Wednesday, 19 January 2022

Cape Town reflections: To the point of embrace

With every hope to do

A time to reflect on my recent journey to Cape Town, for this visit for a rendezvous with Brian had been in consideration from the time I returned in mid-January 2021, but the pandemic with its many waves and Coronavirus variants kept everything at bay.

As the year drew to a close, I had at least two essential things to do before I could plan to travel, my biannual consultation was already scheduled for the last week in October and coming due in the second week of November was my vaccine booster shot after which it looked like there was a clear way ahead to plan for the break.

I planned on a 6-week break and had diligently informed them at work about my plans for which a stand-in was recruited for my time away and this gave me the opportunity on approval to book my holiday from the first week of November and the countdown had begun.

We ploughed ahead regardless

Meanwhile, our daily conversations continued, in the morning and the evening as we planned what we were going to do along with the prospect of getting married. It looked like the whole pall of the pandemic was being put behind us until just in the last week of November, the Omicron variant first sequenced in South Africa though from what transpired was already prevalent around in Europe and the US, led to the putting of southern African countries on the UK red list without even knowing much about the variant.

This could have kiboshed our plans, but I reckoned that since I was going to be away for 6 weeks, enough knowledge and understanding of the variant would have helped put some in reconsideration into the knee-jerk reaction in the Global North. Besides, the whole idea of spending 10 nights in sub-standard quarantine hotels did not appeal to me.

Anyway, I kept my hopes up and continued with my arrangements, renewing my travel insurance, helping my stand-in bed-in, taking my Fitness to Travel PCR Test and I was ready to go. My journey to Cape Town was smooth and in just two legs, the first from Manchester to Paris and the newly reinstated Paris to Cape Town leg, arriving just after 22:28 on the 3rd of December, but without my baggage in tow.

Bags on a merry-go-round

My baggage did not make the transfer between arriving from Manchester to taking off from Paris, and though we arrived late in Paris, I literally had to rush to the departure gate, the transit time was another 24 minutes longer than the scheduled connection and still, I was not reunited with my baggage until Sunday afternoon. The baggage itself took the Manchester – Paris – Amsterdam – Cape Town route. I should have been given Airmiles for that too.

At first, I thought I would need to stay at an airport hotel overnight because of the pandemic restriction curfew, but that was not an issue, travellers were allowed to make that journey to their accommodations. I had arrived in Cape Town safely and was in Brian’s arms that night, that was all that mattered besides the troublesome issue of my baggage somewhere on the planet.

Tuesday, 18 January 2022

Men talking helping other men talk

Sharing a private matter

I am just listening to a programme on BBC Radio 4 – Room 5 where I think people talk about life-changing diagnoses of personal consequence. Today, it was about Jon, tall, successful, nice young family and ticking all the boxes. [BBC Radio 4 – Room 5 – Jon]

He was at Peppa Pig World with his family a couple of years ago when he discovered something wrong with his body, secretions from his penis that his GP first treated as a rash or basic infection, then he was referred to a Genitourinary Medicine (GUM) clinic where they determined he did not have a sexually transmitted infection. Now, I already suspected what it might be.

Anyway, after researching online, he found a consultant that diagnosed that he had penile cancer and it had spread to one of the lymph nodes, it was advanced, but also treatable and so they arranged the programme of treatment that has now put the cancer in remission apart from making Jon a totally changed man.

Time to be expressive

I share this story because it has resonance with me in many ways that I have written about before. As men we find it difficult to take about health issues, an irritation in a private place with the accompanying discomfort that we dismiss as trivial even as we are caught up in the embarrassment and tongue-tied when it matters.

Men are dying of conditions that are treatable if caught on time, prostate cancer especially, but also penile cancer and breast cancer, yes, men get it too. We need to cross that barrier that stops us getting help. Only you can properly explain how you feel for a doctor to begin a proper diagnosis or set you on a course of the treatment that would give you that best outcomes, you need to have your voice speaking loud, clear, without fear, shame, or embarrassment.

On sex and sexual organs, the words describing them should not be taboo and move out of the category of profanity. Penis, arse hole, scrotum, balls, buttocks, breast or whatever colloquialism or vernacular gives meaning to what you are referring to need to be words you can use freely in a describing how and what you are feeling as your life might depend on it, it is no time to be coy or shy.

You are going to be touched and prodded in places you have never been touched before or where you have not intended was touchable. Heck! Your life depends on touching the right places to feel and see what is wrong. You can’t play offensive when a situation has made you defensive.

Where my manliness was foolish

In early 2009, I allowed what appeared to be athlete’s foot to develop into a stinking sore half-aware that it might be related to a much earlier HIV diagnosis. That sore turned out to be Kaposi’s sarcoma, a kind of skin cancer and a manifestation in my own case of full-blown AIDS. My condition was that serious that at diagnosis in September of that year, I was given the prognosis that it was treatable if I could tolerate the treatment, else, I had only 5 weeks to live.

The treatment worked because there was a body of knowledge and experience garnered from people and many of whom had not survived that became the canon on which specialists could claim and assert confidence to tackle my condition. I was put on antiretroviral (ARV) drugs that I am still on and seven sessions of chemotherapy over 5 months to put the cancer in remission and reverse AIDS to the point where I have had an undetectable viral load of HIV for over 12 years.

Responsibility and acceptance

I know I contracted HIV through reckless and unsafe sex practices, I have come to terms with the responsibility and consequence of my own actions, however, I do not live in guilt or regret of that, I have a life to live and I intend for whatever time I have left to live it well. In the process, I have learnt to speak freely and liberally especially with medical personnel about how I am feeling, promptly, directly and without mincing words.

However, many diagnoses are not of commission or omission, they are accidents of nature bringing adversity, infirmity and challenges with them. We are left with ourselves and the help we can get to face these situations with the hope that we might surmount them and get to tell a better story.

My voice for my choice

To a team, I once had so say, “It’s my body first, before it is your guinea-pig.”, when I was challenging the determination for intrusive treatment not long after my ordeal with chemotherapy. To another, when I was seeking treatment for another condition, I was blunt about being aware of my mortality as a result of co-morbidities for which immediate action was taken. When I was asked to change to medication that gave me no quality of life, I presented the daily dairy of recorded side effects and contra-indications, and at my request, I was put back on my original drug regime.

I am in my knowledge and understanding as good as my medical notes, if not better. It comes from genuine self-interest and awareness along with the freedom and willingness to talk to address any medical situation I am facing. Then, I encourage the invitation and sitting in of medical students on my consultations, I believe that not only can they learn from my condition, that experience can also go into helping others. I would normally engagement them to appreciate what areas of study and research they want to specialise in.

All the help available

Obviously, for the outcomes I have had, I have to thank the open-minded, professional, considerate doctors in their humanity who have listened, understood, helped, and encouraged me on my path to wellness, their expertise applied with respect and consideration has been lifesaving in so many ways.

To us men, when you feel something, have it checked out and follow the full course with all the advice and help you can get, speak up, speak loudly and if you are not getting the best outcomes possible, challenge the orthodoxy. It is always your body first, before it is anyone’s guinea pig, no matter how good they are at what they do.

Thursday, 13 January 2022

Too much wine down the spittoon

Traipsing a new wine trail

Having missed out on understanding the essence of the Garden Route wine trail in not visiting a wine estate, or a distillery as there were many in that area, we decided we’ll do at least tour of wine estates close to Cape Town with the view to doing something different.

We booked a tour on Monday night and had a phone call informing us that our tour guide would be round to pick us up from our apartment at 9:00 AM, we were up and ready well before that time, thinking we were going to join a tour group on a bus, but it soon dawned on us as we drove out of Cape Town that we were on a privately chauffeured tour.

We arrived at Meerlust at 9:30 AM, Felix, our tour guide thinking we were up for wine tasting at that time. I could not countenance the idea of swilling alcohol that early, I come from a good home, we cannot be tasting wine at that time. Even as we saw people walking towards to the tasting rooms, we did a U-turn and continued our journey to other wine estates.

Music for posh wines

De MorgenZon (Established 1699) in Stellenbosch was acquired by the Applebaum’s in 2003 and they have a penchant for playing classical music to the ears if they exist of the grapes to make fine wines, at which point I was rolling my eyes. Apparently, according to Kudzai, the sommelier who conducted the wine tasting at our table, the vibrations from the music help the vines.

When I visited the restrooms, there were music scores on the walls leaving one captivated by both the familiarity and the strangeness of the music. Some new knowledge we gained was that for certain wines, the grapes were pressed with the stems to give that lemon zest taste.

My question was whether this excursion into the musicology of viticulture had made allowances for changes in vintage if the genre were hip-hop, blues, or jazz, for which no research could be provided. However, the vines were on Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart on our visit, the day before, they were given a serving of Antonio Vivaldi, to which I quipped as the weather was changing, if it was The Four Seasons.

A platter to clatter

Next, we arrived at Neil Ellis, a rather modern looking setup where we were told by the Tessa, the sommelier that they mostly buy in their grapes, though they have recently come into possession of a number of vineyards. Then again, this would suggest the wines made here are down to winemaking skills than the end-to-end from planting to bottling or core viticulture.

We availed ourselves of the platters of cheese, Parma ham and somewhat bland melon, but of the wines we tried, we came, we saw, we drank, we left. Nothing more to be said than the evident prospect of no return. Thank you.

At Haute Cabrière (Established 1694) in Franschhoek, by Pierre Jourdan for whom their Methode Cap Classique wines are named. Bongile, the sommelier, whose name attracted a twisting fate of mispronunciation, was helpfully at hand to explain as we took in the amazing mountain views from the tasting room. The bubbles go to my head.

Down a snake-winding staircase to the view of a cellar of barrels in a temperature-controlled room. To the right, the gents with urinal bowls full of ice cubes that creaked to the heat of your urination. Dare I say that might have been the highlight of my visit to this wine estate. We cannot for the snobbery of wine accept as good what our taste does not perceive, regardless of the medals earned from wherever.

Just at the very last

We invited Felix to have a late lunch with us in Franschhoek before visiting the last wine estate on our itinerary, Rickety Bridge (Established 1797) which for all its old money looks as part of an old estate La Provence now had such avant-garde names for their wines as Printer’s Devil from a few decades ago. In my own opinion, the range of wines were without character, though almost with distinction in aroma and definitely not in taste.

On being asked about my assessment after tasting 4 wines, I suggested they were a bit arboreal, a word our sommelier whose name I cannot recollect might not have understood, having not been provided with a spittoon, we had poured it all down the roots of a tree by our table.

The fifth wine had desperate attempts at effecting character but coming short in defining itself, that it verged on the quite truly forgettable. She returned with a Pinotage that did go down well, the first glass of about 25 wines that I had tasted in the day that I drank all up. Much as I sympathise with the winemakers along with the art, craft, and expertise involved in making their wines, to the individual, it is down to taste, palate, and comfort, one man’s poison is another man’s elixir. C’est la vie.

Coronavirus streets in Cape Town - LVII

The cruise to amuse

At just before 6:00 AM this morning, I looked out of my window to see a cruise liner passing to the right in the bay ahead, and just as I thought it was going to dock it turned around and cruised back out of the bay, this apparent circling in the bay continued for a few hours as I took out my binoculars to view what might be going on. It transpired that the wind which we did not particularly feel as close to the beach as we were made it unsuitable for a docking manoeuvre.

Then just before noon, it appeared to disappear close to the V&A Waterfront and soon we found that she had docked at the cruise terminal. We returned from Wynberg to the waterfront curious to find out about the cruise liner we had already determined was the MSC Orchestra.

A view to a queue

At the cruise terminal, we found ourselves channelling Chaka Khan with two lines from one of her hit songs, paraphrased, as one is wont to play at.

I feel for you,
You’re in a long queue.

The queue of passengers waiting to board was quite literally interminably long even without the social distancing and we supposed it was exacerbated by the need for rapid testing before boarding as cruise liners have been unmitigated incubators of the Coronavirus and communal spreading is most definitely encouraged by the community and confinement in closed spaces of a cruise liner regardless of how luxurious it is.

Yet, this portends a change in activities that suggest either moving beyond or living with the pandemic. The surprise for me was that I did not realise there was a proclivity for cruises amongst South Africans, the majority therein being the nominal majority of the country. I am gladdened by this because this might be the year of exiting the strictures of the pandemic, with wider and easier opportunities for travel and much else.

MSC Orchestra this morning, coming into the bay.
MSC Orchestra circling out of the bay.
MSC Orchestra, up close at the cruise terminal.
MSC Orchestra, at the cruise terminal.

Tuesday, 11 January 2022

George: Beach the sheep

Uber not about

For our second day in George, we were unsure of what to do apart from being able to get anywhere from our hotel which in its somewhat bucolic setting backing onto a golf course is hardly in the centre of town as the indicator from my hotel booking suggested.

We were excited about going to Victoria Bay Beach and then the Map of Africa viewpoint and as we were informed that Uber had reached George, we presumed the ease of getting about to a fault for even when we tried for an Uber there was no indication that cars that were about 12 minutes away would ever become available for our use.

In the end, we got the hotel reception to call us a taxicab and the driver that doubled as a tour guide availed us of his services for every place we chose to visit. The weather had taken a turn for the worse by the time we left the hotel that we arrived at Victoria Bay Beach with no enthusiasm to get into the water or relax on the beach.

More hype than type

Victoria Bay Beach is essentially a private beach with a security checkpoint and chalets held in families from long ago lined down the beach mostly up for rented accommodation or short stays than as homes. Much as there is a public right of access, there is nothing special about the place and even if we chose to stay there, after two nights with its isolated setting, we’ll probably seek the greater security of proximity to civilisation. If you are a surfer, you might find this place a treat indeed.

Our cab driver then took us to the Map of Africa viewpoint in the aptly named Wilderness, down a long nondescript dirt road to where the confluence of rivers appeared to map out from our observation point the depiction of Southern Africa, it was a hard-sell to suggest this was the map of Africa even at the most extreme stretch of the imagination. I could not find online any aerial view of this to confirm that Africa was mapped out on that terrain. How anyone has for any time gotten away with that scam escapes me, but we now know better.

Sheep may safely graze

Further up the road from this viewpoint was a paragliding site but the white horses (white foamy sea waves) ridden by high winds meant there was no paragliding activity. A sign on the field however caught my attention, “Please Do Not! Chase or Hassle the Sheep.”

We saw no sheep, but that was my highlight of the day as I was left wondering, how do you hassle sheep? Yet, when I think of it as I suggested in my Instagram post on the matter, sheep are intelligent, and for one, Shaun the Sheep is nobody’s fool.

Returning to our hotel, we decided to go for a wander to get a feel of George only to find out that there were no pavements on certain roads suggesting the town is best suited for vehicles. New developments on our way back had roads named after English golf courses. We would return and hire a car to get around. Dinner with Malaka at a restaurant closed an evening of pleasant and warm friendship.

George: Feathers to the caves

George on our minds

If our trip to George had not been made so rewarding and exciting by our friend Malaka Grant, we might well have been totally unaware of why we were there as this was one trip, we did no research on before travelling. We were keen to see Malaka and she had offered to show us around.

To clear one misconception, the Garden Route is not about gardens or stately homes as one would think if visiting from the United Kingdom, and whilst George is the capital city of that region, the things to do, see, experience are miles away from George, except if you want to go trekking the Outeniqua Mountain range. The Garden Route is essentially a wine route with historically significant monuments, natural features, a cultural heritage, and activities tagged on.

George of a time

According to a cab driver that doubled as our guide George saw modern development when P. W. Botha the penultimate State President of South Africa who represented George in parliament decided a local airport was essential as the roads were poor. He died in Wilderness, near George.

However, for our first full day, we visited the Ostrich Emporium at Oudtshoorn which had a heyday as the ostrich capital of the world at the end of the 19th Century and early in the 20th Century before the advent of cars and the world wars led to decline of the industry especially when flamboyant ladies ostrich feather hats could no more be accommodated in covered automobiles.

The highly successful merchants in the trade built feather palaces on the main street of Oudtshoorn but most departed as the trade declined and South Africa aligned itself to right-wing policies.

Caves to behold

On from Oudtshoorn, we drove another 30 kilometres to the foothills of Swartberg mountains where the world heritage site of the Cango Caves presented a spectacle of natural wonder impossible to describe in full as the breath-taking awesomeness left us astonished at what we beheld.

Limestone formations of speleothems crafted over thousands to millions of years discovered and made accessible that the tour guide’s introduction to each chamber happened in the semi-dark until the lights were switched on to reveal more than the senses could take in of the views exposed. On this visit alone, unexpected and unanticipated as we knew nothing of this place until after breakfast, we could be fully satisfied with this trip.

On our return, a mist had descended on the mountain pass reducing visibility to just about 20 metres, the way the weather changes in the Garden Route around George is one that would make for a good conversation with an Englishman, I was up for it. The day was good.

In the gut of surprise

Knowing by happenstance

Surprise as a function of events in commemoration of something can useful and exhilarating, however, when deployed in situations of long-term consequence, whoever is caught on the edge of it might be left nonplussed.

That is the feeling one would get when you learnt of the pertinent which should have been known aforetime and first-hand rather than through the equivalent of eavesdropping. For to be aware of the consequential through the accident of passing conversation directed elsewhere leaves a mind unprepared for the unexpected, removes agency for anticipation and reaction, and is thus unplanned for, even if with hindsight it is revelatory of other matters in flux.

Knowing nothing now

Inexplicably, the frame and structure of words to broach the subject are scarce as to be absent as rumination over days and nights proffers no respite or direction, like a cousin once said of a typical setting, you are left completely discombobulated, totally mixed up and in the dark.

One cannot act in haste and take a deep breath to be calm and in control of one’s temper and temperament whilst hoping some wisdom eventually prevails. Some things are just beyond explanation, that’s just how some things are.