Lost Computers And Conferences

My most recent travels were marked by a minor disaster. On the 15th July I headed for a Cape Town for a week for the Fifth International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment and Prevention. I was there for a week and then on Friday 24th I headed for Swaziland via Johannesburg.

I got to Cape Town airport early, checking in, went to the lounge and sat and wrote about the conference, what I had been doing, who I had met and what I had learnt. The writing flowed, which is something one should never take for granted. Once on the plane I sat and typed away. I was in a seat by the bulkhead and had nowhere to put my computer other than behind my knees, which would not have been approved of by the cabin crew if they had seen this. In Johannesburg I got my carry-on bag from the overhead luggage bin and walked off the plane. At the security screen for international departures I opened my bag to take my laptop out and put it through the machine. It was not there; as you can imagine there was a sense of absolute panic. My heart leapt and I actually shivered with concern, or something similar.

What can one do? I went back to the South African Airways lost property desk in the International Arrivals section. There I shamefully told them what had happened. They were extremely helpful, phoning through to the ramp agent and the cleaners. But it was gone! I left my number and a few prayers!

None-the-less I had to fly on to Swaziland where I spent the next two days. On the Sunday I returned to Durban via Johannesburg. Again I went to the Lost Property section to see if by any chance it had been found. The same lady kindly told me that in all likelihood it was gone forever. So the next step was to go to the police station at Oliver Tambo International Airport report it lost/stolen. Here was an interesting clash of technology: the police sergeant who took my statement wrote it out in laborious longhand but told me I would get the notification of the case number by SMS to my mobile phone. This happened within hours, and was followed up by a phone call and SMS from the detective in charge of the case! I wonder how one can combine technology with procedures to make life easier. Of course not having to take statements at all would be the ideal world.

It could have been worse. I had backed up everything two days before I left the UK so all I lost was the material in Cape Town, and I, in fact, did little additional work mainly downloading documents which should be accessible in other ways. It was an old computer that I had just purchased from HEARD for R500 as it was being written off so there was not a financial loss. Finally, and fortunately, I had a new work computer waiting, indeed it had been in Durban for four months, I had not picked it up because the old one was still working and I was rather fond of it. The really pain is the writing I did, four good hours of work gone. And I think it was good writing with lots of soul! But maybe that is just hindsite.

Travelling to Cape Town was long. With all the conference attendees the international flights were full so I had to go via Joburg. My brother is immigrating to South Africa and had given me a suitcase to carry as there are five of them and they will have a mountain of luggage. Although I took the train to London, there was no way I could travel across the city on the tube to get the Heathrow express with all the luggage. I needed a taxi.

I walked from the train to the rank at Liverpool Street Station with my carry-on bag precariously balanced on the handle of one of the large suitcases. It is possible to negotiate fares and with traffic it could have been very expensive to get across London to the airport. I asked the first driver on the rank if he was prepared to agree a fixed price from Liverpool Street to Heathrow.

“No way” he said, “It has to be on the meter, mate”.

I asked approximately what he thought it would cost and was told £70. Experience is that it can be cheaper. I asked the next cabbie if he would give me a price.

“Yeah,” he said, ” I’ll do it for £50 mate, hop in. “

In fact the journey took an hour and the amount on the meter was £74. I told the cabbie that I was quite happy to pay £55, as that is what I had budgeted for and felt was an appropriate fare. He would not accept it. What a nice man. Mind you by the end of the journey I knew quite a lot about him, his wife, children, dog, goldfish and where he was taking everyone for supper that evening.

On the whole the trip over was good as I was able to read all the papers, chapters, theses, inputs etc that I had in my folder and in addition to that watched the film “He’s just not that into you”. This is a fairly light, but nonetheless thought provoking insight to behaviors among men and women in the dating game and beyond. Apart from Jennifer Aniston and Ben Affleck it was really nice to see Kris Kristofferson on the screen. The other film I have seen recently was “Sunshine Cleaning”, the story of a single mother who takes on cleaning up after crime scenes and biohazards as a way of making a living. It was astutely observed and very funny. I believe it is by the same team as made “Little Miss Sunshine”.

Cape Town was beautiful especially since the weather was superb nearly every day. On the Friday we had the IAS Governing Council Meetings, a Finance Subcommittee and then the Executive Committee (for additional information see www.iasociety.org). (We had hoped that our web address could be http://www.ias.org but that had been taken the International Association of Sufism. There was a preconference meeting on “Accelerating the Impact of HIV Programming on Health Systems Strengthening” for Health Systems Experts, HIV Researchers and Implementers. This was on 17th and 18th July organized by Jac Jacqueline Bataringaya the IAS Senior Policy Advisor ably assisted by Jennifer Knoester . The opening evening consisted of a presentation by Debrawok Zwedie of the World Bank and a reception. This was notable because the wine ran out before I had had more than a couple of mouthfuls. We went to the bar and ordered a bottle of Beyerskloof Pinotage, an excellent wine, of which I am increasingly fond (although not to excess).

On the Friday I moderated the first session of the meeting for two hours in a draconian protestant manner! I dashed to the IAS Governing Council meeting to give my treasurer’s report, caught a taxi to the Radisson Hotel to give a presentation for Tibotec to a group of German doctors, arriving with 30 seconds to spare, and dashed back to the Health Systems meeting to give my keynote address. This was the last presentation of the evening and turned out to be challenging as the technology failed. I had to begin without a PowerPoint and then discovered I was talking to old slide set. It was a lesson about the need to check and then recheck.

On the Sunday I went to visit my uncle and aunt and leave the suitcase for my brother to pick-up in due course. I went to lunch in Hout Bay, and confirmed that Atlantic ocean is freezing, a little wave broke behind my back and drenched my shoes! In the evening we watched the opening ceremony and had a late dinner.

The Monday was hectic because I had IAS things to do and then in the evening was a panelist for Merck. This was great fun. We sat on a couch in a full room and answered questions! It was good to meet up with old friends. It was followed by a dinner. I did not get to bed until after 12.00, having excused myself before everybody else had finished eating because there was so much to do.

On the Tuesday things began easing down a bit although I was on a panel in the evening presenting the outcomes of our pre-conference meeting. This session was chaired by Debrawok and was rather poorly attended. As she pointed out this was due to the fact that the events we were competing with were offering wine and snacks where we just had intellectual input.

As I got up to speak I said “This is not surprising but as you all know the only way to get a drink out of an economist is to stick your finger down this throat”.

An adaption of a rather good line from The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy.

After this we all went to an excellent Ethiopian restaurant called ‘Addis in the Cape’ where we were joined by Debra’s husband and her daughter, who has just completed Medical School. Again it was a very late night, in fact I think I crawled into bed at 2 am and had to be up at 7am to be at the conference by 7.30.

Wednesday saw the end of the conference with an excellent closing session, thoroughly enjoyed by all. I sat through the track summaries, a really good way of hearing about everything that I had missed. Thursday was a series of post-conference meetings and generally having a chance to relax and on Friday I headed for Durban and as I said as I began this letter, lost my computer.

The Waterford Governing council meeting (www.waterford.sz) on Saturday was smooth sailing, always a relief. The school is in a strong position, numbers are high and funding is flowing. It was extremely cold in Mbabane and I watched the Boks beat New Zealand in the tri-nations game, sitting in my hotel room, heater on and wrapped in a blanket.

It also seems as though the pace of death has slowed down a little, the grave yard at the foot of the Waterford hill had no services going on when I drove up, in the past there have been three or four groups of mourners huddled round the open scars of graves. But the graveyard now has a name, “The Mbabane Resting Place’.


The Comfort of Men by Dennis Altman (William Heinemann Australia (1993) 247 pages).

Dennis is one of the IAS Governing Council members and a pioneers in HIV. He’s at Latrobe University in the Australia and is a noted political scientist. When I sent out an e-mail some time ago talking about the fact I was going to write a novel, Dennis responded very kindly and said he thought it was a great idea and he had written one. He then brought it to the conference. It is a thought provoking, interesting and well-written novel, which talks about what it is like to be gay in Australia in the 60’s, 70’s, and 80’s. It begins with the independence of Tasmania from the Commonwealth of Australia and the story is built around two ‘comings out’., that of the main character and also of Tasmanian and Australian nationhood.

The Northern Clemency Phillip Hensher (HarperPerennial (2009) 736 pages).

Based in Sheffield in England it is a good family saga, which I thoroughly enjoyed and would strongly recommend. Ironically it turns out that Phillip Henshaw is also gay, he appeared on the The Sunday Independent pink list as one of the more influential gay people in the UK. From Amazon: ‘A tremendous book. Against an unfashionable 1970s background Philip Hensher has composed not so much a condition-of-England as a condition-of-humanity novel, which is gripping and surprising and shocking in all kinds of unpredictable ways, and enormously wide in psychological and moral scope. What a writer he is!’ Philip Pullman ‘Wise and strong and unputdownable.’ A.S. Byatt, Financial Times (Book of the Year)