The hunt for the Aurora Borealis

We arrived in Tromso to rain. Unrelenting rain to be more accurate. As the snow began to melt and the promise of a winter wonderland began to fade, many tours were cancelled and both residents and tourists were miserable. Night after night dreams of catching the Green Lady dance across the sky were crushed as she remained resolutely hidden behind clouds, only showing a faint green hue to tell us she was around but did not want to play. There is something you must know about the Green Lady, there is a madness in her, the sort of madness that is contagious and incurable. The first time she allows you a glimpse, however faint, however hidden, the infection is immediate and unyielding. That first green glow in the sky floats down to your upturned, expectant face, moving first to whisper promise into your ears before settling on your skin, seeping through, finding its way into your blood, your heart, filling you with such wonder, such hope that you are convinced in her magic and driven by the vivid belief that she will dance for you. Your waking hours become consumed by the thought of her; the few short hours of light filled with the fervent hope that tonight you will see her, the darkness of the night with the bitter disappointment of unrequited desire. You grow angry at the temptress, at yourself for your foolishness, and then by morning you have forgiven her, disappointments forgotten in lieu of blind faith and hope in the magic.

The morning of the 20th of December I awoke with such disappointments forgotten, I awoke perhaps slightly jaded, my faith in the magic slightly shaken but after a day at sea, the fresh Arctic wind seemed to bring renewed hope. That night, after a detour off a road called the Northern Lights Route, I gazed up to the clearest sky I have seen since arriving in the Arctic and my heart was ablaze with hope so willful, so wild that I knew, I just knew, that there was magic in the air. More stars twinkled above, the night cleared even further and in a moment so quick, a pulse of white light traveled from the east to join the west, disappearing as it traveled through the sky. Before long, rainbow made of only white light arched above our heads connecting one mountain range to another. This, in itself,  was spectacular and I found myself in a vantage position having stretched out flat on the ground, my body warmed and cocooned by the reindeer skin beneath me.

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Before the start of the light show. Picture by Hannah (www.northernsouladventures.com)

The last thing I remember distinctly was the splitting of the white band above me. As if two lovers were torn apart, starlight fingers of the dark night sky within each band reached towards each other unwilling to be separated but powerless to the devastation of their union. As these lovers receded further away from each other, they continued to splinter and fragment in protest and at their furthest point away from each other, they formed giant flames of pale green. In a moment too quick to describe, a bright flash of green appeared in the sky and with an enthusiastic scream I found myself up on my feet with a catlike agility I have never possessed before. Great ribbons of green light filled the sky, unravelling to a crescendo, quivering and alive with music that we saw instead of heard. The ribbons turned, curved and danced, spiralling this way and then the next, drawing complex patterns and waves of strong focused green light with shadows of a lighter green punctuated with purple-ish pink light. A bright green bird, smooth rounded body flexed outward, wings outstretched and pulled back ready to push down and fly off. A seahorse, created by a spiral of light appears and disappears as the Green Lady begins to show off now. It is a dream, it cannot be real. The colours are too surreal, the movement too dramatic, a hallucination. The sky was filled with so much light and life that I barely knew where to look. The Green Lady has come out to play tonight and she is exuberantly joyful in her movements, hedonistically unbridled as she dances not for us, but for herself.

Nothing has prepared me for this moment, nothing I have read or seen even comes close. Even the most beautiful Northern Lights pictures are lifeless and uninspiring in comparison. My camera has been forgotten in the moment, I am too spellbound to do anything apart from scream with peals of joy and hug my husband far too tightly as we both jump up and down clinging to one another. I remember what our guide had said to us on the previous night that great Northern Lights make for great viewing instead of great pictures and I can understand why, the lights are too magnificent and fickle that you dare not look away even for a second.  I look to the rest of our group and realise how privileged I am to not only watch the Northern Lights but also to bear witness to the moment a long awaited dream has become a reality for most of them. Their faces are filled with wonder, an unspoken hunger sated and the air is charged with a magic that belongs to all of us.

I feel as though I owe our tour guide, Hannah (www.northernsouladventures.com), a great debt. We all loved her at that moment, perhaps we all loved each other at that moment too, as if each of us brought some sort of special magic that night that allowed us to be part of this great spectacular. I cannot credit Hannah for the lights but I can credit her for bringing us to clear skies, where the darkness of the forest allowed us uninterrupted views. I can credit Hannah for making sure that we were all well taken care off, for really understanding our needs and for revelling in the moment with a joy that was contagious. If you are ever in Tromso and if you can wrangle a space on their Northern Lights chase, I strongly suggest you do so! Some more pictures below from Hannah.

No story I tell about this night would ever be great enough, it is hard to imagine that any other moment in my travels will ever be this profound. To have finally seen the lights, the Green Lady dance, exceeded every expectation I had. I had asked myself why I had traveled half way across the world to brave the cold, the unrelenting darkness and the ridiculously priced beer to see lights in the sky. It seemed like a fool’s dream, to try and see nature’s most dramatic light show, the lights that had inspired myths and legends, the lights that lured travelers to the Arctic. It is only in the seeing the lights, when the darkest of an Arctic winter night has no choice but to surrender to the flaming light, a light so strong, so joyous that ignites your soul, that you understand why this is something you must do in your lifetime.

 

 

5 Things you’d rather not hear when setting off on a new adventure

We’ve all been there, the adrenalin pumped moments before you’re ready to set off to the airport, passport in hand, constantly thinking that you’ve forgotten something, maybe you’ve left the iron on (wait, if I own an iron why are my clothes always so creased?), maybe you’ve left the stove on (you know that large thing in the kitchen)? It always feels like a last minute flurry of activity in my house, I run around wondering if I’ve packed everything and always throw some unnecessary rubbish into my bag as I head out (this time I have brought with me some tiny yellow post-its, I don’t know why, but they’re making the trip with me). In any case, considering the day I’ve had, I thought it may be worthwhile to reflect on five of the worst things you could hear on day zero of your new adventure, so sit back and revel in the fact that this wasn’t your day!

  1. Your flight is cancelled

I am busy, totally absorbed in a task when my phone moves slightly, angling itself towards me vibrating to let me know that someone is trying to get in touch. Absentmindedly I pick up the device and half read the message as it pops up on screen. My heart stops, a chill runs through me, this must be a joke, we’re flying out this evening, how is it possible that I am reading a text that tells me my flight is cancelled? CANCELLED? My mind struggles to right itself and before I can spiral completely out of control (cue tears, self-pity and me flinging myself onto the ground cursing my misfortune), I reign myself in and think that there must be a solution somewhere. Pushing thoughts of my third world drama (do you know what the South African Rand is worth?), issues with the historical legacy of oppression in our country (remembering the snicker an old boss had when I said that I had never been outside of our country before), I picked up the phone and tried not to fall apart as I dialled the customer care number. Crisis averted, a friendly man on the phone informed me that there was already another flight scheduled with a two and half hour delay. We would still make the trip and our connecting flights and delay or not that was the only thing that matters!

  1. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this sick before”

Now we all know that man flu is the most terrible of all afflictions, it cripples, it destroys, great men, warriors, have fallen before the cunning blade of man flu. There is, in fact, nothing more sinister and devastating as man flu. If you’re wondering what “man flu” is, don’t be surprised if modern medicine has not yet caught up with this vicious beast of an illness, you may only find descriptions of the common flu or a cold. However, the evils of man flu remain wickedly hidden and with the stealth of a cat, unseen by it’s prey, it manoeuvres and positions itself, latent with the promise of attack. So when my husband started coughing and spluttering like an old car refusing to give up on it’s glory days, I knew I was in for trouble.  Poor lamb, it was really not his fault, I did give him the flu in the first place. Of course, I only had the normal flu and he, the more life threatening man flu, so there really is no comparison. In any case, I am armed with a suitcase filled with meds, a bottle of whiskey in a wonderfully ornate box and a series of gentle pats accompanied with the words “you poor baby” so I’m hoping that does the trick.

  1. Snoring

Now I am a very light sleeper so I tend to react rather violently to the sound of snoring when I’m awoken from my sleep by it. I am not above kicking, shoving or punching my husband in his sleep. For some reason, that level of violence grows exponentially if I am subjected to the sound of snoring while I’m awake, in fact I only ever forgive my dogs for their snores but only because they are impossibly cute. It does also appear that I attract snorers, the most entertaining of the lot being an overweight lady on a ferry to Mykonos, who ate two pies with great ferocity and then promptly fell asleep, resplendent with pie crumbs covering her chest and her hand still clutching a Coke. And even though she was producing deep, resounding snores that could have been mistaken for engine trouble, I had the beautiful dark blue waters of the Aegean as a suitable distraction. Unfortunately, there are no dark waters to entice and inspire as I write and, worse still, I have to pretend to be a considerate wife since my husband has man flu (see point two above) so I am left without choice. The melody to my writing are his snores, varying in intensity and duration, almost symphonic but not as beautiful, desiring a crescendo but never quite getting there.

  1. Where is my phone?

Do you know that feeling when you realise that something you have has gone missing? That cold rush that pulses through you as you frantically search for something that you’re not going to find. Well, that, coupled with an odd sort of relief is what I felt as the doors to the Gautrain closed and I realised that my phone was on the train continuing the journey without me. I could not fault the phone for following it’s path, a brave, restless path that desired to move onward, to move forward while I stayed behind. No, my phone was a brave warrior, wearing its battle wounds from numerous acrobatic tumbles to the ground proudly on it’s front screen. It was a good companion for the last couple of years; always seeming to have my best interests at heart. For instance, it would often stall and freeze apps like Facebook, reminding me to slow down my pace and that life is not measured by other’s expectations of you. The quality of the pictures it took were poor, again allowing me to capitalise on the moment and create a memory instead. I wonder, even, if it’s final act was not a lesson as well? Yes, that was a wise phone and now as it continues its new journey without me I hope that it will make a good Christmas present fro some back home.

  1. “Actually that’s my seat”

There is a large man, perhaps he is a giant, perhaps I am over exaggerating, but he is far larger than I am and he is going to spend the next ten hours asleep on the plane next to me.  Sounds fairly harmless right? Well, luck would have it that this large man has no idea about personal space and I am forced to spend most of the journey avoiding him as encroaches into my space. I did get in a few good nudges while he slept soundly but they probably felt like light tickles as opposed to the impetus to move. He slept through everything, apart from breakfast when I was forced to eat with my arms tucked in towards my body. He even slept through the landing and awoke with a surprise and a Santa Claus type chuckle to find we were on the ground. Who could blame him for being in such good spirits? He had probably had the best sleep of his life while I sat there staring at him with bloodshot eyes looking like the lead in a horror movie (that girl from The Ring comes to mind). It was a good thing he laughed like Santa Claus though because the moment I heard it, I decided to forgive him. More importantly, the moment I heard his laugh was the moment we landed in Amsterdam and the beginning of our holiday. Who could be angry at that?

If I’m being honest, the start to this adventure has not been all doom and gloom, in fact, most of my troubles have been long forgotten and replaced instead with the excitement of new cities, new adventures and new memories. I  would live my terrible day and ones far worse just to have this opportunity again, to have the opportunity to chase my dreams and whatever adventure I desire. And that my friends is something you want to hear when setting off on a new adventure!

Wining, weekending and losing my voice in the Western Cape

 

You should be grateful that I am typing out this story as opposed to telling it because I happen to sound like a chain smoking 90-year-old prostitute (not that I really know what that sounds like) but the less said about me losing my voice the better. But yes, onto more exciting things. Who doesn’t love Cape Town or the Western Cape in fact? When I found out that my year end function would be on a wine farm in Stellenbosch, after sending through my RSVP at lightning speed and bragging to all my friends, it only made sense to stay the weekend. The fact that it was sister’s birthday weekend and that I would get to see my niece and nephew only sweetened the deal. So off we set, for a weekend of wine, family and some relaxation. We arrived on Friday to beautiful weather, the usual Cape Town wind carelessly lifting the hem of my dress and sun seeming to tell us that it had been saving a magnificent sunset for our arrival. I must mention that in a dull and dreary Durban on the Wednesday before I had gotten a terrible sore throat and that I had assumed that wine was a suitable cure (wrong), so I did arrive slightly worn down to Cape Town’s splendour. Sore throat forgotten in lieu of a glass of red and we’re sitting at the Kirstenbosch gardens, waiting for the sun to go down so that the movie could start.

 

The idea of an open-air cinema is irresistibly romantic and The Galileo (http://thegalileo.co.za/) certainly did a phenomenal job setting us up for a wonderful Friday night (I shall not fault them for the slight rotund woman sitting in front of me who had an uncanny ability to always shift herself into my view no matter where I moved). I remember sitting there, thinking “The movie’s about to start, why don’t they turn off the lights” before I realised that it was the day who was reluctant to be seduced by the night, holding onto her virtue until she could resist no more and the last embers of light dissolved into the night sky. How remarkable to be able to gaze up to stars, a sparkling display set out especially for me, no doubt a sight more beautiful than any movie could recreate. The unexpected chill in the air was offset with blankets and the green grass made even more comfortable with the low cushioned “chairs” (or was that all the wine?).

The next day, I awoke feeling slightly worse for wear but as my grandmother taught me, I self-medicated, had a cup of coffee and decided that a dose of sunshine would be the cure. The fact that the sun shone so brightly almost daring me to complain about feeling sick on such a beautiful day was motivation enough for me to put on my big girl panties and get over myself. So off we set to Warwick Estate for a long, delicious picnic lunch punctuated with laughter, lubricated with wine and easily one of the nicest work functions I’ve ever been to. My camera was long forgotten, that’s why I only have pictures of the last few stragglers and why none of the pictures are actually straight.

Post the picnic, filled with wine and warm feelings for my co-workers we headed off to Paarl where we would spend the next two nights. Paarl was quaint and hot, streets strewn with purple Jacarandas, green vines creeping over white walls eager for a view of the other side. My camera skills lacked the ability to adequately capture the charm of Paarl, so at some point I decided to just soak up the atmosphere instead. Dinner at Terra Mare (http://www.terramare.com/), where the service matched the food, both a pleasant surprise and I left content and sated with a few tiny whisks in hand. Definitely worth a try if you’re in the area.img_0090

The next morning was an early one and the heat in Paarl under prepared us for the cool breeze that met us at the bottom of the Lion’s Head hiking trail, biting through our thin cotton shirts and at the exposed flesh of our legs. The sun, no doubt weary from it’s show of brilliance the previous day was lazy, coyishly hiding behind a few clouds, some careless rays of sunshine thrown tauntingly over a mountain peak. It was a gentle walk, we stopped frequently to indulge my tourist tendencies and to test out my new camera (there is nothing so heart-breaking as to realise that a camera does not make up for your lack of skill, a bitter pill I had to swallow upon looking at my photo gallery). I’d like to believe that the pace of our walk was dictated by my eight-year-old nephew and my soon to be five-year-old niece but in all honestly, there was no way I would have been able to keep up with them. They ran from rock to rock, finding all sorts of joyous treasures that only children could, reveling in the few moments when their parents were distracted so they could test their independence. On the way back down, the route had gotten far busier and we managed to catch a few paragliders running down the slope of the mountain and being gently lifted into the air, turning this way and the next, gliding through the air and nearing the surface of the calm seas beneath. If you’re planning a hike up Lion’s Head, don’t be swayed by the recent articles regarding the potential perils, a trip during the day is safe and most people happily greet you as you pass them along the route. It’s a wonderful way to spend a morning and the views are quite spectacular (don’t trust my shoddy pictures).img_0138

Post hike we set off to Caturra Coffee Bar in Sea Point, to scoff down a few pizzas and recover from the mornings hike. You’ve got to love the number of Halaal friendly places in Cape Town and this quirky little place was certainly one of the most unusual Halaal restaurants I’ve eaten at. The coffee was good, I’m not so sure about my choice of fig, camembert and macon flatbread though, but the tandoori chicken flatbread proved a winner. Our faces stuffed, a walk long the promenade with a lesson on how to eat ice cream in the wind before hugging our goodbyes.

Driving back to Paarl, already missing the kids, I looked out the window and couldn’t help but wonder if the neat homogeneity of the abundant green vineyards was not a metaphor for people in general. Beautifully crafted rows, each one indistinguishable from the next, coming together to form a coherent whole. Maybe from a distance we all resemble each other, more some those of us from the same race (no I’m not that Indian girl you know, I’m the other one), yet up close we are all different, just like the vines. Some are tall with stalks reaching for the sun, others are skittish almost afraid of their own glory, some bear fruit in abundance, others are heavy with the burden of infertility. All beautifully the same from a distance and striking marvellous in their individuality up close. There is something so tranquil about spending the afternoon on a wine farm, the lush greenness abounds and for a moment you are transported to a place where nothing exists apart from you and a glass of wine.It is almost as though you enter into a world of possibility, sharing stories never heard, blurring lines between reality and impossible dreams.

We surprisingly had energy enough for two wine farms, the latter being Laborie where I was enticed by the MCC and cheese cake pairing. When all was said and done and the staff had begun clearing up, we knew it was time to head off.  Reluctantly, we took a lazy walk back to the car wanting to prolong our time at the vineyard, to absorb as much of the beauty as possible, to remember the slowness in our pace, the dreams laid bare and the memories made over the last few days. img_0183

Every visit to the Western Cape, I am overwhelmed by the beauty, enthralled by the white sandy beaches, hypnotised by the homogeneous rows of lush green grapevines and every visit is never long enough. Till the next weekend in the mother city!

The Amazon Part Three: My Anaconda don’t want none…

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Hoping this anaconda don’t want none…

There are moments in the jungle where time does not seem to exist. The sun, a jealous lover, seeks to find a stray foot or arm outstretched from a colourful hammock so that it may bite and burn while we consume the stillness around us. It entices us by casting shimmering rays to catch the crest of two silver dolphins as they break the surface of the black water, forcing us into motion to ooh and aah at the sunlight bouncing off their slick skin. The wind, more than a gentle breeze, picks up a few fallen leaves and lays them horizontally in the sky before dropping then disinterestedly as a few small yellow birds stay grounded to watch the display.

We are lazy and content, lulled by the gentle sway of the hammocks when Mateus asks us if we would like to see an anaconda, emboldened from surviving the one night out in the open, we decide it is a good idea. A forty-minute boat ride later and we are at the home of Mateus’s friend who, as it turns out, has both a sloth and an anaconda as pets. A couple of scantily clad children run around, one of whom, upon seeing me, thrusts a sloth into my hands. “It’s like a dog, except it can’t run away” Mateus informs me and I think young girl says that it’s name is Betina but I am too distracted by the unwelcome feel of it’s fur in my hands and by the actions of her younger sister to actually pay attention. The younger sister, a shirtless, curly-haired child of no more than three, eagerly gets beneath the giant snake that her father carries and smiles sweetly at me before she places one hand on her hip and raises the other so that it supports the anaconda held above her head. The snake is almost four meters long and I can’t help but wonder if the child does not look like a tasty little snack; tender, juicy arms outstretched and appetising. The father eventually puts the snake on the ground and instead of backing away, I am transfixed, camera in hand as I hear the question “What do they eat” and Mateus’s laughter filled response of “Tourists”.

The snake moves slowly but not without menace; she seems disinterested in us and the man tells us of how she recently killed a chicken but did not eat it. I wonder if she’s saving herself to eat one of his kids but decide that is perhaps a question that should go unasked. Not too far away from us, there is a red structure made from corrugated iron and with the unclasping of the door many chickens stumble out, eager for freedom, innocent to the fact that their freedom will come at a hefty price. There is a quickening in the moment of the snake, it reaches a log, it’s body flattening as it curls upward and over, it’s muscular body latent with power. I look down at my clenched fists and release them to see the impression left by my finger nails and I know that I can’t possibly watch the rest.

The snake man is disappointed and Mateus gives me a wry smile, no doubt remembering my overly girlish squeals when, cloaked in darkness, he caught a baby Caiman and asked if I wanted to touch it. I am brave, I think to myself as I get on board the motorised canoe that will take us to the next adventure. I am brave, but maybe just not Amazon Jungle brave.

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Betina is unimpressed that I cannot recall her name and that I call her Betina

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The Amazon Part Two: Piranha Soup!

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Oh my, what sharp teeth you have!

It’s dinner time and after getting my canoe stuck in a treetop (actually multiple treetops) in the flooded forest, I am famished. Food in the jungle has been both delicious and abundant and we all gather together at mealtimes to sit at a large table above which hangs a light fitting made from the scales of the Tambaqui (a large, delicious fish that has human like teeth which are good for causing nightmares, or apparently, crushing nuts).

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Fred the Tambaqui was beginning to wonder if his lack of dental hygiene bothered the ladies

The first time I sat down for a meal, I spotted two unusual looking substances, the first is the colour of sea sand and it is held together in rough clumps and the other is almost garishly white and resembles tiny polystyrene pebbles. Neither inspires much action on my part, but our guide Mateus, as well as Antonio, the owner of the tour company, can’t seem to get enough of the stuff. “I eat this with everything, this is how people in the jungle can have many children. Manioc makes you strong, it’s a jungle aphrodisiac!” is the playful response my look of surprise elicits when I see Antonio pouring the pebbles into his coffee. Antonio wasn’t kidding about eating Manioc with everything, later that same night I saw him sprinkle it over his ice cream and although the crunchy, nutty taste of this ground cassava was unusual to me, it was far from the weirdest thing I ate on our trip.

I smell the dish before it is placed before me; a fragrant broth fills my nose and I anticipate the fresh taste of some new jungle wonder. Massimo, a slightly podgy middle aged Italian man sprouting grey wiry hair from his unbuttoned shirt is the first to ask the question, “What is this dish?” and when our hostess replies with an everyday nonchalance “It is piranha soup”, Massimo’s lover, Roberto looks physically ill and edges himself away from the table.  Perhaps it was the calmness in which the words “piranha soup” were said, perhaps it was Massimo’s flair for the dramatic or the fact that Antonio often took great pleasure in spinning elaborate stories to scare tourists, because I struggled to believe that anyone was serious about piranha soup. Standing up, I peer into the large serving dish, my curiosity peaked. “Okay seriously, what is this?” It is now Mateus who springs to life “Piranha! See the teeth” as he uses his fork to open the mouth of the larger of the two piranhas in the dish. It is almost as though Massimo is spurred on by my shock and in a show of bravado he deftly breaks a piece flaky flesh off one of the piranhas and ladles the broth into his plate. I cannot speak or move, I am transfixed by Massimo and the scene plays out like something from a movie; the fork moves to his lips in slow motion and for some reason “Eye of the Tiger” plays in the background. Will he die? Will I die from watching him? I blink furiously in attempt to remind myself that staring is not polite but this is too good to look away. When he finally speaks, I am disappointed to say the least, apparently piranha soup is quite tasty. No ghost piranhas burst forth from the afterlife, angered by the tragic desecration of their notorious reputation. What a grave dishonour to the piranhas and their flesh devouring forefathers to be called tasty, but yet everything continues as before. Well, on the plus side, at least Roberto looks like he can breathe again.

The Amazon – Part one

Tentatively my hand reaches toward the dark reflective surface and when I feel the warmth on my fingers I realise that I have been holding my breath. The darkness of the Rio Negro is not beckoning, it does not tempt me, it’s opaque surface cunningly hides whatever lays beneath and yet I am captivated. I can barely hear the sound of the blue motorised canoe as it cuts through the mysterious waters of this tributary of the Amazon river, both exhilarated and terrified, I cannot believe that I am about to spend the next three days in the Amazon jungle.

I’ll never be able to adequately recapture our time, no craftily constructed sentence can describe the first bite of a sun ripened cashew fruit, the tart juicy fruit leaving behind an unexpected dryness in your mouth or the heart stopping tug on your fishing line when a piranha craftily steals your bait without ensnaring itself.  No well-meaning, but poorly executed photograph will show you the richness of the sunset, the brilliance of the night sky filled with more stars than you could dream possible but I shall, at the very least, try to give you a glimpse into our awe-inspiring trip into the jungle.

Getting back from two glorious weeks in Brazil where it’s cheaper to buy a bottle of cachaça than it is to buy a Kit Kat (yay for caparinahs!) most people reacted to our tales of the Amazon with either something milder than fly swatting impatience or awe-struck wonder, with most of the latter confusing our stupidity for bravery. I most certainly did not feel bravery the day we left our log cabin on stilts and set off to spend a night under the jungle sky. I must admit that when the last embers of sunlight finally faded from the sky and the darkness lay around us, embracing us with it’s warm sticky heat, I could not still my beating heart or understand why the darkness surprised me with its encompassing hunger. Nope, there was no room for bravery in my hammock that night (perhaps I could have made some space if I dared to remove my hiking boots) and as I awaited daybreak in the middle of the jungle protected by nothing more than a tomato loving guide and a bonfire I had serious doubts about my sanity. In the few moments before the darkness fully succumbs to daylight, I hear the rustling of a great Amazonian beast beneath my hammock and then loud splash as the creature enters the water. I try to convince myself that this is just a manifestation of my overactive imagination, I mean I was the child who saw an axe murderer outside my window one windy night when a tree cast a show through my bedroom curtains, so anything is possible here. Wait a second, I’m in the jungle, anything is possible here, cue the music as my mild panic turns to paralysing paranoia. But daylight did come and as we packed up the canoe and headed back to the lodge tomato lover Mateus sneaks a smile as he asks us if we heard the Caiman beneath our hammocks.

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The skull of a Caiman (oh my goodness!)

I am a child of God

I am about to fail a maths test; arriving late to the lecture venue, the only available seat I find is next to a pale, skinny, unfamiliar young man. His blond hair falls flat against his forehead and before I take my seat he greets me as he would an old friend. Warmed by his greeting, I begin my pre-test ritual of unpacking my pencil case and counting the ten sweets I need to get through any test or exam (ten – no more no less) when he catches me off guard by asking me about me religious orientation.

I am distracted and absorbed in the sweet counting activity as well as entertaining the idea that I should have prepared better for the test when I offer him my off hand response “I am a child of God”.  When I finally look up at him after having affirmed that all ten sweets were present and accounted for, the warmth of his smile is replaced with such anger in his eyes that for a moment I am scared of him. He spits at me “How can you call yourself a child of God when you wear that red string across your wrist?”. He’s referring to the faded and rather tatty red string that hangs loosely around my right wrist, the very same one that my grandmother had kept aside for me when she had done her Lutchmee prayer and took special care to tie around my wrist when she next saw me. Now I am far from religious, I wear the red string out of respect to my grandmother more than anything else but I was raised to believe that every religion teaches the same basic principles; to be good and to do good. To the young man beside me, wearing the string and calling myself a child of God was too harsh of a contradiction for his small mind to let go off. He needed to state his piece, to remind me that God had no place for someone with my beliefs and there I sat, dumbfounded, expecting to receive an education but getting schooled in something far greater. Perhaps maths wasn’t going to be the biggest challenge I’d face that day.

Fast forward a few years, I’m delicately stuffing pizza into my mouth when I am warned (for my own benefit of course) that I will most certainly burn in hell. In fact, it is not just me but my entire family will also join me in purgatory. Having a long and torrid affair with pizza it took quite a bit to quell my appetite, but dragging my family into this discussion most certainly achieved that. Don’t get me wrong, I respect those who have faith in their religion and most of those nearest and dearest to me are of a different religious background and this post is not about Hinduism versus Christianity or any other religion. What I take issue with is the level of small-minded, unimaginative crap that makes anyone believe that they’ve got the right to tell me how to live my life. If you really wanted to sell me your fanatical religious ideologies wouldn’t you be better served by showing me what a wonderful person you are, how caring and giving you are and how your religion teaches you to honour human dignity? Instead I am faced with the story about how it doesn’t matter how good I am, if I cannot name myself as you are named, purgatory is inevitable. Maybe I don’t get religion. Maybe I can’t subscribe to the belief that naming myself something automatically makes me “good” or “bad”. Is it not my thoughts and actions and what I endeavour to do that defines whether I am “good” or “bad”.  Does the God that you serve simply not see me, not know me? Did the God that you serve not create me? In a world where we should be celebrating our diversity we use it to divide, hurt and condemn. Is that not the real sin here? Is that not the real danger we face? Is that the plan that God had for us?

“He called me a kaffir”

We all have moments in our lives that define us. For me, these moments happen quite unexpectedly and without ceremony. Like when I first learned to swim in the ocean; a great beast of a wave became untethered, tearing a path towards me, its great white bubbling peak grew greedy, desperate. I was too inexperienced to avoid the beast as it pounced and collapsed on my chest, giant paws of pressure shoving me beneath the surface. I felt myself, arms and legs flung out wide, sinking towards the rough sand, paralysed in the moment. The beast toyed with me for a moment, tossing sand in my face, and then in an instant, I was released. Breaking the surface, the taste of the ocean in my mouth, something became very clear to me; I would survive in the ocean only if I respected it. Much later in life, the ocean would teach me a far less serious but important lesson (rough seas should never be paired with a bikini) but we’ll leave that for another blog.

Many moments, some happy, some sad, passed before I arrived at my teenage years (arrogant beyond my years, with daddy issues neatly filed too closely to my criteria for a boyfriend). In an overly dramatic fashion, one such moment would change me irrevocably. It was a mild afternoon, a respite from the stifling stickiness of a typical Durban summer, and I stood having a banal discussion with a boy so poorly suited to me that I decided to date him. A classmate of his walked over to us, his long legs moving with slow deliberation, and said without introduction “He called me a kaffir”. My voice caught in my throat and there was an unnatural stillness in the air, as if for a moment all that existed were the three of us. Let me not spin this story as though the callous word had never slipped through my lips, as though my ignorant and bigoted words have never harmed. Forgive me a moment as I tuck the thoughts of my jaundiced actions back into the memory reel that will plague me tonight. What I had never heard before was a black person using the word “kaffir”. What I had never seen before was the hurt it could cause. There he stood, shoulders stooped, voice thick with emotion and I felt as though I had caused his pain. I felt as though I had spoken those words to him, I felt like I had broken him. I had never before considered how parasitic words could be, and this word in particular, latched on to the receiver, fattening itself of pain and anger. What a terrible thing to deal with this parasite, even those who purveyed it could not escape the sickening barb lodged deep within their prejudice. I had dealt with it, serving myself through its dispensation, and in that moment, I hated myself. I could hear a mirror crack, I could see shards fall to the floor and I knew that if I were to look into it, my reflection would be ugly, disfigured.

I wish had a neat bow to tie up this post and my thoughts. I wish I could tell you that I have repaired that mirror, that it now shines from lessons learnt but no matter how much I buff it or try to put back the pieces, it refuses to be mended. Sometimes I move slightly so that the crack is no longer in my view, sometimes it is all I see. Either way, it is there, a constant reminder of who I do not want to be.

Lessons from the ninja lizard man

The guy sitting next to me is odd and not just odd, but scarily odd. I secretly wonder if he is a lizard; he has such a reptilian coolness about him. Clad in his well-pressed grey suit, his pale face devoid of any emotion, there is an uncanny stillness about him. Oh, perhaps he is a ninja lizard and he has been especially trained to never show emotion; always be one step ahead (yes, I like this version very much). I smile at my creation of the ninja lizard man and as he spies my expression, he seems deeply concerned (but perhaps me grinning like a fool trying to hold back laughter is a cause for concern). Before I can consider if I am being too harsh on ninja lizard man (or what kind of food a ninja lizard eats), we are both summoned. As we are greeted warmly, I wonder what kind of an odd pair we make, ninja lizard man stoic and calm, and me, looking on the verge of lunacy with a stupid grin on my face. I also wonder as we walk towards our interview rooms, which one of us is more “employable” (if I was recruiting, ninja lizard man would have fascinated me beyond measure, I would have employed him just for the opportunity to study him).

Much later that day, my nephew hands me his newest creation, a dinosaur; a carefully constructed, fragile looking thing held together with white tape. Before I can contemplate how impossibly cute my nephew’s semi toothless smile is, I am reminded of ninja lizard man. The memory of him suddenly makes me uncomfortable, my collar too high, the fabric scratching at my throat, my shoes too restrictive, suffocating my feet. The dull ache from pulling my hair too tight threatens to spread and sharpen around my temples. I have an inescapable need to be outdoors, to take off my shoes and feel the ground beneath my feet. I look at the random pieces of taped cardboard in my hands and wonder when it stopped being a dinosaur.

Let’s see, I could blame my family and my past (the easiest and most convenient cop out). Growing up in Durban, surround by a predominantly Indian community, a decision to study law, medicine or engineering (you know, to make sure I could get a “good job now that the blacks are getting all the jobs”) was hardly unconventional. So, I pulled out the cookie cutter and thought I would craft myself a career in the field of engineering; any other dreams, like my toys from childhood, were packed away to be given to someone else, I had lost use for them. That being said, I cannot claim that I was pushed into my choice, in all honestly, having completed high school, I had no idea what the right choice was. The window through which I saw the world was impossibly small and my sight of the opportunities available to me, even smaller. I knew that I had to get a job, be self-sufficient but I had no idea what my purpose was, I knew what to do, I just didn’t know why. Months became years and soon it was easy to believe that doing something well is the same as wanting to do it. Before you know it, you’re waiting to be interviewed alongside ninja lizard man.

Maybe it’s normal, to come to this point in your life, to take stock and feel like you have somehow failed a test you didn’t know you were taking. I didn’t want to be compared to ninja lizard man; I knew I would be found lacking. More dangerously, I didn’t want to be compared to ninja lizard man for fear that we were indistinguishable. I knew that if I needed to I could throw on his scales and that I could wear them well. I knew that day after day the scales would become more comfortable, beautiful even. There is no fear in this play acting, but maybe what scared me was that one day the pretending would stop; one day I would know how to be him more than I knew how to be me.

#prayforus

Death. I have trouble writing about this, I have trouble speaking or dealing with this. I do not want to accept the fact that all life is fragile and finite, I need to believe that we will all be around forever. But it’s never that simple; people die. Young, old, rich or poor, there is no difference; in the end none of us escapes. Death comes to us all. In the tree of life, some of us shall be taken ripe; having lived a full life we shall meet our end gracefully and peacefully. Some of us shall be plucked too early, too violently, too brutally; our dreams lost, our hopes unfulfilled.

My first adult experience with loss left me hollow and strained. I felt as though there was a tangible empty rasping sound to my words and in my thoughts. Normalcy mocked me; night ridiculed me with how easily it succumbed to day, I needed the darkness a little longer. The emptiness in me was hungry, always seeking to consume but never satisfied. It was hungry for the taste of your pain, only sated when it recognised itself in you. It needed the salt of your tears, the restriction in your throat, it needed to create a void in you and fill it with emptiness. But life simply continued, and at some point so did I.

After the horrific attacks in Paris last Friday, the posts and colours of the French flag on social media made me feel like the world was mourning with Paris, that the barbaric acts would not go unnoticed and that life is precious. What confused me were the attacks of a different sort that began on social media. Any life taken too soon, be it in Africa, Europe or anywhere else in the world, is a tragedy and I do not see the outpouring of grief and support as an acknowledgement otherwise. Yes, we should be more aware of what is happening not only in the rest of the world but also in our backyard. Yes, we should mourn the lives lost, lives tragically cut short. But let’s not condemn each other for the support we chose to give and who we chose to give it to. If you seek to educate and enlighten, then great, we need more of that but please do not use your knowledge to put others down. The real tragedy is in the lives lost, not in how we have or have not decided to show our support.

If prayer came naturally for me, I would say that I pray for us. I pray for those who lost their lives and for those left behind. I pray for Michael Komape, a five year old South African boy who lost his life in a pit toilet in his school, in the same way that I pray for those who lost their lives in Paris, Japan, Beirut, Mexico. I pray for the children of tomorrow, I pray that their future will be brighter than ours and I pray that they are not fated to repeat the mistakes that we made.

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