I sleep each night with the window open just a crack, as I do wherever I am. Here, it lets in the gentle Mexican night air that swirls around my fragmented steroid dreams. Since coming to Puebla, I awake in the night punctually every two hours. As regular as clockwork (unlike my internal plumbing).
It is the steroids, I am told, that are responsible. I’d never taken them before, so had no idea, refusing them at each relapse because for some stubbornly masochistic reason I wanted to know exactly how my body felt, as it slowly, painfully recovered on its own.
My normal night’s sleep is usually unbroken, some seven and half solid hours cradled in the arms of Morpheus, occasionally as I age with a brief gap for waking and a sip of water after the first cycle of sleep and before the second sleep kicks in.
At least that is how it has been since this liminal stage of mine began, my slow descent into in-validity, since I stopped being a correspondent for the BBC, and laid down (at least for now) my responsibilities to a hundred or more different programmes for radio, TV and the web.
For the first time since 1991, I no longer had a title, a place that I needed to be, a distinct responsibility. It was strange and deeply unsettling, though also a relief. At last I could sleep, and simply be, rather than do, and tend to the many troubling symptoms that meant I could no longer walk, read, speak or see as I used to.
Over the unbroken years of constant filing stories for each, from the age of 24 to the age of 49, I used to think of all those programmes as my naughty surrogate children or the bad boyfriend blowing hot and cold who could (and did) call at any time of the day and night, especially now in this age of 24 hour news, seven days a week.
But most often, of course, the bad boyfriend preferred to call urgently, unpredictably at 0543 or 0015 when I was fast asleep in bed, and always at weekends.
Since last September, then, no more chilly 0530 awakenings at home in London to sit in my still-cold living room in pyjamas and a dressing gown, waking up the ISDN line that would patch me through to speak to the Today programme or World Service News, live and uncut, and desperately trying to make a cup of tea in time for the caffeine to jolt me into wakefulness during the two or three minutes of the correspondent interview before me.
Since last September, no more being called away from of dinner with friends to be told that the 10 o’clock TV news urgently ‘needs’ a live. Sometimes, by the time you got to the studio, they no longer needed it quite so badly. But by then, dinner was done.
It’s not been easy coming off that drug – the pull of adrenalin and adventure, never knowing what was just around the corner, pitting your wits against the opposition, and spotting the story first.
It was fun, exhilarating, challenging in all the best possible ways, and never, ever dull. And for my 15 years or so based abroad as a foreign correspondent (and another seven covering defence, and the two reporting on religion and ethics, all based in London) it was both a vocation and a way of life.
I did not work for the BBC. I was married to it. I was its correspondent. And its correspondent was me.
The vows the BBC demanded of me when I joined in January 1991 at the tender age of 24 were not quite those of a marriage, nor indeed the poverty, chastity and obedience that must be vowed on the way to becoming a nun, though ITN certainly pays better than the BBC.
But there are undoubtedly some similarities with becoming a nun for women in our trade of journalism, certainly for many women of my generation and before working as foreign correspondents.
Few men will ever want to date you, because you’re liable to rush off for work unpredictably at any minute. On his birthday, for example, or at Christmas. Or most unforgivably of all, to cover an earthquake in India just ahead of the most expensive holiday the two of you have ever booked to introduce him to your natural mum in Australia.
Nor, as a foreign correspondent, will you be enormously sympathetic to your other half when they call you desperately upset from London to complain about the crowding on the tube and their terrible day at the office. On the day that you are filming somewhere in the Middle East, talking to a family half demented with grief after their child has been killed in a bomb, and to a bright and promising young man desperate to leave his war-plagued country for a better life, but who can’t, and who in just a few months time will probably heed the siren call of the militants, because if he can’t go on to study at university, then why not?
Listening to the muezzin call the faithful to prayer from the minarets in that desolate place, it is hard to empathise with your other half, and his problems of the crowds and the smell on the tube, and the boss who was nasty again that day.
I know now with the grace of age and hindsight that I should have been more sympathetic. And that for him, that terrible day was his whole world, and it was collapsing around him.
If I had been a good girlfriend, I should, would have been there, or at the very least muttered sympathetic, soothing words, and hurried home instead of tarrying for another week of interesting stories that would give me a glimpse into the fascinating otherness of people’s lives. But I wasn’t.
I was and am a bad girlfriend, married faithfully to the BBC for a very long time, only dallying with my men before returning to my husband’s embrace, although we may now be heading towards a period of couples counselling to sort out the balance within our relationship.
Yet as a foreign correspondent, when you contemplate what most people on this earth must go through every single day to feed, clothe and house their family, without our western comforts or our safety net, what so many must do to avoid being bombed, maimed or shot at, your sympathy with your partner’s first world problems such as crowded tubes or recalcitrant bosses is much reduced. Knowing that in much of Iraq or Afghanistan, whole swathes of Africa and Asia, no job means no food.
Even here in a relatively prosperous part of Puebla today, a man with no arms is standing in the middle of the road begging from the passing drivers, as Paco and Tony take us in the van to the clinic. I warm to them both as I see them gently hand some money out of the window into the pouch around his neck. They do it quietly, unobtrusively. It isn’t a gesture for show. Rather than simply drive on like most, Paco and Tony stop and do what they can. I sit for the rest of the journey pondering what makes some people good and others evil. And why it is, as the King James Bible so beautifully puts it, that the wicked so often flourish “like a green bay tree”.
But that’s not my theme for today. We all know the world is a tough place, and that humanity survives despite itself. And that mankind (and womankind too) will continue to be born, laugh, love, multiply, suffer, sicken, eat, prosper, pay taxes and die. And hope to recover from constipation. And MS.
Despite all the bad news, things are actually getting better for mankind, even if much of the western world (like me and my stem cells) feels as if it’s at one of its own liminal stages, still in the process of re-shaping itself, and not quite sure what it is going to become.
But no, today it is my own bones that interest me, not chewing over the bones of politics, of Trump and May and Brexit. My digestion is bad enough as it is.
Last night, with my window open, a thief must have slithered in unseen, because when I woke up at 08.14 my bones were gone, replaced by rubber and paste.
I got up for a pee and went straight back to bed, dizzy with the lack of anything solid in my legs and arms, or head. I’d drifted off quietly to sleep at midnight reading Haruki Murakami’s “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World”, nodding off at just at the stage that our hero has his eyes temporarily stabbed to become a Dream Catcher. So a little bit of me wondered as I searched through my brain for any connection whatsoever with bone or sinew whether I was still asleep in Hard-Boiled Wonderland instead, where many strange things happen and are taken completely for granted.
But no, I think I am probably simply heading inexorably into neutropenia, a kind of soft-boiled slumberland. My white blood cell count is down, and at midday I’ll see the consultant and find out by how much. The kindly biochemist came at 08.30 today to suck more vials of blood from my veins, and they’ll be analysed fast, the printout due at 12.00 to show me where all those neutrophils and basophils and others have got to.
To meet the biochemist halfway this morning, I decided to get back out of bed, and stood up on what I’d like to describe as shaky, faun-like legs. But they are in fact, at 49 and three quarters, more like a mamma elephant’s legs, matronly and solid on the outside, but with increasingly dry and crinkly skin, sporting patches that are a little worn, like the battered legs of a much-loved but elderly family table that has seen good service over the years. Although the table legs of course will never have to face the ignominy of its nails slowly turning a fetching shade of ivory year by year.
Still, no one will ever be allowed to hunt me down for my toenails once the global ivory bans are truly in force, and hopefully Jyoti Patel, the best chiropodist in London, can continue to hold back the worst of the rot, as she has done with enthusiasm, dedication and vigour for the past five to seven years.
I love people who do their jobs well, with a true passion and perfection. Or far better expressed in the German, ‘mit Leib und Seele’, with body and soul, or perhaps with heart and soul, as a German chef once told me were the things he cooked with when I had asked a much more banal question about his ingredients.
I know that the skin on my legs today is that of a pachyderm because I saw a mamma elephant close-up once, before the mysterious alchemy of the years through which I appropriated her grey and crinkly legs. It was the autumn of 1999, as we snuck up to observe a family of African elephants in the Tarangire National Park in Tanzania, on my one – and so far only – safari.
There, I learn that an elephant family is up to ten animals, led by the oldest, largest dominant female, a little like the families of yore before birth control took hold.
Or indeed my own famil(ies) in which, while the males may in theory be the main breadwinners, it is the females who actually rule, sometimes with one irritated twitch of an ear, a stern glance or a warning swing of the trunk summoning almost immediate obedience from the smallest calves to all the other adults with nary a word gainsaid.
The trip to Tanzania was a once in a lifetime holiday, organised by my BBC friend Tira, the sister of our Berlin cameraman David. Tira was, and is, a multi-lingual polymath who’d gone to work in Africa.
The continent had entered her blood, and that year she was based in Tanzania, able to swear fluently in Swahili with insouciant ease. She almost visited me here in Puebla this week, as she journeyed past on the way back from visiting her mother in Mexico – a mother who at 91 is still vibrant and beautiful, and fending off would-be burglars with vigour.
For two of the best weeks of my life, we (Tira, David and some other friends) drove through the national parks and the plains, eating at night in the shade of the thick, cooling canvas of the tents, going to sleep to the lullaby of the frogs and the nightjar, and imagining with a thrill that the footsteps padding so quietly outside might be lions or leopards. Hoping that they might come near but not too near.
One day, we got to within some 30 metres of a dozing leopard, half-asleep in a tree, one leg slung lazily in front of him. We stopped the engine, but it was too late. He was awake and aware of us. Slowly, unhurriedly deciding whether or not to be disturbed by our presence, he opened one eye. His tail twitched. For a good thirty seconds or so his piercing golden-green gaze took us in as we stood in silent wonder, as still as children playing a game of statues.
No threat, the leopard eventually decided, baring his teeth in an exaggerated yawn. Adult humans. Probably too big to eat. And anyway, he had no tin opener with him in the tree big enough to open that steely can of Land Rover that the humans seem to have been packaged in, as they sat observing him so rudely.
And perhaps with that thought, the leopard closed his eyes again and slumbered on, dreaming instead of delicious impala and the tasty crackle of gazelle.
Another day on safari, and a different volcano to the one that I admired here again this morning. That day in September 1999, we drove to the Ngorongoro crater – the largest un-flooded and unbroken caldera in the world, some 20kms across, 600 meters deep and 300 sq kms in area.
I had a strange and constant sense since landing in Tanzania from Berlin that I had somehow come home, although I’d never been before. A sense rooted somewhere deep in my bones and my blood that this lush and fertile land really was our birthplace, in a landscape as warm and welcoming as a room with a rocking cradle in front of a freshly-laid fire.
I had read even before I went that at Olduvai Gorge over many decades, paleo-anthropologists had found hundreds of fossilized bones and stone tools dating back millions of years, so that they could show that humans evolved in Africa. One river-bed there is estimated to be two million years old.
Louis Leakey and his wife Mary spent time there pushing forward the study of human origins, later uncovering the well-preserved fossil of a foot that showed arches, giving credence to the theory that hominins walked upright.
I knew it. I had a clear sense by 2010 that I was getting ill when the arches on both my feet fell precipitously, suddenly, from any form of grace, pushing me into an excruciating bout of plantar fasciitis. I should have known that it was a sign that I was beginning to de-evolve. It was all that the best bone man in north London and perhaps the entire world, the osteo Hussein Eshref, could do to keep me walking. But somehow he did. Without him, I doubt that what remains of my bones today would ever have made it to Mexico.
Anyway, Mary Leakey and her son Jonathan later found another form of hominin: Homo habilis, or “handy human” because he could use tools. All this a full two million years ago. Strange, because a man who knows how to use any power tools properly without botching the job remains an enormous catch in 2016.
Clearly, homo sapiens is but the blink of an eye in evolutionary terms, and as a species we must be on our guard not to de-evolve too much.
The strangest thing that happened on that safari in the wonderful year of 1999 was driving through the middle of the Ngorongoro crater, miles from any form of human habitation, and hours since seeing any other vehicle.
The hippos and the scavenging hyenas were gathering warily at the watering hole at sunset, each animal tribe allowing enough space between species to stick to a wary truce, and we humans were on our way to watch them.
In the distance, a dust trail golden against the setting sun drifted into the air, as another Land Rover filled with tourists drove towards us on the same road.
On the top and waving madly – she had good eyesight, that girl – was a familiar figure: my best friend from our Berlin teenage years, Cathy Wigmore, and her new husband Steve on their honeymoon.
I’d had absolutely no idea that they’d be on the other side of the world on the same day as me, in the same volcanic crater, on the same road, all of us thousands of miles from home, in this stunning cradle of humanity.
I shall never forget that moment of strange serendipity in the birthplace of our ancestors, and the sheer unexpected delight of seeing my now late and much beloved friend in one of her happiest weeks, fizzing with life.
I have here not a single photo of that safari, though they must be yellowing in an album somewhere in my living room at home. But that one single blissful year was a pivotal one. Life could have gone any one of which ways for me in 1999, a year filled with more forks in the road than any motorway pile-up of cutlery delivery vans could hope to achieve.
During it, I had returned safely from Saddam Hussein’s Baghdad that January, taken my natural grandmother Anna back to her birthplace in Pinsk in Belarus in April and inadvertently left her behind there, survived aftershocks from the massive Turkish earthquake, frostbite at the Norwegian train crash, doorstepping the relatives of the dead in the Concorde plane crash, and most importantly of all, had fallen head over heels in love with Peter that summer.
In the spring, I’d also survived the US Air Force trying to kill me on that hillside in Albania, and the unintentional efforts of Malcolm, my revered boss, to carry on their work by asking me to hotfoot it to the town of Prizren in Kosovo after the first BBC contingent had gone in, even though I had no car, no translator and no helmet.
At a meeting that I didn’t attend (I’ve never liked meetings, much to my cost), it was decided that the men at the BBC house in Kukës would do the rufty-tufty thing and go into Kosovo first, under the protection of German NATO troops. They were the BBC’s alpha male warriors: Jeremy Bowen, Clive Myrie, Jeremy Cooke. I couldn’t really argue with that. Each had more than earned his spurs and his place in the pecking order.
It had been decided that while they would cover the potentially dangerous, photogenic and headline-making military stuff (at least if they could beat Kate Adie, Mark Laity and Matt Frei to the bulletins, as the other BBC team went in from the south with British troops), the Kukës girls (my camerawoman Susan Stein and I) would stay behind and focus on the refugees, and perhaps later go into Kosovo with them.
As a plan, it all made perfect sense. The official BBC convoy left at dawn behind the first German troops to set foot on foreign soil since the Second World War as part of the NATO contingent. I covered the departure for radio and the reactions of the refugees.
The plan was going fine until my boss Malcolm called, his deep tones booming all too clearly down the sat-phone.
“How soon can you get to Prizren?” he asked, always one to get straight down to business.
“Not sure,” I mumbled, wondering how this might be possible at all when the outgoing BBC team had borrowed my safety kit, my translator, my car and my driver.
“I don’t mind how you get there, I just need you there now. The correspondent there needs a break from the constant lives for News 24.”
Hmm. What to do? In a decision that seemed eminently logical at the time, I decided I would hitchhike into Kosovo, so packed in a few minutes and took my backpack with me to the border.
Sue was rather saner, and said she would stick to the original plan and stay put. The refugee story would be big over the next few days and she’d be needed there.
As I stood at the checkpoint at the border with my big khaki backpack, I did notice that the sky was beginning to darken. Ominously few vehicles were going along the road into the area that was still part of an active warzone. The single cars or trucks that passed me by shook their heads and drove on as I tried to thumb a lift, including one German armoured vehicle, with whom I pleaded in my best Berlinerisch and with my biggest smile for a ride.
Eventually, one of our own BBC local drivers, by the nickname of Curly, was sent up by Sue to see how I was getting on, and whether I wanted to give up and come home for dinner yet.
Rarely had I been so pleased to see a familiar face. Curly and I had no common language, but I looked at him, pointed at the road ahead, and raised both eyebrows with an imploring smile. He gave me the thumbs up, and with a big grin bundled my bag into the back of the car, and off we drove.
I put on my flak jacket, but he had none. And what I had forgotten was that there might still be rather angry, not to mention drunk and not yet disarmed Serbian troops on that road. And what I didn’t know was that very same day, on that very same road just a few hours before us, two other foreign journalists had indeed been abducted and killed.
My danger sensors, never the most sensitive pieces of equipment thanks to my eternally optimistic belief that all will somehow be well in the end, did begin to kick in when I glanced at the petrol gauge and realised it was heading towards empty. And that night was starting to fall. As I noticed the gauge, the car itself began to stutter, and three Serb soldiers stood up and advanced from out of the darkness of the kerb where they’d been slumbering with a bottle of something – and their weapons still loaded.
I began to stuff my BBC ID and papers from my trusty bag deep down into my boots, where my heart was currently sinking. We were well aware that the BBC was not the flavour of the month in Belgrade nor here. Curly – whose homeland this was, before he’d been driven out of it as a refugee – began to sweat, and look at me in dismay.
I had all but mentally accepted our imminent and quite possibly painfully unpleasant demise when the German Army intervened. The lieutenant in the armoured vehicle who had refused to give me a lift had, it emerged, been driving slowly ahead of us, too far ahead to see. As he first passed the Serb troops, he had slowed to a crawl to monitor what they planned to do.
As he saw them advance on our car, gesturing at me to wind the window down and get out, the German lieutenant began to back up his armoured vehicle slowly, his gunner training his unarguably bigger weapon at the Serbs. Size matters in war, and his big German gun won the day.
As I saw this miracle in progress, only rarely in life have I felt a warmer wave of utter, blissful relief. We were still alive, and we were going to survive the day. The soldiers gave the Germans a disgusted look and slunk back to lie on the roadside and have another drink.
In the car, limping on through the gathering darkness behind the good Germans, Curly and I crawled slowly, eeking out our very last drops of petrol, and at last made it into the old town square in Prizren, where the ancient Mercedes gave a shudder and ceased to move.
The BBC producer there, Kevin, was busy next to the satellite truck, talking on what was then the latest model of satellite-phone – something the size of a telephone box.
“What took you so long?” he said with a grin.
You bastard, I thought, and went to put on my make-up so that I could do the next live broadcast, and more importantly, so that the senior correspondent could eat his dinner in peace.
After 25 years working in broadcast news, I remember almost all of the stories we’ve covered. Even some of the best quotes. And always the mothers and the children. But it’s the near disasters and the sheer outrageous fortune of surviving your own and your colleagues’ stupidity that are the stories that stick most in my mind as I ponder my despatches from beneath the volcano.
And despite the darkness of so much of the news, amidst the war and the death and the wounds, the starvation, the earthquakes and the plane crashes and train crashes, of which there were many in 1999 and all the other years, there have always been glimmers of light.
The kindness of some people to one another, even in the darkest times, the humanity of so many refugees who have nothing left but their hospitality, inviting us into their tent for a meal of whatever they can find to put together, in Kosovo, Afghanistan, Iraq, Chechnya or Ingushetia and so many other shattered lands.
My main memory tonight of the bitter years of war in Helmand in Afghanistan is not of the fighting, or the patrols. And not even of the heart-stopping, excitingly visual, adrenalin-searing fire-fights, but a brief afternoon I spent drinking tea with an Afghan farmer’s wife.
It was a rare spot of luck that I was with a female interpreter and the wonderful BBC camerawoman, Julie Ritson, which meant we could be allowed in to her compound, where strange men were completely forbidden.
The farmer’s wife was a few years younger than us, though not many, and looking at the rough mud walls of her compound, and the lack of electricity or running water or books, I had expected to feel a little sorry for her and her tough life.
We had trekked some way through fields to meet her, and it was hot. We were dusty and sweaty in our heavy flak jackets and helmets, carrying many kilos of camera and radio equipment. Wearing a light and colourful cotton robe, she welcomed us in, and introduced us one by one to her ten children, ranging in age from 15 to almost one.
Then she made us tea and fresh flat bread, and questioned us closely.
Does your father know you’re here? She asked us. Yes, we said.
And your brothers? Yes, them too.
They let you come here alone? In those heavy jackets, with all those strange men with guns? They’re not your family, are they, those soldiers?
Yes, indeed they did.
And did any of us have a husband or children?
No, not yet, we said. And maybe never.
By the end of our cup of tea, as the sun was setting, the fire-fight somewhere outside had finally finished. We had to get back to our rather bleak desert military camp in a ruined Afghan compound. And as we left, it was all too abundantly clear that the farmer’s was the one who felt sorry for us.
Her life may have been limited to her compound and her children. Yet it was a life she clearly loved. She had everything there around her that was important. It wasn’t shops, and it wasn’t possessions or even books or films. There was no TV, no radio, nothing, just mud and straw and brick and love. Ten happy, strong and healthy children playing chase in the red dust.
Her husband was a good man, said the farmer’s wife, and he didn’t beat her – and her children were all healthy – and so was she. Her mother in law was decent, she said with a smile, and as farmers they had enough food. She would have liked a car, but only the very rich had them, so why worry?
So, she had everything in life that she needed, and there was nothing whatsoever that we could bring her the next day that she might possibly want. Though we were very welcome to pop in for another cup of tea and entertain her.
She stood, waving us off, and looking at us rather pityingly as we hoiked up our heavy camera kit and walked off into the sunset and back to our camp, stepping slowly and exceedingly carefully to avoid the hidden booby traps laid so regularly by the Taliban.
The next day Julie and I were travelling with British soldiers from the village of Pan Kalay in a heavily armoured vehicle when our vehicle stopped, as the one ahead had a problem.
In the distance on the road ahead of us, an impatient white minibus was hooting his horn for us all to get out of the way. The Afghan minibus taxi was driving like a maniac, hooting his horn, clearly in a desperate hurry. Our Mastiff was immovable and took up most of the road. So the Afghan taxi-driver veered off the safety of the tarmac road to overtake us and onto the desert dirt to our right.
A second or so later, an enormous heart-stopping bang.
And the shout on our radio ‘man down, man down’.
Julie and I looked at each other. What had just happened?
We craned to see through the tiny back window, and could just make out the scene.
A roadside bomb hidden beneath the dirt laid earlier by the Taliban to blow up British troops had gone off just a few metres behind us. But our vehicle, the Mastiff, was fine, and so were we.
It was the Afghan minibus stuffed to bursting with passengers of all ages that had driven so crazily past us off the road that was turned in milliseconds into a red mist, tiny pieces of engine shrapnel crazily bursting down through the air.
Our vehicle was quiet as the soldiers we were with awaited instructions.
We didn’t film the debris or the human remains as the young British men quietly, professionally cleared up the scene as best they could, evacuating the survivors to the hospital, and clearing up the remaining pieces of flesh.
We found out later that almost an entire extended Afghan family on their way to a family wedding had been killed, and that only one or two of the smallest children survived.
To my guilty relief, it wasn’t our Helmand farmer’s wife, as she was still there the next day. And to my guilty joy, it wasn’t us either, though it could so easily have been.
The sunsets here in Puebla sometimes remind me of Helmand, where the light has an other-worldly quality I’ve rarely seen before. As do the majesty of the mountains. Night is falling here on Puebla again as I sit at the dining room table, and the flat is quiet. Joy has gone to bed.
My bones feel stronger tonight, as if the thief has just as quietly returned them to me while I was unaware, perhaps while I snoozed this afternoon cradled in the languor of the warm corduroy sofa.
Although the high priest of the blood, Dr Priesca says that my neutrophils are, as expected, down. Now at a mere 1,400 or 1.4 whatever the unit is.
So by tomorrow, he says, I shall be fully into neutropenia and should spend the day on the sofa if I can, doing nothing at all. The new stem cells, he reckons, should have worked out their aims in life by Sunday, and been encouraged by their parents to leave home and begin their new jobs then, as long as they pass their exams.
So on doctor’s orders, I shall do nothing all day this sunny Thursday, unless so plagued by memory and the desire to write while the brain still works on this frequency that I have to blog again.
There are so many stories, and so little time.
We shall see. Goodnight.