Aswan: A felucca ride at sunset along the Nile

The guide book says that an Aswan sunset is not one you would soon forget and it’s hard to disagree when I remember the felucca ride we took as the harsh Egyptian sun finally began to set, darkening the waters of the Nile from the daylight green, to a an inviting darkness of the evening. Walking back to towards the ferry that would take us back to our hotel on Isis Island, a slightly more impressionable version of more than just a small formation of rock that spilt the Nile as depicted in the guide book, we were approached by a young man. He smiled invitingly and asked us if you wanted to take a felucca trip. “Very cheap, do you want to know how much?” It would be an introduction we grew accustomed to over the next couple of days. We gladly accepted his offer, choosing not to bargain as the price was reasonable to start off and we walked a short distance to where he untethered his wooden sail boat and pushed off the dock.

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The orange light in the sky faded too quickly, as if the sun itself was tired from burning so bright and high in the sky. It seemed to me that the glory in the Egyptian sunsets were precluded by their brevity. But when the darkness fell, it descended so languidly over the river that instead of bringing darkness, it seemed to light the night with possibility. There is something infinitely calming about the water, it is as if I am home, as if I am at peace on the water. Tiny openings in the sky burned with the light of the Egyptian stars and the river frogs began their night-time symphony and as I lay back, with my face towards the heavens, I felt as though that moment was created just for me. Beyond anything I felt lucky. Lucky to enjoy an experience that people only read of in books. Lucky that I have been given the opportunity to pursue my dreams. Lucky that my quest for hedonism is always met with unadulterated satisfaction.

The boat’s man plays Bob Marley’s Buffalo Soldier and I cannot believe that it is fortuitous. No, this moment, on the Nile under the cool night sky with the sounds of Bob Marley and the river night life come alive, was made for me.  The wind catches the sail of the felucca and in an instant we are pushed forward through the river before our pace slows again, there is no rush to get to our hotel, all that seems to exist is us, the river and the stars. It is gentle breeze that flaps a small flag rhythmically at the bow of the boat. The noise catches my attention and I’m amused to see a Rastafarian flag with a cannabis leave emblazoned on it. I laugh as I settle back to once again face the heavens and I wonder why life couldn’t always be this peaceful.

Tomorrow is all we have

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Lutchmee Varma is 86. In short, she is a crazy woman, but crazy in the way all the best people are. She has known hardship and joy, and has seen a life that nothing I ever write would adequately describe. She fills my heart with her laughter and I wish I had the power to make all her days happy ones. She is my grandmother, the matriarch of our family and hands down one of my favourite people in the world. As I write this she is in hospital awaiting the surgery that will remove her inflamed gall bladder tomorrow.

I’m not sure why I am writing this, perhaps I am seeking a release in the only way I know how. I am terrified, beyond terrified actually. Almost paralysed with fear. We all know the risks associated with surgery at an advanced age, there are no guarantees. I want so badly to remain positive, to think only of a tomorrow when I will hear her voice, hear a silly joke and make plans with her for the future. The alternative is too much to think of. I called her today, she was in such good spirits, telling me that she’ll call me after the operation to tell me she’s okay. She joked in her typical fashion that she was getting dressed up so she could find a nice doctor. It’s been explained to me that the procedure is fairly routine but I cannot keep the emotion out of my voice I cannot stop the tremble in my hands. I can’t shake the thought that no amount of time would ever feel like enough with her. That I haven’t yet listened to all of her stories. That I have not hugged her enough or thanked her enough for everything she’s ever done for me.

I’m not particularly religious but I find myself conversing with what I hope to be a higher power, bargaining, desperately pleading for more time. It is selfish I know, but I have spent my whole life thinking my granny was invincible. She has been ridiculously strong and healthy and I find it hard to remember that she has aged, as we all do. To me she is the fiercely independent woman who raised her children the best she knew how. She is the woman who ran away to marry the man she loved, the woman who loves to dance, the woman who looked after herself for most of her life. She is the one who makes me special treats that no one else can, who sits and talks to me about her life, who laughs at my silly jokes and who tries to cure any aliment she may think I have. She is my granny and my life is made better by having her in it. Quite simply there will never be anyone else like her and I am not ready to give her up just yet. Varma women are made strong and stubborn and I am counting on that resilience tomorrow, on that stubbornness to pull her through. She is not yet done, her story not yet finished.

We, the people of South Africa…

I woke up to the sound of rain yesterday and wondered if it was a promising sign. Perhaps it was a cleansing rain. A rain to wash through the streets, to bring renewed purpose and hope. A rain to clean our minds and purify our thoughts as we prepared to gather at various places around the country and stand together as brothers and sisters, against a man who we’ve come to regard as symbol of corruption, greed and evil. The man we call our president.

I am by no means a political analyst or a scholar, I write this with only the most rudimentary understanding of economics and politics. But what I am, is a South African, more accurately put a troubled South African. And over the past few weeks, after the loss of Uncle Kathy, the cabinet reshuffling, the ratings downgrade/s, I feel compelled, driven, moved to action. I do not want to sit idly by and watch our beautiful country crumble. So yesterday, like thousands of other South Africans, I took to the streets managing to catch the tail end of the People’s March in Pretoria. Standing in the field outside the Union Buildings, grass poking through my sandaled feet, I saw my fellow South Africans wave banners, rise their fists in the air and I saw the clouds part and sun shine through them.

Hearing our national anthem is never just that for me, it is never just something I hear, it is something I feel and as I stood in that field I felt emotions surge and threaten to break free as tears burned my eyes. I felt what my fellow South Africans felt. Through the fear, sadness and anger, I felt hope. Hope in the beauty and diversity of our country, hope in the fact that standing together, we the people of South Africa, will be heard. The audacious hope that change is coming and that I could be a part of shaping that change.

Our president is just one man and I suppose this is what scares me. We see a picture of him and we see a greedy, self-serving man. He has become a symbol of what is wrong with our country and as the ANC scuttles to defend him, publicly toting notions of “political agendas” and threatening violence, I can’t help but wonder if cutting off the beast’s head is enough. It seems to me that the beast grew fat on the rot and propagated it’s cancerous stench, creating more rot, feeding itself of it’s own creation.

It is a start, an important one, that we took to the streets yesterday. That we the people of South Africa, sent an important message to our government. But what is more important now, is that we are relentless in our quest. Relentless in our desire to get rid of not only the beast, but the rot that threatens to destroy us all.

Confessions of a diving virgin

“You’ll never forget your first breath under water”, that’s what an American voice in a SCUBA video tells me. The video is great, complete with happy faces, women with miraculously neatly plaited hair and a gentle tranquil soundtrack, I’m sold. Obviously my first experience with SCUBA diving was going to be a walk in the park-bad choice of words, maybe a walk in the ocean, okay even worse choice of words. But you get my point, this was going to be great!

Fast forward to my first pool session, our dive instructor tells us to get into the pool swim a couple of laps and then tread water for 10 minutes. I show off, I’m not a bad swimmer and I’m natural in the water. Confidence unnecessarily and uselessly boosted, I gear up (there is no grace in getting into a wetsuit, I finally understand how sausages must feel) and ready myself for the first lesson. I would call what happened next a slap in the face but it really was an assault on the lungs as my “first breath under water” was one laden with water. I panic and pop my head out of the water, what the hell was I thinking? Humans are not meant to breathe under water! Maybe my breathing apparatus isn’t working? Maybe I’m not getting enough air, I do have Asthma, is this a sign of imminent doom? I look to the rest of the group, their heads just below the surface and panic even further when I realise that I’m the only idiot above the surface. Five seconds into diving and I’ve already convinced myself that I’m going to die and I haven’t even left the shallow end of the pool yet! The instructor appears, mildly irate at having to deal with his problem student and tell me to bite onto the mouth piece, that way I’ll stop sucking in water. I do as he says, biting so hard that my jaw hurts. I’m terrified but too stubborn to admit defeat and I agree to give it another go although everything in my body seems to fight the very concept of breathing under water.

The pool session is long, the group of us emerge wrinkled and tired but most importantly alive and with a great sense of pride. I can’t say that I enjoyed the session, what with being so afraid of dying all the time but I agree to do some skills dives the next day. I am proud of my stubbornness and at my success at saying alive and I am convinced that I have the basic knowledge to successfully complete the dives the following day. If you think I’m setting this up for one of those “oh boy was I wrong” moments, you’re quite right as the next day diving at Miracle Waters, I seemed to spontaneously forget all of my instruction the moment I head dipped below the surface. My mask was foggy, I kept forgetting to breathe, choosing instead to hold my breath defying the first rule of SCUBA diving and I almost fell off the diving platform. Couple my lack of composure with the fact that we were diving with two children a third of my age who seemed to have no issues at all and I felt like a complete idiot. I want to say that I survived not only that dive but two successive dives thereafter and that I displayed the correct skills but I’m pretty sure that survival during a dive is not really the reason one dives.

So here I am a few days post losing my diving virginity with a case of “severe bilateral otitis media” and I’m really not sure how I feel about diving. As for the pain in my ear and in face, I’m pretty sure I hate that but I’m not convinced that I’m a diver. I have one last dive to qualify for my open water certificate and perhaps the beautiful upside is that I can qualify in the Red Sea during our upcoming trip to Egypt. But I constantly wonder if, like how I deal with emotions, I am only meant to skim the surface and not really probe into great depths. Perhaps time will tell.

Dear husband

Dear husband, there are times when I think that I’m capable of killing you but then my senses kick in and I realise that I don’t have a pretty black dress to wear to your funeral and I stop short. Of course, only I would start a love letter overflowing with murder and violence but perhaps it should be testament to the kind of wonderful human being you are for loving me and my madness. It should also be a testament to your madness that we are still together almost 15 years later, so perhaps your madness is of a higher order than mine but hey, this isn’t a competition. Just for the record if it was a competition, I would win but probably only because you let me. After all this time, you’re still the man who drives me insane, the nutcase who hates reading and the grouch who fills my heart with a single sleepy smile in the morning.

Many years ago, when the first spring rains brought new life to what winter had laid to rest, you placed your head on my lap and we laughed in field of green. Obvious to all except us, there was a tangible chemistry that mingled with the smell of rain and freshly cut grass, it was a chemistry we would soon discover after our first Vodka soaked kiss. I’m not quite sure why you needed the Vodka for courage, but I will never forget the slight movement of my hair as you brushed it away from my shoulder or the feel of your lips on my skin. Drunk on more than the Vodka, I knew that whatever happened from that day on, I would never regret a single moment of it.

Now we find ourselves, so many years later, married with two barbaric dogs who have a penchant for dispensing farts that rival nuclear bombs before they leave the room. I have fought with you, I have fought with myself; I have hated you and I loved you more than I ever realised I was capable of. I have felt your sorrow and you have held me through mine. No one on earth has understood me and misunderstood me as much as you do, I’m just glad we agree on the big things like what cheese is the tastiest and which setting works best for our dishwasher. I have fought with you in public, we’ve gone to bed angry and we’ve both hurt each through angry words, regretted the moment they were formed. It’s a good thing you barely pay attention to what I say, else you may not be so forgiving to my defensive sarcastic barbs. We’ve punctuated our sentences with kisses, we’ve annoyed everyone around us by being stupidly happy and I’ve fallen in love with you more times than I can remember. I know you as if you are a part of me, perhaps the best part and there is no one in this world that I’d rather be with (even if a shirtless Mark Walberg asked nicely).

I love you dear husband, more than ice cream and more than our dogs (but please don’t tell the older one, he’s sensitive). It sounds selfish but I love who I am with you, in loving you, I’ve learnt to love myself and bloody hell I’m awesome (there is no place for modesty in a love letter). I don’t know how the future will take shape but I know that with you, my future is going to be an adventure and that there is nothing we can’t do. Okay, I think I’ve been mushy enough for a lifetime now, please don’t quote anything I’ve written in our next fight, there is a chance it will be met with violence.

 

Apathy at a traffic light

I wonder if I am the only one who momentarily forgets how to drive when I set foot into a rental car. It is almost as if years of doing the same thing daily are completely offset by the fact that my indicators are now on a different side of the steering wheel. Each time I accidentally turn on my wipers I also automatically forget how to drive. This spontaneous forgetfulness (I wonder if it’s a disease) results in a mad fumbling and a sheepish smile before I realise that no one has any interest in me and that I have missed my turn. The GPS lady ignores me in an angry silence as if every time she reroutes me it is a personal insult, I tell her I am sorry but she is resolute and unforgiving. Great, now the rental car, GPS voice lady as well as 90% of the other drivers on the road hate me. Just great.

In any case, I had just stopped at a traffic light and still glowing with the monumental pride of correctly identifying my indicators, a young boy wearing a baggy grey t-shirt appears at my window. One upturned palm almost completely overlaps the other and outstretched arms are answered by the shake of my head and me mouthing the word “sorry”. There is no thinking in this action, it is bland and without emotion. Years of driving through our beautiful country and one violent “smash and grab” later and I am indifferent to the sunken eyes, to the torn clothes and the thin limbs. I barely even look him in the eye. He too is used to this dance, to the callous shake of my head, the emptiness in his palm and he walks on, hopeful that someone will see him, hear his plight. As I watch his retreating frame fade into the distance in my rear-view mirror, I see his skinny shoulders lift slightly as his clasped hands reach up to brush something from the top of his ear.

The spark of recognition is instant, in that moment I know exactly who is he, I know his name, I know how much his mother loves him. I feel the sun, hot and dry on his skin, I feel his hunger growing an emptiness in his belly. I feel the ache in his feet, the defeat pulling at his shoulders. At that moment, he is my nephew. My wonderful, insane, eight-and-a-half-year-old nephew whose skinny frame is much like this boy’s on the street. I have listened to his laughter, I have soothed his tears and I have heard his dreams. And yet I have turned my back to him here on the street, I have betrayed him. I have said to him “You are not my problem, go find someone else who will care”. It was in my power to help him and yet I did nothing, his needs could have been answered but I did nothing. Since when do the needs of our children not matter? OUR children, Africa’s children, the world’s children. Having no blood tie to the boy on the street kept my window unopened, kept my emotions at bay. He was not my problem. Neither was he the problem of the two cars behind me, or many others that will pass him by. But whose problem was he then? Is this my moral code; love those closest to me, help those closest to me and no one else matters? I would never allow this to happen to my nephew, not only because he is my sister’s son, not only because I love him, but because, fundamentally, it is wrong. But without thinking, this sense of right and wrong did not apply to the boy at my window. Should I take solace in the fact that no one else opened their windows, that everyone else behaved as callously as I did so that I know I am not alone in my apathy? Should I reason my way out of this and write of how it’s not safe to just hand out money or of how there is a possibility that the money I give him will go to “no good”? Maybe if I write about how my attempts would be insignificant in the greater scheme of things it would quiet my guilty conscience? None of it is enough, none of it matters or makes sense because I could have easily helped him without really sacrificing anything of consequence to me. Nothing I tell myself alleviates the guilt because I know I should be doing all I can, I know we should.

Why I’m scared of success and fish moths

Okay first thing first, fish moths have to be one of the most disgusting creatures in existence and to make matters worse they’re always showing up unannounced which to be honest, is just pain down rude. I found one staring at me in a rather creepy fashion while I brushed my teeth this morning (well I don’t know where it’s eyes are but I distinctly felt as though I was being watched). I flashed it my toothpaste covered teeth hoping that the sight of my pale blue frothy grin would scare it away but it was oblivious to my efforts. That creature had nerves of steel, I mean I often scare myself when I catch my reflection in the bathroom mirror after I’ve just woken up (picture a love child between Freddy Krueger and the girl from The Ring – I’d be her ugly sister). But this blog post isn’t really about fish moths or how disastrous I look as the soft light of day breaks, it is, no doubt, just my way of not so cleverly avoiding the real thing I want to write about.

It amazes me how many blog posts I start and never finish, how many bright ideas I have that never turn out to be anything and worse so, how scared I am sometimes just to try. It is as if I do not deem myself worthy of the very thing that I want, so I start to convince myself that whatever I desire is not really a possibility, that my hopes and dreams belong to someone else. I can almost imagine her, this woman who owns my dreams. Maybe she started working on her dreams earlier, maybe she had more than I did growing up, maybe she had more supportive friends, maybe her hair did look like the shampoo commercials. The more real she becomes the less I believe in my own story. I pull at this thought piece by piece until all that is left of me is something insignificant, ordinary, mundane. Stories that began in my mind start to unwrite themselves, achievements are tainted with the thought of blind luck. I become my worst enemy endlessly criticising myself until I am left with nothing but self-loathing. Time and time again, I wonder why it is that I do this to myself. Why it is that the things that I want the most are the things that paralyse me with fear? I want to say that I am scared of failure but somehow that does not ring true.  I know failure and I know that failure is a necessary, but temporary part of life. I have never faced anything that I thought I would flat out fail at (of course this was before I failed engineering in glorious technicolour – I always say if you’re going to do something, do it well). No, I am not scared of failure. I am scared of something more threatening, I am scared of success. I am scared of doing something well and then never being able to replicate it, I am scared that people will come to expect something of me that I cannot deliver. Someone once told me “If someone pays you a compliment, it is not your job to prove them wrong. All you have to do is say ‘Thank you’.”

How silly to be caught up in this tidal wave of emotions because I am scared to actually succeed. How silly to think that I am unworthy of the success that I have or could have. How silly indeed. I think of the silly puppy who lies snoring contently beside me as I type, I think of how his mixture of stupidity and bravery landed him in a dark, deep pond and of how he did not know that he could not swim. He was not scared that he may become the doggy swimming champion of the world, no, he saw an opportunity and decided to run head first into it. Of course, he needed to be rescued, and as I clutched his wet body to my chest, he licked my face as if to let me know this would not be the last time he would make my heart stop. He is a silly dog but perhaps he has a lesson to teach me. Perhaps his silliness is one that I should adopt, maybe I should get over my inexplicable inertia and learn to dive headfirst into opportunities? Succeed or fail, maybe someone will be there to pull me out of the deep dark pond, maybe it will be a wiser, stronger version myself.  Maybe I will look myself in the eye and know that it would not be last time I tried to succeed. Perhaps, at least for today, I should go find that dark pond, chase my dreams, start writing my great book, and of course,try to rid my bathroom of those god-awful fish moths.

Confessions from the red-light district: Amsterdam

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I am in marketplace like no other I have been in before. Women in glass boxes arch their bodies invitingly, pretty young whores like mannequins who have come alive in store windows. Throngs of tourists stop to stare and point at the window displays. Bright lights complete for my attention but I hurry down the street, head down, hands stuffed into pockets. I feel like I am caught in a storm; a cyclone of uncertainty rushes passed me and I reach for the only thing that feels real to me – a growing feeling of discomfort that hollows out the pit of my stomach. But somehow, the tighter I seem to hang to my discomfort, the more slippery it becomes and soon I am no longer able to take solace in it’s existence and I am forced to succumb the cyclone. It sucks me into it’s vortex and in the madness, I look for the calm, hoping to learn something from this new discovery. Ticking on a glass box and I am drawn to a woman in back underwear lined with bright neon green. Clever, I think. That’s a good way to draw attention.  An interested buyer steps forward, Euros eager to be traded for flesh as he asks “How much?”. I cannot hear the trader’s response but I see her turn around to allow the buyer a better view of the goods he is about to purchase. He inspects her the way he would an object, a careful consideration of his purchase to ensure it is defect free. I do not know her or him but I can imagine what he sees when she leads him back to the room she has rented. Like many of the other small clinical rooms that line the street, she probably has a stuffed teddy bear on her bed, some posters of her favourite celebrities on the walls. It is as though her room is reminiscent of something lost, an innocence she seeks. I do not know how many customers she has had but I do know that it is only after her third customer that she is able to pay the rent for her room and start to make money. I also know that every year women like her are murdered by their clientele.

In this marketplace, I wonder what it is that gets traded. I wonder why we feel that it is okay to stare, to judge, as if these women no longer deserve our respect. Have they traded our respect for money? We save our condemnation for the woman that may have been forced into this life, that may see no other way to feed her family or to pay for her studies, yet we bear her patrons no ill will. It is easy to judge her and the choices she makes, we have names for her – whore, prostitute, hooker – but none for the men who she exists to service. Is she sordid, dirty, morally reprehensible? Or should a woman be free to do what she wishes with her body? How different is this woman standing behind the glass door to the woman who sleeps with her boss to get a promotion, to the woman to gives her body to her rich husband that she does not love? If we condemn the women in the red-light district shouldn’t we condemn the others who are just like her? Shouldn’t we condemn the men who procure these services and then go back to their wives and girlfriends? What would we do if we did not condemn these women, the men, the act of selling sex? Would we accept the objectification of women, would we accept it when our daughters, mothers, wives, girlfriends start to consider prostitution as a viable career choice? Would we turn a blind eye, pretend we don’t know what’s happening and chose to ignore the women of the night? I suppose the answers are not so clear cut or simple. It is a complex puzzle and I do not have all the pieces.

I wanted my first post about Amsterdam to be lighter, funnier. Perhaps I should have written about how the city is a contradiction in many ways, how after stumbling out of the red light district the first thing I heard was church bells or about the stoned middle aged couple that clung to each other terrified to fall off the pavement. But somehow, I could not get passed this experience. I would have liked to talk to one of the women on the street that night, I would have asked her how she got started, I would have asked her if she was not afraid, I would have asked her how she felt when men walked by without interest and she knew she had bills to pay. That night, I felt like I was walking through a city from a different time, a time where women relied on men for money, a time where women were things of pleasure instead of thinking, feeling human beings. I suppose my visceral reaction was more to that than to the actual act of prostitution. To me these women where caged, trapped behind the glass door of poor choices and bad decisions. The only difference between their trappings and ours is that theirs are laid bare for the whole world to see.

The Lyngen Alps: Where the hikes are never easy but the views are spectacular!

“There is something I must tell you” Youseff says as he stands braving the cold at the open door of the minibus. The morning is dark without the brightness of moonlight and puddles of water and ice reflect and transform the city lights in a way that seems almost natural. Youseff is an odd little man, just five minutes before he turned into a hurried, panicky mess rushing us into the minibus. A bizarre transformation that made me think of him as a little frightened animal scurrying away from a powerful but disinterested predator. He averts his eyes, looking and no one in particular when he says “We will have to do a short hike to get to the top where the snowmobiles are kept. It is not hard, maybe it is 300 meters.” He mumbles something about the rain being bad for the snow before he looks right at me and says “Is this okay? Can you do this? You must tell me now or else we will give you a full refund.” A little flummoxed and insulted, I would soon come to regret my flippant response of “Well we’ll do it or we’ll die trying right?”

Arriving at the Lygen Alps, there is a sense of urgency as we change into snow suits and boots and I can only assume that the short hours of “daylight” is what motivates the speed at which zips are pulled and belts are buckled. It concerns me that our helmets are strapped on for the “300m hike” we’re about to undertake but I assume it is a standard safety rule here. I am handed a walking pole and told with no sense of ceremony “This will save your life, hang on to it”. Convincing myself that my now heightened fears are irrational, I push forward and we begin the hike. Starting the climb, the changing landscape and the sound of the ice and snow crunching under my boots are fascinating. Here and there brave spots of green poke through the stark whiteness, a small stream not yet frozen flows unhurriedly, meandering and seeming more concerned with the journey than it’s end point. I stop and take a look around wanting to fully immerse myself in the breath-taking beauty around me, knowing that before long we would have reached the end of our climb. The group of Chinese travellers on our tour playfully toss snowballs at each other while Youseff protects his face and we all laugh and enjoy the revelry.

It is about two steeps climbs later where the path is laced with ice so slick and impenetrable that no boots can find footing, that I find my setting taking my breath away in an entirely different fashion. “There, up ahead” says Husband pointing to the point at which the mountain seems to plateau, indicating that our journey was approaching it’s end. I tell myself to stop being silly and to enjoy the last steps but when I get to the top I find nothing but a small patch of level ground and a series of hills more menacing than the next. “Youseff, how much longer?” I say sweating and panting. A smile and an unconvincing “Oh, just a little bit longer” as I contemplate what it would feel like to lay down in the snow and stay there until I am rescued. Somehow, we push on and at the crest of the steepest incline, I arrive helmet in hand, hair slick with sweat and proclaim my victory to an unconcerned audience. Youseff, having witnessed my triumph, asks if Husband and I if we want a picture and of course I do, having just conquered the beast of the snow covered incline. I feel victorious, strangely unconcerned with the fact that we have still not arrived at our destination and I approach the next incline with a fool’s arrogance. Ha! You cannot defeat me! (It is even possible that I said this out loud) I stomped my way through, emphasizing the power in my steps until in one dramatic moment half of my right leg seemed to disappear beneath the snow. Wild victory turned into cold panic as I realised that there was a distinct possibility that I could be pulling my leg out of the snow having lost both my pride and my boot. But alas the boot remained steadily in place and luckily everyone else was too busy huffing and puffing their way up the hill to notice my madness.

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One moment of short-lived triumph

When we are finally at the top, even the dichotomy of machine and nature, the snowmobiles an unnatural deep red and the snow bright and pure as if made of light itself, seems beautiful to me. A short lesson on how to operate the red machines and we were off. I have never seen the world in such monochromatic splendour before. Thin tall trees, almost black and entirely leafless punctuated the vast whiteness, telling stories not of a barren landscape but of stories latent with the promise of fertility and life. There is a sharp bend around a rock that breaks the surface of the snow and as we turn it seems that the peak we’re traveling on unravels all the way to the ocean. It is almost sad to see the snowmobile tracks curving between the trees and creating tracks across the expanse of otherwise untouched snow. It is as if we had entered a world so sacred that our mere presence sullied it. The last of the light was fading in the sky and the darkness approached in an engulfing manner, the lights of our snowmobiles seemed to carve a path of light that opened and then closed sharply behind us. It was time to head back, time to brave the treacherous slopes in a race to see whether the darkness would beat us to our final destination. Almost two kilometres and two successive and altogether uncoordinated falls later and we have arrived at the destination where we will spend the night.

The fatigue that I expected did not come and later that evening, staring up into the night sky I was not disheartened by only catching a glimpse of green in the sky for I had seen beauty that I never knew existed. Later, over a glass of wine and my first taste of a double stuffed Oreo, I laughed at Youseff’s beguiling description of the brevity of our hike. I suppose I have a lot to thank him for, so I can forgive him for playing so loosely with the truth. Perhaps without his little lie and he story that last week a 76 year old granny climbed up the mountain to go snowmobiling, I would have never gotten to marvel at the monochromatic splendour and peacefulness of the mountains. So thanks Youseff, you are an odd little man but you inspired an adventure I will not soon forget.

Hot tubs and Killer Whales in the Arctic Ocean

One of my mother’s golden rules of travel is to always pack a swim suit because you never know where the opportunity may arise where you would need one. Naturally I am loathe to break any time honoured traditions especially one dictated to me by my mother (a woman who I’ve come to understand after a period frivolous opposition, is always right). So along with my Merimo base layer, my snow jacket, ski socks and a ridiculously fluffy winter hat lies a black string bikini, disproportionately tiny and feeble in comparison. It turns out that remembering to pack the bikini was the easiest part, wearing it on board the Vulkana for a day out in the Arctic Ocean, however, was a different thing altogether.

I was beyond excited to board the Vulkana, an old fishing boat turned spa that sets sail from Tromso. The voyage had two very distinct attractions for me, the whales and the old wooden salt water hot tub on deck. The idea of being out on the Arctic Ocean and perhaps catching a glimpse of Orca and Humpback whales filled me with a overwhelming sense of wonder and excitement, so much so that I almost forgot about the weather (well as much as a South African in the Arctic can forget about the weather at least) and began to convince myself that there was sanity in my actions. Once on board we peeled off layer after layer, replacing the warmth of wool and fleece with the sheer madness of towelling gowns, thin black flip flops and of course our swimming costumes. Before long we were in the Turkish inspired sauna, I want to say that our primary purpose for entering the steam filled room with glass doors was to relax and de-stress but I am not entirely convinced that our motives were not driven from a desire to warm ourselves adequately before braving the hot tub. I also want to tell you that we emerged from the steam room as a mirage floating on plumes of steam; glistening bronzed skin, long, powerfully athletic legs rhythmically striding, firm yet supple bodies latent with promise. But in if I am being honest, I emerged with a bird’s nest of frizzy, tangled hair and I almost toppled over as I ran towards my towelling gown, uncharacteristically aware of my body in the small space below deck.

The beautiful blue light that characterises the day during polar night in Tromso was not enough of a distraction to the sharp, pervading chill of the Arctic wind and as we walked, gowns flapping wildly, the Vulkana swayed drunkenly and we tried unsuccessfully to preserve our modesty and our balance. Having successfully, and not without difficulty, arrived at the hot tub, I can say that it seemed as though insanity itself would be the only thing that could persuade me to disrobe and enter the caldron of steaming water. The couple already stewing in the tub offered words of encouragement and support while I tugged fiercely on my beanie and hugged my gown to myself. I had the feeling that my movements needed to be swift that any hesitation would result in an inertia so strong I would not be able to overcome it. A quick picture as my husband (people keep telling me has a name but I can’t be bothered to remember it) hops on the spot, teeth clamped together to prevent them from clattering. Then, with starting speed, our gowns are recklessly tossed to the floor, flip flops flung wildly into the air as we make our break for the warmth of the salty water. As we sink into the tender embrace of the warm water, I think to myself that there is no possible way that I will be able to leave, the water feels like solace, the stillness of the snow-capped Fjords that taper to the ocean, the blue haze over the water, although unfamiliar, all feels like home to me. We are lucky enough to spot a family of three Ocra, two long dorsal fins crest and break the water followed by a much smaller fin before they are gone, out of sight, while we twist our bodies, necks craning to see if they will reappear. It is a good thirty minutes of choppy water, as if our hot tub caldron is stirred by an overzealous, sloppy cook oblivious to spills and splashes, before Husband decides that he can take no more, and more out of desire to remove myself from the proximity of the other couple in the hot tub than to be a good wife, I follow him hurriedly out of the tub and into the bristling Arctic breeze.

It is a few hours later when a larger group of Killer Whales as well as a Humpback come into sight. In a mad rush to the deck, I slip and slide in my poorly suited flip flops and try to steady myself by clinging to a white painted railing. A few things tell me that I am clearly out of my mind:

1. I am the only person on deck

2. When the skipper approaches me, he looks comically overdressed in his windproof, waterproof jacket and matching pants and warm hat, as if my attire – a disobediant towelling robe that barely stays shut – is adequate protection from the elements

3. The slate. The wind is almost bareable until the tiny chips of ice begin to fall. Vicious bites of ices that sting my face as I am thrown this way and the next by the movement of the ocean

In the most bizarre manner, I am invigorated by the swells, by the way my body is flung around carelessly, by the mercurial direction of the wind and by the sight of the whales breaching the surface so close by. It is almost as if the ocean itself has a hold on me and I am transfixed, unwilling to succumb to the elements. I wedge my body into a curve in the railing and try without even a whisper of success to take pictures of the whales, it’s as if the wind reaches down to my camera, stealing my pictures before they even have a chance. And in that moment, I am reminded of the volatility of the Arctic. The moments of absolute stillness which may serve to continue or if you’re lucky, unpredictable, fleeting moments of overwhelming splendour. The moments where no camera is good enough, where the best pictures are the ones you take with all of our senses. The moments where memories are made and dreams are realised.

 

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