Two weekends in South Africa

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In my third year of Primary School in the UK, I had a teacher called Mrs M. Every Monday she would gather us together to sit at her feet where she’d ask us in turn about our weekend. I guess it was an early version of show and tell, without the show.

I’d often become a little jealous of some of my friends as they seemed to have very exciting weekends: ski trips, visits to Edinburgh zoo, ferry trips to islands and historic castles …In comparison, my weekends seemed rather dull and mundane: a visit to my grandma and grandpa, maybe a trip to the shops, Sunday school, and if I was really lucky, a walk to the cemetery to put flowers on my recently deceased father’s grave.

I remember one particular weekend I’d been finishing off a geography project on South Africa. I’d chosen SA for several reasons. I liked giraffes and zebras, I’d noticed that the tin of guavas in the pantry, that we kept for special occasions, came from there and then there were the Outspan oranges in the fruit bowl. Yes, oranges were considered a special treat in 1960s Scotland.

So the following Monday when it was my turn to talk, I proudly announced to the entire class that I’d gone to South Africa for the weekend. There were a few gasps and a few giggles. Then an angry shout from Mrs M who accused me of being a terrible little liar and demanding that I leave the room immediately. Humiliated and ashamed, I left the room with tears streaming down my cheeks wishing that it had been true. I so wanted it to be true. I stood outside sobbing and awaiting my fate. I was reprimanded again and told to come inside and apologise to the class for telling lies, which I duly did with my head bowed and eyes downcast.

The good news is that I received an A+ for my project which I believe assisted my emotional recovery. In spite of everything, my fascination for South Africa continued into adulthood where it remained very high on my travel Bucket List.

Last June saw my dream realised when I landed in Jo’burg on an overcast winter morning. I loved every minute. My visit to Kruger National Park was unforgettable as was the week in Cape Town. But the best part of all was that I spent not just one, but two weekends in South Africa – take that Mrs M!

 

 

 

 

 

Travelling thoughts

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Just recently as I was gazing out the window of a plane at 35,000 feet, mesmerised by the snow-capped peaks below, it dawned on me how different my husband and I are in our attitude to travel. Now in his defence, he does have to travel a lot more than I do and often has to meet work deadlines en route, but all things considered, we do take a very different approach to travel and he acts the same whether travelling for business or pleasure.

It begins at the airport as soon as we step inside the terminal. My husband, who is not usually one to rush, suddenly changes into a possessed man on a mission, which means that everything has to be done at triple the speed, including check in, clearing immigration, getting to the gate, and especially boarding the plane, lest we miss out on that prime overhead bin space. I end up doing a half skip and run in an attempt to keep up with him, my carry on bag zig-zagging all over the place and my handbag slipping off my shoulder as I see the back of his head disappear around yet another corner. The same procedure occurs in reverse at the destination. It’s imperative we get off the plane in record-breaking time, clear customs, pick up our bags and exit the terminal before the person in row 45 has exited the plane.

I love to sit at the window and watch the cotton-wool fluffiness of the clouds; the tiny ships like small dots in the vast expanse of ocean; the patchwork quilt of dry brown desert interrupted by blocks of verdant lushness; the reflection of the sun on the metal of the aeroplane. I can spend hours lost in the thoughts each scene evokes.

Then turning away from the window there are the faces of the others travelling to the same destination; a collection of life’s stories compounded into one small space for this particular moment in time, yet barely a story shared.

When we travel these days we have become so disconnected from the actual journey and from those who are journeying with us. Our eyes are focussed on screens which seem to capture our attention so much more than even the pages of a book.

I remember a time when it was considered impolite not to engage in conversation with the person next to you. Now we just sit in suspended animation with plugs in our ears, engrossed in whatever Hollywood has determined we must see, or else we frantically type emails so they are ready to send as soon as the inflight wi-fi is turned on, so we can meet our deadlines. We are contactable even at 30,000 feet and I don’t know if that’s a good thing …

As I type, my husband has just left on yet another trans-Pacific flight. I can guarantee that the minute he got on the plane— that’s after sprinting through the procedures outlined above— his noise-cancelling headphones would have been out of his bag and stuck into his ears, as he simultaneously scrolled through the list of new-release movies. He would have been ready to roll even before the flight safety announcements were over. He may or may not have acknowledged the person seated next to him.

The proud parent of the pilot

I’m drinking my freshly-stewed (sorry, brewed) coffee, well at least it’s less stewed than it will be for the other passengers, because I’ve been served first. Feeling privileged!

I’m on the first flight of the morning from Newcastle to Melbourne and at the wheel, (ok, it’s not actually a wheel, but let’s not get too technical) is my first-born son.

Yes, I’m putting my life in his hands at 35,000 feet above terra firma. It’s an odd, but good feeling. Of course this isn’t the first time that he’s flown me. I’ve done several short flights in Cessnas and the like, but during those flights I didn’t take the time to reflect and ponder, I was too busy praying and wetting myself simultaneously!

I know my son does this piloting thing all the time now and to him it’s second nature to be in charge of a speeding metal can hurtling through the clouds, but to unscientific me, who fails to grasp even the basic laws of physics, I am just amazed that he knows how to fly this thing, and land it safely.

As we make our descent into Melbourne, I hear his familiar voice announcing our ETA, weather conditions etc. He even thanks us for choosing to fly his airline – what a well-brought up boy! Believe it or not I find my eyes filling with tears. The man on the aisle gives me a strange look, but these are tears of joy and pride. If it wasn’t that I’d definitely embarrass one of the pilots, I just manage to stop myself from shouting out to the entire cabin that it’s my boy who’s landing the plane!

No great expectations

I’ve seen a lot of my granddaughter over the last few days and there’s nothing better for the soul than watching her find constant joy and surprises in the mundane rhythms of life.

She smiles when it rains; she is struck with awe each time the moon rises and she ‘wows’ at the stars and laughs at rainbows. The same cycle on repeat and the same sense of surprise again and again and again!

In her play world, little plastic people and animals come to life and perform extraordinary feats as she coaxes them on with her high-pitched chatter.

For Claudia, each new day is filled with joy, wonder and surprises. She has no expectations to rob her of experiencing the wonder of each day. Without that barrier of expectation she is free to be surprised and filled with wonder.

Walls of expectation kill relationships and prevent us from experiencing joy and capturing the wonder of the moment.

“Instead of filling with expectations, the joy-filled expect nothing and are filled.” Ann Voskamp

You have a lot to teach your Nonna, young Claudia. Long may it continue!

Multi-story thinking

I recently listened to Nigerian author Ngozi Adichie talk about the inherent dangers of the single story. By failing to understand and appreciate multiple stories, the single story can end up shaping how we view people, nations and entire continents; our assumptions and opinions skewed by our ignorance and judgements.

For the last two weeks I’ve been travelling – one week at a resort in Mexico, frequented mostly by Americans, and now in Colorado. As a result I’m ashamed to say that I’ve been guilty of casting all Americans into a single story stereotype. That story reads something like this: Americans are loud and overly confident; they talk too much; they are culturally insensitive and disinterested in what goes on beyond the borders of the USA. They are consumed by super-sized consumerism.

In my defence, I may have heard one too many single story-tellers in the last two weeks, but it would be wrong of me to judge all North Americans because of a single story, stereotypical few.

In fact, I have had the pleasure of spending time with some wonderfully innovative and intelligent people who are interested in learning and understanding more of the world; folks whose diverse and multi-faceted stories will help shape the future narratives of generations to come.

Please don’t think I’m being judgemental about Americans, because I know that as soon as I board the plane back to Australia and hear a typical Aussie accent, I will have to remind myself that it takes more than a single story to truly understand the diversity of us Aussies as well.

Of Blood and Blogs

Ernest Hemingway said, “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” Well if that’s the case, Mr Hemmingway, I have been sitting at my laptop for weeks while my blood coagulates. I’ve been well and truly bogged down with bloggers block – sounds more alliterative than writer’s block!

Now don’t get me wrong, ask anyone who knows me well and they’ll tell you that I’m never short of an opinion and am happy to wax eloquently on numerous topics, but when it comes to committing my thoughts and feelings to the written word —well it’s all been a bit scary, really. Putting my words out there in the public arena fills me with all sorts of emotions. It’s as if my writing is somehow going to unearth this deeply buried Pandora’s Box which, once opened, will expose to the world the hidden and murky depths of my very soul.  All quite amusing really considering that only nine people actually follow my blog.

Over recent weeks I’ve just completed a creative writing course where I even ventured to share some of my writing with the class. Believe it or not there were no serious repercussions or violent backlashes, no opening of that infamous box. There were even one or two positive words of encouragement.

So here goes, I’m back in the blogosphere …

And Mr Hemmingway, if you have any tips for removing blood stains from a laptop I’d be much obliged.

Hope in Haiti

I’m sitting by a log fire in the foyer of my hotel on a freezing cold, Colorado autumn day. A hot, spiced-latte is slowly thawing out my frozen body after I foolishly decided to take a walk wearing only a T shirt and thin jacket. When will I learn this is not Australia!

It’s just over two weeks now since I was in Haiti and it’s taken me a bit of time to process some of what I experienced. Although just a short flight from the USA, Haiti could be on a different planet when compared to how people live here.

Having read Paul Farmer’s book on Haiti post earthquake, I arrived in Port-au-Prince expecting to see fallen buildings and rubble all over the city. Sure, I saw one or two pancaked buildings, still untouched since that fateful day in 2010, as well as a fair amount of rubble piled up here and there. What I didn’t expect was the amount of new buildings that have been constructed in the last 12 -18 months as well as the hundreds of buildings still under construction. The Royal Palace, the nation’s symbol, so badly damaged in the quake and left in ruins for so long, has finally been demolished. International chains are building 4 and 5 star hotels. There is a building frenzy going on and to the outsider it could appear that life has returned to normal, whatever that looked like before.

However, you don’t have to look too far as you drive through the streets of Delmas, Carrefour, and even the more affluent Petionville to see flimsy, weathered US AID- provided tents clustered tightly together forming large makeshift communities of people still homeless since the quake. The International Organization for Migration reports that the number of displaced people still living in these camps three and half years after the disaster is around 320,000, possibly more.

Poor sanitation and a lack of clean water make these makeshift camps a breeding ground for diseases, including cholera. With poor lighting and unsecured tents, as well as a lack of effective law enforcement, Haitian women and children are especially vulnerable to rape and other forms of violence. Living in these desperate conditions means higher rates of crime and substance abuse.

Yet Haiti is not hopeless, I found hope everywhere I looked — hope in the smiles of the kids, even those living in tent cities; hope in the staff of the child development centres as they nurture and educate the children in their care towards a future, less bound by the shackles of extreme poverty; hope in the passionate and determined men and women of Compassion Haiti who in spite of so much personal loss of family, friends and homes in 2010, were still as committed and faithful to working as tireless advocates for the children of Haiti.

More to come …

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A meadow in Oxford

Summer blue sky
 
Wispy clouds chased by gentle cooling breezes
 
Verdant riverbanks, dense and luscious
 
Geese feasting greedily on lunchtime leftovers
 
Murky waters gently flowing downstream, swirled up by passing punts and barges
 
A mother duck leading her ducklings in a row
 
Crowded tourist boats
 
Cameras frantically snapping the city of history behind me – freezing the moment for posterity
 
Children playing
 
Lovers embracing
 
The sound of birds, boats, laughter and diverse tongues
 
A moment to relax, refresh, reflect, renew …
 
Seated under the shade of a horse chestnut tree that has overlooked this scene for thousands of days, I reflect on how it would be if I actually took the time to notice and enjoy the simple things in every day.Image

Where on earth?

Burkina Faso is ranked 9th lowest in the Human Development Index. With a population of just over 15.8 million, the average age of its citizens is 17.

Unlike neighbouring Ghana, there are no cocoa or oil exports. Recent deposits of gold have been found, but they are unlikely to change daily life for the vast majority of Burkinabés.

Here the landscape is dry and harsh. During the rainy season it’s possible for subsistence farmers to grow crops and raise livestock, but when the dry season hits, there is no water to irrigate the crops and the average person living in the country is too poor to afford the costs involved of obtaining water from deep beneath the ground.

Flying in to Ouagadougou airport, all you can see for miles around is scrub and very red earth. Everything you touch has a fine coating of red soil. It begins to coat your throat after a few days. Life here is tough. You get the impression that for the vast majority every day is a struggle to survive.

On exiting the airport, hawkers try to sell you SIM cards and cheap souvenirs as well as offer to exchange US dollars. I feel embarrassed as we are whisked away through the chaos into the hotel van. We are afforded a 5 minute glimpse of the real Ouagadougou before pulling into the sanctuary of the Hotel Azalai Indépendance. This is the place where expats, mainly French & Belgian, gather by the pool on a hot Sunday afternoon, enjoying the benefits of a cooling swim and a few beers. If it wasn’t for the anachronism of cell phones and free wifi, I could easily believe I was back in the days of Colonialism. I am, however, very grateful for the French influence on the bakeries. The bread and croissants are as good as in Parisian restaurants. The poor Ghanaians have been left a legacy of British cuisine at its worst!

As soon as we leave the tranquility of our little oasis, we enter the chaos of cars, trucks, scooters, bikes and the occasional donkey and cart. Exhaust fumes, heat, dust and sweat can be overpowering as we try to navigate along the side of the road without being hit, in search of Burkinabé fabric.

Outside of the city, it seems to get even hotter and we follow the sealed road, which eventually leads to the Ghanian border, for about an hour. As soon as we pull off the main road we hit the dirt and create plumes of red dust which swirl behind our comfortable, air conditioned landcruiser.

Waiting to meet us at the village are men, women and children from not just this village, but from neighbouring ones too. Some have walked for many kilometres. A few of the children smile and wave, while others cower in fear as this is their first encounter with a white face.

We sit in the small village church, the men on one side, the women and children on the other. What is unusual about this meeting is that the church is filled not just with Christians, but there are Muslims, including the village chief, along with Animists and others. They are coming together in unity as part of a pilot community development program facilitated by the church. It seems to be having an amazing impact on this village and beyond. Many of the men and women testify that their lives are beginning to change as a result of working together and sharing ideas and resources to create food security and income generation. They are dreaming big and hopefully these gorgeous kids, many of whom are tied to their mothers’ backs, will grow up to complete their schooling; to become business owners; to be self sufficient.

Small steps of progress are being made, but life is still tough. I need to remember this place when I get back home. I need to be more grateful for what I have and be willing to share more.

Back to school

Today was a big day. After 10 years of doing other things, I survived my first day back in the classroom!

Anyone who knows me realizes that I love kids. That’s why I decided to study teaching at university, back in the day. Most of my teaching career was spent teaching either French or English to middle and senior school students with the odd 20 minute French lesson to years 3 and 4. When I left teaching 10 years ago, for what I thought was forever, it was to work for an international child development organisation. However, over the last three years, circumstances have changed and a few weeks ago I applied to become a casual teacher and head back to the classroom.

Having said that, when the call came asking me to spend the day team-teaching Year 1, it was indeed a shock to the system. To be honest I was still in bed when the phone rang! But, exactly 60 minutes later I was showered, dressed, caffeine-fuelled and ready to mark the roll!

The kids were great. I had a small group of eager young ladies who were more than happy to keep me accountable to the class routine and rules! I loved watching the children interact with each other as they worked out for themselves the answers to some of the questions surrounding the topic of Weather. It was fun to watch them solve problems and ask questions.

At ‘fruit break’ I was indispensable as a peeler of bananas and mandarins and at lunch time I switched roles from teacher to band-aid administrator, peace-negotiator and shoe-lace tier! In fact I lost count of the number of little boys who ran up and asked me most politely if I would tie their shoelaces.

As for the peace negotiations, well I reckon I could give Ban Ki-moon a run for his money, as I definitely managed to avert four potentially violent conflicts all in the space of 15 minutes!

After lunch we successfully negotiated a trip to the library and then finished the day at Junior School Assembly, with many parents in attendance, where I sat trying to subtly chastise three little munchkins who thought it would be a good idea to tackle each other on the floor as well as pick their noses and talk through the entire proceedings!

Having said all that, it was a good day. A day that served to remind me just how much I love kids and what a privilege it is to influence and speak into their lives in a positive way.

To my friends and colleagues who do this 5 days a week, you have my utmost admiration. It’s 8:45pm. I’m knackered and off to bed!

 

 

 

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You have a granddaughter

It’s usually three little words that set a woman’s heart fluttering and turn her world upside down. In my case it’s four.

It’s not that I didn’t know it was going to happen. The signs were all there. Nine months of excitement and anticipation as my daughter-in-law’s bump grew bigger; placing my hands strategically to feel those tiny little kicks; visiting every baby store in town and attending baby showers; watching a guest room transform into a zoo animal-themed nursery…

Saturday 28th April at 8:45am Claudia Rosemary entered our world. My son called to say those four magic words: “You have a granddaughter”.

Now you might think I’m a little biased, but she really is perfect. She is so beautiful that she can have a room-full of family members totally transfixed, staring at her non-stop and commenting on every cute little face she pulls. She really has stolen our hearts.

It seems like only yesterday that I was equally captivated by her father, as he lay in a crib pulling those same faces. (Incidentally he was perfect too!) I remember my mother being just as excited and mesmerized by her first grandchild. She would have felt these same emotions that I feel now. I’m sad she’s no longer here to share this special time, but I’m happy that her memory lives on, not only in Claudia’s middle name, but also in the fact that my precious granddaughter chose to enter the world on the day that was her great grandmother’s birthday.

I am indeed a blessed Nonna. I can’t wait to watch Claudia grow and flourish with the help of her magnificent parents. She also just happens to have four amazing grandparents, a wonderful uncle and two fantastic aunts, as well as an abundance of extended family members and friends all over the world who have already fallen in love with her.

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Wake Up Call

At home, my slumber is usually broken by the sound of an alarm clock or the coffee grinder in the kitchen as my husband prepares our morning brew. On the odd occasion, it’s an over-enthusiastic kookaburra or the rain pelting against our bedroom’s glass doors. This week, my sleep has been somewhat rudely interrupted by some very different sounds.

I’m staying on the 28th floor of a hotel in the Mangga Dua district of Jakarta, Indonesia. Around 4am, 2 hours before sunrise, while even the roosters are still sleeping, the speakers around the local mosque blare out the first of the five daily calls to prayer. If you listen really hard, you can hear the same call echoing all over the city.

Encouraged by the melodic tones of the Muezzin, the roosters start to crow, announcing that the day has well and truly begun. Now add the noise of motor cycles, buses and cars into the mix and the crescendo starts to build.

By the time the sun has fully risen, the cacophony has reached fever pitch with an added mix of rumbling trains, whistles, car and motor cycle horns, as well as the occasional screech of brakes and shouts from local vendors.

Welcome to morning in Jakarta!

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I in 1.4 billion

There are 1.4 billion people living in extreme poverty – one of the many statistics we’re bombarded with on a daily basis. In fact I’m such a words girl that as soon as I hear or see numbers, I chill out and they become almost meaningless. But last night I met 1 of the 1.4 billion. She wasn’t a statistic; her name was Rosa and she was trying to sell me a rose as the sun set over Manila bay.

Manila Bay is where the rich and the poor converge under a reddening sky to appreciate nature’s celebration of the day’s end. Luxury hotels and office blocks line one side of the multi-lane boulevard while the other side plays host to local joggers, tourists, ice-cream sellers, and touters of tacky souvenirs and fake pearls. It is also here, on sheets of plastic and cardboard, that Rosa makes her home. This is where Rosa and her five-month-old baby spend their days (and nights) trying to make ends meet.

So how did she end up here? Like everyone who ends up in a place like this, there is a story:

Rosa’s husband recently died, leaving her with four children and no income. Like so many from other parts of the Philippines, Rosa thought she’d have a better chance of finding a job in Manila. So leaving her three other children behind with her sister, she arrived here with her baby.

Unfortunately, Rosa has discovered that finding work with no vocational training is almost impossible. No proper job means no income. No income means no rent money. No rent money means no home … and so the cycle of extreme poverty continues. Rosa gives street-side massages during the day and tries to sell roses to tourists like me at night. She earns around 2 dollars a day. Not enough to pay rent; not enough for a return ticket home.

I tell her that I don’t want to buy a rose, but I would like to buy her a meal. I slip her a few pesos and feel a little taken aback when she begins to cry. The measly amount I have given her is more than she’s made all day.

We say goodbye and an hour later as we drive away, I see her standing under a street light, her baby asleep in her arms. She still has 5 roses in her hand – the same number she had when we met.

I’d love to say there is a happy ending to this story, but there’s not. I presume that Rosa is out there again tonight. It’s raining heavily as I type. It just doesn’t seem right…

A new kind of dog’s life

Did you know that last year we Aussies spent a little over $3.6 billion on our dogs? In comparison we donated $346 million to World Vision and $11 million to Breast Cancer Research.

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m a dog lover and the proud owner of a very controlling golden retriever. However, I’m sure if she finds out how some of her poochie mates are living in other parts of Australia she may just decide to leave home.

According to the magazine article I just read, Doggie Day Spas and Retreats are popping up all over the country.  At the most upmarket ones, your canine has the choice of the Disney or New York Suite complete with luxurious leather upholstery, dimmed lighting and mood music. Qualified dog nannies are on hand to care for your dog’s every whim, including vegan diets.

Organised themed puppy parties appear to be all the rage, so why not indulge your rottweiler by dressing him up in an elephant costume? (He won’t look nearly so scary to his friends!) And for the labrador who likes to party hard, not only can you buy him a pair of dark sunglasses, but you can even book him a doggie taxi for the ride home.

Maybe your pooch doesn’t like to party. Don’t worry, party-pooping poodles can stay home and relax in designer, jewel-encrusted collars, silk PJ’s and slippers.

But wait there’s more; the ultimate spa treatment for your dog: Doggy Detox as well as a manicure (nail polish provided),  bubble bath and massage using hand made organic spa  ingredients designed to calm, soothe, replenish and refresh …

If there weren’t over one billion PEOPLE still living in extreme poverty, then all this could seem really funny. Instead it makes me incredibly sad.