New Beginnings

The past month has been hectic but rather fun. I left Durban, as promised, on  19 December 2013. That was sad. The last days involved clearing out my office, deciding what needed to be shipped to Canada, stored in the flat, put in the suitcase, or given away. I know that to some extent, I keep my life in boxes. The University of KwaZulu-Natal box is now closed, and, hopefully, the important residual parts are in transit. There is a lot to reflect on, of course. How could there not be after 30 years?

I am extremely lucky to have had the opportunities I did, to connect with people, to build an organisation and support my team’s contribution to knowledge and science which, hopefully, makes a positive difference. I am proud of my own substantial publishing record.

With Jeremy Grest, Durban December 2014 before a game of squash

With Jeremy Grest, in Durban December 2014 before a game of squash

I had a few days off in Amsterdam, and met up with  Douglas (my 19 year old, taller, hairier and more charming son).  The plan was to meet in Schiphol Airport. I arrived from Johannesburg on the KLM flight about 90 minutes before his flight from Norwich was due. This gave me ample time to shower and have several cups of strong coffee. I was waiting at the gate when he arrived. All went well. It was a relief to see him walk up the stairs though.

We booked two rooms at the Hotel Wiechmann not too far from the centre of the city. (The website is well worth a look ). It is on Prinsengracht, adjacent to a canal (of course). I had actually stayed in this hotel five years earlier with three school friends. It is charming, but the stairs – and we were on the third floor – are unbelievably steep. Given the nature of my departure from Durban, I had a lot of heavy luggage so Douglas earned his keep from the beginning. It is a family hotel and five years ago they had a  rather large and friendly Alsatian dog in reception. He is still there, hanging about, just a great deal older and stiffer.

We spent three nights there. It was great. There is an Iamsterdam card which one can get for various periods. We got 48 hour cards which gave us free public transport, access to most museums and a canal tour. In total we were in the city for 3.5 days and while we did not do everything possible we covered a lot of ground. The highlight for me was the Rijksmuseum and in particular the Rembrandt van Rijn painting the ‘Nightwatch’.  I could have stood and looked at it for hours. The Van Gough Museum was superb and here the modern building provided a perfect setting for this breathtaking exhibition. According to the literature, Van Gough did not think of himself as a painter but set out to become one through hard work and practice.

The trip was not just cultural though. A fair bit of time was spent in cafes and restaurants. It was late December after all, cold and wet. Looking back the canal tour was a mistake. There was light rain which meant the view was hazy from the outside. Then to compound it, the breath and heat from the assembled tourists meant the windows misted up. The final straw for me was the howling infants, four of them, all in different parts of the boat. Quadraphonic screaming and a recording telling us what we were not able to see. However, mostly it was a great deal of fun. The best part of the trip was spending time with Douglas.

Christmas and New Year were spent in Norwich with the family. This was really fun as we played board games and cards, something we have not done for ages. Scrabble is surprisingly uncomplicated to play but hard to win. After Christmas was the farewell tour in the UK. Ailsa and I drove down to Brighton, spent the night there then went to Arundel where my half-sister Pat and her husband David live, they are both over 80 now. The following week we drove up to Yorkshire. The main reason was so I could brief the incoming Director of HEARD Professor Nana Poku who lives in Bradford. We met at a hotel and spend four hours talking through the organisation, staff, finances and context. Since I need to get a car in Canada, it was interesting to drive recent model hire cars.  One, was a Ford Fiesta and the second a Fiat 500L five door hatchback, like a mini on steroids. I have to say the Fiat gets my vote.

I have finally arrived in Waterloo. My trip out began in Washington with two days of really successful meetings with the World Bank and UNAIDS. The title of the event was `Action on Social Drivers to End AIDS and Extreme Poverty: A high level meeting to advance a common agenda on HIV/AIDS and the global health and development agendas`. It was good to meet so many colleagues and old friends. The senior people were Michel Sidibé the head of UNAIDS, the administrator of UNDP – Helen Clark, the former Prime Minister of New Zealand and Jim Kim, President of the World Bank. I even found time to go  buy a mega warm coat – only $99 at a discount store: more on this later.

The plan was to travel to Waterloo on Saturday. However, warm weather hit Toronto and the result was thick fog at the airport. I was supposed to be on a plane that left at 11 am, but finally took off at 4pm which meant we were very late getting in. I had pre-booked a transfer. The taxi driver had difficulty finding the house, but it all worked out in the end. However, I am not certain who was more unimpressed with whom. When I left Norwich a few days before, I went to the airport kiosk and got foreign exchange. I asked for United States and Canadian dollars. I simply put everything in my wallet and, of course, used the US Dollars in Washington. Back in Waterloo I handed the taxi driver the carefully counted out $100 and said, “Keep the change”.

He handed the money back to me unimpressed. I had given him Australian dollars. When I looked at the forex slip it stated that they had given me Canadian money, so their till was over on Canadian and under on Australian! I hope the women did not get into too much trouble. I bought two books at the airport and managed to read one between the time I bought it and getting to Toronto. It was very interesting and is reviewed below.

I have now been in Canada for nearly a week. I have a rented house which is about five minutes walk from the office. Ice on the pavement (sidewalk) makes it all a bit tricky but I am managing – the key is to take small steps, I think. A week after I arrived I had to dig the hire car out of the snow which took quite some time, and was a new experience. I will be going through the bureaucracy of getting settled here and that will probably be the subject of the next posting. I will also decide which of my three new emails I will use and let everyone know that as well.

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Charles Duhigg The Power of Habit, Random House, 2012, 383 pages: The subtitle is ‘Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business’. The hypothesis  is that much of what we do is habit. I, for example, wake up early and go to work. This is a three stage loop; a cue that tells our brains what habit we should use –using the above example waking up is the cue; a routine, get dressed and go to work; and the reward which is getting a lot done at the time when I am at my best. As this becomes more and more automatic and ingrained then it becomes a habit. There are of course good and bad habits and interestingly we can change these. Duhigg has the concept of keystone habits which are crucial to identifying priorities that can change the way we do things. It is an excellent book and I will certainly be using some of the concepts. It also speaks directly to Religion for Atheists by Alain du Botton which I read and mentioned in this blog some time ago. Du Botton identifies the importance of repetition which is one of the cornerstones of religion – a habit.


Mandela: A Long Walk to Freedom: This film was released at the same time as Nelson Mandela died and so, watching it after leaving Durban, so soon after experiencing the national response to his death, was intensely emotional. I purposely did not watch it in South Africa but went with family in the UK. The producer is Durbanite, Anant Singh. It is the story of Mandela’s life from childhood in the Transkei to his inauguration as the first democratically elected president of South Africa in 1994. It was really good and two observations come to mind. Firstly there were things going on that those of us living in South Africa were not really aware of due to restrictions on access to information. The negotiations that took place in the late 1980s were kept very quiet, we were only vaguely aware of the Peter Gabriel ‘Free Nelson Mandela’ concert at the Wembley Arena. Secondly, it was an opportunity to relive the years from 1970 when, I became aware of the appalling nature of apartheid, to 1994. British actor, Idris Elba did an excellent job of portraying Mandela. South Africa and the world were incredibly fortunate to have a leader like Mandela. His gifts were leading us to democracy and handing over power so gracefully. Living up to his legacy will be tough for others to follow. Having watched this in Norwich, I watched somewhat less emotional films on the flight to Canada.

Rush: The story of the rivalry between James Hunt and Niki Lauda who raced for the World Champion title in the 1970. Hunt won it one year, possibly only because Lauda crashed and was unable to race for a number of weeks. Hunt is portrayed as a playboy who took life as it came (and who died of a heart attack at age 45) and Lauda as a humourless automaton and filling all the stereotypes of an Austrian. It is worth watching on a plane, as was the next film.

Diana: As the name says, this is the story of Diana the late Princess of Wales. The focus is on the last two years of her life and her relationship with Pakistani heart surgeon Hasnat Khan. How true to life was it? I have no way of knowing, unlike my recognition of the truths within the Mandela movie. It reflected the levels of torment and unhappiness she no doubt did experience. The implication was that she was kept from her children and this is really unforgivable. The involvement with the de-mining cause was well portrayed and if her legacy is the banning of land mines then that alone is to be heartily celebrated.