40 things I did the year I turned 40

I just turned 42. I spent the day in Sapa, up high in the Hoàng Liên Son Mountains of northwest Vietnam. As we sat down to eat and drink rice wine (AKA “happy water”) with the hardworking Black Hmong family hosting us in their homestay, after planting rice in the green hill terraces you see in travel guidebooks, I wondered how I got to be so lucky.

My life post-40 is so different to what it was pre-40. My thirties were full of highs, and way more lows. So I thought I’d share some of the big and small things I did the year I turned forty in a deliberate effort to change course.

rice planting in Sapa Vietnam

The rice paddies at Mama Mu’s homestay, Sapa. Note the buffalo and the family planting rice.

  1. Saw the year in with an after-party swim with friends at dawn. An owl winked at us from a perch between branches.
  2. Celebrated 12 years of ‘flying solo’ (with its many moments of romantic potential, missed connections, heart-heaviness; as well as its total independence and undeniable character-building).
  3. Mourned the end of my ‘happy family’ fantasy. Decided to turn to Option B: Travel.
  4. Lived in other people’s houses, giving their pets and homes TLC while they were away. I stoked fires, gazed into glossy animal eyes and slept with furry bodies breathing beside me.
  5. Went on a facilitated sacred mushroom journey. The fabled Heroic Dose took me on a (thankfully) beautiful trip that nourished me for months after.

    sacred magic mushroom journey

    Artwork by Burakerk / Pixabay.

  6. Got down and dirty at AfrikaBurn (the African version of Burning Man) after a seven-year break.
  7. Subsequently lost my heart on a sparkly dancefloor under a big, starry sky 😉
    Saw the sun rise just after watching a huge wooden artwork burn in the African desert, being held by a beautiful young foreigner dressed in a Zebra suit. (Ten months later, I was being held by another older foreigner while watching the sun set over the sea on a Thai island *wink*)

    afrikaburn 2018

    The sunrise burn at AfrikaBurn 2018 (unfortunately I didn’t make a note of whose pic this is…).

  8. Admired an epic halo form around the moon with special people. Twice.
  9. Completed my TEFL training to teach English as a Foreign Language.
  10. Renewed both of my (long-expired) passports.
  11. Had an Enneagram reading tell me I’m likely a type 4 (Individualist – sensitive, introspective), not a 1, as previously believed. (Makes much sense, TBH.)
  12. Had an astrologist tell me, “This isn’t as bad as it gets. Hold on for 44.” *gulp*
  13. Worked with my old boss and mentor; repaired some (somewhat) burnt bridges.
  14. Shared a sunset beach ritual with my identical twin sister (to claim what we wished for, and let go of what no longer serves us). We later dined at the place the World Restaurant Awards voted Best Restaurant in the World for 2019.

    paternoster beach

    Paternoster on the Cape West Coast, where we stayed for our shared birthday xxxx.

  15. Danced around a pole. Poorly.
  16. Left my country’s borders for the first time in nine years. (Ended up visiting five in that year.)
  17. Met the male cat that lives in the rocks beneath the Greek Parthenon (meaning “unmarried women’s apartments”, ha!) on the Athens Acropolis. Fast, feisty fella.
  18. Took a writing retreat on Lesbos, the Greek island the poetess and ‘tenth muse’ Sappho was from.

    flamingo bar skala eressos lesbos

    Flamingo Beach Bar, at the lesbian-friendly Skala Eressos beach on Lesbos, the island the poetess Sappho came from.

  19. Attended my first gay wedding as part of the (one) groom’s party – a special honour.
  20. Packed up the apartment where I’d worked and lived alone for five years.
  21. Marie Kondoed my home and got rid of most of my possessions. Not the books, though. Hell no.
  22. Moved to a new continent – experienced the culture shock that is SouthEast Asia.

    som tum salad

    My first meal in Thailand. Unfortunately, and embarrassingly, I couldn’t stomach the overly fishy Som Tum salad with raw prawns.

  23. Faced a financial reckoning. Filed years’ worth of tax returns (finally!).
  24. Started paying off debts accumulated during my feast-or-famine freelance years.
  25. Changed careers, temporarily. Started back at the bottom with others fresh out of uni/college.
  26. Started working with children.

    monk day Thailand

    Monks’ Day at the farming school where I taught.

  27. Became a foreigner in a foreign land. Twice.
  28. Lived in neighbourhoods where few speak English; lost language as a daily tool.
  29. Tried many weird foods for the first time. (Fried silkworm pupa, crispy crickets, pigs’ intestines, chicken-blood soup, to name a few…)

    Khanom chin and chicken feet Thailand

    Khanom chin noodle soup with chicken feet and chicken blood (the dark jelly bits). It was made by my favourite student’s grandmother, so I didn’t have the heart to decline the offer.

  30. Spent my first Christmas away from home. Worked on the day. (Which, in Thailand schools, means wearing red, posing for pics, watching a lot of Christmas-themed shows put on by the students, making kids make Christmas cards and sing along to English carols.)
  31. Walked with elephants at a sanctuary.NOTE: Never ride elephants, and do your research to find out which sanctuaries are really what they claim to be. I went with Elephant Jungle Sanctuary, which is an ethical and sustainable eco-tourism project started by Chiang Mai locals and the Karen hill-tribes. But I still have mixed feelings about the experience/sanctuary vis-a-vis responsible tourism and the elephant issue in Thailand. In my mind, my money went towards supporting the tribes who look after the elephants in their care. I realise it may not be as simple as this.
  32. Walked into my first NYE party on my own, not knowing anyone there.
  33. Went sailing for the first time, around Thailand’s beautiful islands.

    Phang Nga Bay northeast of Phuket

    Buying prawns off of a longtail from the yacht … near where the James Bond film was filmed, Phang Nga Bay northeast of Phuket.

  34. Savoured the holiday romance of my dreams. Ooh. La. La!
  35. Started learning (the basics of) two new languages.
  36. Got onto the back of a motorbike for the first time. Got into a tuk-tuk for the first time.
  37. Navigated the art of using a squat toilet. Note: navigated, not mastered.
  38. Marvelled at the joys of walking alone at night, safely, for the first time in my life.
  39. Took myself less seriously by becoming the buffoon you sometimes have to be when teaching without the aid of a shared language.
  40. Moved into my first houseshare, the day I turned 41.

    Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town.

    Stormy seas on my 40th birthday, Three Anchor Bay in Cape Town.

BOOK REVIEW (and Thailand travel throwback): A Sailing Story

Now that it’s ‘lockdown’ here in Vietnam (though they’re loathe to use that term, favouring ‘social-distancing curfew’), I’m remembering round-about this time last year, when I got to sail around Thailand’s dreamy islands and did an in-situ reading of a coming-of-age travel memoir about seafaring experiences few can imagine.

Phuket sunset Thailand

Sunset reading spot (Phuket).

I’d just finished four months of teaching in rural NorthEast Thailand − a rewarding but dusty, landlocked experience − when an old bookclub friend from home suggested I join her and her new hubby on one leg of their year-long honeymoon – sailing on a catamaran around Southern Thailand.

I met up with them on a beach on Koh Lanta. Getting picked up via dinghy, running as fast as I could across the hot sand with my heavy suitcase and laptop, was a surreal experience − something I’ll smile about for years to come 🙂

Koh Lanta SUP Thailand

The Koh Lanta beach where I was picked up.

As I was adjusting my footing (and core) to the sway of being on-board, I was thrilled to spot a copy of Martinique (Nicky) Stilwell’s sailing memoir, Thinking Up a Hurricane.

I first read about Martinique’s story when I worked at O, the Oprah Magazine South Africa, and we printed a book excerpt. I’d always wanted to read the whole memoir. The universe conspired to have me do so in the most appropriate of settings.

I know little about sailing, apart from the odd term I picked up from copy-editing a sailing magazine. So reading the book while experiencing a bit of life at sea first hand, and for the first time (and with a bookclub buddy, to boot), made for a truly immersive reading experience.

Koh Yao Yai island sunset Thailand

Another dreamy day, another dreamy sunset. This time while anchored at Koh Yao Yai island.

sailing the James Bond island Koh Phang Nga

Approaching Koh Phang-Nga…

Like me, the author is one of twins who grew up on the East Rand of Johannesburg, South Africa. Knowing the place she grew up in, about a six-hour drive away from the sea, helped me appreciate just how unusual and eccentric her family’s mission was. (Neighbours must’ve thought them nuts!)

ABOUT THE BOOK:

In 1977, the author’s father, Frank Stilwell launched Vingila, “17 tons of welded-together 11-mm steel plates” into the Indian Ocean, to take his family (including their pet dog) circumnavigating the world.

His experience of sailing? Very little.

The author and her twin brother, Robert, were nine. They were taken out of school in order to learn about life on the open seas.

The Stilwell family became part of an odd-ball community of sailors, learning how to live as sea gypsys day by day, swell by swell, island after island.

The book reads like a journal and adventure story, albeit the adventure wasn’t one of the author’s own will. As a reader, I admired the family’s grit and guts, while balking at the dysfunctional aspects of their story. Their poor diet and lack of access to clothing and supplies was coupled with the Dad’s lack of sailing know-how, which put them in serious danger many times. There are some truly frightening scenes in the book, of approaching storms and Frank’s stubborn refusal to exercise caution. (As one Amazon reviewer said, “I wanted to pop the old man on the nose”.)

Monkey Beach Phi Phi island Thailand

View of Monkey Beach, Phi Phi island.

The twins often lack the company of kids their own age, and they become keen and adept sailors rather quickly. I loved how the author collected cowrie shells and managed to keep her own education up, as best she could.

At first, the family are outliers among the salty sailor types who scoff at their boat and naivety. But as they become more hardy, self-sufficient and eccentric, they start to fit in among the oddball assortment of sea gypsy characters that weave in and out of the narrative. There are amusing anecdotes featuring boozy escapades, nudity, and some very salty seafaring language!

buy prawns in Phang Nga Bay Thailand James bond

The highlight of my sailing experience: Buying prawns straight from a longtail in Phang Nga Bay, near where the James Bond film The Man with the Golden Gun was filmed. We stayed the night and enjoyed a beautiful evening with no other boats in sight.

But for me, books are about the characters and their growth. Martinique’s transformation comes when she finally stands up to her father. The difference between them is captured in the title. Frank, the risk-taking adventurer father, regards his daughter as the rat that would abandon ship, dreaming up catastrophes (“thinking up a hurricane”) and erring too much on the side of caution.

childhood sailing memoir

The author, Nicky, as a child with her father on Vingila.

As a teenager craving normalcy, Nicky finally stands up to her father in order to leave life at sea and return home to finish her education. In what’s seen by her parents and brother as a betrayal, she goes to live with family and attend high school. That she managed to get an education, after years of being at sea and feeling like a fish out of water when back on land, is incredible.

After reading this book, you think: What became of the protagonist, Nicky?

While she doesn’t have too active an online presence, her social-media bios read: “Writer, doctor, surfer, sailor”. So she reached her goal in the end. And it seems she still has an adventurous, seafaring spirit. For instance, in her role as doctor, she’s worked on contract in the Arctic.

“It takes courage to pursue a dream, such as to sail around the world, become a doctor or write a book. Martinique Stilwell’s book Thinking up a Hurricane is, in essence, about the realisation of these dreams.” – Reviewer Adele McCann, for writerscollegeblog.com

If you’re craving an absorbing (and true) travel adventure that will take you far away from the confines of your own home, I highly recommend this book.

Author-doctor Martinique Stilwell today

All grown up: Author-doctor Martinique Stilwell today.

TITLE: Thinking Up a Hurricane
PUBLISHER:
Penguin Random House South Africa
BUY IT HERE.

From War to Peace: A review of The Napalm Girl’s memoir, Fire Road

 

Fire road napalm girl Vietnam War memoir

The cover of Fire Road, the memoir by Phan Thị Kim Phúc.

When I was getting ready to move to Vietnam, I did what I try to do before going to a new country: Research through books, series and films. With Vietnam, though, most material is (understandably) usually about the Vietnam War.

And what image or person is more representative of the tragedy and insanity of that war than “The Napalm Girl”, Phan Thị Kim Phúc?

My sister handed me her copy of Kim’s memoir Fire Road: The Napalm Girl’s Journey through the Horrors of War to Faith, Forgiveness, and Peace, co-written with Ashley Wiersma, which tells her story beyond the horrific image burned into collective memory. I thought: Do I really want to read about this? Another part of me knew I had to. (Also, I enjoy a good Triumph Over Tragedy story.)

On 8 June 1972, Kim and her community got caught in the crossfire between North Vietnamese and South Vietnamese soldiers when an aerial napalm attack on suspected Viet Cong hiding places forced them to flee their village, Trang Bang, along the strategic Route 1 she refers to as Fire Road.

At nine years old, Kim was pictured running down the road, screaming, with third-degree burns over her body in a photo that some say had a major role in ending the Vietnam War. Nick Ut, who took her to the hospital later, won a Pulitzer for the shot that became part of photojournalism history.

The Napalm Girl by Nick Ut Vietnam War photojournalism

THAT image, taken by AP photographer Nick Ut, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

Kim was thought dead. But she survived, and spent 14 months in intensive recovery from the third-degree burns. Here’s the book’s blurb:

Get out! Run! We must leave this place! They are going to destroy this whole place! Go, children, run first! Go now!

These were the final shouts nine year-old Kim Phuc heard before her world dissolved into flames − before napalm bombs fell from the sky, burning away her clothing and searing deep into her skin. It’s a moment forever captured, an iconic image that has come to define the horror and violence of the Vietnam War. Kim was left for dead in a morgue; no one expected her to survive the attack. Napalm meant fire, and fire meant death.

Against all odds, Kim lived − but her journey toward healing was only beginning. When the napalm bombs dropped, everything Kim knew and relied on exploded along with them: her home, her country’s freedom, her childhood innocence and happiness. The coming years would be marked by excruciating treatments for her burns and unrelenting physical pain throughout her body, which were constant reminders of that terrible day. Kim survived the pain of her body ablaze, but how could she possibly survive the pain of her devastated soul?

Fire Road is the true story of how she found the answer in a God who suffered Himself; a Savior who truly understood and cared about the depths of her pain. Fire Road is a story of horror and hope, a harrowing tale of a life changed in an instant − and the power and resilience that can only be found in the power of God’s mercy and love.

From the get-go, given the subtitle and her many references to God and Jesus Christ, it’s clear the book will be about faith. And, really, given what this woman has had to live through and with, it’s no wonder.

How can you watch your family members and community die, survive being horrifically burnt, become the ultimate anti-war ‘poster child’, a puppet in your country’s propaganda machine, live with constant physical pain and NOT turn to faith?

This is not to say Kim wasn’t raised religiously to begin with. For me, some of the most fascinating early parts of the book were all about the CaoDai beliefs and rituals of her childhood.

In a feature for Christianity Today in which Kim tells of her coming to the Christian faith, she explains:

“Cao Dai is universalist in nature. According to a description on CaoDai.org, it recognises all religions as having ‘one same divine origin, which is God, or Allah, or the Tao, or the Nothingness,’ or pretty much any other deity you could imagine. ‘You are god, and god is you’ − we had this mantra ingrained in us. We were equal-opportunity worshipers, giving every god a shot.

Looking back, I see my family’s religion as something of a charm bracelet slung around my wrist, each dangling bauble representing yet another possibility of divine assistance. When troubles came along − and every day, it seemed, they did −I was encouraged to rub those charms in hopes that help would arrive.

For years, I prayed to the gods of Cao Dai for healing and peace. But as one prayer after another went unanswered, it became clear that either they were non-existent or they did not care to lend a hand.”

I also enjoyed Kim’s recounting of her mother’s infamous noodle shop, which the state eventually took over. I think of this aspect of her family’s past often here in Vietnam, when I see little girls helping their moms at its many street stalls and home ‘restaurants’.

Vietnam street food noodle shop Fire Road

An excerpt from the book, mentioning Kim’s mother’s noodle shop.

The book also spent some time revealing aspects of Kim’s story that many may not be aware of. (I certainly wasn’t.)

For instance, I didn’t know…

…that it wasn’t the Americans who dropped the bomb that burned Kim. Apparently, it was dropped “by a South Vietnamese Air Force pilot flying a propeller-driven, American-made A-1 Skyraider. The attack was an attempt to roust North Vietnamese units from positions near Trang Bang. The forces engaged there in early June 1972 were all Vietnamese.”

… about the effect of napalm on the body. The ‘sticky fire’ adheres to skin like tar, making it hard for doctors to treat wounds. Trying to wipe it off only causes it to spread; and only smothering it (excruciating pain) removes it. It continues to burn the body if exposed to oxygen, too. Horrific.

“Napalm can generate temperatures of 1,500 to 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Water boils at 212 degrees Fahrenheit. Phúc, having sustained third-degree burns to half her body, was not expected to live.”
http://www.earth.com

Kim had to undergo many operations after the attack, and was still undergoing treatments in her 50s. So that day caused her physical suffering that lasted her whole life.

that Kim then became a keg in the country’s propaganda machine, having to attend frequent conferences and media briefings to say what she was told to say. All this time away from her studies (and life) squashed Kim’s dreams of becoming a doctor.

The many synchronicities in Kim’s story gave me goosebumps, and hats off to her for making so many friends (and meeting important people) along the way. I admired the guts it took for her to defect and make a new life in a colder clime.

Above all, the book makes you think about what’s needed for healing from trauma and tragedy, both literally and figuratively. It’s about the power of faith − for overcoming debilitating emotions, like fear and rage; for forgiveness (“love your enemy”, as the Bible says); and even for bringing a family together again.

kim phuc napalm girl scars

Kim holding her first-born son when he was an infant. Motherhood gave her healing.

Today, Kim is a UNESCO Goodwill Ambassador and she has a foundation to help other children of war. Her story is a generous gift she has given the world. It is a truly inspiring one of resilience, forgiveness, gratitude and grace. I’ll end with Kim’s words:

“We are all walking one fire road or another, be it paved by relational upheaval or financial upheaval, physical or emotional or the general inconveniences of life,” Kim says. “But when you and I come along with a posture of peace, or with gentle and kind words, or with an offer of prayer or a hug, or with anything that looks and acts like Jesus, it is as if we have used a fire extinguisher − the flames that burned hot settle down.”

To hear Kim speak about the book, watch this clip from Tyndale House Publishers.

napalm girl Adel Abdessemed

When it comes to the Vietnam War, Kim’s story is part of the popular imagination. The haunting image of her running away, naked and burnt, was made into a sculpture by the French-Algerian artist Adel Abdessemed.

 

A personal essay on the healing power of gardens, inspired by centenarian author Diana Athill

Athill

For years, my dear friend Rayne has urged me to read the memoirs of Diana Athill, the 100-year-old former literary editor and writer who penned her first memoir at 83.

As the MD of a company that provides catering for old-age homes, and the South African representative for the Eden Alternative, an international non-profit dedicated to changing the way elders are cared for, ageing with dignity is something Rayne is passionate about.

I resisted, and I’m not really sure why (likely owing to some deep-seated ageism or denial of my own mortality). But last year, when I was house- and pet-sitting for Rayne and his partner, I saw his collection of her books in his study, and felt ready.

As I’m facing 40 – single, childless, and not too happy about the state of my personal life – I’m desperate to hear stories of older women who’ve lived full lives despite never being married, nor experiencing motherhood.

So, somewhat reluctantly, I picked up Somewhere Towards the End (Granta), Athill’s Costa-prize-winning account of ageing.

I read it in almost one sitting. (Well, sitting’s not the right word, TBH. I was sun-tanning, butt naked, in a secluded spot in the garden.)

What I read gave me some hope. I appreciated Athill’s frank and upbeat way with words, and her love of earthly pleasures, late into life. Her thoughts on the importance of gardens, and gardening, inspired me to write this personal essay for the Bulbophile magazine…

A GARDEN (NOT) OF ONE’S OWN

In 1929, Virginia Woolf said women needed spaces of their own from which to write. Thankfully, the world has changed, and many women do. But in these urbanised, stressful times, having access to a garden is a luxury that should be appreciated.

It needn’t be your own. I’ve realised this recently. As I’m facing 40 as a single, childless woman, it’s been a year of contemplation, most of which has happened in a garden friends have ‘loaned’ to me, when I’ve looked after their pets while they travel.

Aptly named Shalimar, like the famous Lahor gardens, the garden is large, private, forest-like. It’s high on the slopes of a narrow valley, with views of the mountains across. I’ve relished the refuge it has provided, and the opportunity it has given me to be completely alone in nature, safe.

Shalimar gardens

One weekend, I sunbathed and read a memoir by former publisher Diana Athill, in which she says a garden a relative let her tend was a source of immense pleasure later on in her life as a single woman.

There’s much to be said for the generosity of those happy to share their gardens. When you’re feeling stuck, a garden gives you ‘time out of time’. Gazing over living greenery lets your mind drift, segueing with the rhythms of nature – the dash of a squirrel there, the dart of a bird there. Away from city noises, you become attuned to the tweeps of sociable birds, the cries of the geese who’ve taken over the owl house… it’s a surround-sound start to each day.

Indulging my senses and exploring the garden’s features has eased my anxiety. I’ve sat with my back to the trunk of a large pine and inhaled the scent of its needles; touched translucent leaves; sampled the tastes of the herb garden; watched the sun shine through the fluffy bottle brush.

My imagination has been revived by little details: the fantasy world of a gnarled tree stump; the colourful inside of a granadilla a bird had feasted upon; the potent plumes of a spunky caterpillar. I’ve been charmed by a row of nasturtiums rising optimistically despite being dwarfed by the pines, and bushes of proudly South African pincushions, arranged like a gospel choir.

succulents

Moving within a living ecosystem, like a figurine in a terrarium, has given me perspective. One calm Sunday, one of the dogs killed a squirrel. The flowers I was admiring last week have since wilted in the extreme drought we’re having; but the succulents live on, strong. And it’s roaring with rain as I write. Just yesterday, we evacuated as a mountain fire burned dangerously close. I thought the garden would be razed to the ground. But it lives. As do the little duck chicks I’m watching follow their mother.

Marvelling at the brutality and beauty of if all, in one garden, tells me not to be too sentimental about life’s passages. This garden – this life – is only ever ours on loan.

pine tree and lemon tree

To sample Athill’s writing, read her short UK Guardian article on the pleasure of gardening here.

 

 

 

Must-Read: The Finch in My Brain

Fan of triumph-over-tragedy medical memoirs? Check out this inspiring story, by a buddy of Russell Brand.

The finch in my brain Martino Sclavi

If you, like me, are a fan of ‘neuro memoirs’ like Brain on Fire, My Stroke of Insight, the work of the late Oliver Sacks, or just the tense surgical scenes of McDreamy working his medical magic on Grey’s Anatomy, you might want to read The Finch in My Brain: How I Forgot to Read but Found How to Live (Hodder & Stoughton), by Martino Sclavi.

Scali, an Italian-American film producer, credits his friend, the comedian Russell Brand, with saving his life. For a brief background, check out this YouTube video by Brand, in which he and other friends of the author talk about his story.

They remember him saying he wanted to “lie down and have a rest” while they were working on a film – something completely out of character for him. Brand talks about having to phone Sclavi’s family when he was going into emergency surgery (conducted while he was awake!), saying, “It was a bleak confrontation with mortality”.

So why the FINCH in his brain?

Martino Sclavi The Finch in my brain

Sclavi image from the author’s website.

Well, the grade-four tumour was apparently shaped like the bird. And while they cut most of it out, they also had to remove parts that enable him to read. Every reader’s worst nightmare, right?

But it’s not nearly as bad as the prognosis he received at the time: Doctors in both America and Italy said there was a 98% chance he’d die within a year and a half.

(That was something like six years ago. Oh, the miracle that is the human will to live!)

In an article in the UK Guardian, he says of the loss of his reading ability:

“It is a terrible loss. I was a film producer. Screenplays, the rights to books: my life depended on these things. But I don’t think grief is allowed: I was supposed to be dead, and I am alive.”

In spite of, or possibly because of, his prognosis, Sclavi wrote a book chronicling his medical journey, typing with his eyes closed and using audio software to have parts ‘read back’ to him as he progressed.

He told The Guardian:

“I started it just before the second operation because I was afraid I was going to die. I had been sending emails to old friends, and Matt Morgan [comedian and Brand sidekick] said to me: ‘This feels like gonzo journalism for oncology.’ I liked that, so I carried on … it saved me, psychologically.”

While the Guardian reviewer describes the memoir as “odd”, given the author’s condition and the fact that his first language is Italian, I’m going to decide for myself. My favourite books are those about real-life resilience, triumph over tragedy, and the “rage against the dying of the light”.

Give it a go and let me know what you think.

*BONUS: To get a feel for the book, check out the eccentric author, his friends, and his computer-voice ‘reading companion’, Alex, read from Chapter One here.