Pandemics and travels

It has been an inordinately long time since I last posted to my website. A lot has happened. In early July I travelled from Durban to Cape Town for a few days, seeing friends and staying with Derek and Lynn (my brother and wife). On Sunday 10th July I flew from Cape Town back to Norwich via Amsterdam. By Thursday I had a scratchy throat, headache, cough, and a metallic taste in my mouth. A day later I tested positive for Covid-19. The virus I had written so much about got me! I was not seriously ill, but it was not pleasant. I am convinced I was infected in an airport or on a plane.

I was due to travel to Montreal for the International AIDS Economics Network (IAEN) meeting ahead of the International AIDS Conference on Monday 25th July. Although I do not believe I was infectious, travelling seemed unwise. I was very relieved to consistently test negative in the days before I flew. At one point I thought my attendance was in doubt which would have been difficult for my colleagues as we were co-organising a meeting.

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Reconnecting with the country

Earlier this month I did a six-day road trip from Cape Town to Durban. My travelling companion was an old friend: a gaunt, chain smoking (when he had the chance and not in the car, hotels or restaurants), grey haired academic, who shall be called Sancho, after Don Quixote’ Sancho Panza, he was going to remain nameless, but that did not work. We have been friends for over 35 years, having originally met on the touch rugby field in Durban in the 1980s. The game took place, once a week, for well over 20 years. It was ‘the left’ at play, and some deep long-term friendships developed.

I am not going to make this a ‘traditional’ travelogue, so let me quickly get the description of the trip out of the way. I will put in the links throughout.

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Autumn and Spring Showers

The month of April began in the Cape and ended in Canada via Norwich. In the first week we ran the scientific writing course in Stellenbosch in the Cape. There were 19 participants from across Africa. Tim Quinlan did most of the teaching and the event was excellent. We are beginning to see results in submitted and published manuscripts from earlier years. I hope the project will be renewed, but if it is not then we have achieved a great deal. As my travel was from the southern to the northern hemisphere, I experienced autumn one day and spring the next. In England the daffodils have bloomed and are past their best. In Canada, or at least in this part, they have yet to blossom and it is still decidedly chilly.

Of course visiting Cape Town is also a chance to see family. My brother and sister-in-law were away but I caught up with my aunt, various cousins and a niece for Sunday lunch. I felt that I had not talked properly to niece Sarah, and she was good enough to join me for lunch on the Monday before I flew back to the UK. We walked across from the City Lodge to a new restaurant right next door. It was good to have a decent conversation and catch up with family news. Because the flight from Cape Town is so late (after 11 pm), I only watched one film: The Great Buster, a biopic of filmmaker and comedian Buster Keaton. He was one of the few stars who transitioned successfully from silent films to sound. It was not demanding so was good to watch in the small hours.

I had a relatively short spell in England. My sister came up from London for Easter and her birthday. We went to a show at the Norwich Playhouse, where Rowan works. It was an amateur production of A Sound of Music. It was outstanding. There were a few wrong notes, but not many at all. The set was imaginative and the acting most impressive. I think amateur productions can be excellent because people really throw their hearts into the show.

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The Meaning of Life

Half of September was in South Africa and half in Norwich. I travelled from Norwich to Cape Town via Amsterdam on the 1st September. This visit was to oversee the scientific writing course we held in Stellenbosch. The KLM flight takes over 11 hours and seemed very long, especially since these days I usually travel in economy. I am very grateful for my ‘Life Time Platinum Elite’ frequent flyer status as it gives me seating choices and lounge access. This practically means I usually get a bulkhead seat with more leg room, and that really makes a difference over long flight.

The 2nd (Sunday) was a free day and on Monday the participants started arriving. The programme is mainly taught by my friend and colleague, Tim Quinlan, whom I have known for close to 30 years. He came to Durban to teach at the University of Durban-Westville, which in those apartheid days was the ‘Asian’ higher education establishment. He subsequently joined HEARD as the first Research Director. This is the second year that he has run this programme with me. I am very lucky to also have as the main recruiter and administrator Nick Zebryk, who did a degree at the Balsillie School, and was my first (and last) full time research assistant in Waterloo. He managed the application process, and travelled to South Africa to troubleshoot. Thanks to his hard work there was no trouble to shoot!

We had 16 people from across Africa. On this occasion the largest number were from Malawi (four). I had taken some flack last year as six people were from Swaziland and this was seen favouritism. Everyone came with work in progress, and both Tim and I met with individuals to go through their manuscripts. We finished on Friday morning and on Saturday I went to Cape Town and spent a night in the City Lodge at the Waterfront. Firstly I wanted time by myself and the hotel is ideal for that; second I had a lunch meeting with the acting editor of the Global Fund Observer. This is run by a Kenyan-based NGO AIDSpan and I am on the board. As with all donor funded organisations, there is the constant need to raise funding and this means being relevant and supportable. Fortunately, so far, this has not been an issue for us.

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Driving and relaxing

I finished teaching in Konstanz on Friday 3rd November. Rowan arrived on the Wednesday before this. The cancellation of a train from Zurich Airport meant she got in sometime later than we hoped. As predicted by the family, she got the bedroom and I took over the sofa bed in the apartment’s lounge. This made sense since I get up frequently during the night. She had only two full days in the town and we went to Friedrichshafen and the Spa, both second visits for me, but no less enjoyable. She came to class on the Friday, my last session. All students produced blog posts, those who wanted, have them posted with this blog.

On Saturday 4th November we flew from Zurich to Amsterdam and stayed in an Ibis Budget hotel not far from the airport. The actual hotel was very basic but entirely fine, the rooms sleep three people with a bunk bed arrangement over the double bed. There should, perhaps, be a warning “Beware of falling children”.

It seemed a very remote spot and I was not confident of our ability to get into the city. The receptionist said confidently that there was a bus stop across the road, and the bus, a number 193, went punctually every 15 minutes. I expected a lonely pole on the banks of a drainage ditch, but instead it was a busy barn sized structure with numerous buses. All we had to do was cross four lanes of traffic. We went to Leidseplein near the centre of Amsterdam, found a decent restaurant, enjoyed a good meal, and got the bus back with no difficulty at all.

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Writer’s Block

I wish I knew a more productive way of writing than my current style. At the moment it seems that I allow deadlines to creep up on me, and then there is a period of frenetic activity before the article, blog, book or whatever is submitted. I never feel completely satisfied. This is hypocritical, given that the advice I give my students is: “done is good enough”. One thing that became clear over the last few weeks is that I do my best work with other people. I was very fortunate last month in that Gemma Oberth, whose Ph.D. I examined some years ago, and who now lives and works in Cape Town, asked if she could come and spend a period of time writing with me. She was visiting her parents in Toronto and so it was a simple matter for her to travel up to Waterloo. (Having said that though, travelling from Toronto to Waterloo is never a simple matter, the traffic can be horrendous.) This was absolutely great. We were able to settle down, plan out an article, do the research, and actually get close to a final draft. We then exchanged versions over email and submitted it to a journal within a week of her departure. It now goes out to peer review and I will be interested to see what the reviewers think of it. Personally I found this method of writing to be easier than most.

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Spring in Durban and Cape Town and Autumn in Norwich

Spring in Durban and Cape Town and Autumn in Norwich

This is the second posting to go up in a short time. The management of my website has moved to John Price. I want to say a big thank you to Shela McCullough and Linda Mtambo of HEARD for all that they did to keep my posts flowing! By early next year we will have looked at the design of the site and changed it. I hope to make it somewhat interactive.

I was in the UK and South Africa in late September and early October. The first part of the trip was covered in my last posting. This one is about Durban, Cape Town and Norwich. After 24 hours in Durban (a silly side trip because I was not paying attention to my travel plans), I flew to Cape Town for a Health Systems Symposium. These meetings are held every two years, this was the third, the first I had been to. As all my South African family lives in Cape Town and the environs I was able to see them. My visits to the South Africa will become less frequent in the years ahead, so this is important to me.

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The Final Post of the Year and ‘last post’ from Durban

This is the last posting to be written in my incarnation of Director of HEARD. It is a time of change, and the passing of Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela has really shaken the country and me. It is taking time for this to sink in, but I will try to write about it.

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July: America, Americans and wonderful Durban winter

July: America, Americans and wonderful Durban winter

I flew from the United Kingdom to Durban on Monday, 11 June. It was the long daylight flight from Amsterdam so as well as working I saw the film  Warhorse. After an overnight stay at the Intercontinental Hotel in Johannesburg and I flew to Durban on Tuesday. I went straight to the office and got a lift home at the end of the day. The next morning was an early start, I went back to Johannesburg, met up with colleagues from the British Department for International Development’s (DFID) office in Pretoria. We drove down to Swaziland where we spend 24 hours in meetings talking about a possible regional HIV and AIDS program. This included a dinner with members of Swazi civil society.

I had less than a week in Durban and then headed for Florence for a UNICEF meeting. On the Wednesday I flew out on the Air France A380, the biggest plane in the world (and it is quite fantastic), to Paris and changed for the flight to Italy. I was rather exhausted when I got in and so slept for part of the day before going out and wandering around the city. The weather was perfect, and it is without doubt one of the most spectacular cities I know. The two day meeting on child well-being was deeply interesting. We finished at about three o’clock on Saturday and I headed for the airport to get back to Paris, Johannesburg and Durban. The EUFA cup game between France and Italy was being broadcast in the lounge. I was the only one who cheered when Italy scored – and they won. I had one night in Durban and then flew to Cape Town to visit the Children’s Institute.

In Cape Town I managed to both deliver a birthday present to my niece in Hout Bay and meet up with my uncle, aunt, cousins and second cousins for dinner. Uncle Fred was one of those people who was an absolute role model for me. He and June live in a retirement home in Pinelands just outside Cape Town. They originally bought two units expecting to be allocated ones adjacent to each other so they could create a decent living space. The elderly lady who owned the one changed her mind about moving. They spent at least a year living in two separate apartments on two floors. When the lady died they were finally able to consolidate. I knew the whole story and happened to be visiting on the day that they got the news of the woman’s death. I am afraid that my reaction was:

“Oh good now you can settle in properly”, which is exactly what they have done.

The University of Cape Town put me up in a nearby guest house. After checking in and having a shower I went back to the reception and took a manager to my room to point out all the things that were wrong with it. These ranged from the steps into the room without a guard railing, actually quite dangerous; through to blankets on the bed – good establishments have duvets which can be washed between every guest, that doesn’t happen with blankets; a faulty shower and a number of other minor issues that were annoying. It was a rather twee establishment and they had a blackboard in the reception area with a quote on it, something like “happiness is a state of mind” and as I walked past it with the manager I pointed out that happiness only has only one ‘p’. Afterwards I thought ‘and so does pedantic’.

I then had less than two weeks in Durban before heading back to the United Kingdom and on to Washington for the international AIDS conference. It was very busy. The buzz in the office, as people prepare for the conference: writing papers, making posters, planning the stand, sending material  and generally getting ready, is exciting and rewarding. HEARD will have a significant contingent and it will be great to see how they do. Probably the best part of my job is seeing people grow and develop.

I was invited to the United States Consulate General’s home, along with several hundred other people to mark the 4th July. He, sensibly, arranged parking at a primary school down the hill and had a shuttle bus taking people to the house. There was a significant police presence as the guests included the provincial premier, various members of his cabinet, the American ambassador, King Zwelithini and other dignitaries. I decided to walk back to my car. Two Metro Police driving past saw me strolling down the hill. They knew where I had been, and asked if I wanted a lift. I have not yet been in the back of a police car and did not feel this was an appropriate time to start so thanked them very much and walked on. I slightly regret this now.

I was planning to return to Norwich on Tuesday. Our university decided to migrate our e-mail system to Microsoft outlook over the weekend. On Monday and Tuesday there were to be teams going around our campus ensuring that the changeover went smoothly. It did not! My PA spent most of Monday at the walk-in center with my laptop trying to get it set up to work on the new system. On Tuesday I went down with her and we kidnapped one of the technical people and brought him back up to the offices to try and sort things out. It took nearly all day. The level of stress was considerable and I correctly made a call that it would be better to delay travel by a day and ensure that I had all the technology that I would need for the next month. It does seem to be working now.

Coming through Amsterdam I had a really pleasant surprise. I used the business class lounge shower, and emerged wearing nice fresh clothes and feeling clean to bump into Father Michael Kelly, a Jesuit priest from Lusaka. He was a really critical part of our AIDS and education work 12 years ago. Apart from being a fantastically nice and thoughtful person he is an individual who I admire and who has mentored me over the years. He is now 83 so these encounters are extremely valuable and need to be savored. We had about 45 minutes to talk before he went off to catch his plane. He is one of the unsung heroes of the fight against AIDS, a most compassionate sensible man.

 The next posting will be after the Washington conference. There will be a great deal of activity on the HEARD website though – www.heard.org.za so you can follow events there.

 Films and books

Warhorse. The story of a horse Joey, requisitioned at the beginning of the First World War from a farm in Devon. The son of the farm, Albert, joins up. Towards the end of the war Joey, after being captured and ‘serving’ the German forces, gets caught up in the wire in no-man’s land. He is released by a German and British soldier in moment of armistice. He is to be put down but is reunited with Albert. The children’s book is by Michael Morpurgo was first published in 1982. The film was directed by Steven Spielberg. It is a moving story and is beautifully made. It is also complex and sometimes there seemed too many subplots for me to entirely follow. The message is war is hell!

A Thousand Words.  This was billed as a comedy drama starring Eddy Murphy. It is a simple tale of an literary agent who is cursed by words. It was badly reviewed, and deservedly so. However on the 23.20 flight from Johannesburg it was watchable and I saw the last 30 minutes over breakfast so did not feel it was wasted time. There are other films on the KLM flights I am looking forward to seeing.

Random Violence by Jassy MacKenzie, Umuzi, Houghton, 2008 238 pages. This is a novel set in and around Johannesburg that has been on my selves for some time. I found it, initially, very difficult to get into. However I persisted and was pleased I did. I hope that she writes more. She has the potential to develop into another good South African crime writer. The end is a bit too much ‘and with one bound he was free’ but in general it was believable, well observed and well plotted. It is set in the period leading up to the World Cup and MacKenzie catches the nation’s mood very well. The heroine is a private detective named Jade de Jong, the daughter of murdered white senior policeman, who returns to SA after 10 years away and gets caught up in a complex plot involving property development and crime.

Relativity

Relativity

I think Durban is one of the nicest cities in the world. I have lived there for nearly 30 years. Ailsa and I bought our first house there and it is the place the children were born. The university has been, for me, a good work environment. At the beginning of my career I was well mentored and then given space and support to start my own unit. HEARD is going well with an amazingly good research output, high staff morale, adequate funding and a throughput of talented young researchers. All this is in our annual report, which will be on the website very soon.

In the middle of April I was in Nairobi, Kenya for a meeting on Efficiency, Effectiveness and Sustainability which the International AIDS Society organised. I am an elected Governing Council member and the Treasurer up to the International AIDS Conference in Washington in July (see www.iasociety.org.) It was a quick trip, flying up on Wednesday evening and returning to Durban on Saturday – I flew on the late flight from Nairobi to Johannesburg on Friday evening, slept at the City Lodge at OR Tambo airport and caught a flight down to Durban at a sensible time.  I used air miles to upgrade the ticket so it was relatively painless. I had a colleague travelling at the same time as me so we chatted and went to the airport together. He will remain nameless given the story I am about to tell.

A while ago I noticed that my Yellow Fever vaccination was about to expire and so went and was re-immunised. Just as well, my companion had forgotten the card. The check-in staff would not let him on the plane without one, and they were quite adamant about this. He had to go across the airport to the clinic and get the shot, paying above the odds for it. Of course it takes time to become effective but this is generally overlooked. Indeed we were not even asked for the certificates! However the South African authorities can be very fierce about this!

I had two nights in Durban and on Monday the HEARD team flew to Johannesburg for the biannual donor and board meetings held at the aforementioned City Lodge. These went very well, with an excellent turnout for both, only one board member was not able to make it. From there I flew, in economy class, to Cape Town, a long two hour flight on a packed plane. This was for a Council on Health Research for Development meeting on the theme of Beyond Aid… Research and Innovation as key drivers for Health, Equity and Development, all the details are the websites at www.forum2012.org and www.cohred.org. This was most interesting.

There is no doubt Cape Town is stunning. I think it is the most beautiful city in the world. Driving in from the airport at about 6 pm the evening light was an amazing rosy shade. Coming round the side of the mountain on de Waal drive and seeing the centre of the city, the harbour with the huge gantries like a row of storks silhouetted against the south Atlantic, and in the distance, Robben Island, was breathtaking. I feel I have a champagne lifestyle on a soda water salary. I get to travel, stay in great hotels, see new and interesting places and meet all sorts of people.

The conference started on the Tuesday, so unfortunately I missed the first day. I was staying at one of my favourite hotels, The Cullinan, they describe themselves as ‘stylishly grand and perfectly majestic’ and I think this is fair. It is just a few minutes’ walk from the international convention centre. The relative merits of Durban and Cape Town are very different. I must admit to being tempted by Cape Town, as one of my friends said it has “the mountain factor”. This must have been the magnet that has drawn my extended family there. Friday was a public holiday, Freedom Day, marking the end of apartheid and the new democratic government. I spent most of it visiting family.

My brother Derek Whiteside was away on business and so I took Lynn, my sister-in-law and my three nieces Emily, Sarah and Katie out for lunch in Hout Bay – to a restaurant called Dunes. It is a stunning setting looking out over the bay with a band of ultra blue water just beyond the breaking waves. In the last while the euphonious dunes have blown away and now the view is straight on to the beach. We were at the restaurant joined by distant cousin Neil Hodgson and his daughter Lisa. He is a captain with South African Airways. As I am silly about aircraft and flying it is always great to talk to him and I (a minority perhaps) find discussing airline routes and types of planes to be deeply interesting. From there I went to visit my Uncle Fred and Aunt June (also Hodgsons) who live in a retirement home in Pinelands. This is on the way to the airport which makes dropping on them very easy. We were joined by my cousin Linda and her daughter Hayley (who has nearly completed her PhD at the University of Cape Town) and her sister, my cousin Sandra who was visiting from Uitenhage. The most family I have seen in a very long time.

Perhaps this posting is not just about relativity but also about reflection. Fred was very senior in de Beers Diamond Company and I have always looked up to him as a role model. Nearly 20 years ago he had a hip replacement operation that went wrong. As a result now finds it difficult to get around. He has a mobility scooter for inside the flat and a more robust one for going out. I still see him as a role model because of his attitude and stoicism.

They moved into the home two years ago expecting to get a large apartment. That arrangement fell through and they ended up with two apartments on different floors. They lived a schizoid life until the space next to theirs became available. Now they have been able to consolidate and expand at the same time, and actually have a very nice warm set of rooms.

Part of the conference ‘package’ was an evening out at Groot Constania, the original wine estate in South Africa, the vines being planted by the first governor of the Dutch settlement of Cape Simon van der Stel. We were taken there by bus, the scenic winding route round the coast, which left me feeling quite ill! However I soon recovered. The food and wine were fantastic and the entertainment was provided by South African diva Yvonne Chaka Chaka. This is what I mean by a champagne lifestyle. Of course one of the questions is who pays, because at the end of the day someone has to. We were told that it was the World Bank, and yet they were hardly represented which was a great pity. Fortunately, after the copious quantities of alcohol and excellent food, we went back on the short straight route.

I learnt, at the meeting, that health is underfunded, but more worryingly the health people do not understand how to advocate for more funding. They think that the fact that their cause is noble, it’s sufficient and this, sadly, is not the case! We know from our work that ‘crowding-out’ is a real issue. If foreign money is given to health then governments will tend to reallocate domestic resources. This is good, basic and responsible public administration. It is not what donors intend! I shall have to reflect on the meeting and write up some notes, since I was there in an official capacity as a person from the Department for International Development, although I would not presume to speak for the organisation. What was interesting was to meet people from a different circle from the one I normally operate in.

Reviews

Music

There has been a lot of music in Durban recently. I went to the University Jazz Centre to listen to a folky duo from Cape Town Andrew James and the Steady Tiger, I was so impressed that I went to hear them again at St Clements, a cafe on Musgrave Road. Their style is great; both are excellent guitarists with mellow voices. I thought they spent far too much time tuning the instruments though and exchanged emails with them about this. Some of their music is on their website. On the Friday evening The Collective, a new venue in Durban, hosted The South Jersey Pom-Poms, which is lead by a colleague from the University.

Books

The suburb of Manor Gardens, which was beautifully and evocatively written about by Barbara Trapido in her book Frankie and Stankie (Bloomsbury 2003), is where we bought our second house. It was let to chaotic tenants for about four years and they left a month ago. When I first went to look at it my heart absolutely sank. There has been work going on and I went to check on progress on Saturday and then went to lunch at a new cafe in the neighbourhood. Exhibit owned by Eunice van der Vloet is a house with an art gallery, table chairs and a limited menu. It is an encouraging addition to the neighbourhood and I hope it prospers. Sadly the estate agents tell me Manor Gardens is a leafy green quirky suburb, and that is not what people want.

I have finally finished reading Catherine Hakim’s Honey Money: The Power of Erotic Capital, (Allen Lane 2011, 384 pages). I found it a thought provoking book. The two key points were: What is erotic capital and the idea of a male sexual deficit. It makes a number of rather challenging statements, but will certainly be of use in understanding behaviours and responding to AIDS.