Travel Writing


Table of Contents - Scroll down to read the story

Blog 1 Arrive Jo’burg.. 1

Blog 2 Tanzania 3rd - 8th Dec 2014. 3

Blog 3 Groot Marico  Dec 12th 2015. 5

Blog 4   Dec 12th 2014   Arrival at Tara Rokpa Retreat Centre. 7

Blog 5 – Sun Dec 22 2014 At the Retreat Centre - Xmas. 9

Blog 6   Retreat Centre Tara Rokpa. 12

Blog 7  Leaving the Retreat - Jan 10th 2015. 14

Blog 8   Gabarone Botswana. 17

Blog 9   Francistown, Botswana – and on to Zimbabwe. 18

Blog 10 Bulawayo Zimbabwe   Jan 10-15th 2015. 21

Blog 11(Pending) Joburg to Cape Town to Muizenburg.. 25

Blog 12 (Pending) Stellenbosch to Hermanus. 25

Blog 13 (Pending)Hermanus to Hout Bay. 25

Blog 14 (Pending) Cape Town.. 25

Blog 15(Pending) Back to Jo’burg and then UK.. 25


Blog 1 Arrive Jo’burg

 Two days ago I arrived in Jo’burg. Two days of shock and slow recovery.  The healing will take a while. I got the news I didn’t want to hear, that I’d been dreading in a simple text message.  I got it a few hours after my arrival at Brown Sugar Backpackers, in the Jo’burg suburbs, high up in the hills, an area aptly called Observatory as from the top terrace by the little swimming pool you can see for miles across the city. The shock threw me off my axis and I’m trying to recover my balance. 

They say that everyone really only has 4-5 close friends.  At my age you can’t afford to lose one. I feel like reciting that poem by Auden ‘Stop All the clocks…’ that was made famous in the ‘Four Weddings and a Funeral’ film. My dear friend Val of 31 years (yes I can date it quite precisely as we met in the GPs waiting room, both pregnant – she was a couple of months ahead of me - Jonathan was born in March, Tamlyn in June, both are now 31). 

We became friends immediately and remained so ever since.  Only last week I was told that the thyroid problem that she’d had for a few months, was in fact cancer and that it had spread so far it was terminal and untreatable.  I wondered whether to cancel my flight, booked from way back, to Africa.  I went to see her in hospital and the day after that the oncologist told her son she might not last the weekend.  We were all devastated.

On the Saturday night I went and sat with her for 10 minutes, holding her hand, telling her I loved her.  She told me she was ‘in paradise’ and stared past me, but came back and told me she was ‘at peace’, I was not to worry. I left feeling calm for the first time all week.  I knew I would go on my travelling trip, there was nothing more to say to each other, the only thing that matters is ‘I love you’ in the end and once you’ve both said it, you feel you can let go.  I saw her briefly the night before I left, she was in and out of consciousness but she knew I was there. She died next day at 4.30 pm, about the time I was settling in to my backpacker’s cabin – I heard 2 hours later.

A wall of grief descended on me, and my daughter on Skype told me to go down to the lounge and talk to someone, so I would not be alone.  The two young Nordic girls looked a bit stunned by this Granny woman with tears pouring down her face … they didn’t know what to say and after a few minutes started chatting to each other – one was from Norway one from Denmark.  I took myself and my grief off and skyped and talked to my family and friends, chain smoked, drank brandy, until I went to bed.  Then immersed myself in a crime thriller, unable to sleep, until the early hours.

I will grieve for her for a long time, maybe until it’s my turn to go.  But for now I must carry on living and I will send my emails out to those who like to get my travel tales, including her son, remembering how much she (and he) enjoyed them before.

The following morning, I went up to the top terrace and wrote notes/thoughts/draft poems about all the happy times we’d spent together, Val and I.  Those golden days when the babies were small, when I  was working part time and so on my days off we’d meet in Priory Park by the toddlers paddling pool, drink tea, laugh and talk, while our growing toddlers splashed about.

Then more recently, meeting every month in Costa coffee for a cappuccino, laughing, arguing, discussing …

                                                                  * * *

This morning, I woke at dawn (still on UK time) and went up to the top terrace and looked across the city to the horizon, where the sky was palest pinks fading into lilac. The small garden round the pool is surrounded by springy green turf with small trees with lilac like blossom and bright pink bougainvillea, it’s calm and peaceful there. The early morning is cool but I know it’ll get really hot by midday – yesterday it was 32 degrees. Tanzania’s going to be hotter I suppose.

I’m flying to Tanzania today to Dar es Salaam, that’s ‘Dar’ to us travellers… I’m off to stay at another backpackers, run by a friend of a good friend of mine, Mike – another displaced Zimbabwean (they have scattered all over the world due to Mugabe and his destruction of that once beautiful country).  I don’t know what Tanzania’s like, I’m told it’s beautiful, so watch this space.  I shall buy a candle and set up my shrine when I get there and meditate and chant on Val’s journey into the bardo realms. May she achieve a happy rebirth and may we be together again in our next lives … her journey in this world is over, but mine is on to the next phase …


Blog 2 Tanzania 3rd - 8th Dec 2014

Mikadi Beach, Dar es Salaam

At the airport in Dar the first official asked me for my Yellow Fever certificate… I panicked inwardly but kept it cool, smiled sweetly and said ‘Oh sorry it’s in my other bags in the hold.’  He waved me through and I breathed a huge sigh of relief.  I have no idea if I have the certificate or where it is ... about 10 days before I left I had the injection … but the shock of Val’s illness threw everything out of kilter, my preparations were done on auto-pilot.  Anyway my brain still isn’t in functioning mode, as I had no TZ shillings with me to pay for the passport – luckily Adam, the driver sent to pick me up, was able to go and change some English currency I’d brought. I had been escorted out by a courteous little man in airport security uniform to the money-change shop – I saw Adam’s big notice ANNA MERYT in the throng outside the departure area.  He took the money off to change – 50 U$D for the visa!

And then passport stamped, we were off, driving – ‘Not far’ said Adam – I should have known he was in Africa-time, not far as the crow flies, would be a better way to put it… city traffic… he kept saying ‘not much traffic, you’re lucky’. We first drove down a dual carriageway, which was as chokka as the M25, on the other side coming in, then we got into the city and made for the ferry – hundreds of pedestrians waited to one side and cars the other. 

A loud argument, shouting broke out amongst the pedestrians, a woman’s voice screaming abuse in Swahili – the official language here.  I asked my driver what it was about – he said she was screaming at her husband (and anyone else who’d listen) about him deserting her and small children, going off with other women and not paying to support her and the children etc. This provided some theatre for the large throng of black Tanzanians, mainly office workers, in the long wait to cross the estuary.

 My driver said he was Christian, we passed some Moslems with white lace skull caps and women in the hejab.  He mentioned Al Qaeda and Boko Hareem and another group, as if all Moslems were extremists.  We crossed on the ferry,u with our windows wide open and the pedestrian throng rammed up all around us

Did I mention the heat? OMG! At first I thought it was warm when I got off the plane, sunset was well under way, but when we got to the car, I was sweating and took off my cotton canvas Levi travelling coat (with many pockets) and my linen shirt … shit it’s hot here, even in a vest top, that tropical humid heat (TZ is close to the equator). When we eventually got to the hostel (a short drive after the ferry) I met Jo, a young woman in her mid-thirties – slim, dark, attractive, another  displaced white Zimbabwean, who runs the place. It’s owned by her ex-husband. She has a 6 year old who’s returning today, after a prolonged stay with her ex.

I’m writing this from the beach bar, on my right is the Indian Ocean, a beach with big white-sailed dhows crossing the bay and on the far distant horizon, the usual vast container ships, crossing to port I suppose. The tide, which was far out is coming in – I’ll have a swim later, maybe a swim in the pool first – but the sun is burning hot, so I’ll stay in the shade til then, sitting at a table near the long bar, a big A- shaped roof over us with wooden struts and thatched roof.  There’s a cool breeze off the sea.

Before I left SA on the way to the airport, the driver from the hostel – Solomon, a bright young man, took me to Eastgate shopping Centre – South Africa is all shopping malls, with tight security, vast places that make Wood Green Shopping city, in my part of London look small and shabby.  I heard from another backpacker how she’d been talking to someone and they knew of three car-jackings that week, hence the need for covered shopping malls with lots of security guards. Anyway we stopped off at Eastgate, to get me an SA sim card – the young man, plump, glossy dark face, in the big gleaming white telecom shop asked me what I did and I said I was a writer…. and a poet.  I then looked at him with astonishment as he talked about the subtleties of poetry, the symbolism and the imagery.  He asked me to read him a poem and the only one I had on my phone was the one I put on FB for Val, a week ago - In Blackwater Woods, by Mary Oliver and suddenly found myself with tears pouring down my face and this guy going on about love… imagine a mobile phone shop in UK where that would happen … it was those last two verses that did it.

To live in this world
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
And when the time comes
to let it go,
to let it go.
 Adam, the taxi driver here at TZ, zoomed through the throng from the ferry, through the city outskirts and onto a big road leading out of town – ‘Three minutes, we’ll be there,’ he said and he was right this time. We drove off the road through a gateway a long rutted dirt track in pitch dark, barely lit up by the weak headlights on his old car and then he stopped under some trees in a parking area.  As we walked to the brightly lit bar and loudish pop music, I felt the breeze from the sea… this place is on the beach I thought, right on the beach– I was shown a dark path to toilets and showers which seemed a long way from the hut-on-stilts on the beach, the ‘Banda’ where I was to stay – inside 2 mattresses on the floor surrounded by a 6 foot square mosquito net, one light bulb, one plug – ‘Oh’ I thought, 1) I don’t feel safe here, 2) the toilet is a walk in the dark, 3) I could hear every murmer from the hut next door, 4) there were no windows – only wide mesh and open sides – easy for mozzies, which I’m allergic to, to get in and there were some holes in the net and easy for someone on the beach to see into. One rusty bolt on the inside and a rusty padlock outside.  She had said she had an ensuite and I could move next day if I liked….
On the plus side the sound of the wind and the waves lulled me to sleep after a freshly cooked veg curry from the bar and a cold beer.
 Today I moved – I may not have the sea view, but it’s back off the beach and I have my own toilet, sink and shower, so I feel safer, more relaxed.  It costs a bit more but it’s worth it.
* * *

In retrospect.  

I actually didn’t stay at the Mikadi Beach, Dar-es-Salaam for the full week but left early. It was a beautiful place, but for me it was too hot, too humid, I found the 12 hour power cuts difficult in the evening – sitting in my cabin in pitch dark, under a large mozzy net, sweat pouring off my face onto laptop or Kindle ... became an ordeal. 

It was noisy - about 500 metres from the Mikadi plot, right opposite the clearing where my cabin was situated, was a dip in the ground in a large copse of trees.  Music was booming out from there all day long, it was so loud you could have been standing in the middle of a club in my cabin.  There seemed to be large groups of young males there – some tuk-tuk drivers, gambling ... whatever. It was impossible to sit in my cabin during the day as the noise was so loud.

My shower stopped working  – I used the bucket and scoop – cold water for a couple of days, but there was no water to refill it with, so gradually the tub emptied..

Although, Jo who ran the resort was lovely and very kind, all these factors were beginning to make me feel unhappy and using the internet was expensive (you paid by the hour) and intermittent too.

I emailed the travel company who’d booked my flight on Sunday morning – they offered me an early morning flight back to Jo'burg on the Monday. Adam (the taxi driver) picked me up at 4 am and we crossed on the ferry again, on the way to the airport, this time with empty roads.

Soon I was being picked up by Solomon from Jo'burg airport again and I was back in the peace of the Brown Sugar hostel, my own clean, bright cabin, having a hot shower, day temperatures of around 22-25 C and cool night temperatures of c 16-18C, with (almost) constant electricity and not-too-bad wi-fi.  No more crashing music, 12 hour  electricity outages, and in the hostel, various terraces and a big lounge to sit in with a large clean kitchen to cook my own food … time to regroup for a few days before the next adventure – the 25 day retreat in rural South Africa.


Blog 3 Groot Marico  Dec 12th 2015

On Friday I left Brown Sugar backpackers in Jo’burg for the Buddhist retreat.  The retreat’s being organised by a Tibetan group, whose founder was murdered in Tibet last year by a former monk.  A quite extraordinary event, I’ve never heard of any such thing happening with in  Buddhist groups of the present day.  He was a man of extraordinary reputation, a very senior Tibetan monk who had worked tirelessly for charitable causes in both Glasgow, where he’d founded a centre 50 years ago and in Tibet, where his fundraising supported various orphanages.

This group is a very different lineage to my own Buddhist organisation, which is called Triratna and is  adapted more for Westerners and was founded by an Englishman, demobbed in India after WWII.  Sangharakshita became a wandering ascetic monk.  He says he became a Buddhist after finding a copy of The Heart Sutra, in a second-hand shop in Tooting (of all places) when he was 16 years old. He became a disciple of several very senior Buddhists in India and after a few years was ordained by two of them. After running a centre in Kalimpong (near the Nepalese border) for many years returned to London and founded the Western Buddhist Order in the late 1960s, a time of course , of great change, free-love, the Beatles and the Maharishi Yogi, made popular by George Harrison. His group now has centres in most countries in the world and there are four in London.

My buddhist group, Triratna, as it’s now called, did not, under Sangharakshita’s guidance, align itself to any of the great schools of Buddhist thought that had developed since the death of the Buddha, 500 years BC, ie the Mahayana (Great Way), Hinayana etc.  Bhante (as we call him ie ‘Teacher’) took his focus back to the earliest Buddhist scriptures, many of which were not written down, but passed down by oral tradition, hundreds of years after Buddha’s death.

He concentrated his teaching around the Buddha himself and also some of the great teachers/proponents of Buddhism since then as well as using the rich symbolism of the Buddhist pantheon, Avalokiteshvara, for example is the Boddhisattva of Compassion and Buddhists will meditate on his likeness to develop those qualities of compassion. Jung called them ‘archetypes’, aspects of positive qualities we can aspire to and use to develop ourselves.

Have I still got your attention or have you switched off yet? Never mind.  It’s just a bit of background to the next part of my travelogue.  You see, this particular Buddhist group is basically Tibetan.  Tibetan Buddhism does not focus on the Buddha, but on an aspect of the boddhisatva Avalokiteshvara, called Chenrezig, all Tibetan’s meditate and chant with a focus on Chenrezig.

Very different to my Buddhist lineage, so I was somewhat apprehensive how they would operate on a retreat.  I have done hundreds of Triratna retreats.  How would it differ?

                                                                                * * *

There were seven of us meeting at the airport in Joburg, and I found the first few quite easily as one on the list of names was oriental and there was a group of people with an oriental woman in their midst.  I tried to make conversation with her, a couple of times and was met with mono-syllabic replies and she stared at her smart phone pointedly…. OK ...  The woman organising us, a bustling small friendly woman gathered us together and put us all into the mini bus.  The last to arrive a woman in flowing pinks and purples, dark curly hair, in her fifties, had so many bags my jaw dropped – including a large electrical food processor (?), ‘No it’s my juicer’, she said, she talked a great deal at the airport about her background (Jewish), daughter, diet, past history and that she was a counsellor.  She seemed to be an expert on all things South African.
I kept a low profile around her and sat next to Guy a tall skinny Brit in his early 30s, very bright. There was a very slim blonde woman (50s/60?) who turned out to be a Yugoslav from Kosovo also.
The road seemed to be long and straight, heading north.  I’d already checked out the map and seen that in fact the retreat centre was close to the border with Botswana and in fact not too far from the capital of Botswana, ie Gaborone. We’d been told it was a four hour drive and for the first 1-2 hours, the landscape was flat, everywhere the tall eucalyptus tree of course (introduced by the first settlers from Australia), towns dotted along the route. 
Eventually, a line of tall hills (or rocky outcrops appeared in the distance and soon the road was climbing and I got my wish, no more flat landscape.  In fact when we reached the summit of one of those hills I looked down on hills and valleys that reminded me of a rather drier browner version of the Sussex Downs – hills and valleys into the distance.

We had a pitstop at a garage and I bought a Crunchy bar and some chips – well I thought, probably the last carbo rubbish for a few weeks! The other women on the mini-bus frowned at my unhealthy choice of diet (or so it felt) and the woman with the juicer, caught me having a fag round the back on her way to the loo.  Guy was definitely up for sharing the chips though.

Back on the road, mile after mile and then the driver was turning onto a wide gravelled, pot-holed dirt track.  Not long now we thought, but this road went on for MILES.  All around a green and rural landscape, much of it seemed to be African bush, small scrubby bushes, swathes of grasslands and the wide red dust road ahead.  Suddenly, he swung off to the left into a turning I’d not spotted and we were bumping down a track into a wooded area and a notice saying ‘car park Tara rokpa’.  We’d arrived.


 Blog 4   Dec 12th 2014   Arrival at Tara Rokpa Retreat Centre

Somewhere near Groote Marico, South Africa, near northern border, close to Botswana.

We walked along a red dusty path that meandered through a little woody area.  Suddenly we were in front of a wide raised level with wooden tables and chairs, about 50 foot across.  Above it was a reinforced metal corrugated roof with wooden struts.  On the right I noticed a long shelved area with cupboards below.  There was a large tea urn – jars of tea-bags, cartons of milk. etc. were ranged along it.  A mental list that had been swirling around in my head got one tick.  I could make myself tea when I liked.

            We stood in line and were told we were to check in at each of the three tables that were occupied.  At the first table sat a largish woman, with a shaved head and the mustard robes of a Buddhist nun.  She had round thick glasses and a very pink complexion. She fixed me with a strong look – she was checking who had paid in full for the retreat. 

        I’d had huge difficulties both in UK and in SA in trying to pay without incurring large fees and a long saga at the bank the day before, trying to avoid ridiculous fees.  She asked for the return fees to O R Tambo airport, Jo'burg. ‘Well I’m not sure at the moment if I’m going straight back to Jo’burg, I might go on to Gabarone (Botswana) from here as it’s so close. 

There was a lot of huffing and puffing about that, how it was very inconvenient - I shrugged and smiled apologetically.  I was moved on to an older Scottish woman, white frizzy hair in a halo round her head, big smile.  At least she felt warm and welcoming.  She looked me up on a list – I was down for sharing a room, the room I was to be in had 3 beds, but no one else was booked in there so far. She handed me on to this tall bloke with short white hair - he showed me the room and said nothing.

 I don’t know what I was expecting, maybe a dorm with bunks or whatever – not a large room with three single beds, all to myself.  I was actually humming to myself, when I saw it … windows on two sides, looking over lawns down to trees and a wooded valley, green hills beyond that, rolling into the distance. Glass doors opened on to a balcony and a wide red-tiled terrace and then a couple of steps down to the lawns - this is ok, I thought to myself cautiously, that’s a few more ticks on my list and I felt delighted as I had the room to myself. Fantastic!  I started unpacking, there was a wardrobe, chest of drawers, bedside table – it was lovely.  I began to relax.
Later, a really tasty veg soup was laid on in the dining room and we were told that there would be silence every day from 9 pm until after lunch at 1:30 pm.  That was fine, I’ve been on many retreats where there were silent periods.  Some people hate it, but I love it.  It means I don’t have to make conversation, just think my own thoughts, but there are people around.
 And so the days seem to have slipped past.  Today is Thursday already.  I’ve been here nearly a week already.  I’m beginning to know some of the characters.  And my emotions have been up and down like a roller coaster.  People think that going on retreat is all calm and peaceful.  It’s not, retreats are full of people and people’s issues and personalities are unpredictable.  My friend Anne wrote a lovely poem about going on retreat, the gist of it is, that you start off thinking you hate everyone, then you think they all hate you, then you go through lots of emotions from boredom to excitement to rage.  You can feel very vulnerable and exposed on retreat especially if there are little groups of friends and you’re not part of any particular group.  Also you bring with you (as do all the other participants, a whole range of stresses, pain, grief, anger, emotions, from positive to negative.
  As I said, to start with I was told that I had the room with three beds to myself.  Imagine my annoyance then when this woman opens the door of MY room at 10 pm on the first night and tells me that she’s just arrived from Jo’burg, and she’s sharing my room with me.  I’d spread myself about, taken over the cupboards …. Shit!
 ‘Oh!’ I said not very graciously, ‘Well just to warn you, I may snore and I have the light on by my bed late (I read a lot) and I get up in the night to use the loo… are you a heavy sleeper or a light sleeper (I’ve travelled with a light sleeper before, who woke if a pin dropped, it’s NOT MUCH FUN believe me).’ Anyway I asked the question. Yes all that was fine with her. ‘Not a prroblem’, she said in her Russian accent.
‘Then, (I said firmly), we’re going to get on, good!
 So, this is what I discover about Vera, my room-mate – she likes to chat and laugh a lot.  She is married to a South African/Chilean and comes from somewhere between Moscow and Siberia …. don’t ask.  She has 2 kids and assorted cats and dogs and a big garden with an orchard and vegetable plot.  She seems to grow  EVERYTHING! I like her immediately.  She has a gardener of course (this IS South Africa), she’s studying for a degree in psychology and is a qualified counsellor. Apart from that she’s always ferrying kids to extra-curricular classes.
 On the second night when she asks stuff about me, I start talking about my dear friend, who’s died and suddenly end up in floods of tears.  Now for a counsellor and student psychologist I have to say that Vera is at a loss to know how to deal with all this grief.  However next day, she brings me over to Sarah (you know the money woman with bottle glasses) and tells her about how upset I was.  It turns out that Susan is a Clinical Psychologist (although  I've met a few of those who are barking). 
But in fact, Susan takes me to a private spot in the garden, I bawl my head off and talk, she listens with complete attention, offers little bits of soothing words and advice, and then I feel much better. Well at least the sort of better where you’ve had your feelings acknowledged and heard and not at all dismissed. So my initial assessment of Susan did a turn around and I decided I quite liked her after all (that went through a few ups and downs later).
Then there’s Rob, who’s leading the retreat – he’s a very senior member of this Buddhist organisation, who gave up working in Criminal Justice as a Criminologist, many years ago.  Well my feelings towards him went from like, to not-like, back to like in the end. He is one of the main reasons I chose this retreat, due to his reputation as a renowned mindfulness teacher  My meditation practice has been struggling for years and so I thought his teaching might give it a boost. 
I’ve now done 5 days of variable amounts of meditation – today I began at 6 a.m. and have been at meditation sessions all day till 4 pm, then again from 7-8:30 pm..  Rob teaches morning and evening. Most of the real devotees in the group treat him with a kind of godlike reverence. I’ve had three one-to-one sessions with him and I told him some of my work background and writing and poetry stuff. He’s given me some useful tips for improving my meditation practice – his teaching has very cognitive behavioural methods, which I’m used to of course.
We all go to the big shrine room to meditate (it’s at the bottom of the garden and about 50 foot across, octagonal with a slate roof, overlooking a lily pond with huge carp). Rob misinterprets something I’ve said in a negative way occasionally.  And today, towards the end of a long period of meditation (I had picked up my notebook and was writing a poem), he got very cross and said that ‘it was an insult’ to him to see someone writing during a meditation session.  I put down my notebook quickly and was quite upset by the tone of voice he’d used. He then went on to talk about the discipline of meditation, but I didn’t hear any of it.  No one in my Buddhist order would speak to a retreat participant like that and our retreats are very relaxed about what you do in the meditation room, as long as you’re quiet.

I went for a long walk afterwards up the rocky hill to calm down and burnt the poem, because it now felt tainted with an unpleasant memory. And smoked two cigarettes.  A bit later, I had a lovely chat with a Buddhist monk called Tenzin (he'd lived in Scottish Buddhist centre for many years), it was not about Rob as Tenzin’s a devotee) but he was so sweet I felt OK afterwards, so now I’m letting it go. Later I realise from talking to people that Tibetan High Lamas (and this order was founded by and is run by these), are treated with so much reverence that no one would dare to do anything but listen in utter 2014-5                                                     when they are teaching.  Rob is in fact the number two in this worldwide organisation and so it would be seen as his right by many of the devotees to expect complete reverence and utter silence and attention when he is teaching.
Anyway, what of the other participants – there’s about 25 of us I think – an elderly woman with white hair ‘from Rhodesia’, very grand in her attitude, but also quite sweet, several older couples (who have their own cabins) and several younger couples too.  It’s odd to have couples on a retreat, because our retreats are mainly single sex or where they are mixed, men and women are in separate dorms.  Sexual activity is seen as a barrier to focus on spiritual practice.
There’s a sweet couple – he’s ‘in business’ and she’s a Transactional Analysis psychotherapist – but they both seem to be pleasant and friendly.  I’m his friend for life as I gave him an anti-histamine when he got a coughing fit, due to an allergy to something he’d eaten.
Oh and that woman on the bus, the one who had loads of bags and a juicer?  I found out yesterday she has breast cancer and is trying to avoid a mastectomy and chemo….

Me n Vera went for a walk to a little waterfall one day
And let’s not forget the German-Swiss guy Ollie, early forties, good-looking, short pepper and salt grey hair, startling pale blue eyes – lots of afternoon conversations about the economies in Europe,  his attractive, slim Russian girlfriend joining in. He has strong but informed views about Putin and the Crimean War and the UK economy and the EEC in general.  Really interesting.  I asked him yesterday what he did – he said ‘I’m in banking’ [in Switzerland].  Later, I said, but what’s your role at the bank?  He said ‘I’m the Managing Director’.  Of one of the main Swiss Banks… Oh My God!
Continued next day – on Friday …
 Oh and by the way, re revising opinions – Giles who I sat next to on the bus and who I thought was nice – he’s a total fanatic… he sits at the front in the meditation room, as close to Rob, our teacher, as possible, asking deeply esoteric questions, looking eager and alert. His eyes remind me of the slow Loris – big and round and staring.   He’s complained several times about people talking after 9 pm. Apart from all that he’s a nice guy …. like the school prefect nice ... Ha ha.
 I’m enjoying all the different characters and slowly making friends, so feeling less isolated than at the start, some people are quite fun. All the meditation must be doing me good too as I feel more … centred, peaceful.
                                                                   * * *

       However, I’ve heard from my daughters about Val’s funeral tomorrow. I sent them my poem and they like it thank goodness, but am feeling very sad again, that I won’t be there to support them, that they have to go through it all without me beside them. Tomorrow I will be doing all the Buddhist devotions I can think of while the funeral is going on, for Val in the Bardo….


Blog 5 – Sun Dec 22 2014 At the Retreat Centre - Xmas

Vera, my Russian roommate left yesterday. I was sad to see her go, but we’re going to meet up in Jo’burg sometime, as she lives by the backpack hostel I was staying at.  She has kept me entertained for the last 10 days, with her constant chatting (even when we were supposed to be on ‘silence’). I will be having a new roommate in a few days, so I don’t know what she’ll be like…?

I also made friends with an older couple – Glen and Sharron. I mentioned Glen I think in the last letter –I gave him an anti-histamine when he had a coughing fit.  So I went for a drive with them one afternoon to a place called Oog Marico – The Eye of Marico (pronounced like the Welsh ‘wch’. A spring comes up there, supposed to be the best purest water in South Africa. It is crystal clear and full of minerals. 

The drive there took about 20 minutes on a long gritted red dust road, the scenery was what’s called ‘veld’,  - big wide open green spaces right up to the distant hills.  The retreat centre is in an area more like typical African ‘bush’. I didn’t realise you could swim at this ‘Oog’ place, so didn’t bring a cozzy, but it wasn’t that hot that day – only about 20C. Anyway, I thought it was gonna be a sort of large bore hole, but it was more like a small lake, there were steps going down – a bit like Hampstead ladies bathing pond in size, surrounded by tall green reeds, but the Hampstead pond has dark murky water, here the water is clear, you can see far down  – not to the bottom though – that’s c 50 foot deep!

We had a good stroll around, Glen took pics of us all with his rather big, fancy camera and then we went back to the car.  We stopped at the gatehouse and Glen chatted for ages in Afrikaans to the young chap whose family lives at the house on whose land the spring is on. Me and Sharron chatted about her work as a Transactional Analysis trainer/psycho-analyst.  Her daughters and grandchildren are all in England, so she wants to live there, but it’s so hard to get a permit to work when you’re older, Glen is not keen, he’s a South African through and through.  He runs his own online business now (after working for years in medical supplies).  His business involves supplying health products to health shops. He was very interested in my daughter's Essential Oil business – I have my bottle of Nio Essentials Lavender Oil with me and use it constantly to soothe mozzy bites (it really works).

He thinks he can probably add a link to her business from his – but he’s going to get in touch with her, when they’re in England in April. We also made a date to eat out together in Devran – my favourite Turkish Restaurant in Green Lanes. 
I woke early next day, the day of Val’s funeral – I lit a candle by the small shrine, in my room.  I wanted to do a ‘puja’ at the same time as her Roman Catholic mass was being said – 9 am UK time, 11 a.m. here.  There was a lot going on here too – the night before, there’d been a ritual to end the first part of the retreat (most people were leaving before Xmas). There’d been a rota of people chanting in the big shrine room all night long, with many candles burning and a large bonfire outside.  I’d done the 11 – midnight slot, chanting Om Mani Padme Hum for an hour – except I fell asleep (sitting up) after half an hour. That day the usual morning silence was being largely ignored, small groups were round tables.  I like being with the boys – Tenzin - the sweet-natured monk, he understands my droll sense of humour (lots of people don’t). He lived at a monastery in Scotland for over 8 years – he did two 4 year silent retreats.  He told me he’d been a very troubled teenager with a big alcohol problem, then he met Rob and ended up in Scotland where this Buddhist group have a large monastery – his grandfather came from there.
There’s also Thesen, a quite diminutive young Indian man who kept asking me if I had a ‘delicate’ side – I just glared at him and said ‘I don’t do delicate, forget it!’  But he’s decided he loves me anyway and that I AM ‘delicate’, as he puts it, but I hide it well.   Hmmm ...  I like him though, he’s so cute and a bit naughty and always asks Rob searching and penetrating questions which are often quite interesting.
Tenzin the monk told me he was trying to get hold of his ‘preceptor’ as he’s decided he no longer wants to be a monk, he doesn’t want to be celibate anymore.  I asked him if that meant he kept dreaming of beautiful girls and he said ‘Yeh, something like that.’
Ollie the banker would usually be there too, into some deep conversation about political stuff. Somehow we got into a long conversation where I explained a little about my former role with domestic abuse survivors and the profile of abusers, with all the ‘controlling behaviours’ they use. Then the ‘juicer’ woman came over and talked about 3 years she’d had with a DV abuser.  He was emotionally controlling and abusive, and she thought she’d never get away from him, but she eventually did.  She became upset talking about it. 
Ollie tried to talk over this display of emotion, but I made him stop and wait and pause in his flow of words, while I gave her a long hug. He then talked about how his father (who had been an eminent consultant) was abusive (verbally and emotionally) to his mother and we discussed the profile of men who abuse their partners, how the emotional and verbal abuse is extremely destructive. (In fact in UK a new law is going through Parliament as I speak to criminalise these Controlling Behaviours that abusers use to control, punish and intimidate their partners).
As it was now coming closer to 11 am (9 am in UK), the time set for Val’s funeral, I absented myself from this lively discussion and went to the small shrine room, put some fresh flowers out, lit candles and incense and did a Sevenfold Puja, which involves going through various prayers and supplications to the Buddha and bodhisattvas’ (archetypal figures that Buddhists meditate on) Chenrezig (Avolokiteshvra) is the embodiment of compassion. You meditate on him (or on the female Green Tara), in order to strengthen and build on, the qualities of compassion in yourself.

Then I read out the poem that I’d written, cried and closed with a series of chants to the various bodhisattvas.  And then went for a walk up the hillside. It was now midday and the sun was quite fiercely hot. I found some shade and a phone signal, but remembered I had no minutes left.

Later I went to the office with my laptop and Skype called my daughters who were by now at the ‘wake’ in a pub in Crouch End. They told me about the funeral mass and the short ceremony at the Golders Green crematorium. I had a short chat with my friend’s son too.  It had been an emotional day for all of us, but a very tough one for them.

Here’s the poem I wrote:

You’ll be waiting

You’ll be waiting when I go,
cracking your Irish jokes
‘Oh there y’are,’ you’ll say
‘You took your time.’
I’ll say, what’d’ya mean,
y’old bag, you Irish potato,
you left me first you know. . .
it’s been ages …
so let’s go down to Costa’s
or the World for our cappuccino,
I’m paying this time, so don’t argue.

‘Y’are not,’ you’ll say, ‘I am’...
‘Hmm’, I’ll say 'we'll share a carrot cake, yeh?’
‘Grand,’ you’ll say.
And then we’ll be jawing on,
two hours’ll fly by,
talking of days in jobs,
dealing with customers and clients,
when we were younger. 

Talk of days in Priory Park,
meeting at the toddler’s pool,
Pas at school,

Jonathan and Tam running
in and out, naked, splashing in the sun.
me and you drinking our coffee,
chatting, laughing … 

one of them comes crying –
slipped and fell, bumped their head…
kiss, kiss, kiss it better…
Want an ice lolly?  Twister?
Soon running round laughing again. 

And me and you smiling
knowingly at each other,
remembering our golden children
playing … that’s what it’ll be like.

 You’ll be waiting,
one day when I get up there,
won’t you, Val? 

 Blog 6   Retreat Centre Tara Rokpa

 Mindfulness Meditation

A crystal clear mind
waits behind
a sunami of thought,
a fog of wants and desires.
Part the cloud,
without going to war,
cast forth Indra’s Net,
observe but don’t engage
the thinking patterns of the mind,
drop the critic,
be open, gentle and relaxed,
until awareness,
that polished diamond,
glows in front of you.

© Anna Meryt Dec 2014

Day 16 on the retreat, Day 21 in Africa

 The days are skimming by. Most days have a pattern, a schedule to follow:

5:30 am the first wake-up gong for 6 a.m. meditation in the large octagonal shrine room, down the garden by the carp and frog pond.  Occasionally I get up for that one. but usually I turn over and go back to sleep and wake up c. 6:30, breakfast is at 7-8 pm – hot porridge or muesli or granola and yoghurt (kefir it’s called), fresh milk from local cows, toast and Marmite, marmalade or Marula jam, eggs, scrambled, poached, or boiled, lots of tea (those are the options, not what I have...).

I had put myself down for breakfast washing up duty, I clear all the jars, plates and bowls and wipe the surfaces. I’m done by 8:15 and now free of jobs all day (I’ve done a LOT of retreats so know the score on work rotas).

8:30 a.m.  Back in the Octagonal shrine room for teaching from Rob.  Although he’d upset me in the beginning, we’ve now settled into an amicable enough relationship.  He has a great deal of knowledge about meditation and how it works.  The poem above is based on his teachings, the essence is there.  He starts with questions thrown out to the room (Socratic method) ...

‘On a scale of one to ten how present are you in the room?’

I say ‘three’, most say from one to five. Someone says what would it take to be at 10? He says for most of us almost never, unless you’re in a life threatening situation. I remember a week long kind of retreat I did in Wales once called ‘On The Edge’, belaying with straps and ropes down a 50 foot mineshaft – that was a 10 I think. I felt totally present as I went over the edge.

That’s the first step, next is looking at how the mind works – many people think that meditation is about stopping thought, it’s not.  It’s about observing the habitual thinking patterns of the mind and retraining it gently, gradually so that instead of following every thought, you bring your focus back to either counting the breathe or, Rob likes to get us to focus on sound.  Since I am a bit deaf, sound is not a good one for me, so I use the breathe - unless the frogs are at it... sometimes they all start together this rasping croaking – it’s so loud we shut the huge glass sliding doors, much louder than the cicadas. I still can’t concentrate on that frog sound though – it fills my head.

After 40 mins of teaching, and a further 20 mins of meditation, Rob asks the room more questions about the progress of these meditation techniques.  Most admit they got sucked back into following their thinking patterns. Then he leaves and we do another half hour meditation before a half hour tea break.

Then there’s a movement and relaxation class for 45 mins followed by more meditation until lunch at 1 pm. I go occasionally.

Lunch today, baked potatoes, roasted butternut squash, bean sprouts, fried halloumi and olives mixed with green beans and other cooked fresh organic veg, (from the garden), a huge dish of local tomatoes vinagrette with avocado, followed by baked bananas in sesame, with vanilla custard and/ or watermelon.  I am going to be so fat when I leave here.

After lunch there’s more meditation - several one hour sessions (I don’t usually go) and a long walk is organised at 5 pm in variable directions.  It used to be P leading the walks, and her two dogs - small, slim, white-haired, brown as a nut and revered by all, due to her tireless work for the centre and for the local African villagers.  But now she has gone on holiday to New Zealand, leaving her 2 dogs (an oldish fattish Jack Russell and a bigger, springy  young mongrel) bereft. Anyway, her walks (so I heard) were up hill and down dale at a pace of knots – so I never went as it sounded torture.  I tried a walk with Guy (who’s about 6 foot 4”) leading one day - me and this Afrikaans woman got stuck halfway up a long slippery rocky incline.  I sat on a rock and she sat with me and we were miles behind everyone by now.  We gave up and slipped and slid back down to the road, hoping not to encounter any spitting cobra or black puff adders or scorpions on the way.

BTW they had (lots of excitement) - a small spitting cobra in the kitchen last week – the intrepid Pippa (above), put on glass goggles (so no venom in the eyes) and got the cobra into a bucket, put a lid on and took it out to the bush and let it go (carefully).

We had a new group intake of about 20 people on Friday, as a new 10 day retreat started on Saturday. The old lags like me (hey I’d done 14 days by then) looked them over with some suspicion.  My new roommate is a mature Indian woman who has a permanent scowl on her face and does not answer when spoken to. (Come back my lovely Vera). She wanted to open the windows at night (it’s been so hot) but it’s impossible and I kept having to explain to her – hoards of insects come in and then immolate themselves on my hot-bulbed bedside lamp (I left a small window open one night when I was out - by mistake - and when I got back, had to go get the dustpan to sweep my bedside table of dead bodies).

I have by now acquired a mozzy net over my bed so I wasn’t that bothered ... well except for the three HUGE spiders I had on the wall and ceiling last week – the young monk – Tenzin came and got the biggest (black hairy flat, the size of a man’s hand), then I woke up Giles in the middle of the night to get one, then Ireen (Juicer lady) did the third one, which was not quite so huge. Anyway over supper that same night, Susan, the admin woman/ clinical psych, told them all the stuff about the camp and said ‘don’t open the windows at night due to all the insects’ so when I got back to the room, she’d shut everything again. Since then she has maintained absolute silence towards me – I mean in the room ... which is fine – each to their own.

My new friends are Petra and Hannes (a young couple in their early 30s) who are camping by the river. They have been extra kind to me – they treat me like I’m their Mum – but I digress, I was talking about the programme for each day – it’s always been the same except Xmas Day when the programme ‘relaxed’ a bit (this just meant no evening teaching, a bonfire and sing song instead – I sang a couple of Beatle songs, a young Irish woman sang some beautiful Irish ballads.

Back to the programme -  2 one hour meditations after lunch (that’s when I go off to write or read or go off to sit outside the office (about 5 mins walk down the road), to use the internet and get bitten to hell round the ankles, by the fleas there. At 5 pm there’s a walk (I only go with friends who take it easy – no big hills).

Supper is at 6 pm, I’m usually still full from lunch, so only eat the soup, but there’s loads of other left overs.  After supper is eaten and washed up, we have to hot foot it back to the octagonal shrine room for another teaching from Rob plus meditation – all that finishes about 8 pm and then most people either go and hang out in the dining area (you can talk til 8:30 pm – silence til after lunch next day) and then go to their rooms to read or fall asleep.

So that’s the pattern of my days.  Except yesterday I did a break out with Hannes and Petra(the young couple) – Hannes has a big huge 4x4 thing and we zoomed off straight after Rob’s teaching finished in the morning – drove about 50 kms to a kind of Wild West town packed with farmers’ ‘bakkies’[1] and Africans walking about in bright colours,  a DJ with 12 foot speakers was rapping on one corner (I had to cover my ears to walk past) – I got some plastic chunky slip-ons shoes for 30 Rand (about £1.80) – as my flip flops had broken.

Petra is very slim, with quite dark Mediterranean looks – maybe Portuguese ancestry(?), but is through and through Afrikaans now – she and Hannes speak Afrikaans - it’s their first language (except they try not to around me). Petra has a bubbly personality and constantly makes me laugh, it was lovely to get out of the retreat for the day, with good company. The drive was undulating green hills, miles of bush and small towns along the way. Everything is so green at this time of year coz there’s been so much rain.  From May to October there’s very little rain and the countryside would be browned to a crisp (hot days, cold nights).

The town we went to was crammed with vehicles – all the farmers coming in to shop on a Saturday, long queues in Pick n Pay (like Asda) and I found a Woolworths (M&S) with a sale on  - Hannes had insisted on escorting me round the shops and waiting outside for me and standing by me at the ATM too..

Then we drove around looking for somewhere to eat – but there was a power cut (again), lots were closed and eventually we drove out of town and found a kind of mad pub – a big sign said ‘Gents on the left as Women are always Right’ - they did burgers and chips (it even had a veggie burger for me) and we had a beer – it was great.  I had such a fun day...

                                                            * * *

Next day – Sunday, I was writing on my laptop in my room – I saw Hannes and Petra through my window and they came rushing over – they are leaving tonight, coz Hannes work colleague died suddenly and the memorial is tomorrow, and they’re not coming back. I was sad as I enjoy their company.  They tell me they are going to Hermanus together on Feb 14 – I might be there around that date. Herrmanus is this vast ocean bay where 60 foot whales come to spawn from Oct to Dec.  I’m hoping to see some whales (as I did in 2007) when I'm there in Feb and it’ll be nice to see Petra and Hannes again too.


Blog 7  Leaving the Retreat - Jan 10th 2015

The rest of the retreat went by – I missed having H&P there, but soon January 5th was approaching, my last day. I was looking forward to it ending, but also wondering how I’d cope with travelling on my own after a very structured daily framework, including 3 meals a day, never having to think about bills or worldly concerns. It was going to be a shock to my system.

                                                   * * *

I spent my last few days wondering what this next leg of my journey would bring me and not doing a great deal of meditation, although I never missed any of Rob’s teachings. By now he and I got on much better, we’d had a few chats and he admired my poetry, especially the ones I wrote for the retreat that encapsulated his teachings – which he called ‘beautiful’. One day, walking up from the shrine room together he’d put his arm round me suddenly and said that he really loved me ... which was nice.

Some of the other retreatants also took my poetry books and read them and I’d been very touched with the response which was overwhelmingly positive. One woman, an Afrikaner, not given to any display of emotion came back with one of my collections, putting it down on the table and was about to walk off. ‘Did you like any of the poems?’ I asked quickly.

‘Yis’ – she flicked through until she found her favourite one and jabbed it with her finger – it was the simplest and shortest poem in the collection, and somehow the one she chose, because I knew something of what she’d been through in her life, brought tears to my eyes....

How to be happy?

Voices in my head

keep telling me,

you did that wrong,

you said that badly,

you’re not good enough,

you could do better,

you shouldn’t have,

you fucked it up again.

Why don’t they say,

you did that right

you said that well,

you ARE good enough,

you could do worse.

Yes you shall.

Yes you can.


Another retreatant, a rather genteel woman from Rhodesia, with white hair in a bun, in in her 70s, returned the Dolly Mix collection, which she’d borrowed for a couple of nights,.  I was talking to someone and she said nothing, just put it down on the table next to me, so I thought she probably didn’t like any of them. Later, she came over to the dining table where I was sitting with some other people and said ‘I just want you to know that I loved your poems.’ ‘Oh’ I said, ‘any in particular?’ I was thinking she might have liked 1 or 2.

‘I liked all of them,’ she said. ‘Every single poem in the book was good, so clever, every word counted!’

I was stunned by that. I could barely believe it. But she was not the sort of person to flatter you or to make it up, so I had to believe that was how she felt. Wow!

 One memorable evening after Xmas, we had a bonfire in the huge garden area. One of the guys – a lecturer at Rhodes University, a quiet man, very modest about his guitar playing abilities, suggested playing, as I did one of my poems. So I picked out Felucca Night, a story poem about a night I spent on the Nile in a felucca - and he played along as my voice weaved around his playing, another guy had picked up some bongos – the result was magical and everyone listening seemed to be entranced, it ended with spontaneous applause. I’ll always remember that night.

In the last week I did the 10 minute walk to the office several days in a row to get wi-fi. I booked  a ticket on the Intercape bus from Groote Marico to Gabarone and saw that I could get a train from Francistown to Bulawayo on the following Saturday. How was I going to get transport from Gabarone to Francistown? I didn’t know – it was 420 kms and nothing came up on the internet – someone said it was because the bus companies operating there didn’t have websites.  And who would take me to the pick up point in Groote Marico - at a service station?  I was asking everyone and got offers but they were all going in the morning.  My coach  pick up was at 4 pm.

Eventually, I was offered a lift from one of the volunteers, a stout young woman who worked in the city as an accountant I think. who was v quiet. I’d worked out early that she liked to observe and was brighter than her quiet demeanour hinted at, she also had a good sense of humour and so I liked her. Anyway, she was driving to Jo’burg quite late and could drop me on the way at the petrol station where the Intercape bus would pick-up for anyone going on to Gabarone.

I hate all those goodbyes at the end of a group – some people, who you’re not that keen on, feel obliged to say goodbye smiling and some even hugging you. Go away. Those that I had liked we had already exchanged emails, phone numbers – some you do stay in touch with, some you don’t. Some people are fine, but maybe you just didn’t get to know them for whatever reason. The last day is often a long tortured process.

 Me and Angel (as she turned out to be) set off in plenty of time c. 3 p.m – the service station at Groote Marico was about 20 kms away, I’d get there early and get a drink, maybe some chips or something, go to the ATM. We stopped first with Susan (administrator) following in her car, at the TRC shop as I’d asked Susan if I could buy this lovely red and orange handmade T shirt I’d seen in the shop and hadn’t got round to it.

Then I got back in the car with Angel and off we drove – 8+ miles of dirt track gravel and then onto the dual carriageway – we were 5 minutes from the petrol station, it was 3.20 pm, lovely!

That was when I realised my handbag, my beige canvas handbag containing money, passport, credit cards EVERYTHING was not by my feet, not anywhere in the car. I worked out it must be in the TRC shop, where I’d bought the T shirt. Total panic – Angel pulled over and turned the car back. THERE WAS NO WAY WE COULD MAKE IT BACK (the shop was locked and ANGEL didn’t have a key) and get back to the coach in time... but I decided we had to try and Angel was willing. She raced back down the dual carriageway, turned onto the dirt track and went as quickly as she could over the bumpy gravel track.

Even though I’m a Buddhist sometimes I pray to God, or maybe make an offering to a particular boddhistava occasionally or the Buddha himself. This time I prayed ‘Give us wings, help me to make it... ‘ the alternative if I missed the bus was to go back to the retreat centre and stay the night there on my own (Susan has a house about 2 kms away so could unlock a room at the retreat centre for me), or I’d have to go to Jo’burg with Angel and stay the night there. Both options felt horrible. We had to make it.

We got back to TRC and by then Angel had remembered where a spare key was. She parked and zoomed off for the key and - well I can only think it was a miracle – it was now 3:35 pm,.  We drove to the shop, grabbed my bag and then full speed back down the track. Somehow we made it to the garage by 3:55. 

 I couldn’t believe it – my prayer for us to have wings had been answered. The coach, didn’t arrive in fact until 4:15, by which time I’d had enough time to go to the ATM, get some cash, go to the shop get a few bits. Angel insisted on staying, guarding my bags outside and waited until the bus drove off before she would leave, waving me goodbye – what a trauma it had all been – I will always be grateful to her.

Now I was on the coach to Botswana, feeling so relieved to be finally on my way. I’d read all the books about the First Lady Detective, which are set in Gabarone and finally I’d get there. I settled in the coach for the four hour ride and wondered what it was going to be like.

Blog 8 Gabarone Botswana

A very modern city, with big fancy gleaming shopping malls, was what Gaborone turned out to be.  I arrived in a suburb near the city centre and it was hot, bloody hot – around 35 degrees.  The hostel reception area was in a quiet wide avenue with bungalows and big metal fences, with security gates.  The reception area was air conned so blessedly cool.  Then we went out, the woman at reception wheeled my big bag down the road and pulled open a heavy metal sliding gate and we entered a courtyard around a large bungalow.  Inside she showed me the kitchen area – clean and white with cooker and fridge, the lounge next door with heavy dark wood furniture and big windows all around.  She pulled all the curtains and took me down a corridor  with doors on each side, to my room at the end – with a big double bed, own en suite shower room, gave me a key to the door and was about to leave when I asked where I could buy food, as, having come straight from the retreat, I had none – down there (she pointed to a narrow space between a fence and a building, cross the road left then right – there's a Spar.  'Is it safe to walk about in the dark?' (it was 8:30 in the evening) I asked, 'Yes it's fine', she waved a hand dismissively.

I  went back to my room, unpacked in the big wardrobe and then ventured out, locking the front door, and pulling open the big steel gates.  There was two security guards outside the big building by the gap I walked through.  I asked them for help and one took me across the busy main road, round the corner and pointed to the Spar down the way. Eggs, bread, butter, milk, tea, porridge, a bag of chopped vegetables, some rice, chocolate – back to the bungalow.  I was set up for a few days – I was going to be there from Sunday to Thursday.

The first few days I rested and soon discovered I was the only guest in the bungalow. This was not ideal at night as I felt isolated and if there were security guards everywhere and big wals round every dwelling – why were they there?

In the daytime I went to the hostel reception and sat in the dining room with my laptop and wifi. I went to explore the shopping area – a long wide street with all the main chain stores you get in South Africa – Pep Stores for cheap children's uniforms, clothes, pound shop stuff.  There were all the shops you could need.  On the second day the taxi took me to a giant shopping mall on the outskirts of town – big dual carriageways, massive roundabouts to get there.  Inside all the same shops you get in S Africa shopping malls – Woolworths (the kind of Waitrose of Southern Africa (posh M&S) Clicks, like Boots, trendy expensive clothes shops, pharmacies with huge health and vitamin sections, fancy shoe shops everything.

 My first task was to find some good walking sandals as I'd lost mine at the bakpak in Jo'burg and just had some cheap flipflops. I had to pay a lot in the end for a good make – I was going to do a lot of walking and got some Grasshoppers (my feet liked them!). Then found a Mug and Bean – oh much better than anything in UK – lovely cappuchino, roasted veg and feta salads – food is so much cheaper in Southern Africa, expensive by their standards but 4-5 quid to you n me.  Sat down and picked up their wifi to check my emails and facebook. 

At the border I'd been given a new sim card for my phone and told that S Africa sims dot work there – the sims are free but you have to buy airtime. It's essential to have a cell phone(as they're called in Africa) for calling taxis etc.

When I came out of the mall I called my taxi driver – he'd be 10 mins he said – the heat hits you like a furnace when you come out of the cool air-conned shops.  I stood in some shade for a bit and called him again – 5 minutes he said so I stepped out of the shade and fried for the next 20 minutes, until some lovely ladies in a shop near bye heard me having a frustrated phone call  with him about where he was and pulled me in to their cool furniture store.  Eventually he arrived, it was traffic, he'd got lost etc -  I'd texted him my exact location in the end, as he didn't understand over the phone.  Before that one of the girls started pumping me for info about how to get a visa into the UK, was she hinting that I might sponsor her ?  This happened a lot. By then I was so hot and cross the driver got the sharp end and then sulked all the way back to the hostel.  I gave him his Pulas (Botswana currency) and he drove off – I got a different driver after that.

The day before I left, I asked the new driver – a young chap called Tomas – to take me sight seeing – there's a mini game reserve in Gaborone and I also wanted to see the statue of Seretse Khama (the architect of the peaceful democracy that Botswana is and has been since independence) in the town centre. We agreed a price (which he argued about at the end – but I was on firm ground as I'd checked  with the ladies in reception – more than they earn in a week I should think) and set off – the game reserve was, like the rest of Gaborone and that part of Botswana, flat dry hot bush country.  There wasn't going to be any big game there – zebras and khudus and a few wildebeest, a few monkeys, oh and my favourites - warthogs – we got there about noon and of course – mad dogs and English women – it was bloody hot by then – drove around wilting, got out of the car a few times, took a few pics – I don't think the taxi driver had ever been there before – he certainly didn't know the names of the animals – but I saw a mother warthog and babies all trotting behind – so cute, love them, they are very ugly!

Then we drove into the centre –  I walked around the main large open modern city centre – there were trees and flowers and there in the middle was  the statue of Seretse Khama – I took some pics and then went into a Barclays bank – I shoud be able to get some dollars for Zimbabwe I thought.  An hour later after a very frustrating time dealing with African bureaucracy and them making phone calls and me getting increasingly irritated, I got some rands but no dollars – I gave up in the end and stomped out gritting my teeth – they made me feel that they were doing me a favour by letting me have some of my money.  My driver took me back to the hostel.

I left the next day for Francistown on the bus, having checked the temperatures in Bulawayo – it was 10 degrees cooler there.  Francistown was still hot but only one night there in a hotel as no bakpaks available then taking the train to Bulawayo next day.  I was looking forward to the cooler Zimbabwe weather.  I was glad to leave my bungalow there as had felt isolated there, as was alone for 4 days, which was OK after a month of communal living on the retreat.  But it was great to be on the road again.


Blog 9   Francistown, Botswana – and on to Zimbabwe

Saturday 10th Jan 2014

Je suis Charlie

Today I am wearing ‘Je suis Charlie’  on my T-shirt, having watched the events unfold on the TV in my hotel room – it was so shocking, partly because the drama went on so long, and then there seemed to be not just the two brothers, but others, a man and a woman- and partly because it was an attack on freedom of speech and journalism – which made me want to wear those words - - you may think of it as an empty gesture, I don’t.  I think a collective worldwide protest against violent extremism raises consciousness and makes these extremists see their denial of our common humanity.  I feel sorry too for all those peace-loving, law-abiding Moslems who are also joining the ‘je suis Charlie’ protests, angry at the continual hi-jacking by these nutters of their religion to be used to promote this warped and twisted cause.

Yesterday, I arrived in Francistown and amid the usual chaos of the bus station, I got a taxi to take me to my hotel (yes hotel for a change, I couldn’t find a backpackers place with rooms free online).  I’d been 5 hours on the bus and I was not in a good mood. 

When I got on the bus/coach in Gabarone, I have to confess, I was expecting a better standard.  A blonde aloof Russian woman on the retreat who lived in Gaborone told me to get a coach from this particular company.  The cab driver, from where I was staying in Gaborone – Thapelo, took me...the day before he’d taken me on a whistle stop tour of the attractions of Gaborone(Botswana) – we’d driven round the small ‘nature reserve – which had taken an hour or so – zebras, impala, monkeys and, my personal favourites – warthogs and a funny little furry animal that stood up on its hind legs’ and looked at us- I’ll post up some pics, no idea what it was called – nor had Thapelo – he didn’t seem to know hardly any of the animals.

Anyway, now we got to the big huge area outside of town full of coaches and mini buses, all going various places... we threaded our way through all the crowds milling about and got to this coach.  I found a place inside – next to an aisle, in a row of three, a man was sitting near the window.  The bus filled up, there were no other tourists, I seemed to be the only non-local.  Thankfully, the empty seat in the middle, which I’d put my small bags on, remained empty.  Great, I settled myself down with my Kindle and a bottle of water.  Then five mins later, the bus stopped and picked up a few more and Oh horror an African woman of ‘traditional shape’, with a child aged c 6 was standing next to me pointing at the middle seat.  Suddenly I found myself squished up tight to the arm-rest, which was jabbing in to my hip on one side and a large fat sweaty arm was stuck to my arm like Velcro on the other, the child was howling and trying to curl up in the ample lap. Sigh!  A five hour journey lay ahead, it was hot and there appeared to be v little air con ... there also did not appear to be a toilet (maybe there was hidden at the back but I couldn’t see it.)

After a while of inner cursing and shifting about, to the least uncomfortable position, I decided to make the best of it and looked out of the window (across various bodies).  The landscape was just endlessly flat featureless bush, mile after mile of it.  Dusty red dirt roads crossed it occasionally, but it was just low grey-green shrubs and trees right to the horizon.  read my Kindle for a while, then put Jimi Hendrix, All Along the Watchtower, on my headphones, very loud, followed by Captain Beefheart’s, There Ain’t No Santa Claus... this was a good antidote to discomfort. The coach stopped twice along the way for brief toilet stops – each time about twenty hawkers got on, selling bottles of water, packets of crisps, peanuts and assorted stuff like headphones and phone covers, they all stopped eagerly at the only ‘white’ face on the bus and various rapid patter in broken English was tried out on me.

A bit later some people got off further up and a nice tall thin man near my seat pointed it out to me, I moved forward and again had an empty seat next to me as long as it lasted …

Which brings me back to arriving at the hotel and being VERY bad tempered with the receptionist who said, No there was not an ensuite bathroom (which I’d paid for) and No their wi-fi was not working and looked surprised and irritated that I was asking for someone to carry my bags up the two flights of stairs to my room.

After I’d had a tantrum, stamped around in reception for a while, I went up to the room – it was in fact very nice and it DID have an ensuite – a large walk-in shower and toilet and hand basin.  Later, it transpired that because I’d said ‘ensuite bathroom’ she thought I meant with a bath ... that girl was another of those ‘literalists’ you encounter in life – you ask a question and they interpret it literally and narrowly and seem unable to use common sense to work out what the question is about. It also had a large flat screen TV (whoa! luxury) and by the time I’d had a lovely hot shower, watched an unmemorable movie, had a rest on my king size bed, I was restored to some measure of humanity.

I then went in search of food – a pizza would be nice.  I discovered the hotel, which faced a busy road, was next to a huge shopping mall.  I entered the shopping mall – it had, oh heaven, all my favourite shops – Pic-n-Pay( like Asda), Woolworth’s (M&S), Clicks (Boots) and LOADS of others.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been on retreat for a month in the middle of the bundhu (as my mother used to call it), but whenever I spot a shopping mall now, I feel cheerful, like whistling.  So much for my spiritual life, I know ‘wanting stuff’ is one of the causes of suffering, but being completely cut off from all civilisation for too long has left me with a complete obsession with  ..... well, er,  shopping. (Oh dear, looks like I’ll have to be reborn a lot more ....) I get powerful withdrawal symptoms, I must have shops... what would happen if I run out of ... what ever?  Sorry, I like the country in short bursts, but I’m just a city girl at heart. The first shopping mall I hit (in Gabarone) after the retreat was like manna from heaven, I went a bit mad ... it even had a Mug and Bean (fantastic cappuccino and feta salad).

Which brings me to say, if you think of Africa as kind of shanty towns and mud huts still, you are definitely living in a different century.  The media still portrays Africa as if it was like that.  Well let me tell you about Botswana – there was not a mud hut or shanty town to be seen in the modern city of Gabarone – big shiny glass banks, grand and imposing modern government buildings, huge fancy shopping malls. I gave up going in to mobile phone shops, as there was always a queue to speak to an assistant, a queue of well-off looking people, smarter often than you’d see in my part of London. The roads are full of cars, I’m watching them stream past me now, from this cafe, not one looks old or battered or unroadworthy, most are gleaming, less than 5 years old.

I’m sure there’s still poverty and some shanty dwellings hidden somewhere, but I haven’t seen them.   Last night a young staff member in Woolworths very kindly guided me (a 5 minute walk) to the pizza place.  The President here, he was reminding me, is Seretse Khama’s son – this chap had been too young to vote for Sir Ian Khama in the previous election. He said he will not vote for him in the next election, ‘there are lots of problems in Botswana, high unemployment – it’s about 17-20%’, he told me.

In spite of what he said though, I should remind you that Botswana has one of the most consistent economies and political situations in Africa.  This was largely down to Seretse Khama’s ethical and stable leadership, when he took over the new independent country in the late 60s.  And although his son (Sir Ian Khama) took over the mantel after his father’s death, it was not through corruption and nepotism, as I understand it – he rose through the ranks of the Botswana army, joined parliament as an MP in the early 90s and worked his way up to Vice-presidential level, by legitimate means. Anyway, this young man from Woolworth’s reflects a desire for change now – whether it will be for the better, remains to be seen.

                                                           * * *

I was writing the above when I decided to check the train time – it was then about 12:30 pm... I thought it left at c. 4 pm – oh no - it departs at 12 noon, have I missed it…. hold on this is Africa .... I paid my bill, raced back (next door to the hotel) to get my bags – this time there was a lovey helpful receptionist – she rang the railway station – they said the train was delayed but would leave in about 10 mins - she called a cab (which took 5 mins and then meandered behind every slow bit of traffic), we finally pulled up at the station ... no train to be seen, shit shit shit! I’ve missed it, I thought - the guy got my bags out of the taxi – a man pointed way down the platform, I looked round a corner and there was a train, with all the doors shut - I waved to them to hold on (big arm gestures), shouted at the taxi driver to bring my bags forward, then grabbed the other ones ( I have one on wheels, one largish khaki rucksack and my handbag (canvas, shoulder strap) and small black old looking rucksack for laptop and a few papers ...I was running down the platform, the taxi driver was strolling behind me, saying take your time, don’t worry – no not that carriage – that one down the bottom.  I climbed on, up a vertical ladder into a doorway, taxi driver behind – he found me a seat, next to a black Zim woman, who looked ‘churchy’ if you know what I mean, pursed lips, long floral skirt ... he got off, waved goodbye .... and we sat there waiting for train to get going for about another 45 mins.

Then I looked round – the train was rammed.  I’d kind of pictured nice upholstery, little tables some rows – like in UK. It was coming from modern Botswana after all.  What a bloody laugh, I should have known.  I travelled in the overnight sleeper from Harare to Bulawayo in 2003 – filthy, crawling with cockroaches, overflowing toilets, doors that wouldn’t close ... that was then – things had moved on since then right? Wrong.  Although not as bad as that train – I saw no cockroaches, the toilets were not overflowing, it was still dilapidated, dirty – dirty floors and walls, the fold-down table in front of me kept dropping down – no Formica – filthy.   I found some cellotape and taped it up.  And I looked down the long corridor of seats in front of me, yes I was the only white person.  This meant I was a bit of a freak – I kept catching people staring at me surreptiously, from behind their seats – each time I waved and they quickly looked away, embarrassed.

My chief admirer became a little boy sitting opposite me in the aisle – he was at that age – of curiosity, of never ending questions, 9 years old and small for his age, he reminded me of my youngest brother Ed when he was that age – full of ‘insatiable curiosity’ as Rudyard Kipling called it .... he was also extremely cute with irresistible charm and intelligence. He kept asking questions which I couldn’t answer, mainly because I couldn’t hear due to the noise of the train and his very quiet voice.

The train stopped at the border – before that a Botswana border official gave out forms, we stood in queues – he stamped our passports. That’s done, I thought then more forms given out – name, address, passport number, cell phone, home address etc. After a half hour wait, the train shuddered forward to the other side of the border.  Zim border officials got on, Queues – I was told to sit back down when it got to be my turn, he would find me (one white person on the train ...?) I trekked back to my seat.  He pitched up, half an hour later – I gave him the blue paper form, he examined it minutely, ‘where’s the other one?’  ‘Oh sorry.’ I said, ‘I thought I’d done them all.’ He glared at me, I hunted in my bag, found another I hadn’t filled in. His face was set, he looked down the carriage, making sure he had an audience ‘if you’re not going to cooperate’ he snapped,’ why would you think that?’ I said, ‘Look I’m filling it in now ..’. he snatched it and stalked off ... he was obviously showing the carriage how to deal with these whites ... c/o the example of Uncle Bob!

By the time the train arrived in Bulawayo, the sun was setting, it was getting dark.  My little companion Godwill was now a firm friend, his Mum, Stella told me she’d called a cab and I should go with her – drop her and the kids in town and then I could carry on to Burkes Paradise Backpackers ... I’d chosen it for the name ... bad move...

We got off onto a pitch-dark platform and a chaos of people that reminded me of India – thank god Stella just gathered me up with her kids and somehow, after standing in a big crowd of people jostling, carrying huge bags, some on their heads, babies strapped to backs, Stella whipped us through and out through customs, dismissed a voracious hoard of taxi drivers and there we were driving in to Bulawayo at last.

One thing I had noticed. Looking out the train windows before it got dark – the landscape changed dramatically as we got in to Zimbabwe -  Botswana hot hot hot – miles of flat dry bush, Zimbabwe - much cooler, lush, hilly, varied landscape – lots of thick green vegetation and trees. It felt like I was coming home.


Blog 10     Bulawayo Zimbabwe   Jan 10-15th 2015

 I keep thinking of that young chap from the Woolworth’s (M&S) in Botswana, He was complaining of the high unemployment in Botswana – 18-20% .... and what is it in the UK, lower than that?  Psha!  Guess what it is in Zimbabwe?  Approximately 82% - yes you heard right.   I’ve been putting off writing this, as the overwhelming feeling I left Zimbabwe with, was sadness. A great oppressive sadness.  Everywhere I encountered, what for me are the nicest, most gentle people in Southern Africa (maybe I’m prejudiced as it is my birth country – but many people agree with me) – articulate, well-educated, well spoken, perfect English from the mission schools, many taught by Jesuits.(Not now though, all that is ending). When I left there I wanted to close the door on all the sadness, but dammit it just won’t close, it haunts me constantly.

Let’s start with Burkes Paradise Backpackers – my taxi driver drove up this dark side road, wide and tree lined, up a gravel track to a car park in a copse of trees, about 5 miles out of Bulawayo. We could see a low building across a dark lawn – they were expecting me, so someone should be around – it was about 9 pm.  No one was about, apart from a little Japanese man looking at his tablet computer.  He barely glanced up.  The taxi driver Omar (lovely guy) waited while I went to the big house round the back of first building and shouted out.  A chap in his thirties appeared, he fetched a key, rushed me across a lawn and round onto another large lawn with swimming pool in the distance, gleaming in the dark, – opened the door of a small log cabin, where I put my bags, showed me bathroom next door, then walked me rapidly back to first building – a guest lounge and tiny old and tattered kitchen. There was no food except a tin of baked beans which he pointed to and I could buy. Could I have a few slices of bread? I asked (thinking I haven’t eaten nowt but a sandwich since Francistown), he was not sure but might be able to find some... he’d ask wife.

There were teabags (some backpackers provide, some don’t). So I made myself a cup of tea (I asked for a drop of milk) and made myself baked beans on toast – by then Omar had gone and mein host had disappeared.  I struggled to remember the way back to my cabin in the pitch dark night - across this lawn, was it down these steps and now, how to find the other lawn, shining my cell phone torch along this old stone wall – finding a gap ah yes there’s the lawn, there’s the path, there’s the three-in a row wooden cabins, find the light switch.

So when I finally got a look at the cabin I was not particularly impressed by its rustic charm – bare red brick walls, twin beds, tiny space, NOWHERE to put clothes or hang any out, too tired to think now – fell into bed and slept til 7 a.m.  Luckily, we are good sleepers in our family.

I shall hurry over the next day – I woke up tired and fragile, went back to kitchen/lounge to see mein host and his 3 small children, piling into his station wagon – they were off to church. ...

He had vaguely said the night before that there was a minibus you could catch to some shops from the main road – he had gestured vaguely – down there.  I was feeling like crap – I had nothing to eat but an uncooked bag of brown rice and no idea if it was safe to walk about, let alone go get a bush taxi... I tried asking a black guy outside the lounge (he was texting on his cell phone) and the Japanese guy (who was back on his tablet) – neither of them knew or were interested – and to my embarrassment, I found myself with tears pouring down my face.  In the end the Kenyan, as he turned out to be, (exasperated at the nuisance I was causing) told me there was someone up at the big house who could help.  I found her, a young woman with blonde dreadlocks –it turned out she’d been deputised to keep shop - she sat me down, was sympathetic, gave me a map, told me it was safe to go down there and explained how to get to the shops. She had several children with her including a petite, bright v. skinny, little brown-skinned girl child who it turned out was also hers – the father was a Shona (ie Zimbabwean) musician in a band currently touring USA.

I walked down, stood at the side of the main road and soon a minibus stopped - I paid 5 Rand (about 30p) and soon they dropped me at the crossroads – now a 5 min walk to the tiny shopping centre at Hillside. I found a small SPAR there and soon I had bread and milk, butter, cheese, eggs and tomatoes – plus a ready prepared pack of chopped veg for my evening meal, mushrooms and onions – I was all set.

I went back to Burke’s Paradise – mini bus and long walk, the gardens there were lovely – full of lush tropical trees and bougainvillea gushing cerise pink flowers all over the hedgerows and borders,  with jacaranda and other tropical blooms I cannot name.  I went to my cabin, it felt isolated and had no cupboards, not even a hook to hang anything from – I had been hoping to spend a few nice relaxing days here, but another night of not another person in sight, sitting in my cabin with the door locked, not feeling particularly safe, no one within shouting distance ....? Then there was the kitchen – tiny, a few cracked plates and even less cups, no surfaces to prepare food and what there was, old and cracked and not very clean... I sat in the lounge and searched the internet and found Lily’s Backpackers – reviews said ‘warm and friendly and helpful’ – plus it was in Hillside, where I’d been to the shops - a nice leafy suburb of Bulawayo. 

I rang her (by now I’d acquired a Zim sim card from my shopping trip) ... she sounded ‘warm, friendly and helpful’ – I decided to check it out - got a lift there from a nice grey-haired woman at the crossroads in Hillside near the shops – I stopped her in her car to ask for directions ‘Hop in,‘ she said, ‘I live near there.’ All the roads round there had the names of English poets and writers from the 20th century – Lily lived in Masefield Road, we passed Coleridge and Milton Roads – Lily came out to greet me warmly, and chatted to the woman who’d given me a lift – she showed me to a big room in the house, dark polished floors, a large kitchen and bathroom – it felt so much safer and warmer than where I had been.  She was a woman in her fifties, kind and reassuring and eager to make me feel welcome – so different to Burke’s.  We agreed that she would come in her car for me next morning at 10 a.m. and I’d stay with her c. 3 more nights. She got her son (a trainee chef) to drive me back to Burkes. I told them I’d leave next day and endured another night there.

Lily fetched me next morning, as agreed, we talked a lot – I had a big room with floor to ceiling wardrobes to put stuff in.  I began to relax at last. She gave me detailed directions how to get to the New Orleans cafe/bar down the road – which had good coffee and internet and lunches. Next day she took me into Bulawayo, gave me careful instructions about my safety, showed me the shop her lovely daughter worked in, (where I could leave my rucksack while walking about) and went off to work herself, in the back of a little Indian shop selling small bits and pieces to locals.  She had started the shop her daughter was working in as a business venture, it was bright and clean, selling second-hand stuff – not many customers there yet.

I suppose it took me a few days to realise how hard Lily’s life was.  In Southern Africa, the mixed heritage peoples are still referred to as ‘coloured’.  The black peoples of Zimbabwe belong to either one of the main tribes ie. Ndebele or Shona or a host of other smaller tribes or you belong to the separate mixed race groups who come from white and black intermingling from several generations back. And this group doesn’t really fit in to either side.  Her grandfather was Scottish and like so many of the men who came over to South Africa or Zimbabwe to find work at the turn of the last century, ended up with a black ‘wife’.  Unlike most of them, her grandfather married his Ndebele wife and, as there was no possibility of acceptance of either him or her in Salisbury (now Harare), they moved south to Bulawayo and she had 6 children.  He stayed with her until he died.  Lily wondered if he might have been lonely without his own people, and I guessed that he would have been.

Also living in this big sprawling house in the genteel, mainly white suburb of Hillside were her two daughters (the one in the shop and the other daughter who was a championship level tennis coach and her son (the trainee chef – very bright and articulate also). Out back in what would have been the small ‘maid’s’ bungalow in different times, lived her sister.  She was very thin and had cancer. Her sister’s daughter-in-law and 3 small children were also living there in the bungalow.  Lily slept there at night in case her sister needed help.  It transpired that her sister had run out of morphine and there was none to be had in any of the medical units in the hospital or GPs in the area.  Other medical equipment that she needed was also missing. 

On the first two nights, just as I was about to cook for myself c. 7 pm (usually some kind of veg curry or stew with rice) there was, what’s known all over Southern Africa as an ‘outage’, ie, the electricity went off.  It’s a deliberate policy by the electricity companies and they rotate it around different areas or the national grid gets overloaded.  It happens here in South Africa, where I’m writing this, for 2-3 hour stretches. In Tanzania it was more like 12 hour stretches. 

Lily had returned from work and, because there was no power, was cooking out back by her sister’s cottage on a wood-burning stove that fitted 2 pans. Then my pots were moved there and she told me to go sit on the veranda at the front and she’d finish cooking my food.  I refused to let her and came out back and oversaw my own cooking.  I had to take my turn as there were so many other mouths to feed, but that was fine, I was in no hurry, so I sat around talking to her and her sister, while their food was cooked too.  They were fascinated by my former work and pumped me with questions about domestic abuse – there had been quite a bit of it in the family and both these ladies were now on their own having escaped it. 

Everywhere I go, if I talk about my former work (and most people ask what I do/did), I find a few survivors of domestic abuse (1 in 4 women have been victims of violence at some point in the UK, it’s a lot higher in Africa). Some were adult children whose father had abused their mother, men and women (several on the retreat) who wanted to tell me their story.  I told them to Google the Power and Control Wheel and tick all the examples that apply to them – sometimes it’s more about the emotional and psychological abuse, which often for some of my clients (they used to tell me) was worse than the physical abuse. I always also recommend looking at Hidden Hurt, an excellent BBC website.

Sometimes people ask me ‘but what about the abusive women?’ and I say OK about 82% of violent abuse is by men, of the remaining 18% about 8-9% are same sex couples – males and females, now the remaining 9%, of which about 4% are women who snap after years of abuse and attack and sometimes kill their partners.  So yes now you want to focus on the 5% left – they don’t usually cause anything like the physical damage that men cause, but hey, you want to focus on them fine.  My work focused on the large percentage of survivors who are female, whose lives are often blighted by long term abuse and the after affects – PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder). 

Some of the women in Lily’s household eventually talked to me about their abuse. One thing I did say to them (as I would often say to my clients in the UK), after hearing excuses for one of the men involved – Oh he was going through a bad time, couldn’t find work, struggling to feed his family, he was depressed etc etc. is this -  I won’t listen to excuses for violence. Well (I say), why did he not go out and punch a friend or neighbour or boss or cousin or man in a bar?  It was not, in all these stories told to me, something that happened once, but was systematic, over a number of years. I said, why was it directed at you, half his size and strength and the mother of his children? And how many people did you smack around when YOU were feeling frustrated and stressed and desperate?   People often make excuses for men as if they’re all naughty boys and can’t help it. Or they blame the woman – what did she do to deserve it, is implied, not said directly ... or ‘why didn’t she leave, I would have etc...’ none of these statements is tolerable if you have any knowledge of domestic abuse.

Anyway, as I said, my overwhelming feeling by the time I left Zimbabwe was sadness.  Everywhere I went, anytime I asked for information or help, in shops, in the street etc., I found articulate, intelligent, gentle people who tried hard to make sure I was OK, took me where I wanted to be, made sure I was safe. Walking about in the streets of Bulawayo one day, I was shocked to see three little boys lying in the shade next to a building, filthy dirty, just lying there, listlessly staring at the sky. I walked past not knowing what to do.  I saw some worse sights in India sure with children, toddlers in the street. That shocked me too.  Each time you feel helpless, perhaps I shouldn’t, perhaps I should rush about, start a charity do something ... but a sense of hopelessness pervades you somehow in Zimbabwe.

One day Lily took me into town and I walked around looking for an ATM and passed a tiny art gallery. Inside it had books by local Zim authors – including one by a journalist, writing about his father and mother, who somehow survived Mugabe’s pogrom against the whites by all sorts of unauthorised methods – they turned their farm into a backpack place called Diggers (The Last Resort by Douglas Rogers). They lived on the brink of having their whole place land-grabbed at short notice, for years(as had happened to so many) and for all I know are still there.

Then I called Omar the taxi driver and he came and picked me up and took me to the Natural History museum - full of rather dusty stuffed animals from all the wildlife that had been in Zimbabwe once upon a time.  I found it fascinating, but sad – now 80% of the indigenous wild animals – from rhino to giraffes to lions to zebra and impala have been wiped out, most in the last 10 years, by poachers.  Omar took me back to Lily’s - except we couldn’t find it and she wasn’t answering her phone – eventually I asked a white guy at Hillside shops and with great kindness and enthusiasm, he put on his satnav and guided us there.

Another day,  I bumped in to him again and in conversation he asked me if I knew someone, (Tracy) who I had known from the days when I was an activist for Zimbabwean asylum seekers who were escaping from the troubled times when Mugabe’s operatives were at their worst, torturing and attacking MDC supporters black and white, and murdering and ejecting white farmers, who were the mainstay of the Zimbabwean economy– many of whom had to flee for their lives to any country which would take them – many went to America, Canada, Australia and UK.

 As Tracy’s Dad lived near Lily, the next day I called by for a cup of tea – after five he brought out the Johnny Walker Black label and I left there swaying somewhat, luckily he drove me home. The older generation of whites, any left there, are often quite bitter about what has happened to a country they love and feel they belong to, with all they have lost – most built up through 4 - 5 generations.  They have been badly damaged too and throw blame around. It is understandable really.  Mugabe, while expanding his beautiful palace, has destroyed the economy and left many whose lives have been destroyed, both black and whites.

 I began to look forward to getting out, going back to South Africa, which in spite of what some people said to me while I was there, has a feeling of vibrancy, progress, life changing for the better, things improving, things working.

I booked my Intercape ticket and left lovely Lily on the Thursday.  She met me at the bus station with my taxi driver Omar and we exchanged hugs and promises to stay in touch. The bus seats were wide, comfortable, club class, reclining, as it was an overnight sleeper, for the 16 hour journey.  All went smoothly, until we got to the borders - on the Zim side we were told to disembark, queued and got back on, drove across the border a short distance, got off again.  This time the S Africans made us jump through hoops – long queues to get our passports stamped, long waits with no seating, just waiting, waiting. Then, we were told that all our luggage had to come out of the large baggage tow-box at the back, next we had to haul it all through customs, take it back, stand in a queue again then wait wait some more etc.  Altogether the whole border crossing took c 4 hours – I spoke to one white guy and his wife, both short, plump, battered looking – their daughter’s crossing had taken 9 hours the week before – I guess we were lucky.

At last we were on our way – I’d booked in to Brown Sugar Backpack again.  We finally arrived back in Jo’burg around 9 am and lovely Solomon came to fetch me again.  I was unhappy to leave Zimbabwe but also glad to be away from all the sadness

South Africa 23rd Jan- March 30th 2015

Blog 11(Pending) Joburg to Cape Town to Muizenburg

Blog 12 (Pending) Stellenbosch to Hermanus

Blog 13 (Pending)Hermanus to Hout Bay

Blog 14 (Pending) Cape Town

Blog 15(Pending) Back to Jo’burg and then UK





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