Pirates and Snow

I was invited to give a plenary presentation at the Caribbean AIDS conference in Nassau in the Bahamas in November 2011. I had never been there, reason enough. An additional incentive was that Roger MacLean, of the University of the West Indies, who invited me, is someone we have worked with in the past and he is a really solid academic. It was too good a chance to pass up. Of course it fitted in very well with other travel plans – invitations to New York and Boston and a meeting HEARD was hosting in Washington. I had a week between meetings and was wondering what to do with the time, as I did not want to travel back to either the UK or Durban. It takes about six days for me to get over the jet lag, and then it would be time to set off again.

So this is the story of the trip, not all of it, just selected bits. On a sunny Wednesday, 16th November, I left the office at 12, and went home, got changed, and went to the gym for the pre-travel workout. I was picked up by the transfer company, Budget, and taken to our wonderful new airport in Durban. The city was gearing up for the COP17 meeting which will be the largest ever meeting. Budget has a small number of drivers in Durban, and I have got to know them over the years. There is one who knows far too much about the working of the University of KwaZulu-Natal: he asks questions and seems to store the information and then shares his views. One was a policeman, and quite a senior one. One uses too much accelerator and brake and I don’t like the way he drives.

It was fun being in Joburg. I met my brother Derek in the international terminal. He was on his way to Paris. I got through passport control and he was waiting by the lounge on the upper level. It was, I imagine, similar to meeting someone at the entrance to heaven. Clean, lots of different people of all races and ages, the people working there want to move you on, and a sense of transition. Even the arrivals and departures notice boards lend themselves to the sense of an ‘other worldly’ experience. We did not have very long but it was good to catch-up.

I hopped on the plane to New York (South African Airways, 16 hours non-stop). I sat next to a Texan who owns an upmarket holiday lodge on the Wild Coast. In brief he made his money through managing health, part owns a hospital in the city he lives in, hunts, and in South Africa owns both land and game from buffalo to rhino through to giraffe and impala. He was actually very interesting and I learnt a lot, especially about what our wildlife are worth in dollars and cents.

From New York I flew to Nassau for the conference. This was great fun, except for the traffic, even on an island. The meeting was at the Atlantis Hotel and resort on Paradise Island – which is joined to the main island by a large bridge. The hotel is owned, and was built, I think by South African Sol Kerzner of Sun City fame. It really was the ultimate holiday destination, staffed by hordes of Bahamians all wearing pink jackets, in keeping with the colour of the hotel. The way Bahamian is pronounced is similar to Bohemian which I found rather touching.

When I arrived I had a room with a view, across the parking lot! I went down to the front desk and explained, nicely, that as I was there for five days I would rather look at the sea. They changed it, which was good, and I got to look over the beach. I have posted these pictures here. The hotel complex is a major employer and is an example par excellence of the service industry at work.

I gave my plenary presentation and then volunteered to join another panel. One of my colleagues was not able to make it, and since I was ‘on their buck’, was quite happy to do this. There were four staff from the International AIDS Society at the meeting and my only ‘off the island’ experience was going to a restaurant with two of them. This place is totally dependent on tourism and I had never seen such a single sector economy. The constant service mentally must jar on the locals and yet they have to go on smiling! One thing I had not experienced in years was walking through the casino and discovering that smoking is still allowed. It must be the last place in the western hemisphere.

From Nassau I flew to Toronto and then on to Edmonton. The connection on to Edmonton was quite tough – it is a 4+ hour flight and I was in the middle seat in Economy. Still there was an interesting Canadian pre-med student sitting next to me and so we had a good conversation for part of the flight. It is scary how driven the medical students are in the North American system. The trip from Nassau to Edmonton took longer than the flight across the Atlantic and the train journey into London and up to Norwich at the end of my trip in December.

My host in Edmonton was David Zakus who is a professor and the Director of Global Health in the Division of Community and Occupational Medicine Engagement of the Department of Medicine at the University of Alberta. I gave a total of four presentations for them – two public lectures and two to classes and was part of a panel following the screening of a film on drug use in downtown Vancouver. It was a pretty intense experience. I have little sense of Edmonton, it was cold and I did not have the right clothing, I ended up in the Army and Navy store opposite the hotel buying a hat and gloves. Cheap but effective and very necessary.

On the Saturday I flew from Edmonton to Calgary and then on to New York, a flight that took well over four hours. The cab driver who drove me from Newark into the city was a white American who said he had been driving for over 30 years. He was out spoken, racist, sexist, and extremely talkative. However he correctly identified me as having a South African accent and described how he had been the stay at home father for his four children, all of whom are now grown up or in their late teens. I wonder how much his attitude was put on – the worst passengers according to him are the French, British and Germans in that order. It was an interesting journey. I spent two nights in New York to attend the first day of the Global Fund Observer meeting. I have been invited to join the Board of Aidspan the body that publishers the GFO.

From there I took the train to Washington. The journey normally takes two hours and 40 minutes. It is a much better way to travel than going out to the airport, dealing with security, and having to get taxicabs in at the other end. My laptop has stopped holding a charge, and this meant that I could not work on it although I did read. In Washington we were at the Topaz hotel, which is well worth a look, it is a Moroccan themed hotel. The rooms were excellent and the food most interesting. The major advantage was that we were right next to the World Bank building where the meeting was being held. I even got to Second Story Book, my favourite shop in DC.

I then hopped on a plane from National airport to Boston where the Harvard AIDS at 30 meeting was being hosted. Two days of high-level discussions see www.hsph.harvard.edu/aidsat30symposium.

From there I flew back to London on a Virgin Atlantic flight, where the in-flight entertainment did not work for over an hour. I said to the cabin controller, “I want to put my cards on the table”, laying out my Gold Card from South African Airways and my Platinum elite card from KLM.I continued, “as you can see I am a regular traveler and my experience with Virgin is your entertainment system doesn’t work!”

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Contagion – This is a recently-released film, which I saw on the flight to London when the entertainment system started working, about a disease outbreak, directed by Steven Soderbergh. It is worth watching; the story is plausible and is what we might have faced if SARS had not been contained. The way the virus is transmitted – bat, pig then human was well described. My major criticism is that there were too many plotlines and as a result it got a bit confused. It would have been better to focus on just one or two. There is absolutely no love interest or romance in this at all which is probably appropriate.