself and my family: to be happy, to thrive and to always be present in that moment, appreciating we are all on the same journey.
A couple of years ago, it was a dismal Sunday, hubby was off somewhere and the house was quiet. Suddenly, up popped a compelling message: Travel for the Over Fifties.
I began to read….exciting tours, wonderful experiences, giving back to desperate communities, tour guides used to dealing with the over fifties, complete with aches and pains and anxieties. I was hooked.
Where to go? We went to Thailand on honeymoon and whilst I was a little saddened by the effects that bolshy tourism had had on the country, I was realistic enough to understand that in order to survive, one does what one has to do. I did love the country and the people though and have always wanted to go back.
Added in was also a trip to Cambodia. Another destination which has always fascinated me. The terrible regime there which only really ended 30-odd years ago and of course, Angkor Wat, the largest religious site on the planet and where “Lara Croft” was filmed.
I checked with hubby when he came home- not bothered so I thought, “sod it, I’m going” and booked.
I gave myself a year to save for it, paying it off every month bit by bit and then suddenly, I was off. I remember sitting at Heathrow airport feeling lost and alone, waiting for my flight and thinking that there had to be some invisible neon sign above my head, “Solo Traveller”, the way people stared at me and then continued to snuggle up on the benches and share sandwiches and look after each others’ bags.
It was a wonderful, magical, humbling, emotional holiday with a great bunch of people, with whom I am still in contact. We had come from all over the world to do this together. We learnt each other’s stories and were there to offer support when one of us was feeling low or ill.
I spent my birthday in a hole, digging out a septic tank for a Cambodian family who had no toilet facilities. The women would go out into the fields at night and tell us how frightened they were, of snakes and other wildlife. Now, thanks to us, at least they would have some kind of toilet.
I’m damn proud of that toilet which has our names and faces painted on and tomorrow, I am heading off again. This time with hubby, to India to do a similar thing. Waiting for us at the hotel will be 3 of the original group and some new friends too. Am I a bit apprehensive? Yes indeed. Convinced that this trip will give me life long memories? For sure.