For my oldest friend

IMG-20170320-WA0001My best friend growing up was a total nutcase, well truth be told, she still is a nutcase. We met in the year we turned six, and today some twenty-seven years later, she turns 33. It’s odd to believe that a lifetime has passed since we first met, that we have somehow grown up along the way. I think back to the things we had in common, to the things that cemented our friendship at the tender age of five and half and can’t help but smile. For starters, both our mothers taught at the same school (and both were disciplinarians), we both had the same initial and surname (surely that meant we were sisters) and most importantly, we were both convinced that there was buried treasure hidden in her back yard.

A lot has changed in the last twenty-seven years, we’ve both seen heartache and loss. Our friendship has seen it’s share of strain and ugliness, but the one thing that has not changed (apart from the fact that I am still convinced of the treasure in her backyard), is the bond we share. It is a bond that we will always share. I had always been convinced that since I was a good three weeks older than her, that I was automatically her protector. I would fight with anyone who made her upset (and since she is a bit of cry baby, you can imagine I had my work cut out for me), I was, by default, her older sister. Of course, she did her fair share of protecting me as well. As a child, I was very literal, so when my mother told me that I could not come home unless I finished all the lunch that was packed for me, you best believe that I knew that my options were clearly defined. Either I find another place to live (I had checked around and none of my other friends were receptive to my plea for refugee status) or I somehow manage to eat all of my lunch. On a side note that is critical to the story, it is important to bear in mind that my mother thought it best to feed me like teenage rugby player, on most days I was sent to school with a lunchbox that could easily feed four. So, my best friend, always the sensitive one between the two of us, decided to help me out. We would sit under the shade of a tree after school and talk of the important things like what we would wear to the Brownies costume party while she bravely munched on my sandwiches, saving me from a fate no five-year-old wants to face.

Perhaps in the telling of this story, you would have come to realise more about my friend than the fact that I shared my lunch with her. Perhaps you will see that she loves easily, that she cares deeply, that really, with a friend like her by your side, even the scary things seem manageable. There are so many things that I will always admire about her- her ability to love, her strength, her sense of humour, how she has the ability to tell a cashier her entire life story. I know that she will always be my sister, this bond was forged too strong, no matter what comes our way. She will always be the one I hug too tightly, the one I laugh too loudly with. She will always be the one that understands me and the one that stood by me when I needed a friend. And today, on this day, I want to celebrate her birth, I want to celebrate having her and her special brand of nonsense in my life. I want to celebrate the joy, the happiness, the sadness that we’ve shared because this is just the beginning. I love you my friend, I love you for all that you are and for all that you aren’t.

Lean in…for a conversation

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Okay, so I’m pre-empting a book club conversation here (I think half the fun of book club is telling people you belong to one), but as usual my mind is running a mile a minute and I need a moment with my musings. When the book “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg was suggested as our book of the month, apart from hearing a Destiny’s Child song play in my mind (something about paying my telephone bills), I was sceptical. I mean, did I really need to read another book telling me to break the glass ceiling? I stared at Sheryl’s smiling face on the front cover and told myself that I didn’t really want to hear about this privileged, white woman’s view about gender bias. And this, apart from the wine, is one of the greatest things about book club; getting to read outside of my comfort zone. Honestly, now that the book is done and dusted, I can’t say that I wholeheartedly agree with everything that Sheryl Sandberg’s writes about, but I’m certain glad that I read it. I am certainly glad about the conversations the book has provoked, both with myself and with others, because although I don’t have the answers, I know that these are conversations we need to have.

I can remember telling a story about how I, a young, non-white female, was treated when I first started working in a predominantly white, male dominated environment. Amongst other things, the expectations placed on me where due to my race and my gender; I was the girl who would probably take minutes and make coffee. Forget my achievements or qualifications, these men knew what they were doing, so I best listen closely and remember my manners. My first disagreement with an older male colleague was met with such vehemence that I was literally stunned into silence. I was too aggressive, too pushy, how dare I follow up when someone hadn’t given me something they promised? Part of this, no doubt, is because of my personality, not my gender. I can be harsh and driven at times and there is no mistaking that. But more and more it is becoming evident to me that when men behave in the way that I do it is considered the norm, no one gets angry with the man being assertive because that is what men are supposed to do. When a woman does it, she’s a bitch and she’s bossy. When a man does it, he is applauded for taking the initiative and being direct. No, it is not always as I have stated, I know. But we cannot dispute that there is a truth in this that should not be ignored. It also surprises me how sometimes gender even changes the meaning of words. I think back to many years ago when my boss called me “ambitious”, I knew what the word meant but his tone and the hardness in his eyes made me feel that I should look up the word once more. I did a quick Google search now and the description “having or showing a strong desire and determination to succeed” hardly seemed like the insult I heard in my boss’s voice those years ago.

I am not writing this to tell a sad story about gender bias and how I rose above it, I am writing of my own bias as much as of the men I have remembered here. Because if I am being honest, the preconceptions of gender does colour my view. Men should be men, right? Big, strong, assertive. And women should be nurturing and caring, right? Oscar Wilde wrote “All women become like their mothers. That is their tragedy. No man does, and that is his“ and when I read that, such a large part of it resonated with me. What a tragedy it would be indeed if no man became his mother and no woman became her father. We’ve all heard those comments that slip so freely from our mouths when a man is vindictive, jealous and spiteful “He’s behaving like a woman”, or when a woman is outspoken, assertive and direct “She’s trying to behave like a man”. We judge people based on preconceived notions of what a man should be and what a woman shouldn’t be. I know I do. Realising and admitting that bias is huge for me, because if we ever are to talk about equal access to opportunity, we have to be honest with ourselves first. And sometimes that honesty is not very pretty. I guess it’s great that I’m more aware now, but what on God’s green earth does that mean? What does it fix? Maybe it means that in my awareness and through my reflection, I can rewrite the scripts that I rely on, I can rewrite my thinking. Maybe it means that I can now have more intelligent discussions with either gender, maybe it means that I can also create awareness? Maybe it means that even though it is not a big step, it is still a step forward.

Namibia: The sand and the sea

 

I wish I had a well-crafted answer to the question that often follows my proclamation that I am about to set off on another adventure. When people ask “Why do you want to go there?”, instead of listing all the special sights and things unique to my chosen destination, I am known to reply over-enthusiastically with a crazy gleam in my eye “I want to go everywhere!” Of course, being back from Namibia, I wonder why I didn’t say that I wanted to experience one of the highest sand dunes in the world, to see the place where desert meets the sea and of course profess my love for any country within the African content. If I am being kind, I can spin some story about how my passion and thirst to explore overwhelms me and confuses my words. But we all know I do not have a penchant for being kind, least of all with myself, so I shall have to settle for the fact that I am neither clever nor sharp witted. Excuse me while I go cry in the corner.

Okay, now that that’s done, perhaps I should get back to Namibia. Landing in the barren sandiness of the desert that surrounds the airport, the warmth of the dry air felt unexpectedly light on my face. Perhaps I expected the ferocity of the dessert heat, a rough, calloused hand upon my throat, but instead Walvis Bay laid a gentle hand upon my arm that seemed to say “Welcome African sister”. I decided at once that I would love Namibia and so strong was that love that I almost forgot that it was not the country of my birth. When asked where I was from, genuine surprise would narrow my eyes and force my smile to retreat before I realised that I was in actual fact from South Africa and well, not Namibia.

Setting off towards Swakopmund, I kicked off my shoes and, anticipating a long car ride, I scrounged around in my oversized bag and triumphantly rescued a packet of chips from certain doom. Chips I one hand, book in another, I felt adequately prepared for the road trip. What I was totally unprepared for, was the magnitude of the beauty of my surroundings. A static ocean of sand, soft waves of pale, golden smoothness. The sun rushed towards the great mounds, illuminating ripples of stillness, following every curve and adding depth and variety of colour that seemed almost impossible. A light breeze picked up a sandy shawl from one mound and laid it gently on another. The silence of the dunes spoke to me, the unbroken music cajoled me. I could not bear to look away. It was only the sight of the ocean, with the sun burning a path towards the horizon, that finally drew my gaze away from the golden enchantress. The sun seemed to light the water on fire, brightening the blue against the starkness of the surrounding desert. Movement met stillness, sound met silence. Beauty made perfect though it’s stark contradiction.

 

It was only a day later that I would finally meet the desert head on. Literally. As it turns out, one should always pay attention to the instructions given before attempting sandboarding. But more about that in my next blog. Where I found myself that first evening on Namibian soil, was at the ocean. Cool, white sand beneath my feet, the sun melted into the horizon as the waves rhythmically crashed to shore. It seemed as though I could watch the sun set forever, a bright orange disc that dissolved into the ocean leaving behind a blush of red staining the horizon. In less than a day, Namibia had stolen my heart and taken my breath away more times than I could have ever dreamed possible.

Walk like an Egyptian

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What kind of mad compulsion drives even the most normal minded people to act like absolute lunatics while on holiday? Not that I can claim to be normal minded, but I had to wonder why, when facing the great pyramids of Giza, I had the overwhelming and embarrassing desire to “walk like an Egyptian”. You know the pose, standing at a side profile, arms bent at right angles and one bent leg in the direction of your stationary movement. Admittedly, my pose was heavily flawed, more from a lack of practice than trying. There I stood; behemoth, antiquated structures reaching for the sky right beside me, with the grave concern of an ill formed pose creasing my brow. This is the part where I tell you that this was not the first pyramid I had seen in Egypt or on that day, and try to recover some of my dignity, but in truth I am a stupid tourist. And in even greater truth, I kind of love being a stupid tourist.

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Seeing my first pyramid was like taking a step back in time. Not thousands of years back, but maybe a few decades to the innocence of wonder in the world, to the innocence of childhood. My entire being filled with excitement, the kind of grimy fingers pressed against the inside of a car window kind of excitement. My face pressed too close to the window, the reverent whisper “Oh wow” is carried in a breath before it settles on the window in front of me. The feeling rouses contractions within me; I need to free myself and run towards the pyramid and at the same time I want to stay exactly where I am in wonder and awe. It is an almost scary kind of excitement and my fingers yearn to feel the rough, brown surface of the weathered pyramid. It is as if through touch I would convince my mind of the truth that my eyes saw. Perhaps I needed to be grounded by my senses, to make sure that this was more than just a seductive fantasy. Ali, our tour guide, manages to bring me back to the present when he opens my door telling me with a smile “You know the air in Dahshur is so good, whenever I come here I feel like I can take another wife! This air is good for the body.” He inhales deeply to illustrate his point and laughs at his joke even though I am still to spellbound to respond. Cool air greets me as I step outside the car to find that we are in fact alone at the pyramid. There is something wonderfully precious about the solitude, the silence of the desert and the cool crispness of the air. There is something precious in being given the opportunity to experience this moment alone, allowing myself the leisure of wandering thoughts that form loosely and dissolve without ceremony in wind.

Ali is excited and understandably invigorated by the fresh Dahshur air and when he announces that we are going to go inside the pyramid, I’m sure that I have not heard him correctly. “Inside?” claustrophobia increasing the pitch of my voice. “Yes! Inside! I will carry all your things and wait for you outside. You go!” Oblivious to my mounting fear, Ali happily leads us up the uneven footpath towards the entrance of the pyramid. In equal measures, indecision, fear and my penchant for laziness, hamper my ascent and when I finally reach the top, Ali is waiting for me with a broad smile and an outstretched arm to hold my bag and camera. I look to Husband, hoping to find some signs of reluctance in his demeanour so that I can cowardly use his fear as a mask for my own but I come up short as he returns my eliciting gaze with a smile. I look at the child size opening before me, a poorly lit path continues indefinitely into the depths of the pyramid and the voice of panic tells me that I’m going to die inside this pyramid. It is that voice that glues my feet to the ground and shortens my breath. It must have been the magical winds of Dahshur that carried the voices of adventure and her sexier sister, stupidity, when I heard the whispers of “You’re going to die anyway, might as well see what’s down there” cajoling me out of my inertia and fuelling me with adrenalin. It is an uncomfortable duck walk, with our knees close to our chests and our heads bent low, before we reach the bottom and without the wind to carry comforting thoughts, the shrill voice of panic begins to thicken the air and close its hands around my throat. I try shake off the cloying, debilitating fear by reminding myself that there is much to see and explore and this provides a momentary respite before the panic sets in again. It is Husband’s voice that brings calm, although his words do not comfort as he expresses his eagerness to leave the still, cavernous depths. We begin the crouch walk up towards the light and in my eagerness for escape, my steps are hurried and heavy on the wooden slats beneath my feet. Before we are finally released, the man who stands guard at the entrance insists on taking a picture of the two of us and even though I am convinced that I shall go mad spending one more second in containment, I oblige and hand him my camera. Pictures done, I burst from the opening, taking greedy gulps of the fresh Dahshur air, hands clenched around the wooden railing preventing a steep fall down the front of the pyramid. In the span of less than an hour I had come to love and hate Dahshur.

Perhaps I was a bit jaded then when we arrived in Giza to find crowds of people just as annoying as myself trying to take the perfect picture. My mind and imagination had already been fuelled by the pyramids of Dahshur and Saqqar, where the quiet, open spaces allowed me time with myself as well as the imposing structures from an ancient world. But, of course, The Great Pyramids are as their name suggests- great. They are still magnificent to behold, even if all you’re doing is taking a stupid picture in front of them.

Egypt: Sharm el Sheik and me

 

DCIM100GOPROIt seemed as though I followed the Nile for most of my time in Egypt, and like a young lover I was held in awe of her mystery, her bounty and her beauty. When the time came to finally part ways and I arrived in Sharm El Sheik, there was a certain sadness that tugged at the corners of my mouth and pulled at my shoulders. At the airport, our driver rushed about in a desperate hurry and I could not help but feel mildly annoyed. Perhaps it was true that this town was overrun by tourists, perhaps my love affair with Egypt would be forced to an abrupt, merciless stop. This was not my Egypt. This was not the Egypt that held the magic of the temples, tombs and hidden treasures. This was somewhere else. When the driver turns to me and asks “First time in Sharm?” and then to my confirmation replies enthusiastically “You are welcome to Egypt! Inshallah, you will return” I realise that I may have been far too hasty in my judgement of both the driver and of Sharm El Sheik.

At the hotel, we receive a brusque reception. Two odd-looking goblets are placed before us. At the base of the sweating glass lies a fluid of such insincere green that I am almost scared of it. Floating on top of the green perversion is a clear viscous liquid that seems to be besotted with the unnatural colour beneath it as it reaches down grabbing eddies of green, colouring itself. I am staring unpleasantly at this concoction, thirst and the heat of the beginning of an Egyptian summer rivalling common sense when a man from reception comes by, urging me to relax and take a sip. His coaxing reminds me of the men at the souks who shout “Madam, no hassle here” as you walk past, increasing the urgency and volume almost to a shout when they see that they have not got your attention. It is a reluctant sip and a grateful sigh when we are given the key cards to our room.

As usual, when I am in proximity to the ocean, I am drawn to the water. The sand is white and hot under my feet and I walk to the water’s edge with tentative steps. It is a hop, skip and a graceless dance to dodge the sharp pieces of coral and shells recklessly cast out by the sea. Around me people sun themselves, turning alarming shades of pink and deep red, perhaps it is the stark contrast between their sun bitten bodies and the white sand that brings some sort of harmony to the scene. I wonder if I can hear their skins crisping in the sun. Before my thoughts lead me astray I look to the cool water to remedy the effect that thought has on my mind. The water forms an unbroken line of pale green closest to the water’s edge and a deeper blue where the reef drops off. Watching the water lap over this unbroken line is hypnotic. I am not sure how long I have spent mesmerized by that contrast, time seems to have no meaning. My mind grapples with a thought, but trying to hold onto it is as foolish as holding a handful of the salty water beneath my feet. I open my hands and let it slip away as easily as the water would and it is taken back to the ocean. Small waves break the surface of green and blue with faint, unstructured white lines and snorkelers close to the reef are gently bobbed and swayed with the motion. In that moment, it is as if nothing else exists. Paradise? I am not sure, but this feels close.

Luxor from the sky: Hot air ballooning over the Nile

IMG_0888When on holiday, there aren’t many reasons why I would chose to be awake while the sun still slumbers. The slow laziness of a morning abroad is something I look forward to, choosing to only really awaken with my first cup of coffee. But on one particular morning, I found myself wide awake and almost entirely dressed before the unnatural shrill the telephone broke the silence of the early morning calm of the Nile, signalling my 3:15am wake up call. It was the morning we would catch a Luxor sunrise and set off into the Egyptian sky in a hot air balloon.

Without the sun, a cool breeze navigated it’s way through my thin cotton clothes, my arms crossed over my chest, my hands grasping a shoulder or an elbow, anything to brace myself against the unexpected chill. It occurred to me that this was the first time I had felt cold in Egypt. Like a guilty conscience, the Egyptian sun seems to stalk you. When you find refuge in the shade of ignorance, the sun guiles you, you are convinced of it’s gentle nature. But there is no escape, even in the coolness of surrender, the sun burns bright and fiercely, letting you know that even though she shall soon slumber, her reticence is temporary. Her relationship with you is unrelenting. While I did not miss the angry fire in the sky, the coolness of her absence left me feeling empty somehow, forming a palpable void of darkness.

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There is a brief moment when the sky turns orange and pink and I watch the hot air balloon that will take us into the Luxor sky reluctantly inflate. Chinese tourists move about excitedly taking pictures, urgent pleas from the crew either ignored or not understood. I laugh as I remember our tour guide’s comments from the previous day. He leant towards me and whispered in the most confidential tone that he found the Chinese tourists to often be rude and pushy. The solemnity of his tone and his unsmiling face made me realise that the revelation must have been difficult for him, he bore the easy demeanour of a man who naturally liked others. I laughed in agreement, echoing Husband’s words that perhaps we’re just culturally different. I have no doubt that the crew men that day may have also felt the same at some point or another, about all tourists alike. Yet they remained happy, gentle and relatively good natured, never once getting angry or raising their voices. The captain of our balloon, dressed in black pants and a white shirt with gold wings adorning his shoulders, tells us to be quick getting into the balloon’s basket. I may only have four limbs but somehow, co-ordaining them and my entry into the basket required a skill that even a blind onlooker would have found wanting.

Our laden basket had a brief tussle with gravity before emerging the victor and we began our ascent guided by the wind on the West Bank. The heat from within a hot air balloon assaults many of your senses at the same time. You hear the fire, a brilliant burst of ignition before the warmth radiates to the top of your head and your shoulders. A blaze of colours, blue at the base, a searing yellow at it’s core and a gentler orange framing it, somehow containing it within the fragile nothingness of the balloon. The flame would be more spectacular if not dulled by the surroundings. Lush green farms were made small beneath the balloon, the Nile snaked through the earth leaving behind fertile soil, leaving life in it’s wake. The Nile was a generous mother, feeding the land, stretching her arms wide with abundance and love. She brought life to the desert and from it’s arid sand she grew bountiful fields. She was the creator. But the life she created was abruptly interrupted with that which the desert destroyed. The desert was a hungry, tenacious beast. It’s ferocity only serving to highlight the magnificence of the Nile and of the promise flowing through her water.

Other balloons started to dot the sky around us, fading into insignificance against the Nile. As we drifted towards the East, I watched the shadow of the balloon darken the rural houses beneath us. Children and farm workers all turning their heads to the sky, enthusiastically waving in greeting. Our captain tells us to prepare for a bumpy landing as we drift further away from the river, the soil hardening and cracking preparing us for the desert. It is an awkward landing before I mysteriously manage to extricate myself from the basket without drama and when my feet finally touch the ground, I long for the mystery of the Nile.

Cairo: The chaos and the charm

It is with a touristic uncertainty that I arrive in Cairo. The websites describe the chaos of the city, the guidebook tells me to be vary of pickpockets so I clutch my shoulder bag close to my body in case anyone dares take my travel sized lotion or lip gloss (I have no other items of value). Outside the airport, a man wears a broad smile and holds up a page with my name printed on it and almost at once I relax. Perhaps the sight of your name in a foreign country does that to a person, it makes you feel like you belong. Or maybe – and this is the more likely option- it is the Egyptians themselves who have been so warm and friendly that you cannot help but feel welcome.

It is around 2pm when we leave for the hotel and the man who has come to fetch us tells us that it is a very busy time on the roads. With his curly hair and scruffy beard, I cannot help but notice that he bears an uncanny resemblance to Rick Grimes from the Walking Dead, apart from the fact that Mohamed smiles almost constantly. “Why are the roads so busy at this time?” My uninformed question is answered with a mild mannered chuckle and “In Cairo, we don’t have rush hour, we have a rush day”.

Nothing has adequately prepared me for the madness of Cairo’s roads. And what seems like madness to me is perhaps some form of ordered chaos for those who live here. I feel as though I am looking at one of those pictures made out of a series of unconnected dots. The roads here seem to bear that same concept, that perhaps if I looked at this scene at just the right angle I would see the coherent picture hidden in it’s midst. Everyone else seems to. Everyone seems to understand the collective, unwritten rules that govern these roads. Cars swerve dangerously close to one another correcting course at the very last second to avoid impact. Hooters punctuate every turn, movement or annoyance and altogether they rise and fall rhythmically. The sound is so constant and unyielding that I wonder if it has any effect at all on the motorists. Almost all the drivers are either smoking or on their phones, or in some cases both. In the puff of cigarette one car almost crashes into another, a torrent of Arabic words fly off coupled with emphatic hand gestures, a fury burns so blight it blinds you witness it. Then something remarkable happens, when the driver exhales, releasing a plume of smoke from the depths of his lungs, his anger and rage dissipates as quickly as the smoke does. The driver’s anger, as fleeting as the smoke that circles him, escapes through the open window. A moment of violent passion followed by a calm acceptance, no residual anger or frustration, just another Egyptian trying to get to where they need to. And perhaps in the next couple of puffs, the same scene will repeat itself but for now there is such a serenity and calm in the madness, that I can’t help but admire the Egyptians fortitude on the roads. I can’t quite picture the same thing happening back home in Johannesburg.

It was later that evening that we walked through the bustling streets of the Khan el-Khalili market. Streams of people crowded the alleyways, streets and market stalls, filling the bazar with a collective murmur, the chatter and sounds of life. The feeling was unmistakable. In these streets, Cairo lived and breathed, pulsating with every sound and movement of it’s people, both native and foreign. I smile politely but do not encourage any of the vendors as they alternate between “India? Where are you from?” and “Come madam, no hassle”, my purpose that night was to experience the market, to experience Cairo at night. My lazy feet could not keep up with the steps of those around me, Egyptians seem to all walk at a hurried, purposeful pace, although upon seeing a friend or someone known, they stop, leisurely exchanging warm greetings, perhaps a kiss on each cheek in greeting. I occurs to me that my time in Egypt is too short and that perhaps this visit bears repeating. Later when I have a sweet glass of fresh mango and orange juice for a ridiculously cheap price in one hand, and a black henna tattoo adorning my other, I realise that have never felt more at home and like a tourist at the same time.