Small Towns, Monkeys and Nonagenarians

So this last week I’ve been back down in Durban, Kwazulu Natal, home to mum’s eldest sister, my gran and an assortment of cousins and their offspring. It was very nice to be able to see the ‘old lady’, erstwhile known as Mutty (moo-tee), born in 1921, and still plodding along.

Allegedly once a rather formidable lady she has been tamed by the passage of time and the limitations of an aging body. She is entirely dependent on her daughter now, her aging bones unable to lift her from her bed without assistance, her sight marred by advanced macular degeneration (MD) but, as I quipped to my cousin, at least it wasn’t a case of moral degradation… Quite the opposite in fact. The woman still insists on weekly communion, delivered courtesy of a parish minister who visits the various invalids on a Thursday.

I am ambivalent about the influence of Catholicism on my family, particularly with regards to my mother, but I have a choice as to how I want to live my life and I certainly don’t have to embrace the more puritanical aspects of the religion if I don’t want to. I felt that my mum lived a fairly good life – she was certainly quite selfless when it came to ministry and active service – but one lived with certain insecurities that her religion could not address.

It’s complicated and there’ve been times I’ve become quite worked up about it but on this occasion I chose to avoid these negative emotions and spent an hour two of the day chatting to Mutty on various topics: my unrealised ambitions; who in the family was doing what and where; and old memories. She was remarkably conversational, more so than the last time I saw her a year back. My aunt Liz put it down to the blood transfusion she’d recently received.

The rest of the family was busy as always. I arrived late on the Monday after Easter, ostensibly a holiday, to find my aunt working on some quotations. My uncle Derek’s asphalting business was always prone to fluctuations in cash flow so I wasn’t particularly surprised to learn how it been borderline viable over the Christmas period only recovering recently by dint of an influx of insurance jobs. Some late storms ensured that properties across the city experienced largely superficial damage to driveways, paving and exterior walls – bread and butter for my uncle’s business. I’d worked for him back in 2007 so I knew the deal.

The garden was looking great. My cousin Ellysa lived on the property with her husband Steve,  a commercial diver who was currently working offshore somewhere in the Persian Gulf. They are hoping to put down a deposit on an old house somewhere in the vicinity, perhaps in the hope of starting a family of their own. I’d always admired Steve, an Englishman by upbringing, for his energetic lifestyle. He’d made a number of improvements to the property between jobs which included installing several large, green, plastic JoJo tanks for rainwater storage. They had quite obviously made all the difference over the dry summer. The photos below speak for themselves:

Steve and Ellysa also do a great job of participating in a non-profit wildlife organisation called Monkey Helpline (you’ll find them on this page). I haven’t seen them in action but I’ve heard enough to know that they’re doing an invaluable job in the field of conservation, with particular emphasis on assisting injured and orphaned vervet monkeys. Whilst there the local troop of vervets visited the house on two occasions. My cousin and her mum feed the animals bread, oats and fruit to supplement their diets.

With the colonisation of that part of the coast by city-dwellers the natural vegetation has been cleared, altered and replaced by gardens, roads, houses, shopping malls, schools, fields and factories. Feeding them is just a means of being considerate for these free-ranging primates who are really quite entertaining. They are not aggressive although they can bite if cornered and I am surprised to read on the MH website that there has never recorded case of a rapid monkey in the city. See for example my video below and another taken by a Durban resident which shows several taking a dip in a swimming pool.

Here is a gallery of the furry creatures dining out on my aunt’s roof:

Quite remarkably I never made it down to the beach. During the week everyone was busy with their respective jobs – the family mostly works from home: my aunt on commission for a cupboard and cabinet outfit; my uncle for himself, Ellysa doing the office work – so I didn’t have the use of a car or anyone to take me down.

To be honest it didn’t bother me too much. On two occasions I walked across to the local shopping centre for odds and ends and for exercise I jogged up and down the hills a few times, an exhausting task I assure you. The rest of the time I was chatting with Mutty, Liz or Ellysa, watering the garden, swimming with the dogs in the late afternoon, discussing composting toilets and permaculture with my uncle and the like.

I should point out that I did not come directly to Durban but rather indirectly via Vryheid and Richard’s Bay. In the former resides a cousin of mine, Amy, who works as an occupational therapist at a local government hospital. She’d recently been on a workshop in Pretoria so we’d got to catch up over a drink and she’s extended the invitation for me to visit over the long Easter weekend. I went down on the Wednesday and she picked me up after work, gave me a tour of the little hospital before we headed back to her house in the suburbs.

She appeared to live a happy, independent life with 3 rescue dogs and a rescued kitten in a two bedroom cottage on a subdivided property. The owner lived in a house on the other side of a partition. In-between was a simple, two-roomed outbuilding in which the son resided. It was quickly apparent that the young man, Eugene, was besotted with my cousin. Amy possesses an air of self-assurance and a ready smile that seems to put people at ease. All of 26 she has a full head of blonde hair dyed with purple streaks in it. On her fridge was a hand-drawn picture of Queen Elsa from the Disney animation Frozen. It was a gift from Eugene who thought Amy looked just like the aloof snow-queen.

We had gone out on two successive evenings to a local bar called Ella The Greek. No surprise to learn that the proprietor was a Greek himself. In summary I can say that every male between 20-50 in the town seemed acquainted with my cousin, notwithstanding most of the women too and those who weren’t probably wanted to be. To be fair it was a typical small-town situation which put me in mind of Harare which, although substantially bigger than Vryheid,  in a social context was not much different.

The local barman Shaun served us all evening and threw in a few extra shots for the sake of it. Amy told me he was one  of the good ones who looked out for her. There was another young guy, JP, a bit of a hard luck story, who gravitated towards Amy partly out of affection but also as a ready source of ciggies. Now I have been informed that her parents are under no circumstances to learn about her habit, so if you do so happen to Mike and Jan your discretion in this matter is appreciated! Heck I am no-one to judge, puffing on a fair few myself. All the same I was a bit taken aback by the sheer number of smokers I encountered. There was barely anyone who didn’t smoke in the establishment.

On the Friday we dove down to Richard’s Bay to Amy’s folks. Her granny lived with them in the main house and I was able to move into the granny flat. Her dad Mike had built the place himself, being something of a jack of all trades. Like Steve he’s installed half-a-dozen plastic storage tanks for rainwater runoff as well as grey water from the washing machine. He claimed that his coverage was so effective (via the roofs and driveway) that it only required 5 mm of rainfall to refill all the JoJo tanks. In addition he had a swimming pool which was, he pointed out, a further 20 000 l emergency storage.

 

Richard’s Bay, or just R-Bay, had featured periodically in my upbringing. This was the first time I had visited in almost 14 years and the first time I’d visited without my cousins or one or other of my brothers. I’d gone down there with Ivan and my mum the year before she died and we’d gone back the following Christmas just before Ivan was to start university and I was to complete a final year at UP. The social and family dynamics had been different on that occasion.

I hadn’t really felt present if you know what I mean? It was no fault of Mike and Jan’s but it was still very reassuring to feel so welcome at the house all these years later. The addition of the granny flat aside nothing much had changed. Mike still drank cider, appeared slightly eccentric (well he is) and held forth on various issues with a strong opinion. I like him. Jan had recently retired after several decades of teaching English but was nonetheless cheerful and obliging.

I won’t write too much more except to say that I did get down to the beach. Hooray! After all those years away I was quite shocked to see how much the main bathing beach, Alkanstrand, had been eroded. The sea had cut into the previously broad expanse of sand and was in danger of undercutting the lifeguard’s hut. On the Easter Sunday I’d walked for some way along the beachfront heading north. I was impressed by the beach cliffs and the streaky black sands that are so characteristic of the area. This is not in fact oil or other pollution as one might expect at first glance but rather a concentration of heavy minerals like ilmenite and rutile, both titaniferous and commercially exploitable. I’d had a tour of the dune-mining operation of Richard’s Bay Minerals when I was an undergraduate at UP.

There’s no denying mankind’s rapacious appetite for natural commodities whether they be heavy minerals sands or the ocean’s bounty. There was an Easter fishing competition at the nearby Ski-boat club and the fishermen had hauled out quantities of rock-cod and various game-fish. Amy told me how she deplored the sight of the dead fish and I have to say that I agree after seeing the poor creatures laid out on concrete slabs by the boat ramp, their engorged swim bladders protruding from their mouths, macabre, like the tongues of drought-stricken cattle who have succumbed to thirst.

On an adjacent dredging platform some young teenagers leapt into the shallows with squeals of delight. I watched two guys snorkeling along the periphery. I’d done the same thing with Dale, a friend of Amy’s, the day before. On that occasion he’d pointed out an octopus hiding amongst the cracks in the concrete foundations. We’d let him be. Dale told me that he only took live specimens of tropical fish for his aquarium. He evidently had a big set of lungs.

Today one of the two snorkelers came out of the water gripping an octopus, whether the same one I’d seen the day before I can’t be sure. Laughing and moving the frantic creature from hand to hand he gave it to a fisherman friend on the shore. His two kids looked on in fascination as he proceeded to bash the poor creature senseless on a rock. He was doing nothing more than using it for bait. I turned away disgusted.

I love the ocean and the myriad creatures that live within but sometimes I wonder if most of us don’t just see her as another resource ripe for exploitation so that we can feed another hungry mouth or satisfy the whims of a middle-class ever keen to gorge on tasty, low-fat seafood. Such is the world we have made. It is not without hope though. I can see that there are many, like Dale, who care and understand the finite nature of the sea and her coastal resources.

An information board entitled Our Coast for Life near the car park elaborated on their importance for recreation, rural  livelihoods and biodiversity. For me the photo I took of the Indian mother and daughter standing ankle-deep in the surf, a younger member of the family frolicking at right, with a large cargo-ship entering the harbour in the background, is somewhat symbolic of the choice we have to make between exploitation and utilisation on the one hand and recreation and conservation on the other. Only time will tell where the balance lies.

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Palmyra after Isis: images taken following Syrian recapture offer hope amid ruins

Palmyra after Isis: images taken following Syrian recapture offer hope amid ruins

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I shared a Guardian article from the 19th August when Palmyra had already fallen to IS/Daesh and the brutal murder of resident archaeologist had just come to light.

So it is great news that these fanatical oafs have been dispelled from the city even if it is by virtue of Bashar al Asaad. So evidently he cares about the legacy left by prior civilizations. Does this make him a more worthy ruler? It certainly puts him ahead of IS in most Westerners eyes but is it the only criterion by which he should be judged?

Jozi

Late March in suburban Johannesburg,

The first day of Autumn, yet still the warmth

Of summer and everywhere the deep green

Foliage speaks of the coming of late rains.

 

Avenues lined with stately London planes,

In gardens oak and slender poplar trees

A most strange chimera of temperate climes

Verdant mark upon grassy Highveld plains.

 

Spawned in the shadow of Kruger’s Republiek

They struck gold up on the Witwatersrand

And in the crucible of empire

A great conflict engulfed the land.

 

Yet unscathed from war she did emerge

Mighty Jo’burg, Jozi, the place of gold.

I wish you well my friend, especially now

That your riches lie above the ground

and not within.

Shuffling Along One Day at a Time

The week just gone has been a mixed bag. Early in the week I decided, against my better judgement, to prod around my right inner ear with an ear-bud in order to remove some of the copious wax that had build up over the last few months. This happens periodically. On the previous occasion the result was that I compacted the wax against the eardrum and only after the frequent use of ear drops and much probing did the wax eventually budge. This was a painful wait of at least a week and despite being advised against the use of anything “narrower than my elbow” I’ve tried to preempt matters and remove the offending material and gone and landed straight back in the same situation. Basically, it’s all my fault and I shouldn’t be boring you with this stuff! 

An aspect of my health that I haven’t had any control over is a cold and cough that’s bugged me all week. Considering that it pretty much overtook my entire respiratory system on Tuesday it could probably be classified as the flu. That said it has not been too severe, more just a hindrance. My sleep patterns have been all over the place and I look forward to reestablishing control over my feeble corporeal being with the help of a few nurofen and alcoholic beverages (vodka, whisky, hot toddies? All advice gratefully received).

I did make it to UP on Wednesday. I arrived at the department a little after the designated time but was received without much fuss (except that I didn’t have the relevant literature to hand) by James and his study group in the staff room. This would have been a privileged experience indeed as an undergraduate or an honours student. However, this was a small group of postgraduates and as anyone in the world of academia knows postgraduates occupy a niche far closer to the teaching and research staff than do the undergrad underlings.

Afterwards James and I went for a couple of beers at one of the campus cafes. I had scurried past it a couple of times in that ‘other life’ of mine but had never had the audacity to stop and indulge in – what! – an alcoholic beverage on campus! Okay, admittedly I’d been corrupted prior to that (I was 24 years old even at that time); I was just a bit insular. Back then the main campus in Pretoria was less heterogeneous: black students mixed by the student union whilst white students fraternised around this cafe and others like it. Many of them were Afrikaans speakers. That was part of the reason I felt a little intimidated I suppose.

What a change a decade can bring. It just seemed that much more relaxed on campus. Students of all colours and creeds chatted and socialized. To see a young white girl and balck guy evidently at ease in each other’s company walking along, books and files in hand, would have been exceptional back in 2003 but today no-one batted an eyelid. Still there’s no doubt there are still huge challenges working towards complete racial and social integration. James told me about the EFF and AfriForum clashes recently and on-going demonstrations country-wide, agitating against fees, Afrikaans language-instruction, employment contracts etc. One can read all about it on News 24.

So I will be looking seriously at acquiring a project at the department this year. The two questions besides what exactly I will be researching (something to do with Karoo-age dykes and their distribution – there are economic implications) relate to a) where I will live and b) which passport I will study on. There are large concessions for local (SADC) students versus international students. Oh, yeah, and the question of £/$/R. As always.

Anyway life goes on and go on we must, as Yoda might say.

To round out this match report some photos from Zoo Lake up the road, a place of interesting provenance vis-a-vie Cecil, Alfred and Julius (explained below).

 

 

  

 

Some Interesting Tellie

I just sat down and watched a very curious bit of TV via the BBC iPlayer app on my tablet. Strictly speaking I shouldn’t be able to but with the help of a VPN (otherwise known as an IP spoofer) I am able to download program episodes as if I were doing so from within the UK.

My usual fare are espionage, thriller, the odd comedy and drama thrown but the programme I’m elaborating on here is a documentary episode showing on BBC3, also available for catch-up via the iPlayer, entitled Sex in Strange Places – Turkey

I was intrigued for several reasons. Firstly, I have a fond relationship with Turks and Turkey – not all of them of course – but having worked and traveled there for several months at a time I’ve made friends and acquaintances in many of its towns and cities.

Secondly I am fighting against the imposed sensibilities of my conservative upbringing and trying to take a healthy interest in the whole issue of sex and sexuality. I identify as a heterosexual male but I increasingly feel the limitations of describing ourselves confidently when we know so little about how other people identify. Sex is, after all, something all of us will contemplate at some stage and for most of us it will involve much more than contemplation alone.

Thirdly, and a little superficially I guess, I like the presenter, Stacey Dooley. She’s young (28), attractive and engaging, flashing a wide and disarming smile quite frequently. She wins over the trust of her interviewees with her smile and genuine empathy. To add to that I overheard somewhere that she’s from Luton, a town where I’ve spent a good deal of time in the UK. Like many Lutonians, who tend to of working class origin, she doesn’t always pronounce her ‘t’s or her ‘l’s which makes me a little sentimental and definitely not objective e.g. Water becomes wah-ah and girls become geh-wzah.

Anyway I found it all quite fascinating. The hypocrisy of many Turkish men and indeed society, is unveiled in this hour-long feature. I’d heard some of the proclamations through an Arab friend of mine who bemoaned the importance that Turkish women put on virginity at marriage. Apparently this is an expectation held by most Turkish men. An Algerian friend of mine alleges that young brides-to-be will go so far as to have surgical operations to try to ‘restore’ the undefiled state of their womanhood in order to meet this expectation.

In truth many of these same men are visiting prostitutes as Stacey discovers. Some visit transvestites because they are apparently more authentic whilst many married men frequent brothels. They choose to use prostitutes because they feel inhibited at home, unable to play out their sexual fantasies in the marital domain. 

Stacey manages to elicit some very candid interviews from some of her interviewees. One of the first, a prostitute names Hulya, elaborates on how many of her clients don’t even know the basics of sexual intercourse – which bit goes where! A man might penetrate his wife’s navel on their first encounter she says. Quite bizarre but a testimony to the virtual absence of sex education in the school curriculum.

There are also some touching interviews with an outgoing transvestite and a young gay lawyer who is trying to get justice after being raped by three men. His attempts to report this to the police at the time go unheeded and only with persistence and financial support from the broader community of independent lawyers does the case make it to court. At the first court appearance they are in complete denial and accuse him of lying. During the second court hearing the three fail to turn up at all. No action is taken by the authorities we are informed.

It makes me angry many times over for these and many other injustices which are perpetrated in this beautiful nation under the autocratic and religiously conservative Erdogan and his AKP. It also reminds me why I am so very against any sort of conservative ideology, usually dressed up under the guise of religion, which seeks to limit, prohibit and sensor people on the basis of their sexuality. I look forward to subsequent episodes in the series where Stacey will travel to Russia and Brazil for some further investigative work.

Evolving Challenges

I am back on my beloved continent since Thursday afternoon, courtesy of an indirect flight from London Heathrow via Addis Ababa. What a relief I won’t die on British soil: that’s honestly how I feel. Ridiculous perhaps to a rational being but I’m not such a person. This is really about rediscovering some self-belief, sense of purpose and, dare I say it, destiny.

It’s great to be reclining in the sunshine and temperatures upwards of 20C. Despite being in the clutches of a seasonal drought the meadows and highveld gasslands are green, testimony to the tenacity of the native flora. The humidity is moderate and rain has been forecast this week although people seem skeptical.

Next week I intend to go through to Pretoria again to see James, a Rhodes and Wits alumnus who I actually knew personally at the former institution. He is now a lecturer in igneous petrology at Tukkies (University of Pretoria). We spoke last May and he expressed an interest in taking me as a postgrad. I’ve dreamed (and dreaded) of taking this step for the last 10 years of my life. It feels like a last throw of the dice. It’s not just the money but the whole series of practical and bureaucratic obstacles that have to be negotiated and overcome.

I’m not going to revisit that chapter of life except to say that it was a mental minefield. Anyone who knows me personally knows how badly affected I was by the circumstances. Looking back now I can see how much of it, probably all of it, are the projections of loneliness. Thankfully I can recognise that on a certain level even if the reality of it has yet to be fully embraced. I still see brick walls, fences, concrete and enclosures but I also get a peek over those same barriers at the sweeping panorama of the Highveld and remind myself that everything I fear and loathe is bounded by this almost limitless landscape, so much greater.

I still recall those less fortunate souls, friends and colleagues, who didn’t manage to find a state of co-existence in this enigmatic country and continent. There are many and there will no doubt be others to come. It can be brutal and tribal, beautiful and soothing in turn. The land beneath our feet is perhaps our ultimate salvation for we all depend on it: white, black, Asian and mixed race alike.

On the postive side I will meet a relative of mine is on a short course in Pretoria next week and, as always, I have the unwavering support of my dear Ania from Warsaw. I hope to report back with some good news in a week’s time notwithstanding student protests and agitation from the likes of the EFF who seem to be responsible for the university being closed this last week after intense protests regarding the university’s language policy. These things are beyond my control sayeth the pragmatist in me. And this really is a moment for pragmatism. Let the head lead the heart on this occasion.

 

 

 

My Workaway and Other Stories

Well my time in France has come to an end. Should I be philosophical about it and conclude proceedings with a sigh and a “c’est la vie”? Certainly not! I have had a wonderful 6 or 7 weeks here. As you can tell I’ve managed to lose track of time. 

What can I say about the Workaway experience? It’s a great model providing you understand what it’s all about. You’re not going to earn any money working as a volunteer unless of course you have an established business operating independently of you (really, and you’re a travelling volunteer?); are dealing elicit substances from your backpack en route (not advised when crossing borders); or are adept at online gambling or trading (aren’t there better things to do with your time?).

Workaway is all about the experiencing things whether they be cultural, cuisine, landscape, urban, rural, musical.. whatever. If you are the sort to sign up for the scheme chances are you are open to new experiences and are actively seeking them.

From what I understand (it’s probably stated in the Ts and Cs), the host can engage you for a maximum of 5 hours a day in gainful employment, around which you can do as you please. There were days I worked more and days I worked less. The work was never dull and the time I had to myself was ample to explore my immediate surrounds and here and there go a little further.

I was fortunate that during both my Workaway placements I had reasonable hosts. Gérard, who runs his permaculture project on his smallholding near Poitiers was a lovely man and I say that without any subtext. If he could be accused of anything I suppose it could be that he is perhaps a little over-enthusiastic at times. I remember wandering into the barn-cum-workshop in the late afternoon or a Sunday morning to find him busy chopping metal bars or assembling something he had been imagining in his head.

However, he never made me feel obligated. Whatever he intended us to do was by invitation and suggestion. It was never a directive. It was also an exercise in communication across the language divide as neither of us had a firm grasp of the other’s language. Arguably my French was a lot better than his English but it still left much to be desired. Gérard’s talent lay in speaking slowly with ample gestures so that the essence of what he was trying to explain was conveyed despite my diminished vocabulary.

Hector, a Mexican man, with whom I worked at my next assignment had a different style. He was certainly more authoritative. I suspect it was partly a personality trait and partly cultural. I often felt as though he would have preferred to shout when I misunderstood him (quite often) but somehow managed to force himself not to. I was never really able to relax fully with ol’ Hector but I could appreciate that he was a very practically-minded individual. Everything he knew about building and wiring and insulating and so forth he had learnt ‘empirically’ as he put it. I certainly learnt a few things in this regard.

Hector liked his grub and every other lunchtime we would head off to the local Chinese restaurant in the neighbouring village, or occasionally a kebab for the sake of variety. His wife Ann was a nice lady, a very busy lady, who somehow found time to cook around doing homework with Hugo, the housework, as well as laundry, ironing and periodic nursing shifts. So far as food went I was well taken care of at both places.

The contrast was in the style of dining. Gérard and his wife, Mireille, took their time over a meal. It was more intimate, never rushed. We chatted and laughed and savoured each morsel whether it be a helping of cherry tomatoes from the garden or a piece of home-baked quiche. There was also the obligatory glass of wine with the afternoon meal, usually a rosé. For me this was the essence of simple, pleasurable French dining.

Hector and Anne’s boys (fraternal twins) were polite but I sensed that mealtimes were more an obligatory exercise which they would rather conclude as fast as possible so that they could get back to whatever they were doing before i.e. computing.

Spending time with the Gayón family also gave me an insight into living with an autistic child. Raphael was or all intents a normal boy of 15 whilst his brother Hugo was afflicted by autism. It manifest itself in the way he spoke (quite matter of factly without much intonation) and in his particularities. For instance, he obsessively played the same 1st person computer game the entire two weeks I was there outside of homework and mealtimes.

He hated loud noises or situations that might permit them. Therefore whenever the sliding door to the patio was opened he would block his ears. Even things like music emanating from my tablet would make him uncomfortable and I was asked to turn it off.

Seeing how the family had to adapt to Hugo’s particular set of needs was educational for me. Not something I had actively sought out but which I’ve benefitted from nonetheless. It couldn’t have been easy for the rest of the family yet they undoubtedly loved him. One evening he unexpectedly smothered his parents in kisses and hugs much more demonstrably than a normal boy of that age would do. I could see this amused, perhaps even pleased his father and lthough he maintained his cool demeanour I detected the hint of a smile on his lips.

He ate prodigious amounts of chocolate, waffles and yoghurt – too much as far as I was concerned – but I assume his parents permitted it in compensation for the things he would not get a chance to enjoy, unlike his brother Raphael.

Raphael was a very smart child, that much was evident. He spent most of his time on his computer either programming or reprogramming games (‘mods’), composing music or networking with friends remotely. He had a state of the art digital SLR which he brought along on an outing to an old castle/chateau on a hill overlooking the village. I told him of my interest in photography and he had quite unselfishly handed the camera over to me and told me to ‘shoot away’.

I sensed that he wanted to please me, to be liked. Did he feel the burden of being the ‘normal’ child and the expectations that must come with it? I had reason to ponder this on several occasions.

On a lighter note I would like to share a few anecdotes from my trip which illustrates some of the lighter moments traveling abroad.

1. Over lunch Gérard informs me that the next day he and I are going to Katia’s house. Katia is another Workaway host who is active in Gerard’s permaculture project. Mireille has not taken to Katia probably because she comes across as very assertive. Katia tells me this is because she came from a big family of boys. Her dad died early in her life as well. Personally I liked Katia. Beneath her matter-of-fact, let’s-get-down-to-business approach she was actually a very kind and thoughtful person.

Mireille fixes Gérard with a stare and states simply that is not going to happen because she has an appointment scheduled with her hairdresser in Vasles and he is supposed to drive her there. Gérard protests but her gaze is unyielding. Wisely he diverts his eyes to the fruit bowl, furrows his brow as if deep in thought, and after a few moments contemplation nods his head and proclaims that yes, he remembers now. The rendezvous at chez-Katia can wait till the weekend.

2. After Gérard’s project and a few days cycling along the Loire Valley I head down to the city of Toulouse where a friend of mine, Rui, lives. From the train station I catch the Metro to meet him near his house. I am seated in one of the carriages and, having nothing better to do, pick up a newspaper at my feet. It’s in French but with pictures of some local celbs on one side and an assortment of swimsuit models on the other including the South African model, Candice Swanepoel, stretched out in a two piece number.

Being a bit self-conscious I drop the paper back on the floor.
A few moments later an elderly Muslim woman dressed in traditional attire enters the carriage. A young girl kindly gives up her seat opposite me. The woman smiles and nods appreciatively. She sits down and picks up the same piece of newsprint, fixing her eyes on the page with the models.

Her eyes narrow and with a disapproving mumble she proceeds to tear the paper into little shreds! I catch the eye of the girl who gave up her seat a moment earlier. She is struggling to stifle a laugh. Most of the people around me are grinning in amusement although the elderly woman takes no notice.

3. Working alongside Hector one morning I turn on the digital radio app on my tablet. I is tuned to Smooth FM, UK. Annie Lennox is singing Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This).

Me to Hector: Hector, do you like Annie Lennox? (I am a fan)
Hector (busy installing an electrical cable) : Yes, I like Red Hat
Me: Mmmm, not sure I know that number.
Hector: Yes it is a good operating system.
Me: I mean Annie Lennox. Of the Eurythmics….ya know?
Hector (still busy with said cable): Listen, I would use it more but my clients require Windows Software.

Get it? Lennox/Linux. One sings, the other is an open source operating system. (LOL)

PS I still don’t know whether Hector likes Annie Lennox. Or the Eurythmics. Being a jazz player I personally think he’d like her Medusa album. Just a guess.

Le Jardin de Verrines: a lovely little place in Deux-Sevres, Poitou-Charentes, not far from Poitiers.

I arrived at le Jardin de Verrines on a pleasantly mild Saturday afternoon, the week before last. I have been here for 8 nights now. Le Jardin de Verrines is a small-holding belonging to an unassuming gent by the name of Gerard Deremetz. Gerard originates from Paris but it is hard to picture him in an urban environment, so at ease is he in the activities which preoccupy him on the property. But what exactly is LJDV?

In a nutshell it’s a permaculture project. If you, like me, are new to the idea think sustainability, harmony, recycling and all those compellingly ‘green’ concepts people like to talk up but which few actually take the time to fully implement. You can read about it on Wiki – https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permaculture – or look at Gerard’s excellent site – http://lejardindeverrines.ning.com. The idea is essentially one of living harmoniously within the local environment taking into account ecology, climate, soil as well as social elements. The idea is to minimise the impact on the ecosystem of the site through raising and harvesting food plants – trees, shrubs and vegetables – alongside wild plants: no artificial chemicals or pesticides employed; All waste products recycled (that includes human waste as well).

Reading that induced a reflex recoil perhaps? Isn’t that unsanitary? After a week of using the 3 natural compost toilets allocated to me near my caravan home I can tell you that it is not the case. You do your business and afterward cover it with a few jar-fulls of sawdust. It is not immediately evident the effect the sawdust will have but after 24 hours or so it absorbs all the moisture from the excrement and the result is remarkably odourless. If necessary you can add a bit more if there is any hint of an odour and it soon vanishes.

I will be here until the weekend. This week Gerard will be showing me how to construct a rocket stove. I’ve already seen one in use this last Saturday when a few volunteers came over and helped in the garden. One of them, Katia, brought her rocket stove along and cooked up some sausages. This was achieved with a minimal amount of fuel: a few twigs and softwood off-cuts. Last week I learnt how to arc-weld. Along with another helper, Paul, a young chap employed at the town hall of neighbouring Vasles (le Mairie), we manufactured a frame to support a bicycle.

On Thursday we went to the town of Saint Fraigne in the department of Charente, about an hour’s drive away. We delivered the frame to a group whom I assumed to be in part municipal employees and in part volunteers. Gerard demonstrated the principal and after our bike was mounted on the frame and attached to an old Siemens washing machine they provided. This all took place over the course of the day. Photos of the manufucature and demonstation are shown in the gallery below in addition to an uploaded clip from my phone.

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A link to the project on Gerard’s website: Step-by-step guide to creating the ultimate green washing machine

I don’t imagine that many of you watching this will feel enthused enough to go and dismantle your washing machine at this stage! But if and when it packs up and a new appliance is beyond your reach you will at least have an idea of an alternative solution, especially if you want to enhance your green credentials and want to boost your exercise regimen!

Here is another gallery on Google Photos which shows some snaps of the garden:

https://goo.gl/photos/GjPfdo1pnAWhFRza8

Beheaded Syrian scholar refused to lead Isis to hidden Palmyra antiquities

One of the real unsung heroes of the civil war in Syria:

Beheaded Syrian scholar refused to lead Isis to hidden Palmyra antiquities

http://gu.com/p/4bj9d?CMP=Share_AndroidApp_WordPress

This is why we need to promote tolerance and acceptance as a matter of urgency. Not just in Western society but abroad too. Boots on the ground, yes, just not more soldiers. Learned people like Khaled al-Asaad are the ones who make a real difference in these places because they are a permanent fixture. The people of Palmyra, let alone the world, will be considerably poorer without the insight and knowledge of such a scholar and academic. If Western advocates of democracy want to stem the flow of toxic ideology promulgated by ISIS then they need to make sure that his legacy is perpetuated. It’s probably time to sit down with the Syrian government and negotiate. They have been weakened considerably and will no doubt be open to dialogue. If the chance isn’t taken now then we can expect more of this outrage. What other solution is there right now?

Travels and the Unexplainable

Who we meet on life’s windy road and why we meet them has been pondered by many men (and women) from the time of Herodotus et al. Then again, who knows what musings preceded them and have been lost to the passage of time?

Some people like to attribute everything to a divine being whilst others purely to chance. I don’t rule out the former playing a hand of sorts but I don’t think we should overlook the importance of deliberate human interaction. By that I mean the will to step out of bed each day with a purpose of sorts. Those last 4 words are fundamental – “a purpose of sorts.” When I was a teenager this purpose centred on schooling (apparently a necessity but which held some interest too), sport (cycling chiefly) but most fundamentally, a desire to interact with the natural world.

Some people like to attribute everything to a divine being whilst others purely to chance

At some point these conflated interests unwound and intertwined with others. The desire to find love (and not just a lover) probably featuring most potently, not withstanding a desire for reconciliation with love lost (my father’s principally). I came away sourly wounded about 12 years or so back when my purpose seemed lost in the mire and conflict that life sometimes brings upon its human subjects.

Fast forward to the present and I look back at a third of my entire lifespan lived since then. It almost seems like I was born again into another life at the age of 24. On paper it would seem as though I’ve traveled far and wide in the intervening time span but it has been mostly in a rather linear pattern. Bouncing between the nations of Zimbabwe and South Africa for almost 6 years before heading north to the United Kingdom for a similar time again, notwithstanding months and weeks spent back in Africa every other year hence.

People would raise their eyebrows of course and even with some amusement remark on the ‘traveller’s wanderings’. I think I was even regarded with envy by some of my friends, similarly unsettled or at least yearning for more than their immediate environment could provide.

One thing that travel has taught me is that we actually yearn for some semblance of familiarity, even in the exotic. For me, travel has helped me confront my own predicament yet not cure it. I understand now more than ever before that people the world over go about the mundane and humdrum as a matter of necessity for the functioning of their respective societies, yet most do not rebel against their lot. I know there are those that have done and the consequences are sometimes tragic, with a nod to Syria and other nations in severe turmoil, but people are people are people…

One thing that travel has taught me is that we actually yearn for some semblance of familiarity, even in the exotic

I love the fact that there’s a pervading desire to be interconnected, that we all love food and laughter and that we make jokes about our bodies and the shortcomings thereof. Wherever I’ve gone this has been the case and there’s no reason to believe it will be any different in China, Brazil or Alaska.

So why I am I still so fearful about the past? Why the feelings of un-belonging and sadness that sometimes assuage me in the still, early hours of the morning before the sun has risen? I’ve long looked for reason in my own reasoning and it becomes null as though I’m traveling an endless trajectory along some sort of Mobius strip of human experience. Just the thought of a certain place and time is enough to elicit a sort of reflex response of dismay or distress. It is as if I’m living in the moment again. A form of PTSD? Perhaps, but without the violent experience that precedes such a condition. No, it’s more subtle than that. The challenge is in coming to view the past differently through my experience in the here and now.

I’ve long looked for reason in my own reasoning and it becomes null as though I’m traveling an endless trajectory along some sort of Mobius strip of human experience.

Actually, that is not just a conventional wisdom or my version of it spun out philosophically but the (wise?) words of a man I met recently in Cape Town. I met Carllo whilst staying in a backpacker hostel. He originated from another South African city but had chosen Cape Town to escape some sort of family feud, specifically a protracted dispute or argument with his father whom he refered to as his ‘nemesis’. Some of what he told me sounded familiar to a younger me and it made me sad to see him at war with his own father even if it were only in his own head.

I felt the same way about mine all those years before but now that I look back I see what I perceived as an implacable fortress as just that, my perception of the man. Seen from another angle he was vulnerable and old and emotionally detached; someone to be pitied. Circumstance is everything and it was the context of our relationship that made him seem like my nemesis. If only we could step back from the pictures we paint we would see things so much clearer.

Whatever his situation Carllo elaborated at some length on his own philosophy or pursuit thereof. As one who looked to the East he believed in the power of contemplation. He spoke about an essence that seeks to reveal. I don’t know much about these things so I don’t have a point of reference to established schools of thought or theology. What he did say, which resonated with me, was that situations would keep recurring until such a time as I would be able to face them with confidence (or was it honesty?). Interesting that.

What he did say…was that situations would keep recurring until such a time as I would be able to face them with confidence (or was it honesty?)

In fact, whilst eating a late-night dinner at an oriental takeaway somewhere in the heart of the city he sought to divine my own future by consulting this apparent ‘essence’. He foretold something of a future love to whom I would run to at the appointed time, whatever that meant, but also that I should stop writing! When I queried this he shook his head quite emphatically.

“Stop writing or it will bring you trouble…big trouble”. To be honest I was more flattered than concerned. Show me a writer who doesn’t want to be noticed, avoids controversy, and fears critical acclaim. All the same I wondered if he’d done a spot of intelligence gathering beforehand? Just simply Googling my name would’ve revealed that I had self-published a while back, that I had a blog and contibuted to various social sites and news feeds. But does this classify me as a writer? I doubt it. It could’ve been an inspired guess as to my inclinations based on the several preceding hours we spent in each other’s company. We had quite a bit to drink after all and had spoken on a range of thoughts and experiences.

The funny thing is that I would never have divulged that I had written anything notable without remembering that I’d done so, nor do I remember talking about writing in any shape or form. I’m intrigued but since I never did learn Carllo’s second name and am not living in Cape Town it is unlikely that I will ever get the chance to ask him again. Perhaps the essence of life intends it to be so…

I never did learn Carllo’s second name and am not living in Cape Town it is unlikely that I will ever get the chance to ask him again

certiores petere, appetere edoceri (seek to inform; seek to be informed)

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