Dusty Dakar during Harmattan

Dusty. This is a good way to describe Dakar. And dry. It’s Harmattan season here in West Africa, which is characterised by dry and dusty winds coming from the Sahara. The city has been wearing a cloak of dust, even before I arrived in mid-January. The visibility has also been quite poor, although, there have been a few days that saw the haze lift to reveal Gorée Island and silhouettes of tall buildings (some still under construction) in the city.

      

The dust and dry air aren’t great for contact-lenses, asthma sufferers or those with sensitive sinuses. Or those who suffer from dry skin, lips, scalps, or other dusty and dry climate ‘stuff’. In a way it’s a little like late winter (August) in Gauteng/NW, except that it isn’t. It doesn’t get very cold here at night – in fact I’ve been sleeping on top of my blanket most evenings (although that’s probably me just warming up the space between me and the ceiling quickly).

I also haven’t experienced the strong winds we have during season change back home, but I’ve heard that before I arrived a windstorm of note ripped through Dakar, resulting in a middle-of-the-night “all deck-hands report to your positions” tannoy announcement. Apparently, the storm left quite a lot of destruction in its wake, including uprooting a gazebo from the dock. The diving team found it during their routine clean-up of the ship’s underbelly, still fully assembled and well preserved in the salty sea.

There are a cluster of seven or eight tents on the dock in front of Africa Mercy. They include two waiting areas, a hand-washing/locker tent, an outpatient tent, eye screening, rehabilitation, and I forget what the other one is… The white tent-tops are a shade of dust. The top of the orange canopies on the lifeboats too. It covers everything that remains stationery and conceals the original colours of cars left parked for more than a few days.

If you walk through the port, into town, along the coastal road or through the markets, you’ll be treading on dust. It’s a soft kind of dust. The kind that lifts up in the lightest of winds. I’ve driven through the outskirts of Dakar in the early morning and have wondered if street sweepers have been through the streets – they looked so clean. But perhaps it’s the wind?

Binta with her son Zackaria (he had eye surgery on board Africa Mercy recently)

Often the general view is muted by this filter, but splashes of beautiful Senegalese fabrics, bags, clothing or art break the monotone. Or, it’s cracked by a beautiful smile, or the sound of a child laughing. Or by the bright scrubs the healthcare teams wear on a Friday. Or the neon casts the kids sport after their ortho surgeries. Or by the balloons above almost every bed in the wards, or those given to the kids as rewards for an extra hard work-out in the rehab tent.

This weekend I started reading Ships of Mercy, which tells the story of the Mercy Ships charity, from the birth of the dream through to 2012. I remember reading an article recently where Don Stephens was quoted as saying his inspiration for the charity was a son, a saint and a ship. In the book, he refers to meeting Mother Teresa about a year after the birth of his third child, who was both mentally and physically challenged. He had gone to Calcutta to see how her team cared for the severely handicapped in one of the world’s most impoverished cities (page 14). The below quote from the book really resonates with me:

“I’d heard that Mother Teresa had instilled in her followers a gift for focusing on each individual as if he or she were the only person in the world receiving such attention and concern. And that, I was about to discover, included me” (page 15)

Being seen and ‘known” is such an important part of being healthy. I think this is relevant for most, but perhaps even more so when you are suffering from a disfiguring ailment or burn scars, or a condition that no one can explain. People who are that ‘different’ are often outcast in society, so if/when they do get some sort of help, it’s often more than physical healing that needs to happen. This may be simplifying things to the extreme, but they also need to experience that “Mother Teresa focus” and someone wiping the dust of their bruised and battered self-esteems.

I think a lot of that dust gets blown of here, and every single patient is encouraged to shine.

Satou, a young orthopedic patient with windswept legs (you met her last week).
Satuo, shortly after surgery (she’s still in casts at the moment wobbling around with her little zimmerframe).

Two of my new little friends were discharged this week. Fatimata, who had her cleft-lip fixed, and five-year-old Malick, who had his bowlegs straightened. Both of their moms couldn’t wait to go home, to introduce the “transformed” versions of their children to a society that used to mock them. In fact, Malick’s mom hasn’t told people back home that his legs are straight now… They’ve been gone from their village for well over two months and have kept it a secret. Just imagine that homecoming!

Speaking of homecomings… there is a lot of warmth, kindness and joy here, but of course I’m missing my family and friends and the feeling of being “known”. I’ve put in my leave for December this year, and will be coming to visit from Monrovia in Liberia, where the ship will be from August 2020. You heard it here first 😉

 

Settle in, this is a long one…

I’d planned to write something deep about the various ‘bubbles’ of reality that are currently part of my new life, but I want to back my bubbles up with some photographs, that I don’t have yet… Hopefully I’ll have what I want by next week, or the week after.

Before I look back on my week, I’ll start by answering some questions I’ve been asked by one, or more of you.

How long is Africa Mercy (AFM) in Senegal?
AFM has been moored in the Port of Dakar since mid-August 2019 and will be here till sometime in June 2020. It’s the second time Mercy Ships has been to Senegal. The ship will sail to Las Palmas in June where she will be in the shipyard for a few weeks of maintenance to ensure she is fit and ready for the next field service. We’re not sure yet where exactly that will be, but I’ll let you know as soon as I know for sure.

Where are you when the ship is in the shipyard?
Some of the crew stay onboard, or book accommodation if their budget allows. I’m not sure if the ship will come out of the water for this year’s maintenance. I think that changes things for people living on board as well and will find out more about that closer to the time. It won’t really affect me this year though, as I have to go to Texas for some training (called onboarding) that starts on 14 June 2020.

How come you’re going to Texas?
The training lasts for about five weeks and is supposed to help prepare me for life on the ship and living in community. In terms of exactly what topics are covered, I’m not quite sure, but it will include insight into the Mercy Ship’s mission as well as faith foundations, personal and interpersonal development (one of mine is that I’d like to learn French).

Ideally this training should have happened before I started my time onboard, as it’s a requirement one has to fulfil if one has committed to more than a year with the ship. I think there may be some fun activities too, like learning how to fight a fire and other skills that can help me contribute to my AFM village.

As an aside, the ship has a dive team that ‘cleans the underbelly of the ship’ every two weeks, and I could kick myself for not doing my refresher dives to get current last December when I had the opportunity… Not all is lost though, as there is a dive centre in Dakar, and I’ve just emailed them to find out about getting my dive status to current. Exciting, right!?

Okay, let’s get started on my week… 

Monday is the day where there are a lot of meetings. Each Monday starts with a 07h45 operations meeting in the International Lounge. We’re told about what’s happening in the week ahead, such as what operations are taking place in the hospital, if there are any media trips, or VIP visitors, feedback on any other operational ‘stuff’ – for example, we’re hoping to find out where the ship is in the next field service tomorrow… This will be breaking and long-awaited news!

There are two more Communication Department meetings on Monday’s – one where the team on board gets together to discuss the week ahead, and another later in the day in the form of video conference with Texas, during which we mainly discuss content, patient stories and deadlines.

Still with me? 

 

Highlights this past week included some interactions with patients that I’m writing about. If you’re Facebook friends with me, you’ll probably have noticed that I shared two Mercy Ships posts – one about Satou (windswept legs) and another about Mossane (cataracts). I’ll only be sharing the stories that I’m personally involved in writing, so if you see me share something on Facebook, you’ll know it’s one of my little friends. I say ‘little’ friends as I am currently only writing about children – the youngest is one-and-a-half (Fatimata) and the oldest is 11 (Dieynaba). By the end of our field service here in Senegal I will have written a full-length story about all of ‘my’ patients, but the publication dates may fall later in the year. As soon as I’m allowed, I’ll publish my stories on my blog. I’m excited for you to read them.

Other highlights of my week included making a few new German friends, one of whom left the ship yesterday. Jörg worked in an IT capacity on board, and though I’m sure he was very generous with his Germany efficiency and directness, I think an incredibly interesting aspect to his story is that he’s about to set off on his bike ‘through Africa’. Okay, not quite through Africa, but across a few borders and to Ghana.

Through him I also met a German couple who works at the German Embassy Dakar (my first official land-based friends) as well as an independent film maker who is involved with another NGO that was started by two Lufthansa airhostesses here in Dakar (it’s a good story so have a look here if you’re curious: beta.sagehospital.org).

I also met the young Swiss lass who bakes our bread onboard and recently blessed us with some cheesecake (high up in the 101 on how to keep Chrissi happy). Turns out she is from a place not far from where my sister stays in Bern, Switzerland! And then, while queuing to pay for my loo roll and washing powder at the ship shop, I started chatting to a doctor, who is here for three months, and also comes from Bern. She’s also visited South Africa often, so there was a lot to talk about! Unfortunately, I had to dash, as we have to book specific times in the laundry, and if you snooze, you lose i.e. if you are late, someone may grab your machine, and you have to book another spot.

A few hours ago, while I was making a toastie in the dining room, I got chatting to two of our day-crew who work in the galley. The ship’s day-crew all hail from Senegal (mainly the capital) and don’t live onboard i.e. this is a day job for them. I’m not sure how many AFM employs, but they are really key to our being able to function properly here, as many work as translators in the hospital wards and admissions. The majority of them are post graduate students, either studying their masters or even PHDs – law, languages, diplomacy, history…intimidating stuff! One of them smilingly said to me that it’s a bit of a competition here, i.e. who can attain the highest level of education. I think there’s a good story there, and I’m hoping to write it soon.

My weekly health check? Apart from feeling like I’ve under performed on the education front, I do feel that this current chapter at the university of life is going to be a great one. I’m excited for the week ahead, and everything new that it will bring.

If you’d like to, or are able to support me in any way, please visit my supporters page here.

 

Where does the time go?

It feels as though this week went by in a flash, and so much has happened – more new people, new places, and a visit to the beach yesterday with a lovely Dutch family also volunteering on board. I also got bitten (by a mosquito?) in the crease of my right eye – I mean really?! Who would put Tabard or Peaceful Sleep that close to their eyes?

There are currently six South African’s onboard. One of them is plastic surgeon, Dr Tertius Venter, who is doing reconstructive surgery (for burn survivors and orofacial clefts). He has a fascinating story and also volunteers for other organisations. There is a lot of information available about him on the internet if you’d like to know more.

Unfortunately the hospital is off limits for the blog, so I can’t take you down there. However, there are a number of videos and story features on the Mercy Ships website that you can watch. If you’re keen to see more on the remarkable healthcare that is happening on board, click on ‘remarkable healthcare’ a few words back.

Today I’ll be taking you on a picture tour of the ship, to give you an idea of the communal areas on board. I got up extra early for today’s blog, as I wanted to capture the areas without people in them. It’s not usually this quiet, but I thought it may be awkward if I pop someone on my blog, who’d rather not be there. It’s kind of a clumsy layout, but I’m sure that you’ll get some of the picture.

Let’s start with Madiba…

 

 

 

I’m not sure when late President Nelson Mandela visited Africa Mercy, but I love the photograph to the left of his, where Gracia Machel is looking back at his photograph. These photographs are on Deck 4, one level down from reception, and I see it every day after I ‘knock off’ from work.
This is the reception area. To the left of the TV is the door to the office I share with two Media Liaisons and Andrea, who has been doing all the writing work since the beginning of this field service in Senegal.
There are a lot of stairs in the ship… the blue ones are at the back of the ship (aft) and the red ones are at the front (forward)

 

This is one of the library rooms – I think you’ll get why I like it here.
This is the cafe area. On the right hand side of the counter you’ll see some pastries. Some of the volunteers raise money towards their crew fees by baking pastries, so there are treats available to buy most days, even when Starbucks is closed.
This is one side of the cafe area where a lot of volunteers have lunch or meetings, or make calls back home. There is a piano under the stairs, and I heard someone playing today. It was lovely!
This is the dining room, where we have three meals Monday to Friday, and breakfast and dinner on weekends. They put out lunch stuff for us to put away on Saturday and Sundays.
This is the buffet. For lunch and dinner there is always a cooked meal (meat, veg and starch) and salads available. For breakfast it’s a broad selection of hot and cold.
This is the International Lounge where the bigger get togethers take place, including Operations Meeting on a Monday morning, a medical lecture on Wednesdays and a church service on Sunday evenings.
This is an area called “Midships” which where a lot of people hang out and chill. There is also a TV and a small ‘internet cafe’ area. Remember the stairs going up from the cafe area? Well that’s where they lead. That corner is where I mostly have my breakfast… yes, it’s still dark outside 🙂

 

And finally, my weekly mental health check: I’m feeling more and more settled and at home, and less like a visitor. I’m also getting much better at performing the top-bunk entrance and exit manoeuvres, and have not hit my head on the fire sprinkler mounted to the ceiling this week. That’s real progress!

A week of firsts

People have been asking what motivated my decision to come here, and I’m not sure there is a simple answer to this. My getting here feels part of a natural progression and after a week in the Port of Dakar*, I’m already feeling strangely settled. If pushed I would probably respond that I felt the need to be a part of something that is having a significant impact (on an individual basis) but is also working towards a sustainable impact on a broader level. Mercy Ships also do medical capacity building in the countries they serve – and I’m excited to learn more about this.

I found out about Mercy Ships about two years back, from a guy from New Zealand. He had just finished a year on board as an electrician and was doing a paragliding course in South Africa. I was visiting friends, and Nathan spoke about Mercy Ships at the B&Bs breakfast table. I was really fascinated, especially by the fact that I could use my skill as a writer to become involved in this level of humanitarian work. It took me another year to do some more committed research, and when I applied, it was for the role of writer in the communications department.

Last week’s blog may have painted a “Chrissi’s on a cruise” picture in your minds, but I know that most people are aware that this is a hospital ship, that mainly serves the countries in West Africa. The best way to describe the eight deck Africa Mercy is that she is a village on the water. And located on deck 3 is the fully-fledged hospital in which the volunteer surgeons and nursing staff come to work their magic – on board and on land. In my mind, all of us other volunteers, are here to support or enable the ship’s healthcare goals.

I first visited the hospital this past Monday and have since returned to the wards daily. A few more patient-related firsts included me familiarising myself with the admissions process, the first visit to the rehab tent on the dock, as well as a first patient home visit on Friday (the little guy is being admitted on Monday for his cataract op). The communications department utilises various programmes and tools to track stories, so I’ve also been getting on top of the technology. I’ve done my first load of washing on board, and I’ve met just about a gazillion people for the very first time this week too.

I imagine that while the surgeries are underway, the ship’s weekly rhythm is similar week-in and week-out – it is just the type of procedures that rotate. This past week the surgeries (that I’m aware of) have been plastic reconstructive (burn contractures) and eyes (mainly cataracts). I will soon be writing about two young cataract patients as well as an eleven-year old girl who fell into hot oil as a toddler. Her arm and hand were severely burned and disfigured. She was operated on mid-week and has been resting and sleeping since.

At the beginning of January there were also a number of orthopaedic surgeries, and I’ll be writing about a five-year-old girl who had windswept legs. She is currently wearing brightly coloured casts on both legs and has managed to wrap the entire communications team around her little finger. She was discharged from the hospital today, and will be staying at the Hope Centre, a Mercy Ships facility for patients who are from further afield, and cannot travel to and from the ship between appointments.

I’m still figuring out what I’m allowed to share on my blog, in terms of patient stories and photographs, especially before the organisation uses them. I’m hoping to share a photograph of the little girl who had her cataract operation. She was discharged wearing funky little pink sunglasses and will be back in a week for a check-up, and then again in six weeks for her Celebration of Sight Day. What this event looks like, I’m not sure yet, but I’m hoping that at that stage she will have substantial sight – apparently, if children are blind pretty much from birth, it takes their brains a little while to figure things out (this statement is my interpretation of a medical fact… so please don’t take it as gospel).  At that stage I’ll also know what exactly I’m allowed to use for my blog. In the meantime, here’s a photograph of my nest… and up top one of Africa Mercy’s funnel.

My top-bunk nest, being guarded by my Mercy Sheep

There is really so much to talk and write about, and so much happening on and off board. I may just have material for thirty months, or so…

In terms of a quick emotional health check, I’m doing good. I’m calm, and a lot more familiar with the ins and outs, and what my role here entails. The cabin is still teeny tiny, but on Friday evening, after returning from my first patient home visit, I crawled into my little nest, and was lulled to sleep by the ship’s engine and occasional other squawks from the vac system.

It will still take some getting used. But in general, it is well with my soul.

*This week I learned that when I’m on the ship, I’m actually on Malta. Another first for me!

PS: If you have any specific questions about ship, the hospital, the volunteers, or anything else, please ask me in the comment section, or send me a WhatsApp. I’d be very happy to tailor write a blog just for you 🙂

I’m here

After three flights (Joburg to Dubai, Dubai to Conakry, Conakry to Dakar) and three hours in traffic from airport to ship, I arrived on Friday night, safe and sound. It felt strange walking up Africa Mercy’s gangway – especially as I have seen it featured in many of the videos that I’ve watched these past few months.

 After a quick welcome and photograph, I was given my ID card and shown to my cabin – which is a four berth, with a small bathroom and communal area. It’s pretty tiny and will take some getting used to but luckily, as I discovered on my tour this morning, there are a lot of places on the ship to find a little quiet time.

I took my time unpacking and making my nest, as I want to be sure I’ll find whatever I need to, quickly. Even small places can become bottomless pits of mystery when there is no order (yes, that is the German version of me speaking). The person who was here before me left a lot of hangers in the cupboard, and after hanging up my super-downsized wardrobe, I’m still left with many. I doubt I’ll be needing them, so will take these to the ship boutique next week (sounds grand doesn’t it. I’ll let you know more after my visit).

At the moment I’m sitting in the library, which I think may just become one of my favourite places – it’s so quiet and peaceful, you wouldn’t think there are about three-hundred odd volunteers milling around somewhere on board. The most ‘congestion’ I’ve experienced so far is in the dining room at mealtimes, but it’s early days. There is a café area, a Starbucks and a ship shop, all of which I’ll share more about once I use these facilities.

There is also a gym downstairs, as well as a pool on deck 8, which I’ll probably visit for an occasional dip when it gets really hot, even though the air-conditioned ship feels rather pleasant. I’m taking doxycycline as a malaria prophylaxis, and apparently it makes your skin more sensitive to the sun, so another reason not to sunbathe. If this is the only side-effect I have to contend with, I’ll be over the moon! It’s still early days, so for more on that developing story, you’ll have to journey with me a little while longer!

During my 24-hour journey I was able to reflect on ‘things’ in a different way than before. I know exactly where and what I’ve come from, and of course I’m sad to have left so much behind. The future holds a large element of the unknown and I think it’s only human to be a wee bit daunted. My Mercy Ships knowledge is based on the communication materials put out by the organisation, the research I’ve done and the conversations I’ve had with only a handful of crew members. Now it’s finally time to form opinions based on personal experience, and I’m looking forward to writing from this new perspective.

It’s an exciting time, but yesterday, when I couldn’t remember my mercyships.org email password, I had a moment of “What have I done!?” Then my password came back to me and I opened my emails to find a story lead from my new boss. The doubt disappeared.

Everything else may be new to me but writing…that I think I can do!

 

Change

I began writing this short piece at a coffee shop on Friday January 3rd with the intention of producing something light-hearted about the cats. Or about the fact that, for the foreseeable future, I will not be experiencing life in quite the same way and that I will need to adjust my comfort levels.

My hands were poised above the keyboard, and then the phone rang.

ADT operator: “Ma’am, we’ve received an alarm activation at…”. 

I thought perhaps it’s the cats but asked them to send a response vehicle out anyway.

Minutes later, the phone rang again.

My neighbour: “Chrissi. They’ve broken into your house. Where are you?”

“I’m on my way,” I say, as I hastily pack up my laptop and indicate to the waitress that I need to pay.

I send my city group a quick voice message, and debate calling my parents or sister. I decide not to, why stress them out? Off I go. I’m twenty minutes away, and that’s an awful lot of time to think about things, when you’re not sure what to expect.

I think of what could have been taken. I remember my pretty-darn-nearly-new iMac elegantly sitting on the dining room table. Other than that, I can’t think of a thing. Except that of course my whole life is packed up, ready for the next chapter, and could very easily be carted away – on wheels nogal.

I wonder about the randomness of these break-ins. Or not. Why now? Why just two weeks before I’m set to go? Maybe I should have mowed the lawn.

Then. Oh no (hysteria rising). My laptop! The precious book that I’ve been working. Oh no (hysteria ebbing). It’s next to me on the passenger seat. I decide to just breathe.

I pull up outside my property, and it looks like I’m hosting a party. The security guard from ADT accompanies me through the broken gate to the kitchen door, where it looks like someone was very angry with me. The security gate has been crowbarred off and out of the wall.

In we go, and it doesn’t look as bad as I expected. Two big pictures torn off walls, in the hopes of the discovery of a non-existent safe. I think they went upstairs, to the master bedroom, first. Unfortunately, they helped themselves to a box of jewellery I’d put together to take to my mom’s for safekeeping. Other than that, nothing has been taken. And my iMac is still lazily squatting on the dining room table. I guess I should count myself lucky.

There are so many things that I would change about South Africa, but the sense of community and the support I got, was pretty much ‘up there’.

ADT did a sterling job. Representatives from my community policing forum were right there, and nothing was too much trouble for them (including putting the word of a missing cat out). My closest neighbour was like a guardian angel, standing ready with a massive security chain and Thor’s hammer to put what he could back together again. He was out of the starting blocks, the second the police gave us the go-ahead, and restored a lot of my peace of mind. I owe him, big time.

I found Poppy in the laundry cupboard, but Manito was nowhere to be found. Perhaps it was the straw that broke the camel’s back, but his going AWOL was worse for me, than anything else. Once the crowds had left, I cried myself a headache that he was missing. I cried myself another headache when he reappeared as jittery as I’d never seen him before. I cried myself another headache when he disappeared again, and again, and again. Eventually he stuck around, but I’m sad that two weeks into his being here, when things were going so well, his perfect little bubble was burst. Change has become far more traumatic than it needed to be.

Please, no more storms in the home run to boarding the Africa Mercy.

The alarm and the cat connection reminded me of a blog I’d written a few years back Living in Gauteng. I reread it, and had to smile at life, and how full mine has been in Poppy’s Palace. I’m sad to go, but at the same time anticipating incredible growth as well as a total re-evaluation of what’s really important.                    

 

Poppy’s Palace

My soon-not-to-be home is also known as Poppy’s Palace. She adopted me as a kitten and has, for the last ten odd years, peacefully and unchallenged been the Queen here. Apart from ten days, a few years back, during which I kitten-sat little Maya for a friend.

To be honest, that did not go well. Maya was fine, but every evening I would have to fetch my sulking and miserable cat from under the carport and bring her back inside. Life went back to normal, once Maya went back home.

When I put my house up for sale in October one of my biggest concerns was Poppy i.e. I would either need to rehome her, or, first prize, whoever bought my house would fall in love with her too… Long story short, I won the prize! And Poppy gets to keep her Palace!

The only catch is that she won’t be the only feline roaming these quarters anymore. She certainly won’t be thrilled, but I’m hoping to make it easier for her, by having her new bro move in while I’m still here.

Anyway, I did some research and I’ll be ‘supervising’ introductions over the next few weeks. Hopefully by the time I leave in mid-January they will at least tolerate one another.

Manito is currently occupying the master bedroom, while Poppy and I live in the rest of the house. I’m sure right now Manito is feeling a tad stressed, while Poppy is downstairs, chilling on an armchair, oblivious…

I myself haven’t felt quite this relaxed in as long as I can remember. I’m also feeling quite inspired to write, so will be sharing this potentially antagonist experience here. Please feel free to offer any advice, I’d really like to make this relationship work!

Poppy chilling downstairs.
Manito, chilling in his old home.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Africa Mercy: My next chapter

Tomorrow in a month, I will be hopping on an aeroplane to Dakar, Senegal where I will begin serving as a writer on board the Africa Mercy, the world’s largest civilian hospital ship that is part of an incredible humanitarian initiative operating in West Africa.

 

“Mercy Ships is an over forty-year-old global humanitarian organisation that uses hospital ships to deliver free, world-class health care services, capacity building and sustainable development to those without access in the developing world: nearly 50% of people in Africa have no access to a hospital or doctor.”

More information on the wonderful work and the type of medical care that Mercy Ships and its volunteers provide, can be read or viewed here https://www.mercyships.org/all-stories/ and/or here https://www.youtube.com/user/mercyshipsvideos

Thirty months

I’ve committed to thirty months. This may seem like a strange length of time to press pause on “normal” life, but just like everything else about my decision to join the Mercy Ships crew, two-and-a-half years just felt right.

My life as a writer has been full of rich experiences and adventures, including meeting many interesting and inspiring people, visiting new places (often outside of my comfort zone) and gathering a lot of food for thought. I know that my time with Mercy Ships will be serving all of this up in abundance too. And, as of January, my “working life” will be all about shining a spotlight on the lives that are touched by the Mercy Ships message of hope and healing.

How can one not be excited at the prospect of being a part of that? 

A Better Business Bureau accredited charity

Mercy Ships, a Better Business Bureau accredited charity, is fully funded by donations from private and corporate citizens around the world. Crew members also contribute a monthly crew fee, which goes towards room and board. Every year an incredible amount of people – from surgeons, dentists and nurses who perform the medical procedures; through to technicians, cooks, teachers, administrators and people like me – volunteer for Mercy Ships.

I have undertaken, as far as possible, to self-fund my stay on board, while still honouring my commitments back home. A large part of the experience is living with less, and I was recently asked to prepare a budget within Mercy Ships’ suggested minimum budget guidelines. 

Would you support me?

There are a number of overheads I will need to cover. These include monthly crew fees, my health insurance, immunisations, travel to and from the ship (including to and from Texas for training in June 2020) and personal expenses. My minimum monthly budget works out to around $700. Or $8,400 per year. Or an amount for thirty months that I’m too afraid to put in as a fundraising goal, so have only set my target for year one.

If you are able to contribute to lightening my financial load in any way, you’ll also be enabling me to focus a hundred percent of my creative energy on writing the Mercy Ships stories. Mercy Ships has facilitated setting up this fundraising page for me, or you can contact me directly if you’d like to contribute in another way: chrissi @ what-is-your-story.co.za … just remove the spaces before and after the @.

If you are not able to support me financially, I would really value your prayer and/or some moral support by hearing from you every once in a while.

Africa Mercy

I will be joining Africa Mercy halfway through her ten-month stay in Dakar. She will then be based in Monrovia, Liberia from August 2020 through to June 2021. The country for the year after has not yet been announced.

Once on board, and once I’ve found my feet, I’ll be updating my blog and writing a monthly newsletter to share my experience as well as sharing links to Mercy Ship stories.

I hope you’ll stay in touch and accompany me on my next chapter, on board the Africa Mercy.

 

I used to be…

There are in fact many things that I used to be … probably as many things as I still am and as I will be. The fact that I no longer fly, doesn’t make my life any less rich. The real friendships I’ve made through flying have survived my divorce from this pursuit, and I do love catching up with people on a mountain. I’m probably one of the best recovery drivers you’d be lucky enough to have, however getting my nose out of a book and looking at a GPS may be a challenge. My name is Chrissi, and I used to be…

I used to be the SAHPA Chairperson. I lasted one year, after which I walked away. With the wisdom of hindsight, I must admit that I really admire people who put themselves forward to serve on the committee, particularly people who serve for longer than a year.

It was without a doubt the worst year of my life (let’s name it “The Small Depression”) and one which I embarked on voluntarily despite being pre-warned by a prior chairperson that it had been an incredible tough tenure for him. As they say: pride comes before a fall. I didn’t realise at what cost the delivery of this voluntary position would come. I don’t really think that much can prepare you for the total onslaught of new experiences (few of which are pleasant) that accompany serving SAHPA. My personal life suffered. My business suffered. My health suffered.

That year started with a bang, when a few weeks in a judge in Cape Town ruled (on an almost decade long case) that tandem paragliding for reward was illegal. After a few visits to our lawyers, we were advised to ground tandem operations (unsuccessfully) until we had lodged our appeal. It was a confusing time for many – unfortunately I was the one in the firing line. I had no prior exposure to the land of law, never mind the reams of the law of the air. There were key individuals who tried hard to support me, however, I needed knowledge to make decisions, so was playing catch up a large part of the time. Add to that the different voices and many warnings against various individuals and their “dubious ulterior motives”, and it was all a stark reminder of why I had left the corporate world to pursue freelancing.

Things may have changed, but like I said, I used to be… Back then an imbalance or tension had always existed between commercial and private within the ARO (Aviation Recreation Organisation). At one stage it seemed that the only solution to ensuring that commercial tandems were legal (as many people’s livelihoods depended on being able to fly tandems) was to make our ARO the ATO (Aviation Training Organisation). I came so close to taking this step, when a casual remark by a CIA representative, about how much responsibility this entailed, stopped me in my tracks. I decided it was a good idea to understand exactly what he meant, and to my horror discovered that as a director (voluntary or not) of a non-profit, and as SAHPA Chairperson, I would ultimately be responsible for all activities that occurred under the ATO. This was the one thing that no one had whispered in my naïve ears, and it was quite a wakeup call. In addition to a few more sleepless nights, I tried my best, together with the committee, to come up with ways in which we could ensure that we met our duty of care as directors of the ARO. One of a number of initiatives that came out of that chaotic time, was the In the Loop newsletter – and I can’t say that a little part of me isn’t flattered that it has been resurrected as a communication tool.

Other things I struggled with during the “The Small Depression” was that I could not understand why many tandem operators across the country were not interested in creating a sustainable platform for their businesses. Other challenges included getting our MOP rewritten into an acceptable format, then getting it approved by the members and then by RAASA. My committee and a few stand-up members were instrumental in getting this process going, however, the MOP was only signed off by RAASA in the following year thanks to Jon and his committee.

In terms of people, there were some real diamonds who got me through, both from within the organisation, as well as from outside. To be honest, I didn’t really struggle with any of the personalities or characters in and around the sport, but I did observe a lot of unnecessary, sometimes ugly disputes.

I struggled with making the time to run my business, as well as trying to meet my minimum standards of quality (in both my “jobs”). I really prayed hard that there would be no major injuries or fatalities during my time as Chairperson. Unfortunately, this was not to be, and the sport claimed two PPG pilots, and a young PG pilot.

Did I make a difference? Was it possible to even make a difference in a year? I don’t think so, and I do not really know. What I do know is, if faced with the choice of being SAHPA Chairperson for a year versus jumping out of a balloon, the prospect of 365 consecutive roll overs wins hands down.

I used to fly. And overall, I must admit that I loved it. It was the place I could escape to, a place to feel free, to just be and to lose time without wasting it. I’m not talking about the time lost sitting on the mountain waiting for the wind to be just perfect (which it seldom is). I’m talking about the time between take-off and landing where I wasn’t really conscious of my surroundings other than my fellow pilots, Mother Nature and staying up for as long as I could. It was a time I would be free from “real life” problems like deadlines, load shedding, infrastructure decay, work challenges, politics, relationship issues, poverty, racism, land reclamation … It was a time during which I chose to enjoy the privilege of free flight.

While I was still an active pilot, I tried to fly as much as I could, however, I have always considered myself to be a bit of a hobbyist who attended as many competitions as possible to make use of the infrastructure, and to increase the circle of flying friends. I was fortunate to travel quite a bit, have flown at a number of beautiful sites and met some great people in near and faraway places. Paragliding opened up an entire new world to me, including one where injury and death was a relatively common occurrence.

Sometimes I would surprise myself (and probably a few others) with a great flight, and there was a time I was more confident, especially while I was very current. I believe a bit of talent and some intuition, rather than the clever use of any science, got me from place to place. There were times that I was perfectly content in the air, and times that I was extremely anxious – more so about the conditions I was in, than the fact that I needed to find lift. There were times I would thank God for the incredible experience, and other times that I would promise Him that I would do or give up anything if he would just guarantee my safe return to Earth.

I used to be a licenced member of SAHPA. I say used to, because I neglected to let the thing be the thing. My flying wasn’t about flying anymore and there were too many distractions. It had become about serving the community, helping to organise competitions, raise sponsorship, write things, organise charity events, do this … do that … and my crippling sense of duty literally crippled my love of the activity and I walked away.

Notwithstanding I have and cherish some amazing flying memories. Maybe those are enough to see me through to retirement. Maybe they are not. Only God knows.

Note: This was written for the SAHPA March 2019 newsletter ‘In the Loop’. It is an unusually sombre (for me) piece of writing, so if you’d like to read a bit more about fun and real flying there are three articles here that may be more appealing.

 

 

 

Flying High

I was moving furniture on the Friday morning before the Monday evening flight, when I over-committed to a heavy couch. One loud pop and a burning sensation later, and I was unable to carry much more than a feather. How inconvenient, I thought, and decided to continue doing the things I normally do, albeit much more slowly.

By Sunday evening, I could hardly walk. The Transact Patch and over-the-counter drugs were not having the desired effect, and I became concerned as to how I was going to go on holiday if I couldn’t even stand up? In a panic I called a good friend, who took desperate me to the hospital A&E.

The staff were welcoming and so sweet. We completed the forms. We waited for a while, and I tried to keep the melodrama in check. I didn’t want to sit down, as it was a mission getting up again, so stayed upright.

We waited for a while longer, and I decided it was time to lie down. My friend, whom one could describe as somewhat of a back-injury expert, gave me some personal training on how to ‘alight’ from a bed when compromised. Knees over, roll over, that hand for support there, and up you go.

A physical examination, an injection in the buttock and two little pills later, I wobbled out of the A&E clutching a prescription and the number of a Wonder-Physio, who would make me flying fit. It was past midnight and there was slim chance of bumping into anyone that I know. This is good, as I had already boarded, and was by now floating above the clouds. Sleep claimed me the second before my head hit the pillow, and I was awake very early on Monday morning. There was a lot to do.

My trip to the physio did wonders, and I began to hope that my flight would not be the most torturous experience ever. I was slow but mobile and got a lot done, as one must the day before going on vacation.

By the time I was on my way to the airport my back was reminding me, that all is not well. Two little pills and an hour later and I was checked in, through passport control, and making friends in the departure lounge. I don’t remember ever having such a stress-free lead up to claiming my seat in an AirBus.

If you’ve read any of my previous blogs, you’ll now I’m a great fan of flying – “Escapism at Cloudbase” and “At least seven hours are necessary” if you’d like to recap 🙂

Well, this flight just reinforced how wonderful the economy experience is. I dipped in and out of a very contented and comfortable state, feeling safe, warm and cocooned. I do not know how this may have appeared to my fellow passengers, but I fear I may have been guilty of the exact behaviour I have previously been disdainful of. Never-mind, I got my seven hours and there is a slim chance of bumping into them again.

One thing …

I’m currently working on a magazine, and we usually try to work to a theme, to tie our stories together. To try and establish what the theme will be, I’ve been asking people I interview what their ‘one thing’ is. The ‘one thing ‘that motivates them, and the ‘one thing’ they feel is essential to their success.

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To motivation, surprisingly (or not?) not many people have answered with ‘money’. Most people have told me that they are motivated by a specific person – a mother, a child, a partner. A few have answered God, others are motivated by growth, or visible progress.

The answers to ‘the one thing’ essential for success have been more diverse, also depending on where on their career path I’m catching them.  I’ve had responses ranging from external (such as opportunity and environment) to factors such as wisdom, commitment, honesty, integrity, keeping things simple, staying focused, being bold, and so on.

Until yesterday, no-one had thrown my questions back at me, and I must say, that I was quite surprised. What does motivate me? I’m not entirely sure, but I think it could in part be my natural curiosity. I’m going to have to think about that one. And while I do, what’s your ‘one thing’?

Confessions and sweet memories

As kids we had a little routine every Sunday post the church service. We would spend some of our pocket money on a treat at Checkers while my mom bought the Sunday newspaper. We’d then lounge around at home, snacking on our sugary purchases while reading the Sunday Times’ comics or with our noses buried deep in a book.

I would go hell for leather on my stash. My younger sister would make hers last for the day, whereas Vera, the first born, would stretch her supply for longer than I perceived humanly possible. I’m talking the kind of self control that sees the Easter Bunny’s bottom half still hanging around in August.

If one considers the degree of my sweet tooth, the fact that I still have all of my own teeth is a minor miracle. Fortunately my metabolism also dealt relatively well with the potential effect on my weight, although what the sugar did to my personality was quite another story. The youngest in the house (it’s always easiest to pick on them, isn’t it?) was often quite traumatised by my mood swings. Admittedly this memory of me as an ogre on a sugar-high or low, is one we can laugh at over lunch nowadays, but I’m sure at the time it could not have been pretty.

Speaking of meals, the many conversation topics covered over today’s family lunch, included the fact that Nephew A only experiences growth pains in his legs, and not in his upper body. This reminded me of another lunch time conversation, where both now teenage nephews confessed that as under tens they would fake an ache or growing pain in order to obtain what they described as a very tasty banana Panado from Vera. They would exchange a knowing wink as they passed one another in the passage – one clasping a banana Panado in his sweaty paw, the other armed with a compelling reason to be awarded one too.

I don’t think these Panados were around when I was a kid. In fact, I don’t remember medicine ever tasting that good that I would have faked an ailment for it.  If I was going to fake it, my eye was on a much bigger prize – there had to be at least a day off school in it for me. And then there was of course always the option to self-medicate with treats. But I digress.

I recently wrote some copy for a superbly talented friend of mine, who owns a company called bite-size eatery. The name was inspired by her young nephew’s response to the baked edibles and food she prepared. Basically he would demolish the edibles in one go (sound familiar?), and she explained to him that food, especially food prepared with love and reverence, should be enjoyed slowly, one bite at a time. Wise words, even for us adults!

And there you have it – my pearl of wisdom.

Though I’m very happy to report that the chance of a delicious sugary purchase surviving for more than 48-hours is still very slim, as I grew older, a certain level of self-control and discernment did begin to develop.

Another confession. Not too many of today’s Easter Bunnies bottom halves made it past lunch. Mine is still untouched, but I very much doubt it will make it as far as August …

Coasting along

Do you remember when we used to go on those crazy rollercoaster rides, scream with delight and want to go on them again and again and again. And again? We would stand in queues as long as those on voting day, just to embark on a crazy sixty seconds worth of weightless terror, laced with boot-in-the-chest gravity forces. 

We’d then breathlessly disembark, huge grins on our faces, feeling as though we had defied death. Adrenalin would pump through our bodies preparing us for the next big upside-down adventure. “Bring it on!” we’d breathlessly say, beating our chests to the rhythm of the shrieks and squeals echoing across the theme park. We even ventured into those horrendous haunted houses of horrors, where to be honest, I was never quite sure that my heart would survive.

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I remember feeling amazingly alive at the time, and sleeping (albeit dehydrated, stiff, sunburnt and bruised) like a baby, on nights after days like that. I don’t remember ever feeling ill, or witnessing anyone that I rode with losing their candy-floss, toffee-apples or hot-dogs in the air. I’m sure it must have come close once or twice, but boy was it exhilarating!

At some stage conquering my fears became less of a priority, and scaring myself stopped being quite so much fun. It just happened. While I wasn’t quite ready to downgrade to the lazy river ride, I did begin feeling a little more squeamish with each loop. Then the pesky little stage-whisper in my head began planting the seeds of doubt. “What if … the wheels come off … or it stops when you’re suspended in mid-air … or even worse, what if the whole structure just collapses …” 

Eventually I made the call. I didn’t want to be the first ‘young’ person to die of a heart attack while facing my Nemesis, so I started looking for other, more sensible things to challenge myself with. Every now and again, a flutter of bravery would find its way into my little heart, and I’d do something that pushed me outside of my comfort zone. I managed two static-line skydiver rides and a balloon roll-over before that gene went dormant again. 

Then, a few Decembers back, some of the family spent a day at the Valley of the Waves in Sun City. My two nephews and niece thought the 30-metre sheer drop slide was great fun, and kept encouraging me to join them. I ticked off the possible scenarios in my head: it looked well-maintained. Yes. There was a lot of activity and others were surviving. Check. There were repeat offenders present. Check. Eventually, wanting to maintain the ‘cool-aunt’ image, I weakened and agreed to this little adventure. 

No biggie you may think, but as I stood on the edge of the precipice, I still wondered how I could walk away with my dignity intact. This, while standing amidst a small group of people whose average age I’d just brought up to about 12. 

I decided I would cling onto my pride, and off over the edge I went. My sister and niece heard my screams from about a kilometre away, whilst my youngest nephew, who was waiting to receive me at the bottom, thought my show had been hilarious. And once I’d managed to extricate my bikini bottom from my throat, I must say that a tiny tinge of the old adrenalin began coursing through my veins … it was however never going to reach the fist-pumping, chest-beating, I-just-have-to-repeat-this level.

Way back I seemed to have the stomach for it. Now, when the next rollercoaster pulls in and people look at me expectantly, I hope I will say thanks, but no. I don’t want to be the one that arrives back after having re-served my breakfast. From now on I’ll join the queue for the much tamer river ride, or hop onto a sedate sun-set cruise … I’ll be the one wearing a hat, sunblock and carrying a bottle of water.

 

Who made your cheese?

It was high time for me to escape for a while, so I Jet-Jane’d it out of there post voting on the third of August. I’m now safely ensconced in the Swiss mountains, occasionally dipping into a news channel to see how coalition talks are going. Of course we don’t do things simply in the republic – there’s always got to be a bit of “it’s complicated”. A coalition between any of the contenders should, in my mind, be very interesting.

But back to me… or as the title indicated, back to the cheese….

I’m lucky to have a family member who spends his summers in the Swiss mountains making traditional alpine cheese. My sister’s partner has been making cheese for the last thirteen years, so he knows his stuff. All the cheese-making action happens in this mountain hut that the cheese-maker and his peaceful herd of cows inhabit for about eight weeks during the summer. The cow barn forms part of the wooden structure which also includes a kitchen area (where the cheese cauldron lives), a cheese cellar, a pantry, a ‘Stube’ (sleeping/living room), and a dormitory style attic, to accommodate visitors.

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As magnificent as the surroundings are up here, working life is definitely not as fairy-tale as it may seem to the uninitiated. I’ve watched parts of the production process over the past week, and can bear witness to the fact that a combination of muscle, a strict daily routine, patience at the cauldron and good alpine milk yields the desired cheese quality.

The day starts around five-thirty. The cows, after spending the night eating the delicious alpine grass, come in around seven-thirty. They are milked twice a day. First in the morning and again in the evening, after they have spent the day in the straw, chewing their cud, licking salt, sipping water, pooping (a lot) and generally going about their cow-chilling-in-the-barn business.

In the lead up to lunch the previous evening’s and that morning’s batches of milk are magic’d, over an open fire, into a beautiful wheel (or two) of cheese. The cauldron is cleaned, a quick bite to eat, some chores, the cheese is turned. After the evening’s milking, the cows wander off to eat more of that succulent alpine meadow that makes their milk so good and plentiful. Then, the stable is cleaned, more wood is chopped, more chores, dinner and finally some R&R before it starts all over again.

The days are full, yet time moves at a more leisurely pace up here. I admire this age-old Swiss custom, and that, in spite of the fact that we live in an era of processed foods, this organic production continues. It’s refreshing to witness something that doesn’t entail mass production, and where there is such an intense focus on quality. There is something almost hypnotic about the ringing cowbells, announcing the arrival, departure or presence of these gentle herbivores. They also don’t seem to have a care in the world, apart from sticking with their family, and sticking to their routine.

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I feel like I should come up with some profound and philosophical insight into how this whole experience translates into my ‘real life’. Maybe along the lines of the best-selling Who moved my cheese by Spencer Johnson. But we’re not mice. We don’t all like the same cheese. Some of us don’t like cheese at all, and some poor folk are lactose intolerant. And why shift the focus to the moving, and not the making?

I’ve decided to liken the alpine cheese-making process to a labour of love, and its outcome as a gift or a blessing. I hope I bring a little of this peace back, focus on what’s important, and apply some of these principles to the cheese I magic up at home.

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You could look at cheese-making from a capitalist perspective – but no-one’s getting rich up here. A socialist point of view – equal amounts of cheese for everyone? A modernist may say that its time to move on, no more touchy feely traditions. A traditionalist may fight for the status quo? Or maybe a coalition of some of the above?

Today, you get to make the profound connections.

Weight control

She looked at the ever-widening berth of her once streamlined cat. That’s it! As of tomorrow, it’s nothing but diet pellets for her.

The next day at the cat food bowl.

Honestly?! Diet pellets? Is she trying to kill me? First she has me sterilised so that I don’t “grow the family even more”, and now that we’re reaping the weight consequences she wants me to eat that? She may not have wanted to “grow the family”, but why was I not consulted? It’s my body, and to be honest, at least one litter would have been nice. And I’m pretty! She tells me that all the time. I would have made beautiful kittens! And now this. Food for sterilised cats. I think I’m going to throw up. This stuff tastes like cardboard, and it’s not helping with the hair balls either. I mean, I spend up to 18 hours a day grooming, and now I have to suffer the indignity of foraging for greenery in the bitter cold to help shift these hairballs. It’s just not fair. Human, we need to talk.

 

Empty Promises, Pride, Prejudice and Fears

Today’s blog entry comes with a disclaimer, as it is highly probable that I have no idea what I am talking about. Let’s say it’s based on a knee-jerk reaction coupled with a little research and some wandering thoughts. If you decide to read on, just take it from whence it cometh. 

On Friday morning I woke up to hear that Great Britain would be BREXITing. The emphatic response and reactions to this news, from across the globe, made me think that this was real bad. Naturally I headed straight to Google to try and make up my own mind about things, and unsurprisingly I was not the first to hit the search engines with my questions. In fact, I was almost half a day behind the many (thousands?) of United Kingdom citizens who had searched “What is the EU” and “What is BREXIT” after the referendum event. Yes, you read right. After.

How does one vote on something, when one does not really know what one is voting for? I guess part of the explanation could be down to successful campaigning. Of course I wanted to know what compelling arguments made people tick the “Yes, we want out” box, and from what I can gather a large part of the Leave campaign came down to three things. Promises, Prejudice and Fear. 

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Informed Voter by Joe Heller, Green Bay Press Gazette

The Pro-Leavers knew exactly where to aim, and it seems at first glance that they aimed below the belt. The promise that the apparent 350-million Pounds a week that goes to the EU would be channeled into the National Health Insurance (NHS) has already been debunked. That shockingly empty promise is never going to be realised. It also seems that a large part of the motivation for the leave campaign was securing Britain from the influx of migrants and refugees.

You may be thinking that as a South African, I should rather be focusing on what’s happening in my own back yard, and why on earth I feel compelled to write this. You would have had to be hiding in a hole for the last century if you did not know about South Africa’s chequered, colonial and unpalatable past. Our struggles are far from over, however, prejudice and racism is not something unique to the country I live in. Radical racism seems to be raising its ugly head on a regular basis, in more places and countries than ever before. In my simple little mind, I’d like to think the majority of humans are after the same things. Liberty and Security. And yet, when we do have the privilege of having them, we guard them jealously, not  always willing to share. 

I believe that, no matter who we are, there is a little (or a lot) of prejudice in each one of our hearts – be it in the form of racism, classism, sexism, ageism, homophobia and so forth. It is a battle we humans fight daily, and one from which we do not always emerge from as the victor. In fact many just roll over and concede defeat without trying. Thanks to social media the spread of ‘evidence’ of this intolerance has been efficiently streamlined – straight from ‘prejudiced’ lips to the eyes and ears of millions, all just waiting for their turn to be the next ones to pass down judgement.  We have grown so hyper-sensitive that sometimes we are even spotting leopards behind bushes, where there are none. However, make no mistake, there are many spotted critters roaming our global streets. 

During my little BREXIT educational online outing I watched a segment of Last Week Tonight, which is an American show hosted by Englishman John Oliver. This particular segment was aired outside of the UK a week before the referendum,  however was only allowed in the UK after the referendum. If you can overlook the crudeness and cussing and silly song at the end, it’s interesting, left-wing, viewing. It also reveals a few prize leopards lurking in clear view (and if you’re into reading comments on social media, it’s open season if you scroll down). 

I needed to even the scales a little and find out more about the other side, so watched a few interviews with pro-leavers as well as a Q&A on ITV where both Nigel Farage and David Cameron participated in an audience Q&A. A few things sprung out at me – the Leavers felt that the influx of immigrants was a disaster for the UK, but ethnic minorities (UK citizens) seemed to feel marginalised by those promoting the exit. The remain side seemed reasonable, however it did appear that the hard-working class felt threatened by the prospect of remaining in the EU. I had to rewind when Nigel Farage told a woman who asked a question relating to sex-related crimes to calm down. I don’t know much about the man, but good luck ladies of the UK if he becomes one of your leaders. (Did you see how neatly I managed to pass down judgement there?)

Apparently many many experts warned that it would be an economic disaster to leave the EU. A fact that was poo-poo-ed by the Leave campaign. Forgive my paragliding comparison here, but I have often flown with people way more experienced than I – let’s call them the paragliding experts. On the few occasions that I have decided to fly my own line, and veered off the routes the experts have chosen, I have more often than not found myself on the ground…kicking myself for my stupidity. Obviously when I started out, I always hoped that somehow I would gleefully claim victory over the sky-gods – but alas, it’s just never panned out for me. 

A more relevant comparison is perhaps our government’s determination to steadfastly follow their own path. Despite expert advice and evidence to the contrary, they often put the ANC above what is best for our country, and inevitably there are casualties – more often than not, those casualties are the normal people on the ground. Isn’t it mostly the working class that suffers? I guess we still take the cake here in SA, in that the decision of one man last December saw the Rand crash to a record low… it took many millions of BREXIT referendum votes to do that to the Pound. 

Right now I feel a little sorry for the people of the United Kingdom – and as a proud nation I’m sure that’s the last thing they want from me. It must be quite scary to the person on the street coming to terms with the immediate consequences that surely must have left most of them reeling. I haven’t got a cooking clue what happens now, but I do hope that it somehow ends well for everyone involved.

We’re just over a month away from municipal elections, and though elections in South Africa may not feel as momentous as the BREXIT referendum to most people, it’s a pretty big deal right now in the history of our country. It’s probably the first time where voting communities are expressing strong opinions and displeasure at being fed a diet of empty promises or lip service. I truly hope we all know what we are voting for, because the consequences of not really knowing could change the course of our world.

Today’s blog entry comes with a disclaimer, as it is highly probable that I have no idea what I am talking about. Let’s say it’s based on a knee-jerk reaction coupled with a little research and some wandering thoughts. If you read on, I hope you took it from whence it cameth. 

Nothing but love

Last week there was a wedding in the United Kingdom. Alright, so there were probably numerous weddings around the world on that particular day, but this one was extra special. Here’s my version of this romantic tale…

A man, twice divorced, disillusioned, a little bitter, and who had vowed he would never walk down the aisle again during this lifetime, donned his bell bottoms last Tuesday, in preparation for the giant I-do leap. Resigned to his fate of having and holding, from this day forward, for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, for etcetera etcetera, he visited the restroom for a last peak at himself in the mirror as a single man. He slapped on some aftershave, took a deep breath, and prayed that everyone would forever hold their peace when asked. Yes, he was ready!

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His betrothed, now wife, is known for being able to keep her cool in a crisis, and as far as I am aware there was none. There were no foxes to be rescued, no felines to fix, no animals to heal, no horses to heed. Tuesday was all about tying the knot. She even wore heels! The groom getting stuck in the mud was a snag easily overcome, and the two managed to get to the Ceremony Room on time. They said I do, he kissed the bride, and the rest, as they say, is history.

I’m far from being an expert on the matter of marriage, but that doesn’t stop me from being a great believer in the institution. Obviously one does need to be a little discerning about who one is going to meet at the church T-junction, but being an extreme romantic, I think everyone in love should get hitched. 

Two of my South African girl friends will be walking down the aisle this September. I must say that wedding planning definitely sounds stressful, in particular when (in addition to finalising the guest list, the venue, the seating, how to involve each family, the dress, the food, and and and) the negotiation of lobola forms part of the pre-union proceedings. I’m not familiar with all the intricacies involved in this custom, but I admire the deep level of respect for family and culture that is being observed. This, in spite of the process being drawn out, which must have been very frustrating for this couple.

What I have noticed in those relationships around me that seem to be working, is that the partners find one another interesting and fascinating, take the time to talk, love and respect each other, and have their spouses backs. And this last sentence pretty much sums up why I believe that the wedding in the UK last Tuesday is extra special.

Oh yes… if any of my other friends who’re in love are reading this, just thought I’d mention that I have more than two dresses that haven’t seen the light of day in a while… and that I love dancing, and champagne, and witnessing I do’s…

I have nothing

It’s the tail end of the week and I am pooped. Everything that I’d like to write about seems too upbeat and frivolous when one reviews the week that was in South Africa. Wait. Make that the week that was in the world. Hold on. Make that the week before… and the week before… and the one before that too. It’s been an incredibly tough year out there for some, and tonight I’d like to get few things off my blessed chest. 

To everyone who recently lost anyone, especially through an act of violence – my heart bleeds for you, and my thoughts are with you. I pray that one day soon you may find peace again.

To those who are struggling to make ends meet, I hope that someone will see your plight. And I hope that you’re not too proud to accept that help.

To the drug-pushers and the drug-users – if you were to swop lives for just one day, I wonder how that would pan out. 

To the trash-speaking woman in the video currently on the news. I understand that being the victim of a crime will make one feel vulnerable, ever so angry, and wanting to lash out. However, the smash-and-grabber just meant to steal what was on the seat. Material possessions can be replaced. Losing your cool? Your dignity? Sadly, you gave that away for free. And whilst your words throw a poor light on you, you certainly do not speak for me.

To the voices of hope and reason, that are sometimes so difficult to hear above the cacophony, please don’t be disheartened. Don’t stop talking and reminding us, that there are good things in the world, much progress and many achievements to be celebrated. 

Today it’s the tail end of this week and I have nothing… Nothing upbeat. Nothing frivolous. 

But I promise that I’ll be back, and it won’t be empty-handed.

Today’s Eureka moment

Earlier I was in the Vitamin aisle of a South African retailer, confronted with hundreds of choices… I went in to buy some Vitamin B, but the overwhelming selection of things-we-can-swallow-to-support-our-general-health that faced me, was simply astounding. 

I stood and stared and processed until I located what I was looking for. Another two to three minutes to compare which is the best-priced option, and, as I’m sure I must have at least three bottles of fatigue and stress in me, I settle for the three-for-the-price-of-two option.

Unable to tear myself away from the aisle that promises health and longevity just yet, I peruse the shelves a little longer. Suddenly it dawns on me. All the containers are sorted alphabetically! How did I not notice that before?! I check my new found theory, starting at A, through to G, H, I… While still digesting the revelation that there is order in what I assumed was vast chaos, I pick up a box of something-starting-with-a-V. 

A store attendant pops her face in front of mine – can she assist me? A bit taken aback I mutter something about my alphabetical discovery, and with a slightly odd look she explains that she’s in charge of this aisle, and that it really annoys her when people mess with the system. Not wanting to enrage her, I guiltily pop the box of something-starting-with-a-V in my basket, and casually stroll off in the direction of the tills.

Before I decided to admit to the world at large that a supposedly intelligent woman did not know that vitamins in stores are sorted alphabetically, I asked two of my MOST intelligent friends if they knew this? My female friend laughed at me outright, whereas my male friend was just as surprised as I had been! Granted, I have not spotted many males in the vitamin aisles… but my short survey filled me with enough confidence to spill the beans.

I seem to be capable of finding my way around a bookstore, or through an airport. Enough trips to the food markets have gotten me intuitively finding my way around them too. But clothing stores, in particular the large department stores, have me confused (and I do pray that I never manage to make sense of that vast chaos). Why are the undies hidden in the furthest corner? Is it because we all need underwear and as we make our way to the privates department we suddenly become bashful and filled with the desire to cover ourselves? And when faced with an entire store of options to cover ourselves, does science dictate that we will not leave empty handed? 

I just don’t know, as I have walked out of shops often, just because there has been too great a selection. Why do we need to have so many choices? Isn’t life complicated enough without the total onslaught of things-we-could-have, things-we-should-have, things-we-must-have… and please don’t tell me that they’ve parked the underwear in the corner for modesty’s sake – have you watched reality TV lately?

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Anyhoo… while I consider becoming a mall recluse versus the potential outcomes of my making sense of THAT chaos, I thoughtfully sip on a cup of herbal tea made of a root beginning with a V… it’s not really something I wanted or needed, but it has found its way into my recently decluttered home, and now it must be consumed. Please don’t judge me…

What are the chances!?!

Have you ever experienced an event or set of events, that are quite uncanny and your first thought is “What are the chances!?!” While you’re thinking about it, here are a few of my ‘strange coincidences’.

After I finished my degree I spent some time in Germany where I juggled a few jobs to pay my way. In addition to waitressing in an Irish pub I was working an early shift in a galvanising plant in North Rhine-Westphalia, where my task was to pop a plastic cork on the tip of each screwdriver, before it was hot dipped. It was here that I befriended a petite Eastern European woman who was seeking asylum in Germany. 

My shift buddy and I sat side-by-side, in our mandatory steel-capped work boots, puffing away, popping corks and putting the world to rights. She shared her fears for her future, and that of her two children who were back home with a relative. She expressed her hopes of finding a German husband, and told me how she yearned to be able to offer her children something that resembled long-term security. We were about the same age, but in terms of life experience, she was way more mature than I. We lost touch after I moved to Munich to start my short career as a hostess at Lufthansa.

That same year, I was on duty and our first leg had been to Dusseldorf airport. We had finished prepping the cabin for a flight to Kiev and ‘as usual’ I was all dollied up, shirt ironed, every hair in place and waiting for our passengers to board. There was a bit of a buzz as my purser told the crew that border control was deporting someone on our flight, and that they may be in handcuffs. Handcuffs…goodness, deportation sounded like something bad. 

I was fully expecting a tall, tattooed, toothless male in chains when my shift buddy, in cuffs, rounded the corner into the cabin ahead of a man in uniform. She immediately recognised me and threw herself towards me, sobbing… I was at a total loss for words. On my flight! What were the chances!?! The policeman firmly but kindly moved her along to the back of the plane, where they were seated away from the other passengers. I spoke with her as much as I was allowed to, but what could I say that would make a difference to her anguish?

Maybe five years later my fiancé and I had a terrible disagreement on our way to a wedding. So bad in fact, that we ended up sitting on opposite sides of the church. Of course I was right and he was wrong…

As the beautiful bride swept past me I dabbed at a tear – as you do when the bride looks breathtaking…or perhaps it was self pity. A little more dabbing as the two launched into their self-penned vows, and I thought “Wow! That! That! That is exactly what I wish for in a relationship!”. 

Sadly, that marriage did not last long. Similarly my fiancé and I didn’t either. Today, he and she (yes, that bride) are happily married with children. What were the chances!?! I can imagine you on the edge of your seats now, wanting a bit of drama… alas there was none. She and I became friends, and she is a truly amazing woman. 

Next weekend I’m attending a joint fiftieth birthday celebration. My friends, a couple with children, were not only born within hours of one another, but they were also.. wait for it… born in the exact same hospital! In other words they were within metres of one another, within ‘minutes’ of taking their first breaths… what are the chances! I can’t wait to celebrate this half century with them!

It took about a quarter of a century for my sister and her hubby (who celebrates his birthday today… Happy Happy Thorsten!) to connect. Both our families came over to South Africa from Germany on the very same ship, albeit a year apart. Imagine if we’d all been aboard the vessel in the same year – now that would have been quite something! But even a year apart, being on the same ship is still quite a remarkable thing.

Speaking of birthdays, there are a lot of folks I know having birthdays this month, and I’d like to wish a very Happy Birthday to all of them out there! May babies rock! And I’m a May baby too. What are the chances!?!

Same place, same time

This morning, just like every other day this week, I could not look him in the eye. It wasn’t as though he had done anything to me personally or had caused me even the slightest bit of harm. No, it was just the burden of expectation that hung thick in the air between us, leaving me heavy with guilt. The guilt of privilege? The guilt of good fortune? Whatever it was, I resented the feeling. I resented the fact that he, just by being there, was chipping away at my peace of mind.

The light changed to green just before he drew parallel to me, and I expelled the breathe of air I hadn’t even realised I had been holding. I was relieved to be able to move on, towards my freedom and away from the stifling and unwanted emotions I was feeling whilst seated in the comfort and warmth of my car. 

He had appeared about a week ago and had, on a daily basis, been assuming the same place at the traffic lights on my route to work. I’m not sure why his presence seemed to unsettle me so much, I have seen and passed more beggars and vagrants on our streets than I care to recall. He certainly looked the part – unkempt, probably unruly, and while I’m heaping stereotypes and generalisation on the pile, I was sure that he was a drunkard too. I found myself trying to imagine his story, the circumstances that had led to this person being just another South African statistic, standing by the side of the road. To my shame I did not conjure up a good backdrop for his journey, yet something didn’t quite fit… Shaking my head to get rid of these thoughts, I focused on the traffic, and the day ahead.

I saw her drive past, just like she had every day this week since I had arrived here. She did not make eye contact, but her distaste for this beggar on the side of the road was as palpable as if she had shouted the words out loud. 

Last night I had been late getting home – it had been a long journey, made even more difficult by the fact that  once again I was nearly empty handed. I’d woken up at three this morning, cold and unable to sleep as the burden of failure hung thick in the air of the make-shift shack I was sharing with others I’d met on the street. I felt heavy with guilt, not really understanding why, but the emotion weighed like a boot on my chest almost suffocating me. How long would this feeling last? 

Resentment had tasted like bile in my mouth, but once again, I had swallowed my pride and set out, hoping that the day might bring the slightest of reprieves. A smile? An act of kindness? Something, no matter how small and seemingly insignificant that would free me, even for a brief moment, from the indignity that was steadily chipping away at my humanity. Like every day for the past week I hoped that today would be different. I briefly wondered if it would get any easier, or if my emotions would eventually become so dulled that I no longer cared?

That evening after work, a few of us got together for drinks and to unwind. I casually mentioned that there were way too many impoverished people standing on the sides of our roads, and questioned whether it wasn’t time our government started caring for these individuals, and cleaning up our streets? The heated discussion that followed was bursting with many diverse viewpoints, preconceptions, blame-passing, stories of begging cartels, human rights abuses, dramatics, play acting and public nuisances that I started to feel a little dizzy… or perhaps it was that second glass of the Burgundy I was nursing? In the haze it did however dawn on me that while we were all pointing fingers at someone else, no one seemed to be able to pinpoint whose responsibility it was to do something about what we all did agree on was a sad state of affairs. I abandoned that train of thought at the restaurant, and sped home to my warm, comfortable bed to grab as many hours of quality rest as I could squeeze in.

I have had worse days than today, but at least tonight I would go ‘home’ with something to show for the 16 hours I have been away. I’d been struggling with dizziness all day – probably because I hadn’t eaten much and the water I’d just finished was only the second drink I’d had in as many days. Standing in the unforgiving midday winter sun, hands extended in the hope of being the recipient of a charitable gesture, can be exhausting at the best of times. 

On the street, I am an outsider briefly looking in on the life of others as they pass me by. People in a rush, people on the phone, people who look straight through you, people who shame you for being the loser that you so evidently must be. People who judge you for wearing the same clothes day in, day out. People who think you must be a retard, or at the very least a drunk. People who think you have no feelings. People who do not see the man you are… or were. People not willing to make eye contact with poverty.

I remembered a recent trip to New York where I had first come across the Red Cross slogan “the greatest tragedy is indifference”. Right now, as a victim of the enemy of indifference I was able to attest to this. My train of thought was interrupted as I noticed a scuffle across the intersection where the young man who performs the same little repetitive ritual as if on a loop, was having a scuffle with the ‘crazy’ lady who was moving in on his patch. I went across to see if I could diffuse the situation.

I’d woken up feeling rested and well. It looked like a cold start to the day, so I dressed warmly and made a second cup of coffee to drink on my way. I turned up the volume and the heat, and as I neared the traffic light I spotted him again. He was wearing the same shirt as yesterday, and I could just make out part of the wording on his shirt – …tragedy is in… – as the rest was covered by his grubby jumper. I wondered how he had landed up here. Panic set in when I suddenly realised that the traffic light had just turned orange, leaving me exposed and stationary right next to HIM. I turned to look at the man who was now standing next to my window, conscious of how incredibly awkward I felt.

Despite feeling like a hare in the lights I remembered my upbringing and smiled vaguely, hopefully not too encouragingly, and looked up. As we made eye contact I was struck by how unusual and kind his eyes were, and how incredibly weary they looked. Without thinking I wound down the window, smiled a little more encouragingly and handed him my three-quarter-full coffee mug saying “I’ll get the cup back from you tomorrow, same place, same time?” He nodded, seemingly at a loss for words, and off I went, a little breathless and taken aback at what had just transpired.

Now that was a surprise! I gratefully sipped the warm liquid and for a brief time was transported back to a time, not very long ago when I had coffee on demand, a fridge full of food, a house, a car, a warm bed… I had not realised how many times I would want to walk away, from this experiment but we had agreed that for one month only, I would taste life on the streets, immerse myself and cut all ties to my former life. 

I started looking forward to seeing him in the mornings, and we got into a habit of exchanging a few pleasantries as I passed a coffee, a banana or a sandwich out of the window. I now knew that he had a family he loved and was very proud of. As I got to know him a little bit better, my desire to flee from any encounter with him had disappeared and I was almost disappointed if I didn’t have the opportunity to engage with him a little. And every day as I drove off, one of us would utter “See you tomorrow – same place, same time”.

As she drove off, I thought of my family and how, when we had started looking for ways to make a real difference I had volunteered a month of my life, saying that come hell or high water, I would live on the street and not throw in the towel prematurely. I’m not sure my family believed that I had what it takes, as I had not really demonstrated commitment to many things in the past. After New York we had discussed that we needed to understand this side of South Africa in order to be able to address the challenges and have a chance of making a sustainable difference. For me, this had meant walking away from a life of luxury, warm drinks and a full belly. A life of being served, sleeping in a soft bed, a cupboard full of clothes to choose from… Never in my wildest dreams could I have imagined how difficult it would be to stay, when I knew what creature comforts were waiting me back home. 

As the month had gone by every day had grown more difficult but I had remained inspired and motivated by the real people of the streets, no matter how demeaned and desperate we found ourselves. Every day I felt an inner shift in my priorities as I became more and more desperate for the plight of my fellow countrymen standing on street corners across South Africa.

Today was to be my last day in this guise and when she uttered “Tomorrow? Same place, same time?” I knew that, though I would probably never see her again, the compassion she and a handful of others had extended me, had kept me going. I smiled back at her, knowing that there was great untapped potential in South Africa – the potential to overcome indifference, one of our country’s greatest enemies. A seed that had been sown in New York, was starting to blossom. I knew what I had to do.

It was strange how, over the past month, he had become such a large part of my morning, and how I now looked forward to seeing him every day. I hadn’t seen him for a few days and that morning in particular, I must admit that I was disappointed to miss him. His presence had motivated me to do what I was about to do, and today was a big day for me! I had a job interview to go to and my head was filled with thoughts on how I would do, as I really wanted this job. Was I qualified enough? Probably not. Did I have the relevant experience? Unlikely, but the job advertisement had indicated that they would consider candidates without experience too. 

I reported to reception and rode up the elevator to the fifth floor offices. As I was sitting on the plush sofa  waiting my turn, I sipped a coffee and found myself humming the upbeat elevator tune whilst looking at the framed photographs on the walls. They depicted a series of beautifully taken yet sad and moving street scenes showing the poorer side of city life. One in particular stood out – it was an advertisement for the American Red Cross, with what must have been their slogan, “Our greatest enemy is indifference”, in big bold letters under the image.

I was still quite amazed but unbelievably proud that I had stuck it through. The last month had changed me, and I was relieved to be moving on to the next step of my plan. My family had kept their side of the bargain – they were helping me to establish a foundation and I was excited at the infinite possibilities! I thought briefly of the young lady I had encountered daily and how to a large extent her kindness, once the ice had been broken, had been such a massive encouragement to me. I could see the impact that both she, and I, and so many others like her, could have using our capacity to reach out in kindness and compassion to the people on the ground, the forgotten citizens of a nation desperate for healing. 

As I went out to collect the next interviewee I stopped, and leaned back against the door frame waiting for her to look up. Our eyes met, as they had for the first time three short weeks ago. Our faces broke into broad smiles of recognition, and I simply said “I’ll see you tomorrow – same place, same time?”

“Same place, same time” was written for the Woman & Home short story writing competition (with the theme of “The Spirit of Revival”).

How old is too old?

This weekend I’ve been painting chairs again, and somehow this activity seems to turn my mind to politics. Go figure?!? Firstly, I doubt any royal or powerful behinds will be sitting on my dining room chairs any time soon. Secondly, I do hope that this will be my last post touching on politics for a while. It’s all getting a bit long in the tooth, and I say roll on municipal elections. Roll on 3 August 2016. Roll on change.

Our president is 74 years old. Zimbabwe’s president is 92. Tunisia’s president is 89. “The average age of the ten oldest African leaders is 78.5, compared to 52 for the world’s ten most-developed economies. Arguably, compared to other continents, Africa has a very small proportion of younger leaders between 35 and 55. Paradoxically, the continent has the youngest population in the world, with a median age of 19.5 years according to the U.N.” (read David E Kiwuwa’s entire article on CNN’s website here)

Google tells me that the average age of an American president is 54 years and 11-months, and that the youngest president to assume American office was Teddy Roosevelt, at 42. Obama is now 54. Trump is 69 years old. Hilary is 68. 

I believe that the average age of retirement in South Africa is somewhere between 60 – 63, and apparently ‘older’ people (over fifties?) struggle to find new jobs. This may be hear-say, but a number of friends and acquaintances have said that they are worried about leaving a job they are not happy in, largely due to the fact that they fear they are unemployable based on their age. 

So how old is too old? “For what?” you should say.

I finished painting the chairs before I came to any conclusions, but I must admit that I’m a bit confused. Never mind any of the many other reasons why someone may not be fit for the chair at the head of the table. How come it’s okay for someone, way-way past retirement age, to ‘run’ a country, anywhere in the world? 

On the upside, these thoughts do give me hope that I can still achieve many things in the years to come. And yes, I’m excited at the prospects.

Just this week I interviewed a businessman who is retiring after 45 years in the work place. He said: “It’s time to move on and let the younger generation take over.  I’ve taught them all I know, add that to what they have learned along the way, and they are far more experienced and capable than I am.”

Roll on a new generation of leadership. Roll on change. 

half full. half empty.

Recently a few people have asked me if I earn any money from blogging. One of them was my dad, possibly concerned that his daughter’s distraction with this frivolous pursuit may mean a more regular guest at the dinner table? To my mom’s absolute horror I responded by sharing my plans to sell my house and move right back in with them to cut back on my living expenses …  This was of course more of a throwaway remark aimed at our economic climate, than an actual threat, but my mom’s reaction put paid to any thoughts I may subconsciously have been entertaining of recapturing my youth in my childhood home. Never mind. My cup is still full. 

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But back to blogging. No. No money for it. Yes, it does serve a purpose, beyond frivolous fun.

In 2013 I went on a writing retreat in Franschoek with the intention of finding my own writing voice. The theory being that if you constantly write for specific audiences or try to capture the tone or personality of the individual or brand you are writing for, it is entirely possible that you will forget what you sound like as yourself. So I went seeking. With a cup, that in my mind, was half empty.

I was surprised how resistant I was to writing ‘just’ as me, and how, easily distracted, I would fall back into a familiar tone or persona. Sounds a little unstable doesn’t it? However, looking back I think (read I know) I was just being lazy, and opting for an easy way out. If one really wants a result, one needs to keep knocking, and not softly-softly air-tapping at that door. After accepting that it wasn’t an easy win I managed to write a number of ‘my things’ – some published, many not. I even managed to (motivated by my good friend Cornè) write my first short story Same Place. Same Time. 

Sometimes I have a lot of things to say. Often I run out of ideas, am tired after a full day’s work, or am so over everyday material that I can’t think of an original thing to say. Then, just as Poppy and I are settling in for the night a random idea pops into my head, and I have to act fast, as it will be gone by daylight. 

This can result in a late night of sweating it out as I string words together, watched by my disgruntled cat. She will of course wake me up early in the morning, first softly-softly, then more bullishly. Subtle she’s not, but she’ll get a result as I will concede and traipse into the kitchen to inspect the contents of her food bowl. And like every morning it will be “Well look at that, it’s still half full, but here’s a little more.”

If I don’t exercise I can get quite crabby. It’s quite addictive when those endorphins link their little arms and steadily increase the pace of their can-can. The more I exercise the creative side that fuels and manages my voice, the more fun writing becomes. The more I practice, the easier it gets. It’s even become a way of reminding myself that my glass is full. How do you see yours?

halffull

 

This ship should be sailing

Many moons ago my family was amongst hundreds of foreigners who arrived on Durban’s shores on the Europa from Trieste. I’m told that during the three-week crossing I kept my mom in shape as I moved across the deck at lightning speed on all fours, inquisitive to discover what was behind the tarpaulin on the railing (most often than not a few-storey drop to the ocean).  I even narrowly escaped a dip in a Venetian canal when, on a rare occasion that this sweet little baby girl was confined to her pram, I was almost tipped overboard by my mom, who still to this day has terrible nightmares about that near miss. 

On this trip, my 21-month-older sister, as many toddlers at this age do, had a penchant for wielding scissors. Her attempt to improve her beautiful head of curly hair resulted in a salvage visit to the ship’s hairdresser. And after her entry-level course on coiffuring, she decided to administer a bit of the same to unsuspecting me. My mom walked in to discover me prepped and draped in my high chair, with my sister hovering above me, comb in one and tailor scissor in the other hand, about to create a masterpiece… or to snip off my little ear…

I’m sure that, as on most ships, the seafaring complement on board the Europa had our best interests at heart – to feed us, provide medical support if required, entertain us, guide us, advise us, create a safe environment onboard, as well as grant us safe passage across the ocean… I’m guessing too that our fares paid their wages. However, there is no doubt that their responsibility did not extend to saving paying passengers from life’s little mishaps, or preventing their potential personal disasters.

Our captain on board would have been responsible for the day-to-day affairs of the vessel, and keeping his crew accountable. He probably had a chief mate, as well as a second mate. One of the chief mate’s key responsibilities would have been the stability of the ship. The second mate’s primary duty would have been navigational.  Had a third mate been on board, the primary role for this position would have been one of safety. And a third mate would also have meant that our captain would not have needed to stand watch. 

I’m assuming that everyone understood and embraced their role on our ship, or covered their inadequacies well enough not to negatively influence the journey, direction or fate of our liner. This is not a given, as apparently the worlds’ oceans are littered with about three-million, I kid you not, sunken or wrecked ships. The most famous of these must be the sinking of the unsinkable RMS Titanic, made even more epic through the 1997 movie. In fact, maritime disasters have been the topic of many movies – in the 2002 Ghost Ship a salvage crew comes across a cruise liner that has been lost at sea for more than forty years, and of course, as it’s a horror movie, what follows is not pretty. 

Despite the plus three-million littering our oceans, statistically it is purported that traveling on water is a relatively safe mode of transport. It takes a lot to sink a ship. An iceberg. An apathetic captain. A tardy third mate sleeping on watch. A band of pirates. A second mate veering off course to buy a cheap private island on the Panama coastline. A visit to Agra in Uttar Pradesh to take in the iconic Taj Mahal monument one too many times. An ‘unexpected’ discovery of a few stowaways, a nasty cargo surprise or an encounter with unusual forces of nature. Poor maintenance, running out of steam, being marooned with no fresh water… Mutiny. 

This chaotic ship we’re currently on should be sailing. A good start would be a trustworthy captain, a reliable crew, a well-defined route and a constitutional course. The passengers can take care of life’s little challenges – we can learn to swim and hair will grow back… although ears not so much.

Every single one counts

My week in the UK has been great fun so far. Aside from the fact that a cappuccino is costing me a week’s grocery shop, and a meal out just about equals my mortgage for the month, I’m very grateful to be able to be here, and to be spending my time with a handful of people who are very special to me.

Right now the sun is shining and I’m also grateful not to be back home in the torrential rain so aptly setting the mood for the continued political knickers-in-a-knot saga of our beautiful nation.

This doesn’t mean that I’m not somewhat aware, or that I don’t care. Despite being the almost eternal optimist, every now and again I find myself dipping with the general national mood. Right now though I’m not quite sure if that mood should be outrage – we’re so good at that! Or relief – that a powerful dynasty invisibly governing our country has officially been outed? Or hope – that the ANC will finally be dishing out a good hiding?

It’s been obvious for quite some time that factions of today’s governing party have veered horribly off the 1955 Freedom Charter path. The noble path of equality and equal rights, respect, security, protection of human rights and dignity, access to education, culture and housing, and an undertaking to live in peace and friendship… Yes, I do know that it’s complicated, but still…

What I know too is that if I have a good moan and point fingers, it’s not going to make a difference. If I worry too much, I’ll just be the one loosing sleep I can’t afford. If I complain and chastise, it won’t fix a thing.

What consequences could admirable action by the ANC today result in? Will it strengthen the Rand? Will it feed the hungry? Will it build houses? Will it afford education? Will it still the hatred? Will it help the farmers? Will it create more jobs? Will it increase SAs ratings? Will it gain respect?

To be honest, I haven’t got a cooking clue, but here’s my plan. Today I will smile, and fill my head with all the things that are wonderful about South Africa. If anyone asks what I think, I will be open about my concerns, but I won’t verbalise just the bad stuff. 

I will tell people that South Africa is a beautiful country, full of many incredible people with open minds and with warm hearts, filled with love for their neighbours. As normal citizens in an abnormal nation, we often just do the best we can. And if we can, then we’ll also do the best for those who can’t. 

I will tell everyone who is willing to listen, that if they want to invest in something that may change the course of history in our land, that in addition to praying, they should please go vote. It’s the most powerful weapon a citizen has in a democracy… and every single one counts!

Cartoon by Nick Anderson, Houston Chronicle
Cartoon by Nick Anderson, Houston Chronicle

 

How to Insult Someone Who Writes for a Living

Those of you who know me well, know that I will eat just about anything. However,  I’m not a very big fan of preserved foods, in particular the tinned variety, although there are of course always a few tiny exceptions to that rule.

You may have heard of Spam, probably one of the most famous brands of preserved meats, and with thanks to Google, “Spam is a brand of canned pre-cooked meat products made by Hormel Foods Corporation. It was first introduced in 1937 and gained popularity worldwide after its use during World War II.”

I’m not sure how high pre-cooked meat products rank in terms of nutritional value today, however war-time food supply, or lack thereof, was no joke, and there is a time and a place for everything.

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source: recipespastandpresent.org.uk/wartime

 

 Today I’m using a little of my time and this place to air my bugbear about spam. Not the one that goes into your tummy, but the one that goes into your inbox, or the comment section of your blog… I know you know about it, and am sure it has been the source of your indigestion too. Even though spam filters are supposed to sieve out the unpalatable stuff, sometimes it still manages to squeeze its way through. 

Yesterday I had a spambot comment on my At least seven hours are necessary piece on the value of a one-on-one session with a midwife, within a group space. Really? I’m not sure of the correlation between seven hours of sleep and a visit to a midwife, apart from the fact that once that kid arrives, those seven hours are out the door… but thanks for the stealth visit.

Last week I was on the receiving end of a few Spambotian comments telling me that more people needed to be exposed to my website and blog, and if I included automated content creation in my diet, people would come swarming to see what I was serving up. Well, there’s Lesson 101 in How to Insult Someone Who Writes for a Living right there. Appreciate it, and thanks for taking the virtual time to break my heart!

For the record, I prefer to be on the receiving end of a well-prepared meal that’s been lovingly created, exquisitely flavoured, paired with a good wine, followed by a delicious dessert, maybe some sparkles to wash it down, and a good espresso to let it all settle.

I also prefer to be on the giving end of a well-thought out, comprehensive work of word craft and before starting the process, I like to know the dietary requirements, preferred ingredients, special flavouring and desired outcomes of my task. 

I don’t believe in a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, whereas in Spambotia there are a gazillion off-the-shelf flavours to choose from… If you happen to be a trader, please don’t come knocking at my door trying to sell your cheap-and-nasties. Right now, our tummies are full and there’s nobody home.

At least seven hours are necessary…

Last night on my flight to Frankfurt I watched only one movie, The Intern, before falling asleep. Usually I manage a few more, but in my defence, it’s been a hectic week…The Intern was a nice, feel-good movie and I particularly loved the meeting of old school (De Niro) and new school (Hathaway). Although this has nothing to do with the film’s plot, the fact that a woman who sleeps less than six hours a night will gain weight more easily than one who sleeps for seven hours, was mentioned twice. Strange, but noted – at least seven hours are necessary.

Isn’t it also strange, that despite being at our most vulnerable when we are asleep, it is something we so easily fall into while on an airplane? This in spite of being in such a visible space, amongst hundreds of strangers, who could all be watching you? 

Observe a baby sleep and it looks so sweet and angelic. Watch a young child slumbering and you see contentment and peace. A leading lady awakens from her rest, and she doesn’t open her eyes looking like she needs to run an iron over her face. And then there’s me… Waking up from my plane-sleep feeling like I’m emerging from a drug-induced coma, puffy eyes, dry mouth, and having to negotiate with my personality for a good half hour that now is not the time to disembark.

Can you imagine…hundreds of sleeping passengers, and then everyone wakes up? I guess last night on the flight from Johannesburg we were all in it together, and at least all the lights were out!  But right now I’m on a short haul flight to London, and despite it being an eight am flight, again I find myself surrounded by sleepers?! 

I of course am wide awake and cheerful, despite having pretty much walked from Africa this morning to catch this flight… Okay, so really it was only from Zone Z in Frankfurt Airport, to Zone B, but it sure felt like one great trek, plus a few security hurdles thrown in.

Clearly the people on this plane have not gotten their six or seven (depending on dietary goals) hours in, as wherever I look there are heads tilted back, mouths open; heads tilted forward, chin on chest; over there a head lolling to side lilt; and a chap up front doing the nod-nod-nod, loll-forward, whiplash-into-wake-up, and then look-surprised-to-be-here routine.

Obviously I also have two sleepers to my left, one of whom is snoring. To be honest, in the interest of observing the personal space rule, I’ve not yet established if Mr Window Seat or Miss Middle Seat is the culprit. They both have their heads thrown back, mouths open and are looking ever so peaceful, and ever so unaware. How is it possible that someone can look so peaceful, whilst making such a horrendous noise? 

The gent sitting diagonally across from me looks back in disgust… I offer a smile, trying to connect in an ‘how awkward for them’ moment, and am gifted with a stoney glare. Ah yes, it’s Mr Miserable. I recognise him now. That’s the raging bull in the bright orange jacket that nearly wiped out the unassuming little Japanese lady while charging the boarding queue… perhaps he should be the one taking a nap? The Japanese lady doesn’t seem to be harbouring any grudges, as she too has succumbed two rows up, and it’s painfully obvious that the guy to my far right is also fighting a losing battle. On this flight we have even been graced with a grumpy purser, who clearly didn’t get his quota in. Goodness. I would have assumed if anyone on board  should be gracious, it would’ve been him.

It suddenly dawns on me that it’s not entirely impossible that the attitude at altitude problem on LH900 may just be down to me, and that it’s highly probable that I find myself still shy of those seven required hours…

Yes, I think that may be a good idea. Would you please excuse me while I join the communal on-board pursuit and snatch a quick snooze too?

Let the magic begin…

Once you have introduced a respectful paraglider-pilot-and-paraglider-wing relationship to a column of rising air, you can sit back and watch the fairytale unfold.

You may already have met some of the characters I’ve hitched a ride up to cloud base with – but if not, I can assure you most of them are worth getting to know, and they are all very special in their own unique, weird and wonderful way.

You’ll definitely know the ‘staat-maaker’ or house thermal. She lives very close to launch and can usually be relied on without fail. She’s that friend you always go to in your time of need, but you are quick to question her fickleness if she dares to take a me-day, and you find yourself in the turkey patch.

The empty-promises thermal is the one that is just not worth sticking around for. He will give you a bit of hope…beep beep beep… then lets you down horribly with no warning whatsoever. You may go back for a little more once or twice if you are really desperate, but eventually you’ll tire of being led down the garden path, and go searching for lift elsewhere.

The one-man / one-woman thermal does not always have space for two. If you really make an effort to understand it, then perhaps its spiky, narrow, temperamental column of lift will reward you, but then again perhaps it won’t… Generally pilots do not like to share these thermals with other pilots as they require undivided attention, no distractions…unless a feathered friend is prepared to demonstrate exactly how this one is mastered.

Much like my favourite fiction hero, Jack Reacher, the drifter thermal is quiet, inconspicuous, and maintains a low profile until riled. You may chance across one of these when lining up for landing on a dirt road in the Karoo… It’s lazy, it’s low, it’s slow… yet somehow, before you know it, you will have drifted downwind for ten kilometres in its company, even climbing a little on the meander. But be aware…when this one hits a trigger it can metamorphose into a fighting machine, just like good ol’ Jack. One should never underestimate the drifter.

If I stumble into a lamaze thermal before finding my air-legs, my initial reaction is to retract deep into my pod, in the hope that it won’t see me and pass by… No no no, I’m not ready for you yet… However, this thermal means business and it’s better just to surrender and play ball, pull your shoulders back and stand tall. This one takes no prisoners and is offering you exactly what you want – a fast ride up to base. Just don’t fall out its side… I find the “I’m-about-to-have-a-baby” breathing works well as an aid to cope with your glider’s contractions, just don’t accidentally press your PTT while doing so – your mates will never let you forget that you did. I love these thermals, A LOT, for the rewards they deliver, but too many in one flight? Well, that would just be greedy…

The fire thermal (a distant cousin to the friendlier smokey tendril) has you looking up at your glider as often as is humanly possible while trying to avoid whiplash. Firstly, you’ll find yourself double-checking that you actually did get the right bag out the garage this morning, and didn’t accidentally pack the Boom 3 you bought, under the influence, at some fundraising auction years back. Secondly, you’ll need to keep making sure that your wing hasn’t spontaneously combusted and is still above you… or at least in the near vicinity. The fire thermal will see your glider behaving in an unusually boisterous manner, and is only to be used in desperate, indeed only in very desperate times. Or of course if you’re Superman.

The confetti thermal is an absolute dream. My encounters have been rare, but the few I have danced with have required my full and unconditional commitment. Once you’ve connected, you literally shoot up into the stratosphere leaving the other gliders wobbling clumsily in the air below, just like little pieces of confetti in the breeze. It’s all fireworks and symphonies and pure magic, and leaves you feeling amazingly accomplished!

The smooth operator is a massive sky-pond filled with luxurious and delicious lift. It squats above a few inversions and you need to work hard to earn passage there. Entrance is mostly granted through the fire -, confetti- or lamaze-breather thermal. Though the smooth operator is aloof it will welcome you and embrace you warmly. And once immersed you are transformed into a weightless, floating, levitating angel… a feeling totally juxtaposed by the hysterical, off-the-charts screams emitted by your vario.

It’s not always high drama up there though, and it wouldn’t be fair to forget the girl-next-door thermal. She’s more than likely every sane pilots’ favourite, however doesn’t always make a good post-war story, so misses out on the mentions. She’s reliable, she’s smooth, she’s kind, she’s generous and she’ll get you to cloud base without you breaking a sweat.

Sweating or not, topping out is the sweet-sweet reward of an encounter with whichever thermal you’ve hitched a ride up on. String enough heights together and you’ll eventually arrive back on terra firma sporting a big smile and with a good story to tell.

If you’ve just started dipping your toes into racking up the airmiles, and haven’t formed any decent one-on-one connections with rising air just yet, hang in there, these encounters are definitely worth the wait.

The shift from robust to respectful…

My first SIV was on my blue&white ProDesign Jazz. She was a cute little wing, and a lovely first glider. Hans and Ria from Wildsky were offering the safety course at the Midmar Dam and the time was right to test the boundaries of my wing, and perhaps more importantly my flying stomach. Everything was hunky dory – the manoeuvres went well, food was good, and I slept warmly and deeply. 

Apart from feeling like a super hero who had conquered some enemy I had not yet become aware of, a definite highlight of that weekend was my friend Charles, not nearly-drowning in knee-deep water. Charles had completed his manoeuvres and was heading back to shore quite low, and landed short i.e. in the water. This is generally not a desirable state of play, unless you have thrown your reserve and are left no choice. Hans in his red Baywatch speedo, and me just along for the ride, speedily boated across to Charles to rescue him. My poor friend was desperately splashing around yelling for us to hurry, and I was deeply concerned and ready to jump in and save the day, until, following Hans’ “Dude, why don’t you just stand up?”, Charles sheepishly stood up in water that was just above knee-height. Naturally I just had to laugh, until I cried.

The next course I attended was at Koppies Dam, under the tuition of Walter Neser. I was flying a yellow&white&orange Aerodyne Shaolin, and again, in terms of the hi-jinx in the air, the course was pretty uneventful and my glider behaved beautifully. A definite highlight of this weekend was doing an extreme acro tandem with Walter that literally, in between screams, took my breath away.

I like to describe the period that followed as my robust flying period. I felt bullet proof, and just wanted to get into the air as often as possible. I loved flying distance. I loved flying with my friends. I loved flying with raptors. I loved the fun, the joy, the laughter and the making of so many incredible memories. I loved the fact that one could embark on these amazing air-adventures, fuelled purely by nature and whatever it served up on the day.

Following a great Barberton season I upgraded to a sports glider, the Gradient Aspen 2, which to this day still remains my favourite glider ever. Okay, perhaps it’s on par with my AirDesign Pure… um, okay perhaps my current UP Summit XC3 takes the cake… Anyway, point is I’ve never been a particularly brand loyal pilot, but feeling as robust as I did at the time, upon my return from Valle de Bravo, I decided to upgrade again. It’s the only occasion I stayed on brand, with my wing of choice being the “Pinky” aka a Gradient Avax XC2, which quite a number of my friends were flying at the time. 

Obviously I had some sort of an SIV addiction thing going on, and so I signed up for a third course, eagerly arriving at Koppies with a glider that I had never flown before. I can hear the groans right now, as well as the face-palms…WHAT WAS SHE THINKING? In hindsight it was a pretty silly thing to do… and as a wise man Fourie G. once said… it’s best to accumulate about thirty hours on a wing before you start falling-out the sky on it, on purpose.

We did some theory and were briefed on the manoeuvres we were to execute during our first flights and while the eager first responders took to the skies, I sat visualising and doing a bit of sun-chair SIV. When it came to my turn I clipped in, forward launched, was towed up, released and did the milder manoeuvres, while getting to know the feel of the wing. That morning I also flew two tandem flights, and I remember how Walter and I had to both work really hard to get the glider to point of stall, and that a B-line stall was near impossible.

Then, my second flight on the Pinky was up and I was literally towed into the stratosphere. It can get quite thermic around the dam, but instead of heading out on an epic XC, I stayed put, and put the Pinky through its paces. Point of Stall. Point of Spin. Point of Stall. Point of Spin. Spin. Stall. Spin. Spin. Stall. Spin. ‘Okay Chrissi, lets do one more spin, you have a lot of height’ came Walter’s dulcet tones over the radio. Nooo, I can’t take it anymore…No No No… but, in a bid to get it over quickly, I initiated entry into the spin, somewhat more aggressively than would have been advisable. And so ‘it’ began. A cascade of events that I could perhaps have managed on a glider I was familiar with… but one that I lost total control of on the Pinky. (Mami, if you are still reading, please stop and step away from the screen…

Within what felt like seconds I found myself with a gazillion twists and locked in a spiral. Gravity had one massive hiking boot on my right hip, the other one firmly planted on my neck and under my chin, threatening to snap me in two. I was desperately reaching for my reserve handle with my right hand but somehow it had gone AWOL. I then heard Walter’s calm voice saying ‘Go for your reserve Chrissi. Throw your reserve. Reserve Chrissi. Reserve. Reserve. Reserve.’ No shit Sherlock!? 

Perhaps the scariest part of an already extremely scary event was the fact that for just a second I did in fact give up, thinking I would not be able to throw my reserve. And then out of the corner of my eye I saw the water rush… The brown, murky water I had not intended to dip into that weekend. The abhorrent thought of getting wet must have resulted in me clenching my core muscle and somehow the glider went into a reversal. While upside down, clasping at straws, I folded myself over the side of the harness, found the reserve handle, and threw. The reserve flew to the right, the glider came up and stabilised above me, and I hit the water…hard. 

My rescuers Joe and Wallis hauled me out of the water, still reeling from the multiple insults of the past forty (?) seconds, and into the boat. “Wat doen jy Chrissi?” they chided. My words failed me. They ferried me as close as possible to the others and I waddled to shore whiplashed and on legs that had gone into spasm. I remember being greeted by Russell Achterberg (whose wife and parents had just arrived to the spectacle), with a hug and a kiss on the forehead. Other than that I don’t remember much. I was totally spent, with no idea what to do with what I had just experienced.

My body was one big ache, and as this was before my discovery of The Transact Patch, I raided the existing supplies of anti-inflammatories and muscle relaxants of all those present. After I was fed and watered I lay awake in my tent, my mind furiously processing and trying to make decisions on my flying future, until eventually exhaustion set in and I was locked into a deep, deep sleep.

The next morning I woke up to a sunny day and perfect winching weather. I thought it would be a good idea to have company for my first flight, so Walter and I took off, with me as pilot in command. In the air I gave the toggles to him, asking him to do a bit of acro, so that I could replace the recent bitter taste of  g-force with a sweeter one. Ever happy to oblige Walter took us through the paces… rhythmic spiral, spirals, wing overs, a SAT… Finally I managed to squeak Nuf thanks from the rear… I was given back the toggles, we landed on big ears, I unclipped and dashed to the bushes where I promptly threw up… classy Chrissi, real classy…

And then I flew an uneventful solo flight on the Pinky. One of many more flights that followed in the years to come.

I’m not going to bore you with a detailed analysis of what exactly went wrong, how it could have been prevented or what you and I could learn from my mishaps – there are more than enough experts out there who will do this anyway, regardless ;-). 

Often it just comes down to common sense, and I’d like to leave you with just two little pearls of my wisdom.

Firstly, if your gut screams I don’t wanna do it!! Then don’t.

Secondly, this experience introduced a new companion to my flying. Her name is anxiety, and although most days I can manage her just fine, there is the odd occasion that her nagging voice grounds me. Although the incredible love of things flying-related still remains, that day I entered the next stage of my flying – one that I have christened, for now, my responsible and respectful flying period.

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The “Pinky”

 

Petite, pretty and powerful in Polokwane

Last Thursday evening I attended the closing ceremony of a two-year long construction skills development programme that formed part of a public private training partnership between Limpopo’s Department of Public Works, Roads and Infrastructure and construction group Stefanutti Stocks.

The skills development programme was developed to enhance the pool of construction skills within the province, specifically to improve the volumes and standards of industry professionals, skilled workers and medium-sized construction enterprises within the industry. 

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Tshimangi delivering her speech at  closing ceremony.

The ceremony was scheduled to begin at 18:00 and the provincial government guests and speakers, including key note speaker MEC Jeremiah Ndou,  were patiently waiting in the holding room from 17:30 onwards. Although the event did not kick off on time, my preconception that late starts of public events are always the fault of officials, was nicely dealt with, as the blame here could only be placed at the feet of the ordinary folk, who seemed to take their time milling in. 

Apart from that little insight, two things in particular struck a chord with me that night. Firstly, the real sense of a common purpose the partnership had created, and with that the clearly evident and genuine bonding that had taken place between everyone involved. Secondly, amidst about ten speeches, there was one particularly eloquent and powerful one, that I’m sure must have touched each and every guest there.

It was delivered by 26-year old Tshimangadzo Jubilation Kutama, one of 12 young engineers who had interned through the programme. This pretty, petite woman from Polokwane who is now a site engineer at Kusile has joined the growing base of women who are entering the construction environment. I’m coming across more and more ladies in the sector and I often jest with my mostly male clients in the industry, that soon they will be reporting to their lady bosses. Soon, I say. Soon…

Around the middle of last year I interviewed Tshimangi for an article for the Sizimisele and remember her telling me about her first visit to the Kusile Power Station. She shared her awe and excitement upon first seeing the massive concrete structures up close-and-personal. She also said that a year later, when Stefanutti Stocks offered her a permanent position she had experienced the same array of emotions in anticipation of the opportunity that now lay ahead.

But back to Thursday evening… It was wonderful to witness the fruits of something that has worked so well and that has met its original objectives. I’m surprised that there are not more programmes like this in the country but hopefully this will be the benchmark for future partnerships, as Public and Private really do not need to be enemies. 

In conclusion I’d like to précis some of Tshimangi’s words from the event. 

She started by expressing gratitude for “the opportunities to develop our skills and gain practical knowledge. During this journey we took nothing for granted, and to those who today find themselves where we were before our internships, I’d like to remind you that though you may still be students now, tomorrow you will become employees and even employers – so strive towards that goal!” 

She ended by thanking the partnership saying “On behalf of all the interns, thank you for partnering with one another. For us, it has been a great and amazing programme, even more so because our generation, the generation of today, needs this type of thing in order to build a better South Africa.”

Soon, I say. Soon.

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