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.

Back In Durban January – February 2010

A quick look at my Website tells me that I haven’t posting anything for nearly two months. So let me bring you up to date with what I’ve been doing. Christmas and New Year were spent with the family in Norwich. It was cold but a lot of fun and generally enjoyed by all. My sister came up from London for the Christmas period but we were on our own for New Year.

Douglas and I spent a great deal of time working on various essays, reviews and other pieces of course work for his GCSE exams. This was productive and, I hope, bonding.

“Read it aloud, and if you have take a breath, it needs a comma or a full stop”, I kept repeating as we went through essays. I am afraid that the HEARD staff are getting the same treatment as I review their work.

Douglas and I also went to the gym together, and although he is not yet 16, we went to the exercise room instead of just the pool, sauna and steam room as we have done in the past. It was deeply interesting to sit beside him on the rowing machine and look in the mirror and see the similarities and differences. Would that I were his weight.

I returned to South Africa on 11th January. I actually delaying my journey by 24 hours as there was heavy snow and major disruptions on the Saturday and I thought it was not worth risking traveling by rail, (services are always disrupted on a Sunday anyway), and getting frustrated. The journey was quite straightforward, I got to Heathrow Airport at 5.15pm and asked the check-in staff if they could get me on the earlier flight, at 6.00 p.m. rather than at 8.30pm.

The lady asked me, “can you run”.

“Yes” I said.

I made it plane with plenty time although I didn’t stop to buy anything to read which was a bit of a pity.

It was good to get back to Durban, especially since winter has been unrelenting in the UK. My flat was spick and span courtesy of Madeline who acts as my personal PA and Angel the domestic worker; the office was set for me. I spent about week in the Durban before going to Cape Town for a Council for Foreign Relations meeting on “Rolling out treatment across South Africa”.

I now have more relatives in Cape Town as Derek my brother his wife Lynn and their three children, Emily, Sarah and Katie have emigrated to South Africa and are living in Hout Bay. I spent two nights in central Cape Town, went and had lunch with my uncle and aunt and then spent the Friday night with Derek. He is currently negotiating having teenage children who want to go to nightclubs in central Cape Town. I do not envy him. The family has a magnificent house in the valley in Hout Bay with a beautiful view of the mountains.

The main task in HEARD has been to get our new strategy document ready. This along with a business plan, budget and logframe (I really hate logframes and am glad we have an expert to prepare it) will form the basis of our request for funding for the next few years. We have had positive indications so I am confident that HEARD will continue at until 2014, and given the HIV prevalence rates in this part of world, it certainly should. Beyond that I would like to see more emphasis on health issues and not just HIV.

In the third week of January it was back to the UK, leaving Durban on a Friday and returning to it on the following Wednesday. The purpose of this meeting was to review five special papers from the aids2031 Project that are being prepared for publication in The Lancet. The meeting was organized by The Imperial College Group. It was extremely interesting and I was privileged to be part of a small high-powered group. My task was to look at the “drivers of the epidemic” paper written by a colleague, Justin Pathurst, at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. I liked reviewing it as I was able to have some fun with it.

I spent the weekend in Norwich with the family and, apart from being rather tired, enjoyed it greatly. I went to London on the Monday back to Norwich on the Tuesday and flew to South Africa on the Wednesday.

One irritation was that on the way over I had watched a film “Secondhand Lions” with Michael Caine and Robert Duval. It was made in 2003 and is described as a ‘coming of age’ movie. The story is set in the mid-West and tells of a boy who is sent to live with his uncles by his rather scatty mother. These old men have led amazing lives the film is about their developing relationship. It is well worth watching and I thought I was going to enjoy it. However an hour and nine minutes into the film the picture and sound went out of synchronization. It was impossible to watch. Having had a sufficiency of wine I decided quite simply to go to sleep as it seemed pointless despite numerous attempts at resetting the seat to watch it.

I was delighted, on the return trip, to see that the in-flight entertainment system was showing the same films and looked forward to now watching this movie through to the end. I got a glass of wine, fast-forwarded the video and at the appropriate time pressed play. You can imagine my dismay when the same thing happened.

I think I was on the same aeroplane. This makes sense, it would have taken me over on the Friday, returned to South Africa on Saturday, to England on the Sunday, to South Africa on the Monday, to London on the Tuesday and then been there on the Wednesday to bring me back. I watched another film, a mindless thriller called “The Whole Nine Yards”. On Saturday I went to the local DVD store and got a copy of the video took it home and watched the last half hour.

Since getting back to Durban I have been extremely busy with HEARD management. This is the third weekend in a row that I have worked. Being here lends itself to physical activity and I have been engaged in squash and going to the gym. My gym is curious place because it is mainly inhabited by serious fitness people who do not look at each other, other than to correct posture or weight lifting. We collectively feel this is a place to get fit not to pose. Their website is http://www.fitnesscompany.co.za/FC_home.php I have had a trainer at the gym, (yes a personal trainer), for some years now and when I work in a sustained manner with him I do see the weight and inches falling off. His name is Wade and being weighed by Wade is always an interesting process. He is only allowed to train out of hours or at lunch time. He does train me on a Sunday afternoon with permission from the owners. The gym is officially open from 4.30 to 6.30pm but we meet at 3.15 and I have the entire place to myself. I realized the other day that this is pretty cool, and I can choose the music. I think I am going to a Dolly Parton CD in to train to!

It is the height of summer in Durban and the temperature has been 30 degrees and more during the day. The flat is on the top floor and as a result it tends to be rather warmer than the ones below. Fortunately it has air-conditioning units in the lounge and bedroom. We recently had a power failure. This was a real pain as it meant that I was unable work or run the air-conditioner. I also discovered I did not have any matches to light my candles. I had to go to one of few smokers in the block to get a light.

Summer also means that the sun rises at about 5.00am. One morning I woke at 4.30 and despite trying to go back to sleep could not. I got up at 5.00 put on my running shorts and shoes and ran for 40 minutes. I go straight up the hill along and then down and then gradually back. I know I am not running fit because the route that normally takes me 35 minutes took me 38 this morning. I had to walk up the steepest hill at the end which was a blow to my pride.

Film, Books and Blogs: December 2009

This will be the last posting for 2009. I will begin by wishing everyone a happy end of 2009 and a good 2010. This is not going to be a reflective post; that will be the first one of the New Year, when I have had a chance to get my head around the events of 2009. In this I will mainly reflect on the films I have seen and the books read over the past few months. I travelled from Durban to Vancouver and then back to the UK in mid-November which meant I saw quite a number of films.

The reflection to end the year is that I can fly but landing is still beyond me. I have had two lessons in the last week and have to say this landing business is more difficult than I thought it would be. After going round a few times and managing to touch down and have one ‘go-around’ which is when one aborts the landing without touching the tarmac, I was really battling. David, the instructor, took over and showed how easy it is for him while I was left feeling really frustrated. I can manage most of the landing – the turning, lining up and approach; it is the last 50 feet that I am finding really tough. The idea is that a point you fly above the runway taking off the power and holding the nose up until the plane gently touches down, and I am just not able to judge it. David says that everyone finds this and then it will suddenly come right. I hope this is true.

Perhaps the only thing I want to put in is that I am in the UK for Christmas and New Year. On 11th January I get back to Durban which is where I will be staying for the next few months. There is a great deal of management that needs to be done, and I also have the political economy of Swaziland which needs to be completed. I have finally returned to this and am enjoying getting my head around Swaziland and what a unique little nation it is. There will have to be some time spent up there doing fieldwork as well.

Films

“Departures”. This Japanese film, made in 2008, is the winner of a number of prizes including the Academy Award as Best Foreign Language film. It is the story of a cellist, whose orchestra closes. He and his wife move to a house that his mother left him and he begins looking for work. He sees an advertisement to work with ‘departures’, and thinking it is something to do with travel agent, applies and get the job. He discovers he is to be a “nokanshi” or professional who prepares bodies for burial and ‘encoffins’ them. The nokanshi carries rituals in front of the family: kneeling on one side, with the family is on the other; they carefully wash and prepare the body for burial or cremation.

The story is moving. It is about the relation between the hero, his somewhat irascible boss, and the deceased. I felt, were someone to have to do these rituals for me, then he is the sort of sensitive person one wants. The characters are deep and the music excellent.

“Taking Woodstock”. This is as told by Elliot Teichberg. As a young man he was working at his parent’s motel in Bethel, New York, involved in the local Chamber of Commerce, and had organized a number of cultural events. He was in charge of issuing public events’ permits and when he discovered that the organizers of the Woodstock Festival had been denied authority to hold the event in the village of Walkill, he issued them a permit. The Festival was held on Max Yasgur’s dairy farm, the rest is history.

It was a touching film, gentle in its approach to the event and, while probably not historically accurate, it was good fun. The film did not have any of the music, just covering events in the run-up to the Festival. Teichberg’s parents appear as two failing Jewish business people, out of place and time. All characters are parodied including the ‘earth-life’ acting troupe.

South African Airways shows South African films, and I have seen two.

“My Secret Sky” was made by Madoda Ncayiyana with Julie Fredrickse (co-producer and writer). I’ve known about this film for some time as Julie came to talk to me as she was developing it. I hope I was helpful in giving her background and thoughts. It is the story is of two children, 10-year old Thembe and her 8-year old brother, Kwezi. They are orphaned in a rural area outside Durban when their mother dies (implicitly of AIDS). The family gathers to bury the mother and the children are left in the care of an aunt who sells all their possessions and is portrayed as a drunken, grasping woman.

The children take a woven mat that their mother has made, (she was hoping to enter it in a competition), and set off for the city of Durban. Here they become involved with street children, in particular one called ‘Chili-bite’ who tries to sell the girl to a taxi-driver involved with pedophilia. There are gaps in the story line which I forgive because it is set in Durban. We see the steam train that, on a Sunday takes tourists from Pinetown to the Valley of a Thousand Hills; look at Warwick Junction with its hustle and bustle; see the Durban city streets the Embankment, a fantastic view across the bay and the sleazy underpass where the children live; finally there is the Musgrave road Anglican church.

The film tells of children being left on their own and facing great adversity. It is, for me, best a film that portrays areas and people I know as well as the real issues faced by growing numbers of children as a result of HIV/AIDS. It is an accurate picture of a thriving port city and how people, especially youngsters may fall through the cracks in this setting. I will certainly look for it on DVD.

“White Wedding”. This is fun. It tells of the journey of Elvis, by Greyhound bus from Johannesburg to Durban, to meet up with his best friend Tumi. Together they travel on to Cape Town for his wedding. Tumi is to be his best man and Elvis is to marry Ayanda in the Cape at a fancy hotel at Camps Bay.

The story is set in various locations. Ayanda is in Cape Town, the city and a township; we see Tumi and Elvis in Durban and the Eastern Cape. Their journey involves borrowing a car after Tumi’s girl friend wrecks his BMW. As they travel through the Eastern Cape they pick up a young English doctor who is hitchhiking (very unwisely all the South Africans would think). They wreck the car and end up in a rightwing, white stronghold in the Cape. Through charm and good manners they get a ride to Cape Town from one of the real Afrikaners.

This is “appealing feel good movie about love, commitment, intimacy and friendships and the host of maddening obstacles that can get in the way of a happy ending”. The writer/director is Jaan Turner, the daughter of Rick Turner who was assassinated in Durban. The executive producer is Ken Follet the author. They have done an excellent job in making this film, picking up on South Africa and what goes on there and making a thoroughly enjoyable film. The beauty of the landscape is well portrayed but I sincerely hope that no one tries hitchhiking through South Africa as the young doctor does.

I am not going to review it but want to say I really enjoyed the latest Coen brothers’ offering ‘Serious Man’. It has not been out very long and I found it very dark. There is humour in it, and I would say it does for small town Jewish communities what ‘District Nine’ did for apartheid South Africa and the bureaucracy.

Books 

Over the past nine months or so I have read the new series of the Millennium Trilogy written by Swedish author Stieg Larsson. There are three books in the series “The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo”, “The Girl Who Played With Fire”, and “The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets’ Nest”. These are a publishing sensation, numbers 3, 8 and 12 on the Amazon best seller list (my “HIV/AIDS Very Short Introduction” has been as low as 15000 and currently is 135 000). The English version is by published by Maclehose Press. The key characters in the books are Lisbet Salanader and Mikael Blomkvist. Salander is a faintly autistic young woman, excellent with computers in the first book as a hacker she finds her way into a range of databases and saves the skin of the main character; in the last she is charged with attempted murder. There are other characters who are well developed. The Swedish detective, the editor of Millennium Magazine and in the final book Blomkvist’s sister. These three books are a monumental achievement and have been extremely well translated. Sadly the author Steve Larsson died after delivering them to the publisher and before they were published which means he never saw the outcome of his work. They are recommended as good holiday reading.

In the weekly Mail and Guardian of a few weeks ago there was a very interesting article about South African crime writing. The one author described well was Margie Orford who’s first book was called “Like Clockwork”. The book is published by Jonathon Ball Publishers and is set in Cape Town particularly around Green Point and Sea Point. It is the story of a serial killer who’s also involved in the trafficking of women. Orford describes Cape Town evocatively. Her main character is a psychologist/documentary filmmaker called Clare Hart but there are a range of other characters from the new South Africa who are well described in this book. The second in the series is “Blood Rose” and is set in Namibia in Walvis Bay. These are edgy books and they reflect the society well including AIDS and its consequences. The shady characters, especially the street children are particularly well described.

Terrified in the Treetops

It has been quite a couple of weeks what with one thing and another. Rowan, our daughter and Ben, her boyfriend, came over to South Africa for a three week adventure. This began with them going to Cape Town, to stay with my brother and family. They arrived very late on Tuesday evening off the daylight flight from Amsterdam. Derek and Lynn and the girls looked after them magnificently, and they had a wonderful time.

On the Saturday they flew up to Durban which is where they were to be based for the next two weeks. I was at work at the University and at about two o’clock I became aware that there was a southerly gale blowing. This meant the plane might be early and so I headed for the airport at high speed. Their aircraft was indeed 20 minutes ahead of schedule, but fortunately I was there in time. The beasts had organized their social life well in advance. After having supper with me they headed for a party with one of Rowan’s old school friends. I decided that I would therefore go to the cinema as I didn’t want to be sitting at home, (apparently) waiting for their return. I went and saw the chic-flic movie ‘It’s Complicated’ which I rather enjoyed.

Rowan and Ben stayed in Durban for the Sunday and Monday and on Tuesday drove up to the game reserves in the Hluhulwe area staying at a place the family love: Bonamanzi Game farm. Rowan first went there aged nine months. They reported seeing a lot of game; having an opportunity to visit the cheetah farm (cheetah’s purr); and getting drenched in a huge storm which left their treehouse without power or water. They got back on Friday and we went to a ‘standard’ Durban Manor Gardens Easter party on the Sunday. It no longer involves hunting for Easter eggs, most of the children are now way too old for this. It did involve sitting and talking and catching up with our neighborhood.

On the Monday I went to Swaziland to spend a couple of days doing research, but also to give them an opportunity to enjoy Durban by themselves. I returned on the Wednesday and took Friday off as they wanted go on the Karkloof Canopy Tours. According to the blurb “the canopy tour involves traversing from one platform to another along a steel cable suspended up to 30 meters about the forest floor. The tour comprises seven platforms and eight slides that zigzag down a pristine forested valley. The scenery and bird life are spectacular and the professional guides providing interesting facts about the forest ecology during the tour”.

That is the experience that most people may have; for me it was moments of amazement in a sustained period of sheer terror. The mountain is located about an hour and a half drive away from Durban. At the foot is a beautiful little set of cottages where visitors get their safety harness and a briefing. We then climbed into a Landrover and were driven to the top of the mountain. There were four of us doing the tour and there were three guides to make sure we were OK. Effectively one is clipped onto a steel cable, with a second cable as a safety device. There are two links to the main cable and one to the safety cable so it is very safe

The first slide is short, only 40 meters and is quite easy. Doing this one learns how to brake with the large leather glove on your hand. The second slide comprises of two ropes that disappear into the mist for 100 meters, taking you to the waterfall. Jumping off a platform and sliding down for this distance is not something that comes naturally. For the first three slides I went last. On the fourth slide I was told I was to go first (‘last in first out’ in trade union terms). It was hugely embarrassing because I slid down from one platform for 175 meters; arrived at the next platform; and gently bounced back five meters away from it. We had been told what to do if this happened: monkey climb; put your hands on the cable and haul yourself into the platform.

What we had not been told is what to do if, as I was, you were too terrified to even let go of the harness as you gently swung above the gorge. I tried monkey climbing, but I was shaking too much and so had to say to the guide: “please come and rescue me”. One of them shinned down the rope and hauled me back up catching my hand between two harnesses as he did. I sat on the platform shaking, sweating, pallid, and appalled at what I was doing. The other three arrived and looked at me and made helpful comments like:

“Oh shame”; “You are doing very well dad”, and “Not much more to go”.

Fortunately at this point we were given a small chocolate and a drink, the energy was absolutely necessary. There were three slides to go and I have to admit that I went in tandem with one of the guides who took responsibility for controlling the speed as we flew down those aerial rope-ways. What an experience. Rowan and Ben think it was one of the best things they had every done. I think I was insane. I hate heights at the best of times and this was clearly way way out of my comfort zone. They told me that the views were spectacular. I can’t comment, my eyes were closed for parts of the journey. At the end of the tour we were given a free drink and toasted sandwich, (they laughingly call this a delicious Midlands meal in their brochure). I am still processing the event!

From there it was back to Durban for Rowan’s final evening and we took the Brauninger family (who are old friends and had seen a great deal of Rowan and Ben) out for dinner. I had thought it would be possible to get a table for eight people at one of my favorite restaurants. This was completely not the case on a Friday evening. We ended up at a restaurant on Davenport Road.

The evening had the potential to be a complete disaster. Rowan, Ben and I walked down from my flat to the restaurant to get just there after 7.15pm. We informed the manager that we had a booking for 7.30pm. He denied it. Brigitta who had made the booking arrived shortly after, and the manager admitted that they had taken the booking but someone else had commandeered the table. We were put in the lounge area, sitting on leather cowhide seats. These were untanned and hairy which didn’t work for those people wearing shirts or shorts as the back of one’s’ legs were prickled and tickled.

It took nearly 40 minutes before we got a table and in the meantime the waitress came and got one drinks order at a time and brought us one drink at a time. The wine was red and hot an attribute one does not want. The day did not improve, the manager informed us that it was better to be inside under the fans than outside in the breeze, it would be cooler he said, members of the party wanted to smoke and went outside and report that this was definitely not the case. However when they were outside they had overheard the manager speaking about our party, being quite uncomplimentary about us, a complete lack of professionalism.

Eventually, an hour after we got to the re, we given a table, seated and orders taken. By this stage everyone was bad tempered and hungry. The food came and those of us who had order side dishes found we got meager portions. Rowan had a meal which had pesto on it which she detests. She said if she wanted pesto she would have ordered it.

Just as the food started coming from the kitchen, the switch on the distributor board on the pole outside the restaurant tripped, and we were plunged into darkness. Because the kitchen cooks with gas they were able to bring our means but it meant that their extractor fans ceased working and the inside of the restaurant gradually filled up with greasy smoke. Rowan, a vegetarian, went to the rest room and came back feeling quite nauseated. “Dad I walked through a cloud of meat”.

It was the only restaurant on the street affected in this way and was badly handled no apology just blame for the city council. Patrons were expected to simply carry on as though nothing had happened. Although that wasn’t quite the case because the waitress came over and said “Our computers are going to go down, please would you mind paying your bill now?’

We were paying cash so this was irrelevant. She carried on pushing until she had the money in her hand. By this time everyone was extremely irritated. I went to the manager and asked, “How much will you charge me for a tub of ice cream”.

“Why? Won’t you stay here”, he said.

So I told him why we would not in clear terms. All’s well that ends well though, we went to the flat and had ice-cream and several more bottles of wine. On the Saturday Rowan, Ben and I went over for breakfast to Mitchell Park; the weather had changed, it was grey, overcast, cold and a strong wind was blowing from the South. I dropped them at the airport at about 12.30. They flew to Johannesburg and then had to wait for 10 hours in before getting on the plane to Amsterdam and then connecting on the flight to Norwich. I got news, on Sunday that they had arrived back safely after an adventurous and I think very much fun time in South Africa. It was quite strange having company for this amount of time and probably rather good. They got in a decent amount of beach time which I think they very much appreciated.

Of course while all this holiday fun was going on here in South Africa we have had three major events. The first the murder of Eugene Terre´Blanche, a right-wing Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging leader. He had spent some years in prison in the 1990s and I can’t say his passing was greatly mourned by anyone. The second issue has been Julius Malema who has been severely reprimanded by President Zuma over his inflammatory behaviour. All this against a backdrop of us moving closer and closer to the World Cup. This stadia are complete, South Africa is ready but sadly it seems as though many fewer tourists than expected will be arriving for this event. I fear that Fifa has oversold and under delivered on the World Cup.

Humus Family And Ruins Turkey

I have just been on a family holiday. That meant Douglas, who will be 15 in May, Rowan, who is about to complete her first year at university, Ailsa, and I headed off for just over a week in Turkey. We decided to go there because my brother, Derek, who moved to Istanbul with his family about 18 months ago, has chucked in his – very unsatisfactory – job and will be leaving in early July. They are thinking of moving to Cape Town, where he intends to start a consultancy company.

This means that we are unlikely to see them much so we decided to go to Istanbul and spend a bit of time doing family bonding. My sister Gill also went over for Easter, so the entire family were there!

It was fascinating, the family dynamics alone made the visit worth it. Given the huge number of miles I had clocked up on KLM it was easy to book airmiles tickets, (in business class as well) and we flew over on Tuesday 7th and returned on Wednesday 15th April. Turkey was not at all what I had expected.

The flight over was uneventful, other than the fact we arrived at one am. However we whisked through getting visas and passport control. Our luggage was among the first pieces to be delivered. A quick journey and we were able to check-in to the hotel in the centre of Istanbul and fall into bed.

On our first day we arranged to meet Derek and Gill for lunch, a cruise on the Bosporus, a drive up the coast and then, horror of horrors, the school musical play in which my eldest niece had a starring role. I am a reluctant spectator of even my own children’s school plays. I end up going to Waterford School end of term events every time we have a governor’s meeting at the school. I say to the head, ‘Laurence I don’t want to sit through this play/performance/dance’. He responds, ‘You have to, you are a governor”. So not only do I see the performance but it is also from the front row. It was fun though and Emily performed well.

After the lunch and cruise we got in his monstrous SUV and headed out into the Istanbul traffic, which was a nightmare.  Derek explained the Zen of driving in Istanbul. According to him involves patience, being calm, allowing people to push in front of you because you will push in front of others. He was Zen-like. We drove up the coast, had a cup of Turkish coffee, think sweet black mud, and you will have the picture. I really like it and drank copious quantities over the holiday! After this we headed for the school, the play starting at 7 pm. And we hit traffic. The minutes ticked away. It was apparent we were not going anywhere fast. Zen began to disappear and the driving became more aggressive and intolerant.

The trip was in three parts, Istanbul for three nights, then down to Ephesus, (to be strictly accurate the village of Selcuk about three kilometres from the ruins of Ephesus) for three nights, and finally back to Istanbul for two nights. It was an astonishingly interesting trip and well worth it.

The themes were traffic, ruins and history, hospitality and family dynamics. The traffic in Istanbul was quite horrendous. Derek is an optimistic soul. On the Friday we were flying from Istanbul to Izmar the nearest airport to Ephesus. Derek kindly offered to take us to the airport. We had to leave by 2 pm. He said that this would not be a problem. He had to bring his family in to the city for an appointment with the police to sort out residence issues and all the family had to present themselves in person. He had set up an appointment for 11.15. His wife pointed out that the children had to go to school for maths tests which could not be missed therefore they were unlikely to get to the police in time. He was confident they would make the appointment, and he would then be able to deliver us to the airport in plenty of time. His family greeted us on the run to their appointment at 12.30. The Zen view had now been replaced by a Tom and Jerry like freneticism.

We took a taxi to the airport, which cost an arm a leg and some hip. I sat in the front seat watching with horror as the meter ticked up, and occasionally asking the driver to slow down. Not, of course expecting the fare to be any less, but just wanting to be alive to pay it. Coming back we were picked up by the hotel shuttle, a huge Mercedes bus, and spent nearly two hours travelling back to the city. There was a 10 kilometre tailback to get onto the bridge across the Bosporus, there are only two bridges joining Europe to Asia. By contrast in Selcuk it was possible to meander across the main road. When we hired a car Rowan felt confident enough to drive, and was very happy to do so, because she was legally allowed to!

In most countries one has to be over 21 to drive an hire car and I had thought it would be the case in Turkey. She went: ‘nyah nyah’.

The hospitality was superb. Every airport pick-up was there on time and the vehicles were clean and comfortable. The first hotel was just OK but the boutique hotels in Selcuk and Istanbul were comfortable and roomy and the staff friendly and helpful. At one café we had just a drink each and were given biscuits by the proprietor. He noted how much Rowan enjoyed them and gave her the rest of the packet. Of course her blue eyes and charming smile may have helped. Over the time we were there we only had one meal where the service was poor, and that was not the fault of the waiter but of the kitchen. The food was uniformly good.

We went to many shopping areas and while the shop owners and assistants were keen to sell they were polite and to the man were not overly pushy. And in that sentence is one clear downside of the country, I left feeling it is hugely chauvinist and possibly even misogynist. There were few women in the shops or the service industry anywhere we visited. The men were highly visible and clearly have enjoyable lives (outside the home at any rate), spending time in cafes and bars, which are male dominated.

Throughout the visit I had a sense of history and humanity. The ruins of Ephesus, a major city of Asia minor, and an important port until the harbour silted up was once home to 200 000 people. What remains is impressive, temples, houses, public areas and even a public latrine, seating up to 16 people. There was no evidence of privacy between the holes in the marble. Perhaps defecation was a communal, and even enjoyable, activity in those times, the guidebooks do not elucidate on this interesting issue. There were two stadia built into the side of the hills, in an economical design, making maximum use of local topography.  In one’s minds eye one can visualise the plays, performances and meetings that must have taken place there.

In Selcuk is an Ottoman castle; the ruins of a basilica built for St John the apostle, which would have been the sixth biggest cathedral in the world if it were standing; and the pagan temple of Artemis. Ephesus is just three kilometres outside the village and a little further away is the little church marking the site of the house reputed to be where Mary Magdalene ended her days. One has to feel sorry for Joseph, who fades out of the story completely – mind you with omnipotent in-laws who could blame him!

Ephesus apart from being home to St John, and the destination of Paul’s letters to the Ephesians, was also the site of one of the early synods which defined Christianity and what was accepted in the bible. Istanbul, too, has many sites worth visiting and I shall have to return. The children do a museum at a fast trot and then complain of being bored.

So what do I conclude? I need to spend more time processing what we saw and did. I need to try writing some more word pictures. While away I finished reading the excellent book by Oliver James, Affluenza,  and began Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s thought provoking, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable. Both books are about the human condition and where we are at the beginning of this century. Seeing the historical sites in this context was eye opening.

I am incredibly fortunate to be alive now, to have my opportunities to travel, and be with family and friends. In this unequal world we are extremely privileged and we need to be aware of this and try to give back in other settings if we possibly can. I know that I do not do all I could or indeed all I should but at least recognising privilege and having a sense of fun and pleasure at the experiences we have is a measure of humanity. At least I hope so. And so until I next sit down and write a plane letter let me sign off.