Reflections during a stressful time

The world collectively has been facing the pandemic since 2020 and many have gone through and continue to go through some stressful times because of the virus.

All these months, I thought I was taking as much precaution as I could to keep my elderly parents relatively safe even though I continued to go into work for most of this time. I was focused on business continuity at work, humanitarian response and working on the strategic plan for the next three years and trying to facilitate staff wellbeing initiatives.

August 2021 changed this perspective.

First, my 77 year old father had another return of his cellulitis, which has been a recurring visitor for the past two years and each time before we admitted him to the hospital, they would do the rapid antigen test and only admit him after the result turned out negative. This time, on August 18, our neighbourhood hospital was full so his doctor asked us to bring him to another private hospital that he visited. It was with great difficulty that my brother managed to find an ambulance to take my father to that hospital and there, they immediately did the rapid antigen test. This time though, the result was positive. The hospital immediately turned out my father and brother out of their premises. My father was completely immobile by this time, was confused and unable to speak and this hospital turned him out onto the road. For the next couple of hours, my mother and I tried calling all the private hospitals to check for space to admit an elderly COVID patient with health complications. Every one of them stated that they do not admit COVID patients. They only had interim COVID centers, in partnership with star hotels, that allowed for isolation of the patient in a hotel room. Medical treatment was not provided at these hotels/ interim COVID centers and the patient was expected to be able to fend for themselves. Further, they did not accept elderly patients or any other patients, who needed medical treatment. The ambulance that had dropped my father at the hospital had left and it was another two hours, before we were able to get that ambulance back. It was night time, and curfew time was approaching, and we had no choice but to bring him back home. After a sleepless night, where my mother tried her best to get my father to have something to eat and drink, we decided that it was best to move him to the government hospital that his doctor had suggested, as he was in urgent need of medical attention. So the next morning, my brother took him to the nearest government hospital, admitted him to the COVID ward and returned home. What he found in his subsequent visits to the hospital was that my father was not being treated for cellulitis and continued to remain unresponsive. So we pleaded with his doctor to get him a space at the private hospital in my neighbourhood, that we always go to, and we managed to get him transferred to this private hospital in a few days.

Then, my 71 year old mother started having a low fever. My brother and I were fully vaccinated but not my parents. We had registered for the home vaccine service for the elderly, who had mobility issues but though my father used to get up each day and await his vaccination, they didn’t come until after he was admitted to the hospital. Learning that my father was infected, they said that it would be better not to vaccinate my mother at this time as she might also be infected.

Since it was a low fever, and the state that the hospitals were in, we decided that Amma should stay at home in isolation and rest. I bought a pulse oximeter and monitored her oxygen levels regularly and it was normal. Then, suddenly, on saturday, Aug 28th, morning, Amma had difficulty getting up. It took her two hours to activate her hands and feet and mouth, but she slowly got up. At times when she struggled to move her hand or feet during those two hours, I would suggest she not try so hard and to rest a bit. She would insist she needed to get up to make me a cup of tea. When she did finally get up, she asked me to help her go to the kitchen, where she made me a cup of tea. I wanted to take her to the hospital that day but she refused. For anyone who knows my mother, s/he will be well aware of her stubbornness and determination once she makes up her mind. I therefore called for the home PCR test service and had her do the test, so that in the event we needed to take her to a hospital, at least delays related to COVID testing would not be there. The whole day, she was able to walk around the house and do her usual stuff so I decided I would closely monitor her and decide the next day, on whether to admit her to the hospital. That was a mistake. On Aug 29th, I woke up later than usual around 6am and checked on my mother and apart from her breathing, she was not moving at all. I tried calling her and tried moving her hands, there was no response. Her eyes were wide open but she did not see me nor was she present. That was the scariest moment of my life. My brother asked me to make her some sugar solution but she was not drinking it. The PCR test result was emailed to me around that time and the result was positive.

Then began the next round of nightmare. Since the private hospital that my father had been transferred to was full, and no other private hospital admitted COVID patients, we decided to take her first to the same government hospital that we had taken my father first to. As I was in shock, as well as the fact that it was usually my mother who packed things for anyone’s hospital stay, I just pushed some stuff of my mother’s into a bag and took it with me in the ambulance. I thought I would be able to come back home, after admitting my mother at the ICU, and prepare better what needed to be taken both for her and me. My brother-in-law called the government ambulance service set up to take COVID patients to hospitals and they came in promptly. We faced some difficulty in getting her down to the waiting ambulance, as the trolley wouldn’t fit in the lift, and my mother’s hands and legs were totally stiff so we could not make her sit in the wheel chair initially. Eventually, we managed to transfer her to the wheel chair, after I coaxed her into bending her knee. At the hospital, after the check-in processes, I was told to take my mother to ward 15A, the point where the COVID admissions were done. There, the doctor who checked my mother’s blood sugar exclaimed it was critically low at 47 and immediately administered a glucose syringe and put her on a saline drip. By this time, she had gained consciousness and even though she was able to say a few words, she was not able to move. The first word that she said was ‘hungry’ and asked me for some food. I did not have any with me and I did not want to leave her in that public, overcrowded area unattended to go in search of the canteen. I asked the staff there for something and they were kind enough to give a juice box. Eventually, we were allowed to go to the COVID ward for women and she was given a bed. The ward had four sections. One large space with around 12-15 beds packed together, a small enclosed space with 3 beds, and a medium space with a couple of beds and the rest of the patients on the floor. Amma’s bed 19 was in the small enclosed space next to the washrooms. On bed 20, there was a woman who was connected to an oxygen cylinder. A little while later, another elderly woman was brought in for bed 18 by her son and an attendant, who promptly left after depositing the totally unresponsive elderly woman on her bed. In the meantime, I was trying to request the few staff there for a pamper because I had not come prepared and my mother was asking me to help her to the bathroom and she could not move. The response given was that they were in the middle of shifting to a brand new ward so all supplies had been moved to the new ward and they did not have any here. It was hours later before the attendant taking care of an adjacent patient, gave me a pamper for my mother and helped me to change her clothes and sheet. No one really came to check on the patients, though nurses seemed to take the pulse oximeter reading at least twice a day and blood checks. The family members caring for the patients were the ones distributing food parcels, water, fitting in the oxygen cylinders for their ill family member etc. The food that was given all three times was rice with curry and it was not considering dietary restrictions or issues that the patients might have. For example, my mother has been on a semi-solid diet for a decade or so as she has difficulty chewing and swallowing and she was not able to get up at this point due to her paralysis. I had kept the straw from her earlier juice box and used it to give her sips of water or tea from time to time. The patients on the beds adjacent to her were either totally unconscious or semi-conscious and not in any position to feed themselves but no one minded that, and simply left the food by the bedside table. It went untouched and thrown later, when new food packs replaced the old ones. I kept mentioning to the rare nursing staff that passed by that the unresponsive woman would need a drip, as she was not in any position to take in food or drink but there was no action taken until the next afternoon. The elderly woman was not even blinking her eye, even though they were wide open and there was no indication that she could hear. So, until and unless a family member or a paid private attendant was with a patient, especially one who was elderly and was not in a position to take care of themselves, their condition declined and some to critical levels.

I also realized how important it is for a close family member to be with the elderly patient. Throughout that day and night, I constantly interacted with my mother which gradually brought her out of her state of confusion, brought back some movement to her hands and feet.

There was no day bed for the carer, given that it was already an overcrowded ward with patients on the floor. I managed to get hold of a plastic chair and wedged it between my mother’s bed and the unresponsive neighbour’s and that was where I spent an uncomfortable night, sitting up. Yet, at that point, I was more worried about my mother’s paralysis and the fact that no doctor was addressing it beyond sending her for a CT scan. The bright lights were all on throughout the night and the hospital staff were very loud, using mikes to address the patients from their so-called safe cubicle. They had this habit of calling patient names, expecting the patient or the carer to go and pick up medicine packets for the patient. So, if the patient was not mobile or did not have a carer, she would not receive her medicines. Around 9.30pm that night, a new patient was brought in a trolley and since they could not take the trolley around to the large space, where there were some free beds, the ward doctor on duty told the attendant to ask my mother to move to the other space. They had no idea that my mother was paralysed and the attendant was insisting that my mother get up and walk around the corridor to the other space. I put on my fighting mode and told them that she was not moving anywhere. Finally, they brought a wheel chair and asked the patient on the trolley to move to the wheel chair and she was wheeled to the other area. The staff on duty was annoyed with my stance though and told the attendant to move my mother to the floor at the entrance of the ward. Again, I stood my ground and said that she was not moving anywhere that night and that as medical staff, they should be sensitive to a patient with neurological issues and who had come in paralysed and suspected to have had a stroke. They finally left us alone.

Anyway, I knew that I was not going to let my mother stay in that ward another night. I sent a text message to our family doctor, explaining what had happened, and to help transfer my mother as well to my father’s hospital. The next morning, he informed me that he had made arrangements and to collect the transfer letter from the hospital and bring my mother over. My brother collected the letter and handed it to me. The ward doctor that morning was a young and friendly one but for some reason, she was hesitant to approve the transfer and kept saying she was waiting for approval from her higher-ups. As the clock ticked by and it became afternoon, I stepped up my queries and tried to identify the bottlenecks for the approval process. I understood that the transfer of a patient from a COVID ward of one hospital to another required the approval of Ministry of Health and that our ward doctor was waiting for this approval, as they had not been able to get in touch with the focal point at the health ministry. Knowing that waiting for them to get the approval was not going to work, I reached out to colleagues who had contacts at the Ministry of Health and finally got the contact number of the focal point. I sent him a text message, as I was told that he was usually too busy to answer phone calls. A colleague suggested that I insist to the ward doctor that as my mother’s guardian, that I was making the call to transfer her to a private hospital and that we are waiving off any of their responsibility. I argued with the ward doctor and a colleague of hers for some time, before they finally agreed to approve the transfer. They said they would only give the discharge card and nothing else. I said, ‘fine’ but I wanted the discharge process to happen without any further delay as I was calling for the ambulance. While waiting for the ambulance, I received a response from the Ministry of Health focal point stating ‘approved’ for the hospital transfer. I showed that response to the ward doctors but they were already angry with me that they said they did not care what approvals I got as they only accepted approvals that came from the official process. Finally, around 8pm, we reached the private hospital on the same road, where we lived.

From the point that we reached the private hospital, utmost care was taken of my mother by the medical staff and within a few days, she had recovered. The doctor said that he could discharge her on friday, September 3rd, as her paralysis and COVID situation was addressed and the balance of her recovery from severe dizziness and under-nutrition was something that required long term recovery and attention at home.

So over the weekend, I transformed my room to better fit in my mother and threw out all the other furniture and any of my miscellaneous collections. Until she is completely recovered and able to walk about on her own, I am going to continue closely monitoring her condition and coaxing her to take in normal levels of fluids and semi-solid food. From 300ml daily intake on friday, I have managed to increase her intake to 750ml today. While this is still not acceptable levels, considering this is what comprises of her total nutrition intake, at least this is progress for someone who is averse to food and drink.

It is almost like taking care of a child, because every hour or so, I have to coax her to drink 50ml of some nutritional drink (as she doesn’t drink more than that at a time). She has started walking from the room to the bathroom with my support, in the mornings, when she feels a little better.

On my part, it’s been more than a week since I have slept properly or eaten normally. Since her sugar levels seem to be dropping very low during nights and she becomes numb, I need to continue giving her a little drink (Ensure or Vitagen) every hour or so. When I dose off at times, I suddenly wake up at the slightest sound, afraid to face what I did last saturday – an unresponsive, paralysed mother.

I am not who I was a week ago.

Why I decided to write this experience down is not only to get this off my chest, but also to share this with friends and colleagues who keep asking me how I am doing. I am not someone, who talks about my intense personal experiences. I write about them.

Also, I felt it might be useful to share some of my learning with others out there, who have elderly parents with health complications, as well as the rest of those who are observers of people going through similar difficulties:

(1) If your parents are not vaccinated, and your doctor has not adviced them not to get the vaccine, then do push your local vaccine services to vaccinate them at the earliest. This might reduce the severity of COVID effects on them, should they get infected.

(2) Do keep a bag ready at all times, not just for your elderly parents, but also others in the family. In the event of an emergency and you need to rush into the hospital, what are the items that you will need at hand. During the emergency, you have no time to think as you will most likely be in somewhat of a shock.

(3) Do be with your parent, should they be admitted to a COVID ward in a non-responsive state. Without your attention and care, they might not make it back.

(4) For those friends and colleagues, who want to help, please don’t call the person who is going through this until and unless you can offer concrete support. For example, some of the helpful calls I received from colleagues was related to talking to my family doctor, re-emphasizing the need to transfer my parents to the private hospital, another was regarding bringing my mother’s pressure medicines as the government hospital asked me to give the medicine to my mother, but did not provide me with them and I was not allowed outside of the COVID ward since stepping in with my mother. Other helpful messages that was appreciated was text messages with a warm thought or a specific question regarding how I was managing my meals etc, that I either responded to when I had a minute or not, but still the thought was appreciated. The least helpful and annoying calls and messages from well-meaning friends was calls in the middle of when I was experiencing nightmarish situations such as arriving at the government hospital, being in an overcrowded ward, trying to get some help for my mother and a friend called and asked me, ‘are you ok now?’. This same question was repeated over a number of times before I asked a colleague to inform all colleagues not to call me at the hospital as I was not in the headspace to respond to them. This is a particularly long section of advice but important. Please try to place yourself in the other person’s shoes. Would you want to be called by someone and asked, ‘are you ok/ now?’ when you are busy dealing with a nightmare?

I was not ok and I am still not ok.

I know I will pull through this, and will do what I can to support my mother’s recovery. My father is still at the hospital undergoing dialysis and on oxygen support, as he contracted pneumonia. He didn’t recognize me when I went to say ‘bye’ before leaving the hospital with my mother.

I will be returning to work tomorrow, and working from home for the rest of the month. I sincerely don’t wish to talk about what I am going through personally at work or with friends outside work. So, I have taken the time to write this down to share what I am going through now.

Hope my friends will understand and respect my wishes. I know all of you mean well but I am conserving my energy for what matters the most to me – my mother’s recovery.

More stories from Yongning…

During my week in a remote village in Yongning, Ana, our host, took my friend, Yuan and I, to meet her elderly neighbours. We asked to hear about their childhood and younger years in the village, and the lifestyle they experienced as part of the Mosuo community. On one of the days, Ana took us to meet one of her relatives, a 76 year old woman.

Photo credit: Yuan Li

“I was the youngest in my own big family. My happiest period was my childhood. As my elder sisters and brothers did all the work, I did not do much at home. I used to often ride the horse to the market at the cross road in Yongning, shop with my friends, have a bath in the hot spring and participate in wrestling matches. In that time, women could even wrestle with men.


I came to live here with my partner’s family, during the period that the government encouraged one wife and husband. My small family separated from the big family around 1974. My husband’s family gave some farmlands and we built a house, with the help of two families. This was the hardest period of my life as I had to raise my children on my own. During that period, the country lacked food so it was difficult years. My husband was not good at farm work but he could do some small business. He passed away twenty years ago.


I have six children – three sons and three daughters. My eldest daughter passed away. Her son is now 28 years old and lives in the city. He may not come back to the village. My second daughter, who lives with me, also has a son. Her partner has a small store in the village. My youngest daughter works in a hostel near Lugu lake. Of my three sons, two live with me and one with his girlfriend’s family. My middle son is a carpenter. My youngest son works at home. He has a son but based on Mosuo tradition, lives with his mother. Since we have no one working in the government departments, we have to find other ways to earn money.


I used to manage all the money for my family before. Now, each child keeps the money they make. If there is a need in the family, they will contribute. For example, my youngest son sold the family’s farmland near Lugu lake and saved the money in his bank account. When the family was in need, he withdrew the money and gave it to the family. It is transparent and honest. The brothers and sisters have a good relationship so there is no problem. The best way of living is the big family life. It is much easier, living with siblings. Everybody in the family can help raise the children especially when they are little.

Life is hard for women here but we are much better psychologically, compared to women of other ethnic groups. We have more power and can make decisions within the family. Regarding public affairs, the leader of the village calls for a meeting. Each family will send one person to attend the meeting, depending on who is available to attend it. There is no strict rule on who attends. My youngest son usually attends these meetings because he can express himself well.”

Photo credit: Yuan Li

Acknowledgement: Much gratitude and love to Nancy, aka Yanan, for translating the interviews from Yuan and my visit to Yongning in September 2013. Thanks to Yuan and Ana, for arranging the trip and hosting, as well as carrying out the interviews.

Stories from Yongning continued…

Seven years ago, this month, I spent a week in a remote village in Yongning, China. What made me want to go to this remote part of China was the presentation on the Mosuo community, that my anthropologist friend, Yuan, had made. Yuan presented the Mosuo, as having a matrilineal society where children stayed with their mothers and there was no word for father or husband in their language. I wanted to understand better this community, which was fast losing its identity in the homogeneity promoted through the patriarchal structure of the rest of the country. I convinced Yuan to undertake a collaborative project, where I would write the human interest stories and she would interview people as well as take some of her renowned photography. So in September 2013, Yuan and I visited this remote village, away from the touristic hotspot of Luoshui, and stayed with Ana and her family. Ana took us around the village for chats with some of the elderly residents.

On our first morning in the village, Ana suggested we visit an elderly 91 year old neighbour. The sky was overcast with clouds as we made our way to their compound. After the introductions were made, and the little stove was lighted up to heat the water for tea, Ana spoke to the 91 year old in Mosuo language.

“I was born in the year of the mouse. I have three sons and two daughters. My first partner was a horseman, who worked for the rich Chief’s family in the village. Usually, one man from each family had to live in the Chief’s house and work there and one woman had to go help when they needed. I lived in my own house but had to go to the Chief’s family home to help when there was a big celebration. My family was very poor then and almost had nothing but we still had to pay taxes to the rich Chief’s family. Now, it is the happiest time as there are no taxes any more and there are several subsidies to help us raise pigs and other livestock.

My first partner had to travel a lot outside of the village for work so he was hardly there to help me. He passed away young, 5-6 years into our marriage. My eldest son and daughter were born in my first marriage. My three other children were born later.

I raised my family alone, without any help from extended family members. It was very hard to raise the five children alone, especially during the period when there was lack of food due to the country experiencing natural disasters.

I inherited the house from my mother. It was a simple house. My second partner helped to rebuild the house. I helped my partner build the house, carrying one child on my back. We did not have enough timber then to build the roof. We could see the starry sky, when sleeping inside the house. When the new government brought about a one husband-one wife policy and encouraged the husband to help the wife, my second partner came to live with me. This was after our children had grown up. Previously, the man had to help his own family, which was his mother and sisters. My second partner lived with me for 5 years, when I was around 50 years old, before he became sick and passed away.

I am proud that all of my five children have a good education, which is not common in the village. My eldest son was a chief policeman before he retired. My son and his family live in Lijiang.

My second son also had an important role in the local army. He lives with his family in a small town nearby. My eldest daughter was the village doctor. She passed away young. She had three children, who I raised. Two of my grandchildren graduated from university and work outside the village. My granddaughter lives with me. I have three great-grandchildren.

My youngest daughter graduated from middle school and she has a small business in another town nearby. She also has three children, all of whom completed university and all three work in good jobs.

My youngest son refused to go to middle school and is a farmer. He lives with me in the village. He is the only child who is in a traditional Mosuo marriage. A Mosuo marriage is simpler than the normal marriage. Only one big family with the same blood ties live together and raise children together. Every family member supports each other. The normal marriage is more complicated as two different families join to become one. The relationship with mother in law or other in laws is so complicated. One thing is better now than before. A man is allowed to help his partner in many ways, for example, raising a child, building a house etc. Before if a man did that, the man’s family might not allow him or other villagers might laugh at him. I am a little worried that the third generation may not have Mosuo marriages any more, since they have partners from the Han ethnic group. It is very difficult to find a partner from Mosuo ethnic group if they work outside the village.

I sent my children outside the village because there are more opportunities and a better life outside. It is too hard to live in the village. All my children, who live outside, have a good family and life. I do not need to worry about them. I could go and live with my children but the family name will be ended, if no one lives in the village.  Only my son and granddaughter, who are staying in the village, have a hard life compared to children living outside.

My youngest son and granddaughter take care of the farmland and animals. We grow rice, some corns and other plants and have 2 horses, 2 buffalos and 18 pigs. I manage all the income that we generate in the village. My children living outside the village manage their own income.

Usually men are not as diligent and thrifty as women, so women manage family income. If there is a wedding or funeral, it is usually women who decide how much money or what kind of gifts will be sent to the related family. The men will go to that family to help with the wedding or funeral arrangements. If the village needs to build a road or a ditch, the villagers will have a public meeting first to decide which family can help which part. The men engage in the public affairs, especially in village renovations and development. Also, men usually decide how many buffalos to buy or sell and manage them.

In my spare time, I like to go to every family in the village and visit them. Now I cannot walk to visit them. Soon, I will pass the control of the income and household management to my granddaughter in the near future, rather than my youngest son. I think women are usually good at managing finance at home and not men.”

Note: It was a bit of a difficult process initially, as Ana had to translate what was said in Mosuo language into Mandarin for Yuan and Yuan had to translate it into English for me. We soon realized that this was not going to work, especially if we did not want to waste the elders’ time so we agreed that the English translation would have to wait till we were back at Ana’s home. However, for different reasons, that translation never did happen during my stay in Yongning. I recently was going through the photos I took during the visit and felt it was a pity that the stories of the elders we spoke to would go undocumented. I reached out to Nancy aka Yanan and asked if she could help me by translating the recordings for me. Nancy, a very generous and kind friend, has been translating the interviews for me this month. I have tried to piece together the interviews in a story format.

Stories from Yongning

Seven years ago, this month, I spent a week in a remote village in Yongning, China. With me, was an anthropologist friend, Yuan, who specialized in minority ethnic groups. Our purpose for this visit was to better understand the Mosuo culture as the community was said to be following matrilineal practices and was at times, referred to as China’s last matriarchal society. We wanted to talk to some elders in Mosuo villages, away from the touristic hotspot of Luoshui, to understand how family life was structured when the elders were children so that it would shed some light for us as to what matrilineal practices were still continued. We were hosted by a Mosuo family and our host, Ana, took us around the village for chats with some of the elderly residents.

During one of these walks, we visited NA*, an 87 year old Lama. When we entered through the doorway, we saw N* seated in the courtyard de-seeding the family’s pumpkin harvest. I noticed that dried pumpkin seeds was usually what was offered with tea in the homes we visited. After Ana introduced Yuan and I, she explained that we were interested in hearing his life story.

N* agreed to talk to us and asked us to be seated indoors, while he cleaned up and joined us. Once we were seated by the hearth, N* narrated his life story.

“I started training to be a Lama since I turned 11 years old. In my younger days, it was a usual practice for each family to have 1 or 2 children study to become Lamas. My elder brother also studied it. Becoming a Lama would reduce one’s time of service with the rich Chief of the village’s family and Lamas are respected more than the normal villagers.

Initially, I went to the temple in the next village and trained with a Senior Lama for a year. I lived in the Senior’s home and helped served the Buddhas through cleaning, preparing food and sacrifice. Other trainees usually had to do some housework for the Senior Lama. I returned to my own village after that as the village belonged to a high level temple so that I could continue my learning. I studied under the Chief of the village and temple and helped raise pigs for his family for 3-4 years. It was a duty of my family to have one or two family members serve the Chief’s family. The Chief’s family approved my learning to become a Lama. Since a Lama of high position in Sichuan province asked the Chief for a person to serve him, I was sent as a gift to the Tulku (someone similar to the Dalai Lama, but without the high ranking) to serve the Tulku for four years. After serving the Tulku, I asked to continue my studying in Lhasa, Tibet. The Tulku approved it. My village Chief’s family asked me to serve another Tulku in Lhasa, who was one of the sons of their family and my same age, who had gone to Lhasa earlier. I was not keen to continue my life of serving someone but I had no choice but to accept it. I was 20 years old when I walked to Lhasa, studied there for 9 years, and I walked back home. I served the Buddhas in Lhasa by cleaning the temple, preparing sacrifices etc. The Tulku and I had a different learning path. My study was much simpler than that of the Tulku.

After returning home from Lhasa, I was able to live with my own family, though all Lamas lived in the temple in Lhasa. In my family, there was my grandmother and her six children. My grandmother’s brothers had passed away. After my return from Lhasa, my mother asked to be separated from the large family and she and two of her sisters left to start another household. I moved with them. Two of my mother’s sisters and her brother stayed on with my grandmother.  In my family, the members ask for my opinion first. Also, when having meals, I am given food first.

I did some religious work for the villagers and went to the temple, if there was a religious event. I received some income or food for the religious work that I did for the villagers. I usually kept the income. If my family needed help, I would give some money to support them.

While serving the villagers, I could not refuse anyone requesting help. While I did not have to do any heavy farm work, I helped to take care of young children at home or do some housework at home. I also helped villagers when they were sick, or they had a wedding or funeral, or when a baby was born. I help to give names to the babies.

Once I chose this way of life, there was only one way for me to go. Whether I like it or not, I have to keep continuing on this path.”

Photo credit: Yuan Li

Acknowledgement: Much gratitude to Yanan Yang for translating the interview recordings of our visit from Mandarin to English, that helped me piece together NA*’s story. A big thank you to Yuan for organizing the visit and carrying out the interviews. And, a lot of gratitude and thanks to Ana, for hosting us and linking us with the elders in the village and translating from Mosuo to Mandarin what they spoke.

Milford Sound with Southern Discoveries

While planning for my visit to South Island in 2018, I had wanted to stay at least a night or two in the Milford Sound area, but I had to choose between that or a visit to Stewart island, another place that was a priority. So I balanced both by choosing a day trip to Milford Sound from Te Anau and an overnight on Stewart island.

I actually overslept the morning of my Milford Sound tour, due to jet lag and having forgotten to turn on the alarm on my phone. I woke up to knocking on my cottage door at the hostel I was staying at in Te Anau. Quite disoriented, I opened the door not quite understanding why there was someone knocking on my door. A flustered woman said that my tour bus was at the gate to pick me up. I asked her if she could ask them to wait a few minutes for me to get ready. She said she would convey the message but they might not wait. True enough, minutes later, when I made it to the road, I didn’t see any bus. They had left. Terribly disappointed since I was only in Te Anau that day and I had very much wanted to visit Milford Sound, I decided to walk to the Southern Discoveries office and check if there were other options. The staff on duty was the same one that I had met the previous evening, when I had stopped by the office to clarify whether I would be picked for the tour from my hostel or whether I had to come to the office. She calmly replied, “no problem”, when I had explained what had happened. She checked what other tours were going to Milford Sound and when I found out there was one leaving in 2 hours, I was really happy. Without any fuss, she issued me my tickets and asked me to be at the office in two hours. That interaction, the calm and professional manner of the staff member with the right touch of courteous and kind made me like the Southern Discoveries tour operators even before my tour had started.

I decided to get my caffeine fix for the day and went to the nearby Miles High pie shop for an apple pie and coffee.
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This time, when the coach bus came along, I was ready and I settled into my seat at the end of the bus to enjoy the scenic drive.
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The bus driver stopped the bus in Eglinton Valley and suggested we take a short walk along the boardwalk and admire the views. While there were lots of people on our bus and other buses, since people kept walking, it didn’t feel as crowded as it actually was.

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Mirror Lakes

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At the Tutoko Suspension Bridge

I guess the best way to explore Fjordland National Park would be to have your own vehicle to drive through and where you could take time to hike along some walking trails off the road. The driver did stop at a few points along the way, as photo stop points, but with just enough time to stretch your legs, take in the view for a moment, click some photos and get back on the bus. So at the Tutoko suspension bridge, we didn’t have time to walk down the forest trail to see the chasm waterfall. To reach Milford Sound in time to embark on the Milford Sound cruise was the key factor that prevented us from having much time at the stops but at least, we stopped at some points along the way.

The driver/ guide was also recounting stories along the way of places we passed and the story about how Thomas Gunn swam the river to reach the nearest settlement to get assistance for survivors of a helicopter crash was impressive.

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We made it in time for the Milford South lunch cruise and I had a quick lunch so that I could go out onto the deck and enjoy the landscape we passed.

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Starting with a view of the Mitre Peak, the cruise was a beautiful experience of Milford Sound.

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Despite the cold, I stayed outside through almost the whole cruise, not wanting to miss the sense of happiness I felt whenever I am out on a boat and on water and can smell the sea air around me and the feel of the wind and water lashing against my face. Only during the last segment of the cruise, I decided to go in for some hot coffee.

The return drive to Te Anau was uneventful, without any stops along the way, nor any story narration. I ended the day with a lovely walk around the waterfront in Te Anau.

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Milford Sound is a must visit place for any traveler to the South Island.

What was your experience of Milford Sound, if you have been there?

Lugu Hu: A Cultural experience of a lifetime

When Yuan first made her presentation on minority ethnic groups in China during the cultural week at the Asia Pacific Leadership Programme at East West Center in Hawai’i, the moment she mentioned that the Mosuo had no word in their vocabulary for father, I was intrigued.

So, when we were asked to do an independent mini study travel, while in Yunnan province, two of my friends and I chose to visit Lugu Hu, where the Mosuo community lived.

With Michelle and I not being able to speak Mandarin and Mami able to manage the bare minimum, it was an interesting travel to the lake area.

We found ourselves doing very touristic things as people assumed that is what we would be interested in.

We tried the local café to see if that would yield more insight into the community, than the tourist narrative but language was a major barrier.

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Eventually, we ran into some luck when the taxi driver we hired to take us to a Buddhist temple was quite chatty and he invited us over to his house that evening for some tea with his mother.

He described the Mosuo home design, in which the mother had the central structure – the place of power, and each child had a space built in the courtyard. According to tradition, the children were supposed to live with their mothers. There was no such concept as marriage, though there was a terminology which loosely translated meant walking marriage, where a male or female met someone they liked during the festivals etc. Any resulting child would stay with the mother and be raised by her family. So there were words for uncle and brother, only not for father.

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While my curiosity had been piqued, I felt that we lost a lot since we were hardly able to communicate with anyone in the village. Also, I felt that a lot of the narrative that was being shared with us was a touristic version intended to attract the visitor to the region.

Therefore, I asked my friend Yuan, who had obviously not joined us on our study tour to China and instead had chosen to go to DC and NY during that time, whether we could go on an exploratory visit of our own into a more rural area of the Mosuo community. She agreed and we decided that it would be good to set an objective for the visit rather than simply an exploratory visit. I was to be responsible for writing the human interest stories and Yuan, the photography. With this agreement, the next year, I returned to Yunnan province looking forward to understanding the community better.

During this visit, not only did I have Yuan, a native Mandarin speaker with a postdoctoral specialization in minority ethnic Chinese communities with me, she had also linked up through her academic network to someone from the Mosuo community, who lived further north to Lugu Hu, and who offered to host us at her home for a week or so.

We arrived at her home in the evening after a long bus drive from Lijiang and I don’t quite remember my first impressions. I only remember that when I woke up in the morning, I was greeted outside my room to the beautiful view of the mountain.

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Over a breakfast of yak butter tea and mantou, Anna spoke about her family and her siblings. It was only her parents who now lived in their family home and she and her siblings had moved to town and cities as required for their jobs and livelihoods. She mentioned that was the case with most of the families in the village, where only the older generation were mostly left in the village.

We also learnt that her brother’s family would be visiting that week as the Moon festival was during the week we were there. I learnt as I visited with various neighbours of Anna that family lives in the Mosuo community were now similar to the rest of China. What was a tourist narrative in Lugu Hu was not the day-to-day reality of the people, who for decades now have been in legally, binding monogamous marriages and where the family unit comprises of the husband, wife and child and as in any other patriarchal society, the father is the head of the household.

I remember we went for walks around the village, admiring the beautiful views, visiting family friends of Anna and with Anna as our Mosuo translator listening to them speak of their families and lives. Yuan and I planned to write out the stories that touched us, but somehow this got derailed at the beginning as we found that three way translations didn’t work and it was decided that Yuan would at the end translate what was being discussed to me. It never did happen though we meant to do it at some point after we returned home. I have the audio recordings of our talks and I never felt it right that I have it translated by any other Mandarin speaker as this was a joint undertaking by Yuan and I.

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Perhaps it doesn’t really matter – our originally aim of a joint initiative of human interest stories accompanied by Yuan’s photography didn’t materialize. The connections I made with the family we stayed with, despite the language barrier, and the people we met was enough to understand their way of living, to understand the common thread of family concerns they had. If I cannot write a human interest story on the specific elderly people we interviewed, I can at least remember that Anna’s mother treated us as her daughters and that she opened up her home to us with a warm hospitality. I can remember that we celebrated the Moon festival, a time for family reunions with Anna’s family where they included us as part of the family without question.

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For all the delicious home-cooked meals that Anna and her mother made us during our stay, Yuan and I decided to cook dinner one day for them. I attempted to cook a curry with hardly any spices and I don’t think it went well with our hosts but they remade it to a tasty dish blending it with rice noodles for lunch the next day.

On our last day, Anna’s mother took Yuan and me to the Yongning temple, the temple she connected with the most, so that we could pray there before we left.

I hope I can revisit Lugu Hu in Yunnan province again and visit Anna’s family with Yuan once more for the Moon festival.

Special Six: Highlights of Kathmandu

Earlier this year, before the travel restrictions were put in place, I was in Kathmandu for a training.

This was the first time I had been to Nepal so I was very much looking forward to exploring the city. However, on the very first day, I had two nasty falls – the second fall resulting in cutting my lip very badly and traumatizing my teeth, that for the rest of the week I could not eat any solid food. That accident pretty much cut my exploratory mood. However, I had managed to visit some places before I fell on my first day and I did regain some of my exploring spirit during the last days.

The following are the special six highlights of my trip:

(1) Swayumbunath Temple:

Anjal, one of my two friends, who had volunteered to take me around during my first Sunday in Kathmandu, took me to his favourite place in the city – Swayumbunath Temple.

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One of the oldest religious places in the city, the temple is considered to have self-sprung. The temple is located on top of a little hill from which one can see the crowded city.

(2) Patan Durbar Square:

The second place that Anjal stated was his favourite was the Patan Durbar square, one of the three ancient city squares in Kathmandu. Patan Durbar square had lovely architecture which was beautifully preserved.

We also visited the museum overlooking the square, which had a very good collection of artwork and information on the cultural evolution over the centuries.

(3) Boudhanath Stupa:

Towards the last days of the training, I began to recover physically and a couple of colleagues and I decided to visit Boudhanath stupa, an UNESCO world heritage site.

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By the time we navigated the traffic and reached the temple, the temple was closed but we walked around the stupa a couple of times before heading off to have some pho at a noodle shop overlooking the temple.

(4) Hindu temple:

With Rekha, my other friend, who had volunteered to take me around on my first Sunday and with whom my outing in Thamel was cut short after my fall, we decided to attempt another outing towards the end of my trip mainly to give her a sense of satisfaction. She said she had felt a bit traumatized as well seeing my accident and the resulting injury.

I asked her if we could simply go to a Hindu temple as I had been to a couple of Buddhist temples and was interested in experiencing a puja at a Hindu temple. I remembered that when Rekha had visited Colombo, she had wanted to go to a specific Hindu temple and she had remarked that the way the puja was done in Colombo was very different to the way it was in Kathmandu.

She took me to a couple of Hindu temples, which did not have the ‘gopurams’ or towers that Indian or Sri Lankan temples have but were mostly small spaces in corners. There was also no specific priest. There was a woman with a child when we went in. She gave me some kumkumam (turmeric mixed with other ingredients) and then asked for some cash.

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(5) Basantapur Durbar Square:

After the visit to a couple of Hindu temples, Rekha suggested we go to Basantapur Durbar square. Another UNESCO world heritage site, this was badly affected by the 2015 earthquake.

We walked around a bit and then after dinner, we decided to take a trishaw from the square back to the hotel. While I wouldn’t take the trishaw again, once would be good to experience.

(6) Kathmandu cuisine

Kathmandu has a variety of cuisine that would be interesting to try out. On the first day, Anjal had recommended the restaurant Raithaane in Patan for its offering of a variety of local cuisine with a fusion touch. However, it was closed when we went. And I was not able to eat anything solid after my first day. I am glad though I tried two different types of Nepali cuisine within my first 24 hours in Kathmandu.

What did/ would you want to experience on your first trip to Kathmandu? Except for the fall in Thamel, of course. 

Special Six: My Memories of Inverness

During my student year in the UK, I had the opportunity to enroll for the Host UK programme. Since I was planning to visit Scotland during the summer, I decided to combine part of it with a stay with a local family and applied for it.  I was paired up with a family in Inverness. A lovely couple who had a long history of hosting foreign students and who actually agreed to host me in the last minute, when my original host in Inverness had fallen sick and they had been contacted on the day I was traveling to Inverness, as Host UK did not want to cancel out on me.

Based on my experience, I would highly recommend any foreign student in the UK to include a Host UK homestay experience as it does enrich your student experience and probably, the friendship that you build lasts beyond your student year.

The special six memories of my homestay experience in Inverness are the following:

(1) Getting to know Helena and David and their lovely neighbourhood:

Helena, with whom I spent the most time, was a retired teacher and an avid historian, loved to cook and was very proud of her garden. I enjoyed accompanying her on her walks around the woods in the neighbourhood, overlooking Loch Ness, short forays into her garden prior to cooking to get some garden produce. I remember planning and cooking a Sri Lankan dinner (they called it tea) once and wondering if her nieces who were not exposed to other cuisines would like it. Her interest in Sri Lankan history and culture and enthusiasm in sharing the Scottish stories was what I remember most about my stay with them.

(2) Culloden Moor

Helena said that I needed to visit Culloden Moor, as it was a place that meant a lot to Scottish people. The site of the 18th century battle was originally not something that I thought I wanted to visit as I have never wanted to visit former battlefields. However, seeing her keenness, I agreed to it. We set out the next morning after my arrival in Inverness, and went to the site. There is a little museum at the site. For me, it is one of the best museums I have seen to-date as it shows the perspectives of all stakeholders (civilians and officials) on both sides pieced together from their letters and journals. I understand there are other museums that have done this as well but this is the first that I have been to.

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The museum then opens out into an open expanse, which you can walk about with an audio guide which talks about different points – such as the points that leaders of various Scottish clans fell.

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The little cottage, which had been the makeshift hospital and neutral ground, evoked a sense of sadness before I learnt that even though the wounded soldiers made their way there to surrender, they had been killed.

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Culloden Moor, a place that Scotland has decided to preserve as part of their heritage and learning, is a place that does raise a lot of questions on the purpose of battles and loss of lives and why human beings are unable to resolve power issues through other means.

(3) Dolphin watching at Chanonry Point:

Helena having taken me to her favourite place in the morning, David decided to take me to his favourite place that afternoon having learnt that I loved dolphins. We went in time for the low tide as apparently the Moray Firth bottle nose dolphins turned up soon after.

There were a few families that had turned up to watch out for the dolphins but though we waited till sunset, we didn’t see any that day.

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(4) Munlochy Clootie well and tree

On the drive back from Canonry Point, we passed an area where there were trees with what looked like rags tied to them. It reminded me of the prayer cloths tied at trees outside Hindu and Buddhist temples. David stopped the car and we went to some of the closest trees. In pre-Christian times, it was believed that a healing spirit inhabited the well and people came to heal themselves with the water from the well and tie rags of cloth to the tree to make a wish of healing. Since Christian times, a Christian saint has replaced the nature spirit in the folk stories but the belief remains the same. And people continue to tie pieces of cloth rags to the trees.

For me, I have always believed in the power of people’s thoughts – to manifest something. That is why I have believed in the power of prayers to heal and to transmit positive thoughts across the oceans. So, whether people believe that something is manifested by their tying a piece of cloth on a tree or offering a puja, the main underlying aspect is the power of their thoughts.

(5) Corrimony Cairn:

The next day, Helena decided on a day out with a picnic to a couple of her favourite places. We first went to Corrimony Cairn. This is a burial chamber from 4000 years ago.

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It is a collective tomb that was built and the passages have an astronomical alignment and orientation.

(6) Plodda Falls

Being a hiker and nature enthusiast, Helena took me to Plodda falls next. This is the highest falls in the area. We discussed the various trails and knowing my mobility issue, she chose the shortest trail that would allow me to see the falls with the least walking effort. It still wasn’t a short or easy walk though.

Returning back to the car park after we went on this short trail, we stopped by a stream and relaxed for a while simply chatting and taking in the fresh air of the forest.

It’s been years since this visit but we still keep in touch. I was happy to hear of the birth of their grandchildren in the years that have followed – one of whom actually shares my birthday, so I am not going to forget him.

I am not sure if I would have especially visited Inverness had it not been for Host UK, as I had other Scottish cities and islands on my priority list. I am also very sure that I would not have visited any of the above mentioned places had it not been for my host family actually taking me to the places that they loved and letting me experience them as well.

So I hope the above is of some help to those planning a visit to Scotland in helping plan a travel to Inverness.

Special Six: First Taste of Yangon

2020 started with a brief trip to Yangon. Over the couple of days that I was there, while I did not have much time to sightsee, I did have the opportunity to try out some nice cafes and restaurants with friends.

Here are the six that I enjoyed:

(1) Rangoon Tea House in the old Town area was my favourite. My friends introduced it to me on the first day and I revisited it with a colleague on the last day of my visit. I tried out Mohinga, a popular breakfast in Myanmar. The Mohinga I tried had a fish broth and egg served with rice noodles and lots of crispy stuff that you could add to your soup.

(2) Shan Shoe Yar was the place my friends chose to treat me for lunch on my last day in Yangon. They chose it for its Shan State cuisine. The flavours were different from the local food I had tried out in Yangon till then. Especially nice was the dessert, which was fried sticky rice dipped in sugar and sesame seeds.

(3) Strand Café was a place I dropped by as I was tired after walking around that area in the hot sun. Strand hotel was built in 1907 and listed in many travel guides to Yangon as a place to try out their famed afternoon tea. I enjoyed relaxing with a book and a cool smoothie in the elegant café.

IMG_5811(4) Bodhi Nava close to Kandawgyi lake is my pick for best coffee in Yangon. I tried out a few places that was recommended as having good coffee but the coffee I liked best was the one served in this little café. They also served a great smoothie bowl for breakfast.

(5) Aung Thukha listed at #17 on Trip Advisor was a place I tried out for lunch one day. It is a busy eating place where you need to select the dishes that you would like from the counter and they bring it to your table.

IMG_2857(6) Sharky’s was an organic restaurant that I went to a couple of times during my visit. It has a lovely ambience and some great food. I did not try the local food offering there but tried out their sausage platter instead with a lovely coloured sweet pea and lime drink.

If you have visited Yangon, which was your favourite restaurant or café? Of the six mentioned here, which would you like to try out?

 

Special Six: Highlights of Bangkok

During my work travels to Bangkok in 2018 and 2019, I did take a little time to explore a few places during each visit.

The following are the places I enjoyed visiting.

(1) Wat Arun:

The temple known for its sunrise views is the temple I chose to visit during my last trip to Bangkok. The small temple is beautiful especially for its intricately carved structure.

(2) Wat Pho:

This royal temple was the first place I visited during my first trip to Bangkok in 2018. The reclining Buddha is 46 m long.

(3) Dialogue in the Dark

This is the experience I highly recommend in Bangkok. I had been searching for unique travel experiences and came across this museum/ educational center based at the National Science Museum. Dialogue in the Dark is part of a worldwide project that enables the visitor to experience how challenging navigating everyday life can be for the blind. The guides are blind. The experience involves walking into a pitch dark room with a blindfold over your eyes and a guiding stick, with only the voice of your guide to lead you.

(4) Jim Thompson House Museum:

The house museum of Jim Thompson, who helped revitalize the Thai silk industry during the 50s and 60s then mysteriously disappeared in the jungles during a trip with his friends, is open for guided tours. It was a dark and rainy evening when I visited the place so the ambience and the guide’s story telling added to the spookiness of the place. The house though is a lovely traditional house that is worth visiting even without the tales of haunting. The house museum has the art center and shop next to it, where visitors can buy the silk products at exorbitant rates.

(5) Bangkok Art and Cultural Center (BACC):

I had actually gone to BACC for the drip coffee place that was highly recommended. However, the coffee shop was closed for renovation, so I explored the rest of BACC and found it to be a lovely center with art galleries and little crafts shops, as well as lovely handmade chocolate shop.

(6) Coffee

As is my usual habit, I tried out a couple of coffee places in Bangkok as well and my favourite to date is Ceresia Coffee Roasters.

IMG_1645What would be your the sites you would visit if you only had a day or two to explore Bangkok?