My Australian Experience: October 2010

I have been invited to speak at the Australasian AIDS conference on a number of occasions. This year, the invitation came early, there were no clashes in my diary, and I was able to plan a trip. As a way of reflecting on and sharing the experience, I have written this ‘blog’, the formal trip report is extremely tedious. I’ve tried to capture some of the highlights. This posting cannot hope to capture all that went on, but let me give it a try. There are three broad themes: people, places, and miscellaneous snippets.

Australia is a long way from anywhere. I decided if I were going such a great distance, then I’d at least plan a week in Melbourne so that I could take in more than just the conference venue in Sydney. The jet lag was appalling (both ways). I did the right thing by spending the Monday after I arrived just walking around the city: across the Darling Harbour Bridge; to the Sydney Opera House; through the magnificent Botanic Gardens to Kings Cross (the red light area according the novels I have read, in particular those of Jon Cleary who died in July this year; and back to the hotel. I could feel blisters starting to develop, so I took the monorail for the last couple of kilometres: bitter experience is this is not a good way to start a trip. People are right when they say that Sydney is beautiful. This was definitely one of the times when I regretted not carrying a camera! It is a spectacular, clean, liveable city. Interestingly, the tap water in both cities was incredibly tasty and lacked the chlorine that we get in most of Africa.

I packed as though I was going to a Durban climate, so found myself unprepared for the cool weather. In Melbourne, it was downright chilly in the evening! The lightweight African shirt had only one outing, as I was determined to wear it for my keynote speech. I was generally surprised by the number of men wearing ties and suits, even at the conference. There seems to be an innate conservatism in Australian businessmen and professionals, although my evidence is not up to ‘Randomised Control Trial’ standard.

Everyone living in Australia will inevitably face the distance issue. This challenge is related to not only the physical demands of getting anywhere, but also to the major time difference for overseas family and colleagues. People in Europe, South Africa and the USA are asleep when you want to talk to them! When I was contemplating a position in Melbourne, one of the people on the interview panel gave me some sound advice: “If you come here, you need to commit to Australia.” I also heard the professional scene described not as ‘big fish in a small pond’ but as ‘minnows in a tear’-a delightful metaphor. One Australianism which amused me was ‘fair suck of the saveloy.’ Saveloy is a type of sausage and the phrase itself meaning equity or possibly redistribution.

I stayed in three hotels and no less than five rooms over the two weeks. The conference hotel in Sydney was at Darling Harbour, a touristy part of the city with restaurants and gift shops. Think Victoria and Albert Waterfront in Cape Town and you will have the picture. I ate there a number of times and the meals varied from outstanding to quite ghastly. The hotel was a reasonable Novotel, but, and this was my experience across the country, the window did not open. What is it with modern hotels and their objection to fresh air?

In Melbourne I stayed in the north of the city and opposite the Royal Melbourne Children’s hospital, just up the road from the Women’s and General Hospitals. This was a really bad hotel. The design was Soviet-a soul-less block of a building with purple patterned carpet. I stayed in three rooms during my six nights there. The first had a faint odour of talcum powder and faeces, but the window opened a bit so I thought it would be ok. The next morning I had to tell the staff that it was too noisy. It overlooked a major road which had a tram track down the middle! The combination of the rattle of trams, numerous ambulances (hardly surprising given the location), and boy racers in souped up cars and motorbikes made it impossible to sleep. They moved me to a room facing the inside of the gulag. I gave up my bath in exchange for a shower that produced a trickle of water, which changed temperature whenever anyone flushed a toilet in the building – or perhaps even in the neighbourhood.

The talcum powder smell persisted and indeed seemed to permeate the pillows. I understood the reason for this on the Monday when, I saw for the first time, the coach. This hotel was the destination for coach tours for elderly people, and of course women predominate in the cohort. They tottered along the corridors and down the stairs in clouds of powder. Each day a different group, but the same odours, halos of permed hair, and frailty.

I was ok with the hotel, it was convenient for most of the meetings I was attending and just ten minutes away from a nice little gym in a vibrant neighbourhood. I managed to train a good few times, and really enjoyed the jog to the gym. The houses were typical for Melbourne, row or terraced houses with wonderful wrought iron on the porches; very similar to parts of Pietermaritzburg, which makes sense since it was the same era. What is different though, from the colonial periods, is the scale. Durban is just one city; Melbourne and Sydney were many municipalities, each with its own town hall, post office and centre. There is far more variety.

It was great to know so many people in another otherwise foreign city. On the Saturday evening Kate Taylor and her fiancé, Rod, took me out for a Thai dinner and then to a jazz club. Sadly we ended before the music did. They also invited me to dinner in their house (with her mother and father), so I got to see the inside of a typical central Melbourne house. It does smack of South African colonial architecture. The space (and probably building material) allowed them to build single story brick terraced homes, but the need to get to work restricted the sprawl and meant that the old suburbs radiate out along the tram tracks. The new suburbs are typical of any city in the (warm) western world, they sprawl for kilometres along the freeways and lack charm, although the good rains made it verdantly green.

On my last day I got back to the hotel to discover they had, unilaterally, without telling me, changed my room. I was furious because I had unpacked everything, and my sweaty gym kit had been festering on the floor for the previous two days. This had been put, with all my clean clothes, into my case, which was then zipped shut and left in the room. Of course, it meant everything smelt faintly of ammonia. Fortunately the hotel had a do-it-yourself washing machine. The receptionist on duty did not like confrontation so we had to escalate up to the duty manager. I pointed out that they had seen me every day and that I was willing to move, but would have wanted to pack my suitcase myself. The proposed new room was facing the road and the trams, so we negotiated yet another one, even smaller, and still no bath, but the shower actually worked really well! In the end they did not charge for one night’s accommodation, which is why I have not named them (but if you read this you know who you are).

I went to Sydney on Friday to avoid a really early start on Saturday. This stay was in an ‘apartment’ hotel, which meant no food. They sold ‘breakfast packs,’ two chocolate biscuits, cartons of long life milk, cereal, and fruit salad. However to get a bite to eat I had to walk up to a little row of shops. The area was Bantry Bay municipality and it was clearly a working class area. There were food outlets: pizza, Chinese and Thai take-aways and kebab shops.

The worst meal I had was so-called Lebanese, but it owed more to grease than any other national cuisine. This was when Zahed and Shamim Cachalia, who had been a year below me at Waterford School in Swaziland and I arranged to meet for a drink and then decided on the spur of the moment to get supper. Zahed works for ABC TV, for which I had a four minute and thirty two second spot (on ABC news 24). Looking at it again I find myself asking am I really that fat? But the powder really made me look good; yes powder has its place! I also did a radio show with other guests for Late Night Live with an amazing presenter called Phillip Adams-he really had done his homework and asked a series of very sensible questions. I also mentioned I like the sea and surfing and had to clarify in the discussion that I did not mean ‘standing-up-on-a-board’ surfing but ‘lying-on-a-body-board’ surfing.

A week later in Melbourne, I encountered another old friend, Alan Herman, from Swaziland days. He was a paramedic for many years, and now runs his own business and is a pastor. It was really good (and astonishing) to catch up with people I said goodbye to 35 years ago. Would I have recognised them? Probably, and we certainly did not run short of conversation.

It was clear that Waterford was a defining moment in our lives. I was sent there because it was our local school. The Herman family fled Cape Town and washed up in Mbabane where the dad was taken on to teach music, while the mum worked as a cook at the school. They were political exiles without papers. Shamim had been sent to Waterford by her Moslem parents as one of the very few girls to be admitted. She was hundreds of miles from home.

There are so many stories that need to be told about the circumstances under which students attended at Waterford. I was not really aware of the backgrounds of many of the kids and their parents. Mind you it emerged as we talked this lack of awareness was not unique to me. With few exceptions, most of us were insulated and isolated as students. All of it rings as drastically different from today’s world of instant communications.

Overall, the travel was quite exhausting, but I was in business class – using airmiles! I would hate to have to do it in economy. I voyeuristically walked to the back of the plane and there were quite a few empty seats. It would really annoy me if I had paid for a premium economy seat and then discovered that in the back I could lie across three seats. On the flight back to Johannesburg there was a fair amount of turbulence on the way out of Sydney and the purser made a unique announcement:
“Would all passengers please make sure their seatbelts are on, and their children are safely stowed”… [a pause and an embarrassed giggle], “I mean secured.”

The trip was, from my point of view, very successful. I gave five talks and took part in a number of other events, including a really fun debate at the main conference. The debate centered on whether testing and treating was a viable option for ‘our region’. I went first for our team, which meant defining some of the positions. I think we won with a convincing swing because we had actually talked it through and prepared our presentations. I visited four universities in the two cities and walked mile and miles.

Would I, could I live in Australia? It is a hugely attractive country and it works. The informality grates a bit. I was surprised to have the hotel receptionist to glance at my booking and say: “Hello Alan, how are you doing?” I will be thinking about it for some time to come. The next posting will try to capture some more of my processed thought about the country. Because I was spending so much time travelling I have quite a number of books and films to review as I have done below.

Films 

Greenburg.
I decided to watch this on the way to Sydney because I rather like Ben Stiller. It is the story of a carpenter who moves into his brother’s home on the west coast of the USA to look after the house while the family are on holiday. I think it is set in Los Angeles. Stiller’s character has had a mental breakdown and this story is about him falling in love. I watched it most of the way through and was not impressed. So as with books, I skipped to the end and still did not find it appealing.

Kick-ass.

I chose this film because it had Nicholas Cage as one of the leads. It is the story of a teenager who decides to become a super hero but with no special powers. It was a great action comedy and I really enjoyed it. Good escapism.

Books

Sue Monk Kidd, The Secret Life of Bees, Penguin, 2002, Harmondsworth, 302 pages. 

The story is set in a Southern state in 1964 at the time of the beginning of the civil rights movement. It tells of a young girl who runs away from her father with her African American nanny. They find the women who took in her mother a generation previously. The household comprises August the matriarch, and her sisters, June and May. May is somewhat disturbed, and commits suicide in the course of the story. The title of the book is based on the women’s jobs as bee keepers and honey makers. The theme of bees and how they operate carries throughout. It is a wonderfully observed book about powerful women and is well worth reading. I was quite surprised to discover that the book was first published in 2002, as it only really hit airport bookshops recently, and I became aware of it. I bought it from a second-hand bookshop.

Dave Warner, Exxxpresso, Picador, 2000, Sydney 376 pages. 

In the same a second-hand bookshop I asked for any good Australian crime writing and this was recommended to me by the owner. It is the story of a man who is released from prison and decides to go in to the cafe business, making and selling coffee. The storyline is extremely complicated but it is a rollicking good book. It is set in western Australia between Perth and Kalgoorie; the characters spend a considerable amount of time driving the highway between the two cities. A good read and I shall look for other books by the same author.

T. C. Boyle, The Women, Penguin, New York, 2009, 451 pages. 

Frank Lloyd Wright is one of the best architects of the 20th century. Many years ago I was brought to look at some of the buildings he designed in Chicago and was very taken with them. Of course, as with many people of his time, he designed more than buildings. This is a work of fiction but is based on facts surrounding the three main women who shared his life and were his muses. He seems to have lived a completely chaotic life with rocky finances and a series of lovers, one of whom was quite clearly deranged. The book purports to be written by one of his Japanese pupils/apprentices who observes the scene. The only minor failing of the novel is that it does not take us into Lloyd Wright’s head as well as it portrays the women’s perceptions. It is quite hard to read, but well worth persisting.

Gill Schierhout, The Shape of Him, Vintage Books, London, 2009, 210 pages.
As is often the case with reading a book written by someone you know, it was a pleasure to read Gill’s work. It was not however what I expected. The story is of a middle-aged woman, Sarah, who is making a living in South Africa by managing a boarding house. She spends most of her time reflecting on the past including her love affair with a diamond digger. He has what seems like Huntington’s disease, a progressive genetic neurological disorder, and is hospitalised during the book. It seems as though he has a daughter and that this child is sent to Sarah who proceeds to look after her. A twist in the tale is when Sarah has an affair with an Indian textile factory manager called Hafferjee. The book is set in Cape Town, some of the small mining towns of the Transvaal, and the diamond diggings. It is beautifully observed both from the point of view of scenery and characters, and was quite thought provoking.

Imran Coovadia, High Low In-between, Umuzi, Roggebaai, 2009, 268 pages. 

There are a small number of Durban novels that I consider to be excellent for capturing the nuances of the city. There are others which don’t – I found it impossible to read Sally Anne Clarkes ‘Small Moving Parts’ even though it is set in Umbilo, a neighbourhood I know well. I have really enjoyed Barbara Trapido’s books – Frankie and Stankie and Sex and Stravinsky. Coovadia tells the story from the point of view of an Indian photographer who has lived outside the country for many years. He returns for his father’s funeral. It is initially believed that his father committed suicide but transpires that he was murdered by a colleague. Set against the Indian background and in the medical school and hospital of Durban, this is partly based on the real events of kidneys being sold and transplanted in the city (from poor Brazilians to rich Israelis). It is gripping. Most characters are believable and his writing about AIDS and race relations in South Africa is accurate and perceptive. I savoured the last few chapters, and did not want it to end.

Dan Ariely, Predictably Irrational, Harper Perennial, New York, 2010, 349 pages. 

This book is of a similar genre to those of Malcolm Gladwell and Nicolas Taleb. It is thought provoking but easily readable. The author has two Ph.Ds-one in cognitive psychology and the other in business administration. In this book he looks at how and why we make decisions which so often seem irrational. Examples of chapters include: ‘The cost of social norms: why we are happy to do things but not when we are paid to do them’; ‘The cycle of distrust: why we don’t believe what marketers tell us’, and ‘The effect of expectations: why the mind gets what it expects’. It is worth reading, probably best with a pen in one’s hand to pick up the key points.