There are sparrows living in the terminal building at National Airport in Washington. Clearly they have found an ecological niche and are making the most of it. I don’t know if they spend all their time in there or if they manage to get in and out. This is the sort of question that I would ‘Google’, but I was unable to connect with the internet. I was too tired to do battle with the technology, especially since I had just 40 minutes before boarding my flight to Toronto. Instead I sat in the boarding area and contemplated. There was an elderly gentleman sitting in there playing snatches of music on a French horn. This was designed to keep the waiting passengers amused I think. Unfortunately he was not very good and did not play any piece for long enough. One of the gate staff walked over, plonked himself in an empty wheelchair next to me, and gently rolled himself back and forth in time to the music while texting furiously. These are the vignettes of the departure gate.
I got back to Canada on 18 February after a short visit to the UK. It was, in my view, just long enough to thaw out. Of course most of the west of the UK was experiencing some of the worst floods on record. It looked quite desperate for many homeowners and farmers. Fields in the Somerset levels are still under water.
There was more snow in Waterloo and it continued to be bitterly cold. The time there on this visit was a little curtailed. I am getting a sense of the place, and what I need and want to do. Buying a car and finding somewhere to live is the next order of business.
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.
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.
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.
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.